Part VI : Magic
She was darting around their heads as they wandered through town looking for somewhere to eat, touching down on one soldier and jumping to another, flying a little ahead and then looping back.
"Will you do something about that bird?" Toph said testily, batting the catowl away when she came near. "She's driving me crazy!"
Aang's brow furrowed. "Maybe I should go back and check on Appa…" He held his arms out to Kala when she came near, but she darted away towards Katara and yanked at her braid with her teeth.
"You guys go eat, I'll go back," the waterbender said, rubbing at the back of her head as she trained a scolding look on her pet. "I'm sure it's nothing, she probably just wants to show me a dead badger frog or something."
Sokka and Aang shared a look as she turned around and headed back, causing Toph to roll her head back and sigh.
"Seriously, you guys? She's a master waterbender and she kicks more butt then both of you put together. She'll be fine."
Appa was napping when Katara reached him. He opened one eye for a moment before closing it again as she reached out to pat his head. Everything was calm and quiet, no danger to be seen.
Kala landed on the bison's head and gave a loud, plaintive whine that started as meow and ended in a hoot. Appa groaned and shook his head, causing her to flutter her wings, treading air for a moment before landing back down once he stilled. She then meowed again, nipping at his ear insistently. With a reluctant huff Appa opened his eyes and yawned, giving up on his nap.
"What is it, girl?" Katara asked. "What do you want?"
Kala turned her head towards the forest and yowled low in her throat, flapping her wings impatiently. She was becoming more and more stressed by the second and a cold sense of dread shot through Katara's veins.
Quickly she climbed onto the bison's back, took the reins, and gave a "yip yip." As Appa took to the air Kala flew ahead.
"Follow her, boy."
They soared over the forest, Appa having to go top speed to keep up with Kala's flight. The forest beneath her was awash in green and buzzing with life now that it was spring and the dead patch where the ship rested was easy to spot.
She directed Appa downwards as they reach the clearing. The closer they got the more certain she was that something was wrong.
Everything around the ship, the vines and flowers that had flourished in the dead of winter, was dying.
The moment Appa reached the ground Katara jumped off, her heart beating frantically.
"Kala, what's going on?"
The bird took off, lapping the clearing wildly, calling and hooting. Appa stamped his feet, Kala's distress contagious.
"Shh, it's okay Appa," Katara said softly over her shoulder as she approached the ship.
Her eyes followed Kala's flight as the cat-owl swooped nervously above the deck. The last time she was here she had climbed the vines up, but now they were so dry and brittle it was impossible.
Not seeing any other way, Katara whistled for Appa. The bison took a few steps forward, before stopping and shrinking back.
"Appa, come on," Katara ordered, tugging gently on his fur, but he wouldn't budge.
The sound of something knocking against metal made her look back – Kala had pushed a rope over the side. Katara took a step towards it but stopped when Appa groaned.
She patted the bison's nose and assured him that she would come right back before climbing up on deck as quickly as she could, her muscles regretting every moment that she had allowed herself to slack in her training regime recently.
Once on board she headed straight for the command tower but found that the outer door was stuck shut. She tried the mess hall door instead and with after a few hard tugs it came open. Katara's hands flew over her nose and mouth – the dank air inside was heavy with the stench of rotting vegetation.
Kala darted across the room to the stairwell and Katara pressed forward, freezing a path through the sludge with a swipe of her hand. She skidded across and ran up the steps, boots clanging against the metal. She let Kala lead the way, not certain where she was going or what she was looking for.
She halted at a landing when Kala made a sharp turn down one of the narrow corridors – an orange glow came from an open doorway, offering the faintest of illumination. She hurried towards it and froze at what she saw before rushing inside.
There limp on the floor was the demon, yellow licks of light flickering over his naked form.
The room was sweltering. Katara felt beads of sweat forming on the back of her neck as she struggled to roll over his massive form.
"Spirit… Spirit!" She felt the shallow movement of his chest under her hand. "Wake up!" she demanded, shaking his shoulders.
