As I laid down that night, I knew it was coming. Death. It had been so long since I'd last heard anything about Toph, and Katara had passed away not long ago. For all I knew, I could be the last one left of the old team.
Suki was gone.
Sokka was gone.
Aang was gone.
Uncle was gone.
It was my turn.
As soon as I'd realized it was coming, I had gone out to the stables and laid on the ground like the old days. Druk's warm even breaths comforted me as I tried to push the fear away. I'd had a good life. Lived a longer life than most of my friends. I redeemed my family, my country, and myself.
But as I felt energy seep out of my bones, I knew I still had one regret.
I reached out as the fire lord once last time, to touch my loyal companion on the nose. And as this life ran out I spoke that last regret to life. “Katara...”
I was busy opening Qannik's flower shop in the center of Republic City when I saw her. It was the early morning hours, and I was busy sweeping the front. Hoping my eyes would stay open. I was 16-years-old, a non-bender who had never left Republic City.
She was dressed in all red, clearly fresh from the Fire Nation. Her eyes were kind and excited as they rushed to take everything in. There was an erratic energy coming from her I immediately felt pulled toward. When she smiled at me, I smiled back and hoped my hair looked presentable.
I was lucky enough to be the first person she noticed when she needed directions to the pro-bending stadium. I flipped the sign on the door of the shop from Open to Closed and walked her all the way there.
We met up for dinner later, since she didn't know where to go celebrate after try-outs. I told her about how Qannik gave me a job as punishment initially for pick-pocketing her customers. She told me how she ran away from an arranged marriage in the Fire Nation to pursue her dream as a pro-bending top dog.
She met me at the flower shop the next morning as if she'd always done that with a bag of her favorite tea. “Something tells me you're a tea kind of guy!”
When she won her first match I gave her a fire lily. Her eyes seemed far-away but she thanked me with a tight hug anyway. For her next match, I brought her a panda lily. The fight I had with Qannik was worth being able to see her eyes light up when I said, “Something tells me these are more your style.”
The first time I saw her home I was impressed by how neat everything was with how destructive a force she carried at all times. We talked about our families, our dreams, our fears, and our favorite folk stories late into the night. Her eyes were half-closed when I said goodnight.
Absently, she grabbed my hand and smiled. I had to wait until she was satisfied to let me leave.
She was the most incredible person I'd ever known.
She and her team made it semi-finals without a problem. The rookie underdogs that set the pro-bending world on fire. Or at least she did.
When she saw my shabby home for the first time, I made her dinner. She was quiet, but I knew it was just all the pressure outside starting to get to her. After dinner we turned on the radio and listened to a new play by Varrick Industries. Her hand held mine and my arm wrapped around her shoulders.
I loved her, but I was too scared to say it.
“Can I stay tonight?” she asked, breaking the silence. “Can we wake up in the same place tomorrow?”
I leaned down and kissed the top of her head. “Of course.”
She turned in my arms. Her lips were curved in a worried smile. “And the night after that?”
I was shocked but smiled back at her reassuringly. I kissed her cheek. “If you want.”
Her right hand held mine tightly as her left landed softly on my chest. “And the night after that?”
Emboldened by her courage, I nodded and glanced down at her lips. “Forever.”
Her lips were chapped but soft. They woke me up the next morning as she kissed my neck. We spent the entire day inside. And the next day we woke up, grabbed dinner, and split ways.
She won semi-finals.
I rushed down the stands with a bouquet of panda lilies, to meet her where we always did. On my way someone spilled their drink all over me. I lost most of the bouquet in the rush of the crowd. I managed to reach the bathroom and clean up fairly quickly.
If I was lucky she would have only just arrived at our meeting spot.
I almost bumped into a kid, knocking him over, as I ran out of the emptying stadium. When I reached the doors I realized the crowd was filled withs screams and panic. A few metalbenders were clearing an area.
I felt a chill in my stomach as I pushed my way past earthbenders, waterbenders, firebenders, airbenders, and nonbenders alike. The police tried to push me away but as soon as I caught sight of her red dress, I worked on instincts I didn't know I had and slipped past them.
A man, the firebender from the other team, was being restrained nearby. “She's a fucking cheater! She fucking stole our chance at the title! She deserved it!”
Her golden eyes were wide open, staring up at me without seeing. Her clothes were charred. On her chest I could see the mark of a lightning strike.
I fell down beside her and started begging every spirit I could think off.
