As a few equine enthuiasts have told me, the best way to deal with a horse if you have to go around its back is to trail your touch down its body so it knows you're back there. And don't linger. Personally, I'm not a fan of horse butts, as it tends to be the end where poop is made and ejected. But in Zuko's case... well...
You know what? I'm not even going there.
Katara couldn't believe it. Ridiculous as it sounded, somehow, Zuko and Aang had been turned into horses. And now they were fighting over her.
The white stallion reared and galloped at the black horse, trying to force it away. The blackie turned and kicked out with its powerful hind legs. The blow connected to the white horse’s breast, striking with loud thumps. He stumbled back, but whirled with great speed and struck out with both hoofs, kicking the black Zuko-horse in the shoulder. The evil-looking creature blew a plume of grey smoke from its nostrils as it screamed and scampered away. The white horse spun again and reared on its hind legs, forcing his opponent back, pawing menacingly at the air in front of the blackie’s long, angular, angry face. The Zuko-horse backed away, stymied. It clamped at the air, trying to bite the white Aang-horse, but its teeth snapped together loudly, emptily. It tried instead to go around the white horse to get to Katara, but the white stallion continued its barrage of hoofs and gnashing teeth.
Katara backed away as the battle raged on. For some reason, the black horse was intent on reaching her. If only she had some water, she could help Aang!
“Katara!” A voice cried out from above. She looked up.
“Sokka!” The flying bison came surging downwards. The horses started, whinnying in surprise, and they broke apart, retreating from each other.
“Don’t let him escape!” A gruff voice cried out. Katara looked up at the litter in confusion. A portly old man pointed at the stampeding horses imploringly.
“What… what are you doing here?” The words escaped her mouth, though she already knew the answer to that question. Where the Dragon of the West went, so went Zuko.
“He’s getting away! Quickly!” Iroh barked. Sokka leapt from the shaggy bison’s neck, followed by the Fire Nation general. Appa growled, apparently understanding the situation, and he took off to block the horses’ exit from the clearing.
“Sokka, it’s Aang!” Katara cried after her brother. “Zuko’s—”
“A Werehorse, we know,” He replied, unslinging a lariat from around his chest.
“He came out of nowhere, and then Aang saved me—”
“I saved who from the what now?”
The little monk appeared at her side, snapping his glider shut. He looked a little haggard, a large purple lump on the side of his head, but he was very much human.
Katara blinked. She stared at the Avatar, then at the two horses stampeding frantically around the campsite’s perimeter, searching for a way out. Appa was effectively blocking the one easy path through the thorny bushes, scaring the wits out of the horses.
“But if you’re you, who’s…”
“It’s Zuko,” Sokka explained. “Aang saw him first. He tried to ride him, but got bucked off and hit his head. I found him with General Iroh, unconscious. He asked us to help him search for Zuko after he went missing last night.”
Katara gaped, baffled. “Wait, who—”
“I need your help!” Iroh called. “We need to corral them!”
The trio jumped into action. Katara ran and grabbed her blessedly filled water skin from Appa’s litter. The boys closed in on the white stallion while Iroh approached the black horse, cornering it into the bushes with hands full of fire. The great beast snorted fire right back and reared, causing the old man to step back. It whirled, spotting Katara, and charged at her once more.
This time the Waterbender was ready. The girl uncapped her skin and unleashed a stinging water whip, striking the animal smartly on its sensitive nose. It screamed and skidded to a stop, ears flattened against its head indignantly. Katara took the moment’s hesitation to wrap a water snake around the horse’s ankles, freezing it into a tight binding. The black horse neighed and bucked, tripped, and crashed down to the ground shoulder-first. Iroh quickly pinned its hindquarters and cinched its flailing legs together with a lasso. He tied all four legs up tightly and quickly got up off the thrashing, screaming creature’s form.
Meanwhile, Aang and Sokka had managed to throw the rope around the white stallion’s neck. It kicked out and squealed, rearing, the whites of his eyes showing clearly in the night. The boys pulled on the rope, terrified.
“It’s okay, you’re safe now!” Katara cried, running to the boys’ aid. The stallion whinnied at the sound of her voice and instantly relaxed. She reached out tentatively and stroked his trembling face, brushing his jet black forelock out of his wild eyes. She cooed soothingly to him. “Good boy... pretty boy... you saved my life!" She hugged the white horse around the neck.
Aang and Sokka exchanged looks. Iroh pursed his lips and smiled.
“I see you and my nephew are already acquainted,” he coughed politely, grinning.
Katara froze. She felt a hot blush flow over skin from the head down.
“That’s Zuko,” Sokka rasped dryly. “You’re. Hugging. Zuko.”
