Recognizable quotes from the episode Zuko Alone... I can't remember if I took any quotes from there.
They'd managed to reach their ostrich horse and mount while the villagers pressed in around them, still too hesitant to actually grow violent but quickly gaining confidence from sheer number. Seeing that both Zuko and Katara were leaving without any further threatening or convincing, the throng fell silent and watched as they rode out of town. A few of the braver villagers made to protest Katara's leaving, but a cold glare from her silenced them. Katara caught a brief glimpse of a young boy among the rocks and boulders trailing their progress, but was not able to identify him. Gradually, Katara's anger cooled and she eventually dismissed the entire village as closed-minded bigots. Disappointment replaced her anger and her shoulders slumped. Now that she was no longer so focused on her own anger, she was able to detect Zuko's. His posture was rigid and when she rested her chin on his shoulder she could see the tension in his jaw. He gave no indication that he was in any pain, but she wondered if his back was covered in bruises. He'd hit the ground pretty hard several times, after all. She subtly stretched her senses to detect any injuries. His breathing was harsh and she thought she could detect the pooling of blood along his back and ribs that would indicate bruising. She hoped none of his ribs were broken. They'd have to stop so she could get a better look. Unfortunately, the firebender didn't appear to have stopping in mind. Katara bit her lip before asking, "Do you want to stop?'
Zuko yanked on the reins of the ostrich horse, abruptly pulling it to a stop and dismounting. His movements were harsh as he paced around the clearing they'd stopped in, tossing twigs and dry moss in a pile, his jaw tense and his scowl deep. Katara dismounted more slowly, removing the sleeping rolls and watching him disappear into the bramble and reappear moments later with several thick branches. He dropped them on the pile he'd already gathered and, with a sharp flick of his wrist, a fire exploded from the logs. Katara frowned, it'd been a while since she'd seen him like this—angry and volatile. It was kind of frightening. She dropped the bags a decent distance from the fire in case it got out of hand due to Zuko's anger, and calmly seated herself on a folded bedroll. "You look angry."
He whirled around, fire exploding from his fists as he exclaimed, "Of course I'm angry! My father despises me, my sister is trying to kill me, I have a bounty on my head as well as orders to kill me on sight, everyone hates me, and I just want to go home!"
His words ended in a roar that made Katara sit back a bit. She watched as he panted for breath, before nodding and agreeing, "Me too."
Gold eyes snapped to her, narrowing. "What."
She shrugged, staring at the fire as it finally lowered to a manageable level. "I want to go home, too. I don't even know if I still have a home."
Zuko flopped to the ground next to her, his anger spent, grumbling, "At least you can go back to it."
She nodded slowly, letting the silence fall comfortably on them. She passed him a piece of jerky, putting the battered kettle over the fire. Something he'd said tickled her memory and she turned to him. "I never knew you had a sister."
Zuko snorted, falling to his back to stare at the darkening sky, his voice glum, "She's a prodigy. A Master Bender before she turned thirteen. Father's pride."
Katara put her chin in her hand, looking down at him thoughtfully. "She sounds scary."
A dry laugh escaped him. "Terrifying," he paused, frowning at something in his memory. "She can conjure lightning."
He draped an arm over his eyes, hiding from her gaze. "No."
"Have you ever tried?"
"You don't just bend lightning."
"No," she allowed, "I suppose not."
Zuko grunted, but said nothing else. Compassion stirred in her. She wasn't used to seeing him so defeated. He'd always been so strong, so fierce. He acted like he didn't care, but she could see the villagers' rejection of him had cut him deep. Especially Lee and Sela. She'd never been hated just because of the element she could bend and apparently even his own people didn't accept him.
"I don't hate you."
The words were out before she was even aware she'd thought them. They startled her, mainly because she realized they were true. Zuko's arm shifted and she caught the gleam of a gold eye looking at her. She blushed, nervously fingering the half-eaten jerky in her hand. Gathering her courage, she lifted her chin to look at him and give him a small smile. "I mean, you were scary at first, but inside I know you're just a polar bear puppy."
He sat up, looking indignant, but she caught the blush that spread across his cheeks. "No I'm not."
"Sure you are!"
"I'm not!" he insisted. "I'm mean...like a boarcupine!"
Katara laughed, further delighted when Zuko's blush deepened. "I've never seen a boarcupine."
Her grin widened. "So I gathered."
He scowled at her, but she only grinned and scooted closer, resting her head on his shoulder. He grunted but didn't push her away and she smiled up at him. "You are a polar bear puppy."
He sighed, conceding, "Don't tell anyone."
