( past )
The way her voice fractured made the marrow of his bones ache and twisted something sharply in his chest. Zuko turned to face her again, assuming that if she was addressing him she was decent again; she was, though he notes her discarded chest wrappings still on the ground. They were filthy, stained with sweat and browned with old blood. Whatever it was in his chest twisted tighter.
She looked on the verge of breaking, this young woman who used her own drinking water to try and hurt him. Unfortunately, he didn’t have to imagine the kind of exhaustion she must be feeling—at least, not to extrapolate how much worse she must feel than he ever had. He’d gone hungry for days and days before, but he didn’t have to endure imprisonment and torture and abuse at the same time. Her shoulders bowed as she spoke, her fingers shaky and digging into the damp, sandy earth of the bank. He didn’t even need to look at her face to hear the tears choking her voice.
He couldn’t leave her here.
It wasn’t because he feared she might run, even as she promised not to, but that she wouldn’t survive. He didn’t know what other creatures or people might be nearby, and if either found her, he might return to her half-eaten corpse or worse, she might be captured again. From some of the things he’d seen over the years, there were plenty of Earth Kingdom thugs that were just as degenerate as the worst from the Fire Nation.
Zuko’s fists tightened. He wouldn’t—couldn’t leave her to fate’s uncaring whims.
”No,” he said, surprised to hear how thick and ragged his voice was. “You’re not staying here.”
Clearly confused, she lifted her face to look up at him, and even in the rising moonlight he could see the salted tracks of tears down her cheeks. He couldn’t stand it. Only two strides, widened with bubbling anger, brought him to her. Lowering to one knee and laying a firm hand on her shoulder, Zuko got her to sit up with guiding pressure. Once she was more or less upright, he leaned in and scooped her up unceremoniously—one arm looped under her knees and the other bracing her back. She was still so light, and it stoked the flame beneath his heart with anger. This wasn’t the most energy conserving way of carrying her, but somehow Zuko didn’t imagine she’d care to be slung over his shoulders like a sack of grain. A small voice in his head also acknowledged that he didn’t want to carry her like that, either; she wasn’t an object he had to haul, she was a hurt person he was carrying.
He’d bring her back here tomorrow, he decided all at once, feeling how her breath still rattled within her chest. There was no way for him to tell just how bad her wounds were before he caught the glimpse of him that he did, but more than a few still looked awful. When she stood up and tried to attack him, he hoped she would recover quickly, but now he was worried she was far worse than he imagined. Unconsciously, his arms tightened around her as he waded across the stream and started up the rocky embankment on the other side.
If he hadn’t already decided he was committed to helping her before, he definitely was now. He would have to go hunting once he got her back to the cave and situated as comfortably as she could be.
What little fight was left in her— the fight that made her fist the earth, made her wish for the sight of his body pumping blood into the water— drained from her limbs with hardly more than a weak protest. Dirty hands gave up their hold on the dirt, didn’t claw and shove at him; there wasn’t a chance in the world of fending him off, as tired and hungry and damaged as she was. He could have her. He could hurt her. Whatever he wanted to do to her— trace the stains of fingerprints scarring her hips and waist, leave some of his own— he could.
So, Katara gave up. Months in captivity had taught her that was better than fighting. Fighting made them angry; fighting made them determined to make it all worse. She went limp the moment he touched her, completely pliant as he lifted her from the ground. Her one, small defiance was slumping in his grasp, a wasted attempt to make herself heavy and cumbersome. He only gripped her tighter, his black-clothed arms tensing beneath her knees and around her ribs.
It smarted, where bruises lining the length of her spine had yet to heal. Katara was sure at least a few of her ribs were fractured, they throbbed when he squeezed, and the fingers digging into her side had found burns she ignored in the water. But, she pinched her lips together with the jostling of his movements, staring weakly in the direction they were going.
Eventually, even that was too much. Her head bobbed as he capped the rocky bank with meager effort. Then, Katara let it fall to his shoulder, eyes fluttering shut when he found the path, thoughts drifting off with the quiet sounds around them. The distant creek. The chirp of bugs. His breath was steady; his heartbeat rose with the incline, but he never once complained. Not long ago, he might’ve. She was solid, before her capture. A touch too lean, perhaps, but muscular and strong. Now, it seemed she weighed nothing to him: all skin and bones and barely a lick of body fat left, even in the places meant to be inviting.
Katara tried not to reminisce on the horrors she’d seen; the pain, the loss. She was… fine. Safe, for now; or, at least, in the hands of someone who’d feed her and keep her clean. As she slipped into feverish, fatigued dreams, she supposed that was her best, possible circumstance.
