A/N: Heh, I blame my over active imagination for this. xD That, and DA and my music a bit. They made me come up with this wonderfully cool idea! X) Whether it really is wonderfully cool or not, I'll let all of you be the judge. ;)
Disclaimer: Don't own Avatar. That should be obvious. I could never come up with half the awesome stuff they put in there.
"Katara! Get a move on, it's time to go!"
Katara sighed and groaned, trying to ignore her brother's loud and obnoxious voice. Couldn't he have the decency to give her at least a little peace and quiet? She rolled over and curled up tighter, figuring she could lie in bed for just a while.
She must have lingered there too long, because a moment later she felt his hands on her shoulders, trying to shake her awake.
"Lay off, would you?" Katara growled and swatted him away.
Sokka backed up a few steps and crossed his arms peevishly.
"Way I see it, you should be thanking me. Dad won't be happy if you're not up on time to go out with the other women to do...whatever it is you women do."
"Well, you should know by now," Katara sighed, her voice becoming annoyed.
He looked thoughtful for a minute, before mocking comprehension set in. "Oh, that's right. We go off and hunt and you get to go out and dodge the rattlers in the fields while you harvest."
Katara rolled her eyes. Her brother simply didn't understand the importance women played in holding up their tribe.
"Aw, Katara, I'm just teasing," Sokka told her with an impish smile.
But she wasn't even listening as she stormed out of their tent and vanished around the corner.
Concerned, Sokka ran out and stopped at the tent flap, staring stupidly ahead and wondering where on earth his sister had disappeared to.
He got his answer a moment later when he found himself on the ground and Katara laughing heartily above him. An evil smile found it's way on his face as he leaped up and grabbed her upper arms playfully, leaving his sister lost in a fit of giggles.
"Sokka you idiot," she breathed once the laughter finally died down.
"Yeah, but you put up with me anyway," he said in a matter of fact voice, "C'mon, we should probably go now."
Katara nodded, and they went their separate ways; she to the group of older women who were heading off to the mist covered fields, and he to the dawn hunting party that stood stock still and up straight, their silhouettes very visible against the dawn sky .
Almost robotically, Katara began to pick the large husks of corn that were attached to the tall stalks, keeping quiet. No one was going to talk to her anyways. She was pretty much the only teenager in the tribe, excluding her brother. Everyone else was much younger or much older than they were. And out here, the older women thought she was just a nuisance, and the young girls always stuck close to their mother's sides.
Katara sighed. She wished she had her mother. She hadn't had a mother for six years, ever since their village was raided by the enemy tribe to the east.
Suddenly, Katara bristled. The Naiyuma tribe had been the enemies of her tribe for so long both sides had forgotten why they hated each other in the first place. The stories the elders told changed every generation on how the two came to start fighting with each other, so it was never really clear.
Katara became so deep in thought that she barely realized she had drifted into the small, thickly wooded forest that lined fields.
Yes, she decided she didn't like the Naiyuma tribe for what they had done to her mother, but it was a little ridiculous for them to be fighting over something that happened many years before she was born. Maybe if the two tribes just got the chance to talk without them going at each others throats, maybe this whole stupid rivalry could just end.
A sudden cry jerked Katara out of her reverie, and her head shot up abruptly. At first, she thought it was the cry of an injured animal, but when she heard it again, she realized that it was most certainly wasn't.
It occurred to her as she started to move towards the outcry's direction that her tribe had set a trap near this location, perhaps to catch some of the large game that roamed this part of the forest. Maybe something, or someone, had been caught in it?
She pushed her way along forcefully, now even more determined as the cries grew louder. Without any hesitation, Katara shoved a large tree branch out of her way and found herself in a small clearing.
At the edge of clearing was a boy laying precariously on his side.
Katara stood stock still and her eyes grew wide. The first thing she noticed that he bore the pale skin and trademark blue arrows that were normally seen in the Naiyuma tribe. But that tribe was a considerable distance from here, so what was he doing so close to his enemy's land?
It was at that moment that his eyes collided with hers, and he wore the same, frightened look that she did. All they could do was stare for a minute, not moving, and barely daring to breathe.
It was Katara who was brave enough to move first. Her eyes traveled down the boy's body to his feet, where it seemed his ankle had been snagged in the trap, the reason he couldn't run off. It looked painfully tight to the point where it was cutting into his skin and drawing blood.
"Katara!" came a sudden, familiar call.
The girl jumped suddenly. She recognized that voice to be her father's. He and the other warriors must be coming to check the trap, but she had no idea how he knew she was out here.
In an instant, she was at the boy's side, examining the trap and looking for where it had been attached.
"What are you doing?" he asked hoarsely, sounding as if he could use some water.
