~by Jimi's Little Wing~


Gashes Deep and Even

Part I

Zuko eyed the girl with mild distaste.

"I'm not going to let you leave her, Zuko," his uncle said, breathing hard.

"I wasn't suggesting we should," he growled back.

They would just have to leave her at a healers or something. She wasn't really any use to them, in her shape. Zuko pulled a knife out of the top of his boot and sawed the rope that held her up. She slumped the ground, leaning against the tree whose limb had previously held her. She whimpered a bit, shaking uncontrollably and weakly. Zuko felt a stab of pity for her. Her injuries had Azula written all over them. Severe burn marks all over her back, accompanied by long, thin gashes that suggested whipping. Zuko blushed at her state of undress – they had pulled her robes down over her shoulders, but her chest wrap had been burned off.

Zuko, half-covering his eyes, tried to slip her arms through the sleeves of her blue, Water Tribe robes. As soon as he touched her skin she cried out, falling to the ground in her attempt to escape. "Quit that," Zuko barked, forgetting pity. He was in a hurry – he was on the run. And Azula could return at any moment for her little singing canary. Well, blue canary. Obviously, she hoped to capture the girl and torture information about the Avatar out of her. Azula had probably figured out what Zuko already knew: the Water Tribe girl didn't sing.

"Hurry up!" his uncle called from beyond the trees.

Grunting, Zuko turned back to the girl, who had managed to crawl a few feet before collapsing again. Zuko could imagine her pain – something very similar had happened to him. Azula's blue flames were probably a thousand times more painful that his father's fire. As Zuko reached out to her again, trying to clothe her so they could escape, the girl shivered in fear.

"Just stay away from me," she whispered through tears. "Please…just let me die…"

Closing his eyes, Zuko kneeled down before her. Her arms were splayed at her sides, and her eyes – usually animated with fight – were dull and sad. They looked to a space that was not there, and tears leaked down her cheeks in dirty rivers. "Please, don't hurt me anymore," she whispered, more to herself than to him.

"I'm not going to hurt you," he said softly, trying to reassure her. "I promise."

She shivered again, new tears falling from her eyes. Her whole body trembled with sobs, and Zuko shook his head. "I'm not going to look," he told her, urgency weighing down on him heavily. "I just need to get your robes on again, okay?"

Non-responsive, she just closed her eyes, tears sliding away to the ground. Just as he promised, Zuko closed his eyes and sat her up, finding her arms and the sleeves of her robe as fast and gently as he could. As she slumped against the roots of the tree, Zuko's uncle rode into the clearing with two ostrich horses. They were saddled with green and gold Earth Kingdom regalia.

"I'm sure the regiment won't miss two fine beasts…if we leave right now," his uncle said with light humor.

Zuko frowned. "Uncle, give me some rope."

His uncle gasped. "You're not going to tie her up, are –"

"Don't be ridiculous! I'm going to tie her to me! She can't ride in this state," Zuko returned hostilely. He pulled the whimpering girl into his arms, trying to be gentle and quick at the same time. The ostrich horse settled on the ground and Zuko set the girl in the wide saddle behind him. Then, tying her hands together around his waist, he commanded the animal to rise.

"Which way," he asked his uncle.

"The Fire Nation has the western lake…we should head towards the forest east of the city. The fighting should be scattered there."

They traveled at breakneck speed for a few hours. They couldn't waste their mounts, but if they didn't get away fast there would be no need to worry about getting away at all. Zuko had made sure the rope on her hands was loose enough for comfort, but he imagined the hard riding was doing a real number on her back. After about an hour of riding he could feel wetness on his back where her face was. Her tears must have leaked through his shirt. But she didn't make any noise, save a few pained gasps over rough terrain. The faster they could find a healer the faster they could get rid of her. Not only was she dead weight, she was dangerous dead weight.

Azula wanted this girl for some reason, had kept her alive even after torturing her. That had to mean that she knew something of the Avatar's whereabouts, or something equally important. If she knew something that warranted Azula's attentions, he knew his sister wouldn't give her up without a fight. That meant more than just Earth Kingdom soldiers would be after them – Azula would be, too. They had to dump her soon.

"Here," his uncle said, pulling up the reigns on his ostrich horse. It was a small clearing on the lee side of a large rock. They were entering big tree elevations but there was mostly just brush and small trees in the area. His uncle helped him with the Water Tribe girl, carried her and set her down on his own sleeping mats. Face dark, Zuko watched his uncle start a fire.

