Title: Count the Ways
Sequel to "In the Rough"
A/N: This story is dedicated to A. LaRosa on FFN, who asked.
"You're a coward."
Aang looks up from where he is staring at the floor and sends a glare in Zuko's direction.
The Fire Lord, comfortably lounging in his cushioned chair, merely lifts an eyebrow at him. "You are," he insists casually.
"That's Aang," agrees Sokka, lazily sprawled on the ground with his eyes closed and his arms behind his head. "Avatar, master of the four elements, hero of the four nations—and your friendly neighborhood weenie."
"Thanks, guys," Aang says sarcastically. "Who needs enemies when friends like you are around to be encouraging and supportive?"
"You forget," Zuko points out, "that part of a friend's duty is to tell you when you're being an idiot."
"Or a coward," adds Sokka from the floor.
"Or a coward," amends Zuko. "And you, Aang, are being an idiot and a coward."
Aang takes an extra few seconds to glare at the both of them, and then sighs and lets his head fall into his hands. "I know," he moans. "But what am I supposed to do?"
Sokka snorts. "If you think for asecond that I'm going to give you advice on how to propose to my baby sister, you really are an idiot."
"Gee, Sokka, what would I do without your help?" mutters Aang.
"Marry someone else," suggests Sokka. Aang's head snaps up and his eyes narrow, but before he can snap out a reply, Sokka adds, "Someone totally wrong for you who wouldn't love you even a fraction as much as Katara loves you. But, hey, you asked."
From his chair, Zuko chuckles.
Aang lets out a growl reminiscent of a hungry Appa. "This is serious, you two!" he exclaims, throwing his hands in the air and surging fluidly to his feet with the aid of a little airbending.
"Show-off," murmurs Zuko.
"I mean," Aang continues agitatedly, ignoring Zuko, "how am I supposed to tell Katara I love her and want to marry her?"
"La la la, not listening," Sokka sing-songs, eyes still firmly closed.
"Most men," begins Zuko, "would go about it by saying 'Katara, I love you and want to marry you.' But then again, simply telling her how you feel could just be an outdated Fire Nation custom that the rest of the world finds completely outrageous and indecent."
"Hear, hear," says Sokka.
Aang stomps out of the room.
Toph shakes her head when Aang approaches her with his plight. "Sokka's right," she decides. "You're a weenie."
Aang leaves without another word.
"Well," says Iroh, sipping placidly from his steaming teacup, "first you must be very certain that this is the path you wish to travel."
Aang narrows his eyes.
"I'm not saying you shouldn't ask her," Iroh adds quickly. "By all means, do it. I've seen the way you two look at one another. No one doubts that you belong together. I just mean that you should consult your heart and make sure this is the right time."
"It's been six years," Aang protests. "We've had plenty of—"
"Not enough time," Iroh corrects him gently. "But the right time, Aang. If it is, and you truly wish to marry Katara, your heart will give you the words."
Aang goes away from that consultation feeling very lightheaded and muzzy. It could be the questions now swirling in his mind, or it could be the combination of incense and tea. Either way, he is now even more frustrated.
Zuko and Sokka look up from their game of pai sho when Aang nearly trips over himself running into the room.
"Where'd you disappear to yesterday?" says Zuko distractedly.
"Did you propose yet?" Sokka asks.
"I didn't get her an engagement gift!" blurts out Aang.
Sokka blinks. "Then I hope she said no, you cheap jerk."
Aang shakes his head frantically. "No, I mean—I haven't proposed yet, and I haven't gotten her an engagement gift!"
Sokka turns back to the game resolutely. "Good start, buddy."
Zuko rolls his eyes. "For once, I agree with Sokka. You're not handling this very well."