"Oh no… Iroh! Iroh!" she called desperately, looking around for some sign that someone, anyone else was around, even that grumpy rabbit squirrel they called Admiral Jee.
But there was no one, save Kala who was calmly watching some feet away. Desperate, Katara uncapped her water skin and gloved her hand in water but then faltered. She didn't know where or what to heal. Could she even heal a something from the spirit world? At a loss, she instead splashed the water on his face, hoping to bring him back to consciousness.
Gold eyes blinked up at her and her heart skipped a beat.
"Oh thank you La," she whispered.
He breathed in and out shallow and heavy. "Katara?"
"Yes." She placed her hand against his cheek and traced the white ridged patterns. "Yes. It's me."
His eyes closed again. "Is this the spirit world?"
"No, it isn't. You're still here. You're…" she swallowed thickly, shifting so his head was cradled in her lap. "You're okay."
The Spirits eyelids began to droop closed again.
"Hey," the waterbender said, "Stay with me." She shifted a little, reaching into her pocket for something. "I got the Pai Sho tile you sent me." She held it above him in his range of sight; though he opened his eyes they didn't focus on it, instead looking beyond it to her eyes.
"I missed you." It was faint and strained, as if every breathe was a struggle. She didn't know when her tears began but they were flowing freely now, hot and thick. She felt wetness on the Spirits cheeks, as well, when he closed his eyes and leaned into the hand that still rested against the side of his face.
She shook her head furiously. "No! Just tell me what it is, I can help. I'll find a way..."
He opened his eyes and looked up at her, but didn't answer right away. At last he gave a fangy smile and used what looked to be all that was left of his strength to lift one massive blue hand and ever so gently brush her hair behind her ear.
"I'm thankful for you," he murmured.
Katara took his hand in both of hers. He's wearing my bracelet, she noted vaguely as she placed the Pai Sho tile in his palm and closed his fingers around it.
"I'm thankful for you, too." Her voice shuddered as a violent sob wracked through her chest as she murmured it against his loosely clenched fingers;. She then pressed a soft kiss in the space between each knuckle, silently begging him not to go.
He let out a sigh, content but full of longing, as if with that breathe every pain he ever felt was at last let go, and closed his eyes for the final time.
He was gone.
Katara let the hand she clutched fall, and buried her face into her own. She couldn't breath, she didn't want to it hurt so much. Why hadn't she come back sooner?
Eventually the insistent hooting of Kala could no longer be ignored, and when Katara finally raised her tear-swollen eyes she gasped.
The demon's body was glowing from within, an ethereal blue light just beneath the skin spreading and growing in intensity. And it was warm, so warm that Katara had to scramble away as it became too hot to bare just moments before the body caught flame.
"What on earth…?" But Katara didn't have time to speculate as the fire rapidly spread, catching anything it could and melting what it couldn't. She had to get out, so she rand, the heat from the blue flame licking at heals.
She raced down the corridor and started down the now-blistering hot stairwell but stopped when she caught sight of more flames blocking her way. She looked up and saw Kala flying towards the observation deck – there was no where else to go.
Once there she caught sight of Appa outside, hovering in the air, fearful but reluctant to leave her. She summoned what water she had left and tore whatever water was left in the dieing fire-roses and used it to clear away the already cracked panes of glass.
"Appa!" she called out, Kala already flying out to him. "Come here boy!"
The bison flew as close to the tower as he could. Katara climbed up and crouched in the window frame, her adrenalin pumping so high she didn't feel it when she slashed open her palm on a shard of glass. With a deep, steadying breath in, and out, she called again.
"Just a little close Appa, come on"
The bison hovered forward, lining himself up so his saddle was directly across from her. Don't look down, she thought to herself, tensing in preparation to make the leap. Suddenly the entire metal structure groaned and shifted forward - Katara nearly fell forward but caught herself, and without another moment's hesitation through herself away tower.
For a split second she was suspended in air, a giddy weightlessness tingling through her limbs, before gravity took hold and slammed her hard into the saddle. Hardly had she managed push herself up into a sitting position, right hand dripping blood and right shoulder aching where she landed on it at an awkward angle, then Appa was off, flying as fast he could away from the ship.
