Gah, I've been struggling with whether to post this. I'm not entirely happy with the ending yet, but I'm anxious to see what people think of it. Tacky or not, this will be a 3 chapter postie. Inspired by the song Nightswimming by REM, brought forth due to a very long flight home last Christmas. Takes place just after DOBS - written before the Western Airtemple, thus my descriptions should not contain any spoilers for those of you who have not spoiled yourselves. There may be some spoiliers in the last chapter, but I'll give good warning for that.
Synopsis: In the wake of the serious defeat during the DOBS attack, the gaang and their new companions reach the Western Airtemple to collect themselves and develop their next course of action. Aang has pulled inside himself, wrought with guilt, and Katara is dangerously near a breakdown despite her strength, but a midnight interlude may be just the thing they both need to get them through the rest of this war. Contains lots of Kataang goodness, how their relationship is tied to the avatar, and hints at my thoughts on the reason Aang was frozen for so long.
May this be entertaining and let me know what you think!
I do not own Avatar. Mike, Bryan, and Nick Studios do, but they were kind enough to let me borrow them. I promise to return characters dry cleaned, pressed, and wrapped in plastic.
Rated T for safety.
Chapter One: Love is Brightest in the Dark
The ride to the Western Air Temple was had in complete silence. After Aang announced their destination, there was little else to be said. Katara sat behind him in Appa's saddle, staring into the blue line of his tattoo that curved softly with his neck. Appa was still flying in full armor, but he wasn't complaining, and Katara had a feeling he was aware of all that had transpired.
The air blowing past them was the only sound that played upon her ears. As she pulled her eyes away from the back of Aang's head to take in the solemn faces around her, her heart sank deeper. She looked down at her wrist guards, toying with her hands a moment before letting out a heavy breath. It seemed to freeze and fall to her lap, and not for the first time that day, she bit back her need to cry for the defeat, for the people sacrificed, for the loss of her father…again.
In an attempt to distract herself she picked her head back up, tossing it a little to the side and letting the wind catch her hair and move it away from her face. Her eyes were met with the curve of Aang's arrow again, and her thoughts turned to him. He had not looked behind him or spoken a word, but she didn't need to see his face to feel how broken his heart was. She knew how badly he wanted to set things right. She knew of the guilt he bore for running away 100 years ago, the shame of his defeat at Ba Sing Se, and now this. His chance to redeem himself had been thwarted.
Of course, she knew he would not see it that way. He would see it as his failure and his alone. He would bare the souls that had stayed behind on his back right next to the scar Azula had marked him with.
This new direction of thoughts was not helping her at all. Her chest ached for her father and the other adults, but it only grew more intense as she pondered over Aang's feeling. She had accepted her bond to him for awhile now, but it was difficult during his times of emotional wreckage. He didn't realize, and she would never tell him, but she felt it too. The troubles he bore were never his alone. She carried them too, and as talented as she was at always finding away to turn it around for him, she found herself struggling to find anything positive about this moment.
The Waterbender sighed again, lowering her eyes a bit to the place where Aang's scar rested beneath his orange and yellow robes. I wish I knew how to heal your heart. She pursed her lips and allowed herself to look around at the thin clouds slowly growing thicker as they neared their destination. She wondered if Aang had been to this temple before. He so rarely talked about what it was like growing up for him with the nomads. He had shared that one night in the cave with her, but that had been it, and she never asked for fear it may be too painful for him. She worried now that it may be worse, with the defeat, and no way to know what condition the temple was left in. Just one more crack, that's all it might take. She paused, and then thought, for him or for you Katara?
