A/n : next week I will be away for a few days and will not have the time to beta and review the next chapter in time for posting, so I'm skipping next Friday and will post as usual week after next, on the following Friday.
Thanks, guys, for all the reviews, and special mention to those marked as 'guests' whom I cannot answer individually!
153 rd day of our journey. We have managed to escape alive out of the Si Wong desert. We did not find the Avatar's Flying Bison, but we did find a sand-sailor buried in the desert. Using airbending and an on-board compass, we managed to find the magnetic centre of the desert, a huge, dark rock that jutted out from the sand. Unfortunately, we were attacked by a swarm of Buzzard-wasps who had built their hive on top of it. They were getting the better of us when suddenly they were frightened back into their holes by the noise of sand tornadoes and earthbended rock columns, and we found ourselves surrounded by a group of sandbenders who arrived on sand skiffs.
Toph recognised one of the sandbenders, Gashuin, as the one who had been involved in Appa's kidnapping. At first he denied everything, but finally he admitted the Avatar's bison had been sold to merchants going to Ba Sing Se. This sad news triggered Aang's Avatar state. The resultant fury-driven elemental bending destroyed the Sandbender's sand-sailors and sent everyone running for cover.
When Aang had calmed down, we used the last remaining sand-sailor, the one we had found, and set a course by starlight, taking the stranded sandbenders with us.
We have now arrived at the northern edge of the Si Wong desert and have set down in an area of rocky hills and canyons where we have found the much-needed water.
As soon as we have recovered a bit we will head straight to Ba Sing Se with two missions: to find Appa and get the message of the Sola Eclipse to the Earth King.
We have not only managed to escape alive out o f the Si Wong desert, we have also crossed the Si Wong desert.
Professor Zei told us it is almost impossible to cross.
But it came at a high price. A very high price.
We have lost Appa. This tragedy is our most obvious and incontrovertible loss in the desert. But I think it is not the only loss. Although we survived with nothing more serious than burnt skin (and, in Sokka's case, recurrent bouts of blurred vision), we all lost something of ourselves in the desert... Toph, surrounded by earth she could not bend, lost her 'sight' to a degree that made her the smallest and weakest of us all; Sokka lost his judgement and his clear thinking with one bad decision; and Aang... Aang was the one to lose the most out of all of us.
He lost not only his companion and the one living link to his past, I think he also lost part of himself forever out there in the desert. He will never be the same again, for the desert has scarred him in a way that is worrying me...
As for me, I don't think I lost something in the desert. I think I found something...
Yesterday night, after allowing the others a few hours of sleep, I went around gently nudging them awake. Aang hadn't moved from the curled-up, foetal position he had taken when we lay down to rest, but somehow, he sensed me behind him, and before I touched him, he spoke:
'I'm awake. I couldn't sleep,' he said, sadly.
A minute later, however, he saw something above us and jumped up joyfully shouting: 'Appa!'
I followed his gaze, but it turned out to be a small Appa-shaped cloud silhouetted against the silvery brightness of the moon. It was the first cloud we had seen in what seemed like ages – clouds meant water, and I excitedly told Aang to fly up and bend its water into my pouch.
But after the let-down with the Appa-cloud, Aang was less than enthusiastic, and his earlier furious mood returned with a vengeance. He snatched the pouch from my hand, threw me an angry look and took off on his glider. I stood there in shock for a second – I had seen Aang angry many times, but such a look had never ever been directed at me. I guess he resented my pre-occupation with anything that was not Appa-related.
Two swift passes across the cloud and he was back down again, tossing me the water-skin carelessly.
There was hardly any water in it, and I said so.
Next instant, Aang was shouting at me!
'I'm sorry, okay?! It's a desert cloud; I did all I could!' he yelled 'What's anyone else doing?! What are you doing?' And his staff was suddenly pointing right in my face.
I remained deathly still for a second, absorbing the shock of his anger in silence. I could feel my face turn pale beneath the sunburn for, although I knew he was out of his mind with worry over Appa and he didn't really mean it, it still hurt.
'Trying to keep everyone together,' I answered quietly. It was the only thing I could do out here. He said nothing, but lowered his staff and I turned away, unrolling one of Sokka's star charts. 'Let's just get moving. We need to head in this direction'.
