Katara’s least favorite thing to do is to wake up early in the morning to do laundry. The one silver lining she has is that since they’ve relocated to the Western Air Temple, it affords her a bit of privacy and some guaranteed alone time—no one else bothers to rise as early as she does. As she stirs the clothes around with a wooden stick, she can appreciate the way the light filters in through the morning mist, and the sounds of the surrounding forest waking up. Though they’re high up in the mountains, she feels connected to her element, as moisture clings to the air around her. She’s contemplating how clear and clean the water is in the fountain, when a cry rings out through the temple, startling her thoughts.
The high vaulted ceilings of the temple make the sound echo; her heart starts pounding. Whoever it is, they’re clearly in distress, and Katara pulls water straight from her surroundings as she makes her hastened way through the crumbled pathways to find the source.
She ends up in a cleared area where Zuko is on the ground, groaning and clutching one of his legs. Without a second thought, Katara runs to his side and immediately starts passing her water along his shin.
“I’m fine,” he says through gritted teeth, and tries to shift his leg away from where Katara is kneeling beside him. Both his knee and ankle are injured, so it’s all in vain, as he can hardly move at all through the pain. A small whimper falls from his mouth and a pang of annoyance pricks at her.
“What are you doing? Stop moving!” Katara snaps, as his awkward attempts at shuffling over are making it difficult for her to start healing him.
Zuko’s mouth opens briefly before closing shut again, a scowl settling on his face. Reluctantly, he offers her his injured leg.
Whatever adrenaline Katara had from hearing the initial yell wears off, and she’s suddenly aware of their close proximity—how her knees are nearly pressed against his thigh, and how her torso is hovering over him. As she scans Zuko’s face, she realizes the scowl is all bluster, because his eyes are full of fear.
Was he afraid of her?
“I’m not going to hurt you,” Katara says, feeling insulted that she even has to say it. “I’m just trying to help.”
This is the wrong thing to say.
“I’m sorry if I don’t exactly trust the person who threatened to end me not even three weeks ago,” he spits. The uncertainty from his expression has vanished, and in its place is pure venom.
Zuko is right and it enrages her. Still, she would rather eat her own arm than admit she was wrong, so she shoots back at him. “Well, I wouldn’t have had to say that if you didn’t betray us in the first place!”
Katara waits for him to react, but instead he lets out a sigh of resignation and says nothing. It is clear that he is back to his repentant act despite his outburst. For whatever reason, Katara feels a need to give an explanation despite Zuko not asking for one.
“Aang needs to learn firebending, and he can’t have an injured teacher. The comet is soon and we need him to be ready.” While that is true, it certainly wasn’t the first thing on Katara’s mind when she rushed over to help him. It seems that Zuko can sense this too, as he merely raises an eyebrow, but stays infuriatingly silent, opting not to call Katara out on her bluff.
She almost wishes that he would yell at her again, as the silent treatment sets her on edge. Looking down at his leg again, she can see swelling from his knee peeking out from the hem of the loose trousers he’s wearing. Without a word, she hitches the fabric up so that she can get direct access to his skin to heal him better. She can hear Zuko take in a sharp breath as she does so. Judging by the swelling and his reaction, the sprain must be severe.
The section of the temple they’re in has a fountain too, albeit one much smaller than the one she does her daily chores in. It’s still a source of clean running water all the same, and she pulls in a good amount in order to replenish some of the water she let fall to the dirty ground during the earlier commotion.
She concentrates all her energy on Zuko’s leg beneath her hands, the water a glowing blue orb around his leg. She can feel the build up of fluid around his knee, willing it to subside and allow the water to begin healing whatever part of his knee was injured. She never fully completed her healing training, so she lacks the specialized knowledge of the Northern healers regarding anatomy. Nevertheless, she knows her basics, and the important part is that she can heal him in one session, though it will take longer since both his knee and ankle are hurt.
Katara closes her eyes and focuses on the chi paths throughout Zuko’s body. His pulse is racing, his heartbeat a tiny drumroll in her hands. It’s strange to be able to feel something like that, and she wishes it would slow down, but she can’t blame him— the stress of the injury is most likely making it hard to calm himself. She hopes that the healing will start to ease some of the discomfort he’s feeling, and wills the water to work a bit faster.
