Zuko never imagined that she would boil them. When he gathered the melon pods, he was only thinking about giving everyone fresh fruit.
Aang recognized them right away. "Melon pods! The monks used to eat these all the time. You have to put the whole little pod in your mouth at once. If you take a small bite out of it, you'll get juice all over the place!"
Katara wasn't going to try them. Just because Haru kept talking about the, "explosion of sweet juice" and The Duke kept reaching out for more "chewy bombs," didn't mean that she had to try something that lying backstabber picked. Sokka ranted on and on about, "Mouthfuls of gummy goodness" and tried to talk with his mouth stuffed with pods. "Deese are tho tasthy! An thicky in my teef." Katara stomped away in disgust.
As usual, Zuko rose first the next morning. He put a small handful of pods next to Katara's favorite cooking pot. She didn't need to know that he had saved them for her. He climbed up the mountainside to find a good spot to meditate in the early morning sun.
Katara found it irritating that Zuko always got up first. She was used to having some time to herself in the morning before she started making breakfast. Now she always woke to find the fire started and a hot pot of water boiling for tea. So much for relaxing while waiting for the water to boil. He was so thoughtless!
Breakfast for a group this large was always hot cereal, with fruit if they could get it. Katara found a small handful of melon pods next to her pot, and smiled. Aang was so sweet. Or maybe it was The Duke? Oh, no. Not Haru? She didn't think she could take anymore "sweet liquid" poetry from The Mustache this morning.
When the cereal was almost ready, Katara didn't think twice about adding fruit to the pot. She just grabbed the pods, and dropped them in.
Her screams echoed through the canyon. Water rose from the fountain and crashed in a heavy wave over the cooking fire, breakfast, and Katara. Aang flew to her side, leaping gracefully over the mess to see if she was ok. She didn't even look at him.
Several things happened at once:
Katara shouted, "ZUKOOOOO! Your lava bombs didn't get Aang, you spoiled, selfish, twisted, evil Aaargh! This still hurts!"
Aang backed away in fear.
Sokka arrived at her side, boomerang in hand, shouting, "What happened? Were you attacked? What's this pink stuff? You're all…sticky"
Teo and The Duke, forgetting that Katara could heal herself, rushed back to the temple to find burn cream and bandages.
Zuko ran into the camp, "Is my sister here?"
Haru just stood still, eyes wide and mouth open.
Toph fell on her ass, doubled-over with laughter. Between gasps for air, she screeched "Sugar Queen – get it?" to no one in particular.
When Katara stopped ranting long enough to coat herself with glowing water, Zuko leapt forward, shouting, "Not Water! Don't add water!" Haru chose this moment to wake up and attempted to block Zuko by sinking him three feet deep in stone.
Zuko was immediately popped out of the ground and hurled five feet toward Katar. "No you don't, Junior Stash, you're not spoiling this show," Toph smirked.
Katara's glow was fading. The sticky, pink liquid had expanded into a slimy goo that oozed from her hair to her boots. Sokka stood in front of Zuko, shouting, "Did you do this to her?"
Aang said, "No. I think she's covered in melon pod syrup. You're not supposed to cook them."
Zuko didn't argue with the water warrior. Instead, looked past Sokka's shoulder and spoke to the Avatar. "Aang, please…please take away her water!" Aang's water bending removed the water and the spilled cereal, but Katara didn't dry out.
Zuko's plea was desperate. "Katara, I never meant for anyone to get hurt – I swear, I just didn't think that you would try to cook them!" Katara would have attacked him if she could move her arms. She tried to tell Aang that it was a trap, but half of her mouth was glued shut, and when she turned her head, one of her hair loopies adhered to her shoulder.
Panic set in when she realized that her arms were completely pinned to her sides, and her dress was plastered to her body. She couldn't bend. She couldn't talk. She didn't dare move, or she would just get tangled up in herself. And the evil Fire Prince responsible for this torture was standing right next to her. Sounding sinist- …worried. He sounded worried. She must be going deaf, too.
Zuko tried to explain, "The gummy fibers expand in water. The more you add, the gooier it gets. You can't wash it off, and it won't dry up by itself."
Aang tried to sound confident, but he really didn't know what to do. He announced that he'd start with Air Bending, "Hold on. I'm going to try to dry it." Zuko's protests were drowned out by the rushing wind that Aang directed toward Katara. It didn't dry up the jelly and juice, but it did undo Katara's braid and coat her hair with syrup. And a few leaves.
Zuko tried appealing to Sokka's logical side by explaining how he could heat and dry-out the goo, but walked away when Sokka said, "I think you've done enough to hurt my sister."
Sokka was in his glory – directing, deducing, and experimenting. He put on his special inspector hat and magnifying glass, and the boys began the search for an antidote. They pelted Katara with cures. Teo and The Duke gathered every plant, animal and mineral fat they could find. They started with the burn cream, which sank into Katara's sleeve, and almost took The Duke's hand with it.
Sokka wandered around in a circle, mumbling to himself. "I've got it! We need to coat the sticky-stuff first. Haru, dust her off." The earth-bender raised his hand, and sand gently spiraled up and over Katara's hair and shoulders. The dirt sat on the surface of the goo for a moment before being enveloped by the sticky mass.
