When Aang opened his eyes, he expected to find Katara tangled around him. But instead of being buried beneath rumpled, crimson colored sheets with a naked Katara draped across his chest, Aang discovered that he wasn't in a bedroom at all. In actuality, he was outside in what appeared to be a very dense forest, surrounded by towering trees and lush greenery. He frowned, disoriented and confused by the finding. Two pertinent questions sprang to his mind: where was he and how had he gotten there?
Further alarming was the realization that Katara was nowhere to be found. His last distinct memory was falling asleep with her in his arms and now he was in the middle of a strange forest all alone. He called out for her, his breath suspended as he waited for her to answer. His confusion escalated to heart-pounding panic when he didn't receive an answer. Aang swiftly floated to his feet, prepared to comb every inch of his wooded surroundings until he found her.
As he thrashed his way through clusters of trees and called out for her, Aang vaguely recalled rising with Katara in the early morning hours. They had dragged themselves from the bed for something important, but what that something was flirted just on the edges of his consciousness. The answer was there, but it would not come to him readily at all.
With his search becoming more frantic, Aang wracked his brain for the missing pieces and a clue that would help him find Katara. He kept screaming her name, his voice echoing out over the treetops but his efforts were met with resounding silence. He started to backtrack the way he came, hoping that perhaps he had missed her somehow, when he abruptly became aware of his clothing.
Something was definitely wrong. Gone were the checkered pajama bottoms that he'd originally worn to bed and in the place of the comfortable cotton was a traditional monk's robe that he didn't immediately recognize. The fabric felt familiar butt the cut of the robe was foreign to him. He had a brief thought that someone had stolen his clothes, but then that didn't explain why he was dressed the way he was. Aang leaned into the sturdy bark of the nearest tree, trying to recall when he had changed clothes and why.
As the craziness of his circumstances mounted, his alarm exploded to exponential heights. Katara was missing. He was wearing weird clothes. He was in a strange place and he had no idea how he had come to be there. Everything was nuts! So, either something truly freaky had happened the previous night or he was starting to lose it!
Aang lifted a shaking hand to his mouth, intending to drag it down the length of his chin only to freeze completely at what he found there. Apparently, his clothing wasn't the only thing that had changed overnight. He had a freaking beard! Aang patted down his cheeks in stunned disbelief. He sifted his fingers through the coarse growth of hair, totally unable to process its presence. And it was not a fine growth of overnight stubble either! He had a full-grown beard!
Immediately, Aang began rooting around for a water source, something that would allow him to view his reflection and that's when he saw it in the far distance…the looming stone effigy of him as a thirteen year old boy, one leg thrust forward in a steadfast pose and his staff in hand. Immediately upon seeing the statue something jarred within Aang and brought with it a ringing clarity. Suddenly, he knew exactly where he was: Republic City. Then, it all came flooding back to him in a punishing rush. Not just the five days he had spent with Katara, but everything that had preceded them as well. After what seemed like thousands of years, he had finally returned home.
In a bounding burst of lucidity, Aang began to fit the pieces of his jagged memory together. He wasn't the sixteen year old unrealized Avatar that had recently lost his virginity to his girlfriend. Nor was he a 112 year old man, battling unrequited love for a fourteen year old girl. Instead, he was a thirty-four year old father of three and married man. Yet, it was still difficult for him to separate the three realities, particularly because all three felt inherently familiar to him. The situation left Aang feeling very shaken, confused and frightened. He couldn't be sure which version of his life was real. At that moment, he didn't know who he was or where he belonged.
Yet, before he gave into the impulse to flip out completely, Aang methodically considered the facts. A quick glance at the back of his hands revealed the firm, youthful skin of a man in the prime of his life, not an ailing, elderly man of 112 years. It was impossible for the morbid memories he held from that reality to be true. There was also a maturity to his frame that belied the idea that he was a sixteen year old boy as well. Truly, there was no way he had grown a beard overnight, so the crazy, futuristic reality couldn't be true either. That left the last set of memories and the ones that made the most sense…that he had married Katara and he'd made babies with her and, ultimately, he'd left her alone.
Aang expelled a low, self-deprecating groan. The last thing he remembered was saying goodbye to her just outside of their house on Air Temple Island. She'd been crying and he had been trying very hard not to cry. Katara had been filled with doubts that morning about his journey, but Aang was convinced she was merely having a case of the last minute jitters. Truthfully, he hadn't wanted to leave her anymore than she had wanted him to leave, but Aang had truly believed he was acting in the interests of the greater good. He believed he was going to make their world better.
After that, he and Appa set a course for the Fire Nation because he had wanted to return to Ember Island in hopes of finding the lion turtle again. With Zuko's permission, he had resided at the beach house that had once served as the royal family's vacation home. In the ensuing days, he spent hours meditating on the beach, waiting patiently for the lion turtle to come to him and, eventually…he had. Aang remembered the rush of energy that flooded his body when he accessed the avatar spirit and then…nothing.
