Chapter 1: first avatar
Chapter by MerryArwen (lalaietha)
Senna swims out to the new island because her cousin says she's too cowardly to do it. She swims out there, and her heart pounds the whole time, and it's hard to breathe around the salt-water, and at one point she almost starts crying in terror when the waves get really rough and she's not sure she can swim through it.
But she does.
It's not smart. With all the melting, with all the warm currents, it's dangerous out here, so dangerous that the Elders are starting to talk about needing to move inland. To start learning from the other tribes how to hunt for land animals, instead of fishing from the Ocean, the way the People were meant to.
Every time she hears them talk about that (when she sneaks out of the summer-tent and down to the gatherings, hiding in the shadows and wishing hard that no one will notice her), Senna feels sick. The People are supposed to live with the Ocean. That's how it is. That's how it should be. But even the benders, the ones who control the waters - even they can't make the Ocean safe enough now.
Some of the elders are saying that the warmth is the fault of the benders, anyway. That humans aren't supposed to be able to use that kind of power. That the benders have thrown everything out of balance, and if the People just got rid of them, things might go back to normal.
Senna's pretty sure that's wrong. But they say it even louder now that there's an island where no island should be, covered by plants nobody knows, sitting outside the inlet.
Senna keeps dreaming about it, the kind of dream that almost feels like a memory. Dreaming about going out to it, and of a great light there. When she tells her cousin, Turik laughs at her and says she'd never have the guts to swim all the way out there, by herself, so she should always know it's a dream.
That's when she snarls at him. That's when she strips off her leggings and her summer-weight coat; that's when she ignores his shouts and takes a running dive off the lowest of the little cliffs and hits the water - the too-warm water - with a shock, like a knife. That's when she starts swimming.
But now that she's close, there's no shallows; now that she's close, she sees the island has to be floating, and there's nothing, no way that she can see, to get out of the water and onto the island. And she's tired, far, far too tired to swim back.
Now Senna stares at the island, tries to tread water against the waves well enough to stay afloat and to stay in the same place, and tries to stop crying.
Until under the water, something moves. Until under the water something touches her feet and then (as she shrieks and then cuts off the sound) pushes up, closes around her, like the pull of a song-crab net, and then lifts her out of the water.
It's soft. It's warm under her body. It has fur like a seal, wet and oiled. Senna struggles to her feet and then falls over, as it moves; struggles to her feet again and holds onto one of the - one of the huge claws, that's what's arched over her, huge claws in a vast paw, oh spirits please be kind - and tries not to shiver in the air that's cold on wet skin and hair.
She falls over again when the massive claws open, leaving her on the flat of the paw, and looking into the eyes of a leviathan. Numbly, awed, Senna realizes it's not an island. It's the creature's shell. The island is the creature's back. She stays where she fell, staring, with her mouth open, as the head rises further out of the water and looks at her for a long time.
You have come, it says, at last. Senna can't tell if the voice is in her ears and so deep and great that she feels it in her bones, or if the creature is speaking right into her spirit. It doesn't matter. Whichever it is, her entire being resonates with the words. It is good.
Chapter 2: sky burial
Zhara is, of course, the first person brave enough to stamp her way into the wreckage of the forest. The trees look exactly like the time that her brother stamped his way through her carefully constructed wooden model town, or a little bit like what might happen if a rhinelephant picked up every chair and chest in a house and threw them all in one big pile. Some of them are uprooted, some split halfway in the middle and ripped apart, jagged stump pointing accusing fingers at heaven. Smaller branches, wood-chips and stripped bark are everywhere.
After climbing over the first pile, Zhara stops, digs her feet into her stance, and bends a wall of rock on each side, ripping up soil and shoving the once-forest-now-firewood away from the raw, bare earth in the middle. She'd never do it in a living forest, because it would kill everything in her path, but here, this really isn't an issue. And she hates splinters. And her hands smelling like resin and sticking to things forever and a day.
Then she pulls her jacket around her tightly, and walks down the middle of her self-made hall, refusing to be terrified of what she's going to find on the other end. This works about as well as refusing to be terrified ever does, and she's in serious danger of cracking a tooth she's clenching her jaw so tightly. Even she has to stop and take a deep breath before she steps out of the hall into the clearing she'd been making for, and even she half-expects to find a corpse she doesn't want to see.
Yangchen isn't dead, though. Zhara can tell, because dead people don't generally stay upright without something to prop them up, and the figure in nun's robes and tied-back hair is holding something in her lap instead.
Zhara knows what it is before she gets much closer. It's hard to look, anyway. The body has the weird, awkward angles that tell anyone who knows these things that most of its bones are broken. There's blood here and there on yellow and orange cloth. Yangchen's face is bruised, composed, and ghost-pale.
