He’s rounding the corner when his heart stops.
Zuko’s late-night excursions are a way for him to blow off steam, to revel in the freedom he craves, to be a vigilante. Still, he is careful not to bend; careful not to release the flames which thunder under his skin, which wish to creep out through his fingers. Today he isn’t wearing a mask or a way to hide his features, just a hood which covers the marked side of his face and a permanent smirk. He’d intended to go on a walk to recalibrate his fire and that had been all. He hadn’t intended to witness—
A girl strewn across an alley floor, several boys barely older than him kicking at her. Her clothes are on and he breathes out a little at that—honor is at the forefront of his mind, and he will do what is right—before rushing forward. His relationship with his dignity right now is barely comprehensible, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to extrapolate upon his shame by ignoring something so disgraceful.
He takes in a waterskin lying on the earthen ground as he reaches for the sword at his back. It doesn’t separate into his dual broadswords, because those are weapons of war, not a tea-shop employee. Zuko misses the familiar weight of his daos in his hand, but this one does the trick. His feet touch the ground stridently and he lurches forward to press the blade to the neck of one of the boys before seconds pass. The pressure is rough, but not enough for skin to crack—
(Not enough to hide the boy’s cacophonous scream.)
The others leave the girl on the ground and stare at him, taking in his sheathed face and the weapon bloody to their friend’s neck, before freezing in place. Zuko can’t place their dirty faces and rough skin tones—all the people of the Earth Kingdom look the same, in his opinion—but he thinks they place his. He’s sure they think he was harmed by the Fire Nation at best, and he’s fine with their assumptions. Better to be damaged by war than by the hand of your own father.
“We’ll go,” one shudders out, and the rest frantically nod their heads.
Briefly, he wants to shout at them, say that they are cowards— but then he closes up that part of him a box, places it away and relaxes his singular brow. He draws his sword back minutely, and the boy underneath him squeaks before sidling back to his friends. They hunch up and sprint out of the alley.
At least I’m still terrifying, he thinks for a second—because isn’t it funny that some Earth Kingdom hooligans followed his instructions faster than his own crew used to?—before remembering what his intentions here were. The girl on the ground is a sad vision, crawled up in a fetal position, in dirty green robes, brown hair tossed over her face. The streets here are paved by mud and she’s covered in it and a collection of footprints.
Zuko debates leaving her there alone for a few moments before realizing that she isn’t moving—that she hasn’t moved since he interrupted the other teen boys. His heart pounds violently in his chest because—
(Of course, he can’t even do a good thing correctly. Of course, she’s dead.)
He sheaths his sword and walks up to her prone form, bending down to see the back of her figure. She’s tiny and looks young and blood is pooling on the ground underneath her. He suddenly wants to wrench back, terrified—that much blood is terrifying. But he doesn’t because he’s going to try to help—because it isn’t honorable for anyone, even a poor girl in the Lower Ring, to die like this. He’d hope someone would do the same for him.
He flips her over and sees a face matted in crimson, hair covering painted features. She almost looks familiar and . . . her hair is moving, strands rhythmically fluttering across her lips.
He carefully moves his hand over to her neck and presses over her pulse point. Then Zuko almost exhales with relief when he notices that her breath is still falling and rising to some sort of cadence. It’s comforting, for whatever reason.
Zuko can’t make out the girl’s features in the darkness of the light, and he isn’t going to leave her here in this dark alley and—
(He thinks he might be about to do something stupid. He might.)
He makes sure his sword isn’t going to dig into his flesh, and then lightly runs his fingers over her clothing, veering away from what’s considered inappropriate. He thinks she might have broken a few ribs, but he can’t do anything about that, so he just gently drapes her over his shoulder and starts walking home, trying to ignore the blood dripping down his neck.
“Grab some water,” Uncle says, and Zuko acquiesces, grabbing the pail from the front room. When he returns Iroh dips a towel into it and gestures for him to go back to the bathroom. He doesn’t listen to that instruction.
He stands in the doorframe of his small room, staring at his uncle wiping the girl’s face. “Is she going to be okay?”
Iroh moves her hair away from her features and breathes in sharply. “Zuko.”
“Yes, Uncle? Is she going to be okay—”
“Did you attack the Avatar’s waterbender?”
