Summary: Zuko attempts to stitch things back up. Literally.
Notes: Thanks to AKAVertigo, who asked "the Universe" for this little story. This story may or may not become the first part of a companion series to the "Three Drinks" trilogy, which you can find in my profile. The next series is tentatively called "Three Chores," and might focus on Katara. Enjoy!
Spoilers: 312 "The Western Air Temple."
Disclaimer: ATLA is the property of Nickelodeon and VIACOM. No profit is made by this story.
"Hey, Katara, look! No hands!"
Teo and the Duke rattled past her in the new two-seater. As they did, one wheel nudged the laundry tub. Soapy water sloshed across her dress and soaked her lap. Neither the two kids nor Aang -- soaring above them, despite the seemingly-thousands of times she had told him "no gliding in the halls" because she just knew he would break the new glider and the Mechanist had worked so hard on it -- noticed. They rolled and flew away. She stood and ran after them, water half-bent from the tub and prepared to create a tidy little ice-ramp for Teo, when she saw Teo and the Duke careen straight off the balcony and into the chasm.
For one heart-stopping moment, she forgot how to scream. Water splashed to the stones. Her mouth opened but nothing came. She found herself pointing mutely, her throat suddenly sore, as the slender little dart of a vehicle simply dropped off into the misty abyss, pointed down like a falling arrow…
…and snapped open its wings, and lifted into the air, seemingly buffeted by three young voices crowing their triumph under a hot Fire Nation sun.
She was vaguely conscious of Sokka screaming and shouting and lifting Toph up and spinning her: "It worked! It worked!"
"Quit spinning, you'll make me sick!"
Zuko came running down the hall. He was so light on his feet, now; she barely heard him. He stopped short and stood in profile, panting and squinting up at the sight of the flying chair. The three children danced and spiraled around one another in the air like sparks. His head tilted to watch them. She saw amazement and frustration vie for prominence on his face. She knew that look. That was the Aang Look. The Aang Look was what anyone who knew the Avatar long enough started to wear -- that strange expression that meant you were halfway between strangling the kid and holding him tight and never letting go.
The Aang Look did not belong on Zuko's face.
She folded her arms and hardened her voice. "Shouldn't you be teaching him his firebending?"
Zuko turned, blinked, and looked her up and down. "You're all wet," he said, and left.
She had a tough time finding the rhythms of their new life here. Everything was upside down. Literally. Moving "up" afloor meant going down the stairs. The overgrown gardens grew up from the under the eaves. Even the sky was down; she looked up and saw mosaic tile, she looked down and saw the deep dark void between two landmasses. She had no idea how far down it went; Toph had stamped her foot once and her eyebrows had risen and she said "Way, way down."
There was no water, only trickling fountains. That wasn't real water. She had grown up hearing the tide. She had seen the sun turn the sea into endless waves of glimmering silk. On the third day she realized she was hopelessly lost; an hour later she understood it was because there were no landmarks. There was no land, period, and no water, not even a way to see the sun move across the sky because the sky was just a sliver of blue awning that flapped and fluttered above their cool, stony new home. The people who had built this place had designed it from a position in the sky that she could never attain -- not without a sky-bison.
You have lived on ice. You have lived on land. You have slept in swamps and on top of a bison miles and miles above the earth. You have navigated your way through glowing crystal caves. Do not let some crazy Air Nomad architecture get the best of you.
But occasionally she imagined the towers of their new home suspended upside-down like chicken-pigs in a butcher-shop window. She pictured Toph wandering down a slender little staircase that clung to the cliff-face for dear life, a staircase that had no railings because it was meant for airbenders. She remembered Combustion Man's hand and the way it glittered, disconnected from his body, as he fell into the depths. And then she wondered how safe it really was.
"Aren't you tired of being carried, by now?"
"Nope! So make with the piggyback, Sparky!"
She looked up as Zuko squatted wearily on the stone. Toph scrabbled up his back and wrapped her arms around his neck. "I thought your feet were healed."
"Oh, they are," Toph said. Her heels landed sharply on his ribs. "Now giddyup." Zuko winced. Rolling his eyes, he stood up and hefted her across his shoulders. He started to walk. "Say the magic words!"
