Many great and wise Air Nomads have detached themselves and achived spiritual enlightenment. But the Avatar can never do it. - AVATAR YANGCHEN
Katara sat in her bedroom in the Water Tribe guesthouse in Ba Sing Se. She had arrived with her father, Sokka and Suki by airship two days before. They were in the common room together now, talking and laughing. Her father was in high spirits these days; he had been fond of Suki since the beginning but her pregnancy had increased his affection toward her even further.
Katara wanted to join them but she was too uneasy. She had picked at her food at breakfast and then sequestered herself in her room, counting time until the afternoon Council meeting.
There was a knock on the door and Suki slid it open.
"We're going for a walk to stretch our legs before the meeting. Do you want to come along?"
Katara gave a tight smile, "Thanks, but I think I'll stay here. You guys go ahead."
Suki offered a sympathetic smile in return and stepped back out of the room, closing the door behind her. Katara knew she understood. She needed time to herself before this afternoon. Time to think and to try to rally some internal calmness. It would be nice to have the house to herself for a bit while she prepared.
The Avatar was coming today.
It had been more than four years since she had seen him. When he wasn't traveling for diplomatic reasons, Aang returned to his self-imposed exile at the Southern Air Temple. He did not take visitors often. The Air Acolytes lived there, and some politicians and diplomats were permitted when it was absolutely necessary. Zuko, she knew, visited him on a fairly regular basis. Sokka and Suki had paid a visit as well, after they got married. Katara had never gone.
She stepped onto the balcony in her room and looked toward the palace. The damage had long since been repaired, but she could remember very clearly the day it happened.
100 years of war was not an easy thing for people to recover from. Someone told Katara once that it probably only took a generation for war weariness to be replaced with anger and prejiduces. Most people - the majority from every nation - were ready for peace, difficult as they knew it would be to adjust. Most people welcomed Zuko's rule and the effort he and The Avatar were making to create a better world. But not everyone was so forgiving. There were factions of the Fire Nation who still believed at the time in their superiority and right to rule, who hated Zuko for what they percieved as weakness. There were factions of other nations who believed the Fire Nation as a whole should be punished. It had taken years of gentle diplomacy to attempt to reconcile these beliefs and for the most part, things had been going well.
Until the day a Fire Nation rebel force attacked Ba Sing Se.
It was the moment they had all feared and had been quietly preparing for. But no one had truly been prepared for their rage, their aggressiveness, their efficiency. Katara was fighting in front of the palace with everyone else, trying to hold their position. They were about to fall back when she was taken by surprise and blasted backward, into a wall. She was unconscious almost instantly and didn't remember this or what happened after. She had been so badly injured that until he reached her to check for himself, Sokka thought she was dead.
Aang went into the Avatar State. Sokka told her later - much later - that he had never seen him so terrifyingly out of control. It was disastrous. Fire Nation rebels had to be dug out from under rubble. Some of them had nearly been killed and might have been if Toph had not managed to restrain Aang when she did. When it was over, Katara woke in a hospital bed and was a long time recovering, even with the help of healers. And Aang was beside himself, inconsolable for what he had done. While everyone agreed that the rebels had been dangerous and had to be stopped, there was an undercurrent also of agreement that things had gone too far.
They spent three years trying to weld peace out of the defeat of Firelord Ozai, and then this. And so Aang left. With the rebels out of the picture he no longer needed to remain in the eye of the political machinations, anyway. He told her, with a voice deepening into manhood, that he needed time to learn control. He told Zuko privately that he had strayed from the monks' teachings; that perhaps if they had been alive for him to remain accountable to, none of this would have happened at all. He had an obligation to the world as The Avatar but also as the last remaining Air Nomad.
Aang and Katara did not have much time to themselves. While they played at a relationship, stealing kisses when they were alone, sitting in the corner of Iroh's tea shop with their heads together, discussing the future, they had still been very young. So much of their time had been spent working, working more than most people their age ever did. She watched him leave the city with Appa and she locked a part of herself away, like closing her fist around her heart. She returned to the South Pole to help lead her people, to help integrate Northern Water Tribe members who had joined them there. She threw herself into her work, training the young waterbenders who had been born there and emigrated there since the end of the war, honing her healing skills. She worried about Aang. As time passed with no word from him, Katara eventually grew resentful and in short order this fizzled out into sadness and regret. Finally a day passed when she didn't think of him at all, and she managed to push him to the back of her mind. Sometimes it was as if she'd never found him and freed him that day. She thought of Aang abstractly. When she was a child she wondered what trees looked like in person. It was a similar feeling.
