Katara was awoken by what was, to her, the scariest sound in the world: the sound of Aang in pain.
"OW!" she heard him cry out, and she wrenched her eyelids open and rolled to face where his voice was coming from. There, she saw Aang still laying on the ground where he had been sleeping, rubbing his backside like it had been kicked. Towering over him, fists clenched and face scowling...was Zuko.
A jolt a fear cut through Katara's still half-asleep mind as she reached over for her bending skin and flicked it open with her thumb. She was ready to fight, ready to—
"You're burning daylight!" Zuko barked at Aang, "Get up! Twenty hot squats, now!"
Katara's sleep fog finally cleared and she remembered why Zuko was here in their camp. She remembered their whole reluctant arrangement to have Zuko teach Aang firebending, and the nerve-wracking few days they had disappeared together and apparently danced with dragons.
Katara groggily collapsed back onto her pillow, too tired to even growl at Zuko that the rest of them didn't have to train to defeat his evil dad, thankyouverymuch, so maybe bark his orders more quietly at absurd hours in the morning.
Aang seemed to be feeling the same way, because he just moaned in response. Zuko squatted down next to Aang and pointed out into the canyon that contained the Western Air Temple, where the sky was already turning blood red.
"You see that? That's sunrise, Avatar. That's the sign of a firebender's inner strength coming to life with a new day." He grabbed Aang by the shoulder and started shaking him, "Can you feel it, Aang? Can you feel your inner fire starting to reignite?"
"No," grunted Aang plainly.
Katara was remembering more now, and becoming more annoyed. Right, what had Zuko said to her at the north pole? "You rise with the moon, I rise with the sun?" of course it made perfect sense that on top of being cruel, bloodthirsty monsters, firebenders were also something far worse: morning people. Ugh, did this mean that Aang was also going to be a morning person from now on?
"Well we've got to fix that," said Zuko, and he practically dragged Aang to his feet and started pushing him off towards the courtyard that they used to train, that jutted out from underneath the rock overhang so they were actually in the sun. With their sleeping area quiet again, Katara tried to go back to sleep, but now the knowledge that Aang was off with Zuko, alone, at the other end of the temple was nagging at her brain. It wasn't like she thought Zuko would suddenly attack him or something; she had accepted by now that this wasn't some kind of absurdly elaborate plot against them—mainly because she didn't think Zuko was clever enough to pull off something like that. But still, whenever she thought about Aang with no one around him but Zuko, she found that she...didn't like it.
After a few minutes, she accepted that she wasn't getting any more sleep, so she got herself up and started making her way in the same direction Zuko and Aang had gone. As she was rounding the last corner before the courtyard, she started to hear their voices.
"So if my firebending wakes me up with the sun, and my waterbending keeps me up with the moon, when exactly am I supposed to sleep?"
"You slept for a hundred years, isn't that enough?"
Aang laughed, but Katara recognized it as his uncomfortable laugh. Aang never liked being reminded of all that time he wasn't there for the world, which Zuko would know if he wasn't such a heartless jerk and a terrible teacher. The fact that he barely knew Aang and had no way of knowing what he was uncomfortable with was entirely beside the point.
Katara decided to not announce her presence and instead leaned against one of the stone pillars within the shade of the overhang, while they were out in the increasingly bright morning sun. She was far enough away and in enough shade that they were unlikely to notice her, but if they did happen to look her way then she could plausibly deny she was snooping. She didn't like the idea of leaving Aang alone with Zuko, but she still realized hovering would interfere with them. Aang was always trying to impress her and Zuko was still visibly terrified of her ever since she threatened to kill him the day he joined their team (which she definitely didn't take any pride in).
Aang and Zuko finished their warm-ups and faced a target at the far end of the courtyard, a few wooden logs they had haphazardly nailed together in the vague shape of a human.
"Okay, let's see if that trip to almost get eaten by dragons was worth it," said Zuko, "set your stance..."
Aang positioned himself in a sideways battle stance in opposition to the dummy.
"Now, control your breathing…"
Aang drew in a deep breath and slowly released it.
Aang punched his right first towards the dummy, and a single fireball erupted from his knuckles, traveling about 10 yards to the dummy, briefly engulfing it in flames before dissipating. After the fire and smoke had quickly cleared, Katara saw that the dummy was slightly singed, with a few spots glowing orange for a few seconds before cooling down. Katara could feel the heat of the blast from where she was standing.
Zuko, however, didn't look impressed, "Well that was...certainly better, I guess."
"You guess!?" Aang incredulously asked out loud, and Katara incredulously asked in her head at the same time, "Come on, that was the biggest blast I've ever made!"
