DISCLAIMER: I don't own Avatar: The Last Airbender, nor am I in any way affiliated with Michael Dante DiMartino or Bryan Konietzko. This story is purely fan-made…wow, I'm not going to miss saying that.
A couple of hours passed by quickly on Appa, with meaningless chatter and playful insults being swapped back and forth, mainly between Katara and her brother. The light banter hadn't yet awakened the sleeping Earth King; apparently the night's events had been too much for him. Everyone was skirting around the question they all wanted the answer to, but it seemed as though each person was afraid of shattering the illusion that everything would be okay. Every person, it seemed, except Toph.
"So what's happening now?" She asked suddenly. Faces turned towards her, but no one answered, so she carried on. "I mean, Twinkletoes needs to learn Firebending, and we can't really do that when we're who knows how many feet up in the air, now can we?"
"Not unless you want to walk to the Fire Nation." Aang muttered darkly from Appa's head, and the bison groaned in agreement. The groan reverberated through the Appa's, making the people sat on his back wriggle uncomfortably.
"Short term plan: Iroh will teach Aang Firebending. Long term plan: Aang will kill the Fire Lord." Sokka explained, monotone, flicking a tuft of Appa's fur in obvious boredom. Several eyes darted to Zuko to see how he would react to the last part of this answer, Katara's included. However Zuko didn't even blink at Sokka's words, and Katara doubted that he even heard them. He seemed to be too preoccupied with glancing tentatively every so often over Appa's side and gnawing at his lip. Katara watched this with some amusement as it dawned on her:
"You're afraid of flying." She whispered in mock-accusation to Zuko, who's head snapped around to her. The others seemed to be in a debate about something, so Katara felt at ease talking to Zuko.
"No I'm not." He replied hastily at her words. At Katara's disbelieving expression, he elaborated. "It isn't flying I'm afraid of. It's the falling hundreds of feet and breaking every bone in my body that scares me."
Katara's expression melted into smiles and laughter. It wasn't like Zuko to be witty, but in the rare moments he was Katara couldn't help but giggle, regardless of the circumstances.
"In that case, I'll keep you safe." She murmured to him, stroking his hand very briefly.
It was only a quick gesture of affection, but it was a gesture of affection nonetheless. Looking wordlessly at Katara, Zuko wondered how long it would be until they didn't have to hide their relationship anymore. As minutes passed with just banter passing between the group, he sat in silence thinking about all the ways he could tell Sokka and Aang that he was in love with Katara without ending up dead.
After half an hour of thinking and coming up with exactly nothing, he gave up with a frustrated sigh. His uncle's eyes darted towards him questioningly, but Zuko shook his head and glanced at Sokka. Iroh nodded and went back to talking to Toph, a small smile curling on his lips.
He's loving this, Zuko thought, annoyed. He'll make this as difficult as he can. He dreaded all the hints that Uncle Iroh would drop around Sokka and Aang regarding his nephew and Katara, all the sly smiles in their direction and the whispered conversations with Toph. Can't I just get it over with? He thought in desperation. But watching Katara laugh at something Sokka said made Zuko realize that he couldn't just blurt out his feelings. He had to at least consult Katara before telling everyone. She deserved that much.
"Where are we stopping again?" Toph asked suddenly, breaking Zuko out of his thoughts.
"It would be wise to go a little further, as far away from Ba Sing Se as we possibly can in one flight." Iroh mused, patting Momo's head absently. The lemur closed his eyes in contentment and stretched out on Iroh's lap. Scratching Momo's stomach, Iroh continued to think, looking behind his shoulder and into the sky for inspiration.
"We left Ba Sing Se approximately three hours ago, yes?" He asked, turning back to the group at large. People nodded and several assenting murmurs were heard. "There was a small town…nothing more than a village really, back when my troops and I set off to conquer Ba Sing Se. I remember the village was only a few hours from the capital, so we were able to rest and eat before the invasion." Iroh paused and chuckled. "Of course, if I had known it would be six hundred days before I had a proper bed to sleep in, I may have taken more advantage of the mattresses there."