Katara stepped away and stared into the horse’s long, stoic face. She glanced at the immobilized, yellow-eyed creature struggling and breathing fire in the dirt, then back.
“No. You guys totally have it wrong. That evil horse over there MUST be Zuko.” She floundered.
“...We’re pretty sure we know what we’re talking about,” Aang said, toeing the ground uncomfortably.
Katara's mouth fell off her face. “Okay, what the heck is going on?”
General Iroh tugged his beard thoughtfully. “Last night, a storyteller told us about a Werehorse that roamed these woods. My nephew didn’t believe him, of course, but I’ve seen some pretty amazing things in my life not to believe the tale. Zuko went away for a bath and didn’t come back. This morning, I found him lying in the middle of the woods, naked, with a hoof print on his chest and a bite mark on his shoulder – the signs that he had been turned by a Werehorse.” Iroh gently felt over the white stallion’s right shoulder. Katara could see it now – the white horse hair and the curve in the animal’s musculature had covered the raw, raised flesh quite well.
“Zuko was ill all day. I left him to find the storyteller and discover the cure. When I returned, the sun set and the moon came out, and my nephew began to change...” Iroh shuddered. He couldn’t go on.
Aang chimed in. “I found the white horse a few hours ago and tried to ride him. I didn’t know it was Zuko and he threw me off. The next thing I knew, Iroh and Sokka are bent over me, and they tell me Zuko’s a horse now, and I was all ‘huh?’ Sorta like you right now, Katara.”
She licked her dry lips. Surely they were joking? This had to be some kind of practical joke. Any minute now, Zuko would jump out of the bushes and yell “Surprise!” and they could all go back to trying to kill each other the way they used to.
“So… if this is Zuko… who is that?” She pointed at the black horse. She looked a little more carefully and it struck her – the black Werehorse was a mare.
“Zuko’s sire, or perhaps I should say dam,” Iroh explained. “The one that made him like this. We’re very lucky to have caught them both at the same time. Now we can solve this mystery and rid the area of a great danger.”
The mare snorted malevolently, struggling against her bonds. A plume of smoke trailed up from her nostrils.
“But... how come she’s got yellow eyes and the whole Firebending thing going for her?” Katara asked.
“Another part of Werehorse lore: the were-sire or dam takes on the attributes of those he or she turns, stealing their bending powers and some of their traits. In this case, Zuko’s heritage and the ability to Firebend.”
“See, now you know how I feel,” Sokka sighed. “Weird magic stuff always freaks me out.”
Katara ignored her brother and mulled over the old general’s words. “Is that why she was attacking me? So she could steal my Waterbending skills and make me a… a Werehorse too?”
Iroh cleared his throat uncomfortably. “No, no, I don’t think so. I think she saw you as a… potential rival.”
“Rival? For what?”
Iroh covered his wide smile with his sleeve. “For her mate, of course.”
The white Zuko horse took a step forward and nuzzled Katara’s ear affectionately, blowing a hot breath down her shirt. She squealed and jumped away, suddenly aware of who she was dealing with.
“I think he likes you,” Iroh chuckled.
Sokka and Aang were not amused.
Katara tamed her furious blush and gently stopped the stallion’s advances with a gentle slap to his soft nose. “So… what do we do now? Is he stuck like this?”
“No. Thank the gods I encountered you three. We have the cure in our hands,” Iroh said.
The trio stared at him blankly.
“The storyteller told me the Werehorse’s curse can only be broken by doing the impossible. Have you ever heard the expression, ‘you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink?’”
The Avatar and the Water children glanced at each other and shrugged.
“Well, it’s true. Unless you’re a Waterbender.”
Sokka refilled the bucket with cold, clean water from the nearby stream while the others kept their eyes on the captive mounts. Katara dipped her hands into the liquid and closed her eyes, focusing, filling her mind with soothing, healing waves of energy that pulsed through her fingertips with each heartbeat. Soon, the whole bucket glowed with her power. She smiled down at her work and gently brought a globe up and out of the pail and presented it to the white Zuko horse.
“Here,” she said quietly. The horse glanced warily at the strange glowing ball floating before him and shivered, but Iroh steadied him and kept him from shying away. “Drink up.”
Zuko stared into her eyes in askance. She smiled back at those dark, long-lashed eyes, which were nothing like the prince’s cold, hard human ones, and thought for a moment she could see the noble man beneath the noble creature. She reached out and stroked his velvety muzzle one last time. He closed his eyes and gently leaned into her touch, whickering softly. Then he started drinking.
