Like most Waterbenders, Katara was a night person. She craved the moonlight and the stars. While the rest of her tribe cursed the long darkness of South Pole winters, she reveled in them and always had. It was the neverending daylight of the summers that made her crazy.
Unfortunately, most of her companions seemed to be morning people. Suki was always the first one up, usually rising while it was still dark to go through her punishing schedule of calisthenics and exercises. Toph could never sleep once the others began to move around. Aang was inevitably up with the sun, although he was always careful not to wake her when he got out of bed. Katara usually managed to roust herself before the sun got too high in the sky, but Sokka always had to be dragged from slumber. Maybe it ran in the family.
She stretched and looked at the shadows on the wall, telling her the morning was well underway. She winced at the pain in her injured leg, sharper now after a night's inactivity. Two days ago she had broken her shin in a fall sustained during a skirmish with some highwaymen on the road to Shangtze. She'd been able to heal it partially, but bones always had to finish the job on their own. She'd be confined to "restricted duty," as Suki called it, for at least a week. It was aggravating, not only due to the handicap but because Sokka and Aang were at each other's throats because of it. Sokka blamed Aang for letting her get hurt and Aang was angry at Sokka for bowing out of the trip at the last minute. It didn't help that they were both tripping over each other to wait on her, which she didn't need.
But today, she would have peace. Everyone had tasks that would take them away from home. Sokka was going with Suki while she conducted some drills for the new Kyoshi Warrior training school at the palace. Toph was doing a master's course at the local Earthbending academy. Zuko was in town and he and Aang were being dragged along on some kind of day-long nature retreat with the Earth King and some of his advisors. She had been invited too, but her injury precluded her from participating, which was almost enough to make her bless the highwaymen. So today she would be blissfully alone and undisturbed. Maybe she could finally write a letter to Gran-Gran.
She washed her face and got dressed, then wandered into the hallway. She could hear the sounds of bending coming from the garden; she went out onto the verandah to see what was going on. The garden had been one of this house's best features for a group of people who needed space to fling water, earth and fire around. It was huge and spacious, and not overly landscaped. Katara folded her arms on the railing and looked down to where Zuko and Toph were tag-teaming Aang. She could tell by their faces that they were having to pull out all the stops, and it didn't seem like they were getting very far against him.
She loved watching him fight. The part of her that was his Sifu watched with pride at how far he'd come, especially when he used the Waterbending that she'd taught him herself. The part of her that had listened to stories about the Avatar as a child watched with admiration of his skill and the natural ability that he brought to his combat. And then there was the part of her that was just a girl in love, who watched with appreciation of how he looked doing complex bending moves without a shirt on. She watched Aang blow one of Zuko's fireballs into nothingness with one hand while blocking an incoming boulder with the other. He slid one foot over and the ground beneath Toph's feet heaved and turned her around, then he flipped himself in a neat arc over Zuko's head, landed and spun in a low, tight circle, knocking both his opponents off their feet with a blast of air. "Ha!" he cried, pumping both fists over his head.
She wasn't surprised that he could beat Zuko and Toph at the same time. Since the war, Aang had been able to refocus on mastering his elements, and in six months he'd made astonishing progress. It would not be long until even all three of his masters working together would not be able to best him. Considering that he was still two years shy of the age at which most Avatars began their training, Katara couldn't disagree with those who were already saying that Aang would be the most powerful Avatar the world had ever seen.
She sighed, the weight of that truth feeling a little ponderous, as it sometimes did. Yep. Most powerful Avatar in history. Already stopped a war. Demonstrated a previously-unknown type of bending. Has a soul unbendable enough that he was able to bow Ozai to his will. And I'm his girlfriend. Nope, no pressure.
"Oh, man," Toph groaned from the ground. Katara could tell by the state of her clothes that this wasn't the first time she'd been down there today. "I say we hire some guys for him to fight from now on."
Zuko was hauling himself to his feet. "Fine by me. Maybe we could get some convicted felons or something."
"If it means fewer bruises, I'm all for it."
"C'mon, don't quit on me now, Sifus!" Aang said, bounding back to the center of the courtyard. "I wanna show you my new water spear move."
"Can you show us without acquainting us with the business end of this water spear?" Zuko said, not sounding too hopeful.
"Anyway, if it's a waterbending move, you should show Katara. I don't care about your splashy fun," Toph said.
"I don't want to show her until I've got it perfected."
"Trying to impress your girlfriend?" Zuko smirked.
Toph snorted. "When is he not?"
Katara grinned. She turned and left the verandah before she was spotted. If Aang was working on a new move to show her, she didn't want to spoil it for him by seeing it before he was ready.
Sokka was in the kitchen, eating breakfast. "I'm actually up before you?" he said, around a mouthful of bean porridge. "What is this, a holiday or something?"
"I've been up for half an hour or so." She limped over to the table, wincing. Sokka was up and around the table to pull out a stool for her, hovering anxiously.
"How's that leg?"
"Better. It'll be fine in a few days, Sokka, relax."
"I'll relax when you're not limping." He sat back down and crossed his arms over his chest, eyeing her with one eyebrow arched. "Did you write Dad and tell him that you got hurt?"
"Why would I? It's not like he can do anything. And I'm fine!"
"Maybe I oughta just mention that in my next letter. Right after I mention the little tidbit that you and Aang are sharing a bedroom."
"He knows about that!"
"Uh-huh. Because you told him? Or because you're just pretending like he must already know so that way you don't have to feel guilty about hiding it?"
Katara blushed and looked away. "Well..."
"Yeah, that's what I thought."
"You and Suki share a bedroom!"
"Why is it different? No, I'll tell you why!" she exclaimed. "Because you're a boy and I'm a girl. You're supposed to go out and...I dunno, sow your wild oats or something, while I'm supposed to sit in a corner like a china doll!"
"I'm older than you."
"One lousy year. I don't see you bugging Aang about it and he's younger than me."
"Yeah, but he's..."
"A guy, yeah, I know. I am so sick of this double standard. You know, in rural Earth Kingdom villages it's pretty common for girls my age to be married and raising families."
Sokka's eyes widened. "You...you're not..."
She rolled her eyes. "No, Sokka. Calm down. I won't get pregnant until I want to. One of the advantages of healing abilities."
"Oh," he said, seeming relieved. "Well, that's...good, I guess."
Zuko, Toph and Aang came into the kitchen. Aang looked bright-eyed and excited, while his two bending masters looked a little worse for wear. Katara grinned. "Morning," she said.
His face lit up at the sight of her. "Good morning," he said. He came over to her side and kissed her temple, his hand going to the small of her back. "How's your leg, is it better today?" He looked down at the limb in question, as if he could tell its state of healing just by visual inspection.
"It's better. A little stiff."
He frowned a little. "Just be careful, okay? You don't want to hurt it again."
"Hey, isn't hovering and clucking usually my job?"
"I'm happy to fill in when needed."
"You seem energetic this morning."
"I feel energetic," he said, the grin back on his face.
Zuko sat down, clutching a cup of tea like a life preserver. "I hope some of that energy rubs off on me. We're going to need all the pep we can muster if we're going to get through this thing today."
Aang deflated a little bit. "Yeah. Not looking forward to it."
"What exactly does the Earth King have planned?" Sokka asked.
Zuko shrugged. "I didn't ask too many questions. Some kind of nature retreat bonding thing where we sit around a campfire and have deep meaningful discussions about the future or something like that. You know how he's been since he got back from his whole odyssey of self-discovery. It's going to be torture."
"Huh. Will you be covering how to let my sister get beat up by highwaymen?"
"We sure will," Aang snapped, "right after we cover how to stay at home so your friends are outnumbered two to eleven."
"And will that be before or after the lesson in how to overlook the guy in the tree swooping down to grab unsuspecting women off the path?"
"It'll be right after the seminar on how to beg off important diplomatic missions so you can make out with your girlfriend all day!" Aang shouted, rising to his feet.
Katara jumped up and put up her hands between them, cutting off Sokka before he could retort. "Stop it, both of you! For the last time, it is no one's fault! Aang, Sokka had a legitimate reason for skipping the trip to Shangtze. Sokka, Aang could not have seen the guy in the tree, he was fighting off six others, and I should have been more careful. And I'm fine. But if you don't stop this stupid bickering I will knock both your heads together!"
Aang turned on his heel. "I'm going to go take a bath." He stalked out of the room.
"I'm going to go get Suki's weapons together," Sokka said, stomping off in the other direction.
Katara sighed and flopped back down in her seat. "Men," she muttered.
Toph shrugged. "Love makes you do the wacky." Katara and Zuko just looked at her. "I heard that somewhere," she explained. "They'll get over it, sweetness. You know they're just being jerks to each other because they're both blaming themselves that you got hurt."
"I know," she said, resting her chin on her hand. She refocused herself and got up, needing a task to occupy her mind. "Tell you what, I am going to pack lunches for all of you."
Zuko frowned. "You don't have to do that."
"I'd do it for Aang anyway so he has something besides lettuce, and for Toph because if I don't, she'll forget to eat."
"Yeah, I totally will," Toph agreed.
"Two lunches or five, it's the same. You hate Earth Kingdom food, Zuko."
"Well...thanks," Zuko said. "That's nice of you." He smiled and shook his head, meeting her eyes.
She chuckled. "Yeah, I know."
Toph was frowning. "What? I missed something."
"No, it's just another one of those moments," Zuko said. "When we kind of go, once upon a time I wanted to capture you all, and now she's making me lunch."
"We've had so many of those moments we don't need to say it anymore," Katara said, getting out some sacks to hold everyone's lunch. "But don't get too comfy, Zuko. I could still poison your bean curd puffs. Don't piss me off."
"Wouldn't dream of it. Hey, can I have some seal jerky in mine?"
Katara stared at him. "Since when do you like seal jerky?"
He shrugged, looking a little embarrassed. "I guess I've kind of picked up a taste for it."
She laughed. "I don't suppose Sokka will mind if I dip into his stash."
When Katara came into their bedroom, Aang was standing at the closet with a towel wrapped around his waist, frowning. "What's wrong?" she asked.
"I suppose I ought to wear the Big Important Avatar Robes today," he muttered.
"It's a million degrees out and there's going to be campfires. I'm going to end up as Roast Avatar, medium rare."
"Oh, don't sell yourself short. You're extremely rare." She stuck out her leg. "Do my bandage?"
He nodded and motioned her to the bed. She sat down and extended her injured leg. Aang picked up the ingenious bandage Sokka had designed. It was a hollow tube made of cloth and sealed with resin to be airtight. Aang fit it over her lower leg, then bent air into it to pressurize it, making it stiff to stabilize her healing bones. He slid his fingers over the opening, sealing it shut with firebending. He looked at her, massaging her instep. "I hate that you need this," he murmured.
"It'll be good as new in a few days," she said, skimming her fingers down his cheek.
He grasped her hand, turned his head and kissed her palm, then got up and went back to the closet. "Do you think everyone will be horribly offended if I wear regular clothes?"
"Well, it isn't a big ceremonial thing, is it? More like...camping? No one wears their best clothes camping."
"I should see what Zuko's wearing." Katara busted out laughing. He looked at her, annoyed. "What's so funny?"
"You are. You sound like a schoolgirl checking with her friends to make sure she doesn't make a fashion mistake."
"Well! I don't know!" He threw his arms up, then stalked to the door, yanked it open and stuck his head out. "Hey, Zuko!" he shouted.
"What?" she heard Zuko yell from down the hall.
"Are you wearing your Firelord robes?"
"Are you kidding me? It's blazing hot outside and there'll be campfires! I'm wearing as little as I can get away with!"
"All right, then!" Aang said, pulling back in and shutting the door again. Katara was still giggling a little. "It's not funny," he mumbled, taking out his normal clothes.
"I'm sorry," she said. "You're cute when you freak out over protocol."
He blushed. "Aw, you're just saying that."
She reached up and wiped a smear of shaving soap off the side of his head. "Missed a spot."
"Dang it," he said, lifting his hand to the small patch of stubble. He went into the attached bathroom. Katara leaned in the doorway and watched as he quickly swiped his razor over the spot he'd missed.
"Are you nervous about this?" she asked. "You're kind of squirrelly all of a sudden."
He shrugged. "Not really. I just don't know what to expect. And I'd rather not be away from home just now."
"Why?" He met her eyes in the mirror but didn't answer. Katara suddenly realized what he meant. "Oh, no. Don't tell me you think you need to hang around here for my sake!"
"You're injured! I feel weird leaving you alone!"
"I can take care of myself," she said tightly, irritation rising in her chest. "And Iroh is right next door if I need help. I'm not stupid, Aang. I'm not going to risk making it worse by overextending myself."
Aang looked relieved. "I'm glad to hear you say that."
Katara could see through him to what lay behind his concern. She went to him and ran her hands up and over his shoulders, still a little damp from the bath. "Aang, it wasn't your fault."
He stared at the ground, shaking his head a little. "I should have seen him going for you. I should have caught you before you hit the ground."
"Hey." He looked up and met her eyes. "Don't do that to me."
"Turn me into some helpless, fragile thing. That's what you do when you act like it's your fault. I'm hurt because we're in a dangerous line of work and that happens. When you say you should have stopped it, you know how that makes me feel?"
"Like I'm less. Less than you."
His eyes widened in alarm. His hands rose to grip her upper arms. "You're not! You're more! You're so amazing, Katara...you're everything!"
