Many thanks to my super awesome Beta reader, Jezebel. V. Sterling!
I do not own ATLA.
Katara stared down dazedly at the water that she was absentmindedly swirling around her hands. Steam rose from the warm water and floated around her still form, twirling around the grand and elegant room and into the vents near the ceiling.
The bathhouse was a lovely area, with a series of bathtubs strategically placed around the chamber. Plants and flowers adorned the light-green marble walls and surrounded the large bathtubs as if they were natural springs. The bathtubs were wide enough to accommodate a small party of six. A pleasant fragrance of lilies filled the quiet atmosphere.
The waterbender heaved another sigh as she again relived her little dream. She still could not figure out why her mind had decided to play with her with such thoughts about Zuko, who was just a friend. Friends did a lot for one another like cook for them, or help them with a problem, or play and laugh with them. But friends did not have dreams about each other were their actions spurred such heat and longing.
Nope. In dreams, friends did anything but touch intimately and kiss passionately. Right? Those dreams were only reserved for married pairs, lovers, couples, and for those who lusted over someone else.
Katara frowned at the twirling water and chewed on her lower lip. Zuko and she did not fall into any of those categories. They were not married, nor did they have a romantic relationship. And they certainly were not lovers! Wait. Did that mean that she…was lusting over Zuko?
Katara felt her face heat up at the thought and shook her head, causing her wet hair to splatter onto her face. That is ridiculous! She couldn't be lusting over Zuko—she did not even desire Aang that way who, by the way, was her boyfriend! And how could she yearn over somebody when she had never been sexually intimate with any man?
You don't need to have had sex to want somebody, a voice in her head piped in almost cheerfully.
Shut up! she inwardly growled at the voice for she had no response to that.
In front of Katara, Toph was sitting lazily on the small bench that lined the inside of the tubs for the guests to sit. Both female bending masters were wrapped in fuzzy towels that the maids had offered them at the entrance of the bathhouse, and since it was early in the morning, they were currently the only ones making use of the women bathing pools.
Toph crossed her arms and yawned loudly as they both continued to sit there in silence. Katara woke her up from a good sleep so they could go take a bath! And so early in the morning, too! Toph had been ready to yell at her to leave her alone, but she noticed that her waterbending friend had been a bit more agitated than usual. So she had just sighed and stumbled her way out of bed, grumbling all the way to the public baths.
And now here she was, trying not to doze off and in the process find herself drowning. Katara, who sometimes found it hard not to talk, had been unusually quiet and pensive as they had made their way to the bathhouse and had not since changed. Toph could feel the gentle pull of the bath water as Katara manipulated it, but she could sense that the young woman was doing it without even realizing it. The earthbender did not need her sight to know something was bothering her friend for she could feel it.
"So, Sugar Queen, what's eating you?" Toph asked with another yawn, shifting in her marbled seat so the water now reached her shoulders.
"Huh? Did you say something, Toph?" was her friend's distracted response.
Toph sighed, pushing her wet bangs out of her eyes.
"What the hell is going on with you? You're all quiet, which let me tell you is sometimes a relief, and you keep fidgeting in your spot. Not to mention all those damn sighs you keep letting out are making me crazy!" Toph exclaimed. "Come on, spill it out!"
Katara forced a laugh.
"It's nothing, really," she replied quickly.
The blind young girl snorted and rolled her eyes.
"Even if we're floating in water, I can still tell you're lying," she said dryly. "Seriously, Sweetness, I thought you would know me better by now."
"You're right, I'm sorry. But it's nothing to worry about," she said, hoping her sometimes too perceptive friend would leave it at that, but knowing Toph, Katara knew she would not stop until she got the truth out of her.
Toph raised an eyebrow with her arms still crossed over her towel-covered chest and stared in the direction of her friend without saying one word. The bathtub remained quiet for a few minutes as Toph remained perfectly still. The silence and Toph's unnerving, unseeing stare became too uncomfortable for Katara that she had no choice but to relent.
"Fine!" Katara huffed. "I just have a lot on my mind because of some strange dream I had last night."
Toph grinned triumphantly before Katara's words peaked her interest.
"A strange dream, you say? What kind of dream?" she asked.
Katara squirmed in her place as she began to lightly tap the water with her fingers, desperately trying not to blush.
"It was just a silly dream," she answered. Before the younger woman could demand her to say more she quickly continued, "Please, Toph, can we just leave it at that? I don't really want to talk about it."
She did not want to know what kind of amusement the earthbender would find in her embarrassing situation.
"Fine," Toph snorted and frowned. "I bet it was a good dream that's making you act all weird like this," she teased with a grin.
Oh, you have no idea, Katara thought with another sigh before she scolded herself.
A fierce blush crept onto the waterbender's tanned cheeks as once again her dream surface in her head, of Zuko's hands roaming her body, his warm breath caressing her neck, and his lips so close to hers.
Katara shifted uneasily in her seat as she tried to calm her body's reaction. Crossing one leg over the other, she cleared her throat and began to wash her hair.
Toph had a feeling that maybe Katara's strange behavior had something to do with what they had talked about the previous night. At least, she hoped it did, for it meant that Katara was beginning to understand and realize her feelings. The earthbender thought of making Katara tell her what it was that had her acting all strange, but decided it was best to leave her alone. She would be there if Katara wanted to tell her, and apparently now was not the time.
After finishing their baths and exiting the bathing pools, both young women arrived at the grand dining hall of the palace and waited for the guards to open the doors. They entered the elegant room where their friends already surrounded a long table filled different variety of dishes that made Sokka heave a dreamy sigh. King Kuei was sitting at the head of the table in a golden chair embedded with emeralds, and next to him, with a mouth full of honey, was Bosco, his brown bear.
Greeting everyone in the room, Katara hesitantly took her usual spot next to Aang, who was sitting on the Earth King's left side. She smiled faintly when Aang helped her sit down. Iroh was seated at her left side and greeted her cheerfully, handing her a cup of tea, but not before the old firebender commented on how lovely she looked that morning.
Looking across the table, Katara noticed that Zuko was sitting regally on King Kuei's right side. Both men were having a conversation and she could not stop herself from staring at the imposing way Zuko held himself with. Casting her eyes to the side, she saw his mother next to him. Katara smiled when Ursa looked at her with a bright smile before the older woman returned her attention to her plate. Katara's eyes then shifted to the young noblewoman next to Lady Ursa. Mai was eating silently with her usual bored expression and both women seemed to be sitting stiffly next to one another.
Katara bashfully raised her head to look at Zuko again, but quickly glanced down when he turned to her.
Oh, gods! she thought as warmth reached her cheeks. She felt her heart begin to race before she scolded herself for her silly reaction.
It was just a dream, she told herself. Just forget it and move on.
She blinked when a hand rested on her knee. She turned to Aang who smiled widely at her. She forced a small smile before she gently pushed his hand away. She heard him sigh almost inaudibly before the airbender returned his attention to Momo who was trying to steal Bosco's food away.
She felt uncomfortable when Aang touched her, and yet, she allowed Zuko?
Only because it was a dream, she reminded herself firmly. I had no control over my reactions!
She glanced at Aang who was laughing as Momo snatched a piece of fruit from Bosco. Would she ever feel the same way with Aang one of these days?
After he finished talking with King Kuei, Zuko returned his attention to his breakfast plate. He had requested an audience with the mild-mannered king after the breakfast meal in order to discuss about his plan for aiding the Lower Ring. After paying a visit to the poorest district of the Earth Kingdom capital, he seriously hoped the king would concede.
After biding good night to Katara and Toph the previous day, Zuko had made his way to his guest room to retire for the night. After lying awake for a few hours without much success in gaining sleep, the firebender had decided to roam alone in the city of Ba Sing Se in order to see for himself the condition in which the people of the Lower Ring were subjected to after the war.
