wasn't exactly Zuko's favourite thing to do. Actually, it was probably closer
to the bottom of the list. He was already starting to think twice about the
whole idea, and it hadn't even been an hour since Katara had gone into the
She hasn't needed any more rope for a while either... For some reason,
the slack on the line made him nervous.
But they'd agreed to an hour before he could start to pull her back out, and he
was going to stick to that. There wasn't much point in making agreements if you
just went around breaking them. Zuko sighed, staring at the rope dolefully.
"Maybe I should go in next time," he muttered.
As if Katara would ever let him.
I wonder how Mai is doing. He suddenly wished she could've come with
them. It would've made the forced inaction a lot less frustrating; at least he
would've had someone to talk to. The only other 'person' he had around now was
Zuko glanced over at the forest spirit, who sat patiently on his haunches
nearby. He was watching the bamboo, but gave no sign that they were nearing the
end of the hour or that Katara might be returning. His face was an animal's,
expressionless and unfathomable.
Not exactly the best company.
Still, it was better than nothing. "So, uh..." Zuko scratched at the
back of his head, watching the bear carefully. "I guess you probably don't
see a lot of humans around here. You know, this being the Spirit World and
Hei Bai tilted his head toward Zuko, regarding him with glittering black eyes.
Zuko let his hand fall, and shrugged awkwardly. "Well, I guess that's
There was a moment of poignant silence.
"So..." That trailed off into nothing; really, he'd just wanted to
say something - he hadn't quite worked out what yet. "Yeah.
Right. I probably should've figured out what I was
going to talk about before saying anything," he muttered, under his
Hei Bai turned his face back toward the forest.
Can't say I blame you... Zuko sighed again, shoulders slumping.
Had it really not been an hour yet?
Maybe it would be a good idea to pull in some of the extra slack on the line.
Zuko frowned, mulling the idea over for a moment. Sure, it was possible that he
might end up having to give it right back again, but at least when the time
came to pull her back out, he wouldn't have to pull
back a bunch of loose cord beforehand.
Well, it can't make too much difference either way... Moving slowly and
carefully - he didn't want to disturb Katara yet - Zuko began to pull back the
It was a little surprising that the first few pulls didn't have any noticeable
effect on the limp nature of the rope. What the heck is she doing,
backtracking? Zuko frowned again, puzzled at first and then increasingly
alarmed as he continued to feel no resistance. Or...
Or was she just not attached to the other end any more?
That thought was ugly enough to prompt him into increasing the speed at which
he was pulling back the makeshift cord. There was a knot of dread forming at
the pit of his stomach, and it pressed at him until he finally abandoned any pretence
of keeping up with the spirit of what they were doing and just gathered up the
vines as quickly as he possibly could.
This is bad... this is really, really -
Hei Bai suddenly rose ponderously from his crouch and made a curious noise -
just as the bamboo near where Zuko's rope entered the forest rustled and Katara
pushed her way free of it, the other end of the vine in one hand and Aang in
The relief that struck him at that point was so great that Zuko couldn't help
slouching, and the cord he had been desperately pulling in fell from his
suddenly nerveless fingers. "You found him!"
Katara had halted in her tracks and was staring at him as if he'd gone mad -
she blinked, then shook her head, as if clearing it of
some sort of fog. "... Zuko?" she managed after a moment of obvious
disorientation. Her voice was small and confused.
Ah, right - the memories thing. "Who were you expecting?"
"I - I don't - " Her breath caught in her
throat, and she looked over her shoulder suddenly, her expression oddly
reminding him of a cornered animal's. "Aang," she gasped - and
then, for no reason at all that he could grasp, her entire face went scarlet.
"K-Katara!" Somehow, it almost seemed like
Aang's was even redder; the two of them stared at each other, wide-eyed and
guilty-faced, until Zuko grew embarrassed enough to break into the moment with
a loud cough.
Enough is enough.
Aang looked over at him, blinked, and then raised an eyebrow. "Zuko?" There was obvious - and probably justified
- confusion on his face. "How - ?"
Another one of those strange noises from Hei Bai interrupted him; the great
panda padded over and touched his nose to Aang's forehead.
"Wha - ?" The rest of whatever he had been
about to ask vanished right along with him in a flash of silver light.
Zuko scratched his head. "That was... sudden," he commented.
Katara continued to stare at the place where Aang had been, her cheeks still
stained with red. Zuko regarded her curiously - and noticed for the first time
that the back of her shirt was covered in dirt and her hair even had a couple
of small twigs matted into it.
Oh. His eyebrows rose. "Didn't you say you wanted to wait?"
