Chapter 1: Twelve Hours
“It is better by noble boldness to run the risk of being subject to half of the evils we anticipate than to remain in cowardly listlessness for fear of what might happen.”
“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
– Edmund Burke
Fire was all around her, walling her in on all sides, pressing close and singeing her hair. She struggled to protect herself from the flames, cruel laughter echoing in her ears. She couldn't get away. She couldn't reach enough water. She couldn't control it. Fingers of flame reached for her and she screamed. Terror gripped her but she held firm. Whatever happened, happened. She would not back down. A voice called to her, pleading desperately, “Stop, Katara, you can't win this fight!”
No, she would not stop. Freedom beckoned for her. Then time stilled. The figure of Death stood before her—No, not Death, just the warden. His face was pulled into a mocking grin. “Listen to him well, child. You're one mistake from dying where you stand.”
She lashed out in fear, only to have her attack carelessly brushed aside. The warden sneered. “Foolish girl! You thought a few inspirational words and some coal would change these people? Look at those blank faces. Their spirits were broken long ago. Oh? But you still believe in them? How sweet. They're a waste of your energy, little girl. You've failed.”
Chaos erupted. Shouts of pain and the roar of flames filled the air. Someone tackled the warden, another was shouting to run, but it was too late. They were overpowered and her twelve hours were up. They were trapped.
The cell was cramped and dirty. Filth from the previous occupants was pushed into the corners though that didn't help the smell or the cleanliness. Katara lay where the Fire Nation guards had dropped her. If she were still capable of tears, she knew she'd cry; but tears had long since dried. Tears hadn't saved her yet and they only brought more brutal treatment at the hands of her captors. Deadened blue eyes stared into nothing, and not even the rodents that had managed to make their way onto the giant steel island drew a rise out of her. Katara's head dropped back to the floor with a dull thump and she closed her eyes. Death would come soon enough.
She'd been naive to expect a prison break to be simple. Her eyes burned but still no tears came. So many had died in the initial uprising and she'd been unable to do anything despite being surrounded by her element. She wasn't strong enough. Her memories mocked her. Her optimism that good always triumphed over evil had gotten the best of her. She should have realized that evil had been winning for nearly one hundred years, one fourteen year old girl wasn't about to change that. She'd been a fool. She failed and Haru and a dozen others paid the price. Who were they to stand against the strongest nation in the world? It was only a matter of time before they came for her and then she would have nothing.
The rats scattered and a moment later the lock squealed horribly and the door crashed open. A large form filled the door, face hidden behind a masked helmet. Some inner piece of her recoiled, forcing her body to curl protectively around her vital organs. Rough hands seized her matted hair, forcing her to her feet. Pain shuddered through her body, escaping in a quiet gasp that was either unheard or ignored. The treatment to bind her arms was rough, as it had always been, and her skin had already been rubbed raw from previous restraints. The soldier gave the ropes a harsh tug, grunting, “Don't get any ideas. You're coming with me today, get moving!”
The hands shoved her and she stumbled clumsily over her feet before landing in an inelegant heap in the corridor. The firebender flung a vile curse at her followed by a swift kick. A cry escaped her as a rib snapped, reflexive tears escaped her eyes, the first in weeks. With a final kick, the guard seized her arm and dragged her down into the bowels of the steel structure. The sounds of human suffering reached her long before they reached their destination. The hot blast of air made her eyes water and the warden turned as they entered. His eyes were cold despite his smile. “Ah, so our little jeohangja arrives at last. A pity you're no good to me here, weak as you are, I'm sure we would've found some,” he paused as if to find the right word, “use for you.”
She said nothing, her eyes staring and unseeing. The handle of the whip pushed her chin up and the warden leaned forward, cold, gold eyes searching her face. He sharply turned her head to a different angle, eyes assessing, before he dropped her chin and spoke to the guard who still had a tight hold on her arm. “She's untouched?”
The warden nodded, moving to the nearby table and leafing through several pages and maps, pausing to consider one. “I suppose the markets are still running?”
The guard answered in the affirmative and the soldier turned a critical gaze back to Katara, “Well, Jeonhangja, you'll fetch a pretty penny at the markets. Too bad I can't try you myself.”
For a brief moment, blue eyes sharpened and the warden laughed. “Take her away and clean her up. I'm sure the traders will want a medical script for her, see that it's done.”
The warden wave a hand in dismissal and Katara was propelled from the room. Once again, she tripped over her own feet, this time crashing into a wall. It had been weeks since she'd used her legs for longer than a few minutes and she could feel her muscles crying under the strain. Her vision swam and darkened as her stomach rolled. When was the last time she ate? A sharp prod in her broken ribs had her shying away with a hiss.
“Get moving, girl.”
When she didn't move fast enough, another shop prod forced her to stumble away if only to avoid the pain. It was several faltering steps later that the fog around her brain lifted and the scent of illness and sterilization fluid tickled her nose. A new kind of terror gripped her. She'd prefer death to dishonor any day. Without warning, she ran. Her ribs protested violently, shortening her gasps for air, and her legs felt like she was running through mud.
She must have caught her guard unawares, it was the only explanation she had for how far she'd gotten before he gave a shout of alarm and chased after her. It was a futile attempt, but perhaps they would kill her in the process. Black encroached on her vision as her lungs couldn't pull in enough air and then she was tackled from behind, her breath rushing from her in a pained scream. She wasn't going down without a fight. She kicked. She screamed. She bit. The corridor reverberated with the sound of her fighting and the shouts and orders of several firebenders who'd come at the noise.
“Stop! You're hurting her!”
She sank her teeth into her captor's hand, prompting a pained yell. “Good riddance! She's a demon.” She locked her jaw, drawing blood. “ Agni ! You have to sedate her!”
“I'm trying! Hold her still.”
Fingers pressed beneath her jaw and she could feel her grip loosening against her will. More fingers forced her teeth apart and her captive snatched his hand back with a flurry of curses. A cloth slipped over her nose and mouth and with a few last, weak struggles, she drifted into unconsciousness.
She hovered on the edge of wakefulness, her limbs feeling like lead and her eyes refusing to open. The voices around her sounded like they came from a long way off, echoing hollowing in her head.
“That's going to leave a scar.”
“You don't sound too happy about that.”
“There's nothing to brag about a half-starved girl nearly taking off a chunk of my flesh with her teeth.”
“How old do you suppose she is?”
“Hell if I know. The bitch has strong jaws. Perhaps you should write a warning on that medical transcript of yours.”
“She's so young—”
“Good. She'll fetch a higher price.”
“That's cruel and sick.”
“That's orders. It's a shame about the hair.”
“It'll grow back. You better take a lye bath before you return to your quarters. Just as a precaution.”
“Great. One more thing to worry about. Sometimes I really hate my job.”
Footsteps moved away and Katara felt herself sinking back into oblivion. A whispered sigh reached her ears. “I always hate mine.”
Chapter 2: A Good Return
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
“There are many in the world who are dying for a piece of bread, but there are many more dying for a little love.”
– Mother Teresa
“If everyone howled at every injustice, every act of barbarism, every act of unkindness, then we would be taking the first step towards a real humanity.”
– Nelson DeMille
The days were growing warmer which allowed Zuko to shed his heavy cloak during the late afternoon hours. It was nice not to have the restriction of armor and cloak. He felt free. He felt—his stomach rumbled. He felt hungry. Life was never easy for him. Sometimes he wished—He shook his head. Azula was crazy. Never again, he swore to himself, never again would he fall for her manipulation. He tugged on the reins of his ostrich horse in agitation. Azula always lies. Thoughts of Azula brought to mind his uncle. Maybe he shouldn't have left Uncle. His jaw tensed. He would not think about that. He was alone. It was more dangerous to travel together anyway.
Zuko sighed, pausing at the top of a hill to look down at the port below. He needed supplies, but ports were a bad place to go. He was bound to be recognized, with his face plastered on every wanted poster from here to the Fire Nation. And not only his face, but the Blue Spirit too. All because he couldn't let Zhao win. His fists clenched. There was no choice. It could be days before he came across another town and a less populated town meant other risks increased. No, the port would have to do.
He took shelter in the trees off the road, digging through his one bag and pulling out the last of the bandages. They looked filthy, a result of massive amounts of rain and a surly ostrich horse. It took several minutes to wind the bandages around his head, covering his most distinct feature. Perhaps that would diminish the chances of him being recognized and allow him the opportunity to slip in and out of town quickly. Ports were used to seeing the wounded come and go. After a quick debate about leaving the ostrich horse, he gathered the reins and started down into the port.
The port was teaming with activity. Merchants lined the streets, hawking their wears and offering deals. Firebenders moved through the crowd, the Earth Kingdom people clearing a wide path around them and covertly watching their progress. Zuko kept a close eye on the firebenders' movements, keeping well out of their direct line of sight. First he would find food for himself, then he'd see what was available for the ostrich horse. If all else failed, the horse could find its own food. Closer to the docks both the streets and the people got rougher. As a result, the Fire Nation soldiers kept a more watchful eye on any who looked like trouble. Zuko could feel their eyes linger on him and he stepped up to a booth, absently looking over the over-ripened produce. A scornful scoff on his blind side drew his attention.
“There they are again. Bringing their barbaric practice here. No good Earth Kingdom man would do such a thing.”
Curious, Zuko turned, following the gazes of the two men next to him to the pier. A ship was unloading its cargo while what could only be the captain herded a group of bedraggled people to a small staging area. Several others had stopped to watch, leaning close and whispering to each other. Beside him, the conversation resumed.
“They must get a market—”
The first man laughed darkly. “Oh, they have a market all right. I have half a mind to go over there and—”
He started toward the docks, but his friend pulled him back, looking around anxiously. “Sh! That smacks of rebellion.”
“Good!” the man exclaimed, not caring that he was beginning to draw attention. He drew himself up, pointing an accusing finger at them. “You should be ashamed!”
His friend gasped, grabbing at his arm. “I'm sorry! He's drunk. Quiet! You're going to get us in trouble.”
“No! I won't be quiet. How many of our own have been taken? How many are now whores for those fire bastards? And you call yourselves civilized .”
Zuko drew away from them, melting into the gathering crowd just as several Fire Nation soldiers approached the enraged man. “Sir, we're going to have to ask you to quiet down. You're disrupting the peace.”
“ Disrupting the peace ? You guys are destroying it! What peace is there in this spirit forsaken world? You invade our land, murder our sons, rape our women and you dare talk to me about peace ?”
Grumbles spread through the crowd and tension rose. The last place Zuko wanted to be was in the middle of a riot. He finally made it to the back of the crowd when he heard a shout and the onlookers surged forward. He stumbled as people pushed past him and the ostrich horse jerked on his reins, protesting loudly at the commotion. From up the street he could see more soldiers approaching so Zuko had no choice but to retreat to the pier until things quieted down.
His eyes drifted to the ragged group now lined up evenly spaced in front of a crudely erected platform. He took in their appearance with a scowl, scanning the line. On the end was a girl. His scowl deepened as he tried to remember why she looked so familiar. Whatever. He had better things to do and by the sound of it, the riot was in full swing. The soldiers would probably be occupied for a while. Perfect. He'd already spent too long in town.
His eye caught sight of the girl again and a memory surfaced. He'd seen her twice before and then she was simply gone. He'd always assumed she'd gone home, but the non-bending water brat had demanded to know where she was and even the Avatar had asked. Before he realized what he was doing, he was standing in front of her, his good eye narrowed on her.
“What are you doing here?”
It was a demand, not a question. He wanted answers for the violent fights he had to go through with the Avatar. Sometimes it felt more like the young airbender was hunting him than the reverse. Now he just wanted to be left alone. The Avatar had caused him nothing but trouble. Blue eyes flicked up, dull and flat, but he thought he detected something stir in the depths and then it was gone. She was small, too thin, an unhealthy look about her, and her hair... His scowl deepened. Her head had been shaved at some point. Probably because of lice. The girl didn't answer, but flinched as the ship's master scurried forward, bowing briskly in greeting and grinning up at Zuko, exclaiming, “Excellent choice, my lord!”
He started at the title, but casting a quick look at the man revealed nothing alarming. He frowned but the man didn't seem perturbed, continuing to expound upon Zuko's apparent selection. “She's young and unsullied, my lord—”
The man gripped the neck of the girl's threadbare tunic and ripped it open. Zuko felt his face heat.
“—perfectly healthy. She's from the Northern Water Tribe—”
“Southern Water Tribe,” Zuko interrupted before he could stop himself. He cringed internally. He should've learned by now to keep his mouth shut.
The man grinned roguishly. “If you wish, my lord. You can even believe she's the last waterbender if you like.”
The wink that followed the statement made his skin crawl. He grunted in disgust. The man was without honor. Besides, the Avatar and his friends were no longer his concern. He sneered and turned away, barely hearing the quiet, gasping sob that escaped the water girl. He hesitated, Uncle's voice pricking at him like his conscience, “Two are better than one because they have a good return for their labor. For if either of them falls, the one will lift up his companion. But woe to the one who falls when there is not another to lift him up.”*
Annoyance welled up in him. Even away from Uncle he couldn't escape. Uncle and his stupid proverbs. What did that even mean ?
“Surely you would not leave a young woman in distress, Zuko?”
He could almost feel his inner-Iroh's disappointment. The ship master, seeing he was losing a customer, quickly changed tactics. “I see you are a noble soldier recovering from a brave battle. No doubt you would like some company as you recover. I will give you a discount on any of my...goods in honor of your service to our great nation.”
Zuko leveled him with a flat stare. He glanced at the girl again only to meet blue eyes. He forcibly looked away. His jaw clenched. He was going soft. “How much?”
Zuko grit his teeth, resisting the urge to snarl. It'd be so much easier to just sneak in after dark and snatch her like he did the Avatar. He quickly abandoned that idea, no matter how tempting it was. The last thing he needed was the local law enforcement after him. Apparently there were many things on his list of 'last things he needed.' He really didn't need a half-starved water girl either. Damn his conscience. “You're kidding. It looks like she'll fall over and die any moment. One thousand.”
“Twenty-five hundred and I'll throw in a new set of clothes for the lady.”
Said clothes didn't look much better than what she had on. “Keep your rags. Fifteen hundred.”
“Two thousand and I'll go no lower.”
Zuko had been hoping to go lower. Movement on board the ship caught his attention. The dealer cleared his throat and Zuko turned back, folding his arms across his chest, and bluffed, “Sixteen-fifty says I won't report your actions to the authorities.”
He laughed. “The 'authorities' have given me their blessings, boy. Two thousand and that's final.”
Zuko raised his single eyebrow. “Perhaps on the slaves, but what about the drugs?” He paused, letting that sink in, before allowing a small smirk. “And the weapons? I know those aren't going back for Fire Nation use.”
A dark scowl fell over the ship master's face. “Fine. Sixteen-fifty.”
Money exchanged hands, the girl was cut from the rope, and the lead was handed to Zuko. He was now the proud owner of a slave. Zuko grimaced. Uncle would be so proud. The ship master bowed. “Pleasure doing business with you, sir. Enjoy your purchase.”
Zuko glared. First thing he was going to do when he became Fire Lord was destroy the man. He swore he could almost hear mocking laughter. It sounded an awful lot like Azula. Right. If he became Fire Lord. The thought did nothing to lighten his mood. With a final scowl at the man, Zuko turned and stalked off, dragging the girl and his ostrich horse behind him. Why was his life so difficult?
He barely heard her, but his name made his back stiffen and he immediately snarled, “Don't call me that!”
She recoiled as if he'd kicked her, eyes wide and fearful. Great. Now he felt like he had just kicked a saber-tooth moose-lion cub. He closed his eyes, taking a deep breath and passing a hand through his hair—he was still surprised that he had hair—before attempting to soften his words. “Call me Lee.” She nodded, her lips still clamped closed. He rolled his eyes. “What's your name, girl?”
She blinked, swallowing nervously. “Katara.”
A wolf-whistle nearby brought Zuko's attention to the crowd of teen boys at the corner, openly leering at Katara's ripped clothing. They drew back under his fierce scowl. “What are you looking at?”
They quickly hurried on, several casting assessing glances over their shoulders at them. With a final glare at their retreating back, Zuko turned and continued into the market. He was rapidly coming to several conclusions. One, the girl was drawing too much attention. Two, he had no more money. Three, he was beginning to believe he'd made a very stupid decision. Four, he still had no food. He glanced at the girl— Katara— and saw her clutching her tunic closed. She needed clothes.
He pulled her to the side, cutting her bindings before turning to pull out his cloak and throw it at her. Startled eyes looked up at him, but he ignored her, strapping his dao swords across his back and taking one of the saddle bags. When he turned back to her, she was wrapped tightly in the cloak. “Here—wait here with the ostrich horse. If you decide to run off, leave the horse. If you steal it, I'll hunt you down and kill you myself.”
She nodded, taking the reins and eyeing the ostrich horse warily. He briefly wondered if she'd ever seen the animal before, but he pushed the thought away. What did he care? She'd probably be gone by the time he got back anyway. He just hoped she'd leave the ostrich horse behind. He wasn't looking forward to walking across the Earth Kingdom.
Chapter 3: The Awkward Part
“Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope...and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”
– Robert F. Kennedy
“People never forget that helping hand, especially when times are tough.”
– Catherine Pulsifer
With the city on the brink of uprising, food and supplies were surprisingly easy to acquire. Most of the merchants were distracted by the crowds rushing by—or simply caught up in the fever pitch of rebellion—to pay attention to one masked man slipping down from an awning to grab a bag of feed or swiping produce from various stalls across the market. It was a shameful act, stealing someone's livelihood, and he could still see Uncle's look of resigned disappointment, but it couldn't be helped. Especially now that he had used up all his money purchasing a slave he didn't want. Perhaps that good deed would counteract all his bad ones. Somehow he doubted it would be that easy.
He stored the goods on a rooftop at the edge of the city then doubled back to find a tunic for the girl...if she was still around. He'd just have to make sure it'd fit him as well in case she decided to make a run for it. Zuko half-hoped she would. He was supposed to strike out on his own. The idea was to figure out who he was supposed to be. He was a son of the Fire Nation, but every firebender he came across tried to kill him. Maybe it was Azula trying to take the thone from him. Still, not even a week had passed and here he was with another mouth to feed and considerably poorer. The spirits just loved mocking him.
The tunic took longer to acquire than any of the other supplies he'd collected. Who knew people would be so protective of a scrap of cloth? In the end, he managed to snag one that looked like it would fit off a clothes line and he got several streets before he realized that it was rather small and feminine. Well, the girl had better not complain because he was not getting another one. Bunching the clothing into a compact ball, Zuko ducked into a darkened alley, quickly stripping off the blue mask and peeling off the dark clothing. Once everything was safely secured in his pack, he stepped onto the streets and started back to where he'd left the ostrich horse. The streets had emptied for the most part, those that didn't want to be caught up in the riots hiding indoors and others out seeking adventure in some other part of the city. It was the perfect time to leave without much notice.
The girl was where he'd left her, anxiously twisting the reins of the ostrich horse and staring off in the direction he'd gone. He dropped from the roof top, startling a gasp from her. He barely spared the girl a glance, gathering the reins of the ostrich horse and securing his pack behind the saddle.
“I thought you'd be long gone by now.”
The girl said nothing, retreating a safe distance from him. Zuko scowled. He could remember not long ago when she had given him a tongue lashing, or at least showed more of a spine. With a jerk of the reins, he started down the street before his inner-Iroh could chastise him for being insensitive. He paused long enough to retrieve the supplies he'd hidden and then continued out the city gates. The girl dragged a few paces behind, her steps faltering on the uneven dirt streets. A bruise was beginning to form around her left eye. The sight stopped him short and his eyes narrowed. That bruise hadn't been there before.
“Who hit you?”
Zuko never approved of violence against women and Katara was hardly more than a girl. She flinched, immediately ducking her head and turning her face so he couldn't see it. “It's nothing.”
His scowl deepened and part of him was tempted to march back into that Spirit-forsaken city and torch it. A stiff wind blew and he caught her sway as it tugged at her clothing. He was right. She was going to fall over and die in a gust of wind.
“You are determined to follow me?”
She blushed, her eyes dropping to the dirt at her feet. “I don't know where I am.”
He grunted, just catching her peering up at him through thick lashes before she hurriedly looked away. “Well, that's not my problem. Go away.”
He swung himself up into the saddle, gathering the reins and calming the ostrich horse as it danced beneath him. She looked startled, reaching for the ostrich horse. “You're just going to leave me?”
Zuko looked down at her, trying to ignore the fear that showed in her eyes. “Yes.”
She looked down the road, then back toward the port city. “But...”
Zuko pulled sharply on the reins, causing the ostrich horse to throw its head and squawk in protest. Her hand fell back to her side and she hugged herself, taking a step away from the agitated animal.
“It is a kingly act to assist the fallen.”
Zuko sat rigidly in the saddle, scowling. His inner-Iroh was back. Laughter echoed in his mind. A deep, belly chuckle. Much like Uncle. This was getting to be more trouble than he anticipated. It seemed like everything he did only compounded his problems.
“A trouble shared is a trouble halved.”
So, Uncle would not leave well enough alone. There was nothing for it. With a put upon huff, he focused on the girl. She was chewing on her lip, watery blue eyes watching him mournfully. Whe she caught sight of him looking at her, she straightened, sniffing back tears. Grudgingly, he asked, “Can you at least cook?”
Relief flooded her face and she nodded eagerly. “Yes. A little. I would help Gran-Gran—”
“Fine,” he interrupted. “Don't slow me down.”
“Hey! What are you two doing out at this time?”
Zuko jerked around, cursing under his breath when he saw the two Fire Nation soldiers briskly approaching them. Zuko's hands tightened on the reins, digging his knees into the sides of the bird when it protested.
“It's the Fire Prince!”
They dropped into bending positions. “By decree of Fire Lord Ozai, you're under arrest! Dismount and keep your hands where we can see them!”
Zuko seized a fistful of Katara's tunic, ignoring her surprised gasp when the tunic fell open as he yanked her up onto the ostrich horse. The bird stumbled, braying loudly. Fire erupted from the soldiers and Zuko deflected, urging the ostrich horse into a gallop toward the trees that lined the road.
A quick glance over his shoulder revealed soldiers spilling onto the road from the city before his view was obstructed by the trees. Azula wasted no time sending out his wanted poster. For a brief moment he wondered what it said, but pushed the thought away. He had a pretty good idea based on what just happened anyway. Part of him felt betrayed. A sharp tug on his shirt brought him out of his thoughts, making him realize he'd been pushing the ostrich horse too hard. He could no longer hear the soldiers pursuing them so he halted, suddenly aware that the girl was pressed against his chest. He dumped her off his lap, pushing down the guilt when she hit the ground with a pained grunt.
“Don't cling on me.”
An incredulous look crossed her face and for a moment he thought she would actually respond, but then she dropped her eyes and gingerly picked herself up. He dismounted the weary bird, calming it with a tender stroke on its beak before removing the saddle and packs.
The glare he leveled her made her mouth snap shut with an audible click. “What?”
She ducked, shaking her head. With a roll of his eyes, he dropped the packs at his feet, holding the reins out to her. “Go get water.”
She took the reins on reflex. “Um...”
“That direction. Make sure you water the horse.”
He motioned absently toward the thick trees that surrounded the camp, then marched in the opposite direction. Surely the girl could sense her own element. He didn't have to do everything for her now. He spent several minutes gathering dry wood and twigs before he returned to the clearing. The girl was gone. So was the ostrich horse. The saddle and packs remained. At least she'd left the supplies behind. Quickly setting up the logs, he took a deep breath, focusing his energy and then, with a deft flick of his wrist, created a spark. The wood was dry and caught quickly. Zuko watched the flames rise and fall with his breathing, content to watch his element. It was soothing.
A startled shriek echoed through the trees from the direction he'd pointed for water and he shot to his feet, the fire snuffing out in a cloud of smoke. He was through the trees before he could really analyze what he was doing, skidding to a halt several feet from where the girl knelt by a narrow stream. She looked surprised to see him, his hand already on the hilt of his broadswords and gold eyes sweeping the area for danger. Seeing none, he finally looked at her, taking in the damp clothes and water dripping from her hand. He scowled, demanding, “What?”
She blinked, looking down at her hand, then at the stream. She seemed unsure of what he was asking before finally saying, “It glowed.”
Still tense, body humming with adrenaline, he growled, “What glowed?”
Another glance at the stream and then her hand still cupping a small puddle of water, she gave him a sheepish shrug, her voice unsure as she offered, “The water?”
His hand fell from the broadswords, a look of incredulous disbelief coming to his face. “That's it ?That's—you know what, never mind.”
He turned to stalk off, only vaguely aware that she scrambled after him until she touched his arm. He recoiled instantly, snarling, “Don't touch me, peasant!”
She too flinched away as if he was going to strike her, face paling. There was that feeling again. Hadn't they done this same thing earlier? Stupid girl. Stupid ship master. Stupid Earth Kingdom. This wasn't fair. Zuko would have continued to sulk if the girl hadn't shifted slightly and cleared her throat. He glared. She pretended to ignore it.
“I just wanted to show you.”
“I don't want to see your stupid waterbending tricks.”
Hurt flashed across her face before she ducked her head, hiding her features. She moved back to the stream, kneeling at the edge. “You can watch from there...if you want.”
Hours later he still wouldn't know why he stayed, but he did, watching her dip her hand into the water, her face scrunched in concentration as she slowly pulled it out again, her hand coated in a thin bubble of water. To his surprise, she turned toward him and started tugging at the rags that clothed her with her free hand. Before his alarm could amount to panic, she stopped, exposing a large burn on her shoulder that had been hidden beneath the ragged tunic. Zuko felt his stomach turn. Even from a distance he could see it red and festering. She moved, placing her water-coated hand over the burn, taking a deep breath and closing her eyes. The water glowed a pale blue color, faintly lighting her features in the growing dusk. A final gasp and the water flowed freely, soaking into her tunic and dripping to the ground. Her head turned to examine her shoulder and unconsciously Zuko crept closer. Unable to resist, his hand reached out to trace smooth, unblemished skin. Suddenly realizing that he was touching her, he retreated several steps, brushing his hand against his pants.
“Whatever. You smell.”
The words were curt and rough. His attempt to maintain distance. Surprise colored her features, but he was avoiding looking at her. He quickly gathered the ostrich horse's reins and started back to camp. Waterbenders were weird, he decided. Weird and—and—just weird. She had looked at him with so much trust, even knowing he was a firebender. By the time the girl returned from the stream, her hair clinging damply to her cheeks, Zuko had the fire going again and was digging through the packs in an attempt to put together something to eat. Without a word, he held out the tunic he'd snatched for her. She took it in some surprise before whispering a quiet “thank you” and vanished into the trees. When she returned, she had her clothes wrapped in a tight bundle in one hand and his cloak folded neatly in the other.
Without realizing it, Zuko sat on his heels, silently observing Katara's appearance. The tunic hung loosely on her and she'd belted it around her middle, letting it fall to mid-thigh in a short dress. So it wasn't too small after all, Zuko mused, his gaze lingering on her legs. A bizarre thought struck him making his face heat. Was all her skin as tan? She flushed under his eyes and he forced his gaze away, mechanically taking his cloak from her. Smoothing a hand nervously at her clothing, she marched to the fire, gleefully dumping her old clothes on the flames and nodding with satisfaction before moving around the fire and settling down. It was difficult not to stare at her. One would think he'd never seen a girl's legs before. The flush in his cheeks deepened and he fell back against the ostrich horse saddle, pressing the palms of his hands against his eyes and trying to push his thoughts away.
Chapter 4: Annoyances
“The biggest disease today is not leprosy or tuberculosis, but rather the feeling of being unwanted.”
– Mother Teresa
“Remember that everyone you meet is afraid of something, loves something and has lost something.”
– H. Jackson Brown, Jr.
Zuko, Prince of the Fire Nation and heir-apparent to the throne, was not brooding, despite evidence to the contrary. It had been three days since he'd acquired the water girl. Three days of her stumbling behind him slowing him down. Three days of having to frequently stop so she wouldn't die of exhaustion. Two nights of interrupted sleep as she screamed herself awake due to night terrors. Across the low burning campfire Zuko heard a quiet whimper. Gold eyes narrowed. It appeared like it was about to be a third night. He should just pack up camp right now and leave. He didn't need her. He didn't want her. The girl kicked, a wordless cry escaping her lips and he could see her features twisting in fear. He scowled. He was too soft. Zuko pushed himself to his feet with an annoyed grunt. It was only going to get worse.
The ostrich horse looked up as Zuko made his way around the campfire. Zuko gave the animal a passing pat then knelt beside the girl. He studied her shivering form for a moment, considering his options. He could leave her to wake on her own, but he was beginning to believe that the cycle of night terrors would never end. He could vaguely remember Uncle waking him during the night after his banishment. He could just remember him explaining dreams and nightmares and the psychology behind it, but Zuko had just wanted to sleep and by the next morning he could hardly recall waking during the night. The girl's hand shot out, nearly connecting with his jaw, and Zuko jerked back. He'd almost forgotten that he'd burned up his bedding during one of his night terrors. Fortunately it wasn't possible for the girl to set fire to the forest. He grasped her shoulder none too gently and gave it a rough shake.
“Wake up, peasant!”
The girl woke with a startled gasp, struggling away from him only to land face first in the dirt not a foot from him, panting heavily. Neither moved for several minutes until she turned her head, blue eyes squinting in the dark. Her voice shook when she spoke, “Zuko?”
He grunted, standing and wiping his hands off on his pants. His good deed was done. He stepped around her and back to his side of the fire without saying a word and settled back in his spot, turning his back to her and focusing on his breathing. He could feel her eyes on him but he was determined to ignore her. She was an annoyance. That was all.
The days passed much the same since Zuko gained Katara's company. They traveled together, hardly speaking—Zuko maintaining a determined silence while Katara peppered him with questions. The nights were calmer, Katara seemed to wake herself before her nightmares got too intense. The seventh night, Katara woke with a startled gasp. The campfire was a few warm embers that cast just enough light for Katara to make out Zuko's form on the far side of the fire. The firebender seemed adamant about maintaining a safe distance from her, spreading his bedroll on the otherside of the fire and making a show of settling down with a pointed glare in her direction. She hugged her knees, shivering as the remains of a nightmare gradually slipped away. If she were back home, she'd crawl into bed with Gran-Gran or Sokka. Gran-Gran would scold her, telling her she was far too old to hide from her nightmares. Sokka would hardly wake, grumbling about protecting her from evil firebenders before dropping off with a snore.
The thought made her smile. What would Sokka think if he found out it was the evil firebender that rescued her? A sudden twitch from said firebender drew her attention. He was curled on his side and she could just see his unblemished cheek in the dim light. He looked younger than she thought now that he wasn't scowling at her. His brow furrowed and he frowned in his sleep. It made her wonder if he had nightmares too. It seemed so human. A cool breeze picked up and she shivered again. Despite the open air and trees surrounding her, she still felt trapped and alone. Her nightmares weren't going to let her sleep. She bit her lip, considering Zuko's form for a moment before coming to a decision. Gathering her blankets, she quietly made her way around the campfire. At Zuko's side, she hesitated. It was one thing to crawl into bed with her grandmother or brother, but it was entirely different when it was a strange, firebending man. Her usual place across the fire looked uninviting and, ignoring the mental tsking of her Gran-Gran, she spread her blankets out and snuggled into the small space on Zuko's bedroll, covering the both of them with the edge of her blanket. It was the comfort of another human being she wanted, it didn't matter if that other human being was a firebender and currently hated her or not.
Zuko woke slowly the next morning, stretching kinks out of cramped muscles and brushing against the still slumbering waterbender next to him. He rolled away with a muttered curse, tripping over his tangled blanket and scrambling to his feet, eyes darting around the fire, desperately hoping he had not crawled into bed with the girl. If Uncle or, Spirits forbid, Azula found out he'd never live it down. A quick scan of the small camp proved he hadn't moved from his bedroll. Relief was quickly followed by anger and embarrassment. Hauling the slumbering waterbender up by her tunic, he roared, “What were you thinking?”
The girl cringed, her hands flying to cover her face, a wordless cry of fear escaping her before she went limp. Zuko stared at her, suddenly realizing how rough he'd been. He released her, stepping back as she crumpled to the ground and curled into a ball. “I don't share my bed with peasants.”
“I had a nightmare.”
“So you just crawl into a man's bed? Did you expect me to comfort you?”
Blue eyes peeked up at him. “No. I—”
“ Don't do it again.”
He stalked off, swiping up his broadswords as he passed them, and disappeared into the trees. Some time alone would do them both good and maybe he could forget that he was the one with his arm around her waist. When he returned to camp, Katara had already packed what few belongings they had and was waiting by the ostrich horse. Zuko passed her in stoney silence, barely giving her a passing glance. She followed quietly behind him, watching as he kept a vigilant look out at the trees around him. That night, when Katara woke with a start from her nightmares, Zuko feigned sleep, watching as she sat shivering in silence before she gathered her blanket and crept quietly to his side.
“I miss my brother.”
The statement wasn't what he was expecting and caused him to pause. Her words reminded him of his own sister—back when his family was happy, back before she knew she could bend—crawling into his bed in the middle of the night, teary-eyed and trembling from a nightmare. The Fire Palace hadn't exactly been an excellent environment for children. With a defeated sigh, he turned away, making no protest as he felt Katara settle down next to him. Eventually her nightmares would vanish and she'd stay on her own bedroll, in the mean time he would try to ignore the comfort that there were perhaps two people in the world who weren't trying to kill him.
The transition from sleep to consciousness was almost instantaneous for Zuko after years of naval life. He sat up, eyes immediately sweeping the campsite for the cause of his sudden awakening. To his surprise, it was well past dawn and Katara was already awake, kneeling next to a cheerfully burning campfire and turning two fish on a spit. Her wide, blue eyes were watching him in surprise, startled by his sudden movements. Zuko scowled, easing his grip on his broadswords and slumping, running a hand over his face as his mind adjusted to his abrupt waking. She seemed to take his relaxed posture as assurance that he wasn't going to attack her because she smiled, almost a week of good sleep and semi-regular meals was bringing back a healthy glow to her skin. “Good morning!”
He dropped his hand to his lap, glaring at her and ignoring her chipper greeting. “Where did you get the fish?”
Her head tilted curiously and she looked from him to the fish over the fire and shrugged. “Caught them. Sokka's actually better than I am at the whole hunting thing, but—”
Zuko stood with a grunt, cutting her off, “I don't care about your peasant life.”
Fire sparked in her eyes and Zuko felt some kind of satisfaction when he saw it. It made her look not quite so... dead . Her cheeks puffed out as she huffed with annoyance. “You're not exactly living in the lap of luxury yourself!”
His eyes narrowed. “I haven't lowered myself enough to crawl around in the mud like a peasant.”
Her fists balled on her knees and her back straightened with indignation. “At least my people have honor!”
