Post-coronation celebrations in the Fire Nation were kind of
boring, Katara had noticed. It was a shame; the one
fire festival she'd managed to go to, back in the days when she and Sokka and Aang had traveled
together, had seemed pretty fun.
It was definitely not fun hanging around a dance floor listening to people talk politics, that was for sure. Katara knew she wasn't alone, either; Sokka and Suki had snuck out a while back, there was no sign of Aang anywhere, and Toph had refused to even come to the thing.
Wish I had done the same.
She felt momentarily sorry for Zuko, who was the center of everything and had to endure all kinds of small talk from people who didn't really seem that interesting - but not sorry enough to stick around just for his sake.
"I am so getting out of here," she muttered to herself, after her fifth pass around the room looking for Aang. He was the only reason she was still there - after Sokka and Suki had left, she'd figured it might be nice to find him before he was deserted entirely, but he seemed to be doing his best to make himself scarce.
Not that she blamed him, but if he was going to be difficult about it, then she wasn't going to feel guilty about leaving him to face the wolves alone.
"Leaving already?" Mai asked her in an undertone as she passed the other girl on the way to the exit. "The dancing hasn't even started yet." Her tone was wry.
"I doubt anyone's going to miss me," Katara answered, with a bit of an awkward shrug. She wasn't really sure how to act around Zuko's girlfriend; there had been too many instances where she'd almost been skewered with knives and not enough time to wrap her brain around the idea of Mai being 'on their side'. "Plus, I think my friends have already left. There's really no point in - "
"I get it already - this place is boring." Mai rolled her eyes. "Just go."
"Uh... right. Thanks."
Gee, that wasn't too uncomfortable, was it?
One of the things she'd noticed about the palace here was that they really liked long hallways. By the time she reached the end of the one she was walking along and stepped out into the warm night air, Katara had been starting to wonder if she was going the wrong way and the hallway just kind of looped around on itself or something.
And it's just another extension of the hallway, anyway, she noted wryly. The path continued on through the artfully arranged garden beside it, and she could see where it branched out to return to the inside of the palace in a few places.
More interesting than that, though, was the fact that she could see Aang standing near the pond in the center of the garden. His shoes were off, pants rolled up, and shirt sprawled untidily on the ground near him. He was waterbending, his attention focussed completely on the ball above his head, and he didn't even notice when she drew up to the railing to watch him from behind.
So this is where he went. Katara couldn't help but smile a bit, studying the motions of his arms and legs. He'd improved a lot; grown a lot, even. She suspected he'd gained a few inches in height while she wasn't looking, too. And watching him now, she couldn't help but think fondly back to all the adventures they'd had over the past year.
She was a bit miffed that he'd gone and left the party without telling her, though.
"Your stance is too wide," she noted out loud, clinically.
Aang started - "Huh?" - and his concentration broke. As his motions faltered, the ball hovering over his head abruptly crashed down to soak him unceremoniously. He turned his head and regarded her with a certain flat resignation.
"Sorry." She smiled a little in apology, and moved around towards the stairs that would lead her down into the garden area. "You getting in some extra waterbending practice?"
"Sort of." He brought his fists together, blowing the water from himself. "Actually, I wanted to try something out, but I don't think it's going to work." His smile was just a bit sheepish.
"What is it? Maybe I can help." She kicked off her shoes, reaching around her back to unfasten the fancy dress she'd been given for the evening. "I am your teacher, after all," she added, flashing him a quick grin.
"All right, Sifu Katara." He returned the grin, and pulled another generous helping of water from the pond. "I was thinking" - The water coiled into another large ball in response to the practiced motion of his arms - "that something like this" - He drew himself up, and the water seemed to draw back as well - "might be useful" - It seemed like the ball was quivering in anticipation; Katara had a moment's trepidation...
"... in a water fight."
The bulk of the water bomb hit her before she could bring herself to believe he was really going to do it; Katara reflexively fell into her stance and withstood the rush, but she ended up as soaked as he was, regardless.
Oh, he so did not...
When she raised her eyes to glare at him, he actually looked surprised. "Well, what do you know..." He blinked, then smiled a bit, completely unapologetic. "It worked after all."
