A/N: This is a modern A/U Kataang meet-cute. Here Kataang learn the value of love built on friendship, and the power of family forged not in blood, but in bond.
This story is the result of many edits and many amazing talks between myself and Dilletantism. They're so much more than the beta for this work. Many of these ideas are their own, and future chapters are born of their incredible inspiration. I am endlessly thankful for Dilletantism's wisdom and support.
We both hope you love this idea as much as we loved writing it.
Cumulus and Nimbus
"The greatest gifts we can give our children are the roots of responsibility and the wings of independence." Toph's voice echoed out into the acoustic auditorium as she made her confident opening to another year's back-to-school meet and greet. "—that's why here at Beifong Academy, we do not prepare your child for school…"
An excellent orator, the blind woman paused for dramatic effect, waiting to hear the tell-tale murmur of confusion among prospective parents.
"We prepare them for life. For those of you whose children have tested into the academy, we've chosen you not just because they are gifted and talented, but also because they exhibit the capacity to grow under my institution's vision." She allowed some soft chuckles and grinned at their exasperation.
"For you new parents, any one of the Beifong Academy veterans—you'll see them skulking around the edges there, probably afraid I'm going to put them on the spot—any of them will tell you that the expectations here are high and that many of my methods are known to be…unconventional. But so are your children, and they're the real reason you're sitting in here in my auditorium with a pocketed flask— Hahn." The crowd panned to the red-faced parent caught stuffing his flask back into his jacket pocket.
Katara bit back a laugh from the back row. A handful of days since moving to Republic City and she was already smiling in ways that had escaped her for years. As the single parent of a prodigious young one, life was a chronically scheduled balancing act that left little in the way of jokes and levity.
Republic City was considered one of the foremost locations for families and schools, and she wasn't the first even in her close-knit group of friends and family to relocate. In fact, her brother Sokka and sister-in-law Suki had laid down roots years prior, when the city was still considered a Fire Nation colony. The two were well known for their civic involvement– Suki serving as a long-time Earth Kingdom ambassador and Sokka sitting for council as the city's public works chair.
Katara and Mai had been roommates in college and remained long-distance, but fast friends for years after graduating and returning to their respective nations. Now Republic City found them reunited and Katara was equal parts excited and deeply relieved. The last several years had been unkind and the prospect of having more family around Kya was already soothing her battered psyche. She was hopeful again.
"Katara. Over here."
The room wasn't expansive by any means, just a faculty break room where harassed primary teachers jammed down lunch while grading papers. But Mai's disaffected tone never carried far to begin with, and right now she was bored.
She didn't need to wait long, though—her targeted woman stood briefly in the entryway taking in the gaggle of fellow parent attendees with a keen eye.
Katara was tall even on flat feet, but tonight she stood out in pinchy blue stilettos paired with a black suit that cut her figure in sharp lines. Her hair was adorned in the front with traditional hair beads that matched her pumps and swept back into a neatly folded bun. Katara strode toward may with a confidence and grace that drew stares from those she passed.
People often found Katara's posture intimidating, but those who knew her best were well aware of the gentle soul within. "Hey Mai!" she called with a sparkling laugh and a warm smile. They embraced fondly, Mai murmuring "I can't believe you're finally here! It's going to be great to actually have a mom friend that doesn't make me want to stab things…"
Katara chuckled and gave the sulky woman a raised eyebrow. "Mai, you always want to stab things. When you're annoyed. When you're happy. When you're bored…"
"This is true."
"It wouldn't surprise me if you had some throwing knives tucked away somewhere in that sweater dress."
Smiling wanly, Mai changed the subject as she not-so-discreetly shifted one of her boots behind the other. "So, what did you think of Dr. Beifong?"
Katara grinned widely. "She seems as amazing as everything I read about her. I think Kya is going to love it here. What does Izumi make of it?"
"It's only been a year, but 'Zums progress on the cello is more than we could have imagined. She's over there, with Zuko." Mai gestured behind Katara's back.
"Oh! I should have brought Kya. Sokka's watching her right now. She's dying to see 'Zums."
Mai waved her off with a complacent hand and a devilish grin. "They'll see each other all the time now that you live here. Let's talk about the people you don't know." The sleeves of her sweater dress bunched up as Mai laced her arm through Katara's to wheel her on the spot, the women giggling.
"Yes, gimme the tea, friend…"
"You're going to want to know the 1st grade parents—Shyu and Ming, they have a son coming in from the Waldorf school across the way. Nice people…let's see…Chan and Ruon Jian, their daughter came from the preschool here…Yue's kid Nini, also Waldorf…oh wait, she's 2nd grade now…Nini is an absolute terror, I'm told…"
Mai continued pointing out parents as Katara absorbed the scene with a sharp eye. She noted parent couples interacting in the normal private school fashion—their body language communicating a jockeying for supremacy as they shared increasingly outlandish tales of their gifted children. Not that she would enjoy these types of interactions, but Katara always felt somewhat outside her daughter's school communities—though overt comments and judgements of single parenthood were rare, the repeated lack of inclusion and the evidently uncoupled adults skirting the margins of the room spoke volumes. She was glad to have friends here.
