A/n: Final Chapter!
294th day of our journey. Royal Palace; Ba Sing Se.
Today, the Earth King has been re-instated on his throne and the temporary rule of the Order of the White Lotus formally has ended and been handed over to King Kuei in a small ceremony, during which the King promised to use his own wisdom and experience to rule.
In the evening, Fire Lord Zuko and Mai arrived by airship and were welcomed by King Kuei. The Fire Lord formally apologized for the war crimes of his father and sister and pledged that he will make amends, starting by the signing of the Peace Treaty tomorrow.
It has been a very eventful day – a very significant one too, for now that Zuko is here and he and King Kuei have got to know each other in an informal way, the way is paved for the signing of the Peace Treaty tomorrow.
We left the hospitable Beetle-headed Merchant and his family early this morning. Both King Kuei and Bosco had fully recovered from their ordeal, and Sokka's leg healed. Appa's saddle was a bit overcrowded, especially with Bosco, but the trip from this northwest edge of the Si Wong to Ba Sing Se wasn't too long, and by mid-morning, the Great walls of the city came into view.
Aang guided Appa right over the Outer Wall and towards the Upper Ring. Like King Kuei, we were amazed at the huge swathes of scorch marks and breached walls: both outer and inner ones. Broken Tundra Tanks were everywhere, some even piled up on top of each other, as though some giant child had played with them. Jagged rocks and broken masonry littered the streets. Surprisingly, however, the streets were calm and people seemed to be going about their business as usual, some nonchalantly sweeping away the battle debris from their doorstep.
Many faces turned upwards as we passed overhead, but we didn't stop, flying over the red, circular wall of the Palace compound, over the Outer Court, and then the Inner one. Earth Kingdom banners flew proudly from every wall and Gatehouse. Both in the large Plaza of the Outer Court and in the smaller clearing of the Inner one, just in front of the Palace door, were many dark blue tents pitched near each other : the Order of the White Lotus.
Their lookouts had seen us coming from afar, so when we landed, the Old Masters were waiting for us. Appa had barely even landed when Aang airbended himself down and ran to embrace King Bumi, whom he hadn't seen in months.
I ran to Pakku, who hugged me. Surprisingly, he even drew Sokka into an embrace:
'I heard what you did!' he told us 'I'm really proud of you and I can't wait to tell Kanna! And as for the Avatar …. '
We looked round to where Aang was bowing solemnly to Jeang Jeong, whose rather austere face was transformed by a rare smile as he returned Aang's greeting.
' ….. he has, indeed, come a long way,' Pakku ended, with a smile in his direction .
It was a very happy re-union. Iroh formally greeted King Kuei in the name of the Order, and then, together with some of the Generals from the old Council of Five and a small retinue of servants, he led the Earth King and Bosco inside the Palace.
We followed a bit later, for Aang hadn't seen his old masters in ages, and had a lot to catch up on.
I noticed a slight change in their attitudes to Aang – it was subtle, but noticeable. Aang wasn't just 'Pupil Aang' anymore: he was 'Avatar Aang' and they treated him with the deference he deserved, even though he never ever once requested that formality. I suppose that in their eyes, he must appear quite different. With the exception of Iroh and Piandao, they hadn't seen Aang in many, many, months. And it's not just that he's taller and broader now, his voice deeper…. more important than that, they can see how he's grown in strength of character and in that indefinable something that makes him the Avatar. Their attitude of quiet respect reflected that change.
Bumi is the only exception: not that he hasn't shown respect, but he's as crazy as ever, and doesn't stand on formality. It warmed my heart to see him and Aang together: both relics of a lost time, and although Bumi's face is all wrinkled and old (he's the oldest of the old masters) yet sometimes I glimpsed the young friend Aang was so close to. And I could see why: Bumi's quirky wisdom, interspersed (and sometimes disguised ) with crazy-yet-wonderful ideas, must've been irresistible to someone like Aang.
When we went inside the Palace, Iroh told us that Zuko and Mai were on their way to Ba Sing Se in the one undamaged Airship, and should arrive by late afternoon. Then we were ushered into our old palatial rooms, complete with servants, that had been ours when we were King Kuei's guests last Spring.
The Palace servants were a-buzz with the exciting news of King Kuei's return on the Avatar's bison:
'There's going to be a huge banquet tomorrow after the signing of the Peace Treaty. Nothing as exciting has happened since I first started working here!' one servant girl told me.
She was the same one who had given me pointers on etiquette I didn't need, and insisted on brushing my hair a 100 times, last time we were here.
'Actually - everything has become more exciting ever since the Avatar first stayed here, almost 4 months ago,' she gushed as she poured scented water into a sunken tub in the miniature spa adjacent to my room 'He makes everything, like, happen, you know? His battle with the Fire Lord must have been awe-inspiring, mustn't it? And he's so different from when he was last here, My Lady! He's like …. magical ….!'
'I'm Katara, not 'My Lady'. 'Master Katara' if you wanna keep it formal. Now I think I'll do that by myself, thank you.'
I dismissed her, feeling slightly disgruntled at her prattling and un-subtle attempts at getting information for gossip. I waterbended the rest of the scented water in, eager for a bath after two days in the desert. As I sank thankfully into the warm, scented bathwater, I remembered that when I was last in my room with this servant-girl, Aang had come to speak to me and I got the impression he hadn't wanted her there. We had just found Appa again in Lake Laogai, and had been King Kuei's guests in the Royal Palace. That evening, I had been sure Aang wanted to say something about his feelings for me …
He never got a chance to, and sometimes I wonder what I would have answered then.
Now I know what I want to say, but, as I suspected, it has been difficult to talk to Aang.
I saw him briefly when King Kuei gathered us all in his Throne Room early in the afternoon to thank us for ending the 100-year war and bringing him to safety, and the Order of the White Lotus, for the liberation of his city.
'The world needs to rebuild itself,' he said 'And my people have suffered for too long. I am taking responsibility for my past mistakes, and will henceforth take the leading role, as King, in ruling over this land so that peace will be maintained. Nevermore shall an Earth King be confined to the Royal Palace. I will go forth myself, as will other Earth Kings that come after me, among the people that make up this Kingdom and I will listen to their hopes and fears, their happiness and their grievances, so that the greatness of the Earth Kingdom can be restored.'
There was cheering and clapping from all gathered there in the Throne Room at the King's simple, but heartfelt, pledge. I turned to Aang, to tell him that I hoped he'd start by removing some of the separating walls in Ba Sing Se, but he was spirited away by General How of the Council of Five, and Piandao, who wanted to know about the battle of Wulong Forest. I spent some time with Iroh instead, who wanted to know exactly how the now-fabled Agni Kai had turned out.
'It is a bittersweet victory,' he said when I finished, 'It would have killed Ursa to see it.'
'I think Zuko was pretty upset to see Azula lose her mind… it was quite shocking. With his family all gone, I'm glad he has you, General Iroh!'
'Call me Iroh – after tomorrow's ceremony, I'm retiring to my Teashop again. Zuko is strong enough to stand on his own two feet now, but I hope he'll come and visit.'
In fact, it was a mere hour later that the distinctive shape of an Airship appeared in the distance, and was soon landing outside the red walls of the Royal Palace. Aang re-appeared together with General How, King Kuei, and the Order of white Lotus. We waited at the foot of the staircase leading up to the Inner Court as a retinue of Earth Kingdom Guards and the newly-formed Council of Five escorted Zuko, Mai and a small retinue of Fire Nation Generals right up to where King Kuei stood at the door to the Palace.
There, for the first time, Fire Lord and Earth King met, to the cheers of the many who had gathered in the Outer and Inner Court of the Royal Palace. King Kuei formally greeted the new Fire Lord and Zuko formally pledged to redress all the wrongs of his father and sister. After the brief ceremony, King Kuei invited Zuko inside the Palace for a smaller, more informal meeting.
Once inside, Iroh hugged his nephew warmly, and I greeted Mai who introduced me to some of Zuko's newly-promoted Generals who had come with him.
'I find these informal gatherings far more fun than the sumptuous, strait-laced affairs my advisor used to organize in my honor,' I heard King Kuei tell Zuko 'I learnt that during my travels.'
'I learnt a lot during my travels, too,' Zuko answered with a faint smile 'But the biggest change started here, while I was living as a fugitive in Ba Sing Se'.
