( past )
The way back to the stream was a little easier than the last time. He went more slowly, for one, to keep a better eye on her. They didn’t quite walk side by side, but he wasn’t five steps ahead like last time. Though it was full dark, later than when he’d taken her to the stream before, there was no need to worry about not carrying a torch–the moon was more than bright enough to light their way. It was just barely under full (one day away, Zuko reminded himself), and shone down through the spring leaves to light their path.
It made Zuko think about what had happened at the North Pole, how Zhao had tried–and succeeded–to kill the Moon Spirit. Had his uncle not intervened, the world might be in a far worse place than it already was. Though, it had not all been his uncle’s help from what he’d told Zuko. There’d been a young Northern Water Tribe girl who somehow had… revived the Moon Spirit? Or become it? Zuko wasn’t clear on what his uncle meant what really happened, but whatever she’d done, it’d kept the moon in the sky. It also had secured the surrender of the North to the Fire Nation, to prevent such devastation and imbalance from happening again.
He let out a controlled breath to release those thoughts. Now was neither the time nor the place to reminisce–he had to stay on the alert. Staying in one place for as long as he had was making him a little twitchy, and he felt the need to be constantly checking to make sure no one was following them, or setting up an ambush. A small part of him whispered he should still make sure the girl didn’t run for it, but a larger part reasoned she wouldn’t. She still needed to heal, and while he imagined how much she probably wanted to be clean and in better clothing, he wasn’t under the illusion that she would trade those for a chance of freedom. Not that he was keeping her captive; he was trying to help her.
By the way that she’d thanked him not once, but twice so far, he hoped that she might be beginning to believe he really wasn’t going to hurt her.
He paused for a moment at the top of the embankment that lead down to the stream itself, and glanced back at her. She still held the fresh clothes and boots to her chest, and kept frequently flicking her eyes from the trail back to him–not wanting to lose her sight of either, he surmised. When she had almost reached him, he started down the embankment, again moving slowly in case he needed to move quickly. She’d been all right the first time making it down, so he didn’t think she’d fall or anything. Getting back up… he might have to carry her again, he realized. She wasn’t quite as weak as the last time, but she was still nowhere near strong, and he wasn’t sure just how much another healing session would take out of her.
When he reached the bottom, he stopped and turned to watch her make her slow way down, tracking each of her steps. She made it down with no issue, though slightly out of breath from the exertion. Zuko walked to the water’s edge, peering down at the dark reflection of the mask he wore on its surface.
“Here.” He dug into the satchel he’d brought and held out the bar of soap as he took a few steps back from the water toward her. “’l’m staying close this time in case something happens.”
He was staying. Katara tried to hide her discomfort at that. She may’ve been wrong, anyway, hasty in her conclusion that this man didn’t have the same inclinations as all the rest. He was a man, nonetheless, and she was helpless, defenseless. Hell, she probably had the look of one who’d lay quiet through an unwanted fuck if it meant food.
Or soap. Her eyes dropped to the creamy-white bar in his outstretched hand. It felt like submission to take it, but her skin crawled and her scalp itched and her nails had a black film beneath them.
She snatched it from his palm and skirted around him. The stream greeted her with its cool current, tickling her toes and lapping up her feet. Going no further than ankle deep, Katara shed her threadbare tunic, then her trousers and the bindings around her hips and waist, too. What used to be blue was brown, caked with dirt and dried blood; what used to be white was ruined, stained with gods knew what: urine and semen and blood— blood. Fresh blood.
A quiet, rushed sigh left her; relief, tainted with a note of… sorrow? Katara was quick to stifle any further sound, quick to stifle her emotions—she didn’t know if her captor was watching—and she took the soiled wraps deeper into the stream.
Naked and submerged, covered by the noise of the stream, she let the faintest cry slip free. The nights of fretting, of lying awake, too weak to move after one or more of the raiders had his way… well, she didn’t have to anymore. The moons that’d passed without a bleed, whether from starvation or pregnancy, could go forgotten. She didn’t have to count the weeks; she didn’t have to wonder and worry, wishing she’d been better, fought harder, done something.
She could figure out what to do about her bleeding later, how to hide it and keep clean. Her old tunic and trousers could be cut into strips, stuffed inside her bindings…
Katara would wash those last. She started with her undergarments, then waded back to shallower water and moved onto and up her legs. She worked the soap into a lather, spreading the white suds (they ran brown and dirty down into the stream) over her thighs, between them, across her hips and stomach and chest. The soap made the cuts and burns sting; a breath hissed through her nose, but Katara ignored the throbs of pain. As soon as she lowered in the water again, scraping dirt and soap from her skin, she focused her efforts on healing her wounds.
