Katara's heart stopped and couldn’t decide whether to rush into her throat or drop into the pit of her stomach. As she watched Prince Zuko standing at the edge of the pool, wide-eyed and trembling, she wanted very much to run away, grab her brother and Aang, jump onto Appa’s back, and flee for their lives.
And yet, beneath all that fear, her hatred boiled, her blood grew hot, and she was absolutely appalled that his mere existence should spoil what had been turning into a great day. She wanted to curse at him, throw rocks at him, push his stupid scarred head under the water and hold it there until he stopped squirming. But she was trapped, resting on her haunches in the forest’s undergrowth just metees away from their greatest adversary.
Their greatest, shirtless adversary…
Katara forced herself to look away as the prince loosened his drawstring and slipped out of his silk drawers. They fluttered down onto the gravel silently. The water girl concentrated intently on a rock lying on the ground instead, her cheeks burning, her throat dry. But she dared not move. As her delicate, burning ears detected sounds of splashing, she chanced another glimpse and regretted it instantly as the prince had only waded knee-deep into the water, bent over and in the process of testing the freezing water by running his hands experimentally through it.
The roaring of the waterfall seemed to grow louder in Katara’s ears as she sat, fixated by the exposed prince’s sinewy form gracefully moving deeper into the pool to waist height. He was so pale against the deep blackness of the pool, the sunlight seemed to glare off his skin.
Thank gods he’s facing the other way, she thought. She pressed her tongue on the inside of her cheek and chewed on it nervously. Only the water girl’s churning subconscious admitted the taint of regret in that thought, but a hundred dark and nasty ideas rushed into Katara’s mind, drowning out any intriguing notions she might conjure. Her loathing for Zuko welled inside her, overpowering her fear and embarrassment. Could she end his life right now? Drown him by bending the water to suck his body to the bottom of the pool? Even if she wanted to, she didn’t know how. The rock she'd been staring at might make a handy tool for bashing his skull in. Maybe I could strangle him with his own fancy pants, she mused.
But Katara was no killer. She knew it just wasn’t in her nature. The most she could bring herself to do at this point was throw rocks at him and scream. She wasn’t sure she even had the strength to do more than that. Of course, she wasn’t about to reveal herself while he was naked, although that would have put the prince in a compromising position, she smirked. She would definitely enjoy walking out there right now, pointing and laughing.
Her brain played a quick warning image of Zuko spotting her and unhesitatingly leaping out of the water to capture her. Naked.
Mortified at herself, she turned back to watch. How could he stand the cold? She wondered openly. It must be one of the benefits of being from the Fire Nation – hot blood. He barely flinched as the frigid water rose to embrace his narrow hips. With a large sea sponge, he rhythmically began scrubbing his neck, shoulders, arms, back, and chest, water droplets glistening in the golden sunlight like jewels on his alabaster skin. He worked the sponge over himself intently.
Katara found herself stifling a sound in her throat. Laughter? Choking? It might even have come out a moan if she’d let it escape her lips. Still, she dared not stir in her hiding place.
The Prince bent over, the muscles in his ivory back tensing into cables, as he scrubbed things below the waist Katara did not want to think about. At all.
Well, maybe a little.
Stop it, she told herself firmly, closing her eyes and wiping the smile that had crept into her lips off her face. He’s after Aang. He’s the enemy. And he’ll hurt you… again.
Her eyes popped opened again as she heard more splashing. Zuko was pressing the sponge to his face, meticulously washing behind his ears, the back of his neck, tracing his jaw line. He worked at the right side of his face, stroking the hollows of his cheeks and eyes. He very gently dabbed at the scarred left side of his face, caressing the purple-red scar along its fleshy grain with the soft sponge.
Momma taught him well, Katara smirked again to herself. After all, she always said wash your neck, or start growing potatoes...
Zuko immersed the sponge in the water and squeezed the clear, cold water over himself, his eyes closed, his lips slightly parted. He repeated this motion several times, his furrowed face growing less and less tense with each pass of the water-laden sponge.
Katara was suddenly keenly aware that she could feel her element running coolly across his body. Her robe suddenly felt overly constricting as she sensed every drop race down the curve of the prince's neck, curling around his broad shoulders and arms, pooling in the hollows of his collarbone, running freely down his chest and abdomen, raking rivulet fingers down his bare back. A stubborn drop of water hung on Zuko’s bottom lip and she could almost taste the salt of his skin…
She shook herself woozily. What was wrong with her? She shut her eyes and her mind, and tried desperately to ignore the overwhelming rush of the waterfall that coaxed her from her hiding place. Her eyes snapped open to more splashing, as though the prince were gently slapping her awake. And as much as her mind screamed how inappropriate it was to even be in the same square mile the Firebender occupied, she couldn't stop herself from watching.
He undid the binding that kept his ponytail standing erect on his shorn scalp, wrapping the crimson fabric around his palm and wrist. The thick lock of raven hair cascaded over the back of his neck, and he washed it and his scalp with the soaked sponge. Once done, he expertly wrapped it back up in perfect Zuko-esque form with a few deft circular movements of his toned arms.
Katara didn’t even realize she could barely feel her feet now, the circulation in her legs cut off at her rigidly constricted knees. Her legs were dangerously numb, beyond pins and needles, and she wouldn’t know it until she tried to stand.
