Um, is anyone still out there?
Here it is, the last part of the extremely long three-parter, a.k.a. the longest 24 hours in fan fiction history. I am so, so sorry for the length of time it took me to complete this installment. Um. Maybe I should just put the rest of my author's notes (a.k.a. sorry excuses) and acknowledgements at the bottom of the page and just get on with the story.
Warning Part 1: This chapter is really long. I hope you guys meant it when you said you didn't mind long chapters.
Warning Part 2: I'm well and truly in AU territory now and dealing with a situation that hasn't happened yet in the show (no matter how hard I wish it). I tried my best to keep my characters still in character, but I must warn you that they are going to deviate at times. I hope they don't do it too much.
Doctor's Advisory: Amount of fluff contained in this chapter may cause dizziness, nausea and occasional epileptic seizures. It is recommended that readers have medication on hand.
Three minutes into the entertainment, Aang was seriously considering taking Sokka's route and downing more wine. Either that or plug up his ears with a couple of chicken bones. It wasn't that the bearded, middle-aged man who was doing the singing and the trio of dancing ladies were bad… Okay, they were, Aang admitted when the man hit a series of notes that couldn't possibly belong to any known musical system. The audience went wild, however, and when the three plump dancing ladies did a mincing turn, waving their fans coquettishly, the audience reacted as though the trio had just performed a feat of death-defying acrobatics.
"Whoo! Yeah! Do the movesh, ladiesh!" Sokka yelled and after two tries managed to sling an arm across Aang's shoulders, nearly bearing him down to the floor in the process. "Hey, Aang! Whaddya think of the show, huh? It'sh grrreat, huh?"
"Yeah, Sokka, it sure is," Aang agreed as he deftly lifted Sokka's arm off and pushed him back onto his own cushion. The older boy gave him an unfocused grin before tipping over to the other side, where the red-faced, jolly old man who was by now his new best friend was waiting with yet another wine jar. Aang shook his head then glanced sidelong at Katara, who was watching the performance with horrified fascination. Certain that her attention was focused elsewhere, he allowed his gaze to linger, tracing the curves of her forehead and cheek and hair with his eyes. When the singer hit another sour note, Katara winced and bit her lip, and Aang clenched his fists in his lap to keep from reaching up and gently tugging her lip free with his finger.
He groaned silently and took a deep breath to clear his head. The dinner had been pure torture. It was taking all his self-control just to act normally around her, to keep her from noticing how a single glance from her made his heart trip like crazy. And then there had been that moment when she'd dropped her chopsticks…He swallowed convulsively. That had been way too close, and he had to make sure it didn't happen again or he might end up doing something really, really stupid.
Like lean over and kiss her.
Because he wasn't so sure he could stop himself if it happened again. As it was, it was only Sokka's timely interruption that kept him from making an absolute fool of himself. He couldn't forget what she'd said to Li Mei earlier, and he somehow doubted that the girl who saw him as a sweet little guy and a good friend would appreciate his suddenly acting like a lovesick idiot around her. He could end up embarrassing her and making things awkward between them, thereby ruining the evening for both of them. So not tonight. Someday, maybe, but not tonight.
He just wished it wasn't so difficult to remember this whenever he looked at her.
He glanced at her again and caught her watching him from underneath her lashes, her expression oddly pensive, and concern instantly overrode any high-minded resolutions he might have made. "Katara? What's the matter?" he asked softly.
Guilt flickered briefly in her eyes. "Oh, nothing," she said, turning back toward the performers. "I just figured something out, that's all."
She raised her cup ruefully. "Why they serve the wine at the beginning of dinner."
"You mean, before the song and dance number, right?" he replied with a grin.
"Ducks swim in pairs, butterflies fly together and so should weee," the singer crooned while the audience howled with inebriated delight.
"Now what ever gave you that idea, Aang?" Katara asked, completely straight-faced.
Aang's lips twitched, then the two of them dissolved into giggles. "Good one, Katara," he chortled, trying to contain the rush of love and affection for her. Beneath all that untouchable loveliness, she was still Katara. His best friend, his teacher…his strength…his life …
"Hey, Aang. I believe this is yours."
Aang snapped out of the adoring haze he was rapidly sinking into and turned toward Kenji and Hiro, who were holding up a dopey-looking Jin between them. Kenji raised his arm, upon which Momo was draped like a furry muff. The lemur cracked one eye open, hiccupped, then made a clumsy leap toward Aang's shoulder. He missed it completely, tumbled into Aang's lap, staggered around a bit and finally ended up lying somewhere underneath the table. When Aang shot Kenji a questioning look, the other boy shrugged. "He got into our cups. So, Aang, aren't you going to introduce us?"
He became aware that the three boys weren't even looking at him, but were staring at Katara instead with expressions ranging from admiring to smitten. Kenji in particular looked downright worshipful, and Aang would have laughed if he hadn't known exactly what they were feeling. "Sorry. Katara, these are Kenji, Hiro and Jin. Guys, this is my friend Katara of the Water Tribe."
Katara smiled and bowed. "Nice to meet you."
"N-n-nice to meet you, too, Katara," Kenji said in a high-pitched voice. "I just want you to know, and you've probably been told this before, I mean geez, of course you have, but, uh, what I meant to say was that you really are the p-p-prettiest girl in this whole—"
"So now that you've seen Tai Shen's Cultural Society perform, what do you guys think?" Hiro said, interrupting Kenji's semi-coherent rant.
Aang and Katara exchanged glances. "They're great," Aang finally said.
Hiro snorted. "Aw, go ahead and be honest. They're awful, ain't they? But they've improved a lot over the years."
"Improved?" Katara said disbelievingly. "How?"
"Well, people've stopped listening to them while sober, for one thing," Hiro said with a shrug. "That helps."
"And my love for you will last forever, sweetheaaart," the singer warbled the last line as the ladies twirled their fans with a final flourish. The drunken audience applauded enthusiastically.
"I heard you guys will be doing the bending demonstration," Katara was saying.
"Yeah," Kenji said. "Just don't expect anything impressive. It's just a bit of a light-show, really."
"Actually, Kenji, we're on in two minutes," Hiro reminded him.
"And it doesn't bother you that you'll be working with a firebender?" Katara went on carefully.
Kenji was surprised into a laugh. "What, you mean Li Mei? 'Course not. We've done this act about a hundred times. Li Mei never loses control. If she were an earthbender, she'd be as good as either Hiro or me. Heck, even better."
"Oh. That's nice," Katara said with only the barest hint of doubt. "Good luck with your performance. You'll do great, I'm sure."
