Part Six


It seemed like they'd been riding around the Spirit World forever.

The whole setting had taken some getting used to; even now, Katara found herself struck by the strangeness of it. From what she had seen so far, it seemed to be an endless bog, shrouded in fog and full of creatures with startling appearances or odd behaviours. The bear they rode on didn't bother to slow so that she could get a good look at any of them, and she was both grateful and disappointed for that. The other spirits, for the most part, barely even seemed to register that they were passing through.

I guess you get used to unexpected things happening around this place...

Katara shifted on Hei Bai's back, glancing over her shoulder at Zuko. The silence between them was oppressive; it reminded her a little too much of their journey to the Fire Nation back before the fight with Azula. That same tension was present - that sense of not knowing what to expect.

She cleared her throat, hoping to dispel some of it. "I wonder where we're going."

"Does it matter?" He met her gaze, a bit of a wry glint in his eyes. "I somehow don't think this place has landmarks."

"I guess you're right." She managed a rueful smile. "But Hei Bai obviously knows where to find Aang, since he's been running this whole time... It must be something to do with him being the Avatar."

"Guess so." Zuko shrugged.

Katara turned her face forward again, curling her fingers in the panda's coarse fur. "I wish I hadn't been so hard on him the last time we talked," she mumbled. This might not have even happened if she hadn't... and even if it had, at least if she'd been more considerate, that horrible fight wouldn't be her last moment with him.

Zuko seemed to hesitate. "It's... probably not your fault," he said after a moment, a little awkwardly. "Not that I want to pry into your personal business, but I don't think anyone's ever come up with a foolproof way to turn someone down without hurting their feelings at least a little."

"I wasn't trying to turn him down; I just wanted him to wait!" Katara slumped, staring despondently out at the scenery. "It just... came out wrong, somehow. If I'd been more patient with him, I'm sure we could have avoided all this."

He was quiet again for a moment. Then, "Oh."

Yeah. Oh.

"Well... we'll find him," Zuko reminded her. When she turned to look back at him, he offered a rare grin. "Someone once told me I'm an expert at finding the Avatar."

"That's true, isn't it?" She couldn't help but smile back, despite everything. "Although it looks to me like Hei Bai is doing all the work..."

"Well, that's just - huh?"

Hei Bai had abruptly stopped; when Katara looked up, she found a thicket of bamboo trees in front of her, blocking their path. The break from the rest of the bog seemed strangely smooth, and it arched; as if the forest were forming a protective circle around something.

"Why did we stop?" Zuko was frowning at the line of trees, looking around to the side where it curved. "I'm pretty sure we can go around this place."

Hei Bai lowered himself down, and Katara slid from his back, feeling an odd sense of anticipation as she regarded the bamboo. "I think this is it," she said, turning back to her friend. "Aang must be inside this forest somewhere."

"Oh." Zuko followed her lead, landing on the grassy floor near one of the many patches of water around them. "If that's the case, then what are we waiting for?" He took a step toward the forest.

The panda bounded swiftly in front of them, blocking the entrance. Turning just slightly, he lowered his muzzle and touched his nose delicately to the water.

Zuko frowned. "What's he doing?"

"I think he's trying to tell us something." Katara knelt by the water, reaching out with one hand to touch it. "Maybe if I just - "

As her fingers brushed the surface, an image rose into her mind. She could see the trees in front of her, as if she were looking through the eyes of a person who was moving towards them. Hands brushed out in front of her, pushing the shoots aside as she wandered inside. There was a path; she moved towards it automatically. The inside of the forest was shaded but not dark - there was a gentle sort of light around her: a soothing light. Katara felt a peculiar kind of lassitude slip over her mind as she walked along the path.

It was so relaxing... She couldn't remember why she'd come in. But it didn't matter; the forest was just so beautiful. It wasn't even alarming that she couldn't recall the way back out, either - or where she'd come from to begin with...

The vision ended; Katara withdrew her hand from the water, feeling shaken.

Zuko had crouched beside her, watching intently. "What? What was it?"

"It was..." Katara paused to collect her thoughts, looking up at the trees again. Suddenly, they seemed quite ominous. "I saw myself going into the forest - but once I was in there, I forgot what I'd gone in for. And then... I started to forget more things." She met his gaze again. "I think this forest steals your memories."

"That's a problem." Zuko frowned thoughtfully, crossing his arms. "How are we going to save Aang if we forget we're supposed to be saving him?"

"I don't know." She shook her head, then took in a long breath and squared her shoulders. "But I'm going to do it anyway. I'm going in." She watched his face for a reaction. "Are you with me?"

He met her gaze. "Actually... no. Just hear me out!" he added quickly, as she started to protest. "You remember what Uncle said, when he sent us in here without him? He said that you should always leave someone out to go diving with you."

