As they walked through the busy streets of the Fire Nation capital, Katara started to grow more and more concerned. There didn’t seem to be any logic behind where Zuko was walking. She let him take the lead for a while, figuring he knew these streets far better than she did, but when he only seemed to be walking in a straight line without even glancing around for ten blocks, she felt some doubt creep into her mind.
“Hey, seriously,” she whispered as low as she could. “Where exactly are we going?”
He didn’t answer right away, which only made her more nervous. Then at last, he said, “Well, right now, I think our best bet is the harbor.”
“The har– what now?”
He started walking faster; his movements getting more frantic. “That spirit oasis you talked about… the one where you got that special water that could have healed my scar? That’s in the Northern Water Tribe, right?”
Katara could see exactly where this conversation was going, and it turned her stomach. “I said it might have been able to heal it. And, anyway, I know a lot more about healing now than I did then. I don’t think it would have worked. The longer an injury goes without being tended to, the less effective healing will–”
“It’s only been a week since Azula struck me, though. I think, if we hurry, I might be able to heal myself.” His words were quick, forced out. He knew as well as she did that it would be a pointless venture. But there was fear in his voice, too. Fear that if he couldn’t be healed, he had no hope.
“Zuko,” Katara said firmly. “Even on Appa, that trip would take a month. We’ve got a week, at best, before Azula announces she’s taken over as Firelord. We need a plan to take her down now.”
“And if we defeat her, who becomes Firelord then?” Zuko snapped, barely keeping his voice down anymore. “The Firelord has to be a firebender, and the whole palace staff knows now that I’m not. Even if I ask Aang to switch our powers back…”
His voice cracked. This wasn’t good. They couldn’t make a scene here. Up ahead, Katara saw some sort of market; the mass of people nearly impossible to work through without being overheard. So instead of continuing down the street, she took Zuko’s shaking hand and let him into a small alleyway. He leaned against the worn and chipped wall of the nearest building and buried his face in his hands. “No matter whose powers I have, I can’t firebend. Azula’s taken that from me.”
Her first instinct was to embrace him, but she couldn’t bring herself to do it. They weren’t family, weren’t in love, weren’t even friends until a few months ago. No, it wouldn’t be appropriate at all. Still, she wanted to comfort him somehow and tentatively put her arm around him, massaging his shoulder and she surveyed their surroundings. The tight alleyway was less than ideal; if anyone did want to corner them, this would be the perfect place to do it. But it left them alone.
Zuko regained his composure and rubbed his arm across his eyes. “I’m sorry,” was all he said. He didn’t make any attempt to leave the alleyway. His posture– the way he hung his head and let his arms fall to his sides– looked hauntingly familiar. He’d given up. She’d seen it from so many people in her tribe during the war. She felt terrible for him. But at the same time, the thought of him quitting on her filled her with rage. The world needed him as Firelord. They’d fought too hard for him to quit. And as tacky as she knew it was, she had to find a way to give him hope again.
Unfortunately, she didn’t have much time for brainstorming. A set of footsteps approached them from down the alleyway.
“Hello there, traitor.” The voice sent chills down Zuko’s spine. He hadn’t even realized someone was approaching until the man’s breath was at his neck.
Katara impressively kept her wits about her and put on a convincing insulted face.
“Excuse me?” she said, facing him with hands on her hips. “My friend Rokka here is just a representative from the Southern Water Tribe.” Before she had the chance to move forward, however, another man darted into the alleyway from the main road and stood right at her back. Neither had drawn weapons, Zuko noted. Of course, if they were skilled firebenders, they hardly needed to.
“Your sister’s looking for you,” the man next to Zuko whispered. “Now, if you’ll just come quietly with us, this doesn’t have to get ugly.”
Right, because walking right into Azula’s death trap isn’t ugly. He had a plan worked out in his head for how this would work. First, it was best to get their guards down by going along with them a little ways. Then he could find the perfect opening when their backs were turned, and…
…and Katara really didn’t follow the same strategy. With a flick of her hand, she’d already thrown a small flame in their enemies’ direction, causing them to jump back and ready themselves for a full-on battle. Katara readied a firebending stance herself, pausing just a moment to narrow her eyes at Zuko.
“A little help would be nice,” she said.
A little subtlety would’ve been nice, too. Zuko said nothing and readied an attack position as well, but couldn’t shake the feeling that something was missing. Katara glared at him like he was the stupidest person ever born.
“You didn’t bring any water with you?”
Flames, I’m an idiot. “Hey, I’m not used to having to carry anything to use my bending, all right?” he snapped back. “I mean, can you imagine having to carry a torch with you everywhere or hope you get lucky enough to be standing near a lantern when you firebend? How stupid would that be?”
“Then find some water, you moron!”
Zuko looked desperately around him. At the end of the alleyway, he saw a small fountain. Perfect, he thought. Or rather, it would’ve been perfect if he could call the water from this far a distance. Cursing himself for his stupidity, Zuko ran towards the water source, with one of the men on his tail and the other fighting off Katara.
Their enemies were both firebenders, for sure. Zuko could feel the hot flames barely missing the back of his head as he ran. His mind was a blur as he focused on nothing but getting within range of the water. At last, he reached out his hand and a large jet of water came towards him so fast, he had to sidestep it. It pummeled the guy chasing him and knocked him unconscious to the ground. An excellent start. He turned to see how Katara was faring and saw it wasn’t nearly as well.
The other firebender had Katara pinned to the ground, his hand inches from her face. She turned her head this way and that to avoid him, but getting out of his grip proved impossible. And no matter how fast Zuko ran, he could not get there fast enough. He watched in horror as the flames erupted from the man’s fingertips, flowing onto Katara’s exposed skin. Her scream pierced Zuko’s ears. He felt a moment of fear, then his body was overcome with rage. He ran forward, barely aware of his own actions. The water from the nearby fountain leapt up and came alongside him, split, and hardened into a blade of ice in each hand. He thrust the weapons forward, catching the man off-guard.
