A/N: Umm... The characters in this ficlet are now in their late teens. So no throwing cabbages at the author!!! Also, there is some minor smut towards the end, so if you can't handle it, don't read :).
Katara waited alone in the large abandoned Great Room in the Southern Air Temple. The place felt eerie to her, and the longer she was alone, the more her mind began to play tricks on her. She was sure that she could feel the presence of the dead, and if she concentrated hard enough, she could almost hear their screams.
It left her wondering why she agreed to his request at all.
"We need to be alone with our thoughts for twenty four hours before we begin," He had said, as he gathered the ancient supplies of needles and inks from the Temple tower. She had paled as she saw them, wondering how hygienic they could be after all this time.
He delicately wrapped them up in a swatch of fabric before turning to her with a small smile. "The time alone is traditionally meant as a period of reflection; for us to think about the commitment we are about to make." He turned his head slightly from her to hide the sudden fear in his eyes. "And to make sure that there are no... regrets."
She had reached over and grabbed his hand then, her heart in her throat, and gave it a gentle squeeze.
"Do you really think that its necessary?"
The look he gave her was filled with love.
"Not for me. I knew I wanted you for myself from the day we met," He said, a deep red blush staining his cheeks. "But you on the other hand... there are... things in my past that I need you to understand. Dark things."
"Aang, don't be an idiot. I've stayed by you all this time, and you think I'm going to leave you now? Besides, this place is creepy. I don't want to be by myself!" She said with a frown. Aang however, was not swayed.
"Twenty four hours, Katara. That's all I ask..."
He was quiet for a moment, his gaze never wavering from hers. Yet, she couldn't shake the fear of being left alone in such a place, and she knew her feelings were written all over her face.
Aang was looking at her hopefully, although his eyes held a hint of fear.
Katara made up her mind in an instant. He had made so many sacrifices for everyone. She could at least do this thing for him, if it was so important to him.
"I'll... stay here, I guess. And see you in twenty four hours."
He had been so happy with her response, that he pulled her to him and swung her in his arms, placing a heated kiss against her lips. It was so unexpected that she felt lightheaded for a moment, and when he pulled away, her eyes were clouded. Despite being promised to each other, they had only shared a few kisses that were that intense, and she had almost forgotten how easily he could evoke such a powerful reaction from her.
His breathing was uneven as well as he placed his forehead against hers, his lips brushing against the side of her face.
"Twenty four hours, Katara... and then, if you still want, we can be together," He said, with an emphasis on the last word.
Her throat felt dry as she grasped the true meaning of his words.
"And Katara... whatever happens, remember that I love you."
Twelve hours have passed since he left, and despite being half way through the ordeal, she was cursing herself for having agreed to it in the first place. She couldn't see how it served any purpose at all. She certainly hadn't been able to do any soul searching; not with the abject terror she was feeling at being left alone in such a place.
The truth was, she was haunted by it. Haunted by the thoughts of the people that had once roamed these great halls. Haunted by the laughter of children who weren't really there, echoing in the winds. She was even seeing shadows amongst the tall columns of the temple, and she couldn't shake the feeling of being watched.
Katara brought her knees to her chest, rocking back and forth ever so slowly as the wind continued to howl through the open architecture of the Temple. Surely, when the air nomads went through this ridiculous ceremony, they weren't completely and utterly alone like she was now. There would have been people in other parts of the temple; bison flying free in the skies above; and children playing om the courtyard. They would have had the comforting sounds of civilization surrounding them, providing them with a feeling of safety.
All she had around her was the echoes of a people long gone.
In her minds eye, she could envision the massacre, having seen first hand how utterly ruthless the firebenders were. She could see the children, innocent and unaware of what a terrible fate they were about to meet, running around the courtyard in chaos as all around them, the temple monks were struck down. She could feel their utter terror as the blood began to flow, the acrid smell of burning flesh filling the air as the flames consumed them all.
In her mind, she was there.
And at some point, she found herself completely shut off from the reality that surrounded her. No longer was she alone in the Temple, but running for her life, dodging fire and lightning as the attacks came from every direction.
She felt a burning pain along her arm as she was grazed by a fire bolt, and automatically reached to her side for the canteen that should have been there, only to find that it was gone. In fact, nothing about her was familiar. She was garbed in the manner of an air monk, trapped in the middle of a massacre. And then she realized – she was seeing through his eyes.
Fires were breaking out everywhere, catching people, animals and structures indiscriminately. She heard the terror in their voices as they screamed, trying desperately to put out the fires.
"Where is the Avatar? Why is he not protecting us from this?" One monk called out accusingly.
"How can this be happening?" Another one called out, his voice bleeding with abject terror.
To her right, she saw a child fall and lie silent against the ground, never to rise again.
In fury she turned, attempting to fend off the furious attacks, but then felt desperation as the air she was able to summon only served to fuel the viscous flames surrounding her.
And then she too was falling, as a blast of fire hit her in the chest. She felt her body crumple to the floor, the pain overwhelming.
She was dying.
And then the visions were gone and she was left on the floor of the temple, breathing hard and trying to understand all that she had seen.
