Note: I have no idea where the idea for this story came from. I was sitting at my computer last night when the idea struck me and began to unravel before I knew what was happening. I wrote until I was about to pass out, and then picked up again when I woke up. In my 1sentence challenge, I wrote a sentence about Katara watching the children born to the Water Tribe just after Aang's death looking for his reincarnation, and I think this story evolved from that. Ta Min has virtually no canon character, so I ended up essentially inventing a personality for her as a grieving, yet kindly old widow and I'm not sure how I feel about the whole thing. I'm typically really uncomfortable with inventing personalities and making people OOC, but this seemed to be an exception since Roku is such a powerful character.
Disclaimer: I don't own the characters or universe you may recognize in this story. I am simply borrowing them for some good, old-fashioned, not-for-profit fun. Please don't sue!
Description: It wasn't that Ta Min didn't think the Air Nomads were capable of finding the new Avatar, just that she couldn't imagine how they could be certain they had the right reincarnation of her husband. Pre-series one-shot.
Ta Min straightened, hissing through clenched teeth as pain snaked up her stiffened spine. She brushed a few damp strands of hair from her sweat-soaked forehead and turned her face toward the sky, releasing a long sigh as a small burst of sunlight broke through the sulfurous clouds. The frantic shuffling of small feet over the volcanic rock caused her to turn, abandoning her futile efforts in chipping away at the ground for the remainder of her husband's body.
"The village suffered very little damage, milady," The child bowed very deeply to the elderly woman, whose faded brown hair looked closer to gray than ever before in the dissipating smoke and spotty sunlight, before dusting off her clothing. "We are anxiously awaiting your return."
The late Avatar's wife understood what the villagers were really trying to tell her: your husband is dead, buried in the rock. You will not find his body, and you are killing yourself on the slopes of the volcano. Though she had always been normal without any bending abilities to speak of and only her sharp wit and swift mind to help her, Ta Min was now as ordinary as the rest of the villagers without her husband's clout hanging around her. She nodded slowly dropping the rock she had picked up, certain it held the same sort of sheen as Fang's scales might have had. It was wishful thinking, and she stumbled away, her heart already too numb with the pain of losing her husband to break again at her disappointment.
The rest of the villagers had been too occupied in praying for Roku's safety that they missed the blue dragon which streaked through the sky toward, and then away from, the volcano. It was a dragon she was eerily familiar with, having grown up in the Fire Nation court. The coming and going of Fire Lord Sozin was lost on everyone but Ta Min and—at this thought she shuddered—her husband.
Roku had been clear about his break with Sozin twenty-five years before, about his feelings toward Sozin's imperialistic movements across the world, and about what it meant for the Avatar and his wife, who lived in relative isolation from the rest of the Fire Nation. If Sozin had been with Roku when he died—for Ta Min had no illusions about her husband's mortality—then he had betrayed the man who had once been his best friend for a doomed policy of worldwide terror. Stumbling over a loose rock, she caught herself and managed to leap the small ditch which was all that was left of Roku's deep crevice which had redirected the lava away from the village. The trees here were scorched and bleeding sticky sap, but the villagers were certain they would at least heal and regrow. The trek down the rest of the mountain was simple, with few signs that mere days before the volcano had erupted violently, taking the life of the Avatar.
She finally managed back to the village and headed immediately to her own house before being headed off by the chief elder of the town's council. "Lady Ta Min," He murmured respectfully, bowing carefully and offering her a warm, fleshy hand. "May I escort you home?"
She nodded numbly, unsure as to what anyone might want with her when all she wanted was to collapse in exhaustion on the bed she once shared with Roku and lose herself in the fantasies that he was still alive, still with her, still loving her. "Yes, of course," She managed, coughing at the thick air which still clung to her weakened lungs. "To what do I owe this honor?"
He swallowed, regarding her carefully as though choosing his words wisely. "Word has spread across the world that there are several candidates for your husband's… ah, successor, shall we say?" She stiffened, and he steered her firmly toward her house without allowing her a moment to hesitate or run. "I merely wanted to ensure that you would not begrudge the world, this village in particular, the chance to celebrate the birth of a new Avatar?" His eyes were fierce yet kind, their gold hue shimmering in the rare sunbeam. "Avatar Roku will never be forgotten here, not after he has spared this village on many occasions, yet still the people need to believe in something which will provide them hope as they rebuild themselves.
