Aang watched everything in slow-motion.
Katara slowly turned around and saw the lightning coming towards her. The shock in her face was quickly replaced with hopelessness.
Azula smirked evilly. She knew Katara wouldn't have a chance.
This was what Aang had been feared for so long. This was what he had just been waiting for to happen. The realization came over him. He was about to lose her. This was now or never. Do something or regret it forever.
He left the firebenders that he had been fighting and ran, faster than he had ever moved before. He didn't know how he managed it, but somehow he reached Katara before the lightening.
Katara closed her eyes. Aang threw his arms around her and hugged her tightly.
The lightning hit him in the lower back. The power of it hit him and Katara to the ground. The pain was unbearable. But he knew that it wouldn't last for long.
The last thing he heard was Katara's scream.
Katara pushed open the door to her house. The cold arctic air of the South Pole hit her. It was one of the coldest days this year and the chilly air made the skin on her face hurt. Her breath turned into smoke and she quickly pulled on her gloves before she lost the warmth of her hands.
The snow under her feet crunched as she walked through the city and towards the outer gates. The sun shined frantically above her, but none of its warmth reached the South Pole. Just the annoyingly strong light that was reflected by the snow and made Katara blind whatever direction she looked. But by the time she reached the outer gate and left the city behind her, her eyes had got used to the light. Not that there was much to see this time of the year, since everything was white after the latest snowstorm.
She walked as far as to the last city-lantern. The lanterns where there to help people who got lost in snowstorms find their way back to the city. Even if the sky was clear now, Katara had learned not to trust the weather. It could change in a few seconds, and with the coldness that ruled the South Pole today she could easily freeze to death.
She jumped on place a few times to warm up. Then she took a waterbending stance and started to practice.
Aang tried to find his balance. The whole world around him was spinning, moving so fast that he couldn't see a thing. He reached out for something to steady himself with, and his hand hit something hard. He grabbed onto it with his life and slowly the spinning slowed down. He opened his eyes.
Everything was blurry and very light. He closed his eyes and groaned. He felt like his head was going to explode. He tried to relax, and found that his hand was still holding on to something. He slowly turned his head towards it, trying to pay mercy to his hurting head. When he opened his eyes, it took him a while to focus his gaze.
He was holding on to a bedside table.
Confused, Aang released his grip of the edge and run his fingers over the surface. White wood. There was only one place in the world where people made furniture of white wood. It was a hard sort of wood; it didn't burn, and it didn't mold. The only way to cut it was with airbending.
The air temple.
Aang's whole body was stiff, and he tried to sit up. But the pain that exploded in his back when he did so made him fall right back into the pillows. The pain made everything go black for a moment, but soon the room appeared in front of his eyes again.
The door suddenly opened, and Aang turned his head so fast he thought his head was going to splitter by the pain. He closed his eyes again, and someone gently pushed him back down on the bed. Cold hands stroke his face and bathed his forehead with cold water.
"…Katara?" He mumbled. He wanted to smile, but the pain in his head was too great.
"I'm sorry, sir, she is not here."
The woman's voice was unfamiliar to him. The darkness was taking over him again, and he fought hard not to get lost in it again.
"Where is she?" He demanded to know, but his voice sounded weak.
He passed out before he could hear the woman's answer.
Katara putted her hands in her armpits in an attempt to warm them while she walked back to the city. She couldn't feel her feet anymore, but they kept moving under her, taking her closer to the city. Her eyes stung after have had to endure the strong sunlight for all day long. Her fingers where so stiff she knew she wouldn't even be able to take her clothes off by herself. Her father would be angry at her. Freezing hands and feet was very dangerous. In worst case they could be so badly frozen that they would never recover, and in that case she would lose them. And whatever the case was, she would have to get back the feeling to them when she got home, and that was the most painful thing Katara knew of.
When she got closer to the gate, it opened and a man came running towards her. Katara recognized him as one of her brother's friends, but she couldn't remember what his name was. She was getting sleepy. That was not a good sign.
The man started to shout at her long before he reached her.
"…storm warnings have been on the radio all since this afternoon! Your father has been all over the city having everybody with a snowscooter ready to go looking for you in case a storm is coming! Are you out of your mind? This is no weather to go outside the city, you could have frozen to death out there and we would never have found you!"
When he reached her he grabbed her arm and practically dragged her into the city.
"Relax, I didn't go further than the lanterns. If a storm would have come I could have found my way back." Katara defended herself, not liking the tone the man used when he talked to her.
The man just snorted to an answer. He dragged her over to a car and opened the door for her. Katara climbed inside, very clumsy because of her lack of feeling in hands and feet. The man noticed and wrinkled his eyebrows.