She smiled again, and Aang could practically see the smoke coming out of Kenji's ears. "Th-that's right, we're going to perform, aren't we?" he babbled. "Yeah, we are. Haha, who knew? And you'll be watching us, won't you? Yeah, of course you will, that's why you're here—"
Groaning, Hiro got to his feet and took hold of the back of Kenji's collar. "All right, time for some fresh air. No way am I bending with you while you're in your gibbering idiot mode. Excuse us for a moment." He escaped toward the door, dragging his friend behind him.
Aang and Katara turned toward Jin, whose dreamy smile never wavered although the rest of him was swaying like a reed in a breeze. "You'rre prrretteee," he slurred.
"Um, thanks," Katara said.
"Rrreally prrretteee," Jin insisted. "Rrreally, rrreeeaally—"
Hiro reappeared and grabbed the younger boy in a headlock. "Hahaha," he said to Katara, somehow managing to convey in three syllables the depths of his embarrassment at being the lone straight guy in a troop of comedians, before vanishing toward the door again with Jin in tow.
Katara gave Aang a bemused look. "Interesting friends you've got there."
"Yeah." Aang smiled. "They sort of remind me of my friends back in the Southern Air Temple." The difference was that his friends had only seen the one thing that made him different from them instead of the many things they all had in common. The memory of his friends' rejection still hurt, although the pain was dulled now by the companionship he had found with Katara and Sokka. He was glad that Li Mei had found a place where she could truly be accepted and appreciated, despite the deep lines of prejudice the war had drawn between the races.
Wait a minute. Maybe that explained the niggling feeling that he'd met Li Mei somewhere before. Maybe he was sensing a kindred spirit in her.
"Aang? Are you okay?"
He looked up into Katara's questioning gaze. Her ice-blue eyes drew him in, inviting him to lose himself in them, and his half-formed resolve to keep his feelings for her hidden began to melt like snow beneath a high-noon sun. "What?" he croaked.
"I said, are you okay?"
"I'm fine!" he said desperately. "Come on, Katara, why wouldn't I be? I was only—Li Mei!" he called out with blatant relief when he spotted young firebender heading toward them. "That's funny. I was just thinking about you," he went on, overcome by gratitude at yet another timely save and unaware of the sudden drop in temperature coming from the general direction of Katara.
Li Mei paused at their table, looking harried. "Oh, you're probably wondering why this bending demonstration is taking so long. By the way, have you seen Kenji and Hiro?"
"They went outside just a minute ago."
"Hey, hey, Li Mei!" Sokka cut in, then blinked. "Hey, that rhymed, dinnit?" he said, laughing. "Sho when you gonna set thish place on fire? Hah! 'Caushe the party'sh not hot enough! Hahaha! How 'bout a toasht?"
"Thank you, but maybe later," Li Mei replied, "or I just might set this place on fire."
Sokka waved his cup in the air. "Good anshwer. 'Caushe the lasht thing we want ish a drunk firebender, right guysh? Jusht t'let you know," he added, his voice dropping to what he thought was a warning rumble. "I'm a water-tribe warriorerer. Warrior. Pretty good wi'm' boom'rang and all. And Katara'sh a waterbender and Aang here'sh the Avatar. Sho no funny business, firebender. We're watchin' you."
Li Mei nodded solemnly. "I'm well aware of who you are and what you can do. Especially the Avatar, to whom we owe so much." She smiled at Aang, who couldn't help but smile back.
"Well, isn't that great?" Katara muttered underneath her breath, sounding so caustic that both Aang and Sokka blinked at her.
Fortunately, Kenji and Hiro came barreling in that moment. "Okay, we're here," Hiro said to Li Mei. "Let's do this. Oh no, you don't." He quickly steered Kenji away when he noticed the older boy smiling foggily at Katara again.
"I hope you enjoy our performance," Li Mei said before hurrying away. They took their positions in the center of the hall, with Hiro and Kenji standing in front and on either side of Li Mei. In front of the boys were several black velvet pouches, the folds concealing the contents from the audience. As Grandma Sorab gave a short introduction, serving girls came in to remove the paper shades on the lanterns, exposing the flames. At the same time, Sokka's drinking buddy leaned toward the young Avatar, overbalanced, and fell against Sokka, who in turn slid off his cushion and right into Aang. "You kidsh ain't worried, are ya?" old man asked, oblivious to the fact that he was now snuggled up against the guests of honor.
"Hah!" Sokka emphasized his point by downing another cup of wine.
"Not…really..." Aang grunted as he shoved the other two back onto their respective cushions.
The old man nodded approvingly. "S'good, shee, because thish ish gonna be great. Shee, it'sh like a—a whaddyacallit, body partsh jigglin' around, what thoshe ladies were doin'—"
"A dance?" Katara supplied with a tiny sigh. She had moved closer to Aang in order to listen to the old man, and Aang could feel the warmth radiating from her and the slight pressure of her arm against his. The faint scent of her perfume wafted toward him, adding to the torment. He held himself rigidly and prayed that nobody would notice the blush rising in his face.
"That'sh it, missy! A danshe! A visual spec—speta—show. Shee? It starts with mushic."
The trio grew aware of a sudden hush. The rhythmic beat of a drum rolled through the silence, followed by the golden tones of a gamelan. Li Mei moved first, shifting her body into a stance and sweeping her arms up. The flames in the lamps streamed through the air above their heads and gathered around her hands, merging into several bright gold rings that spun through the air so quickly they left glowing after-images in the darkness. The drum beat quickened, which served as a cue for Hiro and Kenji. Moving in perfect unison, the two boys went into their own stances and punched their fists upward. Light exploded at their feet and two smooth stones of varying colors—green with streaks of white and brown with swirls of cream—floated upward from the velvet folds, radiating a milky light that swirled and rippled through the darkness until the room seemed immersed in lake of cool luminescence. The light seemed to flow through Aang as well, pooling in his stomach and lapping outward into his limbs, and judging from Katara's soft gasp, he wasn't the only one feeling it. Li Mei and the boys moved through their stances in time with the rhythm, and the glowing stones seemed to grow in size as they hung in mid-air, while the rings of fire spun around them, forming an aerial golden chain for the gemstones.
"Agate, shee?" the old man said. "Protective shtone, that'un. Good for shtomach trouble."
"Is that what it is?" Aang rubbed his stomach and looked over at Katara, whose face mirrored the wonder he felt.
She grinned at him, her hand also moving against her middle. "It feels so soothing, doesn't it?"
The light from the agates faded as the two young earthbenders sent the stones back into the velvet pouches. As the rhythm shifted again, the rings of fire broke and reformed themselves into blazing ribbons that undulated slowly through the air. Pearly white and golden waves radiated from the two new gemstones now levitating between the two earthbenders, growing brighter until the waves took on the appearance of a rolling landscape of golden hills beneath a creamy sky. The ribbons of fire twirled sinuously around the pulsing gemstones and rippled in time with the music. As the eerily beautiful landscape surrounded him, Aang felt his body relax and his mind start to drift off into a pleasant, dream-like state. Beside him, Katara sighed and swayed a little, while Sokka sat with his eyes half-closed and smiled distantly at nothing, although that could have just been the wine.
