((AN: Please read this, guys.
Woot, another chapter! Finally! Wherein our heroes finally leave Omashu for their next destination; a short visit with Haru and his family; it's not too exciting, but I hope it's nice nonetheless, and helps fulfill the need for a Comet's Wake chapter. Dang, just three more destinations to go. :3 Hopefully I can make it to the end. xP
Also, I must say, I'm still completely amazed at the amount of attention this story gets...all of these faves and subscriptions, and all your amazing comments...really, I'm flummoxed and wondering how some of you takes this silly little series as better headcanon than The Promise. I'm just...more than flattered, but blessed to have so many amazing readers and writers watching me. Thank you all. ^^
Though sadly, I must remind some of you that my muse isn't always tuned into Avatar. I promise I'll try to update this story as soon as possible, but only when I feel motivated to, and not when people ask me. This is a leisurely story, I write it for my own fun as much as yours, and it isn't as fun if I feel rushed. So please...don't beg for updates, or they'll only come later rather than sooner. It's been a bit of a struggle just to end this chapter, let alone continue on with my own little after-the-war canon thoughts after watching Korra; can you blame me? x3
Actually, I've been thinking of writing on some of my original stories; I even have serious thoughts on becoming published; hope I can do it. x3 And as well, I've put up the start of a series of drabblings based on the musical play Cats, and I'm even (very tentatively) writing a Zelda/Link fic set around the Ocarina of Time universe that I may put up for those interested...when it's finished, that is. I learned my lesson. x3
That said, enjoy the latest chapter. ^^
Everything's owned by Mike and Bryan.))
In the dead of night, long after their friends and all of Omashu were fast asleep, Katara and Aang's personal date had lingered on. They had made it as promised to the same waterfall and pool that they had camped at once, not too far from the blocked main entrance to the Lover's Cave. They finished their picnic and enjoyed being near the water together; though regrettably they couldn't go swimming, for it was turning colder than usual in the mountains the further into autumn the time went.
Still, it didn't stop Aang at least from touching up his healing practice on Katara's bruised side, which had pretty much returned to normal save for a few twinges in her nerves here and there. It had gone well enough, in fact, that the Avatar had decided to cut the wait on her own Waterbending to a day...for which she was grateful, tempting though it was to play up her pain just to bask in his tender attention a little more.
And now, as they lay on their blanket with the stream and the babbling of a faraway waterfall to their side, the night sky watched over them as they in turn stared back up at the dark, starry expanse and snuggled together for warmth. Appa occasionally yawned and accompanied the sound with a grumble in his booming voice as he shifted sleepily nearby.
Aang lazily drew his fingers along Katara's arm, while she played with the tassels on his necklace. They listened to each other's breathing and sometimes quiet, contented humming. The energy from before in the cave had long subsided into the simple want to hold one another, kept safe and warm, and loved.
Upon hearing her yawn for about the tenth time though, the Airbender laid his head against hers and glanced into her eyes. "Tired? We should probably get back before the others go frantic."
"Yeah...we probably should..." she sighed lazily and curled up closer, indicating that a part of her wanted to do no such thing. "Tomorrow's the day we leave, anyway."
"Yeah...I think we visit Haru next."
She nodded. "And then to Ba Sing Se for the next long stay. It's funny...we always said we hated it there, but after staying for so long during the war, it feels a bit like another home."
"...It does," Aang admitted and turned over to face her with a smile. "Homesick for the Earth Kingdom?"
She laughed and poked his nose. "Silly. More like...like I wanna plant my feet on familiar ground for a while."
"Even nomads have that feeling," Aang confirmed in agreement. "Besides, it'll be good to see Zuko and Mai again too. And Iroh, and maybe Kuei if he made it there before us."
"He might've," Katara pointed out. "We had a lot of long detours, even if we took Appa."
"Long detours," he yawned and pulled her into an embrace, "But good ones."
"Absolutely," she agreed with a dreamy sort of sigh and inched her face toward his, though he beat her to the punch and pecked her lips first. She moved to initiate deeper kisses, though it all stopped when she caught his gentle, loving eyes bearing into hers; this look was glazed with his innocent adoration, and not with the dark sense of wanting that had been present before...as well as with a small bit of worry.