"Yeah, and if you were any other novice, we'd call that a really promising start. Heck, you might even be called a prodigy. People would be saying you could become a master in just a few years."
Aang's shoulders slumped in disappointment.
"But we don't have a few years, obviously, so sorry, but we need to find a way to fast-track this."
Aang threw his hands in the air, "Well what more can I possibly do!"
Zuko frowned and rubbed his chin thoughtfully, "Well to be honest, I think you're still being too timid and restrained. You're certainly doing a lot better than before our trip, but I still sense a lot of energy in you that you're not letting out."
Aang looked confused and started to get defensive, "Well of course I'm holding a little back, I'm trying to stay in control! Jong Jong said that firebending requires constant discipline or fire will destroy you. He didn't even let me shoot fire, he had me try to stop a bit of fire from growing, and when I didn't listen to him—" Aang managed to cut off his own rambling and managed to take a deep breath and closed his eyes, "that was when I burned Katara."
Zuko's face cycled through several different expressions as a lot of things suddenly started making sense.
"...Oh," was the only thing he could say.
Aang continued, "I hated that version of myself, even more than when I've gone into the Avatar State. After that, I promised myself I would never firebend at all!"
Katara tried to keep track of all the different emotions she was feeling. She was touched by the fact that Aang cared about her so much that the memory of hurting her still got him to be this upset, annoyed at him for being this worked up over something that happened months ago, she had long since forgiven, and was really not important in the context of their mission, and guilty that her getting hurt and the way she reacted had caused him this much heartache, even while she knew that she hadn't really done anything wrong.
Zuko sighed, raised his hand, and after a few seconds of hesitation, lightly patted Aang's shoulder in the most awkward, panicked "there-there" gesture Katara had ever seen.
"Look Aang," said Zuko, "I can't speak to what this 'Jong Jong' guy taught you. Maybe his way is better, I don't know, but it sounds like it takes a lot longer, and we don't have the luxury of being patient and deliberate about this."
He pulled on Aang's shoulder and turned him around so he would stop looking at his feet in self-pity and look his teacher in the face again, "The people of the world don't need their Avatar to be a wizened sage right now, they need a stick of dynamite."
Zuko took a few steps away and tried his best to pretend to be a wizened sage himself, "I can only teach you how I was taught, and I was taught that even when it's not fuelled by anger and rage, all firebending is still fuelled by strong emotion. When teaching me about the elements, my uncle said—let's see if I can get this right…"
He started rubbing his hand on an invisible large belly, stroking an invisible beard, and speaking in an old man's raspy voice in his best impersonation of his uncle.
"Fire is the element of Power. The people of the Fire Nation have Desire and Will, and the energy and drive to achieve what they want."
Aang chuckled at the impression, his mood clearly improving, while Zuko looked really impressed with himself. Katara wouldn't have been surprised to learn that this was the first time in his life the dour prince had made someone laugh.
"See what I mean? Remember what we learned with the dragons. Fire is Life. And passion for life is what fuels firebending. You need to stop thinking like a monk and use your passion."
Aang didn't look frustrated or dejected anymore, but he did look puzzled.
"Um...okay," Aang said, thoughtfully scratching his head, "How am I supposed to do that?"
Now it was Zuko's turn to get frustrated. He hadn't anticipated one of his jobs as a teacher being having to explain how to feel things to this guy. That was something he was not qualified for.
"I don't know," said Zuko, not hiding the annoyance in his voice, "just think about it. Try to recreate those emotions when you're channeling your energy for your bending, and it might make your firebending more powerful. Hasn't there ever been something you...desired? Coveted, even? Something that you needed to have or to win more than anything?"
Katara almost laughed out loud, boy are you barking up the wrong tree.
Aang spent a few seconds earnestly considering Zuko's question, "I don't think so. My people believed that worldly material possessions were meaningless, and attachment to them was the source of suffering. We didn't really have anything beyond what we needed and a few toys that we shared. I played games with all my friends, but I didn't really care much if I won, I just tried to make sure everybody had fun."
Katara was grinning at what an unbelievable dork the mighty savior of the world was.
Zuko, however, groaned and dragged both hands down his face, "Yeah, of course you did." It seemed to Katara that this was the first time Zuko was having to relate to someone who was actually a good person.
Aang just shrugged at Zuko's exasperation, "Sorry, hotman."
"Stop calling me that!" Zuko thought for several more seconds before his eyes lit up and he snapped his fingers with an idea, but then immediately looked like he regretted having the idea, and started looking deeply uncomfortable.
"Hey...can I ask you a personal question? It's going to sound weird and unrelated, but just trust me, okay?"
