Recommended Listening: The dance at the celebration dinner was written to Feist's 1234 and I'd Rather Dance With You by Kings of Convenience, the battle scene at the end was written to the Agni Kai theme from the show.
A/N: Okay. I pretty much fail at updating :/
We might kiss when we are alone
When nobody's watching
We might take it home
We might make out when nobody's there
It's not that we're scared
It's just that it's delicate
- Damien Rice, Delicate
The rest of the walk back was spent quietly, a warm and comfortable silence between them. Their pace was slow, but all too soon they are standing outside of her door. Katara pressed one hand flat on the wood, and then turned and leaned her back against it. She wondered if he would kiss her goodnight. He still hadn't let go of her hand, and now his fingers traced over her palm.
"Tonight was…amazing," he said.
"Yes, it was." She pushed her hair out of her face. "Thank you for making time for this."
He swallowed, looking nervous and off-balance for the first time the whole night.
"I'm glad you had fun. I mean, glad you enjoyed yourself." He swallowed again, eyes darting over her face. "I mean you—you really did, right? You don't have to say you did if you didn't, I mean, you won't hurt my feelings or anything. We're supposed to be, um, better with communication so I just want to be sure you know—"
"Aang," she interrupted, somewhere between frustrated and amused. "Just shut up and kiss me, okay?"
Such difference, now that they were alone in the intimate, torch-lit darkness of the corridor outside her bedroom instead of in the middle of a noisy, brilliantly lit and overcrowded street. A different kind of tension, now, drawing the air tight between them; a quivery kind of need fluttering in her heart and quickening her breath.
Aang took a deep, shuddering breath, then placed his hands very carefully on her hips and leaned in and pressed his lips oh so very softly to hers.
It was much more like the kisses they had shared before, on the day of the invasion and then on Ember Island, and much less like the more passionate ones they had shared since then. It was soft and gentle and undemanding. A very gentlemanly kind of kiss. She thought Sokka would approve.
The problem: it wasn't at all what she wanted.
Aang pulled back after only a few seconds and Katara experienced a brief moment of utter turmoil.
How was she supposed to express that she wanted…somewhat more? Was it okay to—to say something like that, to ask for more than what was offered? Would it be too forward? Would he understand that she only wanted a deeper, more thorough kiss, and not think she was seeking to compromise the integrity of their fledgling relationship?
Was this something most girls learned from their mothers? Was she, half-orphaned, alone in feeling so conflicted?
Judging by the way Aang looked at her, the confusion and consternation in his expression, some of this must have been reflected on her face. She sighed, making the conscious, deliberate effort to reel herself in and choosing not to feel nervous or awkward.
A deep breath, to steady her racing heart, and then she stared at him through her lashes with half-open eyes. "That's…not exactly what I had in mind, Aang."
He looked confused, but there was bright color high in his cheeks and she thought, privately, that he knew very well what she had expected. "I don't know if it's such a, um, such a good idea if, if we—"
Determination flared within her. She grabbed him roughly by the shoulders and spun him around. With his back pressed against the wall and Katara pressed against his front, he swallowed nervously. In this close contact, she was well aware of the stuttering beat of his heart. Katara smiled at him, feeling rather predatory, knowing that her actions put him in an awkward position and not caring at all. This was fun.
He opened his mouth to say something, question or protest, but she didn't even give him time to draw breath. She cupped his face in her hands, tilted his head to allow herself better access, and kissed him the way he'd kissed her after their dance.
She could feel him trembling, but despite that his whole body was tense. She started her kiss softly and her lips moved against his, familiarizing herself with his taste. She sucked on his bottom lip, gently, and his fingers clenched on her hips. A tremor ran through him, calling up an answering tremor from her own body. They were dancing on the edge of something dangerous here, an unexplored and hazardous territory; a kind of wanting that went down to her bones.
Katara sighed, a quivery exhalation of breath, and pressed herself a little closer. A little deeper. She licked along his mouth and when he opened it she slid her tongue between his lips. Aang whimpered a little, but his hands tightened again on her hips and then he slid his arms around her, holding her properly, cradling her against him while she explored the kiss.
She didn't know how much time they spent like that, but when she finally broke away the world was dark and hot and she couldn't really seem to stand on her own. Aang didn't release her but merely tightened his hold until she could steady her breathing and step away.
"Probably for the best," she said, eyes dropping to his mouth, tongue wetting her lips. "That you have to go, I mean."
"Yeah," he sighed. "I guess." The resignation in his tone drew a laugh from her, and she was very aware of his eyes on her as she leaned in and kissed his cheek, softly.
Reluctance clear on his face, he smiled wryly at her. "Goodnight, Katara."
Aang settled into his customary chair at the large desk in Zuko's room. Even though summer had just ended and in Aang's mind the temperature was still a little warm, the Firebender had a huge blaze going in the fireplace. A pot of tea waited on the center of the desk, steam curling up from the metal spout and from the cup by Zuko's elbow. The rest of the table had drowned in paperwork some weeks ago. Aang and Zuko kept reshuffling the piles in order of importance.
