This is a prequel to the story "Seeing Stars: An ATLA Dating Gameshow!" You can read it on its own, but it's more fun together. I wrote this for Dilettantism.
A Kataang Week 2022 Prompt: Just Friends
"This is bullshit. With as much as I paid per plate, you'd think we could at least get some decent drinks in this Cheetah-snake hole of a city. Spirits, I hate Ba Sing Se."
The blind earthbender slunk deeper into her seat and reached up to pick her nose. Aang caught it with a deft slap to her wrist and only partially dodged the retaliatory smack to his ear.
"Hey! Watch the wig! Do you want to blow our cover and deal with the press?" he hissed, clawing at the bison hair wig as it wobbled dangerously close to revealing his arrow. It was the Third Ring Clinic Gala, a hard-won and long anticipated fundraising event to expand healthcare facilities for the Earth Kingdom capitol's least fortunate. Convincing the world's leaders to focus more on reducing poverty and improving living standards across state boundaries was a very public campaign of the Avatar since the end of the war.
Aang the person, however, cared deeply about the people of the Third Ring in particular. It was not a place he'd been able to visit as a boy—Gyatso had explained once with a saddened expression, "our teachings inform us that we must have compassion for all beings, large and small, rich, and poor. But in Ba Sing Se, some suffer far too much, and others too little."
It was a covert organization to avoid the politicality that tended to muddy the waters whenever an event was "Avatar Endorsed."
"Because if I make this a public campaign, then it's all negativity," Aang explained in earnest when he pitched it to Poppy and Lao, "Avatar Aang is ignoring Fire Nation prison conditions, the Avatar is doing the Earth King's job, the Avatar this, the Avatar that. This isn't about me; this is about what's right!" And so it was that Avatar Aang found himself arranging his most passionate project as "Bonzu Pippinpadolopsicopolis III," mysterious healthcare advocate palming a black credit card stamped with the seal of the Flying Boar. Even so, his progress on co-opting donors had been glacial.
Until she showed up.
She was a doctor, that much he knew. They hadn't spoken directly (yet) but when Katara caught wind of the push to create free clinics in the impoverished ring, she answered the call of the non-profit committee with all the fiery passion she was famous for. Aang watched her now from across the ballroom, deep in conversation with a couple from the fire nation. He could only guess at the conversation topic, yet it was clear by the body language that she was charming the couple the same way she had with the previous group she'd met moments before. The formerly pinch-faced couple departed her smiling, and Aang chuckled softly when, (after they'd turned their backs,) she gave an exhausted exhale and reached for a deep swig of wine.
"Why did you even bother coming to the gala if you don't want to be recognized? Everything is handled. The clinics are approved. You didn't need to show up to this." Toph pointed out. Aang scratched at the itchy bison moustache as he scrabbled for a reply. His earthbending sifu was right on point, as usual- the gala wasn't his style. Just the irony alone of the top percent of Upper and Middle Ringers spending thousands of yuans on plates of food that were likely to go to waste was enough to turn his stomach. Aang considered his answer, quietly circling vegetables around his plate in a soggy carousel. He stole a glance upwards just in time to see Katara wearing a dazzling smile, accepting a dance from a rather strapping young man dressed to the nines in silk and seal.
"It's a girl, isn't it?" Toph asked quietly with a wicked grin of dawning realization.
Aang carefully lifted his feet off the ground as he continued to watch her glide, twisting, and turning as elegantly as a cranefish. Her genuine enthusiasm was so infectious, he didn't even realize it was coaxing up his own sloppy grin. "Nah, that would be crazy…" he sighed dreamily. Toph laughed.
"I don't need your heartbeat to know that's a lie. You could have just told me this was about chasing some tail… I still would have backed you up. AND I would have talked you out of wearing THIS dating disaster of a wig, you imbecile" she chided, poking the bison wig aggressively once more.
"Ah! Toph! Stahp!" an irritable Aang leaned away from his invaded space, hand palming her face to keep her from swatting at his carefully built disguise.
"Knock it off—"
"Take that monster off your head, I'm trying to help you, stupid—"
"You're drawing attention, quit it!" Aang pushed his fists together and popped a warning blast of air at Toph, rattling her chair as it teetered on two legs for a moment. "YES, okay!?" then he lowered his voice to a murmur as Toph crossed her arms grumpily.
"Yes…there's a girl." Aang glanced up again, wary of gossiping nobles, and startled to find himself under blue-eyed scrutiny. He gulped but their connection broke quickly as she continued to waltz.
"Is she hot?" Toph asked, sipping her tea.
"She's gorgeous" Aang corrected, hand flying to the back of his neck. "She's smart, and her conviction is just—you should have seen her in this conference call. I've never seen anyone shut Pakku down like that, she's relentless and fearless, she—"
"Alright, I get it the picture." Toph interrupted, holding up a hand to his mouth. "Which one's her?"