Anger rose hotly in his face and his teeth clenched in a snarl. Direct hit. She suddenly looked contrite, biting her lips nervously and he schooled his expression, a smirk rose to his lips. “A slave should not speak back to her master.”
She looked stunned at his casual reminder, her mouth working soundlessly. Feeling rather smug that he had reduced her to speechlessness, Zuko turned away from her and started for the stream nearby. “Don't burn my breakfast, peasant.”
He suppressed a snicker when her wordless shout of anger followed him into the trees. Yes, she was gaining more of a personality each day. It was amusing to get a rise out of her. It was far more entertaining than the nearly lifeless doll she'd been when he'd first picked her up. He shook the thoughts from his head, once again grumbling about getting soft.
Zuko finished his morning ablutions quickly, quietly returning to camp. A frustrated groan reached him and he paused at the edge of the trees to watch the scene at the campfire. The girl was scowling at the tin cup she'd set on the ground in front of her, her hands tense as she performed a few halting waves over the cup. A quivering stream of water rose from the cup and her scowl deepened in concentration as she tried to keep it together. Her mouth twisted into a snarl as her control over the water weakened the farther she drew it from its source. Suddenly, the control snapped and the water splashed back to the cup, spilling over the sides and soaking into the dirt. Her posture slumped and she pressed a hand to her forehead, a defeated sigh escaping her lips. Zuko frowned, unpleasant memories stirring. In an attempt to push them away, he stalked into the camp, demanding, “Where's breakfast?”
She started in surprise, frowning at him but motioned to the two fish that were staying warm on a flat stone near the fire. “Take your pick.”
Zuko stared down at the two fish, irritation shooting through him. His previous attempts at fishing had resulted in failure, with one fish that hardly even qualified as bait. His gaze shifted to the girl. How she managed to catch two decent sized fish without a pole was beyond him. He picked at the perfectly roasted fish, cautiously watching the girl as she waited for him to chew and swallow. When he said nothing and continued eating, she released a quiet breath and took the second fish.
“You—where's your pony tail?”
The question startled him and he felt his defenses rise. She had no idea how sensitive of a topic she broached. The part of him he called his inner-Iroh warned him not to take offense, but he couldn't help snapping back, “Where's your braid?”
Her hands flew to her shorn locks, cheeks flushing with embarrassment. She pressed the ragged ends to her head, keeping her eyes lowered. “The prison medic shaved my head.”
Zuko was not surprised. It was a common practice to shave the hair to get rid of flealice. She shrank in on herself, tears of shame welling in her eyes before she looked away. Her hair was at that awkward stage. It didn't help that her hair had curl to it. Zuko shifted uncomfortably, guilt gnawing at him. He didn't mean to make her feel so awful. He hadn't realized the Water Tribe had such a custom. The thought struck him as strange. He thought back. He hadn't missed that only the old woman he'd grabbed and the girl had those...hair loopies. He wondered if that meant something. Katara sniffled. Maybe she was just crying because they cut her hair. He'd heard of girls growing attached to long hair and bawling when they needed it trimmed. He tried to picture Azula doing such a thing but found it impossible. His sister wasn't normal. The small sniffle from her still made him feel like the world's biggest jerk. Desperate to stop the flow of tears, he sputtered the first thing he could think of, “It'll grow back.”
He winced. Yes, he was growing soft. Azula would cackle for hours if she knew. Watery blue eyes shot to him in surprise before a bright smile bloomed. Her smile made his cheeks heat and he glared. Unfortunately, his glare did nothing to deter her smile. “I like your hair better than the pony tail.”
His ears reddened and he resisted the urge to run a hand through his hair. He hadn't felt so flustered since Uncle Iroh decided to talk to him about girls and dreams and—and Zuko shoved the thoughts away. He did not want to remember that particular lecture.
They'd been traveling for several hours and Katara had been riding the ostrich horse for almost half an hour when she decided there'd been enough silence for the day and smiled down at the sulking teenager walking next to her. He was trying to ignore her, and failing miserably if his quick glances were anything to go by. Her smile widened and he scowled at her, giving up all pretenses. “What?”
“This is the first time I've left the South Pole.”
Zuko rolled his eyes. “Good for you.”
“When was the first time you left the Fire Nation?”
Surprisingly, Zuko's scowl deepened. “I was thirteen.”
He offered nothing more, staring angrily at the trees ahead of them. Katara hummed thoughtfully, giving him a once over. “How long ago was that?”
“Three, almost four, years ago.”
“Have you been home again?”
Zuko shot her an annoyed look and stomped ahead, ignoring her surprised eyes following him. They continued like that for the rest of the morning. Zuko remained several feet in front of Katara and the ostrich horse and she kept her mouth shut. Around mid-day, Zuko paused by a stream, removing the saddlebags from the ostrich horse when Katara reached him. Katara slipped from the saddle, taking the waterskins Zuko thrust at her. He was walking away again before she could summon some kind of apology, though she wasn't sure why she felt she had to offer one.
Katara filled the waterskins quickly, checking over the packs and stroking the ostrich horse's beak in a soothing manner. She made a quick meal from their dried rations and gave the ostrich horse a loose rein to dig around in the dirt in the surrounding area. Zuko had been gone for nearly a quarter of an hour with no sign of appearing any time soon. Katara watched the trees he'd disappeared into with a growing sense of anxiety. She wondered if she'd finally pushed him to abandoning her in the middle of nowhere. Annoyed with herself, she huffed, folding her arms. She could find the road and the next village on her own if it came to that. She didn't need some depressed firebender showing her the way. The ostrich horse scratched at the ground, feathers ruffling as it found things of interest. He wouldn't leave without the bird, would he? A twig snapped and Zuko emerged from the trees. He glanced over her and the ostrich horse. Katara opened her mouth to say something, but Zuko brushed past her, cutting her off, “Let's go.”
Katara quickly gathered the reins, hurrying after him. He still appeared angry. “Zuko? Are you okay?”
Gold eyes flicked to her. “I'm fine.”
He certainly didn't look fine. Katara worried her lip, walking in silence next to him. When she could handle the silence no longer, she ventured another question. “Do you know where we're going?”
They trooped through the woods for several more minutes and Katara was just resigning herself to walking in silence when Zuko answered, “No.”
The trees grew thick and close together and the ground became softer. Several times they had to backtrack and find firmer ground. Progress was slow. Eventually, Zuko came to a stop, glaring darkly at the murky water that lapped at the muddy bank in front of him. Katara slipped from the saddle, grimacing as her feet sank into mud. She approached the glowering firebender, cautiously asking, “What is it?”
“It's a swamp.”
She turned curious eyes to her surroundings, ignoring Zuko's scowl of displeasure. Her eyes moved over the thick roots, moss, and tepid water. “This is the first time I've seen a swamp.”
Zuko turned slightly to regard her, his expression carefully neutral. “This is an adventure of many firsts for you.”
She blushed, twisting the reins in her hand. “The village was small.”
He looked like he was going to say something before he changed his mind and turned back to the swamp. “The fastest way is through.”
“Through?” she asked uncertainly, giving the swamp a critical look. “It looks...cheerful.”
“Around would take too long.”
Katara nodded slowly, biting her lip as Zuko tested a thick root and forged ahead. With one last glance back the way they'd come, Katara followed behind, pulling a protesting ostrich horse behind her.
Chapter 5: The Swamp
"The race of humankind would perish did they cease to aid each other. We cannot exist without mutual help. All, therefore, that need aid, have a right to ask for it from their fellow humans; and no one who has the power of granting can refused it without guilt."
– Sir Walter Scott
"A good deed is never lost: he who sows courtesy, reaps friendship; and he who plants kindness, gathers love."
Katara cautiously stepped over the twisting roots, pulling the struggling ostrich horse behind her. Zuko forged ahead, his broadswords out and swinging at the tangle of vines that blocked their path and tugged at their clothing. His occasional mutterings and cursings brought a smile to her lips. It reminded her so much of her brother. She pushed away the pang of homesickness, focusing on placing her feet firmly on the slick path. A bloodcurdling shriek echoed through the trees, sending a chill down her spine and making her hair stand on end. Zuko froze, gold eyes narrowing as he looked into the shadows. A flutter of wings nearby drew their attention to a small bird. Beady black eyes regarded the pair with a disconcerting shrewdness. Its beak opened and the chilling shriek again echoed through the swamp. A sharp thwack sounded and a broadsword was lodged in the place the bird had been sitting moments before. The annoyed squawking of the bird proved that Zuko had missed. Katara watched it disappear into the shadows. She turned back to watch Zuko tug the sword free when the bird was no longer in sight. Zuko gave the blade a scowling once-over, ignoring Katara as she stepped closer. "This place is creepy."
He grunted, shouldering one of the broadswords. "You're telling me."
"Maybe it would've been better to go around?"
They both turned to look back in the direction they'd come only to see that the path Zuko had cleared was grown over again. Before their eyes, the vines tightened, twisting around themselves in a thick latticework. Katara backed away and Zuko's mouth tightened. "Doesn't look like that's a choice any more."
"This place has now reached the beyond creepy stage."
Zuko gave a stiff nod and took a few steps forward. Suddenly he tensed, spinning to his right. Katara held her breath, clutching the reins of the ostrich horse nervously. Surprise flitted across Zuko's face, but he didn't relax. A moment later he straightened with a frown. Katara swallowed, whispering, "What is it?"
He shook his head. "I thought I saw—I don't know. We should go."
An ominous rumble shook the swamp and they froze, exchanging wary looks before vines snapped out of the water, wrapping around their ankles and sending them flying in opposite directions. Katara only had time for a scream of Zuko's name and then she was crashing to the ground. The breath rushed from her lungs and she coughed as she struggled to breathe. When she stumbled to her feet, she found she was alone.
Her voice sounded small. She felt small. She splashed through the shallow water to the bank, grimacing as her shoes squished uncomfortably. She attempted to pull the water from her clothes and shoes but she was still left with a damp feeling that left a chill along her skin despite the heat.
Her name was soft, as if carried on a breeze from a great distance. She froze, turning slowly. Nothing. She was still alone.
She spun again, coming face to face with green eyes and dark brown hair. A startled cry rose from inside her and she stumbled backward. He hadn't changed from how she remembered him. Tears stung her eyes and he reached for her. With a sob, she turned and fled. She didn't care where she went, she just had to get away. Eventually, she sank to the ground, wrapping her arms around herself and pressing her forehead to the ground in front of her.
She shot to her feet, blue eyes wide and wild. He was back and he wasn't alone. Familiar blue eyes looked at her from the young woman next to him. She stumbled backward only for another voice to rumble her name behind her. She spun to find an older green-eyed man staring down at her.
"You let us die, Katara."
Suddenly, there were other green-eyed men and women pressing closer to her. The earthbenders from the Prison Rig. Katara backed away, panic rising and choking her. A ghost of a hand brushed her arm and she cringed away. Matching blue eyes looked down at her and Katara felt her voice crack, "Mom..."
Sadness shone in her eyes. "You killed me, Katara."
"N-no! I didn't—"
The mutterings of the shades grew louder, drowning out her cries of protest. "Your fault. Your fault! Your fault!"
Zuko shook the water from his hair, sheathing both his broadswords and taking stock of his surroundings. The vines had disappeared as quickly as they'd arrived and he was now alone. He briefly wondered what had happened to his ostrich horse but pushed the thought away. He had greater things to worry about at the moment. He cast another sweeping look at his surroundings. Figuring out where the hell he was would be a good start. He listened intently for Katara but only heard the gentle lapping of water and the groan of the trees. He took a deep breath, calling, "Katara?"
The swamp seemed to swallow his words. Figures. With a final glance at where he'd landed, he picked a random direction and set off. For what seemed like hours, Zuko picked his way over exposed roots and ducked under hanging vines. The water was deeper than before and he'd learned his lesson after nearly drowning himself crossing what was apparently turned out to be a slow moving river. The weight of the broadswords did nothing to make swimming easier. He caught a pair of categators watching him from the middle of the river and quickly backed away from the edge of the water, picking a different route. His fifth time tripping over an exposed root, Zuko decided to take a break. He was getting thirsty and the swamp water didn't look particularly appetizing.
Zuko took a seat on a thick root, stretching his legs out in front of him and regarding the mud that caked his shoes. They hadn't been the greatest thing he'd ever owned, but they'd been serviceable. Now they probably would never dry out and would most likely stink of swamp for the remainder of their existence. A flicker of movement to his left made his shoot to his feet, falling into a firebending stance automatically. Amused laughter made him falter and Zuko's eyes widened.
The young Fire Nation man smiled, eyes glinting in a way reminiscent to Iroh's. "Hello, Zuko."
Surprise faded from Zuko's features and his eyes narrowed suspiciously as he brought his hands back to a defensive position. "You're not real. You're dead."
"I am," the shade agreed. "But time runs differently here."
"What do you mean?"
Lu Ten motioned to the swamp around them. "The Spirit World lies close to the surface in this swamp. Everything in the world is connected in some fashion. Here the line between the here and the here-after blurs somewhat."
Zuko stared blankly. "Sounds like Avatar stuff."
Lu Ten laughed softly. "Yes, the Avatar is the mediator between life and the Spirit World, but he knows that not all Spirits are benevolent. Some can take on the image of those we've loved and prey upon our guilts and fears until, driven to despair, we give up on life."
A terror-filled scream split the air and jerked in the direction it'd come from, exclaiming, "Katara!"
"Her ghosts are overwhelming her."
Without another word, Zuko took off toward the scream, vaguely hearing Lu Ten calling after him, "Remember, Zuko, don't try to be someone you're not!"
Zuko burst through a screen of vines just in time to see Katara fall from the root path and into the sluggish river below. She surfaced, struggling to keep her head above water and Zuko quickly shed his broadswords. He leapt in after her before he could give himself time to question his sanity. She went under just before he reached her and he dove, grabbing her arm and pulling her to the surface. With a gasp, she surfaced, clutching at him frantically as he struggled to keep them both afloat. He sputtered as she unintentionally dunked him and he grabbed her arms, forcing her to loosen her grip on his neck. "Calm down before you kill us both!"
She calmed enough for Zuko to make his way toward the bank. She said nothing, her face pressed to the side of his neck and her arms clinging to him, gasping for breath and shivering with fear. Zuko dragged her out of the water, setting her on the ground and sitting back on his heels in front of her. He pushed his wet hair out of his eyes, a crooked grin coming to his lips. Katara wrapped her arms around her legs, pushing her forehead against her knees and attempting to calm her shivers. Now that they were both out of the water, Zuko was finding the entire situation amusing. "It'd be pretty stupid for a waterbender to drown in their own element."
Her head snapped up and she glared. "Excuse me! I grew up in the South Pole, we don't exactly do a lot of swimming."
Despite the evidence before him, he could help feeling surprised. "You don't know how to swim?"
She bristled at his incredulous tone. "Oh? And you can?"
He smirked, glancing back at the river they'd just crawled out of, and meeting her eyes again. "Obviously."
A blush rose on Katara's cheeks and she huffed, dropping her head back to her knees. "No need to act all smug about it, jerk."
"I just thought—you being a waterbender and all..." he trailed off awkwardly, flushing at his stupidity. She kept her face hidden, making no move to respond to his apparent assumption. He dropped to a seat next to her, sulking at the river as it lapped at the shore near their feet. This was not how he pictured the aftermath of a rescue. He was a prince and he just rescued the damsel-in-distress. Didn't that warrant some kind of thank you?
Zuko startled, turning to look at the waterbender next to him. Blue eyes peeked shyly at him from behind her knees. He quickly looked away. "Whatever."
"I saw Haru and Tyro and the other earthbenders from the Prison Rig." Tears welled in her eyes and she hurriedly brushed them away. "It's my fault they died."
Zuko frowned, trying to recall the Prison Rig. That had been when he was still hunting the Avatar. Before the siege against the North. That's where he'd found evidence of the Avatar's travels. His hand brushed against the hidden pocket of his tunic, checking to see if he still had it. A quiet sniffle brought him back to the present. "It's not your fault."
Zuko sighed, running a hand through his damp hair. He was not good at this. His family didn't do comfort. Or sympathy. "The earthbenders. It's not your fault they died. They made a choice and fought for it. They died with honor."
She swiped at her nose, sniffling. "But they still died."
She shrank away at the glare he directed at her. "Don't trivialize their sacrifice."
He appeared surprised at his defense of earthbenders and looked away uncomfortably. The silence stretched between them before Zuko gave a defeated sigh. "I heard that because of the riot the Prison Rig was unable to continue building ships. It set back the Fire Nation's naval movements for several months. I don't think they've found another way to build ships quickly."
Katara was silent, letting her mind ponder Zuko's words. Zuko shifted to stand, muttering something about getting his broadswords, and started backtracking up the riverbank. Zuko returned several minutes later with his broadswords. He frowned down at her a moment and then at their surroundings. "I don't suppose you've seen the ostrich horse in the last few minutes?"
Katara shot to her feet with a gasp, frantically searching the trees. "We've lost Feathers!"
"Feathers," Zuko deadpanned.
"He needed a name."
"She. And no she didn't."
Katara gasped. "That's so cruel!"
Zuko was already turning away. "We'll camp here for tonight. Looks like we're out of rations. Do you think you could waterbend us some fish?"
Katara approached the river, peering into the slow moving water. "Maybe. I don't know how many fish I'd be able to find."
The two benders crouched at the water's edge, patiently watching for the flicker of a fish to swim past them. Katara watched Zuko from the corner of her eye, stifling a giggle as he scratched at a streak of dried mud on his cheek. She bit her lip, quickly dropping her eyes back to the river. "I really don't know how to waterbend. I mean, I can. A little. I was supposed to go to the North Pole with Aang."
Zuko grunted, responding absently, "No chance of that now. The Northern Tribe isn't letting any ships within a hundred leagues of them."
Surprised, Katara turned to look him full in the face. "What? Why?"
"Oh, the Fire Nation laid a three day siege against them this past winter." He seemed to consider his words a moment before adding, "And Zhao tried to kill the moon spirit."
Katara's brow furrowed as she vaguely remembered a deep sense of loss while imprisoned but those days blurred together and she couldn't remember when that happened. "Tried to?"
Zuko shrugged, rubbing tense muscles in his neck. "The Avatar went all Avatar State on him. He hasn't been seen or heard from since. He's assumed dead."
The name seemed to confuse him for a moment before he shook his head. "No, Zhao."
Katara breathed a sigh of relief, sinking into her thoughts. She poked at the murky water, watching it move sluggishly at her prodding. "I wonder if Aang has mastered waterbending yet."
She missed Zuko's wince, only catching the roll of his shoulders as if he was testing out an old injury. "He has."
Suspicion entered her eyes and she turned a searching look on the firebender. "How do you know?"
Zuko avoided meeting her eyes. "I—We've...run into each other a few times."
Katara opened her mouth to demand a more in-depth explanation when a creature stumbled out of the woods and approached the river. They both turned to look at it, all thoughts of fish vanishing from their minds. The creature stood on two legs, its long, rat-like tail was held out for balance, and small, beady eyes observed them from a rodent-like face. Its wings fluttered nervously. Neither bender moved for a moment, stunned at its sudden appearance. Zuko shifted first, slowly reaching for his broadswords. Seeing his movements and guessing his thoughts, Katara hissed, "What is that?"
Zuko leapt to his feet, lunging forward. The creature gave a startled squawking hiss and dashed back into the trees with Zuko fast on its tail. Several minutes later Zuko returned with the animal in one hand and a broadsword in the other. He frowned, holding up the bloodied animal. "I don't suppose you know how to field-dress this?"
Katara laughed, pushing herself to her feet and wiping the mud off her hands on her pants. "Spoiled prince." She reached for it, holding it up for inspection. "What is it?"
"My guess, a possum-chicken. I've never actually seen one."
"Do you have a knife?"
Zuko reluctantly reached down and pulled the dagger from his boot. He hesitated before handing it to her with a slight frown. Katara took with a grin. "Watch and learn, Prince Zuko."
A quiet splash woke him the next morning. It was unusual for him to sleep past daybreak. Despite not being able to see the sky, he could sense the sun had already risen above the horizon. A quick survey of the camp revealed that Katara was awake. The small fire he'd manage to light the night before was a pile of smoking embers. He was so tired of the damp feeling that permeated everything. A louder splash further down the river caught his attention and he rose to his feet, wincing as his joints snapped and popped. He approached quietly, pausing to watch Katara struggle to get the water to bend to her will. Her shoulders tensed and her arms shot out stiffly. The water surged before breaking in a wave over her head.
"Ah! Damn it!"
The cry of frustration was louder than she intended and he had to wonder how long she'd been trying to teach herself waterbending. Granted, he had teachers from the time he was old enough to exhibit firebending capabilities, but the memories were unpleasant. It had been degrading to be constantly compared to his sister, told he was a failure and disappointment in all aspects of the bending art, and then told that he'd never amount to much of a bender and perhaps it would be better to take up calligraphy and flower arrangement instead. Even years later, the memory still brought a blush of shame to his face. He snapped from his recollections at Katara's sudden shouting, "Bend! Move!"
Her movements were erratic and uncoordinated. She'd reached the point of useless frustration. In that state she was bound to learn nothing. Zuko sighed, stepping forward. "Trouble?"
She startled, spinning around with a small scream, " Zuko!"
He made a point of observing her dripping hair and soaked clothing. "What are you doing?"
Turning to hide her blush, she huffed, folding her arms protectively across her chest. "What does it look like, jerk."
"Looks like you're playing in puddles."
Her whole posture drooped and she sighed in defeat, her eyes glassy as she watched the river lap innocently at her toes. "I suppose I am. This is useless."
Zuko watched her quietly, debating internally. It was a stupid idea after all. She'd probably laugh. It would be better if he turned around right now and walked away. "Maybe I could help."
She laughed incredulously, blue eyes looking up at him with a mixture of amusement and hurt. "Right. This iswaterbending, Zuko, not firebending."
Zuko sighed. It was too late to walk away now. "I know that, but," he cut himself off, instead stepping into the river and assuming a bending stance. "Here. Copy me."
Her mouth dropped open and she struggled with her words before finally settling on disbelief. "If you're going to waterbend, I just might drown myself."
He straightened with a frown, demanding impatiently, "Are you going to do this or not?"
"Fine. Teach me, Master Waterbender," she said, giving a bow with a mocking flourish.
His eyes narrowed, insulted at her mocking of his assistance. "If you're going to be like that, I won't show you anything."
He turned to slosh back to shore, determined to ignore the girl. If she didn't want his help, he wasn't going to offer it. She quickly dropped her smirk, splashing after him and grabbing his arm, pleading, "No, no. I'm sorry. Show me, please?"
Zuko didn't move, staring off into the trees while Katara clung to his arm. She gave his arm a slight squeeze, holding her breath in agonized silence. A sigh escaped him and he turned, moving until the water was shin-deep. "Okay. I'll try."
He contemplated the muddy water for a moment and Katara waited patiently as he took a bending position, adjusting it slightly, a frown of concentration creasing his brow. He made a few halfhearted movements before he straightened suddenly and turned to her. "Copy my movements."
At her nod, he rolled his shoulders and then assumed a bending position, watching as she copied his movements. His brow drew down as he took in her form. "Relax. You're too stiff."
Zuko cut her off. "I'm a firebender. You're a waterbender. Be more fluid."
He poked at her shoulders and she forced them to relax. He then prodded her elbows, nudged her feet and pushed down on her shoulders in a wordless request to bend her knees. She complied with his directions, holding her position as Zuko resumed his. He took a deep breath, his look of concentration almost amusing as he slowly made a motion, repeating it several times with increasing speeds. Katara frowned, mimicking his actions. "I feel stupid."
A scoff was her reply. "How do you think I feel?"
Katara smirked, raising an eyebrow. "Like normal?"
"Very funny," he deadpanned, standing. "Now you try it."
She repeated the motions with nothing happening and Zuko rolled his eyes, huffing impatiently. "Bend the water. Don't just wave your arms around."
A blush stained her cheeks and she hoped Zuko didn't notice, though he said nothing if he did. The water rose a little clumsily and Zuko moved to the side as she finished the motion with an anticlimactic splash. The two benders stared at the rippling water before Katara sighed. "Well, that was disappointing."
Zuko looked at her, confused by her disappointment. "It was an improvement."
"Oh, yes, a more coordinated splash. Good job, Katara! If I'm ever in danger I'll just splash someone to death."
A flicker of a smile crossed his face. "That's not a bad idea."
"You're being mean now."
Zuko shrugged. "Domesticated turkey pigs drown in the rain."
Katara blinked, not sure how to respond to that, but apparently Zuko wasn't expecting a response. He stepped up behind her, taking her wrists and holding them in a bending position. She stiffened at his touch, face burning. "What are you doing?"
He tensed but didn't release her. "I—you need more confidence and...fluidity in your movements. I was going to guide you slowly."
At her nod, he moved through the motions again until she felt ready to try again. Zuko stepped away quickly and Katara gathered the water, drawing it up into a steady stream and sending it out with a sharp crack. She looked momentarily surprise and then the water splashed back to the river and she squealed, turning and throwing her arms around the stunned firebender, knocking him backward and landing in the mud of the shore. "I did it! Did you see! Zuko—"
He awkwardly patted her back, stuttering, "Uh... very good. With practice—"
A blood-chilling cry echoed through the swamp. Zuko was on his feet in a second, his hands up in a defense firebending move. Katara stood at his back, nervously scanning the shadows. Silence fell heavy over them, only the sound of their breathing in their ears. Seconds seemed to stretch for minutes. Nothing moved.
Katara's quiet whisper sounded loud and Zuko tensed, jaw tightening. He shifted and, as if sending a signal, vines shot out of the water. Katara cried out in surprise, but Zuko was moving, dodging the vines that attempted to ensnare him. Fire blossomed from his fists, striking water and live vegetation, fizzing out in puffs of steam. Katara's fight against the attacking vines was failing. She didn't have a strong enough grasp on her waterbending just yet. She hit the shallow swamp water with a splash and a cry. Zuko faltered and that was the only opening that was needed. In a blink of an eye a vine wrapped around one wrist and yanked it behind him. Another blink and his other wrist was captured and then bound to the first.
He was forced to his knees, water soaking through his pants, and more vines wrapping around his chest, binding his arms to his sides even as his wrists remained secured behind him. Zuko struggled against the restraints, frustration coming out in a growl. His bending was useless.
"Wow, y'all put up a fight. It's been a while since we've had a fire-breather in these here parts."
The uneducated drawl stilled their movements. A dozen or more scantily clad people either stood or crouched on the exposed roots around them. Some held short spears while others manipulated the water around them. All were bare-foot and bare-chested. The two captives were stunned silent for a moment and then Zuko snarled, breathing fire. "Who the hell are you?"
Chapter 6: Captured!
“Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.”
– Leo Buscaglia
“Friendship needs no words—it is solitude delivered from the anguish of loneliness.”
– Dag Hammarskjold
Two of the strangely dressed men dropped from the tree branches, pushing back their leaf-like hats as they peered down at them curiously. Zuko struggled against the vines that bound him, grunting as they tightened. Somehow, Katara didn't see how, Zuko freed his legs, sweeping them out with an arch of fire. Their captor's leapt back with a shout and then the flames, and Zuko, were put out with a hiss and cloud of steam. Vines shot out of the sluggishly moving river, wrapping tightly around his legs from his ankles to his thighs and Zuko was plunged into the river with a great splash.
“None of that now, boy.”
Katara gasped, “You're waterbenders!”
Pale green eyes turned to look down at her and she smiled sunnily. “I'm a waterbender, too!”
Narrowed eyes and a disbelieving snort was the response. “No you ain't.”
Another partially clad man joined the first, proudly declaring, “There ain't no other swampbenders 'sept us; right, Hai?”
Katara's smile dimmed and she glanced at Zuko who just rolled his eyes back at her. The firebender was going to be no help for her. She turned to look between the two swampbenders, pouting, “But I am a waterbender.”
Her expression faltered and she slumped in her bindings.“Well, I really don't know how...and I'm kind of tied up.”
“Use your breath.”
Katara frowned, looking at Zuko where he was submerged in water up to his chin. It was the first thing he'd said since his escape attempt. “What?”
Zuko rolled his eyes, lifting his chin out of the water. “Your breath. I'm pretty sure it's only earthbenders who can't breathe their element.”
Giving his words some consideration, Katara nodded. She'd seen Aang breathe out great gusts of air but she'd never given any thought to her own ability to breathe her element. “But...I don't know how.”
Zuko sighed a small flame, smirking when the swamp people recoiled and the swampbenders drew up water defensively. Katara ignored the swampbenders' mutterings, crossing her eyes as she breathed out. Nothing happened and she turned an accusing frown on Zuko. He gave a limited shrug. “You might want to try something else. Like frost or freezing the water in front of you.”
Katara adjusted herself on her knees, carefully leaning forward to blow a steady breath on the puddle before her. It was slow, but eventually the puddle froze to a high shine. The one called Hai stepped forward, squatting to jab a meaty finger at the frozen patch. He sat back with a bemused expression, pushing his hat back and giving a low whistle. “Hey, check this out, Boa.”
The other swampbenders crowded around, muttering among themselves as they examined the puddle. Eventually, Hai turned to Katara. “What is it?”
Perplexed, Katara looked from the puddle to Hai. “Ice?”
Boa leaned forward. “It's that hard water stuff. The old ones talk about it sometimes. Said it's cold but when it warms up turns to water.”
“I reckon y'are a waterbender. Chief will want to talk to ya.”
The bonds loosened around Katara and a hand clamped around her arm, lifting her to her feet. Boa spoke to the others, “Bring the fire-breather.”
The trip through the swamp was confusing to Katara. Everything looked the same and she had no idea how the swampbenders were able to know where they were or where they were going. The thick canopy overheard gave Katara no opportunity to gain a sense of direction. Behind her, she could hear Zuko's occasional snarling curse. Eventually, the emerged from the twisting roots and and thick trees into a clearing where the swamp people's compound spread out. Several people called out greetings, pausing in their work to stare curiously at Katara and Zuko. They paused before an older man, his dark hair heavily streaked with gray. “We've brought back the strangers, Chief Dai. A girl who can make hard water and a fire-breather.”
Katara almost quailed under the pale, green eyes that turned to her. Boa released her arm, stepping back as Dai approached.
“Your name, girl?”
Katara hesitated, glancing back at a scowling Zuko. “Katara of the Southern Water Tribe.”
The light of recognition entered Dai's eyes and he smiled. “One of your tribe brought news that the fire-breathers were at war with the other nations. We have seen much to be concerned about in the swamp.”
“Yes. He called himself Sokka, some of Chief Hakoda of the Southern Water Tribe.”
Katara gasped, tears springing to her eyes. “Sokka was here?”
“And the boy Avatar.”
She could hardly contain her excitement. “When? What were they doing in a swamp?”
The chief gestured to the surrounding area. “The swamp called the Avatar. The Water Tribe boy was troubled.” He allowed a moment for Katara to digest that news before he clasped his hands together. “But it seems the swamp has called two more.”
Zuko grunted, testing his bonds. “Just passing through. Let me go!”
Dai's eyes narrowed, shrewdly observing the bound firebender. “What is your name?”
Zuko glared in return, baring his teeth. “Lee.”
They stared at each other a long moment before Zuko dropped his gaze with a soft snort. Amusement crossed Dai's face, but he turned back to Katara without another word for Zuko. “My people say you can bend.”
She blushed twisting her fingers and stammering, “Yes—Well, no, not really. Kind of.”
Dai placed a hand on her shoulder almost making her knees buckle. “Huu will teach you.”
Katara blinked. “Who?”
“Huu,” he turned from Katara, not seeing her confusion, to address Boa. “Send for Huu. He has a new student.”
Boa waved to a few others who followed as he headed towards the shallow boats that bobbed against the shore. Pressure on Katara's shoulder propelled her deeper into the compound. “Lan will find ya hammock in the women's hut. Huu will arrive in a few days. In the mean time, welcome to our swamp!”
Katara twisted to look back at Zuko. “What about Z—Lee?”
Dai paused, watching as several of the swampbenders forced a struggling Zuko to a kneeling position before they bound him to a stake. “Ah, well, he will have to remain there for a bit.”
Katara opened her mouth to protest when a women her Gran-Gran's age swooped down on her. “Ah me! Look ah-cha! Nothin' but skin and bone, poor dear, and not even properly clothed!”
“Lan, don't scare the girl.”
Pale eyes narrowed at him, blowing a dismissive breath at the chief, before she whisked Katara away. “Let's get ya cleaned up, Missy. You'll meet the other young'uns t'night.”
The last sight of Zuko Katara saw before she was pulled into a bathhouse was Zuko kneeling in mud, betrayal swimming in his gold eyes. Guilt gnawed at her but then the tunic Zuko provided her was stripped away and she was dumped into a tub of cold water. Katara yelped a protest, but Lan was already scrubbing at the layer of grim that covered her. Lan poured a bucket of water over Katara's head, scrubbing roughly at Katara's scalp and clicking her tongue in disapproval. “What did you do to ya hair, child?”
Katara felt her heart skip a beat, but Lan continued without waiting for a response. “We'll fix that right up, now.” She fingered the ends. “Nothin' we can do about the length, but at least we can make it look better, no?”
Another bucket of cold water was dumped over her head and Lan turned away, reaching for a rough towel. “Out ya git now, dearie. Dry off. Nu!”
A young woman, all sleek curves and flowing hair, entered the bathhouse and Katara suddenly felt plain. The woman smiled. “Ah, ya must be the half-starved nymph the men were talkin' 'bout. I hear the fire-breather they brought in wit' ya was a looker. I 'ave half a mind to check 'im out m'self.”
Katara blushed hotly, but Lan was between them, taking the bundle of green clothes from her. “Help the girl dress, Nu, then take 'er to meet the others.”
Nu made a face after Lan but did as she was told. When they left the bathhouse, a group of girls converged on them, giggling excitedly. “Oh, Nu, 'ave ya seen 'im?”
Another girl sighed. “He's a han'some one, ain't he? Even wi' that scar.”
With a wicked grin, Nu elbowed Katara, whispering, “Is he as dangerous as he seems”
Lan clicked her tongue. “Don't you be messin' with that boy, Nu.”
The girls rolled their eyes, but didn't look repentant. Katara glanced around at the expectant faces. “Lee?”
One of the other girls snickered, but Nu nodded, ignoring Lan's disapproving glare. The girl grinned. “O'course! He seems really... intense .”
The girl at her elbow nodded. “I've seen men look at Tien like that.”
Katara didn't know what to make of that statement. “I suppose Lee could be dangerous.”
“Is he yours?”
Katara could feel warmth fill her cheeks. “Mine?”
Nu nodded impatiently as if she were annoyed that Katara was being intentionally dense. “The one you take to the Hut of Unity.”
Lan returned with a vengeance, shooing the girls away with cutting admonishments. She made a few last minute adjustments to Katara's skirt and halter-top, grumbling, “Those girls need t' get themselves husbands. Pay no mind t' them. They'll leave yers alone, sure enough.”
Katara blushed, twitching with the skirt and avoiding eye contact. “He's not mine.”