Aang hesitates. "Well, it's true that I haven't slept much in the past couple of days…I've been so worried about how I'm going to do this, and—"
Sokka looks up suddenly. "This isn't going to turn out like the days leading up to the eclipse invasion, is it?" he asks anxiously. "Because Aang, that was not pretty, and Katara was really the one who came up with the bed idea, and she's not going to be able to get you out of this one, which means it's up to the rest of us to set you straight. And that is too scary to think about."
Zuko tilts his head to one side. "I've heard about that," he says idly. "Was it really that bad?"
Sokka shakes his head in remembrance. "There was something about me climbing a cliff, Toph's tiny bladder, Katara's hair getting caught in a train…it was just sad. I don't want to talk about it. By the end of it, he was talking to Momo in lemur-speak, and it was a choice of forced sleep or a mercy killing." He eyes Aang's nervous pacing. "To this day, I wonder if we made the right choice."
With a sigh, Zuko stands up from the table. "We'll finish this later," he tells Sokka. "Obviously Aang isn't capable of proposing to Katara by himself—"
"Hey!" says Aang.
"—so we'll have to help."
"Uh, hello?" Sokka says, pointing at himself. "Big brother. Not exactly thrilled at having to give away my sister at all, much less be part of the planning."
"You'd rather she marry someone else?" Zuko asks archly.
After a moment of serious contemplation, Sokka snorts. "Nah," he says, standing up and slinging an arm around Aang's shoulder. "I've gotten used to this freak, I guess. Okay, pal, you've got me and Zuko on your side."
"Joy," mutters Aang.
"First step: engagement gift." Zuko taps his chin thoughtfully. "What were you thinking of giving her? A necklace, as is the custom in the Water Tribe? Or a diamond ring, as is the new custom among the other nations?"
"I've already given her both," says Aang with a dejected air. "A long time ago."
Sokka frowns. "Wait, I remember the necklace," he says. "When did you give her a diamond ring?"
Before Aang can answer, Zuko interjects, "Aang, I hate to tell you this, but if you've given her a ring and she hasn't caught on, that's a pretty big clue that you're doing something wrong."
"No, no," Aang says. "It wasn't a ring. It was just a diamond. I found it during a practice session with Toph and I gave it to Katara."
"Just a diamond, he says." Zuko shakes his head. "Only an earthbender. Anyway, when did this happen?"
Aang shrugs. "About five years ago or so."
"You gave my sister a diamond?" Sokka says incredulously. Then his eyes narrow. "You gave her a diamond when she was fourteen?"
"I didn't mean it like an engagement present!" Aang protests. "Uh. Not really, anyway. I mean, the symbolism crossed my mind, but it wasn't like I was counting on her accepting it that way. Yet."
"I should hit you or something," Sokka mutters. "Just on principle."
"Anyway," Zuko says loudly, "if you've already given her a necklace and a diamond, it would be sort of stupid to give her another one of either."
"So what does that leave me with?"
Zuko blinks. "Well, you've already done the Water Tribe custom and the custom of the Fire Nation and Earth Kingdom," he muses. "I suppose that leave you with Air Nomad custom. Except…"
"The Air Nomads were monks," Aang finishes, sighing. "And the women were nuns. I mean, I know they had children, but there wasn't really an institution of marriage among them. They were bound by vows of chastity and fidelity only to one another and themselves. There wasn't any formal marriage ceremony."
"That's enlightenment for you," Sokka says with a shrug. "So they didn't have anything special they did for their—what, partners?"
"Not besides the vows," Aang says.
Zuko lifts his hands. "So why not that, then?" he asks.
"Why not what?" Aang repeats.
Sokka snorts. "He'll be doing that anyway at the wedding."
"True, but don't you think it would mean something to Katara to hear the words just between the two of you first?" Zuko presses.
Aang considers the idea. "You're right," he says slowly. "But shouldn't I still get her something—I don't know what—to show her how I feel?"
"What can you give her that you haven't already?" counters Zuko. "At least, that signifies your intent to marry her?"
"Good point," Aang admits.
