A/N: Avatar does not belong to me. I own nothing except a heavily overtaxed five-year-old compaq presario with a sticky keyboard and you are welcome to it!
For those of you who are waiting on an update of Absolute Power... I can only apologize! Life has been hectic, what with halloween (we dressed up my five year old as aang, complete with glider. there is a picture of him on my deviantart site if your interested: whirleeqDOTdeviantartDOTcom. Seriously; check it out -- the costume came out fantastic... bald cap and arrows to boot!) and with other things, like work, the circus, my brand new car catching on fire while we were AT the circus, and elections crap. Hopefully, I will be able to update it sometime next week. In the interim, here is a (somewhat longish) AxK oneshot. It takes place five years in the future, after the final battle between the fire nation and the Avatar.
The title of this fic -- "What A Little Moonlight Can Do" -- is taken from an old Billie Holiday song; one of my favorites... it is old, jazzy and beautiful and just, I dunno, fits.
Summary: Sometimes it hurts to protect the ones you love. Especially if what you are protecting them from is yourself. Angsty, romantic oneshot. Future fic, Aang x Katara, AxK.
Enjoy -- and please review... reviews are author's crack...
er, that didn't come out quite right... but you know what I mean ;).
"And think not, you can direct the course of love; for love, if it finds you worthy, directs your course." Khalil Gibran
"Sometimes, it's hard to believe that it's all over."
Sokka mumbles the words under his breath as he fidgets nervously by her side, waiting for something to happen.
Katara understands the sentiment, even though it has been five years now since the end of the war. It is hard to put the past behind her when she relives it each and every night. Some nights she wakes up screaming, reliving the pure horror of the campaign and with it, the loss of the last vestiges of her childhood that she had clung to so desperately and for so long. Other nights, she wakes up feeling achingly empty after dreaming of mischievous grey eyes filled with love, flying bisons and blue tattoos.
Truthfully, she doesn't know which of her dreams is worse.
She nods in agreement, her head slightly turned from him. She's having a hard time looking at him right now, dressed as he is in the traditional water tribe warrior furs and leathers. He stands tall looking very much the veteran warrior that he is. And, just like the other water nation warriors present for this historic celebration, Sokka's face is covered in a thick layer of white and black war paint. The picture he presents causes her to shiver; the memories she has tried so desperately to repress push against the forefront of her mind.
The last time she had seen so many men dressed the way Sokka was now, they had been covered in burns and blood as she worked on them tirelessly in an effort to heal them.
She had laid hands on many of the water nation men here with them today… and some of the earth nation. Even Haru had been gravely injured and had been near death when she got to him. But for every one that she had managed to save, there had been a great many more that she hadn't been able to reach; or even worse, on which her attempts at healing had failed.
And upon seeing how greatly the earth nation warriors now outnumbered their small contingent of water nation warriors, she felt the absence of her lost kinsmen most keenly.
But those that had fallen in battle were not the only ones notably missing from the celebration.
She couldn't help but to crane her neck, looking for him. On some level, she knew that he probably wouldn't come – he had essentially ostracized everyone after the battle; even her and her brother – but she still can't help but to hope that he will.
"Do you think that he'll come?"
He doesn't need to clarify who 'he' is.
As if reading her mind, Sokka turns to her and the same hopeful look that she knows she's wearing is echoed on her brother's face. For a moment, she feels angered by his question – his bringing it up is like rubbing salt into a raw wound – but then again, Sokka misses him too. Maybe not quite the same way she does, but he misses him just the same.
"I don't know." She answers after a brief pause. Across the room, Haru catches her eye and nods to her. The smile she gives him in return is somewhat sad, but the earth bender doesn't seem to notice as he beams at her in response. "I really don't think so though. I think… I think if he were going to come, he would have been here by now."
Sokka catches her hand and gives it a soft squeeze.
"If he doesn't show up, I don't want you to be disappointed, Katara. He'll… he'll come back eventually. We're his family, after all. The guy just has a lot of… issues to work through."
'And that is the understatement of the century,' Katara thought.