A short time passes though, and Zuko’s heart continues to race, unnerving Katara. On top of that, he’s also started fidgeting, and it’s breaking her concentration. It occurs to her that he might still be afraid that she will harm him, and it leaves a bitter taste in her mouth. She doesn’t know why it bothers her so much. After all, shouldn’t she be glad that the threats she made to him seem to have made an impact? It’ll keep her brother, Aang, Toph and the rest of her friends safe if Zuko is too scared to do anything to them. Another wave of frustration crashes over her, but she holds her tongue this time. The sooner she heals him, the better, and another outburst from her will only serve to distract them.
She lets a sigh fall from her lips.
Zuko continues to squirm, and ten minutes later finds her ready to snap at him again, when he speaks up first.
“How much longer will this take?”
“If you stopped moving so much, I’d be done faster!” Some of the water splashes to the floor, and she’s incensed that he would rush her when she was the one doing him a favor. She tells him as much. “Both your knee and ankle are sprained. You wouldn’t even be able to walk tomorrow if I weren’t doing this right now,” she hisses.
Zuko’s jaw clenches, clearly trying to hold back a comment. “Sorry,” he mutters after a moment.
She calls forth another sliver of water from the fountain to replenish what she had dropped again. It undulates through the air, glittering as the sunlight reflects off of it. Katara takes a deep breath to center herself again, but a question niggles at the back of her mind as she starts the process again.
“How did you get hurt, anyway?” She doesn’t look at his face, but feels him flinch.
“Um, I tripped on a loose tile.”
“You tripped on a tile and somehow sprained your knee and your ankle?”
She can feel his heart skip a beat, and he twitches. “Yep,” he says in a clipped tone.
She narrows her eyes but keeps them squarely on his knee, which is already starting to show visible signs of improvement. “What are you doing up at this time anyway?”
She expects him to avoid the question, or answer evasively. Instead, he heaves out a sigh of resignation. “I usually do my morning katas at this time. My uncle and I used to wake at sunrise to practice.”
Her head whips up to look at him, and he looks startled.
“Do you… Do you do that every morning?”
He doesn’t meet her eyes. “Yes. But I always practice here—I never go to the other parts of the temple.”
Something about how he tried to explain himself makes a few things click into place for Katara. He never asked her why she was awake or was confused as to how she would have heard him. There’s also the unspoken implication in his words— don’t worry, I don’t intrude in your sanctuary. It means that he might have stumbled upon her while looking for a place to do his bending. She never does anything that could be considered particularly humiliating during her morning alone time, but the barest suggestion of her privacy being invaded during those moments sends a flush of embarrassment through her.
She’s also removed enough from the urgency of the situation that she finally takes in Zuko’s appearance. How it hadn’t occurred to her earlier is beyond her comprehension— she’d spent the better part of the last hour hunched over his body and didn’t notice that he was shirtless the entire time. She wishes Toph were awake so that she could open up a hole underneath Katara to swallow her whole.
“Oh,” is all she can manage. She clears her throat, but her voice still comes out strangled. “I’m almost done on your knee, then I can work on your ankle.” She throws herself back into healing again, focusing on the inflamed muscle, her eyes boring into the sight of her water-gloved hands on Zuko’s leg. The concentration only lasts so long though, as she is unable to keep her mind quiet.
A garbled mess of emotions has taken over her brain. Frustration, annoyance, embarrassment, shame, curiosity… It’s the last one that causes her eyes to wander.
She can’t help herself. Even through all the conflicting feelings she has towards Zuko, most of them negative, this is still the closest she’s ever been to him. She rolled up his pants so easily before, but now she notices just how high up they are, baring the smooth skin of his thigh. She doesn’t dare turn her head and gaze at him openly, but she throws furtive glances at his stomach, observing the well-earned dips and ridges in his abdomen from training. Even under the dull sheen of drying sweat, his skin looks soft.
Katara wonders what it would be like to touch it.
She frowns at the unexpected turn of her thoughts. It’s only natural to appreciate how attractive someone is, but she can’t help the mild displeasure that blooms in her at the fact that it’s Zuko she’s thinking about.
