A/N: I am proud and rather pleased to announce that this is my 100th separate story that I have submitted to FFnet. It's a bittersweet thing, because for so long I had planned to make my 100th story HP-based, but I realized that it couldn't be so. Instead of forcing out something that would be out of character and overused, I waited and let this story write itself over the course of a month. I was also happy to find that POTC3 didn't influence this story at all as I thought it might.
Here's a little background for what you're about to read:
I've heard from many a reliable source that the gang, donned in disguises, will be traveling to toe Fire Nation. I decided to take my own position on the story and write one of the many "what-if's. If you are looking for a gruesome and epic story of the last battle, then you have come to the wrong place. This is not so much of a battle story as a building-up-to-battle story, in which Aang faces many of the guilts and troubles that we all know he must face. Warning, Kataang be ahead!
Disclaimer: You've heard it from me a hundred times now: I own nothing.
Fire Nation Infiltration
The strangest thing about being in the Fire Nation was not the disguise that he had been forced to wear or even the people, but rather the way of life. In almost every place Aang had ever traveled to, a rather precise way of life was key. Men and women went to work in shops and carts along the streets, buying and selling articles and food. Farmers worked the land to make food so that they could, in turn, buy from a tailor or an artisan. Grandparents and siblings stayed at home with mothers and watched the young children and learned from tutors until they grew old enough to get a job or – in the case of Ba Sing Se, at least – go to University.
The Fire Nation, on the other hand, worked a little differently. Yes, shops still existed, but far more families went to large factories to produce weapons for the non-Bending army. Children, rather than being watched by mothers and siblings, were sent off to daycare or, if one could afford such things, boarding school. Where farms may have once dotted the countryside, large buildings now stood, tall and menacing like metal monsters.
Aang shuddered and turned his gaze away from one of the towering factories with the utmost distaste; the very thought of being in this place sent a chill down his spine and a shooting pain in his back, where Princess Azula had left her mark. A gentle squeeze on his shoulder let him know that Katara understood what he was feeling. He shook his dark brown hair out of his eyes and gave her a sidelong glance.
"Thank you," he murmured. "It's just… so hard to see things this way. Things have changed since I was last here."
Sokka grunted from off to Katara's right and kicked a stray stone off the paved road with his booted foot. Momo, stuffed into Sokka's bag, chittered quietly. "The same thing's happening everywhere else that Fire Nation touches. It's imperialism."
"What it's called doesn't matter," Toph interjected from Sokka's right. Her head was bent low, her unseeing eyes glued to the ground. "The point is that the Fire Lord has everybody under his control. Just look around! They're all scared, I can feel it."
An uncomfortable silence settled upon the four of them. Aang adjusted the hat that sat on his head. Even with the disguises that the four of them had donned, he still felt as if everybody on the crowded street were watching him.
Only this morning they had arrived at the Port after having signed up as crewmembers on one of the massive Fire Nation cargo ships in order to get across from General Fong's base. Appa, who had been 'captured' and taken in by the four rather crafty new crewmembers, was currently being held in the Fire Palace itself. The reason, Aang had gathered, was to lure the unsuspecting Avatar ("He's a real daredevil, from what I've heard," the captain had informed him) to Ozai. Then, once the Avatar had been taken in, he could be 'dealt with accordingly'. Of course, Appa would be in no real harm, and Toph had taken the liberty of making scrap metal copies of every Fire Nation Palace key that the captain had possessed. More out of growing habit than conscious action, Aang reached up and grasped the chain around his neck; upon it and tucked beneath his black and red garments hung the key to Appa's chamber.
"Well, the place is nice enough."
"You really think so, Sokka? It's a little too… industrial. Beautiful in its own way, but industrial."
"Well, the landlady did say it was a modern building."
Industrial, as Katara had pointed out, seemed to be the perfect word for the room, which was actually an apartment. If Aang had not been so worried for Appa and his comrades, he probably would have taken a moment to explore the many-roomed place in all its red and black glory. General Fong had given Aang enough money to live comfortably in the Fire Nation without needing to go hungry. On top of the money that they had already possessed, they were set to live in the Fire Nation until the time came where they would need to fight. But, for now, they were spying in secret.
While Katara and Sokka moved about the apartment, respectively checking for anything important and admiring the technology, Aang sat down on one of the four sleeping mats and watched. Across from him sat Toph, who had ignored her mat completely in exchange for the solid stone floor, but he wasn't looking at her. Oh no.
