Sequel to "Mending" -- Part Two of the "Three Chores" series
Summary: He slices. He dices. He's the one appliance your kitchen can't do without. (Zuko, Katara, and a cooking battle.)
Disclaimer: ATLA is the property of VIACOM and Nickelodeon. No profit is made by this story.
Notes: I want to thank everyone for their support of "Mending." I was utterly surprised and pleased by the strong response that it received. Thank you! I hope you find this story just as enjoyable. Please let me know what you think.
It started, as these things do, with an explosion.
The blast rocked a distant, deep tower of the Western Air Temple. Katara looked up and saw smoke billowing from one of the old gardens. She let her water whip splash down to the stones below and started running. Her feet skidded on the gritty stairwells and she scraped her nails on the rugged walls. Please let it not be Azula. Please let it not be Azula. She arrived at the garden, heart in her throat, water whip already summoned, its outermost edge frozen into a club --
-- and saw the boys, all of them, coughing and wiping soot from their faces. A cooking pot -- her best cooking pot -- sat smoldering over a still-blazing fire. A musky, spicy, vinegary smell wafted away with the smoke. Her eyes stung.
"So," Sokka said, licking his fingers, "we've established that fermented natto-beans do, in fact, explode." He pointed at Haru. "You owe me ten gold pieces!"
Haru coughed. "Ten?! You said five!"
Aang waved his hands. "Guys, guys-"
"What is going on here?"
In unison, the boys straightened and looked at the floor. They took a collective step backward; she even heard the squeak of Teo's wheels as they ground across the stone. "Oh, hi, Katara," Aang said in his best peacemaker voice. "We were just, um, working on some homemade blasting jelly."
Her internal temperature dropped several degrees. "Blasting jelly?" She looked at Zuko. "Blasting jelly? Aren't you supposed to be training him?"
Sokka stepped forward. "We're going to need weapons-"
"Shut up, Sokka; I wasn't talking to you!"
"Hey, wait a second-"
But she only had eyes for Zuko. "Do you have any idea how dangerous this is? What were you thinking? Aang could have hurt himself!"
Aang piped up. "Katara, it's fine-"
"No, it's not! He could have burned you!"
The garden went very still and quiet. She heard the distant rush of water and the mournful cry of a lone bird circling the temple. A warm breeze drifted over her skin. She felt as though her words had unlocked a secret room somehow, one in which the boys all stared at Zuko and waited, breath held, for him to respond. She directed her stare at him, too. He radiated tension. Something flickered there behind his eyes, just a trace of the boy who used to chase them, the one who had tied her to a tree and thrown her into a glacier, the one who sided with Azula. He swallowed, started to speak-
"Actually," the Duke said, one tentative finger raised, "the blasting jelly was-"
"It was my idea," Zuko said.
Sokka's jaw dropped. His wide eyes roved from the Duke to Zuko to Katara before finally alighting on Aang. The Avatar shrugged. Katara huffed. She crossed her arms. "Well, it was a bad idea."
"No, it wasn't," Sokka said, looking quickly at the Duke, who seemed to have shrunk into the aft seat of his and Teo's modified glider. "It was a great idea, and I don't know what your problem is, Little Miss Fussybritches."
"I heard that," Toph said, her face appearing as she poked her head down from an upper level of the tower. Her hair hung down in front of her sightless eyes. "No one gets to use that name but me, you know!"
"Oh, what, you're gonna get it patented, now?"
"It would serve you right!" She snapped her fingers. She jabbed her finger into empty air. "Sparky! Quit playing tea party with those losers and come up here and help me!"
Katara saw him look upward and bite back a sharp reply. "Fine."
Aang fluttered after him. "I'll help-"
Zuko made a half turn. "No, Aang. You stay here."
"Stay." Zuko edged past them. He came within a hair's breadth of touching her; he seemed absurdly warm, almost feverish, and he smelled of garlic and pepper. She heard him make his way up the stairs. She was vaguely aware of Sokka leaning close to her and saying something about apologizing.
"Why should I apologize to him? He could have really hurt Aang!"
"Not Zuko, the Duke!"
Katara frowned. "Huh?" She turned and saw only the boy's over-sized helmet; the Duke himself had frozen behind Teo -- who glared at her from beneath his goggles with pure, unadulterated disapproval. Her heart sank. Zuko had covered for the kid. And she had gone for it. And the Duke had let him, because he was scared. Of her. Way to go, Katara. Maybe tomorrow you can start stomping on polar mice.
That night, it rained. She hated the rain. It wasn't as pretty as snow, and it made her hair go all fuzzy and wild, like an old woman's. Like Hama's. Moreover, the boys seemed to like lightning: another flash knifed through the sky and they all crowed and started counting One Omashu, two Omashu, three Omashu until the thunder came.
Only Toph seemed to have an appropriate fear of the storm. She stayed with back and feet firmly planted against stone, her steaming bowl of soup clutched in white-knuckled fingers. "Where's Sparky?"
"Missing dinner," Katara said. "More for us, I guess."
"I… I guess he doesn't worry too much about the lightning."
"I don't," Zuko said from the shadows. Without so much as looking at Katara, he strode into the cooking area, took note of the boys standing looking at the rain, and bent down to give Toph a small, reddish fruit. He gently pried the fingers of one hand away from her bowl and rested the fruit there.
