"Are you going to tell me what happened out there?"
Lin gripped the stony edge of the bench on which she sat harder, fighting with everything she had to maintain her composure in front of Tenzin. Her slender frame trembled with the effort. She didn't want to cry, was determined not to cry, but the sobs rattled noisily in her chest, waiting to burst forth. She kept her lips pressed tight to hold them back. It wasn't so much the pain of being so unapologetically rejected by her biological father, although that was agonizing enough, but also the realization of how naïve and stupid she had been.
It was exactly as Qi Xing had said. She had wasted her time. She had wasted Tenzin's time. And what was worse, she was the reason he'd lost his beloved bison and had spent literal weeks away from his home and family. It had all been for nothing. Guilt and shame lashed at her in punishing blows. Lin couldn't even look him in the eye right then. His worried compassion for her only made her feel worse.
"Go away, Tenzin," she mumbled thickly, "I want to be alone."
His reaction to that edict was soft yet emphatic. "No. I can't do that. You shouldn't be alone right now, Lin. I'm not going to leave you."
She averted her face and bit down on her lips hard. "Please go away… Haven't I been humiliated enough for one night?"
"What did he say to you?" Tenzin whispered, "I only heard the tail end of it and…well, it wasn't good."
"None of it was good," Lin choked.
She didn't elaborate further, which prompted Tenzin to give her a gentle nudge. "Tell me what happened," he urged her softly. "I want to help you, Lin. Please, let me."
Lin shook her head, unable to imagine that she could be helped at all. She definitely couldn't fathom that talking about it would alleviate her pain either. There was an expanding void in her chest where her heart used to be. She felt like everything she had ever believed about her life and about herself had been turned upside down and now nothing was true. Nothing made sense anymore. The pain was incredible. Lin wanted nothing more than to run and hide, an impulse that had been foreign to her before that night. The knowledge served only to increase her shame.
Understandably then, the last thing Lin wanted to do was talk about it. She didn't want to admit aloud how foolish she had been. She didn't want to repeat the heartless things Qi Xing had said to her. She didn't want to think about them and yet, in a morbid twist of irony, those callous words were all she could think about. They echoed in her brain over and over again, taunting her, reverberating with the inescapable refrain that she was no good. She was unwanted. She was a burden.
It was the lowest that Lin had ever felt in her life. No amount of schoolyard teasing or heartless bullying could compare to the lonely despair she felt right then. Yet, as much as she wanted to climb inside of herself and never emerge again, Lin also felt inundated with the strong need to unburden herself. Tenzin's presence only heightened that desire. He stooped there, loyal, compassionate, ready, accepting and completely willing to listen to her and to reassure her. He had always been there, but she was terrified to let herself believe that he would always be there…not after what she had endured that night.
In spite of those pervasive doubts, Lin forced herself to look at him. There was no judgment or rancor in his earnest gray stare, only kindness and concern. He wanted to help her. In that lonely, broken moment, Lin wanted to believe that he could.
As if he sensed her internal wavering, Tenzin prodded softly, "Tell me. The pain will only get worse if you keep it inside. If you talk about it then it won't hurt as much as before. I promise you."
Lin didn't know if that was true. She couldn't imagine hurting worse than she already did, but she certainly didn't want to take the chance either. Besides, Tenzin had always been wise and knowledgeable about these sorts of things and if he thought that talking about her feelings would help then Lin supposed there was some merit to it. Consequently, she found herself opening up to him even as she dreaded saying the words at all.
She struggled to push the words past her lips because throat was closing with emotion, but after several fitful starts Lin succeeded. "It's simple really. He doesn't want me. He never did."
Thankfully, Tenzin didn't press her for details. Instead, he leaned into her shoulder and lifted his hand to stroke her rigid back. "I'm so sorry, Lin. I know you were hoping for something else."
"No, I'm the one who should be sorry, Tenzin," she whispered woodenly, "I'm sorry that I dragged you along on this trip. I'm sorry that I made you lie for me. I'm sorry that you lost Oogi because I was so selfish and stupid."
"Don't say that. You weren't stupid."
"Yes, I was," she choked, dropping her watery eyes to her lap, "I thought things would be different if I had father. I thought I would feel differently…but I don't. I'm still me and I'm still alone. I'll always be alone."
