When Katara woke the morning after her
fight with Aang, she was already beginning to feel twinges of guilt. They
stayed with her as she dressed and washed up, gradually becoming more pressing
with every passing moment. She expected she'd have to wait to find a time when
she could get Aang alone to talk about it, but, somewhat surprisingly, when she
wandered out into the hall, she found Toph's and Sokka's rooms still open and
empty from the night before.
Well... at least now she knew the reason for the strange exchanges between her boyfriend and brother the night before. Obviously Aang had been planning this for some time.
And I could've been easier on him about it. Katara eyed the closed door of his room hesitantly. She was still convinced that she was right - Aang would thank her for it later - and that nobly setting aside her desires was going to make this a far better experience for them both in the end. But maybe she hadn't been sensitive enough to his feelings when she turned him down. There were probably more diplomatic ways she could've gone got her point across that wouldn't have hurt his pride as much.
Maybe I should talk to him about it. That decided, she stepped up to the door and knocked lightly.
There was no response from inside.
"Aang?" Katara waited a few seconds - when she still didn't get an answer, she sighed. "I know you're probably still mad about last night, but I think we need to talk. Can I come in?"
Katara let out another slightly irritated breath. Why is he always so stubborn? "If you don't want me in there, you'd better say something, because otherwise I'm coming in," she announced.
Several seconds of silence later, she turned the handle and swung the door open. "Aang, if you'd just - " She caught sight of the glowing form of her boyfriend on the floor in his meditative pose, and stopped. "Oh. I guess you really couldn't answer me, could you?"
Had he been in the Spirit World all night?
Not helping with the guilt here. Katara sighed, bending a little to put a hand on Aang's shoulder. His skin felt a bit cool, which probably confirmed her suspicions. "I don't know if you can hear me, but for what it's worth, I'm sorry about last night," she said, a bit hesitantly. "I think we both said a few things we shouldn't have."
It was weird talking to him like this. Katara straightened. "Well... I guess we can talk about it when you get back."
He'd been to the Spirit World several times in the past few years, and always without incident, so Katara had a hard time explaining to herself why she felt an uneasy lump settling at the pit of her stomach as she slowly closed the door to Aang's room again.
Breakfast - if it could be called that at almost - was not exactly what Sokka had hoped for. "Doesn't your uncle cook anything other than this mucky-looking goop?" he complained, tilting his bowl to the side and making a face as the white paste slowly oozed downward. "Because if not, I'm surprised his customers don't walk out on him."
Zuko didn't look impressed. "It's a tea shop, not a restaurant. And if you don't like it, you're free to leave." He nodded in the direction of the door that led out of Iroh's tiny apartment.
"Wish I could join you." Mai sighed, pushing her bowl forward. "You'd think I'd be used to this by now..."
"You guys are too delicate." Toph wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and set down her bowl. "I've seriously had worse than this stuff."
"Hey, I've had worse too, but that doesn't mean I can't have standards." Sokka set down the bowl, crossing his arms. "And right now my standards are telling me that it's probably time to go look for something else to eat. Preferably something that doesn't look - and smell - like glue. No offence to your uncle's cooking," he added, with a glance at Zuko.
"We could just go back to the house." Toph shrugged, leaning back on her hands. "I'm pretty sure that night we agreed to stay away for ended a while ago. Anyway, if they're not done whatever Aang was hoping they'd be doing by now, then I'd say they're going about it wrong."
Zuko blinked at her. "You guys agreed to stay away from the house last night?"
Toph raised an eyebrow at him. "That's a big 'duh'."
"Seriously. Why else would we be here?" Sokka added. "I mean, not that your uncle's not a great host and everything, but sleeping somewhere other than the floor would've been nice."
"Wow." Mai looked only mildly surprised; she smirked a bit. "How much did you make off of that bribe?"
"Enough." Toph grinned.
"The thing I'm wondering" - Zuko's eyebrows were still up near his hairline - "is how you got talked into it." He directed a very pointed look at Sokka. "I mean, considering the implications..."
"I could do without a reminder," Sokka responded flatly. Why did everyone feel the need to bring it up? His sister's love life was not one of his favourite topics. "But, to answer your question, it's not like I can stop them if they really want to do it anyway, and I'm not exactly interested in being there to 'share' in the experience."
"Yeah, no kidding." Toph made a gagging face.
Zuko's eyebrows came down. "Fair enough."
"Can't blame you for that," Mai added dryly.
"Aaaaand... I'd say we're done with this conversation." Sokka pushed himself to his feet. "I'm going in search of something a little more edible than whatever's in that bowl. Thank your uncle for me, though, will you?"
Toph stood as well. "Tell him I'll take him up on that offer he made last night some time before we leave the city." She shrugged, with a bit of a grin. "Not like we won't be hanging around here anyway, but still."
Sokka stared at her as the apartment door shut behind them. "What offer?" he asked, letting her go first down the stairs.
She turned just enough to raise an eyebrow at him. "Do I pry into your private conversations?"
"Okay, okay." He held up both hands in a placating manner. "Just thought I'd ask. Sorry."
The silence between them had never felt so awkward. Sokka rubbed at the back of his neck uncomfortably as he followed her to the street that would lead them back to Aang's house. He felt like he should apologize for pissing her off the night before, but he wasn't really sure how to start. Come to think of it, he wasn't really sure what he was apologizing for.
It made figuring out how to word things a little difficult.
