Zuko hesitated only a moment after the words left his mouth before he turned and walked away. Katara's cheeks heated, her blush deepening when pale eyes turned to her in surprise. As soon as he was out of earshot, several of the girls crowded around her, speaking excitedly, "He singled you out! What are you going to do?"
Katara turned in an attempt to hide her blushing cheeks. "Nothing."
The girls were shocked, gasping in horrified disbelief. "Nothing? Why?"
"He doesn't view me like that." She caught sight of their skeptical looks and quickly added, "And I'm not interested."
Nu snorted. "Like I believe that pack o' lies."
Katara hadn't heard Nu approach and startled. "W-what?"
The older girl rolled her eyes, jutting out a hip and placing one hand on it, waving the other absently as she spoke, "I seen the way ya look at 'im an' Tien 'ere has sashayed pas' 'im with naught but a skirt and scarf t' cover 'er and 'e barely glanced."
The girls turned to Tien with varying expressions of awe and disapproval. Tien blushed even as her chin rose defiantly, "I ain't done nothin' wrong."
"Lan said t' leave that firebreather alone, Tien, 'e belongs t' Katara."
They turned to Katara for confirmation.
"Lee's not mine," she squeaked.
"See? 'e's fair game. I—"
"He declared Intent—"
Tien frowned mutinously. "She don't want 'im. That's over."
Nu frowned in return. "No, jus' now 'e renewed Intent."
Lan bustled into the group, interrupting what was turning into an argument. "Enough, enough. Huu says the rains a'comin' so we bes' be off. Tien, leave that boy alone. 'e don' wan' ya."
Tien scowled, shooting Katara a dark look. "But why? 'e's lookin' fer a wife an' she ain't doin' nothin'."
"Don't be a hussy, girl."
"I'm more of a woman than she is. She's nothin' but a girl."
Katara flushed, folding her arms across her chest self-consciously. The older woman snorted. "Per'aps, but there be other men fer ya. Enough o' that, now."
Lan bundled the girls off to their hammocks, clicking her tongue in disapproval when the girls protested. Thunder rumbled in the distance and the smell of rain hung heavy in the air. The reed mats were lowered around the hut, creating thin walls to block the windswept rain. Katara wrapped the thin blanket around herself as she huddled in her hammock. She stared unseeing at the reed mat as it quivered against the wind. The rain wasn't falling yet, but she could sense it drawing closer. She felt cold. It was with some surprise when quiet footsteps approached and then another body joined her in her hammock. A quick glance over her shoulder revealed Nu pressed in behind her.
"What are you doing?"
With some effort, Katara turned over in the hammock. Now facing Nu, the older girl gave Katara a long, searching look. "Y'ain't been sleepin'."
Nu reached over and tugged gently on Katara's short hair. "T'ain't nothin'. Ya have nightmares." She smiled gently at Katara's shocked expression. "I 'ear 'em. Ya used t' call out fer yer da, yer brother, even that Avatar kid."
Katara swallowed nervously. "Used to?"
"Yep. Now ya call fer some guy named Zuko or somethin'."
Katara groaned, covering her face with her hands. Nu waited quietly before speaking again, keeping her voice low, "Lee ain't 'is real name, is it?"
The word whispered out from between her hands, barely audible. Nu pulled her hands down, leaning in with a devious whisper, "I won't tell if ya want t' sneak o'er. Ya can take 'em for a test ride. Put 'em through 'is paces."
The older girl shush her quickly, laughing quietly at Katara's fiery blush.
"I would never—"
"Course ya wouldn't! Ya do need t' sleep though. I ain't stupid. Ya shared a bed before ya came 'ere."
"Not like that," Katara muttered.
Nu raised an eyebrow. "Disappointed?"
Katara glared. "Is that all you think about?"
"Course not, but the rains are 'ere and there ain't nothin' else t'do." Nu rolled out of the hammock, stopping the gentle swing and looking down at Katara. "Think 'bout it. 'E gets up early. Ya can sneak out an' back b'fore anyone wakes."
