Running Interference

Part One

Katara was beginning to notice something a bit... off... about Aang.

She wasn't really sure if it was her imagination, though. They'd only been together - like together, together - for three months. It had been almost like an extra-long vacation over those months: the five of them living in Ba Sing Se with no real burning need to move on or go home. Eventually, they were all aware they'd probably be going their separate ways, but Zuko's regular - sometimes extended - visits gave them an excuse to linger. Katara wasn't entirely sure where they'd go or what they'd do once that was over with, but she wasn't terribly concerned. Sokka would always be nearby, Toph would come and go as she pleased, and Aang... Aang would be with her no matter what. Of course.

Even if he was a little hard to figure out sometimes.

"Katara." Aang slid into the spot next to her at the edge of the balcony where she'd been watching the people passing by on the street. "I was looking all over for you," he told her, scooting just a bit closer. He did stuff like that a lot more now that it was allowed and - to some degree - encouraged. "What are you doing out here?"

"Just thinking." She bumped his shoulder with hers playfully, and smiled. "What do you need?"

"Nothing, I just wanted to see you." It was the sort of thing Aang said all the time, with completely sincerity and without even giving it a second thought - but it always gave her that warm and fuzzy feeling inside. "I think Momo ate all the leftovers from dinner last night," he added, with a big of a grin.

She couldn't help but laugh. "Sokka is going to be heartbroken. I think he had his heart set on those pastries."

"Well, he could always just" - Aang paused, frowned, and coughed, swallowing a few times to make sure his throat was clear before continuing - "send a message to Zuko if he wants more."

Katara stared at him for a second. That was what seemed strange - she was sure of it now... "Aang, are you okay?"

"Fine." He blinked, clearly startled by the question. "Why?"

"Your voice sounds weird for some reason." She frowned at him. Maybe he was coming down with a cold. It was so typical of Aang to deny it, too.

"No, it doesn't."

"Yes, it does." She fixed him with her best 'fess up or else' stare. "There's something you're hiding from me, isn't there?"

"Katara, I don't know what you're talking about." He honestly did look baffled; Katara felt a little less sure of his guilt. "My voice doesn't sound any different." He put a hand to his throat then, suddenly unsure, and looked up at her again. "What does it sound like?"

"I don't know." She stared thoughtfully at him. Maybe it was a cold and he just hadn't noticed yet - Aang was pretty good at not noticing that sort of thing. "It's like... it's heavier. Or lower, maybe."

"Oh." He lowered the hand, still frowning a bit, and Katara's eyes were drawn to the place where it had been. "Well, that's weird." He swallowed - the motion was somehow fascinating. Had the muscles on his throat always been so well-defined?

Feeling mischievous, Katara leaned over and ran a finger up the line that lead from his collar to his chin. It did feel well-defined.

"K-Katara!" Aang stiffened up in surprise. She was close enough to feel that faint rush of heat rising to his face, and smiled a bit.

"Sorry - I couldn't resist." It was kind of nice to surprise Aang, and - she had to admit - gratifying to be able to generate such a response.

"Oh. Well, that's okay. I mean, I don't mind." At this close range, she could hear the way his breath quickened and feel his pulse race. "Um. So..." That trailed off into an awkward silence; he glanced at her out of the corner of his eyes, as if looking for guidance on what to do now.

Katara was at a bit of a loss herself - should she kiss him now? Or just move away and act like it was nothing? This was new territory in a lot of ways. So it was a bit of a relief when her brother's voice called to them from inside the house. "I can see you two out there!"

She pulled back with an agrieved sigh, and snapped back, "So what?"

"So, you're gonna make me lose my lunch, that's what!" Sokka stopped by the door and made an exaggerated gagging motion. "I don't need to see my sister making out with some loser - no offense, Aang."

"None taken... I think."

"And besides," Sokka continued airily, as if Aang hadn't said anything, "Suki and I always keep that stuff to ourselves. I'm telling you, behind closed doors is the only place for - "

"Stop." Katara put her hands over her ears, glaring at him. "I do not want to hear what you and Suki do behind closed doors."

"You see?" He fixed her with that same know-it-all smirk that never failed to annoy her. "Now, do me a favor and get a room." He seemed to realize what he'd just said about five second after turning back toward the kitchen, and spun around again to point accusingly at Aang. "But leave the door open, mister. I've got my eye on you."

Katara returned his smirk. "I thought you didn't want to see anything."

