"How long would you say he's been like
this now?" Iroh asked after a moment of contemplating the Avatar's
Katara let out the breath she'd been holding. "I'm not sure exactly," she admitted, uncomfortably aware that all attention was now on her. "He was like this when I checked on him this morning. See, last night, we were - "
"Do I really want to hear this?" Sokka interrupted, looking pained.
"We were arguing," Katara ground out, glaring at her brother, "and he came in here and shut the door. He could've gone to the Spirit World any time after that." She crossed her arms and deliberately ignored the blush she could feel rising on her face.
They all knew, even Zuko and Mai - she could tell by the awkward silence that fell and the glances they were exchanging that they probably didn't think she noticed.
Ugh. Aang, I am so killing you when this is over...
Iroh cleared his throat, effectively breaking the moment. "I think it might be wise if we made the attempt to follow after him. The timing of this is just a little too convenient, with the solstice approaching." He smiled then. "But the timing can work in our favour as well."
"How do you mean?" Zuko asked, frowning.
"The easiest way for an ordinary person to pass from our world to the Spirit World," Iroh answered him, "is at a time close to the solstice - with the aide of a spirit guide."
"And just where are we planning on getting a spirit?" Sokka cut in, looking sceptical. "I'm not exactly on a first name basis with a lot of them - well, except for Princess Yue, but the North Pole is halfway across the world and - "
"Hei Bai!" Katara snapped her fingers, brightening as the idea hit her.
Sokka gave her a funny look. "Who?"
"Don't you remember?" She was already feeling more optimistic about this. "The spirit of the forest near Senlin Village - he pulled you and a bunch of the villagers into the Spirit World once before, and Aang said when he was in the Spirit World that time at the North Pole, Hei Bai helped him out."
"Appa will get us there on time," Katara said confidently, and looked around at them. "So, what do you guys say? Are we going to
"All of us?" Zuko's eyebrows went up.
"Well... yeah." Katara blinked at him. "Don't you want to help save Aang?"
"I wouldn't recommend it." Iroh was frowning thoughtfully at Aang's still form. "I don't believe we should leave his body alone for too long right now."
"No, of course not," Katara agreed, looking at him with some surprise. "We'd take him with us, wouldn't we?"
"No." The suddenness of Iroh's refusal had them all staring at him. "The solstice is far too close. I suspect taking the Avatar's unoccupied body to a place where the boundary between our world and the Spirit World has thinned would be a bad move on our part."
It felt like a chill passed over her at the term 'unoccupied body'. Katara crossed her arms, looking over at Aang helplessly. It was partly her fault, wasn't it, that he was in this mess? Who knew what could have happened to him this time? "What should we do?"
"That's obvious, isn't it?" Zuko answered, glancing sideways at her. "Someone's going to have to stay behind and make sure nothing happens to him."
"I'll do that." Toph folded her arms, raising an eyebrow when the others turned to stare at her. "What? You can't bend in the Spirit World. I wouldn't even be able to see, much less help anyone out. At least if something happens here, I might be useful."
"I'll stay too." Sokka shrugged then, looking almost too casual. "I'm not too anxious to get dragged off to the Spirit World by a giant bear again. Besides, Toph's going to need to sleep sometimes, right? It's better if we have two people here instead of just one."
"Well, I'm going," Katara said firmly, narrowing her eyes as she looked around as if daring the rest of them to object. Her gaze settled on Zuko. "What about you? Are you coming?"
"Uh... well..." His gaze slid sideways towards Mai, somewhat uneasily.
His fiancée sighed, rolling her eyes upward. "You are so predictable," she complained. "You realize that someone's going to have to be here to respond to any messages coming from home, right?"
"Mai." Zuko took hold of her shoulders, turning her around to meet his gaze. "I can't just sit here and do nothing. Please."
"Of course you can't." Her smile was somewhat rueful; she sighed again, and there was a long-suffering tone in her voice when she went on. "Fine. I'll handle the Fire Nation. Just don't get yourself into trouble like you always do, all right?"
"I won't - I promise." He kissed her then, with such fierce enthusiasm that Katara had to turn her head away, embarrassed. "Thank you, Mai."
"Whatever." The faint blush on Mai's face took away from her cool tone. "Just remember, you owe me."
"Well, if that's settled..." Iroh's voice was faintly amused; he kept his gaze innocently averted from his nephew's. "Shall we go?"