Donning his Blue Spirit mask and black attire—which he had hidden at the bottom of his traveling pack—Zuko had sneaked away from the palace without much trouble since the Dai Li were no longer in service to the Earth King. One never knew when the Blue Spirit would be needed. Crossing over the Upper and Middle Rings, a disguised Zuko had arrived silently at the place where he had once lived as a refugee.
Zuko had noticed that what Aang and Toph had said about the aid King Kuei had sent was true. The houses now stood in better conditions than they did four years ago, but from what he was able to observe in the darkness of midnight it seemed that that was the only change.
Lowering his cup of the Earth Kingdom's white wine—which he noted was not as exquisite as Fire Nation red wine—Zuko suppressed the frown that threatened to appear on his face. The Blue Spirit needed to pay another visit to the Lower Ring one of these nights.
Zuko looked beside himself at his mother who was attempting to have a conversation with Mai. He listened for a while as both Fire Nation women began a casual talk. It seemed Ursa was trying to know a little bit more about Mai's life and personality and it made him glad to know that his mother was trying.
It later became rather obvious, however, that both women felt awkward around each other as they continued their conversation before his mother gave a last polite nod and looked away to speak to his uncle across the long, narrow table. He was not sure if he should feel concerned about her reaction.
What did concern him at the moment, though, was the behavior of a certain waterbender. Zuko glanced at Katara again who, he noted, was once again eating in silence and had not even looked his way when she entered with Toph. She had greeted everybody else but him.
What did he do this time to make her angry?
But I didn't do anything! Zuko mentally growled.
He smiled when Katara glanced at him, but she quickly looked away before he could even greet her. Zuko frowned as he felt a painful sting in his chest.
Is she avoiding me? Why? he asked himself, disgruntled. She was talking to me last night. What happened to make her act like this?
He did not like the strange, hurtful feeling in his chest and he especially did not like being ignored.
I will find out what's wrong, even if it kills me, he vowed determinedly.
He was brought out of his thoughts when his mother began to speak to him.
Suki sighed contently as the masseuse continued to massage her swollen feet. Katara had come up with the great idea that the women should spend a few hours being pampered at the spa, and Suki was mentally thanking her future sister-in-law every few seconds for bringing them here.
Her stomach was growing larger and heavier as the days passed by and her feet and back were killing her! Though pain was not something she shied away from, however. But what did frighten her about her pregnant condition were the horrible cravings she had been recently having that not even her glutton of a fiancé would dare eat! And how many times had she shoved Sokka out of her way as she stumbled out of their bed in order to reach the bathroom and relieve her morning sickness?
Giggling softly to herself, Suki started to rub her belly in soothing circles. But it would all be worth it once she had her baby in her arms.
Suki smiled when Katara appeared and took the empty seat next to her, but she frowned when her waterbending friend did not even look her way, instead Katara rested her elbow on the cushioned chair's armrest, placing her cheek on her hand as a faraway look covered her eyes. Suki watched as Katara heaved a huge sigh before the Water Tribe woman's face turned bright red.
Suki raised an eyebrow at this.
"Are you finished, Katara?" she asked. When she did not receive a reply, Suki began to wave her hand in front of her friend's dazed eyes. "Katara? Katara!" she yelled.
Katara jumped and looked around as if wondering where she was before she finally noticed her future sister-in-law frowning at her. She flushed again and scolded herself for letting her dream Zuko distract her once again.
"Sorry, what were you saying?" the waterbender asked sheepishly.
Suki smiled as she finally gained her attention.
"I asked if you were finished."
"Oh! Yes, I just wanted a simple treatment and now I'm waiting for you guys." Katara smiled.
"So, how is Lady Ursa enjoying her royal treatment?" Suki asked and grinned.
Katara laughed as she watched Suki's masseuse excuse herself while another employee of the Fancy Lady Day Spa placed a tray with fresh fruit between them.
"She's enjoying herself quite a lot and I don't blame her since she's lived quite a hard life these past years. She's in the mud bath next to Toph right now." She giggled before she smiled softly. "So how are you feeling?"
Suki grinned before she let out a relaxed breath.
"Spirits, Katara, you've no idea how much I love you right now for suggesting we visit the spa. Ah, I feel like I'm floating in a cloud."
Katara laughed and reached over to gently pat the large bulge that was housing her future niece or nephew.
"I think you deserve it for all these years you have suffered with my older brother…and for the years to come," she added teasingly.
They both laughed until Suki let out a soft groan.
"Suki, are you alright?" Katara asked in alarm.
"Yes, I'm fine," Suki reassured her as she let out a deep breath. "The baby just likes to remind me how cramped it must be in there." She laughed as she rubbed the left side of her belly.
"So you can feel the baby moving already?" Katara asked softly as she stared at the way Suki lovingly patted her stomach. Would she ever know what carrying a child would be like?
The Kyoshi Warrior nodded and smiled.
"Yeah, it started a few weeks ago and it kind of freaked me out at first," she admitted. "You should've seen the look on Sokka's face when he felt the baby kicking for the first time. His eyes widened so much I was afraid they would pop out of his head before he started gaping like a fish out of water."
She laughed softly before an affectionate smile adorned her face.
"Then he broke out into a grin so wide I thought it would've split his face in two before he stared to shower me and my belly with kisses," Suki sighed happily, "It was so adorable it almost made me cry."
"Sokka always wanted a family since…" she paused before she continued more sadly, "our family only consisted of Gran-Gran, him, and me for years."
Suki reached over and patted her arm in comfort.
Katara sniffled before she grinned.
"Anyway, I'm very happy for you both and I can't wait to help you with the wedding!"
They laughed as they began to share ideas for the perfect wedding, sometimes going too extravagant, but a girl could dream, no?
"What about you, Katara?" Suki asked after a while of calmed silence. "How would you like your wedding to be like once Aang proposes to you?"
Katara started to choke on a grape before she swallowed it whole. She coughed for a while as Suki patted her back before she cleared her throat.
"I…uh…I haven't really thought about that," she muttered.
Suki frowned as she leaned back in her chair.
"About the wedding or…about marrying Aang?" she asked curiously.
Suki watched as Katara lowered her head before she started to play with her braid, a sign that she was either nervous or uncomfortable.
This had been the second time Katara had reacted this way every time the topic of marriage with the airbender was brought up—with unease and anxiety. That was not how Suki felt every time the thought of becoming Sokka's wife entered her head, instead she became so excited and ecstatic that she had been afraid she would burst. But Katara acted like…well…like she disliked the idea of marrying Aang.
Maybe she was seeing it all wrong, but Katara was her friend and she wanted her to be happy, and right now she was not sure that Katara's relationship with Aang was the right thing.
Suki grabbed her friend's hand as she addressed her in a serious tone.
"Katara, maybe it's none of my business, but I think you—"
She did not finish her thought as Ty Lee burst into the room with a joyful squeal, followed by a not-too-happy Mai. Suki scowled at them as she again leaned back in her seat. She would talk to Katara another time.
Zuko waited impatiently in the same sitting room Mai had brought him in the day before. He had just finished going over the compromise with the Earth King a few minutes ago. And just like he had expected, the young ruler of Ba Sing Se had agreed excitedly to a trade. He had also enjoyed the idea of having tourists from around the world visiting his great metropolis since Ba Sing Se had become almost isolated from the rest of the world due to Long Feng and the Dai Li's control.
While Zuko was busy with the Earth King, everybody else had gone out into the city. After he had reassured them they could go out without him, Sokka and Aang had decided to explore around the city of walls. Iroh had gone to his teashop where they would visit once everybody returned to the palace, and the women had decided to take his mother—who had never been to Ba Sing Se before—and Suki to the spa. Ty Lee had to practically drag Mai to go along with them.
Zuko sighed and ran a hand down his face. Mai had not bothered him about their little argument, and instead, she would stand beside him quietly, sometimes reaching to take his arm. He knew she was trying to please and support him, so he had decided that perhaps he could give their relationship another chance. Maybe when she returned from her visit to her parents, everything would return as it was before.