"What does it look like?" Katara hissed, tugging on the tendril that bound him, "I'm trying to get you out of this thing!" The spirits only knew what the men would do if they found this boy caught and helpless like this…
The men called out for her again, their voices louder and more prominent. Katara began to panic and worked faster.
"Look, it's no use," he tried to tell her, "I already tried. I don't think you could do any better."
"I'm pretty sure I could," she answered him in a rush, "Considering my tribe set these traps and I know how to undo them."
"So you are from the Silvara tribe." Katara could practically feel him grinning.
Giving an almighty pull, she yanked the tendril off the tree and kneeled down quickly, slipping the loop down around the boy's foot until it lay limp on the ground.
"Alright, now get going," Katara commanded hastily. Her father's voice called for her again, and by now she could hear several footsteps rustling in the undergrowth. "Hurry up! Go!"
The boy stumbled back several paces, disorientated and in pain, and limped as quickly as he could out of clearing, the swaying ferns the only sign he had ever been present.
It was then that her father and several of the other hunters that had went out that morning suddenly appeared out of the bushes in front of her. Katara swung herself around and faced them expectantly.
"There you are," Sokka sighed in relief, coming up the front, "Man, do you any idea how worried you got us? When Kina in the fields told us you had disappeared we thought something awful happened to you!"
"Well, nothing happened," she insisted calmly, "I'm fine. I…just came to check and see if we had caught anything in this trap."
One of the men pushed forward and knelt down behind her, examining the now empty noose.
"Looks like we had something," he observed, "The blood's fresh around it, but whatever we caught must have pulled free."
He pointed out the untied end of the tendril, and the other men murmured in agreement.
"You didn't scare it away, did you?" Sokka asked teasingly.
"No!" Katara insisted, exasperated. "It was like this when I got here!"
There was a moment of quiet, before their father decided, "Alright, there's nothing here. We should probably keep going and check the other traps. Katara, it would probably be a good idea if you went back out into the fields."
Then, without another word, he and the other men headed off, leaving Katara alone.
Except for the pair of curious gray eyes that watched her leaving from the branches of a low lying tree.
She was out here again.
Well, at least this time when she had come to the forest, everyone knew where she was.
Katara wandered aimlessly, but she knew she wouldn't get lost. She had come here too many times before, treaded these paths flat. But this was her own little part of the forest, away from the traps, away from everyone else. It was a place where she went to think, or to just be alone.
But, she wasn't alone this time.
Her head jerked at the sound of rustling in the trees, but it went away just a moment later. Katara then shrugged, deciding it was just bird or some other small animal.
Before she could even blink, however, a sharp, familiar cry resonated in front of her, and a large shape plummeted from the trees to land on his back in front of her. With a jolt, she recognized the boy she had rescued yesterday.
He looked up at her, clearly embarrassed at his position. "Uh…heh. Hi."
Katara cocked an eyebrow down at him, before her expression changed into a deep frown.
"I thought I told you to go home," she growled as she began to walk further on.
The boy scrambled to his feet quickly and ran after her, unwilling to let her go just yet.
"I did," he said earnestly when he caught up, "But…I wanted to see you again. I never got to say 'thank you.'"
At this, Katara turned her head to look at him, but didn't slow her pace.
"Yeah well…it was no big deal," she waved him off, "Now I really think you should get going before someone from my tribe sees you out here."
"Why'd you do it?" he asked, ignoring her.
Caught off guard, the girl stopped completely.
"Huh?" she stammered stupidly.
"Why'd you save me? We're supposed to be enemies. You could have just let the men in your tribe find me and kill me."
Katara just stared at him. Why had she released him? Why had she helped someone from the very tribe that killed her mother? Maybe that's just who she was; someone who was far too sympathetic for her own good. But maybe, it was more than that.
"I don't know…" she began awkwardly, "I guess…you were a kid, like me. I've never seen someone my age from the Naiyuma tribe. It just…I couldn't leave you there. I felt kind of bad for you."
"You felt bad for me?" he smiled impishly, "Did I really look that pathetic?"
Katara almost laughed. "How long had you been stuck there?"
"All night," the boy told her truthfully.
That made sense, she guessed. That's why he sounded like he needed water so badly when she found him.
After a heartbeat of silence, she asked him, "So how's your ankle now?"
He rolled his shoulders backwards and glanced down at his injured ankle.
"Better than it was, but still not as good as I'd like it to be," he answered her, laughing slightly. "That's why I fell out of that stupid tree. Normally I'm like a squirrel when it comes to trees, and now I feel like a dog trying to keep his balance on a horse's back."
At this, Katara did laugh slightly, a giggle that made the boy smile wider.
