Katara was beginning to notice
something a bit... off... about Aang.
She wasn't really sure if it was her imagination, though. They'd only been together - like together, together - for three months. It had been almost like an extra-long vacation over those months: the five of them living in Ba Sing Se with no real burning need to move on or go home. Eventually, they were all aware they'd probably be going their separate ways, but Zuko's regular - sometimes extended - visits gave them an excuse to linger. Katara wasn't entirely sure where they'd go or what they'd do once that was over with, but she wasn't terribly concerned. Sokka would always be nearby, Toph would come and go as she pleased, and Aang... Aang would be with her no matter what. Of course.
Even if he was a little hard to figure out sometimes.
"Katara." Aang slid into the spot next to her at the edge of the balcony where she'd been watching the people passing by on the street. "I was looking all over for you," he told her, scooting just a bit closer. He did stuff like that a lot more now that it was allowed and - to some degree - encouraged. "What are you doing out here?"
"Just thinking." She bumped his shoulder with hers playfully, and smiled. "What do you need?"
"Nothing, I just wanted to see you." It was the sort of thing Aang said all the time, with completely sincerity and without even giving it a second thought - but it always gave her that warm and fuzzy feeling inside. "I think Momo ate all the leftovers from dinner last night," he added, with a big of a grin.
She couldn't help but laugh. "Sokka is going to be heartbroken. I think he had his heart set on those pastries."
"Well, he could always just" - Aang paused, frowned, and coughed, swallowing a few times to make sure his throat was clear before continuing - "send a message to Zuko if he wants more."
Katara stared at him for a second. That was what seemed strange - she was sure of it now... "Aang, are you okay?"
"Fine." He blinked, clearly startled by the question. "Why?"
"Your voice sounds weird for some reason." She frowned at him. Maybe he was coming down with a cold. It was so typical of Aang to deny it, too.
"No, it doesn't."
"Yes, it does." She fixed him with her best 'fess up or else' stare. "There's something you're hiding from me, isn't there?"
"Katara, I don't know what you're talking about." He honestly did look baffled; Katara felt a little less sure of his guilt. "My voice doesn't sound any different." He put a hand to his throat then, suddenly unsure, and looked up at her again. "What does it sound like?"
"I don't know." She stared thoughtfully at him. Maybe it was a cold and he just hadn't noticed yet - Aang was pretty good at not noticing that sort of thing. "It's like... it's heavier. Or lower, maybe."
"Oh." He lowered the hand, still frowning a bit, and Katara's eyes were drawn to the place where it had been. "Well, that's weird." He swallowed - the motion was somehow fascinating. Had the muscles on his throat always been so well-defined?
Feeling mischievous, Katara leaned over and ran a finger up the line that lead from his collar to his chin. It did feel well-defined.
"K-Katara!" Aang stiffened up in surprise. She was close enough to feel that faint rush of heat rising to his face, and smiled a bit.
"Sorry - I couldn't resist." It was kind of nice to surprise Aang, and - she had to admit - gratifying to be able to generate such a response.
"Oh. Well, that's okay. I mean, I don't mind." At this close range, she could hear the way his breath quickened and feel his pulse race. "Um. So..." That trailed off into an awkward silence; he glanced at her out of the corner of his eyes, as if looking for guidance on what to do now.
Katara was at a bit of a loss herself - should she kiss him now? Or just move away and act like it was nothing? This was new territory in a lot of ways. So it was a bit of a relief when her brother's voice called to them from inside the house. "I can see you two out there!"
She pulled back with an agrieved sigh, and snapped back, "So what?"
"So, you're gonna make me lose my lunch, that's what!" Sokka stopped by the door and made an exaggerated gagging motion. "I don't need to see my sister making out with some loser - no offense, Aang."
"None taken... I think."
"And besides," Sokka continued airily, as if Aang hadn't said anything, "Suki and I always keep that stuff to ourselves. I'm telling you, behind closed doors is the only place for - "
"Stop." Katara put her hands over her ears, glaring at him. "I do not want to hear what you and Suki do behind closed doors."
"You see?" He fixed her with that same know-it-all smirk that never failed to annoy her. "Now, do me a favor and get a room." He seemed to realize what he'd just said about five second after turning back toward the kitchen, and spun around again to point accusingly at Aang. "But leave the door open, mister. I've got my eye on you."
Katara returned his smirk. "I thought you didn't want to see anything."
"I don't! Because it shouldn't happen! Just... just never mind!" Sokka threw his hands in the air and stalked off, muttering to himself. "I can't believe I'm talking about this kind of stuff with my sister. And Aang. Ugh! This conversation so never happened..."
Katara turned back to Aang, and couldn't hold back a chuckle when she saw that he was grinning too. "Come on," she said, pushing herself to her feet. "Let's go inside."
"Sure. I'm really getting hungry anyway." He lifted himself effortlessly, still smiling a bit as he met her gaze. She liked it when he gave her that smile, with that soft look in his eyes...
"Want to hang out in my room later tonight?" Katara offered, with a bit of an answering smile. Those late-night visits gave them a lot more privacy when they talked - or, more often, didn't; most of the time they squished in together on the windowsill, wordlessly staring at the moon and sometimes with a kiss or two when the mood hit.
It was nice.
Aang's answering grin was huge and goofy. "Yeah, of course I - !" An unmistakeably loud squeak broke up that last syllable, and he clapped a hand over his mouth, abruptly going crimson. "I mean, sure, I guess," he added, forcing his voice into an almost ridiculously low tone.
Katara raised an eyebrow at him, but didn't comment. "Great, then I'll see you then," she said instead, and leaned forward a little, letting her eyes slide shut expectantly.
"I CAN STILL SEE YOU TWO!"
"Ugh." Katara pulled back, rolling her eyes upward as she turned to re-enter the house. The mood had just been effectively killed. "We weren't even doing anything," she complained.
"You were going to. I know where these things lead." Sokka narrowed his eyes at her for just a moment, before returning to the cupboard he'd been about to open. "Boundaries, Katara. You've got to have - HEY! Who ate all the leftovers!?"
From where he rested on the top of the shelf, Momo let out a loud belch.
Later that night, Katara noticed a much clearer sign of Aang being 'off'.
They were sitting on the windowsill in her room - the sky was clear, the moon was bright, and all in all, it was a good evening. The last lights from their part of the city had faded off several minutes ago, which was normally the sign that they took to mean it was time for Aang to return to his own room. Katara always felt a little regretful, but it was for the best if they wanted a proper amount of sleep. The others might get suspicious if she and Aang were both tired every morning, and she wasn't enthusiastic about their private 'alone' time being revealed. It was just kind of neat to have it be a secret between them.
"I guess I should go," Aang said, echoing her own thoughts. He didn't sound any happier about it than she did; when he met her gaze, the smile on his face was rueful. "It's getting kind of late."
"Yeah, you're probably right." Katara waited for him to lift himself backwards into her room, and then he offered a hand to help her down. "It'd be a little strange if we both fell asleep over breakfast."
He grinned. "Sokka would probably assume the worst and kill me."
That startled a laugh out of her. For some reason, she hadn't expected Aang to make that kind of insinuation. "What exactly are you implying?" she teased him, and was amused to see the tips of his ears darken with a blush.
"I'm just teasing, Aang." Katara smiled, and used the hand that was still clasped in his to pull him closer. "Sokka probably would assume the worst, but that's only because it's what he would be doing in the same situation." She leaned forward to kiss him.
Wait - leaned forward... not down?
Aang looked a bit perplexed when she moved back and stared at him. "What's wrong?"
"Oh - nothing. It's just..." She felt a little silly now, but there was no point in trying to hide her reaction. "I guess I didn't realize you'd gotten so tall until just now."
"Oh." He shrugged and smiled a bit sheepishly. "I... guess I didn't realize it either." The sheepish smile broke into a much wider one. "Hey, this means I'm almost as tall as you are!"
Katara couldn't help but return it. Aang's enthusiasm was so contagious sometimes. "It does, doesn't it?" A year ago it might've mattered if her boyfriend was shorter than her. Now that it didn't matter... it didn't seem like he was going to be for very much longer. "That's a lot of growing to do in just two months."
"Well, maybe I was just in a hurry or something." Aang seemed ready to shrug that off; the gaze he directed at her was half-lidded. "Maybe now that we're together, my body decided it wanted to catch up with you."
She couldn't exactly resist that look. "Maybe that's it," Katara agreed, and freed her hand from his to wrap both arms around his neck.
He didn't need any more invitation than that, eagerly leaning in to close his lips over hers. His arms slid around her waist, holding her carefully.
Katara enjoyed kissing Aang. Most of the time, they were just simple kisses - their lips brushed, or even pressed together for a short moment. Those were enough to send shivers through her. Every so often, though, they'd been moving more and more towards deeper kisses: open-mouthed and lengthy. Those kind of kisses made her feel warm all the way through. Katara shifted a little closer, wanting the added comfort of a firmer hug.
His arms loosened around her, subtly shifting more space between them.
What was that? Katara shifted closer again.
Aang shuffled back a second time.
Okay, that was it. She broke the kiss and gave him a perplexed frown. "Aang, what are you doing?"
He wasn't meeting her eyes. "What do you mean?" Even the tone of his voice was guilty, and his shoulders felt tense beneath her fingers.
But why? What was he feeling guilty about? "I'm just trying to get closer to you," she pointed out, and emphasized this by tightening her hold around his neck, the intent being to pull herself nearly flush against him -
- and abruptly felt herself propelled several steps back.
Aang's eyes were wide; she could see them clearly in the dimly lit room. "Katara, I'm sorry!" He reached out with one hand as if to place it on her shoulder, but stopped instead and just held it there awkwardly, like he wasn't sure what he really wanted to do with it.
"Aang..." She hadn't quite recovered from her shock. He had airbended her away from him! Katara was suddenly irritated. "What is going on with you?" she snapped.
"I didn't mean it!" There was an edge of panic in his voice. "I just - you were just - I mean - "
"If you didn't want me close to you, you could've just said so." That hurt feeling was just catching up with her; Katara felt betrayed. He was the one who'd chased her - he'd been the one who started all of this and kissed her, and coaxed her into giving away her heart. And now - what? He was backing out? She could feel a lump at the back of her throat and glared hard at him, fighting tears.
"No, no, no - I do want you close! I want you really close, Katara!" His shoulders hunched miserably; the stare he directed at her was so wretched that she almost forgot why she was upset with him. "It's just... when you get that close..." His voice cracked horribly at the end, and he looked away. She could tell he was blushing furiously even without being able to see it.
"You're embarrassed." The anger seemed to drain out of her. Katara felt more than a little embarrassed herself, and did her best to hide it. Sometimes she forgot that he was two years younger than her; he probably just wasn't ready for some things. And they were just kids; the thought of some things made her nervous too. Maybe it was better to wait on this 'getting close' business and stick to more innocent things. "Sorry, Aang - I guess I wasn't thinking."
His eyes flew up to meet hers again. "You're not mad?"
"No, I'm not mad." It was just a little weird, that's all. Katara expected an attitude more like her brother's - eager and ready to go as far as the girl would let him. Obviously, Aang wasn't like that. "We'll just hold off on being that close, all right?"
"Oh... all right." Why did he sound disappointed? Wasn't this what he wanted? Aang smiled at her hopefully. "So we're okay, right?"
