Disclaimer: Aang and Katara belong to Mike and Bryan. Just borrowing them temporarily.
Special thanks: To my beta, InfiniteDragon, my second beta, Satyuros for providing a third pair of eyes, and limey404 for allowing me to use events from her fan comic, First Date, in this story. If you haven't checked it out yet, then you need to. It is awesome!
He watched her rub the small of her back with an empathetic smile. Though he could not see Katara's face because her hair concealed it as she bent forward, Aang had little doubt that she was grimacing in pain. He pushed to his feet.
"Come with me," he coaxed, taking hold of her hand and tugging her from her knees to her feet, "I have a surprise for you."
As expected, she protested and resisted his efforts. "Oh, Aang, I can't," Katara resisted tiredly, "Not today. I still haven't finished the washing and then there's dinner and—,"
He pressed a single finger to her lips, staunching her arguments. "I'll do all of that later," he promised her succinctly. "Right now, you need a break and that's just what you're getting."
"I'd rather have a nap," Katara countered in the driest of tones.
Aang grinned at her. "We'll see if you still feel that way in a few minutes."
Katara sighed her acquiesce and, with a laughing roll of her eyes, allowed Aang to lead her forward. As they started from the Air Temple courtyard, Momo and Appa perked up to follow along, but Aang held up a hand to halt their intentions. "Not this time, you guys," he said, steeling himself against their mewling disappointment, "This is just for me and Katara." He wasn't immune to their sad faces, however, and quickly added with a sigh, "I promise we'll bring you back something special." Mollified, both Appa and Momo settled back against the ground.
"You're such a pushover," Katara teased him as they strolled from the courtyard hand in hand.
He nudged her with his elbow. "So are you and you know it."
"Yeah, I know it," Katara confessed with an unconcerned shrug, "It's just something about their furry faces that makes me melt every time." She smoothed a hand down her largely, distended abdomen. "I'm thinking this baby is going to be spoiled rotten," she murmured with a wistful smile.
Visibly enamored with her contented expression because she looked so beautiful to him right then, Aang gave Katara's fingers a knowing squeeze. "You can hardly wait, can you?" She didn't need for him to clarify what he meant. It was obvious and unspoken between them. The affirming smile she gave him bathed her entire face in an ethereal glow. She looked nothing less than radiant in that moment. Aang felt himself falling in love with her all over again. "Yeah," he whispered past the lump of emotion forming in his throat, "I can't either."
Fighting down the impulse to kiss him, Katara distracted them both by asking, "So where are you taking me anyway?" Aang didn't answer her directly, but instead reassured her that she would not be disappointed with their destination. Katara was skeptical. Though they had only been walking a few minutes, her back and legs were already beginning to hurt. Cradling her belly, she lumbered valiantly behind Aang and tried not to complain too much. However, when they started up the cresting mountainside beyond the Air Temple, Katara started to worry. "This had better be worth it, Aang."
Nearly full term in her pregnancy, there weren't many places Katara went or even wanted to go these days unless absolutely necessary. Within the last few weeks, all she really wanted to do was eat and sleep and sleep some more. Her body ached on a continual basis. Her ankles and feet were ridiculously swollen and, for the last two days, she'd been dealing with sporadic abdominal cramps. Having assisted Gran Gran in previous births, Katara well knew the signs of false labor and knew she had nothing to worry about, though the feeling was uncomfortable. As much as pregnancy had been a miraculous mystery that she'd felt privileged, and even humbled to enjoy, Katara was more than ready for the experience to be over. She wanted her body back and her baby in her arms.
"I promise you won't have to go far," Aang reassured her. "It's right over this ridge."
"What's right over the ridge?" Katara wondered suspiciously.
Rather than answer her outright, Aang scooped her effortlessly into his arms and airbended them both over the rocky crest…right into the middle of Paradise. Katara was hardly aware of it when Aang set her back down on her feet. She was too awestruck by the sprawling, tranquil scenery before her.
In the middle of rolling green hills and flowery summits was an incredibly steep, incredibly gorgeous waterfall, which emptied loudly into a sparkling lake below. The water, clear and clean and crisp, was surprisingly populated with fish and meandered lazily through the lushly carved countryside before disappearing into the secret recesses of the mountain. The scene filled Katara with nostalgia, reminding her of the waterfall she, Aang and Sokka had found when she had first begun teaching Aang the basics of waterbending. The memory was so vibrantly real it felt as if it had only happened yesterday, rather than eight years before. In that moment, Katara felt like she was fourteen again. She sighed in absolute wonderment, closing her eyes to breathe in the cool, misty spray that cascaded over her face and body.
"So…do you like it?" he asked softly.