Katara raised an eyebrow at him. "Uh... I'm pretty sure that's not what he said..."

"Well, maybe not exactly, but you know what I mean!" Zuko pushed himself to his feet, looking over to one of the larger trees that had been more prominently placed around the swamp. "If we both go in there, who's going to be around to pull us back out if something happens?"

She frowned. "That's true... but how are we going to fix it?"

"See those vines?" He waved a hand at the tree he'd been eyeing up. "What if we make a rope by tying them together? Then I could stand out here and keep giving you slack, while you go in there and try to find Aang." He looked back to her with a bit of a smile. "If I run out of rope or it's been too long, I'll pull you back out and we can start over."

"Zuko, you're a genius!" Katara pushed herself up, reaching out to squeeze his shoulder in appreciation. "How long do you think it'll take to gather up enough vines?"

"Not too long." He grinned then. "If we start now."

She nodded. "Let's do this."

Kissing Toph was kind of new ground for Sokka - she wasn't exactly like most girls - so he wasn't really sure what to expect when he did it. But he was pretty sure that it wasn't for her to grab his chin in her hand and press her fingers into his cheeks, immobilizing him before he could even make it to her lips.

"Hah?" He blinked at her.

Toph was fixing him with a flat stare. "Sorry," she said, not sounding sorry at all, and abruptly shoved him back, releasing his jaw as she did.

"Ow! Hey, that really hurt, you know!" He rubbed his jaw, shooting her an injured look. "What gives? I thought this was what you wanted! You were the one kissing me yesterday..."

"Yeah, to prove a point." She jabbed a finger into his chest, sharply. "I didn't do it so you'd go and talk yourself into thinking you were in love with me or something. But I guess maybe this was too much information for your tired little brain to handle."

Sokka bristled at that. "Hey!"

"Hey what? It's true." She crossed her arms. "Admit it, Sokka - you weren't kissing me because you have feelings for me. You just figured it'd make everyone feel better somehow if you were with me instead of Suki."

That struck a pretty uncomfortable chord. Sokka winced. "I - well..."

"It amazes me how you can be such a nice guy and still be so incredibly lame at the same time." She made a face. "Makes me wonder what the heck Suki sees in you."

"You know, for someone who claims to have feelings for me, you have a pretty funny way of showing it." He frowned down at her, trying to talk the subject away from her all-too-accurate observation. "Between the insults and the physical abuse, I'm really not feeling the love here."

"Oh, boo hoo." Toph rolled her eyes upward. "You really think anything's changed, just because you know I wanted to mash lips with you now? Think again."

"Well, of course something's changed!" He spread his arms, wishing it wasn't so obvious that he was uncertain. It felt like he was back to being 15 again. "I mean, you kissed me! That changes a lot of things!"

"Like what?" She raised a challenging eyebrow at him; when he didn't respond, she sighed. "You see? This is why I didn't tell you before. You have this crazy idea that things have to be all weird between us or something."

He frowned. "Don't they?"

"I don't know." She gave him a pointed look. "Do you want things to be weird?"

"Uh..." Sokka stared at her. Did he want things to change? Even with all the thoughts about kissing and breast and hips and all that... He rubbed the back of his neck awkwardly. "I'm... gonna guess that I don't."

"So stop acting like it." Toph snorted, then grinned. "And seriously? I think you'll find that if you stop whining so much, Suki will listen to you a lot more."

"Yeah... maybe." Now that all the excitement was settling down, it was starting to sink in just how stupid he had been. What was he thinking? He'd just tried to kiss another girl! And one of his best friends, no less! No wonder Suki wasn't too thrilled with him. What kind of low-life was he, anyway? "I dunno."

Toph blew out her bangs, clearly growing frustrated with him. "Look," she said after a minute, in that reasonable tone of voice that he had such a love/hate relationship with. "It's true, you just tried to do something incredibly stupid, and yeah, I think you're pretty much an idiot."

His shoulders slumped. "Thanks for that..."

"But," she added, raising an eyebrow at him, "I know you're really confused right now." She shifted uncomfortably. "And... maybe me kissing you was a bad idea considering the situation." A bit of a one-sided smile came with that. "Think about it: if things were normal between you and Suki, you'd have reacted totally differently."

"Well - " He stopped. If things were normal... Then being separated from Suki wouldn't be a big deal. Sure, she'd be on his mind all the time, but not in a bad way. He thought back to their sparring matches, when they collapsed on the training room floor laughing together afterwards... or those moments on lazy summer afternoons, when they lounged around outside talking about everything and nothing... staring into Suki's eyes, watching her smile, seeing how dedicated she was to her team... "Yeah..." he admitted finally, and lowered his eyes. "You're right."