Zuko’s opponent jumped back, barely missing being wounded on the arm. Katara, still gasping in pain, had enough of her wits about her to roll away from danger. Covering the injured side of her face with one hand, she threw a line of fire in the man’s direction. Now outnumbered, he threw up his hands in surrender and disappeared down the road.
Zuko’s first intuition was to follow him, hunt him down and make him pay for the pain he’d caused. Then he heard Katara’s voice, quiet, whimpering. She knelt down on the road, clutching her face and leaning over. Zuko ran to her side. Even with her fingers hiding most of the injury, he could tell it was bad. Gingerly, he tried to pull her hand aside.
“It… it hurts,” Katara whispered.
“I know,” Zuko said. “I know, but I need to see it.”
Reluctantly, Katara moved her arm and Zuko saw her face in full view. Her right eye was swollen shut, the skin around it red and raw from the burn. The sight brought far too many memories to his mind. He heard his 13-year-old self crying for mercy and getting none of it. Instantly, the cold dagger in his hands melted into an orb of floating water. It rested on Katara’s face and began to glow. Zuko concentrated all his energy into healing the injury. He could see the skin starting to heal, but only lightly. This wasn’t working. Not as well as he needed it to. A bead of sweat dripped down Zuko’s face as he concentrated harder. He had to heal her. He couldn’t let it scar. Not Katara’s beautiful face. He would restore it, even if it took hours, even if he had to spend all the energy he had.
Katara had no clue how much time had passed when her eyes fluttered open. She tried to remember what had happened before she blacked out. Everything seemed unclear. She remembered a man recognizing Zuko, the fear that went through her. Then she remembered the same man attacking her.
“Wha-?” She sat up quickly, expecting a jolting pain, since that was the last memory she had before she passed out. But surprisingly, the pain was not there.
The room was barely lit. Katara stared around, trying to get her bearings. She was in a tent of some kind, a drab brown sort of fabric. Perhaps like something the water tribe hunters might construct on a trip, though of thinner material. The furnishings were minimal – some blankets and extra clothes in neat piles along the wall. A small chest used to carry stationary. A dimly lit lantern. A strange woman sat in the corner, dark hair braided down to her shoulders. She was scratching notes in a leather-bound journal, face shrouded from view. She paused when she noticed Katara stirring, not looking up.
“You’re awake,” she rumbled.
Katara rubbed her head. She touched the side of her face. Last she recalled, it was pretty nasty there. Now she just felt the lightest line of raised skin above her cheek. Had her injury been just a dream? It’d felt so real…
“Who are—” she started to ask, until the woman but a finger to her mouth and made an abrupt “shush” motion and indicated to a bedroll beside her. Tucked snugly in the soft folds of fur, a young girl no older then four slept soundly.
“Ren,” the woman whispered. “My girl’s Sien. You and your companion are safe here, for now.”
Zuko. Katara’s eyes widened searching the tent. Zuko was laying down on a single tan blanket. Katara almost called out his name, then she remembered they were supposed to be in hiding. She knelt down next to him and tucked a piece of hair behind his ear. She could see him breathing, but his body lay so still, and his skin looked unhealthy and pale.
“Is he…?” Katara started to whisper harshly.
“He’ll live,” the woman said in a hushed tone. “He just needs to rest a while.”
Almost on cue, Zuko made a soft moaning noise, as if to argue that he didn’t have time to rest. This made the woman smirk a bit. She rose from her reading to gather an extra blanket and drape it on him. As Katara’s eyes adjusted to the light, she was finally able to make out the woman’s face. She looked older then them by a few years and had the complexion and eyes of a Fire Nation native. But what struck Katara most in that moment was the long, ragged, scar that ran diagonally across her face from forehead to jaw.
Katara flinched at the startling sight, but stopped herself from averting her eyes. She never looked away from Zuko’s face; why should this be any different?
The woman tucked the blanket neatly around Zuko’s shoulders, studying him a long while before speaking again.
“That’s an impressive scar.” she murmured. She ran two fingers diagonally down her face, tracing the path of her own scar. “How did he get it?”
Katara swallowed. While she and Zuko had talked about fake names, they hadn’t discussed what excuse Zuko would give for his scar. Katara didn’t expect anyone to question it. Just some guy from the Southern Water Tribe who got on a firebender’s bad side and paid for it. It wasn’t like the firebenders had played nice with the Water Tribes these past few years.
“A firebender did it,” Katara whispered clumsily. “During a raid on his village.”
The woman nodded like she not only knew Katara was lying, but also like she knew the truth. “I’ve earned my fair share of scars. Most of them dodging fire. Strange, my first instinct has always been to shield my eyes when a blast gets too close.” She held up her arms revealing a patchwork of faded brown marks. She put up her arms as if blocking an attack. “Like this.”
“They attacked in his sleep,” Katara said.
The woman cocked her head to the side, as if looking for a way to contradict Katara’s story. Her face started to look less kind now. “His family… I can’t imagine how they must’ve felt after it happened.”
“I wouldn’t know,” Katara said, lying yet again. “We haven’t been traveling together that long.” This time, however, the woman didn’t seem to notice her lie at all. She just stared at Zuko’s face a moment longer then stood and looked across the tent to where the little girl was sleeping.
“If anyone did that to my child,” she said quietly. “I’d kill them.”
The voice sent chills down Katara’s spine. She had no doubt that their hostess meant every word. She decided to refrain from any more talk that evening and get to sleep early. The sooner they got away from this woman, however kind her intentions, the safer the two of them would be.