-o- Re-updated because as Liselle129 pointed out, Katara and Sokka's father is Hakoda, not Hadoka. Stupid Avatarspirit...Anyway, I apologize for his OOCness. I know I say all the time that I try to do stuff that could actually happen, but I was inspired by The Blind Bandit's "To Return" and my stinkin' muse won't let me go on to more important stuff until this is posted. I don't really think Katara and Sokka would just stay…and present tense isn't really my thing. OH well…my whining is over. Hope you like it anyway!-o-

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"I will return," he whispers harshly, his arms wrapped tightly around her body. So many unspoken things lie between them, and yet, in this moment, words fail and only the physical experience of this hug is able to communicate how they feel about each other. Tears burn at her eyes and she clings to him, unwilling to let go even as he pulls back reluctantly, conscious of the crowd's stares. Her brother grips her shoulder as she finally steps back, and if the young warrior's eyes are a little red as well, no one comments on it. The entire village is watching as the Avatar climbs aboard his flying bison, but his eyes are focused on her alone, and when he gives the command to rise into the sky, his voice is choked. The wind howls restlessly on the frozen tundra surrounding the village long after Appa's giant body fades from view. Katara, encased in her brother's protective embrace, cries long into the moonless night.

-o-

Hakoda has heard the rumors and listened to Bato recount his run-in with his children, but he doesn't fully believe it until he returns home. The Sokka and Katara that rush to hug him aren't the kids that he left behind; Sokka is now a man, and Katara, a woman. Their eyes are older and harder than he remembers, as if they had lived many lifetimes in the nearly three years he had been separated from them. They are celebrities, known throughout the world, and many nights are spent recounting the tales of their adventures. Weeks after he returns turn into months, and slowly the novelty of hearing stories about the war and the Avatar fade from the village's interest. It is then that Hakoda truly realizes the extent of the war and the Avatar's influence on his children. He notices how they stand apart from the other youth their age, separated by the very experiences that cause the others to idolize them. Sometimes they whisper together late at night, and he gets the feeling that they are remembering experiences that are somehow too sacred to be shared with everyone else. It bothers him how sometimes his little girl will stare blankly towards the eastern horizon, or worse, burst into tears suddenly, and won't tell him why. It bothers him how his son will disappear into the snow with no explanation, returning hours later with a Tiger Seal ready to be skinned, despite the fact that the animal is oftentimes too large for one warrior to safely hunt alone. Hakoda asks them why they do such things and he is always met by the same, vacant look, a haunted expression that troubles him, as if they believe he can't understand. Perhaps what bothers him most is that deep down; he has the feeling that he can't.

-o-

A messenger enters the village one day, and for the first time in a long time, Katara truly smiles. The lemur curls around her neck, rubbing his cheek against hers, and her laughter rings out in the village square, surprising those around her. Sokka comes running and the creature leaps into the air, attaching itself firmly to his head. Curious, the villagers gather around, and it takes a good half hour before it actually settles down enough for Katara to untie the message attached to one of its feet. Kana watches as her granddaughter unfurls the scroll, and reads the Avatar's note grandly to all who will listen. A hand rests firmly on her shoulder and she turns to see her once-suitor Pakku (whom she likes much better now that age and her granddaughter have humbled him) smiling down at her.

"It's good to see her smile," he says simply. Kana nods, and allows him to escort her back to the house that he helped ice-bend for her family. She is feeling old today, but seeing Katara so happy warms her heart. Perhaps later she will make friends with that energetic creature, or even persuade her granddaughter to retell the stories of her adventures in an effort to keep that beautiful expression on her granddaughter's face.

-o-

"What did he write to you?" Sokka asks her, late at night when Gran-Gran and their father are asleep. He can tell she's not.

"What do you mean?" she asks, obviously lying. Momo is sitting on her lap, and she strokes his fur absently.

"I mean, in that note you slipped into your pocket while you were reading the other one out loud. The one you've read at least fifty times every moment you can spare away from the villagers. The note you're thinking about right now."

Katara sighs and is silent for a long moment. Finally she reaches into her pocket and withdraws a small piece of parchment with her name scrawled on the front.

"It's personal."

"I don't want to read it," he protests. "It's just…I mean, he's coming back, right?" The question doesn't come out as he wanted it to, and Katara is offended by what he insinuates.

"Of course he's coming back," she says acidly, and turns over on her mat and refuses to talk to him for the rest of the night.

-o-

Momo leaves with a new note for Aang and life returns to 'normal.' The siblings smile more frequently now, and do their tasks with less of the daydreaming that used to halt their progress. Katara takes her turn in the kitchens and watching over the young children just like all the other young women, and often stops by where Pakku is schooling some of the younger Waterbenders to demonstrate advanced techniques. Sokka joins the other young men on fishing outings and jokes with the men about his paltry attempts to grow his hair out. Sometimes it is easy for the others to forget that these two are heroes.

