A/N: Dem warm 'n fuzzies
Healed and Hunted
The Dust Settles
Chapter Forty Eight
Five months later, he is scrubbing a coffee cup, listening to her shower in the other room, laughing at Kyoshi in the living room, trying to teach Alice to walk. He and Kat moved into the Texas farm house-abandoning their apartment altogether-where Suki and Sokka had lived originally, so Kyoshi was over often, having missed the grapevines.
The Jasmine Dragon was closed. Uncle had yet to return from Russia, and Lee felt wrong letting the establishment run without him. Kat wasn't opposed, either, though she had expressed how very much she missed the simple work of the shop.
It's going to be a long time before he is cleared for working again, though he's practically healed, but he isn't concerned. Money had never been an issue. While his father had, for all intents and purposes, exiled Lee, his bank account had forever been tied to the man. He'd never felt guilty about using his father's money- he had always seen it as payment for a terrible childhood. And now, all that wealth was left to him. It was supposed to go to Azula.
He goes and sits with the two girls, carpet soft and comfortable on his skin. He tickled a laugh out of baby Alice, who squealed and wiggled. Kyoshi sat next to him, leaning on his side. She'd been such a trooper, during these past few months.
Anything anyone needed, she was there. She was a kid, but she had the spirit of a warrior. Or, he corrected, a healer. She was just like Kat, in that way. He'd always thought they were similar, but being taken care of by a nine year old was something he hadn't expected. Two years had passed, and it seemed he had forgotten how passionate the girl could be.
"Are you and Aunt Tara still getting married?" Kyoshi asked, playing with one of Alice's feet.
He laid back on the couch, "Yeah, of course. We're just…there's a lot of stuff going on right now. It isn't the time."
There was something in the look she gave him that made him think his answer was unsatisfactory.
She didn't tell Lee she was coming here. She hadn't told him that they've been calling her for three months now, wanting her to come back to work. She'd been gone from there for nine months, perhaps, and they were itching for her to return to her post. She wasn't sure she was actually going to make it here.
Apparently, the school had done well while she was in charge. Frankly, she couldn't remember. It was unimportant, and it had obviously continued just fine without her. But she was here. She was curious to see what she had done to the place, and what had become of the program.
"Welcome back, Miss Ulva," said the secretary. Kat vaguely remembered getting the woman a bottle of wine for Christmas once.
Kat nodded, "Thanks. Mind taking me to the director? I think we've got something to discuss."
The hallways were the same as she remembered, except they were filled with children. One ran by, chased by others, in a game of tag. They were squealing and laughing, having a good time. She remembers the silence here, in these halls, and is glad to see the change.
Kat passes classrooms, where students are engaged and open. She sees learning and hope, ambition and plans. They are no longer terrified to exist in those rooms.
The library-her oldest and most favorite haunt- is packed full, thriving and not quiet at all. The librarian didn't seem to mind. In fact, he seemed rather amused with the activity.
They passed The Pit, and Kat has to pause. She opens the door, and nearly gasps at what she sees. At first, it looks like students are fighting, and she starts to move. The secretary catches her, and Kat takes a second look.
On the large screen above, an instructional video was playing. It was a class. She nods, and agrees to move on, because the poetry of this was not lost on her.
This old building had, as she kept walking, more pleasant memories than she'd realized. The old pains were still there, but they didn't hurt as they had once. She thinks of the lives lost in The Pit, of the nightmares she'd soothed in the halls.
"He's in here. Please, go in." The secretary said, opening the door.
The man waiting for her was old, but had a youth about him that made her smile. He rose to greet her, a handshake and a grin.
"So, you're my predecessor. It's nice to meet you. I'm Gavin. The students here speak highly of you." He told her, offering her a seat.
She takes it, "That's…nice to hear."
"So, you know why we've been calling." He jumped right into the thick of it.
Kat wasn't sure what to say, so she nodded.
"This school is still in need of work, but that isn't what we need you for." Gavin drew some papers out of his desk, offering them without saying anything more.
It took her a few moments to understand what was going on. These papers were a proposal to implement the practices of this school-the very ones Kat had done during her year in charge- nation-wide. They needed an overseer, someone to make sure nothing fell through the cracks.
"This sounds like a lot of traveling." Kat murmured to herself. She read over the more technical details, but largely refused to understand them.
Gavin nodded, "It probably would be. I've been asked by the Board of Education to recommend this program to you. They've seen what you can do, and they want that for the rest of the country. This is a chance to do a lot of good, Miss Ulva."
Frankly, she'd had enough of doing good.
"I can't give you an answer right away, sorry. I have to talk to my fiancé, first. Do you mind if I take these?" She lifted the papers, and dropped them in her purse before receiving an answer.
She went home after that, distracted and unsure of what to do.
Lee is asleep on the couch, Kyoshi lying on top of him and tucked under an arm, Alice in her carrier on the floor, holding on to Lee's finger like a life line. His mouth was open, and he was snoring loudly. The TV was still on, too. She was surprised anyone had managed to sleep with the noise.