I found the North Star on the chart and quickly located it among the bright tapestry of twinkling lights above our heads. Ba Sing Se is to the North of the Si Wong desert, so I led them onwards, telling them to walk close together, so Toph could follow.
It was Aang who brought up the rear, walking head bent, his dark expression and inward look telling me he was still furious at me, at Toph, at the whole world in general, and Sandbenders in particular. He was as tightly wound as a coiled spring and I knew it would be useless to get any reason out of him now. He was hurting too much.
I kept my eyes fixed on the North Star, pondering on the strange connection that existed between Aang and Appa. I knew the bison had been his constant companion - since he was six years old, he told me once - but he was also the last familiar creature in a world which had changed beyond recognition for Aang – his world, his culture, has been wiped out, and Appa is the only living reminder of what he once knew and loved.
I hoped that, like Sokka said, the bison would be worth more alive than dead, because if the Sandbenders hurt him, or worse, killed him, Aang would not survive the loss without losing part of himself in the process. I kept glancing backwards at him, wondering what was going on in his mind. I had never seen this sustained anger in him before – it was frightening.
Even when,months ago, he found out about the genocide, his own reaction had been overcome by the protective Avatar State, and perhaps that had cushioned his own rage somewhat. He had grieved for his people after we left the Southern Air temple, many times, I know he did, even though never as visibly as that first time. Yet he never let on how much he missed his people, or that he was angry at the injustice. I only ever saw rare glimpses, such as when we had seen the desecrated Northern Air Temple, and Granny Lokai's orphanage, of how the genocide really had affected him. He had seemed to have come to terms with what happened relatively quickly….
But it was there, in the middle of that desert, that I learnt how some of that anger still remained – this was the fury of Aang, and Aang alone, without the Avatar State - and it was directed now, at all and sundry, unreasonably and illogically, that is true, but it was because he just would not – could not – let the one living remnant of his past life go the same way as the Air Benders had. He had lost too much already. The Air Nomads were dead – nothing would bring them back, but Appa was alive – had to be alive – and Aang just couldn't accept the possibility of him being gone too.
I glanced back again to where Aang brought up the rear: his eyes were fixed on the sand as he walked forwards. Even in the faint starlight, I could see that beneath the lowered lids, his eyes were as dark as his thoughts.
Then Toph hit something she could not see and fell over.
A boat, she said, having felt the vibrations that outlined its shape. But what was a boat doing buried in the middle of the desert? Aang came forward and with a wide horizontal motion kicked back the sand to reveal a sand-skiff or sand-sailor that the sandbenders used. It seemed pretty much in good condition and had a whole undamaged sail and a compass.
We were saved. Relief flooded through me – I felt I could handle anything as long as we could get out of that arid place.
Of course, I spoke too soon.
Sokka was a bit better but still in a happy, hazy mood that was completely unhelpful, Toph was thirsty and Momo still had to be held all the time lest he fly off into the blue. However, the Sand sailor worked well. I shared out the last of the cloud-water and then we set off. Aang blasted powerful gusts of wind in the sail, swinging his arms in wide, circular movements that were far more savage than was necessary, and I stood on the stern deck, guiding the skiff according to the compass needle.
The Sand Glider moved fast - very fast, its three keels sliding smoothly over the sand with very little friction. If this was the speed with which they disappeared after they took Appa, no wonder Aang couldn't find the sandbenders! It was also very silent: there was only the faint sheering sound of the sand beneath the keels, and the cool, night breeze whistling by as we made our way across the dunes, keeping to the relatively even sand of the depressions or 'valleys' between them.
With the speed at which we were going, the night breeze was stronger and its coolness invigorating. If only we made it out of the Si Wong desert to someplace which had water: dehydration was my major concern now that we had found a means of transport. The myriad stars above my head, so very clear here in the desert, were reassuring – especially the constancy of the North Star.
It was then, when I took my eyes off the compass, that I realised the North Star was NOT straight ahead, but to my right! I consulted the star charts quickly.
'The needle on this compass doesn't seem to be pointing north, according to my charts,' I commented frowning.