Zuko and Toph were the only bystanders. He sat with his head in his hands. She had set-up a stone lounge-chair and snacks.
Katara stood silently in the middle of chaos. She was coated in slime, dirt, leaves, grease, and, she guessed from Momo's hungry glances – probably bugs. Her neck cramped from being stuck-down sideways by her hair. She couldn't sit down. She could barely talk and she was starting to itch. She tried to slow her breathing and think strong thoughts. Endure. Don't cry. Don't give him the satisfaction. Crying will stuff up your nose and you won't be able to breathe. I can't breathe! She tried to shout, "I 'ant eethe! I ANT EETHE!"
"What?" Sokka asked, "You can't see? It's ok, Katara. I can straighten out your head if I cut your hair…" Sokka was holding out the sharp edge of his boomerang. Katara gave a defeated squeak.
Zuko jumped up and shouted, "NO! NOT HER HAIR!" Even Toph was surprised by that outburst. Everyone, except Katara, turned in silence to gape at Zuko. Sokka turned so quickly that he abandoned his boomerang in Katara's hair. Without taking his eyes off Katara, Zuko stepped forward and knelt at her feet so she could see his eyes. "I can fix this. Please. Trust me." His voice was strained and gravelly. "Let me help you." His voice fell to a whisper. "You don't have to cut your hair."
A very small, muffled voice said, "es."
Less than ten minutes later, Zuko and Katara were alone in a small stone cube that Toph had grown around them. Zuko had gathered a lantern, several sealed water flasks, and a stool. The room was only about ten feet cubed, and it was dark and stuffy. The floor of the room was covered with sand. Toph had already taught Aang how his earth bending could be used to see through stone with vibrations, and Katara had asked for the sand to keep him from spying.
Aang and Toph sat outside, periodically bending tiny air holes that Aang used to blow fresh, dry air into the otherwise sealed space. Everyone else but Sokka had wandered off. He started to pace, and mumbled, "I don't want my little sister left alone with that guy." Pace, pace. "She's going to kill him, and then who will teach Aang Fire Bending?"
Toph tripped him with a rock, and spun him around and away by bending the earth beneath his feet. "Don't worry, Snoozles. I'll keep both eyes on them."
It was already hot in the stone room. "It has to be dry heat," Zuko explained as he tossed-aside his shirt. He was wearing the drawstring pants he usually wore to train with Aang. They were both starting to sweat in the closed-in space. "I need to get the temperature hot enough to evaporate the water from the jelly without burning you."
Zuko hadn't been this nervous in a long time. Would Katara trust him? He had earned her trust before, and she had opened up to him with forgiveness and generosity that had astounded him. Then he betrayed her. The stone box that surrounded them was too much like the caverns under Ba Sing Se. It felt so – personal. He needed to help her without reminding her of the last time they were alone together. The key to this, he decided in that moment, would be to behave like a field medic. She was just a patient. Step 1 – triage.
"I'm going to get the boomerang out first so I can un-stick your hair from your shoulder. This is going to get really warm, so pull away if you need to." He was standing inches away from her, lit by a single lantern. She could only see him from the waist down. He wasn't wearing shoes. She was glad. She hated those stupid, pointy-toed Fire Nation shoes. It reminded her of pointy Fire Nation armor, and a certain prince's former pointy tail. Pony tail. Wow, it was really hot in this room.
He raised his arms and warmth radiated from both of his hands. A while powder fell on the floor as she felt the weight of the weapon lift from her hair. Warmth moved down to her shoulder, and a hot liquid, like candle wax, melted onto her neck. She gasped at the pain, but her head was free! She straightened up so quickly that her forehead bumped into his chin. He stepped back, "Did I hurt you?"
His eyes glowed like an owl-cat's. He looked so different, in the warm lantern light, than he did in the cool green phosphorescence of Earth Kingdom crystals. She tried to tell him that she actually felt better. Her mumbled words drew Zuko's fingers toward her lips, but then he pulled his hand away without touching her. "I know you're uncomfortable, but I don't want to touch your face until you can heal yourself. I'm going to free your arms first."
Starting at the tips of her fingers, he ran his hand quickly up her left arm, brushing bits of white powder off her bare skin. The thin layer was easy to remove, but the goop that adhered to her clothes had soaked in, so her arm was still stuck to her side. When he reached her left shoulder, he pressed his hand against her short sleeve. Katara felt the heat of his hand and warm liquid through her dress. Just when the heat became uncomfortable, the jelly solidified and cracked, like wax. He moved up higher. As the next spot was starting to crack, the waxy surface below it began to get sticky again. He went back to the hem of her sleeve, this time using one hand to warm the cloth from above and the other to lift the fabric away from her skin.
There was a loud tearing sound as her dress ripped. She yelped from the heat and the tug on her skin. He winced, and the agitation he felt was evident in his voice, "I'm sorry, Katara. The wax won't come out unless the fabric stays warm when it's pulled away from your skin, and I can't heat the whole dress without burning you." There was a long, silent pause while they both considered the implications of this discovery.