Running Interference

Part Three

Katara had more or less decided she'd had enough.

It had been three days now since Aang had left, and she hadn't even caught a glimpse of him in that time. He didn't even write! She'd mentioned this irritably to Toph once, and had gotten only a raised eyebrow and some snarky comment about an 'empty nest'. No one else got it! Three days was a long time to be barely two blocks away and still somehow completely out of communication with her. Or, them. Either way.

"I don't think he's in good shape for company," Zuko had told her the other day - a little more sharply than she thought was really necessary. He'd come by on another errand that didn't make any sense - a lot like that trip he'd made a couple of days ago to pick up Aang's pillow. They still hadn't figured out what that was all about.

Personally, Katara thought that Zuko was the one who wasn't in good shape for company. His eyes were bloodshot, his jaw seemed permanently clenched, and it looked like he'd developed some kind of nervous tic on the unscarred side of his face that could be set off by the most innocent-seeming comments. Beyond that, though, he was distinctly crabby and seemed to be making a conscious effort to keep his temper under control.

"What's up with him?" Sokka had asked after he'd left, and Katara wished she had an answer.

Something was going on here - she was more sure of that every day - but she didn't have the slightest idea of what it might be.

"Oh, get over it," Toph responded, when she brought the subject up. The younger girl was infuriatingly unconcerned about this whole mess. "Ever thought that maybe if there is something going on, you might not want to know what it is?"

Katara frowned. "What's that supposed to mean?"

"Well, think about it." Toph leaned back against the wall behind her, her tone reasonable. "Aang's not very good at keeping secrets. He usually cracks pretty quick. If he's so determined to keep this one, that means it's gotta be something he thinks you're going to be pretty upset about."

"And that's why I want to know what it is," Katara asserted, eyes narrowing. Aang had this unfortunately tendency to get himself into trouble without really trying. Obviously, this time he'd dragged Zuko into it, too. And she wasn't about to let him continue to get himself in deeper with whatever it was.

"In other words," Toph put in flatly, "you're nosy."

"Fine! I'm nosy." Katara crossed her arms, more than a little put-out by this whole business. "But Aang happens to be my boyfriend now, and boyfriends shouldn't keep secrets from their girlfriends, even if it would make them upset." She could feel her nose flaring even as she spoke, but didn't care. "And when I track him down and figure out what he's been hiding from me, I am going to be calm and rational. And prove to him that it would've been better to tell me from the start rather than getting himself into a huge mess that's probably getting worse every day just because he tried to keep secrets!" She glared fiercely at the younger girl, as if somehow it would transfer through her and get to Aang.

Toph shrugged, clearly unphased. "Hey, don't say I didn't warn you..."

The best way to go about this, Katara decided, was to be straightforward. There was still that lingering doubt at the back of her mind that maybe Aang really was going through some nasty, embarrassing tests, and she didn't want to leap to any conclusions right off the bat. But it was perfectly natural for a concerned girlfriend to visit, right? Even though Zuko had said Aang didn't want company, she hadn't heard that from Aang. And she didn't care what he looked like or how out of it he was. Hadn't she always taken care of him when he was at his worst? She could handle whatever this was and still feel just as strongly for him as she always had, so he had nothing to worry about.

Assuming he was telling the truth, of course.

So, that was why she was at the palace shortly after lunch on the fourth day of Aang's absense, following the directions that a helpful guard had given her to Zuko's rooms. She wasn't sure if Aang would even be in the rooms - he might be with the Sages still - but she didn't mind waiting if he was.

Katara had to admit, part of this was really just because she missed Aang so much. It was a little embarrassing to admit - three days shouldn't be that big a deal - but she'd gotten so used to seeing him all the time, and... well... Now that he wasn't there, she did feel a bit lonely for him.

I won't stay long if he really doesn't want me here, she told herself, feeling a bit of warmth rising on her face. I'll just make sure he's all right, and then go. It probably won't be much longer until he's back home anyway.

She still had that thought in her mind, and anticipation building up at the back of her throat, when she reached up to knock on Zuko's door.

No one answered.

She'd kind of expected that, but it was still disappointing. Katara sighed. I guess I should just wait... It wasn't like she could go track him down. Visiting him when he wasn't having tests performed was one thing, but barging in on the actual tests would be going a little too far.

Sokka would laugh so hard if he heard she was standing around outside Zuko's rooms waiting for Aang to come by...

