Disclaimer: I do not Avatar: The Last Airbender.
Author's Notes: I was initially going to leave this one quite short, but I couldn't help myself, you know. The story carried me away with it. Also, this story takes place during season two.
Author's Notes EDIT: 7/22/11. Nothing major! Just wanted to make a few edits and finally fix the problem with the line breaks.
Fear had a funny way of messing with one's thoughts.
Over the years, Zuko had learned how to not let it consume him. It seemed however that, at the current moment, this particular skill of his was quickly eluding him.
"There's too many," Katara whispered breathlessly. He felt her shift her weight nervously behind him, adjusting her stance and no doubt looking severe and ready for a fight.
The problem at hand, as it was surely very clear to the both of them (one unmasked and vulnerable, one hiding behind a face of blue and white), was that neither of them was fully prepared to take on the mass of fire nation warriors surrounding them.
"There's no escape," she whispered to the man behind her. He didn't understand why she trusted him, or why she was willing to fight by his side, but he wasn't exactly in a position to question her actions. Or her sanity. In fact, he didn't have much time to do anything but try to overcome his fear and realize that somehow he felt complete, utter gratitude for the crazy waterbender behind him that had faith in a stranger behind an old oni mask.
Somehow, as he thought of this, a little of his fear begin to ebb away. He positioned his double broadswords, briefly catching the reflection of his disguise in the blades as they sliced the air.
"We can make one."
Katara's head jerked to the side slightly after having heard him speak for the first time, but showed no acknowledgement – (No recognition… Was that disappointment or relief he felt?) – other than a nod of the head and readjustment of her stance.
Then, together, moving swiftly and forcefully through the crowds of armed soldiers, the waterbender girl and the masked spirit violently pushed and desperately fought their way to a forest, where refuge waited for them.
Katara leaned against a tree, breathing heavily and glancing back over her shoulder to the far, outer edges of the forest. Her hair was a mess and her clothes were torn and bloodstained, Zuko observed, but she really didn't seem to care. He could only imagine how many cuts he'd received and how many rips and tears he'd managed to earn his tattered, ragged earth peasant clothing.
"I think they gave up," Katara said, turning her gaze to the Blue Spirit. "I think they stopped following us."
Zuko sat on the trunk of an upturned tree, his twin swords still out and free of their sheaths. He closed his eyes, biting the inside of his cheek just enough to draw a little trail of blood.
"They'll be back," he whispered, trying to keep his voice low and unrecognizable. I'm as good as dead if she finds out. Zuko turned to look deeper into the forest behind him. It was getting darker by the second; he wanted to light a fire – a small one until they started moving back to their respective campsites – but he knew he couldn't, lest he give her a clue as to his identity. Resisting the urge to shiver, he turned to the sky. "We weren't seriously worth their time until we made them lit the third armory on fire. Who knows how long they'll keep looking." He watched as Katara slid down the trunk, frowning.
"I can't lead them back to camp," she whispered to herself, barely audible enough for him to hear if he strained. He paused, swallowing. Don't give yourself away.
"Can't lead them back to the Avatar?" He asked indifferently, facing her. Zuko's voice remained neutral. Her head shot up, her eyes questioning. "To Aang?"
"I never –"
"You didn't have to." He kept his voice low, his tone dispassionate. He turned one of his swords over in his hands, examining it. "I already know who you are," Zuko stared at his swords as the moonlight flickered off them, making his mask looking eerily alive in the reflection. "And who you travel with." Katara's expression grew dark.
Zuko could see her form reaching for her bending water cap. Not exactly where I wanted this to go, he thought, chiding himself for being careless. Fighting an extremely pissed off waterbender almost near the moon's zenith was not, by any means, something that he wanted to do. Especially this one.
She cannot know who I am. But then he wondered, as he saw her slowly making a motion as if to remove the cap, that perhaps he wanted her to find out.
"So you lead me into the forest then," she spat heatedly. "Hoping that I'd take you to the Avatar, is that it?"
