Disclaimer: I don't own ATLA or LOK.
AN: I have revamped this story. I started it after the Avatar finale years ago, but have been inspired to revamp it with the release of Korra. I have a lot of it written, and have made changes to fit this story into the Korra universe. This is an alternate of what could have happened, had certain things been different after the war. Please enjoy
It was strange how quickly everyone went their separate ways in the first months after the final battle. A year we had spent flying around on Appa's back, one goal in mind, one looming prospect ahead. Teach the Avatar to master all four elements before summers end, and then bring an end to the war, before the power of Sozin's Comet enabled the firelord to bring the world to its knees.
A task that had seemed impossible was now behind us; the world at peace and Aang a fully realized Avatar. I don't know what I thought would happen after our mission was complete. Our minds had never thought past the terrible battle that we had ahead. But whatever it was, I didn't expect myself back on the snowy tundra of the South Pole, apparently there to stay. Had I expected us all to continue travelling around the world with Aang? I don't know. But I was back with my father in the snowy home I had grown up in.
There was one major change to the home I knew. Sokka had joined Suki in her return to Kyoshi Island, along with Ty Lee and the rest of the girls. As far as anyone knew, he was there to train, but we all wondered how soon after both his and Suki's coming of age we would hear the announcement of their engagement.
I kept in touch with my brother constantly, his messenger hawk being the link between us. It was hard not having him around me all the time, not having to care for him, and him not worrying over the things I did. My whole life he had been there, and now things were different. It would have been a lie saying that I didn't mind his move, but I knew that he was where his heart was, and I would never have been selfish enough to insist he came home just because I missed him.
Another person that followed their heart home was Toph. Toph returned to her parents. She had missed them more than she had ever wanted to let on. No matter how much of a master she was, she was still only a 12 year old girl, and knew that she wasn't meant to travel the world alone quite yet.
She went home with conditions, however, and somehow, with methods and words Toph never shared with any of us, her parents agreed to her demands. She kept her independence and was no longer treated as the dainty blind child to be hidden from the rest of the world. With her independence and a little funding from her parents, she opened a school of sorts, where she taught earthbending to anyone that wanted to learn from her. The pupils she focused on particularly were the children who, like her, had grown up with various differences and difficulties. Anyone that wasn't accepted to other earthbending academies was welcomed by Toph.
Haru also went back to the Earth Kingdom with a mission. He wanted to travel the Earth Kingdom to help rebuild the many small villages that had been damaged by the lengthy war. So many towns and villages had neither the man power nor the funds to make the necessary repairs to bring a reasonable standard of living and future prosperity back to the people, so Haru, alongside his father and mother and what remained of the freedom fighters, went from place to place offering their services for nothing in return. Haru's group was welcomed everywhere they went, and went everywhere.
Zuko took up his position as firelord and worked relentlessly to bring back his country's honor. Unlike the welcoming receptions Haru got, Zuko faced much resistance from his people. The end of the war meant that things in the Fire Nation had to change drastically. Jobs and products that were needed the last 100 years of war were now obsolete. Imports that the Fire Nation had gotten through force now spiked in price, as middlemen stepped up to claim their share, exploiting the goods Fire Nation households used daily but had no other access to. Zuko had a great deal of angry, jobless citizens that could no longer afford to buy their daily staples on his hands.
I was amazed time and time again how Zuko managed to put everything he had into returning happiness to his people, even with the threats and attacks from the mini rebellions that broke out all over. Zuko loved his people and his nation more than anything though, and with every outcry he did what he could to appease the requests and demands. Over time the rebellions lessened and an admiration and trust for Zuko grew in the people of the Fire Nation.
Zuko was the other person that I endlessly wrote to. Somehow, through everything that had occurred, he became my biggest confidant, my best friend. And he always found time to respond to my letters, quickly and in depth.
It was mostly through him that I knew what Aang was doing. Aang decided to start his reconstruction efforts in the Fire Nation. He left the physical and fiscal needs to Zuko, but took the Fire Nation's cultural reconstruction into his own hands, starting with the children. The time he spent in the school system on our journey had showed him there was great hope in returning some of the lost Fire Nation culture and making the Fire Nation children open to the rest of the world. The schools were what he focused on and, like Haru, he travelled from city to city instilling a modified curriculum in schools and sharing his stories with both young and old alike.
Zuko's full support helped Aang a great deal in his efforts, but like Zuko, Aang had to deal with the resistance of those who refused to accept change into their lives. The resistances and successes consumed his time, and I knew what he was doing was of great importance for both the stabilization of the Fire Nation and the stabilization of the world as a whole. The children Aang worked with were the Fire Nation's hope in fully reuniting with the world. I understood that he would put all his time and effort into making sure the world again found its balance.
I accepted that his letters were few and far between, and cherished each one that came my way, no matter how short. I always returned him stories of what home was like now that the war was over. The progresses my little village had made.