Well, I don't care what Sokka thinks! Katara valiantly ignored the blush she could feel building on her cheeks again, leaning against the wall beside the door. Like he's one to talk, anyway. After all the times he's made an idiot of himself over the girls he fell for...

"Oh!" A strange voice broke her from her thoughts. Katara looked up and found a girl about her own age with elaborate make-up and a silk kimono standing in front of her in the hallway. "I'm sorry - I thought it was my turn after lunch!"

Katara frowned. "Your 'turn'?" she repeated, and raised an eyebrow. "For what?"

"Well... you know." The girl blushed suddenly.

Oh. Oh. Katara couldn't help but stare at her, utterly stunned - and, after the knowledge had sunk in, outraged as well. And I thought Zuko was a gentleman! I can't believe him! Does Mai even know about this? "You take turns?" she managed to get out, incredulously. "With how many other people!"

"Um..." The girl blinked, obviously caught off-guard. "Twenty-nine... I think?"

Twenty-nine! She couldn't believe that - no. There was no way. But it might explain some of Zuko's behavior lately... And with Aang in the room! What is he thinking! No wonder he hadn't wanted her to stop by. And poor Aang, getting dragged into it... Katara could feel her eyes narrowing. "Isn't that a few too many girls for one guy?"

"Well, yes, of course - that's why he's only meant to pick one of us." The girl frowned, looking a bit thoughtful. "Or perhaps two. I'm not really familiar with the culture, of course, but - "

"Pick!" Katara couldn't believe what she was hearing. What is this, some kind of sick competition for who gets to be the next Firelady? "And you're okay with just... just doing whatever he wants on the off chance that he might pick you out of twenty-nine other girls?" she demanded.

The other girl blinked again. "I... guess so? He's not very demanding," she added, a bit tentatively.

Oh, I'll just bet he isn't...

"In fact," the girl went on, blissfully unaware of Katara's thoughts, "most of the time, it seems like he doesn't even want to pick one of us. I mean, you can barely touch him without scaring him off."

Her half-formed plans for giving Zuko the chewing-out of his life vanished at that statement. "Barely touch... you mean...?" So it wasn't what she'd assumed. "That's a relief..." Katara sank back against the wall, abruptly feeling guilty for having doubted Zuko in the first place. Of course he wasn't sleeping with thirty different girls! What was I thinking? Zuko wouldn't do that! "For a second there, I thought... well. Never mind."

Still, there was the whole question of thirty girls competing to see who could seduce him first. Katara frowned. Now that her first assumption had turned out wrong, she was hesitant to believe that Zuko was actually in on this. He must be going crazy, she decided, with some sympathy. I'll bet he never asked for any of this. And no wonder he didn't want me to stop by. I'll have to go tell him I'm all right with it. Maybe I can even help somehow.

"It just seems so strange that he keeps running away," the girl was saying. There was a puzzled little frown on her face. "He even tried to say he had a girlfriend, but we were all told that he didn't - why would he lie?"

Katara felt her eyebrow twitch. Oh, come on... "Maybe because he wasn't lying?"

"Well, maybe..." The girl looked unconvinced, but she was clearly wavering. "The Earth Sages told us he was just trying to maintain distance during the deciding process, but - "

"Earth Sages?" That derailed her thoughts somewhat... Katara narrowed her eyes, feeling a dreadful suspicion starting to form at the back of her mind. No. No, it can't be. There's no way... "We are talking about Firelord Zuko," she said, hoping the answer wasn't going to be what she was afraid it would be. "Right?"

"Firelord Zuko?" The expression on the girl's face was blank. "No, no... I'm talking about Avatar Aang, of course."

Up until that point, Katara hadn't thought it possible for a person's mind to blow up. She really hadn't. But it certainly seemed like that was what was happening at the back of hers: a series of angry, loud explosions gradually gaining speed and momentum as they spread across the entirety of her brain, burning and smoking and wrecking havoc until the only thought left that was in any way coherent was: You've got to be kidding me!

"Is that so?" It was like listening to someone else speak. Katara was distantly amazed at how calm and even her voice came out. She looked up at the girl, who seemed to be getting increasingly nervous; her eyes darted from side to side and back to Katara. "Why don't you start from the beginning, then," she suggested, still in that deliberately calm tone, "and tell me everything."

Zuko's fingers had been drumming restlessly against the council table all afternoon; the motion had become so ingrained that even when he got up after the meeting had ended, he could still feel them twitching. He was aware that a few other council members had been shooting dirty looks his way, but it was really difficult to care.