Inside, a fierce and familiar anger begins to eat at her and she has to forcibly reign in her emotions. It wasn't fair that Aang had been made to shoulder so much responsibility. It wasn't fair that he was used as a weapon of war by the very people who he was meant to unite.
And it wasn't fair to him that she had been too young, too naïve to protect him.
They had all been too young; too trusting, too accommodating. They had let others do the planning for them -- those same others who had no qualms about putting an innocent thirteen year old boy into a situation where he had to kill or be killed.
Her father was one of the ones that supported putting the young Avatar at the epicenter of the battle.
She remembers with a frown the response he gave her when she questioned him on it.
"The good of the many outweighs the good of the one. He may be your friend, but he is also the Avatar. He is the one with the power, ability and responsibility, Katara. His age matters not."
Katara didn't fault him for his thinking then, and doesn't now. How could she, when she felt the same way at one point? Aang had been… her beacon of hope, and she gripped on to that beacon tightly.
Perhaps a bit too tightly.
He would have done anything, anything at all to please her. She knew this now; age and experience having opened her eyes to many painful truths.
Aang… would have died for her, if necessary.
And so when her father told him that he would have to be the one to face Ozai, he never questioned it. He never questioned any of them; not even his own past life when Roku told him the same thing.
She should have had her eyes open, should have seen the effect that each hope and directive had on the boy; all adding the burden he carried silently and without complaint, coupled with his own since of responsibility and the heavy mantle of guilt.
She remembered watching the youthful exuberance the boy once had in spades die incrementally with each war ravaged city they visited. All she could do was remain by his side, hoping her presence and love would help shelter him from his own inner demons, as the guilt wracked his soul and brought him down.
His soul, which had been so loving and vibrant and despite what everyone believed, she knew had nothing to do with the god – or perhaps, demon – that resided inside of him. His fragile soul had never been capable of handling the burden that he had been forced to carry; not only by destiny, but by the hopes and expectations of others.
Should she have been surprised that when that burden was gone – when Ozai fell at the boy's own hands – to see the fragile hold Aang had on his youth and innocence leave him with an inaudible snap?
She remembered the look on Aang's face after the battle. His eyes, normally wide and filled with mirth, were narrow and vacant. She remembered him not saying a single word to her as she helped heal him of the burns that covered his lithe, frail frame.
She remembered not saying a word about the copious amount of blood on his tunic; staining the orange and gold fabric a dark crimson red.
After she had finished healing him, he withdrew entirely from her.
The compulsion to pull him into her arms then had been overwhelming, yet he had shirked from her touch as if she were diseased. It had hurt when he wouldn't let her touch him; hurt worse than the burn she herself had suffered at the hands of a fire bender.
And then, without any word or explanation, Aang took off.
It's been five years to the day now. Five years since the death of Ozai; marking both the end of the century long war and the reformation of the Fire Nation under Prince – no; Lord Zuko – who, surprisingly enough, was already becoming known as 'Zuko the Fair' to the war weary people of the world.
Zuko had joined their cause towards the end. He had been the one to lead Aang straight to Lord Ozai. And if the new young Fire Lord felt remorse about his part in the death of his own father, he kept it to himself.
Sometimes, she wonders what happened between the two of them to make father and son turn on each other so savagely. She knows that towards the end, Ozai had placed a bounty on Zuko's head, once the knowledge of his involvement in Aang's escape from where Admiral Zhao held him in captivity became apparent. But she never quite understood what had caused the bad blood between the two of them to begin with. Zuko had been, and remained even now, completely tight lipped about the subject.
After traveling with him for a couple of weeks, she had come to the conclusion that she'd have better luck bending water from a rock than getting Zuko to divulge any personal information.
And yet, those few final days before the last, great battle, Zuko had been the only one that Aang really talked to.
Across the room, the young Fire Lord is already deep in conversation with her father and King Bumi. Zuko seems to realize that she's staring at him, because he locks eyes with her for just a moment before returning to his conversation. His eyes are cold, unreadable, and she knows without asking that he knows where Aang is. Of course, knowing that he knows is even worse than not knowing anything at all, because there is no possible way of getting him to share that information.
