Whistle While You Work
I am the one voice in the cold wind, that whispers
And if you listen, you'll hear me call across the sky...
-Josh Groban, Remember Me.
Claire had been missing from her regular life for more than two weeks now. The last of her glitter polish had flecked off her nails, her hair hung in straggly blonde clumps and she desperately wanted to shave her legs and underarms.
If not for the fact that there were lemurs with bat wings flying about a crumbling temple, show-casing paintings of people and animals that controlled the winds, Claire would be a hysterical wreck and would probably have pitched herself off the mountain in the attempt to climb down while still dizzy from the altitude.
That was probably ironic or something.
This place belonged on Saturday morning Nickelodeon, Claire watching TV curled up on the couch with a bowl of corn flakes which would inevitably go soggy in the bowl because after the first few minutes she forgot to eat.
Claire loved that show, had bought the box sets even after watching the series twice and the DVDs had pride of place in her collection, no small feat since they were just about the only things of the shelf that weren't produced by Disney or Pixar.
Bending was like magic and there were spirits and strange creatures and a wonderful cast of characters with complex interaction between one another on screen. The hope of being part of that action was what kept Claire going, gave her something to focus on. Because without a way home or a clue as to how she even got here, Claire needed a little happiness to draw upon.
Unfortunately, even if Avatar: The Last Airbender had been Claire's first choice of fictional vacation (it was Atlantis from The Little Mermaid followed closely by peace-time Narnia actually), then this was certainly not how she pictured it happening.
She was filthy, sick of eating fruit from the over-grown orchards and she couldn't just leave those skeletons lying about above ground.
They weren't animals, it wasn't right. Even if Aang was supposed to see his people like this, even if the Gaang had been and gone already, there was no reason to leave them like this. As there was no guru, upside-down architecture, or people on gliders she was sure this was the Southern Temple- probably the worst place to end up at outside of the Boiling Rock. Except maybe the Northern or Western Temples when they got attacked in the cartoon... or Ozai's throne room. Or inside an erupting volcano.
Come to think of it, Claire supposed there were a lot of places worse than where she had ended up. That didn't mean she enjoyed being the only living person atop an eerie mountain though, which at night looked and felt like something out of a horror movie.
Claire found a shovel in a shed off the orchards and what might have once been fields. Although it had been covered in cobwebs (Claire did a freak out jig when a weird spider/fly thing flew at her face), the wood wasn't rotted through and there was only a little rust, she was lucky. Really.
Fifteen days, give or take, she had been digging graves and dragging the thankfully stripped clean corpses to the old fields, where the ground was still the most workable even after all this time.
It was exhausting work (not like going to the gym for an hour or two) because this was under the hot sun, currently competing with the altitude on the temperature front so that one moment she was baked from exertion and the next the sun would disappear behind a cloud and she would be shivering all over. The graves were shallow, clumped close together to save room and all marked with a patch of cloth or ornament, staked to the ground above their heads in lieu of a name.
Claire couldn't stop until she was exhausted at the end of the day and even then, dropping off wasn't easy, staring up at the ceiling of what hadn't been a bedroom in decades. Where a child once slept.
The Fire Nation soldiers were put in a separate field and it was harder to piece together all of their -Claire swallowed bile the first time she realised- body parts. Although the monks had been burned and it showed, the soldiers were often torn apart, their skulls crushed inside helmets or against walls. The power of a hurricane can do that. So can airbending monks, apparently.
She had cried more than once, sometimes just breaking down in the middle of her task, curling up into a ball and rocking herself in the little ditch which would soon house an even littler kid's body. But even in the face of such slaughter, on both sides but particularly the monks', Claire couldn't bring herself to hate any of the attackers. Nazi Germany was once a country full of frightened people, pumped full of propaganda which was easier to believe than defy. If Sozen was anything like Ozai, the Fire Lord wouldn't have taken conscientious objectors well. It painted her history classes in a whole new light because the effects were right in front of her.
She missed her parents, her friends, even her dog. If just one of them was here now, Claire would have someone to hug, to comfort and be comforted by, someone to talk to because the lack of conversation was driving her mad.