"So I noticed." Her tone was wry, but it was hard to keep a straight face. "But you know what would be even better?"
He tilted his head at her. "What?"
"Oh, maybe just... this!" She drew out a full tendril of water and smacked him across the shoulders from behind, knocking him flat onto his face. Katara crossed her arms, staring with satisfaction at his prone form. "First rule of water fights, Aang; never start one with a waterbending master."
"Yeah... you're right." His properly contrite pose was ruined just seconds later by a wicked grin. "Unless you're the Avatar."
Katara caught most of the blow that followed and sent a piece of it back at him; Aang pushed himself deftly to his feet and dodged around it, drawing more water from the pond in the process. "Not bad... for a student."
"Pretty easy when your teacher's the best." He started gathering the water over his head again, still grinning. "But I'm pretty good at games, Katara - are you sure you can beat me?"
"If I can't, I'll do whatever you say for the rest of the night," Katara promised recklessly, and noted with a bit of a nervous lurch that his eyes widened at that. She covered herself by adding, confidently, "but that means when I win, you have to do whatever I say." She pulled more of the water from the pond, wrapping it around herself like a shield.
He wouldn't ask anything like that, even if I lost, she told herself, hoping to steady her mind from that brief lapse. But then, there was that traiterous little part of her brain that kind of hoped he would, so then she'd have an excuse.
Not that it matters, because I'm going to win!
"You've got a deal - and no take-backsies," Aang responded enthusiastically, and lunged forward to attack.
"What was that you said? No take-backsies?"
Aang flopped forward onto the sodden grass, then rolled onto his back quickly as Katara readied another strike, waving both hands. "No more! I'm beat! I swear it! This time for real!"
She drew back, raising a skeptical eyebrow. "Not going to try and get up again while my guard is down?"
"I mean it this time - you win." He let his arms splay out to either side, dramatically. "I could totally go for a week of sleep right about now."
"Oh, no, you couldn't." Katara sat down beside him, feeling the smirk playing on her lips even as he turned to give her a questioning look. "Like you said, no take-backsies. You can sleep when I say you can, Mr. I'm-pretty-good-at-games."
"Oh, right - I almost forgot." He pushed himself up on his elbows, a good-natured grin on his face as he looked up at her. "What are your orders, then, boss lady?"
There was something about that moment, soaked to the skin but not minding enough to even bend the water away, with Aang making his trademark carefree remarks... Katara could help but laugh.
It seemed like the best way to let her relief out, somehow.
His brow furrowed a little. "What's so funny?"
"Nothing - it's just..." She waved a hand, as if that would somehow illustrate her point. "Doesn't this remind you of all the crazy things we used to do together?"
The way his eyes brightened at that, she knew he'd picked up on her feelings. "Like that time when we went sliding down the mail system in Omashu."
"Or when we went to that Fire Nation festival," she added, pleased that he was so quick to understand. "And you jumped on stage in front of that performer."
"Or when you guys defended me at Avatar Kyoshi's trial." He snickered. "Remember Sokka's hat?"
"How could I forget?" She shook her head. "He only pointed it out about fifteen times every hour."
"And how about that dance party we threw for the Fire Nation school?"
"Or when we took out that factory at the village with the Painted Lady." She shot him a grin. "And you thought I was the real Painted Lady at first, remember?"
"Well, you were kind of disguised as her." Aang shrugged, obviously unbothered. "I totally didn't picture her looking like you, though."
"You're really pretty for a spirit."
She could feel her expression soften at that memory; Katara didn't imagine Aang would've said something so bold if he knew it was her, but it was flattering all the same. "Thanks... I guess?"
His next words derailed her thoughts more than a little: "How about when we were trapped in the Cave of Two Lovers?"
She could feel the blush rising on her cheeks, and hunched her shoulders defensively. Aang couldn't just effect her like this. It was all backwards if he could, and she wasn't sure she liked the idea. "And you kept saying the wrong thing over and over?" she added lightly, determined to ignore it.