She stood on the balcony, staring toward the palace without seeing it and if she had not heard the gong sounding she would have missed the sight of Appa flying into view, landing in what she knew was a courtyard, out of sight. She heard their attendant calling her name. Which meant it was time for her to see Aang, whether she was ready or not.
Sokka was waiting for her on the front steps. Their attendant offered to see them to the palace and he waved her away.
"Where are Dad and Suki?" Katara asked as they walked.
"Probably at the palace by now," he said, "I thought you might want someone to walk with."
They walked in silence for a couple of minutes.
"Are you okay?" Sokka asked. When she didn't answer immediately he added, "I mean...are you okay to do this? I should have asked before we left, I shouldn't have just assumed..."
Katara sighed, "It's all right, Sokka. I'll be fine."
Sokka frowned but said nothing.
"Anyway," she continued, "I wouldn't have missed this. After all the discussions, and all of the meetings, to finally get everyone together and talk about a unified city, it's exciting."
Sokka nodded, "Ba Sing Se has always been great but it's still an Earth Nation city. It would be nice to have a place that belongs to everyone." Sokka cleared his throat and as if the two things were related, added, "Aang looks a lot different now. I wanted to tell you after Suki and I visited but...it seemed weird to bring it up."
Katara stopped and stared at him, "It's less weird right now?"
Her brother grimaced a little, embarrassed, "Sorry. I just wanted you to be prepared, that's all."
They continued walking.
"How different?" Katara asked, her voice soft.
"He's uh," he scratched his bearded chin, "He's really...big?"
Her brow furrowed, "Oh." She couldn't even picture this. It didn't matter much in any case. She was going to see him for herself in a few minutes. Her heart began to pound and she took a deep breath through her nose.
Sokka fidgeted for a moment, sensing her discomfort. "Oh, Toph finally got away from her metalbending classes, she'll be there."
Katara smiled, glad of the change of subject, "I missed her. I was disappointed that she couldn't meet us at the teahouse when Zuko got here yesterday." She HAD missed Toph but she was also glad of anyone who could provide an additional buffer if she needed it. Toph was so outspoken that she had been especially dismayed at the possibility of her absence.
The door to the palace was flanked with guards who nodded as they passed. Katara was only remotely aware of the chatter of the attendants and diplomats. She thought dimly that she could hear the sound of her own blood rushing through her veins.
The meeting room was crowded and blessedly, Sokka immediately steered her toward Toph, who unceremoniously spun away from the man she was talking to to face Katara.
"Sugar Queen!" she greeted her. Katara laughed and embraced her friend. She was still slightly shorter than Katara, yet impossibly sturdy and strong. Katara squeezed her tightly.
"I'm so happy to see you," she said when they separated.
Toph smiled, "Thanks. I couldn't leave you here with these stuffy old men." The man she had been talking to huffed and walked away, "I needed a break from teaching, anyway. Let's find a place where we can sit together and -" she broke off, "Oh. Hi, Twinkle Toes."
Katara would not have even registered this was Aang's voice if she'd heard it out of context. She swallowed in a dry throat and turned around.
His tattoos and his robes gave him away, but she might not have recognized him otherwise. Aang was tall now - probably a full head taller than Katara - and broad-shouldered. He had a beard. Aang had a BEARD. She pushed down an insane urge to laugh. His robes were slightly more ceremonial and draped, his hands lost in the folds of fabric as they hung at his sides, but still the distinctive Air Nomad yellow and orange.
"Hello," she said softly, fighting to keep her voice steady.
"Hello, Katara," he replied.
She had no idea what to say. She had thought about the things she could say to Aang countless times but she didn't know this person. The Aang she remembered was still a kid. This was a man and suddenly she felt shy of him. None of the scenarios she had played out in her head fit at all. She inwardly cursed Sokka for not warning her about this sooner but immediately realized how stupid this reaction was. Of course he was older. Of course he looked different. He was nearly twenty now. Did she expect him to stay a gangly teenager forever? At the bottom of all of this was a well of disappointment and the voice at the back of her mind. "You waited too long, you idiot. Look at him. He's with someone now, he has to be." Her stomach churned and Toph grabbed her by the arm.
"We're going to find a corner to sit in so that we can make crass jokes about politicians in peace. I can't promise you won't be included, either since you're a big shot diplomat now." She pulled Katara mercifully away.