She finally turned and looked at him again, face still
blazing and eyes flashing with irritation. "I don't want to hear it,"
she muttered, and marched stiffly back towards their guide.
Zuko rolled his eyes upward. Yeah, I'm probably better off not knowing
Aang had come back from the Spirit World several
times, and he thought he'd gotten an idea of how it felt to sink back into his
own body. It was always pretty sudden, leaving him with a sense of
disorientation for a moment or two.
But this time... it wasn't sudden. It was slow. He couldn't see or hear or feel
anything, and he had the irrational impression that he was literally cramming
himself back in, like the space he was trying to fit into was full of some
thick liquid and he had to force it all out before he could squirm back in.
And then of course, when he was back and opening his eyes and recovering from
that moment of dizziness, the first thing he saw was a huge chunk of stone
floor flying at his face.
"Whoa!" Only his instincts saved him; Aang dodged the slab, ducked
around two others that followed, and landed into a low crouch, staring around
wildly. His eyes caught on a familiar form. "Hold it, Toph!" He
yelped, dropping forward and catching himself on his hands as another chunk of
flying debris nearly brained him. "Are you trying to kill me?"
"Twinkle-Toes!" The assault stopped, and he
caught sight of his earthbending teacher on the other side of what looked like
some kind of hastily constructed fortification. She dropped the rock she'd been
about to hurl his way with a 'thud'. "You're back!"
"About time!" Sokka added,
from beside her. He lowered the point of his sword, shooting Aang an
irritated look. "Do you have any idea how hard it is to fight against
"Hey, I was doing most of the fighting."
"I did some!"
Aang pushed himself back into a standing position, still feeling a bit
disoriented. There was a lingering voice at the back of his mind - a kind of
angry, disjointed wail... He shook his head firmly, and it vanished. "You
guys were fighting me?" He raised an eyebrow at them, sparing only a brief
glance for the war-zone that had been his room. "Why? What happened?"
They exchanged glances, and then Sokka ventured, "You... kind of got
possessed by a spirit. Or, well, your body did."
"Really?" So that was where that spirit had
gone. Aang felt a chill run down his spine at the thought. All of this, just
so she could steal my body and go running around in the real world? It was
pretty creepy to think about. "I guess it's a good thing I made it back in
"Yeah, making a crazy entrance as usual."
Toph lowered the remains of the wall that separated them from him with a quick
motion and a loud rumbling noise. "I guess this means Katara and the
others tracked you down somehow."
Katara. Aang felt his cheeks grow hot. "Yeah... tracked me down." Every moment of what
had happened between them in that forest seemed like it was imprinted on his
brain in vivid detail. Nothing at all had gone the way he'd imagined it. It
shouldn't have been so rushed, and there were so many things he'd wanted to do
differently... But more than that, he'd wanted it to be special. And, well,
remembering the expressions on her face and how she'd looked at him, somehow he
felt like it had been. "That's what she did. I mean,
all she did. Nothing else. Just... your usual
tracking down." He summoned up a weak grin.
"O-kaaaay." Sokka shot him a weird look.
"Anyway, what happened to you? Why were you gone for so long?"
"It's a long story." He rubbed the back of his head, feeling
sheepish. "I should wait until Katara gets here." He swallowed,
trying to make his next words seem casual. "Where - Where is Katara,
"She didn't tell you?" The older boy shrugged, finally sheathing his
sword. "She and Zuko and Iroh went to Senlin Village
to try and get Hei Bai to take to them to the Spirit World so they could find
you. Which I assume must have worked?"
"Uh... I guess..." That explained why she
was in the Spirit World - and why Hei Bai and Zuko had been waiting around
outside of that forest. But still... Senlin Village?
"How long was I gone for?"
Sokka frowned. "Oh, about... two days?"
"Two days?" Aang stared at him. "Seriously?"
He felt his eyebrows come together; it was somehow hard to wrap his head around
the idea. "It felt longer than that."
Must've been all the different dreams he'd been having.
"You're telling me," Toph grumbled, crossing her arms. "If
there's a more boring job than watching over your sorry butt for two days
straight, I don't wanna hear about it."
He managed an apologetic grin. "Sorry. I'll try not to get captured for so
long next time."
"Yeah, you'd better." Sokka spoiled the effect of his words by
grinning, and then clapped him heartily on the shoulder. "Good to have you
"Thanks." It was hard not to be distracted, though... Aang glanced
out the window. "So... Senlin Village,
"Yup." The tone of Sokka's voice indicated that he was
blissfully ignorant of his younger friend's anxiety. "It should only take
them about two days to get back."