There were good days too, when Momo's cousins (and maybe Momo himself) let her get close enough to pet them when they sunned themselves on the rocks. They were very affectionate critters, when she was calm, as they seemed to know instinctively to stay away from her in one of her manic moods. If she'd gotten a hold of one of them during one of her good long cries she would have blubbered all over the poor thing. Even Fiero only bore that sort of thing out of long suffering loyalty to her and he knew to disappear when she watched sad movies. Smart dog.
Finally, on day thirty-nine or so (Claire wished she had started keeping track sooner), every room and courtyard was cleared of death. Even the most fragile bodies were carried out on sheets to keep the bones together, the tallest soldiers with the heaviest armour proving difficult but not impossible to manoeuvre without the weight of flesh.
It was with a small (bitter) sense of pride that Claire looked upon the fields, little pieces of cloth fluttering in the breeze or charms and helmets rattling away where she had staked or half-buried them in place.
Claire would be the first to admit that she would have given up halfway through if she had anywhere else to go, anything else to do, but now, looking out at the uneven rows of fresh turned earth, she was glad for what she had done.
"Well," she croaked, speaking for the first time in days, "I think you deserve some flowers, don't you?"
It was laundry day! Or rather, it was a day sunny enough that Claire could bear to, well, bare for a bit while her clothes dried. The robes in the temple were moth-eaten and musty as anything, though there had been a couple of garments tucked away in chests which had survived the worst damage. These she had washed sometime previously and these were the only alternatives to her comfy modern clothes.
"I don't really like orange and I've never worn much yellow before," Claire chattered away at a curious lemur who watched her dunk her grey skinny jeans into the river and scrub them with grit from between the rocks. "But they don't look too bad on me, do they?"
The lemur cocked its head and chittered. Claire hoped that was complementary in lemur-speak.
"I am never going to get these stains out of my socks without detergent. Wish I hadn't worn white ones." The blonde pinned the now mostly grey socks under some pebbles to soak so they wouldn't float away. "And don't get me started on my unmentionables. I'm just glad I realised my period was due in time to get my panties off." That had been uncomfortable and she spent most of the three days downstream, periodically washing her stripped lower half far beyond the point where she washed clothes and even further from the fast flowing bit she drank from. Yuck. She had torn some cloth strips for next month, but was still puzzling over how exactly she would use them. What did women do before Tampax?
Her lilac cotton cardigan and dark purple t-shirt soon joined the rest of her pinned clothes, the last article being her much abused Minnie Mouse girl boxers and black sports bra. Hopefully the combination of grit-scrubbing and gentle river-bobbing would be almost as good as a go in the washing machine.
Oh, who was she kidding?
"Want to get something to eat, little guy? I feel like nuts." It was that or fruit and she was sick to death of fruit.
The lemur leapt to her orange-clad shoulder and began paying with her hair. Playing or looking for bugs. Ew.
"You know, I think I'll name you." Claire stroked behind the animal's ears which were dappled with dark brown spots. "You don't look like Momo so even if he hasn't left yet I wouldn't be messing up the story. Now, what to call you..."
A character name was her usual MO, Fiero being her second dog named for someone from a musical. "Don't even know if you're a boy or girl." Claire disentangled those little fingers from her hair in order to get a grudging, wriggling look. "Well, you don't have any obvious bits, I think you're a girl." Said girl chittered irritably, giving something approximate to a head toss before Claire put her back on her perch with easy access to the ever-fascinating hair.
"I think I'll call you Roxy. Probably no connection to the Roxy from Chicago but the name suits you anyway. Roxy, meet Claire. Claire, Roxy." She laughed when Roxy shook the proffered hand, looking for food and disappointed not to find any. It was something straight out of Pocohontas.
"C'mon, let's get those nuts I promised you, some of the types growing here aren't half bad."
The weather had taken a turn for the worse, it was truly, bitterly cold and the sudden, frequent gusts were enough to bowl her over. It was all she could do to gather up some food off the trees and bushes before that too was blown away. Inside the eerie, draughty temple which Claire had done her best to avoid unless she was sleeping, the girl curled up with her lemur friends and waited out the storm.
"Drip, drip, drop / Little April shower / Beating a tune as you fall all around..." Claire sang softly, trying to distract herself from the persistent draft which blew into every cranny of the cavernous temple.
The lemurs listened with interest as she ran through the Bambi number and when they didn't seem to mind she sang another, and another.
