Dangerous Ground

A fanfic by Wilderness Writer

Welcome to Wilderness Writer's first Avatar Fanfic. I've made a lot of promises in the summary, and I truly hope to live up to them in this story and not disappoint you, my beloved reader. I appreciate any feedback you may have for me, but please no flames.

Rating: I rated it "T" just to be safe. Nothing bad in this chapter except for some action/fighting scenes, but nothing gory. There may be more reason for the "T" rating later...

Pairing: This is a Zutara fic. I recognize that there is a huge difference of opinion on this shipping, and I do respect your views if you've got another pair in mind.

Author's Note: All characters are four years older than in the show. This is only to make it easier for me to write the fic, as I can better understand the characters I'm writing. Nothing has changed from the cannon other than that. No time has elapsed to make them older, I just jumped their ages ahead. Okay, on with the fic...

Chapter 1.

I was breathless. My ribs ached, my head throbbed, my legs felt as if a thousand flames were twisting and crawling inside them. I'm not sure how long we had been running, but it was getting close to as long as I could take. I felt my steps slowing, by legs turning to jelly beneath me, dragging me back to my death.

"Keep up, Katara!" Sokka shouted at me, grabbing my hand and lunging further into the forest. Tree limbs snapped and caught my hair, my dress, my skin. I put my hands up to shield my face, only to find myself stumbling over a tree root and colliding with the loamy earth beneath me.

"Come on, guys! We have to keep moving! They've almost caught up to us!" I pushed myself up on trembling arms to face Aang. He had been trailing behind us, throwing airballs at our pursuers, trying to give us a chance to escape. But one young airbender against twenty trained firebenders and an angry prince was not a fair match.

I felt myself tugged firmly to my feet by Sokka. I forced my legs to move, gathering every bit of strength within me. If we could only make it to Appa, we'd be safe. We could fly away.

Right Katara. I thought bitterly to myself, You'll never be safe. As long as you travel with Aang you will always be in danger of the Fire Nation and that psychopathic prince. But I pushed the thought out of my head. Just get to Appa. It was my mantra. Get to Appa. Get to Appa.

Just that morning we had been sunning ourselves on the rocky pinnacle of a mountain overlooking an earthbender village. Then, the inevitable happened. Sokka got hungry. Curse Sokka and his infernal belly! He'd convinced us to take a trip into the village to buy some food. Of course, we'd had to leave Appa behind. There's something about a flying Bison that attracts attention.

It was wasted effort. Sokka's big mouth and Aang's naive ways had more than attracted the attention of firenation troops. They'd been trailing us for days, it seems, and the little trip into the village was just the slip-up they'd been hoping for. Now, with still at least a mile to go, I was rapidly losing strength and the will to go on. I cast a look at my brother. He, too, was fading quickly. His shoulders drooped and he was breathing heavily, it was taking everything in him to keep going.

Then it happened. A root seemed to rise up with the explicit intent on causing my doom. I fell, and did not get up.

"Katara!" Sokka shouted, pulling at my limp wrist. "We have to move!" But I stayed where I was, panting in the dirt. I heard Aang's hurried footsteps behind me. I gritted my teeth in frustration. He could escape if he wanted to. With one powerful blast of speed he could airbend himself right out of here. He was only lagging behind for us. For me.

"Go!" I shouted to him. "I can't run anymore." Aang looked at me in shock, as if the mere suggestion had caused him pain. He shook his head.

"Listen to me" I said between heaving breaths "You need to get out of here now. If you don't, they will catch us. The world will..." I didn't have the heart to say it. All I could think of was my home going up in flames, quite literally. "One airbender against all of them is not a fair match" I finished.

"I picked 'em all off, blew them away, only Zuko's left." Aang said, gripping his glider. I could see a look of determination cross his face. I'd seen that look before. I'd seen it on my father's face the day he'd agreed to help fight the Fire Nation. The look of one determined to fight, even to his own death.

On the face of a twelve year old boy. How could this be happening? He shouldn't be here. He should be home, playing with other boys and getting into trouble and just being a kid. Curse this stupid war! There was nothing I could do to stop the war, but I could at least convince Aang to escape.

" You don't know firebending, Aang. He could kill you. We can't take that chance. Go! Now!" Aang turned from me...

...And faced the woods. He would not leave. I felt a mix of anger and relief that did not sit well in my stomach. I reached out to turn him, to try to convince him...

Zuko appeared only a few yards away. He wasn't even out of breath. Of course he wasn't. He was a warrior, trained from birth, most likely. I hated him. Anger seethed in my chest as he stepped up to Aang, an arrogant grin draped crookedly across his face, as if he knew he'd already won.

Aang made the first move, sending a blast of air bowling through the woods that Zuko simply side-stepped. Aang threw a few more, but Zuko evaded them and unleashed his own barrage of attacks that singed the delicately fluttering leaves that surrounded their arena, sending wisps of acrid smoke to mar the summer's day beauty.

I watched in morbid fascination as they fought. It was a dance, a beautiful dance beneath the sun-dappled canopy of the forest, the sun's green-tinted rays playing on the bodies of the fighters and twinkling between wind and fire and smoke.

I was snatched from my trance when a tree suddenly burst into flames at the mercy of Zuko's fire. The bark snapped and curled, splinters bit through the air and the leaves quickly curled and turned to ash in the intense heat. Aang had narrowly escaped the blast by crouching beneath the flame. He stood now and with a powerful yell blew a gust of wind at Zuko that slammed him into a sturdy old oak.

But his move backfired. The displaced air had to be replaced, and it came from behind Aang, catching the smoldering embers and ashes of the tree and sending them into his back.

"Ooh! Hot! Hot!" Aang jumped and danced as he tried to shake the cinders off his clothes, giving Zuko just the opportunity he needed. He rushed at Aang, fists raised and consumed in flame. He threw a fireball that hurled Aang to the ground. Aang didn't get up.

Zuko stepped around Aang, his back to the burning tree, and prepared to land the final blow, the one that would incapacitate Aang enough to ensure that he would be no further threat to the Fire Nation.

"No!" I screamed.

And then the world stopped. I saw Aang look up, a mask of fear on his face; not in fear of Zuko, but what was behind him. The burning tree was almost entirely consumed, and had begun to topple. Aang scooted out of the way, but Zuko, his back to the tree, did not know that it was falling until it was too late.

With a crash the tree fell across his back, smacking the prince to the ground and knocking him unconscious. Aang took a deep breath and extinguished the fire that still smoldered on the tree, while also blowing it off the Prince's prone body.

There was silence for many minutes as they stood in the little clearing the fight had created.

Finally, Sokka spoke up and voiced the thought that was now hanging heavily on everyone's mind.

"What do we do now?"