Katara watched as Nu fell into her own hammock, waving off the calls of the other girls to join them in their gossip. Katara curled further into the thin blanket, suddenly aware of the sound of rain beating against the thatched roof. The sound was soothing but she knew she wasn't going to sleep. Or at least she wasn't going to sleep well. The weeks after Zuko rescued her from the auction stage she'd gotten used to his comforting presence. He kept the nightmares at bay. A shiver moved down her spine and she squeezed her eyes shut. The swamp was too close to the Spirit World.
The girls eventually drifted to bed and Katara listened as the beat of rain drops lulled them to a peaceful sleep. With cautious movements, Katara rolled out of her hammock and crept out of the hut. Perhaps Nu was right. She wasn't getting any sleep in her own hammock and Zuko would be awake long before the rest of the village.
Zuko stared at the thatched ceiling, listening to the steady beat of rain against the reeds. The swamp people hadn't been lying when they said the rains were coming. Now the entire village would soon be flooded and each hut would be like a tiny island. His thoughts were troubled and it wasn't about the coming flood to the village. None of the villagers seemed concerned so he put the thought from his mind despite the feeling of unease that hung over him. No, his thoughts dwelled on the reaction he had to a certain blue-eyed waterbender. He huffed a sigh, a slight frown pulling at his thoughts. What ever had possessed him to say good-night to Katara? He knew what the customs of the swamp were yet he still did it. His eyes closed, brow furrowing. He was being stupid.
The firebender's eyes snapped open and shifted upright, fire blooming in his palm. Gold eyes reflected the warm light and Katara hesitated, glancing over her shoulder at the empty compound. Zuko frowned, swinging his legs over the edge of the hanging bed and stilling the gentle rocking his motion caused. "Katara?"
She startled, quickly stepping into the dim interior and letting the reed mat fall shut as she nervously patted at her clothing. "I—I couldn't sleep."
Zuko shifted, giving her an unspoken welcome. "You know what it means if they find you here."
Relief flooded through her and she quickly crossed the small hut to the swinging bed. "You wake before dawn, just make sure you push me out the door by then."
He grunted, carefully moved to the other side of the bed, keeping the small flame aloft. "I really don't want to get married in a swamp."
She laughed, crawling onto the swinging bed next to him. "It's not really ideal."
Something in him ease somewhat as he watched her settle down next to him, a contented sigh escaping her and her eyes closed. Without opening her eyes, she reached out and tugged on his arm. He scooted closer to her, his heart skipping as she threw her arm over his bare chest and snuggled into him. She was here, with him, but still he couldn't forget the words of Boa and Due. "What did he want?"
Blue eyes opened, looking up at him in confusion. "Who?"
His teeth clenched. The who should have been obvious. "Tho."
Confusion cleared and a blush rose on her cheeks instead. Her eyes fell away from his to a point somewhere in the darkness over his shoulder. "Oh, nothing."
So, Due was right. Tho had asked her, not that it was any of Zuko's business. Katara could do whatever she wanted. Zuko's lips thinned. With whomever she wanted. He didn't care. That still didn't stop the words that spilled from his mouth, "He's too old for you."
Katara shrugged, pushing chin-length hair behind her ears. "The older men usually marry younger women in the tribes."
Zuko pulled a face.
She rolled her eyes, poking his side. "Older men offer more stability. More security."
He moved away from her fingers, eyes narrowed and the flame in his hand flared for a moment before he took a steadying breath. "So Tho is a good match."
Katara lifted herself onto her elbows, speaking slowly, "In a manner of speaking—"
"Did he ask you to spend the night with him?" he cut her off, probably a little more harshly than he intended.
She flinched, sitting up and looking down at him incredulously. "Zuko—"
She was hiding something, he could tell. He jerked away from her hand, scowling fiercely and demanding, "Did he?"
Her blush darkened even as her own eyes flashed with anger. "It was nothing like that."
"Then what did he want?"
She shoved him away, throwing back the thin blankets and launching herself from the bed. She smacked his hand away when he made a grab for her. "He was congratulating me on the fine work my intended had done on the huts. I told him he was mistaken."
She spun away, marching to the reed mat. Zuko scrambled after her, nearly falling on his face as he sprang from the bed. He grabbed her hand, holding tight when she tried to yank it away. "Wait."
They were nearly shouting and Zuko had an absent hope that they couldn't be heard over the rain and thunder. The flame in his palm puffed out as he lacked the concentration to maintain it, but not before flashing blue eyes turned toward him. "Why do you even care?"