Without saying a word, Zhara crosses to Yangchen's side and sits down beside her. Pulls a few handfuls of grass. Waits.
"All life is sacred," Yangchen says, almost a whisper.
"You've told me that before," Zhara replies, non-committal. "As far as I remember, I pointed out that nobody seemed to've told the platypus-bears and wolf-bats that yet."
Yangchen doesn't say anything.
"Or the water-buffalo," Zhara goes on. "Who make sure they trample sabertooth-lion cubs to death before they grow big enough to eat water-buffalo calves.
"We're human," Yangchen says. "We should be able to find another way."
Zhara pulls up another handful of grass. "Sometimes the bad guys don't give us another way, Yangchen. I love you; you know that. And you know, maybe you're right. Maybe he is more worthy of pity than hatred. I don't know, you're better at being a better person than I am, and you know that, too. But he wasn't going to stop as long as he was alive, and none of us were strong enough to lock him up forever. That's just how it is. And you know, if his life was sacred, everyone else's - all the people who weren't, you know, plotting the complete destruction of the world and drowning the earth in fire and ice and blood and whatever the fuck else - theirs are, too. And sometimes, you don't get a third choice." She sighs and scrubs her face. "Trust me. I'm a physician, I know these things."
She's not sure if it would have been easier for her partner if the dead man in her lap had been, oh, Fire Nation or Earth Kingdom or Water Tribe, instead of one of her own. It can be hard to tell, with Yangchen. Whose face is wet now, and starting to crumple.
"Who am I to make such a choice?" she asks, in a voice that starts to break up.
"The person who's got so much power she has to," Zhara says. It isn't kind, but it's true. She pushes herself to her feet, steps a few paces away, and then takes her stance to open up the earth and make a grave.
"No." Yangchen's voice stops her. "That's not how we do it."
Right. Zhara knew that, too, knows it: the Air Nomads and their sky burial, letting everything that belonged to the world go back to the world and let the spirit free. She frowns. "You realize that if we leave him here, those people back there are going to - well. They're pretty angry, Yangchen. I think everyone in the world except you is pretty angry. The things they'll do to his body aren't nice."
Yangchen stands up and reaches with slightly battered hands into her robes, to pull out a whistle. "I know," she says, and puts it to her lips to make the sound only her bison could possibly hear. "So I'm not going to leave him."
The idea of hauling the corpse of a murderer and would-be world-destroyer all the way to some mountain-slope somewhere so the vulture-wasps and the foxes can eat it does not appeal to Zhara in the slightest, but she keeps her mouth shut. It's not the first time she's thought the monks and nuns were crazy and it's almost certainly not going to be the last - and she's done worse things out of love, and specifically out of love for this crazy woman.
Her left knee still twinges every now and then to remind her.
"Okay," she says, with a sigh, as Amma appears on the horizon, heading towards the ground. "Fine. We'll take the body to somewhere safe, and then we're going to find somewhere really nice to stay. With hotsprings, or a bath, and some clean cloth I can use to bandage you up. Then you're going to rest. Don't argue with me."
Chapter 3: mistake
Koh laughs at him. It echoes through the Spirit World and it scrapes like a bone knife.
In his head, rattling like a bone-splinter in a drum, Kuruk can hear everything he's ever known, everything he's been taught, everything he's found out about the Face-Stealer. Agent of balance, his mind whispers at him, his memory. And very old and very powerful and malicious and willful and cruel. But agent of balance comes back again and again. It comes with guilt and it comes with disgust. With Ummi's screaming. With loss. With hate.
Koh's laughter is everywhere, and Kuruk knows it's because Kuruk can't remember what he neglected, which balance he broke.
Chapter 4: letting go
Chapter by MerryArwen (lalaietha)
When the itch on Kyoshi's knee got so bad that she couldn't, just could not ignore it any longer, she gave up and scratched it.
Dani sighed and went for her teacup. The tiny, wizened old woman drank more tea in a day than Kyoshi thought any decent person should have room for, and as she rubbed at the itch she stared resentfully at the tiny, delicate movements of tiny, delicate, wrinkled hands over tiny, delicate pot and cups.
Everything about the old woman was tiny and delicate, from her body to the clothes she wore to her soft, half-whispering voice to the furnishings and decorations of her house, and all of it made Kyoshi feel like a giant hippocow trying not to knock the whole place down. Even the decorations on the textiles were all tiny and delicate, fragile blossoms and limbs of trees, birds and phoenixes spreading out of fine gold leaf. Everything was beautiful, nothing was solid, and Kyoshi wanted absolutely nothing more than to go home, right now, and give the whole Avatar business up to begin with.
