A/N: This chapter's about 15,000+ words long, kiddies (one reason why the update took forever). I suggest you make an hour or two in your schedule before embarking upon it. It's very long because I meant it to be read in one piece. But if you can't manage it, then it's okay if you read it apart in sections.
Chapter 20: Heaven Coming Down
The season was heading steadily into winter; that morning, Zuko kept his face at the small, barred window of his room, trying to drink up the last sunlight of the year.
A movement from the side caught his eye and he saw a small group of inmates being led out by Kyoshi warriors. Turning his head, he saw that the prisoners were his own Elites.
Lt. Ensei said something rude (Zuko couldn't hear it from here), and was shoved in the back for his trouble. Kaz, pasty-faced and limp, hung at the back and had to be prodded forward to keep up with the group. Qin, Faozu, and Oran were there as well—Zuko felt a stirring of relief that they were all alive and unhurt.
Then Kaz turned to the side, and caught sight of Zuko's face in the window. His brow wrinkled for a moment, as if trying to remember something, and then cleared in recognition. He smiled; a nervous, unsure expression. Zuko was sure that if Kaz's hands had been untied, he would have waved.
Leaning over, Kaz whispered something into Lt. Ensei's ear, and immediately the yellow-haired man whipped around, glaring suspiciously in Zuko's direction. When Zuko waved solemnly from his window, Ensei's face broke into an ironic grin and he nodded back. One of the warriors caught sight of this and snapped forward, pushing Ensei and the rest of the Elites back around the corner, away from Zuko's side of the building. Zuko and Ensei exchanged a look before the Elites were lead away; what did the Kyoshians think they were going to do, formulate an escape plan by blinking at each other in secret code?
And so that was practically the only highlight of Zuko's day, aside from the visits he received when Katara brought him his food.
"How is your niece doing?"
"She had a traumatic breakdown yesterday after being handled so roughly by you."
Zuko raised one eyebrow. "You're a liar."
She gave him a quick, slightly bitter smile: "But you already knew that."
He didn't move his gaze from her face for a long time. Then he turned away, towards the window. "Sometimes I wonder—I think—no, if I understand your motives, your why, your how come, is it wrong for me to believe you were justified in your actions?"
She said nothing, the expression on her face unreadable.
"Or," he continued, "does it just make you less of an innocent and more of an enemy?"
Katara: "I could say the same thing about you."
He flashed her a quick glance again, "I know. You're in this war to protect your people and because it is your responsibility and your place in life. I'm in this war because it is also my responsibility—and it is what I was born to do. The very thing that drives me to do what I do is the same thing that makes you my enemy."
The unspoken question was: What might have happened if we'd been born on the same side of war? What possibilities, what 'could-haves' and 'if-onlys'?
But she didn't say anything, and left quickly, as if she was scared to show him anything more.
After she was gone, Zuko slowly ate his food and drank his water. He was almost used to the acrid taste of the drug on his tongue now; a bad sign.
Hopefully, he wouldn't become addicted.
"And how is the prisoner's progress going?" the Mistress set down her calligraphy brush; Katara noticed the black ink dripping onto the white rice paper.
"It's going—well," Katara replied, throat dry. Her knees ached on the floor covered by thin straw mats.
"Your interrogation," the Mistress said shortly, "by progress, I meant how is the interrogation going?"
Interrogation? Katara swallowed. "I'm not—I'm not sure what you—"
A sharp sound of wood on wood; the Mistress had noticed her brush dripping, and made a short movement to stop it. Her control was off and the brush rolled off the table and onto the mats, leaving a thick black streak behind it.
"Your original assignment," the Mistress said, voice cold, "was to collect information from the Emperor."
"Information?" Katara tried not to squeak, "I was confused by—by what information?"
A slight tightening of the white-painted skin over the Mistress' jaw: "What have you been doing on your little visits to the Emperor Zuko?"
"I just bring him his food, and sometimes there's talking—"
"I sincerely hope, Katara," said the Mistress, "that you aren't under any sort of… disillusionment about the Emperor."
"Exactly," said the Mistress, and she picked up her brush from the floor, ignoring the ink stain.
Katara's thoughts were wild for a moment (Does she know? How—what—) before she took a deep breath, cleared her mind, and set her shoulders. She met the Mistress's eyes and said, "No, madam, no disillusionments at all."
"I'm glad to hear it."
Katara moved to leave, even though she hadn't been formally dismissed yet.
"I also hope," Mistress began again, and Katara stilled, "that you'll remember your original goal, and you'll accomplish it without me having to resort to more… unconventional methods of questioning."
Unconventional methods, Katara guessed, meant torture. Or, at the least, something very much like it.
"How was your—"
"Good," she said shortly, cutting him off at the same time she set the tray down, roughly, on the floor of his room.
"Could you tell me what day of the year—"
"Tenth day of the Eleventh month," she replied, not meeting his eyes.
"Someone's in a bad mood today—"
The screeching whine of the iron door shutting as she left brought a confused and angry look to his face. What was her problem?
Things had been just fine that morning.
Two days after Admiral Zhao left the harbor with his massive fleet, Iroh found a prophetic message in the bottom of his favorite teacup.
He didn't consider himself any sort of expert tea leaf reader, but he was fairly adept at the basic elements of tea leaf prophesy, taught to him a long, long time ago by an old herb lady in the market he used to sneak out of the palace to visit. She thought him just another poor delivery boy trying to make his way in the world, and they became friends and met regularly to talk about all sorts of things, from the current state of the world to different varieties and flavors of tea (he preferred ginseng; her, jasmine.)
Somewhere along the way, they discovered Iroh's penchant for making impossible but accurate predictions in his tea leaves (five to one chance with ginseng, but twelve to one with jasmine). There was the time he prophesied the capture of a masked robber terrorizing the potter's district, and then there was the time he predicted to the very minute the instant that noble Lady Vuan gave birth to her first daughter after seven sons.
The last time the future spoke to him was when he learned the date of the herb lady's death; this information he kept to himself and told no one. When she passed away (the Fifteenth day of the Second month), Iroh returned to the palace and did not venture out into the public markets by himself again. It was also the last time he saw anything meaningful or prophetic in his tea leaves—everything after that was merely a sodden mass of vegetative matter in the bottom of a piece of fired clay.
But this day—this day, he saw a great and magnanimous fortune in the leaves arranged in his morning drink. It wasn't particularly clear; there were no dates, no names, no locations.
The tea leaves told Iroh that something Very Big was about to happen.
And using his impeccable sense of logic (weathered over the years by experience, old age, and copious amounts of ginseng), Iroh surmised (quite accurately) that this Very Big thing had something to do with his nephew, Admiral Zhao, and one curious girl named Katara whom he'd met once before.
Setting down his teacup, Iroh made a few interesting plans inside his head and decided to deliver a few interesting messages to a few interesting people.
It had been a long, long time since Iroh's last great adventure.
Leaving the jailhouse with her broken arm clutched tightly to her side in its sling, Katara wondered what she was going to do with the rest of her life.
Almost a year ago, she'd been saddled with what seemed like an impossible goal. It had filled her vision, her world, her very being. She'd worked hard to accomplish it—and accomplish it she did, in a sort of roundabout, unsuccessful, and extremely painful way.
Now she was back in Kyoshi, living in her brother and sister-in-law's house, playing babysitter and nursemaid to her niece, who just happened to be the Avatar, the most powerful bender in the world. Or, would be most powerful bender, once she stopped sucking her thumb and got potty trained.
The usual thing for girls her age would be to get married, and have a couple of healthy, screaming babies to carry on the Kyoshi bloodlines.
Marriage, Katara thought, was really out of the question. Since her reappearance on the Island, not one of the eligible young men in the village had approached her with that sort of proposition. She guessed they were all afraid of her—gossip traveled, and the stories of her mission and hardships had probably been blown grossly out of proportion. They either thought she was a depressed, incurable warrior torn apart by the brutalities of war and incapable of further human emotion, or a traitor and weakling too cowardly to have completed her assignment and killed the Emperor. Neither promised a healthy, normal relationship.
She supposed this was it: spend the rest of her days in her brother's house, watching Suyan grow up. Eventually she would tutor Suyan in the finer arts of Water bending—for the other elements, her niece would have to travel beyond the Island. A dangerous idea, considering the state of the world right now. And that was only assuming that Suyan survived the Empire's quest for the Avatar.
All of this thinking while walking home put Katara in a bad mood. Sokka watched his little sister bang around the tiny kitchen as soon as she got in, slamming pots in an attempt to make something so that Suki wouldn't have to cook after a long day of training when she got back to the house. He bounced Suyan on his knee, both of them observing Katara's antics with calm, almost identical expressions on their faces.
Dinner was rice and some kind of vegetables—Suki gave Sokka a look over the dinner table as Katara stared sullenly into her bowl.
What happened? Suki mouthed.
She came home and she was like this all the way through cooking dinner, Sokka blinked back at her.
Does it have something to do with... you know, him Suki slanted a sideways look through her lashes.
You know... him! That guy!
What are you talking about?
No, I wanna know! What guy?
"I know you're communicating through your secret Couples Only body language," Katara remarked tersely, setting aside her chopsticks, "and even though I might not understand you, I get enough that it's about me."
"We're just worried," Suki said.
"It's nothing serious," Katara mumbled back.
"What guy?" Sokka asked suspiciously.
Katara slammed down her bowl and left the table. Suyan giggled, flinging a bit of rice at her father's face.