"The bare necessities of life will come to... you!" Claire tossed the apple in the air and Roxy swooped to catch it, squeaking happily as she dug into it mid-flight. Soon the others were clamouring to join in the game too.
It was quite probable that Claire was going ever so slightly crazy.
She had run through every song she knew off by heart (which was a lot) more times than she could count and the lemurs had actually started humming along with their favourites. In her mind she was Pocohontas, Aurora or Snow White with an orchestra of little forest friends... the fantasies kept her mind occupied when she wasn't was going through the now familiar routine of washing, feeding and general grooming. That took more time than usual, because there was no soap, and because Claire didn't really have anything else to do so there was no point in hurrying.
Her hair was all tiny braids now, the same way she used to do Mikela's hair back home, tied off with strips of yellow and orange cloth and the maintenance of them kept her occupied for a little while each day. Claire also sang and even brushed up on her ballet forms, now suffering from almost four years of rust. No TV, or books, nobody to talk to (who could talk back), what else could she do?
She could try climbing down the mountain, even without rope or the courage and skill to use a glider. It might even be possible without falling to her death.
But if it wasn't, she would be dead, crushed at the bottom. Speared on sharp spikes. Dead like all those people she had buried up here, whom she had laid flowers for and prayed for. Dead.
Claire shivered and thought of a happy song, singing until her throat was raw from it.
There was a hundred years of dust and grime in this place, but the brushes and buckets still worked. Not much else to do but drag up some water (pretend she was Cinderella) and get to work. She had stopped wearing her nice modern clothes most days because they just got burrs and mud on them. Just as well, because by the time she was done with a fraction of the rooms, she needed another bath in the stream.
Another storm came and took her by surprise with the ferocity of it. Claire was climbing one of the peach trees, so that she and her concerto would have something to eat while they waited out the miserable weather inside. That's when it happened.
A sudden gust caught her off guard, blowing Claire out the tree with what might have been the wind backhanding her for the sheer force of the attack.
Claire screamed, flinging her arms backward as she fell, the peaches scattering with wet, sickly crunches to the balcony below. She cringed, her eyes closed tight as she waited for the crash.
"I'm floating." Claire breathed in wonderment, looking down at the ground. The spell broke and she fell the last couple of feet, smacking her head on the stone slabs. "Oow..."
Headaches aside, this development needed careful consideration.
"I can do magic!" Claire twirled, hugging a patiently exasperated Roxy. "Oh it's not turning into an animal or travelling through time but still, it's magic, Roxy!"
Roxy bore the spinning a minute longer before wriggling from Claire's grasp and going to perch on one of the statues of monks long past, her head visibly spiralling before she flopped over onto the bust.
"I wonder how to make it work- I mean. I don't know martial arts, but there must be more to it than just that or everyone could be a bender." She bit her lip as she tried to remember how Aang had stood in the cartoon, how his hands and arms had moved. "Like... this?" Claire pushed the air with a sideways motion, alternating the angle of her wrists so that her open palms swayed side to side.
Nothing. No more breeze than her hands would normally create by moving through the air.
"Maybe I have to move my feet too?" She didn't have the shoes to go en pointe and the reason why she had quit in the first place was so her aching ankles wouldn't become a more serious problem in the future, more than they were at fourteen. She settled for a fouetté en tournant without going fully up onto her toes. Although it was impossible to get her leg as high as she once had and her spin wobbled the first few times, she repeated the motion until the twirl was tight and her arms high both when splayed and when held close to her chest.
Concentrating on the far wall, although by this point quite dizzy, Claire pushed her palms outward on the spin, kicking her raised leg in the same direction. Stumbling, Claire righted herself before she fell flat on her face and sneezed when a strand of dust-laden cobweb landed on her nose.
Claire looked up, squinting through the falling dust particles and saw no disturbance, no lemurs or birds or anything to have caused the debris to fall. "Okay... that's good, but it would be nice if I could aim this thing."
A depressive undertow Claire hadn't realised she was gripped by started to ease with a new sense of fulfilment. Now there was something to do, something interesting and new which felt like a real accomplishment every time she managed to do something else: a stronger gust, less movement for a similar effect- no matter how small an improvement it was heartening.
The rock had once been part of the outer wall, a rough boulder of bricks still clinging together even after all these years. It came up to her waist in height and was too high for her to jump up onto without using her hands.
