Here you go! Enjoy! Thank you for the encouragement!

Many thanks to Jezebel. V. Sterling!

Avatar: the Last Airbender is not mine.

Chapter Twenty-Three

Anguished Despair

Silence hung in the air for a few long seconds before Jianguo finally spoke, lifting his hand to light and then extinguish a small flame in his palm.

"I don't see why I shouldn't tell you what is going on, since we have you already," he began as he glanced at the tensed Fire Lord. "We, my men and I, were actually on our way to get you from the small colony as we were expected to. But luckily for us, you came to us before we traveled there or fought our way to get you."

"What do you want with me?" Zuko asked icily as he glared at the man before he flicked his eyes toward Katara who was staring back at him with large, petrified eyes. "Whatever you need me for can wait until the village has been helped."

Zuko and Katara were startled when the large group of men burst into incredulous laughter. Zuko glared at them angrily as he took in their appearance. It looked like the band surrounding them consisted of both earthbenders and firebenders, though their clothing was dirty and ragged-looking, their hair was long and matted, and they looked like they had not bathed for years. Something clicked in Zuko's brain as the men smirked evilly at him. He growled at the older firebender who seemed to be their leader.

"You! You're the ones who have been raiding my colonies and wreaking havoc upon my people!" Zuko thundered as he clenched his hands. "Do you have any idea of all the damage you have caused?"

Katara gasped while the men sneered at the angry Fire Lord.

"As if we give a shit!" one of the men shouted out. His comment urged the others to give out remarks of their own.

How can they say that? Katara thought angrily. Don't they see the innocent lives they have destroyed?

Their leader raised his hand and the men immediately quieted down after a few more curses. The middle-aged man smiled at them before he frowned at Zuko.

"How can you say this to us when it was you who have ruined us?" Jianguo said as he narrowed his eyes dangerously at the young firebender glaring at him.

"I don't understand." Zuko frowned at him.

Jianguo growled as he took a menacing step forward while his hands lit up for a brief moment.

"It's because of you that we have lost everything and now live miserably!" he roared.

"What?" Katara cried out in disbelief as she tried to break the hold of the tall earthbender keeping her still. "You're blaming Zuko? Why?"

Katara growled under her breath, angry at being intentionally ignored when Jianguo did not even turn her way as he kept his attention on Zuko.

"Your waterbender sure doesn't know when to keep quiet, does she?" he commented as he raised an eyebrow at the silent young man before he glanced back at Katara with a lascivious grin, "Though I don't blame you for keeping her around. She is quite a beauty."

"My relationship with Katara is not as depraved as you think," Zuko explained furiously. "She is only a very close friend of mine."

"Well, that's not what I've heard," Jianguo said with a hum. "We know she means so much to you that you'd do anything to keep her safe, which is why we came up with the lie about the village being ravaged by an illness. We knew she would follow you in order to help them."

"You…lied?" Zuko said in a cold voice. "So there never was a disease? The people, the children, never died then?"

"Yes," Jianguo responded without remorse. "We tried many ways to make you heed our warnings—"

"By raiding my colonies and terrorizing my people," Zuko interrupted harshly.

"Why yes," Jianguo replied with a wicked smile, "It was so easy since many people let down their guard thinking that everything would be right in the world now that the war is over. They never saw us coming and so were unprepared when we came down upon them."

Zuko glared at him, but a question that had been nagging him ever since he had heard of the raiding of the colonies stopped him from attacking the unremorseful man.

"How could such a large group be able to disappear undetected after every attack?" he asked.

"Ah, a good question, indeed," Jianguo exclaimed.

He flicked his hand at Chang whose expression was as cold as a stone before a satisfied grin appeared on the firebender's face.

"Chang here and a few of his earthbenders were gracious enough to show us a way to make a hasty retreat without giving any trace as to where we had gone," Jianguo paused and slowly spun around to smile at his men. "Why don't we give our guests a peek?"

The men snickered until Xiao and Ping stepped forward with large smirks on their faces. The earthbender went to stand behind Xiao and then he grabbed hold of both of his upper arms. Katara and Zuko's eyes widened when the earth silently opened and they fell through before the ground sealed back up without any sign that it that been disturbed.

Almost like when General Fong buried me in the ground to force Aang into the Avatar State, Katara thought absentmindedly.

Everybody was silent, nobody moved, but Zuko and Katara never moved their eyes from the spot the men had disappeared through. To their shock, they watched as another hole appeared a few feet away and Xiao and Ping emerged. They stepped away from the opening, which closed just as silently as it had materialized, and gave an exaggerated bow when the other men erupted into hoots and cheers. Both men sneered at Zuko as they passed by him to stand among their comrades.

"Every firebender and non-bender has an earthbending partner," Jianguo spoke up as he again turned his attention to Zuko. "We were able to escape with this little trick as we plundered your colonies, but you did not come to their aid yourself like we had hoped. Instead, you sent for the villages to be better protected and even had the people learn to defend themselves. I have to give you credit for such a move, since it did detain us for a while," he said, looking mildly impressed.

Zuko almost lost it right then.

"So, since that didn't work very well, we began to send you a few messages, but you disregarded those as well," Jianguo continued casually as he glanced down to nonchalantly inspect his nails.

"So it was you that sent me those threats!" Zuko accused angrily.

"Actually, you're wrong about that," Jianguo responded smugly. "It was someone else that was in charge of making sure you received those letters as well as keep an eye on you."

"Who? Tell me who this traitor is!" Zuko demanded as he took a step closer, but paused when Chang moved the knife closer to Katara's neck.

"I apologize, but I can't reveal such a secret to you," the older firebender said in mock regret. "But as I was saying, you ignored our request to release Lord Ozai and so we came up with this plan to lure you out in your courageous attempt to help save their lives." He sneered. "But the only way that you would've complied to come with us without a fight was if your little waterbender was used against you. And as we can all see, it worked perfectly well."

Another round of laughter resounded at his words.

Jianguo paced calmly on the dark forest floor as the men continued with their laughter. He smirked at his comrades.

"Quite pitiful, don't you think?" he mocked.

Zuko's jaw locked as he tried to keep himself composed.

"I still don't see what you want with me or why you blame me for your misfortunes," he said.

"Oh, I will tell you alright," Jianguo replied with a smirk. "You ignored all the messages sent to you ordering you to release Ozai, our true Fire Lord, so we had to take matters into our own hands. We will used the waterbender to get you to remain compliant with us while we exchange your freedom for that of Ozai's—"

"Are you crazy?!" Katara interrupted loudly. "Ozai's a monster who deserves to rot in prison for all the evil things he has done to the world!"

"Silence, wench!" Jianguo ordered sharply.

The dagger was pressed even closer to her neck and she gasped.

"Let her go!" Zuko growled out as he took another step toward the silent earthbender holding Katara in his grasp.

Jianguo laughed at him before he turned away and calmly strode toward the grimacing waterbender. Katara felt her heart beat faster as the firebender loomed closer to her and she tried to back away.

