It had all started with a cold. Well, it had all started with a boy in the ice. She supposed that if she and Sokka hadn’t gone out fishing that day, her life- and the world- would look very different now. As it was Katara woke up one morning in the Earth Kingdom sniffling and coughing and feeling like her head was full of cotton wool. It had been some eighteen months since the end of the war and six since she and Aang had left Ba Sing Se to go on what he called the ‘Avatar World Tour’. They travelled from village to village, greeting citizens and fixing problems big and small alike, Aang’s connection to the spirit world and her healing abilities often proving invaluable. Yes, to the handful of Earth Kingdom settlements they had visited they were every inch the power couple, but Katara had noticed recently that they were much better around other people than they were alone. She couldn’t say why, but they just didn’t seem to have much to talk about, and she was reminded of that time Sokka went off to train in swordsmanship, when it had felt like they all suddenly forgot how to interact with each other. So when she started to feel sick, she hadn’t wanted to shiver away on Appa while Aang fussed and worried, she hadn’t wanted to sit in some random village with deferential strangers tiptoeing around her, all she wanted was to go home.
“Come on Katara, I’m sure it’s just a cold, it’ll be gone by the time we get to the next place! Gita told me there are these Rabbit-Gulls that-”
Katara snorted and bit back a snarky comment. Gita had been a particularly deferential citizen of the last village. She wouldn’t mind the excessive hero worship so much if more of it were directed at her. She was respected yes, but the adulation, the awe, that was all his. She felt a pang of guilt at her pettiness. He had saved the world after all, and friends don’t hate friends for their success. But – said a treacherous little voice in her mind- Girlfriends can hate peppy little rays of sunshine for drooling all over their boyfriend… She took a calming breath before speaking.
“Aang, I’m sure the Rabbit-Gulls are great, but I feel like death, I don’t feel up to making dinner, let alone fixing a war ravaged land.” He looked crestfallen, but she put her arm around him and smiled. “Besides, I haven’t been home in forever! You can even drop me off and come pick me up when I’m better if you like, so you can continue your world tour!”
“Won’t be the same without you.” He said, pouting.
“Won’t be the same with me coughing and sneezing all over you either,” she said, managing to get a chuckle out of him, “Anyway, you’re the Avatar, you can’t get sick, too much to do.”
“I guess you’re right” he said, and she felt an unbidden surge of excitement. She hadn’t seen Gran-Gran in over a year, but more than that, she couldn’t remember the last time she had some real alone time, and she suddenly longed for the south pole, with its silent glaciers and endless skies.
Aang murmured something to Appa, and she felt his massive bulk turn in the air as they headed south.
By the time they reached the South Pole a few days later though, Katara knew it wasn’t just a cold. She felt… wrong. She felt pitifully weak and she always seemed to be the wrong temperature, either shivering or sweating, and she hadn’t even tried bending. Their arrival was something of a blur of jubilation and excitement turned to concern as familiar hands held her up and whisked her off to a comfortable bed in a cosy hut. She had an impression of Gran-Gran’s face, looking down at her with love and worry, apparently she looked as bad as she felt. She closed her eyes, hearing a snatch of conversation between her father and Aang, and drifted into an uneasy sleep.
Katara dreamt of the Western Air Temple.
The eerie inverted pagodas loomed overhead and she realised she was completely alone. It occurred to her that she hadn’t been completely alone for months. She had never been a loner, but weeks and months of travelling with a big group of kids and teenagers –all expecting her to mother them in different ways of course- would take its toll. Even Aang, who she had no doubt respected her, seemed to require constant encouragement and attention, and as she got older, she seemed to have less and less energy for it. Guilt bloomed in her stomach. She loved Aang. She did. He wasn’t some annoying little kid she’s been tasked with babysitting, she liked spending time with him, even if had been feeling a bit strained lately…
She roamed the silent temple, feeling oddly as if her surroundings were moving around her as she stood still in the middle of the shifting scene. She found herself if one of the rooms they had slept in where, to her mild horror, Sokka and Suki lay kissing each other.
“Oh!” She exclaimed, “Sorry, I- I didn’t know you were…” They hadn’t shown any sign they had heard her. In fact if anything their activities appeared to get more intense. Katara cleared her throat loudly, turning away slightly, but to no avail. They continued with abandon.
Recognising a lost cause when she saw one, Katara turned and left the room, only to find herself in an identical one, face to face with Aang, looking exactly as he had that day all those years ago in the ice fields. She turned and found to her great relief that the writhing heap that was Sokka and Suki had disappeared.
“Do you wanna go penguin sledding with me?” Aang suddenly asked happily, his eyes bright.
“I-” She was struck by how young he looked. He had grown at least 6 inches since the war ended, although the youthful light in his eyes was ever present. She expected it would still be there when he was an old man. Young at heart. She smiled.
Aang returned the smile and turned to leave, without waiting for her response.
“Wait-” she started after him, but as she turned a corner, she found herself in the fire palace, of all places. The walls rippled with heat haze and indistinct figures lined the walls. It was a kind of exhibition hall, some sort of display happening on a central stage. She heard voices from the middle of the room, one, cold and disapproving, the other begging and distraught. A silhouetted figure bowed low, his pleading voice still echoing around the silent room. She thought she could make out a few words; sorry… father… But before she could concentrate more, there was a flash of fire from the far end of the chamber, and she felt as though she was thrown back, out of the room, out and up, up…
Katara woke in a cold sweat, convinced she could still feel the fire singeing her eyebrows, despite the chill air.