The Western Air Temple was in tumult; nuns rushing to and fro, their arms laden with strips of cloth, buckets of water, and healing herbs, poultices, and potions while the temple’s young ones were ensconced within their rooms, their curious questions being deflected by the nuns not currently running between the temple infirmary and the temple’s apothecary.
The reason the nuns of the Western Air Temple were in such turmoil? One of their own was about to have a baby. Now under normal circumstance, this would be a joyous occasion, but not this time; this time the very real fear of losing both mother and child stifled any joy the sisters of Western temple might have felt.
Inside the temple’s infirmary, an organized chaos reigned as the nuns worked to successfully bring another Air Nomad into the world as well as keep the mother from crossing over to the next one. Sitting up as best she could in one of the infirmary beds, Shakaya squeezed her eyes shut as agony rippled through her swollen belly. A strangled groan tore from her throat, sore from when she’d had the strength to scream out her pain, and she hunched forward.
The pain subsided and, exhausted, Shakaya slumped back against the stack of pillows behind her. She brushed the sweat-soaked strands of hair sticking to her face away, silent tears trickling down her cheeks. This shouldn’t have been happening, it was much too early for her child to enter the world; much, much too early. And yet as Shakaya hunched forward again as another contraction tore through her womb, her hands coming to cradle her belly as another hoarse cry escaped her, that was exactly what was happening.
Sister Indrani, the Mother Superior of the Western Air Temple, glanced over at the exhausted young woman as she slumped back against the pillows once after the birthing pains had passed. Her lips twisted with sympathy and she looked back at the temples two head midwifes, Sisters Ilma and Airi.
“I don’t know if there’s anything we can do.” Sister Ilma murmured, her lines features sorrowfully as she regarded her fellow nuns with solemnity. “She has been in labor since the previous dawn and still the child has not dropped.”
“Worse yet, the child is not in the proper birthing position.” Sister Airi sighed and she folded her hands into the sleeves of her robes. “The last time such a situation occurred was over a century ago.”
“Is there nothing we can do?” Sister Indrani asked and looked at her fellow nuns with faint desperation; Shakaya had been one of her wards, one that she had raised since infancy. To lose her would wound the elderly nun deeply.
Ilma and Airi exchanged sympathetic glances; they both knew how much Shakaya meant to the Mother Superior, but unfortunately they had tried everything. Sister Ilma sighed and opened her mouth to respond, but Shakaya let out a particularly sharp cry of pain.
The Mother Superior started and whipped around, rushing to her former ward’s side with Ilma and Airi right on her heels. Shakaya looked up at the three older women, pain-filled silver-gray eyes staring out of a red, tearstained face.
The young Air Nomad woman reached out and grasped her teacher’s hand tightly in hers and croaked hoarsely. “The baby…” Her breathing hitched and she hunched forward again, groaning low in her throat. She thought the pain would end, as it had all the other times, but it persisted. “Please!”
Sister Ilma rushed to the foot of the bed and lifted the sheet covering Shakaya’s lower body. Her eyes widened and she let out a fervent oath, “By the Light Spirit! I need hot water and towels!”
Two apprentice midwifes ran forward with a handful of towels and a basin of hot water. Airi took the basin and towel and instructed the apprentices to bring the healing poultices and herbs before she hurried to Sister Ilma’s side at the foot of the bed.
Sister Indrani held Shakaya’s hand and stroked her sweaty hair from her forehead with her free hand. Shakaya swallowed thickly and tilted her head to look at her former teacher, “Is…” she grimaced as another birth pain rippled through her, “Is the baby coming?”
“Yes, child.” Indrani murmured, continuing to gently caress the young woman’s hair. “Your child will be here soon.”
“Thank the spirits…” Shakaya sighed and her eyes fluttered shut, her hand going limp in Indrani’s grasp.
“Shakaya?” Indrani felt her heart stop and she dropped Shakaya’s limp hand in favor of grasping her shoulder, giving it a firm but gentle shake. “Shakaya? Shakaya!”
Faint and weak, a newborn’s cry rang out through the infirmary.
