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|Trapped (As We Fall)|
March 18, 2012
The sun has set by the time I finally get up to look for Wei. I've wasted precious time, but I'll need the cover of darkness if I am to have any chance of making it back alive. Because what I'm going to do is the most dangerous thing I have ever done in my life. My life, which has become increasingly valuable over the last few days, both to me and to anyone who may want to know about the airbenders in the future. My clothes are tattered, and their colors scream to anyone who sees me that I should not be alive, that I need to be disposed of. But I have no other clothes, and no time to look for any. I pat Yun's head, promise to return with Wei, and dart into the forest.
Wei may have gotten a head start with her glider, but I'm an airbender too. I bend the air to allow me to run faster than I've ever run before. Branches tear at my hair and rocks bruise my feet but not even the forces of nature can stop me from saving Wei. In the distance I begin to see a town, seemingly the only one around and surrounded by farmland. I slow to a walk.
By the time I enter the town, few people are on the streets. I stick to the shadows, trying to stay unnoticed. For the most part I am ignored, and allowed to observe a way of life so different than what I had been raised in. In the space between two shops, a man and woman embrace, making my cheeks flush in color. The woman looks up briefly at me, and I quicken my pace; but she's already forgotten me. The moon shines bright enough for me to make out some of the signs hanging on shops, most of them advertising their superior meat or scrumptious chicken. One though, consisting of only a picture with a few words, makes me do the most foolish thing possible—stop. In it, a flock of birds crowds the sky, blocking a dragon's path. Above the picture the words "Make room for the strong" stand out against the creamy white paper. The message is clear, but the truth of it murky. The Fire Nation is spreading lies about my people and I, saying we're nothing but roadblocks that must be cleared. A tear makes its way down my cheek as I realize my people were not allowed to just be slain, they had to be reduced to nothing but annoyances in the minds of Fire Nation citizens too.
A hand clamps down on my shoulder, and I whirl around to face a man dressed in a simple red soldier uniform. In the dark, he must not have seen the colors of my clothes yet for he seems to genuinely want to help me. I wonder if his mind has been twisted enough so that I he found out my nationality he would consider killing me "helping me". I pray to the spirits that I don't find out. I smile up at the man.
"Oh no sir. I'm just visiting a distant relative, and I underestimated the time it would take to arrive here. My cousin's house is just down the path."
The soldier seems uncertain, and I hope he doesn't think about escorting me to my "cousin's" house himself. Taking another look at me, his eyes widen.
"Hey, where'd you get those clothes from?"
A week ago, I wouldn't have dreamed of doing what I'm about to do. But a week ago, my temple wasn't was still standing and thriving. I push my hands forward, creating a gush of air that knocks the soldier into a nearby building. As he grunts in pain, I run. The stores turn to homes as my legs move in a blur.
"Hey, you! Stop!"
Another soldier. They must be enjoying a nice vacation after slaughtering innocent people. If I keep running, his cries will wake up half the village. I'm not eager to face a village, even if they will be half-asleep. I duck into a doorway, my heart beating as the second soldier's footsteps pass me by. I let out the breath I'd been holding and lean against the door, until a loud bang makes me jerk away. Unnoticed by me before, a thin metal peg holds a round metal circle that hangs loosely in front of a metal plate bolted into the door. It's a door knocker. I consider running, but by the sound of heavy breathing and curses, the first soldier is coming. I'm trapped. The door opens, and someone yanks me inside. Startled, I look up into eyes of flickering amber flame.
I am as frozen as the ice that makes up my city, sparkling in my view from the boat whose rocking movements threaten to throw me to my knees if the knowledge of who spoke doesn't do that first. In the dark, it is hard to tell the identity of the figure that recognized me so easily. To be honest, it could be anyone who knows my name simply because my father is on the tribal council. But the voice that called out my name conveyed not only curiosity and confusion, but also genuine concern. In the tribe where people have kept their bodies but not their hearts from being numbed by cold, only someone who knew me would speak like that. And there are only two people who truly know me.
