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|A Welcome Relief|
"If they knew we were coming, it could all be a trap! Maybe we should use the time we have left to make sure we all get out of here safely."
"Everyone who's here today came prepared to risk everything for this mission. They know what's at stake. If there's still a chance and there's still hope, I think they would want Aang to go for it."
"What do you think? You're the one that has to face the Firelord. Whatever you decide, I'm with you."
"I've gotta try."
Katara hadn't known silence like this for a long time. For the first time in a good few days she was alone.
A welcome relief.
She had time to think.
The Western Air Temple hung somewhere under the cliff side on which she sat, dangling her legs into the abyss.
The sun dipped low over the horizon and she watched as the ravine gradually changed color in the dimming light: from orange to reddish brown, to a dark pink, and then finally a deep purple. The last rays of the sun warming her face promised a warm, peaceful night.
Katara groaned, dropping her head into her hands.
"Why aren't they turning around to attack us again?"
"They're headed for the beach...they're gonna destroy the submarines!"
"How are we all going to escape?"
"Then our only choice is to stand and fight. We have the Avatar. We could still win."
"Yes. With the Avatar we could still win...on another day. You kids have to leave. You have to escape on Appa together."
"What? We can't leave you behind. We won't leave anyone behind!"
"You're our only chance in the long run. You and Sokka have to go with Aang somewhere safe. It's the only way to keep hope alive."
"The youngest of our group should go with you. The adults will stay behind and surrender. We'll be prisoners, but we'll all survive this battle."
Her head buzzed unpleasantly as the tumults of memories battered themselves against her skull, fighting for a place at the foremost of her mind. It had all failed miserably, the entire plan. What were they going to do now? In all of their grand plans and schemes no one had ever mentioned the possibility of failure.
Was it because they had been so sure in themselves, so confident in their plans, or was it because, just under the surface, they were terrified? Terrified to even consider the prospect of defeat and what it would entail?
Katara pressed her fingers to her temples and took a shaky breath in an unsuccessful attempt to calm herself. And so without a backup plan they had simply accepted her father's idea and left. Left everyone else behind, to an unknown fate. How could they do that?
"We'll miss you, dad."
"Bye dad. We won't be apart for too long this time. I promise."
The Fire Nation hadn't taken her mother prisoner. Katara's stomach lurched horribly as the idea began to fester. The Fire Lord had no reason to show mercy to the invasion force. Why would he? Slaughtering her friends and family would be an easy and effective way to discourage any further attempts to overthrow him. She knew if Azula had any involvement in the decision, the off chance of mercy would vanish entirely.
"Thank you all for being so brave and so strong. I'm going to make this up to you."
Katara fought off the urge to laugh. Make it up to them. How could they possibly do that? They were back to the start again. It had taken Aang months to learn Waterbending and months to learn Earthbending. They had until the end of the summer, mere weeks, for him to master Firebending as well. And he...
Katara swallowed painfully.
Pull yourself together! Wiping her eyes feverishly, she scolded herself. You don't have the luxury of unraveling! They're all depending on you. Get a grip, for goodness sake.
And yet, despite her best efforts her mind had already been put on a journey which she couldn't stop.
She tugged at her hair miserably as her train of thought hurtled onwards, out of her conscious control. Don't, she pleaded silently. Don't think about-
"Everything's going to be different after today isn't it."
"Yes, it is."
"What if... what if I don't come back?"
"Aang, don't say that. Of course you'll-"
The Waterbender jumped violently, scrambling to her feet.
Suki stared at her for a moment, and Katara felt her face redden as Suki's gaze fell to her blotchy, tear-stained cheeks and her bloodshot eyes.
"Is something wrong?" said Katara loudly, cursing herself as her voice cracked.
Suki's expression softened. "No, nothing's wrong. I just wanted to see if you were okay. Everyone's been looking for you. We were really worried."
Katara felt a twinge of guilt. "Oh," she said, turning away from Suki. Katara rubbed at her eyes furiously. "Well, I'm sorry to have caused any trouble." She abruptly swiveled to face her companion once more, beaming a little too widely. "I'm okay though, really!"
There was a long pause.
"Katara," said Suki gently, reaching forward to place a hand on her shoulder. "Are you sure you're-"
"I'm fine," snapped Katara, slapping away her hand. "I just...need some time alone...can you leave? Please?"
Suki frowned, letting her hand fall. "Alright then," said Suki coolly. "If that's what you want, I'll tell them not to bother you."
Katara bit her lip, dropping her gaze. She watched Suki vanish down the little stone steps by the cliff side.
"Sorry," she blurted suddenly. "I didn't mean..."
But Suki was already out of earshot.
An Offer for Adventure.
By now the all that remained of the day was a thin strip of pink lining the horizon. It was a clear night, the inky vastness of the sky peppered with silver stars, but there was no moon. A faint smell of burnt rice wafted on the evening breeze. She guessed that Sokka had attempted to prepare dinner. Perhaps it would be better to skip the meal then.
The waterbender settled upon the ground once more, hugging her knees to her chest. Now that she was alone again, she could disappear back into the maelstrom of her thoughts. But did she want to? A decision must be made, she thought firmly.
