Thanks to Kira Kyuu for proofreading.
Chapter 30: A Thing in the Dark
"Oh … okay … I guess it's – THE END."
"AHHHHH! I don't want to be a monkey!" came a sudden scream as Aang jolted awake, his face covered in sweat.
For a moment, the youth just sat there panting, a horrified expression on his face as he collected his surroundings. No, unicycle. Check. Lee wasn't juggling. Check. The bearded lady didn't want to make him her smoogly-poo. Double check.
Sighing, looking back to see that Lee was still curled up in the back of the saddle deeply asleep, the air-bender rubbed his raccoon eyes. They had to have been flying for a day now and the sun was setting, orange blossoming on the setting horizon.
The dream about the circus must have been caused from exhaustion. True, Lee had offered to try and fly Appa and to keep the great exhausted beast awake, but Aang refused. Appa was his responsibility and if Appa wasn't allowed to sleep, neither would Aang. They had stalled once, in the water to rest (and pee), but floating still required energy and so it had been a short break. Personally, Aang didn't know how much longer they could go on like this. Yes, at least the air was now a little warmer and no longer so fridge as it was in the deep North Pole, but he was certain they were going in the wrong direction. There was nothing out here and the icebergs that were about couldn't even keep him or Lee afloat.
Sighing, wishing that they had picked a different random direction, Aang tightened his grip on the reins and scolded himself. Here he said that he would remain awake, for Appa, and instead he fell asleep sitting up. Staring at the reins in his hands for a moment, a part of Aang started to wonder: what if they didn't get out of this? Had Lee learned enough water-bending to make ice and perhaps make them an iceboat if worse came to worse? What if Appa fell? What if …
A sudden grunt came from Appa, Aang jerking the reins when he thought the beast was going to fall asleep in mid-air. Instead, the sky-bison had changed direction and was heading… heading… to a dot on the horizon.
Squinting, his heart hammering in his chest, Aang jumped to his feet and ran across Appa's back, nearly jumping on the sleeping Avatar as he started shaking him awake, "Lee! Lee! We see a ship! There's a ship!"
Lee, jolting, not use to being touched, gathered his surroundings in a panicked hurry. Only after he had noticed it was Aang and that there was nothing to be on guard about did the teenager groggily ask, "What? What's wrong? Is it my ship? Is it the Northern Water Tribe?"
Shaking his head, Aang practically bounced, "It's a ship! It's a ship! I don't know if it's your ship, but it's a ship."
Frowning, groggily pulling himself to his knees despite being exhausted, Zuko forced himself to bury his fear of getting out of the saddle and falling horribly to his death. Instead, he slowly perched himself on top of Appa's head, his eyes going wide when he saw that there was indeed a ship in the distance.
For a moment he thought he might smile, that he might get to see his Uncle again and that everything, somehow, would be so much better with that ageing figure by his side. And yet, as quickly as it formed, his smile was dead. It was as if it had never been, it was gone so quickly.
Instead, a frown of worry formed on the teenager's face as he tried to squint and get a better look at what type of ship it was. From this distance, it didn't look big enough to be a steamer or a war ship, but it was too big to be something like a simple fishing ship, which was too bad because a fishing ship would at least mean land was near. It obviously was not a fishing ship though …
"Perhaps a cargo ship?" said Zuko out loud, the teenager nearly jumping out of his skin when suddenly Appa let out a bellow and started to dive.
"Spirits above," cried out Zuko, latching onto the nearest thing he could so he wouldn't fall off … which so happened to be a thin air-bender who had long since reclaimed the reins.
Aang, in turn, choked as the older boy latched onto him, nearly falling off himself as he giggled, "Hey, careful. I'm ticklish there."
Zuko, half temped to let go of the now squirming boy, could only bark, "Then stop making him dive! We should get a good look at the ship before we go down there!"
"Umm," said Aang as he tugged on the reins a little. "I don't think Appa's listening to me anymore."
"W-what!" cried Zuko as he let go of the other, grabbing into the reins and tugging them himself. All he got was an angry roar as Appa made his way faster towards the ship. "W-what if that was a Fire Nation ship!"
"But it isn't, right?" said Aang, now clinging to Zuko since the older boy now had the reins.
"Well, it doesn't look like a one, doesn't mean it couldn't be!" yelled Zuko as he glared at the other.
"Oh … so this could be bad to just land on some random party's ship," said Aang as if it just had occurred to him.
Zuko, a blood vessel about to pop in his forehead, barked, "Yes!"
"Oh … Ahhhhhh!
And so, the whole way down, Appa's mind set, the two benders clung to the great beast's fur, screaming as if death was now upon them. And yet, just as quickly as the descent had become, it ended with a mighty jolt, the sound of wood creaking under heavy paws and water splashing against a sturdy hull. Zuko, perhaps gripping too tight, found himself flying forward due to the impact, his body making a heavy clunk as he went rolling into a wooden deck. Aang, at this time used his bending last minute to stop himself from doing the same thing, air billowing all around him as he gently floated his feet down to the wood deck.
