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.
She couldn’t call it a victory, making him stiffen, then sit down on his haunches. It wasn’t a victory. It was a testament— to how damaged she was, how wounded. He saw her as some sort of fragile being, if he, her enemy, could be convinced to back down with nothing more than a strangled plea.
Of course, the thought crossed her mind: perhaps he didn’t intend her any harm. Perhaps his reaction was not to her igniting words, but to her history. Perhaps… he pitied her…? She didn’t want pity; Katara couldn’t even claim sympathy. She wanted her brother, her father, her freedom.
She watched him, like the opportunity would some how appear. She watched him spread his hands like a surrender, watched him struggle for the correct words, watched his fingers pause between his lap and his jaw, heavy with trepidation. Her heart was pounding harder than his when he brushed the edge of the mask.
This was it, the moment that marked her as his or his companion. Katara decided she’d stick by him, no matter his face, his name, his past, if the mask came off. That display of real trust wouldn’t go—gods damn him. His hand fell away and something like a shot of fury ran hot and liquid through her veins. A breath pulled sharp and loud through her nose.
“You’re not letting me go.”
Her statement drew the wraith’s attention. Even through the narrow slits, those golden eyes caught the firelight, holding a mix of alarm, uncertainty. It took everything within her not to cower against the wall, took a heartbeat for Katara to remember the rising moon outside. She was quickly gaining power, and with it, all her daring.
“Do you think I’m naive?” Katara shot across the cave, her glare dark. His chances of surviving were growing ever dimmer. She was growing ever braver, now that she had his unwavering stillness. “You’re sorry. So what? You can take me to those men. So what?! What use are your apologies? What good are your promises?” she pressed. “You haven’t given me your name, you haven’t shown your face. Yet, you ask—demand—my trust. You tell me you won’t hurt me, you only have good intentions with me, but you refuse to trust me.”
She made a show of shaking her head. She didn’t have a mask to tuck her emotions behind— so be it. He’d have to see the anger, the rage, play out all over her face and know that his life wasn’t safe in her hands. She was furious. She was hurting. And, she was battling some twinge of betrayal at his insistence on wearing his mask.
Katara shifted under that thought, uncomfortable with it. She had no bond with this man. She had… nothing. A growl broke the seal of her lips and harsh, blue eyes pinned the monster to the other side of the cave.
“What intentions could you possibly have for me? Are you going to make me into your demon wife? Dress me up and drag me around?” she asked. “Or, will you keep me here? Have a warm body to fill your bed and prepare your breakfast? I might not be hurt by you, no. I might be in kinder hands, but I’m still a prisoner, firebender.”
Her words engulfed him like a tidal wave. They pressed his chest tight and he fought the urge to gulp for air.
I’m still a prisoner.
That’s what she thought of this? Anger rose in him, swift and hot and tingling his fingertips. “Intentions?” he echoed, unable to keep his voice from rising, unable to keep from rising to his feet again. “I don’t have any intentions–all I’m demanding of you is to not go and get yourself killed! You’d be dead now if it weren’t for me!” Some small voice in the back of his mind that sounded much like his uncle said that this was a bad idea, but he ignored it.
“I didn’t have to save you, and I’m not keeping you here! You could have walked out any time while I was asleep.” To punctuate his point, he gestured to the dark mouth of the cave with a sharp sweep of his hand. “You could have killed me at any time while I was asleep, too–how is that not trusting you?”
Without sparing a single moment to think before he acted, Zuko reached down and tugged the knife out of his boot–scabbard and all–and tossed it haphazardly against the cave floor. It clattered and spun on the rock near her. “Here,” he said, knowing that he was acting exactly like a petulant child and not caring. “In case I was wrong to trust you wouldn’t use it.” She lashed out at him just when he thought she was starting to believe him, and it hurt. He wanted her to feel the same connection that he did, and she didn’t. Zuko hated how much that stung him.
“And I’m not a demon!” he snapped, hiding his hurt behind his anger. The waterbender glared at him, her eyes furious and daring him to prove he wasn’t. “I just–I can’t.” Zuko hated how his voice cracked like the last remnants of wood breaking beneath the heat of a fire. He couldn’t meet her gaze. Scowling at the hot prickling at the corner of his eyes, he glared at nothing in particular. She couldn’t understand. Her nature made her an enemy of the Fire Nation, but his father–his father–had exiled him from the very country he was supposed to inherit one day. His home. His father had put a bounty on his head, dead or alive.
All at once, Zuko felt like he was going to burst into flame if he stayed in that cave on second longer. It was all too much–the accusations she flung at him like shards of ice, the betrayal of his own father that still stung like a fresh wound seven years later–and a frustrated growl clawed its way up out of his chest. He whirled and stormed out of the cave without a glance back to her, and stalked several paces away from the opening before turning on the stone and punching it. He felt a bone crack and the warmth of splitting skin, but didn’t care.
Turning, he didn’t even bother to look at his hand, instead folding his arms over his chest and glaring out into the dark. The sun had set and full night settled across the sky.
She was angry at him for not revealing who he was–but she hadn’t either. The only difference was that he knew what she looked like. He didn’t know her name, and he didn’t have any immediate plans on asking her for it; he’d been too concerned with seeing her back on her feet to think about her name.
So what if he knew what she looked like? Her face was a little too gaunt right now, but she looked like any normal young woman would. She didn’t have a permanent reminder of dishonor and shame dominating half of it like he did. He couldn’t risk her seeing it and knowing who he was and trying to turn him in. He couldn’t.
But he wanted to. Zuko leaned his back against the rough stone wall and stared up at the sliver of moon that crested above a cloudbank. It didn’t matter what he wanted. He had to do what he needed to survive.
And so did she.
Though it was obvious, something he already empirically knew, it still stung him like a dash of ice water. I’m still a prisoner. Of course that’s how she saw this. She’d gone from being in one cave with firebenders all around her to another, with yet another firebender watching her. The fact that he didn’t have her tied up probably meant very little to her, all told.
His head fell back against the stone, and he closed his eyes. A gentle wind rustled the young leaves around him and sent a chill running up his spine. He let out a slow exhale and focused on his breath to warm up.
As soon as she was strong enough that he was sure she wouldn’t die–or get captured again–if left to her own devices, Zuko would go. It’d be better that way.
He tried not to focus on why that decision bothered him.