"Chalcedony. Canyon jashper to you," the old man said helpfully "Jashper'sh good for relaxation and relievin' shtress, that kind of thing."
The two earthbenders sent the jaspers back into the velvet bed while Li Mei bended the ribbons of flame into a whole new form. The drum and the gamelan continued to play as the audience was treated to fantastic displays from a pair of bloodstones streaked with crimson and green, golden-brown tiger's eyes with their flashes of white, and opals that produced pastel-hued sparks, with Li Mei's fire designs serving as a bright mounting for the array of floating jewelry. When a dizi pipe added its lilting melody, the fire reformed itself into a pair of blazing pillars, while the two earthbenders created a swirling cascade of colors with the energies from tourmalines and beryls of every shade imaginable. By the end of the multicolored display, Aang and Katara were clapping enthusiastically while Sokka whooped and yelled and banged his cup on the table.
"Isn't this amazing?" Katara exclaimed to her companions. "It's like being inside a rainbow."
"Not as amazhing as Li Mei." Sokka pointed at the young goldsmith. "Never sheen a firebender with that kind of control before. Wonder how she'd match up againsht Zhuko." He paused as his brain, or at least those parts of it that weren't pleasantly marinating at the moment, presented him with several scenarios. "Then again, I don't wanna know," he mumbled, grimacing.
"Shh! You're missing the besht part." Sokka's drinking buddy nudged him into silence. The gamelan and the pipe faded away, while the drumbeat took on a low, sensual rhythm that sent vibrations pounding through the floor and right into their bones. Li Mei shifted again and the flame-pillars burst apart into several small fireballs that flew across the room and trailed sparks like a flock of tiny comets. The fireballs wheeled back and forth through the air yet never came close enough to touch anything. Katara flinched reflexively as the fireballs passed overhead, her hands automatically going to her hip where her canteen usually hung, while Sokka squawked and tried to roll away and nearly ended up sprawled flat on his back.
Aang laughed. "Relax, guys. Li Mei's got it all under control. Look."
Sure enough, the fireballs soon ceased their chaotic flight and gathered in a loose cloud above the three benders, hovering like a miniature galaxy. As the drumbeat quickened, the two earthbenders moved their hands apart to reveal a pair of small, clear crystals that spun languidly in mid-air. The gems threw brilliant facets of light with each turn, and to Aang's astonishment the stones outshone even the constellation of fireballs. There was a strange sensation, as if all the warmth in his body was being coaxed upward through his spine, and a barely audible hum that swelled and ebbed in time with the spinning of the gems. The gems were calling to him, he realized; to all of them, if the bewildered expressions on his companions were any indication, but there was nothing sinister or disturbing about it. Aang felt the cool energy rush through him, part invitation, part command and all sweetness and innocence and ancient, ancient power.
Beside him, Katara sucked in a breath. "What are they?"
"Can't you tell?" The old man's voice was no louder than a reverent whisper. "They're diamonds, o'courshe. Queen o'the gems, the hardest and oldest things on earth. This last dance shows how diamonds were born when earth and starlight met billions of years ago."
"Right. That's really poetic," Sokka snorted, making a valiant effort to hold on to his trademark skepticism in the face of such a display. "Queen of the gems my—hey!" he yelped in surprise when the bands of white stones around his wrists and neck began to shimmer, while the black gems grew impossibly blacker, pulling rays of light into them until they seemed to be shining as brightly as their white counterparts.
Before Aang could react, Katara gasped and reached up to her brow where the tourmaline had begun to pulse as well, bathing her face in pale blue. A flash of gold at his chest distracted him; the topaz was glowing like the splinter of pure sunlight it appeared to be, sending delicious waves of heat through him. The room was once again filled with light and color as every single gemstone upon every single piece of jewelry came to life, answering the call of the diamonds and transforming what had been a perfectly ordinary dining hall into a gathering of stars. Aang closed his eyes and let the energies wash over him, and he suddenly understood what Grandfather Wang had meant about listening to the stones. Each ray was as unique as the gem that produced it, and though lacking voices or words or even recognizable emotions, the thoughts of a hundred elemental fragments imprinted themselves across Aang's consciousness. We dream of purity, the stones seemed to whisper. We dream of light. We dream…we dream…
Gradually, the light died down and the drum gave its final beat. There were a few seconds of absolute silence as the three benders held their poses, followed by an eruption of cheering that made the audience's reactions to the song and dance number seem positively restrained. With several sweeps of her arms, Li Mei sent the flames back into the lamps, then the trio bowed to more applause. As soon as she straightened, the young firebender darted over to the guests of honor, her face flushed and excited. "Well?" she asked breathlessly. "What do you think?"
Aang could only shake his head. "That was…that was…"
"The most incredible thing we've ever seen," Katara said.
Li Mei beamed. "Oh, I'm so glad you liked it. We only do this demonstration during special occasions. It can be exhausting, you see."
"Really? You don't look tired or anything, Li Mei," Aang said.
"Yeah," Sokka agreed, looking her over with some of the suspicion he'd felt earlier. "Just how good a firebender are you, anyway?"
"Oh, I'm no master, if that's what you're asking. Not even close," Li Mei answered with disarming honesty. "But I'm not the one who's had to charge so many different gemstones one after the other in such a short time. It's the earthbenders who did all the real work, and it just shows how talented Kenji and Hiro are."
As if on cue, Hiro's voice rose above the sounds of laughter and mingled conversation. "Li Mei, we need some help here," he called out from where he and Kenji were crouching over the velvet rolls. "We gotta get this stuff sorted out."
"Hey guys! Nice work!" Aang shouted.
"Yeah, we know!" Kenji yelled back. Hiro grinned and waved.
"I have to go." Li Mei turned to leave, hesitated, then gave Aang a shy, hopeful look. "I-I'll talk to you later, okay?"
Aang grinned lopsidedly. "Sure. We won't be leaving until we've bought the supplies we need for our trip, anyway. Right, Katara?"
"Right!" Katara chirped. "Sure! We'll be around."
Li Mei gave them one last smile before hurrying off to help the boys. As soon as the young firebender was out of hearing range, Sokka's head dropped down upon the table with a thump, sending dishes rattling. "Oh man, I can't believe this," he moaned. "That's it. This party is officially shot."
"What's wrong, Sokka?"
"That bending demonstration, Aang. That's what's wrong."
