LAST EDITED ON Jul-06-14 AT 02:32 PM (EDT)
So this happened (in its entirety!) this afternoon, whether I had other stuff I was going to be doing or not.
Xinqiyi, Siyue 14, 160 ASC
Monday, April 14, SY 2279
Southern Water Tribe, Dìqiú
Korra's seventh birthday was a cold, blustery, and very short day in the South Pole, but she didn't mind any of that. "Cold and blustery" was a pretty common condition in these parts, and short or not, her birthday was one of the few days of the year when she got to leave the White Lotus compound outside Qurluqtuq and visit her parents in the village where she was born.
At seven, Korra didn't really understand yet exactly why she was essentially a prisoner of the White Lotus Society - indeed, she'd never actually thought of her situation in those terms - but she did know that life in their compound was apt to get lonely. She was very rarely alone, as such, but she was the only child there, and most of the adults were old and grim and remote. Even those few with whom she had managed to form some kind of bond were often too busy to be of any real use to a bored, restless, and confined child (a thing the grim-and-remote ones seemed to favor remedying by working her so hard she was usually too tired to be restless, if not bored).
She didn't mind hard work, at least when it had to do with bending, because bending was fun even when it was work; but there were times when it all got to be a bit much, particularly as she was so rarely allowed to go anywhere. Today, though, was different. Today she got to leave. Today she got to spend with one of the good ones, and today he had nothing else on his agenda but to spend it with her.
Of course, she was still working, because that was her lot in life, but at least there was some variety. This wasn't White Lotus business - in fact, Korra had the distinct impression that Master Kanzo hadn't approved of it, which obscurely pleased her on some level.
"No. That is absolutely out of the question."
"I wasn't asking your permission, Kanzo."
"No, that's never been your style, has it, Sokka? Nevertheless, I'm denying it. I will not allow you to jeopardize our charge with your pointless Water Tribe primitivism."
"Ha! The war really never ended for some of you guys, did it?"
"That's beside the - "
"Listen, Kanzo, I'm only going to explain this one more time. We're denying that little girl any semblance of a normal life here. I don't like that. Sometimes it keeps me awake at night, knowing that I'm party to it. In the old days, Aang and I and the rest would've flattened the place if we caught somebody doing what we're doing to that poor kid, and it really sticks in my craw that I'm helping out with it now - in his name, no less. I'm pretty sure he'd ask me, 'Sokka, have you gone crazy, or has the world?' And I'm not sure what I'd even tell him. But with the stakes as high as they are, I can live with it - barely."
"Then why - "
"What we're not going to deny her is her heritage. OK, she's ahead of the curve, so she doesn't get to grow up and just be for a while, before all the rest of this stuff lands on her. That stinks, but we're stuck with it. But I'm not going to let you guys disconnect her completely from who she is. Whatever else she is or may become, Korra's a child of the Southern Water Tribe, and I am going to make damn sure she knows what that means. With or without your approval. It's not too late to go back to 'flatten the place'."
"You wouldn't dare."
"A lot of people have said that to me over the years. Guess what they all found out."
"... If anything happens to her, old man, I hold you personally responsible."
"Well, that'll be the first time we ever agreed on anything, then."
And so (though she didn't know the details, not having overheard the conversation), Korra found herself not just trekking from the Qurluqtuq compound to her parents' house in Aujuittuk and back with Great-Uncle Sokka, but being taught the rudiments of tracking and hunting along the way. She wasn't quite sure what this was in aid of - supplies arrived at the compound by arctic camel caravan, nobody had to go hunting for meat or hides there - but Sokka seemed to think it was important, and she was enjoying her day out with him too much to argue.
"You know, when I was a boy, a million years ago, we didn't teach girls how to do this," the old man remarked with a wry grin as he and Korra tramped over the snow. "But times are different now, and besides, you're your parents' only child. You'll have to be their son and daughter."