I am not surprised when Arika steps from the shadows. Disappointed she was not Aiko, yes, but not surprised. She is dressed as if for travel, and I wonder if more than one Water Tribe girl has decided to escape tonight. Certainly its more likely that Arika would be bold enough to leave rather than me, the girl well disciplined in the art of never questioning anything, never speaking out, never being anything more than a beautiful bauble being held for a customer willing to pay its high price. Arika, however, doesn't stay near the shadows, as I do, but out in the open, clearly visible to anyone looking. And if the chief's daughter's absence was realized, people would be looking. No, she must be here for a reason. I realize that too much time has passed, and I attempt to break the silence by explaining to Arika why I'm here. She, of all people, must understand. But before I can grasp the words to tell Arika my story, a smile flashes briefly across her face and she smiles.
"You're running away, aren't you? I guess my recklessness has rubbed off on you. Imagine, perfect Kaori, the lady parents tell little girls they should aspire to be like, a rebel! My, my, Kaori, you're going to provide enough fuel for gossip to burn for years."
I never realized the extent of my friendship with Arika until now. Maybe before I enjoyed being with her, I tolerated her occasional bouts of rashness. But never did I fully appreciate Arika's bravery in not always following the standards that were laid out far before I was born. Arika, I realize in one stunning thought, is perhaps the only true friend I ever had. The gaggle of girls I would hang around with, giggling and whispering about nothing real, will easily move on from my absence, and will probably spend a good amount of their time talking about me, the scandalous Kaori. And that's good for them, for many of them that's the closest thing to friendship they will ever know. But I am finally seeing that none but Arika would stand by me in my darkest moments. The realization that perhaps I can receive help from someone besides the spirits, that I am not alone, brings tears to my eyes. Arika's smile disappears.
"Oh, now I've upset you. Don't cry Kaori. Look, I'm travelling with this ship to the Southern Colonies, just to check up on them and give supplies. You can hide in my cabin, there's plenty of room. In the Southern Colonies, things are different. You can be someone there, no matter your gender. I've even heard they teach girls how to waterbend other than healing."
Arika looks a little wistful at this, and I wonder how long it took to convince her father to let her go on this trip with barely even a notice, and if the idea of being able to learn how to bend spurred her to that action. The idea of Arika learning to fight with waterbending gives me a little hope. After all, if the chief's daughter can find a way to bypass our society's expectations, why can't I? I smile hesitantly before speaking.
"Thank you Arika."
My words, so few, sound different, stronger than any words I've spoken before. I have at last found my voice. But I can't afford to ponder how much I've changed. Without another word I follow Arika as she walks towards her cabin.
The crowd is quieter for a moment after Jirou asks me to confess. I suppose kicking out an old man many of them most likely blame for the Fire Nation invasion is different than kicking out a young girl. Jirou has not yet had time to completely brainwash them, or else I suspect I would be hearing the same chants of people who will stop at nothing but my pain or misery that Anjay received. I should use the crowd's brief moment of hesitation to run far away, but I can't leave Mei, not again. And maybe Jirou will be content to see me humiliate myself by taking the blame for every hardship the villagers have faced. I can be a scapegoat for a day if it means living for years. I can be spit on, hurt, and embarrassed if it means staying with my sister. I walk up to the earth stage with my head downward. The crowd, recovered from their confusion, silently glares at me. Their looks of hatred make me rethink my plans. But with the crowd pressing in on me, I have no way of escaping. The walk to Jirou doesn't take very long, but by the time I am on the stage my knees are shaking and every other muscle in my body is tense. I lift my head up to see Jirou, so much taller than me, smiles menacingly down at me.
"Emi, we're waiting."
I'm trapped. I turn to face the crowd, the people who will decide my fate, looking for Mei. She is nowhere to be found. Instead I see the handful of people that look just as uncertain and afraid as I must look now. Maybe I underestimated Jirou's intimidation, maybe they're just going along with what is said so they won't be targeted. But they're cowards in doing that, and if I confess of crimes I never did, I'll be a coward too. I understand why Anjay refused to follow Jirou, even if it meant banishment. I would rather be cast out like Anjay than give in to Jirou's lies and manipulations.
"You're going to be waiting for a long time." I say, before leaping off the stage, landing at the very edge of the crowd.
