Recognizable quotes are from the episode Zuko Alone.
That wasn't much of an explanation, but Katara nodded, looking at the animals carefully. She'd never seen them before and Zuko simply looked bored. They progressed down the road, gathering even more cow pigs announcing their arrival. A rooster sheep pig leapt up onto a post, ruffling its wings and puffing out its chest territorially. It released a crowing bleat, puffing itself up to an even larger size even though it wasn't very big to begin with. Katara stared at it in fascination.
"No one can sneak up on us."
"No kidding," Zuko commented dryly, earning an elbow in the stomach from Katara.
Zuko grunted, scowling at her. The boy didn't seem to notice, his attention suddenly on a woman rapidly approaching from the small house at the end of the road. Her skirts swished quickly, kicking up dust as she made beeline directly toward them. He winced, trying to make himself disappear next to the ostrich horse, muttering, "Uh oh."
Within moments, the woman was within shouting distance and all three of them flinched at the tone of her voice. "Just where have you been?"
The shout brought a man from around the corner of a nearby barn, a hammer in one hand. The gap between them and the woman closed swiftly and before they knew it, she was standing before them, her hands on her hips and a look of swift punishment on her face. The man, too, was making his way to them, albeit at a more leisurely pace. She barely spared the two teenagers a glance, focusing solely on the boy, rebuking, "I told you not to go into town, Lee. It's dangerous!"
"But nothing happened, Mom!" Lee whined.
"No 'buts!'" she exclaimed.
"Sela," the man suddenly spoke. "We don't need to deal out discipline in front of strangers. Lee has returned unharmed."
Sela subsided with an apologetic smile. "Of course. You look like you've come far. My name is Sela. This is my husband, Gansu, and my son, Lee."
Zuko and Katara dismounted from the ostrich horse, standing uneasily under Gansu's watchful eye. He frowned at the state of their clothing, but still seemed wary. "You came through town?"
Lee interrupted before either Zuko or Katara could say anything, bouncing out between them and exclaiming, "It was so cool, Dad! They stood up to Gow and his army and didn't even flinch when Gow told them he'd pound them into the ground!"
Lee proceeded to act out some imaginary battle Zuko and Gow engaged in until Gansu put a calming hand on his son's shoulder. Sela had clasped her hands to her breast, looking at them with new eyes, but it was Gansu who spoke, "So you stood up to those bullies in town?"
Zuko shrugged slightly, keeping his eyes averted and clearly uncomfortable with the attention. His actions made Katara wonder how many firebenders Sela and Gansu had seen before and what they'd think if they would discover Zuko was one. He did have distinctly Fire Nation coloring and Gansu was still watching him carefully. Katara spoke up, bringing the attention back on herself, "Who are they?"
"They're supposed to protect us from the Fire Nation, but we need to be protected from them. It's about time someone stood up to them."
Gansu draped an arm over his wife. Sela smiled. "Welcome to our home. You are welcome to stay for dinner."
Zuko looked surprised by the invitation and stumbled over his words. "We can't. I mean—We should be going."
"Nonsense," Sela said, bushing away Zuko's words. "Gansu could use some help on the barn and I haven't had female company in ages."
Lee cheered, hopping out from under his father's hand and immediately firing off questions, "Have you traveled a lot? I've always wanted to travel but Papa says it's dangerous. My brother said he'd take me to see the world when he gets back. What's the best place to visit? I bet you've seen a lot of cool stuff! Have you ever been to the Fire Nation? Have you ever met a firebender? Are they mean? Can they really breathe fire? Do you think it burns their lungs? Are they worse than Gow and his idiots? Do you know how to use those swords? I think it'd be awesome to sword fight! Brother said—"
Sela cleared her throat, speaking over her son's flood of words, "Lee, let our guests rest before you pester them with questions."
"Mom!" he whined in protest.
She ignored him, looking at Zuko and Katara with a smile and reaching for Katara's arm to pull her toward the house. "You two must be exhausted. You certainly look like you haven't eaten in days."
Lee trailed after them "But—"
"You were supposed to take care of the sheep pigs today, Lee. Hurry up and do your chores, supper will be ready soon."
Gansu brushed Sela's shoulder, smiling. "I'll be in as soon as I finish repairing the barn. Come along, Lee, take care of their ostrich horse and feed the cow pigs and sheep pigs."