"You really need to learn to keep that pretty mouth of yours shut, waterbender," Jianguo cooed mockingly as he briefly glanced at Zuko with a large grin. "Quite a beauty, like I said. Maybe I would like to see why you find her so good to have around." He reached out a rough hand to touch her cheek.

Katara cringed at his unwanted touch and at the slight pain from Jianguo's hand touching her bruises from the fight.

"Don't touch me!" Katara yelled at him.

"Don't touch her!" Zuko snarled wrathfully.

"Or what?" Jianguo taunted with a chuckle. "You have no way to stop me."

Zuko gritted his teeth as sparks flared from his nostrils.

Jianguo smirked at him as he patted Katara's cheek. He let out another chuckle when the woman snapped her teeth to bite his hand.

"Feisty, isn't she?" he remarked and the men laughed along with him. "So, young Zuko, if you want your precious waterbender to be safe, you will be submissive and let us block your firebending. We can't have you attacking us, now can we?"

"Don't listen to him, Zuko!" Katara demanded.

Zuko growled under his breath, trying to stall, but he immediately made up his mind when the men started to whistle and lick their lips toward the struggling female. He relaxed his stance and gave a small, almost imperceptible nod of his head.

"Don't be stupid!" Katara screamed at him.

"I won't let them hurt you if I can help it, Katara!" Zuko growled at her loudly as he turned to glare at her.

Katara gasped and quieted down as Zuko looked away from her to turn his attention back to Jianguo. Zuko held out his arms and another slim earthbender, just like Chang, raised one of his hands to summon a stone manacle to wrap around each of Zuko's wrists and ankles in order to block every possible way he could use his firebending. As soon as the restrictive bracelets encircled him, Zuko instantly felt his inner fire being snuffed out and a cold and empty feeling engulfed him.

"No," Katara whispered in despair as Chang tightened his grip on her.

Jianguo chuckled evilly as he walked away from Katara to circle around the now silent young firebender.

"Look at the Mighty Fire Lord now," he taunted cruelly, "Helpless like a child."

After the other raiders gave their share of taunts and sneers, Jianguo stepped up to Zuko with a triumphant smirk.

"How about we make both sides of your face match, hmm?" he asked in a sugary tone.

Quick as lightning, Jianguo raised his fist and struck across the unblemished side of Zuko's face.

"Zuko!" Katara cried out as Zuko's head snapped to the side with the force of the blow.

Zuko winced at the pain, but he managed to stop himself from crying out. He could feel his cheek quiver, but he refused to touch it and give Jianguo the satisfaction of knowing that it hurt. He lifted his head high as he glared defiantly at the older firebender.

Jianguo narrowed his eyes in displeasure as he took aim at Zuko's face again, this time with more strength. Blood spurted from Zuko's lip as it split from the strike, but again he refused to cry out in pain while Katara cried out for him to be left alone. His eyes almost blazing in anger, Jianguo threw a brutal blow to Zuko's stomach. Zuko doubled over in pain and coughed as the wind was ripped from his lungs, but he bit his bloody lip to continue with his silence.

"Trying to play tough in front of your waterbending wench, aren't you?" Jianguo growled out angrily. "Let's see how long you can keep up the act!"

With a flick of his hand, Jianguo stepped away as half a dozen of his men eagerly sprang forward and began to land blow after blow on Zuko. Unable to keep standing on his feet from the excruciating pain, Zuko fell to the ground and landed on his side. He brought his arms over his head to protect himself and bit his lip even harder to keep from screaming.

"No, stop! Please! Don't hurt him!" Katara screamed at them as she renewed her struggles to free herself so she could run to Zuko.

"Let me go, damn it!" she commanded heatedly. She ignored the pain and the flow of her blood from the knife cutting deep into her skin as she thrashed in the earthbender's iron hold.

Zuko focused his attention on Katara's voice as he tried to block out the pain that was raining down on him from all sides. He would not give them the satisfaction of knowing that their blows were really taking a toll on him. He wished he could fight back, make them regret messing with him, but he endured the punches and kicks so they would leave Katara alone and not hurt her.

"Stop it, please!" Katara pleaded as tears began to run down her cheeks in torrents, her heart constricted in her chest, as she watched the men attacking Zuko. "Please!"

A few more blows were inflicted before Jianguo raised his palm up. The men ceased their assault and backed away, panting and huffing. With measured steps, their leader walked over to the wounded man on the ground. Zuko groaned under his breath and spat the blood that had fallen into his mouth. With a push from his foot, Jianguo harshly pressed Zuko onto his back as he smirked down at his bruised and bloodied face.

"That was just too easy," the rebel said.

Zuko grimaced as he tried to stand up, but his arms gave way under him and he collapsed to the floor once again. He felt like all his bones had been broken. His breathing was loud and shallow. After a few painful tries, Zuko managed to get to his knees before he forced himself to stand on his feet. He swayed and his legs shook at the pain the effort caused him, but he managed to stay standing and not fall back down. With shaky limbs, Zuko slowly raised his head to glare defiantly at Jianguo.

"Zuko," Katara breathed out as more tears sprang from her eyes at the state he was in. She felt admiration for his unfailing pride.

Jianguo hissed angrily at him and his large hands clenched at his sides before he slammed his fist against Zuko's scarred cheek, knocking him back down easily. Zuko winced and groaned as he crashed onto the forest floor.

"No more, please!" Katara pleaded.

Zuko again spat out more blood as it accumulated in his mouth. He wanted to get to his feet again, his pride demanded it, but his body was in too much pain so he remained on the floor as the throbbing from the current blow traveled from his cheek to his head.

"You may hurt me, you may kill me, but you won't succeed in releasing Ozai from prison," Zuko gritted out between clenched teeth as he raised his eyes to give Jianguo a hateful glare.

"That's what you may think, but I assure you that our plan will succeed," Jianguo countered, examining his hand uninterestingly as he continued.

"There is no one that will help you. Hakoda and his warriors are at sea at this moment returning to that primitive tribe of his. We made the Avatar go on a fool's errand with no way for him to return soon. He and the blind earthbender will be surprised when they finally arrive and see that no revolt has erupted in the Earth Kingdom village, but once they realize that, it will be too late to save you. Iroh is perhaps searching for you right now, but he has no way of knowing where both of you are. And once news of your capture reaches him and the traitors that side with you in the Fire Nation, they will do anything to rescue you even if it means releasing Ozai from prison."

Zuko remained silent at the realization that he and Katara were indeed all alone. It would take months before Aang and Toph heard news about their capture, since they were headed to almost the farthest village in the world. Jianguo and his men and whoever was his informant made sure to remove anyone that could come save them.

Then I won't wait for help to arrive. I will find a way for Katara and me to escape, Zuko thought determinedly.

Jianguo dismissed him as if he were nothing as he turned to smirk at his men who had been watching the events silently and with twisted pleasure.

"There is no need for us to rush to the colony now that the 'oh so Mighty Fire Lord' has decided to drop by and stay with us," he told them before he once again regarded the injured man lying on the ground below his feet. "We will stay here for the night. Set up camp now."