At this point, Aang liked to think that he knew mostly everything about Katara. He watched her move across the room, storing away clothing and checking to make sure that everything was in order. She let Momo out of the bag that he had been traveling in before standing upright, placing her hands on her hips, and arching her back. Her small sigh of relief at the stretching of sore muscles made Aang smile a sad smile. Then she turned around and offered him a similar look.
"Are you alright, Aang?" she asked. Her motherliness never escaped his admiration.
Aang sighed and nodded his head, smile fading. Katara set down the vase that she had been working with and strode across the room. She sat down on the mat next to him and sighed.
That familiar tug pulled at the young Avatar's heart, and that strange desire to tell her exactly how he felt flooded his chest. With Toph sitting right there? Sure, why not. Toph wouldn't give a care, he presumed – it was Sokka that he didn't want within earshot. So what are you waiting for?
A deep breath later, Aang opened his mouth, eyes glued to those of Katara. "Katara, I –"
The sound of water falling a room over, followed by an alarmed shout from Sokka made every head in the room turn. Sokka came running out from the other room, his clothes damp.
"There's running water in the bathroom!" he exclaimed, amazed.
Katara leapt to her feet. "Should I go and get help?" she asked in alarm.
When Sokka shook his head, Aang raised his eyebrows. "I think – I think it's supposed to do that. It comes out of a metal rod at the top and falls into a base."
"Weird," said Toph from where she sat. She clambered to her feet. "This I've got to see."
Katara nodded in agreement and the two women took off after Sokka into the bathroom. Mouth still ajar, Aang was forced to shake off a feeling of dejection before hurrying after his friends. Katara's long hair whipped around the corner after her as she darted through the doorway with Toph at her heels. Already, voices came floating out of the bathroom.
"Wow, Sokka! That is really something!"
When Aang finally entered the room, he could understand why Katara had sounded awed. The bathroom was like any other, only far more elegant. All the normal appliances for a decent-sized apartment were there, except for one thing: there was no bathtub. Instead, an entire corner of the room was taken up by what Aang could only assume was the thing that had sprayed Sokka. Three walls, two of which were preexisting as part of the room itself, stood there, each lined with tile. The third wall went up only about six inches, presumably to keep water from running into the floor. A curtain hung over the gap, but it was pushed over to one side so that Aang could see a jet of water being sprayed into the confined space while more water fell from the ceiling like rain.
"Wow, that is a weird feeling," Toph observed. She raised herself up on the balls of her feet and then lowered herself back down. "Like it's raining in one spot. Sort of like Waterbending, but less natural."
Sokka 'hmm'-ed as he often did when approaching mechanical issues, and strode forward. He pulled the curtain back farther and stuck his hand under the jet of water.
"It's cold," he said in a low voice. He reached inward and turned one of the knobs, then pulled his hand back as if he'd been burned. "And now it's hot! Agh!"
"Sokka!" Katara rushed forward and grabbed his wrist. "Are you burned? Do you need me to heal you?"
Without tearing his eyes away from the mechanism, Sokka absently pulled his wrist away from his sister and moved towards the water again. "It's like a mechanical genius!" he exclaimed. His face was suddenly ecstatic. "It's the most amazing thing I've ever seen that wasn't invented by me. Now if only it hadn't been made by the Fire Nation…"
Toph yawned now; Aang shot her a sidelong glance. "Well, I've 'seen' enough here," she said. "Call me when dinner's ready."
Katara's hands found her hips and she opened her mouth to give a snappy comeback, but Toph had already turned and walked out of the room. Sokka paid neither of them any attention, as he had gone back to examining the mechanism. Now Aang stood in the center of the room, not really sure of what to do. For some reason, he felt awkward all of a sudden. Moments like these had become regular since they'd hatched the plan to enter the Fire Nation. Perhaps, he thought, it was because of Appa's absence, or maybe it was simply that he didn't particularly enjoy being under the stress of saving the world.
At any rate, Aang only stood there for a few moments before turning and following Toph out of the room in silence. He could feel Katara's gaze on his back, feel her frown, but he felt that he could do nothing for her. After all, he was already saving her life.
The next few days moved slowly for the four of them, creeping by and then turning into a blur right afterwards. While Katara made her best attempt at turning the house into a home, Sokka set out to learn about all the modern industrial instruments that he came across. It was on one such of these trips that Aang and Toph accompanied him to the landlady's tavern.
"Katara wanted me to get you out of the house, Aang," said Sokka as they walked. His voice was not loud enough to attract any attention from passers by. "She said you haven't been yourself."
"I can't imagine why," Toph muttered bitterly. "If Twinkletoes and Sugar Queen aren't worrying about the war, then they're trying to get the gaping hole out of his back."
