Her hair was absurd. It would take forever to untangle. He started behind her head, at the nape of her neck, and pulled small clumps of hair away from the tangled mass above, starting at the root and pulling until he reached the ends. He brushed her shoulders to remove the white power, dirt, and twigs that accumulated in small piles. That's how he noticed the knots in her neck, brought on by tension and holding her head sideways for almost two hours.
Keeping most of the warmth in his hands, he rubbed his thumbs down her neck and out to her shoulders. She sighed. He worked the knots out of her shoulders, careful to keep his touch from crossing the line from therapeutic to affectionate. She was relaxed and pliant under his touch.
She yawned through her, "thank you," and leaned forward. That surprised him. The smooth curve of her back arched in front of him. He wanted to run his thumbs down the sides of her spine. Did she want him to touch her? Was this an invitation, or was she just stretching? Zuko really needed some water.
Where was he going? Katara missed his hands. It made her - bitchy. "Zuko, do you think we should take the time to clean my hair? Maybe I should just cut it."
He was drinking with his back to her. Zuko didn't turn around. He just kept drinking – even when there was nothing left in the bottle. "Zuko?" her voice softened, "why didn't you want me to cut my hair?"
Because it's beautiful, non-medic Zuko thought. Because you are beautiful. He turned around. "I knew you thought that the accident was my fault," he answered, "and I didn't want to listen to you yelling at me because I saved a few pieces of fruit for your breakfast."
"What!" Katara shouted at him. "You're the one who…shit!" Katara had tried to stand up and yell at him, but one of her feet had fallen asleep, and she slipped on the sand. The stool toppled. The scrap of his pants that she had wrapped around her lower back got caught on the stool and ripped off as Katara fell forward onto her hands and knees.
She flipped over and sat on the floor right away, but not quickly enough. She looked up at the startled Fire Prince. Even in the dim lantern-light, she could see that he blushed to his ears.
An exhausted Katara briefly considered the etymology of "em-bar-assed" and snorted. Then she started to giggle. The giggle grew louder and faster as she raised one fist in the air. She gasped out, "I …I rise with the moon" and collapsed on the floor in laughter.
And for the first time, Katara heard the Fire Prince laugh. A real, loud, out of control laugh that completely transformed his face. His unscarred eye welled up, and he turned toward the wall to lean against it until he could catch his breath.
When he turned around, she was lying on her back, staring at the air holes at the top of the walls. He extended a hand and said, "Sifu Katara, you really are a princess."
She didn't bother with a new cover-up when she got back onto the stool, and he didn't feel at all awkward. He went back to the slow-going process of cleaning her hair. The silence was more relaxed than any conversation had been all day.
He ran his hands through her hair, and stayed behind her as long as possible.
She didn't think he knew that he was humming. She would have asked him what the song was about, but she was afraid that he would stop. Katara watched his arms move around her head, glad that he was moving in front of her again. Her eyes trailed a bead of sweat that ran down his bare chest onto his abdomen. Whatever he was doing to clean her hair felt really good, but he…it… it was getting too warm.
The pleasant mood was broken by a harsh tug on a bad tangle. Katara swore. Zuko wasn't shocked by this anymore, but he felt bad about pulling her hair. "Sorry. Let me…well, here," he stammered, right before he leaned forward and blew warm air onto the mess behind her ear. It made her dizzy.
She felt his fingers work at the knot, and he blew on it again. She grabbed his arm and leaned her head against his chest. "Zuko?"
"Hmm?"was the only reply.
"I think I need more water."
After one more break, he stepped back to admire his work. The warm wax had smoothed her tight curls into long, loose waves. It was thick and shiny, extending a full foot longer down her back. Dear Agni, he wondered. How am I going to get through this?
She was finally starting to look clean. He, however, was becoming a big, sweaty mess. He ripped his other pant leg, poured one of the bottles of water over the cloth, and started to wipe-off his arms.
Katara watched him, and sounded puzzled. "Zuko? I thought we had to keep things dry in here?" Before she finished talking, Zuko felt himself covered from head to toe in a cool mist of water. It was bent away seconds later, leaving him clean and dry. His hair fluffed back up and his recently cropped pants unstuck from his skin.
It felt amazingly refreshing, but invasive and intimate – as if she had washed him with her bare hands. His heart skipped. "That was…thank you"
It got uncomfortably quiet, and they stared at each other. It was time to deal with the other half of that dress.