"Because you're mine!"
Thunder rolled ominously overhead and in the next lightening flash Zuko caught sight of her drop jawed astonishment. The speechless astonishment didn't last long and Katara yanked on her hand harder. "Is that what this is about? Your little slave might run off with another man?"
"No! That's not—"
Zuko sputtered into silence. He didn't even know what he meant. A frosty silence fell over them, punctuated only by the sound of rain and the rumble of thunder. He heard her sigh softly and her fingers moved as if testing his hold. "Maybe I should go."
She hadn't moved but Zuko tugged on her hand, pulling her a step closer. "Don't. It's raining."
It was a stupid thing to say to a waterbender and Katara seemed to agree, if her soft snort was anything to go by. Zuko held his breath. He hadn't apologized. He wasn't even sure what he should apologize for, but the feeling that he'd done or said something wrong nagged at him. Katara took a voluntary step toward the bed. "Fine."
They climbed back into bed in silence, settling back beneath the thin blankets without touching. Katara shifted slightly, drawing Zuko's attention. In the next flash of lightening he could see her back turned to him. He released a weary sigh, eyes turning to stare at the darkened ceiling. Whatever they had was gone now and for some reason it hurt. Katara shifted again and a hand landed on his arm.
"Can I ask a question?"
She ignored his smart remark, moving closer when he didn't push her away. "The firebenders before. On the road."
She hesitated and he could almost see her biting her lip as she tried to word her question just right. It took him a moment to remember which firebenders she would be talking about and then the memory came to him. The guards patrolling the road, them shouting for him to stop, escaping into the woods. Zuko tried to stop himself from tensing. "What about them?"
She waited for another rumble of thunder and flash of light. "They called you the Fire Prince."
So she had heard. He'd hoped she was still out of it enough to have missed that. Not that it mattered really. She hated him anyway. It was a statement anyway. She was seeking confirmation. Apparently running away was solving nothing. He should have stayed with Uncle. "Yes."
She said nothing, but he could feel her eyes on him, even in the dark. She was waiting for an explanation. One he didn't want to give but couldn't avoid now that the truth was out. He was back to having only one person in the world that didn't hate the sight or thought of him. He pressed the heels of his hands to his eyes, ignoring Katara as she settled along his side, resting her cheek on his chest. He did not want to talk about this. He didn't want to think about it. Taking a deep breath, he spoke lowly, "My father is Fire Lord Ozai. I am—was his heir."
He felt her draw a quick breath, but she didn't move away. They were silent, each lost to their own thoughts before Katara spoke, her voice quiet, "Was?"
He sighed. "It's complicated."
He felt her nod and he was grateful that she let the explanation stand and she didn't push for me. The darkness pressed comfortably around them and Zuko let one of his hands fall to rest against her back. Her back rose in a quiet sigh. "This is taking longer than I thought."
He frowned at the darkness. He didn't know why she was so discouraged. She was learning remarkably fast. "It took me ten years to master the basics."
Her head jerked up and he could feel blue eyes peering at him. "What?"
Zuko avoided looking at her, keeping his eyes on the thatched ceiling as he absently twisted a curl around his fingers. Katara waited, biting her lip to keep from prodding more. With a soft sigh, Zuko spoke, "I've had a bending master since it was confirmed I could bend. I was a failure."
Katara took a moment to ponder this new information, her fingers tapping at his side. "You're an excellent bender now."
Gold eyes flashed down at her and he could see the sincerity in her expression with the next flash of light. They stared at each other in silence until Zuko grunted and turned his face away, closing his eyes. He didn't believe her, but for the sake of closing the discussion, conceded, "Sure."
Zuko woke slowly the next morning to find himself curled comfortably around Katara, his hands in places they probably shouldn't be. Carefully extracting them and putting them in less compromising places he relaxed and let his body wake gradually. Gray light filtered through the slats near the ceiling and he could still hear the steady sound of rain. Katara remained blissfully asleep, her lips parted and her breathing soft and steady. He watched her for several long minutes before he remembered what it would mean if she was found with him. With a gentle nudge, he whispered, "Wake up."
She groaned, rolling over and pressing her face to his chest with a tired yawn and then didn't move. He ignored the blush that heated his cheeks. "You should go before the others wake up."