"Then shut up about protecting me."
He sighed and shut his eyes, nodding. "All right, I get what you mean. It's just hard."
Katara pulled him into her arms and hugged him. "You get it from all sides, Aang. How you're the Avatar and you have to protect the whole world, keep everyone safe. Let me be the one thing you don't have to protect. I want to stand beside you, not in your shadow."
He squeezed her tight for a moment, then pulled back far enough to look into her eyes again. "I love you. So much," he whispered.
"I know," she whispered back. She placed a quick, gentle kiss on his lips, then took a step back. "But you better get ready, the carriage is coming for you guys any minute."
He went to the bed where his clothes lay in a heap, unwinding his towel. "Maybe I ought to break my leg," he said. "At least I'd have an excuse not to go to this stupid nature hike." He glanced back at her. "What?"
"Oh, nothing. Just enjoying the view," Katara said. They'd gotten over any discomfort over seeing each other naked awhile ago, although Aang still blushed adorably when she commented on it.
As he did now, turning red and throwing the towel at her. "Ha ha."
Sokka and Suki were gone already when Katara made it back downstairs. The master of the dojo where Toph was teaching her master class was waiting in the foyer to escort her there. He was fidgeting and anxious. "I've heard she's...demanding," he said to Katara.
"That's one way of putting it." She gave him what she hoped was a reassuring smile. "Your students will learn a great deal."
"I've got my most advanced students waiting. It's not every day they have the chance to learn from the master who taught the Avatar."
As if the utterance of his title had summoned him, Aang burst out of the hallway door and stomped across the foyer. "Katara, have you seen my glider?" He skidded to a halt when he saw the stranger standing there. "Oh. Uh...hi."
"Aang, this is Master Chung. Toph is teaching at his dojo today."
"Oh, right. Nice to meet you." Aang bowed politely.
Chung just stood there with his mouth hanging open. "I...uh...the...you're the Avatar!"
Aang smiled neutrally. He was accustomed to this reaction. "So they keep telling me."
Chung seemed to remember himself and bowed low. "It's an honor to meet you, Avatar Aang. I didn't know you'd be here."
"I live here."
"But...of course, my apologies..."
"Hey, relax," Aang said, patting his shoulder. "You don't have to bow and scrape for me. I'm a regular guy."
Chung looked dubious. "The Avatar, master of all elements, is far from a...regular guy," he said.
"Don't flatter him," Toph said, coming into the foyer. "If his head gets any bigger we'll be able to fly him down the street like a balloon."
"Master Toph," Chung said, bowing. "My students and I are humbly grateful for your..."
"Yeah, yeah. Let's go, I want to see what your students are made of!"
Katara handed her the knapsack with her lunch in it. "Toph..."
"Don't tell me to go easy on them," Toph said, quietly.
Katara smiled. "I was going to tell you to make them all cry like babies."
Toph punched her arm. "That's what I'm talking about. See ya, Twinkle Toes." She waved at them as Chung followed her outside, still bowing and trying to get in his "we're honored and grateful" speech as she talked over the top of his words.
"Now, what are you looking for?" Katara said, turning back to Aang.
"It's right there," she said, pointing to the staff, leaning against the doorframe where it always was.
"No, the other one. The new one."
"Oh. I haven't seen it since you were showing it to Sokka."
Aang looked up, light dawning on his face. "I bet I left it on the balcony!" He zoomed off, the breeze ruffling Zuko's clothes as he came out of the hallway.
"Sometimes being around him makes me feel about a million years old," he muttered, sitting down on the hall bench to put on his boots.
Zuko looked up at her. "What?"
"He makes me feel like I'll be young forever." She handed Zuko a knapsack. "Seal jerky's in there."
He grinned. "Thanks."
"So what are you going to do all day, with the house to yourself?"
"Oh, I don't know. Write to my grandmother, maybe. Walk to the park."
"Take it easy on that leg."
"Don't you start. I've got Sokka and Aang obsessing over it, I don't need you piling on, too."
"Hey, I have total confidence in your healing ability. Saved my life once, remember?"
Katara sighed. "How could I forget?"
Zuko looked off into the distance. "The other day Aang made some comment about us being scar twins."
"We have matching lightning scars from Azula. Me on my chest, him on his back."
Katara looked at her hands. "He has two."
"Lightning scars from Azula. One on his back, one on the bottom of his foot. Her lightning only struck you. It went all the way through him. That's why you didn't..." She stopped short.
"Why I didn't die, and he did," Zuko murmured.
Katara turned her face away, not wanting Zuko to see how it affected her still just to think of that horrible night. She'd worked very hard to banish her anger at him for the part he'd played. It had been made easier knowing how much he regretted it, and how it tormented him, but sometimes...sometimes it was still hard. There was just no getting around the fact that Zuko's actions, regretted or not, had come very close to costing Aang his life.
Aang came trotting back into the foyer, his new, larger glider in his hand. It had been a gift from Teo for Aang's fourteenth birthday a few weeks ago. "All right, let's get this..." He stopped, seeing their somber faces. "What's going on?" Katara jumped up and threw her arms around him. Aang's free arm came around her at once. "Hey...what's wrong?"
"Nothing," she said. "I'm just glad you're alive."
"I'm pretty glad about that myself. What were you guys talking about?" he said. Katara pulled back. Aang was frowning at Zuko over her shoulder.
"It's nothing, don't worry about it." She smiled and wiped at her eyes. "Just ancient history."
He looked skeptical, but nodded. "If you say so."
There was a knock at the door. Zuko stood up. "That must be our ride," he said, sounding resigned.
Katara shook off her melancholia. "Play nice with the other kids," she said, mustering some cheerfulness.
"No promises," Zuko muttered. "If he makes me listen to what Bosco thinks of my ideas I can't be held responsible for my actions." He went out the door to the front drive, leaving Katara alone with Aang.
"You sure you're okay?" Aang said again, watching her face with concern on his own.
She nodded, reaching out to straighten his tunic. "Zuko said something about your scars, from Azula. I don't like to remember that night."
Understanding came into Aang's face. "Yeah. Me, neither."
She took a deep breath. "Then let's not remember it." She pulled him close and kissed him, long and deep. She heard his glider fall to the floor with a clatter and then he had both arms wrapped around her, returning her kiss with gusto. Katara could shut her eyes and be right back to the moment they'd first shared a real kiss, on the balcony outside Iroh's tea shop, and feel again the elation and relief and the sheer joy of that moment, and the happy discovery that when he wasn't wracked with anxiety, Aang was a really good kisser. That felt like ages ago (although it was less than a year, in fact) and she'd yet to get a bad kiss from him.
He pulled back, smiling a dopey little smile. "You sure know how to make a guy not want to leave the house."
"But you have to."
He made a face. "Yeah, I have to." He picked up his glider. "So have a good day, uh...honey." He blushed bright red.
Katara's eyebrows shot up. "Honey?"
"No good?" he asked, scrunching up his nose.
"We've never called each other stuff like that."
"I know. I guess I thought...I ought to come up with something to call you."
"And what's wrong with 'Katara?' I call you 'Aang,' don't I?"
He shuffled his feet. "You called me 'baby' once."
"I did not! When did I ever do that?"
Aang flushed even redder. "Well, you might not remember. We were...you know. And you were about to...uh..."
"Oh," Katara said, her flush matching his. "I don't think I can be held responsible for whatever I might say in that...circumstance."
He sighed. "Too bad, cause you also said I was a god." His eyes twinkled with mischief.
"Oh, get out of here, you insufferable monster!" she exclaimed, laughing. Aang danced out of reach, grabbing the knapsack containing his lunch and darting out the door.
"See ya!" he tossed back, fleeing the house.
Katara stood there in the foyer, finally alone, shaking her head.
Come on, Katara. This letter isn't going to write itself.
She stared at the blank scroll, her weights holding it open and smooth. She hadn't even dipped her brush into her inkpot yet. She didn't know what to say. Should she tell Gran Gran about her injury, as Sokka wanted her to? Should she tell her family that at least once a week she was in mortal peril? Or would they rather hear about the bureaucratic meetings and negotiations? Would they want the truth, or would they want to hear that her days were filled with peaceful waterbending lessons and trips to the countryside and balls and feasts at the palace?
She heard Sokka's remark from this morning in her head. Right after I mention the little tidbit that you and Aang are sharing a bedroom.
Yeah, that would be easy to work in as a casual topic. Dear Gran Gran, the weather's great here, my bending is getting stronger, the Earth King gave us a great house, I'm sleeping with the Avatar, and gosh the local produce sure is fresh.
She sighed. She was comfortable with her physical relationship with Aang. She just didn't think everyone needed to know about it. What would probably surprise Sokka was that they'd only been doing – well, what he assumed they'd been doing all along – for about two months. They'd shared a bed since moving into this house shortly after the end of the war, but until recently, all they'd done in it was sleep in each other's arms and engage in some admittedly heated makeout sessions, some of which had edged right up to the line, but never crossed it.
She thought back to their first time. It hadn't been planned, exactly, although they'd both been skating around the topic for weeks. At times the tension was pretty unbearable. She knew they were young but damn, sometimes she wanted him so badly she ached, and she could see an answering ache in his eyes, and feel it in the way he touched her. It was getting harder and harder to stop themselves, and she knew that soon, they'd agree that they weren't going to stop anymore.
They'd been talking about ice-dodging, the Water Tribe's rite of passage into manhood. Aang had asked if there was a similar rite of passage for girls.
"No, not really," she'd said.
"That's weird. There isn't in the Earth Kingdom or the Fire Nation, either. How come boys get all these rituals about becoming men but girls don't get any for becoming women?"
Katara had laughed. "Well, nature does kind of give us our own special signpost for that, you know. We don't have to make one up."
"Oh, right," Aang had said, chuckling. "Duh."
"So...the Air Nomads had a ritual, too?"
"Sure." He'd tapped the blue arrow on his forehead.
They'd been having this conversation in bed, lying on their sides facing each other. She'd reached out and smoothed her hand over the blue line, around to the back of his head. His eyes had fallen closed at her touch. "This means you're a man?"
"Well, it means I'm a master airbender. But getting your tattoos - it means you're not a kid anymore. You're a full member of the community. You're expected to accept adult responsibilities and teach others what you know. If they hadn't thought I was ready, I would not have gotten these tattoos no matter how advanced my airbending was. I was the youngest to be tattooed in three hundred years." She'd held his gaze, and everything had gone heavy and loaded. "How old are boys when they go ice-dodging, again?"
"Fourteen," she'd murmured.
He'd taken a deep breath, his eyes roaming over her face. "I am thirteen years, nine months, three weeks and four days old."
She'd made the decision in a heartbeat. "That's close enough for me."
"Oh, thank the spirits," he'd groaned, and they'd seized each other. That first time had been - well, a little frantic, and clumsy. They'd lain there afterwards, side by side, looking at each other with similarly chagrined expressions. Finally, he'd said, "We can do better."
"Damn right, we can," she'd agreed. And they had. Then and since.
She remembered feeling so odd all the next day, like the universe had shifted just slightly to one side, or that some film had been lifted from her eyes and she saw things differently. She kept having the odd thought all day. I had sex last night. As usual, he'd been already up and gone before she woke, but she'd seen him at the breakfast table, and then the secret little smile they'd shared amidst all the normality of their everyday lives...something had changed. She was used to him. Used to him being her friend, her student, her teacher, her companion. The boy she loved, the one acknowledged as hers, as she was his. But suddenly she looked at him with the private awareness that he was her lover, and it took some getting used to.
Now, it was normal to her. Normal enough that it was hard to remember how it had been before. They were comfortable now, and that was somehow the best part. Shaping their lives together, wearing grooves in each other's existences that only they fit. Knowing how each other slept and ate and dreamt and touched and desired and hoped and loved, learning better with each passing day how to be "us." She knew they were young for the kind of partnership they were building. Young for the kinds of things they'd said to each other, for the kinds of things they were asking of each other. But then, they always had been, and it had never mattered before, so it didn't now. They'd been too young to fight a war, and yet they had. Too young to go questing all over the world, but so they had. Too young to die...but he had. Too young to kill...but she would have, for him. Too young to fall in love, but they both had.
Frankly, she didn't care one little bit what anyone else thought they were too young for.
She took a deep breath and picked up her brush, but she didn't get far. She'd only written "Dear" before she was interrupted by the sound of running footsteps on the stairs and then a knock at her door. "Come in!" she said, getting up. Urgency like this always made her stomach clench. What's happened to him this time?
Their housekeeper, Bai, yanked open the door. "Master Katara, come quickly!"
"Is it the Avatar?"
"There's an urgent summons," Bai said.
Katara followed her downstairs as quickly as she could on her still-healing leg in its pressure bandage, her heart pounding. In the foyer were a couple of local officers in uniforms of the Ba Sing Se constabulary, both of them soaking wet. "Master Katara?" one of them said.
"Yes? What is it? Has something happened?"
"We need your help right away."
"Is it the Avatar?" she repeated. It was a question she often found herself asking people.
The officer looked puzzled. "What? No. We were told he was out of the city with the Earth King. Please, there's no time to waste. We'll brief you en route."
Katara just nodded and hobbled after them. They had a carriage, thankfully. She climbed in and the ostrich-horse pulling them took off running. "What's going on?"
"A bridge has collapsed near the middle ring. Several transports have fallen into the water and the current is very strong. One is a bus carrying several dozen children."
"You need a Waterbender," Katara said.
