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|More from RockyLaRoche||Drama||PG||None||None|
|The Words "I tire of-"|
October 28, 2012
The Words "I tire of-"
The arena was a box of warm amber light. Outside, the view might have been beautiful, but inside the prism, Tahno couldn't remember what beauty was. Fans shouted. Clay discs swirled around the platform. And his foot slipped.
Momentarily weightless, his fear of tonight being the last of his pro-bending career was as chilling as his fear that this last match would be one he lost.
He melted the ice sheet beneath his feet, stood solid, and ducked a chunk of earth thrown from the other team. Tahno brushed sweat from the back of his neck.
The ref blew a whistle for cease-fire, and her voice boomed from the loudspeakers. "Ice foul. Shirshu water-bender is out for this round."
Tahno evaluated the new status of the round, but couldn't get past how much time was left and whether it was enough for a knockout victory. He was restless thinking about his mother's imminent arrival to Republic City.
The Shirshu fans were screaming, rightly, that the normal penalty would just be a zone back, and that the referee was blind. She hadn't pointed it out last round when Tahno had done the same thing. Twice. The referee had been payed off. Nowadays, it was trickier to get away with. After two wins this season with bribery, Tahno prayed that this wasn't the match the Arena decided to listen to its fans.
Tahno glared at the fouling water-bender as she walked off the platform, a pebble skittering through slush towards him. The sound reminded him of his walk to the arena, through the alleys around Narook's to the wharf where he'd kicked loose gravel at the street lamps. Summer fading to autumn meant earlier night-fall, but the city hadn't changed the lighting schedule. He didn't normally soak in the sights, and he didn't normally walk to his matches, but the letter had shocked him. Numbly, he'd made his way here in the shadows of lampposts.
There were now two opponents across from Tahno's team. The fire-bender boy was short and skinny, an elephant rat in Pro-bending uniform. The earth-bender girl had strangely long arms. They stood like stubborn trees in a storm.
The bell tolled. The round resumed.
Rage at the cheating water-bender flared through Tahno's arms and hands. He bent water up and around fallen rock shards, ducked a wave of fire and steam, spun, and slung the gravel-water across Zone One. The opponent screamed, and a solid clay disc from Tahno's team crumpled the Shirshu fire-bender back over the edge of the platform.
Only one player stood between Tahno and an early victory. Hands warping more water into a whip, Tahno took a step forward only to stop abruptly as a whistle shrilled. He kept his eyes on the last opponent, waiting for the ref to cite a foul or change a player's zone.
It was the announcer, not the ref, that cooed, "Five minute judiciary intermission."
Tahno dropped the liquid, flicked his hair back, and looked up to see the stocky Arena Coordinator taking Tahno's referee away. Whispers snaked through the stands and the commentator's voice became incomprehensible.
Earlier, in his apartment, it was his own heartbeat which made the letter unreadable at first. No matter what the contents held, having a message from his mother was itself bad news.
"What do you think that's about?" Tahno's earth-bender asked him. His face was boyish with kind eyes, but Tahno had brought him on the team through connections with the Triads.
The last player standing on the opposing team heard. Her long arms snapped out, palms questioning, and shouted, "What do you think it's about? Koala-cowards!"
The green sash around her waist was absorbing the warm lighting and the color combination made him feel sick. Two years ago he'd felt like his.
All the benders Tahno knew asked him how it felt, to have his bending taken. He told them it had been painful, that the barrier between him and greatness was tangible. He lied. He couldn't feel a difference. That there was no symptom to recognize scared Tahno. That the Avatar left town and he had to write to her, begging her to heal him had made him sick and insomniac. She, who he had terrorized, was the one person who could restore to him everything he believed he had in the world.
And she did. After months of nightmare-filled anticipation, she touched his forehead the same way Amon had. Her stone-faced graciousness confused him. He didn't want to ask her why she did it, because he knew it had nothing to do with anything inherent in Tahno. He wasn't a good person. They both knew it. Yet there it was: the kindness. It made him pick her up and spin her around. It made him feel empty. It made him train for hours every day in the gym, a ritual that confirmed he could still bend.
