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The Element of Freedom

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"It's a hoax," said Tenzin. "Remember that time you wanted to go to Lake Lagolai to see the monster there?"

"It's unkind of you to bring that up, Daddy," said Jinora with dignity. "But since you have, do you remember when you refused to believe that Meelo had invented fartbending?"

"That wasn't skepticism. That was sheer bloody-minded denial."

Jinora raised her eyebrows meaningfully. Tenzin shrugged and sipped his tea. The rest of the family continued to eat their breakfast.

"Hey, Jinora," said Mako, "if you're done with the paper I want to check--"

Jinora clutched the newspaper to her chest. "You're the leader of the Air Nomads! One of the four great nations of the world! Don't you think you have a responsibility to at least investigate?"

"I have a responsibility not to encourage this kind of sensationalism," said Tenzin firmly. "Otherwise Air Temple Island and Republic City could be falling apart around our ears while I travel to every remote village where any star-struck set of stage parents thinks they can land themselves on the radio with a claim of spontaneous airbending."

"It's not some remote village. It's the Northern Air Temple. I've been reading the Legend of Aang—"

"We know," said Ikki, Meelo, and Korra, all in a chorus.

"Aang visited the Northern Air Temple," Jinora went on, undeterred. "He found people making their homes where the monks had lived a hundred years before. He said they flew."

"That's just machines, sweetie," said Pema. "Like airships, or biplanes. They can't make you an airbender."

"I know that. But neither can—look, we take in anyone who wants to be an acolyte, right? It doesn't matter what nation they come from." Jinora turned back to Tenzin, appealingly. "You always say that bending comes from the spirit. The original settlers of the Northern Air Temple came from the Earth Kingdom. But their spirits might have grown in different ways, mightn't they, living in the place our ancestors built? Living in the sky?"

Tenzin looked, for a moment, struck by her argument. Then he shook his head. "No," he said. "And that's final, Jinora."


Korra was loading luggage onto Oogi, feeling particularly virtuous. After all, she was being helpful and practicing her airbending. Tenzin kept telling her that her control still needed work, and maybe it did, but there was no need for that long-suffering look on his face when he deflected a particularly heavy package from the course she'd set it on. It probably wouldn't have hit him in the head. Very hard.

"Cheer up!" she said. "Look at it this way. You could really use a vacation, right?"

"That's what I said," said Pema. "I already have Rohan to wake me up at all hours of the night; I don't need Tenzin tossing and turning and muttering about the council this and the United Forces that." She settled the baby on her chest and took the reins. "Yip yip," she said, and Oogi rose into the air.

"The United Forces!" Tenzin exclaimed. "Korra, if you hear from General Iroh, let him know that—"

"I've got it covered, big guy," said Korra. "Don't worry about a thing."

"This," announced Jinora, "is a great day in Air Nomad history."

"If there are any cute guys at the Northern Air Temple, I'll let you know!" Ikki called.

Meelo didn't comment, at least not verbally.

"Have a great time, you guys!" Korra shouted. "Bye!"

As they disappeared from sight, Korra thought a stray breeze brought her a message, in Tenzin's sourest voice: "Have many children." But she might have been imagining that.


Teo sat by the window, and dozed. Or at least he thought he did. It was hard to tell nowadays; dreams drifted into waking and back so seamlessly, he wondered if he'd notice when he died. It was surely coming soon. He wasn't afraid, he found. It was only untying the final tether that bound him to the earth, and setting his spirit free.

A bison flew past the window. Definitely a dream. Aang was dead. Had been dead for . . . anyway, there had been a hawk with a message, Teo remembered that. Even during his life, Aang's visits had been infrequent; the Avatar had many responsibilities, and many friends. But he never forgot. Once Teo had given him a camera, his daughter Mara's masterwork, which had secured her place in the guild. On his next visit, many years later, Aang had brought back photographs of his own children.

The Northern Air Temple had helped build the modern world, but the modern world had passed it by. There was no radio reception up here. Master Mechanist Jin had drawn up plans to string telephone wires up the mountain—plans of such elegance you wept to read them—but the younger guildmasters had voted him down. The wires, they said, would interfere with the air currents. When had that become the most important thing?

Maybe it always had been. Teo was too old to fly now, but he still remembered the feel of air beneath his wings, the way his stomach would plummet when he dropped into a dive. He never felt crippled then. It was the people who crawled along the ground who were held back by their bodies. Trapped.