Another round—rinse, repeat, heal. Katara felt clean; at least, superficially. In her limbs, in her soul, she’d probably never feel whole again. The fatigue seemed permanent; the memories were ever-present.
She dunked her face under the water and tried to forget, scrubbing at scabs and caked mud, then moved onto her hair. The chocolate waves, or, what used to be waves, were a matted, tangled mess, clinging to her neck and cheeks, unsalvageable no matter how she worked at the knots with soap, water, and patience.
That evaporated quickly. Her motions became jerky, frustrated. Katara tore at the snarls, whining in pain, then whimpering as wads of wet, broken hair fell apart in her hands; it wrapped around her fingers, pulling from her scalp and washing away in the babbling water. She bit her lip, hard enough to taste blood, then gave up.
“Do you have your knife?” The careful silence around them shattered beneath the strain in her voice.
Her captor started on the bank, turning around—apparently, he’d allowed her some privacy—as she stood up and splashed towards the shore. Her fingers shook, extended out towards him, palm up. Her breath was heavier than she would’ve liked it to be, too heavy to feign full strength, but should he try anything, Katara thought enough power lingered in her veins to put an end to him. Maybe.
She swallowed, insisting, “Please. I need it, and not for anything malicious. I won’t use a blade when I kill you.”
Whatever his reaction, Katara couldn’t see it. He didn’t say a word, either. Stooping, the wraith pulled the knife from his boot and set the cool steel in her hand. She wrapped her fingers around the jade handle, squeezing tight as she marched back to the water. Facing him, bare and bruised, had been the easy part.
Katara gathered the mess of hair sticking to her back and pulled it over her shoulder. What was left was long enough that the ends reached her waist. Before she’d been captured, her hair had been silky, thick, and rich. Now… well, there really wasn’t a choice. She grunted and pulled the blade through the weak strands.
—this was hard.
What little healthy hair she had now fell to her chin, the rest fell from her fist into the stream and Katara cried for her mother.
Her people spent years growing their hair after a loved one’s death. It was a show of mourning, a sign of respect. While her brother and father had moved on after several, Katara’s hair had grown and grown and grown… ten years later and she’d done nothing to it but the slightest trims to keep its life. Now it was gone, rinsed from her fingers like the last decade of her life was nothing.
Maybe it was. Maybe she was. After all, she seemed to be everyone’s precious little prize. Even the firebender, who’d politely averted his gaze again, wouldn’t let her alone and Katara knew why— the bounty, the price on her kind. The Fire Nation hunted watebenders relentlessly. Now that he knew she was a healer, too… she didn’t see an ending in which she was free. He’d sell her. No matter anyone’s good intentions, they always did. She wasn’t stupid and she wasn’t foolish.
One more day, Katara thought, wading out of the stream. One more day and she could stop pretending to believe in him. One more day and his blood would stain her face.
She clung to that promise like it was the last of her strength. It was, in a way. It kept her moving, despite her weary limbs, moving through the urge to sleep as she wrapped her sarashi around her breasts and cut her old tunic into strips. Katara tucked a few lengths between her legs, then pulled the water from her clean bindings and wound the white fabric around her thighs and waist. She dressed quickly after that, assuming her companion to be annoyed at the length of her bath, and stuffed wet, sandy feet into the boots.
Her toes flexed inside the leather. “You guessed right,” Katara remarked, “on my size.” She did the laces up and straightened, drying her cropped hair with a flick of her wrist and collecting her spread of belongings. The soap and knife, she handed back to him. “I suppose I should thank you again, for bringing me back.”
He nodded, dumbly, in response to her thanks.
Even at the sound of her voice, Zuko didn’t keep his eyes on her, instead sending his gaze to the ground between them. It was stupid not to, he knew that, but he couldn’t quite make his body obey. She’d cut her hair. He didn’t think he was supposed to see that; he felt like he shouldn’t have seen that. His own scalp tingled and he had to resist the sudden urge to run a gloved hand over his own short hair. It still felt like yesterday, not four years ago, that he’d used that very same knife to cut off his own phoenix plume. His heart leapt to his throat. There was no way he could know if the length of hair meant the same to someone of the Water Tribe, but the way her voice had wavered and her carefully muffled tears after told him it meant something.
Something private that he was intruding upon, and despite the fact that he couldn’t have known she was going to do that, despite the fact that he’d only stayed nearby because she’d collapsed last time, he felt like he shouldn’t have been here. He shouldn’t have been privy to something so personal.