His memories then segued oddly into his childhood again. He was living at the Southern Air Temple as a twelve-year-old boy and living in a world where the threat of the comet loomed. Only, he didn't run away and the genocide of his beloved people never happened. He had saved Gyatso. He met a different Katara and made friends he never would have imagined making. He had saved the world. He had changed his entire future and the futures of those he loved most…and he had lost Katara in the process.
That hadn't been what he'd wanted at all. He could still feel the visceral, aching pain of wanting her, being close enough to touch her and yet unable to touch her at all. Following his death in that painful reality, Aang's life seemed to begin again, this time unfolding at age 16. He had met Katara in that reality as well, literally mowed right over her, but in that time they had been together. The relationship had progressed at lightning speed and they were only in a relationship for a short while. It didn't take him long at all to fall in love with her. And, in the end, it was that love for her that ultimately brought him back to himself. Katara had been the catalyst needed to jar him back into the present. Perhaps, that was the reason he had failed to do so the first time around…
Still pondering the matter, Aang glanced out at the statue of himself and realized with a sharp breath that he was closer to it now than he had been before. The stony tribute was coming closer to him or else… Belatedly, it hit Aang that he was moving. More specifically, the island upon which he stood was moving! His heart thumping with the possibility, he quickly darted through the trees and ran towards the edge of the forest in order to confirm his suspicions. When he reached the cliff side and saw the swirling waves down below, Aang had his answers.
He dove from the precipice into the sea in a fluid arc, bending himself around towards the front of the "island" so that he could see the lion turtle's face. Until that instant, he had only had his strong suspicions and convictions, but it was only upon seeing the lion turtle himself that Aang realized, despite all his very vivid and bizarre memories, he had never left the turtle's forest-like shell at all. As real as it felt, all that he'd seen had only transpired in his mind. He also knew instinctively that the lion turtle had been the source of everything he had seen and experienced, though he didn't know what its motivation had been.
Unfortunately, confirming his location only opened an entirely new slew of questions. How had he gotten there? How long had he been there? Where was Appa? Why was the lion turtle taking him home? It was all eerily reminiscent of how he had felt when he first came out of the iceberg. He had been expecting one set of circumstances, only to awaken to a different reality altogether. Once again, he had figuratively fallen asleep and his world had changed during his slumber. Growing even more agitated, Aang quickly resurfaced and hoisted himself up onto the turtle's back once more and waited as patiently as he could for the giant creature to deliver him home.
As Air Temple Island rapidly came into view, Aang continued to obsess over how long he had been on the lion turtle's back. For him, it seemed as if thousands of years had gone past. In one reality, he had lived for one hundred years and had accumulated a century's worth of memories. In another, he had been a teenager in a futuristic world full of fancy gadgets and fast machinery. He had no idea how that translated into reality. He was almost afraid to find out. Understandably then, by the time the lion turtle reached the island, Aang was literally trembling with trepidation.
He almost hesitated to leave the turtle's back because he was so afraid of what he might find on the other side. But then Aang checked his fear and shoved it into the lowest depths of his heart. He had run from adversity too many times in his life, if not physically then emotionally. He was determined not to do it this time. Whatever waited for him out there, he would face it and he would deal with it. What other choice did he have?
On severely shaking legs, Aang stepped off the turtle's shell and onto the island that had been his home for the better part of fifteen years. At first glance, the island seemed remarkably unchanged. He recognized several landmarks and there was no denying the feeling of relief he had being back there again. On the surface, everything seemed the same as when he left. Aang, on the other hand, felt profoundly changed.
Weighted down by that profound realization, Aang finally turned to face the age old lion turtle. When he did, he could only think to ask one question. "Why?"
"Even a pure heart must be refined," the turtle rumbled, "Some gifts reveal themselves when we are still."
Aang shut his eyes with a wry grunt. "If I was asking for the impossible, you could have simply told me 'no.'"
"Eyes alone do not see. The heart too can be blinded."
"And so you decided to open the eyes of my heart? Is that it?"
"You have much wisdom, my friend, but you are young still."
Aang accepted that statement that with a terse nod, rightly assuming that the turtle was telling him that he didn't know everything he thought he did. "How long have I been here with you, lion turtle?"
"I have lived for centuries of time," the turtle said, "Only a short while, in my estimation."
"What about in my estimation?" Aang wondered warily.
"If one is to acquire wisdom, one must also know loss. The pursuit of knowledge demands sacrifice."
Those cryptic words filled Aang with a heavy sense of dread, but he hesitated to press the turtle on what that particular loss was. Instead, he asked, "Have I sacrificed to be here with you? Is that why you gave me the five days with her?"
