When she had turned twelve the previous autumn, Seronok had moved out of the open dormitory she had always shared with her agemates. Suddenly she had a cell of her own, even if she had to share it with another person. To her everlasting regret, Seronok's roommate was Epal.
Epal's name meant 'apple', and Seronok was reminded every time she stared at those ruddy dimpled cheeks. Epal also meant trouble, even if that definition wasn't in any dictionary. Seronok's cellmate angered the monks and nuns by trying to sneak in forbidden, worldly things: magazines with the latest Earth Kingdom fashions, make up, or even sticks of salted jerky.
Seronok, who held the value of joy and balance in her heart of hearts, always suffered through the regular lectures the nuns gave her roommate. Seronok was sure that someday Epal would cross the line and be thrown out of temple. Then Seronok would have her own cell and be free to become the proper Air Nun she knew she was destined to be.
This was not to say that Seronok thought herself guiltless. In some ways, she was worse. After all, the nuns never suspected her of being the girl who owned the only transistor radio in the whole Southern Air Temple.
Seronok had won the radio during a group visit to Omashu. After she and the other choir members had finished their performance for the 559th Remembrance Day festival, Epal had pulled Seronok and a few other girls off to take the trolley and explore the tiered streets of Omashu and play some carnival games.
It had been a freak accident. Seronok knew there was no way she should have won at that pachinko game -- everyone knew they were fixed -- but she had won, and won big.
The elders had banned personal radios. Such things were worldly possessions and thus unnecessary to a prospective nun's life. But Seronok had to have it. She loved music. So she had taken the radio back with her, listening to it in secret during the long train ride and steamer ship back to the Southern Air Temple. Seronok felt a little bad every time she listened to it -- breaking rules and all -- so she made sure to do extra meditation each week to make up for her transgressions.
Epal, of course, always wanted to borrow the radio, but Seronok had steadfastly refused. Epal didn't appreciate music, she just wanted to listen to the latest hit from Ba Sing Se so she'd be the Cool one. It was a reoccurring sore point between them, but Epal had the decency to feel bad about getting Seronok into trouble so often and Seronok never ratted on her. Cellmates stuck to together, after all.
But Epal was never one to give up easily, and after five months of back and forth between them it came to a head one afternoon during a game of Truth or Dare on the roof of the temple.
The game had been fine at first. Epal kissed Sudu on his lips as his girlfriend glared at them. Kapur admitted she had been the one to hide the lemur in Monk Dinding's bed. Then it came Seronok's turn.
Seronok, never one for dares, said, "Truth."
Epal asked, "Where do you hide your radio?"
And after that it was a Thing because now everyone suddenly knew Seronok had the most forbidden of items. Flustered, Seronok had demanded a dare instead.
"Fine," said Epal, "I dare you to..."
* * * *
It was ten minutes past midnight when Seronok crept into the Shrine of Remembrance, transistor radio in hand.
The shrine, set apart from the Southern Air Temple, was an open-air structure; four grand pillars supporting a sweeping roof with glazed ceramic tiles colored orange and yellow. It faced towards the South Pole, the place where Seronok's people had been born. Her teachers said there was a matching shrine there, carved out of black stone and blue ice, set on the spot where the Mother and found the Father.
Upon passing through the arbor entrance, Seronok found her eye drawn to the paired statues at the shrine's center. There, seated in the lotus position on an elevated pedestal, were Father Aang and Mother Katara.
They were Seronok's many times great-grandparents, just as they were to every living airbender. Seronok was glad what she had come here to do would take place to their backs.
Each of the shrine's four great pillars was guarded by a sentinel. They were life-sized replicas of the Father's four bending masters: Pakku of the North, Zuko the Great, Grandfather Gyatso of the Ancient Nomads, and the founder of the Bei Fong Dynasty, the Metal Matriarch Toph.
It was on Toph that Seronok's nocturnal efforts centered.