"And Aang," Sokka adds softly. "You already show Katara how you feel in the way you act toward her. If she doesn't see that, then she's an idiot, too."
Aang smiles at his friend. "Thanks, Sokka."
He shakes his head and sticks his nose in the air. "That was my contribution to this little affair," he says in a snooty voice. "From here on out, I am a neutral party. Good luck, tally-ho, whatever."
"Thanks, Sokka," says Aang again, laughing.
"Just know that if you ever make my sister cry, I'll make you cry," threatens Sokka.
Zuko rolls his eyes. "And with that resounding commendation," he says dryly, giving Aang a shove towards the door, "get out of here and find your girl. I have a pai sho game to win."
"Ha," says Sokka derisively. "You hang on to that delusion."
"Thanks, guys!" Aang leaves in a flurry of anticipation.
After his departure, Zuko looks at Sokka. "Two gold pieces says he freaks out and messes up the proposal and she says yes anyway."
Sokka makes a face. "Sucker bet," he declares. "Two gold pieces says I trounce your royal behind in this pai sho game."
"You hang on to that delusion," says Zuko, grinning.
"Aang," laughs Katara, "you still haven't told me why we're out here."
Aang shrugs self-consciously. "Everyone could use a day off," he says casually. "Even the Avatar." Inside he is a nervous wreck, and has been ever since he asked Katara to take a trip with him out to sea on a small skiff that he borrowed from Zuko.
"True," agrees Katara easily.
"And besides, Appa could use the break, so I thought we'd take a boat."
"Also true." She laughs again and clambers across the small space to sit beside Aang. "So why are we really out here? You're acting casual, but I can tell you're keyed up over something."
He ducks his head. "Oh," is all he says.
"Oh," she repeats, smiling. "You forget, Aang, that I know you better than anyone else. I know when there's something on your mind."
Aang looked up at the sky for a moment.
"You're right," he says quietly. "You know me better than anyone else. And there's something on my mind."
He turns to her. She smiles encouragingly.
"When I lived at the Air Temple," he begins, his voice soft and gentle as the waves that lap at the boat's sides, "the elder monks had a saying. As it is in your heart, so shall it be in your mind, and so shall it be in your life, until the three are inseparable, and are as much a part of you as the air you breathe, the air which gives you life and power, and with which you are bound to this world."
Katara frowns. "That's a pretty saying," she says curiously. "I'm…not sure I understand what it means, though."
Aang's lips curve a little. "When I was twelve, I didn't understand it either. Monk Gyatso used to say it all the time and tell me he still had some trouble understanding it. But he told me that I would know when I was ready."
"He said that about a lot of things, didn't he?" Katara says, laughing.
"Yeah," agrees Aang. "And he was right, of course. Even now, he would probably tell me the same thing." He thinks of his crisis over how to propose to Katara, thinks of Gyatso's calm, reassuring smile, thinks of Iroh's advice.
And he knows what he wants to say. He is ready.
"I know what it means now."
She looks visibly interested. "Oh, really? What is it?"
Aang's smile widens. "It means you, Katara."
Her eyes go round, as blue as the sky and sea that surround them. "What? Me?"
Aang takes her hand. "As it is in your heart, so shall it be in your mind, and so shall it be in your life," he says softly. "Katara, you are the most important thing in my heart, in my mind, and definitely the most important part of my life."
Now her eyes fill with tears, but she doesn't say anything, only tightens her fingers around his.
"Until the three are inseparable, and are as much a part of you as the air you breathe, the air which gives you life and power, and with which you are bound to this world." Aang puts his other hand over their joined ones. "I can't tell who I am anymore without you, Katara. It's like any part of me that doesn't involve you—isn't me. You're like the air—you surround me everywhere I go, no matter what I do. I need you. I just can't do anything without you." He laughs a little. "And after all this time, you are still the one thing that has the power to bind me to this world."
The tears are dancing little silver trails down Katara's cheeks. Her mouth is trembling. So are her fingers, encased within Aang's hands.