Zuko and Katara relaxed into an easy companionship after the expulsion of emotions from Zuko. Even after their time in the swamp, the firebender still kept her at arm's length and watch her warily. Katara's admittance that she didn't hate him seemed to accept her gestures of friendship without the wariness that usually accompanied him. He didn't push her away when she crawled into his sleeping pallet in the middle of the night and Katara almost felt like he welcomed her presence. The area surrounding the village was as desolate as it'd been before the village and Katara was cheered when they finally came across a shaded oasis. Their supplies were running low and the small package Sela had given Zuko when they first left wasn't nearly enough to last until the next town, wherever that might be. Zuko stopped beneath a scraggly looking desert tree and Katara quickly slid from the back of the ostrich horse, eager for fresh water. Zuko took his time following, soothing the ostrich horse and checking various other things.
Katara waded into the water with a sigh of relief. The cool water felt heavenly after the days spent in the desert heat. She was disappointed that there were no fish in the small pool, but she couldn't say she was surprised. She took the opportunity to freely bend the water around her with a delighted laugh. Zuko leaned against a boulder, watching her progress. Katara stopped her cheerful spin, facing Zuko. Her smile widened when she caught sight of the slight smile on Zuko's face. "You should come in and cool down."
Zuko's brow rose and he glanced at the water before looking back at her. "I don't think so."
Katara snorted. "I know you can swim, Zuko. Are you afraid?"
"I have a healthy appreciation of a Master Bender surrounded by her element."
She laughed at his affected superior tone and she dropped into the water to hide her grin. Zuko eyed her suspiciously for a moment, but Feathers released a startled squawk that drew his attention. Katara took that moment to strike, sending a wave of water over the firebender's head. Zuko stumbled in surprise, sputtering indignantly, and Katara's laugh echoed around the oasis.
"Distance doesn't make you safe."
Zuko straightened, pushing sopping hair out of his eyes. "This means war."
He was in the water before Katara could process his words and he yanked her under water with a deft sweep of his legs. She went down with a shriek, eyes narrowing at his smug look when she surfaced. She retaliated with a wave of water, laughing at Zuko's protest, "No cheating!"
Making sure she was a safe distance from him, she crossed her arms and cackled. "All's fair in—Wait!"
Despite being a firebender, Zuko managed to produce an impressive wave of water. After that, talking dissolved into an all out water war only calling a truce when Feathers decided to join them in the water. Feathers put up a fight, determined to stay in the water, but eventually Zuko pulled the dripping, protesting ostrich horse out of the pool and tied it in the shade of the scraggily tree. Katara was carefully making her way out of the water when she glanced up just in time to see Zuko pull off his wet shirt and wring it out. Her foot slipped and she fell with a gasp and a splash. Her cheeks burned when Zuko turned. Katara coughed quietly, avoiding his questioning look. "I slipped."
Zuko pulled his damp shirt back over his head and held out a hand for her. She hesitated only a moment before taking his hand and carefully stepping out of the oasis pool. Zuko made a strange noise and quickly dropped her hand, turning back to their packs once she was on firm land. She pulled the water from her clothes, trying to smooth her hair back. It was just getting long enough to pull into a short tail. The front usually fell down to hang in her eyes, but it was nice to get it off her neck. Dry once more, Katara joined Zuko looking through the backs. "Should I try to cook something?"
She took one of the provision bags, looking through what little food they had left. With a grunt, she discarded the rice. It would take too long and she doubted Zuko wanted to stop for the rest of the day. Katara sighed, lifting out the small oilskin of wrapped jerky. She didn't know about Zuko, but she was tired of jerky. "I wish there were fish in the pool. We're almost out of food. Again."
Zuko snorted and was about to respond when his head snapped to the north and his eyes narrowed. Surprised, Katara followed his gaze curiously, but didn't see anything except empty sky and a few stray wisps of clouds. She glanced at him but he was still focused on the northern sky.
"What is it?"
He blinked, focusing back on her though a frown still pulled at his mouth. He shook his head when he caught her concerned look. "It's nothing."
She didn't really believe him, but accepted the answer anyway. It didn't prevent her from searching his face for some indication of what he'd seen. She held up a piece of jerky, her eyebrows rising when he took it distractedly. She busied herself airing out their sleeping pallets and blankets, keeping half an eye on Zuko. The firebender seemed restless, his eyes continuously darting to the north and fingering his jerky without eating it. When Katara rose to clean up, Zuko shot to his feet.
"Stay with the ostrich horse, I'll be back."
He was nearly out of the oasis before Katara could respond, calling after him, "Where are you going?"
"Nowhere! I'll be back!"
And then he was gone. Katara stared after him in confusion. He'd seemed fine for most of the morning and it hadn't been until they'd gotten out of the pool that he'd grown anxious. Her brow furrowed thoughtfully and she stooped to wash the few things they had. He'd seen something, despite his denial, and she wondered what it was. There was only one way to find out. She washed quickly, returning to pack Feathers. She was going to follow him.
