"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.
"Yer 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 'e yers?"
Katara could feel warmth fill her cheeks. "Mine?"
Nu nodded impatiently as if she were annoyed that Katara was being intentionally dense. "Th' one ya take to th' 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."
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.