"I don't! Because it shouldn't happen! Just... just never mind!" Sokka threw his hands in the air and stalked off, muttering to himself. "I can't believe I'm talking about this kind of stuff with my sister. And Aang. Ugh! This conversation so never happened..."

Katara turned back to Aang, and couldn't hold back a chuckle when she saw that he was grinning too. "Come on," she said, pushing herself to her feet. "Let's go inside."

"Sure. I'm really getting hungry anyway." He lifted himself effortlessly, still smiling a bit as he met her gaze. She liked it when he gave her that smile, with that soft look in his eyes...

"Want to hang out in my room later tonight?" Katara offered, with a bit of an answering smile. Those late-night visits gave them a lot more privacy when they talked - or, more often, didn't; most of the time they squished in together on the windowsill, wordlessly staring at the moon and sometimes with a kiss or two when the mood hit.

It was nice.

Aang's answering grin was huge and goofy. "Yeah, of course I - !" An unmistakeably loud squeak broke up that last syllable, and he clapped a hand over his mouth, abruptly going crimson. "I mean, sure, I guess," he added, forcing his voice into an almost ridiculously low tone.

Katara raised an eyebrow at him, but didn't comment. "Great, then I'll see you then," she said instead, and leaned forward a little, letting her eyes slide shut expectantly.


"Ugh." Katara pulled back, rolling her eyes upward as she turned to re-enter the house. The mood had just been effectively killed. "We weren't even doing anything," she complained.

"You were going to. I know where these things lead." Sokka narrowed his eyes at her for just a moment, before returning to the cupboard he'd been about to open. "Boundaries, Katara. You've got to have - HEY! Who ate all the leftovers!"

From where he rested on the top of the shelf, Momo let out a loud belch.

Later that night, Katara noticed a much clearer sign of Aang being 'off'.

They were sitting on the windowsill in her room - the sky was clear, the moon was bright, and all in all, it was a good evening. The last lights from their part of the city had faded off several minutes ago, which was normally the sign that they took to mean it was time for Aang to return to his own room. Katara always felt a little regretful, but it was for the best if they wanted a proper amount of sleep. The others might get suspicious if she and Aang were both tired every morning, and she wasn't enthusiastic about their private 'alone' time being revealed. It was just kind of neat to have it be a secret between them.

"I guess I should go," Aang said, echoing her own thoughts. He didn't sound any happier about it than she did; when he met her gaze, the smile on his face was rueful. "It's getting kind of late."

"Yeah, you're probably right." Katara waited for him to lift himself backwards into her room, and then he offered a hand to help her down. "It'd be a little strange if we both fell asleep over breakfast."

He grinned. "Sokka would probably assume the worst and kill me."

That startled a laugh out of her. For some reason, she hadn't expected Aang to make that kind of insinuation. "What exactly are you implying?" she teased him, and was amused to see the tips of his ears darken with a blush.

"Uh... well..."

"I'm just teasing, Aang." Katara smiled, and used the hand that was still clasped in his to pull him closer. "Sokka probably would assume the worst, but that's only because it's what he would be doing in the same situation." She leaned forward to kiss him.

Wait - leaned forward... not down?

Aang looked a bit perplexed when she moved back and stared at him. "What's wrong?"

"Oh - nothing. It's just..." She felt a little silly now, but there was no point in trying to hide her reaction. "I guess I didn't realize you'd gotten so tall until just now."

"Oh." He shrugged and smiled a bit sheepishly. "I... guess I didn't realize it either." The sheepish smile broke into a much wider one. "Hey, this means I'm almost as tall as you are!"

Katara couldn't help but return it. Aang's enthusiasm was so contagious sometimes. "It does, doesn't it?" A year ago it might've mattered if her boyfriend was shorter than her. Now that it didn't matter... it didn't seem like he was going to be for very much longer. "That's a lot of growing to do in just two months."

"Well, maybe I was just in a hurry or something." Aang seemed ready to shrug that off; the gaze he directed at her was half-lidded. "Maybe now that we're together, my body decided it wanted to catch up with you."

She couldn't exactly resist that look. "Maybe that's it," Katara agreed, and freed her hand from his to wrap both arms around his neck.

He didn't need any more invitation than that, eagerly leaning in to close his lips over hers. His arms slid around her waist, holding her carefully.