"First of all," the Blue Spirit held up a gloved finger. Keep your voice unidentifiable. "If finding the Avatar had been any desire of mine, I wouldn't have revealed the fact that I know who you are, let alone your companions." Katara's cerulean eyes were as sharp as daggers as her hand lingered on the cap. "Second, if I had really wanted the Avatar, we would've been already on the way to your camp by now, after I would've convinced you that we had to move him out of the way of the traveling troops –"
"You put an awful lot of thought into this for someone who claims that they don't want him," she scowled, peering at him skeptically. The hand hadn't removed itself from the container. "And what makes you think you could convince me to –"
"Third," he cut in. "I do not want to kidnap the Avatar. He is of no use to me," he paused. At least, not anymore. "The possibility of the Blue Spirit kidnapping the Avatar should be the last of your concerns." Katara stared at him intently. Even behind his mask, he felt his skin burn from the severe scrutiny. Zuko stared back.
"Why should I trust you?" She sounded genuinely curious.
"I've been wondering the same thing all night."
After a long, silent moment, she nodded, looking thoughtful, but no less upset. Zuko let out the breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding in and looked towards a tree to his right. Do not let her find out who you are.
"Do you know my name?" she asked.
A curt nod.
"Do I know yours?"
"It typically defeats the purpose of wearing a mask if someone knows who is under it." Katara glowered.
"Why do you wear it?" She crossed her arms, removing her hand from the cap at last.
"Masks are generally worn to hide someone's identity—"
"You know that's not what I meant," Katara retorted, rolling her eyes. Zuko mentally noted how unladylike the gesture was. "Why do you, personally, wear that oni mask?" Her gaze lingered on the white designs, tracing the features with her blue eyes.
"I tend to like my identity unknown."
"That's all you're going to give me." Katara continued to scowl, her curiosity visibly eating away at her.
"I should've thought that'd been fairly obvious." Katara glared at the dirt at her feet, leaning up against the trunk of the tree once more, looking defeated. For now.
"So, Blue Spirit," Katara said, her tone mocking. "What do you suggest we do now?" Zuko did nothing for a long while, only looking at the stars and contemplating his options.
On the one hand, he could disappear into the night and escape the risk of revealing himself. That would leave Katara in the middle of the forest however, he reminded himself. Alone, armed with nothing but a small dagger and a jug of water, and surely miles away from her companions. There was also the little detail that numerous troops of fire nation soldiers were out for their heads. More so than usual, anyway. Zuko bit the inside of his cheek, glancing at the girl from as much out of his peripherals as the mask would allow. I could just leave, he thought. But then he wondered how true that statement was.
Of course I could, he assured himself. But still, uncertainty tainted the thought.
His other option, the less appealing one, included him staying with the girl long enough to get her back within close range of her companions and safely out of the forest. It also included Zuko frantically trying to keep the crazy, curious waterbender from figuring out just who he was, no doubt, which he was not looking forward to in the slightest. It would be honorable to stay, he thought, before snickering in spite of himself. Katara looked up inquisitively, getting impatient with Zuko's mental indecisiveness. Honor doesn't have as much value as it used to, Zuko thought with a remorseful smile. It means nothing to me now.
I should leave.
Zuko turned back towards the girl and sheathed his swords quickly, the words, "you can do whatever you please," on the very tip of his tongue and the urge to get away burning at his core. For some unfathomable reason the Prince hesitated.
She fought by me.
Inhaling deeply, he closed his eyes.
"We need to get through to the other side of the forest," he said a last, cursing his conscience. "Traveling through it will be much quicker than along the roads nearby and the soldiers will be far less likely to surround themselves with tall, flammable trees."
I can stay.
"About time," Katara stood, brushing the dirt off of her robes, though it really didn't do any good. Dried blood and mud had already encrusted themselves into the fabric a long time ago. "You're wasting broad moonlight by just sitting, you know." Zuko's eyebrow twitched in annoyance under his mask.
Zuko had never appreciated silence more than he did now.
The mask didn't permit him to glance at her behind him without turning his head, which caused him to stare ahead at the trees. The only sounds to greet their ears were their footsteps, along with branches breaking and snapping as the Blue Spirit lashed out to cut one away on an occasion or two.
Keep your identity hidden.
It was easier said then done.
As soon as the two travelers started their journey through the forest, Zuko had forced himself to keep his answers short, that is, if he ever answered her at all, or didn't respond with a mere nod or gesture of his hand. He'd learned from excruciatingly painful experience that there are times when he needed to just keep his mouth shut.
