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 other side 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.
"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.