Aang cleared a little space in front of him to work on…and then he set the little penguin down in front of him and traced the smooth wood with his fingertips. Resting with one arm on the table and his chin on his arm. Firelight danced in dark gray eyes.
Watching him, the secret smile and the blush in his cheeks, Zuko said, "I'm glad you worked things out."
Aang's small smile slipped into a lopsided grin. "So am I."
Zuko divided the paperwork between them and they settled in.
Having been sorted first by Zuko's secretary, (a tall, dry stick of a man whose only joy in life seemed to be sticking ridiculously rigidly to Zuko's schedule—woe betide anyone who dared to bring chaos to his religion of organization) the letters were all of importance. Foreign correspondence with the Earth Kingdom and both Water Tribes, matters of state from his own nobles who lived in outlying regions, summaries of meetings he didn't have time to attend—all boring as hell, and all requiring his attention. After a moment spent quietly working, only the crackling of the fire and the occasional thump as the logs fell apart and burned down to ashes, Zuko came across something unusual in the mountain of parchment before him.
"Who is Bumi, and why would he send a letter to Momo?"
Zuko looked up. The Avatar sat tilted backwards in his chair, defying gravity in the way only an Airbender would be comfortable with, an open letter forgotten in his hand. His eyes fixed, unfocused, on the little penguin statue. The goofy, lopsided grin was back on his face.
Zuko snorted. "Aang, if I had known you were going to be this much of a spaz tonight, I wouldn't have made you come."
Aang seemed to finally become aware Zuko was talking to him. "Hmm?" He blinked. "I'm sorry, Zuko, I didn't hear you."
The soon-to-be Firelord and the Avatar, and this was how their productive evening was spent.
"Can you try to focus? We haven't sorted through even half of this crap," Zuko gestured at the pile of letters and scrolls his secretary had deemed worthy of his attention, "and we still have to prepare for the arrival of the Earth Kingdom delegation next week."
Aang tipped forward until his chair settled back into place. He slid the penguin firmly aside. "You're absolutely right. This is no time to be thinking about—" He stopped and sudden color flooded his cheeks. "Um, I mean, I'll focus. I promise."
Looking at him, Zuko shook his head.
Aang asked, "Wait, what did you say about Momo?"
Zuko slid the letter over to him. "I was asking, why would this Bumi guy send a letter to your lemur?" Maybe his secretary needed a more detailed list on what was and was not appropriate to give him.
Aang snatched the letter up with a serious expression, eyes skimming over it quickly. "You mean, you don't know who King Bumi is?"
"King Bumi? Of course I know who he is! I just—why the hell is it addressed to Momo?"
"Um," Aang narrowed his eyes, still reading. "Have you never met him? He's…rather unusual. One of a kind. Iroh told me that before he left Ba Sing Se, Bumi had kind of taken it over. Which makes sense, he's ruled Omashu for ages."
Zuko wished now he had read the letter before passing it over. "Well, what does it say?"
"He's just talking about Flopsy—um, his pet—um—you know, I don't even know what Flopsy is."
"Okay, sheesh. It's just chatter. He's like that. It really is addressed to Mo—" Aang stopped when his eyes reached the very bottom of the letter. Zuko fought hard against the urge to snatch it out of his hands.
Aang lay the letter on the table in front of him and leaned back. "It says at the bottom, 'PS-Tell Aang thatthe city Ba Sing Se insists upon hosting the treaty signing. Oh—and tell him that I have done some redecorating. I think he will approve.'"
Curiosity finally satisfied, Zuko relaxed back into his chair. "All that just to say that they want to host the treaty signing?" He lifted the cup of tea beside his stack of papers and took a small sip, breathing in the steam. He still didn't much care for the flavor, but the energy boost was a necessity these days.
"And to tell me he redecorated."
Zuko snorted, then took another sip of tea. "I don't know why we couldn't just wait for the delegation to arrive. It's only another week."
Aang arched one brow at this, then leaned forward again and retrieved the letter he'd been reading when he'd spaced off. "Actually, Zuko, this letter says they'll be here in two days."
Something went horribly wrong in the process of swallowing the tea. Zuko inhaled at the wrong moment and choked, spraying hot tea all over the table through his mouth and nose.
Aang tried to dodge and succeeded, but only because moving so quickly upset the balance of his chair and he crashed to the floor.
Katara dropped the heavy bag of scrolls and texts to the floor of Appa's pen. It hit the ground with an audible thud, raising a small cloud of dust. Appa's wet nose thudded into her chest and the exuberance of his 'hello' nearly lifted her off the ground. He made a noise somewhere between a moo and a purr and she rubbed her hand through his thick coat.
She liked it there, in the big open barn, far away from the heat and bustle of the palace. And she could tell it meant a lot to the sky bison.
It had started because of her need for a quiet place to study the healing texts, somewhere open enough to practice and isolated enough to avoid interruption. Then she thought of Appa, and how lonely he must be with Aang so busy being the Avatar.
The first time she'd come to see him, he'd been heartbreakingly happy. His loneliness was evident in the way he followed her around as she moved through her Waterbending stances in what had become daily practice. Then she'd pulled out one of the scrolls and settled down on a bale of hay, quickly becoming engrossed in the detailed sketches of anatomy and the theories of how blood worked in the body. After a moment, something nudged her foot, and when she looked up it was to meet a pair of brown eyes looming over her.