Aang raised an eyebrow, "Uh….sure?"
"Have you ever kissed a girl?"
Aang's eyes widened to the size of dinner plates, his face turning bright pink, and Katara's heart seemed to stop in its tracks.
After what seemed like an eternity, Aang finally found his voice again, but all he could manage was a weak, "Uh...what?"
"Just bear with me for a second," pressed Zuko.
"Um," Aang squeaked, "Yes. Yes I have." and his face moved past pink into deep scarlet.
"Okay," breathed Zuko, "Now, I know I'm sounding like a gossiping school girl, but I promise I'm going somewhere with this. Ugh."
He squeezed his eyes shut and pinched the bridge of his nose, like this conversation was physically painful. "Tell me about your first kiss," he finished in a too-deep voice, very transparently overcompensating.
Katara was positively screaming inside her own head, No Aang, do not, under ANY circumstances, tell him about your first kiss.
She felt like her heart and stomach had completely removed from her body. She refused to believe that these were the circumstances where The Incident between she and Aang was finally getting verbalized. Aang hadn't even bothered to talk to her about it yet, there was no way he was going to spill it all to Zuko. The fact that the main reason Aang hadn't talked to her about it was the fact that she had been avoiding him non-stop was entirely beside the point.
Katara started running through a hundred scenarios to try to find some way to stop this conversation. Should she rush in and pretend to be sick? Say that they're under attack? Just stay hidden and bloodbend them both unconscious? But before she could decide on one, to her horror, Aang started talking.
"Well," Aang began, his cheeks still red, "it was back at the Southern Air Temple—"
All of Katara's panic seemed to instantly vanish and be replaced with confusion.
Wait, what? Why is he telling him that? Katara thought, We barely knew each other at the Southern Temple….Does he THINK we kissed at the Southern Temple? I guess that would explain a lot. Did he hallucinate or something while in the Avatar State—
"—and she was part of a visiting caravan."
"We got along really well while she was there, she was really good at all of my favorite games, and while we were saying goodbye she just kissed me."
"By the time I realized what was going on, she just giggled and jumped up on her bison."
Katara was simultaneously feeling unbelievable relief that her big secret wasn't being talked about and unbelievable white-hot fury at Aang. She had just spent several weeks believing that her first kiss had also been Aang's, and now she finds out that she's just the latest? Latest of how many? Exactly how friendly had he gotten with those fangirls on Kyoshi Island? She was two years older than him, by all rights she should be on at least equal footing with him in this mess between them, who gave him permission to have more experience with kissing than her? The fact that he had never once told her that he had never kissed a girl before was entirely beside the point.
But Katara cycled through all these thoughts in just a split second before calming herself down and realizing that she had no reason to care about this. What did it matter if Aang had kissed some girl a hundred years ago? It's not like she thought of Aang that way. Aang had clearly just misunderstood her platonic affections. It's not like she had ever seriously thought about kissing him (especially not during some of the more recent times she had kissed him on the cheek). In fact, she doubted that even he had given any serious thought to kissing. He just had a little crush and the intensity of the moment got to his head. So this is fine.
Seriously, it's fine.
It's completely fine. Whatever she was feeling certainly wasn't jeal—
"Wait, she kissed you?" Zuko interrupted Aang's rambling and yanked Katara back to reality, "I asked you if you had ever kissed a girl."
"Well you also asked me to tell you about my first kiss!" Aang yelled with his hands in the air, frustrated again, "Which one is it!" He was clearly angry that in his panic he had revealed an embarrassing story for no reason.
Zuko put his palms up defensively, "Okay, okay, sorry, bad wording on my part. So, to clarify: have you ever kissed someone else? Have you ever been the one to take the initiative?"
Katara's heart started racing again. Why couldn't Zuko get distracted and drop this?
"Um…" Aang's face had been red before, but now all the color seemed to drain from it and he looked like a ghost, "...yes. But I don't think dwelling on that will help fix my problem. In fact, it's kind of a downer, actually."
"Why, was she an airbender too?" Zuko asked. He supposed dwelling on a girl he had feelings for that had been killed a hundred years ago would be counterproductive in fueling Aang's inner fire.
Despite how angry she had gotten at Aang's kissing experience, Katara now found herself hoping this girl was another airbender.
"No," Aang responded, rubbing the back of his neck, "this was after I came out of the ice. Pretty recent, in fact…"
No such luck.
"Okay, so what's the problem?" asked Zuko.
"Well...it didn't exactly work out well for me. She didn't really kiss me back."
