Aang was acting a little weird, Katara had
noticed. He seemed strangely on-edge; the hand that still held hers would
tighten or loosen seemingly at random, and his posture was somewhat stiff. Even
his conversation had a bit of a nervous tint to it, as if he couldn't quite
focus properly on whatever they were talking about.
It was starting to make her a little worried.
"Is everything okay, Aang?" she asked finally, as they came up to the doorway of the house that had been given to him so long ago. "You've been acting pretty jumpy ever since we left the tea shop."
"Oh... uh... I'm fine." He paused in front of the door and gave her what was clearly meant to be a reassuring grin. It still had a noticeable anxiety to it. "But actually, I have a surprise for you."
That was enough to pique her interest. "What is it?"
"You'll see." He let go of her hand to get the door open, and held it wide for her. "Sorry - it's kind of dark in here, isn't it?"
"Maybe just a little." She blinked a few times - the room was nearly pitch black, and it didn't help that Aang let the door shut immediately behind them. "We should light a candle or something."
"Funny you should mention candles..." She felt him step up beside her, take in a deep breath, and then little tongues of fire were leaping from his fingers across the room - settling on the wicks of the candles he had obviously put in place earlier.
"Oh, wow..." Katara looked around the room, a little stunned. It wasn't just the candles; he'd gone for the whole deal, and decorated with flowers, too, artfully arranged around the candles and in boughs draped across the walls. The result was very romantic - if it weren't for the dim lights, Katara would've felt it reminded her of a wedding, but as it was the feeling was... slightly different. "You did all this just to surprise me?"
Aang shrugged. "Well, you know..." He was smiling at her in that sweet sort of way he did sometimes, his eyes dark with emotion. "I was thinking maybe tonight would be special."
It was hard to resist that look. Katara gazed back into his eyes as he stepped closer and brushed her cheek with fingers that shook just a little. She felt that familiar shiver of excitement in the pit of her stomach that came before he kissed her, and let her lips curve a bit in response. "Special?"
"Yeah." His voice was oddly hushed, and he was close enough now that she could feel that faint brush of his breath on her face as he spoke. He blinked several times, and stared at her as if enraptured. "I love you so much, Katara," he breathed, and pressed his lips to hers, sliding his hand down to cup the back of her neck.
Hearing those words from him before being kissed had to be the best feeling in the world. Katara broke from the kiss just long enough to murmur, "Love you too," against his lips, and then pushed back up into it enthusiastically.
That was enough to release the floodgate; Katara wasn't sure if her lips parted first or if Aang's did, but it didn't matter. Her arms slid around his waist; his free hand circled her shoulder and braced against her upper back.
"Katara." He pulled away from her mouth long enough to mumble her name, kissed her again, almost urgently, and then repeated, "Katara." He was breathing hard - so was she - but the air seemed to catch in his throat somehow when he lowered his head to brush his lips against the corner of her jaw. "Katara," he whispered again, lingering over the syllables.
Something about the way he said it made her shiver.
Her hands rested at the small of his back as he kissed his way slowly down her neck; she was aware of the feel of lean muscle under her fingers, and felt a pleasant little knot forming at the pit of her stomach. Those guilty thoughts and feelings were drifting in - the ones that fed into the ache slowly building in her loins. One day... one day that waist would be between her legs, skin uncovered by the cloth that served as a barrier against her hands now. One day she would be just as naked beneath him, and his hands would explore all of her, and his body would press against hers - into hers...
Katara bit her lip against a little sound that wanted to escape. Aang couldn't know that she thought that way - it would make things too uncomfortable. He was still too young, even if he had the body of a man. He couldn't be ready for that.
... those couldn't be his hands pulling back the fabric of her wrap from her neck so his mouth could follow the line of her shoulder.
He must have felt the way she tensed at that, because he pulled up again, fingers trailing lightly over the exposed skin, and his warm breath tickled her ear as he breathed out, "Katara, I want to - with you - I want to - "
"Aang." It was the sound of her own voice that broke Katara out of trance; that, and the reality of what he had just been about to suggest. The shock was like a bucket of cold water thrown over her head. She moved her hands around to brace them against his sides and pushed herself back from his hold. "Wait."
He backed off immediately, staring at her with a certain amount of chagrin. "I'm sorry, Katara - I didn't mean to make you uncomfortable... I just thought - maybe - well..." Even in the dark, she could tell his face was growing red.
"It's all right. It's just..." She struggled for the right words; this was all wrong somehow, and she couldn't figure out how to properly express that. "Aang, I - "
"It's okay," he said hastily, staring earnestly at her. "You don't need to explain to me. You're not ready - I understand. We can wait. I won't bring it up again."
"I'm not ready?" That was totally backwards. Katara frowned at him. "No, you're the one who's not ready."
"I won't pressure you or any - huh?" Aang stopped in mid-babble, and blinked at her in complete astonishment. "Did you just say what I think you just said? Because... it sounded like you said I'm not ready."