Katara wiggled under the covers, ignoring the sounds of Sokka and Suki in the other room, preparing for bed. She felt like a burden on her family; other, normal girls her age were married and already out of the house, becoming responsible adults.
Cooking meals and taking care of Suyan—these were about the only things she could do that made her worth keeping around. She'd had her moment in the spotlight. She'd been gone a year, doing important work, meaningful work meant to help the Kyoshians' cause, and she'd come back a failure.
She'd experienced war, death, friendship, loyalty, and betrayal (the memories of Zhao's dungeon, the interrogation—it made her hands sweat, the bones in her broken arm ache).
Katara fell asleep, and dreamt of nothing. Pure, endless nothing.
One moment, her most worrisome thoughts were trivial and unimportant; the next, her world changed, taking a strange form and frightening her with its darkness.
It was amazing, really, how fast things could change in so short a time.
Katara was woken in the dark by her brother's frightened face: "Katara! Wake up!"
She rolled over and rubbed her eyes. "What?"
"Fire Navy ships, out on the horizon!"
Instantly she was awake, transitioning from sleep to readiness with a soldier's efficiency (Lt. Ensei trained me well). "When?" she gasped out.
"The lookouts saw them, just after midnight. Thank goodness it was a clear night, or else it might have been too late."
Too late for what?
"What do we do?"
"Suki's already gone to wake all the warriors and make preparations."
Preparations for what?
Katara's hands shook; she buried them in her nightclothes.
"They'll be here," Sokka said softly, holding a sleeping Suyan against his shoulder, "by morning."
Katara tried to feel something—fear, anger, bravery. Anything. Her limbs tightened, her focus sharpened automatically, all from experience with sudden midnight ambushes against rebels during her time with the Elites. But, emotionally, she remained in what she supposed was a state of shock; a state of limbo, really. She was blank and stupid.
Sokka handed Suyan to her. "We have to get ready."
Get ready for what?
Sokka moved through the dark house, towards the front door; his entire body was a tense line. There was anxiety, and a sort of hard, weary readiness in his movements. Katara followed her brother dumbly, the only thought in her mind was not to drop the sleeping Suyan in her arms.
"Let's go," Sokka said crisply, and they left the house in the chill night air, heading down the path towards the village center. Bobbing lights could be seen through the trees, heading in the same direction. Katara guessed these were the other inhabitants of the island, warriors grimly rushing to where they were needed.
They rushed into the main meeting-house of the village alongside the other arriving warriors, pushing aside the door. The room was already half-full, the dim lanterns in the corners casting strange shadows on worried faces.
The Mistress sat at the head of the group sitting in a rectangular formation. Suki was next to her, face set and pale (Katara noticed her sister-in-law's white face paint had been applied in a hurry, for there was a smudge, a mistake, on her right temple—Katara longed to go over there and fix it, rub it back in place, and erase all evidence of wrongdoing).
These were good people, Katara knew. These people filling the room about her, whispering anxiously, darting glances at the Mistress, the sleeping Avatar, and her worried parents at the front of the room. Good people who didn't deserve this, the approaching violence and death.
This is my fault. If I had… if I hadn't…
"Thank you for coming so quickly," said the Mistress, and the murmurings in the room immediately died down.
"The rumors are true—the Fire Empire was sighted little over an hour ago, on the horizon. They aren't moving right now; their ships are stationary out there, perhaps because they are holding meetings, gathering forces, making plans, much as we are doing in here."
The Mistress paused. Suyan moved restlessly on Katara's shoulder
"They probably won't attack us tonight. They'll want to wait for the sun to come up, when their bending powers will be at their strongest. Thus, we'll probably have six hours, seven at the most, to prepare for an attack from the Fire Empire."
The rest of the conversation was almost meaningless to Katara; various discussions with various leaders and generals, sending out a messenger to call in reserves from other parts of the island, and the constant rehashing of tactics and plans. And presiding over all, the calm, emotionless face of the Mistress. She said barely a single word for the rest of the meeting; Suki was darting everywhere, face lined with worry, conversing with different groups about How many do they have? and What if our supplies run out?
It was uncanny, scary, wrong, the way the Mistress sat there and watched the people around her consumed with activity. Katara thought that perhaps, the Mistress was finally letting go and allowing her daughter, the one who would assume leadership once the Mistress stepped down, to take charge and experience what it was like to plan a battle and command soldiers. Suki had experience in that area—she was a seasoned veteran, a true warrior of Kyoshi, and Katara (as well as every other resident on the Island) had much faith and trust in her.
"Such a shame," said Lt. Chi in the corner to Suki, shaking his head sadly, "such a shame that all the Waterbenders are gone now. Water is Fire's weakness—it would help our odds if we had but one regiment of Waterbenders with us. And it's a full moon," he continued, eyes mournful, "if only…"
"It is unfortunate," Suki said stiffly, and there was a quick look from the corner of her eye towards where Katara was sitting silently next to Suyan and Sokka, "but unchangeable. The Empire's first order was to eradicate all the Tribes. There aren't enough Waterbenders out there to form even half a regiment."
"The Firebenders took the upper hand all those years ago and erased any chance of their one liability rising up and overpowering them," said Captain Liu, joining in the conversation. "An effective political and military move, but genocidal massacre is inhumane and evil."
"Any sort of war is inhumane and evil," said Suki, a small note of regret in her voice, "but it is necessary." Her voice changed. "Please, sirs, let us get back on the subject of our deployment of warriors. The second division should stay behind in the forest, to prevent a strike from the side of the island, should the Firebenders…"
Katara knew that she would fight, and she would do it with sword, spears, and iron-tipped arrows. Her trying to Waterbend by herself against the Firebending armies of the Empire would be like a spoonful of river water trying to put out a raging forest fire. It would draw attention to her; the commanders of the Empire would want to kill her immediately, destroy any chance of her spawning more evil, Water progeny. She was a threat, a small threat, but one worth getting rid of.
She would join the battle against the invading Empire (a hopeless battle; she quickly erased the traitorous thought from her mind) but she would pretend to be another Kyoshian warrior, skilled in hand-to-hand combat, not the bending arts.
The hour progressed swiftly, and people sped in and out of the meeting house doors; somewhere along the way, Katara realized that the Mistress had left.
She went up behind Suki and gently touched her shoulder. "Where did your mother go?"
Suki, quietly excusing herself from a conversation with General Xiang, furrowed her brow at Katara. "She left?"
"Awhile ago, probably. I just noticed."
"She's getting old," Suki said, dismissing it. "She probably needs her sleep."
Katara doubted it. How could anyone, especially the leader of the Island, possibly sleep at a time like this? "If you say so."
Suki had already moved on to other subjects. She drew Katara outside, sliding the screen door shut behind her after reassuring the occupants that she'd be back in a second to continue their discussion.
"I'm assuming, Katara, that you'll want to join us in the fight against the Empire," said Suki calmly. Her eyes glinted with the silvery brightness of a full moon in the sky.
"Of course, Suki—"
"But I'm going to have to ask you to stay behind," Suki finished. She looked like she was waiting for Katara to explode.
And explode she did. "What?" Then she stopped, and something occurred to her that further incensed her anger. "If you think, for a single moment, that my loyalties are in question—"
"I don't doubt your loyalties, Katara," said Suki, "None of us do."
"I need you for more important things," Suki said. Her eyes drifted towards one shadow thrown against the inside of the thin screen door; the shadow of a grown man holding his sleeping daughter against his chest. "Both your brother and I will be needed to command divisions of warriors in the upcoming battle—we need someone trustworthy and strong to protect Suyan."
Katara was silent.
"They want her badly, Katara. You and I both know that. She, and the Emperor Zuko, are the Empire's reasons for taking the pains to amass such a large army against what everyone knows is a painfully small and easily overtaken Island force—"
"We won't be easily overtaken!"
"Don't be a fool, Katara!" Suki's voice was suddenly harsh in the night. "Don't trick yourself into believing something that's not true—it won't help you, or anybody else!"
Katara wanted to retaliate with a brave, courageous proclamation or something equally confident, but she knew her words would be as Suki had said: a lie.
Suki had regained her composure. "I apologize—let's keep our voices down. I don't want the other warriors thinking that something has gone wrong."
"So you'll do it?" Suki asked carefully. "You'll take care of Suyan and stay away from the battle?"
Katara nodded again. It was, really, the least she could do, after betraying the Avatar's location to Zhao in the first place. She owed it to Suyan, and Suki, and everybody on the Island.
"What about the Emperor?" Katara asked. "They're going to want him too."
"We're leaving behind warriors to guard the prison house," Suyan said, "And if worse comes to worse,"—if we're defeated—"then we'll use him as ransom, as our last chance."
"We think the Fire Navy will begin their attack at dawn, so we have at least five hours left," said Suki, turning back to slide open the door. "When it starts, you'll stay with Suyan in the main village with the others who can't fight. We'll leave a small guard to protect the village, but nothing substantial. It'll be up to you to keep her safe."
Five hours, Katara thought as she reentered the room behind Suki, five hours until everything she held dear went up in flames.
Because they would need a miracle for a victory.
Admiral Zhao had ordered all the lamps and lights on the ships doused. The fleet was clothed in darkness, except for the faint light provided by the moon.
"It's full tonight," Captain Jiang said worriedly, looking out over the deck. "A bad omen, Admiral."
Zhao laughed. "Don't tell me you believe in that idiot superstition, Captain. What does it matter that the moon's full? The Waterbenders are dead. Even the Goddess of the Moon wouldn't be able to bring them back."