'Take it easy, little lady,' Sokka said lazily 'I'm sure the sand folks who built this baby know how to get around here'.
I glared at him. Sokka was not hallucinating anymore, but the after-effects of the cactus juice had left him in an unnaturally calm state, which wasn't helping. A prickling unease came over me – if the compass was broken, it could be leading us further into the desert, instead of out of it.
'Sokka, it's leading us West – towards the centre of the Si Wong desert!' I protested.
Just then, from amid the sand dunes in the far distance, I saw a strange shape: like a dark hill. I glanced down at the quivering needle of the compass. It was pointing straight at it!
'That's what the compass is pointing to!' I told the others 'That giant rock! It must be the magnetic centre of the desert.'
'A rock?' Toph asked, her face lighting up, 'Yes! Let's go!'
If the Sandbenders were guided by the magnetism of this rock it must be important in some way. Perhaps there was an oasis or something on it.
'Maybe we can find some water there!' I told them, voicing my one concern.
'Maybe we can find some sandbenders.' Aang said, darkly.
There was no mistaking the hidden menace in his low voice. It was disquieting.
I climbed down from the deck and joined him beneath the billowing sail.
'Aang, there are many sandbenders out here. They may not be the Sandbenders who took Appa -'
'Then they will know who did,' he cut across me curtly. 'And they will tell me...' his eyes flickered over to me, their usual clarity darkening to a stormy grey. Then they narrowed as they flickered back to the huge rock. 'They will tell me, or else -'
He stopped, leaving those sinister words hanging between us. I felt a chill fear creep through my veins. Aang's face was set in hard lines and he was looking grimly at the rock as he punched air blasts into the sand-glider's sails.
The silence spiralled between us – I, for once, did not know what to say. I had never seen Aang this state of sustained fury. It wasn't just righteous anger – I could understand that - but there was also a palpable undercurrent of vengeful purpose in his words that scared me, for it was an aspect of his character that I would never have imagined could exist.
I have seen various degrees of bloodlust in warriors – the worst being that glimpsed through the narrow slits of Fire Nation helmets during the raids on our homes. Sokka says it can sometimes be a necessary part of a warrior's training, and I can understand that too, but it was not something I could even remotely associate with Aang …. Except on very few occasions: I had seen shadows of it on Aang's face through the multifaceted Avatar State, wherein I could not be sure to what point it was him that had generated it, or else his past lives.
Now, however, it was him and him alone in this vengeful rage – my gentle-spirited Aang seemed to have retreated to a place I could not reach, and I dared not ask him what his last sinister words to me meant, for I was afraid to hear the answer coming from him.
Instead, I gazed in silence at the fast-approaching giant rock as the first pale signs on the undulating western horizon announced the coming dawn. Aang was still working tirelessly at the sail, eyes fixed on the rock and jaws clenched tight. It saddened me to see that he had been pushed to this point – a point where I, who thought I knew him well by now, found that I barely knew anything at all.
And yet... there was something vaguely familiar about this anger and pain, and even about those secret and vengeful intentions I could see brewing behind his clouded eyes...I had seen this happen before.
When Mum was killed and our family shattered, there were dark days and even weeks, when there was a burning rage inside all of us, a frustrated anger with no-one and nowhere to direct it at.
I suppose we directed it at each other. Sokka started behaving rebelliously and even bizarrely; I blamed everyone around me at first, for the tragedy, not wanting to admit it had all been my fault, and Dad... Dad had buried his feelings deep inside him, but they were never gone and in the end, they drove him to seek revenge by joining the war against the Fire Nation. Those days, none of us knew where our anger stopped and our grief began, and we hurt each other in the process.
Aang was doing the same.
I glanced sadly at the young airbender next to me, understanding finally that all this – all of it – the anger, the pain, the unreasonable lashing out at everyone around him – this was all part of him, too. A part I knew he was less proud of, but part of who he was, nonetheless, and something that I had to learn to accept.
The paleness of the sky had turned to a golden orange by the time we arrived at the giant rock. My hopes for water or even a sign of something green growing that denoted moisture were dashed, for the massive mound that jutted out of the sand was bare and bone-dry rock. Toph leapt out of the sand-sailor eagerly and Aang airbended himself down.