Katara peered over the side of the saddle – the hot glow of blue fire spread steadily outward at an unnatural speed, racing down the vines that covered the outside of the ship. Soon it would overtake the entire clearing.
She would have fearful of a forest fire if not for the certainty that this flame was not of the natural world.
"Appa, hold up." She climbed to his reins, doing her best to avoid using her right arm. "Appa, slow!" She tugged hard on the reins with one hand and he came a reluctant stop in air.
The clearing was left well in the distance but the blue glow had risen so high and was so blinding it was probably visible as far as in town.
"Kala?" the girl called, realizing that she was missing. "Kala!" The catowl was nowhere to seen.
Appa groaned, unwilling to stay put for any longer, and again flew forward, back to from where they came.
They were waiting for her outside of town, Sokka pacing angrily with his boomerang while Toph lounged in the grass crunching on candied nuts and Aang tried unsuccessfully to meditate.
They asked her where she went. They asked her what happened to her hastily bandage hand. They asked her where Kala was.
She told them to climb on, that Appa seemed eager to get going.
Even Sokka was able to intuit that she had no intention of telling them what happened, and as she seemed mostly unharmed and as nagging and motherly as ever, they let the matter drop. Maybe they didn't want to know.
For weeks they roved the western Earth Kingdom where Fire Nation emigrants and their descendants were most likely to be found. They ran into few fire benders – it was usually only non-benders who made their way from the islands, seeking better opportunities in a society that didn't favor those who could bend so much more highly than those who couldn't, as the Fire Nation did.
They were beginning to discuss moving on to the Fire Nation in their search, even with the hostilities it extended increasing, when rumors about the reappearance of a lost city first reached their ears.
It was an out of the way place, Yaojing Shen, somewhere between the size of a town and a city, and had, according to the cabbage merchant Katara spoke to, mysteriously vanished years ago. It was spirited away by spirits angered and offended by the inhabitants' mercantile approach to worship, or at least so went the prevailing theory.
Because Yaojing Shen had until seven years ago been a sort of mecca of spirituality, they were later able to gather from some passersby after Aang and Toph had driven the cabbage merchant away by accidentally destroying the bulk of his produce with their impromptu bending battle (Katara apologized profusely and paid for the damages with some of the money Toph had "borrowed" from her parents), and superstition was its main export before its disappearance.
"How did I not hear about this when it happened?" Aang asked when they gathered in the local inn that evening.
Toph flick a piece of dirt she had picked from between her toes at him, earning a pointless glare from Katara. "Probably cause you were still a little kid when it happened."
Aang grimaced and wiped the dirt off his cheek – Toph had amazing aim for a blind girl.
"But I'm the Avatar, the link between the spiritual and physical worlds. It should have been… I don't know…. Brought to my attention."
"Oh, look who's mister dutiful all of a sudden," the blind girl teased.
"It was seven years ago," Katara interceded, "You were only ten or eleven when it happened, and most of the world didn't know who the Avatar was yet – they still don't. You're still in training."
Aang pouted and looked sulkily towards the door where a couple only a few years older than them came in and went upstairs to their room, not giving the group a second glance.
He sat up, seeming to have come to a decision. "Well, I am the Avatar, and whether the world knows it or not I have a duty to it. We should go to the city and check on it."
"See if there's any Avatarring needing to be done?" Toph drawled.
Katara wondered to herself when it was exactly that he had come to embrace his responsibilities so. Was it something to do with – her heart throbbed, dull and painful, and she didn't finish the thought.
During all this Sokka was busy studying a map – or at least, he had been at first. He seemed to have found what he was looking for some time ago, but remained oddly quiet.
"So," Aang said, turning to the water tribe warrior. "Did you find where Yaojing Shen used to be? Or, I guess, is again?"
Sokka nodded. "Yeah, I found it." He pointed to a spot on the old map he had borrowed from the innkeeper.
Aang and Katara both shuffled over to look over his shoulder while Toph collapsed back on the floor with an exaggerated sigh.