Unlike her counterparts, the Matriarch's memorial statue was covered in ivy and moss that had crept in from the surrounding grounds. No one knew why the monks and nuns didn't clean the statue, only that it had always been treated that way.
"I dare you," her cellmate had said, "to sneak in and play a song for the Green Lady."
The 'Green Lady' was the statue's nickname, and bringing a radio in a sacred place? A radio that Seronok wasn't even allowed to own and would be in major trouble if she was caught? Almost too daring. It beat divulging the hiding place for her radio. And the option 'Truth' could have been worse.
(But secretly making out with Sudu behind his girlfriend's back on the choir trip to Omashu had been SO worth it.)
Most nights you could find a feed from Omashu. Tonight the stars shone bright and clear. Seronok bet she could score something from Ba Sing Se.
Kneeling before the Green Lady, Seronok fiddled with her radio's tuning. White noise crackled in the nighttime.
/--kksssSSSSSHKssssSSss ~rotest outside the Imperial palace tur~ kksssSSSshhk ~save more mon~ kssssssh--/
She lucked out with the scratchy sound of The Ladder Riders, an Earth Kingdom band. Her cellmate's magazines all said they were going to be big soon. She turned up the volume as loud as she dared and lost herself in the music. Bobbing her head along, Seronok glanced up at the Green Lady.
"Sweet tunes," the statue rumbled.
"AGGGGGHHHHHHH!!" Seronok scrambled backwards.
With an audible groan, the statue stood and stretched.
"Ooof," the shambling horror grumbled, a 'pop' filling the night like a stone being split in two by a hammer and chisel. "Ow. Ow ow ow." After another half minute of this, it finally regarded Seronok. "Hey there."
Seronok threw up.
The next thing she knew the monstrosity had moved to her side, holding her hair back while she dry heaved. "There, there," said the living statue, sounding gentle for a monster. "Let it all out."
"My daughter Irah was the same way," it said kindly, rubbing Seronok's back. "A gentle stomach is nothing to feel ashamed of."
Guts clenching in fear, Seronok looked up at the statue.
The Green Lady's skin was no longer stone, though it still held a grayish cast that was distinctly un-fleshlike. As before, instead of clothes, the Green Lady wore the vines and mosses that normally coated it. Seronok watched the rise and fall of its chest, but aside from that it was otherwise still. It didn't even blink. The elder monks and nuns fidgeted more when they were meditating.
Yet the statue's eyes were undeniably alive. Milky in color, yes, but clearly animated by a soul. That eased Seronok.
"Sorry for scaring you," it said. "Forgive an old woman her tricks." It glanced down at itself. "Huh. I seem to be naked."
The Green Lady stood, helping Seronok to her feet. It amazed Seronok that she came up only to the statue's mid-section. Matriarch Toph had, she learned, been a giant of a woman while alive, but seeing her -- well, her statue -- standing so tall was something else entirely.
"Easy does it. You're not going to get sick again, are you?"
Seronok numbly shook her head.
"Good. Now," it gestured to her feet, "how did you make that music box play so many different songs?"
"'Ray-dee-o'," repeated the statue, savoring the word. "Yes."
Seronok's knees gave out. The statue caught her. "Dear," it said, "try to keep it together."
"Y-YOU'RE A TALKING STATUE!" she blurted, finally freaking out.
"No," it said. "I'm Toph Bei Fong."
"Impossible! The Matriarch died centuries ago!"
The Green Lady helped her back towards its vacant pedestal. As they walked, it talked, "I traveled with Twinkletoes for years. Aang was always good for a brawl, but I wanted to beat him after he got glowy. Between him and hanging out with the White Lotus, I got to thinking more about bending and stuff. It was hard to spend time around Aang without picking up a thing or two about spirituality."
"You're saying... you..."
It -- she -- helped Seronok to the ground. "Yes."
"You've been mediating in your own memorial shrine for centuries?!"
The Matriarch settled back onto her pedestal. "My clothes didn't rot off by themselves, dear." A beat. "Well, technically they did."
