Part Five


"This is it." Katara slid down from the back of Appa's neck, giving the bison a quick pat. "Thank you for getting us here so quickly," she said softly to him, and closed her eyes briefly as he rumbled a response. "I'll make sure to do my part and bring Aang back."

Zuko had jumped from the saddle and was looking at his surroundings dubiously. "Are you sure this is Senlin village?" he asked, after a moment. "All I see are trees."

"Well, it's not quite Senlin village, but I am sure this is the right place." She stepped up beside him, and pointed ahead. "These trees weren't here last time, but that was... look."

"Ah." Iroh caught sight of the wooden statue before his nephew had a chance to do so. "So your Hei Bai is the spirit of this forest." He moved past them, studying the figure of the bear. "A magnificent-looking animal."

Katara nodded, joining him at the foot of the shrine. "I'm sure he'll help us, but..." She glanced helplessly at the older man. "I'm not really sure how to contact a spirit."

"Don't worry about it." He smiled at her, and for a brief moment she thought she could see the resemblance between him and Zuko. "That's why you have me."

"Uncle knows a lot about the Spirit World," Zuko added, smiling faintly. "He went there once - after my cousin died."

A flicker of sadness crossed Iroh's face; Katara wasn't entirely sure she hadn't imagined it. "The spirits know when we approach their domain here on earth," he told her. "They may not always be aware of our intentions, but they can feel our presence. The important thing is to be sure that you are presenting a request - not a demand. Proper respect is key."

Katara looked up at the statue of Hei Bai. She hadn't seen much of the spirit personally, and most of the time when she had seen it, it had been in a terrible rage. But she remembered what it had looked like after Aang had offered the acorn, and how the bamboo shoots had sprung up in its path as it left the village.

Its love for this forest must be overwhelming.

She remembered Aang telling her once that Hei Bai had guided him through the Spirit World without being asked, and had even been referred to as a 'friend' by Avatar Roku. The spirit must have some affection for Aang - so even if it didn't know her, surely it would be willing to help him.

Please, she thought, staring up at the statue's still face hopefully. If you're a friend like Roku said you were, then please, please help us find Aang.

"Over there!" Zuko said suddenly, and she jerked her head to him, startled. He was looking out into the trees, where the figure of a giant panda padded towards them with great dignity.

Hei Bai...

When the bear reached where they stood, he lowered his muzzle. Katara noticed Iroh placing his hands before him in a gesture of respect, and quickly did the same, feeling her heart pounding hard against her chest.

"You came for us - for Aang," she said out loud after they'd straightened, and couldn't help but smile into the black glittering eyes above her. "Thank you, Hei Bai."

There was no change in the spirit's expression, but she liked to imagine he would smile at her in return if he could.

"You won't have any use for food or weapons," Iroh was saying to his nephew. "Better that you travel light - and keep on your toes. The Spirit World is a tricky place." He looked to Hei Bai again. "And be sure to pay close attention to anything your guide may be trying to tell you."

Katara stared at him, with some surprise. "You're not coming with us?"

He regarded her with uncharacteristic gravity. "When diving into unfamiliar waters, it is better that someone should remain at the surface to pull you back out if need be." He smiled then. "Besides, I am probably getting too old and tired for such adventures."

"Don't let him fool you," Zuko told her, rolling his eyes with good-natured exasperation. "This 'old and tired' man could probably take us both with one hand tied behind his back. But aside from that whole diving business, he does have a point."

"I suppose so." Katara felt a great deal less certain about this trip now that she wouldn't have Iroh's expertise to rely on. Just remember, this is for Aang, she told herself. You can't afford to have doubts now. She squared her shoulders and fixed Zuko with a determined stare. "Let's do this, then."

He nodded, and she saw her own resolve reflected back from his eyes. "Right." Then uncertainty wiped it away, and he turned back toward his uncle again. "So, uh, how exactly do we do this?"

"Take hold of his flank," Iroh responded, and then shrugged. "Probably."

Zuko repeated flatly.

"Hey, it can't hurt."

"Ugh." The Firelord rolled his eyes upward. "Fine."

Hei Bai raised his face again as they approached, and stared up to where the sun was setting. As Katara felt her hands bury into his coarse fur, the world around her shifted and blurred.

Sokka figured it had been nearly 24 hours now. The sun was close to setting, and tonight was the solstice. It had happened at about this time yesterday - at least, he thought it had.

We just haven't talked about it.

Toph didn't even seem embarrassed. It was so weird. He felt so awkward and strange around her, and she didn't seem different at all. He didn't know what to do or say about it. So... he pretty much avoided the subject altogether and acted like it didn't happen.

If he didn't remember that kiss in such vivid detail, he might even have been able to convince himself it really hadn't.

How long have I been missing this, anyway? It was bothering him that he couldn't pinpoint a definite time. Sokka stared blankly at Aang - it was kind of freaky how quickly he'd turned into part of the decor - and wondered if he should bring the subject up when Toph got out of bed. But what was he supposed to say to her, anyway? 'So, about that kissing thing you did yesterday? I was just wondering how many of my memories I can totally warp by asking how long you've wanted to do that to me.'