“What?” he exclaims. “Of course not! What does this even have to do with—”
Uncle moves out of his line of sight so that he can take in the girl’s slightly reddened face. Her features are heavy and drawn, like they’re under reconstruction, and he wants to tell his uncle that this could be any Earth Kingdom girl.
Zuko’s gaze flits across her warm cheekbones and large lashes, and he almost convinces himself that she is nothing special. Almost. There is a wide leather choker fastened to her neck.
(It feels familiar, and he can feel the ghost of it on his skin.)
He knows that piece of jewelry very intimately—he’d almost been comforted by it for a while. But it doesn’t matter what it used to be—Uncle is right. This is the Avatar’s waterbender. Iroh sighs. “You need to give up on the Avatar, Zuko—”
“I swear, I didn’t know it was her,” he breathes out, suddenly attached to the wall. He’s hurt this girl before—she hurt him terribly at the North Pole—but she looks utterly broken in front of him right now. This is unexpected, and he is much more nervous faced with her lying on his bed, pale and dirty, then he ever was fighting her in ice at midnight. “I wasn’t trying to do anything.”
Iroh takes him in for a second and sighs. “I see. She is gravely injured. I am worried for her head. What did you see occur?”
“There were a few boys kicking her in an alley,” he remembers the waterskin on the floor. “They must have gotten her face and her ribs.”
“Some people are terrible,” Iroh says sharply before switching out the towel again and combing his worn fingers lightly through the girl’s hair. “I do not even know if she will regain consciousness.”
“Wait,” he starts. “Do you mean . . .”
“There is a possibility that she will die,” Iroh says mournfully, and all Zuko can do in response to that is back out of the room and into the kitchen. He has fought her, and she is a supporter of the Avatar, but he keeps picturing her prone form and thinking—
(He really, really, does not want her to die.)
When Iroh comes out of the room, after what seems like hours later, he drops something warm in Zuko’s hand.
It’s the necklace.
It has been two days and the girl has still not woken up. Zuko has been growing steadily more concerned about her—and also, strangely, hopeful. Surely if she hasn’t succumbed to her wounds yet, she will be okay eventually, he thinks.
He sits awkwardly at her bedside and attempts to replace the bandages on her ribs. They’d had to cut off the middle part of her robes to access her stomach. That feels inappropriate, and almost grates at his sensibilities, but he hopes that she won’t mind when she wakes.
He knows that when she wakes she’ll have other concerns on her mind. She’ll likely wonder as to why she’s being tended to by Prince Zuko. She’d known his name in that abandoned town, she’d told him that she could help his uncle. She’s a waterbender and she likely has healing capabilities. He wishes she would heal herself.
The necklace is wrapped around his arm again, and he sits back at the finished bandages and stares at it. Uncle is in the shop right now and Zuko is on break. They’ve been taking alternate shifts to look after her. He wishes he remembered her name but he doesn’t, though it’s at the tip of his tongue.
At the Siege of the North he’d called her big girl, laughed at her. He is still that person, somewhere deep inside of him, but he regrets that phrasing.
She is a big girl—she’s a powerful bender, he knows that. She’s much better a waterbender than he will ever be a firebender. He’d gotten lucky with her being relatively unpracticed and the sun rising those days ago. She’s strong—
(But she looks so vulnerable and peaceful sitting in his bed. That scares him.)
It doesn’t feel quite right, to have her here like this. He runs his hand softly over the bandages on her head once more, pressing his fingers against cotton, before sitting back in his chair and just taking her in.
She has nice features, the water tribe girl. Even sick and broken in her enemy’s bed she looks sort of beautiful. Her features are smooth, and he knows that when her eyes open they’ll be bright cerulean.
If they open, he has to remind himself.
He’s dozed off in the chair. There’s a permanent crick in his neck, but as the hours turned to days, he hadn’t wanted to leave her alone.
Still, he startles and wakes at the briefest sound, as usual. His eyes meet glassy blue and he jumps up, because the waterbender is awake. He’s almost excited . . .
Before he remembers that even if he’s a traitor to his nation, he’s still her enemy. Zuko isn’t quite sure what to do here, doesn’t know if he should hold his hands up in surrender—
(It’s hilarious, because here she is, at his mercy, and yet even unconscious, she holds all the tiles.)