"How can you say that?" Katara demanded. "That was the most amazing—"
Sokka raised his head to roll his eyes at his sister. "I heard you the first time. Yeah, it was great, but that last part with the diamonds cleared all the wine out of me. Walking out of here stone-cold sober is not my idea of a perfect ending to this party." The older boy eyed his empty cup morosely, sighed, then added as an afterthought: "That was a pun, by the way."
He glanced sideways to check if his audience appreciated his little witticism, only to have his head nearly shoved back down onto the table by the sudden weight of an arm on his shoulders. "Not to worry, my boy!" his drinking buddy informed him. "We always prepare for the side effects of the demonstration, see?" The old man waved his arm toward the approaching serving girls or, more specifically, to the forest of wine jars balanced upon each girl's tray.
A huge grin spread across Sokka's features. "I knew there was a reason why I like this place."
"A toast to Tai Shen earthbending techniques!"
"Yeah! And to getting smashed all over again!"
"Wait a minute, boy, that's two toasts."
"And your point is?"
"Ohoho, darned right! Grab that other bottle, will you? Bottoms up, everyone!"
Aang, who was watching them with a mixture of concern and amusement, nearly jumped when he felt the light touch of a hand against his. "Forget it, Aang," Katara said with a shake of her head. "He's lost to us."
He opened his mouth to reply, and only then noticed the pair that was bearing down on their table wearing purposeful expressions that sent shivers down his spine. "Uh oh," he muttered, hunching his shoulders in a futile attempt to conceal himself. To his relief, the two girls he only knew as Mrs. Mok's daughters walked right past him to kneel on either side of Sokka.
One of them twirled a lock of hair around her finger and giggled while her sister tapped the older boy on his shoulder and smiled flirtatiously into Sokka's startled face. "Hi there, cutie. I'm Ling and this is my sister Ming. You know, ever since you dropped by our house today, we've been dying to get to know you better."
"Mm-hm." The sister named Ming batted her lashes. "It's sooo nice to see a big, strong warrior here in town again, isn't it, Ling?"
"Oh yes," Ling sighed. "Mother was ever so pleased to find someone with your…prospects. Imagine, having a famous hero and companion of the Avatar here with us."
Aang straightened, morbid curiosity winning over new-found protective instincts, and even Katara peered around him, her eyes glistening with suppressed laughter. Sokka looked from one sallow-skinned, buck-toothed girl to the other, downed two cups of wine in succession, then squinted at the sisters again. "Nope, it'sh not working," he finally said. "Sorry, ladiesh. Why don't you come back later when I'm drunk enough?"
Ling scowled and shoved him away, but Ming had already lost interest in Sokka's prospects. To Aang's dismay, she was looking straight at him. "Forget about him, Ling," she said. "Why settle for a companion when we've got the Avatar himself right here?"
Aang gulped. "Uh, the Avatar? Where?" He craned his neck this way and that as though his survival depended on his locating some other Avatar somewhere in the vicinity. He kept this up until the two girls were practically leaning up against him, hampering his movements. "Oh, I guess you mean this Avatar," he said with a nervous laugh.
"That's right, ladiesh!" Sokka crowed with what Aang thought was an unnecessary amount of relish. "When it comesh to eligible bachelorsh, you can't find anyone more eligible than the Avatar, although I'm not so sure about his prospectsh."
"What?! Sokka!" Aang glared at the older boy.
"Hmm, you're right, Ming." Ling tapped a nail against her front teeth while Aang shrank away from her calculating gaze. "He's a bit young but he's really cute. And strong, too. It's just too bad he was raised as a monk."
"Well, we can't all have princes, can we, Ling? Me, I'd take the savior of the world any old day," Ming trilled. "Oooh, you're making such a weird face, Aang. Aren't you enjoying yourself?"
"This party is turning so boring, isn't it?"
"Not really, I—"
"Wouldn't you like to get away from all this?" Ling purred. "You could come with us on a moonlit stroll out in the gardens. The bridge is such a romantic place to—"
The sharp sound of snapping wood made the sisters turn toward Katara, who met their annoyed glares with a smile that could have cut glass. "Actually, Aang's already promised me a walk on the bridge," she said. "Didn't you, Aang?"
"I did?" She aimed her smile at him and he cringed. "Oh, right, I did. I can't believe I forgot," he mumbled, rubbing his head sheepishly. "Excuse me, ladies. I believe I have a prior engagement." He shook the sisters off him and stood up, leaving the girls to gape at him in shock. In a show of gallantry, he bowed and offered his hand to Katara. "Shall we be off then, Miss Katara?"
She glanced at his hand, then up at him. Several emotions chased one another in her wide ice-blue eyes before finally settling on understanding and humor. She placed her hand in his, and he blinked at the sight of her broken chopsticks lying upon the table. "Certainly, Avatar Aang," she said as she stood up. "I'd be honored—ow!"
Her knees buckled and Aang caught her as she fell forward, his arms wrapping reflexively around her waist so that she ended up leaning against him with her face pressed against his chest. There was a collective gasp and for a moment, the two of them froze in that position. Aang thought he could feel her face warming right through his shirt, which was only rivaled by the heat of his own blush. "Are you okay?" he asked, trying to keep his face, with its damning tinge of red, averted.
"Yeah. Sorry. My legs have fallen asleep." She winced as she pushed herself upright and attempted to stand up on her own. "Ouch. I'll be fine in a few—hey!" she yelped when he suddenly scooped her up and strode toward the doorway. "What're you doing? Aang, put me down, I can walk. Aang!"
She started to laugh as they exited the dining hall, and to Aang's delight, her arms slipped around his neck despite her stream of protests. When he got to the bridge, he set her down, waited until she regained her balance, then swept low in a courtly bow. "Well, Miss Katara? How did you like your carriage ride?"
Katara pretended to think about it. "It could use some sort of warning system, but it wasn't bad." She peeked at him sideways, then broke into another fit of giggling. "Well, I suppose that's one way to leave a party," she conceded, dabbing at the corner of her eye.
They walked across the bridge, gazing at their surroundings. The boisterous cacophony of voices and music and clinking china faded into the background, giving way to the steady chirping of a cricket and the occasional plop of a frog diving from a lily pad into the pond. There were other people out in the gardens; two or three couples were sitting underneath the trees or in the pagodas, but he and Katara were the only two people on the bridge. As far as Aang was concerned, they could have been the only two people in the world.
