Disclaimer: This work of fan fiction is not for personal profit. All the characters used in this fan fic are the property of Nickelodeon and/or other designated copyright and/or trademark holders, or ayala_atreides , except for original characters created by myself.
That morning had been a little awkward – somewhat like the previous night, really.
Kuei confusedly shook himself out of the blanket, wondering how it had gotten there. Amaris had been taking down her tent when she saw Kuei stand up, and he could have sworn that the faintest tinge of red had appeared on her cheeks.
She said, "I woke up in the middle of the night. When I went outside my tent, I saw you shivering a bit, so I put an extra blanket over you."
Kuei handed back the blanket, bowing slightly and saying, "Thank you for that kindness."
Amaris's smile of gratitude stayed with him as he checked that he had all his possessions for the journey ahead.
Bosco, lumbering to his feet, shook himself and pawed the rocky ground. Kuei walked over to him and said, "Good morning, my friend. Are you feeling up to another long walk?"
Bosco looked at him indifferently and growled, "Grrf."
Amaris, having just packed her tent in her carryall, walked up with some berries. "This is all we can have right now. Here, Bosco." She put a few in her hand and let Bosco gobble up the berries.
Kuei, for his part, took the remainder and popped them in his mouth, chewing. When he finished, Amaris said, "By the way, can I ride your bear today? You look like you could use some walking experience."
Kuei said, "I would be glad to gain some endurance in walking. However, my feet—"
"Sandbender gauze. I'll wrap your feet and lower legs so you won't feel the ground. Let me just make sure I have all my stuff packed up. You sit on that flat rock over there, the one that's close to the ground."
Kuei noticed the one rock near the pathway that would take the twosome upwards over the mountaintop. As he seated himself, he observed the rock was maybe Momo's height or a bit more, and flat enough to accommodate him without feeling uncomfortable.
Amaris made her way over shortly thereafter. She got on her knees near him and said, "Okay. Now stick out your leg."
He stuck his right foot out, off to her side. She reached up, grasped his calf, and guided it so his leg was in her lap. Tingles ran up and down his spine as she seemed to size up his foot and calf with her hands.
There was also the odd feeling of knowing he was touching, albeit with his ankle and not of his choosing, her thighs. One wasn't supposed to do that at all with a stranger, or a girl one didn't know well. Courtship had been part of his education, though admittedly the dreadfully boring formality had fuzzed some of the finer details. At that age, though, history and calligraphy had been more fun.
Trying to take his mind off the warring embarrassment and attraction he felt, Kuei tried carefully observing how Amaris started the wrapping, ensuring the gauze was snug but not constrictingly so. Her fingers moved expertly and unerringly. Against his will, Kuei found he thought her fingers and hands rather entrancing, especially when her skin touched his.
After his right foot was done, he carefully placed it on the ground and wiggled his toes. The gauze held, and Amaris nodded in satisfaction. "All right. Other foot now."
Amaris was already reaching to clasp his ankle, so he let her guide his foot to her lap for wrapping.
Kuei, by now trying to find any way of keeping his mind off things, blurted, "Do you normally wrap someone else's foot this way?"
"Of course! It's to keep your ankle braced so your foot doesn't move when I wrap it. We're not too fussy about things like that. We normally don't wrap our heels, but I wrapped yours so you won't hurt too much."
After the wrapping finished, Amaris said, "All right. Check that one out while I get this gauze put away."
As soon as she turned her back, Kuei stood up and turned around as well, frantically wondering how to relax himself. After a few frustrating seconds, Kuei finally reached down and made a swift adjustment, finding that a bit more comfortable. He turned back, and walked towards Bosco as though nothing were amiss (though his face remained fairly flushed).
Amaris was getting ready to get on Bosco, who seemed a little confused.
Kuei patted Bosco's head and said, "Amaris will not hurt you. I'll be right next to you, or in front. It's time I did some walking, Bosco."
Bosco snuffled at Kuei's hand for a bit, and then acquiesced. Kuei nodded, and Amaris was able to get on Bosco's back without a hitch.
Just as they began the trip up to the mountaintop, Kuei grinned to himself. He turned back and said, "Bosco, how about some musical accompaniment?"
Amaris's look of astonishment at Bosco's flawless whistling of "Girls from Ba Sing Se" amused Kuei as he led the way over the windy peak and down into the valley.
At the base of the valley, Amaris caught up to Kuei and put her hand on his shoulder. "Let's take a break. That was the easy part, mostly downhill. It'll be a long way up, but I'm hoping to make the old outpost by sunset."
She pushed slightly on his shoulder, dismounting from Bosco. She began looking through her carryall for, Kuei presumed, more of those damned berries.
Curious, Kuei said, "Outpost? Is it in use, still?"
He had learned of Guo's outposts, of course, but the history lessons had, obviously, not focused on minutiae like the ins and outs of military deployments. And seeing some of his nation's soldiers outside of Ba Sing Se would be fascinating.
Amaris shook her head. "It's empty. Has been for a long time. But I bet you'll want to look around."
