"It's no longer a question of staying healthy. It's a question of finding a sickness you like." Jackie Mason
Aang and Toph paused in their Earthbending as a most peculiar sound reached their ears. Sokka too turned his head towards the noise, momentarily abandoning his conversation with Iroh.
"What was that?"
Aang shrugged in response to Sokka's question. "It sort of sounded like that time Momo got that moon-peach stone stuck in his throat."
The lemur in question perked up at the sound of his name and climbed onto the monk's shoulder. Aang petted Momo instinctively and cast his eyes around camp. They rested briefly on the other recent addition to their team but the prince-turned-fugitive appeared completely uninterested by the unidentified noise in the forest.
"Hey Toph," Sokka said rising from his place on the ground. "Any idea what that noise was? I mean Katara isn't back with the water yet and if there's something strange out there-"
"I don't think you have to worry about Sweetness, Sokka." The blind girl said shifting her foot slightly across the earth.
Toph grinned slightly and pointed towards the underbrush. "Because that noise was her."
The rest of the group turned their eyes in the direction of Toph's finger and, sure enough, moments later Katara emerged from the foliage. Her arms were weighed down with water canteens and her eyes looked decidedly dim.
"Why Miss Katara, are you alright?" Iroh pushed himself up from the ground and moved forward removing Katara of her burden.
"Hmm? Oh yes, I'm fine. Why do you ask?"
"Because Sugar Queen, you just made noise like a pygmy puma hacking up a hairball."
Katara raised an eyebrow and smiled faintly. "You must be hearing things, it certainly wasn't me."
Toph shrugged. "Whatever. Come on Twinkle-toes, let's get some more bending done."
Aang nodded and gently dislodged Momo from his shoulders, placing his friend lightly on the floor. Sokka meanwhile was still watching his sister carefully while she went about setting up dinner. Now that he looked closer Katara's eyes did seem a little watery and her skin did seem a touch sallow.
Plopping next to her near the fire Sokka tried to grab a piece of dried meat from Katara's side. His sister, having had almost fifteen years practice dealing with Sokka's mealtime habits, swatted his hand away and shot him a warning with her eyes.
Admitting defeat the warrior reclined back onto his elbows and surveyed Katara with an appraising eye. "You are sick."
"Excuse me?" Katara paused in her chopping of a daikon radish.
Sokka met her gaze steadily and repeated himself. "You are ill, infected, afflicted, unwell, run down and…" he trailed off, apparently running out of ways to say 'sick'. "Pukey?"
Katara snorted at his lame finish. "Pukey? While I appreciate your concern, Doctor Sokka, I assure you I am not-"
She never got to finish her retort, for at that very moment her eyes widened, she dropped her cooking knife and turned away from the food she was preparing, coughing fiercely into her hands.
Sokka watched in slight amusement as his sister's words turned around and bit her in the - well, you know. He flinched however, when Katara rounded up her little episode with a most disgusting noise, a noise that could only be compared to the unblocking of a drain.
It seemed that the second strange sound of the day had attracted the rest of the camps' attention and when Katara lowered her hands from her face she blushed, finding five pairs of eyes fixed upon her (Momo and Appa were distinctly uninterested).
"Uh, Sugar Queen?" Toph said from the area they had designated for bending practice. "Not that I don't love your cooking, but if you're sick you really should let someone else make dinner."
"For the last time, I am not sick!" Katara sniffled. Seeing the dubious looks sent her way she growled in frustration. "Look, I don't get sick."
"Miss Katara, everybody gets sick. What makes you so sure that you are immune to it?"
Katara pondered Iroh's words for a moment before straightening her spine. "I'm a healer. Healer's don't get sick, or at least they shouldn't."
"Healer or not," Aang began. "You're still human and besides, what about that time you and Sokka got that cold after that storm?"
It seemed that the Water Tribe girl struggled to find an appropriate answer. "Well that was before I found out about my water healing and anyway I was next to Sokka, how could I not catch anything?"
"Hey!" The indignant cry was ignored.
"I can tell you're lying Sweetness," Toph taunted. "What's this really about?"
Katara threw her hands up in frustration. "Nothing! I just don't get sick, I look after other people who get sick. Besides," she cast her eyes to the side and lowered her voice. "I haven't been sick since my mom died."
An air of comprehension passed through the others and Iroh smiled benignly. "Ah, Katara you needn't worry yourself over taking care of the rest of us. Now it is our turn to look after you."