Lan paused, clearly surprised at the news, but she recovered soon enough with a click of her tongue. “Well, ne'er mind that. You'll be stayin' with the single girls then. Ya can take Tien's hammock.”
That evening Katara saw more food than she'd seen in months. It took a bit of coaxing to try the giant bug the locals insisted was their main source of food and Katara determined that that was one edible thing even Sokka would refuse to eat.
“Th' hunt's happenin' in the next few days. Spring's nearly 'ere.”
Katara startled, turning to look up. Firelight shone off deep brown hair, softening high cheekbones and creating intriguing shadows. Katara straightened, self-consciously smoothing her borrowed skirts and halter-top. “It's not Spring yet?”
Nu settled on the log next to her with a smile. She took the bug one of the men offered her, but her attention was on Katara. “Naw, few days 'least.”
Katara glanced towards the sky, blue eyes searching for the not yet full moon. Her heart squeezed painfully as she realized she'd been a prisoner for nearly a full season. Somewhere out there her brother and Aang were out there. Without her. She would learn waterbending. She would help Aang win the war. She had to. Suddenly, she was aware of pale eyes closely watching her and she turned, locking gazes with the older girl. “Are you a bender?”
Nu blushed, lowering her lashes. “Aye, but I'm not very strong.”
“I didn't know there were any other waterbenders.”
A graceful shrug of the swamp girl's shoulders and a thoughtful tilt of her head accompanied Nu's words, “The Elders say yer from the South Pole. They say our ancestors grew tired of the cold so they left t' settle 'ere.”
Before Katara could stop herself, she blurted out incredulously, “In a swamp?”
Nu laughed loudly before leaning forward and whispering conspiratorily, “I think they jus' got lost, but th' Elders deny it. They claim the Spirits brough' 'em 'ere, but I ne'er seen Spirits.”
Katara blanched, but Nu never noticed, moving on to various gossip about the other young women and pointing out handsome young men. She had seen Spirits. Zuko had seen Spirits too though he'd never said so. She shivered, wrapping her arms around herself. The Spirits didn't like her, that was clear.
Morose thoughts fled as other girls joined them, chattering excitedly. It was late when Katara was finally bundled off to an empty hammock with the other girls, exhausted after a full evening of curious questions about Zuko and the outside world. To her surprise, several of the girls burst into blushing giggles when they found out Sokka was her brother. It wasn't until she was comfortably tucked into her hammock that she realized she hadn't actually seen Zuko since she'd been lead off to the bathhouse. Part of her just wanted to roll over and fall asleep without another thought for the firebender, but the larger part of her protested. She had to at least check on him.
Katara waited until the sounds of restless settling calmed before she gathered her blanket and carefully rolled out of the hammock. Her feet hit the floorboards with a dull thud and she cringed, holding her breath and waiting for one of the girls to ask where she was going. The air was still and no one moved. With a quiet breath of relief, Katara slipped from the hut only to realize she wasn't sure where, exactly, they were keeping Zuko. Determining that the center of compound would be the best option of keeping a prisoner, Katara carefully stepped down the steps of the stilt sleep hut, wincing as they creaked beneath her weight. The compound was quiet, the rest of the swamp people had turned in for the night and low burning cooking fires provided her with some direction. It took her far longer to find the center of the compound than she thought it would, and she had just about given up and returned to her hammock when she rounded the corner of another stilt hut.
She froze when she saw him. Zuko knelt where they'd put him, head bowed and shoulders curled. Only his breathing proved he was still alive and the occasional tug at his bonds betrayed he was still awake. Katara approached quietly, keeping her voice low, “Zuko?”
The firebender tensed and gold eyes flashed up at her in the darkness. They stared at each other for a long moment before he exhaled a flash of fire. “I didn't expect to see you back here.”
She thought she detected a sneer in his words, but it was too dark to see. Besides, a surly firebender wouldn't stop her from doing what was right.
“I wouldn't leave you,” she eyed his bindings. “Not like this.”
He laughed without humor. “I would have.”
Hurt flashed across her face before she laughed, brushing off his cutting words. “You don't seriously expect me to believe that.”
Zuko glared. “Then let me go.”
Katara sighed, kneeling in front of him and carefully keeping the blanket out of the mud. “You know I can't.”
He didn't look surprised. “Figures.”
Katara bit her lip, tugging nervously at her hair. “Zuko, I—”
“If you're not going to help me, go away.”
“Please. They said they're going to teach me waterbending.”
Zuko said nothing, averting his eyes. Realizing he wasn't going to say anything to that, Katara smoothed her hands over the blanket in her lap. “I brought this...in case you're cold.”
This time she could see the scowl and the frustration. “I don't get cold.”
“Sure you do. Everyone gets cold.”
“ I don't.”
She winced at the volume, glancing over her shoulder at the surrounding stilt huts. Relieved that no one appeared to check on the noise, she turned back to Zuko with a glare and moved to wrap the blanket around him anyway. “Yes, you do.”
Zuko jerked away, straining against his bonds. “No, I don't want it.”
“Stop being so stubborn and take the blanket, Zuko!”
“Let me help you!”
“I don't need your help.”
“You can't do everything on your own.”
“I can try.”
Katara felt like ripping her hair out. “But you don't have to.”
Zuko sank into angry silence and Katara sighed. She was tired and boys could be so stupid. She rose to her feet, shaking out the blanket. “Just accept it, Zuko. I'll talk to Chief Dai tomorrow.”
He eyed her warily. “Why?”
The look he gave her plainly told her he thought she was being stupid. “You're back with your people. Why help me?”
Katara made a face. “My people are in the South Pole.”
“You know what I mean.”
“Because I could never abandon someone that needed me.”
He didn't resist when Katara stepped forward a second time to wrap the blanket around his shoulders and carefully tuck in the loose ends to keep it from slipping. She let her fingers brush against the hair at the nape of his neck before she turned away. “I'll speak to the chief tomorrow.”
She had only taken a handful of steps before Zuko spoke, “Katara?”
She paused. “Yes?”
A frown tugged at his lips and he looked away. “Nothing.”
Katara waited a moment longer before turning to head back to her hammock. “Good night, Zuko.”
He didn't respond and she didn't expect him to.
Chapter 7: Culture Shock
“The most useful piece of learning for the uses of life is to unlearn what is untrue.”
“I am always ready to learn although I do not always like being taught.”
– Winston Churchill
Zuko was cursing his luck as dawn arrived in the swamp. He'd spent most of the night shooting fire at the nasty, biting insects that seemed to find every exposed bit of flesh on his body. His wrists felt raw from his tugging and his shoulders ached. The whole situation was embarrassing. A firebender at the mercy of a bunch of plant-wielding waterbenders. He'd laugh if it was anybody else. As it was, he was starving and thirsty and exhausted. He gave up trying to wriggle free some time close to dawn, letting his chin drop to his chest and slumping in dejection. As the dawn turned the swamp clearing a strange gray-green, he could hear the sounds of the village waking, the women at the cook fires and a few of the men calling out for a hunt. A few of the more curious villages casually meandered by in a not so subtle attempt to gawk at him.
“You can't just leave him there!”
Zuko's head swiveled in the direction of that voice. He recognized that voice.
“I don't care. He's not going to hurt anyone. I didn't know you were going to leave him tied up, outside all night like a polar bear dog!”
Zuko noticed that several of the other swamp people stopped in their tasks to stare. Chief Dai appeared around the corner with Katara hard on his heels. “The fire-breather—”
She made an impatient noise, interrupting, “Lee is a guest. Same as me.”
Dai paused to pinched the bridge of his nose. “Katara...”
She folded her arms and glared. A silent battle of wills occurred before Dai gave a sigh of defeat. “Very well. If...Lee is to remain here, he must assist the village. He will go with the men to hunt.”
Katara bit her lip, glancing at Zuko before nodding. “He will have to be taught.”
Zuko glared at the surprised look Dai gave him. Zuko refused to be cowed by this—this backwater peasant. The chief's surprise smoothed out to an inscrutable expression and he turned away with a lazy wave of his hand. “Take him to Boa after breakfast.”
The bonds loosened as Dai walked off, but Zuko didn't think his legs would hold him if he stood. Katara hurried forward, kneeling next to him and reaching for one of his wrists. She frowned at the raw skin. “I'm sorry. They were just being cautious.”
He watched silently as she awkwardly managed to pull a stream of water from a nearby puddle, tensing when she coated his wrists with it. She concentrated on the rope burn, watching the water glow blue. Zuko would never admit—even in his deepest, most private thoughts—that he was fascinated by the movements of her hands and the faint glow of healing water. He caught blue eyes peeking up at him and looked away. His fingers were beginning to tingle and he wasn't sure if it was because of her touch or if his circulation was returning. His brow furrowed. Whatever it was, he wanted it to stop.
“We—we don't have to stay.”
The words were soft and hesitant and the temptation to take her up on her offer to leave was great. He even opened his mouth to demand they leave immediately, but the memory of his own frustration at not being able to bend the element that was supposed to be part of him stopped him. He felt his stomach sink and he knew he would regret his next words.
“We can stay.”
Katara stared. “What?”
Zuko scowled angrily. “You want to learn waterbending.”
Zuko glanced over her shoulder, shifting uncomfortably when he met the gaze of other swamp people. Katara helped him up and he shook her off, stepping away from her. He did not need her help standing. He wasn't weak. Katara let him go without a word, motioning toward the village. “The fires are this way.”
The cheerful morning chatter of the villagers quieted as they passed, tracking them curiously. Hushed whispers followed and Zuko's posture straightened, his chin rising. These strange, half-clad people would not intimidate him. Still, he wished he had his dao swords. Katara led Zuko to a cook fire and a woman handed them each a bowl of some unidentified mash. The woman laughed at their expressions. “Eat up, kids. It won't kill ya.”
Katara hesitantly raised the bowl to her lips, catching Zuko watching from the corner of his eye. Her eyes narrowed and she quickly took a gulp. Zuko turned to face her completely, intently watching her expression and the bowl in his hand still untouched. “Well?”
Katara grimaced, looking down at the mash and turning the bowl slightly to watch it ooze from one side to the other. “It's not bad. It's kind of bland.”
Zuko nodded, straightening his shoulders and raising the bowl to his lips in determination. He choked and sputtered but swallowed it. “Not bad? It tastes like swamp water and fish that sat in the sun for five days.”
Katara blushed, casting the cook woman a horrified glance. “No it doesn't.”
He held the bowl out as far from him as possible, gasping and retching. “It does. What's in it?”
He thought the food he and his uncle had scrounged up had been bad. This was worse. Uncle Iroh's sandals might taste better. The cook woman laughed, taking the bowl from him and pressing a round, flat loaf into his hand. “Ya don't wanna know, fire-breather.”
Zuko eyed the loaf suspiciously. “It's Lee.”
The woman nodded and moved away with the bowl, chuckling under her breath. Katara elbowed him, frowning her disapproval. “That was rude.”
Zuko looked up, scowling. “It was disgusting. I'm not eating something that tastes like it died and rotted before they attempted to pass it off as food. I can't believe you can still eat it.”
He motioned to the bowl still in her hand and she lifted it half-heartedly. “Better than prison food.”
“You're not in prison any more.”
She bit her lip, lowering the bowl again. “I know.”
They turned. Boa stood behind them, a small group of hunters waiting behind him. He glanced at Zuko but returned his attention to Katara, flashing her a white-toothed grin. “Chief Dai spoke wit' me. I un'erstand th' fire-breather comes wit' me.”
Zuko bristled. “I have a name.”
Amusement passed over Boa's weathered features. “Aye, you do. Come along, boy.”
“I'm not going with you.”
“Ah,” Boa nodded knowingly. “Don't worry 'bout yer girl. She's safe 'ere.”
Zuko looked horrified and jerked away from Katara, sputtering, “She's not my girl!”
Boa looked surprised and turned to Katara with new eyes. “That so? That's good news.”
Katara blushed and Zuko made an agitated noise, shoving the loaf of bread into Katara's hand and pushing past the older man. “Stop that. Let's just go already.”
Boa gave her a wink before turning to follow the firebender. “By all means, boy. Lead th' way.”
Zuko snapped something back and Katara saw Boa throw his head back and laugh, clapping a hand on Zuko's shoulder. He shrugged off Boa's hand, stalking to join the rest of the hunters and Katara watched as they moved off into the trees. The cook woman returned, tutting and taking Katara's half empty bowl and handing off a bucket. “Make yerself useful, girl. Fetch some water.”
Stunned, Katara looked down at the bucket. The cook woman laughed. “Ya won't make an old woman do a young girl's work, will ya?”
“Of course not.”
She started towards the well, the woman calling after her, “Clean water, dear!”
Zuko followed the others men into the swamp, resisting the urge to look back over his shoulder at Katara. He did not need to rely on her for any kind of support. He was his own man! And he hated her, he reminded himself. Her and her peasant ways. He glowered ahead of him. It was her fault he was in this situation to begin with. He was jerked out of his morose thoughts by a hand clamping down on his shoulder and a jovial voice saying, “Hey there, firebreather! What they call ya?”
He shrugged away from the touch, giving the man a narrow-eyed look. The swamp man didn’t even flinch, instead offering a toothy grin and a careless shrug. “My name’s Trai. This ‘ere’s Vinh. We’re brothers!”
Another swamp man waved, coming along side Trai. They certainly looked enough alike to be related, though Vinh had the unfortunate luck to not inherit Trai’s looks. Trai’s teeth shone a bright white and were set in a handsome face. Zuko was immediately aware of his own marred appearance and looked away. He wasn’t usually bothered by his looks. Well, that was not quite true. Occasionally, when the fairer sex would greet the ship when he docked, he caught the startled glances, the grimaces, and forced smiles from the girls that made his face heat and the feeling of shame nearly overwhelm him. Vinh suddenly spoke up, dragging Zuko from depressing thoughts, “They mean well. We ain’t had a firebreather in these parts ‘afore.”
The expectant expressions on the brothers’ faces finally made Zuko relent. “It’s Lee.”
Trai clapped him on the shoulder again. “Nice t’ meet ya, Lee! Ever hunted b’fore?”
Zuko hesitated. Sure, he’d attempted to fish while he was still with his uncle. He failed at that. Pretty miserably too. His traps were never successful either. In fact, he and his uncle went hungry more times than they didn’t. Fire Nation royalty didn’t have to hunt—at least not seriously. His sister’s dogged pursuit of him and the Avatar made him wonder if perhaps he missed all training in tracking.
“A few times.”
Laughter drifted back to them from the front and Boa called back, “Don’t let the boy fool ya, Trai, he’s still wet b’hind th’ ears!”
Movement from the corner of his eye stopped Zuko’s snarling response and he jerked to look, his body tensing and his fingers flexing. He wished he was allowed his dao swords. Trai and Vinh paused as well, following the direction of his stare. Zuko frowned. He knew he’d seen movement. Could’ve sworn something was there, only, when he looked, the area was empty. He stared a moment longer, feeling the prickle on the back of his neck of something watching. When nothing appeared, he started forward again only to be brought up short by Trai and Vinh.
“You seen something?”
Trai was the one to ask the question. A few of the other hunters paused as well, scanning the trees, hanging branches, and exposed roots. Zuko shook his head. “No. It’s nothing.”
Almost as soon as he denied seeing anything, movement again caught his eye and his head snapped in the direction, his eyes narrowing. Instead of it vanishing, two ghostly figures interacted. One appeared to be a young woman, her hair pale and her robes floating around her as if suspended in water, reached for a second woman. The second woman’s back was to him, but Zuko recognized the long, dark braid and the robe and tunic in the style of the Southern Water Tribe. The pale woman’s mouth moved as if speaking though Zuko couldn’t hear what was said. When their hands touched, they both disappeared. Zuko blinked, looking around to see if they’d moved to a different area, but the swamp was still. Vinh raised an eyebrow. “Yer definitely seein’ things.”
“I’m not crazy.”
“Didn’t say ya was.”
Trai agreed with his brother. “They say those wit’ real strong connection to th’ Spirit World can see things.”
“But others see things.”
“Aye,” Vinh allowed. “But not e’ry time we step int’ the swamp.”
“All righ’, ya bunch of gosspin’ ol’ grannies, ‘nough chatter,” Boa declared. “We’re splittin’ up. Lee, yer wit’ me.”
The group divided and Boa threw an arm over his shoulder. Zuko could tell by his grin that whatever was going to be said next would not be pleasant. “Now, I’m gonna teach ya how to track.”
And he was right. Boa had him down in the mud looking at prints, bruised leaves, muddy scuffs on roots, and a whole conglomeration of things Zuko never knew were part of the whole hunting process. They’d been at it for hours and still they had nothing to show for it. They might all die of starvation before they found anything. A glance at the other hunters in the group showed that they each had managed a few birds. Any question on how they caught them without Zuko ever noticing was interrupted by Boa.
“Look ‘ere. This is where they come t’ water. We’ll set up ‘ere for a bit.”
The place Boa indicated was a muddy little hovel not far off the path they’d been following for most of the morning. Before he could protest, Boa pushed him in and the rest of the group fanned out to other locations.
Hours passed and Zuko was fast coming to the conclusion that hunting for your own food was a terrible idea. He never thought hunting would be so dirty, so difficult, or so boring. The other hunters—several had introduced themselves but Zuko couldn't keep their names straight—lounged in the curve of roots or leaned against trees nearby. His eyes narrowed. And none of them looked as downright filthy as he felt. Somewhere in the distance, Zuko heard a bird call. The idle conversation among the swamp hunters halted and a heavy silence descended. Boa rose and quietly moved away into the swamp. None of the other hunters moved to follow, but all eyes watched until he disappeared and continued watching in that direction. Zuko tensed, reaching for his swords and internally cursing when he remembered they'd been taken from him. Boa finally returned from wherever it was he went, giving a motion to several hunters who then moved off in a different direction. For Zuko's benefit, he explained, “Snakebird. We'll need t' circle 'round.”
Zuko had no idea what a snakebird was. It didn’t sound pleasant and he was sure his mind was conjuring images of the creature that were probably worse than it actually was. None of the others looked concerned. Still, Zuko didn’t think he wanted to be without some kind of defense. Fire, after all, did not seem helpful in the swamp. “I don't have a weapon.”
Boa paused, frowning a moment before pulling a large knife from his belt. He flipped the blade and handed it to the firebender hilt first. Zuko took it and eyed it critically before nodding his thanks and followed quietly behind the other hunters. Progress was slow. Boa would stop periodically to scan the ground and canopy before moving forward again. Occasionally he’d whisper instructions to the others or look for any silent suggestions, but for the most part the group was silent. Boa made a sharp jab to his left that brought everyone up short. Zuko could hear his heartbeat thundering in his ears and he spared a brief thought to wonder if anyone else could hear over it.
A shout of surprise rose from nearby followed by a screeching hiss that was definitely louder than any hiss Zuko had ever heard before. The crack of branches accompanied by the sound of rushing wind sent the hunters scattering as a large creature crashed through the trees. He was wrong in his imaginings of what a snakebird could possibly look like. It was worse than what he’d thought. Whatever vague imaginings Zuko’d had, it wasn't what he saw. The creature was huge. As tall as a man with an equally impressive wingspan. Black eyes rolled wildly as it snapped at anything that moved. The hunters dodged snapping teeth, ducking out of sight. It released a deafening roar, like thunder, ending in a snapping hiss. Its eyes zeroed in on Zuko and it decided that he looked tasty enough to eat. With another thunderous roar, it lunged.
Katara put the bucket on the edge of the well, leaning over to peer into the depths. She couldn't see the bottom and there was no rope to lower the bucket. For a brief moment, she wondered how the non-benders in the swamp got water when her musing's were interrupted by a cheerful greeting.
“Why, hello, girl!”
She turned to meet two men, one tall and thin, the other short and squat. The tall, thin man smiled broadly when she met his eye and she couldn’t help but return the smile along with a surprised, “Oh, hello.”
The tall one ambled forward. “Whatcha doin'?”
“I'm getting water for the cook woman.”
“Ah, that's mighty nice of ya, ain't it, Tho?”
The shorter man nodded in agreement. “Sure is, Due.”
Katara flushed under the praise and peered back over the ledge of the well. She couldn't see the water at the bottom and she stretched her senses for it. Feeling self-conscious under the eyes of the two men, she lifted a hand and gave a halted waving motion. To her horror, nothing happened and she straightened, her face flushing with embarrassment. She stammered a jumbled excuse, but neither man seemed to think anything of her failed attempt. Tho hummed, drawling, “Yer a waterbender.”
Due brightened, giving her a wide grin and pressing his hands to his chest as he exclaimed, “Me too! That means we're kin!”
Katara blinked, looking between the two men. They looked nothing like her or her people. They were faired skinned to her tanned and green-eyed to her blues. Not knowing quite how to respond, she hedged, “I guess.”
She was saved from further comment by another man ambling out of the woods. He was just as short and squat as Tho, but his hair was lighter and he didn't seem to have the strange, leaf hat the rest of the men around the village wore. Due’s grin widened and he pushed back his hat, greeting, “Hey, Huu! Whatcha been doin'?”
Katara turned to meet a short, squat man. He shrugged in response to Due's greeting. “The usual. The hunters are out and the animals are quiet.”
Pale green eyes turned to Katara, giving her a sweeping look, as if searching deep within her and assessing her abilities. He tugged something forward, saying, “I believe this is yours.”
An ostrich horse stepped from the trees, ruffling feathers and looking around. Katara gasped, hurrying forward to take the reins from him. The bird gave a coo of recognition, lowering its beak to nudge her shoulder. “You found Feathers!”
The bird brought Due up short and he scratched as his chin, eyeing the ostrich horse curiously. “What is it, Tho?”
“I believe it's one of them o-stretch horses.”
Katara allowed a smile, stroking the glossy feathers on the ostrich horse's neck. “It's an ostrich horse. Lee and I lost her in the swamp.”
Due made a sound of understanding and a beat of silence passed before he asked, “Can we eat it?”
She said it so firmly, so defensively, that the men all turned stunned eyes to her. Surprised at her own vehemence, she dropped her eyes and stepped closer to the ostrich horse. Huu cleared his throat, but Due jumped in with another musing, “Guess not. Wasn't allowed to eat that le-moo either. Bet it'd be tasty though.”
Tho nodded. “That le-moo and bison was too smart to eat.”
Tho and Due fell into discussion about the intelligence of animals and Huu turned to Katara with a kind smile. “Dai said you wanted t’ learn bendin'.”
Hope bloomed in Katara's chest. She’d dreamed about using real waterbending moves since she first realized she could bend. Going to the Northern Water Tribe now seemed a non-existent possibility. “You'll teach me waterbending?”
Huu motioned her to follow him and Tho took the reins of the ostrich horse, promising to put Feathers somewhere safe. They stopped at the bank of the river and Huu nodded. “We'll teach you swampbendin’.”
Katara frowned, feeling apprehensive. “Is there a difference?”
He shrugged. “Don't know. Never learned waterbendin’.”
She bit her lip, watching as Huu effortlessly drew water out of the river and separated it before tossing some of it away and directing the rest of it into her bucket. He explained that he’d separated the dirt from the water to ensure the water was clean when it was used for cooking. Katara watched as he filled the bucket, remarking, “Lee was trying to teach me to waterbend.”
Huu nodded, not looking at all surprised. “The fire-breather was teachin’ you? What did you learn?”
“You're not surprised?”
The swampbender snorted, giving a slight wave. “Naw. Show us.”
Nerves erupted in her and she took a deep, steadying breath. Due and Tho had returned from wherever they took the ostrich horse and sat perched on a nearby log, watching. She drew up a murky stream of water and smoothly went through the motions, pleased when it ended with a sharp snap. She let the water circle her once and then recede back into the river. Her movements were a little clumsy, but the swampbender nodded. “Good. He taught you the striking snake.”
“It's not a water whip?”
Huu shrugged dismissively. “Names are unimportant. Now, for yer trainin'.”
Huu was a patient teacher, quietly correcting her stance or her hands and demonstrating each move several times until she was able to perform follow. Due was an enthusiastic help, telling wild hunting stories that involved heroic bending and narrow escapes. She wasn’t sure how much to believe him until Tho included a part of the story Due had forgotten. Tho and Huu provided a calming balance to Due’s high energy and stories. Huu called a halt to stories and had Katara go through the basic waterbending moves while he stood to the side and watched with a critical eye, commenting, “Your moves ain’t as rigid as a swampbender’s.”
Due agreed. “Yer pretty to watch.”
She blushed, thanking him for the compliment. When Huu was satisfied that she had a grasp on the basics, he moved onto a more complicated move. Katara's whole body was beginning to ache when laughter echoed through the village and the hunters that left just after breakfast returned home with a kill slung over their shoulders. Huu, Due, and Tho turned to watch them and Katara breathed a sigh of relief as their distraction gave her a break to relax her tired muscles. They were too far away to hear what was said, but she saw Zuko drag in behind them, covered in mud head to toe. One of the hunters slapped him on the shoulder with a hearty laugh, nearly knocking him off his feet. Zuko submitted to their good-natured ribbing with hardly a glare as the the hunters moved off with their kill and gold eyes scanned the area. Katara smiled when his eyes landed on her and she saw him hesitate before starting toward her, swiping at damp bangs and grimacing when his hand came away muddy. He dropped to the log next to her with a weary sigh. Due let loose a low whistle, pushing his hat back and looking the firebender over with an incredulous gaze. “Look at ya! Why yer all muddy?”
Zuko grunted, scrubbing at a smear of mud on his arm. “It's nothing.”
“Ya look like ya got in a fight with a catigator,” Due commented
Zuko shook his head, his brow drawing down, muttering, “It was a snakebird.”
The three swampbenders sat back with a low whistle. Katara had no idea what a snakebird was, but it had to be large if all the returning hunters were carrying a kill. She quickly scanned Zuko for injury, but other than looking world-weary he appeared unharmed. Due voiced what the other two men were thinking, “Shoo, no wonder ya look like a mudrat.”
Tho sat up. “I s'ppose we'll be havin' a feast t'night, then.”
Katara looked up, intrigued and a little excited. “A feast?”
Huu nodded, offering Zuko a hand up. “Aye. That’ll be all the bendin’ practice for th’ day. Thanks for the successful hunt. Go git yerselfs cleaned up now.”
Zuko eyed the offered hand suspiciously, taking it only after Katara quietly cleared her throat. Huu smiled. “And it was Lee's first hunt. He is now a man.”
There was, indeed, a feast that night. Katara was quickly recruited to help with food preparation and Zuko was dragged off to be shown his sleeping arrangements for the night and then to help the men build up the large, central fire. Katara endured the excited whispers and quick glances the younger girls darted at her with some confusion, but the older women would always shush them and send them off on some errand before they too would send her a knowing smile. Nu sidled up to her side, elbowing her and smiling widely. “Are ya ready?”
Katara’s hands faltered at her task and she stared at the other girl, feelings of apprehension curling in her stomach. “Is something happening?”
Nu stifled a giggle and one of the older women laughed lightly, shaking her head. “Oh, no, dearie.”
It was the kind of response she'd always gotten when she was a child and the young women had been gathered to talk about life things. The older woman moved away, her tray laden with food, pausing to whisper to another. They both glanced back at her with smiles and quiet chuckles. When she looked at Nu she received a saucy wink and a grin. A blush flooded onto her cheeks and she ducked to hide the sudden color which only prompted another laugh. Nu thew an arm over her shoulder, leaning against her side.”Theres no reason to be embarrassed.”
Tien set her basket on the table nearby with a thump, brushing her hands off. “So yer gonna catch yerself a man tonight?”
Katara couldn’t hide her surprise. “W-what?”
“Takin’ a husband during the Spring Feast blesses th’ union,” Nu informed her solemnly. “My Boa wished t’ take me as ‘is wife t’day, but we’ll wait ’til th’ full moon.”
Tien tossed her hair. “It’s a shame t’ settle down so young.”
Nu frowned, narrowing her eyes at the other girl. “Some of us want t’ keep our reputations.”
The air suddenly bristled around the two girls and any sign of friendliness disappeared from Tien’s smile. Katara looked between them uncertainly. A sneer crossed Tien’s lips. “At least I don’ take the firs’ man t’ offer.”
Nu paled before blushing fiercely. “No man would take ya since ya keep spreadin’ yer thighs if they so much as ask.”
The icy glare she received in response was enough to freeze water in the middle of summer. Tien finally broke the stare-off with Nu and sent Katara a less than sincere smile. “If ya don’ wan’ ‘im, I’ll take ‘im off yer hands.”
She swayed away without waiting for Katara’s response. Nu snorted, her lips curling derisively. “Don’t pay ‘er any mind. Lee prolly won’t look twice at ‘er.”
“Oh! I’m not worried. We’re not like that.”
One of the older women laughed and Nu joined in. “Sure ya ain’t.”
That said, the women hustled them along with their preparations and before long Katara was sent off to bathe and prepare for the rising of the moon. The bathhouse was crowded with other young women all preparing to look their best for the feast. Winter skirts and shirts were shed to be replaced with lighter fabrics. Several of the girls were curious about Katara’s hair. Several of the younger girls clustered together, whispering furiously until one was brave enough to step forward. “Were ya banished from yer tribe fer wantin’ a fire-breather?”
Lan entered at those words, hushing them with a severe glare and sending them off since they were already dressed for the feast. The elderly woman patted Katara’s shoulder sympathetically, her word reassuring, “It’s all righ’, dear. Ya don’ have t’ worry ‘bout questions no more. We don’ judge ‘ere.”
Nu nodded firmly, brushing out the short locks back and slipping a comb into her hair. “I think it’s a great style. It’ll be cool in the summer.”
Katara touched the ends of her hair. “I never thought about it like that.”
Nu squeezed her shoulder. “Let’s go show ‘em what ya can do.”
Nu hurried Katara off to help finish with preparations and with many hands, the food was prepared and the celebration was underway. Various instruments Katara had never seen before were pulled out and a lively tune was struck. Nu left her to find Boa among the other men and Katara mingled with the others. She found Zuko skulking in the shadows, an odd grimace on his face. The cause of the grimace was soon revealed. In one hand held out as far from his body as he could without touching another person was a large insect on a skewer. She'd only taken a few steps toward him when Nu grabbed her elbow. “Ya must dance with us.”
Before she could protest, Nu spun her to stand with the other girls at the edge of the fire. “But—”
The swamp girl took a spot next to her, tutting, “It's tradition. Surely they danced in yer tribe?”
The music interrupted her with a slow, sensuous beat that made her heart pound. She only knew one dance. Her cheeks blushed and she cautiously moved through the steps, gaining confidence as she moved and the steps that had been drilled into her as a child returned. Soon, she lost herself to the beat, the movement of her hips, and golden eyes.
When Zuko returned from the hunt, he'd wanted to do nothing more than to eat something vaguely resembling food and then pass out on the bed he'd been shown to just before the Equinox Feast and sleep for days. Instead, he'd been dragged around the village, prodded at by suspicious old women who muttered strange things about moon cycles and his connection with the Great Spirit. He'd also been elbowed a number of times and given not so subtle winks at the mention of moon cycles by various men. He'd almost been relieved when the feast began. Then he'd been presented with a giant insect. They'd guffawed at his horrified expression and then the ribbing began. His ears still burned from some of the more suggestive advice he'd been given relating to the—the aphrodisiac effects of that particular insect. Even Uncle hadn't been so explicit when he encouraged an interest in girls. Zuko still shied away from interacting with girls if he could. Too often they’d stare in horrified fascination at his scar. The worst were the questions. He hated the questions. Anyway, there was no way he was eating a bug. A soft touch across his shoulder jerked him from his horrified stare. He met the beguiling smile of a young woman. Her hand trailed down his arm, dancing over flesh in an enticing rhythm. Her lashes fluttered and a pout drew his attention to her mouth. “I’ll dance fer ya.”
Her tone was a sultry purr, but Zuko could only stare uncomprehending. She gave him another smile before turning away to join the other girls at the fire, her hips swaying as she walked. Then the music started and the men turned to the fire and Zuko took the chance to escape into the shadows.
That was when he saw Katara. She'd arrived some time during the commotion with the rest of the women and the food. He caught the moment she finally noticed him and was surprised to see her smile brighten. The moment—not that it was a moment, Zuko told himself—ended when a girl dragged her to the fireside. His curiosity got the best of him and he moved closer for a better look. The music started a slow, seductive beat and he saw Katara hesitate; until the girl that dragged her to the fire gave her a prod. She took a deep breath, relaxed her shoulders, and then flowed. That was the only way Zuko could describe it. The music hit a fever pitch and then, suddenly, it stopped and Zuko forgot to breathe.
Blue eyes peered up at him from beneath thick lashes and Zuko swallowed thickly. “What was that?”
Her cheeks, already flushed from the dance, darkened. “My—my wedding dance.”
The Fire Sages had told him about such dances. They’d said they were vulgar and tasteless. They claimed the dances were nasty, primitive things, horrifying to watch. They’d said many things. Apparently they were wrong. Escape was his only option.
“I am going to bed,” he blurted.
The cheerful chatter around the fire died suddenly as surprised eyes turned to the firebender. Zuko froze, body tensing uncertainly. He caught the smirks from the men sitting nearby and they made a lewd hand gesture when he made eye contact. Katara caught a few of the older women glancing curiously at her and she felt her cheeks heat, but she didn't move, just as uncertain about the sudden silence as Zuko appeared. A muffled giggle from Nu broke the silence. Katara saw a few of the other girls sending Zuko blushing smiles and fluttering lashes and felt something inside her clench. Zuko seemed to realize he'd inadvertently stepped into an unknown custom. He opened his mouth to say something, seemed to change his mind, and beat a hasty retreat without another word. They watched him disappear into the darkness, quiet murmurings erupting from those that remained until the chief cleared his throat and stood. A hush fell over the fire and Katara caught the air of anticipation and felt her heart leap to her throat. Dai swept the gathering with a discerning eye, fixed a serious look on Katara, and finally spoke, “The fire-breather Lee has taken the Hut of Unity for the night. So marks his first night.”
Chapter 8: Closer
“The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances; if there is any reaction, both are transformed.”
— Carl Jung
“All people want is someone to listen.”
— Hugh Elliot, Standing Room Only
Zuko fled the feast, hoping he could escape without much attention. Another hour or two of off-color jokes and suggestion on what to do with a girl in private would be too much. He’d barely taken a handful of steps when an arm was thrown around his shoulder. He startled, jerking away and just stopping the fire jumping to his hands. Laughter met his response and Zuko could just make out one of the hunter's from earlier in the day. Teeth flashed white in the moonlight. “Easy there, Fire-breather, I ain't gonna hurt ya.”
Zuko grunted, putting a more comfortable distance between them as he racked his brain for a name to go with the face. It was good to know the names of your enemies. “What do you want?”
He didn't like the considering look the hunter gave him nor the grin that remained on his lips. “Just wanted t' check if ya had any questions.”