He watched as Katara walked on ahead, her head turning this way and that as she gazed at the glowing globes above them and their rippling counterparts on the surface of the pond. She tilted her head up, shading her eyes against the light of the lanterns. Following her gaze toward the perfect half-moon drifting among wisps of cloud, he smiled and wondered if she was thinking about a waterbender's special connection with the moon. And wondered, too, if he hadn't been infected by some sort of moon-induced sickness himself. A strange restlessness filled him, making his head spin with thoughts he'd have only been half-aware of at any other time. He felt like running, jumping, zipping across the rooftops or soaring through the air—his heart was certainly beating fast enough as it was—but at the same time he felt as though he could have spent forever just standing there on that bridge and watching her. If that wasn't lunacy, he didn't know what was.
What are you waiting for? a voice in his head whispered. You've got everything you need. The mood, the setting…Go on and do it. Tell her.
He frowned down at his feet. No. You heard her. She doesn't feel the same way.
Just tell her.
He narrowed his eyes. That voice was right, whatever it was. He'd be lucky to find a more perfect moment than this. He raised his hand to grasp the topaz pendant at his chest. The stone of hope, huh? Okay, here goes nothing.
He looked up to find Katara standing right in front of him. "You're so quiet. I wondered what you were thinking."
He smiled, and her blue eyes flickered with surprise—and something else. "You want to know what I was thinking, Katara?" he asked softly. "Okay, I'll tell you."
o – o – o – o – o
Katara stared at Aang, wondering if she heard him right.
Aang grinned. "Yeah! It's the only thing missing from this place. Here, watch this."
He swept past her, his body moving effortlessly into the swift, fluid form of a waterbender. Streams of water jetted up from the pond on either side of the pond and arched through the air into the opposite side, forming a sparkling archway over the bridge. He spun around with a flourish when he reached the end of the bridge, prompting the other people who had been enjoying the relative quiet of the gardens to break into appreciative applause.
Aang's grin grew even wider. "So, did you like the effect?"
Katara blinked a couple of times as her mind adjusted to the abrupt shift in the conversation. The disappointment was something she'd been expecting; in fact, she'd spent practically the entire evening bracing herself for the coming end to her fantasy. But when he'd looked at her just then, his gray eyes filled with such warmth, and given her that slow, melting smile…she found she wasn't quite prepared for the actual flare of hurt she felt at the inevitable let-down. After all the countless hints she'd been picking up all night, the hundred little warnings for her not to lose her head to the crazy swirl of emotions that had been twisting her up ever since she saw him tonight, she still couldn't quench the tiny spark of hope every time he so much as glanced in her direction. The fact that she'd expected that too wasn't much help.
She really ought to know better. She was supposed to be the responsible one, the one who believed in the path of discipline. She had to be realistic. What she felt for Aang had nothing at all to do with their situation; just because something inside her was different didn't mean that anything else had to be. She was a waterbender, one who commanded the element of change. She could handle this.
"Katara? You're the quiet one now."
She shook her head. "Just thinking, Aang. This place is pretty fancy. You'd probably need a fountain that was a bit more…impressive." With that, she shifted her weight and raised her arms, drawing two large water-snakes from either side of the bridge. In a series of moves that resembled a dance more than a waterbending form, she bended the water-snakes over and under the length of the bridge again and again. When she reached his side, she released the water and gave him one of her teacher-looks while their audience applauded even more loudly. "Do you understand now, Pupil Aang?"
"Wow, I see your point." He nodded toward their audience. "What do you say we give them a real waterbending demonstration?"
The two of them spent the next few minutes bending water over, under, sideways and all around the bridge in a kind of aerial water display, to which Katara added a few ice sculptures as well, while their audience "oohed" and clapped enthusiastically. Finally, they were back to back in the middle of the bridge, moving in a circle as they bended water-snakes into double and triple figure-eights. Katara laughed, reveling in the sheer joy of bending, and when she felt him brush against her back, she glanced over her shoulder at him, only to find him gazing right back at her. Their eyes met and held and the world was spinning and spinning, and everything was full of light and music and silvery streams of water dancing past and gray eyes in a face marked by an arrow-shaped tattoo, warm gray eyes and a tender smile…
She stopped abruptly, flicking the water back into the pond, barely aware of the sounds of cheering from the audience. With a puzzled look, Aang followed suit. She propped her elbows against the railing, bent her head and took a deep breath, trying to get her pulse rate to down to a decent pace. "I was getting dizzy," she explained when she felt the weight of his stare upon her.
He nodded and stood beside her, turning to gaze up at the sky, and Katara felt her heart give a funny little flip. It was one of the things she treasured most of all: how their moments of stillness could be so companionable, even comforting, each one trusting in the other's complete understanding. "I haven't thanked you yet for catching me when I fell," she said after a while.
"It's okay. I owe you for rescuing me from those girls, anyway. They were kind of scary."
She smothered a laugh at the image of the Avatar fleeing in a panic from a couple of romantically-inclined girls. "You should start getting used to it, Aang. Being the Avatar is going to draw all kinds of attention to you, and it's not always going to be the bad kind."
He shot her a comical look of disbelief. "You mean, that was a good kind of attention?"
"Well no, not exactly," she admitted, then shrugged. "At least they thought you were cute. That's better than getting shot at all the time. What? What was that look for?" she asked, peering at him.
"Nothing," he said, staring down into the water. "So we're going on a market trip tomorrow, huh?"
She considered calling him out on his unsubtle attempt to change the subject, then decided against it. "Yeah. We're running low on food supplies. I just didn't want to tell Sokka and have to deal with all his pain and anguish."
A quiet snicker escaped him, then he pushed back from the railing and exhaled. "Jin's right, you know," he said, turning toward her, his gray eyes dark with some unnamed emotion.
She blinked. "He is?"
"You're beautiful, Katara," he said softly.
Her mouth fell open, and heat flooded her face. The words of thanks, the good-natured quip that would have steered them back into safe waters, died in her throat. All of a sudden she felt as though she were two people, one of whom was standing not far away watching everything—watching her lips part in a wobbly smile, watching her face tilt toward Aang and lean forward to close the space between them inch by breathless inch—or was it Aang who was leaning forward with eyes half-closed? She didn't know anymore. All she knew was that she wanted this. She wanted what was happening. She wanted to kiss him, to kiss Aang…
I definitely wouldn't want to kiss you
The memory shot through the haze in her mind like an arrow of ice. She jerked her head aside and dropped her gaze, caught in a flood of mortification. What was she doing? She had no excuses now, no life-or-death situation to justify her actions. This wasn't Aang. This was…this was moonlight and madness and her own feelings for him getting the better of her and oh, so many other things he wouldn't understand. He was all of twelve years old, raised by monks and burdened by a terrible responsibility, and she had no right to take advantage of him like this—
"Katara?" he said, sounding so small and uncertain that she forgot about the hopeless muddle she'd made. She glanced at him wildly, every instinct driving her to ease his hurt. No! It's not what you think, she wanted to tell him. But the words never made it past her lips.
