You've most likely read this premise before, but I'll try to keep the journey enjoyable all the same. This is slightly AU, in ways and for reasons which will be revealed eventually. Reviews and favourites are always seen and very much appreciated. Thank you for the acknowledgement, guys. It makes me quite warm and fuzzy! Oh, and a note; the strange u's slotted into words here and there are quite intentional. Being Australian, I use the British spelling.
* * *
The first, and of course the most obvious difference, was in the smell. She'd never considered the distinguishing smells of people before; now they were markings distinct as faces. The odours of her tribesmen never varied that much, she supposed. The thick, slightly rancid scent of cured walrus-bear hides rubbed down with wax, smeared with the salty reek of raw fish. The hunters storming back into the village, all shouts and ruddy grins, steeped in the tang of fresh blood. The children, abandoning games by the firepits and rushing to greet them, crumbles of cold charcoal still clinging to their waving hands.
All of it was lanced through and muted by the smell of the sharp, clear cold. The scents of people, life, were feeble incursions on that deep blanket cast over the water domain. It absorbed and crushed all other intruding scents, much like the snow smothered all other colours on the tundra with unforgiving whiteness.
It was another game, all for herself. She'd climb onto the roof of the tallest igloo in the village. She stood at its apex with wet knees, wind buffeting a small body thickened by furs and linens. Slowly, eyes closed, she'd turn a full circle. Her hands burrowed deep into their opposing armpits for warmth, no longer needing them nervously winging at her sides. Years of practice had rendered her balance perfect and fear absent.
Lifting her head to the wind, she'd draw in deep draughts. Frigid air burnt her nostrils. She was the strong hunter, scenting her prey. If she caught a strange smell couched in the lap of cold, her hand would lift in readiness, holding the imagined spear that would render the fearsome animal weak as a pup before her.
She would crack one eye open and eagerly scan the windy wastes beyond the borders of her home.
Never did she spot more than a handful of dark dots on the tundra at any one time. Usually they were herds of porpoise-seals, and occasionally she could distinguish the crude shapes of the men that harried them. Maybe a stunted thornberry shrub that had somehow struggled to life in the frozen dirt. Tiny, insignificant anomalies against a yawning canvas of icy, brilliant white.
More often than not, the ice plains and the seas beyond stood utterly empty. Still, she counted the dots for hours. Just watching. Each was a fresh kill for the hunter and her spear.
Which is how she came to be standing atop the tallest igloo in the village when the ship came into view.
It had been arranged with the oiled efficiency gifted only to truly prosperous bureaucracy. A handful of somber, cloistered conversations between men, no true explanation offered to her, and it was done. She was given a week. A scant week, that passed with alarming speed, or so it seemed to a young girl. Certainly faster than any other week she'd lived before it. She spent the first two days in raging, impotent denial, spending long hours out on the cliffs, shouting at the icebergs as they cracked and slid into the sea. The third, weeping into her grandmother's lap, her hair stroked with gentle hands. The fourth and fifth, tackling every mundane activity around the village she could squeeze into the day with a deep fervour, trying to bury the pattern of each deep in her mind. She didn't want to forget anything. She still wanted to be useful when she came back.
The sixth she spent with her brother. They fished in the floes together. They played in the snow; something they hadn't done without the presence of others since he'd turned twelve. He was so gentle. It frightened her.
She walked out into the tundra and brought home an armful of wiry branches cut from the copse of young thornberries whose location she'd memorised, and he turned them into wreaths that would hang above the door of their hut. Her house. She watched him twine the stubborn boughs with ease, occasionally slicing off an errant twig. Sick knots of dread laced around her stomach as she knelt on the throws beside him.
Her home. With her brother and father and the same furs she'd slept on since birth, and the ice chunk near the door that protruded slightly too far from the rough walls that generations of menfolk had touched for luck before the hunt, and the stains on the roof from her father's pipe smoking, and the lingering odour of wet parka because Sokka never left his clothes outside to dry on the fire-rack as he should; the same parka she'd mended maybe fifteen times now, her neat little stitches in the hairs and coarse cloth alongside the older, clumsier ones she'd made years ago when her grandmother first taught her. He had often teased her about how mismatched the repairs to his clothes were, though he'd never asked her to redo any of them.
He didn't reproach her when she leaned over quickly and hugged him around the shoulders. She didn't retreat immediately either, content to hold him fiercely, awkwardly as long as he permitted. He simply held the half-finished wreath down with one hand, and reached the other up to rest on her shoulder. They sat thusly in silence.
On the seventh day, she left.
The day before, with Sokka, they'd decided between them that she'd be alright. She didn't really believe it, but it helped keep the bubble of panic brewing in her gut from spilling out onto the snow. His was the first face she'd seen that morning, and she knew he'd lain awake with her. They looked at each other across their sleeping father's form. Dawn light just barely illuminated faces.
Wordlessly, they'd stepped outside and hugged, eyes squeezed shut. Sokka had pushed her away almost roughly, taken up his boomerang and hunting kit, and headed out to the track that led beyond the village. His eyes never opened.
Later, her father held her close and kissed her forehead with pity, murmuring that he would follow as soon as he was able. She didn't look him in the eye once, mouth pressed in a hard line. She extricated herself rudely when she saw her grandmother, and walked to her as though in a stupor. The elder opened her arms to receive the distraught girl, whispering and tutting in her ear. The girl in turn pressed her face into the thick fur collar and felt very young. They spoke in the comforting, clicking syllables of the mother-tongue; the old words of the Tribes. They meant nothing; just the gentle, empty phrases women whisper in comfort. But every nuance, every idiom and consonant sounded like home. Safe. She clenched her hands with the effort to keep the wailing child inside her at bay, to keep her face controlled and adult.
The grandmother touched her knotted fingers to the girl's brow, then her pendant, and released her from the village.
The soft, resigned eyes around her spoke only of farewell.
And now the pale, hard-faced men were leading her onto the dark, hard-lined ship; the dirty grey standing out like a canker on the fields of blue and white. If there was one thing she was not going to do, it was cry. She turned and waved once, quickly.
Everything smelled wrong.