The sound of laughter reached his ears and he looked up to see Aang and Sokka entering the room. He nodded in acknowledgement when Aang waved at him with a cheerful smile.
"Did the meeting with the Earth King go well?" Sokka asked as he flopped down on one of the plush cushions lying around the room.
"Yes," Zuko answered simply.
He half-listened as his friends recounted their adventure in the city, especially going over the strange animals the Earth King had placed in the zoo since their last visit, while they waited for the women to arrive from their outing. After a while, the airbender headed to the window at the other side of the room with Momo on his shoulder.
The Fancy Lady Day Spa, they called it, Zuko remembered what the girls had chatted about and rolled his eyes. What kind of name is that?
Frowning, Zuko again wondered what was wrong with Katara. He had tried to talk to her after they finished their meal, but she had just laughed nervously and said they were late for their appointment at the spa. She didn't even look at him.
He was slightly angry with himself for letting someone, a woman no less, affect him so much. Not even his father's indifference or Mai's earlier avoidance caused him to feel so slighted and hurt.
It does not matter, he thought as he narrowed his eyes. I will find a way to fix what's wrong and then Katara will talk to me again. He crossed his arms over his chest, his eyes glinting in determination.
"I miss Suki," he heard Sokka complain with a heavy sigh over at the cushion he was sprawled on.
"But you just saw her a few hours ago," Zuko stated with a raised eyebrow.
Sokka lifted his head to roll his eyes at his firebending friend.
"I know that!" he snapped before he let out another sigh. "I just can't stand being away from her for too long, especially now that she's carrying our child," he said with a smile.
Sokka hauled himself up into a sitting position as he regarded his reserved friend sitting on the couch with a questioning look on his face.
"You know what I mean, right?" Sokka asked innocently as he carefully observed Zuko's reaction. "You feel sad and depressed when you're away from your loved one even for a few minutes that you feel that you'd die if you don't see her face? You know what I'm talking about, right?"
Zuko frowned at the words the warrior had said. Had he ever felt such emotions whenever Mai was away from him?
No, I haven't, he answered his own question.
Was something wrong with him because he never felt sad when he was not near Mai or felt like he was dying if he did not see her? But then again he was never a romantic like Sokka and the water tribesmen did sometimes exaggerate a lot. And then there was the fact that he did not love Mai the way that Sokka loved Suki.
"Right, Zuko?" Sokka repeated after watching different kinds of emotions flash across Zuko's face.
"I…" Zuko began before he turned away with a snort. "That's just ridiculous."
"If you say so," he said with a shrug.
Just then the women arrived, leading a blushing Suki into the room. The Kyoshi Warrior had her usual short hair styled into an elegant bun and pretty, light makeup adorned her face. The women had decided to give her a special treatment for her pregnancy and engagement.
Zuko found himself relaxing as his eyes settled on Katara without even bothering to figure out why that was.
"Wow, Suki, you look beautiful!" Sokka exclaimed and rushed over to embrace his betrothed. He leaned down to give her a kiss, but cried out when Suki lightly slapped him away.
"None of that now, you'll ruin the makeup," Suki scolded gently and laughed when her husband-to-be pouted.
Katara smiled at both their antics before she noticed that Zuko was making his way toward them and he was looking straight at her. Blushing, she quickly moved away from her brother and Suki to stand beside Aang and took his hand. Aang looked at her and smiled joyfully before he squeezed her hand.
Zuko stopped as he watched Katara reach for the Avatar and he frowned, gritting his teeth when Aang kissed her cheek. Zuko lightly jumped when Mai looped her arm around his. He gave her a small smile before glancing once more at the waterbender who again was avoiding his eyes.
"Okay then," Katara spoke up almost too cheerfully. "Let's go to the Jasmine Dragon before Uncle Iroh starts to believe we forgot about him."
They exited the palace walls and entered the city, making their way down the streets to the Jasmine Dragon where Iroh was waiting for them. The people strolling along the streets of the Upper Ring pointed and cheered as the war heroes passed them by. Sokka and Aang waved back at them enthusiastically.
Zuko smiled, content with the citizens' change in attitude since he last visited the city. Back then, he was given hateful looks full of mistrust, but now they seemed to give him grateful smiles and bows, for he was the one who declared the war over and returned their city to them.
He glanced behind him where the waterbender was walking beside Aang and Toph. Katara had been right. Some people did see the good he had done, all they needed was some time in order to see it and time to heal their wounds. He barely felt Mai let go of his arm to join Ty Lee before he returned his discreet observations of Katara.
Ursa watched as the young noblewoman finally detached herself from the Fire Lord and took that moment to walk beside her son. Zuko smiled down at his mother and offered his arm to her, which she accepted with a smile.
"How was your time at the spa?" Zuko asked her softly, noticing the way she seemed to be avoiding being near Mai. Again, he wondered if he should be concerned.
"It was lovely," Ursa answered with a small laugh. "I had not been so pampered since I was living in the palace. It was so nice of Katara to suggest we spend our time there." She smiled before a small frown appeared on her delicate face. "I noticed she seemed a bit distracted, though. I hope it is nothing serious."
So his mother had noticed as well. But why did it look like Katara only seemed to be acting differently towards him?
They passed a small store that seemed to sell medicinal herbs. It had a small wooden door with two large vases with beautiful flowers beside it. Ursa stopped and looked at the little building.
"Is something the matter, Lady Ursa?" Katara asked as she noticed the older woman and Zuko had stopped. The rest of their group paused as well and looked at Ursa.
"Suki woke up with a small headache this morning. I would like to buy some herbs and ask Iroh if he could make it into tea for her," Ursa said as she smiled at the pregnant woman.
Suki smiled back gratefully. The group followed after the older woman into the small shop.
It was a bit dim inside and the smell of plants and medicine permeated the air in the room. Herbs and glass medicine bottles rested in shelves behind a small counter. A young woman with a long braid had her back turned towards them as she restocked the shelves.
"Excuse me, miss," Ursa called out as they walked up to the counter. "Do you have some evodia fruit to help with headaches?"
"Yes, of course," the young woman replied pleasantly as she set down her supplies and moved down the shelves. She looked around for a while before reaching the top shelf, grabbing a small jar filled with the small rounded fruits before turning around.
Zuko watched as Katara walked around the room before a small gasp reached his ears. He turned around to see the young herbalist staring at him with wide, brown eyes.
"Li!" the young woman gasped, barely catching the jar that almost fell from her grasp.
Everybody in the room looked at her before adjusting their gazes toward the silent young Fire Lord.
Zuko frowned as he looked the young woman over. He had not been called Li since his time as a fugitive all those years ago. The young herbalist had soft, brown eyes and a lovely smile. She was wearing a long pink and white dress with a small white apron tied at her waist. She looked familiar.
"I'm sorry, but have we met?" he asked.
Mai narrowed her eyes as she glided across the room to stand beside Zuko, glaring at the woman who had still not taken her eyes off her boyfriend and held a blush on her cheeks.
Katara looked between Zuko and the young, pretty herbalist and frowned as she wondered if Zuko knew this woman. A strange, uneasy feeling settled in her stomach at the way the woman blushed.
Toph grinned as she noticed Katara's annoyance, indicated by the tapping of her foot on the stone floor.
The young girl seemed to snap out of her trance and made a bow.
"Maybe you don't remember me, but I remember you. I healed your Uncle Mushi's rash from the white jade bush," she said softly and smiled.
Zuko's eyes widened a fraction as he finally recognized her.
"Song?" he asked quietly in disbelief.
Song? Katara frowned as she glanced at Zuko's slightly shocked expression. So he does know her? Without even thinking about it, she made her way over to Zuko and stood at his other side, examining the graceful and pretty girl behind the counter.