All at once, he wanted to rip his mask off and be done with wearing it. He didn’t know if it was because he felt he had to bare a part of himself after she had, or because she hadn’t killed him with the knife like a small part of him feared. She could have, easily, but she handed it back to him instead. Was it that sliver of trust that made his stomach twist, or was it the desire to share vulnerable exposure that made him want to reveal his face to her?
Instead, he slipped the now-dry soap back into the satchel and sheathed his knife back in his boot.
She looked better in clean clothes that weren’t threadbare. Still too thin, he thought, but better. From the rhythmic sounds of the water while she was still in the stream probably meant she went through several bouts of washing, and he didn’t blame her. He hadn’t quite realized just how much dirt was caked on her until she stood before him now, clean. The sight of her short hair made his heart hurt a little, but he could also see now that she’d cut it off because the greater length had been badly damaged from whatever she’d been put through physically, and from lack of nutrition. Even what remained didn’t sheen with a good health, but it wasn’t matted or terribly brittle-looking.
Realizing he was studying her, his spine stiffened. “Were you able to heal more?”
She nodded in reply, but it honestly didn’t ease anything inside him. He should have felt glad she was regaining strength and healing and eating more, but her slow recovery just made him angrier at her captors. Even when he’d been in command of his ship and had to be a little rough with people to try and get answers, he made sure never to mistreat anyone. He’d lain awake the night before while she slept off her first healing session, unable to banish the memory of finger-shaped burns on her hips from his mind.
“Let’s go,” he said, breaking through his own thoughts sharply. He began walking back, unsure of how to sort through the rush and curl of emotions suddenly now within him. “You can finish eating.”
Reaching the embankment, he stopped, looking back and waiting for her to catch up. When she slowed as well, he motioned for her to keep going. He wanted to follow behind her in case she couldn’t make it back up again. Even though she seemed far better off than her previous time healing, he didn’t want to take any chances. What would be the point of bringing her here to get better if she fell down an embankment and cracked her head open right after?
She went slowly, but made it fine on her own in the end. He was three paces behind her, and they kept that distance back to the cave. Even though he’d made his fire further in to keep light from escaping, he could smell the cooked rabbit before they reached the cave mouth, and it made his own stomach rumble. He hadn’t had the chance to eat yet himself, and now that they were back and he was more sure of her increasing health, his own appetite came back, reminding him that he needed to have some of that rabbit, too. If he were still traveling with Uncle, he was sure they’d have some kind of pot handy to make a stew. As it was, all he had was his knife, so they’d have to make do with strips of meat instead.
He crouched by the fire and carved out several pieces for himself, setting them aside, then several more to offer to her. “There are more blueberries, too,” he said, motioning with an incline of his head to the satchel now lying not far from the fire.
She ate whatever she was given, and washed it down with half the canteen’s contents. To save the wraith a trip to the stream, she refilled it by drawing on the water in the air. Full and cold, another perk of being a waterbender, Katara handed the canteen back. It all earned her a surprised sound from her captor, but Katara shrugged him off. She was master; using what was around her came naturally… besides, it was fun showing off the power up against, even if her feats were small.
Ice cold eyes studied him into the night. He offered to stay awake, to watch the world beyond the mouth of the cave. Maybe he was trying to create an illusion of safety— no one else will touch you, his tone said— but Katara prayed he felt fear under her gaze. She watched him move, sure steps and long strides. His body was lean beneath his black clothes, strong and muscular.
Hah. The private thought made her smile. What good would his strength do when she controlled it? One more night; she’d be free.
Katara pulled her attention from his post at the mouth of their cave. The moon had risen fully, high in the sky. The barest sliver was missing from it, the edge only faintly unrounded. La, if only she were at full strength. As the hour grew later and the white glow brighter, it was all too easy to find her captor’s heartbeat, to focus on it, to poke and prod at it until she fell asleep.
She’d stop it, she promised, curling onto her side in the dirt. She’d relish it, savor what she couldn’t do to the men who hurt her but what she could pour out on him. Vengeance. Pain. She’d watch as the light left his eyes and she’d wish he were someone else, but perhaps… perhaps his death would satiate this growing thirst for penance. It’d been festering inside her, cutting through her like the knife through her hair. So much of her was angry, and the few pieces that weren’t… those were the pieces that’d been lost to the fire.
Her mother. Father. Brother. Their faces followed Katara into her dreams. Their voices whispered sweetly to her, soothing her in her sleep; but, nothing gentle could ever last. She woke with a start come sunrise.
The fire had died in the night. Katara stared at the red coals for a while, then rubbed sleep from her eyes and sat up. Whisps of smoke drifted towards the cave’s opening, where her companion slept against the wall. She wondered how late he’d been up, and if he’d stayed up to keep watch, as he said, or watch her. Either way, he didn’t wake until she jabbed his leg with her foot.