The girl soon became frustrated with his lack of adequate responses and his sudden urge to eradicate any level of communication between them that included the use of their vocal chords. She soon grew silent herself, whether too tired to try or just too stubborn to be the one to make the futile attempts, he did not know. Even though he could not see her, Zuko knew she was staring hard at his back. He could feel the quizzical looks she was giving him, the confused expressions… The tiny glimmer of hope and trust in her gaze, the origins and justifications of both of which were still very much a mystery to him.
He vaguely wondered if she knew them herself.
"Where should the Fire Nation soldiers be?" Katara asked abruptly, breaking the silence without warning. Zuko would have jumped had he not still have been on his guard, on the lookout for the aforementioned warriors. Zuko pointed northeast, behind them.
"And where will they be when we've reached the outskirts of the forest?"
They walked in silence again, Zuko becoming more aware of the frustration emanating from the waterbender behind him. Twice he thought he heard her sigh, but he ignored them both, passing them off as sounds from the wind.
"Are you from around here?" She asked, walking fast to keep up with his long strides. "Are you of the Earth Kingdom?"
At first, Zuko couldn't help but feel offended. He sneered unconsciously, scoffing under his breath. Am I a member of the Earth Kingdom? What foolish nonsense is –
Technically, he wasn't welcomed in any kingdom, let alone be a member of one. Although, from the way things were looking for his situation now, he might as well be part of the Earth Kingdom. It's where he'd been traveling for the previous few months.
It's nice to know that my life has come to this, he thought, once again reminded of just how well everything in his life had seemed to blow up in his face. Again.
Zuko also made the mental note to add his current situation to his collection of rather unlucky, troublesome, and altogether miserable events in life. Stuck in the woods with a senseless waterbender and a pack of angry, vengeful Fire Nation warriors out for their heads.
Definitely to be added.
In response to her questions, he merely shook his head.
"Why was the Fire Nation after you, too?" She asked, catching up to him until she was at his left. "You already know that they want me because I'm associated with Aang," she sent him a sidelong glance. "Did you steal something from them?" Without turning to her, the Blue Spirit shook his head. He cut another branch out of the way.
"Have you killed someone?" She asked, though her tone implied no fear or true belief in the question. Of course he hadn't killed anyone, as he told her so with another shake of the head, but he wondered what she'd do if he had told her yes.
"Are you a runaway eunuch?"
Zuko stopped, turning around to face her. He wasn't entirely sure of what he looked like under the mask at that moment, but somehow he was glad that it couldn't be seen; he was positive that the expression was something quite fearsome. Katara merely shrugged.
"It got you to do more than shake your head, didn't it?"
Zuko turned, mentally noted something about the insolence and impertinence of a certain lunatic of a waterbender, and continued walking.
I should definitely leave.
But he didn't.
"Well, you can't care about it all that much if you were so careless as to actually speak at all," Katara stated pointedly, crossing her arms and walking alongside the man in the mask.
He did nothing.
Katara sighed and nodded, looking defeated at long, long last. He felt the greatest sense of gratitude for whatever powers it was that decided to let her stubbornness die down, even if it only lasted for a little while.
Zuko paused and scanned the forest for sight of anything that might have been off, while Katara followed suit. He noticed her rub her arms up and down absentmindedly, as if she were cold, but tried to pay it no mind. Was it his fault that the girl didn't bring proper attire to wear in the forest in the middle of the night? Although, I'm pretty cold too. Actually, Zuko thought, suddenly feeling a chill creeping up his spine. I'm very cold. If a girl who's been living at the South Pole all her life is cold, then it must mean something. He resisted the urge to shiver for the second time that night, motioning to the west instead.
"We have a few miles left," he said in a low tone, barely above a whisper. Katara turned to him suddenly, evidently thinking that she had heard the last of him that night already. "It should take the soldiers long enough so that we are still ahead of them, even if we were to stop and rest." Katara looked confused.
"But shouldn't we keep moving?"
"Not if it's going to drain our energy."
She nodded. "When do you propose we stop?"
"I'd give anything for a fire right now."
Zuko knew what she meant as he watched her play with the water from her container, twisting it around her fingers and stretching it out before condensing it back into a tiny, sparkling sphere and repeated the whole process all over again. Zuko definitely knew what she meant.