An uneasy feeling settled in his stomach. The feeling that he was missing something returned stronger than ever. Hai, Zuko told himself. The hunter’s name was Hai. That still didn’t ease the feeling that something was wrong or he was missing a crucial piece of information. “No.”
That white grin flashed again and Hai clapped him on the shoulder. “Good. Get to it then.”
Zuko watched as Hai strolled back to the feast and a few moments later laughter echoed back to him. He the warmth on his neck telling him he as blushing. Movement in the shadows spurred him back into motion. He didn't want to run into another swamp dweller who would give him advice on yet another embarrassing topic. The trek to his sleeping quarters took longer than he remembered and it was with some relief that he mounted the steps and and entered the hut. Zuko let the reed mat fall closed behind him and he stopped just inside. With the whirlwind of activity that preceded the feast, he hadn't noticed that this hut was the only one with actual walls. It was also the only one he'd seen with a bed instead of a hammock though it was still suspended above the floor by ropes. The hut was also situated slightly away from the other, communal, huts and Zuko had a sinking, suddenly horrifying, thought. Had they—had he just been married? To a waterbender? A shudder of horror passed through him and a cold sweat broke out on his forehead. He half turned to find out, but changed his mind. He'd find out in the morning. The thought of returning to the feast—to Katara—was too much. Decision made, he collapsed on the bed and fell asleep.
Despite his inner turmoil, Zuko slept dreamlessly and woke the next morning feeling more rested than he had in weeks. Sleep in an actual bed had been few and far between since he and his uncle fled the North Pole. He could tell dawn was still some hours away and the rest of the village would remain asleep for some time. Relief flooded through him when he realized he was still alone in the hut. He hadn’t known what to expect and half-thought the men would toss Katara into the hut with him and be done with it. Zuko rolled from the bed, groaning as strained muscles protested and ran a hand through his hair. Smoothing down his rumpled tunic, he took a deep breath, releasing it slowly. He’d refused to wear the loin cloth they’d presented him, instead insisting on keeping his own clothing. There was some good natured grumbling, but one of the benders eventually dried his cleaned tunic and pants. This morning he was going to greet the dawn as a loyal son of the Fire Nation.
The compound was quiet when Zuko left the hut and it felt unusual to move around without having someone watching him with barely suppressed suspicion. He passed the remains of the smoldering bonfire and gradually found his way to a small clearing that offered a place to sit well off the damp ground. Relieved that he’d get another hour or two of peace while he sorted through the previous days events, he settled down to meditate.
“Good morning, Lee.”
Zuko cracked an eye open to see a smiling, weathered face. He said nothing, but the swampbender didn't seem perturbed, settling down next to him and folding his hands in his lap. Zuko watched him from the corner of his eye as the swampbender made himself comfortable, oblivious to Zuko's less than welcome frown. The swampbender took a deep, centering breath, releasing it slowly before commenting, “Not many see the need to meditate.”
Zuko looked away, gripping his knees. He could remember a time he refused his uncle's guidance in meditation. He’d received a full on lecture about the benefits about both the calming aspects of meditating and the good it does for ones firebending. Meditation helped keep focus and an even inner balance. The silence that followed made Zuko feel like he was back with his uncle. Uncle Iroh always used silence to get him to talk. A pang went through him. One he usually associated with homesickness. He shoved the feeling away, grumbling, “It helps keep my element under control.”
The swampbender gave an understanding hum, pale green eyes flicking to the scar over Zuko's left eye. “Yes. Fire is a wild element.”
Zuko bristled, but the swampbender raised a hand with a small laugh. “I mean no harm, fire-breather. Each element has its traits.”
Zuko knew he couldn’t rage against something that was true without sounding like a hypocrite. Too often the bending masters in the palace would talk about control. The inner fire was always seeking to break free, control had to be maintained or it would be disastrous. They fell into a meditative silence, Zuko absently noting the change of light in the trees and the stirring of life in the village. He wondered where his uncle was now. The thought brought a soft snort of amusement. Uncle Iroh was probably drinking tea in a tea house and flirting with the girls.
“The Avatar, too, came here seeking answers.”
The sudden words startled Zuko and he almost didn't hear what was said. His heart surged in his chest and he resisted the urge to demand information. The capture of the Avatar was paramount to his return home. Zuko stamped down on the feeling. He was no longer searching for the Avatar. The news that he'd been in the swamp was worthless. His fingers flexed on his knees. Still, what could the Avatar be looking for? “Did he find them?”
The swampbender slanted him a considering look. “Yes. And no.”
Zuko frowned. That was no answer at all. Of course, Zuko didn’t know what kind of answers the Avatar could possibly need. What were his questions?
The Avatar seeks to restore balance, yet how can he when he, himself, is unbalanced?”
Zuko's jaw tightened. “Is it really that unbalanced?”
The swampbender made a noise of affirmation. “You know it is.” He gave the young man a long look. “Something troubles you. Other than the balance of the elements, I mean.”
“Am I married?”
The words burst forth before he could stop them. The swampbender looked surprised. “Are you?” The question clearly meant that Zuko should know. Zuko scowled and the swampbender adjusted his question. “Did you spend the night alone?”
Zuko felt his cheeks heat and he turned away, closing his eyes and focusing on his breathing. “Yes.”
Then you are not. You have declared intent, though, so she has three nights to come to you. If she does not, then you must try again. Last night was the first night.”
Three nights? Declared intent for whom? Zuko shifted uncomfortably. Stupid customs.
The swampbender watched him, clearly amused. “Of course, if the wrong girl comes, you may turn her away.” He laughed at Zuko's panicked look and shrugged. “It has been known to happen.”
Katara's cheerful arrival saved Zuko from responding. “Good morning, Lee. Huu.”
“Mornin’, Katara. Are you ready to begin?”
Zuko looked up at her as she stepped up onto the root next to them. She was dressed much like the other girls. The dark green skirt falling to her knees in the front then sweeping down to her calves in the back. With the Equinox now passed, the girls had switched to a band of cloth across their chests instead of a full tunic. To his horror, he found his eyes traveling to her exposed flesh. Sensing his gaze, Katara blushed when she looked at Zuko, immediately turning to Huu. “Yes.”
Huu stood, pausing to look down at the firebender. “You may stay, if ya like. The men will sleep late today and then work around the village. The rains will come soon.”
The days passed quietly, each not much different from the one before it. Zuko would rise before sunup and meditate; sometimes alone, sometimes with Huu. Katara would join them shortly after sunrise, sitting quietly until Huu declared it was time for lessons. Zuko would watch until some of the men would come around and pull him into work around the village. Each night, Zuko would retreat from the fire with a silent nod. Several weeks had passed and the rains were coming and work around the village was picking up.
The air in the swamp was growing warmer each day and every afternoon Zuko’s clothes would stick uncomfortably to his body. Boa usually took a spot nearby, working logs into long boards and generally talking despite Zuko’s lack of response. The flow of words would pause when Nu came by with food, water, and a cheerful smile, but she’d only wait until she learned everything was going well before leaving the men to their work. Zuko was grateful for her presence for a number of reasons. The main reason being that no one complained when he stopped working to join the others on a lunch break. Boa watched as Nu left, eyes lingering until another elbowed him. “She’s a good girl.”
Boa’s face reddened but he grinned proudly. “Ain’t she?”
A few others nodded. “She makes a great pho.”
Boa laughed, taking up a bowl of soup. “Well, she’s mine so doncha get any ideas.”
More bowls were passed around and the group down to eat. Trai slurped his noodles, speaking through a full mouth. “I don’ see th’ rush t’ marry.”
Zuko caught several eye rolls and soft snorts. Boa frowned over his bowl at the other man, but it was Hai who spoke. “Ya should jus’ be careful ‘er father don’ find out. Ya e’er gonna marry tha’ girl?”
He gave a dismissive wave of his chopsticks. “Naw, I certnly ain’t th’ firs’ t’ ‘ave ‘er an’ I prolly won’ be th’ las’. I got my eye on ‘nother girl.”
“Tha’ ain’t righ’.”
Trai shrugged and went back to slurping noodles. Attention drifted back to Boa. “Yer gettin’ married, yeah?”
“Aye. At th’ full moon.”
Laughter rose and Zuko was unable to follow the conversation for several minutes until Vinh, who was sitting nearby, turned to him and asked, “So, when are ya gettin’ married?”
Zuko nearly choked on his food and his violent coughing drew more attention than he wanted.
“Hey,” Boa called, “what’d ya say to ‘im?”
“I jus’ asked ‘im when ‘e was marryin’.”
“Tha’s righ’! Yer got yerself a pretty girl, too. She bein’ shy?”
“No!” Zuko gasped.
Boa made a sound of understanding. “So yer bein’ shy.”
Zuko spluttered, hoping the dirt and mud from the day’s labor hid his flushing cheeks. “No! I’m never getting married!”
They looked surprised at his vehemence. “Why?”
Zuko looked away, angrily stabbing at his pho. “Who would want me?”
“I can think o’ one,” Trai offered.
Vinh reached over and punched his brother’s shoulder causing the other man to yelp. “Tha’s not what I meant!”
Hai rolled his eyes at the pair. “’S not that bad.”
Zuko’s hand rose to his scar. He’d forgotten it for a moment. “That’s not—I mean—I guess not.”
Boa sighed, standing and tossing his bowl into the empty pot. “It’s not. Why, I got this scar, ‘ere,” he twisted to show a long, jagged scar across his lower back, “from m’ first hunt. Ran afoul of a categator. Nearly cut m’in half!”
Soon the other men were showing scars and boasting of what wild thing they did to earn it, the stories growing more wild and farfetched as each tried to out-do the other. Hai finally turned to Zuko, asking, “How’d ya get yer scar?”
Zuko stared. No one had ever asked how he got his scar. The Fire Nation saw it as it was: a mark of dishonor or failure at controlling his element. Other nations saw it as a result of the war. To be asked outright, as if it’d been acquired through some heroic feat of battle, was strange. Unsure of how to explain, he hesitated. “Well, it’s—I got it from a battle of sorts.”
The swamp men stared. “Battle, huh.”
Zuko nodded and Boa leaned forward, squinting at the scarred flesh around his eye. “Looks like ya had this a while.”
Zuko rose, dropping his bowl in the pot with the others, muttering, “I was thirteen. I’m going back to work.”
He left before anyone could say anything and the others drifted back to work shortly after that. A few of the men glanced at him, but thankfully kept their distance. The day wore on and the afternoon was once more sticking to his skin. He tugged uncomfortably at his tunic before abandoning it altogether. He’d just pulled it off his shoulders when a throaty laugh behind him made him jerk around. “I wasn’t expectin’ a show when I can wit’ water.”
He spun to face the voice, startled and nearly ripping the sleeves from his tunic. He recognized the girl as the one that approached him the night of the Equinox Feast. She smiled at him, pale green eyes drifting down to his exposed torso before meeting his eyes with an enticing smile. “My name’s Tien. What’s yers?”
The name rang a bell, but the sway of her hips and the sweep of her hair distracted him from recalling where he’d heard it. She was an attractive girl, he supposed. Full-figured and fine featured. “Lee.”
She fluttered her lashes, tilting her head so she’d have to look up at him through them. “Would ya like some water, Lee?”
Her voice caressed the letters of his name and sent a shiver down his spine. “Water?”
“Yes,” she laughed, holding up a waterskin that hung at her side. “I brought th’ men water.”
Zuko stared at the waterskin dumbly. “Oh, water, yes.”
She poured some water from the skin, stepping well within his personal space to give it to him. He took it carefully, stepping away to gain a more comfortable distance. She followed, watching as he quickly drank the water and handed her the cup again. “I’ve ne’er met a fire-breather afore.”
“Oh,” was all Zuko could say.
“What’s it like? Where yer from.”
Zuko blinked, frowning. “Uh...hot?”
Tien laughed, tossing her hair. She reached out, brushing her hand down his arm. The hair stood up on his arms and he pulled away, flushing hot. She bit her lip. “Hot? What else?”
He took another step back only for her to follow again. “Hello, Lee.”
Tien startled, turning toward the new voice, a frown already pulling at her mouth. Katara stood a few feet away, her hands on her hips and frowning at the other girl. Zuko never thought he'd be so relieved to see the waterbender again. “Katara!”
Tien stepped away from Zuko, clearly unhappy with the interruption. “What are ya doin' 'ere? Ain't ya s'posed t' be trainin'?”
Katara scowled. “Huu has given me time for the afternoon meal so I thought I'd come and see how Lee is doing.”
He opened his mouth to respond and was surprised when her glare shifted from Tien to him. Tien simply laughed, shooing Katara away with a dismissive wave of her hand. “'e is very busy now. 'e is not interested in a lil girl. 'e was tellin' me 'bout 'is home.”
“I—” Zuko tried to interrupt.
“And I'm sure it was fascinating,” Katara cut in over Zuko. “It looked like it was going so well that Lee wanted to leave immediately.”
That brought Tien's attention back to the firebender and she once again fluttered her lashes so much that Zuko was beginning to think there was something stuck in her eye. “I'm sure Lee was enjoying himself.”
Katara snorted. “Right. I think you'd better move on to a different man now.”
The glare Tien shot Katara was enough to make the temperature around them drop several degrees. “What do ya mean, by that?”
“Exactly what you think it means.”
They stared at each other for several minutes before the swamp girl released an annoyed sigh. “Fine.”
She gave Zuko one last sultry look before leaving, making sure he was watching as she walked away. Katara watched her as well, her scowl dark. A slight movement from Zuko snapped Katara back to the present and blazing blue eyes pinned him in place. “What did she want?”
She asked about the Fire Nation.”
Katara folded her arms, raising an eyebrow in disbelief. “Really?”
Whatever righteous indignation Katara had mustered up before that quickly deflated. “It's just—She was--” she shook her head. “Nothing. It was nothing. Don't talk to her.”
Zuko could only nod to the command in her voice before she stalked away, muttering about hussies and loose swamp morals and the downfall of society. Girls, Zuko decided, would never make sense. They were insane. Whatever Katara had come to talk to him about was forgotten and Zuko watched as a second girl walked away from him. Granted, Katara marched away, nearby puddles splashing angrily. Maybe it was a good thing he was stuck in the swamp. Katara lacked control though he would not be the one to tell her that.
It seemed that every time he turned around, there was a guy talking to Katara. At first he thought nothing of it. He didn’t care what she did or who she talked to. He just wanted to get out of the swamp, drink fresh, clean water, and bathe alone. It wasn’t that he was ashamed of his body or had any qualms about modesty or lack of modesty, he just wanted to be alone. Blessedly alone. There were too many men sharing one small bathhouse and not enough space to move without invading someone’s personal space. The Fire Nation was never so barbaric as having too little space for so many men. It wasn’t like he had to bathe every day. In fact, it seemed most of the men jumped in the sluggishly moving river and called it done. But Zuko discovered that the mud itched when it dried. And it smelled. Horribly.
One such day, when the ground was soft and he’d been feeling particularly disgusting, he saw her. She’d been assisting in general chores around the village and practicing her bending under Huu’s watchful eye. It wasn’t even anything that he would normal remark upon, but Katara had come around for several days accompanying Nu during the men’s lunch break and kept him company until it was time for her to return to practice. This day he’d turned from his work to join the others for a meal when he saw one of the men take the basket from her. She smile, thanking him, and then laughed at something he’d said. The sight brought a rush of confused feelings that Zuko quickly pushed aside. After that he started noticing that she was rarely alone when she walked through the village. It also didn’t help that every time he turned around, Tien was there touching him. The swamp was trying to drive him crazy.
The final push to be ready for the spring rains had arrived and Zuko was stretched out on his stomach in the soft mud below one of the huts on the edge of the village closest to the river, a crude mallet in one hand. The previous day the ground had been dry. According to the men of the village, the rainy season was almost upon them. The waters of the swamp would rise and flood the village, turning all the paths to rivers and each hut to its own island. His task, along with the rest of the men, was to check the stilts and reinforce the weak ones. After that, bridges would need to be built to connect all the huts.
With a grunt, Zuko hammered the final peg into place, giving the board a firm tug. It didn't move. Pleased, he crawled out from beneath the hut, gathering his tools to move to the next one. One more and the huts would be complete and he’d be able to wash the mud and sticky sweat off his body. Stretching the kinks out of his back, he caught sight of Katara stomping his way with a scowl. She stomped past him, splashing through shallow puddles and dropping onto a hollow log with a frustrated exhale.
“This is so hard.”
She fell back against the log, frowning up at the branches that swayed over them. Zuko carefully sat on the log at her head, glancing down at her. Very few things frustrated the waterbender about their time in the swamp so it was easy to guess. “Bending?”
She rolled her eyes as if it were a stupid question. It probably was. “Yes.”
Katara scowled, twisting her neck to look up at him. “What?”
Zuko shrugged. “Just your warm up.”
She didn't move, instead dropping an arm across her eyes with a sigh. “It's so different from everything I've ever heard about waterbending.”
“It’s a different culture. I do see a difference in their bending.”
Katara sat up, looking interested. “How?”
“They use their feet more.” Zuko look thoughtful. “I think it's a good thing.”
She scowled, folding her arms across her chest. Zuko held up his hands. “It's more diverse. It'll let you learn different forms of combat.”
“But I don't want to learn different forms of combat,” she whined.
“It could be useful. Practice.”
She snorted but didn't pursue the argument, instead standing and stepping a short distance away, calling water to her in a thin stream. At least she was no longer struggling with that part of her bending. Zuko watched intently as she moved through her warm-up, brow furrowed with concentration. It was... different, Zuko decided. Not a bad different, but definitely different than the Northern Water Tribe. He recognized the end of her warm-up and stood. She had certainly improved, no matter what she claimed. She’d adapted the swamp bending style to what she already knew of the Water Tribe’s style which created an interesting combination.
A flash caught his attention and Zuko seized her left hand, pulling it up to look at it with intense scrutiny. Heat flooded Katara's cheeks and she gave a halfhearted tug, trying to reclaim her hand. “Zuko.”
The firebender ignored her, his fingers tracing the silver band that encircled her thumb. Katara watched quietly, her breath catching when he gave the ring a gentle tug. “It won't come off.”
Gold eyes flicked up to her face, his fingers unconsciously tightening around hers. “It's not meant to come off easily.” He looked back down at the ring. “Theory behind it is the only way to remove it is by cutting off the finger, then everyone would know you escaped. And not many people can stomach cutting off their own finger.”
Katara grimaced. “Pleasant.”
His lips quirked and he raised an eyebrow. “Right,” he let her hand go, the gold of his eyes brightening. A shiver ran down her spine and she lowered her eyes. “It won't stay there forever.”
“At least they didn't brand me.”
That would be a poor decision on their part.”
His fingers traced the unblemished skin around her left eye, his expression wistful. He turned away before she could question his thoughts. “No one wants a scarred lover. Especially if they're paying good money for a pretty face.”
Katara blinked, suddenly aware of large scar that covered the firebender’s left eye and extended up over his ear and into his hairline. “What happened to you?”
Zuko studiously avoided her eyes, brushing a hand down his muddy front self-consciously. It seemed like he was always covered in mud and muck in this village. He hated mud. It was always in his hair, his clothes, his mouth. And it stunk.
He came back to himself, catching her amused glance. “I'm reinforcing the stilts.”
He motioned to the hut behind him and Katara followed the motion, her eyes dropping to the ground and following the path of disturbed mud under the hut. Curious, she stepped to the side of the hut and bent to look under. She quickly spotted the recent work Zuko had done and she bit her lip to stop the giggle that threatened to come out. Twice as many pegs had been used to keep the support in place. She turned to look at him just in time to catch his anxious shifting. She smiled. “Looks good.”
Zuko rolled his eyes and snorted in disbelief, but didn't correct her.
“Hey! Quit yer wooin', Lee. Them huts ain't gonna fix theirselves.”
Zuko and Katara blushed equal shades of red and Zuko backpedaled away from her, stuttering, “I better go.”
Katara nodded, avoiding looking at him. “Me too. Practice. Huu's probably waiting for me.”
She walked away with a blush staining her cheeks as Zuko bent to gather his tools and tear his eyes away from the gentle sway of her hips. A quiet snicker behind him startled him and he turned to find Boa grinning at him. Zuko's eyes narrowed and he quickly straightened. “What are you laughing at?”
“Nothin’. It's alrigh' to look, ya know,” his gaze slid from the firebender to the direction Katara had hurried in. “She's mighty fine. Tho is lookin' fer a wife.”
Zuko felt his muscles seize and he couldn’t stop the look over his shoulder after Katara. Tho was often in her company. A knowing smile appeared on Boa's lips and Zuko pushed his annoyance away, shouldering the mallet and boards. “Good for him.”
Mud sucked at his shoes as he started away, ignoring Boa as he fell in step with him, musing, “I would try for her meself...”
Gold eyes flashed irritably. “So why don't you?”
Boa looked surprised. “Why, she won't have me, o'course. Ya have prior claim and all. ‘Sides, I got me own girl. Nu’s th’ bes’ girl there is, ain’t nothin’ like ‘er. She’d remove m’ head from m’ shoulders if’n I tossed ‘er.”
Zuko froze and Boa walked a few steps before turning to look back at him in question. Zuko shook his head. “No, I don't.”
Boa laughed, clapping him on the shoulder, “Sure ya do! Ya killed the snakebird and jus' in time fer spring rains!”
“But the three days—”
Boa dismissed the words with a wave of his hand. “Jus' renew yer intent. Simple. Better before someone else snaps ‘er up!”
With a final pat on his shoulder, Boa moved away with a cheerful whistle, leaving Zuko sputtering behind him.
Zuko accepted the skewer from Cook, suppressing a grimace at the large insect, still steaming from the cook fires. He was trying to figure out a way to dispose of the bug when Due dropped down next to him, knobby knees rising almost to his shoulders. “Ya gonna eat tha’?”
Zuko held out skewer, grateful to be rid of it. “No.”
Due snapped it up enthusiastically, eating it with relish. Zuko turned away, his stomach rolling. He froze when he caught sight of Katara. She stopped by the fire, accepting a bowl of pho with a smile, hesitating only a moment before taking the offered insect. Several girls hustled around her, speaking quickly and taking her by the arm. She caught his eye as she turned with the other girls, smiling brightly and tilting her head in question. Surprised that he was caught staring, Zuko looked away quickly, meeting the grinning countenance of Boa. “I saw that.”
“Saw what?” Zuko feigned ignorance.
His grin turned conspiratorial. “Oh, ya know, I told ya she were pretty.”
Giggles erupted from the girls and the three men turned to look at them. They watched as the girls glanced towards them before swiftly turning away with another fit of giggles. They clustered closer to Katara, clearly whispering. Due spoke suddenly, “Right pretty. Tho said he was goin' t' ask her t'nigh'.”
Boa sat back with a good-natured laugh. “That so?”
Due nodded, using his skewer to point. “Yep, look.”
They followed the motion back to the girls, noticing the short swampbender approach. The group greeted him cheerfully and he greeted them all in return before turning his attention solely on Katara. Tho leaned forward as he spoke, touching her lightly on the shoulder. Her cheeks flushed as the other girls giggled and her eyes darted across the campfire to Zuko before returning a smile to Tho. To the surprise of both Boa and Due, Zuko shot to his feet, stalking around the campfire with a murderous glare. Tho turned with a friendly grin, greeting, “Evenin', Lee.”
The words were friendly despite Zuko's stare and Tho's obvious surprise at his sudden presence. Zuko’s eyes narrowed further. Tho was definitely older and larger than Zuko was, but Zuko had youth on his side. And firebending. Katara stood, passing her bowl to another girl and laying a tentative hand on Zuko's arm. “Lee?”
His stare wavered and he finally noticed the expectant expressions on everyone's faces. Zuko groaned internally. So much for not drawing any more attention to himself. Nu even raised an eyebrow, smirking. He nodded stiffly. “Tho.”
Tho waited to see if he would say anything else, but when he didn't expand upon his greeting, Tho smiled and nodded at the girls, his smile resting a moment longer on Katara than the others. “Katara.”
Zuko tensed, vaguely aware of Katara's hand tightening on his arm. “Yes, Tho.”
Zuko jerked around to stare at her, ignoring the significant look Tho gave him as he moved away. Katara suddenly noticed Zuko’s stare and stepped away, surprise flashing in her eyes. “Lee?”
His lips thinned and his eyes narrowed. He wondered what Tho wanted with Katara. What did she mean by saying ‘yes’ to Tho? Did she promise herself? The girls were waiting for an explanation or at least for him to provide a reason for his sudden appearance instead of standing mutely before them. He looked over them all, glancing over his shoulder where Tho had joined Boa and Due and were now watching him. Zuko squared his shoulders, his chin rising as he deliberately spoke his next words, “I'm turning in. Good night, Katara.”
Chapter 9: Understanding
“Give what you have. To someone, it may be better than you dare to think.”
– Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
“I'm turning in. Good night, Katara.”
Zuko hesitated only a moment after the words left his mouth before he turned and walked away. Katara's cheeks heated, her blush deepening when pale eyes turned to her in surprise. As soon as he was out of earshot, several of the girls crowded around her, speaking excitedly, “He singled you out! What are you going to do?”
Katara turned in an attempt to hide her blushing cheeks. “Nothing.”
The girls were shocked, gasping in horrified disbelief. “ Nothing ? Why ?”
“He doesn't view me like that.” She caught sight of their skeptical looks and quickly added, “And I'm not interested.”
Nu snorted. “Like I believe that pack o' lies.”
Katara hadn't heard Nu approach and startled. “W-what?”
The older girl rolled her eyes, jutting out a hip and placing one hand on it, waving the other absently as she spoke, “I seen the way ya look at 'im an' Tien 'ere has sashayed pas' 'im with naught but a skirt and scarf t' cover 'er and 'e barely glanced.”
The girls turned to Tien with varying expressions of awe and disapproval. Tien blushed even as her chin rose defiantly, “I ain't done nothin' wrong.”
“Lan said t' leave that firebreather alone, Tien, 'e belongs t' Katara.”
They turned to Katara for confirmation.
“Lee's not mine,” she squeaked.
“See? 'e's fair game. I—”
“He declare Intent—”
Tien frowned mutinously. “She don't want 'im. That's over.”
Nu frowned in return. “No, jus' now 'e renewed Intent.”
Lan bustled into the group, interrupting what was turning into an argument. “Enough, enough. Huu says the rains a'comin' so we bes' be off. Tien, leave that boy alone. 'e don' wan' ya.”
Tien scowled, shooting Katara a dark look. “But why? 'e's lookin' fer a wife an' she ain't doin' nothin'.”
“Don't be a hussy, girl.”
“I'm more of a woman than she is. She's nothin' but a girl.”
Katara flushed, folding her arms across her chest self-consciously. The older woman snorted. “Per'aps, but there be other men fer ya. Enough o' that, now.”
Lan bundled the girls off to their hammocks, clicking her tongue in disapproval when the girls protested. Thunder rumbled in the distance and the smell of rain hung heavy in the air. The reed mats were lowered around the hut, creating thin walls to block the windswept rain. Katara wrapped the thin blanket around herself as she huddled in her hammock. She stared unseeing at the reed mat as it quivered against the wind. The rain wasn't falling yet, but she could sense it drawing closer. She felt cold. It was with some surprise when quiet footsteps approached and then another body joined her in her hammock. A quick glance over her shoulder revealed Nu pressed in behind her.
“What are you doing?”
With some effort, Katara turned over in the hammock. Now facing Nu, the older girl gave Katara a long, searching look. “Y'ain't been sleepin'.”
Nu reached over and tugged gently on Katara's short hair. “T'ain't nothin'. Ya have nightmares.” She smiled gently at Katara's shocked expression. “I 'ear 'em. Ya used t' call out fer yer da, yer brother, even that Avatar kid.”
Katara swallowed nervously. “Used to?”
“Yep. Now ya call fer some guy named Zuko or somethin'.”
Katara groaned, covering her face with her hands. Nu waited quietly before speaking again, keeping her voice low, “Lee ain't 'is real name, is it?”
The word whispered out from between her hands, barely audible. Nu pulled her hands down, leaning in with a devious whisper, “I won't tell if ya want t' sneak o'er. Ya can take 'em for a test ride. Put 'em through 'is paces.”
The older girl shush her quickly, laughing quietly at Katara's fiery blush.
“I would never—”
“Course ya wouldn't! Ya do need t' sleep though. I ain't stupid. Ya shared a bed before ya came 'ere.”
“Not like that,” Katara muttered.
Nu raised an eyebrow. “Disappointed?”
Katara glared. “Is that all you think about?”
“Course not, but the rains are 'ere and there ain't nothin' else t'do.” Nu rolled out of the hammock, stopping the gentle swing and looking down at Katara. “Think 'bout it. 'E gets up early. Ya can sneak out an' back b'fore anyone wakes.”
Katara watched as Nu fell into her own hammock, waving off the calls of the other girls to join them in their gossip. Katara curled further into the thin blanket, suddenly aware of the sound of rain beating against the thatched roof. The sound was soothing but she knew she wasn't going to sleep. Or at least she wasn't going to sleep well. The weeks after Zuko rescued her from the auction stage she'd gotten used to his comforting presence. He kept the nightmares at bay. A shiver moved down her spine and she squeezed her eyes shut. The swamp was too close to the Spirit World.
The girls eventually drifted to bed and Katara listened as the beat of rain drops lulled them to a peaceful sleep. With cautious movements, Katara rolled out of her hammock and crept out of the hut. Perhaps Nu was right. She wasn't getting any sleep in her own hammock and Zuko would be awake long before the rest of the village.
Zuko stared at the thatched ceiling, listening to the steady beat of rain against the reeds. The swamp people hadn't been lying when they said the rains were coming. Now the entire village would soon be flooded and each hut would be like a tiny island. His thoughts were troubled and it wasn't about the coming flood to the village. None of the villagers seemed concerned so he put the thought from his mind despite the feeling of unease that hung over him. No, his thoughts dwelled on the reaction he had to a certain blue-eyed waterbender. He huffed a sigh, a slight frown pulling at his thoughts. What ever had possessed him to say good-night to Katara? He knew what the customs of the swamp were yet he still did it. His eyes closed, brow furrowing. He was being stupid.
The firebender's eyes snapped open and shifted upright, fire blooming in his palm. Gold eyes reflected the warm light and Katara hesitated, glancing over her shoulder at the empty compound. Zuko frowned, swinging his legs over the edge of the hanging bed and stilling the gentle rocking his motion caused. “Katara?”
She startled, quickly stepping into the dim interior and letting the reed mat fall shut as she nervously patted at her clothing. “I—I couldn't sleep.”
Zuko shifted, giving her an unspoken welcome. “You know what it means if they find you here.”
Relief flooded through her and she quickly crossed the small hut to the swinging bed. “You wake before dawn, just make sure you push me out the door by then.”
He grunted, carefully moved to the other side of the bed, keeping the small flame aloft. “I really don't want to get married in a swamp.”
She laughed, crawling onto the swinging bed next to him. “It's not really ideal.”
Something in him ease somewhat as he watched her settle down next to him, a contented sigh escaping her and her eyes closed. Without opening her eyes, she reached out and tugged on his arm. He scooted closer to her, his heart skipping as she threw her arm over his bare chest and snuggled into him. She was here, with him, but still he couldn't forget the words of Boa and Due. “What did he want?”
Blue eyes opened, looking up at him in confusion. “Who?”
His teeth clenched. The who should have been obvious. “Tho.”
Confusion cleared and a blush rose on her cheeks instead. Her eyes fell away from his to a point somewhere in the darkness over his shoulder. “Oh, nothing.”
So, Due was right. Tho had asked her, not that it was any of Zuko's business. Katara could do whatever she wanted. Zuko's lips thinned. With whomever she wanted. He didn't care. That still didn't stop the words that spilled from his mouth, “He's too old for you.”
Katara shrugged, pushing chin-length hair behind her ears. “The older men usually marry younger women in the tribes.”
Zuko pulled a face.
She rolled her eyes, poking his side. “Older men offer more stability. More security.”
He moved away from her fingers, eyes narrowed and the flame in his hand flared for a moment before he took a steadying breath. “So Tho is a good match.”
Katara lifted herself onto her elbows, speaking slowly, “In a manner of speaking—”
“Did he ask you to spend the night with him?” he cut her off, probably a little more harshly than he intended.
She flinched, sitting up and looking down at him incredulously. “Zuko—”
She was hiding something, he could tell. He jerked away from her hand, scowling fiercely and demanding, “Did he?”
Her blush darkened even as her own eyes flashed with anger. “It was nothing like that .”
“Then what did he want?”
She shoved him away, throwing back the thin blankets and launching herself from the bed. She smacked his hand away when he made a grab for her. “He was congratulating me on the fine work my intended had done on the huts. I told him he was mistaken .”
She spun away, marching to the reed mat. Zuko scrambled after her, nearly falling on his face as he sprang from the bed. He grabbed her hand, holding tight when she tried to yank it away. “Wait.”
They were nearly shouting and Zuko had an absent hope that they couldn't be heard over the rain and thunder. The flame in his palm puffed out as he lacked the concentration to maintain it, but not before flashing blue eyes turned toward him. “Why do you even care ?”
“Because you're mine !”
Thunder rolled ominously overhead and in the next lightening flash Zuko caught sight of her drop jawed astonishment. The speechless astonishment didn't last long and Katara yanked on her hand harder. “Is that what this is about? Your little slave might run off with another man?”
“No! That's not—”
Zuko sputtered into silence. He didn't even know what he meant. A frosty silence fell over them, punctuated only by the sound of rain and the rumble of thunder. He heard her sigh softly and her fingers moved as if testing his hold. “Maybe I should go.”
She hadn't moved but Zuko tugged on her hand, pulling her a step closer. “Don't. It's raining.”
It was a stupid thing to say to a waterbender and Katara seemed to agree, if her soft snort was anything to go by. Zuko held his breath. He hadn't apologized. He wasn't even sure what he should apologize for, but the feeling that he'd done or said something wrong nagged at him. Katara took a voluntary step toward the bed. “Fine.”
They climbed back into bed in silence, settling back beneath the thin blankets without touching. Katara shifted slightly, drawing Zuko's attention. In the next flash of lightening he could see her back turned to him. He released a weary sigh, eyes turning to stare at the darkened ceiling. Whatever they had was gone now and for some reason it hurt. Katara shifted again and a hand landed on his arm.
“Can I ask a question?”
She ignored his smart remark, moving closer when he didn't push her away. “The firebenders before. On the road.”
She hesitated and he could almost see her biting her lip as she tried to word her question just right. It took him a moment to remember which firebenders she would be talking about and then the memory came to him. The guards patrolling the road, them shouting for him to stop, escaping into the woods. Zuko tried to stop himself from tensing. “What about them?”
She waited for another rumble of thunder and flash of light. “They called you the Fire Prince.”
So she had heard. He'd hoped she was still out of it enough to have missed that. Not that it mattered really. She hated him anyway. It was a statement anyway. She was seeking confirmation. Apparently running away was solving nothing. He should have stayed with Uncle. “Yes.”