"What's this?" Toph asked, sniffing it.
"Dragon-heart," he said. He set a whole sack of them down. "No, don't bite it; I'll peel it for you."
"I can peel it myself! I have fingernails, you know."
"No, you don't. They're all ragged. " He pulled a dagger from his belt and unsheathed it. His eyes lingered on something engraved in the hilt, then he flipped it over and began working the fruit against the blade.
Talk to me. Say something. Start something. Stop ignoring me. Zuko lifted his head just in time to see Aang bound through the air. Aang plundered the sack immediately: "Dragon-hearts! I haven't eaten these in a hundred years!"
"Tell me that's a special kind of meat," Sokka said, wandering over and scratching his belly. The others followed.
"It's a special kind of fruit," Aang said. "They're only ripe for about a week. When they fall, it's already too late. But if you pick them too early, they're really bitter."
"Oh, maiden-hearts," Haru said, picking one up. He tossed it in the air, bounced it off his bicep, and back into his hand. "That's what they're called where I'm from. Because the fruit is so, uh, delicate." The earthbender took a silent step away from Katara.
"Yeah, that's a way better name," Sokka said, already plunging his thumb into the fruit and peeling away. "Oh man, look at all this juice! It's gonna stain!"
"Since when have you worried about stains, Sokka?"
The group froze as Katara walked over. She bent down and rooted in the bag. Retrieving some fruit, she gave Zuko her best arched eyebrow. "Is this your idea of dessert?"
"It's great!" Toph said, before Zuko could answer. She smiled up at everyone, red juices dribbling from both corners of her mouth. "It's so juicy!"
"Toph, you look like a clown," Sokka said.
"And that's a bad thing because…?"
"See, there are advantages to blindness; you've never seen a clown…" Sokka bit into his fruit. "Oh, wow, these are great! Katara, you gotta try this!"
He held out half the fruit. Reluctantly, Katara took it in her hands. It really did seem to bleed -- the juice was already all over her fingers -- and it had four chambers, just like a real heart. Carefully, she slid a fingernail inside the pith and wiggled a fragile portion loose from the peel. She popped it into her mouth. Zuko peered up at her from his position on the floor. Flavor exploded inside her mouth -- sweet and tart and what sunlight should taste like. It tingled down her tongue and into her throat. Pretend you don't like it. Pretend it's not the sweetest thing you've ever tasted. Pretend you couldn't spend a whole day eating these.
"It's…" She swallowed. "It's a little acidic, for my taste."
Toph's sightless eyes popped. "Is your tongue broken?"
"No, it's just been ruined by too much salt," Zuko said, reaching into the bag.
The whole crowd laughed. Katara's mouth fell open. "I can't believe you just said that out loud," Sokka said, clutching his stomach.
Katara's mouth worked. Her eyebrow twitched. Why was everyone laughing? "Is my food really salty?"
"Yes," the group chorused.
She resisted the urge to actually stamp her foot. "Why didn't anybody say anything?"
"I just thought extra salt was part of your culture," Aang said.
"Part of Gran-Gran's culture, maybe," Sokka said. "I love her, but the old lady can't taste anything anymore."
"I thought you liked it when I made Gran-Gran's recipes!"
"Water Tribe food is weird," Toph said, her mouth full. "You guys eat stewed kumquats."
"Sea prunes!" Sokka and Katara corrected her.
Haru winced. "Sea prunes?"
"Do they explode?" Teo asked.
"Only in your digestive tract," Aang muttered.
Zuko looked mildly horrified. "She made you two eat sea prunes?" A disgusted little shudder reverberated through him. "My uncle Iroh made me try those. Ugh."
Katara folded her arms. "Let me guess, was that when you were on your grand tour of the South Pole?"
"No," Zuko said, his voice hardening, "it was when we were too poor to eat anything else."
"They do get served a lot on the prison ships," Haru said. "At least, I think those were ocean kumquats…"
"Sea prunes!" Sokka and Katara repeated.
"Either way, they were awful," Haru said. He sucked juice off the fruit in his hand. Drops of it stuck in his mustache. "Not like this, though! Thanks for getting these!"
Sokka raised his hand. "Zuko's in charge of groceries from now on; all in favor say aye."
Katara's hands met her hips. "Oh, and I suppose you want our resident tea-and-custard expert to be in charge of cooking all this fabulous new food, too?"
"Tea and custard?" Teo asked.
"He worked in a teashop! He knows nothing about preparing meals for a group this size!"
"I like custard," the Duke said.
"Me too," Aang said. "And fruit pies. I miss fruit pies."
"You worked in a teashop?"
"Sparky likes playing tea party," Toph said, snickering.
Zuko's eyes found hers. "I've never made food for other people, just myself."
"See? I told you guys. He doesn't know how-"
"Which doesn't mean I wouldn't like to try," Zuko said.
The conversation died. Wind groaned through the temple. Katara suddenly felt the chill of the rain. "Uh, I think he just challenged you, sis," Sokka said.
"Yes, I did." Zuko stood. "We each prepare a meal. We see who likes which best."
"Oh yeah? And what do I get if I win?"
"What do you want?"
Katara opened her mouth. Nothing came out. She pointed. Still nothing. "I want…" What did she want? It was so easy to think about these things when Zuko was doing something wrong, not when he was offering to do something nice! She chose something Sokka used to trick her with when they were little: "I want you to be my slave for a day!"
