Five and a Half First Dates
Date One: Katara
It was just a night out in Ba Sing Se, joining a celebration that thousands of other people could say they had experienced.
But to Aang, his first date with Katara was pure magic.
They had headed for the Lower Ring; the rest of their friends were touring the Upper Ring that night, and Katara had already gotten her fill of "oogie" for the week from Sokka. Down amidst the people so often ignored by their rulers, the celebrations for the announcement of the Harmony Restoration Movement had been met with enthusiasm bordering on a festival. Lanterns were swung from poles and people danced in the street. Aang and Katara ran through the crowds, yellow robes and green dress swirling and snapping. They got caught in a parade on one street and marched along for a neighborhood tour, and stumbled into a group dance on another street and spent an hour clapping and stomping in a line. They tried foods they had never heard of before, and listened to instruments that had been made from trash and spare parts.
At one point in the night, perhaps early in the evening yet or maybe hours after midnight, Katara stopped in a small cul-de-sac to catch her breath. Her hair, left hanging long in the style she had adopted on the Day of Black Sun, had a wild edge to it from all the activity, and stray strands poked up into the lantern-lit air. She grinned at Aang through her panting, and his whole being warmed at the sight. He had seen massive storms rolling over the unending seas, had flown over the most colorful forests in the world, and beheld a ball of fire screeching through the sky like a dying god, but before him stood the most beautiful sight in all of time, in the form a Water Tribe girl.
"Everyone is so happy," she said.
Aang nodded. "This is better than I could have hoped. This is everything I wanted for after the war ended. We're really fixing things, and everyone believes in us."
Katara stepped toward him, and wrapped her arms around his shoulders. "You're giving them their homes back. Most of these people came to Ba Sing Se because they lost everything in the war. Even their lands." Aang could feel the heat of Katara through his robes, through her dress. It was a familiar heat, the heat of so many hugs exchanged over the last year, but now there was nothing unknown to it; there were no questions about whether Katara felt the same way about him as he felt about her, or whether he would ever lose her to either the fighting or his own stupid words. "The Harmony Restoration Movement will give it all back, so that everyone can go home and make the lives they've always dreamed of." She leaned into the hug, and Aang couldn't stop his own arms from rising to circle her. Her breath was warm on his ear as she whispered, "You're saving the world.
"I always believed you could."
Without hesitation, Aang kissed her. He didn't hesitate because he no longer needed to. The truths of their feelings had been laid bare, and nothing was found wanting in them. The girl who had always supported him, who gave him strength, who freely took the strength he offered to her in return, was now committed to his side, and he to hers.
He believed in her just as much as she believed in him, because even as he had saved the world, she had saved himfrom the world.
When the kiss ended, it did so naturally. Everything between them was natural, now.
Without a word, they merged back into the festival atmosphere of the city, a festival that echoed in their hearts.
Date Two: Toph
It was just a day out in badlands of the Earth Kingdom, pitting human flesh against the bones of the Earth itself.
But to Aang, his first date with Toph was pure magic.
The sun beat down from a cloudless sky, and both Aang and Toph were dripping with sweat from the heat. The only thing protecting their bodies from being cooked were threadbare clothes and the sticky coating of mud formed from the dust mixing with their sweat. When Aang looked at Toph with his eyes, he saw something that was only vaguely human, a strange hybrid of rock and animal that bore a family resemblence to the lifeless vista around her. Her clothes were made from fabrics of yellow and green, and her skin was supposed to contrast sharply with the dark hair piled on her head, but here and now she was a uniform smear of gray and brown, a visualization of what normally lived only in her heart.
When he looked at her the same way she looked at the world, though, a whole new experience awaited.
Their sparring began anew, and Aang closed his eyes to the physical world even as he reached with his Earthbending into the ground beneath his bare feat. He pushed with his chi at the same time that he accepted the rock's vibratory murmers, letting the sensations form a picture in his mind of everything in contact with the ground around him. He felt the tremor of the ground as it was shaped and battered by Earthbending. He detected the small pulse of his own heart echoing down through his body and into the landscape, and picked up on a similar thumping with an identical rhythm. Toph's heart was beating in time with his own. With her heart as a guide, Aang found her body with no trouble. It was the quiet eye of the storm of her Earthbending, and even as he his own body fought back against her assault, his focus reached out to see her the way she always saw him.
