"Katara!" Aang called out, waving eagerly, a wide grin spread across his soft, youthful face.
He was standing far away from her, a strange haze surrounding his slight figure. Katara wanted to run to him, wrap her arms around him, and whisper how happy she was that he was alright…but something was horribly wrong. She couldn't move. Her legs and arms were too heavy to lift. Panic flooded her helpless form as she tried to call out to him, but no sound would escape her lips, and all the while Aang was smiling and waving at her, unaware.
Then, somehow, Azula was standing behind him, advancing slowly, her expression a sick mixture of triumph and insanity. Katara watched in terror as Azula began to move her arms around in meticulous, circular motions, electricity trailing ominously from her fingertips. She tried again to call out to Aang, to warn him, to yell at him to turn around and look upon the danger he was somehow oblivious to— but her voice failed her.
Everything was becoming hazier. She could feel her mind tugging at her, attempting to prevent her from seeing what was about to happen. But it couldn't pull her out in time. With a decisive thrust of the arm, Azula sent lightning flying at Aang, and less than an instant later he seized up, enveloped in sparks and blinding white light. His body seemed to lift from the ground and convulse for an eternity, with that sweet, naïve smile trapped upon his lovely face.
Katara's eyes snapped open and her lungs contracted quickly in a rattling gasp. She lifted her hands to her throat, clutching it desperately, and spoke aloud the first word that came to her mind.
She was dimly aware, through the fatigued shock that followed her nightmare, that her limbs were functioning and her voice had returned—not that it had ever really left, she thought wearily.
She raised her hands to her cheeks numbly and felt the wetness of tears. Absently, she dried her face on her scratchy, blue blanket before throwing it off, pushing aside the flaps of her tent, and stepping outside.
The late night air was silent and chilled. Most of the Southern Water Tribe Warriors were asleep in their tents, but some were set up at intervals in a perimeter around camp, standing perfectly still with their backs to her, listening and watching. Shivering, she wrapped her arms around herself, made her way around the campfire quickly to the nearest tent, and went inside without hesitation or permission.
Katara untensed slightly as her eyes came to rest upon Aang. Moving swiftly and noiselessly to his side, she dropped gracefully to her knees, pulled his blanket down to his waist, and rested a hand gently on his slender, pale chest. She exhaled with relief and smiled a little as she felt his heart beating soundly and the expansion of his ribs with breath. How silly it had been for her to worry, she thought. Of course he was fine. Her hand moved from his chest to his forehead, and she found he didn't have so much as a fever to fret about. Her smile grew broader, and her fingertips found themselves softly brushing against his cheek. Beside her his torn, burned clothing lay in a rumpled heap, and, though they were beyond repair and would likely be thrown out soon, she folded them carefully before pulling his blanket up to his chin, standing, and leaving.
Katara closed the tent flaps quietly behind her, turned, and froze. Trepidation overcame her. Sitting on a log beside the fire, watching her sneak out of Aang's tent in the middle of the night, was her father.
For a moment he looked at her in bemused surprise, but then his face split into an affectionate grin and he beckoned her over. Slightly mollified by the absence of anger or horror on his face, she did as he wished, walking over to the fire and sitting down beside him.
"How's the patient?" he asked her pleasantly.
"Aang's fine," she told him quietly. "His heartbeat's normal and he doesn't have a fever. He just needs rest now, I think."
"Good, good," he answered, nodding.
Hakoda picked up a long stick and poked at the flames, upsetting the logs and making the fire hiss and spit.
"So," he began conversationally, setting the stick back down and looking at her, "what's your relationship with the Avatar?"
"Uh… what do you mean?" she responded anxiously, her heart beginning to pound erratically.
"Well," he said calmly, "the last time Sokka was here he mentioned how close you two are. I was just wondering if there's anything you wanted to tell me about it."
"No!" she exclaimed too quickly. He raised an eyebrow at her quizzically, as Sokka so often did, and she amended truthfully, "I mean… I… I don't know."
For a moment he didn't say anything. His face was almost passive, but she could tell he was appraising her. He'd always had an unnerving way of seeing right into her thoughts. She fought the urge to look away guiltily.
Finally, he nodded his head curtly and simply said, "I see."
He looked into the flames again, distracted. Katara turned and did the same. She watched the hot cinders rise delicately into the air, bright as stars against the blackened sky, and then fall slowly to the ground. Her heart seized beneath her breast as her mind exploded in images of Aang that night he had risen into the air glowing, and then fallen slowly through the air.
"You alright?" came Hakoda's worried voice from beside her, pulling her abruptly back into the present.
Her eyes were stinging painfully as her gaze returned to her father.
"I'm fine," she answered listlessly, only half meaning it.
To Katara's confusion, he began to grin at her knowingly.
"Did I ever tell you," he said, fixing her with an intent and somehow significant stare, "that I was four years younger than your mother?"
Katara's eyes widened slightly, and she responded in astonishment, "No you didn't."
"It's true," he informed her with a nod, his grin expanding.