"In the vision you were given, you did not fully understand until the end. That was the final lesson. Your love for Katara is what sustains you. It is the ultimate source of peace. Embrace that always and the past will not matter. Only the future can be reshaped."
"Thank you for helping me see the error in my thinking," Aang whispered. He was surprised to discover that he genuinely meant it too. Despite the uncertainty that presently surrounded him, Aang was grateful that the lion turtle had enabled him to do what he had struggled with for years…to let go of the past. "What do I do now?"
"Find her," the lion turtle murmured as he sank back into the depths, "and make it right."
Aang released a shuddering breath. It was, at least, tacit confirmation that Katara was still alive. Presently, that had to be enough for him. He couldn't make himself crazy with what ifs because that would only impede his determination to move forward. What ultimately mattered was the prospect of seeing Katara and his children again. Aang's heart contracted painfully when he thought of Kya, Bumi and Tenzin. In both realities he had experienced, they had been absent. And now that he knew where he was, who he was and where he was going, Aang realized that he missed them to the point of aching. Of all the things he had endured on his spiritual journey, the joys of fatherhood were the things he had missed the most.
Filled with renewed motivation to get back to them and his life, Aang squared his shoulders and began trudging the well worn path toward the main house. As he walked along, he carefully studied his environment, searching for any dramatic changes that might have taken place, but everything looked exactly as he remembered it. He navigated his way towards the temple with very few problems. When the white-washed spire came into view, he actually expelled a relieved sigh to see it…home at last.
Unfortunately, that relief was short-lived. He heard their shouts of laughter long before he saw them. As Aang stepped around the edge of the temple courtyard, he was greeted with bustling activity. The open area was scattered with sky bison and the air acolytes who were grooming them. Aang readily recognized the bison, but a few of the air acolyte faces were unfamiliar to him and that caused him some anxiety. Everyone was so busy conversing with one another, tending to the shedding bison and collecting the bundles of their fallen fur that they didn't immediately notice the lone airbender standing on the edge of the courtyard.
Aang was content to go unnoticed because, at that precise moment, he spotted Appa. His beloved sky bison was safe and alive and huddled lovingly with his own family. The sight caused tears of happiness to well up in Aang's eyes. He swiftly began to cross the distance to get to Appa, impervious to the rippling stir he caused as he did so, when Katara and his children suddenly came into view as well. At that point, Aang's steps faltered and he forgot to breathe.
Any hope he had that he hadn't lost years during his time on the turtle's back was ground into dust. His daughter Kya, who had still been a little girl in his estimation when he left, was very clearly a woman now. She had grown taller and thinner and was very much the image of her mother, except for when she was laughing. As Kya giggled and hopped playfully out from underneath Appa's determined tongue, Aang could clearly see himself in her. She was so beautiful that Aang found his throat aching just to look at her. In those few seconds, he lamented every milestone he had missed.
The growth that had taken place in his sons was equally painful. Tenzin and Bumi, who had been four and nine the last time he had seen them, were clearly older as well. Bumi looked to be nearing his teenage years, if he wasn't there already. Only his wild, unruly hair and jaunty smile remained the same. Tenzin, on the other hand, Aang barely recognized at all. His height had doubled and all the baby fat had melted from his cheeks. In fact, Aang might not have even realized the boy as his son had Tenzin not airbended his brother, who was teasing him mercilessly, across the courtyard.
Katara was the one person who appeared unaffected by time. She was as lovely to Aang now as she had been the first time he'd laid eyes on her. Her long, dark hair was tied in an untidy bun at the base of her neck, but her signature hair loopies remained in place. She turned slightly and, at that precise moment, her profile was bathed in golden sunlight, flooding Aang with the simultaneous feelings of peace and pain. He regarded her with avid eyes as she efficiently split her attention between scolding their boys, demanding Kya's help and grooming one of the younger bison.
She was so preoccupied with maintaining order that Katara didn't immediately notice the gradual hush that began falling over everyone, but Kya did. Curious as to the reason why people were suddenly leaving off in their work and standing still in dumbfounded amazement, Kya stopped her antics with Appa long enough to investigate. He stood in the center of the speechless crowd, staring directly at them. Kya's clear gray eyes widened in disbelief when she saw him standing there, looking exactly as she remembered him…as if three and a half years had not passed since he'd disappeared.
"Dad?" she uttered in a trembling voice, "Dad, is that you?"
Stunned by the question, as well as Kya's stricken expression, Katara lurched around…and immediately burst into tears. Her hand fluttered to her jumping throat. "Aang?"
Aang wasn't sure that he would be able to find his voice to speak and, when he did, the words came out in a garbled jumble. "Hello, Katara…it's been a long time," he whispered hoarsely, "I've missed you."