Five Year Later….
“Yes, child?” Sister Indrani glanced down at the little girl she was leading by the hand with a soft smile and nearly faltered when she met Xiaodan’s citrine colored eyes. Even though it had been five years since her birth, the Mother Superior was still sometimes startled by how…different the girl’s eyes were; Air Nomad eyes were gray or brown.
Fire Nation eyes though…Sister Indrani cut that thought off before it could full manifest. There was enough speculation on Xiaodan’s parentage circulating the four temples as it was, Sister Indrani certainly didn’t need to be adding her own doubts to the mix. Of course it didn’t help that her eyes were made all the more pronounced by her shaved head as was traditional for Air Nomad girls under the age of ten.
“Are we visiting the Southern Temple because of my dreams?” Xiaodan, ever the inquisitive child, continued as if she hadn’t noticed the troubled look that had briefly flashed across her mentor’s face; she was used to such reactions by now.
Just like her mother. The Mother Superior reflected with approval, stowing her doubting thoughts away. “Indeed, my young pupil.”
“I see…” Xiaodan fell silent, her brows pinched in thought, and Sister Indrani waited patiently for the young girl to speak her mind. They walked through several halls of the Southern Air Temple before Xiaodan asked another question. “Are my dreams bad?”
“They are not bad at all, young one.”
Xiaodan started, her head whipping towards the man’s voice, and saw a bald monk around Sister Indrani’s age with a silver mustache walking towards them from an adjoining hall. Sister Indrani settled a reassuring hand on the young girl’s shoulder and smiled as Monk Gyatso reached them and bowed respectfully to her, as one elder and master to another.
“Sister Indrani, it brings my heart great joy to see your beautiful visage walking these halls once more.”
Sister Indrani pursed her lips to keep from smiling at the old fool. “My, my Monk Gyatso, I see you’ve been practicing. That was almost poetic.”
Monk Gyatso straightened from his bow, gray eyes gleaming with laughter, and he placed a hand over his heart. “Such high praise from one of Guru Laghima’s most devout studiers. I am honored.”
Xiaodan snorted and quickly disguised it as a cough when the two older Air Nomads turned their attention to her. Her freckled cheeks went bright red when Monk Gyatso raised a single snowy brow and smiled.
“Ah, this must be the young Xiaodan I’ve heard so much about.” He inclined his head. “I am honored to meet you, young one.”
Xiaodan, after a pointed nudge from Sister Indrani, quickly bowed low at the waist and responded in the appropriate manner. “The honor is mine, Monk Gyatso.”
Monk Gyatso chuckled a little at her formal tone and looked at Sister Indrani in amusement, “She is very polite, Sister Indrani. Are you sure those rumors of her prankster ways are true?”
“I’m sure.” Sister Indrani replied wryly, sending a pointed look at Xiaodan, who had the good grace to at least look abashed. She rested her hand on her pupil’s shoulder and gave it a reassuring squeeze to show that she was just teasing her then she addressed Monk Gyatso. “Are you to be our escort to the Council Chamber, Monk Gyatso?”
“Indeed I am.” The elderly monk replied and he made a sweeping gesture with his left arm, indicating for Sister Indrani and Xiaodan to follow him down the hall he’d just come from. “This way, Sister Indrani, Pupil Xiaodan.”
He began walking down the hall and, after taking Xiaodan’s hand in hers once more, Sister Indrani followed after him.
Xiaodan regarded the five elderly monks sitting cross-legged and serenely on the five evenly placed stools near the back of the Council Chamber. She was kneeling before them, her legs folded under her with her hands in her lap while Sister Indrani sat beside her like a silent pillar of support. She met Monk Gyatso’s gaze and he smiled kindly at her, as if he could sense her nerves.
“You are Xiaodan, daughter of Shakaya of the Western Air Temple.”
Xiaodan looked away from Gyatso and focused on the monk sitting on the middle stool that rested under an ornate parasol, signifying that he was the Abbot of the Southern Air Temple. Quickly, she bowed her head in deference to his rank as the temple’s Abbot as she answered.