"Yes, quite urgently. The soil beneath the water is unstable and constantly shifting, Earthbenders can't move it sufficiently to save the people trapped."
Katara nodded. "I may need assistance. I'm recovering from a leg injury and I'm not at my best."
The officers looked down at her leg. "I'm sorry, we weren't aware..."
"It's all right." She gritted her teeth at the admission that she might not be equal to this task, but she had to be realistic if lives were at stake. She suddenly noticed what direction they were heading. "Officer...was it the Yang-Lo Bridge that collapsed?"
"I'm afraid so."
Katara's heart sank. The Yang-Lo Bridge spanned the Chimin Reservoir, which was fed by several fast-moving rivers. It was alternately deep and shallow, with unpredictable currents and whirlpools that came and went with little warning. It was a treacherous, angry body of water that would fight her, and if people were caught in it...it was a bad situation. "The Chimin is very dangerous," she said.
"It's worse than that. The bridge collapse damaged one of the dams. The entire reservoir has become turbulent."
She nodded. "How fast can you get word to the Earth King's party?"
They looked at each other. "We can't do that, Master."
"The Earth King has given orders that his party is not to be disturbed today."
Katara controlled her temper, with effort. "You are both Earthbenders, right?" They nodded. "Then you know how important it is to have your whole body in the correct form, supporting and enabling the flow of chi to bend correctly. With my leg hurt, it's not too likely that I'll be able to control the reservoir myself. I need the Avatar's help. Unless you know of another Waterbender nearby."
"But...the Earth King..."
"I don't care what the Earth King said!" she exploded. "No matter what he told you, he does not have authority over the Avatar, nor over Firelord Zuko, for that matter."
"We'll dispatch an express messenger once we reach the reservoir," the higher-ranking officer said, giving in.
"Good." The carriage pulled up near the reservoir. The scene was chaos. Earthbenders were everywhere, trying to rebuild the damaged dam, but the water was flowing too fast. Carriages and trains and several boats were caught in the swirling whirlpools in the reservoir, which boiled and frothed with rapids and currents. Katara got out of the carriage and stood at the bank. "Great spirits," she murmured.
"The bus, those children!" a woman was screaming, pointing. Katara could see the bus stuck against a rock outcropping, but it was sliding and shifting and water was pouring in.
You can do this, gimpy leg or not.
She hobbled to the edge, planted herself as best she could, reached out and swirled the water away from the bus, then pushed it underneath, lifting the whole vehicle. It wobbled alarmingly. She cursed and steadied it, her hands shaking - this kind of delicate control of such raging water was very difficult. With a heave and a twist, she shoved the water, carrying the bus to the opposite bank of the reservoir and dumping it on dry land. It wasn't the softest of landings, but the children would suffer no more than bruises.
The crowd cheered. She barely heard them. Her leg was throbbing and her chi felt all sorts of fragmented. Her confidence was shaken; normally water felt obedient to her, an element she knew and understood, but this water, on this day...it was hard. She focused on the next carriage, floating on its side, not yet submerged but swirling and tilting, its occupants crying out for help. She whipped her arm forward and back, seizing the carriage in a long grasp of water and carrying it to the shore. The motion required her to shift all her weight through her bad leg and it nearly collapsed.
"I can't do that again," she gasped.
"If you can calm the waters, direct them, the Earthbenders may be able to be more effective," the officer said.
She nodded. "I'll try." She extended her hands toward the water, closing her eyes, feeling its power, its anger, its...hate. This water hated. Katara didn't have time to wonder why that was, she just had to do what she could to calm it. She extended her bending sense further, sensing the whirlpools, smoothing them, easing the roaring currents, urging the flow in new directions. She could sense the Earthbenders working on repairing the dam, lifting the ground under the water to rescue the vehicles and people, but it wouldn't be enough. She couldn't hold this water. She'd never felt anything like this. It was fighting her. Water usually obeyed her, loved her, embraced her. What was different here?
"The Avatar!" someone yelled.
Katara opened her eyes and looked up, breathing a sigh of relief as she saw Aang approaching on his glider. "Your message got there fast," she said to the officers nearby.
"It could not have gotten there this fast," one of them said.
Aang landed at her side. He wasted no time, seizing her around the waist and lifting her clear. "Get back," he said, all business. "Get everyone back." He leapt onto the water, skimming the surface on a cushion of air. She saw his eyes and tattoos glow briefly, then the water lifted him high in the air and he spun it out of the reservoir, leaving it dry and empty. The whole contents of the reservoir swirled above his head, obeying his commands, and then with a thrust of his arms it was sent retreating behind the three intact dams. He landed in the empty reservoir and Airbended the remaining trains and marooned vehicles onto shore, then leapt into the air and landed on the crumbled dam. He didn't try to fix it, he just raised a new earthen dam in front of it. He released the reservoir waters and they flowed back into their basin, calm now and tamed again.
Katara had fallen to the ground, her bad leg no longer steady enough to hold her, and watched him work. She looked around at the awe on the faces of the onlookers; most of them had never seen such bending in their lives.
Yeah, I think I'll keep him, she thought, smiling a little. She was used to seeing him perform such feats, but it still made her shiver. She wasn't immune to the awe of the Avatar just because she also saw him trip over things and knew all his four different kinds of snores.
Aang leapt off the dam and landed on the shore. He was at her side in a flash, kneeling with a look of concern on his face. "What did you do to yourself?" he said, touching her leg.
She winced. "Too much bending."
A high-ranking magistrate came forward. "Avatar Aang, thank you for..."
"Why didn't you summon me right away?" Aang snapped, cutting the man off. "Master Katara is injured and should not have been bending this much."
"We were told you were unavailable, Avatar."
"You were what?" Aang exclaimed.
"How did you get here so fast?" Katara asked, grasping his arm. "I had them send a message, but it couldn't have gotten to you that quickly."
"I didn't get a message. I sensed a great deal of bending going on, mostly Earthbending. Then I sensed you Waterbending. I knew something had to be wrong." He shook his head, his jaw tight, and shot another angry look at the magistrate. "You should have come to me first."
The magistrate cleared his throat and looked uneasy. "Lady Avatar asked us to alert you, but the Earth King left orders that his party was not to be disturbed today."
Aang's eyebrows shot up. "Oh, really?"
"I tried to tell them," Katara said, irritated at being called 'Lady Avatar,' as she often was. She much preferred 'Master Katara.' She didn't object to being associated with Aang, but it hadn't taken her very long to realize that she would have to work hard to maintain her own identity.
Aang sighed, sitting on the ground and pulling her leg into his lap to remove her pressure bandage. "Looks like the Earth King and I are going to have to have a little conversation." She hissed in a pained breath as he carefully eased the deflated bandage off her leg. "Sorry."
"It's okay," she said, through clenched teeth. She leaned forward and bent some water onto her leg, then placed her hands on it. "It's just strained. Ooh, that's better." She sighed and relaxed a little, leaning into Aang's shoulder.
He shook his head. "Can't I leave you alone for one morning?"
She smiled. "I'm incorrigible, I guess."
"Hey, guys," said a familiar voice. They looked up to see Toph approaching, followed by a dozen young men and women, undoubtedly her Earthbending master class. They were all covered in dirt and looked exhausted. "We heard the big commotion and came to see if we could help. Right, class?"
"Yes, Sifu Toph!" they chorused.
"Looks like you two have things under control."
"Aang does. I'm barely mobile," Katara said, clenching her jaw in frustration.
"Relax, sweetness. A broken bone seriously messes up your bending, you know that. You shouldn't have even tried. It sucks that I missed all the fun, though. Was there kick-ass, glowy Avatar action?"
"There sure was," Katara said, grinning. Aang just blushed.
"Damn, I love watching that. Oh well. So, crisis over?"
"For now," Aang said. "But that dam's going to need repair, and the bridge will have to be rebuilt. Wanna tackle that?"
Toph rubbed her hands together. "Sounds like a fun way to pass an afternoon. Right, class?"
"Yes, Sifu Toph!" they said again, although they all looked like they'd rather settle in for a nice, long nap.
"You take care of our girl, Twinkle Toes. Don't let her do any more bending," Toph said, shaking her finger.
"Don't worry about that," Aang said. "Thanks, Toph."
Katara looked around. The emergency responders were helping the victims out of their ruined vehicles, wrapping up cuts and lacerations. People were milling around, giving them space but gawking. "I should help. I could do some healing."
"Aang, that won't hurt my leg. Healing isn't physical like bending is. I can do it. That is, if you help me walk."
He sighed, a resigned look on his face. "If we get into a big argument about this, I'm going to lose, aren't I?"
"Fine, then let's skip to the part where I lose and help you walk around, then. I could do without the argument if it's all the same to you."
She reached out and tapped the end of his nose. "Sometimes, you're pretty smart."
For the next hour, Katara hobbled around, hanging heavily on Aang's arm, and healed up bruises and cuts and a few sprains. Everyone was very appreciative, and everyone goggled at Aang. Most people got that way when they found themselves in close proximity to the Avatar. It was a mixture of reverence, hero-worship and a little nervousness, like they were just a tiny bit worried that he might suddenly erupt into a maelstrom of bending fury and blow everyone off the map.
The worst injury she healed was the broken arm of a girl about her own age. She sat at the girl's side and worked on her for several minutes before she realized she was nearly out of water. "Aang, could you get me some more water?" she asked, holding out the bowl to him.
"Okay." He walked off to fulfill her request while she kept up the healing. The girl she was working on, who'd kept her gaze respectfully averted the whole time, now looked at Katara with wide eyes.
"You call him 'Aang?'" she said, sounding amazed.
"Sure," Katara said, chuckling. "That's his name. What else should I call him?"
"Gosh, I don't know. I don't know if I could even say anything to him."
"He's really not scary, you know. You can talk to him. He likes being treated like a regular person."
"But he isn't!" the girl said, like the very idea was blasphemous.
"In some ways. In other ways he's just like anyone else."
"But he's your...I guess he's your boyfriend, right?"
Katara nodded, although she didn't like the word. It seemed so inadequate a term for what Aang was to her. "Yes, he is."
The girl looked past Katara to where Aang had gotten stuck talking to one of the magistrates. She was getting that telltale dreamy look on her face. Women were drawn to Aang like flies to honey. Part of it was the Avatar, but most of it was just him. He had natural charisma, and a guileless cheerfulness that won people over quickly. She'd seen it happen a million times. "He's gorgeous."
"Well, I think so," Katara said, most of her attention on the girl's arm bones. She was very slender and her bones were delicate, which required a different touch.
"I guess even the Avatar seems regular after awhile, huh?" the girl said, smiling.
Katara was out of water. She lifted her hands away for a moment, meeting the girl's eyes. "I guess I am pretty used to him. But just between you and me? I still think he's amazing."
Aang walked up at that moment. "Here you go," he said, handing her the full bowl.
"Thanks. Almost done here." Aang sat down on the girl's other side and watched Katara work. Katara saw the girl glance at him, then muster her courage.
"Master Katara's a good healer, huh?" she said.
Aang seemed pleasantly surprised she'd addressed him directly. "She's the best," he said, smiling. "You'll be good as new."
"Just Aang is fine."
"I wanted to tell you thanks."
"You're welcome. I wish I'd gotten here sooner."
"No, not for this today. For stopping the war." The girl's eyes misted over. "My dad and my brother were both in the Earth Kingdom army. I just know they would have died by now if it had gone on. We lived in the Eastern provinces, and the war was everywhere, and it never ended. It was all anybody could remember. We couldn't ever think about what it might be like if the war ended, because everyone knew it would never, ever end. But then word came through that the Avatar had returned, and suddenly it was okay to think about it. It was okay to hope. So thank you. For coming back, and for stopping it."
Katara watched Aang's face while the girl said these things. She could see his conflict beneath the surface of his skin. He'd learned to accept these kinds of thanks graciously, but it troubled him that if he hadn't vanished, there might never have been a war in the first place. "That means a lot to me," he said. "Thank you. But for my return? You can thank Master Katara. She was the one who freed me." He smiled at her. "In more ways than one," he said, quietly.
"You're done," Katara said, lifting her hands from the girl's arm. "But keep it in a sling for a few days and go easy for a week or so, okay?"
"Thank you," the girl said.
Aang came around and helped Katara to her feet. "What's your name?" Katara asked, suddenly wanting to know.
"It's Yi. Huang Yi."
"It was nice to meet you, Yi," Katara said.
"It was my honor to meet both of you," Yi said.
Katara slipped her arm around Aang's neck and they made their way back through the first aid area. "I think I'm done," she murmured. He stopped, bent and picked her up. "Aang, I can walk."
"Well, you're not going to." They made much faster progress with him carrying her. He headed for the carriage that had brought her here. The two officers who'd fetched her appeared there as they approached. "I'm taking Master Katara home," Aang said, a tone of reproach still in his voice.
"Thank you for your help," one of them said. "Both of you."
Aang just glared at them as he helped Katara into the carriage, climbing in after her. "Oh, are you coming with me?" she said, surprised. "I thought you'd head back to your thingie."
"I'm going to make sure you get home safely."
"I'll be fine, I can get there on my..."
"Katara, humor me, okay?"
She smiled. "All right." She patted the carriage seat next to her and Aang moved across to sit at her side. She tucked herself close to him and leaned her head on his shoulder. He put his arm around her and she felt him relax a little. Katara rested her hand on his leg and sighed as the carriage started moving. "You're pretty good company, anyway."