“I thought your kind was always up with the sun,” Katara said smartly. Her chin jabbed towards the back of the cave. “Fire’s dead. If you give me your knife, I can skin the second rabbit while you restart it.”
For several racing heartbeats, Zuko stared up at her through the narrow slits of his mask. The fog of sleep still clung to the edges of his mind, and he forced himself to reprocess what she’d sad to him. Fire’s dead. Skin the second rabbit.
Nodding, he drew out his knife and handed it to her with only the barest reminiscence of hesitation. She could have killed him at the stream yesterday with it, but hadn’t. He didn’t think she would now. If she really had wanted to, he’d been asleep, and she’d clearly seen where he kept it; it would have been easy for her to slip it out and slit his throat before he was fully awake.
Zuko frowned as she took the knife from him and went back into the cave to skin the rabbit carcass. He hadn’t meant to not be awake when she got up. The tolls of the last few nights were started to catch up to him, however, having barely slept during any of them. The predawn had not been far off when sleep had overtaken him, and he’d reasoned that his inner fire would be rekindled by the rising sun like it always had. He’d not banked on just how tired he was; even after a few hours’ sleep, he still felt exhausted.
His eyes widened. Wait. Your kind, she’d said. He glanced back toward her abruptly, watching her back and arms shift as she worked on the rabbit. Thudding against his sternum, his heart raced again. She knew he was a firebender. How? Was that all she knew, or did she suspect who he was? He hadn’t taken his mask off except for when he was well away for her, and even then had kept those times to a minimum over the last few days. If she knew, was she simply biding her time to subdue him? She clearly was regaining her strength and power, that much had been evident when he watched her draw water out of thin air.
With that thought, the worry that maybe she could do something to his blood during the full moon flitted across his mind, but he dismissed it. Every cave had plenty of moisture in it, especially with a stream so nearby. It was probably condensation off the stone that she’d bent, not the air itself. That sounded as impossible as bending someone else’s blood.
His bigger worry was whether she knew who he was or not, and what she might try and do with that information.
Zuko drew in a steadying breath, and exhaled it slowly. There was no indication she knew who he was beyond firebender. He knew he’d been careful with the mask. Maybe she was just assuming, since he kept it on all the time, or maybe she’d seen the color of his eyes. Maybe that was all she knew.
He got to his feet and went to crouch by to the embers of the fire, and stirred them a little with a stick. They were still fairly hot, and would catch light again quickly. It’d be easy as a flick of his wrist to start them up again, but not only did he not want to confirm he was what she thought he was, but there was no more fuel for his fire to feed off once he ignited it. He straightened and told her he was going to get more sticks for the fire and got a wordless grunt in response. She was intent on her task, and Zuko felt a twinge of respect for that.
As he gathered a small armful of sticks to burn, he rolled everything over in his head. There wasn’t trust between them, but there was something. It was fragile, at best, but it hadn’t been there at first and now it was. He believed that she wasn’t going to kill him with her knife, and he was thinking that maybe she was starting to believe he really wasn’t going to hurt her.
If his uncle had been there, he’d urge Zuko to think about what he was going to do next. It was all well and good he’d saved her from further mistreatment, but he had no real plan for what to do when she was healed enough to fend for herself. Still, he didn’t worry. Zuko would just… figure out that part when he got there. His uncle worried too much about him sometimes. Then again, if his uncle were here, the waterbender would probably trust him far more than she did Zuko. He had a way with people that Zuko just didn’t seem to.
Remembering his long-unseen uncle gave Zuko pause, and sadness threaded fingers through all the parts of his heart. Nearly four years had gone by since he’d last seen the older man, and no small part of him ached when he thought too long about it. He hoped to one day find him again, but Zuko wasn’t sure his luck would allow for that.
He picked up a few last sticks and returned to the cave.
The waterbender had finished skinning the rabbit and had skewered it on the spit, having removed the remains of the previous one. He also noticed that she’d carved off the remaining meat from the first rabbit and piled it neatly on a strip of cloth torn from her old tunic. It was from this pile she plucked a piece to eat as he was returning. Her head whipped around to follow his entrance as if she feared he had come to take something from her. Behind the mask, his mouth pressed into a thin line at the thought of how long she’d been treated as such for her reaction to be that.
Without saying anything to her, he walked around and stacked his armful of sticks above the embers, then relit it with a set of spark rocks. They didn’t exchange many words beyond the perfunctory ones needed to get the second rabbit set up and cooking over the new fire. The remaining meat she’d piled was split between them, as well as the rest of the blueberries he’d collected before. Zuko debated the wisdom of going back to the nearby town for more food; neither of them could live off rabbits and blueberries alone. His eyes lifted to her, watching her eat. Especially if she were to really start regaining her health again.