Without another word, Jianguo lifted his booted foot and swiftly and forcefully kicked Zuko's side. This time Zuko was unable to stop the painful cry that escaped his lips as he felt one of his ribs crack.

"Zuko!" Katara shrieked in anguish.

Mustering all the strength and all the will she had in order to run to Zuko's side to comfort him, Katara pulled Chang's arm away from her neck. The earthbender was so surprised that he did not fight to hold her still and doubled over when Katara elbowed him hard on his stomach and stomped on his foot. As soon as he backed away in pain, Katara wasted no time in racing toward Zuko.

She dropped to her knees as soon as she reached him and a soft sob escaped her as the bruises on his face became much more visible and grotesque. She reached a shaky hand and gently touched his arm, but immediately pulled back when he winced. Katara felt her ire flare in her heart as the man she loved above all else lay in pain before her just because he did not agree with the idea of world conquest like Ozai and these men did. She raised her head to glare with blazing, blue eyes at Jianguo who was staring at them with a cruel smirk on his face.

"You won't get away with this," Katara hissed at him.

Jianguo chuckled deeply as he ran a hand through his short graying hair.

"Oh, we will, waterbender," he replied confidently. He remained standing before them for a moment before he smirked at her as he spun around and headed back to his men.

Katara continued to glare at the leader of the band of raiders until she lost sight of him. She did not pay attention as the other men ran around to get camp set up as tents were raised and a large fire was started, instead she focused her whole attention on Zuko who had his eyes screwed shut while a deep grimace marred his features. More tears gathering in her eyes, Katara again reached her hand to touch him, but this time more lightly.

"Zuko?" she softly called out. She scooted closer to him and gently raised his head to her lap where she began to smooth his hair back.

At the sound of Katara's lovely voice and the tingling feeling of her soft touch, Zuko's eyes flew open and darted around in search of her face. A small smile broke through his face once he spotted her hovering over him. He sighed contentedly at having his head cradled on her lap, but his smile vanished as he took in her own bruised cheeks, the thin line of blood on her neck, and the tears that wanted to fall from her beautiful, sapphire eyes.

"Katara?" he rasped as he painfully raised his arm to grab onto her small hand. "Did they…do anything else to hurt you?"

Katara let out a small sob and more tears began to fall down her face at the sound of Zuko's concerned voice. He had been horribly beaten by half a dozen men and instead he worried about her?

"I'm fine, Zuko…" her voice trembled before she scowled at him as her tears continued to flow. "Stupid! Why did you let yourself be beaten up like that? You should've fought back! I know you would've been able to defeat all of them!"

Zuko frowned at her before he squeezed her hand to gain her attention. Katara sniffled as she looked into his burning, golden eyes.

"I would rather be beaten to an inch of my life than allow anyone or anything to harm you," he told her fervently.

Katara let out a small cry before she lunged herself at him and crushed his head to her chest. Zuko hissed in pain.

"Careful, Katara! I had the living daylights beaten out of me. You have to handle me with care," Zuko lightly teased as he tried to lighten up her mood.

"I'm sorry, I'm so sorry," Katara apologized profusely as the tears continued to fall.

Zuko sighed as his joke—a bad one, he admitted—failed.

"Don't blame yourself. It's not your fault," Zuko told her firmly.

"It is," Katara whispered. "It's all my fault we're in this mess. I was the one who ignored your warnings and decided to venture into the forest by myself."

"Yeah, but you had no idea that the rebels were looking for us," Zuko tried to reason with her.

Katara sniffled again as she ran her fingers through his dark hair. How many times had she wished she could be able to do this? Touch Zuko's raven-black hair with her fingers and have him so close to her? Though she relished that she was doing it at the moment, it saddened her that it had to be in these circumstances.

"I'm sorry I can't heal you," Katara spoke up remorsefully as she saw Zuko wince when he tried to move. She glared hatefully at the stone bracelets circling her wrists, preventing her from healing Zuko's pain away.

"It's okay," Zuko reassured her. "It's not like it's the first time I've been severely injured. I've been through worse."

Katara's brow furrowed in a deep frown at his words, but before she could say anything, Zuko again squeezed her hand.

"I would really like to get off from the ground," Zuko interrupted, hoping to distract her and calm her down. "Can you help me lean on a tree or something?"

Katara nodded as she carefully moved Zuko's head from her lap. It took a few painful minutes for Zuko to finally move away from the dirt floor and lean against the trunk of a large tree further away from the unruly men. Katara bit her lip to keep from crying again as she watched Zuko try to keep his face from showing his pain and weakness while his chest moved in shallow breaths. Oh, how she wished she had her waterbending back so she could heal his injuries and make Jianguo and his men regret what they had done. She did not have any medical supplies and she worried that Zuko's health might worsen if he did not get immediate help.

Both tensed as they noticed Chang leave the crowd of men and walk toward them in a poised stride with a disinterested expression on his thin face. Zuko straightened, and although the movement caused his injured side to send a jolt of pain through his body, he placed a protective arm across Katara to keep her slightly behind him.

The tall earthbender ignored both the gesture and the glare both the firebender and waterbender were sending him as he finally approached them to stand silently a few feet before them. Without a word, he threw a bag at their feet. When they eyed the bag and him warily, Chang silently slid his hands into his long sleeves and frowned at them.

"There are bandages, salves, and other medicinal supplies in the bag," he said dispassionately.

"Why would Jianguo help us after the trouble he went through to harm us?" Zuko asked suspiciously.

"Believe me, Jianguo would rather keep you suffering and would be even glad if an infection took hold of you," was Chang's passive reply, "But I think it's best you get your injuries seen to so you won't slow us down."

Without any more explanations, Chang turned on his heel to walk away.

"You're Dai Li," Katara observed quietly. She glanced at Zuko who nodded at her that he had figured it out as well. "Your silent and refined movements are just like the Dai Li. Not to mention you used the stone cuffs."

The lean earthbender paused in his movements at the words the woman had said. There was silence for a moment before the man spoke.

"Yes, I was a Dai Li agent once," he replied tonelessly.

"Then why are you going along with this stupid plot for Ozai to rule the world when you had been fighting to keep Ba Sing Se safe?" Katara asked exasperatedly.

"I would advise you to mind your own business, waterbender," Chang told her tersely as he once again glided back to the group of rowdy men as silently as he had come.

Katara and Zuko watched him leave before they looked back at each other. Zuko moved his arm away from where it had been guarding Katara and groaned quietly, his whole body protesting at the movement as he tried to lean back on the tree. At the sound that came from Zuko, Katara was instantly at his side, helping him lean his back to the sturdy tree.

"Thanks," he rasped out and swallowed another groan as the bruises on his back touched the rough surface of the tree.

Katara gave him a small smile, though her eyes were filled with concern. Once Zuko was settled, she hesitantly reached for the bag that was lying at their feet and brought it to her side. She eyed it suspiciously for a while, but when Zuko coughed and groaned, she immediately opened it and started to rummage through it. To her immense relief, she found everything she needed to take care of their bruises and wounds.

