When Aang woke up, it was to a cold wooden floor and silence.
He airbent to his feet quickly, all traces of weariness evaporating instantly and hand gripping the staff at his side. He was in a nondescript room, the floor bare and the walls empty. He didn't remember being put there; casting his mind back, the last thing he knew is Sokka disappearing in a white flash and strong arms around him, holding him back as he moved to snap open his glider-
Aang shivered involuntarily and took a wary step towards the door, trying not to draw up the worst possible scenarios in his mind. Katara will be fine, and the village will be in relatively good condition. He slid it open slowly.
What greeted him was the sight of the village's wall, bare ground, and the row of graves. None of them looked fresh, but he couldn't be absolutely sure. Trying not to flinch, he stepped out of the room and closed the door behind him.
"Katara?" he called, softly just in case.
In case what? In case something happened while you were sleeping, like a hundred years of war and suffering or your best friend being captured or any other thing you could have stopped if you had just been there?
Aang's eyes narrowed and he tried not to cry. Shut up, he thought brokenly, ignoring how there was still no response. "Katara?" he tried again, trying not to think about the graves as he moved towards where he thought the central building was. "Hello? Is anyone there?"
Suddenly, he heard the sound of a door nearby slamming and footsteps running towards him. He whirled around, raising his staff, but was tackled before he could move to defend himself. The air was knocked out of him and he staggered backwards, but his pain disappeared when he recognized dark brown hair. His staff clattered out of his hand and his arms wound around the taller girl in a tight embrace.
"You're awake," she said, like it was the happiest event in the world, hugging him desperately.
"I know I am," he joked back, and he was suddenly hit with a wave of nostalgia. Why does this keep happening? He ran a hand over her head just to assure himself that this was real. I end up out of business and they end up worrying. But true to the past, he added, "What happened?"
Katara pulled away, but she didn't meet his gaze, face twitching as she stared at the ground. A muscle worked in her jaw as she visibly tried to answer. "Sokka-" was all she could manage. Aang frowned and swallowed hard, holding back his own tears.
"And I've just been sleeping?" he growled.
Katara nodded mutely, still avoiding his eyes.
Regaining his breath after the girl's exhilarating hug and trying not to feel guilty, wishing she would just look at him, Aang grabbed her arm and smiled gently. "I'm going to get him back, Katara," he said, and his voice was low with passion. "I promise."
Apparently Katara had seen the similarities too, because she just sniffled and mumbled, "I trust you." But she half-turned away, as though the words were only barely addressed to him.
Trying not to feel like a total loser, Aang squeezed her arm before releasing it, bending over to pick up his staff. "Stay here, and stay inside," he ordered her, as sternly as he could manage. "Tell the villagers the same." He turned and snapped open his glider, taking a few quick steps before launching into the air.
"Wha-Aang, where are you going?" Katara ran after him with one arm outstretched, face a picture of worry. Aang tried not to feel smug that she was concerned for him.
"Please, Katara! Just stay!" He was beyond earshot then, past the wall of the village, and she had stopped running to just stand and stare at him. Even though she couldn't hear, he answered, "I'm going to find Roku, and after that, I'm saving Sokka."
After a couple of minutes of flying in an expanding spiral – a trick he had picked up from Sokka one night, talking about how Katara had once gotten lost in a snow storm and he had been allowed to go with his father to search for her – Aang noticed an unusual landscape in a section of the burnt forest. He dropped down swiftly to land in front of it, heart quickening.
It was a large brown bear, sitting on its hind legs and encircled by other, smaller bears on all fours. The atmosphere seemed to crackle as Aang turned in a full circle, looking at each of them. He swallowed hard, noting his mouth was suddenly dry. He had heard something of totems from time to time, but he was more afraid of the energy than anything.
"Totems," he murmured to himself, if only to break the eerie, static silence. "What do those do again? Some kind of link or something…" He walked up to one of the smaller ones and reached out, but stopped just short of touching it. He blinked once, then smiled wryly. "Sokka would tell me to stop and think about this before I go about touching things," he mused. Shooting a glance at the largest statue, he walked back to the center of the circle. Leaning down and balancing on the balls of his feet, he picked up some of the ash, feeling the usual tinges of anger and regret and sadness well up.
