The temple is quiet. Aang awakens, goes to the restroom. Katara is still snoring softly from the next room. He smiles as he washes his face, looks into the mirror.
His face feels rough under his fingers; or perhaps his fingers are rough against his face.
After washing and getting dressed, he walks into the sitting room. Katara is awake, greying hair tumbling down her shoulders.
"Hi there," she says. She kisses him on the cheek.
"Check the phonograph yet?"
Katara nods. "He wishes us well."
"You mean he wishes you well," says Aang.
Katara wraps her arm around him. "You know he means the both of us," she whispers in his ear.
Aang shrugs, smiles. "If that's what you think."
"It's what I know," says Katara.
Routine is routine. Days don't find the need for much bending; Aang knows he can't retire from destiny.
But the world is going at a slower pace, now.
His hands face still feels rough. Katara is as beautiful as ever.
She kisses like a river. Sliding against him, pushing him to make the next move. His arms wind around her body, squeezing the rolls living in luxury has given her. She giggles, drags them into bed, his hand at the slip of her dress.
"I love you," he murmurs against her mouth. She hums.
When her fingers are tangled in his beard, pulling him closer, slipping his tunic down his shoulders, he feels it. Like a sharp jab in his side, but there's nothing there.
"Ow," he says, and Katara pulls away.
"What's wrong?" Her eyebrows worry.
"My - I don't know. Shit."
Aang sits up, and suddenly it feels like all his bones are aching. It takes too much for him to lift an arm that he doesn't bother wrapping it around his legs.
"I don't know," says Aang. "It's nothing. I'm fine. I probably pulled something while I was sleeping."
Katara's out of bed, readjusting her hair and straightening out her dress. "I'll make you something to eat," she says. "It'll make you feel better."
Tenzin visits on the weekend. Aang is still proud of him, despite the guilt that weighs in his stomach.
"How's Republic City going?" he asks over dinner.
Tenzin smiles. "Everything's good and dandy."
"No one says 'dandy' anymore."
Lin has come with him, dark hair tied into a tight bun. She takes a small bite of her roll.
"Toph said she visited Suyin the other day," Katara mentions. "Did you - "
"No," Lin says shortly. "And I don't want to talk about it." She takes another bite.
Katara sighs. "Lin, please - "
"Mother," Tenzin says.
Katara shrugs and goes onto her own food. "I'm just saying."
"Let's talk about something nicer," says Aang. He chews his food. "I heard on the radio that there are a lot of bending games going on in the streets. That sounds fun."
"More like a nuisance." Lin rolls her eyes. "It's all Mom ever complains about these days - firebenders, earthbenders, waterbenders - "
"If I was twenty years younger I could join them," Aang laughs.
"They wanna play a bending game, they can play it indoors," says Lin. "That's all I have to say."
Aang reaches for a bowl of vegetables across the table. "You know, Lin, if your mother wasn't in the police force, she'd join them down there, too."
"Bending's not a game," Katara puts in. "You have to be responsible with it."
"You used to drag me and Bumi into baths when we were younger," says Tenzin. "Even when we didn't want to."
Katara huffs. "That's because you guys were always dirty from playing outside. At least Kya could wash herself."
"I could wash myself!"
"Like you don't need Lin's help getting behind your ears."
"Ew - Mom, why would you even say that?"
"Lin's like a daughter to me," says Katara, as Lin says, "Sorry Katara, but that's kinda... weird."
Aang laughs. Katara has her arms crossed, mouth in a pout. Tenzin and Lin's faces are flushed pink.
He reaches for the soup.
"Ah - "
Pain again, but different than a sharp jab. Like a cramp shooting up his spine, and then he can barely feel his waist and shoulders.
"Dad?" says Tenzin, and then Katara's, "Sweetie?" and Lin going, "Aang!"
It occurs to him, slow-motion and when his face is on the wooden floor, that he'd cried out - that he'd fallen backward.
Katara's over him, hair looking dim silver in the moonlight.
The medic tells him, "It's standard."
His room in the Republic City hospital has a good view of his own statue. Carved by Toph, shortly before Bumi was born.
Aang still hopes to see him on one of the ships that curve Air Temple Island.
"Standard for what?" Katara asks. Her hand is soft in Aang's.
"For old people, of course." The doctor pushes his glasses up his nose.
Katara had tried to heal him with her water but there had been nothing to be healed. Aang feels like his entire torso is falling apart.
"Your bones are getting weaker." The doctor looks at his files. "Have you checked inside him?" he asks Katara.
"No," she says. "I thought it'd only be a - minor injury or something - "
"It's not an injury, but like I said, it's standard." The doctor pushes his glasses up again. He may be sweating. "Bodies grow old. They weaken, and eventually die - "
"He's the Avatar," Katara interrupts.