"I love it." Katara stared up at him with captivated eyes, bouncing her gaze between him and the waterfall. "It's one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen," she breathed. "I can't believe we've lived here all this time and I never even knew it was back here."
"Er…that's because it wasn't," Aang clarified with a sheepish smile.
The secret smile tugging at the corners of his mouth was undeniable. "What are you talking about?" Katara guffawed, gaping at him slightly, "Are you saying you made this?" Her voice raised an octave at the incredible possibility. "Get out of here! Aang, did you make this?" she cried, half in disbelief, half in amazed pride.
His smile stretched from ear to ear. "It took me a few months, but yeah…I made this. What do you think?"
"Wow…it's just…wow…" Katara gasped, turning another look back out towards the tranquil scene stretching before them and regarding it with completely new eyes. "I can't believe you did all this. You know, this reminds me of the waterfall we found just before I started teaching you how to waterbend. Do you remember?"
"Yeah, I remember," he replied softly, "That was the general idea."
Katara squealed at the pure romanticism expressed in his wry confession. Impulsively, she rose up on her toes and pressed his face in her hands so that she could smack a sound kiss to his lips. "You are the most wonderful man in the world," she expressed emphatically with a brilliant smile. "I don't tell you that enough."
Aang blushed at the compliment, his gray eyes twinkling with pleased merriment. "Well, I try."
"Why did you do this?" she wondered aloud with a happy sigh. "It's not our anniversary or my birthday."
"I did it just because. I did it for you, Katara," he answered simply, "That's why I do everything I do."
She didn't think it was possible for him to make her melt anymore than he already had, but his sweet reply proved her wrong. "Okay, how did you do this?" Katara rephrased laughingly, "And where was I while you were doing it?"
"Sleeping…or eating, sometimes both at the same time," Aang replied, biting back an amused smile. "Remember when you nodded off while munching on that seal jerky? It wasn't so hard to wait until you were preoccupied to sneak away."
Katara slapped his shoulder in pouting rebuke. "Haha, you're so hilarious." Despite her sour tone, however, she couldn't keep up the appearance of censure for long. Aang had made her unspeakably happy and it showed. "I can't imagine why it took you months to finish this," she needled him in lighthearted fun, "You're a master bender. Why'd it take so long?"
"Carving out the terrain was the easy part," Aang told her, "I knew how I wanted it to look, and so it was just a matter of shaping the earth to match my mental vision. Directing the water here was a little trickier. I had to find a way to bend the snow down from the top of the mountain and channel it through the valley without flooding the whole place. Once I figured that out, I had to determine the water's course, which wasn't as easy as it had played out in my head. The initial results weren't pretty."
"I'll just bet," Katara drawled, scrutinizing him with a knowing look. "Now I know the real reason why my garden flooded and all my produce died." She slapped his shoulder again as a new realization dawned. "You said I had no gardening skills and you knew it was your fault the entire time! I can't believe you did that to me!"
Aang blushed yet again, this time in a mixture of embarrassment and laughing chagrin. "Well, I couldn't tell you the truth, could I?"
"Whatever," Katara grumbled, but with a marked lack of heat.
"I'm sorry," he whispered with a most becoming and contrite pout, "It took a lot of trial and error figuring out where the water should go, but, eventually, I worked it out."
"Several dead plants later," Katara teased him. She turned back towards the waterfall and pressed herself into the circle of Aang's arms so that she was flush against the lean wall of his chest. She snuggled into his warmth, surrounding herself with his scent. It was the best and happiest she'd felt in weeks. "Seriously Aang, this is beautiful. You did an amazing job. I say that as your waterbending master and as your wife." She tipped a look up at him, her blue eyes brimming over with love for him. "Thank you."
He dropped a kiss to her lips. "We haven't been able to travel as much as we have in the past and I know that, even though you don't say anything, it was bumming you out," he said. "I thought, instead of you traveling to see the world's beauty, I'd try and bring a little of the world's beauty to you." Before she could start gushing about how wonderful he was and how much she adored him, Aang covered her lips with his own, smothering her flow of words with a fervent kiss. Without further coaxing, Katara turned in his arms and kissed him back with all the feeling she had unfurling in her heart. When Aang was sure he'd diverted her from thanking him for things that had been nothing less than a pleasure and privilege for him, he lifted his head and whispered, "There's one more thing I want to show you."
"You mean there are more surprises?" Katara exclaimed excitedly.
"It's not that big of a deal," Aang prefaced, nodding towards the other side of the lake where a blanket and woven basket of food awaited. "Just lunch."
Katara favored him with a wide, pleased grin. "Oh, you do know the way to my heart, Husband Mine."
