Chapter 5 - Corrective Actions
They were well into late winter when the instruction focused on turning points in Air Nation doctrine derived from Air Nomad teachings. Tenzin was teaching several groups together in the main lecture hall. It was an open discussion. Tenzin asked, "Class, when was the crucial moment in the Avatar's life when he made the fundamental discovery that family life and spirituality were inextricably linked?"
That produced a wide range of discussions, including several flip answers, including Aunt Wu's prophecies, which elicited a sneer from the Master air bender.
When all the answers, all wrong, were on the table, Master Tenzin said, "While all but a few of these answers are plausible – irrelevant comments aside - it was when he was with Guru Pathik, and realized the dilemma of two chakras, each telling him to so something different."
"He fully embraced the Air Chakra – the third - when he learned his love for his lost people was re-manifested in his love for Master Katara. He balked at giving up that very love and his earthly attachment to her to unlock the seventh chakra – the Thought Chakra."
"This huge misunderstanding between the Guru and Avatar Aang greatly delayed his transformation to a fully realized Avatar, because he didn't open the Thought Chakra for fear of losing her forever, something he was not willing to do."
"Frankly am very glad that Avatar Aang needing to give up earthly attachments wasn't permanent," smiled Tenzin.
The class all snickered knowing full well Sifu Tenzin wouldn't even exist if that had been true.
"He didn't learn until defeating Ozai that releasing the Seventh Chakra to attain and control the spiritual Avatar State and serve the greater good of humanity in times of crisis and urgency was something needed only once and awhile. In his normal every day responsibilities as Avatar he could live a normal human life, which included family and spirituality. That was the defining moment."
Pema raised her hand and had a serious look, "Master Tenzin, I would differ with your answer. It is actually when Avatar Yangchen told him in a vision on the Lion Turtle: 'Many great and wise Air Nomads have detached themselves and achieved spiritual enlightenment, but the Avatar can never do it because your sole duty is to the World. Here is my wisdom for you: selfless duty calls you to sacrifice your own spiritual needs and do whatever it takes to protect the World'."
Her fellow students were shocked at both her argument and her exact quote from memory. She went on.
"Nearly everyone thinks that Avatar Yangchen's advice just applied to Avatar Aang when he was seeking to the right answer to defeat Fire Lord Ozai. It actually dawned on him then that his duty was not to achieve perfect spiritual enlightenment as Air Nomads were taught. He learned that his duty to the World was in fact to be more than just spiritual, and in fact to be part of the World, whicg meant to love a woman and raise a family in order to continue the Avatar Cycle. More importantly, he realized that all of his race after him must be committed in the same way. It is the fundamental reason why we are the Air Nation and no longer Air Nomads."
Tenzin was not used to being challenged by inexperienced students, "You are incorrect, Pupil Pema. We have taught the Guru Pathik Chakra Axiom for years."
Pema got more annoyed, "Then with all due respect Master Tenzin, you have been teaching the wrong answer. My father talked with Avatar Aang about this specifically, and that is what he told him."
A nervous silence descended over the lecture hall.
"So, Pupil Pema, you suggest we take your father's word over 50 years of learned scholars' writing otherwise?"
Pema's eyes narrowed to slits, and her lower lip stiffened and jutted out. She was absolutely livid. She crossed her arms across her bosom tightly.
She asked tersely, "You would suggest, master Tenzin, that my father was lying?"
Tenzin was startled at the accusation, and his face flushed a darkening red from the top down. He was speechless for the moment as his anger built, but he tried to remain stable, "The scrolls would say that your father was…erm…misinformed."
Students within three rows of Pema suddenly wished they were sitting on the other side of the classroom from her.
Pema could barely remain calm and ground out her words, "I would suggest, Master Tenzin, that we consult the original source. Avatar Aang."
Tenzin gripped the edges of the podium, leaving fingernail marks, and he started to wind up in an angry rebuttal, "Pupil Pema, that is absolutely preposter-!"
And then he caught himself. That actually was a great idea.
He cleared his throat, "Pupil Pema, I meant to say that is an absolutely perfect idea. Let's ask him."
Tenzin noticed that her angry expression hadn't changed a bit. Whoever coined the phrase 'women are cute when they are mad' had never met Pupil Pema.
Tenzin sent a messenger to call his father into the classroom, and chafed every second without him there. After a few minutes Aang entered, and he could sense two tempers at the boiling point, and a classroom of students who were otherwise living in fear.
He took one look at Pema's unchanged scrunched up facial expression aimed directly at his son, and was very glad he was not on the receiving end of that expression. He mused, "What was it about the fact that the only two air benders in the World were attracted to strong-willed women?"
Tenzin explained the argument so far to his father, relieved that he didn't have to continue to lock gazes with an angry woman.