Claire hadn't tried to bend herself into the air before, not counting the incident that brought the ability to her attention, but today she was going to try.
A spin, like the ones she had done before, but instead of aiming the air upwards she would direct it to the ground then corkscrew upward on the draft. In theory.
The miniature twister of wind lifted her up with such gusto that Claire panicked, her arms and feet freezing in an awkward splay. A moment later, the wind dropped suddenly away and she ended up slumped over the stone, her own wind knocked out of her.
Panic, blinding panic as she found she could neither inhale nor empty her lungs, Claire pounded her chest, rolling onto her back and staring up at the sky like it was the last thing she would ever see. Suddenly there was air, delicious air and she lay there gasping as a few tears trickled out unbidden.
Roxy sniffed about her face, chirping questioning. Claire laughed brokenly as she petted her friend's ears. "Yeah, I don't think I'm ready for rocks yet."
"There's still grain growing here, though I don't know what type it is." Claire eyed the golden husks warily. "Maybe I could grind it into flour somehow, though I don't know if I could make bread from it." Bread needed flour, water, yeast... probably other things too. Eggs? Or was that for pasta? At any rate, she might be able to make a flat bread if she had something to cook it in.
Easier said than done.
Not only did the only oven with a working chimney have a bird's nest in it (no eggs though, she didn't feel too guilty about getting rid of it), but she had no idea how to make a fire even after scrubbing the ancient appliance out. There was lots of dead wood lying about, though it was harder to find some that wasn't damp from the recent rain (with this in mind, she stacked some branches inside to dry) but there was no kindling. Newspaper is what she would have used to start a barbecue (although her dad had always done that job) and there were no matches. Digging through the kitchen cabinets, Claire found a few stones that looked like green flint and, with a slow-to-be-born epiphany, hit them together.
Her stomach rumbled at the thought of something different to eat and that was enough to push her onwards.
The first attempt was... interesting to say the least. Even after hours of gathering the dried seeds and confirming that, yes, they did contain flour, grinding them in a big mortal and pestle and finally sieving out the husks, there was very little to show for her labours. When she mixed it on the counter top like she's seen those TV chefs do, it had all stuck to the table and even after remembering that you needed to dust the work surface first and scraping the mixture off the polished stone it was never quite right. Dusting or no dusting.
Claire huffed, blowing a flyaway out her face and put her first attempt at flat bread in the oven. It had taken her almost an hour of near-tear frustration to get the fire started and keep it going hot enough. It seemed a waste only cooking one thing in such a huge oven but she was only one person and her flour (now stored in a recently scrubbed pot) had been hard won.
Dry, tasteless, burnt. The bread needed salt, crunchiness on the outside and a warm, moist centre- naturally it lacked all three.
It was still the most delicious thing Claire had ever tasted.
It had come over her suddenly; a shaky, sweaty flush of heat which left her cold as it fell away momentarily before returning with a vengeance.
Claire clawed her way out of sweat-soaked sheets and stumbled to the section of river she used for drinking water, but found that her arms couldn't take the strain of a full bucket any more. She dragged it half empty to her bedroom and left to retrieve an empty pail this time, just in case. Claire swayed on the way back, her legs collapsing out from under her as her vision blurred at the corners.
The wall was a welcome support and without it she might not have know up from down; directional awareness became essential a moment later when she tasted something unpleasant in the back of her throat.
As she hunched over that bucket in an empty corridor of an equally desolate temple, Claire knew she might die. Not because she felt like she was throwing up half her digestive system, not because her eyes and nose were streaming and she felt truly disgusting and sorry for herself, no. Claire knew she might die beyond that self-indulgent pity she had so often employed back on Earth.
Back home, Claire had her parents to hold her hair back when she was sick and give her a stick of gum to wash the taste away. Last year when Claire had a stomach bug, her dad had made her peppermint tea and stayed home that day to watch all of the Muppet movies with her. On Earth, Claire had always had someone to fall back on, whether it was her parents, doctor or the local pharmacy. She would mope about and feel miserable for a few days, but she was treated like a princess while she got better.
There was no medicine here, no doctors to consult and no one to watch Claire to make sure she didn't faint down a flight of stairs or choke on her own vomit. Being sick was no longer a nuisance but a very real danger.
