This is Republic City.
Thirteen million people, all crowded on this small coastline of a city, where you can see old airbender island from the Lady Mai, the old bending arena that got turned into a restaurant. I hear the most expensive reservations are in the area right over the old ring, now an aquarium. When I go on my morning commute to the Council Building, I can see the ocean out the window, sky dappled gray but the water clear blue. The children play happily, scooping sand into their pails and building castles. I can see waterbending classes practicing out there some days, or a rare air acolyte meditating against the crashing waves.
The waterfront is my home, always has been. Ironic for a firebender, but I will always love the sea. I can always see it from my building, and I’ll sit out there, chai tea in my hand, the wind chimes slowly jingling in the slow morning breeze. The mornings are cloudy, and the sea is more murky than sparkly. But a long shaft of light always shines over airbender island. And around it, the water sparkles iridescently. It’s almost like liquid mercury, and every morning, I make sure to find that little patch of sparkle.
My fellow council members say that I’m a stickler for beauty. They always joke about me and my obsession with pretty things, from clothing to objects to geography to people to the ocean itself. But that doesn’t bother me. If they can’t appreciate all the small, lovely things in life, like one perfect white rose, a softly sparkling baby pink dress, or a woman with perfect eyeliner, then I have no responsibility to prevent their depression when they have to wait for the next super car to spend their one hundred thousand dollar checks on.
It’s not always the big things in life that are most beautiful. Instead, I take the rose with me, buy the beautiful dress, and compliment the woman on her eyeliner. My friends miss every small thing, and I point them out every single time. They always give me a look of exasperation, but I can see their eyes sparkle when they see it too.
And usually, I find beauty in being punctual. However, today I miss my train. That’s fine. I take it merely out of convenience, considering that my position in the government gets me a free rail pass. I usually pawn it off on Ms. Cheng, but I have work to get to and it’s only a thirty minute walk, maybe twenty if I take the shortcuts. It’s no later than my usual time, and I have my book to read as I walk down the sidewalks of the residential area, passing a shrine or two, maybe the rare gated home. I can’t take their quiet beauty with me, so instead I pull out my phone, snapping a picture. Ms. Cheng will appreciate it, no doubt. She always loves cultural beauty, especially the old architectures. I admit that I love them too. Though I move on quickly, not wanting to be considered a stalker. I know the backstreets like the back of my own hand, though I must make a wrong turn somewhere, because I end up in a small pavilion.
It’s small and square, off the side of an apartment. I can see another exit to the main road, but the soda machine calls to me. I can see my favorite type, Peach Dark. Never pass that one up. I drop in some RCU coins, and the soda bottle makes a satisfying thunk when it lands in the tray. I pop it open, and that taste of sweet peach mixed with some dark soda is the best wake-up call I’ve had in weeks. All my coworkers drink canned coffee or rely on tea, but I can’t help the allure of a bubbly, sugary bottle of something that will definitely mess up my heart if I make drinking it a habit. Oh well.
I can hear the warble of a bird, maybe a raven, in the trees above me. Dappled light shines on the stone, and somewhere in the bushes I can see a small stone monument. All the good parks have monuments. I know that Toph Beifong park is a majesty, the tall statue sporting the woman in what looks to be the middle of battle, metal rope and debris whipping around her. But this little park is like the small beauties. It might not seem amazing to those with big tastes, but someone has to love and care for them.
It is in that small moment of thought that I hear a clop clop. The sound grows louder, steady like a heartbeat. Soft murmuring pulls at my ears, and then he appears.
Some people say that they feel an immediate connection to some people. Or maybe they feel like the recognize the person, even if they’ve never met. That wasn’t how I felt. I was interested, though. The murmuring was rhythmic somehow, a slow chant that I could feel beating over my heart. He wore plain black kimono, and every step was accompanied with a clack or a clop. Wrapped around his hands were small prayer beads, and on the hanging part, a bell jingled softly.