Katara nodded, returning the smile. He was just never going to stop confusing her. "Yeah, of course we're okay." She tilted her head, and made the effort to put that awkward moment behind them. "Aren't you going to kiss me goodnight before you go?"
He was across the room in seconds and did just that.
Katara was ready enough to let Aang's strange behavior pass without comment. There seemed to be logical explanations for all of the weirdness, and he'd probably get embarrassed - or just evade the questions - if she brought it up. Besides, things hadn't changed between them. It just wasn't a big deal.
However, it couldn't help but come up in conversation when others noticed it.
"I'll probably be back by lunch." Aang shrugged his robe into place, grabbing a piece of fruit from the table on his way to the door. It wasn't too much of a surprise that he was still hungry after the huge breakfast they'd had; lately, it seemed like he was always hungry. "I think the Earth Sages just want to talk about preserving Air Nomad culture." He smiled a little, looking wistful. "I'm the only one around who really knows about it, after all."
And any future airbenders should know their history. No one came right out and said it, but it was there.
"Anyway" - Aang broke the awkward silence, shaking his head as if to clear that thought from it - "I guess I'll see you guys later." The last syllable of his farewell shot up an octave or two.
"You sound like a tone-deaf sparrowbat," Toph pointed out bluntly, raising her head from where she was laying back on the floor.
"It's not my fault!" Aang responded defensively. There was a flush rising on his cheeks. "Anyway, see ya!" he called, and hurried out.
"Bye..." Katara frowned at the door. "He could've waited."
"And keep the Earth Sages waiting? Katara, what are you thinking?" Sokka leaned back from his cross-legged position on one of the cushions around the table, hands splayed on the floor behind him. "Maybe he was just running late. Who knows?"
"Oh, please. When has Aang ever let being late stop him?"
"He's probably just embarrassed," Suki pointed out, with a glance at Toph. "How many guys like it when people point out that their voice just broke?"
"Hey, you try listening to someone squawk like an animal dying a painful death all the time with heightened hearing." Toph was clearly unconcerned about any embarrassment she may or may not have caused Aang. "He's been doing it for, like, a month now."
"I know." Katara felt suddenly relieved - as if being given an excuse to talk about it were all it took. "He denied it when I tried to bring it up. And did you notice how tall he is now?"
Sokka shrugged. "Seems the same to me."
"That's because you're taller, genius," Suki reminded him, raising an eyebrow. "Maybe that's why you're both so hungry all the time now."
"Not that that's unusual for Sokka anyway," Toph added.
"But it's not just that." Katara somehow felt that if she talked about it a bit more, she might be able to pin the source of the whole thing down. "He's been acting so weird lately."
"You mean weirder than normal?" Sokka grinned.
"Like you can talk, Snoozles," Toph pointed out dryly, and then turned her sightless gaze on Katara. "Exactly what kind of weirdness are you talking about?"
"Well, nothing, really. Actually, it was just one time." Katara belatedly realized that talking about it was going to require more detail than she really felt like giving out. "You know what - it was nothing, really. Never mind."
"Hey, you can't just bring it up and then not talk about it!" Sokka frowned at her, eyes narrowing suspiciously. "You know, I'm starting to think you might be hiding something from us."
"I'm not! It's just - it was kind of private." Katara smoothed the back of her hair uncomfortably. Maybe she could just avoid going into too much detail. "I hugged him a little too close and he airbended me away. That's all."
Toph whistled. "So was this before, after, or during kissy time?"
She could feel the heat rising on her face. "None of your business!"
"Can we please not go there? I just ate." Sokka leaned back in his seat, one eyebrow raised in perplexity. "But seriously, sis: you try to get closer, and he airbends you away? That's just... weird."
"Maybe he's just nervous," Suki suggested. "He's only, what, thirteen?"
"Suki, you're looking at this from a girl's perspective." Sokka's expression was skeptical. "I am telling you, no guy old enough to kiss a girl will ever, in a million years, want to push her away if she's trying to get closer. We just don't."
Katara opened her mouth to refute that, but was interrupted by Toph snickering. "What's so funny?" she asked the younger girl, suspiciously.
"You guys," Toph answered, and grinned wickedly. "You're totally missing the obvious answer."
She could be so irritating when she got like that... "Well, then just what is the obvious answer?"
"Maybe" - Toph drew the word out, crossing her arms behind her head in a self-satisfied manner - "he airbended you away because he's got something to hide."
There was a moment of very potent silence following that declaration.
"That's it!" Sokka snapped his fingers, eyes brightening. "The voice changing, the growth spurt, the pushing away of the girlfriend when she gets close enough to 'notice'..." He straightened in his seat and triumphantly declared his verdict. "Aang is becoming a MAN!" That hung there for all of half a second and then his eyes narrowed. "Wait. Aang is becoming a man?" Abruptly, his whole manner changed - he pointed an accusing finger at his sister, eyes narrowed. "Has he touched you anywhere?"
"Sokka!" Suki was obviously trying to sound outraged, but her grin gave her away. "Don't be ridiculous," she scolded her boyfriend, one hand trying to cover that incriminating expression.
"Ridiculous is right!" Katara shot her brother an exasperrated look. "I'll have you know," she told him, fighting the urge to blush - again - at the implication, "that Aang is a perfect gentleman. Not once has he ever tried anything inappropriate. Unlike some people," she added, with a pointed look at the hand Sokka was trying to inconspicuously slide over Suki's rear end.
He hastily snatched it back. "Hey, I'm a gentleman!"
Katara shared a conspiritorial glance with Suki, who just smiled.
"Sure you are, Sokka," she agreed, in a tone that said just the opposite.
"Suki! You're supposed to be on my side!"
"I agreed with you, didn't I?"
"Well, if Twinkle-Toes is a perfect gentleman," Toph said suddenly, from her reclined position, "then maybe you should be worrying about whether he's taking you seriously enough, Katara." One of her feet rested innocuously on the floor, and there was a hint of an amused smirk on her face.
Katara frowned at her. "Well, of course he's taking me seriously!" she announced, trying to sound more sure than she was. Truthfully, she hadn't thought about it that way before. "Not everyone is going to be a sex fiend like Sokka is."
"Look at... look at Zuko, for example," she went on, ignoring her brother's protest. "I've never seen him do anything inappropriate. He's as much a gentleman as Aang."
Toph snickered. "Right, and I'll bet he behaved really 'gentlemanly' when he and Mai snuck off into Sokka's room during Aang's birthday party."
"MY room?" Sokka slapped a hand to his chest for emphasis, looking outraged. "You serious? They went into MY room!?"
"Probably because it's the closest," Toph answered him, without a hint of remorse for the anguish she was clearly causing him. "I don't know what happened after they fell onto your bed, but there was some pretty heavy gentleman-like action going on during the trip over to - "
"Ew! Ew ew ew ew ew! Oh man!" Sokka brushed furiously at his arms and legs as if trying to rid himself of something foul, and then finally settled for slapping a hand to his face. "Why did they have to pick my room?" he mourned, letting the hand slide down slowly.
"Oh, come on." Toph was clearly in no mood for mercy. "What's the big deal? Not like you ever sleep in there anyway. I'll bet there's dust collecting on the bed. At least, there was before Zuko and Mai got to it."
"Hey, it's still my room, and they have no right to - Wait." It seemed to hit him then that she had hinted at something a little closer to home. Sokka crossed his arms, eyes narrowing. "How much do you know?"
A hint of a smirk was inching its way onto Toph's face. "Wouldn't you like to know? Sokky-poo."
Suki let out a small 'eep' and her face went completely red.
"Well... anyway." Katara really didn't want to think about where that nickname came from, and when Suki might have called her brother by it. "Just because Zuko's as much a pervert as Sokka doesn't prove anything. Some guys are just not as hormonal as others. That's all."
"Y'know, you can be pretty dense sometimes." Toph still looked completely unphased when Katara turned to glare at her. "Well, come on - 'not that hormonal'? What exactly do you think causes the guy to get to the point where he airbends you away?"
Katara opened her mouth to respond, but nothing came out. She could feel her face begin to grow hot as the silence stretched out, but she couldn't think of anything to say to refute that statement. "That... That's not important - and it doesn't change anything," she declared finally, but there was no force behind her words. It made her a little uncomfortable, yeah - but it might have been kind of flattering, too, and she felt a little flustered about the idea.
It didn't help that Toph just smiled back at her, either. "Liar."
"Oh, shut up," she muttered, and crossed her arms over her chest, once again refusing to look anyone in the eye.
"Okay, this is officially the most disturbing conversation I've ever been a part of." Sokka gave the reclining earthbender a flat stare. "Thanks a lot for the mental images, Toph. I thought I was complete with the joyous reality of Zuko and Mai doing unspeakable things on my bed, but oh no - you have to go the extra mile and treat me to some wonderful thoughts of all the things Aang wants to do to my sister. Remind me to kill him later, will you?"
"Look, it's none of your business, okay?" Katara clenched her fingers hard against her arms and glared at him, trying to ignore the blazing heat she still felt on the surface of her face. "Besides, we haven't done anything. You can't blame him for stuff we haven't even done."
"He was thinking it!" Sokka protested. "I'll bet he's just waiting for his chance."
"Now that is just the stupidest thing I've ever - "
"Hey, guys!" The front door swung open, and Aang stepped back into the house, an unsuspecting smile on his face and the High Sage on his heels. "We're just stopping by so I can get my - "
"There! See that?" Sokka swung his arm dramatically to point at Aang's startled face. "Just look at that gleam in his eyes. That boy is just waiting for his chance to breed!"
There was a moment of shocked silence, and Katara noticed with some sympathy that Aang's eyes were approximately the size of saucers as he goggled at Sokka.
"Is that so?" That was the High Sage breaking the silence; he was giving Aang a speculative look that Katara did not trust at all. "The last remaining airbender, ready to... er... 'breed'?"
"Breed?" Aang's voice was a small, sick thing; it warbled embarrassingly and he didn't even seem to care. "Me?"
"This is an interesting development, indeed." The High Sage still had that thoughtful look on his face; it was almost possible to see the wheels turning behind it. "Perhaps, Avatar Aang, we could postpone our meeting until later this evening. There is something I should attend to at once." A thin smile spread on the man's face. "The sooner the better, I'm thinking."
Without even waiting for an answer, the man was out the door, leaving Katara with a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach.
Somehow, she felt that whatever this signified, it wasn't good.
Zuko knew his headache was going
to get worse the second he stepped outside of the council room.
Peace negotiations were not exactly easy. It was a delicate balance to maintain - between making concessions in regards to repairations and still asserting the Fire Nation's autonomy. The Fire Nation wasn't defeated, precisely, and he wasn't a puppet ruler put in place to serve the Avatar. He needed to establish that he wasn't going to bend over backwards at every little request. But it was equally important to establish that the Fire Nation acknowledged its mistakes and was willing to take responsibility.
Sometimes it was really difficult to keep his temper in line.
Mai had been helpful there. Zuko was more grateful for her presence than she could ever know. In addition to managing the hundreds - no, thousands - of tiny details that were involved in the running of a nation, including delegating responsibility and ensuring that nothing significant escaped his notice... she somehow also managed to keep him sane. He wasn't entirely sure how she did it, but he was sure that he'd never manage without her.
