Part Seven


She wandered along the path in the forest, a little bemused by how pretty and calm it was. Somehow, it seemed like it should have been more ominous. Because - because... well, she had known a moment ago. But if she'd forgotten, then it couldn't have mattered much.

There was a hint of sunlight breaking through the gentle shading of the bamboo shoots; she couldn't help but smile and shut her eyes every so often, enjoying the warmth and the light. It would be so nice to just lie down and enjoy the moment...

Actually, she'd seen a few people - and animals - napping at the side of the path. Maybe it was a good idea.

Not yet, a voice in the back of her head nudged at her, when she started to seriously consider it. You haven't found what you're looking for.

That was the one sticking point. She looked around corners, straining her eyes to peer through the trees, hoping to catch a glimpse of the object of her search. Even though it seemed quite pointless at that point: she couldn't even remember why she was searching.

Or, for that matter, what she was searching for.

Who, the voice corrected. You're looking for someone - not something.

It started to matter a lot less as the minutes dragged by. The voice continued to prompt her, but she was having a hard time figuring out why she needed to care. If she couldn't remember, then why bother? Would she even know the person when she found them? She couldn't even bring a face to mind, no matter how hard she thought about it. And what was the big deal about finding this person? If they were so forgettable that she couldn't even remember them, how could it possibly be important to find them?

But she continued to search - even if it was mainly to keep that voice from nagging at her.

She was in the middle of some serious pondering regarding the subject - could she have maybe passed the person napping on the ground without even knowing it? - when she wandered onto a spot where the path branched into two and the trees seemed to lean back. A halo of golden sunshine bathed the ground, and she had to blink, unused to the brightness.

It made her smile, though; she couldn't help it. This place was just so beautiful. It distracted her so much that she almost didn't notice as she stepped out into the open space that someone else had just stepped off of a separate branch almost at exactly the same moment.

"Huh? Oh." His voice was what drew her attention, and she couldn't help but stare once it had.

He was taller than her - although he might've been a year or so younger - and bare-chested. He didn't have any hair, on his face or head, but his features were even and attractive. There was some sort of strange blue tattoo on his shaved scalp that ended with an arrow shape directly on his forehead - the effect wasn't an unpleasant one. And he had muscle - she could see it even from that distance; his build was slight, but he was tightly put together, like an acrobat or a gymnast. He stepped toward her with a smile, and she noticed how every motion he made was unconsciously light and fluid. The tattoos on his arms and feet stretched and bent with the movement. It was almost hypnotic.

And when he smiled like that, his face so friendly and open, she couldn't help but swallow hard, a somehow familiar fluttering building at the pit of her stomach.

He's so handsome...

"Hi there," he greeted, studying her with a certain curiosity - and interest, she noticed, which made her feel like blushing. His eyes were light grey; a nice sort of shade.

"Hi." She managed a smile, mentally chiding herself for becoming so flustered over a boy - no matter how good-looking. "I'm - " she started to introduce herself, and then blinked. "Oh. I don't remember." She felt her cheeks burn; he must think she was so stupid. "I'm sorry."

"That's okay. I don't remember my name either." He said it so easily, and without any trace of judgement or embarrassment; she couldn't help but feel better. And he was staring at her, his smile just a bit on the funny side. "Maybe we don't need to."

The fluttering in her stomach intensified. "Maybe we don't."

"I was thinking about going this way." He pointed down the one fork neither of them had come from, and tilted his head hopefully at her. "What about you?"

She shrugged. Was he inviting her? Part of her hoped so. "I don't know yet."

"Well, if you're not sure... How about we go together?" He held out a hand to her, eyes bright and smile wide. "What do you say?"

There it was. Walking along in a beautiful forest with a handsome stranger... The idea was almost too good to be true. Her smile grew, and she reached out with only a slight nervous thrill to take the offered hand. "Okay."


"Y'know, this is probably all your fault." Sokka crossed his arms, giving the cross-legged form in front of him a wry look. "I don't know what the heck you two were doing, but pulling the whole glowy bit and heading off to the Spirit World in the middle? Pretty tacky."