They sat together on the bank of the lapping lake, laughing and flicking food at one another and amusing each other with lame jokes. They were carefree and indulgent, much the way they'd been as children. Those moments had become few and far between since coming into adulthood and taking on the added responsibilities of marriage and impending parenthood in addition to their important position as protectors of the world. After serving in an adult capacity for so long, even before they had officially become adults, it felt good for them both to kick back and be silly for a while.
Aang sprawled onto his back, propping an arm behind his head and drawing up one knee as he contemplated the brilliant, blue sky above. He idly bent out a small sphere of air, watching in amusement as tiny specks of dust danced and bounced in the swirling cylinder. "So…how much longer do we have until the big day?" he wondered aloud.
After taking a bite of apple, pausing to chew and digest, Katara answered, "Three weeks. Maybe less. Maybe more. It can happen any time really. It's hard to tell with these kinds of things."
Mulling that over, Aang rolled onto his side to face her and propped himself up onto his elbow. "How will you know when it's time…I mean aside from the excruciating pain?"
Unimpressed with his dry phrasing of the matter, Katara tossed a fistful of grass at him. "How would you know it's excruciating?"
"I only know what you tell me."
"It won't be that bad. I think I'll handle it just fine," Katara said, her reply as much reassurance for herself as it was for Aang.
"I know you will," Aang replied with absolute confidence. "There's nothing you can't handle, Katara." They exchanged soft, besotted smiles. "So how will you know?" he asked again.
"Well, there are a lot of things that can happen to clue you in to what's going on," Katara considered.
"Yeah? Like what?"
"Your pain increases," she explained. "It becomes more frequent and closer together. Sometimes you bleed, but it's not a lot. It's usually just a sign letting you know you're close."
Pensive, Aang digested that bit of information and then asked, "What else?"
"Hmm…frequent backaches, a heavy feeling in your stomach, sometimes you get queasy," she recounted, remembering the numerous descriptions she'd heard from other expectant mothers, "And then your waters break—,"
"Your waters?" Aang echoed with an unenthusiastic grimace. "Blech. That sounds disgusting."
Katara shrugged. "That's the only way to describe what happens. It's how it works, Aang. I don't know why."
He surveyed her for a moment before scooting closer to play with the fringed edge of her blue tunic. "Are you scared?"
"Sometimes," she whispered after a pensive moment, "But mostly I'm excited. I can't wait for her to get here."
"Or him," Aang interjected jauntily.
"It's a girl," Katara determined with complete conviction. "I know it." She nibbled at her lower lip, her demeanor abruptly turning somber. "I'd like to name her for my mother," she told Aang quietly. She peeked at him through her lashes. "Do you mind?"
"It was never even a question, Katara," he replied.
Despite the awkwardness it created and the strain expended, Katara leaned forward and kissed him. She couldn't help herself. "So, we've eaten lunch," she observed against his lips, "Now what do we do?"
Aang grinned at her and wiggled his eyebrows. "Now we swim."
"Oh nooooo," Katara exclaimed, rearing back in laughing refusal. "I don't think so. You swim. I'll watch you."
"I want you to come with me," he pouted. "Come on, Katara. We can even skinny dip."
The suggestion had her balking despite his very charming cajolery. "No way!"
She groaned his name in exasperation. "You know how awkward I feel when I'm in my underclothes! Don't even get me started on being naked!" she cried, "I'm as big as an elephant-hippo!"
"You're gorgeous," Aang countered sweetly.
"You're lying," Katara retorted with equal sweetness.
Aang swung upright at the accusation, his brows drawn together in mild affront. "I am not lying," he declared emphatically. "I love you and I love how you look right now. Katara, you're having our baby. How could you not be beautiful to me?" He didn't wait for her to answer the question, but rose to his feet and began stripping off his clothing. "I'm going in," he announced when he stood before her gloriously and shamelessly naked, "You can join me if you want." With an audacious grin, he turned briefly to wink at her and then cannon-balled into the lake. The ensuing splash he created as he crashed through the water was large enough to soak Katara through.
When he broke the rippling surface again, Katara was on her hands and knees at the edge of the lake, completely drenched and growling at him. He laughed and offered her a jaunty wave. "What's up? You're all wet," he observed in feigned innocence.
"Somehow, I don't think you find that all too surprising," Katara called back in the sourest of tones.
He blinked at her. "I have no idea what you mean," he lied baldly as he reclined into a lazy backstroke, "If you're thinking I soaked you on purpose just to provoke you into coming after me…well…you're very wrong." Though he made the denial in seeming sincerity, the tone in his voice said something else entirely. Katara narrowed her eyes and growled anew. "By the way, I can see your…" he gestured in the general vicinity of her chest and Katara made the rather embarrassing discovery that her tunic had shifted, revealing her underclothes, which were plastered to her body like a transparent second skin and, consequently, providing Aang with quite an eyeful.