You miss him too.
So coming to see him had become part of her daily routine. The men who kept the livestock and war beasts for the palace adjusted to her visits, and by her preference—and Appa's—she slowly took over all of the duties involved in caring for the sky bison. Except mucking out the pen. A Master Waterbender had to draw the line somewhere.
Katara fell forward onto Appa's face, the flat heavy bones beneath the thick fur. His greeting rumbled through her bones, and she turned her face into his fur. He smelled like hay and apples and large musky animal. When he snorted, it shook her whole body.
Perhaps the best thing about Appa: he was an incredibly good listener. She could tell him anything at all that was bothering her and he would only whuffle at her clothes in agreement, leaving grass stains and bison spit on her shirt, then demand another apple.
She opened her heart to him now, voicing the trouble that had been growing inside of her for weeks now, the thing that had been at the forefront of her mind the whole time she'd been on her date with Aang.
"He wants to go fight her by himself, Appa."
Her sigh blew a path in the forest of fur around her face.
"You remember what happened the last time?"
His sigh lifted her whole body.
She snuggled into him, gripping fistfuls of his fur. In her mind, she watched Aang falling. Charred flesh and the salty tang of blood. This image would be forever suspended within her. Part of her identity, of her will because—never again. The dead weight of him in her arms, dear gods the blood, pouring out of him, bright red on Appa's white fur, on the blue of her own robes.
She had held him in her arms and there had been no heartbeat.
Katara smoothed down the clumps of fur she'd gripped, damp now with the sweat from her palms.
"We can't let that happen again. "Don't—" Katara stepped back to gaze into the massive eye, her hand flat on his cheek. "Don't let him fly away without me, okay? Promise?"
Appa snorted again then licked her face. She wondered if that was bison for, I promise.
"I can't believe they came two weeks early," Zuko hissed through his smile. At his side, Mai sighed. Then snorted in laughter.
"You are such a baby."
"We had to clear out half the East Wing! On two day's notice! If Katara and Sokka hadn't been able to explain to their father why the Water Tribe got stuck all the way out near the servant's quarters there could have been a serious breech of etiquette!"
Mai stared at him with drawn brows and half of her mouth lifted like she wasn't sure if she was going to start laughing or yelling at him. She straightened her expression as they began to walk down the steps, arm in arm, to greet the Earth Kingdom delegation.
"Seriously, Zuko? You sound…ridiculous. This political business is really getting to you. Maybe you should take a lesson from Aang—"
"Mai, he's been teaching me everything he can about diplomacy but even he doesn't—"
The pressure on his arm stopped him, and he looked over at her. Mai had stopped walking one step behind him and now stood in full view of his court and about twenty men from the Earth Nation with her head thrown back and full laughter ringing from her throat.
"Zuko," she said when she could speak again, staring at him with bright eyes, "I meant his date. I meant you need a lesson in how to relax. And maybe spend some time with your girlfriend while you're at it."
He cleared his throat. "Oh," he said.
Mai shook her head, smiling, and fell in step with him again.
They were silent all the way to the bottom of the steps, one in bemused contemplation and one in fond affection.
The fresh scent of apples wafted out of Appa's mouth when he bellowed his greeting. The bison bounded quickly over and flattened Aang to the ground.
"Hey, buddy. I missed you too." He ran his hands through the freshly groomed fur on Appa's face. "They're taking good care of you here, aren't they?"
Appa hadn't let up the grumble that he'd begun the moment Aang came into his sight, a steady stream of bison complaints that his Master did not see him often enough. Aang knew him well enough to get the gist of it.
"I know, I know," he said, rubbing the sensitive spot behind Appa's horn where the bison could never quite reach to scratch. "But I promise it's really important."
Judging by Appa's snort, he and Aang had somewhat of a different definition of 'important'.
A mountain of hay on a squeaky cart shoved through the door of the barn, and Appa abandoned his Master in favor of his lunch, which quivered and shook as the person pushing it struggled with the top-heavy load.
Aang bounded around to help. "Here, I can get that. Appa is—"
He was completely unprepared and utterly delighted to see blue eyes narrowed with effort and dark hair with hay stuck in it.
"Hi, Aang." The cart wobbled precariously and his hands shot out to steady it. None of this was made easier by Appa hovering over them, nearly bouncing from eagerness and coating the floor in a nice, slobbery trail of drool.
"What are you doing here? I thought you'd be busy with your healing studies."
Sweat stood out on her face, rolling down her neck, into the collar of her shirt. He yanked his eyes back upward to find her staring at him in amusement. They struggled with the unwieldy cart, heaving its unwilling bulk closer and closer to Appa's feeding trough.
"I am studying," she said, panting with effort. "It's really quiet here—and Appa—misses you—and—" They heaved the cart sideways at the trough and the hay tumbled over with a whumph. Appa buried his face in it, snorting and munching in happy bison greed.
Katara straightened up and brushed loose wisps of hair out of her face. She seemed almost shy. "I know how busy you are and I didn't want him to get lonely." One hand resting on Appa's side. "We keep each other company, right Appa?" He grumbled, and turned his head to nudge her in obvious affection.
