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Free As Air

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“I’m like a bird.

I’ll only fly away.”

- Nelly Furtado


 

I ran through the tall grass as fast as my twelve-year-old legs could carry me. I knew I should've gone slower, what the consequences would be if I were caught. However, I was too antsy to care. I giggled when the wind undid my bow, allowing my hair to flow behind me like a wild, black fire. I prayed to the spirits that I was hidden well enough within the grass and continued speeding toward the cliff.

Oh, and I should introduce myself. My name is Tashi, and I'm an air-bender. Yeah, I know. Didn't the Fire Nation wipe out all of the Air Nomads? Well, they missed one. My great grandmother managed to escape into the Earth Kingdom where she married a young earth-bender. Several generations later, I was born, and now I'm the last air-bender in the whole world. Sometimes I wonder if others survived like she did, but I suppose it's wishful thinking.

I stopped at the edge of the cliff and admired the sea of red, orange, and yellow leaves below. The urge to jump down and play in the trees filled me, but I suppressed it. My grandparents would have a fit if I wandered too far, and I groaned while watching a flock of birds soar overhead.

How I longed to be as free as them, to not have to hide my bending anymore. Despite my wishes, I had no choice. My grandparents have warned me time and time again what would happen if the Fire Nation ever found me, and I shuddered at the thought. Still, at the same time, I couldn't take another minute being sheltered in our tiny village. I couldn't stand another second being confined in my box of a room where I practiced my bending in secret.

"Someday." I smiled. "Someday I'll be just like those birds. Free to go where ever the wind takes me."

I fell back against the grass and enjoyed the feeling of the dirt against my skin. Closing my eyes, I dreamed of a different reality where my father wasn't away fighting against the Fire Nation, where my mother hadn't died in childbirth, and where I no longer had to live in fear and seclusion. A world in a state of peace and happiness.

A piercing scream broke me out of my thoughts, and I shot upright, my head swerving to look in the direction of the village. My eyes widened at the sight of smoke rising from the trees like an ominous cloud of death, and without a second thought, I sprung to my feet and rushed back home. The pounding in my ears grew harsher and harsher as I neared my village, and reaching the outskirts, I stopped in my tracks. Everything was engulfed in flames, but there was no way for me to get through without being caught by the soldiers or in the fire.

"Grandma? Grandpa?" My voice was barely above a whisper, and I choked on my own breath.

Against my better judgement, I rushed into the chaos and searched for my grandparents. They were the only family I had left. I couldn't lose them too. The ground shifted underneath my feet, tumbling me forward, and my left arm scraped against some debris. Groaning, I clenched my arm and yelped when a barrage of boulders flew over me. I looked up and saw Wei, the village fisherman, fighting some of the soldiers off.

Wei noticed me and gasped. "Tashi, get out of here!"

I cringed as a stream of fire shot past. "Where are my grandparents?"

Before Wei could answer, he was overpowered by one of the fire-bending soldiers and knocked into the house behind him. I screamed and tried to run over to him, but the same fire-bender yanked me back by my hair and lifted me up to their eye level. I couldn't see the fire-bender's face, for it was covered by a mask that sent prickles along my whole body.

"Are you an earth-bender?" His breath smelled foul, his voice almost a growl. "And don't lie to me, girl, or else."

He turned his right palm toward my face and emitted a small flare of fire.

I struggled against his grip. "No! Don't hurt me or my family! Please!"

I couldn't die, not here, and in my desperation, I swiped my hands at his face. The gesture created a gust of wind that shoved the fire-bender into a stack of barrels. I landed on my hands and knees, and my nerves were so on edge that I couldn't move. Looking up, I saw that the fire-bender's mask had slipped off. I noted his fair skin, amber eyes, and dark brown sideburns. His mouth was agape, and he stared at me like I was some kind of freak.

Does he know? I tried to stand, but my limbs remained frozen. Move. You have to run.

The fire-bender regained his composure, and I saw his face twist and tighten into a fit of rage. Jumping to his feet, he charged at me with a fist full of fire, and at last my body moved. I sped away, not caring who saw. I heard the same fire-bender command for someone to capture me, but I was too fast for them. I made it out of the village and rushed back through the field of tall grass. If I could just make it over the cliff, the soldiers would lose my trail.

Feeling a rush of heat, I turned and ducked out of the way of a fireball. It was the fire-bender from before. Although, he couldn't match me in speed, he cut me off with several wild-shots. The grass set ablaze and spread before I could get around it. I screamed. The cliff was only a few feet away, but there was no way I could reach it now. The fire-bender cornered me, his fists emitting fire, and a rat-viper like grin spread across his face.

"Well, if it isn't my lucky day." He stepped closer. "Come with me, Avatar. Otherwise, you'll die where you stand."

I gasped. "I'm not the Avatar."

He frowned. "You must be. The last Avatar was an air-bender who disappeared a hundred years ago, and while others may be fooled, I'm not."

I glanced back at the fire that grew behind me and coughed from the smoke building up around us. "Do I look like a hundred-year-old woman to you?"

His eye-twitched. "Either way, I'm not taking any chances!"

The fire-bender lunged at me, and I decided I'd rather die than be captured by the Fire Nation. Turning on my heel, I ran straight into the fire. I ignored the flames catching onto my clothes and hair, and I screeched when I felt a blast of fire strike my back. The force was so strong that it sent me flying over the edge of the cliff. I lost sense of my surroundings as I free fell toward the ground, and everything went black.

….

When I opened my eyes, I felt surreal. My most recent memories had to have been a nightmare, right? My village hadn't been attacked by the Fire Nation. I was safe in my room, my grandmother was preparing breakfast in the kitchen, and my grandfather was taking care of chores outside. However, my hopes were dashed when I sat up. It felt like my whole body was on fire, and I screamed in agony before collapsing back onto what seemed to be a simple cot.

