Note: Hello, thanks for reading. Since there hasn't been a lot on Air Nomad culture mentioned yet in the series, I'm relying on imagination. However, if you see something that is just completely in disagreement with canon, feel free to point it out. I wanted to try something different, let me know what you think - good or bad!
Aang the Brave
A hundred years ago everyone believed that a bison could fly.
There was a time when herds of bison gathered regally onto mountainsides – so many of the white-furred beasts that, from a distance, it looked as if snow from the peaks had drifted to the foothills. At times an entire herd took to flight at once, casting hundreds of shadows over the earth like a colossal, fragmented cloud. Wild, majestic, and noble, the bison was the king of the skies. Then, someone had the idea to tame the creatures and, finding himself suddenly uninhibited, the Air Nomad was born.
The silhouette of a lone bison, and sometimes groups of two or three, became a common sight in the skies of every nation. Over the years they mastered the nuances of flying, and the Nomads wasted no time exploring the world in a way no one had before. Some people compared them to wildflowers. Others compared them to a disease. Whatever the attitude, the undeniable truth was that the Nomads, figuratively speaking, were there to stay.
No one really knew why the Nomad traveled, where he was going, what he was searching for – so they made up their own stories. Sometimes the Nomad was a romantic hero, searching the world for adventure and love, roaming wherever the wind took him. Sometimes he was a thief, a trickster who would rob you blind as he smiled in your face. Magician or murder; gypsy or jester. The Nomad's roles were as endless as the skies through which he wandered.
Those few who bothered to ask quickly found that, as with most legends, the stories were more fantastic than the truth. Of course, there was the occasional young adventure-seeker, roving the world without destination. But quite often the flying caravans were traveling to or from one of the Air Temples. The Nomad was proud of his temple and its benders. Perhaps it was best that few strangers bothered to question him, because once the Nomad began his laudation little could be done to end it.
In the summer the Nomads began to migrate north. People depended on and looked forward to this annual migration. Farmers considered it a blessing for a bison to fly over their fields – it meant plenty of rain, a bountiful harvest. Expecting mothers scoured the sky for a glimpse of white fur – one bison for a girl, two for a boy. On balmy nights children searched the heavens for bison, ethereal in the moonlight, like slowly shooting stars. The bison were easy to spot, and it was a rare year when anyone was left disappointed, because hardly an Air Nomad in the world would miss the annual sky bison polo tournament.
Aang struggled to concentrate. He shifted so that he was laying on his side, cheek pressed against the rough tile. Knuckles aching, he closed one eye and carefully lined up his shot. Discouraging voices murmured around him, "He should give up. There's no way he can win now. Nobody ever beats Jinju." Aang ignored them. If he could make this shot, he still had a chance. It was his last shot and he would make it count.
"Okay," Aang said, and the murmurings ceased. Suddenly, he could hear the other sounds of the temple more clearly – chattering lemurs outside the wall, hollow thumps from the airball court, his own pulse, and his opponent's wheezing breath. He pushed the distractions aside and focused on his target. The tiny glass marble sat precariously at the edge of the lopsided circle. If only he could knock that one out... He took a deep breath and shot.
"Woo-hoo!" Jinju cheered as Aang's black shooter rolled harmlessly out of the circle. Groaning, Aang watched as the other boy easily knocked his last marble from the chalk boundary and added it to his huge collection. The small crowd they had attracted dispersed, bored, and the two boys were left alone in the middle of the sunny courtyard. Aang stood, picked up his shooter, and dropped it in his pocket.
"Good game, Jinju," he muttered with false enthusiasm. Just because he had lost every one of his hard earned marbles to a kid who smelled like he slept in the bison stables and tucked his shirt into his underwear didn't mean he had to be a bad sport about it.
Jinju looked up from where he was sitting, counting his new prizes and dropping them one by one into a small, worn pouch. "Yep. I almost feel bad takin' all of 'em," he drawled. Suddenly he flashed Aang a wide grin. "Hey, if you want I can help you practice -"
"No!" Aang said, a little too quickly. "I mean, well, I don't know..."
"Yeah, yeah," Jinju's head began bobbing up and down excitedly. "I can teach you my secret. There's a certain way you gotta hold your wrist, just right so that -"
"Maybe another time," Aang interrupted. "I have to pack and get Appa ready... So, I really just don't have time right now." He shrugged, offering an apologetic smile, and turned to leave. "Well, I guess I'll see you later." He took off before Jinju had a chance to start up again, quickly making his way across the courtyard, around a corner, and out of sight.