Aang's body didn't even so much as flinch.

"Yeah, I know... and hey, I sympathize." Sokka spread his hands. "It's rough being the guy sometimes. Your girlfriend always expects you to initiate stuff, and then half the time when you do, she gets mad... It really isn't fair, is it?" He raised an eyebrow at his friend's unresponsive face. "But this time I think you were asking for it. I mean, come on, you know Katara - she gets mad if you even look at her funny. What did you expect?"

An unmoving silence answered him.

Sokka coughed, and then paced slowly to the side, still eyeing the glowing Avatar. "And, you know, running off to the Spirit World isn't - " He stopped abruptly, blinking at the sight of Toph leaning against the doorframe, her arms folded over her chest.

"Hey, don't mind me," she told him, without even a hint of a smile. "You keep on talking to the spirit-less body. I'll just be over here acting sane."

"I'm sane!" Sokka protested, stepping around Aang and towards the door. "I was just... talking to myself. You know. Like any sane person would do."

"Right. Because talking to yourself totally qualifies as 'sane'." She made exaggerated quoting motions, and topped it off with a smirk. "It's okay, Sokka - you can stop trying to hide it. We all knew it was bound to happen eventually."

"Okay, that is just totally - " He broke off again at the unmistakeable sound of shuffling from behind him.

Shuffling - that means he's moving. That means...

Turning sharply around provided him with confirmation: the figure on the floor was shifting, stretching out its arms; beginning the motions of lifting itself up from that sitting position... "Aang! You're awake!"

Before he could even so much as twitch a finger, the ground under him buckled and he was tossed back towards the door, slamming into the wall unceremoniously.

"Hey! What gives?"

Toph was already in a defensive position, her eyes fixed narrowly on the familiar form in front of her. "That's not Aang."

"Huh?" Sokka slid his eyes toward the younger boy, and for the first time noticed that Aang's tattoos and eyes were still glowing. His gaze fixed on them then, and a very un-Aang-like smile spread on his face. Oh, crap...

"This is bad, isn't it?"

"Gee, what gave you that idea?" Toph answered, through clenched teeth, and smoothly bent the stone floor into a shield as a sudden rush of fire blasted towards them.

Sokka pushed himself up, pulling his sword from his sheath and stepping up beside his younger friend. "All right," he said, taking his stance and facing the newly created wall. "Let's boot this thing back to the Spirit World."

She shot him a quick grin, and brought her foot down heavily on the ground, bringing up a large chunk of rock. "Sounds good to me."

They were still holding hands.

She couldn't help but take note of it, even though neither of them had made a move to pull back. She didn't want to bring it up or draw his attention to it in case he pulled away, but she couldn't help stealing glances down at their entwined fingers every so often. It made her feel warm and happy. And somehow, she got the feeling that it wasn't just because he was really good-looking. Something about this guy gave her the feeling they'd known each other a lot longer than they actually had.

It was comforting, in a way.

"So..." She glanced sideways at him. "Are you looking for someone, too?"

He shook his head, but smiled at her again, and she felt her insides melt a little. "Not someone - I'm looking for the way out." He paused, then blinked. "You wouldn't happen to have seen it, would you?"

"I don't remember," she answered honestly, and shrugged. "All I know is that I'm looking for someone." And then, because she really wanted to confide further in him, she went on. "I don't remember who they are or why I'm looking. I just know that it's important that I find them."

"Well... I'm someone." His smile was so bright, she noticed - so carefree. Looking into his eyes, she suddenly wished that he would sweep her into his arms and fly her away. "And it looks like you found me."

It felt like that statement was important, somehow. She stopped, tugging on his hand to halt him as well. "I did, didn't I?"

He turned to face her, tilting his head a little. "What's wrong?"

"Nothing, I just... I wanted to stop." He was so close now; she could take in every detail. It made her feel shivery with anticipation - but for what, she wasn't sure. Her eyes caught on the blue line of his tattoos, curving around his slim arms and culminating in the arrow that pointed directly to where their hands joined. "That tattoo must've hurt," she murmured.

