I'm going through and editing this story that I wrote when I was 18.
I'm uploading this on my AO3, remembertowrite, as well: archiveofourown (period) org (slash) works (slash) 11443665
It's really the simplest moments in life when she's the happiest. Stupid things like bad drawings and complaints about artistic talent (or lack thereof) fill her with so much joy and hope that she wants to cuddle herself up in a ball and cry for the sheer beauty of the moment like the Tearbender she is. Here in the waning hours of the day, in a small tea shop in Ba Sing Se, here is life at its fullest, its most beautiful. This is what she fought the war for. This is everything, everything, even though it's nothing, just Sokka being stupid again.
Nothing is everything, in these blazing hours before dusk.
She kisses Aang with assertiveness unknown to him, with a need for love and for peace and forever stopping this moment in time, freezing it so all she can do is breathe and bask in dying sunlight. She wants to absorb his very being into her, to swallow him whole (she knows the thought is strange but it feels so fitting, to take all of him and the world and everything into her, to ingest this whole moment and leave it etched on her heart for eternity).
She kisses him not because she loves him, specifically, but because she loves everything, because she is so happy and relieved. And here someone is waiting, and here she can finally express her full love of these moments at dusk and her love of everyone, everyone who is doing nothing and still making her love them. How she has longed for a moment like this—a childish feeling of stopping time, a timeworn feeling of utter contentment.
She is a child, a teenager, and an elder all at once; she is the Avatar's girl, everyone's girl, everyone's lover, because she loves everyone and everything. She loves the world, and it is such a strange sentiment.
It is home, she realizes. It is the feeling of home.
"Katara?" Aang asks her softly, breaking the kiss. She keeps her tight embrace around him, never wanting to let go of this moment of peace, never wanting to leave Sokka, Toph, Suki, Iroh, Zuko, all of them. She loves them.
"What, Aang?" she murmurs quietly into his shoulder, squeezing her eyes shut and mourning the warmth vanishing from her skin as she feels the sun set. She's never noticed just how sobering it is to feel the sun pull back its warm rays and abandon her to the cool night. She begins to miss the warmth before it's even gone.
"Katara," he says again, struggling to break free of her grasp, "Katara, Katara, what's wrong, you're crying—"
Yes, she's crying, she's crying, why didn't she notice before? Her shoulders heave heavily, and her spirit sinks as the sun retreats from her skin, and all she has is body heat, warm but not nearly enough, and why is this moment ending so soon?
She lets go and falls to her knees, defeated, and spirits why did the moment leave, why did the sun flee, why did Aang break away?
"Katara!" Aang shouts. She hears the confusion and concern in his voice, and it's enough to break her and send her to the rough stone ground. She lies on her side, tears flowing out of her eyes and dribbling down her chin and across the bridge of her nose. She fingers the cracks between the stone, relishing its roughness, suddenly struck by how wonderful these old stones are. Her eyes close again—her body shakes once or twice, and only when someone shouts out does she really know what's physically happening to her.
Her hand flops onto the ground, palm facing up. Her hair shadows her face, and her breathing is quiet and steady if not soft.
"Katara," a voice whispers in her ear, and there's a hand on her shoulder (it's so warm, as warm as the sun).
"Come on, let's get her inside," orders the same voice, strong and clearheaded. The hand extends to an arm and moves under her neck (and another arm snakes under her knees), and then she is the dawn held softly in the sun's warm rays. Another hand touches her shoulder, her face, and it's such a gentle hand, she wants to start crying with joy again.
She smiles to herself. "I'll be okay," she mouths breathily (her throat is sore).
The hand leaves her face as she curls into the lingering essence of the sun's rays, and she wishes that life weren't so beautiful and precious, so fragile, so easy to lose.
She wishes she could sometimes just let things go, but it's not that simple.
It never is.