He loved Suki. She was... she was everything. And he knew it now; he couldn't give her up. Not for anyone's sake. And if he was making a mistake or that made him too selfish... well, then he'd make a mistake and be selfish. He couldn't help it.

"Duh, I'm always right." Toph slugged him in the arm, still with that careless grin, and then crossed back to the door. "Are you done being all drama queen now? I wasn't lying when I said I wanted some breakfast."

"Yeah... I think I'm good." He offered her a genuine smile in return. "Oh, and Toph? Thanks."

"Don't mention it."

"I always liked you with hair," Katara admitted, reaching up to gently brush the fringe that had grown on his scalp. Her smile turned bashful. "I used to imagine what it would be like to run my hands through it while we kissed."

He was sitting beside her, on a rock around a campfire - but he wasn't. He was lying down. Aang concentrated on his sleeping self, determined to get some motion happening. His hand shifted, and the dream changed.

A small wave hit him directly in the face; Katara laughed as he sputtered, and grinned challengingly. "Not afraid of getting wet, are you?" she teased, standing knee-deep in the creak with her hands braced on her hips.

His left hand was moving; sliding over the soft ground beneath it. The motion was jerky and slow, but he managed to keep it going. Aang did his best to keep his focus where it belonged, barely aware that the scenery in his mind had shifted yet again.

She was kissing him, slowly and passionately, her body curled against his side on the grass. "Aang," she breathed as they broke apart, staring at him with soft, luminous eyes. "I love you - you know that, right?"

I love you too, Katara. The palm of his hand braced against the ground by his chest; he focussed on the elbow next, bringing it up. That's why... I have to win this time.

I have to wake up!

The dream changed again.

She was on her father's arm, and she'd never looked so beautiful; her hair, her dress - everything. But mostly the look on her face - that smile she wore, and the way her eyes shone as she stared down the aisle at him. He'd never seen her so happy before.

Aang's elbow was angled correctly now; he focussed on setting his shoulders, and willed his muscles to push.

The image of Katara in a wedding gown vanished immediately, and he couldn't help but gasp, jolted into a rude, painful awakening and pushed halfway up toward a sitting position. His shoulder muscles were protesting vigorously, and the rest of his body felt horribly stiff. When he opened his eyes, he instantly regretted it as the light seemed to stab into them, and squeezed them shut again, groaning as he hauled himself painfully up.

I'm awake! The discomfort was worth it. Aang sat there for a moment and just breathed, so relieved that it felt like he could've just melted back onto the ground. He rolled his shoulders and wrung out his hands, wondering at how good it felt to finally be able to do such simple things again. I never thought just stretching could feel so great...

It took even longer to get a look at his surroundings than it did to stretch out his sore muscles - should he really feel it so much, considering this wasn't actually his physical body? It was so weird how the Spirit World worked sometimes - but once he'd gotten to the point where he could keep his eyes open and cleaned out the sleep from the corners, he was a little surprised by what he saw.


Somehow, it didn't fit his image of the Spirit World. Aang blinked owlishly at the forest surrounding him. He'd expected something more... well... bog-like. Maybe.

"I guess this place is full of surprises." His voice croaked. Aang coughed, then took a better look at where he was sitting. It was something like a nest, soft brown downy material in the center and brambles surrounding it. The ground it was resting on was like a mound, separating it from the trees that circled it. He still couldn't see over the tops of them to get an idea of how far he'd have to go to get out of the area, though.

"Roku?" He didn't really expect an answer, so it wasn't a surprise when nothing happened. Aang pushed himself to his feet, trying to ignore the way his legs shook, and stepped over the edge of the 'nest'. "Huh. Guess I'll have to get out of this forest first."

Moving around sounded like a great idea. Once he got used to the soreness, it actually felt really good to be using his muscles again. I'll probably get to go through this again once I'm back in my real body, too. But at least then he'd probably have Katara around with her healing hands.

Katara... Aang slid down the side of the mound and stopped for a moment, lost in thought. "I should apologize to her," he decided out loud. After all, she'd only wanted him to wait, and how was that unreasonable? She was just looking out for him - for both of them, even. Obviously, she wanted their first time to be special. And then he'd had to go and throw a fit, without even listening to her concerns; no wonder she thought he was too childish. "This whole mess is my fault."

He'd just have to make it up to her somehow.

I wonder why I'm totally unguarded here. Aang carefully pushed aside some of the shoots and stepped into the dim sanctuary of the forest. Didn't that spirit ever wonder if I might wake myself up somehow? It was strangely peaceful, and he found himself relaxing almost without even thinking about it.

Guess she just wasn't thinking far enough ahead.