Recognizable quotes from episode Zuko Alone. Song is a tradition Irish drinking song called The Moonshiner.
Zuko wasn't given the option to decline and Boa filled his cup again, the liquid sloshing over the sides as Boa's unsteady hand poured. Another toast was raised and everyone drank heartily. The firebender dutifully drank to the toast, forcing back the urge to cough and hoping his eyes weren't watering.
"What is this stuff?" he gasped.
Boa threw an arm over Zuko's shoulders—Zuko trying not to cringe away—and laughed, "Moonshine!"
Cups were again raised in a salute to the drink and several burst into song, swinging their cups along with the beat:
"I'm a rambler, I'm a gambler, I'm a long way from home
And if you don't like me, well leave me alone!
I'll eat when I'm hungry, I'll drink when I'm dry,
And the moonshine don't kill me, I'll live till I die!" *
The song continued, growing more boisterous the longer it went on. Another cheer followed the final verse and they dissolved into laughter. Boa grinned at Zuko. "It's a shame ya ne'er married."
Boa's comment drew chuckles from the men seated nearby and several elbow jabs. Trai slapped him on the shoulder. "She's a fine lookin' gal, Lee. I migh' fancy 'er meself."
Several others chorused agreement and even Boa nodded solemnly. Zuko's cheeks filled with heat but Boa was already musing on other thoughts. "Ya would 'ave been welcomed in th' tribe."
Wide, gold eyes swung toward the older man, disbelief clear in them. As far as he could remember, he wasn't welcomed anywhere and the initial greeting in the swamp was much the same. "What?"
"Yer a handy man to 'ave 'round, fire-breather," Boa said solemnly, the effect ruined by the drunken grin on his face.
Trai agreed. "Keep th' cook fires goin'."
The men roared with laughter. Conversation circled around to women again and Trai nudged Zuko with a knowing smile. "She ever spend th' nigh' wit' ya?"
Zuko sputtered, choking on the drink he'd just taken, gulping it down hurriedly. Tears immediately sprang to his eyes as the moonshine burned a path to his stomach. "No!"
Eyebrows rose at his vehemence and Boa smirked. "My Nu said she went missin' some nights."
To Zuko's horror, he felt his cheeks flush and he wondered just how many people knew Katara would slip into his bed at night long after everyone had gone to sleep. Trai and Boa exchanged conspiratorial smiles and Trai adopted a thoughtful look. "Ya know, Tien said she tried t' spend th' nigh' wit' ya but ya was busy."
"I was not," Zuko exclaimed.
Trai gave him a pitying look, reaching over and filling Zuko's nearly empty cup again. "Don' worry. She'll come 'round some time."
Zuko jerked away from Boa and Trai, nearly spilling the moonshine as he shot to his feet, his face flushing. "I do not like that—that girl!"
Trai brightened. "So I can 'ave 'er?"
Zuko glared hotly. "No."
"Well, ya can't keep 'er all to yerself! Thas—thas mean."
Zuko whirled around, coming face-to-face with Katara. Several other girls stood behind her grinning as the men hailed them and offered cups of the moonshine. Zuko stared dumbly, ignoring the snickers from Vinh, Boa, and Trai. The girls moved in to accept the cups and settle on the floor to join in the farewell party. Katara smiled uncertainly, shifting to motion behind her. "Huu said he's ready to guide us out of the Swamp."
Boa looped an arm over Zuko's shoulder again, slurring cheerfully, "Yer welcome back any time, Lee! Th' w'men will miss ya!"
Zuko's blush flared and he caught Katara's smirk. Boa seemed to suddenly notice her and blinked owlishly at her before pointing slightly to her right. "An' yer, 'tara, ya need t' work on yer trappin' or 'e's gonna get away."
Katara spluttered, eyes widening with surprise. "My what?"
But Boa was already turning away to engage one of the other swamp men. "I always wondered if'n a fire-breather 'n a wa'erbender had bebies they'd be steam bebies."
Loud guffaws met that statement and quite a few demanded the two benders return to the swamp with their brood in the future. Color flooded Katara's cheeks and a quick glance at Zuko revealed a similar condition. A quickly stifled snort of laughter made her swing her eyes to Nu with a look of betrayal. The older girl grinned, offering an unrepentant shrug of amusement. "Don' take it to heart. Th' men are as bad a gossip as th' women. 'Sides, Boa 'n I are gettin' married soon."