"Your name's Katara, right?" he figured, "I'm Aang. Aang of the Naiyuma tribe."
She stood up straighter. "Well Aang of the Naiyuma tribe, you better start running."
When he tilted his head in confusion, a devilish smile spread across Katara's face, and she raced off into the forest.
"Catch me if you can!" her voice called to him.
Laughing, Aang ran after her in the direction she disappeared, the earth pounding as his bare feet touched the ground.
They collapsed on in the grass as dusk began to settle many hours later, their faces pink and chests heaving. Both spared a glance at each other, and burst out laughing.
"Wow," Aang gasped, "I haven't had that much fun in a long time."
"Me neither," Katara panted, the smile she had worn all day still present.
They continued to stare at each other for an immeasurable amount of time, catching their breath and smiling, until suddenly, Katara's smile turned into a worried frown, and she sat up. Concerned, Aang sat up with her, and found that she was no longer looking at him.
After a moment of silence, Katara finally spoke.
"We shouldn't have been together today."
"Why?" Aang tilted his head, "We weren't hurting anything. We were just having fun."
"I know," she finally turned her head towards him, meeting his questioning gaze, "But we're enemies. Your tribe killed my mother six years ago."
The silence that followed was almost deafening. Aang lowered his eyes uneasily.
"I'm sorry," he offered, though he knew it probably wouldn't do any good. "I don't remember that."
Katara immediately wanted to slap herself. Of course. It wasn't his fault her mother was killed; he was probably her age when it happened.
"For the record, I don't agree with this rivalry between our tribes," Aang told her quietly, "Especially after spending time with you. They tell us that the people of the Silvara tribe have no place on the land and they have to be destroyed at any cost. But you're just a normal kid like me."
He finally lifted his gaze once more, and was offering her a bittersweet smile.
"Same here," Katara murmured, and then added with a devious smile, "I have to tell you, you're a lot nicer than most of the men in my tribe."
Aang averted his eyes again, but this time he was still smiling, and the faintest tint of pink had appeared on his cheeks.
Glancing up at the sky, Katara sighed.
"We should probably go home. People are probably wondering where we are."
Aang nodded in return, and watched as she began to stand up.
"Wait!" he stopped her once she was on her feet, "Can I see you again?"
Katara hesitated for a minute, before she nodded shyly. "I'd like that."
He smiled wider, before nodding in return, and waving at her as she turned to leave. Katara waved back, and then began to jog over the rise of the hill.
Aang pushed his way through his tent flap and made his way over to his bed, collapsing onto it once he reached the side.
"Ah, the triumphant return," came a voice beside him, mysterious and teasing.
The boy turned his head in the voice's direction, and fell off his bed with a shocked cry when he found he was face to face with someone else who had apparently found his bed before him.
Aang sat up, rubbing his head and glaring at the person who had done this to him. His frown only deepened when that certain person broke out into hysterical laughter.
"Akron, you jerk," he growled, grey eyes hard with annoyance.
"Oh man Aang, you should have seen your face!" the boy called Akron still laughed, wiping a tear from his eye, "It was priceless!"
"Yeah, ha ha," Aang droned, clearly not amused.
Once his laughter had calmed, Akron spoke again, "You have no idea how long I've been waiting to do that."
"You were planning this?" Aang cocked an eyebrow, "I don't know if I should be impressed or disturbed."
His friend merely shook his head fondly, and changed the subject. "So where have you been all day? I had to sit through supper and the elder's stories by myself, and do you know how boring that gets?"
"Just…out," Aang answered uneasily.
"Out where?" Akron pushed himself up onto his elbows.
"Out…along our borders. No one goes there much, thought it would be fun."
"You think everything might be fun, until someone finds you with your foot caught halfway into a snapping turtle's mouth."
Aang glared at him again, but he knew the older boy was just kidding.
"Look Akron, it's late and I'm tired," he finally sighed, "Could you give me my bed back please?"
Akron gazed at him quizzically. "You're going to bed without eating first?"
Aang nodded. The excited, guilty butterflies in his stomach wouldn't let him eat. But he would never admit that.
Akron rolled off the bed and stood up, letting Aang take his place.
"I'll just tell the others that you're back," he told his friend, turning his head toward him with a slight smile.
"Sounds good," the younger boy murmured, making himself comfortable.
As soon as Akron had left, Aang allowed a small smile to form on his lips, already excited for what tomorrow would bring.
Early the next morning, Akron found himself stretching and walking confidently around the corner of his tent, only to find Aang hiding behind it, hunching over something.
"Watcha got there?" he asked curiously, bending over.
"Nothing," Aang mumbled, not bothering to look up at him.
However, upon closer inspection, Akron noticed that he was holding a few pieces of twine in his lap and weaving them together into what looked like the beginnings of a necklace.
