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Title: throwing stones (dizzy with eternity)
Author: andromeda3116/cupid-painted-blind
Rating: PG
Characters/Pairings: Yangchen, a host of OCs, past Avatars.  I haven't written her yet, and I wanted to.
Summary: Yangchen isn't good enough for anyone but herself. It will have to do.
A/N: I've had a terrible week, guys, and there's two things that always make me feel better: writing fanfiction and listening to some oldies. I was raised on the Grateful Dead, and this song is the soundtrack to my youth, in addition to being a really good, really compelling song. I've also never written Yangchen or the Air Nomads before (I'm partial to the Water Tribes, honestly) and I wanted to give it a shot. In my head, Yangchen will always look like this art by Windy-Asylum. Also, why is this so long? This is only the first half of the story. I still haven't gotten through earth and fire (and I may not).

Also-also, I have so much head!canon about the past Avatars.  So much.
 


throwing stones
-- - dizzy with eternity
 

a peaceful place or so it looks from space / a closer look reveals the human race
full of hope, full of grace is the human face / but, afraid, we may lay our home to waste
 

zero. air
 

There's a hiding place on the very top of the mountains beyond the Western Air Temple, where the wind swirls in violent gusts and voices get stripped out of throats and lungs before words can form. Everyone knows about it, but no one goes there; even though air is their element, too much wind strips the world bare.
 

Yangchen likes it because of that. It's raw and sharp on her face and tears her robes around her. Her eyes water and she can hardly breathe. The wind up here is a hurricane, clouds scutter around her, beneath her and above her; it's frigid and breathless. The land-crawlers call places like this the "death zone" and "challenging" and they think it's a matter of pride to touch them. Her people know better and warn travelers away from the high mountaintops. They're only safe if you can fly away from them, they say, and even then, it's an unneccesary risk.
 

Yangchen likes unnecessary risks. It's not that she's got a death wish -- because she doesn't, not at all -- but because she loves life. She loves this feeling, this sensation, every nerve alive with cold and sharp pains from stabbing winds and every heart-beat loud in her body and in her head. It can only last for a few moments, but oh those moments remind her why she breathes.
 

She is fifteen, and she knows that something is different about her. The elders know, and the others are suspecting.
 

It's been fifteen years since Avatar Minako died. In a year, the new Avatar -- of Air -- will be revealed. She knows, somewhere deep down. She knows it's her. She can feel it in her blood, in her head, on her tongue and dancing on and under her skin; a power she can't control, a whirlwind she stands in the center of.
 

The elders have ways of knowing, but if they needed proof, it's here, it's the way she seeks out this danger, this wind. There's power here, and she's the only one who can stand in its presence and not be thrown from the mountain.
 

Wind is her element, she says when they ask. It's our element. It's only natural, she says, and everyone knows she's grasping at straws.
 
It's too much of their element. Only one person can stand that much power and not be consumed.
 

She has no peers in the temple; she's exceeded their lessons and breezed through their trials. But here, atop the mountain... here she is among her own. The ghosts of her people are swept up in this wind, buried in the air and carried off into the world; it's here, among the dead and among the violence of her element, that she feels most alive.
 
 
 




now watch as the ball revolves and the nighttime falls / and the hunt begins and the bloodwind calls
by and by, the morning sun will rise / but the darkness never goes from some men's eyes
 

one. water
 

Going to the Southern Water Tribe to learn Waterbending is a strange affair. The last Water Avatar -- a woman named Kali -- came from the South and her name is no longer spoken among her people. Yangchen has heard her story, told with venom and spun as a warning tale, what can happen when an Avatar becomes attached, loses her impartiality, and lets her heart rule her mind.
 

Kali was a murderer, they told her, used the Avatar's power to get revenge, laid waste to a city and killed millions of people before disappearing into the North. Sixteen years after destroying the largest city in the Earth Kingdom and sinking it into the sea, Avatar Qin of Earth made his way to the Fire Nation. Kali was a murderer, and Kali was either murdered or committed suicide; either way, they tell Yangchen, either way she got exactly what she deserved.
 