"Get some water from the stream we crossed," he instructed, tossing him the water skin. Zuko kept an alert watch at the surrounding area, but the land was sloping towards the city of Ba Sing Se, and it was easy to spot travelers if they had fires. There was a fire…Zuko judged it to be a small party about two miles away.

When he returned to camp he found his uncle tearing large strips of cloth – out of Zuko's own clothes. Zuko sat across the fire from his uncle and the young water bender. His Uncle Iroh pushed the girl's long, loose hair away from her back, pulling the dark, blood spattered robes down to her hips. The girl shuddered and mumbled things, but Zuko was fairly certain she was unconscious. Iroh heated the water and washed the burns and lashings carefully. Every once in a while Zuko would see her fingers tighten in pain around the sleeping mat.

He wanted to avert his eyes…but he'd never seen a girl in such a state of undress before. Her wounds were the worst he'd ever seen someone live through. Even in the light of the fire he could see the long gashes and burned skin. Iroh did something that made her cry out sharply, her whole body shaking as she turned her head. Her eyes immediately found his, but they were no longer hopeless and dead as they had been when they found her. They now shone with horrible pain and anger. She kept his gaze admirably, wincing every so often at his uncle's ministrations on her back.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw his uncle pull a knife out and bring it down on the girl's back. Her eyes became wide and filled with pain, still glued to his until they began to roll in the back of her head. Then she must have passed out from pain, for she stopped moving completely, no longer shaking. Zuko looked at his uncle, who held up a long strip of burned cloth and skin. Zuko winced. No wonder she passed out. Zuko wasn't sure he could have done that without at least crying out once or twice.

Unfortunately they carried very little in terms of bandages and gauze. Zuko's uncle had been the recipient of most of their bandages after their last run-in with Azula. Iroh covered the burns on her back with the wet strips of fabric and stood up, stretching his legs before joining Zuko on his side of the campfire.

"We'll need to move again soon. I want to make it into the forest by daybreak."

Zuko nodded. "What about her?"

"I think she'll survive," his uncle replied, putting his teapot on the fire.

"I mean where will we leave her? We can't travel with her. It's too dangerous," Zuko said, scowling in the girl's direction.

Iroh shrugged. "I don't know of any towns on this side of the woods. When we get over the mountains there will be the northern oceans and some ports."

Zuko steamed. "You mean you laid siege to this place for six hundred days and you don't know of any towns or anything nearby!?"

"Well, I didn't lay siege to the forest," Iroh commented dryly. "I was more focused on that great wall…if you hadn't noticed it already, it's quite large…requires a lot of attention."

Throwing his hands in the air, Zuko growled wordlessly. "Fine! Great! Just what are we going to do with Little Miss Water Tribe, then? She'll slow us down…or worse, get us captured."

His uncle merely poured his tea and sipped it quietly. With a sharp shake of his head, Zuko sat down and ate a bit of their rations. That was another thing. They only had enough rations for two people. She was a weight and a danger and a mouth. A little while later, after Iroh finished his tea, he asked Zuko to help him wrap the girl's burns with what they had left of bandages.

"Uncle," Zuko burned, knowing this was neither the appropriate time nor place for modesty. "She's…"

"Badly injured, I know," his uncle replied in a harsh voice. "Just keep her sitting and hold her arms above her head."

His uncle pushed her long, dark hair over her shoulder as Zuko, bracing her with her arms above her head, held her up. She was still unconscious – thankfully – and her head drooped, her hair shading her face. Unlike before, Zuko couldn't stop his wandering eyes. He had never seen a shirtless girl. With all those years on a ship, he'd been surrounded by men, and hell-bent on finding the Avatar. He'd had no time for girls. Besides, girls were crazy – as was evidenced by his sister and her friends. So with all his inexperience with the fairer sex, he was of course curious. His curiosity couldn't have arisen at a worse time, though, and he looked away from her bare chest with hot cheeks. She was badly injured, unconscious, and completely powerless. He felt like a lecher staring at her when she was so helpless.

That didn't keep the image from being burned into his mind. They looked pretty and soft, and had perfect little nipples that had hardened in the night air. Her skin was dark and exotic, so unlike the pale skinned women of the Fire Islands. Zuko swallowed hard and opened his eyes again. Iroh had finished wrapping her chest and back, and needed her arms to put through the sleeves of her robes.

