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A few hours had passed; the night was deepening.
The Giant Pai Sho Table was now underwater, the dark seawater lapping gently at the rocky walls.
Sitting on the edge of the wall, facing out to sea, the pair sat in a comfortable silence, simply pleased to be in each other's company.
After all, nothing combats awkwardness like a traumatizing event coupled with exhaustion.
Without words they had decided not to talk about the Pai Sho cabinet and its contents. There was really nothing that needed saying anyway. Their boots and socks lay in neat little piles beside them as they dipped their toes in the waves, swinging their legs in unison.
It's a shame, thought Katara dazedly, that there isn't a moon. Not only would she have liked to see just how far the sea stretched, but a bit of casual Waterbending might have lightened the mood a little earlier. She stifled a yawn.
When she opened her eyes, it took her a few moments for her to realize that she was staring at her companion, and he was staring back. He smiled softly.
"Do you want to go back?" he asked, stretching. "It's getting kind of late." Katara considered this.
"Well, that wasn't much of a tour."
"No," he agreed.
Katara chanced another look: his expression was one of thoughtfulness as he watching the reflected stars skip across the sea. "I guess not."
"What else is there to see?"
"In and around the Air Temple."
"Well, there's the all-day echo chamber."
"That sounds interesting! What does that do?"
"Oh. Oh yeah. Of course."
Aang chuckled. Katara blushed, and began to twirl her hair between her fingers.
"Why do you do that?"
Katara started. "Do what?" she said quickly, dropping her hands into her lap.
"Play with your hair like that. Why do you do that when you're..." Aang's voice trailed off and Katara looked up, surprised. He seemed...nervous.
"When I'm what, Aang?"
"Well...when you're... I don't know..."
Katara smiled. So, he noticed. "When I'm embarrassed?" She finished for him. He looked up, shrugging. Evidently he was a little relieved that she had caught his meaning.
Subconsciously, Katara began to fiddle with her hair once more, slightly flustered. She had spoken rashly. "Actually, more often I do it when I say or do something silly or stupid," she said grimly, looking at her feet. "Which seems to be pretty frequently, now that I mention it-"
"You're not stupid!" Put in Aang earnestly. "You're never stupid!" Katara laughed flatly.
"I'm serious!" She peered at him curiously. His cheeks flushed, but he continued. "Not only are you not stupid, you're really smart! You're also strong, and kind, and beau-" Aang's jaw clamped shut, and for a moment his eyes appeared to pop out of their sockets, his entire face now completely red. He swallowed and dropped his gaze. Katara stared, her cheeks flushed scarlet.
"Oh," she said, slowly looking away. Aang winced. "Uh, thanks."
"You're...erm...you're welcome," he said stiffly.
So stiffly, Katara started to laugh.
Aang stared at her incredulously. "I said I was serious!" He said hotly.
"I know," said Katara between giggles. "But so serious-" Aang folded his arms huffily, the tinge not having yet left his cheeks.
"Oh, no, I didn't mean it like that! Really!" It was very hard to sound sincere when in the middle of a laughing fit. Clearly offended and highly embarrassed, Aang got to his feet, and started to put his boots back on. "Don't be like that! Aang, I'm sorry, don't go! Wait-"
And then Katara did something really worth twirling her hair over: she lunged at his ankles, unbalancing them both and sending them tumbling into the ocean with a coupled shout of surprise.
Aang's head broke the water first, spluttering furiously. Katara appeared seconds later with a gasp. For a moment they stared at each other in shocked silence, broken only by their heavy breathing.
"Monkeyfeathers," grumbled Aang at last. He carefully placed a boot back onto the rocky wall. "I think I dropped my other shoe."
"Oh," Katara breathed. "That's not good. Sorry."
"It's okay," he said, not looking at her. "I'll just-"
"Aang?" He appeared to debate looking at her. He glanced at her sulkily. Katara smiled softly. "I really didn't mean it like that. I'm sorry if it seemed that way." Katara was now trying in earnest to restrain her giggles, and she hoped that her sincerity was properly portrayed this time. Aang blinked at her for a moment, and genuinely smiled. It seemed it had. Suddenly he started.
"My shoe!" he yelped, a look of terror flashing across his face, and with a splash he dove beneath the waves. Katara chuckled, amusing herself in the meantime by paddling about in small circles.
During this time, it slowly dawned on her just how forward she had been. She reddened. It was now painfully obvious that what she had said to correct her mistake Aang could easily take to mean something else entirely. Don't be ridiculous Katara, she told herself firmly. Stop being a paranoid teenage girl.
But I am a paranoid teenage girl!
No you're not!
Oh, yes I am. Katara grimaced. I am...uh oh. Well, whatever happens, it will not, under any circumstances, be awkward.
Oh, you had to bring that up. Now that you've done that, of course it's going to be.
