Katara clenched her fists at her sides and stared down Wen Ze Zhi, those unblinking golden eyes more than a little intimidating, but she was too pissed off to care. "I hate you all," she seethed. "I hate your superior attitude, I hate your meddling, and I hate that Aang is going to be stapled to you and your kind for the rest of his life!"
She sensed Roku and the other Avatars moving to stand behind her, whether to support her or shut her up, she couldn't tell. But Wen Ze Zhi didn't seem fazed. In fact, he seemed amused. "You'd be well advised to get used to us, Katara of the Water Tribe," he said. "If you hope to share that life with the Avatar."
"Oh, I'm going to share it, all right. And if I have anything to say about it, he'll have as little to do with you spirits as he possibly can!"
The Arbiter chuckled. "You asked me why I let you stay in his stead. This is why."
"This is why, what?"
"I wished to know what manner of female the Avatar had chosen for his mate."
"Well, I'm sorry. I must be a terrible disappointment."
"Quite the contrary. I don't think he could have done better."
She was at a momentary loss for words at that reaction. "You think so?" she finally said.
"The life of an Avatar is difficult. He will need a warrior by his side, especially given his…nature."
"And what, exactly, is wrong with his nature?" Katara snapped, hands on her hips. "I like his nature just fine!"
"This Avatar is not a man of war. He fights only when he must. At heart he is a man of peace, and his soul craves calm and resists conflict. Such a man might find it difficult to carry out the duties that are asked of him. But you, mate of the Avatar. To fight is in your blood. You are a curious contradiction. Your soul reaches out to soothe and care for those you love, and yet your blood cries out for battle, cries that you try not to hear. You do not seek conflict, but you embrace it when it comes."
Katara wanted to deny it, but she couldn't. "I…I try to be more like him."
"Do not. You will make each other stronger with your difference." Wen Ze Zhi walked forward on his taloned feet. He gave off an aura of incalculable age and wisdom. He touched the claws at his wingtips to her forehead and closed his eyes. "Your spirit is strong, Katara of the Water Tribe. You do nothing but that you do it with your whole being." He stepped back. "Do you know how the Avatar is reborn?"
"Of course. When the Avatar dies, he is reincarnated into the next nation in the cycle, and…"
"A simplistic explanation of a complex process. When the Avatar spirit is set free by the death of its earthly incarnation, it must find another soul strong enough to carry it. Not just anyone is suited to be an Avatar. They must be gifted with strong bending, force of will, purity of spirit…"
"Unbendable," Katara murmured. "They have to be unbendable."
Wen Ze Zhi inclined his head. "Just so. You are such a soul. You could have been an Avatar, had the timing of your birth permitted it. Instead, your path through life led you to one who would need another like himself, for balance and strength."
"So Aang is my destiny, after all?"
"Your destiny is to live as you are, no more and no less. Do not mistake rightness for predetermination. That which is right will always feel destined to have been."
She looked up at him. "Then what's the difference?"
"Only what difference exists in your mind. Does it matter to you?"
"Yes. If it's destiny, then did I ever have a choice? Did he? I'd rather be with him because I choose to be."
"Then you can shape your own destiny, Katara of the Water Tribe, with the choices you make. So tell me, what would you choose right now?"
"Just go to home," she said, aching to do so.
Wen Ze Zhi inclined his feathered head, his feline eyes blinking once. "As you wish."
When Katara opened her eyes, she couldn't move. At first she was alarmed. Am I paralyzed? Then she realized that she couldn't move because Aang was clutching her to his chest in a deathgrip. Breathing was a bit of a challenge.
Then she realized that not only was he perilously close to crushing her ribs, he was also sobbing as if his heart was breaking.
His heart IS breaking. He thinks you're dead. If your positions were reversed, you'd be begging him to take you with him.
She blinked, just barely able to peer over Aang's shoulder and look around the bedroom. Aang wasn't the only one who thought she was dead, apparently. Sokka was kneeling by the bed with his head buried in the covers, crying. Suki had him wrapped up in her arms from behind. Toph was standing against the wall, both hands on it, her shoulders shaking. Zuko was sitting in a chair, looking shellshocked.
They ALL think you're dead.
If Aang doesn't loosen up, I might be soon.
She squirmed and lifted her hands as much as she could, which was just enough to let her grasp his elbows. "Aang…honey…I can't breathe…"
She felt the jolt pass through him when he realized she was moving. He gasped and pulled back. Sweet, sweet oxygen flooded her lungs and she took a convulsive breath. "Katara?" he said, his voice high-pitched and shaking, like he couldn't believe it.
Sokka's head popped up off the mattress. Zuko sprang to his feet like he'd been jerked up by puppet strings and Toph spun around. "Her heart's beating!" she exclaimed.
Katara hung on to Aang's shoulders. His eyes were wet and swollen and now full of shock and disbelief and hope. "I'm okay," she said. "I'm okay." It seemed to be all she could say.