Grumbling, the Waterbender made her way over to her sleeping bag that Sokka had moved closer to the fire. "I don't understand how I got sick in the first place."
"Maybe it was from when Appa sneezed on you last week." Aang suggested looking at his two-tonne friend.
"Can people catch colds off flying bison?" Toph wondered aloud. Aang shrugged.
"But that's not fair!" Katara whined from her listless position. "Appa sneezes on Sokka all the time and he never gets sick! Why should I catch something after one occurrence?"
"Well," all eyes snapped around to Zuko as he uttered his first words of the conversation. "I suppose that Sokka isn't too different from whatever gets shot out of a bison's nostril." Typical that those words would be an insult directed towards Sokka.
Sokka's protests were drowned out by the snorts and laughter from the others in camp. Katara's fit of giggles were rudely interrupted as she felt the smoke from the campfire irritate her already inflamed throat.
The others grew silent as the girl was racked by another round of coughs and watched as she groaned and pulled her blanket over her head. "Fine," her muffled voice drifted from beneath her covers. "I'm sick, I admit it. The rest of you can make dinner and whatever else you don't want me doing."
Sokka exchanged a triumphant look with Iroh and they set about dividing chores between the rest of the group.
It was decided that Aang would continue his training with Toph in the time before dinner, although they were ordered to move away from camp in order to give Katara some peace. Sokka was sent to the nearby town to find some herbs, elixir or some sort of medicine and Iroh took over the task of making dinner. Zuko, as per usual, was not given a task to perform as he was expected to refuse to do any job that was given to him.
When the camp was empty sans Katara and the two Firebenders, Iroh allowed a small, yet sneaky, smile spread cross his face. It pained him to watch his nephew distance himself from the others, especially when he knew that he would be accepted with open arms if only he would allow it. The only time he cared to show some semblance of sociability was during the sparring matches he held with the others.
Although he helped Iroh by sparring with the Avatar during Firebending practice, and exchanged witty insults with Toph, it seemed he enjoyed battling the Water Tribe siblings the most. Sokka, having no bending abilities, gave the prince a run for his money using good-old-fashioned weapons. Zuko having dedicated numerous hours to mastering the broadswords appreciated the challenge. As for Katara, her bending ability stemmed from Zuko's natural opposite and their bending matches would often become an interesting spectacle to watch.
Iroh was determined to draw his nephew into the heart of the team, but perhaps his role would have to remain behind the scenes, a puppet master as it were.
Emptying the chopped daikon and dried meat into the pot of simmering water Iroh looked towards the Katara-sized lump across from him. "Miss Katara? I have added all of the ingredients to the pot, and you must excuse my question as it has been a while since I have cooked, but what do I do next?"
His answer came in the form of one of Katara's hands emerging from the top of the blankets. She extended her pointer finger and made a circular motion with.
"Oh, stir it, of course. What a foolish overlook on my part."
There was silence for a few more minutes, punctuated by a round of sneezes and sniffs courtesy of Katara. Iroh glanced at Zuko, whose eyes were apparently staring at Katara's hidden form, although they were unfocused.
"Katara?" Iroh voiced once more. "I believe I have allowed the broth to become too thick what would you suggest."
The older Firebender sensed Zuko raising his eyebrow at the question. What fool didn't know what to do when a soup became too thick?
Katara cleared her throat from under the blankets. "Add water."
"Another lapse in knowledge!" Iroh exclaimed in mock distress. "My, my, it seems that old father time is indeed catching up to me." He chose to ignore Zuko's derisive snort and ambled to his feet. "Well I shall return with some more water." With that he departed from camp at a brisk pace, leaving the two teenagers alone and out of each other's sight.
Katara poked her head from the blankets and sat up, keeping the cloth drawn tightly about her. "Your uncle is up to something," she said to Zuko.
The Firebender cocked his head to the side. "What makes you say that?"
"Because I filled up four water canteens not even an hour ago." She nodded her head towards the containers lying on the ground, next to where Iroh had been sitting.
Zuko closed his eyes and slumped further into the tree he was sat against. "I don't even want to know what he's plotting."
Katara made a noise of agreement and fell back onto her sleeping bag. Zuko peered at the congested girl lying not even three yards from him. Though he'd never admit it he actually kind of liked travelling with the group of misfits he found himself in. For the first time in a long time he actually felt accepted. Although it had surprised him how his little escapade in Ba Sing Se had been forgiven (he wasn't sure that he had forgiven himself), he found something quite liberating in the knowledge that he was doing his part in ending the war. He was going to help repay the debt his nation had gathered through causing suffering to so many, himself included. And Katara.