He insisted on carrying her to the bedroom. Katara didn't object too strenuously; her leg hurt terribly. Plus it felt kind of nice to be carried. He laid her on their bed and sat on the edge by her foot to re-apply her pressure bandage. She leaned up on her elbows to watch him. "This thing really is clever," he said as he inflated it. "Tell me when."
"Stop," she said, just when it got to the edge of too-tight. He sealed the bandage. "Yeah, Sokka might be on to something."
He began massaging the tight muscles of her thigh above the bandage. Katara stretched a little and purred under his ministrations. "So you packed everyone's lunches today, huh?" he said, after a few minutes of rubbing.
She nodded, a little confused by the non sequitur. "Yes."
"There was one nectarine left in the bowl. I saw it. But when I opened my lunch, it wasn't in there." He gave her a sad, disappointed look, but his eyes were twinkling. "You gave the nectarine to someone else. You should think about that, 'cause you know someday when you're ninety, and you've fallen out of your rocking chair again and the only person who's there to help you up is me, I want you to remember the nectarine that you didn't give me."
Katara shook her head, smiling to cover the fact that her chin wanted to tremble, because Aang had just unintentionally told her that he assumed they'd be together when they were ninety. "You are a ridiculous person."
"Yeah, I think I might be. But I still want to know who got the nectarine."
"You really want to know?"
"Well, I know it wasn't Zuko, since I saw his lunch."
"You sure you want to know?"
"I can handle it."
"I ate it myself. I kept it here and I ate it, because I'm selfish and rude."
He chuckled. "Yes, you never think of others or do anything for other people. How dare you keep a nectarine for yourself?" He looked at her fondly for a moment, then moved up the bed and stretched out next to her on his side, propping his head on his hand. Katara relaxed against the pillows, fatigue washing over her in waves. "I really don't want to go back to this stupid Earth King powwow," he muttered.
"How is it so far?"
"About as bad as we thought. And if I leave Zuko there alone all day I will never hear the end of it."
"You better go back, then," she said, her fingers idly toying with his collar.
"Aw, to heck with Zuko. I'm his great-grandfather, you know. I'll send him to his room without supper." Aang's free hand had found its way to her stomach and was moving over it in slow strokes. Katara's fingers wandered up his neck all by themselves. His eyes fell closed and he leaned into her touch.
"Well, I wouldn't want to keep you from all that outdoorsy fun," she whispered.
He didn't answer, his eyelids at half-mast. He nudged her nose with his own, then lowered his lips to hers and kissed her gently. His hand moved up to cup her jaw and he kissed her again. Katara let her hands rest on his shoulders and sighed against his mouth as they kissed over and over, quiet, gentle kisses, soft and unhurried. He slipped one arm under her shoulders to pull her closer and all there was in the world was his mouth and his touch. His other hand moved to her breast, cupping it through her dress, his thumb sliding over the peak. It had taken some time before Aang could touch her with confidence; for months whenever he'd put his hands on her, he'd done so like he wasn't quite sure it was allowed. He'd gotten over it, though, and she loved the way he touched her now, like she was rare and precious, and like she was his. She would have liked to respond with more enthusiasm, but she was just so sleepy. Her mind drifted and warmth spread through her body until she felt herself losing grasp on consciousness. She felt him chuckle a little. "Guess I'm a boring kisser, huh?"
"Nuh-huh," she managed. "Just so tired."
He pressed his lips to hers one last time then withdrew. "You sleep. I've got to go, anyway." He rose from the bed and straightened his clothes.
Katara rolled onto her side and curled up. She felt him draw a blanket over her. "Aang?" she said, as he headed for the door.
She blinked and forced her eyes to focus on him. "The water in the reservoir. Did it feel strange to you?"
He thought for a moment. "It felt out of control. It was fighting me."
"Yeah, that, but...something else."
He cocked his head. "What?"
"I dunno. It felt to me like it was angry. Like it hated me, and the world, and everybody in it. It was hostile."
Aang frowned. "That's strange."
"Something's wrong there. I know it."
He leaned over her and smoothed her hair back from her forehead. "We'll go back and have another look at it. Maybe tomorrow, when you've had some rest."
She nodded. "Okay."
He bent and kissed her cheek. She was already half-gone and barely felt him. "See you later," he whispered. His voice followed her down into sleep.
Katara struggled awake through what felt like heavy fog. Someone was shaking her shoulder. "Katara? Katara! Can you hear me? Sokka, she's...oh, wait. I think she's waking up. Katara?"
She opened her eyelids and saw Suki bending over her. Sokka was behind her, peering over her shoulder. "Suki?"
Suki sighed. "Thank goodness. I've been trying to wake you for five minutes. Are you okay?"
Katara groaned and put a hand to her head. "I don't know," she said. She didn't feel okay at all. She was sweaty and hot, but her skin felt clammy. Her limbs felt leaden and her injured leg was a hot whirlpool of agony. Her head was pounding. She tried to sit up, but the room spun in circles and she had to lie down again. "My head hurts. Everything's spinning."
"You don't look so good," Suki said, putting a hand on Katara's forehead. "She's burning up."
"I'm going to have Bai go get Iroh," Sokka said, hurrying to the door.
"What time is it?" Katara said.
Suki sat down on the edge of the bed. "Almost four. Honey, what happened?"
"I dunno," Katara groaned. "The reservoir..."
"We heard," Sokka said, coming back into the room. "How could Aang let you do that much bending? You're injured! When I get my hands on him..."
"Sokka, stop it," Suki said, tossing him an annoyed glance. "Aang isn't in charge of her!"
"Thank you," Katara said to her, glaring at Sokka. "He wasn't even there when I started. I felt okay when we got back here. He redid my bandage...owwww," she moaned, a slight motion sending pain rocketing up her leg. "I was tired. I did a lot of healing. He went back to the thing with Zuko and I fell asleep." She put her hands to her forehead. "I don't know what's wrong with me."
"Well, you're feverish," Suki said. "Let's get you into some lighter clothes and into bed." Katara let Suki help her up. Together they got her out of her dress and into a nightgown while Sokka got some cool water and cloths from the bathroom. Katara slipped between the sheets and Suki laid a cool towel on her forehead. It felt divine, but tears prickled at her eyes. She was never sick. She felt vulnerable and miserable and all at once she just wanted her mother.
Sokka sat down next to her and brushed her hair back from her face. "I know," he said. "I always want her too, when I don't feel good."
Katara looked up at him. "How'd you know?"
He smiled. "I know that look."
All at once Katara was pretty well overcome with love for her brother. She scooted closer and rested her head against his arm, curling in on herself again. "What's wrong with me?" she said, her voice sounding small.
He stroked her hair gently. "You'll be fine. You picked up a bug or something."
Something. Something in the water. Katara shivered. Sokka's hand was steady on her head. Suki got up and came back a few minutes later with tea, but Katara's throat was closed up and she didn't want any. She shook and ached and felt worse with each passing minute. "Aang," she murmured. "Where's Aang?" She felt like she knew the answer to this question, but it danced just out of reach.
"He's with Zuko at the campfire thing," Sokka said, gently. "Do you want us to send for him?"
She knew she shouldn't. She didn't want to interrupt him again, but illness was making her selfish and needy. "I want Aang," she whispered, a little embarrassed by her own vulnerability.
For a moment she thought she was hallucinating his voice, but then she saw that Sokka and Suki had both looked up, too. Katara lifted her head and saw Aang crossing the room quickly. "How does he do that?" Sokka exclaimed.
Aang sat on the bed by her side and Katara rolled over, burying herself in his arms. "What's going on?" he asked. "Katara...Great Spirits, you're boiling!"
"I don't know what's wrong with me," she said.
"How are you here?" Sokka asked.
"I had a vision. We were in the woods and Hei Bai came to me. He said a dangerous spirit was in the house of the Avatar and I had to return home." He tilted her head back, his hands framing her face, and peered into her eyes. "You were right, Katara. Something was very wrong in that water. And now it's inside you."
She shuddered with revulsion. "I can feel it in there," she said. She hung onto his arms, her skin crawling.
He pulled her into his lap and wrapped both arms around her, as if he could shield her –
but he couldn't, not from what was inside. "Try and relax," he murmured. He put his hand on her forehead, fingers splayed wide, and shut his eyes. She saw his tattoo glow briefly and she felt better at once – but she could feel whatever-it-was still inside her. Aang was just holding it back.
The bedroom door opened again. Katara heard Toph's footsteps and Iroh's soothing voice. "I brought the tea, Aang."
"Give it here," Aang said, reaching out. He held the cup to her lips. "Drink this, Katara."
She sipped it, then gagged. "Gah, it's bitter."
"You have to drink it. I know it tastes bad. It will protect you. I'm going to have to go into the spirit world, that's the only place I can fight this." He locked eyes with her. "Katara, you have to trust me, okay?" She nodded weakly. She trusted no one else as much as him. She forced down the tea, shuddering and shivering. She felt like she was being shaken to pieces from the inside. Aang shifted them around on the bed until he was sitting lotus-style with her head in his lap, her body stretched out in front of him. She tilted her head back so she could see him upside-down above her. He put his hands on either side of her head. "Just lie still," he said. He bent and kissed her forehead. "I got this."
She nodded, then saw him close his eyes. His tattoos glowed, and Katara felt energy leaving her body and flowing into his hands, and then the blackness took her.
When Katara opened her eyes, she was in the exact same position. Aang's hands had fallen away from her head. She blinked and looked around. Everyone was huddled around the bed, watching her. She shifted a little. She felt - fine, actually. Normal. "How long was I out?" she said, quietly.
"About half an hour," Sokka said.
She sat up and turned to look at Aang. He was still in the spirit world, his chin bowed down on his chest. She bent and put her hand on his face, sighing. "He'll come out of it when he's done," she said. Everyone was kind of looking around at each other. "You guys don't have to stand here and stare at him," Katara said, smiling a little. "I'll stay."
"Shouldn't we be doing something?" Suki said, looking worried.
"There is one thing," Katara said. "You could go to the Chimin Reservoir and do some investigating. I had the sense that something was very wrong in the water, and Aang felt it, too. If it was a malicious spirit that then came into me, it may be gone. But we need to know how long the water had been so hostile, and if it's better now, and what might have caused a water spirit to become so angry."
"We are all over it," Sokka said. "Come on, Toph."
"Why do I have to come? I don't know anything about water spirits. If it isn't in the dirt, I don't care."
"You were there earlier, you can show us what happened. Besides, you could stand to explore your spiritual side a little more. You're a bender, too!"
"My spiritual side could kick the crap out of your spiritual side, Snoozles!" Toph said, poking Sokka in the arm as they left the room. Suki rolled her eyes and followed them.
Katara sat in front of Aang, mirroring his pose. She reached out and took his hands; they laid limply in her own. "Come on, Aang," she whispered. She stared at his hands, her thumbs stroking the backs. She lifted them up and kissed one blue arrow, then the other. "Come back now. You know how I worry." She glanced at Iroh, who was making more tea, of course. "I don't really know what to do," she said.
"He's done this before, has he not?"
"Sure, lots of times. Mostly we just sit and wait for him to come back."
"So why don't you do that now?"
"I don't know, this is different. He's fighting some spirit in there, I feel like I should do something more."
"The situation is not different, but you are," Iroh said, gently. "He is yours now, in a new way."
Katara thought about that for a moment. "Maybe you're right." She examined Aang's face for a moment, then looked back over at Iroh. He was watching her with a knowing expression. "What?"
"Your heart is in your eyes, Katara. To love someone that deeply is a blessing but also a curse."
She sighed. "You're telling me."
Iroh had gone downstairs. His stated reason was to fix some dinner, but she knew he just wanted to give her some space. Katara's leg began to ache sitting as she was, so she curled up next to Aang, rested her head on his knee, and waited.
She was starting to drift off again when she became aware that his breathing was speeding up, and she could feel his pulse racing. She looked up; his face was flushed and a light sheen of sweat had sprung to his pale skin. "Aang?" she said. She knelt next to him and shook him lightly. "Aang, what's going on in there?" He was almost gasping now. "Aang? Aang!" He flopped under her hands like a rag doll. Tears sprang to Katara's eyes and spilled down her cheeks, cold fear settling around her heart. "Come on, Aang. Don't do this to me." She held his face in her hands, his head rolling bonelessly on his neck.
Suddenly his whole body gave a spasmodic jerk and his arms flailed, one of them striking her pretty hard in the chest. She caught him as he fell backwards, the glow leaving his skin and eyes. "Katara!" he choked.
"I'm here," she said, pulling him close. He clutched at her, breathing hard. "I'm right here." Relieved, Katara hugged him as tight as she dared. For a few moments he didn't speak, just held her. "That must have been a bad one," she finally said.
Aang drew back, scrubbing at his face with both hands. He looked around, a little disoriented, but when his eyes focused on her, awareness returned. "Are you okay?" He put his hand on her forehead. "You don't feel sick anymore?"
She nodded. "I'm okay, I feel fine, what about you? Are you okay? Tell me what happened!"
He sighed, sounding exhausted. "I found the water spirit."
Katara's eyes widened. "And?"
Aang stretched out his legs, hanging on to Katara's hand. "Kuruk was waiting for me when I got there. He said that the bridge over the reservoir collapsed because the Earth Spirit pulled it down."
"Why would it do that?"