"Hey, she's awake!" called an unfamiliar voice.

It sounded like a child, and the voice echoed from outside of the hut I realized I had been placed in. The shoddy curtain swayed aside, and I saw a boy my age, or perhaps a year older, step inside. He was followed by another boy around our age, and a much younger boy or girl.

"Thank you, Smellerbee." The first boy, who I assumed was the leader, nodded to youngest child.

The leader walked over and knelt beside me, allowing me a better look. He wore neutral colors that didn't indicate his nation, which made me nervous, but his tanned skin and messy dark brown hair didn't scream Fire Nation either. His brown eyes met my gray ones, and he smiled.

"How are you feeling?" He pulled the piece of straw from his mouth.

I blinked, feeling my head buzz. "I don't know. What happened?"

He glanced away, his brow furrowing. "The Fire Nation attacked your village. We found you lying in the riverbank, and you were badly burned. Smellerbee did her best to patch you up."

"I…." My eyes rolled into the back of my head.

Everything came flooding back into my mind. I saw myself playing in the grassy field, rushing back home to the sound of screams, the sight of my village burning to the ground, and that fire-bender. His face was etched into my brain, and my grandparents…. I never found them. I never….

I shot up with a scream only to wail from the pain of my injuries and collapse back down again. Tears poured from my eyes, and I called out for my grandparents, my father, my mother, my friends in the village, anyone.

"Careful. You'll reopen your wounds." The leader placed a hand on my forehead. "Longshot, grab me some water. She's running a fever."

The other boy nodded before leaving the hut.

"I'm Jet, and my friends and I are forming a group called the Freedom Fighters," the leader said. "You're welcome to join us once you get back on your feet."

"I'm Tashi." I choked out between sobs.

He smiled. "You're gonna be well taken care of, Tashi."

"Hey, Jet?" The girl, who I now knew as Smellerbee, held up a wooden necklace. "I found this in her things. What nation symbol is this?"

My eyes widened. "Give that back."

Jet took the necklace and traced his thumb over the amulet, which had three swirl designs carved into it. "I don't recognize it."

"It's the symbol of the Air Nomads." I coughed. "I'm an air-bender."

Once again, I slipped into unconsciousness.

….

Four Years Later….

I stared into my makeshift mirror and tied my hair into two ponytails. I envied the teen girls who had the luxury to fret about their appearance, but vanity wasn't an option for an orphaned peasant like me, especially one with the scars I had. I thanked the spirits that most of them could be hidden underneath my clothes, The only part that showed were two stripes that ran along the length of my neck. No, I only wished the scars disappeared, so I wouldn't have to be reminded of my past every minute.

I forced a smile at myself. "Just another day."

Standing, I grabbed my whips before stepping outside of my little hut. I admired the view of our vast hideout within the trees. In a matter of a few years, Jet had managed to turn a bunch of orphans into an army of fighters, and I couldn't help but admire his bravery and leadership. Not many would take that kind of initiative, and this lifestyle was better than sitting around feeling sorry myself.

With my air-bending, I jumped from platform to platform while using my whips to catch myself. I wasn't anywhere near close to being a master, but I did figure out a few tricks over time. Although, I only practiced my bending within our hideout. I couldn't risk the Fire Nation tracking me down like that one fire-bender did. I never did learn who he was, but if I knew if I ever saw him again, I'd make sure it'd be our last encounter.

I reached the hut where we held our meetings and went inside. Jet was sitting at the head of the group. Longshot, Pipsqueak, and the Duke were on his right while Smellerbee and Sneers were on his left. I walked around the group and took my spot right next to Jet. He smiled and wrapped his arm around me, and I gave him a quick peck on the cheek.

He turned his attention to the map that rested in center of the group. "Now that we're all here, let's begin with the first order of business. Sneers, Duke, what's your report?"

"After scouting earlier this morning, Duke and I found another camp. They got lots of supplies we could use," Sneers said.

The Duke shook his head. "But there's way too many soldiers. We'd never be able to infiltrate them head on."

"What's the plan?" I said.

Jet narrowed his eyes at the map. "We'll head out to the camp. Once we have an opening, we'll run them out, and take all the resources we can carry."

The others cheered in agreement.

He stood. "Now, let's head out."

Everyone stood and made their way out of the hut, but I lagged behind. I stared at the map, at all the places the Fire Nation had already taken, and felt a weight drop in the pit of stomach. Jet must've noticed I hadn't followed him, for he turned around with a furrowed brow.

"Something wrong, Tashi?" He walked over to me.

"This just isn't gonna end, is it?" I sighed. "We take down all these small camps, but if no one can defeat the Fire Lord himself, this war will never end."

"Hey, every little bit helps. One day we'll drive the Fire Nation out of Gaipan for good." Jet placed a hand on her shoulder. "And once we're done with that village, we'll move onto the next, and the next, and the next, until they're all free. Whatever it takes."

"Yes." I nodded. "Although, do you wonder if the rumors we've heard from the camps are true? Has the Avatar really returned?"

The very idea filled my heart with hope. The Avatar would put a stop to this never-ending war, and he was supposed to be an Air Nomad, which meant there could be a chance for me to master air-bending.

Jet shrugged. "Who knows? He's been gone for a hundred years. As far as I'm concerned, we need to worry about solving things ourselves."

"You're right." I smiled. "Let's make the Fire Nation shake in their boots."

He kissed me, his arms wrapping around my waist, and I sighed against his lips. No matter what happened, he always provided me with what I needed. Comfort and security. This place was my home, and the Freedom Fighters were my family. The idea losing them like I had my original home and family haunted me, but I knew that so long as Jet was in my life, everything would be fine.