"True," said Jiang, but his eyes still scanned the sky. The moon seemed to glow down on them with a baleful eye—Jiang saw bitterness and anger in everything the Goddess coloured silver: the metal-hulled Fire ships, the quiet waves of the ocean, the derisive face of the Admiral.
"But," continued the Captain, "I think all the troops, myself included, would feel better about this attack if we were to wait until dawn, when the power of the sun heightens and strengthens our fire—"
"We are fighting a rabble of backwards islanders who consider themselves warriors," Admiral Zhao waved a hand, "there could be three full moons in the sky and it wouldn't change the outcome of this battle."
Captain Jiang subsided; he didn't want to endanger his own life by pushing Admiral Zhao too far.
"My strategy is a good strategy," said Admiral Zhao, "the Kyoshians are expecting us to wait until sunup to attack. They're probably still running about that minuscule island of theirs, thinking they still have hours left to prepare some sort of insignificant resistance. If we engage them now, they'll be caught unawares and unready. It won't make any difference in the end, of course—we'll win either way—but I want to minimize the cost to our troops and our supplies and our time."
Captain Jiang nodded slowly and sullenly. He had to admit that Admiral Zhao made sense—ambushing the enemy out of the blue had proved to be a good strategy in past wars (the surprise mass attack that started the genocide on the Water tribes over a hundred years ago was an example). Still, he was uncertain. He hated the dark of the night without the sun, and he especially hated the idea that it was a full moon. He couldn't shake off her wide, accusing glare; the silver light settled hard on his shoulders and wouldn't let him go. Admiral Zhao couldn't possibly not feel it—the entire crew was uneasy.
Satisfied that this conversation was over and done with, the Admiral nodded to the soldier stationed at the bow of the ship.
The soldier—a young boy of seventeen; this was his first time in true combat, and he was excited and ready and he felt so immortal—nodded back eagerly at Zhao. Then he raised one fist high, and ignited the air above him in a long, roaring column of flame. The yellow-red blast completely overpowered the gentle silver of the moon, and threw excited, hungry shadows on the faces of the young soldier, Admiral Zhao, and Captain Jiang.
On the ship next to them, the Firebender stationed at the prow of the boat saw the signal, and raised his own fist into the air, sending another flame up. And the next ship over, and the next; all down the line, until every ship in the fleet had its own blazing, courageous banner flying above it.
Looking at the soldier, the perfect picture of a brave young Firebender sending up the signal of war, Captain Jiang lost his previous trepidations and a sense of confidence overcame him. The light of the moon was drowned out by the fire, and he began to think that Admiral Zhao had been right—there was no threat from the Moon, no threat from Water, and definitely no threat from those filthy Kyoshian rebels.
The heavy machinery in the hull of the ship below them groaned and slowly began to churn, driving the prow of the ship through the water. The first blast of smoke exited one of the tall, proud iron columns high above the deck, and the soldiers cheered.
They began to pick up speed, and raced toward the island ahead of them.
There was an incomprehensible yell from outside the meeting room. It sounded like somebody was running up the path to the door while screaming at full volume. Suki tensed as she tried to figure out what the noise was about, and Katara's head swiveled just in time to see a curled-up figure burst clean through the wooden frame of the screen door, ripped paper and wood chips flying everywhere.
"What, you couldn't take the time to open the door in your haste—" General Xiang began icily.
"Fire Navy ships!" the person on the floor panted and rose to his hands and knees, shaking off wood shards in his hair, "THEY'RE ATTACKING! They're—"
But Suki was already on her feet and issuing orders. People swarmed around the room—buckling on armor and shouting more commands to more underlings.
"Help me tie this, on the side here…"
"I need at least two hundred more arrows delivered to the second division, or holding off the Fire Navy will be a joke…"
"My best sword is back at my sister's house, on the other side of the island…"
"No! It goes on the left side, you dimwit, not the right side…"
"Half of the third regiment is still asleep!"
"This is a disaster. A disaster. Why didn't they wait until dawn?"
Katara helped Suki adjust her helmet (it wasn't part of a traditional Kyoshi warrior's uniform—but times had changed, and so had customs). Somewhere along the way, she found an extra, and set it on her own head automatically, tightening the straps. Then armor appeared on her body; she pulled on the heavy green cloth clumsily with one hand, and then the outer shell of hard brown leather.
Unthinking, she picked up a spear from a rack someone had brought in and leaned against the wall. Her fingers slid over the smooth wood, felt the balance of the iron tip, and began to move with the shuffle of gathering warriors streaming out of houses and towards the beach—
A hand yanked hard on her shoulder, spinning her around. "Katara!"
She blinked mindlessly into Suki's angry face. "Wh—what?"
"Have you already forgotten your promise to me?" Suki's voice was filled with tight emotion. "Have you?"
Oh. Right. Katara shook her head, and dropped the spear to the ground. "No—No, where is Suyan?" How could she have been so stupid? She had been following all the others like a dumb herd animal—was the life of the soldier so engrained into her that she barely even questioned it now?
Sokka, with Suyan in his arms, pushed through the crowd until he was next to them. He kissed his daughter on the forehead, face a mask of hard love, before depositing Suyan in Katara's embrace. Suki leaned forward, brushing her hand across Suyan's smooth forehead, tucking hair behind tiny ears, countless other motions that spoke of a mother's love for her child, before she turned away with Sokka, mouth set in a firm line and eyes glimmering strangely in the torchlight.
"Take care of her," said Sokka, and enveloped Katara and Suyan in a quick and tight hug.
They left, several other officers and commanders hanging onto their sides, discussing plans and decisions. Suki and Sokka were important, very crucial to this war, this night—the Mistress was nowhere to be seen.
Slowly, the square began to empty, warriors marching off in organized ranks towards the main beach where the Fire Navy was heading. Then there were only a few people left; Katara, Suyan, and other non-military peoples (children and the elderly, mostly).
The anxious and fearful people next to her milled around aimlessly, whispering and confirming gossip and facts (what was one supposed to do when waiting for a war to begin?). They knew war; they knew war when their own warriors left the Island to fight in a foreign land, but they did not know war when it touched their shores and encroached upon their everyday lives. Should they gather all the foodstuffs and buckets of water in their possession, as if awaiting a long-term siege? Should they arm themselves with farm tools, rakes, shovels, hoes, and kitchen knives? Should they hide the children and babies in cellars, or spirit them away to the dark, dense forest?
Eventually they all left, because they had nothing to do but go back to their houses, light a small candle in the window, and wait for the return of family members and loved ones involved in the battle (hopefully alive).
Katara stood in the center of the square as Suyan began to squirm in her arms, and her legs began to ache.
She stood still, so still, body hungering and ears listening for any sound, any sound at all that would tell her what was happening on the sand dunes of the beach.
Suyan began to cry.
From the bridge of the ship, Admiral Zhao could see the dark, furtive movements of enemy troops on the beach. Were they making an effort to conceal their position at all? He snorted. A rhino in the throne room of the Fire Palace could do a better job of hiding than those rebels.
Zhao said the command, and teams of Firebenders on deck let loose the catapults, sending streaming balls of fire over the short distance between his ship and the rebel beach, impacting in the trees and sand. Screams filled the air; several bodies leapt up in the air before slamming back down to the ground, unmoving.
"Fire at will," shouted the Admiral, and the catapults continued their deadly work as the ships moved ever closer to the beach. The fireballs would give his troops cover, keep the rebels distracted, as the main body of Firebenders and soldiers disembarked onto the beach.
He could feel the whole ship shudder as the keel ran aground in the soft sand underwater. Shouts outside could be heard as ladders were dropped over sides, smaller rowboats readied for the short distance across water to the beach. He could see light reflecting off the helmets and armor of Firebenders and troops on deck.
They were ready.
Zuko looked out the window at the faint explosions far off, beyond the forest, and felt the beginnings of a warmth in the tips of his fingers. The last time he'd had his drugged water was noon; if not taken again, the effects began to wear off after twelve hours. It was a few hours past midnight.
He sat down to wait for the invasion, moving his body into the far corner of his cell, so the moonlight couldn't touch him.
After awhile, Katara noticed that Suyan was choking on her sobs. Rubbing and patting her back, cooing gently in her ear, Katara swayed from side to side, trying to calm the Avatar down. Just because there was a war being fought out upon their shores didn't mean Katara could lose her head any old time she wanted. She had responsibilities, duties.
She set the Avatar down, just for a quick second, and stood up, stretching her back.
Suyan made a slight sniffling noise, having stopped her crying, and face screwed up with visible effort, managed to get her two feet under her before standing up straight, arms held out for balance. She laughed.
Katara tried not to cry.
Bending over, she had Suyan grasp one of her fingers in each chubby fist, and led her small niece around the square, one shaky step at a time. Katara wished Suki and Sokka could be here to see this. Every time she heard another boom of a Fire catapult, she flinched, and after awhile, Suyan became agitated at her aunt's nervousness and anxiety. Katara calmed herself for Suyan, and tried to ignore the noises she heard. Her world shrank; it became Suyan's tiny feet advancing forward, her own larger ones following behind, and repeat, over and over again.
After awhile, Suyan became tired. They sat together on the ground, Suyan held in Katara's lap, and leaned against the wall of a building. Her eyelids grew heavy, and her niece's head was lolling to the side. Katara closed her eyes for a brief second—only a brief second, she promised herself—
Then there was a slow, languorous beating against her eyelids, like the warm glow of a living heart, red and pulsing. It would not subside, and seemed to grow stronger and stronger, hotter and hotter.