"There's something to understand here," he hissed to himself, feeling the rough soot against his hand. His brain knew there was some clue he was missing, but skipped when he tried to think of what it was. He tried to calm down and rationalize it, but it was too against his nature. He needed to do something, to move around or play or laugh or work on something. Sighing in frustration, he let the ash drop from his hand and fell gracelessly to the ground, settling into a full lotus position as a cloud of dust poofed around him.
Meditation always helped him clear his head, he reasoned. Besides, if it was the Winter Solstice and that meant what Katara and Sokka said it did, maybe he would get more than some new thoughts out of it.
After several frustrating minutes, Aang found himself mentally cursing how hard it was to relax and breathe evenly when one's best friend was trapped in another world and the entire landscape was blanketed in quiet and utterly motionless. "I don't have time for this," he gritted out, his eyes still closed. He took several deep breaths, but it still wasn't working. "Roku, if you have any way around this, I'd love to hear it."
And if that didn't sound like his usual self, and Aang felt a bit guilty for not being the master airbender he supposedly was and being unable to calm his spirit, he blamed it on the fact that he had never dealt with spirits before.
Unsurprisingly, nothing happened.
Aang stood up and starting pacing around the circle, an arm's length within the odd arc of carved stone bears. He left his staff lying in the center so he was free to wring his hands anxiously. His breath was coming quickly, and he felt his heart pounding. He couldn't think in a straight line, mind hopping back and forth in panicked fragments.
He closed his eyes and took a long, deep breath, counting his steps and feeling the utter silence around him. The air still hummed with a quiet force, and he tried to consider it comforting instead of unnerving. He forced himself to think about this like Sokka would.
"First, he would find out the problem itself," Aang reasoned. He kept walking, not noticing how his feet were compacting a circular path. "The source obviously being Hei-Bai."
Is it? Or is the source your lack of knowledge about the spirit world? a darker side of Aang asked.
Aang slowed, his foot hesitating for a moment, but he finally forced himself on. "And maybe how little I know," he admitted aloud a second later.
His mean side seemed to have a point this time, anyway.
He looked back on Sokka's problem solving approach. He had found out what the issue was, and then…
Why is it attacking you?
"The source," Aang murmured. "He tried to find the source of it." He stopped suddenly, glaring at nothing and thinking hard. "But what is it? Why would the spirit be attacking these innocent people?"
His hand screamed in protest, and belatedly the monk realized he had been squeezing it with far too much force. He released it quickly, shaking it out and hoping he would be able to lift his glider easily when night fell.
Then his eyes came into focus, and he saw the ash coating his palm. Slowly, his gaze lifted to the statue of the bear before him, and then around him, to the scorched trees and barren landscape.
"Oh," he said, feeling very small.
Before he could think anything else, a gust of wind buffeted against his face, whipping ash against his boots. Coiled with tension, he dove for his glider without thinking and looked for the source after. Something far above him was flying straight down, right at him. Instantly he ran for the treeline, but it was too far away to reach before whatever-it-was got to him. His glider was warm in his hand, but he didn't dare take to the air when he was being targeted from the sky. He vaulted over the line of bears and ran-
The rush of air stopped.
Wary, Aang stopped running and turned around. He looked up, but there was nothing in the skies. His eyes fell back to the bears.
You're crazy, his cynical side thought, but Aang stepped back towards them anyway. He reached them in a matter of seconds, his mouth dry as he stared at what appeared to be empty space and fired earth. Dust motes caught the sun as they floated in empty space, and the large black bear looked silently on, full of secrets.
Aang gritted his teeth so tightly his jaw hurt and his hand clenched around his glider. I'm not afraid of spirits, he thought viciously, and stepped over the totem.
Hot breath gushed on his face, making Aang blink and lean back, barely registering that he was face to face with a dragon. His heart hammering in his chest, Aang swallowed hard and tried not to backpedal as fast as he could away from the gigantic beast. "I don't suppose," he croaked weakly, "that you are some sort of well-meaning spirit that's going to tell me exactly how to solve this problem?"