I had spent my time taking care of my family, and helping to rebuild the Southern Water Tribe. With the soldiers returned home and a healthy migration of waterbenders and tribes folk from the north, the population was steadily increasing. I helped with the construction of new buildings, healed whatever ailments fell upon the tribe, and birthed the babied created since the end of the war. I did whatever my tribe needed me to, and for two years I lived in the snow and ice that was my home.
I didn't leave the South Pole once, until the announcement came from Iroh for Aang's 15th birthday celebration. The old man had kept his tea shop in Ba Sing Se and was happier than he had ever been in his life. Toph often visited him, they were easy friends, but other than her, no one had the time to visit frequently.
So it was no real surprise when he called the first gathering for all of us since right after the war. He missed us, and although we were all too busy to notice most of the time, we missed each other. So when the time came, we found ourselves in Iroh's house, laughing and loving, celebrating Aang.
He had grown so much since I had last seen him, and although Zuko had mentioned it in his letters, Aang's newfound height surprised me greatly.
It was at this time that Aang announced that he had done what he could in the Fire Nation, and that he wanted to turn his attention to the Earth Kingdom. He had done what he could, teaching the children of the Fire Nation that the world needed balance, and that each person, no matter what nation, held the same importance to the world. But the Earth Kingdom still had trouble with its prejudice towards the people of fire.
Aang had pulled me aside that night and asked me to join him on his venture through the Earth Kingdom. I couldn't help but be delighted at the prospect. I loved my home, but I missed the adventure the rest of the world held for me. By that point the Southern Water Tribe could survive just as well without me, anyway.
So I went with Aang. While he spent his time with the people, I worked hard putting my healing abilities to use. We traveled from place to place, doing much the same everywhere we went. Aang always focused on the people, the world, and I was there beside him.
So another year passed. I was nearly eighteen, and my life was happy. I helped the Avatar bring peace to the world. I brought comfort to those who were in pain. I helped ease the suffering of those whose loved ones were ill, by giving the ill their health back.
And my relationship with Aang was happy and light. It was hard not to love him and get caught up in his enthusiasm for taking care of the world. And I knew he loved me, though unlike when he was twelve, I was now second to the world. But how could I expect to compete? The world was what Aang had been born for.
After just over a year of travelling, Aang's work wasn't entirely finished in the earth kingdom. While prejudices were alleviating, some of the former colonies that had been occupied the longest were very reluctant to change. While Zuko had offered incentives for fire nation families to leave the colonies after the war, not every citizen took them. The nobles, having little ties to the earth kingdom other than their material positions, were happy to return to the fire nation with the promises of adequate placement in their homeland.
The servants of the nobility had long since integrated with the native earth people, and bonds to the land were stronger than the pull of wealth. It was a complicated issue. The people of fire and earth had come together in these parts of the kingdom, and citizenship wasn't as easily defined when children were of mixed heritage and many had never stepped foot in the homeland. These people didn't want to move, no matter the incentives, and families didn't want to be split.
Aang had been communicating with Zuko on the issue. Before they tried to find a solution, Aang said he wanted to do some work and research at the university in Ba Sing Se. He knew they had literature that had been hidden by the Dai Lee during the war on all kinds of rural planning and information on the building of the great capital city itself. I wasn't entirely sure what Aang and Zuko were concocting, I didn't think they quite knew either, but we were headed to Ba Sing Se once again.
I was looking forward to seeing Iroh again. I had missed my friends terribly throughout our stay in the Earth Kingdom. We had seen Toph once, when we were near Gaoling, and Aang had allowed us a two day break on Kyoshi Island to see my brother and our friends while we were in the south. But other than those fleeting visits, I had seen no one besides the new faces I worked with every day for over a year.
Zuko still wrote to me, though it was harder with our traveling, and I responded every chance I got. But now that it looked like we would be staying in Ba Sing Se for a while, I was beyond happy. Appa wasn't flying fast enough to get us there.
But eventually we made it, and when I saw Iroh's smiling face waiting in his doorway, I couldn't stop myself from running up and wrapping my arms around him.
"Katara, it is lovely to see your beautiful face again. And Aang, you have grown even more since you were last here." Iroh motioned to Aang as he walked up behind me and the Avatar found himself in a tight hug as well.
"It is good to see you again Iroh. It really has been a long time." Releasing the hug, Aang took Iroh's hand in his. The boy in the iceberg had grown so much. He wasn't really a boy anymore.
"Well, let's get inside. I have tea brewing. There is nothing better than tea after a long journey." And with a chuckle Iroh led us inside.
We stayed with Iroh while in Ba Sing Se. While Aang spent his time working at the university, I spent mine enjoying Iroh's company, helping him in his tea shop during the day, and sharing the tales of our journey in the evenings. A week went by as such. Aang wasn't often to be seen until late at night when he came home and crashed. It was easy to see he was enraptured by what he was doing at Ba Sing Se University.
Toph showed up at Iroh's the week after we did. It was wonderful to spend my time with her again, and Iroh was near giddy having his house occupied by people he cared for once again.