He regarded her with wise eyes and Xiaodan took a moment to scrutinize him; he appeared to be slightly younger than Monk Gyatso, the thin mustache framing either side of his mouth a steely gray instead of silvery gray. Hesitantly, she met his eyes and saw a kind, patient gaze looking back at her.
“Do you know why you were brought to the Southern Air Temple, Pupil Xiaodan?” Monk Pasang questioned.
“Because of my dreams.” Dreams that were full of fire and heat and ash and the sound of a newborn baby’s squall and pretty, pretty gray eyes full of innocent wonder and an infinite wisdom. Dreams that confused and frightened Xiaodan and, when she woke up, left her feeling strangely empty inside.
Monk Pasang inclined his head in acknowledgment but it was the frail looking monk sitting to his left that spoke next.
“Do you know of the Avatar, child?”
Xiaodan canted her head to the side; of course she knew of the Avatar. He or she was the human embodiment of light and peace, the being who was meant to keep balance in the world and serve as the bridge between the Spirit World and the human world. They were only person to be able to bend the all four elements and were reincarnated into each nation.
She was five, not stupid.
“Yes.” Xiaodan answered with no little confusion and a lot of curiosity. She wondered what exactly the Avatar had to do with her dreams? “The current Avatar is Roku of the Fire Nation.”
The elders exchanged glances and Xiaodan felt her brow furrow, uncertainty filling her. She swallowed thickly and asked in a small voice. “Isn’t he?”
It was Monk Gyatso who answered his tone gentle. “Avatar Roku died a week ago when the volcano on his home island erupted.”
Shock slapped Xiaodan across the face and she gaped at Monk Gyatso, her mind unable to process what he’d just said. She blinked rapidly several times. “Oh…”
“That was when your dreams started?” Sister Indrani spoke gently from behind Xiaodan, speaking for the first time since her initial greeting to the five elders.
Xiaodan nodded numbly. Sister Indrani placed her hand on her shoulder, squeezing it reassuring, then she addressed the Council. “I believe Xiaodan dreams of the Avatar Roku as well as his new incarnation.”
“And what makes you so sure of this, hmm?” The frail monk asked cynically, his mouth set in a permanent frown.
“She says her dreams are full of ash and smoke and heat. She feels as if she can’t breathe, everything is dark and then suddenly it’s not and she hears a baby crying. Tell me, Tashi, what else could be dreaming of?”
“There have been records of such things occurring, Monk Tashi,” Monk Gyatso commented mildly, idly stroking his chin as he thought. “Of spirit-touched individuals forming bonds with other spirit-touched individuals. And even with the Avatar himself.”
The frail monk, Tashi, harrumphed but remained silent. Pasang met Sister Indrani’s gaze and inclined his head.
“I am inclined to agree with Monk Gyatso. It cannot be a coindence that your charge dreams of the Avatar’s death and rebirth.” He paused and sighed softly. “But as we have yet to know which temple-” He sighed again. “Perhaps, it would be best if young Xiaodan lived in the Southern Temple until the new Avatar is found.”
Three Years Later…
Xiaodan sat cross-legged on a small stool near the back of the Southern Air Temple’s nursery, watching the gaggle of three year olds toddling and crawling about with mild interest. Three years had passed since she’d moved to the Southern Temple after it was discovered that she had some sort of spirit bond to the Avatar. Three years since she’d left everything and everyone she knew at the Western Air Temple and three years since she’d become Monk Gyatso’s ward instead of Sister Indrani’s.
She still was rather unhappy about the whole thing; Monk Gyatso was the only one who noticed. And now here she was, stuck inside the temple nursery, watching the small group of toddler Air Nomads that had been born the day Roku died while Monk Gyatso and the rest of the Council tested each of them in an adjoining room. Fun.
She’d rather be outside playing airball with the other kids, even if they found her a little…different.
One of the toddlers waddled over to her on unsteady legs, pulling Xiaodan from her sullen thoughts. The little boy stumbled and, reaching out, he grabbed onto her ankle to steady himself. He looked up at her and cooed. Xiaodan raised her brows—his energy felt weird. He babbled at her. She scrunched her nose and made a face in response, ignoring the weird feeling his energy gave her for the moment.