It was an intimate way of experiencing someone. With eyes, a part of what you were looking at was always out of sight, blocked from line of sight by the rest of the object. Eyes could only see one side of something at any given time. But with Earthbending, the whole was always visible, and in greater detail than eyes could ever achieve. Toph had developed such a way of seeing when she was a child, and grew into one of the most perceptive people alive. It had taken Aang years of practice to see as well as she could, but it was easily worth the effort.
It began with a shape. Even that was precise enough that Aang could move to let a rock fly past his head without even an eyelash's length of space to spare, and it made Toph into something that was more real than reality. The muddy that coated her added texture to her form, let Aang feel the difference between hair and clothes and skin. The motion of summoning a sled of rock sent droplets of sweat rolling down her body, and Aang couldn't help but shudder as they picked up dust and traced her shape before soaking into clothes stained with the dirt of a thousand places from across the world.
His distraction allowed her to barrel through the storm of stones he had raised to defend himself, and she talked him to the ground with a triumphant laugh. Pinning him to the ground, with escaped strands of hair falling to tickle his face, she smirked and said, "You call that a rock-like defense?! What do you have to say for yourself, Twinkletoes?"
Just as there was a way to see without eyes, so too was there a way to speak without words. Aang lifted his head and kissed Toph for the first time.
She blinked her useless eyes in surprise, and then closed them in acceptance.
Date Three: Azula
It happened in the cell that had been his entire torturous universe for years, and he had to betray himself to survive the experience.
But to Aang, his first date with Azula was pure magic.
She was preceded by an army of servants. The door to his cell was thrown open with a piercing scrape and the crimson-robed attendants flowed into the dark room like a blood tide. None spoke to him, or so much as looked him in the eyes; they went about their work with sureness and efficiency. Two of the servants brought lanterns hanging from tree-like stands that brought heating light into Aang's dank universe. More brought rolls of carpet that were opened to cover the stone floor that had leached so much heat from Aang's body. Several of them even worked together to gently lift Aang from his place in the center of the room- one servant for each of the heavy chains that bound his limbs to the floor- while another pair began cleaning him with smooth fabrics and warm rose-water. It was like returning to life for Aang, returning to the feel of being human rather than an animal, and when they dried and set him down again, a plush rug was in place to sooth the ragged bare skin of his backside. They wrapped the rest of him in yellow robes, the soft material trapping his body heat luxuriously.
The finishing touches were a low table placed in front of him and a pair of steaming plates arranged on opposite sides. A single set of chopsticks lay between them like a weapon between two enemies. The warm steam rose to tickle Aang's nose with scents of rice and spiced vegetables, and stirred memories in him that had been as insubstantial as dust before now.
In the midst of silent questions about his own sanity, the Princess of Fire strode into the cell and smiled at him. "Greetings, Avatar Aang."
She was the first woman he had seen since his capture. The last had been Katara, immaculate Katara, when she had just been starting to cough like her brother in the ruins of Taku. Aang had left with a promise that he would return to her with medicine, and he could only hope that she had died soon after in sick delirium rather than suffer like the rest of the world after his failure.
Azula was nothing like Katara, but she was beautiful nonetheless, a sword that moved like a flame. Yet she gave off no heat, and her voice was flint beneath the tone of silk.
Aang was the Avatar, and a proud Air Nomad, so he looked past her chill and said, "Hello. What's your name?"
"I am Princess Azula, sister to the Fire Lord." Her painted lips twisted. "Long may he live and rule."
"Are you joining me for dinner?"
"Of course." She kneeled across from him at the small table and picked up the chopsticks. "Your arms must be weary from your chains. Shall I feed you?"