The words propelled Katara into action. One moment, she was standing frozen along with everyone else present and the next she was flinging herself into Aang's open arms with grateful tears. She held him against her firmly, only to briefly rear back to pat her hands down his face and chest, as if reassuring herself that he was real, before yanking him back against her again.
"Where have you been, huh?" she choked brokenly into his robes, "Where have you been?"
"It's a long story," he whispered, "I don't know if you'd believe me if I told you." He met his children's stunned expressions over their mother's shoulder and beckoned them forward with spilling tears. "I wouldn't mind getting a hug from you guys too."
That was all the invitation Kya and Bumi needed to come running. Katara shifted in Aang's arms so that her son and daughter could tackle their father in a sobbing embrace. Aang gripped the three of them tightly. He was almost afraid that he was still on the lion turtle and that this moment was yet another vision. What made it real was Tenzin's reluctance to join them. The little boy watched them warily, as if he was unsure of what he should do next.
Aang crooked a hand at him. "It's okay, Tenzin," he whispered, "Don't you remember me?" The seven year old nodded slowly. A relieved smile trembled on Aang's lips. "Aren't you going to come over here and give me a hug then?"
"Are you going to go away again?" Tenzin whispered timidly. Of the three children, he was the only one who had the courage to ask the question out loud.
"No, Tenzin," Aang whispered back softly, "I'm not going to go away again."
Tenzin exchanged a look with his siblings in an unspoken request for their approval. When they both nodded, he went running into his father's arms with a glad cry. A thick knot of emotion formed in Aang's throat as he held them all again. He was filled with a pervasive sense of peace and well-being, something that he hadn't felt for a very long time. Aang recognized the feeling instantly. It was the awareness that he was finally and truly home.
He pressed enthusiastic kisses to each of the four faces surrounding him. "You have no idea how much I've missed you all." At that precise moment, Appa lumbered up from behind and greeted Aang with a great, slobbery lick of his tongue. While his family groaned in laughing disgust, Aang merely smiled broadly and rose to nuzzle his old friend. "It's good to see you again too, buddy."
Bumi tugged on the edge of his robe, reclaiming his attention. "Where did you go, Dad?" the twelve year-old asked, "Mom said that you were going to find some giant turtle and that you wouldn't be gone that long."
Aang ruffled Bumi's hair with a rueful smile. "It's a long story."
"We have time," his wife and daughter said simultaneously.
Before Aang could begin to explain to them what he had experienced, the acolytes began making their approach to officially welcome him home. He had brief reunions with those who were familiar to him and brief introductions to those who weren't. Aang patiently greeted each one, taking the time to talk with them and reassure them even though his heart was crying out to be with his family. Although it took nearly an hour, the excitement eventually died down and Katara was able to dispatch an acolyte to take the news of Aang's return to Toph and her brother. After that, she and the children took Aang back to the house.
There had been a few changes to the interior in his absence but nothing especially dramatic. He still recognized the place as his home. Yet, even if it had been completely transformed and unrecognizable to him, Aang likely wouldn't have given it much attention anyway. He couldn't quite divert his fascinated attention away from his family. And they, in turn, couldn't divert their fascinated attention away from him.
Aang surveyed his children with a confounded glance, his bouncing stare eventually coming to rest on his eldest. "I can't get over how different you look," he murmured, "You're a woman now."
Kya trilled a self-conscious laugh. "I can't help it, Dad. I am seventeen now."
"Seventeen. I can't believe you're seventeen." His smile became bittersweet. "I've missed a lot, haven't I?"
"Just a crush or two," Kya replied lightly, "Nothing special."
"It would have been special to me," Aang murmured. He turned to regard Bumi then, unable to get over how much physical growth he had undergone in three and a half years. "What about you?" Aang asked him, "Any crushes or girlfriends I should know about?"
"Girlfriends?" Bumi balked, "Dad, don't make me hurl. Girls are dumb and annoying! Pass!"
His parents traded a smiling glance over his revolted vehemence. "I guess not much has changed on that front then," he chuckled wryly.
"Oh, the girls are interested," Katara laughed, "but your son is not…for now anyway."
"Forever," Bumi declared succinctly.
Still laughing, Aang knelt down before Tenzin so that he was at eye level with the seven year old. "So what's going on with you? What have you been doing besides doubling in size while I've been gone?" Tenzin smiled, revealing two missing spaces where his top primary teeth used to be. He looked so adorable right then, doing his half smile, half grimace, that Aang felt tears fill his eyes. He caressed his son's cheek with his index finger. "When did this happen?"
A snickering Bumi was only too glad to provide the answer. "He face planted about three months ago trying to modify your air scooter."
After directing a withering glare at his brother, Tenzin revealed in a whisper, "I made it bigger, Daddy. Now more than one person can ride it. We can ride it together."
