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Twenty Million Beats

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Sokka yawned as he stretched and pushed his hands up towards the night sky. The moon hung pale and full in the distance above him, looking lonely as neither star nor cloud were visible to accompany it. He felt the same way. It was so dark, cold, and quiet. It made for a very gloomy atmosphere, indeed. The moon also never failed to remind him of Yue, and that thought didn’t help his mood either.

He and the sleeping members of Team Avatar were settled near a small cluster of boulders and cacti in the desert, despite Aang’s stubborn insistence that they continue to give chase to Appa’s captors. Closing his eyes, he recounted their grim situation.

The hundred-and-twelve-year-old was both angry and distraught regarding the loss of Appa. For the first few dozen hours, the team tolerated how Aang forced them through the desert without any outward indication of considering the wellbeing of his teammates. They had no food, no water, and no shelter from the sweltering heat and stinging sand of the desert.

The team understood of course, that Appa was precious to Aang. The sky bison was one of the only living things that connected Aang to his airbender past. Appa was Aang’s family. Without Appa by his side, he felt incomplete and just a little lost. He might as well have had a large chunk of his heart taken out and thrown away. Sokka could almost hear the airbender’s thoughts as he pushed ahead of the team. The only reason they knew Aang hadn’t forgot about them was that he continued to walk, instead of taking off on his glider as he would surely have if they weren’t there. It still looked like he wanted to though. Every twitch of Aang’s fingers towards his glider and every grit of his teeth and narrowing of his eyes screamed the same message; they had to find Appa.

But after dragging Toph back on track the tenth time in the last hour and steadying a wobbling Katara five times in the last half, he decided that enough was enough. Normally, Katara would be the one to insist on taking healthy breaks, but with so much self-destructive determination in Aang’s every movement, it was easy to understand if she didn’t know how to proceed. So this time, Sokka had to take the initiative. Guiding Toph’s hand to Katara’s sleeve, he quickened his pace to catch up with Aang. They argued for all of twenty seconds before Aang’s shoulders slumped tiredly, rage and adrenaline dissipating in a gust of hot wind. After a few more minutes, the team was able to find their current resting place for the night.

Opening his eyes again, Sokka turned around and watched the still forms of his friends. Toph had been overjoyed to finally find any hint of bendable earth amidst all the sand she’d been walking through. At the moment, the blind bender was draped over two of the biggest boulders, her hands tucked under her head, and her feet hanging just slightly above the sand. Sokka was sure it was an uncomfortable position. Toph hadn’t even bothered to bend the rocks to make them more comfortable. Well… as comfortable as rocks could be to an earthbender. The uneven surface of the boulders poked at her back, but she was too tired to care. That would probably hurt in the morning though, Sokka thought silently.

Katara and Aang were curled up at the base of Toph’s boulders, each facing opposite directions. Thanks to Katara’s persuasion and her motherly, calming words, Aang was able to relax enough to sleep. He nodded to himself, they would need all the energy they could get. Circling around their makeshift camp, he glanced around for what felt like the thousandth time that night. He wasn’t sure what he wanted to see. Appa? A town? Oh, definitely, but very unlikely. Did he want to see other signs of life? People or animals? At first his mind screamed yes. They hadn’t seen anyone else for miles. They could help them find a way back. But then again, they could also be threats. A squad of firebenders or a bunch of wild desert animals were the last things the team needed right now.

Sokka had volunteered himself for first watch. He was sure that Katara’s turn had been up for some time now, but he decided that his sister needed all the rest she could get. He looked at his friends and promptly concluded that the rest of them needed the sleep as well. He reasoned that if worse came to worst and they were attacked in the desert, the benders of the group had to be in good shape for them to have any chance of surviving.

Reaching down, Sokka picked up a small, egg-sized rock and tossed it from one hand to another. He had to pass the time and stay awake somehow. He threw the rock upwards, just a few inches above his palm to test its weight. He then proceeded to throw it higher and higher. Feeling more confident, Sokka threw it upwards as high as he could and waited for the rock to fall. He tilted his head up so he could watch it descend and position himself accordingly. He felt an unnatural gust of wind around him and his eyes stung from the sand it brought to his face. Muttering a string of silent curses, he shut his eyes and rubbed them with both hands, stumbling away from the place he expected his rock to land. It didn’t. Or at least, Sokka thought it was taking longer than it should have. He didn’t yet hear the telltale thump of the rock on sand.

Sokka opened his painful eyes and failed to smother a loud yelp that echoed ominously. He didn’t hear anything land because there was no rock and no sand. There was nothing around him at all. Just a deep blue vastness dotted with what looked like glowing stars and fog. And he was… floating? He turned sharply to his left and was relieved to see his friends in the same position he left them. They were still asleep, and they appeared to be lazily floating with him in that vast space of nothingness, but at least he wasn’t alone. He made a move towards Aang to nudge him awake. This felt like some spirit mumbo jumbo he didn’t know how to handle. These types of things were more up the Avatar’s alley. The faster he could wake Aang, the faster he could figure out where they were and what was going on.

Before Sokka could take more than two sluggish steps though, he felt a strong, angry, aura behind him. Startled, he swirled around. And screamed.

He was looking into the creepy dark eyes of a giant owl.

He raised his hands to shield his face and screamed some more.

A very familiar giant owl.

Floating backwards with the sheer force of his shock and his flailing arms, he struggled to calm himself and right his stance. He reached for his boomerang as he clutched a handful of cloth over his rapidly beating heart.

Wan Shi Tong.