Kali is what you cannot become
, the elders told her. There were concerns, when Qin died, that the problem was not in Kali, but in her gender -- that female Avatars simply couldn't cope with the stress. Qin in particular seemed to believe that women shouldn't have that power.
 

Minako proved him wrong. Minako was everything that Kali wasn't, everything that Qin wasn't. Qin was angry in his power, arrogant in his superiority, convinced that Earth was the strongest element. He was a strong Avatar, and forced the world back into balance. He was respected, but unloved.
 

Everyone cheered for Kali's death, and no one mourned for Qin's.
 

But Minako -- Minako of Fire was the Avatar everyone dreamed of. Even in the Water Tribe, people speak of Minako in terms of reverence. She was good. She was kind. She was the warmth and the glow and the healing power of fire without the violence or the destruction. She soothed the still-simmering tensions between the nations with the force of kindness and understanding. She organized a society of high-ranking men and woman and powerful benders to keep the peace between the unstable nations. She built a new capital city for the Earth Kingdom and helped the people choose a leader. She rode dragons and established schools in the Fire Nation. She built the Southern Basilica and united the scattered Water Tribes through trade. She was beloved by the entire world. She was perfect.
 

When Minako died, the world cried for weeks. How could there be another? everyone asked. How could anyone replace her?
 

When Yangchen steps off of her Sky Bison and walks into the Southern Basilica -- the most beautiful building in the world, they tell her, although she prefers the austerity of the Air Temples -- the people bow to her and smile at her with stained-glass faces. She is judged, and she is found wanting.
 

Because she is not Minako. And they worry that she will be another Kali, or another Qin.
 

She smiles brightly and introduces herself with all the cheer she can muster; sadness isn't her natural state, and neither is envy, but in this place, both hit her with the force of a hurricane.
 

The elders of the tribe remember teaching Minako, and all of the adults remember her coming in every spring to help build the Basilica. They have nothing but good things to say about her, nothing but fond memories.
 

Yangchen is a sorry replacement. Everyone says it with their eyes, and it settles on her shoulders like the snow. There isn't even a breeze here. She feels so alone without it.
 

The first night she spends in the Southern Water Tribe, she escapes her room and climbs to the top of Minako's Basilica, and waits for the wind to come. High places, she knows, there's always wind in high places.
 

But it's a still, cold night, even up here. She wraps herself in her robes and stares at the sky until her vision goes dark.
 

When she shakes herself awake, she's still on top of the Basilica, but there are lights dancing across the sky, green and blue, slithering like snakes. She gasps.
 

"It's pretty, isn't it?" someone says, and she turns. A blue woman is sitting next to her, dressed in Fire Nation clothes, looking up. "Everyone thinks I went to the tribes during the spring because it was warmer, or I had to be in the Fire Nation during the summer... I heard a lot of excuses. But that," she says, pointing up, "that's why."
 

"What are they?" Yangchen asks, and Minako shakes her head.
 

"I don't know," she replies. "There are a few legends, but every tribe has a different one. Ask. Ask everyone. They'll tell you all about them, and if there's anything people like, it's talking about themselves and their history. Plus, all the stories are interesting, and learning what people believe in will tell you almost everything you need to know about how to handle them."
 

Yangchen sighs and leans forward, resting her chin on her hands. "Everyone loved you," she mutters. "I'm not good enough for them."
 

"No," Minako replies slowly, "at the moment, you aren't." Minako doesn't look at Yangchen, so she doesn't see the ugly frustration on her face. "They only see you for what you aren't, and you aren't me. But you want to know something?" she asks, glancing at Yangchen with sympathy. "The same thing happened when I first left the Fire Nation. I was judged on the basis of Kali and Qin. No one wanted to teach me anything. I was the Avatar, and when I started, that was a curse. No one wanted the Avatar anywhere near them. Kali was a murderer and Qin was a dictator, and there was no one alive who remembered an Avatar doing anything good for anyone. It... wasn't easy."
 

"But you did it," Yangchen says, trying to let go of her bitterness, and failing. "You turned everything around. And now I... what if I screw it all up again?"
 

Minako pauses for a long moment, seemingly absorbed by the lights. "You won't," she says finally. "Do you know how I know?"
 