A large tendril whipped towards him, and Aang winced, ducking into a roll. Yeah, a little too much to hope for-
It touched the back of his head with surprising gentleness, warmth blossoming from its tip and flowing into his mind, making Aang limp with the sheer peace that enveloped him. The image of Roku floated up from the depths of his memory, riding on a large winged creature-
"You're his spirit animal," Aang mumbled to himself. He couldn't help a sardonic chuckle. "How convenient-"
The sharp picture of a crescent-shaped island cut off his thought process, expanding until he was standing in a room of the temple on its highest point, a statue of Roku standing before him. The light filtering in had the golden-red hue of sunset. Aang suddenly understood what his past life was trying to say.
"Take me?" Aang whispered, since it seemed like the only thing to say.
The dragon lowered its head obligingly.
"I will have correspondence with the blockade, of course, detailing your nephew's desperate plea for my help, and how I was powerless to refuse in the face of such pitiful, childish begging for a boon so small…"
Iroh smiled benevolently. "We do appreciate your willingness to cooperate, Zhao. Your understanding is most befitting of one of your rank." He wishes to rankle Zuko and I into some dishonorable action. He hid a satisfied grin. I will not be so easily provoked.
Zhao hesitated, a little put-off at Iroh's quick acquiescence. He recovered himself quickly. "Anything I can do for the Dragon of the West, when he expresses a desire to come out of retirement. The most honored General is welcome aboard my crew at any time."
"Thank you," Iroh said, nodding respectfully. He wants some recognition of my military prowess? His own then, vicariously. "We shall surprise the Northern Tribe with the force of our attack, when the two of us combine strategies."
"We would most certainly make a devastating team," Zhao agreed, a dangerous glint in his dirty-gold eyes. He slid his gaze over to consider Iroh, standing at his side with arms crossed peacefully in his sleeves. "My earlier offer to you still stands," he added, voice carefully even.
"I-" A flash overhead caught his eyes, and Iroh followed it with a squint. He was unable to suppress his gasp of surprise.
"General?" Zhao prompted, not quite keeping the greed from his voice. "Have you reconsidered?"
Iroh shook off the vision, filing it away for further examination. "I am still considering it," Iroh evaded. "Please excuse me."
He strode towards Zuko's room as quickly as possible, leaving a flustered Zhao behind him.
"Wait, Uncle. I don't understand the spirit world like you." Zuko sat on the edge of his bed, pinching the bridge of his nose in a familiar gesture of strained patience. "Why would the Avatar have access to Roku's dead dragon? And why couldn't he be seen by the others?"
Iroh sat in the middle of the Prince's small quarters, legs crossed and wrists resting on his knees. "I saw him because I have been to the spirit world," Iroh said simply. "And Aang would be able to see Fang for the same reason. The only way he would be able to ride him, though, is if the Avatar was also in the spirit world." Iroh grimaced. "For what reason, I wish I knew."
"Then his body is left defenseless?" Zuko asked, forgetting all mysteries and unanswered questions about the spirit world in his eagerness.
"Somewhere we don't know," Iroh agreed, trying not to put an edge of warning in his voice. "The original plan is still the best; we shouldn't ruin it on some wild goose chase."
"But if you can see Fang, we could track Aang back to his body when they return!" Zuko stood up and started pacing. "It would be a simple matter. They would lead us right to them."
Iroh shook his head. "No, Prince Zuko. A dragon, and one not bound to the physical world at that, would move far faster than anything we could follow them with. It is not possible."
Zuko kept pacing for several silent moments. "Alright. Assume we continue to the North Pole. We'll have to pass through the blockade-"
"For which Zhao is currently making arrangements," Iroh said, leaving out the more irritating details.
"-and presumably to wherever Aang is going. Is there any chance we might meet him on our travels?"
Iroh tried not to wince at the bitter hope in the boy's voice, casting his eyes down to the cold metal floor. "I think I know where Fang is taking him," he said carefully. "And I think I know why. But we would not be able to capture his spirit, and by the time we reached it he would be long gone anyway."
Zuko stopped, facing the wall. The room was bare even of the few possessions the Prince had owned on the Asahi, bereft of any warmth or color. Zuko stared at the empty wall with his stiff back to his Uncle, obviously considering back-up plans and reserved maneuvers. Eventually he breathed out a quiet sigh that Iroh hardly heard, running one hand over his face. He turned and made his way back to the simple cot, sitting on the edge once more with his hands in his lap. "Very well," he said softly, rubbing his palms absently. "We shall stick to the original plan then. Obviously there is no hope for catching him preemptively, without the help of our dear friend Zhao." Iroh didn't flinch at the biting tone. "What business do you suppose the Avatar has in the Fire Nation?"
