Aang figured if anyone saw him, looking out at the city with a thoughtful look on his face with the sun creating a very pretty picture of a sunset, they'd just assume he was doing Avatar-ish things. Like contemplating how the world was now heading towards an era of peace and harmony.
If he was lucky, he could get away with that for at least another week or two before things went back to normal and people started to ask him why he was spacing out all the time.
Truthfully, Aang wasn't thinking about the bigger picture, or world peace, or rebuilding, or any of those things. Over the past couple of days, he'd given those things a lot of thought, and kind of felt like he was due to think about himself for a while. Little things. Personal things.
He hadn't had a chance to talk to her alone since they'd reunited after Ozai's defeat, but Aang wasn't sure he'd use the opportunity for anything other than just enjoying her presence if it came up. He was still painfully aware of how badly he'd screwed things up at the play on Ember Island. If there was anything to salvage between them that might turn into love, he really didn't want to ruin it. Logically, he was pretty sure that was best. Katara knew how he felt. She'd tell him how she felt when she was ready.
But that was logic, and logic wasn't always Aang's best friend. He wanted to know. The waiting was really starting to get to him lately. When there were more important things going on and other stuff to occupy his mind, he didn't have to focus on it, but now there was nothing else, and it was all he could think about. Did she? Sometimes he thought she must; she looked at him a certain way, reacted to his touch like she might. Or didn't she? The longer the question hung there between them, the more likely this seemed. Why didn't she say anything? Every second was like another blow from the pick that was gradually chipping away at Aang's heart.
The only thing that kept him from asking her to end it all and just tell him already was the awful, gnawing fear that it would push her off the fence into 'no' territory.
Basically, he was his own worst enemy when it came to Katara.
Aang let out a long, calming breath, and relaxed his tensed shoulder muscles with conscious effort. In front of him, Ba Sing Se looked so peaceful. Kids were playing in the street, laughing and running and moving around without restriction. The sunset seemed particularly fitting. It made the sharp class divisions in the city less noticeable, more fluid. That was something they were going to have to work on, Aang was sure. Things had to change, and Ba Sing Se was going to be the start of that change. He felt more optimistic with that in mind. He still had work to do; there was still a need for the Avatar. If he gave it a little while, soon he'd have more important things on his mind and less time to mope around.
That thought made him smile.
Katara found him that way a moment or two later. Her expression was quizzical when she came up to the railing beside him. "What are you thinking about, Aang?"
"Nothing much," he admitted, turning a little to face her. Somehow, even with his heart pounding harder and his eyes full of how beautiful she looked in the dying light, just being around her made him feel more comfortable. She was still Katara, whether she loved him or not. She was his best friend. "I was just thinking how much better Ba Sing Se is going to be - how much better the world's going to be - when people aren't kept seperate from each other."
"That's pretty deep." There was a teasing sort of undertone in her voice; she smiled at him. "You really did let this Avatar stuff go to your head, didn't you?"
He couldn't help but grin. "But in a good way this time, right?"
"Yeah, in a good way," she conceded, and her eyes softened in a more serious way. "Aang... there's something I've been meaning to talk to you about."
Aang stared at her - only one possibility sprung to mind... His heart sped up a notch. "What is it?"
She looked away from him, down to where she had one hand resting on the railing. "I... haven't exactly been fair to you. About what you said to me on Ember Island, I mean."
It was. Aang took in a deep breath, forcing himself to be calm. Logical. Logic was going to be his friend, whether it wanted to or not. "Katara, it's okay," he said evenly, and somehow, suddenly, he felt like he knew what he needed to say. "I shouldn't have pushed you - I know that now."
"No, that's not what I meant. Aang..." Katara turned to look at him again; her expression was one of frustration and she seemed to be struggling with her words. "I... that is..."
"Katara, I love you." He wasn't sure he'd meant to say that; Aang felt something like shock. He'd never said it out loud - at least, not to her. It was like breaking a chain that had covered up his heart; he felt weightless. At the same time, it was like someone had poured icy water down his back and he was too cold and wet to lift off the ground. Fighting an irrational wave of panic, he kept going. "I'm not saying that to make you feel guilty and it's not unfair if you can't answer. But I know that's how I feel about you."
Her eyes were wide; there was color rising on her cheeks. Even her voice shook, when she went to speak. "Aang..."
At least he wasn't the only one affected by this. Aang rubbed the back of his head nervously, suddenly at a loss for words after that one moment of truth. "Uh, so... anyway." How should he say it so it wouldn't seem like he was pushing for a response? Or should he push for a response? Why was this so hard, anyway? "I guess I just want to know how you feel. About me. Being in love with you." He fought the urge to smack himself in the forehead. Shut up, shut up, shut UP.