It was strange not having Zuko in front of her guiding the ostrich horse. She felt more on edge than usual and would jump when bushes rustled unexpectedly. Feathers sensed her unease, ruffling feathers and squawking. Despite the relatively flat landscape, she didn't see Zuko anywhere nearby. Picking a direction, she urged the ostrich horse into a trot. She crested a hill, startled by a man's shout of surprise. She yanked sharply on the reins, nearly getting herself thrown from the saddle. Feathers danced under her and it took everything in her to keep herself on the ostrich horse. A man's hand grabbed the bridle, pulling the ostrich horse's head down. Once the ostrich horse was restrained it stopped moving. Katara slumped forward, trying to still her racing heart.
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to startle you or your ostrich horse."
Katara looked up to meet the eyes of a young man. He had to be in his twenties and by his clothing, he seemed to be from the Earth Kingdom. She sighed with relief and he gave her a friendly smile, smoothing back ruffled feathers on the ostrich horse's head. He glanced at the packs behind the saddle. "Are you going to Ba Sing Se?"
Katara shook her head apologetically. "No. I don't think so. Did you see a boy pass by here?"
"Is everything all right, Tahn? I thought I heard shouting."
Katara and Tahn turned, Tahn calling back, "Everything's fine. I just surprised a traveler." He noticed Katara's curious look and explained, "My wife. She's resting in the shade."
A young woman, heavily pregnant, appeared on the edge of the road a few minutes later, her hand placed protectively on her belly. Tahn quickly dropped the bridle, hurrying to his wife, scolding, "You should be resting, Ying. It's too hot to be out in the sun."
Tahn took her arm, urging her back into the shade. The young woman twisted to look back at Katara, speaking to her husband, "Did you ask her?"
"She's not going to Ba Sing Se."
Disappointment made her shoulders slump and she allowed Tahn to help her back to the thin shade. Katara dismounted, approaching the shade. She watched Tahn fuss over his wife, offering a nearly empty waterskin. Katara reached for the waterskin Zuko usually traveled with and offered it to them. "Why are you going to Ba Sing Se?"
Tahn hesitated taking the waterskin, but took it with Katara's urging. "Our village was attacked by the Rough Rhinos. We thought it'd be safer for us to start our family in Ba Sing Se. The city's full of refugees."
She'd never been to Ba Sing Se and this was the first time she'd heard of a city of refugees. Katara took a seat next to them in the shade. "I thought the Earth Kingdom was holding out against the invasion."
The young woman shook her head. "It's not the invasion we're seeking refuge from."
Tahn nodded. "The Rough Rhinos are elite Fire Nation cavalry. They seem to thrive on fear."
"They're supposed to be under the command of the Fire Nation's military, but they don't seem to be following any specific order. Our village was small and not very wealthy." She stroked her belly with one hand, reaching for Tahn with the other and smiling brightly. "We'll have a better life in Ba Sing Se."
They smiled at each other long enough for Katara to grow uncomfortable. Curious—she'd never seen a pregnant woman's stomach so prominently displayed, the women of the Water Tribe always swathed in heavy furs—she asked, "When are you due?"
"Soon. We hope to reach Ba Sing Se before then."
Lightning raced across the cloudless sky, startling all three of them. Tahn searched the sky. "I didn't think a storm was coming."
Katara shook her head, frowning at the nearly cloudless sky. "No. There's no moisture in the air."
An explosion shattered the air, startling the ostrich horse and sending Katara to her feet. In the distance she could see a plume of smoke rising. Flames flared into the air and Katara gasped. "I have to go."
Tahn scrambled to his feet, hurrying after her as she mounted the protesting ostrich horse. "It's dangerous. I can see the fire from here. There are firebenders fighting!"
He grabbed the bridle, looking anxiously at the rising smoke. Katara shifted, pulling out a small bundle and handing it to him. "I'll be fine. Take this, you need it more than we do."
With a final smile to Tahn and his wife, she kicked the ostrich horse into a full out run. She rapidly closed the distance and Katara was surprised to see the shadows of buildings growing closer. A flash of white drew her to a stop. She edged Feathers as close to the bare tree reaching for the white object. Her fingers brushed it and she was surprised at the softness. It brought back memories and she plucked some of it up to get a closer look. Incense and woodsmoke met her nose and she gasped. "Appa?"
Fur slipped from limp fingers and she urged Feathers on, her heart in her throat.
