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.
She remained frozen far too long in his absence, coiled with the expectation of fire and licking pain. Even after his footsteps disappeared around the bend in their cave and his heartbeat reduced to nothing more than a dull throb, she was still, tensed. So much for her display for fire and fight.
A curse whispered off the rocks as Katara let go of a held breath. How great a fool she’d been; she wasn’t his prisoner? Any night, any time he was absent, she could’ve vanished, and she’d… stayed. For what? The shelter, the food, the company— Katara could argue for any, but the simple truth remained: she was afraid.
Running may anger him. Fighting back certainly did, despite her only weapons being words. How much worse would he react to her disappearance, to her battling him should she be found by him? Katara shot a look beyond the cave.
Demon or not, he was out there, hovering nearby. She felt the hot current of his blood— adrenaline, pain, frustration— as though it were her own. As if she could leave; he was hiding behind that mask, taunting her with promises of freedom and vengeance, but she hadn’t been wrong in calling herself a prisoner. What other reason did he have to keep so close? No— whatever he said, her only true escape would come with his death, with the marauders’ deaths.
And she could find them on her own. She would.
Eyes closed now, Katara focused solely on him. The crackle of the fire faded, the hoots of owls and distant howls: all gone. She heard only his heartbeat; she felt only his breaths.
There was this phenomenon, she’d learned, whenever she bent another’s blood. Her victim couldn’t move. If she willed it, they wouldn’t be able to breathe. But, beyond that, worse than that, her victims couldn’t think. They lost all autonomy. Their hearts would slow to match hers; they’d feel whatever emotion coursed through her veins. White hot anger. Cold apathy. Katara knew the exact moment her opponent knew: they were going to die. Fear dumped into their blood, made their throat tighten and eyes widen—
She wondered how her captor would react, wondered if he felt the slight grip she had on his heartstrings now. At full strength, Katara could’ve killed him from this distance. A mere twitch and he’d keel over, dead before he hit the ground, but fatigue lingered beneath her skin’s surface and she knew she’d need the moon’s full power.
Later. Midnight, Katara promised herself, catching a change in him. He was moving, coming back into the cave. Her eyes opened and flicked to the cave’s entrance, tracking the wraith’s return to the firelight.
“Are you… better?” she asked as he took a seat. “Based on prior experiences, it’s unexpected to see my keeper so conflicted, but as long as you’ve made peace with your… moral dilemma… can we move on?” Katara knew she had to remain in his good graces if she meant to spend the night unbound and unguarded, and despite her refusal to apologize, the opportunity to make amends presented itself.
The knife he’d flung in her direction lay forgotten in the dirt. She picked it up, fingers around the blade, and offered it handle first. “I don’t need this to fight. I can make sharper daggers out of ice.” Katara gestured for him to take it, but her attention fell to the way he cradled his hand, and the spike of energy thrumming in him made sense.
“Idiot,” she muttered, dumping his knife in the dirt. “You hit something, didn’t you? Just like my brother— always punching things with no concern for the consequences, all to display his masculinity and strength.” Sarcasm leached into her voice, but Katara grabbed her canteen and approached her captor nonetheless. “It’ll make for a sleepless night if you don’t let me heal that.”
It startled him, her mention of a brother. It made him frown down at his hand and remember his own sister. The brief mention of her sibling held more affection in it than he had felt from his own since they were children on Ember Island. Lost to that thought so abruptly, he almost missed her coming closer, but an odd sense of warmth prickled the edges of his awareness, reminding him of her proximity. The prickling was similar to his fire sense, but felt different. Zuko lifted his face to see her standing before him, just outside an arm’s length away.
She–what was her game? He narrowed his eyes at her, suddenly suspicious. She’d yelled at him and thrown accusations at him, but now completely turned around and asked if he’d gotten over his own tantrum, and offered to heal his hand. Not only that, either, but she mentioned her family–something he would have thought she’d keep close to her chest, and not let an enemy know.
Maybe… What if she really was starting to realize he didn’t want to keep her against her will? Why else would she offer to heal his hand? Him having any sort of incapacity would only benefit her if she truly believed he wanted her captive. What if she was extending a peace offering? Why else would she talk about family to him? Something snagged in his chest.
Slowly, apprehensively, Zuko offered up his hand. He didn’t move to step closer to her, instead leaving the decision to close the distance or not up to her. Perhaps she would simply heal him from beyond his reach–he wasn’t quite sure how it worked. His gaze didn’t leave her as she took another step closer. She looked up at his mask for what felt like a long stretch of silence, then let her gaze fall to his outstretched hand, one of hers coming up to grasp it gently. Her fingers were cool against his own, and his heart pounded in his ears.