She shook the thought from her head, gathering her strength in remembering when she first found him in the iceberg. How happy and light he had been before the weight of the world literally dropped like rocks onto his shoulders. Then it suddenly occurred to her, If Aang hadn't run away and been trapped in that iceberg, I never would have known him. Never would have met him. We'd have been in completely different lifetimes. The fate of the world may have been different but… She paused, brining her eyes back to his tattoo, and suddenly found her lips tingling with warm speckles. She resisted the urge to reach up and touch them as the full memory of his kiss filled her senses. There is that. She thought to herself, the one positive thing she could find in the chaos of tragedy that surrounded them. If she'd had any doubts about how deep her feelings for Aang were before, there was none now. His kiss had startled her, obviously, but the touch had instantly lit her face on fire. Powerless to stop it, she had given into it all for
that brief moment. Then he was gone, and she was left with nothing but the warmth showing beneath her flesh. In spite of all that had happened, there was that.
The temple was amazing. She cranked her neck back to gaze upward at the towering spires that twisted and swirled, all the way down to the base that revealed engravings of Sky Bison in various poses. She could tell this place had once been filled with gardens and Lemurs, Bison, and who knows what other creatures had made their home here. She knew it must have been a sight to behold. She turned around to tell Aang so, but was already on the other side of Appa helping Sokka remove his armor. The two were silent as they worked. She sighed again, lowering her head and grabbing what was left of their pack supplies and followed after The Duke, Haru, Toph, and Teo.
It was Teo who first broke the silence, unable to contain his amazement at the beauty of the architecture any longer.
"I've been at the Northern Temple for as long as I can remember, but that is nothing compared to this. Look at all the spirals and sculptures. It's incredible."
Katara nodded, about to comment but Toph piped in slowly.
"It seems that these Airbenders had hair." She curled up her face a bit in confusion, getting images of the statues from the vibrations of Teo's chair on the stone pathways.
"That's because only female Airbenders lived at the Eastern and Western temples."
Katara whipped around, sending her hair flying to her back as Aang came up behind them solemnly. It was the first time he had spoken since they left.
"Female Airbenders shave the front of their head to expose their arrow, and then they let their hair grow out behind it. They were the keepers of the Bison. I came here once, to get Appa."
Katara pursed her lips again and nodded with arms still full of supplies. "It's beautiful." She said sincerely, looking at him intently and attempting to express her concern for him through her eyes, but he ignored it, looking away intently.
"Follow me. I'll show you were we can camp for the night." He kept his head down, staff in one hand, Momo resting on his shoulders quietly. Even the normally chatty monkey was downcast.
Katara bit her lip and followed behind the others, Appa and Sokka brining up the rear. Sokka had yet to speak either. She slowed her pace till he caught up. She had intended to say something, but there wasn't anything to say. The moment she was beside him she knew exactly what was going through his mind. Dad… With head lowered she walked beside her brother and together they silently wallowed in their anguish.
Aang had led them to what had once been a covered arboretum. The remnants of dead plants and trees still remained, along with a rusted pipe that had apparently spouted water for the bison and any other thirsty passerbyers. They built a small, respect fire in a pit that Haru gracefully made. It didn't take much for him, a few boulders here and there and they were set. Sokka and The Duke had set about getting some spare wood, asking Aang if it was ok to take some of the dead tree limbs. Aang had dismissed them and told them to do whatever they wanted, and he'd went about setting up the sleeping bags and gathering water. Toph had gone with him while Katara had prepared the meal for that evening.
They ate in mostly silence. A few people spoke here and there, particularly Teo, Haru, and The Duke. She could tell they felt nervous. The rest of them had grown so comfortable with each other in the past months that silence, given the circumstances, wouldn't have needed to be broken. They were all grieving, and they were doing it in their own ways, but the new comers didn't quite understand that. No one seemed to mind though. It was a bit of a distraction, and Sokka even talked a little. Mostly asking Haru about what had happened after they left and about his new facial hair. He admitted to being vastly jealous, but that was all the joke the Water Tribe warrior could offer. It was a dim night indeed.