"I understand how the Avatar cycle works," Ta Min managed, swallowing the thick lump in her throat, only to find another one form. "The new Avatar will be an Air Nomad," She stopped short of her door. "I can't see why anyone would think ill of the new Avatar... or of anyone who may celebrate their birth."
The elder bowed deeply to her, bid her farewell, and left her. She exhaled a long sigh and leaned heavily against the doorframe. Roku's predecessor had lived a very long life and while such people were not unheard of, Ta Min had never had any illusions that she and her husband would live to see the two centuries Avatar Kyoshi had. However, she thought as she stepped into her house and padded toward the kitchen, she had somehow never imagined Roku's end to be as it had been. Somehow, she had always imagined that she would go first. Her hands shook and she had to set down the cup she had just taken from the cabinet.
Touching her head to the counter, she tried to recall the information Roku had told her over the years about the reincarnation cycle of the Avatar: Fire, Air, Water, Earth, and then round again through the elements in a ceaseless, eternal cycle. Within a week of the last Avatar's death, a new Avatar would be born to the next nation in the cycle. It had been three whole days since Roku's death, and already word was spreading about the children who had been born to the Air Nomads who might carry with them the blessing—the curse—of the Avatar spirit. How would they know who the right child was? How, in fact, had any of the nations ever recognized the Avatar? Roku had been told on his sixteenth birthday in front of the Crown Prince of the Fire Nation and all the Fire Nation court, but the Fire Sages had known for years that it would be Roku.
It wasn't that the Avatar had been her whole life, or even that Roku had been the only thing she had left when he died, but that she was finally ready to embark on a journey of her own years too late for it to be good for her health. Regardless, she knew with the certainty of one driven by fate that her place was to go to the Air Temples, to find the Air Nomad child born to be the Avatar.
It took very little time from that moment for Ta Min to decide on her next course of action. She had very little left on the island where she had lived with Roku and staying there now only inspired the memories of the dark night on which the volcano had erupted. Stricken with a fearful fervor that they may never find the right child to succeed Roku as Avatar, she packed some clothing, a few supplies, and caught a fishing boat to the capitol. It was short work from there to cross the plains which separated Sozin's city from the Western Air Temple. She knew very little about the Nomads, save what Roku could tell her from his years learning air bending, and it was only a guess that this might be the place for her to begin her search.
Male and female Air Nomads were strictly separated, only meeting upon necessity. The rearing of children was done solely by the nuns in the Eastern and Western Air Temples, until a certain age when the male children were sent away to the Northern and Southern temples to learn bending from the monks. Ta Min didn't think much of this sort of lifestyle, but then she had spent the majority of her life with Roku and could not imagine living the whole of her life without his company.
Finding the temple was relatively easy in comparison to finding her way into the temple. She had nearly walked off the cliff under which the temple was suspended, and when her cries echoed back up the canyon to her, she clung to the ground with a fleeting realization that despite her desire to journey and adventure, her body was not entirely up to the task. To her relief, one of the nuns caught sight of her prone figure and landed her bison nearby with a rumble.
"Are you alright?" The nun looked perhaps a decade younger than Ta Min, her face wrinkled only with laugh lines and her hair only streaked with a few silver streaks. She helped her to her feet, and Ta Min brushed off her robes.
"I, ah, yes. I was trying to get to the temple," She mumbled, picking up her small sack again.
The nun swept around her, her saffron robes catching on the winds which blew over and up from the canyon. "Who are you?" Her tone was commanding, yet gentle.
"My name is Ta Min," She managed over the winds, which were inexplicably picking up around them. "Avatar Roku was my husband."
"I see," The nun examined her carefully before waving her toward the bison. "I suppose you can explain why you've come after we get there."
She hesitated before following the nun, helped up onto the creature's back with a bit of the woman's air bending, cringing at the tightening in her back. The years had been good, but they had taken their toll. She suppressed a loud shriek as the bison took off and plummeted over the side of the cliff and clung desperately to the saddle as she murmured every invokation of the spirits that she knew.
Landing was considerably easier, and the younger nun helped her down from the saddle before setting to removing the enormous device from the bison's back. She murmured a few words of comfort before setting the saddle aside a nearby wall and turning to take a closer look at Ta Min. Satisfied, she smiled tightly and bowed.
"It is an honor to have the wife of Avatar Roku among us in such a time as this," She waved her toward a hallway. "I will bring you to the Abbess."