"Doesn't look like 'nothing to me," he smirked, "Who's it for?"
"Just…a girl," Aang answered him, still distracted by his work.
"A girl?" Akron's face lit up, "Aang, you lady killer. Just turned thirteen and he already has the girls hanging all over him."
"It's just one girl," he corrected, "And we're just friends."
"Sure. We'll see how long that lasts," Akron patted his shoulder roughly, though not without affection. "Well, it's off to the hunt for me."
"Have fun," Aang told him sarcastically, lifting his head to look at him.
"Oh, don't worry, you'll be coming with me next year," he assured, "It'll be a blast."
"I'm sure," the younger boy laughed, turning his head back to his twine.
Akron just walked off, laughing and slinging one of his spears over his shoulder.
Later that morning, Aang spotted Katara hiding in the small forest, her arms crossed and gaze distant. He hastily made his way up into the tree she was standing closest to, but froze when she did, her eyes darting from one end of her range of vision to the other. Only when she relaxed did he continue his assent into the tree.
Everything was silent for a moment before he dropped out of the tree, upside down, his legs curled around a branch.
"Hey," he greeted from behind Katara, effectively startling her.
"Aang, you scared me!" she giggled, making her way over before stopping in front of him.
"Made you something," he said before handing the necklace to her.
A delighted smile formed on her face before she took his offered gift.
"Aang, its beautiful!" she gasped, "I'd put it on, but I don't want anyone to get suspicious as to where I got it or anything. Everyone knows I can't make jewelry to save my life in my tribe."
"Oh…it's okay," he shrugged, before sitting up on his branch and leaping down, "I guess I can understand that."
"Anyway, I have something I want to show you," Katara said, "Just found it the other day. I haven't had anyone to share it with though."
Aang smiled brightly, feeling honored that Katara would choose him to share this special something with, whatever it was.
She shared his smile, before turning around and beginning to lead him deeper into one of the most thickly wooded places of the small forest. At this, Aang became confused. What could possibly be here? But then again, Katara knew this place better than he did, so he would have to trust her, which he did. It was strange; he had only known her for over a day, and yet he felt like he had known her forever.
And by the excited, enchanting look in Katara's eyes, he knew she felt that way as well.
"Almost there," she said in a hushed voice almost an hour later.
Thank the spirits, Aang sighed mentally. His feet were getting tired and it seemed the bugs were tormenting him relentlessly.
"So where is this place?" he asked out loud, seeing nothing but the deep green expanse of plants and trees in front of him.
"Through here," Katara blinked, and pulled back a curtain of vines standing in their way.
The sun was so bright when the vines were pulled away that Aang had to lift an arm in front of his face for a moment to shield his eyes. But once he had adjusted to the new brightness, he put his arm down slowly, and found himself face to face with a large waterfall.
It was enormous! Even standing many yards away, he could feel the spray from where he was standing, refreshing and washing away the waves of heat that seemed to radiate from him. The overgrown vegetation suggested that no knew about this place other than he and Katara. Even so, the plants were bursting with beautiful flowers.
"So…are we going swimming or what?" he asked, a smiling crookedly.
"Want to?" Katara glanced over at him, smiling once more, wondering why his smiles were so contagious.
Aang didn't need any more encouragement before he started sprinting over to the water's edge, kicking off his pants as he went. Katara laughed as he tripped and fell in head first, appearing after a few moments and laughing as well. He waved her over after a few moments, and she began making her way over slowly and with more grace than he had done previously, taking off her dress delicately. She could have sworn she saw Aang swallow hard when she revealed her tan undergarments, but shook it off as her seeing things, and jumped in after him.
It didn't take long for a splash fight to start between them, as well as the two dunking each other numerous times, laughing too hard to think straight. Thankfully, they weren't missed, and even if they were, no one would have found them.
It was many hours later before they decided to abandon the water hole and lay on the bank, resting and allowing themselves to dry off.
"We so have to come back here again," Aang grinned at her, sprawled on the grass.
"Yeah," she agreed, "This was fun. Heh, if anyone had told me a week ago that I become friends with someone from the Naiyuma tribe, I'd have thought they were crazy. But I like you Aang. You're a lot of fun to be around."
"So are you," he answered.
If it was possible, Katara's smile grew wider, before she glanced up at the sky, noticing that the sun was well into the western sky.
Sighing heavily, she decided, "We should probably head back. We don't need people looking for us."
Aang nodded reluctantly, not wanting to leave just yet.
"Don't worry, we can come back here tomorrow," she assured him.
No more words were spoken as they got dressed and made their way back out into the open, waving goodbye to each other once they broke out of the dense trees.
