disclaimer: I claim no ownership over any of the characters contained within. This story is written for fun, not profit.
notes: I want to thank everyone who has taken the time to read and/or comment on my Avatar stories so far! I was very surprised at how quick the response has been and want you all to know how grateful (hugely! immensely! abusing-adverbs-and-exclamation-points-ly!) I am for your attention, interest, and support. (And if anyone has any constructive criticism they would like to share with me, on any subject, I would be most pleased. Really. )
Flowers grew in long tangles across the sides of small huts, tiny spurts of color and heavy fragrance that spiralled in thick webs from cracks and windows like the forest growing slowly into the village. The wind drifted through, rushing up and falling; leaves rustled and wooden roof slats, what hadn't caved in before, groaned in the evening breeze.
Katara shivered, a little, pulling her coat tight around her shoulders and glancing up between the trees.
"This place gives me the willies." Sokka ducked beneath a branch, waving his hand irritably at Momo when the lemur curled around his shoulder. "Does anybody even live here anymore?"
"I don't think so," Katara said, quietly, watching Aang poke his head through a flower-grown window. She stepped over a series of roots, lining one another in careful pattern. The earth crunched underfoot; pottery, she thought, and then, maybe bones.
Appa grunted back in the clearing, grazing comfortably under twilight and wafting his tail in slow, lazy motions.
"There's no back to this house," Aang called, sliding down the slope beneath the ruin he'd busied himself inspecting. "And I think there's a tree growing in the kitchen." He touched a vine hanging from the fringe slats.
Katara fingered one of the flowers, yellow and shaped like a budding vase. "You can eat those," Aang said. He pinched one from its vine and demonstrated, peeling and then sucking delicately at the end. "They're honeysuckle," he added. "But you've gotta be careful for bees."
Katara smiled and plucked a blossom free, peeling as Aang turned to another ruin half-eaten by the forest.
"I think bees are the last thing you'd have to worry about," Sokka said, from deeper in the trees. Momo skittered in an anxious circle, looping around to dart behind Katara's boots as she stepped forward.
Hunched with his back to her, Sokka stood, brushing dirt and leaves from something in his hands.
"Fire Nation," Katara said. She stooped, gathering Momo from around her heels. The lemur made a small noise and blinked its bright eyes in quick, flashing unison.
Sokka lifted the helmet level with his eyes and made a face, scowling. "You know," he said, "I really don't like them."
He bounced the helmet in his hands, then rocked back on his heel and pitched it into the woods. It flashed red, once, light sliding over the stylized horns before it crashed into the undergrowth. Leaves rustled violently and a bird took to the air, calling and fluttering into the sky.
Katara ran a hand down Momo's back, resting her palm where breath shivered beneath its fur. Aang lifted Momo from her shoulder, tucking the lemur against his chest; Katara started, mouth settling into a soft line as he hunched his shoulders.
"Aang?" She touched his shoulder, curving her fingers over the round joint and splaying across the muscles shifting beneath cloth and skin. "Are you all right?"
"Of course!" he said, tilting his head up and smiling.
Sokka rubbed a hand against the back of his neck, trading a skeptical look with Katara's gentler one. Aang hoisted Momo and set it to race across the ground. He nudged his hand against Katara's, sliding his fingers between hers and gripping tightly.
Sokka rolled his eyes and hopped over a tangled mess of roots.
"I think we should stay here for the night." Aang's voice hung in the air, clear and strong before the cloying scent of honeysuckle and the trees ruffling in the wind swallowed his words. He turned to Katara, still clutching her hand.
She took a breath at his eyes, fierce in the decisive set of his face, and said, "Maybe we shouldn't, Aang."
"Ow!" Sokka swore under his breath, kicking at a heavy pot and then cursing again when his foot merely thudded against the bronze. "I think she's right," he muttered, propping his weight on a tree and massaging his foot. "I mean, with the Avatar. And, you know, the Firebenders and." He waved his hand vaguely and then shrugged. "Whatever."
"Sokka!" Katara scowled, dropping Aang's hand.
"It's all right." Aang tilted his head back, watching the sky darkening to a deep violet behind the trees.