Zuko noticed that Mai had inched closer to him and that Katara had moved away from Aang and was now standing at his side. Composing himself, he looked around the small building more carefully than he had previously before returning his attention to the girl.
"What are you doing here?" he asked.
Song smiled as she approached the counter, placing the small jar on the smooth, wooden surface.
"My mother and I decided to move to Ba Sing Se two years ago since it seemed safer than for two women living alone near the wilderness," Song explained softly. "Thanks to some money we had saved from the infirmary we managed to open this shop three months ago."
Unbeknownst to them, both Katara and Mai narrowed their eyes and glared at the smiling young woman with the pretty and delicate face.
"Zuko, who is she?" Mai asked in a low voice as she crossed her thin arms over her flat chest.
The young firebender finally looked away to glance at the irritated dark-haired woman.
"Uncle Iroh and I met Song and her mother when we were fugitives during the war," he said.
A slightly guilty look crossed his features as he looked back at the brown-eyed girl. The two Earth Kingdom women had helped them, two complete strangers, and how did he repay their kindness?
"I apologize for taking your ostrich-horse after you and your mother welcomed us into your home," he said sincerely.
"It's alright," Song replied with a small smile. "I was a bit saddened at first, but I figured that perhaps you needed it more than us. It seems our ostrich-horse did aid you. I can't wait to tell my mother that we helped the Dragon of the West and none other than Prince Zuko, now the Fire Lord. She will be surprised."
She paused as she looked over at his elegant clothes, to his fire crown, and then to his recognizable face. Both Mai and Katara subconsciously moved closer to the young man between them.
Zuko frowned, feeling a bit guilty.
"I am sorry for lying to you about who I really was, but it was necessary that both my uncle and I were not recognized," he stated.
"I understand why you had to do that," Song replied and smiled good-naturedly. "Even though you lied about your identity, I'm sure that the rest you told me about was the truth."
What is she talking about? Katara asked, narrowing her eyes. She did not like how the young woman kept staring at Zuko. What truth did Zuko talked to her about?
Katara felt a bit troubled at the thought of Zuko sharing his thoughts with someone else. Even though it seemed silly, she wanted to be the only one Zuko went to in order to speak about his thoughts, ideas, problems and even feelings.
Song smiled when Zuko nodded. She then looked at Aang, who had a confused expression on his face.
"It is also an honor to meet the Avatar," she said and bowed again. "I knew you would bring peace to our world again."
"Uh, thanks," Aang muttered. He blushed and rubbed the back of his neck sheepishly.
Song returned her soft gaze to the young firebender, both unaware of the annoyed expressions on the two young women standing beside him. Toph smirked and Ursa smiled behind her hand. Suki looked over at Sokka who only shrugged.
"The people of Ba Sing Se are thankful for what you have done, even though you could have taken advantage of our weakened state," Song said softly. "I am sure the rest of the world is grateful to you for calling off the war and for all the help you have given us."
I told him that first! Katara hissed mentally and crossed her arms over her chest.
"I know," Zuko replied with a nod. "A very great person has already told me that," he said warmly.
Katara looked up at his words and noticed that Zuko was looking down at her. She blushed when she realized that the great person he was talking about was her.
Smiling, Song handed the jar to Ursa, who thanked her. Zuko reached for his bag of money and handed Song a few gold coins.
"This is too much!" Song gasped softly as she stared at the coins in her hand.
"It's for helping my uncle's embarrassing ailment, for your kind hospitality for two poor strangers, and for the ostrich-horse," Zuko replied and moved away before she could return the coins.
The young herbalist closed her hand and bowed gratefully.
"Thank you, Fire Lord Zuko," she said. She straightened and smiled radiantly.
Zuko inclined his head slightly.
"It was nice seeing you again. I wish you and your mother good luck in your new business," he said before he headed out the door, taking his mother's arm in his.
Mai pinned one last glare at the beaming woman before she, too, went out of the building to walk close to Zuko. Katara looked back at the girl named Song and smiled.
That was nice of Zuko, Katara thought as she followed the rest outside, not admitting to herself that she was glad Zuko and Song were just mere acquaintances.
"Mushi?" Sokka laughed once they returned to the streets. "What kind of name is that? I would've thought the Dragon of the West would've had a more impressive fugitive name!"
"It was the only thing that came to my mind at the moment," Zuko replied. He smirked and shrugged lightly, remembering the irritated look on his uncle's face when he had given the name to the young, pretty nurse.
It was midafternoon when the group arrived below the impressive building known as the Jasmine Dragon. They climbed the short stairs that lead up to the elegant teashop and passed a bubbling fountain in the middle of the courtyard. A long line of people waiting to enjoy a cup of the Jasmine Dragon's famous tea greeted them.
"I see Uncle was not exaggerating about how popular the Jasmine Dragon has become," Zuko remarked dryly.
As they approached the wide entrance of the teashop, the crowd became excited and bowed to them. Iroh appeared at the entrance as the commotion reached his ears.
"Ah, you have finally arrived!" Iroh exclaimed cheerfully. "I was beginning to think you forgot."
"We could never forget about you…Uncle Mushi," Toph replied and chuckled.
Iroh turned around to look at the grinning short girl and gaped in horror. Frowning, he turned an accusing glare at his nephew as if saying, 'How could you betray me like that?'
Zuko laughed inwardly at his uncle.
"We ran into Song over at an herb shop and well...she brought it up," he explained coolly with a shrug.
Iroh's annoyed look turned into curiosity before he inwardly grinned mischievously.
"You mean that sweet young nurse we met almost four years ago?" he asked innocently. He glanced at Katara who had crossed her arms with a scowl on her face. "She was such a lovely girl and pretty, too. Isn't that right, Nephew?"
"Uh…" Zuko frowned. Why did his uncle always put him in such awkward situations?
"Well, will you look at the time?" Katara interrupted with a strained smile. "I'm sure Suki and the baby are hungry, right, Suki? There, you see!" she said before the Kyoshi Warrior could respond.
Iroh mentally chuckled.
"You are right, my dear! Come in, come in! I have reserved your table already." He motioned for them to follow.
Inside the opulent building, the group gaped at the amount of people sitting at the rounded tables, drinking their preferred blend of tea and nibbling on delicate pastries. It was obvious only those from the high society occupied the room. Instead of its previous greenish glow from when it first opened to the public, a warm orangey light now cast its glow throughout the Jasmine Dragon. Iroh now proudly displayed his Fire Nation heritage.
They walked on a large red ochre carpet with a golden dragon curved along its length as they followed Iroh to their table. A few customers turned in their seats to look at the newcomers and began to chatter quietly about the young Fire Lord and the Avatar's visit. Iroh led them to a large, cherry wood table almost at the far end of the grand teashop near an opened window.
"Sit, sit." The teashop's famous owner motioned for them to be seated with a smile. He waited as the group moved toward the rounded table to take their seats. "The waiters will come soon with tea and pastries."
Being as subtle as possible, Iroh grinned as he gently pushed his nephew to sit next to the waterbender who, he noted, immediately tensed while a faint blush covered her cheeks. Unfortunately, he thought with a sigh, he was unable to prevent Mai from taking a seat on Zuko's other side.
Zuko glared at his uncle for the treatment of his person, but the old man just gave him an innocent look. The young firebender adjusted his robes before unconsciously fixing his fire crown. Zuko watched as his mother passed the empty spot beside Mai and sat instead on the vacant chair beside Katara while his uncle sat between Ursa and Toph. He watched with veiled amusement when Aang pouted before reluctantly taking a seat next to Mai.
Zuko vaguely wondered why his mother had practically circled the table instead of taking the spot next to Mai before he returned his attention to the waterbender at his side who was fidgeting with the end of the blue sash that went around her waist. Again he wondered at her odd behavior towards him, but not before he wondered what he would see if he pulled on the sash wrapped around Katara's lean waist...