And for just a moment, the hate that she feels for their former adversary turned comrade is overpowering.
Sokka looks down at her. He sees the look upon her face and gives her hand another gentle squeeze, deflating her irrational surge of anger and hatred until she only feels tired.
"I… miss him…. so very much."
"I know you do, Katara. I know you do."
The feast had just begun when a sudden hush came over the hall.
The sticks she held in her hand suddenly felt heavy; as if they were made of stone instead of wood. She lets them fall to her plate, where they clatter slightly, the small sound echoing unnaturally in the stillness of the air around them. A throat is cleared. Someone coughs, and attempts to muffle the sound into a fist.
He stands in the doorway, like an apparition. He is slightly taller than she remembers, but still lithe and lean. The bones in his face are slightly sharper, the shadows beneath his eyes slightly more pronounced, but he is still Aang.
Except that he's not... not at all.
At the head table on the other side of the room, Lord Zuko clears his throat before rising; a glass of fire whiskey in his hand. He raises it in a toast.
"To the Avatar, who is owed gratitude by every one of us. Without him, our three nations would still be at war. Welcome, Avatar."
The sound of chairs shifting across the floor fills the air as everyone stands with a glass in their hand. There is some mumbling and then a chorus of voices, as the toast is made in Aang's honor.
Katara grabs her glass as well. She's not one prone to drinking, but in this case, she finds that the searing burn of the strong liquid as it travels down her throat helps to dull out the aching pain in her heart.
Across the room, Aang nods briefly in thanks before silently approaching the table where she is sitting. There is some murmured surprise at this, since the others in the hall expected him to take a seat at the head table with the leaders of the three nations, but Katara remains silent. She somehow knew as soon as she saw him – or at the very least, hoped – that he'd come to where she and her brother were sitting. She is not surprised when he approaches the empty seat directly across from her.
She still can't quite wrap her mind around the fact that he is actually here; that he actually showed up, despite everything. In fact, were it not for the sudden hush that accompanied his arrival, she would have thought she was dreaming.
And yet, he takes his seat without even so much as acknowledging her in greeting.
He silently begins eating, eschewing the fish in favor of the bread and salad and she represses a small smile at that, feeling somewhat comforted with the knowledge that at his unwillingness to eat meat has not changed.
Everything else about him, though…
The lean, somewhat tired looking man that sits across the table is not the same energetic, free-spirited boy that she had once known and her heart is saddened at the sight.
Katara can barely touch her own food anymore; her chop sticks remain on the plate in the same place where they had fallen. She can't tear her eyes away from Aang as he slowly, almost methodically brings his food to his mouth and eats.
For just a moment, she's pretty sure that his hands are shaking. Her heart gives a painful lurch at the sight and despite herself; she mutters his name under her breath.
The name is spoken softly and goes unheard by all except the one across the table from her. Almost reflexively, he jerks his head up; his hand frozen in the act of bringing a small piece of bread to his mouth.
She catches his eyes briefly before he turns away; seemingly unwilling to hold her gaze for very long.
The sharp pain that she feels in her chest in response is familiar now, but that doesn't make it any more bearable. She doesn't think she'll ever be able to come to terms with the loss of her greatest friend and biggest confidant… and he is lost to her, even when he's sitting right in front of her.
That is all too painfully clear.
She tells herself that it isn't anything personal – that he doesn't blame her for what happened. She even tells herself that he's too busy now, and just doesn't have the time to be the friend to her that he once was. Of course, she knows she's lying to herself. .
Katara looks at him sadly; yearning inside for the time when they were all innocent, and wonders if he ever yearns for the same.
She remembers how it felt to ride on Appa's back as the wind whipped around them. She remembers how the stoic young man before her used to bounce happily around her, desperately seeking her attention and affection while her brother used to smirk and roll his eyes at their young friend's antics.
She remembers pulling him into her arms at night, soothing his fears and reminding him that he was not alone and for a brief moment, she struggles with the need to reach across the table and do it once again.
