Part Eight


Waiting around 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 forest.

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 Hei Bai.

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 all..."

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 obvious."

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 breath.

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 knotted vines.

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 other.

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 anyway.

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 you?"

"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 time."

"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, anyway?"

"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 back, buddy."

"Thanks." It was hard not to be distracted, though... Aang glanced out the window. "So... Senlin Village, huh?"

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 circumstances.

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 soon.

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 evasion.

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 too much.

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 reluctance.

"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 audible.

"Guess that means we're not invited," Toph quipped, with a slightly raised eyebrow.

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.