"I just listened to the Earth. The rest took care of itself."
The answer was sufficiently sage-like that Seronok knew she would have to figure the rest out on her own, which kind of pissed her off. Earthbenders stealing her people's shtick... grr. "Why meditate for so long?"
"Got bored," said Toph. The elderly, dignified statue-lady sighed. "All my friends were gone. My grandchildren were having grandchildren. When Aang died, it'd been a good half century since I'd met someone else who could give me a fair fight. Meditating seemed like a good way to pass the time until something more interesting came around -- your ray-dee-o, for instance. I mean, what else was I gonna do?" She snorted. "Die? Pfff. No thanks."
Seronok felt her eyes water. "That's so sad!"
"All your friends were dead! You were all alone!"
"It's all right," she said. "You don't make it to... say, what year is it?" After Seronok answered, Toph exclaimed, "I'm 571?! Ugh. You don't make it to 571 without growing a thick skin." The Green Lady leaned forward and punched her on the arm. "Come on, kid, save the waterworks for an old lady who deserves it. I had an awesome life. Besides, all I have to do is look around this place at the other statues and I can see WHAT THE HELL?!"
"Wh-what? Did I do--"
"Those bastards. They took down Sokka and Suki's statues!" The Matriarch strode over to the entranceway's arbor, each step sending tremors through the ground. "What, are Twinkletoes and Sugar Queen's grandkids too good to have non-benders in their memorial?"
The ancient woman raised her hands and made a lightning-quick motion with her fingers. Two rock pillars rose out of the floor. Before Seronok's eyes, the crude juts of rock melted into human forms. One was a tall man in Water Tribe armor, the other was a woman in an ornate uniform and headdress. They were, presumably, the Mother's brother and sister-in-law. Their detail was extraordinary. Even in the milky moonlight, the young airbender could make individual hairs on the man's beard. Both statues held out swords of different designs that crossed over the entryway as the couple saluted one another.
"Hmph." The Matriarch rested her hands on her hips. "You go to sleep for a couple of decades and everything goes to seed. Have to talk with the buttheads in charge around here before I go back to my snooze."
"I'm sorry," she said.
The elder waved her off. "Don't worry about it. Not your fault." She turned around. "Now," Toph said, hefting the radio, "how does this doohickey work?" She ran a finger up the antenna. "What's this?"
"There are, um, these waves in the air. Radio towers broadcast them and the antenna," she gestured to the gleaming telescoping rod, "picks them out." Seronok reached over and set the radio to play an electric string band from the Fire Nation.
"Crazy," said Toph. "Can you bend them?"
"What? The radio waves?"
"You - you just can't."
"But they're in the air, right?"
Seronok tried to think of a simple explanation. Toph was really old, after all. "You, um, know lightning?"
"I am familiar with the concept, yes."
"Sorry!" She flushed. "But, yeah, it's like lightning. Sorta. Only you can't see it and it doesn't hurt anybody."
Toph nodded to herself. "So radiobending would be a Fire thing."
"You can't bend radio waves."
"When I was your age, nobody could bend metal -- they still know how to metalbend, right?" When Seronok nodded, Toph grinned. "Sweet."
The Matriarch quickly figured out that thumbing the radio's dial changed the channel. After marveling at its capacity to communicate, she settled on listening to, of all things, static.
"Ah," declared the Green Lady, "this is more my style."
"But it's not playing any music."
"Is it?" The ancient earthbender turned up the volume.
"Listen, little airbender, everything is dust if you break it down far enough. You. Me. This whole world. If you listen to the Earth, you can hear it, the story of the planet. Creation. Everything comes from star dust and everything will go back to it."
"This stuff you're calling noise? That's an echo of Earthsong. I've been listening to it for centuries. What do you hear?"
"Static," Seronok said honestly. "I like my stuff better. It's catchier and has lyrics."
"Well," Matriarch Toph admitted, turning off the radio, "it's something of an acquired taste, I guess."