"Are you hurt? Can you feel your feet?"
He stared at her face, and she stared back stubbornly. Then he grabbed her hand and pulled off her glove.
"Hey!" Katara shouted in protest and tried to pull back her hand.
"Great." The man said sarcastically when he saw her white, stiff fingers.
He started to rub her hand between his and Katara grimaced at the pain. Then he did the same with her other hand. And despite her protest he pulled off her coat and put his own on her. He also forced her to exchange gloves and shoes with him before he put on full heat in the car and started to drive towards her home. Katara still shook as crazy from the cold, even if she felt warm in the man's coat. She was starting to feel sleepy again. She glanced over at the man where he sat, not wearing any coat or gloves.
"Aren't you cold?" She asked.
He glanced over at her. "No." He turned his gaze back to the road, and Katara did the same. It was getting dark outside, even if it was just afternoon. Dark clouds rolled over the sky, and everyone she saw was busy lighting lanterns outside in case the electricity would disappear when the storm hit.
"Looks like there's a storm coming after all." Katara mumbled.
The man snorted again. "What in the world were you thinking when you went out there? It hasn't been this cold in years and you decide to go for a walk?"
"I went to practice some waterbending."
"You can practice waterbending in the city!"
"Not the kind of waterbending I want to practice."
"Oh yeah? And what kind of waterbending is that?"
"The kind of waterbending that will give me a chance in the war!"
The man stared at her for a moment, before turning his eyes back on the road.
"Even if there is a war coming, which I have hard to believe, you won't have to fight in it."
"I want to fight. And there is a war coming, believe me. I have seen it with my own eyes."
The man turned the car into the driveway to Katara's home. He turned the engine off, but he made no attempt to step out of the car. He just sat, staring in front of himself for a moment. Then he turned his gaze to Katara.
"Is it true? There is a war coming?"
Katara looked down and closed her eyes. Then she nodded. "It's already here."She whispered.
The man was quiet, and Katara started to drift off. She didn't notice that he had got out of the car before the door next to her opened and he picked her up. He carried her into the house, and she fell asleep in his arms.
Aang could hear the noises around him long before he was fully awaken. A bird sang outside his window, and far away a child laughed. The wind in the trees made the leaved rustle and somewhere in the room a fly was trying to make his way out by repeatedly bumping into the glass of a window. It would have been very peaceful, if all the noises wouldn't have been drowned by the sound of someone walking back and forth impatiently in his room. Every step seemed to smash another needle into Aang's hurting head, and he was getting annoyed.
"Could you please stop!" He finally managed to mumble.
The person stopped immediately.
Aang opened his eyes when he heard the voice of the last person he would expect to find in the air temple.
Zuko smiled and sat down on a chair next to Aang's bed.
"Good to see you remember something. You hit your head pretty hard, I hear."
Aang tried to sit up, but he gave up halfway when the pain in his back became too great.
"Could you please tell me what's going on? What am I doing in the air temple?"
Zuko's smile faded. "You don't remember anything of what happened?"
"I don't think so. At least I don't remember how I got here."
"Um, okay… I don't really know where to start. What's the last thing you remember?"
Aang closed his eyes, trying to remember. The picture of Katara came up in his mind. Her soft skin under his hands, the sound of her moaning in his ear…
Aang opened his eyes. "Nothing that explains why I'm in this condition."
"You went to fight Azula. And you almost died."
Aang stared at Zuko. His words brought up some pictures. Azula, laughing manically, Katara fighting her guards, a flash of blue lighting…
"Katara healed you." Zuko continued. "She saved your life. But Azula… she thought you were dead. Everyone did. So we thought it would be safest if we took you out of the city, and Katara suggested this place. So she took you and Appa and left."
Aang wrinkled his eyebrows. "What about you? How did you get here?"
Zuko looked down. "It's… kind of a long story. You just found out you were nearly killed, I think the rest can wait for later."
Aang gave Zuko an annoyed look, but Zuko didn't meet his gaze. Aang sighed. "Okay then. Where is Katara?"
Zuko looked up guilt and compassion written all over his face. "That's kind of a part of the long story."
"Zuko… " Aang said demanding. "Where is she?"
Zuko threw his backpack on and walked out of the guestroom in the frozen house. He was certainly not going to miss the South Pole. The feeling of never being warm enough was something he would never be able to live with.
"Wait up, buddy!"
Zuko turned around when he heard Sokka's voice.
"You didn't think you could sneak out without saying goodbye, did you?"
Zuko smiled. "Not even a second."