"It knew that the water spirit that lived in the reservoir had gone mad. The reservoir has always been so treacherous because the spirit was so unstable."
Katara frowned. "What drove it mad?"
"I'm not sure. I think it was all the restrictions the city placed on the water. The dams, the locks, the redirecting...the water spirit couldn't take it anymore. It went after you because it sensed your waterbending." He looked up at her face. "It would have torn you apart from the inside. It's nothing but blind rage now."
Katara laced her fingers through his. "What did you do?'
"I bent its energy."
"You can do that? To a spirit?" Katara was impressed.
"Apparently. It wasn't easy, though." He took a deep breath and sat up. "That ought to..."
"WHERE IS HE?"
The bellow from downstairs cut Aang off. They looked at each other. "Uh oh," Aang said.
"Up here!" Aang called.
Zuko stomped in, looking like the apocalypse. "We were supposed to present a united front! But noooo, you deserted me not once, but twice! Oh, I sense a lot of bending going on, I better go see. Oh, the spirits sent me a vision, I have to faff off to hang out here in the bedroom with my girlfriend!"
Aang arched one elegant eyebrow and crossed his arms over his chest. "She'd been invaded by an insane water spirit. If I hadn't come back, she might have died."
Zuko took a breath and raised a pointing finger, like he was about to accuse Aang of making it up, then he looked at their faces and thought better of it. "Oh," he said, flatly. "I guess that's okay, then."
Katara snorted. "Thank you, Zuko. That's so generous of you."
He scratched his head. "So...let me get this straight. Since this morning, you have talked the Earth King down from making hairstyles a matter of royal edict, saved people from a bridge collapse, battled an angry water spirit, and it isn't even dinnertime yet?"
Aang shrugged. "Welcome to my world."
"Hairstyles?" Katara said, bemused.
"Don't ask," Aang said, shaking his head.
Iroh insisted on making dinner himself without help, so Katara just sat at the counter and watched him, munching on sweet jicama sticks. She felt fine after her experience with the water spirit; Aang, on the other hand, had looked a little wrecked. He'd gone to his study to meditate until dinner was ready. Zuko came in just as Iroh headed back to his own house for some ingredient or another that he needed. He sat down next to Katara and swiped a jicama stick from her plate. "Hey," she said, slapping at his hand.
"I love jicama. We can't get it in the Fire Nation."
She glanced at him. "You look tired."
"Did the Earth King make you talk to Bosco?"
He smiled a little. "No, I was spared that honor. But it was a lot of mumbo jumbo and spiritual readiness blather. I even caught Aang rolling his eyes and you know he's usually pretty open to that stuff."
"Well, being the Avatar does make you get in touch with your spiritual side more than most people."
Zuko chewed slowly, thinking. "Do you think he remembers events from his past lives?"
"He doesn't. He gets flashes sometimes, or things seem familiar. It's not like his own life memories." She watched his profile. "Are you thinking about Sozin and Roku?"
"Did you know that Roku was my great-grandfather?"
She nodded. "Aang told me. You know, he's learned a lot about Sozin from Roku. I'm sure he'd talk to you about either of them if you ask him."
"I'm almost afraid to. I don't want to know too much about Sozin, in a way."
"Are you afraid of becoming like him?"
"Of course I am."
"Zuko, you could never..."
"No. That's how it starts. By thinking you're different, that it couldn't happen to you, that you're special and the things you want and need are somehow better. I can never forget that I could turn out just like him if I let myself. That's the only way I can avoid it."
"It's not all on you," she said, putting her hand on his arm. "We're all looking out for you. And if you think Aang would let you take a single step towards becoming like Sozin, you're crazy."
"I know," Zuko said, chuckling. "I'm glad you all have my back." He glanced at her, then away. "I haven't seen you guys in a few months."
"I know, it's been too long."
"You and Aang seem...stable."
She mulled over that word. "Stable. Yeah, we are." She could hear the questions Zuko wasn't asking. "You can ask me. I know you want to."
He shook his head. "It's none of my business."
"Nope. But isn't that what friends do? Get into each other's business?"
He met her eyes. "He came to me the last time you guys were in the Fire Nation. He was a nervous wreck. He wanted some advice on what to do if...if it happened."
Katara had suspected that something like that had gone down but hadn't asked. "That must have been an awkward conversation."
"It did happen, didn't it?"
She met his gaze evenly. "Yes. Do you have an opinion about that?"
"Me? No, of course not. I lost my virginity on my thirteenth birthday. My father arranged it. The woman was a professional royal companion. I'd give anything to have had my first time with someone I really loved."
Katara gaped at him. "Seriously? A royal...companion?"
"I know how it sounds."
"I'm sorry it was like that for you."
He shrugged. "I'll just add it to the list of ways that my father was twisted. The point is that you and Aang shouldn't feel embarrassed or ashamed of your relationship. Honestly? I could tell the minute I got here. It was all over how you were with each other."
"Really? It's that obvious?"
"Only to people who know you. And it's not a bad thing. There's a subtle shift in a relationship when you've had sex. There's this...I dunno. This sense of ownership, it goes both ways. It's a connection that goes deeper than just the feelings."
Katara stared down at her teacup. She could hardly formulate a response to that. She just knew that making love with Aang was better than anything, better than bending, better than sleeping in after a late night, better than anything could ever be. Every time their bodies joined she felt so safe, so cherished, so alive, and so connected to him that whatever insecurities she had about herself vanished as if they'd never existed. That sense of oneness didn't go away, and no matter what happened or how far apart they were, she knew that he was always thinking of her, just as she was always thinking of him.
"I'm going to be sixteen in a few months, you know," she said.
"And? Are you thinking about marrying him?"
She sighed. "I would. In a heartbeat."
"He hasn't asked."
Zuko cocked an eyebrow. "Surely you don't think he wouldn't want to."
"No, it's not that." Katara crossed her arms on the tabletop. "Here's the thing, Zuko. Aang is my – how do I put it? Do you believe in destiny?"
"I don't know. I think we all have a destiny, but that sometimes it isn't what we think it is."
"I guess I believe that we were all put here for a reason. You, me, Sokka, Toph, Suki – all of us were meant to be warriors. I believe that. Aang was obviously born to be something greater than any of us. I think I was meant to be part of that."
Zuko looked at her. "All I know is that when I joined your group, you looked me in the eye and told me that if I hurt him, you would kill me. And I believed you."
"If one person is born to be the Avatar, do you suppose there's one person born to be their companion?"
"What if I've been reincarnated, too? What if I was Roku's wife, and Kyoshi's husband?"
"What if you were? We're straying a little from the topic, I think."
"The point is, I wouldn't just be marrying Aang. He isn't just himself."
"Is anyone? He wouldn't just be marrying you. You're a master Waterbender. That's important, too."
"You know what I mean. The Avatar is bigger than any one of us. He isn't human. Not like you and I are."
"Which is why he needs you. And me. And everybody else. The Avatar is given human form so he can understand us and live among us. What's more human than love and sex and family?"
Katara sighed. Sometimes it was all a bit much. "Well, I'm just a human girl, not the spirit incarnate of anything in particular. I don't know if it's my destiny to help the Avatar experience humanity, but I do know that no matter what happens, I'm going to be with him when it does."
Zuko just looked at her, an unreadable expression behind his eyes. "You really love him, don't you?"
Katara took a breath, meeting his gaze steadily. "Zuko, I love him like…like…I can't even tell you."
If Zuko had a response to that she didn't get to hear it, because at that moment Iroh came back in, carrying several bowls and a canvas bag. "Mushrooms!" he said, setting down his accoutrements and rubbing his hands together. "The hot and sour soup will be perfect!"
Katara smiled and watched Iroh putter with his cooking, happy and jovial as he always was. It was sometimes hard to believe that this man had once been a Fire Nation general feared the world over. Now, he seemed to have discovered a deep secret of living happily. She wished she knew it, too.
Aang came into the kitchen. He still looked pale and tired. "Iroh, that smells amazing. Is it your hot and sour soup?"
"Yes, it is!"
"Oh, that's my favorite."
"I know," Iroh said, chuckling. "Seemed like you could use it."
Aang came up behind her and wrapped his arms around her shoulders, bowing his face down into the crook of her neck. She lifted her hand up to the back of his head. "You okay?" she murmured.
She felt him nod. "Just tired."
"Did you meditate?"
"Tried. Feeling a little blocked right now." He straightened up, keeping his hands on her shoulders. "So what'd I miss at the Earth King's tea party in the woods?" he asked Zuko.
"Just more of the same. He was moderately annoyed that you left again."
Aang snorted. "He can go jump off a bridge."
"Aang!" Katara said, surprised. "That doesn't sound like you."
He sat down on her other side, shaking his head. "That man is working my last nerve. He claims to want to make grand sweeping changes and revolutionize his reign but when you try to pin him down, all he can come up with are ideas for 'tolerance festivals' and renovation plans for the palace. I have a whole list of ideas for things that are really needed, like social welfare and education in the Lower Ring and maybe setting up some representative government, but he didn't want to talk about anything that might be difficult."
"I'd like to hear the ideas," Zuko said.
"I know you would, because you actually care about your people. All he cares about is his new self-image as an enlightened world traveler and founder of a new dynasty of Earth Kings. I just want to shake him sometimes. Just because he walked around for six months and saw about twenty percent of the Earth Kingdom doesn't make him a prophet from the mountaintop."
"Did you tell him these things?" Katara asked.
Aang sighed. "I try, but I lose my nerve. Who am I to tell the Earth King how to run his kingdom?"
"Who are you? Do I need to say it? You're the only person on the planet who can tell a king what to do."
"Funny. I look in the mirror and all I see is a fourteen-year-old kid who can't even grow a mustache."
Katara giggled. "I'm trying to imagine you with a mustache. It isn't working."
A smile reluctantly touched Aang's lips. "It's the principle of the thing."
Iroh turned around and handed Aang a cup of tea. "A man is often bound by an idea of himself," he said. "The idea is rarely the truth."
Aang looked at him. "Are you talking about the Earth King, or me?"
Iroh winked. "I'll let you decide."
Katara rubbed her hand across Aang's back, feeling the tension in his muscles. "Hey, I have an idea. Let's bake a pie for after dinner. There are some fresh lingonberries today."
Aang smiled. "Sounds good."
"Iroh, you sit down and let the soup cook. Our turn." Iroh gladly relinquished the kitchen, and Katara got out the berries while Aang fetched the pie plates and the mixing bowls. Since he'd taught her to bake these pies, they'd done it so often that they had it down to a science. He mixed the crust, she prepared the fruit, he lit the fire, she squeezed the lemons.
She looked up while cleaning the stems off the berries to find Iroh watching them with a knowing little look on his face. "What?" she said.
He leaned in toward Zuko a little. "I love to watch couples cook, especially ones who are practiced at it. See how they move around each other? They know where everything is and whose hands are to be put to which task. She knows when to hand him the butter, he knows when she will need the big knife. She knows when he will be ready for the filling, he knows to step away from the sink so she can rinse her hands. It's like a dance with no music." He smiled at her, his eyes tender. "I can see your life together in this pie," he said.
Katara melted, not knowing what to say. Aang peeked over her shoulder at the bowl of berries. "I guess we better be careful not to burn it like last time, then."
The reservoir scouting party returned just in time for dinner. "Hey, look who's back from Spookyland!" Sokka exclaimed, going over to Aang and patting him on the back.
"I thought you were mad at him," Katara reminded her brother.
His face fell. "Oh, right. Yes, absolutely! Very very mad," he said, shaking a finger in Aang's face.
"Well, you ought to forgive him for my leg, since he just saved me from a water spirit."
"Oh. I suppose that makes up for it. Aw, who am I kidding? I can't stay mad at you," Sokka said, seizing Aang in a headlock and rubbing his knuckles on the top of his head.
"Sokka, cut it out," Aang grumped, but he was smiling.
"I keep rubbing but this dang blue line won't come off," Sokka joked. "What's for dinner?"
"Hot and sour soup, and duck-pheasant curry."
"Is that one of Aang's pies I spy with my little eye?" Sokka said, rubbing his hands together.
"Lingonberry," Aang said. "And it isn't just mine, Katara and I baked it together."
Everyone was sitting down at the big table in the kitchen, which was large enough that they rarely used the actual dining room. Iroh gave everyone cups of soup and started lading out the curry. Aang looked up in surprise when he received a plate, too. "Iroh, I can't eat this," he said. "It's okay, I'm good with soup."
"No, this is a special batch I made, just for you. No meat."
"Then…what's this? It looks like meat," Aang said, nudging the curry with his chopstick.
"The merchant I got it from called it tor-foh. It's made from soybeans, ground and pressed. It's a sort of packed bean curd."
"Huh." Aang tried a bite. His eyes widened. "This is great!"
"The merchant said it's new, they've started making it in the country because the soybeans are so plentiful and nutritious. You can use it the same as you'd use meat."
"Meat that isn't meat?" Sokka exclaimed. "That's just wrong."
"Thanks, Iroh!" Aang said, digging into the curry. "It's nice to be able to eat what everyone else is eating."
Katara smiled at Iroh, privately thanking him herself. Aang's vegetarianism often meant that at the sumptuous, exhaustively catered banquets they frequently attended, he ended up eating the garnishes.
"Zuko, how long are you staying?" Suki asked.
"Through the weekend. I could use the break. Mai is due to join me tomorrow."