"Do you know what day it is, my nephew?"
Zuko lifted his head, eyes sardonically light. "I lose track of the days," he said dismissively. "But I assume it's important?"
Iroh's lips twitched in a smirk. "Don't tell me a sailor can't deduce the time of year from the stars, or a Prince can so easily forget his school teachings. Where was the sun yesterday, the moon last night?"
Zuko groaned and fell back on the cot, covering his head with arms. Iroh had to stifle a giggle at the childish gesture, feeling fondness swell in his heart. "'School teachings': irrelevant book work only meant to show the genius of certain children."
"Hardly," Iroh sniffed, still smiling. "If you had applied yourself you would have been as successful as Azula."
"Hardly!" Zuko sat up and sneered mockingly. "Azula had a perfect memory. I'm lucky to remember what I've eaten for breakfast." He flopped back again with a grunt.
Maybe because you ran off instead of eating with your father and sister, and if you ate, it was scrounged form the kitchen. Iroh didn't voice his thoughts. You acted more like a beggar than a Prince. Was that a calculated move on my brother's part?
"The Winter Solstice," Zuko whispered.
Iroh blinked. "Yes… good job." He didn't dare ask what the inspiration had been; not after last night. "Do you remember what that means?"
"The spirit world and the real world will be in near-convergence. The spirit portal will strain against the bounds holding it. Powerful spirits may be able to force their way through… the Avatar must be sentient, or the spirit of Raava will be unable to hold them back." Zuko sat up slowly, his eyes shining with a faint white light. "Spirits possessing fore-established ties to the physical world have the ability to manifest themselves in full power, insubstantial yet influential-"
He fell forward, face careening into the metal floor.
"Zuko!" Iroh was on his feet in a flurry of motion and crouching at his side. He rolled him onto his back carefully, gathering his head into his lap. He could barely breathe for his own apprehension. "Zuko?"
"Ehhh…" The Prince's expression twitched in pain before his eyes opened. "Where…?"
Iroh's eyes narrowed. Just like last night. Why does this keep happening? What does it mean? "You are on Zhao's ship, Prince Zuko, remember? We were discussing the Winter Solstic-"
Iroh cut himself off, revelation flooding through him.
Zuko reached up, one hand cupping his Uncle's face. His expression was open and puzzled, so innocent save the angry scar. "Uncle? What's wrong?"
Iroh placed his hand over his nephew's and gripped it tightly, trying not to cry at the sight of the ill child. He gathered him in his arms, surprised at Zuko's lack of protest, and laid him gently on the cot. He smiled wanly at the boy's worried expression. "Nothing, my dear nephew. Stay here. I'll return with tea. And after that… I think it may be best to stop at a certain island tonight. I will tell you more later."
Iroh strode out of the room with a million jagged thoughts running through his mind. I need to meditate on this… and drink tea. Perhaps a game of Pai Sho will help clear my spirit of this mess. He massaged his temple wearily. Agni, what a cluttered mess it is….
"Uncle?" Zuko's tired voice called after him. Iroh stopped and turned slowly.
"Yes, Prince Zuko?"
Zuko stared at him, his head turned from where he lay on the cot, face unreadable. "What's wrong with me?" His voice was low, even, plaintive.
Iroh swallowed hard, staring back in consideration for a long minute. Finally, he ducked his head. "Nothing. Absolutely nothing is wrong with you," he spat, passionate despite himself. He forced himself to look the Prince in the eye again. "But I swear, nephew, I swear I will find out what's troubling you. I will help you any way I can." With your quest… your job… your identity… Zuko, I will be here for you.
The sun moved swiftly as Aang sat cross-legged on the temple floor, Fang curled around him. "You're sure this will work?" he asked, not opening his eyes. The whisker on his shoulder tightened, and Aang felt a vague wave of reassurance. He snorted. "If you say so."