With surprising care, the waterbender turned his hand from side to side, examining the damage he had caused it. He winced as she moved it. At least two of his knuckles were red and swollen, with blood covering them and spiderwebbing down along his fingers and the back of his hand. He’d felt the distinct crack on the back of his hand near his wrist and knew the bones there were probably broken, but his whole hand since had melded into one burning throb of pain. It was impossible for him to determine any other damage that had been done.
Her head bent over his hand, Zuko felt something niggling at the edge of his senses again, but it was different than before. It felt almost like an unseen shifting nearby, but before he could focus on it properly, it was gone. Below him, he heard the waterbender murmur something about broken fingers and popped knuckles.
With fascination winning out over the dregs of apprehension, Zuko watched as she uncorked the canteen with one hand and used the other to summon a stream of water from it. She sheathed her hand in the water and grasped his hand again. Her touch was firmer this time and made him suck in a sharp breath at the sudden cold pressure on his broken skin and bones. The cold didn’t remain for long, however, as the water began to glow, and then began to warm to a level that was almost hot to him. At first, it was jarring and painful, and Zuko stiffened and had to force himself still so as to not snatch his hand back immediately. His other hand fisted tightly; his nails carved half-moons into his palm.
What came next was as terrifying as it was amazing.
He felt his bones and tendons mend themselves back together. He felt the scraped cuts of his skin close and become whole again. It hurt probably as much as causing the damage did, but it felt much stranger. Zuko had been hurt plenty of times, sometimes even fairly badly, but healing had always been a slow process, never this… immediate.
When the glow of the water finally faded, she released her hold on the water and it splashed ineffectually to the cave floor between their feet. She still held Zuko’s hand with her own, still partially covered in blood that hadn’t been washed away with the water, and commanded him to move it without looking up at him. He did as she asked, tentatively moving his fingers, then flexing the whole of it. Eyes wide, Zuko stared first at his hand, then at her with astonishment. She’d… completely healed it.
She watched him move his hand around a few times with apparent satisfaction with her own handiwork, then looked up at him. All at once, Zuko felt rooted to the stone when the blue of her eyes alighted on him. They were dark and glittering in the firelight, like the cobalt depths of the ocean beneath starlight. They stood closer than they’d ever been aside from him carrying her, and he swore he could feel the heat coming off her.
“I–” He swallowed, feeling heat flood his cheeks. “Thank you.”
Not waiting for her to respond, he was the first to move away, feeling awkward with his heart in his throat and not understanding why. He retreated to the fire–a safe place, near his element–and fussed needlessly over the rabbit on the spit.
“I don’t have a… moral dilemma, and I meant what I said earlier. I’m not your keeper,” Zuko said abruptly, still facing the fire, and his voice held none of the angry vehemence that it did before. Now he did chance a glance back at her, but she merely shrugged as if she may or may not have believed him. Well, at least she wasn’t shouting at him again.
Instead, she retrieved his knife from where it’d fallen to the floor and offered it to him a second time. He took it and slid it back into place in his boot, then in turn offered her more of the cooked rabbit. She took it and they ate in silence.
It was difficult to tell if the silence was strained. His heart rattled oddly in his chest, and Zuko couldn’t quite meet her gaze for too long. He could still feel her body heat–or at least, he thought he could–and it made him feel overly sensitive to anything he might say or do. So, the rest of the evening played out in relative quiet, with him unable to get a clear read on her mood. She’d been nice to him when he came back from his angry exit, and healed his hand. Her concern had been immediate and… genuine when she saw blood. And, much her anger seemed to come from her thinking he didn’t trust her. Maybe… maybe he should make a show of good faith. Maybe he should remove his mask.
He let the fire grow dim as the night deepened around his thoughts. It was late, he finally settled on, instead of any action. He could make his decision tomorrow, in the light of day, whether to take it off or not. Zuko wasn’t sure he’d trust his choice tonight to be the right one if he made it with his heart dominating his mood.
The waterbender was already lying down with some of her old clothing rolled up as a makeshift pillow, so he stretched out a few paces away from her. In the growing dark, he spoke quietly as he looked up at the cave ceiling.
“I wasn’t trying to show off or anything. I was just… frustrated. But my–” Here, he faltered for a moment, but it passed quickly and he went on. “My sister’s always the one showing off, reminding me and everyone else how strong she is. I always struggled to try and keep up with her.”
Silence answered Zuko, and he wondered if she had already fallen asleep. He listened for several beats to her breathing, trying to determine. Her breaths were still somewhat shallow, but that could have easily just been from still not being at full strength.
Still, his voice even softer, he said, “Thanks again for healing my hand.”
When she said nothing again, he pressed his lips together and exhaled quietly. Maybe he should still leave. Maybe he should take off the mask. Zuko closed his eyes. He’d decide tomorrow.