Aang said nothing in response to neither of the comments. He hadn't needed to.
When Sokka opened the tavern door, the smell of cooking food and stale smoke drifted outside and into Aang's nose. It was almost a homey sort of smell, like something that he would have smelled outside the Fire Nation. A pang of longing shot though Aang's chest. He found his pace quicken, and he almost walked headlong into Sokka, who had stopped with Toph just outside the door.
"Remember Toph," said Sokka, looking down at the Blind Bandit and offering his arm, "You're totally blind. I'm going to guide you and you're not going to Earthbend at all, okay?"
Frowning, Toph hesitantly reached out and grasped his arm. "I hate this," she mumbled.
"I know." His voice became softer, gentler. "Come on, let's just get this over with. That bartender promised that she'd explain how that thing in the bathroom works."
On that note, they entered the tavern. Aang looked around, some of his old wonder coming back as he watched people sit at tables, talking quietly over pints and dinners. These people, he mused, all of which were from the Fire Nation, must have been raised to hate him and all that he represented. Aang's eyes widened slightly as a man lit the cherry stem in his beverage on fire with the flick of a finger. A man stumbled by Toph, almost knocking into her in the process. She almost reacted, but instead Aang saw her fingers dig into Sokka's arm as he pulled her out of the way.
Finally they reached the bar. The landlady stood at the counter, fixing a drink for a man wearing a cloak that shadowed his face. Her hair was thrown up in a bun with a few pieces hanging down, and she wore a red apron around her neck. Despite her young age – she couldn't have been older than twenty, Aang thought – she looked as if she were older. When she looked up and saw Aang, Sokka, and Toph there, she smiled warmly and gestured to three empty barstools with the hand that held the man's pint.
"I've been expecting you," she said. She handed the drink to the man, who walked off. "Here, you three take a seat right here and I'll get to you in a sec."
Sokka nodded and pulled Toph over to one of three barstools. She sat on it, feigning needing his assistance, and Sokka sat down beside her. Aang followed and plopped himself down onto the barstool closest to Sokka, trying not to grimace as a terrible pain spiked up his back. A few moments later, the landlady appeared back in front of them.
"Okay, what can I do for you?" she asked. "Oh, wait! We never got properly introduced. My name is Kameko."
"Taro," said Sokka, gesturing to himself. "This is Mae, and Bonzu." He pointed to Toph and Aang, respectively.
"Nice to meet you, Kameko," Aang said, bowing from where he sat. Toph merely gave a surly nod, not in the best of moods.
Kameko's eyes lingered on Toph for a moment before she smiled and answered, "The pleasure is all mine. Now, Taro, what do you want to know about the great Fire Nation?"
Sokka cleared his throat and leaned across the bar table. "What do you know about this running water in the bathroom?"
The landlady laughed. "That is probably the question I get most from travelers. It's all powered by steam – revolutionary, really. We've got a huge network of pipes and other things underneath the city, delivering energy to all the houses in the complex. The Fire Nation is so much more advanced that the Earth Kingdom; it was hard to get used to."
Toph's eyebrows rose. "You mean you're not from here?"
Kameko shook her head. "Nope. I was born in Ba Sing Se, but my father agreed with the Fire Lord's ideals, so we came here. When my parents died, I was only twelve. I worked beneath the former landlady until she died and left me in charge about two years ago. But anyway, about the steam power…" She left no room for comments. "The running water in the bathroom is the shower. A jet of fast-flowing water comes from the spout so you can use the pressure to get the grime out of your hair, and more water falls from the porous pipes at the top to simulate rainfall. Only the wealthy have actual baths. The rest of us have showers – they're cheaper, use less raw materials, and you have to stand to use them."
Aang chuckled appreciatively at the statement. Already he enjoyed listening to this woman talk. She spoke somewhat slowly, choosing her words carefully before she said them. One of the other bartenders slid three drinks down the table. Sokka grabbed Toph's and handed it to her before she could grab it on her own.
Sokka sipped his drink, winced at the taste, and then went in for another try. Toph guzzled down the first half right away and belched loudly. Aang set the drink aside, looking as if he had the intent to drink it later when he did not, and folded his hands on the countertop.
The walk home was interesting, for lack of a better word, and stifling hot. Sokka's steps swayed slightly, and Aang was forced to grab his sleeve to bring him back on course on more than one occasion. Toph, who was more stonelike when under the influence, merely clutched silently at Aang's arm and allowed him to guide her down the paved road. Meanwhile, between bouts of redirecting Sokka's steps, Aang took the time to look around the crowded streets and take in the reality of the Fire Nation in the flesh. The place itself was not unclean, did not look as if Ozai had been completely ignoring the needs of his people, but the people themselves looked short of happy. They hurried about in the streets, women clutching babies to their shoulders and men with weapons by their sides, as if in a hurry to get to their destinations.