The buildings were partially collapsed and a few were burning when Katara entered what appeared to be a ghost town. She'd thought the last village was deserted, but she knew, without a doubt, that no one lived here. She followed the path of destruction, marveling at the scorch marks on the ground and various collapsed buildings. Nothing stirred and she wondered if she might have missed Zuko and the others. If it really was Sokka and Aang, she hoped the firebender wasn't the one doing the attacking.
Stopping in the middle of what used to be the square, Katara dismounted. The air was almost too still and it made her uneasy. The ostrich horse made a whirring sound, nosing Katara's hair. She patted the bird comfortingly even as she frowned at the silence. Nearly every building in the square was scorched or burning and she couldn't pick a definite path to follow. She wasn't even sure she wanted to find what happened at the end of the trail of destruction.
A crack of lightning shattered the stillness and suddenly the earth trembled and flame and smoke shot into the air. Feathers screeched a protest, plumage standing on end, only her hold on the reins kept the ostrich horse from bolting. Shouting echoed off the buildings and Katara picked a direction, running towards it and uncapping her waterskin. She slid around the corner just in time to see the large shadow of Appa pass over and disappear. A gasp flew from her lips and she couldn't stop her shout, "Sokka!"
No one heard her as the sky bison was already out of ear shot and was soon out of eyesight. Her eyes welled with tears. She'd nearly forgotten how much she missed her brother and they'd just missed each other. She stared after Appa, silently wishing that the sky bison had heard her and was circling around to come back. The wish was futile. They were retreating and leaving her behind again.
Her name was urgent and panicked and she whirled around, ready to defend herself if needed. Zuko knelt on the ground next to an old man. Surprised, she hurried to his side, momentarily pushing thoughts of her brother away. He was alive. And Aang was too. She'd have to content herself with that knowledge and hope she'd find them well another time. She knelt at Zuko's side, quickly scanning the old man's wound. She grimaced at the sight of charred and blistering flesh, wincing as she had to peel back his tunic to get a closer look. A swift check of his breathing and heartbeat let her know that he was still alive, though the heartbeat was weak and erratic. Working quickly, she drew water out of her waterskin and coated the wound as best she could. The old man groaned when she touched the wound, eyes opening a crack. "Zuko?"
Surprise nearly made her lose control of her water when she saw the flash of gold beneath heavy lids. He lost the strength to keep his eyes open and he slipped into unconsciousness. Zuko scooted closer, clasping the old man's hand in his. She glanced at him before focusing on the wound again. "What happened?"
He looked at her blankly. He didn't seem to understand the question at first, but shook himself and quickly explained the run-in with Azula, Aang, and a few others. "Azula struck Uncle with lightning."
Katara bit back a gasp of surprise. Was family so little valued in the Fire Nation? Zuko's uncle gasped, groaning painfully. Zuko's whole posture went rigid and he leaned over him, anxiously watching. Her heart broke a little when he turned pleading eyes on her, begging, "Katara, please..."
"I know," she assured him, pulling more water from the waterskin and tossing away the used water.
The water glowed faintly and she concentrated harder, urging flesh to knit and heal. She tried twice more, changing water each time, before sitting back on her heels and wiping sweat away from her brow. Zuko looked from his uncle to her with almost a fearful expression. "Will he be okay?"
She smiled, capping her waterskin and checked the wound again. There was still a lot of damage, but if she used all the water they had all three of them would die in the desert. He watched restlessly, sagging with relief when she nodded, saying, "He should be. I will need more water than I have."
For the first time since Katara knelt at his side, Zuko looked at his surroundings. "Did you follow me?"
Katara huffed, rising to her feet and placing her hands on her hips, frowning down at him. The reminder of his abandonment of her sat uneasily with her. "I did. It wasn't easy either. You didn't have to run off like that. What was so important that you had to leave me alone?"
He looked away, shoulders hunching and muttering, "You wouldn't understand."
She stared down at him for a moment longer before sighing in defeat and dropping the subject. It would have been nice to see her brother again but maybe she'd get another chance sometime in the near future. "We should probably find a better place to stay while your uncle heals."
Zuko agreed and Katara left to find the ostrich horse. When she returned with the protesting animal, it took both of them to lift Zuko's uncle onto the back of the ostrich horse, Katara wincing each time the injured man groaned in pain. She sincerely hoped his wound wouldn't reopen.
"You should ride with him," Zuko muttered in distraction, "to keep him from falling off."
Katara looked at him strangely. "Me? I can't hold him on the ostrich horse if he decides to take a tumble. He'd probably take me with him."
Gold eyes blinked. "Oh. Right. I mean. Of course. I—"
He cut himself off, giving his head a shake and quickly climbed into the saddle behind his uncle. Katara took the reins and, making sure Zuko had a firm hand on his uncle, she started out of the ghost town. Stretching out her senses, she felt a pull of water and headed in that direction.