A/N: This is a post-apocalyptic, sci-fi fantasy story about a same-sex teen couple; primary inspiration is drawn from Avatar: The Last Airbender, The Last of Us, and Bastion. Please note that the use of capital letters at the start of certain nouns and verbs in this entry is deliberate. This is a sample chapter of an original novel concept, which I've revised from the first chapter of my AtLA fanfiction 'Mud, Sweat, and Tears.' Basically just posting it to give people an idea of my first real crack at the 'revision' process, as I'll be applying it to 'What I Learned at SRU' as well, but this is a more direct example. I actually very well may be taking this concept and working it into its own novel -- we shall see! Going forward, I will be rotating the process: chapter 2 will be written in this original form first, then adapted for its fanfic sister series.
Chapter 1 - Quiet
It was a tranquil night. Yatra didn't like it.
The quiet nights were the truly unsettling ones.
Yatra could never fully relax in the deathly quiet. The silence bred memories: bad memories and good memories.
"Shaozu...What is it? What's wrong?"
"Take my hand, Yatra."
"Why? What are you...-?"
"You're the first to find this out: I've been Called."
"You...-? When? By...who?"
"Just now, by Lien. He wants me to Represent."
"Wh...-? Wow, that's...-"
"Heh. You sound as uncertain as I am."
"N-no, not at all! Not at all, I'm...happy for you."
"Then...come with me."
"Shao...I-...You know I can't do that. Kee, she'd...-"
"Kiwi can come with us, too."
"It's...not that simple."
"Simple? Let me show you simple..."
Yatra could still remember that exchange – one of the last they'd shared. The cycle of seasons that had since passed left bits of the memory foggy. For example, the unexpected taste of his lips against hers was all but lost, now an event numbed by time rather than a memorized sensation. But the particular wrinkling of his brows, the flush of color in his cheeks, and the way his eyes had practically sparkled after his stolen kiss...Yatra hadn't forgotten those Sights. Never had she Seen him so happy. She hadn't even needed to explain her reciprocation – Shaozu had simply Felt it.
But none of that mattered now.
Their meanings unclear, the memories were so tangled up or mixed around at this point. Good? Bad? Yatra couldn't decide which kind of memory was worse anymore.
All of the memories were unpleasant now.
The good memories were reminders of what she had once had, and what had been lost, and could never be retrieved.
They whispered, 'If only...'
The bad memories were reminders of regrets, missed opportunities, wrong choices that could not be made right.
They seethed, 'If only...'
Yatra hated the quiet. And it was serving to be a frustratingly quiet night, indeed.
It was the snoring that stirred Yatra from the memories. Sweet, precious sound; meek proof of the one thing Yatra still had. The one thing she had left to protect - at least, the one thing she was able to protect, anymore.
Kiwi's breath was shallow against Yatra's palms, the dust and sweat of the ragged girl's shirt was grimy against Yatra's fingers, but Yatra was learning to appreciate Kiwi's gritty, natural textures. With her arms wormed around Kiwi's waist, Yatra could feel her partner's stomach gurgle a bit. It had been doing that periodically ever since they'd gone to bed. It was aggravating and wrenching, because Kiwi had kept claiming she was doing fine, but Yatra wasn't a fool. The girl was hungry - they both were.
Feeling Kiwi's gurgling stomach, hearing the tiny sound of hunger...It reminded Yatra of the desperate faces of refugees trying find solace in Ituha - people she had no means of helping. She could barely keep two teenage stomachs fed, much less the war-torn populace.
Kiwi was mumbling in her sleep. Laying on her side, the girl's snores were dry and subtle, her mouth agape as it tried to make up for the air that wasn't passing into her plugged up nostrils.
Yatra allowed herself to stop dwelling on the worries and the doubts of the world outside of their tiny tent for two. She was cold, she was tired, she was hungry. She needed rest for the day ahead, especially if they were going to find any food. Yatra gently adjusted her grip around Kiwi's stomach, nudging her body flush against Kiwi's back for warmth. She tightened their ragged blanket beneath her shoulder and hip. Being taller than her companion, she snuggled her chin into the nest of bristly, unwashed hair on Kiwi's head.