"Really?" This time Aang couldn't staunch his flow of tears. He pulled Tenzin into his arms and tucked him close. "Maybe you can show me how to do that sometime." He lifted his anguished gaze and met Katara's over the top of Tenzin's head. "I'm so sorry," he mouthed to her regretfully.
"Aang, it's okay," Katara whispered. She leaned over to cup his face in her hands and then placed a gentle kiss against his mouth. "You're home. That's all I care about."
He nodded his acceptance of that and they kissed again, longer than the first time. That kiss was followed by another and then another and then yet another, each one gradually growing in intensity and length until Kya finally cleared her throat loudly. Her parents turned a sheepish glance towards her.
"Not to break up your emotional reunion or anything, but…" Kya nodded meaningfully towards Tenzin, who was grinning at them like a fool and then towards Bumi, who was writhing around on the floor in adolescent disgust. Kya shifted her amused eyes back to her parents. "Please…not in front of the children."
"I'm surprised you're not having some sort of reaction, Kya," Katara teased her.
Kya flipped her hand dismissively. "Please, Mother. I'm a woman now. I'm evolved and sophisticated. Besides, I've been much more laid back about that kind of stuff since I've kissed a few boys myself."
"You did what?" both of her parents exploded simultaneously.
"Kidding," Kya laughed, "I'm kidding. You should have seen your faces!"
Katara shook her head in restrained amusement but Aang continued to grumble. "That's not funny, Kya."
"Oh, come on, Dad. It was hilarious and you know it. Besides, I can't help myself. I am an incurable prankster." Her words trembled with unshed tears as she added softly, "I get that from my father."
Aang couldn't help it. He stepped over to give her yet another hug, along with Bumi, Tenzin and Katara. The five of them were still clinging to each other when Sokka, Suki and Toph arrived. After that, the living area exploded with emotion all over again.
Toph was the first to recover from the shock of Aang's presence. She broke the ice by saying something typically Toph-like. "You're three years, six months and thirteen days late for work. If that's not grounds for firing, I don't know what is, Twinkle Toes."
He yanked her into his arms for a brief but firm hug. "It's good to see you again, Toph."
"It's good to have you back," she whispered, "I was beginning to wonder if we ever would."
Next in line for reunion embraces were Sokka and Suki. The three quietly reacquainted themselves with one another while Katara looked on with shimmering eyes. Sokka clapped him heartily on the back. "Welcome home, buddy!" he boomed.
"Where have you been this whole time anyway?" the Water Tribe warrior demanded, "We practically scoured all four corners of the world searching for you and that turtle!"
"It was like when you disappeared before the comet," Suki added, "We were really worried about you, Aang."
"I didn't mean to worry you," he murmured contritely, "And I never meant to be gone as long as I was. It was a crazy, convoluted journey like you wouldn't believe."
Suki made herself comfortable in the nearest chair. "That's okay," she reassured him, "Start from the beginning…"
Six hours later, Aang had not only recounted the entire tale of his experiences in the alternate realities, but he had also answered every conceivable question his friends could ask, caught up with all the world issues and the specifics of what he had missed in his absence and learned Republic City's latest bits of gossip. By the time it was over, he was drooping with exhaustion and Katara was dropping some not so subtle hints for their guests to leave. When subtlety failed to do the trick, she decided to go with the direct approach.
"You guys need to leave," she announced remorselessly, "Aang and I have a lot of catching up to do."
Toph smirked, retorting in a sing-song tone as she passed Katara on her way to the exit, "Someone's getting laid…"
Sokka gagged. "Yeah…I didn't need to know that, Toph."
"Neither did I," Kya agreed with a mock shudder, "Thanks for that, Aunt Toph."
The blind earthbender shrugged laconically. "I do what I can, kiddo."
"Get out of here," Katara ordered them laughingly.
Suki graciously helped to usher Sokka and Toph through the door and then added in a low tone to Katara, "You were right all along." The two women shared a soft smile of understanding before Katara closed the door behind her.
After the guests were gone, Kya volunteered to get her brothers prepared for bed. She responded to her parents' surprise with a single, dry reply. "Just try not to scar us for life tonight when you have your…um…moments." She skipped over to peck her chuckling father on his cheek. "Night, Dad. See you in the morning."
Bumi and Tenzin bid him goodnight as well, but Bumi hesitated to follow after his brother and sister. He turned back to regard Aang with an uncertain glance. "You promise you'll be here when I wake up tomorrow, won't you, Dad?" he entreated.
For another countless time that day Aang had tears come to his eyes. "I'll be here. I promise."
A wide smile split across his son's face. "I love you, Dad."
"I love you too," Aang whispered, "I love you all." He watched the three of them leave, unaware of the expression of utter devastation on his face as he did so.