"Y'know, you don't need to act like I'm going to blow up on you or anything." Toph shot him a 'look'. "I'm not like Suki; I don't care if you get on my nerves once in a while." She grinned then, almost wolfishly. "Trust me, if I were really pissed off, I'd make sure you knew it."
"Really?" Sokka didn't wait for her to confirm that; he let out a long breath, clapping one hand over his chest a bit theatrically. "That is a huge relief. You know, when I say the wrong thing to Suki, sometimes she won't talk to me for days. Not even to tell me what I did wrong!"
"Yeah, you'd think she'd realize by now that everything you do is wrong," Toph quipped.
"I kn - Hey!"
She completely ignored his glare. "Besides, you usually manage to figure things out. And I think Suki likes that screw-things-up-and-put-your-foot-in-your-mouth-over-it side of you sometimes."
He frowned at her. "Thanks. That's real encouraging."
"No problem." She smiled.
"You have this really bad habit of - " Sokka broke off in the middle of his sentence, his thoughts interrupted when they rounded the corner and he caught sight of his sister pacing - with quick, agitated steps - around the front door of Aang's house. Her face was knotted with anxiety.
Toph voiced the thought first: "This is probably a bad sign, isn't it?"
At the sound of her voice, Katara jerked to a halt. "Where have you been?" she demanded, stalking out to meet them. "I've been waiting for hours!"
"Well, it's not like we had an appointment!" Sokka raised his hands defensively. "How were we supposed to know you were waiting for us? Why didn't you just come up to the tea shop and say so?"
Surprisingly, that seemed to quiet her. Katara glanced aside, pressing her hands together anxiously. "I didn't want to leave Aang by himself," she answered in a much more subdued tone.
A cold trickle of alarm was making its way into Sokka's thought process. "Why? What happened to him?"
"I don't know. I mean, he's in the Spirit World." She looked back up at him, and he got the impression that she was trying to seem less worried than she actually was. That had never worked for her. "Maybe I shouldn't be worrying, but I think he's been gone all night, and now it's been all morning, and it's just..." She spread her arms helplessly. "He's never done that before, not without telling someone first. I have a really bad feeling - I'm sure that something's wrong, but I don't know what."
It was weird for Aang not to be telling Katara what he was doing. But still... Sokka frowned. "Even if that's true, what can we do about it? None of us know how to get into the Spirit World, so it's not like we can go looking for him."
"There is one person who might be able to help us out," Toph suggested. "Iroh once told me he went on a journey to the Spirit World. If he did it once before, then he could know a way for us to do it now." She didn't wait for an answer, turning back the way they'd just come. "I'll go ask him."
Aang flopped down into the snowdrift behind him, laughing so hard that he almost couldn't breathe. The sky was clear, the sun was out, and the day was bright. It was perfect.
"Oh, very funny!" Katara stood above him, trying unsuccessfully to look stern with her hands placed on her hips. A smile was tugging at the corners of her mouth. "Sokka's going to kill you when he figures out what just happened."
The laughter was subsiding; Aang wiped at his eyes and fixed his girlfriend with an unconcerned smile. "He'll try."
She shook her head and sighed, rolling her eyes upward as she sank down beside him. "Remind me again why I date you."
He grinned at her; they had been together long enough now that he knew he could get away with being cheeky. When he sat up, their shoulders brushed, and it felt like warmth spread from that part of his body all through the rest of it. "My irresistible charm?" he suggested, wagging his eyebrows.
Katara's answering smile had a teasing edge. "If you can call it that," she bantered, and lowered her eyelids, fixing him with a heady stare. "I think it's just because you're a good kisser."
Aang's heart began to pound; he swallowed, and tried to keep his voice light. Cool. He could be cool. "Maybe we should test that," he responded, leaning his head towards her. Their faces were close; he could feel her breath on his cheek.
"Maybe we should." Her eyes were shut; she closed the distance between them, and their lips met.
Aang slid one hand free of its mitten and reached up to brush his fingers over Katara's cheek, exalting in the knowledge that she was here, with him, wanting to kiss him, pressing into his touch.
The sky was clear, the sun was out, and the day was bright. Katara was kissing him. It was perfect.
His vision blurred; Aang found himself staring at his own closed eyelids, his body curled loosely on its side, lying on something soft. He felt a moment of disorientation; there was no blue sky or snow, and certainly no Katara. It was just a memory, vivid as it might have been. He was alone.
"Another dream, Avatar?"
He was starting to hate that voice. Aang wanted to open his eyes, take in his surroundings - definitely figure some way out of this mess. He wasn't even tied up; nothing held him down. But he couldn't seem to order his body to move. It was like he was asleep still.
Something thin and cold touched the base of his neck, sliding down his spine and lingering at the small of his back; Aang would have recoiled from it if he could. His jaw tensed, teeth trying to clench. He could feel them brush together, very slightly.
At least that was something.
"Don't worry," the voice continued, either not noticing or just ignoring his struggles, "I'll make sure it's a good one. I promised, didn't I?"
The dark amusement didn't escape him. Aang inwardly seethed in frustration.
She's just playing with me...
"I'll be keeping an eye on that body of yours in the mortal world, too." The cold touch left him then. "You can count on that."
Part of him wanted to be alarmed about that statement, but that strange fuzzy dreaminess was settling over him again, and he found himself unwittingly sinking away from the reality of his situation.