He had that on his mind almost before the meeting concluded - Mai's unquestioning loyalty and how lucky he was to have her. Mostly, though, he was thinking about Mai's slender arms, the slight curve of her hips, the way she fit into his arms, the way she reacted when he kissed that spot at the corner of her jaw...
Hastily formed plans of retreating to her chambers and having dinner delivered to them were interrupted, however, when he stepped through the door and was treated to the site of the Avatar standing directly opposite, a scroll clutched tightly in his hand and his eyes already fixed on Zuko pleadingly.
The new Fire Lord resisted the urge to roll his eyes ceilingward in despair. Well, there goes the evening...
But Aang had done a lot for him, he reminded himself. It would be ungrateful to try to blow whatever this was off. It helped if he kept telling himself that and didn't let his thoughts wander back to Mai and how she looked into his eyes when he - right. Anyway. "What is it?" he asked, doing his best not to sound too put-out as he approached his friend.
"I need to ask you something." Was it his imagination, or did Aang have a bit of a wild look in his eyes? Like he was fighting off panic or something. "Is there somewhere we can go talk?"
There went the last bit of hope for his evening. Zuko bit back a sigh. "Sure," he agreed, and figured he'd done a pretty good job of not letting his lack of enthusiasm show in his voice. "This way."
Zuko regarded the scroll Aang had handed him blankly. "This is a list of girls' names," he pointed out, wondering if maybe the younger boy had somehow mixed it up with something else.
"Yeah, I know." Aang sank down onto the plush divan in Zuko's chambers with a long sigh.
It was difficult to resist the urge to throttle him. "Why am I reading a list of girls' names?"
"Because!" Abruptly Aang was on his feet again; he paced across the room with a sort of restless energy that could only come from having his nerves worn to the fray. Zuko was familiar with that feeling. "I just had a meeting with the Earth Sages. We were supposed to be talking about preserving Air Nomad culture," he added, clearly aggravated. "But Sokka made a comment about 'breeding' - I still don't know why - and now I get this!" He flung both hands in the air.
"A list of girls' names," Zuko repeated, flatly. Hopefully his tone would be enough to convey just how absurd that was.
"Not just any girls." Aang waved his hand at the scroll, and then let it flop down to his side again in agitation. "Those girls are supposedly my 'best prospects' for 'fulfilling my duty' of completely repopulating the Air Nomads. By myself!" He slumped back onto the divan again, covering his face with both hands. "I really wish this was a bad dream..."
"Oh." Now the panic made sense. Zuko looked from the scroll to the Avatar and back again, not really sure what to say. How could anyone be expected to react well to something like that? "Uh... well... From the size of this list, I wouldn't exactly say 'by yourself' is how they expect you to do it."
"That's even worse!" Aang's head shot back up; the look on his face had remarkable similarity to the look one might see on a cornered animal. "Look at that thing! They can't really expect me to... you know" - his face went a bit red at that - "with all of those girls! That - that would just be - !"
"Calm down," Zuko cut him off. His voice might've been just a bit too sharp, but somehow he had a feeling that was what Aang needed just then. He couldn't even imagine being thirteen again and being presented with a list of 'eligible' young ladies to father children onto. In fact, he couldn't imagine being expected to father children at thirteen, period. He still panicked at the thought of fathering children. "They can't expect you to get all of these girls pregnant" - the thought was staggering - "so what they probably want is for you to just pick one." And hop into bed with her about five seconds after, his mind finished for him.
It was probably not wise to repeat that thought out loud.
"But I already have picked the girl I want to be with!" Aang's expression was a mixture of earnest and despairing - it was a very strange combination. "I love her! We've been through so much... and I thought for a while we might never be together." He hunched his shoulders briefly as if in memory of something unhappy, then straightened again and continued. "But now we are and everything's perfect. And then this happens!" He slouched down even further into the divan, despondantly.
"Why should it be a big deal if you've already got someone?" Zuko was having a hard time understanding that part. "She probably wants kids some day - most girls do. Just tell the Sages you've already got a girlfriend and they're just going to have to wait until she's ready to let you" - He coughed, feeling a bit awkward about it - "well, you know. That's not unreasonable, is it?"
"Maybe." Aang didn't sound too optimistic. "But there's just one problem. Take a look at that list again."
"What?" Zuko picked up the list and quickly scanned through it. "I don't see - oh." His eyes widened as what he was seeing - or wasn't seeing - registered. "I see the problem."
"Yeah." Aang pushed himself forward, resting his arms on his knees as he stared almost furiously at the floor. "I checked it over three times, thinking there was some mistake, but it's not. Katara's name isn't on there."
Zuko tried to imagine his own reaction if someone had handed him a list of eligible young ladies to pick a prospective mate from and Mai's name wasn't present. It wasn't a pretty picture. "But these are just suggestions, right? I mean, there shouldn't be any reason you can't go out with someone who's not on the list."
"That's what I thought too," the younger boy admitted, glumly. "And I told them about Katara. And they said that since Katara's a waterbender, there's just as much chance she'd have kids who are waterbenders, too. Then they said I shouldn't make up my mind until I've met all of their 'prospects' and given them a fair chance." When he looked up, his eyes had more of a panicked look than ever. "What am I gonna do!? When Katara finds out..."
That would probably go downhill pretty fast. Katara had a nasty temper sometimes, and something like this was bound to set it off. Zuko scratched his head. "Yeah, you're pretty much dead meat," he replied.
"Thanks..." There was an edge of bitterness in Aang's voice; he frowned at Zuko. "That helps a lot."
"Well, what do you want me to do?" Zuko responded, just a bit defensively. "I don't know anything about making babies!" The words were only just out of his mouth when he realized what it sounded like. "I mean, I do know how to do it," he ammended, hastily. "I"m, uh, pretty familiar with that part of it. I just don't get the part that decides whether or not the kid is going to be any kind of bender."
"Yeah, neither do I." Aang let out an agrieved sigh. "I just don't know what I'm gonna do! The Sages are going to start throwing these girls at me no matter what I say, and there's no way Katara's not going to notice. We live in the same house, for crying out loud!"
"That does make it difficult to hide." Zuko frowned thoughtfully. If only there was some way... Wait. "Hey, I think I've got it!" It was just so simple - he couldn't help but smile, just a little. "If it's living in the same place that causes the problem, why don't you just live somewhere else for a while?"
Aang's eyes widened a little; he sat up a bit straighter in his seat as the idea sunk in. "That could work," he admitted, seeming to brighten up a bit. Then he frowned again. "But where would I stay?"
"You could stay here." It probably wouldn't hurt anything. In fact, it might even work in Zuko's favor; by offering his rooms to the Avatar, he had a completely reasonable excuse to spend every night in Mai's rooms. The more he thought of it, the better he liked it. "It's not like your friends come to the palace much anyway. And there are plenty of guards around to take care of any girls that get too... agressive."
"Stay here? In your rooms? Are you sure that's okay?" Aang already looked more optimistic at the prospect; there was a certain hope in his expression. "I mean, I wouldn't get in your way or anything, would I?"
"Yeah, of course it's okay." Zuko felt enormously pleased with himself for having worked all of that out. And in record time, too - it hadn't even taken up the majority of his evening. "I'll just stay in Mai's room."
"That's great - thanks, Zuko!" Aang propelled himself from his seat smoothly and clapped the Fire Lord's shoulder enthusiastically. "You're a life savor," he added fervently.
Knowing Katara, Zuko figured he could probably take that literally. He grinned. "No problem."
"But shouldn't you ask Mai first?" Aang asked, suddenly looking less relieved and more worried. "What if she says no?"
"Don't worry about it," Zuko told him confidently. "There's no way she'd say no. What reason could she possibly have for that?"
"You're kidding, right?"
Out of all the reactions Zuko might've expected, this one hadn't been among them. He returned his girlfriend's wry stare with some confusion. "What's the problem?"
"Zuko," she sighed, and rolled her eyes upward, "I love you, but you have a bad habit of not paying attention sometimes. Do you remember when we first arrived back in Ba Sing Se after your coronation?"
"Yes," he answered, without thinking, and then ammended with, "sort of. It was a long time ago. What's this got to do with - ?"
"I'm coming to that." She regarded him steadily, as if expecting something to come back to him that would explain her refusal. "Do you remember the guard explaining how men and women are housed here in the palace?"
Zuko thought back - and then the conversation came back to him. He slumped, letting out a low groan.
"Unmarried men and women don't share quarters," Mai pointed out, unnecessarily. "And it's a little discourteous to disrespect our host's customs. You can't stay here."
"I'm here all the time anyway." It seemed so useless - in the Fire Nation, there wouldn't have been such outrage over such a technicality. "What's the difference if I happen to sleep in here too? We're already doing everything else together."
She raised an eyebrow at him, and he realized he was beginning to whine. "All right, all right, I get it. No sharing quarters." It had been such a good idea. "Aang's going to have to sleep on my couch."
Mai smiled, looking faintly amused. "Well, I'm sure that's a sacrifice you won't have much trouble making," she said, turning to move toward the bed. She looked back over her shoulder at him. "Since you're here all the time anyway, it shouldn't bother you."
That was true. Zuko grinned, wordlessly accepting her invitation and catching up in time to encase her in his arms before they lowered themselves onto the cushions. "How come you're always right about everything?"
"I guess I'm just naturally gifted." She gave him that look - the one that weakened his knees - and slid a lingering hand over his face. "And it helps that you're always looking for answers that are easy to come up with."
"What, are you saying I'm not smart enough to figure that out?" He kissed her, slow and lazy. Mai's lips were warm, welcoming. Like her, much as she did her best to hide it. Zuko breathed in her familiar scent, already feeling intoxicated. She did this to him every time.
"No," she answered when he pulled back, the slightest hint of a smirk lingering about her mouth. Zuko had trouble taking his eyes from it. "You just make things more difficult than they have to be." She shifted, drawing him closer. "No more talking."
He was more than happy to oblige her there.
"Explain to me again why I need to get involved in this." Zuko frowned at Aang.
"I told you." The Avatar didn't seem intimidated by his dangerous expression; if anything, he seemed to have the impression that Zuko just didn't understand what was going on - which was even more irritating than his assumption that Zuko would just passively go along with the plan he'd come up with. "I need an excuse to leave the house. Otherwise, the others are going to suspect something. So I'll just sneak back into my room and act like I was there all along, and you come in and give them the story I came up with. Perfect, right?"
Zuko didn't bother suppressing his impatient sigh. 'Perfect' was not the word he would use to describe Aang's half-baked story about secret meetings regarding a hunt for pirates. But he wasn't going to waste time arguing about it. "Toph is going to expose us both as liars before I've said two words," he pointed out, instead.
"I explained everything to Toph. She knows how to keep a secret." Aang rubbed the back of his head, looking a bit sheepish. "Actually, she pretty much said she couldn't wait to see what happened when it all fell apart, but anyway... Yeah. She won't say anything."
Zuko sighed again, rolling his eyes to the morning sky and wondering what he did to deserve this. "Fine."
"Great! I'll be in my room. Just ask for me." Aang airbended himself a scooter and flew off. "Thanks, Zuko!"
"You owe me." And he wasn't about to use the stupid pirate story, either. Ideas were already forming in Zuko's head when he walked up to the front door of the Avatar's house.