Zuko handed off his cup to someone and hurried out of the hut with barely a glance at Katara. Huu stuck his head in the door a moment later with a smile. "Lee has expressed his desire to leave now."
When Katara finally made her way outside, she found Zuko and Huu standing with a few other older men. Feathers was digging in the mud, clucking happily. Huu smiled when he saw her. "Ah, there ya are, Miss Katara. Come along, we've got 'bout a day's travel t' reach th' other side. A few of the men are coming with us jus' in case we run int' trouble. Spring is an active time for most of the swamp."
She glanced instinctively at Zuko to try and gauge what he thought, but he simply turned to the ostrich horse and checked that the packs were secure. Someone had given him his dao swords back and they were strapped securely across his back. Hai held up a hand to help her down to the barge and she took it gratefully, stepping carefully down the wet steps. "Thank you."
Hai grinned, shooting Zuko a mischievous glance. "'S not a problem, Miss Katara. Ya two be sure t' come back and visit. Per'aps yer'll get married fer real this time?"
Zuko choked, coughing violently and earning several concerned looks from the others; though the ones that heard the comment hid their smiles. Katara laughed, hoping no one would comment on the blush she could feel rising in her cheeks. Thankfully she was saved from responding by another deciding they'd better leave if they were expecting to make good time. Zuko gathered Feather's reins, covering the ostrich horse's eyes to keep the bird calm during the trip by water. Tho took a position by the rudder, while Due and Hai took positions on either side of the barge. They were just preparing to start bending when Boa stumbled out of the hut, Nu close behind him.
"'Ey! We're comin' too!"
Huu shook his head, but Due laughed, calling back, "Yer drunk!"
Boa snorted, slurring back, "Aye! And yer ugly, but ya don' see me complainin'!"
Due laughed and Boa practically tripped onto the barge, prompting a laugh from the other men. Nu stepped on with much more grace, rolling her eyes and helping Boa back to his feet. Boa grinned at her. "Thank ya, love."
She helped him to the center of the barge, making him take a seat before Due and Hai pushed the raft into motion. "I don' know 'ow ya 'spect t' be any help, Boa."
"Ah," Boa sighed. "I couldn't let Lee go wit'out givin' 'im some a'vice!"
The look of terror that crossed Zuko's face would have been comical had Katara not felt the same sense of dread. Nu merely rolled her eyes again. "What kinda 'vice?"
Boa's hand flopped around until Nu took it. "Ya know, w'men a'vice! Kid don' know nothin' 'bout nothin'."
He struggled to his feet, stumbling over to where Zuko stood with the ostrich horse. Nu only gave a rueful shrug of her shoulders before moving to stand next to Katara. The two young women watched as Boa leaned heavily on the ostrich horse and spoke to Zuko. Despite Zuko's clear reluctance to speak to the other man, he didn't brush him off or push him away.
"Ya know," Nu said casually, "'e ain't tha' bad of a guy. Ya take care o' each other, 'kay?"
Katara nodded her agreement and Nu smiled. "Good. Maybe ya can 'elp 'im find hisself."
Three days across the desert and Zuko was wishing for the rains of the swamp. He even found himself wishing for his ship again before remembering how utterly miserable he was when confined to it. The Northern Water Tribes were remembered with wistfulness. The ice channels a distant memory. If it was every cold or wet again, Zuko swore he'd never complain. The sun was brutal and if he could spare a thought, he would curse it. A sigh brushed hotly across his neck and Katara drooped heavily against his back, mumbling, "So hot."
Zuko grunted, adjusting his rice hat to better shade his eyes, and looked around. Three days and they were quickly running out of water in their waterskins. "We need water."
Hot breath danced across his neck as she gave a short, silent laugh. "Nothing around. I haven't felt water for days."
Zuko leaned to the side to look back at her. "How much do we have?"
Blue eyes squinted, a frown tugging at her dry lips. "Not enough."
Zuko nodded grimly, twisting the reins around his hands. Minutes passed in silence except for the near silent thud of the ostrich horse's trot on the sand. Yes, Zuko missed his ship. He missed the ocean. He missed the breeze that came off the water. He missed the smell of the sea. His frown deepened. He never thought he'd miss water so much. Even water he couldn't drink. A sharp gasp from Katara and the sudden tightening of her arms around him jerked him from his thoughts and he immediately scanned their surroundings for danger. A heartbeat later, she croaked, "Water."