"How?"
 

"Because you just asked me that question."
 

--
 

Her first waterbending lesson is an embarrassment. She thinks she's doing so well at first, until the master points out that she isn't bending water, she's bending the air around the water. "Oh," she says, shoulders slumping, "I'm sorry."
 

Master clicks his tongue in disapproval. Yangchen thinks back on her Air Nomad philosophies, kill it with kindness, understand, empathize, anger solves nothing, peace solves everything... but it feels lacking. The teenager in her wants to fly off the handle and scream and rant and cry, the Air Nomad in her knows better, and the humming power of the Avatar under her skin just makes her tense.
 

She takes several very deep, very cold breaths, and bends a little breeze to wrap herself in.
 

"You're not here to bend air," Master snaps at her, jolting her out of her element. "You are here to learn water. When I taught Minako -- "
 

"With all due respect," Yangchen says sharply, "I am not Minako."
 

"I can see that," Master replies disdainfully.
 

"I don't think you do," she says softly, voice landing on the snow like a feather. She won't open her eyes, and prays that her bravery holds. "You look at me and you see Minako. You think that because her spirit is in me that I should be her, that I should do what she has done, be what she was. But I am not. I am Yangchen. I am an Air Nomad. I am not envious or angry or sad by nature, but the way you treat me makes me those things. I am already alone in an unfamiliar place, struggling to learn an unfamiliar element with unfamiliar people. Please," she says quietly, "please treat me as you would treat your own students, not as you would treat Minako."
 

She's very proud of herself, of her controlled, beseeching speech. Her Air Nomad elders would be beaming with pride for her peaceful attempt at resolution. But when she opens her eyes, Master is looking at her with disgust.
 

"You sound like a coward," he says contemptuously, and turns away.
 

--
 

Yangchen is the Avatar. Avatars do not cry. Yangchen does not cry.
 

She stands in the snowfields and bends whirlwinds around her until the biting wind pulls tears from her eyes. It isn't crying.
 

--
 

There are mountains on the other side of the Southern Plains. After a week of failed attempts to bend water, Yangchen makes her way toward them. She leaves Taki, her Sky Bison, back at the Basilica. Her airbending will keep her warm.
 

But distance is deceptive without any landmarks, and after hours of walking, the mountains are still brushing the horizon, although the Basilica has vanished behind her. She isn't lost, she thinks, because she's still going mountain-ward. She's just slower than she should be, or else the plains are larger than they should be.
 

The sun begins to set, and anxiety settles heavy on her shoulders. She blows a circle of snow out from around her and sits down on the cold, damp, black earth. She prods it with a finger but it's hard as rock; she wonders if there's any life anywhere at all under the plains, or if this place is as dead as it feels.
 

"Am I a coward?" she whispers to the dead earth. "Am I a failure?"
 

She had no peers at the Air Temple, and she has no friends in the Water Tribe. Wind is her only ally, but it abandons her when she needs it most.
 

"Am I alone?" she tries to ask, but her voice catches hard in her throat.
 

I just want to climb the mountain
, she thinks, staring at the fading horizon. I just want to feel the wind.
 

Her hands are shaking as she bends herself a little, warm whirlwind that doesn't reach out past her fingertips. The chill is setting into her bones; she's not so naive as to think she's invincible. She knows the danger. But Yangchen likes danger. She likes feeling alive as she courts death.
 

She loves being alive, she tells herself.
 

That's why she made for the mountain.
 

--
 

When she opens her eyes, it's to heat, light, the smell of cooking fish, and wordless humming. There's a fur wrapped around her and a fire crackling near her head. Part of her recoils in the animal pelt -- she's wrapped in a dead animal! -- but then she just feels warm. The humming is coming from the other side of the fire.
 

The person turns, but all she can see is the fuzzy shape of a body in a parka. "Tell me something, Miss Avatar, are you trying to kill yourself?" the shape asks, in the voice of a young man. "I mean, don't get me wrong, it would be pretty cool to go ahead and move on to a Water Avatar, because seriously, we need to fix our reputation, but that's another sixteen years, and I'm not sure Minako's policies will stick it out another sixteen years."
 