"Real nice," he complimented her, his grin positively wolfish as he made no attempt to conceal his ogling. "Thanks for the show."
"You are so dead," Katara warned him direly.
"Oh, I'm shaking. What are you going to do about it, Sifu?" Aang goaded impudently.
"You're definitely asking for it, Pupil," she muttered under her breath as she stood to strip down to her skivvies, "and now you're going to get it." A few seconds later Aang most certainly did "get it" when he was suddenly swamped by a massive wave that upset his smooth strokes and tumbled him backwards, taking him completely under. Once he came back up for air, sputtering and laughing, the bending battle was on.
They surfed and splashed in a watery game. Katara was innovative and masterful, but Aang was quick and clever. Their play was a constant volley of tit for tat, attack and retreat, bend or be bent. The shoreline became hopelessly waterlogged through the course of their antics with more water landing outside the lake than staying in. Their picnic basket, blanket and clothes were all washed away in the melee. Neither Aang nor Katara noticed and, if they had, they likely would not have cared.
After several minutes of unfruitful attempts to subdue his errant wife, first in watery shackles and then in an icy bubble, Aang prepared for a big finale, intent on flipping Katara off her surfing perch and into his waiting arms. Unfortunately, his execution proved to be a few seconds too late. With a definitive pushing and pulling motion of her arms, Katara bended forth a large wave that fairly overwhelmed Aang and his bending attempt and carried him unceremoniously to the shoreline in a wash of wilted greenery and squishy earth. He flopped back against the ground with a defeated groan. A few seconds later, Katara washed up beside him, giggling over her handiwork.
She leaned over his sprawled form and peeled a long, soggy plant reed from his forehead. "Are you ready to concede the battle now?"
Biting back his answering smile, Aang declared with mock solemnity, "You are the greatest waterbender who ever lived."
"And?" Katara prodded shamelessly.
"And the prettiest," he dutifully added, finally losing the battle to grin at her.
"Don't you ever forget it," she murmured merrily as she leaned forward to kiss him.
What began as fleeting teasing soon deepened into something more. With Katara's rounded girth between them, their desire to get closer was made clumsy and uncoordinated, but they found a way. Propping himself up onto his elbow, Aang plunged his free hand into the wet, tangled hair at her nape and devoured her mouth hungrily. Spurred on by the intensity of his kiss, Katara strummed her fingertips along his bare chest, stroking them seductively across his damp skin, lower and lower to coax his body into stirring response.
His breath coming in quick, shallow pants, Aang broke the kiss abruptly and trapped her fingers loosely between his hand and chest in order to still her amorous intentions. He regarded her with darkened eyes swirling with lust and cautious uncertainty. "I thought you weren't feeling up to doing that anymore," he whispered carefully.
Katara deliberately tugged her fingers from his grasp and caressed her way down across his smooth stomach. "I've changed my mind."
It was late afternoon when they finally spooned together on the mossy bank, sated and exhausted and dozing lightly in the moist heat. "I hope you're feeling more relaxed now," Aang mumbled sleepily as they cuddled and caressed.
"Actually, I'm feeling fantastic," came Katara's languidly contented reply. She pressed herself closer into the warm crook of Aang's body and traced the line of the pale, blue tattoo along his forearm with her index finger. "How do you feel?"
He nudged against her backside suggestively with his hips, making his feelings glaringly obvious. "Does that answer your question?"
Katara turned slightly in his arms, her shoulders shaking with muted laughter. "Wow, Aang…I guess that means you really missed it, huh?"
Aang nuzzled a kiss to tip of her nose. "More than you know."
Considering how unattractive and ungainly she had been feeling lately, Aang's unabashed confession and his very evident desire for her went a long way in soothing Katara's insecurities. It was impossible for her not to feel alluring and beautiful, especially when he was staring at her the way he was right then. "Well, you'd better cherish the moment," she warned him laughingly, "because after the baby comes, it's probably going to be another month or two before you get it again."
"Oh, I intend to cherish every second," he promised, "Don't worry." However, as he started to roll onto his back and take Katara with him, her sudden gasp of pain made him forget his plans for seduction altogether. Desire fading instantly, Aang's brows drew together in an anxiously concerned frown. Automatically, his hands fell to her abdomen, his alarm growing when he found it completely rigid. "Are you okay? Tell me what's happening!"
"Nothing…nothing," she dismissed, despite her grimace of pain that screamed otherwise, "It just happens sometimes. You know that. It'll pass after a minute."
"I don't know…" Aang considered uncertainly as he watched her grit her teeth, "This one looks like it really hurts."
"It really does," Katara confirmed as the contraction built in intensity. She curled her fingers into Aang's shoulder, biting back an audible cry of pain. When the tension in her belly finally began to slacken off, Katara slumped forward with a deep sigh of relief. "It's starting to ease."
