Once and Future King

Disclaimer: I don't own Avatar: The Last Airbender. Sadly enough.

Warnings: Speculation, Spoilers up to Season Three

AN: For AtLA Land's lottery writing challenge. Prompt was "Future Avatar."

Companion to Familiar Faces.

Katara feels old as she approaches the healing house. Old and tired and heartsick. Dried up like a blanket left too long out in the sun. Her skin feels stretched over her bones, and her joints ache as she ducks through the door and goes down the short hallway to the very special room set away from all the others. It's sweltering inside; she knew it would be this time of winter especially. They haven't seen the sun in days, and here of all places, they need things to be warm.

It's a time for new beginnings after all. And endings. Always endings. Always fading away.

It hasn't even been a week, and grief is heavy inside of her belly. Cold and sharp and broken. At odds with the smile she plasters across her face as the two inhabitants of the room look up and sigh with relief.

"Mom," the older of the women says with a big smile.

Her hair is pulled back from her face, but there's barely even a wrinkle around her mouth and chin, and in Katara's eyes, she's still the little girl who blew whirlwinds at her brothers. But here she is, waiting for her own daughter to have a baby.

Katara just nods. It's all she can do with the lump in her throat that pulses in time with her heartbeat. Her attention goes to the younger of the two women then, and Katara watches as she grimaces and makes a tiny noise of pain. But she relaxes a moment later and again glances in Katara's direction.

"Gran Gran," the woman whispers, and her voice is so full of affection and relief both. "I'm glad that you're here."

Her eyes are the grey of an Air Nomad, soft like a summer storm, but she's a waterbender just like her grandmother. The only other one in the family aside from Katara's youngest nephew and his only daughter. All of the others bend air, just like their grandfather. Just like Aang.

Katara feels her throat go even drier as she swallows once then twice; she still can't speak. She just takes an offered hand and squeezes. This is her granddaughter's first child; it's natural to be nervous. She only wishes that she could be more excited for her. That she could feel genuine hope and awe in this special time.

But she can't. She just can't. She won't.

She only just lost her husband. Just the day before she watched his body burn and scattered what remained to the four winds. She shouldn't have to do anything more but curl up in their bed, surrounded by his scent, and cry herself to sleep.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. Aang was the youngest; he wasn't supposed to be the first. He's the Avatar; he should outlive them all. He was supposed to be with her until the very end. They were supposed to grow old together until her hair didn't have any brown left and his face was nothing but laugh lines and wrinkles.

He wasn't supposed to die in a stupid accident.

He survived hurricanes and genocides. He fought armies and Fire Lords. He started rebellions and stopped others. He put the world in balance and brought back the airbenders. He raised seven children of their own and a dozen more from others and helped countless more. He could do anything; he'd done almost everything and had lived. Had lived well and freely and happily.

Aang deserved better; Aang deserves better. He deserves to be here, to see this.

But he isn't. It's just Katara now. Only Katara. And her bed is cold, empty without them both. Her heart hurts, and her eyes are raw, and she's still expected to smile. To be happy to be there.

It's wrong. So very wrong. Even worse as her granddaughter stiffens and squeezes her hand until her fingers go white. As her daughter speaks softly but firmly and encourages pushing. As time passes and blurs and Katara still can't bring herself to care. As an infant is born with one final push and lets out a cry.

Her daughter is the one to first hold the baby, but that's a relief more than anything. Katara mechanically deals with the cord and the other remnants. With her hands busy, it's harder to think. Harder to feel that way. Harder to hear a little girl's gurgly giggles and the laughter of a new mother.

But finally, Katara runs out of things to do. She no longer has an excuse not to come over to the side of the bed.

She sees sleepy blue eyes blink at her, and something inside of her spirit goes cold. Absolutely glacial. She knows without knowing who and what this baby is. She knows who this little girl should be and what she'll grow into.

It's not familiarity, however. It's not looking at the baby and seeing him. She could live with it if she did. If he was in her eyes.

It's not looking at her and feeling water or air. It's seeing her and feeling both. Air and water. Earth and fire, too.

Only her grip on the birthing bed keeps her on her feet as the world tilts and sways around her. The entire universe has just shifted, and where one thing was wrong before, now everything is. Reality is too horrible to contemplate. The spirits aren't this cruel; they can't possibly be this cruel.

Katara nearly gags on bile. She barely even hears the question her daughter asks over the roaring in her ears.

"Korra," her granddaughter whispers then. "Her name is Korra."

Ever Hopeful,