Katara enjoyed kissing Aang. Most of the time, they were just simple kisses - their lips brushed, or even pressed together for a short moment. Those were enough to send shivers through her. Every so often, though, they'd been moving more and more towards deeper kisses: open-mouthed and lengthy. Those kind of kisses made her feel warm all the way through. Katara shifted a little closer, wanting the added comfort of a firmer hug.

His arms loosened around her, subtly shifting more space between them.

What was that? Katara shifted closer again.

Aang shuffled back a second time.

Okay, that was it. She broke the kiss and gave him a perplexed frown. "Aang, what are you doing?"

He wasn't meeting her eyes. "What do you mean?" Even the tone of his voice was guilty, and his shoulders felt tense beneath her fingers.

But why? What was he feeling guilty about? "I'm just trying to get closer to you," she pointed out, and emphasized this by tightening her hold around his neck, the intent being to pull herself nearly flush against him -

- and abruptly felt herself propelled several steps back.

Aang's eyes were wide; she could see them clearly in the dimly lit room. "Katara, I'm sorry!" He reached out with one hand as if to place it on her shoulder, but stopped instead and just held it there awkwardly, like he wasn't sure what he really wanted to do with it.

"Aang..." She hadn't quite recovered from her shock. He had airbended her away from him! Katara was suddenly irritated. "What is going on with you?" she snapped.

"I didn't mean it!" There was an edge of panic in his voice. "I just - you were just - I mean - "

"If you didn't want me close to you, you could've just said so." That hurt feeling was just catching up with her; Katara felt betrayed. He was the one who'd chased her - he'd been the one who started all of this and kissed her, and coaxed her into giving away her heart. And now - what? He was backing out? She could feel a lump at the back of her throat and glared hard at him, fighting tears.

"No, no, no - I do want you close! I want you really close, Katara!" His shoulders hunched miserably; the stare he directed at her was so wretched that she almost forgot why she was upset with him. "It's just... when you get that close..." His voice cracked horribly at the end, and he looked away. She could tell he was blushing furiously even without being able to see it.

"You're embarrassed." The anger seemed to drain out of her. Katara felt more than a little embarrassed herself, and did her best to hide it. Sometimes she forgot that he was two years younger than her; he probably just wasn't ready for some things. And they were just kids; the thought of some things made her nervous too. Maybe it was better to wait on this 'getting close' business and stick to more innocent things. "Sorry, Aang - I guess I wasn't thinking."

His eyes flew up to meet hers again. "You're not mad?"

"No, I'm not mad." It was just a little weird, that's all. Katara expected an attitude more like her brother's - eager and ready to go as far as the girl would let him. Obviously, Aang wasn't like that. "We'll just hold off on being that close, all right?"

"Oh... all right." Why did he sound disappointed? Wasn't this what he wanted? Aang smiled at her hopefully. "So we're okay, right?"

Katara nodded, returning the smile. He was just never going to stop confusing her. "Yeah, of course we're okay." She tilted her head, and made the effort to put that awkward moment behind them. "Aren't you going to kiss me goodnight before you go?"

He was across the room in seconds and did just that.

Katara was ready enough to let Aang's strange behavior pass without comment. There seemed to be logical explanations for all of the weirdness, and he'd probably get embarrassed - or just evade the questions - if she brought it up. Besides, things hadn't changed between them. It just wasn't a big deal.

However, it couldn't help but come up in conversation when others noticed it.

"I'll probably be back by lunch." Aang shrugged his robe into place, grabbing a piece of fruit from the table on his way to the door. It wasn't too much of a surprise that he was still hungry after the huge breakfast they'd had; lately, it seemed like he was always hungry. "I think the Earth Sages just want to talk about preserving Air Nomad culture." He smiled a little, looking wistful. "I'm the only one around who really knows about it, after all."

And any future airbenders should know their history. No one came right out and said it, but it was there.

"Anyway" - Aang broke the awkward silence, shaking his head as if to clear that thought from it - "I guess I'll see you guys later." The last syllable of his farewell shot up an octave or two.

"You sound like a tone-deaf sparrowbat," Toph pointed out bluntly, raising her head from where she was laying back on the floor.

"It's not my fault!" Aang responded defensively. There was a flush rising on his cheeks. "Anyway, see ya!" he called, and hurried out.

"Bye..." Katara frowned at the door. "He could've waited."

"And keep the Earth Sages waiting? Katara, what are you thinking?" Sokka leaned back from his cross-legged position on one of the cushions around the table, hands splayed on the floor behind him. "Maybe he was just running late. Who knows?"

