CHAPTER 7: UNWANTED ATTENTIONS
Katara went to her room in lodgings of the tea shop and threw herself on the bed. She buried her face in the pillow and smiled. She did it. She was free. She was actually free! It was like a heavy burden had lifted itself from her very soul. Of course, she could not rejoice in hurting her friend's feelings. She felt for him. But he would mend eventually, they were still young. Katara still couldn't get over that either. She was young again! Not that she had been very old, but she was a teenager again and she could spend her life with Zuko…for a time. For some reason she slowly was becoming less and less aware of her actual age. It felt normal to be 15 year old Katara again. There was a quiet tap at the door. "Come in", she called. Zuko opened the door. "Are you okay?", he asked. She nodded. "I'm great". "Did you talk to Aang?". "I did". "How did he take it?". She sighed. "He was whiney…and pushy. But ultimately, he took it pretty well". "What did he say?", asked Zuko. "I was really surprised at him at first", Katara admitted. "He actually argued with me about when he kissed me at the Invasion. He basically thought that because I didn't stop him, it meant that I wanted him to kiss me". Zuko was stupefied. "What?!". Katara nodded "I know!". "But how could you stop him? As far as you knew, he was about to face my father!". "Exactly what I said", said Katara. She hesitated. "He…asked me if it was because I was in love with someone else". Zuko was on alert at once. "Does he know?". She shook her head. "No. He asked if I was in love with Haru of all people. I don't know where everyone gets that idea!". Zuko shook his head. "Anyway, I left him out on the balcony. He wanted to stay out there for a while". "He'll need some time", said Zuko reasonably. "At least things went better with Aang then they did with Mai". "Was it very bad?", asked Katara empathetically. She had wanted to ask him before, but they had not gotten the chance to speak for long and she knew it would be a long story. Zuko nodded. "It was pretty bad. I'm sure she hates me". "She'll come around eventually", said Katara. "Maybe we'll all be friends one day". "I hope so", said Zuko. He looked out of the small window at the setting sun. "I should go". Katara nodded. "Okay. I'll see you down at dinner".
Dinner was a little awkward. Aang looked so sullen while Sokka and Ty-Lee chattered, not seeming to notice. Suki chatted a little too but she noticed Aang's glum expression and fell quiet. "What's the problem Twinkle Toes?!", asked Toph finally. "You haven't said a thing all night". "What?", asked Aang, as if he were surprised to discover he was not alone in the room. "Yeah Aang", said Suki with concern. "Is everything alright?". "Oh, I'm fine", said Aang, forcing a smile. "I know you're lying", said Toph flatly. "I just don't wanna talk about it", said Aang exhaustedly. Toph shrugged. "Well, we're here for you buddy", said Sokka. "Whenever you want to talk". Aang nodded and pushed his dinner away from him. "I think I'm gonna just go lay down. I'm not feeling hungry". Everyone watched as Aang headed up the stairs to his room. "I wonder what's wrong", said Suki when he was completely out of sight. "Weren't you outside talking to him not too long ago on the balcony?", Ty-Lee asked Katara. Everyone's eyes flew to her and she cursed inwardly. "Yeah I was", she answered truthfully. With Toph at the table she couldn't lie. She would have to tell the truth as vaguely as possible. "Did he say what was bothering him?", asked Sokka. Katara shook her head. "No, he didn't". (K) True, he didn't actually say what he was upset about. "Whatever it is, I think he'll be okay in time", said Zuko. "When he's ready to talk, if he ever is, we'll be here". Everyone nodded. A few hours after dinner was cleaned up and everyone was readying for bed, Suki caught Katara's arm. "Hey Katara. Could we talk for a minute?". Katara was puzzled but nodded. Suki led her to the balcony. There was a gentle breeze blowing and the city was quiet.
"What's going on?", Katara asked Suki as casually as possible. She had seen the way her eyes had scrutinized her when Ty-Lee mentioned that she and Aang had been outside talking before. "I wanted to ask you about Aang", said Suki, going right to the point. "I've never seen him so down before". Katara nodded but remained silent. "Did you…let him down gently?". Katara's gaze shot up at Suki. "But how-", "A wild guess", said Suki with a sad smile. "I always knew he was in love with you, but I was never sure how you felt about him". Katara sighed. "I felt so bad", she revealed. "Aang is my best friend. I love him so much but I just don't love him in the way he wants me to". Suki nodded understandingly. "Hey, don't beat yourself up about it", said Suki soothingly. "You can't force yourself to like someone romantically and even if you could, you shouldn't". Katara smiled gratefully. "Thanks Suki. I still feel awful about it all though. I hate to see him so sad". She really did. Just because Aang was immature and pushy it didn't mean she didn't care about his feelings. Suki put a comforting arm on Katara's shoulder. "He'll be alright. You're his first love, but he's only a kid. He'll have more chances at love". "I've been telling myself that since I came back inside from talking with him", said Katara. "But I feel better hearing it from someone else". She looked furtive for a moment. "Suki, please don't tell anyone", Katara asked plaintively. "Not even Sokka". Suki smiled encouragingly. "I won't tell anyone. Aang deserves to be able to bring it up on his own terms, if he ever brings it up at all".