He looked up again as her dance concluded to applause. Her handsome partner bowed low and kissed her hand—Aang conjured another longing sigh and her name rolled off his tongue with a reverence that made Toph want to wretch.
"Katara. As in Katara, the Chief of Medicine from South Pole General? Katara, as in the war hero who terrorized Fire Nation battalions disguised as a painted lady and smuggled refugees for years. Katara. Arguably one of the most powerful waterbenders in the world—"
"I didn't say I was in her league. I just said I think she's amazing. And…that I…maybe…wanted to ask her to dinner…" Aang trailed off bashfully. Toph felt his posture wither in his chair and felt a stab of pity.
After a few moments of silence in which Toph patted his back with an uncomfortable look on her face, Aang straightened. "Alright, alright. You're right. I'm gonna go talk to her" Aang decided, wiping his sweaty palms on his slacks. Toph startled.
"What?! I didn't say that. That's a horrible idea."
"I have to try, don't I?" Aang asked, shrugging.
"What, approaching her like a creepy grandpa? I'd sooner call my bookie and put up the whole estate. All you're going to get is a face full of ice and a water whip to the ass."
"I don't know about the estate…but I'll put up 50 yuans that he at least gets her number" said a woman sliding out of the shadows.
"Ha! Is that Mai?" Toph wheeled around gleefully. The tall, lean, and glossy-haired young woman wafted into the seat beside her and rolled her eyes before exchanging a fist bump. "I should have known your family would be here. Have you met the Avatar?"
"Toph!" Aang hissed in panic, but Toph waved him off carelessly.
"There's no fooling her, Twinkletoes. Mai can see through a disguise better than I can, and that's saying something."
Mai blinked at him but offered no explanation. Instead, she leaned forward and pulled his slice of fruit pie toward herself. "I'd take the bet" Mai said after she sunk her fork into it. Aang still stood, mouth slightly open. "If there's one thing you can count on from Katara, it's for her to fall for someone that gives her hope. And this gala? It's made her very hopeful…. Bonzu."
"Oh dear, oh dear. It seems that firelily wine doesn't agree with this boy. Well…off you go!"
Katara was stunned to find the obnoxious man explaining the water whip at her seemed to have wet himself. She quirked her brow to his horrified expression as he quibbled and dabbed at his pants.
"I-I didn't, this isn't what—this doesn't happen to me!"
As the man dashed off for the bathroom, Katara watched him retreat with a pursed lip threatening to burst with laughter. Given a few more minutes without him taking a hint, and she may have whipped him with water just the same. She scanned the nearby crowd for benders she might know—the man couldn't have actually pissed himself that casually, right? Instead, she met the gaze of a hirsute gentleman who chuckled softly as he slipped both hands in his pockets.
He was tall and curiously unbent in the way you'd expect an old man to be. The unkempt updo of overgrown hair and a rather outdated set of linen formalwear were out of place in a sea of Earth Kingdom high fashion displays. 'Wealthy people are eccentric like that,' Katara thought inwardly.
"Did you do that?" Katara asked him directly, but her growing smirk betrayed any bite in her tone. Aang held his hands up in defense, "I doubt I needed to. Based on what I overheard, the man is the greatest master waterbender of an age. Maybe in his excitement, his hand simply…. slipped." To Aang's delight, Katara responded with a deep laugh.
"Bisa likes to talk a lot, but he's mostly harmless. I'm Katara." The actual waterbending master extended her hand in greeting and found herself surprised by the man once again when he returned a forearm grasp with quiet strength.
"—Pippinpadolopsicopolis…the third?" Katara finished for him. Aang nodded softly, eyes twinkling. They were still grasping arms. "Wow. We haven't met, but I was hoping you'd come so I could thank you personally. Naming the memorial clinic after the Kawaiisu…I hope you know how much that means to the water tribes."
"The survivors of the river people are slowly rebuilding here in Ba Sing Se, but after suffering a century of war…it was the least I could do. Besides I came over here to thank you. I wasn't sure any of this was going to work until you came on board. Pakku can be…"
"A pain in the ass?" Katara finished for him, and they shared a laugh. "That might be an understatement…"
Their conversation extended on with a fluid ease. Aang had to hide his thrill when she shared her upcoming relocation to Republic City. Bonzu gushed about his pet lemur. Her horrible joke about pirates made him snort into his water cup. After a time, they sighed and looked around the room, settling into a brief but comfortable silence. Aang teetered on the verge of asking for a dance, then paused to itch at his bison hair wig, then teetered on throwing it all to the winds to discard his ill-advised disguise. "…could have grown my hair out, could have used my Kuzon costume…I hate it when Toph is right…" Aang silently berated himself. Before he could reform a response into his faked grainy grandpa voice, Katara broke the silence.