She took out the container that held healing ointment for bruises and burns, needles and thread to close deep wounds—though she was sure she would not need these—and laid out the bandages neatly in a clean spot on the grassy patch they were seating on.

She grabbed the lotion jar and opened it before she turned to Zuko. She knelt beside him and reached for his face, but she was startled when Zuko grabbed her shackled wrist and shook his head.

"What's wrong? I have to dress your wounds before you get an infection or something." Katara frowned at him.

Zuko again shook his head and grimaced.

"Not until you see to your own injuries first," was his strained reply as he looked pointedly at her bloody neck and bruised face.

Katara huffed at him as she grabbed his hand and laid it gently at his side.

"I can handle a few bruises for a while longer, but you got it worse than I did and I won't allow you to be in any more pain," was her firm response. "Now, be a good boy and sit quietly as I take care of you."

Zuko glowered at her halfheartedly, though her last words did warm his heart. He watched as she once again took hold of the lotion and turned to him with determined eyes. She reached into the container and scooped some of the strong smelling salve on her fingers before she pressed them to his cheek. Zuko winced at the cold contact and the slight pain the small touch brought to his skin, but after a moment, he let out a sigh as Katara began to spread the ointment gently to the bruises on his face. He tensed slightly when she moved to the scarred side of his face as it brought painful memories from his troubled past, but when he looked into her sympathetic eyes and she only smiled at him, he relaxed into her touch.

Katara pressed a cloth she found in the bag to the cut on Zuko's lower lip and gently cleaned the blood away. She suppressed a blush as she stared at his lips for a moment to look at the cut. It was not that deep and luckily it did not need to be stitched. She wiped her fingers with the cloth once she finished with the bruises on Zuko's face. It would have been much easier if she had her waterbending, but there was no point in crying over it. She needed to look at Zuko's other wounds.

Sitting back on her heels, Katara eyed his shirt. She needed to take it off so she could start taking care of the rest of his injuries, but she found herself to be frozen in her spot at the thought of taking off Zuko's shirt herself. Sure she had seen Zuko shirtless before, his muscular torso gleaming in the sunlight as he trained under it, but it was something different between looking at his chest and touching it. The few times she had done so when she tried to heal him after he was hit by Azula's lightning always made her body tingle and feel warm.

"I…uh…I-I need to take off your shirt," Katara stuttered before she rapidly added, "to look at the other wounds you have!"

This time she was unable to stop the blush from surfacing and she hoped that the small bruises on her cheeks hid her embarrassment as well as fascination.

Zuko raised an amused eyebrow at her as he gave her a slight nod and leaned a bit forward. Katara helped him out of his shirt, slowing down when he gave out a painful groan, until finally she removed it from his head and laid it beside her. She looked at his chest, but her blush disappeared when she saw the reddening bruises that marred the skin of his once perfect torso.

There were many on his stomach and back where he had suffered most of the blows and kicks the despicable men had given him, and although there were no visible cuts, Katara feared that there could be some internal bleeding. She immediately dipped her fingers back into the ointment and began to spread it on all the bruises she saw on his back, arms, and torso. She lingered for a moment as she gently touched the scar that he had received while trying to save her life from Azula's attack. She felt a bit guilty that every time Zuko tried to keep her safe he got injured. She felt love and gratitude swell in her heart.

She paused when Zuko jumped and hissed loudly as she pressed her fingers to his left side. Katara jumped over his legs to kneel at his left side to look at him and a loud gasp escaped her lips as she noticed the large, black and blue bruise that was forming there. She remembered that it was the place where Jianguo had brutally kicked him and she immediately knew why Zuko was having such difficult time breathing.

"I'm going to have to press to see how much damage there is," Katara told him gently.

"I understand," Zuko answered with a slight nod. It would not be the first time he had broken some bones.

Katara bit her lip as she gently touched his side. Zuko hissed again, but remained still as Katara continued to press and prod his ribs. She sat back after a moment of examination and she smiled at him in relief.

"It looks like only one rib took the force of the blow. It's fractured, but not broken, though it will take a few days or weeks for it to heal completely," Katara informed him as she reached for more healing lotion and the rough bandages.

"I'm glad," was Zuko's quiet response as he sat motionless while Katara spread the cold salve on his injured side before she wound the bandages snugly around his torso.

Night was approaching by the time Katara finished dressing Zuko's wounds before she began to tend to her own cut and bruises. Though the cut on her neck stung and her cheeks were swollen and they felt like they were on fire, Katara strove to endure the pain as silently as Zuko did his as she smeared the salve on the bruises and bandaged her neck. She could feel Zuko's concerned as well as enraged gaze as he watched her, but she fought to keep from hissing and wincing too much in order not to worry him.

Once she finished, Katara packed everything back into the bag and placed it at her side as she, too, leaned onto the tree to rest. Zuko took a deep breath and then exhaled slowly.

"I'm…sorry," he said softly.

Katara turned to him with a puzzled expression on her face.

"Sorry for what?" she asked.

"I promised to keep you safe, to keep you protected. I promised you and your father that I would not let anything hurt you, and look what happened," he explained dejectedly as he reached a hand to hover over her bruised cheek before he let it fall back down.

Katara grabbed his hand as she shook her head at him. When he turned away from her, Katara reached for his face and gently guided his head so he could look at her again. Though his face did not show what he was feeling, Katara could see the anger and remorse in his amber eyes.

"Don't you go blaming yourself, Zuko," Katara told him with a small smile. "None of this is your fault. You didn't know that everything was a lie and that there was no disease rampaging through the colony."

Zuko pressed his lips tightly together even though it hurt slightly due to the cut dealt by Jianguo. He looked away from Katara's trusting blue orbs and stared at a blank spot over her head.

It is my fault, he thought somberly. It was my affections and feelings for Katara that brought her into their plans, though I still don't know who could have told them that.

"You're still blaming yourself, aren't you?" Katara's accusing voice brought him out of his thoughts and he glanced at her to see her lightly scowl at him before she grinned. "If I'm not allowed to blame myself, then you can't either."

Zuko frowned at her before he scowled playfully when she basically threw his previous words in his face. Katara grinned wider as he smiled at her, but she frowned when he again looked away and his smile disappeared. She knew he was worried about what Jianguo and his men could do to them—mainly what they could do to her—and concerned for the safety of his people and his country if Ozai was ever released from his prison.

"Don't worry, Zuko, everything will be fine," Katara reassured quietly. "The Fire Nation is safe because Uncle Iroh and Chao won't allow these…men to succeed in releasing Ozai."

The young Fire Lord did not reply to her words, but he nodded at her that he heard her. He hoped that what she said was true.

Both looked up as loud footsteps heading their way reached their ears and they tensed when they realized the three men from before were approaching them with plates in their hands and cruel smiles on their faces. Zuko again ignored the pain as he wrapped Katara protectively to his side while he heatedly glowered at them.

"Here's da food fer ya," the large-jawed earthbender spoke as he placed a plate with a few pieces of burnt meat on the ground while the other non-bender threw a small water canteen at them.