"Katara," Aang says. His voice is full of hope and love and promise. "I love you. That is what gives me power and life. I love you, Katara of the Southern Water Tribe. You are my air."
Katara's eyes close briefly, flushing out more tears.
"Aang," she whispers.
"There's something else," he says.
She opens her eyes and looks at him, emotions radiating from her.
"As an Air Nomad, I have to follow tradition," he tells her. "I may be the last of the airbenders, but I'm not going to let their customs fade away."
"Okay." Katara's voice is shaky.
"Monks don't marry."
Her fingers jerk once in surprise, then go limp in his."
"What?" she says, her voice loud in the stillness around them.
"They see marriage as a legalistic and unnecessary impediment to enlightenment," he informs her. Her face is slack with disbelief. "What they do instead is make vows between themselves and their chosen partners. There's no ceremony involved, no records, nothing like that. It's just a promise to be faithful and stuff like that."
Katara is gaping at him. She looks a little like Momo when her eyes are big like this.
"And so I'm making you a promise," Aang continues, his hands squeezing her still-motionless one. "To be faithful and stuff like that."
"Stuff like…that," echoes Katara. Her voice is suddenly stronger, and just a tad bit heated.
"Right. And as a monk, I keep my word, and that sort of seals the deal."
"Seals the deal," Katara repeats slowly, her eyes now narrowing dangerously in that look he so adores, that 'You are in so much trouble if you think you're going to get away with that' expression. "Aang—"
"But," he interrupts her, "the thing is, I'm not just a monk, am I?"
She stops, gives him a frown. "What?"
"Monks are, by definition, airbenders. Being an airbender, I am—or was—a monk. But I'm also waterbender, earthbender, and firebender." He points at himself. "Avatar, remember?"
That startles a laugh out of her. "Right. But—"
"So, because I love you," he goes on, and her eyes unexpectedly fill with tears again, "I want to honor you in every way I possibly can. And being Avatar, there are lots of ways I possibly can."
"Oh, Aang." The irritation of a few moments before is gone. Katara wipes at her tears and gives him a smile so bright that he thinks for a moment, Ha. Take that, sun.
He looks up at the sky again, then back at her. "I want to honor you by the customs of the Water Tribe," he says. "But I've already given you a necklace."
Her eyes widen. "Oh!" With her free hand, she reaches into a pocket in her skirt and pulls the necklace out—the simple creation of woven fishing wire. The pink flower in the center has faded a little over time, but is still bright and cheerful.
"Oh," says Aang, staring at it, his train of thought interrupted, his rhythm broken. "You—you kept it."
"Of course," Katara replies, smiling. "It was the first present you ever gave me. Even when I'm not wearing it, I carry it with me. Sort of like a good-luck talisman."
Aang blinks at her, something inside of him growing warmer and lighter at her words. "And neither of us knew when I gave it to you that a necklace is a symbol of betrothal in the Water Tribe."
Her blush is even brighter than the flower on the necklace.
"And then there's the diamond," Aang muses.
Katara blinks. "I still have that too," she says. "But I don't carry it around with me, for obvious reasons. I left it back home in the village. Gran-Gran looks after it for me."
Aang smiles. "When I found that diamond, it was just a rock to me. It was fascinating, but really, just a very pretty, shiny rock. But when I gave it to you," he goes on, half to himself, "I knew what it symbolized."
Katara stares at him. "You did?"
"Yeah. Toph told me that her father gave her mother a diamond ring for an engagement gift. She said it was becoming a popular trend among couples getting married. And when I gave you the diamond, I was thinking about that."
"Yes." Aang's smile is gentle, almost amused. "I know we were just kids then. I didn't mean it as an engagement present—but I thought to myself that it was the second time I'd given you a gift that symbolized love and marriage. And I thought, 'The next time I do this, I'm going to do it right.'"