Following silently, Ta Min took in the temple, overwhelmed at its sheer enormity and disregard for physical laws. Finally, the nun stopped and gestured to a door, clearly indicating that Ta Min enter. She pushed the door open and stepped into the cool, stone room. The door closed behind her a moment later, indicating that her escort had also entered.
"Sister Aoi," The nun called to the Abbess, who looked up suddenly from the scroll she was examining. "Lady Ta Min has come to call upon our temple." She bowed again and stepped out of the door to allow the two elderly ladies privacy.
The Abbess had the same stern look as all female Air Nomads but somehow managed to temper this by smiling warmly. "Welcome, Lady Ta Min," She stood and bowed lowly and Ta Min quickly returned the bow.
"It's an honor, Abbess," She was gestured to a cushion, which she lowered herself onto with the creak of arthritic joints. "I know this must be an inconvenient time for my arrival."
"Nonsense," The Abbess interjected, rolling up her scroll with a dignified snap. "What can we do to help you?"
In her house on the island, the idea had seemed very important, but now Ta Min felt ridiculous thinking that the Air Nomads may not be able to find their own Avatar. The Abbess looked nothing if not capable. "I need… a place to rest," She bowed her head. "Since my husband passed… and the island we lived on took a great deal of damage… I can give my help to the temple wherever it may be needed in exchange."
An undignified snort came from the Abbess, who waved a hand. "The idea that you should be required to do work around the temple if you have come here for solace is preposterous," She stood and helped Ta Min to her feet. "You are welcome here for as long as you require, Lady Ta Min, and you needn't worry about helping around the temple."
Shaking her head, Ta Min took the Abbess's arm. "Abbess, please allow me to help where I may. Even if it is just with the children, I am very capable. I would welcome the activity to keep my mind off of… of Roku."
Examining her as the other nun had done upon meeting her, the Abbess nodded once, then twice. "I am certain the sisters in the nursing ward would be grateful for your help. It has been a busy season for birthings."
Within hours, Ta Min had been settled into a room with several other elderly nuns, fitted into a set of robes which might better suit her, and shown around the points around the temple she would need to know. It had not been a week since Roku's death, and the children being born were still carefully observed for any sign that they might be the next Avatar. The murmurings about the possibility that the Avatar might be born at the sister temple in the East were not jealous, but excited. The whole of the Air Nation was alive with the knowledge that the Avatar cycle had fallen to them once again, and they were fully prepared to love their Avatar as purely as any other nation felt toward their own. Ta Min frowned at this, feeling very faintly bitter that Roku had never known such complete love and acceptance from the Fire Nation, only the heavy burden of duty and loyalty. Aside from this, however, it was hard not to be excited as the nuns were, since the overall atmosphere of the temple was of subdued excitement. There was no certainty whether or not the Avatar had yet been born, or where, but only the knowledge that by the end of the first week since Avatar Roku's death, the new Avatar would be born. Whether or not he was discovered before he reached toddlerhood was unimportant; there was only the shining, pulsing love the people already carried for his coming.
Falling asleep to the murmurs in her own room, Ta Min slept heavily through the night, waking only with the whistling bells which signalled dawn and the time for the temple to rise. She wearily followed the nuns to a large courtyard overlooking the canyon, the bright ginger tone of her own robes blending into the crowd of women. The only thing which set her apart from the rest of the group was the vermilion wrap she wore over the robes in a bright contrast and the not-so-subtle absence of the blue tattoos across her body. She stumbled through the forms of the sun salutation before sinking into the final bow to the risen sun with a thin film of sweat across her brow.
After breakfast, she was led to the nursing wing, where a long line of cradles awaited her. One of the other nursing sisters was happy to show her which of the children had been born since Roku's death, which ones might be the new Avatar.
"We never thought there would be so many children born this year. There aren't typically many women willing to undergo the rituals in order to give birth, and this is perhaps the first of several large birthings this year. The last few seasons have been very busy."
Ta Min nodded numbly, as though she understood the things the buoyant nun was telling her, when in fact it made very little sense to her. She peered into the cradles of the babies and tried to remind herself that no matter how hard she looked, this new Avatar would be nothing like Roku had been. He had told her countless times that whomever became the next Avatar would have a mind of their own and no memory of their past lives, and that he, Roku, would exist only as a spirit within the whole of the Avatar spirit, capable of acting as any other spirit might though he would be bound forever to being the Avatar. Still, a part of her searched every visible part of the babies, looking for any hint that they might be his reincarnation.