Of course, this all is commonplace in the quiet parts of the city. In the older districts it’s even more common, and on airbender island it’s all you can see, just a sea of black, orange, and yellow. All the different sects of Aangism have different uniforms for their monks, but the most common are the orange and black sects. I don’t really know the names, but someone once told me that the black sect is founded in Republic City. I can only assume he’s part of this sect.
As he passes by, he slightly brushes past me, and I can feel a piece of the fabric with my hand. Cotton. He smells like incense and something familiar, something that reminds me of home. It’s a nice smell. Another small thing to add. A nice memory, with a cool soda bottle in my hand, and a monk that’s gone to sit in the grass to meditate. After a moment of thought, I drop some more coins in the vending machine and grab a water. Work can wait for a moment. I’m horribly spontaneous sometimes. Maybe my bursts of carelessness make it so I can be reliable. Besides, we aren’t doing anything important today. Probably going over new tax laws and other boring, trite stuff.
I sit down next to him, nudging his knee with the water bottle. He stops chanting for a moment, turning to look at me. For a moment I’m frozen like a deer in the headlights. I don’t know if it’s bad to interrupt a meditating monk, but I can only guess that it is.
His eyes are a soft blue, darker in the dappled light of the tree he’s chosen to sit under. His lips quirk up in a small smile, and he takes the bottle, whispering a small “thanks”. He cracks open the lid, drinking a gulp before setting it down again and resuming his form. I try to copy, folding my legs in lotus position and placing my hands on my kneecaps. One of his eyes opens, and he snorts, trying to hold back a laugh.
“Don’t hunch over like that, you’ll hurt your back. Sit up straighter, and flip your hands. You cannot accept the spirit world if you close yourself off.”
“Thank you.” I fix my position, and close my eyes. My breaths come slow and deep, and the effect is calming. That is, until my phone goes off.
“Crap.” My eyes snap open, and I grab my phone from my pocket, checking it. A text from Sakura.
“Where are you?? Meeting’s starting, and you’re late??” Typical Sakura fashion, but I can tell that I’m catching hell for this one.
“Dammit, I have to go. Sorry.”
“No need to be sorry. It’s a pleasant surprise when people choose to meditate with me.”
“What’s your name? Phone number?”
“I don’t have a phone. But you can call me Aagneya.”
“Wait, where can I find you?” I manage to shout before he walks away.
“Air temple island on weekends.” He waves goodbye, and I quickly turn away to hurry off to work.
Sakura’s waiting for me in the lobby, tapping her toe and checking her phone. When she hears the door swishing, she meets my eyes and dashes over to me.
“Why were you late? Everyone’s worried!”
“Sorry, I got a little caught up in something.”
Sakura is a slightly girl, but is known to be danger even though she was born without bending. She’s skilled in acrobatics, and has the body of an athlete. Her hair’s pulled up today, long pink hair in strange earth kingdom style buns. She’s bouncing on her toes, stretching her arms, full of jittery energy and a ton of jump.
“I swear, you always have to get distracted on important days!”
“Isn’t it tax return day?”
“No! We had an avatar sighting, you doof!”
In the end, it’s merely a false alarm. Some kids playing an ill-sighted prank on some random police officers. The day shifts from general alarm to tax return day, and eventually we stop filling out paperwork and start talking to each other.
“So, what got you caught up this morning, Hideaki?” Sakura chittered, still trying to do some work that probably would be abandoned the moment I started talking.
“Nothing interesting, just got distracted.”
“What kinda distraction? You see another rose and get chased by another bee?”
“That was one time, Miss-I-can-totally-make-that-jump. You couldn’t fill out paperwork for two months.”
“Low blow, Hideaki.”
“Same to you.”
“Guys, don’t fight.” Dawa muttered through his tea cup, putting it down ever so often to blow a gust of hot air over it. “Let transgressions be transgressions.”
“Wow, great job diffusing the situation, Grandpa.”
Dawa let out a small hmph, then took another sip of his tea.
“Please, be mature you two.” Duo Xing looked up from her pile of papers, her long gray hair pulled back in a severe-looking bun today. She met my eyes, hers dark black, sharp, and cold behind her glasses. “Besides, I remember the time you both tried the cinnamon challenge. You’re both equal idiots.”