Grimacing, Zuko muttered something under his breath. "Louder!" Toph commanded, jabbing his shoulder with one finger.
He took a deep breath. "Where does the greatest earthbender in the world want to go?"
The boys erupted in laughter. Sokka actually fell to his back, drummed his heels on the floor, and pointed at them as he clutched his stomach with his other hand. "See, there we go," Toph said. "That wasn't so hard, was it?"
"You know, I left the palace to get away from this kind of thing…" He adjusted her weight and started walking toward Toph's room.
"Be careful!" Katara shouted. "She'll bump her head! She's blind, you know!"
Zuko stiffened, one foot caught mid-step. "Katara, don't yell at my ostrich-horse," Toph said. "And take a look at the ceiling. It's way up there. Oh, wait, I'm blind, so I couldn't possibly know that."
Silence. Those had been popping up more and more often these days. They were like little black bubbles in the conversation -- these odd uncomfortable moments when the newer members of the group had no idea what to say, and when she was absolutely certain that they thought she doing a bad job keeping them together. "Hey, Toph, your pants have a hole," the Duke said, pointing.
Toph blushed. "They do?"
"It's okay," Zuko said, lacing his fingers under her and covering the spot. "It's easy to fix."
"Oh, and I suppose you expect me to fix it," Katara said, folding her arms. She gestured at the cooking pot and the line of washing. "Not that I don't have enough work to do around here-"
"Well fine, don't fix it, it's not like I care about some stupid hole that I can't even see!" Toph kicked Zuko again. "Take me to my room."
She watched them leave. Zuko said something and Toph giggled. And Katara got a funny feeling, like she first time realized that up was down in this place. Like the whole world had been pulled inside-out, like the moment she'd slid off Appa's saddle and set foot in the Western Air Temple she'd actually stepped into a different universe. Like someone telling her the sky was green and the earth was blue. Vertigo.
The next morning, Toph sat cross-legged and Katara surreptitiously took a peek to see how the hole was doing. But it wasn't there. She frowned. No one else seemed to have noticed. In fact, Sokka seemed to be delivering a long lecture on the nature of boomerangs that no one was listening to. But then Aang and Zuko came in and she had to hand off bowls of congee -- eagerly to Aang, grudgingly to Zuko -- and she listened to them instead.
"That's because you've gotten bigger," Zuko was saying.
Aang brightened. "I have?"
"Of course you have. Back then you were up to here." Zuko made a line on his chest with one hand. "But now you're up here." He moved the hand up an inch or two.
Aang's jaw dropped. "Really? I got taller? By that much?" He turned. "Katara, did I really get bigger?"
"Sure. Fine. Whatever. Eat it before it gets cold."
Aang frowned, shrugged, and spun through the air to a high pillar of stone that had once been a part of the fountain. He sat there and swung his feet as he ate. "I can't believe I got taller! You know, my shoes are feeling a little tight, too, maybe my feet are growing!"
"Are you sore and hungry all the time?" Zuko asked.
"Of course he is!" Katara said. "You have him training all the time!"
"I thought that was what you wanted," Zuko said. He turned to Aang. "I thought that was what you wanted."
"Well, uh, if we could leave off with the early morning meditation-"
"Not a chance," Zuko said. He tucked into his congee. "That's something we both need. We both have to get control of our bending." He climbed up the rock beside Aang's and gave one of his teeny tiny almost-smiles. "But if you're going through a growth spurt, you should probably start going to bed earlier."
"Oh man, growth spurts," Sokka said, slapping his forehead. "We're gonna have, like, no food. At all."
"We already have barely any food, Sokka," Katara said, staring at the scraped-clean sides of the pot. She peered at Zuko from the corner of her eye. "We have more mouths to feed, now, and it doesn't look like they're going anywhere."
Teo, the Duke, and Haru squirmed in unison. "Um…we could start eating less?" Haru offered.
Sokka tossed his boomerang. "Or hunting more?"
"Why are you guys so focused on meat?" Aang asked. "This is the Western Air Temple. We should obey Western Air Temple rules."
"Eggs," Zuko said.
"Eggs. Can you eat eggs?"
"Yeah," Aang said.