"Done. And if I win, you stop picking fights with me. For good."
"I'll drink to that," Sokka said, squeezing fruit juice into his mouth.
"Seconded," Haru said, following suit.
"Uh…agreed." Katara squinted at Zuko. He smiled back -- his odd little smile, the one that didn't quite belong on his face yet and still looked too new -- and settled down beside Toph. The earthbender stuck a dragon-heart peel in her mouth and smiled around it. Zuko laughed. And from way down deep in Katara's gut came a little voice that sounded an awful lot like Master Pakku's, and it said she might have just been outmaneuvered.
Katara's suspicion grew as the days passed. They had agreed that three days would be enough to plan a spectacular meal based on the local ingredients. (She had made sure to scoff, saying that she could come up with what she needed in only a day.) But on the morning of the first day, as she stirred congee with just the barest hint of bending, several things occurred to her. First, Zuko knew the local food. He knew the flora, the fauna (not that fauna counted, what with Aang not eating meat), and what tasted best during which season. Besides, he had lived with his old uncle -- and that guy clearly liked to eat. And Zuko had probably eaten all kinds of fancy food when he was still a prince. For a moment her mind entertained a vision of a single long table overburdened with delicacies on golden platters, tiny jewel-like portions of fish alongside sizzling cuts of tender meat. She imagined fluffy custards with glittering crusts of caramelized sugar, the sort that crackled and shattered under the slightest pressure only to collapse utterly in the mouth, sweeter than a dragon-heart, sweeter than-
Her stomach growled.
"Are we eating anytime soon?" Zuko shouted from a far corner of the open-air chamber. He and Aang were mid push-up, both shirtless. Toph sat cross-legged on Zuko's back.
"We won't be any closer if you keep stinking up the place!" Katara said, and gave the congee an especially violent whisk. "You're putting me off my food!"
Zuko muttered something to Toph and she slid off him obediently. Why is she always so good for him? He and Aang each took a stance near the fountain, drew circles in the air, and kicked elegantly toward the water steadily streaming down from above. Instantly, it began to steam. Aang leaped high in the air and split the hot water into a rainy shower; Zuko ducked in under it. Toph jumped away but Zuko grabbed her by the collar and forced her in under the water. She squealed and laughed, kicking big splashes of water at his pants. In a moment they were all thoroughly soaked. Aang shouted "Hey, no fair!" and added waterbending to the splash-war. Water rode up over the lip of the pool and scattered across the stones. "No cheating!" Zuko said, covering his face with his hands as Aang lashed him with gentle water-whips. Toph stomped down into the stone and rooted Zuko in place; he was helpless to Aang's playful onslaught.
It used to be like that for me, too. It used to be fun. When did it stop being fun? The last time she had tried to have fun, she wound up in a wooden cage with Toph. She frowned, watching as Toph cackled and Aang splashed and Zuko protested. When was the last time she and Aang had laughed together? It had to have been before the eclipse. But when? She couldn't even remember.
Well, aside from the whole Dancing Dragon thing. But that was still laughing at Zuko. And that was the only kind of laughter she seemed capable of, these days. But before -- just a few months ago -- there had been penguin-sledding and the slides at Omashu and even her bouts with Master Pakku. There had been Aang in Avatar Kyoshi's big old shoes. There were spa trips with Toph and washing those nasty, mean girls downriver. There had been laughter. There had been fun.
Even Aang's crazy dance party wasn't as fun as it could have been. She had worked for hours on that party. Parties were only truly fun if you weren't doing all the work. She'd learned that the first time she helped Gran-Gran prepare a wedding feast. And dancing with Aang -- showing off with Aang, really -- was less fun when your feet ached and you had to light a million tiny candles by hand. Now, if Aang had figured out how to firebend earlier-
"Hey, what's that smell?" Sokka leaned into the chamber, nose in the air. "Something burning?"
Katara coughed. The smell of blackened rice hit her nostrils. "Damn it!" Sokka's palm met his face, and he wandered off in the other direction bemoaning his empty stomach.
Toph let Zuko free and he stepped out of the water. The drops evaporated off his shoulders and arms as he walked. His pants steamed dry as he stood. Couldn't he at least put a shirt on? "You burned our breakfast?"
"It's okay, Katara," Aang said.
"No it isn't," Toph said, slogging her way out of the pool in sodden clothes. "I'm starving, and now I'm cold, too!"
"Do you need more food?" Zuko asked, shaking his hair dry.
Katara scowled. "Oh…just get Toph dry, will you? She'll catch a cold."
Zuko shrugged and turned his attention to Aang. "Go for it."
"No problem." Aang lifted himself into the air, pulled at various invisible threads of wind, and spun them like a child's toy. As his toes hit the floor, he sent the twisting air straight at Toph. It danced around Toph for just a moment. She emerged dry and unscathed, with hair sticking up in all directions.
Zuko started smoothing down her hair, but she batted his hands away: "I can do it myself!"
"Hey, how do I do the steam thing?" Aang asked.
"Um…take a deep breath and pretend you're a teapot."
As Aang frowned and tried to make himself into a piece of cookware, Katara quirked an eyebrow at Zuko. "'Pretend you're a teapot?' What's next, 'be the wise rolling pin'?"