Aang frowned and continued onwards, reaching out and pulling Sokka back on path. His thoughts had grown ever darker, even after the refreshing educational tales that Kameko had told. He'd learned of the way the people of this nation functioned, but he had come to realize that they did not truly live. Through listening to the ways of the world and government, Aang had come to realize that he had to win for not only the futures of the Water Tribe and the Earth Kingdom – and the Air Nomads, too, but he preferred not to think about that because that made him think of Katara, and that thought just made him downright sad – but the civilians of the Fire Nation as well. Though he had always known that they were innocent people, the thought hadn't been driven home until he had seen them in person, spoken to them.
Now the burden had become so heavy, the goal so high, that he almost stopped in the street right there and Airbended himself into the air, just to release the built-up tension in his perspiring chest. But no, he had not Airbended or Earthbended or done any type of Bending since he had set foot on that Fire Nation cargo ship. And that was the way it had to stay until the time was right, lest he lose himself and thereby lose everything.
When Katara came out of the house and looked around the yard, it didn't take her very long to find him. Ever since they'd arrived here in the Fire Nation, he'd been more distant, more morose. The air was hot and sticky as it always was here – too hot and humid for him, she thought. Aang had grown up in windy temples and rolled around, clad in nothing more than his regular apparel, in deep snow. The heat wasn't going much for the young Avatar's mood, at any rate. He no longer walked with his head up, but rather with his shoulders slouched, as if he carried the weight of the world on his shoulders. And he did; she acknowledged the fact with a grim smile, knowing that she would do what she could when the time was right.
Bare feet kicking up dust on the wooden floor, Katara strode to the end of the back porch and looked out over the yard. Down the sloping lawn and across a small creek was Aang. He stood with his hands grasping the metal chain-linked fence that marked the end of their property, his eyes staring out into the vastness that was the last of the suburban Fire Nation. Katara stepped down the stairs and made her way across the yard to where Aang stood in silence.
After leaping lightly over the narrow creek and taking a few paces across the lawn (never stopping to indulge in the fresh grass beneath her feet, because the days of simple enjoyment were long gone), she stopped about a foot behind her companion. He made no notion of her arrival.
"Hi Aang," she said, timidly.
"Hey Katara." He sounded tired, she mused darkly.
She took a few hesitant steps forward until she was beside him. "Toph and Sokka are having dinner while they recover from their encounters at the tavern." She paused, thinking. "Come on inside where it's cooler," It was not a demand.
Aang's response was not quite what he may have said so long ago.
"This fence isn't very high," he said. Katara said nothing; his statement was true enough. "I could have jumped over it once, but I can't remember the last time I Airbended."
A breeze wafted by, but it was a warm one. The absence of hair loopies blowing about her face made Katara's frown deepen as she stared at Aang, whose red shirt clung to his torso as his hair hung, matted, in his sweaty face. She cast a furtive glance over to her left, where she could barely see her neighbor's house in the distance, before reaching up and placing her hand on his back. She brushed his hair off the back of his neck with her two fingers, then traced them down his back, leaving a small trail of ice crystals in her wake. A distinct chill ran up his spine, but she couldn't tell whether it was because the refreshing ice or her touch.
"It's like… like a part of me is gone," he murmured, his eyes darting to her for only a moment. His hands, gloved halfway up his fingers to hide the blue arrows that she missed so much, gripped tighter the fence in front of him. "I'm stuck on this side of the world with this fence as the barrier, and I can't jump over it like I used to. I just feel so… so helpless."
"I understand, Aang," she answered.
Silence engulfed them. Katara allowed Aang to have this quiet moment in honor of the things that he had lost along his journey. Then, after the moment had passed, she deemed the time appropriate to bring her point of view into the argument.
Katara turned to face the Avatar. "Cup your hands together," she said.
He turned to face her, one eyebrow raised. "What?"
She nodded. "You're going to give me a boost."
Aang stared for a few seconds, and then finally released the fence from his grasp. He cupped his hands together and she put one foot in the spot he had made.
"Ready?" She said, "and up!"
With a small grunt, Aang hoisted Katara upwards. She grabbed onto the fence and pulled herself up with her arms until her head was over the top, being careful not to put too much weight on her bare feet, lest they ache from the fence's thin metal. Smiling, she looked down at him.
