He stored the goods on a rooftop at the edge of the city then doubled back to find a tunic for the girl...if she was still around. He'd just have to make sure it'd fit him as well in case she decided to make a run for it. Zuko half-hoped she would. He was supposed to strike out on his own. The idea was to figure out who he was supposed to be. He was a son of the Fire Nation, but every firebender he came across tried to kill him. Maybe it was Azula trying to take the throne from him. Still, not even a week had passed and here he was with another mouth to feed and considerably poorer. The spirits just loved mocking him.
The tunic took longer to acquire than any of the other supplies he'd collected. Who knew people would be so protective of a scrap of cloth? In the end, he managed to snag one that looked like it would fit off a clothes line and he got several streets before he realized that it was rather small and feminine. Well, the girl had better not complain because he was not getting another one. Bunching the clothing into a compact ball, Zuko ducked into a darkened alley, quickly stripping off the blue mask and peeling off the dark clothing. Once everything was safely secured in his pack, he stepped onto the streets and started back to where he'd left the ostrich horse. The streets had emptied for the most part, those that didn't want to be caught up in the riots hiding indoors and others out seeking adventure in some other part of the city. It was the perfect time to leave without much notice.
The girl was where he'd left her, anxiously twisting the reins of the ostrich horse and staring off in the direction he'd gone. He dropped from the roof top, startling a gasp from her. He barely spared the girl a glance, gathering the reins of the ostrich horse and securing his pack behind the saddle.
"I thought you'd be long gone by now."
The girl said nothing, retreating a safe distance from him. Zuko scowled. He could remember not long ago when she had given him a tongue lashing, or at least showed more of a spine. With a jerk of the reins, he started down the street before his inner-Iroh could chastise him for being insensitive. He paused long enough to retrieve the supplies he'd hidden and then continued out the city gates. The girl dragged a few paces behind, her steps faltering on the uneven dirt streets. A bruise was beginning to form around her left eye. The sight stopped him short and his eyes narrowed. That bruise hadn't been there before.
"Who hit you?"
Zuko never approved of violence against women and Katara was hardly more than a girl. She flinched, immediately ducking her head and turning her face so he couldn't see it. "It's nothing."
His scowl deepened and part of him was tempted to march back into that Spirit-forsaken city and torch it. A stiff wind blew and he caught her sway as it tugged at her clothing. He was right. She was going to fall over and die in a gust of wind.
"You are determined to follow me?"
She blushed, her eyes dropping to the dirt at her feet. "I don't know where I am."
He grunted, just catching her peering up at him through thick lashes before she hurriedly looked away. "Well, that's not my problem. Go away."
He swung himself up into the saddle, gathering the reins and calming the ostrich horse as it danced beneath him. She looked startled, reaching for the ostrich horse. "You're just going to leave me?"
Zuko looked down at her, trying to ignore the fear that showed in her eyes. "Yes."
She looked down the road, then back toward the port city. "But..."
Zuko pulled sharply on the reins, causing the ostrich horse to throw its head and squawk in protest. Her hand fell back to her side and she hugged herself, taking a step away from the agitated animal.
"It is a kingly act to assist the fallen."
Zuko sat rigidly in the saddle, scowling. His inner-Iroh was back. Laughter echoed in his mind. A deep, belly chuckle. Much like Uncle. This was getting to be more trouble than he anticipated. It seemed like everything he did only compounded his problems.
"A trouble shared is a trouble halved."
So, Uncle would not leave well enough alone. There was nothing for it. With a put upon huff, he focused on the girl. She was chewing on her lip, watery blue eyes watching him mournfully. When she caught sight of him looking at her, she straightened, sniffing back tears. Grudgingly, he asked, "Can you at least cook?"
Relief flooded her face and she nodded eagerly. "Yes. A little. I would help Gran-Gran—"
"Fine," he interrupted. "Don't slow me down."
"Hey! What are you two doing out at this time?"
Zuko jerked around, cursing under his breath when he saw the two Fire Nation soldiers briskly approaching them. Zuko's hands tightened on the reins, digging his knees into the sides of the bird when it protested. A few more steps and they'd recognize him. Maybe he was overreacting. Maybe—
"It's the Fire Prince!"
Maybe he was right to avoid the Fire Nation. They dropped into bending positions. "By decree of Fire Lord Ozai, you're under arrest! Dismount and keep your hands where we can see them!"
Zuko seized a fistful of Katara's tunic, ignoring her surprised gasp when the tunic fell open as he yanked her up onto the ostrich horse. The bird stumbled, braying loudly. Fire erupted from the soldiers and Zuko deflected, urging the ostrich horse into a gallop toward the trees that lined the road.
A quick glance over his shoulder revealed soldiers spilling onto the road from the city before his view was obstructed by the trees. Azula wasted no time sending out his wanted poster. For a brief moment he wondered what it said, but pushed the thought away. He had a pretty good idea based on what just happened anyway. Part of him felt betrayed. A sharp tug on his shirt brought him out of his thoughts, making him realize he'd been pushing the ostrich horse too hard. He could no longer hear the soldiers pursuing them so he halted, suddenly aware that the girl was pressed against his chest. He dumped her off his lap, pushing down the guilt when she hit the ground with a pained grunt.