Aang felt a little in awe of her. Every time he thought he had a handle on the strength of what he felt for her, she would do something like pull him out into the street to dance with him in the Fire Nation, or love his bison so much that she spent hours here keeping Appa company.
"Could you be more perfect?"
Her mouth tightened. "Aang," she said, "I'm far from perfect."
Her shirt was dirty, covered in bison fur, and she still had hay in her hair and she smelled (very pleasantly, he thought) like a sweaty girl. And she was his.
Aang smiled at her, taking a step closer and shortening the distance between them. Alarm briefly flashed through her eyes. Good. She'd had him on edge after their goodnight kiss. Maybe now it was time for a little…payback.
"No," he agreed quietly, taking another step. "No, you're not perfect. You're stubborn and competitive and you could hold a grudge until the stars crumbled."
Her eyes had narrowed at the corners, and she was obviously unsure how to take this. But her breathing had quickened, and when he closed the last bit of distance between them and placed his hands on her hips her eyes dropped to his mouth. Aang thought he recognized what was reflected in the blue depths. It was exactly what he felt himself.
"I know all your flaws. And I know the things you're afraid of and what hurts you, even though you try to hide all of that."
He leaned forward and she leaned down until their foreheads touched and they shared the same breath. His voice fell to a whisper.
"What I'm saying is…you don't have to hide it from me. Maybe you're not a perfect girl…but, Katara, you're my other half. We balance. And that makes you perfect for me."
"I'm just saying," Sokka said, fidgeting in his formal Water Tribe clothing, "that after Ember Island, I don't have much faith in Fire Nation theater."
The whole group had crammed into a covered carriage, on their way to see Zuko's favorite play, Love Amongst the Dragons. They hadn't all gotten to spend much time together in a recreational setting and the high-energy excitement was too much for Sokka and Toph, who had gotten into a debate with Zuko over the merits of Fire Nation entertainment.
"At least you can see it," Toph said, also fidgeting in formal wear. It had taken Katara hours to track the Earthbender down and prepare her, and she was very proud of her efforts, even if Toph didn't appreciate being clean.
Zuko, decked out in full Firelord regalia, leaned back in his seat and crossed his arms over his chest. "Guys, this is important to me. Can't you at least try to behave yourselves?"
It was eerie, how similar Toph and Sokka's grins were.
"Of course, Firelord Zuko."
"Whatever you say, Firelord Zuko."
"We will swear this solemn oath to you, O Firelord! To follow this play with utmost attention!"
"With utter seriousness!"
"Theater is serious business!"
"Since we're dressed up in our Serious Business clothes, if we hate the play would it be an international crime?"
"I'm too young to go to prison!"
"Relax, young Earthbender. If they can't hold a loony like Azula, they won't stand a chance against Team Avatar."
Zuko looked a little besieged. Before things got further out of hand—knowing her brother and Toph, that could mean anything—Katara spoke up over them, leaning forward past Aang to look at Zuko.
"I'm really excited about this."
He smiled gratefully. "Thank you, Katara."
Aang squeezed her hand, and she turned her head to meet his eyes. "Do I get to kiss you again?" he asked. Her heartbeat sped up, partly in anticipation but also, a little, because Ember Island was still somewhat of an open wound in her heart. But she didn't want to drag down the giddy mood of the evening, and if Aang felt comfortable enough with their relationship to joke about the fact that she'd almost ruined it, who was she to argue?
She tilted her head to one side, pretending to consider his question. "I don't know," she said, and then tilted her mouth to one side in a smile. "It might confuse me."
"Maybe we should try it now, just in case."
She was already leaning in, one hand on his chest, painfully aware of everyone's eyes on them. "Maybe we should," she murmured. A quick kiss, slightest pressure. She hardly got to taste him at all before Toph and Sokka had started up again.
"Hey now, Avatar Aang! That's my little sister. What with this corrupting of the innocent?"
Aang's eyes shone with the lights of the city, refracted by the thick glass windows of the carriage. "Don't blame me," he said, looking from Sokka to Katara. His fingers tightened around hers again. "She's the one that does most of the corrupting."
Toph burst into a fit of laughter while Katara blushed so brightly that she felt her cheeks burning.
"Ahhhh! I surrender!" Sokka waved his hands madly as if to ward them off. "I am really happy for you both, but I don't want any gory details."
Katara grit her teeth and glared at Aang, who smiled unrepentantly back at her. "Then you will be happy to know that there aren't any," she said firmly.
Toph's incredulous snort kind and the subsequent intensifying of Katara's blush and Aang's grin ruined the credibility of her statement. Sokka groaned.
The crowd waiting outside the theater seemed to be there just to see them. Fire Nation soldiers held the press of humanity at bay. Screams and whistles and marriage proposals (none of which was helped by Sokka and Toph calling similar things back at the crowd) followed them into the theater, where they were ushered up to the Firelord's personal balcony.
Aang also remembered Ember Island all too vividly, and he made it a point to tug Katara to the empty row below all of their friends.