Kat pulled a blanket over Kyoshi and Lee, laughing to herself. It was summer again. She wasn't even sure if Kyoshi was still in school, or if Sokka had gone the homeschooling route. Kyoshi was certainly home a lot.
Kat started making dinner, almost positive that the most Lee had been able to cook all day was PB&J. Apparently cooking was not a thing he particularly practiced. He could make coffee, so there was that.
The spaghetti was almost done when Lee came into the kitchen, hair messy and bleary-eyed. He rubbed his face before laying his head on her shoulder.
"Hey, when did you get back?" He asked quietly.
She rubbed his hair, "Not long. Sleep well?"
He muttered something into her shoulders that she didn't understand exactly, but believed to be a positive answer. His lips tickled her skin, and she reveled in the feeling. It was moments, little moments, like this, that she had missed the most. When she was ready to examine the pain, it was things like this that had hurt the most.
It was remembering that sweet things had happened once, and that they were gone, that had kept her sobbing at night.
That time was over now. He was here, and the ragged edges of her grief had dulled.
"I got a job offer."
His arms tightened around her middle, "Oh?"
"Papers are in my bag."
It didn't take long for him to move and grab the papers. He swayed as he read, eyes flicking back and forth over the lines. Occasionally, he would glance at her, and she tried to pretend she wasn't nervous.
"Are you going to do it?" He wondered finally, placing the papers on the table.
She shrugged, "Told them I'd have to talk to you."
Lee nods, "Okay. Well, do you want to do it?"
"Someone needs to. But it's a lot of traveling and being away. Months at a time, probably." Kat confessed, taking her time stirring the noodles.
It wasn't much of an answer, but the truth was she didn't want to. She wanted to stay home, curled up against him, for the rest of her life. That would be impossible if she was flying about the country. But someone needed to do it, and she was qualified.
"Well, flying's not so bad." Lee scratched his chin, "So, you shouldn't be worried about travel."
While she very much wanted to jump on the fact that he was miraculously okay with flying, she didn't. Instead she replied with, "It's not really the travel, Lee."
"Then what is it?"
Could he not see? Was he so well adjusted now that he would see her off? She doesn't think she could take any sort of airport good-byes, not from him. How could he be so blind to that?
"It's not like we wouldn't see anyone. Kyoshi can call us on Skype, and when Uncle gets back, we can visit." Lee was still talking, though it sounded more like he was talking to himself than to her.
"I don't understand." Kat interrupted.
Lee shrugged, "If you think you're taking this job and just going to fly away, you've got some serious rethinking to do. Where you go, I go. And I don't care where it is. Was that unclear?"
She blinked and drained the pasta, hoping the steam would hide her face for a moment. In the heat, she allowed herself to fight the tears, but willed them away when the vapor cleared. Of course he would be there, she laughed.
"So, you'd come with me? What would you do in the mean time?" Kat waited for his answer, which he was putting more thought in than she believed presently necessary.
Lee stretched, "Maybe I'll just be arm candy, for when you're doing all of the formal things. And sit at home, while you're working so hard, and binge-watch Netflix."
The thought of him being idle amused her to the point of raucous laughter, which she was unable to contain for long. He laughed with her, and leaned to kiss her cheek.
"If you want the job, Kat, take it. I'm with you."
The words are like salve, and she finds herself relieved. This job wasn't something she particularly wanted, not even close, but she also knew that people were counting on her to do it. People like her niece, sleeping ten feet away. People like Jason, who had suffered so much in a short time.
And people, her hand unconsciously hovers over her abdomen for a few seconds, who would need a better place to live in the future.
"Oh, and one more thing." They both said at once, to the amazement of the other.
Outside the Dressing Room
He looks at his father, all steel and stature, and doesn't get why he-Sokka- is so nervous. He's known this day was coming for a long time, but now that it's here-and quite suddenly, too-he doesn't know what to do. He knows he should be standing at the end of the aisle, but he can't bring himself to do so just yet.
"Sokka, you'll pace a hole in the floor." His father told him.
The young man looked up, "I'm nervous."
"That makes two of us," Kat whispered from the other side of the door. Sokka could see her shadow beneath the doorway, and he took a deep breath. His father lifted a camera, ready to take that all important revelation photo.
"Don't be, you look fine." Toph said, which was followed by a thump and an "Ow!"
Suki, Toph and Katara were all in there, along with Kyoshi. He'd been listening to them get ready for the past hour. It sounded mostly like squealing and crying and griping about dresses being too tight.
"Ready? I'm coming out." Katara said, turning the handle.
He was immediately moved to tears, and while he was ashamed of them, he couldn't be bothered to care. His baby sister, all grown up. He hugs her before she has a chance to step through the open door, brotherly affection pouring out through sobbed praise.
He can't believe how beautiful she looked, how much like their mother she had come to be.
"It's not manly to cry like that," Toph snorted from behind. The blind woman was dressed in pale green, hair braided behind her.
His father spoke from behind them, voice mysteriously shaky, "It's okay to cry when you're happy."
Kat, who had not let go of him yet, smiled, "We should probably go."
Oh! Right. He gives her another tight squeeze and a kiss.