Next to her, Tiriaq started dying of laughter, slamming a fist on the table and covering his mouth. I shot him a dark look, but he only kept laughing harder.
“S-sorry! Too- Too funny! The look- ahahaha!”
Most people tell me that Tiriaq means ermine, but most of the time, Tiriaq looks like a damn weasel. And he’ll act like one too. He might be Water Tribe, but he’s Northern Water Tribe, and I’ve seen how they raise their politicians. The product is sitting right in front of me.
“Wow, how nice of you, Tiriaq. Do I need to remind you that out on the internet, there is a video of a certain waterbender saying ‘watch this you idiots!’ and promptly slipping on a wave of ice?”
Tiriaq turned bright red, and Sakura’s look of satisfaction could be compared to the cat that caught the canary.
“Well- I was younger! You two are-”
“Young adults that did stupid things when they were younger. We’re all on equal footing, Tiriaq. Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s three-thirty and I have a train to catch so I can go home and try to fry the stupid out of my brain.”
Though we all talk unprofessional like this on the regular, Tiriaq still balks at me, while Sakura cheers slightly. She immediately clamps a hand over her mouth at the harsh glare Xing gives her.
As I’m leaving the building, I hear hurried clacking coming after me, and I turn quickly to see Dawa behind me, screeching to a halt and catching his breath.
“Sorry- You left this behind.” He pulls my handkerchief from his sleeve, and I take it graciously. Dawa is the head-shaven monk of our group, widely regarded as the vice leader of Air Temple Island. Someone once told me that he’s a descendant of the almost legendary Tenzin, and considering his sharp yet zen nature, I would believe it.
“Uh, say, Dawa?”
“Do you happen to know an Aagneya?”
For a moment, his face is in a blind panic, but only for a fraction of a second. He settles quickly, face a little hardened but not completely cloudy.
“I do, actually. Why do you ask?”
“I met him today on my way to work. He said to come for him at Air Temple Island, but…”
“We all know it’s a mess on the weekends. I do know him, and the shrine he serves.”
“Could you tell me which one?”
He sighed, fidgeting with his sleeve.
“Can I be frank with you, Hideaki?”
“I can’t really tell you that. I imagine that Aagneya told you to meet him at Air Temple Island for good reason. It could easily be passed off as coincidence, meeting you. You come by sometimes to deliver the odd paper-”
“How would he know about that?”
A moment of silence passed before Dawa spoke again.
“Hideaki, you are a kind person. You’re new, as well. Only five years.”
“So, you should listen to this advice I give you, and heed it. Do not get involved with Aagneya. I will not lie and say that he is a difficult person, nor a bad one. But I’m telling you now that Aagneya has something important in his future, one that I cannot have interfered. If it is, I cannot even begin to describe what disaster it will spell.”
“Does he have some connection to the spirit world?”
That flash of panic spread across his face, and didn’t leave this time. “Yes. A very important connection. He’s been helpful to us. It’s been so long since our connection was severed, and I cannot stress enough how important Aagneya is.”
Something was fearful in his eyes, the way they opened wider, how his face was scrunched, concentrated. I could almost see his heart pounding against his robes. Dawa is never shaken, never scared. What could he fear about me?
“I understand. I won’t try to seek him out, then.”
“Thank you, thank you. I’m sorry, I know that I have no explanations other than spirit world shenanigans, but trust me, one day you’ll see why.” And with that, he went back into the building, hurrying away just as he came.
I’d never been more confused in my life. I’d read the trope of “stay away from him or her”, but drawing the obvious conclusion made no sense at the time. Instead, I walked away dazed, to catch my train back home.
When I get home, the first thing I do is kick off my shoes. My jacket goes on the coat hanger next to my other ones, my briefcase follows me to the main room, where it rests on my coffee table. I undo the bun at the top of my head, letting the rest of my hair fall down. It’s cooler in my apartment, and my hair is especially thick. Besides, lords used to pull their hair half in a bun, half down. It’s confidence building. When I looked back at my ancestry, I found some relation to nobility somewhere. I like to think that my great-something grandfather would wear his hair like I do.