Mai was gossiping mutedly about the "math nerd" parent group when Katara saw him. A tall man chatting with Zuko and apparently manning the snack table. He seemed to be recounting a story with great enthusiasm to Mai's husband, smiling handsomely as he oscillated between emphatic hand gestures and the deft distribution of tea over several steamy cups. Something in the way he moved—nimble, yet deliberate, clever fingers grasping with unintentional eroticism, and an air that made his body appear as though gravity applied less to him than others— it was difficult to abandon her gaze.
Other details drifted into her decelerating brain slower than usual, processing information through dilated pupils. Unlike most of the parents (including herself) who were dressed in business casual, his t-shirt and jogging pants combo bordered oncheeky. Katara supposed that most forgave him on account of his impressive body—lithe and tight with provocative blue tattoos winding up each arm, rippling over impressively coiled biceps. Every school has a "DILF," but she judged this man as exceptionally attractive.
She jumped when he met her eye unexpectedly. Silvery and penetrating, his eyes seemed to look inside her. She should have returned to Mai's face immediately, but instead she swallowed hard and her eyes drifted to his still talking lips—maybe there was a falter there in his speech as it happened, but it drew her in. His were the type of lips you want to see up close, feel if they're as firm and warm as they appeared at first glance. She was inwardly shocked to find herself with a rare heart race, suddenly wanting to know those lips.
"Who….ah. Who's that Zuko's talking to at the snack table?" Katara tried (and failed) to hide the sound of her dry, thirsty voice. Mai side-eyed her friend shrewdly. Even if Katara had been a good actress (she wasn't), there was no mistaking that overly casual tone, and those half-flushed cheeks.
"No, not you too!" Mai complained, causing Katara to finally break her dilated gaze.
"What? No! I was just curious if you know who he is…for gossip purposes…?" Katara lied. Mai rolled her eyes.
"There is no gossip with that one. That's Aang. His son Bumi is a year ahead of you—one of those STEM scholars. Yes, he and Zuko know each other, and please don't be like the rest of them." Mai's voice took on an exasperated tone.
"The rest of who?" Katara asked, only to receive the jerk of Mai's annoyed thumb toward the end of the tea table. Three women clustered nearby, one who was tall like Katara, giggling like a school girl in traditional Fire Nation garb. The other two were shorter and dressed in green—one gossiping behind a hand, while the other, a gap-toothed lady with rather unmanageable hair, leaned in with a smirk.
"The fan club. Look at that one—Meng? She's married for spirits' sake! Floozy…" Mai complained, shaking her head.
"Many have tried and failed to get his attention. We're starting to wonder if he took vows at temple or something. He lives on the air temple island." She explained when Katara quirked her brow.
The admission provoked another hard swallow from the fellow war survivor—Katara's own tribe had lost almost as much as the air nomads had. She had been very proud of her brother when one of his first major achievements after moving to Republic City was to convince the council to allot the island to the small handful of surviving air nation refugees.
"Is that a common practice, or just some gossip? Is he actually single?" she asked.
"Don't. Don't do this." Mai said pleadingly.
"I'm not doing anything!" Katara said, laughing. "When have I ever?"
It was true, Katara had not done anything in a very, very long time. Kya was the light of this mother's life. Her conception had been quite the unintentional surprise—and the man responsible had vanished. Though it was a wonderful accident that Katara wouldn't change if she could, the memory of holding her daughter alone in a hospital bed was one tainted with no small amount of loneliness and hurt.
Not one to mope, the new mother had drawn herself tall and decided if she was to raise Kya alone, it would be with all the effort she could muster.
She worked late into nights and often rose before dawn to accomplish all those tasks necessary to nurture both a growing human and a rapidly accelerating career.
She prioritized her daughter's needs with all the intensity of a mother saber-toothed moose lion.
She bought a vibrator that could call forth the orgasms she'd never received at the hands of a man. "And this life is enough," she would pointedly remind herself whenever the urge for male company—the urge that had never provided anything besides disappointment and heartache—creeped back to the forefront.
Such was the case when she greeted her apartment after returning from back to school night.
"Hey sis, how'd it go?" Sokka called from the couch. Katara noticed immediately that he'd taken the liberty of alphabetizing her moving boxes and chose to chew her tongue silently. They'd both inherited something of the organizer gene from their mother, but Katara had them arranged by type and priority.
"It was great. Got to see Mai and Zuko. Met the principal—she's a character. Saw some uh…well. Saw the school grounds. Was Kya good for you?" She finished lamely, peeling out of her pumps.
"You know Kya. I don't think her posture changed until bedtime. When are you starting work?" Sokka asked as he wandered not-so-aimlessly into the kitchen.
"Next week, why? Are you positively dying for your new community liaison so soon?"
Sokka shrugged. "I mean. I have work piling up waiting to pass environmental, and environmental is stuck on this conservation fair obsession. If you took over the coordination, I might finally be able to pull his head out of his—"
"Okay, I get it." Katara interrupted, not wanting to risk tainted feelings about her new job in city hall before she'd even set foot in the office. "I'll see what I can get done once I drop Kya off for school. It might take a while to fix all the boxes you moved around though…"
Relieved once she'd shooed her brother out the door, Katara checked in on the sleeping Kya. The six-year-old was hidden but for a tiny foot poking out from a nest of blankets in which she slept, almost ball-shaped. A sigh of relief, and a glimmer of hope for Katara. It was a new city, a fresh start. For both of them.