"Can't 'ave ya starvin' and droppin' like flies in da middle o' da road," Feng said.

The burly firebender squatted beside Katara and dropped a plate with overcooked rice. He smirked when the water tribeswoman scooted away from him and leaned closer to the captured Fire Lord who growled at him. He ignored them as he reached for a strand of hair that fell down the woman's shoulder and twirled it in his dirty fingers.

"Yah, then ya'll be all tired when we 'ave fun wit ya later on," he said huskily as he patted her cheek.

Katara's eyes widened in horror at the man's suggestive words before she slapped his hand away with an angry hiss. She gasped when she felt Zuko tightened his hold on her waist before he threw her to his other side and away from the rogue.

"I swear I'll break your neck if you touch her again!" Zuko snarled angrily.

The three men laughed loudly before the bulky firebender stood to his feet to loom over them.

"Oh, yah? How ya gonna do dat if ya can't even stand own yer feet?" he sneered tauntingly. "Ya won't be able ta stop meh if I decide ta 'ave me way wit the woman right now!"

As if to prove a point, the man reached down quickly and grabbed hold of the woman's arm. Katara screamed as she latched onto Zuko's neck with her other arm while she tried to keep the man away from her by kicking him. Zuko gritted his teeth as he tightened his hold on Katara's waist before he swung his arm and struck the man's nose. As soon as the man lost his hold on Katara with a painful howl, Zuko pulled her back to his side as he glared furiously at them all.

The older firebender cursed as he raised himself from the ground and gingerly touched his nose while the other two men laughed at him and mocked him that he had been beaten by an injured man. He cursed more loudly when he realized his large nose was broken and blood was pouring down his chin and onto his shirt.

"Ya bastard!" he cursed angrily. "Dat was a lucky shot, but ya won't stop meh from takin' 'er now dat ya pissed me off!"

He lunged at them again, but a stone wall sprang between them and he crashed onto it before landing hard on his back. Katara looked up from burying her face in Zuko's neck in fear while he pressed her closer to him despite his aching ribs. Both watched as Chang once again made his way toward them with a deep scowl on his face. He looked at them impassively and glared at the other two men, who bowed their heads, before he glared down at the firebender groaning on the floor while holding his nose that was bleeding profusely from smashing it on the wall.

"You were supposed to deliver the prisoners their food and then leave them alone. Can't you even do that?" he told them icily. "Go make yourselves useful somewhere else."

The other two men helped the whimpering man up from the ground and quickly retreated to the warmth of the campfire.

"Thank you," Katara whispered as she continued to hold onto Zuko's shirt.

Chang stared down at her and shrugged carelessly.

"I don't condone the violation of women and try to intervene when I can, and though this time I was able to stop them, I can't guarantee that I will always be able to."

"Why do you say that?" Zuko asked as his hold on Katara tightened.

"My job is not to keep an eye on you all the time or keep you safe. I am always needed elsewhere," the thin earthbender solemnly began stated. He looked down into Katara's frightened eyes and added in a low tone, "I also won't be able to do anything if Jianguo decides to have his way with you."

At Katara's horrified gasp, Zuko rubbed her arm soothingly and pressed her head back to his shoulder as he watched Chang leave them without another word. He could feel Katara shaking and her breathing quickening in fear while his own blood ran cold as Chang's words echoed in his head. Dismissing the painful ache at his side, Zuko lifted Katara and placed her on his lap with her legs on one side and her head resting against his neck.

"Don't worry, Katara," he whispered soothingly as he caressed her hair. "Nobody will hurt you. I will find a way for us to escape. Please believe me."

Katara nodded against him as she tried to calm her breathing and her nerves.

"I believe you," she whispered back trustfully.

As long as she remained by Zuko's side nothing would harm her. She felt Zuko run his fingers through her hair and she blushed when she finally realized where she was.

Oh, my gods! I'm sitting on Zuko's lap! she squealed in her head before she sobered up as their situation once again hit her.

Though she knew she should probably move since Zuko was hurt and all, Katara could not find it in herself to give up her position. She relaxed in his hold as his smoky scent filled her senses and his strong heartbeat pulsed in her ear while his warmth surrounded her. Everything that had happened the past few days and hours caught up with her and soon Katara fell into a restless sleep as she snuggled closer to Zuko's chest.

Zuko smiled as he felt Katara relax against him and heard her breathing even out into slumber. He held her to him tenderly as she slept, and even though he was bruised and wounded, he would not let her go and allow anything to hurt her again.

The sun had finally sunk into the horizon, plunging the dark forest into a black pitch. The only light visible was coming from the campfire where a few of the men still sat laughing and drinking. With the sun gone and his inner fire suppressed by the stone manacles, Zuko began to feel cold and helpless. He inwardly cursed Jianguo for their predicament.

He tried to figure out why Jianguo hated him so much. His name did sound a bit familiar, but Zuko could not remember why it did. He hoped that this plan for Ozai's release failed and he prayed that he could find a way for him and Katara to escape so they could make sure the raiders' plan never came to be. He worried that perhaps whoever seemed to have been watching him back in the Fire Nation was now targeting his mother as well and he hoped that Jee was keeping her safe. He also hoped that his uncle did not give up looking for Katara and him.

A cool, spring breeze blew by and Zuko shivered, frowning at the strange sensation of not having his inner fire in his immediate grasp. He looked down at the young woman in his arms and he sighed as he tightened his hold on her protectively while he tried to keep her warm.

I will find a way to get us free even if it kills me.

The following day, at the break of dawn, Zuko and Katara were rudely awaken with shouts, given a meager breakfast consisting of cold rice and a slice of bread, and then forced to walk the entire day until the large group stopped to make camp for the night, all the while ignoring the sneers and crude comments the men hurled their way. This was their routine for the next week and a half.

Zuko's injuries were getting better as time passed and Katara dressed them, while Katara's own bruises had already faded, but the constant walking long distances without being fed properly was taking a toll on them. Jianguo had told them that they were making their way to the village that supposedly had been affected by the disease to prove that they had indeed captured the Fire Lord and would not hesitate to kill him if their demands were not met.

Zuko tightened his grip on Katara's arm as they jumped over a fallen log, making sure to keep her close to his side as the men glanced at her with licentious eyes. They were placed in the middle of the marching men in order to make sure they did not make a run for it. Zuko had tried many times to find some way to escape, but it was so difficult since there were so many of the rebels and they were always kept on watch. Zuko had taken into placing Katara on his lap every night as they settled to sleep so he could make sure she was not snatched away from him without him noticing as well as to soothe her with his presence.

Katara wiped the sweat from her forehead with her arm as they continued on their gruesome pace toward the colony. She hoped that they could get a break soon because her legs felt like they weighed a ton and she was not sure she would be able to keep walking or even remain standing. All she wanted to do was to sleep in a warm and soft bed after taking a long and soothing bath. She had not taken a bath in days and she hated the feel and smell of her hair! But the raiders seemed not to mind the grime that stuck to their clothes and skin, or the stench that clung to them. It was not only that she wanted to get clean, but she missed the feeling of water on her skin, missed the familiar soothing calling of her element.