Roxy had returned from wherever she had been roaming and although she sneezed in distaste the lemur didn't leave. Claire smiled despite herself, leaning back on her heels as she tried to hold back her hair while still hugging the bucket.
"I would kill for a tick-tac." Claire joked weakly before another wave hit her.
Claire was sick for three days, in that time she could barely stand without wanting to throw up and slept often yet fitfully. More than once, Claire awoke to find fruit or nuts on her pillow and a furry warmth wrapped around her neck.
"Good girl.," Claire croaked, rubbing Roxy's ears. "Good, good girl."
How long had she been here? Six months give or take. She was lucky it didn't snow, it being so high up here, the chill have taken some getting used to in the beginning but it would be a whole different story if there was a blizzard.
As always when she knelt by the graves, Claire wasn't sure what to say. "I don't know if you can hear me, or if you speak the same language I do, no matter what the cartoon says. Not even sure how to hold my hands." They were held palms together, maybe she was supposed to clasp them but she had never been good at history or religious studies or anything like that.
"I hope you're at peace," Gyatso's grave had pride of place beneath a plum tree and she had marked his resting place with his iconic necklace which none of the other monks had duplicated exactly. "Aang will visit soon I'm sure, if I came before him or he will come after, I know he'll visit some time. Wonder what he'll think about what I've done to the place." Her cleaning skills were sub-par, especially without soap, and her graves too shallow but it was something. Even if there were never enough flowers to put on the graves and she'd started leaving just one bunch for each side of the conflict and changing them out when they withered.
Claire took a moment to enjoy the breeze, which felt more alive than it ever had at home and wondered, not for the first time, if she was going to end up like that crazy healer cat lady.
"So, do you have any pointers for those gliders of yours?"
On all accounts, she was too big for the gliders, skinny though she may have been even before her fruitarian diet, she was still several inches too tall for the majority of the gliding staffs.
But those few moments where she managed to soar before dropping to the ground had been...
It was two hundred and eighty nine days since Claire started counting the passage of time. True, she had missed a few days and started late, but rounding it up it was probably not much more than three hundred days.
Almost a year.
No one to talk to, except the lemurs and the graves of monks, soldiers and children. Nothing to do but wander the halls looking for good acoustic areas and (when her voice ran out) look at the murals on the walls and pretend she knew what the stories were about. Or fail at bending. Or wonder where her next meal was coming from (and make it edible) and do little, inconsequential things like wash and braid her hair.
Claire thought, once, that she knew what boredom meant. When there was nothing good on TV, when the books assigned for class were written a gazillion years ago, when she couldn't beg enough money out of her parents to go to the theatre or out with friends for two weekends in a row.
Right now, Claire would kill for one boring weekend with her parents, traipsing around carrying camera stands while hiking up stupid hills at ungodly hours to find 'the best light'. To see a musical done badly. To go to school and sit through a million mind-numbing science classes. Anything to get her off this mountain.
She wouldn't even go near the cliff edges here, where the balcony rails just fell away in some places, not because they had crumbled away but because the monks hadn't needed them in the first place. For them, falling had been fun.
And at the rate she was going, Claire would never manage to get good enough at manipulating wind to fly down the cliff, or even pluck up the courage to attempt more than little jumps.
More and more, lately, there had been days where she did nothing but cry in her room.
"I wish there was more wheat up here." Claire moaned around her latest batch of flat bread, which tasted so much better than her first attempt. "Even fruit is yummier when you cook it in bread." Although cooked fruit was a nice change, as was dried (though that hadn't gone well the first few times either), nothing could counteract the huge amounts of natural sugar that Claire consumed everyday. It may not have been making her fat, not with exercise and the fact it was a good kind of sugar, but it had other ramifications beyond mind numbing boredom.
She had learned early on to fashion a sort of toothbrush from wooden fibres- like when you chewed too long on a popsickle stick and the orange wood came apart. You could get your teeth pretty clean with one of those and although Claire's twigs (a new one twice a day!) didn't taste nice, she hadn't gotten any holes in her teeth yet, though sometimes they felt more delicate and ached.
Roxy twittered around her plum.
A year (or thereabouts). Fifty two weeks (give or take a couple). Three hundred and sixty(ish) days.
