( past )
At first, he didn’t answer her.
He’d made the choice to give her whatever was left in the canteen despite the risk, because he felt like he still had some control over the situation here. Nevermind the fact that even with the barest amount of water under her command, she could probably kill him. The fact remained that he felt more comfortable if he knew she didn’t have much to control, and especially if she needed to drink it instead of murdering him with it.
Taking her to a stream outside seemed… foolish.
But, keeping her here and weakened was exactly the situation he’d rescued her from; it didn’t feel right to do it himself. It would also be breaking his promise to her, and Zuko wouldn’t even entertain that as an option. Unbidden, a dusty Earth Kingdom town filled his mind, along with a young boy there who’d taken the dagger Zuko gave him and threw the gift back in his face once he’d been revealed as a firebender.
He didn’t have to imagine how it felt to be hated for being who you were.
What he’d told her was true–he didn’t think that he was better, and he probably was the monster she accused him of being. But he wouldn’t go back on his word. He couldn’t trust her not to make good on her threat to flay him like a fish, but would he really be in so much more danger if she were around more water? What was really the difference between disembowelment with a shard of ice or drowning in six inches of running water if he ended up dead either way?
“There’s a stream nearby where you can wash up and… heal more,” he said, his throat stinging a little raw from talking so much at once after underuse. Still, he did not move the proffered jerky and kept his eyes on her. “But you need to eat something first. Unless you want to collapse halfway there and have me carry you the rest of the way.” As it was, she was so malnourished that he very well might end up having to help her even if she had eaten everything he’d set out for her.
Zuko had taken her from her imprisonment and told her he wouldn’t hurt her, and that included from negligence. He hadn’t given any thought that he might have to be a proactive participant in her recovery, but it was obvious to him now that he should have expected that; she’d been too mistreated for too long before. And if she chose to attack him again once she’d regained her strength… well, that was something he’d figure out how to deal with later. For now he just had to take it one step at a time–even if he had to drag her along with him, figuratively or no.
If any deceit laced his words, Katara couldn’t detect it. Past experience warned her away from the food he offered; the wounds marring her body whispered otherwise. In the end, hunger won out. She needed strength if she was going to escape.
Trembling fingers brushed his when she took the dried meat. She tore a bit with her teeth, then chewed slowly. Saliva pooled in her mouth at the flavor of smoke and pepper, but she remained deliberate, working the jerky until her jaw ached, swallowing when it’d been ground to nearly nothing. Overwhelming her starved, dehydrated body wasn’t a lesson she wished to learn twice.
The water was offered to her again. Katara took exactly three sips before returning the canteen to her captor, and moved on to the berries. These were easier to chew, lighter on her stomach, but she ate away the same amount time as she did with the jerky, keeping an even pace.
Upon finishing, Katara made a show of her empty mouth and rose shakily, the wall used as her support. She needed it: the cool, rough surface beneath her fingertips; a rush of… almost uncomfortable energy made her shake. It been— how long? She couldn’t remember a decent meal. Her capture came during one raid of many; the Fire Nation was relentless in their search for the Avatar. They left her home decimated, her tribesmen, dead. Hunters were scarce. Food sources were scarcer. Bland, boiled fish was considered the best.
Aside from the jitters, however, Katara felt alright. No hallucinations. No dizziness. No black edges around her vision. If this man meant to drug her like all the rest, she’d notice the effects. Maybe—not trust—but some… cooperation was awarded him.
She met his gaze once her footing was stable and short jab of her head said she was ready, that she’d go easily.
Normally, he’d want to keep her in front of him, to keep an eye on her; she could bolt, or jump him from behind without warning. But he quelled those instincts and lead her out of the cave with a leading torch. Empirically, he knew she was too weak to do either of those things, and also that she had no idea where to go.
Well–maybe she did, the thought struck him suddenly as they emerged out to a falling twilight. He extinguished the torch at the cave’s entrance as a precaution; he didn’t think he’d been followed to it with her, but in his experience, it was far better safe than sorry. Zuko could sometimes get a sense of body heat if he cleared his mind enough, and he could certainly feel where there was fire nearby. He supposed that she would also be able to sense water when it was close. Still, he took her to a narrow deercat path he’d found that wound through the trees before coming to a stream. It was difficult to see in the fading light, but he knew where it led, and so kept to the trail with relative ease.
There wasn’t a lot of water–the monsoon season was still some time off, and this area didn’t seem like it had seen rain at all for at least a little while. When a few glances about assured him that the area was clear, he crouched and refilled the canteen to nearly overflowing, then stood and turned to face her.
“Don’t take too long,” he said to her, perhaps a bit more gruffly than he really intended. It probably didn’t matter, but Zuko was nervous out in the open like they were, and if nothing else it would make him feel better if she didn’t dawdle. “I’m going to find more berries. We’ll return when I get back.”
Without really waiting for her to reply to him, he slung the canteen across his body and slipped off along another deercat trail, back to where he’d found the blueberries before. With any luck, he’d be able to bring back more.
In the growing dark, he ignored the niggling in the back of his mind that he was making a mistake, leaving her back there like that. She could be gone when he got back. Zuko doubted she had the energy to get far enough away that he wouldn’t be able to find her, but he wasn’t entirely certain she wouldn’t at least try. He told himself it didn’t matter–she hadn’t been part of the plan, and if she wanted to run off and get herself killed, then so be it. A scowl twisted down his mouth as soon as that thought entered his mind, and he wasn’t sure if he was more annoyed at that, or at the fact that he knew he’d search for her if she did decide to bolt.
The blueberry bush he’d visited before still had enough berries on it to be worth his while, so he busied himself with picking them to give her enough time for privacy to bathe. He’d have to try hunting soon, if she was going to really start recovering her strength enough to fend for herself.