No. I don't know. How can I possibly-? He started it!
So you should finish it.
You know how.
No, I don't! I didn't need this! Not now! I liked the way things were! This is... this is...
But isn't it good as well?
Maybe... I don't know!
Aren't you glad? I think you are.
I don't know!
Then you must be mad.
You know what's mad?
Arguing with yourself, that's what!
Katara sighed miserably, flicking at a large pebble by her foot. She watched it as it flew over the edge of the cliff, disappearing into the dark depths below.
Katara stared. "...Suki?" she ventured, hastily crawling to the edge of the cliff.
"Uh... no, it's me," came a sullen voice below her.
Katara's eyebrows shot up her forehead.
With a sharp clack and a gust of wind, the Avatar opened his glider and propelled himself out of the canyon below her, circling up before landing lightly on his feet beside her.
"That hurt, you know," he grumbled, rubbing the top of his skull.
Katara gaped at him for a second. "Sorry," she said quickly, getting to her feet. "I didn't know you were-wait," She frowned. "What were you doing down there, anyway?" Aang stiffened.
Even in the dark Katara could see that he was blushing furiously.
"I... uh, I was just... I thought I might...just-"
"W-well," he babbled, rubbing the back of his neck. "I mean, everyone was looking for you, a-and Suki said she found you, and they were serving dinner and I didn't want you to get hungry only Sokka said you'd come down when you wanted food, but I was worried that they were going to eat it all because Sokka kind of eats a lot, I mean I-I know that you know that, you're his sister, but there are also a lot more people to feed now and so I got you a bowl just in case, b-but I put it down and someone ate yours, and I knew it was Toph but when I asked her about it she threw a rock at me, so I thought I'd save mine instead, and when everyone had finished and you still weren't there, and I asked Sokka if I should..."
While Aang rambled and Katara stared, she found that, quite suddenly, all of her thoughts and stresses had drifted away with the evening breeze, for the moment at least. Instead, Katara's mind was completely engulfed in the curious amusing situation in which she now found herself.
"...but I didn't want to startle you so I thought I'd walk, but then you'd wonder why I didn't fly up here, because I'm an airbender and walking would seem pretty stupid-"
Katara laughed, and Aang's cheeks flushed an even darker shade of red. The Avatar smiled bashfully.
"That's very thoughtful of you, Aang," mused Katara, unfolding her arms. "I was actually getting pretty hungry."
There was a pause, during which Aang simply continued to stare at her, his expression glazed. A minute slid by, before Katara raised an eyebrow, and Aang snapped out of his stupor.
"So!" he gasped, suddenly fumbling through his bag, and pulling out a little clay bowl of rice and a flat wooden spoon. "Dinner?"
Katara beamed, accepting his little offering gratefully. "Thanks," she said eagerly, crossing her legs and settling onto the ground.
Aang joined her after a moment, watching her eat with a faint smile.
Katara felt the weight of his gaze, blushing despite herself, and pretended to ignore it. The rice was burned (courtesy of Sokka, of course) and stone cold, but she chewed the sticky grains with relish. She had missed lunch as well. As she ate, and the primal shouts of hunger drained from her mind, her thoughts drifted to the young monk sitting next to her.
They hadn't talked about what had happened on the submarine. Actually, they hadn't talked about anything, really, since Zuko had joined them. Admittedly, this was partially because Aang was busy training, and Katara was equally occupied with cooking, organizing, packing, and yelling at Toph and Sokka whenever they tried to sabotage her efforts.
And yet, when the opportunity had risen...
She felt guilty, too, as there had been moments where she had suspected that Aang was on the verge of bringing it up, and so she had begun to avoid being alone with him.
With an unpleasant jolt, she realized just how alone they were now. She swallowed her rice with some difficulty, her mouth having suddenly gone dry.
Aang seemed to have realized this too, for he shifted uncomfortably beside her. "Katara," he said softly after a moment.
Katara raised her head from her bowl and looked at him.
He fidgeted, and dropped his gaze. "I feel like... I think... h-have you been avoiding me?"
Katara, who had sought to break the tension herself by taking another spoonful of rice, choked. "What?" she said loudly between coughs. "No! Of course not!"
"Are you alright?" said Aang anxiously, quite alarmed, starting to climb to his knees.
Katara nodded wildly, waving at him, and he stopped. "Fine! I'm fine!" Katara coughed a few more times, before regaining her composition. She cleared her throat loudly. Silence ensued again, during which neither one dared to look at the other.
"Okay, I'm sorry I thought that then. I must just be imagining things." He mumbled at last.
Katara winced, and raised her gaze to meet his. "Aang-"
A loud gurgle split the air. Aang's eyes widened with embarrassment. As his stomach growled again, he flung his arms about it in an attempt to muffle the sounds.
"Oh!" said Katara, hastily passing him the bowl. "A-Aang, I'm so sorry, I forgot that this was yours!"
Aang smiled and shook his head, waving it back to her. "No, I brought it up here for you! Besides, I'm not really that hungry." His stomach contended with this statement none too quietly.