Katara had been listening, taking it all in, commenting here and there, but out of the corner of her eye she'd been watching Aang. He was perched on a ledge by one of the carved out windows that surrounded the arboretum. He held his staff downward, as if on guard duty, but if that's what he was doing he said nothing. He didn't even eat. Looking up at the ceiling she saw more paintings of Sky Bison and wind patterns sketched together in a beautiful motif. It was breath taking, and had it been any other time, it might not have brought her such immense sadness. This place is far too quiet. It shouldn't be like this. She brought her eyes back down to Aang, and to her surprise was met with fierce grey eyes. It startled her, and she visibly inhaled as their eyes locked for a minute and she could feel them having one of their wordless conversations.
And that was it. She couldn't take it any longer. She stood up and politely excused herself from the group, claiming she needed a little walk before bed. No one objected or even questioned her. They all understood she needed a moment to grieve.
Grateful, she slipped away, with one last long look at Aang, who was still staring at her, then she turned on heel and exited through the entry way.
When she stepped into the cool air, a gust of wind blew her hair loops back and she closed her eyes, leaning into it a bit and imaging it blowing way the sorrow surrounding her. It helped a little, and she was glad she had left when she did. She didn't know how much longer she could be strong, and she did not want Aang to see her break down. He needed her to be strong right now, to get him through this, and somehow keep his spirit intact. She knew if she was going to do that, she needed to have a moment to herself.
The moon was full. It was interesting to think it had, hours earlier, eclipsed the sun in its brilliance, but that was over now. It was the same moon, and she could feel it filling her with a peace that only the moon could. Water… she needed water. The two together would be a good outlet for her. She just needed to touch it, feel it, have it caress her skin and wash away whatever darkness it could.
She followed the path in the direction of the moon, winding around and through places that looked as if they had been like a park. Stone benches with Air Nomad symbols carved into them. Statues of female benders littered one area, and she guessed from the various symbols and kneeling pads that this must have been a place of worship, or mediation. She wasn't even sure if Air Nomads worshiped anything, but she did know they were highly spiritual. The entire grounds were breath taking, even the play area she encountered just before she saw the spot she was looking for. There was a pool of water still surviving beneath a Bodhisattva tree. It was just off to the side of what had obviously been a recreation or game area. She recognized the game Sokka and Aang had played at the Southern Temple, as well as some other equipment she did not recognize. All of it looked pretty battered and run down though. She was almost afraid to touch it for fear it might break.
The waterbender inhaled deeply and made her way to the small pool she'd spotted. The Moon seemed to have been drawn to it as well because it hovered over it, almost calling her to come sit down and be comforted. Katara listened.
She closed her eyes as she slipped her feet into the cool water, her fingers burring into what was left of the grass beneath her. It took a few moments. She felt it coming. The welling from deep within her stomach, moving up to her chest, and then getting stuck in her throat. She'd been holding it there all night, and only now did she finally release it. With the Moon as her only witness she unleashed a sob and fell forward, hands reaching up to cradle her face as her body wracked with the sorrows she was releasing into the pond.
A very delicate and hesitant voice sounded from behind her.
Instantly cutting off her sob, she sucked it back in, causing her stomach to churn. She couldn't look right away, needing a moment to collect her face and wipe away the tears. She didn't need to look behind her to know.
"Wha…what are you doing here Aang?" She fought to keep her voice as level as possible, but there was no meanness in her tone. She was simply trying to hide her breakdown.
"I…I followed you."
She swallowed, still wiping at the tears that just would not stop coming and getting angry at them for it. "Why, why did you do that?"
Aang bit down on his bottom lip, tears welling up in his eyes as guilt and shame threatened to overwhelm him, but he held it together. She deserved that much from him. He took a gentle step forward, so soft it made practically no sound. "Because I needed to tell you something. I needed to tell you that…that I'm sorry. I'm so sorry." He took another step forward and dropped down to his knees beside her. "I'm sorry for taking your father away from you again. For failing you." He lowered his head, trying hard to clear his throat but the tears came anyway. He looked away from her and wiped at them, then turned back, conviction in his voice, anger on his face. "But I'll get him back for you Katara. I promise. Not the avatar, but me. I won't let you be without your father again."