"I'm sorry again about...starting to take it a little too far back there," he hummed, biting his lip. "I don't know what came over me."
The Waterbender chuckled and stroked her fingers comfortingly over his warm cheek. "You worry too much. I trust you more than you know, Aang. Besides, I felt it too." Her eyes rolled thoughtfully. "I wouldn't be surprised if the energy Oma and Shu created in that place had lingered there, and that's what we felt."
"Probably," he smiled, as always relieved that he hadn't unleashed anything that couldn't be forgiven by his precious soul mate. "Anyway, I still can't help but worry. I don't wanna mess this up. Ever."
Katara smiled back, and in the darkness, he barely caught the deep shade of red on her cheeks. "I'm really that special to you, huh?" she joked.
"Special as special can be," he answered with wide eyes an a child-like smile, the kind of mirth that she so adored. Seeing him like that, so carefree and happy around her, she remembered King Bumi's words and hoped that she would see him like that forever.
She laughed and gave his shoulder a little push. "C'mon, we should get back."
"Yeah, okay," he sighed with a half-laugh of his own and joined her in gathering their things and climbing back up on the lethargic bison. "It was a nice stay though."
"It was," she agreed. "Even after the whole scare with the Dai Li. Really, I hope the thing Iroh wants to talk about doesn't include them."
"Totally. But really, I just wanna go to his party," Aang grinned.
Katara blinked, and snorted. "Would you believe I almost forgot about that? Man...I really should stop being so serious."
"Nah, don't stop, just try to give yourself a break from time to time," Aang said as he took the reins. "I believe you told me once that I help you do that," he pointed out with a smug tone.
Quirking an eyebrow, Katara laughed. Giving him a coy look of her own, she climbed up next to him and leaned in close. His skin prickled up when she next spoke, her tone low and feathery in his ear.
"Depends on what kind of break you're talking about."
The heat rose to his face, and it was all he could do to shake his head and regain his composure. "Can we just get going now, Katara?" He said with a crooked grin and another laugh.
"Kiss me properly first," she grinned.
"Oh...if I must," Aang groaned with mock annoyance and took a sudden, quick hold of her shoulders. Her small "meep" of surprise was muffled with his lips as they took over hers. Her eyes fluttered closed and she gripped his vest just as tightly, returning the passionate attack in full until a mildly amused Appa brought them back to earth with a loud grumble a second later.
"Oof...sorry, buddy," Aang laughed as Katara finally released him with an innocent hum. They exchanged one more mirthful, loving look as they finally ascended into the night and back toward Omashu's palace. "Yip-yip!"
It was an interesting experience to see the city in the morning, after the excitement of the last few days had come to a close. As the sun rose over the mountains and light poured into the valleys at their feet, the people could be seen going about their daily lives as usual. The mail delivery system was back and running at twice the capacity, after having it put on hold (plus a small delay to fix a broken section of wall; the official cause was "collision by overweight packaging", though everyone knew better).
The group gathered where they had first landed; the great front stoop of the palace. As a few of Bumi's servants carried their things to Appa's saddle, plus some extra supplies, the Avatar and his friends gathered to say their farewells to the king.
"I wish you all a safe journey," Bumi said as he gave Aang a parting hug. "I only wish you could have stayed longer."
"I wish we could too...but hey, places to go, people to see. You know how it is," the Airbender shrugged with a grin.
Sokka grunted as he stretched the last hint of sleepiness from his muscles. "Ayep...Team Avatar's work is never done."
"Speak for yourself," Toph snorted. "I try to avoid work whenever possible." She bowed with a quick Earth Kingdom salute. "Anyway, nice hangin' around with ya, Bumi. Always good to kick dirt around with a cool old Earthbender."
The king let out a cackle of his own. "Right back atcha, girly. Keep practicing those moves...and I'm counting on you not to let Aang here get lazy."
"Hey!" protested the indignant Avatar. "I'm not lazy."
"You sure as heck aren't, Twinkletoes, because I'm around to make sure of it," Toph declared as she poked him in the rib.