Korra didn't know exactly what she thought of that plan, but she kept quiet and attended to her lesson anyway. She was fairly sure she didn't want to kill anything, but knowing how to recognize and follow tracks was interesting. Besides, anything was better than being yelled at and pushed around by old Peiping, the earthbending master, which was what she would normally be doing at this time of day. Korra loved earthbending, as she loved all bending, but Peiping was by far her least favorite instructor, because she was mean. All of her teachers were stern, she gathered that was part of the process, but Peiping was a shouter and a bully and Korra disliked her with all the intensity a seven-year-old can bring to bear on disliking someone - a sentiment which Peiping appeared to reciprocate wholeheartedly.
"See these here?" Sokka said, hunkering down to indicate a set of foot marks in the snow. "Gazelk. Two, maybe three hours old." He sat back on his haunches and looked up at the sky, considering. "We've only got an hour or so of daylight left, so we probably won't catch him before we have to get back, but... " He straightened up, brushing snow from his trousers, and went on with a grin, "Might as well see how close we can get."
A few minutes later, as they followed the gazelk's tracks, Sokka paused, holding up a mittened hand, and crouched to examine the snow again. "Oh-oh."
"What?" Korra asked, leaning down beside him.
"Polar bear dog," said Sokka, indicating another, very different, set of prints. "No - two polar bear dogs. Mother and pup, by the looks." He smiled. "They're doing the same thing we are."
"Will we see them?" Korra asked, excitement in her voice. Of all the animals in the Great Bestiary of the South (by far the best of the few interesting books available to her in the compound), the polar bear dog was her favorite: a huge, majestic creature, white as the snow, with claws like knives. The book said they had been feared for centuries, but Korra thought there was a noble quality in the one pictured on the first page of the entry - something in its face and the way it carried its massive head. She'd wanted to see one in person since the first time she beheld that page.
"Maybe," said Sokka. "But if we do, we'll have to be very careful. They're dangerous this time of year. They need to pack on as much weight as they can before winter, so they'll eat anything they can catch."
A short distance farther on, they topped a small, windblown ridge and came upon what was unmistakably the scene of a recent battle. The snow was disturbed in a large area, flattened in places and thrown up in wild masses in others, and in the midst of it, stark against the almost unrelieved whiteness, was a great welter of scarlet blood, spattered and smeared in all directions. At the far side of the battlefield, a gazelk buck lay at the end of one of the long smears, plainly stone dead.
Korra wasn't a squeamish little girl, and she knew where food came from. This wasn't the first dead animal she'd ever seen, though it was the first in the wild, so to speak, and not hanging on a storehouse hook or sprawled on a butchering table. She was a bit taken aback, but not frightened or dismayed, as Sokka led her to the carcass and crouched down next to it, examining the rents in its flesh.
"Well, old boy, I guess that didn't come out quite the way you would've liked, did it?" he inquired, not unkindly. He pushed back his hood and scratched his head quizzically. "But why didn't they eat you?"
Korra looked around, trying to do like the masters had told her and observe the whole scene, and then tugged on Sokka's parka sleeve. "Gran-Uncle," she said, pointing. "Look."
"What is it, Korra?" Sokka wondered, turning to follow her pointing mitten. On the far side of the bloody battlefield, another crimson smear in the snow led off around a snow dune and down out of sight into a low valley. "Aha, I see what you mean." Facing the gazelk again, he pulled off his right mitten and traced a fingertip along one of its spiraling horns, feeling the tackiness of the blood smeared on it. "Guess you didn't go down without a fight, eh, old fellow," he mused.
Korra was about to ask what they should do next when an unfamiliar sound reached them on the wind: a low, mournful howl, carrying in it such profound sorrow and pain that tears sprang to her eyes even as a chill raced up her spine. Without thinking about it, she released Sokka's sleeve and ran toward the sound, skirting the bloody ground and plunging down over the dune.
"Korra, wait!" Sokka cried, but she ignored him - didn't even really hear him. With a muttered curse, he straightened and ran after her, remarking ruefully to himself that Katara was right, after all - he really was getting too old for this kind of thing.