The supreme irony of the situation never fails to astound if not amuse him. For his whole past life, he's been unlucky and disowned, hated by the Avatar and the others. Yet now he sits by the sleeping body of the Avatar's love, her brother next to him, a weighty title resting on his shoulders (Fire Lord—he will never get used to it), everything in the world he wants.
It strikes him that this isn't the first time he's stayed up all night next to a sleeping person, waiting to make sure that everything is all right. He's done it twice, both times to apologize for a grand scale wrong.
Both times, he was forgiven.
That's the kind of love he doesn't understand—he will never completely come to terms with himself about why he deserves such love, when all he's done his whole life is mess up one thing after another. Uncle considers him an idealist. Katara considers him a redeemed enemy. Both consider him good.
He will never merit their love, or their forgiveness, but he can appreciate it and reciprocate it in small ways like staying by their side the whole night, watching over them.
Because he cares. He really, really cares.
He doesn't know what happened between Katara and Aang (he has an idea but he won't say anything). He just knows that something's wrong with Katara, but she'll be better, and something's wrong with Aang, but he'll be better too once he sleeps it off tonight.
Aang's missing presence is strange to Zuko, but he's not going to ask. Everybody gets a little insecure from time to time, he supposes, and people need their distance.
He's just not one of those people that will distance himself from someone who needs him. So he stays by Katara's side the whole night, not really minding even as Sokka falls asleep on his shoulder. For tonight, he'll tolerate it, because it's really all he can do to repay everything Katara's done for him.
He smiles wryly, thinking he'll always be in her debt.
The two of them laugh gaily like the children they wish they were, reveling in the feel of the cold wind biting at their skin and the butterflies in their stomachs as they fly over the snow. Katara giggles to herself, lowering her head closer to the penguin in an attempt to improve the aerodynamics. She knows she's not in the air, but it's fun to think of penguin sledding in terms of flying, the thrilling kind of flying that only Aang is capable of. He's the one that soars beside her—well, above her now, for his penguin glides above her like penguins did in the old days—but soon even he falls back to the snow, back to the earth, back to the land where it all began.
The day is warm and clear, with no clouds to mar the beauty of the sky or to interrupt the joy of nostalgia. Let's go back to when it started, she thinks, when things were simpler and happier.
But she'd never go back, never again, because now is bliss, because now is peace, because now is now, and she can't ever go back even if she wanted to. Now she's older and wiser and more powerful and in love.
In love. How weird that sounds.
She shakes her head as her penguin slides to a stop. Silly her, she was always in love.
(She is simply in love with life.)
"Hey Katara!" Aang calls to her, laughing and enjoying himself. His face flushes from the cold, but Katara knows it also has something to do with her, even though they've acknowledged each other, even though they are together. Things haven't changed at all—Aang still trips over himself from time to time, and he's still adorable and shy and forever the idealist. He's young and beautiful and naïve, and she can't help but admire that his purity endures in such a darkened world.
She waves to him, smiling warmly, and Aang beams in response. He trudges his way to her through the melting snow after giving his penguin an affectionate pat. His stance shifts, just a touch more confident. If she hadn't been paying so much attention she wouldn't have noticed the difference, but the change is there, and it disconcerts her even though she knows it's only Aang. Deciding to ignore her irrationality, she shoves the feeling to the back of her mind, maintaining the wide grin on her face.
"Katara," Aang murmurs, taking her hand in his insistently. He keeps getting closer and closer, and she yields to him as he captures her mouth with his own. It's a bit awkward—he's still shorter than her—yet he is still leading her. He expects something of her, she realizes, and he thinks she knows what he wants. She hesitates, and he pulls her closer.
Come to me, his movements seem to instruct.
She submits fully, giving and giving and never taking back. That is her duty, that is her purpose. She is Aang's, and no one would ever deny it for a second.
She is in love with life. She is in love with life. She loves her life.
And yet she is not at peace, because this—Aang's insistence and the expectations she must live up to, the world's demand that she must absolutely surrender her whole being and accept an identity defined by her relationship to Aang rather than standing on her own—this is not peace, not for her.