"Then we should get some."
"Oh, are you just going to go to the corner store?" Katara asked, waving a spoon around the expanse of the temple. "Or did you plan on stealing some?"
"What is your problem?" Toph set her bowl down with a clang and stood up. "Come on, Sparky, we're foraging. You'll do better with an earthbender to help you."
"Zuko has to help Aang learn to firebend, Toph. He can't go scrounging around looking for food with you."
"Sure I can," Zuko said, sliding off the stone. He pointed up at Aang. "Forty squats, forty push-ups, forty sit-ups, forty leg-lifts. Then practice the forms we've learned so far until I come back."
Aang suddenly looked anemic. "W..What?"
"You ran out on me yesterday to play with your glider. If you run out on your training again, I'll double the amount." He gestured at Katara. "Do the forms in front of her. She'll know if you're doing them wrong."
Katara wished she could sigh steam, like a firebender. "I will, will I?"
"You've seen enough to know." Zuko crouched on the ground. "Come on, your worshipfulness, let's find some eggs." Toph climbed onto his back, and away they went.
"Well, at least they're getting along," Aang said. "Hey, Sokka, you want to-"
"Guys! Guys! Wait up! I want meat!"
To Katara's chagrin, Zuko returned not only with eggs, but with a whole miniature family of puffi-toucs. "Pets? You brought more pets?"
"These are hens," Zuko said, holding up an angrily-twitching sack. "They'll keep laying if we keep feeding them."
"You're starting a farm?" the Duke asked.
"Yes," Zuko said. "Now I have to find a place to put it…"
"I can show you a good place!" Aang popped up to his feet, then wavered. "Oh. Wow. I'm really sore…"
"Pain is weakness leaving the body," Zuko said. He handed the sack to Toph, then knelt and slung Aang over one shoulder. Aang yelped tiredly. "You're heavier than you were at the solstice. You are getting bigger."
"What solstice?" Toph asked.
"I carried him through a blizzard," Zuko said.
Katara stood up. "You kidnapped him from the Spirit Oasis after you fought me for him!" She pointed. "Stop acting like you can just make up for everything you did by being nice! You stole Aang from us. He would have died if we didn't find you. And you would have died if Sokka hadn't decided to show you some mercy!"
"This sounds like a long story," Toph said.
"It is," Zuko said, and the way he stared at Katara made her want to squirm. But she didn't. Instead she had a flash of memory -- the way her arms ached as she twisted up a ball of water like a tangle of tough old yarn; the hard, unforgiving impact on her body when he blasted enough hot air to send her flying into the roots of a glacier. She balled her fists and stared right back.
Aang slid down from Zuko's shoulder. "Um, let's go make that coop," he said.
"Yeah, Sparky, I think these birds are gonna start squeezing out more than just eggs if we don't hurry," Toph said. And she and Aang tugged Zuko and the bag of birds off in another direction.
Sokka wandered in with a sack that smelled like fruit and a strange little creature that looked as though it might once have been a raccoon-toad. "That Zuko is so fast," he said as he opened up the sack. "I mean, he was in the tree when I was still noticing it had fruit on it!"
"Zuko, Zuko, Zuko!" Katara threw her hands in the air. "That's all anyone ever talks about, anymore! Zuko! He's everywhere!"
Sokka held up one finger. "He's everywhere and he's nowhere. Like a ninja."
Katara made a sound that reminded her very much of Appa, and stalked away.
That night they had raccoon-toad -- it was unpleasantly chewy and greasy -- and Zuko taught Aang how to make an omelette. Katara lost her appetite just watching them. How could Aang just forgive him this way? Aang, who had the most to lose from Zuko's treachery, who had fallen to earth thanks to Azula's evil and Zuko's betrayal? Aang, who still wore a scar just as broad and deep as Zuko's under his clothes, because of what Azula had done and Zuko had chosen? Aang, who now stood beside Zuko with a frying pan in one hand, his clumsy elbow guided by Zuko's ash-stained fingers: "Good, good, like that, just flip it over, not so hard, be careful…"
She watched in eyebrow-twitching horror as Zuko smiled at Aang and said: "This is how they fold steel to make swords."
And Aang said: "What, in a frying pan?"