"You're not alone, Lin. I'm right here." When she still wouldn't look at him, he pressed on. "You didn't drag me along on this trip. I wanted to come with you. And if I had a chance to do it all over again, even after everything that's happened, I wouldn't do anything differently! I'm not sorry."
"I am," she whispered in a suffocated little voice, "There's so much that I wish I could take back."
Tenzin did his best to reassure her, to comfort her, but it was evident that nothing he said was penetrating the haze of self-hatred surrounding her. It was painful to watch her berate herself for things that were not her fault. He knew that she had taken her father's rejection onto her own shoulders, had directed the blame towards herself. She couldn't see that the misstep wasn't hers at all, but his. In Lin's mind, the defect was hers. Qi Xing couldn't love her because she was bad, not because he was simply incapable of love. And it was clear to Tenzin that there was nothing he could say to her that would convince her otherwise.
He remained crouched before her, his heart aching for her…aching with her. It was painful to watch her wage such a valiant effort to keep her emotions in check…almost as if she believed she didn't deserve to cry. Yet the struggle to maintain control was clearly costing her. Her entire body was quaking with exertion from holding back. She was breaking apart in front of his eyes, one tiny piece at a time. She was shutting herself down.
"Please don't punish yourself this way, Lin," he whispered fervently, "It wasn't you. It was him. He failed you, not the other way around. You have nothing to be ashamed of and you have every right to be sad and hurt and angry. It's okay if you want to cry. I won't tell."
"I'm not going to cry!" she grated, "He doesn't deserve my tears and I refuse to feel sorry for myself! I made my choices and now I have to live with the consequences. You tried to warn me over and over, but I wouldn't listen to you! I deserve this."
"No. That's not what I meant…"
"I'm not sad," she maintained stubbornly, "I'm furious because I should have been smarter than this! Did I really think that I could show up unannounced and he'd just throw his arms around me and say 'I love you?' How could I be so naïve? I left myself wide open! I practically went out onto that balcony with my heart on a plate and that was my foolishness. My fault! So no, Tenzin, I don't get to cry. I won't cry!"
He grasped hold of her shoulders then and gave her a firm little shake. "Stop it! Stop trying to be strong or brave or whatever it is you think you have to be all the time, Lin! I won't think you're weak! I never have! You're one of the strongest people I know! So it's okay to let go! I'm not going to judge you! Just let yourself feel whatever it is you're feeling…"
For a second he thought she might shove him off. Her expression tightened with anger and frustration. But then, without warning, her scowl collapsed into a sobbing grimace and she pitched herself against him. The action stunned Tenzin into immobility as Lin buried her face into his shoulder and wept.
Feeling helpless, and crying a little himself, Tenzin gathered her close and held her quietly while she sobbed brokenly into his neck. She gripped him hard, hugging him so tightly that it almost felt like she wanted to fold herself into his body and disappear. He had never seen her lose control of her emotions this way. Lin had always been stingy with her tears and reluctant to show vulnerability at all. It was a little disconcerting to see her so emotionally raw but it was also a turning point in their friendship, a moment that was strangely cathartic too.
"I don't know what I'm supposed to do now," she wept into his collar, "How am I supposed to go back and face my mother, Tenzin? I was wrong about everything!"
"It's not going to matter," he whispered, "She won't hold it against you."
"It does matter. You know it does." She shrugged out of his arms then and began scrubbing her mottled face free of tears. It was a futile attempt because fresh ones immediately replaced the dried remnants. "I can't face her. I can't go home," she choked out, "I don't have anyone anymore."
"That's not true."
"Yeah, it is. Don't you get it? I was a mistake! My mom and Qi Xing didn't even have anything serious! It didn't mean anything to them so how could I mean anything? She took care of me because she had to…because it was the right thing to do," Lin reasoned gruffly, "But I don't know how she could have really loved me, not when she never really wanted me in the first place."
"Lin, that's crazy. You know your mom loves you! Did he tell you that? Because I don't believe it and neither should you!"
"It's all true and I have to accept it. I'm tired of lying to myself. I just…I feel so worthless, Tenzin. Nothing is like I thought it was," she confessed with a rough swallow, "I don't have anywhere to go now. I don't even know where I belong anymore."
"With me," he replied without compunction or hesitation, "You belong with me and with your mom and with our whole family. I don't care what that man said to you or what he thinks! He's a liar and coward! You are wanted, Lin. You are loved!" He pulled her back against him, holding her as tightly as he could. Tenzin breathed a deep sigh of relief when he felt her arms circle around him. "It's going to be okay."