'We should climb to the top – perhaps there's more to this place than just a rock,' I suggested.
'There is. That's a path over there,' Aang said, pointing with his staff.
Toph was already confidently heading that way, able to 'see' her way clearly now. Her morale had lifted tremendously and she seemed like a different person. A path meant someone had come to this rock before – probably Sandbenders. I hurried up after Aang, Sokka bringing up the rear slowly with Momo.
It was hard going – the path was narrow and spiralled steeply upwards around the sheer walls of the giant rock, but finally, just as the rising sun painted the Eastern sky a violent orange- gold, we arrived at the peak. The view from this high vantage point was of a sea of sand in all directions, as far as the eye could see. There was nothing green growing, but we found ourselves in front of what looked like many round caves that pock-marked the domed peak of the rock.
They looked faintly ominous, but were the only possibility of finding water or even some moisture, so we went in one of the largest caves. Inside, they did not look like caves but more like tunnels, and the walls were covered in a thick, glutinous, yellow goo.
Then my idiot brother, who had just been saying his head was clearing from the cactus juice, had to go and taste the stuff! He gagged, saying it tasted like rotten penguin meat and a minute later, we found out why!
The caves we were in were part of a huge Buzzard-wasp hive carved out of the rock and the yellow stuff was produced by carrion-eating females to feed their young! Toph warned us that the whole place was a-buzz with the creatures!
We fled, but I guess they sensed our presence. As we reached the outside, several of them flew out of the other openings and started circling us, screeching loudly. I remember Professor Zei telling me of his own encounters with the creatures: he said they were usually scavengers unless desperately hungry, but could be very aggressive if their nest was disturbed!
I had the feeling that they were both at the moment! I had no water to bend, Sokka was still labouring with blurred vision and Toph could only attack those Buzzard-wasps that were crawling on the rock – the ones that were flying were too many and buzzing too confusedly, for her to follow their sound and earthbend them out of the sky!
'We have to get out of here!' I shouted, backing away from the hive towards Aang, but next instant, I heard a desperate scream behind us – it was Momo: one of the buzzard-wasps had snatched him up in its six legs and was flying off in the direction of the rising sun, no doubt to feast on its prize away from the other Buzzard-wasps!
'Momo!' Aang shouted in despair, realising exactly what that thing intended to do.
He ran forwards, but the Buzzard-wasp, with Momo screeching pathetically in its clawed feet, was heading away from the hive.
'I'm not losing anyone else out here!' Aang said savagely, and opening his glider, he took a running leap off the rock.
'Come on, we're going down!' I yelled at the others, as several more Buzzard-wasps flew out of the holes around and above us.
We ran down the narrow ledge that led to the winding path and the Buzzard-wasps momentarily lost sight of us beneath the overhanging rock, but the angry screeching, and the buzzing sound of the creatures' wings was still loud above our heads. I could see some of them had flown off in the direction Aang had taken.
But one of them spotted us. I grabbed Toph by the shoulder with both hands and turned her round to face outwards.
'Toph, shoot a rock right there. Fire!' I said, from behind her, guiding her with a gentle pressure of my hands on her shoulders.
Toph realised immediately what I was trying to do. She shot a cluster of rocks, not a single one, for better efficacy, in the direction I showed her and the horrible red-eyed carrion-feeder was downed. As we proceeded on our way down, I glanced at the distant speck that was Aang. I couldn't see if he saved Momo, but I saw him land in a flurry of sand, and swing his staff in an air-bending move that sent an Air-blade flying, deadly swift and fast, to a point further on, slicing the desert sand like a scythe as it went.
I didn't have much time to see what happened, for suddenly, several other buzzard-wasps saw us. We were at the bottom of the Giant rock, but we still hadn't made it to the sand-glider, beneath which we could hide till Aang came back.
'Toph, there are more coming!' I shouted, getting behind her again.
'Just show me where they are!' she answered, getting into an earthbending stance.
'On your left!' I shouted and another carrion-feeder soon bit the dust.