And Aang couldn't help feeling exhilarated once again from the excited, guilty butterflies that danced in his stomach as he made his way home.
The same routine continued for several weeks, the two meeting each other in secret, and the only other people having a slight clue that they were meeting someone being Katara's brother and Aang's best friend. They weren't exactly clear even then, saying that were just seeing someone of the opposite sex. It made Akron and Sokka proud though, saying it was about time they found that special someone. Both Katara and Aang would give them a strange look, saying they were still much too young.
However, neither could deny that what they felt by now was something that was probably stronger than friendship. Neither could ignore, though they tried, the blushes that appeared on their cheeks when they saw each other while they swam in the waterfall, the shy glances they stole at each other, or the growing desire to lay closer to the other person when the sun began to go down on the horizon.
They couldn't possibly be falling in love, could they?
It was late now, much later than they usually stayed out. The stars were shining brightly in the night sky, illuminating the two prone figures that lay beneath them. Both were unwilling to go home again. The time they spent away from each other was becoming unbearable.
"I just want to stay here forever," Katara sighed suddenly, "It's so pretty and peaceful."
"Mhmm," Aang agreed with her, unable to look away from her moon bathed form.
"I wonder if anyone would miss us if we just stayed here tonight?" she asked, meeting his eyes.
"Who cares," Aang smiled, before scooting over closer to her.
She watched him intently, noticing that he stopped only a breath away from her. He was so close, but so far away, she couldn't stand it. Without a second thought, she closed the distance between them, their bodies now touching gently. A small smile then formed on her face when she felt Aang tense, and then relax, and then heard him sighing heavily and contentedly.
"I don't want to go home tonight," she murmured to him. "Actually, I don't know if I want to go home ever again... Not if it means I have to be away from you."
Her words made his heart swell and beat faster, and a warm tingle that he had never felt before spread through his entire body. That was it, he had to tell her.
"Katara," he whispered meekly, getting her attention.
She glanced up at him curiously, blinking slowly.
"I…this may seem kind of sudden, but…well, we like being around each other…and stuff. But, I really like being around you. Like, when I go home at night I can't wait to see you again the next day. And just now…I don't think I want to be just friends with you anymore."
Her heart began to race excitedly. Was he going to say what she thought he was?
Aang took a deep breath, and let it out slowly.
"Katara, I think…I mean I, uh"-
He cut himself off, and instead raised his head, every muscle tense.
"Aang, what's the matter?" Katara asked, concerned.
"Shh," he silenced her sharply, looking behind them, "Listen."
Straining her ears, she thought she could just barely pick up the sound of hoof beats, pounding hard and fast on the earth.
Aang stood up, apprehensive, and stared ahead, squinting hard at the horizon to determine the source of the new noise. Katara followed him, standing slightly behind.
The source appeared soon after, moving swiftly in their direction, obviously having spotted them. Aang's eyes widened and he backed up just a step.
"Aang, what is? Who are they?" Katara grabbed his shoulders, sensing his panic.
"A couple of warriors from my tribe," he whispered quickly, "I recognize their horses. You have to get out of here."
"There's no time," she argued, "They'd catch me anyway."
Aang admired her bravery, but he knew this was no time to be acting brashly.
Too late anyway, the two men stopped just a few feet away from them, halting their horses quickly once they saw who stood before them. And with slight horror, Aang recognized one of the men to be Akron.
Narrowing his eyes, the boy stood in front of Katara, making it clear that if they had any intention of taking her, they'd have to go through him.
"Aang?" the older warrior that had come with Akron asked uncertainly, "What do you think you're doing here, with a girl from the Silvara tribe? Have they captured you?"
"No," Aang answered coolly, "I'm fine. There's noting to worry about, so you can just go home."
"But then what are you doing here?" he demanded, ignoring Aang's obvious dismissal and growing suspicious.
Aang wasn't sure how to answer, so he chose silence. Instead, it was Akron who broke the silence, his eyes widening in shock and horror.
"Aang…this is the girl you were seeing?" he rasped.
The elder warrior beside him narrowed his eyes at him. "You knew about this?"
"Only a bit," Akron squeaked out in reply, "He just told me he was seeing someone…but, I didn't think…oh man…"
His companion had heard enough. Furious, he turned his gaze back to the boy who he had thought was undoubtedly one of them.
"So," he began, his voice hard and low, "You've been seeing this girl for a while? Why? I thought you knew the meaning of loyalty."
"I do," Aang argued, trying not to sound desperate, "We're not hurting anything."
"How do we know you haven't shared any of our tribe's weaknesses with her? You probably have, knowing you. You trust people much too quickly."
"I promise I haven't!" he shot back, frustrated that his own comrade didn't believe him.
