Disclaimer: Avatar belongs to Nick. Me no own. You no sue.
A/N: For the sake of this fic, assume that I am perverting canon, and they are a few years older...
He sat, as still as possible, as she used her fingers to apply the powder to his forehead, trying very hard not to flinch. He had tried growing his hair in to cover the tattoo that identified him, but that only worked so well. It turned out that his hair was a very light brown, and not quite dark enough to hide the mark completely. That, and his hair was also very fine so when the wind blew, the long bangs he had grown were lifted right out of the way, revealing the vivid blue point of his tattoo.
The powder itched, and made him want to sneeze, but when mixed with water, it covered his tattoo well enough for him to pass. Plus, the application process brought him into very close proximity with Katara, which was always a good thing.
His hair was one of several alterations he had made to keep from being recognized inside the Fire Nation. He had also adopted a new style of clothing, modeling himself after the son of a merchant. The clothes were made from a fine, fire resistant fabric and the shirt was embroidered in several places with the symbol of the Fire Nation. The clothes were expensive, and had used up nearly all the gold that he had to buy them. It was, unfortunately, a necessary expense. As the son of a merchant, he was of a high enough caste that he shouldn't be bothered, and yet at the same time, low enough so that he could remain incognito.
The changes Katara adopted were even more drastic. Her long hair had been chopped at the base of the neck, and now lay in several short uneven layers in an attempt to hide the fact that she was a girl. She had artfully applied a light layer of the powder to her own face, lightening her complexion just a touch. Her blue and white water tribe kimono was gone, replaced by a muted red and brown pant and top set; common garb for Fire Nation peasants. The clothes were loose enough to hide her womanly curves and her budding breasts (much to his dismay). The overall look was enough like a boy that no one would give her a second glance. Lastly, she had a small leather canteen at her side, containing a small amount of bending water. Not enough to attack with, but enough to heal in the event of an emergency. After the incident in Ba Sing Se, she always carried a small amount of the purest water she could find. To make the illusion complete, she walked slightly behind him, giving the impression of a servant.
Also, as another precaution, Toph had completely shaved her head and allowed Aang to reproduce his tattoo with inks and needles they had found while hiding out at the eastern air temple. (Guru Pathik had been nowhere to be found, much to Aang's relief. He didn't need his disapproval on his conscience.) It was a long and arduous process that took many days. To Toph's credit, she didn't even flinch. When Aang had it done, he could hardly control the tears. Since then, unfortunately, he had developed a much higher tolerance to pain.
After they had garbed Toph in some brightly colored fabrics that Katara had neatly sewn into a pretty fair replication of Aang's torn and burned nomad's outfit, Toph, Sokka and Momo left on Appa, heading towards the earth nation for the purpose of laying a false trail while Aang and Katara snuck into the fire nation capital in disguise and gain whatever intelligence they could. The plan was to meet up in a few weeks at Kyoshi island and regroup, wait for the day of no sun, and then strike.
It was a brilliant plan, albeit a terrifying one. Not because he was afraid of being recognized; not even because they were laying the foundation for what would be the fight of their lives. It was because he was absolutely petrified at having been left alone with Katara for so long. She still had no idea how he felt about her. If she had even the slightest hint – which he knew that she didn't -- she kept it to herself.
"There," said the girl who was silently tormenting him, "I think that's about done." She smiled at him, melting his heart anew. "Wow, Aang. I can barely recognize you like this."
She held up a small mirror – Gran Gran's, he remembered – in front of his face and smiled at her handiwork. He had to force himself to tear his eyes away from her and look at his reflection. Even garbed as a boy, she was beautiful to him.
"Yeah, it's okay, I guess." He said, nervously, and laughed. He immediately regretted it when her face fell.
'Stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid...'
"Well, if you don't like it, you can do it yourself next time." She said, obviously pissed, stuffing the mirror back into her haversack. "Let's go."
'Stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid...'
The capitol building was immense; eclipsing the one in Ba Sing Se several times over. It was set in the very center of the city, it's spires so high that he could not see the tops of them. It was surrounded by several gated homes and gardens, obviously belonging to the very powerful and very wealthy.
A large number of soldiers were milling about, guarding the area and making it nearly impossible for them to truly scope out the place during the day. In fact, while Aang was gawking at the sheer scope and size of the place, Katara was rudely shoved in the back by one of the soldiers, and told to move on.
A look passed between them. Without saying a word, they silently agreed to come back under the cover of darkness.
The outskirts of the city were, in stark contrast to the palace, seedy and very, very poor. It was obvious to anyone that the common people of the Fire Nation were suffering the effects of being at war for nearly a century. It upset him greatly, seeing children in shoddy clothes begging for change, while young girls no older than Katara offered to sell their bodies in exchange for food and a warm place to sleep. But there was nothing he could do about it – at least not yet.
That was what he kept telling himself, at any rate. It was the only way he could tolerate it.