Yangchen tries to speak around the feeling of cotton in her mouth. Finally, she catches her voice. "I wasn't trying to kill myself," she croaks hoarsely. "I wanted to climb the mountain," she says defiantly, and then feels stupid.
 

"Which one?" the hunter asks. "That's a whole range, but it's in the middle of the continent. You're still pretty close to the coast. Did you think you could walk it?"
 

She already feels stupid, so she doesn't respond. The hunter laughs.
 

"Don't worry, Miss Avatar, I won't tell anyone. Besides, you wouldn't be the first. Lotta kids think they can do it, and pretty much everyone who visits the city thinks the mountains are close by. I've been asked more than once if I could take a family on a day trip to the mountains. You'd be amazed." He stops for a moment, turning the fish over with a knife. "Actually, considering that I found you out here, probably not. But hey, you're not the only one. Lucky I got to you, though. Word of advice: when you're out in the cold, keep moving. Don't stop and sleep, unless you want to die. 'Cause that's what'll happen. You die if you stop."
 

"How did you find me?" she asks, struggling to sit up against the heavy, thick feeling in the air. It's like she's trying to move through molasses.
 

"The wind," he replies simply. "It's been dead quiet the past couple of weeks, but there's a storm blowing in off the coast. If there's wind on the plains, it's either coming from the mountains or the sea. Never in a little tornado from the middle of nowhere."
 

"Oh," she replies, shifting nearer to the flame.
 

"Hungry?" the hunter asks, offering her a plate of fish.
 

"I don't eat meat," she answers, turning away.
 

"Must get hungry in the city, then," he says conversationally. Yangchen shrugs.
 

"I brought food with me. Mostly, I eat from the marketplace."
 

"Ah," he replies, and then comes over and sits next to her, landing hard on the snow. "But there's a problem. See, you've been out in the cold for a long time. Your body's sapped. All the energy you've got in you is working just to keep you alive. You can't make it back to the city. You can't even sit up!" She glares at him, and tries to prove him wrong, but still can't get through the molasses of the air. He wraps an arm around her and helps her to sit. "You need food. If I had fruits and vegetables, I'd give you some, but all I have is fish."
 

"So, it's eat the fish or..." she asks, looking wearily at him and trying to make out the face under the hood. "You carry me back to the city?"
 

"Miss Avatar, if I could carry you, my pack, and my catches back to the city, I would. But I can only take two. Without my pack, we'd both die. And if I leave the food, I'd just have to go back out later and hunt and fish again, which would be fine except there's a storm coming in. So if I leave the game and the fish, me and my family don't eat. You'll forgive me for not being exactly sympathetic to your eating habits. Eat the fish. Tomorrow, you can pray for its soul or whatever Air Nomads do, and thank it for its nourishing flesh."
 

She closes her eyes for a moment that turns out to be a little longer than she means. The hunter shakes her awake abruptly. "No sleeping," he says softly. "Remember what I said? Eat. You'll feel better."
 

"I've never eaten meat," she says thickly. "It'll make me sick."
 

There's a moment of silence from the hunter, and then he curses under his breath. "All right, all right. Let's try something else, okay? You're the Avatar? So you can firebend?"
 

"In theory?" she replies. "I haven't even started waterbending yet."
 

"Well, desperate times. All you have to do is shoot a ball of flame up in to the sky. A flare. I don't have any, but they'll alert the city watch to come to us. They'll have food, blankets, sleds, that kind of thing. Just a ball of fire."
 

"I don't know how," she insists, as the hunter struggles to help her stand. "I don't even have a clue. I've never even seen firebending."
 

"Well, it's firebend or die," he says coldly. "So bend."
 

She wavers dangerously, and he steadies her with his hands on her shoulders. She looks into the darkness of the hood, squints to see what's underneath. "Who are you?" she asks.
 

"I'm a person," he says. "My name is Atka. I'm from a village about a half-mile from the city. Bend!"
 

"I don't know how," she whispers. "All I bend is air."
 

Atka pauses, and then -- holding onto her with one hand -- reaches down and pulls a piece of what appears to be driftwood out of the fire. "Then airbend this up into the sky."
 