Yeah. Only two days. Aang let out a low, dejected breath. The
moment he'd seen Katara in the forest, not remembering ever having met her
before... It was like he'd just come out of that iceberg. He'd fallen for her,
again - at first sight, again. That feeling had to be imprinted on his
soul or something; it was like he was born to love Katara, no matter what the
It was both comforting and a little scary.
But at least there didn't seem to be much doubt left that she felt some
attraction to him - she pretty much had to, or she wouldn't have done, well, that
with him. She'd even been the one to push for it. He'd been so afraid of
offending her or scaring her off, and then she'd just gone ahead and taken
charge while he was busy being indecisive.
Not that he was complaining.
Still, he was already anxious to talk to her. What had she thought about it?
Had it been okay for her? Her reactions seemed to indicate that she'd enjoyed
it, but it wasn't like she'd... yeah. He was going to have to fix that. Next time, right?
He really, really wanted there to be a next time. Preferably
Of course, he wasn't even likely to get the chance to ask her any time soon,
with those two days of travel in between them. Aang resisted the urge to groan
with frustration, eyeing the empty blue sky to the west.
It's going to be a long wait...
It was obvious to anyone paying attention that there was something on Katara's
mind. She didn't act any differently and she wasn't short-tempered the way she
often got when something was bothering her, but Zuko noticed that she somehow
became inexplicably busy whenever the subject of Aang came up.
Particularly when it involved their recent adventure.
"I suspect it would be better not to ask," his uncle responded when
he discreetly brought up the subject of their traveling companion's obvious
That struck Zuko as very wise advice.
He had his suspicions about what was causing it - not to mention the reason
Katara tended to stare thoughtfully off into the distance while mounted on
Appa's neck, often with her lip caught between her teeth and the reins held
forgotten in her lap. She'd as much as confirmed it after Aang had vanished
back in the Spirit World, and despite her refusal to talk about it, only an
idiot would fail to figure it out.
Those two probably could've saved us all a lot of trouble if they'd just
gone ahead and done this to begin with.
It wasn't just that, though... "I can't believe I was waiting that whole
time while they were in there having sex," he'd muttered to himself more
than once during the course of their trip, frequently prompting strange looks
from his uncle. Sure, their memories were gone, but come on! That was really
His annoyance couldn't last, though - especially not as they flew over the
walls of Ba Sing Se and began the descent towards Aang's house. Somehow, the
construction of the house looked strangely thrown-together, as if it had been
gutted and then reconstructed while they were gone - obviously, there was a
story there - but Zuko was more interested in the people coming out of the
front door to greet them.
Or, more specifically, one particular person.
"Mai!" He slid free of Appa's saddle almost
before they hit the ground, crossing to her without hesitation and catching her
up in his arms. She was smiling just a little, but returned his kiss with as
much eagerness as he could have hoped for. My future wife, he reminded
himself with satisfaction - and no small amount of wonder. "How did things
go while I was gone?" he asked, breaking apart from her with some
"Same as always." She shook her head at him.
"You were only gone for four days. What did you think would happen?"
He shrugged, a bit sheepishly. "Well, you never know..."
"So..." Toph's voice caught his attention; she was addressing his
uncle, who was taking a little more time to make his way to the ground again.
"I'm guessing maybe you guys have some more to add to what little we
managed to get out of him." She hooked her thumb over her shoulder.
Zuko followed the line she was pointing out, and noticed that Aang's attention
wasn't on their conversation at all - he was looking at Katara, who had busied
herself with Appa and seemed to be ignoring her brother's attempts to get her
attention. The expression on the younger boy's face was a somewhat comical mix
of anticipation and apprehension.
He had to resist the urge to smile. I don't miss those days...
Katara turned then, waving a vague, irritated hand in her brother's direction
before meeting Aang's gaze squarely. "We need to talk," she announced
abruptly, and then stepped forward and took hold of his wrist to drag him back
into the somewhat rough-looking sanctuary of the Avatar's house. The door shut
quite firmly behind them, and the sound of the bolt being thrown was clearly
"Guess that means we're not invited," Toph quipped, with a slightly
Sokka directed a wry look at the closed door, and then sighed.
"We," Mai said under her breath, staring up into Zuko's eyes with the
smirk that never failed to make his heart begin to pound, "don't
need to talk." She turned then, catching his hand and looking back over
her shoulder at him. "Unless you need me to explain just
how you're going to repay me for covering for you while you were away."
Zuko didn't even bother to fight against the goofy smile that he knew was
spreading across his face as he let her lead him away.