Katara used the wraps around her wrists to wipe at her eyes. She had long since discarded her wrist guards, but the wraps were always there, just in case something happened, and something always happened.
She looked at him, pulling her feet out of the water and brining them up to her chest. She rested her head on it, eyes red, nose runny. She watched him struggle to hold back his tears and look away from her in shame. She could feel it dripping off of him and leeching into her. She reached out and gripped the hand that was resting on the ground nearest her. She held it tightly, wrapping her fingers around it and squeezing.
She heard him sniff as he used his arm to wipe his eyes and then turned to her, his orbs as red and haunted as her own. She could hear him asking her why, why did she hold onto him when he should be left alone to suffer for his crimes.
"You don't understand do you?"
He looked at her blankly.
She lowered her eyes a moment, nerves striking her heart, but it was quickly erased by the desperation of the moment. "I'm not just worried about my father Aang. I…I'm worried for you too. I'm crying…for you, as much as for him."
Aang blinked a few times, staring at her as confusion slowly entered his eyes. "I don't…"
In an instant she leaned forward and encased his lips with hers. She pressed against him hard, squeezing his hand tighter and using it to pull him closer to her. She held him there as the heat she was now becoming familiar with flared like lightening. She felt him stiffen, much as she had when he had surprised her, and it took a second before he melted into her. Then she tasted salt on her lips, not just from his tears, but hers as well. When she released his mouth, she knew they were both crying.
"Do you understand now?" She muttered softly, giving up on halting her tears and letting him see her for all her strength and weakness.
Aang nodded slowly as he looked at her face, at her blue eyes reflecting the moonlight like the pool of water in front of them. He reached up and delicately wiped the tears on her cheek with the back of his hand. She closed her eyes, leaning into it and used her free hand to cup his own as she sort or rubbed her cheek against his palm.
"I need you" She whispered against his palm. "I need you, to be, you."
Aang released a shaky breath he'd been holding since she kissed him. A few more tears spilled down his face before he gave into them fully and threw his arms around her, pulling her tightly into an embrace. "I…I think you already know how much I need you, but I still have no idea how someone as strong and brave as you could need me."
For the first time since they arrived at the temple, the corners of her mouth curled into a smile. She sniffed and pulled away to look at him. "Because you remind me how fun life can be. You remind me to actually live it."
Now it was Aang's turn to reveal a hidden smile. He thought she was crazy, but he could see the truth of her words on her face. He shook his head a little in amazement.
"Now, do you see why I need you to get through this? Why I need you to stop blaming yourself and recognize how hard you are trying, how much hope you've already given the world?"
He pursed his lips and nodded gently, still holding her hand down by the grass. The cool dew from it causing a stark contrast between the heat radiating from their touch. "I just want to make you proud, and I need to right the wrong that's been done."
Now it was Katara's turn to reach up and cup his cheek. "You have, and you will Aang. I've never doubted that for a second."
The airbender actually laughed a little, sadness tainted it, but lighter than before. "You've never given up on me."
She shook her head. "And I won't."
He closed his eyes and relinquished her hand on the ground to use both of them to grasp the one pressed to his face. He sighed into it, his face sticky with his grief. He breathed in the scent of her skin and could smell the salt from her tears. He kissed her hand softly, once, twice, and a third time before he opened his eyes to look at her again.
When it happened this time, they were both ready. Their excitement filled the air like static and seemed to spark as they drew near. Both closed their eyes in anticipation. They could feel each other's breath on their lips, their stomachs twisting elatedly, and then…
"Hey you two. Whatcha doing way out here?" Sokka walked up to the pair curled closely by the pool of water, Momo perched on his shoulder with his head cocked quizzically.