In short time, the entire ball of water had been lapped up. Zuko staggered a moment, kneeled down, and rolled heavily over onto his side. His legs twitched and his body spasmed. The humans backed away and watched in horrified fascination. The short, silky white hairs fell away, the legs shortened and fleshed out, the bones cracked and set into a humanoid form, the muscles shrank, the neck and face retracted, and the dark mane disappeared. Within minutes, the great stomping animal was gone, and all that was left was Prince Zuko, lying asleep on the grass, completely naked.
Katara couldn’t tear her eyes away until Iroh put a blanket over his nephew and rolled him over onto his back. A small part of her heart cried out for the fast friend she had made in the horse. She stared at Prince Zuko’s peaceful features and wondered: would he remember anything?
“Ew, that was gross,” Sokka grimaced. “Let’s try it on the other one!”
“Be careful. I don’t know who or what that creature is,” Iroh said in warning.
Katara had to bend the water straight down the black mare’s throat this time. She kicked and snapped and was generally a big brat, nearly tripping Aang in her wild thrashings, but the mare eventually settled and went still, falling heavily to the ground. Just as before, the horse’s hair fell out, her long, lean body transforming in a few short minutes into a fully-developed woman with long, black hair and full, red, pouted lips. The boys turned their curious eyes away from her naked body as Katara covered her up with her sleeping bag.
“She… she kinda’ looks familiar,” Sokka said after a moment, looking at the woman’s face. “Katara, do you…?”
Iroh looked over and gasped.
The old man collapsed by the bounty hunter’s side and inspected her face. He slapped her lightly and she groaned. Her dark eyes fluttered open.
“Hurhnn…? Wha… YOU!” She sat up, and the sleeping bag fell away from her exposed form. “What are you—ack!”
“Jun, you remember me, yes?” He stared earnestly into her face. She looked groggy and confused, deep dark circles haunting her eyes.
“Yes… what am I doing here? Where am I? What happened? Did you do this?” She demanded, pointing at her naked body.
Iroh waved her questions off. “What is the last thing you remember?”
She stared at him. Her eyes shifted back and forth as she recalled the events from her mind. “I was searching for my Xirxiu. He had run away…” She glared at him briefly. “No thanks to you.” Then she noticed the others who had destroyed her livelihood standing about as well. She sneered bitterly. “So, I guess we’re having a reunion. Is Angry Boy here too?”
“He is,” Iroh looked over his shoulder at the form lying on the ground. “Just barely.”
Jun frowned. “I was walking through the woods, trying to get to town before nightfall. I was almost there, and then I heard…” she shuddered, “Hoofs. Galloping. I thought it was a rhino, or maybe my Xirxiu, but it wasn’t…” She held her head in one hand, the blanket slipping away, revealing a wicked spiral snake tattoo on her bare shoulder. Sokka’s eyes glowed appreciatively. “Next thing I know, I’m lying here, naked, with you louts staring at me. Could I get some clothes already? It’s kind of cold.”
Aang and Sokka bounded away to find the beautiful woman something to wear.
“Jun, when and where was that?” Iroh asked seriously. She looked into his eyes a little fearfully.
“About two weeks after I met you, southeast of that monastery.”
Iroh swore and pursed his lips.
“How... how long have I been out?” She asked carefully.
Iroh’s face was solemn. “Three months.”
Jun’s face went a shade paler. She bowed her head and swore as Iroh put a comforting arm around her shoulders.
Katara scratched her head. “I don’t understand. I thought Werehorses turn back into people during the day.”
“Not necessarily. If Jun’s sire was a true purebred Werehorse, she may never have turned back into a human after she was bitten. She was only half Werehorse, in reality, and Zuko was only one quarter. Jun might never have turned back into a human, while Zuko, having been bitten by a half-breed, did, even if only for one morning.” Iroh turned to the woman and smiled kindly. “We’re lucky we saved you and Zuko both. You could have stayed like that forever otherwise.”
The bounty hunter stared off into the dark, eyes flickering in deep thought. She tossed her head and snorted, as if trying to shake some sense out of her rattled brain.
“It’s alright Jun, we’ll take care of you. There’s an
The boys brought her a spare pair of pants and a tunic and she pulled them on while they comforted her.
Deciding that the woman would be alright under the attentions of three smitten boy-men, Katara quietly crept over to Zuko’s side. He lay still, his chest rising and falling with the steady rhythm of sleep. She knelt down and tucked the blanket under his chin, smoothing the stray hairs away from his face, admiring his strong jaw and cool skin. His scar really wasn’t so bad…
“You were nice as a horse,” she whispered smilingly. She ran her fingertip down the centre of his face, brushing his lips gently, her only way to say goodbye to a friend that never existed. “Too bad you’re not like that all the time.”
She tucked something into his upturned palm, then turned her back and left Zuko to sleep alone.