His mind moved sluggishly to understand. "Where?"
A hand rose and Zuko ignored the tremor as she pointed slightly to their right. Zuko squinted, trying to see what she was pointing to. "How far?"
Katara grunted, her had dropping as if it were too heavy to hold. "A few hours. Maybe."
She was leaning heavily against him, despite the heat, and she didn't wrap her arm back around him. Zuko scowled. They needed shade. And water. He kicked the ostrich horse into a brisk trot hoping the animal wouldn't collapse. Feather's, too, was beginning to droop in the heat despite the face that the bird's home climate was arid land.
With the occasional input from Katara to adjust direction, they eventually stumbled upon water. The oasis was barely larger than a puddle but it had a rocky out cropping that offered enough shade for the ostrich horse to rest in while Zuko and Katara crawled under the ledge. The firebender quickly slid out of the saddle, shaking Katara back to consciousness. His frown deepened when dazed eyes met his, but he would deny any feelings of concern if anyone were to ask. "Get some water and stay in the shade."
She stumbled as her feet hit the ground and Zuko turned to pull the saddle from the ostrich horse as fast as he could, trying to ignore the trembling of his own hands and blurring vision. He led the horse to the edge of the puddle, letting the beast find its own water. Katara knelt at the puddle, brow furrowed. The puddle looked cloudy, muddy, and unappetizing. Zuko tried to push away feelings of disappointment. "Great. Can we even drink it?"
Tired blue eyes glanced at him. "Waterbender."
Her hands moved and a globe of water rose before them, clear and sparkling. She regarded it critically before holding it out to Zuko. She held it patiently as Zuko stared. He didn't exactly trust her to transfer it to his mouth without trying to drown him. More water slipped through his hands than actually ended up in his mouth and eventually Zuko dug out an empty waterskin. Katara filled it quickly before bending water for herself. The ostrich horse squawked a protest, nosing at the puddle and ruffling distressed feathers. Katara quickly bent an ice trough, filling it with water before she crawled under the overhanging rocks and stretched out with a relieved sigh. Zuko joined her moments later, settling as comfortably as he could on the hard ground and placing his dao swords within easy reach. Katara rolled toward him, half-lidded blue eyes looking at him. Zuko turned his gaze to the ostrich horse pecking at the rapidly melting ice. Nothing moved in the desert beyond and Zuko let his head fall back and his eyes close. "We'll move at sunset."
Katara grunted acknowledgment and let herself drop into a light doze. Hours later she awoke with a shiver to find the sun low on the horizon and Zuko saddling the ostrich horse. He ignored her as she slid out from under the ledge, briskly dusting sand off her clothes. She quickly packed the bedding and gathered up the few loose possessions and carried them out to Zuko. Once everything was packed, Zuko swung into the saddle and Katara climbed on behind him.
The sun sank below the horizon and they traveled in silence, each silently relieved that they were no longer melting under the heat of the sun. A soft breeze picked up close to midnight and Katara shivered, snuggling closer to Zuko's back.
Zuko grunted, trying to ignore the way his heart leapt as Katara tightened her arms around his stomach and pressed close. Her breath puffed warm across the side of his neck as she rested her chin on his shoulder. "I guess the sand doesn't hold the heat long."
He shrugged one shoulder. "It's better than the heat."
A soft snort of amusement sounded close to his ear and raised goose bumps on his arms. "Better for two people."
Thankful for the darkness that hid his heated cheeks, he scoffed, urging the ostrich horse into a brisk trot. She laughed quietly, pressing her mouth against his shoulder to stifle the laugh. The next few minutes passed in silence, the desert sand a pale silver beneath the sliver of a moon that hung over their heads. A slight breeze brought the occasional howl of a pack of coyote bats. Katara shivered again, keeping an eye out for the night creatures.
"Do you know where you're going?"
"Vinh said there was a town in this direction."
Katara absorbed the thought, fingers flexing thoughtlessly at his sides. "You think he's right?"
He sounded uncertain, but Katara nodded, stating confidently, "The desert can't go on forever, right?"