"Thank you," she hissed when they were out of earshot.
"No problem. I could feel your heart pounding but I suspect anyone with working eyes could see how awkward that was."
Katara winced and let out a tiny groan. Toph was guiding her toward Sokka and Suki, who had already found a place to sit with their father.
"Don't feel bad, I don't think anyone could have expected that to go well," Toph said bluntly, "At least it's over now. You can talk to him later when there aren't so many people around."
The meeting was interesting. Preliminary plans had already been drawn up. Fire Nation and Earth Nation engineers were put to work to create a city that was modern but not in a way that was alien. Zuko had grown into his role as Firelord well over the years. Although Katara saw him on a regular basis she hadn't seen him speak in public for some time. She admired how confident and self-assured he was. He was even making jokes. The Firelord, making jokes. The world really had changed.
Katara was excited to learn more about this place they were all working to build but she spent most of the presentation stealing furtive looks at the Avatar. She remembered very vividly those moments Aang had done or said something when they were younger, those times that struck a chord of dissonance and reminded her who he was, beyond the person she knew. It was different now that he looked the part, as well. As a child listening to bedtime stories she'd tried to picture him, the most powerful bender in the world, the man who had vanished, and she never could. She was certainly seeing him now. As the last Airbender there was always an air of something mystical and foreign about Aang but it was even more pronounced now that he was a man. He sat on the dais with his legs folded, as he did when he was meditating. He looked serene, even with all of these eyes on him. Occasionally he would lean toward Zuko or the wizened old Earth Nation engineer to whisper something to them. He didn't cover his mouth when he did it. He remained silent throughout the presentation but looked pleased when it came to the part about Air Temple Island. At one point, Aang's eyes swept the room. When he made eye contact with her she looked away.
Katara had not strictly gone out of her way to avoid seeing Aang all this time. While it was true she didn't travel much these days, they did still move in the same circles diplomatically. She often just missed him, once by a matter of hours for a Fire Nation visit. Still, she wasn't entirely guiltless. Sokka had quietly taken over her duties as The Avatar's Water Tribe Envoy. They hadn't even discussed this, he just started writing her monthly reports. Her brother always tried to do what was best for her, and although she often resisted these attempts - either out of stubbornness or because he was misguided - she had let this one go without incident.
There was a reception with refreshments after the presentation but Katara didn't feel much like eating. She retreated outside to the courtyard. The garden was dimly lit with lamps and the daylight had waned. Appa lay lounging in the grass and she called to him softly as she approached. With a characteristic huff he rose to his feet and licked her on the cheek as she reached out to pat him on the nose. She laughed softly.
"I missed you, too," she said, twining her fingers in his fur and scratching the skin she could reach. He grunted again and his tail flapped slightly, heralding Aang's arrival. He stopped a few paces away from her and Appa. He was hard to read now but his grey eyes looked sad.
"I'm sorry about earlier," she said, "Toph..." she trailed off lamely but he didn't seem to notice.
"It's all right."
"Air Temple Island," she offered. He gave a bit of a smile. "It sounds beautiful."
"Thank you." He looked up toward the stars, "I can't live at the Southern Air Temple forever so it seemed like the best solution."
"Will you be living there alone?" she asked, realizing immediately how loaded the question sounded. If it seemed odd to him he didn't show it.
"No, some of the Air Acolytes will live there, too."
Katara felt a sudden rush of pity for him. Air Acolytes! It was all well and good for him to have people who wanted to live the way the Air Nomads had but they weren't Air Nomads. She wondered if the acolytes only intensified the loneliness and isolation she knew he carried. She took a step closer to him.
"I can't believe this is you," she blurted before she could stop herself, "You look so different."
"Good different or bad different?" he asked warily.
She felt her face grow hot and looked away, "Good different," she replied. She met his eyes again and was relieved to see he was smiling.
"You do, too," he said.
"Do I?" Katara replied, surprised.
He rubbed the back of his head nervously, a shade of his previous awkwardness returning.
"Yeah," he said. There was laughter in his voice. She thought maybe he was blushing but it was hard to tell.
Emboldened, she moved closer to him and when he dropped his hand, she caught it before he could conceal it again. His shoulders stiffened almost imperceptibly for a moment but he relaxed again immediately. She stroked the tattoo on the back of his hand with her thumb, studying it as if she hadn't seen it every day for years, to keep herself from having to look him in the eyes.