If this mountain had normal weather, as in four seasons and a wickedly cold winter (like a mountain top was supposed to have) then Claire would have died inside of six months.
But the trees bore fruit in cycles which had little to do with weather. The only seasons were when it stormed and when it didn't, though there were warmer and rainier days too, it hadn't snowed once.
Temperate climate aside, Claire worried about being snowed in for months on end without anything to eat. Harvesting fruit and berries to dry, nuts and grain and dead wood to store- it gave her a sense of security. Like she could live here, instead of just survive.
The illusion held only for as long as she kept her eyes closed. When Claire opened them, saw the death and solitude, saw that the hums which joined her in song did not come from human beings, she felt something drop into her stomach. Every time.
She thought it was her heart.
Claire talked to the graves everyday that she could drag herself out of self-pity and although she had only spoken to the airbenders originally, it wasn't fair to the soldiers to not talk to them when she brought them flowers.
"I suppose you like the sunshine, don't you? 'Rise with the sun' and all that? Must be nice, I could never get up for school in time. It doesn't really matter now, since I don't have anywhere to be, but I'm always awake when it gets dark and I hate it. I miss a lot of sunrises too, since it's even more difficult to get up most mornings now."
"I should be happier. Some time soon I'm going to go on a great adventure and help save this fantastic new world, or will get to explore it without worrying about war and people trying to kill one another but- it's taking a really long time, you know?"
She gathered some soil in her hand, dry from lack of recent rainfall, and let it trickle out of her grip like sand in an hourglass.
"You must think I'm such a brat. At least I'm alive, right?"
The joke fell flat.
"I wish someone would hurry up and get here. Even if there's no adventure, anything is better than staying here forever. And nothing- nothing would be better than going home right now."
She winced at how horrible that sounded.
"Yeah, that's something we have in common..."
It was weird having a river this big constantly flowing down the mountain. Rainfall might add to it a bit, but really, there was no way a river this wide and fast flowing could keep up with the constant pull of gravity.
Except it did.
Although Claire had been content to leave it at 'it's magic' up until now, she was worried that she might be drinking the same water that she washed and... relieved herself in. It didn't take a genius to figure out that was a very bad thing.
The pulley system, tucked away in a bit of the temple she hadn't found before, was an amazing feat of engineering and Claire was afraid to touch it lest she break it somehow. Buckets pulled water up from an underground stream below and poured onto a well worn grove in the mountainside, ending up in the river.
The problem was, did the water filter through the rocks below and get out all the nasty things that could make her sick, or did it slip back into the underground cavern without filtering?
From that day onward, however belated the decision may have been, Claire started boiling all her drinking water on a camp fire outside (because the oven was one thing, that weird-looking stove quite another). She also got her shovel out again, after a long period of disuse.
She dug far, far away from the graves.
If Claire was a little thinner, a little rougher 'round the edges and by far a more self-sufficient young woman than when she came to the temple then it impacted her only on an abstract level. Personalities are so dependant on the influence of other people, by reflecting on them we can judge our own evolution.
Her parents might have commented on how much more mature she acted, her friends on the odd moments that Claire found herself laughing at nothing, simply because there was no one to hear her and she needed something to break the silence. They would have said that she seemed both older and younger for the ordeal.
Interaction at this stage would rock her off her feet, back to the person she was before all this mess, if only for a little while, in little ways.
That was why, on one fateful sunny day (four hundred and twenty seven days after records began) that Claire ran as fast as her feet could carry her.
A.N.: Well, this is it. Finally posted. Still not entirely satisfied or sure where I'm going with the story overall, but plot follows character I suppose.
Claire is very different from the OCs I normally write so I would love to hear what you think of her and her situation. I'm really trying to mess with a lot of the overused tropes found in both Disney works and stories of this genre. The main tropes are: Extremely Short Timespan, Friend of All Living Things, Beauty is Never Tarnished and The Pollyanna in this chapter. -You can find all these clichés on tvtropes, hopefully I've put a good twist on them or subverted them entirely.
Since some problematic issues are mentioned in this chapter, I would like to state for the record that Claire is a character and she in no way necessarily reflects my thoughts or feelings on historical or even hypothetical/imaginary events.
Next chapter contains canon characters, guesses are welcome. Please tell me what you think about this chapter- the best reviews are the ones that tell me what you liked/didn't like and why.