"I suppose that you're used to this," Katara said. Although it was technically directed at him, it seemed to be aimed anywhere but, whether at the air or trees or the water slipping between her bronze fingers, it didn't matter. She hadn't expected him to respond, rightfully so, and continued. "Spending your nights on the hard ground with little to eat and too little time to actually rest." Katara offered the liquid in her hands a small, almost sad, smile. "I haven't slept in my own bed in months." She stopped moving the liquid, letting it rest in its long, twisted form. "I can only imagine how long it's been for you."
Zuko's eyes snapped to hers and for a moment he thought he saw a glint of recognition pass over them and that he was done for, that she had found out who he was, and that he really, really should have left when he had the chance. Why was he still sitting there - still sitting there staring at a girl who was basically trying to figure out his life story… or his name, at least.
He'd be wondering that for a very, very long time.
"Not that I really know how long you've been roaming the streets and forests, that is," Katara continued on. Zuko sat still, watching her carefully. She gave no impression that she had learned any life-altering, ground-shaking information in the last thirty seconds, but his paranoia told him to be careful, even if something in him knew that she was still unaware. A wave of relief passed through him for the umpteenth time that night, followed by the rather unsure feeling of whether or not he was disappointed. Both were thrown aside as Katara spoke again. "Your wanted posters started being hung a little after Aang's, I know," She spun the water again. Zuko watched as she worked the water back into a shape that resembled the water whip, suddenly transfixed at the simplicity of the action but the powerful end result. "Do you regret what you did?" Zuko looked up, surprised. The question had thrown him off guard.
"Do you regret what it is that you did?" She repeated. "To make the Fire Nation come after you."
Zuko tried to remember what it was that rendered him an outlaw in the first place.
I saved the Avatar.
Zuko wished that he were generally a person that laughed. He would have laughed a lot tonight. He would have laughed at the concept of a crazy waterbender following him through a newly formed Fire Nation city and a dark, dangerous forest. He would have laughed when she asked them the rather perverse question as to whether or not he was sterile. He would have laughed at that very memory: saving the Avatar, because really, the idea of Prince Zuko saving the Avatar, even with ulterior motives and plans to capture Aang himself, sounded ridiculous to everyone, himself included. He would have laughed at Katara's latest question. If someone had told him a day before that all of this would be happening tonight, he would have laughed at them.
But Zuko was not a person who commonly laughed. Instead, Zuko turned to the water and stared.
He's not sure how it happened, but somehow Zuko found himself running and running until his legs felt as if they were burning – I want fire more than anything right now – and then suddenly something was wrong with his shoulder and the pain was blinding and his head was spinning, but he was still running.
Katara was panting beside him, trying to keep up, but even with her long legs it was difficult and the pants became gulps for air and he could practically feel her lungs blazing with its need for oxygen – I need that fire – because he needed the air to breathe too (he could barely hear himself rasping over the sound of his blood pounding in his ears) and he didn't know how much farther he could go.
And suddenly, the fire surrounded them.
They had to stop, both because their legs couldn't take them any farther and because there was nowhere left to turn. The fire encircled them in a ring of light and smells, both of which were blinding to his senses and made him disoriented and painfully, painfully aware of their circumstances all at once.
A small gasp to his left made him snap his attention to Katara, the waterbender who'd been traveling with him all night, the waterbender whose eyelids were fluttering and blinking rapidly and who was collapsing to her knees, clutching at her chest and coughing harshly at the ground.
"No," he whispered, too soft to hear over the crackle and hiss of the flames that were preparing to engulf them. The irrational thought, I need fire. "No, no, no, no, no, no." He dropped down to the ground beside her as she fell completely, barely supporting herself with her hands and staring up at the mask that covered his face. Forget protecting my identity, I need to bend, I need to make this stop, just make it stop. He was momentarily reminded of just how blue they were, her eyes, before he saw the flames dancing in their reflection – I need to get us out of here - and he quickly grabbed a hold of her shoulder, reminding himself that something was wrong with his and managing somehow to not care about anything other than the coughing girl in front of him. "No."