He really had no idea what to think of the Waterbender. They had shared something in the crystal catacombs but he was clueless to what that that something was. He had been most reluctant to talk about what had happened that day in the Earth Kingdom capital in general and so the moment between him and Katara had gone unmentioned too.
Snapping back to the present he watched as Katara rubbed her eyes with the back of her hand and licked her dry lips.
"Do you want something to drink?" He had no idea what had pushed him to speak. "Water? Tea?"
Katara allowed a grin to creep across her face. "I've heard about your tea and I think it might just finish me off."
Realising that had it been anyone else, the jovial insult would have offended him, Zuko was puzzled by the embarrassed smile that found its way to the surface. "Water then?"
Rising from his spot, Zuko picked up one of the water canteens and knelt at Katara's side. Once again bringing herself to sit up she relished the cool water as it slid down her throat.
"If only water could heal a cold." She muttered. She thanked Zuko and handed him back the water container before deciding she had better not let anyone else drink from it lest she infect them.
Zuko sat back on his haunches gazing into the pot his uncle had been working over minutes before. He frowned when he saw that the mixture was not thick at all. In fact it seemed almost ready to eat.
Katara sighed heavily and looked into the sky, now shot with streaks of pink and red. "It's times like this that I really wish that my mother was still around."
Zuko shifted his attention back to her, surprisingly comfortable with the familiar subject matter. "Why?"
"Because mothers always seem to make things better with just a kiss and a hug. They take away the pain… and then force you to drink horrible medicine of course."
A brief smile crossed Zuko's face. "Of course. Maybe you can ask someone else to kiss it better." He realised the full implication of his words as they left his mouth and cringed as a crimson blush stained Katara's cheeks.
She coughed slightly before replying. "What, are you offering your services?" She desperately hoped she sounded blasé about the whole thing.
Now here was something Zuko was comfortable with: witty banter. "Maybe. Perhaps I'm just being a concerned team member."
Katara's cobalt eyes flicked to his face and down again. "Maybe. How concerned would you be if I said my cheek was hurting? Right here," she tapped the side of her face gently.
Zuko had no idea how he knew that Katara would not push an advance away, being as lacking in normal teenage behaviour as he was, but he knew it indeed. "Concerned enough to do this." He lowered his head swiftly and kissed the spot on her cheek that Katara had indicated. He didn't allow his lips to linger long, just in case he had read Katara's messages completely wrong, but he was pleased to see she did not seem horrified at all. In fact she seem rather… giddy.
"And here?" Her finger tapped the corner of her mouth and Zuko's lips descended in her finger's place.
"And here?" She pointed to her lips. Zuko smiled softly.
"It would be my duty as a well-meaning friend to alleviate your discomfort." Their lips met in a cautious union before separating momentarily. Blue met gold in understanding and a mutual feeling of happiness before their lips once again found each other.
When they pulled away for a second time Zuko touched his forehead to Katara's. "Is there anywhere else in need of my attention?"
"Well," Katara grinned. "My throat is kind of sore."
Returning her smile Zuko's head was about to lower once more before Iroh's voice sounded from the forest, driving the two teens apart.
"Sokka! So nice to see you back from the village safely, and you have the herbs? Very good my boy." They heard a muffled response from Sokka before Iroh's voice resonated through camp once more. "Shouting? I wasn't aware that I was Sokka. I must be going deaf in my old age. Come, let us return to camp where Katara and Zuko are."
Zuko narrowed his eyes in understanding as he realised his uncle had tricked them. He glanced back at Katara, who had disappeared under her blankets again, and he smiled. Actually, maybe he could forgive his uncle, just this once.
It was almost two weeks later, when Katara was back on her feet and healthy once again when Sokka felt the first seeds of suspicion begin to sprout.
"So Zuko," he began casually. "Just how did you catch Katara's cold?"
A.N: I invite you to come to your own conclusions about what happened after the season finale. Was Zuko's moment of insanity actually a cleverly-disguised plot to get one over on Azula? Did he regret it and repent? Who rescued Uncle Iroh and how did they do it? Frankly I don't know. I just wanted to keep myself amused and this was the result.
Yes, as you've probably guessed, I am suffering with a rampant cold and my poor infected muse inspired me to write this.