"Katara, I'm freaking out over here," Aang declared succinctly.
The underlying panic in his tone incurred her amusement rather than concern. "Don't bother," she laughed, "We don't have to worry unless I have another one in the next few minutes and even then it's not a big deal unless it becomes a pattern." As his eyes flared wide in sheer terror, she added with in pure exasperation, "And that's not going to happen! Would you stop worrying, Aang! I'm not due for weeks, remember?"
"You said it could happen any time!" he reminded her accusingly.
"I seriously doubt it's going to happen right now," Katara retorted, rolling her eyes. She reached out to give his cheeks a dramatic pinch. "You're such a cutie when you freak out this way, but your panic is all for nothing. This baby won't come until long after Mai, Toph and Suki arrive to help me, just like we planned."
Her firm resolve on the matter did little to ease Aang's fears or instill him with confidence. He was torn between believing her and trusting his instincts. After an extended, internal debate, Aang's instincts won out.
"I think we should get back to the Air Temple," he decided cautiously. He gently lifted her from his lap and floated to his feet on a puff of air. "Maybe this afternoon was too much for you and you should rest."
Katara pouted up at him in disappointment. "But I thought we were going to 'cherish' the moments." She glanced his body with an appreciative once-over and her thorough, provocative inspection did not escape Aang's notice.
He groaned, his body and mind dueling for control of the situation. Aang regarded her with a mixture of longing, regret and worry before shaking his head. "Some other time. We should get dressed and head back."
As he rooted along the shoreline for their missing clothing, Katara watched him with a disappointed scowl and experienced her second contraction. She was still in the throes of silent agony when he returned. "I could only find my trousers and your tunic," he explained breathlessly, "The rest is l…" He trailed off into distracted silence as he became fully aware of the tension in her features and the tightly set line of her mouth. Aang was on his knees at her side in an instant. "Are you having another one?" he demanded worriedly.
"Maybe you're right," Katara conceded when she caught her breath, "Maybe we should get back to the Temple."
Sodden, half naked and hopelessly muddy, they carefully made their way back to the Temple courtyard, having to pause along the way several times as Katara found herself in the painful grip of contraction after contraction. By the time they made it back home, Appa and Momo were practically falling all over them after their lengthy excursion, but Aang shooed them away as he carried Katara upstairs to their bedroom.
"What should I do?" he asked anxiously after he'd tucked Katara comfortably in bed. "Are you still in much pain?"
"Not much," Katara hedged.
Aang was not fooled by her attempt at bravado. "Be honest," he urged her softly.
"It's a little intense," she admitted with a heavy sigh, "but that could be for a lot of reasons. Maybe…maybe I just overdid it today."
Her answer left Aang crestfallen and wracked with guilt. "I'm sorry," he mumbled, "I didn't mean to push you. I just wanted you to have fun today."
"No, Aang, don't do that," Katara beseeched, reaching out to cup his cheek lovingly. "I did have fun today. It was the best day I've had in a long time. I don't want you to be sorry about that. I'm not."
Aang pulled her hand from his cheek and pressed a kiss to her palm. "What can I do for you?" he asked her again.
"Take a bath," Katara suggested with a wrinkle of her nose. She then cast a glance down the length of her own muddied person. "I'm thinking I could use one too."
They decided to bathe together more for practicality than intimacy. At first, the bath appeared to genuinely help. The warm water seemed to seep into Katara's body, relaxing her aching muscles. Even the rhythmic stiffening of her abdomen seemed to ease. Cautiously optimistic, Katara reclined back into Aang's chest in a boneless heap and bit back her gratified moans of pure contentment as he began to wash her hair. She could feel herself beginning to doze off under the soothing, circular massage of his fingers, nearly believing they were dealing with a bout of false labor after all, when another contraction seized her unexpectedly.
Aang felt the rigidity knife through her body even before she reared upright to grip the edge of the tub with white knuckled force. Helpless and afraid, he scooted forward in the tub to stroke his fingers along her spine, cringing inwardly as he listened to her mewling whimpers of pain. He pressed his face into her slick back, groaning with her. "Katara, tell me what to do," he whispered thickly.
It was a few moments before Katara could speak again and, when she did, she was out of breath. "Gran Gran told me when a woman can't talk through her contractions that's how you know her labor is real," she explained, her words shaken and dismayed, "Aang, I couldn't talk through that one."
"What are you saying?" But, despite the question, he knew the answer already.
She craned a grave look back at him. "We're having our baby right now."
His reaction was swift and emphatic. "That's not good."
"Aang, you cannot panic," Katara declared calmly. "I'm going to need you in order to get through this. I can't deliver the baby on my own."