Zuko said nothing. They'd either hit a town or hit the sea so she was right, the desert couldn't go on forever. Close to dawn, Zuko started looking for a place to camp, guiding the ostrich horse to another rocky outcropping. This one had no oasis but there was evidence of an old campfire and the outcropping looked like it had been dug out a bit to accommodate a person or two. Zuko swung out of the saddle, prowling around the area while Katara watched. He poked at the ashes of the fire, squinting in the dim light.
"It's cold," he declared, looking around the area again. "But we must be near a road. The area's used often."
"Great. A town must be nearby."
The firebender grunted, but said nothing else, turning instead to pull sleeping pallets and packs off the ostrich horse. Unperturbed, Katara took her share and headed toward the outcropping, frowning at the sky before making a decision on where to bed angle of the sun as it rose and made its trek across the sky would shine more directly on some areas as opposed to others and Katara didn't want to be forced to move before she had to. The best area wasn't very wide, just enough to fit herself and Zuko as long as they stayed pretty close together. The ostrich horse would have to make do with partial shade. Katara stretched out the sleeping mats, collapsing gratefully onto her own with a sigh, burying her face in her arms. Zuko dropped moodily next to her a few minutes later, scowling out at the road. Propping herself up on her elbows, she looked at him expectantly. When he said nothing and continued to scowl, she turned onto her side and demanded, "What?"
"Something's on your mind."
Zuko's scowl turned on her for a moment, his eyes narrowing to show his annoyance and then he was back to watching the road turn a dusty red-gold in the morning sun. Katara rolled her eyes. She was tired and the rising sun was warming the air nicely; the moody firebender could sulk in silence alone. Looping the strap of her waterskin around her arm, she burrowed into her thin blanket and shut her eyes.
Katara woke near midday to the ostrich horse attempting to catch rock beetles. A quick glance at Zuko revealed the firebender gazing silently at the rough ceiling of their shelter. He was covered in the fine desert dust that seemed to get everywhere no matter what they did. He looked exhausted. Unable to help herself, she spoke, "You need to rest, Zuko."
He rolled away from her, curling on his side and set about ignoring her. She stared at his back for a long moment. Sometimes Katara just did not understand the boy. A loud crunch proved that the ostrich horse was finally successful in catching one of the rock beetles though it appeared that the rest of the insects were staying well out of sight. Feathers was now turning over rocks and digging in the sand in search of something interesting. Katara's stomach rumbled and she rolled away from Zuko, reaching for their packs. Their provisions from the Foggy Swamp were just about out and this midday meal would be the last of it. A brave rock beetle skittered across the sand just outside their shaded spot. She hoped they wouldn't have to resort to eating rock beetles. They didn't look particularly appetizing. The movement caught Feathers' attention and the bird lunged for it with a squawk.
"There's a town about half a day from here."
Katara startled, throwing a glance over her shoulder at the firebender. Zuko was now sitting upright, but his eyes skirted away from her as soon as she caught his gaze.
"How do you know?"
"I did some scouting."
Her heart leapt. He'd left her alone. She fought down her initial feelings of panic. "You didn't wake me."
He ignored the accusation in her tone, running a hand through his hair and over his face. "There's a marker about two miles in that direction," he paused, eying the last of the snakebird jerky in her hand though he made no indication that he wanted it. "We should leave soon to get there before nightfall."
"Travel in the heat of the day?"
She held out his portion to him as he rolled to his feet, but he shook his head. "I don't think they'd be too friendly with us arriving after dark."
She tucked his share of the jerky back into the pack, stuffing her meager share into her mouth and rolling up the sleeping mats. She chewed the jerky thoughtfully, speaking around puffed cheeks, "We could just hide in a barn for the night. They don't even have to know we're there."
The incredulous stare he gave her over the back of the ostrich horse was enough to make her blush and stammer, "We did it all the time before—well, before. They were sometimes upset, but once Aang explained things they were really nice. A few times they even invited us for breakfast."
Zuko finished tying down their supplies, giving their camp a once over. "I'm not that lucky."
Katara laughed, accepting his help onto the ostrich horse behind him and wrapping her arms loosely around his waist. "Sure you are! You made it this far in life after all."