Stalling only long enough to give the now sleeping bison a worried look, Aang found himself hopping over to Zuko who was now lying on his back, struggling to pull the air back into him.
"Lee!" cried Aang as he knelt down against the other. "Are you okay?
Wheezing, struggling to intake a breath, Zuko was finally about to cough, "No … I am never …. getting …. on that bison … again."
Aang, his worried look about to be washed away like dirt from a spring rain, stalled when a shadow suddenly fell over him, a voice gurgling, "Well, well, what do we have here? I've had stowaways before … but never ones so far out to sea."
Looking up, the two teenagers stared at the strange man with an iguana-parrot on his shoulder. The growing, greedy grin on his face revealing his intentions before either youth could plead their case, "But that's not a bad thing. I've turned in a bounty for many a earth and water benders in the past, but an air-bender bounty and a flying bison: now what a pretty copper he will make … get them boys."
"Ugh, I hate these things. They are always making me trip. How do you even walk in them," whined Sokka as he tugged at his … skirt.
Suki, who had agreed to take the water tribesman on as a student if and only if he wore the traditional garb for a Kyoshi Warrior makeup and all, tried not to chuckle at the other. Sokka, after seeing how well her and her girl took out some bandits during their slow trek to the swamp, had found that girls could kick butt and perhaps it wouldn't hurt to have some extra skills. She, just glad to get some practice in during their long trek to the Foggy Swamp, had not dissuaded him. Plus, she would get to be around Sokka more after all.
Not-not that she liked him … he was just funny, and she didn't get many laughs in now days.
"I think that will be enough tonight," said Suki with a smile as she offered the blushing teenager a hand up, not that she blamed him, half the camp had watched him get thrown across their make-shift arena after all. It had been placed so closed intentionally in order to keep an eye on the camp. It also allowed the benders to have a little area to make a mess if they felt so inclined to.
Sokka, secretly glad to just have a reason to touch the other as well, took the offered hand as Suki helped him stand. Her tug was a little too strong though and the teenager boy found himself bumping into her and nearly causing her to fall over as he came to his feet. Sokka, in turn, was quick to wrap a hand around her lower back in order to keep her standing.
There was an awkward moment of their faces being really close, until, like always, Suki drew away with a small cough. She was likely blushing as much as Sokka was, but give all the makeup she had on, he couldn't really tell.
"Well, that was quite a workout," said the Kyoshi Warrior as she pretended to dust off her skirt, murmuring, "Now I'm all hot and flustered."
"Y-yeah, me too," said Sokka as he rubbed the back of his head in embarrassment. It was always like this, there was never enough privacy to actually act on any of their feelings. There were just too many small faces around and a nosy sister to even ask her … if she liked him.
"Regardless," said the Warrior as she gathered herself, cool and composed as usual. "We should decide who is going to stand guard tonight. For some reason I feel that we should have two on guard at a time instead of just one like usual. There's just something about this forest. It makes my blood feel chilled. I … just don't like it. Would you mind volunteering, Sokka?"
Sokka, shaking his head as he tried to get that love-sick expression off his face, found himself quickly agreeing, "Oh yeah, sure. No problem. I love standing guard … in the dark."
"Oh, wonderful. I … ugh … better be going to bed then. It's getting late and I might have to take a night watch… g-goodnight Sokka," she murmured, suddenly acting a lot more shy and meek then she had moments ago when she had been handing him his own butt.
"Y-yeah, good night," called the tribesman after the female warrior, a part of him finally noticing that yes, indeed, it had started to get dark.
And yet, strangely, he had yet to hear one owl or see one lightning bug. There was just this stillness around. And now that she said that aloud, he found he had to agree. Since they had entered the forest, a week ago though they had been traveling about three weeks now, he couldn't help but notice that villages with actual people in them had become scarcer and scarcer the closer they got the mountains. And there was this deep chill in the air. It almost reminded Sokka of type of lands he had grown up in: few people and a deep set coldness.
The abandoned villages they kept happening across though that was a new breed of unease he wasn't accustom to, especially since there were no signs of fire-benders having driven the villagers off, which brought to question: what exactly had driven the villagers off?
Rubbing his hands together, trying to tell himself he did not feel like he was being watched, Sokka found he could not look away from one in particular cold dark place in the forest all night. Because, even though he knew it was paranoid and stupid, he felt that if he looked away, for even a moment, something would creep into their camp from the darkness. Something he could not fight, something that all children were afraid of, but never knew the name to.
"Sokka … you look terrible. Did you even sleep last night? Did you volunteer to be a night guard again?" said Katara as she gave her brother a piece of fruit for breakfast, cringing away because she was sure meat-head would whine about something not being slaughtered to ingest. Instead, he merely took the piece of dried fruit and kind of gummed it, his eyes glassed over as he continued to walk with the group.
