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[Nov. 22] [Avatar] The long game

Title: The long game
Day/Theme: November 22 - softness, compliance, forgiveness, grace
Series: Avatar: The Last Airbender
Character/Pairing: King Bumi, (unnamed)
Rating: PG

King Bumi often liked to speak of 'thinking outside the box.' What most people never realized was that getting outside the box was just the start. You had to keep on going, keep on dodging and wriggling and looking for new ways through, until you finally managed to get yourself outside the outside. Once there, you still didn't stop. You kept on going from outside to outside until eventually you cam so far around that outside became inside again, and you were back inside the box with a new understanding of how the whole thing worked.

So in a sense, although he was locked away his metal coffin, King Bumi was the freest man in the entire city of Omashu, and perhaps in the entire Earth Kingdom. He had no commitments. He had no appointments. He had no responsibilities.

He thought, and he waited, and he fought entire wars--past and future--in the wide open plains of his mind.

The future wars. Yes, those would be difficult, he though, placing mental Pai Sho counters on his map of the world. A stylized comet hung in the sky. A symbol of the moon hung poised to move in front of the sun. Yes, Bumi knew about these things, and he knew that Aang knew. His old friend would figure out what to do. Bumi nodded in satisfaction. His tests proved that the boy had the necessary flexibility.

King Bumi just hoped Aang would figure out in time that beating back the Fire Nation was just the bare beginning.

The mental counters moved, the board was rearranged, and the Fire Nation was defeated. The balance of the board shifted and for a while, all the colors were in balance. Bumi could even see room for the Air Nomads in there, assuming any had survived.

He looked at the board and frowned. Yes, the next moves would be very tricky, but he had laid his groundwork well, and laid it long ago. He turned to another place in his mental map, a place thirty years past, when the Fire Nation armies were poised on the edge of retreat outside the walls of Omashu.

"In a good game of Pai Sho, the key is to achieve balance," Bumi told his guest. "Yes, you want to win, but there's winning and then there's winning."

The young man on the other side of the table looked at him askance. Perhaps it was due to Bumi's mismatched eyes. Perhaps it was because the young man's legs were shackled, one arm was cuffed to his chair, and instead of interrogating him, this crazy old man was teaching him a board game.

"Oh, don't give me that look, you young whippersnapper. I'm doing you a huge favor, and you don't even know it."

The next few moves--both on the board and with the prisoner sitting opposite him--would prove to be crucial.

Back in the future, Bumi watched as green and blue counters filled not only their proper places, but started to push beyond, pushing back at the red.

"Grudges are a powerful thing, Aang," Bumi said as if his old-young friend were in fact there. "I'm a hundred and twelve, and believe me, I know how long they last. Longer than I will, I fear."

The Avatar's job was to maintain balance. Yes, the board had to be put back into equilibrium, but it had to be kept there as well, and that would be the tricky part. For many people, revenge was far more appealing than balance.

But Aang had accepted the idea of neutral jing, and that was a start. It would help him to understand that it was often harder to be soft than to be hard.

The Fire Nation soldier extended his free hand and made another move. It was a good one, but Bumi countered it with the White Lotus tile, and waited.

"You just won," the young man said, disbelievingly.

"What do you mean I've just won?" Bumi snapped. They'd been playing every night for the past three weeks, the king and his prisoner. Playing, and talking. Sometimes, Bumi wondered if the other man knew just how many games were being played, here. "How could I have won? We've only made three moves each?"

Quietly, the Fire Nation soldier traced out the next ten or so moves. "It could go a few different ways," he said, "but whether or like it or not, you've got me boxed in."

He seemed to accept his loss graciously, unlike the first few times they played. Bumi's advisors had been quick to write off the broad-featured, thick fingered noble as an idiot who'd been promoted to a command position solely due to noble birth. Bumi, on the other hand, had gone outside the box, and outside again, and had ordered his servants to bring him the Pai Sho board.

"Good. You're thinking ahead." Bumi nodded in satisfaction. "But you're still not thinking far
enough ahead. Now let me tell you a few interesting facts about water benders," he said, rearranging the counters into a wave pattern.

Aang would need to find allies in the Fire Nation. Not just power-hungry hotheads who wanted to replace Ozai for their own benefit, but people who understood their nation's role in the balance. Bumi could tell Aang all of this, but the boy needed to learn for himself that the Fire Nation was not only something to fight against, but also to fight for.

"You'll find your teachers soon enough, Aang," Bumi cackled. "And you'll have your work cut out for you, oh yes you will..."

The Pai Sho pieces snapped down onto the board, balancing each other even as they opposed each other. The pattern of the counters almost, but not quite, formed the shape of a flower. Bumi grinned, and his guest shifted uneasily, perhaps unnerved at the sight of those uneven teeth. Or perhaps he was unnerved by something else.

Uneasiness aside, he seemed to understand the concept of balance, and was showing signs of putting aside the notion of 'victory at all costs' that had infected the Fire Nation and its children.

"That's the trick," the Fire Nation noble said cheerfully. "Thinking ahead twenty, even thirty moves." He'd lost again, but that was all but immaterial. His gamesmanship was nearly perfect, and that was as good as a win to a true afficionado of the game.

Bumi laughed, cackling, insane. "Twenty or thirty moves?" He laughed so hard he started coughing. "Boy, I'm not just thinking about what I'll be doing in twenty or thirty
moves. I'm thinking about the next move you're about to make in a game you're playing twenty or thirty years from now!"

He pushed the White Lotus tile across the table to his opponent. "Take it." And then, "I have a story to tell you about that tile you're holding. Would you like to hear it?"

The Avatar would have to lead the people of the Water Tribes and the Earth Kingdom not just to victories, but to acts of forgiveness so staggering that they seemed nearly impossible. But if he didn't, Bumi knew, the world would soon be locked in a vicious parody of balance in which the scales of power tipped this way and that like a ship in a foundering sea.

"You can't win peace through war, Aang," Bumi said (it was lonely in that metal coffin, and if the only voice he could hear was his own, so be it). "Winning the war and stopping the fighting are two very different things. I hope you can figure that out."

Surrendering Omashu to Ozai's men was hardly the first step in shattering the cycle of pain before it began. Bumi had been playing this game for years.

"What do you mean you're exchanging him for two of our lieutenants! Why would you do such a thing?" Bumi's chief advisor was livid. That was fine. Bumi kept him around more for entertainment purposes than actual advice, and his face turned an interesting shade of purple when he was outraged.

"Lieutenant Xie owe me money. I can't get it back if he's a prisoner of the Fire Nation," Bumi said simply, and watched as his advisor flustered anew. "Besides," he said, waving his hand to dismiss all objections, "it's always nice to practice these random acts of kindness, don't you think?"

Truth be told, he would miss his guest's company. The young man had a long way to go, a very long way, but he had made the first moves, and Bumi had a good idea of what the board would look like in twenty or thirty moves, and what it would look like in twenty or thirty years.

"Random acts of kindness! The man you just released is Fire Lord Azulon's oldest son! Sire, do you have any idea of the kind of advantage he could bring us?"

"Yes. Yes, I do," Bumi said, for once deadly serious.

The reports he had received confirmed that he had played his game well. There were several ways the board could turn, but he had set a pattern that would be very difficult to break. If his young protégé didn't seek out the Avatar and teach him about what the Fire Nation could be, then perhaps his protégé's protégé would.

It was a funny old world he thought, as his mind once again rearranged the piece of the future and of the past. Who ever would have imagined that you could gain victory through surrender, or justice through forgiveness? And who ever would have thought that an old man could find freedom in a small metal box?