But more sounds of buzzing wings told us they were swarming in for the kill! Then suddenly, huge rock and sand columns, almost as tall as the Giant rock itself, rose from the sand with an unearthly crashing sound, and sand blew around us, blinding us. It lasted for a few long seconds but when the sandstorm died down, we saw three sand-sailors standing motionless in the dunes some hundred yards or so beyond ours, their sails swaying lazily with the early morning breeze. Surrounding us in a belligerent semi-circle, were about twenty or so sandbenders, their several layers of white robes turned to a golden hue by the rising sun. Many more of them manned the Sand -sailors. Some of them wore loose turbans and were visored, so that none of their face was visible, but two of them were bareheaded: a bearded man and a youth. The expression on their face was not friendly and I remembered what Professor Zei had said about these people: like Buzzard-wasps, in desperate times, these people were not only scavengers, but hunted live game...
It did not look good.
Suddenly, Aang landed in front of us, snapping his glider shut and facing the Sandbenders with an ugly look on his face. Next instant, Momo's soft, warm, weight was curled around my neck, trying to hide beneath my hair. I could feel the little Lemur's body trembling in fear, but his large, expressive eyes were on Aang, rather than the sandbenders.
That sent a warning prickle of apprehension running through my mind – Aang was furious at these people, even though it was very clear they did not have Appa! Sokka, Toph and I hurried forward to where Aang stood, instinctively standing in front of him. Momo, still skittish, leapt over to Sokka, from where he surveyed the goings-on with large, frightened eyes.
The bearded man, who appeared to be their leader, spoke first: 'What are you doing in our land with a sandbender sailor?' he said belligerently 'From the looks of it, you stole it from the Hami tribe.'
I moved forward in front of Aang to intervene quickly. The bearded man's tone was enough to set anyone's hackles up.
'We found the sailor abandoned in the desert,' I explained, trying to speak calmly and reasonably 'We're travelling with the Avatar. Our bison was stolen and we have to get to Ba-Sing-Se.'
The younger sandbender next to the leader clenched his fist angrily: 'You dare accuse our people of theft, while you ride in on a stolen sand sailor?' he shouted.
'Quiet, Gashuin!' the older man said sharply, in his gravelly voice. 'No one accused our people of anything. If what they say is true, we must give them hospitality'.
'Sorry, father,' Gashuin answered.
I breathed a mental sigh of relief as Toph came up by my side, her eyes narrowed. At least, this guy's father seemed more reasonable. And the Avatar's name seemed to command some respect.
Said Avatar was being unexpectedly quiet, but I sensed that Aang was like a coiled spring, and it was probably only the older man's collaboration that was keeping him in check. I was about to move forward and deal with the Sandbenders myself – if there had to be any questions relating to Appa, I felt I would handle it better, when suddenly Toph said something that made the whole situation precipitate into chaos:
'I recognize the son's voice,' she said, 'He's the one that stole Appa.'
'Are you sure? I asked.
'I never forget a voice,' she replied with conviction, and I believed her.
That did it. Aang burst forth from between us, brandishing his staff threateningly at the Sandbenders
'You stole Appa!' he snarled at them 'Where is he? What did you do to him?'
'They're lying!' Gashuin said, turning to his father 'They're the thieves!'
But I could hear the quiver of insincerity in his voice.
Aang swung his staff and the desert sand rose in the furious wake of a violent air blast that hit one of the sand-sailors, smashing it to pieces.
'Where is my bison?!' Aang's voice was a low growl of barely-controlled rage.
The sandbenders gazed in horror from their destroyed Sand-sailor to where Aang stood, barely able to take in what had just happened. But Aang was too beside himself to wait patiently for them to understand that yes, we had told the truth, and yes, this was the Avatar and they had made a big mistake in taking Appa!
'You tell me where he is now!' Aang shouted, and he swung his staff remorselessly one more time, and the vengeful air-blast whistled past with deadly accuracy at the second Sandbender sailor. The sound of splintering wood and the cries of those manning it, as they ran for their lives, filled the desert air.