But then when the Eastern wind blows, it is impossible to miss the expression of longing that crosses their faces. There is something wild trapped in their eyes, and they behave as those who have eaten the fruit of the Spirit World; eternally yearning for something that has been left behind in their pasts. On these days the snowy air seems colder, even to those who have known nothing else but the Antarctic breeze.

-o-

Days stretch into weeks, which all too quickly become months until eventually a year has passed since the war has ended, and since the siblings have last seen Aang. The lemur has returned a few times since then, bearing news of the Avatar's progress in bringing peace between the nations. In that time, children are born and couples are given in marriage. Master Pakku dies, and Gran Gran's memories begin to slip away. Sokka starts letting his hair grow out, and now sports a small goatee. Katara has blossomed into a beautiful woman, and despite her brother's deterrence, young men are growing more forward in their advances towards her. The days march on inevitably and blend together, until counting them in 'weeks' and 'months' becomes useless. It is simply a longer period of time without him.

-o-

It is Katara's sixteenth birthday, and she treats it no differently than the day before. She smiles politely like always as the boys come to compliment her, treating them all like brothers even when she knows that each are looking for something more. She can feel the stares and whispers of the other young women of the village, especially those that already are of marriageable age. She knows that they think that she is being haughty, and while she wants to tell them that it isn't so, she can't quite deny it.

"How does it feel," one of the younger girls asks, "to turn sixteen?"

"Like a dream." Katara answers truthfully, for the world is very surreal for her today. The girl nods her understanding and returns to her waterbending forms, and Katara isn't quite sure if it is more of a dream or a nightmare. Once and a while, the smile that she forces herself to wear falters.

-o-

Gran-Gran is sleeping when dinnertime comes around, so the rest of the family starts without her. The old woman is becoming increasingly senile as the days go by, and even Hakoda admits that it will not be long before his mother-in-law joins his wife in the Spirit World. The patriarch spoons a bite of the thick stew and clears his throat.

"Katara, it's your sixteenth birthday, today." For a breath's moment the kitchen is silent, and then she answers with a forced indifference.

"Yes, it is." He can tell because of her short answer that she would rather not speak about it, but he is the father, and it is a topic that must be broached.

"You are now of marriageable age, daughter."

"Yes, I am." She refuses to meet his gaze, focusing intently on her stew. Across the table, Sokka's eyes narrow. The tension is tangible, choking what was once a peaceful meal. Hakoda sighs.

"I have been approached by more than a few young men, seeking your hand. Have you considered anyone?"

Katara's spoon halts halfway to her mouth, only to slowly return to its place in her bowl. She looks at him, and Hakoda's breath freezes. In her eyes is the full force of the glacial winds, cold and powerful even as she serenely leaves her seat and exits the room.

"She won't have any of them," Sokka says, filling in the stunned silence. He begins to clear his sister's place, acting once again as if nothing is wrong.

"What?" Hakoda asks, still in shock. When did his little girl…

"She's waiting for Aang."

"The Avatar?"

"Yes."

"…Why?"

It is Sokka's turn to stare at his father coldly. "You really don't know?" The warrior gathers the dishes in his arms and takes them away, leaving his father confused and insulted. Hakoda slams a fist on the table, wondering what he did to deserve such insolence…and why he didn't notice that his family was fracturing before his eyes.

-o-

Hakoda is the father. He knows what is best for his family…for his daughter. It is time that he once again becomes the leader. He is in charge…and he knows what's best.

Or so he tells himself.

"Don't make her do this, Dad! Those boys just want to marry your daughter…but Aang loves her. He loves her, Dad!"

Hakoda brushes of his son's words. Idealistic. Foolish. Impractical. He's doing what's right. Even if no one else knows it but him.

-o-

"I won't marry any of them, Dad."

"You don't have a choice."

"I won't be there for the wedding."

"You will."

"…"

-o-

Hakoda picks out Katara's fiancé—an attractive, strong warrior called Liang. He is obviously the best choice of her potential suitors: a good hunter, a handsome face, a good leader. Hakoda thinks that someday, he will make a good father for his grandchildren, even if Katara won't warm up to him now. She is polite to him, friendly even, but suffers that he is under no illusions. Any talk about their planned marriage is cut short by her simple, blunt statement: "I will not marry you."

Liang tries not to let it bother him too much. After all, love and marriage do not necessarily go hand in hand…and she is quite an attractive girl.

Perhaps she will see reason when the wedding draws nearer, he thinks, shaking off yet another cold shoulder.

-o-

"Lift your arm…okay….hold this please….gooood…" The seamstress gives little commands for Katara to follow, and she obediently fufills them. Only once and while does she comment:

"This wedding dress is very beautiful. It should be fitted to someone who's actually going to get married soon."