The day flew by, and at dinner the murmurings of the nuns reminded her that tonight marked the seventh day since Roku's death. The window for the new Avatar to be born was ending, and as there was no hint that any other children would be born that night, the whispers began their speculation of which might be the new Avatar. Word had arrived from the other temple that no more of their sisters were close enough to their term for any further births, and they were certain none of the children born were the Avatar. Again wondering how anyone could be certain about fate at birth, Ta Min turned her attention back to her food. Clearly, the Air Nomads had a special way of identifying their Avatar that she could not determine. She had felt nothing from any of the children born, and thought that perhaps it was simply because she lacked the ability to pick out an Avatar from a line of children.
The sun set in the distance and Ta Min settled on the side of one of the buildings staring up at the sliver of sky she could see from within the canyon. The tap of approaching feet startled her, and she turned to see Abbess Aoi approaching her. The nun observed her a moment before sitting down next to her.
"It is a lovely view, isn't it?"
Ta Min nodded and fingered the red fabric of her wrap. "It's very beautiful here. The sisters will be resting well tonight, won't they?"
The Abbess nodded. "They feel comforted that the Avatar has been born in this temple."
"Then you know that the Avatar has been born?"
A smile spread over her face. "Ah, in fact we do not," She peered up at the flawless, star-spotted sky. "Merely that our sister temple will not see the birth of the new Avatar."
Hesitating for a long moment, Ta Min finally caught Aoi's eye. "How do they know?" She asked, her voice as soft as the wind. "I can't seem to tell any child from the next."
"There is a ritual performed with the spirits which identifies that the Avatar spirit is present. It is later confirmed with the four artifacts which belonged to the Avatar which the child must choose from a large assortment," Her eyes came down from the sky, shining in the starlight. "There were very few children born to the Eastern Air Temple this season, and any that might be born tonight would surely die for being premature. None of the ones born there gave any reaction to the presence of the spirits as an Avatar surely would," Seeing Ta Min's slow nod, she reached into her robe and pulled out a small propeller toy. "This was anticipated, especially since Avatar Yangchen dwelled in this temple during her life. The Avatar spirit might naturally be drawn back to a place with which it would be very familiar, and so few children were born to the Eastern Temple, and an abundance to ours in the West."
Ta Min reached for the toy, which Aoi handed over delicately, their thin skin brushing as the small artifact exchanged hands. "And this…?" She looked up to the Abbess.
"Was sent here with the other artifacts so that we might confirm the Avatar's identity in a few month's time. When the child can choose on their own, the true Avatar will choose the artifacts the past Avatars have chosen out of familiarity." Aoi took back the toy and stowed it within her robes.
The Fire Nation lady resumed her finger's examination of her wrap, staring at the stone ground. "So… they recognize things from their past lives?"
Aoi regarded her for a long moment before smiling again and touching the woman's hand. "In some cases, things which are familiar to their past incarnations comfort them in their new life. Some things, and rarely some people. You must not look for Avatar Roku in the new Avatar, for you will be sorely disappointed when you cannot find him. There will be similarities, of course, but it will be a new life. You cannot judge the worth of this new life based on the life of your husband's."
It was realistic, and Ta Min had already known that this was the way things were. She raised her weathered hands to her face and brushed away the beginnings of teardrops from her eyes before they could fully form. "I know," She managed, though her throat ached horribly. "I just… hoped perhaps the new Avatar… could give me something… I don't know what, though. It was as if seeing some of Roku could give me hope that he wasn't really gone." By now the tears could not be held off by her hands and she hid her eyes in the bolt of red cloth.
Abbess Aoi did not lose her smile, but kindly patted the woman's back to offer the woman the best comfort a near stranger could offer. "I suppose most of those who live in the Fire Nation are not as acutely attuned to the spiritual needs of the individual as those raised in the Air Temples, but I can assure you that Avatar Roku is not truly gone."
Ta Min brushed a few tears from her face and stared into the kind, charcoal eyes of the Abbess. The Air Nomads were well known for their quest for individual spiritual enlightenment, but she knew very little about the spirituality which bound them so closely to the world and to the spirits. "I… I suppose."