The Sandbenders' shocked faces paled even beneath the yellow-gold haze of the early desert sun. My heart pounded fearfully in my chest, for Aang's fury was in crescendo. This is what I had been afraid of – he had lost control and was purposefully destroying these Sandbender's sailors and their only means of escaping the desert ... or his anger. Only, looking at him then, I knew that they couldn't escape: his features were almost unrecognisable, twisted in wrath, his eyes dark and rage-filled. This was Aang as I had never seen him before, for he had reached a boiling point – he looked almost as angry as he did in the Avatar State, when such a state had been triggered by that particular emotion.
'What did you do?' The Sandbender leader turned to his son, alarmed and frightened. Without the Sand gliders, his men, as well as him and his son, would be condemned to die in the desert!
'I-It wasn't me!' Gashuin stammered, but the lie in his voice was evident.
'You said to put a muzzle on him!' Toph said, pointing an accusing finger at him.
'You muzzled Appa?!'
Aang's voice quivered in horrified rage and time seemed to slow down. I realised with a shiver of dread, in those unnaturally long seconds, exactly what would happen: but I couldn't stop it - the next second instant, his eyes had turned an incandescent white, as did his arrow tattoos. He was entering into the Avatar State! My heart was in my mouth and I watched helplessly as with a swirling motion of his staff he destroyed the last sand-glider as though it were a child's toy!
Gashuin finally seemed to realise just who he had messed with.
'I'm sorry!' he yelled, fear twisted his features, 'I didn't know that it belonged to the Avatar!'
'Tell me where Appa is!' Aang's voice, like Aang himself, was unrecognisable as Past Avatars spoke through him, commanding the truth in their unearthly voices.
'I traded him! To some merchants!' Gashuin admitted finally, 'He's probably in Ba-Sing-Se by now! They were going to sell him there!' he looked up at Aang's face, but there was neither mercy nor pity in those white, incandescent eyes.
If anything the Avatar's fury increased.
Appa's whereabouts were once again unknown, and Aang had had one too many false hopes now to be able to control himself any longer. Suddenly, I could feel his pain just as though it were mine. This was one last blow that I knew he couldn't handle: Appa, that gentle giant, had been ill-treated and sold to third or fourth parties who may have even more nefarious intentions on him than the Sandbenders or merchants!
'Please! We'll escort you out of the desert! We'll help however we can!' Gashuin was begging, but Aang, his face contorted in fury, glared at him pitilessly. I saw Gashuin's father glance at the last sand-sailor – the one we had found buried in the desert, and he made a pleading gesture with his hands.
Aang didn't even see him. The air started spinning wildly around him, gathering in the heated dry winds from the four corners of the desert into a raging force. I knew, with that horrible sinking feeling of inevitability, that he was going into the full Avatar State in a rage such as I had only witnessed once before.
'Just get out of here!' I heard Sokka shout to Toph, 'Run!'
But my own fear and apprehension at the raw power I knew would soon be unleashed slowly dissipated.
The furious wind screamed vengefully around me, picking up sand particles and driving them in stinging pin-point lashes against my skin. I shielded my eyes as a tornado of sand and broken sand-sailor debris were hurled around faster and faster. Everyone was running desperately for cover. I let them. I knew there was someone in that raging force there who was hurting more than the rest of us put together. I glimpsed Aang in the middle of the whirling sphere of air as the Avatar State lifted him above and beyond that which it perceived his enemies.
But I was not an enemy, and I was not there to hurt him, but to shield him, if I could.
From himself too, if necessary.
I approached the swirling ball of energy. I could see Aang's face looking down mercilessly at the fleeing sandbenders, his features almost unrecognisable in his wrath and pain. The glowing arrows on his hands were pointing eloquently at his own hate-clenched fists. He would wreak his vengeance on them. He would destroy those who had taken away the one living creature that had shown him unconditional love and devotion, through thick or thin!
And he would hate himself for it.
The Aang I knew would hate himself for it, even though this anger, this violence, was a darker part of him that he needed to recognise, painful as it was. He had to accept that it was part of him, just as I had, and then let it go.