The soft, caring voice of Haru pulls her out of her reverie, and she turns and smiles at the besotted earth bender who takes the empty seat next to her.
On her other side, Sokka pauses in his rapid consumption of his meal to acknowledge the seating arrangement with some surprise. He exchanges a brief, wordless glance with the Avatar and nods at him in greeting before doing the same with Haru, before his eyes come to rest on Katara, who is looking a bit pale.
His sharp blue eyes take in the situation almost immediately, and underneath the table she feels a soft, supportive squeeze on her knee.
"Hello, Haru." She responds, somewhat uneasily. She likes Haru; quite a bit – but feels inexplicitly uncomfortable with his presence at the moment.
Haru was not the one that she had expected would assist her in the rebuilding of her home, her people, but after the battle and when Aang pulled away from her so abruptly… she needed a friend. Haru was more than willing to fill that need. Sometimes, she thinks that he would like it to be more, but she can't find it within herself to give him that part of her heart. She can't give him something that has belonged to someone else for many years now; even if that someone else has no need of it – or her – anymore.
That too, is obvious.
Still, she feels somewhat nervous about Haru sitting next to her, pulling her hand into his. Not because of his small display of affection, but because of Aang's presence across the table. And as Haru leans over to place a small kiss on her cheek, her blue eyes are locked on the unreadable gray ones across the table from her.
"Welcome, Avatar. Your presence honors us." Haru says, always diplomatic. He nudges her slightly and she freezes, feeling a raw burn in the pit of her belly from a sudden attack of nerves.
Up till now, she has avoided actually speaking to him. On her other side, Sokka looks at her briefly and she draws strength from the blue eyes so very like her own.
She's practiced a standard polite, impersonal greeting… said it a thousand times in her head…
But when she opens her mouth to speak, she notices that Aang's eyes are dark and focused on the table in front of her. It takes her a minute to realize that he is staring at the connecting hands between herself and Haru and the intensity of the Avatar's gaze startles her, sends her reeling.
She clears her throat and pulls her hand away from Haru as if burned by it. Haru looks at her quizzically and Sokka compassionately, but she ignores them both. Her control over her emotions is tenuous and her voice, shaky.
"Thank you for coming, Aang. It means a lot to me..."
The words are almost whispered, startling them all. A number of people at the table with them turn to look at her, curious as to why she is addressing the Avatar so familiarly.
She shuts them all out. Only the air bender on the other side of the table has her attention, and for just a brief moment, their eyes lock and they are the only two people in the room.
"It… was no problem."
The soft, affectionate look in her eyes combined with the use of his name is almost too much for him. He wants desperately to throw himself across the table, pull her away from that stupid earth bender, and carry her out of the room. His hand is trembling slightly as he fights with himself.
He thought that being away from her would help bury the deep feelings he had for her… but they never quite went away. Instead, he carried them like an old wound around his heart – one that pained him with every beat of the rebellious organ.
The sight of her painfully ripped that wound open, like a dagger straight to the chest. Now his heart was bleeding freely as it pulsed hard and strong; silently torturing him, screaming for the one thing that he resolved to protect from everything; including – no, especially – himself.
Silently, he wonders if he should have come at all. He knew how it was going to affect him, seeing her again. But he couldn't resist the temptation, just this once.
The celebration provided the perfect excuse. Just for a day, he could see her again, drink in her beauty and reminisce about a time when it was just the three of them. And then leave, because he couldn't possibly stay…
He was tainted now, and she deserved so much better, so much more…
But seeing her… seeing her with Haru, smiling at the earth bender and holding his hand… was almost more than his battered heart could take.
He avoids talking to her for the rest of the meal, which he continues to eat almost methodically. She is stricken by his avoidance and he knows it, but it is for the best. Because he fears if he starts talking to her, then he'll break down… he'll want the warmth of her arms wrapped around him; want the hugs that she once offered him so freely. He'll want that and so, so much more. So much more than he has any right to want, being the demon that he is.