"So am I," Katara grinned. "And someone's got some make-up Firebending homework to do."
"Aw, come on..." Aang groaned, though failed at suppressing a short laugh through it.
Watching this banter, Suki couldn't help but snicker. She leaned in to whisper to Sokka. "I doubt I could've picked better teachers for the Avatar."
The swordsman shrugged. "Hey, you picked a good boyfriend for yourself, right?"
"Well..." she teased with a grin, earning her a scoff and a nudge.
Ignoring the commentary behind him, Aang smiled toward his old friend. "We'll probably send a letter once we get to Ba Sing Se. We've got a long journey ahead of us, too."
"I can well imagine," Bumi snorted a laugh. "Say hello to Iroh for me. From what I hear from him, the White Lotus has quite a few plans for the world."
Katara and Aang exchanged glances, thinking the same thing. Maybe THAT could be the important thing that Iroh wants to tell us?
"Tell Captain Yung we said goodbye, too," Suki added, a thoughtful look coming to her eyes. "Hope the Dai Li won't bother Tian anymore."
"I'm sure Bumi will be able to take care of them if they do," Aang chuckled.
"Darn tootin'!" the old Earthbender cackled.
Once the goodbyes were said, the group quickly filed away on a bison that was quite eager to start flying again. With an ever-familiar "yip-yip", Appa leaped into the sky bearing the five young heroes, and as they waved farewell, Bumi watched on with pride in his heart for his long-time friend...as well as a small amount of sadness.
"So, how far to Haru's place?" Toph inquired after a while into the morning flight, her sightless eyes staring over the side of the saddle.
"Shouldn't be too far," Katara answered, looking over the landscape. Below them, past the patches of clouds, she could see the forests...they were nigh dominated by evergreen trees, but there among the trees of pine also littered patches and splashes of fiery orange and golden leaves, ready to be claimed by the next strong gust of wind. "I recognize most of this place."
"What's the story with Haru anyway?" Suki asked. "I know I got some of it before, but, it's fun to listen to everything you guys did."
"It wasn't much of what we did, it's what Katara did," Aang answered with a fond tone to his voice, which caused the noted Waterbender to blush slightly.
Toph snorted. "No surprise here. Another one of her epic rescue tales."
"Hey, we all helped," Sokka piped in.
"With a lot of complaining," Aang added.
"Well yeah," the warrior said, "It's my thing."
Suki laughed. "So tell me the story already!"
And so it was Katara who did, launching into it from the beginning...from meeting the young Earthbender who had to hide his talents, to his capture by the invading Fire Nation soldiers, to her own rescue of the entire prison barge.
Every so often, Aang or Sokka would cut in with commentary of their own. "It was amazing," the Airbender gushed, "Even when she was a hair away from getting cut down by Firebenders, she refused to give up hope."
"It was also very stupid," Sokka dryly stated, yet his face softened. "And very brave. I knew my sister had a strong sense of right, but I never would have thought that she'd do something like that."
"Giving hope to a whole big community of Earthbenders. Gee, Sweetness," Toph laughed with admiration, "If I were there, I'd have taken the whole army on and swallowed 'em up to their necks in mountain."
Still blushing, Katara laughed and shrugged. "I did what had to be done. It wasn't right, what was going on. Taking people away for Earthbending..." her gaze dropped, "They were doing the same thing that they had done to the Southern Water Tribe. And I felt responsible for putting our new friend in prison."
"It wasn't your fault," Aang pointed out. "Not really. That old guy shouldn't have ratted Haru out after you guys saved his life."
"Probably should have left him at the mine," Sokka sighed. "I mean, come on, from what you guys described, he seemed too old to have been one of the workers. What was he doing there anyway?"
That caused the others to pause, wondering the same thing. "You're right. He wasn't dressed for mine work, either, so he shouldn't have even wandered in," Katara pointed out.
"I wouldn't be surprised if he was searching for Earthbenders," the swordsman continued to surmise. "To give to the Fire Nation."
"Sokka, that's just silly," Aang's head shook. "I don't think it would have been like the Fire Nation to recruit old guys for spy work."
"Yeah it would," he argued. "It's perfect. Really, who'd suspect an old guy?"