I smiled, and tried to catch Aang's eyes. This was the culmination of what we had strived to accomplish for a whole year: peace between the Earth Kingdom and the Fire Nation. Aang, who was talking to a couple of Zuko's newly-appointed Generals, caught my eyes and smiled back: yes, we had come a long way and this was the end of the road. At least one road, for of course, a new one was beginning … I saw a shadow pass fleetingly across Aang's eyes before he resumed talking to the Fire Nation General. I knew he was thinking, like I was, of the What now? question, but I didn't have time to dwell on it, for after the meeting with King Kuei we offered to accompany Zuko, Mai and Iroh back to his teashop, thinking we could catch up on the news from Caldera City along the way, but it was a big mistake…
Huge crowds formed everywhere we went, for by now, everyone had heard of the epic battle that brought about Ozai's downfall, and how King Kuei had been found, and about the arrival of the new Fire Lord to sign the Peace treaty. People from all three Rings passed through the ruined walls to catch a glimpse of us as we made our way to the Jasmine Dragon. Thankfully, Iroh, unlike us, had foreseen what might happen, and had brought some of the Members of the Order to accompany us. They had a tough time with the crowd, for the streets were impassable with cheering people. Cries of 'Avatar Aang' were the loudest, but our names were shouted out loud, too, and a few even cheered the Fire lord, willing to forget his past. It was the same on our way back to the Royal Palace after dropping Iroh, Mai and Zuko off at the Jasmine Dragon.
'I like hero worship, but this is a bit much!' Toph grumbled, as she was jostled about.
'Maybe we should've taken Appa,' Sokka suggested.
'Maybe we shouldn't do this, until people calm down a bit,' Aang said, mildly.
'I hope they do – I'd miss not being able to walk down a street in peace,' I replied, glancing over at him 'It's been so chaotic recently. I almost wish we were back in the desert, on our own.'
Aang looked across at me quickly and I saw again that shadow of doubt that I had seen earlier.
It was evening by the time we arrived back at the palace. Aang went straight to Bumi's tent in the Outer Court of the Palace, where the Order of the White Lotus has pitched all its tents. Bumi is leaving for Omashu tomorrow, so Aang wants to spend as much time as possible with him.
I can understand that of course, but still …. I can't get rid of the niggling feeling that Aang is either avoiding me, or keeping his distance.
It's lonely in this huge gilded cage of a room, and I miss the closeness of our simple arrangement of mats around a campfire. I miss having Aang's eyes on me as I write …
I don't know what, or even if, something is wrong between us …
I thought that after the war things would be simpler.
Maybe now that the time is near when Team Avatar might part ways, is weighing Aang down, so keeping his distance may be an instinctive way of preparing himself. But I can't imagine us parting now – I want us all to stay together, but most of all, I can't see myself parting from Aang. If he can't see how devastating that would be for me, too …!
But maybe he's confused about something else.
I don't blame him. It's my fault, too, after all. The last time he ever mentioned what we felt for one another was in the small message he slipped into my journal, and in it, he was under the impression that I might still see him as a brother.
I just can't believe he still thinks that!
I want to disillusion him on that account, but now other doubts are creeping in: Avatar Aang is world-famous now – even more than he already was! If what I've seen these last few days is anything to go by, he can have any girl he chooses. He doesn't seem interested – on the contrary he seems rather overwhelmed at the frenzied attention. Yet, although my heart vehemently denies it, my brain keeps coldly pointing out that he may not remain uninterested in these girls for long, especially if he has doubts about my true feelings for him.
I find myself resenting all those girls vying for his attention, even though, given what he has just done, a hero's welcome was to be expected. I also find myself missing our free, unsophisticated lifestyle, and this beautiful, large room, though fit for a Queen, cannot compare to the nights when we all used to lie awake looking at the starry skies in blissful companionship…
396th and last day of our journey. This is the last entry in this Journal and I am writing in water.
I am writing in water for these words are for my eyes only.
Aang's journey is over, as he is now a fully-realized Avatar and recognized as such the world over. There is no further need to document that which will now be written down by historians and scribes with better skills than mine.
But this last entry is important, for it is about another journey – a private one that Aang and I unwittingly embarked upon almost a year ago, when we found each other in the frozen lands of the South Pole. Little did I know then, that the boy I found in the iceberg was to be so important to me – not because I had found the Avatar, but because I had found my own future.
These last pages, written in water, recount the fulfilling of that particular journey, and for me personally, it's more important than the adventures we have already made legendary…
This is our story, and it is just beginning….
Yesterday, the Peace Treaty was signed. It was a ceremony that took place in the morning in the Great Plaza of the Outer Court of the Royal Palace, and many Earth Kingdom dignitaries, the Order of the White Lotus, and Aang, as Avatar, witnessed the signing of the large scroll (a Kun Lei Han scroll, therefore indestructible) by Earth King Kuei and Fire lord Zuko. Unlike the relatively informal welcoming ceremony of the previous day, this was a full-blown ceremony with lots of speeches, and processions, and fanfare, and all due etiquette accorded to the dignitaries, both local and visiting.
It took all morning. Afterwards, the Order of the White Lotus left Ba Sing Se. Piandao, Jeong Jeong and, of course, Iroh, were staying until the end of the celebrations, but King Bumi and Pakku had to leave, together with the other men of the Order.
The dark blue tents had been packed and we gathered to say goodbye.
'I have a Kingdom to run,' King Bumi told Aang sadly 'And a fair amount of dusting and sprucing-up to do.'
'I'll come visit you, Bumi!'
'Maybe I'll come with you,' Toph grinned 'And catch up on some unfinished business with this old-timer! And I wanna see those mail-chutes you both keep talking about!'
'I'm gonna miss you!' I said, as I hugged Pakku.
'Well, I need to get to know my new stepson a bit better, don't you think?' Pakku said with a wry smile 'Anyway, I thought you'd be coming home once the war is over.'
There it was again.
I broke away from Pakku and my eyes sought Aang's, but he pointedly averted his gaze.
'I'd like to visit Kyoshi Island first,' Sokka told him with a grin 'But then, yeah – It's back to the South Pole. I guess I'd better supervise how you and Dad get along.'
'I can't wait,' Pakku answered acerbically. Then he turned to me: 'What about you, Katara? You're coming home, too, aren't you?'
'I – I don't know….' I blurted out.
'What d'you mean – you don't know?,' Sokka exclaimed 'You told Dad you'd love to go home!'
'I'd like to, sure …. but I… Well, I …' I sighed and stopped, not knowing what to say.
Aang was still keeping his eyes averted and his face impassive, as though not to interfere with any decision I had to take. But my decision had been made long ago – I wished he could see that.
Pakku followed my gaze to where Aang stood in silence near Bumi. 'Well', he said slowly 'I can see that none of you have really thought out what to do after the war, right?'
'Defeating Ozai seemed way too big a problem to worry about what happens afterwards,' Sokka agreed.
'Well – I still don't know what I wanna do,' Toph declared 'But I'll kind of miss you guys if you all go your separate ways.'
She said aloud what we'd all been thinking.
This time Aang did look up and I immediately saw the fierce pain there. I knew that he wouldn't try to stop us this time, for it was for us to decide, but I could see the sadness in his eyes as his surrogate family spoke about disbanding.
'I can adapt to anything,' I blurted out, incongruously.
'Most waterbenders can,' Pakku agreed, solemnly.
'Yeah …' Sokka concurred, wistfully.
'I kinda wanna put down roots,' Toph said 'But I'm not going home – I liked being 'the runaway' while it lasted.'
'Maybe you kids should wait and listen,' Bumi advised.
'Listen to what, Bumi?' Aang asked.
'Yourselves. Your hearts. That should show you what you're happiest doing, and where.'
And with that he smiled and waved farewell, then turned round and headed off, leading a small contingent of White Lotus men in the direction of the Outer Wall of Ba Sing Se. Pakku followed suit, and we stared at the blue-uniformed men as they disappeared through the Gates of the Royal Palace.
'Neutral Jin is so hard sometimes,' Aang muttered.
'Maybe your friend Bumi is right,' Toph remarked in a low voice 'these days have been too loud to listen to anything.'
'We should take a break', Sokka suggested 'I don't know about you, but I'm getting kinda tired of ceremonies and speeches …'
'There's the banquet soon,' Toph reminded him.
'Oh yeah – then it's worth it.'
The banquet was a splendid affair. It started at noon and lasted for several hours. To my surprise, when I returned to my room to get ready for the banquet, I found the servants had laid out several elegant Earth Kingdom robes for me to choose from, compliments of King Kuei. (I guess the servants, with their obsession with rigid etiquette and dress codes, must have mentioned something about my worn and battle-scorched robes to the head housekeeper.)