Afterwards, as they were riding away from the small clearing, Zuko found it hard to focus on the forest around them like he normally would. He could feel the generous swell of her chest as she leaned against his back, her face resting between his shoulder blades and her arms tied around his waist. But now that he knew what that 'generous swell' looked like, it became increasingly difficult to think of anything else when they were pressed so closely to him.

For another few hours they rode the ostrich horses hard, desperate to make the cover of deep foliage before sun up. Azula would surely be after them and the girl, and they would have a better chance if she had to follow by beast rather than machine. The woods would make it almost impossible for her to use a siege engine of any kind, so the woods would be their respite.

They were well inside the forest as dawn approached, and had found suitable shelter behind a dense thicket off the road a ways. Zuko tied their mounts to a tree as his uncle laid the girl on his sleeping fur. Zuko winced as he saw that she had not only bled through her wraps, but the blue robe as well. That was an awful lot of blood for one tiny girl to bleed.

"Zuko," his uncle said tiredly. Zuko nodded and helped his uncle unwrap her bandages. While his uncle cleaned the cuts, Zuko went to wash the bloody bandages. They would just have to let they dry and re-use them. The blood had practically soaked the bandages clean through, and the blood that traveled down the little stream kind of made Zuko sick. If they didn't stop her bleeding she would die.

Not your problem, a nasty voice said quietly in the back of his head. Zuko shook the thought away. No one deserved Azula's attentions. Not even the snotty little Water Tribe girl that traveled with the Avatar. Then Zuko blushed. He was going to have to stop calling her a little girl…for she certainly was not…

He hung the bandages on a low tree branch to dry, and watched quietly as his uncle cleaned the water bender's cuts with care. She hadn't woken since the previous night; her body was obviously trying to heal itself. Zuko did his best to make a stew, but it was watery and didn't have much flavor, aside from the small scraps of meat he added. As tired as he was, as much as he just wanted to sleep, he felt the urge to keep watch over their camp - and the girl.

For a few hours he dozed, never truly asleep, until his eyes jumped towards movement. The water bender was struggling in her sleep, groaning and gripping the sleeping skin tightly. He edged closer to her, trying to hear her words…or just be closer to her?

"Please, stop," she sobbed. "I don't know…I don't know anything…please, stop." Her back arched, and a ripple of red broke through the temporary bandages (Zuko's torn up clothes).

He turned to his uncle, who was fast asleep on Zuko's sleeping furs, and then towards the tossing girl. Not a girl, he reminded himself as he caught a glimpse of the curve of her breast and turned away. She murmured something else painfully as another streak of blood shot through the bandages. She was reopening her cuts with all her tossing. Unsure and unsteady, Zuko put a hand on her cheek. She had cried away most of the dirt, and her skin was soft, if a bit damp. Her body tensed considerably, then relaxed, as if she was deciding it was okay. Brushing the hair away from her face, Zuko saw the fine curve of her jaw and a discolored eye that looked as if she'd been punched.

Carefully, Zuko removed the bloodied bandages and cleaned the areas. He could see the whip marks more clearly now – they were deep and even, about ten of them crisscrossing her burn mark. However, it looked as if his uncle had done a fairly good job cleaning her wounds, and they were hardly discolored, and some had even begun to scab over. He washed away the blood carefully, re-dressing the wound. Perhaps it wasn't as good as his uncle could do, but it looked right. Zuko sat back on his heels and looked at her for a little while. He wiped the thin sheen of sweat away from her forehead, pushing her hair out of her face. Despite its tangled and messy appearance, it was soft. He touched it gingerly, bushing the back of her neck. How could skin be so soft, he wondered, the back of his knuckles skimming over her shoulder and the curve of her throat.

She shifted and he jerked his hand away. Zuko was horrified when he saw her open eyes, confused and…pained. She attempted to push herself up, but her eyes fluttered with the effort and she stopped. Then, squinting her eyes, she looked at him long and hard. "Zuko?" she asked. Her breath was deep and uneven, and Zuko realized she was terrified.

"It's okay," Zuko said softly, trying to calm her with a hand on her shoulder. She shied away from his touch, her eyes growing wild with fear. Putting his hands up in front of him, Zuko said, "I'm not going to hurt you. I swear. You're safe."