"How do you know?" she mumbled, "Because it feels like it will never be okay again."
"I know because we're going to get through it together. You and me. Just like we always do."
Lin expelled a shuddering sigh. "I don't know why you bother with me, Tenzin. Don't you ever get tired of all the trouble I cause you?"
"Well, I've tried to shake you off before," he teased her lightly, "but you just won't go away."
She snorted a short, teary laugh before raising her shimmering green eyes to his somber gray ones. "I'm serious," she sighed, "Why do you bother? Why do you want to be my friend?"
"Why do you want to be mine?"
Lin hadn't anticipated that he would counter her question but when he did she didn't have to ponder her answer at all. "Because you're loyal and dependable and you don't put up with my crap. Because you don't hesitate to tell me when I'm wrong, but you're always there to help me up when I fall," she whispered, "Because you're the best friend I've ever had, Tenzin. You're my only friend."
"So you're saying that if you had a bigger pool to choose from I might not be in the running?"
Lin rolled her eyes and nudged him with her shoulder. "No, you idiot. I'm saying thank you for sticking with me."
"I should be thanking you."
"Because…I have fun when I'm with you and I'm not so scared of the future when I'm with you, Lin. I can forget that I have this impossible task ahead of me to restore my race. Everything isn't so dire when you're around. You make my life better. You make me better. I wish you could see what I see when I look at you."
"What do you see?" she whispered.
"I see…an endless pain the neck." She giggled blunt reply but then elbowed him in the ribs for his audacity. Tenzin grunted in response before he continued. "I see my best friend and worst enemy. I see the girl who makes me crazy and makes me laugh at the same time." He closed his eyes and swallowed hard, garnering the courage needed to say the words that had been hidden away in his heart for months now.
When he opened his eyes again Lin was watching him intently, her eyes soft and luminous…as if she knew exactly what he was about to say next. He lifted his hand to finger her cheek, whisking away the wetness that still clung there. "You really want to know what I see when I look at you, Lin?" he whispered tremulously. Lin nodded slowly. "I see beauty and strength and perseverance. I see one of the best people I've ever known. I see the girl I l—,"
"Lin! Tenzin!" With mortified blushes, they jerked apart, frozen with shock at the sound of their names being called.
"Tenzin! Tenzin, answer me right now! Where are you?"
He jerked to attention, swallowing the remainder of his heartfelt confession as his mother's strident calls echoed in his ears. "Monkey feathers…" he groaned aloud, "This is not going to be pretty." He and Lin shifted to their feet hurriedly just as their parents burst around the hedge maze into full view. For a brief moment, everyone simply froze in place. "Hey there, family…" Tenzin greeted somewhat awkwardly, "…How's it going?"
That inane opening seemed to be the impetus needed to kick-start everyone into motion. One moment there was more than twenty feet separating Tenzin from his parents and the next his mother was jerking him into her arms with a grateful sob and hugging him so hard that Tenzin swore he heard his vertebrae cracking. He barely had time to return her embrace or sob out any apologies in return because she was suddenly thrusting him away and giving him an angry shake.
"What were you thinking, huh?" Katara demanded harshly, "Do you have any idea of the worry and fear you've put your father and me through? I could strangle you right now! Don't you know that you had us worried sick?" She ran her hands over him in a quick once-over, as if needing to discern for herself that he was truly alright. Tenzin started to offer up a tearful explanation and apology but then she was gathering him close again for another fierce hug. He felt his father close in on him from the other side. "Thank goodness you're okay!" she sobbed in tearful relief.
"You scared us to death!" Aang snapped him erect. "You were selfish and irresponsible! Why did you keep running from us? You knew we were looking for you and you took off again anyway!"
Tenzin whimpered guiltily. "I can explain—,"
Katara jerked him forward once more. "Don't you talk back to us, young man!" she scolded him sharply.
"But you just asked me—,"
"Shh! There's no need to make excuses for yourself," his father muttered, grabbing him close again and squeezing him hard, "You're okay now. You're with us and you're okay."
His mother joined in on the embrace as well. She touched Tenzin's face and hands over and over again as if she could hardly believe he was there at all. Katara's tears welled anew. "Oh, my baby! I'm so glad we found you!"
