Katara had been blown backwards by what seemed like an explosion without fire. Maybe this was what a sonic blast was? The ground was shaking and her ears were ringing but she was otherwise unharmed. The maze walls had all collapsed, leaving them in a wide flat clearing full of lumps where the hedges used to be. The Akuma disappeared it a puff of smoke and a little girlish sigh, which seemed like a completely anti-climatic end to the freakiest thing she had ever seen. She got up and looked around for Zuko. He was lying on his back a little way away from her. She ran over as fast as her legs would carry her. He groaned and was starting to sit up, so he was okay. She wanted to hug him and shake him and kiss him all at once. She settled for flinging herself at him and holding him close. He sighed into her hair. It was a big heaving sigh of relief. He was fine, she was fine. They were both fine.
But they'd failed. He'd smashed the vase when they'd been so close. Katara knew the main entrance had only been a few seconds away from that dead end, she'd seen it out of the corner of her eye as she'd been running. But Zuko had smashed it, when they'd only been seconds away from success. They had come so far and done so much to fail on the last task.
"Why did you do that you silly goose?" She mumbled into his shoulder, but she held him all the tighter.
"I couldn't let it hurt you." Zuko softly mumbled into her ear. Katara kissed his cheek in response. He was so protective and so sweet and so stupid sometimes. She wouldn't have him any other way. Of course kissing his cheek led to kissing his mouth and then they started making out in earnest. It was an intense and passionate kiss. Which led to many more intense and passionate kisses. It seemed like the logical thing to do after have a life or death experience with a horrible ugly monster that could've eaten one of them. "You are such an idiot. We've come so far." She said when they broke away for a second. A sweet, lovable, courageous idiot who she adored, she thought as she ran her hands through his hair.
"I need you more that I need an answer." He said quietly, not meeting her eyes. That was a serious emotional pronouncement coming from Zuko. He never liked to admit he needed anything. But he'd chosen her over the chance to find his mother and Katara, for once, didn't know what to say. Were they at the serious emotional pronouncements stage already?
They heard a polite cough coming from the side of the clearing. Tim shuffled towards them before she could open her mouth to say a serious emotional pronouncement of her own. The monkey was looking almost apologetic. If Katara had sent someone into a crazy maze to fight a giant fire monster, she'd be pretty damn apologetic too.
"Well, that's very nice to hear Angry Pants… but you'll still get your answer." Tim said with a smile and made a slight bow in their direction.
"But we failed. I failed, I broke the vase." Zuko said a little disbelievingly.
"Yes you did, because you valued your friend's safety more than anything I could tell you." Tim said profoundly. The monkey sounded much older and bigger and more majestic. The full weight of his words hit Katara.
"You're the Oracle!" she burst out, completely with finger pointing and an incredibly surprised face. No way! Tim their talking monkey in pants was an Oracle older than time and said to know all things. She thought an Oracle would be much more impressive. Or if not impressive, maybe old and wise and kind like Aunt Wu, who had a warmth about her that reminded Katara of her Gran Gran. She'd never expected an Oracle to be a silly, sarcastic and cheeky talking monkey.
"I thought the oracle would be bigger. More impressive." She couldn't help herself. The words just came out. Tim gave her a condescending look.
"Yes, well not withstanding my lack of impressiveness Crazy girl," he said in her direction with his usual snarkiness. He raised his arms and their bags sailed towards them. The grass under them became softer and grew over the lumps where the hedges had been and there was no sign of the huge maze that had been there a second ago.
"I am the Oracle." He announced regally and looking a little smug at his Oracle abilites. "I know I have put you two through some…err…trying situations. I decided long ago, if every a firelord came to me again, they would have to bloody well earn their answer and prove a few things to me…." He paused and took a deep breathe and gave Zuko a long look. Zuko was looking a bit confused.
"I'm not the first firelord who's come here?" he asked curiously. Tim sighed and took a moment to collect himself before confessing.
"I answered a question for a firelord… a long time ago… It didn't work out so great for anybody involved." The monkey said and looked sadly away into the distance again. Katara could almost swear he muttered friggin Sozin under his breath, but she couldn't be sure.
The monkey coughed and the raise himself up to his full height. He turned to Zuko and placed both hands on his shoulders and started speaking quiet solemnly.
"I needed to be sure that you could co-operate with others for a common goal even when you were annoyed with them. I needed to know if you would think creatively about the problems that presented themselves to you. I needed to be sure that whatever answer I gave you wouldn't result in suffering for the whole world. That you would put other's needs before your own in your quest for power…."
"Power? What? This isn't about power" Zuko looked supremely confused at this turn of the conversation and couldn't contain himself from interrupting in surprise. Tim stopped abruptly and lowered his hands and stared and Zuko in a very baffled fashion.
