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. She stumbled to her feet. 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 what 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. She surfaced with a gasp, 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 is waterbending, 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?"