Reeling from his mother and father's dizzying rebounds of emotion as well as his own overwhelming joy at seeing them again, Tenzin was happy to endure his parents' mutual embrace as long as he could. Unfortunately, it wasn't long before he began to feel a bit suffocated. "Mom…Dad, please…" he protested as they virtually squashed him between them, "I'm really glad to see you guys again and everything, but can you back up just a little bit? I really can't breathe…"
While Aang and Katara reluctantly released their grumbling son so he could take in a few necessary gulps of air before they hugged him again, Lin and Toph faced one another for the first time in three weeks. Unlike Tenzin and Katara, they didn't gratefully run into an embrace. In fact, neither of them made an affectionate gesture towards the other at all. Instead, the two remained at a distance from each other…wary, fearful and heartsick.
Sokka observed them both from a distance. Though it was difficult, he forced himself to remain in the background so that Toph and Lin could work through their issues without any intervention on his part. He hated to see them so awkward and stilted with one another but he knew this was an issue the two of them had to fix on their own. For that reason, he took it upon himself to hold back the Beifongs when they would have stepped forward, letting them both know with a firm shake of his head that it was not the right time.
"So…I…uh…guess you're pretty ticked off at me, huh?" Lin opened huskily.
"I'm a bit annoyed," Toph confessed with an eerie sort of calm, "It hasn't been fun times for me these past few weeks. I'd ask what you were thinking but it's clear that you weren't thinking at all."
"Well, if it helps to know, it hasn't been a barrel full of laughs for me either."
"I heard you almost died."
Lin shrugged, hoping to mask her chaotic emotions behind a façade of indifference. "Yeah. That kind of sucked."
"But it never occurred to you after that happened that maybe you were in over your head and it was time to come home?" She almost smiled when Lin shook her head.
"Beifongs don't give up," Lin recited with a measure of pride, "Isn't that what you taught me?"
"I also taught you to wait and listen but you seem to pick and choose what advice you want to follow. Still, nice try with trying to use my words to justify your asinine behavior," Toph commended dryly, "But you probably know that's not going to fly with me."
Lin slumped forward. "Nah. I didn't think it would."
"It's possible that you could have avoided all of this drama if you'd just…I don't know…given me a heads up about this whole thing."
"Doubtful. I'm pretty sure you wouldn't have gone for it."
"You're right. I wouldn't have."
They seemed to be at an impasse following that exchange. Lin contemplated the shimmering tips of her slippers with unexplained fascination. Toph flexed her bare toes in the dirt. Lin twirled a stray lock of her hair. Toph coughed. The two didn't speak again for what seemed like an inordinate length of time before Lin finally asked in a small, trembling voice, "Why did you lie to me all these years, Mom?"
Toph had been expecting the question, had been practicing her response to it for weeks now. And yet, being asked in reality was something altogether different from what she had imagined. She felt like she had been punched in the chest. For one terrifying second, she couldn't even breathe. When she finally did speak, Toph's words were garbled and hollow.
"If you had asked me that a few weeks ago, I would have told you that it wasn't any of your business," she confessed, "But that would have been a copout."
Lin's throat bobbed spasmodically with unshed tears. "So then why did you do it?"
"I thought I was protecting you. I thought I was doing the right thing."
"Well, it wasn't the right thing."
"You don't think so?" Toph challenged softly, "You think you have all the answers now? Did turning 12 years old suddenly transform you into some all-knowing guru? Happy belated birthday, by the way."
"Thanks," Lin returned without much enthusiasm.
"So tell me," Toph pressed when she failed to follow up that mumbled reply, "Are you wiser for this experience? Did you like what you found here, Lin?"
Lin reacted to the sharp rebuke as if she'd been slapped. "At least it was the truth!" she flung back in a flash of anger, "At least he didn't pretend with me!"
"Pretend? What are you talking about?"
"Oh, please Mom! Don't lie to me anymore!" Lin cried, "He told me everything! I know the truth now so be real with me for once!"
"You mean the truth according to Qi Xing?" Toph snorted scornfully, "That's what you're basing all this scorn and righteous indignation on? Oh well, this is going to be good!"
Despite Toph's sardonic retort and the evident implication that she was wrong in her assumptions, Lin held her ground. "I know I was a mistake! You didn't really want me! How could you when you never wanted to be a mother?" she cried in accusation, "You were stuck with me!"