Katara gaped at him, transfixed by this new piece of information. Her mother had always looked so young—younger, even, than Hakoda. How was it no one had ever told her about this?
"Growing up together," he continued, his tone fond and reminiscent, "she always looked out for me. Whenever me and Bato would get in trouble for doing something stupid, she'd always come find me and cheer me up, or help me do the chores they punished me with."
He looked away from her into the fire again, but Katara wouldn't look away. She sat as still as she could, her ears straining to catch his every word, her eyes watering from trying not to blink. When he resumed his story he spoke as though he were talking more to himself than to her.
"There were always older boys trying to get her attention, but they would all eventually mess up somehow… Lucky for me, I guess." He chuckled softly. "And then one day, before I knew it, she was fourteen… and I knew."
Katara waited a minute for him to continue, but he didn't.
"Knew what?" Katara urged him breathlessly.
He turned and gawked at her with an expression slight surprise, as though he thought it would have been perfectly obvious to her.
"That I loved her," he replied plainly.
"But… but… you were ten years old!" Katara stammered incredulously. "Is that even possible?"
"Why not?" he retorted lightly. "Love has nothing to do with age."
A hard knot of embarrassment had twisted itself into Katara's stomach and heat was creeping into her cheeks. She realized now why he was telling her all of this.
"But how did you know you loved her as more than a friend?" she asked him quietly, keeping her voice as even as possible.
"Well," he mused, furrowing his brow in contemplation, "I'd always known that I wanted to look after her and protect her, like she'd done for me… and I knew I was happiest when I was with her… Then, I guess… it just hit me that I wanted to be with her forever… and that the thought of anyone else taking care of her made me ache."
"Oh," Katara replied in a choked voice barely above a whisper. She didn't how exactly to respond.
"When she was of marrying age, she started wearing the necklace you're wearing now," he continued.
Katara reached up and stroked the smooth pendant of her grandmother's betrothal necklace.
"According to custom, I was too young to carve her one myself, but she didn't want any of the older boys thinking they could carve one for her, so on her sixteenth birthday she came to me and she said, 'This necklace is a placeholder, Hakoda. I promise I won't take it off until you turn sixteen.' And then she kissed me."
Hakoda beamed at Katara, and she couldn't help smiling back.
"So, you were twelve at the time," Katara calculated aloud.
"That's right," he confirmed, staring at her with a significance that was no longer mysterious to her. "Your mother was the most amazing woman—I mean, she'd have to be to give her heart to a scrawny little troublemaker." He laughed. "Somehow she knew I'd turn out alright, though. No one else thought I'd grow up to be any good, but…she believed in me."
They both turned back to the fire and watched its flickering dance in silence.
"Thank you," Katara told him after a while, still gazing into the hypnotic flames. "I'm really glad you told me."
"So am I," he said.
He put a hand on her shoulder and gripped it tightly. They smiled.
All of a sudden their peaceful, meditative silence was broken by the crunching sound of footsteps approaching. Hokoda's head whipped around to see who it was.
"What is it, Bato?" he demanded urgently.
"Nothing to worry about," Bato assured, arriving beside them. "Takua's back with the Bay report. I told him to wait for you in your tent."
"Okay," Hakoda said briskly, standing up. "I'll be right there."
Bato nodded, gave Katara a brief smile, and headed back in the direction he came. Hakoda glanced down at Katara.
"Goodnight, sweetheart." He placed a hand on her shoulder, bent down, and kissed her forehead. "I love you."
He cupped her cheek in his large, rough hand for a moment, and then he was gone.
Katara rubbed her tired eyes, wondering vaguely what time it was. Deciding to try going back to sleep, she stood and wandered wearily back over to her tent. Her hand was grasping a flap, ready to pull it aside, when she stopped, thinking. Her head seemed to turn automatically in the direction of Aang's tent. Maybe, she thought, she should check on him one more time before going to bed.
Back in his tent, she dropped to her knees, pulled his blanket down, and laid a hand on his chest as she'd done earlier, but this time she felt different somehow. As sad as she felt, as horrible as it was to see him this way, part of her was glowing with unmistakable joy. Being with him, even like this, made her happy. And even though he was in no condition to be fighting any battles, touching him made her feel safe. She needed him; she'd known that from the start. Her whole life, he was the thing she wished for—the Avatar. But that wasn't all he was to her anymore. She tried to imagine, for a moment, some other girl sitting beside him and touching him like this, checking on him in the middle of the night, wanting to take care of him, and an inexplicable anger and hurt rose within her. She wanted to be here with him… always.
Her mind reeled for a moment, then suddenly stopped as though some piece of it had fallen into place. Everything was ridiculously and gloriously clear to her. What her father had said about loving someone…. that's what this was. She could have laughed out loud with the simplicity of it, with the relief of knowing it, and with the absurdity that it had taken her so long to accept it. She was in love with Aang. Helplessly, hopelessly, miraculously in love. It was surreal… and strange… and wonderful.