Eventually, they found themselves in a slightly better area, with an open market place and several taverns and inns. The poverty of the people was still evident, however, as he saw many people eyeing the fresh vegetables and meats in the market place with empty pockets and stomachs. It was really getting to him and when he passed a young girl about the age of six with blue eyes and dark hair, he reached into his coin purse and tossed her a small gold coin.
"Oh! Thank you, my lord," she said and smiled, revealing several missing teeth. The next moment, she was skipping away towards a vendor selling cabbages (who, incidentally, looked awfully familiar).
He smiled, watching as she purchased two cabbages, and then pocketing the change while skipping off further down the street.
"You shouldn't have done that, you know..." Katara said, nervously looking around her in all directions.
He looked askance at her, a bit surprised that she would say that.
"Because we need to be discreet," she continued, motioning with her head.
It didn't take him long to see what she saw – the four large men greedily eyeing the coin purse attached to his belt. Without stopping to think about it (because if he did, he never would have done it), he grabbed Katara's hand and pulled her towards a small alleyway he had noticed, with the intent to lose their new audience.
Unfortunately, they knew the city far better than he, and it wasn't long before they were cornered.
"Well, wot do we have here, mates?" A large man said, obviously the ringleader. His face was covered with stubble, his clothes smudged with dirt and he was missing several teeth. He wore a leather belt which on which there was a small, leather scabbard. There was no question in Aang's mind that the scabbard contained a knife.
"Looks like a couple of pretty boys to me," said one of his henchmen with a drunken slur. "Why dontcha hand over yer gold there, pretty boy?"
Aang frowned, subconsciously squeezing Katara's hand slightly in reassurance. Katara gave him a panicked look before her eyes darted to either side, looking for possible ways out of there. There weren't any.
She looked at him again, her mouth set in a grim line.
He knew what she was thinking because he was thinking it too – they were screwed. Neither one of them were very good hand-to-hand fighters – that was Sokka's department – and in this situation, bending would mean death to them both. It would only take just one of the degenerates to sound the alarm, before all hell would brake loose. From his perspective, there was only one thing he could do.
Aang still hadn't let go of her hand, not even realizing how it appeared to the thugs in front of him. With the other hand, he pulled his coin purse off of his belt (there wasn't much left in it anyway), and tossed it several feet in front of him. It landed with a jingle right at the leader's feet.
"There. You have what you want, now take it and leave us alone," he said, pulling Katara closer to him.
Instead of picking it up right away, the man laughed. The others soon joined in.
Aang was confused. He looked at Katara for help and wish that he hadn't. The panicked look she had been wearing was replaced with one of unadulterated fear. He didn't know why she was so afraid, and wanted more than anything in the world to be able to protect her, but he felt as if his hands were tied behind his back. He couldn't bend, and they had nothing they could use for a weapon.
"We don't care about yer pocket change, pansy-boy," one of them said, causing Katara to gasp and pull her hand out of his.
"We don't tolerate yer type around here... do we boys?" Another one said. The four of them started jeering and grumbling in agreement, all the while closing in on them.
Aang didn't know what 'pansy-boy' meant. He did, however, know that they were about to find themselves in a street brawl, and there was nothing he could do about it. Without another thought, he threw himself in front of Katara, so when the lead thug threw the first punch, it hit him and not her. Temporarily winded, he took several deep breaths before he jumped at the other guy, and with a very subtle bit of air bending, knocked him to the ground. This surprised the thug, enough so that Aang was able to land a couple of punches of his own.
Meanwhile, Katara was holding the other three off well enough. Growing up, she was the only girl her age in her village. Consequentially, she had more than once found herself in the middle of a scuffle. She had also learned a lot about fighting from her brother, who taught her how to defend herself way before she knew that she was a waterbender.
The first guy that came at her, she kneed in the groin. The second one, she punched in the solar plexis. The third one, however, managed to get a hold of her shirt, and tore it halfway off, exposing her breasts to the lot of them.
Everything fell silent for a minute. Aang, confused, looked towards Katara, who was breathing heavy, unaware that she was exposed. He was so shocked by what he saw, that he didn't see the fist headed towards his face until it was too late. It hit with a sickening thud, filling his mouth with blood. And then, before he could even process what happened, everything went black.
He was out only a minute or two, tops, but it was long enough for all four men to gang up on Katara. Two were holding her by the arms, one was ripping the remainder of her shirt off while the last one, the group leader, had a knife to her throat and was struggling to remove his belt.
"One move, and I'll slice yer throat. Got it Missy?"
Aang stirred, and spat the blood in his mouth onto the ground. Rage, such as he never felt before, overwhelmed him. Under other circumstances, such strong emotion would have sent him spiraling into the Avatar state. That, however, had been lost to him forever.
He chose her. He would always choose her. And he would do whatever it took to protect her.
Her eyes were wide and panicked. When she saw him rise, she looked at him, pleading silently with her eyes to do something.
His face grew hotter and hotter by the moment, and when he spoke, his voice was deep and heavily veiled with fury.