"Don't do that," Katara told him softly.
He cut a sharp glance towards her. "Do what?"
"Blame yourself. Hate yourself."
Aang resisted her efforts to comfort him. "The kids are…they seem like…" He swallowed down his rising sob. "I didn't even recognize Tenzin at first, Katara."
"That's understandable. He was four years old the last time you saw him."
"And Kya and Bumi… Bumi is nearly a teenager and Kya…" He blew out a dazed sigh. "Our daughter is a woman now."
"I've missed being a part of their lives. I abandoned my family."
"That's not what you did, Aang," Katara denied fiercely, "You went away for your family. Besides, I always knew that you would come back home. The only thing I didn't know was when."
"I can't believe it's been three and a half years."
Katara expelled a humorless laugh. "I certainly can't tell by looking at you. You look exactly the way you did when you left here three years ago."
His eyes darkened appreciatively as he regarded her. "And you've grown more beautiful."
"No, I've aged," she pointed out wryly, "and you haven't."
"You've suffered," Aang concluded in a quiet tone, "And that is entirely my fault."
"Aang, please don't blame yourself."
"Why shouldn't I blame myself?" he argued, "You've had to raise the children on your own all this time, Katara." He dropped his head forward with a despondent grunt. "I don't know how you can even look at me."
"Maybe because it was a decision we made together," she pointed out tartly, "I'm not going to just shove it all back on you because it went wrong!"
"But I don't even have anything to show for it! I went to change the world and I changed nothing! I disappeared. The world needed me here. The children needed me. You needed me!"
"And you needed to find some peace," she countered softly, "Did you, Aang? Did you find it?"
His expression softened into a mask of vulnerability as he drew her forward into his arms. "The only peace I've ever truly known in my life is when I'm with you."
"Then let's not spend any more time on regrets," she whispered, "It's over. It's past and we're here now." She took hold of his hand and began leading him towards their bedroom. "Let me give you a proper welcome home, Aang…"
He was surprised by how nervous he felt once they were alone. In some ways, Aang felt as if he and Katara had been together the entire time because she had remained a force with him during his mental journeys. He had fought with her and alongside her. He had watched her grow up. He had even become friends with her and, eventually, become intimate with her. She had remained a dynamic force in his life all that time. In other ways, however, he felt as if he hadn't seen or touched her in eons and it was very similar to the feeling he'd experienced when suffering with longing for her for 100 years.
Still, the familiarity was there. The idea of making love to her was still very fresh in his mind. He was more than ready to be intimate with her again. For him, the time separation between them was there…and it wasn't there. But Aang didn't know if Katara's perception was different. He couldn't help but wonder if she felt a bit awkward about the entire thing.
Of course, if she did, she did a very good job of concealing it. She drew him into their bedroom and shut the door behind them with an expression that was filled with anticipation. She seemed just as eager to be with him as he was to be with her. But it had been more than three years for her. While he had been on an extended fantasy trip, she had been dealing with the day to day of raising their family and holding together a world without an Avatar. Aang wouldn't blame her if she resented him after all of that, even if it was only a little bit. He certainly didn't want to make love to her until such a serious matter was addressed between them first.
"You know, Katara…" Aang began slowly as she crossed the bedroom to join him, "…if you're angry with me, it's completely understandable. You can say so."
"Why would I be angry with you for a decision we made together, Aang?" she reasoned.
"It was never part of the plan for me to be gone three and a half years."
Her steps faltered. "You're right."
"And I haven't forgotten that you didn't want me to go."
"You're right about that too," Katara acknowledged with a heavy sigh, "I didn't want you to go and I'm not going to lie and say I didn't go through periods when I was really mad at you, Aang. But today, when I turned around in the courtyard and saw you standing there, none of it mattered anymore. I'm just…" She broke off to swallow the sob rising in her throat. "I'm glad you're home again."
"I'm glad to be home."
"It sounds like you had some crazy adventure while you were away. I haven't quite wrapped my mind around all the strange devices you mentioned or how they're supposed to work. Seems a bit farfetched, don't you think?"
"It does," Aang agreed, "But I can't help but be intrigued by the idea of talking to someone even though you're not face to face with them or even in the same room. Not to mention moving around in a motor powered apparatus that's actually faster than a flying bison. It makes me wonder if all the things I saw and experienced are actually possible."
Katara shrugged. "Anything is possible, I suppose." She favored him with a loving smile. "Just look at you."
Unfortunately, Aang felt completely unworthy of that smile. Somehow, her lack of resentment and anger towards him only increased his feelings of guilt. "Katara, I'm so sorry I put you through all of this," he mumbled penitently.
"I don't blame you for what happened or for staying away so long. It wasn't your choice. I blame that lion turtle and his need to…to teach you a lesson. I blame him for keeping you from us!"