Oh yes. She pulled on her hair miserably. Yes it was. Mercifully, her train of thought abruptly switched tracks. Boy, Aang can really hold his breath.
With a loud splash, he resurfaced, grinning. "Got it!" he gasped. He held his other boot above his head like a trophy, carefully setting next to the other. Then, to Katara's expectation and secret horror, his gaze fell upon her once again.
"I'd like to go back now," she blurted suddenly. A little too suddenly. Katara wished she could have slapped herself, then and there. Aang's eyes flickered from confusion to disappointment to submission so quickly she was surprised that she caught it.
"Okay, sure," he said kindly. He pulled himself out of the water and sat on the rocks, blinking at Katara expectantly. She remained where she was, expression a little glazed as she bobbed in the water. He arched an eyebrow.
Luckily for Katara Aang was a very patient being, for little did he know of the furious battle raging in her mind. "Actually," she burst. "Never mind." Aang moved to slide back into the water.
"No, wait, maybe...uh..." Aang laughed uncomfortably, positioned awkwardly halfway down the rocks.
"Are we staying or going, Katara? It's up to you." Katara grimaced: she had been afraid of that.
"Um...going...no, I..." With a snarl of frustration, Katara sunk her head beneath the waves. That ought to calm her down.
She was being pulled in two. She couldn't hold herself responsible for anything that happened tonight, she was so confused.
Anything that happened? For goodness sake Katara, what on earth do you think will happen? That you might actually make a decision as to whether or not you like him the way he likes you?
What do you mean the way he likes me?
Don't play coy with me. You know what exactly what I mean. At least he's made his intentions clear. So what are you going to do about it?
Uh...I don't...know. I don't know.
Fine. Well, if you want to carry on in denial that's okay by me. Go back to the camp then.
I will go back, she told herself firmly, as she pulled herself out of the water at last. Better that than blurting out something I'll regret and making a mess of things. She wrung out her hair, and pulled her boots a little closer. This is a safe decision, she told herself firmly. Making no decision is a safe decision.
It was then that she looked over to Aang. Or, rather, where Aang had been sitting when she had submerged. For where her friend had once sat beside his shoes was a little pile of orange and yellow robes. She gawked for a moment, before her attention was drawn to a splash a fair way out to sea.
"What are you doing?" Katara stood up and yelled across the waves.
"Swimming!" came the reply.
"Why?" She must have sounded a little anxious, for Aang suddenly stopped splashing about and shrugged.
"I dunno...the water's nice?"
Katara smiled despite herself. "Is that the only reason?" She slowly sat down again, pulling her knees to her chest.
It seemed like a good enough reason to Katara, but she wasn't quite finished yet. "I thought it was up to me, whether or not we stay." Aang smoothly paddled back to the rocks, but remained in the water.
"Of course it is," he said pleasantly. "And if you don't want to stay, we'll go. But since you seemed to be having trouble deciding, I thought I might...I dunno..." He beamed. "Try to influence you a little?"
"I'm guessing you want to stay."
"Well..." With all of his body submerged but his bald head, Katara couldn't help but notice with great amusement his resemblance to a bobbing cork. He looked up at her. "Yeah, I guess I do."
"Alright then," said Katara. All of a sudden she had been hit by a wave of confidence: she had no idea where it had come from and wasn't going to waste time wondering about it. She was going to make use of it while she could. Getting to her feet again, Katara pulled her dress over her head in one fluid motion. She didn't see the Avatar blush and avert his gaze. In a strange, hopping dance she removed her breeches, adjusted her body wrap slightly and threw herself back into the water. Such was her haste to get in that she didn't even concern herself with grace, which seemed to have occurred to her as her head resurfaced moments later, cheeks cherry red.
Laughing, Aang was at her side in moments. "So," she said, suddenly pleased that she'd chosen to stay. "What now?"
Aang pondered this for a moment. "I bet I can touch the bottom before you."
"Yeah. Remember, I've already done it once!"
"Ha! I bet I can touch it twice before you can resurface!"
"Alright, Sifu Katara, you're on!"
"Hold on: the stakes." Aang hesitated, and Katara grinned. "Don't tell me you're so afraid of losing you won't post stakes!"
He frowned. "Of course I'm not afraid!"
"Alright then, if I win, which I will, I... I get Momo for a day."
He gave her a puzzled look. "Why?"
Katara pondered this for a moment. "I don't know," she said at last. "I'm sure I can think of something!"
"Okay. If I win-"
"Which you won't"
"Which you won't!" she teased in a sing-song voice.
"Onetwothreego!" Aang's furiously flushed face was visible for but a split second before he submerged.
Katara, however, was frozen solid. Her mouth was ajar, and fortunately enough she was far enough out to sea that no unwary insect would drift inside, for she wouldn't have noticed. Her mind had barely finished processing the words when her companion resurfaced.