"It's nice that some things don't change," she reflected absently.
There were voices in the entryway as more people entered the courtyard. Their eyes met again. He gestured to Appa with his free hand.
"Do you want to go for a ride?"
Katara's face broke into a smile. She squeezed his hand before releasing it and turned to climb onto the bison. Aang pushed her foot, boosting her up. Appa gave a familiar, contented grunt.
Ba Sing Se was huge, and there was no better place to appreciate that than from the air. They flew without speaking for a while.
"So is the restoration finished? At the temple?"
He nodded, "Yeah, it's been done for a while now. It's beautiful." He paused, "You should come and see it."
"I'd like that. I thought of visiting but I...I wasn't sure if I should."
He sighed, as if they were finally addressing some great unpleasantness, "It's all right. I know you must feel conflicted about me now."
She wasn't sure how to respond to this.
Aang steered Appa toward a hilltop overlooking the city and they landed. He slid down and patted Appa on the side, looking out toward the horizon.
Katara joined him and stood as close to him as she dared, their shoulders nearly touching. She felt a gentle breeze blow past her and heard Aang inhale, though he disguised it as a sigh. He had done this when they were younger and it made her chest ache to catch him doing it again.
"Are you happy there?" she asked.
He looked down, first at the city, then at the ground.
"I wasn't for a while. It's better now that the restoration is finished and other people are living there full time again. Seeing it full of life makes me happy. And Guru Pathik was with us for a while before he died." He frowned, "I've had a lot of opportunity for reflection. It's a peaceful place, like it used to be. And teaching the Air Acolytes has taught me a lot, too." He drew in a deep breath and turned to face her.
She turned as well and looked up at him. There was resolve in his eyes.
"I know you must be angry at me and I don't know if you can ever forgive me for what I did and for leaving. I just want you to know I'm sorry and however you feel about me now, it's...it's fine. I don't - I don't expect anything from you. You don't have to see me ever again after today if you don't want to."
Katara's eyes went wide.
"Why would you say that?"
He blinked. Katara's gaze slipped from his and she saw his hands were balled into fists at his sides.
"I missed you," she murmured, "Until today I hadn't admitted to myself how much. But I was never angry at you. I was worried and I was sad but I was never angry, I couldn't have been." He opened his mouth to speak but she charged on, "I know you felt like you betrayed the teaching you grew up with, and you did it because of me. I never visited because I assumed YOU were angry with ME."
Her eyes brimmed with tears and she couldn't see anything but his brightly colored robes. Her face burned with embarrassment but she couldn't help it. It tore at her to think about how much time they had squandered. She didn't know how she had let so many years slip past her unnoticed. There were so many things she had refused to acknowledge or dwell on the past few years. She could have gotten married and started a family by now. It had never occurred to her to do these things. Aang stood in front of her now, a tangible reminder of how much time had passed and how much they had both changed. She looked up at him and blinked, tears spilling down her cheeks. Aang reached out and pulled her toward him, into his arms. She wrapped her own around his waist and buried her face in his robes. She couldn't remember the last time she cried. The state of low level tension she had been living in these past few years suddenly unraveled and she let out a single sob. He still smelled the same, like grass and incense and faintly of Appa's fur. When he finally spoke his voice was low.
"The monks taught me that learning detachment was essential to spiritual enlightenment. And after what happened, I felt like it was proof that they were right. They taught me detachment as a tool and instead I used it as an excuse. I'm sorry." He took her shoulders in his hands and gently pushed her away so he could look into her eyes.
"When we were kids, my feelings for you lived alongside my philosophy, it didn't need a reason. It just was. I don't know why I couldn't let that be." His hands slid down her bare arms and it sent electricity through her body, like sparks skipping down her spine. He let go of her, arms dropping again to his sides.
She wiped her cheeks, bending the tears neatly away, "I don't know what to say."
"I meant what I said before," he said, "I don't expect anything of you." He looked down and away from her, as if bracing himself for pain, "But I want you to know that my feelings for you haven't changed."
"Aang," she said gently. He met her eyes again. She closed the remaining distance between them, took the lapels of his robes in her hands, pulled him toward her and kissed him.
Aang circled her waist with his arms and pulled her closer, so that she was pressed against him. This was not like the admittedly fairly innocent kisses they had shared before. There was a sense of urgency and longing she had never experienced from him.
When she finally broke the kiss, his arms remained around her. She tried unsuccessfully to smooth his robes.