Even so, her hands seem to grow a mind of their own, as she finds her fingertips brushing along his skin. Her eyes dart to his torso again, where his muscles flex minutely with every contact. If it bothers him, he says nothing.
His knee is nearly completely healed, but she grows a little bolder. She moves from kneeling to a lotus position, wordlessly adjusting his leg under the pretense of getting a better angle. She pulls it over one of her knees, and she feels Zuko tense subtly. Still, he doesn’t say a word.
The weight of his leg over hers is warm and heavy, and her stomach twinges with a feeling she can’t quite place. It feels strangely intimate to be tangled with him like this, and it’s a bizarre turn from the ire between them from earlier. She doesn’t want to analyze this change, squarely ignoring it.
The birdsongs and chittering from the fauna around the temple fades away, and she no longer feels the coolness of the stone floor beneath her. Zuko’s heartbeat under her hands grounds her. It’s just the two of them in this moment, his heated skin underneath hers, and the unsteady pound of his blood.
Despite the silence that’s lapsed between them, Katara knows that Zuko is aware of whatever thing is brewing between them, too. She knows it from the hitch of his breath when she touches him, the way his pulse skips a beat as she shifts ever closer to him.
His knee is healed. She doesn’t want to break the burgeoning peace, fragile as it is. As if he reads her mind, he starts shifting his body back so that his ankle is more accessible for her. Her fingers drag along his calf as he does so, and despite the healing water still surrounding her hands, it sends sparks all over her body. The hairs at the back of her neck stand on end, and she can feel how Zuko’s heartbeat turns erratic at the contact. She doesn’t dare look at his face.
Her hands tremble as she takes hold of his ankle. It’s swollen and painfully red just as his knee was, but Zuko makes no complaints. She tries to focus on his injury, trying to get the excess fluid away from his ankle so that she can get to the irritated ligament underneath. Her entire body is thrumming, and her own heart thunders in her ears, both their pulses a cacophonic thunder in her head.
Minutes pass, and there is no verbal acknowledgement from either of them. Katara wonders what it would take for him to finally break the silence, how far she could go before he couldn’t take it anymore. She tries to snuff out the thought, but it’s already too late— her body starts moving of its own accord. His leg slips so that it’s closer to the space between her thighs, and it ignites a fire in her belly.
The healing continues but one of her hands drifts, her fingernails scraping lightly against the instep of his foot, making him exhale sharply. It’s thrilling to see the way he reacts to her touches, and she doesn’t allow herself to think about it, simply chasing his little sighs and shivers with each passing touch. The tension between them grows thick, and she feels her own breaths start to come out heavily. Whatever this is, it starts to build and build and build until Zuko lets out an audible groan.
It sounds like glass shattering to Katara’s ears, and when she looks up at his face reflexively, her heart drops.
He’s staring at her, his eyes half lidded, his mouth hanging open as he sits back on his forearms, his chest heaving with every breath. His tongue peeks out to lick at his lips as he meets her eyes. Her stomach flips as she takes in his molten gaze, because what she sees in his eyes scares her.
She forces herself to look away, but the magnitude of what has transpired between them hits her like a ton of bricks. Zuko lay practically in her lap, she just spent a considerable amount of time fondling his leg while he did so—and it’s clear they both liked it.
She wants to flee.
“Do you think you could stand on your leg now?”
Zuko starts at her words.
“I think so,” he says. The words are hardly out of his mouth before the water in her hands splashes to the ground again. Katara gingerly takes his leg off of hers, mindful of his injury, but scrambles quickly to her feet as soon as she lets go of him.
“I can finish healing you later, I have to—I have to finish the laundry,” she says hurriedly, unable to meet his eyes. She runs before he can even answer her, and if he calls out to her, it’s drowned out by the noise of her feet slapping against the floor.
She doesn’t go back to heal him after. He doesn’t seek her out.
If she sees him favor his other leg in the days following, she makes no comment.
Neither of them acknowledge what has happened, but something is different, and Katara can feel it each time they cross paths or their eyes meet across the fire at night.
Something has shifted.