Aang breaks the kiss, positively loving everything that is her, and she closes her eyes, leaning into him, because he has trapped her body in his arms and her heart in his spirit.
She in love with life. She loves her life.
(This is not peace).
Zuko doesn't have a sister anymore. She's lost somewhere in her mind, imprisoned away from him and her father and everything that made her who she was. He hates her (he always has), and she is not his sister anymore, she is not his family anymore.
Mai puts her arm around him, seeking comfort and a break from the monotony around her. Zuko sighs to himself—Mai is always so bored—and he keeps thinking.
Never forget who you are.
You can never deny the bonds of blood.
"Mai," he says slowly, hesitating as he looks into her now intrigued eyes. She seems eager and receptive to whatever he says, as if he is the only dynamic thing in the world. He's the only thing that moves her world, gives her purpose, and she pays rapt attention to him because she has nothing else to do.
It's not the exact audience he really wants, but Iroh's in Ba Sing Se and Mai is physically here now, so he will have to settle for her.
"I keep thinking about everything that happened. And—"
"Zuko, relax," Mai chuckles. "The war's over. You're allowed to chill out and eat fruit tarts every once in a while."
He shakes his head. Why can't she just listen? His life isn't about ordering around servants anymore. It's about saving the world after the Avatar's done his part.
"You weren't there. You don't understand. Azula—Azula—"
Mai's face darkens. "She tried to kill you."
He turns his face away, the shadows clinging to his cheekbones and scar. The shadows are always seeking him out, he thinks, and he moves his face again towards the light, away from the shadows that always drag him down.
"She's broken, Mai." The frankness in his voice startles him—how does he care this much after everything that happened? And yet it's there, and Mai of all people should understand because she's Azula's friend too, even if Azula's alone, even if Azula's a raving lunatic confined forever to a solitary cell.
"Fine, Zuko. Let's go."
He raises his eyebrows; he's amazed she has actually agreed to go with him. He's grateful to her, though, because he can't do this alone.
When they finally see Azula, she is in the corner of her dark cell, hair unkempt. As she looks up to see her visitors, Zuko sees from her eyes that Azula is simply not there anymore.
"You," she hisses hoarsely. Her voice is breathy and scratchy, like she has been crying for days. She lets a little smoke waft out of her mouth and nose, and though the image is ridiculous, Zuko immediately thinks of her as a fallen dragon. Everything about her is fallen and broken, and she is simply not there. It scares him more than a sane Azula ever did.
Mai stares blankly at Azula, her eyes occasionally straying over to Zuko, but always returning focus on Azula, that thing that is and isn't the Fire Princess.
"Azula," he whispers.
Upon hearing him say her name, his sister screams. The fire gusts out her nose and mouth, smoke pouring out her ears. Her eyes turn red and yellow, and she loses herself again to tears and impassioned shouts of nothingness. She transforms into an incomprehensible mess, and she's not Azula, she's not his sister.
She has his blood, but she's not his sister. She never was.
Mai gapes at him as he twists 180 degrees and departs, clinging his arms to his body, as he himself becomes the not-Azula. He cries and sends smoke out his nose in a confused flurry of emotion.
She may have his blood, she may be his sister, she may be the Fire Nation and everything he strove for not a month ago, but she never had his heart.
He'll never go back to the old days, those brief fleeting times of crashing beach parties and traveling on palanquins, of eating fruit tarts and wearing a meaningless topknot, because his heart was never, never there.
"I want you to be with me, Katara. I want you to be with me always."
"I have to leave soon." A slight smile. "Come with me."
Before she can answer, he kisses her in front of the whole village. Dinnertime is approaching—the sweet smell of smoked Antarctic fish wafts into her nose as she inhales shallowly, resigned to the fact that she can't break the kiss. Aang holds on too tight, and she knows he'll be hurt. She'll offend him and say she's really not in the mood. So she melts away from the scene of her brother's raised eyebrow, her father's disapproving eyes, her village's gaping mouths.