"Hey, Toph, the hole is gone," the Duke said, pointing.
Toph instantly brought her legs together. Her ears pinked. "You don't say."
"Did you fix them yourself?" Teo asked.
"I'll bet you got Katara to help you," Haru said.
Toph drew her knees to her chin and hugged them. "What does it matter? Who cares about some hole?"
"You wouldn't get holes in your pants if you didn't sit like a boy all the time," Katara said. Her jaws instantly snapped shut. Did I just say that? I sound like Master Pakku! What am I doing?
Toph turned to Katara, her eyes milky-blind but her gaze unerring. Her lip curled. "Don't even start with me, Sugar Queen," she said. "I've had enough of your crap."
Katara dropped her chopsticks. They clattered in the bowl. "Excuse me?"
"You've been weird since we got here, and I'm tired of it. Everyone is. You've been nothing but suspicious and petty about Zuko, and it's not helping."
Her mouth fell open. "Petty? Did you just call me petty?"
Zuko took a step forward. "Toph-"
Toph snapped her fingers. "Shut it, Sparky. You're not the only one she talks down to."
"Talks down to? I don't talk down to you, Toph, I-"
"You do so, and you like it," Toph said. "You like being everyone's mom. It makes you feel special. And now you're all mad because Zuko knows how to do stuff that you can do too. You're mad because you know he can beat you."
"Toph, Zuko is not a better bender than I am-"
"Oh, sure, that's why he whipped you during your last two fights," Toph said. "Because you're better than he is."
Zuko transferred the frying pan from Aang's hand to the floor. He crossed to Toph and took her by the collar, the way he had when he'd stolen Aang. "I am not a better bender than Katara," he said. "Katara's bending can heal people. Mine can't do anything like that."
"But you can re-direct-"
Zuko pinched Toph's lips shut with thumb and forefinger. "You and I have to talk," he said, and he marched her down the hall. They all watched the pair, tall and short, Zuko's hand curled around Toph's right shoulder, Toph's feet dragging.
"She wasn't talking about bending, you know," Sokka said, and he too stood to leave.
Aang turned to her. "Katara, I know Zuko hurt you-"
"No, you don't," Katara snapped. "You didn't see him tie me to a tree. You didn't see him throw me into a glacier because I was fighting to protect you. He didn't betray you under Ba Sing Se. You weren't there. You didn't see it. You were gone."
In the corner of her eye, she saw the Duke lean over and ask Haru a question. Haru's mouth made the shapes for I don't think so, but he shrugged. "What?" Katara asked. "What did he ask you? What are you talking about?"
"Nothing," Haru said. "Don't worry." But he was blushing under his moustache, and Katara could guess what the question had been. For some reason, she thought of Jet.
Katara thought she was getting better about navigating. She thought she was finally getting to know this place. But at night, with the shadows all turned around and the stone that looked the same -- honestly, how many flying bison sculptures had she passed already? -- she had no clue how to get back to her room.
"Lost?" someone asked behind her, and she froze. That voice. Funny, how it rasped: like he'd broken it permanently one day, like he'd screamed it all out and spoke only with the quiet echo what should have been a normal boy's tones.
"It's okay," he said. "It's…It's easy to get lost."
"I am not lost."
"What helped me was-"
"I told you, I don't need help!"
She turned to face him and he grabbed her wrists, a strange echo of that night -- was it really only seven months ago? -- and she felt the strength in his fingers like before, the way he could probably break her bones just by squeezing if he really wanted. He could probably feel her pulse. He could probably feel her breathing. Her eyes fixed on his chapped lips and the single shaking line they made. She swallowed. He turned her around but kept his grip. He leaned down and it was too much, it was too similar, his voice in her left ear and his breath on her neck: "Port," he said. He moved to her right ear. "Starboard."
Katara took a deep breath. "That means that in front of us, that's the bow."
"That's right," he said in her ear. "That's where the water is."
The fountain. Of course. She could think of the two halves of the Temple on either side of the fountain as two ships about to pass one another. If she pictured them that way, the whole layout made more sense. Up and down didn't matter so much; the floors became decks on very tall, deep ships. And she'd been on plenty of ships before.
