Zuko sighed, pausing at the top of a hill to look down at the port below. He needed supplies, but ports were a bad place to go. He was bound to be recognized, with his face plastered on every wanted poster from here to the Fire Nation. And not only his face, but the Blue Spirit too. All because he couldn't let Zhao win. His fists clenched. There was no choice. It could be days before he came across another town and a less populated town meant other risks increased. No, the port would have to do.
He took shelter in the trees off the road, digging through his one bag and pulling out the last of the bandages. They looked filthy, a result of massive amounts of rain and a surly ostrich horse. It took several minutes to wind the bandages around his head, covering his most distinct feature. Perhaps that would diminish the chances of him being recognized and allow him the opportunity to slip in and out of town quickly. Ports were used to seeing the wounded come and go. After a quick debate about leaving the ostrich horse, he gathered the reins and started down into the port.
The port was teaming with activity. Merchants lined the streets, hawking their wears and offering deals. Firebenders moved through the crowd, the Earth Kingdom people clearing a wide path around them and covertly watching their progress. Zuko kept a close eye on the firebenders' movements, keeping well out of their direct line of sight. First he would find food for himself, then he'd see what was available for the ostrich horse. If all else failed, the horse could find its own food. Closer to the docks both the streets and the people got rougher. As a result, the Fire Nation soldiers kept a more watchful eye on any who looked like trouble. Zuko could feel their eyes linger on him and he stepped up to a booth, absently looking over the over-ripened produce. A scornful scoff on his blind side drew his attention.
"There they are again. Bringing their barbaric practice here. No good Earth Kingdom man would do such a thing."
Curious, Zuko turned, following the gazes of the two men next to him to the pier. A ship was unloading its cargo while what could only be the captain herded a group of bedraggled people to a small staging area. Several others had stopped to watch, leaning close and whispering to each other. Beside him, the conversation resumed.
"They must get a market—"
The first man laughed darkly. "Oh, they have a market all right. I have half a mind to go over there and—"
He started toward the docks, but his friend pulled him back, looking around anxiously. "Sh! That smacks of rebellion."
"Good!" the man exclaimed, not caring that he was beginning to draw attention. He drew himself up, pointing an accusing finger at them. "You should be ashamed!"
His friend gasped, grabbing at his arm. "I'm sorry! He's drunk. Quiet! You're going to get us in trouble."
"No! I won't be quiet. How many of our own have been taken? How many are now whores for those fire bastards? And you call yourselves civilized."
Zuko drew away from them, melting into the gathering crowd just as several Fire Nation soldiers approached the enraged man. "Sir, we're going to have to ask you to quiet down. You're disrupting the peace."
"Disrupting the peace? You guys are destroying it! What peace is there in this Spirit forsaken world? You invade our land, murder our sons, rape our women and you dare talk to me about peace?"
Grumbles spread through the crowd and tension rose. The last place Zuko wanted to be was in the middle of a riot. He finally made it to the back of the crowd when he heard a shout and the onlookers surged forward. He stumbled as people pushed past him and the ostrich horse jerked on his reins, protesting loudly at the commotion. From up the street he could see more soldiers approaching so Zuko had no choice but to retreat to the pier until things quieted down.
His eyes drifted to the ragged group now lined up evenly spaced in front of a crudely erected platform. He took in their appearance with a scowl, scanning the line. On the end was a girl. His scowl deepened as he tried to remember why she looked so familiar. Whatever. He had better things to do and by the sound of it, the riot was in full swing. The soldiers would probably be occupied for a while. Perfect. He'd already spent too long in town.
His eye caught sight of the girl again and a memory surfaced. He'd seen her twice before and then she was simply gone. He'd always assumed she'd gone home, but the non-bending water brat had demanded to know where she was and even the Avatar had asked. Before he realized what he was doing, he was standing in front of her, his good eye narrowed on her.
"What are you doing here?"
It was a demand, not a question. He wanted answers for the violent fights he had to go through with the Avatar. Sometimes it felt more like the young airbender was hunting him than the reverse. Now he just wanted to be left alone. The Avatar had caused him nothing but trouble. Blue eyes flicked up, dull and flat, but he thought he detected something stir in the depths and then it was gone. She was small, too thin, an unhealthy look about her, and her hair... His scowl deepened. Her head had been shaved at some point. Probably because of lice. The girl didn't answer, but flinched as the ship's master scurried forward, bowing briskly in greeting and grinning up at Zuko, exclaiming, "Excellent choice, my lord!"
He started at the title, but casting a quick look at the man revealed nothing alarming. He frowned but the man didn't seem perturbed, continuing to expound upon Zuko's apparent selection. "She's young and unsullied, my lord—"
The man gripped the neck of the girl's threadbare tunic and ripped it open. Zuko felt his face heat.