I chose the least elaborate (yet still elegant), green silk gown. It had been so long since I had anything on but a disguise, or battle clothes, that I had forgotten what it felt like to look good. The servant girl that brushed my hair wanted to plaster on make-up, but I refused. I didn't want to look unrecognizable. When I went out of my room to join the others, I found them all similarly well-dressed, which already hinted at the fact that the banquet would be an even more sumptuous affair than the one we had gate-crashed all those months ago! Aang was the only one in Air Nomad robes. Remembering the effect Toph and I had had on him when we dressed up as noble ladies once, I observed him closely as I came out in my new finery, and sure enough, his eyes lingered longest on me. My heart skipped a beat as I caught a yearning look in his eyes as they met mine, but it was promptly disguised and he looked away.
Next instant, a horde of servants were ushering us into the large Banquet Hall and we were ambushed by hundreds of well-wishers – most were from the Upper Ring, but many others were refreshingly new faces. Obviously, King Kuei was already making some changes. I recognized and spoke to Kun Lei Han and his eldest son, who had been invited; some of our old neighbors from the 96th district; Iroh, of course; and Mai and Zuko. If the banquet in Zuko's Palace was huge, this was an even bigger affair and everyone wanted to know all the details of the day of Sozin's Comet. I don't know how many times I repeated the story, to I don't know how many people!
And the worst thing was – well, actually it was a good thing, but at that time I didn't think so - that Aang was treated like royalty here even more than at the Fire Nation banquet, for in Ba Sing Se he had always been seen as a hero, unlike in the Fire Nation. He even eclipsed King Kuei himself! He sat on one side of King Kuei (and Bosco), and Zuko sat on the other, and although the ingrained formality and rigid etiquette of the Earth Kingdom noblemen and noble women ensured he was not assaulted like he had been by the more passionate Fire Nation people, still he was pretty overwhelmed.
People were more wary of Zuko, however, as he represented the enemy who, until a few days ago, had occupied their city (Indeed, they had seen him occupying the Royal Palace with Azula). But there were no such qualms with Aang, and when finally the banquet was over, everyone vied to have a word with him and, once again, it was the matronly Earth Kingdom noblewomen with their daughters in tow, who were the most persistent.
'If I were you, I'd quit scowling at them, and get a move on,' Mai whispered in my ear as she passed by.
'They don't mean anything to me!' I told her, glaring as one of young girls fluttered her fan coyly and then held it up to whisper something to Aang behind its embroidered silk.
Toph had taught me the secret language of fans when we were last here, and I recognized the flirtatious signals. Aang, who probably knew nothing about fans or their codes, had, however, recognized the overt signals anyway, for he reddened.
'Then I guess you don't wanna know what that floozy's whispering to make the Avatar turn so red!' Mai told me, with an amused grin.
'I could get rid of them for you, but Zuko wouldn't thank me for embroiling him in a diplomatic incident.'
'I don't need you to get rid of them,' I said, tightly 'they'll get bored soon.'
'I already told you – you guys aren't boring – and the Avatar least of all. The world's his oyster now - ' she said 'See?'
She nodded to where one of the sparkly-eyed girls was running her fingers over the tattoos on Aang's hands, flouting even the rigid etiquette rules.
'Zuko had found a girlfriend here in Ba Sing Se when he was living as a fugitive,' Mai continued, 'I've known and liked Zuko since we were little kids, but it was only then that I showed him what I felt. It worked. '
She left me standing there feeling irrationally uneasy. When I looked again at Aang he had escaped those floozies, but had, instead, been waylaid by two important-looking military commanders with even more important-looking moustaches. He looked far more at ease speaking with the bearded old men, and they listened to what he had to say with solemn respect, until something he said made them laugh gruffly. Aang never could resist seeing the lighter side of things….
I tried to think beyond what Mai had said …this was Aang we had been talking about. I knew Aang – he had moved past being flattered by hero worship. He was Avatar Aang now: he was very different, and yet … I stole a look at his animated face, his familiar gray eyes …. he was also the same.
It was early evening by the time the banquet was over, having lasted all afternoon. Finally, Ostrich-horses and carriages rolled up to take the guests home, and eventually, even the hustle and bustle of servants died down, and we returned to our rooms.
Only I couldn't sleep.
The light of a waxing moon lit up the gardens and woods of the royal estates – they were vast, and included ornamental lakes and streams and woods. I opened the large window of my room wide, letting the cool, night breeze blow in: it was heavy with dew and laden with the sweet perfume of flowers.
Maybe it was the burgeoning moon that made me restless, maybe it was the big question of what to do next, maybe it was the growing yearning inside of me … but I was overcome with an irresistible urge to see Aang ….to hear his voice once more without the noise of a thousand other people around us …
I wanted to look into his eyes and tell him I would never leave him. I wanted to feel his arms around me, and I wanted to show him what I felt …..
Ever since that disastrous last time Aang had tried to speak about his feelings for me at the Ember Island Theatre, he had never ever tried to broach the subject again, except in that small message shoved in my journal. He had strictly kept his distance and never approached me that way again, and I got a feeling he never would now. I had tried to explain, back at Ember Island, some of my reasons for being confused, and I think he had understood them, yet I knew it wasn't enough. Maybe he still thought I saw him as a brother, and, as he said in his written apology about kissing me, he would 'never be such an idiot again' ….
Unless I explained clearly what I felt for him, I knew he would not object even if I told him I'd be leaving to live forever at the South Pole ….
It was up to me now.
Somehow I would explain to him … I would show him.
As my determination solidified into certainty, I felt a trembling sensation deep inside of me, like a restrained thrill, that rose and spread to every corner of my body, tingling its way down to my fingertips … I felt I stood on the brink of something momentous, something that would change my life forever!
The night breeze fanned my hot cheeks – it was a cold wind, presaging the coming Autumn, and fervidly welcome after the long heat of summer. The bright, white light of the waxing moon shone on the palace gardens, and threw a silvery path across the small lake. Appa, who had been allowed to roam free, glowed like a large, white, boulder against the dark woods by the lake. All was calm and peaceful and deserted, and maybe that is what I needed …I needed that silence to listen to my heart, as Bumi suggested. That was why I was hearing my heart so clearly. In truth, I had been hearing it for many months, but now I knew where my path lay. And I knew that at that moment, it was beating intensely for the love for a young Airbender ….
The feeling was so strong, that for a second I thought I must have been dreaming when I saw that same Airbender crossing the palace grounds towards the lake. I blinked and leaned out of the window: Aang was alone and he was walking towards Appa. Soon he was half-hidden by the overhanging branches of the woods, and then I saw the Bison raise his head in greeting.
My heart was beating faster in my chest now … I felt reckless and excited and a little bit scared. I wanted to tell Aang what was in my heart, and I felt as though I could tell him anything…anything! Only, whenever we spoke about our feelings, the conversation had always ended disastrously.
I didn't want any silly misunderstandings …not this time.
So I got a crazy idea.
And acted upon it before I lost my nerve, or let silly doubts, or shyness, get in the way. I waterbended an ice chute from my window right down to the Palace grounds and took off in Aang's footsteps.
A few minutes later, I approached the ornamental lake. I didn't see him at first, for Appa's bulk hid him from view, but the bison rumbled softly in greeting as soon as he heard me. I scratched his furry cheek and walked around him slowly to the water's edge. There, sitting tensely on one of the elaborately-carved stone benches, was Aang.
'Katara!' Aang exclaimed 'Thank goodness it's you!'
The tense lines of his posture relaxed immediately.
'Where you expecting someone else?'
'After what some of those girls proposed, I don't know what to expect! I was under the impression that moral standards were pretty rigid here! I guess I was mistaken.'
'You're the Avatar. Moral standards can be loosened,' I said, tightly.
He looked up at me and I could see the hurt expression in the moonlight. I bit my lip. The conversation was going awry already. I took a deep breath.
'Sorry, Aang. I know you didn't ask for it, but the idea of those floo - girls – proposing anything, makes me feel …' I hesitated, for the jealousy dripped very transparently from my words '… not good,' I ended, lamely.
Aang didn't say anything, but I thought I saw the corners of his mouth twitch upwards. 'They'll forget about me as soon as the news becomes old. Like Kyoshi Island, remember?'
I laughed then, for I could see the smile in his eyes.
'I couldn't sleep,' I told him.
'Neither could I.'
He patted the stone bench near him and I sat down by his side. We stared in silence at the silvery lake. The only sound was the lake water lapping with liquid notes against the shore, the first cool breeze of the coming Autumn rustling the trees nearby, and rippling the calm surface of the lake. But my pulse was racing even more than before, because an invisible something thrummed between us, like it used to once, after we had shared our first kiss, so long ago in that dark cave, and many other times after that. It was almost palpable, electrifying the air between us and I knew he felt it too. And yet …. I stole a look at him: there was a slight tenseness in his posture, his breath coming quickly between half-open lips, but his eyes were firmly fixed on the silvery ripples on the lake, but beneath that tenseness, there was an a sad look in his eyes.