"No, what's next is 'be the empty bowl, so that you might actually get fed.'" Zuko frowned into the pot of crackling, sticky rice, and shook his head. "Aang. Let's hardboil some eggs."
And that was really the first meal he made for them, in a roundabout way, since it was Aang making the water bubble and Aang bending the eggs free of the pot, but it was Zuko looking on, arms crossed, his eyes following each movement. It was Zuko who taught him how. It was Zuko who kept the fire burning.
"You know what would improve these?" Zuko asked as he peeled the shell away from his second egg. "Some salt."
The salt cellar hit him smack in the forehead.
Finally, the night of the cooking battle -- it could be nothing less than a battle, Katara had decided -- arrived. There was a beautiful sunset, the chirping of evening birds, the smell of summer blossoms on the air. Katara barely noticed. Her preparations for the battle had included allowing the laundry and other tasks to pile up over the past three days. Each time she left them behind to forage for new and exciting ingredients, she happily pictured Zuko drowning in domestic labor and begging for her help.
Her plan of attack was simple. She would prepare one new vegetarian dish for Aang, one fish dish for the others, and a sweet dessert from thickened and reduced dragon-heart juice drizzled over ice of her own bending. Meats and sweets -- the keys to her boys' hearts. She laid out all of her ingredients on her side of the kitchen area: eggs, mushrooms, kecap-manis (what little they had left), breaded fish, simmering oil, dragon-hearts. Her dishes were clean and spotless, if a little worn. She had the amounts measured to the last detail. There was no way she could lose; Zuko was out of his league.
Or so she thought, until Zuko and Toph marched in bearing piles of meat, vegetables, and fruit on brand-new, sparkling platters. Zuko wore his swords. He carried a single plate of metal -- Katara thought she recognized the wreckage of a Fire Nation vehicle. He set it down over his fire pit, and smiled.
Katara pointed. "Where did you get those new dishes? Did you steal them?"
"Toph made them," Zuko said. "She bent mud into the right shape and I fired them."
"Dude, you make pottery now?" Sokka asked. "Could you be more of a girl?"
"Oh shut it, Snoozles," Toph said. "I'm not the one who gets all excited when beans explode."
"You had help!" Katara protested. "You didn't say we could have help!"
"He didn't say you couldn't, though," Toph said, grinning. Zuko had the grace to look sheepish.
Katara turned on Toph. "This was your idea, wasn't it? You-"
"Less fighting, more eating," Sokka said. He pulled a gold piece from one sleeve and tossed it in the air. "Call it."
"Flame," Zuko said quickly.
Katara growled. "Sozin."
The piece came down on Sokka's palm and he flipped it over on the back of his other hand. He revealed it: "Zuko, you're up."
Zuko rose from his kneeling position and stood. He saluted, and cleared his throat. "Um, it's a little dark in here. You guys should, uh, get low."
Frowning, the crowd ducked down. Zuko braced his feet, pointed his fingers, and began shooting little darts of flame into the higher recesses of the temple. The flames found their targets and small sconces positioned in the rafters blazed with new life. The room filled with light. The mosaic -- bison chasing each other across a brilliant blue sky -- glittered, suddenly illuminated. In the flickering light, the bison seemed to truly move.
"Whoa," Haru said, staring upward.
"Yeah," Teo agreed. "Whoa."
That's beautiful. Katara firmed her resolve. It's also cheating. She cleared her throat. Zuko startled, and she directed his gaze to the food. "Right," he said. "Well, um, I'm only really good at two things, so…" He unsheathed the swords and balanced them on the makeshift worktop. Steadying himself, he began a dizzying flurry of movement: the swords sliced effortlessly through meat and vegetables and fruit with a distinct clatter. The boys' eyes grew round. She watched him set aside vegetables and fruit, flipping each slice with the broad side of his sword and making them dance across the blades. Katara found herself leaning forward as he brandished a group of skewers from a kerchief, speared the mixture with one hand, and slathered it with some sort of sauce with what appeared to be an old calligraphy brush. Fanning the skewers in one fist, he breathed deep and blew fire at them. The sauce caramelized instantly. The smell of charring meat wafted her way.
Sokka's eyes seemed to have gone quite large. They glistened. "Meat… on sticks!"
Zuko handed Aang a vegetarian skewer, Sokka one with meat only, and Toph and the Duke one with meat, vegetables, and fruit. He quickly created three more, and handed two off to Haru and Teo. He held the last out for her. Katara gingerly gripped the skewer between thumb and forefinger. She bit into the meat carefully. Juice spattered across her lips. Black bits of carbonized meat smeared across her face. Her tongue sneaked out to catch them.
Oh, this is good. This is really good. Nothing Zuko makes should ever be this good. She had expected his food to be hot or bitter or sour. She had expected to wrinkle her nose and pucker her lips. She hadn't expected sweetness. This was the warm, good kind of spicy, the mellow kind, the kind that snuck up on your tongue and left gentle waves of heat in the belly like the ripples created by a serpent under water.
Her eyes opened and Zuko was staring at her mouth. He raised his good eyebrow. "Happy?"
Her mouth full, she could only nod. The tension seemed to drain out of him, and his shoulders fell. He speared himself some food, blasted fire at it, and started eating. He chewed thoughtfully before saying: "I used too much honey."
"Where did you get honey?"
She frowned. "You went to a beehive?"
"Where else do they live?"