Given how on edge he was lately, it was really difficult to care about almost anything.

Three days. Three days of girls at the door of his rooms, three days of girls randomly turning up in his rooms, three days of broken sleep due to extremely persistant girls either attempting or succeeding to break into his rooms at night.

It didn't help that Mai seemed to find the whole thing highly amusing, either.

Aang had taken to curling up on the floor in his bedchamber with a blanket and pillow rather than opting for the couch, and despite his irritation with the situation, Zuko just didn't have the heart to kick him out. The younger boy looked at least as stressed as Zuko felt; he jumped at sudden noises, twitched violently any time someone so much as touched him, and his voice cracked constantly. It would've been pretty funny to watch if he wasn't in virtually the same condition.

At this point, the only question here is which one of us is going to snap first.

Zuko was determined that it wasn't going to be him.

It was with that objective in mind that he made the decision to head to Mai's rooms after the meeting. Mai might laugh, but at least she was safe. As long as he was there, they wouldn't be bothered by any girls looking to get into the Avatar's pants. That prospect sounded heavenly.

Unfortunately, the plan crashed and burned as soon as he stepped through the door leading out of the council room and his eyes met with Katara's murderous-looking ones from where she was leaning against the wall opposite - in almost the exact same spot he'd first seen Aang standing when this had all started. It seriously looked like she was trying to bore into his skull just by glaring.

Zuko pressed his palm into his forehead, hard. This is bad, isn't it?

"We," she ground out deliberately, striding directly up to him and jabbing him in the chest with a sharp finger, "need to talk. Now."

Great... He was pretty sure he could guess where this was going. Zuko dropped his hand, meeting her gaze with a certain resignation. "If you're going to yell at me, can we at least do this somewhere private?"

"Who said I was going to yell at you?" she yelled, and he noticed more than a few stares being directed their way. "In fact, I'm happy! I'm happy that there are thirty girls doing their best to seduce my boyfriend, and I'm so happy that the two of you were hiding this from me! Wouldn't you be happy?" The last came out through clenched teeth.

"Would you calm down already?" he hissed, feeling irritable. "Or do you really want the whole palace to hear about this? You want answers? Fine. I'll give you answers. But not here." He turned and stode off down the hallway.

"Oh, you had better give me answers!" She stalked after him, clearly still fuming. "And they had better be good answers, too."

And what are you going to do if they're not? He decided it wouldn't be worth the trouble it would cause to say it.

"All right, here." He led her into an empty meeting room, shut the door behind them, and spread his arms expansively. "Go ahead. Yell. Scream. Ask your questions." He managed a small, humorless laugh. "Nothing you can do or say could possibly be worse than what I've been through for your boyfriend these last three days."

"Is that supposed to make me feel better?" she demanded, balling her hands into fists. In a moment of insight, he noticed that behind the seemingly insane fury in her eyes, there was something like a whole mountain of hurt. "You could've told me! Aang could've told me! How do you think I feel now, knowing that for the last three days, thirty different girls have been trying to sleep with him while I'm sitting around at home, thinking that nothing's wrong?"

"Look." Zuko crossed his arms. He didn't have the energy to feel anything beyond irritated with this conversation. "We weren't keeping secrets from you just for the fun of it. Aang didn't want you to get upset."

"Oh, and that worked so well!" Katara's eyes flashed indignantly. "Do I look like I'm not upset?"

"Well, you would if you hadn't found out!" All right, maybe he did have the energy; somehow, Katara had that same uncanny ability as Aang did, to push all of his buttons at the same time. These two deserve each other. "The whole reason I'm involved in this sorry mess is because of you! Because Aang and I both knew that you'd be upset if you found out, and look at that! We were right! You are upset!"

"So, what, you're trying to say it's my fault now!" Katara stared at him incredulously. "You've got to be kidding me! How is it my fault that you two decided to keep this as your dirty little secret?"

"It's not a dirty little secret!" Zuko pinched the bridge of his nose, regretting his outburst already. "You know what? Never mind." It wasn't like anything he said was going to make her less angry. "But you should know that not upsetting you was probably the only thing on Aang's mind through all of this."

She crossed her arms over her chest almost defensively, and looked away from him. "I'd be happier knowing he trusted me," she muttered.