"Awesome!" Sokka said. "Someone to spar with besides Suki. I mean…uh…" he spluttered, as Suki gave him a look. "Not that I don't love sparring with you! Just…you know…for variety…and she has knives!"
Suki just shook her head and ignored him. "Is there anything going on this weekend?" Suki asked the table. "Something fun we could all do?"
Katara shrugged. "Aang's taking me dancing Saturday night."
Sokka snorted. "Which distinguishes this weekend from every other weekend…how?"
"We like dancing," Katara said, shooting Sokka a look.
"Where do you like to go?" Zuko asked.
"Oh, wherever," Katara said, vaguely. She glanced at Aang, who was studying his curry very closely so he could pretend he didn't hear the question.
Sokka was only too pleased to jump in. "Yeah. Wherever. Don't you believe her, Zuko. Me and Suki went with them once. It was insane. They go to this club full of young society types who all live for this stuff. The second they walk in, the whole place goes nuts, everyone shouting their names. Between Aang's fangirls and Katara's fanboys it's a gawkfest. And if they so much as step a toe onto the dance floor there's instantly a huge space so everyone can watch."
"Wow," Zuko said. "That sounds…annoying."
"It isn't as bad as Sokka is making it sound!" Katara said. "They just know us there, nobody's asking for autographs! And I do not have fanboys."
At that, everyone laughed. "You do too have fanboys," Aang said. "You know it, I know it."
"Like you're one to talk, Mr. Pinup! Your devotees send me hate mail!" she said. "I might have a few…admirers," she admitted.
"Katara, come on," Toph said. "There's a club."
Katara flushed. Toph was correct, a fact that mortified her to no end. "You have one, too!"
"Yeah, but mine is full of eight-year-olds who want to be badass Earthbenders and creepy old guys who want to…I don't want to think about it. Yours is full of studly young hunks who want to show you a good time with a real man."
"Hey!" Aang said.
"I second that 'hey,'" Katara said. "Anyway, I already have a real man."
"Thank you," Aang said, still looking affronted at this attack on his masculinity.
"You don't have a leg to stand on, Twinkle Toes. Your club is so huge that there are chapters."
Katara giggled. "And membership cards."
"You should join, Katara," Sokka said. "All their heads would explode."
"I'm already a member."
Aang gaped at her. "You are not."
"You wanna see my membership card? It's only right, I am your number one fan, after all." Aang smiled shyly, blushing. Katara leaned over and kissed him.
Toph groaned. "How is it that you two manage to bring the sap even when I'm mocking you?"
"It's a gift. Eat your curry."
Zuko cleared his throat. "Well, if it's all the same to you, I think we might skip the dancing lovefest. Mai and I aren't exactly party animals."
"We don't have to go this weekend," Katara said. "We can find something we can all do."
"Isn't that folk music festival this weekend?" Sokka said. "I thought I saw a poster."
Aang looked up, his eyes widening. "Oh, is that this weekend?"
"It is," Iroh said. "I've gotten in some extra help at the shop for the crowds."
"Why?" Katara asked Aang.
"I completely forgot. I'm supposed to…you know, do the Avatar thing."
Zuko snorted. "What's 'the Avatar thing?'"
"The ceremonial thing. Anytime anybody's got an event promoting peace and tolerance and the unity of nations or whatever, they invite me. Mostly they just want me to be there. Sometimes they want me to light something or cut something or declare something open."
"You sound so cynical about it."
"I do? Oh no, not at all. I think it's great. I'm happy to put in an appearance. It's just that after the eightieth time…" He sighed, looking distressed. "You're right. I shouldn't take it for granted. I should do whatever I can to help promote peace and tolerance."
"Hey, I'm not criticizing. I've had it up to here with the public appearances, too. It's just part of the job."
"At least this one sounds fun. I love folk music! And we'll all be there!" Aang was smiling again. It was one of the things Katara loved most about him; he was never out of sorts for long. "So, what did you guys find out at the reservoir?" Aang asked, smoothly changing the subject.
"The water had been angry for as long as anyone could remember," Suki said. "The people who live nearby have known not to swim in it or even wade. They say that sudden riptides and undertows will appear and pull you under."
Toph picked up the thread of the story. "A few days ago, the water turned murky and turbulent. The city water managers thought it was because the dam was leaking, but maybe the dam was leaking because the spirit was on a rampage."
"How did the water seem now?"
"Calm and peaceful," Sokka said. "At least, that's how it seemed to me. We'd need you or Katara to come look to be sure. We're not Waterbenders."
Aang looked at him. "Well, you are."
Everyone went quiet. Katara stared at Aang, surprised. "What?" she said.
"Sokka. He's a Waterbender, too."
Sokka snorted. "You ever seen me do any fancy water magic?"
"No. That doesn't mean you couldn't. You were born with the ability."
"Why do you think that?" Katara said.
"I can sense bending ability in others. It's an Avatar thing. Katara's Waterbending is like a big bright shining beacon. Sokka's is more like…a tiny flickering candle. But it's there. He never developed it so it never surfaced."
"I can't believe you're just telling us this now!" Katara said.
Aang frowned. "I guess it didn't occur to me." He blinked and looked down at his curry. Suddenly all the color drained from his face.
Everyone reacted. "Aang, what's wrong?" Zuko said.
"Huh?" Aang said. His eyes were bleary. Katara scooted her chair closer and put her hand on his head, bending some water to her fingers so she could look inside him. "Whaddya mean?"
"Aang, you're…gray," Sokka said, standing up and leaning over the table.
Katara could sense something very wrong. Her stomach clenched. "You're not well, sweetheart," she said.
He smiled at her, a vague, half-there smile. "You called me 'sweetheart,'" he said. His eyes widened and the smile fell away. "Katara?" he whispered.
"What?" she said, holding his face in her hands. "What is it? You're scaring me."
"I'm sorry," he whispered, then his eyes rolled back in his head and went white. His tattoos glowed and he pitched forward into her arms.
"Aang!" Katara exclaimed. She forced back the panic that wanted to make her shout and cry and flail. "He's been pulled back into the spirit world," she said.
"What's going on?" Zuko demanded.
"I don't know," Katara said, helplessly. "His Avatar senses were heightened, he couldn't meditate, now he's back there…he told me he bent the water spirit's energy, but what if something went wrong?"
"What do we do?" Sokka said. "He's the one who takes care of this stuff for us!"
Katara gritted her teeth. "I'm going to go in after him."
"To the spirit world? How are you going to do that?" Toph asked.
"I have no idea."
"What's going on?" Zuko demanded.
"I don't know," Katara said, helplessly. "His Avatar senses were heightened, he couldn't meditate, now he's back there…he told me he bent the water spirit's energy, but what if something went wrong?"
"What do we do?" Sokka said. "He's the one who takes care of this stuff for us!"
Katara gritted her teeth. "I'm going to go in after him."
"To the spirit world? How are you going to do that?" Toph asked.
"I have no idea." She looked across at Iroh, who sat very still, looking grim. "Iroh…how can I do this? You've done it."
He nodded. "You can only enter the spirit world if the spirits allow it. Only certain people are recognized by them as worthy to fight on behalf of another." He moved closer and crouched by Katara's side. "I have to ask you a very private and uncomfortable question, Katara."
She was pretty sure she knew what it would be. "You can ask me whatever you need to in front of my friends."
"Have you and Aang had relations, as men and women do?"
She nodded, a lump rising in her throat as her brain showed her images of the last time they'd made love, the night before. "Yes, we have." She saw no surprise or judgment in the older man's eyes.
"Then the spirits might accept you as his mate. You may have standing to enter the spirit world to fight for him."
Her jaw clenched. She hugged Aang's limp form closer. "They'll let me in. They have to."
"Don't we need an equinox or a Spirit Oasis or something?" Sokka said. "I mean, people who aren't the Avatar can't just pop in and out of the spirit world."
"The best thing is to go to the place where he last entered the spirit world," Iroh said.
"Our bedroom," Katara said, struggling to rise with Aang in her arms. Zuko and Sokka stepped forward and took him from her. Between them, they carried him up the stairs. Aang was heavier than he looked. He wasn't large, but he was all muscle. They laid him out on the bed. Katara stood watching with her arms wrapped around her middle, frightened. What was she about to do? She had no idea. She didn't even know if it would be possible. She just knew she had to try.
Sokka came and put a hand on her shoulder. "You don't have to do this," he said, quietly.
She gave him an are you kidding me look. "I have no choice."
"Yes, you do."
"Then I choose him. Always."
"Look, Aang's like a brother to me, but you're my sister and maybe I'm a selfish jerk, but I don't want you putting yourself at risk for him."
"That isn't your call. And we both know that Aang isn't just your friend and my partner. He's the Avatar and the world needs him more than it needs any of us. Any one of us should be ready to give ourselves up to save him. If we're not, we have no business being his friends."
"I think he would strongly disagree with you on that."
"That doesn't make it less true."
"You know he'd hate it if any of us came to harm saving him, but if it were you? Katara, he wouldn't be able to live with it."
"I don't care. I can't live without him." She met her brother's eyes, looking away from Aang's silent form on the bed for the first time. "I can't."
He nodded. "I know. And it makes me worry for you every day."
Katara walked past him and went to the bed. She didn't know how to go about this, but it seemed reasonable that she ought to be touching him. She climbed on and sat by his side, pulling his head and shoulders into her lap, taking one of his hands in hers and twining their fingers together. She looked down at his face, a face she knew so well she could have drawn it blindfolded, slack now and lit by the eerie glow from his tattoo. She looked around at the gathered observers. "What do I do?" she said.
"Perhaps…you should ask the spirits for passage to their realm," Iroh said. "I don't know what else to suggest."
Katara nodded. She bent her head until her forehead rested against Aang's. "Please," she murmured. "I will fight for his soul. Bring me into your world." Nothing happened. She sat up again with a sigh. "This isn't…"
"Whoa," Sokka said, crouching by the bed. "I guess that worked, huh?"
"What? Sokka?" Katara looked down…at herself. She could see herself with her head bowed down to Aang's. She recoiled and scrambled back a bit, separating from her physical form, which stayed where it was. "Oh spirits, this is too weird." She held up her hands before her eyes; she could see through them. She remembered something Aang had told her about the spirit world…there was no bending there.
She turned and extended her hand toward the cup of water on Aang's side of the bed. Nothing happened. "I guess…I guess I'm there." She looked around. "It looks the same. I don't know what I expected."
"Is she in the spirit world?" Sokka was asking, looking at Iroh.
"I'd say she is," he answered.
"That sure didn't take long."
"No, it did not."
Katara walked around behind everyone, all of their attention fixed on hers and Aang's bodies. Looking at herself like this was beyond disorienting. She turned away and felt a little better. She looked around, hoping for a sign or some signal of what was supposed to happen next. "What do I do?" she asked the air. "How do I…"
A shadowy form ran past the open door to their bedroom. Katara followed, and saw a small gray fox sitting a few yards away. It was one of Wan Shi Tong's information gathering spirits. It was just…looking at her.
She approached cautiously. "Can you help me? I'm looking for the Avatar. Is he here?"
"He is here."
Katara whirled around. Behind her was a tall, regal woman in orange Air Nomad robes. A blue arrow was on her forehead. She knew who this must be. "Are you Avatar Yangchen?"
The woman cocked her head. "You know of me?"
Katara nodded. "Aang's told me about you."
"The Avatar shares much with you."
"Aang and I share everything. Didn't you have anyone like that in your life?"
"No. I chose a life of solitude. But the Avatars before and after me did choose to…partner. It was nearly Kuruk's undoing."
"I know what happened to him. I won't let it happen to Aang."
Yangchen looked sad. "It may already be too late."
Katara opened her mouth to respond, but suddenly the hallway swirled away around her and she and Yangchen were standing in a vast field of poppies, blood-red and vibrant. They came up to her knees. "What really happened when Aang went after the water spirit?"
Yangchen began to walk, motioning for Katara to accompany her. "Aang has tapped into powers that are older than the Avatar's earthly incarnations. He has touched something that lay dormant deep within all of us, but that none of us was able to reach before him."
"You mean the energybending."
"Yes. There are those in the spirit world who are…concerned."
"Concerned? About Aang?"
Yangchen stopped and turned to face her. "It is possible that his power could become so great that he will be able to shed his physical form."
Katara stared. "You mean…he'd become a spirit himself?"
"He already is, that is the nature of the Avatar. But he may become capable of casting aside his mortality and his corporeal being and exist as pure Avatar spirit."
Katara was awestruck by the idea, but terrified as well. I'd lose him. "I don't know if he'd want that to happen."
"Most here definitely do not want it to happen. Without the constraints of a physical form, the Avatar spirit would be too powerful. That's part of the reason it was born into a human body. To control it."
A chill ran over Katara's back as once again she was reminded of the tremendous burden she'd accepted when she fell in love with Aang. To spend your life with an incarnate spirit who has responsibilities greater even than kings was to put aside even the hope of a normal, everyday life, much as Aang assured her that they could be just as normal as anyone else. "What does this have to do with what's happened?" Katara asked.
"When Aang bent the energy of a spirit, well…it made some of the other spirits nervous."
Irritation rose in Katara's chest. "Let me get this straight. The spirits pull down a bridge to get the Avatar's attention, and then when he does something about it, he's punished?"
"This point has been made to them," Yangchen said, sounding slightly grim.
"So they pulled him back here."
"Yes. There's an agreement being forged."
"Aang is in there alone with a bunch of paranoid spirits?"