The ride to town was blessedly short in comparison to the journey through the desert though Katara wasn't sure if they'd be better off in the desert after all. The back of her neck pricked uncomfortably. The streets were deserted and trash-lined. The buildings all that a run down, world-weary look to them that left a heavy feeling in her chest. While no one was on the streets, she could feel eyes watching their progress from darkened windows. Zuko's arms tensed and she saw him glance around warily, a frown tugging at his mouth. Even Feathers was discomforted. They made their way through the dusty streets, Zuko clearly looking for something. The first sign of life appeared when they turned onto a wide street. Rough laughter bounced eerily off the weathered buildings and drew Katara's attention. Zuko's arms jerked, tensing expectantly, and the muscle in his jaw jumped. His unease set her on edge. She pressed closer to Zuko, gripping her waterskin anxiously. He shot her a frown, following her gaze to the group of men that gathered in the shade of an open alley. His eyes narrowed and he turned to lead her to a dusty shop, not protesting when she slipped her hand around his elbow. Gold eyes glinted down at her from behind a dark fringe of hair. "Don't wander off."
Katara nodded, taking the reins of the ostrich horse and keeping it near. The market stall was empty; the fine layer of dust on the counter evidence of little business. Zuko's frown deepened but he said nothing about it, leaning over the counter and peering into the dark interior, calling, "Hello?"
Several minutes passed before a worn face peered around the corner, pale green eyes wary. His gaze swept over Zuko and Katara, suspicion clear in his gaze, before approaching. "May I help you?"
Zuko nodded sharply, pulling what little money they had left out of a cracked leather pouch. "A bag of feed and two hot meals."
The man's gaze darted over Zuko's shoulder, grimacing and quickly shaking his head. "I don't have any meals, but I can give you some feed."
Zuko's expression tightened but he nodded, sliding the coins across the counter. The man snatched them up, eying them critically, even going so far as to test its authenticity. Satisfied, he turned into the shop. A child's voice drew Katara's attention away from the transaction.
"Let me go!"
"Naw, I've seen you punks harassing the the soldiers, throwing eggs, and sneaking around. What are you guys up to?"
A too thin boy swung a small fist at the man holding him, the blow hardly drawing notice from the man. The boy's friends scattered, ducking into alleyways and around dilapidated buildings. Laughter rang coarsely across the street as the boy continued to swing from the man's grip, the other men watching on with jeering expressions. Katara glanced at Zuko, but the firebender appeared to be ignoring the confrontation. Katara bit her lip as the man shook the boy. "Now where's the stuff?"
"I don't know what you're talking about!" the boy hollered.
The man snorted, giving the boy a rough shake before turning to the man lounging on the ground behind him. "Gow, this one don't seem to want to talk."
A large, stocky man rose from the ground, a smirk curling on his lips. He stopped before the boy, resting his hand on one of the hammers at his side. "It'd be in your best interest to cooperate, kid. You wouldn't want to get...hurt."
The boy only glared in response and that seemed to humor Gow all the more. "Your father's that pig farmer on the edge of town, ain't he? Do you think he'd mind losing another son?"
Katara stepped forward before she even really thought about it, a white-knuckled grip on her waterskin. "Leave him alone."
Cruel green eyes turned to her, sneering as they swept over her appearance. She had no doubt what she looked like: dusty from head to toe, mused hair, and probably looking half-starved. "What are you going to do about it?"
She backpedaled, surprised at the fear that suddenly welled up in her. It'd been so long since she actually felt threatened and it was mostly her dreams of being captured by the Fire Nation that brought up unpleasant memories. She'd thought she'd had nothing to fear from people outside the Fire Nation. It was naïve of her to think so, she realized. The Fire Nation didn't have the monopoly on evil after all. Forcing her feet to remain firm, she raised her chin defiantly. "He's just a boy."
Gow towered over her, making her feel small. "He's stealing food from the army."
She opened her mouth to reply when an egg collided with the side of his head. Angered, he whirled in the direction it came from, ignoring the boy that struggled free from his man's hold with a sharp kick to the man's shins and fled down the dusty streets. The only two people left on the street were Zuko and herself. Katara quickly moved to the firebender's side, keeping an anxious eye on the large man. Zuko spared her an impatient glance as Gow crossed the street, demanding, "You throwing eggs?"
Zuko's spine straightened and gold eyes narrowed. "No."