Yatra took in a deep breath, inhaling the oddly comforting stench of Kiwi's sweat through straw-like hair. She sighed out with discouraged exhaustion, and closed her eyes. She could close her eyelids, but her stubborn, worrying brain would keep tricking itself into Seeing things she didn't want see. Giving her strained eyes a rest from all of the work they had done that day, Yatra let her other senses calm her mind. She planted a tiny kiss into her companion's jagged, uneven hair, touching Kiwi's mind. Yatra let her nose drink Kiwi's smell, her fingers hear the sleeping girl's expanding lungs, her ears swallow the sounds of their rhythmic, shallow breaths slowly syncing...
The quiet finally faded away into the fog of slumber.
The darkness of sleep came at last, much to Yatra's relief.
It was replaced with the vibrant, hazy noise of a dream. A dream filled with smiles and voices that Yatra's brain could barely reconstruct. But it was so much better tonot see anything at all than to See everything so clearly.
The vibrations. Terrifying vibrations rattling her eardrums.
He can't even say her name. Sputtering. Coughing.
Shaozu's heartbeat. Erratic. Kiwi strains to Hear it, to cling to its music.
The song is fading.
His heartbeat ripples through the metal. His fingernails claw at the metal.
He is one with the metal. Mangled, twisted...everything is twisted.
She can barely see through the smoke with her single eye. But she can Hear it all.
Liquid metal dripping down from his center.
Pafft. Paf-paf. Pafft.
Liquid drops splashing into the dirt at his feet.
So much fire. Heat. Dizzying heat. Everything is dizzying.
Too much noise. She wants to Hear the rest of the song before it ends.
Stumbling, shambling to his side. She can't look. She won't see his pain.
Kiwi will only Focus on Shaozu's song.
She takes his trembling hand. She presses her head against his.
The choking, the aching, the wincing...she tries to drown it out.
"Do something!" a familiar voice shrieks from behind.
But she knows there's nothing that can be done.
"Keh...K...whh...-" He can't speak.
But he can Feel. She squeezes his palm. She kisses his cheek.
She makes sure Shaozu knows that she's sorry without uttering a word.
Rubble, scattering. Engines, roaring. Feet, scurrying. Blades, clanging.
But they all dissipate as she hones in her Hearing on him, and only him.
Shaozu's whimpers, moans, coughs...the volume is maddening.
Kiwi can't Focus much longer. She'll overflow.
Yet she can't move from his side. Everything is heavy, hot, dizzying.
His heartbeat is fading.
She Focuses to Hear every last note of his song.
So much noise. Everywhere, noise.
But the melody is gone.
And everything is quiet.
Kiwi's body tightened at Yatra's irate voice, the sound of her full name stirring her from her reflective dream state. She was suddenly awake now, her ears instantly Focusing on Yatra's shuffling clothes, rattling equipment...at last centering on Yatra's heartbeat. Yatra used the stars and maps and her keen Eyes to navigate, while Kiwi had found a different kind of compass to follow in spite of everything: a steady heartbeat. Natural, calming, consistent, and so easy for her Ears to find.
Thum. Thump...Thum. Thump...Thum. Thump...
Thank the stars for Yatra's presence. The quiet had been paralyzing during the previous evening as Kiwi's illness-addled brain had filled in the cracks with undesired thoughts. Her memory still carried a fleeting sensation of the sounds - the bodies back in Ituha that carried heartbeats one day, but not the next.
"Kee," Yatra whispered, "I need to head out, Hun," Prodding Kiwi's back - those nimble fingers, poking Kiwi's body from its slumber. As Kiwi roused her consciousness, she struggled to make out her bedmate's visage in the dim morning light that was filtering into their tent. Kiwi fidgeted with her eyepatch, realigning its straps, then rubbed sand from the one decent eye she still had. Yatra was close enough for Kiwi to make out her companion's face looming a couple of feet above. She let her eyelid slide back closed for a moment, but Heard her bedmate yawning, only for the sound to devolve into a shiver.
With some effort, Kiwi pulled her body up from the chilled ground, scratching her neck and sensing the lowered temperature of the earth beneath their bedroll.