"You reached inside a beehive?"
A greasy little smirk lit his face. "I don't like to lose." He nodded at her food. "Your turn."
Katara set her skewer aside, squared her shoulders, and stood. The crowd before them continued munching happily. The Duke now wore a glossy brown smile of smeared sauce. Katara couldn't help but smile. "Hi, everbody," she said. They ignored her. She grimaced. "Hey!"
"Huh, what? Oh." Sokka paused his ruthless devouring of the meat skewer and said: "Okay, Katara's up."
Aang waved a little blue flag. "You can do it, Katara!"
She grinned. "Thanks, Aang." She clapped her hands together. "Tonight I'm making fried fish with sweet mushrooms, a mushroom omelet just for Aang, and dragon-hearts over ice for dessert."
"You didn't say there had to be dessert!"
Katara turned to Zuko. "But I didn't say there couldn't be, did I?"
Zuko sighed steam. He crossed his arms and looked pointedly away from her. Smiling, she bent fresh water from her skins in two ribbons and sliced the mushrooms with them. Next she lifted the water and spun the mushrooms inside the watery ball to clean them; she saw bits of dirt separate from the flesh before letting the mushrooms fall back down to the plate. Keeping one in the air, she opened her mouth to catch it-
"No!" Zuko had her by the wrist. He yanked her out of the way, caught the mushroom, stared at it, then proceeded to blow flame at all the mushrooms on the plate. He indiscriminately scorched the fish and eggs until they were just one black, oily mesh. Screeching her indignation, Katara transformed the water-ball into a whip and sent Zuko flying into the wall behind them.
"What do you think you're doing? It's bad enough you have new dishes and a fancy light show, but now you have to sabotage me?"
Zuko coughed and held up the mushroom. "This," he said, panting, "is poison."
"A likely story," Katara said, folding her arms.
Zuko slowly drew himself to his feet. "Aang. You've been here before. Tell her."
Aang stepped forward and took a look at the offending fungus. His eyebrows flew up in close proximity to his arrow. "Uh, Katara, I hate to say it, but this is death's head fungi." He held it out and pointed at the dark blotches on the mushroom cap. "See how it makes a skull?"
Katara bent down. Sure enough, if you looked at the spots just right, they formed an uneven, abstract skull-shape. "Aang, how did you know to recognize it?"
"School," Aang said. "Our teacher did a lesson on dangerous woodland plants and animals!"
"I knew school was a good idea," Sokka said, stroking the place where his fake beard used to be.
"If school were always that useful, I'd consider going," Teo said.
"Me too," said the Duke.
"So, Twinkletoes," Toph said, scratching her arm, "did your teacher say anything about the side effects of the skull-faced whatchamacallit?"
"It causes a high fever and delusions," Zuko said. He grimaced. "Also, you vomit like there's no tomorrow."
"What, you decided to sample one for yourself?" Katara asked.
"My sister slipped one into my food as a joke. I was in bed for a week."
"Good to know," Toph said, and promptly retched on the floor.
Katara's blood froze as the boys scurried away from Toph and her pool of vomit. Then, as though time had snapped back into place, she sprang into action. She bent the vomit away from Toph's mouth and guided the girl to the fountain. Toph doubled over and threw up just as they reached the water. "Breathe, Toph. Here, let's clean your mouth out."
Toph weakly took a drink from the rushing fountain and shuddered. "I feel awful…"
"It'll be okay. You'll be fine. I'm sure you just ate too fast."
Toph shook her head. "Sorry, Sugar Queen. I don't think ginger tea's going to fix this one." She held out her arm. "Is there something on my skin?"
To Katara's horror, angry red spots had risen on Toph's arm. Katara pushed the sleeve up and saw that they were on her shoulder, her back, her neck. Biting her lip, she turned to the others and pointed silently at Toph's skin. Sokka winced and Aang started biting a nail. Zuko's good eye popped and he jumped right over Teo and the Duke's glider, running straight for Toph. He took the earthbender by the shoulders. "Flowers," he said. "Did you pick flowers, today? Did you smell a strange flower you didn't recognize? Did you get pollen on you?"
"H-How would I know?" Toph asked, wriggling away. "I was in the old tea garden sculpting-"
Zuko stood and blasted a torrent of fire into the distance with a groan of frustration. He knotted his fists in his hair. "How could you be so stupid? You know you're not supposed to touch anything unless-"
"Don't call Toph stupid, she's-"
"She's blind! And now she's got white jade poisoning!"
"Is there anything in the Fire Nation that isn't poisonous?"
"The white jade bush is an Earth Kingdom plant!"
"Who cares?" Sokka pointed at Katara with one empty skewer. "Katara, you do what you can to make Toph feel better. Zuko, you go up to the tea garden and see if you're right. If you are, burn the plants."
Zuko didn't have to be told twice. He took off running. Katara turned to Toph, who lay curled in abject misery near the water. The earthbender continued scratching her arms. "It itches," she said. "It feels like it's burning under my skin!"
Katara gloved her hands in water. Soon they began to glow. She ran them up and down Toph's arm. "Is that better?"
"Yeah, thanks," Toph said. "Now, uh, could you get it to go everywhere at once?"
"I can try." She summoned more water from the fountain and swaddled Toph in it. With a greater release of energy, she pushed the water to glow and soothe the hot pinpricks on Toph's skin.