Sitting beside her, thigh to thigh, aware of the bright color in her cheeks and the fact that her hand was a little sweaty in his grasp…in Aang's mind, this night already beat the disaster of Ember Island, hands down, no contest. He kissed her cheek, smooth skin warm under his lips.
"Much better than Ember Island," she whispered, smiling shyly at him, and he realized that her thoughts paralleled his own.
When the theater below them finally filled up, the music began and the curtains opened. The lights in the theater dimmed.
It was at this point that Katara slumped down, resting her head on his shoulder. Her thumb began stroking his fingers and when he eventually loosened his grasp, her fingers stroked his hand, rubbing over smooth skin; tracing the lines in his palm, the small nicks and scars. And that's all she did, touching his hand and wrist.
Nothing more than that. Nothing, really, to account for his half-lidded eyes, and slow deep breaths. Nothing that should have set his heart racing. Aang shifted to hide his arousal. He had no idea what was happening in the play. He turned his head just enough to press a kiss to her hair and remained, breathing in the scent of her. After a moment, she released his hand and he shifted again, slipping one arm behind her.
The formal Water Tribe robes she wore hid his hand from view—not that their friends could see them well anyway, or were even paying attention to anything other than the stage. Aang slipped his fingers beneath her robe and slowly, gently, traced the curve of her spine. From the small of her back his fingers wandered upward, over warm and impossibly soft skin. He was aware that Katara's breathing was rapid and shallow. Her hand, resting just above his knee, flexed and her nails bit through the cloth of his pants and into his skin.
A guy could get used to this, he thought. His fingers ran over the hem of her breastband. Her hand tensed again on his knee. Maybe too used to this. Aang sighed, stroked his fingers down her spine one last time, and then removed his hand and wrapped his arm properly around her.
Katara settled fully into him with a long, contented sigh. He couldn't suppress the smile that curved his mouth.
Way better than stupid Ember Island.
The next thing he knew, Zuko was shaking him roughly awake.
Outside they waited for the valet to pull their carriage around. Zuko wouldn't stop glaring.
"I can't believe you fell asleep."
"Sorry, Zuko," Aang said, apologizing again. His grin was a little sheepish. "You know we've had a lot of late nights recently."
Toph grinned, a shark's smile. "Oh, that explains it."
Zuko looked back and forth between the two of them, one brow arched. "Explains what?"
"Why Aang and Katara's heartbeats were so…intense during the play."
This time, Katara and Aang both blushed and looked away from each other. Sokka whimpered.
"This is so not what I had in mind when I endorsed this relationship."
Zuko grinned at him. "So says the King of the Rose Petals."
"I think I'm going to be sick."
Judging by the way Zuko looked, his words were not far from the truth.
"Just aim it away from the carpets."
Zuko groaned and dropped his head between his knees. He squeezed his eyes shut.
The words, when they came, burst out of him on one breath.
"I don't think I can go through with this."
He missed the look Aang and Katara shot each other over his bowed head.
"Um," Aang said. "You kind of have to. Where are they going to get another Firelord?"
Inspiration struck with another wave of nausea. Zuko bit off the words, breathing deeply. "You be the Firelord."
"Um, thanks for the vote of confidence, Zuko, but I'm not exactly cut out to rule a country."
Couldn't they see how brilliant this idea was? "Why not? Everyone loves you, you're the Avatar—"
"Which is precisely why Aang can't rule this country. He has to balance the whole world, Zuko."
Damn that woman and her cold logic.
Toph poked her head through the curtains. "The Fire Sages want to know what's taking so long, and why you're not—" She stopped, sightless eyes blinking at them before her face scrunched up in confusion. "What's wrong with Zuko?"
"He doesn't want to be Firelord."
"He's hoping we'll leave him alone so he can run away and make Aang rule the Fire Nation in his place."
Toph shook her head, utterly baffled. "Why?"
Zuko finally lifted his head. All three of them were staring at him. "Because—" he burst out, and then lowered his voice. "What if I suck?"
Toph glared at him, unfazed. "Then you suck. So what? You really think you're going to do a worse job than Fail Lord Ozai? Or Azula?" She stomped into the room and jabbed one finger into his chest.
When put that way, it did seem kind of…stupid.
"You're right." He could hear the surprise in his own voice, and he was aware that behind him Aang and Katara were snickering. He reached out and squeezed Toph's bony shoulder. "Thank you, Toph."
She shrugged him off. "Yeah, no problem. Now, get out there and do your stuff…Firelord Zuko."
He took a deep breath, and stood to his feet. Toph and Katara left together, and Zuko looked down at Aang's sympathetic gray eyes. Most Avatar's never even found out they were the Avatar until they were at least sixteen. At ten, Aang had begun his training, mastered Airbending in only two years, traveled in time, and then saved the whole world. And he was still a few months shy of fourteen.
If I can't succeed at being the Firelord…if I try my hardest and I still fail and disappoint everyone… I can't stand to disappoint him. What is it about this kid that…makes everyone feel this way?
"You can do this," Aang said. And then he stepped forward and wrapped his arms around Zuko in a quick, tight hug. "I believe in you, Zuko."
Zuko let his arm rest around Aang's shoulders for a moment, and then took a deep breath. Maybe…this is why.