'It's been so crazy these last few days,' I started.
'Yeah – I usually love parties, but today … I wish I could've come as a busboy again.'
'I wish we were back to travelling on Appa again...'
'So do I: I'm a nomad. But things are gonna be different now.'
He sighed and his shoulders slumped a little as he looked over the moonlit lake. Yet he was right, and I couldn't deny it: there seemed to be no reason for travelling as 'Team Avatar' any more.
'I know …' I said slowly, 'I guess slowing down a little, like Bumi suggested, will help.'
'Not for me. It's different for you guys …you're free to choose what to do and where to go, but I can't ….especially now I'm no longer in hiding.'
'I'm gonna miss Team Avatar too, Aang.'
'I'll miss you.'
He turned and looked at me then, and my breath hitched at the raw pain I saw in his eyes. My hand instinctively sought his, and he grasped it tightly.
'Aang, I came down here to talk to you …' my hand trembled in his and he tightened his grip 'But then I got kinda scared… Talking sometimes hasn't gone too well for us.'
'Katara – I understand that you wanna go home, now. I do, really,' he said, completely missing what was on my mind 'I guess I'd feel the same way myself, if I had any real home to go to…'
'Maybe you do have a home to go to.'
'I don't understand.'
'Home is where your heart is.'
His eyes, silvery grey in the moonlight, looked questioningly at mine.
'Aang – do you see the lake?'
His eyes flickered to the moon-rippled surface.
'Uh - yeah. It's beautiful.'
'This is where I brought you up from the Crystal Catacombs in my arms…..'
'Oh. I - I didn't know.'
'Of course not. You were dead.'
I swallowed drily as my hand shook. Aang enclosed it in both his, his eyes mirroring his concern.
'Horrible though those days were, Aang, I realized something very important then…'
My heart was thudding in my chest, and I dropped my eyes to my lap.
'As I said, talking sometimes doesn't work, so I'd rather show you something instead – you've seen it before….'
I withdrew my hand from his, delved into the pocket of my dress, and drew out what I wanted to show him.
'I want you to have it. It's not what it seems, though maybe you guessed that already …'
I opened it randomly, and in the bright moonlight, the characters shone white and glowing on the page.
'I saw you write a farewell note before the Siege of the North in your mother's old scroll. It was night, and I saw words that shone.'
'It's called Spirit Ink and glows in the moonlight. Gran Gran first gave it to me.'
'It's from the Northern Water Tribe, isn't it? I saw the Scroll of Dead Warriors shine the same way during the funeral.'
'Well, I've been writing more than mere facts about our journey, Aang,' I murmured shyly.
'I sorta guessed that, but you said it was 'girly stuff' and I wouldn't be interested, remember?' he gave me a small smile.
'I think you may find some of it significant, if not interesting….' I blushed red enough to be seen even in the moonlight, but I was determined to go through with the crazy plan.
My heart was thundering wildly in my chest, as I stood up and held out the charred book:
'I would trust you with my life, Aang – you should know that by now,' I told him softly 'But now I'm trusting you with a bit of my soul …. It's time you know that, too.'
He took the book from my hands and stared at it with an astounded look. Then he looked up at me again, but I had already backed away, eager to hide behind Appa's bulk.
But I turned and ran, not looking back. I didn't want to have any second thoughts about it. I hadn't been exaggerating when I told him he held a bit of my soul in that book. It may have sounded over-dramatic, but if he read what I wrote, he would understand that I had poured not only my heart, but even my soul into some of those pages ….
It was a long time before I slept ….
I extinguished all the lights in my room, so that nothing but the silvery light of the moon came in through the window. I gazed out at the distant gardens and ornamental lakes by the woods. I couldn't see Aang because of Appa's bulk, but the bison hadn't moved, so I guess Aang remained there in the moonlight reading my innermost thoughts, and secret fears, and hopes, and …. everything.
If it were anyone else I'd feel extremely exposed revealing everything about myself, but Aang was different …. There were so many things I wanted to say to him, so many joys and sorrows, hopes and fears, so many regrets and misunderstandings , so many words….
And my journal had them all …
If anything could make Aang understand why I said I was confused, why I didn't want to talk about us, then my journal could. It would also make clear exactly what kind of love I felt for him, and that I knew I wanted to be by his side, for that is where I felt at home.
When I finally fell asleep it must have been towards the early hours of the morning, for I overslept and was woken up by someone banging loudly on my door.
'Wake up, Sweetness!' Toph's head appeared round the door 'King Kuei summoned us to the Throne room. Just us and Zuko. You better get up – your hairbrush brigade is here!'
She opened the door wider and several servants came in armed with scented water, brushes and breakfast.
I got out of bed feeling slightly disoriented, I had been having a dream … a dream about gray eyes alight with a new understanding … arms holding me strongly, yet we were light as air, flying over Ba Sing Se ….
I blushed as returning consciousness brought with it the memories of the previous night.
'You look very rested and refreshed this morning, My Lad – Master Katara,' the servant girl said, 'I guess the excitement of the banquet yesterday must have had its toll, and you slept longer. It's past mid-morning now!'
I was surprised to find that she was right. I felt rested despite having slept so late. Maybe the pleasant dreams had something to do with it…
'Even the Avatar came in from the gardens pretty late –' the servant girl continued 'he still likes to sleep near his Bison, doesn't he?'
I didn't answer her, but slipped into my old blue robes and sat down to looked at my reflection in the mirror as she brushed my hair, noticing the deepening blush as trepidation took hold of me. Had Aang read my journal? What did he think of what he read? What had seemed such a good idea last night seemed a bit less so now, in the bright light of day. What if he thought it too overwhelming? What if it was too much, too intense, somehow? What if he didn't feel the same way?!
With my heart in my mouth, I went to the Throne room. Everyone was already there. Aang had his back to me, and he was pointing at red dots on a huge map on the wall to one side of the throne.
'I never realized the Fire Nation had built so many colonies in the Earth Kingdom,' he was saying.
Then he turned round and caught my eyes – and smiled.
A warm, unequivocal smile meant just for me.
I smiled back tremblingly, feeling weak with relief. It was going to be alright. I felt sure of that now.
'Yes, for the earth people they're a constant reminder of the war, like an old scar,' King Kuei answered, then excused himself to Zuko, not having intended anything personal.
'After all the pain my father has caused,' Zuko told him 'It's my duty to bring healing to the world. I'll remove those colonies. I'll do whatever it takes.'
'But removing the colonies won't be easy – a lot of people's lives are gonna be disrupted. We need someone to oversee everything, to make sure it all goes peacefully …' Aang said, then he seemed to get an idea '… someone like me.'
'Really? You'd want to do that?' Zuko asked, relief plain in his voice.
'Yeah - I'm the Avatar. Making stuff go peacefully is my kind of thing,' he looked at me as he said so, and I knew immediately what he was asking!
'Wonderful!' Kig Kuei exclaimed 'The Avatar's personal involvement will give the entire process an air of hope!'
'Sokka and I can help!' I declared, returning Aang's meaningful look.
He smiled back in relief – our future was settled … we would not be parting.
Well, Sokka grumbled a bit because he had his heart set on Kyoshi Island, but I knew that he was wanted, but not needed, there. Toph said nothing, and I knew she hadn't decided yet what to do.
King Kuei was very pleased: 'It'll be a movement' he declared decisively 'A movement towards harmony …'
Sokka came up with the name: The Harmony Restoration Movement, and the name, as Sokka's usually do, caught on. Both Zuko and King Kuei liked it. So much so, that the latter wanted a celebration during which he would announce the Harmony Restoration Movement.
'We'll hold the celebration tonight, in the main plaza of the Royal Palace,' he said 'Everyone is invited – people from all three rings. There'll be fireworks, and music, and entertainment, and lots more.'
'When do we start?' I asked Zuko.
'Well – I need to inform all the Mayors in all the colonies and give time for people to wrap up their business. I think it will take a month or two for them to be ready, even if we start from the younger, less established colonies.'
'Then it's settled!' King Kuei called his Royal Housekeeper and Head of Festivities, and soon we were involved in a detailed conversation about the festival. Aang, however, firmly declared we wouldn't be taking direct part in the ceremony this time. I threw him a grateful look:
'I think this is something you yourself must tell your people, King Kuei,' Aang said.
'I hope you will join the festivities tonight, though. Bosco would love to have you –'
'We will, King Kuei, but not in an official role,' Zuko said 'I'd like to invite everyone to Uncle's tea-house tonight. He'd be very pleased to welcome you there for tea, and maybe afterwards we can watch the fireworks.'