I reached out for her hand. “No, no, no. I love you. No.”
She was cold.
We meet in the North Pole.
We grow up together. Two talented, female waterbenders competing against each other every step of the way. We fall in love, and it's beautiful and crazy and real. Finally real.
In this life I know deep down there were other lives before this. I know she was in all of those. I know that I've loved her before, I loved her then, and I'd love her in all the lives that come after. Something in my core settles every time I kiss her eyelids in the morning.
She is one of the best warriors we have and I'm one of the best healers.
Sometimes, she tries to teach me how to fight. I laugh every time. I know how to fight. But, I know that in this life I'm not meant to.
Her heart is large and compassionate, but weak. Some nights I wake up just to make sure she is still there by my side.
One night I almost go crazy listening to her heartbeat pulse. The rhythm seems louder than the wind outside. Ba-bump, ba-bump, ba-bump. Contract, expand, contract, expand, contract, expand. Push, pull, push, pull.
I fall asleep imagining her heart pumping blood. It isn't until I wake up the next morning nauseas, dizzy, and tired that I realized every beat I felt was real. I bloodbended.
The full moon had passed, so I waited a full month before going out to the tundra on my own. “There's some wild herbs I want to collect,” I told her with a kiss goodbye.
I spend the next few months studying, practicing, mastering the movements of animals. When I'm strong enough to no longer need the moon for strength, I catch a turtle rabbit and try to feel the blood flow in its panicked body. The next time I try to slow down a different turtle rabbit's heart on my own. I stop the blood flow in the third. I restart the heart in a fourth. I practice and practice until most of my time is spent in the tundra rather than the healing centers.
Twice she dies beside me. Twice I bring her back.
In the morning I kiss her eyes and marvel at how warm and alive she is. At night I count the snowflakes clinging to her hair. I know that I am alive for her. To make sure she has the strength to get up everyda and train our home's future leaders in tactical bending. She is the future of the North Pole and my everything.
Then one day, I hear snow crunch behind me as I practice bloodbending. I think it's nothing more than a koalotter and continue my work. Maybe one day I can show my people the positive uses of bloodbending. Maybe one day the fear will disappear.
I never reach that day.
A child had wondered onto the tundra and saw what I was working on. My trial was short. It lasted a few hours and I was never allowed the opportunity to speak in defense. I was never allowed the chance to change things. To bring honor to a misused talent.
When she died, it was on them.
When I followed, it was on them.
Pawn shop speakers crackled from their efforts. My friend dragged me out to an underground concert for a new band called Pabu in Omashu. Rather, she dragged me all around the Earth Kingdom following a bunch of new bands. Fu, like her many Beifong ancestors, was a strong, bull-headed earthbender. And like the most famous of her lineage, she refused to be tied down to her family's expectations. Instead of befriending the new avatar when she had the opportunity, Fu bent the ground around his feet in a half-circle and walked away. Instead of trying to master earthbending, lavabending, or metalbending to a fine art she only bended for fun. And instead of starting her own band and rocking the world like a pro, she stuck to the groupie lifestyle.
When she yanked on my braid at our graduation ceremony and told me to go on her music-stravaganza with her I didn't think I even had the option of saying no.
After the third show I saw with her, everything had grown on me. I couldn't imagine staying home, working at the zoo instead of getting elbowed in the chest by someone being pushed out of the pit. Fu was down in the hole with so many others, shoving her way one way and another on a wave of earth that naturally matched the drummer's pounding.
I laughed, louder than I ever had before this adventure but not loud enough for the people around me.
Dust from the pit kept floated up in puffs, making everything hazy. Pabu's lead singer ran at the bass drum and did a perfect back flip all while singing. He didn't look at all winded or tired. Not from all the singing, his acrobatics, and not from the dust.
I, on the other hand, was in desperate need of a drink and the set was almost over. Some local band would close off the night with hardcore covers of old songs.
My hand came out soaked when I ran it over my hair. I tried to shout into the pit but could barely hear a dull echo of my own voice. I looked around for a loose stone I could use to catch Fu's attention. There was nothing nearby so I cut a chunk of earth from the perfect edge of the pit. With a quick punch, I bent it deep down the hole. It barely missed a guy with too much metal in his face and stopped just short of my friend.
She looked up ready to fight, but smiled as soon as she saw me.
I waved at her and pointed toward the bar to let her know where I'd be.
