For Zutara Week. Prompt four: Manipulative

This prompt was a bitch. I am not at all happy with what I came up with, because for the longest time I didn't know what the hell I was gonna write about. (sigh) So, this story is very, very loosely based on manipulation. Otherwise, it's just some Zuko and Katara interaction, for your viewing pleasure.

Disclaimer: Don't.

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He twitched when Katara crossed her arms impatiently.

"What?!" he demanded with a heavy sigh. "What could I possibly be doing wrong now?"

"You cut them up too big." Crossing the small amount of space separating the two, she came to stand in front of the counter and ripped the knife out of his hand, shoving him aside. He grunted in aggravation as she carefully angled her wrist, placed her left hand safely on Sokka's makeshift cutting board, and began to chop the stalks into smaller pieces with deft motions of her hand. "They're supposed to be indistinguishable in the soup. God, you can't do anything right, can you?"

His jaw tensed as he glowered at her, but he knew better than to sharply retort. So, merely sighing wearily, he moved back and leaned heavily against the kitchen's long wall, his arms crossing as he tilted his head and closed his eyes for a short moment.

Unfortunately, it was only Katara and he, alone to struggle with their mutual frustration for one another. The Avatar had taken his flying bison and lemur with him to roam the skies, feeling slightly cramped underground. Sokka had trotted off with his father to eagerly discuss battle plans. And Toph had been roped into spending "girl time" with Suki, despite the blatant look of displeasure she'd worn on her face when she'd tried to splutter excuses to Katara. So, that left him to the waterbender's mercy, and because she'd been left alone once more to do prepare the meal – Haru, Teo, and the Duke had wisely skirted free of the premises before her glare could land on them – Zuko had been roped into the preparation.

Gritting his teeth, he lifted his hand and pinched the bridge of his nose. He'd be of so much more use teaching the Avatar how to ably firebend or leaking the Fire Nation's innermost secrets and palace layouts to Sokka. Instead, he'd been forced into a cramped kitchen, where he was utterly useless – he could hardly make a cup of tea, for the love of the gods.

"Zuko, I'm pretty sure the wall can hold itself up," Katara snapped in frustration, her knife still tapping rapidly against the cutting board as she slaughtered vegetable upon vegetable. "So, if you wouldn't mind being a little more helpful…"

He tossed her a scathing glance as he pushed off from the wall, dutifully coming to stand at her side as he brushed locks of hair from his face. He'd never truly prepared a meal before. It had been beneath the prince of the Fire Nation to dirty his hands with peasant work; and when he'd been on the lam with his uncle, he'd been so disorientated and enraged by his situation that he hadn't bothered to help with Iroh's ministrations. He'd only watched with displaced interest as he silently mulled over ways to capture the Avatar, so as to restore his honor.

So now, as he blankly took hold of a spare knife and placed his hand on the edge of a cabbage – a food which, for some reason, brought great amusement to the Avatar and his three other companions – he tentatively tapped the blade against the green leaves, unsure about what to do.

The waterbender shot him an impatient glare when he hesitated. "Zuko, we're never going to eat if you just sit and stare at everything I put in front of you. Would you actually try doing something?"

Exhaling in anger, he crooked his wrist and forced the knife down, severing the cabbage into two pieces. With a contemptuous "hmph," Katara went back to work, leaving Zuko to fumble with one of the halves as he chopped away at it, wincing as the vegetable began to shed its leaves into an indiscernible mess.

"No, Zuko, no!" Katara cried out as if wounded, and again he was bumped to the side as she took over and tried to salvage the wreckage. "Why would you cut these up so small?"

"What?" He blinked, and then his face contorted in outrage. "Because you told me t--"

"For the herbs!" she retorted, throwing her hands up in disbelief. "Do you really not know anything? Anything at all? God, you're so hopeless! For once, I actually get someone to help me in the kitchen, and he turns out to be a bumbling idiot!"

His heart gave a sickening twist at her words. "I'm sorry!" he roared, offended. "Gods, forgive me for being such a burden to this group! Obviously I'll never be as perfect as the Avatar, so why don't you just insult me some more, Katara! I deserve it, right?!"

The furious motions of her hands slowed suddenly, and then she stopped altogether, shooting him a wide-eyed glance through the loops of her hair. Flushing as his outburst caught up to his ears, he crossed his arms and looked away, glowering at the pot cooking over the firepit Sokka and he constructed and jammed into the corner so that she might have her own working space. He did do a lot. He did so much to deem himself worthy in her eyes. She just refused to see it.