"Don't hang on me."
An incredulous look crossed her face and for a moment he thought she would actually respond, but then she dropped her eyes and gingerly picked herself up. He dismounted the weary bird, calming it with a tender stroke on its beak before removing the saddle and packs.
The glare he leveled her made her mouth snap shut with an audible click. "What?"
She ducked, shaking her head. With a roll of his eyes, he dropped the packs at his feet, holding the reins out to her. "Go get water."
She took the reins on reflex, glancing at the sagging animal. "Um..."
"That direction. Make sure you water the horse."
He motioned absently toward the thick trees that surrounded the camp, then marched in the opposite direction. Surely the girl could sense her own element. He didn't have to do everything for her now. He spent several minutes gathering dry wood and twigs before he returned to the clearing. The girl was gone. So was the ostrich horse. The saddle and packs remained. At least she'd left the supplies behind. Quickly setting up the logs, he took a deep breath, focusing his energy and then, with a deft flick of his wrist, created a spark. The wood was dry and caught quickly and soon the fire was buring steadily. Zuko watched the flames rise and fall with his breathing, content to watch his element. It was soothing.
A startled shriek echoed through the trees from the direction he'd pointed for water and he shot to his feet, the fire snuffing out in a cloud of smoke. He was through the trees before he could really analyze what he was doing, skidding to a halt several feet from where the girl knelt by a narrow stream. She looked surprised to see him, his hand already on the hilt of his broadswords and gold eyes sweeping the area for danger. Seeing none, he finally looked at her, taking in the damp clothes and water dripping from her hand. He scowled, demanding, "What?"
She blinked, looking down at her hand, then at the stream. She seemed unsure of what he was asking before finally saying, "It glowed."
Still tense, body humming with adrenaline, he growled, "What glowed?"
Another glance at the stream and then her hand still cupping a small puddle of water, she gave him a sheepish shrug, her voice unsure as she offered, "The water?"
His hand fell from the broadswords, a look of incredulous disbelief coming to his face. "That's it? That's—you know what, never mind."
He turned to stalk off, only vaguely aware that she scrambled after him until she touched his arm. He recoiled instantly, snarling, "Don't touch me, peasant!"
She too flinched away as if he was going to strike her, face paling. There was that feeling again. Hadn't they done this same thing earlier? Stupid girl. Stupid ship master. Stupid Earth Kingdom. This wasn't fair. Zuko would have continued to sulk if the girl hadn't shifted slightly and cleared her throat. He glared. She pretended to ignore it.
"I just wanted to show you."
"I don't want to see your stupid waterbending tricks."
Hurt flashed across her face before she ducked her head, hiding her features. She moved back to the stream, kneeling at the edge. "You can watch from there...if you want."
Hours later he still wouldn't know why he stayed, but he did, watching her dip her hand into the water, her face scrunched in concentration as she slowly pulled it out again, her hand coated in a thin bubble of water. To his surprise, she turned toward him and started tugging at the rags that clothed her with her free hand. Before his alarm could amount to panic, she stopped, exposing a large burn on her shoulder that had been hidden beneath the ragged tunic. Zuko felt his stomach turn. Even from a distance he could see it red and festering. She moved, placing her water-coated hand over the burn, taking a deep breath and closing her eyes. The water glowed a pale blue color, faintly lighting her features in the growing dusk. A final gasp and the water flowed freely, soaking into her tunic and dripping to the ground. Her head turned to examine her shoulder and unconsciously Zuko crept closer. Unable to resist, his hand reached out to trace smooth, unblemished skin. Suddenly realizing that he was touching her, he retreated several steps, brushing his hand against his pants.
"Whatever. You smell."
The words were curt and rough. His attempt to maintain distance. Surprise colored her features, but he was avoiding looking at her. He quickly gathered the ostrich horse's reins and started back to camp. Waterbenders were weird, he decided. Weird and—and—and just weird. She had looked at him with so much trust, even knowing he was a firebender. By the time the girl returned from the stream, her hair clinging damply to her cheeks, Zuko had the fire going again and was digging through the packs in an attempt to put together something to eat. Without a word, he held out the tunic he'd snatched for her. She took it in some surprise before whispering a quiet "thank you" and vanished into the trees. When she returned, she had her clothes wrapped in a tight bundle in one hand and his cloak folded neatly in the other.
Without realizing it, Zuko sat on his heels, silently observing Katara's appearance. The tunic hung loosely on her and she'd belted it around her middle, letting it fall to mid-thigh in a short dress. So it wasn't too small after all, Zuko mused, his gaze lingering on her legs. A bizarre thought struck him making his face heat. Was all her skin as tan? She flushed under his eyes and he forced his gaze away, mechanically taking his cloak from her. Smoothing a hand nervously at her clothing, she marched to the fire, gleefully dumping her old clothes on the flames and nodding with satisfaction before moving around the fire and settling down. It was difficult not to stare at her. One would think he'd never seen a girl's legs before. The flush in his cheeks deepened and he fell back against the ostrich horse saddle, pressing the palms of his hands against his eyes and trying to push his thoughts away.