'That's sweet of you Zuko – I thought you'd never ask!' Toph grinned.
'You suggested it,' Zuko told her 'You said something about taking a step back ….But I was gonna invite you anyway: I know how you feel.'
Zuko just smiled at her and then his eyes moved to me. Maybe I imagined it, but I saw his smile widen just a little bit as I moved closer to Aang.
'I've taken the liberty of inviting someone else to the festivities …' Zuko continued, his turning to Sokka, this time grinning broadly 'I thought, as leader of the Kyoshi Warriors, Suki should be here –'
'Suki's gonna be here?!' Sokka exclaimed, with a whoop of delight.
'I'd be happy to meet the real Kyoshi Warriors' King Kuei said, with a smile 'I don't want to ever make the same mistake again.'
'You'll be meeting her in the next hour or so. She has the best Eel-hound I could find!' Zuko told them.
Sokka cheered delightedly and when a Guard came in with news of her arrival at the Outer Wall, and he wouldn't be quiet until we followed him out to the Plaza to wait for her. With an Eel-hound it didn't take long, and soon we saw the long, sinuous shape approaching from the south gate, followed by a small escort of guards on Ostrich-horses that could barely keep up with the Eel-hound's leisurely pace.
Suki jumped off the Eel-hound into Sokka's waiting arms and he kissed her unabashedly in front of us, before leading her to the Inner Court to meet King Kuei.
'Everything's fine back home –' she told us 'the Kyoshi Warriors are back where they really belong, and I even had time to start learning Chi-blocking. Ty Lee's been great!'
'I didn't think she'd feel so at home with the Kyoshi Warriors,' Zuko mused 'But Mai said Ty Lee needs to belong …. Whatever that means.'
King Kuei greeted Suki with great respect, (considering the last time he'd seen someone in Kyoshi warrior face-paint, he had lost his Kingdom). Afterwards, we had a quick lunch with King Kuei and Bosco. Now Bosco, although almost human in all his ways, is a rather messy and over-eager eater, and by the end of the meal, we were liberally spattered with food - except for Aang, who used airbending to ward off the bear's exuberant spattering.
King Kuei kept Zuko and Aang after lunch to discuss the timetable and schedule for the movement of the colonies, but the rest of us hurried to our rooms to wash off the results of Bosco's meal, and get ready to visit the Jasmine Dragon before the festivities began. As I changed into the fine green silk robes I had worn to the banquet, I kept wondering what Aang thought when he was reading my journal …
I hadn't had a moment alone with him …
I was glad that he insisted with Kuei not to attend any more ceremonies. At least in Iroh's teashop it would be just us: the old, familiar faces of friends.
Suki had taken off her Kyoshi Warrior's uniform and, like the rest of us, was dressed in elegant Earth Kingdom robes. It was mid-afternoon, so we hurried out to the gardens where Zuko and Aang stood waiting for us.
'It took you forever!' Zuko grumbled 'I'm dying to get this gunk off me.'
I giggled, having forgotten Zuko was still covered in odds and ends from Bosco's meal.
'Why are you complaining? Appa licked you clean!' Aang grinned.
'That's why we're here, instead of near your bison' Zuko scowled at him 'he wouldn't stop!'
'Don't worry, Zuko,' Toph grinned, play-punching him 'Mai will still like you anyway – even if you smell of gravy and Bison-slobber!'
Zuko's glare was lost on Toph, but we laughed appreciatively, for it felt like old times again. It was a wonderful afternoon …there was a certain crispness in the air, for it was already a week into the ninth month, and the gardens were full of the smell of late-blooming flowers and berries. I felt the warmth and contentedness of being with friends as we walked to the distant ornamental lake where Appa was waiting … but also a deep happiness such as I had never known before: we would be working together again, just like old times, and I was already looking forward to help Aang work with the colonies. My fears of separation were unfounded, and I could look forward to being by Aang's side. That was the most important thing, but there was something else besides the relief and happiness…
It was that exciting feeling again … that shivering, tremulous anticipation that had made me seek Aang out last night …
I glanced over at him for he had fallen back to walk by my side. He caught my eyes and smiled.
'You look good,' he told me, reddening slightly 'I wanted to tell you yesterday, but …'
'Thank you, Twinkletoes,' Toph said, falling in step between us 'I know you meant that for Katara, but I'll pretend you included me.'
'Of course, I did. I - I mean – ' Aang stammered.
'I can tell you're lying,' Toph sniggered 'I hope I won't have to stay dressed up like a fashion plate for long! At least I refused that face-paint. Last time we tried out make-up it didn't turn out great. Right, Katara?'
'It didn't – but we taught those girls a lesson, didn't we?'
'Yeah, we did,' Toph grinned
'I don't want make-up either. Here's something better –' I picked a sweet-smelling pink flower from a nearby bush and put it in my hair 'A couple of Earth Nomads we knew once, Chong and Lily, said a flower is all a girl needs to wear …'
I stopped, remembering how they had meant that quite literally, and a rather disturbing mental image of Lily wearing nothing but a flower in her hair flashed across my mind. I stole a look at Aang…. he was looking straight ahead, but there was a dancing light of laughter in his eyes that told me he remembered how Chong had described his and Lily's love-making then…
Suddenly, with a rumble of delight, Appa was upon us. I fended him off, not wanting to ruin King Kuei's gift of new robes, so the Bison turned his attention to a disgruntled Zuko, while Sokka helped Suki up to the saddle, and Toph earthbended herself up. I was wondering how on earth to reach the saddle, for the elegant but elaborate Earth Kingdom robes were not designed to allow a girl to clamber up anything, let alone a huge bison, when suddenly, I felt someone's arms around me and I was lifted into the air.
'Hold on!' Aang said.
My breath caught in my throat as I found myself in Aang's arms, and a second later I was deposited in the saddle in a whirl of wind, and left there, still trying to catch my breath, as he went over to take Appa's reins.
I think I could have managed to scramble up Appa by myself somehow, but as Aang looked back at me with a shy smile, I felt his way was infinitely better! I wished it had lasted longer …. I caught Suki looking at me with a knowing grin, and tried to compose my face. But it was difficult, for I couldn't stop smiling nor stop my eyes from being irresistibly drawn back to Aang.
'Let's get this thing off the ground!' Zuko called out to Aang 'Uncle Iroh's waiting. And Mai.'
Appa lurched upwards, taking Toph by surprise. She half-fell across me and clutched the saddle rim hastily.
'Flying is one thing I'm NOT gonna miss!' she exclaimed.
'What d'you mean?' Sokka asked 'Aren't you coming with us to help with the colonies?'
'Well, I thought I'd speak to Iroh first – he kinda gives good advice. I still don't know what I want to do, but I'm pretty sure about what I DON'T want to do….'
We all turned to look at her.
'What's that Toph?' Aang asked somberly from Appa's head.
'Well, there are still a couple of months till the Harmony Restoration Movement starts, so I take it you're gonna visit the South Pole, right?' she asked.
Sokka and I exchanged a look.
'We hadn't spoken again about it ….' Sokka started 'But yeah, I guess so. Dad invited both you and Aang.'
'Well, then … thanks, but no thanks. I'm sure Aang would love to go …' ( I could swear she winked at Aang when she said that!) 'But no offence – in a land made of ice, snow and water, it'll be a punishment for me. I'll probably get lost in the first snowdrift …'
'So where will you go?' I asked, concerned.
'I'll wait till you come back. I'll go poking around the old Fire Nation Colonies in the West Coast of the Earth Kingdom. I'm not gonna carry anyone's luggage when we move out the Fire Nation colonialists, but if there're any problems, I'll help you fight …er … I mean, keep the peace.'
'We're gonna miss you, Toph,' I started, but she cut across me, uncomfortable as usual at any display of emotion:
'Aww, come on - it's only a couple of months till the Harmony Restoration Movement starts, then we'll have some fun again, policing the streets like we did in Caldera City!'
'I'm really glad to be here, in Ba Sing Se,' Zuko mused 'I'm off to the North Pole after this, to sign a Peace Treaty with Chief Arnook. And there's a mountain of work to do when I go back home! Not that I mind of course, but this is like a small holiday.'
'Yeah – we all need a break,' Suki agreed 'Unfortunately, I need to go back to Kyoshi Island too, in a few days.' She looked at Sokka, whose face fell.
'You do?' he asked, disappointed.
'There's a lot to do …usually we take in new girls as pupils before winter, and we all have to perfect Ty Lee's Chi-blocking techniques before then.'