A girl burst into the room. Mara? No. Her name eluded Teo like a leaf borne on the wind. "Granda! Mama says to tell you the airbenders are here!"

The airbenders? Definitely a dream. There were no airbenders anymore. They were gone.


Sun got to be in the front ranks of the landing platform—right up with the Master Mechanist—when the bison landed. She would have been a lot more excited about it if she hadn't known perfectly well why that was.

Her baby brother Jo could raise a breeze just by waving his hands. But it wasn't even enough wind to fly a kite, so what good was he? He still wet the bed sometimes. He was nothing special.

But the trader who'd come up from the lowlands last summer had just about fallen down frothing at the mouth when he'd seen Jo and his friend Dafu passing an eddy back and forth in the air between them. And now these strangers were here, riding a creature out of legend. The tall man with the tattoos was appropriately scary, but the lady was downright ordinary-looking, and the rest of them were just kids. Sun's parents bowed and called them "Your Excellencies."

Then they urged Jo forward, and Dafu's parents did the same. For a minute, it looked like the boys wouldn't do anything but look down and shuffle their feet, but soon Dafu pushed a puff of wind at Jo, and Jo pushed it back, and the tall, tattooed man's jaw dropped.

"That's incredible," he said.

The girl standing by his side—the one who wasn't much older than Sun—grinned smugly and said, "Told you so."

"Jinora, why don't you go exploring like Ikki and Meelo?" said the lady.

Mama got Sun by the elbow and pulled her forward. "My daughter will be happy to show her around. Won't you, Sun."

Sun looked in Mama's face and decided she'd better pick her battles.

"I'm Jinora," said the girl.

"I heard," said Sun. "Come on."

Sun took Jinora home—a pretty nice place, because Mama was a guildmaster. But Jinora said, "Your whole family lives in these four rooms?"

"Yep. My parents, Granda Teo, me, and the snot." Sun looked sideways to see if prissy Jinora would object when she called her super-special airbender brother the snot, but Jinora was already poking her head into Granda's room.

"Teo is your grandfather? I've read all about him in the Legend of Aang. I've got so many questions—"

Sun pulled Jinora into her and Jo's room, before Granda could call her by the wrong name, or fall asleep in the middle of a sentence. "It's his naptime. Don't bother him." Granda Teo could be a pain sometimes, but he was Sun's grandfather, she didn't want Jinora laughing at him.

"Okay . . ." said Jinora, but her eyes still went shiftily to the doorway. Sun looked around for something to distract her with.

"Check this out." The harpoon-crossbow was new, and Sun's treasure, she'd threatened Jo with a thousand deaths if he laid a hand on it, but she guessed sacrifices had to be made. For hospitality. Jinora held the bow wrong-way-round, and seemed completely baffled by it, but at least she was being careful. "You should see the way this baby catches pigfalcons on the wing. Totally smooth, and it only needs one hand so I can steer the glider at the same time." Sun mimed shooting. "Zip. Pow. Dinner."

Jinora almost dropped the bow. "You eat meat?" she squeaked.

"Of course not. You see any herds of antelopes up here? Pigfalcons are birds."

"Birds are meat," said Jinora.

"How do you figure?" said Sun.

Sun didn't know how anyone could be so stupid and live. Jinora looked at her as if she were wondering the same thing. Finally Jinora said, "I'd like to see your glider, though."

"Yeah, okay," said Sun. "It's in the hangar."

It was a short walk from Sun's place to the hangar. Usually. Usually she didn't have an annoying airbender from Republic City tagging along behind her. Sun showed her the murals, and Jinora squealed, "I read about these in the Legend of Aang!" Sun showed her the statue of the Spirit of Engineering, where apprentices left bunches of foldwing before they presented their journeyman projects. Jinora told her it was really the Lady of Infinite Compassion, and offered to recite an epic poem about her. As if the Spirit belonged to Jinora, who had only just seen her, and not to Sun, who had lived with her all her life. When they reached the hangar, and Jinora said, "This must be where Aang and his friends—" Sun snapped.

"Will you shut up about your stupid grandfather stupid Aang!"

