A/N: This started out as an idea for a multi-part, post-series fic. I'd love some feedback on it to determine if it should go forward, or not. C&C is appreciated!
Katara is twenty years old. Katara thinks she is happy.
She is highly respected, as the foremost companion of the Avatar. She sits with him, always at his right hand, both his enforcer—although she hasn't bent anyone's blood in five years—and his advisor, at important meetings and gatherings of the noble houses of the Earth Kingdom. She of course attends his conferences with the leaders of both Water Tribes at each Pole. She does not ever visit the Fire Nation, at Aang's request, but she does not give it much thought in the scheme of things. It is usually too hot for her there anyway, and Aang tells her that Zuko prefers his presence alone. She tries to tell herself that the slight sting she feels at the notion doesn't ultimately matter.
And it doesn't. She is an influential person, now. At the Earth Kingdom and Water Tribe councils, she speaks her mind freely and frequently. The leaders of those nations are more than gracious and receptive to her suggestions. Katara feels as though she has the power to change many things and to improve many things. She relishes the opportunity to make lives better wherever she can, with greater and more far-reaching influence than the Painted Lady ever could.
And she and Aang are companions, in every sense of the word; they are partners, working towards the common goal of keeping the post-war peace. They are colleagues and allies, maneuvering through the political quagmires that men and women twice their ages are maybe not better suited for, but more accustomed to doing. They are one another's family.
And they were, on one—only one—brief night, lovers.
It hadn't worked out very well. There had been tenderness, and sweetness, and an innocent awkwardness on both their parts…but in the end neither had been fulfilled. He had, after effusive apologies, fallen asleep in her arms, and she had lain awake for hours watching the sky and wondering why it was not what she had anticipated.
It hasn't happened again; even years afterward, she doesn't ask why. She simply glosses over it, as she always has—to shelter his feelings, to protect him. She would shield him from anything in the world that he didn't want to experience. She would always do that for him. And for the longest time, as long as she can remember, since she was a child of fourteen—hair loopies and gangly awkward limbs and budding breasts—she thinks that she will be the only one doing that for him, even when they are both old and withered with age.
So it comes as a surprise to her in more ways than the obvious when he flies in one day on his glider—a larger one now, because he's no longer a boy of twelve, but a young man of eighteen—through the window of their temporary suite in Omashu, landing with a flourish in the middle of the living room to tell her the news. He's found them.
She can't bring herself to believe it, no matter how excited his large gray eyes are as he explains it to her, until she is able to meet them herself.
There are forty-one people, former Air Nomads, all Airbenders, living in a remote mountain village apart from everyone for over a century. They are the descendants of a handful of survivors from the last Fire Nation raid on the Western Air Temple. Beautiful dark-haired and gray-eyed children, many of them older and younger than Aang, but a few of them close to his age. They can't stop talking to him—sometimes their dialect sounds like another language entirely—and touching him when he is with them. Some of the young men in the group have already begun to ritualistically shave their heads, in anticipation of once again becoming monks at an Air Temple. Katara cannot help but feel happy for him, even as she watches the way his eyes are unusually and continuously alight in their company, and wonders why it makes her feel uneasy.
A celebration is planned weeks in advance, now that the war is over and the long-hidden Airbenders need not hide any longer. "We can rebuild, now," Aang tells her excitedly, speaking of the abandoned and dilapidated Air Temples, and she notices that it's the same wording he used to her the day the war had ended—only back then, the 'we' had meant you and I.
At the celebration that night, high up in the mountains near Omashu and close to the Cave of the Two Lovers, she is to be reunited with many familiar faces, some of which she hasn't seen in months and even years. She chooses her best robes carefully for the event—flowing blue silk, with a gossamer white and sky blue wrap—and sits before her vanity staring into the mirror, brushing her long dark hair thoughtfully.
Hours later, her brother and Suki arrive from the South Pole. Suki is eight months pregnant with her second child, and waddles through the foyer like a pengi-duck, dark-haired toddler in tow. Sokka has grown a full beard and chops, like their father. "It makes me look older," he boasts, even though now Katara is quite sure that even without it, he looks all of his age at twenty-one.
Hakoda comes with Innka, his new lady friend of six months. Katara has met her previously, and likes the older woman very much. She sees a strength in Innka that reminds her, just ever so slightly, of her mother.
Retired Fire Nation General Iroh and Active Earth Kingdom General Toph Bei Fong are both in attendance, having arrived from Ba Sing Se. Toph is now a lovely woman of nineteen, dressed in green silks and opulent emerald jewelry, statuesque and graceful to the outward eye. Inside, though, she is the same as she ever was—barefoot underneath her gown, laughing raucously at Sokka's jokes, spitting discreetly into a nearby planter when she thinks no one is watching. Iroh's gentle nature has curbed her temperament somewhat over the years; but, Katara thinks to herself fondly, rock is ever such a stubborn element.
Katara is not shocked to see any of them, having visited her family and friends several times within the last year—but she is surprised to see Firelord Zuko's arrival, and especially surprised to see he is accompanied by what she understands to be his usual entourage of two scribes, three Fire Sages, five armored soldiers…and no one else.