Lee grumbled but took the reins of the ostrich horse from Zuko and sullenly followed his father back to the barn. Sela pulled Katara along. "I'll show you where you can wash up."
"I'm sorry if we're inconveniencing you. We didn't mean to invite ourselves—"
She laughed. "Nonsense, dear, we've got enough for two more...if you wouldn't mind helping around the farm tomorrow."
A soft groan behind her let Katara know what Zuko thought of the negotiation. "Oh! Of course."
"We'll put you up in the barn for the night. Gansu needs some help fixing the roof. With his leg wound he has trouble climbing the ladder."
Dinner was a cheerful affair and Sela insisted that they eat their fill. Katara entertained the family with tales of Water Tribe legends and growing up surrounded by snow. Zuko offered no stories and no information about himself, preferring to sit quietly despite Lee's efforts to draw him out. The food was simple, but filling and Katara ate her fill, complimenting Sela. Zuko still said nothing, but took seconds and thirds when Sela offered them. Gansu took Zuko away after dinner to get a look at some of the things he wanted to work on the next day and Katara was volunteered to help with dishes. Sela shooed her off as the last dish was dried, handing over several thick blankets and a promise to send Zuko after her.
Katara knelt in the clean straw, carefully spreading out the thick wool blankets across the stray, picking out stray stalks that managed to poke through the blankets. Zuko was still off with Gansu so she was alone for the moment. She smoothed out the blankets one final time, tossing a few more for cover over top, and was checking the packs when Zuko entered the barn and came to a stop standing over her. Feeling his eyes on her, Katara looked up, surprised to find him glaring angrily at her. He spoke before she could ask what was wrong, his voice snapping. "They think we're married."
She opened her mouth, changed her mind, and closed it again. Zuko turned away from her, stomping to the make-shift bed and yanking the dao swords over his head. He paced for a moment in front of the bedding, the sheathed dao swords clenched firmly in his hand. He paused, breathing deeply and putting them down beside the blankets with jerky movements. "I can't believe this. This is all your fault."
Katara sucked in a breath, sitting back on her heels to stare up at him incredulously. "My fault? How is it my fault?"
Zuko's glare turned on her again, but his glare had long ceased to intimidate her and she scowled right back at him. His eyes never had held the coldness present in the other firebenders despite his efforts to appear cold and unfeeling. "I wanted to go to the next town."
Katara put her hands on her hips, sighing with exasperation. It had to be more than a few strangers believing they were married. He certainly hadn't acted this way in the swamp. "What is your problem, Zuko?"
He glared at her but said nothing and started pacing again. Katara reviewed the events of the day. "Is it so much to ask for help?"
"I don't need help," he snapped.
"Are you still on that," Katara demanded. "What's so wrong getting help from someone who offers it?"
Zuko whirled, fire leaping from his hands as he exclaimed, "I'm not weak!"
"Getting help doesn't mean you're weak!" she shouted back.
They stared at each other, each breathing hard. A sense of deja vu settled on her, but she refused to break eye contact. A minute passed before Zuko sighed and dropped into the straw, dropping an arm over his eyes. He appeared set to ignore her for the rest of the night and so Katara crawled under her blanket, snuggling into the straw with a blissful sigh. A soft rustle let her know that Zuko was moving and she turned to watch as Zuko checked his dao swords and settled them close at hand. The careful movements told Katara that he valued the swords. "Do you know how to use those?"
Gold eyes flashed in her direction and he touched the sheath fondly. "Yes."
"Why? If you can firebend," Katara asked.
Zuko scowled, laying down and turning his back to her. "None of your business."
Katara sighed, staring at his back. It seemed she was always saying something that put him in a foul mood. She pillowed her cheek on her hand, her eyes tracing the line of his back. "It was nice of you to help Gansu."
He grunted. "I don't help people."
She snickered, tucking her chin. "You helped me."
He snorted, turning to face her. Gold eyes regarded her seriously. "You were just in the way."
The claim made her smile, but she didn't offer any arguments.
Katara woke the next morning to Zuko pulling away from her and rolling out from under the blanket. His movements were quiet and smooth and he settled the blanket back around her to keep the cool morning air out. Katara stirred, yawning, stretching and sitting up. Zuko started when she moved, wincing slightly. Katara grinned crookedly, rubbing sleep from her eyes. "You're up early."