"Man," she heard Teo say as he adjusted the two-seater's position. "I'm glad he's on our side."
Katara looked up. There on a distant tower stood Zuko, his body wreathed in flame. The summer twilight made him a shadow against the dance of brilliant orange and black smoke. Sparks from the destroyed garden rose into the night air and faded away.
"It doesn't make sense," Sokka was saying. "The mushrooms make you throw up. Toph is throwing up. But she didn't eat any mushrooms. And none of us are sick."
Katara, her arms trembling from keeping the water wrapped around Toph, said tiredly: "Then it was the white jade bush."
"But Zuko says he can't be sure it was the white jade bush or the white dragon bush. He says his uncle made the same mistake."
"Which means he set fire to the garden for nothing," Aang said, staring into the fire.
"And it's not like I ate any flowers," Toph said. Her voice was a rough croak. "What does he think I am, a sheep?"
"Well if he were actually here, you could ask him." Katara let the water go. "I'm sorry, Toph. Can I just rest a minute?"
"Sure, Sugar Queen." Toph rolled over. Momo promptly jumped onto her chest and curled up there. "What did Sparky say happened to Iroh?"
"They went to a healer," Teo said.
Katara hugged her shaking arms. They felt like jelly and twitched of their own accord. "Damn it, where is he?"
"Probably finding a healer."
"Wouldn't that give away our position?" Haru asked.
"Maybe he went as the Blue Spirit," Aang said. "I mean, he can be pretty convincing, what with the swords and the mask and all."
"Maybe he ran off to find a Fire Navy camp and steal their medicine," the Duke said. "That's what Jet would do."
"Yeah, but how would he know which ones to take?" Sokka picked at his teeth with a skewer.
"You never know which ones to take," the Duke said. "That's why you grab everything you can."
"Good point, little freedom fighter," Sokka said. "Well, he's been gone forever, so he'd better come back with something useful-"
"I've got the mud," Zuko said, lugging four buckets of greenish goo. He reeked of pondscum and his clothes were caked in dirt. The others covered their noses and backed away.
"Mud?" Katara asked. "You got mud?"
"Is it at least expensive mud?" Sokka asked, holding his nose.
"It's from out there," Zuko said, pointing into the crevasse. "I had to climb down, then climb back up." He crouched with his hands on his knees. Katara heard the small bones in his spine popping. "Aang, get me a sheet. An old one."
Zuko nodded at Katara. "Get her clothes off."
Her jaw dropped. "No way! Tell me what's going on!"
Zuko sighed. "When my uncle drank the white jade tea, Song's mom covered him in green mud. This was the best I could do."
"I've got the sheet!" Aang joined Zuko. "Now what do we do?"
"Get it wet. Then spread this stuff all over it."
"Okay…" Aang diverted water from the fountain onto the sheet, spread it out, and bent mud from one bucket across it.
Zuko looked at Toph. "Have you ever eaten a cabbage wrap?"
Toph stuck her chin in the air. "Yes, blind people do occasionally eat cabbage wraps like normal folks, your highness."
Zuko winced. "I'm sorry. Okay? I got scared, and then I got angry. But now I want to make it better."
Toph crossed her arms. "Well if you think I'm getting undressed in front of you, you're crazy."
"Fine." Zuko stood and stalked away. At the arch, he turned. "Are the rest of you going to watch her change? Come on!"
"But the meat's in here," Sokka protested. "It's just Toph-"
"OUT!" Toph bellowed. Momo and the boys shrieked in unison, and vacated the premises.
"Earth," Toph said as Katara rolled her in the damp and messy sheet. "Cool, soft, squishy, muddy earth. Thank goodness."
"Does it really help?"
"Yeah, Sparky knows his stuff," Toph said. She frowned. "I don't know why he freaked out like that, though."
Katara put the finishing touches on the wrap. Mud oozed out from the seam. "Well don't ask me; nothing he ever does makes any sense." She dipped her hand in the mud. "Do you want some of this on your face, too?"
"Yeah, that would be great, thanks."
She carefully smoothed some of the mud on Toph's face. "This is like that time at the spa," she said. "Remember how you scared the attendant?"
Toph bent the mud on her face weakly. The mud made two tentacles near her eyes that danced before falling back to her face with a wet little splat. They laughed. "That was good times," Toph said. "I wish we still had time for that stuff."
"Me too." Katara sighed. She rolled up Toph's clothes and placed them under the earthbender's head as a pillow. "Maybe Zuko just worried that your welts would scar," she said, examining the slightly-swollen spots on Toph's face.
"Why should he care?"
"Because of his own scar," Katara said.
"The one on his face."
"Hey. Katara. I'm blind. Help me out, here."
"Well, it's…big," Katara said, suddenly feeling a little flustered. "And it's red-"
"I don't see color either, genius."
"I forgot, okay? It's big and it's ugly and it looks like it hurt. It covers his whole left eye from his nose all the way to his ear. He can't even open that eye all the way."
"Can he still see out of it?"
"I… I guess so. I've never asked."
"What about the ear? Does he still have it?"
"Yes. But it's small and sort of wrinkled."
Toph pursed her lips. "How did he get it?"
"I don't know. But it feels pretty old."
Toph's brows furrowed. "You touched it?"
Katara blushed. "Just once."
"When Azula threw us in prison together, under Ba Sing Se. I… I offered to try healing the scar."