His arms were resting stiffly at his sides. She carefully picked up the one nearest her and placed his hand upon her cheek. She closed her eyes and sat there silently for awhile, allowing the solace of being with him to wash over her.
"Katara?" she heard a quiet, hoarse voice say.
Her eyes flew open and she saw, to her distress, that he was awake.
"I'm so sorry, Aang! I didn't mean to wake you."
"No, no, it's fine," he told her croakily. "Why are you crying?"
She looked down in confusion and saw that tears were streaming down his arm.
"Oh… I'm so sorry!"
She quickly began to dry his arm with the blanket, her cheeks burning in humiliation. She had been so caught up in that incredible feeling of comfort and contentment that she hadn't even realized she was crying tears of happiness all over him.
"You keep saying that," he informed her, laughing a little. "You don't have to apologize for worrying about me."
She stopped drying his arm and looked at his sweet face. He gave her an affectionate smile of assurance, which she eagerly returned.
"I couldn't sleep, so I thought I'd check in on you," she said in a would-be-casual voice.
"How come you couldn't sleep?" he asked curiously.
"Just a nightmare."
"You wanna talk about it?"
She laughed inwardly, remembering a time when they'd had a similar conversation. When was it, exactly, that their roles had been reversed? Or was it that their roles were interchangeable, that both of them could be a source of strength for the other at any time? Yes, she thought, that was it.
"I dreamed…" she began, hesitating for a moment on the edge of her confession. "I dreamed that Azula killed you, and I just… stood there… powerless. I wanted to protect you and I couldn't… just like on our last night in Ba Sing Se."
Katara stared down at her hands folded in her lap. There it was—her biggest fear and disappointment, laid out in front of him. She hadn't admitted it to herself until now, but she felt responsible for what happened to Aang. That's what her nightmare had been trying to tell her.
"Don't say that," he said. "You saved my life."
She looked up at him in desperation.
"But… maybe if I'd just—"
"No," he cut her off firmly, the sudden harshness in his voice making her jump slightly in alarm. "We were outnumbered, Katara. I lost my focus and Azula didn't. That's all there is to it. Anything you could've done would've gotten you killed, and then where would we be?"
She stared at him, not knowing what to say, and as he gazed back into her beautiful, bloodshot eyes, his expression softened.
"Besides," he continued, in a defeated and sorrowful tone, "I'm the one who couldn't protect you. I went there to save you… and I wasn't strong enough… even in the Avatar State."
"Hey," she said, attempting something like a smile. "If I'm not allowed to feel guilty, then neither are you. We both tried to protect each other… isn't that enough?"
"Is it?" he asked her sadly.
She took his hand in both of hers tentatively and held it to her heart.
"It is for me," she said, her voice quiet and tender.
For a few minutes neither Katara nor Aang spoke. As she sat there, still clutching his hand against her breast, she felt a question begin to rise up inside of her. She felt awkward about asking him, but with each passing second it pressed more painfully against her insides, bubbling up into her throat, attempting to escape.
"Aang?" she asked uncertainly.
"Do you think… maybe… I mean, if you don't mind… could I sleep in here tonight?... I don't know if I'll be able to sleep if I can't feel you next to me."
He looked at her intently, longingly, but he didn't answer. She realized as soon as the words were out that something was wrong. He looked torn, upset, confused—as though some inner conflict Katara was unaware of was tearing at him. She waited a minute for him to speak, and when he didn't she let go of his hand and stood up, mortification coursing through her.
"I'm sorry, Aang, that was really inappropriate of me. I'll just leave."
"Wait!" he exclaimed, grabbing her hand. "I have to tell you something."
He looked up at her in anguish. Still stinging slightly, Katara kneeled back down beside him.
"What is it?" she asked expectantly.
"It's about when I was training with Guru Pathik…"
He trailed off, clearly distraught about something.
"Yes?" she urged.
His face fell, and the defeated tone crept back into his voice as he told her, "Never mind… It can wait 'til morning."
Katara frowned at him in concern, deeply troubled by not knowing whatever horrible thing was hanging over him, but for once she didn't press him to continue. She felt they'd come to a point where he had to start telling her things on his own.
"Fine," she said shortly. "Goodnight."
She began to rise again.
"Wait," he told her, more quietly than before. "…You can stay. I… I want you to stay with me."
She hesitated for an instant before giving a small nod of consent.
"Alright," she responded nervously, warmth rushing back into her cheeks.
Aang moved his arm out so that Katara could lie down and snuggle into its crook. She curled her bottom arm up beside her and laid the other across him, resting her hand on his sunken abdomen. Then she placed her head on his chest so she could hear his heart beating.
For a long time they both laid awake, silent. Each was painfully aware that the other was biting their tongue against things that needed to be said; things that would ruin this magnificent feeling of lying in each other's arms— a feeling which was already tainted by their concealment and apprehension.
Katara feared this would be their last night like this. Whatever it was that Aang had to tell her, she thought, would change everything between them. She clung to him tightly, he wrapped his arm around her shoulders, and they fell into a fitful sleep, both savoring and resenting the bittersweetness of their union.