He blinked, glancing toward the barn door, before looking back at her. He started to speak when the barn door creaked open and Lee poked his head in. His eyes scanned the barn, landing on them and lighting up. "You're awake!"
Katara stifled another yawn, smiling at the young boy. "Good morning, Lee."
He bound into the room, flopping onto the hay pallet next to Katara. "I wanted to wake you up earlier but mom wouldn't let me. Do you want to see the overlook? It's not much to look at, but you can see really far!"
He sprang to his feet again, circling Zuko excitedly. "Then we can herd the sheep pigs to the far field and chase—"
Katara cleared her throat, interrupting the stream of words, while Zuko simply stared down at the boy in surprise. "I think we have to help your parents around the homestead."
The barn door opened for a second time and Sela peeked in. The expression on her face tightened when she saw Lee and she stepped into the barn, placing her hands on her hips and frowning severely. "I hope you didn't wake them up."
"No!" Lee exclaimed, tugging on Zuko's arm. "They were awake when I came in. I made sure they were up before I came in and they were and I wanted to do so much today and we're going to the far field and I'm going to show him all the cool spots."
Sela sighed. "I'm afraid they'll have to go out to the far field another time, Lee; your father needs the young man today. Come along now, young couples don't need a boy between them in the morning."
Zuko and Katara flushed red, exchanging wide-eyed looks but Sela was herding Lee out the door before they could say anything. They quickly looked away, Zuko smoothing his rumpled tunic and Katara pushing her hair out of her eyes. The silence between them grew tense before his shoulders straightened and he moved rapidly out of the barn. Katara threw aside her blanket, crawling out of the hay and straightening her clothes. As awkward as Sela's comment had been, Katara didn't want the older woman to assume they were doing anything—well, anything that required privacy. Katara dressed quickly and straightened their bedding before making her way out to find the family.
She found Sela seated next to a pile of clothing, darning a pair of pants. She looked up when Katara approached, motioning for the waterbender to take a seat next to her. "There's breakfast on the fire. I appreciate your help around the house today. The men have already eaten."
Katara ate quickly before taking up a needle and settling into fixing rips and tears. They settled into a steady rhythm that Katara found relaxing in its familiarity. She could almost hear Gran-Gran's voice correcting her imperfect stitches and explaining the correct stitch to use depending on the tear. A lost, lonely feeling settled over her. Life had been so full of adventure in recent months that she'd been distracted from thoughts of home. A home she thought she'd never see again when she was imprisoned on that iron rig. She ducked her head, hiding the sheen of tears and a soft sniffle in her concentration on her darning. She was not going to be a weepy female. A touch to her shoulder let her know that Sela wasn't fooled. "Are you a long way from home?"
The question was soft and understanding and Katara sniffed back the tears, rubbing at her nose. "How do you know?"
The older woman's eyes flicked over her, a sardonic smile on her lips. "I don't believe I've ever seen an Earth Kingdom native look quite like you. You have remarkably blue eyes."
Katara blushed under the compliment, lowering her eyes and picking at her uneven stitches. "Thank you."
Sela squeezed her arm and picked up her needle again. She gave the threadbare pants an critical frown. "Lee is at that age where he destroys every piece of clothing he wears. When you have children, don't spend too much on clothes. They'll just end up in the rubbish pile in a few weeks."
Sela smiled at Katara's blush. Katara nervously fingered her ring. "I don't think I'll ever have children."
"You are young, yet," Sela assured, glancing curiously at the ring which Katara quickly hid from sight. "Your husband appears willing to wait until you are both ready."
Her gaze drifted and a smile spread across her face. Katara followed her eyes to find Gansu and Zuko standing at the base of a ladder that was propped against the barn. Gansu lifted a hand in greeting when he realized his wife was watching. Zuko solemnly met Katara's eyes, looking away again when Katara smiled and waved slightly. Sela laughed gently. "Such a serious young man. However did the two of you end up together?"
"Fate, I guess."
Sela made a humming noise, giving Katara a sly glance. "I have a feeling there is more of a story there, but I will not pry."
Further discussion was interrupted by Lee bounding around the far side of the barn, skidding to a halt when he caught sight of the men climbing the ladder. He quickly made his way to the ladder and Katara could already see him talking. She watched Lee swing on the ladder and Zuko raise a steadying hand. Sela raised an eyebrow. "The young man clearly wants a family some day."