"Well, yeah, but that's because you said we should kiss." He grinned, and she had a hard time telling if he really meant for the conversion to be completely innocent. "Totally not what I was expecting you to say."
"It just seemed like the logical thing to do." Irrationally, Katara decided that she couldn't be the only one blushing and uncertain about this conversation. With that in mind, she rushed ahead with, "What about when we were talking on the submarine before the invasion?" There. He couldn't turn that around on her.
Aang obliged her by flushing deeply; she almost felt ashamed when he abruptly turned his face away from hers. "What - what about it?"
"Nothing. Just... another memory, right?" Now that the moment had passed, she kind of wished she could take it back. It was a stark reminder that things weren't exactly settled between the two of them. And even as that thought made her heart beat a little faster and her uncertainty grow, she knew it had to be at least ten times harder for Aang. His fingers were drumming against the grass with a kind of restless anxiety, his face was red, and his eyes fixed somewhere in the opposite direction of where she was sitting.
This would've been an excellent time to give him a proper response, if she knew what that response was going to be. As it was, the silence grew between them, heavier and more potent with every passing second.
"Aang, I - " Katara stopped, feeling awkward. The feeling that her heart was beating too fast was just getting worse. It was mainly the need to say something that would break this awful tension between them that had her blurting out, "I never thought of you like a brother."
He turned around and looked at her, and even at the moment when she thought it might have been a mistake, the expression on his face changed her mind: there was something both defensive and vulnerable in his eyes. "Really?"
Well, how could I? There had been a few too many moments; kissing, dancing, predictions of marriage... Too many times he made her palms sweat and her skin prickle just because of something he'd done or said. Whether or not she wanted to go for it, the potential was there.
She wasn't really sure what made her hesitate.
Katara managed a smile, though she could still feel the heat on her cheeks. "Really."
Aang smiled back at her, somehow managing to cram both enthusiasm and bashfulness into the expression. The red coloring was gone from his face, though, and his eyes were bright when they met hers. "Thanks, Katara."
She shrugged, more to try and relieve the nervous knot that had formed in her stomach than anything. "It's... not really a big deal."
Another silence fell between them.
"So..." Aang was the first to break it this time, shifting his weight back on his hands and tilting his head up to the sky. His eyes darted to her face and then back up - twice, even - before remaining fixed above them. "Pretty boring party, huh?"
Somehow, that felt like a really inane choice of subject matter. Katara bit back a sigh. "Yeah, I guess it was," she agreed.
It felt like they'd been through a moment like this before - possibly more than once - but this was the first time it had made her feel so restless. Maybe it was because she knew how Aang felt about her now. She wouldn't have thought anything of it if she didn't. He'd be tense all by himself.
But it was more than that. It was the kiss on the submarine. The conversation at the play on
Why couldn't she just do what she wanted without convincing herself it was a bad idea?
"I, uh..." He paused, and she noticed him lick his lips nervously. Aang had full lips, not thin like some boys did. She couldn't remember what they'd felt like, suddenly. It must have been soft. "I liked your dress," he concluded, and tilted his head back to her with a hopeful smile. "It looked good on you."
Katara's lips tingled; she pressed them together in a return smile that probably wasn't as bright and innocent as she might've liked. "Thanks. I don't think I get to keep it, though."
"That's okay. Anything looks good on you." The rising color on his face was the only sign that he felt embarrassed about saying such a thing; that, and the fact that his gaze broke from hers again. She thought maybe the Aang she'd known back at the beginning would've stuttered over the compliment. "But... I guess hearing me say that isn't really a surprise."
That was the final straw. The tingling and the nervous feeling building in her stomach were just too much to ignore any more. Without even making a conscious decision about it, Katara rolled onto her hands and knees and scooted over to where Aang was sitting. He turned his head towards her - perfect timing - and she pressed her mouth to his.
Right. So that was what it had felt like.
The moment was almost absurdly heavy. Aang felt tense against her; his lips were still under hers, his breathing erratic against her cheek. She didn't dare open her eyes to see if he was looking at her. The seconds seemed to tick by like staccato beats.