She said nothing, but he could feel her eyes on him, even in the dark. She was waiting for an explanation. One he didn't want to give but couldn't avoid now that the truth was out. He was back to having only one person in the world that didn't hate the sight or thought of him. He pressed the heels of his hands to his eyes, ignoring Katara as she settled along his side, resting her cheek on his chest. He did not want to talk about this. He didn't want to think about it. Taking a deep breath, he spoke lowly, “My father is Fire Lord Ozai. I am—was his heir.”
He felt her draw a quick breath, but she didn't move away. They were silent, each lost to their own thoughts before Katara spoke, her voice quiet, “Was?”
He sighed. “It's complicated.”
He felt her nod and he was grateful that she let the explanation stand and she didn't push for me. The darkness pressed comfortably around them and Zuko let one of his hands fall to rest against her back. Her back rose in a quiet sigh. “This is taking longer than I thought.”
He frowned at the darkness. He didn't know why she was so discouraged. She was learning remarkably fast. “It took me ten years to master the basics.”
Her head jerked up and he could feel blue eyes peering at him. “What?”
Zuko avoided looking at her, keeping his eyes on the thatched ceiling as he absently twisted a curl around his fingers. Katara waited, biting her lip to keep from prodding more. With a soft sigh, Zuko spoke, “I've had a bending master since it was confirmed I could bend. I was a failure.”
Katara took a moment to ponder this new information, her fingers tapping at his side. “You're an excellent bender now.”
Gold eyes flashed down at her and he could see the sincerity in her expression with the next flash of light. They stared at each other in silence until Zuko grunted and turned his face away, closing his eyes. He didn't believe her, but for the sake of closing the discussion, conceded, “Sure.”
Zuko woke slowly the next morning to find himself curled comfortably around Katara, his hands in places they probably shouldn't be. Carefully extracting them and putting them in less compromising places he relaxed and let his body wake gradually. Gray light filtered through the slats near the ceiling and he could still hear the steady sound of rain. Katara remained blissfully asleep, her lips parted and her breathing soft and steady. He watched her for several long minutes before he remembered what it would mean if she was found with him. With a gentle nudge, he whispered, “Wake up.”
She groaned, rolling over and pressing her face to his chest with a tired yawn and then didn't move. He ignored the blush that heated his cheeks. “You should go before the others wake up.”
Her arms tightened around him, grumbling, “Five more minutes.”
“You know you can't.”
Bleary blue eyes peeked up at him, a pout pulling at her lips. “You're mean.”
Warmth flooded through him and he pulled away from her sleep-warmed body. “Go sleep in your hammock. I'm going to meditate.”
He carefully crawled over her and she turned over to watch him stretch while she stifled a yawn. “In the rain?”
He glanced towards the door, shaking his head. “No, I'll stay here.”
She nodded, tumbling out of the bed, giving the firebender a sleepy hug as she walked past him. The effort to bend the rainwater off of her woke her up a little but she was still taken by surprise when she stumbled into the hut she shared with the other girls to come face-to-face with an irate Lan. Katara pulled up sharply, blinking dumbly as the shorter woman huffed, her eyes narrowing. “Jus' where 'ave ya been?”
Words fled her in her sleepy state and for a moment Katara could do nothing but stare. “Uh...bathroom.”
Lan's lips tightened. “All night?”
Katara winced internally as her answer came out more like a question. Pale green eyes scanned her with a shrewd gaze before she grunted, “If I knew yer mother—Very well, girl, git yerself dressed. Huu wants t' finish yer trainin'.”
Nu met her at her hammock wincing apologetically and glancing to make sure Lan was a safe distance away before whispering, “If it 'ad been anyone else, Lan would 'ave turned the hut upside down.”
Katara glanced at the other hammocks, relieved that the others appeared to be still asleep. “I overslept.”
Nu gave her an odd look. “It's not quite sunrise. Bet she were keepin' an eye out fer ya.”
Katara hoped her blush wasn't obvious as hurriedly pulled on the green skirt and quickly tightened her breast bindings. Nu quietly handed over a loose shirt and gave her a sweeping look. Lan bustled over, narrowing her eyes at the older girl and taking Katara's arm. “Come along, girl. Can't keep Huu awaitin'.”
A last sheepish glance over her shoulder at Nu was the only thing she had time for before Lan ushered her out of the hut. A quick tromp through the drizzle of rain and mud of the village brought them to a large, open air hut. Several men waited for them and Huu grinned in greeting, motioning to take a seat across from him. Lan shot Zuko a dark look, satisfied when he shrank away from her. His action prompted a few raised eyebrows but no one said anything. Huu seemed oblivious to the tension, smiling easily as he spoke, “Good morning, Katara.”
Katara gave him a small smile and Lan huffed. “Keep an eye on that one.”
Huu glanced at Zuko, but only shrugged. “Lee is welcome to our lessons. His bendin' ain't much good in the rain”
Zuko glowered, saying nothing. Lan cast the firebender a suspicious look before, with a firm nod, she left them. Katara waited quietly, watching as Huu shifted to glance at Tho, Due, and Zuko. A smile crossed his lips. “The Avatar sought balance in the swamp. He sought answers—”
Katara perked up, intrigued. “Did he find them?”
Amusement crinkled at the corners of his eyes and he glanced at Zuko. “So similar. I did not want to talk about the Avatar. It is true 'e is the bridge between us and the Spirit World, but 'e cannot achieve balance and peace alone.”
“But, he's the Avatar!”
Pale green eyes looked at her searchingly and Katara felt a sense of disappointment in his gaze. She dropped her eyes, darting a quick glance at Zuko to find him frowning at nothing. Huu cleared his throat, drawing her attention again. “You place a heavy burden on one so young.” He shook himself, continuing before she could respond, “We are all connected. We balance each other.”
He shifted to indicate the thick vines that wound around the tree near the hut, apparently moving away from any further discussion of Aang. “There's water in these vines, if you bend the water, you bend the plant.”
Huu demonstrated, weaving the plant through the hut before motioning for Katara to try. Zuko frowned, watching as Katara experimentally bent water she couldn't see. “Couldn't you bend blood then?”
A tense silence fell over the Foggy Swamp men and Katara stilled, blue eyes wide. The swampbenders exchanged glances and Huu cleared his throat. “In theory. Blood moves fast through the body. It is nearly impossible to catch. Our healers can mend the wound of the flesh because the blood slows and pools.”
“But it's possible.”
Huu hesitated, choosing his words with careful deliberation. “Yes. There's legend of a great healer that could heal all things unseen.”
Katara turned, curious. “Unseen?”
Huu nodded. “The bleeding cough, the wasting sickness, among other things.”
Huu shrugged. “Some say magic. Others say blood bending.”
Tho grunted, his eyes narrowing suspiciously. “Why the interest fire-breather?”
Zuko scowled at the name. “Curious. I—it's nothing.”
Huu shrugged at the looks from the other swampbenders, returning to Katara's lesson. “Fire-breathers have the ability to make lightning.”
“Not all of them,” Zuko grumbled sullenly.
Amusement flickered across Huu's face. “Yer unbalanced, fire-breather.”
Zuko shot to his feet with an indignant cry. “I am not!”
Zuko's blustering was ignored and he stalked out into the rain, leaving Katara to her lesson. Huu watched him go in amusement. “What ya must know is that lightning is lazy and takes the easiest path. Ya must not let it touch ya.”
Katara watched the firebender leave with a frown, catching the smug smirks passed between Tho and Due from the corner of her eye. Suspicion gnawed at her and she wondered what had been discussed before she arrived. Zuko seemed more on edge than usual. She pushed the thought away, determined to think on it later and instead concentrated on what Huu just told her. “So, dodge.”
“Aye. If you can.”
Late that night Katara crawled into bed with Zuko, pressing against his side an hoping he wouldn't notice her shivers. A minute passed before Zuko shifted, his hand coming up to lightly touch her hair. A small flame flicked in his his other hand, casting the hut in a soft glow. Bleary gold eyes looked down at her, his voice thick with sleep. “Katara?”
She flinched, blue eyes looking up at him but she didn't move. His head fell back and he let the flame snuff out. They lay in silence, listening to the patter of rain on the thatched roof above them. Several minutes passed and Katara could feel Zuko drifting into sleep once more. She sighed, moving to look up at Zuko in the darkness. Her movement brought him back from the edge of sleep and she whispered, “Do you have nightmares?”
She felt him tense next to her and his eyes opened to lock on her. A soft breath escaped him before he allowed a quiet, “Yes.”
He hesitated before admitting, “Almost every night.”
Zuko grunted his annoyance, rolling away from her. “Nothing.”
Katara shuddered, huddling under the blanket. “I think the spirits are angry with me.”
A heavy silence fell over them before Zuko moved again, twisting to look back at her. “What?”
“The spirits. I think they're angry. They visit my dreams.”
Zuko propped himself up on his elbow. “Is it what you saw in the swamp?”
“It's not your fault.”
“It's just a nightmare.”
Katara fell silent, pressing her face to the thin blanket. When she finally spoke, her voice was muffled. “Dream mean something in my tribe.”
“Not all of them,” Zuko allowed.
“How do you know?”
His hand moved softly over her hair before dropping to the space between them. “Everyone would be a shaman then.”
Huu let the water drop back to the ground, a smile blooming on his face. “I have taught you everything I know.”
Katara stared at the river in confusion, turning to look at Huu before glancing at the others. “I'm done?”
“Yer a master.”
Excitement exploded through her, escaping in a squeal as she threw her arms around the swampbender. Tho and Due patted her back, exclamations of congratulations flowing over her.
“What's going on?”
Katara pulled away from the swampbenders, turning to Zuko. Her smile sparked. “Lee! I did it!”
Zuko caught her as she leapt at him. His arms closed around her on reflex. The swampbenders grinned at him and he scowled back in response. “Did what?”
“Katara has mastered everythin' I can teach her.”
Katara pulled away, grinning broadly. “I'm a waterbending master, Lee.”
He stared down at her in confusion. “A master?”
It was Huu that responded, pride clearly coloring his words, “Aye. I 'ave never seen anythin' like it.”
Katara saw his expression shift and heard the emotion beneath his words. “A prodigy.”
Huu laughed. “Aye.”
Her smile dimmed. “Lee? Are you all right?”
“No,” he shook his head. “I mean, yes, I'm fine.”
He could tell she didn't believe him. She looked on the verge of pushing, but changed her mind. “We can leave now.”
She smiled at his astonishment, nodding. “Yes, as soon as we pack and get some supplies.”
The relief in his expression was unmistakeable and Katara laughed, tightening her arms around him and dropping her voice to a whisper, “Zuko?”
The firebender grunted.
Chapter 10: One Thousand Miles
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
“You must be a Lotus, unfolding its petals when the Sun rises in the sky, unaffected by the slush where it is born or even the water which sustains it!”
– Sri Sathya Sai Baba
Zuko knelt by the fire that blazed away in the center of the Gathering Hut, a small frown on his face as the men around him raised rough-hewn cups and cheered, tossing back what Zuko thought had to be swamp water. It certainly smelled like the marshes but burned like fire going down. The party started late the night before and had carried over till morning. Katara and the other girls slipped out just before the men broke out the alcohol. He warily contemplated his cup, observing the strangely murky liquid and wondered how he'd managed to get dragged into a drunken party with the men of the swamp. He'd wanted to pack up and leave as soon as Katara said she was finished with her training. Anything to get away from the water and the mud and the food. Giant bugs were not his idea of a delicious meal. The rest of the food wasn’t too bad, but the bugs definitely put him off eating much. Boa dropped down next to him with a laugh, holding up what looked like another one of those wineskins. “More, Lee?”
Zuko wasn't given the option to decline and Boa filled his cup again, the liquid sloshing over the sides as Boa’s unsteady hand poured. Another toast was raised and everyone drank heartily. The firebender dutifully drank to the toast, forcing back the urge to cough and hoping his eyes weren't watering.
“What is this stuff?” he gasped.
Boa threw an arm over Zuko's shoulders—Zuko trying not to cringe away—and laughed, “Moonshine!”
Cups were again raised in a salute to the drink and several burst into song, swinging their cups along with the beat:
“I'm a rambler, I'm a gambler, I'm a long way from home
And if you don't like me, well leave me alone!
I'll eat when I'm hungry, I'll drink when I'm dry,
And the moonshine don't kill me, I'll live till I die!”*
The song continued, growing more boisterous the longer it went on. Another cheer followed the final verse and they dissolved into laughter. Boa grinned at Zuko. “It's a shame ya ne'er married.”
Boa's comment drew chuckles from the men seated nearby and several elbow jabs. Trai slapped him on the shoulder. “She's a fine lookin' gal, Lee. I migh' fancy 'er meself.”
Several others chorused agreement and even Boa nodded solemnly. Zuko's cheeks filled with heat but Boa was already musing on other thoughts. “Ya would 'ave been welcomed in th' tribe.”
Wide, gold eyes swung toward the older man, disbelief clear in them. As far as he could remember, he wasn’t welcomed anywhere and the initial greeting in the swamp was much the same. “What?”
“Yer a handy man to 'ave 'round, fire-breather,” Boa said solemnly, the effect ruined by the drunken grin on his face.
Trai agreed. “Keep th’ cook fires goin'.”
The men roared with laughter. Conversation circled around to women again and Trai nudged Zuko with a knowing smile. “She ever spend th' nigh' wit' ya?”
Zuko sputtered, choking on the drink he'd just taken, gulping it down hurriedly. Tears immediately sprang to his eyes as the moonshine burned a path to his stomach. “No!”
Eyebrows rose at his vehemence and Boa smirked. “My Nu said she went missin' some nights.”
To Zuko's horror, he felt his cheeks flush and he wondered just how many people knew Katara would slip into his bed at night long after everyone had gone to sleep. Trai and Boa exchanged conspiratorial smiles and Trai adopted a thoughtful look. “Ya know, Tien said she tried t' spend th' nigh' wit' ya but ya was busy.”
“I was not,” Zuko exclaimed.
Trai gave him a pitying look, reaching over and filling Zuko's nearly empty cup again. “Don' worry. She'll come 'round some time.”
Zuko jerked away from Boa and Trai, nearly spilling the moonshine as he shot to his feet, his face flushing. “I do not like that—that girl!”
Trai brightened. “So I can 'ave 'er?”
Zuko glared hotly. “No.”
“Well, ya can't keep 'er all to yerself! Thas—thas mean.”
Zuko whirled around, coming face-to-face with Katara. Several other girls stood behind her grinning as the men hailed them and offered cups of the moonshine. Zuko stared dumbly, ignoring the snickers from Vinh, Boa, and Trai. The girls moved in to accept the cups and settle on the floor to join in the farewell party. Katara smiled uncertainly, shifting to motion behind her. “Huu said he's ready to guide us out of the Swamp.”
Boa looped an arm over Zuko's shoulder again, slurring cheerfully, “Yer welcome back any time, Lee! Th' w'men will miss ya!”
Zuko's blush flared and he caught Katara's smirk. Boa seemed to suddenly notice her and blinked owlishly at her before pointing slightly to her right. “An' yer, 'tara, ya need t' work on yer trappin' or 'e's gonna get away.”
Katara spluttered, eyes widening with surprise. “My what?”
But Boa was already turning away to engage one of the other swamp men. “I always wondered if'n a fire-breather 'n a wa'erbender had bebies they'd be steam bebies.”
Loud guffaws met that statement and quite a few demanded the two benders return to the swamp with their brood in the future. Color flooded Katara's cheeks and a quick glance at Zuko revealed a similar condition. A quickly stifled snort of laughter made her swing her eyes to Nu with a look of betrayal. The older girl grinned, offering an unrepentant shrug of amusement. “Don' take it to heart. Th' men are as bad a gossip as th’ women. ‘Sides, Boa ‘n I are gettin’ married soon.”
Zuko handed off his cup to someone and hurried out of the hut with barely a glance at Katara. Huu stuck his head in the door a moment later with a smile. “Lee has expressed his desire to leave now.”
When Katara finally made her way outside, she found Zuko and Huu standing with a few other older men. Feathers was digging in the mud, clucking happily. Huu smiled when he saw her. “Ah, there ya are, Miss Katara. Come along, we’ve got ‘bout a day’s travel t’ reach th’ other side. A few of the men are coming with us jus’ in case we run int’ trouble. Spring is an active time for most of the swamp.”
She glanced instinctively at Zuko to try and gauge what he thought, but he simply turned to the ostrich horse and checked that the packs were secure. Someone had given him his dao swords back and they were strapped securely across his back. Hai held up a hand to help her down to the barge and she took it gratefully, stepping carefully down the wet steps. “Thank you.”
Hai grinned, shooting Zuko a mischievous glance. “’S not a problem, Miss Katara. Ya two be sure t’ come back and visit. Per’aps yer’ll get married fer real this time?”
Zuko choked, coughing violently and earning several concerned looks from the others; though the ones that heard the comment hid their smiles. Katara laughed, hoping no one would comment on the blush she could feel rising in her cheeks. Thankfully she was saved from responding by another deciding they’d better leave if they were expecting to make good time. Zuko gathered Feather’s reins, covering the ostrich horse’s eyes to keep the bird calm during the trip by water. Tho took a position by the rudder, while Due and Hai took positions on either side of the barge. They were just preparing to start bending when Boa stumbled out of the hut, Nu close behind him.
“’Ey! We’re comin’ too!”
Huu shook his head, but Due laughed, calling back, “Yer drunk!”
Boa snorted, slurring back, “Aye! And yer ugly, but ya don’ see me complainin’!”
Due laughed and Boa practically tripped onto the barge, prompting a laugh from the other men. Nu stepped on with much more grace, rolling her eyes and helping Boa back to his feet. Boa grinned at her. “Thank ya, love.”
She helped him to the center of the barge, making him take a seat before Due and Hai pushed the raft into motion. “I don’ know ‘ow ya ‘spect t’ be any help, Boa.”
“Ah,” Boa sighed. “I couldn’t let Lee go wit’out givin’ ‘im some a’vice!”
The look of terror that crossed Zuko’s face would have been comical had Katara not felt the same sense of dread. Nu merely rolled her eyes again. “What kinda ’vice?”
Boa’s hand flopped around until Nu took it. “Ya know, w’men a’vice! Kid don’ know nothin’ ‘bout nothin’.”
He struggled to his feet, stumbling over to where Zuko stood with the ostrich horse. Nu only gave a rueful shrug of her shoulders before moving to stand next to Katara. The two young women watched as Boa leaned heavily on the ostrich horse and spoke to Zuko. Despite Zuko’s clear reluctance to speak to the other man, he didn’t brush him off or push him away.
“Ya know,” Nu said casually, “’e ain’t tha’ bad of a guy. Ya take care o’ each other, ‘kay?”
Katara nodded her agreement and Nu smiled. “Good. Maybe ya can ‘elp ‘im find hisself.”
Three days across the desert and Zuko was wishing for the rains of the swamp. He even found himself wishing for his ship again before remembering how utterly miserable he was when confined to it. The Northern Water Tribes were remembered with wistfulness. The ice channels a distant memory. If it was every cold or wet again, Zuko swore he’d never complain. The sun was brutal and if he could spare a thought, he would curse it. A sigh brushed hotly across his neck and Katara drooped heavily against his back, mumbling, “So hot.”
Zuko grunted, adjusting his rice hat to better shade his eyes, and looked around. Three days and they were quickly running out of water in their waterskins. “We need water.”
Hot breath danced across his neck as she gave a short, silent laugh. “Nothing around. I haven't felt water for days.”
Zuko leaned to the side to look back at her. “How much do we have?”
Blue eyes squinted, a frown tugging at her dry lips. “Not enough.”
Zuko nodded grimly, twisting the reins around his hands. Minutes passed in silence except for the near silent thud of the ostrich horse’s trot on the sand. Yes, Zuko missed his ship. He missed the ocean. He missed the breeze that came off the water. He missed the smell of the sea. His frown deepened. He never thought he'd miss water so much. Even water he couldn't drink. A sharp gasp from Katara and the sudden tightening of her arms around him jerked him from his thoughts and he immediately scanned their surroundings for danger. A heartbeat later, she croaked, “Water.”
His mind moved sluggishly to understand. “Where?”
A hand rose and Zuko ignored the tremor as she pointed slightly to their right. Zuko squinted, trying to see what she was pointing to. “How far?”
Katara grunted, her had dropping as if it were too heavy to hold. “A few hours. Maybe.”
She was leaning heavily against him, despite the heat, and she didn't wrap her arm back around him. Zuko scowled. They needed shade. And water. He kicked the ostrich horse into a brisk trot hoping the animal wouldn't collapse. Feather’s, too, was beginning to droop in the heat despite the face that the bird’s home climate was arid land.
With the occasional input from Katara to adjust direction, they eventually stumbled upon water. The oasis was barely larger than a puddle but it had a rocky out cropping that offered enough shade for the ostrich horse to rest in while Zuko and Katara crawled under the ledge. The firebender quickly slid out of the saddle, shaking Katara back to consciousness. His frown deepened when dazed eyes met his, but he would deny any feelings of concern if anyone were to ask. “Get some water and stay in the shade.”
She stumbled as her feet hit the ground and Zuko turned to pull the saddle from the ostrich horse as fast as he could, trying to ignore the trembling of his own hands and blurring vision. He led the horse to the edge of the puddle, letting the beast find its own water. Katara knelt at the puddle, brow furrowed. The puddle looked cloudy, muddy, and unappetizing. Zuko tried to push away feelings of disappointment. “Great. Can we even drink it?”
Tired blue eyes glanced at him. “Waterbender.”
Her hands moved and a globe of water rose before them, clear and sparkling. She regarded it critically before holding it out to Zuko. She held it patiently as Zuko stared. He didn’t exactly trust her to transfer it to his mouth without trying to drown him. More water slipped through his hands than actually ended up in his mouth and eventually Zuko dug out an empty waterskin. Katara filled it quickly before bending water for herself. The ostrich horse squawked a protest, nosing at the puddle and ruffling distressed feathers. Katara quickly bent an ice trough, filling it with water before she crawled under the overhanging rocks and stretched out with a relieved sigh. Zuko joined her moments later, settling as comfortably as he could on the hard ground and placing his dao swords within easy reach. Katara rolled toward him, half-lidded blue eyes looking at him. Zuko turned his gaze to the ostrich horse pecking at the rapidly melting ice. Nothing moved in the desert beyond and Zuko let his head fall back and his eyes close. “We'll move at sunset.”
Katara grunted acknowledgment and let herself drop into a light doze. Hours later she awoke with a shiver to find the sun low on the horizon and Zuko saddling the ostrich horse. He ignored her as she slid out from under the ledge, briskly dusting sand off her clothes. She quickly packed the bedding and gathered up the few loose possessions and carried them out to Zuko. Once everything was packed, Zuko swung into the saddle and Katara climbed on behind him.
The sun sank below the horizon and they traveled in silence, each silently relieved that they were no longer melting under the heat of the sun. A soft breeze picked up close to midnight and Katara shivered, snuggling closer to Zuko’s back.
Zuko grunted, trying to ignore the way his heart leapt as Katara tightened her arms around his stomach and pressed close. Her breath puffed warm across the side of his neck as she rested her chin on his shoulder. “I guess the sand doesn't hold the heat long.”
He shrugged one shoulder. “It's better than the heat.”
A soft snort of amusement sounded close to his ear and raised goose bumps on his arms. “Better for two people.”
Thankful for the darkness that hid his heated cheeks, he scoffed, urging the ostrich horse into a brisk trot. She laughed quietly, pressing her mouth against his shoulder to stifle the laugh. The next few minutes passed in silence, the desert sand a pale silver beneath the sliver of a moon that hung over their heads. A slight breeze brought the occasional howl of a pack of coyote bats. Katara shivered again, keeping an eye out for the night creatures.
“Do you know where you're going?”
“Vinh said there was a town in this direction.”
Katara absorbed the thought, fingers flexing thoughtlessly at his sides. “You think he's right?”
He sounded uncertain, but Katara nodded, stating confidently, “The desert can't go on forever, right?”
Zuko said nothing. They’d either hit a town or hit the sea so she was right, the desert couldn’t go on forever. Close to dawn, Zuko started looking for a place to camp, guiding the ostrich horse to another rocky outcropping. This one had no oasis but there was evidence of an old campfire and the outcropping looked like it had been dug out a bit to accommodate a person or two. Zuko swung out of the saddle, prowling around the area while Katara watched. He poked at the ashes of the fire, squinting in the dim light.
“It's cold,” he declared, looking around the area again. “But we must be near a road. The area's used often.”
“Great. A town must be nearby.”
The firebender grunted, but said nothing else, turning instead to pull sleeping pallets and packs off the ostrich horse. Unperturbed, Katara took her share and headed toward the outcropping, frowning at the sky before making a decision on where to bed down.The angle of the sun as it rose and made its trek across the sky would shine more directly on some areas as opposed to others and Katara didn’t want to be forced to move before she had to. The best area wasn't very wide, just enough to fit herself and Zuko as long as they stayed pretty close together. The ostrich horse would have to make do with partial shade. Katara stretched out the sleeping mats, collapsing gratefully onto her own with a sigh, burying her face in her arms. Zuko dropped moodily next to her a few minutes later, scowling out at the road. Propping herself up on her elbows, she looked at him expectantly. When he said nothing and continued to scowl, she turned onto her side and demanded, “What?”
“Something's on your mind.”
Zuko's scowl turned on her for a moment, his eyes narrowing to show his annoyance and then he was back to watching the road turn a dusty red-gold in the morning sun. Katara rolled her eyes. She was tired and the rising sun was warming the air nicely; the moody firebender could sulk in silence alone. Looping the strap of her waterskin around her arm, she burrowed into her thin blanket and shut her eyes.
Katara woke near midday to the ostrich horse attempting to catch rock beetles. A quick glance at Zuko revealed the firebender gazing silently at the rough ceiling of their shelter. He was covered in the fine desert dust that seemed to get everywhere no matter what they did. He looked exhausted. Unable to help herself, she spoke, “You need to rest, Zuko.”
He rolled away from her, curling on his side and set about ignoring her. She stared at his back for a long moment. Sometimes Katara just did not understand the boy. A loud crunch proved that the ostrich horse was finally successful in catching one of the rock beetles though it appeared that the rest of the insects were staying well out of sight. Feathers was now turning over rocks and digging in the sand in search of something interesting. Katara's stomach rumbled and she rolled away from Zuko, reaching for their packs. Their provisions from the Foggy Swamp were just about out and this midday meal would be the last of it. A brave rock beetle skittered across the sand just outside their shaded spot. She hoped they wouldn't have to resort to eating rock beetles. They didn't look particularly appetizing. The movement caught Feathers’ attention and the bird lunged for it with a squawk.
“There's a town about half a day from here.”
Katara startled, throwing a glance over her shoulder at the firebender. Zuko was now sitting upright, but his eyes skirted away from her as soon as she caught his gaze.
“How do you know?”
“I did some scouting.”
Her heart leapt. He'd left her alone. She fought down her initial feelings of panic. “You didn't wake me.”
He ignored the accusation in her tone, running a hand through his hair and over his face. “There's a marker about two miles in that direction,” he paused, eying the last of the snakebird jerky in her hand though he made no indication that he wanted it. “We should leave soon to get there before nightfall.”
“Travel in the heat of the day?”
She held out his portion to him as he rolled to his feet, but he shook his head. “I don't think they'd be too friendly with us arriving after dark.”
She tucked his share of the jerky back into the pack, stuffing her meager share into her mouth and rolling up the sleeping mats. She chewed the jerky thoughtfully, speaking around puffed cheeks, “We could just hide in a barn for the night. They don't even have to know we're there.”
The incredulous stare he gave her over the back of the ostrich horse was enough to make her blush and stammer, “We did it all the time before—well, before. They were sometimes upset, but once Aang explained things they were really nice. A few times they even invited us for breakfast.”
Zuko finished tying down their supplies, giving their camp a once over. “I'm not that lucky.”
Katara laughed, accepting his help onto the ostrich horse behind him and wrapping her arms loosely around his waist. “Sure you are! You made it this far in life after all.”
The ride to town was blessedly short in comparison to the journey through the desert though Katara wasn't sure if they'd be better off in the desert after all. The back of her neck pricked uncomfortably. The streets were deserted and trash-lined. The buildings all that a run down, world-weary look to them that left a heavy feeling in her chest. While no one was on the streets, she could feel eyes watching their progress from darkened windows. Zuko's arms tensed and she saw him glance around warily, a frown tugging at his mouth. Even Feathers was discomforted. They made their way through the dusty streets, Zuko clearly looking for something. The first sign of life appeared when they turned onto a wide street. Rough laughter bounced eerily off the weathered buildings and drew Katara's attention. Zuko's arms jerked, tensing expectantly, and the muscle in his jaw jumped. His unease set her on edge. She pressed closer to Zuko, gripping her waterskin anxiously. He shot her a frown, following her gaze to the group of men that gathered in the shade of an open alley. His eyes narrowed and he turned to lead her to a dusty shop, not protesting when she slipped her hand around his elbow. Gold eyes glinted down at her from behind a dark fringe of hair. “Don't wander off.”
Katara nodded, taking the reins of the ostrich horse and keeping it near. The market stall was empty; the fine layer of dust on the counter evidence of little business. Zuko's frown deepened but he said nothing about it, leaning over the counter and peering into the dark interior, calling, “Hello?”
Several minutes passed before a worn face peered around the corner, pale green eyes wary. His gaze swept over Zuko and Katara, suspicion clear in his gaze, before approaching. “May I help you?”
Zuko nodded sharply, pulling what little money they had left out of a cracked leather pouch. “A bag of feed and two hot meals.”
The man's gaze darted over Zuko's shoulder, grimacing and quickly shaking his head. “I don't have any meals, but I can give you some feed.”
Zuko’s expression tightened but he nodded, sliding the coins across the counter. The man snatched them up, eying them critically, even going so far as to test its authenticity. Satisfied, he turned into the shop. A child's voice drew Katara's attention away from the transaction.
“Let me go!”
“Naw, I've seen you punks harassing the the soldiers, throwing eggs, and sneaking around. What are you guys up to?”
A too thin boy swung a small fist at the man holding him, the blow hardly drawing notice from the man. The boy's friends scattered, ducking into alleyways and around dilapidated buildings. Laughter rang coarsely across the street as the boy continued to swing from the man’s grip, the other men watching on with jeering expressions. Katara glanced at Zuko, but the firebender appeared to be ignoring the confrontation. Katara bit her lip as the man shook the boy. “Now where's the stuff?”
“I don't know what you're talking about!” the boy hollered.
The man snorted, giving the boy a rough shake before turning to the man lounging on the ground behind him. “Gow, this one don't seem to want to talk.”
A large, stocky man rose from the ground, a smirk curling on his lips. He stopped before the boy, resting his hand on one of the hammers at his side. “It'd be in your best interest to cooperate, kid. You wouldn't want to get...hurt.”
The boy only glared in response and that seemed to humor Gow all the more. “Your father’s that pig farmer on the edge of town, ain’t he? Do you think he’d mind losing another son?”
Katara stepped forward before she even really thought about it, a white-knuckled grip on her waterskin. “Leave him alone.”
Cruel green eyes turned to her, sneering as they swept over her appearance. She had no doubt what she looked like: dusty from head to toe, mused hair, and probably looking half-starved. “What are you going to do about it?”
She backpedaled, surprised at the fear that suddenly welled up in her. It’d been so long since she actually felt threatened and it was mostly her dreams of being captured by the Fire Nation that brought up unpleasant memories. She'd thought she'd had nothing to fear from people outside the Fire Nation. It was naïve of her to think so, she realized. The Fire Nation didn't have the monopoly on evil after all. Forcing her feet to remain firm, she raised her chin defiantly. “He's just a boy.”
Gow towered over her, making her feel small. “He's stealing food from the army.”
She opened her mouth to reply when an egg collided with the side of his head. Angered, he whirled in the direction it came from, ignoring the boy that struggled free from his man's hold with a sharp kick to the man’s shins and fled down the dusty streets. The only two people left on the street were Zuko and herself. Katara quickly moved to the firebender’s side, keeping an anxious eye on the large man. Zuko spared her an impatient glance as Gow crossed the street, demanding, “You throwing eggs?”
Zuko's spine straightened and gold eyes narrowed. “No.”
A large hand grabbed Zuko's shoulder, forcing him to turn. He stumbled a little with the force of the turn but pushed the hand away, his glare deepening as he met muddy green eyes. The large earthbender sneered at Zuko's act of defiance. “That egg had to have come from somewhere.”
“Maybe a chicken flew over.”
The statement was said with such seriousness that Katara couldn't tell if he was in earnest or if he was intentionally trying to provoke the larger man. She caught several of the soldiers behind Gow glancing at the sky and one of them snickered. Gow's face took on a thunderous expression and Katara was sure nothing good would come of this confrontation. Before Gow could decide to start a brawl, the shop owner reappeared, breaking the staring match between earthbender and firebender, and slid the bags of feed onto the counter. Zuko reached for them, but a motion from Gow sent several soldiers forward. They shoulder the feed bags quickly, smirking at Zuko’s furious expression. Gow sneered, “The army appreciates your contribution.”
Indignant that they would take what didn't belong to them and that Zuko let them, Katara protested, “Hey! That's ours!”
Green eyes darkened and glared down at her, sweeping over dust covered hair and worn clothes, pausing on her right hand. The small silver band around her thumb stuck out against the dust, sparking in the setting sun. An eyebrow rose and a leering smirk came to his lips and he gave her another considering look. Addressing Zuko instead, made another suggestion, “We'll forgo the feed if you have something better to offer.”
The look in his eyes sent a thrill of terror through her. She recognized that look. She'd seen it on several of her firebending captors at the Prison Rig. Her heart thundered and her breath came in short, sharp gasps. Gow leaned toward her, smirk widening, delighting in her obvious fear. “We'd give the boy a fair trade, after all.”
Zuko smoothly slid between them, eyes narrowed dangerously. “She's not for sale.”
The two men glared at each other, the stand-off growing charged. The soldiers behind Gow tensed, fists tightening around their weapons and glares intensifying. Suddenly, Gow backed off with a snort, “Fine. I'm warning you, boy, this town don't like strangers so you best be on your way. Wouldn't want you running into any trouble.”
He stroked the hammer at his side fondly, leered at Katara, and turned away with a motion to the rest of the soldiers to move on. Zuko returned to the ostrich horse, barely sparing the shop owner a passing glance as he gathered the reins. The shop owner grunted, turning back to the cool interior of the building. “Bunch of bullies is what they are.”
Katara was still rooted to the spot as Zuko pulled himself into the saddle, holding out a hand to her. “We'll go to the next village.”
She stared unseeing at his hand for a moment until he cleared his throat. She took his hand, letting him pull her into the saddle in front of him. Shame was taking over her fear now. The first time she’d come face to face with an enemy since the Prison Rig and she froze. She half expected some kind of cruel remark from Zuko but he said nothing. Like most of the time, he seemed preoccupied with something. “I'm sorry.”