Sometimes, she was blinder that Toph would ever be.

"Here. Let me show you," she murmured gently.

Blinking, he glanced up, arms still crossed, to see the apology on her face as she laid her knife down and weakly smiled, stepping away from the counter. He squinted suspiciously as she held out her arm, black locks falling into his eyes, but at last his shoulders drooped from their stiffened position as he sighed absently and moved to stand next to her once more.

"I've never met someone so hopeless in a kitchen before," she remarked with a grin as he awkwardly reached for the knife and sent her an uncertain glance. Immediately upon hearing her comment, his expression contorted into one of frustration, but he stiffened when she came up behind him and took hold of his elbows, crooking his arms into a higher position. His breath stuttered in his throat as she pressed innocently against his back while she slid her hands down his arms and to his wrists, manipulating the motions of his hands. "Now. See? Chop like this…" He blinked as her right hand closed over his and she made a downward motion with the knife. The blade sliced through the cabbage smoothly. "…and you'll get a perfect cut. Then, gently lift your hand and move it like this…" He suppressed a shiver as her breath hit his neck, watching intensely as she guided his hand again, helping him send the blade through the green leaves. "Good. You just need practice, that's all."

"So I'm not hopeless," he muttered, his fingers tightening on the hilt of the knife as she continued to help him. He blinked when she pressed her face into his arm, and he glanced down to see him smiling up at him.

"No, you're not. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to hurt your feelings." A blush sweeping over his cheeks, he jerked his head away and muttered under his breath, his movements growing jerky again. She tensed and caught his hand, however, moving back and lightly hitting his arm with her free fist in a scolding fashion. "Knock it off. You'll ruin it."

He sighed and dropped the knife, placing his hands at the edge of the counter in frustration. Turning his head from her, he stiffened the line of his shoulders as his fingers curled against the tabletop and growled, "Forget it. If I touch it, it'll instantly be ruined."

"Would you stop that?" Katara retorted in aggravation, leaning over again to pick up the knife. Frustrated, she pulled at his wrist to pass it over, but he refused to budge. "You were doing fine until you started pouting!"

"I don't pout!" he snapped, turning back to glower at her. She took a step back and placed her hands on her hips, one eyebrow arched in challenge as she balanced the blade carefully away from her skin. "I don't."

"You," she drawled, aiming her knife at him with her right hand. His face twisting into one of discomfort, he stepped back and raised his hands in surrender, "frustrate the hell out of me, you know that?" Turning abruptly away, she pulled the cabbage viciously forward and started attacking it with her blade, head shaking from side to side and hair fluttering on her shoulders. "I was just trying to help after I upset you, and you won't have any of it, will you? God, I felt bad, but noZuko doesn't care. Zuko cares only about himself. Zuko is too good for water peasants and kitchen duty and--"

Abruptly he grasped her arm, and her violent motions ceased, her knife clattering against the counter as she jerked her head to the side and looked away from him. Now that he'd stopped her vicious tirade, however, he didn't exactly know what to do, and uncertainly he tugged her arm again, pulling her closer. Apparently this was the trick, because she swung her head back to glower with him, most of the hurt in her expression smothered by outrage. He still caught, however, the way her eyes glistened in the sunlight.

Sighing, he loosed her from his hold and grabbed the knife, which had been dropped and repossessed multiple times in the past several minutes but had completed slim to none of their current task. Sighing, he shifted his attention farther to his left, searching out her eyes beneath his bangs as he shrugged awkwardly. Her brow remained furrowed for a moment or two as she hugged her arms to her chest, and then, as realization donned on her, her expression lightened.

Silently, Katara stepped forward and took hold of his hands, a smile twitching at the corners of her lips. He clenched his jaw against the shiver that ran up his spine as her fingertips ghosted the heel of his palm, and he stood stiffly and cautiously as she guided his motions along, not wanting to aggravate her again. It was odd, how easily she manipulated his emotions from anger into pity and remorse whenever she was upset – she did it as flawlessly as she guided his hands now, murmuring soft words of instruction as her head tilted against his arm and her smile danced over her lips. As he snuck a quick glance at her face, his heart skipped to see the pleasant expression softening her countenance and brightening her eyes.