Katara flushed, quickly changing the subject. The last thing she wanted Zuko to hear was speculation on their future lives together. "I was wondering," she said slowly, "why was Lee in town yesterday? Town seems rather deserted."
Sela sighed, setting aside the repaired pants and picking up a shirt. Her eyes grew distant as she recalled past memories. "The young boys have felt left out while their fathers and older brothers go to war. Once Gow and his men arrived in town and proved to be greater bullies than protectors, the boys decided they needed to protect the village.
"Things have been difficult since our oldest son went off to war. We tried to talk him out of it, but after my husband was injured, he insisted he had to go."
She glanced at Katara to see if she was paying attention before continuing, "Gansu was discharged because of injury. When he returned home, many of the young, able-bodied men had gone to join the war. Sensu took his father's place in the army. Gansu has trouble getting around some days. Lee so looks up to his brother, but he is young. He misses his brother."
They looked up to see Gansu and Zuko walk across the yard to another barn, Lee trailing behind them. Sela smiled. "He's so happy to have another young man around."
Once again, Zuko found himself with a hammer in one hand and a hand full of nails in the other. Gansu sat near the peak working steadily. Neither man said much to the other as they worked. Keeping a watchful eye on the manner in which Gansu laid the shingles, Zuko grimaced at his own poor attempt to keep the shingles straight and the number of bent nails that already protruded. He should've learned in the swamp that he was never going to be a carpenter. He must've made a noise of frustration, because Gansu looked up from his neat work. His eyebrows rose when he took in Zuko's accomplishment. Zuko kept his head down, grateful that his conical hat at least hid his embarrassed flush. Gansu cleared his throat. "Forgive me, young man. I should've shown you—"
The older man trailed off into an awkward silence before motioning for Zuko to come closer. "You are far more agile than I."
When Zuko hesitated, frowning darkly, Gansu smiled encouragingly. "I will show you how to lay shingles. I've forgotten that not everyone has done so. There's no shame in learning something new."
Zuko grudgingly moved across the partially finish roof, kneeling next to the older man. Gansu calmly explained how to lay shingles and then demonstrated how to nail them down efficiently without using a dozen or more nails. After a few more demonstrations, Zuko returned to his portion of the roof with a better understanding of what he was doing.
The sun was nearing its zenith when Lee popped his head over the edge of the roof, scrambling onto the sloping roof and sidling up to Zuko's side. The firebender ignored the boy, hammering the nails in with both hands wrapped around the hammer. Lee watched the work for a few minutes before speaking up, "You're not from around here, are you?"
Zuko's swing faltered. "No."
Lee frowned, putting his chin on his fist. "Where ya from?"
This time Lee scowled, picking up the shingle Zuko was reaching for. Zuko took it from the boy without a word. Lee was only discouraged by the older boy's silence for a moment before he brightened again. "What are you doing?"
Lee picked up another shingle, handing it to Zuko, watching as he nailed it into place. "Have you ever killed anyone?"
Zuko jerked, missing the nailhead and bringing the hammer down on his thumb. He bit back a curse, his thumb flying to his mouth. Lee didn't seem concerned that Zuko hadn't answered either of his questions. He picked up the scattered nails and shingles and placing the nails back in the box and the shingles in a neat stack. "Where'd you get your ostrich horse? It's so cool. I want one."
Zuko hesitated, but Lee looked like he was truly interested in the answer. He sighed, pushing damp hair out of his eyes and carefully examining his injured thumb. With another sigh, he picked up the hammer again, admitting, "...A girl."
Lee made a face. "What's your name?"
Lee and Zuko turned in surprise. Katara stood on the ground, looking up at them with a smile. Lee stared down at her in confusion. "What?"
She motioned to Zuko. "That's his name."
Lee looked at Zuko in surprise, a wide smile spreading across his face. Zuko grimaced, cringing when the young boy exclaimed, "Awesome! You have the same name as me!"
Zuko nodded, returning to hammering nails into the roof. Gansu chuckled, edging to the ladder and heavily making his way back to the ground. He greeted Katara with a smile, limping slightly to her side. She lifted a hand. "Sela says food will be ready in a bit."