Katara was staring at him. As the silence stretched out between them, Aang felt his anxiety mounting again. "You don't... have to answer right now," he added, shifting his robes awkwardly.
"I know." She abruptly looked away, crossing her arms in front of her almost defensively, a gesture Aang recognized as one of discomfort.
This wasn't turning out well at all. Aang turned his head to look back towards the city again, deflated. Just a short moment ago he'd felt light enough to float; now he felt heavy enough to crash down through the balcony. This wasn't exactly how he'd always imagined things would go between them. Somehow, he had this idea that she'd be happy to hear that he loved her. Somehow, he thought they might kiss, with the sunset highlighting their faces and the sound and feel of their shared heartbeats between them. And somehow he figured he'd be taller than her. It worked out that way in his imagination, anyway.
"Aang, I just..." Katara stopped short, a small frustrated sound escaping her. "This is impossible," she muttered, and Aang felt an abrupt shift in her posture. She stepped forward briskly and took hold of the collar of his robe.
He turned sharply back towards her again. "Kata - " His lips brushed over hers as he spoke; the surprise was so great that he couldn't finish saying her name. There was a split second of awkward hesitation - Katara's breath hitched as if she were shocked by her own actions - and then she closed what little space there was between them.
Every nerve on Aang's body felt as if it was standing on edge; for a moment, he stared blankly at the side of her face as she kissed him, not quite processing that this was happening. Katara had never been the one to kiss him, not even in his daydreams. He couldn't imagine it. Her fingers trembled against his collar - did that mean she was nervous, too? - and her eyes were shut. Belatedly, Aang realized his were still open, and quickly shut them - you were supposed to, weren't you, if you were being kissed?
Katara was kissing him.
It seemed like the moment that realization hit him - the instant he recognized that it was really happening - she was pulling away. He opened his eyes slowly, still dazed, and stared at her. The blush was more prominent on her cheeks than ever before; she was looking right back at him, all traces of her previous frustration gone. The expression made his heart begin to pound.
"Katara," he whispered. It was all he could think of to say. She had kissed him. His thoughts were swirling in his head and he felt almost dizzy, but it was the most delicious feeling he'd ever experienced. He wanted to stay like this forever, staring at her and feeling the pressure on his lips from where hers had pressed to them.
"Aang, I'm so sorry," she said back to him, very softly.
Sorry? Now he was even more confused than before. He couldn't imagine how she could think she'd have to be sorry after something like that. "Sorry... for what?" he managed, studying her face for some clue to what she might be thinking.
"For... confusing you. For not saying what I mean - or at least not explaining it properly." She let go of his collar and moved back, suddenly looking anywhere but at him. "I just don't know what's going on in my head sometimes. It never bothered me to think of... us... before."
"Before what?" he asked, and then the rest of what she'd said sunk in. "Wait - you thought about 'us' before? Like, us together?"
"Well... sort of." The blush, which had been gradually fading from her cheeks, returned full-force. She hesitantly lifted her eyes to meet his again with a smile that was almost bashful. "I guess I just never took it that seriously." She seemed to realize that his other question was still hanging then, and hastily added, "I mean, before Azula..."
It was enough to leave that hanging.
Aang shook his head slowly, still feeling like it was fogged up with everything he'd had to take in during the last few minutes. Katara had kissed him... Katara had thought about an 'us' between them before... Katara still had scars from when Azula had nearly killed him. The last part he'd known, or thought he knew - but he was starting to realize that maybe they were deeper scars than he had first thought. "I'm sorry, Katara," he said, and felt strangely reminded of his words back then, before he'd begun to release his seventh chakra and enter the Avatar state. "I didn't know."
"You don't need to be sorry, Aang." She smiled again, and shook her head as if to mimic him. "I know I'm not - not now, anyway." Her eyes met his, beautiful and clear, full of all the hope he'd been looking for. "I needed some time to figure things out - to try and make some sense of this mess in my head."
That look took his breath away. Aang couldn't help but smile back at her, feeling warm all the way through. Was this the 'better' part of love that Avatar Roku had mentioned? "And now you have?"
"No. Not really." She seemed unconcerned by that, though - her smile was still there. "But I think I know now... there are always going to be things I can't figure out. And I can't let that get in the way of the really important things."
"So... by 'important things'..." Aang felt his breath catch in his throat as she stepped forward, the sense of anticipation building in his stomach. "Do you mean...?"
She leaned forward purposefully until her forhead was pressed against his, and met his gaze squarely. "What do you think?"
The sun was nearly down, and there were no echoing heartbeats like in his imagination - and he was definitely still shorter than her - but Aang felt somehow that the kiss that followed was just like he'd hoped it would be.