One of the first things Toph and I did after her arrival was treat ourselves to a spa day, something we hadn't done since our first time in Ba Sing Se. Toph, now sixteen, had grown into a beautiful young lady, and this time, as we made our way back to Iroh's place after our day of relaxation, the responses she got on the street were quite the opposite from the last time. It was priceless to see her blush the whole walk home after a boy her age had told her how beautiful she was before his face blanched and he nearly ran away, realizing what he had said out loud. I couldn't help but throw in a "Blushing Bandit" jibe after that.
When we got back to Iroh's we were greeted as warmly as ever. "My, you two young ladies look absolutely stunning. Perhaps next time I should join you, maybe they can work a miracle on these old wrinkles." With that, a round of carefree laughter broke out. Iroh always made sure laughter filled his walls.
"Oh, Katara, I almost forgot. While you two were out a letter arrived for you." And he pulled what could only be a letter from Zuko out of his apron pocket. It had been nearly three weeks since I'd sent my last reply; I couldn't help but smile as I tore it open.
I was used to his lengthy letters, his small, cramped writing filling up the pages, which was why this one shocked me.
I have a surprise for you.
"You sound shocked about something, Sugar Queen. What does Sparky say?"
"Not anything that makes any sense. All it says is that he 'has a surprise' for me. Iroh, do you have any idea what that means?"
"None at all, Miss Katara. You know well enough that sometimes Zuko's actions are well beyond anyone's understanding." With that another round of laughter was shared amongst the three of us.
Toph spent some of her time after that with Aang, working on various earthbending things, in between whatever else he was doing. I knew he appreciated her help; as always she had a totally different view on things, and her help let him expand on the things he was working on. I stayed out of the way, mostly. Even after having spent so much time in the Earth Kingdom it simply wasn't that familiar to me, and I didn't want to get in Aang's way with his ideas.
Toph always returned to Iroh's long before Aang did though. She didn't much like it when he worked in the libraries, bent over scrolls. When Toph came home today she had a question for me. I was on the porch, watering the flowers Iroh had growing there, when she walked up the steps and said, "So, Sugar Queen. It's like two days till your birthday, isn't it? Got any plans?"
I had to admit that I was taken aback by what she had asked me. Although I hadn't forgotten my birthday, I didn't really put much thought to it either. When I had still been at the South Pole we had celebrated small, just my father, Gran-Gran, and Pakku. I made dinner, they pitched in to give me some nice gift, and that was it. On my last birthday, while traveling with Aang, I hadn't really celebrated at all. A member of the village we were staying in had fallen off of the roof he had been repairing. I had spent most of the afternoon and night patching him back together. So I didn't really expect anything this time around either.
"Actually Toph, I have no plans at all. Why do you ask?"
"Oh, well, no reason really. I just had Iroh send a letter to Kyoshi when I got here, since I haven't seen Sokka in ages, and it looks like he will be here with Suki just in time to see you turn eighteen."
"Are you serious Toph!"
"Do I ever lie to you Katara?"
I couldn't even answer. All I could do was hug the tiny earthbender and keep the tears at bay.
"Yeah, yeah. You're excited. Now let's get inside. I'm sure Iroh has tea ready." And so we went in.
"Did I hear correctly? Am I to receive more guests in my home? And in the next few days as well?"
"That's right Gramps. You're lucky to have those extra rooms. You're gonna need them."
"Wonderful! And we must prepare for Miss Katara's party as well! It will be wonderful!"
"Did I hear party?" Aang asked as he walked in the door.
"You got it Twinkle Toes. Katara's birthday only comes once a year, after all."
Aang sat down next to me, picking up an egg custard tart. "That's in the next few days, isn't it?"
"Yes, it's two days from now, and can you believe it Aang! Sokka and Suki are coming! It's been so long since I have seen my brother!"
"That's wonderful." He said. I knew he would be excited once the news sunk in, but it was obvious bigger things were on Aang's mind right now. I just couldn't wait to see my brother again.
But with the news revealed, time moved so slowly.
Toph had told me that Sokka expected to get in the next evening. All that next day I could do nothing but sit on the front steps and wait for him. Toph, bored stiff with my impatience, went somewhere to train. At lunch time Iroh brought me some tea and sandwiches. We talked for a while, and at least that hour went by rather quickly. I was just too excited to do anything but wait.
In the late afternoon Aang came home. He sat with me for a while on the steps. We talked as we always did. And when his stomach interrupted him mid-sentence he went inside for dinner.
Not long after, just as the sun was beginning to set, two figures could be seen walking down the street, straight towards Iroh's house. As I squinted to see who it was, I recognized my brother's tall, built frame, and dashed off the steps, straight into his arms. This time my tears of joy could not be held back. I was just too happy.
Somehow we eventually made it inside, and as we sat around Iroh's table, Aang on one side of me, Sokka on the other, laughing, sharing stories, I felt like my family was home.