"Aang, you're only sixteen." Katara crossed her arms over her chest defensively. He was going to fight her on this - she could see it already. "You don't know what you're getting into. This just isn't the sort of thing you can rush."
He stared at her; obviously, when considering the possible responses she might have had, this wasn't one that had come up. "Wait, wait, wait." He shook his head, holding out his hands. "Let me get this straight: you're telling me that I'm not ready for this?"
He was twisting it around; Katara fought to keep her voice reasonable. "Aang, if you'd just listen for a - "
"Katara, I planned this!" He threw up his hands, expression incredulous. "I've been planning this for months! You're seriously trying to tell me I don't know what I'm getting into?"
"Look..." Months? Aang, who did everything on the spur of the moment, who seemed to take great satisfaction in spontaneity, planned this... for months? Katara took in a breath, trying to draw a sense of calm around herself. "I know you think you're ready for this, but - "
"I think I'm ready? Do you even hear yourself?" He looked thoroughly agitated by that point. "What makes you think I'm not ready? And why are you the expert? Shouldn't I know my own feelings better than anyone else?"
"You're not even letting me explain!" Katara protested irritably.
"What else is there to explain? One - I'm too young. Two - I'm not ready for this, no matter what I think. Three - I don't know what I'm feeling or thinking." He ticked the points off on his fingers, equally irritated. "And apparently there's some magic age I need to hit when none of this stuff matters any more and I'm instantly good to go! Doesn't that cover what you're trying to say?"
"I never said that!" She could feel her face burning; it sounded so stupid when it was put like that... "You're putting words in my mouth!"
"Well, then what are you saying, Katara?" Aang spread his arms wide, then let them flop back to his sides with obvious frustration. "What am I supposed to think when you tell me you're rejecting me because I'm not ready?"
"I'm trying to keep you from doing something you'll regret! And isn't that being a little dramatic?" She turned away from him, fingers digging into her arms as she glared at the flickering candles to her left. "There's no reason to get mad just because I didn't go along with your little plan to get me to sleep with you."
"This isn't about that! Ugh!" Aang let out a long, furious breath. When he spoke again, his voice was deliberately calm. "You don't want to go that far? I have no problem with that. We can wait as long as you want. What I do have a problem with is you telling me that I'm somehow not old enough to know what I want." He paused for a brief moment, and then continued in a more subdued tone. "What else do you think I don't know about myself? Do you even believe me when I tell you that I love you?"
Her head shot up at that; she spun to face him again, stung. "How can you ask me that?"
"Well, what am I supposed to think?" he demanded; she noticed that his eyes weren't just angry - they were hurt, too. "If you really feel that way about this, why shouldn't you about other things too?"
"This is different!" How could he not see that?
"How? How is it different, Katara?" He sighed then, and pinched the bridge of his nose, shutting his eyes. "You know what? Don't answer that. I probably don't want to hear it." He turned abruptly away from her.
"Oh, right - just run away from it, then! Isn't that what you always do?" She glared after him. What right did he have to be hurt? All she was doing was looking out for him. "And where are you going, anyway?"
"To my room." He shot her something of a sullen look over his shoulder. "If that's okay."
She rolled her eyes. "Oh, real mature."
"Well, I'm too young to know better, aren't I?" he retorted, turning huffily into the bedroom he'd claimed.
"You sure act like it sometimes!"
The door slammed shut behind him.
Meditation, Aang had found, was a really helpful way to get outside of a situation and see it from a much more neutral point of view. Once you could release those negative emotions, it was much easier to see another person's side of things.
Unfortunately, when it came to Katara, this hardly ever worked for him.
Why is she so stubborn?
He slumped forward with a sigh, staring down at his crossed ankles. Katara, Katara, Katara - the person who made him the happiest and who filled him with the most confusion and heartache and frustration. They'd come such a long way, been together for three great years, and although they'd had bad times here and there, he had thought their relationship was pretty solid by then. Enough so that he felt he could approach her about the whole sex thing without her refusing to speak to him, at least.
So why did he now feel like nothing at all had changed since he was thirteen years old?
"Ugh." Aang let himself flop backwards, spreading his arms out to either side and staring at the ceiling blankly. "What does she expect from me, anyway?" he wondered out loud. The way she'd made it sound, she still thought he was a kid who couldn't be trusted to make his own decisions.
But that doesn't make sense - even when I was a kid, I made a lot of really important decisions and she trusted me then. He could feel his forehead wrinkling as he tried to puzzle his way through the argument. What's so different about now?
There was one unpleasant possibility. Aang pushed himself back up again, feeling that cold, hard knot forming at the pit of his stomach as he came back to the thought that had been haunting him since he'd retreated to his own room earlier that night. He didn't have any doubt that Katara loved him - he knew her well enough to know that she wouldn't lie about something like that. But love was one thing, and physical attraction was another. If Katara still saw a thirteen-year-old every time she looked at him...
What if she just wasn't attracted to him like that?