After requesting one of his waitresses to bring a teapot to boil the evodia fruit for Suki, Iroh turned his gleeful face toward the expectant couple.
"So how far along are you, my dear?" Iroh asked Suki before he placed a mocking hurt look on his face. "I must say, I am bit hurt to be the last one to find out about your joyful news."
Zuko rolled his eyes. "We all know you knew even before we did, Uncle."
Iroh laughed as he stroked his small beard.
"Nothing can escape these wise eyes of mine," he said proudly before he leveled his gaze on his nephew and at the young waterbending woman beside him. "Nothing."
Both Katara and Zuko frowned at the mysterious tone in the old man's voice and at the way he seemed to stare at them.
"Anyways," Sokka interrupted as he placed a big, noisy kiss on Suki's cheek, "We're headed for our sixth month, right, Suki?"
"Sixth month, you say?" Ursa asked as a small frown appeared on her face. "I don't remember being so…uh…large…at my sixth month when I was pregnant with Zuko or Azula. But having two warriors as parents, perhaps the child is growing big and strong."
Sokka laughed as he rubbed Suki's large belly.
"That's right, my son will be big and strong just like his daddy," he cooed at the bulging stomach.
"Oh, yeah?" Suki asked with a raised eyebrow.
"Who's to say it won't be a girl?" Katara asked with her own raised eyebrow.
Sokka grinned apologetically before he placed a kiss on Suki's temple.
"Then my daughter will be beautiful and strong just like her mommy," he added.
"Damn right," Suki said with a chuckle as she ruffled her future husband's hair.
The group laughed as they watched the playful display between the two.
"A boy or a girl, either one is a blessing," Ursa said with a loving smile at her son.
"Whatever it turns out to be, I guarantee you all it'll be a surprise," Toph said with glint in her eyes that made the other's wonder at her words.
"Yeah, but," Sokka continued after he fixed his mussed hair, "I bet a bag of coins that it would be a boy."
"I'll take you on that bet," Toph piped in with a grin.
"You're on!" Sokka exclaimed enthusiastically as they both shook hands on it.
Iroh laughed with the rest as he watched a particular customer enter the building before being led to the table next to theirs just like he had ordered.
The Jasmine Dragon's proprietor suppressed a mischievous grin from showing on his excited face. His young earthbending friend had informed him that morning about her 'contribution' to their 'mission', but Toph had been vague. It was something about a lake and dreams and he wondered what that meant. He hid his grin behind his teacup. Now it was his turn to 'contribute' and he was excited to know what the outcome would be.
Zuko smiled at the antics of his friends as he sat silently with clasped hands on the table. He had never seen anybody so excited about becoming a father as Sokka was. The guy was practically bursting at the seams with joy and excitement.
Frowning, Zuko wondered if he would feel such emotions whenever he learned he was to be a father before he mentally shook his head at the thought. It was not yet time for such thoughts since first he needed to find a wife, and right now, Mai did not seem to be it.
Zuko sighed inaudibly before he once again returned his attention to Katara who was currently gazing out the window.
"It's been a long time since we've been here, huh?" Zuko asked casually for only the waterbender to hear. He watched as she tensed before she shifted nervously in her place.
Katara briefly looked up before nodding.
"Yeah, like four years," she answered with a nervous laugh.
His closeness and warmth was making her remember her dream and the way her body had reacted. Not that she had been able to forget about it the whole day.
Don't even go there, Katara, she warned herself.
Never before had she ever experienced such feelings and reactions since her village had been made up of women and children for the past few years. When she had first met Jet she had felt small butterflies in her stomach and she had blushed constantly because of his roguishly handsome looks and bad boy attitude. Not to mention he was one of the few boys her age she had come across since she had left the Southern Water Tribe with Aang and her brother. However, once she learned of his true nature and intentions her silly crush ended almost as swiftly as it had first appeared.
Aang's presence made her feel carefree. His cheerfulness and merry nature made her smile, but those same attributes were what sometimes drove her crazy. Aang was mature when it came to important decisions, but for the most part she could not help but feel as if he was an immature little boy who always wanted her attention. And besides all this, his hugs and kisses never seemed to inspire that passion she heard many people talk about. Maybe it would come later?
However, with just one glance of his amber eyes, Zuko made her feel intense powerful sensations that she did not know how to respond to nor was she able to understand.
Zuko racked his brain for something that would keep Katara talking to him before the corners of his mouth tilted slightly upwards.
"Remember when I had to keep the flames on the stove going while you bent hot tea into the teacups for hours? And we didn't even get paid." Zuko grinned down at the young waterbender.
Despite herself, Katara looked up at him and smiled at the memories.
"Yeah, I've never worked as hard in my life as I did during those weeks." She giggled.
"I also remember when you accidently poured salt in the fruit pastries instead of sugar," Zuko smirked—though he knew it had not been her—and looked away as the waiters began to arrive. Katara was a great cook, after all.
Katara gaped at his words before she crossed her arms over her chest.
"That was not me! That was you!" she affirmed, dodging around a waiter who had placed their cups filled with aromatizing tea in front of them in order to give the arrogant firebender a small annoyed glare.
Zuko stroked his chin as if he was remembering the incident and carefully evaluating what the situation had been.
"No…I am pretty sure it was you," he answered calmly as he raised the teacup to his lips.
Katara's temper flared at the accusation and she opened her mouth to retort hotly when she saw Zuko glance at her from the corner of his eye with a small smirk.
Wait? Did he just joke with me? Is he…teasing me? Again? she mused disbelievingly.
Katara almost lost all coherent thought as she saw his golden eyes glint with amusement, something he never indulged in regularly. Katara's heart raced as he turned his head to look down at her before a striking smile appeared on his face. Katara drew in a breath as his handsome face almost blew her away.
My gods! Why does he have to do that?! she yelled frustratingly in her head as she continued to stare at his barely concealed amused features.
She blinked when a waitress appeared between them and placed a tray with delicious sweets. She blushed in embarrassment for the dream, for having Zuko sitting so close to her, and for the strange feelings in her lower stomach and heart that his warm gaze caused her. She looked away, determined to keep her distance from him.
Zuko almost grinned when he saw Katara's azure eyes flash with indignation and anger before realization dawned on her. A small smile began to spread on her face as he turned to look at her before it disappeared and she looked away from him. Again, he was surprised by the how much her reaction hurt him.
He sighed when he felt Mai touched his arm before she began to demand his attention.
Sokka had been watching Suki drink her evodia tea before he looked across the rounded table at his sister who was glaring at a smirking Zuko. He watched as her face lit up and a smile appeared on the young Fire Lord's face. He was a bit confused, however, when his baby sister's expression changed suddenly and she looked away. He was even more confused when Zuko frowned at her reaction. Was that hurt he saw in Zuko's almost unreadable eyes? The Water Tribe warrior was distracted when he caught Suki reaching a hand to caress her growing stomach. He placed his own hand above hers and smiled down at her lovingly with excitement in his blue eyes.
Sipping from his teacup, Iroh glanced at Toph, who had a frown on her face, and then at his nephew, who kept stealing subtle glances at the blue-eyed young lady beside him, and then at Katara, who was rambling to Ursa as if she were trying to distract herself from something, and he sighed.
Katara took a break in explaining to Lady Ursa how to make sea prune stew as she tried to forget the handsome man beside her. Zuko's proximity was enough to set her senses aflame and she was trying desperately to focus on Lady Ursa—who happened to be said handsome man's mother.
Katara lifted her teacup to her lips to moisten her dry throat when someone bumped into her from behind, causing her to spill her hot tea onto her hand. Katara dropped the cup and hissed as the hot liquid burned her fingers.
She heard everybody call out her name in alarm, but before she could react, a pair of strong hands caught her own hand and began to wipe the tea with a silken handkerchief. Katara blushed when she realized that those comforting hands belonged to Zuko as well as the cool, velvety handkerchief. Both shivered as their hands made contact.