"She's with the Avatar," a woman whispers, and then everyone chatters to each other like songbirds of the Earth Kingdom. She hears some of the younger men sigh at the apparent loss of a potential suitor, and her face flushes. This is happening so fast, she thinks. She feels exposed, as if she has just finished her bath only to find her clothing missing so that she must flee home stark naked.
She's naked in front of the village, declaring her undying love for the young Avatar without even saying a word or voicing her own opinion. She's kissing someone shorter and younger and purer than her, and she has become important by association.
I will forever be the Avatar's girl, she realizes. I'm no longer Katara.
The thought sends the world around her crashing to the ground. The sky overhead cracks, falling in shards to the hard-packed snow. She feels the sky-shards cutting into her head and face, tearing apart her poncho and drawing her blood so that it stains the snow. The village people don't flee but continue staring at her with vague intrigue. They observe as her form crumples, the warm fur of her poncho splaying out on the snow, its white feathery edges still gliding down, down, down in the air—
She comes back to reality, and she realizes she's resisting against Aang's grip, pushing him away and tearing her head to the side. She's crying—again? Crying again—and no this is not what I want, I don't know what I want anymore, I don't know who I am.
She frees herself from him, breathing heavily. The whole village still watches, scandalized. Aang stares at her in horror. She knows what she's just done. But that is her choice, and she must live with the consequences.
She grasps Aang's left wrist heavily and drags him into her family's tent. One icy look at Gran Gran later, the tent is empty save for the two of them. Her fingers loosen and trail along the length of Aang's hand. They trace the faded arrow tattoo in its natural direction, away from him, retreating back into the hunched body of the wildly insecure thing that is she, Katara. She looks at her feet, rubbing her shoe against the back of her opposite calf.
They say each other's names simultaneously. Aang pauses, evidently hurt, but Katara plows along because she has to get it off her chest, because she must choose and finalize her decision. Of all things, Katara is not flaky. She will follow through. She will be merciful. She will be honest.
Frankness will undoubtedly hurt Aang as much as lies do.
"I'm sorry," she murmurs, clasping her hands together. It is like she is trying to shrink into the canvas of the tent, to disappear and become just another flake of snow or drop of ocean water. "I'm not feeling well," she tries to explain. Swallowing, she brings her chin up and gazes into Aang's eyes. She feels her own look soften.
"Go save the world," she instructs. At his questioning glance, she responds, "Your work is never done. And I know it's hard, but I've seen you grow. I know you can do it." Her voice lowers. "I just don't think I can. I'm not ready. The war just ended and I—I don't want to leave home for a while."
"Well, Katara, I'll just stay here!" he objects.
She shakes her head. "No. Aang, the world needs you. I want you to understand. I'm just not ready to travel again. I'm not ready for it to be just—" She waves her hand, trying to find the word "—just us and no one else."
Aang's lips turn down. He parts them slightly in exhale and then runs his tongue over his lower lip. She wonders if it's suddenly dry, now that her lips aren't right there.
"Aang, I'll—maybe—" She lets the promise linger unsaid in the air and smiles gently. Aang smiles too, a little bit, but now he's crying, and now they are collapsing into each other arms, crying and crying their eyes out. She doesn't know what's wrong with her. She loves him, yes, she thought she loved him as a boyfriend, a lover—but she's still confused, she doesn't know, she's not ready to be purely his, and god they're crying so much it hurts.
"I love you," he whispers breathily into her ear.
"Wait for me," she whispers back.
They are two children sharing secrets, clinging to each other and crying into each other's shirts. They are young adults with souls ravaged by war; they are unsure and uncertain about things like love.
They might pretend otherwise, but they're still children, and they have long lives ahead of them.
"I'll wait." And it's a promise for a lifetime.