The next day Katara was surprised to wake up to find her window filled with flowers. At once she knew they were from Aang. She hoped with all of her being that he was showing that there were no hard feelings. As she readied herself and headed downstairs, her brother met her. "Hey Katara". Katara regarded Sokka for a moment. There was something about his face that made her realize that he knew what had transpired between her and Aang. "Hey Sokka", she replied amicably. "Are you heading out for the day?". He nodded. "Yeah Suki and I are going to see a play". "I hope you have a good time", she smiled as she went past him. "Hold on a minute", he called after her. Katara walked on for a bit before stopping. "What is it?", she asked. Suki was sitting downstairs waiting for him. She smiled to see Katara. Katara bit down her irritation and forced a smile for Suki. "I know what happened with you and Aang", said Sokka quietly. Katara nodded. "I figured you did". "I didn't hear it from Suki if that's what you're thinking", said Sokka. "Aang came to me last night". Katara instantly regretted her irritation with Suki. "What did he say?". "He said that you told him you loved him as a friend and he asked me how he could get you to love him as...more than that". Katara nodded. "I gotta say", said Sokka. "It gives me the oogies just thinking about my little sister liking anyone as more than friends". Katara smirked at him and Sokka made a gesture. "But I told him he's gotta respect your feelings. He can't force you to love him. It has to come from you on your own for it to be real". Katara was surprised. "That was actually good advice Sokka". He gave her an indignant look. "I always give good advice!". He quickly turned to Suki. "Right?!". Suki rolled her eyes. "Right", she agreed in a sweetly sarcastic tone.
"Well I don't think he took your advice", said Katara drily. "What do you mean", asked Sokka. "This morning I woke up to a bunch of flowers in my window". "It could've been someone else", said Sokka defensively. "Like who?", asked Suki rolling her eyes. "Zuko?!". Katara felt her heart jump at the mention of his name in this context. It was ironic that Suki was actually correct...or she would be. But Zuko wasn't the type to just leave flowers. Katara didn't trust herself to laugh it off so she just stayed quiet. "It could've been Zuko", Sokka protested. "Ty-Lee told me that he just broke up with his girlfriend", retorted Suki. "She said it was a bad break up. I'm sure he wouldn't just be littering flowers all over someone's window just yet!". Sokka finally conceded to the logic. "Alright, alright!", he exclaimed gesturing with his hands. "It probably was Aang". Suki smirked and then turned to Katara, smoothing her expression. "What are you gonna do about it, Katara?", she asked with concern. Katara shook her head miserably. "I don't know! I told him yesterday that I just like him as a friend. I don't know why he can't just accept it". She sighed. Suki paused. "Maybe you need to be more...you know, forceful in the way you tell him", she suggested. Katara gave her a bleak look. "I know, and I don't want to. I care about him, I don't want to hurt his feelings. I feel like maybe I should just try to avoid him". "If you want my advice, you should just face him head on and let him know it's not gonna happen". Everyone spun swiftly to see Toph lounging on the floor. "Toph!", exclaimed Katara. "How long have you been there?!". "Long enough", said Toph grinning mischievously. Katara frowned. "Oh lighten up Sugar Queen", said Toph carelessly. "You aren't gonna be doing yourself any favors tiptoeing around his feelings. You'll just end up making yourself crazy".
Sokka considered it. "Toph's probably right", he agreed. "It's better to tell him when your head is clear rather than after you get too annoyed". "What should I say?", asked Katara. "Just let him know how you feel", said Suki. "I did that yesterday", said Katara in frustration. "Tell him he's making you uncomfortable. He's your friend too, Katara. He won't want you feeling that way", said Sokka. "I guess you're right", sighed Katara. "Maybe you should talk to General Iroh", suggested Toph. "He give pretty great advice". Katara brightened at that. "You're right Toph. I should go and ask him. Thanks guys". Katara left her brother and her friends to go and find Iroh. He was down in the shop kitchen, brewing tea for customers. Nowadays, he had a few employees, but he still enjoyed tea making for his own pleasure. "Uncle, I have to ask you about something". He turned to her with a pleasant smile. "I am honored that you would adopt me as your own uncle, Katara. What is on your mind?". Katara cursed herself inwardly. While she had nearly 100% adapted to the Dream, the real world Katara was still very accustomed to referring to Zuko's uncle as her own uncle. She smiled shyly and he beckoned her to the side. "General Iroh", she corrected herself, "I need some advice on how to deal with Aang...". He waited silently. "He...has feelings for me. And he's my friend, my best friend, but I...", "You do not return his feelings". She shook her head sadly. "I don't. So, I told him that yesterday when he asked me if we could be together". Iroh nodded. "It is best to be honest and upfront when it comes to matters of the heart. How did he take the news?". "I thought he took it pretty well at first...but then this morning he showered flower petals all over my window sill. I think he's trying to win me over". "And you are unwilling to be won over?", Iroh asked. Katara nodded. "I just don't have those feelings for him. I can't force myself to". "No you cannot", he agreed. "So what should I do?", she entreated him. He rubbed his chin thoughtfully and Katara smiled. (K) Like uncle, like nephew. "It is a delicate situation. You should let him know that he is not the one for you...and then perhaps you can encourage him to find love elsewhere". "So...I should find someone to take his mind off of me?", she asked. He nodded.