"That…" she began to say, turning, but he was gone. "Zuko?" she asked the shadows, but no answer came.
For the next whole day, she saw neither Zuko nor Toph. They came out just before dinner carrying a basket full of smooth, egg-shaped stones. "Toph, I know you love a good rock, but this is a little much," Sokka said, hefting one in his hand.
"Hey, I've seen these before," Aang said, picking up another. "You boil them. Then you can wrap them up and put them between sheets when it gets cold."
"They're yours," Zuko said.
Aang frowned. "Uh, Zuko, it's the summer…"
"You can practice heating them up."
"And when you're done, they make a great massage tool!" Toph picked one up and tossed it. "Who would have thought that two of my favorite things could come together so neatly?"
"You can make them colder with your waterbending too, Aang," Zuko said. "It's easier than ice if your joints get inflamed."
Katara almost asked him what was so wrong with ice, but Sokka said: "What, like Aang is gonna get arthritis anytime soon?" He instantly bent double and mimed a walking-stick. "In my day," said Sokka in an old man voice, "we had to fight the Fire Lord uphill both ways!"
"In the snow," Aang said.
Toph lifted a foot. "With no shoes on!"
For some reason, they all found this hysterical. Even Zuko sort of laughed -- it was more a tucking of his chin into his neck, his shoulders shaking. Toph pointed at him. "Do the Iroh voice!"
Zuko's unmarked ear pinked. He coughed. "No."
"You can do an Iroh voice?" Aang asked.
"He does a great Iroh voice," Toph said.
"I do not."
"Do you do any others?" Sokka asked. "Ty Lee, maybe?"
Zuko paled. "Um…"
"Do it! Do it!"
Zuko bent and placed his palms on the floor. He seemed to roll somehow, and then his feet were in the air and he said: "Azula's just jealous 'cause boys like me better," in a high, bright voice. Then he somersaulted back to the floor.
"That is so awesome!" Sokka said, clapping. "Do your sister!"
Zuko's eyes popped. "I mean, do an impression of your sister," Sokka added.
Looking at the floor, Zuko stood. Then his whole body seemed to change; he stood taller and threw back his shoulders before speaking in an eerily-high, sweet voice: "I am not jealous, Ty Lee. Circus freaks like you have nothing for Fire Princesses like me to be jealous of."
"It's, like, so scary and so funny at the same time," Sokka said, enthralled.
"Do the Iroh voice," Aang said.
Sighing, Zuko placed one arm behind his back and held up his other finger. "Girls, the key to a man's heart is not in his eyes, it is in his stomach!" This he punctuated with a very false, rough laugh and a patting motion on his belly.
"It's uncanny," Sokka said. "You should be an actor!"
"Do the Fire Lord," Aang said. "Do Ozai."
Zuko looked away. He made fists. Well, one good turn deserves another. "Aang, don't," she said.
"What? I want to learn about Ozai."
"And making fun of him is an excellent educational tool," Sokka said. "Go on, Sparky, show him Ozai."
Zuko licked his lips. "You want to see Ozai?" Aang nodded. "Fine." And then Zuko whirled his arms -- his right arm clock-wise, his left counter-clockwise -- and a spark of blue light seemed to fizzle between them and for one terrible moment Katara thought of Azula, before lightning shot clear of Zuko's two fingers and off into the mist. Very far away, on the other side of the divide, Katara heard rocks crumbling down and birds shrieking.
"That's Ozai," Zuko said, and left.
Katara looked at the single bowl of food left. The other boys were eyeing it. Finders keepers. She turned to Toph. "Toph, do you want to take Zuko his dinner?"
"Can't," Toph said. "Too blind."
Katara winced. "Aang?"
"Too full," the Avatar said, flopping down dramatically on the floor and miming a huge belly.
Katara rolled her eyes. "Fine." She got to her feet and made a show of straightening her dress. "Guess I'll just do it myself, then."
Haru piped up: "Katara, I could-"
"No, no, Haru, it's fine. I'll do it."