They stepped through the curtain together.
Shortly after the coronation, as the sun slowly sank towards the sea, the crowd began to filter into the dining hall for the feast celebration the ascension of their new Firelord. Zuko had fought his advisors on the seating arrangement. No one had a problem with the Avatar sitting at the Firelord's right hand (this had been the result of another fight, actually, between Zuko and Aang, with Zuko insisting that Aang be seated at the head of the table and Aang equally adamant that he not—sitting at Zuko's right hand was actually the compromise) or with a Bei Fong sitting so close…but children from the Southern Water Tribe? And Mai, whose family line wasn't even in the Golden Book of the Blood, but only the Silver?
"This isn't up for discussion. These are my friends. They're my family. It's only three more seats. Everyone else can just deal with it."
In the end, he got his way. He was, after all, their Firelord.
There were seven long tables in the hall, all laden with flowers and bright candles. The noise from the crowd echoed from the high vaulted ceilings, where even more candles hung from chandeliers. Servants bearing laden trays moved at a steady pace from the kitchens. Each dish was offered first to the Firelord and his friends, which delighted Sokka and very quickly dismayed Zuko's servants. Sokka wanted everything. Soon enough, the main course was served—a giant winged boar, an animal nearly a third the size of Appa. Juice dripped from the golden, crackling skin, falling into the large platter around it which was filled with roasted vegetables.
Sokka drooled. Aang grimaced.
The creature was attacked with serving knife and pronged fork, and soon dismembered and dispersed among Zuko's guests. For the first time, the din of conversation ebbed. Sokka even slowed himself down to savor the succulent pork, sweet with a hint of Fire Nation spice.
Aang stuck with his salad and toasted butterbread.
"You know, Aang, I really don't get the whole vegetarian thing." Sokka held up his fork, on which was a piece of greasy, dripping meat. "I mean, what's the point there? The animal is already dead, it would have been slaughtered to feed someone else anyway. So what can it hurt if you have some too?"
Aang smiled, lifting salad greens with his chopsticks. "All life is sacred, Sokka. Whether it was killed directly because of me or not, humans were still responsible."
"Well," Sokka asked, "what about animals? They kill. They eat each other. Humans are animals, too. Aang, it's the way of the world."
"The monks taught that the difference between men and beasts is free will. Choice. That's the whole point. We have the power to take life, but that doesn't mean we have to chose to do so."
Katara looked from Aang's face to his plate to her own. And then she set her fork down and slid it away from her, feeling strange.
After dinner, the guests were ushered from the dining hall into the dance hall. Tables lined the far walls with refreshing drinks and fruit trays. The lighting had been toned down a notch here, and the flames from the torches and candles were reflected like stars in the polished dance floor. The room had a rectangular shape, and both of the longer walls were open via numerous archways into large gardens. Ample air flow, perfect lighting—Aang grinned, throwing his arms wide.
"This is awesome. Katara, come on!"
Sokka groaned loudly. "Ugh, you guys. Do you really have to get out there and show off?"
Zuko, with Mai on his arm, looked at Aang and Katara with one brow arched. His eyes gleamed. "You guys dance?"
"Of course they dance. Being an Airbender, Twinkletoes—" and Toph nudged him in the ribs with one sharp elbow "—is a natural."
Zuko cocked his head to one side, looking them over. Considering. Then he looked at Mai and arched one brow. She took in his expression, then sighed and rolled her eyes. "Fine," she said. "If you insist."
The grin Zuko turned on Aang was all teeth. "I bet we can out-dance you."
"What? No way! Katara and I can beat you easy."
"You sound pretty confident. But I've been taking dance lessons since I could walk." Zuko turned to Sokka and Suki. "What about you guys? You want in on this?"
Sokka grinned, leering at Zuko. "You bet we do! We'll show you how two warriors—"
Suki nudged him gently in the side. "Um, actually Sokka, I don't really feel much like dancing. Can't we sit this one out?"
"Come on, benders win everything! This is our chance to show off." He kissed her cheek. "Okay, so maybe we don't have a lifetime of practice 'actually dancing,'" and he hooked his fingers in the air as quotes, "but between your fancy footwork and me being, well, me, I bet we can take 'em."
With everyone's attention on her, Suki blushed. "I'm just pretty full from all that food. Maybe later? It's been kind of a long day and I feel like I need a nap…or at least a glass of water and a shady bench in the garden?"
Toph tapped one bare foot thoughtfully against the floor. "I'll dance with you, Sokka." She smirked. "You may have two left feet, but no one beats an Earthbender when it comes to putting on the moves.
Aang led Katara out onto the dance floor but she seemed oddly reluctant.
The color in her cheeks darkened as she met his eyes. "My dad's watching. I guess it's just a little weird."
Aang grinned at her. "I'll be good if you will."
"Aang!" She sounded exasperated, but he could see that she was more amused than anything else. He pulled her closer and took her other hand.
"Don't worry about them, remember?"
"Just follow my lead. Don't you want to win?"
She caught her lip between her teeth, torn between her competitive nature and her father's watching eyes.
Aang and then took her other hand and entwined their fingers. "Close your eyes," he said.
