Si Wong Desert · In collaboration with [.@Abstract Proxy][.@KillamriX88]
Si Wong Desert · In collaboration with @Abstract Proxy@KillamriX88
Chu Hua buried Kanna in the sand. When the truck stopped, the sandstorm gone and the skies clear and quiet, she had wordlessly stepped out of that gods-forsaken trunk, taken the first shovel she could find, and had started digging.
She hadn’t uttered a single word since. Chu, normally talkative and brazen and effusive, simply had a blank, ravaged look in her eyes as she dug that pit. Kanna’s body lay beside it, covered in drying blood. Her eyes had mercifully been closed (Chu was not sure who had done that, the minutes after her death were blurry only hours after, filled only with wailing and maybe with a vomiting episode), but she couldn’t get the vision of her last moments out of her mind. Her terrified eyes, meeting Chu’s with awful intensity. The vice-grip of Kanna’s hand on hers, her last delirious smile. Chu had a feeling it would haunt her forever. What had she thought, in those last moments? Had she been cursing herself for saving Chu’s life, for dying senselessly for a person she hated? She wanted to ask, but the dead body beside her feet would never respond again.
Despite the awful pain in her blistered and bloody fingers, Chu Hua kept digging. She wasn’t sure when or even how she had done it, but at some point she had taken off her jacket and laid it over Kanna’s face, revealing a white tank top underneath. Of course, it was no longer white. Although their trek through the forest last night had been freezing, the desert was unbearably hot. She felt the sun beating down on her bare arms and knew she’d have sunburns to go with the burns mottling her skin. She couldn’t bring herself to care. She just kept digging with a mindless intensity, almost as if to distract herself from the dead girl beside her and the tears stubbornly stuck in her eyes. When she brushed her black hair from her eyes, she just spread the blood staining her broken hands and the blood splattered across her face.
It wasn’t fair. It was the only comprehensible thought Chu could think beyond her swirling despair and rage. None of this was fair. Kanna wasn’t the bender. Kanna hadn’t even done anything wrong. But she was still dead, and Chu Hua couldn’t even give her a proper grave. Thanks to the sandstorms plaguing this stretch of desert, any marker of her final resting place would be gone within weeks. Her body would be lost to the elements. Chu could’ve cremated her, collecting her ashes, but she couldn’t bring herself to light her body on fire. The thought made her physically ill. Her bending had brought them into this, after all, had killed Kanna- why would she want to do that?
After the long grave had reached three feet in depth, Chu Hua dropped the shovel, taking a greedy breath and staggering over to her backpack, resting against the truck. She took a sip out of her water bottle, angling her eyes to the massive rock on the horizon. She wanted to collapse and sleep for a thousand years. Digging a grave in loose sand was harder than it looked, and she hadn’t slept in over 24 hours. Her eyes drooped, although it was unclear if it was out of sadness or exhaustion.
Weiyuan had effectively completely shut down once it was clear what Kanna’s fate was. This was beyond what he was ready to handle. He’d crammed himself into the far corner of the Kyoshi’s trunk space and curled into a ball, eyes wide but vacant.
He wasn’t really sure how long it had been, when they’d made it out of the storm, or even when or how long the vehicle had stopped moving. He just felt himself slowly coming back to awareness. Kanna’s… body… was gone. Perhaps that was why he’d finally “woken up” again. It was still him so he figured he must not have truly passed out.
Even so, there was still blood coating the floor. Just looking at it made his head begin to spin. He edged around it as best he could before climbing back over the rear seat and effectively collapsing out the side door. For a moment, he just lay on the sand, trying to catch his breath and wait for a sense of steadiness to return to his legs. As he picked himself back up, he saw Chu Hua nearby, just leaning against the side of the truck, looking distant, if not on the verge of passing out herself.
She looked filthy and exhausted. Scanning the area, he saw a shallow grave had been dug. He must have been nigh catatonic for some time if she’d been able to do all that in sand like this with only a shovel. He slowly walked over to it, trying to avert his eyes from Kanna’s body lying nearby.
The sandstorm was gone, but even so, the constant breeze of the open desert was slowly causing rivulets of sand to pour back into the open grave. He glanced back at Chu Hua, but she wasn’t paying attention at all. No doubt she’d completely worn herself out digging. If she’d already been anywhere near as tired as he was, it was a wonder she’d done as much as she had.