The next day was my 18th birthday. I woke up to Aang bringing me breakfast in bed just before he had to go to some meeting with a professor that just returned to town. It was such a sweet gesture, with the flower and the kiss before he took off.
After enjoying my meal, I took the tray to the kitchen, where Iroh was busy doing something or other.
"Well, good morning Miss Katara, I wish you a beautiful 18th birthday."
"Thank you Iroh. Now, is there anything I can do to help you out?"
"You area expected to do nothing today, Katara, but if you would like, I would love it if you could run a little errand for me."
"Sure thing Iroh, what do you need me to do?"
"I have an order that needs picking up from the shop down the street. If you tell the lady at the counter you are there for me, she will give it to you, it's already paid for. But take this and look around the shop. If you see something you like, bring it home with you."
With that he pushed a small bag of coins into my hand and sent me towards the door before I could protest.
The day was lovely and my spirits were high. I made my way down the street slowly, taking in the life around me. It was a busy morning, as all were in the city. The vendors and shops were open, and the people bustled around on their own errands.
When I got to the shop Iroh had specified, I decided to heed his advice and look around. I wasn't planning on buying anything, but I just wasn't in any real hurry today either.
The small shop was filled with towering rows of merchandise from places all over the world. As I looked around I got stuck at a beautiful pair of earrings that were clearly water tribe. I stared at them, fascinated, captivated by their shimmering blue. I was so entranced by the way the light shown off them that I didn't notice when someone came up behind me until they spoke into my ear.
"Those are beautiful. I could get them for you as a birthday present."
At first I was totally startled, but when my brain registered the fact that I recognized that voice, I turned. My eyes met Zuko's face, bent down to my level, and I sputtered with a loss for words.
"I told you I had a surprise for you," he said as he pulled me into a hug. I was still in disbelief that he was there, but snapped out of my gaping state and hugged him back.
"So, let's get these wrapped up for you, grab what uncle sent you here to get, and go see him finally." I was still trying to grasp that Zuko was here, which meant that the group was all there, and for my birthday none the less.
"Wait. Iroh was in on this?"
"Uncle is in on everything. Now let's go." Zuko went to the front, picked up Iroh's package, had them wrap up the earrings (for which I began protesting once it was already too late, according to Zuko), and led the way back to Iroh's house.
When we walked into the kitchen, Iroh dropped what he was doing and pulled his nephew into a tight hug. It was a lot of hugging in a short time, but it had been too long for all of us.
After the short reunion, I somehow found myself in Iroh's sitting room with a book in my hand and the order to stay put. Apparently everyone was busy preparing for a party that I could tell was already too much work to be meant for me. I didn't want them all to fuss over me. It was my job to take care of them.
Eventually, after I had made it through most of my book, Toph came in and plopped on the sofa next to me. "So, looks like everyone is here again, just like it should be." I could only agree with Toph's words. It did feel like things were the way they should be, at least with everyone being here.
"So, do you know why Sparky came alone?"
"Zuko came alone? You mean Mai isn't here?"
"Nope. Looks like Miss Doom and Gloom is still in the Fire Nation this time. I figured you would know if something was up with those two. You're the one that writes to Zuko all the time."
"He hasn't mentioned that anything has changed. It probably isn't anything for us to concern ourselves over."
"Okay. I was just curious if you knew anything. He's been kinda weird since he got here. Anyways, whatever. I was told to come in here and get you. Dinner is ready, and I'm sure if we don't get out there soon a search party will be sent in after me."
With a chuckle I followed Toph into Iroh's dining room. I was stunned. The decorations were beautiful, all shades of blue mixed with tones of the other nations. The table looked amazing, and there were sea prunes! But the thing that had me choked up were the people smiling up at me. Iroh, Sokka, Suki, Zuko, Toph, and Aang. Everyone was there. I could feel the tears spill over as I took my place beside Aang.
"This is all too much. I don't deserve any of this."
Sokka was the one to respond. "That's nonsense, Katara. Out of every one of us, you are the one that deserves this the most." I couldn't respond. I didn't know how.
I was grateful when Toph broke the silence. "Well, let's eat. I'm starved." And with that things were like they had always been, back when we were all still together.
The conversation was easy, filled with light banter, crude jokes, and lots of teasing about one thing or another. The serious turn all our lives had taken in the last few years seemed to fade away as we sat there together. My attention faded in and out of the conversations around me. I mostly just watched the people I loved. They had all changed so much. Each of them grown. But they were all still so the same.
My attention drifted back towards the conversation between Sokka and Aang. It seemed to be getting intense, but I started paying attention way too late to understand what was being said. Whatever Sokka was saying, though, had Aang strangely excited, the way he got when he was working on his Avatar business. I could tell by Aang's face that he was coming to some sort of conclusion in his head. I the middle of Sokka's sentence Aang exclaimed "That's it! That is exactly what needs to be done to get this project really moving! You're a genius Sokka!" And with that Aang pecked me on the cheek with a quick "happy birthday" and nearly danced out the door, leaving everyone looking after him with bewildered expressions on their faces. Except for Toph, who immediately asked, "So. What's for dessert?"
