The first time Zuko tried to help Katara with chores, she threw him out of the kitchen. Literally. He had to admit that it was a little impressive. He was taller and heavier than her, and yet she managed to grab him by the collar and toss him out the door like it was nothing.
"Stay away from the food," she ordered, pointing a ladle down at his nose. "I don't know what kind of stunt you're trying to pull, jerkface, but I'm not falling for it."
Zuko gaped. "What could I possibly be trying to do? I'm offering to help you with supper."
Katara snorted and crossed her arms. "Right. And I'm secretly King Bumi's long-lost twin."
Zuko scrambled to his feet and brushed himself off. "I know how to cook." He wasn't good at it by any means, but he knew how to boil rice and roast meat well enough to not make himself sick. That was enough to start with. He would learn the rest as he went.
"Funny," she said flatly. "But no. I don't need your help."
"You're trying to keep eight people fed. Wouldn't it be easier if—"
"No!" Katara snapped. "For all I know, you'll try to poison us all."
He threw his hands up. "With what?"
Her eyes narrowed and Zuko felt himself flush. Okay, maybe that was the wrong thing to say. But she and Sokka hadn't exactly been subtle about searching through his belongings. She had to know how woefully unprepared he was for—well, everything.
"Listen," he tried again. "I know you don't trust me, but I'm not going to hurt anyone. I need to eat too. You can make me your poison tester if that makes you feel any better."
"No thank you," she said, planting her hands on her hips. "I already told you, I don't need your help. Because—" she fumbled for the end of the sentence until Haru came into sight down the hallway. "Because Haru already offered to help me."
The earthbender looked up in surprise. "I did?"
Zuko rolled his eyes, but that didn't seem to dissuade Katara. She grabbed Haru by the arm and hauled him toward the kitchen. "Yep."
"Okay, but what am I helping with? Because I really don't remember—"
Katara shoved him through the door and shot a look back at Zuko. "See? It's all under control. Now stay out of the kitchen."
When he offered to help with the dishes, Katara scoffed at him and dragged Aang off toward the kitchen. When he tried to start the cooking fire for her, she pushed him aside and yelled for Teo to try his new fire-starting invention. When Sokka sauntered into the temple with three dead rabbit-squirrels in hand, Zuko offered to help clean them, and Katara shoved the carcasses back to her brother. When Appa's saddle needed a fresh coat of waterproofing oil, Katara didn't give Zuko time to volunteer before enlisting The Duke for the job. It was almost becoming a system. Any time that Katara had a chore to do, Zuko volunteered his services, and Katara recruited the nearest person who wasn't Zuko to help in his place.
Maybe it would have been easier to give up. Katara clearly wanted nothing to do with him, and as much as that bothered him, he couldn't blame her. But Zuko didn't like being idle, and there was always plenty of work to be done around the temple. He couldn't help that most of it fell to Katara. He wanted to help, either way.
So Zuko kept trying. Giving up wasn't in his nature anyway.
Katara hauled an oversized sack out onto the temple's main terrace. "Laundry day!" she announced. "Who's helping?"
"I can," Zuko said. By now, it was becoming a reflex.
"Not you." Katara looked around.
Zuko followed her gaze, but he already knew that the terrace was practically empty. Aang and Teo had taken The Duke for a glide around the valley, and Sokka and Haru had disappeared at dawn for some "bro time," whatever that meant.
"Toph!" Katara said, voice bright with relief. "Come on, let's go take care of this laundry."
Toph shoved a finger up her nose, sightless eyes staring somewhere to Katara's right. "Nice try, Sugar Queen."
"Toph, please. You've hardly done anything to help since we got here."
Toph shrugged. "So? If you want help with laundry, you're barking up the wrong tree, Sweetness." She waved a hand in front of her face. "Blind girl, remember? I can't see the stains you like to get your panties in a twist over."
Katara glanced down at the sack of dirty clothes, and Zuko could see the desperation building in her eyes. "Please, Toph. I'll do all the scrubbing. This is going to take all day if I don't have help."
With a yawn, Toph stretched and stood up. "No can do. I've gotta throw rocks at Aang and Haru as soon as they get back." She bumped Katara's shoulder on her way past. "I thought I heard someone volunteer for laundry duty. But hey, it's none of my business."
