"I need to ask you something. Please... come closer."
"What is it?"
She leaned in, heart beating faster for a reason she couldn't really identify. The boy in the iceberg gave a sleepy blink. Then a sudden, blazing grin.
"Would you ride a polar bear dog with me?"
It was, in retrospect, one of the strangest opening questions anyone had ever asked her. She arched an eyebrow, but a smile was already growing on her face to match his.
"I have a way with animals," he told her. It wasn't that she doubted him exactly, but still. "To find a polar bear dog, you've got to think like a polar bear dog."
"Okay," she said skeptically. "So... crawling on all fours and sniffing the ice is thinking like a polar bear dog how, again?"
"I'm trying to see which spot smells the fishiest. That's where they'd be hunting, right?"
She just shrugged in confusion. "I wouldn't know about that. You'd probably be able to see one before you'd smell one. They hunt from on top of the ice, not underneath it! If you're thinking turtle seals, that's the north pole."
"Oh." He picked himself off the snow with a small gust of wind, rubbing at his nose with a sheepish expression.
"Also, you'd probably get frostbite on your face if you kept that up for too long."
"I... I knew that. I was just checking to see if you did." She rolled her eyes and was about to open her mouth for a doubtful reply, but the boy held up one finger as if to quiet her. Then she noticed the hilariously awkward look on his face and realized he was probably about to sneeze again, like he'd done when they first met.
A few seconds passed.
He lowered his finger, looking embarrassed but breathing a sigh of relief. "False alarm."
"... Right." She paused for a moment, nearly forgetting what it was exactly she'd even came here to talk about. Whatever it was, it didn't have anything to do with polar bear dogs, that was for sure. "But anyway, that's not the point. The point is that I have a lot more questions for you now that I've talked to the rest of my tribe about letting you stay for the night."
The briefest expression of worry--panic, almost--crossed his face, and she hesitated. You noticed these things when you had the reflexes of a master waterbender.
"But if you answer them, I'll show you the secret to finding a polar bear dog."
"You've got a deal!" He gave a wide, beaming grin. It was almost as if the look of uneasiness hadn't even been there at all.
"Good. So, first of all," she took in a breath. Well, might as well get the elephant-hippo in the room over with from the start. "It's not that you're not welcome, but what exactly is an airbender like you doing here in the south pole? We're pretty far away from the Southern Air Temple. Almost nobody's even seen an Air Nomad around for a hundred years, not since--"
She stopped herself. He didn't look sad, just a little wary and thoughtful. And what was she trying to say, anyway? It wasn't as if the Southern Water Tribe had any problems with the Air Nomads. It was more like the Air Nomads having a problem with the entire world.
... If she thought about it further, she couldn't really blame them. The world had been at peace for the better part of a century now, but it was an uneasy one. Fire Lord Sozin had been a popular ruler. Not everyone in the nation was happy with the late Avatar Roku and how he decisively put an end to Sozin's dynasty. Even after his war plans had been disovered and his visions of wiping out the Air Nomads had come to light, there were still factions in the Fire Nation that embraced his dream. Rumors had it that Neo-Sozinists were even trying to restore his bloodline to the throne.
It was almost no wonder that the monks had quit their nomadic ways and retreated to stay in their faraway temples. Her grandmother used to tell her stories about the old days, a time of peace, when airbenders would travel around all four nations without fear. But now...
"I got lost," Aang said. She just stared blankly at him.
An awkward grin. "Uh, really lost?"
She was about to press him further, but reconsidered. Well, maybe it wouldn't be a good idea to pry. A hundred years ago, it was said that having an Air Nomad visit and stay in your village was a sign of good luck... though now they were considered a bad omen.
Everyone had something to hide. She lowered her voice dramatically. "Want to hear a secret?"
Whatever he'd been expecting, it was probably not that. But he perked up anyway. "Sure! I like secret things," and pinched the corner of his lips shut. Katara giggled.
Let's see... how should she do this exactly? She thought it over for a moment, then took off one of her gloves and waved a hand at the permafrost. Immediately a snowball floated up, then melted into a globe of shimmering water.