She blinks.
 

Yangchen looks hard at the wood, and then steps back, bending and bending and bending the air around the wood, trying desperately to lift the wood without snuffing out the fire. It only rises a few inches. Atka sighs heavily, and something within her sharpens into anger.
 

She is the Avatar. And the Avatar does not fail.
 

She stares at the fire flickering madly above her whirlwind, at the little stick of driftwood spinning round and round. All fire is, she thinks, is fuel and air and sparks. The wood is the fuel, the fire on it is the spark. All she has to do, she thinks, is turn the little spark into a big fire, and all that takes is air.
 

She closes her eyes and focuses in on the wind, on the movement, on the reactions dancing on the wood. And she breathes.
 

She doesn't have to open her eyes to see the fire grow lightning-fast, consuming the wood. At that moment, right when it's brightest and hottest, right before it's burned through its fuel, she shoves upward with the air and sends the brilliant, blue-hot cinder as high up into the sky as she can.
 

Atka stares up at it as it illuminates the clouds and then winks out, and then turns back to her. His hood has finally fallen back, and in the flickering of the firelight, she can see that he's hardly older than her. Against the backdrop of the fire, his eyes seem to glow blue.
 

He smiles at her, and her heart picks up its pace.
 

"That's more like it," he says appreciatively, and she smiles brightly before collapsing.
 

--
 

"Good morning!" a voice trills, right next to her ear. She jolts awake, to find herself in a powder-soft bed of furs (dead animals!) and looking right into a tiny brown face with gray-blue eyes. "Atka said you're the Avatar! Is that why you have such funny hair?"
 

"What?" she asks vaguely, reaching up to touch her head. Her hair, usually so meticulous, has fallen loose around her shoulders; she's felt self-conscious about it before, being in the Southern Water Tribe, where women don't shave the front half of their heads, and she's considered letting it grow in... she's considered trying to look more like normal women. "No, that's... I'm an Air Nomad, that's why."
 

"Oh," the girl says, crestfallen. "So you're not the Avatar."
 

"No, I am," she replies, sitting up and leaning heavily on her arm. "But that's not why my hair is -- where are my clothes?" The sentence comes out of her mouth almost before it reaches her brain, waking her up as it goes. She is naked. In a dead animal.
 

Horror rises in her, and she chokes back a scream. The little girl starts. "Your clothes were all wet from the snow!" she cries. "Mama said that they needed to dry, but Atka said that you didn't wear fur and that's all we had so I didn't put you in any new clothes, but then you would have gotten really really cold so I helped you into the bed and you've been asleep ever since. You said it was okay!" she cries, recoiling. Yangchen blinks several times, trying to make sense of things.
 

"I was awake?" she asks, running a shaking hand through her hair. "I'm sorry, I was just... startled, that's all. Are my clothes dry?"
 

"I'll ask Mama!" the girl wails, and runs from the room. Yangchen falls back onto the bed, arm over her face, and then jolts back up again. Dead animal. She's naked on a dead animal.
 

Before she can fully recover herself or decide what to do, the little girl comes back into the room with her brother in tow. There's a split second where their eyes meet and they're on the exact same page.
 

Yangchen shouts and jerks the pelts up around herself, and Atka shouts and bolts back out of the room. The little girl stands in the middle, looking confused.
 

"Mama isn't here..." she says slowly.
 

"Okay," Yangchen says, voice several octaves too high. "I understand. I'll wear the fur, if you have any that will fit me. Just... clothes, please."
 

"Yes, ma'am," the girl replies quickly, and rummages through a trunk until she finds a dress, and hands it over. "It's Mama's," she explains. "I'm sure she won't mind."
 

"Thank you," Yangchen squeaks, and pulls the dress over her head. It's too short and too loose around the chest, but the little girl goes back to the trunk and pulls out a pair of pants whose owner she doesn't identify (and Yangchen doesn't ask about). She pulls the pants on under the dress and... it works. It doesn't work well, but she's covered and not freezing, so she accepts it.
 

When she leaves the bedroom, she almost walks straight into Atka, who is staring intently at the ceiling. Yangchen, who by now is feeling a little less horrified, stands next to him and looks up. "Interesting stonework," she comments.
 