Her eyes opened (Suyan was asleep against her) and noticed a faint, red-gold brightness, through the trees that lead to the beach. She squinted, drawing Suyan closer to her, and the scent of smoke drifted through the wind to her nose. She realized what the glow was, what the smoke was—burning trees.
Dark, leaping and running figures threaded through the forest, towards the village; one of them was on fire. Katara leapt to her feet, but these weren't the invading Fire Navy soldiers. Kyoshi warriors burst from the foliage, running past Katara, pounding on doors and giving the warning that the Fire Navy had blazed through the first line of defenses—the enemy was on the way to the village.
The man on fire screamed, a high-pitched wail of pain, flailing his arms. His comrades held him back to prevent him from burning down any buildings, throwing him to the ground to roll him over and beat the flames out. Somebody brought a bucket of water and splashed it over him; his cries subsided into pants, pathetic cries and sobs. The smell of burning flesh was horrible, it choked her nose and made her turn away, picking up Suyan and shielding her eyes from the sight of the charred, black man.
Then one more figure, the last in the line coming from the forest, darted across the square, heading straight towards Katara; he slammed into her at full speed, and she almost cried out before Sokka's hands were on her face, brushing hair from her eyes, smoothing over her cheeks.
"Where's Suyan? Where's—there she is, there she is," He kissed his daughter forcefully on the forehead; she whimpered, "Katara—listen to me—"
Her brother's breath was hot, his entire body was shaking, and there was a light burn on one of his arms. She grasped at it, "Sokka, you're hurt, let me see that—Where's Suki—"
"Listen to me!" He shook off her attentions violently, and she shrank back. His hands still cupped her face, forcing her to look at him. His eyes were half-crazed, filled with a burning urgency (she didn't want to know what he'd seen, out there on the beach; the men he'd killed) and his voice was low, shaking.
"You're scaring me, Sokka—"
He ignored her entreaty. "Katara, you must listen. Listen to me. On the other side of the island—take the path off the side by the bathhouse—there is a boat—"
"A boat? What boat, Sokka, what are you talking about—"
"—a boat, a goddamn boat, and if things get bad, if the fire gets here, if things start burning, then you're going to get in the boat—"
"What do you mean! You're crazy, your arm is hurt, you need help—"
"Fucking listen to me, Katara!" His hands on her face were trembling, and she fell silent.
"If things get bad," and now Sokka's voice was calm, steady, "you are going to take Suyan, and you are going to run as fast as you possibly can to the other side of the island, and you will get in that boat, and you will use the oars, or your whatever-magic, or your fucking hands, and you are going to get as far away from this island as humanly possible."
She stared at him, aghast. Suyan began to cry.
"You are going to take Suyan, you are going to take my daughter," his voice almost broke here, "and you are going to hide. You'll raise her, teach her whatever she needs to know about water, and find some other master when she needs it, and you'll save the goddamn world."
But Katara was still hung up, some three, half-crazed sentences back. "What do you mean, if things get bad?"
She opened her mouth, closed it, and then opened it again. Sokka was still breathing heavily, but sanity had come back into his eyes.
She pushed Suyan toward Sokka. "Why don't you take her?"
He pushed his daughter back toward his sister, and Katara could see how much of an effort it took him to do so. "We—we already talked about this, me and Suki and the Mistress. We decided that in the event of an emergency, you would be the one to escape with Suyan. Neither I nor Suki would be able to teach Suyan any kind of bending after escaping. Us three—with you, four—are the only ones who know about this plan."
Katara understood the reasoning behind the secrecy. If she and Suyan escaped—if things "got bad"—then the Empire would search for the Avatar, and when they discovered she wasn't on the Island, would interrogate the Kyoshians for her whereabouts. Fierce loyalty would keep the citizens quiet, but there were always mentally and physically weaker ones in a crowd, and inevitably, somebody would give up the information in order to prevent the death or torture of loved ones. Keeping the plan secret, confined to a select group of people who would never reveal Suyan's location, was the safest bet. Katara knew that they could torture Suki and Sokka for a year, applying all sorts of atrocities, and neither would ever give up their daughter to the Empire.
"We're going to try to keep them from reaching the village, maybe make some sort of deal," Sokka continued, "but we don't have enough warriors to hold them back, and they're going to want Suyan, no matter what. We'll try to bargain with the Emperor's life instead—maybe they'll take him over her."
With a shock, Katara remembered Zuko. It almost seemed like she'd forgotten his very existence for a moment. He was still in his cell, and she wondered what he was feeling, what he was thinking now that he knew his country was here to rescue him. Was he elated? Overjoyed? Excited? Could he see the fires burning, crackling through the forest from his prison window?
Sokka was still talking, eyes fixed on his daughter's face. "But it's unlikely," he said, almost to himself, "They have so many, and we have so little. They'll want her, no matter what. And they'll get her, unless you can escape."
"She's leading the warriors back from the beach and organizing a defense around the village—"
An explosion sounded from inside the forest, closer this time. People around her screamed, and she could see dead trees and sparks flying through the air, catching on fire. There was a group of warriors running just ahead of the fireball, led by an ash-covered woman. They began to form up in some semblance of a line, archers in the trees, before Suki finally found Sokka and Katara.
"They're coming," she said stiffly, running to meet them. Katara could see how tiredly the sword hung from her hand, how her face paint was stained gray by soot, and how she was fighting to keep upright. "Have you told Katara about—"
"I've told her," said Sokka, and Suyan, seeing her mother, raised her fists in the air and cried piteously.
Sokka settled Suyan in her mother's arms. Katara noticed how tightly Suki clutched the baby to her chest, stroking the tiny wisps of brown hair at her smooth forehead, kissing the beautifully made curls and whorls of her ear. Katara watched them, her family: Sokka hovering anxiously over his woman and his child, Suki caressing her darling, her daughter, and Suyan whimpering, feeling the agitation and heat in the air and knowing something was horribly wrong.
Then Suki turned away, pushing Suyan back towards Katara, shoulders trembling; Sokka lingered, one hand sliding down Katara's face to her jaw line, a gentle Thank You, a regretful Good Bye.
There was a gigantic roar and they felt a blast of heat wash over their faces; one of the trees bordering the village had caught fire, and behind it, the dark shapes of marching soldiers in formation advanced. A wooden house on the edge of the village burst into flame; the family inside ran out (the grandparents and two children), screaming and beating at their clothes.
The first rank of Firebenders broke through the burning trees, led by a tall, determined figure whose fists were aflame. His face was hidden by the helmet; but then he turned, and his eyes connected across the square with Katara's.
It was Admiral Zhao.
He smiled at her (You can run, but you can't hide), and raising his fist, set fire to another house in his way.
Katara felt a dark dread overtake her heart. If Zhao was here, there'd be no stopping the invasion until he had both Zuko and Suyan in his grasp; she tugged at her brother's arm, desperate to tell him that there was no chance of escaping, no hope at all—
Sokka shoved her violently toward the path leading out of the village: "Go!"
Katara saw the deadly, flaming light in the sky, head the faint screams of dying men, and before she knew it, she was running, feet slapping over the dirt, with Suyan clutched to her chest. She guessed that it would take her fifteen minutes to reach the other side of the island at her current speed, but she knew she would have to go slower and rest once in awhile with the extra weight of Suyan in her arms.
Trees flashed by, and she passed by the last building in the village, the jailhouse—the jailhouse!
She had no idea what she was doing, but her feet took her off the path, flying up to the building.
She screeched to a halt outside, the confused and annoyed guards immediately accosting her.
"What are you doing here—"
"How is the battle going?"
Katara put on a look that was as desperate and scared as she possibly could (it wasn't hard) and pointed back toward the village. "It's bad, horrible—Suki sent me to tell you that she needs all the warriors in the village. The Empire's setting fire to everything!" She made her voice rise to shriek at the end.
Several guards immediately set off for the village, running as fast as possible. The others gave her worried looks. "But we were told to guard the Emperor—"
"He's not going anywhere, he's locked in his cell!" Katara snapped. "They need you in the village!"
They were glad to go, all they needed was the excuse—they hated being held behind, guarding a prisoner that wasn't going to escape anytime soon. They wanted to help their people, protect their homes; they wanted to do something
Then she was through the door, down the long passageway until she was inside the prison house, and right outside of Zuko's cell.
There he was: head tilted to the barred window, eyes wide and unblinking, fixed upon the bright explosions drawing closer and closer. Then he heard her harsh breathing, and turned.
"They've come, haven't they?" he asked simply.
He swore, and his face changed from unreadable calm to frightened anger.
She wasn't sure why she was there. Suyan was crying, burrowing against her shoulder: the Avatar was confused, jostled, and had spent majority of her night being passed from person to person and shaken awake one too many times.
"He won't stop until he has both of us, and the Avatar. He's already seen me—he knows I'm here." She thought of her brother and Suki out there, fighting against an invading army that they had no chance of defeating; she wasn't even sure she'd see them again—
"You should leave," he said, getting up from his sitting position and pacing over to the bars. "You should leave before he follows you and finds you."
"He won't kill me, not in front of half the navy—"
"He can, and he will, Zuko. You didn't see him. I saw him, and I know that he'll get you, somehow, and he'll enjoy it."
"Then what the hell do you suggest I do?"
She was already tugging the loop of keys from inside her robe; her hands shook violently as she inserted the right key, unlocked the cell, and dropped the ring to the ground. He stared at her, speechless. Neither moved to open the door.
Katara backed away, holding Suyan to her with one arm, and holding out her other hand as if she was scared he would charge her. "The Elites—the rest of them—they're on the other side of the building. The keys will get them out."