"He isn't alone. Roku and Kuruk and Kyoshi are with him. I was sent to intercept you."
"You knew I was coming?"
"Aang said you probably would," Yangchen said, smiling gently.
Katara smiled. "I guess he knows me pretty well." Yangchen had led her through a glen into a wide clearing of willow trees with a pond at the center. "Are we stopping?" Katara said.
"We will wait here to be summoned." Yangchen gracefully folded down into a familiar lotus pose. Katara sat by her side.
"Can I ask you something?"
Yangchen smiled. "No, Katara. You are not the reincarnation of Roku's wife. She died a hundred years before you were born."
Katara blushed. "Oh, right. Why didn't I think of that?"
"It's natural for someone in your position to search for meaning."
"Is there? Meaning, that is? Is this my destiny?"
"Only you can answer that question. Perhaps it's in your blood."
Katara frowned. "In my blood?"
"Yes. You have Avatar blood in your veins, Katara."
She blinked. "What?"
"You are directly descended from an Avatar. Did you not know this?"
"No!" Katara said, stunned. "I didn't know that! I'm descended from Kuruk?"
"Yes. For most families, it is a matter of pride to honor the Avatar in the bloodline."
"A lot of things were lost when the war started and the Avatar disappeared. Maybe nobody knew." Katara was still absorbing this information. "Wow. Avatar Kuruk is my…great-great-great-something-grandfather."
"I can't wait to tell my father and my brother, they'll be so excited!"
"I understand that your lineage is through your mother."
"Oh. Well, Sokka will still be excited. I'll have to ask Aang to tell me more about Kuruk."
"Perhaps you will meet him here yourself."
"So something in me was drawn to Aang? Is that what it means?"
"Perhaps. Perhaps not. Were you destined to free him from that iceberg? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Even if you were, was it part of that destiny that you would feel for him as you do, and vice versa?"
"Let me guess. Perhaps, perhaps not."
"You and Aang are people, Katara, complex in ways that even the spirits cannot see. That you would meet in the world may have been your destiny. That you would love each other as you do? That, I must believe, is your humanity. And he must never lose his grasp on his."
Katara felt a shimmer behind her. She turned and saw Hei Bai, the forest spirit. He just looked at them, saying nothing, but Yangchen seemed to understand. She rose, her grace making Katara feel like an awkward child as she scrambled to her feet.
"We are summoned." Yangchen put her hand on Katara's shoulder. There was a whoosh and a blur and suddenly they were in a larger circle of tall redwood trees. A labyrinth pattern was carved into the ground leading to a central circle, where a single being sat. It was a huge leopardhawk, its wings folded. Its eyes were covered with elaborate gilded patches. It seemed to be thinking.
"Who's that?" Katara whispered to Yangchen.
"That is Wen Ze Zhi, the Great Arbiter. He is deliberating his decision."
"Katara!" came a familiar voice. She turned to see Aang coming toward her. He was wearing his most formal Air Nomad robes and he had an odd glow about him. She supposed she had the same glow.
"Aang!" she said, throwing her arms around him. He hugged her hard, shaking his head.
"I thought you might show up here but I was hoping you wouldn't," he said. He pulled back and kissed her, his hands holding her face. "Why'd you come after me?"
"Why? How can you even ask me that?"
"You know I always come out of it myself."
"You looked like death itself before you crossed over! I have to tell you, it didn't seem like an average trip to the spirit world!"
"Come on, I want you to meet…uh, me," he said, smiling and taking her hand. He pulled her to the other side of the circle where several spirits were gathered. She recognized Roku and Kyoshi, and the third must be Kuruk. He was tall and strong-looking with chiseled features. They all turned at Aang's approach. "Roku, Kyoshi, Kuruk…this is…" Aang took a small breath. "This is my Katara."
Roku smiled and gallantly kissed her hand. "My pleasure, Katara. We have heard much of you."
"It's nice to meet you," she said.
Kyoshi gave her an appraising look from her lofty height, acknowledging her only with a terse nod. "You are a worthy warrior," she said.
"Uh…thanks," Katara said, feeling roughly two inches tall before her.
Kuruk grinned, a touch of the flirt in his eyes. "I see that the women of the Water Tribe are just as lovely as they ever were," he said.
She smiled back a little uncertainly, wondering how creepy she ought to find the compliment coming from her own ancestor. "What's going on?" she asked. "What's this agreement about?"
Roku sighed. "The spirits are not comfortable that Aang has the ability to bend their energy. They feel it gives him too much power in their realm."
"They want me bound from energybending a spirit," Aang said.
"Can they do that? Restrict you like that?"
"Not physically. All they can do is accept my word that I won't, or impose a consequence if I do it." He exchanged a glance with Roku.
"What?" Katara said. She looked from Aang to his former lives, all of whom looked concerned. "What aren't you telling me?"
"Some of the spirits want Aang punished for having bent the water spirit's energy," Roku said. "They're not satisfied with an agreement going forward."
"How can they want him punished?" Katara exclaimed. "He did what was necessary to save me, and to keep the water spirit from doing any more damage!"
"That's their point. He did it to save you. If it were just a matter of confining the spirit, that could have been handled here."
"Then why wasn't it? That spirit was allowed to run rampant until it couldn't be ignored anymore, and then Aang took action. He should be thanked, not punished."
"You must understand that to the spirits, the Avatar is almost as much of a mythic figure as he is to the human world. It's frightening for them to see that he can affect them as he can humans."
"They don't like that I have power over them," Aang said, quietly.
"They're not used to it," Roku said, his hand going to Aang's shoulder. "No Avatar has ever been able to do what you can do, present company included. You frighten some of them, Aang. Fear brings out the worst, even in spirits."
"If they don't trust me to keep my agreement, there's not much else to say."
"Avatar," came a deep, sonorous voice. Everyone turned. Wen Ze Zhi had risen from his deliberations and faced them, the blinders gone from his large, golden eyes. Aang stepped forward.
"I have decided that your actions toward the shui zhi ling were righteous and just. However, the power you wield over the spirit world is unprecedented. You must prove your worth to possess such authority."
"I'm ready to do so." Katara watched him with pride, back straight, facing the Arbiter without fear, his voice steady.
"He is the Avatar," Kyoshi said, starting forward. "His worth needs no demonstration!"
"Silence," Wen Ze Zhi thundered.
Aang held up a hand. "It's all right, Kyoshi. I accept whatever challenge the arbiter sets for me."
"A contest," the Arbiter said.
"Who will I face?"
The Arbiter stood straighter. Katara was powerfully reminded of Wan Shi Tong. "It is I who will judge your worth, Avatar. You must face me. Not with your power, but with your mind."
A table materialized before the Arbiter bearing a square wooden board with a grid laid out on its surface. Black and white stones were ready to be played. Katara frowned. "What's that?"
Aang's jaw was clenched. "It's wei qi. It's a game."
"Not just any game. The most difficult game ever conceived," Yangchen said. "It is a test not only of intellect but of spirit and soul."
"I've never heard of it! Aang, do you know how to play? I've only seen you play pai sho, and you're not even that good at it, frankly."
"I've never played. But I know how."
"What if he loses?" Katara demanded of the Arbiter.
He turned his golden eyes on her. "Who is this mortal who addresses me?"
"My name is Katara, of the Water Tribes."
Aang stepped forward and grasped her hand. "Arbiter, Katara is my…" He glanced at her, a silent apology in his eyes. "Katara is my wife."
She said nothing. It wasn't true back in their world – not yet, anyway – but the rules were different here. Anyway, it felt true. She and Aang were one if two people ever were.
The Arbiter considered her for a moment. "You may have the answer to your question, mate of the Avatar. If he is judged unworthy, the Avatar must pass from him to the next."
"You mean he'd die? No. I won't allow it."
"Katara…" Aang began.
"No, Aang. They can't do this to you, not after all you've done." She stepped forward. "He has done everything you've asked! He mastered his elements in a few short months, he defeated the Firelord, he has brought balance to the world and he's brought it to me. He deserves a long, peaceful life with his family and friends." She choked back emotion, trying to maintain her severity.
"What he deserves is for me to determine," the Arbiter said. "Avatar, take your place."
She opened her mouth to speak again but Aang pulled her away sharply and turned her to face him. "This isn't helping me, Katara."
"I won't let them take you away from me again," she said, hoarse.
"No one's taking me. Don't you have any confidence in me? You seem pretty sure I'm going to lose."
"Aang, it's…it isn't that. But he's a spirit and you've never played this game."
"It doesn't matter."
"How can it possibly not matter?"
He kissed her. "Trust me." He stepped away and turned towards his former selves. They formed a loose huddle, standing in a circle, and then Katara saw their eyes glow in unison for a brief moment. Aang looked up and nodded at them, then stepped to the game board. "I'm ready."
Of the game, Katara had no comprehension. She saw the Arbiter's stones move by themselves and Aang moving his. Faster and faster they moved until she could barely see them. The stones flowed over the game board, grouping, ungrouping, splitting and reforming. She had no concept of what the object was, or what either player was trying to accomplish, or if Aang was winning. All she could do was stand helplessly by and watch.
The Arbiter's pieces stopped moving. Aang sat quietly, looking like the image of peace and calm. "I project no victor," the Arbiter said. "I can see an infinite number of moves into the future, and you could challenge me indefinitely."
Aang smiled. "My mentor once told me that in order to win, you must give up the desire to do so."
The Arbiter nodded. "Sage advice, but it takes a balanced mind to absorb it as you have."
Aang rose to his feet. "I take it I'm free to go, then."
His eyebrows rose. "No?"
"You shall remain here, with us."
"Wait just a minute!" Katara exclaimed, striding forward. "You just said he had to prove himself worthy!"
"And so he has. But restitution must be made. You shall return to the world of humans, Katara of the Water Tribe. The Avatar will remain."
"No, he can't! We need him! I need him!"
"Katara, it's okay," Aang said, seizing her arms. "You have to let me go."
"I won't. I never have before and I won't now. Take me instead!" she said to the Arbiter.
"You? What use would we have for you?"
"If there's a price to be paid, I'll pay it."
"No!" Aang said. "Don't listen to her," he said to the Arbiter. "I will stay. Let her return to the world."
"The world needs you, it doesn't need me," she hissed at him.
"Katara, do not do this. If this is what has to happen, then I accept it."
"I don't!" She shoved Aang away from her and stood before Wen Ze Zhi. "Take my life instead of his. I will stay here as payment for the water spirit. Allow the Avatar to return to his life."
"I don't have a life without you!" Aang choked.
The Arbiter held up a wing. "Silence!" He contemplated Katara. "Your proposal is accepted." He gestured toward Aang, who began to go transparent and vanish.
"No, wait!" Katara said, taking a lurching step toward him. At least let me hold him one last time. Give me something. One moment.
"Katara!" he shouted, reaching out toward her, and then he was gone.
Katara felt her heart tear from her body and leave with him. Cold and numb, she looked up at the Arbiter again. "You could have let us say goodbye," she said, her voice sounding dead and lifeless.
The Arbiter blinked. "Are all humans so – histrionic?"
"Histrionic?" she said, her voice spiraling higher. "With reason, don't you think?"
"Tell me, Katara of the Water Tribe. Why would you willingly give up your life for the Avatar's?"
"Because the world needs him more than it needs me."
"That is not the reason."
She shut her eyes and let out a long, shaky breath. "Because in all the world, no one's ever been loved as much as I love him."
"Admirable. I still fail to see the need for such…declarations. You would only have been apart for a short time."
Katara blinked. "What?"
"I do not believe you heard me say that the Avatar would have had to stay here indefinitely."
Katara's brain locked up. "You said he had to remain."
"Yes. I wished a demonstration of this energybending."
"You said there had to be restitution."
"We have other spirits here who have been driven to madness by the industry of humans. If he could use his abilities to help them, the spirit world would be reassured of his good faith."
Katara felt like she'd been whalloped with one of Toph's flying boulders. "Wait…so…he was never going to die?"
"Die? Of course not. He might have been gone overnight, as you reckon time."
She heard Roku groan behind her and could just imagine the facepalm he was giving himself. "Well…but…why did you let me stay instead, then? I can't energybend! I can't heal any crazy spirits!"
The Arbiter chuckled. "I suppose I couldn't resist. You humans. So eager to jump to the most dramatic conclusion possible."
"Are you kidding me? Are you kidding me?" she shouted. "Is this your idea of fun? Toying with the poor stupid mortals and their dumb feelings?"
Wen Ze Zhi cocked his head to one side. "Actually, yes. It is."
Katara clenched her fists at her sides and stared down Wen Ze Zhi, those unblinking golden eyes more than a little intimidating, but she was too pissed off to care. "I hate you all," she seethed. "I hate your superior attitude, I hate your meddling, and I hate that Aang is going to be stapled to you and your kind for the rest of his life!"
She sensed Roku and the other Avatars moving to stand behind her, whether to support her or shut her up, she couldn't tell. But Wen Ze Zhi didn't seem fazed. In fact, he seemed amused. "You'd be well advised to get used to us, Katara of the Water Tribe," he said. "If you hope to share that life with the Avatar."
"Oh, I'm going to share it, all right. And if I have anything to say about it, he'll have as little to do with you spirits as he possibly can!"
The Arbiter chuckled. "You asked me why I let you stay in his stead. This is why."
"This is why, what?"
"I wished to know what manner of female the Avatar had chosen for his mate."