She clasped onto the hand that was gripping her shoulder, squeezing it tightly as her fingers shook and her breaths became small, pitiful wheezes until finally, her hand loosened and her eyes closed. Never mind the fact that Zuko was having just as hard a time breathing in the familiar air, the air that he had grown accustomed to as a child – his eyes were stinging and watering from the smoke that was invading his nose and throat and lungs – and never mind the fact that he felt the heat of the flames licking at his skin and his already ragged, already tattered clothing. Her breaths were short and small and weak and for some reason her skin was so very cold.
This, Zuko thinks, is what it truly meant to be afraid.
It wasa beautiful mask, he realized. In one of those bone-chilling, spine-tingling threatening sort of ways.
His fingers traced along the engravings, pausing to touch the fangs and teeth carved into the mouth. The paint was darkened by the presence of soot and ashes and was starting to peel from the intense heat that it was forced to endure as its owner ran through the flames, a waterbender placed securely in his arms, and fled deeper into the forest. The mask looked older now, the owner observed, after dodging attacks from every direction until the flames were far behind him and the only noises that could be heard were the soft crackling of the fire, miles away, as it consumed everything around it.
It really was a beautiful mask.
His shoulder still ached and bled from where he had been burned, but it was only a subtle throbbing in the far corners of his mind. He was far more concerned with the sleeping Katara at his side and the mask resting in his lap.
I don't have to put it back on.
He looked at the waterbender and was surprised at how relieving it was to hear her breathing return to a normal pattern, no shuddery attempts to retrieve oxygen or fits of coughing. Her eyes moved beneath her lids, signaling the state of a deep, deep sleep and that Prince Zuko was in no danger of having his identity being revealed at the moment.
I can leave it off.
She shifted in her sleep, wincing at the movement and Zuko leaned in instinctively to see if she was all right. A pained expression crossed her brow and Zuko reached out to touch her, but it was gone in but a moment and she was soon resting as peacefully as before. His hand was suspended in the air, unsure of whether to continue its venture, but eventually fell back to the mask. With his other, he traced the edge of his scar.
I can let her see my face.
The hand dropped from his scar, clenching until the knuckles were white.
She can see who I really am.
Shutting his eyes tightly, Zuko gripped the mask in his lap and wished that it were true.
"It's almost morning."
Katara opened her eyes slowly, blinking away the hazy remnants of sleep and tried to sit up. She stopped halfway, gasping at some mysterious pain and clutched her side. Zuko turned to help her, but she shook her head and sat up fully, grimacing slightly as she removed her hand from her side.
"What happened?" she asked.
"So are you," she whispered quietly, her eyes flooding with concern as she saw his shoulder, bleeding and burned and exposed to the chilling late night air. Zuko said nothing.
She moved closer to him, half crawling, half dragging herself to his side and Zuko almost said something along the lines of, "don't move, you idiot, can't you see that you're injured?" But the words were lost on his tongue and he watched her instead.
"Why didn't you try to clean this?" She asked. He merely turned away.
Katara bit her lip, peeling back the crimson cloth, wincing herself as she realized that most of it had dried, sticking to the wound. She glanced at him quickly, before proceeding to remove it and pausing whenever he couldn't suppress a short intake of breath. He was glad that she couldn't see his anguished expression under the mask, for his eyes were shut tightly and his mouth opened in something he was quite positive was agony. It was nothing compared to what happened to him years ago, the life-changing pain that he had experienced then, but that didn't mean that it didn't hurt. He could practically see her grimace at the sight of the large wound, finally uncovered and vulnerable in the last of the moonlight.
Zuko was vaguely aware of her shifting beside him, but merely continued staring at the trees. All of a sudden, something cold was placed on his shoulder and he almost instinctively jumped at the contact. Zuko turned his head around to see what she was doing and was amazed to see her smirk at his surprise. Another comment was beginning to form on the tip of his tongue, this one no more tactfully-phrased than the last, when he realized that the pain in his shoulder was slowly receding.
He looked down at his shoulder, which was no easy feat due to the mask's restriction on his range of vision, and slowly watched the skin repair itself before his very eyes, under the care of her hand and the glove of liquid she wore. His eyes widened in disbelief as the burns slowly disappeared, fading away into his skin and leaving no evidence of any injury behind. The skin was as pale and smooth as ever.
Katara's hand lingered on his shoulder for longer than was necessary, but he felt an inexplicable feeling of loss when she pulled her hand away at last. It felt colder than before.