For a long time, she closed her eyes. He thought she was asleep until she mouthed, "Water," softly. Zuko grabbed the water skin and tipped it gently to her mouth. She swallowed it slowly, licking the dryness away from her lips. She closed her eyes again, breathing heavily. "Azula?" she asked, her voice light.

Zuko frowned. "We can only assume she's still following us. Whatever you know, she's pretty desperate for…"

Her body stiffened at this. "But she's far away for now," Zuko reassured her.

She didn't speak for so long that he thought she'd fallen asleep. Then she opened her eyes, and Zuko was struck dumb. He'd never felt so helpless in his life, as her eyes became magnets for his own. Blue eyes. Never in his life had he seen blue eyes before hers. They were the defining characteristic of the Water Tribe – the only peoples in the world with blue eyes. She had such a deep, cerulean color of blue that they seemed to stretch on like a vast ocean.

"What's your name?" he asked with a dry mouth.

Her eyes continued to bore holes into his soul. "It's Katara," she whispered, almost so low that he couldn't hear it. He felt as if she'd released him from a fishing hook when she closed her eyes, her breathing becoming soft.

Katara, he thought, sliding over to his side of the small encampment. Katara.

When the moon began to rise, Uncle Iroh stirred and started to boil some water. "Tea," he offered Zuko, who refused. After he made them a decent meal – more decent that Zuko's attempt last night – he sat down before Katara and began to look over her wounds. They had burst with blood again – three of the long gashes were bleeding more than they should.

"Do we have a needle in the pack, Zuko?" Iroh asked calmly. Zuko's eyes widened in realization. Reaching into the small pouch that kept medicinal supplies, Zuko handed his uncle a sharp, thin needle and thread.

"Shouldn't we have something to numb the pain?" Zuko asked, eyeing the bleeding gashes.

His uncle looked up at him with one brow raised. "Yes." Then he dabbed dry an area of skin and sunk the needle in. Zuko turned away. He could handle giving people cuts like that, but watching someone sew one up…it made his stomach turn. After a few neat stitches, his uncle asked him to dab away the blood. Zuko took a strip of cloth and tried to put enough pressure on the wounds to soak up the blood, but not to hurt her.

Faster than he thought an injured person could move, Katara's hand jumped out and clawed his. Her breathing was fast and hard, and Iroh stopped his stitch as her back shook. Her nails bit into his hand so painfully that he had to pull away. "Calm her down," Iroh instructed, looking at Zuko darkly. "Give her something to bite."

He folded a bunch of cloth and offered it to her; she took it with closed eyes. She first cried out when Iroh hit the middle of her first gash. The skin was so tender, so burned it was difficult to sew. Zuko looked down to see tears and sweat pouring down her face. Her hands gripped the furs, and her teeth bit down hard on the cloth. Without a second thought, Zuko took her hand in his. Her eyes shot open – half in pain and half in surprise, he thought – and found his like a magnet. She squeezed harder than Zuko knew girls could, her eyes bright with pain. Still, she never broke his gaze. She didn't pass out either, and was very still. It was hard for Zuko to imagine what pain she felt, but thinking about his own scar…he had a good idea.

The three gashes that were constantly bleeding had been sewn up, and Katara was still conscious. By the lightening grip on his hand, though, Zuko could tell she was fighting a losing battle against sleep. He wasn't the only one who noticed his fingers were still entwined with Katara's. Zuko could feel Iroh's eyes on their joint hands, although Zuko was steadfastly holding eye contact with Katara.

Finally, Katara inhaled softly and closed her eyes, her hand limp in his. For a moment, Zuko just held her tiny hand in his, turning it over gently. Her hands were soft. She didn't have peasant's hands. They were fine and smooth. The reminded him of his mother's hands, and he thought of his mother guiltily for a moment. He ran his fingers over her slight wrists then laid her hand down next to her.

With closed eyes he turned away from her. The only reason she wasn't screaming and yelling and trying to battle him was because she was so injured she couldn't stay conscious for longer than an hour. If this were any other situation she would have water-whipped him into submission (or whatever) before running away in terror. But she couldn't run, and she was terrified and hated him.

"She shouldn't be moved," Iroh said as Zuko joined him in the light of the fire.