Iroh got up to get the dishes cleared, with Suki helping him. They brought out dessert, something chocolaty and sweet smelling, and everyone dug in. I went through the motions as well, but all I could think about was how he just got up and left. I had never really cared about being number two to him until that moment. Was I selfish for wanting him to be there for my birthday and not worry about being the Avatar for once?
Some bitter part of my mind went over the time when we were young, when he was willing to give up the whole world to be there for me. Somewhere in our journey since, his priorities had changed. I really hadn't thought about it until now, and the complete revelation of it stung.
Half way through my dessert I couldn't eat anymore. I pushed my plate away and stood. "Thank you all so much for this wonderful dinner. I'm just going to go outside and catch a breath of fresh air." I made my way swiftly from the room, holding back the tears until I knew I was out of each and every one of their line of sight.
I made my way into Iroh's back yard and sat down at the edge of the small koi pond. The tears streamed silently down my face. I just sat there, arms around my knees, not bothering to wipe the tears away.
It was dark out now, the stars twinkled in the sky and the full moon looked down on me. I felt ashamed. At my most powerful I felt so weak. The lights from the house didn't quite make it to the pond, and I was thankful to only have the light of the moon. I couldn't really think clearly about anything. My mind was simply numb and empty.
It wasn't until the person sitting next to me placed a hand on my shoulder and spoke that I realized he was actually there. "I'm sorry that he just left like that. It wasn't the right thing for him to do."
I just leaned my head on his shoulder, pulling comfort from the heat the arm that worked its way around me held. We sat there in silence for a long while, until a question began to nag at me. I looked up at my best friend.
"Zuko? Why are you here?"
"To celebrate your birthday."
"But why did you come unannounced? And alone? Every other time you have visited Iroh, Mai has been with you. But this time she isn't here. Is something wrong? You never mentioned anything being wrong in your letters."
"Katara. This isn't the time to talk about my problems."
"C'mon Zuko. Tell me what's going on. Maybe I can help, if there is a problem."
"Katara, I really wish you could help me with this, but I don't want this to burden you or anyone else. This is all mine."
"Will you at least tell me the story behind it? I can tell there is one there." I leaned my head back on his shoulder and waited for him to begin.
"I don't really know how to explain this." I could hear the tension in his voice. Whatever was bothering him sounded like it was giving him more grief than he wanted it to.
"So, is your problem with Mai, or is there something else causing you this?" I knew I was being direct, and if my bluntness made it harder for him, I was sorry, but I needed to get my mind off of my own problem. I felt better trying to make Zuko find relief from his troubles.
I waited a while for his response, but he remained quiet. "You don't have to answer, you know. What you tell me is up to you."
"I want to tell you. I'm just trying to put all these thoughts together correctly. I haven't been this confused in a long time." I could feel his whole body move beside me as he took a deep breath. I waited for him to collect his words, looking into the water. The moon's light reflected on the water's surface, the fish swimming in and out of its glow.
"I guess my problem concerns Mai, but Mai isn't what caused the problem. Does that make sense?"
"It does, in a way."
"Okay, um, so… I guess it started a few weeks ago, but really when I became firelord, but it wasn't a problem until a few weeks ago, but…"
"Zuko." My hand reached up to cover the one of his that was resting on my shoulder. "What happened a few weeks ago?"
"The Fire Sages requested a meeting with me. In my four years, I have had to deal with them maybe one or two times. They only demand presence for ceremonies or severe problems. But my country has been doing so well, coping with the changes as we returned the colonies to the Earth Kingdom. So when they asked to meet with me, all of them, with me, in private, I naturally thought something was terribly wrong.
"But the topic they had on their minds was nowhere near the national crisis I had convinced myself was coming. No, they asked me when I was planning on getting married. They said they understood that, after taking my place as firelord, I had to concern myself with settling the turmoil within my country, but now that things were progressing, looking better than ever, they felt it was time for me to begin thinking about the future of the royal family.
"I should have expected something like that to come up eventually. I am turning twenty in a couple of months, after all. But I really had never given that part of my life any thought. I have just been so focused on my work as firelord.
"What the sages said got me thinking, though. I knew getting married wasn't necessary, right away. We are in a time of peace, and with the way my life is going I am not ready to even think about kids yet. But Mai and I have been together for a long time, and I'm sure people are expecting us to end up getting married at one point or another. And there my problem formed.
"Somehow the thoughts about marriage turned into me evaluating what my relationship with Mai has been over the years. I have been happy with her since we got back together after the war. It was so easy to be with her while I worked to restore my nation. She understood that I had to work all the time. When I needed to unwind she was there to relax on the couch with. She was always quiet when I needed to think, and able to distract me when I wanted to take my mind off of things.
"But in these four years that is the only way I can honestly describe our relationship. Easy, worry free, and convenient. I know I care for Mai deeply, but the more marriage plagues my mind the more I realize that I couldn't see myself simply settling for her.
