One night later, and not too far away…
The trio was bedding down for the night. Aang got a fire started while Katara was mending yet another tear in Sokka’s pants. Momo batted at a moth fluttering around the welcoming campfire, and the water boy watched him moodily, leaning up against Appa’s shaggy hide.
“I’m hungry,” Sokka whined. “Don’t we have anything to eat?”
“Sokka, do you ever shut up about your stomach?” Katara snapped irritably. “You know, some of us have self-control. And don’t give me that line about being a growing young warrior – I’m growing too, and I don’t eat nearly half as much as you!”
The Water Tribe boy was about to give a hot retort when they heard a blood-curdling cry from deep within the woods. It was a like a wail, or a staccato scream, or…
“Horse!” Aang whispered excitedly. “That was a horse whinny!”
The frightened water siblings snapped their heads around. “A horse? Don’t be ridiculous Aang, there’s no such thing as horses! Unicorns, maybe, but horses?” Sokka said.
The strangled cry sounded again, sending icy chills up the trio’s spines. Katara clutched at the handfuls of fabric and Sokka buried himself into Appa’s thick hide just a bit deeper.
“No, you guys don’t understand, I’ve seen a horse before, a hundred years ago in the Fire Nation when I was visiting my friend Kuzon,” Aang said eagerly. “They’re really cool to ride!”
“Aang, we’re thousands of miles from the Fire Nation. Even if horses really did exist, what would they be doing in the
“I dunno. Grazing?” He picked up his glider and popped it open.
“Wait, where are you going?” Katara got up.
“I’m going to find out what that noise was. You two stay here with Appa.” And off he went, gliding up into the night sky.
“Aang wait! It could be dangerous!” Katara called after the monk, but he disappeared over the moonlit forest canopy. She huffed. “He’s going to get himself killed if he keeps doing crazy stuff like this. What if the Fire Nation is out there?”
“Don’t worry. We haven’t seen Zuko for weeks. If he’s still after us, he’s waaaay behind us. Maybe if we’re lucky, he froze to death in the North Pole.” Sokka took out his boomerang and began sharpening it.
Katara looked at her brother in shock. Sokka had grown bitterer since Yue had died, and she began to wonder if her brother was blaming the prince and his uncle somehow.
“That’s not fair, Sokka. General Iroh helped us save the whole Water Tribe. How can you wish ill upon him?”
“How can you defend him? He’s Fire Nation! They killed our mother!” Sokka spat.
“General Iroh didn’t kill our mother, and neither did Zuko!” Katara yelled back.
“Oh, yeah, right. Your boyfriend has only been trying to kill us since, what, the beginning?”
Katara flushed. Damn that bounty hunter. “He’s not my boyfriend! Not everyone from the Fire Nation is evil, you know. Stop pinning all your hang ups on people who don’t deserve it!”
Sokka crossed his arms and snorted, glaring in the other direction. The water girl sighed and she sat down by the fire. “Listen Sokka, I know it’s been hard for you since we left the North Pole. But blaming everyone from the Fire Nation for the war is what Jet did, remember? I don’t want you to get like that.”
The young warrior scraped his whetstone against the razor-fine edge of his boomerang, sending a shower of sparks out. He gripped them both tightly for a moment and let out a long breath, eyes closed.
“You’re right. I’m sorry. It’s just...”
“It’s okay. I know.” Katara smiled wanly at her brother. She listened to the teeth-aching scrape of stone grinding against metal.
“For the record, I don’t blame him. Either of them.” Sokka said finally. “They just make things harder for us, you know?”
“General Iroh seemed like a wise man,” Katara said after a thoughtful pause. “Maybe if we’re lucky, some of that wisdom will rub off on Zuko. Maybe that’s why they’ve stopped chasing us.”
“Don’t get your hopes up. They’re still after Aang, and they’ll catch up to us eventually. You know Zuko. He won’t just give up.” Sokka smirked. “Don’t worry. You’ll get to see your boyfriend again.”
Katara furiously flung his half-mended pants at his head and he laughed. “We’re supposed to be worrying about Aang right now, not playing matchmaker!”
“What? Can I help it if I get weird ideas? Besides, he’d be fun to torture, since I’m your big brother and have the right to exercise bodily threats.” Sokka sighed wistfully.
“So now you’re suggesting I start dating Prince Zuko so you can beat up on him?” Katara crossed her arms over her chest.
Sokka started, spluttering. “I’m not saying anything! Don’t you dare even think about that Katara!”
“You started it,” she shot back. “Maybe I should go and kiss a Firebender, just so I can watch your head explode.”
“W-well… don’t come crying to me if you get burned!” Sokka snorted. He sulked while Katara laughed inwardly, tasting victory over her brother’s teasing.
“Anyhow, Aang will be fine. It’s probably better off that he goes alone to ride whatever it is that’s out there,” Sokka said. “He’ll be back soon. I’m sure of it.”
Aang drank in the mild night air and let his glider ride the gentle updrafts. He watched the ground rushing beneath him through the sparse, budding canopy below, trying to spot the source of the uncanny whinny.
His heart leapt with joy at the thought of seeing a horse again. A hundred years ago, Kuzon had taken him to a hilly plain in the Fire Nation. They had hidden behind some boulders for hours to wait for the legendary beasts to make an appearance.