"Oh, please. When has Aang ever let being late stop him?"

"He's probably just embarrassed," Suki pointed out, with a glance at Toph. "How many guys like it when people point out that their voice just broke?"

"Hey, you try listening to someone squawk like an animal dying a painful death all the time with heightened hearing." Toph was clearly unconcerned about any embarrassment she may or may not have caused Aang. "He's been doing it for, like, a month now."

"I know." Katara felt suddenly relieved - as if being given an excuse to talk about it were all it took. "He denied it when I tried to bring it up. And did you notice how tall he is now?"

Sokka shrugged. "Seems the same to me."

"That's because you're taller, genius," Suki reminded him, raising an eyebrow. "Maybe that's why you're both so hungry all the time now."

"Not that that's unusual for Sokka anyway," Toph added.

"But it's not just that." Katara somehow felt that if she talked about it a bit more, she might be able to pin the source of the whole thing down. "He's been acting so weird lately."

"You mean weirder than normal?" Sokka grinned.

"Like you can talk, Snoozles," Toph pointed out dryly, and then turned her sightless gaze on Katara. "Exactly what kind of weirdness are you talking about?"

"Well, nothing, really. Actually, it was just one time." Katara belatedly realized that talking about it was going to require more detail than she really felt like giving out. "You know what - it was nothing, really. Never mind."

"Hey, you can't just bring it up and then not talk about it!" Sokka frowned at her, eyes narrowing suspiciously. "You know, I'm starting to think you might be hiding something from us."

"I'm not! It's just - it was kind of private." Katara smoothed the back of her hair uncomfortably. Maybe she could just avoid going into too much detail. "I hugged him a little too close and he airbended me away. That's all."

Toph whistled. "So was this before, after, or during kissy time?"

She could feel the heat rising on her face. "None of your business!"

"Can we please not go there? I just ate." Sokka leaned back in his seat, one eyebrow raised in perplexity. "But seriously, sis: you try to get closer, and he airbends you away? That's just... weird."

"Maybe he's just nervous," Suki suggested. "He's only, what, thirteen?"

"Suki, you're looking at this from a girl's perspective." Sokka's expression was skeptical. "I am telling you, no guy old enough to kiss a girl will ever, in a million years, want to push her away if she's trying to get closer. We just don't."

Katara opened her mouth to refute that, but was interrupted by Toph snickering. "What's so funny?" she asked the younger girl, suspiciously.

"You guys," Toph answered, and grinned wickedly. "You're totally missing the obvious answer."

She could be so irritating when she got like that... "Well, then just what is the obvious answer?"

"Maybe" - Toph drew the word out, crossing her arms behind her head in a self-satisfied manner - "he airbended you away because he's got something to hide."

There was a moment of very potent silence following that declaration.

"That's it!" Sokka snapped his fingers, eyes brightening. "The voice changing, the growth spurt, the pushing away of the girlfriend when she gets close enough to 'notice'..." He straightened in his seat and triumphantly declared his verdict. "Aang is becoming a MAN!" That hung there for all of half a second and then his eyes narrowed. "Wait. Aang is becoming a man?" Abruptly, his whole manner changed - he pointed an accusing finger at his sister, eyes narrowed. "Has he touched you anywhere?"

"Sokka!" Suki was obviously trying to sound outraged, but her grin gave her away. "Don't be ridiculous," she scolded her boyfriend, one hand trying to cover that incriminating expression.

"Ridiculous is right!" Katara shot her brother an exasperrated look. "I'll have you know," she told him, fighting the urge to blush - again - at the implication, "that Aang is a perfect gentleman. Not once has he ever tried anything inappropriate. Unlike some people," she added, with a pointed look at the hand Sokka was trying to inconspicuously slide over Suki's rear end.

He hastily snatched it back. "Hey, I'm a gentleman!"

Katara shared a conspiritorial glance with Suki, who just smiled.

"Sure you are, Sokka," she agreed, in a tone that said just the opposite.

"Suki! You're supposed to be on my side!"

"I agreed with you, didn't I?"

"Well, if Twinkle-Toes is a perfect gentleman," Toph said suddenly, from her reclined position, "then maybe you should be worrying about whether he's taking you seriously enough, Katara." One of her feet rested innocuously on the floor, and there was a hint of an amused smirk on her face.

Katara frowned at her. "Well, of course he's taking me seriously!" she announced, trying to sound more sure than she was. Truthfully, she hadn't thought about it that way before. "Not everyone is going to be a sex fiend like Sokka is."