The wind sighed, again, flowing over the earth and through the branches, flapping the sleeves of Aang's overshirt and catching Katara's hair. The world here was quiet: just the honeysuckle dripping scent into the air and the village creaking into rot behind its fallen fences and overgrown gardens.
She brushed at her hair, fluttering, and listened to the silence. "All right," she said, softly.
"Well, now that everyone's decided," Sokka announced, levering himself into one of the ruins through a large rift. "Can we find something for dinner?"
"Do you ever think with anything but your stomach?" Katara demanded, laughing. She hopped over Momo, inspiring the lemur to twirl, chirrup, and dart up Sokka's back.
"Agh!" Sokka shook, and grabbed at Momo as its tail twined around his neck. "Aang, get your stupid pet off my back!"
"Momo isn't stupid," Aang said, indignant, popping up onto his toes and hurrying after the older boy. He brushed impatiently at a branch hanging overhead, stirring the leaves with a soft twist of scented air.
"Aang's right," Katara teased, lifting her skirt above her boots so she might catch them. (Aang gave Sokka an important, justified look.) "You shouldn't talk about family like that."
Sokka granted her a flat, dry expression, and turned with a series of annoyed mutters to stalk through the trees, Momo cooing along the breadth of his shoulders. Grinning and clutching her skirt, she followed, turning only once to call for Aang.
Watching the wind moving through the ruins, flowers and vines shivering soft like reminiscence, Aang was still and small in the dwindling glow of sunset.
"Aang?" Katara said, holding her hand out.
He smiled and breezed toward her, grasping her hand in his. "Coming," he said, face shining. Katara returned his smile, nose scrunching a little, and glanced once over her shoulder as he tugged her along after Sokka's sulking form.
Yellow flowers twined in one of the windows, twirling gently like bells.
She looked down at their hands entertwined and then ahead, leaving the flowers behind.
The fire crackled, a branch deep in the guttering flames snapping and shifting down. Curled up beside Appa, Katara watched through lidded eyes as shadows across the clearing passed over like heavenly sighs, the shape of clouds brushing against the moon and disappearing with the wind. The flames flickered in the breeze and faded down, turning closer to embers and a dull red.
Here on the mountain the wind was held in place, a constant breeze or a sudden gust. She listened to Sokka's snoring, carried now by the wind and then away.
Katara could still smell the flowers like a memory in her throat, the strange sickle-sweet almost-flavor heavy in her lungs. She rolled onto her back, watching the stars and listening to the fire spit, and sigh.
She wondered if this was what Aang felt: a homesickness as wispy and tangible as a vine of flowers, thick and overwhelming and there. Katara closed her eyes.
Sokka snored, and muttered in his sleep, shifting under the blankets. If she reached out she could touch him, fingertips just brushing the broad slope of his forehead. Are you afraid, too? she wondered, listening to his breathing and small nighttime movements. For one long painful moment she felt as if he was beyond her reach - the last thread connecting her to the memory of home.
Katara swallowed and felt the flavor of honeysuckle roiling on the back of her tongue.
With a sigh, she forced her eyes open and rolled slowly into a sitting position, resting her head in the thick fur of Appa's belly. She brushed her hand in slow, absent pets along the fur and watched the fire gutter one final time, then fade.
I, she thought, am not getting any sleep tonight.
Exhaling, Katara flicked her eyes around the clearing, glancing toward the trees rimming the small meadow. A trace of moving color snagged her attention: red on yellow, and a trace of blue on skin; Aang sliding between the trees toward the village. She started, pulling away from Appa and knotting her hand in the blankets.
Her heart thrummed in her chest and she swallowed again. Honeysuckle, thick in the air and thick on the tongue.
Aang, she thought, and shrugged out from beneath the blankets, fumbling for her boots. Katara snagged her overcoat and shrugged into it, tying the fur awkwardly over her undershirt by moonlight. She hopped on one leg, pulling a boot over her bare foot and then switching for the other.
Curled in a loose circle on Sokka's head, Momo's tail twitched and she cracked one sleepy green eye. The lemur's tail twitched again and both eyes popped open, curious.