Aoi gestured to the landscape before them. "This canyon which we have built our temple within was once nothing more than a tiny stream which eroded away the earth until the majesty of these cliffs were formed. The flowers which grow precariously close to the edge of the rock face grow only because the seeds were blown there by the wind as it passed the parent plant which died the moment the seeds were stripped away. That which dies feeds to future life, to future opportunities. When one thing changes from its original form, something new comes about… whether it is considered good or bad. We cannot make such judgments as to presume the nature of an event simply because it is unpleasant for us. In the end, Roku's death brought about the birth of the new Avatar, and because his legacy will live on forever in legend and the changes he wrought he will never truly be gone. His spirit may dwell in the Spirit World, but it is ever present in the world around us because it has formed our world into what it is."
She nudged Ta Min's hand again. "Can you say your life has not been better because Roku was in it? You long for him and search for his presence in the world because without it you fear you will not be as strong as you were before," She paused and caught the woman's eye. "You are far stronger for Roku's presence in your life than you might have been without him, but the changes have been made as they have been made upon this canyon. You are now capable of anything you must do in your life, for better or worse."
Straightening her back, which still ached faintly from the long day, she turned to face the Abbess. "Thank you, Abbess," She slowly pulled herself to her feet to head toward bed when she paused to turn back. "I hope you won't mind if I choose to stay with the temple for a while longer."
The nun was stunned for a moment and had only just begun to nod when a splitting shriek echoed through the halls. One of the other sisters appeared from a hallway, calling for the two women.
"We didn't think Sister Bailang would give birth so soon before her term, but she is having the child now," The woman bowed to the older women, unreasonably calm given the situation. "However, it seems as though it may be a… difficult delivery." She waved to the women, indicating that they should follow her.
Indeed, the delivery had been long and difficult due to the child sitting breech in the young mother's womb. The healing matron worked tirelessly to ensure the safety of her sister nun, stopping only when the child's cries pierced the night. The boy was handed off to Ta Min, who had stayed the night with the Abbess and healing matron when the other sisters peeled off to bed one by one after it was clear the delivery would go smoothly. She stepped to the small water basin in the corner to wash the boy child as the Abbess tended to the mother, who was rapidly falling asleep after being carefully washed.
The soft conversation between the healing matron and the Abbess crossed the room as she gently washed the slime off the boy, marvelling at the long patch of dark hair over his smooth head. The Abbess was shaking her head as the matron wondered if the boy had fallen within the timeline for the birth of the Avatar. Ta Min shook her head and smiled only for the yawning baby, now gently swathing him in soft persimmon cloth. She had forgotten almost entirely about the search for the new Avatar in the excitement of the birth of this child and found that she had somewhere along the way been relieved of the pressure of searching for Roku's reincarnation. Somehow she didn't think it mattered if this child were not the Avatar; he was already gurgling and laughing in mirth.
"What is his name?" She turned the conversing nuns, holding him to her chest with a buoyant smile as he yawned and stretched his stubby arms toward her hair.
The Abbess smiled at the sight and crossed the room to look down at the baby. "Bailang said before she went to sleep that she had chosen the name for the boy," She paused and let out a delighted gasp as the boy opened his eyes.
Ta Min looked down and was stricken with an electric sensation of knowing when she looked into the boy's gunmetal eyes, so different than her husband's, yet familiar in an entirely irrational way. She looked up at the Abbess, who was still beaming down at the boy.
"Sister Aoi," She murmured, staring down at the boy again. "This is him."
Aoi took the book and frowned. "That's impossible," She stood next to the cradle by the window and lifted the boy to the window as the first beams of morning light came bursting through. Ta Min hadn't even realized that the whole night had passed before that moment, watching the Abbess look over the boy with the healing matron by her side. "Last night marked the end of a week since Avatar Roku's death. He must have been born after the time elapsed for as long as the delivery took."
Ta Min moved next to her, smiling at the gurgling baby. "No, I'm certain this is him," She took back the boy as Aoi handed him off and cradled him close to her chest. This was the closure she had been seeking: to hold the infant Avatar in her arms and know without the shadow of doubt that this was the boy the Air Nomads had been anticipating. "I have no doubts."
The healing matron nodded gently, peering down at the boy. "He does feel different than the others… like there's some sort of…" She trailed off, unable to explain the bubble of warm energy which surrounded the boy like a cloud of good luck which had saved his life from the difficult delivery and brought him into their arms. "Did Bailang say what she wanted to name him?"
The Abbess smoothed the baby's hair and cooed gently before looking up at both Ta Min and the matron. "His name is Aang."