Katara scowled, well that's not fair, she thought with more than a little bitterness. It's not like she had a chance to. You're not allowed to act upset if someone doesn't kiss you back when you spring a kiss on them with no warning and then fly away before they even know what's going on. If he hadn't been so dramatic and used his actual words then she would have—
Katara let out a gasp of fear at where her train of thought was leading her. She would have….what, exactly? If she had known the kiss was coming ahead of time, what would she have done? Let him down easy? Told him to focus on the mission? Thrown him into the ocean?...or would she have kissed him back?
Perhaps if they tried again wow where did THAT thought come from?
Meanwhile, back in reality, Zuko was waving away Aang's concerns, "That doesn't matter. Don't think about anything that happened afterward. Just bring yourself back to that one moment, where you overcame caution and went after what you wanted. Set your stance."
Aang faced the dummy and resumed his fighting stance.
Katara couldn't help but inch a little closer away from her "hiding" spot. Now that Zuko had stopped pressing Aang for details and was doing his job, she felt like she could observe with a nervous curiosity instead of outright panic.
"Now," instructed Zuko, "take a deep breath, close your eyes, and picture this girl, how she looked in that moment."
Aang's eyes closed and drew in a breath.
Katara swallowed hard. At this moment, there was no more uncertainty about Aang. He was thinking about her, in that way, right now. And that knowledge made her hold her breath and made her face get a little warm.
"Try to remember how you felt immediately beforehand. How she made you feel. Try to recreate how your heartbeat was affected. It's starting to get faster and harder. How your breathing changed—remember, it's your breath that creates energy in the body for firebending. Yours is getting shallower and more intense. Remember how your stomach muscles reacted. They're tensing in anticipation. Now, in your mind's eye, make your move and kiss her, and at the same time….STRIKE!"
Aang punched his right fist towards the dummy, and his hand exploded.
There was no whoosh like with the previous fireball, but a roar as a conical wave of fire erupted from Aang's knuckles, completely enveloping the dummy 10 yards away and continuing onward to blast past the outer railing of the stone courtyard into the vast expanse of the canyon. And to Katara's alarm, it kept going. It wasn't a single blast but a continuous, monstrous stream of fire easily 15 feet wide at its biggest and so hot that Katara had to turn away and shield her eyes.
Several seconds later, the flames finally died down and Aang blinked his eyes open, looking equal parts proud and terrified of himself. The wooden dummy….did not exist anymore. There was no way to tell if Aang had burned it to ashes or simply blasted it backwards into the canyon. The previously white stones that made up the part of the courtyard that had been in front of Aang were now blackened and cracked.
Zuko had reflexively thrown up his arms to shield his face, stumbling backward. He was still sitting on the ground, eyes widened to the size of Appa's, and his mouth hanging open in shock. He sat there for several more silent seconds until Aang gave an awkward cough, then his face split into the biggest grin Katara had ever seen on him and he started cackling with delirious relief and excitement.
"All right!" Zuko exclaimed, jumping to his feet, "Now that's what I'm talking about!" he loudly clapped his hand on Aang's back, who had returned to looking embarrassed.
"No, don't you clam up again," warned Zuko, "hold onto that feeling. Come on, I'll show you how to make a flame whip."
Katara slinked backward away from her pillar and began a very undignified scurry back to their sleeping area. The fire had long since dissipated, but her face still felt hot and flustered, and her stomach felt like it was doing somersaults. Her mind was filled up by the same three words, repeating over and over again:
I did that.
Thinking about her made Aang able to do that. She could no longer simplify things by telling herself that this was just a confusing crush he had let get to his head. For most of the time she had known Aang, the thought that he would have any….desires like that for anyone simply didn't compute for her. He was too selfless, too kind, too pure. He was a monk for crying out loud.
But what she just saw Zuko coax out of her sweet, innocent friend was….not pure. Had he had this inside of him the entire time? And what brought this out of him was thinking about her. Thinking about kissing her. As much as she tried to deny it, when she thought about this power she had over him….she liked it. She was now able to see Aang in a new light, and at least consider the possibility of being more than friends with him.
But she still fought against it, because that realization was absolutely terrifying.
Katara shook her head and splashed some of her bending water on her face. She resolved to keep doing what she had been doing: focusing on their mission. She could sort out all this confusion when the war was over.
If the goal was to help Aang defeat the Fire Lord and end the war, then naturally they all had an obligation to assist Aang with his bending in any way they could, right? So she supposed it couldn't hurt to give Aang the occasional extra-tight hug now and then. Purely for training purposes, of course.
After all, she thought with a slight smirk as she arrived back at camp, everyone else still sound asleep, what kind of teacher would I be if I didn't give my student the attention he needed?