Katara heard Aang's breath catch in his throat.
"Well…?" Toph asked pointedly when the silence dragged on too long for her liking.
"South," Katara said smoothly before either of the boys could speak. "It's about halfway between where we are now and Gaoling. We stopped at a village not far from it the morning after we left your parents', remember?"
The younger girl relaxed, satisfied with the answer, but then abruptly sat back up.
"You mean the day that you went missing for like three hours and Sokka almost had a brain aneurism?"
The room became unbearably tense, everyone's eyes trained on Katara.
"Yes," she said at last, indicating clearly with her tone that that was all she had to say on the matter.
"You know," Aang said gently, placing a hand on Katara's shoulder, "We don't have to go if you don't-"
"Yes we do," she cut him off. "More than ever, now, we need to figure out what happened. You need to figure out what happened." She placed her hand over Aang's and squeezed it before removing it from her shoulder. "It's your duty."
And with that she left, going up the stairs to her room.
Katara sat in her bed, reading by candlelight. Since that morning she had read every page of the book of spirit-tales Iroh had given her, as if they would hold some answers.
Iroh, or at least she assumed it had been Iroh, had marked a particular story. It was about the son of rich merchants who ran afoul a river goddess while traveling alone for the first time on business for his parents and was turned into an oni.
And there it ended, a cautionary tale about irresponsibility, or disrespect, or maybe public nudity – Katara didn't care. Whether or not her Spirit has once been human he was gone now, dead.
There was a knock at the door. Katara put the book aside.
"Who is it?" she called towards the door. She got up from the bed and began to try to make herself presentable, fumbling for a dressing robe, but stopped when she heard Aang's voice answer 'It's me.'
"Oh." She sat back down. "Come in."
The door creaked open and the monk stepped in, closing the door softly behind him.
"Can I help you with something?" Katara asked, her hands folded serenely in her lap. It came out much colder and more formal than intended, but she really wasn't in the mood for a conversation right now.
"I wanted to make sure you were okay."
He was still so earnest, even now at eighteen, but his eyes were heavier, wiser, than they had been just a year ago when they first left the South Pole.
"I'm fine, Aang, just tired is all," she answered, softening a little as she always did in his presence.
He looked at her, the corners of his mouth quirked down ever so sightly as they always did when concerned about something.
He broke his gaze and looked down, bringing a hand to rub at the back of neck.
"You've been so distant ever since that morning." They both knew what morning he was referring to.
Katara stiffened again.
"Look, I know you don't want to talk about it, but I think you should tell me." He looked up at her again, his face serious. "If not as your friend then as your Avatar. It was something to do with that demon, wasn't it?"
Now it was Katara's turn to look down.
"He dead now." She couldn't keep the bitterness from seeping into her voice. "He shouldn't be a problem for anyone anymore."
"Is that it? There isn't anything else you know that might help me figure out what happened with Yaojing Shen?"
The waterbender shook her head, thoughts somewhere far away.
"I'm really tired Aang. We should both go to sleep." She didn't wait for him to leave before crawling into bed and curling up on her side with her back to the door.
His light footsteps could be heard shuffling to the door and then the doorknob turning.
"I promise I really am okay," she said, still facing away from him. She could almost feel him nodding for a moment before opening the door and then pulling it shut behind him, again being careful to do it softly.
It was unrecognizable, and if not for Sokka's navigation skills and assurances that 'yes, this is it, this is the place', Katara wouldn't have believed that this bustling town crowding the sparkling bay could possibly have been the same place as the overgrown wilderness she had spent months overlooking from the prow of a deteriorating ship.
The forest edged right up against the city, and Aang searched for a place to land Appa amongst the trees or buildings. Luckily word that the Avatar intended to make a visit traveled quickly, Yaojing Shen being host to more visitors than ever as scores of relatives eager to find those they had thought lost forever along with curious sightseers made their way by foot or boat to the rediscovered town. The Avatar and his friends were flagged down by several citizens who had cleared a space in the town center.
The moment they were landed and Aang had hopped down from Appa's back the Avatar was overtaken by fawning and thanks.