Katara pressed a finger to her lips. "Shh," she whispered. Appa groaned and shifted heavily, a back leg kicking lazily across the grass. She patted his belly. "I need you to watch Sokka for me, okay?"
Momo's tail twitched, both eyes blinking once and then closing as she nestled down in Sokka's hair. Katara smiled, just so, imagining the messy nest his hair would be the next morning, and then his expression: exasperated, resigned. Momo had taken to using Sokka's hair as her bednest some days before, Katara remembered.
She smiled, again, as Sokka snorted, fingers curling in his sleep.
"Okay," she whispered, and set off in a tiptoe walk to the trees.
The mountain air at night was cool, she supposed, even at this low height; but it felt warm compared to home. The trees carried a dark solemnity in the cool-warm night, shading away the moonlight and bearing the exotic smells of fruit and flowers blooming from the branches. Leaves cracked and twigs splintered underfoot.
"I hope I remember," she murmured, wondering in a moment of panic if she could find her way to the village - and then she rested her hand against a tree, remembered days spent tracking caribou across the ice shelf after the men had left, and straightened her back. "Okay," she said again.
Katara yelped and jumped, ramming back against a tree and clutching feebly at her breast where her heart thudded and leapt.
Aang tossed his legs over the side of a branch opposite, swinging his feet as he tipped his head to the side. "Okay what?" he repeated.
She took a deep breath and let it go, shoulders slumping. "Just," she gestured, much as Sokka had before, "okay."
"Oh," Aang said, and then grinned. "Okay, then." He floated down from his branch. "What're you doing up so late?" he asked. His eyes were wide and innocent, as if daring her to ask the same question of him.
"I should ask you the same question," she retorted, propping her hands on her hips. "Sneaking out of camp and trying to give me a heart attack."
Aang's face fell, nose wrinkling and eyebrows tilting up. "I wouldn't do that to you," Aang said, crossing his heart. "But maybe Sokka." He grinned again, hopefully.
Katara crossed her arms and huffed exasperation. "What are you doing out here in the woods, Aang?"
His grin faded, dwindled to a smile and then an uncertain line. He darted a look to where the village slept, wrapped in flowers and rot. "I had to see it," he said, softly. He rubbed the back of his arm, scouring down the length where the tattooed arrow spiralled out onto his hand.
"Aang," Katara said, leaning to look in his eyes; he avoided her gaze, shifting his focus down to his feet which he shuffled in the leaves and dirt.
"There's someone still there," he said, finally, looking her in the eyes. His eyes shone in his face, not the unearthly glow of the Avatar spirit rising within, but Aang, twelve-year old boy, worried by something. He shifted his feet again and rubbed his arm. "You believe me, right?"
She opened her mouth and, thinking, closed it. "Of course," she said, and slowly smiled. "Of course I believe you, Aang."
"You don't have to," he said. "I mean, I don't want you to just say it."
Katara grabbed his hand, squeezing it between her palms before letting it fall back to his side. "I believe you," she repeated.
Aang scratched his nose and smiled, again, sheepish and maybe a little shy. "Um," he said, and then, "Okay. Come on."
The perfume of the flowers drugged the air. Stepping over the border into the village, marked by a massive tree root sprawled across the remnant tongue of an ancient path, her hands in his as he helped her over, Katara breathed it in and choked.
"Oh my God," she said after a moment, breathing shakily with Aang patting her back frantically. "Ow, stop, Aang, I'm all right." His hand slowed and then, guilty, he touched her shoulder. She took another, careful breath, feeling the honeysuckle smell sliding down her throat and flooding her lungs. "What happened?"
His fingertips were soft against her shoulder. Aang looked across the village, small ruined huts lining the weeded road. The honeysuckle vines had latched across every surface, she thought dizzily. Yellow blossoms glowing like nauseated moonlight and netted over earth, wood, stone.
"I think there was an Airbender here," he said, distant; sad. Katara took another breath and rested her hand over his. "Just a little kid. Maybe not even able to bend yet.
