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Following One Another Softly

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It still happened all the time, just the way it had before, other people's lives suddenly in Katara's mind; but she was free to linger over it, now that no one would die if she were too slow. She could take her time and feel what it was to be another person, if only for a little while.

It was Kyoshi, as it often was now that they were back on the island, and Katara looked through her eyes and smiled to see the children who played in the dirt outside. Itoro, and Gai, and little Mizuka; three of Koko's many great-grandchildren. Kyoshi would have killed a dozen conquerors to keep from having to watch her own daughter die of old age, but she had found some comfort even in the darkness: almost alone among mothers, she knew without a doubt that her child had passed without pain, after a long and pleasant life.

Etsuko came in, arms full of damp clothing fresh from the stream, humming as she walked; she said something, voice pleasant and a little teasing, and though Katara couldn't quite hear it, Kyoshi tossed her head back and laughed. It was a warm day, the sunlight gold where it slanted through the open shutters, and there were clothes to be hung, out where the sweet breeze off the bay would dry them. Not a day to dwell on old pain, Kyoshi thought, and she touched her granddaughter's hand and smiled.

When Katara's eyes cleared, she was looking at the exact same room, and for a moment she thought the vision hadn't quite faded; but the floor before her was faintly dusty, no footprints but her own in the dirt, and the shutters were closed.

They stayed that way for only a moment: there was a scraping sound, the creak of old wood protesting, and then one pair swung open, dust swirling in the light. Suki, outside, beamed at them approvingly—and then yanked her hand clear as the left shutter groaned and cracked off at the hinges, landing with a muffled thud on the grass outside.

"Well, at least one of them is still good," Suki said, after a moment.

Katara grinned. "Just to be safe," she said, "we'd better replace them both, don't you think?"

"As you say, Avatar," Suki said, and bowed low, the gesture given the lie by the grin on her face.

"Oh, stop," Katara said, laughing, and then stepped forward to run a hand gently over the sill; she only meant it to be casual, to remind herself that it really was her windowsill now, but when she looked up, Suki was giving her a narrow-eyed look.

"It happened again, didn't it," she said.

Katara tapped her fingers on the windowsill, sheepish. Somehow, Suki always knew. "For a minute," she said. "Kyoshi again. It was—nice." She turned to look at the room behind her. It was dark and quiet now, dusty in the halfhearted way of a room that was cleaned but not lived in; but it hadn't always been, and it wouldn't stay that way, not now that they were here.

Oyaji had been glad to let them have the house; and even if he hadn't been, in some sense it was Katara's house, the same way everything that had been Kyoshi's was a little bit Katara's.

"You will stay here with me, won't you?" she said, a little nervously. In all the long weeks of traveling, and in the days since they had arrived, she hadn't exactly asked—only assumed; and Suki hadn't contradicted her yet, but that wasn't the same thing as agreeing.

Katara was ready with a host of arguments—Kyoshi's house was closer to the training hall than Suki's mother lived, and closer to the bay, which could be essential if the pirates had stuck around. But she didn't need them; Suki only smiled, and said, "Yes. Now give me a minute to find something to pry these hinges off with."

*

They ended up replacing all the shutters—almost half of them had some degree of visible rot, and Katara wasn't willing to bet on the other half. They put the new ones together themselves, and painted them, Earth Kingdom green and Water Tribe blue and war-paint white; when they were finished, the house looked a little ridiculous, but it was distinctly theirs. Katara found flecks of paint in her hair for days.

It rained the second week, which was how they discovered a tiny leak in the corner. It was small enough that nobody coming through a week later to clean would have seen it, which was how it had managed to go unrepaired for so long. Suki spent the next day on the roof, catching the bundles of shingles Katara Airbent up to her, prying the old ones out and slotting the new ones in.

People talked; of course they did, with the new Avatar living in the old Avatar's house, settling into a place that had been empty for nearly two hundred years. But nobody was rude, nobody was cruel. Ayuko's mother did their sewing for them after Katara healed the slow creeping ache of her fingers; and Suki's mother helped them lay down the beginnings of a garden.

Katara worried sometimes that she only loved living there so much because Kyoshi had; and maybe that was part of it, but there was another reason, one she didn't figure out until the day Mikari stopped her by the training hall to contribute a handful of seeds. "They'll grow lovely flowers," she told Katara, pressing them into her hand. "Suki will love them," and she grinned knowingly, like they were sharing a secret.

Katara flushed hot all the way up her ears, staring down at the little dark seeds in her hand and imagining Suki's face as she beamed down at a flower—a flower, any flower, it didn't matter what kind, because, she realized slowly, the flower wasn't what Katara would be looking at.

She took the seeds with a mumble of thanks, and stared at them nearly all evening to keep herself from staring at Suki instead; she had never been so aware of the sparse length of dirt floor between the mats they slept on.

It was fall, so she didn't plant Mikari's seeds; she wrapped them up and tucked them away, and tried not to think about them too much.

Winter on Kyoshi Island was long and dim and snowy. It was nothing compared to the winters Katara remembered from her childhood, where midwinter was a month-long night, but she had been traveling warmer lands for so long she had almost managed to forget what it was like to be cold. The village passed the worst of it with everyone gathered in the common hall; Katara told the children stories while blizzards howled outside, and tried to stop blushing every time Suki touched her.

*

At long last, though, it became warm again, and soon it was almost time to travel up to Kyoshi's shrine, to repair whatever had been broken by wind and heavy snow. Another day or two, Katara thought, and tipped her head back until the sun fell full on her face. And then it would be time to see what they could do with the garden.

"Look," Suki said, and Katara could hear the smile in her voice even before she forced her head back up and opened her eyes. "Those seeds you've been saving—look."

Suki was barefaced, she hardly wore her paint now except to practice, and she had the seeds nestled in her cupped hands; at least half of them had split open, and there were pale green shoots curling out, unfurling, searching for light. She leaned a little closer, hands dipping into the pool of sunlight coming through the window, and Katara reached out to touch one and ended up with her fingers splayed over Suki's wrist instead.

She had kept it tucked close all through the long winter, this thing that made her chest clench and her cheeks warm at all the wrong moments; and she looked at the seeds sprouting in Suki's hands and the look on Suki's face and couldn't keep it in anymore. "They're beautiful," she said, very quietly, and tipped herself forward until she could press a kiss to Suki's mouth.

She let herself linger, and then backed away; and Suki stared at her, frozen for a moment until she sucked in a breath and then let it out in a rush. "I thought you might—but then you never—I thought you'd changed your mind," she said, barely over a whisper.

Katara blinked, a sudden giddy rush sweeping through her chest, and then laughed breathlessly. "I guess I hadn't made it up yet," she said, a little apologetic, and stroked one of the shoots carefully with the side of her finger.

"Well, come on," Suki said, smiling. "We have things to plant."