"We should get back," she muttered.
He nodded and released her but she caught his face between her hands.
"NOT because I regret what just happened. I just don't need a bunch of gossip about the Water Tribe Representative running off into the night with The Avatar."
He grinned, a smile that so disarmingly reminded her of the old days that she smiled back at him.
As they flew back toward the courtyard he asked, "How long will you be in Ba Sing Se?"
"We're going home in three days," she said, "Sokka is meeting with the Engineering team tomorrow and I'm meeting with Zuko about the Healer School the day after. What about you?"
He shrugged, "I don't have anything pressing. I have to sit in on some meetings. I thought I would stick around and visit with everyone. It's been a while since I've seen Toph and I want to drop in on some of these metalbending classes of hers."
"Should we meet for breakfast tomorrow?" It was strange, to make plans this way after knowing each other so long. But they had to start somewhere. "Iroh's tea shop hired a dim sum chef, the food is fantastic. There's even a vegetarian cart and I'm pretty sure it's for you."
Aang chuckled, "Sounds great. It'll be nice to see Iroh again, too."
Katara lay in bed that night, staring at the ceiling, trying to sort out her feelings. It was warm out and the windows were open; a breeze blew through her room. She brushed Sokka off when he barraged her with questions after they'd returned to the guest house. Toph was a different story and cornered her the moment she and Aang returned to the reception. Aang was swept up into conversation pretty much immediately and was back inside before Katara realized it was happening. As soon as she was sure they were alone, Toph folded her arms triumphantly and barred Katara's path back indoors.
"Is he a better kisser now?"
Katara groaned, knowing it was pointless to lie. Toph laughed and punched her in the arm.
"Confess!" she hissed. Thankfully, she relented right away, "I don't want to hear about your romantic jaunt, anyway. You two are so predictable. I want to see Appa." She strode past Katara toward the bison, who seemed equally pleased to see her.
Katara was glad to see everyone. She really had missed them all and regretted closing herself off so completely after Aang left. She made a mental note to apologize to her father tomorrow morning. She must have been absolutely miserable to live with at times. She squirmed under the light blanket, trying to get comfortable, trying to squelch her excitement about tomorrow. The less she got her hopes up, the better.
She heard a rustling noise outside and looked toward her balcony to see Aang snapping his glider shut. She got out of bed and tiptoed quickly to the open doorway.
"What are you DOING here?!" she hissed, "You know my FATHER is right downstairs!"
"I couldn't sleep," he replied. He smiled sheepishly, "I thought I would see if you were still awake, too."
He had her there. It was obvious he had gotten out of bed and jumped out his window - impulsive as ever - since he was dressed uncharacteristically in a long sleeved thin, white undershirt and well-worn, loose yellow pants.
"Well, come inside before someone sees you standing out there, at least." She stepped aside and he crept into her room. He clutched his glider with both hands, obviously unsure what to do now that he was here.
"You didn't plan this out at all did you?" she asked, a smile quirking the corner of her mouth.
He grinned and shook his head, "No."
She chuckled, "You haven't changed that much. Oh! Hang on." She crossed the room and opened her bag to riffle through it. Aang leaned his glider against the wall. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw him flick his fingers in what she knew was a subtle bit of airbending to dry his sweating palms.
"Here it is." She gestured for him to join her and offered a sheet of paper, folded in half, "Sokka has Avatar Story Day at the school every month. When they heard you would be here, one of the girls asked me to give you this."
Aang unfolded it. It was a painting.
"Penguins!" he hissed, more excited than she had expected.
"They love the penguin sledding story. I mean, they love any story about you but that one is one of their favorites," she explained, smiling. She got closer so she could point, "I THINK that's supposed to be you."
He laughed under his breath, "This is amazing. Tell her thank you for me." He folded it up again and slipped it into his back pocket. He hadn't realized how close she was until he looked up and again seemed at a loss. He scratched his nose.
"I should probably go," he said.
Katara felt a pang of disappointment but pushed it aside. "I suppose."
"I'll see you...later, I guess." he said, smiling, "Is anyone else coming along?"
She let out a tiny groan, "Yeah, I was hoping we could have some time to ourselves to talk but my dad found out because Sokka doesn't know when to shut up. Now they all want to come."
Aang waved her off, "It's fine. They'll be occupied the rest of the day anyway, we can take Appa out and find a beach or something. I've been working on this new waterbending move that I haven't totally figured out, maybe you can give me some insight."