A large hand grabbed Zuko's shoulder, forcing him to turn. He stumbled a little with the force of the turn but pushed the hand away, his glare deepening as he met muddy green eyes. The large earthbender sneered at Zuko's act of defiance. "That egg had to have come from somewhere."
"Maybe a chicken flew over."
The statement was said with such seriousness that Katara couldn't tell if he was in earnest or if he was intentionally trying to provoke the larger man. She caught several of the soldiers behind Gow glancing at the sky and one of them snickered. Gow's face took on a thunderous expression and Katara was sure nothing good would come of this confrontation. Before Gow could decide to start a brawl, the shop owner reappeared, breaking the staring match between earthbender and firebender, and slid the bags of feed onto the counter. Zuko reached for them, but a motion from Gow sent several soldiers forward. They shoulder the feed bags quickly, smirking at Zuko's furious expression. Gow sneered, "The army appreciates your contribution."
Indignant that they would take what didn't belong to them and that Zuko let them, Katara protested, "Hey! That's ours!"
Green eyes darkened and glared down at her, sweeping over dust covered hair and worn clothes, pausing on her right hand. The small silver band around her thumb stuck out against the dust, sparking in the setting sun. An eyebrow rose and a leering smirk came to his lips and he gave her another considering look. Addressing Zuko instead, made another suggestion, "We'll forgo the feed if you have something better to offer."
The look in his eyes sent a thrill of terror through her. She recognized that look. She'd seen it on several of her firebending captors at the Prison Rig. Her heart thundered and her breath came in short, sharp gasps. Gow leaned toward her, smirk widening, delighting in her obvious fear. "We'd give the boy a fair trade, after all."
Zuko smoothly slid between them, eyes narrowed dangerously. "She's not for sale."
The two men glared at each other, the stand-off growing charged. The soldiers behind Gow tensed, fists tightening around their weapons and glares intensifying. Suddenly, Gow backed off with a snort, "Fine. I'm warning you, boy, this town don't like strangers so you best be on your way. Wouldn't want you running into any trouble."
He stroked the hammer at his side fondly, leered at Katara, and turned away with a motion to the rest of the soldiers to move on. Zuko returned to the ostrich horse, barely sparing the shop owner a passing glance as he gathered the reins. The shop owner grunted, turning back to the cool interior of the building. "Bunch of bullies is what they are."
Katara was still rooted to the spot as Zuko pulled himself into the saddle, holding out a hand to her. "We'll go to the next village."
She stared unseeing at his hand for a moment until he cleared his throat. She took his hand, letting him pull her into the saddle in front of him. Shame was taking over her fear now. The first time she'd come face to face with an enemy since the Prison Rig and she froze. She half expected some kind of cruel remark from Zuko but he said nothing. Like most of the time, he seemed preoccupied with something. "I'm sorry."
Zuko lifted a shoulder, shifting as the ostrich horse protested their combined weight, throwing its head restlessly. Zuko lifted the reins, ready to head back out of town, when a small hand snagged the reins, bringing the animal's head down. Both teenagers looked down to meet a wide, toothy smile of a young boy. Seeing that he had their attention, he burst forth with a flood of words, "That was so cool! You really showed them! No one every stands up to them! Were you scared? What happened? Did you fight?"
When he paused to take a deep breath to no doubt continue a litany of questions, Katara interrupted, "You shouldn't have thrown the egg at them."
The boy deflated for a moment, looking chastised, before brightening. Feathers disapproved of the exuberant young boy, pulling against the hold the boy had on the bridle. The boy ignored the protesting ostrich horse with well practiced ease. "Are you hungry? You can come to my house. I'll even feed your ostrich horse!"
He was already tugging on the reins before Zuko could respond and a quick glance from Katara kept him silent. A place to stay with a roof over their head, a possible bath, and potential food was more than a temptation for Katara. It meant that they wouldn't have to sneak into a barn or eat rock beetles. The boy led them along, chattering excitedly as young children do, and she leaned into Zuko, keeping her voice down, "You haven't eaten in days, Zuko—don't think I haven't noticed—and who knows how far the next town is."
He scowled at her mention of his not eating, but didn't deny it. He didn't really believe there was another town after this one for several days and they'd probably starve before they reached it. No, he wasn't going to complain. He'd take what this family offered and then move on with very little guilt.