This is just what I need right now. Zuko let out a long, frustrated breath. How was he supposed to deal with this? His previous experiences with hurt and angry girls hadn't gone so well. "This isn't about trusting you," he said, after a brief moment's consideration. "He knows you, and he knew this would make you upset." On impulse, he decided to add, "And, just so you know, being with a girl for only a couple of months, you still wonder sometimes if she's going to suddenly realize you're a jerk and dump you."

Her head shot back up. "Aang is not a jerk!" And then she seemed to deflate, looking down at the floor again. "And I wouldn't just suddenly dump him. Even if he does act stupid sometimes."

"Well, maybe you should tell him that." He rolled his eyes upward. "And then we can all get on with our lives."

"Don't try to turn this into just my problem." Katara looked up at him again, not nearly as angry as before but obviously still fired up over the whole business. "We are figuring this whole thing out, and we're doing it soon - because I am not dealing with thirty girls worth of competition!"

"Got it." Zuko inwardly sighed.

Maybe it should be Aang telling you instead.

"I think maybe I should grow hair again." Aang ran one hand over his smooth scalp, pacing anxiously across the room as he did. "And then get some new clothes. With long sleeves. Maybe even gloves. Oh, and a headband!" He was pretty sure none of those girls would remember what he looked like without his arrows and clothing style giving him away. "What do you think?"

Appa looked up from his meal long enough to let out a low snort.

"Yeah... maybe not." It wouldn't really solve anything for long, anyway. Aang gave up on the pacing and sat down with a soft, graceless 'thud' opposite his bison. "I gotta figure a way out of this somehow."

The problem was, how? The Sages wouldn't listen to him, the girls didn't believe him, and he was losing his mind over how crazy things had been. He could hardly even look at a girl now without wondering if she was another recruit out to get him. And all the 'looks'... and the awkward questions... and the touching... Aang shuddered, caught up in three days worth of bad memories.

What am I gonna do?

"I wonder if someone would double for me if I asked." That might work. Aang lifted his head, brightened by the prospect. "I'll bet there are a lot of people who like the idea of crazy girls chasing after them all the time. Or just pretending to be the Avatar." He smiled hopefully up at Appa. "What do you think?"

The bison looked up, belched, and went back to eating.

"Yeah, I know - someone would probably figure it out." Aang lifted himself back to his feet and began pacing again. "This is so stupid! And no one's listening to me! Ugh!" He slouched back against Appa's front leg, disheartened.

"No one bugs you for being the last sky bison," he mumbled, shutting his eyes.

Only to abruptly open them again. "Wait..."

Appa turned his head in response.

"I've got an idea." Aang felt the grin beginning on his face; he hadn't felt this optimistic since before this whole business had started. He pushed himself up, patted his bison one last time, and headed quickly for the door. "I gotta go talk to Katara and the others!"

Katara was aware of Zuko still eyeing her warily, of Sokka watching with some confusion from his seat at the table, of Toph leaning against the wall with a smirk on her face, of Suki staring at her with awkward sympathy.

It wasn't like she didn't notice. She just didn't care.

"You said they'd be here," she said to Zuko, accusingly.

"They said they'd be here!" He let out a sharp, frustrated breath, returning her glare. "Would you calm down? And stop pacing; you're making me nervous."

"Oh, I'm making you nervous?" Katara did stop pacing, long enough to march up to him and prod him in the chest, hard. "Well, I'm sorry I make you nervous. I'm sorry you have to watch me get upset that thirty girls are stalking my boyfriend. I'm sorry I'm even upset! Because why" - at that, she flung her arms out - "should I be upset!"

Zuko closed his eyes, pinching the bridge of his nose. "Why me?" he muttered.

"Always a good question," Sokka piped up, then shrugged, grinning in an infuriating manner. "I wouldn't hold my breath for an answer, though - after all, you are dealing with Katara here..."

She turned on him, feeling her hands ball into fists. "What's that supposed to mean?"

"I don't know - maybe it has something to do with you yelling something out about thirty girls and then not even explaining what the heck is going on?" He raised an eyebrow at her. "Am I just totally missing something, or what?"

"When are you not missing something?" Toph cut in drily.


"Well, why don't you all just ask Zuko what's going on?" Katara suggested, waving a sharp hand at the Firelord - which he had to dodge; she'd forgotten he was standing so close. "He could probably tell you more than me, because he was keeping the whole thing secret from all of us all this time!"

Sokka shrugged. "So what?"