"See, Aang? It's not so hard." Katara let go of the fence and leapt down. Aang automatically reached out and grabbed her hand, as if this would help to break her fall. "It might be hard to do on your own, especially if you don't have any available advantage, but when we work together –" she squeezed his hand and let go "– we can get over any obstacle."
Aang stared. Then, at long last, a small smile crept upon his face; she hadn't seen the sight in so long that she was almost surprised. "Thank you, Katara," he said.
Katara brushed back his hair to reveal the arrow on his forehead. She smiled again, lightly tracing the blue outline with one finger before letting his hair fall back. "I knew Aang was still in there somewhere. Now come on." She grabbed his hand and began pulling him back towards the house. "You've got to get something to eat before Toph and Sokka finish off the rest of the dinner I made. I don't think you want to wait until tomorrow to eat, do you?"
She looked down at him and he looked back with an admiration in his eyes that she hadn't seen in a long time. Smiling, Katara set her eyes back on the house.
Katara picked up one of her heavy volumes and began to read to herself at the dinner table, bringing her chopsticks to her mouth in a robotic manner, even if they bore no food. The noises of eating echoed through the room in a sort of half-silence. Aang took a long drink of tea from his cup and ran a hand down his back. The scar was still there, he mused with a wince. Of course, he had not been expecting it to heal itself since last he'd noted it's existence, but he and Katara had been working diligently at removing it for quite some time now, even weeks after the injury had occurred.
Ever since the incident at Ba Sing Se, Katara had been picking up every scroll and book that she could get her hands on, reading up on Waterbending healing remedies that could possibly take away a wound like his. So far, though, their search had been to no avail. Each day, she would attempt to heal him with a new method – methods that were, often times, rather painful – and each day, she failed. Currently, as he watched her, she read different theories on Healing.
"The salt water versus fresh water looks interesting," she noted, mouth half-full of food. "We could always go to the bay and give it a try."
Aang opened his mouth to answer, but Sokka, who was nursing a headache, beat him. "Not gonna work. The bay is full of ships, and those ships are full of Firebenders. If the pollution from the water doesn't kill him, the navy will."
"We can't let them see a Waterbender," Toph added. "Especially not a Waterbender accompanying a kid, and especially not him." She pointed her utensils a little off to Aang's right, as if that settled the matter. "As if we aren't conspicuous enough already. We're exactly what the Fire Nation is looking for: four kids, one of which is blind. The only thing they're not expecting is that we're on their doorstep. I'm surprised that the army hasn't broken down the door yet."
Sighing, Katara ran a hand through her loose hair and set the book on the table, opened to a page where Aang could see a picture of a woman going through several Waterbending steps. He frowned and lowered his eyes to his untouched meal. Meanwhile, Katara's eyes remained solely on him.
"You haven't been eating," she observed. "Are you sure you're okay?"
"Of course he isn't," Toph interjected loudly, slamming her chopsticks down on the table. Sokka jumped a little in surprise and held his aching head in his hands. "He's got a crater the size of Gaoling in his back, his pet's being held in the enemy's headquarters, we're losing the war, and he's in –" she broke off unexpectedly and returned, clearly ruffled, to her meal.
Aang looked up at Toph in disguised horror and stared upon her with a questioning eye. She knew how he felt about Katara. Of course she knew. With his wild heartbeat whenever the Waterbender was around, he would have been surprised if Toph didn't know, now that he thought about it. Still, he felt a rush of gratitude towards her for not saying it aloud, especially not in front of Sokka. The searching look that the siblings gave the pair of them was enough to put him on his guard. No, he would not tell Katara. Not yet, not until the time was opportune.
After a few moments passed, Sokka shrugged and went back to his food. Katara, too, went back to eating, but only after tearing her curious gaze from the Airbender and propping her book up on the table. She read only for a few minutes in silence before she spoke.
"This is interesting," she said. Aang looked up from the smiley face he had been making on his plate with his food. She read: "'Studies have been conducted on the use of running water for healing. Some maintain that running water is more effective, as it provides immediate pressure, direct contact, and a consistent flow, so the Healer may focus on the patient rather than the water.' I guess that makes sense."
"I don't know," Sokka interjected. "If that's true, then how come we haven't heard of this before, like in the North Pole?"
Katara turned to her brother and tapped the open page with one finger. "This is from the Ba Sing Se University's library – well, it was before Azula took over – and these charts show the correlation between the type of water and the rate of healing. The difference isn't that big, the side effects are not deadly, and it's worth trying, I think."