I approached the whirling sphere and reached up to him, through the maelstrom, grabbing his wrist. His head snapped round, and the blazing fury of his gaze turned on to me – hate, vengeance, blind wrath were all there in his eyes – emotions I had been afraid of seeing in him - but also a deep pain and hurt. There was all of this and yet... and yet, it was just Aang. Just the young airbender whom I knew so well ... this was him, too. I held on firmly to his wrist, showing him that I would not be letting go ...whatever happened. At that moment, seeing all that pain etched into his features, I felt heart-broken that Aang had been pushed to the limit beyond which he would not recognise himself. He had lost so much already – immeasurably more than anyone alive – why this, too?
The hard muscles of his clenched fists twitched beneath my hands, and the angry hate-filled expression wavered, then left his face. The wind slowly lessened and he sank lower, so I could grab his other hand and steady him as the draining influence after the Avatar State took hold. My eyes never left his face, and as his feet touched the ground, I could see his expression change. He looked drained, but also as sad as I felt, now. I pulled him to me and held him tight, shielding him against the last remnants of the furious winds, shileding him from everything and everyone. The stiffness of his rage-filled body resisted for a few more seconds, but then the glow of the Avatar State faded from his eyes, and he slumped against me. I could feel him trembling slightly as he lay his weary head on my shoulder, but I said nothing. I just held him tightly, knowing here was no need for words.
Hot tears seeped through the fabric of my clothes, and I knew what pain and shock had wrenched those silent tears from him.
'I'm sorry, Katara' he whispered finally, pulling away from me and hanging his head, 'I had told you, once, that I hoped you'd never see me like this again, and yet ...'.
'Aang, this is not your fault – '
'Yes it is! It was bad enough when I was out of control in General Fong's fortress, but this is much worse!' he brought his head up to gaze at the chaotic jumble of broken Sand-gliders and sand-blasted men who were looking at us warily from a safe distance, 'you know it is!'
I looked at him sadly, as a flicker of his earlier rage showed through his weary, sand- and tear-streaked face. This time, however, the anger was turned towards himself, and after another cursory look at the sand-blasted landscape, he hung his head in shame.
'This is much worse,' he repeated in a low voice 'I would've hurt them, Katara. And it was me this time, not my past lives or the Avatar State. I knew what I was doing, and I was calling the shots, not my past lives. I wanted to hurt those Sandbenders. Can you believe that?!' his eyes turned to me and I was taken aback at the haze of shocked pain I could see there. 'Perhaps I would've killed them like I did the Buzzard-wasp that took Momo! D'you understand what I nearly did?! I - I lost my head.' His voice rose in anguish.
I took a step towards him and lay my hand tentatively on his shoulder, but he turned away, drying his eyes with a swift, angry movement. 'Most of those sandbenders haven't even lain eyes on Appa,' he bit out 'They're innocent!'
'You know, Aang' I said, sadly 'Looking at you is like looking at myself, some years back. In the weeks following Mum's death I was so mad and frustrated I lashed out at everyone, hurting those I loved, and myself, in the process.'
He turned to look at me. 'But you didn't go into the Avatar State and destroy everything.'
'No, but hurtful or angry words can do a lot of damage, too. Thankfully, I realised very quickly and tried to make amends by stepping into Mum's shoes, focussing on what was important: keeping the family together like she would've wanted. Trying to make sure she hadn't died in vain.'
'Appa isn't dead... yet.'
'No. He's in Ba Sing Se. And we've got to hope to find him there – he's too important and unusual for ...anything else. We gotta focus on what's important.'
He looked at me for a second without saying anything, then he looked back to where the Sandbenders were huddled together in small frightened groups. I felt his shoulders straighten and he took a deep breath, as though coming to a decision.
'I gotta talk to them,' he said 'I owe some of them, at least, an apology.'
'I'll come with you.'
'No, no. I'm... I'm ok, now.' His face was pale and drawn beneath the sunburn and the sand dust, but there was a determined, hard look in his eyes.
He walked forward a few steps, then he paused and turned round to look at me. The hard look softened .
'I'm really glad you were there, Katara. You saved everyone. And you kept this family together, too.'