Then she attempts to sit up and place her head against the headboard. She winces. Zuko rises quickly, blinking spots out of his vision, and grabs her shoulders clinically in order to place her back.
“Thanks,” she creaks in the low-light, and he quickly places his hand back when she’s propped up. He doesn’t know how to reply to that, and he’s still primed for an attack, an argument. He compromises by standing still and trying to school his face into some sort of nonchalance.
“What happened?” she asks after a moment passes and it has become clear that he isn’t about to volunteer any information to her. Her tone is rather peaceful, and he bites his lip before turning his head to the side so that his scar is visible. She doesn’t react beyond the way most people do, eyeing it briefly.
“You were being attacked by a couple of guys,” he replies quickly. “You got hurt. I found you and brought you back here.”
“Um, my apartment,” he scratches his neck awkwardly and looks away from her. “In the Lower Ring?”
It was easy to think of her as beautiful when she seemed almost ethereal and nonexistent—
(It’s difficult to realize that he feels the same way now, while she is right here, blinking up at him between her lashes.)
“What’s that? It’s warm here,” she says dazedly, her eyes losing focus of his face. “It’s a strange igloo.”
He doesn’t get an answer—her head lolls against the wooden headboard and she enters the dreamworld again.
The next time she opens her eyes is a few hours later.
Uncle has just left the apartment and he is stirring porridge in one of their pots, lighting up his hand underneath the congealed grains to ensure they heat evenly. He is terrible at cooking, but he knows how to repurpose whatever Uncle makes, so he tosses a few berries into the mix before taking the bowl back to his room so he can watch the girl and eat.
What she’d said the day prior, about igloos and warmth—it had been confusing. And she hadn’t been terrified of him. Perhaps she’d imagined that she was lucid dreaming. His feet pound against the wooden floor of the apartment before he pauses at his doorway. She’s moving.
It’s likely a coincidence that she wakes up at that very moment. Zuko had carefully placed her back down into a lying position after last night, and now her eyes struggle to open. When they do, her gaze is angled right at him, and she blinks at his wooden figure and the steaming bowl in his hand. He doesn’t say anything. Maybe this time she’ll scream at him.
Her eyebrows knit together and her mouth opens and closes before she speaks. “Who are you?”
She just seems to be confused—maybe she is trying to reconcile the old him with this him. He places the bowl in his lap and—
(He realizes that she can see him; she does not know him, but she can see him better than he can, himself.)
“I’m Zuko. You know me,” he says tightly.
She winces, and one of her eyes twitches imperceptibly, but she doesn’t seem any more alarmed. “I do? I don’t think I do,” she frowns. “I’m Katara.”
Katara. It’s fitting—he feels like he knew it already. But he doesn’t know why she’s telling him this. “I know.”
“This is your home, Zuko?” she asks, and he is so confused, but he nods. “It’s warm here for the South.”
He forgets about holding himself in, about trying to stay calm, and raises his eyebrow at her. “What do you mean, South? We’re in Ba Sing Se,” he states matter-of-factly, and that seems to drive her madder than him.
“No,” she says calmly, almost—her words have a frantic undertone. “We’re in the South Pole. Are you okay?”
“This . . . isn’t the South Pole,” he reiterates.
“But that doesn’t make sense! I was just home at the South Pole. You have to be from the South Pole,” she lets out rapidly. Then her eyes move to his scar and she sucks in a deep breath. “Oh. You don’t look like you’re from the South Pole.”
“I’m not,” he frowns, a strange thought coming to mind. He lets go of his inhibitions about being attacked because he doesn’t think she’s going to hurt him. There’s still a bucket of water to her side but she’s paid it no heed and her expression is more perplexed than angry. “Don’t you remember me?”
“I—should I? But I don’t. I’ve never met you before.”
Zuko doesn’t know whether he should feel relieved or disappointed right now—
(That’s a lie, a terrible one, and he doesn’t know what’s driving him.)
What did he expect from the water tribe girl? He thought that she would attack him, and then leave the apartment, and then go tell all of her friends that Prince Zuko is hiding in the Lower Ring. The best-case scenario for him a few hours ago had been her deciding to pay him back by keeping his very existence a secret. The bowl almost falls off his lap as he scoots forward and stares intently into her eyes.