"Katara, are you all right?" she heard Zuko asked with concern as his pair of hands continued to gently dab her skin with the smooth cloth.
She looked up shyly and nodded as her heart fluttered. The pain was easing, but the burning sensation had not as it spread throughout her body, much the same way his touch did in her dream.
"I'm so sorry," the young female customer apologized hurriedly and bowed.
"It's okay. Accidents happen," Katara replied without much thought as she continued to watch Zuko gently and carefully checking her hand for worse injury. The burn was not that serious and she could have healed it in an instant if it was, but Zuko's care was better.
Much better, she sighed dreamily, her stomach fluttering with butterflies.
Content that Katara was indeed fine, Zuko turned his head around to pin a glare at the clumsy customer.
"You should be more careful," he reprimanded harshly.
Toph elbowed Iroh, who in return looked at Ursa, who smiled discreetly at the protective hold the young Fire Lord still had on the Water Tribe maiden's small hand.
"Yes, I'm terribly sorry," the young woman said with a deeper bow before she looked up with an apologetic look.
Her large brown eyes widened and a small grin appeared on her face.
"Li! It's so good to see you again!" she exclaimed and immediately straightened, forgetting the incident.
Katara frowned at the way the young woman was smiling at Zuko.
Does Zuko know this girl, too? she thought irritably and gently pulled her hand away from Zuko's grasp, placing her hands on her lap.
Zuko reluctantly allowed Katara to remove her hand from his before he returned his glare at the woman, who seemed to have forgotten she was in presence of royalty and had caused his closest friend pain, although small. The young woman was a bit short, with a small bushy ponytail on her dark-haired head. She was wearing a short green dress and had a bright and friendly smile on her face. There was something familiar about her.
"Wow, it seems you have really accomplished a lot these past few years. First a juggler for the circus, then a waiter in a small teashop, and now you're the Fire Lord," the woman teased and giggled.
Ah, crap…Zuko cursed as he frowned.
"Jin…what are you doing here?" he asked carefully.
He could practically feel Mai's anger next to him. Jin was nice and all, but he really did not want to be reminded of that embarrassing date. A date his uncle had forced him to go to.
He knew Iroh had been worried about him, afraid that his nephew would never find a girlfriend—not that it would have been hard—but the fact was that he had never been a very social person, and even less after what happened with his sire. That is why he had used brothels. There was no need for good impressions or great social skills in order to form a relationship since the few women he had bedded were just there to release his sexual frustrations. That is why he thought he was horrible in his date with Jin and he did not need the others to know.
Iroh decided to speak as he suppressed a chuckle at his nephew's uncomfortable expression.
"Is it not strange to see Miss Jin after so long, Nephew?" Iroh asked innocently. "We ran into each other about a year ago when she came for a cup of tea, and now she comes to the Jasmine Dragon once every week. And since you two knew each other, I give her discounts!"
"And how do you two know each other exactly?" Mai asked coldly with unveiled irritation as she looked the Earth Kingdom woman over with disdain.
Zuko suppressed the urge to sigh and rub the back of his neck.
"We met in the Lower Ring of Ba Sing Se and well, we…uh…"
"We went out on a date almost four years ago," Jin replied eagerly and then she blushed.
Great, he thought sarcastically. I just hope she leaves out the part where Uncle did my hair and I humiliated myself by trying to juggle.
Katara noticed the pink hue that appeared on the woman's cheeks and she was surprised to find herself anxious and uneasy to know what happened on this date.
Zuko must have really liked her if he asked her out on date, she thought sadly. I wonder if he still likes her.
"Date, huh?" Katara said neutrally as she nibbled on a cookie, clenching it tight that it almost crumbled in her hand.
"Yes, it was wonderful and so romantic," Jin said with a dreamy sigh.
Romantic? Katara frowned, Did Zuko give her flowers? Did they ride on a boat under the moon? Did Zuko tell her sweet things? she thought even though she knew that Zuko would probably never do such things. Why do I even care? she asked herself with a scowl.
"And what happened on this date?" Iroh asked innocently. "You never did tell me when you came back late at night, Zuko."
Zuko glared at his uncle, but before he could respond, Jin piped in with another dreamy sigh.
"At the end of the day we kissed." She blushed even redder.
Iroh coughed in order to hide his amusement at the look of embarrassment on his nephew's face.
Katara clenched the cookie in her hand so hard in crumbled into tiny pieces onto the table. They what?
"Oh, really?" Mai asked with an icy tone as she glared at Zuko who was currently sipping at his teacup as if nothing had happened.
"You kissed? So how was it?" Ty Lee excitedly asked with her usual bubbly persona.
"Ty Lee!" Zuko snapped at her as he tried to keep from flushing.
"It was such an amazing kiss," Jin responded with a dreamy look on her face as another blush appeared on her cheeks.
Zuko stared at the young girl as if she were crazy.
What the hell is she talking about? he thought. The kiss was sweet, but it sure was not amazing, not even close enough to be sighing over.
"Wow, Sparky," Toph spoke up with a smirk. "I never thought you were such a ladies' man."
"It was nothing like that," the firebender assured as he glared down at his teacup. "We just went to eat at a small food place and then we walked around. That was it."
"Of course that wasn't it. Don't tell me you've forgotten about that date?" she asked softly as she placed a hand on the young man's shoulder.
Katara glared heatedly at Jin's hand resting on Zuko's shoulder.
How dare she touch him! she growled in her head as she vaguely wondered if her friends would know who could have doused Jin with the tea from their table.
Zuko tensed as he felt Jin touch him and slowly reached to shrug off her hand. He resisted the urge to snap at her for daring to touch the Fire Lord in such a way. He was surprised, however, when it was someone else and not him who removed the unwelcomed appendage from his person.
Without thinking about it, Katara's arm shot out to grab Jin's wrist.
"You two probably know each other and went on a date a few years ago, but things have changed. Fire Lord Zuko is not Li anymore and you will show him the proper respect his title as Fire Lord demands for. Do not touch him again," Katara hissed out dangerously as she pulled Jin's wrist almost roughly away from Zuko.
Those at the table fell silent as the group stared in shock at the seemingly angry waterbender. Aang hesitantly stood up from his chair, but then sat down again as a deep frown settled on his face. If he wasn't mistaken—and he hoped he was—it seemed like Katara was jealous. But that couldn't be because she loved him, not Zuko. Mai seethed silently as she glared between the waterbender and the Earth Kingdom woman. Suki turned to look at Sokka who had an equally puzzled expression on his face.
Toph openly grinned as she leaned back on her seat. Ursa look at her old friend beside her and smiled knowingly while Iroh returned the smile with one of his own as he took another sip from his tea. His plan turned out better than he thought it would.
Zuko stared at Katara with curiosity, at the way she was glaring into Jin's face. He was a bit surprised at the strong and rather harsh reaction Katara had displayed because of a simple touch from an unfamiliar woman. If he didn't know any better, he would think that she was jealous. But that couldn't be because she only saw him as a friend. However, he had to admit that the thought of having Katara jealous because of him did please him a bit…okay maybe it pleased him a lot.
Jin jerked back a step at the reprimand she received from the beautiful Water Tribe woman sitting beside the Fire Lord. Blushing in embarrassment, Jin bowed again.
"You're right," she said. "Please, forgive my rude behavior, Fire Lord Zuko. I didn't mean any disrespect."
"Do not worry. All is forgiven," Zuko replied coolly. "I'm just sorry you had to bear with me on that date," he finished absentmindedly as he continued to stare at the irritated waterbender by his side.
She also looks beautiful when she's mad, he thought with a smirk.
"You weren't a bad date. It was the most wonderful night of my life, especially because of that kiss," Jin said dreamily before she smiled. "Thank you, Master Iroh, for the tea. I'll see you next week."
Jin bowed again cheerfully as she left their table to exit the teashop with Katara and Mai glaring daggers at the back of her head.