Katara smiled, and wondered how Iroh could talk about the invasion that would prove to be his military disgrace so easily. Iroh stared wistfully off into the distance.
"So, this village?" Sokka prompted, earning a glare from Katara for his abruptness. "What?" He asked his sister, his voice now much whinier. "I'm hungry!"
"You're always hungry. It's proving to be quite annoying." Zuko growled, narrowing his eyes at the eldest Water Tribe sibling.
"I've had no valid reason - at least, a reason that I accept - why you're actually here, so I'd really appreciate it if you would shut the hell up!" Sokka snarled, his face contorting in anger and his hand instinctively going to his weapon.
"Zuko - shut up. Sokka - don't you think that was a slight overreaction?" Katara asked, desperately trying to maintain peace among the group.
Before Sokka or Zuko had a chance to reply, Iroh cut in hastily:
"Yes, the village of Siyu. Not a remarkable place by any means, but I believe it was loosely named after the Avatar."
Sokka and Zuko stopped glaring at each other to turn to Iroh, surprised. Aang quickly turned around and raised his eyebrows, and even Kuei opened his bleary eyes at last. Iroh had managed to gain the whole group's attention in two casually spoken sentences.
"Siyu…" Kuei muttered, his voice dry from lack of use. "Roughly translated as 'thinking of the world', am I right?" He directed his question at Iroh, which was a good thing because the rest of the group had no idea.
Iroh nodded and smiled at Aang, who allowed a small smile to appear also.
"Thinking of the world…" Aang repeated thoughtfully. His face suddenly became stony once more and his voice had a flat tone to it. "Let's hope the name's translation is more accurate than Ba Sing Se's."
An awkward silence rang out across the group at the Avatar's words, only punctuated by a now active Momo's low growls every time the occasional reptile bird flew past. The lemur swiped at the air, each time missing his target but never giving up. Katara's eyes followed Momo's tiny claws as he scratched at the air. The movement was almost hypnotic, and it made Katara sleepy. Well, it was either Momo's claws or that in the past few hours she had survived about three battles, been reunited with her family once more and escaped her captors. It took a lot out of a girl, especially one who hadn't slept properly for awhile. It was then when it struck Katara how tired she actually was. She was fighting a losing battle trying to keep her heavy eyelids open and her senses alert. The only thing she could feel at the moment was the overpowering urge to just sleep. Unfortunately, on the bison there was nowhere to lie down without getting in someone's way, so Katara settled for bringing her knees up to her chest and resting her head on them. It wasn't entirely comfortable, but it allowed her to close her tired eyes for a few brief minutes. The cold night desert wind whipped at her head, making her hair blow about annoyingly, finally settling part way across the part of her face that was exposed. Instead of lifting her arms and move the stray hair, Katara mumbled angrily at it, as though this would intimidate the hair to move. Unsurprisingly, it didn't work; the hair remained where it was, itching the side of her head.
Sighing quietly, Katara resolved to ignore it and just go to sleep. Her eyes still shut, a few moments later she felt a gentle warm hand brushing the hair away, lingering on the side of her face. Cracking one eye open drowsily, she saw Zuko smiling down at her.
"You were threatening your hair with death if it didn't move from your eyes." He whispered in explanation. If she hadn't been so tired, Katara would have felt embarrassed that apparently she hadn't been mumbling after all, but speaking coherently.
"Thank you." She murmured, moving her head a fraction upwards. Zuko shuffled closer to her, and indicated his shoulder to lean upon. Gratefully, Katara let herself fall sideways into Zuko's soft shoulder and closed her eyes once more.
"Why is my sister on your shoulder?" Sokka hissed angrily to Zuko. Sokka had been being filled in by Iroh about whereabouts Siyu was located, when he had happened to glance over to check on his little sister. Said little sister was sleeping against the banished Fire Nation Prince who had made more than one attempt on all of their lives previously. Sokka didn't know what had gone on when Katara and Toph were captured - both Toph and Iroh were being mysteriously quiet on the matter - and quite frankly he didn't want to know. Well, he did and he didn't. Sokka had seen the looks that Zuko gave Katara, and he recognized them as the same that he himself used to give to Yue. This worried him immensely. Did Zuko have a crush on Sokka's little sister? Inconceivable. Sokka wouldn't allow it, and therefore it wouldn't happen. With that in mind, Sokka had slipped into the pleasant escape called denial. At least, he had, until he saw Katara leaning quite happily against Zuko.