She lifted a sprout from his plate, and placed it precisely on his tongue. It was the first warm food he had eaten since coming to the Fire Nation, and the spices broke through years of rice gruel to nearly overwhelm him with pleasant burning. As he savored the taste and the memories, Azula's sharp voice rang out to keep him chained to reality. "You weren't surprised to hear that Zuko is now Fire Lord, and yet your guards are under orders to never speak in your presence."
Aang gave as much of a shrug as he could with his chains, and watched as Azula ate from her own plate with the same chopsticks. "Airbenders are good at listening."
"Indeed. Were you surprised at his rise to power?"
"Fire Lord Ozai wasn't an old man when I met him, and I'm still young now, I think. But things happen."
Azula nodded, and offered Aang a cashew from his plate. "Things happen. My brother left on a mysterious quest shortly after the war ended. He claimed he wanted to reacquaint himself with the Fire Nation, and traveled all the islands. It took him two years, but he came back with a family of peasants he claimed were his new servants. We have plenty of servants, of course, but something about this Noriko, Noren, and Kiyi were important to him." Azula's gaze sharpened, but the names meant nothing to Aang; he couldn't reward her clever probe. "A month after they all set up in a wing of the palace, our father was dead, and Zuko was crowned."
Aang swallowed his latest mouthful and waited for more food and information. Azula's voice was entrancing, smooth and song-like in its controlled cadence. The princess spoke like a performer, drawing out drama in subtle ways and giving excited heat to the coldest insinuations. Perhaps it was the lack of company over the years, but Aang felt that he could listen to Azula all day.
If it was day, outside, and not night.
Azula swallowed the last of her own food and wiped her mouth with a cloth before continuing. "I had fully intended to supplant my brother as heir, but he moved faster than I ever expected. They could never determine my father's cause of death, but the conclusion is logical, isn't it?" Her nostrils flared, and Aang had a brief glimpse of something hot and real in her golden eyes before the cool facade of perfection came back. "Now my brother wants to marry me off and be rid of me before I can make any trouble for him. The best I could do was bargain to choose my husband if I submitted willingly to Zuzu's order."
Then Azula smiled, leaned forward, and exhaled a breath so roasting that Aang could feel himself starting to sweat. "So, Avatar, will you marry me?" She reached out to caress his face, a mechanical motion that betrayed the calculations behind her eyes. Her fingers, against all expectations, were cold against Aang's face.
Was such chill an acceptable price for getting out of this cell? It wouldn't be an escape from imprisonment, because Azula wouldn't let him be free. He would simply be the enemy of her enemy, just as she would be for him. Would she turn out to be an enemy, too?
She could see his ambivalence, and withdrew her hand. "Be clear what I'm offering you. The war is over, and the Fire Nation rules all. Even the Avatar, with a Princess at his side, could not change that. But I can give you influence, and you can make trouble for my brother. Perhaps you could even outsmart me, and spin my gifts into weapons against the Fire Nation. Things happen, after all."
Aang smiled in mimicry of the taunting grins she had been flashing at him. "And what are you counting on? You're giving up a lot, if you could have married whoever you want. I'm not exactly a great catch, these days."
Azula looked away from him for the first time in the entire conversation, and Aang thought he saw some genuine warmth in her posture. The sword had become a true flame, for a moment. "It's not so much to give up. I've never been one for romance."
"I've never even kissed anyone."
"Me neither." Then the chill was back, and she sat up straight, turning her golden eyes back to scrutinize him. "So? Will you waste your first kiss on me for a chance to get revenge on the one who humbled you?"
"Not revenge. But I'll take the kiss anyway." Aang summoned all his strength, lifted the chains that had pinned his limbs to the floor for all these years, and managed to raise them off the floor just long enough to lean over and give Azula a quick peck on the lips before he fell back down to the ground. The thick rug the servants had laid down caught him easily.
"So," Aang said, "when's the wedding?"
Her eyes narrowed, and she gave a smirk that was almost warm. "Is tomorrow too soon?"
Date Four: Zuko
It was a desperate adventure to the heart of an ancient civilization to rediscover the source of all Firebending, with the fate of the world hanging in the long-term balance.
But to Aang, his first date- er, Firebending lesson with Zuko was pure magic.