In the morning, when Aang returned, his expression was solemn. Katara was still sitting on the floor, her arms wrapped around her knees, rocking quietly back and forth.
Aang took one look at her, and crumpled to the floor himself, looking utterly defeated. He didn't need to be told what she had seen. He heard the echoes himself, every single time he placed one foot over the Temple threshold. And the last time he was at the Eastern Air Temple to visit Guru Pathik, he had been haunted so fiercely by the ghosts of the past that he had been unable to sleep for three weeks.
"So... now you know," He said with a trembling voice as a lone tear fell from his right eye. "My crime can never be forgiven..."
Katara couldn't find anything to say in response. How could she? She was still smarting from the experience, and a part of her was angry with Aang for putting her through this in the first place.
"...You can take Appa to get where you need to go... I... I won't bother you any more, I promise..." Aang continued in a small voice, openly weeping now. On his side lay the package of needles and ink where he had dropped them.
Katara turned her head only slightly, but it was enough for her to see the state Aang was in, and that was all that was needed to snap out of her trance.
She still needed to process exactly what she saw, but there was one thing she didn't question, and that was her love for the air bender before her.
She crawled over to him on all fours, placing one hand on the package of tattooing supplies and the other one on his shoulder.
She couldn't say that she didn't blame him. She couldn't say that it wasn't his fault. And she knew that he wouldn't listen to her if she did.
Words failed her in that moment. Actions would have to do.
Aang watched her silently, a pained expression on his face. No doubt she was trying to let him down easily, and he couldn't stand it, even though he knew that it was more than he deserved. Grimacing, he forced himself to lift his head and meet her eyes.
But what he saw reflected in their blue depths was not disgust. It wasn't even sympathy.
He felt as if he was frozen in place and couldn't move even if he wanted to.
Something was pressed into his hand, startling him, and he broke his gaze to stare at the small fabric wrapped package in wonder.
"Are you sure?" He whispered, unbelieving.
For an answer, Katara turned around, and with her back to him, undid her robes, revealing the curve of her back to him in its entirety as the fabric fell to the ground.
Aang swallowed, his hands trembling as he opened the package of needles and ink. He laid them all out in front of him, willing his heart to stop beating quite so fast.
He had seen this done before, many times, but he had never used the equipment himself.
The tattoos were important to him, however, just like the betrothal necklace he gave Katara was important to her. This was the commitment ceremony for his people; or, rather, the nomads at least. The monks, on the other hand, remained celibate. And he would have remained so too, had he not fled...
The thought brought with it a heavy dose of guilt, but in a moment of pure selfishness, he shrugged it off. Hadn't he already given quite enough? He mastered all four elements in record time, and defeated Fire Lord Ozai. And then, he spent countless months away from Katara, witnessing one peace treaty or another, and working on trade agreements. Sure, he was not without sin, but then again who was?
At any rate, she was the only thing that he had ever wanted for himself.
He carefully blew a thin flame at the needle in order to sterilize it, and dipped the tip of it into the blue ink. And, while fighting to keep his hand as steady as possible, he began to ink the symbol of air onto Katara's shoulder, grinding his teeth in sympathy when she winced from the pain.
The tattoo he was giving her was very small, however, so it should not cause her too much distress. Not like the ones that he received when he was ten. They had hurt so badly that he had been unable to attend Gyasto's lessons for a month.
When it was done, he placed the needle down and used a small swatch of fabric to wipe up the droplets of blood off of her shoulder, revealing a small but perfect blue arrow.
"Done," He whispered, as he reached to trace the arrow with his finger. He was still somewhat in a state of bewilderment, and found that his heart was stuck somewhere in his throat.
Katara turned her head slightly and smiled at him in profile. The edge of her chin was just visible over her shoulder. And while he was watching her, she lifted one hand up to her hair and freed her braid, allowing the thick dark locks to cascade freely down her back.
She was breathtaking, and for a moment he thought his heart would stop beating.
"Katara?" He whispered, his breathing rapid and his hands shaking.
Katara stood, allowing the rest of her garment to fall to the ground, leaving herself completely bare to him.
He couldn't breathe.
She was perfect.
And then, she turned.
Secretly, this wasn't the first time he had seen her naked. They did travel together for a very long time, and he was in love with her for what seemed like forever, so when Sokka and Toph were too busy to pay attention, he would often follow her, hiding in the shadows as she bathed. He knew that if either Sokka or Katara found him, they would have killed him for doing so, and yet it had been so worth it at the time.
But this... this was different and so, so much better than the few stolen glimpses he had seen of her in the past. Her body was perfect – lean and athletic, and he longed to run his hands over her pert breasts.
Tentatively, he reached for her and pulled her down to him, meeting her lips in a searing kiss.
"You... you want..."
He couldn't even finish the words. He was shaking.
"Yes Aang. Make me yours."
And as they fell together to the ground, Aang found that he no longer could hear the echoes of the past, swirling about him accusingly. He could only hear the sound of their breathing and the beating of their hearts, as they moved together in unison, banishing the last of his ghosts.