Instinctively she jerked backwards, eyes wide in alarm.
"Finished already?" she asked a little too loudly, panic evident in her voice.
"Uh...well, no," he said lamely. "It's just you...you didn't dive, so..." He sighed. "Do you not want to play anymore, or...it's..." He looked at her imploringly. "It's no fun if you don't...go."
With a jolt, she realized just how unusual this statement was.
Had the boy in front of her not been Aang, he would have taken her lack of action as a positive sign, and as a result be slobbering over her this instant. She'd been around Sokka long enough to know that. But as it happened the boy in front of her was indeed Aang.
And, typical of only him, he was more interested in the game than the prize.
Or at least he's very good at appearing to be so...
"It's the stakes, isn't it," he said in a dull voice, reading her silence. "Sorry. That was...dumb." He mumbled something about not thinking, and looked at her anxiously.
However, Katara's numbness ensued. Interesting, she thought. He seems to be torn between two personalities.
Katara had often speculated to herself that she knew two Aangs: one with and without hair. Aang without hair was sweet, innocent, and generally charming. Aang with hair was bold, dashing, and suave. At the moment, his tactics appeared to be switching between the two, and as a result leaving a bit of a mess in its wake, which he seemed to be very aware of.
Just like me, she thought with a start.
He cleared his throat uncomfortably. "How about... no stakes?" he suggested hoarsely.
"What?" stammered Katara at last. "O-oh, yeah. Sure. No stakes." Immediately she felt a little better. "Go?"
"Go," he agreed, taking a deep breath, and diving for the second time. Katara took a large gulp of air and followed suit. She almost released it at once in surprise: Aang, a pale dart through the black waters, was already speeding towards the invisible ocean floor. Shaking herself, she propelled herself after him, and it wasn't long before they were neck and neck, hurtling into the abyss. Underwater, they exchanged a glance. Katara narrowed her eyes, and added an extra burst of speed. She felt the thrill of impending victory for but a moment before the Avatar drew level to her once again.
This went on for quite some time, and Katara began to wonder whether or not there was a bottom. Then all at once it rushed into view: a barely visible pane of grey in the dim light. She landed with a muffled thud, and a cloud of sparkling sand blossomed about her feet. As she prepared to launch, she noticed that despite her efforts to out swim him, Aang was crouched beside her. I've taught him annoyingly well, she mused to herself.
Into the Depths of Uncertainty
One of the most interesting and primarily noticeable things about being underwater is the pressing silence. It is a comfortable one, especially in warm waters, rather like plunging into a bath.
And so as they crouched like springs on the seabed, the competition changed. Neither wanted to hurry so long as they had a complete lungful of air, so rather than a contest of speed it became one of endurance.
Katara was able to make out the shape of her friend in the darkness, partially because of his fair complexion, but mostly because of the (not at all unfriendly) glinting grey eyes fixed on her. Or rather, she noted curiously, her hair. His wide eyes followed the slow, gentle sweeps and arcs that her hair drew in the water, floating lazily about her scalp like a drowsy octopus. It seemed ridiculous to Katara, in all honesty: both her hair's defiance of gravity and Aang's apparent fascination with it.
He stared a moment longer before he did something neither of them expected.
Hesitantly, he stretched out his fingertips, and began to entwine them with her curls. It was then that Katara remembered that Aang hadn't much experience in the area of hair. Sure, he'd had a scruffy inch-long mess on his scalp for a few months, but tresses like the ones she sported must be strange to him.
Her scalp tingled pleasantly as the roots were gently pulled in differing directions, and she found her eyes following the movement of his hand. His fingers gently twirled in little circles, tangling and untangling themselves simultaneously. In the blackness, it appeared that parts of his hand would simply disappear and reappear with each flick. She watched on, his fingers twisting deeper and deeper...until finally one lightly brushed her cheek.
He appeared to be much more startled than she, more with himself than anything. It seemed to shock him out of his little stupor in any case, and Katara surprised herself by feeling a pang of disappointment as he drew away. He carefully untangled his hand from her hair, glancing upwards. Almost on cue her diaphragm throbbed. Katara nodded, and with a mutual push of their legs they were propelled upwards, the sand swirling in shock from their sudden departure.
They broke the surface of the water with a loud gasp, ensued by labored breathing while their lungs recovered. In her haste to reach the surface, Katara had forgotten to sweep her hair aside, and as a result its entirety hung in front of her face.
It gave her the appearance of some kind of seaweed creature.
Aang took one look at her and burst out laughing. He reached forward to help her pluck away the dark wet ropes of hair. "What a mess," she panted, laughing breathily.
"I like your hair," he chuckled. "There, all finished."