"Because they ran out of parrots." Zuko muttered back sarcastically in response.
"That isn't funny, considering a group of pirates almost killed us that one time. Or did you forget? Funny, because I seem to remember it being your fault!" Sokka still kept his voice low, so as not to wake his sleeping sister, however it was an effort not to raise his voice.
"No offence, but that was Katara's fault." Zuko said truthfully. As much as he loved Katara, he wasn't about to be blamed any more than he needed to. "If she hadn't stolen that scroll in the first place then we wouldn't have found you."
"…shut up!" Sokka said after a moment, using the only comeback he could think of. "We're getting off-topic!"
"Katara's asleep, and I'm not about to wake her up just because you don't like me." Zuko said softly.
"I think 'don't like' is kind of an understatement, Princey." Toph drawled. Zuko looked up and realized that the whole gang was listening to his and Sokka's argument.
"Princey?" Zuko repeated, eyebrow raised. "That's worse than Scarface."
"Well what do you want me to call you?" Toph asked, rolling her blind eyes.
"How about Zuko? It is my name."
"Lacks originality." Toph said, dismissing this idea. Zuko had a sneaking suspicion that she was steer the conversation away from Katara and himself, and for that he was grateful.
"Fine." Zuko muttered. "Go with Princey, I don't care."
Katara stirred slightly against his shoulder, but Zuko patted her head softly and comfortingly so she went back to sleep.
"What the hell was that?" Sokka asked in outrage, gesturing wildly in Zuko and Katara's direction. Out of the corner of his eye, Zuko saw Uncle Iroh shaking his head and moving himself over to Appa's head to have a quiet discussion with Aang.
"I want her to go back to sleep." Zuko explained, doing his best to keep a level temper. It was as though Sokka thought he would harm Katara suddenly, which was absurd. "She's had a rough week."
"So have I." Toph complained. "For that matter, so has Iroh."
"But neither of you two have had to put up with me all week." Zuko pointed out. There was a slight pause.
"True. Let her sleep." Toph agreed, lying herself down in Iroh's vacated spot. The Earth King had since gone back to sleep, and there was still a couple of hours of quiet darkness left for them all to get some sleep. The few supplies the group had left had been pushed into the corner of Appa's back so everyone had more room to lie down.
"I'm going to sleep." Zuko told Sokka. "If you have a problem with this, let me know now, so I can tell you how much I don't care."
Toph snorted in amusement from her curled up position near Sokka's feet, and Zuko smirked, before resting his head against Katara's and closing his eyes.
"I didn't say that it was okay to use my sister as a pillow." He heard Sokka mutter, but didn't bother to reply. He too was very tired, and planned to grab every opportunity to sleep right now. Plus he had an excuse to be close to Katara, and he wasn't about to pass up on that. Besides, they would all be woken when they reached Siyu…if it was even still there. Zuko had his doubts that it could have survived for so long, being a small village in the middle of nowhere. However, he didn't have time to dwell on these doubts as sleep overtook him.
"Whereabouts is Siyu from here, Sir?" Aang asked quietly. Noticing that all had gone unusually silent, he had glanced back a few minutes ago, only to see everyone asleep, with Katara and Zuko too close for Aang's comfort. This had stirred up a feeling of immense jealously in the young monk. He still had feelings Katara, despite trying his hardest to let her go in order to master the Avatar State.
Iroh looked up, surprised and then chuckled. "Please, child, call me Iroh."
"As long as you call me Aang."
"Done." Iroh said, a smile crinkling his wizened eyes. The smile dropped as he continued to talk. "And I'm not entirely sure where Siyu is from here."