"Look at... look at Zuko, for example," she went on, ignoring her brother's protest. "I've never seen him do anything inappropriate. He's as much a gentleman as Aang."

Toph snickered. "Right, and I'll bet he behaved really 'gentlemanly' when he and Mai snuck off into Sokka's room during Aang's birthday party."

"MY room?" Sokka slapped a hand to his chest for emphasis, looking outraged. "You serious? They went into MY room!"

"Probably because it's the closest," Toph answered him, without a hint of remorse for the anguish she was clearly causing him. "I don't know what happened after they fell onto your bed, but there was some pretty heavy gentleman-like action going on during the trip over to - "

"Ew! Ew ew ew ew ew! Oh man!" Sokka brushed furiously at his arms and legs as if trying to rid himself of something foul, and then finally settled for slapping a hand to his face. "Why did they have to pick my room?" he mourned, letting the hand slide down slowly.

"Oh, come on." Toph was clearly in no mood for mercy. "What's the big deal? Not like you ever sleep in there anyway. I'll bet there's dust collecting on the bed. At least, there was before Zuko and Mai got to it."

"Hey, it's still my room, and they have no right to - Wait." It seemed to hit him then that she had hinted at something a little closer to home. Sokka crossed his arms, eyes narrowing. "How much do you know?"

A hint of a smirk was inching its way onto Toph's face. "Wouldn't you like to know? Sokky-poo."

Suki let out a small 'eep' and her face went completely red.

"Well... anyway." Katara really didn't want to think about where that nickname came from, and when Suki might have called her brother by it. "Just because Zuko's as much a pervert as Sokka doesn't prove anything. Some guys are just not as hormonal as others. That's all."

"Y'know, you can be pretty dense sometimes." Toph still looked completely unphased when Katara turned to glare at her. "Well, come on - 'not that hormonal'? What exactly do you think causes the guy to get to the point where he airbends you away?"

Katara opened her mouth to respond, but nothing came out. She could feel her face begin to grow hot as the silence stretched out, but she couldn't think of anything to say to refute that statement. "That... That's not important - and it doesn't change anything," she declared finally, but there was no force behind her words. It made her a little uncomfortable, yeah - but it might have been kind of flattering, too, and she felt a little flustered about the idea.

It didn't help that Toph just smiled back at her, either. "Liar."

"Oh, shut up," she muttered, and crossed her arms over her chest, once again refusing to look anyone in the eye.

"Okay, this is officially the most disturbing conversation I've ever been a part of." Sokka gave the reclining earthbender a flat stare. "Thanks a lot for the mental images, Toph. I thought I was complete with the joyous reality of Zuko and Mai doing unspeakable things on my bed, but oh no - you have to go the extra mile and treat me to some wonderful thoughts of all the things Aang wants to do to my sister. Remind me to kill him later, will you?"

"Look, it's none of your business, okay?" Katara clenched her fingers hard against her arms and glared at him, trying to ignore the blazing heat she still felt on the surface of her face. "Besides, we haven't done anything. You can't blame him for stuff we haven't even done."

"He was thinking it!" Sokka protested. "I'll bet he's just waiting for his chance."

"Now that is just the stupidest thing I've ever - "

"Hey, guys!" The front door swung open, and Aang stepped back into the house, an unsuspecting smile on his face and the High Sage on his heels. "We're just stopping by so I can get my - "

"There! See that?" Sokka swung his arm dramatically to point at Aang's startled face. "Just look at that gleam in his eyes. That boy is just waiting for his chance to breed!"

There was a moment of shocked silence, and Katara noticed with some sympathy that Aang's eyes were approximately the size of saucers as he goggled at Sokka.

"Is that so?" That was the High Sage breaking the silence; he was giving Aang a speculative look that Katara did not trust at all. "The last remaining airbender, ready to... er... 'breed'?"

"Breed?" Aang's voice was a small, sick thing; it warbled embarrassingly and he didn't even seem to care. "Me?"

"This is an interesting development, indeed." The High Sage still had that thoughtful look on his face; it was almost possible to see the wheels turning behind it. "Perhaps, Avatar Aang, we could postpone our meeting until later this evening. There is something I should attend to at once." A thin smile spread on the man's face. "The sooner the better, I'm thinking."

Without even waiting for an answer, the man was out the door, leaving Katara with a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach.

Somehow, she felt that whatever this signified, it wasn't good.