This story has a happy ending and will end at Chapter 11. Thank you SO MUCH to my beta, Dilettantism, who not only edited this chapter, but provided a significant amount of its content.

Chapter 8

Only the earliest hints of dawn painted the curtains of the room pale orange, but Aang already lay wide awake. He looked down at Katara and smiled, breathing deep the floral scent of her hair, which lay splayed across his chest, piled on the pillow, and stuck in her slightly open mouth. She snored softly with the rise and fall of their naked chests, blissfully unaware of his gaze as she snuggled into his embrace.

He both wanted and dreaded to move. Her weight, though warm and consuming, provoked a dull ache in his bicep— Aang was unsurprised after the strenuousness with which they'd seized the evening. Their desires lasted longer than their physical strength, unsated even into the morning hours in which they continued to grind against one another, slick, sweaty, spellbound. The sheets were still damp, and he realized with an exhausted twitch of his cock that he still wanted her.

They were more now. The thought danced joyfully across his brain as he maneuvered Katara, tugging against her gently to hold her closer still. He rested his lips against the top of her head, breathed and kissed. That he hadn't kissed every inch of her in the last eight hours seemed like an oversight that needed immediate correction. He kissed again and his thoughts trailed back to their whispered confessions.

"I love you. I love you. I love you."

"I love you too, Aang."

"I wanted this for so long, Katara. I want this. I want us."

"I want us too."

Rather than waste precious child-free hours defining "us," Katara and Aang fell back into one another and poured the remainder of their strength and energy into deep, wet kisses. They took turns exploring each other with starved mouths against breathless lips, marked necks, immersed themselves between moistened legs.

Aang spent more time that night inside her than out, and they emerged as greater than the sum of their parts.

He knew now that he'd given Katara his whole heart—placed it into her hands without even realizing. There was no going back, yet (he realized as the thrum of it seemed to take up more space in his chest, picking up speed) he was still unsure whether she really, truly felt the same. In that moment, that warming glow enveloping his spirit was worth everything he had to give.

Maybe it was the pounding in his chest, maybe his half-hard arousal engorging lazily against her thigh, but Katara stirred and looked up at him with a sleepy smile. She kissed him softly and Aang nuzzled against her nose, tense shoulders softening, pulsing length hardening. She gave a contented yawn.

"-time is it?" Katara asked groggily. Aang hummed softly into a kiss against her throat.

"Before seven." Aang said in a whisper.

She laughed. "Then why are you…. up?" Katara whispered back, a hand reaching down to engulf his erection. He breathed deep against her and thrust softly into her palm. His aching ab muscles protested yet failed to dissuade his growing desire.

"Thinking about you" he whispered back, kissing the shell of her ear, tasting the inexplicably soft skin behind her lobe. Katara discharged an aroused breath, her nipples hardening with the goosebumps creeping down her shuddering arms. It didn't escape his notice, and Aang smiled as he pulled back the covers to chart a new path down her body, their eyes locking in a smolder.

"Is this what it's supposed to be like?" Katara's voice wisped breathlessly as he caught a nipple between his teeth, his roving hands disappearing under the covers. She wet her lips before another deep breath full of deepening pleasure.

"No, this is so much more." Was what Aang was about to say when the bedroom door flew open, and children barged in.

"—and then we can walk over to the temple and see the hogmonkeys. They don't like being ridden, but that's what makes it fun! Hey Katara, where's my dad? Do you know how to make pancakes?" Bumi and Kya were still in their pajamas but bouncing with an energy that shamed powerlines. Aang panicked and ducked under the covers.

"Kids! We-I'm not awake yet, go to the living room and I'll meet you out there." Katara yelped, scrabbling at the covers, yanking down as Aang fought to melt out of existence.

"Mom…" Kya, noting Katara's bare shoulders, said in an admonishing tone, "mom, eww where's your shirt?"

As if the horrifying scene could not get worse, Appa jumped up on the bed with a Rawww! His massive weight folding the comforter over Aang's form and coaxing a strained squeak from beneath the covers as the traitorous mutt pawed at his hidden face.

"No…" Bumi gasped with dawning realization.

"OUT!" Katara roared.

"Is that-?" Kya asked as Aang, positively maroon with horror, poked his eyes and a pointed finger out of the blanket, gesturing wildly to the door.

"ARE YOU BOYFRIEND AND GIRLFRIEND?" Kya shrieked with glee.

"What?! NO! We're…NO!—just, GET OUT, KYA!" Aang's yell muffled as he reburied himself.

"CAN YOU MAKE PANCAKES THOUGH?" Bumi cried out as the door slammed shut.

The unexpected pang of dread twisted in Katara's gut.

'No?'

The single word crushed her fragile hope, destroying the delicate tendrils of hope unfurling in her long-frozen heart. She should have known better than to risk the pain, than to expect the kind of love she had inside her being reciprocated.

