The Tale of Aang
In many ways, he was still the little boy who'd come out of an iceberg to face a world destroyed by war; the Airbender who'd wanted nothing more than to go penguin sledding and live a peaceful life with his brothers. Despite being tempered by his experiences and his losses, Aang had retained some of that innocence that still made his smoky gray eyes shine. Even after all he'd seen and done, those eyes shone clearly with his spirit and his faith—save for those rare cases when he was shaken to his very soul.
This was one of those cases.
Those gray eyes were hard as flint as Aang watched them walk down the path towards the house and his hands tightened on his staff. Hakoda had given him a halting outline of what had occurred in the last nine months and he was still numb from the shock.
As he watched his best friend walk next to his erstwhile enemy, not touching but somehow close to him, he wondered just how much he had missed by leaving.
He'd needed to leave, needed to get away from the pressures and the demands that continually piled up no matter how quickly he saw to them. He'd been tired, that went without saying, but he also felt that he was beginning to slip. He'd stopped looking at people as people and instead saw them as pawns in a larger game whose rules only he knew. It was a cold-blooded way of seeing the world and Aang knew that it was unacceptable. He'd needed to get his perspective back, to take some time for himself in order to be able to make the right decisions again. He didn't regret it and in fact, had felt better than he had in years when he'd decided to return. It was the first decision he'd made in a long time that he'd felt good about…but all that was erased from his mind upon learning that one of his best friends had to sacrifice in order to maintain the world order he thought he'd already secured.
Katara had always been the self-sacrificing type—motherly, some might have called her. He wasn't surprised that she'd gone to drastic lengths in order to prevent the meltdown of the Fire Nation but he was angry that she'd had to. If he'd stayed, things may not have gotten to that point. Aang was confident in Zuko's abilities as a ruler, had seen with his own eyes what the Fire Lord could do, but he also knew how temperamental the populace was. Like their element, Fire Nation citizens tended to react strongly one way or another and it took a strong leader to cool their fires. Zuko did what he could but he was only one man and Azula's presence had been both a gift and a curse, all dependent on her mood. It hadn't come as any surprise that she'd turned—Aang just wished he'd been there to stop her.
Hakoda had hesitated to tell him the whole story, saying that Katara should be the one to tell him and Aang hadn't liked the sound of that. Yet, he waited, understanding.
The door opened and he heard Katara's laughter wind around Zuko's words. The Fire Lord had a hand on her back as he guided her through the doorway and he closed the door behind them. Katara pushed her hood back and Aang saw her flushed face, her bright blue eyes, and thought that he hadn't seen her look that happy in a long time. And Zuko…he wasn't smiling but there was a serenity about him that Aang was surprised to see so soon after a crisis that had nearly toppled him from the throne. They were a strange couple and shouldn't have fit, but without having said a word, or making a move towards each other, Aang's sharp eyes saw that they did…and something inside of him broke.
Zuko was the first to notice him. The amber eyes narrowed, then cooled and Zuko put a hand on Katara's shoulder, nudged her gently so that she turned towards Aang. She'd been smiling, but that smile faded to a dull shock when she saw him.
"Aang," she breathed. "You're back."
Aang stood, regarded them with a coolness that rivaled Zuko's and he fought hard to control the raw emotions that threatened to erupt from a place inside him he thought he'd long covered up.
"Good morning," he said simply.
"Welcome back," Zuko said, studying him with careful eyes. "We've got a lot to talk about."
"So I've heard," Aang replied. "I'm sorry I wasn't here to help you, Zuko."
"A man needs his rest," Zuko answered. "I hope you found what you were looking for, Aang."
Zuko glanced sideways at Katara and she returned his look. There was no ignoring the very real concern on his face or the silent communication that passed between them. Aang began to feel more curious than angry now, wondering how two people so different could have a connection like this. It had happened in the blink of an eye, but Aang knew them both well enough to see the exchange. His dark eyebrows dipped, his gray eyes studied, and he watched as Katara responded to Zuko unanswered question with a small nod.
"I have to get ready for a meeting with my councilors," Zuko said smoothly. "I'm sorry to leave you so soon, Aang, but we'll have time to catch up later this afternoon."
"It's alright," Aang assured him, but his eyes were on Katara. "I'll see you then."
Zuko gave him a small bow and his eyes raked across Katara's face for a moment before he brushed past her and went up the stairs. That made Aang's eyebrow arch.
"He's not staying at the guesthouse?" he asked Katara.
"No. He's decided to stay here," she answered, moving into the front room. "The children are here and are comfortable. He didn't want to shake them up anymore than he had to…and he didn't want to be without them."
"That's very…different," Aang remarked. "I wouldn't have thought he'd be comfortable enough here to stay at the Chief's residence instead of the guest house."
"He is," she said simply. "I think he sees this is as the one place in the world outside of the Fire Nation where he and the children can be safe."
They sat down on the couch. Katara peeled off her gloves and took off her parka, her eyes averted. Aang saw the crown in her hair, the pendant around her neck, and his heart tightened.
"I'm sorry I left," he said.
Her blue eyes darted up at him and what he saw there surprised him. It wasn't anger, or resentment…it was quiet acceptance. He was looking into the eyes of a woman who walked down an unexpected path and was content with it. For as long as he'd known her, Katara had carefully planned and executed whatever it was that needed to be done. She'd always dived headlong into the next task, the next project, and never stopped moving. He thought of her as someone who thrived in activity and in crisis, a child of war who fought single-mindedly to keep it from happening again.