"For a long time firelords have had complacent wives who let them rule the way they wished, agreed with their words, and mothered their heirs. My mother wasn't like that. She was intelligent. She had ideas about how to improve the lives of the people. But she never had the chance to be fire lady, and even before my father took the crown he wouldn't listen to her.
"I want someone who can challenge me with my role as firelord. Someone who can help my people. Who can tell me when my ideas are ridiculous, and then set them on the right path. The more I thought about it the more I realized Mai isn't any of that. Mai doesn't want any of that. She's told me so many times that she doesn't care about the politics, that she's had to put up with her family's ambitions in the politics her whole life, and that she'd rather just stay out of them. She would make the perfect wife for the firelords of the past. But she won't make the perfect wife for me.
"When I realized that I could no longer see myself being with her, I didn't know what to do. Mai has been my only real girlfriend, ever, and the thought of breaking it off after all this time, especially after the way she told me never to break up with her again when we got back together, had me nervous, scared even.
"For days I went through different ways to do it. I'm sure everyone noticed how distracted I was. They all put it off as stress, thinking it had simply been too long since my last vacation. It ate away at me until I couldn't take it anymore. So I ran away. I wasn't proud of my childish solution, but I played up the taking a vacation bit, saying I wanted some quality time with the uncle I haven't seen in too long. Really I came to get away from my problems and spend some stress free time with you, Aang, and uncle.
"It is a bonus, though, that things worked out right in time for you birthday. It makes me happy that I got to celebrate with you. I am terribly sorry for how things turned out. We all know Aang gets distracted easily, but he shouldn't have left in the middle of your party. He didn't even think about how it would make you feel. He just got up and left. Just like that."
I had listened quietly to everything Zuko told me. While he was talking, I had realized that in his letters he didn't ever mention Mai much, unless she happened to be with him at some event or other. It made more sense now why his letters were always filled with his opinions, ideas, strategies. He was looking for someone to give him feedback, since he wasn't getting any at home.
Zuko was never really a man of many words, but when you prodded enough, and he let loose, he told you what was on his mind; everything that was on his mind. When he brought up my party and Aang again, all the emotions that I had already pushed into the back corner of my mind bubbled right back up. I was back to fighting tears, and the hand that had been resting on Zuko's found its way back around my knees.
He noticed my shift in posture.
"Oh! Katara, I'm so… Argh, how am I always so stupid! I always ruin everything by saying the wrong thing!" I felt him take another deep breath. "Look, Katara, I'm sorry. You deserve to be happy on your birthday. I want you to be happy on your birthday. Is there anything I can do to make you feel better?"
I just stared out at the water. The little pond looked so peaceful. The night was even more beautiful than the day had been. The full moon was directly overhead now, and I could feel the pull from the water in front of me. I imagined what it would feel like now, the water surrounding me, washing away my ruined party.
Suddenly a thought lodged itself in my brain, and I could feel a slight smirk come over my face. I reached out, I could feel the water in the pond, the fish swimming lazily, felt the blood running through Zuko's veins. Before he even had a chance to realize what was happening, I had half the pond crashing over him. The expression on his face as he stood up, drenched, had me laughing out loud.
The giggles that overwhelmed me left me defenseless. Zuko reached out, grabbing my wrist, and with a lurch, I was tossed into the pond, now just as wet as he was. My giggles had vanished when I had met the water.
As I stood I found myself quiet, staring into Zuko's eyes, his staring right back. The moon light lit up his features. He had grown up, too. More so than the rest. As I looked up at him I could see how his responsibilities had matured the look in his eyes. How his face had grown from the marred but good looking, slightly awkward teenage boy, to a handsome man, whose striking features made you forget all about the scar around his left eye.
I could feel my heart beating; the quiet all around us, growing thicker. I don't know what initiated it, whose look started it, but suddenly we were both overtaken in hysterics. Too much had happened throughout the day for it all not to be funny now.
When Zuko slipped and fell backwards I laughed even harder. That propelled him to grab my ankle and pull me down into the shallow water with him. Our laughter only escalated from there, and I found myself in a water fight (one I wasn't necessarily determined to win) that lasted until the moon set, and the first light of dawn began to show on the horizon.
I could feel the sun warming my face as I slowly regained consciousness. It felt warm, too warm to still be the early morning, and when I opened my eyes I could see the sun high in the sky. I stretched my stiff muscles, remembering why I was only now waking up.
"Good morning Katara. So, you are finally awake?"
His voice startled me. I rolled over and there was Aang, sitting on the floor beside my bed.
"Oh! Good morning Aang! What time is it? Aren't you usually off working by this time? I'm sure it's late. I feel like I slept forever."
"It's almost lunch time." He looked like he wanted to say something else but kept quiet. His posture was tense. He looked unhappy. No, not unhappy, but conflicted.
"Aang? Is something wro…?"
"I saw you with him last night. When I got home." His voice wasn't accusing, just matter of fact.
"With who? Zuko?"