"Start by removing everything I wouldn't wear at the beach," Katara tried to lighten things up a bit and put on a bold face. He was glad she spoke first, because his feet had been rooted to the floor.
She stood up. He had to get on his knees again, to remove the fabric over her abdomen and the lower half of her skirt. He did not look up when the skirt fell off the front of her legs. He peeled away everything but one band across her chest, and one across her hips. Then he backed away. Katara was wearing two tiny scraps of fabric and a lot of long hair, and she held herself with the dignity of a queen.
"I'll put the blindfold back on," Medic-Zuko sounded frightened. When his eyes were covered, Katara carefully bent his head down so she could whisper in his ear. "Zuko, if you ever tell anyone about this, I will bury you in a glacier so deep, no one will find you for a hundred years." Then she grabbed both of his wrists, and guided his hands toward the remaining scraps of her dress.
Zuko used two fingers on his left hand to heat the fabric, and pulled the dress away with his right. Katara's hands were over his, moving them over the cloth on the side of her left breast. Even though he only removed a small piece at a time, it hurt more than any other spot on her body. She purposely left the strip down the middle of her breast for last, knowing that the heat and melting wax would be more than she could handle, and she'd have to heal herself right away.
Zuko thought she was leaving the middle strip for last out of modesty. The anticipation of the moment was making his heart race, and his temperature kept rising. He was getting sweaty again. When he ran his fingers down the middle of her breast, her thick wrappings kept him from feeling any…details. Relief and disappointment struggled in his mind. He pulled off the strip, and she jumped, shouting "Shit!" She used his entire hand to quickly wipe the left-over residue from her breast. "Do you have to be so hot? That hurt."
The combined effect of hearing her scream and cupping her in his hand ended all hope that Zuko had of thinking like a medic. When she leapt away, Zuko put his hands up. "I can't do this, Katara. I don't want to hurt you and I can't keep…touching you."
She was already healing herself when she shouted back. "What? You can't stop now! You can't just leave me like this!" Katara was crying again, he could hear it, but her tears came from anger. "Don't you understand that this is much worse than pain, to me? I'll get over being embarrassed, but I'll never be able to remember the first time…" her voice trailed off.
Zuko spoke very softly, "Katara? I don't understand."
It was easier to explain to him because he was wearing a blindfold and she didn't have to look him in the eyes. "I'm fourteen years old. I've never been touched like this, and I'm not ready. I thought this would happen when I'm older, with someone…someone who loves and me and wants to touch me. Not because I'm covered in glue, and dirt, and I look like a disgusting mess!" She picked up the torn pant leg he had abandoned earlier, and used it to blow her nose.
Zuko wanted to comfort her. He wanted to hold her, and tell her not to be afraid. He wanted to take off the blasted blindfold! "Katara, it's ok." He managed to find his medic voice, again. "I won't leave you. And…this doesn't count, you know. This isn't your first anything. You're injured, and I'm a healer, and that means that this doesn't count." Medic Zuko ended his speech there, but he kept on thinking, and I want to touch you. And I want you to like it.
They were both better prepared to handle removing the fabric from her right side. Zuko breathed deeply and stayed calm. Katara listened to him breathe, and admitted to herself that she really didn't mind having Zuko touch her. She enjoyed it. But Katara was far too vain and filled with romantic ideals to be pleased with the real reason for his attention.
"My necklace is stuck to a tiny piece of fabric. I think I can pull it off while you unglue that last strip." She used her left hand to put his fingers in place, and tugged gently on the band of her necklace with her right. Zuko peeled the last of the fabric away easily, but the pendant still stuck to her skin. "Crap!" She shouted again. "My hand is stuck!"
"It's ok," Zuko sounded reassuring, 'just put my fingers where you're stuck, and I'll unglue you." He freed her hand, and pulled the band of the necklace away from her skin, holding it so it wouldn't re-adhere." Then they both thought about what would come next.
She had noticed his body reacting to her before. She spent a lot of time with boys, and wasn't shocked or even flattered by what she had been taught was an involuntary reaction – like breathing. It was nothing personal. But this. Damn. Katara almost started to giggle again. Well, she thought,the fire nation is known for its enormous circus tents. She did not feel at all guilty about staring, since he was blindfolded and it was only fair after all he had seen.