'There's Uncle's Tea Shop!' Zuko cried, pointing over the saddle 'The Jasmine Dragon is open only for us. At least until this evening's celebrations. Uncle Iroh said we need some time to get away from it all.'
'And to be together for some more time,' Aang added, looking back at us with a sad smile.
He didn't say it, but I know we were all thinking : … before we go our separate ways.
Next instant, Appa landed in the wide front porch of the Jasmine Dragon and a slender figure came out to greet us – well, actually, to greet Zuko. She was followed more staidly by Iroh, who was smiling broadly.
Mai wrinkled her nose at Zuko's smelly clothes.
'Bosco' he explained. 'And Appa.'
Mai laughed. 'I've had the pleasure of cleaning up after that bear. Why don't you go to your room and clean up? Your Uncle will make tea – '
'No, I will. It will be my pleasure.'
'I'll play the Tsungi horn then – it is very relaxing,' Iroh offered, as he led us in to the empty tearoom.
Soon after, Zuko joined us, bearing a tray with cups of sweet, fragrant tea.
At first, we were a bit quieter than the situation warranted, for this was, we realized, the point at which where our adventure together stopped. After today, Zuko, Suki and Toph would be leaving our small group –it had almost felt like a small family, actually. But the sweet notes of the Tsungi soon worked their magic in lifting our mood, and we relaxed, enjoying the here and now, rather than worrying about the future.
'Chong used to say it's the journey that counts, not the destination,' Aang mused, as he sat on the floor near Momo 'I guess this is the beginning of a new one.'
'It'll be just the three of us again – like we had first started out a year ago,' I said softly, 'But only for a little while,' I added reassuringly looking at Toph who was relaxing nearby, her feet on the table.
She tilted her head slightly in my direction.
'Only for a little bit,' she agreed 'I really believe in that 'friendship transcends lifetimes' deal, you know.'
This was a lot, coming from her. It's rare for Toph to show her softer side. Aang and I exchanged a smile, but we knew not to say anything, or Toph would get all prickly again. She was feeling the imminent parting, and this was her way of assuring us (and letting us assure her) that it would only be temporary.
The soft chink of Pai Sho tiles in front of me drew my attention again. Sokka was on a table writing something and Mai and Suki were playing a game of Pai Sho. I was watching them, finding it amusing how each girl employed a different but very effective strategy: Mai was impassive and calculating, setting up complicated patterns that often trapped Suki in a corner. Suki, on the other hand was bold and direct in her choice of moves; I was interested to see would win. Then Zuko came up to us with a tray of steaming tea.
'Zuko, stop moving!' Sokka exclaimed suddenly 'I'm trying to capture the moment….! I wanted to do a painting, so we always remember the good times together,' he added, his expression softening.
Sokka doesn't say much, but I found it touching that he wanted to hang on to that ephemeral, mysterious, something that had held us all together for the past year – he called it 'good times', but we all know it goes much deeper than that.
I went over to his table. 'That's very thoughtful of you, Sokka. …' I started.
Then I had a good look at his painting.
Well … let's say my brother's artistic talents leave much to be desired. My hair loopies looked like Momo's ears! Mai, Zuko, and Suki came over and were similarly surprised (to put it mildly) at Sokka's 'artistic license'. Momo flew over onto the table, chittering questioningly
'Oh - you think you can do a better job, Momo?' Sokka scowled at the lemur.
The notes of the Tsungi horn died down and I looked across at Aang and Iroh. Iroh had placed the Tsungi horn on the table, looking curiously at us, but something struck me about Aang's expression: it was full of emotion as he looked at us. I think, like Sokka, he was trying to 'capture the moment' and imprint the scene in his memory… something to look back upon fondly when we disbanded.
His eyes held mine then and his expression softened into something more tender. Then, with a small smile, he got up and headed out to the porch.
'Hey, my belly's not that big anymore. I've really trimmed down!' Iroh had come over to look at Sokka's painting, too.
'Well, I think you all look perfect!' Toph exclaimed, coming over.
Everyone laughed, but my attention was on Aang. He had gone out of the door, patting Appa on his head … there had been something special in the fleeting look he had given me, before he went out – something meant only for me …
My heart started beating faster as I remembered that now he knew me better than ever before. He knew me as well as I knew myself, for he had read my Journal. But what did he think of me now? The Tsungi horn's sweet, calm, melody surrounded me once more as everyone returned to what they were doing in a more light-hearted mood than before, but I was anything but calm … I was excited, yet full of trepidation, and bursting with the need to know if Aang still thought of me the way he did before ….
My heart thudding against my chest like never before, I followed him out to the front balcony of the Teashop. He was standing beyond the water pond, at the edge of the Balcony. He was very still, looking pensively westwards at the brilliant reds, purples, and gold of a spectacular sunset.
I thought he hadn't heard me as I walked up to the balustrade, but he turned to look at me as I came up to stand by his side. The fiery sunset lent a warm glow to his eyes and I could see that same tender look again …
Aang had read my innermost thoughts and feelings …. The words in my Journal, written in water, held my most secret desires, as well as my fears. My joys, my pains, and my sorrows. They exposed my most vulnerable moments. They were a window to my soul and they revealed feelings such as I had never ever confided to anyone before …
Remembering what I had written in those fire-scarred pages of my book, I suddenly felt as though I stood naked before Aang, yet I couldn't tear my eyes away from his…
Blushing to the roots of my hair, I shyly questioned him with my eyes.
The answering warmth in his was very reassuring, so I put my hand tentatively on his shoulder, like I had done a hundred times before …. A small gesture that both gave and craved comfort, only this time …this time it felt different. This time, even when I opened my arms eagerly and we embraced, I could feel his heart beat next to mine like never before, and his arms tightened around me in silent understanding. When we broke apart, there was still that soft light in his eyes, and something more … something that I had seen before, always very fleetingly. But it wasn't fleeting now: it grew into a blazing warmth, boldly and unequivocally transparent in the love it revealed. I could feel the answering heat in my veins, my pulse raced and my breath hitched at the intensity of emotion in his expression. Maybe he noticed, for he broke his gaze and looked away at the fiery sunset.
Maybe he still thought that he should hold back…
But my heart was thudding wildly in my chest as I followed his gaze to the blazing colors of the horizon. I didn't want to hold back …I didn't want to stand apart from him, I wanted his arms around me once more; I wanted his physical closeness, I wanted more …!
'Aang, I …' I took a step towards him, unsure of what to ask.
He turned to me once more with a smile, and the fiery warmth in his eyes wasn't only due to the sunset's reflection. I realized that I didn't need to say anything ….
I just threw caution to the wind, leaned forward and kissed him, my trembling hands coming up to touch his face gently. Then my heart fluttered wildly as I felt his arms pull me closer to him, and he deepened the kiss. I completely forgot everything and everyone then …I could only feel his lips on mine as we kissed, and the deep love I felt welled over in a tremulous surge as I sought to show him what words could not.
Aang and I had kissed before, but this was different … it was not a fleeting kiss in the dark, or in the turmoil before a great battle ….this kiss was what we had both so secretly longed for, and it came with the knowledge that there was a future before us, and the past behind us, and it was all the sweeter for that. It felt like I had come home as I stood there in Aang's arms on the balcony of the Jasmine Dragon.
There, Aang and I figured out what we meant to each other …
Or we were about to anyway before my stupid brother interrupted:
'Hey, Guys …Aah!' I heard a shout behind us, and we broke apart.
Sokka had come out of the teashop and had a shocked look on his face. Still dizzy from being caught up in the emotion of the moment, it took me a few seconds to realize Sokka didn't know anything about us. Aang, however, was quicker:
'Nothing! We're not doing anything out here!' he said, red-faced and panicking.
I wasn't panicking. All I could think of was that I did NOT want Sokka there, and my initial dizzy feeling fast gave way to irritation. I turned on my brother furiously:
'Haven't you heard of knocking, Sokka?' I asked him stupidly, but my temper was rising, as well as my unreasonableness – I so desperately wanted some time alone with Aang…Ever since the final battle, we rarely had the occasion...
'First of all, you're supposed to knock before you go inside, not before you go outside! And second, as my sister, you really shouldn't be kissing anyone in front of me! It's your sisterly duty to avoid giving me the oogies!'
That did it.
'Oogies?! Aaaargh! You are so immature sometimes! What about you and Suki?
'By little more than a year! And anyway, that doesn't mean anything!'
Aang interrupted, drawing Sokka's attention, before things got out of hand:
'What d'you come out here to tell us?'
'Oh, right!' Sokka's outburst had fizzled out before mine. 'We're about to head out,' he explained calmly.
'But the Earth King's celebration doesn't start for a couple more hours!' Aang protested.