"Jet did," Katara blatantly pointed out.
Sokka raised his hand, looking to argue, but then thought better of it after a pause. He grimaced in recognition of the irony, considering he had defended an old man in that same situation. "Yeah, you got a point," he conceded.
The Waterbender shrugged. "I guess it'll just always be a mystery. Anyway, the village is free, and the old guy's probably in jail for treason or something. Nothing for them to worry about now."
And so, Appa flew as swiftly as he was able to their next destination. Diligently rising and dodging over mountainous peaks, whizzing over the trees and the rivers, they finally came upon a familiar forest valley ringed by red stone hills.
If it was possible to tell from their steadily-dropping height, the mining village looked much happier and more prosperous than it had been the last time they saw it. There were no Fire Nation troops in sight, and they could see several people using their Earthbending to clear the mines or add new spots for houses. In fact, it had one of the highest concentrations of benders that they had seen in any one village, which they surmised had been behind the Fire Nation's need to seize it and exploit them. The thought made Katara sigh with relief that she and her friends had given the Earthbenders their freedom back.
Instead of landing in the forest this time, they landed right near the entrance to the town, their presence announced by Appa's thunderous bellow. Unlike at Kyoshi Island, they weren't greeted by an entire throng of people, but many passerby did stop and wave or cheer before going back to their business.
"This place looks different," Sokka noted as he hopped off the saddle. "Nice to see a cheerful Earth Kingdom village after so long."
Toph purposely landed hard, making sure she could catch every detail close by with her feet. "Looks and sounds nice enough," the girl surmised as she rested her arms behind her head. "But I wonder where Haru is."
"Eager to find the boy, Toph?" Suki teased. Immediately, she found herself falling backwards against Sokka as a rock "accidentally" came up to trip her.
The Blind Bandit snorted and pointed a finger towards her. "You gotta remember one of the group's fundamental rules, Fan-Girl. Don't tease the blind Earthbender. Besides, Haru's nice, but a bit old for my liking."
And Sokka wasn't? The Kyoshi Warrior thought with a light-hearted roll of her eyes as she hopped back to her feet.
"I bet it's just nice to have had another Earthbender in the group for a while," Katara supplied. "Other than Aang."
"Does Aang count?" Toph wondered aloud. "He's the Avatar, but he still wasn't born an Earthbender. And also, I taught him. I never taught Haru."
The noted Airbender chuckled as he gave his bison a thankful pat on the nose for delivering them to the village safely and quickly. "I can still bend earth, Toph. Anyway, c'mon guys, Haru might be at his mom's shop."
The five heroes were noticed a little more as they walked through the town and toward the shops, getting waves and friendly stares from the passers-by. Finally, they found the humble indoor stand and stepped inside. The sound of the squeaking door hinges, the bell ringing to announce their presence, and the dusty smell of the room combined with that of the produce inside...it was nostalgic, at least for the trio in the lead.
"I will be with you in a moment!" The distinctively strong voice of Haru's mother could be heard behind the counter; she had been crouched over, out of sight. "I am looking for something."
"Take your time, ma'am, there's no rush," Katara answered. In an instant, there was a pause in the shuffling, before the aging woman's head rose above it in shock.
"Spirits take us," she gasped, a smile taking over her weathered face (the children could hardly remember her smiling once the first time they'd met her). "Katara! And the Avatar!" She rose quickly and bowed. "It is an honor to see you again."
"How come nobody remembers me?" Sokka grumbled, but still followed the others as they walked up to the counter.
"It's good to see you too, ma'am," Aang smiled. "We haven't been here since the first time we came by."
"Back when the Fire Nation was still here," the woman sighed, still smiling as she wiped her dusty hands with a cloth. "I must tell you; I felt as if my life should have ended right then and there after Haru was taken. But, when both my son and my husband returned to the village with several of our old friends and drove out the soldiers, I could hardly believe my eyes. And the story they told..."
She shook her head and landed her softened gaze on the young heroes, though it centered on Katara. "I am sure you all have heard many thanks for saving the world...but you, Waterbender, I am indebted to for saving my world."
