The sun had long disappeared behind the craggy tops of Ba Sing Se's tattered buildings when Aang and Katara finally found the wherewithal to separate their lips. It happened in gradual stages. Nibbling kisses slowly became tender nose nuzzles and tender nose nuzzles eventually gave way to softly exchanged breaths until finally only their foreheads rested together in the aftermath. They stared into one another's eyes and drank each other in, their lips curved in a mutually secretive smile.
"The sun's gone down," Aang remarked, not daring to break her limpid blue stare.
Katara felt her cheeks warm at the observation, but she didn't look away either. She just liked looking at him. "I know."
"We've been out here for a long time," he considered next.
Her blush burned hotter. "I guess we have."
The manner in which she said the words, as well as her marked lack of regret over the fact, made Aang shiver a little. All he wanted to do was kiss her again. However, making a concerted effort not to look at her lips and do just that, Aang nervously pulled his lower lip between his teeth and stammered, "So…um…can I assume this means you're not confused anymore?"
A shy smile wobbled on the edges of her mouth. "You can." She expelled a small sigh. "And, for the record, I don't think I was so much confused as I was…scared."
"Of what I felt for you…of losing you…"
"So you're not 'scared' anymore?" Aang wondered.
"No," Katara laughed ironically. "I'm still scared."
"Then Katara, what does this mean exactly?" Aang asked, confused.
"It means we're going to be together," she told him, "Because I'd rather be with you and scared than be without you and miserable."
His grin stretched a mile wide. "So it's the right time. Now we can be together?" he emphasized for clarification.
Before she had said that it hadn't been the right time but that was before the war ended, before Firelord Ozai had been removed from power, before she recognized the full height and breadth and depth of her love for him, before she was able to untangle her fierce need for him from her even fiercer fear of losing him. Now, Katara reasoned, everything had changed. She returned his infectious smile, skimming his cheeks with the tips of her fingers because she suddenly could not stop touching him.
"Yes, Aang," she replied softly, closing her eyes in expectation of his elated kiss, "now we can be together." His excited "whoo-hoo" was all too soon muffled against her lips and laughing smiles dissolved into contented sighs.
Many minutes later they walked through the tearoom threshold together, hand and hand, and cheeks stained with conspicuous crimson. Self-conscious and hyper aware, it escaped neither Katara nor Aang's notice that the room became uncommonly silent upon their entrance. In fact, all eyes fixed upon them rather avidly the second they came into view. Suddenly feeling on display, they exchanged a furtive look and guiltily released hands.
"Hey guys," Aang greeted hesitantly, feeling on display, "What's up?"
Everyone present made a production of having a casual air but the knowing grins plastered across all their faces was a little hard to miss. Aang and Katara split a look, an uneasy feeling of embarrassment sweeping between them and that was before Suki skipped over and asked, "So how was the sunset?"
"The sunset?" Aang and Katara echoed blankly.
"That is why you went outside, right?" Sokka elicited in a sly tone.
"You were gone an awful long time," Zuko threw in.
"I was beginning to think that maybe you weren't coming back," Mai commented.
"We were starting to worry…" General Iroh explained with a knowing eyebrow wiggle.
"Oh the point is," Toph interrupted with an impatient huff, "we saw you both…kissing." Aang and Katara barely had time to adjust to that and the fiery blushes the revelation caused before Toph was following up in demand, "So tell us. Are you two together or not?"
Embarrassment forgotten, Katara turned a soft smile in Aang's direction and gladly reclaimed his hand. "Yes," she answered, her eyes locked with Aang's the entire time. "We're together."
"It's about time!" Toph snorted. "Wow, you two are slow!"
"Be careful what you wish for, Toph," Mai warned with an ironic smile. She tipped her head over to where Katara and Aang continued to regard one another with besotted smiles. Following the line of her stare, the others reacted to the sweet scene with a mixture of awws and groans.
"Yeah, this is going to get old fast," Zuko muttered under his breath.
"So now that the balance in the Avatar's love life is restored," Mai yawned, "Can we go to the theater now or is this the part where we watch them make-out…again?"
Mai's dry teasing provoked yet another heated blush from the young couple but they didn't dare release each other's hands. In fact, they moved closer together with shy, self-conscious smiles. However, Sokka was quick to insinuate himself between the two of them. "Um…no," Sokka said. "I'm willing to give you both that one time out in the courtyard. After all, Aang's a hero so I guess he deserved it but…" he prefaced as Katara rolled her eyes, "…that's it. No more kissing. You can hold hands and I'm okay if you give him a hug once a week." He looked over at Suki then, thinking about the last hug she had given him and where it had led. "Make that once a month," he amended in afterthought, inciting a chorus of laughter from his companions.
Iroh watched the exchange between the teenagers unfold with a broad, beaming smile. He had always wanted Zuko to have family and friends but he had never imagined he'd be blessed in such abundance. "So shall we go?" he asked.
"I don't know," Aang hedged, "The last time we attended a play together that turned out to be not so fun." Really that wasn't his issue at all. Before his kiss with Katara Aang had been perfectly willing to spend the evening at the theater. In fact, he had been looking forward to the opportunity to simply kick back and enjoy himself. Post-kiss, however, all he could think about was kissing her again. And, if the tender look she was giving him right then was any indication, Katara felt the same.
"I'm sure this play is going to be much better than the last one," Toph said, already nudging them both towards the exit. She came around to flank Katara and took hold of her sleeve to drag her away. "Besides," she added with a flashing smile back at Aang, "I want details."
Aang's last glimpse of Katara was the helpless look she threw over her shoulder at him before Zuko stepped alongside him and effectively blocked her from his view. Aang regarded him with a mild but woebegone look. For the most part, however, Zuko was oblivious.
"So…uh…congratulations…I guess…" he stammered uncomfortably. "You and Katara make a beautiful couple."
"You know I…I wanted to say that…well, I wanted to ask you…"
"Don't worry about it," Aang interrupted, figuring he knew what had his friend so tongue-tied. "I know nothing ever happened between you and Katara in the crystal catacombs. Don't sweat it."
Zuko pinned him with a "no duh" look. "Yeah, it's not about that. Just no. Katara's like…my little sister. That's too…weird." They both paused to regard each other in the sheer irony of that statement.
"Okay…" Aang drawled. "So what's going on?"
"I need a favor from you."
"I'm not asking the Avatar, Aang," Zuko clarified softly, his steps slowing to the point that he and Aang fell behind the group entirely. "I'm asking my friend."
"Whatever you need, Zuko," Aang replied sincerely.
Zuko regarded him with an earnest stare before taking a deep breath and asking finally, "Help me find my mother."