Aang flicked up his eyes to Iroh in a cross between annoyance and disbelief. They could be flying in the completely wrong direction for all any of them knew, and might not see green earth for days. The desert scenery was beginning to get boring, even if the night's sky made the sand look deceptively harmless and beautiful. The moon had gone back to shining brightly once more, casting its light over them all.
"We'll have to stop soon." Aang mused, looking back to the empty sky in front of him. "Appa will get too tired and last time that happened…well, do the words "dropped like a stone" mean anything to you?"
Iroh smiled at Aang's words, as he also looking to his front. "May I suggest that we continue heading in this direction until we need to stop?"
"Sure." Aang nodded. "We're sure to find something eventually."
Iroh didn't miss the lingering sarcasm in the boy's voice, but choice to ignore it. After all, the young Avatar had been through more than most people go through in a lifetime, he had a right to be a little snippy. Besides, sarcasm aside, they were sure to find something soon. It may not be Siyu, but it'll be something.
Just keep telling yourself that, Iroh reminded himself. Giving up hope would make me a hypocrite. Can't be having that.
"I'm not sure it's such a good idea we travel directly to Siyu." Aang murmured, so low that Iroh barely heard him. "If I need to learn Firebending, then I don't want to put anyone else in danger…I don't want to hurt anyone else."
The last part was whispered, but Iroh heard it perfectly. The way the young Avatar's voice was haunted with guilt and regret made Iroh wonder what had happened to upset the boy so much. Rather than compel Aang to tell him, Iroh simply looked at him, his soft, kind eyes devoid of any pressure.
"I tried Firebending once before." Aang explained, dropping his head and talking to his knees. "I thought that because I was the Avatar I didn't have to bother with the basics; breathing, stances and such."
Iroh nodded sympathetically, as though he didn't know what the Firebending basics were.
"I created fire, and was so excited that I allowed it to…get out of my command. And unfortunately for her, Katara was the nearest person to me when I lost control." Aang sighed drooped his head further. "Her hands were badly burnt, and if she didn't have healing powers…"
"But she does." Iroh reminded him gently. "And she healed herself. Accidents happen, Aang, particularly in Firebending. Fire will not allow itself to be controlled easily. In fact, it does not allow itself to be controlled at all…merely guided."
"I don't want to Firebend again." Aang whispered, his gaze on his hands.
At that moment Iroh felt a swell of almost overwhelming pity for the young boy. Iroh had seen the Avatar at terrifying power before, and it was easy to forget that he was just a little boy, scared of his destiny and what was expected of him.
"There is a risk with each thing that we do." Iroh said carefully, casting around for examples. "You take a risk in flying upon your bison every day."
"But Appa's safe." Aang murmured, stroking part of Appa's head softly. "I should know; we've been together for years."
"Appa is only safe because you're used to him." Iroh corrected gently. "Did you see my nephew's face when he realized we would have to fly on your bison?" He chuckled. "As soon as he is used to flying, he will forget the risks. It is much the same with Firebending. If you don't focus on the risks, you don't worry about them."
"Firebending is hard to control." Aang shook his head. "It's dangerous, and I know that I need to learn it, but it doesn't mean that I want to."
"I won't let any harm come to you or your friends when you are learning Firebending, Aang. You have nothing to worry about." Iroh told him softly, smiling. Aang nodded stiffly and raised his head. His eyes were glazed over and his mouth a grim line of determination.
"How long will it take?" He asked distantly.
"To master Firebending?" Iroh paused. "That depends entirely on how much effort and practice you put into it."
"Great." Aang said, completely unenthusiastic. Siyu was still nowhere in sight, and the only thing that could be seen in the slowly lightening sky was the vast expanse of desert, only adding to Aang's already less than ecstatic mood.
"Don't forget to keep up your other bending practices too, they're equally as important." Iroh reminded the boy, sounding like a nagging parent.
"Sure Katara won't be too distracted to teach me?" Aang spat bitterly, throwing an angry glare behind him at Zuko and Katara's resting forms. Iroh bit his lip, unsure of what to say. It seemed that the Avatar might already have an idea of what was going on between Zuko and Katara; however Iroh didn't want to say anything in case he didn't.