Her arms tightened around him, grumbling, "Five more minutes."
"You know you can't."
Bleary blue eyes peeked up at him, a pout pulling at her lips. "You're mean."
Warmth flooded through him and he pulled away from her sleep-warmed body. "Go sleep in your hammock. I'm going to meditate."
He carefully crawled over her and she turned over to watch him stretch while she stifled a yawn. "In the rain?"
He glanced towards the door, shaking his head. "No, I'll stay here."
She nodded, tumbling out of the bed, giving the firebender a sleepy hug as she walked past him. The effort to bend the rainwater off of her woke her up a little but she was still taken by surprise when she stumbled into the hut she shared with the other girls to come face-to-face with an irate Lan. Katara pulled up sharply, blinking dumbly as the shorter woman huffed, her eyes narrowing. "Jus' where 'ave ya been?"
Words fled her in her sleepy state and for a moment Katara could do nothing but stare. "Uh...bathroom."
Lan's lips tightened. "All night?"
Katara winced internally as her answer came out more like a question. Pale green eyes scanned her with a shrewd gaze before she grunted, "If I knew yer mother—Very well, girl, git yerself dressed. Huu wants t' finish yer trainin'."
Nu met her at her hammock wincing apologetically and glancing to make sure Lan was a safe distance away before whispering, "If it 'ad been anyone else, Lan would 'ave turned the hut upside down."
Katara glanced at the other hammocks, relieved that the others appeared to be still asleep. "I overslept."
Nu gave her an odd look. "It's not quite sunrise. Bet she were keepin' an eye out fer ya."
Katara hoped her blush wasn't obvious as hurriedly pulled on the green skirt and quickly tightened her breast bindings. Nu quietly handed over a loose shirt and gave her a sweeping look. Lan bustled over, narrowing her eyes at the older girl and taking Katara's arm. "Come along, girl. Can't keep Huu awaitin'."
A last sheepish glance over her shoulder at Nu was the only thing she had time for before Lan ushered her out of the hut. A quick tromp through the drizzle of rain and mud of the village brought them to a large, open air hut. Several men waited for them and Huu grinned in greeting, motioning to take a seat across from him. Lan shot Zuko a dark look, satisfied when he shrank away from her. His action prompted a few raised eyebrows but no one said anything. Huu seemed oblivious to the tension, smiling easily as he spoke, "Good morning, Katara."
Katara gave him a small smile and Lan huffed. "Keep an eye on that one."
Huu glanced at Zuko, but only shrugged. "Lee is welcome to our lessons. His bendin' ain't much good in the rain"
Zuko glowered, saying nothing. Lan cast the firebender a suspicious look before, with a firm nod, she left them. Katara waited quietly, watching as Huu shifted to glance at Tho, Due, and Zuko. A smile crossed his lips. "The Avatar sought balance in the swamp. He sought answers—"
Katara perked up, intrigued. "Did he find them?"
Amusement crinkled at the corners of his eyes and he glanced at Zuko. "So similar. I did not want to talk about the Avatar. It is true 'e is the bridge between us and the Spirit World, but 'e cannot achieve balance and peace alone."
"But, he's the Avatar!"
Pale green eyes looked at her searchingly and Katara felt a sense of disappointment in his gaze. She dropped her eyes, darting a quick glance at Zuko to find him frowning at nothing. Huu cleared his throat, drawing her attention again. "You place a heavy burden on one so young." He shook himself, continuing before she could respond, "We are all connected. We balance each other."
He shifted to indicate the thick vines that wound around the tree near the hut, apparently moving away from any further discussion of Aang. "There's water in these vines, if you bend the water, you bend the plant."
Huu demonstrated, weaving the plant through the hut before motioning for Katara to try. Zuko frowned, watching as Katara experimentally bent water she couldn't see. "Couldn't you bend blood then?"
A tense silence fell over the Foggy Swamp men and Katara stilled, blue eyes wide. The swampbenders exchanged glances and Huu cleared his throat. "In theory. Blood moves fast through the body. It is nearly impossible to catch. Our healers can mend the wound of the flesh because the blood slows and pools."
"But it's possible."
Huu hesitated, choosing his words with careful deliberation. "Yes. There's legend of a great healer that could heal all things unseen."