"Yesveryinteresting," he says in a rush, and doesn't look down.
 

"This is awkward," she says, in the same conversational tone. Atka coughs.
 

"Yep," he replies tightly. "Yep, it's awkward." They both nod several times, still watching the ceiling. Finally, as though he's been fighting to hold it in the whole time, he asks, "Do the tattoos cover your whole body?" he gushes. "I mean -- do they -- is that -- "
 

"They go down my arms and legs and back and -- oh dear god no," she cries, catching on. He turns to her, looking relieved, and then bursts out laughing.
 

"That's good, that's uh, that's good," he says, and continues laughing in a nearly maniacal way, like it's not really funny but he's scared to stop laughing. "I've never seen tattoos like that before. I mean, I've heard about them, who hasn't, but I've never seen them and I didn't know they went all over the body and are they always blue or do they do them in other colors?"
 

She wants to laugh, but at the same time, his fascination with her tattoos makes her a little sad. He sees her naked and all he talks about are the arrows.
 

"I suppose they can do them in other colors if they want to," she muses, "but the traditional dye is blue."
 

"That's interesting," he says, in a tone that says it isn't at all. She wonders why he asked. She watches him out of the corner of her eye; she thinks he's handsome, but then, she doesn't have many men to compare him to. "You, uh, you shouldn't go out into the plains alone," he tells her lamely.
 

"Yeah, I think I figured that out," she replies. "Thank you," she adds. "For saving me."
 

Atka shrugs. "I was there, wasn't I? Least I could do." He glances at her and smiles briefly, before rubbing the back of his neck. "Actually, I should be thanking you. I, uh. I was kind of lost myself. And I didn't have any flares, like I said. It's easy to get turned around on the plains."
 

"Then I guess we're even," she says simply, and holds out a hand to shake. He looks at it blankly. "You shake it."
 

"I know how -- " he starts, and then glares at her as she raises an eyebrow and waves her hand up and down. "Fine," he mutters, and shakes her hand. "We're even."
 

"Actually, not quite," she adds, still holding tightly onto his hand. She grins brightly. "You just saw me naked, and I haven't seen you naked. So I guess we're not even just yet." He looks surprised, and then slightly devious.
 

"Was that a request?" he asks, and her heart flutters in her chest. It was a tease, is what it was, and an impulse. She's never done this before. Instead of responding, she laughs and releases his hand.
 

"Just an observation," she replies, trying to make it sound enigmatic and mysterious. She thinks that her point is somewhat damaged by the ill-fitting clothes and messy, not-normal hair, but he laughs with her.
 

"By the way," he starts abruptly, "I don't know your name. I just know you're the Avatar."
 

She turns back to him, halfway out the door, and blinks. "Yangchen," she says, oddly taken off-guard. "I'm Yangchen."
 

"Yangchen," he repeats, tapping his chin. "Interesting name."
 

"It means 'melodious one,'" she replies, with a wry smile. "It doesn't fit me."
 

--
 

By the time she gets back to the city, she's been absent for three days. She half-expects an uproar, but the general bustle of the city remains unchanged. Atka shrugs at her and heads off toward the market to buy supplies, and so she looks up at the Basilica, trying to steel herself for this meeting.
 

Master looks at her when she walks through the doors, head held high, and she almost falters at the look on his face. It's not anger, or relief. It's annoyance. And she's confused, for a moment, until she remembers Atka's words on the plains -- it would be pretty cool to go ahead and move on to a Water Avatar because, seriously, we need to fix our reputation.
 

Anger lances through her with the force of a knife.
 

"I see you've seen fit to return to us. Or do you believe you've learned all you need to know?" he asks coldly.
 

"I'm -- " sorry, she's about to say, but then (you sound like a coward) she says, "I'm here to request a new waterbending master. If you refuse to teach me, or if you refuse to allow me to learn from one of your peers or even one of your students, I will simply make my way to the Northern Water Tribe. I see no reason to continue lessons with a teacher who sees no value in teaching me."
 