After sitting on the couch for a few minutes, letting my feet rest, I get up again, pulling out my tupperwares and rice cooker. I don’t make the best food, but what I can make is good enough for me. My rice cooker is filled with rice and water, and I quickly set the cook time. Then it’s on to the meat. I chop it up, never cutting myself. Big butcher knives don’t really cut. It’s more like they amputate.
I grab the rice cooker when it beeps, unplugging it and placing it next to my bowl. Rice goes into it, then the mix of leftover vegetables, then the meat. I pull out some of the leftover marinating sauce and drip it over the meat, then go to sit down at my table.
On nights like these, I feel lonely. I sit alone, no one to talk with, no one to share my meals with.
I’m lonely, all the time. It’s the same routine, day in, day out. Sure, I’m on the council, and sure, I have good money and a nice apartment, but I always feel…
I always feel… Hollow. I have small beauties that I collect, like the pressed roses and other flowers in my books, the dresses, coats, shirts, and other pretty clothing in my closet, but it all feels like noise. Just a buzz that satisfies nothing. I love everything I collect, don’t get me wrong, but it always feels like it isn’t enough.
Sometimes I think of getting a pet, or maybe going out instead of staying in my home all the time, but I’m a creature of habit, and I don’t like changes.
I fiddle with my chopsticks, absentmindedly moving food around. When I snap out of my thoughts, I quickly hurry to eat my food. It’s six, and there is one person I always interact with at least once per day.
Right on time, as I walk out the door, I see her at the bottom of the stairs, already waiting for me. Her soft, wrinkly face looks gentle in the pure white light, almost as though it were dusted from her geisha days. Ms Cheng is the old lady who lives right above me, and when I first met her, coming home late and seeing her struggling with her groceries, something called out inside of me. So I helped her up the stairs with her bags, and it’s become routine for us to talk as I help her, and for her to invite me to her apartment. It might be getting out of hand. She keeps buying me my favorite ice cream.
“So, Ms Cheng, how is your garden doing?”
“Wonderful. I think my beans are coming in soon, the pods look almost ready. Would you like some, sweetheart?
“If it isn’t any trouble, ma’am. Do you have any more sweet potatoes?”
“A few. I was thinking of saving them for when Dao comes home, though.”
“Oh, then you do that. I swear, he eats more of them than Bai does.”
“Well, Bai has begun to enjoy more than just sweet potatoes and beans. I know that I should be buying from the store, but he just loves the meals I make for him. I can’t switch him over to kibble for the life of me.”
“Have you tried?”
“Afraid not. I don’t want him to be sad.”
“He’ll be fine ma’am. Flying bison feed has all the nutrients he’ll need. He might be tiny forever, but he still has to grow.”
“Of course.” I opened the door, and I let her inside first. After that, it was unpacking the bags, plastic and paper alike. Most of her groceries are meat and vegetables she can’t grow, alongside most fruits except for the berry shrubs she has outside. Bai comes floating over, nuzzling my leg until I reach down to give him a head rub. He then floats over to Ms Cheng, who grabs him out of the air and cuddles him for a moment. She only puts him down when he makes a lunge for her peach bag.
“Now what did I say about peaches, Bai! You’ll choke on the pits if you aren’t careful!” She wags her finger at him, and he only lets out his ordinary groan. A small bubble of laughter floats up, and she turns to me, giving me an exasperated expression.
“It’s the second time this week! He has to stop trying to eat my peaches!” She puts him down, and Bai slowly floats away, likely to sulk.
“Or you can cut them up for him.”
“Oh, I’ve tried. He likes them that way, but he’s terribly impatient, even for a flying bison. I thought I was getting a docile, fluffy, angel. Really, I let a disaster into my home.”
“He’s a good boy, though.”
“Usually. How have you been, Hideaki?”
She carefully poured our cups of tea, and as per usual, not expecting an answer until we sat down. Her old futon couch is a relic of the old ascent period, and it’s still soft and incredibly clean. I make sure that there’s a coaster out for my tea, and she takes her comfy armchair, smiling at me.