Katara looked again at Aang's still, glowing form, and took in a breath, gathering her determination around her like a shield. "I'll grab us some food," she answered, and turned toward the kitchen.
Sokka kicked his heel against the wall behind him, his attention anywhere
but on the cross-legged form of his friend. For the first while, it had been
enough to wonder what the heck had happened to Aang, and why he might've gone
to the Spirit World in the first place - was it some crazy Avatar reaction to
sex, or what? Not that he wanted a very detailed answer to that one, seeing as
how his sister was involved and everything... But, anyway.
Now that the novelty had worn off, there... really wasn't much to do.
"Would you cut that out, already?" Toph said curtly, and he stopped in mid-kick, surprised. "You're making my feet itch."
"Oh. Sorry." Sokka lowered the foot, then sighed. "This has gotta be the most boring job I've ever been given."
"Well, think about something else, then," she replied, unhelpfully. "Keep in mind that this is probably also the easiest job you've ever been given, so you're going to look really stupid if you manage to screw it up."
"I know that!" He frowned at her. "But come on, don't you find this boring? It's, like, the least exciting thing I've done in a long time. Seriously. Worse than folding Suki's laundry."
Toph guffawed. "You fold Suki's laundry?"
He felt a little offended by her amusement. "We take turns, okay?"
"Yeah, washing it I can see, but folding?" She laughed. "What kind of warriors waste their time folding laundry?"
"Whatever." He crossed his arms, determined to rise above her taunts. "Real warriors know how important it is to have their clothing tidy and wrinkle-free."
Her answering grin was wicked. "I'll bet you fold your underwear, too."
"I do not fold my underwear!"
"And what about her underwear?"
He could feel his face grow hot, and deliberately turned it away from her. "That's beside the point."
"Yeah, I thought so."
"Shut up." That was the only really good thing about doing laundry, anyway. It had been three years now since the first time he had seen Suki's underwear - not to mention what lay beneath it - and the sight of it still ignited his hormonal teenaged side. "Not like I've had the chance to see it lately, anyway," he muttered, a fresh surge of resentment hitting him at the reminder.
Toph made a face. "You really need to get over that," she said, again with that rational tone he hated so much. "It's not going to kill you guys to be apart for just a few days - and hey, maybe it'll even be a good thing."
He raised an eyebrow at her. "Her turning down my proposal and telling me to back off is a good thing?"
"Well, it might give you time to think." She shrugged. "Maybe you can start to see things from her perspective and figure out how to bring up the subject in a way that won't make her want to smack you silly." That brought a slight smirk. "Although that might be kind of impossible for you."
"Thanks. I love you, too." He shot her a flat stare, and then looked away. "But seriously, Suki and I... we're supposed to be a team. Just the two of us non-bending warriors against the world, you know?" He shut his eyes. "I guess it just hurts that she doesn't see it that way."
Surprisingly, Toph pushed herself away from the wall she'd been leaning on. "You know," she said, raising an eyebrow, "as much as I'd love to play therapist with you, Sokka, I really don't think I'm the best person to talk about this stuff with."
He gaped at her. "But - But we were just talking about it a second ago!"
"Look." Toph crossed her arms, a guarded sort of expression on her face as she looked at him. "I'm okay with talking about your reasons and all. But I'm not good with emotional stuff; you know how long it took to get some kind of good working relationship with my parents. It's... just not my thing." She turned to leave the room. "I'm gonna go get some food."
"Wait a second!" He grabbed her shoulder before she could get out of reach. "You're the only person I've told this too, and I - I feel like I've gotta talk to someone. I've been going nuts, keeping all this bottled up! Please, Toph, just hear me out. You don't have to say anything, just - just listen. Okay?"
She turned her face towards him, and he was surprised to see hints of that hostility she'd shown the other night. "Sokka, I'm the last person who wants to hear how madly in love you are with Suki, okay? Trust me." She shrugged out of his hold. "You're better off keeping your mouth shut. As hard as that is for you," she added, wryly.
"I don't get it!" He stared at her in exasperated confusion. "Why is me being madly in love with Suki such an issue? You have a problem with that?" His eyes narrowed. "Is that what it is? After all this time, you have a problem with me and Suki being together?"
Toph let out a short huff of air, blowing out her bangs. "I didn't say that. I said, I don't want to hear about it. Is that so hard for your tiny brain to process?"
"But why?" He spread his arms, thoroughly frustrated with the conversation and her less than receptive attitude towards his request for help. "Why now? Why this? We're friends, aren't we? What is it about me being in love with Suki that you just can't stand to hear about it?"