Kiwi's lungs kicked out a few phlegm-filled coughs, each one stinging. She pounded her sore chest with her palm and swallowed - she could hear her bedmate quietly whimper with concern. With an achy moan, Kiwi finagled their black wool blanket off of her abdomen. Maybe the lack of warmth from her bed would wake her up. She clawed her un-trimmed nails across an itch on her scalp. Grains of sand, dirt, and dandruff were loosened from the mess of graytone straw she called 'hair.'
What time was it? It was freaking cold...But her forehead was oily with sweat. Damnit - she really was sick. That meant today was going to be worse than yesterday.
But a fever couldn't make today nearly as bad as the week prior, when...-
Lingering in a seated position on the ground, Kiwi's eyes had fallen back closed. She was starting to nod off when she Heard Yatra's presence shift its weight - she was sitting beside Kiwi. Her Ears could detect Yatra fussing with the blanket.
"Hey," Yatra grunted with some displeasure. The blanket found its way back around Kiwi, and with it, an arousing warmth in the form of Yatra's side squishing against her own. Kiwi Listened close to the way Yatra's thick mane of morning hair scuffled.
Without even thinking, Kiwi leaned her head against the furry-edged mantle Yatra was wearing. The clothing smelt of the familiar rabbit pelt, mixed together with Yatra's personal perfume of pheromones. It was a welcoming sensation to wake up to, especially with Yatra's slender arms tugging the half-asleep Kiwi against her. Yatra's thicker, warmer clothing was pleasant to the touch on this bitter-cold morning. Was it morning already? It didn't feel as if Kiwi had gotten enough rest for it to be morning yet, but...-
Yatra initiated conversation as she seemed to every single time they awoke since the recent 'incident.'
"Did you sleep all right?"
"No," Kiwi croaked in earnest.
"Sorry," Yatra cooed with empathy, planting a small kiss on Kiwi's forehead. She let her lips linger, detecting the girl's temperature.
"Still feel like junk," Kiwi yawned.
Yatra hummed her understanding, scratching Kiwi's shoulders lightly before separating their bodies. Kiwi tolerated the gestures - it was too early and she was feeling too cruddy for cuddling. Yatra was 'Eyeballing' her, she just knew it. Trying to figure out what she could See, no doubt, and decide how severe the illness was. But whatever. Kiwi was fine, just tired. And the cough – which presented itself in that instant.
"Slept like loose cog," Kiwi grumbled hoarsely, swallowing more gunk down. Her stomach didn't appreciate it.
"I know," Yatra acknowledged Kiwi's statement with an apologetic tone. "Me, too. I know sleeping hasn't been the same since-"
"Don't," Kiwi grimly cut that thought off.
She could Hear Yatra's breath stiffen, then release a sigh.
"We have to keep moving," Yatra concluded.
"Mmph," Kiwi grunted her reluctant agreement.
"But we really need food," Yatra explained, trying to fumble back to their routine, "I'll go try to find us something for breakfast while you try to stay warm."
Kiwi's opinion of this 'breakfast' endeavor was pessimistic, but she was too tired and too cranky to bother voicing it. Besides, Yatra would still try to make her optimistic wish a reality, regardless, no matter how antagonistic Kiwi acted. Yatra would fight tooth and nail to make it happen, no matter how dreary things seemed.
And that was exactly why Yatra was the only person Kiwi felt safe traveling with anymore.
"Kiwi?" Yatra probed, her presence lingering a few feet away, near their tent's entrance.
"Mm, yea," Kiwi puffed out a barely audible confirmation, her sight already gone again as her head lulled toward her lap.
The tent flaps were flipped about, and Yatra's moccasins flexed in quiet footsteps as she exited.
Thip. Thip, thip...thip.
Oh, jeez. The air that rushed in tingled at her bangs, chilling the sweat on her brows. It was definitely morning, from the smell of the air. And a bitter cold morning, at that. The sound of the wind dissipated as quickly as it had arrived, the tent's fabric fluttering back shut.
"It's pretty cold," Yatra said with a shiver, her voice mixed with the sound of a brisk breeze as her vibrations hovered by the tent's entrance. Kiwi let her body relax, her single-eye's sight tuned out, and she Focused. She could Hear the jangling of their metal teapot against their canteens, rustled together by the morning wind like chimes. The melody of Yatra's heartbeat bled into the chord of metal clattering, creating a well-worn harmony that always put Kee at ease.