When they came to the pebbly bank of the river, Katara dropped the laundry bag and scowled at him. "I don't trust you."
He frowned. "I don't see what trust has to do with laundry. What do you think I'm going to do, wash things wrong?"
Katara sputtered and scowled and made all manner of enraged noises, but in the end, it seemed that she couldn't really argue with him. Untrustworthy cooking was one thing, but even if Zuko poked holes in all their clothes, it couldn't cause any of them real harm. Just annoyance.
Katara didn't yell, but she did glower. "Here," she said, tossing a smaller bag at him. "You're on sock duty." That had to be progress, at least.
He gagged a little when he opened the bag. How was it possible for socks to smell that bad?
Katara smirked. "Oh, did I forget to mention? Sokka's socks are in there too. His feet smell worse than the Foggy Swamp." She crouched and plunged a tunic into the river.
Zuko made a face and pinched his nose with one hand while he dumped the socks out. Once they were all submerged, he finally allowed himself to take a full breath again and set to work.
Katara shot a confused look in his direction. "Wait, you're actually going to help?"
"Yes." He scrubbed a gray woolen sock. It would take some time to settle into a rhythm, but already he could feel himself relaxing. He hadn't had much to do outside of training Aang since he arrived, and it felt good to work again.
For a long, quiet moment, Katara stared at him, brows lowered as though in thought. But then she huffed. "Why are you doing this? Isn't washing clothes below your royal concern?"
Zuko shook his head. "I lived as a refugee for months. I had to wash my own clothes."
Stooping to dig through the bag, Katara scoffed. "So that's why your clothes were falling apart in the Earth Kingdom?"
"Yes," Zuko answered. He'd gotten better after the first few times, but by then the damage was done, and his angry, overzealous scrubbing had worn his dingy brown outfit to rags.
There was an expression he didn't recognize in Katara's eyes, and for an instant, he couldn't help but think of Ba Sing Se again. She frowned, turning her attention back to her own washing.
Things didn't change immediately. Zuko didn't expect them to. He kept volunteering to help, and more often than not, Katara found someone else to take his place. He still wasn't allowed in the kitchen—Katara didn't accuse him of trying to poison them anymore, but she was still wary about letting him near their food. It still seemed silly to him, but Zuko carefully stayed at least three paces away from the door at all times.
But when no one else offered to help, she gradually turned from outright rejection to grudging acceptance. Now that she finally had help—whether it came from Zuko or one of the others who didn't run the other way fast enough—she was unwilling to part with it. Zuko helped her with laundry, then with brushing Appa, then with scrubbing the temple bathrooms. And after a few days, it turned into a sort of a rotation. For every chore Katara passed off to one of her friends, Zuko took over another.
"Time to wash dishes," she declared after lunch. "Whose turn is it?"
The others all grumbled, and Zuko straightened. "I could," he answered reflexively.
Zuko hunched his shoulders, looking down. Then he actually understood what Katara had said. "Wait, what?"
The kitchen was much like every other room in the temple—walls of pale gray stone and high, lofty ceilings. Except for the ovens and the stoves and the sink, and the fact that Zuko had never set foot in this room before.
They both hesitated at the door, Katara staring back at him and Zuko still not sure whether it was okay to cross the threshold. He could see the hesitance in her stance, in her eyes.
"You didn't mean to say yes to this, did you?" he asked quietly.
She shook her head slightly, then fixed her face into a scowl. "Well—the dishes need to be done. So—" She made a little noise of frustration. "—So don't try anything funny, understood?"
He nodded, and she grudgingly waved him in.
Katara gave him a strange look when he set to work on the dishes. "Do you enjoy this or something?" She narrowed her eyes.
"What do you mean? Helping?"
"If that's what you call it."
Zuko swallowed, staring at the dishwater as he worked. "I don't know. It's easier than doing nothing." He thought he saw Katara rolling her eyes, but she didn't stop him. "I know how badly I screwed up. I can't fix what I did, but helping—helps." He shrugged.
She raised an eyebrow. "So, washing dishes? You got excited about washing dishes?"
"It's better than washing Sokka's swamp socks."
Katara laughed, then clapped a hand over her mouth, wide-eyed. "I'm not laughing," she said, words muffled by her hand. "That—that wasn't funny." But her eyes crinkled at the corners, and Zuko gave her a small smile in return. This wasn't much, but it was a start.