“What’s the last thing you remember, Katara?” he tries to keep the name familiar on his lips.
“I was out on the ice with my brother,” she says tightly. “And then that’s—that’s all. I thought I blacked out but I should be home. I don’t know—where is this? I’m not at home. I should be home—”
He breathes in tightly and watches as she continues to babble, her mouth moving as she frowns and comes to the same conclusion he has in her feverish haze. She thinks she is in the South Pole and she woke up today with a firebender in the Earth Kingdom. She doesn’t remember.
She doesn’t remember.
Her words go over his head—for whatever reason he feels very relieved right now. No, he knows why he does. He’s fought this girl for the Avatar. He’s carried her necklace around his wrist. She’s known the worst part of him—she knew the Prince Zuko that stormed into her homeland and grabbed the elderly woman next to her, who shot flames at her brother.
There’s a small thought niggling at the back of his mind; this girl doesn’t know about the Avatar. She doesn’t know about him. She’s here, out of her element, completely at his mercy for now. He can use her to get back at the Avatar, and she’ll be fully unaware. For once, he has an advantage—
(Strategy has never been his strong point, but he will make it one.)
That makes him feel a bit dirty. Katara is shaking in his sheets, and the water underneath the covers, out of her line of sight, is moving in the bucket. She doesn’t seem to realize that she’s moving it. Has she forgotten how to bend? He’s thinking of a lot right now—her lamentations have paused, and she is staring at him. Did she ask him a question?
He can’t quite recall, so he picks up the bowl in his hand and moves it into her line of sight. “Are you hungry?” he asks.
Food is simple and universal. Her mouth opens for a moment before closing, and she looks defeated as she nods and tries to pull herself up, into a sitting position. Zuko stares at her, struggling, for a moment. Then he awkwardly reaches out to grab her shoulders tightly and bolsters her up.
When she’s in a sitting position he transfers the bowl into her lap and places a spoon in her hand. He watches her transfer a bite of porridge slowly though her lips. She’s sluggish at first, but she hasn’t eaten in days, and she quickly starts to consume the breakfast readily. He shifts away and places his hand behind his neck. “You should eat slowly or you’ll throw it all up.”
“Yeah, okay,” she murmurs as her movements slow down. It’s a bit awkward, him staring at her eating, but he doesn’t know what else to do. He watches her wrist flex around the spoon, almost spasm, and moves forward to catch it before she drops it.
“Are we in the Earth Kingdom?”
He breathes out. “Yes.”
“How did I get to the Earth Kingdom? Where’s my family?”
He doesn’t quite know how to play this, so he does it by ear . . . and also a bit maliciously. He shouldn’t, of course, but it’s not as though he can tell her that she’s with the Avatar and her brother and the strange little earthbender girl. He’s already told her that she knows him—
(This is a mess. His fingers drum across his tunic, and he knows what he needs to do.)
“I think you came here as a refugee.”
“What about my brother? Do you know anything about my brother?” She’s paused eating to stare at him hopefully, and he places away the small part of him that already regrets what he’s about to say.
“I’ve never seen you with your brother before. You’re always alone.”
“How do I know you?”
“You come to the tea shop where I work,” he thinks quickly. “We’re friends.”
“I’m here in the Earth Kingdom,” she summarizes, “alone. As a refugee. Are you a refugee?”
It seems like she’s trying to distract herself from what else he’d said, more than anything else, but he nods his head anyway. “Yeah, my uncle and I are refugees. We work at the tea shop below here.”
“What am I doing here? Wait. When is it . . .”
How long has it been since he found the Avatar? A few months, maybe. “It’s the year one-hundred,” he tells her, and she lets out a sigh of relief.
“But if it’s the same time . . . I don’t get it. I’m alone in the Earth Kingdom? Without Dad or Sokka?” she talks to herself before addressing him. “What was I doing here?”
“I don’t really know,” he shrugs. “I think you were looking for work. But I didn’t know that much about you.”
Katara doesn’t answer him after that. She finishes the rest of her bowl and hands it to him before grasping her head and lying back down in her sheets. Before her eyes close, she whispers out. “Thank you for saving me, Zuko. But I think this is just a dream.”
(He doesn't know whether or not he wants it to be.)