He was looking past her toward the dining hall. Confused, she turned and found Li Mei standing a few feet away, her hands twisting together inside her sleeves, wide amber eyes shifting from Aang to her and back again. "I'm sorry, Aang, Katara," the young firebender said in a tiny voice. "I didn't mean to interrupt, but I've been calling you for some time now—"
"What is it, Li Mei?" Aang stepped around Katara, every inch the capable young Avatar, and for a moment Katara wondered if she'd only imagined the events of the past few minutes. Like that would have been so surprising, she thought with a flash of bitter humor. After all, it was common knowledge that her particular affliction included temporary bouts of insanity.
Aang and Li Mei were speaking together, and it took Katara a few seconds to figure out what they were talking about. Something about the party ending and some final tradition and—Sokka? She sighed wearily. What idiotic thing had her brother done now?
Whatever it is, a voice in her head whispered back, it can't be any worse than what you've done.
"Katara, come on." She blinked and found both Aang and Li Mei standing half-way toward the door and looking back at her expectantly. "We need to get back inside. Li Mei says the guests of honor have to leave before anybody else can. They're waiting for us to officially end the party," he said with a small shrug that indicated he was just as baffled with the practice as she was.
She closed her eyes. "I'm coming."
As she reached them Li Mei gave her an indefinable look, to which she responded with a smile that betrayed none of the regret and sense of loss she felt. Her fantasy was ending, just as she'd known it would. As she glanced at Aang, who stared straight ahead and smiled at the other partygoers who welcomed them back without once meeting her eyes, she realized that some part of her had known that this would happen, too.
And if her eyes were stinging with tears for the second time that night, then she would just have to deal with that, too.
o – o – o – o – o
Sokka lay sprawled on his back under the table with his legs sticking out the other side, an obviously soused Momo draped across his chest. His eyes were open and he was grinning, and that was about all that could be said about his grip on reality at the moment. He was waving both arms in the air, his wine cup still held loosely in one hand, and appeared to be completely engrossed in serenading the ceiling lamps with a lusty, albeit off-key, rendition of a familiar journey song.
"Don't fall'n luuuve with a trav'lin girrrl!" he belted out happily. "She'll leeeave you…uh, she'll leeeave you…c'mon, Momo help me out. Whuzza nexht line?" Momo chirruped sleepily and hiccupped, causing Sokka to halt his arm-waving long enough to contemplate matters. "Y'think sho? Mm, makesh shenshe, I sh'poshe…She'll leeeave you, uh, a couple 'a nutsh and a melon riiiind—"
Katara stared down at her brother, who reeked so much of alcohol she could practically see it. With a sigh, she bent down beside him and shook his shoulder. "Sokka, come on, the party's over. We have to go. Sokka? Can you even hear me?"
Sokka's eyeballs swiveled around until they managed to locate her. "Hey, li'l shishter, where ya been? Shtick around, you're misshing a grrrreat party."
"It's over, Sokka," she repeated, tugging at her brother's shoulders. "Everybody's waiting for us to leave so they can go home. Now come on, you have to get up."
"Nah, that'sh imposshible. I mean, lookit him. He'sh rarin' t' go." He pointed at his drinking buddy, who was slumped down upon the table and snoring loudly. "Y'shee that? What a party an'mal. Hey, where'sh Aang?" he suddenly asked, then elbowed his sister clumsily before she could reply. "Y'know, y'gotta shart keepin' an eye on that kid, K'tara. I shaw 'im moshey out into the gardensh with a girl a while back. Hah! I thought that kid 'uz good. Musht've been pickin' up on my techniquesh or shomethin'. "
Katara, who had wedged her knees underneath his back in order to pull him to his feet, seriously considered dumping him back onto the floor and leaving him to his own devices. She was spared from having to inform Sokka that he was spending the rest of the night in his current lodgings by Aang's appearance at her side. "I'm right here, Sokka," he said tightly, his expression clearly unamused as he regarded the older boy. "I told you to take it easy on the wine."
With a low sweep of his arms, he airbended the table a few feet upward on an air current so steady the empty jars clustered upon it barely even wobbled. With her brother released from the loving embrace of the dining hall's furniture, Katara hauled Sokka up and slung his arm across her shoulders. Aang replaced the table, caught Momo as he slid off Sokka's chest then took hold of Sokka's other arm, and together they steered him to the doorway where Grandma Sorab was waiting with Grandfather Wang and Li Mei.
Grandma Sorab, looking as sparklingly elegant as the minute she arrived, smiled and bowed low. "Thank you, Avatar and companions, for honoring us with your presence tonight."
"Hmph," Grandfather Wang grunted, glowering down at the floor.
"The honor is all ours, Grandma Sorab," Aang replied, returning the bow as best he could. "We had a great time tonight. You guys sure know how to throw a party."
"Yes, thank you," Katara said. "It was wonderful."
Sokka nodded so hard his chin bounced against his chest. "Yeah! An' that danshing platypush-bear 'uz incrrredible! How'd y'get it to wear that pink kimono, anyway?"
He was met with several puzzled stares, to which he was blissflully oblivious. "What my brother wants to say is that he really enjoyed your wine," Katara said hastily.
"Hmph," Grandfather Wang said.
"Uh, will you be all right, Grandma Sorab? Getting home, I mean," Aang asked.
"Yes," Grandma Sorab replied. "My ride is waiting outside."
"What about you, Li Mei?" Aang addressed the young firebender. An odd silence followed, and Katara looked across Sokka's sappily grinning face to find the young Avatar's gaze fixed upon Li Mei, his brows furrowed slightly. When Li Mei blushed and looked down at her feet, Aang seemed to realize he'd been staring at her and his own cheeks flushed a little, and for the second time in the span of ten minutes Katara felt like throwing somebody down on the floor and stalking off. "Will you and your grandfather be okay?" Aang went on.
"Yes, we'll be fine," Li Mei answered shyly. "Thank you for asking."
Katara glanced at the old man. "You're handling the wine pretty well, Grandfather Wang," she observed.
Grandfather Wang raised his head and glared at her. "Mrflgl," he said, then slowly, majestically fell over backward. He was snoring even before the thud of his body hitting the floor had died away.
Katara and Aang gaped down at the old man, while Grandma Sorab sighed. "No cause for worry. My fiancé and Li Mei will get home safe and sound. Kenji dear, go bring Killer round and escort Li Mei and Wang to their house. Kenji?"
"Aw, man, do I have to?" Kenji emerged from somewhere behind his grandmother, looking half-asleep himself. Grandma Sorab gave him a look that was apparently the equivalent of ten pots of tea and a helpful prod from a very sharp spear besides, judging from the way Kenji snapped up straight, the faint alcoholic flush draining away from his face. "Yes, Ma'am! Right away, Ma'am! Come on, Li Mei." He hoisted the old man up and half-carried, half-dragged him away, giving Li Mei only enough time to cast a last apologetic look at Aang and Katara.