There's a long moment where they look at each other, not strictly glaring but just looking, looking with ice in their eyes, waiting for the other to melt. Master has over a hundred years of stubborn pride, something near a thousand students -- including one Avatar -- who have learned from him, and an entire city that he's the shadow-king of. All Yangchen has is self-worth.
 

It will have to do.
 

Neither back down. With a bow, she takes her leave of the South.
 

--
 

"You're going to reprimand me," she says, without having to look behind her. She feels rather than hears Minako's movement.
 

"Do you believe that you did the right thing?" the old Avatar asks. Yangchen shrugs.
 

"For the world? Maybe, maybe not. There are other Waterbending masters, but no one as good as he is. But... I had to go. For me. He didn't want me to learn. He wanted me to fail so that he could move on and teach the next Avatar. Nothing I ever did would have ever been good enough for him."
 

"Hmm," Minako replies. "I can't say whether you're right or wrong about him. The important thing is that you did what you felt was necessary. My aunt once told me a bit of advice that I always remembered when times were hard," she says slowly, sitting down opposite of where Yangchen is standing, ramrod-straight. "Don't compromise yourself," Minako quotes. "You're all you've got."
 

"I won't," she says quietly. "I won't grovel at any master's feet just because he's a master. They tell me that I have to earn their respect, but it works both ways. They have to be someone worth respecting."
 

Minako tilts her head, and then smiles. "Then I applaud you, Yangchen."
 

--
 

"Wait, you're leaving?" Atka asks, as she packs her meager possessions onto Taki's back. It's a long, long way north, and if she's being honest, she's starting to feel a little stupid, a little proud, even in spite of Minako's encouragement.
 

But not enough to turn and go back into the Basilica. Never enough.
 

"I am," she replies shortly. "The Master and I have both agreed that it would be better if I learn Waterbending from another teacher. But the other masters here all answer to him, and they won't teach me. So I'm going to the Northern Water Tribe."
 

"But none of the benders in the North are as good as the ones here!" he protests, and she shrugs.
 

"They don't have to be," she answers, pulling her hair back into its low ponytail. She's glad that she didn't let it grow in like a normal woman's hair. She isn't a normal woman. She won't act like one to placate others.
 

(Dimly, she's aware that she's being rash. But better rash than passive, she thinks. Better proud than groveling.)
 

"But -- " he starts, and she turns to him.
 

"Thank you, Atka," she says sincerely. "For saving me in the plains, and giving me a place to stay, and... for being my friend. It means a lot to me. I... I've never had a friend before," she admits, and then winces.
 

He looks away. "You'll come back someday, right?" he asks, and she smiles.
 

"Of course I will. I'm the Avatar," she adds, shrugging. "The whole world is my home." She tightens her packs on Taki's saddle and looks at her bison so she doesn't have to look at Atka. "I'll see you again someday," she says, and doesn't believe it.
 

"Right," he replies. And doesn't believe it.
 

--
 

She doesn't make it all the way to the Northern Water Tribe. As it happens, she doesn't have to.
 

There's a swamp on the fringes of the Earth Kingdom, hot and sticky and murky and wet, water dripping and flowing and seeping into and out of every surface; and in the swamp, there are waterbenders. They aren't icy like their cousins in the South. Instead, they're murky like their swamp, slow-moving like their rivers, and deeper than they look.
 

(It's here that Yangchen forms her theory that people grow to reflect their environment. She is not proven wrong.)
 

She asks the benders to show her to their leader, and they laugh.
 

"We don't have leaders," one of them tells her. "We just have us."
 

"Then take me to the person who taught you waterbending," she says. The man smiles.
 

"You're looking at it," he says, sweeping his arms out expansively. The water ripples and shudders at the movement. "Nobody taught me. We learn from the swamp. The current, she'll teach you all you need to know"
 

"How?" she asks, looking around. "At the Water Tribe, they told me that I had to -- "
 

"Forget your lessons, little darling," he says. "You wanna bend the water? Just bend the water."
 

"I don't think it's that easy," she replies skeptically, and he smiles.
 

"It is if you want it to be."
 

--
 

It is that easy, she finds.
 
 
It's as easy as she makes it.
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andromeda3116

February 2012

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