When she looks away, he studies her intensely; drinks in her appearance and commits it to memory so that he can take it out and treasure it on the many cold and lonely nights he spends alone.
He's become the nomad that his people once were; never staying in one place for very long, trying to escape the one thing that follows him everywhere he goes.
He avoids her for the rest of the dinner.
She is saddened by this, so much so that she doesn't even notice when Haru clears his throat next to her and grabs her hand. Nor does she notice that the room has fallen inexplicitly silent, as the earth bender and war hero rises to his feet, gently tugging her up with him.
She does, however, notice the consipirational look that passes between Haru and Sokka and feeling of impending doom settles in her gut. What… what is the earth bender up to? Startled, she turns her head and catches Aang's eyes briefly, her heart reeling at the stricken look that passes through his grey eyes.
He seems to grasp the situation before her befuddled mind even has a chance to catch up, and in that brief moment, his raw desire and love is laid bare for her to see.
"Today is the fifth anniversary of the battle at Sozun. On that day, many lives were lost. Earth, water and fire all perished in the effort to bring about a new world. Yet, on that day, many lives were also saved. I myself sustained grave injuries, but was healed by the remarkable woman by my side."
At this, applause broke out in the hall. Katara felt the weight of everyone's gaze on her keenly, yet the only eyes she sought out were the ones belonging to the air bender across the table from her. For once, he didn't break his gaze away. Instead, he was watching her with an intensity that she hadn't seen in years. She held onto his gaze like an anchor, feeling highly suspicious of Haru's words and intent – he seemed to be leading up to something; something a lot more substantial than merely a toast in her honor. And, by the stricken, almost fearful look in Aang's eyes – coupled with the sympathetic (and partially amused) look that Sokka was giving her, she was fairly certain that she didn't want Haru to continue.
"Over the past five years, I have had the great pleasure of befriending this honorable, beautiful woman. She represents everything that is water: fluid, graceful and healing. And, just like water, I am not quite sure that I can live without her."
There was a monumental pause as the implications of his words hit her. Her eyes widen and she looks to him in panic – what the hell was he doing? They were friends, and that was it – and now Haru was giving Aang the impression that they were so much more… why the hell was he doing this?
"Katara of the water tribe, will you do me the honor of becoming my wife?"
Around her, there are whistles and catcalls. She opens her mouth to answer, to tell him 'no', but no sound comes out – she can't answer him; there is something much more pressing and important that demands her attention.
Because as she goes to answer Haru, she notices that the seat where Aang sat just moments before is empty. With a growing since of dread, she looks around the room fearfully, seeking him out, but he is already gone.
For a moment, everything around her seems to come to a complete stop. The stinging pain in her chest is the same as it was five years ago; fresh and raw. She needs to run, needs to escape, needs to find him and set things right this time, because she absolutely does not think she can take him disappearing from her life once more.
She turns to Haru, only to find him smiling at her sadly – as if he knows what her answer is going to be before she even gives it. Which makes her wonder briefly why he even bothered to ask in the first place, but she doesn't have the presence of mind to question him – she's only concerned about one person, and that is the man who just left.
"I'm sorry, Haru, I – I have to go…"
The words are hastily whispered and then she is off; pausing only when she feels a warm hand grab her arm.
Sokka smiles sympathetically before he releases her, and his words echo through her head as she runs out of the hall; feeling as if she's chasing a ghost – and one that doesn't want to be found.
"When you find him, tell him how you feel, Katara. Or neither one of you is ever going to be happy."
He knows she's seeking him out. He knows that she wants to talk to him… he knows that she wanted closure… and despite his own heart, he was going to give it to her. He had even planned on lying; telling her that he'd been happy… perhaps even that he had settled down somewhere, he didn't know. He would say anything – anything at all if it would make her happy; make her stop worrying about him since he wasn't worth it. But when Haru proposed to her…
His eyes flicker darkly at the thought of that earth bender marrying his Katara.
Except that she was no longer his, and really, she had never been his. Nor should she be his. Still, even with those thoughts in his mind, it is difficult – nay, impossible for him to control the raging jealously that flares through him; knowing that she was going to accept another man as her husband.
