Alternate Universe, hundreds of years into the future…
Katara was jarred awake by the abrupt trilling of her cell phone. She surreptitiously wiped at the corners of her mouth, hoping that she hadn't drooled unbecomingly during her brief slumber. It was embarrassing enough to have nodded off on the shoulder of a complete stranger. She sincerely hoped she hadn't suffered the indignantly of being gross while she did it.
It wasn't at all surprising that she'd fallen asleep, however. She hadn't slept very much the previous night. When she wasn't tossing and turning with anxiety over her upcoming job interview, she was plagued by the oddest dreams. That wasn't an unnatural occurrence given that she had been having odd dreams since her fourteenth birthday, but those were nothing like the one she'd experienced the night before. In that particular dream, she had actually died. She was still having difficulty shaking it off more than four hours later, a sure sign that the remainder of her day would be a crappy one.
Her phone continued its musical ring, prompting Katara to dig down deep into the cluttered confines of her purse to retrieve it. She wasn't surprised to see her brother's phone number illuminated on the caller i.d. screen. It was the fifth time he had called her in the space of ten minutes. The first three times she had answered, but by the fourth call she realized he was just being compulsive. She wasn't going to indulge him further. Katara rolled her eyes as her phone continued to buzz.
"Really, Sokka?" she muttered to herself, "You should invest in an ankle bracelet. It would be less work for you."
The express train rumbled to a stop just as the call dropped. Dismissing her overprotective brother, Katara gathered her belongings and stepped off the metro rail into Ba Sing Se's crowded subway system, trying not to appear as nervous and frazzled as she felt. Although she looked every inch a smartly dressed business woman, clad in a sleek, navy blue pencil skirt, matching blue blazer, crisp white blouse and impossibly high heels with her dark hair pinned back in a sophisticated bundle, looks were definitely deceiving. In contrast to her urbane façade, Katara still felt very much like the small town girl from a remote little village in the South Pole that she was. She was overwhelmed, not only by the sheer masses of people, but also by how quickly and nimbly they moved through the subway tunnels. It was far, far different from the sleepy village in which she had been raised.
Part of her wanted to turn on her teetering heel and step right back onto the train, but Katara steeled herself against the impulse. She had come this far and she didn't want to turn back now. It was natural that she was going to feel out of her element. Her brother had warned her about that. The best she could do would be to dive right into it all. Besides, it wasn't as if she had the option to pass up a job. With her acceptance to Ba Sing Se University still pending, she needed some financial security. She definitely couldn't live off her brother and his girlfriend forever.
But knowing what she needed to do and actually doing it were two very different things. People zipped past her in whirring droves, moving at blurring speeds and jostling her repeatedly without so much as an apology or a simple "excuse me." Katara was almost afraid to step forward because she was certain she'd trip over her own feet and be trampled remorselessly. The shoes Suki had insisted that she wear to her job interview weren't helping matters either. The heels looked quite lovely and accentuated her slender legs in an alluring way, but she hadn't even walked in them two minutes and they were already killing her feet. There was no way that she'd be able to move at the blinding speeds of those surrounding her.
She was still frozen in place and seriously entertaining the notion of running back home to her brother when her cell phone rang again. Katara retrieved the device from her handbag and rolled her eyes when she saw that Suki's name now lit up her call screen instead of Sokka's. She pursed her lips and clicked on the call with a heavy sigh. "You think you're so clever, don't you?"
"Well, maybe I wouldn't be forced to such drastic lengths if you answered the phone when I called you," her brother retorted tartly.
"And maybe I would answer the phone if you didn't call every ten seconds!"
"I don't do that," Sokka grumbled, "I only wanted to make sure you got off the train okay."
"I did. Now all I need to do is figure out where I'm going."
"You mean you lost the directions I gave you?" Sokka exploded in a panic, "Oh, for crying out loud! Don't move! I'll be there in twenty minutes, Katara!"
"Would you get a grip?" she hissed as she began cautiously winding her way through the crowd, "I have the directions, okay! There are just so many people here. It's hard to know which way I should go."
"I warned you about that, didn't I?" Sokka replied in his usual "I told you so" tone of voice, "The new Avatar is being announced today and it's a huge deal because of that whole law that's about to be passed…you know the one that requires benders to register with the government. I knew it would be crazy down there. That's why I wanted to go with you."
"Sokka, I'm eighteen years old. I don't need you to hold my hand for every little thing."
"You're my baby sister," he said, "I'm always going to want to hold your hand."