Jinora's face scrunched up in anger. At least Sun had wiped the smug look off of it. "He was the Avatar! And he was a hero! He traveled the world helping people!" Jinora dropped her eyes, crossed her arms over her belly, holding the elbows lightly. "And everywhere he went, people liked him."

"Huh," said Sun. "He must not have been a prissy little know-it-all like you, then."

Jinora's eyes got very big and very bright, and then she turned with a sob and ran away.

"No, wait—" Sun called. If her parents found out about this, she was in so much trouble. And Jinora, she found as she pelted after her, was running straight to the guild council room. Stupid, stupid, stupid . . . .

Sun skidded as she ran into the council room. Jinora was standing in a corner, sniffling quietly now, unobtrusive. It was going to be Sun who all the guildmasters saw, and yelled at for interrupting their talk. Only they didn't. They were paying attention to Jinora's dad, who was being tall and bald and glowery at them.

"The boys are airbenders," he was saying, "and there's only one place in the world to learn airbending. I assure you, we'll take good care of them on Air Temple Island—"

"What." Now everyone did turn and stare at Sun, but she didn't care anymore. "You can't just . . . just fly into people's air temples and take their brothers! I don't care how many flying bisons you've got. You may think you're some big excellency from Republic City, but you're just a . . . a thief. A guest who thieves. You're like—" Sun tried to think of something worse than a guest who thieves. There wasn't much. "You're like Firelord Sozin! It's people like you who start wars!"

The guildmasters were still staring at Sun, but they didn't yell. Mama looked . . . sneakily approving? Thieving Tenzin looked stunned and confused. "That doesn't even make sense," he said.

"Actually, Daddy." Jinora's voice was a bit wobbly, but she met his eyes, and the guildmasters', without any sign of fear. "I read in the Legend of Aang where they were going to take Aang away from Monk Gyatso, and move him to the Eastern Air Temple. And that's when he ran away, and that's why he got frozen in an iceberg for a hundred years, and that's why he wasn't around to stop the war. So what Sun's saying makes perfect sense."

Mama nodded, definitely approving. The other guildmasters nodded too. Tenzin sat down.

Well. How about that.


Pema had just been looking for a quiet place to nurse Rohan, because when there were lots of people around he got too distracted to eat, and there were always lots of people around in the Northern Air Temple. It was odd, the contrast between the close quarters they all lived in, and the vast expanses of cloud and mountain just beyond the windows. Rohan had fallen asleep, and she could go back to the guest quarters where they were staying, but she leaned back on the bench and savored the quiet a little longer, as well as the incredible view.

The curtain of the alcove where she was sitting twitched. Well, it had been nice while it lasted. It took Pema a few seconds to recognize the face peering in at her. It was the mother of one of the airbending boys, not the guildmaster, the other one. Hua, that was the name.

"Your Excellency?" said Hua.

"Just Pema. Come, have a seat." The expression on Hua's face was one that Pema was intimately familiar with, usually from people who wanted a political favor but were afraid to approach Tenzin directly. "What can I do for you?"

"Teach my son airbending," Hua said, quick and intense. That was a new one.

"I'm not a bender," said Pema.

"I've seen you with your family. You're a good mother. You'd be good to Dafu, too, wouldn't you?" Hua looked down at her knotted hands. "Take him with you, when you go."

"I'd understood that wasn't what—" Pema shook her head. It had been a long day. "What does Dafu's father say? And Dafu himself?"

"Dafu's father says . . . I may be right, but he won't publicly go against the guildmasters. And Dafu would understand someday. I know he would."

Pema rearranged Rohan on her breast, so she could lean forward and lay a hand on both of Hua's. "If that's the way it is, I can't help you. You must have known that before you asked."

Hua looked out the window, at the clear brilliance of the stars, more stars than you ever saw in Republic City. "When I was a girl," she said softly, "my mother took me down the mountainside. She was a painter, and she was gathering ingredients for her pigments. It was a warm day. I took off my shoes, and I felt . . . I felt the being of the mountain beneath my feet. It seemed like something alive, not hard rock, but something I might shape. I was a lazy girl, grownups were always telling me. Where other children ran, I walked, or whined to be carried. But that day, I felt such energy filling me . . . I never told anyone. I had no words for what I felt—I was only a year or two older than that one on your breast. It was more than a season before I went down to the mountain again. By that time, it was dead to me. The connection between us had been lost."