"It's not?" Tim asked looking confused as well. More confused than Zuko. More confused than someone who had wandered into the wrong class and only realized they were studying marital arts and not martial arts halfway through the lesson.
"No." Zuko replied looking equally bemused.
"Are you sure?" Tim asked in the same manner that you would ask someone "are you ill?"
"Yes, I'm bloody sure." Zuko fired back, sounding a little cranky now.
"But you are the new Firelord…" Tim said with an expansive hand gesture as if that would explain everything. It didn't. Tim did the gesture again for reasons Katara couldn't fathom. He waggled his hands above his head in a gesture that was obviously meant to mimic a crown. Zuko just stared at him. Tim cleared his throat and looked around, almost embarrassed.
"Oh…I had assumed you had come to find out something power related….and probably vaguely evil…like how to maintain firenation dominance in these changing times or….How to stay on top…rule your unruly country…crush enemies… obliterate cities…how to bend lightning into the shape of a moose lion….that sort of thing." At each suggestion, Zuko had shaken his head and now the monkey was looking at him in open amazement.
"No. I wanted to ask you where my mother was." Zuko said evenly, almost hopefully.
The monkey looked truly flabbergasted for the first time ever. Then he burst into the loudest laugh Katara had ever heard. It gave her a bit of a fright actually. She jumped out of her skin. Judging from the way Tim was rolling around on the grass and clutching his sides in mirth, Zuko had just made the funniest joke that he had ever heard, possibly the funniest joke in the history of the entire universe. Tim laughed so hard he was almost crying. Interspersed through the laugh, Katara could almost catch intelligible phrases.
"Your mother…this was about your mother! ….All that…for a mother…I put you in the Pit of Despair and you just wanted to find your mum. Faced an Akuna! Labyrinth of dread! Mother!" After what seemed like a very long time a while the monkey's laughter died down. He was almost wheezing from too much laughter and he was still slightly chuckling to himself as he sat up to face them. Zuko looked like he was about to explode with crankiness.
"I'd have only made you cross the mystic bridge if I'd know this was about your mother." Tim said flippantly, in what he obviously believed was a helpful and calming fashion. It wasn't helpful. It wasn't calming. Zuko turned an even angrier shade of red than he had been previously and Katara thought it looked like steam was coming out his ears.
"You made us fight a crazy Akuma monster for no reason what so ever!" he practically shouted at the monkey.
"Yes. But you shouldn't be too upset about that, you're both still alive." Tim replied breezily before adding, "Would it help if I told you the monsters work on a similar premise to the Mystical bridge? It is only your perception of them that you were fighting?" he explained smugly.
This wasn't helpful at all. Zuko blinked twice then got up abruptly and walked a long way off. Katara could hear his loud AAAAAAARRRRRGGGGGHHHH as he let off a primal scream of frustration and two huge fireblasts from his fist. She used her remaining water to bend a big iceball around Tim. She couldn't tell which one of them was crosser with the monkey at the moment, but judging from the amount of foot stamping and swearing coming from Zuko's part of the field she was probably the calmer one out of the two of them. She hadn't been as invested in this quest as he was. She'd really only come along to keep him company. After he'd stamped and yelled and bended out a large part of his frustration he wandered back.
"You okay?" she asked as she took his hand as he sat back down.
"Yeah, I'm good now." Zuko said flatly before turning his gaze back to Tim. "You bended him in an ice ball?" he asked quizzically.
"Seemed fair." Katara shrugged.
"Would you mind releasing me now Crazy Girl? How can I find Angry Pant's mother from a ball of ice?" Tim said sounding a little irritated. Katara looked at Zuko and he nodded. She unfroze the monkey. He rubbed his arms fast.
"Now, do you have anything of your mother's? It will help me find her presence." Tim said looking directly at Zuko.
"No" Zuko replied moodily.
"Yes, you do. Yourself. You are her son are you not?" the Monkey said in his normal tone. "Give me your hand." Zuko, who still looked a bit cross, gave his hand to their monkey rather reluctantly. Tim closed his eyes and held Zuko's hand for a second. "Think about your mother." Zuko sighed and closed his eyes too."It might be hard to find her. I don't even know what happened to her. I don't know if she's alive or…" Zuko started to explain, but Tim interrupted him.
"Your mother is alive and in good health." Tim said with an undeniable amount of certainty as he dropped Zuko's hand. Zuko's face lit up with this incredibly hopeful, happy and relieved look and Katara felt like her heart was full to bursting. All the horrible things they had gone through had been worth it. It was worth it for her just to see such an expression of joy on his face. She wrapped an arm around him and he grinned at her like he almost couldn't believe he'd gotten such good news. "She's really alive." He almost whispered to her.
"Yes she is." Tim said with what could almost be described as a gentle smile in their direction. He walked away from them a little bit. He turned around and faced them and raised his arms up like he was making a proclamation.