"That would be great."
"All right." He pointed toward the balcony door, "I'm gonna...go then."
Katara took one of his hands in hers and squeezed it affectionately, "I missed this."
"What?" he asked.
"Fun." She laughed quietly, "I mean...the kids we teach are fun and Sokka is still Sokka. But I missed having one of my best friends around, too."
He smiled, but there was a trace of sadness in it. "Me, too." he said.
They went to the doorway to the balcony together and she pulled him into a hug. He pressed his forehead against hers. She laid her hands on his chest and sighed.
"It's strange," she said quietly.
"I was nervous to see you again." She felt his heartbeat quicken, "But now that you're here I'm so calm. How do you do that? Is it an Air Nomad thing or an Avatar thing?"
He gave a small smile but said nothing. She straightened up, his arms still around her, reached up and tugged gently at his beard with her thumb and forefinger.
"This is going to take a little getting used to," she said.
He smiled, "It's pretty manly though, right?"
She laughed, still stroking his chin with her thumb. It felt right to be with him now, like this. She realized abruptly that she didn't want him to go. Without even thinking, she grazed his lower lip with her thumb. Katara leaned into him and kissed him, first on the lips, then on the cheek. She perched her chin on his shoulder and whispered in his ear.
"Don't go okay? Don't leave me."
He nodded mutely and she kissed him again, eyes closed. He loosed his embrace and grasped her hips gently, his thumbs sweeping upward, just under her shirt, to stroke her sides. She broke the kiss and leaned back to look into his eyes. His pupils were dilated and she could see the moonlight they were framed in reflected there. He started to say something and she kissed him again, harder this time. She began walking backward into the room, toward the bed, and he stopped.
"Katara," he whispered, his voice hoarse, "I didn't...I don't want you to think I came here for this."
"I don't," she said. She snaked her arm between them to his side, where she knew the ties holding his shirt closed were, kissing him again as she undid them. She drew his shirt open and slid her hands over his chest and up to his shoulders. He released her just long enough to shake the shirt to the floor and then his arms were around her again. Their initial kisses had been gentle but Aang kissed her now as if he were making up for lost time. Not wanting him to question for a moment whether this was what she wanted, she pulled off her own shirt and put her arms around his neck, pressing her bare chest against his. He touched her almost shyly, fingers gently tracing the outside edge of her breast. She was backing toward the bed again but he didn't stop her this time. When her calves bumped the edge of the bed she stopped to look at his face, unsure what he might be thinking. He mistook this for hesitation and looked abashed.
"Is this happening too fast?" he asked.
She shook her head and sat down down on the edge of the bed. Holding his hand, she began to scoot backward, farther onto the bed. He climbed onto the mattress as well and held himself up over her. Katara laid back and bent her knees, her inner thighs pressed against his hips. She took the opportunity to get a better look at him in the light streaming in from the nearby window. She dragged her fingertips down the lines of the tattoos on his arms, touched his chest. His solitary hours were obviously spent in training since he was more muscular now than she had ever seen him. He was still slender and graceful looking but more defined. She realized abruptly that he was studying her, too and had to fight down the self conscious urge to cover herself. His face was inscrutable. He brushed her hair from her face and sighed.
"You're beautiful, Katara." He said finally.
She knew she was blushing but felt a rush of relief as well, "Thank you," she said softly, "You are, too."
He laughed, looking embarrassed but pleased, "Does that mean you're sold on the beard already?"
She nodded, "It's pretty great."
He stroked her cheek with his knuckles, "I need to ask you something," he said.
Katara shifted her hips underneath him and he closed his eyes, taking a deep breath in through his nose. She smiled. Still doing his calming breathing exercises. He was a monk even in bed.
"What is it?"
He opened his eyes.
"I want you to come live at the Southern Air Temple with me." She started to reply and he kissed her once, lightly, before continuing, "Don't answer me now, okay? I know it's too soon for you to answer. It's just...I won't have the courage to ask you again. Think about it."
"Okay," she murmured. She rolled her hips a little harder and he groaned softly.
She kissed him again and reached down between them, tugging at the drawstring of his pants before hooking her thumbs in the waistband and pulling them down as far as she could reach. They were off immediately after that though she wasn't sure how (she expected some furtive airbending was involved). He rose to his knees to take hers off and she arched her hips off of the bed to help him. He bent back down over her and kissed her. When they separated she caught his gaze in hers again.