Toph's exasperation was immediately replaced with seething rage at Qi Xing and bitter remorse for her daughter. "Is what he told you?"
Lin drew herself up tall and resolutely bit back her hiccupping sobs. "He said what you had together was nothing special. It was a fling. He said that it didn't mean anything to either of you. I figured out the rest on my own. Neither of you wanted to be parents, but you were the one who had to deal with me while he ran away."
"It's not that simple, Lin."
"I think it is!" Lin glanced away with a stubborn grimace. "I wish you'd never had me at all!"
Because she could feel pain vibrating in practically every word Lin said, Toph went to kneel before her then and tenderly framed her daughter's face with her hands. "Don't say that!" she hissed, "Don't you ever, ever say that again, Lin!"
"Why? It's true!"
"No, it isn't!" In contrast with her harsh denial, however, Toph skimmed her fingers over her daughter's stony features, whisking away the tears she found there and softening Lin's expression with her surprisingly gentle touch. "Listen to me," she urged Lin softly, "it was a fling to him, but that's not what it was to me. I wanted more with him. I thought we would be more, but it soon became clear that Qi Xing and I didn't want the same things.
"But you're right about what you said," she went on softly, "I wasn't prepared to be a mother and I wasn't prepared for the responsibility of taking care of you. I know I've made mistakes because of that. I know I haven't always been right and maybe I'm not the most ideal mother…but I have never felt stuck with you, Lin. You are one of the best things to ever happen to me and I'm glad you're with me."
Suddenly, as Toph spoke, she realized the words didn't only apply to her. They applied to her parents as well. Lao and Poppy Beifong had made mistakes with her as well. They weren't always right or ideal and they were far from perfect…but they loved her. They had always loved her. Toph was only just beginning to recognize that truth and how love for her had driven her parents' actions all these years.
As a result of that profound understanding, Toph's next statement wasn't only directed to her heartbroken daughter but also to her estranged parents as well. "I'm glad we're a family. We're not perfect. We might not always understand each other and sometimes I might do things to stifle you and make you angry, but I love you and everything I do is because I love you. We are connected for life…and we always will be."
The declaration was like a soothing balm to Lin's broken soul. She didn't know how much she needed to hear it until that precise moment. With that, the last vestiges of Lin's bravado crumbled completely. She flung herself into her mother's waiting arms with a whimpering cry. "I'm sorry, Mom…" she wept, "I shouldn't have run away and worried you like I did! I'm so, so sorry!"
"It's okay," Toph whispered, cradling her closer, her own tears falling unchecked, "It's in the past now. Everything is okay now. We're okay, Lin."
Lin reared back to regard Toph then, in that moment appearing every inch the little girl that she was. "Can we please go home now?" she pleaded in a small tone, "I want to go home."
Toph leaned forward to blindly kiss away her daughter's spilling tears. "Yes, sweetheart. We can go home."
It proved to be an emotional night for everyone and the family reunions were only the beginning.
Following Toph and Lin's sobbing reconciliation, Tenzin tearfully confessed shortly thereafter that he had "lost" Oogi. However, his parents quickly soothed his angst over that by informing him that his beloved sky bison was in their care and nearby. After shedding more tears, only this time born from relief and gratitude, Tenzin and Lin were allowed to reunite with Oogi. Their parents allowed them both ample time to exchange excited cuddles and great slobbery licks with the shaggy beast before Sokka treated Tenzin and Lin to a stern lecture on responsibility and their parents handed down sentences of punishment for the stunt they pulled.
When all that was done, however, it was time to deal with the Beifongs, who had until they moment respectfully hung back while Toph handled her family issues. However, when that was done, Toph finally reconciled with her mother and father after ten, bitter years of silence. That very night Lin was formally introduced to her grandparents. And after many hugs and kisses and tearful murmurs of regret, Lin had gone to Sokka with some tearful regrets of her own.
She thanked him solemnly for all the ways he had supported her and for being the father that she had never appreciated. Then she did something that none of them had expected, particularly Toph and Sokka. She'd called Sokka "Dad" for the first time ever but, they suspected, not for the last. That set off yet another round of weeping, with the majority of the tears surprisingly coming from Sokka and Toph.