"Well, I'm sorry. I must be a terrible disappointment."
"Quite the contrary. I don't think he could have done better."
She was at a momentary loss for words at that reaction. "You think so?" she finally said.
"The life of an Avatar is difficult. He will need a warrior by his side, especially given his…nature."
"And what, exactly, is wrong with his nature?" Katara snapped, hands on her hips. "I like his nature just fine!"
"This Avatar is not a man of war. He fights only when he must. At heart he is a man of peace, and his soul craves calm and resists conflict. Such a man might find it difficult to carry out the duties that are asked of him. But you, mate of the Avatar. To fight is in your blood. You are a curious contradiction. Your soul reaches out to soothe and care for those you love, and yet your blood cries out for battle, cries that you try not to hear. You do not seek conflict, but you embrace it when it comes."
Katara wanted to deny it, but she couldn't. "I…I try to be more like him."
"Do not. You will make each other stronger with your difference." Wen Ze Zhi walked forward on his taloned feet. He gave off an aura of incalculable age and wisdom. He touched the claws at his wingtips to her forehead and closed his eyes. "Your spirit is strong, Katara of the Water Tribe. You do nothing but that you do it with your whole being." He stepped back. "Do you know how the Avatar is reborn?"
"Of course. When the Avatar dies, he is reincarnated into the next nation in the cycle, and…"
"A simplistic explanation of a complex process. When the Avatar spirit is set free by the death of its earthly incarnation, it must find another soul strong enough to carry it. Not just anyone is suited to be an Avatar. They must be gifted with strong bending, force of will, purity of spirit…"
"Unbendable," Katara murmured. "They have to be unbendable."
Wen Ze Zhi inclined his head. "Just so. You are such a soul. You could have been an Avatar, had the timing of your birth permitted it. Instead, your path through life led you to one who would need another like himself, for balance and strength."
"So Aang is my destiny, after all?"
"Your destiny is to live as you are, no more and no less. Do not mistake rightness for predetermination. That which is right will always feel destined to have been."
She looked up at him. "Then what's the difference?"
"Only what difference exists in your mind. Does it matter to you?"
"Yes. If it's destiny, then did I ever have a choice? Did he? I'd rather be with him because I choose to be."
"Then you can shape your own destiny, Katara of the Water Tribe, with the choices you make. So tell me, what would you choose right now?"
"Just go to home," she said, aching to do so.
Wen Ze Zhi inclined his feathered head, his feline eyes blinking once. "As you wish."
When Katara opened her eyes, she couldn't move. At first she was alarmed. Am I paralyzed? Then she realized that she couldn't move because Aang was clutching her to his chest in a deathgrip. Breathing was a bit of a challenge.
Then she realized that not only was he perilously close to crushing her ribs, he was also sobbing as if his heart was breaking.
His heart IS breaking. He thinks you're dead. If your positions were reversed, you'd be begging him to take you with him.
She blinked, just barely able to peer over Aang's shoulder and look around the bedroom. Aang wasn't the only one who thought she was dead, apparently. Sokka was kneeling by the bed with his head buried in the covers, crying. Suki had him wrapped up in her arms from behind. Toph was standing against the wall, both hands on it, her shoulders shaking. Zuko was sitting in a chair, looking shellshocked.
They ALL think you're dead.
If Aang doesn't loosen up, I might be soon.
She squirmed and lifted her hands as much as she could, which was just enough to let her grasp his elbows. "Aang…honey…I can't breathe…"
She felt the jolt pass through him when he realized she was moving. He gasped and pulled back. Sweet, sweet oxygen flooded her lungs and she took a convulsive breath. "Katara?" he said, his voice high-pitched and shaking, like he couldn't believe it.
Sokka's head popped up off the mattress. Zuko sprang to his feet like he'd been jerked up by puppet strings and Toph spun around. "Her heart's beating!" she exclaimed.
Katara hung on to Aang's shoulders. His eyes were wet and swollen and now full of shock and disbelief and hope. "I'm okay," she said. "I'm okay." It seemed to be all she could say.
A short, harsh sound came from him that might have been a laugh or a sob. It sounded like both, and neither. "The spirits let you go?" he said.
"They were never going to keep you forever. That was our assumption," she said, brushing the tears from his face with one hand. "I'll explain later."
"Katara," he half-sobbed, pulling her to his chest again. "I thought…I thought…"
"I know," she said. "It's okay now. Everything's okay."
Sokka grabbed her hand, grinning. "You gave us an awful scare."
"I'm sorry," she said, smiling at him, then up at Zuko and Suki and Toph. "I'm sorry, guys."
Aang drew back and seized her by the upper arms, his face fierce. "You can't do that. You hear me? You can't give yourself up for me! Never again!"
"Isn't that my choice?" she said, keeping her voice calm.
"No! You're not ever to do anything like that ever again, Katara! Spirits, if you'd…if I'd…how was I supposed to keep living, knowing what you'd done?" he said, his voice clogging again.
She put her hands on his face. "I don't know. But you'd keep living. That's what's important."
"It is not more important than your life!"
"Aang, would you die to save me?"
"Yes," he said, without hesitation.
"Then why don't I get to do the same? Don't I have the right to make a sacrifice for you that you'd make for me?"
"I…but…it's not the same thing!" he said, a touch of panic in his eyes. He knew she had him there.
"It is the same thing. And now isn't the time for us to have this out."
"Yeah, some of us want to hug her, too!" Sokka said, crowding up behind Aang.
Aang looked around, then sighed, smiling a little and letting it go. "All right. But this isn't over," he said, giving her a pointed look.
Katara disengaged herself from him (although she didn't really want to) and hugged Sokka, then Zuko, then Toph and Suki together. "I'm with Sobby Guy," Toph said. "You can't leave us, princess. That's just…" She cut herself off and harrumphed a little. "I mean, we'd be forced to look after ourselves, and that's no good for anybody."
Katara laughed. "You guys give me too much credit."
"No, we don't," Aang said, quietly, getting off the bed. He came over to the group and pulled her back into his arms. "None of this works without you," he murmured into her ear.
She felt her lip tremble a little, but she didn't say anything, just hugged him back as tightly as she could.
Remembering that there was pie still to be eaten, the group adjourned to the kitchen and was rejoined by Iroh, who had gone to his own home to meditate and attempt to enter the spirit world to help if he could. "Seems the spirits had more than they could handle with you," he said to Katara, his eyes twinkling.
She told the group about her encounter with Wen Ze Zhi, the Great Arbiter. "So, lemme get this straight. This leopard bird guy held you back just to see what you were made of?" Sokka said.
Aang's face was stony with fury. "I suppose he thinks that's funny, to make us believe our lives were at stake and let all of us think you were lost forever."
"Our assumptions aren't really his fault, Aang," she said. "We did kind of jump to the direst conclusion possible."
"Can you blame us? When it comes to the spirit world, things are generally pretty dire."
"So, are we done for the day? Please tell me we're done for the day," Suki said.
"I think we're done," Aang said, his hand making idle strokes across Katara's lower back.
"I'm bushed," Zuko said.
"Oh, what did you do all day but sit around a campfire?" Aang teased him.
"I sat and listened to the Earth King babble for eight solid hours. Anybody wanna trade?" There weren't any takers. "Yeah, I didn't think so." He rose. "I better get to bed. Mai will be getting here pretty early tomorrow and she's always antsy after traveling. She'll want a good workout." A few muted snickers. "I meant sparring, you filthy-minded…teenagers!" Zuko spluttered.
"Yes, because you're so very much not a teenager, too," Toph commented.
"I'm the oldest one here!"
"By how much?" Sokka said, indignant.
"It doesn't matter!"
"I'll tell you how much, by ten months!"
"Whatever! I'm the ruler of the Fire Nation!"
Aang smiled. "Well then goodnight, Firelord Hotman."
Zuko made a rude gesture at him that had them all laughing as he exited. Sokka got up, too. "I guess we ought to turn in as well."
Katara nodded. "I'm pretty beat myself. My leg's starting to register a complaint."
Sokka came over to her, leaned over her and kissed her forehead in a surprisingly tender gesture. "You're a peach, you know that?" he murmured.
Katara squeezed his hand. "Go to bed, spaz."
She lay on her side with her hands tucked beneath her cheek, watching him get ready for bed. He was brushing his teeth, wearing only the loose shorts he slept in, and her eyes crawled idly over his back and shoulders. She'd often mused that he seemed to have been engineered with a little more precision and attention to detail than the rest of humanity. Was it because he was the Avatar? Was it some genetic legacy of Air Nomads? Was it just the constant conditioning of being capable of four different kinds of bending? Whatever the reason, his body was insane. And if it was already so now, what would he look like in a year? Two years? Five? If the adulation of his fangirls was bad now, what would it be like then? She shuddered to think of it.
They can gawk and drool all they like. He'll be in my bed, not theirs.
Feeling a little smug with the thought, Katara stretched out on her back and smiled to herself. Aang climbed into bed, pulling the covers up over them. He turned on his side and slid close to her, propping himself up on one elbow. Katara looked up into his face, her breath catching at what she saw there. His raw emotions were only for her to see; he rarely showed them unfiltered to others, even close friends. The look in his eyes made her feel flayed open before him. He lifted one hand to her cheek and smoothed his fingers over it. Katara held his gaze, hoping he could see in her eyes the responses to all the things he was silently telling her.
She raised her hand to his face. "So serious," she said.
The corners of his mouth twitched in what might have been the beginning of a smile, but he wasn't in a smiling sort of mood. "I don't know what I would have done," he murmured. "I don't know how to do this without you."
"How to do what?"
"Be the Avatar. Be Aang. Exist. Anything."
She sighed. "Just don't make me promise. Don't make me say I wouldn't do it again."
He shook his head slightly. "I won't."
That surprised her a little. "You won't?"
"No. I won't ask you to promise me something that I couldn't promise you."
Katara felt it again as she had so often in the past year, that deep resonance like a gong inside her, shimmering through her whole body. She ran her hand down his cheek. "God, I love you," she whispered, her chest tight.
She felt the answering shimmer in his body. "I love you, too," he said, the words barely more than puffs of air against her lips as he leaned closer and kissed her, soft but thorough. He drew back a little, a slight smile on his lips now. "I liked saying that you were my wife," he said, cutting his eyes to the side and flushing pink.
She smiled back. "I liked hearing it. Someday it'll be true."
He looked back at her. "Really?"
"Come on, Aang. You can't still be thinking I'm just waiting for someone better."
"I can't help it."
Katara sighed, settling a little closer into his arms. "You know why it took me longer to see how I felt about you?"
"Because some part of me knew that once it happened, that would be it. There couldn't be any halfway with you. If I let myself fall for you, it would be forever. It was scary. I didn't know if I was ready for it. Then I realized that it didn't matter. It was already too late for me. I was yours, ready or not."
He just looked at her for a long, heavy moment. Then he swept her back up into his arms and kissed her with the kind of passion few would suspect he possessed. Just another secret about the Avatar that only Katara knew. She wound her arms around his shoulders and pulled him close, giving back as good as she was getting. She would have liked to go further, but her limbs were heavy with fatigue, and she could feel that his were, too.
Aang finally sank to the bed at her side and they wrapped up together, her head on his chest. She yawned in spite of herself. "Crap," she muttered. "I'm not going to make it. I want to, but I'm just…"
"So damn tired," he finished for her. "Me, too. It's been…well, it's been a day, hasn't it?"
"Mmm hmm." Her eyes were already closing. His arm settled comfortably around her, his hand resting at the curve of her hip.
"I had that chat with the Earth King," he said, his voice sleepy.
"Yeah? What'd you say?"
"I told him that it was inappropriate for him to order others not to contact me, and that I was not subject to his edicts."
"Mmm. Sounds very professional and mature."
"I thought so."
"So…what'd you really say to him?"
He sighed wearily. "I told him if he ever tried to restrict access to the Avatar again he and Bosco would end up ruling over a tiny desert island with only scorpion crabs for subjects."
Katara smiled. "That's my guy." She turned her head and kissed his chest, then snuggled closer. She could feel them both drifting off. "Aang?"
"You make me really happy."
He was silent for a moment. "If that's all I ever do, I'll be a successful man."
The gray morning was just barely dawning when she woke up, her eyelids heavy with sleep. As they typically did, she and Aang had rolled away from each other during the night. He was on his side facing away from her, the sheets tangled around his hips. Katara yawned and slid a little closer. She hated the sight of the large scar on his back. She hated what it meant, what it reminded her of, and she hated the way it broke the smooth, elegant line of his Airbender tattoo. She'd suggested that he have the blue line redrawn over the top of the scar, but Aang had been weirdly resistant to that idea and she hadn't pressed the issue. It was his body, after all, even if she did feel some possessiveness toward it.
She spooned up behind him and slid her hand around his chest. He must have woken when she stirred, because her hand was immediately grasped and pulled up under his chin, her forearm hugged to his chest. Katara smiled and trailed quiet, gentle kisses over the back of his neck and his shoulders. Her body warmed with the contact, and by the time he turned over and they rolled together, she was more than ready. Silent and drowsy and warm and loose-limbed. She loved it like this, early in the morning, when her brain wasn't yet awake enough to throw up defenses and reasons and rationalizations, and she was free to float, awash in whatever she felt, and what she felt was him, and them, and the strength that came from knowing that whatever happened, she and Aang had each other and always would.
All things considered, not a bad way to start a new day.