"I have to tell you something," she whispered.
He propped himself up on his elbows.
"What's wrong?" he asked.
"Nothing, I just," she bit her lip nervously, "I've never done this before," she said, embarrassed.
"I haven't either," he replied, completely unashamed. Katara was so relieved she couldn't keep herself from laughing. Aang smiled.
"I don't have previous lifetimes of experience," she said with a smirk. He chuckled.
"It isn't really the same. Trust me."
She kissed him again, deeper this time, pushing her tongue against his. Now that the pressure was off, curiosity took over. She dragged her fingertips down his spine, pausing only momentarily at the scar on his back, the one even she hadn't been able to heal completely, continuing downward toward his tailbone. She slid her hand around, between them against the thin layer of fabric, groping the growing hardness there. He broke the kiss and groaned, eyes closed.
"Should I stop?" she whispered.
He opened his eyes, "You can do whatever you want," he said. He pushed back - unconsciously it seemed - against her hand, "I still can't quite believe this is happening. I keep thinking I'll wake up any second." She extricated her hand and laid both of them on his shoulders.
"You say that like you dream about me on a regular basis," she said, mock scandal in her tone.
"Well, I don't know about a REGULAR basis," he mused.
Her eyes widened and she laughed, "Have you had dreams about me? What kind of dreams?"
"Incredibly frustrating ones," he murmured. He pressed his lips to her throat and laid a trail of light kisses down the side of her neck to her sternum. She whimpered softly as he kissed along the inside edge of her left breast and laid a hand gently on the back of his head, encouraging him to keep going. He drew the dark peak of her nipple into his mouth and she moaned, digging her fingernails into his shoulder. Any apprehension she felt about being seen naked for the first time, about being with him LIKE THIS for the first time, had completely dissolved. His weight pressed against her, the sensation of his hands on her bare skin, and she couldn't remember ever wanting anything more in her life than his proximity in this moment. It was like he never left, like they had done this before, or had always been meant to. He moved downward, lightly kissing her stomach, her hips. He shifted slightly to the side, pressing her leg into the bed. Her right leg was still bent and he leaned over to kiss her knee. He kissed the inside of her thigh, then again, slightly further down. Apprehension and desire coiled inside her simultaneously and she realized she was holding her breath. Aang must have realized as well - of course he did - and he looked up at her again.
"I won't do anything you don't want me to," he said.
"Keep going," she breathed, her arousal and curiosity overriding whatever trepidation she felt.
He rose to his knees and she helped him remove her underwear. He bent down again, settling onto his elbows between her legs. He kissed her once, hesitantly, experimentally and she sighed. He repeated this a few more times and then began gentle exploration with his tongue. Katara's eyes fluttered shut and she moaned softly, one hand tangled in the sheets, the other resting on the back of his head. His mouth was warmer and softer than she had expected. There was a persistent ache growing inside her. She twisted her hips slightly. He traced her entrance with his tongue and when she groaned in affirmation he slid one of his fingers inside her. He stroked rhythmically and slowly, achingly slowly, clearly afraid he might hurt her. When her soft sighs became pleading moans he pushed a second finger into her.
Being a master of all four elements was a decided advantage when you were saving the world from an unhinged megalomaniac. It was not so helpful in situations like this.
Aang's senses were overwhelmed by her. Katara straddled his lap, her lips pressed against his. The heat of her body, the smell of her in the air he breathed. Even the moisture in the air tasted like her. She was everywhere. Her hands were flat against the wall behind him. They whispered to each other in low, intimate tones, trying desperately to keep quiet, to keep this moment hidden away in this room, between them. She shifted her hips and he groaned into her mouth. Katara backed away a bit and he slid his hand between them, the hardness of her nipple in his palm. He knew his hands were calloused and wondered distantly if this bothered her. He met her eyes and she seemed to be looking right through him, like she could read his mind.
"Say it," she whispered.
He whispered her name and she leaned in again.
"Please," she breathed, pleading in her voice, "I need to hear you say it first."
Aang swallowed. He looked into her eyes and wondered at what he saw there, the intensity and the sadness.
"I love you," he said.
She kissed him, bearing down harder against him.
"I love you, too," she whispered against his lips.