She scans the room in confusion, finally asking Suki, "Where is Lady Mai?" Suki just shakes her head and lowers her brow, pursing her lips in a shush motion. It is not something she's willing to speak of—not here, at this gathering, not now.
Katara looks back at the Firelord, her former friend. He is only a couple of years older than she is, which would make him twenty-two, now…but his face now has lines etched on it that weren't there at seventeen, when he was married. That was the last time she'd seen him.
Nevertheless, she sees the gold eyes lighten with a smile as he greets Aang, clasping the other's forearms affectionately. It's apparent that despite anything else wrong in his life, Zuko's friendship with Aang has weathered the storm.
Iroh is the next to greet him, and this time the young Firelord's face crumples just slightly—he recovers it faster than she can blink—before he throws his arms around the former Dragon of the West. As uncle and nephew pull away, Toph takes the opportunity to sock Zuko hard in the arm, just like old times. The Fire Crown embedded in his topknot is obviously not a deterrent for her.
She is pulled away from watching the scene any further when Aang takes her arm excitedly, to introduce her to more of his people. Katara graciously bows her head and goes to mingle further with the Airbenders, casting one last glance back at her friends.
Much later, there is a small and casual dining affair, followed by dancing. Aang manages to pull Katara onto the floor for two songs before she gently tells him her feet in their delicate heeled shoes are hurting her, and she briefly sits down. She watches, a half-smile on her face as Aang dances with a young female Airbender, probably sixteen years of age or so. She is just as light on her feet as he is. The way they dance circles and rings around one another, gray eyes smiling, reminds Katara of two ethereal breezes wildly rustling the leaves of a tree together.
When she had been younger, she'd enjoyed dancing with him. Now she feels as though his energy is sometimes too boundless for her; he seems to never want to quiet down, never focus on things for a particular length of time. Always constantly shifting, changing, moving. Has she always been like this, as well? Is she still the rushing, turbulent river she was as a teenager…or is she becoming a calm and gently flowing brook?
She spies the open doorway to the courtyard beyond, and Katara moves outside, shedding her heeled shoes as she steps out onto the grass. The yard is dark and quiet, the moon waxing to fullness overhead, and she tilts her head back and closes her eyes, basking in it. It's rare she indulges herself under Yue's light like this.
She barely notices him, until he speaks.
"You look like you're enjoying yourself."
Katara can't help it—she instinctively bristles at the familiar raspy, sarcastic voice. It's the same one, albeit significantly lower now than when he was sixteen, that he used to tell her he would save her from the pirates. Her initial bridling slowly melts into surprise at seeing His Royal Highness, the leader of the Fire Nation, Firelord Zuko, hiding in the dark shrubbery with a flask of alcohol in one hand.
Time hasn't tempered her biting wit, either. "I could say the same for you." She folds her arms across her chest and regards him, coolly scrutinizing. "What are you doing out here, Zuko? The party's inside."
"I'm aware of that." He takes a swig from the amber-colored bottle he's holding and grimaces, his bad eye squinting closed momentarily. "I felt like getting away, for a little while."
That she can understand, and Katara moves a little bit closer to look at him in the dark. He's removed his regal robes, sitting instead in the familiar old tunic and breeches he wore when they were traveling years ago. The only thing to mar the image she has of him as the rogue wandering Firebender is his topknot and crown, still intact on his head.
He watches her carefully as her eyes travel over him, she notices. Maybe too closely.
She crouches down gracefully next to him, hugging her silk-covered knees. "Won't your bodyguards be in a frenzy on the lookout for you?" When he looks confused, she goes on, "Your soldiers, the ones you brought with you."
His eyes shift away, and his voice grows quieter. "I can protect myself. They're not to guard me."
It's on the tip of her tongue to ask whom they're for, then; but the realization comes to her an instant later, and Katara is yet again surprised by him. She feels as though she's suddenly fourteen once more, unexpectedly in the arms of her father after he's been freed from prison. She's fourteen again, and he's trading shifts with her aboard Appa so that she can sleep, a watchful eye open for a red flag adorned with a black sea raven.
She shouldn't be surprised. Same old Zuko.
"You don't think about yourself quite as much as people say you do," she says, almost without thinking. She bites her lip as if she wishes to take it back. She still isn't a follower of propriety as much as she should be.
But Zuko is unfazed, possibly even drunk. "I know what people are saying about me, Katara." He takes another swig, almost irritably. "No need to sugar-coat it on my behalf."
"You seem angrier than I remember you being, Zuko. What's happened to you?"
"Five years of marriage."
Katara wrinkles her nose. So this is about Mai. "…What are you drinking?"
This time he snorts, amused, and a puff of smoke exhales from his nostrils like a dragon. He regards her with a half-smile. "Why, do you want some?"
"Maybe." She sits down on the ground next to him, no longer caring if her gown is dirtied. She can always have Toph clean it, besides.
He hands her the flask, still watching her with golden eyes that almost gleam in the darkness, and without hesitating she takes a large swallow from it. It burns, as she'd expected it to—but it also feels good. Cathartic, in a way.