"Thank you for saving us, Avatar."
"We don't know what you did, but you have our eternal gratitude."
"Here, my signature appleberry fruit tart, as a token of gratitude for intervening with the spirits and releasing us from that horrible limbo."
Aang, to his credit, demurred and tried to explain that he didn't really have anything to do with whatever it was that ended whatever had happened for whatever reason to the town, but he couldn't help but go wide eyed at the sight and smell of the gifts being offered.
"Don't thank him," Toph called, landing with a harder-than-necessary thud that reverberated through the ground enough to cause a few members of their welcome party to almost topple over. "He didn't even know you guys were missing until after you had already showed up again."
Aang looked up from the baked good held in front of his face, over which he had been nearly salivating, and rubbed his neck sheepishly.
"She's right," he admitted. "I don't know what happened – I'm just as lost as everyone else."
The matron who had offered him the tart furrowed her brow.
"But, you are the Avatar, aren't you?"
"Yes, I am. But I haven't finished my training yet. Plus, when this first happened I didn't even know I was the Avatar yet."
When there was a disappointed murmuring amongst the crowd and motions were made to leave, Aang quickly spoke again, hating to disappoint people.
"Wait!" he called, putting on his most Avatar-y face. "I may not have completed my training yet, but I am here to help you in any way I can in this trying time as you reassimilate, and to serve as a, uh, spiritual... consultant?"
"So do you know why this happened to us?" asked a man in the middle of the crowd, quickly followed by a rumble of yeah's and what did we do's.
"Um, well, we, my friends and I, we did encounter some sort of demon in this area several months ago..."
For most of this Katara had remained out of the way on Appa's saddle, allowing Aang to try his hand at speech making – it really was her forte, but if he was going to be the Avatar he'd need to practice. Sokka had already climbed down and was helping himself to some fruit tarts when from the corner of her eye Katara caught a glimpse of a familiar shade of blue.
Her head immediately jerked in its direction and she saw for a split moment that it was a mask, ultramarine blue with bright white fangs and horns, before it was blocked by the body of the person carrying it as they disappeared around a corner.
Noting the preoccupation of her friends Katara quickly slipped down the other side of Appa and ducked around the crowd in the direction the figure went.
She searched the street, eyes darting amongst the few people milling about. The atmosphere was subdued and nervous, the populace still disoriented and unsure of the reality of their surroundings, but gamely making motions towards reestablishing their businesses and lives.
He wasn't too difficult to spot, though he was some distance ahead of her – it was summer now and there weren't many others about wearing hooded cloaks in such weather. Katara dashed after, increasing her speed when he went down another alley lest she lose him. Barely hearing their alarmed yelps at nearly being bowled over by a blur of blue she weaved through the groups of men and women in her way, determined to catch up to whoever it was that held that mask, that face that still haunted her dreams and made her heartache with mourning.
The alley was deserted by the time she skidded to a stop in front of it, but there on the stoop of the shack at the end of the street was the blue spirit mask, carefully balanced against a step, like an offering. Katara rushed towards it and grabbed it with both hands – she could hear her heart beating in her ears and he nostrils flared as she took in deep breaths while her eyes roamed greedily, desperately over the face.
Tearing her eyes away from the mask, she looked around for any clues as to where the figure went – she had to ask them, ask them what? Where it came from? What they knew? How they had it and why they had it and who did they think they were just leaving it there?
Luckily there were footsteps leading from the back of the shack into the woods. Katara thanked La that she paid attention when her father taught her and Sokka how to track.
She followed the trail as quickly as she could find it. Whoever it was they moved slowly, dragging their feet as someone would if tired or hurt, but the path moved in a purposeful direction.
The trees grew so thickly together that it wasn't until she was already upon it that Katara even saw the small clearing – or the boy sitting against a log across from her, elbows resting on knees, head resting in hands, the hood of his cloak thrown back to expose shaggy black hair that his fingers wound through.
He was s far as she knew a complete stranger, but he seemed somehow familiar. She took a tentative step forward and like a coiled spring he shot to his feet into a defensive position. Had she said he was a boy?