Katara giggled. "I think your stomach disagrees," she pointed out, pressing the bowl and spoon into his hands.
He laughed sheepishly. "Are you sure?"
"Of course!" Katara grinned. "An Avatar needs all the strength he can get! Even if it is Sokka's cooking...now, eat!"
Aang beamed at her before eagerly obliging. After the first mouthful, Aang frowned, and looked from the bowl to Katara.
She blinked at him, bewildered.
"Ifs col'!" he said through a full mouth of rice. He swallowed before repeating himself. "It's cold! Why didn't you say anything?"
Katara shrugged. "I was hungry, I didn't want to seem ungrateful...and what could we do about it anyway?"
Aang shook his head.
"What?" She gasped as, suddenly, the bowl began to steam.
"Firebender," said Aang smugly.
"Oh, right." Mentally, Katara was throttling herself for her idiocy. "Of course you are."
Aang wolfed down the rest of the rice in a flash, and it wasn't long before they were sitting in silence once more. Without the moon, it was now pitch black. "I wonder what the others are doing right now," came the Avatar's disembodied voice from beside Katara's shoulder.
She shrugged, but realized the response went unseen in the dark.
"Sleeping, I guess," she answered. Then, suddenly, she laughed. "Which doesn't surprise me, with the amount of time you guys have spent running rampant around the temple!" She was silent for a moment. "I haven't gotten to see any of it," said Katara sadly.
"Well, I've been keeping things organized! Someone has to cook and clean up your mess while you're all off playing!"
"Oh. I see."
"Do you? Really? Because I was under the impression that you were just as bad as the others!"
"Katara," Aang's voice hardened, and Katara realized she had spoken without thinking. "I've been working just as hard as you have."
Harder, actually thought Katara miserably. "I know," she muttered. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have said that."
Another long, tense silence ensued. Katara's mind was waging an internal battle and so her question, when it eventually came out, sounded rushed and confused, nothing even close to what she had wanted to say. "We're friends, right?" The minute the words spilled out of her mouth she regretted it.
Aang was silent for a moment before answering. "Yeah," he said slowly, clearly wondering where she was going with this. "Of course we are!"
"Good. I'm...glad. I'm really glad we're friends."
"Oh. M-me too." He responded.
Katara, glad it was dark, slammed her forehead against her knees in frustration. Why is this so difficult to talk about!?
Her stomach twisted with nerves. No, no, no. She had wanted to bring it up this time. In the patchy plan she had thrown together in her mind seconds earlier, she had smoothly admitted how she really felt, and the evening had dissolved into completely non-awkward bliss. There had also been background music. And now, it was going to get weird.
"Do you want a tour?"
Katara blinked, not quite sure if she had heard correctly. "Pardon?" she spluttered, turning to face him in disbelief, but much to her disappointment was unable to do so in the darkness.
"Do you," came Aang's voice in her ear, very quiet this time. Katara shivered. "Want a tour?"
"A tour?" she echoed, confused. "Of what?" she started as a warm hand closed over hers, pulling her to her feet.
Somewhere in the dark, Aang laughed. "A tour of the Air Temple! You said you hadn't gotten to yet, and, well, who better to show you around than an airbender?"
Katara's smile faltered. "It's pretty late; we should probably be getting back." She said reluctantly.
Aang's hand abruptly left her own, and suddenly her fingers felt small and cold. After registering this, Katara realized she couldn't see a thing. "Could we have some light though, Mr. Firebender?"
"To see by?" Aang asked hesitantly. "You can't get down without light?"
Katara felt a twinge of annoyance. "There are plenty of ways I can get down without light, Aang," she snapped. "Namely, falling off the cliff and plummeting to certain-"
Her retort was cut short to a muffled shriek as something seized her fast around the waist and dragged her over the edge. Katara felt as though her innards had been left somewhere far above her only to be replaced by a bubble of panic as she fell. She scrambled in midair for a second before seizing a pair of shoulders, which she clung onto for dear life. Over the roar of the wind she thought she heard a faint laugh.
Then, a sudden clack, and with a sharp jolt, nearly dislodging her, they stopped falling.
Breathing heavily Katara peered blindly over her shoulder. A warm evening breeze dragged through her hair, and her clothes billowed gently against her skin.
"Gliding, actually," called Aang from beneath her and Katara realized she had spoken her thoughts aloud.
"AANG!" she screamed, pounding her fist against his back as she suddenly remembered how furious she was. "Put me down! Right now!"
Aang laughed airily.
"I'm serious, Aang! If you don't put my feet on solid ground this instant then I'll-AHH!" her fingers dug into his shoulders as they dropped a few feet.
"You sound just like Toph," he teased. "Come on, Katara! Relax! It'll be fun, I promise!"
Scowling, Katara buried her face against his neck, noting with savage delight how he suddenly stiffened.
"Fine," she grumbled. "Where are we going, then?"
"You'll see," he said lightly.
The stress and awkward feelings had she felt only minutes before had disappeared completely, replaced by the content of enjoying the night with her best friend.
A welcome relief.
As always, be sure to check out the rest of the series, more chapters coming soon!
For the collective works of the author, go here.