"She has to be," he muttered to himself, frowning at the wall in front of him. They'd kissed so many times, and he'd held her, and her body had melded into his, and she'd given him that look when they broke apart... It was part of the reason he'd been so optimistic about tonight. He was sure that she wanted him at least as much as he wanted her.
"Doesn't she?" he wondered, after another moment's thought. It had been a long time since he'd felt this much doubt about Katara's feelings, but... well... now that he thought about it, she didn't initiate stuff between them very often.
That might be my fault, though. He did kind of kiss her a lot... and hug her out of nowhere... and take hold of her hand whenever he could get away with it... So there weren't really a lot of times when she had the opportunity to start anything, because he was always doing it. But she always seemed really happy when he did those things, and seriously, who could possibly be Katara's boyfriend and not want to take advantage of it all the time? Even after three years of being with her, his fascination with her hadn't eased up one bit.
"I guess it really has always been me chasing after her," he acknowledged out loud, and sighed, disheartened.
These thoughts really weren't helping with the meditation. I should stop thinking about it so much, Aang decided, sitting up straight and shutting his eyes. He'd been with Katara for three years, and everything had been perfect. Everything was still perfect. This argument was nothing when compared to what a great bond they had. In fact, once Katara had the night to think about it, she'd probably realize how right he was. And how much she wanted him. Then she'd come right up to him and demand that he sweep her off her feet and take her right then and there, and they'd tear each other's clothing off and -
Meditation thoughts, Aang, he reminded himself, trying to ignore the heat rapidly rising on his cheeks at the mental images he'd managed to create. Calm and soothing stuff, remember?
Those kinds of thoughts rarely came easily when he had Katara on his mind.
Something felt a little different this time, he noticed - in a detached sort of way - once he'd finally cleared his mind. It was a familiar feeling, but somehow subtly different from his usual meditations. It was like his surroundings had altered; but even without opening his eyes, he knew they were the same.
That thought was still lingering at the back of his mind when he heard someone outside yell out, "Help! Someone, please!"
Aang's eyes shot open; he was out of his meditative pose and at the window an instant later. In the street outside, a woman in a dark cloak had fallen on the road; he could see her shaking uncontrollably even from that distance.
"I'll help you - hold on!" He bent himself quickly over the sill and out onto the front of his house before hurrying over to the prone form on the ground. "What's wrong?" he asked, crouching beside her.
"I'm sorry - I fell. I'm all right." She leaned heavily on him, and then raised her face.
Aang had trouble containing his shock. It wasn't Katara in front of him - he knew that - but the woman looked so much like her that it was difficult to tell the difference. "W-Well, good," he stuttered, caught off guard for a moment before he gave himself a shake and recovered his manners. "Let me help you up."
Instead of responding, she seemed to be studying his face intently. "So you're the Avatar." There was a strange, compelling sort of tone to her voice. "So young," she murmured, almost absently, and reached up to touch his cheek.
Aang blinked, a little startled, and fought the sudden urge to drop her and jump back at the feel of her fingers against his skin. "Uh... that's me." He tried a grin. "But you probably have places to be, so I'll just - "
"It's a girl, isn't it?" The woman's eyes were sharp as she studied him; it was so strange, to see that expression on a face that looked so similar to Katara's. "You see a girl when you look at me. No wonder your thoughts are so... troubled." She smiled thinly. "It's always a girl."
He did let go of her then, edging away subtly. Something wasn't right here. "What do you mean? Who are you?"
"There's no need for that." She straightened, still regarding him in a calculating sort of way. "But you know... I could soothe those thoughts for you." Her voice had something of a honeyed tone to it. "You don't need to tear yourself apart over her, you know."
Despite his wariness, Aang felt strangely fascinated with her words. It was like there was fog drifting in around his thoughts, but he couldn't manage to be alarmed over it. "I-I don't?" he mumbled.
"Of course not." She smiled again, and this time it was a soft, heavy-lidded sort of look. "I can fix it for you - make everything better. Didn't you know?"
He stared dumbly at her. "I didn't know that..."
"Well, then you're fortunate that I found you, aren't you?" She stood and held her hand down to him, still smiling in that appealing sort of way. "Just come with me, and I'll take care of everything."
He was already bringing up his hand to grasp onto hers, almost without thinking about it, but he halted just a few inches from doing so, hesitant. "What are you going to do?"
"I'll give you dreams," she replied, and lowered her eyelashes almost coyly. "Dreams you can pick and choose from, keep in your memory as if they were real, and" - her smile curved up, promisingly - "in every single one, you and she will be together. Just the way you want it."
Katara... He wasn't sure if it was longing, or the unclouded corner of his mind calling out for help. Aang reached out and grasped the woman's hand.
Her smile widened; the gaze that held his shifted beyond him, suddenly.
When he turned to follow her stare, confused, he saw the light from the candle he'd left in his room - and beside it, bare chested and with its tattoos glowing brightly, was his own body.
Before he could do much more than widen his eyes in alarm, the hand that clutched his gave a sudden tug, and he was pulled into darkness.