Katara was sixteen when Aang first asked her to marry him.
It was sunny. She remembered that. It was sunny, the sunlight refracting off the South Pole's ice and snow until everything was blinding white. It was the time of the midnight sun, when the light never went away, and no matter how long she stayed up, so did the golden glow of sunrise.
The South Pole was sunny, and Aang stood amongst the blowing snow and ice to stare at her with painful hope in his eyes.
And Katara didn't know what to say.
The words caught in her throat. She swallowed twice to force down her immediate reaction—no no no no no—and smiled at him bravely. Silence suffused her, sympathetic but for the sorrow, and her voice was gentle over the wind when she spoke.
"We're still young, Aang. We don't need to get married right now," she said.
He looked so crestfallen. Katara watched as he crumbled into himself, and dug her nails into the palms of her hands. Her heart swelled and though she wanted to reach for him, she didn't.
She couldn't reach for him without giving him the wrong idea. Tui, but she wanted to—wanted to cradle him to her chest and whisper that she was sorry, that everything would work out, that the world would be alright.
Katara had mothered him for so long, she'd forgotten how to treat him like his own person. She'd forgotten how not to give him the wrong idea.
Not now, anyway.
And so she didn't say but you're fourteen or but I'm not who I was a year ago or I don't love you anymore—maybe I didn't love you ever.
She didn't really need to.
She didn't need to say anything at all.
Aang dropped his head down. Katara forced herself to swallow and not to cry, because crying would have only been a set-back at this point. She needed to make him understand, even if she didn't know how.
"Yeah," he said. "Yeah, you're right. We've got time. We've got all the time we need!"
Only they didn't, but Katara wasn't ready to tell him that.
She tucked long dark curls behind her ear, fingers clumsy and slow in her mittens. Nervous habits from a long time past, probably, from when she'd never worn her hair down because she couldn't stand to have it in her face.
(But her time in the Fire Nation had changed that.)
(Her time in the Fire Nation had changed a lot of things.)
She smiled again, tight around the mouth. It probably didn't reach her eyes, but Aang didn't seem to notice. He bounced back on the balls of his feet, already grinning like a child—just like always, just like forever, Aang was innocent and free-spirited as he'd been at twelve and just fallen out of an iceberg.
Well, Katara wasn't.
"—and then we can maybe stop in Ba Sing Se, Kuei needs support—"
She hadn't even realized he'd been talking.
Only one word registered.
"We?" Katara managed to stop herself from squeaking. "Aang, I can't leave yet!"
"But, Katara—" Aang started.
"No, Aang. The South isn't stable enough yet, things aren't back to normal—I can't just leave. I'm not ready to leave. I have responsibilities here."
And she wanted to scream and scream that she was never going to be ready, that she didn't want this anymore; that she hadn't ever wanted it, because she wanted to be something more than The Avatar's Girlfriend-Wife-Mother. She wanted to be Master Katara of the Southern Water Tribe, Bloodbender, killer, woman, sixteen-summer mess.
And for thirty seconds, she didn't want to have responsibilities.
But that was probably too much ask.
Aang was silent for what seemed to be a very long time. She had to remind herself that he was fourteen—saved the world, yes, but still fourteen and sulky, and that he was not her son.
"Fine. Whatever. If you'd rather stay here than come with me on an adventure—"
"Aang, it's not like that."
"Is too like that. Just—whatever."
"Aang—!" she started, but he had already whirled an air scooter and shot off towards the stables. It kicked up the snow, and the icy air clung to her skin from where it had slipped into her jacket. Katara shuddered at the impact, flinching away from it like a physical blow.
She bit her tongue so hard she bled.
Hands curled into fists, she stalked back to her home.
She slammed the door behind her.
Katara threw herself down on her bed, and screamed herself hoarse.