Gods, how long does he take to wash? She asked herself in disbelief. Even I don't take this long!
Suddenly, Zuko turned around, tossing the sea sponge to the shore.
Oh gods, I didn’t just see that! Katara’s brain screamed at her, blocking out anything her innocent eyes might have thought they’d seen. She repeated a whispered, desperate mantra to herself, her eyes squeezed tightly shut: I didn’t just see that, I didn’t just see that,I didn’t just see that, I didn’t just see that,Ididn’tjustseethatIdidn’tjustseethat…
In truth, she hadn’t seen anything. But a miniscule part of her brain badly wished it had, and made the wish reality with tricks of the light and a few leaves floating on the water’s surface.
Katara, now redder than Fire Nation armour, chanced another quick look at the prince as he stood there, facing the rushing waterfall. He just stood there, transfixed, gazing at the cascading water plunging violently into the deep pool. And as if he’d made a decision, he abruptly dove in, his lithe and supple body arching up, out, and into the deepest part of the freezing pool.
Katara quickly took advantage of this opportunity while Zuko’s head was underwater and burst from her hiding place, stumbling loudly through the brush as her wobbling legs ached and burned and screamed in protest. She fell once, crawled a few paces before pushing herself up again, and ran, praying Aang and Sokka were all right. As she ran, the water girl trembled violently, slightly giddy with relief.
Or was that something else she felt?
So pretty, so pretty… they’re so pretty…
I wonder how much they’re worth?
Zuko had found the waterfall in a clearing some minutes walk away from the beachside landing site. The deep, cool waters reflected his lush surroundings, the rushing of the water murmuring softly in the air. One of the more sober men had helpfully suggested he follow the streamlet they were filling their canteens from. He had absently thanked the man and walked without paying much attention to his path following the trickle. As he made his way along the edge of the stream, ignoring the insect bites and thorns raking his bare chest and arms, he felt as though his mind was separated from his body. Nothing felt real, nothing felt tangible. He simply drifted, his legs walking of their own accord while his head floated just above his shoulders.
The only things the prince could feel were locked up in his tormented brain, guarded by an unusual sentry.
The waterfall plummeted from an opening in the cliff face about ten meters up. It wasn’t a very strong torrent of water, but uncounted years of glacial water flowing into the pool made it deep at the centre, its bottom smooth and sandy. Zuko stripped and waded in. He unconsciously increased his body temperature as the frigid water enveloped him, but he was too absorbed in his meditative self-reflection to notice as he methodically washed the nightmare sweat from his body. The water, though cold, felt good on his calloused skin, and he let it run over his body, feeling its sensual caress.
Thoroughly cleaned, Zuko stopped to watch the cascading water, the foam leaping about merrily. It playfully called to him, begging to be explored, run through, drunk. It was almost... flirtatious. He tossed his sponge to the shore and recklessly dove in, letting the icy chill take him.
It seemed strange that the peoples of the Fire Nation spent so much time with or on the water, yet so little time really enjoying it. They built massive warships of steel and iron to ride the element, used steam power in some cases to power them. Back home, some of the wealthier merchants and eccentric counts even had koi ponds in the gardens, or beautiful marble fountains plundered from the
Zuko wondered if people from the Water Tribes swam. It would seem to be a reasonable conjecture, but their lands were so cold, it couldn’t have been humanly possible, could it? Only his steely resolve and fine-tuned control of his own body temperature kept him comfortably immersed in the glacial pool. Then again, the people of the Water Tribes in the North had survived and thrived in the frigid wasteland of ice and snow for centuries. They probably had ways of getting around the cold.
The Fire Prince felt a strange pang in his chest as he realized the diminishing Water Tribe in the South Pole was probably next on the list of annihilation. Who could say where the war would take the Fire Nation? His father’s forces were probably strong enough to storm both the Northern and Southern Tribes at once, sweeping over them in a final, blazing holocaust. Just like the Airbenders.
The thought disturbed him thoroughly as he submerged himself even deeper. Why should he even care what happened with the Water Tribes?
The prince relaxed underwater, holding his breath, his eyes closed. He could hear the dull thrumming of the waterfall, and felt his body toss as the current pulled him in, sucking him deeper under. He didn't fight it. He just let it happen. It occurred to Zuko that though his nightmares enveloped him in crushing sluices of aquatic claustrophobia, he had no fear of this pool, or of any body of water, in fact. The ocean had always seemed calm and promising. Or it had lately, anyhow. It just seemed right somehow, to be floating the way he was. The weightless sensation of his limbs was soothing. His mind felt open, clear of thought and anything hot or hard or sharp. It was all soft edges and coolness.
Is this what she feels like when she sleeps? Are her dreams filled with cool blue waters?
Zuko let himself be carried away by the currents in his mind that he’d been damming and suppressing these past two weeks. His thoughts drifted almost immediately to the lovely water girl, Katara, an angel in the deep, swimming towards him, her unbraided hair loosely floating about her perfect face, reaching out to caress his naked form…
He felt his mouth twitch and let himself relax into smile, as though a happy sun were slowly rising in his chest. Slowly and blissfully, he opened his eyes underwater...
And found himself staring into a woman’s horrified face.