Katara turned, curious. "Unseen?"
Huu nodded. "The bleeding cough, the wasting sickness, among other things."
Huu shrugged. "Some say magic. Others say blood bending."
Tho grunted, his eyes narrowing suspiciously. "Why the interest fire-breather?"
Zuko scowled at the name. "Curious. I—it's nothing."
Huu shrugged at the looks from the other swampbenders, returning to Katara's lesson. "Fire-breathers have the ability to make lightning."
"Not all of them," Zuko grumbled sullenly.
Amusement flickered across Huu's face. "Yer unbalanced, fire-breather."
Zuko shot to his feet with an indignant cry. "I am not!"
Zuko's blustering was ignored and he stalked out into the rain, leaving Katara to her lesson. Huu watched him go in amusement. "What ya must know is that lightning is lazy and takes the easiest path. Ya must not let it touch ya."
Katara watched the firebender leave with a frown, catching the smug smirks passed between Tho and Due from the corner of her eye. Suspicion gnawed at her and she wondered what had been discussed before she arrived. Zuko seemed more on edge than usual. She pushed the thought away, determined to think on it later and instead concentrated on what Huu just told her. "So, dodge."
"Aye. If you can."
Late that night Katara crawled into bed with Zuko, pressing against his side an hoping he wouldn't notice her shivers. A minute passed before Zuko shifted, his hand coming up to lightly touch her hair. A small flame flicked in his his other hand, casting the hut in a soft glow. Bleary gold eyes looked down at her, his voice thick with sleep. "Katara?"
She flinched, blue eyes looking up at him but she didn't move. His head fell back and he let the flame snuff out. They lay in silence, listening to the patter of rain on the thatched roof above them. Several minutes passed and Katara could feel Zuko drifting into sleep once more. She sighed, moving to look up at Zuko in the darkness. Her movement brought him back from the edge of sleep and she whispered, "Do you have nightmares?"
She felt him tense next to her and his eyes opened to lock on her. A soft breath escaped him before he allowed a quiet, "Yes."
He hesitated before admitting, "Almost every night."
Zuko grunted his annoyance, rolling away from her. "Nothing."
Katara shuddered, huddling under the blanket. "I think the spirits are angry with me."
A heavy silence fell over them before Zuko moved again, twisting to look back at her. "What?"
"The spirits. I think they're angry. They visit my dreams."
Zuko propped himself up on his elbow. "Is it what you saw in the swamp?"
"It's not your fault."
"It's just a nightmare."
Katara fell silent, pressing her face to the thin blanket. When she finally spoke, her voice was muffled. "Dream mean something in my tribe."
"Not all of them," Zuko allowed.
"How do you know?"
His hand moved softly over her hair before dropping to the space between them. "Everyone would be a shaman then."
Huu let the water drop back to the ground, a smile blooming on his face. "I have taught you everything I know."
Katara stared at the river in confusion, turning to look at Huu before glancing at the others. "I'm done?"
"Yer a master."
Excitement exploded through her, escaping in a squeal as she threw her arms around the swampbender. Tho and Due patted her back, exclamations of congratulations flowing over her.
"What's going on?"
Katara pulled away from the swampbenders, turning to Zuko. Her smile sparked. "Lee! I did it!"
Zuko caught her as she leapt at him. His arms closed around her on reflex. The swampbenders grinned at him and he scowled back in response. "Did what?"
"Katara has mastered everythin' I can teach her."
Katara pulled away, grinning broadly. "I'm a waterbending master, Lee."
He stared down at her in confusion. "A master?"
It was Huu that responded, pride clearly coloring his words, "Aye. I 'ave never seen anythin' like it."
Katara saw his expression shift and heard the emotion beneath his words. "A prodigy."
Huu laughed. "Aye."
Her smile dimmed. "Lee? Are you all right?"
"No," he shook his head. "I mean, yes, I'm fine."
He could tell she didn't believe him. She looked on the verge of pushing, but changed her mind. "We can leave now."
She smiled at his astonishment, nodding. "Yes, as soon as we pack and get some supplies."
The relief in his expression was unmistakeable and Katara laughed, tightening her arms around him and dropping her voice to a whisper, "Zuko?"
The firebender grunted.