"Let her go." He commanded, the ground rumbling underneath his feet.
"Earthbender!" One of the men hissed.
The leader scowled, looking at him once over with dark eyes full of disdain.
"Nah, you idiot, the city is built on a fault line. Hold 'er while I take care of 'im."
Aang ignored the stinging pain in his head and the sickening feeling in his gut. Instead, he kept his gaze locked on his opponent, waiting for him to make a move.
The leader approached him, brandishing the knife.
Aang had less than a second to react. He had already decided that there was no other way – he would have to blow their cover and air bend his way out of this situation. But when the knife came flying towards him, he found that he did not summon air... but fire. In his fury, he brought forth a blast of fire so hot it melted the steel knife in midair.
The three men holding Katara stared at him for a moment, before letting her go and high tailing it out of the alleyway. The fourth man, their leader, hesitated for a moment.
Aang, having summoned the fire once successfully, found that he was now able to do it at will. While the thug hesitated, he lit both his fists on fire and held them in front of him, his intent clear in the dark gray depths of his eyes.
That was it for the man; he took off running too.
Aang stood for a minute, breathing heavily, waiting to see if they would come back, but they didn't. He turned to Katara, who had not bothered to cover herself up, but instead was staring at him in awe.
"You... you firebended." She said.
He knew what she meant – he had told her repeatedly that he was never going to firebend again. The guilt he felt for burning her that one time was overwhelming.
"For you, I'd do anything."
The words slipped out of his mouth in the heat of the moment, and before he even had a chance to think about them. Blushing furiously, he turned his head away and took off his shirt. Without looking, he handed it to her, his hand trembling.
But she didn't take it. Instead, she grabbed his arm and pulled her to him. She was shaking. With one hand, she opened the small canteen to her side. With the other, she directed the water to his cheek and jaw line, which he knew without being told had been broken. He felt the magic in her touch immediately, the soft caress of her hand healing him and taking away the pain.
"Oh Aang... I thought... they were going to... you were... oh god..." He wrapped his arms around her tentatively, and then strongly. He stood, lifting her with him, and covered her back with the shirt he had taken off. Shaken to the very core, he bent, picked the coin purse off the ground, and then ran.
He ran fast – faster than he ever ran before -- back out of the alley, through the marketplace (knocking over the cabbage merchant's stand in the process), through the slums, and then finally to the edge of the city. And then he ran some more. He ran so fast, people talked for weeks about the freak cyclone that hit the marketplace in the middle of the day. (The cabbage merchant filed a grievance with the merchant's association for the destruction of his property, to no avail. 'Acts of God' were not covered.)
Aang did not stop running until they were in the middle of the woods outside of the city walls; well and truly safe, and very much alone. Breathing heavily, he looked down at the girl in his arms. He was shaking, thinking about what almost happened to her. He would have happily killed them all had they hurt her. Unthinkingly, he held her tighter, mumbling 'I'm sorry' over and over again.
"Shhh," she said, looking at him with an expression he had never seen before. One of her arms covered her exposed chest. With the other, she reached for him and worked her fingers into his hair.
"No, it's not okay," he said. "I led you into danger. You could have been hurt. You could have been..." Aang swallowed. He couldn't bring himself to say the word 'raped'.
"But I wasn't." She said. "You protected me."
"I will always protect you." He said very quietly.
She sat up in his lap, and shifted her hand from his hair to his cheek. She turned his head, forcing him to look at her.
Her eyes were wide open, her emotions written all over them. What he saw in them was both amazing and surreal. And then, she kissed him. It was brief, but it was tender, sweet and full of emotion.
"I love you Aang. Do you know that?"
He looked at her, stunned, all the anger and fear draining out of him. He pulled her into the strongest hug he could muster, his eyes wet with unshed tears.
He bent to kiss her, missed her mouth completely and ended up slobbering all over her nose in the process. Embarrassed, he pulled back slightly and re-adjusted until he found her lips, finding them both infinitely sweet and as soft as feathers. When they finally broke apart, they were both breathing hard.
"I love you too." He said, very softly. "Have for a long time now. If they would have touched you, I swear I would have--"
"But they didn't," she said, once again forcing him to look at her. "Forget about it Aang. There are more important things to think about."
He sighed, unable to take his eyes off of her. She was so very beautiful.
She smiled at him wickedly and winked.
"What do you think you're looking at? Give me that shirt, you pervert!"
Turning beat red from head to toe as he remembered the state of dress – or rathar undress – that she was in, he turned his head and tossed her the shirt.
Her laughter was almost musical.
"Thank you. You haven't earned the right to see me this way... at least not yet."
"Catch me if you can..."
Smiling with mischief, he took off after her. He didn't know what the future held, or whether they would be successful or not in infiltrating the fire nation defenses, but he knew one thing. He would always protect her.
Moreover, he wasn't afraid of being alone with her anymore. That part, at least, was bound to be interesting.