Bosco seated himself on the ground. While it was warm, the downhill slope had not exerted Bosco too badly, so his breathing was fairly steady.
Amaris sat near Bosco, followed by Kuei, who sighed with relief. The walking downhill hadn't been too bad, but not having to walk felt rather nice.
Amaris held the gourd and waterskin, and she put a flat package next to her. The water went around like the previous night, and after Bosco drank off his water ration, Amaris chuckled. "You have a very strange bear, there. He can drink water like a person. He even whistles!"
"As you know, I was a noble in Ba Sing Se, My… father paid a trainer for Bosco. He also paid for, um, claw and paw manicures."
"What?" Amaris looked at him, confused.
"Oh. Well, it would be like cleaning his claws and paws, with soap and water."
Amaris stared, then shook her head in bemusement. "Strange. Very strange."
She turned her attention to the package, and after she opened it she broke off a piece of something that looked similar to some jerky Sokka had given him once. Kuei thanked the Spirits it wasn't berries this time. At his look, she said, "I ran out of berries at the last mountain and wanted to save this for later. It's bull pig jerky. Lasts almost forever, but still, we try not to waste it."
As Kuei chewed, he saw what she meant. It took some effort to chew it, but the jerky wasn't too bad. Bosco seemed to like it as well. Thinking back on his trip with the young water tribe people, he realized Bosco was really behaving quite well. And he, Kuei, was feeling less adrift than he ought to have been, considering his cloistered life.
Amaris swallowed the jerky she was eating and seemed to remember something. "Say. How are your feet holding up?"
Kuei examined his feet, noticing that the wrappings were still in place and not loose. His expression seemed to satisfy her, for she said, "Good. But I think you had better ride Bosco up that peak. He seemed pretty sure-footed, so I know he won't throw you by accident. I'm the more experienced walker, and I'd like to make sure we get up there fine."
Kuei nodded and stood up. He said, "Let's be on our way, Bosco."
Bosco rose, shook himself a bit, and waited. Kuei made his hop onto Bosco. Without further ado, Amaris, Kuei and Bosco embarked on the long journey upwards to the second mountain peak, covered with a light white cap.
The afternoon sun had beat down relentlessly on all three travellers, and by the time they made it to the outpost, Kuei was too tired to worry about the view he was sure to have. He just wanted to get off Bosco and let his friend rush into the shade offered by the building.
Unfortunately, as he made to get off Bosco, he slipped. He yelped as he began to slide, his arms flailing about.
His feet hit the ground and he stumbled forward, but something stopped him from falling face-first into the dirt. For a moment Kuei didn't know what it was. Then he realized that the warm, firm "something" holding him up was Amaris. He'd literally stumbled into her arms and was now leaning heavily against her in a way that would have given his etiquette tutors a fit of the vapors.
He thought, Spirits, she's strong! He also noticed he was squashed up against two rather noticeable parts of Amaris's anatomy, which made him realize perhaps he'd better stand up properly. Still blushing a bit, he carefully regained his footing, Amaris's hands on his upper arms to be sure he was steady.
He looked into her eyes as she said, "Are you all right?" He didn't respond for a few moments, transfixed by her wide brown eyes filled with concern. She seemed to be equally interested in something on his face. Suddenly, her eyes focussed and she set her jaw. Clapping his shoulders lightly, she said, "Well, let's get inside that outpost. You'll have something to do for a while."
Kuei nodded and looked at the outpost building. It was solid rock, every last part of it. Earthbenders in the Earth Kingdom army would have raised it out of the rock and ensured that it would barely deterioriate over the centuries.
He noticed, as he entered on the shadowed side of the building, that the ground still had a light frost over it. They had seen no trees or even scrub brush since well before reaching this peak. The building was the capstone to the most desolate area Kuei had yet seen in his life.
He went inside, and after having been in the bright light, he thought he'd gone blind in the utter darkness.
Gradually, however, his eyes adjusted and he could see the stone floor and stone benches jutting out from the walls on either side of the entry doors. He also saw that one staircase rose upwards and let one enter the second floor, above. Another staircase descended downward.
Kuei decided to explore the downstairs first. There was light shining, which seemed odd to him until he got further down the stairs. The outpost had been Earthbent in such a way that one entered from the West or East, but the floor underneath it had an oblong window facing to the south.
To his utter surprise, a pond – with water! – was on the lowest floor. He could see pipes that must surely feed water from the roof into the pond.
The rock wall of the pond wasn't very high; Kuei found it only went up to his knees. There was an overflow channel that led out to the south, where excess water would just fall down the sheer mountain face.
The pond water was clear and not scummy or swampy. Presumably either the Earthbenders who had built this place had made the pond walls so smoothly that there was no place for any algae to grow, or Amaris or another Sandbender cleaned the pond on every visit. If the latter, he must certainly find a way to arrange payment for this public service.