"Aang, I'm not sure I—"
He could see how much she really wanted to do this. "Don't you trust me?"
She looked at him, looked into him, and her mouth curved slightly in a smile. "Of course," she said softly.
"Then just follow my lead."
With her eyes closed, dancing with Aang became something altogether…different.
Maybe it had something to do with the music, the tempo that was a bit slower than anything they had yet danced to. It wasn't an intimately slow pace, it didn't call for him to hold her against him, but neither did it have the fast paced and thrilling momentum from their date. She could enjoy it on a different level, now that she wasn't being tossed around as much.
The drums vibrated the floor beneath her feet, the high, trilling sound of the horns rang in her ears and yet she could still hear Aang humming along with the tune.
Deliberately, she blocked out all thoughts of anyone else at all being in the room with them and really let herself relax in the simple, physical pleasure of Aang's hands guiding her through the dance. Her body flowed with the music in an utter lack of self-consciousness.
Perhaps it was because he led a bit more strongly to compensate for her lack of sight. Perhaps it was that, with her eyes closed and her mind floating in elation from the day's events, she had relaxed some inner part of herself that had been on guard for so long she hadn't even realized it. For the first time since—since she didn't even know how long, whether she'd been holding part of herself aside from the death of her mother, when she'd had to step up and be woman of the house, or whether it was due to living her whole life under the shadow of war…
Or, maybe, it was all due to the confidence of the young man guiding her through the steps, moving her feet along with his—maybe it was that, after all this time, she'd finally found someone who she could let down all her defenses with. Someone she could trust more completely than she even trusted herself. Aang would never let her fall. She could lean on him. She could, finally, lay aside the mantle of duty that she'd worn for so long and just let go. She could be, without reservations or fears of judgment, Katara, utterly herself. Young, and in love and happy.
The music picked up, a staccato drumbeat that she realized now had slowly been speeding up the whole time. Concentrating on Aang's cues, she had no more thought for introspection but the feeling of contentment, of ultimate safety, that remained. At the end of the dance, she found herself lifted into his arms and spun around, laughter surprised out of her. When he held her close she leaned in and, eyes still closed, kissed him in front of everyone.
He led her, blushing, off of the dance floor to cheers and whistles, and then turned to grin at Zuko, who stood fuming nearby.
"Told you," he said, smugness evident in every line of his body.
Zuko snorted, still glaring, but the brightness in his eyes gave him away, and when he spoke there was no heat in his tone. "Yeah, well, I guess loosing to the Avatar isn't much of a loss, considering—"
The doors on the other side of the dance hall slammed open, the force of air sending candle flames flickering wildly. The Fire Sage gasped for breath, stumbled forward into a growing stillness, and then fell forward.
Aang caught him.
"The—the catacombs," the sage wheezed. Soot and burn marks streaked his clothing. Katara hurried forward to hold his other side. She and Aang lowered him gently to the floor. "Under…attack."
"It's Azula," Aang said. His face was grim. It was not a question.
The sage merely nodded. Zuko appeared with a glass of water, and helped the old man to take a drink.
Aang met Katara's eyes and between them, in an instant, flashed all of the things that they didn't have time to say. Tension winding tight to the breaking point.
"Stay here," Aang said, fully expecting and overriding her protest. "These people need protection, Katara," and in his eyes was a wordless plea that she not make a scene by arguing.
The sage, watching the two of them, said, "There is no one there. They attacked and ran. He will be in no danger, my lady."
It was this, and this only, that softened her. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly.
"Okay," she said. And met Aang's eyes again. "Okay. But be careful."
He kissed her, quickly, and then he was gone.
Toph and Zuko went with him, leaving Sokka and Katara to organize the slowly panicking nobility. Of those who stayed, the warriors soon split off to guard all access points to the celebration hall and Katara ended up with Sokka in a narrow garden, watching orange flames dance against black smoke and a sunset sky.
She tried hard not to think about what he might be facing, but in her mind was the nightmare playing over and over again. Sokka's hand on her shoulder startled her, and she blinked up at him, realizing she'd been pacing in an increasingly tight circle.
"He'll be okay," Sokka said.
Katara blew out a shaky breath, unconvinced.
"He's stronger now."
"Sokka… I don't think it matters how strong he is. I don't think that the way I feel about this will ever change."
Her brother, who had faced a similar demon, squeezed her shoulder in comfort. "I understand. But you must know that this isn't—"
"Well, well, well."
Three words, in that same snide tone. Sokka's face tightened, his eyes going wide as he stared over Katara's shoulder.
She whirled around.
Azula lounged in the archway, smiling at them with bared teeth.
Unpredictable and deadly. Insane. Vivid in Katara's mind was Azula screaming and writhing in heavy chains, blue fire exploding from her mouth. Tears and snot streaking her face, the uneven and jagged cut of her hair.
The woman who stood before her now in simple black robes, yellow eyes narrowed and teeth bared in a snake's grin—this Azula was a far cry from the fractured, desperate princess whom Katara had beaten with Sozin's comet trailing across the sky like a bleeding star.