"What about you, Aang, Katara?" Grandma Sorab asked. "I would be glad to give you a ride."
"Thanks, but we already have a ride," Aang replied with a smile. He pulled the bison whistle out of his pocket and blew on it. Five minutes later, Appa's large, white form flew overhead like a particularly brisk cloud. "Meet us at the gate, Appa," Aang called, and Appa rumbled in reply.
They were escorted across the bridge by an honor-guard of partygoers who were still able to keep themselves upright, staggering a bit when Sokka insisted on demonstrating some of the kimono-clad platypus-bear's best moves. Outside in the street, Appa loomed patiently over the cluster of ostrich-horse-drawn rickshaws. Aang airlifted Sokka up onto Appa's back before taking his place at the reins, although the older boy barely registered the change in position as he moved on to the next number in his impromptu concert. One hand carefully gripping the skirt of her gown and her silver wrap, Katara pulled herself up Appa's flank and gave the bison a grateful pat when he boosted her up with his leg. She settled down across Sokka, aware that neither she nor Aang had spoken to each other since they returned from the gardens. The awkward silence between her and the young Avatar unsettled her with its unfamiliarity alone.
"Party's over, Appa," Aang said. "Yip-yip!"
"Wow, lookit that moon," Sokka sighed as his head lolled back on his shoulders. "Princessh Yue shure looksh pretty tonight, huh? She'sh sho…sho…" His face clouded over. "Don't wanna talk about it anymore," he muttered.
"It's all right, Sokka. You don't have to," Katara said soothingly, feeling a pang go through her at the loss her brother had suffered.
"It'sh jusht that it'sh crazhy, y'know?" Sokka went on, obviously well on his way toward the melancholy stage of inebriation. "Here you are jusht shtartin' to get t'know each other then—bam! She turnsh into the moon. An' I thought we had problemsh when she wuz jusht a princessh."
Fortunately for all three of them, the short flight back to the honeymoon house ended before Sokka's rant could gather enough steam, with Appa obligingly touching down in the garden behind the tiny house. Aang dropped the reins and climbed into the saddle. "I'll take him, Katara," he said quietly as he slung Sokka's arm across his shoulder.
"Thanks," she murmured, moving aside to give Aang room to manuever. She slid down Appa's flank and followed the boys into the house, felt for the matches upon the cabinet and lit the lamp, then blinked. Although the pots of crystals still adorned every corner of the house, glowing softly in the lamp light, the large, fluffy sleeping rug had been rolled up and stuffed against the wall, with their familiar sleeping rolls taking their places on the floor instead. A makeshift screen in the form of a length of string and a blanket hung over it had even been erected in another corner. The changes served to make the place look slightly less suggestive.
"Sokka said he'd do some redecorating," Aang explained as he helped the older boy onto his sleeping roll.
"He even took down the paintings," Katara commented, noting the empty spots on the walls.
"Yeah. I wonder why. They just looked like drawings of trees and flowers to me," Aang said with a shrug.
Katara looked at him, opened her mouth, then closed it again. Somebody would have to explain things to the young Avatar someday, but it wasn't going to be tonight and it certainly wasn't going to be her. She knelt upon her sleeping roll and was glad to see her own blue robes folded neatly beside her pack. Even Aang's and Sokka's clothes had been returned. Holding her clothes in her arms, she crawled over to her brother and presented her back to him. "Sokka, can you undo my buttons? Just the top ones then I'll do the rest."
A loud, rasping snore answered her; Sokka lay slumbering in the same position Aang had left him, a faint line of drool trickling down one corner of his mouth. Momo was sprawled out on the floor beside him, snoring nearly as loudly. Katara regarded her brother with a sinking heart, wondering illogically how he could have abandoned her at such a crucial time. There was no other way around it; she simply couldn't manage this gown all by herself. "Um, Aang?" she began, feeling the beginnings of a blush creep up her face.
"Mmph?" Aang said, his voice muffled as he shrugged out of the gray silk shirt, leaving him dressed in just his pants and the topaz pendant, which glinted like a flame against his pale skin. "What is it, Katara?"
Katara stared at him, aghast. Oh spirits, was everything conspiring against her? Then she mentally slapped herself for entertaining these ridiculous and highly improbable thoughts. She was definitely not acting like herself. This darned house… "Could you undo my buttons for me? Just the ones I can't reach," she said, relieved at the calm, business-like tone of her voice.
His gray eyes went wide, and for some reason his gaze strayed toward one of the nearby crystal pots. "Me?" he croaked. "Uh, sure."
"Thanks." She turned around and swept her hair out of the way. When she felt the light, gentle touch of his fingers at the nape of her neck, she suddenly found a pressing need to do something with her hands and settled for taking her filigree silver jewelry off. It only took him a couple of minutes to undo the first of the tiny frog buttons of her gown, but it felt like years before he moved down to the second button. His hands are so warm, came the stray thought, and she huffed silently in annoyance. "Sorry about this," she said, her voice sounding almost jarringly loud. "Li Mei did my buttons for me, and it took her a while, too. The loops are a bit tight, I think."
"They're not too difficult," he said, and his voice was low and oddly hushed. He moved on to the third button, and Katara sent a prayer of thanks to the gods that she was wearing her chest bindings underneath the gown. She cast about for something else to say but came up empty, her mind too preoccupied by the situation. Fortunately, he made quick work of the next couple of buttons then retreated to a safe distance, a fact that made her feel both relieved and sorry.
"Thanks," she said again, turning around to face him. He was kneeling a couple of feet away and staring silently at her, his gray eyes soft and dark and filled with a yearning vulnerability, and Katara found herself wondering if he was aware how close he was to baring his soul to her—and wondering too if she would have the courage to look if he did. She almost gave in to the desire to touch him, but common sense prevailed and she broke away from his stare instead. "Um, I need to get dressed."
"I need to go check on Appa," he said at the same time, rising to his feet. They paused and blinked at each other, then broke into muffled laughter. And just like that, the strange tension between them melted away and they were friends again. No, more than that, Katara thought fondly. Best friends, always.
"I'm going outside for a bit," he informed her as he snatched up his clothes and headed for the door. "By the way, whatever you do, don't touch those crystals in the pots."
"Why?" she asked, puzzled.
He winced. "Kenji told me they had this weird effect on—on people."
Katara glared suspiciously at the crystals. She had a good idea what those weird effects were, and she really wasn't interested in exploring said effects any further. Or at least, any further than she already had. This darned house… "I won't," she promised with utmost sincerity.