He fell into a fit of giggles and scrunched up his face, trying to mimic her. Xiaodan’s lips twitched into a smile and, sensing weakness, the little boy held his arms out to her and said the one of the few words he could speak coherently.
“Up! Up! Up!”
Xiaodan couldn’t help it; she laughed. Loudly.
“Up!” The little boy burbled and made grabbing motions with his fingers. Bounced a little on his toes for add emphasis.
Bossy. Xiaodan giggled and pulled the little boy into her lap, settling him in the dip her crossed legs made. The boy clapped happily and went back to speaking in his toddler-language that only other toddlers understood as he reached up to touch her face.
“Wonder what your name is.” Xiaodan said, smiling as chubby fingers prodded at her freckled cheeks before grabbing at her mouth. She licked his fingers, grinning when he squealed with delight. “I guess I’ll just call you Cutie for now. I’m Xiaodan, but you can call me Xia.”
“Xia! Xia!” The little boy beamed at her and babbled more nonsense interspersed with her name at her as he continued touching her face and head; Xiaodan took at that to mean he found her nickname for him acceptable. Which was just as well, it wasn’t like she was really giving him a choice in the matter.
After he nearly poked her eye out, Xiaodan entertained the little boy by airbending a couple of leaves around their heads, smiling contentedly as he watched the leaves fly about with rapt attention. She didn’t find his chi so strange now; in fact it was almost as if some her chi had blended with his. It was strange but not unpleasant.
She was rather upset when, not even fifteen minutes after she’d made this discovery, Monk Gyatso swooped in and took her new found friend to the back room to be tested. She sat on her stool and sulked, her arms crossed over her chest and her sullen gaze riveted to the backroom’s door.
Surprisingly, it wasn’t long before the door opened and Xiaodan perked up considerably as Monk Gyatso stepped through. She watched him curiously as he gestured one of the nuns supervising the toddlers over to him and whispered something to her. The nun—Sister Chia, Xiaodan realized when she caught a glimpse of the middle-aged woman’s face—nodded and walked slipped out of the nursery.
Xiaodan wondered what was going on, but Monk Gyatso’s approach distracted her. She looked up at him when he reached her, canting her head to the side curiously. Monk Gyatso smiled down at the eight year old gently and held his hand out to her.
“Come with me, pupil Xia. There is someone I would like you to meet.” He chuckled and shook his head at himself. “Although I suppose you have already met…”
Xiaodan gave him a curious look, but remained quiet as she took his hand and followed him to the backroom. She spotted the cute little boy she’d been playing with earlier and, dropping Gyatso hand, she hurried over to him with a happy smile. The little boy looked up at her and let out a happy cry, stumbling to his feet and stretching his hands out to her.
Xiaodan bent down—not that she had to bend far, she was pretty short for her age—and hugged the little boy happily. “Cutie!”
Monk Gyatso chuckled lightly, folding his hands inside his sleeves, and watched Xiaodan greet his newest ward before he approached them. He touched Xiaodan’s shoulder, gently grabbing her attention.
“Pupil Xiaodan, I’d like for you to meet Aang.” He tucked his hand back into the opposite sleeve and smiled at her. “He is my ward as well.”
“So that’s your name. Definitely better than Cutie.” Xiaodan looked away from Gyatso to smile at the little boy. Giggling, Aang hugged Xiaodan again and she wrapped her arms around him with a happy sigh. “And if your Monk Gyatso ward like me, that means we’re brother and sister.”
She looked up at Gyatso as if for confirmation and he inclined his head. “If that is what you wish, young one.”
Xiaodan looked back at Aang and kissed his short brown hair—he was still too young for it to be shaved—and hugged him tightly. “It is. I’ll be the best big sister ever.”
“I know you will, child.” Monk Gyatso murmured with a serene smile as he regarded his two charges. “I know you will.”
I’ll always protect you. Xiaodan thought with the fierce determination of a child as Aang touched her face. Always and no matter.