"Aang is a young man experiencing his first flush of love", Iroh chuckled. "He believes that there is no one else for him but you, for now". "To be honest, General Iroh, I'm not sure Aang is really in love with me as a person. I think he loves the idea of me". "That is also possible", he conceded. "Often that is what a first love truly is". Katara thought fleetingly of Jet who had been her so-called first love. Just like Aang, she had loved the idea of him. He was cool, strong, and a born leader. But he was also a ruthless extremist, and that she could not contend with. "Sometimes I feel like because Aang puts me on a pedestal, he doesn't give me room to be human", said Katara quietly. Iroh regarded her quietly, his eyes silently assessing her. "Well, I am no expert, but I would say that if that is the case, it is not love that he feels for you. Love is an all encompassing thing. To love another is to love them in their entirety; flaws and virtues, good and bad". Katara nodded. "I agree. The way he loves me just feels like...like obsession", she confessed. Iroh nodded his agreement. "That is very possible. In that case, I think that it may be best to convince him that he does not love you rather than the other way around". Katara's eyes widened at the brilliance of the idea. "You're right Uncle- I mean General Iroh!", she exclaimed. "If he can realize that he doesn't actually love me romantically, then maybe his feelings won't be badly hurt!". Iroh smiled at her burst of energy.
That evening, the group had decided to go see a play. The Ba Sing Se Theatrical Association put on a far better show than the Ember Island Players. They performed the story of the ill-starred lovers from the legend who created the Cave of the Lovers. It was heart-wrenching and lovely, and the costumes were beautiful- a work of theatrical excellence in every way. The audience gave a standing ovation. As Team Avatar filed into the streets of the Middle Ring, a girl of about 16 years utter a squeal of delight and hurried after them. Everyone turned in mild surprise and interest. Zuko's eyes widened. It was Jin. "Lee!", she exclaimed. "It's so good to see you again!". She stepped back, blushing and nervously adjusting her sleeves. "Or should I say, Fire Lord Zuko". "You know her?", asked Toph. Zuko smiled faintly. "Yeah...I met her when I was a refugee in the city. She used to come into the tea shop my uncle and I worked at". Katara eyed the girl warily. (K) She must be Jin. Zuko had gone on a single date with the girl, and kissed her briefly before taking off without explanation. Jin stepped closer to Zuko. He was keenly aware that everyone, including Katara, was watching him intently. "Jin...I-", he started. "Umm...you don't have to apologize, Fire Lord", said Jin nervously. "I know why you felt you had to leave our date before". "Date?!", exclaimed Sokka making a face. "How did you find time for dates while you were plotting our destruction?!". "Shh!", reproved Suki. Zuko grimaced. Katara tried her best not to falter. She had known Zuko had gone on a date with Jin. He had told her months ago. Jin smiled sweetly at Zuko and Katara was struck with her prettiness. She felt an unwanted, and an unfounded twinge of jealousy in the pit of her stomach. "I know you had to hide who you were", continued Jin. "You couldn't let anyone get close to you because they could've found out. But now you don't have to worry about that". She shifted her weight nervously. "So...if you'd like, I was wondering if we could you know, go on another date?".