She hadn't even finished speaking before Aang was wildly shaking his head in refusal. "Katara, there's not much I wouldn't do for you," he began with an almost peculiar calm. His tone belied the absolute chaos going on behind his expressive eyes. "I love you more than anyone in the world, but I cannot do this. I don't know anything about delivering babies. If I'm your only hope then we're going to have a problem."
"There is no 'if.' You are my only hope," she told him, but when she started to say more she was cut off by another knifing pain that robbed her breath.
When it was over she was trembling violently and so was Aang. "Okay, just tell me what you need me to do before I lose my nerve," he conceded.
Katara rattled off a list of instructions, from hot water and clean linens to a thick blanket to swaddle the baby to a sharpened knife and some twine. Still damp from the bath, Aang hastily pulled on his clothing and went scrambling about the temple to fill her requests. He burst in and out of the courtyard, catching Appa and Momo's rapt attention whenever he did, but Aang hardly paid them any notice. He was too busy fumbling through his and Katara's belongings, his progress made clumsy with each echoing cry of pain from Katara.
Ten minutes later he was back and she was practically doubled over in the tub, panting harshly. "Now what?" he demanded anxiously as he knelt down beside her.
"Help me over to the bed," she instructed.
Aang obediently leaned forward and helped Katara to stagger to her feet. The moment he did, however, she felt a strange internal pop, followed by a telltale rush of warm liquid that quickly slowed to a trickling stream and rolled down her thighs into the bath water. Katara froze. Intellectually, she had known that she was experiencing all the symptoms of true labor, but with the sudden break of her water, Katara fully recognized that there was no turning back. Their baby really was coming.
"What is it?" Aang asked with mounting dread when he witnessed the look of growing panic on her face.
"Just help me to lie down," she urged him evasively.
Rather than walking her, Aang bent over and scooped Katara into his arms, carrying her over to the bed for that second time that evening. Without needing to be asked, he retrieved a fresh nightgown for Katara and then assisted Katara in pulling it on. He also took it upon himself to bend the excess water and soap from her hair and pull it back into a ponytail. When she was as comfortable as he could make her, he took a seat beside her on the bed and pressed a reassuring kiss to her forehead. "So what's next?"
"It's going to get pretty bad," Katara warned him. "The further we get into the process, the more painful it gets." Aang turned positively green at the prospect, but Katara, realizing she didn't have much time to talk in between contractions, quickly pressed on. "There might come a time when I'm not able to talk you through what you need to do so I'm going to tell you now." Aang nodded solemnly for her to continue.
"When the baby's head starts to crown, you need to help to guide her out," Katara told him, "She and I will do most of the work. You just need to catch her. She should come head first. If she doesn't, you need to let me know immediately."
"Let you know immediately…" Aang parroted woodenly.
"After she's out, you need to bend free the fluid that's in her mouth and nose so she can breathe. Once you've done that, chafe her body with your hands until she cries." She regarded him with an urgent look. "She needs to cry, Aang. It's very important."
"I'll make sure she cries," he promised.
"After that, tie off the cord in two places and then cut in between the ties. Only cut when it stops pulsing, Aang," she warned him, speaking more quickly as she felt another contraction begin to crest, "After that wrap her really tight in a warm blanket. Do…do you understand?"
"I understand." She groped across the bed to grip his hand, gritting her teeth as excruciating pain expanded across her belly. Aang hardly felt the unbelievable pressure she applied to his fingers. He was consumed with her pain instead. He watched her writhe with the contraction and felt completely impotent, tormented to see her in such anguish.
"It's okay, it's okay," she reassured him breathlessly when it was over. "You can do this, Aang. If you could end a century's old war at age twelve, you can deliver your firstborn child at age twenty."
Eight hours later, Katara still maintained every confidence that Aang could do it, but, after so much expended effort in what amounted to unproductive pushing, she had started to doubt that she could. She fell back into the pile of bundled blankets propped behind her, sweating and panting with exertion. "I can't…I can't do this…" she mumbled weakly, "It's too hard, Aang. I didn't know it was going to be this hard…"
"Come on, Katara," her husband cajoled, sweeping up her clammy hand and chafing it between his own. "She's coming down. I can feel her. You just have to push a little more."
She pulled her hand from his grasp and shook her head, her countenance crumpled in an anguished mask, her eyes glistening with tears. "No…no…I can't do it anymore. It hurts too much. I need a break…please…"
"Try to think about something besides the pain," Aang advised desperately.
"Like what exactly?" Katara muttered, eyes narrowed with short-tempered annoyance, "I can't wish away the pain, you know!"