His marathon pace went on for weeks. Then, one afternoon, the sunset through the room's upper windows lent an orange glow to his teammate's green gear. The sweat on Tahno's brow refracted the colors into fragments – a portrait of the death of seasons and lost time- and the heat from his padded clothes rose up and suffocated him into brief unconsciousness. They'd thought it was a side-effect of the restoration of his bending, and the Avatar had personally looked after him that day.
Tahno grinned and walked with a hand on his hip over to the mid-line where what's-her-face with the green sash was fuming.
"Four and half minutes sounds right, doesn't it?" he said to her.
She bit the bait, obviously lost. "What?"
"That's the time they're taking right now to disqualify you. Unfit for competition, let alone a suitable insult," he said, and walked back to his teammates. They both had their hands on their hips and were looking at the stands. Signs from the Koala-otters' section pumped up and down with dripping paint. He couldn't read them. Instead, he pictured the red seal at the end of his mother's letter, which appeared faded despite the recent postmark. A decorative dash in a fan's sign could just as easily have been the wavering line in his mother's handwriting where she'd crossed out the words I tire of. Instead, she wrote that Tahno hadn't seen family in too long. White Falls misses him. The words remembered ripped through his stomach like panic and desperation.
"What will happen, ladies and gentlemen? Have the blatantly illegal moves from the Koala-otters finally been noticed? Will ring-leader Tahno finally be..." went the commentator, up-down went the dizzying signs in the stands, and Tahno ignored them all.
"All right. Here's what we do-"
"What? You think they're going to let us keep playing? I told you we-"
Tahno spoke louder than before, voice steady, sneering, saying, "Last time I checked, you're not captain of this team. They'll let us play." He outlined their plan of attack for the rest of the round. Shadowed movement caught his eye. He stared at the ref's podium and straightened quickly. "Look, champs. We've got a new cheerleader." The new referee was a short man who looked young, yet had the sage frown of a Gaoling gravedigger.
Winning with an honest referee would demand extra diligence they weren't used to. Tahno couldn't feel guilty that his too-obvious cheap-shot had just leveled the playing field. Fear, on the other hand, was ticking away at his internal organs, sweat seeping from pores beneath a hot helmet and protective uniform. He wished these things would, in the way of his mother's too-quickly-pressed red seal, fade. By the time this letter arrives, I will probably be on your doorstep she had written.
Tahno's shoulders were taut and his teeth were grinding together as he heard, "New referee, folks, this time it's...." and "Resume round!" and the bell dinging.
As he advanced, the circular line around Zone Three was like a cleaved clockface, a minute-hand made from the player's shadow, reaching towards Tahno. He micromanaged the water he flung, lacing it with froth and ice and then melting the ice after impact. Crystals would make it obvious what he was up to.
He was imagining Mother in his apartment as soon as he arrived home from the match. She'd have a ledger in hand, ready to sell his things so that the next morning she could pack him into in a Sato-mobile and erase Republic City from his life. "I've arranged it all for you," she would say. "You've had your fun. But it's time to make good on your promises."
For all Tahno's efforts, he only landed two shots at the earth-bender before the time elapsed. Five feet from her nauseating green getup, with the bell ringing in his ears, his stomach turned for, he hoped, the last time. He stumbled towards the ropes to his right, leaning on them at first with one arm, breathing too slowly. Then his breath-hitched and the other arm, too, braced against the sideline barrier. While the announcer gave the round to Tahno's team, he was thinking about how too-close-for-comfort this match was becoming. Tahno's stomach heaved. Bending forward, he vomited over the side of the platform.
He wiped his mouth, walked back to his teammates, and grimaced, both at the taste of vomit and the memory of his father's illness. Tahno's family was a small group of esteemed bookkeepers and judiciaries in White Falls, a border town physically on the Earth-Kingdom continent but belonging to the North. An entire book had been written describing the tax and tariff codes and legal procedures for the town, and it was exactly the book he would have had to memorize, if his father hadn't died.