Aang says softly, "Katara."
"Avatars die, too," says the doctor.
"Avatar Kyoshi lived to be over two hundred years old," says Katara. "Aang isn't even seventy. There's something wrong - look over your files again, there has to be something - "
The doctor trembles. "I will," he says after a moment. "But I assure you, this is natural - it's all a part of life - "
"I know death is a part of life!" Katara shouts. "Just look!"
The doctor flees the room.
Katara looks at Aang. Her eyes are watery. Aang runs a hand down her hair.
"I don't want to lose you too," she whispers.
Aang smiles. "It'll be okay."
The doctor comes in several minutes later and says, "You - You said Avatar Aang isn't even seventy?"
"I'm sixty-four," says Aang.
The doctor flips through his papers.
"The report contains scans that show a body average of someone over ninety," he says.
"Well then your scans are wrong," says Katara.
The doctor doesn't meet her eyes. "I assure you, ah, I mean, our waterbenders are very proficient when they take full-body scans," he says.
"Well they could've made a mistake," says Katara.
"Got our files mixed up or something," Aang puts in.
The doctor takes his glasses off. His forehead is shining. "It's possible," he murmurs, and scurries from the room again.
"We're leaving," says Katara.
"Alright," says Aang.
Katara kisses him sweetly that night. Aang kisses back.
"We have nothing to worry about," he says.
"I know," says Katara.
She's staring somewhere below Aang's collarbone. Her fingers are around her necklace.
"Katara," Aang whispers, and she kisses him again. A hand goes to his shoulder, the other beneath his tunic.
He breathes her name again, and Katara kisses against her cheek. She uses one hand to stroke his face, lips fluttering against parts of his skin like rain. She breathes against him, heat on heat, and he exhales softly to wrap them in a gust of wind.
"I love you so much," she leaves in his ear, and he comes undone. It hurts, like a tight curve against his body, like her first wandering fingers, a gasp after each time she says this, but more. It hurts like hurricane and storms in the middle of nowhere, wind crashing into the sea.
"I love you too," he says, breathless.
As he falls asleep against her, he still can't believe that she's real, like the first day he came out of that iceberg.
When he wakes up the next morning, it's late and Katara's fully dressed already. Aang's tunic is wound halfway around him, from last night.
"Hi," he says as she gives him his morning tea.
Her eyebrows are furrowed and she won't look at him. "Good morning," she says.
He leans forward and she bends down so he can kiss her cheek.
"Is there something wrong?" he asks.
"I was thinking about what the doctor said," she says, "last night, and. I thought it wouldn't hurt to check, you know? So I looked over you myself."
Aang watches her. She's knelt down so they're eye level, but her eyes are focused on a spot on the floor.
"Then," she says. "This morning, I thought, well, I could've been tired, or I could've made a mistake. So I checked again."
Katara sighs. She bends the water from what's left of Aang's tea, hovers it over his leg. She closes her eyes and Aang's leg trembles slightly, like it does during the mandatory doctor's tests.
"It's the same," she says. "He's right. Your bones are weak - weaker than they might've been last night, actually."
Aang says, "I don't understand."
"Your body is deteriorating at an alarming rate," says Katara. "I don't understand either."
Katara suggests sending a message overseas on their phonograph. Aang says that he doesn't want to trouble them.
Tenzin lives in an apartment on the mainland, in Republic City.
"I guess my old age is catching up to me." Aang chuckles. "Finally then."
Katara's smile looks forced. Aang says, "You're the strongest out of all of us."
"Zuko's still managing," she says.
"Yes, well, you know how Zuko is."
Aang rubs his hands together. They don't feel rough; they feel tired. Like the roughness has worn out.
"Can you send him a message?" he asks. "Zuko, I mean."
Katara nods and goes to the phonograph.
Aang picks himself up from the ground. Goes to the bathroom and stares himself in the mirror.
His tattoos are brighter, his beard greying. He doesn't know how old he's supposed to look. Katara would think barely anything's changed, that he's as beautiful as she says he's always been.
Aang can see it though, faint indents in his skin, bound to get bolder by the week. He hunches over the sink and almost collapses in relief - he airbends himself back up, though, swears he might've heard a small crack.
Katara comes back from the phonograph. She says, "I told him you're running into a little health trouble."
"Accurate enough," he says.
Her arms wrap across his chest, fingers skirting over his shoulders because that's the highest she can reach.
"I don't want to lose you," she says.
Aang kisses her left index finger. "You know how this Avatar thing works," he says. "You won't."
A few weeks later it gets difficult to walk. Aang airbends for a bit until even concentration wears him out.
"Please," he asks Katara.