The sun hit the statue of Roku, its eyes flashing a brilliant white that Aang could register even through his eyelids. He opened his eyes as soon as it faded, but he couldn't see anything through the thick white fog that had suddenly filled the room from floor to ceiling. He stood up warily, swishing at the mist before his face. "Roku?"
The fog suddenly lifted, and the tall figure stood before him, a smile on his severe face. "Aang. It is good to see you well."
Aang bowed deeply, looking around him when he straightened. Water was beneath his feet, an empty gray sky around him. "Are we in the spirit world?"
Roku nodded. "You have been travelling between worlds ever since you climbed aboard Fang's back." Aang looked to his shoulder, where Fang hovered next to him. "You crossed over completely a moment ago."
"Good." His face was solemn. "I need to find my friend and defeat the spirit that has taken him. I need to know more about the spirit world, and my job as the Avatar. And as long as we're talking face to face, I would love an explanation on who this 'Iroh' is, and what your connection is with Zuko."
Roku blinked once in surprise, then burst out in loud laughter. It sounded out of place, muted by the fog in the eerily silent landscape. "You have learned much from your waterbending friends," Roku finally said, sounding pleased. "I see some of your airbending nature has already diminished." His smile faded at Aang's displeased look. "That's good. If you are willing to take such forward action, you may succeed at the incredible task laid before you."
"Roku." Aang bowed again for good measure, then took several steps forward until he stood directly before the firebender. "I need your help, and I need to hurry. I don't mean to sound so direct, but please, help me understand."
"Young Aang." Roku placed a hand on his shoulder. "I appreciate your purpose. It gives me hope. But I'm afraid I can't tell you much. Our time here is limited, and the great deal that Iroh has already told you was everything he thought would help you, and that you were ready to hear. In your heart you already know that the spirit must not be defeated, but helped; when you do so, you will regain your friend. It is not my place to intervene and tell you everything you need to know. You would not grow as the Avatar is I were to hold your hand through every trial."
Aang hung his head. "Roku, I understand that, but the fate of the world is on my shoulders, and I'm just a kid. I don't think I can do this without help."
"And in that, my boy, you are very wise." Aang looked up at the stern tone, surprised, but Roku only fixed him with a firm gaze. "But you are not alone. You have your friends – and others besides you have not yet met." Aang opened his mouth, and Roku interrupted, "I can tell you this, however: you are the balance between the worlds, the focal point of the delicate scale of light and darkness. Your duty is to maintain peace and order against all costs. To do this, you must understand both the spirits and the four nations. How to gain that knowledge is up to you, but I suggest you find teachers quickly."
"And the Order of the White Lotus?" Aang questioned. "Can they help?"
Roku looked down on him darkly. "I don't know of the 'order' of which you speak," he said slowly, "but I would be wary of anything that operates on a worldwide basis. Such spies are rarely to be trusted."
Aang wanted to protest, but he swallowed the urge and nodded. It was wisdom he should probably heed, anyway. Don't trust anything, he told himself bitterly. That's all adults ever seem to say to me… even Sokka. I wonder if they have a point.
"Aang." Roku squeezed his shoulder comfortingly. "I can't spend much more time with you. The Winter Solstice doesn't last long. In answer to your last question, my connection with Iroh and Zuko is one of blood… and of spirit. I don't have time to explain precisely how our spirits are tied – a story for another time. You already know that he is not to be harmed."
"That's difficult, when the feeling is not mutual," Aang gritted out. "He nearly killed Sokka!"
Roku's expression was pained. "He knows not what he does, Aang," he said. "You of all people should consider redemption before punishment." He fixed his gold eyes on Aang's gray ones, emotions surging through them, before looking away. "However," he said deliberately, "if he should ever try to kill you, I encourage you to fight back. There is only so much the Avatar can forgive, even for Princes." He seemed to choke on the words.
Puzzled, Aang nodded. "Of course I won't kill him," he said. "You have my word."
"Thank you," Roku said gravely, looking at him again. "And I will do everything in my power to assure you don't have to break that promise." He looked up, apparently into the fog, though he seemed to gain some understanding in the motion. "You will leave soon," he said briskly. "I will be unable to speak with you again until the next convergence."
"You haven't told me much of anything," Aang said, knowing it was rude and not quite caring.