He could imagine how she must have reacted upon learning her fate, to have control and choice wrestled from her, and was sure she'd fought tooth and nail to prevent it from happening. That had been eight or nine months earlier and he hadn't expected to see her so…settled. She was taking early morning walks with the Fire Lord wearing his crown and his necklace, and not seeming to suffer at all for it. He didn't understand what he was seeing in her now—or didn't want to understand.
"Don't be," she said gently. "I did what I had to do and it worked out in the end."
"I can't even think about what you gave up to become the Fire Lord's wife," Aang said, pained. "What you had to be thinking when you went there and lived there…I know what the Fire Nation is to you, Katara."
"It's that to a lot of people, Aang, but you're the one who kept telling me that we all have to learn to move past the image of a destructive, violent people. I suppose I went about doing that a little more extremely than most people…but it's not the same to me anymore. I've lived there. I've seen what you've seen and I accept the Fire Nation for what it is."
"I'm…I can't…it's just all so surprising for me," he said with a shake of his head.
"You were gone long enough for a lot of things to change," she said, putting a hand on the hand he'd clenched on his lap. "I'm not accusing you. I'm just stating a fact. We had to learn how to live without you and we found a way. The Fire Nation still stands, Zuko is still Fire Lord, and the world is still at peace."
"It didn't have to be you," Aang said, pained. "This wasn't something that you had to do. I know you love working with your father and living here...I know you love your freedom. I don't want this for you. You've given everyone so much already, sacrificed your childhood for us. "
"So did you."
"I'm the Avatar. It's my duty."
"I'm the daughter of the Chief of the Southern Water Tribe. It's my duty too."
She began to tell him what had occurred, from beginning to end and with each word she spoke, Aang could feel himself becoming more tense. Katara tried to keep her voice level, but hadn't been able to keep her own emotions out of the telling and he could hear just how much this experience had changed her. The heat of her words told him how much she cared for the family of which she'd become a part, for the country which she would now help rule. She'd bled for them and had done so without a second thought. And he saw that she regretted nothing.
Aang looked into her face, the face he saw when he closed his eyes and thought of the good things in his life, saw that she'd found something with Zuko that he'd wanted her to find with him and had to look away. She'd been the first girl he'd loved and sometimes, he thought the last. They'd talked about it before when it had become too difficult for him to hide his feelings and they had tried to make something more of their friendship, but had been unable to. The problem hadn't been his.
She loved him, he knew that, but not in the way he wanted her to and he knew she'd tried, but she hadn't been able to stop thinking of him as her charge, as the little boy who whizzed around on an airball and didn't bother watching out for things that were in his way.
And so they hadn't been able to fit.
He'd made his peace with that, somewhat, but hadn't really thought about how he'd feel if she found someone else...and didn't even consider that the someone else would be Zuko.
Zuko was still difficult, often unpredictable, but Aang could honestly say that he liked the other man. He was one of the truly honest people the Avatar had ever met. Zuko made no bones about making his feelings known and though Lady Mai had taught him a great deal about dealing with the court, he played their games using his own rules. Aang knew that if he asked Zuko a question, he would get a straight answer—or a blunt refusal and an explanation that to answer would go against Fire Nation interests.
Marrying Katara had probably not been as difficult for him as it was for her and Aang wouldn't have expected him to change because of it. He certainly hadn't expected the Fire Lord to come to the South Pole and stay to visit with Chief Hakoda instead of sending a fleet to get his children. He hadn't expected Zuko to go out to watch the sunrise with Katara.
Whether or not they knew it, his two friends had defied expectations by not imploding because of the incredible changes to their lives. Aang didn't want to think about why they hadn't broken apart but the thought was there all the same.
He took a deep breath to settle himself, using all his concentration to keep his emotions under his control.
It cost him but for her he would pay.
"What happened?" he asked quietly. "What made you stop hating him?"
"Who says I don't?" she tried with a weak smile and when he didn't respond in kind, she sighed. "I don't know. I just...it just got to the point where it was easier to like him than to hate him, to help him instead of hurt him. He's a good man, a good Fire Lord, and despite what he did to us in the past, I understand his reasons now. I understand him."
"You fought with him. Fighting with someone helps you understand," Aang said thoughtfully.
"I saw the way he made decisions and the way he dealt with those under him. He's different now and I guess I'm different, too. We fought a lot at first, but I don't know...it works now. We work well together," she explained lamely, her expressive face telling him that she thought her reasons inadequate as well.
Then again, matters of the heart sometimes didn't translate well into words.
Aang rose and stood by the window. Snow had begun to fall and he watched the flakes dance in the faint breeze as he collected his thoughts. He thought that maybe he would started to hate the Fire Lord, or, worse, Katara, but instead all he found inside himself was a gaping hole where his feelings for her had once been. It was a strange sensation but one he would have to get used to. The years had taught him that there were some things he could fight for and some things he couldn't. Katara was one of the latter and to linger on his pain would cloud his mind and his judgment.
He inhaled once, twice, and with each exhalation, let go of the pain and the hurt until the bands around his heart loosened. They didn't disappear, probably wouldn't for a long time, but they loosened.
"Alright," he said with a monk's simplicity of acceptance. "Alright, Katara."
She stood and went to him. She put a hand on his shoulder to make him look at her.
"I'm only his wife in name," she said but he saw in her eyes that even she didn't believe that anymore.
"Not for long," Aang said and he reached out to take her hand, squeezed it as he smiled sadly. "Not for long."