He can’t hear a damn thing over the rushing of his own blood in his ears and the harsh breaths rattling his lungs. The skin of his cheeks feels damp underneath his porcelain mask, and beads of sweat trickle from his jawline, down the curve of his taut neck, and into the hem of his black shirt.
With a grunt of effort, he vaults over a metal trash-bin and stumbles into an empty alley, all the while willing his legs to function just long enough for him to find a place to rest. The bullet wound in his left bicep throbs viciously at the thought.
Police sirens jab at his barely-contained panic, but the faster he sprints down the alley, the quieter they become. The pain in his arm has evolved from sharp stabs to a pulsing kind of hell that demands all of his attention, and as he nears the end of the alley, all he can afford to think is—get it out get it out get it out.
It is due to this overwhelming agony that the only thing Zuko will be able to recall from this moment later on is the pounding of his stuttering feet, a neon green sign with the words ‘veterinary clinic,’ and the harshness of the fluorescent lights after he stumbled in.
The waiting room is empty, which isn’t incredibly surprising considering it’s 11:30 PM on a Tuesday night.
A tinkling bell attached to the door announces his entrance. He leans his good shoulder heavily on the wall beside it, attempting to focus on inhaling and exhaling deep breaths. As his vision starts to blur, he can’t help but bitterly think that every movie he’s ever seen has grossly understated the pain of real gunshot wounds.
The tapping of footsteps manages to distract him, and he looks up to see a woman stepping out from behind the receptionist’s desk. Through the narrow holes of his mask, he just manages to make out her pristine white coat, golden-brown complexion, and wide blue eyes before she is half-dragging, half-pushing him towards the back of the clinic.
Before he can even protest, she’s guided him into a plastic chair and has cut through the blood-soaked sleeve of his shirt with a pair of medical scissors. She sits on a stool to his side and dabs at the now exposed wound with a wad of gauze, face tight in concentration.
“Are you injured anywhere else?”
Her voice is soft, but as clinical as the rest of her. When he shakes his head in response, the world briefly tilts on its axis.
The doctor huffs. “Well, technically I’m not licensed to operate on human beings, but this hardly seems like the time to observe protocol.”
The latex gloves that he doesn’t remember seeing her put on are already smeared with his blood, but she hardly looks fazed as she prods gently at his wound. He manages to see a fleshy crater of oozing red about the width of his pinky finger before he turns his head away.
“It looks like the bullet entered and exited your body without hitting your bone or shattering into multiple pieces, which is good, but we’ll need to take an x-ray in a minute to determine how severe the damage is.”
The thought of a bullet passing completely through his arm has him feeling more than a bit nauseous, so he resolutely stares at the framed poster on the wall in front of him—it’s a picture of a cute kitten dangling from a tree branch and the words ‘hang in there’ printed across the top—in order to distract himself from his rolling stomach.
The doctor is doing something to his arm that makes it ache, but he remains still. She mutters a regretful, ‘this is gonna hurt,’ before a cold cotton ball swipes over his wound and a sharp stinging sensation floods his senses.
He winces when she repeats the motion but is assuaged by the fact that she cannot see his face behind his mask.
Finding the motivational cat poster a little too morbidly ironic to adequately keep his attention away from the pain, he turns his gaze to the good doctor. Her thick brown hair is pulled back into one fraying braid that trails over her shoulder and tickles his forearm. She’s younger than he had initially thought, and he takes careful note of her heart shaped face and button nose. If it wasn’t for the firm set to her jaw or the disciplined steadiness of her nimble hands, he would have assumed her to be some intern with a proclivity for misplaced self-confidence.
She begins to sterilize the exit wound on the opposite side of his bicep, and he can’t help but reflexively flinch away from her touch. The sudden movement causes the first wound to leak more blood that quickly runs down his arm in crimson rivulets. Her hand jerks back and she inhales once through her teeth.