"Zuko!" It was Katara who opened the door - she looked surprised to see him. "You need something, or just here for a visit?"
"Tell me you brought more of those pastries!" Sokka called from across the room.
"Sorry." Zuko cast a quick gaze at Toph, who sat at the table with a mug of something warm in her hands. She sipped at it without concern, not looking at him. "I'm looking for Aang. Is he around?"
"Yeah, probably." Sokka slumped back into his seat, clearly losing interest. "Katara would know."
"Sokka!" Her cheeks reddened; she glared at her brother.
"What? It's true."
Katara shook her head, and offered Zuko a bit of an apologetic smile. "I think he's in his room. Just a moment," she added, moving down the hall that led to the bedrooms.
"So, Zuko." Toph unnerringly turned her face directly towards him. It was really unsettling sometimes how she did that. She smirked a little. "How's Mai?"
"Buh!" Sokka glared at the girl for no reason at all.
"Uh... fine." Zuko wasn't sure why the question caused such a reaction. "Why?"
"Oh, nothing. Just curious." She smiled with a certain satisfaction. "Same as - say - a month ago?"
He stared at her blankly. "I... guess."
"GAH! Don't wanna know! Don't wanna know!" Sokka covered up his ears with his hands, looking ready to explode. "LALALA... can't hear you..."
Zuko suspected he was being used as fodder for this little joke, but he wasn't really sure how.
"Hey, Zuko!" Aang's entrance spared him the trouble of trying to figure it out. The Avatar smiled brightly at him. "You need me for something?"
"Not exactly." Zuko did his best to maintain a straight face. "Actually, the truth is, I've received requests from the Sages to have some... tests... performed on you. Pretty sensitive tests."
The look on Aang's face was priceless. From off to the side, Toph made a suspicious coughing sound.
"What sort of tests?" Katara asked, a bit suspiciously.
"Oh, you know." Zuko waved a hand vaguely. "Making sure he's fit to father children, checking for impotence... the usual tests. It's pretty embarassing, actually. He's going to have to stay at the palace."
"Ooh. That's harsh, Aang." Sokka looked sympathetic for all of two seconds, then smiled. "Good luck with that."
"Yeah... tests, huh?" Aang stared hard at Zuko, nonplussed. "You sure it's tests? It's not a secret meeting or anything?"
"Nope." Zuko kept his expression neutral. "I'm pretty sure it's tests. Better grab your things." He allowed himself a bit of a smile then. "I have a feeling you'll be getting nice and personal with those Sages for the next few days, so you'll want to make yourself comfortable at the palace."
That was the point when Toph gave in and burst into howls of laughter, one of her fists pounding on the table uncontrollably.
"Did you really have to do that?" Aang's expression was sour; he held himself a bit stiffly as he kept pace with Zuko.
Zuko regarded him without sympathy. "Sorry," he responded, not even attempting to make his voice sound sincere. "But your pirate story stunk. At least mine will guarantee you don't have any unexpected visitors."
"It also means I can't go and visit them." Aang sighed, shoulders drooping somewhat. "I wonder how long this is going to go on for..."
"How many girls can you meet in a day?" Zuko shrugged. "I saw about thirty names. If you only meet one girl per day, it'll take you a month."
"A month?" Aang groaned, slapping a hand to his face in an almost comical show of despair. "That's practically forever!"
Zuko resisted the urge to sigh - again. Something about dealing with the Avatar... "So make sure you meet more than one a day. You haven't got anything else to do, have you?"
"Not unless the Sages decide they're willing to talk about Air Nomad culture again." Aang's tone made it clear how he felt about the interruption. "This is all just so stupid!"
"It's not that stupid when you stop to think about it," Zuko pointed out. "The world's going to need more airbenders at some point. Otherwise the Avatar cycle will break when it makes its way to air again."
"Yeah, but that's not going to be for hundreds of years!" Aang protested. "Don't you think they can afford to at least give me a few years to get used to the idea? And, you know, not try to tell me who I can and can't have kids with?"
"You do have a point."
"Tell that to them," Aang muttered, and then sighed. "I have a feeling today's going to be a long day."
Zuko didn't respond, but he privately suspected the younger boy was right about that.
" - and I'm sure all concerned will agree that this is in everybody's best interest." There was a condescending tone in the EarthKingdom advisor's voice. "After all, the territory that the Fire Nation had occuppied is in really poor condition. An increase in the reparations the Fire Nation has been offering really is the ideal temporary solution."
Zuko suspected it would be unreasonable to throttle the man. "The amount and the term for reparations has been established for over a month now," he pointed out, keeping his voice even and unemotional. "Are you suggesting that the agreement be nullified?"
"Not at all, not at all." The man smiled - an oily sort of smile. "But with all due respect, winter is coming on now, and we hadn't fully understood the extend of the damage before we had the proper time to - "
"A thousand pardons, my Lords." A diffident servant stepped forward, bowing low even as he spoke. "I've just been given word that the Avatar has requested a moment with Firelord Zuko."
"The Avatar?" There was a scattered murmur that passed over the table of assembled nobles.
"Perhaps... we could reconvene in an hour or so," one of the other advisors suggested, eyeing Zuko with a certain apprehension. "We wouldn't want to offend the Avatar..."
Yeah, because that's easy to do... Zuko resisted the urge to sigh and roll his eyes, pushing himself up from his seat. "That might be a good idea," he agreed blandly.
Aang caught up to him almost as soon as he was out of the door. "Over here," he urged in a tense sort of voice, pulling Zuko off into a side corridor of the palace.
Zuko waited until they were inside one of the unoccuppied rooms before turning on the younger boy and fixing him with a flat stare. "Just what was so important that you needed to interrupt a council meeting to tell me about it?"
"I need your help." There was a desperate sort of look in Aang's eyes, and Zuko noticed for the first time that his clothing looked distinctly dissheveled. "Telling them I needed to meet up with you was the only way I could get out of there. Zuko... you have to teach me how to deal with crazy girls." He grabbed handfuls of his friend's robes. "Please."
Oh, for... Zuko pinched the bridge of his nose. "What makes you think I'm any better at it than you are? Didn't you have gaggles of fangirls at some point?"
"This is different!" Aang insisted, and let go of the robes to spread his arms with a sort of jerky helplessness. "These girls are really crazy!"
Zuko let out a frustrated huff of breath. "Well, how am I supposed to help?"
"You grew up with Azula, didn't you?"
He frowned. "Good point." And crossed his arms. "Go ahead."
"Okay." Aang took in a long breath, obviously drawing a sense of calm around himself. "I've only met four of them," he began, in a steady tone. "The Sages just kind of left us alone in the room to 'get to know each other'." He exaggerrated the last few words. "Anyway, at first they were all just looking at me, and I answered some of their questions, and that was okay." He rubbed the back of his head, clearly uncomfortable. "I mean, it was weird and all, but I thought, 'hey, I can get through this, right? This isn't so bad.'"
Zuko nodded. "Okay. So..."
"So, they started asking when Air Nomads get married, and then whether they - uh" - He flushed, and hastily went on - "you know - even if they're not married, and things started getting out of hand and they were asking about if we had rituals for it, and if there was sometimes more than - more than one person doing... it." His voice broke on the last syllable, into a high-pitched sort of squeak that seemed to go along well with his blazing red face. His words were tumbling out at that point, punctuated by more and more cracks and warbles as he went along. "And then one of them asked what Air Nomad clothes were made of, and she grabbed my arm to look at it, and then they were all touching me, and - "
" - and you freaked out and ran off to get me," Zuko finished for him. At the younger boy's quick, jerky nod of assent, he sighed. "Not that I blame you, but seriously... if you're going to run away every time, this is probably going to take a lot longer than you want it to."
"But what am I supposed to do!?" There was a note of utter panic in Aang's voice. "No one told me they'd be asking stuff like this! Normal people don't do that when they've just met someone! I thought we'd talk about - I don't know - the weather! Or Air Nomad cooking! Or - Or something! But not that!"
"Well... that is kind of why they're meeting you," Zuko pointed out, shrugging a bit. "Maybe you just weren't prepared. If you go into this knowing that they're going to ask those kinds of questions, maybe next time you won't scream like a little girl and run away." He raised an eyebrow.
Aang groaned, slapping a hand to this forehead. "This is so messed up," he complained. "How is anyone supposed to be prepared for questions like that? It's - it's impossible! Oh, and for the record," he added, opening one eye to look at Zuko, "I didn't scream."
"But you did run away," Zuko countered.
That wasn't an unreasonable question, actually. "Not if I was prepared for it," Zuko responded, and fixed the younger boy with a steady gaze. "Look. You're just going to have to get used to the idea that you're a public figure now. People are going to want to know about you. There are going to be embarrassing questions asked here and there. It goes with being well-known." He shrugged again. "Get used to it."
"Yeah, and how many times have you been stuck in a room with four girls that some Sages want you to breed with - while 26 more are probably hanging around waiting for their turn - and had to answer all their questions about whether or not Air Nomads had sex rituals?" Aang threw up his hands, then let out a long, despairing sigh, drooping. "I don't know if I can do this..."
Zuko scratched his head, wracking his brain for something to say that might be encouraging. His uncle would know. Or Katara. Katara was the one who always seemed to cheer Aang up when he was in his worst moods. But it wasn't like he could call her in to deal with this...
Hmm. Maybe that was the key.
"You don't want Katara to find out about this, do you?" He noticed with satisfaction how Aang's head jerked back up, and went on. "Well, the longer you draw this out, the more chance that she's going to hear about it. And if you give up now..." He spread his hands. "Who knows what could happen?"
Determination was starting to build back up in Aang's expression. "You're right," he agreed, after a moment. "I have to keep Katara out of this. Just because the Sages are crazy doesn't mean she should have to get upset over it."
Yeah, let's not have Katara get upset, thanks. Zuko still had a few bad memories of those times that he'd prefer not to relive, even if it wasn't him she was angry at. "So, you know what you need to do, right?"
The younger boy took in a deep breath, squaring his shoulders with a firm resolve. "Yeah. I'm ready." He looked up at Zuko with a bit of a smile. "Thanks, Zuko."
"No problem." Zuko managed to return the smile. At least he was able to help this weird situation along. The sooner it was over and done with, the better. "Just... try not to interrupt any more council meetings in the future, okay?"
"Yeah." Aang nodded, but his expression was not exactly as certain as Zuko would've liked. "I'll try not to."
Given the situation, that was probably going to have to do.
Aang's interruption - thankfully his only interruption - caused the rest of the day's meetings to run later than normal. Zuko returned to his rooms after the sun had already gone down, and his heavy robes were really beginning to get to him. Not to mention the pounding at his temples that signified another impending headache.
I wonder if Mai's eaten yet... Maybe it wasn't too late to join her for a meal. Zuko opened the doors into his bedchamber, distracted by thoughts of Mai and food - not necessarily in that order - and had half undone the tie that held his robe closed when he heard the short scream from the girl on his bed.
The naked, unfamiliar girl. On his bed.
For a moment, all he could do was stare in stunned silence.
"Who are you?" the girl wailed, pulling up the covers hastily.
That was enough to snap him out of it. "Who am I?" Zuko repeated, incredulously. "Who are you!? And why are you naked on my bed!?"
She blinked at him, still clutching the covers like a shield. "This - this is your bed?"