A warm breeze brushed against his face as he walked. Aang tried his best to ignore his prickling conscience. He knew he was being mean to Jinju, but there was no other way to deal with the boy. Jinju was nice enough, as long as you didn't let him get too close. Most of the time he seemed content just to sit by himself in a corner, counting and recounting his marble collection. Everyone else was content to leave him alone, because the moment someone showed any interest Jinju found a new best friend, and he clung like a second skin. Aang had seen boys driven to near madness after Jinju decided to leech onto them. Thankfully he had never been a victim, and he wasn't about to risk it.
Aang made his way quickly through the temple's open corridors. He passed under high, sunlit arches and leaped up entire stairways, propelling himself with Airbending. As he moved farther from the busy courtyard, the temple grew tranquil. He could hear the trickling of the fountain as he neared the gardens, songlike and soothing. The fragrance of foxgloves and mountain mint embraced him.
"So, where you headin' to?"
"Ah!" Clutching his heart, Aang spun around. He hadn't realized that he was being followed, probably because Jinju was downwind. "Where did you come from?"
"The courtyard, remember? We were shootin' marbles and you lost real bad."
"Yes, I know, it was a -" He shook his head. "Never mind. Forget it." There was an uncomfortable silence. Jinju watched Aang expectantly, and Aang watched a couple of lemurs flying overhead to avoid his gaze. "So, um..."
"You said you were gettin' ready to leave. Well, where you headin' to?" Jinju repeated, then answered his own question. "Bet I know. You're goin' to the tournament, right?" There was glint in his eye, and Aang had a feeling he knew what was coming next.
"That's right. Just me and Appa. By ourselves. Alone."
"So, you got room for one more?" Couldn't he take a hint? Before he could protest Jinju was on his knees before him, hands clasped together with a pitiful look on his face. "Please, please let me come. I never get to go and I've always wanted to. I won't take up any room, you won't even notice I'm there – I promise! I'll even give you all your marbles back. It's a fair trade!"
You call that a fair trade? A couple of marbles for a trip across the world? He didn't say that, though he wanted to. "I don't know... I mean, I have a lot of stuff. There probably won't be any room." It was a weak excuse. A giant bison's saddle never ran out of room, and they both knew it. He glanced again at Jinju, who stared back with a pleading and almost painful expression. "I'll see," he added lamely.
From the smile Jinju gave him, Aang knew he was leeched for good.
At this time of year, it was not unusual for the stables to be nearly empty. Still, Aang found the quiet strange and a little unsettling. All of the temple's bison were on their way to the tournament along with most of its residents. Only Appa remained, which didn't surprise Aang. Technically, Appa belonged to the temple, but it seemed to be some unwritten rule that the bison was solely under Aang's care. He didn't understand why, but he didn't question it. Aang had grown to enjoy Appa's company.
Jinju, too, had grown on Aang, although in a very different way. Ever since Aang had agreed (or had he?) to take him to the tournament, Jinju had insisted on following the young Airbender around as if they were attached at the hip. At first, and despite himself, Aang had been almost flattered by all the attention. The delight wore off in about an hour.
Nonetheless, Aang was happy for the extra help as he and Jinju loaded their supplies onto Appa's saddle. Getting the giant saddle into place was an impossible task to do alone. As Jinju secured the packs, Aang sat cross legged in front of Appa with a map spread out before him.
"I know we've been through this before, but I just want to make sure everything is perfectly clear." Appa snorted, causing the edges of the map to flutter about. Aang smiled – Appa was always very agreeable.
"We are here," he continued, placing a finger on the map just above the his home, the Southern Air Temple. "We want to be here." He placed another finger on the Northern Air Temple, and held both hands up, separated by about six inches. "See, that's not far at all. As long as we don't get sidetracked, I think we can be there within two weeks. That'll give you enough time to rest before the races." Besides sky bison polo, the main event, the temple also hosted other games, including the annual bison races. Aang would have loved to compete in the actual tournament, but he didn't have a team. He was working on getting one together for next year. In the meantime, he and Appa used every spare moment training for the races, and Aang was confident in their chances.