She closed her fingers around the bowl and made for Zuko's room. He sat on his bed against the wall with a shirt in his hands. It was his own shirt; he wore only the outer vest and she could see what the clothes had kept covered in their other encounters: the shoulders like coiled rope, a fading bruise in a rough circle-shape shadowing his ribs. As she watched him, he inserted a needle through the shirt, pulled it away, then repeated the motion.
Zuko froze. He put aside the shirt and stood. "What do you want?"
She pushed into the room and made straight for the shirt. "You sew?"
He shut his eyes. "I mend things. I don't sew."
"Mending is sewing, Zuko. You were sewing. I saw you." She pointed at him. "You sewed Toph's clothes! You were the one who fixed them!"
He looked at a space just past her right shoulder. "So what if I did?"
"I just…I had no idea!"
She looked around the room. He kept it with military precision. A picture of his uncle hung on one wall, the twin blades near the bed. A dagger she didn't recognize poked out from under the pillow. And there beside the shirt was a tiny blue silk sewing kit with a group of needles all in a row. "When did you learn to sew?"
"It's not sewing. It's just…fixing things."
"What, is there something wrong with sewing? Is it not manly enough for the Fire Prince?"
His knuckles whitened. "I'm not the Fire Prince any more." Pushing air past his teeth, he sat down on the bed and picked up the shirt. "And I learned to mend my own clothes when I was with my uncle."
"You mean when you were chasing us?"
"When Azula was chasing me."
"Oh. So when you started growing your hair."
He shrugged, and began working the needle again. "Is that my dinner?"
Belatedly, she looked at the bowl of food and held it out. "Yes. You should eat it before it gets cold."
"I'm a firebender. My food doesn't get cold." He leaned forward, took the bowl from her hands, and blew on it. A small hint of orange flame emitted from his lips; the onions in his food caramelized gently.
Katara threw herself on the bed. "Do you have to be so good at everything?"
He frowned. "Excuse me?"
"All everyone talks about now is how good you are at things. What a great teacher you are. How you can just go out and get food. You can make Sokka laugh. I can't make Sokka laugh, unless he's laughing at me. You even sew Toph's clothes! That used to be my job!" She looked at her hands. "And you can bend lightning. I thought only your sister could do that."
"It runs in our family," Zuko said. "My father can do it. I can do it. My sister can do it." He looked at the portrait. "My uncle taught me and I'll teach Aang."
For a moment, he sounded a little like her dad. Her dad used to say things like that to Sokka about fishing or hunting or building tents. With her dad, learning was like moving up and down on the decks of a ship: first level, second level. Her mother was the opposite -- Katara didn't remember learning anything, just being asked to help. And then one day she wasn't helping, she was doing, because there was no else to do it.
"My mother showed me how to sew," she said. "Our needles are made of bone, though."
He gave her a half-glance, like he didn't want to look directly at her. "My father… Before I left, my father said that my mother was alive. Not that I was lying, before! Just that I, um, didn't know… He didn't tell me. No one told me. She was banished. Just like I was. She and I have that in common."
"Your dad banished your mom? Why?"
"Dad said she was a traitor." He spat the word. "But she was only trying to protect me. Fire Lord Azulon wanted me dead! And so she suggested that Dad get rid of Azulon -- his own father -- instead. And he did! But he banished her anyway!"
Wow. Toph was right. His family is messed-up. Way more messed-up than we thought. It's a miracle he's not just plain crazy.
"And now you know how insane my family is, you probably don't want me anywhere near Aang," Zuko said. The shirt had gone taut in his hands, the steaming bowl of food forgotten between them.
Katara sighed. "That's Aang's decision." She frowned. "You knew your mother was alive and you came to find us anyway?"
"My place is with you," he said. He stiffened. "With your group, I mean. With the Avatar."
She nodded, then looked at the food. "Aren't you going to eat? I had to pry this away from that flock of vulture-wasps out there."
"Oh. Right. Thank you." He put down the shirt and picked up the bowl. Katara snatched up the shirt and began examining the stitches. "Hey!"
"Your sewing really needs work," she said. "Look how big these stitches are!"
"Well, your cooking really needs work! It's bland and flavorless!"
"Oh, I suppose I should make it extra spicy for Fire Nation Man over here!"
He frowned. "Fire Nation Man?"
"Earth Rumble Six. You weren't there. And I'm not going to burn out everyone's tongues just to make you happy."