For some reason, he felt like he should help. Not that he wanted to, but that he was obligated somehow. Was it that he felt he hadn’t done enough? That he could have done more? That because he could it would be wrong not to?
He stepped over to the bottom edge of the grave and pushed into it with his bending. The sand began to flow out of it. Again and again, in a careful rhythm, it began to deepen. He had no way to measure it, he just knew as it was it wasn’t deep enough.
He also knew that it was just going to fill in again if he didn’t do something. Once he’d about doubled the depth, he focused on compacting the sand. He knew he was capable. He’d done it to plug the hole in the Kyoshi. He somehow had to do that again, but he’d been so distracted at the time he wasn’t really sure how he’d done it. It was different from what he’d done to start up the sand screen with Chae-
He felt like his body flipped upside-down and inside-out. Without really realizing it, his breathing became labored and everything started becoming blurry.
Stop. Focus. Just do. He bit his lip hard and just focused on compacting the sand as much as he could until it seemed like it wouldn’t just collapse in on itself.
He wasn’t sure what more he could do, but he could still feel that horrid sensation clawing at the back of his mind. He needed to do something before it overtook him again. As it was, the grave was unmarked. That would work.
Just keep moving and everything would be fine.
He moved to the head of the grave and knelt down, digging his hand down into the sand and reaching downward. The sand was deep here. He could feel himself being stretched thin as he tried to find something more solid down below the sands. Without the lingering effects of the explosion, he’d have never had a ghost of a chance to do this. Just barely, he found more solid ground down below the sand and began to pull. Again and again he’d reach down, pull, reach down, pull, until a small lump of stone finally rose above the sands.
He honestly felt faint by then, but he had to keep going. It would just get buried in the next sand-storm as it was. He stood up. Bending solid stone was different from bending sand. If he just slowed down and did it right, perhaps it would be less taxing, or at least be faster. He’d been relying too much on that unnatural boost to just bypass proper form.
He squared himself off and lifted it, the pillar of stone jutting up a solid furth more, and then again and again until it was as tall as him and hopefully safe from ever being buried. Still he felt the strain. Form or not, he was well past the point of exhaustion. Soon he’d have to stop whether he liked it or not. He was starting to dread that moment. There was only one more thing he could do.
He pressed his finger against the pillar. It wasn’t terribly wide, so he had to go vertically, from the top downward. The stone gave way beneath his touch until he was able to carve Kanna’s name into it. He couldn’t remember her surname, or if he’d ever even known it, nor was his writing terribly neat, but it was legible.
His arm dropped back to his side, and he bit his lip again, trying to just keep his mind as close to blank as he could. He didn’t know what to do now. He didn’t want to stand near the grave any longer, it was just one more unpleasant reminder of all that had happened, so he just shuffled back over to the truck and huddled up against it. He just stared down at the sand, absentmindedly swirling the sand around with his bending, watching it twist around under his influence and trying not to think about anything else…
Chu Hua raised her head at the sight of the boy moving towards Kanna’s half–dug grave. She watched him do… something. She wasn’t sure. Earthbending? Would it help? She almost felt like stepping forward and getting closer, seeing what he was doing, but her feet screamed in protest and she stayed in place, gritting her teeth. So instead, she watched. The hole got deeper, and… Chu Hua opened her mouth in surprise when she saw what was rising out of the ground. A pillar. And he was carving into it.
Once Weiyuan came back to stand against the truck, Chu approached the grave again, barely containing a gasp as she saw what he had raised out of the ground. She touched the etching almost reverently. It was a gravestone. Kanna. The sand in and around the grave was compacted. Tears came to her eyes. Maybe Kanna wouldn’t go unmarked.
She walked back to the truck, limping towards Weiyuan. She stood in front of him for a moment, the wind in her hair. And then, almost falling into it, she wrapped him in a warm hug. “Thank you,” she whispered, voice trying and failing to conceal tears. They were flowing down her face. “Thank you. You… oh, god. They deserved so much better. But thank you.”
Weiyuan did not seem to react to Chu Hua’s sudden embrace except to stop his absentminded fidget bending of the sand at his feet. He went still, blank expression never changing. In a way he hated it, her breaking the fragile barrier he’d been upholding between himself and the grief and pain that had been incessantly marching after him.