Cries of surprise and anger erupt around me, but I just keep running. My bare feet slap the ground, and at each step I send a scattering of rocks at the people reaching out to grab me. Their sounds of pain only make the villagers angrier at me, until every single one of them is attempting to stop me, hurt me, kill me. A rock erupts from the ground, tripping me. I turn my fall into a roll against the ground, drawing earth to cover my body as it touches the ground before making it to my feet again, this time with new rock armor. Boulders are launched my way, and as I raise rock walls to defend myself, the earthbenders use my distraction to encase my feet and ankles in rock. Caught off balance, I fall to the ground, only to have my hands encased as well. I turn my head to see the earthbenders ahead of the mob, running towards me. The villagers are not far away, I have less than a minute before they get here. The first earthbender arrives next to me and I close my eyes, expecting to be smashed by a boulder or impaled by a spike.
Instead, my bonds shatter. I get to my feet, and a rock juts out of the ground, hitting the earthbender in the stomach. He falls, and doesn't get up. I turn, raising my arms in confusion, and more boulders pop from the ground to hit the other earthbenders. In confusion, I turn back to the first earthbender, who winks at me.
"Not all of the earthbenders have forgotten what your actions did to help us Emi. Maybe all but two or three have forgotten, but not all" The earthbender makes a small jerking motion with his hand, and a wall of earth emerges from the ground, keeping us out of the approaching villagers' view. "Go Emi. Don't worry about Mei, I'll watch after her."
I have just moments before the opposing earthbenders take down the walls. I don't want to leave Mei, I can't leave Mei. The earthbender sees this, and pounds his fist against the ground. A hole in the earth opens up and swallows me, dropping me into an underground cavern. I hear the sound of rock breaking before the hole closes up, and I am lost in darkness. With no other ideas, I push my hands forward, making a pathway to follow. Trying not to think about whom I have left or what has happened, I run.
Nothing. That is what there is to do.
Ryu is off somewhere in the mountains, probably hunting. The Fire Nation Army didn't give us any fresh meat; they probably thought it would spoil. The cave has been decorated to look like a home away from home for any surviving Air Nomads; or rather, any surviving members of the Air Nation. The Fire Nation probably believes that by replacing the word nomad everyone will forget their peaceful ways, and maybe not feel as bad about slaughtering them all. Either I'm a special case, or they're dead wrong. But there's nothing I can do, I was trapped the day I enlisted in the Fire Nation Army.
Sighing, I make a tiny flame appear on my index finger. Holding it close to my face, the flickering golden light reminds me of Zahra's eyes, so alive and beautiful. What would she think of me if she knew what I have done? If she discovered that I had killed not those who threaten our country, but innocent children? She must understand that I had no choice, that if I could go back in time I would kill Fire Lord Sozin before he could order the death of the Air Nation.
My fire flares, and then disappears as I ask myself if what I thought was true, if I would really kill my Fire Lord. I have never been a violent man, a year ago I wouldn't have even thought about murder. But a man who destroyed so many lives, who has made a bending style go extinct, who has begun to spread propaganda making his acts seem less heinous than they are does not deserve to live. If I stay where I am, if I complete the mission to which I've been assigned, I'll be no better than Sozin himself. I need to leave, but the idea of deserting the Fire Nation is unheard of. No one who deserts the Fire Nation survives, and I imagine when Ryu found out I was gone he wouldn't hunt just animals anymore. I would die before I got even close Sozin. A memory of Zahra's last words to me floats into my thoughts.
Zeno, you have to promise to come back. Promise me you'll stay safe.
I should never have promised anything, but to break that promise would mean breaking whatever future I have with Zahra. To sacrifice my life to kill Sozin is one thing, but the idea of hurting Zahra, or even my brother and parents in the process, is almost too much to bear. No, if I am to kill Sozin I must find a way to do so without dying. I must, I must, I must...
When Ryu walks into our cave holding the bodies of several unidentifiable animals, he finds nothing odd about me. I am sitting calmly, nibbling on a piece of bread. When he asks what I did today, I simply shrug, just like he did to me countless times before back when we were just tent mates. Never will he guess that as he was away I envisioned Sozin's death hundreds of times. Poison, stabbing, hanging, burning. It is easier than I could ever have imagined, slipping into the mind of a madman.
Nothing. That is what there is to do.
At least, not yet.
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