He smirks again as she coughs. "This is pretty toxic," she confesses, and he takes the flask back from her.
"That's the idea."
Katara studies him. He used to seem so loose and carefree, and now he looks caged, trapped under the weight of expectation. "So what are people saying about you?"
"I was thinking you already knew."
"So tell me."
He sighs. "That I'm no good to anyone on the throne right now. That I'm a weakling—I can't even get Ozai to tell me where my mother is. That I'm being a fool by allowing my sister to live, even locked up in a mental care facility. That I can't even keep my wife happy." His fists clench as he says the last words.
All of those things? Katara wonders, but settles on one. Her voice gentles and soothes over the question. "Where is Mai, Zuko?"
"She's in Kyoshi, I think," he murmurs, and realization hits Katara—so that was why Suki wanted me to hush. "With Ty Lee." Yep, that would be why.
"It's not her fault," he interjects quickly, gold eyes blazing as he turns to her again. "I made it miserable for her, there. She was bored out of her mind, and we fought endlessly. I didn't—" here he falters, frustrated, "—I shouldn't have expected her to share my views on everything." Cryptically, he refuses to go on. Katara is confused, and concerned.
"…No one should share each other's views on everything," she ventures carefully, "but…if you're a partnership, if you're a team, you should at least be able to compromise with one another."
He ducks his head, and a little strand of dark hair falls from his topknot. She remembers what it looked like when it was down, and shorter. "Maybe that's my problem, then. Maybe I'm no good at compromise. Maybe I was too insistent, thinking I'm right and no one else is."
She's fourteen again, almost fifteen, and under a blood-red sky, he leaps into the path of a lightning bolt meant for her.
The memory of it is still fresh, even five years later.
"No," she says quietly, sadly. I know you. She shakes her head at him, slow and deliberate. "You're not like that." I know you. If it isn't meant for him to work out his differences with Mai, it isn't meant to be—but she knows the blame doesn't lie with him. She knows it as well as she knows herself.
He looks at her with something resembling pain, and she knows he's recalling that moment five years earlier too, and he can probably read her unspoken words in her eyes—and maybe that's what's contributing to the anguish she can see written on his face.
I know you.
He looks away again hurriedly. "…I shouldn't even be burdening you with this. You have nothing to do with this. You have your life with Aang, and—and you're happy." He turns back to her, as if for confirmation, his eyes narrowed. "You are, aren't you? You're happy, with Aang?"
The question takes her off guard, and she stumbles over it a bit. "Y-yes, I'm…I'm happy. With Aang," she quickly adds. She tries to ignore the hollow feeling in her chest as she says it.
"That's good," Zuko sighs, appearing to relax a bit, coming to a decision in his own head, perhaps. "I'm glad to know one of us is."
They are quiet for several moments, during which they can hear the cicada-wasps alternately chirp and buzz in the stillness of the evening. Zuko reclines back on his elbows next to her.
"I miss…this," he confesses quietly, as they're both staring up at the sky through the trees. She turns to him, but his face is obscured in shadow. "I miss being able to talk to you, like this."
"Then why?" she whispers, point-blank. He sits up, planes of light falling on his face again. He looks confused, and whispers back, even though he probably has no idea why they're suddenly whispering.
"Why didn't you want me to come to the Fire Nation?" I would have come. I would have come to visit you. I missed you.
A beat goes by without a breath from either of them. The expression on his face mirrors her anguish, this time. His mouth works a few times before trying on the words.
"Because of the way you're looking at me, right now."
She holds her breath until she can feel pain beginning to blossom in her lungs.
"Katara?" She hears Aang's voice over the faint noise of the celebration in the distance, and she's instantly alert. Zuko is scrambling to throw the flask away into the forest.
"I'm here," she announces, standing and brushing the blue silk dress of any leaves and dirt. "Sorry, Aang, I was just—" She looks to where the Firelord was formerly sitting, but he's gone.
Aang pushes the foliage aside to find her. "…What are you doing back there?"
"Just…looking for something," she answers, shrugging. "Is there any more food left? I'm starved."
She makes her way back to the party, the Airbender following her with questioning gray eyes.
That night Katara retires to their temporary guest room early, claiming fatigue.
Aang is still dancing, lively as ever. It will most likely be sunrise before he sleeps—he can never let go of the excitement of being around large groups of people, especially now. He doesn't feel the need to rise with the sun.
So why should she?
She is fourteen—almost fifteen—again, and she is on her knees, weeping, holding his head in her hands. They are tears of happiness, and gratitude. He is going to live, after having saved her own life. No matter how many years go by, no matter how things change, she is never going to be able to forget this.
Her mind snaps back to the present, to the fire glowing brightly before her in the fireplace. The light and heat warms her, and she's mesmerized. She's forgotten what it's like to be so close to it. There is something pure and drowsily calming—and at the same time, thrilling—about basking in its influence. She feels as though a spark of it has ignited in her, somehow.
Katara moves her hand closer to the flame, as if to touch it.