He knows he could never have her. He doesn't deserve her, for one – not after what he did. And for two, she should never have to carry the stigmata of being with him. It had hurt enough during their travels, when Katara would get injured, trying to protect him.
She'd been so… relieved when the war was finally over.
Aang, however, knows all too well that the war was only over for the dead.
The peace that the world now cleaves to is fragile and hard kept. After all, many years of war and the genocide of all whole nation of people – his people -- were not things that were easily brushed aside. Even at that so called 'historical celebration', the looks that passed between the former fire nation soldiers and the earth and water nation soldiers were cool and filled with repressed hostility. The tension in the room had kept his avatar spirit uncomfortably on alert the whole, brief time that he spent there.
And even with his avatar spirit on alert, all he could think about was how he wished he could protect her from the harsh reality of the world. And while he can't exactly do that, the one thing he could – and will – protect her from was the knowledge that he was the one responsible for maintaining that fragile bubble of peace.
The cost of that peace was high and often paid in blood.
No. He can't - won't - burden her with his feelings. The decision he made five years ago is still a good one and like it or not, she'd be far better off with that earth bender than the likes of him.
His hands are too sullied with the necessities of both war and peace to even hold her, anyway.
Still, he follows her, watches her every move as she searches for him. Repeatedly, she calls his name… yet with less enthusiasm each time. The pain in her voice cuts him to the core and he fights the urge to go to her.
He should just leave; yet he forces himself to witness her pain. It is the least he can do, having been the one to cause it – on a night which should have been the happiest one of her life, even.
And the burning, anguished jealousy inside of him is a fitting penance for ruining that moment for her by disappearing.
He remains in the trees, hidden like a coward, when everything inside of him is screaming to go to her, to tell her not to marry that stupid earth bender; to beg her to come with him and be by his side. But he won't, because he promised himself that he'd protect her from everything that would taint her… and that included himself.
Eventually, she comes to the edge of stream. The hope of finding him has all but faded from her eyes… he sees it too, and curses himself for causing her yet even more pain.
But then she is contemplative for a moment. She looks at the water as if it will provide the answers to all her problems. With a slight movement of her hand, she causes it to ripple slightly and smiles, causing his heart to skip an entire beat.
She looks amazingly at peace, in control of her element. He finds himself transfixed; unable to move even if he wanted to. A herd of wild hogmonkeys couldn't drag him from his spot, perched in the tree above her. Still, he feels somewhat guilty spying on her practicing – as if what he was watching was something intensely private.
And in a way, it was.
He thinks that she doesn't know that he's there. After all, he has silence down to a science – not a single branch or leaf is disturbed by his presence. In fact, the only sound that comes from him is the soft inhale-exhale of his breathing and the rapid beating of his heart.
Breathe in, breathe out.
Knees slightly bent, she closes her eyes and pivots slightly. Face flushed slightly with exertion, her body is taut and her mind centered. Te water flows beneath her, nipping at her toes as she practices her movements in the shallow part of the river.
She is beautiful, innocent and free.
His heart lurches suddenly; painfully. He is tainted – tainted with the blood of others and unworthy of her love. But it is becoming increasingly more and more difficult to remind himself of this.
As a child, he often watched her practice, not really understanding then the multitude of feelings that coursed through his body as he did so.
But now… he shivers slightly and pulls at his tunic; the light fabric suddenly too hot. She is more beautiful now than she ever was, and… gods, he wants her. He can't help it. He's loved her for years, and now, he is older; the sight of her like this stirs something deep inside of him… something primal, heady and needy.
Beneath him, her rosy lips purse slightly as she concentrates.
He has to bite on his own bottom lip to keep his silence.
She's moving constantly, like the water. Her body is fluid, electric.
Slowly, she straightens. Her arms flex as she brings her hands up in a circular motion. Beneath her, the water breaks and swirls; a slow, steady stream rises into the air at her directive.