Her eyebrows came down; she turned to face him, uncrossing her arms. "You really want to know?"
Sokka let his own arms fall, returning her glare despite the fact that she wouldn't see it anyway. "Yeah! I really do!"
"Well, just don't forget, you asked for it." She grabbed the collar of his shirt in a rough handful and jerked his head down to her level.
It wasn't a gesture Sokka was unfamiliar with. He'd seen countless girls do it, including his own sister, and Suki had even done it to him a couple of times - mostly for fun, but sometimes when she particularly wanted his attention. He knew - with complete and utter certainty - how it would end up, but even armed with that knowledge, he was totally unprepared for the feeling of Toph's lips on his. They were dry but warm, and she pressed into it with much more aggression than Suki ever had. Strangely, he kind of liked that.
It didn't feel real, though. He couldn't bring himself to believe it was really happening. Toph didn't kiss people - she definitely wouldn't kiss him. That was why he didn't pull away, and instead spent the entirety of the kiss staring blankly at the side of her face and wondering why he was imagining such weird and impossible things.
Then she let go of his collar and pulled back, face flushed and breathing fast, and looking so like Toph and yet so different that his head reeled.
Wait. That... really just happened, didn't it?
"That's why," she deadpanned, and turned away from him to march purposefully out of the room.
This time, he didn't stop her.
"Good!" Katara's pleased smile was visible even through the water he was bending; Aang couldn't help but return it, even as he let the cool liquid flow back into the stream. "You're practically a master yourself now, you know; pretty soon, we won't need these sessions any more."
"Sure we will; I have to keep my skills up, right?" Aang tried to keep his grin innocent; truthfully, he didn't want to give up this time with her, when he could see so much of her bare skin and still know that all of her attention was focussed on him. "We could have waterbending duels... It would be fun!"
"Maybe." She tilted her head down and looked up at him through her lashes, smile turning coy, and he had the feeling she saw right through his excuses. "I don't think a duel between us would be much of a duel, though."
He shrugged. "Yeah, but I could go easy on you."
"You're awfully confident for someone who's still learning." She crossed her arms, almost challengingly.
How could he resist taking her up on that? "Well, my teacher taught me pretty well." Aang bent a tendril around her waist, pulling her closer to him. "And she's really pretty, so I pay close attention." He placed his hands on her shoulders, leaning down to capture her smiling mouth with his.
Katara obliged him, tilting her head into the kiss. The contact made him slightly dizzy, but not in a bad way. He could get lost in the sensation of it: her scent, her taste, the feel of her skin beneath his fingers. It made him want to sink himself into her and never come up for air.
Or maybe literally sink a certain part of himself into her; he'd been thinking about that a lot lately.
Aang tightened his hold on her shoulders just a bit, trying not to let his hormones run away with him. She was just so beautiful, and felt so right in his arms, and her kisses were so hot and wanting... And as he pulled back and opened his eyes to look at her, flushed and staring at him with a glazed sort of look, he was sure she must feel the same.
Time to go for it...
He woke this time with his lips still pursed, expecting to lean in and kiss Katara again. Had that one been a memory, or just a fantasy? He couldn't remember; it was getting more difficult to tell. His mind felt jumbled together with the dreams that kept flooding in, one right after another, occasionally even interrupting each other.
I have to keep it together. Aang deliberately fought the disorientation that came with being torn out of the dream-world. He was never awake for very long, so he couldn't waste time. Somehow or another, he had to get out of this, before something bad happened.
And he had a feel something bad was about to happen. He just didn't know what.
Next to him, his captor just chuckled.
That is really creepy...
Aang focussed his energy on his unresponsive muscles. Come on, work... Last time, he'd come close; he could feel that he was right on the verge of success. If he could just get together the right amount of will power...
"You shouldn't struggle so much." Cool knuckles brushed the back of neck, making his skin want to crawl. "Just enjoy the dreams. They're what you wanted, aren't they?"
Don't listen, he reminded himself, trying to draw back that sense of calm. He couldn't get angry; anger wouldn't help anything. She's baiting you, so just... ignore it. The trick was to pull the rational part of your mind away from the part controlled by emotions. It had always been kind of hard for him, but he could do it. Just a little more...
His fingers twitched.
Was that me? Did I do it?
Another dream was drifting in - he could feel it coming - but Aang felt the smallest hint of hope.
He just had to be patient, and maybe - just maybe - this would all be over with soon.