Aang smiled up at Zuko. "She seems really nice Zuko", he said approvingly. Jin smiled gratefully at him and then took in the tattooed arrow on his forehead. "You must be the Avatar!", said Jin excitedly. "Sure am", said Aang cheerily. "Wow! And all of you must be 'Team Avatar'...that is what you call yourselves right?". The group nodded and made general sounds of agreement. "You guys are heroes! I'm so honored to be in your presence", she bowed. "Well, the rest of the week we'll be busy meeting with Earth King Kuei", said Zuko quickly. "I'm not sure I'll have time for a date". "Oh that won't take all day", said Sokka clapping Zuko on the back. "You'll have plenty of time in the evening". Zuko never wanted Sokka to shut his mouth more in his life. "I don't know", said Zuko persistently. "What if we take longer than we expect? I don't want to have to cancel". "Earth King Kuei would understand", said Aang. "Well...what if Uncle wants me to help at the Jasmine Dragon?", Zuko asked, desperately fishing for excuses. "He'd love to go", said Aang turning back to Jin and ignoring Zuko. Katara felt herself raging inwardly. Zuko wanted to punch something. (Z) Mind your business Aang! "Tomorrow evening then", said Aang, still playing matchmaker. "You guys could use a private room at the Jasmine Dragon. That way you can be close by if General Iroh needs anything". "Thanks Aang", said Zuko without inflection. Jin was beaming. "Great! I'll meet you there at dusk". She smiled at the rest of the group. "It was so nice to see all of you". She dipped a quick bow before walking off.
"Why were you trying to avoid going out with her again?", asked Sokka. "She seemed nice and she was really pretty". Suki made cleared her throat in vexation. "But not as pretty as Suki!", he added quickly. "Yeah", said Aang. "And last time you left the date early. You should make it up to her". Zuko's grimace deepened. "I just have a lot on my mind now", said Zuko vaguely. Ty-Lee looked sympathetic. "Is it because you and Mai just broke up?", she asked. Zuko barely wanted to think of that. It still gripped at his heart and the longer they were in the Dream, the more everything felt real. "That's part of it". "You must have been planning to break up with Mai for a while though", said Suki thoughtfully. "Technically, didn't you break up with her before you left to join us?", asked Sokka. Zuko nodded. "Technically, yes. But that was to protect her". "Look Sparky, you can't punish yourself forever for breaking up with Mai", said Toph. "What's done is done. Live in the present, why don't you!". Zuko couldn't help but smile at Toph's crude analysis of the situation. "In some ways, I think Toph is right", said Aang. "Maybe you reconnected with Jin for a reason". Zuko shrugged almost dismissively. Aang smiled. "I think that even when there are obstacles, when you're destined to be with someone, it'll happen". Then, he gave a meaningful look to Katara. She almost gaped openly at him. Did Aang really think they were destined to be together?! Suki noticed and looked at her with concern. "Katara, you've been so quiet. Are you alright?". "Yeah", said Katara, as calmly as she could. She even gave her a bright smile. "I've just been listening". Suki nodded. "Well I think if Zuko needs time, he should take it. He can't force himself to go on a date if he's not read", she said. "I agree", said Katara.
Back at the lodgings at the Jasmine Dragon, Zuko tapped lightly on Katara's door. She quickly opened it and admitted him. "This is a disaster", he whispered shortly, sitting on the wooden floor. Katara nodded as she sat cross-legged on her little bed. "I know". "What do I say to her?!", he whispered fiercely. He cradled his head in frustration. "Ugh! I can't believe I have to do this again!". "Shh! Keep your voice down", whispered Katara. "Sorry", said Zuko quietly. "Well at least Aang is out of the way". Katara gave him a glum look. Zuko frowned. "What?", he asked quickly. "What happened now?". "He isn't giving up, Zuko", said Katara, irritated. "He thinks that it's just an 'obstacle' to our destiny that I said I don't have romantic feelings for him". Zuko's jaw dropped. That had to be the most delusional thing he had ever heard. "I talked to Uncle", Katara continued. "He says that I should try to convince Aang that he doesn't actually love me. It's more like he's obsessed". Zuko nodded. Then he smiled. "Well, it's hard not to be when it's you". Katara's lips quivered on a smile. "Don't joke. It's serious". "Okay, okay I know", said Zuko. "Well, how are you going to convince him?". Katara shrugged. "Uncle suggested that I also try to find someone else for him to focus his attention on". "That could work", said Zuko reasonably. "It's a big city and I'm sure there are lots of girls his age that he'd like that would like him". Katara nodded. "What are you going to do about Jin?", she asked. Zuko sighed. "Well, it can't be as bad as a break up. Maybe I'll just tell Jin that I just had a bad break up and I'm not ready to date anyone". "That's a good idea", said Katara. "Believable, and partly true". "Yeah". Zuko looked thoughtfully at Katara's little window where a few flower petals were scattering in the breeze. "Those from Aang?", he asked. "Yeah", said Katara wearily. Zuko shook his head. (Z) Aang really needs to get a grip. "Who knew that it would've been like this if we changed our minds and stayed together". He turned his gaze back to Katara. "I thought I'd have to break up with Mai, and you'd have to confront Aang, but that was about it". "I know", said Katara. "This Jin thing is unexpected but we'll get through it. We'll get through everything. This time we've taken our destiny back".