Much later that evening, after everyone had finally gone to bed, Aang and Katara retired to their guest room together after bidding their exhausted son goodnight. Now in the privacy of their room they quietly reflected on the past few weeks and the emotional events of the night. While Katara stepped behind the dressing screen to discreetly change into her nightgown, Aang stripped down to his underwear and sprawled back onto the bed with a heavy sigh of relief.
"Good grief," he groaned, "I'm so glad that's over."
After flinging her belt over the top of the dressing screen and then following it with her leggings, Katara peeked around the edge of the screen at Aang. "You sound exhausted, Avatar."
He lifted his head to toss her a wry glance. "That's because I am exhausted. Your son wore me out." Katara reacted to the last of that statement with a narrowed glare. Aang chuckled. "Yeah, it's not so fun when the moccasin is on the other foot, is it?"
"I'll give you a moccasin alright," Katara grumbled good-naturedly, disappearing back behind the screen. However, a few seconds later she said, "I don't blame you for being tired though. It's been a crazy almost month, hasn't it? Who knew when I read that note that Tenzin left for us that things would get so convoluted afterwards?"
Aang yawned. "It all worked out in the end though."
"Yes, it did," Katara sighed as she resumed undressing, "I'm glad Toph was finally able to make peace with her parents. I think this will be a good thing for her and Lin both. They have a lot of issues to work out between them and, in a way, those issues began with Toph's parents. They all need to heal together. Toph has needed her parents all this time whether she wanted to admit it or not."
"I think so too," Aang agreed drowsily, "And, on a further positive note, I think Tenzin has definitely learned his lesson. We shouldn't have to worry about him sneaking off like this ever again."
"I think grounding him for the next six months probably had a lot to do with it."
The corners of Aang's mouth turned up in an amused smile. "I'm sure it does."
"I cannot tell you what a relief it is to know that he's down the hall and safely tucked in bed though."
"I know what you mean… But I do still feel a little antsy about it. I keep on having to suppress the impulse to pop into his room to make sure he's still there."
Katara bounced another glance around the screen at him. "Why pop in at all? Just do your sonic boom vision thing that Toph taught you."
Aang rolled his eyes at her. "It's not my 'sonic boom vision thing,'" he murmured dryly, "There's a way cooler name for it, you know."
"A thousand pardons, my lord Avatar. Will you please use your sonar-vibration sensory perception to check on our dear son?" she amended cheekily.
Not even bothering to lift himself from the bed or even shift his position at all other than to stack his hands behind his head, Aang dutifully closed his eyes. He lifted one foot and then planted it firmly to the ground, sending out a reverberating ring of vibrations that provided a very clear picture for him of what was taking place in nearly every bedroom of their wing. When it was over, he opened his eyes and tipped a frowning glance over at an expectant Katara.
"Well?" she prompted impatiently, "Is he still in bed?"
"Yes. He's in bed," Aang confirmed, "You can relax. So is Lin for that matter. You might also be interested in to know that Toph is with her parents in their room. And as for Sokka…let's just say that some things should remain unknown between friends." At his revolted expression, Katara yelped in horrified laughter as Aang added dryly, "I'm thinking that he misses Suki a lot."
His wife grimaced with a repulsed shudder. "Ugh, Aang! I did not need that mental picture!"
"You're telling me," he grumbled, "I'm the one who had to see it! There's no filter with that kind of sight, you know! I might never recover." He started to lay his head back down against the bed when Katara disappeared back behind the screen muttering something under her breath about him being "a big fat baby." Aang opened his mouth to make a smart retort to that when something suddenly occurred to him.
"Hey…since when are you so modest about taking off your clothes?" he asked her, "What's with getting undressed behind the screen anyway? Because you do realize that I've seen you naked like ten million times, don't you, Katara?"
She poked out her head to level him with a sour look. "Well excuse me for attempting to maintain a little mystery in our relationship, Aang!"
"Oh sorry," he grunted, duly chastened, "Didn't mean to step on your toes." He settled back down and closed his eyes once more. "Carry on then."
After a few moments, Katara finally fell still behind the screen. "So did you notice how Tenzin and Lin were blushing when we found them in the garden earlier?" she asked a little too casually.
The thoughtful concern in her tone kept Aang from completely falling asleep. "I think we startled them."
"Maybe…" Katara considered quietly, "…but what if it was more than that?"
Aang furrowed his brow. "More like what?"