The moonlight glistens off of the water snake as she controls it with effortless grace. It twirls around her body in a graceful arc. For a few moments, she plays with it -- her body constantly in motion like the element that serves her.
She is a goddess.
He knows when she's going to release it. He's seen her practice this move a thousand times. From his vantage point in the tree above, he can see the slight rise of her chest as she inhales and for just a brief-blink-and-you-missed-it moment, the water holds its whip like form.
He holds his own breath in anticipation.
Her arms flex, and she lets go of the breath she's been holding. A slight bend of her knees, a tilt of her head, and her eyes seek his out in the darkness.
The flick of her wrist is effortless. The water snake flies upwards, startling him and knocking him out of the tree.
He falls to the ground with a thud, overcome by both shock and embarrassment. She steps over to him, little droplets of water clinging to her feet like tiny gems.
There is no surprise in her voice and he winces at the implications of that.
He grins sheepishly, turning his head slightly so he can mask the longing in his eyes. Automatically, he falls back into the only role he knows with her, finding protection in its familiarity, even while his heart is breaking slightly.
"What are you doing here?"
"It's late… and, uh, I wanted to make sure you were okay, that's all."
She levels him a look that says very clearly that she doesn't believe him, but thankfully she does not question his response. A hand is offered, and he grabs it, allowing her to pull him to his feet.
The look in her eyes is accusatory, and he considers briefly allowing the earth to split beneath him, if only to swallow him up.
"And I'm the queen of the Fire Nation."
He turns, because he can't meet her eyes. He shouldn't even look at her… he has blood on his hands now.
Zhao's… Ozai's… and so many others…
"Don't you think that I know you better by now? Oh, wait a minute… perhaps I don't, since you've just gone and shut me completely out of your life for the past five years…"
She is angry now. And she deserves to be – he knows this, even as her words damage him like a flame shot directly at his chest.
"I'm sorry. I… I didn't mean to upset you, Katara. You… you were – are – better off with me out of your life."
His response stuns her and she looks at him, dumbfounded. It makes him uncomfortable… he feels his resolve breaking. Somehow, he finds the strength to choke out a few more words, but they sound insincere – even to him.
"Goodbye, Katara. I hope you have a wonderful life… Haru… is a lucky man."
He lowers his head slightly and prepares to turn; to leave…she should be with Haru, and he knows it. It is shameful for him to love her the way that he does… to want her so much that his entire body hums when he's around her, and—
And he's hit with another water whip; angrily knocked to the ground by her element.
"What is with you, Aang? Before… just before the battle, I thought that you… that maybe you loved me. Afterwards, I thought… I thought you needed me, but maybe you needed time more… time to deal with things that were not your fault. Well, you know what? You've had time, Aang… you've had plenty of it. And tonight, when you showed up, I had hoped we could start to patch things up…"
She looks at him fiercely as she pulls him to his feet. The tears are falling freely down her cheeks. He can't help himself, he reaches out to wipe them away. Feeling the soft skin of her cheeks under his fingers after so long – the touch is electric, sending shivers down his spine and he pulls him into his arms; the simple action breaking every rule he had set for himself.
For a moment, he feels euphoric, holding her. The squeezing pain in his chest lessens tremendously and his lips brush against her cheek in a feathery kiss. His heart is near bursting with affection and suddenly all the reasons he's had for staying away from her seem insignificant.
He wishes he could hold her like this forever.
Aang is very aware of her shuddery breaths against his neck as she continues to cry in his arms. Her arms have wrapped around him so tightly that he can barely breathe, but he doesn't care. He's wanted to hold her like this again for so long…
"I'm so, so sorry Aang. I should have been stronger for you…"
Her whimpered apologies bring reality crashing down around him and he frowns, even as he gently pulls back slightly – but not all the way, as a look of panic briefly flits across her eyes when he starts to withdraw.
She sees the urgency in his face and her grip on him loosens somewhat, giving him a chance to collect his thoughts so that he can ask the question that is nagging him.
"Why do you apologize to me?"
"Because… because you were too young… you weren't ready, and I should have protected you… if… if I had only spoken up, you wouldn't have had to— to kill… and then… you wouldn't have left..."