That probably wouldn't go over well.

And then there was Suki... Sokka grimaced. Was he supposed to tell her about this? He'd kissed another girl. Then again, it hadn't been his idea... But it wasn't like he'd done a lot to stop it. And he'd seen it coming. He could've blocked her, or backed off, or... or something.

Maybe, secretly, he'd wanted it.

That thought was disturbing. Sokka hunched his shoulders, feeling a bit sick to his stomach. What kind of man was he? He was in love with Suki, and wanted to marry her more than anything... but he'd kissed another girl, and he'd enjoyed it. What the heck was up with that? Was it that he'd wanted Toph all along, and just not realized it? Underneath the boyish clothing and the dirt and the in-your-face attitude, she was still a girl, and he had to admit that she was kind of pretty. Nowhere near as beautiful as Suki, of course, but still... She was funny, and they got along. Maybe they were even suited for each other, more so than he and Suki had ever seemed to be. And she understood him. She didn't get offending by dumb things he said, or act all pissed off without telling him the reasons. And she was always willing to listen to him rant - usually with some unflattering commentary, but still.

She might've reacted better to a marriage proposal.

Why am I thinking these things? He loved Suki. He did. He was sure of it. Wasn't he?

"Grrmmmph." Toph slouched into the room, interrupting his thoughts. Her hair was wildly untidy, her clothing was dishevelled, and she was rubbing at her sleep-filled eyes with little finesse. "Sleeping during the day stinks," she grumbled, and levelled a glare at Aang's unmoving form. "You'd better appreciate this when you get back here, baldy."

"Speaking of which, I think he's starting to grow hair again." Sokka tried not to let his eyes settle on the way Toph's shirt hung around her breasts and hips. Who knew Toph had breasts and hips, anyway? You'd think she was a real girl or something. He pushed that thought aside. "This is kind of neat, in a way - it's like having a potted plant that you don't have to water."

"I'll make sure to tell Katara you said that," Toph quipped, without losing a beat.

"Yeah, and I'll - I'll - " He struggled for a good return threat, and finally settled on, "I'll do something you won't like."

She grinned. "Lame."

You caught me off guard!"

"Says the self-proclaimed king of snappy comebacks."

I never said that! And besides" - he crossed his arms huffily - "I was distracted. So there."

"Yeah, whatever." Her tone was good-natured; she leaned against the wall next to him and let herself slide down to sit with an unceremonious 'thud'. "Your attention span is so short, I'm surprised there are times when you're not distracted."

Sokka stared down at her for a moment. Toph was kind of like a guy friend - actually, more so than Aang sometimes. He could talk to her about random things without thinking about impressing her or any of that. And, well... he didn't have any secrets from Suki, and they talked a lot - about everything and anything - but it was different. There was just all of this awkwardness tied up with Suki. He didn't want to think about her and the mess he'd made of things; it made his insides curl and his chest ache. But then there was Toph...

She was a friend; a buddy even, like Zuko or Aang. A comrade. They were a team. But she was a girl, and she'd kissed him. And... And she had breasts and hips, and the other things that girls had. Sokka swallowed, darting his eyes away from her - and then back again, quickly. She wasn't mad at him, and he didn't have a complicated emotional tangle to unravel with her.

So. Yeah. Nothing. "Hey, Toph?"

She was busily digging a finger into her ear, and didn't bother turning towards him. "Yeah?" The finger came out, and she flicked off whatever was on it casually, wiping her hands together.

Good and gross. Sokka couldn't help but grin somehow, feeling more at ease. Now that's the Toph I know and love. He cleared his throat. "Do you think maybe it's time we talked about yester - "

"Oh hey, I totally forgot about breakfast!" Toph pushed herself up abruptly, and rolled her shoulders. "Guess I'll just wander on over to the kitchen, and - "

"Oh, come on!" There was a plaintive note in his voice, but Sokka decided he didn't care. "We can't just not talk about this forever!"

We could, if you'd just stop trying to bring it up." She turned and gave him a pointed look.

"Hey, you started it!" He pointed an accusing finger. "You - You kissed me! On the mouth." He sharply brought his hands to his hips, trying to assume some kind of authoritative stance. "Explain yourself!"

Toph raised an eyebrow. "I thought it was pretty obvious."

Why wasn't she more embarrassed? Sokka could already feel the heat building on his face. "So - So that means you - ?"

"Uh. Yeah." The look on her face was condescending, but two spots of color had bloomed on her cheeks. Finally. "That was kind of the point of me kissing you." She shrugged. "You did ask for it."

"Yeah, but - but - " What could he say to that? Sokka stared at her again, doubt gnawing away at his insides. Had he somehow known, deep down, what she was going to do? Maybe he really had asked for it, because - well - because maybe he wanted it. Maybe he was just fooling himself with Suki, and that was why things were so unbearable between them lately.

And that was why she'd yelled at him, with her brown eyes flashing, and he couldn't help thinking she was beautiful even as she told him to get lost. I'm an idiot. I'm just... yeah.

But things weren't unbearable with Toph. And, well, maybe that was the way it was supposed to be. Maybe this was meant to be, and the idea that he could be in love with Suki had just been him riding out his own denial.