A short, harsh sound came from him that might have been a laugh or a sob. It sounded like both, and neither. "The spirits let you go?" he said.
"They were never going to keep you forever. That was our assumption," she said, brushing the tears from his face with one hand. "I'll explain later."
"Katara," he half-sobbed, pulling her to his chest again. "I thought…I thought…"
"I know," she said. "It's okay now. Everything's okay."
Sokka grabbed her hand, grinning. "You gave us an awful scare."
"I'm sorry," she said, smiling at him, then up at Zuko and Suki and Toph. "I'm sorry, guys."
Aang drew back and seized her by the upper arms, his face fierce. "You can't do that. You hear me? You can't give yourself up for me! Never again!"
"Isn't that my choice?" she said, keeping her voice calm.
"No! You're not ever to do anything like that ever again, Katara! Spirits, if you'd…if I'd…how was I supposed to keep living, knowing what you'd done?" he said, his voice clogging again.
She put her hands on his face. "I don't know. But you'd keep living. That's what's important."
"It is not more important than your life!"
"Aang, would you die to save me?"
"Yes," he said, without hesitation.
"Then why don't I get to do the same? Don't I have the right to make a sacrifice for you that you'd make for me?"
"I…but…it's not the same thing!" he said, a touch of panic in his eyes. He knew she had him there.
"It is the same thing. And now isn't the time for us to have this out."
"Yeah, some of us want to hug her, too!" Sokka said, crowding up behind Aang.
Aang looked around, then sighed, smiling a little and letting it go. "All right. But this isn't over," he said, giving her a pointed look.
Katara disengaged herself from him (although she didn't really want to) and hugged Sokka, then Zuko, then Toph and Suki together. "I'm with Sobby Guy," Toph said. "You can't leave us, princess. That's just…" She cut herself off and harrumphed a little. "I mean, we'd be forced to look after ourselves, and that's no good for anybody."
Katara laughed. "You guys give me too much credit."
"No, we don't," Aang said, quietly, getting off the bed. He came over to the group and pulled her back into his arms. "None of this works without you," he murmured into her ear.
She felt her lip tremble a little, but she didn't say anything, just hugged him back as tightly as she could.
Remembering that there was pie still to be eaten, the group adjourned to the kitchen and was rejoined by Iroh, who had gone to his own home to meditate and attempt to enter the spirit world to help if he could. "Seems the spirits had more than they could handle with you," he said to Katara, his eyes twinkling.
She told the group about her encounter with Wen Ze Zhi, the Great Arbiter. "So, lemme get this straight. This leopard bird guy held you back just to see what you were made of?" Sokka said.
Aang's face was stony with fury. "I suppose he thinks that's funny, to make us believe our lives were at stake and let all of us think you were lost forever."
"Our assumptions aren't really his fault, Aang," she said. "We did kind of jump to the direst conclusion possible."
"Can you blame us? When it comes to the spirit world, things are generally pretty dire."
"So, are we done for the day? Please tell me we're done for the day," Suki said.
"I think we're done," Aang said, his hand making idle strokes across Katara's lower back.
"I'm bushed," Zuko said.
"Oh, what did you do all day but sit around a campfire?" Aang teased him.
"I sat and listened to the Earth King babble for eight solid hours. Anybody wanna trade?" There weren't any takers. "Yeah, I didn't think so." He rose. "I better get to bed. Mai will be getting here pretty early tomorrow and she's always antsy after traveling. She'll want a good workout." A few muted snickers. "I meant sparring, you filthy-minded…teenagers!" Zuko spluttered.
"Yes, because you're so very much not a teenager, too," Toph commented.
"I'm the oldest one here!"
"By how much?" Sokka said, indignant.
"It doesn't matter!"
"I'll tell you how much, by ten months!"
"Whatever! I'm the ruler of the Fire Nation!"
Aang smiled. "Well then goodnight, Firelord Hotman."
Zuko made a rude gesture at him that had them all laughing as he exited. Sokka got up, too. "I guess we ought to turn in as well."
Katara nodded. "I'm pretty beat myself. My leg's starting to register a complaint."
Sokka came over to her, leaned over her and kissed her forehead in a surprisingly tender gesture. "You're a peach, you know that?" he murmured.
Katara squeezed his hand. "Go to bed, spaz."
She lay on her side with her hands tucked beneath her cheek, watching him get ready for bed. He was brushing his teeth, wearing only the loose shorts he slept in, and her eyes crawled idly over his back and shoulders. She'd often mused that he seemed to have been engineered with a little more precision and attention to detail than the rest of humanity. Was it because he was the Avatar? Was it some genetic legacy of Air Nomads? Was it just the constant conditioning of being capable of four different kinds of bending? Whatever the reason, his body was insane. And if it was already so now, what would he look like in a year? Two years? Five? If the adulation of his fangirls was bad now, what would it be like then? She shuddered to think of it.
They can gawk and drool all they like. He'll be in my bed, not theirs.
