Every ounce of indignation that had Zuko on his feet and wanting to pace immediately fled. He froze in place, gaping at her. For several echoing beats of his heart, that was all he could do. Eventually, he recovered, pressing his lips together.
He’d… frightened her.
He’d only stood up, and that simple movement had sent her cowering.
In an instant, he crouched back down in place. His hands, concealed behind the rise and fall of his thighs, clenched into fists so tight they hurt.
“Don’t,” he began, but his voice was shaky. He couldn’t trust it. She thought he was angry at her, that he was going to hurt her. She thought he was going to–
Zuko drew in a breath to calm himself. It didn’t work. He was angry–angry at all the men who’d done this to her. Who’d bruised and burned her. He felt his inner fire swell inside him. He promised himself that he would make sure they regretted everything they had ever done to her and anyone else.
He released his breath and tried to steady his voice. “I’m not going to hurt you. I promise.”
Very intentionally, Zuko unfurled his hands and shifted them into plain view. It wasn’t quite a spreading of his hands to show peace, but it was reminiscent of that same intent. She watched him askance for several long, silent minutes where he held himself as still as he could. There was one time where he might have compared her to a wounded animal–but she wasn’t, and he’d learned the hard way that was a disingenuous point of view. She was a young woman who’d endured horrors he wouldn’t wish on his worst enemy. In fact, she was supposed to be his enemy, but working to help her back to health, watching her simply exist in this cave with him over the past few days, Zuko just couldn’t see her as the enemy. He’d gone through much the same as he traveled across the Earth Kingdom for four years. They weren’t the enemy, they were all just people. Just like the people of the Fire Nation. Just like him.
As he watched her hold back the tremors that threatened to overtake her hands, a sudden and strong desire to take off the mask surged within him. He’d always considered it necessary to protect himself, but was it really? She had no choice but to be who she was; she didn’t have the luxury of something to hide behind. His heart quickened a little. She’d already taken steps toward trusting him, hadn’t she? But the mask still was a physical barrier, a reminder that he had more control than she did in this situation. What if he did remove it? Would she really recognize him and use that against him, or would it be one step closer to true trust he could initiate? Zuko worried his lip as his thoughts spun wild. The wanted posters for him–for Zuko, Exiled Fire Nation Prince–were a few years old, and there were still Earth Kingdom people out there who assumed he was just a scarred refugee like so many others. This girl already knew he was a firebender, but she might not recognize him for who he was.
The only sound for a long stretch between them was his heartbeat in his own ears.
She was watching him intently now, but he couldn’t read the expressions that flitted across her face; he couldn’t guess at her thoughts. Did she think him a monster, as she’d called him before? He wouldn’t be surprised–for all that he’d tried to show goodwill, he still kept the mask of a spirit over his face. Maybe he should take it off, break down that barrier.
His left hand drifted up to the edge of his mask, just in front of his jawline.
He let his hand drop back down. He couldn’t do it. It was too risky. He hadn’t survived this long with bounties out on both his true identity and the Blue Spirit by taking unnecessary risks, and revealing himself to a waterbender who had a well-earned vendetta against firebenders was an unnecessary risk. She may not have killed him when she had a chance to so far, but that was shaky ground to base anything off of.
He waited until she seemed to relax a little again before moving. She was still tense, that much was clear, but it wasn’t as bad as a few minutes ago. That was probably the best he could hope for in their current situation.
He looked away from her, turning his head so that she would know. “I’m sorry.” Whether he was apologizing for frightening her unintentionally, for all that had been done to her, or because it was his people who had hurt her, who’d hurt the entire world–Zuko couldn’t say. He silently decided he meant all of them.
Another expanse of silence filled the space between them.
Then, very quietly, he said, “I can show you where they raid the most. When you’re stronger.” Zuko didn’t think he needed to clarify who they meant.