"'So what'? 'So what'?" She took a few quick steps toward him, glaring as hard as she could at his stupid, condescending face. "So, the Earth Sages decide Aang needs to be part of some kind of - I don't know - Air Nomad breeding program and set up thirty girls to try and seduce him, that's what! And no one tells me!"

He held up his hands, watching her with some apprehension. "Okay... fine... So that's what. I got it." Then he frowned, raising an eyebrow again. "Seriously, they've got thirty girls trying to seduce Aang? Our Aang? Like, goofy kid, barely into puberty Aang?"

"More or less," Zuko confirmed, and sighed, running a hand through his hair. "And they just had to pick the thirty most aggressive, clueless, stubborn girls I've ever met in my life."

Sokka blinked a few times, cleary digesting that information. "That... sounds really messed up."

"Tell me about it."

"Katara, maybe you should sit down." Suki was eyeing her worriedly. "You're stressing yourself out way too much."

Sokka was desperately making slashing motions at his girlfriend, but it was too late by then.

"I am not stressed!" Katara could feel her eyebrow twitching, but continued to glare at the older girl. "I'm angry! There's a difference!"

"We can tell," Toph commented drily.

Katara rounded on her. "You knew about this, didn't you?"

"Uh, yeah." Without uncrossing her arms or moving from her position against the wall, Toph lifted one of her feet, wiggling her toes in Katara's general direction. "Lie detection, remember?"

"Why didn't you tell me!"

Toph shrugged. "Aang asked me not to."

"And you didn't even think to tell him it was an incredibly stupid thing to do?" Katara demanded, caught between incredulous and outraged. "Couldn't you at least have tried to talk to him about it?"

"Hey, it's not like it's any of my business." The younger girl raised an unimpressed eyebrow. "Besides, didn't I tell you earlier that you'd just be upset if you found out what was going on? I tried to warn you."

There was a sudden knock at the door.

"I'll get that." Toph pushed herself up from the wall, disregarding Katara's angry glare.

As expected, the five Earth Sages were the visitors. "What is this all about?" one of them asked, as they filed into the room. His eyes were on Zuko. "I was told that there was urgent business with the Avatar."

"Oh, it's urgent." Katara brushed past Zuko and marched straight up to the man. "But it's between you and me."

The Sage raised both eyebrows at her. "Oh?"

"That's right, oh." She was aware that she was being rude, but didn't care at the moment. This man was the one who'd decided that Aang needed to sleep with thirty other girls. He could go rot for all she cared. "Aang is my boyfriend, and I am not sharing him with any of your little girls. So you can just call them all off right now!"

"I think you misunderstand." His return look was more than a little condescending. "The Avatar's duty is not to one girl, but to the world." He spread his hands. "For balance to be restored, there must be airbenders."

"Aang is going to restore balance, and he doesn't need your help!" Katara glared up at the man, bracing her hands on her hips. "What makes you think I can't give the world more airbenders, anyway?"

Behind her, she heard Sokka start to choke on his drink.

"You?" The Sage eyed her with poorly-concealed disdain. "A waterbender?"

Katara felt her eyes widen slightly; she heard Zuko groan behind her, and Sokka struggle with hacking on his drink. A kind of white-hot rage seemed to be boiling through her veins. How dare he! "Let me tell you," she began through clenched teeth - but the rest of her scathing retort was never delivered.

Behind the Earth Sages, the door abruptly swung open and Aang burst into the room. "Hey guys, I've got something to - !" He stopped as every eye in the room fell on him, and looked from Zuko to the five Sages, the expression on his face slowly becoming that of a cornered animal.

"Oh. Uh, you're busy." He grinned weakly, hastily backing out. "I'll - I'll just come back late - "

"Oh, no, you don't!" Katara stalked forward, grabbed him by the wrist, and dragged him back into the house. Her mind felt like it was on fire. "You and I are going to show this stupid Sage" - she glowered at the man in question - "just what a waterbender can do. Come on!" Still pulling him behind her, she marched off toward the nearest room.

"What are you going to do?" Sokka stumbled to his feet, chasing after them with a slightly panicked expression on his face. "Katara? You are not doing what I think you're doing!"

She reached the room and yanked Aang inside; he gave about as much resistance as a limp dishrag, watching her with confusion and more than a little trepidition.

"Katara?" Sokka's voice was rising in pitch. "Seriously. Not funny."

She slammed the door in his face, and deliberately bent the water from her pouch onto the frame.