He nodded, glancing up at Zuko and Lee on the roof. Katara followed his gaze, suppressing a laugh as the firebender hammered with a dogged determination as Lee talked. Gansu put a hand on her shoulder. "He's a good man—" Zuko's exclamation of pain interrupted him and Gansu winced. "He's not very good with a hammer though."
Katara shook her head, laughing as Lee shouted excitedly about blood."I should probably take a look at that."
Gansu called Lee down and the young boy scrambled down the ladder. Zuko followed more slowly, cradling his hand close to his chest. Katara held out a hand. "Let me see."
He frowned at her, but she reached for his hand before he could say anything. Katara examined the injury with a critical eye, reaching for her waterskin. She looked up at him with a smirk. "You'd think you got enough experience in the swamp with a hammer."
Zuko scowled and moved to pull his hand away but she held him firm and drew a stream of water out of her waterskin with one hand. She coated the injury and concentrated. She ignored the quiet gasp from Lee and Gansu when the water glowed a faint blue and the cut healed over. Zuko watched in fascination, but as soon as she let the water drop to the dust at their feet, he pulled away and stalked off. Lee hurried after him, but Gansu looked on with interest. "It's been a long time since I've met a waterbender. You have a truly remarkable gift."
She blushed under the compliment and Gansu chuckled. "Come, we should probably save your young man."
They found Zuko and Lee at the water pump, Zuko bent over the trough and splashing water on his face and neck. Lee had clearly not stopped talking since joining Zuko on the roof and they arrived just in time to hear Lee ask, "How'd you get that scar?"
Gansu cleared his throat, giving the energetic boy a stern look of disapproval. "Lee, leave the man alone."
Gansu and Zuko finished the new barn roof just as the sun was beginning to set and Zuko gratefully stumbled to the small house to gulp down leftovers from lunch before walking stiffly to the small bathhouse to was the dust and sweat from his skin. The bathwater was refreshingly cool and Zuko dumped the last of it over his head with a blissful sigh. When he finally returned to the barn, Katara had not yet returned. A few of the chicken pigs clucked in some of the empty stalls but were clearly settling down for the night. Zuko dropped to the pile of hay with a deep groan, already falling into a half conscious state.
The barn door slammed open, startling Zuko and causing him to reach for his dao swords before he realized that it was only Katara. He collapsed back onto the blankets, flinging an arm over his eyes and letting his mind drift closer to sleep. Katara was far from sleep. She paced the barn, a frown marring her brow. Zuko ignored her mutterings, forcing tired muscles to relax and concentrated on his breathing. He was nearly asleep when Katara suddenly spun on her heel and demanded, "Why don't they do anything about Gow and his soldiers?"
Zuko grunted, waking up enough to mumble, "Have you seen the villagers?"
She sighed, falling to the hay next to him. Zuko tilted his head to look at her from the corner of his good eye. He really was a handsome man. Katara blinked. That'd been a sudden thought she'd never expected. Flustered, it took her a moment to remember what he'd said and to reform her thoughts. "Well, yes, but someone could still do something."
Zuko rolled onto his back, throwing an arm across his eyes and sighing tiredly. Katara watched his chest rise and fall with his breathing. His breathing had a hypnotic effect on her and she startled when Zuko finally spoke. "Gow is an earthbender," he said. "And I haven't seen another bender in the village."
For a moment she was surprised. How had he known? She almost asked him, but instead pushed the thought aside to focus on what she'd been thinking before.
"So you're saying we can do nothing?" Katara asked. "We should help them!"
Zuko dropped his arm from his eyes, pushing himself up on his elbow and staring down at her. "They don't want my help." He seemed to realize that he implied he wanted to help to begin with and quickly continued, "And it's not my problem."
The injustice of the situation gnawed at her. It was too much like what the Fire Nation was doing to the rest of the world. It was wrong. It wasn't fair that so many people would be kept down by so few. That they'd hide and cower from a handful of men instead of standing up to them and refusing to comply with ridiculous demands. If they all stood up against them, Gow and his cronies wouldn't stand a chance. She frowned back at him. "But they're abusing their authority."
"There will always be someone who abuses authority," he snapped.
She drew back in surprise and subsided into silence. They stared at each other until Zuko finally turned onto his side, his back to Katara. She was slowly growing used to looking at the firebender's back when they settled down to sleep.