"You were in the pond. You looked like you were having fun. I can't remember the last time we did something like that together."
It was hard for me to figure out what emotion filled his voice, but whatever it was it was strong, emanating from his every word.
"We have been busy, Aang. We haven't had a lot of time in the last few months."
"It feels like it has been more than just the last few months, though…"
"Aang. You have been working really hard to make things better for so many people. In the last year I have seen you help entire villages get their lives back. With everything you have done, it's okay if there hasn't been time to splash around and goof off."
"Thanks Katara." I pulled him off the floor and wrapped my arms around him. I had seen him accomplish truly amazing things in our time traveling. There was no need for him to worry about whether or not I was having enough splashing around time. So long as he was happy, I was. I held him close until Sokka barged through the door.
"Katara, it's time for…! Aang…? Okay, look, I know you two lovebirds like each other and all, but as long as we are under the same roof, Aang, stay away from my sister's bed!"
"Oh, shut it Sokka!" I launched a pillow at his head, which, to my dismay he caught, but the damage was done; Aang was already headed for the door, looking sheepish.
"Anyways, back to what I was trying to say! Lunch will be ready in a minute; Iroh's cooking the meat right now! So get your sleepy butt out of bed!"
"Sokka, after all the times I have had to get your lazy butt up to do things, don't be chiding me!"
"Whatever sis, just, up now, meat's almost ready." Sokka left my room, Aang in tow, leaving me alone to get ready.
It was funny really, Sokka's concern for finding Aang in my room. I knew what he was thinking, but Aang and my relationship hadn't even gotten to that point yet. Aang was only sixteen, and with all the things he dealt with day to day, I knew he wasn't ready yet, especially mentally, to take our relationship to the next level.
With a sigh I pulled myself out of bed, put on the Earth Kingdom dress Toph had given me the day before, and pulled a comb through my hair. I didn't feel like putting it up, I did feel somewhat lazy after the long day before, so I left my hair hanging down my back and made my way to the kitchen.
Iroh was just finishing dishing up plates when I walked in, so I helped Suki carry them into the dining room.
"Sorry if Sokka said anything annoying when he came to get you. I would have had someone else get you, or come myself, but everyone's been conveniently off somewhere, and Iroh had me stirring the sauce."
"Oh, he wasn't that bad, just being Sokka. But Suki, I should be sorry for you, you are the one who is going to be stuck with him forever."
"I can see the necklace hanging around your neck, you know. Why haven't you said anything yet?"
"Oh, we didn't want to say anything on your birthday, that day was yours. We were actually planning on announcing it today."
"Well, congratulations!" I whispered to her as I set the plates on the table. Somehow the sound of dinnerware hitting wood was a summons. Sokka, Aang, Zuko, and Toph magically appeared for food. Iroh brought in a tray of desserts, and then, with the food all set up, we dug in.
Around the time when everyone's plates were nearly empty, Sokka cleared his throat and stood, ready to announce what I already knew was coming.
"So… Suki and I have something we would like to announce to you."
"What! No Toph! Wait… you aren't, are you?"
"Oh, relax Sokka; I was just messing with you. Anyways, you were saying?"
"Well, what I was saying was, um, we're engaged?"
"Congratulations, you two!"
"Thank you Iroh. We wanted to tell you all now, even though we plan on waiting until the Kyoshi celebration for the wedding. But Sokka and I want to invite you all, even though it is still a good seven months away, so that each of you can make sure to be there."
I was surprised by the fact that they wanted to wait even a moment longer, let alone over seven months, to finally make things official. But I could see two reasons, already, for why they wanted to wait.
First off, I could see how much it would mean to Suki, leader of the Kyoshi warriors, to secure the past avatar's birthday and the celebration of her home as the day she got married. It would make that day the most precious of the year to her.
The second point was one I fully understood. They wanted to set the date now, for a time rather far in the future, so that each of us would be sure to be there. Our lives were all so different, each of us with responsibilities. I could see how planning well in advance would help ensure that we made it.
The table was abuzz with congratulations, and Toph's relentless teasing. The mood was once again light and happy. It made me wonder how long it would last. How soon would each of us return to our duties and leave behind the joy that only being together made us feel?
After dessert had been eaten, the dishes taken care of, and the kitchen put back in order, I found myself, once again, watering the flowers lining the porch. We always seemed to spend one day of our stay at Iroh's house cleaning, each of us taking a different chore, one that was best suited for our various abilities. I had done kitchen duty, and once the flowers were watered I was finished with my share. I felt as though I had been let off easy this time; usually there was more for me to do. But I wasn't complaining. It was easy to get lost in ones thoughts doing simple chores.
Out of nowhere I felt arms wrap around my waist in a way that only Aang's could. I turned my head, and, with a smile, gave him a peck on the cheek.
"I'm all done dusting every surface of this place! So I was wondering if you wanted to join me for a walk?"
I smiled. I couldn't help it. It was nice to have him ask me to join him in something so carefree. "Of course I would."