"Aw," Katara blushed, nervously parting her eyes to the side as she always did when wrapped with praise. "I did what I had to, that's all. I just couldn't leave Haru captured after it was somewhat my fault. And I couldn't have done it without Aang and Sokka."
In truth, Katara's heart was warmed, seeing the elation in the woman's eyes for their deeds. A mother shouldn't lose her child, or her husband.
"Of course," she gently beamed. "Nobody is left out of this great deed. But still, you had the idea, and for that, a grand share of the praise is yours. Now," the woman straightened up, "How long are all of you planning to stay? And why not introduce me to your friends here; I've heard much about them, too. Don't mind my running around, I have new supplies to put in their proper places," she said as she started sifting through things behind the counter.
"We're on a trip, so we're just sticking around for a day and night to catch up," Katara smiled and went on with the introductions. "This is Suki, leader of the Kyoshi Warriors...and this is Toph..."
"Don't let the eyes fool you," the young girl grinned. "I'm one of the strongest Earthbenders in the world."
"So I have heard," the mother stopped for a moment, eyes wide. "A Metalbender. I must say, if we had someone like you, there would have been much less trouble."
"She'd have taken down the whole prison ship!" Sokka laughed.
"Eh," Toph nonchalantly waved her hand, though secretly she enjoyed the praise. "Since you guys have your Earthbenders back, maybe I could show 'em a thing or two about Metalbending."
"Perhaps later," the woman chuckled. "I do hope you enjoy your stay. I wish I had room to offer, other than the barn, but they have built a small, comfortable inn across the way."
"The barn would be fine," Aang dismissed. "We can settle comfortably pretty much anywhere."
"By the way," Katara added, "Might I ask where Haru is? We'd like to say hi."
She chuckled. "He should be finishing up at the mines with Tyro. They'll be back for dinner. You're welcome to eat at the house."
"Whatcha having?" Sokka asked immediately, only to be nudged on the arm by Suki for his trouble.
"What he means is," Katara's eyes rolled, "We'd love to, provided we can help with things if you want."
"That would be welcome," the woman chuckled. "Normally I wouldn't allow you to, being esteemed guests here...but then again, how many of us can say that the kids who saved the world helped them make dinner?"
It wasn't long after the last plate was set on the table that night, before the door opened to admit two familiar Earthbenders; the smaller of the two was immediately pounced upon with surprise hugs from the friends that he never thought he'd see again for a long time. As the house filled with the chattering of children, Tyro wrapped an arm around his wife, and the two adults were just happy to see such a blessing in their home. Their heroic son, with the Avatar and the other world-renowned fighters and benders, with smiles that told of the joy the felt after an end to a war that lasted forever to many.
Once they finally settled at the table to eat, the five travelers told Haru of their journey so far. He'd listened with interest and a silenced breath when told about the fight at Gaoling, and with a mystified expression when told about the ancient, marred beauty of the Southern and Eastern Air Temples, and of the encounter with Wan Shi Tong. He had given Katara a look of concern when told of Hama and the memorial at the Southern Water Tribe for all of the Waterbenders captured and left to suffer a lifetime ago. Finally they passed the recent troubles with the Dai Li and the excitement surrounding King Bumi's tournament for the throne, and regaled him on their plans to visit Ba Sing Se, the Northern Air Temple, and finally the Northern Water Tribe.
"It sounds like a journey straight out of a legend," Tyro said, his awe hardly masked in his deep, gravely voice. "What many wouldn't give to see half of the things that you kids have seen."
"Yeah, and I thought invading the Fire Nation and seeing the Western Air Temple was an adventure," Haru sighed. "I really wish I could go with you guys."
"Why can't you?" Toph asked after loudly gulping down her drink.
"Yeah, you're a part of Team Avatar, too," Sokka pointed out, but brushed his chin with a hum. "Well, more like Team Avatar, Section B. Section A is me, Katara, and Aang."
"Hey, I'm no Section B," the Blind Bandit complained.
"Yeah, what does that make me, too?" Suki blinked.
"Um...a subsection of Section A?" the Water Tribe warrior nervously asked.
"Can't we just say we're all part of the same section, and leave it at that?" Katara's eyes rolled, then settled back on the other Earthbender. "But yeah, Haru, why don't you come?"