Kiwi Sensed the subtleties of Yatra's movements – the familiar tousling of Yatra's hair, flicking about in the dancing breeze as the young woman tied her mess of wavy hair into a bun. The tattered, leather headband Yatra was tying her hair with carried an all-too-familiar scuffing sound. It always felt just the slightest bit 'off.' That sound didn't belong to Yatra originally, and yet now she carried it.
The very thought of the band Yatra wrapped her hair in - and who it had once belonged to - caused a flicker of pain. It was a burning, dull ache, like a migraine of the soul. Yatra kept the headband around as a keepsake, as a reminder of what they'd once had. But to Kiwidinok, it was the kind of reminder she could do without.
"The river's close," Yatra explained as she finishing binding up her hair. "I shouldn't be too long."
Kiwi rubbed at her raw throat as Yatra's clothing shuffled up ahead, outside the tent. The eagle-Eyed girl bent on finding breakfast was checking to make sure she had everything she needed. Kiwi savored the sound of Yatra's hunting knife sliding out of its leather sheath, then back in. She loved that sound, even though she knew she should not.
Yatra yawned beneath the harmonious wind rattling her clothes, which in turn caused Kiwi to yawn even deeper.
Yatra was poking her head back into the tent. Kiwi was too sleepy to even bother opening her eye.
"You should bundle back up," Yatra advised with some sternness, finishing her equipment adjustments. "We still have some tea leaves left, don't we?"
"Mm," Kiwi hummed an affirmative, sniffing up her runny nose.
"I'll make us some after I get some fresh water," Yatra promised. There was a pause. Then, Yatra asked, trying to assume her more optimistic tone, "Does that sound good?"
The idea of some morning tea was a small solace to look forward to, even if the promise of meat for breakfast was a failure. Kiwi warped her lips into a smile for her partner, as she knew how far a small smile could go to motivate Yatra at that point.
"All right," Yatra said. "Stay warm. Stay quiet. Stay safe."
"See no evil," Kiwi croaked out.
"Hear no evil," Yatra returned the gesture.
Kiwi did as she was told, fussing their blanket around her body and dropping her head back onto their shared pillow. She inhaled another yawn through the pillow's fabric - the duck down feathers encased within had lost much of their scent by now, and the once satisfying sounds they had once released were muffled now.
"Kiwindinok," Yatra bid loudly to Kiwi, who was curling up. "Love you."
Yatra lingered near the tent's entrance, the wind nudging at her, but she received no reply that morning.
Thip. Thip. Thip...Thip...
Yatra's mouth was watering at the scent of the roasted fish she was nearly done cooking. It had taken a lot longer than she'd hoped, but she had managed to nab a trio of fish that morning, culled from the river's waters. It was growing more and more difficult to find anything living in the wild with each passing season. At least rivers meant a flowing source of potential food.
Kiwi was sitting on the opposite side of the fire, drinking up her second cup of tea in slow, steady sips. Kiwi's occasional hums of satisfaction from the beverage made the effort in making it quite worth the while. Yatra was no brewer like Lien, but he had taught her a thing or two during their time holding out in Ituha. She could at least boil a nice, hot herbal tea that would hopefully sooth poor Kiwi's throat.
As if triggered by her own thoughts, Yatra coughed out at their campfire. She sent a second and third cough into her sleeve. This gave way to a painful sneeze that didn't expel much, but rather just built up pressure in her skull. Yatra's head throbbed for a moment, but she still had food to tend to. With a weary sniffle, she overcame her dizziness and refocused on the sizzling fish in front of her, releasing a weary groan through her nose. She could See speckles of odd light dance at the edges of her Vision for a few seconds, like wayward fireflies.
"No evil," Kiwi mumbled from across the tiny campfire. It was a short-hand form of blessing – 'feel no evil' or 'be well.'
These had been the first words Kiwi had uttered since Yatra had returned to camp with food and water.
"Thanks," Yatra replied, more grateful to hear Kiwi's voice than for the gesture itself.