“I don’t really know. I feel like… Do you ever have those moments where you feel like everything’s just the same, all the time?”
“Quite a bit, actually. It comes with old age. But you feel this way, so I might not be much help.” She took a sip of her tea, then placed it on the coffee table. “I remember a time when I was around… maybe thirty? It was about the time I met my husband. I was a broke art student, and I felt like I was just devolving into my office job and feeling like the day just kept repeating. And then, of course, I met Yuuri right after that period of my life. Maybe it’s a sign.”
“Sort of like the calm before the storm.”
“Exactly. A massive upheaval, possibly. Things are about to change. You can almost smell it in the air.”
“All I can smell is this gunpowder tea.”
She chuckled, and Bai floated over softly, landing on her lap. She scratched him behind the horns, and the little bison let out a small, satisfied groan.
“Maybe not smell it, but I can feel it. Something’s about to happen in your life, and maybe it’s just because I’m close to you. You don’t really have that same spicy scent to you today. It’s more… like fresh cotton. Or clean silk.”
“Interesting. Is this about that aura kick you’ve been on?”
“It’s not a ‘kick’, Hide. It’s a real thing, back from the ancient days. There was time where you could find face-stealers, or a Hei Bai, just right out in the woods!”
“The spirit world isn’t real, Ms Cheng.”
“Really, now? Back when I was a young woman, back in the age of Korra…”
“Oh, quite. You want to hear it, I presume?”
“Definitely. Your stories are always entertaining.”
She pulled her blanket off the back of her chair, pulling it around her shoulders. Ms Cheng cradled the tea cup in her hand, leaning back against the chair.
“When I was twenty, there was a lady named… Kuvira. Kuvira. She was invading Republic city, and well, she obviously didn’t succeed. But even though I don’t know any of the major details, after this epic battle against Avatar Korra, there was a rift. A hole, you may call it. It’s still there, though they’ve built a sort of… research facility. But back in the day, you could see it all the way from Airbender Island. Maybe even further, out in the coast. It was a gigantic beacon of yellow in the sky. I wanted so badly to enter the spirit world, but I never had the chance. I hear that Avatar Korra and her wife entered it many times, and always came back safely. But maybe that was because of the avatar…”
“So it really does exist? And you’re certain it’s no hallucination?”
“Quite. If you’d been there, seen it like I had, you’d believe me too.”
“Well, it might take some pushing and shoving…”
“I would never push you to believe something you do not. You are your own person, Hideaki. If you choose to believe what you can only sense with your eyes, ears, hands, mouth, and nose, then I am no one to stop you. But this world…”
She turned, looking out the window. In the darkness of night, you could see thousands of lights coming on from apartment buildings, shining like many stars in the sky.
“I believe that this world is still magical.”
Even though I listen to people, I am a curious soul. I have rarely been to Airbender island, and if I am caught, I can merely pawn it off on sightseeing on my days off. Besides, Dawa is usually in his office under another mound of Airbender Island related paperwork. He won’t come looking for me, especially if I make a specific request to the white lotus guards.
Air Temple Island, now called Airbender Island by the locals, is the current hub of airbenders and Aangism followers. It’s an ancient marvel, completely uninfluenced by the Republic City architecture. You can see the old airbender style of life just by walking around the many streets and pavillions. It’s usually crowded on weekends, mostly for prayer services for the monks and for the temple leaders to meet. There’s about a hundred different temples in Republic City, all following different sects and styles. Most follow the orange robe style, (once again, I do not know the formal names) while the next most followed is black robe style. They have the same founder, same prophet, but a different style of doing things. The orange robes have government funding from some archaic law that works in their favor, and are quite rich because of it. But they donate generously to the poor and other honorable causes. Though some higher ups might be corrupt, they are dedicated to follow the path their founder set out.