She didn’t remember reaching the cave. How much time had passed? How long had she been asleep? Where was the man in the mask? — The answers weren’t there. The journey to their cave was a mystery. Memories of him were a blur.
Beyond the dark walls, the faint trickle of dawn brought life to the scenery. Trees. Tall brush and grass. Dew covered the ground, sneaking into the entrance of the cave, but giving way where the floor met the green blades. It was pretty; the bird song added to it, and the peek of clear, blue sky she could see if she angled her head right. That was exhausting, however, and led to a splitting headache that kept Katara still.
Her lashes brushed the pile of clothing beneath her cheek. She closed her eyes again.
Her brother haunted her dreams.
Far off and fading, she could make out his faint cries for help. He was bleeding. She rushed to him, her hands cloaked in healing water, eyes leaking tears. She had to reach him. She would get to him. But, no matter how hard she ran, whether through thick mud or deep snow or shallow water, he was never any closer.
He was always too far away, too out of reach. She wasn’t there. She couldn’t save him.
She watched him die all over again and a scream ripped from her throat, jolting her awake. “Sokka!”
The same as in her head, there was no answer. All that was left was the sound of a crackling fire, the dark rocks of the cave, and the thud of her heartbeat against her ribs. It was night, again. A cold and quiet one, at that. She lay still for a moment, fingers digging into the dirt around her, chest heaving, then rolled to her side, eyes staring blindly into yellow flames. Sokka was gone.
But, she wasn’t alone. There was another— another pulse, another life. Katara recognized it, focused on it. The beat was firm, but calm; something consistent that she could cling to until her heart matched. It made breathing easier, less painful. She blinked, adjusting to the low light cast around the rest of the cave.
There. Her companion. He crouched on the opposite side of the fire, drawing a wet stone down the length of a curved blade. He still wore the mask, and his movements were deliberate and focused, but Katara felt the heat of his gaze through the dark slits. It made her skin crawl, knowing she’d been so vulnerable to his whims for— hours? days?
“How—” Her voice cracked, hoarse and dry. Katara swallowed, gathering what little moisture she could in her mouth before struggling to sit up. “How long have you been watching me sleep?”
“I wasn’t–!” Zuko nearly dropped the blade and whetstone from his hands, surprised by her sudden question even more than the name she cried out in her sleep. He forced his voice to a more even tone. “I wasn’t watching you sleep.” He glanced away from her, heat flooding through his cheeks; he was grateful for the cover of the mask. The way she had asked the question somehow made him forget for an instant that they were in a less than ideal situation, with her still carrying too many wounds and he her ad hoc caretaker.
It was true, though, what he said. He hadn’t been watching her sleep–only glancing now and again to see if she was waking at all. The fact that she’d slept for a whole twenty-four hour period worried him a little; there was no way he could know just how much of her healing had gone into her head, and a small part of him feared she would never wake up. Other than that, she’d seemed stable enough, so he’d chanced going out to get more food and supplies. The nearest village was a good two hours’ walk away, but he’d been able to find nearly everything he was looking for.
Setting down the whetstone and dao he’d been sharpening, he rested his hands on his knees. Embarrassment fading, he looked back at her, studying how she moved and held herself to try and gauge if she was going to fall over or if she seemed steady enough. Zuko resisted the urge to rub or scratch at his face; wearing the mask almost constantly was beginning to bother him. When he wore it for his forays and escapades to steal food or supplies, or to take out raider or bandits, it had felt good to slip on another skin, so to speak. He was no longer Zuko, former Prince of the Fire Nation, but simply the Blue Spirit. He could pretend that was his life.
Now that it had very nearly become his life, he was a little sick of it. It’d been simple logistics when he got her that he kept the mask on–he didn’t know if she would recognize him and attack, or flee to expose him. Not that it mattered much in the end; she tried to attack him anyway. By this point, he really just wanted to not have the damn thing on all the time, but it was still too risky. He didn’t know if she might recognize him, and as soon as she was healed, she very well could bolt and lead people back to him for the reward on his head. Or take her in himself if she were able to subdue him. The reward would be double, since there was a bounty both on his own head and the Blue Spirit’s. He couldn’t let that happen.
“How are you feeling?” he asked her, his voice coming out as a croak. Clearing his throat a little, he continued. “I… brought more food. And soap. For when we go back to the creek next.” And clothes–he had brought her clothes, which he had tucked beneath her head in a makeshift pillow. Zuko had no idea where to find her a new sarashi, though, so he’d gone back to the stream and scrubbed it as best he could and steamed it dry. A short pair of boots were placed neatly nearby, against the cave wall near where she slept all this while. He motioned to them now. “I had to guess your size, but those are yours too.”