We wandered the streets of Ba Sing Se hand in hand. We people watched, made up stories, and laughed like we hadn't in a long time.
Somewhere around dusk we ended up in a little theater in the middle ring that was filled with people of all ages. We didn't know what the show was going to be, but the specifics didn't really matter. We were just there for the fun.
I had expected a play of sorts, but instead, the entertainment was something slightly different. It was still a play, in its own right, the story a common Earth Kingdom folk tale, but there were no professional actors to take the stage. It was like a lottery, a character announced and an audience member's seat number selected to play the part. They all seemed to know how the story was supposed to go. But I didn't.
Luck was on my side, though. My seat was not selected. I wouldn't have a role in tonight's production, but Aang would. He was selected to play the hero's best friend.
The casting was humorous. The hero of the story was a cute, little, seven year old boy. His mother was played by the elderly gentleman that had been sitting two rows ahead of me. Some people fit their parts, others were wildly off.
But somehow the play worked. Each of them put their hearts into their roles, Aang right along with them. It was all improvised, for me the story was hard to follow sometimes, but they knew where it needed to go, and the spontaneity kept it light and entertaining.
I watched Aang throughout the entire play. He was still the youthful, energetic boy he had been since I'd met him. Despite all the weight put on his shoulders with him being the Avatar, he was still a boy. It was more apparent to me as he played on stage than in regular situations, but it was still true in the day to day.
After the performance was finished we made our way back to Iroh's house. When we got there, Zuko and Sokka were sparring in the backyard and Aang immediately went to join them. Suki was watching from beside the pond, feet in the water, and Toph was lounging on a large rock near the back door.
I took a seat beside Toph and lay back to look at the stars.
"So, how was your date with twinkle toes?"
"It was… nice."
"You're telling the truth, but you're lying. What's wrong?"
"I did have a fantastic time with Aang. It's just that my brain ran away from me, and now I keep thinking about things that are so… confusing… and frustrating… things I feel bad for even thinking about."
"Things about Aang?"
"You know you can tell me Katara. I know when you are lying to yourself better than you do."
How did I put all this into words? Just thinking made me feel like a bad person.
"You said it was about Aang." Toph was prodding.
"I guess I just realized something, which makes me wonder if things have changed, which makes me feel like I'm a bad person for thinking about this."
"You're blubbering like Sokka, Katara. How 'bout you try explaining specifics."
"Okay, but this is just between you and me, right?"
"It always is."
"Good. So, I guess that recently I have realized that Aang is still only sixteen."
"Fantastic perception you got there, Katara."
"Oh c'mon, you know what I mean, don't you? With everything he does as the Avatar, he always seems so capable, mature with the knowledge of a thousand lifetimes. But really he's just a sixteen year old kid.
"I feel like I am an adult now though. Like I have grown up from the time all six of us used to ride around on Appa, but he hasn't."
"Well, I can tell you, as another sixteen year old, that although I am certainly not twelve anymore, I know I am not ready for some of the things expected of me when I am officially and adult. Well, actually, I don't want to be ready for them yet. But Twinkle Toes is different from me. Where I am ready to understand, but don't want to, he wants to be an adult, but is too innocent to pull it off."
"I still want to take care of him. I love him. But I just feel like there is this maturity gap between us that is making me less and less able to be with him."
"Katara, I want to say something to you and you probably won't like it, but I'm me, so I'm saying it anyway. You have always taken care of Aang. Not like his girlfriend, but like his mother. You're worse than my mom sometimes. Sure, you have been his girlfriend for a while. That is something the two of you have made clear. But the way I see it, a large part of why you are with Aang is that you care about him and don't want anything to hurt him. That is while you feel bad about maybe not wanting to be with him like that anymore. It's because it will hurt him. But you need to worry about yourself, Katara. Not always about Aang."
I just stared up at the stars. What Toph said stung a little, but mostly made sense. It did not, however, make me feel better about the whole situation.
The facts were laid out in front of me. I had outgrown Aang. I cared about him deeply and wanted nothing in the world to hurt him. One day Aang would grow into the man he was destined to become, but that was still a ways ahead of him. I had a choice to make. I could stay with him like I had and be there as he grew, or I could break off the romance part of our relationship, hope to still be his friend, and live my life for myself for a while, instead of always taking care of others.
I got up off the rock, shouted "Goodnight" to everyone, and headed for bed. As I lie there by myself in the dark I went over everything Aang and I had been through together. What Toph had said to me changed the way I saw so many of my memories.
Throughout all of our travels, I always took care of the details. While Aang helped resolve strife between villagers, I made sure we had a place to sleep that night. While Aang spent the day playing with school children, I prepared us food, or mended clothes, or scrubbed between Appa's toes.
I did my part with the healing, but most of the time I just made sure we survived, while Aang saved the world. Our 'adventure' was no different than when we were kids trying to end the war. Only difference was that everyone else had moved on with their lives.
I loved Aang, and I didn't want anything to hurt him. It made what I had to do so much harder.