"She is on a refugee boat in full moon bay. She is making her way to you as fast as she can, but her life since leaving the capital has left her with little means to travel, she does not have the aid of a navy fleet or a flying bison or a war ballon. She wishes to see you in person and she has things to tell you that she feels she cannot write you in a letter… You have both gotten used to travelling great distances rather quickly. You have forgotten how long it actually takes to get from here" Tim said as he started turning in a circle and energy crackled around him… "to there." He lowered his arms and they were back in their original clearing on the very far side of the mystical bridge. Katara looked around herself in astonishment. They were back exactly where they started, with their bags and their belongings. They'd done days of walking in the blink of an eye. Maybe Tim really was an impressive Oracle after all.
"I believe she will arrive before the first winter moon." Tim said regally before looking at Zuko offering a small bow. Zuko, almost despite himself, offered a little bow back. Well that was that then. Quest completed. Zuko looked at her and smiled and she smiled back. They communicated wordlessly in times like this and started preparing to leave. They got up and stretched and put on their packs. He reached out his hand to her and Katara took it and they turned to leave.
"Wait, what about the Crazy Girl?" Tim asked suddenly giving Katara an odd look. Did Katara get a question too? She thought they only got one between them. Huh? What would she ask? She didn't really know. Maybe she should ask something grand and important. But there was only one question she wanted to know the answer to, but she didn't think Tim would be able to give her the answer to that.
"Oh no, I'm just here for Zuko." Katara said finally and gave his hand a squeeze.
"Yes I know that." Tim said quietly looking at their clasped hands. The Monkey raised his head and looked at her with a very fond expression. It was disconcerting to see such a kind expression on the face of the monkey who had exasperated her no end. He gestured for her to come closer and despite herself she did. She sat down in front of him so they were eye level.
"There's a question that you are not asking me, young Crazy Girl. If you were to ask it I would tell you…" here he paused and gave her a conspiratorial wink and leaned forward to whisper in her ear softly.
"In your heart, you already know."
And he stood back a smiled at her and bowed at Zuko and stretched out his arms. There was a little puff of smoke and just like that, their wise monkey Oracle disappeared with a noise that sounded like a twinkle, or it could have been a sigh.
She and Zuko walked hand in hand in the direction of the town they'd passed through only days ago. It seemed a lifetime ago to Katara. So much had changed in such a short time. They were taking a while to get back into the town. They planned to stay in the inn overnight and make their way back to the palace tomorrow. If they ever made it to the town that is. Their progress through the woods was slow. They may have stopped repeatedly to have a bit of a kiss, a bit of a grope, a bit of a cuddle. It was so new to Katara, being able to kiss him whenever she wanted to. It turned out she wanted to kiss him quite frequently. It turns out he felt the same. She didn't know what would happen when they got back to the Palace. But for now, just being with him and feeling his hand in hers was enough was enough for her.
Before long, it had gotten dark and they were walking by the light of Zuko's firebending. He held a bright flame aloft with one hand and never let go of her hand with his other. He gave her hand a squeeze and she squeezed back. Push and pull. Katara looked at Zuko, a felt a surge of love wash through her, like the turning of the tide. It was a powerful and unstoppable force of nature. Katara had been wondering if this could last. If she and Zuko would be good for each other. Tim was surprisingly right about one thing.
In her heart, she already knew the answer.
Author's note: Lovely readers! We have come to the end of this crazy quest together and if you are still reading this, then thank you! If you feel the urge to leave a review! Do not fight it! Give into the urge. Reviews make me smile! I sincerely hope you've enjoyed reading this. I had a blast writing it. I offer you a big smile and a big cheers and a big congratulations -you've made it to the end!
Regarding Tim: So he's been the oracle all along! Some of you are super clever and guessed this! I actually really kinda like the crazy monkey when I was writing him, even though I know Katara and Zuko wouldn't agree with me. Tim was just messing with them a lot of the time. If I was an all powerful mystical monkey and had two such delightful young heroes who kept insisting they were just friends, I'd probably do a little messing too! Tim's made mistakes in the past (friggin Sozin) so now he really likes to test character. But he also recognizes that our dynamic duo has a deep bond long before they do. And he's a big romatic softie at heart.
For those of you who are wondering what happens next:
My head is currently full of plot bunnies about what happens immediately after the quest. One of these I have already written (a series of unfortunate naked mishaps). I may get around to writing the first meeting between Katara and Zuko's mum (who will be a touch overly protective after her long absence and there will be drama and shenanigans and someone will be whacked with a giant trout). I have a few ideas in my head for a sequel in which Katara will get a mad 'questy' idea of her own and Zuko will follow her. It may be called Katara's adventure with Mr grumpy pants misery guts. It will be a similar sort of crazy adventure and hopefully much fun will be had by all.
And thank you for reading!