Tahno helped his fire-bender scrunch a foot of curly hair beneath her helmet strap. The announcer shouted, "Benders, to your places!", and Tahno made his captain-face at her as he walked to the far right of the starting line. The girl had set her own hair on fire more than once in practice, and, now that bribery was ineffective, he wished he'd checked on her before the match began. Usually, he did, but his mind had been, and still was, elsewhere.
The bell's metallic echo sounded the last three minutes of the match.
Tahno kept trying to focus on the three players across from him, arms waving like bare branches in a storm of pounding rain and fire and mud. But the bile had melded into a burning phlegm at the back of his throat. Tahno coughed after one of his volleys when he should have been paying attention; fire seared at his face-screen and he tumbled like a dry leaf back into Zone Two.
The winds of change were coming for him. He'd been young and naïve and believed that becoming a healer was an important profession. Republic City taught him that there were plenty of healers. Republic City also taught him that there were more fighters. It didn't matter if you knew a doctor. Getting beat up in the street was traumatic, and it taught him tactics the pro-bending broadcasts never mentioned. He'd meant to explore these tactics without getting involved in the gangs of the city. He hadn't thought his time for that would run out.
Eyes watering behind the still-hot face-screen, Tahno bent water up from the trough separating him from his team-mates. With a crook of his thumb, three ice crystals formed inside the surge and his whirling left-hand frothed the water around them like before. Down and up from his left side, he pulled more water from the trough to hose the ice over. The opposing earth-bender was shoved back a zone. Hoping to erase the vomit-taste burning into his teeth, Tahno sipped some from a water whip he was wielding, but that pause cost him, too. A clay coin struck him in the side. A gust of water knocked him back to Zone Three.
There was no clock in the arena, which made him pay more attention to the loudspeakers than he should have.
"With one minute remaining..." the commentator's voice snapped through the speakers. Tahno's teammates were holding ground in the middle of their half of the ring. They knocked the Shirshu earth-bender back a zone. The ref motioned to Tahno, who ran forward to his teammates. He doused Shirshu fire attacks and hosed their long-limbed earth-bender. For blue-sashes like Tahno and that cheater across from him, head shots were legal. Tahno used them. Repeatedly. Eventually, he pushed their elephant-rat of a fire-bender off the back of the ring.
"Forty seconds to go, and the Koala-otters have the Omashu Shirshus outnumbered by one, now, after..."
Tahno and his teammates advanced to the starting line. If they held this ground, they would win. Out of the corner of his eye, Tahno caught his fire-bender as she marched the Shirshu green-sash back with low, flaming kicks. Tahno concentrated his own efforts on controlling the water-bender across from him, the one who thought she could get away with cheating against him.
His stomach was boiling, and the heat trapped inside his uniform convinced him he had less time than the announcer suggested. He was hotter now than he ever had been in the summers at home -even that hottest summer, when he was nine. When his father died.
Tahno's teammates succeeded at forcing one more opponent off the back. The ref called the zone change. They advanced across the mid-line, attacking the last player. The water-bender. She dragged liquid up from the trough and curled it, lashingly, up by one shoulder.
Tahno, too, smoothed water into a whip, remembering word-for word the inscription from where he'd seen the move described in detail, during his father's funeral. Tahno had hid in the study, unrolling scrolls while the family gathered and mourned downstairs. That summer, he continued to spend most of his time there, reading water-bending and healer manuals. Even on the hottest of days he stayed inside, protecting the precious pages from the elements as he tried to learn about his father's condition and why exactly the local healer couldn't have done anything to help.
Tahno was distracted, looking up when the commentator said, "Fifteen seconds to go!"
One moment he was turning to see the last opponent glaring at him, her breath visible in the chill from his hidden ice bending. The next, he couldn't see because water was blasting his face-screen and punching his gut. The force threw Tahno back and back and back. His screen cleared just as he stepped on loose clay underfoot, and his back arched, feet scrabbling. He was at the edge of the ring, staring down along his chest, burning, as he fought for balance.
As the hottest summer ended, so too did his reading streak. The study window was open for the breeze, which carried in words his aunt and mother were sharing in the garden. "Tahno never plays with Pakku or Mar anymore. He seems lost," his aunt said, to which he heard his mother reply, "There's something missing around here. I feel it, too." Tahno then heard rustled clothing and imagined his mother adjusting her pose, as if she herself had been lost. "Maybe he thinks he'll find it in those books."