Katara's entire countenance lights up. She doesn't speak—she seems unable to—but she holds the necklace to her heart and lets the tears trickle down her face.
Aang takes a deep breath. "Katara, I don't have a present to give you this time," he says quickly.
He expected surprise, maybe possibly disappointment. But Katara's smile grows even brighter, and the tears don't stop, but neither do they fall any faster. She seems to be amused at him.
"And, well," he continues, somewhat flustered, "that would have been the firebender and earthbender part of the proposal. So here I've done all four customs, and I still don't really know how to do thisright."
He looks at the sky again, then out to sea, and laughs at himself.
"You know what's funny?" He looks at Katara and smiles sheepishly. "Here we are in the middle of the ocean, surrounded by air and water, our own elements, and I'm just remembering when I kissed you for the first time."
She looks slightly confused. "In the Cave of Two Lovers?"
He shakes his head. "No. That day, we didn't really kiss, remember? The crystals lit the cave before we did more than touch our lips together."
Katara tilts her head. "Isn't that what a kiss is? Touching lips together?"
He looks at her, strong and steady and sure. "No, Katara. A kiss is a lot more than just touching lips together. It's the feelings behind the kiss. In the cave, I wasn't certain what I felt for you. It was a crush, but I had no idea what to do about it or what you were feeling." He looks at his hands covering hers.
"The first time I kissed you was on the day of the eclipse invasion. We were just like this—" He looks at the sky and the sea. "Surrounded by our own elements, air and water, and I stood in front of you not knowing whether or not I'd see you again—not knowing if I'd be able to keep you. And I kissed you."
He trails off with a small smile. "And here we are now, five years later, in the same place, and I'm still not sure."
Katara's lips curve slowly. "You're not?"
"No. I'm not sure I'm doing this the right way, but I'm going to ask anyway." He brings their joined hands to his lips briefly and looks into her eyes. She seems to be vibrating with emotion, her gaze never wavering.
"Katara, can I keep you?"
She lets out a sound that could be a laugh, but is more like a sob, and launches herself into his arms, pressing her lips to his.
This, he thinks as he holds her tightly to him, is a kiss. The entire moment seems to hum with electricity and warmth.
When she pulls back, she is smiling and her arms are locked around his neck. He leans his forehead against hers, his own smile nearly splitting his face.
"Is that a yes?"
She laughs again. "I made a promise in my mind," she whispers, and her breath dances sweetly over his lips, "when I agreed to come out on this boat with you, that if you didn't ask me to marry you I was going to drown you myself."
Aang is surprised into a laugh. "Seeing as I'm the Avatar, that really would have been an accomplishment. And kind of a bad thing, too, I suppose…"
"And then you started off by telling me monks don't get married," she muttered. "I almost did shove you out of the boat."
He grins. "Well, they don't." He bumps her nose gently with his. "But I do."
"I do too," Katara replies. He thrills at the words, but blinks innocently.
"That's good news. But it's not quite the answer I'm looking for. Yet."
She laughs and kisses him again. "Still not sure, huh?"
"Well, you technically haven't said yes or no…"
Her lips cover his, and for a few moments Katara is, quite literally, the air he breathes.
"Still not sure yet?" she whispers against his mouth.
"Mmm. I think I'm getting the idea."
A/N: First of all, HA—both Sokka and Zuko would have lost their bets, since Aang didn't fumble the proposal and Zuko won the pai sho game off-screen. Heh. And second of all—THIS THING TOTALLY WROTE ITSELF. I mean, I was like, "So, Aang-muse, what will Aang give Katara for this engagement thing?" And Aang-muse was like, "NOTHING! MOO HA HA." And it totally worked. O-O
Also, I apologize for the lack of Toph and Iroh in this story. It was a Kataang fluff, but also I wanted to try my hand at Sokka-Zuko BFF action. That part of the fic is dedicated solely to my Pen-chan, who is a deity among deities.