Aang shook his head. "Katara, that's not how it was. I don't think it was his intention to keep me at all," he whispered, "I think he's the reason that I never forgot my life here with you no matter where I went in my journey, even if I didn't always understand what I was seeing or feeling. I was supposed to come back much sooner than I did but, something went awry and the lion turtle couldn't reach me again."
"Why do you think that was?"
"After I ended the war in that first timeline, I couldn't leave…not when the world needed me so much. I think that's when everything went off track."
"That makes sense," she murmured wryly, "This would happen because of you and your unquenchable need to save the world."
Encouraged by the teasing in her tone, Aang closed the gap of space between them in slow, deliberate steps. "I think my unquenchable need for you won out in the end."
Katara slipped into the circle of his arms, flattening her hands against his chest. "I'm very glad it did."
He lifted his hand to brush her loopies back from her forehead before he began removing the pins from her hair to loosen it and tossing each one carelessly over his shoulder once he had. Katara made a face at him that quickly turned into bubbles of laughter when he bobbed his eyebrows at her with a complete lack of contrition. Before he leaned forward to take her lips in the kiss they both were dying for, Aang whispered, "Are you sure you're not angry with me, Katara?"
She stepped back from him then and deftly unfastened the hooks holding her tunic in place before slipping it from her shoulders and letting it drop the floor. She stood before him in only her white bindings, loosened hair and dark, blue leggings. She went a step further by taking hold of his hand and bringing it to her breast, in a silent invitation to caress her.
"Does it seem to you like I'm angry?" she challenged softly. The moment was so inherently familiar, so very Katara that Aang had to bite back a smile. She noticed the glimmer in his gray eyes almost immediately. "What's so funny, Airbender?"
"Nothing. I've just always admired your 'take charge' attitude, that's all."
"Have you now?" Katara purred, drawing him closer.
"Very much so…"
"Well then…" she murmured, rising on her toes against him, "…you should show me how much…" Aang's teasing retort was muffled and forgotten as Katara covered his lips with her own.
Their kiss was unhurried and thorough, a languid exchange of breath and exploration of each other's mouths. It had been so long since they had the luxury of kissing one another so intimately and both Aang and Katara were content to savor the taste of each other. After waiting for so long, there was no need to hurry.
Aang tenderly unwrapped Katara's linen bindings and nipped tenderly at each swathe of skin he exposed. He began with her shoulders and then sank lower to nibble across her collarbone, and then lower still to bathe her turgid nipples with his tongue. He took his time kissing and caressing her, studiously reacquainting himself with every freckle and mole and earthy hue of her perfectly smooth skin.
Katara trembled as he sank down on his knees before her, his lips creating a burning trail down the center of her belly. She cradled his head and shoulders loosely as he pressed a tender kiss to each of her hip bones before he began peeling her leggings down over her hips and past her thighs. When she was free of them completely, he tossed them over his shoulder in the same manner he had used with her hairpins. Katara's wry smile of consternation soon became a shuddering moan when he nuzzled her through the thin material of her underwear and then removed that as well.
He palmed her naked center, nuzzled his nose against the swollen lips of her sex, and touched his tongue to the sensitive nub hidden between them. And just when Katara thought her knees would give out from the pleasure he was giving her, he began kissing his way up her body again and sealed his mouth to hers once more.
Then it was Katara's turn to undress him. She eagerly freed him from his layered robes, laying the removed articles of clothing carefully across the foot of their bed rather than tossing them to the floor. Aang had to swallow back a laugh as he watched her, recalling just how much it had amused him when she would trail after him in their bedroom, scolding him for not being tidier. He had missed that so much. He had missed her.
All of that longing manifested itself in a moan of pleasure when Katara came back into his arms and began to skim her hands over the bare skin of his chest. She pressed light, airy kisses to his breastbone, nuzzling her way towards his nipple. She kissed him there much the way he kissed her, with a facile flicking of her tongue and an insistent sucking that he hadn't expected to gratify him as much as it did. He shivered in delight as she showered the same attention on the other nipple before nibbling her way lower as well.
His dexterous fingers bunched loosely in her dark hair as she dropped hot, open-mouthed kisses all across his belly. Aang's breath became ragged and rapid, his erection leaping and his body tensing with anticipation for where she would go next. Very aware of the slight rigidity in his limbs, Katara tipped back her head to favor him with a teasing smile before she hooked her fingers into the waistband of his trousers and pulled them down so that his arousal bounced free.