"I am a spirit, Aang." He held his arms open with a wry smile. "Ambiguity is in my nature. You were the one to seek me out, and I have given you the information you asked for, as much as I can give to you. The rest is, as they say, silence." The smile faded. "I should warn you that the world knows of your return, however you have tried to hide it. Do not seek out trouble until you are prepared for it. Be mindful of where you take rest, for rest will not come easily."
"Wait, Roku! How do they know?" The fog lifted, and Aang was left alone in the room, low light filtering through the window high above. He turned around, met with Fang's broad face. They stared at each other for several long seconds.
"Helpful," Aang muttered sarcastically. Fang tossed his head, and Aang sighed as he climbed on the dragon's neck. "Let's go buddy. We have to get back to the village before sunset, and I don't think we have much time." The dragon snorted and took off once more, faster than the wind.
"Quaint," Zhao said, looking around him. "I haven't been to one of the ancient temples since I was a child."
Iroh held his tongue from saying the multitude of scathing replies at its tip, instead inclining his head respectfully. "It will do us well to pray to Agni before this undertaking, and a more comfortable board than the ship." He looked up, grateful at the appearance of five figures at the Temple's door. "Look, the Sages await our arrival. They will surely lead you to your quarter and make you comfortable, Commander. I will tell the men to stay aboard for the night, unless they wish to offer service to the Lord."
He bowed shallowly as Zhao nodded and moved off, feeling endlessly relieved to be out of his presence. I have not the tolerance for your blithe arrogance tonight, Zhao. He turned back to the ships, regarding them curiously. "Captain!"
His deep voice carried over the waves, reaching Jee, who stood a little ways off with several other men, conferring about the landing. With a wave to the others, the captain made his way to the edge of the deck, leaning over with a low bow to Iroh. "Sir?"
"Tell the men that they are to stay aboard, unless they wish to pray. And please, send Zuko out to meet me. Tell him I wish to continue our earlier conversation in the temple."
Jee saluted crisply. "Yessir. Just a moment."
Iroh crossed his arms, drumming his fingers against his biceps. He was not in a patient mood. He looked at the position of the sun; the solstice would be any second. He would not have Zuko before Roku's statue before then… but perhaps it wouldn't matter. The sooner the better. He turned and eyed the Fire Sages, one of whom walked away with Zhao stalking after him like a peacock. The other four looked at each other, then down to Iroh, who lifted his head higher.
Let's see if they recognize me, he thought darkly, thumbing the Lotus Tile in his sleeve. A little remembrance should do them good.
Aang stood up quickly, and his legs wobbled and collapsed. He picked himself up, looking to the empty, darkening sky. "Thanks for the ride, Fang," he said to nothing, and picked up his staff. "I'm back just in time."
He snapped open his glider and flew towards the village as fast as he could, the wind biting against his face. Looking down, he saw Hei Bai crashing through the trees beneath him, and he pushed faster, trying to gain a lead. The village wall became visible below. Aang soared over them without hesitation and dropped like a stone, ducking into a somersault to lighten his landing as he heard the village gates crash open behind him. He heard a vague scream as he jumped to his feet and turned around, the spirit tumbling towards him. Taking a deep breath, he steadied himself and waited. Hei Bai came rushing at him ever faster, mouth opening and spirit energy growing in his throat. Aang waited, heart thudding against his ribcage. Hei Bai was nearly upon him. He heard running feet behind him, words he couldn't make out. He leaped.
Hei Bai's forehead was under his feet, and Aang touched his forehead, closing his eyes in concentration.
The spirit halted its charge with inhuman suddenness, causing Aang to lose his perch and fall, flipping in midair to land on his knees before the monster.
"The forest was your home," he spoke. "You are its guardian." He looked up, full into Hei Bai's face. "What secrets it must hold… it was ancient indeed. Maybe it was home to more of your kind, once…" He trailed off, realizing what he was saying and wondering how he knew. "I understand why you are angry. Your home was burnt down and destroyed by cruel humans. But this is not the first time. You have regrown this forest many times, and your patient spirit will encourage the rebirth once more. Look." He shuffled in his robes for the acorns Katara had given him, swallowing hard as he felt the spirit stand stock still, staring at him, mouth still open as if waiting for judgment. He held the nuts out on his palm. "Acorns," he explained. "The forest will grow back. It hasn't yet, because your vengeful spirit has discouraged the new growth. You must return to mothering the new trees, and they will come."