Sokka turns to his father, who was on the verge of tears, and shakes his hand. He offers his wife an arm, and Toph the other.
Normally, one walks two by two down the aisle, but as Toph's pair is already waiting at the end, they decided to walk as three. Toph didn't need to be traipsing down the aisle alone, tripping on the lace and flowers sticking out from the pews.
Aang sees him first, and the two share a knowing smile. Aang looks ready enough to cry, as well. They've been exchanging three AM phone calls about who was more nervous than whom, whose speech needed tweaking, whose prank was going to be conducted. All in all, they were nervous and scared and so happy.
Sokka turns his eyes to Lee, who doesn't seem to see him at all. The scarred man cleaned up nice, Sokka had to admit. His suit fit him well, and his hair had been trimmed. The man's eyes were focused on the door, waiting ever so impatiently for his fiancé.
They take their places, and Kyoshi starts walking in, tossing rose petals and waltzing. She'd told him earlier that her job was that of a faery, and that's what she was going to be. He could see it in the way she danced. A young man named Jason, who Sokka had never met, but who was apparently important enough to Kat and Lee, was the ring bearer, walking just behind Kyoshi with an amused smile on his face.
"Doing alright, Lee?" Sokka whispered, teasing tone clear enough.
Lee turned slightly, tone equally teasing, "You've been crying."
It sounded like a diversion tactic, if Sokka had ever heard one. Not one to be thrown off the scent, he replied, "My baby sister's getting married. Kind of a big deal. I remember her walking for the first time, teetering and falling over. These steps are just as big as those."
That got Sokka the reaction he wanted. Lee coughed and shifted himself.
Just then, the music started to play. The whole crowd rose-these were mostly officials from both Aang and Kat's respective professions- and smiled at the blushing bride. There were a few friends here and there, but Sokka sees their transient adolescent lives laid out in the empty pews.
Kat spared Sokka one glance, a shy smile, before her attention was completely on Lee. Sokka had no words to describe the looks on both of their faces. Lee's hands were covering his mouth, as if he were trying to hide the open-mouth smile on his face. Kat was crying, but bending the tears away from her face, so that it didn't ruin Suki's hard work. Tearbending. That was a good one.
"And who surrenders this bride?" Aang asked, shaky-voiced and teary-eyed. His hands were folded over a bible-though Sokka wasn't sure what sort of ceremony this was to be- monks' robes covering all but the last knuckles.
Hakoda cleared his throat, "I, Hakoda Ulva, proud father, surrender her."
Kat was passed over to Lee's extended hand, and Hakoda went to take his seat. The old man was crying now, reality of his daughter's marriage now before him.
Sokka turned his attention to Aang.
"I have lived thousands of lives. I was there when Rome was taken, I lead the Water Tribe armies that sank the city of Atlantis. I have performed marriage ceremonies before, some for myself, and others for my relatives. None so deserving or anticipated as this. This, Katara and Lee, is singular, and it is never going to happen again. You only get one chance at today.
I have made poor choices, for so many days, so take it from me: take the chance, and don't play it safe. You two have waited long enough for today, and now I have the extraordinary pleasure to unite you in the holiest of bonds.
So, let's get underway, shall we?"
After that, Sokka tuned out, and focused on observing the ceremony as a passive person. It was easier not to cry when he wasn't paying attention. When it came time for their vows, however, Sokka shook his inattention away.
"Katara, I have no idea what to say. We've been through so much, that I can't think of any future problems I need to promise to be there for that would, in any way, be more difficult. I can kill the spiders, and burn the macaroni, and wake up before you so you don't have to brew your own coffee." Lee laughed, "And I can be there for the nightmares, and the paintings that make you cry, and the ridiculous jobs you keep taking. Katara, I am yours, for whatever you need, whenever you need it."
Kat had given up on keeping her face dry. Still, she smiled brilliantly, "Do you remember what the first thing you ever said to me was?"
He shook his head.
"Can I help you? That's what you said. And since then, you've done just that. You saved me from myself, and I'll never be able to pay that back. If I forget to say it later, thanks for everything. Our life is going to be full of coffee and pickles and too much Chinese." She gave a chuckle, "Between us, there is a lot of weight to carry. And there isn't anyone on this planet I'd rather carry it with. Here's to us."
Everyone clapped, and the ceremony continued. It was terribly sad, and poetic. Something beautiful, but his heart felt all broken and squishy. Love was a beautiful thing. It was meant to be celebrated.
But he looks at the bride-gorgeous and vibrant- and he sees a small girl asking him to braid her hair for a funeral, because mom deserved everyone's best. He sees the smile she wore the whole time, crying all the while, because someone had to be strong, and it certainly hadn't been him or their father. She had carried him this far, and he hadn't ever said thank you.
He looks at her now, and knows she is twenty-six years old, knows that he's been there for her as much as he could have been. And when Aang asks the couple to kiss, he has to wipe away what he thinks will be the last bought of tears.
Katara and Lee wave, and Sokka claps with everyone else.
His beautiful baby sister, who wasn't such a baby anymore.