Aang's eyes sank closed when he felt her warm breath waft across his sensitive skin, but he gasped aloud when she touched her lips to the tip of him. She kissed him tenderly, her tongue darting into the groove there to collect the pearls of moisture that had formed. And then, she slowly and carefully drew him into her mouth and began to suck and Aang was pretty sure he was going to die on the spot. He made a series of garbled sounds that were wholly unintelligible as Katara applied firm, but gentle pressure to his aching arousal. Aang watched as he disappeared into the moist cavern of her mouth again and again and he knew he had to stop her, otherwise it was going to end before it even started.
He gave a light tug to her hair and urged her back up his body so that he could seek her lips in a ravenous kiss. With blind, stumbling steps, they made their way towards the bed, their tongues touching, their fingers nimbly seeking out whatever naked flesh they could find and their limbs twisting in order to provide access. Aang palmed Katara's wet center, stretching one finger and then two up into the slick cavity to stroke her. By the time they tumbled into bed together, grasping and gasping with need, the time for foreplay had come and gone.
Katara deftly flipped Aang onto his back and moved to straddle over him, trapping his pulsing sex between her own and his belly. Her blue eyes glinting with mischief and beautiful self-confidence, Katara loosely swept up Aang's arms and pinned them over his head at the wrists. Aang grinned up at her in approval.
"This is new," he whispered, referring to the bondage tactics, "Are you going to tie me up?"
She ground against him, slowly gliding along the length of his pulsing erection. "Do you want to be tied up?" she teased. Aang tried to answer, but his response was little more than a fitful moan of pleasure. Katara meticulously scrutinized his face for every ecstatic grimace. "You know when you were gone…" she recounted breathlessly without ever breaking her rhythm, "…I used to imagine what I would do when you came home…how I would welcome you back…"
Only when she was literally aching with need for him did Katara angle herself forward so that the tip of his arousal was poised at her moist opening. "Sometimes, I imagined that I would cry and just run into your arms and hold you," she went on, slowly pushing back against him so that he breeched her body in excruciating inches. Aang hissed, straining against her, yearning to touch her, but Katara retained pressure on his wrists. "And other times…" she continued, sinking back further and further, "…I would imagine kissing you breathless…"
Katara impaled herself on his fully then, eliciting a gratified groan from Aang. She began to rock over him in a lazy, rolling rhythm. "But then, other times…"
His lashes fluttered up when she trailed off into gasping silence. "Other times?"
She smiled down at him, trying to maintain her concentration as she steadily increased the tempo of her movements. "Other times, I imagined throwing you down and having my way with you…"
At that point, Katara loosened her grip on his wrists. She slid her hands up over his palms and Aang locked his fingers with hers, angling up to meet her in greedy strokes. "That third thing…" he gasped as they quickened together, "…you should definitely do that third thing…"
After that, there was no more talking between them, only muffled moans and smothered cries. Katara kept Aang's hands pinned to the bed while she rode him hard and fast. The bedsprings jostled with the force of their coupling. Their skin began to glisten with exertion. They twisted together, undulating, pumping, gyrating and writhing with building need until Katara tensed with the onset of her orgasm. She threw back her head with a silent cry, her vaginal muscles contracting around Aang with such force and violence that she milked his climax from him in an explosive burst.
When it was over, Katara collapsed limply across Aang's damp chest and smiled into his skin. "Wow…I really missed that."
He brushed a lethargic kiss across the top of her head. "Me too."
"I've missed lying here with you this way and snuggling with you," she continued around a yawn, "And I've especially missed that little sound you make."
Aang angled a quizzical look around at her. "What sound?"
Katara giggled at his tone and lifted her head to regard him. "There's this sound…this sweet, little whimpering sound that you make whenever you're about to co—,"
"—I do not make a whimpering sound," Aang interrupted in a thoroughly affronted tone, "That's absurd."
"What's absurd about it?" she teased, "I happen to think it's the cutest sound in the world."
He pinched her butt in warning. Katara squealed with laughter. Aang shot her a quelling look. "You'd better watch it," he threatened direly. "I'd hate to have to tickle you into submission."
"I didn't say it was a bad sound," she giggled, writhing away from his questing fingers. And then she sobered a bit, looking down at him with unconcealed love swimming in the blue depths of her eyes. "I love that sound. I can feel how much you want me right then, Aang, and it's amazing. I don't think I've ever felt more powerful or more humble at the same time."
Aang hugged her tightly and sought her lips in a languid kiss, his body beginning to stir within her with renewed desire. "I love you, Katara," he murmured against her mouth, "I've never loved anyone the way I love you and I never will."
She cradled his face in her hands. "I feel the same way about you," she whispered as he started to shift their positions, "I'm pretty sure that loving you is the easiest and most rewarding thing I've ever done in my life, Aang, even if sometimes it's the most painful too." He buried his face in her neck then, preparing to angle himself deeper inside her when she whispered his name.
He lifted his head. "Yeah, Katara?"
Katara drew him back against her and arched eagerly into his body with a muted gasp. "Welcome home."