Zuko nodded. It was bad enough that they'd moved her so much. She'd lost a lot of blood because of it.

"We'll let her rest tonight," Iroh continued. "But tomorrow we need to find some real shelter. A deserted home or a cave. Someplace where we won't be out in the open."

Zuko eyed the moon. It was nearly full. If he was careful he could take one of the ostrich horses out and look that very night, scout out the terrain. Ostrich horses had about the same grade of nighttime eyesight as humans, and if he was watchful he might find something they could use.

"I'll be back by sunrise, Uncle," Zuko said as he saddled up the younger of the two ostrich horses.

He was gentle with the poor beast. No point running it to the ground if he didn't have to. The woods were quiet and tall. Zuko had never seen trees so ancient and huge – not even in the dense jungles of the Fire Nation. He ran across a promising-looking path, though it was in an advanced state of disuse. Perhaps it was luck, but perhaps it wasn't, but either way, the path led right into the belly of a mountain. The cave loomed over Zuko's head – ten men standing shoulder to shoulder and one atop another would have been able to fit in there. Zuko dismounted, lighting a fire in his hand as he entered the cave's mouth.

"One more step and you'll wish you were dead, boy," the harsh voice of an older man said.

Sharp steel bit between Zuko's shoulder blades. A dozen fires appeared at once, each lighting the face of a firebender. They were a haggard bunch, but even Zuko wasn't fool enough to try and take on that many firebenders. Were they Azula's? His father's? Did it matter? Extinguishing the fire in his hand, Zuko held up his arms in surrender.

A dark voice chuckled. "Ugly little bastard, isn't he?" one of the firebenders snickered. "Where'd you get that scar, pretty boy?"

A couple other voices laughed, but Zuko couldn't help but feel a little…relieved. He recognized the voice that was trying to introduce metal to his ribcage. "Lieutenant Jee?" he asked.

The man behind him lessened the pressure of the blade a bit. "I go by Jee now. Just Jee."

Then Zuko understood. "Deserters…"

"Says the traitor," a man barked in the depths of the cave. Zuko squinted his eyes, trying to make out the form of a man that walked in the shadows. "You're older, Prince Zuko. Maybe not much prettier…but neither am I."

The man was slight, but he had a very commanding presence. There were two heinous gashes down his right eye, and his hair tufted white around him. His mustache had the air of a catfish, but Zuko didn't think he wanted to make that allusion to his face. "Who are you?"

The man was close enough to touch, and Zuko could see intelligence and enlightenment in the man's eyes. "I wouldn't expect you to remember me, Prince Zuko. I left when you were a child. However, you seem to have made a kind of name for yourself. Tell me," he said after a pause, "where is Iroh?"

"I don't know," Zuko said sharply. "We split up at Ba Sing Se."

There was a grunt from the mouth of the cave. "Could be he's lying. His mount's outfitted for two…"

"He wouldn't leave his uncle," Jee said from behind him.

The catfish man frowned a bit. "Prince Zuko, I believe you misunderstand. I don't want to harm Iroh. I thought it would be nice for him to travel with us, not behind us, as I continue my search for my pupil. The Avatar." He began to walk away, then he turned. "A search that, I'm happy to say, you've been recruited to help with."

Zuko sneered. "Your pupil?"

The man nodded. "Yes, my pupil."

"And why should I help you? Why can't you go find him yourself?" Zuko snapped. He had been trying to stay away from the Avatar so as not to get caught up with Azula. When he was able to take out Azula, then he could begin thinking about the Avatar again. And his honor.

The man smiled darkly. "Jee here tells me you have lots of experience catching the Avatar…though not to the desired outcome. I don't need to capture him; I just need to find him. You seem to have some skill in this area. If you don't help me, though, I'm afraid you'll have to travel with us anyway, because I can't afford to have my presence known. Ever. I hope you understand, Prince Zuko."

Zuko was silent. If it were just him and his uncle they could probably escape. But Katara…damn the girl! Ever since he'd run across her she'd been nothing but trouble. They could use her against him, threaten her or whatever. Zuko gritted his teeth together. "I'll do it," Zuko ground out, "if you promise not to hurt the girl."

"The girl?" the catfish-faced man asked with a raised eyebrow.

"The girl," Zuko replied hotly. "She's injured and needs medical attention. Don't hurt her…and I'll do whatever you need."