"You know, guys..." It was Sokka who broke the uncomfortable silence that had spread over the group on Appa's back. "That reaction Jun got when she said Katara was Zuko's girlfriend was pret-ty intense." He glanced back from Katara to Zuko, the edge of a smirk tugging at one side of his mouth. "Something you're not telling us?"
"No!" As quick as Katara was to say it, Zuko still managed to match her. They glared at each other.
"Wow. Thinking in sync already." Toph raised an eyebrow. "I'd say it's love."
"I have a girlfriend!" Zuko shot back, and turned huffily around to fix his eyes on Jun and Nala again.
"And I have..." It occurred to Katara the instant those words came out of her mouth that she didn't exactly have the right to use Aang us a way to one-up Zuko when she'd as much as told him he couldn't be her boyfriend. "... someone," she finished instead, lamely.
"'Someone'?" Sokka guffawed. "Oh come on, Katara, at least if you're going to lie, try to make it convincing, will you?"
"I'm not lying - I do have a 'someone', and just because you don't understand doesn't mean you get to make fun of it." She pushed it out through clenched teeth, glowering at her brother and silently willing him to let the subject die. It was a question of pride now, and backing down was out of the question, but she couldn't help but feel guilty. She might as well have ripped Aang's heart out of his chest and stepped on it, and now here she was using his feelings for her to prove a point.
And he couldn't even defend himself, because he was gone.
"You are so lying - Toph, she's lying, right?" Sokka glanced at the girl on his left.
"How should I know? We're flying, remember?" Toph stuck one foot in the air and wiggled her toes for emphasis. "I don't feel any earth around here, do you?"
"Oh, right." He deflated for a moment, but then thrust an accusing finger in Katara's direction. "But that doesn't mean you're not a liar! Liar."
"I told you, I'm not a liar!" Katara clenched her fists. "We happen to have kissed three times!" Again, the words were out before she could stop them - she felt her eyes widen, cheeks heat up; she put a hand over her mouth in reflex, as if it could push the statement back in.
Now it wasn't just Sokka staring at her in astonishment; it was everyone. Even Zuko had turned his head again. Katara fought the urge to shrink back under their collective gaze. Well, there - she'd succeeded in completely embarrassing herself. Great.
Suki spoke up first. "You've kissed three times," she repeated, raising an eyebrow, "but he's still just 'someone'? Not your boyfriend?"
Katara fidgeted. She desperated wished there was a way to let the subject die gracefully, but it was too late for that now. "Well - he kissed me," she said, reluctantly. "And the first one was an accident."
It wasn't a complete lie... It amounted to the same thing, really, because it was an escape attempt and not the start of a romance or anything close to one. But it was important, because it was her first. In the end it hadn't been necessary, but Katara didn't regret it. First kisses were special. They were the ones you told your daughters about, if you had them. Katara could imagine herself talking about that first kiss with fond nostalgia one day.
"It was a dear friend," she'd say, "and it was short, and soft, but very sweet." And she would go silent, her thoughts far away, remembering how Aang's lips had been hesitant, and gentle. It was only a slight pressure - more of a brush than a proper kiss - but it had sent a thrill all the way through her, because it was her first experience with kissing and that was exciting. She would always be grateful to Aang for making it a good memory.
He was just a friend. He was too young for her. Too short. He didn't even have hair. And his voice hadn't broken yet. But she was glad that he had been the one to kiss her first.
"Who?" Sokka's incredulous demand broke her from her thoughts. "Who kissed you? When did you have time to meet a guy and kiss him three times? There's just no way!"
"I know!" Toph's eyes lit up; she turned her face in Katara's general direction, expression turning gleeful. "It's Haru, isn't it? I knew it! I was right!"
"No, it's not Haru." Katara couldn't help but frown at her. "What's with your obsession with him, anyway?"
"I dunno, you tell me." Toph shrugged, tucking her arms behind her head. "And while you're at it, how does a guy kiss you two more times after the first 'accident' without you somehow being in on it?"
"He took me by surprise!" Katara protested, and felt that traitorous flush rising on her face yet again. "We were in the middle of something" - she avoided the subject of the invasion, afraid it would give away too much - "and he just... did it. I didn't even get a chance to say anything, because he ran off right after."
Suki whistled. "Kiss and run, huh?"