Zuko lifted a shoulder, shifting as the ostrich horse protested their combined weight, throwing its head restlessly. Zuko lifted the reins, ready to head back out of town, when a small hand snagged the reins, bringing the animal's head down. Both teenagers looked down to meet a wide, toothy smile of a young boy. Seeing that he had their attention, he burst forth with a flood of words, “That was socool! You really showed them! No one every stands up to them! Were you scared? What happened? Did you fight?”
When he paused to take a deep breath to no doubt continue a litany of questions, Katara interrupted, “You shouldn't have thrown the egg at them.”
The boy deflated for a moment, looking chastised, before brightening. Feathers disapproved of the exuberant young boy, pulling against the hold the boy had on the bridle. The boy ignored the protesting ostrich horse with well practiced ease. “Are you hungry? You can come to my house. I'll even feed your ostrich horse!”
He was already tugging on the reins before Zuko could respond and a quick glance from Katara kept him silent. A place to stay with a roof over their head, a possible bath, and potential food was more than a temptation for Katara. It meant that they wouldn’t have to sneak into a barn or eat rock beetles. The boy led them along, chattering excitedly as young children do, and she leaned into Zuko, keeping her voice down, “You haven't eaten in days, Zuko—don't think I haven't noticed—and who knows how far the next town is.”
He scowled at her mention of his not eating, but didn’t deny it. He didn’t really believe there was another town after this one for several days and they’d probably starve before they reached it. No, he wasn’t going to complain. He’d take what this family offered and then move on with very little guilt.
*Traditional Irish drinking song. The Moonshiner
Chapter 11: If I Had A Hammer
"All things are difficult before they are easy."
— Thomas Fuller
They left the edge of the town behind them, traveling a narrow path through some cliffs until it opened up into a wide, flat area. Sections of land were fenced off and as soon as they approached a herd of cow pigs stampeded over, the racket echoing off the sides of the cliffs in a cacophony of headache inducing noise. The boy must have noticed their pained expressions because he laughed, explaining, "We're pig ranchers."
That wasn't much of an explanation, but Katara nodded, looking at the animals carefully. She'd never seen them before and Zuko simply looked bored. They progressed down the road, gathering even more cow pigs announcing their arrival. A rooster sheep pig leapt up onto a post, ruffling its wings and puffing out its chest territorially. It released a crowing bleat, puffing itself up to an even larger size even though it wasn't very big to begin with. Katara stared at it in fascination.
"No one can sneak up on us."
"No kidding," Zuko commented dryly, earning an elbow in the stomach from Katara.
Zuko grunted, scowling at her. The boy didn't seem to notice, his attention suddenly on a woman rapidly approaching from the small house at the end of the road. Her skirts swished quickly, kicking up dust as she made beeline directly toward them. He winced, trying to make himself disappear next to the ostrich horse, muttering, "Uh oh."
Within moments, the woman was within shouting distance and all three of them flinched at the tone of her voice. "Just where have you been?"
The shout brought a man from around the corner of a nearby barn, a hammer in one hand. The gap between them and the woman closed swiftly and before they knew it, she was standing before them, her hands on her hips and a look of swift punishment on her face. The man, too, was making his way to them, albeit at a more leisurely pace. She barely spared the two teenagers a glance, focusing solely on the boy, rebuking, "I told you not to go into town, Lee. It's dangerous!"
"But nothing happened, Mom!" Lee whined.
"No 'buts!'" she exclaimed.
"Sela," the man suddenly spoke. "We don't need to deal out discipline in front of strangers. Lee has returned unharmed."
Sela subsided with an apologetic smile. "Of course. You look like you've come far. My name is Sela. This is my husband, Gansu, and my son, Lee."
Zuko and Katara dismounted from the ostrich horse, standing uneasily under Gansu's watchful eye. He frowned at the state of their clothing, but still seemed wary. "You came through town?"
Lee interrupted before either Zuko or Katara could say anything, bouncing out between them and exclaiming, "It was so cool, Dad! They stood up to Gow and his army and didn't even flinch when Gow told them he'd pound them into the ground!"
Lee proceeded to act out some imaginary battle Zuko and Gow engaged in until Gansu put a calming hand on his son's shoulder. Sela had clasped her hands to her breast, looking at them with new eyes, but it was Gansu who spoke, "So you stood up to those bullies in town?"
Zuko shrugged slightly, keeping his eyes averted and clearly uncomfortable with the attention. His actions made Katara wonder how many firebenders Sela and Gansu had seen before and what they'd think if they would discover Zuko was one. He did have distinctly Fire Nation coloring and Gansu was still watching him carefully. Katara spoke up, bringing the attention back on herself, "Who are they?"
"They're supposed to protect us from the Fire Nation, but we need to be protected from them. It's about time someone stood up to them."
Gansu draped an arm over his wife. Sela smiled. "Welcome to our home. You are welcome to stay for dinner."
Zuko looked surprised by the invitation and stumbled over his words. "We can't. I mean—We should be going."
"Nonsense," Sela said, bushing away Zuko's words. "Gansu could use some help on the barn and I haven't had female company in ages."
Lee cheered, hopping out from under his father's hand and immediately firing off questions, "Have you traveled a lot? I've always wanted to travel but Papa says it's dangerous. My brother said he'd take me to see the world when he gets back. What's the best place to visit? I bet you've seen a lot of cool stuff! Have you ever been to the Fire Nation? Have you ever met a firebender? Are they mean? Can they really breathe fire? Do you think it burns their lungs? Are they worse than Gow and his idiots? Do you know how to use those swords? I think it'd be awesome to sword fight! Brother said—"
Sela cleared her throat, speaking over her son's flood of words, "Lee, let our guests rest before you pester them with questions."
"Mom!" he whined in protest.
She ignored him, looking at Zuko and Katara with a smile and reaching for Katara's arm to pull her toward the house. "You two must be exhausted. You certainly look like you haven't eaten in days."
Lee trailed after them "But—"
"You were supposed to take care of the sheep pigs today, Lee. Hurry up and do your chores, supper will be ready soon."
Gansu brushed Sela's shoulder, smiling. "I'll be in as soon as I finish repairing the barn. Come along, Lee, take care of their ostrich horse and feed the cow pigs and sheep pigs."
Lee grumbled but took the reins of the ostrich horse from Zuko and sullenly followed his father back to the barn. Sela pulled Katara along. "I'll show you where you can wash up."
"I'm sorry if we're inconveniencing you. We didn't mean to invite ourselves—"
She laughed. "Nonsense, dear, we've got enough for two more...if you wouldn't mind helping around the farm tomorrow."
A soft groan behind her let Katara know what Zuko thought of the negotiation. "Oh! Of course."
"We'll put you up in the barn for the night. Gansu needs some help fixing the roof. With his leg wound he has trouble climbing the ladder."
Dinner was a cheerful affair and Sela insisted that they eat their fill. Katara entertained the family with tales of Water Tribe legends and growing up surrounded by snow. Zuko offered no stories and no information about himself, preferring to sit quietly despite Lee's efforts to draw him out. The food was simple, but filling and Katara ate her fill, complimenting Sela. Zuko still said nothing, but took seconds and thirds when Sela offered them. Gansu took Zuko away after dinner to get a look at some of the things he wanted to work on the next day and Katara was volunteered to help with dishes. Sela shooed her off as the last dish was dried, handing over several thick blankets and a promise to send Zuko after her.
Katara knelt in the clean straw, carefully spreading out the thick wool blankets across the stray, picking out stray stalks that managed to poke through the blankets. Zuko was still off with Gansu so she was alone for the moment. She smoothed out the blankets one final time, tossing a few more for cover over top, and was checking the packs when Zuko entered the barn and came to a stop standing over her. Feeling his eyes on her, Katara looked up, surprised to find him glaring angrily at her. He spoke before she could ask what was wrong, his voice snapping. "They think we're married."
She opened her mouth, changed her mind, and closed it again. Zuko turned away from her, stomping to the make-shift bed and yanking the dao swords over his head. He paced for a moment in front of the bedding, the sheathed dao swords clenched firmly in his hand. He paused, breathing deeply and putting them down beside the blankets with jerky movements. "I can't believe this. This is all your fault."
Katara sucked in a breath, sitting back on her heels to stare up at him incredulously. "My fault? How is it my fault?"
Zuko's glare turned on her again, but his glare had long ceased to intimidate her and she scowled right back at him. His eyes never had held the coldness present in the other firebenders despite his efforts to appear cold and unfeeling. "I wanted to go to the next town."
Katara put her hands on her hips, sighing with exasperation. It had to be more than a few strangers believing they were married. He certainly hadn't acted this way in the swamp. "What is your problem, Zuko?"
He glared at her but said nothing and started pacing again. Katara reviewed the events of the day. "Is it so much to ask for help?"
"I don't need help," he snapped.
"Are you still on that," Katara demanded. "What's so wrong getting help from someone who offers it?"
Zuko whirled, fire leaping from his hands as he exclaimed, "I'm not weak!"
"Getting help doesn't mean you're weak!" she shouted back.
They stared at each other, each breathing hard. A sense of deja vu settled on her, but she refused to break eye contact. A minute passed before Zuko sighed and dropped into the straw, dropping an arm over his eyes. He appeared set to ignore her for the rest of the night and so Katara crawled under her blanket, snuggling into the straw with a blissful sigh. A soft rustle let her know that Zuko was moving and she turned to watch as Zuko checked his dao swords and settled them close at hand. The careful movements told Katara that he valued the swords. "Do you know how to use those?"
Gold eyes flashed in her direction and he touched the sheath fondly. "Yes."
"Why? If you can firebend," Katara asked.
Zuko scowled, laying down and turning his back to her. "None of your business."
Katara sighed, staring at his back. It seemed she was always saying something that put him in a foul mood. She pillowed her cheek on her hand, her eyes tracing the line of his back. "It was nice of you to help Gansu."
He grunted. "I don't help people."
She snickered, tucking her chin. "You helped me."
He snorted, turning to face her. Gold eyes regarded her seriously. "You were just in the way."
The claim made her smile, but she didn't offer any arguments.
Katara woke the next morning to Zuko pulling away from her and rolling out from under the blanket. His movements were quiet and smooth and he settled the blanket back around her to keep the cool morning air out. Katara stirred, yawning, stretching and sitting up. Zuko started when she moved, wincing slightly. Katara grinned crookedly, rubbing sleep from her eyes. "You're up early."
He blinked, glancing toward the barn door, before looking back at her. He started to speak when the barn door creaked open and Lee poked his head in. His eyes scanned the barn, landing on them and lighting up. "You're awake!"
Katara stifled another yawn, smiling at the young boy. "Good morning, Lee."
He bound into the room, flopping onto the hay pallet next to Katara. "I wanted to wake you up earlier but mom wouldn't let me. Do you want to see the overlook? It's not much to look at, but you can see really far!"
He sprang to his feet again, circling Zuko excitedly. "Then we can herd the sheep pigs to the far field and chase—"
Katara cleared her throat, interrupting the stream of words, while Zuko simply stared down at the boy in surprise. "I think we have to help your parents around the homestead."
The barn door opened for a second time and Sela peeked in. The expression on her face tightened when she saw Lee and she stepped into the barn, placing her hands on her hips and frowning severely. "I hope you didn't wake them up."
"No!" Lee exclaimed, tugging on Zuko's arm. "They were awake when I came in. I made sure they were up before I came in and they were and I wanted to do so much today and we're going to the far field and I'm going to show him all the cool spots."
Sela sighed. "I'm afraid they'll have to go out to the far field another time, Lee; your father needs the young man today. Come along now, young couples don't need a boy between them in the morning."
Zuko and Katara flushed red, exchanging wide-eyed looks but Sela was herding Lee out the door before they could say anything. They quickly looked away, Zuko smoothing his rumpled tunic and Katara pushing her hair out of her eyes. The silence between them grew tense before his shoulders straightened and he moved rapidly out of the barn. Katara threw aside her blanket, crawling out of the hay and straightening her clothes. As awkward as Sela's comment had been, Katara didn't want the older woman to assume they were doing anything—well, anything that required privacy. Katara dressed quickly and straightened their bedding before making her way out to find the family.
She found Sela seated next to a pile of clothing, darning a pair of pants. She looked up when Katara approached, motioning for the waterbender to take a seat next to her. "There's breakfast on the fire. I appreciate your help around the house today. The men have already eaten."
Katara ate quickly before taking up a needle and settling into fixing rips and tears. They settled into a steady rhythm that Katara found relaxing in its familiarity. She could almost hear Gran-Gran's voice correcting her imperfect stitches and explaining the correct stitch to use depending on the tear. A lost, lonely feeling settled over her. Life had been so full of adventure in recent months that she'd been distracted from thoughts of home. A home she thought she'd never see again when she was imprisoned on that iron rig. She ducked her head, hiding the sheen of tears and a soft sniffle in her concentration on her darning. She was not going to be a weepy female. A touch to her shoulder let her know that Sela wasn't fooled. "Are you a long way from home?"
The question was soft and understanding and Katara sniffed back the tears, rubbing at her nose. "How do you know?"
The older woman's eyes flicked over her, a sardonic smile on her lips. "I don't believe I've ever seen an Earth Kingdom native look quite like you. You have remarkably blue eyes."
Katara blushed under the compliment, lowering her eyes and picking at her uneven stitches. "Thank you."
Sela squeezed her arm and picked up her needle again. She gave the threadbare pants an critical frown. "Lee is at that age where he destroys every piece of clothing he wears. When you have children, don't spend too much on clothes. They'll just end up in the rubbish pile in a few weeks."
Sela smiled at Katara's blush. Katara nervously fingered her ring. "I don't think I'll ever have children."
"You are young, yet," Sela assured, glancing curiously at the ring which Katara quickly hid from sight. "Your husband appears willing to wait until you are both ready."
Her gaze drifted and a smile spread across her face. Katara followed her eyes to find Gansu and Zuko standing at the base of a ladder that was propped against the barn. Gansu lifted a hand in greeting when he realized his wife was watching. Zuko solemnly met Katara's eyes, looking away again when Katara smiled and waved slightly. Sela laughed gently. "Such a serious young man. However did the two of you end up together?"
"Fate, I guess."
Sela made a humming noise, giving Katara a sly glance. "I have a feeling there is more of a story there, but I will not pry."
Further discussion was interrupted by Lee bounding around the far side of the barn, skidding to a halt when he caught sight of the men climbing the ladder. He quickly made his way to the ladder and Katara could already see him talking. She watched Lee swing on the ladder and Zuko raise a steadying hand. Sela raised an eyebrow. "The young man clearly wants a family some day."
Katara flushed, quickly changing the subject. The last thing she wanted Zuko to hear was speculation on their future lives together. "I was wondering," she said slowly, "why was Lee in town yesterday? Town seems rather deserted."
Sela sighed, setting aside the repaired pants and picking up a shirt. Her eyes grew distant as she recalled past memories. "The young boys have felt left out while their fathers and older brothers go to war. Once Gow and his men arrived in town and proved to be greater bullies than protectors, the boys decided they needed to protect the village.
"Things have been difficult since our oldest son went off to war. We tried to talk him out of it, but after my husband was injured, he insisted he had to go."
She glanced at Katara to see if she was paying attention before continuing, "Gansu was discharged because of injury. When he returned home, many of the young, able-bodied men had gone to join the war. Sensu took his father's place in the army. Gansu has trouble getting around some days. Lee so looks up to his brother, but he is young. He misses his brother."
They looked up to see Gansu and Zuko walk across the yard to another barn, Lee trailing behind them. Sela smiled. "He's so happy to have another young man around."
Once again, Zuko found himself with a hammer in one hand and a hand full of nails in the other. Gansu sat near the peak working steadily. Neither man said much to the other as they worked. Keeping a watchful eye on the manner in which Gansu laid the shingles, Zuko grimaced at his own poor attempt to keep the shingles straight and the number of bent nails that already protruded. He should've learned in the swamp that he was never going to be a carpenter. He must've made a noise of frustration, because Gansu looked up from his neat work. His eyebrows rose when he took in Zuko's accomplishment. Zuko kept his head down, grateful that his conical hat at least hid his embarrassed flush. Gansu cleared his throat. "Forgive me, young man. I should've shown you—"
The older man trailed off into an awkward silence before motioning for Zuko to come closer. "You are far more agile than I."
When Zuko hesitated, frowning darkly, Gansu smiled encouragingly. "I will show you how to lay shingles. I've forgotten that not everyone has done so. There's no shame in learning something new."
Zuko grudgingly moved across the partially finish roof, kneeling next to the older man. Gansu calmly explained how to lay shingles and then demonstrated how to nail them down efficiently without using a dozen or more nails. After a few more demonstrations, Zuko returned to his portion of the roof with a better understanding of what he was doing.
The sun was nearing its zenith when Lee popped his head over the edge of the roof, scrambling onto the sloping roof and sidling up to Zuko's side. The firebender ignored the boy, hammering the nails in with both hands wrapped around the hammer. Lee watched the work for a few minutes before speaking up, "You're not from around here, are you?"
Zuko's swing faltered. "No."
Lee frowned, putting his chin on his fist. "Where ya from?"
This time Lee scowled, picking up the shingle Zuko was reaching for. Zuko took it from the boy without a word. Lee was only discouraged by the older boy's silence for a moment before he brightened again. "What are you doing?"
Lee picked up another shingle, handing it to Zuko, watching as he nailed it into place. "Have you ever killed anyone?"
Zuko jerked, missing the nailhead and bringing the hammer down on his thumb. He bit back a curse, his thumb flying to his mouth. Lee didn't seem concerned that Zuko hadn't answered either of his questions. He picked up the scattered nails and shingles and placing the nails back in the box and the shingles in a neat stack. "Where'd you get your ostrich horse? It's so cool. I want one."
Zuko hesitated, but Lee looked like he was truly interested in the answer. He sighed, pushing damp hair out of his eyes and carefully examining his injured thumb. With another sigh, he picked up the hammer again, admitting, "...A girl."
Lee made a face. "What's your name?"
Lee and Zuko turned in surprise. Katara stood on the ground, looking up at them with a smile. Lee stared down at her in confusion. "What?"
She motioned to Zuko. "That's his name."
Lee looked at Zuko in surprise, a wide smile spreading across his face. Zuko grimaced, cringing when the young boy exclaimed, "Awesome! You have the same name as me!"
Zuko nodded, returning to hammering nails into the roof. Gansu chuckled, edging to the ladder and heavily making his way back to the ground. He greeted Katara with a smile, limping slightly to her side. She lifted a hand. "Sela says food will be ready in a bit."
He nodded, glancing up at Zuko and Lee on the roof. Katara followed his gaze, suppressing a laugh as the firebender hammered with a dogged determination as Lee talked. Gansu put a hand on her shoulder. "He's a good man—" Zuko's exclamation of pain interrupted him and Gansu winced. "He's not very good with a hammer though."
Katara shook her head, laughing as Lee shouted excitedly about blood."I should probably take a look at that."
Gansu called Lee down and the young boy scrambled down the ladder. Zuko followed more slowly, cradling his hand close to his chest. Katara held out a hand. "Let me see."
He frowned at her, but she reached for his hand before he could say anything. Katara examined the injury with a critical eye, reaching for her waterskin. She looked up at him with a smirk. "You'd think you got enough experience in the swamp with a hammer."
Zuko scowled and moved to pull his hand away but she held him firm and drew a stream of water out of her waterskin with one hand. She coated the injury and concentrated. She ignored the quiet gasp from Lee and Gansu when the water glowed a faint blue and the cut healed over. Zuko watched in fascination, but as soon as she let the water drop to the dust at their feet, he pulled away and stalked off. Lee hurried after him, but Gansu looked on with interest. "It's been a long time since I've met a waterbender. You have a truly remarkable gift."
She blushed under the compliment and Gansu chuckled. "Come, we should probably save your young man."
They found Zuko and Lee at the water pump, Zuko bent over the trough and splashing water on his face and neck. Lee had clearly not stopped talking since joining Zuko on the roof and they arrived just in time to hear Lee ask, "How'd you get that scar?"
Gansu cleared his throat, giving the energetic boy a stern look of disapproval. "Lee, leave the man alone."
Gansu and Zuko finished the new barn roof just as the sun was beginning to set and Zuko gratefully stumbled to the small house to gulp down leftovers from lunch before walking stiffly to the small bathhouse to was the dust and sweat from his skin. The bathwater was refreshingly cool and Zuko dumped the last of it over his head with a blissful sigh. When he finally returned to the barn, Katara had not yet returned. A few of the chicken pigs clucked in some of the empty stalls but were clearly settling down for the night. Zuko dropped to the pile of hay with a deep groan, already falling into a half conscious state.
The barn door slammed open, startling Zuko and causing him to reach for his dao swords before he realized that it was only Katara. He collapsed back onto the blankets, flinging an arm over his eyes and letting his mind drift closer to sleep. Katara was far from sleep. She paced the barn, a frown marring her brow. Zuko ignored her mutterings, forcing tired muscles to relax and concentrated on his breathing. He was nearly asleep when Katara suddenly spun on her heel and demanded, "Why don't they do anything about Gow and his soldiers?"
Zuko grunted, waking up enough to mumble, "Have you seen the villagers?"
She sighed, falling to the hay next to him. Zuko tilted his head to look at her from the corner of his good eye. He really was a handsome man. Katara blinked. That'd been a sudden thought she'd never expected. Flustered, it took her a moment to remember what he'd said and to reform her thoughts. "Well, yes, but someone could still do something."
Zuko rolled onto his back, throwing an arm across his eyes and sighing tiredly. Katara watched his chest rise and fall with his breathing. His breathing had a hypnotic effect on her and she startled when Zuko finally spoke. "Gow is an earthbender," he said. "And I haven't seen another bender in the village."
For a moment she was surprised. How had he known? She almost asked him, but instead pushed the thought aside to focus on what she'd been thinking before.
"So you're saying we can do nothing?" Katara asked. "We should help them!"
Zuko dropped his arm from his eyes, pushing himself up on his elbow and staring down at her. "They don't want my help." He seemed to realize that he implied he wanted to help to begin with and quickly continued, "And it's not my problem."
The injustice of the situation gnawed at her. It was too much like what the Fire Nation was doing to the rest of the world. It was wrong. It wasn't fair that so many people would be kept down by so few. That they'd hide and cower from a handful of men instead of standing up to them and refusing to comply with ridiculous demands. If they all stood up against them, Gow and his cronies wouldn't stand a chance. She frowned back at him. "But they're abusing their authority."
"There will always be someone who abuses authority," he snapped.
She drew back in surprise and subsided into silence. They stared at each other until Zuko finally turned onto his side, his back to Katara. She was slowly growing used to looking at the firebender's back when they settled down to sleep.
Chapter 12: Turning
"If you hate a person, you hate something in him that is part of yourself. What isn't part of ourselves doesn't disturb us."
— Hermann Hesse
"The deepest definition of youth is life as yet untouched by tragedy."
— Alfred North Whitehead
Katara woke suddenly to find herself wrapped around Zuko's torso, her nose tucked into the crook of his neck. Waking in such a position was not unusual and she could only assume Zuko hadn't waken yet to push her away. It was still dark and Katara could feel Zuko's gentle breathing and the steady thrum of his heart. Unsure of what woke her, she lay still, straining her ears to catch any sound that was unusual. A soft thump and quick breathing had her tensing, ready to roll away from Zuko and snatch up her waterskin. She barely noticed her rather indecent hold on the firebender. Zuko's arm closed around her before she could move and she stifled a surprised gasp, pulling away just enough to meet gold eyes shining in the dim moonlight. His eyes flicked over her shoulder when she heard a soft creak and then his hold loosened and he sat up. He seemed to take a quick glance around the barn before rising from the bedding. She watched as he moved away, flicking his fingers to produce a small flame and examining their packs and what few supplies they'd pulled out to use. He made a soft noise, but it didn't sound surprised. He let the small flame snuff out as he picked his way across the dark barn to the door.
Katara watched his progress, having to squint to pick him out in the deep shadows. "What is it?"
"It's nothing," Zuko said, his voice low. "Go back to sleep."
He was out the door with hardly a sound and Katara quickly struggled to free herself from the blankets that had gotten twisted around her. She made it to the door in time to see Zuko slip around the edge of the barn and head back toward the sunflower fields she'd spent most of the morning weeding and watering. Hesitating only a moment, she returned to her side of the bed to grab her waterskin and quickly followed—making sure she stayed far enough back to keep out of sight.
At the edge of the field, Zuko paused, shoulders tense as he assessed the area. He hadn't been this way earlier, staying close to the buildings with Gansu and he probably wanted a moment to gain some kind of lay of the land. Katara held her breath while the firebender took his time and she vaguely wondered what he was doing. A child's war cry lifted and carried faintly on the breeze. Zuko turned toward the sound, but waited a moment, examining the ground before he chose a direction. A pleased feeling rose up in her when she realized he was using what he learned in the swamp to follow a trail. It didn't seem like the firebender was concerned about what he was following since he maintained an easy stride and wasn't attempting to keep his steps quiet. When he paused again, Katara realized that this time he was watching something and she edged closer.
A wordless cry, a flash of silver, and the heads of several sunflowers flew through the air. She recognized the flash of silver as blades and she realized the rough sound of displaced air as a clumsy attempt to wield them. A leap of a small, shadowed body, followed by a two streaks of silver and a cry of battle, and Katara knew who Zuko was watching. Lee had said he'd wanted to sword fight and subsequent pestering had worn Zuko down enough for him to admitted knowing how. Zuko had refused to teach him despite the young boy's pleas and now it seemed Lee had taken the matter into his own hands. No doubt the boy wanted to be able to impress all his friends. Lee leapt again, tripping over his feet and landing in a heap. Zuko moved forward through the sunflowers, finally making his presence known. "You're holding them all wrong."
Lee startled, shooting to his feet with a gasp. He fumbled with the swords, stammering, "I'm sorry!"
Zuko rolled his shoulders, plucking the dual swords from the boy's hands, adjusting his hold and showing Lee his grip. "The swords are an extension of your arms."
He demonstrated a few swings, explaining the nature of the swords, before handing them back to Lee. The young boy took them carefully, almost reverently, staring in awe at the blades. Zuko traced the edge of the blade without touching it, repeating, "The swords are an extension of yourself. They are both halves of a whole. Don't forget."
Katara watched a few more minutes before slipping away to return to the barn. She settled back down under the covers and let her mind drift to what she'd witnessed. She knew Zuko valued those swords and wondered why he hadn't been more upset that they'd been stolen, even if the thief was just a boy and the swords would most likely be returned by morning. She half expected the firebender to return to the barn shortly after she did, but it was several hours before she heard the sound of footsteps and quiet conversation.
"He used to show me stuff like this all the time."
Zuko's response was too low for her to hear, but she caught Lee's farewell and then saw Zuko quietly enter. His steps were near silent as he approached and he startled when she spoke. "That was very nice of you."
A flame flickered in his hand for a brief second before snuffing out. "Don't do that."
He dropped the swords next to his spot, kicking off his shoes and rolling into his blankets. She felt him shiver slightly and heard him released a slow breath. Spring may have arrived, but the desert nights were still chilly. Once he'd settled again, Katara laughed quietly. "You're not nearly as heartless as you pretend to be."
Zuko rolled his eyes. "The kid could've run himself through, swinging those swords like that."
She lifted herself onto her elbow, peering through the darkness at him. "So you taught him how to hold and swing the swords?"
He shrugged, settling down with his back to her, grumbling, "I didn't want to clean the swords in the morning."
Katara laughed but left it at that. She waited several moments before scooting closer to his back, curling up and facing the other direction, relaxing into his warmth. The bedding had been cold without him there. She was nearly asleep when Zuko spoke quietly, "Did you know Lee has a brother?"
Katara looked over her shoulder, but Zuko hadn't moved. She frowned. "I did. He's joined the Earth Kingdom Army in place of Gansu."
"Gansu was in the Army?"
Katara hummed sleepily. "Yes. He was injured so they let him go."
Zuko was silent for a time and Katara was once more drifting off when she felt him roll toward her. "Do you know how?"
She groaned, throwing an arm over her eyes. Half the time she couldn't get him to speak and now he wouldn't shut up. "Zuko, we didn't discuss that kind of thing. Go to sleep."
She half expected him to say something else, but he only grunted and settled down quietly.
When Katara woke again, the sun was shining through the slats in the side of the barn and spilling across her face. She rolled away from the light with a disgruntled groan, directly into the spot Zuko was sleeping in the night before. His absence roused her enough to lift her head and look around the barn. He was nowhere to be seen and Feathers was out of the stall. Another search of the area showed that their packs were still present though Zuko's dao swords were gone. The latter didn't concern her since Zuko was rarely without the blades since leaving the swamp. She took her time folding the blankets and packing their bags so was surprised when she heard raised voices.
"What do you want, Gow?"
She dropped the bags, grabbing up her waterskin and hurrying out of the barn. Zuko and Gansu stood in front of Gow and several of his men astride ostrich horses. Sela was holding a scowling Lee back by his arm and the sheep and cow pigs were squealing angrily. The large earthbender towered over Gansu with a laughing sneer. "Quite the friendly reception, Gansu. Especially after we rode out all this way to tell you."
Katara held her breath, a feeling of dread curling in her stomach. Gansu and Sela looked just as fearful as she felt while Zuko merely looked irritated. Gansu straightened his shoulders. "What's that?"
Gow affected a careless shrug. "Just thought someone ought to tell you that your son's battalion got captured."
Sela gasped and Gansu's face drained of color. Sela's hold on Lee's arm tightened painfully and when she spoke, her voice shook. "Is he alive? Do you know?"
Gow laughed and Gansu and his wife flinched. He looked over his shoulder at the rest of his men, asking, "You boys hear what the Fire Nation did with their last group of Earth Kingdom prisoners?"
Zuko tensed, his expression stony. Katara didn't want to hear, dreading what the response might be, but one of the soldiers on the ostrich horses spoke, his tone tinged with humor, "Dressed 'em up in Fire Nation uniforms and put 'em on the front line unarmed, the way I heard it. Then they just watched."
Sela gave a great sobbing cry, her legs collapsing under her. Gansu's fists clenched and he stepped forward angrily, shouting, "You watch your mouth!"
No one noticed Zuko's flinch or the way his expression turned a sickly pale color when he heard the rumor. Katara moved closer to the firebender's side, keeping a wary eye on the Earth Kingdom soldiers. Gow drew himself up importantly, green eyes glaring at the distraught family. "You better watch yourself, Gansu. You're behind on your taxes as it is."
Gansu's teeth clenched, eyes flashing, and he growled out, "Get off my land."
Gow's hand reached for his hammer and he stepped forward threateningly. Zuko smoothly stepped between the two men, meeting Gow's glare without flinching. The two benders sized each other up before Gow finally sneered, tearing his eyes away from Zuko's and cast Gansu and his family a disdainful sneer. "Why bother rooting around in the mud with these pigs? Let's go."
He stalked to his ostrich horse, hoisting himself onto the protesting animal's back and the whole group charged back toward town in a choking cloud of dust. Sela burst into tears and Gansu enveloped her in a tight hug, drawing a confused Lee in as well. Katara moved forward, placing a hand on Zuko's arm and drawing his gaze. For a brief second, she caught a glimpse of remembered pain and grief. She blinked and his emotions were hidden again beneath a mask of indifference. He glanced back at the small family that was seeking comfort from each other and Katara thought she detected some form of longing from him as Gansu brushed his hand over Lee's head. Katara put a hand on Zuko's back, leaning into him to offer what comfort she could. He seemed to come to himself again and he turned to the ostrich horse, muttering, "We should go."
He looked down at her, glancing back at the huddled family. "Yes. It's for the best."
Katara frowned. "But what about Gansu and his family? Shouldn't we stay and help?"
Zuko didn't answer right away, his brow creased with a frown. Eventually he sighed, shaking his head. "No."
Gansu stood, helping his sobbing wife up, a determined expression on his face. "I'm going to the front. I'm going to find Sensu and bring him back."
Sela gasped, clutching at her husband's tunic. Gansu placed his hands on her shoulders. "I'll leave right away."
A last nod to Zuko and Katara and Gansu guided his wife back to the house. Lee immediately turned to Zuko, looking up at the older boy with wide, hopeful eyes. "Will you stay? When my dad goes…will you stay?"
Katara smiled at Zuko's stunned expression, tucking herself close to the firebender's side. For a brief moment, he looked torn and Katara could see him struggle with the desire to stay. He'd opened himself up to the small Earth Kingdom family. Unfortunately, Katara knew they couldn't stay and Lee's hopeful expression fell when Zuko finally shook his head. "No. I—We need to move on."
Lee's disappointment was nearly heartbreaking and he followed them to the ostrich horse, pleading even as Zuko mounted and lifted Katara into the saddle behind him, "Just until dad gets back?"
Zuko looped the reins around one hand, looking first towards the horizon before turning a steady gaze to the young boy. To Katara's surprise, Zuko pulled out the dagger he'd always carried, holding it out for Lee. "I want you to have this."
Lee's face lit up with a grin and he took the dagger, pulling it from the sheath and holding it up. Sunlight sparked along the edge of the blade. "Wow! This is the best present ever! Thanks!"
Zuko ruffled the boy's hair fondly. "Never give up without a fight."
Katara leaned over a well, peering down into the depths. Zuko leaned against the dry stones watching her. Katara had insisted they stop to refill their waterskins before they got too far out of town in the off chance that she'd overlooked doing so in the excitement following Gow's appearance on the pig sheep farm. She glanced up at Zuko, meeting his eyes for a moment before quickly looking away, brushing loose hair out of her eyes. "I don't sense any water in this well."
Zuko grunted, eyes sweeping the area around them before settling on her again. She scowled in return. "I know. You don't have to rub it in."
The firebender had taken one look at the area surrounding the well and declared it was dry, but Katara had insisted that it wasn't. She caught the briefest tilt to his mouth before Zuko turned away to gather the reins of the ostrich horse. Katara tried one last time to draw water up before declaring defeat and moved to follow the firebender. Quick movement caught her eye and she paused, reaching out to stop Zuko from pulling himself into the saddle again. He followed her gaze, frowning when he recognized the figure that approached. Katara worried her lip, murmuring, "Do you think something's wrong?"
Leather squeaked as Zuko's hand tightened around the reins. "I'd says so."
The relief on Sela's face when she finally reached them was obviously and she barely paused a moment to catch her breath before gasping, "You have to help! It's Lee—the thugs from town came as soon as Gansu left. When they ordered us to give them food, Lee pulled a knife on them! I don't even know where he got a knife!" She was nearly hysterical, her words flooding from her her a jumbled mess. "They they took him away. They told me if he's old enough to fight, he's old enough to join the army."
Katara felt Zuko tense beside her, but she moved to comfort the distraught mother. Sela clung to the waterbender, but her attention was on Zuko, pleading, "I know we barely know you, but—"
Zuko was already swinging into the saddle, pulling his dao swords over his shoulders to rest against his shoulder blades. "I'll get your son back."