At the same time, he could not bring himself to pull away. As it slowly wrapped its twisted fingers around his heart, he did not want to imagine a world in which he was alone with it.
Though he never even twitched or made any attempt to express himself, the truth leaked free all the same in a slow stream down his face.
Slowly, Chu released Weiyuan from the hug. She wiped tears out of her eyes, staring at him. It struck her then that this boy looked to be the same age as her little sister. God, he was so young. “We can bury her later. I don’t think I’m ready yet.” She let that hang in the air for a second. His silence made her want to fill the space, so she rummaged through her bag. “Are you hungry? I think we might need to ration, but I have protein bars and jerky…” She offered him a cookie dough protein bar, taking one herself and splitting the wrapper open. She sat on the sand, cross-legged, putting her head in her hands as she chewed.
“You know,” she remarked. “She hated me. She was my ex-girlfriend and I was her biggest competition, she took every chance she could to say that. But she still saved my life when most everybody else that loved me would’ve been fine with my death. It’s not really fair that she’s the dead one, is it? Not when this is my fault.”
“I’m sorry about Kanna. It’s never fair,” Vasra said, approaching Chu and Weiyuan.
She’d needed to clean up. Old habits and training had taken over. She could hear Professor Vanoq’s soft voice in her head as if she was still in medical school,“The attending physician should, if at all possible, discuss the passing of the patient with the patient’s loved ones. In general, it is my experience that the patient's loved ones are given a brief amount of time to process what has occurred, before you attempt to talk to them.
Failure...and death were inevitable parts of medicine. Knowing that didn't make Vasra feel any better. She had tried. She had done the best she could, but it hadn't been enough. Maybe she'd bought the girl some more seconds, hopefully she had at least diminished the pain.
The winds had carried the end of Chu’s sentence and Vasra felt a painful reminder tugging at her heart,“She must have cared about you a lot. Nelu…my brother, he always said that in times of trouble you have a chance to discover the best in those around you. People rise to the occasion and they do great things for those they love.”
“Kanna didn’t love me,” Chu said as she turned to the doctor woman. It occurred to her that she didn’t know her name. Huh. “She hated me. Or I thought she did. I don’t know. I don’t know why she did it. I think if our positions were swapped, I would’ve let her die.” Chu closed her eyes tight, trying to hold back another onslaught of tears. It was true. Chu would’ve turned her head and looked away, but Kanna had done something different. “Maybe… maybe she was a better person than me. It should’ve been me.” Chu kept coming back to that same thought: it should’ve been me. Kanna’s gruesome death, whatever had become of her fiancee… the root cause of it all was her.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” She opened her eyes again, staring at Vasra and wiping her eyes with her bloody hands. “I should at least thank you for trying to help her. You’re… some sort of doctor, right? I’m Chu Hua Yuan.”
Weiyuan became more responsive as he was offered food and the topic shifted specifically to Kanna. As traumatic as the incident had been, he couldn’t claim to personally miss her, at least not in the way Chu Hua did. It was ever so slightly easier to deal with.
He fidgeted with the bar, though not yet opening it.
It wasn’t exactly easy for him to be part of a conversation, so all he could really do for the moment was listen. Chu Hua blamed herself. Vasra joined them, saying that Kanna had been there, risen to the occasion, because she must have cared.
Didn’t that just mean that what had happened to Chae-Won was his fault? It was a twisted kind of logic, but in his state it was the first place his mind had gone. The bar’s wrapper crinkled as his hands tightened around it.
No. Stop thinking about it. Stop it.
It wouldn’t, though. He knew well enough this would never go away. He desperately wanted the day to end, for the reins to be handed back over, but he couldn’t do that either. He’d never be able to handle all this. It was already too hard as it was.
“Vasra, Vasra Dermok,” Vasra said, holding out a clean strip of cloth for Chu. “I have…had a clinic in the Lower Ring. Not that it matters, I don’t suppose they’re going to let me keep my medical license after, well, after all of this..”
Vasra sat down, grasping sand in her hand and letting it slip slowly through her fingers as she stared at the hazy horizon,]“It shouldn’t have been her, but it shouldn’t have been you or me or anyone else.. We didn’t do anything wrong. We didn’t ask for any of this to happen. But it did..and we’re here..and there’s no going back.”