"Well," Iroh piped in, "That was interesting."
He hid his grin behind his teacup when Katara turned back around and crossed her arms over her chest while she glowered at the innocent teacup in front of her.
Most interesting indeed, he mused.
Zuko sighed irritably, barely stopping himself from flopping onto the green couch in one of the palace sitting rooms. It was late at night and everybody else was getting ready to go to sleep after their busy day. Even though he was tired, he knew he would not be able to rest, much less sleep.
After they had finished drinking their delicious tea and eating their sweet pastries, the group had departed from the Jasmine Dragon with pleased smiles and satisfied stomachs. Iroh had stayed behind until the teahouse closed for the day before the old firebender made his way back to the palace.
The group had continued their trip as they walked around the prestigious district of the Upper Ring of Ba Sing Se. They had stopped at a few shops along the way where, unsurprisingly—and to Ty Lee, Aang and Sokka's delight—they were given free souvenirs.
They then had boarded an earthbending powered train to cross over to the Middle Ring of the city while sightseeing along the ride. Grumbling that the train was being too slow, Toph had decided to help it move along much quicker with a small amount of earthbending. The sights became a blur as the train whizzed by while the passengers held onto each other for their lives.
Deciding it was best to walk after that incident, they arrived at the University of Ba Sing Se. The war heroes were welcomed exuberantly into the grand school while they were shown around the campus by the whole faculty and student body no less. As the sun began to set, the group had decided to return to the palace where the Earth King, Bosco, and Iroh were waiting for them with another splendid banquet.
Zuko sighed again as he ran a hand through his unbound dark hair. And during all that time he was unable to enjoy himself. The reason? Katara.
Once they left the Jasmine Dragon, Katara had continued to ignore him. He had thought that with the incident with Jin, Katara would have returned to her normal self and would have begun to speak to him again, but he had been wrong. She didn't talk to him but only for a few words. He had tried to start conversations with her, but she would just nod and move away from him. She did not walk by his side, but remained attached either to Aang or Ursa.
But what he hated the most was that she did not even look up to his face. He was unable to see her lovely blue eyes because she either had them cast down or averted to the side. He did not like it at all and her evasive behavior was making him displeased and angry.
'What did you do to make Sugar Queen act this way?' Toph had asked him as the group stepped inside a pottery shop.
'I didn't do anythi—' he had begun to argue before he stopped and frowned. 'I don't know…'
Had he done something? Zuko tried to think of everything he could have possibly done to make Katara behave the way she had, but he could not come up with anything. It was as if they were back in the Western Air Temple where he had to endure her indifference.
No, this was much worse because back then Katara acknowledge that he existed even if it was with hostility, and he knew he deserved her treatment. But now they have become great friends, he had shared with her some things he was unable and unwilling to tell anybody else, and her avoidance saddened and pained him so much to the point that it scared him. Zuko closed his eyes as a dreadful thought came to his mind.
What if Katara was bored of him? What if she did not want anything to do with him anymore? Was she displeased and disappointed as his sire was once of him? Did she disliked him and hated him like his sister once did?
That is why he had a hard time trusting and befriending people. Every relationship he had had with someone ended badly. His mother was taken away from him when he was just a child because he had somehow displeased his grandfather and Ozai. He was scarred and banished from his home by his own father because he had stood up to him against a horrible plan. Azula, his own sister, had used him in order to save herself when their father believed the Avatar was dead and then she tried to kill him, her own brother. In the beginning of his relationship with Mai it had been nice and pleasant, but now it was cold, awkward, and…unexciting.
Was the same thing to happen with Katara? Was their friendship to end up like his past relationships did so many times before?
"No!" Zuko growled angrily as he slammed his clenched fist on the armrest of the couch he was sitting on. "I won't allow it. I will find out what is wrong. Katara will tell me what is going on."
He could not stand the thought of never speaking to Katara ever again, or listen to her laugh, or share his thoughts with her once more. He could not bear the thought of losing her.
Her friendship, that is, he clarified.
Zuko straightened in his seat and composed himself, resuming his stoic expression as the sound of light footsteps reached his ears. He was not about to show anybody how confused, irritated, and depressed he was feeling at the moment.
He narrowed his eyes into slits, but remained still, when Katara's form emerged from the hall and entered the sitting room. She had a book in her hands and she appeared to be reading. Zuko watched silently as Katara made her way across the room without realizing she was not alone.
Katara turned the page from the small book she had borrowed from the palace library and yawned. Maybe reading a book was not such a good idea if she wanted to keep awake. She could not return to her room and go to sleep. The reason? Zuko.
She did not want to fall asleep for she was afraid she would have another dream about a certain stunning firebender. It was difficult to forget the first one and she did not want to imagine what would become of her if she had another such dream. It was hard enough to keep her distance from Zuko that day as they walked around Ba Sing Se since she had come to enjoy his company a lot. She had to stop herself many times from reaching and taking his arm in order to show him one interesting thing or another in her excitement.
It had been difficult to stay away when Song appeared. The pretty and gentle herbalist had made her wary. But then she had wavered in her resolve to keep her distance from Zuko when Jin appeared next. The way the Earth Kingdom young woman had acted around Zuko did not sit well with her.
And she even dared to touch him! I swear! The audacity of some women! Katara narrowed her eyes as she continued her slow walk into the sitting room.
The overly friendly smile, several blushes, and dreamy looks the big-hipped woman had thrown at Zuko had made Katara irritated. Even now she wished she could have frozen Jin right in her spot with all the tea in the teahouse.
Katara sighed. That is why she had to keep away from Zuko because his presence, his courteous actions such as his care of her with the tea incident, combined with the dream from last night was making her think almost homicidal thoughts. What was happening to her? It was just making her so confused and frustrated!
Zuko watched as Katara made her way across the room with a frown on her face. She seemed to be deep in thought and he wondered what she was thinking about that was making her look so troubled. He watched as Katara finally looked up from her book and their eyes met. He saw as her eyes widened and a small squeak escaped between her lips before she quickly turned around.
"Katara, wait!" Zuko shouted as he sprang up from the couch. He narrowed his eyes as he swiftly and determinedly strode towards the waterbender before standing directly behind her.
Katara stopped in her tracks at his hard tone and hesitantly turned back around without looking at him.
"H-hey, Zuko," she stuttered. "We sure had fun today, huh? Okay, then…it's late, so I'll just be heading to my room to sleep." She laughed nervously as she took a step back. She gulped when Zuko took a step forward to match her own.
"Why are you avoiding me?" Zuko asked bluntly, suppressing the irritation he felt from showing in his voice.
"W-what? I-I'm not avoiding you. Don't be silly," Katara said as she took another step away from him, but again she was unable to keep a great distance since he followed her.
"Do not lie to me, Katara!" Zuko hissed angrily as she continued to avoid looking at him.
Katara gasped at his outburst. He had never yelled at her with such an angry emotion before, not even when they were enemies. It pained her.
"I'm n-not l-lying," she stammered.
Zuko's eyes flashed dangerously at her statement.
"Yes, you are!" he growled. "Tell me what's going on!"
"N-nothing is going on! I don't know what you're talking about!" Katara yelled back, not understanding what his problem was.
"Oh, really?" Zuko asked sarcastically. "You've been ignoring me since breakfast this morning. You didn't talk to me, but for just a few words. You avoided walking, sitting, or standing beside me, and when I tried to come close to you, you moved away from me as if I had some kind of disease!"
Was I really that obvious? Katara thought before she frowned at his words.
Zuko's temper flared when Katara remained silent and still refused to look into his eyes.
"I demand to know what the hell is going on this instant, Katara!" he ordered heatedly.
"You can't order me around, Zuko!" she yelled angrily. Her own temper surfaced at Zuko's demanding tone and she raised her eyes to glare at him.
Zuko narrowed his golden eyes.