He expects her to grit her teeth and continue meticulously cleaning his wound, but she only looks hard into the eyes of his mask with an expression he can’t quite decipher. Her stillness is ominous and out-of-place, and he feels the muscles in his back tense in reaction to her heavy scrutiny. He mentally prepares himself and thinks that, if it should come down to it, he can probably incapacitate her and hightail it out of the clinic before the cops show up. Though, a small part of him thinks that he just might pass out from the effort it would take.
Blood is still flowing steadily down his arm when she finally breaks eye contact and leans back slightly on her stool. His feet shift subtly into a position more suitable for supporting his weight, but before he can move, she’s speaking again.
“I don’t know if elementals have some kind of honor code that they follow, but if they do, I hope confidentiality is part of it.” And then she scrunches her brow and raises her hands to hover over his arm.
Somewhere in the back of his mind, he knows he should have been more suspicious—maybe even expected this. After all, a strange masked man with twin dao swords and a bloody arm had quite literally fallen into her humble animal clinic, and she had hardly blinked an eye. That should have been his first red flag.
But Zuko is still wholly unprepared for what he sees next.
Her hands don’t touch him, but he feels a strange pulling sensation in the core of his arm and watches dumbstruck as his flesh strains under his skin and knits itself back together. Tendons re-attach, muscle stretches over empty space, and tissue melts back into one mass of skin and bone. Not even thirty seconds pass before he is staring at raw, pink skin, and a fully functioning arm.
She lowers her hands into her lap and chews on her bottom lip.
He flexes his arm experimentally, partly to test out its recovery and largely to stall for time.
His mouth is dry when he finally speaks.
“A secret for a secret.”
She startles at the sound of his rough voice, gaze automatically searching for his. “He speaks.”
With a shrug that he hopes passes for nonchalant, he cocks his head to the side. “You’re an elemental.”
“Blood and bone. At least, that’s my best guess. I’m only an open elemental to those closest to me.” She crosses her arms over her white coat. “And now, you.”
“Like I said, a secret for a secret. Plus, you saved my life. I owe—"
“You owe me nothing. If anything, I’m just repaying a life debt.”
Underneath the mask, his eyes narrow in confusion. His silence must speak for itself, because she clears her throat and sits up straighter in her seat. Her voice is quiet, almost reverent, as she begins to speak.
“A few weeks ago, my brother Sokka was out drinking with a couple of friends. On their way home, they got cornered by a bunch of assholes who thought their guns made them some kind of gangsters. It wasn’t a fair fight, and considering my brother doesn’t know when to quit, it probably would have turned out pretty ugly…but luckily, a real-life masked superhero just happened to be in the right place at the right time...” Her eyes flash purposefully to his and he inhales sharply through his nose. The skin around her mouth softens, the corners of her lips quirking up just the slightest bit. “If it wasn’t for him, I don’t know where my brother would be today.”
He doesn’t know what to say. Guiltily, he thinks to himself that he does not even remember saving her brother. But her eyes are pinning him in place with their gratitude and he swallows his discomfort.
“You don’t know for sure that that was me.”
She laughs. “My brother went on for days talking about the ‘badass elemental that shot flames out of his fists,’ and he took the liberty of describing in vivid detail every five minutes exactly what this ‘badass elemental’ looked like.” She reaches out and taps the forehead of his mask. “I’m pretty sure it was you.”
“I don’t do this to get life debts out of anyone. You don’t owe me.”
She purses her lips and he barely stops himself from staring at them. “Why do you do it?”
“I—I don’t know. Call it a hobby.”
Her lips tilt up again, and he allows himself a quick glance down. “Dangerous hobby.”
She sucks in a breath and opens her mouth, but the faint sound of sirens cuts off her response. They sound at least a few blocks away, but he’s already crossed the length of the examination room and opened the window by the time she stands from her stool.
It’s not until he’s halfway outside that she speaks up.
“I’m Katara, by the way.”
He turns his head just enough for her to make out the profile of his mask against the city lights.
“Thank you, Katara.”
And then he’s gone.