"So why didn't you?"
"Aang and Iroh got there. They sort of interrupted us."
"The plot thickens."
"There's no plot to thicken! Azula showed up too, and Zuko betrayed us!"
Toph blinked. "You mean he betrayed you."
Katara stood up just as Sokka poked his head in. "Where's our little cabbage wrap?" he asked, holding out some flowers.
"She's all yours," Katara said. "Good luck. I'm done."
And she really did think she was done. Until, after a fitful two hours of non-sleep, she remembered that she had left out the pot of dragon-heart juice, and that if it hadn't been devoured by flies at this point, it might still be of some use tomorrow. Quietly, she crept out into the hall, intent on making a sneak attack on the kitchen without waking Toph. But Sokka was awake too, his body folded against one wall as he threw a ball at the other.
"Sokka? What are you doing still up?"
"I think Toph was allergic to something in Zuko's meal," he said, tossing the ball. It rebounded back to him. "It's just impossible to know what. I've gone over it in my head and that's the only explanation."
"If that's true, we'll figure something out. But you'll feel better after some rest."
"He's in there with her, right now," Sokka said, eyes on the ball. "She wanted him. Even if it was kinda his fault, she wanted him. She wants to ride on his shoulders and order him around. That used to be me, you know."
Katara frowned. "Huh?"
"I used to carry her around. I used to make her laugh." Sokka threw the ball with more force than necessary. It bounced violently off the wall and slapped his hand when he caught it. "I mean, I know I already have one mostly-normal little sister, I don't need another one, and maybe he needs her more 'cause his baby sister's a complete psycho, but…"
"You're jealous." Katara leaned against the doorframe. "You're jealous. Of Zuko."
"Oh, and you're not, Little Miss 'Getting Help Is Cheating'?" Sokka rolled his eyes and continued throwing the ball. "It's like with Aang, too. Aang and I used to have adventures. Now he and Aang have adventures. They conquered an ancient temple together! They met a lost civilization! They danced with dragons! It's not fair. You and I put in all the hard work, and now Jerkbender gets to show up and do all the fun stuff."
"But I thought you liked Zuko."
Sokka caught the ball. "That's just it. I do like him. And that's what scares me."
"Tell it again. I want the Iroh voice this time."
Katara edged into the kitchen. She heard Zuko clear his throat. He sat against the fountain. Toph still lay on the floor. "A sage, a swordsmith, and a soldier are all on a sinking ship," he said in his driest, oldest voice. Katara smiled despite herself and began carefully putting the dirty dishes into the cauldron. "The sage says 'Save the women and children!' The swordsmith says 'Screw the women and children!' And the soldier says, "Do we have time?'"
Toph laughed. "Do you know any others?"
"None that I can tell you."
"Oh, come on!"
"I spent three years with Fire Navy sailors. That is the cleanest joke I know."
"You're no fun." She sighed audibly. "Tell me a story."
"I don't know any good stories."
"Tell me something that happened to you."
"I once pretended to know how to juggle. It didn't turn out so well. The end."
"Sparky, you're not distracting me from the itching. I hate the itching."
Katara could practically hear Zuko rolling his eyes. "Fine. What do you want to know?"
"How did you get your scar?"
A long pause. "How do you know about that?"
"Katara told me."
Zuko snorted. "Figures."
"So? How did you get it? Were you fighting a dragon?"
"Stare too long into a volcano?"
"Your crazy sister used you for target practice?"
Zuko almost laughed. It came out sort of broken and weak. "Sort of."
"Hey, whoa, I was kidding-"
"It was my dad." Zuko adjusted his position. Katara crouched down to avoid being seen. There amid the ashy remnants of their dinner, she listened as hard as she could: "My dad did it. I spoke out of turn. We had a fight, and he marked me. And then I was banished."
Silence. Far away, Katara heard wind rushing through the ancient corridors of the Western Air Temple. Then Toph spoke: "…You're not lying."
"No. He said I could come back if I brought the Avatar with me. But I ended up joining him instead."
"So what happens when we go to fight your dad the next time?"
"He'll try to kill me. He tried it once. He'll try it again."
"Wait. Was that when he burned you, or some other time?"
"Another time. The day of the eclipse. He shot lightning at me."
There was a dead, hollow sound to Zuko's voice as he spoke of his father, as though Ozai weren't really related to him at all. Goosebumps rose on Katara's arms. She tried to imagine her own dad hurting her. She'd seen him get mad, seen him discipline his crew. But he was at heart a gentle person; he'd never hurt her or Sokka no matter how angry he felt. Even when her mother had died, he'd just taken long, lonely walks out on the ice, choosing to brood by himself rather than expose his children to his pain.
"What did you do?" Toph asked.
"I shot it right back."
Katara's inner voice surprised her: Good for you, Zuko. Nice work. "Did you hurt him?" Toph asked.
"I hope so."
"What about your sister? Was your dad ever mean to her?"
"No. He loves her. She's always had his approval. But that doesn't matter." A soft, gentle sweetness tinged his voice. "She's not really my sister any more."
Katara heard Toph squirm. "Well, it's all weird to me. I'm an only child. My parents had one blind kid and got too scared to have more."
"That's all right. You don't want a little brother or sister. Sokka and I both think they're a pain."