"But why should we believe you?"
"Because I love her!"
There was stunned silence that lasted for several heartbeats, before it was broken.
"There's only one way to be sure that no more of our secrets reach their tribe," the older warrior told him gravely, his eyes narrowing even further.
And then he reached for his bow and one of his arrows in the bag strapped to his back.
"Rakai, please, think about this for a minute," Akron warned him.
"Quiet," Rakai silenced him, taking aim at Katara, "This is the way of war, Akron. Take no prisoners. The sooner you learn that the better of a warrior you'll be."
"There's no justice in killing a young girl!"
But he didn't listen. The next thing any of them knew, an arrow was whistling through the air, aimed straight for Katara's heart. Katara in turn, was frozen in fear, watching the arrow as if it were moving in slow motion.
Before anyone could blink, Aang dove in front of her, taking the hit himself. He collapsed on the ground in front of Katara, writhing in pain. Everyone was so surprised that the only noise that could be heard for many moments was the sickening sound of impalement.
"Aang!" Katara shrieked, racing over to his side and kneeling down.
Aang tried to reply, but the only sounds that would come out were harsh, gurgling noises, screams that were desperate to escape past his grinding teeth.
Katara glanced up fearfully at the two Naiyuman warriors, one who looked absolutely horrified, and the other who looked just as serious and angry as before. He glared down at the pair of them.
"Fool," he spat, "If you can't remember what it's like to be loyal to those who have raised you since birth, then you have no place in our tribe. If we find you on our land tomorrow, you'll be killed without hesitation."
"Rakai, be reasonable…" Akron tried to argue, still horrified by what had just taken place.
"There's no room for traitors," Rakai silenced him, turning his horse around, "Now come on. We've wasted our time here."
He nudged his horse's sides, and it took off into a slow trot.
Akron glanced back at this dear friend, who was staring up at him with huge, pleading eyes. Feeling his throat tighten, he too turned his horse in the other direction and trotted off.
"Easy Aang. Easy…" Katara tried to soothe him, taking his head in her hands and forcing him to look at her.
Aang wanted to reassure her that he was fine, but he knew if he opened his mouth the screams he was trying to hold back would escape, and they didn't need to draw any more attention to themselves.
"I'm going to pull this out," she told him, "But you need to hold still."
Panting heavily, Aang forced his quivering limbs to still, and tried to control the rapid, shallow heaves of his chest. Even breathing was painful.
Satisfied that he was as motionless as he would probably get, Katara moved down his body, stopping at his middle. They were lucky, she supposed. The arrow had struck just below where the two halves of his ribcage met, between his lungs. Carefully, trying to remember what her mother had taught her, she broke the arrow in half, trying not to jostle the point around too much. When it came to remove the arrowhead, she paused.
"This is really going to hurt," she warned him, "I'm so sorry…"
"Just do it," came his strained voice.
Katara hesitated a moment longer, before grabbing the broken stem of the arrow in one hand, and placing her other on his side. Taking a quick breath, she pulled it up and out as smoothly as she could.
Aang stiffened for a moment, and then cried out, his body writhing from the awful pain. Without a second thought, Katara moved down to his head once more, trying to escape the blood that dribbled down from his wound. She took his head in her hands once more, hushing him over and over again, afraid to move him too much.
Once the pain began to die down from being numbing to throbbing in time with his pulse, he began to settle down, exhausted and scared.
"It hurts Katara," he told her, though he knew it wouldn't do any good.
"I know it hurts, Aang," she murmured sympathetically.
"Please don't leave me tonight," he begged, trying to hide the fear in his voice.
"I won't. I promise."
They settled down right there, Aang in far too much pain to be moved. But, despite the agony that burned through him, he closed his eyes to attempt sleep. Katara lay down beside him, making sure that she was touching him so that he knew she was there.
"Try to rest Aang," she said to him.
A quiet whimper was her answer, followed by a heavy, shuddering sigh.
The night was long and hard. Aang barely got any rest at all, save for a couple of hours when he managed to doze, Katara holding onto him all through the night. Morning seemed to take a lifetime to arrive, and even the sunrise was slow.
"You should go home," Aang tried to tell her as the first few rays of the sun appeared over the horizon.
"I can't," she whispered, "I won't leave you by yourself out here."
"Katara, I can't go home, but that doesn't mean you can't either." Even just saying that made his chest sting, and not just from the pain of his wound.
"What'll you do on your own?" she argued, "I just said I'm staying, and there's nothing you can do to change my mind. I love you."
He sighed heavily, trying to keep the tears from rising. "Fine."
Katara smiled, and sat up, taking his head into her lap and staying in the position for the better part of the day. She was far too nervous to leave Aang for a moment, and both felt too sick to worry about eating anyway.