He dug his fingertips into her thighs and she gasped against his mouth. She had never experienced such intense need for something as she had for him right now. Katara moaned his name and felt like she was begging for something but didn't know what. She thrust against him slowly, taking him in as far as she could. He watched her as she moved, one hand on her breast, the other against the small of her back. She realized suddenly what she really wanted. It would have been a lie to deny that part of what made him so physically attractive was his power. He was Aang and he was The Avatar and he was her best friend and the desire to submit to him completely had grown totally overwhelming. She twined her fingers in his and tugged his hands. She began to lean back and he followed her until she was lying underneath him. He rose to a kneeling position and slid his hands up the backs of her thighs until they were in the pits of her knees, spreading her legs further apart. He thrust into her once, gently, but deeper than before. Katara closed her eyes and pressed her hand to her mouth to muffle a moan. Aang bent down again and pressed an open-mouthed kiss to the side of her throat, against her pulse throbbing beneath her skin. She tilted her hips to meet his thrusts and matched his rhythm. She felt the world falling away from her and clung to him, whispering his name, holding him to her. She wrapped her legs around his waist and his rhythm faltered as his own orgasm hit. He finally gave up completely and buried himself as deeply inside her as he could, her name a soft moan in her ear. He whispered to her that he loved her, had always loved her.
They lay together after, on their sides facing each other. Her leg was draped over his hip. His eyes were silver in the moonlight.
"I should never have let you go," she whispered.
He scooted closer to her, "I shouldn't have left. But there's no point regretting it, Katara. Everything that happened before...it brought us here."
"I know," she murmured.
He studied her and said softly, "You look so sad. Are you sorry we did this?"
She shook her head, "No."
"I was thinking about three days from now, when we're leaving to go home. I was thinking about the day you left and how awful it was. I don't want to feel that way again."
He squeezed her hand, "Do you think it would be...I mean...if it isn't too forward of me to ask," she suppressed laughter with a snort and he grinned, "Come and stay at my place while you're here."
She bit her lip, "Aang...I don't know. What will people think?"
"I don't care," he said, "I want you with me."
His sincerity was so touching it almost drove Hakoda and Sokka's disapproval from her mind. Almost.
"What would I tell my dad?" she asked.
His gaze dropped to her hand, resting between them on the bed. He traced the lines in her palm with the tip of his index finger.
"Did I ever tell you I was eavesdropping at Aunt Wu's when you met with her? When we were kids?"
She laughed softly, "Don't change the subject," she teased.
"I haven't changed it," he responded.
Katara's heart began to pound. Time seemed to slow, to draw in on itself. Her mind was suddenly clear, the kind of clarity that comes on from nowhere, so acute it is almost disorienting.
"Should I tell him we're getting married?" she asked.
His brow furrowed slightly in thought, "I think so," he said, "I mean, I think we've waited long enough." His tone was frank. For him this had been decided years ago. He looked up to meet her eyes again.
Katara knew she could not expect to pick up where they had left off. She knew that in some ways they would have to get to know each other all over again. But why else had she ignored every potential suitor who had been haplessly steered toward her? Why had she closed herself off? What had she been waiting for if not for Aang? They had even talked about it when they were younger. There had been many nights when the whole group had stayed up late, rotating between their respective guesthouses, going through correspondence from diplomats and just talking, talking about what to do next, how to fix all of this. When everyone else dropped off to sleep they would sit together, arms wrapped around each other, whispering in the darkness, just like they were now. Not quite like now.
"You know this isn't traditionally how people do these things, right?" she asked, holding back laughter.
Aang rolled his eyes dramatically, "Let's find the other couples who fly around on bisons and end world wars and ask them what they did."
The laughter bubbled up and spilled out and Katara clapped her hands over her mouth to muffle it. Aang grinned.
"Will you come and stay with me?" he asked.
She nodded, "Yes."
He pulled her closer and kissed her lightly, "I'll make you a betrothal necklace," he promised.
Sokka mounted the stairs to Katara's room.
"Katara!" he called, "Aren't you up yet? We need to get going! All the barbecued sheepig dumplings will be gone!"
As he rounded the corner he thought he heard voices, including...a distinctly male voice?! He charged down the hall to fling the door open, dreading what he might find.
Aang and Katara stood just inside the doorway of her balcony. Aang had his glider in one hand, his shirt in the other. They both froze. Aang looked horrified. Katara's lips trembled with repressed laughter.
"I'm...gonna meet you guys at Iroh's place." Aang threw his shirt on, snapped his glider open and jumped out the window.
"I'm..." Sokka stared at the spot where Aang had been standing, "...I'm gonna...back out of this room."
"Don't tell Dad!" She called after him.