She ran from Zuko's cell as fast as she could; Suyan wailed in protest at the bouncing she was being put through.
She kept running, back on the path, through the trees. One foot in front of the other, again and again, Suyan held tightly to her chest. At one point she realized she couldn't breathe, and she was crying, tears streaming down her face. She collapsed on the side of the path, against a tree trunk, panting and choking and trying not to make so much noise. Suyan whimpered and patted her face, trying to reassure her.
Katara knew she didn't have time to feel sorry for herself, so she stood up, wiping her snot and tears on one sleeve, and gathered Suyan close again. She set off into the darkness, at a slower but steadier pace this time. She began to think of tiny mundane details in order to calm herself, not about Sokka or Suki or Zuko or Zhao. She remembered that she had no food for an ocean voyage—how long would it take her, even with her Waterbending, to reach the mainland, the Earth Kingdom? She had no money, nothing to bargain with. She didn't know if the people there would agree to hide her and Suyan, or turn them in as fast as possible to the Empire.
There! Where the trees began to end, she could see the dark glimmer of moonlight on water. And the boat—a small wooden thing on the beach, just as Sokka had said. Katara ran faster, she knew she would reach it in time now. She and Suyan could start a new life together, somewhere, in hiding, and she would tell her niece stories of her parents everyday, of how brave they'd been, protecting their island and their people to the very last.
They broke through the last of the trees, thin branches whipping her face as her feet began to sink into sand. There was the boat, not thirty feet away, with two fragile-looking oars inside. Their one escape, their last chance, resting on the beach, tiny wavelets lapping at the sun-bleached hull.
A hand grasped her neck and snapped her around, throwing her to the sand.
Stars exploded behind her eyes as her head connected sharply against the ground. They were everywhere, men in the faceless masks of the Empire, tiny black eyeholes watching her. She was frozen in shock—what? No!
Then she burst into motion. She clutched Suyan to her body with her bad arm, tightly, so tightly it hurt, and rolled over, kicking and shrieking like a wildcat, catching a few of them in the stomach and crotch. She forgot all her training, all her bending, resorting to the most primitive of base human instincts—to protect her child.
She was on her feet when rough hands grabbed her back, grasping her throat, her hair, prying apart her arms—she tried to hold on as hard as she could, Suyan wailing against her breast—somebody wrenched her head back, and tears leapt to the corner of her eyes—Katara couldn't see, couldn't feel—and then Suyan was gone, gone, she was holding empty air, NO—she screamed, a long, never-ending wail that keened across the beach and split the night air.
The Avatar cried, wiggling against her captor. An insane fervor seized Katara and she was scratching, struggling, all the while her throat pouring forth that high sound. She couldn't think straight, couldn't form a single coherent thought except that Suyan needed to be back in her arms, that she could not fail, not again, not this time when the stakes were the highest. She clawed at the face of the men around her, leaping forward against their hold, reaching, stretching for the soldier holding Suyan, "DON'T TOUCH HER!"
Then a flash in the woods, and a pale hand was in her vision, delivering a sharp crack across her cheek.
Katara fell silent as she stared into the black, fathomless eyes of the Mistress.
"Shut up," said her mother.
Katara went limp, would have fallen to the ground if not for the Fire soldiers keeping her upright. Suyan continued to wail behind the Mistress. The sound seemed to reach Katara through her stupor and a light returned to her eyes.
"Why?" she asked.
The Mistress ignored her, turning to the soldiers. "Take her back to the village. Admiral Zhao should have finished by now."
The soldiers nodded, yanking Katara up by her arms. She felt them begin to wrap a rope tightly around her wrists. The man with Suyan passed the baby to the Mistress—Katara felt a perverse satisfaction as Suyan began to cry even louder as soon as she was in her grandmother's arms.
Then they pushed her forward, back the way she'd come on the path. Back to the burning village. Back to Admiral Zhao.
Katara's eyes were wide as they passed through the village—or what used to be the village. It was silent, obscenely so. Smoking husks of houses lay on the ground, gardens ruined and trampled. The ancient wooden statue of Avatar Kyoshi, the island's namesake, their ancestral protectoress, was no more than a pile of ashes. There were bodies too, but these Katara passed over, scared to look too closely, for fear of recognizing someone. Bodies in green and red as well, but the still forms dressed in forest armor lay more thickly than their fiery counterparts.
The Mistress said nothing, and Suyan was quiet. They kept going, into the forest, on the trail that the Empire had blazed through, burning down trees in their path. Branches and twigs crackled beneath their feet—at one point, Katara saw a bird's nest on the ground, yolk spilling out of cracked, robin-blue eggs. For some reason, this brought her to open her mouth, to turn to face the woman next to her: "Why did you do it?"
"You wouldn't understand," the Mistress replied calmly, eyes staring straight ahead. "You wouldn't understand the things I've done to save Kyoshi, to save my people."
Katara's eyes widened in shock and then angry disbelief. "To save Kyoshi?" The Mistress was insane. Absolutely insane. "You've just delivered the Avatar into the hands of the nation who most want her dead! No sort of reasoning could ever justify your actions today!"
"Don't attempt to judge when you only know one part of the whole story," the Mistress replied, and perhaps now, there was a note of concealed frustration in her voice.
"So why don't you tell me?"
The Mistress was thin-lipped; silent.
"I hope you regret what you've done," Katara said, "Because if you don't, then you truly are a monster."
Katara turned to stare through the trees. They were nearing the end of the forest, and she could see a faint strip of light on the horizon. Dawn.
Katara almost tripped through the soft sand as she was dragged down the beach, the Mistress following close behind, Suyan held in her arms. The great iron ships of the Fire Navy were anchored not far out in the harbor, and several dozen smaller row boats were beached on the sand—a sand stained red, in dark, sorrowful patches. Green-clad bodies, some dead and unmoving, others tied and silent on the ground, guarded by masked Firebenders.
And there, at the edge of the beach, where the waves lapped against earth, stood a tall, victorious figure, in discussion with lesser officers. On the ground, a few feet away, were two slumped-over warriors with their arms and legs tied together roughly. One had half her face paint smeared off. They were still; unmoving. Katara's heart froze as her eyes took in this tableau. Please move, she begged them, Breathe. Breathe for me.
Sokka's eyes opened and met hers across the beach.
"Katara!" his voice was sore, burned-out.
Zhao's head turned from his conversation and as he saw her, a slow smile spread across his features.
"Good morning," he said slowly, the triumphant expression never leaving his face. "Bring them closer!" he snapped to the soldiers holding Katara upright.
As she was shoved nearer and nearer to the Admiral, Katara kept her chin upright, eyes steady. She would not give into the overwhelming fear inside her; fear for herself, fear for Sokka and Suki, but fear for Suyan most of all.
"Leave us," Zhao commanded, as soon as Katara had been dragged to the sand in front of him, and shoved to her knees. The soldiers bowed obediently and faded into the background, joining their comrades in keeping watch on the subdued groups of warriors along the beach. Zhao, Katara, the Mistress, and Suyan, huddled in her grandmother's arms, seemed alone on an island of distrust and silence and hatred among the carnage of battle around them.
"I must say," Zhao began, "that was the easiest invasion I've ever had to conduct. However, part of the credit would have to go to my ally here, the Mistress of Kyoshi." He gave her a nod. The Mistress nodded stiffly back.
"Indeed," Zhao continued smoothly. "There was a deal made, sometime ago, between us."
Katara turned a horrified face to the Mistress. "What is he talking about?" Then it hit her. "What did you trade Suyan for?"
"Your niece was just part of the package," the Admiral continued as the Mistress remained silent, "What I had in mind goes far, far back. It concerns you, in fact.
"You see," Zhao explained, "I wanted Emperor Zuko dead. I wanted him dead the minute he was born. I decided he would be the last in a long line of weak, insufficient rulers, tainted by the blood of that Water scum the first Zuko spawned a child on.
"I wanted him dead, but I needed it done in a way that it would never be connected back to myself. I could not commission a man to assassinate the Emperor, because if caught, then there was no certainty that my name might not escape from the lips of the would-be assassin if torture was applied.
"That's where your Mistress came in, and so graciously provided the perfect assassin for me."
All of a sudden, Katara understood. Zhao had needed a way to kill the Emperor while distancing himself completely from the act, so that when the Empire called for a new ruler, there would be no taint or suspicion upon the honorable Admiral's name. He'd needed the perfect assassin, the killer who had no idea who her true employer was, who would never be able to turn around and point the finger at him.
And Katara realized she'd been fooled.
While comprehension dawned, and a sort of numbness spread throughout her body, the Admiral's smile widened.
"You might be gullible, and easily deceived, but you are not a stupid girl. Do you understand what I'm saying?"
He was enjoying this. He was enjoying the expression on her face, the betrayal, the absolute horror. She knew he wanted to see her break down, to see her scream and wail and beat her fists upon the earth.
"In return," he continued, "your Mistress wanted peace for Kyoshi. She wanted the future Empire, under my rule, to leave Kyoshi Island alone forever."
Katara felt her arms trembling. This entire time—from the very beginning, the morning of her initiation, when her task had been revealed to her—she had thought that all her pain, all her weariness, all her hard fucking work, had been for the good of Kyoshi, and not the twisted ambitions of a power-hungry Admiral in the Fire Navy. The Mistress had lied to her. Katara had merely been a puppet on a string, a piece on a game board between the Mistress and the Admiral, something to be manipulated and moved according to their almighty wishes and desires.