Sokke shook his head and turned to his meal, muttering about the less truthful things that he had come across in libraries before. Katara ignored him and continued. "We have running water now, and I don't even have to Bend to get it going, so it could possibly work. What do you think, Aang?"
All eyes, except for those of Toph, turned to him. The side effects weren't too extreme, he thought, and the prospect of living comfortably was too much of an offer for him to turn down. Besides, he needed something to keep his mind off his troubles, and Bending had always helped to achieve that for him. So why not?
He gave a small smile. "I think it's a great idea. We'll try it tonight."
With his acceptance of the idea on the table, the rest of the group nodded and went back to eating.
Once Sokka and Toph had fallen asleep, for neither of them felt their best, Aang and Katara prepared to test out their new method of healing. Aang walked into the room, two towels slung over his shoulder, and saw Katara seated at the table with the book on her lap. The absence of her hair loopies made him feel sort of sad; a part of her was gone as well. But still, she looked beautiful with her long hair falling over her shoulders in gentle waves, her chin propped up on one hand and her elbow on her knee as she read.
As much as Aang wanted to continue watching her, he knew that that might lead to awkward questions, so he spoke up in a whisper. "Katara?"
She jumped slightly at being addressed, and looked up. "Oh, right. Sorry. I was just doing some last-second reading. Let's go."
Aang nodded, stepped over Sokka and Toph, who were sprawled across the floor, snoring, and followed Katara into the bathroom. He closed the door behind him and watched in silence as Katara prepared for the session. Everything she did was carefully thought out, her moves hesitant. She first lit a series of candles to supply light to the room, as the night outside had consumed the house with darkness. Then she made her way over to the shower and turned the knob. Water began falling from the ceiling and into the confined space, and a single jet of pressurized water shot down, diagonally, to the ground. Katara stuck her hand under the jet and, when the temperature was right, nodded.
"Well, here goes… something," she muttered, more to herself than to Aang, pulled the waistband on her hips, and shrugged out of her red and black sash. She wore, as always, those white underclothes that she used to wear when she taught him to Waterbend. He averted his eyes, blushing, until she turned around to face him. "Ready?" she asked.
Aang nodded. "Just a second." He pulled his boots off first, and then his gloves. Next he pulled his tunic over his head and dropped it to the floor in a heap. He didn't particularly care if the clothes got wet, but he knew that his back needed to be exposed. His pants, a pale red color lined with black, fitted similarly to his old windpants, which were hidden in his luggage. He left these on and walked over to where Katara stood in front of the shower.
Pulling back the curtain, Aang gestured in mock formality. "After you, Miss Katara."
A small smile came to her face and lit up her eyes. Katara laughed quietly and stepped into the confined space. He followed, letting the curtain fall into place behind him.
The water, warm but not too warm, fell from the ceiling onto his head like rain. The only light in the room was the gentle glow of the candles, which seemed to morph into a yellow-ish blur on the other side of the curtain. Katara stood with the diagonal jet of water falling on her upper back, her hair already stuck to her shoulders.
"Okay," she breathed. "Let's go."
Aang knew this procedure. By this time, they had done similar healing exercises, but none of them had really worked thus far. He turned his back to her and faced the wall, ready to brace himself if need be. A second later, he felt her fingertips on his back, tracing the outline of his wound. She said nothing, for she was concentrating on what she needed to do, but if his wound had gotten any better, she would have said something about it.
"First try," she warned.
Closing his eyes, he took a deep breath and nodded. "I'm ready."
Katara paused, brought the water to her hands, and stepped out of the way of the jet. When the stream of pressurized water came in contact with his wound, his fists and jaw clenched. The pain was intense, like an electric pulse coursing through his body. Katara's hands blocked the jet momentarily as she Bended the water on her hands into something she could heal with, and then she pressed her palm onto his wound. A tingling sensation came next, mixing with the pulsating pain. Katara growled in effort, then sighed, stepped in front of the jet, and lowered her hands.
"No luck," she panted. Her efforts had taken much energy. "I'm going to try again."
And so it went. The second try turned out the same, and again for the third. By the fourth time, Aang was just as tired as Katara, and both of them were beginning to give up hope. He pressed his palms against the slick wall and gritted his teeth. Katara was concentrating hard, trying with all her might to ease his pain, but to no avail. She backed off to the side, allowing the water to pound down on the black mark. Alarmed, he gasped in sudden pain.
"I'm sorry, Aang!" She exclaimed, leaping in front of the jet of water so that it no longer touched his skin.