As dusk approached, however, something began to appear a few feet in front of them. At first, it seemed to have no definite outline, but soon became more and more solid against the backdrop of trees behind it.
They couldn't believe this. Were they seeing things? Or was it truly Ukalan, the Great Spirit wolf they had heard so much about in stories and legends standing right in front of them? Aang held onto Katara tighter, uneasy and unsure if his eyes were betraying him, making him see things from blood loss.
"It's alright," Ukalan's voice rumbled gently, "You're not in danger."
Good thing too, Aang figured. He was enormous, bigger than any wolf he had seen chasing the buffalo or caribou on the plains. Those teeth wouldn't just sting if he decided to attack.
"Why are you here?" Katara asked timidly, pulling Aang tighter to her chest protectively.
Ukalan allowed a soft smile to grace his features.
"He's injured," he nodded towards Aang's wound on his chest, which was still spilling blood slowly, "He'll die if someone doesn't help him."
The Great Spirit wolf stepped forward, noticing the two tense slightly as he got closer, unsure of what he was going to do. Very gently, he touched his nose to the crimson, bleeding mass on Aang's chest. The boy flinched and grunted quietly in pain.
Then, unexpectedly, a soft, blue glow began to spread from the wolf's nose, and he pulled away. Katara and Aang watched in fascination as the wound shrunk and then disappeared, leaving only a small scar as a reminder.
With a small cry of glee, Katara, buried her face in Aang's shoulder, immensely happy that she wasn't going to lose him, like she was so afraid she would during the night.
When their euphoria died down, they both gazed up their savior, eyes filled with wonder and admiration.
"Thank you," Aang murmured.
"Think nothing of it, my child," Ukalan said warmly.
"I don't understand though," Aang wondered thoughtfully, "Why did you choose to heal me? There are plenty of others that get hurt worse than I do."
Ukalan thought for a minute, before lowering his head once more so that he was eye level with the two.
"I believe only those with pure hearts are worth keeping in this world. And you two have some of the purest, truest hearts I've seen in many years."
Aang and Katara glanced at each other briefly.
"But, we couldn't possibly have pure hearts," Katara argued, shaking her head in disbelief.
Ukalan lowered his voice before he spoke again.
"Those who are willing to risk their lives for those they love have hearts purer than the whitest snowflake," he murmured. "You both proved that to me after what I saw happen last night."
Aang lowered his head slightly. He had gotten hurt defending Katara against his own tribe, who had been enemies with Katara's for many generations. They had known their friendship, and especially their love, was wrong in every way.
And so now here they were. Casted away by both of their families for the unforgivable crime of being different.
"You are both very brave, my children," the Great wolf spoke again, "There are other places in this world that would except you and not judge you based on the origins of your bloodline. Would you like to see?"
Without hesitation, Aang scrambled to his feet when he saw Ukalan lower his front half to make his back more accessible. The boy leaped aboard, looking back as he noticed Katara's hesitation.
"It's alright," he assured her, holding out his hand, "I'm not going to let anything happen to you."
Another moment of waiting, and she finally took hold of his hand, using it to pull herself up to sit behind him.
Ukalan stood up slowly, before moving forward at a gentle, lolling pace. However, it wasn't long before he moved into a trot, and then began to run at full speed, his massive paws barely even seeming to touch the earth.
They came to a steep cliff side, but the Spirit wolf didn't slow down a bit. Both his passengers became nervous; a drop like that would surely kill them.
But as they reached the edge, Ukalan leaped into the air and began to climb skyward. Yelping in surprise, Katara grabbed Aang around the waist to hold herself on, while Aang himself was laughing in exhilaration.
They climbed higher, until it seemed they would touch the predusk clouds, golden with the sun's setting rays. However, once they had almost reached the clouds, they stopped going higher, and instead went forward.
"Katara, look down!" Aang told her excitedly.
Nervously, she did so, and the sight that met her eyes nearly took her breath away. The ground, almost like the perfect quilted pattern on a blanket, shimmered and glowed as it stood between night and day. The waterfalls seemed the truest of blues in color as they passed over them, the deepest canyons did not seem so deep anymore.
"It's...so pretty," she said breathlessly.
"But I can think of something else that's even prettier," Aang said somewhat cheesily, quirking a half smile at her.
Katara giggled and leaned her head against his shoulder, letting her senses be engulfed by the sight of the beautiful earth and sky, Aang's sweet, musky scent, and the sound of the wind rushing gently past her ears.
They were no longer children of the earth, but children of the wind and sky, children of the wolf.
"You'll be safe here," Ukalan told them gently as they came to rest under the cool shade of a large tree, as night fell.