'I know - we wanted to take Appa out for a ride first,' my brother beamed happily 'Iroh will open the Tea Shop once the celebrations start, and Mai has offered to help, so I persuaded Zuko and the others to come for one last ride together– just like old times!'
My irritation with my brother faded away too as I heard the nostalgic note in his voice, for he was feeling our imminent break-up.
'There's one thing that won't be exactly like old times, Sokka …' I said, and held out my hand to Aang, who took it.
'Like I didn't see that coming …' my brother snorted, with a sour look in our direction.
'You did?' Aang asked, as he and I exchanged a look.
Sokka spent half his life teasing me about imaginary boyfriends, and the other half ignoring what was right under his very nose.
'Well… Suki kinda pointed me in the right direction. She seemed to suspect something…' Sokka grinned suddenly 'Well … at least this isn't as bad as those Ember Island Players invented about you two, right? I suppose it could've been worse….' and with that, he turned towards Appa.
Aang looked at me, his eyes dancing with humor 'I take it we just got his blessing ….' he whispered.
I grinned. 'Not that we need it, but yeah …'
'Well, well, well ….!' Toph stood at the door of the tea shop as the others crowded out around her.
She had a big grin on her face and I realized I was still holding Aang's hand. I gave a guilty start and without thinking, started to pull away, as everyone's eyes fixed on us in surprise. But though Aang may have felt uneasy about my brother, he had no such qualms about the rest. Throwing me an encouraging smile, he grabbed my hand more firmly with both his and said simply:
'That's right. Katara and I are together now.'
He had hardly stopped speaking before Toph punched us enthusiastically on the arm (''bout time, too!') and Suki enfolded us both in a brief hug, before going to Appa. Iroh grinned broadly at Aang, and Mai nodded at me with a small smile.
Zuko flashed us one of his rare smiles as he climbed into Appa's saddle. 'I'm happy for you,' he told us 'Really happy.'
This time, Aang put a proprietary arm round my waist and airbended me into the saddle – we were together now. He had said so, and nothing sounded sweeter to my ears.
He took his place on Appa's head and I sat down at the rim of the saddle closest to him: feeling with joy the old connection between us, stronger than before. From the quick look we exchanged I knew what he was telling me: there will be time enough later to talk … there was a whole future of time together now….
Aang pulled Appa skyward just as the last tip of the setting sun disappeared behind the distant walls of Ba Sing Se, leaving an exuberant array of rosy- pink and purple clouds behind.
It was a wonderful evening – Aang swung Appa low over the Royal Palace as many gathered there from all rings of Ba Sing Se in preparation from the Earth King's declaration. As usual, many fingers pointed skywards and the streets and plazas below us were a sea of upturned faces.
'We're not gonna take part in the celebration, but I just wanna let them see we're both backing this Movement together, Zuko' Aang said, looking back at where Zuko clung to the rim of the saddle.
'Good idea,' Zuko replied 'The movement will need all the support it can get!'
'D'you foresee a lot of resistance, Zuko?' Suki asked.
'From some, yes. Uncle Iroh told me I can't have every single Fire Nation citizen on my side, so I'm expecting some to query my decision. But its final – I'm gonna make this happen!'
Zuko looked determinedly at the signs of war beneath us; upturned tanks and huge swathes of scorched ground in the streets below, and I saw his face set in quiet resolve. It reminded me how different he had become from the angry Prince who had once hunted us.
'I'm sure you'll do it,' I told him confidently 'we changed a lot this past year I think …all of us. But maybe yours has been the most drastic of all, Zuko – and I mean it in the nicest possible way!' I smiled, thinking how he had finally found the right path, even though he'd taken some agonizingly bad choices along the way.
Zuko smiled at first, but then his smile faded and his expression became closed. Just then Sokka suggested Aang take Appa through his paces with some fancy flying. Aang didn't need to be told twice, and soon we were speeding upwards in a vertical climb, everyone yelling in delight, followed by a sheer, exuberant plunge from the great starlit sky towards the city and its thousands of twinkling lantern-lights below. Aang was in high spirits – we all were, and I think Appa felt it too, for his flying became friskier as night fell, and the first of the fireworks went up, lighting the night sky with a myriad rainbow colors …
'Sounds like the Earth King just announced the Harmony Restoration Movement!' Sokka yelled above the noise.
Toph, the only one who doesn't like flying, was a bit upset at the loud bangs. But I was in a euphoric mood, for my world had turned into this amazing place, now that Aang and I were together:
'Oh, Toph, don't be such a grump!' I told her 'You're out with friends on a beautiful night, celebrating the fact that we saved the world!'
To me it seemed as though the celebration was for something far more important, on a personal level. But there was someone else who was unusually subdued: Zuko had been quiet ever since my remark earlier about the greatest change, and Aang had noticed:
'You too, your new majesty Fire Lord Zuko, sir! Turn that frown upside down! It's happy time!'
But Zuko was looking out of the saddle with a serious and far-off expression on his face.
'Zuko?' Aang asked, puzzled.
Finally, Zuko looked at him. 'I visited my father in prison the other day …' he started slowly, and something in his tone made me uneasy 'I've been meaning to ask you for a favor, Aang.'
'Sure, anything,' Aang answered, immediately.
'If you ever see me turning into my father, I want you to… I want you to end me!'
'Even now after everything that's happened, my family's legacy is still a part of me,' Zuko bent his head down with a troubled look 'That's why it's my duty to heal the scars that the Fire Nation has left on the world, but the Fire Lord's throne comes with a lot of pressures, and if I'm honest with myself …' he looked up at Aang again 'I need a safety net. The world needs a safety net. That's what I need you to be Aang, the safety net.'
'Zuko, you're not your Dad! And you're my friend ! How can you expect me …?!'
'As your friend, I'm asking you …' As Zuko looked at Aang I noticed what I hadn't before: there was a note of desperation in his voice, as well as a tiny hint of self-loathing that I had never heard before. But no-one could mistake the sincere pleading in his voice. Zuko was scared, and if he wanted his own death, then not even Aang should object.
'If you ever see me go bad, end me,' he was saying 'Promise me, Aang!'
Aang turned his head to look at me. I remembered that Aang had told Zuko that this was one of the few circumstances when Airbenders had taken lives before. I hesitated, but Zuko's sincere pleading convinced me. I nodded silently.
'Fine…. I promise,' Aang said, unhappily, bowing his head.
'Thank you.' Zuko looked so relieved, that I knew instantly, that this had been preying on his mind for a long time. From his words, ever since he visited his father in prison …
We didn't speak much after that. The others had listened to the exchange in astounded silence. Soon after, Zuko said he'd better go and help his Uncle brew tea, for we could see a small crowd had formed in front of the Jasmine Dragon, for news of its re-opening had spread. We dropped Zuko off in the small garden behind the teashop, where he could sneak in without being recognized by the crowd, and then we were on our way back to the Royal Palace.
'How can Zuko be so insecure about himself?' Suki asked, breaking the silence 'I know he's changed his mind a few times before, from what you told me, but he seemed so determined to do good now...'
'I think it has something to do with what he said about visiting his father,' I offered 'I'm the only one never to have seen Ozai, but you said Zuko resembles him a little, Suki.'
'The scar hides a lot of Zuko's face…. But yes, I would say he does.'
'Well, then,' I continued 'Maybe seeing his father like that was like seeing himself … how he might have ended up. Maybe that triggered his insecurities …. But that doesn't mean he's gonna change again, Aang.'
I looked over at Aang who had hardly spoken a word but sat in troubled silence at Appa's head.
'Do you really think so?' he asked, looking round.
'I know so. Right, guys?' I turned to the others.
They rallied to reassure him, as I knew they would.
'You needn't have promised him anything, Twinkletoes! I'll pummel some sense into him before he even thinks about changing again!' Toph declared.
'Yeah – this is Zuko we're talking about!' Sokka said, waving his hand dismissively 'he's not gonna change: maybe he just prefers death to ending up without bending like his father!'
'Sokka – you're not helping!' I leaned back over the saddle 'Look, Aang – you know Zuko even more than we do. You know he won't turn into his father. He realized the man doesn't love him and never did. I know he won't betray us again. Not after what we've been through together!'
'You're right, Katara,' Aang heaved a deep sigh 'I guess he just needs to feel secure – the safety net he mentioned.'
'He's on his own in the Fire Nation,' Suki mused 'even his Uncle is in Ba Sig Se now. The pressure is on – I guess he felt he could turn to you as a friend, Aang'
'Don't worry about that promise, Aang, I'm sure you'll never have to even mention it again, let alone carry it out!'