"What, so he forced himself on you?" Sokka looked outraged - it was a toss-up whether it was over his assumption or just the fact that this had happened right under his nose and he hadn't even noticed. Katara strongly suspected the latter.
"Not exactly." She rubbed the back of her neck, reluctant to admit to the rest. It leaned too much in the direction of making her a more active participant - but she didn't like the idea of anyone thinking Aang took advantage somehow, even if they didn't know it was him. "I could've moved away. He didn't hold me or anything - he was... he was just trying to make things clear."
That wasn't the only reason, though. The second kiss had been so different from the first - so desperate. Aang's lips had pressed firmly to hers - confidently, even. The only thing that had betrayed his nervousness was the tremor she felt in the hand that rested on her shoulder. Katara was amazed at how the second kiss had still given her that thrill - it made her head spin, her heart pound. She remembered Aang's ragged breathing aginst her cheek, and how his mouth lingered against hers. So warm.
It felt good. Too good.
She should've been the one to pull away, but she got too wrapped up in it, and couldn't. There should've been shock - outrage, even - but all she could manage was confusion. All those little things she had noticed about him that she'd brushed off at the time came racing back to her. Her heart had been beating hard. Her face had grown hot. It must have been the kiss - the closeness. It was an illusion, that was all. Aang was a friend; only a friend.
He had kissed her...
It was obvious why he'd done it then, of all times. It was dramatic, it was meaningful, and it was unfair. He wanted her to know. He wanted to kiss her, at least once. And then he'd fly off and maybe even die and she'd have that knowledge and that kiss to turn over in her head a million times.
"Obviously it didn't work, though." Suki's voice cut into that memory. She smiled a little, not quite teasing. "If he's still a 'someone' and not a boyfriend."
"Well..." Katara hesitated. Here was where it got sticky. There had been plenty of opportunity to talk about it after that, but she just... hadn't. It was easier that way. "He was pretty clear. We just didn't talk about it right away, that's all."
"You still haven't told us who he is," Sokka pointed out, looking nonplussed about the whole subject. "I don't get it! You had this whole romance going on behind the scenes, and none of us even got to meet the guy? Come on! I let you guys in on the whole Suki thing!"
"Like it was a secret," Toph responded, raising her eyebrows meaningfully.
"Well - just - you know what I mean!"
"What about kiss number three?" Suki pressed on, ignoring her boyfriend's outburst. "You had to talk about it then, didn't you?"
"Yeah... kind of." Katara shrugged her shoulders just a bit, feeling awkward. "Actually, that one happened because we talked about it." She realized how that sounded, and hastily added, "Not the way you're thinking, though."
She still wasn't sure how to feel about that kiss, either. Sometimes she felt guilty - here was Aang, opening his heart to her, and she couldn't even give him a straight answer. Other times she felt angry - how dare he kiss her, when she'd just told him she wasn't sure. It was like he knew what his kisses did to her. Even this one, quick as it was, had an effect much like the others. His lips were gentle again, like the first - but certain, like the second. And she felt that thrill again, but she didn't have the patience for it now and it was infuriating how he expected her to magically return his feelings just because he kissed her.
It was impossible. She didn't know why she didn't just say 'no', anyway. He was just a friend - just Aang. He was still too short, and too young, and he wasn't what she wanted. He shouldn't be able to stir those kinds of feelings in her.
Her chest felt tight when she left him. She shouldn't have run - really, she should have stalked back into the theater in righteous indignation. It just seemed like she couldn't get away from him and his feelings and everything those kisses meant fast enough. She could still feel the pressure on her lips, even when she wiped her hand over them.
Brushing it aside just wasn't good enough any more.
"So it wasn't a romantic kiss after a mutual confession, then?" Suki prompted her, after a short moment of silence.
"No. I... told him I was confused. I still am." Katara looked down to where her hands were toying absently with the hem of her tunic. "He kissed me, I got mad - we haven't talked about it since. That was two days ago."
"Okay, now that is impossible!" Sokka waved a hand sharply, nearly braining his girlfriend. "We've been on EmberIsland, where no one else is around, for way more than two days! There is no way you've been meeting up with this mystery man secretly. No way!"