They walked out of the house together.
"So, are you exited to get to see your little sis again?" Zuko asked.
"Of course. I just don't get why she is coming back. When she left, I didn't think I would see her again before Aang was fully healed."
"I know. It's weird. Not that I'm complaining, since she's giving me a chance to get out of this place…"
"Hey, dude, what's not to love about this place? No annoyingly hot sun and no bugs! Could it be any better?"
He laughed, and Zuko smiled too. They stood quietly for a while, watching the sky, waiting for the sky bison to appear in the horizon.
"But, seriously Zuko, I'm going to miss you around here." Sokka finally said.
Zuko smiled. "I don't think it'll be long before we'll see each other again. Katara can't be away from Aang for too long. When she demand to get back to the air temple, we'll see each other again."
Sokka smiled, but before he could answer he spot something in the sky. "Look! It's the sky bison!"
Sokka ran off to get the rest of his family, and soon a small group of people gathered around to greet Katara. The sky bison flew a lap around the city before it landed on the square. An air nomad airbended himself off the bison before offering Katara his hand. Katara's feet had barely hit the ground before she was surrounded by her family. The nomad spotted Zuko and walked up to him.
"You must be fire prince Zuko." He bowed in an airbending greeting, and Zuko bowed back. "My sky bison will have to eat and drink before heading back home, but we shall be going as soon as possible."
He turned around and walked back to the bison, and Zuko went to look for Katara. He found her with an overexcited Sokka who was demanding to learn everything that had happened since they last saw each other. Zuko walked up to them.
"Give it a break, Sokka. She's probably tired after the journey."
Katara gave Zuko a halfhearted smile. "Thanks for doing this Zuko. The air nomads are really nice and they won't treat you any different even though you're from the firenation. I promise."
Zuko smiled. "Of course. Aang needs to learn firebending, and I doubt there is someone else than me who would teach him."
Suddenly Katara gave him a hug. "Seriously, thank you. It means a lot to me."
"Of course." Zuko said, a little bit surprised.
Katara stepped back and turned her gaze to the bison, who was happily munching on some hay.
"Are you sure you don't want to go back to the air temple..?" Zuko asked when he saw the uncertain look on her face.
Katara turned her gaze to him. "No… I can't. It's better this way. With me here."
"What are you talking about?"
Katara looked down on her feet, not answering.
Sokka and Zuko exchanged a worried look.
"Katara…" Sokka said. "Did something happen? You know you can tell us, right?"
"I can't go back to the air temple anymore." She took a deep breath. "But no, nothing happened. I just realized that I had a choice to make, and a chose the option that was less likely to come back and haunt me for the rest of my life."
"What… Katara, what's going on?"
"I made the right decision, Sokka."
Katara looked up, and the look on her face was a face both Sokka and Zuko knew. It was the same face she had bore when Aang broke up with her. The face she bore when she was hurt, but was trying to hide it by being strong.
Sokka quickly laid an arm on his sister's shoulder and led her into their house. Zuko watched them disappear through the door, more confused now than he had been before.
Aang stared at the wall, but his thoughts were far away.
"That's all she said?" He asked quietly. "Nothing else?"
"No." Zuko sighed. "I left soon afterwards. I have talked with Sokka over the phone and according to him she's acting a little bit weird, but she refuses to tell him anything."
"I can't believe she left."
"Me neither, actually. When you got hurt… She acted like she was never going to let you out of her sight again."
Aang turned his gaze back to Zuko. "How long ago was this?"
"A week ago."
"A week? How long have I been out?"
Aang sat up, despite the pain in his back. "I've been out for a month?"
"Hey, take it easy. You're not supposed to move!"
Aang ignored him and got out of the bed. His head went dizzy and for a moment everything was blurry. But as soon as he got his sight back he quickly walked to the door, steadying himself on the wall.
"Aang, what are you doing?"
"The whole world thinks I'm dead and I've lost a month of valuable time that I was supposed to spend training to become a fully realized avatar! I can't just be lying around doing nothing, who knows what the fire lord might be planning by now!"
"Aang, get back to the bed!"
Aang walked out of the room and started to stumble forward. "I need to see the head monks. I have to stop this war from starting and-"
"It too late, Aang!"
Aang stopped, and Zuko walked up to him.
"I'm sorry, but the fire nation wasted no time when they found out you was dead. They attacked our city the next day, and several other cities on the west coast of the earth kingdom. That's why I was on the South Pole. Many escaped when the army came."
Aang stared at Zuko, shocked. "No…" He sank down on his knees.
"You can't stop the war from happening. It already has. Now you have to concentrate on ending it."