They jumped away so quickly Aang actually airbended himself up an inch before settling back down a small distance from Katara. Not a single piece of their body remained in contact.
Katara looked away, quickly hiding her flushed cheeks as Aang tried to collect himself and erase the horror from his face. He knew he should say something, but the airbender could find no words.
With a deep breath, Katara forced her racing heart to steady and turned to face her brother. "I came out here to collect myself. Aang found me out here a few minutes ago."
Sokka furrowed his brow and looks suspiciously at the two. The warrior could definitely be foolish at times, but he was no idiot. He'd seen this coming for awhile now. He contemplated yanking Aang up by his robes and chewing them both out for being irresponsible, but today wasn't exactly normal circumstances. He looked at his sister's face and sighed. Ah, who am I kidding. I can't be a hypocrite. If I'd met princess Yue at 14 I wouldn't have been able to resist either, no matter how young I was. He shook his head. "All right, well, it's time to turn in anyway. Toph and Haru found some rooms we can stay in. Let's call it a day."
Aang still looked shell shocked, but he managed to nod and get to his feet a little shakily. He offered his hand to Katara to help her stand, but the menacing glare he received from Sokka caused him to retract it rather comically. He blushed a little and put his hand behind his head innocently.
Katara rolled her eyes and ignored Sokka's hand as he extended it, getting to her feet herself. "Thanks Sokka." She said in a rather sarcastic tone.
Her brother shrugged and gave a goofy grin. "No problem Sis."
Katara scoffed and started walking back towards the temple ruins.
Aang looked at Sokka and gave him a cheesy grin, but the warrior practically growled and shot flame from his nose. "Whoa!" Aang leaped up into the air and took off running to catch up with Katara.
Sokka followed behind giving the lemur a pat on the head. "Crisis averted Momo. We better keep an eye on those two." He winked at his furry friend who blinked at him as if he were crazy. They joined the rest of the group who were picking rooms and roommates for the evening.
"I know you two are already bunkmates, but would you mind if I join you? I'm not that big, and I don't take up a lot of space." The Duke looked innocently at Haru and Teo who were heading to the nearest room that had two beds. Haru and Teo looked at each other then chuckled.
"Well of course Duke. We wouldn't have it any other way. I'm sure we can make another bed. Teo's very inventive." Haru smiled gently.
"That's great!" The Duke leaped up and shouted, then frowned as he came back down. "but how many times do I have to tell you, it's "The Duke!"
Haru chuckled and puts his hand on his little friends back. "All right, all right. Common…THE Duke."
Teo laughed and rolled his eyes as he rolled behind quickly in his chair.
The original gang was left standing around the dying fire. "There's only two more rooms that we found" Toph spoke up. "Unless of course Twinkle Toes knows of any others."
Aang looked down at the ground and shook his head. "I'd have to do some exploring. I only came here once."
Toph nodded. "Ok then, looks like Sugar Queen and I…"
Sokka interrupted, "Actually, I think Katara and I will room tonight. It will be just like back home." He threw his arm around Katara's shoulder and punched it with his other arm gently. "Huh, huh. Just like old times. We can stay up playing shadow puppets like we used to."
Katara rolled her eyes again and crossed her arms. "Greeeaaaaate."
Toph looked at Aang and threw up her arms in exaggerated excitement. "Guess that means me and you Twinkle Toes!" She laughed menacingly and punched his arm.
Aang's shoulders slumped and he tried to give an excited expression, but gave up when he remembered Toph wouldn't be able to see it. As he followed the Earthbender to their shared room for the evening he looked back over his shoulder to watch Katara walk away with her brother. His eyes met hers as she cranked her neck to look back at him. He saw her smile just a little bit, and unable to help himself, he smiled back and mouthed the words "Goodnight" before turning around and catching up to Toph.
Ta Da! You made it through the angsty part. Now onto fluff! Chapter two will be full of romance.