"I don't want you to burn anyone! Just stop adding so much salt!"
"Oh, so you think you can out-cook me, now? I don't see you with an apron on!"
"I left it in Ba Sing Se!"
Katara made a noise halfway between a giggle and a snort. "You had an apron?"
"It was part of my uniform!"
She suddenly felt very much like an owl-cat who had spotted a particularly tasty-looking polar mouse. "Uniform?"
Zuko rubbed the back of his neck. "I… My uncle and I… We worked in a tea shop."
Several images collided within Katara's mind. Among them were dainty little rice cakes covered in sugared cherry blossoms, delicate teacups painted in gold flowers, and elegant tea whisks with lacquered turtle-duck shell handles. At the center of these images was Zuko, his hair in its old severe topknot, his scar an angry red, wearing his prickly Fire Nation armor under a very fetching lace apron.
She promptly fell to the floor laughing.
"That's… that's the best thing ever," she said between gasps. "That's better than Aang wearing Avatar Kyoshi's big old shoes! That's better than Sokka wearing Suki's makeup!"
"I'm glad you find it so amusing." He leaned over. "Did you say that your brother wore makeup?"
And for some reason -- maybe his curiosity, maybe his expression, maybe his timing -- this ignited another firestorm of giggles inside her. The laughter just bubbled out. She couldn't stop it even if she wanted to. It and the tension of the past few days drained away from her until she was curled in a happy little ball looking at the way her hair seemed to have already attracted hundred-year-old dust bunnies from under the bed.
"Next you'll tell me you know how to cut hair," she said.
"Of course I know how to cut hair. You take a knife to it and you cut it. Simple." He folded his arms. "Too simple for you, apparently; you haven't cut yours in months."
She sat up on her elbows. "I have so."
"You have not. That braid was between your shoulders before. Now it hangs down closer to your-" He looked away. "It's longer."
"And it's not in a braid any longer, genius."
"I know that! Women don't wear braids." His face met his palm. "I mean, braids are for little girls. I mean, um…you look different."
"You should have seen my Fire Nation clothes. They were plenty different."
Zuko peeked out from between his fingers. "Fire Nation clothes?"
"This silk robe thing. It. Well, it was in two parts, actually, so technically they were a them, not an it. But I think we still have them. You know, for disguises?"
He blinked. "Your brother let you out in…?"
"Sokka doesn't let me do anything, Zuko. He stopped pulling that big brother stuff when I became a bending master. Hey, where are you going?"
Zuko was on his feet and moving down the hall. "Hey, we're not done!" Katara called.
"Your brother and I are having a talk!"
She formed an amplifier with her hands. "A manly-man talk about tea and makeup?"
"Yes! And you're not invited!"
"I'm still mad at you! Just because I don't get lost any longer doesn't mean you just get to walk away from me!"
"And I'll put as much damn salt in the food as I like!"
"Go right ahead!" He turned a corner.
The next day, Sokka approached her with his best You're gonna hate me now, but in the long run you'll thank me look. "So, Sparky and I got to talking last night…"
"Well…apparently your uh, dress thing, it's only for uh…single Fire Nation girls."
"I am a single girl, Sokka. What's your point?"
"Well, uh… Sparky says it's more for the kind of single girl who wants to, um, not be so single any more."
"Does Sparky think my Fire Nation clothes are too provocative, Sokka?"
"No, no! Nothing like that! He told me so. But he said something about how, if the dress is in two pieces, you can see whether or not a woman has had a baby, and-"
"Stretch marks? This whole thing is about stretch marks?"
"Uh, something like that, I don't know, but it, uh, means that you'll attract a lot of attention. So, we decided that-"
A horrible thought occurred to her. "Oh, no. Tell me you didn't."
"Katara, we only wanted-"
But she was already running in the direction of Zuko's room. She skidded to a halt just outside his closed door. Without bothering to knock, she yanked it open and shrieked at the sight before her: Zuko, her old enemy, with her clothes strewn across his lap, a needle in his right hand, an expression of quiet contentment on his face. "Sewing is so relaxing," he said, an odd little smile on his face. "I think I'm really getting better at it."