"It has been a difficult week for Miss Katara." Iroh said carefully. "But I don't believe she would let anything get in the way of your training, Aang. She knows how important it is for you to learn and master all the elements."
Aang glowered at nothing in particular, and his grip tightened on a patch of Appa's fur. Iroh sighed quietly but remained otherwise silent. It wouldn't be easy for Zuko and Katara to hide their growing relationship for much longer, but it'd be even harder to tell the ones they loved. Well, it would be hard for Katara to tell the ones she loved. Iroh had a feeling that the Avatar and Sokka would react very badly to the news.
"Iroh…" Aang started hesitantly. "About Zuko and Katara-"
Iroh held his breath, awaiting the awkward question, but it was interrupted. Instead, Toph's loud voice rang through the sky.
"Hey! Is that Siyu?" She shouted, the question in her voice over exaggerated. Aang snapped his head back to Toph, and saw where she was pointing. He looked wildly, and even Iroh glanced out of curiosity, before remembering that Toph couldn't have possibly seen anything.
"Toph. You really have to stop doing that." Aang said listlessly, the faint hope that had appeared in his eyes fading rapidly. He turned back to the front.
"Just keeping you all on your toes." Toph said, smiling wickedly before lying back down.
"I'll keep you on your toes." Zuko mumbled threateningly, grouchy from being awakened in such a manner. He raised his head from Katara's and lit a faint flame in the palm of his hand.
"Zuko." Iroh called out warningly, turning his body around to look at his nephew. "I don't think you're close enough to these people yet to be issuing death threats."
"Since when has that stopped him before?" Sokka asked sleepily. His eyes were bleary and he stifled a yawn before sitting up completely. Katara's eyes flickered open, and she rubbed her stiff neck before sitting up straight.
"You have a comfortable shoulder." She complimented Zuko, before turning to her friends. "Where are we? And how long have I been asleep?"
"I'd say we're still quite awhile from Siyu...maybe a few hours." Iroh said, his voice cheerful compared to the others. "And none of you have been sleeping for that long."
Sokka groaned loudly and flopped back down, seemingly appalled at his lack of sleep. This unnecessary action caused Zuko to glare, seemingly appalled at Sokka himself.
"We'll need to stop soon." Katara called to Aang, who hadn't talked to any of them after they had woken up. "Appa's probably tired, and we'll need to rest anyway before you start your training."
"I know what's best for Appa." Aang muttered menacingly, but quietly told the bison to descend anyway. The moon was beginning to fade and dawn's first rays were creeping onto the skyline surreptitiously.
"We're still in the desert." Zuko noted, glancing over Appa's side quickly.
"Well done." Sokka commented dryly.
Both Zuko and Katara glared at Sokka, who pretended not to notice. The night's cool temperature was slowly increasing, and they all knew that it would a hot day for them all for as long as they stayed in the desert. Sokka hoped silently that Katara would have some water left in her water pouch for them to drink, otherwise they'd die of thirst.
I suppose cactus juice is still an option…he thought slyly.
"Snoozles?" Toph asked, her sweet voice immediately making Sokka suspicious. "You even think about going near a cactus, and I'll make sure you're drinking the juice through a tube."
It's like she read my mind! Sokka thought, horrified. Apparently his expression matched his thoughts, because Katara laughed, and soon the rest of the group joined in with her. Even Aang seemed to be trying to hide a smile.
Appa was going down quicker than normal, probably caused by his tiredness and eagerness to get to the ground to rest. Unused to these landings, Zuko's eyes widened. Noticing this, Katara discreetly placed her hand over Zuko's, reassuringly. Appa landed soon after with a soft thud and immediately splayed his legs out, so that his stomach touched the cool sand. Appa's unexpected movement caused the gang to jolt around uncomfortably, so that some of them bumped into others.
"Smooth landing." Zuko muttered, rubbing the spot on his head that had banged into the Earth King's. Kuei had recovered from the landing, and scanned the shadowy sand suspiciously.
"This is only temporary?" He asked, still glaring at the sand.