"I'll take that as a: yes, Katara, I didn't sleep again last night," said Katara slightly sarcastically as she tried to impersonate Sokka's squeaky voice, arms crossing over her waist as she glaring at her brother, wondering how he was even walking a straight line right now.
When he didn't even react, she sighed, murmuring, "Okay, I'll go fishing with you tonight if you are that meat deprived … just stop being angry at me. I know you are still upset with me and Aang for accidently kidnapping you and stuffing you into Appa's saddlebags, but please stop ignoring me. You've been that way for days now."
When nothing but silence and a gnawing sound greeted her query, her tone became worried as she reached out and touched her sibling softly on the shoulder, stalling there march, "Sokka? Are you alright?"
Blinking, as if suddenly coming around at his sister's tone, Sokka finally gathered himself and watched for a moment as the children kept walking without the two tribesmen. He even sagged slightly as he rubbed his hand over his face, "What … yah. I'm fine."
Frowning, wanting to be angry at her sibling for so blatantly lying to her, she shook her head as her hair loops twisted madly, "No, no you are not. Something's been wrong with you for the past few days. Tell me what it is."
Sighing, scratching the back of his head as he watched the last of the children walk past them, the contemplated what was bothering him. There were a lot of things, like his feet and his stomach and Suki's reluctance to notice him the way he wanted to be noticed, but as for the thing that was really bothering him … It perhaps would be best to just say nothing at all. Not that he thought he could get away with that. Katara now had that expression their mom used to have whenever she was mad at their father. He had thought it was funny as a child to watch the chieftain cringe away due to a mere glare from his mother, but as he grew older the more he understood a woman's spite. And thought he did not really think of Katara as a woman yet, he knew it was sometimes best to just give her what she wanted.
He was also, honestly, just too tired to fight with her.
"You'll think I'm going crazy," Sokka murmured as his shoulder's fell forward.
"You don't think I already thought of you as a crazy?" joked Katara for a moment, a soft chuckle escaping her before she frowned and looked behind them down the darkening path, her hands coming up and rubbing her shoulders as if she was hugging herself.
Sokka, despite his tired eyes, followed her gaze and he too felt the need to chase off a chill that had just caused him to have goose bumps. Frowning, he stared at the path the group had just come from, noting how a place that had just been filled with light and insects and singing birds was now still. It was as if a shadow had set over that part of the forest. In fact, it even seemed darker, foreboding … like the thing he watched out in the night, but now it seemed to be following them. It was like a thing that would rush up behind you and only fall back when you turned your head just right, but when he turned your head completely to see what it was … it was always gone.
"Do you feel it too, Katara?" whispered Sokka, afraid to raise his voice too loud, incase the children overheard them and it frightened them … or incase it might over hear him. "It's like those stories gran-gran would tell … about things that were always just behind you in the blinding snow. How it … would follow you and get you turned around and around until you were lost. And then, one at a time, each man half frozen, it would pick off the weakest, drag them away into the cold and –"
"Enough Sokka," bit in Katara's tone, the teenager turning his red eyes to his sister's angry and slightly afraid gaze. "Those things don't live in forests. Windagos are just stories the adults made up to make sure we didn't wander outside during a blizzard as children. And, even if they are real … they couldn't live here. It's too warm."
Frowning, wanting to tell his sister that he wasn't saying it was a windago in particular, Sokka found he couldn't get a word in edgewise as his younger sister wrapped her arm around his and started to lead him forward with a sturdy march.
"That's it. Tonight, I'm putting you to bed early with the rest of the young children. No night watch for you, mister."
"But I'm a grown man!" tried to defend Sokka as he was dragged along, his sister refusing to allow him to look behind them at the darkening path despite it being nearly midday.
"Nope, I will hear none of that. You are going to bed with the children," said Katara, mother-mode activated. She refused to listen to his nonsense … even though, for the briefest of moments she saw something moving out of her peripheral vision. She refused to give into the paranoia her brother had fell victim to though.
There was nothing there.
And yet, if she would have turned her head, given her brother's seemingly paranoid nature a second thought, she would have seen a gnarled graying hand place itself upon a darkened trunk, yellow nails digging deep into the bark.
Paw07: Yes, it's a short chapter, but at least it's an update, no? Also, thank you, for all you good sports for April 1st. I respect a good sense of humor. Also, some of my readers really liked the chapter so I decided to incorporate it into the tale. Aang was the only sane one in the dream, so I made it his dream. Regardless, it's been a long time, but we finally got back to Sokka and Katara! And yes, my horror fan-girling in creeping to the surface as usual and something unpleasant is after our favorite siblings.
PS: Vote on the poll chickies to see who gets the one-shot gift. :