"KATARA!" He started banging on the door, clearly in full-fledged meltdown mode now. "OPEN THIS DOOR RIGHT NOW OR - OR - OR I'M TELLING DAD! KATARAAAAAAAAA!"

His voice faded into a muffled counterpart to the pounding of his fists on the door as the water froze around the entire frame. Satisfied, Katara turned away, determined to follow through with the rest of her hastily constructed plan.

Aang was staring at her apprehensively as she pulled him towards the bed. "Kata - "

"Quiet," she cut him off, and purposefully turned him as they reached the crucial spot, firmly pressing against his chest until his knees hit the mattress and he had no choice but to sit - and then to lie down.

"But, Katar - "

"I said quiet, Aang." With all these distractions, how was she supposed to do this, anyway? For a second, she regarded him - on his back with his legs still hanging off the edge of the bed. The expression on his face wasn't right at all. He was supposed to be excited - maybe a little nervous, but mostly eager. At the moment, he looked more like someone was threatening him with a live snake.

Clearly, what she was doing wasn't working.

Katara hastily ran through her memories of what a seductive expression might look like. Smiling - smirking, even. Lowering your eyelids, and looking at him through a veil of eyelashes. She fixed her sweating partner with what she hoped was a heated look, and braced one knee beside his hip. The contact, even through clothing, made her feel awkward. It seemed way too fast.

Of course it's fast - we're going to DO it, for crying out loud. Get it together, Katara - you can do this!

Aang swallowed hard, looking increasingly nervous as she hovered over him. "Katara, I really don't think - "

She pressed a finger against his lips - maybe a bit too hard; it bared part of his teeth, and she had to fight the urge to laugh because he... kind of looked like a chipmunk. A bald chipmunk. "You don't need to think, Aang," she told him, pushing her voice into a low, soft tone. Laughing wasn't seductive. She would. Not. Laugh.

He was breathing erratically; his eyes crossed comically as he tried to stare down at the finger that prevented him from voicing his concerns - then he raised them again to stare at her face, still with that cornered expression.

Why wasn't it working? Katara had to fight back frustration. "Don't you want me?" she asked - the tone was supposed to be teasing, artfully innocent. Somehow it sounded more uncertain than anything.

What if he really didn't?

Something in his eyes changed at that - they wavered and then stared fiercely into hers, a whole myriad of longing built up over all the time they'd known each other, even before she'd been able to recognize it beneath his gaze. Those eyes dared her - just dared her - to ever try denying that wordless, unflinching devotion.

It took her breath away. Katara pulled back her finger from his mouth, feeling stunned.

"I want you more than anything, Katara," he told her fervently - although it seemed kind of redundant to put it into words, somehow. There was no seduction in his voice - no attempt to tease or entice her. Just his bare, honest emotions. "I love you."

"Aang..." Suddenly, somehow, all of her own motivations seemed awfully silly. She pushed herself off of him and sat down hard on the bed next to him instead, feeling drained. This whole thing had gotten so out of hand... "I..." She stopped, not certain what to say. He'd told her he loved her before, but not like this, with his soul bared to her so openly. It was as frightening as it was heartening; the combination made her feel almost dizzy.

He sat up, close enough to her that their shoulders bumped, and she was reminded of all those nights of sitting on her windowsill late at night, when there weren't all of these awkward expectations between them. "You don't really want to do this - do you?" he asked, tentatively.

"I do! I do, it's just..." She struggled for the words that would explain how she was feeling. "I guess I always imagined it would be more, well, special. And somehow I always pictured us being a lot older." And it wouldn't be for staking a claim in him somehow, or following some analytical plan for breeding.

She didn't even want kids yet - she was only fifteen! This was crazy!

"That's what I want, too!" Aang leaned forward a bit more so he could stare earnestly at her face. "I won't lie to you, Katara - I have thought about... that... before." There was color rising on his face; he looked away awkwardly. "But I don't want to do it now. And I especially don't want to do it with a bunch of crazy Sages hanging around hoping we have kids because of it." He shook his head at that, his expression turning almost comically exasperrated as he looked up at her again. "I'm still just a kid! I can't have any!"

"I know." That part of it had seemed so small, somehow; she had completely overlooked it. Katara stared at her feet, unable to bring herself to look him in the eye while explaining her reasoning. "I guess it was the whole thing about the other girls. That they were willing to try and do that with you. And, I mean, you weren't exactly complaining." She couldn't bring herself to describe how crazy it made her, that he might be thinking about... that... and someone else might take the opportunity to give it to him.