"Yes, this is my bed - why do you think I'm in here!?" This was ridiculous. Zuko glared at the girl, already beyond frustrated with the misunderstanding. Obviously, she didn't know who he was, but he didn't feel like enlightening her at that point. "Whose bed did you think it was?"
"I - I - " She bit her lip. "This isn't where Avatar Aang is staying?" she asked then, tentatively.
Oh, you have got to be kidding me... Zuko pinched the bridge of his nose, shutting his eyes. I didn't ask for this. Why couldn't Aang keep his problems to himself? "The Avatar is staying here as my guest," he ground out, struggling to keep his voice even. "On my couch." He had second thoughts about giving out that information almost immediately. "And that doesn't mean I want to find you naked on my couch, either!"
"I - I'm sorry!" The girl sank even lower beneath the covers, until only her eyes were peeking out.
"Ugh..." Zuko rolled his eyes toward the ceiling. This was a stupid situation. "Just get out of here!" A thought occurred to him, and he abruptly spun around, feeling uncomfortable. "Get dressed and then get out of here!" he ammended.
She was brushing past him in less than two minutes, and out the door only a few seconds after.
Zuko waited until he couldn't hear her hastily retreating footsteps any more, and then strode forward with a frustrated, "Urgh," and locked the door to his rooms. It wasn't standard procedure, and it would make it hard for Aang if he came back trying to get in, but Zuko didn't feel comfortable undressing until he was sure that no one else was going to join him.
This had better end quickly.
"She was what!?" Aang stared at him, aghast. "Are you sure?"
"How would I not be sure?" Zuko snapped at him. "I walked in and found a naked girl on my bed! Last time I checked, it was pretty hard to mistake 'naked and on my bed'!"
"I don't believe it..." The younger boy slumped, his expression a mix of horror and shock. "That is just... crazy! It's worse than crazy! It's - it's super crazy! And how did she find out where I was staying? I didn't tell anyone!" His eyes widened suddenly. "Oh no... What if she went to my house? What if she talked to Katara?" He clutched the back of his head with both hands, clearly panicking. "What if more girls are talking to Katara, right now?" He jumped across the room for his staff. "I have to go!"
"Wait." Zuko grabbed the back of his shirt, restraining him. "Let's not jump to any conclusions. If you go back there now, they'll start to suspect that something's up."
"But it'll be even worse if those girls have been there!" Aang protested. "Who knows what they might've said? I have to clear things up!"
"You don't know that - what if the girls didn't stop by? It would seem too weird if you went home now." Zuko thought for a moment. "I'll go and talk to them. You wait here."
Aang was clearly not happy with that plan. "Wait here? Alone?" His eyes darted nervously around the room. "But what if more naked girls come by? What should I do?"
"Lock the door." Seeing as how he was the one who'd found the first naked girl, Zuko didn't have a lot of sympathy for him just then. "I'll knock when I get back."
"How will I know it's you?" Aang demanded, clutching at the front of Zuko's shirt again. He'd clearly worked himself up into a full-blown panic now. "What if it's a naked girl pretending to be you, and I let her in and she jumps on me and - "
"I'll say it's me," Zuko responded flatly, brushing the younger boy's hands aside. He could feel his patience wearing thin. "Whoever this girl is, I think she'd have a pretty hard time imitating my voice. Okay?"
"But - but - what if they gang up on you and force you to say it's you, but really it's them and - "
"Aang." Zuko cut him off, leveling him with a flat, unamused stare. "A gang of naked girls is not going to ambush me and force me to ask to be let into my own rooms." He shook his head. "For one thing, I think they'd have a hard time explaining to the guards why they were hanging out in the hallway naked - but that's beside the point!" He crossed his arms. "You need to calm down."
The younger boy took in a long breath, shut his eyes, and let it out. "You're right," he said, in a much more reasonable tone, opening his eyes again to fix them on Zuko. "I'm just... letting this whole thing get to me. But I can be calm. Yeah." He managed a queasy-looking smile. "I'll... I'll just wait for you to get back."
"Good." Zuko turned and reached for the door handle. "I'll try not to be too long," he promised over his shoulder, and opened the door, letting himself out. Only once the door had closed behind him did he let out the frustrated sigh he'd been holding in.
Sometimes he really wished he'd listened to his uncle's advice and taken up Pai Shou instead of searching for the Avatar.
"Zuko!" Katara looked surprised when she opened the door. All the same, she stood aside and let him in. "Why are you here?"
"Uh - Aang forgot something." Zuko cursed himself mentally for forgetting that he was going to need a reason to be there. And then again for coming up with such a lame one. "He asked me to come by and get it."
"Forgot what?" Sokka wandered out of the kitchen. "He's got his staff and his clothes. It's not like Aang carries around a lot of things with him. Oh, wait, let me guess..." - he turned abruptly and grabbed the sleeping lemur from the table beside him, prompting an undignified squawk - "It's Momo! He forgot Momo! Right?"
Zuko stared at the squirming lemur blankly. "Uh. No."
Katara was also giving her brother a strange look. "Why would he take Momo? It's not like there's a lemur babysitter around who could keep him out of trouble when Aang's busy with the Sages." She turned to Zuko then, with a bit of a worried expression. "How is Aang, anyway? Is he doing okay?"
Sokka raised an eyebrow at her, setting the disgruntled animal back on the table. "You're worried already? He's only been gone since this morning."
Two spots of color rose on Katara's cheeks. "Look, I'm just not too crazy about this idea of 'tests', all right? Who knows what they're actually doing to him over there?" She glanced back towards Zuko. "He is doing okay... right?"
A vivid memory of Aang's wild-eyed expression of extreme distress flashed through his mind. "Yeah... he's fine."
"Oh. Well, good." Katara smiled, apparently satisfied by his less than sincere report. "Maybe I could stop by and visit some time, then."
Zuko had a momentary vision of Katara walking into his rooms and finding a naked girl sitting on his couch, and blanched. "That's... probably not a good idea," he said, scratched awkwardly at the back of his head. "Aang's not really in good shape for company. I mean, that's why he sent me, right?"
"Right..." Katara was looking at him funny, but she apparently wasn't suspicious enough to question him about his excuse. "So what was it that Aang forgot?"
"Oh, it was his - uh - pillow." Zuko gave himself another mental slap, but it was out now and he had to work with it. "He said he was having trouble sleeping. Apparently the ones at the palace are too... uh... soft? Yeah, that sounds about right," he muttered, under his breath.
"Too soft?" Sokka repeated, narrowing his eyes. Then he abruptly relaxed. "I can buy that."
"Okay..." Katara raised an eyebrow. "If Aang really needs his pillow, then I'll go get it for him." She turned down the hallway, passing Toph on the way. "Just wait here."
"So" - Sokka slumped down next to the table - "have a seat."
Zuko shook his head. "Sorry, but I can't stay."
"Not you." Sokka rolled his eyes upward. "I meant Toph. We're having a thumb war tournament. Unless, of course, you want in on the action." He raised his eyebrows meaningfully.
"No, that's okay."
"Yeah, you wouldn't last long anyway." Toph conveniently bumped into him on the way to the table. "A pillow, huh?" she commented, under her breath. "Smooth excuse."
"Shut up," Zuko muttered in return. He raised his voice for Sokka's benefit. "So, has anyone been here looking for Aang recently?"
The other boy shrugged. "Not that I know of."
"One of the Earth Sages came by around lunchtime," Toph pointed out, folding herself down opposite Sokka. "He wanted to know where Aang was staying at the palace." She shrugged. "Katara told him it was your rooms."
That's normal enough. At least it hadn't been one of the girls coming by. Unfortunately, it also meant that the Earth Sages were giving that information out. Which meant they could expect more visits from potentially naked girls.
That wasn't exactly a good thought.
"Well, here it is." Katara's expression was wry as she came out holding the item in question. "The oh-so-necessary pillow." She handed it over. "Make sure you tell Aang to come and visit when he's feeling up to it, okay?"
"Sure." Zuko tucked the pillow under his arm, and half-turned back towards the door. "Anyway, I should be getting back. So, uh, I guess I'll see you all later."
"Later." Sokka waved a negligant hand. "You are so going down," he commented, to Toph.
"Yeah, in your dreams maybe."
Zuko was still shaking his head even as the door closed behind him.
Almost immediately, Aang seemed to materialize by his side. "So? What'd they say?"
His surprise only lasted a moment - and then Zuko slapped his face with one hand, counting to ten inside his head in an attempt to keep his cool. "What are you doing here?" he demanded, through clenched teeth, hastily stalking away from the door in case someone decided to open it again. "What if someone saw you?"
"I know, I know!" Aang jogged a little to keep up with him. "But I just couldn't wait! It was driving me crazy!"
"Ugh! Fine." There was no point trying to reason with him; it was just Zuko's bad luck to be in this annoying situation with someone who couldn't be counted on to stick to any kind of set plan. "It was one of the Sages who came by, and Katara told him where you're staying. He's probably passed it on to every single girl on that list."
Aang let out a long, relieved breath. "So Katara's not upset."
"No, but I am." Zuko frowned at the younger boy. "Do you realize what this means? Every one of those thirty girls is going to be hanging around my rooms - with or without clothing - hoping for a chance to get you alone. We're practically going to have to keep that place under lockdown!"
"Oh no... I didn't think of that..." Aang's expression looked suddenly anxious. "What should we do?"
"What can we do?" Zuko let out another frustrated breath. "We're just going to have to ride this out and hope it blows over soon. Hopefully after a while they'll all realize you're not interested and just... go away."
"Yeah..." Aang nodded, but he didn't look particularly reassured. "Do you think maybe if I told them about Katara, they'd take the hint?"
"Couldn't hurt." Somehow, though, Zuko didn't think that a girl who was willing to strip down and wait naked in some strange guy's bed would give up so easily. Something occurred to him then, and he narrowed his eyes at the other boy. "Wait... did you fly here?"
"Uh... yeah." Aang hefted his staff. "So?"
One of these days, he really was going to snap and throttle him. Zuko kept his voice even with a great deal of effort. "And did you unlock the door before you went?"
"Oh. I forgot." Aang gave him a bit of a sheepish grin. "Sorry. I guess I'll just fly back so I can let you in."
Zuko counted to ten, and then back down again. It's not worth the effort... It's really not worth it... "Yeah, you do that."
"Okay - see you there!" His glider snapped open, and with a sharp gust of air, he was flying off.
The headache was definitely taking over; Zuko rubbed at his forehead, wondering if he really had the mental strength to manage this. Day one, he thought to himself, wryly. This is just day one.
Tomorrow was already looking bleak.
Katara had more or less decided
she'd had enough.
It had been three days now since Aang had left, and she hadn't even caught a glimpse of him in that time. He didn't even write! She'd mentioned this irritably to Toph once, and had gotten only a raised eyebrow and some snarky comment about an 'empty nest'. No one else got it! Three days was a long time to be barely two blocks away and still somehow completely out of communication with her. Or, them. Either way.
"I don't think he's in good shape for company," Zuko had told her the other day - a little more sharply than she thought was really necessary. He'd come by on another errand that didn't make any sense - a lot like that trip he'd made a couple of days ago to pick up Aang's pillow. They still hadn't figured out what that was all about.