"That may be so," he said between gritted teeth, "but I still want to know why you have been ignoring and avoiding me all day."
Katara blanched and she looked away again as she clasped the small book in her hands. Zuko watched as Katara clenched the little book so tightly against her chest that her fingers turned almost white.
"Katara, tell me," he demanded again.
Whirling on her heels, Katara tried to race to the door, but Zuko reacted quickly and grabbed her right arm, careful not to hurt her. He swiftly spun her around towards him, mentally groaning when the scent of gardenias hit his senses.
Katara gasped as she almost collided against Zuko's broad chest if it wasn't for her free hand that steadied her between their bodies. Her small book fell between them, forgotten on the floor like the rest of the world around them.
Zuko frowned when Katara lowered her face, hiding her cobalt eyes from his sight.
"Katara?" Zuko called softly, his anger dissipating. He could never stay angry with her.
"Please, tell me why you're ignoring me. Have I done something wrong again? Just tell me what I did and I swear I will fix it," he told her as he still held onto her arm, pleading for her to help him understand. Pleading for her to reassure him that they were still friends and she did not hate him.
Katara gasped at what she just heard and at the sadness she detected in his voice. She looked up into his amber orbs and what she saw in them almost made tears fall from her own eyes. She saw anger, sadness, hurt, and…fear. And then it dawned on her.
So many people—his own family—had hurt Zuko so much in the past. That was why he had a hard time opening up to others and letting people into his life. He was afraid of being hurt again as he had been repeatedly so many times before. She was trying to keep away from him in order to save some of her sanity, but it seemed Zuko saw her actions as a form of avoidance and rejection.
Oh, La! What have I done? she cried in her head.
"It's not your fault, Zuko! You didn't do anything wrong! I'm so sorry for making you think that I was avoiding you!" she cried out, reaching her hand that was not being held by him to touch his right cheek, hoping that he would believe her. "I'm sorry, Zuko. Please forgive me."
Zuko searched her cerulean orbs for any form of deceit, but found none. He inwardly sighed in relief as he leaned into her touch before a small smile spread on his face. How could he have thought Katara would hurt him? How could he have thought she would be like everybody else in his past?
"You don't know how glad it makes me to know that," he admitted softly, enjoying the feeling of her soft hand on his face. "Katara, I…" he paused.
When Katara looked at him expectantly, Zuko let out a small breath.
"I want you to know that I see you as a...very good friend, a friend that I have never had the privilege of having ever before, and well…I must admit I was a bit…worried that I had somehow...lost you," he said carefully.
Katara felt her heart flutter at his words.
"Do you really see me as such a good friend? Am I really that important that you would be worried if you lost my friendship?" she asked quietly.
"Of course. You have done much to help me and you are always there to listen to me when I have a problem."
Katara looked away with a frown.
"There are others that do the same. Like Song for instance," she replied tersely.
"Song?" Zuko asked, furrowing his forehead.
"Yeah, she said even though you lied about your identity, the rest you told her about was the truth," Katara replied. "It seems that there are others who are willing to listen to you."
"Well…" Zuko frowned. "When I met Song she told me she had been hurt by the Fire Nation and the only thing I revealed was that so had I, but that's all I told her and did not go into much detail."
Oh, Katara thought, mentally slapping her herself.
"What you say may be true," he continued, "but there are those who just 'listen' to you talk while there are those who listen and understand when you talk to them, just like you, Katara," he emphasized. "You did not judge me when I revealed to you about my past, but listened with a compassionate heart. And I must confess that you are the only person that I feel comfortable talking with and the only person alongside Uncle and my mother that I really enjoy spending my time with."
Katara lightly gaped at his words.
"Really?" she asked him incredulously. Was that truly possible?
"Yes," he replied simply, but that one simple word caused something in Katara's heart to burn.
Smiling gently, Katara looked back at him.
"I kind of find it hard to believe that, but…I enjoy your company a lot as well," she admitted softly. "It makes me happy that you find me worthy enough to talk to and I want you to know that I will always be there if you need somebody to lend a sympathetic ear," she stated truthfully.
Zuko smiled warmly at her words because he knew she would always be there for him as he would be there for her. They continued to gaze into each other's eyes as both felt that there was something else they should admit, something much deeper, but they held their tongues, afraid of being rejected.
"Well, if I didn't do anything wrong to deserve such disrespect," Zuko said with a small grin, "then why were you acting so strangely?" he asked curiously after a few minutes of comfortable silence. He scolded himself when Katara quickly removed her hand from his face at his question.
Katara blushed and again looked away from him.
"Well, I…you see…uh…"
She couldn't explain her odd behavior to Zuko! She could not tell him that last night she had a dream about him where he had been touching her and where he had almost kissed her that it had caused a fire to spread throughout her body. How embarrassing would that be?
Zuko watched as the waterbender's cheeks turned bright red. He raised an inquiring eyebrow.
"Katara?" he prompted, gently squeezing her arm which he finally noticed he was still holding.
Katara noticed as well and her heart began to race in her chest. He was touching her, even if innocently, but his touch caused her mind to be flooded with images from their spar on the flagship, the dream from the previous night, the lake that started it all, and the new feelings and sensation that were brought forth because of these events.
"I...I c-can't tell you!" she uttered quickly and tried to pull her arm away from his grasp, but she was unable to make him budge.
"What is it, Katara? What's wrong? You know you can tell me anything," he told her reassuringly as he was filled with concerned at her anxiety.
"I know I can, Zuko." Katara smiled at him before she quickly averted her eyes. "But it's just that…it's too…embarrassing," she whispered and blushed scarlet.
The young man furrowed his forehead as he tried to come up with anything embarrassing that could have happened that concerned him and the way Katara had reacted around him that day. His face flushed.
Well, there were those interesting dreams he had had lately, but she couldn't know about those. At least he hoped she didn't. And then there were those times his body reacted whenever she did something to make his blood boil like in the ship or the lake. But he was still alive and with no frozen important body parts so she did not know about that either.
Wait a minute. The lake! She must still be embarrassed about what happened even though he had assured her everything was fine. Now he understood. She was probably uncomfortable being around him after their little encounter.
Zuko smiled as he hooked a finger under Katara's chin so she could look into his eyes and see he was being honest.
"It's alright Katara. I understand."
Katara's eyes widen in horror and her face turned a darker shade of red.
"You do?" she squeaked. "Oh, no!" she moaned, mortified. What did he think of her now? Would he laugh at her? Would he be disgusted?
Zuko nodded as he continued to smile down at her.
"You don't have to be embarrassed about what happened at the lake the other night. I promised that I wasn't going to tell anybody, so don't worry, because I intend to keep that promise. And I assure you that I didn't see anything that I wasn't supposed to see, I swear it," he told her. Though, he would not have minded catching a glimpse…
Katara gaped at his words and at his misunderstanding.
"That's not what I—I mean…yeah…that's it! How silly of me, huh?" She giggled almost hysterically.
"I'll say," Zuko chuckled.
"Hey!" Katara complained halfheartedly.
Zuko continued to chuckle softly before he reluctantly released her arm with a faint blush. He cleared his throat before reaching down to retrieve her fallen book. He handed it to her with a smile.
"Thanks," Katara said, smiling as she grabbed it, hugging it to her chest. "I didn't even realize I dropped it."
"It's not your fault you're sometimes clumsy," Zuko teased.
Again with the teasing! Katara gasped before she grinned.
"You're calling me clumsy after you poured salt instead of sugar into the fruit pastries?" she teased.
"Damn," Zuko cursed as he crossed his arms over his chest. "I knew I shouldn't have brought that up."
This time Katara laughed genuinely as he playfully narrowed his eyes at her. She would never again allow something as silly as a dream affect her so strongly...because her reaction to a dream made her hurt Zuko and break her promise to help make him happy.
Because that was all it was, right? Just a dream…
A/N: Thank you for reading and reviewing!