"I'm sorry," said Pema.

"But there is nothing you can do. I understand." Hua rose from the bench and bowed. "Good night, your Excellency."


"Why can't we stay longer?" Meelo said.

"What," said Tenzin, "haven't you fallen out of every window in this place yet?"

"There are eight thousand five hundred and sixty-four windows in the Northern Air Temple," Ikki informed him. "Meelo's only fallen out of a hundred and three of them."

"A hundred and six," said Meelo.

"It doesn't count if you're pushed," said Ikki.

Jinora was sitting on one of the windows in the guest room they'd all slept in. She wasn't reading a book, which was normally the only thing that would have stopped her from joining in a squabble with her brother and sister. Tenzin came up and laid a hand on her shoulder. "I know you must be disappointed," he said.

"Disappointed, why?" said Jinora. "I was thinking of what Amon said, when—when." Tenzin supposed that he must have squeezed harder than he meant to, when Jinora brought that up. The children seemed to have recovered better than he had.

"I'm sorry," he said. "I don't mean to make you feel you can't talk about it. Go on."

"He was wrong," said Jinora. "Even if he had taken all our bending away, even if Korra hadn't been able to get it back. There would still be airbending in the world."

"Yes," said Tenzin, "that's true." There was no need to tell her about the conversation Pema had repeated to him last night. The cases were not exactly the same; maybe when the boys were grown, they would seek out Air Temple Island themselves. And maybe it wouldn't be too late.

They managed to pack their belongings without Meelo falling out the window more than five times, and then they headed out to the landing platform where Oogi had slept. The Master Mechanist and all the guildmasters and their families came out to say goodbye. They seemed friendly, despite Tenzin's earlier diplomatic missteps—that was thanks to Jinora and her obsession with the Legend of Aang, surely. The Master Mechanist bowed and thanked them for their visit, and Tenzin bowed and thanked them for their hospitality. Then Jinora stepped forward.

"Master Mechanist, guildmasters, and people of the Northern Air Temple," she said, "I too thank you for your hospitality, and I ask you to continue it. I want to stay. I'll teach anyone airbending who can learn, and I'd like to learn about your way of life."

"Awesome!" The girl who'd spoken so fiercely against Tenzin yesterday burst from the ranks of the guildmasters and hugged Jinora. Jinora's eyes went wide and startled for a moment, and then a huge grin spread across her face.

She'd . . . never really had a friend her own age, had she.

"I've always wanted a sister," the Air Temple girl said. "This is gonna be great."

The Air Temple girl's mother, the guildmaster Mara, stepped up beside her daughter. "It would be our honor to welcome you to our family, Jinora. And you can teach us about the authentic traditions of the Air Nomads as well."

"Well . . . ." Jinora shrugged sheepishly. "Our traditions were put together based on the memories of a twelve-year-old boy, and whatever random documents escaped the Fire Nation. I don't see that they're much more authentic than yours, when you get right down to it. I'd be happy to teach you! And maybe our people will be one Air Nation again someday. But it won't be the same."

Pema adjusted the baby and caught Jinora to her tightly. "Sweetie, next time warn us before you do something like this."

"Sorry, Mom." She looked nervously at Pema, and then over her shoulder at Tenzin. "Is it okay? Can I stay?"

"I think your grandfather would have approved," said Tenzin. "You can stay. But I'll miss you."

"Don't worry, Jinora, I'll keep Meelo in line for you," said Ikki. "You're too easy on him anyway."

"That girl thinks having a sister is gonna be great," said Meelo darkly. "She'll see."

"I'll miss you all too. I'll write you lots." Jinora's eyes were sparkling with excitement. "Did you know I'll have to do it by messenger hawk? They don't get telegraph up here, because the wires would interfere with the air currents."

"I can see this is going to be an educational experience for all of us," said Tenzin. "As long as you're not eating meat the next time I see you."

"Of course not!" said Jinora. "I'll give bird a try, maybe."

Pema intervened before Tenzin could do more than sputter. "Don't tease your father, sweetie." She kissed Jinora's forehead. "I love you."

"I love you too," said Jinora, as her family boarded Oogi and took off. Tenzin could see her waving until the Northern Air Temple was a speck in the distance. Even then, he thought a stray breeze brought him a message: "They just smell really tasty, okay!" But he might have been imagining that.