Her lower body felt as if it were being torn asunder from the inside out. Focusing on anything besides that agonizing reality seemed a little impossible. She was at the point where she almost didn't care anymore. The pain was that unbearable. She just wanted the baby out! Considering all that, Aang's suggestion to "think about something else" struck Katara as trite and irritating. It was on the tip of her tongue to tell Aang exactly what he could do with his ludicrous advice, but she valiantly bit back the retort, forcefully reminding herself that he was trying to be helpful. He was scared and worried. She could see that plainly on his face. If she started biting his head off, it would only make a bad situation worse.
"Okay…okay…" she conceded between deep pants of exertion, "…what do you suggest I think about?"
"I don't know. Something happy. Something relaxing. Something that makes you laugh…or smile."
"You mean like you?" she wondered sweetly.
He reddened at her implied compliment. "If it helps," he considered. "Just think about your happiest memory and focus on that."
"Happiest memory, huh?" Katara mumbled thoughtfully. "I think that was definitely finding you in that iceberg. You came into my life just when I needed you the most. That was the best thing that ever happened to me."
"You seriously think I'm the best thing that ever happened to you?" he asked with a mixture of surprise and sentiment.
Katara managed a faint smile at the memory. "Why not? The first thing you did when you opened your eyes was smile at me. When you asked me to go penguin sledding with you five seconds later, I knew you and I were going to be great friends…and I was right." She closed her eyes and swallowed deeply, as her back began to twinge with the first signs of a new contraction. "Penguin sledding sounds pretty good right about now."
"I'll take you after our daughter is born," Aang vowed, "In fact, we'll go wherever you want." Her answer to that was a long, low scream as her body bowed with a fresh onslaught of pain and pressure. Aang sponged Katara's face with a damp cloth, trying to make her as comfortable as possible until the agony eased off. He would have gladly endured it for her if he could. "I hate seeing you in so much pain," he mumbled when it was done.
Katara choked out a weary laugh. "I hate being in so much pain." She furrowed her brow thoughtfully. "What were we talking about again?"
"Penguin sledding," Aang provided, reaching forward to stroke the damp tendrils of hair back from her face and forehead.
"Oh yeah," Katara laughed, "…the first time we met. I knew you were special from the second I saw you."
"You don't get to say that," Aang admonished lightly. "That's my line, remember?"
"Right. I forgot. Love at first sight."
"No," he corrected in mock affront, "I didn't love you at first sight. Where'd you get that idea? I just thought you were pretty. Actually," he continued with affected bravado, "I just thought you were marginally passable."
Katara laughed again at his blatant and dishonest denial. Still, she played along because it did help a little in distracting her. "So when did you know you loved my marginally passable self then?" she asked him.
"When I went to see Guru Pathik," Aang told her solemnly. "During my chakra training…it just came out. I don't think I really gave it much thought until that very second. I realized I didn't just like you or like being with you. I loved you…I was in love with you."
She held onto his fervid words as she rode out another contraction. When she could speak again, she asked, "Do you want to know when I knew I loved you?"
"The Cave of Two Lovers," he answered knowingly.
His arrogant confidence over the matter had her rolling her eyes. "Wrong! I knew I felt something for you then, but I didn't know what it was…not until Ba Sing Se when Azula shot you down," she revealed quietly, "And then I knew. Maybe a part of me always did."
"Then why were you confused?" Aang wondered aloud, "You know…the night of the play on Ember Island? Why'd you blow me off?"
Katara favored him with a look at him that was half amused, half offended. "First of all, I didn't blow you off," she clarified tartly, "Second of all, you came on way too strong that night. You don't kiss a girl when she tells you she's confused, Aang—,"
"—And third of all," she pressed on with a wry smile, "it's a little overwhelming realizing you're in love with your best friend when you're in the middle of a war that you might very well lose. I felt pressured, not just because of you, but because of everything, and I didn't think either of us could afford to be distracted."
"So you don't regret it then…being with me, I mean?"
She appeared flabbergasted that he would even consider such a thing, let alone voice the question aloud. "No. Never. I cherish every moment we've had together, Aang."
"Even our horrible first date?" Aang prodded with a burgeoning smile.
She smiled at the reminder, recalling how nervous and awkward Aang had been that night. He had windblown her hair, gotten hopelessly tongue-tied and was eventually dragged off by an overzealous guest at the ball they'd attended together. She had spent most of the evening fighting off a mob of admirers for his attention. Aang had been sure afterwards that she'd want nothing else to do with him. Instead, Katara had ended their evening with a very long, very thorough and very reassuring kiss. The memory of that carried her through her next contraction, even while it was painful enough to sap a good portion of her remaining reserves of strength.
When she wilted back into the bed afterwards, shaking with exhaustion and too weak to even lift her arms, Katara began to seriously wonder if she had the energy needed to deliver her daughter. She was chillingly afraid that she didn't and, if she didn't, some very hard decisions would have to be made. She stared up at Aang with solemn eyes, suspecting that he was completely aware of their dire situation even if he didn't say a word.