And maybe I need to stop pissing Suki off and making Toph wait around over an obvious mistake on my part.

"Y'know what? Whatever." With those reckless words, he took a quick step forward and leaned down to kiss her again.

It was the awareness that was different this time; Aang was certain - absolutely certain - that he was dreaming. And what's more, he knew without a doubt that this dream wasn't a memory.

"Aang?" Katara glanced up at him, almost shyly. There was a slight smile on her face, but her eyes were uncertain and her cheeks flushed. "You haven't said anything. Are you okay with this?"

He took in a breath, trying to calm himself. It's a dream, he told himself wildly. He'd been so sure that telling himself that would help him, after he'd gradually worked out the trick to separating the rational portion of his mind from the sleeping portion. But now, he knew that he'd underestimated the dreams. Nothing could help him.

And with Katara standing in front of him bare inches away and without a shred of clothing on, his half-flustered mind couldn't decide if it really wanted to be saved.

"I'm okay," he managed, voice shaking. His hands were trembling, too - But those aren't my hands! This is a dream! - and he couldn't manage to keep his eyes on her face. These were parts of her body he'd never seen - never been allowed to see - but everything looked so real, and so, so detailed... He would never have been able to dream this on his own.

Katara seemed to relax then, a little of the tension leaving her body. "Oh... good. I'm glad." She reached up to touch his cheek, tilting his face so that his wide-eyed gaze met hers, and he noticed that her smile was a relieved one. "I'm okay too," she said, and leaned toward him, shutting her eyes before her lips brushed his. "I'm okay with this, Aang," she murmured, and slid her hand around to the back of his neck, drawing him deeper into the kiss.

It felt so real... Aang experienced a moment of dizzying confusion, caught up in the warmth of her lips and tongue and the undeniable presence of smooth skin against his chest. I'm dreaming - I know I'm dreaming - but Katara... Katara...

She captured one of his hands with hers, and pressed his trembling fingers to the curve of her breast, and all of his thoughts of dreaming and waking up and not going along with this ceased.

He had never touched her there deliberately, not even through her clothing. He could only imagine what it might feel like - had imagined it, in fact, so many times... When she brushed against him accidentally, or he pulled her close and felt them press against him... The reality - if this could be called reality - was nothing close. He felt the moan rising at the back of his throat and surged forward against her, returning the kiss with everything he had.

This is really happening... She's really going to let me...

Katara broke away from him, pulling back with a coy smile, and took both of his hands in hers, her gaze never leaving his as she guided him back towards the bed. His breath caught; he was sure she could see his reaction, but didn't care enough to be embarrassed. There were lit candles around the room - had he noticed the candles before? - and the mood was right. It was just the way he'd planned it. With her sliding onto the bed, the shadows playing over her naked skin in exciting ways, her eyes inviting him to climb over her... They were going to do it, his adolescent self exalted. Yes! Yes yes yes, this is perfect!

"Aang..." she breathed, settling back as he crawled up onto the bed and reached out with hesitant fingers to touch her body again. She was still blushing, and he knew he was too, but her eyes were clear and certain. It reminded him of that day, over three years ago, when she'd kissed him for the first time on Iroh's balcony in Ba Sing Se. "I love you." She brought her arms around his neck, tugging him down into an embrace.

"I love you too, Katara." His voice was still shaking; he buried his face in her shoulder, breathing in her scent and feeling overwhelmed by how huge the moment really was. "So much... you have no idea..."

Her fingers slid over his scalp, soothingly. "I want you to do this, Aang," she murmured directly into his air, causing him to shiver. "Only you... I trust you."

I trust you.

Trust you.


It felt like the breath was knocked out of him with just that statement. Gasping sharply, Aang pulled himself back and out of her arms. "No... no, no, no..." He groaned and stood abruptly, backing hastily away from her reaching fingers, squeezing his eyes shut and trying to block out the sound of her hesitant inquiries. "This is all wrong!"

I'm dreaming! This is a dream! And not just a dream, but a trick. He'd just about had his first intimate moment with Katara in someone's stupid illusion! It's not the real Katara! She's not real!

And the real Katara was probably waiting for him - trusted him - to get back to her.

Stop messing with my head!

The feel of soft ground beneath his sleeping form was a sudden and very welcome change. Aang felt his heart hammering against his chest, and wished he could deepen his breathing, fighting against the somehow violent disorientation that came with finding himself lying down when his mind had been convincing he was standing.

That was too close... He felt his skin prickle, and fought back a jumbled mess of thoughts and emotions, trying to draw himself back into that state of separation. I'm so sorry, Katara.

"Ah." The voice from behind him seemed to have changed; Aang made note of this, even as he drew a sense of calm around him. "Finally, the barrier is weakened," it hissed, and there was a sense of smug satisfaction in its tone. "Finally, I'll have a vessel with power... a worthy path into the mortal world."

What does that mean? Despite everything, a prickle of alarm had formed at the back of his mind.

"Stay here with your empty dreams, Avatar." He felt the spirit shift behind him. "I'll be claiming what you left behind."

And then the presence was gone.