Then he turned and walked swiftly towards a group of sandbenders, who hurriedly backed away. Their leader, however, stood his ground, and, as Aang approached, prostrated himself before him. I couldn't hear what they were saying, but Aang knelt down beside him and I saw him indicate our Sand-sailor. Their leader got up and the other sandbenders slowly gathered round too, as they saw Aang's fury had abated. Sokka and Toph went up to them too and I could finally breathe a sigh of relief.
Only Gashuin remained apart, but it was better that way.
I felt drained given the emotional swings of the past hours but, as I looked at Aang speaking with the Sandbenders, taking charge of the situation, I also felt proud of how he had come through this ordeal. Sokka came to tell me Aang had offered to take all the sandbenders – Gashuin included- on our Sand sailor. They, in return, would guide us out of the desert to its northern borders, and then they were welcome to keep the glider.
I made my way to the Sand glider. Toph was already there.
'That's one heck of a sandstorm Twinkletoes blew up!' she said, still in awe, 'How did he do that?'
I explained about the Avatar State, while Toph listened open-mouthed. Something that had been niggling at the back of my mind since we left the library re-surfaced. Avatar Yangchen had written about being at her strongest, yet at her most vulnerable, in the Avatar State...
I glanced over at Aang, who was on the stern deck talking to Sha-mo, as the leader of the Sandbenders was called. I needed to talk to him about what I had found out... but another day perhaps. We were all exhausted: mentally, physically and emotionally. The Sandbenders gathered whatever they could salvage from their destroyed sand-sailors and climbed aboard too. They had some water skins with them, and we finally quenched our thirst.
It was very crowded on the sand sailor, but these people really know their craft – several Sandbenders stood beneath the thick canvas sails and created a sand vortex that drove the glider forward. The fast, smooth glide over the sand ensured a stiff breeze surrounded us , so even as the desert sun rose higher, we did not feel its effects so much. Toph soon went over and started talking to them. From snatches of conversation I heard, she was asking them about sand-bending. Sokka was talking to Sha-mo, discussing the route to take. We will be going due North I heard them say, up until we hit the mountain range close to the Eastern Lake.
Aang sat alone on the prow of one of the keels, his eyes fixed on the distant horizon. All the sandbenders were giving him a wide berth, so I went and sat down beside him, just so that he does not feel alone. He glanced at me once, then went back to staring fixedly at the horizon. He was calm now and there was no trace of the towering rage of earlier, but neither of sorrow or anxiety or eagerness – he seemed drained of all emotion. I did not say anything but sat quietly nearby until finally, towards evening, we saw the jagged outline of a string of high rocky hills in the distance.
Soon the terrain beneath the keels of the glider changed form sand to a gritty, pebbly dust and the sand sailor came to a halt.
'This is as far as this craft can get you, Avatar' Sha-mo said 'If you go in that direction –' he pointed to two bare rocky cliffs between two high hills ' you will find a small stream - a tributary to the great rivers that feed the lakes. It is only a couple of hours away on foot.'
We thanked Sha-mo, who also gave us some provisions salvaged from their destroyed gliders, and then we were on our own again.
The two-hour walk was harder than it would normally have been, because our ordeal in the desert had weakened us, but by nightfall we finally we finally come across the stream Sha-mo indicated. We drank our fill of the clear, cool water and with some difficulty, built a fire (firewood is rather scarce in these bare rocky hills, even though there is water). Toph and Sokka went to sleep immediately, completely exhausted, but Aang, who hasn't said a word since we left the Sandbenders, is still awake, meditating, so I stayed up too, just in case he needs me, for the strange, empty look on his face is worrying me.
I have spent the time writing about our incredible journey through the desert.
I think the desert has marked us all in some way, and, as I wrote in the beginning of today's journal entry, for most of us there has been a loss. As for myself… I think that I have found something...
I have found reserves of strength within me that I didn't think I had, especially in this arid, dry land so foreign to me, as a waterbender. Just when everything seemed so bleak and hopeless to everyone else, I found a resilient core of defiant hope and resolve that kept me going when everyone else had given up.
I think, if such a thing could be, that I my have been touched by my mother's spirit.
I'm sure she watches over me still.
Tomorrow, we must put all this behind us, forget our ordeal in the Desert, and concentrate our hopes on finding Appa in Ba Sing Se. We have a mission there.