Katara beamed at him. "Thank you Avatar Aang, protector against cosmetic disasters!"
"Anytime, Katara Water Tribe. Helping people: it's what I do!" His fingers lingered in her hair.
Katara blinked at him, and Aang blinked back.
This is funny, she thought. If someone had told her where she would be now a year ago, she wouldn't have believed it. Floating in the middle of a warm ocean under the stars with an Air Nomad, her best friend, nonetheless? Not a chance.
Katara frowned. "What for?" she asked, perplexed.
Aang looked at his fingers sheepishly. "They, uh...must have gotten stuck."
It took Katara a few moments to figure out what he was referring to. His fingers in my hair.
When she did, she felt a rush of affection warm her to the tips of her toes and smiled. Why Aang felt the need to apologise, she didn't really understand, but the fact that he had was just so typical that she couldn't stop what happened next.
Suddenly, that wave of confidence returned in full, and before she could pause to think about it she leaned forward and planted a soft kiss on his cheek.
As she drew back, she couldn't help but notice (with a certain amount of smugness) the sudden color in his cheeks. Aang's mouth was open slightly, his eyes wide and shining with surprise as he quickly untangled his hand and lowered it beneath the water.
Recently, though she would scold herself afterwards, Katara had taken a liking to this particular type of torture. At first, a quick peck on the cheek had been her way of expressing how proud she was of him. Lately, however, she'd started doing it more and more frequently, noting with a guilty stab of glee how it seemed to increasingly affect the poor boy.
Though her kisses usually still held their original meaning, she occasionally wondered at her own motives, and whether or not conveying pride was still her major one. It had to be, right?
But then...what was that one for?
Seeing Aang's reaction had done nothing to deplete the abrupt surge of her ego, and so that combined with possibly the setting, her grogginess in the late hour, and most certainly just generally being sick of them, Katara managed to brush the little bickering voices of her insecurities for the first time that evening. Of course, she knew that they'd return in full force sooner or later.
But not for a little while, at least. Perhaps now, it could finally be brought to the surface...
"Katara, I-" He hesitated, glancing at her.
He appeared to be looking for something.
Permission to continue. She remained silent, and Aang took a steadying breath.
"I should...probably explain, a-about that...moment, o-on the submarine."
The little pang of dread in her chest was washed away by a flood of relief. Finally, the awkwardness would dissolve once and for all, those little voices banished forever. Things were going to go back the way they were.
Back to normal.
Back to dry land.
She smiled. "It's alright," she said softly. "I know why, don't worry about it.
He looked up sharply. "Y-you do?" he said, a little alarmed.
Katara nodded reassuringly.
"And you're not...mad?"
"Of course not," she said kindly. "You thought you were going to die." She missed his hesitant expression. Had she seen it, perhaps the alarm bells might have signaled her to stop. "I mean, people usually do crazy things like that when...well."
"When what?" he asked quickly.
Katara was so lost in her relief that she also failed to catch his next expression: seriousness.
"Well...when you're facing death." She eyed him curiously. When his face remained still and set, insecurities began to creep once more into the back of her mind.
"That, uh...that was the only reason...right?" she muttered uncomfortably.
Aang's hesitation, his sudden lack of response and lingering gaze, sent Katara's heart rate spiking. Thoughts tore through her mind so fast she barely had time to recognize them.
Surely he doesn't...the kiss...it didn't mean...
You know he does, and you know it did. So why are you so unsure of yourself?
We're just best friends! He was worried that he might not come back; he thought he might never see me again, that's all! So he-
If you were just "best friends," you wouldn't be in this situation.
What situation!? We're enjoying a beautiful night together, having fun, and getting rid of this awkwardness!
Ahhh, but you know, there is more than one way to do that. And I'm sure it would make HIM very, VERY happy.
"Yeah," he said suddenly, cutting off her thought. "Yeah...of course it was."
She sighed, her shoulders sagging as the tension drained from her system. He didn't quite meet her gaze when he said this, another thing that escaped her.
"Well," she said after a few moments, "I'm glad that's over!" She laughed away the last of her nerves. "I thought things were going to get weird for a little while!"
Aang smiled weakly. "So...friends?" he asked, holding out his hand.
Katara brushed it away and instead drew him into a tight embrace.
Aang bit his lip, sadness flashing cross his face for a split second, before he returned the gesture.
"When weren't we?" she said happily, closing her eyes.
"Good point," he chuckled. "Now I don't know about you, but I'm starting to look like a sea prune." Under his hands, Katara's sides shook as she laughed.
"We can't have that! How can you save the world if you're a vegetable? C'mon, let's go back."
She abruptly let go of his shoulders. "I'll race you!" she called over her shoulder, already speeding towards the rocky wall of the giant Pai Sho table.
Aang's grin faded as she looked away.
He shook himself, and struck out after her.
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.