She followed him out into the garden several minutes later, dressed once again in her blue water-tribe robes, her dark hair hanging loose. He was also dressed in his usual orange and saffron clothing, and was speaking to Appa and feeding him food he produced from a small sack. "Hey, where'd you get the doggy bag?" she asked curiously as she approached him.
He smiled. "From Li Mei. She said it wasn't fair for Appa to get left out of the party just because he was too big to fit in the dining hall, so she gave me this bag of treats for him. They're good, aren't they, boy? Li Mei made them herself," he said to Appa, who merely opened his mouth for more. "She really thought of everything, didn't she?" he added admiringly.
Yeah, she's perfect, Katara thought with dark sarcasm, and immediately felt guilty. Li Mei had taken them in and given them food and lent her clothes and jewelry. She had been nothing but sweet and generous and kind, and Katara was being mean and petty and irrational. "Nice of her to think about Appa," she said, partly as a penance for her nastiness.
Fortunately, Aang didn't seem to notice her lack of enthusiasm. "Yeah, it was," he said. "I still can't believe how good a firebender she is. And Kenji and Hiro were great, too. It's too bad I don't have time to study Tai Shen-style earthbending. Maybe after this whole war with the Fire Nation is over, we could come back here to visit or something."
"I think that's a good idea," said Katara, who didn't, really.
Aang fed Appa the last of the treats, then dusted his clothing. "Not that I didn't have fun getting all dressed up in a fancy outfit, but boy am I glad to be back in my own clothes. I finally feel like myself again."
"I know what you mean," Katara said wistfully, thinking about evening-and-starlight gowns and silver bands, moonlight and madness. "This whole evening felt like a dream."
"It was a dream," Aang said quietly.
She stared at him, wondering at the hint of sadness she heard in his voice, but when she opened her mouth to ask him, she ended up yawning instead. "I think I'll turn in. What about you?"
"You go ahead. Good night, Katara."
"Good night, Aang." On impulse, she drew closer and kissed his cheek, her lips lingering a little longer than she'd intended. She spun around and walked away quickly before he could see the blush on her face. After tucking Sokka in as best she could, she slid into her sleeping roll and was asleep almost immediately, her body finally feeling the strain of the entire day. She woke up a little when she heard Aang moving around before lying down on his roll, then she turned on her side and drifted off, smiling contentedly.
o – o – o – o – o
She didn't know what exactly woke her up. There must have been something—a noise, a muffled gasp, a change in the air currents. All at once, she was wide awake and tense, blinking in the semi-darkness.
Aang, she thought and sat up.
He was sitting up as well with his head hunched over his knees, struggling to get his breathing under control. His upper body was bare and glistening with sweat, but despite that he was shivering. He noticed her movements and looked at her, his gray eyes full of pain and lingering fear.
"The nightmare again?" she asked softly, her heart aching for him. When he didn't answer, she reached out and took his hand in hers. "It might help if you talk about it."
He dropped his gaze. "It's the same dream. The Fire Lord and I—we were fighting and…everything was on fire, and I—I couldn't control it. I destroyed everything, and I killed—"
He stopped and drew in a shaky breath. Killed—? Katara thought, feeling a chill run through her. "Aang, did you hurt anyone in your dream? Anyone you knew?" she asked as carefully as she could. "Did you burn anyone?"
He stood up abruptly. "Go to sleep, Katara," he said in perfectly controlled tones, without a single glance at her. "I'll be okay. I just need to be alone for a while."
She watched him as he slipped out of the house, then slowly lay back down and stared sightlessly at the ceiling. What would it take for the nightmare to leave him alone? His guilt and insecurity were eating at him, and it cut her to know that all she could do was sit and watch helplessly as he struggled with his demons all alone.
It wasn't fair. Especially since it was partly her fault.
He dreamed he lost control and killed someone. Someone he knew and cared for, or else it wouldn't be tearing him up as badly as this. And he was supposed in the Avatar state when it happened. She recalled all the times she had seen him slip into his Avatar state and the circumstances involved: when he'd discovered his beloved mentor's corpse in the ruins of the Southern Air Temple, when he was possessed by the Spirit of the Ocean in the midst of the siege of the North Pole, and—and when he thought she'd been killed by that psycho general.
He dreamed of fire and murder, of losing control and complete destruction. And he dreamed he'd killed her. Because he hadn't forgiven himself for burning her.
I can help him get through this, she thought resolutely. I just need to figure out how.
When Aang came back, she was lying on her side again, eyes closed and breathing evenly. She sensed him watching her, felt the gentle brush of his fingers as he pushed a lock of her hair off her face. "I'm sorry, Katara," she heard him whisper, before he turned away. Long after he'd fallen asleep, she was still awake and making plans. She didn't like what she was about to do, but then who said she had to? Aang and his peace of mind were all that mattered.
The last thing she thought, before she finally succumbed to the pull of sleep, was how unbearably smug Sokka would be when he learned that, even when he was drunk as a stoat, he still managed to come up with the best ideas in the group.
Um, okay. Have I already said how sorry I am this is late? Oh right, I did. Excuses? Won't make any, except for maybe truly lousy time management on my part. I've been trying to deal with that for so long, it's practically the story of my life.
I hope that despite the length and the centuries it took for this to appear you guys still enjoyed it. I regret not being able to write Toph in this, but I have to stick with the parameters I've set if I want to keep the story under control--hence its near-total AU state. Also, a note about diamonds: Don't believe all those ads you see about diamonds being rare. The colored diamonds, like yellow and blue diamonds, now those are rare, but the clear ones? There are other stones once considered "semi-precious" that are harder to find than them babies.
The most incredible thing about this fic, though, is how you guys still read and reviewed--and hounded me about updates. It was, I confess, touching. And I especially thank you, Liselle129 (whose great new Kataang fic I keep reading just to keep me sane at work and who, I am so glad to learn, also think that Aang is sexy earthbending) for checking up on me and figuratively feeling for my pulse (I LOVE YOUR FIC!), SnakeEyes for the concern and the spoilers (THANKS! I've seen the eps, and they're as great as you described them), and Kalluwen, who's working on his own fic. And thank you, thank you, thank you too to you guys: Nyrick, Kumori Doragon, Kaika-sama, pokey, kataang93, Vegeta247, nadine-firefeather, daydreamr'girl (whose review I have printed out and stuck in my wallet for good luck), Katja Harper, ConfusionIsTheWorstPain, Flash, Danette LaBrie, SilvrImage, Dirty Thoughts of Bliss, ScatterdParchment, Jini, myWings510, and niah1988 and everyone else.
Am working on the next chapter now, which will push the plot onward. Again, thank you so much for still reading and reviewing, and I hope you enjoyed this part.