He at once feels the guilt again, but this time it is worse than anything he's felt before. That Katara should feel responsible for his actions… he couldn't handle it. She… she deserved to know the truth.
He holds her chin and forces her to meet his eyes before continuing.
"That's not… why I left. I always knew what my role was going to be. And I accepted it. You, on the other hand… you were an innocent, dragged into the war because you promised to stay by my side. You have been hurt, because of me. Put your life at risk, because of me. Witnessed many things that you shouldn't have had to… because of me. It… was never good for you to be around me. And after Ozai," he shudders before continuing, "I felt that it would be better if I just left. I'm the one who doesn't deserve your friendship, Katara, or your love – especially not your love. I'm not worthy of it… all I've ever done was drag you down. You… deserve so much better. Haru wouldn't have been my first choice, perhaps, but he'll be good for you, I think. He's not tainted, not like me, and—"
She cuts him off abruptly. Her lips slide over his and for both of them, time stands still. The kiss is anything but gentle, holding five years of restrained passion for both of them, and when Katara finally pulls away, her cheeks are flushed and her lips somewhat swollen.
He's dizzy – from both the unexpected kiss and the overwhelming surge of desire he feels in response to it. His head isn't clear anymore, and he finds himself agreeing with her wholeheartedly when her breathing finally settles down enough for her to speak.
"Aang… you are an idiot, do you know that?"
She leans her forehead up against his and he allows himself the pleasure of drinking in her beautiful, ice blue eyes – the same eyes that taunted him each and every night in his dreams. He lets go of her briefly, only to reach down and weave his fingers through hers. Their interlocked hands settle in his lap and he looks at them curiously for a moment. His skin is pale and luminescent against hers, even in the dark the contrast is stark, just like the differences between them.
"I only wanted to protect you, Katara. I still… only want that."
"Then don't try to protect me from my heart, Aang. I can decide for myself who is and who is not deserving of my friendship… and my love." She squeezes his hands softly and her voice falls to a whisper. "You've had both for so very long, and you don't want either…"
Her voice is forlorn and lost, sounding very much like his own, and the last tentative hold he has on his resolve shatters as he leans in and captures her lips once more.
"Wrong on both counts, Katara," he whispers huskily as he pulls her into his lap. Her right hand releases his to trace the blue arrow on his forehead and he shudders slightly from her touch, wondering how he could have deprived himself of it for so very long. And then, he remembers one more thing – the one thing that had been the whole catalyst for this confrontation.
With no small amount of regret, he withdraws, pausing only to briefly stroke the side of her face before he speaks. The confession that falls from his lips comes out anguished and choppy, but for once, he decides, he needs to tell her how he feels about her.
"I have loved you from the moment you set me free… and I'm an idiot for not telling you until now, now that it's too… late."
The brief look of pain that flits across her face as he withdraws is immediately replaced with one of confusion.
"What do you mean, 'too late?'"
The look on her face is quizzical. Well, it had been a rather emotional evening for the both of them, but how could she forget something like that?
"You know… you're… uh… fiancé?"
Katara does the one thing he does not expect. She laughs. The sound of it is melodic, something he hadn't heard in years and despite his confusion, he finds himself smiling right along with her.
"I don't know what Haru was thinking, Aang, but I'm not going to marry him."
And with a heavy sigh of relief, he pulls her back against him, his lips blindly seeking hers as he silently vows to never leave her side again.
Back in the hall, Haru smiles somewhat sadly at Sokka as the water tribe warrior returns with a satisfied smirk on his face.
"I take it that operation 'jealousy' was a success?"
"Yes. I left before things got too sappy – this is my sister we are talking about after all – but I think that I can guarantee that she won't be moping around anymore like she has for the past five years."
Haru is silent and contemplative for a moment before he speaks again.
"I'm glad… I want her to be happy. But, you know, I really wouldn't have minded if she had said 'yes'."
Sokka clasps his longtime friend's shoulder with a sympathetic smile.
"I know, Haru. I know."