He tried to think of something to say. More than anything he wanted to thank her. He wanted to thank her for something else too, for something bigger and greater and more than just healing his wounds, but he didn't know what. He wanted to apologize, but his mind couldn't process what he should apologize for first and the words were lost to him before they even began to form.
"You should be fine," Katara said softly, still looking at the bare, renewed skin. Zuko tried to nod, but his body didn't cooperate.
"Don't expect any answers," he said before he could stop himself and he didn't know why he said it, even as the words were in the process of leaving his mouth. Katara turned to the trees, an expression on her face similar to that of a frown and Zuko wanted to take it back, to say something else, but he didn't know how or what.
"I don't," she said with a sigh. "I did it because I wanted to help," she frowned at the trees. "Not because I wanted something in return." Zuko knew what to apologize for, but he couldn't understand how. He remained silent.
I know, he thought. I know.
Zuko remembered when he thought the silence was blessed and couldn't help but wish for that same mindset now. Not a word had been uttered since they left their resting spot and Zuko had never thought that he would miss the sound of talking so much in his life. He desperately wanted to say something, but hadn't the slightest clue as to where to begin. He was sure that the waterbender girl had reasons of her own for her silence, but he had decided that he'd rather not contemplate them.
The sun had started to rise already, the sky releasing its mesh of light colors and both of them knew that the forest was almost at its end.
I should say something.
But he didn't and it made him angry. It made him so very angry that he slashed the tree branches in front of him with more force than necessary and that his strides were longer and stronger than needed. He thought that Katara must be angry too because she had no problem keeping up with him.
Finally, they could see the edge of the forest, the sun spilling out onto the road on the other side and Zuko slowed down, realizing that this was really the end and that technically, she was close enough to her comrades to be left alone. He cut away another tree branch, half-heartedly. Katara looked at him curiously, as if trying to decipher the change in pace. It was impossible to know if she understood.
When they arrived at the end of the forest, the Blue Spirit stopped before he reached the road and sheathed his swords. Katara stopped behind him, biting her lip and holding onto one arm. Zuko could feel her shift her wait nervously behind him and was reminded of the night before, when she fought alongside him.
I should thank her.
"Look," she started and Zuko couldn't help but ask himself why she was always the one to speak first. It's because she's so stubborn, he thought. It's because she's braver. "I want to thank you," she continued and Zuko swallowed. "For everything you did last night." He heard a small smile creep into her voice, but it was sad. "I guess I don't know what would've happened to me without you."
"It was nothing," he said and ended up wanting to send his swords through his ears. What was wrong with him?
"No," she laughed softly and Zuko tried to remember the last time one sound had the power to make him feel like her laughter did. "No, it wasn't." Zuko said nothing in return. He heard her sigh and felt as she took a step closer to him, slowly eliminating the space between him until he was positive that all she had to do was reach out and she could touch him. He was momentarily distracted by the thought.
"Why can't I know?" she asked, and he didn't need her to clarify her meaning. "What would be so terrible?"
He said something at last. It was quiet, not entirely worded to his liking, and said with a sad smile, but he said it. Unfortunately, Katara couldn't catch it. She waited for him to repeat it, but he didn't.
"…what did you say?"
I'm afraid, he thought, staring at the road leading into the sunlit horizon. I'm afraid of your reaction… what you'll do when you finally find out who I am.
He turned to her, another sad smile on his lips that he knew she couldn't see and shook his head.
"You're friends are coming," he whispered, his voice untraceable, emotionless.
"…what?" Katara turned to look at what he was staring at behind her and sure enough, the form of a flying bison in the air greeted her eyes. She quickly turned around. "I –"
But when she turned around, the Blue Spirit was gone.
Instead, he was watching her from the shadows of one of the branches, studying her as she turned herself around again, searching the road and the trees and the sky for even a moment for any sight of where he might have gone. She bit her lip, eyes downcast to the road in front of her, before she took a breath and turned to her companions, waving at them excitedly and calling out their names.
Zuko knew, somehow, that he didn't have to be afraid of her unveiling his identity anytime soon. He also knew, somehow, that as long as the Blue Spirit was around to protect her, she didn't have to be afraid either.
With one final glance back at the crazy waterbender girl, calling to her friends and smiling like she should be, the Blue Spirit leapt back into the shadows where he belonged.