She had taken to sticking by Zuko's side all the time even to go relieve herself—though she always went behind a bush and he turned his back to her—for fear that the men might try to force themselves on her if she was left alone. At the end of the day, Zuko would always lean against a tree and draw her to his lap while he kept watch. She was extremely grateful for what he did to keep her safe. She loved it when he did that and she wished that the circumstances were different and that he would be tender with her for other reasons.

At the head of the large group, Jianguo paused and held up a hand, signaling for the men to halt. His followers immediately stopped in their march as they looked at their leader for directions.

"Make camp, now," he ordered them without even looking away from staring far ahead of him.

The mass of men scrambled about to obey his orders. Some started to raise tents and others built a campfire while others went to look for small game to eat. A few of the men had already started passing out liquor and were laughing boisterously around the fire. Katara and Zuko dragged themselves to the farthest possible tree away from the rowdy men to rest, and dropped down between its roots with tired groans. An hour later, their food was thrown at them and again they ignored the suggestive remarks that the men gave Katara.

"I'm starting to hate rice," Katara muttered as she set down her empty plate. She scowled when her stomach growled for more food.

"Here," Zuko said as he offered her his piece of bread. "Eat it."

The waterbender shook her head and pushed his hand back.

"No, you need more food to sustain you than I do. Besides, it's not the first time we've gone hungry, right?" She grinned at him as she let her eyes roam over his jaw dusted with light stubble.

Zuko gave her a small smile as he reluctantly took a bite of the stale bread.

"Yeah. Remember that one time after we came back from confronting Yon Rha when Sokka accidently lost the only bag of money we had left?"

"Oh, yeah!" Katara exclaimed. "We had to eat berries and fish for days only to find out that Momo had hid the bag under Appa's saddle!"

She giggled and Zuko chuckled quietly as both tried to think of better times and forget their troubles and the fear for Katara's safety for at least a moment, but their small bout of humor died when Jianguo walked up to them with a gleam in his eyes. Katara attached herself to Zuko's side while he wrapped his arm around her as they eyed the older firebender guardedly.

A wide smirk appeared on Jianguo's face as he stared down at them with his hands clasped behind his back.

"Now, what is it that has caused my precious prisoners to laugh?" he asked sweetly. He chuckled when they pressed their lips together and glared at him. "It doesn't matter. In a couple of days, humor will cease to exist for you both."

"What do you mean by that?" Zuko asked tersely.

"Oh, I didn't tell you?" the middle-aged firebender asked in mock surprise before he let out another cruel chuckle. "We are a week away from the colony and the end of your miserable existence."

"I thought you said that you would let us go in exchange for Ozai's release," Katara spoke up.

Jianguo threw his head back and laughed loudly. A few of his men turned their way and smirked at their leader's amusement. Jianguo leaned down and grinned widely at Katara, who backed away with an angry glare.

"Ah, so astute of you to remember," he cooed at her before he glanced at Zuko with a smirk. "I see you know how to choose your women, Fire Lord Zuko," he mocked. "Not only does she have beauty, but she has a brain, too."

Katara growled under her breath at his remark. Zuko did not reply to his taunt and only intensified his glare. Zuko had tried to tell them that Katara was only his friend and not his lover—though he wished that were true, too—but Jianguo refused to believe that his affection for Katara went beyond the sexual aspect.

"But I guess I forgot to mention that we don't plan in releasing both of you, but of course General Iroh and the rest won't know that," Jianguo stated with a smile.

"Why do you hate me?" Zuko asked suddenly with narrowed eyes.

Jianguo started at the unexpected question as he stared at Zuko with surprised eyes before he composed himself and chuckled deeply.

"It doesn't surprise me that you forgot who I am," Jianguo began before he stood up and flicked his short graying hair over his shoulder.

"You know, I used to be a wealthy and respected nobleman a few years ago, four years ago to be precise. I had everything, riches, titles, friends, and women." He sighed and a faraway look came over his face before it disappeared and he glared hatefully down at Zuko. "But then I lost it all when you became Fire Lord. You were the one that ruined me."

"I still don't see how," Zuko told him.

"Still keeping with the innocent act, aren't you?" Jianguo growled out. "When you called off the war, I lost everything along with my long-life career in the military!"

Zuko's eyes widened as he stared at the angry older man.

"Meng Jianguo. You are General Meng!" he said.

"Ah, so you do remember me!" Jianguo said with a twisted smile. "I was one of the top generals in the Fire Lord's army. But you stripped me of my station and banished me, a few of my comrades, and our soldiers from the Fire Nation! And now here we are living like rats in this foreign land!"

Zuko sat up straight as he stared at Jianguo incredulously.

"Of course you and the rest were banished! You did not accept that the useless war was over. I gave you a choice to keep your military careers, but only if you served under me and my new rule. Instead you and the other group of traitors tried to revolt against me and the Fire Nation!" Zuko exclaimed angrily.

"We are not traitors to the Fire Nation!" Jianguo shouted heatedly. "You are! You are the one who went against our great Lord Sozin's wishes to gain power for our nation! What for? To play hero with a bunch of kids and then become Fire Lord? So you could also fuck this waterbending whore?"

"Leave Katara out of this! She is nothing you think or say she is, so don't you dare insult her and my honor!" Zuko bellowed furiously. "You know perfectly well my reasons for stopping my so-called father from conquering the world, and I won't repeat myself to you. The point is, the war is over and your previous plot to rebel against me failed just as your current plan will fail."

Jianguo's nostrils flared and his hands burst into flames as he glared down at the enraged young Fire Lord holding the Water Tribe wench to his side. The urge to snap the young man's neck was so tempting that Jianguo's hands twitched, but he could feel his men watching them and the way he was allowing Zuko to make him lose his control. With a few deep breaths, the older firebender relaxed his tensed stance as he once again smirked down at the couple huddled together against a tree.

"I may have not succeeded back then, but I assure you that I will now," Jianguo assured confidently before he continued more casually, "Luckily, my situation and hatred toward you reached someone's ears and they gave me the choice to enact my vengeance toward you. They promised me that I will regain all that I had and more once Ozai becomes Phoenix King."

"I won't let you win and destroy the peace I have worked so hard to gain all these years," Zuko retorted just as confidently.

"I won't either," Katara joined in defiantly.

"Ah, such defiance!" Jianguo exclaimed as he let out another laugh before he snapped his hand forward and grasped Katara's chin between his thick fingers.

Katara yelped in surprise before she snatched her head away and slapped his hand while Zuko growled at him not to touch her. The firebender straightened as he smirked down at them with a raised brow.

"Do you really think you can order me around and tell me what I can and can't do? You have no weapons, no bending abilities, and no way to escape," he told them cruelly before his dark, golden eyes settled on Katara's face. "If I wanted to take you now, there is nothing either of you could do to stop me," he said huskily.