Katara felt some of her irritation with him lessen a bit as she ascended the subway steps towards the surface. "Thanks for looking out for me, big brother." She divided her attention between talking to him and consulting the scrap of paper on which he'd scrawled the directions. Katara turned the paper several times in an unsuccessful attempt to decipher her brother's horrendous scribble. "I wish your handwriting didn't resemble chicken scratch."
"You're welcome," he deadpanned, "Just make sure you stay on Long Feng. It will take you straight to the hotel."
"Okay. I will. Was that all you wanted, warden?"
"Actually, it isn't," he drawled crisply, "I was calling because I was worried about you. I…um…I found Mom's necklace on the bathroom sink a little while ago." A pregnant pause fell between them before he finally said, "You must have left it there when you got out of the shower."
As if she couldn't believe that was even possible, Katara's fingers flew to her neck reflexively. Much to her dismay and consternation, she found the skin bare. She bit out a soft curse. "I can't believe I left it. I never leave it."
"Don't worry. It's in a safe place," Sokka reassured her, "You must have been distracted this morning. Are you that nervous about this interview? I told you not to give it a second thought. It's in the bag. I've got an in."
"Forgive me if I'm not putting much confidence in your beer buddy's assurance that I'm 'in like Flynn,' especially because I have no idea who Flynn is," Katara snorted, "The bottom line is that I'm a bender and that's going to be a problem. You know how people feel about us these days."
"They don't know you can bend, Katara…and you don't have to tell them. My friend is the boss' kid and even he doesn't know she can bend. You do what you have to do."
"I know that, but I don't like hiding who I am," she hissed in a low whisper, "I'm not ashamed of what I can do! It sucks that we're treated like criminals just because people don't understand!"
"It does," Sokka agreed, "But let the Avatar figure out all of that political crap. After all, that's his job, right? You shouldn't let it bother you so much."
"I'm trying, Sokka. But that's not the reason I got distracted and left behind Mom's necklace. I didn't sleep much last night," she confessed.
"You're not still having those nightmares, are you?"
"Isn't that always the problem?"
"Glowing man on the floating island again?"
"Not this time," Katara sighed, "This time, I was flying a giant sky bison and we got trapped in a violent storm. We went down into the sea and I died. The end."
"What is this weird preoccupation you have with the Air Nomad culture?" Sokka asked, "It's very unsettling."
"Look, I don't know why I dream about these things!" she fired back defensively, "I just do. That one really shook me up."
"I'll bet it did if it made you forget to put on Mom's necklace," he murmured.
"Yeah…" She turned a distracted glance around at her surroundings, noting the gleaming high rise building lining the city block. "I think I'm here, Sokka. I'll call you back later and tell you how it went."
"Katara, wait!" Sokka cried before she could disconnect the call, "Look across the street."
She grimaced into the phone impatiently. "Why?"
"There's a place called Mong's. They have the best roasted turkey legs in the city. You gotta bring me one!"
"I really hate you."
"I'm taking that as a yes."
After ending the call and then turning off her phone entirely for good measure, Katara carefully wound her way through the crowd and the belligerent protestors just outside of the Beifong Luxury Hotel and made her way into the lobby. She wasn't expecting the heavy security detail she had to endure upon entering the building, but after she learned that the Avatar and his entourage were staying in the top suites it then made sense to her why outside was so crazy. The Avatar represented for the general public, the biggest, baddest threat among benders that they could possibly imagine and he was lobbying for people like him to maintain their civil freedoms.
It wasn't surprising that he would receive such hatred and opposition and that security around him would be so tight. There were actually people who viewed him as a threat and wanted to kill him. His identity was so protected that no one even knew what he looked like. After Avatar Roku died, the identity of the next avatar had been a well kept secret. In fact, not much was known about him beyond his nationality and the fact that he was a beacon of hope for benders all around the world. If anyone could stop that ridiculous law that would require benders to be tagged for identification from being passed it would be him.
Katara was sincerely grateful for his efforts. She would even gladly join his cause if she hadn't promised her father before leaving the South Pole that she would stay out of trouble. No sit ins. No public protests. No getting arrested. And since taking up the Avatar's cause and publicly outing herself as a bender would probably lead to all of that, Katara supposed following the man was definitely out.
She was still mulling over the whole thing as she shrugged out of her jacket and shifted around her portfolio so she could fumble around in her purse for money to purchase a hot tea. There was a tea barista located within the hotel lobby and a quick glance at her wristwatch told her that she still had at least forty minutes to kill before her job interview. The aroma of mint ginseng was simply too seductive.