-0-0-0-

Aang was dismayed when the air between him and Katara almost immediately returned to the same awkward stumbling as before. After a morning of clipped responses to their children, their eyes tried to fill the gap in places where words ought to have been, struggling to communicate to each other what the previous night meant… and where they'd go from here. A silent exchange above the line of their coffee cups, and Katara read an entire novel into his gaze,- all shiny, gray, and constricted.

Regret. We didn't think this through. We didn't have a plan to talk to the kids. We didn't even discuss what this would mean, how it would affect them. He regrets it.

Not regret but rather guilt was what strained Aang's features when he contemplated the path forward with respect to Bumi and Kya. To their credit, the two seemed unbothered—amused even—at their parent's chagrin. Yet he couldn't help but internally chastise himself for throwing it all to the wind in favor of passion.

Likewise, Aang swallowed the heart in his throat when, after walking Katara and Kya out to their car, she spoke the quiet words he was dreading. He'd seen her knit brow and pressed lips as she scurried to pack hers and Kya's things, drumming excuses as to why they needed to leave early.

Did she mean it last night? Did I misinterpret? Is this still "friends with benefits" for her? We're past that…aren't we?

After helping Kya put her bags into the backseat, he straightened and screwed up his courage, but not without a nervous hand rubbing the back of his neck.

"So…Monday. I can take the kids to camp or…?"

Katara shrugged noncommittally. "Or separate, it's no trouble. I don't want you to have to—"

"Oh! No, it's no trouble, obviously."

"I just—"

"Katara I—you go first."

Katara took in a deep, nervous breath and leaned herself against the car door.

"I don't want you to think you owe me something, Aang…and I don't want to sacrifice our friendship if last night was a mistake."

It stung, and Aang blinked rapidly to halt his welling eyes. "Do you think it was a mistake?"

Katara glanced down at Kya in the car and closed the door with a sigh. "Maybe… we definitely should have discussed where we go from here."

To that, Aang held out his hands in a desperate shrug. "I love you, Katara."

She nodded and watched him swallow hard. "I love you too. I don't know, Aang. The fact that we didn't talk about it…maybe it means we weren't thinking about things long-term…maybe it means…" she took a deep breath, "maybe we need to take some time to figure out what that really means?"

Like a deflating balloon, Aang's posture withered. He jammed his hands into his pockets and focused on his feet.

"…okay." He said quietly and stepped away to watch them go.

-0-0-0-

Aang tried to give her space. Every day he bit back all the things he wanted to say to her, from descriptions of the funny things Appa did to wild pledges of eternal love and devotion. He locked his feelings for her behind a brick wall and refused to think about them. Much.

Kya and Bumi finished off their summer in confusion after their parents stopped visiting each other on weekends. Kya retreated back into her protective perfectionism. Even irrepressible Bumi showed signs of strain and unhappiness.

After weeks of avoidance Aang decided he needed to bring this detente to an end. He stopped at Mai's Aunt Mura's florist shop on the way to work and spent entirely too much money on a dozen panda lilies, each flower elegant and perfect, velvety petals wafting a delicate spicy scent.

Mura laughed as she wrapped the blooms in elegant gold paper. "And whose heart are you trying to win with these, Aang?" She didn't wait for him to reply, merely handing him the bouquet and chuckling as he rushed out, head bowed and cheeks aflame.

Palms sweating, he knocked on Katara's office door. After a moment that felt like a small eternity, the door creaked open and Katara peeked out. Aang's stomach cramped in unease when her stunned expression morphed into annoyance.

"Aang!" she hissed, pulling him into her office and snapping the door closed behind him. "What were you thinking? This place is gossip central and now everyone will think we're dating."

Before his courage could fail, Aang reached for one of her hands. Holding it gently, he stared into her eyes and asked "Why AREN'T we dating? This is silly and I-" Her offended expression made him change tacks.

"We said I love you the other night, and I thought we were gonna be together…but we're not."

"YOU thought we were gonna be together? Sure, Aang. That's why you were so adamant with the kids that we aren't."

"Well? Are we?" Aang demanded.

"That's not the—you're confusing me!"

Aang closed his eyes, feeling the tell-tale sting of oncoming tears. His throat went tight. "I'm such an idiot." He muttered softly, letting the lilies fall to the floor. He hadn't seen it. He hadn't wanted to see it. He ignored the signs the same way he had the last time his heart was forfeit. It was a shocking realization that radiated through Aang, swirling to his core, and churning his stomach like a sea storm. He made for the office door on wobbling legs where he stopped for a moment, swallowing hard and screwing his eyes shut. He wanted to run back, forgive her everything, beg for her love. Instead, he steeled, turning his head only slightly over his shoulder, "I'm sorry, Katara. I can't. I can't do it again." he said softly before continuing down the hall.

"Aang. Don't walk away from this! AANG!" Katara cried out, panicking, yet rooted to the spot.

"don't leave me." She choked quietly on the words. But she spoke them only to her own closed door.