Korra had intended to surf down the far side of the dune with a waterbending trick, but in her haste, she lost her footing just beyond the top of the dune and tumbled down the far side instead, rolling and bouncing over the wind-packed snow. It didn't hurt, and was actually rather good fun, but it wasn't what she had intended to do, and she was a bit out-of-sorts when she finally flopped to a halt at the bottom. Shaking her head, she pushed herself to hands and knees, then sat back, knees together, feet splayed out to either side. Pushing back her hood, she wiped the snow from her eyes with her mittened hands, then blinked them the rest of the way clear - and gasped at what she saw.
Sprawled before her was a full-grown polar bear dog, just like the one in the Bestiary, but completely different. That one was standing, its black nose raised to catch something on the wind, a curiously thoughtful expression on its face. The one she saw before her now lay stretched out on the ground, one slender back leg caught under it, the other extended behind, as if to crawl. Its much larger forepaws were pushed forward, bloody claws outstretched - if they had been hands, it would've looked like they were reaching for something. Its head lay tilted to one side, red-smeared teeth bared in a snarl, and one black, glassy eye regarded the sky with an almost accusatory air, as if to ask the spirits why they had let this happen.
Like the gazelk it had recently fought, the polar bear dog was unmistakably dead - had succumbed, and only very recently, to the terrible wound in its side that its prey had inflicted with its horns in the battle. Had it, Korra wondered, been making that noise? Was that what dying sounded like? She wasn't a girl who was much given to crying, but she felt like it now. She was finally getting to see the greatest of the South Pole's animals, and it was dead. That didn't seem fair, somehow, on her birthday.
"Korra!" she heard Sokka's voice cry from far above her. "Stay there, I'll be right down. Don't move!"
Oh, go away, she thought with a sort of abstract annoyance. Have some respect. She tried to remember the little prayer he'd taught her, the one hunters made to the spirits of their prey. It wasn't really apt here, because she hadn't killed the bear dog, but it was the best she could think of: Goodnight, friend. I didn't do this because I hated you, but because I need your hide to keep me warm and your meat to keep me alive. Go in peace, and maybe next time it'll be your turn.
She finished paying her slightly misdirected respects and rose slowly to her feet. Somewhere up above her, Sokka was trying to find a way down the steep embankment that wouldn't grind his old bones to powder, the way coming down it like she had would've. She might be able to do something with her waterbending to -
A smaller white shape came around the front of the dead polar bear dog, sniffing warily at the air, and Korra froze, remembering belatedly what Sokka had said before: "Two polar bear dogs. Mother and pup, by the looks."
"That was you I heard," she murmured softly.
The other shape was, indeed, just a puppy - the shape of her head and a slight ungainliness in her limbs made that plain - but she was already almost as big as Korra herself. Catching the human's scent, she raised her head and fixed the girl with a dark-eyed gaze. Her lips drawing back from immature but formidable-looking teeth, she half-crouched, shoulders tense, and emitted a low, foreboding growl.
"Korra!" Sokka shouted, no more than a quarter of the way down the slope. "Don't move! Stay perfectly still! I'll be there as fast as I can! Whatever you do, don't run!"
Why would I run? Korra wondered, puzzled, as the puppy eyed her and growled.
"It's OK," she said quietly. "He's like you - he just growls because he's scared. You don't have to be scared of me, though. I won't hurt you." Moving slowly and carefully, she pulled off her right mitten and held out her hand, palm up, fingers relaxed. "See? It's OK."
The puppy gave her a dubious look and edged toward her, still growling, but no longer showing so many of her teeth. Korra smiled slightly, not showing any of hers, and held out her hand a little farther.
"It's OK," she said for a third time. "I'm Korra. I'm not going to hurt you. I'm your friend."
The puppy edged nearer still, sniffing at her hand. She ceased to growl or snarl, her face taking on an almost human expression of thoughtful consideration, as she regarded the human's outstretched hand. Advancing a further step, she took another sniff, then another.
Then she looked up, her eyes meeting the human's, and Korra felt a silent, almost undefinable thrill race through her as something in the puppy connected with something in herself. The bear dog's tongue, hot and raspy, came out and licked her palm. Korra dropped to one knee and opened her arms.