That night, at Adia's banquet, when she'd first met Admiral Zhao, when she'd danced with him—he'd known all along who she was. What she was there for. Who she was sent to kill. Whose bidding she was truly doing.
He must have enjoyed that, dangling her about, teasing her, mocking her. And in the dungeon—
"But you failed me!" the Admiral said. "You were weak, your resolve wasn't strong enough," he smiled, "but that was probably to be expected, you being both a Waterbender and a rebel. You didn't kill him, and my plan fell through. My time was being wasted. I wanted—no, needed—the Emperor dead faster. When you arrived at Luxing Fort, with the Emperor bellowing for the traitor to reveal himself, I thought that somehow you had found out the truth and told the Emperor. I wanted you dead.
"You will never know how close I came to giving into temptation," and here he was almost snarling, like a child who had been denied a reward, "but in the end, I received some satisfaction from the expressions on the faces of those who'd trusted you as they realized you were a traitorous spy, the enemy."
"So why didn't you?" Katara whispered, and she was back in that stone cell beneath the fort, with all her comrades' eyes on her, shocked and betrayed, "Why didn't you do it?"
"There was a second part of our agreement," here the Mistress cut in, softly; Katara's head snapped around to gape at her, "and that was your safety and your ignorance. I demanded that no matter what happened, your life would never be forfeit, and you would never learn the truth. But in order to do so, I needed to give up something else, something bigger. I had not completed the first part of the deal—the Emperor was still alive. The Admiral wanted something to make up for that shortcoming, and my second request was for your life. That was—that was where Suyan came in."
And there was an expression on the Mistress's face that Katara had never seen before—an almost begging sort of look
"Don't you see, Katara? I loved you, all along, in my own way," and she slipped a hand to curve over Katara's cheek, cradling her face the way a mother would with her darling child, "My beautiful daughter."
The phrase reminded Katara, with a shock, of dark nightmares and worried gold eyes hovering over her in the stillness of the night. She shot back, wrenching her arms against her ropes and her face away from the Mistress.
"You—you traded Suyan to the Admiral for an assassination that didn't go through? Your own granddaughter!" her voice ended on a wail.
"I traded her for your safety!" the Mistress's voice rose, something else Katara had never heard. "I traded her for the safety of all of Kyoshi Island! You must sacrifice the few for the good of the many—and I have succeeded!"
But Katara just stared at her. "There will be no peace. You were an idiot to trust Admiral Zhao. He won't go through with it—he'll betray you. He has no loyalties."
The Admiral smiled in the background.
Behind the old, white face paint, the Mistress's face was beginning to suffuse red with anger. "Why are you not grateful for your life? I saved you, countless times, first from the ocean and then from the Admiral!"
"And you're sending me back to him now!" Katara snarled, "You've delivered the entire island right into his grasp! He'll take Suyan, and he'll kill her first. Then it's my turn, and the Emperor's! You were wrong to trust him. You were wrong to lie to me."
"Ignorance is bliss, Katara. I was protecting you! I let you keep your innocence. I let you stay on the path you wanted, the path you chose—"
"I chose nothing! I didn't choose to be raised this way, on this island. I didn't choose to become an assassin. The only thing I did choose to do was not to kill the Emperor, and as of now, it's the only thing that I've ever done right in my life," Katara shouted back. She felt an anger burning inside her, fueling her mind and her body—she was thinking clearly again. She knew who she was again.
"Your weakness, your so-called 'right' decision to keep the Emperor alive was what pushed the Admiral to demand Suyan in the first place!" the Mistress raged. She was no longer the calm, motherly figure she'd been moments before.
At any other time, Katara might have believed the Mistress's accusations. She might have taken the blame upon herself, felt guilty for Suyan's predicament. But there was to be no guilt, no blame now. The Mistress had orchestrated this—it was her fault, and her fault only. Katara was not selfish enough to think that she could have changed anything, that she was at all important to the grander scheme of things. The Admiral had planned from the beginning to have everything—the Emperor, Kyoshi, and Suyan. The Mistress had been tricked, as surely as Katara had been tricked.
"You're wrong," Katara said calmly, "it's not my fault. It never was." Katara looked at the Mistress, and if there was a love in her eyes, it was the love of nostalgia; not of what used to be, but what could have been.
The Mistress could see it, and knew what it meant. "Don't hate me," she whispered, and she sounded like the child, the one desperate for her mother's love.
Then she seemed to stumble forward, a sudden twist of the body, and for a moment, Katara thought the Mistress was going to embrace her, before the sound that accompanied the movement registered in Katara's ears: the sound of an intrusion upon flesh. The Mistress continued stumbling forward, and Katara could see the arrow now, the arrow protruding from her back like an evil growth sprouted from the heart. Suyan dropped to the ground, crying piteously; Katara felt a definite sense of relief that the arrow had not pierced through the Mistress's body to the child Avatar.
The Mistress fell to the ground and did not move again.
Katara whipped around, searching the trees bordering the beach. There was a flash of movement; a Fire soldier restringing a new arrow onto his bow and pointing it—pointing it at her. She remembered the soldiers at Luxing Fort who only answered to the Admiral; his own private army. There must be men part of the Admiral's employ, among the regular innocents of the Fire Navy who thought they were only here to put down the rebellion and rescue the Emperor.
"You were always the smart girl, Katara," the Admiral said, "how did you figure out I wasn't going to keep my promise? Perhaps you know me better than I thought. But we really need to get a move on if I'm to make it home for my own coronation."
Katara stared at him.
"It's your turn," he said, "and I'll make it easier if you would just tell me where the Emperor is."
Suyan was still on the sand, wailing and waving her tiny fists in the air. Zhao bent over as Katara watched in horror, and he picked the baby up with one hand.
"Curious," he said, "the fate of the world literally rests in my hands now," he turned to her, "I searched through every house in your damned village. Some of your people told me the Emperor and his Elites were locked in the prison—I went there personally, but either my informants were lying, or he'd already escaped with somebody's help."
"You can't tell," he continued, "But my hand, the hand holding your precious Avatar, is slowly getting warmer. Right now it's comfortable, the sort of body heat a child would expect, curled up next to a mother's breast. But if you don't start talking, Katara, then it could become the stinking, coal-hot heat of a furnace."
"I—I—don't," she stammered. Was this what it all came down to? "I don't know where he is—I didn't—"
"Don't lie to me," Admiral Zhao said gently, dangerously, "did you hide him in a hole somewhere? Did you give him a boat? Did you tell him to escape to another insignificant little island in the ocean? Did you send him home, to claim his throne?"
There was a bright glow emanating from his hand, stronger and stronger. Suyan squirmed and the pitch of her wail increased.
Katara struggled forward on her knees, wrenching her arms in her bonds, shrieking, "Stop it! Stop it, you monster—"
Zhao whipped around, momentarily distracted, "I told you not to bother me!" he snarled at his officer.
"But, Admiral, on the horizon, more Navy ships!"
Zhao turned, eyes intent, scanning the ocean. Indeed, there was a line of blocky, dark shapes gathering like storm clouds and moving ever closer to Kyoshi.
"Get me the telescope," he demanded, and he shoved Suyan into a nearby soldier's arms. "Keep an eye on her; don't let the Kyoshians, especially this one," he nodded at Katara, "get anywhere near her."
Katara stayed on the sand, feeling relief at this sudden change of events.
The telescope was brought to him; Zhao whipped it open, aiming it out towards sea. He saw something on the flags that he did not like.
"Damn," he swore, "it's Lord Iroh."
"Lord Iroh?" echoed an eager underling, "Perhaps he thinks we're needing reinforcements, shall I send a bird to tell him our takeover was successful—"
"He's not here with reinforcements, you dimwitted fool!" Zhao roared, snapping the telescope shut and throwing it at his lower officer, who ducked fearfully out of the way. Zhao began to mutter to himself, "Lord Iroh—he couldn't possibly have—but when he was no longer receiving messages—I knew I shouldn't have thrown his spy overboard so quickly—he'll want the Emperor, as soon as he gets here!"
Katara scooted over on the sand, closer to the soldier holding Suyan, if she could just knock his legs out from under him, maybe break his nose to distract him, and get Suyan as fast as possible—
Zhao strode over, grasping her arm and yanking her up hard—she bit back a cry of pain—he snatched Suyan from the soldier, and dragged them both towards the forest. Katara struggled against his one-handed grip, but he was a strong man, and his hand was growing steadily hotter until it was almost blistering her skin.
"I don't want Lord Iroh to set a single foot on this beach until I come back!" Zhao roared to his subordinates.
Several of them looked at each other apprehensively, "But Admiral Zhao, Lord Iroh won't be stopped, he'll want an explanation—"
"I don't care what you have to do! Lie to him, say there's an outbreak of a highly contagious disease—no, launch fireballs at him, I don't care! Just keep him away until I get back!" He pointed to a dozen soldiers wearing the armor of the Fire Empire, but with a peculiar symbol upon their helmets—a black insignia in the shape of a flame. Men from Zhao's personal army, loyal only to him, perhaps? "You, come with me!"
His remaining minions rushed over themselves, some to write a polite message to Lord Iroh about an epidemic sickness, some to prepare the catapults for a misguided assault.
Katara forced back tears as Zhao's grasp on her wrist began to burn her skin and the rope around her hands started to smoke and disintegrate: "Let me go!" she twisted against him, but he continued on into the forest, striding forward without pause, Suyan held in his other arm. The dozen or so Firebenders followed them silently.