Katara bit back a sharp reply. How often did Sokka talk to Zuko about her behind her back, anyway? And hadn't Sokka just said that he missed spending time with Toph and Aang? "But Katara loves Sokka," Toph said.
"That's true. And he loves her. But Azula never cared about me."
Toph said something Katara couldn't hear. She found herself straining, leaning forward to catch it. "What was that?" Zuko asked.
"She just didn't know you," Toph said. "Sing me a song."
"I don't sing."
"Sing in the Iroh voice. I bet Iroh sings."
"Uncle Iroh does sing. He also plays musical instruments. He's a talented man." Zuko took a deep breath. "I can't believe I'm doing this."
"Believe it, Sparky."
"Fine. But don't say I didn't warn you." He cleared his throat. "Leaves from the vine/ falling so slow / like fragile tiny shells, drifting in the foam / little soldier girl, come marching home / brave soldier girl... comes marching home."
Zuko's singing was, in fact, pretty awful. His normally-raspy voice stumbled over the words and he had no sense of tune or rhythm. "That sucked," Toph said sleepily. "Don't they give princes music lessons?"
"I always skipped."
"I'm not a princess, I'm a bandit…" Toph yawned.
Zuko continued humming. Katara's thighs ached from crouching for so long. When she finally rose, the tendons clicked and she had to twist her neck to rid it of kinks. Now standing, she could see that Zuko held Toph's head in his lap, although he still kept it pillowed with her clothes. Her hair had come undone somehow and his fingers traced through it. When she moved, Zuko caught sight of her and his mouth opened. Even in the dark, she saw him blush deeply, painfully red. His mouth became a single line and turned away to scowl into the dark.
Katara picked her way to him. "I didn't mean to eavesdrop," she whispered.
"Sure you didn't."
"I think it was really sweet."
"The part about my dad burning me, or the part where I had to fight him?"
"Neither!" She gestured at Toph's sleeping head in his lap. "I think this is really…nice. Weird, but nice. Toph would never let me do this. She really cares about you."
"She just likes piggyback rides."
"Don't be stupid! There's more to it than that. She really likes you."
Zuko's good eye bugged and he stared down at the child in his lap anew. "Likes…"
"Not that kind of liking, Zuko. She doesn't have a crush on you. She's twelve."
"My girlfriend had a crush on me when she was twelve." Zuko cocked his head. He pulled two locks of hair to either side of Toph's sleeping face. "They even sort of-"
"Mai," he said. "The one with the needles."
Katara had to bite her tongue to keep from laughing. "You dated the needle girl?"
"I sort of still am. I'm not sure. I wrote her a note before I left. I said I didn't know if I was coming back."
"You broke up with her in a note?" Katara couldn't resist slapping him upside the head. Then she folded her arms. "Great. More enemies. Fantastic."
"Zuko, I can't believe you could be so stupid. You broke up with her in a note and then abandoned her! Now she's going to hunt us down with her crochet hooks of doom, or whatever they are."
"They're called senbon."
"Same difference. She's going to kill us all."
Zuko almost smiled. "I'll, uh, ask her not to."
"Well you'd better make it good! We didn't come all this way so that a woman scorned could take us all out!"
"A woman scorned. Right."
"Did you at least buy her some panda lilies before you left her hanging?"
Zuko winced. "Well, no…"
"What about sweets? Did you give her sweets?"
Katara slapped her forehead. "It's hopeless. We're going to die. Your creepy girlfriend is going to kill us in our sleep, because you suck at relationships."
"Oh yeah, and you're so great at them. Aang told me what happened on that boat, you know. What, did you think he would just forget kissing you?"
Katara's face flamed. "He told you?"
"The whole group knows how he feels! Even Toph, and she's blind!"
"Well at least I attracted the Avatar, not some ostrich-faced wannabe ninja with a psycho and a circus freak for friends!"
"He's a twelve year old boy! Are you afraid to handle a real man?"
"Absolutely not!" Katara brought her voice back down to a whisper. "I was almost… There was this other guy. And I thought he felt something for me, but he betrayed us. You'd like him, he was always switching sides and stealing things. And he had these two…" She gestured, trying to approximate Jet's use of the hooks.
The color faded from Zuko's face. "Please tell me it wasn't…"
"His name was Jet."
Zuko looked as though he wasn't sure if he should laugh or cry. "You had feelings for that hay-munching clown?"
"He was smart! And a good leader!"
"He was thief and a bully!"
"So were you!"
Katara's jaws snapped shut. She popped back up on her feet before she could think, and said: "Well, this has been interesting. You're really good with Toph, so don't screw it up." She looked around the kitchen. "And I fully expect you to help me with the laundry and the cooking tomorrow. Neither of us won the battle, so we'll just have to split the difference."
"You want to play nice? Really?" He sounded doubtful.
Katara sighed and nodded toward the kitchen. "Keep up the good work in there, and I'll think about it." Her stomach gurgled in support.
He smirked. "You really liked dinner, didn't you?"
She licked her lips. "Well, it's not seal jerky, but it'll do." She frowned. "What was in that sauce, anyway? Besides the honey, I mean."
"Spark-seed, salt, and roasted monkeytoes."
Katara sputtered. "What?"
"They're a kind of nut. They're also called coilnuts."
"Can't eat those," Toph murmured. "Mom said…"
In unison, Katara and Zuko slapped their foreheads.