"Oh!" she sighed, her relief palpable. "Thank you!"
Zuko waited long enough for Katara and Sela to situate themselves behind him on the ostrich horse before urging Feathers to a quick pace. The trip back into town seemed far longer than the trip out. Sela clung to Katara, her expression anxious and her breath catching. Katara was surprised to see just how many people there were in the streets. Several dozen men and women crowded into the square, shouting angrily at Gow and his men but none of them moved to do anything more. They scattered when Zuko approached but hung on the edges to watch. Zuko dismounted, handing the reins to Katara without taking his eyes from the stocky earthbender. She took them, reaching for his hand to stop him. Gold eyes flashed up to meet hers and she hesitated before saying, "Be careful."
Zuko nodded and turned, his eyes sweeping over Lee who stood bound to the central water tower. The boy appeared uninjured and even grinned when Zuko looked at him. Gow, however, did not look pleased and stepped forward to scowl menacingly at Zuko. Not one to be easily cowed, Zuko raised his chin, commanding, "Let the kid go."
Gow laughed. "This isn't any of your concern, stranger."
"It is now. Let him go."
"Who do you think you are?" Gow growled.
"Who I am doesn't matter. I don't associate myself with bullies and cowards who intimidate women and children. I will tell you again, let the boy go."
Gow snorted, glancing at the soldier next to him. "Are you going to let him insult you like that?"
The soldier charged, spear leveled at Zuko's chest. Katara held her breath. She knew Zuko was a skilled fighter, but firebending and sword fighting were completely different from spears and she knew Zuko was hiding his bending, even if he never said as much. He dodged the spear, landing a forceful blow to the man's stomach that sent him tumbling to the ground. Zuko straightened and Katara heard the distinctive sound of a sword clicking back into its sheath. The downed soldier quickly regained his feet and fled. A second man with a spear attacked and again Zuko dodged the point, slamming the man into the ground. A third shortly after and Zuko's kick splintered the spear. Without a weapon, the man panicked and ran. Lee cheered, but Zuko was still closely watching Gow. A feeling of dread filled Katara, but Zuko didn't appear concerned. He'd lost his conical hat some time during the scuffle so the flash of his gold eyes was obvious now.
"As I'd said, cowards and bullies."
Gow sneered, pulling out the hammers. "You think mighty highly of yourself, boy. You'll find I'm at a completely different level. We don't like punks like you around these parts."
Zuko drew the dao swords, holding them at ready. "You've been abusing power too long."
They faced off, sizing each other up as an opponent. Gow moved first, earthbending a rock up and thrusting it Zuko. The firebender smashed through it with his sword, eyes narrowed to avoid dust and rock shards. Gow followed the attack with another three rocks in rapid succession. Zuko dodged the first two but took the third one in the stomach. Katara started forward as he stumbled back—hunching and clearly winded—but Sela grabbed her arm, halting her.
Zuko straightened from his hunched position, taking a deep breath. The swords leveled and held steady. A moment later, he charged. He dodged and flowed around the attacks with ease. Katara held her breath, flinching each time a boulder brushed Zuko's clothing. Another boulder slammed into his abdomen. Katara heard the air rush from his lungs as he hit the ground. She couldn't stop her gasp. The only thing keeping her back was Sela's white-knuckled grip on her arm.
The firebender somersaulted to his feet, favoring his ribs and grimacing in pain. A smug smile grew on Gow's face and he launched a barrage so fierce it took everything Zuko had to dodge. Katara gasped as the ground beneath Zuko's feet surged. Zuko stumbled in attempt to maintain his balance, his eyes narrowed in concentration. A wall of rock slammed into the firebender before Zuko coud gain the footing to avoid the blow. Zuko flew through the air, hitting the ground hard. A terrified cry escaped Katara before she even thought of the words, "Zu—Lee!"
He hit the ground hard, rolling a few feet before coming to a stop. He lay still and Katara held her breath. The crowd had also grown deathly silent, all eyes anxiously turned on the downed firebender. She heard a few mutterings of encouragement and prayers to the Spirits around her. Gow approached Zuko's prone form with a cautious eye, smirking when he remained unmoving. "You're not so tough now. Let this be a warning to the rest of you."
The hammer rose to deal Zuko the final incapacitating blow when Zuko's hand shot out, snatching up his fallen dao swords and rising in a hurricane of fire. Shocked gasps rose from the spectators and even Katara was surprised. She hadn't seen Zuko firebend since they'd been captured by the Swamp Tribe and even then she'd been involved in her own pathetic fight and hadn't actually watched him bend. Fire leapt from his hands, knocking Gow back and forcing him to drop his hammers as they heated to near unbearable temperatures. The large earthbender fell back, all traces of arrogance gone, and raised his fists to continue the fight without his weapons. His movements were clumsy and Zuko's attacks were relentless and powerful. A desperate attempt to gain the upper hand failed and Gow tripped over his own element, landing in a cloud of dust. Defeated, the earthbender looked up at Zuko, fear in his eyes. "Who—Who are you?"
Zuko stood proudly over him, breathing heavily, his eyes shifting to briefly glance at the stunned crowd that was quickly recovering from its shock. Angry rumbles were moving through the crowd, taking the place of the previous cheers. A firebender had defeated one of their own! It suddenly didn't matter that the man he defeated was the one abusing them. The men around were now unfriendly faces. Fierce gold eyes pinned Gow in place. "My name is Zuko, son of Ursa and Fire Lord Ozai; prince of the Fire Nation, and heir to the throne."
The crowd's surprise increased and even Katara was taken aback. Of course she'd known. He'd admitted as much in the swamp, but she never thought he'd declare it to all and sundry. An old man nearby recovered enough to shout, "Liar! I heard of you! You're not a prince, you're an outcast! His own father burned and disowned him!"
Blue eyes widened and swung around to look at him, but he didn't even flinch. "Zuko…"
He ignored the murmurs of speculation as to what he could've done to warrant being banished by a man as ruthless as the Fire Lord. Katara could hear speculations from theft to attempted assassination. Each story more outrageous than the last. He stepped forward, expression growing cold when Gow flinched, and snatched the dagger he'd given to Lee from the earthbender's belt. A last glare from gold eyes sent the defeated earthbender fleeing. He sheathed the dao swords and approached the water tower were Sela was quickly untying Lee from one of the posts. She looked terrified as Zuko approached, but she stepped protectively in front of Lee "Not a step closer."
Zuko flinched, betrayal flashing across his face before he buried it beneath an impassive mask. He stopped where he was, holding out the dagger to Lee. "It's yours. You should have it."
The young boy glared angrily, tears welling. His small frame shook with emotion and his fists clenched at his side as he shouted, "No! I hate you!"
He kicked desert dust at Zuko and sped off home, Sela quickly following after him with a last fearful look at Zuko. Lee's words seemed to shake the rest of the town out of its stupor. Voices rose in anger, jeering, and a few rocks flew. The very people who'd been cheering him on were now calling for his death or at least his being run out of town. The crowd surged around Katara, jostling her, shouting.
"Get out of our town, scum!"
The firebender drew away from them, but didn't draw his dao swords. Katara pushed at the bodies around her, forcing her way to the front, calling, "Zuko!"
Her shout reminded the villagers of her presence and hands grabbed at her, trying to pull her back. She struggled against them, breaking free and stumbling into Zuko's surprised form. Blue eyes clashed with gold and then Katara straightened, turning to face the crowd. They hung back, the shouts lulling as she faced them but she could clearly see they weren't past their lust for blood yet though they feared Zuko would slaughter them if they got closer. She shivered. Maybe many firebenders would, but for some reason Zuko seemed hesitant to use his firebending or attack the townsfolk. It had to be more than just avoiding notice in hostile territory.
An old woman wrung her hands anxiously, looking nervously at Zuko even as she addressed Katara, "What are you doing? Get away from him, he's dangerous!"
Katara bristled, anger flaring and stepping away from the few men who were brave enough to approach with the intent to pull her away. Her back pressed against Zuko's chest. She looked over the crowd, declaring angrily, "He's no more dangerous than you."
Disbelief rumbled through the mob and several men closest to her looked insulted. Fingers lightly touched her elbow and Zuko mumbled quietly, "Let's just go."
"No!" she exclaimed, pulling away from him and glaring furiously for even suggesting they leave the way things were. "They're being unreasonable. You helped them and they're treating you like—like—"
She groped for a suitable word, falling short when another villager exclaimed, "You don't have to stay with him. You can be free."
Blue eyes turned on them in an icy glare. "You're all cowards."
Chapter 13: Enemy of My Enemy
"A friend is one to whom one can pour out all the contents of one's heart, chaff and grain together, knowing that the gentlest of hands will take it and shift it, keeping what is worth keeping, and, with the breath of kindness, blow the rest away."
– Arabian Proverb
The ride out of the Plan's Village was made in silence. Katara's anger simmered beneath the surface and occasionally she'd huff and mutter curses too low for anyone to hear. She bristled at the recalled memories, fingers flexing as if itching to waterbend some sense into someone. Zuko's emotions were a little better hidden; the tension in his back and arms the only indication he was feeling anything.
They'd managed to reach their ostrich horse and mount while the villagers pressed in around them, still too hesitant to actually grow violent but quickly gaining confidence from sheer number. Seeing that both Zuko and Katara were leaving without any further threatening or convincing, the throng fell silent and watched as they rode out of town. A few of the braver villagers made to protest Katara's leaving, but a cold glare from her silenced them. Katara caught a brief glimpse of a young boy among the rocks and boulders trailing their progress, but was not able to identify him. Gradually, Katara's anger cooled and she eventually dismissed the entire village as closed-minded bigots. Disappointment replaced her anger and her shoulders slumped. Now that she was no longer so focused on her own anger, she was able to detect Zuko's. His posture was rigid and when she rested her chin on his shoulder she could see the tension in his jaw. He gave no indication that he was in any pain, but she wondered if his back was covered in bruises. He'd hit the ground pretty hard several times, after all. She subtly stretched her senses to detect any injuries. His breathing was harsh and she thought she could detect the pooling of blood along his back and ribs that would indicate bruising. She hoped none of his ribs were broken. They'd have to stop so she could get a better look. Unfortunately, the firebender didn't appear to have stopping in mind. Katara bit her lip before asking, "Do you want to stop?'
Zuko yanked on the reins of the ostrich horse, abruptly pulling it to a stop and dismounting. His movements were harsh as he paced around the clearing they'd stopped in, tossing twigs and dry moss in a pile, his jaw tense and his scowl deep. Katara dismounted more slowly, removing the sleeping rolls and watching him disappear into the bramble and reappear moments later with several thick branches. He dropped them on the pile he'd already gathered and, with a sharp flick of his wrist, a fire exploded from the logs. Katara frowned, it'd been a while since she'd seen him like this—angry and volatile. It was kind of frightening. She dropped the bags a decent distance from the fire in case it got out of hand due to Zuko's anger, and calmly seated herself on a folded bedroll. "You look angry."
He whirled around, fire exploding from his fists as he exclaimed, "Of course I'm angry! My father despises me, my sister is trying to kill me, I have a bounty on my head as well as orders to kill me on sight, everyone hates me, and I just want to go home!"
His words ended in a roar that made Katara sit back a bit. She watched as he panted for breath, before nodding and agreeing, "Me too."
Gold eyes snapped to her, narrowing. "What."
She shrugged, staring at the fire as it finally lowered to a manageable level. "I want to go home, too. I don't even know if I still have a home."
Zuko flopped to the ground next to her, his anger spent, grumbling, "At least you can go back to it."
She nodded slowly, letting the silence fall comfortably on them. She passed him a piece of jerky, putting the battered kettle over the fire. Something he'd said tickled her memory and she turned to him. "I never knew you had a sister."
Zuko snorted, falling to his back to stare at the darkening sky, his voice glum, "She's a prodigy. A Master Bender before she turned thirteen. Father's pride."
Katara put her chin in her hand, looking down at him thoughtfully. "She sounds scary."
A dry laugh escaped him. "Terrifying," he paused, frowning at something in his memory. "She can conjure lightning."
He draped an arm over his eyes, hiding from her gaze. "No."
"Have you ever tried?"
"You don't just bend lightning."
"No," she allowed, "I suppose not."
Zuko grunted, but said nothing else. Compassion stirred in her. She wasn't used to seeing him so defeated. He'd always been so strong, so fierce. He acted like he didn't care, but she could see the villagers' rejection of him had cut him deep. Especially Lee and Sela. She'd never been hated just because of the element she could bend and apparently even his own people didn't accept him.
"I don't hate you."
The words were out before she was even aware she'd thought them. They startled her, mainly because she realized they were true. Zuko's arm shifted and she caught the gleam of a gold eye looking at her. She blushed, nervously fingering the half-eaten jerky in her hand. Gathering her courage, she lifted her chin to look at him and give him a small smile. "I mean, you were scary at first, but inside I know you're just a polar bear puppy."
He sat up, looking indignant, but she caught the blush that spread across his cheeks. "No I'm not."
"Sure you are!"
"I'm not!" he insisted. "I'm mean...like a boarcupine!"
Katara laughed, further delighted when Zuko's blush deepened. "I've never seen a boarcupine."
Her grin widened. "So I gathered."
He scowled at her, but she only grinned and scooted closer, resting her head on his shoulder. He grunted but didn't push her away and she smiled up at him. "You are a polar bear puppy."
He sighed, conceding, "Don't tell anyone."
Zuko and Katara relaxed into an easy companionship after the expulsion of emotions from Zuko. Even after their time in the swamp, the firebender still kept her at arm's length and watch her warily. Katara's admittance that she didn't hate him seemed to accept her gestures of friendship without the wariness that usually accompanied him. He didn't push her away when she crawled into his sleeping pallet in the middle of the night and Katara almost felt like he welcomed her presence. The area surrounding the village was as desolate as it'd been before the village and Katara was cheered when they finally came across a shaded oasis. Their supplies were running low and the small package Sela had given Zuko when they first left wasn't nearly enough to last until the next town, wherever that might be. Zuko stopped beneath a scraggly looking desert tree and Katara quickly slid from the back of the ostrich horse, eager for fresh water. Zuko took his time following, soothing the ostrich horse and checking various other things.
Katara waded into the water with a sigh of relief. The cool water felt heavenly after the days spent in the desert heat. She was disappointed that there were no fish in the small pool, but she couldn't say she was surprised. She took the opportunity to freely bend the water around her with a delighted laugh. Zuko leaned against a boulder, watching her progress. Katara stopped her cheerful spin, facing Zuko. Her smile widened when she caught sight of the slight smile on Zuko's face. "You should come in and cool down."
Zuko's brow rose and he glanced at the water before looking back at her. "I don't think so."
Katara snorted. "I know you can swim, Zuko. Are you afraid?"
"I have a healthy appreciation of a Master Bender surrounded by her element."
She laughed at his affected superior tone and she dropped into the water to hide her grin. Zuko eyed her suspiciously for a moment, but Feathers released a startled squawk that drew his attention. Katara took that moment to strike, sending a wave of water over the firebender's head. Zuko stumbled in surprise, sputtering indignantly, and Katara's laugh echoed around the oasis.
"Distance doesn't make you safe."
Zuko straightened, pushing sopping hair out of his eyes. "This means war."
He was in the water before Katara could process his words and he yanked her under water with a deft sweep of his legs. She went down with a shriek, eyes narrowing at his smug look when she surfaced. She retaliated with a wave of water, laughing at Zuko's protest, "No cheating!"
Making sure she was a safe distance from him, she crossed her arms and cackled. "All's fair in—Wait!"
Despite being a firebender, Zuko managed to produce an impressive wave of water. After that, talking dissolved into an all out water war only calling a truce when Feathers decided to join them in the water. Feathers put up a fight, determined to stay in the water, but eventually Zuko pulled the dripping, protesting ostrich horse out of the pool and tied it in the shade of the scraggily tree. Katara was carefully making her way out of the water when she glanced up just in time to see Zuko pull off his wet shirt and wring it out. Her foot slipped and she fell with a gasp and a splash. Her cheeks burned when Zuko turned. Katara coughed quietly, avoiding his questioning look. "I slipped."
Zuko pulled his damp shirt back over his head and held out a hand for her. She hesitated only a moment before taking his hand and carefully stepping out of the oasis pool. Zuko made a strange noise and quickly dropped her hand, turning back to their packs once she was on firm land. She pulled the water from her clothes, trying to smooth her hair back. It was just getting long enough to pull into a short tail. The front usually fell down to hang in her eyes, but it was nice to get it off her neck. Dry once more, Katara joined Zuko looking through the backs. "Should I try to cook something?"
She took one of the provision bags, looking through what little food they had left. With a grunt, she discarded the rice. It would take too long and she doubted Zuko wanted to stop for the rest of the day. Katara sighed, lifting out the small oilskin of wrapped jerky. She didn't know about Zuko, but she was tired of jerky. "I wish there were fish in the pool. We're almost out of food. Again."
Zuko snorted and was about to respond when his head snapped to the north and his eyes narrowed. Surprised, Katara followed his gaze curiously, but didn't see anything except empty sky and a few stray wisps of clouds. She glanced at him but he was still focused on the northern sky.
"What is it?"
He blinked, focusing back on her though a frown still pulled at his mouth. He shook his head when he caught her concerned look. "It's nothing."
She didn't really believe him, but accepted the answer anyway. It didn't prevent her from searching his face for some indication of what he'd seen. She held up a piece of jerky, her eyebrows rising when he took it distractedly. She busied herself airing out their sleeping pallets and blankets, keeping half an eye on Zuko. The firebender seemed restless, his eyes continuously darting to the north and fingering his jerky without eating it. When Katara rose to clean up, Zuko shot to his feet.
"Stay with the ostrich horse, I'll be back."
He was nearly out of the oasis before Katara could respond, calling after him, "Where are you going?"
"Nowhere! I'll be back!"
And then he was gone. Katara stared after him in confusion. He'd seemed fine for most of the morning and it hadn't been until they'd gotten out of the pool that he'd grown anxious. Her brow furrowed thoughtfully and she stooped to wash the few things they had. He'd seen something, despite his denial, and she wondered what it was. There was only one way to find out. She washed quickly, returning to pack Feathers. She was going to follow him.
It was strange not having Zuko in front of her guiding the ostrich horse. She felt more on edge than usual and would jump when bushes rustled unexpectedly. Feathers sensed her unease, ruffling feathers and squawking. Despite the relatively flat landscape, she didn't see Zuko anywhere nearby. Picking a direction, she urged the ostrich horse into a trot. She crested a hill, startled by a man's shout of surprise. She yanked sharply on the reins, nearly getting herself thrown from the saddle. Feathers danced under her and it took everything in her to keep herself on the ostrich horse. A man's hand grabbed the bridle, pulling the ostrich horse's head down. Once the ostrich horse was restrained it stopped moving. Katara slumped forward, trying to still her racing heart.
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to startle you or your ostrich horse."
Katara looked up to meet the eyes of a young man. He had to be in his twenties and by his clothing, he seemed to be from the Earth Kingdom. She sighed with relief and he gave her a friendly smile, smoothing back ruffled feathers on the ostrich horse's head. He glanced at the packs behind the saddle. "Are you going to Ba Sing Se?"
Katara shook her head apologetically. "No. I don't think so. Did you see a boy pass by here?"
"Is everything all right, Tahn? I thought I heard shouting."
Katara and Tahn turned, Tahn calling back, "Everything's fine. I just surprised a traveler." He noticed Katara's curious look and explained, "My wife. She's resting in the shade."
A young woman, heavily pregnant, appeared on the edge of the road a few minutes later, her hand placed protectively on her belly. Tahn quickly dropped the bridle, hurrying to his wife, scolding, "You should be resting, Ying. It's too hot to be out in the sun."
Tahn took her arm, urging her back into the shade. The young woman twisted to look back at Katara, speaking to her husband, "Did you ask her?"
"She's not going to Ba Sing Se."
Disappointment made her shoulders slump and she allowed Tahn to help her back to the thin shade. Katara dismounted, approaching the shade. She watched Tahn fuss over his wife, offering a nearly empty waterskin. Katara reached for the waterskin Zuko usually traveled with and offered it to them. "Why are you going to Ba Sing Se?"
Tahn hesitated taking the waterskin, but took it with Katara's urging. "Our village was attacked by the Rough Rhinos. We thought it'd be safer for us to start our family in Ba Sing Se. The city's full of refugees."
She'd never been to Ba Sing Se and this was the first time she'd heard of a city of refugees. Katara took a seat next to them in the shade. "I thought the Earth Kingdom was holding out against the invasion."
The young woman shook her head. "It's not the invasion we're seeking refuge from."
Tahn nodded. "The Rough Rhinos are elite Fire Nation cavalry. They seem to thrive on fear."
"They're supposed to be under the command of the Fire Nation's military, but they don't seem to be following any specific order. Our village was small and not very wealthy." She stroked her belly with one hand, reaching for Tahn with the other and smiling brightly. "We'll have a better life in Ba Sing Se."
They smiled at each other long enough for Katara to grow uncomfortable. Curious—she'd never seen a pregnant woman's stomach so prominently displayed, the women of the Water Tribe always swathed in heavy furs—she asked, "When are you due?"
"Soon. We hope to reach Ba Sing Se before then."
Lightning raced across the cloudless sky, startling all three of them. Tahn searched the sky. "I didn't think a storm was coming."
Katara shook her head, frowning at the nearly cloudless sky. "No. There's no moisture in the air."
An explosion shattered the air, startling the ostrich horse and sending Katara to her feet. In the distance she could see a plume of smoke rising. Flames flared into the air and Katara gasped. "I have to go."
Tahn scrambled to his feet, hurrying after her as she mounted the protesting ostrich horse. "It's dangerous. I can see the fire from here. There are firebenders fighting!"
He grabbed the bridle, looking anxiously at the rising smoke. Katara shifted, pulling out a small bundle and handing it to him. "I'll be fine. Take this, you need it more than we do."
With a final smile to Tahn and his wife, she kicked the ostrich horse into a full out run. She rapidly closed the distance and Katara was surprised to see the shadows of buildings growing closer. A flash of white drew her to a stop. She edged Feathers as close to the bare tree reaching for the white object. Her fingers brushed it and she was surprised at the softness. It brought back memories and she plucked some of it up to get a closer look. Incense and woodsmoke met her nose and she gasped. "Appa?"
Fur slipped from limp fingers and she urged Feathers on, her heart in her throat.
The buildings were partially collapsed and a few were burning when Katara entered what appeared to be a ghost town. She'd thought the last village was deserted, but she knew, without a doubt, that no one lived here. She followed the path of destruction, marveling at the scorch marks on the ground and various collapsed buildings. Nothing stirred and she wondered if she might have missed Zuko and the others. If it really was Sokka and Aang, she hoped the firebender wasn't the one doing the attacking.
Stopping in the middle of what used to be the square, Katara dismounted. The air was almost too still and it made her uneasy. The ostrich horse made a whirring sound, nosing Katara's hair. She patted the bird comfortingly even as she frowned at the silence. Nearly every building in the square was scorched or burning and she couldn't pick a definite path to follow. She wasn't even sure she wanted to find what happened at the end of the trail of destruction.
A crack of lightning shattered the stillness and suddenly the earth trembled and flame and smoke shot into the air. Feathers screeched a protest, plumage standing on end, only her hold on the reins kept the ostrich horse from bolting. Shouting echoed off the buildings and Katara picked a direction, running towards it and uncapping her waterskin. She slid around the corner just in time to see the large shadow of Appa pass over and disappear. A gasp flew from her lips and she couldn't stop her shout, "Sokka!"
No one heard her as the sky bison was already out of ear shot and was soon out of eyesight. Her eyes welled with tears. She'd nearly forgotten how much she missed her brother and they'd just missed each other. She stared after Appa, silently wishing that the sky bison had heard her and was circling around to come back. The wish was futile. They were retreating and leaving her behind again.
Her name was urgent and panicked and she whirled around, ready to defend herself if needed. Zuko knelt on the ground next to an old man. Surprised, she hurried to his side, momentarily pushing thoughts of her brother away. He was alive. And Aang was too. She'd have to content herself with that knowledge and hope she'd find them well another time. She knelt at Zuko's side, quickly scanning the old man's wound. She grimaced at the sight of charred and blistering flesh, wincing as she had to peel back his tunic to get a closer look. A swift check of his breathing and heartbeat let her know that he was still alive, though the heartbeat was weak and erratic. Working quickly, she drew water out of her waterskin and coated the wound as best she could. The old man groaned when she touched the wound, eyes opening a crack. "Zuko?"
Surprise nearly made her lose control of her water when she saw the flash of gold beneath heavy lids. He lost the strength to keep his eyes open and he slipped into unconsciousness. Zuko scooted closer, clasping the old man's hand in his. She glanced at him before focusing on the wound again. "What happened?"
He looked at her blankly. He didn't seem to understand the question at first, but shook himself and quickly explained the run-in with Azula, Aang, and a few others. "Azula struck Uncle with lightning."
Katara bit back a gasp of surprise. Was family so little valued in the Fire Nation? Zuko's uncle gasped, groaning painfully. Zuko's whole posture went rigid and he leaned over him, anxiously watching. Her heart broke a little when he turned pleading eyes on her, begging, "Katara, please..."
"I know," she assured him, pulling more water from the waterskin and tossing away the used water.
The water glowed faintly and she concentrated harder, urging flesh to knit and heal. She tried twice more, changing water each time, before sitting back on her heels and wiping sweat away from her brow. Zuko looked from his uncle to her with almost a fearful expression. "Will he be okay?"
She smiled, capping her waterskin and checked the wound again. There was still a lot of damage, but if she used all the water they had all three of them would die in the desert. He watched restlessly, sagging with relief when she nodded, saying, "He should be. I will need more water than I have."
For the first time since Katara knelt at his side, Zuko looked at his surroundings. "Did you follow me?"
Katara huffed, rising to her feet and placing her hands on her hips, frowning down at him. The reminder of his abandonment of her sat uneasily with her. "I did. It wasn't easy either. You didn't have to run off like that. What was so important that you had to leave me alone?"
He looked away, shoulders hunching and muttering, "You wouldn't understand."
She stared down at him for a moment longer before sighing in defeat and dropping the subject. It would have been nice to see her brother again but maybe she'd get another chance sometime in the near future. "We should probably find a better place to stay while your uncle heals."
Zuko agreed and Katara left to find the ostrich horse. When she returned with the protesting animal, it took both of them to lift Zuko's uncle onto the back of the ostrich horse, Katara wincing each time the injured man groaned in pain. She sincerely hoped his wound wouldn't reopen.
"You should ride with him," Zuko muttered in distraction, "to keep him from falling off."
Katara looked at him strangely. "Me? I can't hold him on the ostrich horse if he decides to take a tumble. He'd probably take me with him."
Gold eyes blinked. "Oh. Right. I mean. Of course. I—"
He cut himself off, giving his head a shake and quickly climbed into the saddle behind his uncle. Katara took the reins and, making sure Zuko had a firm hand on his uncle, she started out of the ghost town. Stretching out her senses, she felt a pull of water and headed in that direction.
Chapter 14: A Time to Heal
“When we are unable to find tranquility within ourselves, it is useless to seek it elsewhere.”
– Francois de La Rochefoucauld
“There are some things you learn best in calm, and some in storm.”
They ended up in a small cabin in a sparse grove of trees. There didn’t appear to be anyone in the vicinity and the cabin had the worn look of long neglect. Katara was relieved water was readily available and together, Zuko and Katara got Zuko’s uncle into the cabin and onto the floor pallet. Katara went to refill her waterskins and Zuko hurriedly built a fire in the fire pit at the center of the room. When Katara returned, Zuko was again sitting at his uncle’s side, anxiously watching the rise and fall of the old man’s chest. Her movement attracted his attention almost immediately. “He’s still unconscious.”
Katara searched through the storage cabinets that lined the wall on the far side of the cabin before she settled in beside the pallet, feeling the injured man’s forehead. She pulled away with a frown, wetting a clean cloth she’d managed to find in one of the cabinets and carefully placed it on his forehead. “He has a fever, but that’s not uncommon with serious injuries.”
She handed off the cloth to Zuko with instructions to keep it cool. With Zuko distracted by his task, Katara turned her attention to the half-healed wound on his chest. Thankfully it hadn’t reopened during their travel and didn’t appear to have any infection, but it still retained the angry red and the new skin looked thin. She frowned again. She didn’t remember her healing back at the ghost town looking so thin—like it would tear at his slightest movement. A quick glance at Zuko proved he had taken her instructions very seriously, his brow furrowed as he wetted the cloth thoroughly. His attention diverted, she concentrated on smoothing out the burned flesh, cursing under her breath when she realized the injury went deeper than she anticipated. Zuko looked at her in alarm, gold eyes wide. “What?”
She looked up in surprise, not realizing Zuko had heard her. The water flowed easily between her hands and she hesitated telling him her findings. Tossing the dirty water out the nearby window, she scowled. “The wound is deeper than I thought.”
Before their eyes, the wound opened again, seeping fresh blood. The new skin was disintegrating rapidly. Katara quickly pulled more water to her, ignoring Zuko’s exclamation of surprise as the wound fully reopened. The water glowed blue and she could feel sweat bead on her forehead. The flesh was refusing to mend and she could feel his uncle’s heart start faltering. “Can’t you do something?”
“I’m trying, Zuko,” she snapped back.
She pulled more water and was considering her options when Zuko started to say something, paused, then started again. “What about what Huu said in the swamp?”
Her brow furrowed, struggling to remember what her bending teacher might have said that would prove useful in this situation. “What did he say?”
Zuko stumbled over his words, trying to make sense of what he was saying. “They could bend the water in the plants, right?”
Katara made an impatient noise and Zuko quickly finished his thought. “Huu said it was possible to bend blood. Blood’s mostly water, right?”
Katara froze. Bloodbend? Was that even possible? She recalled the conversation now that Zuko brought it to the forefront of her mind. Huu had said bloodbending was possible though not many benders were able to accomplish it without assistance and even then, most were unable to do more than sense its presence. She knew she could sense bruising and the like, but actual healing was something else. What he was asking terrified her. Worrying her lip, she glanced at his anxious expression and felt a heavy weight settle in her stomach. “I never tried.”
Even as she said that, she narrowed her concentration, searching for the blood rushing through the older man’s veins. She could feel the pulse of Zuko’s heart racing across from her and blocked that out as best she could. Finally, she sensed the blood pooling beneath the injury and the stuttering beats of the old man’s heart. Lifting her hand, she spread her fingers and gently prodded at the air above the injury. The blood moved, though sluggishly, resisting her guidance. She released it, breathing hard. It was nearly impossible to do and left her feeling drained and weak. Zuko’s uncle, though still unconscious, was now gasping and fear was now settling over her. She recognized the death gasps and could only hope Zuko wasn’t aware of them. Zuko watched, his jaw tense, and Katara took a deep breath, determined to do the impossible.
Once more, she lifted her hand and spread her fingers, grabbing the blood flowing through his veins and bending it to her will. Zuko’s uncle jerked and Zuko gasped, hands flying to his uncle’s shoulders to hold him still. Katara ignored it, but gentled her hold. Repairing what she could not see was almost as difficult as bending the blood that continuously tried to slip from her grasp, but eventually she decided she’d done as much as she could and let the blood flow freely once again. A cursory check revealed that his heart had ceased it’s erratic leaps and shudders and fresh, pink skin now stretched over the wound. Katara slumped forward, her vision blurring and spinning. Zuko’s uncle’s breathing evened and deepened, but he didn’t wake. She lifted a shaking hand to brush hair out of her eyes. “I think that’s as much as I can do right now.”
“He’s not awake,” Zuko said before suddenly getting a good look at her. He frowned, his eyes tracing her features. “Are you okay?”
“I—” she tried to stand but found her legs wouldn’t hold her and she sank back to the floor. “Maybe I need to lie down.”
Without another word, Zuko stood and walked around the pallet his uncle was on and helped her to her feet. He supported her to the only other spare sleeping pallet the small cabin had, then disappeared to fetch the blankets from their packs. She was asleep before he returned.
Katara woke slowly, her body still feeling like lead and her head pounding. It almost felt like she’d drank too much moonshine the night before. She squeezed her eyes shut, releasing a quiet groan as she pressed her face into her pillow. Birds twittered outside and she rolled over, forcing her eyes open. Zuko sat slumped against the wall next to his uncle, mouth hanging open and snoring lightly. She sat up, surprised when a blanket fell from her shoulders and pooled around her waist. She didn’t remember having a blanket when she fell asleep. A quick glance out the only window in the hut revealed the sun well above the horizon. Surprised, she glanced back at the firebender. He was still sleeping soundly and appeared to be in no hurry of waking. She rose quietly, checking on Zuko’s uncle, satisfied that the old man was sleeping peacefully and appeared to be in no pain. Her stomach rumbled and she decided it was time to find food. Zuko, no doubt, would be hungry when he woke and she wanted to have something for the uncle if he felt he could eat. A floorboard creaked under her step and she cringed when Zuko woke with a snort, his hand already reaching for the dao swords before he was even fully awake. Foggy gold eyes looked up at her in sleepy confusion before he blinked and the fog cleared. Seeing her standing there, wincing slightly, he immediately looked at his uncle, hurrying to his feet to check. “Is he all right?”
Katara kept her voice low, motioning for him to follow her out of the hut, “He’ll be fine. He’s sleeping right now.”
He followed her reluctantly. “But he’ll wake up, right?”
She smiled even though the sunlight hurt her eyes. “Yes. He just needs his rest. I’ll have to do another healing, but hopefully it won’t take as much out of me.”
They fell comfortably into their usual morning tasks, Zuko building the cook fire and Katara putting together a meal of rice and jerky. She tsked over their limited supplies. Zuko watched her work as if fascinated by the whole process. Now that the immediate danger was past, Katara allowed her thoughts to drift over the events of the past day and a half. Zuko’s admittance that his uncle’s injury was a result of his sister still came as a shock. Months before, she would have thought Zuko was just like his sister. She gave the contents of the pot a swift stir then sat back on her heels and grinned at him, breaking the silence, “You’re right. Your sister is terrifying. Was she always like that?”
“Yes,” Zuko said without hesitation and then looked abashed. “I mean—no, not really.” He shrugged, picking up a stick and prodding at the fire. “She was just a show-off before.”
Katara tore her eyes from the stick, lifting an eyebrow at him. “Before what?”
The firebender stabbed moodily at the embers before tossing the stick into the flames and folding his arms across his knees. His shoulders hunched and he fell into a melancholy sulk. “Before Mother—after that, she got scary.”
Katara watched him for a moment before checking her cooking one last time and rising to her feet and walking around the fire to take a seat close to Zuko’s side. At first he didn’t seem to notice her presence so she scooted closer, slipping a hand through his arm and leaning against his shoulder. The firebender looked askance at her, but didn’t push her away. She gave his arm a slight squeeze. “I’m sorry.”
Confusion crossed Zuko’s face and he pulled far enough away to look down at her. “What?”
She shrugged, resting her cheek against his shoulder. “My mother’s gone too.”