And yet in one critical aspect, the woman now was far more dangerous because she had nothing at all to lose, not even her own sanity. Dangerous like a snake, like a rat viper: even as it sunk its fangs deep into your flesh, it was also chewing at its own body. Full of venom and a mindless kind of malevolence.
These things she saw, reflected like the fire flickering in Azula's eyes.
Whatever the Firebender had been doing since her escape, finding inner balance had not been a part of it.
The golden eyes gleamed. Shiny white teeth bared in a feral smile of predatory anticipation. "Well, well, well," she said, breathy voice full of bitterness. "What have we here."
She remembered Zuko saying, Azula always lies. And Katara knew her to be unpredictable. The Firebender had the uncanny ability to strike at her enemy's most vulnerable points when it would not be expected at all.
Katara had learned this lesson about Azula very well.
Katara's heart thundered in her chest but her breathing was steady and deep and beneath the tension on the surface, beneath the shuddery feelings of shallow nervousness was a deep reservoir of calm, cold hatred.
She stepped in front of her brother, her eyes locked on Azula, and slid smoothly into the defensive opening stance of her art. Her whole being focused with deadly intent on the Firebender. The wound in her heart that had opened the night Aang fell, the night Azula had killed him still bled freely. She remembered the fight with Zuko, remembered Azula's eyes shifting before she had violated everything the Agni Kai stood for and fired the lightning at Katara instead.
She would not give Azula a third chance to destroy someone she cared about.
"Sokka," she said, "stay behind me."
As much as it pained his warrior's pride, she knew he would obey her in this. He may not have been present for Azula's triumphant moments, but he was smart enough to know that as a non-bender he didn't stand a chance.
Azula's lips curled back in a snarl. "How sweet," she said. "You're trying to protect him." She spread her arms, long white fingers gesturing to the garden around them. "There is no water here—how do you expect to even fight me?"
Her world, so small, so focused. Steady heartbeat like a drum in her ears. Even breathing, smooth, like the tide that, even now, tugged at her bones. As a Waterbender her whole world had always been about the ebb and flow of power. This, here and now, was no different at all.
Katara's mouth twisted in a smile. She altered her position ever so slightly, palms flat and open, then twitched her fingers, beckoning.
Come on. Give it to me.
I dare you.
Her brother's voice, somewhere behind her. "Katara, I don't think it's a good idea to—"
Azula moved, quick as a striking snake, faster than Katara would have thought possible. Her arms swinging in a tight circle, then the outstretched hand and two fingers pointing at Katara like a death sentence. Katara had barely enough time to shift her feet and widen her stance. The lightning exploded from Azula's fingertips, a wide beam of crackling, deadly electricity. Blindingly bright. Behind her, Sokka cried out and she felt him grab her shoulders and try to pull her aside.
She stepped away from him, into the deadly blue energy that entered her body through her outstretched hand.
It became her whole world. Bright, behind her eyelids. Inside her blood. Her heartbeat, so loud in the silence. Breathe. In, out. Every nerve singing to life in the sudden flare of power heating the very blood in her veins.
No room for fear, for uncertainty. Open and accepting and yielding, like water parting before a rock, she became an open and willing vessel. She raised one arm, pointed her fingers upward. As if it was the easiest thing in the world, as if she'd done it a hundred times before, she sent the crackling flash of energy upward into the dusk sky.
Instantly, with no hesitation, no pause for reflection, no need to gather herself, her body flowed from defense to offense and she attacked the stunned and unbalanced Firebender.
Azula stared at her in horror, mouth gaping open. Katara had never felt such a clear intent of purpose before, never in her life fought with such a unified desire in her spirit. In a flowing spin, moving her body through the motions without regret for life lost, she pulled the water from every tree and plant in the garden and threw the flood at the Firebender.
Azula screamed when the water slammed into her, and it was the most beautiful sound Katara had every heard. Her heart clenched fiercely on this pleasure and she understood, for the first time, how a warrior could find joy and freedom on the field of battle.
No one in the history of the world had ever hated another the way she hated Azula. She had no intention of giving any mercy, no intention to hold back anything.
Before she reached Azula, where the Firebender struggled to her feet, the night exploded all around Katara in an inferno of heat and flames.
A/N: What? No updates for months and then she gives us a cliffhanger?
Eeep. ^^' Um, pretty much, yeah.
I have never even considered not continuing this story. It's too important to me on a personal level for that to be an option. However, I want to thank all of you for your patience with how long it has taken me to update these last few chapters. Real life does get in the, but also: I suffer from the lack of self-esteem that many writers do where their work is concerned. I want everything to be perfect, as close to what is in my head as is possible, and so I cannot express to you all just how wonderful you are in loving this story of mine : )
I am very happy that you loved the last chapter so much. I still have a lot of editing—I feel like the bones are showing through in a few places—and, contradictorily, it is one of the most important chapters to me because it is the real beginning of Aang and Katara's relationship.
The next chapter is 'Friction'.
You are thinking, Ahhhh! Don't take years to update again! ^^' Um, I can say that I respond well to positive pressure, and that the next chapter is completely outlined and about 1/3 written. It has some fun Kataang moments that I'm very interested to see what you think of, and also the beginnings of a Maitara friendship that surprised me.
See you in a few weeks!