Kuei badly needed a good soak, and promptly divested himself of his clothes and descended the stone stairs into the pool. The shock of the cold water didn't dampen his enjoyment of feeling clean, though it did dampen, for a while, a vexing issue regarding Amaris.
He didn't spend long in the pond, as he didn't want to have Amaris catch him in such a state. He got out, wiped his face as best he could, then gingerly put his clothing back on. It wasn't a moment too soon, as Amaris came down the stairs a few moments later. He noticed she had divested herself of her face and arm coverings.
She smiled. "I see you found the water supply. I've never understood how the water can stay clean after all these years. It snows heavily in the winter and normally it rains in the fall and spring. It's been a little less rainy than usual the last few days, though. My guess is that more than enough water goes into the pond to overflow it and keep it fresh.
"Anyway, come on. I'll show you around."
They trod the stairs to the ground floor, then ascended the other set leading to the second level. Amaris pointed out the four bedrooms for the sentries, which barely lived up to their name. Square openings from the eastern hallway went into each room, which had stone slabs for beds and square windows. Kuei wondered what was more uncomfortable: sleeping on the ground outside or these beds, which had barely begun to show signs of weathering.
The east wall was also interspersed with square windows. A small flight of stairs led up the north side, which he discovered led to an open observation area where he could see everything around the outpost in all directions. Four posts held up the roof, and if Kuei's guess was at all correct, these also held the pipes that took water off the roof and directed it into the pond below.
Small stone benches were set such that four sentries could sit facing the four directions; they were more like wide chairs, or couches, than benches, to be strictly accurate.
Amaris stood in the center of the observation tower, stretching her hands out as she slowly twirled around. "What do you think, huh?"
He experimentally tried the one facing west. Kuei noticed that although the stone was hard, the seat had been curved in such a way that if he sat with his back to the upper part of the bench, he actually felt somewhat comfortable.
Kuei looked out, and finally began taking in the view of the Si Wong Desert from one of the highest mountains in the Eastern range. Kuei's gasp at the vast expanse of undulating brown sand as far as the eye could see prompted Amaris to sit next to him, on his right.
Amaris pointed. "There's home. What do you think?"
"From up here? It's marvellous. Truly, it is. But, you know—"
"Mm-hmm?" Amaris put her right foot up on the bench and put her elbow on her knee.
"I have always thought the desert should be unbearably hot, dangerous, and quite monotonous. But from this peak, it seems almost… attractive."
Amaris's facial expression was not quite a smile. "Be careful. We hear stories of people who think like you. That the desert is some wild and exotic playground for them. We Sandbenders usually find the skulls of such unlucky people when we travel."
Kuei swallowed. Perhaps it was just the setting sun, but the desert suddenly seemed far more dangerous, even from his vantage point.
Embarrassed, he said, "I didn't mean to sound so ignorant. I apologize."
Amaris shifted a bit closer and nudged his shoulder gently. "Just giving you fair warning. Most of us don't like outsiders much, partly because they just don't understand what our lives are like. I don't dislike you all as some of my fellow tribe members, but I still get annoyed pretty quickly with the starry-eyed kids at the trade bazaars who think following me through these mountains would be the best adventure ever."
Kuei's eyebrows went up. "I am very surprised you decided to take me with you, then."
Was it his imagination, or did Amaris's cheeks turn just a bit red? "You may be an outsider, but you're less annoying than most. And I thought I could use the company."
"Really? I'm… Well, I am definitely flattered. Thank you." Kuei wondered if any of Sokka's advice would be useful here.
"Mm-hmm." Amaris gestured with a nod towards the twilight sky. "Last time I came up here, I stayed up here just to watch the stars. You never see them as clearly as you do up in the mountains. Let's watch them come out. You'll love it."
Finally, Kuei decided maybe one thing Sokka told him might actually work. He said, "Amaris, would you mind if I were to…" He trailed off, then looked at her face and mumbled, "move a bit closer to you?"
She tugged his arm gently. "Sure. Come on."
He shifted so they were seated, shoulder to shoulder. The sky began to glow a deep red on the horizon, and the stars began to shine.
Kuei, feeling quite nervous, decided that the taking the lead part Sokka had said worked with his girlfriend Suki (though he wondered if that had actually been the case) meant he might put his arm around Amaris and not offend her. Hesitantly he lifted his right arm, looked questioningly into Amaris's eyes, and saw no rejection. He put his arm carefully around her shoulder, and was rewarded with a brilliant smile on her face and a "come here" gesture with her right finger.
A bit perplexed, he blurted, "Huh?"
Amaris giggled and put her left hand on Kuei's leg. "This is what you do with a girl who you like and who likes you back. You kiss her. So kiss me, huh?"
Amaris put her right foot back down on the floor and put her right hand on his left shoulder. He leaned in, guided by her, and after some confusion about how to tilt his face, softly pressed his lips to hers.
Those etiquette tutors of his would have collapsed in fright at kissing before courtship. But then, right now, did it really matter?
Many thanks go to ayala_atreides for being such a great beta reader and helping with some of the wording of the scenes in this chapter. :)