Aang was staring at her; she could feel it, but didn't lift her gaze. "Is that really what you thought?" he asked, after a long moment of silence. "That I liked it?" He didn't wait for an answer. "Katara, I've been going crazy these past few days!" There was such heartfelt frustration in his voice that it shook her to the core. "I don't want any of those girls! I've been trying to convince those Sages that, but they just keep encouraging them! It's driving me nuts!" He reached out suddenly and took her hand, staring at her imploringly. "You're the one I want - the only one! You have to believe me, Katara!"

"I..." She knew that; should've known it, anyway. Katara dared to look up, and met his gaze: he was gazing at her with such sincerity. It was so like Aang, she couldn't help but feel foolish for thinking he might be persuaded to want someone else. "I'm sorry," she said finally. "I do believe you. And I trust you, Aang." She set her jaw them, and stared stubbornly at him. "But I don't trust them! Thinking about them doing things to you just makes me crazy!"

Surprisingly, he smiled at her. "That's okay, then." Katara wasn't prepared for that; she blinked at him. "Well, it's the same with me. I don't want any other guys doing things to you, either. So we're even. Right?"

"Uh." Of all the things he could've said, she hadn't expected that. Katara blinked a few more times, in rapid succession. "Yeah. I guess we are."

"Great! That means we can go ahead and put all of this behind us, right?" He didn't wait for her answer, pushing himself up off the bed and offering a hand to her. "Come on."

"Wait just a second!" She narrowed her eyes at him, ignoring the hand. "Just because we're even doesn't change the fact that those girls are still going to be all over you!"

"No... but I'm pretty sure I have a solution to that!" His eyes were bright; it was hard to hold onto her bad mood when confronted by that unflinching optimism. "Actually, I was about to explain it when you dragged me in here." He rubbed the back of his head a bit awkwardly.

"All right." Anything had to be better than playing along with those sour-faced Sages. Katara returned his smile. "What's your idea?"

"Well, that was pretty random," Toph remarked.

At least, that was what Zuko thought she'd remarked; it was pretty hard to hear anything with Sokka screaming and pounding on the door behind him. "Would you knock it off?" he demanded, turning sharply. "She's not going to open the door. Just shut up and get over it!"

"Easy for you to say!" Sokka pointed an accusing finger at him, eyes still bulging out of his head in half-wild indignition. "That's my sister in there! What if it was your sister who - who - " He trailed off as the realization of what he was suggesting - or, more importantly, who he was suggesting it about - sank in.

Zuko raised an eyebrow at him.

"Okay, bad example! But you know what I mean!"

"Sokka, calm down." Suki pushed herself to her feet and wandered over to her boyfriend, patting him on the shoulder kindly. "You can't do anything, so just... try not to think about it, okay? Katara can take care of herself."

Toph snorted. "Yeah, it's probably Aang we should all be worrying about."

I have to agree with her there... Zuko scratched at the back of his head. "Well," he offered, shrugging, "the good news is that you'll probably only have to wait a couple minutes at most."

Sokka stared at him for a second, and then abruptly let out a moan of despair, hanging his head and letting his arms sag at his sides.

Suki shot him an exasperrated look. "Thanks for sharing that thought, Zuko."

"What I'm wondering," Toph broke in, tilting her head once she had everyone's attention, "is why those guys are still here."

Zuko followed the direction of her motion - and raised an eyebrow at the five Earth Sages, who were still hovering near the entrance. "Yeah, good question - why are you still here?"

The Sages looked at each other, and he noticed a few shrugs. Then the one who'd been arguing with Katara - the unofficial spokesman, Zuko assumed - coughed. "Er... with all due respect... the results of this - "

"You're waiting around for my sister to give results?" Sokka exploded, his head whipping back up and eyes suddenly blazing with outrage. "You - you - you sickos!"

"Not to mention that I'm pretty sure there won't be any 'results' in the first five minutes," Toph commented wryly.

The Sage who'd spoken looked like he was ready with a response to that, but he never got the chance to give it because the door behind Sokka suddenly swung open.

"Katara!" Sokka lunged for his sister, catching her by both arms and staring anxiously at her face. "Did he - and you - tell me you didn't - "

"Oh, relax, already." She brushed him off, irritably. "We didn't do anything."

"Except talk," Aang piped up helpfully. "We did do a lot of talking."