Personally, Katara thought that Zuko was the one who wasn't in good shape for company. His eyes were bloodshot, his jaw seemed permanently clenched, and it looked like he'd developed some kind of nervous tic on the unscarred side of his face that could be set off by the most innocent-seeming comments. Beyond that, though, he was distinctly crabby and seemed to be making a conscious effort to keep his temper under control.
"What's up with him?" Sokka had asked after he'd left, and Katara wished she had an answer.
Something was going on here - she was more sure of that every day - but she didn't have the slightest idea of what it might be.
"Oh, get over it," Toph responded, when she brought the subject up. The younger girl was infuriatingly unconcerned about this whole mess. "Ever thought that maybe if there is something going on, you might not want to know what it is?"
Katara frowned. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"Well, think about it." Toph leaned back against the wall behind her, her tone reasonable. "Aang's not very good at keeping secrets. He usually cracks pretty quick. If he's so determined to keep this one, that means it's gotta be something he thinks you're going to be pretty upset about."
"And that's why I want to know what it is," Katara asserted, eyes narrowing. Aang had this unfortunately tendency to get himself into trouble without really trying. Obviously, this time he'd dragged Zuko into it, too. And she wasn't about to let him continue to get himself in deeper with whatever it was.
"In other words," Toph put in flatly, "you're nosy."
"Fine! I'm nosy." Katara crossed her arms, more than a little put-out by this whole business. "But Aang happens to be my boyfriend now, and boyfriends shouldn't keep secrets from their girlfriends, even if it would make them upset." She could feel her nose flaring even as she spoke, but didn't care. "And when I track him down and figure out what he's been hiding from me, I am going to be calm and rational. And prove to him that it would've been better to tell me from the start rather than getting himself into a huge mess that's probably getting worse every day just because he tried to keep secrets!" She glared fiercely at the younger girl, as if somehow it would transfer through her and get to Aang.
Toph shrugged, clearly unphased. "Hey, don't say I didn't warn you..."
The best way to go about this, Katara decided, was to be straightforward. There was still that lingering doubt at the back of her mind that maybe Aang really was going through some nasty, embarrassing tests, and she didn't want to leap to any conclusions right off the bat. But it was perfectly natural for a concerned girlfriend to visit, right? Even though Zuko had said Aang didn't want company, she hadn't heard that from Aang. And she didn't care what he looked like or how out of it he was. Hadn't she always taken care of him when he was at his worst? She could handle whatever this was and still feel just as strongly for him as she always had, so he had nothing to worry about.
Assuming he was telling the truth, of course.
So, that was why she was at the palace shortly after lunch on the fourth day of Aang's absense, following the directions that a helpful guard had given her to Zuko's rooms. She wasn't sure if Aang would even be in the rooms - he might be with the Sages still - but she didn't mind waiting if he was.
Katara had to admit, part of this was really just because she missed Aang so much. It was a little embarrassing to admit - three days shouldn't be that big a deal - but she'd gotten so used to seeing him all the time, and... well... Now that he wasn't there, she did feel a bit lonely for him.
I won't stay long if he really doesn't want me here, she told herself, feeling a bit of warmth rising on her face. I'll just make sure he's all right, and then go. It probably won't be much longer until he's back home anyway.
She still had that thought in her mind, and anticipation building up at the back of her throat, when she reached up to knock on Zuko's door.
No one answered.
She'd kind of expected that, but it was still disappointing. Katara sighed. I guess I should just wait... It wasn't like she could go track him down. Visiting him when he wasn't having tests performed was one thing, but barging in on the actual tests would be going a little too far.
Sokka would laugh so hard if he heard she was standing around outside Zuko's rooms waiting for Aang to come by...
Well, I don't care what Sokka thinks! Katara valiantly ignored the blush she could feel building on her cheeks again, leaning against the wall beside the door. Like he's one to talk, anyway. After all the times he's made an idiot of himself over the girls he fell for...
"Oh!" A strange voice broke her from her thoughts. Katara looked up and found a girl about her own age with elaborate make-up and a silk kimono standing in front of her in the hallway. "I'm sorry - I thought it was my turn after lunch!"
Katara frowned. "Your 'turn'?" she repeated, and raised an eyebrow. "For what?"
"Well... you know." The girl blushed suddenly.
Oh. Oh. Katara couldn't help but stare at her, utterly stunned - and, after the knowledge had sunk in, outraged as well. And I thought Zuko was a gentleman! I can't believe him! Does Mai even know about this? "You take turns?" she managed to get out, incredulously. "With how many other people!?"
"Um..." The girl blinked, obviously caught off-guard. "Twenty-nine... I think?"
Twenty-nine!? She couldn't believe that - no. There was no way. But it might explain some of Zuko's behavior lately... And with Aang in the room! What is he thinking!? No wonder he hadn't wanted her to stop by. And poor Aang, getting dragged into it... Katara could feel her eyes narrowing. "Isn't that a few too many girls for one guy?"
"Well, yes, of course - that's why he's only meant to pick one of us." The girl frowned, looking a bit thoughtful. "Or perhaps two. I'm not really familiar with the culture, of course, but - "
"Pick!?" Katara couldn't believe what she was hearing. What is this, some kind of sick competition for who gets to be the next Firelady? "And you're okay with just... just doing whatever he wants on the off chance that he might pick you out of twenty-nine other girls?" she demanded.
The other girl blinked again. "I... guess so? He's not very demanding," she added, a bit tentatively.
Oh, I'll just bet he isn't...
"In fact," the girl went on, blissfully unaware of Katara's thoughts, "most of the time, it seems like he doesn't even want to pick one of us. I mean, you can barely touch him without scaring him off."
Her half-formed plans for giving Zuko the chewing-out of his life vanished at that statement. "Barely touch... you mean...?" So it wasn't what she'd assumed. "That's a relief..." Katara sank back against the wall, abruptly feeling guilty for having doubted Zuko in the first place. Of course he wasn't sleeping with thirty different girls! What was I thinking? Zuko wouldn't do that! "For a second there, I thought... well. Never mind."
Still, there was the whole question of thirty girls competing to see who could seduce him first. Katara frowned. Now that her first assumption had turned out wrong, she was hesitant to believe that Zuko was actually in on this. He must be going crazy, she decided, with some sympathy. I'll bet he never asked for any of this. And no wonder he didn't want me to stop by. I'll have to go tell him I'm all right with it. Maybe I can even help somehow.
"It just seems so strange that he keeps running away," the girl was saying. There was a puzzled little frown on her face. "He even tried to say he had a girlfriend, but we were all told that he didn't - why would he lie?"
Katara felt her eyebrow twitch. Oh, come on... "Maybe because he wasn't lying?"
"Well, maybe..." The girl looked unconvinced, but she was clearly wavering. "The Earth Sages told us he was just trying to maintain distance during the deciding process, but - "
"Earth Sages?" That derailed her thoughts somewhat... Katara narrowed her eyes, feeling a dreadful suspicion starting to form at the back of her mind. No. No, it can't be. There's no way... "We are talking about Firelord Zuko," she said, hoping the answer wasn't going to be what she was afraid it would be. "Right?"
"Firelord Zuko?" The expression on the girl's face was blank. "No, no... I'm talking about Avatar Aang, of course."
Up until that point, Katara hadn't thought it possible for a person's mind to blow up. She really hadn't. But it certainly seemed like that was what was happening at the back of hers: a series of angry, loud explosions gradually gaining speed and momentum as they spread across the entirety of her brain, burning and smoking and wrecking havoc until the only thought left that was in any way coherent was: You've got to be kidding me!!!
"Is that so?" It was like listening to someone else speak. Katara was distantly amazed at how calm and even her voice came out. She looked up at the girl, who seemed to be getting increasingly nervous; her eyes darted from side to side and back to Katara. "Why don't you start from the beginning, then," she suggested, still in that deliberately calm tone, "and tell me everything."
Zuko's fingers had been drumming restlessly against the council table all afternoon; the motion had become so ingrained that even when he got up after the meeting had ended, he could still feel them twitching. He was aware that a few other council members had been shooting dirty looks his way, but it was really difficult to care.
Given how on edge he was lately, it was really difficult to care about almost anything.
Three days. Three days of girls at the door of his rooms, three days of girls randomly turning up in his rooms, three days of broken sleep due to extremely persistant girls either attempting or succeeding to break into his rooms at night.
It didn't help that Mai seemed to find the whole thing highly amusing, either.
Aang had taken to curling up on the floor in his bedchamber with a blanket and pillow rather than opting for the couch, and despite his irritation with the situation, Zuko just didn't have the heart to kick him out. The younger boy looked at least as stressed as Zuko felt; he jumped at sudden noises, twitched violently any time someone so much as touched him, and his voice cracked constantly. It would've been pretty funny to watch if he wasn't in virtually the same condition.
At this point, the only question here is which one of us is going to snap first.
Zuko was determined that it wasn't going to be him.
It was with that objective in mind that he made the decision to head to Mai's rooms after the meeting. Mai might laugh, but at least she was safe. As long as he was there, they wouldn't be bothered by any girls looking to get into the Avatar's pants. That prospect sounded heavenly.
Unfortunately, the plan crashed and burned as soon as he stepped through the door leading out of the council room and his eyes met with Katara's murderous-looking ones from where she was leaning against the wall opposite - in almost the exact same spot he'd first seen Aang standing when this had all started. It seriously looked like she was trying to bore into his skull just by glaring.
Zuko pressed his palm into his forehead, hard. This is bad, isn't it?
"We," she ground out deliberately, striding directly up to him and jabbing him in the chest with a sharp finger, "need to talk. Now."
Great... He was pretty sure he could guess where this was going. Zuko dropped his hand, meeting her gaze with a certain resignation. "If you're going to yell at me, can we at least do this somewhere private?"
"Who said I was going to yell at you?" she yelled, and he noticed more than a few stares being directed their way. "In fact, I'm happy! I'm happy that there are thirty girls doing their best to seduce my boyfriend, and I'm so happy that the two of you were hiding this from me! Wouldn't you be happy?" The last came out through clenched teeth.
"Would you calm down already?" he hissed, feeling irritable. "Or do you really want the whole palace to hear about this? You want answers? Fine. I'll give you answers. But not here." He turned and stode off down the hallway.
"Oh, you had better give me answers!" She stalked after him, clearly still fuming. "And they had better be good answers, too."
And what are you going to do if they're not? He decided it wouldn't be worth the trouble it would cause to say it.
"All right, here." He led her into an empty meeting room, shut the door behind them, and spread his arms expansively. "Go ahead. Yell. Scream. Ask your questions." He managed a small, humorless laugh. "Nothing you can do or say could possibly be worse than what I've been through for your boyfriend these last three days."
"Is that supposed to make me feel better?" she demanded, balling her hands into fists. In a moment of insight, he noticed that behind the seemingly insane fury in her eyes, there was something like a whole mountain of hurt. "You could've told me! Aang could've told me! How do you think I feel now, knowing that for the last three days, thirty different girls have been trying to sleep with him while I'm sitting around at home, thinking that nothing's wrong?"
"Look." Zuko crossed his arms. He didn't have the energy to feel anything beyond irritated with this conversation. "We weren't keeping secrets from you just for the fun of it. Aang didn't want you to get upset."
"Oh, and that worked so well!" Katara's eyes flashed indignantly. "Do I look like I'm not upset?"