Ten minutes later, she had purchased her tea and a small cake and was juggling both along with her jacket, portfolio and purse on her way towards the elevators. Perched upon her precariously high heels, Katara should have known that it was a disaster waiting to happen…and it was. One moment she was mounting an extraordinary effort to make it to the elevators without dropping a single thing and the next she was being plowed to the ground by an unexpected force. Her tea, her cake, her portfolio, her purse and her all went spilling to the ground in a disheveled heap.
It took the guy who collided with her longer to recover. Katara, meanwhile, scrambled to her knees to retrieve her scattered personal effects while a mortified voice sounded overhead. "I'm sorry! I'm really, really sorry!" He dropped down in a vain attempt to help her gather her papers and rolling cosmetics. Her cake, unfortunately, had been squished beyond repair. The young man emitted a rueful groan. "I didn't see you at all! It's like you came from out of nowhere and then…BOOM!"
Katara barely flicked him with a glance as she stuffed items back into her portfolio and purse. "I could see how you missed me," she bit out crisply, "What with me standing directly in front of you!"
"Yeah…that was dumb."
She lifted the remnants of her destroyed cake from the floor, spearing him with a brief, incensed glare. "You think?"
"Please…let me buy you another," he offered sweetly.
Katara waved a dismissive hand as she finished gathering her things. "It's not necessary." Although, she could feel the young man staring at her, she didn't bother to meet his eyes. The forty minute window she'd had to enjoy her tea and cake had now shrunk to fifteen. Her stockings were ruined. Her hair was a mess. And she was covered in mint ginseng tea! All of that was his fault! Buying her another pastry certainly wasn't going to fix matters.
Suddenly, she heard him gasp. "I'm sorry," he said again, his voice trembling with contrition, "I completely ruined your shirt, didn't I? I'm such a klutz!"
She sighed. Suddenly, she couldn't find the wherewithal to be angry with him anymore, not when he seemed so genuinely contrite over having mown her down. "Forget about it," she said as she finally finished situating herself, "I'm fine. It's an easy clean-up." Without even thinking about it, she waved her hand across the sleeve of her blouse and her jacket and bent the liquid stain from the fibers and sloshed it into her empty cup. She realized the mistake she'd made about a split second before he exclaimed, "Wow! You're a waterbender!"
Katara suppressed an audible groan, quickly wracking her brain for some plausible excuse for why she had done what she just did, when he said, "That's amazing. You don't get to see too many people openly bending these days."
At that point, Katara finally mustered the courage to look at him squarely for the first time…and completely forgot what she was going to say. Her gaze widened as she suddenly found herself staring into the clearest and widest pair of gray eyes that she'd ever seen. He couldn't have been much older than her, with adorably handsome features and an equally adorable expression. But what really drew Katara's fascinated stare was the pale, blue arrow located directly in the center of his forehead. Even beneath his shaggy locks of dark, brown hair and the low hood of his jacket, it was plainly visible…as visible as the matching ones on his hands. Katara gasped, relaxing in his presence for the first time since he'd knocked her to the ground.
"And you're an airbender," she concluded in breathless wonder, "I've never met one in person before. I didn't realize your people ever left the temples."
He grinned at her. "It happens sometimes. But yeah…I guess the big, blue arrow makes it hard to hide the fact I'm a bender, huh?"
Katara's expression grew stony. "You shouldn't have to hide it. None of us should."
"Yeah," he agreed softly, passing her the few belongings that he had managed to collect, "It won't always be like that though." He suddenly thrust his hand out to her, his eyes dancing merrily. "I'm Aang."
She favored him with a crooked smile and took hold of his fingers in a firm, but brief handshake. It was strange, but she found it difficult to look away from him. He felt familiar to her, like they had met somewhere before. "It's nice to meet you, Aang. I'm Katara."
"So, Katara…how do you feel about penguin sledding?"
"I…uh…what?" she asked, attempting to shake off the sudden stupor that had settled over her.
"Technically, we'd have to go to the South Pole to do it, but…that's what flying bison are for."
Katara regained a bit of her composure and snorted. "You have a flying bison? Yeah, right!"
"Since I was six years old," he answered airily.
She squinted at him skeptically. "You're full of it. I don't believe you."
"I'm hurt, Katara. We just met and already there's so much mistrust between us."