Sokka stared hard at the younger boy, who offered him a somewhat sheepish grin in return. "I've got my eye on you," he warned after a moment of silence, crossing his arms over his chest.

"Great!" Aang moved past him with a friendly pat on the shoulder, either ignoring or oblivious to the older boy's baleful glare. "Because I've got an announcement to make." He placed himself near the center of the room and looked around, seeming to make sure that everyone he wanted to address was present. "I'm leaving Ba Sing Se."

Zuko stared; behind him, he heard the Sages gasp. Sokka's jaw had just about hit the floor, Suki looked surprised, and even Toph seemed startled. Katara, on the other hand, looked perfectly calm.

Well, now we know what they were talking about in there...

"Before you ask" - Aang held up his hands, obviously trying for a 'wise' expression - "I thought about what you said - you know, about making sure there's a new generation of airbenders - and I realized that you're right. Restoring the balance is my job as the Avatar, and I can't let anything get in the way of that."

The Sage who'd been speaking for the rest of them smiled faintly, looking satisfied. "Then you're ready to - "

"But," Aang interrupted him, holding up a finger, "I thought of something more important than repopulating the Air Nomads." He spread his hands, an earnest expression on his face. "Do you guys realize that Appa is the last sky bison that we know about? It was the sky bison who taught the first airbenders, and now their whole specifies is on the verge of dying out. And without them, who's going to train any new airbenders?"

The Sage looked dubious. "Well, that's true, but - "

"It is true - and it's my duty as the Avatar to make sure that doesn't happen." Aang put one hand to the front of his chest decisively, then shrugged and grinned. "So I guess I'll just have to go travel around the world looking for more sky bison." He glanced around at his friends again. "You guys are welcome to come with me if you want."

There was a moment of surprised silence. Zuko felt his good eyebrow twitch.

"Finally, something to do!" Toph grinned broadly. "This place was really starting to get on my nerves."

Suki looked thoughtful. "I guess I could be away from Kyoshi Island for a few more months..."

"I could go for some sky bison tracking down," Sokka chimed in, slinging a casual arm around his girlfriend's shoulders. He gave his sister a sidelong glance. "And apparently I need to keep an eye on certain people."

Katara rolled her eyes, but smiled. "Of course we're all going, Aang."

"Well... that's settled then." Aang moved quickly to the door, holding it wide open with a bright smile for the Sages. "Thanks for stopping by! I'll be seeing you all in a few years - maybe ten at the most." He rubbed the back of his neck with artful innocense. "Sky bison are pretty good at hiding, you know..."

There were some dour looks being shot his way, but the Sages obediently filed out.

Zuko waited until the door was shut behind them, then let out a long groan, slapping one hand to his face. "You couldn't have done that before!" he demanded, staring at Aang with exasperrated disbelief.

"I didn't think of it before!" the younger boy protested, holding up his hands defensively. "Anyway, the important thing is that we're all okay. Right?" He offered another smile.

"Ugh!" Zuko rolled his eyes ceilingward, then gave up. "At least it's all over with." He shot the younger boy another glance. "But what would you have done if they didn't buy your story about the sky bison?"

"I'd probably go anyway." Aang's smile turned a bit wistful. "I wasn't just making excuses; it's way more important to have sky bison in the world than Air Nomads." His expression was thoughtful. "After talking to that lion turtle back during Sozin's Comet, I get the feeling airbending is something that could be brought back to the world even without me having kids who could do it. There would just be a lot more work involved, that's all."

Oh, right - well, if that's all...

"Really?" Sokka perked up. "Think I could learn it?"

Aang shrugged, and grinned again. "You never know until you try."

"So all we have to do is push you off Appa's back while we're in the air and see if you pick it up naturally," Toph suggested.

Sokka scowled at her. "Oh, ha ha."

"Well, if we're finished discussing Sokka's flying skills" - Katara shot her brother a bit of a smirk - "I think we should all get packing."

"Oh, right - I guess I'll need to get my things from Zuko's rooms." Aang started for the door.

Katara stopped him with a hand on his shoulder; when he turned, face questioning, she leaned in and brushed her lips over his.

Zuko blinked. As far as he could remember, Katara had never actually kissed Aang in front of him before. The younger boy's cheeks were stained with red when she pulled back; he stared at her with a mix of wonder and confusion.

"What - What was that for?"

She smiled - it was a welcome change from her earlier expressions.

"Just for being you."

The End