"Hey, Aang. You think we'll see any of them cannibals I'm always hearin' about? I heard they live on some little island, and they wear loincloths made outta human skin."
"That's great, Jinju," Aang mumbled. Jinju was usually so quiet that Aang figured he was either very shy or very dull. Now he understood just how wrong he had been. Jinju wasn't quiet because he had nothing to say – he was quiet because no one would give him the chance to say it. Aang imagined that he now knew Jinju about as well as Jinju knew himself. Yet, the boy always found one more thing to say.
It would be a very long trip.
Aang returned to examining the map. There were a few islands scattered throughout the waters between the two temples, including the Fire Nation – the halfway point. Most of the other islands were so small that they didn't appear on the map. But, after spending so many summers traveling to the Northern Air Temple, Aang had devised his own route that would allow Appa to land on an island almost every night. He had marked the location of each tiny island on his map with an 'X'. The slightly zigzagging pattern would take a few days longer than a straight path, but Aang believed it was worth it.
"I knew it! This is all your fault!" The angry voice echoed loudly in the empty stables. Aang glanced up at Jinju on the saddle, who was straining his neck over the edge in order to see. Quickly folding the map, Aang jumped up and, with the aid of Airbending, floated effortlessly onto Appa's back to join him. They both peered around the corner as the voices drew closer.
"How is it my fault?"
"How isn't it your fault? If you hadn't been so busy sucking up to the monks -"
"I wasn't sucking up! Someone had to teach the kids those moves. Besides, it's not like I volunteered – they asked for my help."
"And who asked you to volunteer me? I could've been gone two days ago!"
"If anything, you should be thanking me. You really needed the practice."
"I don't need any practice, and I don't need any damn tutor!"
Jinju turned to Aang with wide eyes and mouthed, "It's Yuka!" Aang nodded in agreement. The older boy was known by everyone, if not for his foul mouth, then for his constant trouble making. In his fifteen years at the temple, Yuka had made himself a legend. Aang had heard stories of Yuka's fierce temper and outbursts. However, what stuck in his mind was the older boy's talent for pulling brilliant pranks, a few of which Aang had been lucky enough to witness with his own eyes. The last one he could remember was a few months ago, when Monk Uichi had entered to begin a history lesson, his long gray beard conspicuously missing. No one said a word about it, no one knew exactly how he did it or why, and no one saw Yuka for the rest of that week.
He was Aang's hero.
As Yuka rounded the corner, Aang stood and waved. "Yuka, hi!"
"No! What are you doing?" Jinju hissed, tugging at Aang's raised arm.
Yuka approached the two with a thoughtful frown which quickly transformed into a wide, disarming grin. "Ah, just the man I was looking for. Ping, right?"
"Aang," he corrected. "But, you were close."
"Aang, yeah. That's what I meant." Yuka sauntered to Appa's side. Aang jumped down to meet him, ignoring Jinju's protests. "Listen, Aang," Yuka said, studying the bison pensively. "Thanks to lemur head over here, we've been left with a sort of dilemma." As he spoke he hiked a thumb over his shoulder towards his companion. Li had large, brown eyes that bulged, overwhelming his thin face. He rolled them at Yuka's comment, looking very much like an exasperated lemur.
There was no question in anyone's mind about Li's future. Unlike Yuka, Li was a model pupil; the monks adored him. He woke at dawn, never skipped a meditation, finished each of his classroom assignments, practiced Airbending forms tirelessly, and apparently volunteered his services as a personal tutor. Li would make a great monk someday. He was already working on his beard – a handful of straggly hairs decorated his chin and upper lip, more resembling the leftovers of a messy lunch than facial hair.
"You need a ride to the tournament?" Aang asked.
"I'd hate to burden you..."
"Then don't!" Jinju peeked over the saddle's rim. "There ain't room. We got a lot of stuff, you know?"
"Nonsense!" Aang dismissed Jinju's comment with a wave. "There's always room. Appa and I would be happy to give you a lift."
Yuka's grin grew wider, and he clapped a hand to Aang's shoulder. "Good man. I knew we could count on you."
Aang beamed. Maybe this trip wouldn't be so bad after all.
Disclaimer: Do I own Avatar? Is the Pope Catholic? (Yay! I own Avatar!)
By the way, Jinju was... Well, remember that dirty kid in Aang's flashback? The one nobody wanted on their team? Yeah, that Jinju...