Yatra Focused on Kiwi's face. It was paler than usual, for certain. Yatra had wondered if the earlier lighting, combined with her own fears, had caused her Sense to play tricks on her, but no...Kiwi was definitely paler. Closer examination of the one-eyed girl's face revealed that her lips were chapped from breathing the cold, dry air through her mouth all night. Her nostril's edges were reddened, too, and a bit of snot was hanging just outside of the left side. Darkened, puffy skin at the bases of Kiwi's eyes, as well – fluids built up from her sickness due to sleeping on her side. Speaking of, Kiwi's one in-tact eyeball was riddled with creeping capillaries – bloodshot due to their staying up too late and sleeping like trash, no doubt. Kiwi's Ears were growing just a bit of peach fuzz at the ends, and a single white hair was protruding off of the girl's ear lobe. Yatra had decided that she found this detail endearing when she'd noticed it a couple of days ago, and each morning, she found herself Focusing on it for no explainable reason.
Having studied her partner with the usual morning's scrutiny, Yatra prevented a sigh from slipping out – she didn't need Kiwi to Hear it and detect the concern in that moment. Fish were present. Food. Fresh meat. It had been days since fresh meat. They needed to enjoy it.
Prodding at her own sore nose, Yatra considered their circumstances.
Fish was the only reliable source of meat in the region at that point, and with her Eyesight, Yatra could spot them coming a mile away – easy enough to nab with a simple net and the reflexes to make good use of her Focus. On the other hand, everyone else seemed to be having similar ideas of traveling by the river's edges, like the pair of desperate tricksters they had encountered on their way south from Ituha. And in such disparaging times, encountering people at all was a risky proposition, as their experience traversing past that fishing village the other day had reminded. She could only hope things would go better at the next village. Tenochtitlan was supposedly a compassionate woman. Yatra could only hope the rumors were true.
Yatra broke free from her worry-warting to notice that their fish looked about done, so she removed the sticks they were perched on from the dirt and stuck them back in a new spot, away from the fire's blaze. She let herself Stare at the fire's flickering light, letting its warm colors wash across her retinas in the way the wind rattling metal together soothed her companion.
Bitter and ironic that fire had been causing them such grief in recent times, and yet its sweet kiss brought tea to life and enabled them to use the life of smaller creatures to lengthen their own spans.
"Breakfast is ready," Yatra advised. Her voice was a bit more hoarse than when she'd departed that morning. The chilly, dry morning air had not exactly helped out her throat. "Could you pour me some of that tea?" Yatra requested.
Kiwi casually scooped up the metal teapot by its handle and drained some of its liquid into the second pewter cup they possessed. Yatra didn't need Ears like her comrade's to appreciate the comforting sound it produced.
Yatra got up, carrying their three fish over around the fire. With a grunt of relief at the daunting task of 'breakfast' now complete at last, Yatra dropped herself down beside Kiwi. She scooted her hips against her neighbor's, and handed Kiwi a fish on a stick, while Kiwi passed the fresh cup of tea in Yatra's direction.
The girls took a moment's respite to drink tea, eat fish, and listen to and and watch the crackling campfire as it slowly died. After a couple of minutes had passed and two of their three fish were depleted, Yatra handed the last fish to Kiwi, but the stubborn girl nudged it right back without a word.
"You need to keep your strength up," Yatra insisted, scratching behind Kiwi's Ear coyly. "We still have at least another day's journey before we reach Chinampa, and there's no telling if we'll find anything on the way. C'mon." She placed the food in Kiwi's lap, but Kiwi sternly flipped it back again.
Yatra frowned, Studying Kiwi's expression. The grouchy girl had been so silent ever since their incident in the swamp, and it was starting to get discouraging. The last thing they needed was for one of them to start slipping down into that pit of despair. Even if Kiwi was stoic, she still emoted, if in ways most might not detect. But Yatra had figured a lot of it out by now. Specifically keen Eyesight certainly helped, of course. In that specific instant, Yatra felt she could decipher why Kiwi was refusing to eat more: 'You're the one out there catching fish and collecting water and pulling my weight around - you need this food more than I do.'
Had Kiwi actually put the idea into words, it likely would've come out a bit more rude, but Yatra knew this was the gist of it. That particular way Kiwi's brows were furrowing, her face hollow and motionless...That was the way Kiwi looked whenever she 'was being a dead-weight.'