"No." Katara's sitting on the bed with him, but has her legs crossed and arms folded.
Aang's bones feel like they want to fall asleep. "Katara," he says. "You know how I am, I can't - I need to move around."
"I wish you could," says Katara.
"I can," says Aang. "Please, Katara. Your intentions are - will be good."
"I know," says Katara. "But it's not a full moon. It's against the law. And I swore not to - "
"And you haven't," Aang interrupts. "And why? Because you think it's evil. Because the whole world thinks it's evil."
"So that's that."
"We could be wrong," says Aang. "Why did Yakone and Hama bloodbend? Because they thought they were superior."
"It's not a full moon," Katara says again.
"We both know that your waterbending is strong enough to surpass that," says Aang. "Please. I just want to get out of bed."
"Aang," says Katara.
Her jaw is tight. Aang stops.
"I'm sorry," he says. "I just don't think - "
His leg moves then, and then he's twirled to the side of his bed. Katara is moving her hands gracefully, hesitantly.
Aang is stood up straight. He can't feel it, but he sees his legs walk outside and into the kitchen.
"Thank you," he says, as Katara follows him. "Please don't try to overthrow the government after this."
Katara chuckles. "I won't."
No one can watch them so it becomes regular. When Zuko visits, Aang is moved into the tea room.
"Jasmine?" he offers, and Zuko smiles.
"Only always," he says.
His dragon is flying with the sky bisons outside.
Zuko says, "How do you think the new Avatar is going to be?"
"How did you know I'm dying?" Aang asks.
"I wouldn't visit otherwise."
Aang shoots him a grin, and even though he can't turn his own head, he can see that Zuko smiles back.
"I hope they're nice," Aang says thoughtfully. "Water next, right?"
"Katara will have more than one excuse to be with them then," says Zuko.
Aang chuckles. He stares at the tea kettle.
"It feels okay," he says. "I don't feel sixty, I feel - "
"One hundred eighty."
"Too long," says Zuko. "But not enough."
"Of course you can't get enough of me," Aang jokes.
"The world could do with a little more you."
"Maybe," says Aang. "Not me as a father, though - "
"Your whole life has been hope for everyone else."
"My life is only a part of a line of others," says Aang. "It's you guys who've been my hope."
He thinks maybe Katara is in the hallway, listening.
"That's touching," says Zuko, "but you know that the world will have to go through at least a decade without knowing who the Avatar is."
"I've been thinking," says Aang. "Depending on the skill of the Avatar, they will need to go through training. Well, regardless. And perhaps instead of going on the wild goose chase I went on for proper masters, we can prepare instead."
"Do you expect me to teach them firebending?" It's a joke, of course.
"Only if you're willing to put up with it," says Aang. "I don't want to give them my life."
"Is that your way of saying you don't want them dealing with me?"
"You can be a little stubborn and boring."
Zuko laughs. When his dragon and the bisons play a little too hard and the roof shakes a small piece of ceiling onto Aang's tunic, he burns it off.
"It hurts to talk," says Aang.
"I'm here," says Zuko.
He gets called back, though, when a messenger bird tells him of trouble in a Fire Nation city. Aang says, "Send my regards to Bumi."
Zuko tucks his head in as a bow.
Aang doesn't need to ask for Katara to move him to the bathroom anymore. His skin is sagging; it's obvious he's aging more rapidly.
Katara still kisses him in the morning and the night. She says, "I tried to get Tenzin to come for dinner but he says he's busy."
Aang looks at her and she says, "I didn't say anything."
Sokka's in the North Pole. They discuss sending a messenger flying bison, but then Aang says he doesn't want to worry him. Sokka is busy enough with trying to repair Water Tribe ties.
They haven't heard from Toph for a while, either. Katara always says no news is good news. That's what she says about Kya, too.
"I don't know how long it'll be," says Aang. "I don't know how long it's been."
"It's been long enough," says Katara.
Her eyes are bluer than her necklace. She isn't like anything like the skies, but the roughest of oceans: calm, unwavering.
"I wish this was longer," he says. "I wish we had more time."
"Every day has been more time," she says.
He says, "I love you," and closes his eyes.
She bends him around their house; he hasn't been downstairs for long while. Sometimes he has to urge her to go out to the markets because she won't leave his side.
"You're still healthy and bright," he says. He's saving his energy for the important words. "Take care of yourself."
"I know." Katara bites her lip.
He doesn't tell her, but he knows she'll be the last thing he sees; he doesn't have any other choice, doesn't want another choice. She's here, even when he falls asleep and Katara is spooned behind him. His tired eyes fall more and more but Katara still lives behind his eyelids.
She'll be here when it happens. And he'll see her again.
In the South Pole, a newborn baby awakens.