"You'll have to breathe on the pendant." There. Katara just said it. Matter-of-factly, it simply had to be done. She was not looking for any kind of reaction from him. Nope. Not at all.
"How do I…?" Zuko stammered, but Katara had put one hand behind his head, and the other on his chin. She pulled his face down toward the pendant. "Breathe."
Her necklace fell to the sand.
She recovered first. "Let's get some water. Do you want to take that blindfold off?" she inquired, as if offering him a snack to go with his water.
"What?" was his witty reply.
"I'm covered; you can take it off if you want." She sounded sincere.
"But…what are you wearing?" Zuko seemed suspicious.
"Just take off the damn blindfold." She pulled it off his head.
He blinked. She was holding out a flask of water. Her thick hair was swept forward, covering both breasts and stopping just short of the last strip of fabric. The sight of her nearly undid him. He turned around to drink.
"We're almost done," he said, when he managed to find his voice. "Then we can go outside, and pretend this never happened."
Katara snapped, "Oh, sorry to have inconvenienced you for so long. I know it's been hell, trapped alone with me in…"
She never got to finish her sentence. He was across the room in two steps, holding her face, and kissing her. Carefully avoiding leaning against the remaining glue, he moved his arms around her shoulders and embraced her, whispering in her ear, "I will never forget this."
Her hands slid up his chest and clasped together behind his neck. She was crying, and smiling, and falling apart with the release of a tension that had built up over hours. He was warm. She was soft. They held each other until the air holes opened above them, reminding them of the outside world.
Zuko was about to put the blindfold back on, when Katara stopped him. "It's a bit ridiculous, now, don't you think? I mean, your hands have been…"
"Yes. Yes they have," Zuko raised one eyebrow while he smiled at her. "It would probably go a lot faster."
He knelt at her feet, and started to peel away a corner of the fabric stretched across her hips. He stopped, and looked up at her. Damn. That was a view he'd never forget.
"Katara?" he made eye contact, and said, "I need to wear that blindfold, or come up with some kind of distraction."
"Hmm," she looked thoughtful, "I've got it." He looked back down, and began removing the last piece of cloth from her body, pausing when she said, "Zuko, let me tell you about my father."
When he finished brushing away the last of the glue, Katara was still telling a story about her father and Bato and the weapons they used to fight a giant squid-ray.
Zuko bundled her in his shirt, and tied the sash around her waist like he was wrapping a gift. He wiped off her necklace, and lifted her hair to close the clasp behind her neck.
He expected Katara's reluctance to return when they were done. What he saw was a confident woman, wearing nothing but his shirt. She looked him in the eye, and smiled at him.
It was the smile, he told himself later. Their first kiss was an apology, but this smile was her reply. It unraveled the last of his control, and for the first time, he stopped worrying that she would never forgive him. Her smile wasn't shy or wanton. It wasn't manipulative, seductive or mocking. It was an honest smile, filled with friendly trust. It was simply Katara, and it was his future. He was going to kiss her again. He was going to tell her everything he felt for her. He was going to - pass out cold.
Katara swept the sand away, kicking it over the scraps of her dress. Then she stomped three times on the ground, and the walls sank.
"Did she kill him??" Sokka stood over his sister, who knelt at the prince's side, running a glowing hand from his forehead to his – ripped pants?
"He's just dehydrated, Sokka. I didn't break him," Katara snapped. "Make sure he drinks this when he wakes up." It wasn't until she stood up and handed him a flask of water, that Sokka noticed who was wearing Zuko's missing shirt. Judging by the horrified expression on Haru's face and the way Aang kept staring at her legs, he was the last one to notice. Her hair looked funny, too.
Sokka was about to launch into over-protective brother mode, and might have made some very dangerous accusations, but Katara quizzed him first. "Sokka, what's stuck to your arm?" she asked, deeply suspicious.
Sokka looked away and replied, "We might have been experimenting with melon-pod bombs – but that's classified information."
Katara smirked, "Well, then. You'd better be nice to Zuko when he wakes up. And Sokka," she paused, "it's going to hurt like hell."
Then Katara marched off, chin high and humming happily to herself, to get her pack and change. Toph felt the shock of the silent boys around her. "You tell 'em, Sugar Queen," she said, but not loud enough for Katara to hear.
Toph made sure that Katara was out of range and the prince was still halfway to the Spirit Realm before bending some dark, gray earth around Sokka's arm. "Don't worry, Snoozles. I can get that out with a little clay."