Just as she opened her mouth to make a tensing retort, a sudden commotion broke out around them. Several men in dark suits rushed past them, followed by a procession of frantic Air Nomad monks all dressed in ceremonial attire. As they inspected the corners of the hotel lobby, obviously searching for someone, Katara noted how Aang had suddenly couched into a tight ball and had pulled the hood of his sweatshirt lower over his face as if he were trying to avoid being seen. She surveyed him with an amused smirk.
"And you wonder why there's so much mistrust between us," she teased him. He peered at her out from beneath the gray edge of his hood. "What did you do?"
"Nothing," he replied, only to belie that denial when he ducked yet again as the group made another sweeping pass in their vicinity.
"Yeah…I don't believe you," Katara laughed.
"I'm a sweetheart." He batted his lush lashes at her innocently. "Look at this face."
Katara crossed her arms with an amused eye roll. "Still not buying it."
"There's that mistrust thing again," he admonished her with a charming smile, "It really breaks my heart." He surveyed her with a careful look, his expression abruptly becoming serious. "Are you going to rat me out?"
Katara pretended to think about that for a moment and then she smiled at him coyly. "No. I'm feeling benevolent today. But I would like to know why you're in trouble."
"I'm not in trouble."
"Then why are you hiding?"
"It's a long story." When she was clearly a long way from being mollified by that explanation, Aang sighed, "Have you ever felt trapped inside your life…like all these things were happening and you just had to go along with it?"
"All the time," Katara whispered in commiseration.
"Well, that's me…and that's why I'm running." He appraised her with an adoring look from beneath his curly lashes, a look that made Katara blush deeply. "But things are definitely looking up…" Self-conscious beneath his scrutiny, Katara ducked her head and immediately began fiddling with the loosened tendrils of her hair bun. The gesture only endeared her to Aang more. "I really feel bad about your cake and tea," he said, "I'd like to buy you another one…maybe someplace else where I'm not so visible."
"Oh, Aang…I…I'd love to. I really would, but…" Katara glanced at her watch. "I have a job interview in seven minutes and…and I really have to go," she finished halfheartedly.
"That's okay," he said, shifting to his feet and leaving Katara with little choice but to do that same, "If it's not meant to be, it's not meant to be. It was nice meeting you anyway. Maybe I'll see you around sometime."
"Aang, wait!" she cried when he would have walked away. He pivoted to face her with a startled smile. "Can you wait for me? I shouldn't be long. Forty-five minutes tops! Thirty if I talk really fast!"
"I don't want you to screw up your job interview for me."
"And I don't want you to go," Katara countered.
His face practically lit up with the admission. "No?"
She offered him a shy smile. "No. So do you think we could find a compromise?"
"Okay," he agreed, "I'll stick around for you. Keep a lookout for me around the potted plants because you know I gotta keep a low profile."
Katara giggled. "Okay," she sighed with a wide smile as she stepped around him and began backing up towards the elevators, "I'll see you in forty-five minutes."
"Thirty if you talk fast," he reminded her.
"Yeah…" Her grin stretched wider only to crumple into a mortified scowl when she collided with the decorative plant behind her rather than smoothly stepping into the elevator as she planned. "Yes, what a lovely bonsai tree," she said in an effort to cover her misstep as she hopped into the lift, "I knew that was there."
He rolled his lips inward to keep from laughing at her. "I'm sure you did."
"Don't leave," she entreated him as the doors began to slide closed, "Stay put."
"I will. I'm not going anywhere," he promised her softly.
They were the last words she heard him speak before the elevator doors dinged closed. For the moment, Katara wasn't even concerned with punching the number for her desired floor. She wilted back into the wall with a besotted sigh, hardly aware of the amused sideways glances she was receiving from her fellow passengers. The guy standing next to her nudged her in the side. Katara blinked at him with a blank smile.
"What floor, miss?"
"Oh," she chirped, suddenly remembering herself, "Four. I need four. Thank you." She immediately resumed her rhapsodized sighing after that.
The man pressed the button for her and regarded her with an amused smile. "I can understand why you'd be a little star-struck, but you might want to be careful around that kid," he warned her in an under breath.
Katara frowned, her hackles raised instantly by the unspoken censure in his tone. "Why? Because he's a bender? You can't always listen to the stories you hear on the news, you know! Not all benders are criminals!"
"No, not just because he's a bender," the man retorted shortly, "Don't you know anything? That kid you were just talking to…he's the new Avatar."