"—perfectly healthy. She's from the Northern Water Tribe—"
"Southern Water Tribe," Zuko interrupted before he could stop himself. He cringed internally. He should've learned by now to keep his mouth shut.
The man grinned roguishly. "If you wish, my lord. You can even believe she's the last waterbender if you like."
The wink that followed the statement made his skin crawl. He grunted in disgust. The man was without honor. Besides, the Avatar and his friends were no longer his concern. He sneered and turned away, barely hearing the quiet, gasping sob that escaped the water girl. He hesitated, Uncle's voice pricking at him like his conscience, "Two are better than one because they have a good return for their labor. For if either of them falls, the one will lift up his companion. But woe to the one who falls when there is not another to lift him up."*
Annoyance welled up in him. Even away from Uncle he couldn't escape. Uncle and his stupid proverbs. What did that even mean?
"Surely you would not leave a young woman in distress, Zuko?"
He could almost feel his inner-Iroh's disappointment. The ship master, seeing he was losing a customer, quickly changed tactics. "I see you are a noble soldier recovering from a brave battle. No doubt you would like some company as you recover. I will give you a discount on any of my...goods in honor of your service to our great nation."
Zuko leveled him with a flat stare. He glanced at the girl again only to meet blue eyes. He forcibly looked away. His jaw clenched. He was going soft. "How much?"
Zuko grit his teeth, resisting the urge to snarl. It'd be so much easier to just sneak in after dark and snatch her like he did the Avatar. He quickly abandoned that idea, no matter how tempting it was. The last thing he needed was the local law enforcement after him. Apparently there were many things on his list of 'last things he needed.' He really didn't need a half-starved water girl either. Damn his conscience. "You're kidding. It looks like she'll fall over and die any moment. One thousand."
"Twenty-five hundred and I'll throw in a new set of clothes for the lady."
Said clothes didn't look much better than what she had on. "Keep your rags. Fifteen hundred."
"Two thousand and I'll go no lower."
Zuko had been hoping to go lower. Movement on board the ship caught his attention. The dealer cleared his throat and Zuko turned back, folding his arms across his chest, and bluffed, "Sixteen-fifty says I won't report your actions to the authorities."
He laughed. "The 'authorities' have given me their blessings, boy. Two thousand and that's final."
Zuko raised his single eyebrow. "Perhaps on the slaves, but what about the drugs?" He paused, letting that sink in, before allowing a small smirk. "And the weapons? I know those aren't going back for Fire Nation use."
A dark scowl fell over the ship master's face. "Fine. Sixteen-fifty."
Money exchanged hands, the girl was cut from the rope, and the lead was handed to Zuko. He was now the proud owner of a slave. Zuko grimaced. Uncle would be so proud. The ship master bowed. "Pleasure doing business with you, sir. Enjoy your purchase."
Zuko glared. First thing he was going to do when he became Fire Lord was destroy the man. He swore he could almost hear mocking laughter. It sounded an awful lot like Azula. Right. If he became Fire Lord. The thought did nothing to lighten his mood. With a final scowl at the man, Zuko turned and stalked off, dragging the girl and his ostrich horse behind him. Why was his life so difficult?
He barely heard her, but his name made his back stiffen and he immediately snarled, "Don't call me that!"
She recoiled as if he'd kicked her, eyes wide and fearful. Great. Now he felt like he had just kicked a saber-tooth moose-lion cub. He closed his eyes, taking a deep breath and passing a hand through his hair—he was still surprised that he had hair—before attempting to soften his words. "Call me Lee." She nodded, her lips still clamped closed. He rolled his eyes. "What's your name, girl?"
She blinked, swallowing nervously. "Katara."
A wolf-whistle nearby brought Zuko's attention to the crowd of teen boys at the corner, openly leering at Katara's ripped clothing. They drew back under his fierce scowl. "What are you looking at?"
They quickly hurried on, several casting assessing glances over their shoulders at them. With a final glare at their retreating back, Zuko turned and continued into the market. He was rapidly coming to several conclusions. One, the girl was drawing too much attention. Two, he had no more money. Three, he was beginning to believe he'd made a very stupid decision. Four, he still had no food. He glanced at the girl—Katara—and saw her clutching her tunic closed. She needed clothes.
He pulled her to the side, cutting her bindings before turning to pull out his cloak and throw it at her. Startled eyes looked up at him, but he ignored her, strapping his dao swords across his back and taking one of the saddle bags. When he turned back to her, she was wrapped tightly in the cloak. "Here—wait here with the ostrich horse. If you decide to run off, leave the horse. If you steal it, I'll hunt you down and kill you myself."
She nodded, taking the reins and eyeing the ostrich horse warily. He briefly wondered if she'd ever seen the animal before, but he pushed the thought away. What did he care? She'd probably be gone by the time he got back anyway. He just hoped she'd leave the ostrich horse behind. He wasn't looking forward to walking across the Earth Kingdom.