"I wish we could do better. More."
Aang nodded in agreement. "Schools. Clean water."
"Food!" Katara complained, "Did you see—"
"—how much food is getting wasted out back? I know!" Aang finished her sentence and Katara startled to meet his eyes full of glittering schist. He didn't look like an old man in that moment, bouncing on the balls of his feet, arms gesturing emphatically. Even his voice seemed deeper and more syruped than before. Bonzu seemed to notice too, and quickly shoved his hands back in his pockets. He seemed to be considering something as he looked up at the ceiling, and Katara furrowed her brow. What to make of this old man with a strangely young spirit?
"You know" he said carefully, "there's a delivery truck out back..." to which Katara laughed fully once more. "Yeah, let's just steal the food and go hand it out in the lower ring. We could be back before the closing speech." She laughed softer again and reached for her glass of wine, but when Aang made no objection, her beaming excitement positively glowed.
"We could be back before the closing speech." He agreed.
"No offense Bonzu, but I'm going to drive us back…" Katara said, wiping sweat from her brow. She glanced down the narrow cobblestone alleyway now speckled with runaway cabbages that had flown out of the back of the nearly airborne delivery truck. Bonzu laughed deeply and tossed her the keys without argument.
Katara was beginning to suspect that Bonzu wasn't quite the old man that one would judge at first glance. He seemed to have lost himself at the last soup kitchen when he lifted heavy drums of flour in each hand and leapt off the bumper like gravity was a joke. She'd worked with healthy elderly people at the hospital, but even the most physically active were at least identifiable by softer hands, a few more smile lines. Bonzu kicked a soccer ball back to a group of children with a punt that would impress a 23-year-old. The heist was completed all too soon, with stops along a route of shelters and kitchens in desperate need of fresh vegetables, water, cooking oil. The way the children came alight with hope and joy at the sight of not only these precious resources, but also soul-nourishing pies, buckets of gummy-coated mochis, sweet berries—It was worth every repercussion they were likely to face when they made it back to the gala.
No names. No press. Katara and Bonzu climbed back into the truck in quiet satisfaction. "How old are you, Bonzu?" she asked shortly after pulling onto the main road. Bonzu looked up from something he was fidgeting with in his lap, face full of feigned wisdom and made her laugh with his dramatic response, "age is an illusion, and the century that divides us is nothing to a star."
"Century? Seriously though."
Bonzu laughed again. "Truth is a complicated thing" he rasped.
"If you are more than a century old, then you would know life before the war" Katara pointed out. He hesitated but didn't look up. "Yes."
"I'm sorry, Bonzu, but I'm calling it. You are not over 80. What are you up to? Why lie—I'm a doctor, don't think I don't know."
Bonzu sighed and gazed at her fondly. "Living before the war was being alive without even understanding what war meant. To hate another, to hate a stranger so much that you could hurt them? It was incomprehensible." His face was wistful enough that she believed him this time, only to be stunned as they pulled back up to the loading dock behind the gala. His voice changed, the sandiness of his rasp dissolving instantly into the unmistakable tenor of a young man.
"—but you're not wrong. My age is more complicated than you can know. You said you're moving to Republic City, right?" Still dumbfounded, Katara could only nod. "Well…if you put your number in my phone, I can call you sometime and give you more of the story."
Katara scoffed and threw her head back into the seat rest. "Ha! No! I'm not giving me your number on the pretense that you're over a century old. Tell me the truth."
Aang sighed and considered his options. He looked down at the necklace he'd strung together with some tangled fishing line he'd found in the alley. Katara was a forever girl, maybe even his forever girl. "Soon" he said, "There's no way we won't run into each other. And until then? You at least know you have a mystery friend waiting for you when you move." He leaned over for another grasp but grabbed her hand instead of her forearm. She felt something pressing into her palm.
"Just. Friends. I'm not budging on that until you take off that ridiculous wig. Yes, I know it's a wig." She said, waggling a finger at him.
Aang nodded, smile soft, cheeks red under his furry moustache. "Just. Friends. It's wonderful to meet you, Katara."
Katara smiled and rewarded him with a kiss on the cheek. "I can't wait to meet you too."
"Where have you been? Do you have any idea how many people were looking for you two? What were you DOING? Did you get her number?" Toph peppered Aang with questions as he sat back down.
"No. A resounding no." he laughed. He saw Katara enter from the front entrance and his heart trilled to see her already wearing the fishing line necklace.
"Well, that'll be 50 yuans, as per usual. PLUS a favor of my choosing."
Aang leaned back into his seat, grinning hopelessly at the ceiling. "I could not possibly care less, Toph."