I had to run.
It's not always an easy choice, doing what is best for others, or doing what you want to do. I wanted so badly to stay, not to be separated from those who I love so dearly that I would do anything to protect them. But that's why I had to leave; I had to keep them safe. And they, knowing what I was sacrificing, had the grace to let me go without a word of protest. If they had shouted to me, all I did would be in vain.
We were already on the run from the enemy, the Fire Nation, when we stumbled upon their trap. An alcove hidden in the woods, not part of the natural lands, but made by the hands of a secreted adversary, contained veiled soldiers with their weapons poised. Toph knew they were there, but there was no other way to escape. The mountains blocked the east, the oceans by the west, evil came from behind, and evil lay ahead.
The mountains were too deadly to flee to, the wicked creatures inside too much of an opponent. We did what we had to do. We hid. There was a group of dense bushes, and as the enemy approached from behind, Sokka accidentally tripped on a root.
A few shifted toward the direction of the noise, while the rest conversed with a few of the hidden soldiers, no doubt asking of any signs. It was a miracle they had not spotted us before. However, as they approached, we knew we would be found. There was nowhere else to run, no place for us to hide.
I did it on instinct, a whim. As the footsteps got louder as they neared the brush, I turned quickly and grabbed Sokka's hand, giving him a look that clearly spoke I'm sorry, and left. When I jumped out of the brush, I startled the soldiers enough to delay them, if only for a second, and I ran. I had a feeling they wouldn't check the brush right away, and I trusted Aang would get them all out safely before they thought of it.
I heard shouting, and footsteps following me. But a dozen firebenders running in heavy armor doesn't exactly match a light-footed Waterbender's speed. I had a feeling we would all be safe, as I heard the sounds of pursuit falling back behind me. When I was sure I had left them far behind me, I slowed enough to take a peek over my shoulder.
The fortunate part: I didn't see a soul. The unfortunate part: I was wrong about the first thing. Even though I couldn't see him, he was there.
A strong arm wrapped around my waist, pinning my arms with it, while another clamped over my mouth, preventing my screams from getting out when I tried to use them. My immediate reaction was to thrash about, to try to shake off the unexpected opponent, but they were too strong. I only struggled harder, ignoring the fact that what I was doing was useless.
I could feel my energy draining from the panic and exertion, and as my attempts got weaker, I heard a dark chuckle in my ear, accompanied by an overwhelming warm breath. "Give up?"
"Never," I hissed as he removed his hand. But my movements had stopped, my brain screaming at me that it was futile and I should save my energy for when the real fighting would happen. There was a river nearby, and if it came down to a fight then the poor firebender would have no chance. I had the advantage on the elements side. However, I couldn't move enough to summon it yet. I would have to exercise patience.
"So what happens now?" I spat venomously, attempting to turn my head and get a good view of my attacker. "Are you going to kill me, or fight me?"
Another dark laugh moved the hair around my temple and cheek. "I won't kill you yet, so don't tempt me. And I have no need to fight a battle that I've already won. Katara."
Whatever train of thought I was on ceased. There weren't many Firebenders who knew my name.
"Who are you?" I asked bravely, my voice firm despite how shook up I felt.
"I'm hurt. You don't remember me?" The grip around my waist tightened. "And here I thought I was a very memorable person." Before I knew it, there was a tree against my back, and a thick rope had replaced the arm. I wiggled, trying to squirm out of the trap, but he was faster than I was, and had the rope secured in place before I could weaken it and get free.
I stopped trying. "Show your face, coward," I growled.
"Coward? Quite the opposite." A sigh. "Come on, I know you can figure this out, Katara. Try again."
I concentrated. And then it hit me. The menacing voice, the arrogance, the evil that exuded from him, the knowledge of my name. "Zuko," I snarled furiously.
Low applause sounded behind me, and the devil himself stepped into my view wearing a very satisfied smirk. He looked much different than I remembered. The scar was still prominent on his face, he was taller and his hair had grown out some, but there was an underlying hint of something completely different. It made him look . . . off. "Well done. Now, do you think you want to listen to what I have to say, or do you plan on being uncooperative? Because the latter won't result well for you."
I ground my teeth, but said nothing. He smiled. "Good girl. Now, you have something that I need, and I want it. Tell me where the Avatar is, Katara, and I will let you go."
I laughed humorlessly, leaning my head on the tree. "You actually think I would tell you? You're not as intelligent as you believe, then. And even if I did, you wouldn't let me go. You'd keep me, or kill me, or sell me, or whatever crap you Firebenders do to your prisoners. So no, I will never tell you where he is."
Zuko took this silently, his face a mask of cool consideration. He looked me over once, twice, as if he was only seeing me for the first time, and then his eyes came to rest on mine. We stared at each other; my face showing barely contained rage and his showing clinical detachment, for what seemed like hours. Eventually, he said, "Oh well."
The anger was replaced by confusion, and I stared blankly at him. I made an unintelligible noise, a question.
He shrugged. "You're not going to tell me, because I clearly can't force it out of you. However . . ." He trailed off, a wicked glint in his eye. I swallowed.
He walked the few steps in between us and gripped my chin, forcing me to look him straight in the eyes. One hand pressed hard into my throat, and suddenly I couldn't breathe. The last thing I heard before rushing blackness took over, were the soft words, "Goodnight, peasant."