It was probably the fact that she was starting to feel self-conscious about kissing him that had Katara pulling back; it wasn't because she particularly wanted it to end. It was even more overwhelming than when he had kissed her before the invasion. Her heart was going a mile a minute, she felt nervous prickles all over her skin, and the warmth between them made her feel tense and strange.
And the thing was... even as she was pulling back, and opening her eyes, she wanted to lean right back in and kiss him again. There was something so delicious about all of these feelings, even if they were nerve-wracking and weird.
Aang's eyes were closed, and he seemed frozen in place for a moment after the kiss ended, as if he hadn't quite put together the facts and noticed that it was over. When he opened his eyes and blinked at her, the expression on his face was one of utter bewilderment.
Was that how she had looked, back then?
"What...? I mean, you just... Why...?" Aang was already beginning to stutter, his face blazing with color and his eyes a little wild as he stared at her. "Does this mean y - ?"
"Hold on." Katara raised a hand quickly to forestall the inevitable questions. It had been a heat of the moment thing that had her kissing him in the first place; she didn't really want to analyze what it meant. "I'm the boss for the night, remember?" She could feel a blush on her cheeks that probably rivalled his, but chose to ignore it, and smiled just a bit. "And that means you're not allowed to ask me any questions."
He looked so desperate and confused that she almost felt ashamed of herself. "But..." That trailed off; he blinked a few more times, staring at her as if the answer to all the questions that were no doubt swimming around his head was printed on her face. "That's not fair!" he protested finally. "How can you expect me not to ask questions when you just - ?"
"That sounds like a question," she interrupted lightly, sitting back on her heels and raising an eyebrow at him.
"Well, yeah, but..." Aang paused. His eyes were swirling with emotion as he stared at her; the tension in her stomach that this caused was not exactly unpleasant. "You said you were confused," he blurted finally - followed immediately by, "That's not a question, right?" And a double-take. "Wait, that last one was, wasn't it? I mean - " His head drooped. "I'm bad at this..."
Katara couldn't help but grin; this was the Aang she was used to. The familiarity made her feel like she could get away with anything, somehow. "Well, you're just going to have to pay the penalty for breaking the rules," she declared, with that same recklessness she'd felt upon suggesting the bet in the first place.
"Penalty?" He raised his head again - just in time for her second kiss of the night.
There was only a second of hesitation this time on his part; Katara felt a slight thrill as his lips moved against hers, pressing back into the kiss with tentative enthusiasm. She wasn't sure if it was longer or shorter than the last, but she was aware that her head was spinning, her skin felt hot, and the only reason she'd pulled back at all was to catch her breath. As her eyes slid open and met with Aang's, she thought that maybe this moment had gotten more out of hand than she'd intended.
And she couldn't convince herself to be concerned about it.
"That's the penalty?" he asked, after a moment.
She smiled. "Is that a question?"
The corners of Aang's mouth were twitching up. "If that's the penalty, then yeah!"
Katara sat back, feeling strangely shy now that it was all out there. "Actually, the truth is... I think I just wanted to catch up to you."
"Catch - ?" He halted in mid-question, and his eyes narrowed. "I mean... you wanted to catch up to me. How interesting. I really wish I knew what that meant. I wonder if you're going to explain."
She fought the urge to laugh. "Well, you've surprised me with kisses twice before," she reminded him, and shrugged. "So now we're even."
"Oh." He looked a little surprised at that. "That's all?"
"Well... maybe not all." The smile was curving up on her lips again; somehow, even if she didn't want to think about it too much, this felt right. Sitting on a soggy bank in a garden in the middle of the Fire Lord's palace with her short, bald best friend who happened to be the Avatar, and kissing him... felt right.
It wasn't exactly what she'd always imagined her great romance would be, but she couldn't say she wasn't happy with it.
She hadn't been expecting an immediate response from Aang, so when he leaned forward to kiss her, it was a complete surprise. Her heart jumped, and her breath caught in her throat, but she didn't feel the urge to break away. He pulled back after only a short moment, and she stared at him, feeling flushed and dazed again.
"What was that for?"
He grinned back, unrepentant. "Now we're not even any more."