He turned to her and slumped against the wall, exhausted. "It's not working." Saying it had not been necessary, but the words had leapt from his tongue before he could stop them. That strange feeling of despair had begun to rise in his chest again, threatening to break loose.
The water, to which Katara seemed oblivious, dripped down her face and off her chin. Her hair clung to her shoulders, her breaths heavy from effort. "I'm sure if I just –"
"No!" he cut in. his hands covered his face now and his back slid down the wall an inch or so. "It's not just this anymore. It's – it's everything. Ever since the beginning of this whole thing, everything has been wrong. Appa could be in danger, we're all pretending to be people we're not, I haven't been thinking straight! This whole mission is going wrong, and I can't do anything about it." Aang took a shuddery breath and let it out slowly. "I'm losing hope."
"Aang, don't." Katara's voice was firm as she reached out to him and grabbed him by the shoulders. He didn't object. She brushed his mop of hair away from his eyes, took his head in her hands, and said, "Don't you talk like that. Don't even think like that, because your hope means everything to me. You mean everything to me." She paused, with only the sound of rushing water piercing the silence. "Aang, I… I love you."
This time Aang really did slip on the wet floor; Katara had to grab his upper arm with her fantastic reflexes to keep him from falling over. His mouth hung agape, his eyes wide. Had he misheard her just then? Had his fantasy not just become reality? Even with his heart pulsating in his chest and Katara, drenched and – could it be? Yes – fearful of what he would say? Finally, after a few seconds, she bit her lip and released his upper arm.
"I'm sorry I said that," she breathed, stepping backwards towards the water panel. "I shouldn't have. I was just so sure that… You – you have enough stress and I don't want to give you more."
Somehow he managed to find his voice again, although it was timid and quavering. "Really?" It was the only word that he could manage to speak. A drop of water ran into his eye and he blinked it away without raising a hand.
Katara swept her hair off her shoulders as if this question had bothered her. "Of course," she said. "You're going through a really hard time. It would be wrong of me to put more on your shoulders when –"
"No, I mean…" they both stopped talking. Aang's heart skipped a beat. "Do you really love me?"
The following moment was, perhaps, the most awkward of his entire life thus far. He and she stood there, face-to-face in this contained area, water pouring over their heads, in complete silence. Neither of the pair smiled; as much as he had always hoped that his proclamation would be hopelessly romantic and joyful, he found this somber silence to be rather fitting. He heard her inhale a deep breath and exhale. In anticipation more than anything else, he shivered despite the hot water and the steam rising from the air.
"I…" she began, then stopped. "Yes. I love you. But… if you don't, then it's –"
Before she could finish her statement, he'd taken a step forward and kissed her. Surprised, Katara stepped back and slipped on the wet floor. She gasped and fell backwards.
Aang, who had decided to turn this spur-of-the-moment confession into something romantic, suddenly found himself falling with Katara, as she had grabbed him out of instinct to keep herself steady. They hit the ground with a loud thud, both gasping in surprise and pain.
Aang didn't move once he stopped moving; he still hadn't quite figured out what had happened or why he felt a bump forming on the back of his head. Once the shock had worn off and the reality of what had happened sunk into his head, though, he opened his eyes to find that he was still in that shower. A small splash in his ear caused him to turn his head and see Katara directly beside him, with one hand over her eyes and a confused, pained look on her face. Smiling in spite of himself, he pushed himself up into a sitting position and waited until she was ready to talk.
"What…?" Katara opened her eyes and wiped the water off of her face with one hand.
Aang chuckled. For once, the pain in his back seemed minimal when he laughed. "Sorry," he said, blushing. "I guess we slipped."
Katara laughed as well, but sobered up quickly once she remembered what had been going on moments before. Her laughter faded, as did her smile. "I… you were saying?" She made to sit up and slipped back again.
Now Aang, suddenly feeling very much like himself again, tapped his chin as if contemplating something tricky. "Oh, was I saying something?" He had never been much good at acting, but he was having an especially difficult time keeping a straight face. "Oh, wait! I remember now!"
He leaned over her, water dripping off the tip of his nose, and kissed her, softly. Then he pulled back, just enough to that he could stare into her eyes and see her staring back. Both smiled. Aang kissed her again.
"I love you, Katara," he murmured against her lips, eyes closed against the water and the world, against anything but Katara. "I have for… I don't know."
At this, Katara put a hand on his chest and pushed him back an inch or so. "Really?"
Aang nodded, unsure of where this conversation was going.
She frowned. "Why didn't you tell me before?"
"I tried," Aang offered, about to defend himself, but then he stopped. His expression became curious then and he countered, "Why didn't you tell me?"