And the black robes are somewhat opposite. They are not funded by any major group other than some culture preservers and benefactors around the city, and thus they collect alms. I know that if you give more than ten RCU, you’ll get a small card of artwork. I have a little collection of them, as they’re always beautiful, and I make sure to give every black robe I see a good ten RCU while I’m out and about. They may not always follow the message their founder game them, but they certainly believe that they must follow the meaning his life gave.
Though the black and orange robes usually butt heads over the whole Avatar subject, they work together, and it’s often that you’ll see a pair of black and orange speaking with each other on Airbender Island. As usual, most of the acolytes and monks are meditating around the front courtyard. Most of them are the newbies, since the place, although tranquil, is bustling with activity. Only the higher-ups get the small pockets of quiet on the island.
It’s quite a challenge to try and find someone on Airbender Island, as Dawa isn’t content to do paperwork in his office. I’ve had to go on Dawa hunts before, and he’s always in the least obvious place. Once, I found him in a giant fridge, all because he insisted the buzz was soothing, and it was pleasantly cool. Though he is a weird man, he’s good at his job of keeping religion out of politics, except for himself.
But it isn’t as challenging to find Aagneya, even though every bald head looks the same to me. After checking a few of the main buildings and leaving offerings where I can, I find a prayer hall. People sit, meditating in almost complete silence, save for the wind blowing through. From down the hall, however, I hear soft singing. A strange, haunting melody, one that nobody reacts to but me.
I slowly make my way to the hall, avoiding loose boards and other things that would make noise. Candles still sit on every available surface, lighting the way. As I walk down the wooden floor, the tune gets louder, more beautiful, more enchanting.
As I see the open door ahead, I slow down, not pressing against the wall, but instead peering inside.
In the small room is a group of higher-ups. They watch the singing, sitting around the room or standing. In the middle is a circle of candle shelves, all the flames slowly drifting with wind.
And in the middle stands Aagneya, singing to himself as he moves the flames with a gust of wind. It’s haunting, a somber tone, and lyrics I can’t make out. It’s likely the old language of the Air Nomads, but I can’t be sure.
As I watch, entranced, I suddenly see Dawa in the room as well. He catches my eyes, but says nothing. I can see fear glance across his face again, but he seems resigned to it, as if to say “you brought this upon yourself”. I can’t understand the look. It makes no sense in the context. What can be so important about an airbender undergoing what must be a part of a path to becoming a master airbender? Well, besides it being a closely guarded ritual, but after an investigation years ago, I already know about the trials of it.
Eventually, however, the singing stops, and people begin to leave. I mix with the crowd, trying to make heads or tails of Dawa’s look. I stop in the main courtyard again, sitting at one of the stone benches made for guests. I ponder, looking around at the beautiful stone gardens and heavenly trees. I rest my chin on the end of the bench, an ornate stone lion. My hand absentmindedly traces the features. All I can think is that I wish I’d taken a picture. It was beautiful. One of the most beautiful things I’d seen.
“I had a feeling you’d be here.”
I look up, expecting Dawa and being promptly shocked. He’s standing in front of me, a straw hat hanging around his neck. Aagneya. It’s strange that I was able to remember his name, as I forget easily.
“Well, I was in the neighborhood.”
He laughs, sitting down next to me. “You take a ferry over here. I’m certain that you weren’t just ‘in the neighborhood’.”
“What can I say? I was interested.”
“Fair point. So, apologies that I didn’t have much time to introduce myself-”
“No, it was my fault. I was on a tight schedule and I shouldn’t have stopped.”
“Well, you might not have met me.”
We sat there for a few moments, my hand still tracing over the lion’s face.
“So, you said that you’d tell me where your shrine is?”
“Oh, right.” He rifles through one of his sleeves, handing me one of the small art cards. In the light, a silver name shimmers.
“Yes. It’s fairly easy to find. Somewhat close to the old statue of Fire Lord Zuko.”
“Not very. But I’m looking forward to seeing you again. I have to go do more things here, but I’m always at the temple on weekdays. If you have any spare time, I can teach you how to properly meditate.”
“Are you sure that you have enough time for that?”
He smiled, looking at me with some strange serenity.
“I always have time for a new friend.”