Aang and Katara glanced at each other briefly, before Aang asked, "You'll stay, won't you?"
The Great Spirit wolf laughed just slightly. "Of course. I won't let any harm come to you."
Sighing in relief, the boy then dismounted off Ukalan's shoulders, and helped Katara get down herself.
"Where do we go after this?" she wondered as Aang sat down beside the large wolf.
He thought about it for a minute. They knew there was no going home now, not after what happened the night they were attacked.
"We go somewhere else," he murmured as she curled up beside him and laid her head on his shoulder, "Make our own life. You'll learn to hunt and fight quickly enough. I'll teach you. And then maybe...well, in the future...maybe we could even start a family."
He blushed, and Katara smiled warmly. "I'd like that."
"And you'll have the spirits watching over you every step of the way," Ukalan assured them.
Aang nodded, and yawned, resting his head against the wolf's warm fur. Katara curled up closer to him, closing her eyes.
"Thank you," the boy whispered to their moonlit protector, "For everything."
"Think nothing of it, my child," Ukalan pressed his nose gently to Aang's cheek, "Your real life begins tomorrow."
"Aang? Hey, you awake?"
The boy groaned quietly, trying to ignore the faraway voice that was pulling him out of his sleep.
"Ah, c'mon, do I have to dump cold water all over you?"
At this, Aang opened his eyes, squinting in the late morning sun, and was very surprised to find Ukalan gone and to see someone sitting beside him, blocking the sun from his view.
"Akron?" he croaked.
"At last, he lives!" Akron said triumphantly, though not without affection.
Now awake, Aang sat up at full attention. "What on earth are you doing here? How did you find us?"
"Aang, what's going on?" Katara's sleepy voice asked from his other side as she lifted her head, "Who's this?"
"This is Akron, Katara," he clarified, "He's my best friend. At least, I still think so…"
"Yeah, don't worry," Akron offered him a crooked smile, "I didn't agree at all with what Rakai did. So, I came out here, telling everyone I was going on a hunting trip. But I wanted to make sure you were alright. You're very hard to track down."
Aang smiled back. "Don't worry, we're fine."
His friend's smile suddenly faded. "But I take it you're not coming back?"
Aang shook his head, and said, "Even if we could, I wouldn't want to. I wouldn't want to leave Katara, and I know they won't let us be together back home."
Akron nodded. "Alright then, I suppose. If that's what you want. I know there's somewhere out there that will accept you guys, but that place isn't here."
"Thanks," Aang said softly.
"Well, I figured since this would be your choice, I brought you guys some things," he told them, and stood up before making his way over to his horse. Katara and Aang watched in fascination as he rummaged around in his bags for a moment, before pulling a few items out of it.
"Here," he told them, handing over what he brought, "These should get you through a couple meals."
Wide eyed, the two of them glanced at each other briefly before taking the small packages.
"Thank you," Katara breathed in gratitude.
"There's more," Akron grinned, and pulled a vicious looking knife from his belt, "I figure you guys might need this."
Aang's eyes shined for a fleeting moment as he took the knife from his friend, and sheathed it into his own belt.
"Thank you so much," he breathed again, "You don't know what this means to us."
"It's no problem," Akron waved his hand dismissively. "You're my friend Aang. And you are also a very brave man to be taking her on." He raised his eyebrows and smiled hugely.
Aang laughed nervously and glanced over at Katara, who was grinning devilishly at him.
All three of them shared a laugh, unable to keep a straight face at the stupid looks each was giving the other. It died down almost as quickly as it came however, and everyone grew serious again.
"I suppose this is goodbye," Akron said solemnly, "The only thing I can do now is wish you guys luck. Come back and visit sometime, you know, after you're done having all those kids."
Though he tried, Aang couldn't keep down the faint blush at his last comment.
Pausing a moment more, his friend pulled him into a hug, both not trying to get too emotional.
"Bye buddy," Akron whispered.
"This isn't goodbye forever, I promise," Aang said sincerely, pulling back.
Nodding, Akron stood up again, Aang and Katara following him, and mounted his horse.
"I'll see you around sometime then," he said sadly, looking down at them.
"Count on it," Aang told him, his voice definite. Katara held him around his shoulders, and he instinctively grabbed her waist.
With a hopeful smile, Akron nudged his horse's sides, and took off. Aang and Katara watched as the dust from his horse's pounding hooves faded away into the morning air.
Glancing back at Katara, he held her tighter. "I guess we should get going."
"To where?" she asked him, her breath warm on his ear.
"Wherever we want," he murmured, and kissed her forehead affectionately.
Katara smiled up at him, and then unison, they turned their bodies towards the rapidly rising sun, wondering what the day, and the future had in store for them.