Casi stumbles, and I tumble off of her back, groaning when I hit the cold water.
I look up to my Devil-Dog and as she whimpers, I smile at her reassuringly.
"You did your best, girl. That's all I could ever ask. Stay here and rest, then come find me when you're well enough.", Casi nuzzles my face with her huge head, and struggles to stand.
She falls back, and whimpers again, seemingly begging me not to go.
"Stay." My voice is commanding, and she lowers her muzzle into the water, accepting my order.
I drag myself through the water, exhausted but refusing to give up on finding the Avatar.
A cruel chuckle escapes my throat as I think of how they would greet me. Aang, with his staff meeting my body over and over.
Toph, crushing me with rocks, probably helped by her new earth bender friend.
Sokka and his girlfriend would run me through with their swords if they could.
And Katara. Sweet, beautiful Katara.
I shake my head and snarl at myself, "Don't be stupid, Zuko, she's with the Avatar. Besides with all I've done to her and her friends, she'll never give me a chance."
A scream jerks me out of my thoughts, and I race towards the sound.
The Toph is frantically throwing fire nation soldiers away, being pushed further and further back. She shifts, and I see she is protecting Suki, the Kyoshi Warrior obviously injured.
I run in and blast fire balls at the three men closest to them, distracting them long enough for Toph to throw them into the woods.
She seems to recognize me, and freezes, backing up completely till she is crouched in front of Suki, shielding the two of them with rock walls whenever fire strays near them.
I spin, my foot, wrapped in fire, connecting with a man's face.
I have the element of surprise, and eliminate them all easily.
When all of the soldiers finally leave, I walk toward the girls.
"Are you okay? They didn't hurt you did they?" I look Toph up and down, searching for any gashes or signs of blood. There are none.
"No. I'm fine, but Suki is bleeding badly.", her head whips to the side, and I hear Casi bound up to me, "What is that?" She steps back, but trips over Suki and falls onto her butt.
"It's Casi, my pet. My companion", I walk to Casi as I answer, and reach for my travel bags.
"Suki, would you let me bandage you? I won't hurt you, I just want to stop that bleeding. Please." I look to her pleadingly, and she nods hesitantly.
I pull my first aid kit from my bag, and begin to deftly wrap her side, never exposing skin that would be unnecessary.
"Why? Why are you helping her? Why did you help me? You're hunting Aang!", Toph's voice is quiet, but hard.
Sokka, Aang, and Toph's bulky friend are behind me, I can feel their eyes on me as I bandage Suki.
"No, I'm not. I left the fire nation, and I'm here to join you." my words rush out, and I look at them, panic rising in my chest.
"Please! Like you really expect that lie-" Sokka is interrupted by Toph.
"He's not lying. His heart-beat didn't even falter. Not a bit."
I glance to Toph and see with hope in my heart, determination.
"Are you going to purposely hurt any of us? Will you turn us in to your father or Azula?" Toph's voice is as cold as steel, and just as sharp as my dual dao blades.
"No. I will do everything I can to keep all of you safe. No matter what."
A smile hints at her face, and she offers me a hand to help me from the floor. I shake my head, but not from refusal of her help.
I put my arm around Suki's shoulders and help her up, handing her off to Sokka happily when he reaches for her.
"That should be good for a while, but you might want Katara to heal it.", I glance around for her, and my heart plummets into my stomach, "Where is Katara?"
My voice is soft, and my heart pounds, blood rushing in my ears as I calculate the expressions on everyone's faces.
"She got taken, Zuko. We tried to help her, but there were just too many of them." Aang's voice is dull, broken, and his words crush my heart.
Toph's head snaps up to look at me, and she mouths to me, "We need to talk. Give an excuse"
"We need to look for a trail. Find out which way they went. Aang, Sokka, go to the river and see if you can find out which way the boat went. Toph, go search the woods and see if you can feel anyone walking. I'll take Casi and search the hills over there."
As I expected, Sokka glances at me, not with hatred, but still with distrust. "No. We can't let you go alone anywhere till I know you can be trusted." He looks at Suki, but I shake my head.
"Toph and I can go together."
"I can just go with you. Why does it have to be Toph?" The big one gives me a hard look, and I level one right back at him.
"Someone needs to stay behind and protect Suki, and while Toph is tough, we need someone who can pick her up and run for the hills if need be."
Sokka nods, and Toph stomps off towards the woods.
She yells at me as she storms away, "Hurry up, Sparky. I ain't waiting for you to catch up."
As soon as the others are out of sight, she turns to me.
"You're worried about Katara." It isn't a question, so I wait for her to continue," Your heart didn't even pound like that when your life was in danger and you were fighting. Why?"
"She's the avatar's friend. I just want to keep you guys safe for him." I beg my heart beat not to give away my lie, but she scoffs, and I know it failed, "Okay, look, I may...kinda...I care about her, okay?" I run my hands through my hair roughly, leaning back against Casi as she sniffs me, feeling my distress.
"Why? Give me three reasons why you're here. To help us? Why?"
"My father needs to be stopped. Aang is the only one who can do that, and to do that he needs to learn fire bending. I can teach him." I look up to her, pleading silently for her to just leave it.
She doesn't, and her voice is clipped and cold, "That's two. What's number three?" There is a weird undertone to her voice, and I try to figure out what it is.
"Her. Azula wants to personally kill her. She wants to rip her apart slowly for ever going against my family. I can't let Azula do that. I can't let that happen."
I gag at the thought, and she places her hand on my arm.
"Okay. Now I trust you. I know how it feels to love someone you can't have." She gives me a mischievous smile and I feel a bond start to thread through us. The kind of bond one would have with a sister.
Sokka's voice calls from the river, empty of all emotion, "It's gone. The boat is gone. They took my sister. They're gone, and so is Katara."