Zuko growled at him as he tucked Katara to his side, who had frozen up as the truth rang in her head. If Jianguo decided to force himself on her there was nothing she or Zuko would be able to do to stop him. Nobody would go against him to save her.

Jianguo looked back at Zuko and grinned evilly at him.

"The reason why your waterbender has not been taken yet by my men, who by the way, have not been with a woman in months, is only because of me. So if you don't want me to change my mind, then both of you better sit still and obey me, or else I will be the one to take the waterbender to my tent for some…privacy."

He laughed in cruel satisfaction at their horrified faces before he spun around and walked away, his laughter trailing after him like a plague.

Katara shuddered and buried her head in Zuko's neck. She was terrified and repulsed! She did not want to be forced into having sex with a cruel man! She did not want her first time to be with someone she did not know or loved! She wanted, wished with all her heart, to give her virginity to Zuko and let only him take her body as well as her heart. But if they did not find a way to escape, then she would be defiled in the most brutal of ways!

She started to hyperventilate as her fear soared to great heights and she clung onto Zuko almost desperately. Zuko wrapped his arms around her as his panic began to grow as both Chang and Jianguo's words rang in his head over and over. He felt Katara begin to heave dry sobs and he patted her back in soothing circles.

"Shh, Katara, calm down," Zuko told her gently as he again lifted her and placed her on his lap while he continued to rub her trembling back.

"Zuko, I'm so scared," she whispered in a small voice "I don't…I don't want…to be…t-to be…"

"You won't!" Zuko vowed fervently. "I won't allow anyone to hurt you! I will kill any man who tries!"

Zuko held the frightened woman in his arms as he continued to whisper reassuring words to her. He had to find a way to keep Katara safe. He had to find a way for them to escape immediately.

Five days later found Zuko and Katara whispering quietly between them as they once again came up with plans to escape, but with no luck of finding one that would actually work and not be dangerous. They had both noticed that Jianguo would stare intently at Katara whenever he had the chance. The heated gleam in his eyes would make Katara quake in terror and caused fury to swell in Zuko's chest. They had to find a way to escape, and soon.

They were all currently camped beside a small stream, which the men utilized to fill their canteens with water. Katara could hear the sound of the tinkling water and something inside her dimmed at the longing she felt of being reconnected to her cool and soothing element. Both she and Zuko had tried to break the stone bracelets and forced themselves to bend water or fire, but their chi was securely blocked. Katara briefly wondered if perhaps this was how Aang felt when his chakra had been blocked almost four years ago that now seemed like centuries ago. How she wished they could be back in that time where they had just been a group of friends trying to save the world. She missed her family and she hated the thought of how worried her family and Zuko's would be when news reached them that she and Zuko were being held hostage.

The waterbender felt Zuko reach for her hand and she looked up to see his warm, golden eyes staring into her blue ones. He gave her an understanding smile, which she returned with a small one of her own.

"I miss my mother and Uncle Iroh," he confessed quietly. "But we'll see our family soon," he promised her.

"I know," Katara replied with another small smile. "I just wished we were with them now."

Zuko nodded at her before he began to run his thumb on the back of her hand in gentle strokes. Katara looked at their hands with a blush before she glanced at him curiously.

"Once we escape Jianguo and his men and we return to our families, I will finally tell you something that I have kept inside me for a very long time," he told her quietly as he looked away from their joined hands to stare intensely into Katara's brilliant cobalt eyes.

Katara tilted her head to the side and frowned.

"Why can't you tell me now?" she asked.

"I wish I could…you have no idea how many times I've tried, but…what I have to tell you is something important, something special that I want it to be said without the fear of not knowing what will happen to us if Jianguo wakes up in a foul mood," Zuko replied quietly.

So I won't have to deal with fear as well as disappointment and sadness if you reject my feelings for you, he added mentally.

"Okay, then I'll wait to tell you something important, too," Katara told him with another blush on her cheeks as she held his intense gaze.

Their attention to each other was interrupted when a shadow fell down on them. Both tensed as they looked up to see who it was, but relaxed slightly when they realized it was Chang carrying their meager meal. The former Dai Li agent placed their plates of food near their feet without even glancing their way before he stood to leave without saying one single word.

"Wait!" Katara called out.

She licked her lips nervously when Chang turned his head back to raise an eyebrow at her while Zuko looked at her with a frown.

"You were a Dai Li agent," she began, "Why are you willing to help Jianguo and the others take over the world?"

Chang twisted around to face her fully as he looked down at her with a deep frown on his stony face. His long braid swished as he moved and settled over his shoulder as he remained silent, almost as if contemplating her question. It was some time before he finally opened his thin lips to speak.

"Some of us don't care who wins as long as we get paid," he said tonelessly.

"You're getting paid for all of this?" Zuko asked incredulously.

Chang shrugged as he placed his hands inside his sleeves.

"Thanks to your sister, the Dai Li have no place to go. When she fell into insanity…" he paused when Zuko flinched, "we were already banished from Ba Sing Se for siding with the enemy and for lying to the Earth King about the war. He and everyone else did not trust us any longer, so we had no place to call home. But then Jianguo found us and gave us the choice of siding with him in exchange for money. Money that will double once Ozai rules again. Many of the earthbenders that are gathered here are also in for the money and don't care who is the one who gives it to them."

"How are you being paid if Jianguo was stripped from all of his wealth?" Zuko asked.

"I don't know and I don't really care," Chang answered truthfully.

"How can you say that?!" Katara exclaimed. "The Earth Kingdom will be burn to the ground, people will die if Ozai came to power again!"

Chang pressed his thin lips together and his face seemed to harden into stone.

"Eat your food before it gets cold," he ordered passively as he turned to leave, but not after leaving a few parting words, "If both Jianguo and I leave the group there will be nothing to restrain the men from doing what they want."

Katara trembled and Zuko tensed at his warning. They glanced at each other for a moment before Zuko reached for their plates and quietly handed Katara her own. Katara muttered her thanks as she took the plate before they began to eat the food in slow bites. They were silent as they ate, each lost in their own thoughts.

The moon had risen in the sky and darkness had settled in as the men continued to throw jokes at each other while taking large gulps of liquor from their flasks. More wood was added to the campfire and sparks flew up into the dark night.

Zuko was leaning against a large rock with Katara once again sitting on his lap as she began to doze off. He once again scanned his surroundings and cursed inwardly when he found that another group of men had been posted to keep watch over them. If only he had his firebending, he would be able to create a wall of flames that would buy them enough time to make an escape into the thick forest.

He was brought out of his thoughts as his attention was caught when Jianguo stepped out of his tent and walked to the middle of the campsite with his wide chest facing the campfire. The loud commotion died down as everybody gathered to hear what their leader was going to say.

"As you all already know we are three days away from the Fire Nation colony where the supposed disease had been spreading," he stated loudly with a large smirk. A few chortles resounded at his words.

"Tomorrow, I will take a few men to scout the area and see what is going on in the village and if any news has reached them to cause them to increase their guard. Once I see that everything is as it should be, we will return here and bring the Fire Lord back to the village."

A few men sneered at the word Fire Lord and threw Zuko dirty looks.