"Well, you would if you hadn't found out!" All right, maybe he did have the energy; somehow, Katara had that same uncanny ability as Aang did, to push all of his buttons at the same time. These two deserve each other. "The whole reason I'm involved in this sorry mess is because of you! Because Aang and I both knew that you'd be upset if you found out, and look at that! We were right! You are upset!"
"So, what, you're trying to say it's my fault now!?" Katara stared at him incredulously. "You've got to be kidding me! How is it my fault that you two decided to keep this as your dirty little secret?"
"It's not a dirty little secret!" Zuko pinched the bridge of his nose, regretting his outburst already. "You know what? Never mind." It wasn't like anything he said was going to make her less angry. "But you should know that not upsetting you was probably the only thing on Aang's mind through all of this."
She crossed her arms over her chest almost defensively, and looked away from him. "I'd be happier knowing he trusted me," she muttered.
This is just what I need right now. Zuko let out a long, frustrated breath. How was he supposed to deal with this? His previous experiences with hurt and angry girls hadn't gone so well. "This isn't about trusting you," he said, after a brief moment's consideration. "He knows you, and he knew this would make you upset." On impulse, he decided to add, "And, just so you know, being with a girl for only a couple of months, you still wonder sometimes if she's going to suddenly realize you're a jerk and dump you."
Her head shot back up. "Aang is not a jerk!" And then she seemed to deflate, looking down at the floor again. "And I wouldn't just suddenly dump him. Even if he does act stupid sometimes."
"Well, maybe you should tell him that." He rolled his eyes upward. "And then we can all get on with our lives."
"Don't try to turn this into just my problem." Katara looked up at him again, not nearly as angry as before but obviously still fired up over the whole business. "We are figuring this whole thing out, and we're doing it soon - because I am not dealing with thirty girls worth of competition!"
"Got it." Zuko inwardly sighed.
Maybe it should be Aang telling you instead.
"I think maybe I should grow hair again." Aang ran one hand over his smooth scalp, pacing anxiously across the room as he did. "And then get some new clothes. With long sleeves. Maybe even gloves. Oh, and a headband!" He was pretty sure none of those girls would remember what he looked like without his arrows and clothing style giving him away. "What do you think?"
Appa looked up from his meal long enough to let out a low snort.
"Yeah... maybe not." It wouldn't really solve anything for long, anyway. Aang gave up on the pacing and sat down with a soft, graceless 'thud' opposite his bison. "I gotta figure a way out of this somehow."
The problem was, how? The Sages wouldn't listen to him, the girls didn't believe him, and he was losing his mind over how crazy things had been. He could hardly even look at a girl now without wondering if she was another recruit out to get him. And all the 'looks'... and the awkward questions... and the touching... Aang shuddered, caught up in three days worth of bad memories.
What am I gonna do?
"I wonder if someone would double for me if I asked." That might work. Aang lifted his head, brightened by the prospect. "I'll bet there are a lot of people who like the idea of crazy girls chasing after them all the time. Or just pretending to be the Avatar." He smiled hopefully up at Appa. "What do you think?"
The bison looked up, belched, and went back to eating.
"Yeah, I know - someone would probably figure it out." Aang lifted himself back to his feet and began pacing again. "This is so stupid! And no one's listening to me! Ugh!" He slouched back against Appa's front leg, disheartened.
"No one bugs you for being the last sky bison," he mumbled, shutting his eyes.
Only to abruptly open them again. "Wait..."
Appa turned his head in response.
"I've got an idea." Aang felt the grin beginning on his face; he hadn't felt this optimistic since before this whole business had started. He pushed himself up, patted his bison one last time, and headed quickly for the door. "I gotta go talk to Katara and the others!"
Katara was aware of Zuko still eyeing her warily, of Sokka watching with some confusion from his seat at the table, of Toph leaning against the wall with a smirk on her face, of Suki staring at her with awkward sympathy.
It wasn't like she didn't notice. She just didn't care.
"You said they'd be here," she said to Zuko, accusingly.
"They said they'd be here!" He let out a sharp, frustrated breath, returning her glare. "Would you calm down? And stop pacing; you're making me nervous."
"Oh, I'm making you nervous?" Katara did stop pacing, long enough to march up to him and prod him in the chest, hard. "Well, I'm sorry I make you nervous. I'm sorry you have to watch me get upset that thirty girls are stalking my boyfriend. I'm sorry I'm even upset! Because why" - at that, she flung her arms out - "should I be upset!?"
Zuko closed his eyes, pinching the bridge of his nose. "Why me?" he muttered.
"Always a good question," Sokka piped up, then shrugged, grinning in an infuriating manner. "I wouldn't hold my breath for an answer, though - after all, you are dealing with Katara here..."
She turned on him, feeling her hands ball into fists. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"I don't know - maybe it has something to do with you yelling something out about thirty girls and then not even explaining what the heck is going on?" He raised an eyebrow at her. "Am I just totally missing something, or what?"
"When are you not missing something?" Toph cut in drily.
"Well, why don't you all just ask Zuko what's going on?" Katara suggested, waving a sharp hand at the Firelord - which he had to dodge; she'd forgotten he was standing so close. "He could probably tell you more than me, because he was keeping the whole thing secret from all of us all this time!"
Sokka shrugged. "So what?"
"'So what'? 'So what'?" She took a few quick steps toward him, glaring as hard as she could at his stupid, condescending face. "So, the Earth Sages decide Aang needs to be part of some kind of - I don't know - Air Nomad breeding program and set up thirty girls to try and seduce him, that's what! And no one tells me!"
He held up his hands, watching her with some apprehension. "Okay... fine... So that's what. I got it." Then he frowned, raising an eyebrow again. "Seriously, they've got thirty girls trying to seduce Aang? Our Aang? Like, goofy kid, barely into puberty Aang?"
"More or less," Zuko confirmed, and sighed, running a hand through his hair. "And they just had to pick the thirty most aggressive, clueless, stubborn girls I've ever met in my life."
Sokka blinked a few times, cleary digesting that information. "That... sounds really messed up."
"Tell me about it."
"Katara, maybe you should sit down." Suki was eyeing her worriedly. "You're stressing yourself out way too much."
Sokka was desperately making slashing motions at his girlfriend, but it was too late by then.
"I am not stressed!" Katara could feel her eyebrow twitching, but continued to glare at the older girl. "I'm angry! There's a difference!"
"We can tell," Toph commented drily.
Katara rounded on her. "You knew about this, didn't you?"
"Uh, yeah." Without uncrossing her arms or moving from her position against the wall, Toph lifted one of her feet, wiggling her toes in Katara's general direction. "Lie detection, remember?"
"Why didn't you tell me!?"
Toph shrugged. "Aang asked me not to."
"And you didn't even think to tell him it was an incredibly stupid thing to do?" Katara demanded, caught between incredulous and outraged. "Couldn't you at least have tried to talk to him about it?"
"Hey, it's not like it's any of my business." The younger girl raised an unimpressed eyebrow. "Besides, didn't I tell you earlier that you'd just be upset if you found out what was going on? I tried to warn you."
There was a sudden knock at the door.
"I'll get that." Toph pushed herself up from the wall, disregarding Katara's angry glare.
As expected, the five Earth Sages were the visitors. "What is this all about?" one of them asked, as they filed into the room. His eyes were on Zuko. "I was told that there was urgent business with the Avatar."
"Oh, it's urgent." Katara brushed past Zuko and marched straight up to the man. "But it's between you and me."
The Sage raised both eyebrows at her. "Oh?"
"That's right, oh." She was aware that she was being rude, but didn't care at the moment. This man was the one who'd decided that Aang needed to sleep with thirty other girls. He could go rot for all she cared. "Aang is my boyfriend, and I am not sharing him with any of your little girls. So you can just call them all off right now!"
"I think you misunderstand." His return look was more than a little condescending. "The Avatar's duty is not to one girl, but to the world." He spread his hands. "For balance to be restored, there must be airbenders."
"Aang is going to restore balance, and he doesn't need your help!" Katara glared up at the man, bracing her hands on her hips. "What makes you think I can't give the world more airbenders, anyway?"
Behind her, she heard Sokka start to choke on his drink.
"You?" The Sage eyed her with poorly-concealed disdain. "A waterbender?"
Katara felt her eyes widen slightly; she heard Zuko groan behind her, and Sokka struggle with hacking on his drink. A kind of white-hot rage seemed to be boiling through her veins. How dare he! "Let me tell you," she began through clenched teeth - but the rest of her scathing retort was never delivered.
Behind the Earth Sages, the door abruptly swung open and Aang burst into the room. "Hey guys, I've got something to - !" He stopped as every eye in the room fell on him, and looked from Zuko to the five Sages, the expression on his face slowly becoming that of a cornered animal.
"Oh. Uh, you're busy." He grinned weakly, hastily backing out. "I'll - I'll just come back late - "
"Oh, no, you don't!" Katara stalked forward, grabbed him by the wrist, and dragged him back into the house. Her mind felt like it was on fire. "You and I are going to show this stupid Sage" - she glowered at the man in question - "just what a waterbender can do. Come on!" Still pulling him behind her, she marched off toward the nearest room.
"What are you going to do?" Sokka stumbled to his feet, chasing after them with a slightly panicked expression on his face. "Katara? You are not doing what I think you're doing!"
She reached the room and yanked Aang inside; he gave about as much resistance as a limp dishrag, watching her with confusion and more than a little trepidition.
"Katara?" Sokka's voice was rising in pitch. "Seriously. Not funny."
She slammed the door in his face, and deliberately bent the water from her pouch onto the frame.
"KATARA!" He started banging on the door, clearly in full-fledged meltdown mode now. "OPEN THIS DOOR RIGHT NOW OR - OR - OR I'M TELLING DAD! KATARAAAAAAAAA!"
His voice faded into a muffled counterpart to the pounding of his fists on the door as the water froze around the entire frame. Satisfied, Katara turned away, determined to follow through with the rest of her hastily constructed plan.
Aang was staring at her apprehensively as she pulled him towards the bed. "Kata - "
"Quiet," she cut him off, and purposefully turned him as they reached the crucial spot, firmly pressing against his chest until his knees hit the mattress and he had no choice but to sit - and then to lie down.
"But, Katar - "
"I said quiet, Aang." With all these distractions, how was she supposed to do this, anyway? For a second, she regarded him - on his back with his legs still hanging off the edge of the bed. The expression on his face wasn't right at all. He was supposed to be excited - maybe a little nervous, but mostly eager. At the moment, he looked more like someone was threatening him with a live snake.
Clearly, what she was doing wasn't working.
Katara hastily ran through her memories of what a seductive expression might look like. Smiling - smirking, even. Lowering your eyelids, and looking at him through a veil of eyelashes. She fixed her sweating partner with what she hoped was a heated look, and braced one knee beside his hip. The contact, even through clothing, made her feel awkward. It seemed way too fast.
Of course it's fast - we're going to DO it, for crying out loud. Get it together, Katara - you can do this!
Aang swallowed hard, looking increasingly nervous as she hovered over him. "Katara, I really don't think - "
She pressed a finger against his lips - maybe a bit too hard; it bared part of his teeth, and she had to fight the urge to laugh because he... kind of looked like a chipmunk. A bald chipmunk. "You don't need to think, Aang," she told him, pushing her voice into a low, soft tone. Laughing wasn't seductive. She would. Not. Laugh.