From an objective standpoint, Yatra knew that she technically needed the extra nutrition for herself to recoup what was lost in retrieving the resources to begin with. But she still didn't like it.
A whole fuss made over a single, measly fish.
That was the state of things out in the Wilds.
As Kiwi finished off her second cup of tea, Yatra devoured the last of their breakfast. The campfire was now a dull glow of embers, their tent was collapsed down, and their supplies were sitting in two packs behind them.
The wind licked at the dying coals, caressing over the girls' faces. Yatra felt a shiver jump up her spine, and she wrapped her arms around Kiwi's side, pressing their bodies together. She craned her neck to Study Kiwi's face again, noting the specks of ashy fish left on her dried lips. Yatra wet her thumb with her tongue and rubbed the residue off of Kiwi's lips, then kissed the girl on the temple.
All the while, Kiwi didn't anything or reciprocate in any way, but merely coughed into her wrist.
Yatra was stung by this. It had taken so long to get Kiwi to a point where they could return affection in kind, a steady back and forth...but now...-
"Kiwi, are you...doing OK?"
Kiwi huffed through her nose, then shrugged up her shoulder, easing Yatra's weight off of her. She was obviously not in a touchy-feely mood today. Just like yesterday. And the day before that...
Yatra verbally poked, "I'm sorry, you know."
"I know," Kiwi said, her voice even more hoarse than Yatra's was. She coughed again. "Just drop it."
"I miss him, too. But...you don't see me-"
"Kiwi, I want us to talk about this."
"Well, I don't."
"I think you need to," Yatra expressed firmly.
Kiwi's head rolled off to one side with frustration as she explained, "There's nothing to talk about."
"Then why are you keeping me out?" Yatra demanded quietly, a hint of desperation leaking through her clenched teeth.
"I'm not...trying to, it...-" Kiwi drizzled out a huff, scratching at her prickly hair nervously while letting the sentence trail off.
"If you feel like losing Helki was my fault," Yatra murmured shakily. "I don't...get why you don't just say it."
"I don't feel that way," Kiwi earnestly mumbled. "He was...a dog. That's all he was."
"That's not all he was."
"And now he's gone," Kiwi continued, her head sagging with stoicism.
"He...-" Yatra didn't know how to react to Kiwi's cold approach to coping with what had happened on the outskirts of Ituha.
"Just like everyone else, right?" said Kiwi. "What do you want me to do, Yatra? Cry about it?"
"'Cuz if we start crying every time this happens, then...-"
"I don't know," Yatra moaned, rubbing her palm over her face. "I just wanted you to admit that you felt something, instead of...-"
"I did 'feel something,'" croaked Kiwi. "It pissed me off. If that counts as a 'feeling' still. Not that it matters."
"It does matter. Feeling something is better than-"
"-better than feeling nothing at all, I know."
"Than could you st-" Yatra's aching throat couldn't take any more arguing, and she lost herself in a series of coughs.
Kiwi patted Yatra's back, clearing her own throat. She picked up the half-empty cup of tea in the dirt by Yatra's knee and shoved it toward the direction of her ally's face.
"Drink," Kiwi commanded tiredly. "Just drop it, already."
Yatra did as she was told with some reluctance. She swallowed her tea in a a few slow, steady gulps. She irritably slammed the pewter cup onto the ground.
"For later," Yatra cited, referring to one of their 'rules' regarding these sorts of conversations.
"For later," Kiwi confirmed in an irate sigh.
Kiwi slid her moccasin across the dirt, shoving a mound of earth over top of their now deceased campfire.
Yatra slid her fingers down Kiwi's arm, clasping her slender fingers inbetween Kiwi's bony ones. Both girls squeezed at each other's hands in a single, brief moment.
It was time to get back on the road.
It was going to be another quiet day. Yatra didn't like that prospect one bit.
The quiet days were the truly unsettling ones.
"We face up to awful things because we can't go around them, or forget them. The sooner you say 'Yes, it happened, and there's nothing I can do about it,' the sooner you can get on with your own life. You've got children to bring up. So you've got to get over it. What we have to get over, somehow we do. Even the worst things."
― Annie Proulx