He blinked again - "Huh?" - and then brought up his free arm, staring at the arrow with mild surprise. "Oh. I don't know." He turned his hand over, and then back again, looking somewhat bemused. "This is going to sound weird, but I didn't even know these were there."

"Weirder than us not knowing our own names?" She smiled, and felt the butterflies return to her stomach in full fluttering mode as he met her eyes again. "You've got one on your back, too."

"I do?" He twisted, trying to look over his shoulder. It struck her as something so typical for him, somehow, and she couldn't help but laugh. He turned back to her, a bit of a sheepish smile on his face. "I guess I'll take your word for it."

"It goes all the way over your head." She reached up impulsively, and ran a finger from the top of his head down the line of the arrow, ending at his forehead. "Like... this..." His eyes met hers the finger came to a halt at the point, and she felt inexplicably nervous.

"Really?" he asked, but somehow he didn't sound interested in tattoos any more.

"Well... yes." Without knowing why, she let the finger drag down further, running lightly between his eyebrows and down over the slope of his nose. When it brushed over his lips, she felt it begin to tremble.

They were so soft...

Without breaking their gaze, he reached up with his free hand and carefully wrapped it around hers - not squeezing, just holding. She noticed his fingers were shaking, too. And then his lips pursed against the digit; he was kissing it.

It felt like that was enough to release her inhibitions. Pulling their hands down, she leaned up and replaced them with her lips, pressing gently up against him in a chaste kiss.

The contact sent a thrill all the way through her - a shivery, aching sort of thrill - but it wasn't enough. They stared at each other as she pulled back, heavy lidded, and then he leaned in and kissed her again. And when he pulled back, she followed, sliding one hand free to brace at the back of his neck and hold him still against her mouth.

Well. Not completely still.

He let go of her other hand and wrapped both arms around her waist, returning her kiss with enthusiasm. It was new and exciting, but somehow still familiar and comfortable. Either way, she felt like her reservations had deserted her; with all of the delicious heat between them and his bare skin beneath the hands she'd splayed out on his back, her head was spinning and she could feel her breath coming short. Nothing sounded like a better idea than pulling him closer, parting her lips to kiss him open-mouthed, shuffling her feet in an attempt to find a way to press more firmly against him.

The fact that he was still a complete stranger barely even registered in her brain at that point.

She may have been tugging him against her a little too hard, or lacking too much care with her footing, because somewhere in the middle of the increasingly heated kisses, they both lost their balance and toppled ungracefully onto the soft dirt of the path.

The breath went out of her lungs almost at the exact moment that they were wrenched apart. His reflexes allowed him to catch himself on his hands and saved her from being crushed, but the landing had still taken her by surprise, and she had to pause for a moment to gulp in more air while he braced himself above her, face flushed and eyes a bit wild, watching her face anxiously.

"I'm sorry - I didn't hurt you, di - ?"

She cut him by propping herself up on her elbows and kissing him, open-mouthed and maybe a little clumsy but with enough heat to leave them both flushed and breathing heavy. "Shush," she scolded him as she pulled back, and managed a small, awkward smile. "We can talk later, all right?"

He swallowed, the tips of his ears going red, and she was grateful that he hadn't missed her meaning. "Are - Are you sure?"

"Not exactly, but..." She reached up to wrap her arms around his neck - and then, because it seemed like a great way to drive the point home, wrapped her legs around his waist as well - pulling him down against her. If she'd thought that having his weight over the hot spots on her body would quell the aches, she had been mistaken. It only intensified them. "I... um... think I need this," she stammered, feeling her cheeks grow even hotter. She slid her hands around to bracket his face between them, watching the storm of emotions playing in his eyes. "I mean, I want it. Don't you?"

It was a pretty inane question; she had ample evidence of just how much he did want it pressed up against her, but he still whispered, "Yes," and leaned down to capture her lips again, hungrily.