Katara hunched her shoulders, feeling uneasy. She'd given away too much, but it was too late now. "That's true, but - "
"And the only people around are me, Zuko - who, I might add, you've already said isn't the one - Toph, Suki, and - " He stopped, and then blinked.
They were all looking at her again. Katara sunk down in her seat, feeling like her face was blazing. It was out now - not just the kisses, but all of it. She felt too exposed.
"You are not serious." Sokka stared at her incredulously. Her lack of response was obviously answer enough. "You're serious!? Aang kissed you? Aang!?"
"It's not that big a deal!" Katara blurted out.
"'Not that big a deal'!?" He pushed himself forward, eyes bulging. "How is it not a big deal!? He's the Avatar! The Avatar kissed you! Aang kissed you! Oh, man, this is weird." He suddenly sank back down again, shaking his head.
"I think it's sweet," Suki cut in, smiling encouragingingly at Katara, as if somehow this was a defense against Sokka's tirade.
"Never knew Twinkle-Toes had it in him," Toph added, crossing her arms over her chest and shaking her head much like Sokka had.
"Neither did I," Katara muttered, and then felt irritated enough to add, "I wish he didn't."
She wasn't being entirely truthful, and probably not entirely fair to Aang, either. But Katara didn't feel like being fair. How was it fair to her that he brought all of this up, only to go ahead and vanish? What did he expect from her, anyway? He had stolen not only her first kiss, but her second and third as well, without any regard for her feelings. She could give him the first, maybe grudgingly allow the second - but the third?
That was too much.
"Why?" That was Zuko - when Katara turned, a little startled, she found him studying her with an unfathomable look on his face. "At least he doesn't keep things to himself until it's too late," he added, turning his head forward again.
Until it's too late.
That struck a nerve, somehow. Katara glared at the back of his head. "Well, maybe I'd rather he did, okay?"
There was a brief moment of silence. Out of the corner of her eye, she caught Sokka and Suki sharing a quick, worried glance, and then Sokka turned back to face her. "You can't mean that."
"What, so now you're on his side?" At the back of her mind, Katara was aware that she was being irrational, but she couldn't help it. How could they possibly know how she felt about this? "He's the one who started all this! I didn't ask for it! Isn't it enough that I lost my mother?" Why had she said that?
Another shared glance. This time even Toph shifted slightly towards Sokka, obviously uncomfortable. Her brother just frowned. "What does Mom have to do with any of this?"
"Nothing! Everything! Just... ugh!" He was too young. Too short. Too bald. Too childish. "Why do I have to be the girlfriend waiting for him?" she blurted out instead, and suddenly she realized that the other reasons didn't matter. Maybe they never had. "I can't lose anyone else who's important to me!"
Silence followed her outburst.
"Katara." When he finally spoke, Sokka's voice was oddly subdued. "You really think you'd feel less sad if Aang died, just because you aren't his girlfriend?"
Katara stared at him for a moment. She didn't have a response for that. It didn't look like he really expected one anyway; that look on his face wasn't the look he got when she argued with him. It was the concerned look - the one he had when she hurt herself.
Toph scratched at an elbow, and Suki ran her fingers through her hair. Neither said anything.
Moving quick and furiously, Katara turned away from him and edged purposefully towards the only spot that now seemed safe. She crawled free of the saddle and up to where Zuko sat on Appa's neck.
Somehow, she just had to get away from everyone's eyes. From that pity. That... judgement.
It was Aang's fault anyway, even if Sokka was right. She felt a surge of anger, and looked stiffly out at the scenery. Things would've been fine if he'd left well enough alone. If he hadn't kissed her those three times. If he hadn't been so nice, so gentle, so unquestioningly devoted. If he wasn't Aang, and didn't love her, and didn't force her to start falling for him so that she could suffer more in the end if something happened to him.
It wasn't fair!
Zuko coughed, and she looked at him. He didn't meet her gaze. "I tried to break up with my girlfriend, before I left," he said. His voice was low. "I thought I could keep her from getting hurt."
Katara didn't say anything.
He let out a long breath, and shut his eyes briefly. "She was hurt anyway."
The tears came then, and she didn't know why, but Zuko didn't say anything even as she brushed them all aside. She wondered how many times he had kissed her, this mystery girlfriend, and whether she counted and kept each one, hoping they would both be alive to kiss again.
Three times just weren't enough.