It could serve two purposes, he mused. He could get a few more supplies, and it would also give her the chance to escape if she knew who he really was and wanted to turn him in. He’d take her to the stream again at midday, and if he came back to find her not there or here in the cave, he’d have his answer. Of course, he’d have to be wary of an ambush, but that didn’t worry him, either. The Blue Spirit hadn’t been caught in any of the many traps set for him over the last four years, and he wouldn’t be caught now.
Once they had both finished, he checked on the rabbit. “Would you like to go to the stream again?” he asked, not turning his face up to her, though he looked with his eyes. He wasn’t sure just how much she would be able to see of his eye movement, this close to the fire.
A moment passed in silence before, “Yes.”
He pretended to fuss with the rabbit a little while longer, then nodded and stood, watching her until she got to her feet as well, and they left.
When they reached the embankment, he stopped. She didn’t realized until she was several feet down, where she then paused and looked back up at him.
“I’m going to get more food,” he told her, fighting the urge to do something with his hands, like ball them into fists, or worry his fingers against their palms. “I’ll be gone for a few hours. If you’re not still here when I get back, I’ll meet you in the cave.”
Without waiting for an answer from her, he turned and vanished back down the other side, headed toward the town again. He went at a quicker pace than he normally would have, trying to reduce the time it took to get there and back. He’d made this choice to leave her, to try and test this diaphanous semblance of trust he thought was forming between them, but it still made him nervous. If he was wrong and she did know his identity and set a trap for him, he’d have to fight back. He’d have to fight her. After having felt and seen her mistreatment intimately, that prospect did not sit well with him. He hoped he wasn’t wrong.
It only took him an hour and a half to make it to the outskirts of the town. He crouched in a familiar hiding spot to catch his breath, running a short list of necessities through his head as he waited for his heart rate to calm. Once he was ready, he moved a rock aside to reveal a bundle, wrapped canvas. It was easy to sneak in and take what he wanted as the Blue Spirit at night, but not so much in the middle of the day. The bundle contained Earth Kingdom clothing not unlike the ones he’d taken for the waterbender, and he quickly changed into the long brown changshan, strapped the dǒulì onto his head, and fingered a few copper and silver pieces from his small stash of money before slipping them into a pouch in the changshan.
He didn’t linger long in the town. To everyone there, he was a vaguely familiar face of a wandering refugee, so similar to many who passed through. Zuko purchased a modest pack of dried foods, a new whetstone, and, after much hesitation, another canteen. His nerves were stretched taut the entire trip, making him more on edge than he normally was and causing him to forget to even politely thank the shopkeep for their service. There wasn’t much else he thought was needed–he knew there was a lot more that they could use, but even if he had thought more items would help rather than arm a still potential enemy, he wouldn’t have been able to afford much else. The pouch of coins dwindled to a few coppers.
Finishing his business in town in short order, he hurried back out to his hiding spot. Nothing there had been disturbed, so he changed back into his black tunic and slipped the Blue Spirit mask over his face again. He set off at the same clipped pace he’d set earlier, and made it back to the stream in only a little longer than it had taken him to get to town. Zuko slowed well before reaching it, and scouted with as much stealth as his skills could provide him to search for signs of the waterbender and any kind of ambush. He found evidence of neither.
Approaching the cave in the same cautious manner was helped by the lengthening shadows of the evening. He’d been gone all afternoon, which gave the waterbender ample time to plan and set up whatever she wanted, if she was going to. His heart thudded in his chest despite himself, and he forced his breathing to be long, even, and quiet. The cave was much as he’d left it earlier, and even a quick trek around the area surrounding it yielded no signs of ambush. The tension in his chest lessened somewhat, and he made his way back to the cave entrance, supplies in hand. If she was here, and not waiting for him at the stream, maybe that meant she wasn’t going to try and attack him at all. Moonrise wasn’t too far off, but if she’d decided she believed him enough to come back here and wait, maybe that meant she wouldn’t carry through with her threat however she had planned to do so.
She was sitting not far from the fire, intently watching the rabbit cook. The remainder of the tension that was tight between his ribs went slack at the sight of her, more than expected. He joined her at the fire, slipping the pack off his shoulder and rummaging through it until his fingers closed around the canteen. Drawing it out, he held it out to her.
“Water will run out too quickly with just one,” he said. He also handed her half the dried goods, then carved off fresh strips of hot rabbit for them both.