( 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.
Her ears rang in his absence. It was one thing to have the steady thump of his heartbeat filling her head— she didn’t trust his intentions, nor his motives, but for whatever he had planned, he valued her health and strength— and an entirely different thing to be left with her own company. Her own memories. Her own morbid realization that he believed she wouldn’t run.
If he thought such a thing hadn’t occurred to her, he was wrong. It drifted through her head the entire way to the stream. But, he already knew the conclusion she was coming to: she was far too weak. She’d die before the night was through.
Climbing down the small embankment to the water was difficult, in and of itself. Katara’s breath came in short, puffing pants, and more than once, she feared she’d faint if she moved too quickly, stood up too fast. Then, undressing required a certain amount of strength; strength she didn’t have.
Her bloodstained tunic and chest bindings were all Katara managed to shed. She gave up on the knot that held her tattered pants to her hips and waded into the water. It wasn’t very deep, maybe up to her waist in the center. In her current state, she struggled to reach a depth that even lapped at her thighs.
But, a faint glow was radiating beneath the water, her bruised, battered bare feet already healing. Katara sank down in the chilly stream, focusing her chi, and slowly drew her efforts up and up her body until the water’s level reached her neck. She was a tight ball beneath the surface, crouched over her legs, arms out and maintaining a faint grip on the water for balance against the current. Her breath was far quicker, far harder than she expected; her heart raced, too. It’d never been much of a concern to her before, the amount of energy that healing expelled. Now, Katara could feel what little strength she’d gotten from her food being eaten away.
And away… and away and away. She was lightheaded. Ragged edges of black threatened her weary vision. Her pulse went from quick to rapid to erratic.
She was going to faint this time, she was sure of it. She’d be swept away, either into the hands of someone worse than her current captor or towards her death. Neither were an option. As much pain as she was in, as much healing as she still needed, Katara wanted to live.
She sucked in a loud gasp of air and lunged towards the shallow parts, landing on her hands and knees in a foot of water. With her attention diverted, her healing efforts waned. The threat of unconsciousness faded. Still, her body quaked from the drain of energy. It was with the last of it that Katara crawled to the very edge of the stream and rolled onto her back. She let the few inches of water lap at her skin, simply staring up at the sky.
There was a bit of splashing around coming from the stream as he followed the deercat trail back, so Zuko supposed that she hadn’t tried to run away, after all. At the very least, it saved him from having to spend time tracking her.
When he stepped around the last cluster of trees before the quiet rush of water, the sight that greeted him caught him entirely off guard.
The waterbender lay on the opposite side of the stream bed in the barest amount of water, bared to her hips. Zuko nearly dropped the canvas bag full of blueberries when he saw her. From this distance, he couldn’t tell if she were alive or not, and the thought that he’d let her have privacy only to have her die somehow upset him more than he expected it to.
Without another hesitation, he splashed across the stream, wading as quickly as he could to the other side. The bag of blueberries got dropped to the ground as he approached and knelt over her. Zuko was lifting his ungloved hand to her neck to check for a pulse when her eyes slid over to look up at him. Surprised, he rocked back onto his heels. Now that he stopped to actually look at her, it was pretty evident that she hadn’t ever even looked dead; he’d seen his fair share of corpses, and they had all had an… unnaturalness to them that the living could never be mistaken for having. He’d just jumped to the worse conclusion and rushed over without sparing a moment to think she might have just been exhausted.
Instinctually, Zuko glanced to the stream, then back at her, as if he could decipher what exactly had happened. His eyes widened a bit and heat rose as his gaze came to rest on her bared chest, and he quickly averted his eyes in embarrassment. Now that he knew she was alive, he was suddenly very aware that she was half naked, and instead of lingering, turned and cast about for her discarded clothing. He ended up wading across the stream again to fetch it, and carefully kept his eyes from her as he took it back and handed it over. He turned his head from her to show her he averted his line of sight from her to help preserve any modicum of decency either of them could muster at this point.
As his eyes tracked the barely visible treetops around them, his heart rattled in his chest as if it were trying to escape. It wasn’t just the fact that she was a young woman half undressed that had affected him; Zuko was given full view of the mistreatments she’d been subjected to, writ plainly across the thinness of her ribs. Yellowed bruises, scars both fully healed and scabbed, and burns riddled her abdomen. The worst ones were those that he thought looked suspiciously like fingers. A subtle pain radiated through his head, and it took him the span of a few breaths to realize that he was clenching his jaw tightly shut. With a controlled release of breath, he closed his eyes and tried to calm his mind and his heart rate.
Zuko knew that there were abuses in war, both on battlefields and off, but to see it firsthand like this, on someone that he’d bodily carried to safety… His hands threatened to shake, and he gripped them into fists to still them. He acutely remembered how she felt in his arms, cradled and boney and shallow-breathed against his chest. He had no idea that beneath her threadbare tunic she still had such wounds. And to think, that despite all that, she’d taken what little water had been at her disposal and tried to fight him… Such strength of will touched some half-buried part of him and made it flare to life; it made him remember a war council many years ago, of a life he once lived and the one he was going to inherit then. It seemed so distant and impossible now, but this spark that had been relit beneath his heart made him want it again. It made him want to somehow make a difference, to help put a stop to the kind of treatment she’d received and that he’d seen in others.
A derisive scoff escaped him, and his gaze lowered from the treetops back to the opposite embankment. That life was out of his reach now; he was pretty sure of that. His father was too entrenched in expanding and dominating the colonies, and his sister was still their father’s right hand in anything he wanted. Zuko doubted there was much he could do, disgraced and exiled and even perhaps thought dead as he was.