"Yes." Iroh replied. "We will set off for Siyu as soon as we can, and if we cannot find Siyu then we'll simply have to keep flying until we find somewhere else."
"Sounds like a plan." Toph grinned, before standing up and leaping off Appa. She landed on her feet, and her toes sank into the sand immediately, but Toph just seemed glad to be back on land. Shrugging, Kuei stood up after her and made his way to Appa's legs. Clutching the nearest leg carefully, the Earth King held onto the furry leg for dear life and slowly climbed down, even though they were only a few feet off the ground and he could have jumped. Iroh was next, climbing down with a lot more grace than his predecessor.
"Throw down the supplies to me." He called up to Sokka, who proceeded to gather up the few supplies they had left and to throw them down as gently as he could, as though they were priceless jewels. Iroh quickly and carefully caught the items, and set them down on the sand tenderly. Amongst the supplies there was a large blanket that Sokka "couldn't resist buying" in a market in Ba Sing Se. The blanket couldn't have been that expensive because it was used to wrap up the important things, like any food they had, but Iroh was satisfied that it would be big enough to cover an area where the group could lie down. True, it might be a little squashed, but it was better than nothing.
Sokka stood up on Appa next. He gave Zuko a long, suspicious look before jumping onto the sand below. He landed uncomfortably, but soon shook himself off and helped Iroh to set up. Finally, Aang rose. There was an uncomfortable silence as he looked from Zuko to Katara, an odd expression on his face. Katara gave him a weak smile which he returned with equal strength, before sliding off Appa. Aang landed much more gracefully than Sokka, thanks to Airbending.
As soon as she was sure they were alone and out of earshot, Katara looked at Zuko.
"This is going to be awkward." She breathed quietly, looking to her family below her. Despite their tiredness, each one was laughing and joking and helping, disregarding the couple left on the bison.
"Only if you let it be." Zuko reminded her softly. "We don't have to tell them anything yet."
"I suppose you're right." Katara agreed, tearing her eyes away from the group and smiling at Zuko.
"Of course I am." Zuko smirked, standing up. "I'm always right." At Katara's disbelieving laugh, he smiled. "Well, most of the time." He amended.
"You're going to have to get used to being wrong if you want to be with me." Katara teased, standing up herself. Zuko laughed.
"I think I can deal with being wrong once in a while."
They walked over to Appa's side, still unnoticed by the group below them. Zuko looked cautiously over the side, before turning to Katara.
"Looks like we're going to have to jump." He said, mock-seriously. He smiled again, before extending his hand to Katara.
"Trust me?" Zuko asked, indicating both his hand and the jump. Katara smiled back and took his hand.
So after seven months, 35 chapters and a lot of deliberation and re-writes, "The Journey" is at it's end. At least, this journey is. But when writing this chapter, I realized that I couldn't write about Zuko and Katara's blossoming relationship and the Gaang's reaction to it (not to mention Aang's Firebending lessons) without taking away from the main story. So that's why I'm doing a sequel. Just a short one, not like the wannabe novel that this fanfic turned out to be :P A few of my reviewers have asked me to do a sequel, but if any of you don't think it's a good idea then:
1) Tell me.
2) Don't read it, lol.
The sequel's working title is "Never Too Late" but this may change. The summer holidays are coming up, so I'll probably post the first chapter then if any of you are interested in reading it (:
Words can't express my gratitude to all who have reviewed my first fanfic. I truly believe that your reviews have made me a better writer and for that I'm immensely grateful. If you could take the time to review this last chapter (even if you've never reviewed before) just to tell me what you thought of the story, or what I can improve on, then that'd make me happy as well, lol.
Exactly seven months ago today I posted the first chapter, and I want to thank those readers who have stuck with me for all that time. Thanks to the readers who came in somewhere in the middle, and thanks to the readers who came in at the very end. Thanks to everyone who has favourited/tracked this story...y'know what, just thanks to everyone lol. I sincerely hope you've enjoyed reading "The Journey" as much as I've enjoyed writing it.
Avatar Season Three is rumoured to air September 21st…don't miss it :D
Hope you all have a great summer!