He was breathing erratically; his eyes crossed comically as he tried to stare down at the finger that prevented him from voicing his concerns - then he raised them again to stare at her face, still with that cornered expression.
Why wasn't it working? Katara had to fight back frustration. "Don't you want me?" she asked - the tone was supposed to be teasing, artfully innocent. Somehow it sounded more uncertain than anything.
What if he really didn't?
Something in his eyes changed at that - they wavered and then stared fiercely into hers, a whole myriad of longing built up over all the time they'd known each other, even before she'd been able to recognize it beneath his gaze. Those eyes dared her - just dared her - to ever try denying that wordless, unflinching devotion.
It took her breath away. Katara pulled back her finger from his mouth, feeling stunned.
"I want you more than anything, Katara," he told her fervently - although it seemed kind of redundant to put it into words, somehow. There was no seduction in his voice - no attempt to tease or entice her. Just his bare, honest emotions. "I love you."
"Aang..." Suddenly, somehow, all of her own motivations seemed awfully silly. She pushed herself off of him and sat down hard on the bed next to him instead, feeling drained. This whole thing had gotten so out of hand... "I..." She stopped, not certain what to say. He'd told her he loved her before, but not like this, with his soul bared to her so openly. It was as frightening as it was heartening; the combination made her feel almost dizzy.
He sat up, close enough to her that their shoulders bumped, and she was reminded of all those nights of sitting on her windowsill late at night, when there weren't all of these awkward expectations between them. "You don't really want to do this - do you?" he asked, tentatively.
"I do! I do, it's just..." She struggled for the words that would explain how she was feeling. "I guess I always imagined it would be more, well, special. And somehow I always pictured us being a lot older." And it wouldn't be for staking a claim in him somehow, or following some analytical plan for breeding.
She didn't even want kids yet - she was only fifteen! This was crazy!
"That's what I want, too!" Aang leaned forward a bit more so he could stare earnestly at her face. "I won't lie to you, Katara - I have thought about... that... before." There was color rising on his face; he looked away awkwardly. "But I don't want to do it now. And I especially don't want to do it with a bunch of crazy Sages hanging around hoping we have kids because of it." He shook his head at that, his expression turning almost comically exasperrated as he looked up at her again. "I'm still just a kid! I can't have any!"
"I know." That part of it had seemed so small, somehow; she had completely overlooked it. Katara stared at her feet, unable to bring herself to look him in the eye while explaining her reasoning. "I guess it was the whole thing about the other girls. That they were willing to try and do that with you. And, I mean, you weren't exactly complaining." She couldn't bring herself to describe how crazy it made her, that he might be thinking about... that... and someone else might take the opportunity to give it to him.
Aang was staring at her; she could feel it, but didn't lift her gaze. "Is that really what you thought?" he asked, after a long moment of silence. "That I liked it?" He didn't wait for an answer. "Katara, I've been going crazy these past few days!" There was such heartfelt frustration in his voice that it shook her to the core. "I don't want any of those girls! I've been trying to convince those Sages that, but they just keep encouraging them! It's driving me nuts!" He reached out suddenly and took her hand, staring at her imploringly. "You're the one I want - the only one! You have to believe me, Katara!"
"I..." She knew that; should've known it, anyway. Katara dared to look up, and met his gaze: he was gazing at her with such sincerity. It was so like Aang, she couldn't help but feel foolish for thinking he might be persuaded to want someone else. "I'm sorry," she said finally. "I do believe you. And I trust you, Aang." She set her jaw them, and stared stubbornly at him. "But I don't trust them! Thinking about them doing things to you just makes me crazy!"
Surprisingly, he smiled at her. "That's okay, then." Katara wasn't prepared for that; she blinked at him. "Well, it's the same with me. I don't want any other guys doing things to you, either. So we're even. Right?"
"Uh." Of all the things he could've said, she hadn't expected that. Katara blinked a few more times, in rapid succession. "Yeah. I guess we are."
"Great! That means we can go ahead and put all of this behind us, right?" He didn't wait for her answer, pushing himself up off the bed and offering a hand to her. "Come on."
"Wait just a second!" She narrowed her eyes at him, ignoring the hand. "Just because we're even doesn't change the fact that those girls are still going to be all over you!"
"No... but I'm pretty sure I have a solution to that!" His eyes were bright; it was hard to hold onto her bad mood when confronted by that unflinching optimism. "Actually, I was about to explain it when you dragged me in here." He rubbed the back of his head a bit awkwardly.
"All right." Anything had to be better than playing along with those sour-faced Sages. Katara returned his smile. "What's your idea?"
"Well, that was pretty random," Toph remarked.
At least, that was what Zuko thought she'd remarked; it was pretty hard to hear anything with Sokka screaming and pounding on the door behind him. "Would you knock it off?" he demanded, turning sharply. "She's not going to open the door. Just shut up and get over it!"
"Easy for you to say!" Sokka pointed an accusing finger at him, eyes still bulging out of his head in half-wild indignition. "That's my sister in there! What if it was your sister who - who - " He trailed off as the realization of what he was suggesting - or, more importantly, who he was suggesting it about - sank in.
Zuko raised an eyebrow at him.
"Okay, bad example! But you know what I mean!"
"Sokka, calm down." Suki pushed herself to her feet and wandered over to her boyfriend, patting him on the shoulder kindly. "You can't do anything, so just... try not to think about it, okay? Katara can take care of herself."
Toph snorted. "Yeah, it's probably Aang we should all be worrying about."
I have to agree with her there... Zuko scratched at the back of his head. "Well," he offered, shrugging, "the good news is that you'll probably only have to wait a couple minutes at most."
Sokka stared at him for a second, and then abruptly let out a moan of despair, hanging his head and letting his arms sag at his sides.
Suki shot him an exasperrated look. "Thanks for sharing that thought, Zuko."
"What I'm wondering," Toph broke in, tilting her head once she had everyone's attention, "is why those guys are still here."
Zuko followed the direction of her motion - and raised an eyebrow at the five Earth Sages, who were still hovering near the entrance. "Yeah, good question - why are you still here?"
The Sages looked at each other, and he noticed a few shrugs. Then the one who'd been arguing with Katara - the unofficial spokesman, Zuko assumed - coughed. "Er... with all due respect... the results of this - "
"You're waiting around for my sister to give results?" Sokka exploded, his head whipping back up and eyes suddenly blazing with outrage. "You - you - you sickos!"
"Not to mention that I'm pretty sure there won't be any 'results' in the first five minutes," Toph commented wryly.
The Sage who'd spoken looked like he was ready with a response to that, but he never got the chance to give it because the door behind Sokka suddenly swung open.
"Katara!" Sokka lunged for his sister, catching her by both arms and staring anxiously at her face. "Did he - and you - tell me you didn't - "
"Oh, relax, already." She brushed him off, irritably. "We didn't do anything."
"Except talk," Aang piped up helpfully. "We did do a lot of talking."
Sokka stared hard at the younger boy, who offered him a somewhat sheepish grin in return. "I've got my eye on you," he warned after a moment of silence, crossing his arms over his chest.
"Great!" Aang moved past him with a friendly pat on the shoulder, either ignoring or oblivious to the older boy's baleful glare. "Because I've got an announcement to make." He placed himself near the center of the room and looked around, seeming to make sure that everyone he wanted to address was present. "I'm leaving Ba Sing Se."
Zuko stared; behind him, he heard the Sages gasp. Sokka's jaw had just about hit the floor, Suki looked surprised, and even Toph seemed startled. Katara, on the other hand, looked perfectly calm.
Well, now we know what they were talking about in there...
"Before you ask" - Aang held up his hands, obviously trying for a 'wise' expression - "I thought about what you said - you know, about making sure there's a new generation of airbenders - and I realized that you're right. Restoring the balance is my job as the Avatar, and I can't let anything get in the way of that."
The Sage who'd been speaking for the rest of them smiled faintly, looking satisfied. "Then you're ready to - "
"But," Aang interrupted him, holding up a finger, "I thought of something more important than repopulating the Air Nomads." He spread his hands, an earnest expression on his face. "Do you guys realize that Appa is the last sky bison that we know about? It was the sky bison who taught the first airbenders, and now their whole specifies is on the verge of dying out. And without them, who's going to train any new airbenders?"
The Sage looked dubious. "Well, that's true, but - "
"It is true - and it's my duty as the Avatar to make sure that doesn't happen." Aang put one hand to the front of his chest decisively, then shrugged and grinned. "So I guess I'll just have to go travel around the world looking for more sky bison." He glanced around at his friends again. "You guys are welcome to come with me if you want."
There was a moment of surprised silence. Zuko felt his good eyebrow twitch.
"Finally, something to do!" Toph grinned broadly. "This place was really starting to get on my nerves."
Suki looked thoughtful. "I guess I could be away from KyoshiIsland for a few more months..."
"I could go for some sky bison tracking down," Sokka chimed in, slinging a casual arm around his girlfriend's shoulders. He gave his sister a sidelong glance. "And apparently I need to keep an eye on certain people."
Katara rolled her eyes, but smiled. "Of course we're all going, Aang."
"Well... that's settled then." Aang moved quickly to the door, holding it wide open with a bright smile for the Sages. "Thanks for stopping by! I'll be seeing you all in a few years - maybe ten at the most." He rubbed the back of his neck with artful innocense. "Sky bison are pretty good at hiding, you know..."
There were some dour looks being shot his way, but the Sages obediently filed out.
Zuko waited until the door was shut behind them, then let out a long groan, slapping one hand to his face. "You couldn't have done that before!?" he demanded, staring at Aang with exasperrated disbelief.
"I didn't think of it before!" the younger boy protested, holding up his hands defensively. "Anyway, the important thing is that we're all okay. Right?" He offered another smile.
"Ugh!" Zuko rolled his eyes ceilingward, then gave up. "At least it's all over with." He shot the younger boy another glance. "But what would you have done if they didn't buy your story about the sky bison?"
"I'd probably go anyway." Aang's smile turned a bit wistful. "I wasn't just making excuses; it's way more important to have sky bison in the world than Air Nomads." His expression was thoughtful. "After talking to that lion turtle back during Sozin's Comet, I get the feeling airbending is something that could be brought back to the world even without me having kids who could do it. There would just be a lot more work involved, that's all."
Oh, right - well, if that's all...
"Really?" Sokka perked up. "Think I could learn it?"
Aang shrugged, and grinned again. "You never know until you try."
"So all we have to do is push you off Appa's back while we're in the air and see if you pick it up naturally," Toph suggested.
Sokka scowled at her. "Oh, ha ha."
"Well, if we're finished discussing Sokka's flying skills" - Katara shot her brother a bit of a smirk - "I think we should all get packing."
"Oh, right - I guess I'll need to get my things from Zuko's rooms." Aang started for the door.
Katara stopped him with a hand on his shoulder; when he turned, face questioning, she leaned in and brushed her lips over his.
Zuko blinked. As far as he could remember, Katara had never actually kissed Aang in front of him before. The younger boy's cheeks were stained with red when she pulled back; he stared at her with a mix of wonder and confusion.
"What - What was that for?"
She smiled - it was a welcome change from her earlier expressions.
"Just for being you."