Recognizable quotes come from the episode The Swamp.
"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."