"Sadly, there's too much work to do around the villages yet," he informed. "There's a lot of talk going on about building newer machines to help with mining, and maybe trading with the Fire Nation in the colonies that they insist on keeping. I need to be here. But really, I'm happy to help. It feels good to be a part of a world that's changing for the better."
"Everyone does their part, I guess," Aang smiled. "It's still good to see all of our old friends again."
With that, they continued to eat and trade stories around the table, and before long it was time to settle in for the night. They'd needed an early start to make for Ba Sing Se.
"Hey, Katara...you got a minute?"
The Waterbender looked up from spreading her sleeping bag on the ground of the barn while the others tried to keep Appa from eating the hay. Haru was standing next to the door.
She nodded and smoothed the blanket one last time before approaching the Earthbender. "What's up?"
"I'm just wondering," he sighed and crossed his arms; it was the first time that she'd seen him looking anything close to sheepish. "My dad gave me this funny suggestion that I ask you to come back once you're done with your journey. Considering you're the town's hero and one of the world saviors and all..."
"He thinks I'd make a good match for you," she finished for him with a quirked eyebrow.
He laughed. "Yeah, though I think he was halfway-joking. And I have to admit, I was somewhat fascinated with you after we first met, but long ago I noticed that you and Aang seem to have something special between you." The Earthbender let his arms fall with a light smile. "Just wanted to know if I was right."
Katara's smile back was friendly and warm, the same smile she gave long ago after they freed the imprisoned villagers. "Yeah, you're completely right." She turned her head back to Aang as he unhitched his bison's saddle and laid it on the ground. The Waterbender held up the wrist that still held the tiny beaded Air Nomad bracelet. "We're together. And honestly, I was fascinated with you once, too, but really as a friend and an Earthbender. Aang has always been something much more to me."
When she looked back up to Haru, she replaced her dream-struck smile with a grin. "So, sorry, this girl's happily taken."
Haru laughed. "I figured so. I'm glad you guys are happy together. Maybe someday I'll have that, too."
She rested a hand on his shoulder. "I know you will. One thing...I'd get rid of the mustache."
His eyes rolled. "Just go get some sleep."
"Sure thing," she snickered. "G'night, Haru."
They waved their farewells, and Katara turned back into the barn just as Aang was setting up the saddle cushions as his own bed, and pulled the Waterbender's sleeping bag up into it as a second thought. He caught her gaze as she returned. "Haru wanted to say goodnight?" he inquired.
"Yeah," she nodded and stepped in to help. "It's real funny coming here again. So many memories of our past adventures," her gaze roamed to the dark roof of the barn, the surroundings only visible in the limited glowing of the lanterns. "It makes me wonder what would have happened if some things still hadn't gone as well as I'd hoped."
His look softened. "Like, if that rescue hadn't worked? I think I'd have stayed with you, if you got captured."
"I'd have told you to run while you had the chance," she whispered.
The Avatar leaned closer. "And I wouldn't have, not until they pried me away from you."
"You were more important than me."
"And yet I wouldn't have accomplished anything without you."
She met Aang's eyes, and saw the unending depths of sincerity within. Every single time she was reminded of his care, it gave her heart more than a passing ache of gratitude for fate, and more than a tiny shudder in her breath.
Her head shook. "Aang, sometimes I wonder how it's possible that I could love you more than the last time I said so. And yet, I do, every time."
"I probably have more room for love in my heart, too," he chuckled and brushed her cheek with his fingers.
He felt her blush, but she snorted all the same. "More room for cheesiness, too."
"Always," the Airbender grinned back and leaned in to kiss her.
But the contact with each other's lips was short-lived, since a pillow rocketed up and slammed into both of their heads. "How about you two quit making me sick so I can get some sleep?" Sokka whined.
"Stop your yelling so I can sleep, Boomerang Butt!" Toph growled.
"ALL of you stop yelling!" Suki roared in a whisper. "Sheesh."
Katara sighed loudly and tossed the pillow back on Sokka's head, falling into a fit of giggles with Aang as they again fell asleep entwined in each other's arms.