Now Katara blushed. "I don't know," she answered. "I guess I didn't want to make things worse then they had to be. If you didn't feel the same, I didn't want you to feel… obligated."
"Obligated." The word sounded stale coming from the Avatar's mouth. Katara nodded, looking somewhat embarrassed. He raised his eyebrows. "Uh huh."
On that note, Aang seemed to realize the semi-awkward position that he was in, and smirked. "We should go. If Sokka saw us, I wouldn't have to worry about hiding my arrows because he'd take them off. With his machete."
Katara laughed now and grazed her fingertips up his chest until her hand was behind his back. His heart fluttered in his chest. It was somewhat difficult to breathe, he noted, in this claustrophobic shower. The steam had become just short of stifling, but that was only one of the many factors keeping him from breathing fully.
"I wouldn't worry about Sokka for three reasons," she whispered, smiling a smile he couldn't recall having seen before. It was nice, like a secret between the two of them. "One: it's none of his business what I do. Two: He's not waking up any time soon. And three: Even if he did walk in and see us here, it's just another one of those Healing theories, right?"
The Avatar grinned. "Well," he said cheerfully, allowing himself to be pulled back down, "since you put it that way…"
Things were different after that. No, Aang's mood didn't magically get better, and the war didn't get any easier to plan, but it was a lot easier to deal with. One of the biggest questions he'd asked himself in the past had been answered at long last.
Additionally, Aang couldn't help but feel guilty at times, for multiple reasons. Why should he be happy, he thought, when the world was suffering? Since they had first arrived in the Fire Nation, they had received many a letter from different military places throughout the Earth Kingdom, telling them revised battle plans and asking for input. Additionally, he had received a letter from General Fong recently, saying that an inside source in the Fire Nation palace had confirmed that Appa was, indeed, safe as could be. So while Aang was physically ready to take up the challenge and becoming mentally ready with very passing day, he still felt the guilt. It was raw and consuming, like the Fire he'd have to fight.
A soft hand on his hand told him that Katara had joined him on the back deck. "How are you?"
"I'm okay." For the first time in a while, he mused, it wasn't a lie.
It was, of course, a warm evening. The sinking sun shone magnificent rays over the horizon, casting darkness over the back part of the city. The warm air smelled pleasantly of grass. Aang sighed and sent Katara a sidelong smile. She returned it and took a seat beside him on the edge of the deck.
"So," she began, averting her eyes to the sunset, "we officially go to war in a week."
Aang nodded once.
"What are you going to do about it?"
The question had been somewhat unexpected and very ambiguous to Aang, who could only furrow his eyebrows and stare at the woman beside him. "What do you mean?"
"I mean 'what are you going to do now that you know', now that the end is near. We might live," she shrugged, "and we might not. But either way, we're going to fight."
Aang mulled this particular thought over in silence for a while before he finally spoke. "You're right. We're going to fight either way, aren't we?" He didn't wait for a response. "And I think… I think I'm ready. I won't feel ready once the time comes, but what else can I do to prepare? I've… got everything I need."
At this, a small, knowing smile tugged at the corners of Katara's lips. She reached out, sought his hand, and took it in her own. A wave of strong emotion swept through Aang then; it wasn't pure sadness or apprehension or any one thing, but everything he'd felt rushing through him all at once. It took a few moments to realize what it was: the feeling of guilt leaving him once and for all. He inhaled a long, slow breath and squeezed Katara's hand.
"I'm just one kid," he breathed.
Unperturbed, Katara merely laughed. "No, you're not." She held one hand, the one that still held his, up to his eye level. "Together, we're so much more than that."
Aang's eyes lingered for a while on their intertwined fingers before he finally smiled and turned back to the horizon. Katara scooted over a few inches on the edge of the deck until she was beside him, and rested her head on his shoulder. Both sighed, because they had come to realize that, no matter what would happen in the future, the most important thing to worry about was the "here and now". And right now, neither could deny that everything was as right as it should be.
Aang and Katara sat together in the Fire Nation, watching the sun creep below the horizon until they became a single blur in the darkness, and finally faded, as one, into the stillness of the night.
A/N: So yeah, that's it. Not epic, perhaps, but I hope you liked it all the same.
Thanks to my readers, reviewers, and supporters for bringing me this far. I know I sound like I'm receiving an award or something (which I am most certainly not xD), but I'm just baffled that I've made it this far. 100 stories is a lot.
And to think, I wrote I'll Be Home, for Christmas with the thought in mind that I would be done in just a few hours.
Thank you all again, and, as always, thanks for reading!