“But it’s not your fault,” Vasra said, voice shifting with a sudden pang of weary anger that turned to sorrow. Breaking for an instant, as she looked at Chu and then at Weiyuan. They had suffered. They had all suffered. It was too much. But what choice did they have? There was only one way to survive. There was only one way to fight off the disease that threatened them. They had to keep going. They had to make it mean something. Anything.
They had to remember.
“I promise you, it’s not your fault…it never was.”
“I…” Chu shrugged, a bone-weary look in her eyes. She appreciated the speech, she really did, but even in her life before all this she had never been one for glittery, hopeful speeches. The doctor sounded bitter, too, though, and Chu couldn’t help but relate. “It is, though,” she whispered. “I don’t know about you, but I’ve known for a long time that I was… you know. But I was selfish. I had a family. I was successful. I fell in love. I was supposed to get married next week, for fucks’ sake.” Fury built in her voice- at herself or someone else, she wasn’t sure. “My fiancee and Kanna are the only reason I’m alive. They helped me escape from a very public space. But An and I got separated while we were trying to get out of the city. I don’t know and might never know what happened to her, and Kanna…” She gestured to the dead body, tears coming to her eyes again. This time, she fully started sobbing. She wasn’t sure if it was for Kanna or An or just her life. “I was selfish,” she repeated. “I wanted things that I didn’t deserve, and look where it got the people around me. Maybe everyone would’ve been better off if I…” She couldn’t finish the sentence. If she had what? Ended it herself? She had considered it before but had never had the courage. Maybe it would’ve saved a lot of people a lot of pain.
But maybe Vasra was right. But if it wasn’t her fault, whose was it? She had never been so stupid to believe that bending was as bad they always said, but had never thought they might be completely wrong. Was it Ba Sing Se’s fault? Anger commingled with her despair and blossomed into rage. None of this was right. The blame didn’t entirely fall on her shoulders, she knew, but it fell somewhere in between.
Chu looked up at the blue sky. Maybe she’d go to sleep, wake up, and today would be a nightmare. But it wouldn’t go away, would it?
Weiyuan shut his eyes tightly as Chu Hua spoke. It all sounded so familiar. All he’d ever done any time he’d managed to wrest control from his other self was try to practice his bending. When had it ever even served him? If Chae-Won had never found him practicing that day, she wouldn’t have had to stay behind trying to protect him.
But, if that hadn’t happened, then what? Where would he be now?
Vasra said it wasn’t Chu Hua’s fault. Weiyuan wanted to believe her, because then maybe that absolved him too. He found himself clutching his own head. This was all just… too much. He was supposed to protect his other half when he was having a particularly bad day, but… who was supposed to protect him now?
No. No, Chu Hua had to be wrong!
He jumped to his feet, still clutching his head, his breathing became labored. She had to be wrong, because if she was right then…
His hands fell to his sides and he turned around, walking over to stand in front of Chu Hua, looking down at her. He looked about as stern as a scrawny, emotionally battered teenager could.
’When someone hurts you it’s no one’s fault but theirs.’ Low on sleep and in the dry, desert air, his whisper was even weaker than ever, though their surroundings were at least quieter than the last time he’d spoken to her. ’I… if you…’ He quickly threw his arm over his mouth as his dry throat gave out and he broke into a coughing fit, causing him to stumble away weakly.
She had to be wrong. If she was right… then everything he’d thought was good had been a mistake.
Chu Hua’s watery eyes flicked to Weiyuan, watching with slight concern as he stood, starting to hyperventilate, and then stood over her. Was he going to punch her? Morbidly, she thought she might deserve it. But she didn’t know these people, and she shifted defensively, sniffling. His response… surprised her. She sat there stunned for a moment, her tears coming to a standstill, and then she became concerned yet again as he started to cough. She offered him her water bottle. “It’s alright. Breathe, okay?”
“... I wish it was that simple, kid.” She meant it. Maybe he was right, but Chu had always believed they didn’t live in a world where it was so black and white. None of this would’ve happened if she couldn’t bend, so she had to share some of the blame. But she appreciated the sentiment all the time. With a gasp of pain, she rose to her feet, legs swaying for a moment as if she was drunk. She patted Weiyuan on the shoulder, staring off into the distance. At Kanna’s corpse, lying on the ground.
She had to get it over with at some point.
“I think I’m gonna go… well.” Saying it choked her up. “Thanks. Both of you.” She picked up the shovel and went to bury her friend.