Aang chuckled to try to defuse the tension, "So we are at that part of the lesson, are we? The essence of my struggle with my love for Master Katara and my duties as Avatar. It seems so clear now. To a 12 ½ year old boy who was experiencing love for the first time, it sure wasn't then."
Everyone laughed nervously. He made a dramatic turn and said to the class, "It is as Pupil Pema says. I told her father myself."
Tenzin's jaw dropped. Pema's face went from angry to shocked. She looked at Tenzin, who bowed slightly in deference to her as a silent apology. She melted a bit, not expecting that.
Noting the exchange of looks between them, Aang continued, "As I reflect back, I realize that Avatar Yangchen changed my state of mind so that it allowed my 7th chakra to be unblocked by that lucky rock. It released all the pent up energy in me that Katara couldn't uncoil in therapy on the ship at Chameleon Bay."
He smiled, "I had always meant to tell the scribes about that, but just never got around to it. Old age it seems is creeping up on me a bit. Thank you Pupil Pema, for helping me to correct that long standing inaccuracy in the texts."
Pema was not just shocked by the kindness of Avatar Aang, but even more shocked when normally infallible Tenzin said sincerely in front of the entire class and his father, "My apologies to you Pupil Pema, for doubting your word, and unjustly criticizing your father. I know your father and my father were good friends, and they shared much together, perhaps yet more than is recorded for history."
Aang teased, drawing the collective laughter of the students, "Some stories are best left unstated."
To the class Tenzin said, "This is why we have open and frank class discussions. To get to the truth and ferret out untruths. We have seen that fulfilled today. Class dismissed."
Something between Tenzin and Pema changed at that very moment, something more than being professional colleagues and friends. Because Tenzin gave a personalized apology to her publicly, it gave Pema the confidence to think about Tenzin and she being more than pupil and student. Despite everything he wanted to have with Lin, and what he kept telling himself, he wanted to know more about this remarkable young woman who had dared to challenge him and his own beliefs, and was right about her convictions.
Pema hesitated enough to be the last one out. As she passed by Tenzin's desk, she glanced at an open letter from Lin on the back side of his desk, with a provocative picture of her attached. That actually strengthened her resolve. She stopped and said, "Thank you for everything you did today, Sifu Tenzin. I am sorry I got so angry."
"Not a problem, Pupil Pema. I was too self-righteous. You didn't expect that apology did you?" he grinned.
She flushed, but still spoke openly, feeling like she could now, "No Sifu, I didn't. Older Earth Kingdom men do not normally apologize to young women even when proven wrong. They are just so headstrong over everything. It's not in our culture."
"And so, younger Earth Kingdom men are more reasonable?"
She smiled and gave Tenzin an opening, "No, Earth Kingdom boys are so juvenile. I'll take my chances with older men. Of any race."
His heart soared with that remark. He took that opening. And for a moment felt no guilt at what this might be leading to. They were flirting and he welcomed it.
"Speaking of that, Pupil Pema, I live in a house full of older men and women. You haven't had a chance to have dinner with my family yet. I know protocol makes it so that you as the youngest student would be the last to visit, but that will be weeks away. I think we should get together sooner, say…later this week."
"That would be most kind, Master Tenzin," And so she left for her next class, but he couldn't see her smiling. She counted the hours until she would be at his home.
As she turned the corner, she ran straight into Lin, spilling all her scrolls and notes on the hallway floor.
"Pema! I'm sorry," Lin apologized as she helped Pema pick up all her study materials.
They stood awkwardly, with Pema about to depart, but Lin interrupted, "Pupil Pema. I need a word with you."
She nodded and whispered in respect, "As you wish. How may I help you, Inspector?"
"I realize you are very new here and unaware of what has happened in the past. Tenzin and I are together. We've dated for a dozen years and been friends since we were children. I would appreciate it if you would stay away from him other than as a student of his teachings," she warned.
Emboldened by the intellectually exhilarating encounter in the classroom with Tenzin, the excitement of her flight with him, and his early invitation to dinner with him and his parents and her acceptance of that, Pema spoke her mind in a way only an hour before she would have never done.
"Inspector Bei Fong. I respect your relationship with Master Tenzin, and I am well aware of it. But isn't true that you have dated over decade and are not fiancés? You have no right to exclude anyone from just being friends with Master Tenzin."
"I am not so sure that you are merely friends with Master Tenzin," Lin said with an intimidating look.
Pema gave her best haughty expression in defiance, "You presume too much, Inspector Bei Fong."
"It is my job to be suspicious of people's intentions, Pupil Pema. It prevents crimes of passion," said Lin with thinly veiled implications.
Knowing just what she meant, Pema kept a straight face without blushing or raising her voice, and announced, "I respect your opinion, Inspector Bei Fong, but my professional scholastic relationship with Tenzin is my own matter to become a better student. Speaking of which, if you will excuse me, I am going to be late for me next class."