Hearing their voices dripping with pity, Tahno decided never to speak with either of them again, though his silent treatment only lasted a day. Still, their pity had tainted his joy of the scrolls. So instead, he joined his cousins, reenacting matches from the Pro-bending broadcasts in the waning daylight.
Tahno knew it was his inability to stay upright, not the other water-bender's talent, that did it. Sick-in-the-stomach and tripping on rock debris, Tahno fell back off the platform. For less than a second he was suspended in the air. The way his spine was arching back and back was too similar to when Amon had taken his bending. Tahno didn't want to fall like that. He twisted, jack-knifed, faced the water far away but rising fast-
"Tahno can't get enough to drink, so he's taken a dive below! Teammates Roka and Linok face off against..."
-and swallowed through the pressure-change as he dove down through the water.
The heat in his body subsided. He churned and surfaced. The water around his ears kept him from hearing the announced time remaining. The surface of the water touched his chin and tried to climb up his face as he floated. Tahno stared straight up, barely able to hear the din from the stands as he watched the arena lights twinkle, amber orbs blurry in the water drops around his face.
Water lapping against his ears, he almost missed the splash. He turned and saw ripples swelling around the opposing water-bender as she gasped for air fifty feet away. The noise echoed to him across the water, beneath the bell ringing and the explosion of shouts from the stands.
"With eight seconds left in the round, the Koala-otters K.O. their third three-nada win this season!"
Tahno watched the water-bender swim to the base of the platform, the distance and rippling shadows making her amorphous. In the water with Tahno, she seemed closer than she had across the Zone Three line just seconds before she'd knocked him back. Yet, she could have been anyone for how little he could truly see her.
At sixteen his mother had introduced him to a healer, and he hadn't fought her when she asked him to leave White Falls, travel with the doctor, and learn the trade. She was paying for it all. Said she would keep paying if he promised he would become a healer. His travels away from the lonely estate of his childhood had brought him here three years ago, but he hadn't seen his mother in four.
The approach of winter in Republic City must be a relief from such a sweltering summer, but you know what the season is like here in the north preceded the scratched-out words I tire of. What was she tired of? Was it the cold?
Shivering once, he swam to the lift. One strand of his hair was stabbing his eye as the elevator slowly brought him, soaking wet, into the noise cloud of the arena. Tahno ripped off his helmet, wiping water from his eyes and hair from his face. He didn't tilt his chin up to drink in the noise from the stands, half-praise and half-accusation, even though it was his favorite part of winning. It didn't feel like he'd won.
What had his mother intended to say? Tahno scanned the arena, watching hundreds of strange faces shouting and clapping. He couldn't really hear those folks while his brain was itching at some secret confession his mother seemed to have hidden away with one horizontal stroke of her pen. Worse than his curiosity at what those three words meant was his mind straining to remember what her voice sounded like.
In the locker-room, he denied his teammates' call for celebration or tactical discussion, or even a ride home. "Sorry, I've got to see a girl," he said with a wink. After they left, his smirk dropped like a heavy mask.
From the arena, it would be a short walk back to his suite above Narook's. When he'd opened the letter on his way out earlier, he'd done it with his coat on. He'd stared so long at the words that he burned up and ripped his coat off. Now, returning home, Tahno would have to walk coat-less past the edge of the park. Opening his locker, he could just picture the dark maple trees buried in concrete, their summer leaves forfeit, branches clacking eerily together in the autumn wind and throwing shadows like tangled clock hands against the cobblestones.
Alone in the locker-room, Tahno shivered and did his best to evaporate the water drenching his clothes and hair. He changed and stuffed his uniform and helmet into his gear-bag. As he left, the lights of the arena were dimming behind him, throwing his shadow forward further and further away as he walked home. The prophecy Tahno held now wasn't of his mother waiting with a ledger, pushing him about. This new vision was more frightening because in it, instead, she was silent, and Tahno offered up anything for her words.
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