It had adventures in ancient trap-filled ruins, golden eggs, a dead civilization revealed to be alive and strong, the First Fire, a pair of giant dragons, a powerful dance in which two souls worked as one, and then a blast of rainbow fire that revealed the truth of the universe to both Aang and Zuko as they stood back to back in the center of the holy conflagration. With both them back on the right path to Firebending Mastery and Saving The World, they returned to the meadow where they had left Appa and began the short flight back to the Western Air Temple. Aang couldn't wait to show off everything they had learned, especially the Dancing Dragon form/art/jig, but as the clouds rolled aside for their flight and the ocean passed below, he couldn't help but enjoy his last moments alone with Zuko.
The ex-prince noticed Aang looking at him from his place in Appa's saddle, and frowned. "What?"
"I was just thinking."
"You said that before, finding me was your big purpose that fueled your Firebending. And now, helping me save the world is what you're living for, and that got your Firebending back on track."
"More or less. Why? You were right there when I said it."
Aang sat up in his place on Appa's head. "Does that mean I've always been the most important person in your life?"
Zuko scoffed, glared, slumped in place, and closed his eyes.
But he didn't say no.
Aang smiled the whole way back to the Temple.
Date Five: Ty Lee
It was just another day working the circus, toiling for the entertainment of the people who wanted to see something from outside the drudgery of their daily lives.
But to Aang, his first date with Ty Lee was pure magic.
He wore his usual orange and yellow robes, but Ty Lee had dressed special for this occasion. Her normal pink acrobat outfits were all folded away in her trunk, and this day she was swathed in the colors of a long dead nation, the nation that Aang called his own. She was wound in swathes of cloth so yellow that it might have been gold, and painted with replicas of Aang's blue Airbending tattoos. They were a sacred symbol that she had not yet earned, but she didn't wear them for herself, or even for Aang. She wore them for the audience, the people who were even now being told by the Ringmaster that the last two Airbenders on all the Earth were about to put on the greatest show anyone would ever see. Ty Lee's robes were also tucked and wrapped to mimic the manner of dress once favored in the Western Air Temple, but it was by design not a perfect copy. No Airmaster of old, no matter her age, would have revealed the swathes of flesh that Ty Lee was showing now.
She and Aang had talked long and hard about this. About the meaning of every aspect of the costume, and what the deviations would say. About the tattoos. About the history of the Air Nomads, and how that had shaped their way of life through the eons. About the how Aang was the last of them, and that all the others had been killed by Ty Lee's people. The night had worn on, and they had shed tears together, until finally they smiled and wiped their eyes and agreed on what would make their new routine more fun.
The Ringmaster had finished his speech, and the torches around the main tent were extinguished. The taiko drummers began beating a slow summons, and one of the mirrored spot-torchers were turned to shine right at Ty Lee. While Aang stood in the darkness at one end of the stretched tightrope, she posed at her end, her robes glittering in the intense light. She winked and blew kisses to the applauding crowd, and then turned to face Aang, beckoning him with a wave of her hand that he had seen her practicing just before the show.
He read the invitation in the movement, and stepped out into the light.
They met at the center of the tightrope, neither one so much as swaying as the clasped hands and began their dance. The leaped and cavorted together across the thin rope, stepping with their toes but spending most of their time in leaps and tosses through the air. They came to a rest facing each other, and then leaned in with their faces. This part they hadn't practiced at all, but the kiss was the easiest part of the whole routine. Their lips came together and held fast, and just as the bliss began to carry reality away, the tightrope fell, unhooked from both ends.
Aang and Ty Lee plunged together.
The crowd gasped.
Ty Lee held tight to Aang with a passion that was almost, but not quite distracting, and it was a simple matter to have the air currents carry them both to the swinging trapeze that arrived in place with the same expert timing that had marked the fall of the tightrope. The second act of their routine began as more trapezes were launched out into the small sky of big tent, and the crowd cheered their swings and twists and leaps and catches. They worked with no net, for it was never needed. Even if the ropes gave out, even if Ty Lee's aim was a little off, Aang's body would always be there stretch between her and death.