As much as she complained about it, she seemed genuinely happy in the kitchen.

"There. You're not so bad," she remarked cheerfully, patting his hand as she moved back to encouragingly grasp his upper arms. Tossing her an uncertain glance as she let him go, he shrugged again and glanced down, sighing heavily. "Oh, stop looking so glum. You'll do fine."

"I'll mess it up, and you'll scream at me again," he muttered, shaggy bangs jerking slightly in and out of his eyes due to the motion of his arm. His shoulders then stooped in disappointment when she released her hold on him and took up her own knife.

"Then don't mess up," she retorted smartly.

He rolled his eyes at her comment. "Great. Put pressure on me. You've already said that I have no skill whatsoever in the kitchen. Why not just--?" The knife slipped in his hands as his words grew more heated, and he sucked in a breath as it nicked his finger, drawing blood. Pulling rapidly away as the knife again clattered against the countertop, he let out a frustrated sigh and hopelessly stared at the wound. "Wonderful," he grumbled, arching a brow as the blood pooled to the surface and shined brilliantly in the light. "I'm completely incompetent."

"Oh, shut up and come here," Katara muttered, grabbing his arm and ushering him over to the water basin.

He sighed as she released his arm to lift her hands and thread a thin stream of water into the air. Watching with a frown, he observed the way she pulled his hand close to her chest, fretted over the small cut as she extended his forefinger, and then guided the small stream with her left hand, manipulating it around the nick. It didn't hurt, and he watched with fascination as the water pulsed and the gash in his skin began to fade away.

"There shouldn't be a scar," she mused thoughtfully, splaying his entire hand out to check for further damage. "Looks like you just caught it a little bit."

"Yeah, it's no big deal."

"Yes, it is," she remarked stubbornly. "I don't want blood in my food." Goosebumps peppered his skin when she smoothed her thumb over his healed finger. "Besides, it's not like I like seeing you hurt, Zuko. I'm not such a bad guy, like you make me out to be." He arched his good eyebrow at the irony, and she lifted her chin as she sensed the same thing, her expression falling. "Oh. Now I sound like a hypocrite."

Before he could control it, a grin tugged a corner of his mouth upward. She missed it, though, since at that precise moment she sighed and lowered her gaze back to his hand, taking his silence as agreement as she continued to fret over his finger. Absently, she gnawed at her bottom lip, her brow furrowing as he still didn't bother to speak.

Finally, she glanced up once more, her expression trained in a state of calm. "Well, we should get back to work, shouldn't we?" With a final squeeze, she let his fingers go, and weakly she gave a smile. "So, why don't we--?"

Gently placing his hand on her arm, he leaned down and brushed his lips tenderly against her cheek, feeling the way she arched in surprise in his grasp. Her hand flew to land directly over his heart as she made to steady herself, and at that instant he swore she understood, feeling the way his heartbeats thrummed frantically as her fingers curled into the fabric of her shirt. Closing his eyes, he nudged his cheek gently against his jaw, and he relaxed for a long moment as her shallow breaths registered in his ear.

"Thank you, Katara," he murmured, and with a final, gentle squeeze to her arms he pulled away, turning before she could see the blush spreading across his nose and cheeks. He at last settled himself at the counter, and in the silence the sudden, careful chop of a blade against a wooden cutting board rang out distinctively.

When the waterbender finally shook off her surprise and composed herself, she came to stand beside him, the skilled cutting motions of her knife sounding in time with his own after a short while. Neither spoke, nor did they look at one another as both busied themselves in their tasks, but he believed that he sensed a softness to her attitude towards him – he liked to think it wasn't just wishful thinking.

"Zuko, watch the pot for me?" she asked absently, pulling more vegetables onto her cutting board and momentarily bowing her head as she tightened her apron. Shrugging, he laid down his knife and strolled over to the bubbling broth, into which Katara had steadily been adding herbs and spicing and mixtures of meats and vegetables for the last hour. As he lifted the ladle in his hand and gently stirred it, his ears perked up at the sound of gentle humming, and he shot the waterbender a startled glance. Brushing her hair out of her face as she shifted her weight onto her right hip and balanced her hand there, she smiled softly, her face glowing as she brushed her other hand against her cheek.

Turning back to the soup, he mirrored her smile on his own lips, shooting fire into the flickering flames as a sense of calm descended in their midst.

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Grah. This was a pain in the ass. Anyway, please review.