Silence fell between them and they both watched the fire crackle along the logs. Zuko cleared his throat, leaning back on one hand and turning his gaze toward the sky. “What happened?”
At first she said nothing, the sting of tears in her eyes. She took a moment to push the rush of emotions away, hoping Zuko would say nothing about her tears. With a deep breath, she pulled away from Zuko and focused on a loose thread in her skirt. “She was killed in a Fire Nation raid when I was young. My mother’s necklace was all I had left of her.” She touched her throat where the pendant used to lay against her skin and let her hand fall to her lap, murmuring, “Now that’s gone too.”
Zuko touched the inner pocket of his tunic, glancing at her discretely before pulling an object out. He ran his thumb over the engraved surface, taking in the intricate details, and held it for her to see. “Oh, you mean this?”
A blue slip of cloth dangled in front of her eyes, the pendant familiar even if it took several seconds for it to register. Her fingers rose to touch the stone, her breath catching when the necklace didn’t vanish. Shocked blue eyes met gold. “Where did you get that?”
He almost didn’t want her to take—it’d been with him for so long—but he let it go, watching as she cradled it in the palms of her hands. “I didn’t steal it, if that’s what you mean.”
She laughed, shaking her head. “I didn’t think you did.” She tied it back around her throat, touching the smooth stone, warmed from Zuko’s pocket. “Thank you.”
He shrugged, blushing lightly as she leaned into him again. “I found it on the Prison Rig.”
“You were there?”
The firebender nodded, lifting an arm to drape across her shoulders. She edged closer, tucking herself against his side. He let his thoughts drift. “They told me the Avatar had escaped.”
Katara rested her head against his shoulder, murmuring, “I did not.”
“They left you.” He glanced down at her. “Why?”
He sounded surprised and Katara shrugged. “They had no choice. The world needs Aang.” She glanced up a him. “Why do you need Aang?”
He pulled away, rising to his feet and pacing to the fire. For several long moments, Zuko poked at the fire, watching sparks shoot up from the embers. His shoulder straightened and her turned to her, fire leaping in his eyes. “I need him to regain my honor.”
Katara looked up at him, a slight frown pulling at her lips. This wasn’t the first time she’d heard him mutter about lost honor and she thought that perhaps he’d be willing to actually talk to her about it. She clasped a fist around the pendant of her necklace. “How did you lose your honor?”
“I—” His fingers touched the scar around his eye before fisting and dropping to his side. He looked away so all she saw was the smooth, unblemished side. “You wouldn’t understand.”
His shoulders slumped and a frown appeared. Her eyes traced his profile, taking in the shadowed gaze and defeated frown. She stood, approaching him and hooking an arm through his, giving it a tight squeeze. “Try to help me understand.”
He sighed, letting his head rest against hers. They stood in comfortable silence together, each gaining comfort from the other’s presence. Katara felt him shift and take a deep breath and she knew he was going to tell her something important. They didn’t hear footsteps approach until the person spoke, “My, what have we here?”
They leapt apart as if burned, Zuko exclaiming, “Uncle!”
Katara tried to keep the blood from rushing to her cheeks and she anxiously smoothed her tunic. Zuko’s uncle stood leaning against the door of the cabin, looking worn but cheerful. He smiled, laughing lightly at their startled reactions. He took a shuffling step out into the sunlight, grimacing slightly and placing a hand over the bandaged wound. Katara hurried forward, helping him the short distance to a bench near the fire. He eased down onto the bench awkwardly, breathing through the pain. She watched anxiously until he opened his eyes and smiled at her. “Now, who do I owe thanks for saving my life?”
Katara blushed. “It was nothing.”
“I don’t believe that for a moment.” He frowned as if trying to remember something. “You look familiar, Miss…”
“Katara,” she quickly responded.
He beamed, exclaiming, “What a beautiful name! It suits you well, Miss Katara. I am Iroh, though you may call me Uncle.”
“Thank you,” she said, glancing at Zuko when he made a strangled sound.
Zuko seemed to be recovering from his surprise as color flooded across his cheeks. Iroh grinned. “If I had known you were leaving to find a girl, I would’ve given you some advice. Why, when I was a young captain I would sneak away some nights—”
Zuko sputtered, looking absolutely horrified. Katara retreated toward the cook fire. “I’m going to check on the food.”
Both firebenders watched her hurry away to check her cooking. Iroh turned to face Zuko, smiling congenially. Zuko eyed him suspiciously, his whole posture tense. Iroh shifted, the grimace of pain flashing across his face making Zuko worry. “Uncle—”
“I’m fine, Zuko. It merely stings,” Iroh soothed.
Zuko frowned. “Should you be up?”
The older firebender grunted, but moved onto a different topic. One he was much more interested in. Gesturing towards Katara, he asked, “Nephew, how did you come to be accompanied by this beautiful young woman?”
Zuko stared, unable to form a coherent sentence, his eyes darting from his uncle to Katara. Iroh watched in amusement, enjoying the picture of his serious nephew squirming like a schoolboy. He didn’t miss the flush on Katara’s cheeks either as he goaded Zuko though she tried to pretend she hadn’t heard anything. Katara scooped up two servings of the rice porridge, handing them to Zuko and Iroh. Iroh took the bowl with a smile of thanks, commenting, “She appears to be Water Tribe.” He paused, nudging Zuko with his elbow. “You must compliment her more often if you want her to stay.”
“Uncle!” Zuko shouted, his face blushing a bright red as he fumbled with the bowl.
Katara laughed, returning to the fire to get her own portion before seating herself nearby. Iroh chuckled cheerfully. “My nephew is shy, Miss Katara. You must be patient with him.” He winked at her. “Come, you must tell me all about yourself; how you met my nephew and—”
His words broke off abruptly and his eyes narrowed at her hand. A frown of disapproval landed on Zuko, but he spoke to Katara, “And why you appear to be wearing a slave ring.”
Katara immediately tucked her hand out of sight, ducking her head. Zuko scrambled for an explanation, his words coming out in a rush, “It’s not what you think, Uncle.”
“I don’t know what to think, son.”
The story spilled forth in a torrent of words. Zuko’s time alone, the port town where he found—and purchased—Katara, the Foggy Swamp and the swampbenders, the Plain’s Village and their betrayal, and finally Tu Zin and Katara’s healing. When Zuko’s flood of words ceased, Iroh could only look between the two teenagers in surprise. The meal was long over and Katara had cleaned up their dishes and settled down next to Zuko. Iroh sat back, sighing deeply. “Well.”
He said nothing for several more seconds before motioning for Katara to come closer. “Let me see this ring, Miss.”
Katara held out her hand, watching as Iroh carefully examined the ring, giving it a gentle tug. He stroked his beard in thought before smiling up at her. “Not to worry, Miss Katara, we’ll find a way to remove it. We should probably head to a refugee camp for now.”
Zuko grunted, folding his arms, but Iroh didn’t seem fazed by his nephew’s frown, merely patting Katara’s hand. “We are fortunate to have twice escaped Azula’s grasp with relative ease. I do not think a third time would be as easy.”
The three of them fell into a comfortable rhythm. Iroh spent most of the days resting, the wound in his chest pulling painfully when he moved. Katara did three healings a day, checking for any lingering internal injuries and soothing the deep burn as best she could. She was disappointed she would not be able to heal the wound without a scar, but Iroh had simply laughed, brushing off her concerns and saying, “Scars make a man distinguished. The ladies love them.”
Zuko scoffed at that, drawing his uncle’s attention. Katara caught the twinkle of mischief in Iroh’s eyes as he grinned at his nephew. “To walk through life without a blemish simply means one has not truly lived.” He paused, looking thoughtful. A moment later a serene smiled appeared on his face. “Everyone loves a rebel, is that not so, Miss Katara?”
He gave her an exaggerated wink. Color flooded across Zuko’s cheeks and he quickly made an excuse to leave, desperately ignoring Katara’s giggle. Katara returned to changing Iroh’s bandages and Iroh watched her silently for several minutes. Katara liked Zuko’s uncle. He didn’t have the serious, desperation so often present in Zuko’s expressions and actions. Katara tucked the end of the bandages into place, stepping back to survey her work with a pleased nod. “That should do it for a while. I’d like to look at it again tonight. Are you still feeling pain?”
Iroh pulled on his tunic with far more ease than he’d done in the past few days, patting the seat next to him. “You are far too young to be worrying about such things, my dear.”
Katara’s lips pursed and Iroh laughed. “Don’t give me that look, Miss Katara. I have no complaints about your healing. You have a marvelous ability.”
She flushed under the praise. “Thank you.”
Iroh smiled at her before glancing in the direction Zuko had taken. “I hope you have enough food in your pack to feed all of us. Zuko’s previous hunting attempts rarely had desirable results.”
He caught her look of surprise and lifted an enquiring eyebrow. “Oh, it’s just that the Swamp Tribe took Zuko hunting and trapping while I was learning waterbending. I’m sure he’ll find something.”
“Good,” Iroh said, looking pleased. “I must say, I have never seen my nephew so at ease with himself.”
“Was he always so,” she trailed off uncertainly, gesturing vaguely as she tried to finish her sentence, and Iroh laughed.
“No. He was much like any other young boy. Full of hopes and dreams. He has a lot of his mother in him.” He leveled Katara with a look. “That is a good thing, I think.”
She smiled, leaning back to gaze up at the sky as she tried to picture a young Zuko. A giggle escaped as she imaged the serious firebender getting into the kind of mischief her brother seemed to have a knack for finding. “What was she like? The Fire Lady?”
“Ah, how curious,” Iroh mused. “You know our secret. Where are you from, Miss Katara?”
Thrown by the sudden question, it took a moment for her to respond, “The Southern Water Tribe.”
A look of surprise and then deep sadness cross his weathered face. He considered her for a long, silent moment before he released a weary sigh. “I did not think there were any waterbenders…in the Southern Tribes.”
Katara looked away, gently touching her necklace. She was grateful to have the necklace back and was glad that Zuko had kept it all this time. She wondered why. “I am the only one. The others were taken when I was very young.”
Iroh let a moment pass in respectful silence, folding his arms into his sleeves and closing his eyes. When Katara said no more, Iroh mused quietly, “Sounds like a legend. The Exile and the Last Waterbender.”
Iroh chuckled at the look of confusion on her face. “Would you prefer it: The Last Waterbender and the Exile?”
Her brow furrowed. “Exile?”
Instead of answering, Iroh veered back to her original question. “The Lady Ursa was a quiet, gentle woman though there was a strength about her that no one could deny. The court life was difficult for her. Many in the court are like the white jade bush.” He paused to see if Katara was still listening. “The white jade bush looks like the white dragon bush except it is poisonous. Lady Ursa’s kindness made her an ideal Fire Lady, but it was the same kindness that too many tried to destroy and alas, she never got the opportunity to guide my brother.
“She loved her children. Her pregnancy with Zuko was a difficult one and his birth nearly killed them both. It was fortunate that one of the,” he paused and Katara got the distinct impression that he was uncomfortable. “One of the servants was a waterbender—from the Northern Tribes—and she managed to save both Lady Ursa and Zuko. Both of them were sickly for weeks. Zuko more than Lady Ursa. The Fire Sages didn’t believe he would live a month.
“Ozai detested the child. Dismissing Zuko as weak even then. Azula’s birth two years later was everything Zuko’s was not. Lady Ursa loved both her children and would do anything for them, but Azula is very much her father’s daughter.”
He fell silent and Katara mulled over his words. “What happened to her?”
Iroh heaved a tired sigh. “I cannot say. When I returned, my brother had taken my place on the throne and the Lady Ursa was gone. I’d heard rumors of betrayal and murder but no one would speak of it directly. My brother is not a kind man.”
They were interrupted by Zuko stumbling out of the woods holding some kind of rabbit in one hand. He righted himself quickly when he saw them watching. Iroh chuckled quietly, whispering to Katara, “He’s never been the most coordinated of the family.”
A sneeze drew their attention back to Zuko and Katara half rose out of her seat. “Is he all right?”
“I suspect it was because we were talking about him.”
Iroh watched his nephew work for a moment longer before sighing and carefully rising to his feet. He smiled at Katara’s look of concern. “I feel I should rest some.” He paused, putting a hand on her shoulder. “My nephew is lucky to have found you. Be patient with him.”
Iroh slowly made his way back into the cabin and Katara rose and approached Zuko. He glanced up at her quickly, cheeks flushing under her gaze before swiftly moving back to his kill. She helped move away the trimmings and neatly pile the carved portions on a clean stone. They worked quietly until Katara broke the silence; “Did you have trouble?”
She motioned to the rabbit when he looked at her curiously. He shook his head. “No. I was thinking.”
“Oh. Deep thoughts?”
Zuko glanced at the cabin. “Is he all right?”
She nodded. “He’s just resting. It’ll take a while before he’s back to full health.”
He nodded his acceptance, muffling a quiet cough. Katara frowned at him, leaning forward and putting a hand against his head. He flinched back immediately, eyes narrowing suspiciously. “Are you sick, Zuko?”
The firebender snorted, only to sniffle afterward and thereby ruin the effect. “No. I’m fine.”
“You would tell me if you were feeling bad, right?”
Zuko ignored the question, instead sitting back on his heels and awkwardly brushing sweat from his face with his arm. “Do you think he’ll be able to teach me firebending?”
“Your uncle knows more about his limits than I do. You have to ask him.”
Chapter 15: Try Again
“Cease to hear instruction, my son, and you will stray from the words of knowledge.”
— Proverbs 19:27
Katara kept a careful eye on Zuko as he worked around the cottage. She agreed with Iroh. They needed to find a place of refuge soon, but Iroh was still too weak to make the journey across the desert to the walled city of Ba Sing Se. A frown pulled at her mouth. She’d have to start making jerky soon. Raw meat in the desert wouldn’t last long. Iroh sat beside her, quietly amused to find out that Zuko had dragged a battered and dented kettle across so many miles. He was further amused to hear that tea was a regular addition to many of Zuko and Katara’s meals. A quiet cough from the younger firebender had her eyes narrowing and her frown deepening. So involved was she in her thoughts, she nearly missed Iroh saying, “You watch my nephew a great deal, Miss Katara.”
She spun to look at him, blue eyes wide and cheeks heating. “I—”
Iroh set the kettle down on a warm stone by the fire, giving it a friendly tap. “My nephew is a fine looking young man. I’m pleased he doesn’t take after his uncle.” Iroh patted his rotund stomach. “I’m afraid I’ve let myself go since I retired and I’m no longer as young as I used to be. Of course, my brother was the one that received the good looks in my family. And the height. I was always rather short and stocky. Tea?”
Katara didn’t quite know what to make of that and could only accept the cup of tea Iroh passed to her. Her gaze drifted back to Zuko, missing the smile Iroh hid behind his own cup. He let her watch in peace for a moment before speaking again, “Of course he is rather gangly. But most boys are at his age.”
“No, my brother doesn’t look like Zuko.”
Iroh made an encouraging noise in his throat, his words a little too casual. “How so?”
“Zuko—he’s got,” she motioned to the firebender in question and then seemed to realize what she was saying. “Never mind.”
Iroh smiled triumphantly. “My nephew has great strength.”
Katara gasped, tearing her eyes from Zuko and coloring spectacularly. When she continued to appear at a loss for words, Iroh continued blithely, “You are at an age where you begin to notice such things. Zuko has noticed a great deal about you, I’m sure. After all, he too—”
Katara shot to her feet, nearly shouting, “I’m going to do the washing!”
She fled before Iroh could say anything else. Iroh chuckled, calmly sipping his tea and paying no mind to Zuko’s cautious approach. The young man shifted uncertainly on his feet, before asking, “Uncle?”
Iroh breathed in the tea vapors, sighing heavily. “This tea is getting old, Zuko. We will have to stop in the next town and buy more.”
He didn’t have to look up to know Zuko was now sporting a flabbergasted expression. A quick glance through lidded eyes proved him right. Zuko’s expression was rapidly changing from flabbergasted to annoyed and Iroh gave his internal self a smug pat on the shoulder. It was nice that some things didn’t change. Zuko was quickly finding his words and Iroh would have laid down good money on what was coming next.
“We are not going shopping!”
Oh yes, Iroh thought, it was good to be back. “Why not? You could do with a new pair of shoes and a hearty meal.”
“Because last time, we ended up with pirates after us!”
“That was not my fault, Prince Zuko. Besides, you’ve been to town more recently than that.”
Zuko snorted. “Oh, yeah. When I went to buy supplies I ended up with a girl and no food. And the other time they ran us out!”
Iroh set his tea aside, folding his hands into the sleeves of his tunic. “Ah yes, Miss Katara. I must say, I’ve never gone shopping and ended up with a girl instead.”
Zuko’s pale cheeks flared red. “That was your fault!”
“Well, you made an excellent selection. I think she even approves of you. It’s certainly not the normal way one selects a wife—”
“I am not getting married!” Zuko bellowed.
Iroh let the echo of Zuko’s shout fade before calmly allowing, “Very well. But you have to admit, Miss Katara is not unattractive.”
Zuko merely folded his arms and scowled in return.
“If you are feeling ill, you should tell Miss Katara. She worries.”
“I am not sick.”
Iroh lifted an eyebrow skeptically as Zuko muffled another cough and started pacing. After several passes, he stopped in front of his uncle, a look of determination on his face. “Uncle, I’ve been thinking.”
“Excellent,” Iroh exclaimed. “A little bedside manner would do you well.”
Zuko stared, clearly thrown by his uncle’s comment. He opened his mouth to ask what his uncle was talking about, changed his mind, and closed it again. He shook himself, determinedly ignoring Iroh’s genial smile. “No. I was thinking: It’s only a matter of time before I run into Azula again. I’m going to need to know more advanced firebending if I want to stand a chance against her.”
Zuko paused, glancing cautiously at the older firebender. Iroh’s smile had sobered and a worn, tired look replaced it. Zuko jerked his eyes away, running a hand through his hair. “I know what you’re going to say; she’s my sister and I should be trying to get along with her—”
“No,” Iroh interrupted. “She’s crazy and needs to go down.”
Zuko sagged in relief though a part of him was still anxious about his uncle’s decision. He shifted nervously under Iroh’s gaze. Finally, Iroh nodded and rose to his feet. “It’s time to resume your training.”
Katara sat by the fire, watching their dinner simmer quietly as she carefully darned a threadbare tunic. A needle pricked her finger and she scowled, her eyes narrowing at the wounded fingertip in search of blood. In the clearing not far from the cabin, Iroh stood, calling out corrections to a clearly exhausted Zuko. From what she’d heard Iroh say—and Zuko complain about—they were going through the basics and Zuko had fallen into some bad habits. It’d been two days since training had restarted and Katara was fascinated by the similarities as well as the differences. Finally, Iroh seemed pleased with Zuko’s form and they advanced into the more complex forms. Now that the basics were correct, Zuko progressed faster than Katara expected. A glance toward the setting sun showed that Zuko’s training was ending for the day. With that thought she heard Iroh call a halt and give his nephew a few words of encouragement and a few things for him to work on. As always, Zuko grunted in response. Zuko collapsed next to her with a tired sigh and she looked up with a smile. “Are you hungry?”
His head fell back with a groan and his eyes closed. Iroh laughed, easing himself down on a bench. “Perhaps after he’s cleaned up a bit.”
Zuko didn’t move and barely acknowledged his uncle’s subtle hint to bathe. Katara set aside her darning and scooped up the stew and handing it to Iroh. Zuko twitched when she leaned over him. She glanced over him, smiling at Iroh before settling back down and picking up her sewing again. “You look like you’ve improved.”
“Not enough,” he grumbled moodily.
“You are being too hard on yourself, my nephew.”
“Azula’s still better.”
Iroh loudly slurped his soup, exclaiming, “This is delicious, Miss Katara! Zuko, you know it’s rude to show up to dinner in such a deplorable state. You insult Miss Katara’s work.”
Zuko looked up, brow furrowed and scowling at his uncle. He glanced quickly at Katara to find her quickly ducking her head and focusing intently on the garment in her lap. With an annoyed sigh, Zuko lumbered to his feet and stalked off in the direction of the bathhouse. Katara watched until he disappeared around the corner of the cabin, the folded the tunic she’d been working on and placed it to the side. “Is Azula really that much better?”
The retired general sighed sadly. “My niece is exceptionally talented. She has had very talented instructors from a very young age. She is very ambitious and she draws her power from that ambition. I’m afraid that Zuko has been hurt too many times and has come to rely on anger and fear to power his bending.”
Iroh ate quietly and Katara picked at a loose thread in a pair of pants. When Iroh spoke again, she started with surprise. “Zuko is conflicted. He is trying to be something—someone—he is not.” A cough alerted them of Zuko’s return and Iroh frowned. “I am not liking the sound of that.”
Katara nodded. “He says he’s fine, but even if he is sick, I don’t think I can heal illness.”
Zuko rounded the corner, steps faltering when he saw them watching him. He hastily dropped his hand to his side. “What?”
Iroh smiled at him. “You look much better, Zuko. Come, eat Miss Katara’s fabulous stew. You are too thin!”
Zuko took a seat next to his uncle, warily taking the bowl from Katara. Iroh beamed at him before turning to Katara. “Now, what were you saying, my dear?”
She tore her eyes from her study of Zuko to look at Iroh in some confusion. Iroh smiled indulgently, motioning to the pants in Katara’s lap. “You were telling me about the state of our clothing.”
She looked down, alarmed to see that she’d pulled the loose thread enough to create a large hole. “Oh!” she exclaimed, lifting it to take a better look. She could clearly see through the fabric. “I don’t think I can fix these. Most of the clothing isn’t fit to wear again.”
Zuko’s wariness shifted to suspicion when Iroh took the pants from Katara and had a look for himself. A loud rip resulted when he tugged on the fabric. He looked startled at how easily the clothing tore but he recovered quickly and grinned. “It looks like we’ll have to—”
Iroh turned to his nephew in surprise. “You expect a lady to travel without pants?”
Zuko choked on his soup, an embarrassed flush spreading rapidly up his neck and across his cheeks. Iroh waited for the coughing fit to pass, sending a red-faced Katara and sly wink. Zuko recovered enough to gasp hoarsely, “She’s got a skirt—dress—thing.”
“Oh, dear,” Iroh sighed sadly. “Isn’t that skirt covered in blood?”
“Fine! We can go shopping.”
“Excellent! Perhaps I can find a worthy Pai Sho opponent.”
Zuko groaned, but said nothing to contradict his uncle. With a last benign smile, Iroh disappeared into the cabin. Katara tossed aside the torn pants and took a seat next to Zuko. The firebender glanced at her, but returned his focus to his bowl. With a gentle nudge of her shoulder against his, she gained his attention and she smiled. “It’s not so bad, is it?”
Zuko grunted. “He buys all kinds of weird things. He bought a gold monkey before.”
She laughed, leaning against his shoulder. “Well, we don’t have much money any more so we won’t be able to buy much.”
The cabin door suddenly opened again and Iroh stuck his head out, calling, “Miss Katara, I would like to teach you how to play Pai Sho. My nephew is a horrible strategist. Perhaps a pretty competitor will improve his game.”
Katara had learned during her time with Zuko, that firebenders tended to be early risers. Growing up, she was usually up well before Sokka to attend to the morning cook fires with Gran-Gran and the other women. She liked the peaceful beginnings to the day when Gran-Gran and the older women would share stories from when they were young. She had never paid much attention to where the sun was positioned when she rose in the morning. The south pole had periods of time where the sun never set and times when the sun never rose. It wasn’t until she left with Aang that she realized the sun rose and set every day in the rest of the world.
She’d always known Zuko woke before her, but it wasn’t until Uncle Iroh joined them that she realized he woke up before dawn. She woke an hour later to stumble out of the cabin to find that Zuko was well into his bending practice when she knew he usually spent the morning in meditation. Iroh greeted her with a cheerful “Good morning!” and Zuko merely grunted hello. And so the morning progressed like it had for the last week. This morning she noted that both firebenders had decided to forego their tunics. She eyed the bandages that still swathed Iroh’s torso, pleased to see they were still clean. She stopped by the fire, pouring a cup of tea from the battered kettle Iroh had left to warm in the coals. Cradling the cup between her hands, she breathed in the steam and released a contented sigh.
“Miss Katara, we are going to practice bending lightning.”
She turned at Iroh’s call, approaching warily when he motioned for her to come closer. She stopped next to Zuko, glancing up at him and catching his eye when he glanced down at her. A flush rose to his cheeks and he quickly looked away again, frowning at his uncle despite the fact that the older man said nothing. Iroh raised his brow as if he expected something and Zuko finally muttered, “Morning.”
Iroh seemed disappointed with his nephew’s grumble, but said nothing to correct him. He cleared his throat loudly and Katara caught Zuko straightening quickly from the corner of her eye. A quick look showed Zuko watching his uncle intently. Iroh grinned at her and gave her an exaggerated wink before adopting his instructor persona. “There is energy all around us. The energy is both yin and yang; positive energy and negative energy. Only a select few firebenders can separate those energies. This creates and imbalance. The energy wants to restore balance and in a moment the positive and negative energy come crashing back together. You provide release and guidance, creating lightning.”
Katara held her breath as Iroh moved through the motions, energy sparking and arching around him in bright, bluish-white bolts. With a final turn, he released the energy into the sky with a crack. Katara was still staring after the lightning long after it had disappeared into the morning sky, her eyes wide and her mouth dry. Huu had said there were firebenders able to bend lightning, but she’d never really put much thought into how much power there was behind it. Her attention turned from the sky back to the firebenders as Iroh walked Zuko through the movements. Once Iroh was satisfied with Zuko’s form, he gave a few last instructions before gently taking Katara’s arm and guiding her a distance away. “It would be best if you stayed by me, Miss Katara. Lightning is difficult to control even by a master.”
Apprehension settled heavily in her stomach. “Should I leave you alone with Zuko?”
“Oh, no,” he disagreed cheerfully. “I would have had to come find you. It is fortunate we are in the middle of nowhere. No, you are safest right here.”
Zuko was staring in their direction, clearly waiting for instruction. She stopped Iroh when he turned to call to Zuko. “Will he be all right? I mean, he’ll be safe, right?”
He paused, giving her a long, considering look before rubbing his chin thoughtfully. “It is fortunate we have such a talented healer in our company.” At her look of horrified fear he grimaced, hurrying to reassure her. “I don’t think it’ll come to that, Miss Katara. Zuko is stronger than he gives himself credit.”
With that said, Iroh waved and called for Zuko to begin. At first, nothing happened. It looked like he was just practicing the motions again. He reached the end and paused as if expecting something to happen. Several seconds passed without so much as a spark and Zuko straightened with a scowl. Katara started forward but Iroh’s hand on her shoulder brought her to a stop. “Wait until he gives the signal. Fire is a dangerous element.”
Zuko made no signal and instead went back through the motions. When still nothing happened, he repeated the steps several more times, each time the moves were sharper and angrier. One last time finally produced sparks that snapped and popped erratically. Iroh sighed. “This isn’t going to end well.”
Katara started to question him when Zuko entered the last form and a loud explosion knocked Zuko off his feet. Smoke filled the air where Zuko had been standing. Katara didn’t wait for Iroh’s okay to approach and quickly hurried forward. “Zuko!”
Iroh followed at a more sedate pace. Katara covered half the distance to Zuko when he angrily got to his feet, muttering curses. Soot covered his front and streaked across his cheeks. Zuko didn’t seem to notice and Katara slowed her approach just in case he started firebending his anger. He didn’t appear injured, but she felt she had to ask. “Are you all right?”
He jerked, realizing they had approached, but ignored her question. Instead, he caught sight of Iroh and exploded in a flood of frustration. “Why can’t I do it? Instead of lightning, it keeps exploding in my face! Like everything always does!”
Katara drew back in surprise, glancing back at the other firebender for a clue on how to deal with the situation. Iroh had donned his tunic again and her folded his hands into his sleeves, calmly watching Zuko pace angrily. “I was afraid this might happen. You will not be able to master lightning until you have dealt with the turmoil inside you.”
He bristled at those words, snapping defensively, “What turmoil!”
“Zuko, you must let go of your feelings of shame if you want your anger to go away.”
For a brief moment he looked as if Iroh had struck him. He stumbled, wide-eyed and breathing heavily, before he caught himself. “But I don’t feel any shame at all! I’m as proud as ever!”
He stormed off before either Katara or Iroh could say anything else. Iroh sadly watched him go, murmuring, “Oh, dear. That did not go as well as I had hoped.”
“I’ll go after him.”
She was already following Zuko’s path when Iroh called after her, “Perhaps it would be better to leave him alone.”
It took longer than she expected to find Zuko. There weren’t too many places to hide in the area. They were surrounded by desert on one side and the steep sides of rocky mountains on the other. A storm was building on the mountains and her skin itched from the electricity in the air. She found Zuko at the base of the mountains, picking his way over the rough terrain and still as angry as he’d been when he’d left. She paused a moment to watch him and spared a brief thought to wonder what he was thinking when she saw him glance toward the mountain’s peak. A low rumble of thunder reached them and she suddenly realized what he must be thinking. She frowned. Learning to bend lightning in a storm would be like her learning to waterbend in a typhoon. “Zuko? Are you okay?”
He ignored her, making slow but determined progress up the face of the mountain. She followed, keeping an eye on the clouds as they grew steadily darker. Thunder rolled again and wind picked up, bringing the taste of rain with it. When she stumbled over loose rocks for the third time, she decided they were not going to climb the mountain in a storm. “Zuko—”
She’d apparently broken his concentration because as soon as she spoke, his hold on a protruding boulder slipped and he fell back, crashing into her and sending them both tumbling down the steep, rocky path. It was definitely faster going down then climbing up and they landed in a battered heap back where they started. They gasped for breath, filling winded lungs and each testing limbs for broken bones. Zuko rolled off of her—cradling a sprained wrist and nursing a few scratches and bruises—sitting in dejected silence while Katara examined her own bumps and bruises. She quickly healed her own scratches and then turned to Zuko. He didn’t respond as she tended to him, hardly flinching when she poked at his sprained wrist.
“Really, Zuko, we’re lucky we didn’t break our heads open.”
His shoulders slumped and he watched her fingers dance over his injured wrist, following the hidden flow of blood. She let her hand drop back to her side with a sigh, looking at the top of Zuko’s bowed head. “There’s nothing I can do about the sprain except wrap it when we get back.”
“Why am I so bad at everything?”
She sat back on her heels with a frown. “You’re not bad at everything.”
A snort of derision showed what Zuko thought of that. The wind picked up and brought the beginnings of the storm with it. Rain pattered around them but Zuko didn’t seem to notice, sinking into a sulk. “Yes I am. I hadn’t even passed the basics of firebending when I first met you.”
“And I couldn’t even bend a whip until a month or so ago,” she stated with a shrug, rising to her feet and encouraging him to follow. “Let’s get out of the rain before your cold gets worse.”
He followed with a grumble of: “I’m not sick.”
They found decent shelter under an outcropping of rocks and they sat, leaning against the back wall and watching the rain fall more heavily. Katara shifted closer to Zuko’s side in an effort to ward off the damp chill that followed the storm. They sat in silence until Katara prodded gently, “You’re not as bad as you think you are, Zuko.”
She sat up, pulling on Zuko’s shoulder to turn him toward her, interrupting, “You need to stop comparing yourself to your sister.”
He seemed surprised at her vehemence, but forged ahead in an attempt to explain. “She’s had everything so easy. It’s not fair.”
“No,” she allowed, “it’s not, but just think. Azula has never failed at anything. She just might lose her mind if she did fail.”
They took a moment to ponder that thought before Zuko shuddered. “That’s almost more terrifying.”
Katara laughed, leaning into his shoulder again, slipping her arm around his and holding it close. Thunder echoed among the rocks and the rain picked up so they couldn’t see past the edge of their shelter. Katara let the fall of rain soothe her and she nearly fell into a doze when Zuko cleared his throat, started to speak, changed his mind and fell silent again. She looked up at him and he turned his face so she couldn’t see the scar that covered half his face. A muscle jerked in his jaw and he seemed to make some kind of decision. Still not looking at her, he spoke quietly, “My father—I’ve been banished. I can’t go home until I capture the Avatar.”
Katara frowned darkly, blue eyes narrowing at an unseen point in the distance. Piece of their previous conversations returned to her and she began to put the puzzle together. He hadn’t been home since he was thirteen and that was years ago. Her frown deepened. No one thought the Avatar was still around three years ago. “But until recently that was like chasing smoke. It’s like saying you could return home when it snows in the Fire Nation.”
Zhou’s words, spoken so many months before, echoed in his mind and he couldn’t help the flinch that followed. All this time and they still stung as they had the first time he heard them. Instead of feeling angry, Zuko just felt depressed. Perhaps Zhou was right. Zuko hadn’t even listened to what Katara said, muttering, “It wasn’t impossible.”
Zuko didn’t argue, mulling over his thoughts. Outside their shelter, the storm still raged and Katara wondered if the storm would last all night. She’d rather be in the cabin. There she was protected from the wind and the damp that rode on its wings. She jerked from her thoughts of a cheerfully warm fire when Zuko sighed heavily. “I’m a failure and a disgrace to my father. I just wanted…”
He trailed off and Katara felt her heart squeeze. No wonder he seemed to expect rejection with everyone he met. But this was Zuko’s father. Surely a father wouldn’t treat his son that way. “That sounds like a lie someone told you.”
The words sounded weak even to her ears and Zuko simply shrugged a shoulder, his face still averted. Katara frowned at herself. She was doing a rotten job of cheering up a depressed firebender. Maybe she should’ve listened to Iroh and stayed behind until Zuko worked out his angst. She immediately felt guilty for the thought. If she hadn’t followed he’d probably be doing something stupid, like standing on the top of a mountain screaming for death. The storm seemed to wearing itself out when Katara spoke again, “Is your uncle banished too?”
“Uncle? No, he,” he stopped with a frown and shrugged.
“Your uncle loves you, Zuko,” she reminded him, “and you’ve never lost your honor.”
He turned to her, clearly startled by the conviction in her words though it was still apparent he didn’t believe her. “You—”
He stopped, not sure of what he was about to say and Katara smiled at him, prodding his shoulder. “I think I would know. There’s no shame in struggling to achieve something. It makes the success that much more earned.”
Zuko swallowed thickly, eyes darting out to the now drizzle that followed the storm. Katara lifted a hand, hesitating only a moment before slipping a hand over his shoulders and pulling him into an awkward hug. It was brief and tense and she pulled away to meet his eyes, saying firmly, “Never be ashamed of who you are.”
They waited until the rain finally stopped before they left their shelter and made their way back to the cabin where Iroh waited. Katara saw the relief that spread across the retired general’s face even if Zuko didn’t seem to notice and she returned the smile. He enveloped his nephew in a welcoming hug, murmuring something too low for Katara to hear. Zuko nodded in response and Iroh grinned, announcing cheerfully, “I have another idea. I will teach you a firebending move that even Azula doesn’t know, because I made it up myself!”