"Come on," she said, and the dog came to them as if they were old, old friends, tail wagging, making little sounds of bear dog joy. "There you are," said Korra softly, hugging her. "Welcome home."
And suddenly, all was noise and confusion. Master Kanzo and Master Peiping and half a dozen White Lotus guards appeared as if out of nowhere, shouting and gesturing, trying to separate them. Korra's instinctive reaction was to shove them all away with a wave of rock and ice, then pull it back together to make a sort of makeshift fort around herself and her startled, trembling new friend.
"Stop it!" she cried. "What are you doing, you're scaring her."
"Korra, get away from that, it's dangerous," said Kanzo sternly. Turning to Sokka (who was just finishing the last of his hurried abseil down the bank), he snapped, "I told you this was a bad idea. Maybe next time you'll listen to me for once, you old fool."
"Ah, stick a peach in it, Kanzo," Sokka replied. "Korra, are you OK?"
"I was fine until these guys showed up," said Korra scornfully.
"Enough," said Master Peiping testily. She gestured and cleared away the rock part of Korra's improvised fort, scraping most of the ice away with it. "Korra, release that animal at once. You could get hurt."
Korra's response to that was to hug the puppy tighter, retorting, "She won't hurt me, she's my friend. Not like you, you old viperbat."
Peiping scowled. "I'm not here to be your 'friend'," she replied coldly. "I'm here to do what's best for you." She stepped closer, reaching for Korra's arm.
By the youngster's side, the bear dog pup bristled, hackles rising, and made a sound that promised a truly startling amount of mayhem from a creature no bigger than a seven-year-old girl. She sounded so fierce a couple of the guards actually took a step back, blinking in dismay, while the others went to battle stations and readied themselves to attack.
"Don't hurt her!" Korra pleaded, seeing their intent. Pushing herself between them and the puppy as much as she could, she glared at Kanzo and Peiping and said, "If you let them hurt her, I'll never listen to another thing you say as long as I live."
"Young lady - " Peiping began, but before she could go on, Sokka stepped up next to her and draped a friendly arm over her shoulders.
"Peiping," he said, "did I ever tell you the story about the time some guys kidnapped Aang's bison, Appa?" At the earthbending master's puzzled, indignant glare, he grinned and said, "Aw, you should've been there. It was in the desert, not far from where you grew up, as a matter of fact. They were sandbenders. Captured Appa while we were distracted and sold him to some traveling merchants. When Aang caught up with 'em? Woo! Let me just put it this way: the only reason there still are sandbenders in those parts, I think, is because my sister could talk him out of anything." He shook his head, smiling nostalgically. "My point is, if you know what's good for you, you do not get between an Avatar and his or her animal guide. Period."
Kanzo and Peiping looked at each other, then at the glowering little girl with her arms around the fiercely growling puppy, and then sighed, their shoulders slumping in a way Korra would've found comical on any other day.
"I knew we shouldn't have involved you in this business," Kanzo muttered to Sokka. "You're too sentimental."
"Go soak your head," Sokka replied cheerfully. He made a sort of gang sign with his hand and added smugly, "Water Tribe," before shouldering past the White Lotus guards. "At ease, kids, show's over. C'mon, Korra, let's go home."
As they walked away from the fuming masters and bemused guards, Korra looked back at them over her shoulder, masterfully resisting the urge to stick her tongue out at them. After all, she was seven now, she should conduct herself with a little gravity. Then she faced front again and took Sokka's hand, with the one that wasn't resting on her new friend's back as the puppy walked along beside them.
"Thanks, Gran-Uncle Sokka," she said quietly.
"Not a problem, kiddo," Sokka replied. "So. What are you going to call her?"
Korra thought about that for a second, and then the answer came to her from somewhere long ago. She didn't remember where she had learned the names that the Air Nomads had for the different kinds of spirits - she supposed from Gran-Gran Katara, who had been Avatar Aang's wife when he was alive - but it suddenly struck her that what they had called water spirits would be perfect.
Smoothing the puppy's ears, she said, "Her name is Naga."
"As Long as I Live" - a Legacy of Korra Mini-Story by Benjamin D. Hutchins
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