-o-

"You can start calling me Brother, now, Sokka. After all, we're practically family."

"Why? You're not marrying my sister."

Liang shakes his head and laughs at Sokka's impertinence. "Perhaps you should get yourself engaged, Brother. It's about time, don't you think?"

Sokka hasn't felt the urge to kill so strongly for a long time now…and he thinks that it's a very good think he left his machete and boomerang at home.

-o-

"Are you excited for tomorrow, Katara?"

"Why? I'm not marrying Liang."

The other girls laugh nervously.

"Still believing that, Katara? Well, we'll see who's getting married to who in the morning."

-o-

Gran Gran doesn't know exactly what's going on, but she allows the young woman to sob into her chest. She may not have her memories any longer, but she knows pain when she sees it. She wonders what was done to cause her to cry so much…and why she is crying to her.

-o-

Hakoda hates how his daughter cries the entire night before her wedding. Is this still the best option? he wonders before finally slipping into a restless sleep.

-o-

In the morning, Katara is nowhere to be found.

-o-

Liang is humiliated, the entire village is worried, Gran Gran is confused, and Sokka is emotionless. Most fear the worst. Search parties go out, scouring the hills, the houses, even the abandoned Fire Nation ship. The bravest go down to the water's edge, looking for her body. The wedding dress is laid out on her bed, deserted, the bride gone.

"Tell me where she is," Hakoda demands, but his son's blank eyes stare him down.

"I don't know," He says evenly, and his eyes rebelliously add And I wouldn't tell you even if I did.

-o-

Katara reappears the next day, unfazed. She smiled mysteriously at all attempts to question where she had been yesterday.

"I told you I wasn't going to get married to him," was all she would say.

-o-

Hakoda's pride has been hurt. He isn't sure whether to apologize or demand apology. He looks at his daughter, silently storing the food that had been cooked for her wedding feast, and wonders where his little girl has gone. He suddenly hates the Avatar for turning her into this empty shell of a woman. The war may have stolen time from his family, but the Avatar stole his daughter's heart. He wants to shake her, to show her that he isn't coming back and that it's time for her to move on. But then she looks up and smiles, and Hakoda can see the strength radiating from her, pushing her, propelling her. Hakoda can see that he's forgiven, and for the first time he truly understands that it is he that must move on. He must stop bemoaning the loss of "his little girl" and start learning to live with the woman that she has become. He understands the depth of her love, and hates himself for forgetting what that was like, for forcing her into a situation she could never survive in.

"I'm sorry," he whispers, taking his daughter into his arms and holding her close.

-o-

Life continues, and a few months later Liang gets married to another young woman…this time one that he as grown to love and be loved in return. By that time, he and Katara are back on speaking terms, and he no longer feels so insulted by what she had done. After all, she had given him fair warning. No on in the village can doubt that. The other young men have gotten the message though: off limits. Katara is finally able to live her life in peace without unwanted male attention. She laughs, bends, does her chores...to an outsider, she is very normal. She is happy. She is at peace with herself and the world.

Katara continues to wait.

-o-

A gentle breeze draws Katara out of the healing hut, rubbing her temples to ease her frustration and the headache building up. The village is surprisingly empty for the day, with the men off on a hunting trip and the women inside sewing. It is times like these (when she has nothing to prove, and no one to prove it to) that the guards that she has put up become riddled with doubt. What if he has met another woman during his travels…what if he is too busy to return at all, ever…what if something happens to him? What if—and this is the hardest question she asks herself—he doesn't love her anymore? What if she's waiting for nothing? Her throat constricts, and her eyes strain against tears she thought she had cried out long ago.

She looks to the Eastern sky once more, not quite sure if she truly expects to see anything anymore. That's why she almost misses it: a gray blur, running through the clouds. Her breath catches in her throat and his name slips between her lips before she can stop it, first a whisper, then an explosive shout.

"Aang!"

In response, an orange and gold blur falls from the sky, spiraling gracefully to the snowy ground. Tears blur Katara's view, but she can tell that he has grown up in their separation, and his height has probably surpassed hers by now. His descent is slowed by a gust of air, but he is tackled to the ground before he can make a comfortable landing.

"Katara…" he breathes his gray eyes alight with the love he has always had for her. Their mouths crash together and they both find themselves wondering how they could have ever doubted. Wasn't this they way it was always supposed to be?

I missed you their kiss says, and also I love you and Never leave me again. They spend several moments (Weeks? Months? Years? Lifetimes?) entwined thus in the snow.

There will be time in the weeks to come for the telling of stories, for confessions and proposals, for definitions and introductions. But as Aang help Katara stand up and faced the shocked stares of the village women, they both knew that none of those things were really necessary, now that they were together again.

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-o-Umm…Its Over!! And they live happily ever after. So……Kataang forever!-o-