"One of the novices used to tell us ghost stories, you know." His voice turned dreamy and strange with memory; she looked at him and his eyes were wide, almost tranced. She thought, fleetingly, of Aang and the statue of Roku, in the sanctuary of the temple.
"No," she said, thinking she couldn't do now what she had then. "I don't know."
"He used to say sometimes, when someone with a great soul dies before they should, they can't go on." Aang stared at the honeysuckle, sweet and hanging heavy from its vines, swollen with scent or memory as they twisted in the cool-warm breeze. "They just stay there, forever, scared and lonely." He sighed, a little, and turned to her, resting his forehead on their clasped hands.
She hesitated, lifting her arm, and wrapped him gently against her.
"You have me," she said, "still. And you aren't dead, or frozen."
He sighed, again, and sniffled once, and she realized with his shoulders shaking under her arms and his face buried in her neck, Aang was crying. Silently, almost, and to himself, even with the salt and the wet warm against her skin.
"It's okay, Aang," she said, closing her eyes to the flowers. "You're okay. You're here, with me." She took a ragged breath, thinking - home, Mom dead and Dad gone and Gran-gran watching them leave, maybe forever, and for one terrible moment all she could think of was, Why Am I Alone.
Even with Aang in her arms, crying; even with the image of Momo sleeping on Sokka sleeping by Appa, waiting for her. Their family. She thought that, again, fiercely, My family. Our family.
She exhaled and breathed in to steady her heartbeat and her thoughts (bewildered and disoriented, as if choked for air). The honeysuckle smell was not so strong now, and her mind cleared.
"You're not alone," she said, slow, loud, clear. She tucked her cheek on the smooth skin of his head, and looked, hard, at the nearest bunch of honeysuckle fluttering in the wind. "I know you feel like it right now, but you're not. It's - it's okay, now. We know."
And then, to Aang, lifting her face to look down at his burrowing into her throat and collarbone: "Maybe - maybe the ghost is making us think that we're alone."
She took another breath and smelled water running somewhere near, coursing beside the village. Smelled Aang, clean and something sweetly foreign: like the smell of air and mountain snow.
"It's okay," she said, thinking of her mother. "It's okay."
Aang breathed against her throat, warm over the tears, and then, snuffling, he leaned back, rubbing the heels of his palms over his eyes. "Sorry," he said, muffled. She wondered what he'd thought of: the temple, his childhood, the monks. Maybe the things he'd never had; a mother.
The wind sighed by her ear and a small hand curled in her skirt, its partner reaching to touch Aang's wrist. For one last, dizzying moment she swallowed the smell of honeysuckle; Aang gasped, a little, wheezing, and then a touch - one of the vines growing across a tree twisting out, a flower brushing her cheek and his. A kiss; a child reaching for her mother.
Somewhere in the back of the village a hut groaned and collapsed in a storm of broken wood and cracking stone.
"Katara," Aang said. "I think she's gone now."
Katara blinked her eyes, quickly. "Let's go, too," she said, and clutching onto one another they staggered into the woods.
They made it back to the clearing before she started crying, thinking of her mother and home, and then it wasn't just Aang holding on to her but Sokka, too, hair tangled and Momo displaced in his lap.
"What happened?" he mumbled, pulling Katara into a sleepy bear hug and Aang, as well, by virtue of the boy's refusing to let her go. Momo made high, cooing sounds and clambered up to curl in a warm, fuzzy bundle around Katara's neck. Sokka freed an arm to rub at his eyes. "Did someone die?"
Katara laughed, weepy, and said, "Mom did."
Aang clutched her tighter and then Sokka said, in a small little voice, "Aw, geez," holding her tighter.
She cried and when she was done, red-eyed and worn-out and surrounded by warmth and her family, her new and real and here family, she thought the homesickness had faded, just a little; just enough.
"It's okay," Aang told her, later, when they were falling asleep in one messy, teary bundle. "You've got me, still."
Sokka patted her shoulder, adding tiredly, "And me."
"I feel so stupid," Katara said, curled beneath the blankets and watching the sun rising over the mountain, trails of orange in the dark. Aang snuggled closer to her.
"That's okay, too," he said.