Aang looked reassured and we turned our attention to the fireworks again and by the end of the evening, we had all forgotten Zuko's weird request. The celebrations lasted till midnight but before they ended, we flew once more over the Jasmine Dragon. The crowds had subsided, but there was singing and laughter and the melodic notes of a Tsungi Horn coming from the brightly-lit interior. Near the water pond on the balcony, a familiar young couple embraced in the moonlight. They recognized us as we flew overhead and waved cheerfully at us. We waved back enthusiastically to Zuko and Mai before heading slowly back to the Royal Palace.
We took our time about it, lingering on till even the street lamps grew dim, because we all felt reluctant to end the night. It was in the early hours of the morning when we arrived . The rest headed to their rooms, for the Palace grounds were deserted except for a few sleepy-looking servants cleaning up.
Aang and I led a tired Appa back to the small woods by the ornamental lakes of the Royal gardens, shyly holding hands and getting used to the something different between us … it was new, but natural; familiar, yet exciting; a closeness that had been there for what seemed like forever, but never quite in this way…
'I need to give you something back,' Aang said as we sat down on the elaborately-carved bench in front of the small lake. He put his hand in his pocket and drew out my journal.
I took it from him shyly, wondering what he made of it.
'I had no idea, when I found that book, what would've ended up in it …' Aang started.
I looked up quickly, but his eyes were gleaming softly in the moonlight, silvery gray and strangely alight. He did not seem displeased.
'I used to watch you write, you know …I used to try and guess what you were thinking from the expression on your face. Sometimes you used to smile a secret, mysterious smile …other times you looked sad … or lost in the world of your book. I had no idea just how deep your feelings were …I had no idea how bad things were for you when you brought me up from these lakes …' he nodded at the calm surface of the water 'and I had no idea I hurt you so much those times I disappeared, but I've seen and read the smudged pages, Katara … .'
'They're all over now, Aang. I don't want you even thinking about those times.'
'But that's when you realized you loved me.'
I looked up at him, but felt too choked up to answer, so I just nodded.
His hands cupped my face gently and then he leaned forward, kissing me softly 'Strangely enough,' he whispered to me 'A little before that time I realized something too. You guessed right about Guru Pathik: he wanted me to let go of worldly attachments so I could open the 7th Chakra, but I couldn't, Katara – I couldn't let you go…'
His hands trembled around my face, but his eyes were velvety dark and his voice steady: 'I realized then, that I loved you …. and always will.'
I brought my hand up to clasp his, and turned my face into his hand as it cupped my face, kissing it softly as I blinked back happy tears. I had never heard the words from his lips before, and only then did I realize how much I wanted to ….
'I liked you since the first time I set eyes on you', he continued, as his arms circled around me and I sank gratefully into them, resting my head on his shoulder 'At first I thought you were some beautiful snow-spirit …I guess I was still a bit dazed.'
'That explains why you asked me to go penguin-sledding with you.'
'Yeah – I've been an idiot more times than you can count … '
'I liked penguin-sledding with you.'
He chuckled, and I snuggled closer, enjoying the deep sound of his heartbeat and his voice from that position …it made me feel safe and complete, somehow.
'You know what I mean … those Ember Island Players really messed with my head that day, and I started doubting everything there had been between us, because I just didn't know anymore–'
'I'm sorry, Aang,' I whispered contritely 'I'm sorry for being such a coward and running away from everything. I thought I was doing it for the best …'
'I understand now.'
'Yeah, well – I guess I explain myself better when writing in water …'
'You're doing a great job now. We both are. This feels so good, Katara.'
'I promise I won't anymore.'
'Write in water. I don't need to.'
He shifted slightly to look at me.
'From now on, I promise I'll be open with you, Aang – I'll tell you whatever's on my mind, and there'll be no silly misunderstandings and confusion anymore. This way's so much better!'
His arm tightened around me and he hugged me closer.
'You know …I wish I could give you something as important as the Journal you gave me.' he murmured 'It seems a bit unfair. Though, truthfully, I don't think I can add much more to what you already know about me!'
'You have already given me something, Aang,' I said shyly 'And I swear I'll take care of it as you did mine, when I gave you it to you in that Journal ….'
His heart. I had the Avatar's heart and he had mine.
As we kissed in the moonlight, I remember thinking that love like ours, that had been born in war, that had been proven by suffering and sorrow, that had survived even death, would grow even stronger in these times of peace and prosperity. Tomorrow, our journey would begin afresh and now that I had the Avatar's love, now that war is over, my need for writing is gone … the words I used to write in water can now be whispered directly to him in confidence, and I know he will understand …. And he can try to match what I have written by telling me about his feelings for this past year …We have enough time for explanations now, though I doubt we really need them.
We fly to the South Pole now.
I could write that we are flying home …. But home is no longer the Southern Water Tribe, or the Northern Water Tribe, or Ba Sing Se, or any of the many, many, wonderful places our journey has led us to …. Home is here, right by the side of this remarkable young Airbender holding Appa's reins.
The Avatar. Aang.
It is by his side that I feel at home.
Sokka is next to me, rolling his eyes every time I look at Aang 'with Oogie-eyes' as he puts it. But Sokka is a bit sour-tempered because we have dropped Suki off at Kyoshi Island, and he misses her already.
The prospect of seeing Dad again will cheer him up no end though – he and Sokka will go hunting and fishing together just like they used to once. As for me, I'd love to see Dad and Gran Gran and Pakku! And the new shape of our re-vitalized village … There are so many things to catch up on and talk about: not least of which: the fact that Aang is my true love now …. Maybe the word 'boyfriend' would be more user-friendly in their ears, but Aang and I know what we feel for one another, and there's no way anybody can change that!
There's an eager crispness in the air, the cold bite of the icy world around us: the beautiful, majestic, deep blues and whites of my land …it fills me with nostalgia, a keen feeling of pride, and the restfulness of a scene both familiar and ever-changing. I'm glad we're staying a whole month here … I had forgotten how deep my connection is with these icy lands where I grew up.
We'll be leaving the South Pole then, for Aang has to pay his respects to everyone who helped in the war effort – Tyro and Haru, Huu and the swampbenders; Teo and his Dad … it'll take some time, but after the past year's travels, this will seem like a holiday….
These two months are gonna be like a holiday ….
After that, we'll have to check out with Zuko if the Harmony Restoration Movement is ready to start, and if so, we'll be starting our real work …maybe Toph will be there to help.
'Hey – look down there, Katara!' Aang pointed to a large sphere of ice, broken at the top.
I recognized it immediately – though the effects of almost 4 seasons had altered its shape somewhat, yet it was unmistakable:
'That's the Iceberg where we found you! It's still there!' I cried.
'That's where it all started,' Sokka commented, looking over the saddle 'We have come full circle now.'
'It's been an amazing journey,' Aang said softly, with a glance in my direction.
'Yeah – it has!' Sokka agreed, leaning over the saddle as we flew over the iceberg.
'And the new one that's just beginning is gonna be even better!' I declared, bending down over the saddle to share fleeting kiss with Aang.
These are the last words I will be writing in this journal – there are no more pages left, but even if there had been, I will not need to write in water any more. Aang is there to hear my words now, and this Journal has served its purpose.
Actually, it has yet one more mission: on our way back to the Earth Kingdom to oversee the start of the Harmony Restoration Movement, I have made arrangements with Kun Lei Han to have a transcript of the visible part of this Journal, as well as my mother's old Scroll, the one I had given to Gran Gran for safekeeping. He will print our story, and our story will be told truthfully for the whole world to know.
I will be keeping my mother's original scroll, however, as well as my little-fire scarred book, for the words written in water are not the world's legacy, but my own. Maybe, if that old Fortuneteller's words actually do come true, I will let the great-grandchildren she mentioned have a glimpse into this Waterbender's story, and that of the Avatar's love …
Sokka has seen something …
There's a wall in the distance. An impressive double wall of ice, hundreds of feet high and reminiscent of the ice city of the North Pole. It must be the newly-strengthened walls of Southern Water Tribe!
Sokka is yelling his head off in joy, even though we're too far away to be heard, and Aang is beckoning me to stand by his side to see better ….
Here, where it all started, a new journey is beginning….
A/n I'd like to say thank you to all of you guys for reading and/or reviewing. Your words have been really encouraging! Writing this fic has been an incredible two-and-a-half year journey in itself (!), and although I'm glad it's over (for I need to concentrate on some real life stuff now), I've really enjoyed writing it. For those who liked the fic, with 97 chapters and +670,000 words, there's a lot material to re-read!
I don't foresee any more writing for a long time now, but I'll be following whatever the creators, Bryan and Mike, have yet to disclose about the world of Avatar – I'm grateful to them for creating such an awesome source of inspiration!