Katara swallowed dryly.
Though he couldn't have been more than a few years older than her, by his height and broad shoulders this was no boy but, clearly, a man.
A flash of recognition passed over the man's face and his arms dropped limply to his sides. He took half a dozen quick, purposeful steps towards her and Katara instinctively took a step back, causing him to stop short .
Now that he was closer she could see – his eyes were gold, a shade of gold so familiar it made her breath catch in her throat, and so dear that she almost didn't even notice the lurid red scar stretching over the left side of his face.
She couldn't think. Her mind along with everything else – the wind, the birds, her heart – had come to a complete stand still.
After an interminable length of time she their eye contact to look down at the mask in her hands and into its hollow eyes.
Slowly looking back up, her feet drew her forward until she stood directly before the stranger. Struck by self-consciousness at her closeness he ducked his head, touching his hand to his scar. There was a blue leather bracelet on his wrist that Katara noted breathlessly as her own as she took his hand and moved it way so she could lift the mask to his face. He sucked in a breath, holding it, and held still cooperatively as she lifted the mask to his face.
Gold eyes met blue.
And then she was crying
She shook so that the mask fell from her hands to the ground.
"Katara?" The low crack of concern in his voice was what broke her.
Before he could react he was nearly toppled over by the force of her body colliding with his as she flung her arms around his neck.
"This can't be real," she murmured over and over into his shoulder. "This can't be real."
But he felt so solid, so warm, and she could hear, could feel, every breathe and every heart beat.
His arms tightened around her waist and his lips tickled her ear when he whispered again.
She pulled away just enough to look him again in the eyes.
He brought a hand up to wipe away a tear even as one dribbled down his own cheek, and he nodded.
Her entire face glowed with her smile even as her eyes still shone with tears, and the boy, the man, found himself smiling ,too.
Katara knew that smile, even without the fangs.
Moving as one their lips met in a kiss, soft and warm and sweet and as insistent as the joy bubbling up inside them. When the broke apart to catch their breath he lifted her up and she squealed in delight as he span her around before kissing her again.
Though it was daytime Katara could have sworn she heard the hoot of an owl in the distance.
Sometime later, when their need to touch, to ascertain with lips and hands that the other was really there, was really real, had subsided somewhat, she would ask him questions. He would answer them as best he could, insisting that Uncle, who was probably off somewhere drinking tea or maybe on the ship seeing to the crew (who had all transformed back to their human form, as had the the citizens of Yaojing Shen) could explain it better.
It might, he admitted shyly, have had something to do with how he felt about her. Katara smiled and kissed him before saying that she might just feel the same way.
He would finally tell her his name, Zuko, and she would repeat it, rolling it over her tongue, tasting and relishing the sounds. They would both blush fiercely when she inadvertently admitted how handsome she found him ("Of course you're a prince," she murmured ruefully, though still smiling and giddy. "You're so handsome, you'd have to go and be a prince on top of it, wouldn't you?").
And they would kiss, again, and again, for a good long while before remembering that there were people who might be wondering where they were. But, he informed her solemnly, even if his father wanted him back in the Fire Nation he fully intended on staying by her side, if she would allow him.
Struck with a wonderful idea Katara would pull him back to town and would track down her brother and friends. And when they would ask her, who is this? she would tell them that she thinks she found Aang a fire bending sifu, and that they couldn't hope to find any better.
A/N : The end! This would have been published a couple weeks earlier but my hard drive died and I was without a computer for a while - luckily I was able to save everything I already had written. And I'm sorry about typos - I promised myself I would put this up before going to bed, and they're always there no matter how many times I try to proofread and always so embarrassing .
Thank you so much for sticking with me and reading even with the long update wait - or reading it for the first time all in one again! Every time I get an email alerting me that someone's favorited or alerted or especially reviewed my mood goes up and I feel a little more motivated to work on my writing! I can't say it's anywhere near as good as I would like it to be, but I think I've improved over the course of writing this, and it was really fun and rewarding.