"I love you," he confessed impulsively, "The second I saw you, I knew you were going to change my life forever and you did. I had never imagined that you would love me back, let alone marry me. And now you're having my baby and I can't tell you how much that means to me, Katara. I believe in you and I know you can do this."
"I don't know if I can, Aang," she mumbled wearily, "It's been so long already and I'm so tired."
"Katara, please don't give up. She's almost here…"
"I won't stop trying," she promised him fervidly, "but if I can't…if it becomes apparent that she won't come normally, you have to…you have to take the knife and cut her out. It's the only way. Tell me you'll do that, Aang."
"No," he refused simply, "I won't."
Katara groaned, disappointed by his response, but not altogether surprised. "Aang, I don't have the energy to argue with you about this."
"Then don't argue," he countered mildly. "I won't agree to that. Ever. So save your breath." Tears of frustration and futility leaked from the corners of her eyes at his answer. "Listen to me," he urged when she tried to roll away from him, "You're exhausted and you're in terrible pain and, right now, that's clouding everything you do and say. I get it. But Katara, you are not going to die here, so don't even think that way. You just need to focus past your pain and exhaustion. You're not letting yourself do that and it's only making your battle harder."
"How can I focus past it?" she moaned tearfully as she was seized by another hard contraction, "It's everywhere and it hurts, Aang…you have no idea how much it hurts…"
"Focus on the goal," Aang coached Katara over her keening cries of pain, "Focus on our baby! Imagine holding her in your arms, smelling her…imagine her tiny fingers and toes…imagine her cry, Katara…imagine seeing your mother's face in hers…imagine seeing us…"
The words managed to penetrate the haze of agony surrounding her. Katara was infused with new determination. With Aang's help she hoisted herself into a squatting position and, when the next contraction came, she visualized her daughter's face, gritted her teeth and pushed through it. The pain was still there, burning and intense, stretching her lower body to unbelievable lengths, but it seemed less localized somehow. Katara was aware of it on the fringes of her consciousness, but it was her daughter who held her focus. She was only vaguely aware of Aang's excited cheering that the baby's head was crowning because, as far as Katara was concerned, Kya was already out and in her arms. She would not stop pushing until that mental image became a reality.
Two hours later, her determination finally bore miraculous fruit and the dim interior of the bedroom was split with the indignant cry of their newborn daughter. Katara collapsed back into the bed, drenched in sweat and thoroughly spent. "Was I right?" she demanded breathlessly, "Aang, is it a girl? Is she okay?"
He lifted his head to meet her anxious gaze and the cleansed expression of awestruck wonder on his face said more to her than words ever could. "Yeah, she's a girl," he confirmed, his words garbled with emotion, "and she's the most beautiful thing I've ever seen, Katara."
After she had rambled out instructions for him to deliver the afterbirth, Katara held out her arms, when only a few minutes before she'd been sure she didn't have the strength to even lift her head, and said, "Bring her to me. I want to see her."
Aang took several, careful minutes to bundle his daughter in a warm blanket before placing the mewling infant in Katara's waiting arms. Mother and daughter met one another for the first time. He looked at the two of them together and felt tears sting the backs of his eyes. It was an extraordinarily poignant moment.
Overwhelmed, Katara and Aang drank in every minute detail of their daughter, almost disbelieving that she was real at all. The baby was incredibly tiny, her small head full of dark, curling hair, her eyes, though half mast and slightly swollen, a startling, extraordinary blue. Her skin, which was slightly wrinkled yet ridiculously soft, was a creamy mix of both Aang and Katara's skin tones. She was the perfect blend of them both, beautiful and dainty, but amazingly strong as well.
Katara laughed as she caressed the baby's palm and Kya determinedly gripped hold of her mother's finger in her miniature hand. Watching them together, Aang could do little more than admire his wife and daughter in wordless astonishment. He reached out to stroke his finger along the rounded line of the baby's downy cheek, and he and Katara traded smiles of burgeoning pride and unspoken gratitude.
"Wow…I think she's the most amazing thing I've ever done," he breathed in disbelief.
Katara emitted a tired chuckle at the declaration. "You can say that even after you saved the world and mastered all the elements in less than a year?" she teased him wryly.
"That was nothing compared to this," Aang replied with absolute seriousness, falling more and more in love with his daughter by the second, "I'm looking at the best part of me, Katara." He raised glistening eyes to his wife, his heart swelling with love and admiration for her. "Both of you," he whispered thickly, "you're the best part of me."
She leaned closer to brush his lips in a lingering kiss. "You don't have to say anything more," Katara murmured solemnly, "I feel exactly the same."