Feeling a little smug with the thought, Katara stretched out on her back and smiled to herself. Aang climbed into bed, pulling the covers up over them. He turned on his side and slid close to her, propping himself up on one elbow. Katara looked up into his face, her breath catching at what she saw there. His raw emotions were only for her to see; he rarely showed them unfiltered to others, even close friends. The look in his eyes made her feel flayed open before him. He lifted one hand to her cheek and smoothed his fingers over it. Katara held his gaze, hoping he could see in her eyes the responses to all the things he was silently telling her.
She raised her hand to his face. "So serious," she said.
The corners of his mouth twitched in what might have been the beginning of a smile, but he wasn't in a smiling sort of mood. "I don't know what I would have done," he murmured. "I don't know how to do this without you."
"How to do what?"
"Be the Avatar. Be Aang. Exist. Anything."
She sighed. "Just don't make me promise. Don't make me say I wouldn't do it again."
He shook his head slightly. "I won't."
That surprised her a little. "You won't?"
"No. I won't ask you to promise me something that I couldn't promise you."
Katara felt it again as she had so often in the past year, that deep resonance like a gong inside her, shimmering through her whole body. She ran her hand down his cheek. "God, I love you," she whispered, her chest tight.
She felt the answering shimmer in his body. "I love you, too," he said, the words barely more than puffs of air against her lips as he leaned closer and kissed her, soft but thorough. He drew back a little, a slight smile on his lips now. "I liked saying that you were my wife," he said, cutting his eyes to the side and flushing pink.
She smiled back. "I liked hearing it. Someday it'll be true."
He looked back at her. "Really?"
"Come on, Aang. You can't still be thinking I'm just waiting for someone better."
"I can't help it."
Katara sighed, settling a little closer into his arms. "You know why it took me longer to see how I felt about you?"
"Because some part of me knew that once it happened, that would be it. There couldn't be any halfway with you. If I let myself fall for you, it would be forever. It was scary. I didn't know if I was ready for it. Then I realized that it didn't matter. It was already too late for me. I was yours, ready or not."
He just looked at her for a long, heavy moment. Then he swept her back up into his arms and kissed her with the kind of passion few would suspect he possessed. Just another secret about the Avatar that only Katara knew. She wound her arms around his shoulders and pulled him close, giving back as good as she was getting. She would have liked to go further, but her limbs were heavy with fatigue, and she could feel that his were, too.
Aang finally sank to the bed at her side and they wrapped up together, her head on his chest. She yawned in spite of herself. "Crap," she muttered. "I'm not going to make it. I want to, but I'm just…"
"So damn tired," he finished for her. "Me, too. It's been…well, it's been a day, hasn't it?"
"Mmm hmm." Her eyes were already closing. His arm settled comfortably around her, his hand resting at the curve of her hip.
"I had that chat with the Earth King," he said, his voice sleepy.
"Yeah? What'd you say?"
"I told him that it was inappropriate for him to order others not to contact me, and that I was not subject to his edicts."
"Mmm. Sounds very professional and mature."
"I thought so."
"So…what'd you really say to him?"
He sighed wearily. "I told him if he ever tried to restrict access to the Avatar again he and Bosco would end up ruling over a tiny desert island with only scorpion crabs for subjects."
Katara smiled. "That's my guy." She turned her head and kissed his chest, then snuggled closer. She could feel them both drifting off. "Aang?"
"You make me really happy."
He was silent for a moment. "If that's all I ever do, I'll be a successful man."
The gray morning was just barely dawning when she woke up, her eyelids heavy with sleep. As they typically did, she and Aang had rolled away from each other during the night. He was on his side facing away from her, the sheets tangled around his hips. Katara yawned and slid a little closer. She hated the sight of the large scar on his back. She hated what it meant, what it reminded her of, and she hated the way it broke the smooth, elegant line of his Airbender tattoo. She'd suggested that he have the blue line redrawn over the top of the scar, but Aang had been weirdly resistant to that idea and she hadn't pressed the issue. It was his body, after all, even if she did feel some possessiveness toward it.
She spooned up behind him and slid her hand around his chest. He must have woken when she stirred, because her hand was immediately grasped and pulled up under his chin, her forearm hugged to his chest. Katara smiled and trailed quiet, gentle kisses over the back of his neck and his shoulders. Her body warmed with the contact, and by the time he turned over and they rolled together, she was more than ready. Silent and drowsy and warm and loose-limbed. She loved it like this, early in the morning, when her brain wasn't yet awake enough to throw up defenses and reasons and rationalizations, and she was free to float, awash in whatever she felt, and what she felt was him, and them, and the strength that came from knowing that whatever happened, she and Aang had each other and always would.
All things considered, not a bad way to start a new day.
Author's Note: Thanks for all the feedback and comments. If you haven't left one before, now would be an ideal time! I am considering doing another Day. I also have going a series of one-shots called Conversations with the Avatar, and a super-angsty piece that may or may not go anywhere.