They reached a clearing sometime later, and he threw her to the ground, keeping a hold on her braid, yanking her hair painfully by the roots. The ties around her wrists fell apart, having been burned off in Zhao's rage. He shoved Suyan into her arms.
"I know you're here!" Zhao screamed at the surrounding trees, "Come out, your Majesty! I have your little spy, your rebel woman, and I have the Avatar!"
He twisted up her hair; she couldn't help but let out a noise this time, her head pulled back, Suyan sobbing into her breast. Zhao fastened a hand around her neck, hot, she couldn't breathe—
"I'm here, Zhao."
Zhao snapped around, letting Katara drop to the ground.
He stood there, and, oh!—behind him, Lt. Ensei, Kaz, Faozu, all of them holding weapons scavenged from the battle. Kaz held what looked like a farming rake. But even so, the soldiers Zhao had brought with him horrendously outnumbered them.
"You would raise your weapons against your own Emperor?" Zuko demanded imperiously.
"My lord!" Admiral Zhao said, spreading his arms wide and his smile wider, "We've been searching for you all night. It is our greatest pleasure to find you alive and unharmed."
"The lies from your mouth befit a traitor," Zuko said calmly, "but if you'd like to do this peacefully, then turn the command of the troops over to me immediately. Your betrayal will be dealt with in front of a military court as soon as we return to Kotzut."
"The Empire needs a strong lord to complete the expansion, to end this foolish war, as the prophecy so goes." Zhao said, voice rising. "And who has ended it? Me."
"Ending the war doesn't mean you have to wipe out the enemy, Zhao!" Zuko said, stepping forward, "It doesn't mean you have to have absolute domination."
"What? What other victory, what other perfect end to this war could there be other than the Empire's domination of the rebels—"
"There is peace, Zhao!" Zuko stopped, took a deep breath, and then continued, "We are... we are not as different a people as you might think."
Zhao was absolutely flabbergasted before he laughed, "See, Zuko, this is why you would never be the right Emperor for us, because you are a weak, powerless, peace-lover!"
"My being weak or strong has nothing to do with it, Zhao—I am Emperor, it is my birthright and I have been trained by my uncle for it since the day I was born. I am Emperor of Fire—I am Fire!" Zuko did not boast it like a braggart—he stated it, he knew it, he felt it in his bones, in his slowly returning heat.
Zhao was silent, processing for a moment, before he smiled. "An Agni Kai, then, my Lord. Winner takes the throne. Loser dies."
Zuko narrowed his eyes. "Agreed."
"What? No!" Katara started forward, "Zuko, you can't! You can't bend, you can't—"
But the men were already circling each other; Zhao with a smirk on his lips, Zuko with rage in his eyes.
Zhao dealt the first blow (Katara flinched) a strong blast aimed at Zuko's right shoulder, making the younger man leap back to avoid the flame. Zhao had missed on purpose; he was testing his opponent's reflexes, judging his chances.
Zuko retaliated, a thin, weak stream of flame from his fist that dissipated in smoke as the end of it left him. Zhao laughed, derisively, mockingly, and swallowed up Zuko's minuscule attempt with a roaring column of fire that caught the Emperor's sleeve before he was able to avoid it. The remnants of the drug were still in Zuko's system; he couldn't summon enough heat to present a strong front against Zhao, and he was achingly out of practice. There was no doubt as to who the victor of this match would be.
But Katara knew Zhao would not end this quickly, with a snap of the wrist and a flame to the face; he was circling his prey, playing with his food, drawing out Zuko's torture. Zhao was enjoying it—it was perhaps, to him, the most fun he'd had in weeks.
Zuko was panting already, on the edge of his feet, trying to keep ahead of Zhao's blows while desperately trying to generate enough fire to mount an offensive. He was failing, that was obvious. He struggled to stay ahead, being pushed back until he was completely on the defensive, and holding that just barely. Zhao's smile widened. One misstep, one tiny miscalculation, and Zuko would meet his end. The Emperor was holding on by pure strength of will.
Then Katara saw it—Zhao aimed a blow with his left fist at Zuko's face. Zuko blocked it with crossed arms, face turned sharply to the side to avoid the flame, almost bending over backwards as Zhao forced him down and came around, with his hidden right hand, opened with a blossoming fire in the palm fast as lightning—Zuko's arms were occupied, his face turned away, he couldn't see what she could see.
She opened her mouth but he wouldn't hear her in time, but too late, too late—she leapt forward—Not again, I won't mess up, I won't do it wrong—she shoved Zuko away with one hand, turning to meet Zhao—I'll fix it this time, I'll make it right—Zhao's fist caught her on the side of the head (impact; blinding) before his sharp, iron shoulder guard followed, gouging through her abdomen—the pain ripped through her stomach, her womb, like a fiery serpent—was the baby coming?
Zuko's enraged scream echoed in her ears before she slipped, falling, falling into the cool stream of water, oh yes, please take me away...
She stood on the bank of a river, the bright sun shining overhead, reflecting on the bald, blue-arrowed head of a boy monk next to her.
"No, Aang, like this," she said, lifting her arms to demonstrate the water whip. And as she bent, she saw her reflection in the river—dressed in black, bruised eye, blood on her hands, sliding down her knives—she dropped the riverwater, staring at the mirror image of herself.
She raised one clean hand (bloody, callused) running it across her smooth, unmarked face (brushing the black eye, the cut on her cheek) and over a rounded belly full of life (flat and trim from battle and exercise); "What?" she whispered.
"It's been a long time, Katara," he said, smiling.
"Aang," she said. Then again: "Aang." Who was this boy (my best friend) how did he know her name (a long time ago, yes.)
There was a tickling in her mind—once upon a time—she breathed and the air had a hint of smoke, earth, and the salty tang of the ocean. Why—yes—I remember.
An overbearing sorrow filled her and she lifted one hand towards him, "I missed you so much, Aang." Her voice broke, her fingers shook. Tears slid down her face.
And Aang was no longer by her side. He was above, around, everywhere—a grinning boy in monk's robes, a serious young woman with white face paint, a gentle bender in blue Water Tribe furs, and a tall, regal old man with a beard, sitting astride a dragon with a baby girl in front of him smiling and waving happily (Suyan?). There were more, surrounding them, there but not there.
She looked at him, at them, confused and so regretful (there'd been a quest, a hatred, a love, a death, a birth). "I'm sorry," she said.
Aang, all, smiled, "I forgave you—a long, long time ago."
She felt her belly contract; her hand fluttered over it. A baby's cry split the air, coming from everywhere, permeating her senses, I'm coming, darling, I'm coming.
"You're needed, Katara," said Aang.
She needed to get to her baby. Her child.
They smiled, "We need you."
A blinding rage filled his mind, his body, as Katara fell to the ground, blood spilling from her, over her, out of her—he let out a cry of rage, and, face distended in a mask of grief and sorrow, leapt at Zhao, hands outstretched to strangle, to kill—how could you! I was going to save her this time, I was going to do it right, I was going to fix it—Zhao grinned, evil incarnate—you messed it up, you killed her I'LL KILL YOU!
There was a child, a baby screaming somewhere, crying—
The sun broke through the clouds on the horizon, showering brilliant golden drops over them all.
She opened her eyes.
The child's wail echoing in her ears (not Suyan's, because Suyan wasn't really here, she was back by the river, back with Aang, she was Aang) she struggled to her feet, blood spilling over her hands from the cut over her stomach; it dripped, like water, boiling red water—the dark, the mysterious, the female, the primitive, the ancient life-mother.
She saw Zuko fixing his hands around Zhao's neck, saw Zhao raising his fists to throw him off and deliver a devastating blow to his attacker; Zuko wouldn't be able to dodge it—don't touch him!—the blood she cupped in her hands hardened, her anger and hatred and rage sharpening to a brilliant crimson point, molded and shaped into a weapon—an assassin's weapon.
She held in her palms a burning-cold knife made of her blood—her very self.
Zuko shouted as he was shoved backwards, Zhao readying himself for the final blow of flame, but his focus was pulled to the side, and he saw Katara, that fire-bright red in her hands, above her head—his eyes widened, he pulled back, duck—
She hefted it in her right hand, her fingers curling around it with old familiarity—the body has memory—this was her specialty, what she'd trained for, what she'd prepared all her two lives for, assassination of the rightest kind—she let fly.
Zhao flinched his body to the side. A brief moment; he could feel the knife whistling by him, barely grazing his cheek. He came up smiling.
"You missed," he said, and laughed, harsh and loud, drowning and echoing and swallowing.
"No, I didn't," she said.
Zhao stopped; smirked; yet he was still confused. "What?" Then he saw the answer in her eyes (the ocean, all-knowing, giving and taking, push and pull).
The Admiral whipped around—where was he?—right there, that bastard Zuko, holding the bright weapon in hand—wait, stop!—
"The end," said Zuko, and he plunged it through Zhao's armour, through his skin, through his bones, his flesh, his blood, his soul.
His life, his death.
There was a meeting, in that forest. Of desperate eyes, smooth arms, brushing hands, urgent whispers, slippery blood. His hands over her face, her wound—"You're bleeding, too much bleeding"—her small, panting gasps: "I need the water; put me in the ocean, the ocean."
He picked her up, holding her close—she let out a small cry, so faint he almost missed it. He ran blindly, as if chased by death, towards that glinting blue sea, past the confused soldiers, her shouting brother, and into the water, splashing up cool around his legs.
He lowered her gently, keeping her head above the waves until she said "All the way, all the way down," and it was hard, but he let go, watched her drifting away.