Katara directed a meaningful glance at him from around the edge of the screen. "You know what I mean," she replied darkly, "Remember what we discussed before Lin and Tenzin disappeared together. Well, they've been traveling alone for the past three weeks with no adult supervision to speak of, Aang!"
He swung up onto his elbows to regard her. "So what if they have? We did the same thing and we did okay. Besides, they're twelve, Katara!"
"So says the boy who kissed me twice when he was twelve, and once after I told him I was confused! You can't act like the possibility is ridiculous!"
"I'm never going to live that down, am I?"
Katara ignored his woebegone mumble. "I think it's time we sat Tenzin down and had 'the talk' with him. I know we've already covered the basics with him about the changes in his body and how babies are made, but those lessons need to be reinforced. We need to make it more personal for him."
"And by 'we' what you really mean is me, don't you?" Aang replied somewhat crossly.
"Well, you are his father, Aang," she emphasized, "It should be you. You know all the…um, you know…body mechanics and such!"
"So do you!" he retorted.
"But it's your equipment…you handle it all the time," Katara insisted.
He smirked at her in leering amusement. "So do you."
A furious blush lit Katara's cheeks. She growled at him, her blue eyes narrowed in a warning glare. "You're such a pervert." Aang was still chuckling over her response as she continued on with her rant. "Besides, you don't want the same thing that happened with Bumi to happen again, do you? By the time you finally got around to talking to him about it we already had irate fathers beating down our door. Let's not go there again, shall we?"
Aang flopped back into the mattress and groaned in remembered consternation. "Fine," he conceded in grumbling acquiesce, "I'll talk to him when we get back to Republic City. Are you happy now?"
Katara disappeared back behind the screen with a satisfied smile. "Thank you, Aang. I'm glad that's settled. Tomorrow we'll head home and then we can finally put this whole nightmare behind us. Everything will be normal again. It feels like forever since we've had that."
The wistful relief in her tone helped to soothe Aang's lingering exasperation. His mouth turned in a faint smile. "It will be good to get back into a routine."
"I can't wait to get back home."
"I can't either. But being back in Republic City won't be nearly enough for me," Aang mumbled wearily as he began to drift again, "I'm going to need at least a full week of sleep to recover from all this nonstop traveling. I'm in dire need of some real relaxation after all of these shenanigans."
"This may surprise you, sweetie, but there are other ways to relax besides sleeping."
He cracked open one sleepy eye and lifted his head at the quiet challenge he heard in her tone. He frowned. "Oh yeah? Tell take to my aching body."
"I could help with that," Katara offered coyly.
Aang opened both eyes then, his interest instantly piqued because he suspected that she was trying to make amends for strong-arming him earlier. "How's that?"
"Do you remember what we talked about before when we were back at Kuei's palace?"
"Which time? We've been back and forth, you know."
"The last time."
He could practically hear the eye roll in her tone and it made him laugh. Aang gamely tried to remember any conversation they may have had about relaxation during their last stay in Ba Sing Se but he could recall little more than her drunken rambling that night. "No, sorry. I don't remember. What did we talk about? Are you offering me a healing session right now, Katara, because, if you are, I could definitely go for that…?"
"Not exactly. But what I do have in mind does involve my hands on your body…water is very optional though." Just then, Katara stepped out from behind the dressing screen, but what was most notable to Aang was the fact that she wasn't wearing a nightgown. In fact, she wasn't wearing much of anything at all except her loosened hair and one provocatively seductive expression.
Aang rose up onto his elbows once again and swallowed hard, his eyes traveling the length of her voluptuous curves in avid perusal. "Um…hello there," he croaked appreciatively. When he lifted his gaze back to her face Katara was smiling a serenely beautiful smile. She crooked her finger at him, beckoning him over.
"So…" she drawled with some measure of amusement, "…you still think sleeping is the best way for you to relax?"
Aang shook his head slowly, his exhaustion quickly forgotten as he rolled from the bed with a crooked smile. "I've never been afraid to admit when I'm wrong, Katara," he teased, quickly closing the distance between them, "and I was very, very wrong." He pulled her flush against him and swept his hands along the warm expanse of her bare back, angling her back into the wall behind them as he did. "I'm also very open to any alternatives you might want to suggest, my beautiful wife."
She wrapped her arms around his neck and giggled into his kiss. "Yeah…somehow that's what I thought you'd say."