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."