It seemed there were hands there, chubby child's fingers, a gnarled, wrinkled claw, a pale hand with a faintly glowing blue arrow—surrounded her wound, shut off the blood flow, kept it inside for her, saving her life. She floated underwater, eyes closed, hands crossed over her chest—oh, please, please, give her back to me, let us have this one last chance.
Katara inhaled then, inhaled a lungful of ocean, of sweet, clear air rushing through her body, a cleansing wind (a sense of innocent gray eyes smiling at her; a boy, a brother, and a journey).
Time to go back.
She woke, broke through the surface, splashing him as he rushed to her, worried and amazed at the same time; she pressed her cool cheek to his. The warmth from his body was so familiar—she'd felt it before, skin against skin, hot breath and release.
"Katara," he was almost choking, "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry—"
She smiled up at him: "I forgive you."
There was a rustling, and dim light against her eyelids. She sighed, stretched, and rolled onto her side, opening her eyes. She was on an army-style cot in a low tent, reminiscent of the sort she'd stayed in during her time in the Elites. The door flap wasn't fastened closed; a cool breeze blew in, bringing with it the scent of the ocean. She could hear the waves outside, and the floor of the tent was the soft sand of the beach. She turned, and saw Sokka sitting against one tent wall, head resting against his knees.
"Good morning," he said, not looking up at her.
"Good morning," she said softly back. Morning again? Had it been a full day and night since they—the Mistress—since she'd—since she'd killed Zhao?
Sokka lifted his head to look at her. He was tired, with dark shadows on his face and sand in his hair.
"You just missed the Emperor," he said, "he left about a minute ago."
Katara wondered how her brother had known she was just about to ask where Zuko was—was it so obvious on her face?
"You look tired, Sokka," she said, changing the subject, "You look worse than tired. Dead."
He smiled wanly at her but did not move.
"Where's Suki?" she asked, throwing off the light blanket and sitting up straight, ignoring the slight, tiny ache (like a memory) in her abdomen. "And Suyan?"
"They're in the next tent over," said Sokka, and now his eyes were affixed to the canvas roof above them, "She's not talking to me, Katara. She's not talking to anyone. She just—she just sits there, or she eats, or she feeds Suyan. She doesn't even cry."
It hit her. The Mistress had been Suki's mother. Whatever misguided loyalties she might have had, or whatever failed agreements she might have made with the enemy, the Mistress was still Suki's mother. Katara couldn't imagine how Suki was taking this. The Mistress's betrayal and secrets had come out at the end; her affiliation with Zhao, her intended sacrifice of Suyan. Suki must be—Katara couldn't begin to think about what Suki was going through.
Katara got up silently, walking over to her brother, her feet sinking into the sand with every step. This beach—so many things—a day from her childhood, practicing swordplay with Suki and Sokka, treating it like a game, discovering her Waterbending—it seemed like lifetimes ago. Had they ever really been so carefree? It had been a dream, perhaps.
He was crying, silent tears; she slipped an arm around his chest, helped raise him from the ground and walk over to the cot. She lay him down on the spindly bed before covering him with the blanket. His breathing was ragged; torn.
There was a chipped jar by the bed, filled with fresh water, probably from the Fire Navy's stores, or perhaps from the wells in the village. She poured a bit over her hand, and wet Sokka's brow before letting her fingers rest on his forehead lightly. She was not such an accomplished bender that she could erase emotional scars, the hurt of the heart, but she could give a small moment of relief; of cool, forgetting touch. She put everything she had, the memories of long ago, of innocent youth, of the beach, the ocean, the sun, the rain, the trees—of his love for Suki, their first kiss, Suyan's laughter, and how, when Katara looked in the mirror with Sokka by her side, their eyes were the exact same shade of sea-blue.
His chest rose and fell evenly; she let her hand slip away, and she tiptoed silently to the tent opening, before bending down and leaving Sokka to sleep peacefully behind her.
She stood up straight, feeling the wind in her hair, and looked upon a quiet scene. It must have been an hour or so after dawn, judging from the light in the sky, and around her the beach was dotted with more tents like the one she'd stepped out of, in varying shades of dark red. There were small campfires dug in the sand, soldiers sitting next to them, setting firewood alight with a gentle flick of the fingers, nursing bowls of hot soup, chatting quietly or looking at the sky, immersed in their own thoughts. The only sounds came from soft conversation, the rush of the wind and waves, and the occasional low, pained moan from the infirmary tent on the far side of camp.
Katara turned to look behind her, towards where the beach met the forest, and saw something that caught her eye. She stepped closer—she hadn't been mistaken.
There he was, Zuko, washed and dressed in a light outfit of red and gold, talking to—what was his name—Iroh, his uncle. They stood there, on the edge of the trees, conversing. Iroh was talking, gesturing with one hand, and Zuko stood listening, head bowed slightly.
Katara stared; the scene was so normal, usual, perfect.
Then Iroh turned, saw her, and smiled. Zuko, watching his uncle, did the same, and his eyes widened upon seeing her; he took an urgent step forward toward her, before he seemed to remember something, and stopped.
Iroh beckoned with his hand; she obeyed automatically, walking to them, and stopping before she got too close. Inside, there was a deep part of her that wanted to step closer, closer until she could slip her hand into his, run her fingers over his scar, and ask him if he was all right.
But she didn't, and if he had wanted to do something of the same sort, he did not reveal it.
"Hello, Katara," Iroh said in a kind voice, "Did you sleep well?"
She nodded. "What happened after we—after I—after I was—" her eyes darted to Zuko; he did not look away before she did.
"You mean, after Zuko brought you back, unconscious, from the sea?" Iroh said, grinning widely.
Katara tried not to blush. She purposefully did not look at Zuko. "Yes," she said.
Iroh sobered. "It was quite a strange turn of events—I was on my way here after I had my tea and discovered a prophecy in the leaves at the bottom of my cup—now don't just brush it aside, Zuko," here Zuko had rolled his eyes; Katara covered a smile, "because wasn't I right in the end? Anyway, I was met with a curious opposition. First, the soldiers on the beach kept firing their catapults at me, even though the Empire's flag was clearly visible on my ship, while at the same time I received a messenger bird from one of Zhao's officers that told of an epidemic on the island, a debilitating disease that was highly contagious. I didn't believe a word of it. But by the time I managed to evade the fireballs and reach the island, Zhao had run off with you and the Avatar—Zuko was nowhere to be found, according to the men Zhao had left behind. We followed his tracks into the forest, and discovered Zhao's body. It was so very strange—he had been stabbed, but we couldn't find a knife, or any sort of weapon. There was a lot of blood, a mixture of his own and a darker, deeper ocher that stained Zhao's skin and couldn't be removed from the doctor's clothes."
Iroh paused and gave first Zuko a look, then Katara. "Zuko hasn't explained to me this mystery yet; he keeps saying that it's your decision whether or not anybody else knows about it."
Katara was pleased that Zuko had thought of her, and kept his mouth closed on the subject. She wasn't sure whether or not she wanted to share what had happened back in that forest clearing with Zhao—indeed, she wasn't even positive that what she thought had happened really had happened.
"Zhao's personal soldiers had fled, but we caught them before they managed to escape off the island," continued Iroh.
"And Suyan?" Katara broke in here. "Where was she?"
"That was even stranger," Iroh said, glancing at Zuko, "We found her here after Zuko brought you back. She was on the beach, at the very edge of the water, playing and splashing in the waves. She was laughing and not at all worried or sick or screaming like a child normally would in a situation such as that. She's a special child."
"She is," Katara echoed, and remembered, with a start, her original intention. "I—I have to see to Suki—her mother, you know—and Suyan—" she made a motion towards the next tent down the beach, the one Sokka had said Suki and Suyan were in, as Iroh understood and nodded graciously.
But Zuko made a move forward, and brushed against her hand with his own, so gently she almost didn't feel it. "About," he said, haltingly, "about what happened, with Zhao, and in the ocean, did you—did you see—did you feel—"
"Later," she said, quietly and carefully. She wasn't ready, not yet.
He accepted her answer, stepping back and clasping his hands behind his back, making a small, deferential bow, just a slight bend of the upper body. For her.
"I can wait for you," he said.
She smiled; quick and thankful, before she turned and left.
A few hours later, she reemerged from Suki's tent to tell her brother that Suki had begun to speak again, and Suyan was whining for her father.
Sokka left the tent, eyes bright and eager to see his small family; Katara stayed behind, sitting on the cot, alone. She was sad—memories would come from this, both painful and yet relieving—but she was not worried.
There would be time, later, to talk to Zuko, to talk to Iroh and Ensei and Kaz.
There would be time, later, for peace.
A/N: This ain't the end. Epilogue coming up. There'll be a lot longer author's note that goes with that detailing all my titillating thoughts.
(Title from kick-ass, totally Zutara song: Heaven Coming Down by The Tea Party, graciously provided by Rashaka, whose birthday it is today! HAPPY 22ND, DARLING!)
And I deleted my Zutara-centric drabbles, 52 Flavours for Fire and Water, because it sucked and just. No. If I fix them all, I might reupload them again someday.
Many thanks to: melodiee, witheringheights, kawaiilyn, jakia, spleefmistress, manarunigha, for a wonderful job betaing!
And last but definitely not least: Akavertigo. Because she's. Well. You know. Akavertigo.
(And because her AU Zutara fic, Tempest in a Teacup, is probably the best thing that's ever happened to me in the course of my short, teenage life. Any true Zutara shipper who doesn't read it should be shot. Up the ass. With cocaine.)