The end came when they both let go in the center of the tent, and both Aang and Ty Lee cast off part of their costumes to form small parachutes. The flaps of golden cloth were in no way capable of saving their lives, but Aang's Airbending filled the rest of the need, and they came to rest on the ground with the lightness of a pair of feathers. They kissed again and held each other, while the audience applauded what they had been told were the last two Airbenders alive.
Aang had hopes that someday, it would even be true.
Date Five and a Half: Meng
It was just a dinner meeting, a simple get-together in a public place.
But to Aang, his first date with Meng was traumatizingly bizarre, a journey into the lands of madness from which no one could emerge unbroken or without mental scars that would carry up to the moment of death, and perhaps even beyond to afflict the next Avatar in the unending cycle, who would sometimes descend into terrified babbling about giant gravity-defying pigtails without ever knowing why.
It was pretty freaky, was the point.
It started with a note, a hint about an important prophecy that couldn't be trusted to a simple letter, and instructions to meet in front of a certain nice restaurant at a certain time on a certain day, with certain instructions about what to wear. The only thing Aang was certain about was that it wouldn't end well for him, but Katara refused to be jealous, especially not after their magical date in Ba Sing Se, and so with no wars on and no natural disasters currently throwing themselves at civilization, he was out of excuses. He arrived at the vortex of certainties as instructed in his best robes, and found Meng waiting for him with a buck-toothed smile and eyes that were a little too intense. She waved as Aang brought his glider in for a landing, and he mustered his best smile. "Hi, Meng. Good to, uh, see you again. You mentioned that Aunt Wu had an important prophecy-"
"Good to see you, too, Aang. Please, we'll discuss things over dinner. This place has some wonderful vegetarian dishes."
They passed into the restaurant, and servers whirled around them from the moment they stepped through the door, all of them saying things about what an honor it was to welcome the Avatar and they saved their best table for him beside a window with a view of the volcano and all of the food was on the house tonight and could he perhaps sign a piece of the lava rock from the eruption that threatened the town that time and were the arrows real tattoos or just painted on and don't mind all the staring as it was just because he was so revered and the owner might have allowed all his family and friends to come see the famous Avatar and did he realize what an honor it was to welcome the Avatar?
By the time they wheeled out the sculpture of him made from bean paste and candied cabbage leaves- with ears that jutted out disproportionately from the massive grinning head- Aang's every instinct was telling him to fly out the window and disappear for all time.
He almost did run away when the sculpture was announced to just be the first course.
Eventually, Aang and Meng were left alone to eat their bean paste Avatar. She nodded happily as she stuffed a candied-cabbage ear into her mouth and said (after swallowing politely), "This is wonderful, don't you think? I made sure that these guys understood the importance of hosting the Avatar."
Aang tried to smile back, but his cheeks didn't feel like they were rising properly as he pulled his lips away from his teeth, so to avoid looking like a snarling tigerdillo he decided to say something. "The statue was... really... startling."
He probably should have decided to say something intelligent.
Meng, however, giggled with obvious pleasure. "I have to admit, the statue was my idea. I sketched from memory for the bakers."
Aang poked at a candied cabbage ear that he wasn't sure he could fit into his mouth whole, and felt his stomach flip. "So... about that prophecy?"
"Oh, I didn't want to rush things. There are three more courses to go after this."
Meng leaned forward. "Yeah! I designed them all, to makes sure they show off all your best qualities. Or what I'm sure are your best qualities. How did you know?"
"Lucky guess." Aang sighed. "Wouldn't it be good to get business out of the way first, though?"
"Oh." Meng stared at him for a moment, and then her eyes went half-lidded in a way that reminded Aang of a prickle-snake. "Okay, it will probably give us a lot to discuss, anyway."
Aang tried not to choke on his bean paste Avatar nose.
Meng toyed with one of her massive pigtails as she spoke. "Aunt Wu told me even more about my future. You may have heard, but I'm going to marry a man with big, beautiful ears. And she recently discovered that my husband and I are going to have fortunetelling quintuplets every year for the first decade of marriage, and then-"
That's when Aang really did jump out the window.