She'd never say it aloud, would rather die and would die of the embarrassment if she ever did, but the truth was it didn't seem fair. She'd mastered her elements. Through patient hard work and care, she had learned the secrets of fire, and of air, and of water, and of course her own earth. Fire had been easy, air maddeningly hard, water tricky, but they'd all yielded to the same thing: persistence, dedication, and (to be honest) a certain amount of stubbornness. Kyoshi was proud of that. She'd earned all of them.
That should have been enough, Kyoshi felt. It covered everything. Four elements, mistress of them all, there's your Avatar. Yet here she sat, on a woven mat in a house like a doll's box, trying (and failing and failing and failing again) to wend her way out of this world and into the spirit-world, and getting absolutely nowhere. If Kuruk hadn't been busily using every dream possible to harass her, and hadn't dragged her into the place when she'd been ill, Kyoshi would have insisted that the spirit-world really had to be the brain-sick imaginings of a lot of overly credulous fools.
And even if it wasn't, the last person you'd expect to get you there would be this tiny, frail, entirely ordinary merchant's-widow in the middle of Ba Sing Se. But this is where Kuruk had aimed her, and when she'd said so he'd rolled his eyes. There are plenty of spirits in cities, he said. Dani has her reasons.
Now, the old woman lifted up her tea-cup and said, flatly, "Girl, you cannot beat your way into the spirit-world. It isn't a door you can pound on until it gives way, or blast open with a gale, or burn down, or smash with a tidal wave."
Kyoshi resented the "girl", but the woman was supposedly over a century old, and called everyone "girl", "boy" or "child". Dark eyes fixed on her and narrowed, and then she sighed again.
"Child," she said, "does it not suggest something to you that the last time you managed to step over the threshold, you were in the grips of a powerful fever?"
Kyoshi said nothing, waiting to see where this meant to go. She hated playing the woman's endless question games.
"You are far too attached to control," Dani said, sipping her tea and then putting the cup back down. "Normally, I'm told, the earth-Avatars are the worst for it, but most of them have to let it go when they try to master air - you, on the other hand, seem to have just managed to redefine 'control' and get around that. But there's no 'around' in this. There is only 'through', and you can only get through if you're willing to let go."
Her hand came down sharp, flat and so sudden on the tiny carved table that Kyoshi actually jumped. She went on, "Power isn't everything, Avatar. Sometimes it's nothing at all. And don't glare death at me, Kyoshi, I've been glared at by professionals, and you aren't one." She flicked a hand. "Go kick some things around. Come back in an hour, and we'll try again."
The outburst was unusual. It hadn't occurred to Kyoshi that this might be frustrating the old woman as much as it frustrated her. Without thinking of much to say, she stood up, bowed, and took herself out of the house into the garden.
Chapter 5: dreams of others
Roku woke with the smell of ash clinging to his breath, and the feeling of a body, limp with death but still warm with life, in his hands. He threw himself out of bed in one sudden movement, throwing off the blankets and making his way to the basin of water on the low table across the room.
As he splashed that water on his face, he knew that he'd been crying in his sleep. And behind him he heard the sound of Ta Min moving, and saw the faint glow of a lit lamp. He tried to remember where he was, no, tried to remind himself that he was here, in his own house, on his own island beside his own wife, and that there was no (what? no what? had it been a war, or a disaster, or what? it had been so clear, but it was already fading, all except the smell and the feeling of weight in his arms . . .), there was nothing like . . . whatever he'd been dreaming.
Ta Min came to lay a hand on his shoulder. "Whose dream was it this time?" she asked, in her quiet, calm way, as if the sound of her voice was echoing from mountains reaching down into bedrock.
"What?" he said, feeling stupid and rattled. He looked up at her, and her eyebrow raised, her voice turning dry.
"Well I don't think you know anyone named 'Dani' well enough to be calling out the name in your sleep and crying," she informed him. "At least not in this life. So I don't think it's unreasonable to deduce that you were having a memory-dream from one of your other lives, do you?"
Roku shook himself. He wiped the last of the water away from his face with his hand, and stood up. Ta Min's hand trailed down his shoulder until he caught it and squeezed her fingers gently. "It must have been," he agreed, or admitted. "But I don't remember."
"Hn," Ta Min said, giving him a long, speculative look. "Well. Alright then. If you're all done throwing the bed around?" she asked, turning gently teasing, "We should probably go back to sleep."
"Yes," Roku agreed. "I'm sorry I woke you."
Ta Min waved that away. "You can bring me tea in bed tomorrow," she said. "To make up for it."