Lin stared at Pema as she walked down the hallway, and Lin quirked one eye, and thought, "Unbelievable. This young girl actually stood up to me."
But at the same time her ears stung with Pema's words. Even though Lin loved another, Pema's words about the long-stalled relationship with Tenzin still hurt - because they were true.
Tenzin paced anticipating Pema's arrival. He felt very awkward. Somehow it felt like a date, when it should be just another pupil's visit to the family's home. He belonged to Lin; he couldn't think this way. Pema was a student. Aang and Katara could feel the unsaid anxiety of their son. Katara cooked up a storm of Air Nomad favorite recipe, and even a couple of Earth Kingdom favorites – both meat and meatless.
Pema arrived, and she was simply beautiful. She wore a long formal Air Nomad dress, with long sleeves and big cuffs. Her light brown hair complemented the dress colors. She left her shoes at the door. Tenzin noted how delicate – and perfect - she was.
After some idle chatting, they were about to be seated at the big square family table and mats, when she asked, "Where shall I sit, Master Tenzin?"
He showed her the normal guest spot, which was completely across the table from him, but she asked a little boldly, "Who sits here?" and pointed to the seat right next to him.
Katara quickly said, "That's his sister Kya's traditional seat, but she's had her own home for years. You may sit there."
Tenzin wasn't sure whether to be relieved that his mother settled that or to glare at her. He was very confused right now.
Katara offered her many food courses, noting the choice of the meat and meatless mix of Water Tribe and Air Acolyte cuisine. Pema responded. "Master Katara, I normally don't have meat any more, but this looks so good that I will try it. It smells just like my mother made for my dad. It was his favorite."
Tenzin was pleased at her answer - that she was normally a vegetarian, but he was also happy that she was polite to his mother as well, and would try the meat dishes of her culture. Lin and his prior girlfriends turned their noses up at vegetarian foods, and they didn't really care that much about his mother Katara. Lin's relationship with his mother was a bit strained, given both were headstrong women, and because Katara's friendship with Lin's mother Toph had its ups and downs too.
"Pema's not your girlfriend," he insisted on reminding himself, but he continued to be drawn to her.
The dinner conversation went very well, and they talked about the fun memories of her parents, about her childhood, growing up restoring the Southern Air Temple, and a million other things. Along the way, Tenzin found enough nerve to offer pieces of food for her to eat that he had to pass to her or feed her and so that got them very close together. Aang and Katara exchanged very happy glances, unnoticed by Tenzin.
Along the course of the dinner, Pema and Tenzin were so close together that they had to touch or brush up against each other. And neither drew back. In fact, underneath the table, she let him touch her crossed legs and her hand several times.
Normally they dismissed the pupils back to their dorm after dining, but Tenzin offered to walk her back to the dorm.
Katara and Aang hugged each other following the meal after Tenzin and Pema departed.
"It's happening," Aang whispered.
"But it's not Lin," Katara observed.
"It wasn't meant to be Lin, Katara," reflected Aang.
"So many years invested, Aang," Katara sighed.
"Better to have been so long so that Pema could walk into his life. What if all these disagreements between them had happened ten years ago and theirs was now a childless, loveless marriage?"
"As always you are right, Aang."
As they walked, he discretely reached for and held her hand. She let him. Her hands were so petite and soft. Nothing like Lin's. They stopped at the main door to the dorm. He tried to maintain formality, fearing being discovered as being more than a Sifu to her.
"That was very nice, Pupil Pema. I am glad we dined with my family sooner than planned," He grinned at her.
"Me too, Master Tenzin. It was a very nice evening," She smiled back.
"I would like to do that again. Soon."
She coyly teased, "I thought there was only one visit to your home per student for the first year? Especially with 50 students."
Without skipping a beat, he suggested, "You and I have unfinished theological business I would like to discuss further."
She played the game right with him, "Oh I see. Well then, we should put a priority on getting together again to resolve that."
"Oh. Yes. Of course. Saturday, after evening meditation?"
Pema saw a chance to ask a question that would never pass her way again, "Master Tenzin, may I ask you a personal question?"
"You are close to Inspector Bei Fong, right?"
"Yes. We are talking about marriage."
"Would she object to us being together like this?"
"This was just a social affair," Tenzin dismissed.
Peman smiled, "Begging your pardon, Master Tenzin, but this was more than a social evening."
She raised their joined hands to eye level to show him. But rather than drop their hold, Their grip on each other grew stronger.
Tenzin sighed and smiled back, "I suppose you are right."
He was stunned at her confrontation. Pema was right. A sixteen year old girl made him finally realize the truth. Pema was everything that Lin was not. Everything that Tenzin was seeking and wishing that Lin would be, Pema actually was.