It took me a song and a half to push my way past the bigger, stronger, earth and fire benders crowding the bar. One guy wasn't even drinking, he was making figures out of fire in a failed attempt at impressing the bartender.
When I finally squeezed my way through the bartender kept swooping past me to reach other people. I stomped my foot, trying to get the ground to lift me into her eyeline, but someone countered my bending and pushed me back down.
I was just about to convince myself to shove one of the guys who had just elbowed me in the eye, when a burst of air pushed him and everyone else around me a foot away.
Everything felt a lot more quiet.
I blinked and moved my head left and right quickly to try to find whoever did that.
A soft hand touched my arm from behind, and I only just held back a scream. It was the singer from Pabu. He pulled his hand back quickly and smiled awkwardly. “Sorry!” His voice wasn't drowned out by the noise around us, not even without a mic. “You looked like you could use a hand.”
I was about to snap at him, when something in his grey eyes struck me as familiar. Biting my tongue, I nodded and turned to the bartender. I ordered a couple of shots and offered him a drink as thanks. I may not have been a Beifong but I knew how to be polite.
One drink turned into a few. No longer onstage he was a lot more shy, even if I could tell he was flirting. And for me to notice, that in itself was a miracle.
Fu caught my eye at some point and waved her arms erratically in what she tried to mime as a mixture or jealousy and pride. Instead of paying her much attention, I asked him if he wanted to get some air outside.
I always thought Fu was the most impressive person I had ever met.
He was an airbending master when he turned 12 and used to travel as a spiritual guide for other benders until a year ago. Music was something he had only picked up a year ago, but it seemed to him to be the most conducive thing he'd encountered so far to travel. He loved the nomadic part of his people's roots the most.
I told him about my family's zoo, about Fu, about our pointless and wonderful journey.
I grabbed his hand first. He leaned down first. I couldn't tell you which of us suggested the cab.
I knew as he pulled off my shirt and I pushed down his pants that I'd never forget that night.
When I woke up before him in the morning, I kissed his eyelids. He sighed, still mostly asleep. I gathered my things and grabbed a nearby napkin. The paper nearly ripped as I wrote him a quick thank you and goodbye. I told him I hoped destiny made us cross paths again.
Then I left to find Fu and continue our journey.
I sat down in the wrong class.
For whatever insane reason a waterbending healing class was located in the firebending building in center-campus. Blue eyes all looked intently forward as their hands all glided in tandem while writing down the path of blood flow through the heart.
It was a morning class and I was so tired it took me nearly half an hour to realize I was in the wrong place. Normally I was at the top of my game in the morning, but my dumb roommate, Kuruk, kept me up all night. He rehearsed his spoken word poetry at least 50 times, and though it had all sounded the same to me apparently it took that long for it to be perfect.
Now I was stuck in a room I didn't belong in, panicking about how to get out without drawing too much attention to myself. If I left now, I could still make it to the last half of my class.
The girl beside me laughed to herself to my left. I tried to ignore her, but she slipped a piece of paper on my desk.
I rolled my eyes and looked at her with a raised eyebrow. How would she know?
She rolled her eyes back at me. Her bangs swayed as she reached over to the paper.
\You're wearing your orientation bracelet.\
Her eraser poked the flimsy red band around my left wrist.
I reached over her hand to write on the paper myself.
\Clever. Any suggestions for my escape?\
We spent the rest of the class scribbling worse and worse ideas, trying not to laugh too loudly. I never managed to find a way out. When her class ended we grabbed coffee. We grabbed coffee after our morning classes for the rest of the week.
Without even realizing our lives began to wind around each other. Our first kiss was an after thought when we said goodbye. It felt completely natural, as if we'd done it forever. The conversation about the progression of our relationship dissolved into uncontrolled laughter as we wrestled on the ground.
Every hug she gave me felt like a sigh of relief after a battle I'd never fought. Her steady breathing when she fell asleep curled into me sounded like soft waves. When she kicked out my roommate for me when he didn't stop reciting poetry as I tried to study for a midterm I wanted to press her into a wall as I kissed her neck.
Our relationship was a perfect storm. We argued almost every day. It was as if our elements fought for dominance. But she and I had endless things in common that made the differences disappear after a moment.
I fell for her a little more each day.
And when I realized I loved her, the words seemed to be pushed out of my lips by something or someone else. “I love you, Katara.”
She smiled and held the left side of my face in her hand. “I love you too, Zuko.”