That pretty much ended the talking.

There was some awkward shuffling with their clothing; she tried to pull her pants down without breaking their kiss or shifting out from under him, but failed, and he ended up having to back away and let her work, both of them blushing furiously, breathing quick and uneven, eyes darting to each other's faces almost guiltily. He watched her with wide eyes as she unravelled her belly wrap, until she hastily pulled him back over her, too embarrassed to deal with his stares. He fumbled with the tie on his pants a moment later, one-handed, resting on his other elbow with his torso still close to hers, and didn't pull back far enough for her curious eyes to catch more than a shadowy glimpse.

We're going to do this, but... we aren't going to see each other first? It struck her as kind of backwards. But she just couldn't bring herself to be the first one exposed; she was as embarrassed as she was eager. The heat between them was almost unbearable, and they could sort that out later. Right now, she just wanted this to happen, and quickly.

He pressed a clumsy kiss to her lips, kneeling again between her legs. "Sure?" he breathed again, staring at her with uncertainty from just inches away.

"Yes. Sure," she agreed. Her stomach was tense with anticipation.

There was a certain amount of fumbling before he got it right - and the initial moment of impact was painful, but not horribly so. He was tense, and stared at her face as she held him still, eyes clouded over and mouth opened just slightly. It was a look she thought she could get used to - and when the moment passed and she loosened her hold and began to move back against him, she decided with a startled gasp that she could get used to this, too.

It was over quickly; he didn't know better than to thrust into her with reckless enthusiasm, and she didn't know well enough to slow him down. They were both too excited and caught up in the sensations of each other to care, even when he stiffened with a sudden gasp after only a few minutes, and buried his face in her neck, shuddering all over.

Oh... oh... She lay back against the ground and breathed slowly, still feeling her heart race and wondering at the feel of the almost-stranger in such an intimate position with her. His breath was hot and uneven against her neck.

Was this okay, for her all-important first time? It felt like she shouldn't have been so content with it. This was her virginity, gone, and somehow it didn't seem like she'd ever imagined it would go like this. Not in such an impulsive, rushed manner, in the middle of a strange forest, without even fully undressing, with a boy whose name she didn't even know.

He raised himself up on his elbows then, and as their eyes met and they smiled shyly at each other, she decided that it had been perfect.

"That was... wow." His gaze was thoroughly infatuated, eyes shining as he stared down at her, and she couldn't help but feel gratified by it. "I wish I knew your name," he said, brushing one unsteady hand over her cheek. "You're so pretty... I can't believe you really wanted to do that with me."

"Um. Thanks." What could she say to that? "You're - You're really handsome, too," she admitted, hesitantly.

"Really?" He pulled back, hastily straightening his pants and redoing the tie, and was polite enough to avert his eyes as she fixed her belly wrap again. She wished she could've cleaned between her legs; it felt strange and slippery and a little sore. "I - uh - well. Thanks."

They weren't quite there yet, she decided, feeling her cheeks burn yet again as she sat up and pulled her pants back on. But - she took in his clear, honest gaze and ready smile - they could work on this strange new thing between them together.

"Hey... what's this?" He was looking at her waist; before she could ask, he lifted a loose vine and held it up so that she could see. "It's tied around you - see?"

"Oh." She looked down with some surprise, and noticed the coil that had been looped around her waist. "I guess it is." How had she not spotted it before? "I wonder why."

"Maybe it's supposed to lead somewhere?" He pointed at the line of makeshift rope that stretched back the way they'd come, curling loosely around trees where they'd made turns and eventually disappearing into the depths of the forest.

She frowned, and pushed herself to her feet, staggering only a little before managing to steady herself. "I think it does," she said slowly, and turned back to look at him, smiling suddenly. "Maybe if we follow this vine, it will lead us out."

He blinked up at her. "You really think so?"

"I don't know, but I have a good feeling. Come on." She extended a hand down to him. "I'll lead you."

His answering smile was bright; when he took the offered hand, she felt like everything had somehow turned out right. "Okay!"