“They only show up if they want you to see them,” Kuzon had whispered. “We have to patient.”
And sure enough, when the moon was at its zenith and the boys had nearly given up on their quest, the creature appeared. Aang had no words to describe the sight of the beast at the time, its chestnut coat gleaming in the moonlight, its big, soft eyes staring placidly back. It was a strong, beautiful animal, but at the same time, its sheer size and rippling musculature made it look like a dangerous predator.
Not that any of that had stopped the monk from trying to ride the beast.
Aang had soared into the air on his glider and dropped down on top of the creature. He lasted all of 3 seconds on the horse’s back as the twisting, writhing, panicked monster bucked him off. He fell to the ground, his head hitting the hard-packed dirt, and he was dazed a moment. The horse could have killed him with a mighty stomp of its glistening hoof had Kuzon not scared it away, waving his arms wildly.
The little monk lay on the grass, gasping for air, laughing. “That was awesome!”
Kuzon frowned. “Man, now I’ll never get my turn. Horses learn fast, you know. He won’t come back to this spot now.”
“Oh. Sorry Kuzon, I didn’t know you wanted a turn.”
The Fire Nation boy shrugged a little sadly, and Aang felt guilty for disappointing him. “It’s okay. Maybe next time.”
But there was no next time. Neither of them had seen a horse since that night. And then Aang had run away…
Now, a hundred years later, the Avatar promised he would ride a horse for Kuzon.
The neigh reverberated close by, a hollow, throaty whine that seemed to call to the monk invitingly. Aang swerved toward the sound, his heart beating madly in rapturous anticipation.
Hours later, the water siblings, still waiting up for their friend, decided it had been too long since Aang’s departure.
“We should try to find him. He could be in trouble.” Sokka said, pacing fretfully. “Man, I knew it was a bad idea for him to go off alone!”
Katara pushed her tongue against the inside of her cheek, deciding not to point out he had not been so concerned a few hours ago. “He could come back at any minute. You take Appa and search for him. Be back here in two hours. I’ll wait for him here.”
“Are you sure you’ll be okay?”
Katara crossed her arms and pointed at the bucket of water by the fire. “I’ve got plenty of ammo. And I’ve got Momo. Just go.”
Sokka nodded. Katara watched her brother climb onto the flying bison’s neck. With a curt yip-yip, they were soaring off in the same direction Aang had gone.
The Waterbender settled in for the wait, praying to the spirits the Avatar was okay. She watched the campfire in a trance, prodding it gently with a stick, and found herself thinking about her fight with Zuko. It was still so unreal in her mind, the way she had defeated him. A thrill went through her as she remembered how her first few blows had struck him down. Of course at the time, she was only concerned about keeping him away from Aang, but in hindsight, it had been a real rush to beat the Firebending prince.
She wouldn’t admit it, but she wanted a rematch. A real rematch. She wanted to see if she could beat him again, without the full moon or the sun to give either of them the advantage. She wanted to be better than him. She wanted to be able to protect Aang and her brother. She wanted to see Zuko beg her to stop…
As she watched the fire dance in the pit, her eyelids drooped and she nodded off, feeling the soothing heat on her skin…
Katara woke with a start at the sound of a rustle in the bushes.
I must have dozed off… what time is it?
The snap of twigs continued and her heart leapt. She jumped to her feet a little groggily and took a stance.
“Aang?” She called out hesitantly. “Sokka? Is that you?”
Stupid girl, it could be anyone. Don’t let whoever it is know you’re alone!
“Hey Momo, did you hear that?” She asked the lemur, pretending he was a strapping, burly fellow with a big sword and a mean temper. “You wanna check it out?”
She bent a water snake out of the bucket and slowly edged towards the noise. She thought for a moment that she saw a flicker of white, but it was just the moonlight on the leaves.
“Just a rodent, or something, I bet.” She said aloud again, but she did not let her guard down. Her heart thudded madly in her chest, and though she was a master Waterbender, she wished she had something a little sturdier to back her up, like Sokka’s club, or the all-powerful Avatar.
The flicker of movement caught her eye once more and this time, she lashed out with a lightning-fast water whip.
The scream from the bushes elicited a scream of her own. Katara dropped the water whip and skidded away from the underbrush as a massive creature reared up. A long, white face and broad, muscular neck came up, the pointed ears flattened back, as two hoofs clawed blindly at the air. The creature bared is big, square teeth, nostrils flaring, as it came crashing down over the edge of the brush. It panicked and kicked, its huge body trapped over the dense foliage, and it tossed its wild black mane angrily.
Katara took two more steps back in terror. The massive beast thrashed as the thorny hedge scraped its sensitive underside, but it could not quite get its hind over the brambles. It squealed in increasing panic, and the Water Tribe girl could not tear her eyes from the wild white animal.
She didn’t know how she managed to shake herself out of paralysis, but she found herself at the beast’s side, determined to help it out of its thorny trap. She kept well away from the kicking hind legs and dodged anytime the creature’s mass came careening at her. When it had stilled some, she dug her arms into the brush, wincing at the sharp burrs tearing at her sleeves. She managed to push down just enough so the horse could clamber awkwardly over it, but as she saw the giant hoof coming towards her face, she knew she had made a mistake.
Darkness was sharp and blunt and swift.