They stood very close together, inched their lips closer together, and started to close the gap and their eyes, but then the door burst open and a bunch of students ran out in athletic attire to do some late night non-bender air ball.
They pulled back an instant before being seen.
"Hey Sifu Tenzin! Hi Pema. What's happening?"
"Pupil Pema joined my family for dinner."
"Oh yeah, well I know it was great! Master K is a great cook. See you all later." And they rushed off to the ball field. Pema and Tenzin's secret was safe.
"I really should be going," she said. Their special moment was lost. For now.
"Yeah, guess so. Good night," and opened the door for her. She entered, but kept looking back.
Tenzin walked away from the dorm feeling like he was walking on air, without even bending.
As he made his way back to his home, he saw Lin waiting in the shadows. He couldn't pretend that she didn't see everything.
"It's late Lin, what brings you here?"
She was distraught as she uttered, "You. Us. We have to talk."
Lin launched angrily, "That brazen little hussy is making the moves on you, in case you hadn't noticed. But frankly you've noticed her a lot, lately. Dinner tonight – way early. Flying. A theological debate in which you could have crushed her. But didn't. Holding hands, Tenzin. Holding hands. Do you think the Deputy Chief of Police wouldn't notice that?"
"I am afraid you have me there, Lin. I am sorry."
Lin bored in to Tenzin, "What else have you done with her that I don't know about?"
"Nothing other than that Lin. There is nothing other than a special friendship and professional respect. And if I may ask, when did you ever in a dozen years ask fly with me? When did you ever pet and love Oogie?"
Lin's eyes went wide, "Oh! So there is more! So despite all your high flying morals, Tenzin, have you slept with her yet?"
Tenzin's eyes went wide, but then narrowed at the accusation.
Lin would not let up, "I could arrest you both for under age relationships."
Tenzin spoke coldly, "The age of consent is still 16. Lin you are going too far! Stop it."
Lin's tone softened a bit, "No, Tenzin, I won't. I see a sweet young girl stealing you away from me and you don't even see it."
He was speechless. But had nothing to counter any of her accusations. He did like everything about being with Pema.
Lin's tone softened more, "It's over between us, Tenzin. Don't you see? You love her and you don't even know it. My seismic sense is just like my mother's. She could always here your mother and father's heart beat for each other, months earlier than they ever admitted it to themselves."
Tenzin retorted weakly, "Lin, no! I'm sorry…"
It surprised him to his core that it lacked conviction to fight back, she was totally right.
Lin interrupted, "But don't feel badly. I have something else to say, Tenzin. My heart belongs to another too. I have been meaning to tell you for a long time, but I didn't want to hurt you. You do have your father's kind heart."
Lin continued in almost a whisper, "I wish I could love you, but Tenzin, we are just too different. You can't be what I want you to be any more than I can be what you want. You aren't your carefree fun loving father, who I adore so much. And you, my stubborn old friend, can't mold stubborn old me into something you want either. Pema is perfect for you."
"Can't we work something out, Lin?" Tenzin suggested.
"Don't even try, Tenzin. It'll just hurt us both too much. And the two people we really love."
She was right.
"Goodbye Tenzin. My someone is waiting for me. Be happy with Pema the way you could never be with me. You are perfect together. You and I? Well, we're just like a comfortable old shoe. It feels good, but you can't do anything useful with it, and after awhile it just simply wears out."
"Good luck, Lin… " Tenzin said sadly, and tried to reach to her for a hug,
Before he could say or do anything further, Lin ran from Tenzin and would not let him see her crying. Even though this was the best for both of them, it still hurt.
In the depths of his heart, Tenzin tried mightily to justify running after her and consoling her. But instead he just let her go. It was indeed over. Perhaps it never really was. Maybe they just wanted desperately to be the 'storybook romance' because of their parents' own story. Tenzin knew as well as Lin did that not every fairy tale has a happy ending.
As she ran, part of Lin wanted Tenzin to chase after her, call her back, and sweep her into his arms, but she just couldn't bear it. She didn't need him to. She ached to get back to Tarrlok as soon as possible. Only in his arms could she bury the hurt in his tender embrace that would accept everything she was and wasn't without question. That's what was missing with Tenzin.
Tenzin stood alone, reeling with Lin's admission of there being 'Another Man'. He had no idea. He wasn't sure whether to be angry or relieved. He and Lin were done – just like that. Maybe the three decade friendship gone with it.
But then something else happened. Tenzin had the feeling that everything was now how it should be. He felt a great weight lift from his heart, and rather than a heavy heart that there should be from a breakup, he turned his thoughts to the girl he left at the dorm behind him. Pema was now the only thing he could think of. He had to admit that Pema was all he had been able to think about every since that first flight together. Only now, there was no guilt for Lin.
It all burst through. He was walking on air. Because of Pema.