Hei Bai reached out slowly, picking up the acorns with two gigantic fingers and staring at them intensely. It looked up at Aang, and suddenly transformed into a panda, black eyes staring down into his soul. Aang reached out bravely, placing a hand on the soft fur of its cheek and closing his eyes.
Thank you, young human. Her voice was soft and deep, only faintly feminine and full of unspoken power. You have given me hope.
Aang opened his eyes with a soft smile, and the beast turned around and walked calmly away, new growth sprouting up in its every step. People came stumbling out of the greens, eyes wide with shock and happiness as family rushed out to greet them. Sokka emerged last, rubbing his eyes wearily and faltering on his feet. Aang airbent underneath him just as he tripped over a stone, a soft mattress of warm air catching him before he hit the ground. The monk ran up to him, placing a steadying hand on his shoulder.
"Sokka," he breathed, relief plain in his voice. "How do you feel? Are you hurt at all?"
"Not hurt," Sokka grunted, "but confused as hell."
Aang's brow crinkled. "Why?"
"Oh, you know. I meet my death mother in the spirit world, or something pretending to be her, and get a vision of Zuko begging to some crazy Fire Nation soldier to help him get to the North Pole." Sokka wiped sweat from his brow. "Then I get chased around the spirit world by these crazy bee things because they looked like a fruit and I tried to eat them…"
Aang laughed despite himself. "You tried to eat something in the Spirit World? Why?!"
Sokka smiled sheepishly. "It looked good?"
Katara suddenly was there, enveloping them both in a bone-crushing hug. "I was so worried about you," she breathed through her tears. "Sokka taken by a spirit, then Aang disappearing for a whole day… you're the only family I have left." She leaned back to look at them both, blue eyes sparkling with love and pain. "Promise me you won't leave me like that again."
"I promise, sis," Sokka said comfortingly, pulling her in for another hug. "I missed you too."
Aang watched, feeling a pang of jealousy. "Yeah. I won't either."
"Good," Katara mumbled, but she burrowed deeper into Sokka's arms, who hugged her like she was his last lifeline. Aang smiled sadly and remembered how hesitant she had been when he woke up. So he still wasn't forgiven?
"I'm going to check on Appa," he said. "Sokka, I'm glad your back." He laughed and rubbed the back of his head. "You were right. It seems my job is to give people – and spirits – hope."
Sokka looked at him over Katara's head, smiling. "I'm really proud of you, Aang. You know, for the first time I really think we can do this."
"Save the world."
Aang smiled despite himself. "I'm glad you two are here with me. I've been told not to try this alone."
Sokka nodded, eyes unfocused with another thought. "Yeah... you'd have to be a real fool to try that."
Zuko looked up at Roku's statue, eyes deep with pain. "Avatar. Why do you continue to elude me? Oh great spirit, what have I done in my lifetime to deserve this?"
The room echoed with his acid voice, silent and still. The doors were shut tight behind him, tall and menacing, having only been opened by his Uncle and four Fire Sages. Zuko sneered.
"I don't suppose you have some great wisdom to impart on me? Some other-worldly advice on how to capture you? Some insight into what unlikely circumstance the spirits are conjuring up next so that I may suffer?"
The statue glared down at him, imposing and motionless. Zuko stared back for a long second before clambering to his feet.
"Yeah," he sighed. "I didn't really think so. I've been alone my whole life so far; I don't know why you'd start helping me now."
He pushed out of the room without difficulty and watched the doors shut behind him, not meeting his Uncle's gaze as he hurried down a vacant hallway. "Leave me some peace, Uncle," he ordered over his shoulder. I wish to be alone.
He felt Iroh's gaze on him as he left, heard the quiet, "Patience is a virtue," and only grimaced. The solitude of his room would be some familiar comfort.
*slips in, leaves chapter, slips out*
(so sorry for how late this is four AP classes and drum major was a bad choice I barely even sleep please forgive me)
(Though seriously, please leave a review. I need frickin inspiration to know that you like where this story is going.)