Aang watched, impressed. "Nice waterben--" he began, but she held up a finger to cut him off.
"Hold your breath."
He gave her a curious look but obeyed, sucking in a ridiculously huge breath of air and puffing out his cheeks like a chipmunk-rabbit. She cupped a hand over her mouth to keep from laughing, then followed her own instructions and inhaled deeply as well. This would take some concentration, even if she'd done mild cases of frostbite before. She reached out with both hands to touch Aang's reddened cheeks and nose, almost certain of the fact that her own face was the same color. Just not from exposure to the ice and wind.
The water shimmered and glowed around her open palms. When she pulled away, the blood was already returning to his face, and his eyes widened as he rubbed his cheek experimentally.
"There. Now you won't get hypothermia and we won't have to amputate your nose," she said brightly.
"Whoa." A sniff, then another beaming grin. "That's some good water."
"It's not the water, silly," she let her arms fall to her sides, let the liquid drip from her fingertips. "It's me. I'm a healer. It's a rare ability even for waterbenders, and I'm the only one in my village who has it."
"That sounds amazing!"
She frowned. "It would be, if I knew how to heal more than cuts and bruises and surface wounds. Then, maybe..."
Her mom, lying wrapped in furs and blankets, coughing weakly...
But she shut her eyes against the memory. "I could save lives with this, if only I knew how to."
"Isn't there anyone who could teach you?"
"Everyone here trains in offensive waterbending. That includes me." She couldn't help but smile wryly and cross her arms over her chest in pride. "You're looking at one of the youngest master waterbenders in the Southern Water Tribe. We're good at what we do."
... Maybe a little too good, but he didn't have to know about Hama and her experimentation with new techniques. The admiring expression on his face was flattering enough. "Should I be calling you Sifu Katara?"
"Only if you're studying waterbending under me."
"Oh," his eyebrows furrowed. "Right. Haha." Apparently, it was time for a subject change. He snapped his fingers as something occurred to him. "What about the north pole? There's another water tribe there, right?"
"There is, but," she hesitated, bit at the inside of her cheek a little. "We haven't had contact with them for years, and it's all the way on the other side of the world..."
"I have a flying bison," he pointed out. "Appa and I could personally fly you there."
The idea was pretty tempting. Still... "I don't know if Gran-gran would approve. Or Sokka, I guess. And what if there aren't any healers there, either? I've never left home before. What if we get lost, and something terrible happens--"
"This is the first time I've been out of the Southern Air Temple, too."
She stopped. He was smiling, but it was wistful as he glanced around at the ice floes and penguins and endless snowy landscape, so different from the lonely mountains of the temple. "I know you're scared. I'm just like you, too. None of the monks trust the rest of the world anymore, but I want to believe that things can change. I don't know a lot about the world or life outside the temples, but I do know this: being a bender means letting go of fear."
"I'm not afraid," she said hotly, even as she realized she was lying. He just grinned.
"I know that! You're a waterbending master, I'm the A--aaan airbending master. We could figure something out. Just think it over, okay?"
When it put it that way... she still wasn't entirely convinced. But she had an idea of what her answer might be.
She smiled. "Okay."
"Good! So, uh, in the meantime. Could you show me how to find a polar bear dog now?"
Well, maybe she shouldn't have been surprised the topic would return to this sooner or later. She rolled her eyes, but withdrew a dog whistle from the inside of her parka. "I should warn you, some of them don't exactly like being ridden." Not that that ever stopped her and Sokka before, but she figures she should give a disclaimer anyway. And from the look on Aang's face, he understood completely.
"Yeah, but that's what makes it fun!"
She grinned. "Just thought you should know. Finding a polar bear dog is an ancient and sacred art. Observe."
And she blew hard into the whistle.
Sure, she hadn't done this since she was a kid. But it was like the saying goes. Once you learn how to ride a polar bear dog, you never forget. And in the end... she still was a kid. The world was free and open and still at peace. Maybe, she thought, she should seize the opportunity.