Good news! My computer stopped being a dumbface, though none of you knew it was being a dumbface in the first place. However, that means I can get back to writing and I DID. So here's a oneshot to tide me over until more inspiration strikes me for Parlor Tricks.
Disclaimer: I do not own Avatar
"You're trying to leave, aren't you?"
Aang froze, wincing. He immediately ceased tying Appa's reins to his horns and glanced over his shoulder. As expected, Katara was standing beside Appa on the chilly hay-strewn floor, hands on her hips. He slid to the ground in front of her and stared diligently at his feet. Looking up at her would only make it worse. He knew exactly what she was doing.
She was just standing there, being beautiful and flustered and probably rather tired. It was, after all, the middle of the night. He wondered if she was cold, considering she slept in a silk nightgown that wouldn't keep her warm at all if she and Aang hadn't been sharing a bed for the past few months.
She might be angry at him, focusing that dark gaze at him until he felt it burning on him. She might be worried, biting her lip and drumming her fingers on her hips. She might be disappointed, frowning a little but trying not to be. He didn't really like his options.
"Aang," she said at length, and she bent down into his range of vision. He sighed and looked up at her. She didn't look angry or worried. He decided disappointed was the worst of the three. At least it made him feel the worst. "You were trying to leave."
Not a question. Statement. Her voice unusually quiet, soft, downtrodden and humorlessly curious.
"Yes, I was," he admitted slowly. He was trying to hold her gaze. He really was. But that disappointed way she was looking at him… it made him want to run and hide. The worst of it was that she didn't look disappointed in him. She looked disappointed in herself.
Katara sighed and looked down, shuffling her feet. "Why do you want to go, Aang?" she asked gently, crossing her arms over her chest to ward off the South Pole chill. "We've been through this before."
"I know," he muttered, glancing away. He heard Appa snore behind him. He'd fallen back to sleep. Aang frowned. He couldn't understand why the bison would be tired. All he did was sleep all day since the war ended three years ago. "How did you catch me?"
"I know what day it is," she replied, sounding a little hesitant. "You tried to run off last year on this day. And the year before." She took a step closer to him and placed a hand on his shoulder. A hand that was still warm, somehow, despite her shivering. "I know you still feel guilty, Aang, but you have to stop trying to leave."
Aang reached up and placed a hand over hers out of instinct. She smiled a little. He looked away from her again.
"I can't help it, Katara," he murmured. "I messed up…"
She sighed and reached for his other shoulder, drawing herself right up to him. She finally couldn't take the cold anymore, he realized. So he wrapped his arms around her waist on some natural impulse to keep her safe. The same impulse that had nearly gotten her killed three years ago today.
The thought of that final confrontation was chased from his mind for a moment when he felt her sigh and bury her face into that comfortable space between his shoulder and neck. He smiled a little, heat rising to his cheeks. She had an uncanny ability to make him forget his troubles. She had told him he did the same for her.
"Okay, you messed up," she consented quietly, lips tickling his neck as she spoke. He exhaled slowly and she smiled. "But it was one mistake. You can't let one mistake tear down all of the things you didn't mess up."
"But it was one mistake that almost…" he choked on the end of the sentence. The thought that he almost lost her, and worse yet it was his fault, still managed to stop his mind in its tracks.
"I'm still here," she pointed out gently. "Everything turned out alright."
But what if it hadn't? He didn't say it out loud, he knew she would just tell him to stop worrying about what might have happened and focus on what did. But what might have happened was what turned up in his nightmares that inevitably ended in him waking in a cold sweat, clinging to her as if he was keeping her from death itself with just his arms. And she would always just be resting in his embrace, whispering comfort that he couldn't hear and patiently waiting for him to return to her.
Those nightmares… they hadn't gotten better or worse in the three years since his defeat of the Fire Lord, but they still showed up every now and then. They were always the same. He would replay the beginning of the battle with the Fire Lord in his head. Katara, much to his worry, was in the same room fighting Azula. The four of them were caught in a constantly shifting battle, Aang unable to keep his full attention on Ozai. He couldn't help but worry about her.
Before he knew it, he was jumping in front of her to shield her from a lightning bolt, from whom he didn't know. But as he lost consciousness, he saw the look of horror on Katara's face, the tears in her eyes, and he realized he was leaving her alone with Ozai and Azula.
When he came to, minutes or hours later he didn't know, Katara was lying beside him. Waking up next to her had always been a dream of his. But this was a nightmare. In reality, the Avatar State saved them both. But in his sleep, she never survived.
"Stop," she said suddenly. He jumped slightly, startled. Her face was still out of sight, warm against his neck. But somehow she knew that he was drifting down that road again. "Stop worrying about me."
"I have to worry about you," he said abruptly. "I love you."
She laughed, settling herself more comfortably against him.
"I love you too," she said, and he felt her smile. "But you need to save some of that worry for yourself." She took his perplexed silence as an invitation to continue. "Where were you going to go?"
"The Southern Air Temple," he sighed, turning and kissing the top of her head. "I was going to go back and rebuild it so I could live there. It's safer for me to be on my own."
"Safer for who?" she asked shrewdly. He fell silent again and she paused, letting the quiet sink in and making him feel rather stupid. "Were you going to come back?"
"Eventually," he said quietly, shrugging. "Once this Avatar business calmed down…"
"It never will," she pointed out firmly. He lacked a response again. "You'll always be the Avatar. You can't change that by leaving."
"I'll come back, Katara," he muttered. She abruptly pulled away from him while still staying close enough for him to hold onto her. She frowned and gave him a shrewd look, contemplative and a little worried.
"We're off to a great start, Aang," she said gently. "You and me… we have a beginning." He smiled. She smiled right back. "We have a really great beginning," she continued, laughing a little. But she tilted her head and looked at him carefully. "But if you leave, all we'll have is a beginning and an end when you come back."
"But…" Aang began after several silent moments, though he really had nowhere to go from there.
"I want to have a middle with you," Katara said bluntly. Aang felt a smile creeping up on him. She sighed and looked at her feet. "I don't want to just… be with you again in who-knows-how-many years. I want to spend those years with you." She looked up at him, a gentle and slightly nervous smile on her face. "I want a middle. Don't you?"
He laughed. "Of course I do," he sighed. "The middle is where all the good stuff happens."
"Like what?" she asked, yawning and resting her head on his shoulder again.
He pulled her close and smiled. "The marriage, the kids…" he began.
She frowned. "Too far ahead," she murmured. "What good stuff happens now?"
"Much more of this," he replied through a yawn of his own. She made a small noise of agreement followed by a tired sigh. "Bed?"
"Please," she sighed again. So he scooped her up into his arms, eliciting no more than a giggle from her, and started back toward their little house.
"So am I going to have to talk you down again next year?" she murmured into his shoulder.
He looked at her for a while, so peaceful in his arms. He smiled.
"I don't think so."