"Once our demand for our true lord, Ozai, is met we will have our revenge and our fortunes restored!" Jianguo shouted and the rest shouted along with him, raising their fists into the air.

"In the meantime, the rest of you will stay here to make sure the young lord and his waterbender are kept completely safe," he said mockingly and the men chuckled evilly. "So rest up, for tomorrow will bring our glory!"

More cries rang out as Jianguo moved away from the campfire. His dark eyes fixated on Zuko's as he made his way to them in a smooth and confident stride. Zuko tensed and he brought Katara closer to his chest. Sensing Zuko's unease, Katara's eyes flew open in alarm. She stiffened as she saw Jianguo heading their way with his usual cruel smirk on his lips.

"I just came to warn you that there is no way of escape. If my men catch you trying to run away they have orders to...harm your pretty wench," he informed Zuko in sadistic glee.

He bent down to their level and patted Katara's leg. Katara immediately tensed at the unwanted touch and Zuko moved her away from his lap to sit beside him. Jianguo just chuckled before he locked gazes with Katara.

"I will be back in a few days," he said huskily. "And maybe I will finally see what you have that has attracted the Fire Lord so much."

Katara glared at him indignantly, though inwardly she was trembling in fear.

"You won't get away with it," Zuko growled at him.

"Oh, but I will," Jianguo answered with a smirk. "And I will be looking forward with relish to the occasion."

He grinned at Katara as he licked his dry and chapped lips before he stood up and walked away.

Without another word, Jianguo left the campsite the following day in the early hours of dawn, with Chang and most of his men following quickly behind him. The rest, about ten of them, stayed at the camp to wait for their return and watch over their important prisoners. However, as the sun rose higher in the sky, the men forgot the gravity of the situation and began to bring out their liquor and exchange jokes and exaggerated stories of their triumphs and valor.

Though it seemed like their cheerfulness would make them forget their orders, Zuko was displeased to find out that it was not so. A group of three men would occasionally stand guard of them while they taunted them with roasted pieces of meat before they changed places with another group of equally loud men. Zuko was angry to see that Jianguo had been right about there being no way to escape. He was afraid that if they tried, the men will not hesitate to follow Jianguo's orders to violate Katara, but he was desperate to flee with her for the warning that Chang had given them would not leave his mind and continued to torture him as the days went by.

Katara and Zuko ate the food that was thrown at them and silently ignored the men who made it their entertainment to hurl insults at them. They were relieved when noon approached and the temperature increased almost to the point that the forest felt like it was an oven for the men backed away to sit lazily under the shade of some trees while others splashed water on their faces at the small stream. Katara eyed them enviously for she longed to feel the clean water on her sweaty and grimy skin.

"Care ta join us fo' a dip in da wa'er?" Xiao's husky voice brought them out of their thoughts. "'Tis a hawt day afta all."

Katara glared at him as she moved closer to Zuko.

"I think not," was her cold response.

Xiao shrugged while Feng and Ping snickered behind his back.

"Suit yerself then. I just wanted ta be nice and let ya cool off cuz of 'tis awfel wea'er."

"I'm sure that's what was on your mind," Zuko gritted out sarcastically as he laid an arm around Katara's shoulders.

Xiao turned to glare at him as he touched his still sore nose before he grinned cruelly. He raised one palm and lit it before he juggled the flame to his other hand.

"So how das it feels ta see da fiyer, but not be able ta bend it?" he taunted sadistically.

Zuko narrowed his eyes at him, but remained silent. Katara glared at the chuckling firebender hatefully as she placed a comforting hand on Zuko's arm.

"How can you be able to go along with Jianguo?" Katara asked in order to divert Xiao's attention away from Zuko. "You're all working for a wrong cause and are harming a lot of people!"

"Wat do we care 'bout 'em?" Feng spoke up and spat on the ground. "We 'ave our own mis'ries ta look afta!"

"Yah! We 'ave ta look afta ar own int'rests!" Ping piped in.

The three rebels turned their heads behind them when the others began to call for them to join them in a drinking round.

"If ya'll excuz us," Xiao said in a fake cordial tone as he gave them a mocking bow, "We'll be back la'er!"

The trio snickered as they turned to leave. Once they disappeared among their other comrades after taking a few cups of liquor, Katara and Zuko breathed out a small sigh of relief as they leaned back against the tree.

"I can't believe how cruel and selfish they are!" Katara exclaimed as she turned to look at Zuko with furrowed eyebrows.

Zuko pressed his lips together as he glared at the circle of the men who continued laughing and drinking while occasionally turning to throw sneers at them. He wrapped his arm around Katara and pressed her to his side so she could lean her head on his shoulder.

"They will get what they deserve," was his quiet response as he gave her a tiny squeeze.

Katara returned his squeeze by pressing her head closer to his hard shoulder, but she did not say anything as she looked away from the merry men to stare at the small stream that she could barely make out from where she was sitting with Zuko.

The sun was a few hours away from setting when the men began to get restless and started to bicker loudly with each other. Zuko and Katara huddled closer together when fists started to fly and curses and insults were thrown around.

Zuko watched as the group that had been standing guard over them rushed over to see what the commotion was about and he felt his hope grow. He discreetly glanced around and was glad to see that nobody was paying any attention to them. This was it. It was time for them to make a run for freedom. He grabbed Katara's hand and she turned away from frowning at the fighting men to look at him.

Katara opened her mouth to ask what was wrong, but quickly closed it when Zuko pressed his index finger to his lips as a sign to tell her to be quiet. For a moment, Katara remembered the time Zuko had done the same thing back in Ba Sing Se, only that back then his finger had been pressed against the Blue Spirit's demonic lips. She saw him motioned around them, and with a puzzled expression, she took a moment to examine their surroundings. A smile broke through her face once she realized what Zuko was trying to tell her. Zuko leaned down close to her ear and Katara shivered as his warm breath coasted along her skin.

"It's not a well thought out plan, but it's the only thing I got," Zuko whispered in her ear. "We will try to sneak into the bushes as silently as possible and, once we are a few feet away where they can't hear us too well, we'll run like the demons themselves are after us."

Katara nodded that she understood and smiled at him once he pulled back. Zuko gave her a small nod and once again squeezed her hand. She squeezed it back before she made to rise to her feet. She had taken two steps forward when a silent gasp escaped her as Zuko suddenly pulled on her wrist so fast that she fell back down to the ground. She was about to scowl at him, but she did not get a chance to give him a piece of her mind for Zuko grabbed her around the waist and pulled her back onto his lap. She heard him curse under his breath and she looked around a bit disoriented. To her utter disappointment, she saw that the fight had stopped and the same men from before were returning to their spots.

Zuko pretended to be busy smoothing down Katara's brown hair when the men gave them suspicious looks. He felt his anxiety grow at the thought that they realized Katara and he were about to escape, but he relaxed slightly when they sat back down a couple of feet away from them. He cursed their luck, for now he was not sure if another chance for escape would present itself.

"Shet up all o' ya!" a large man, almost the size of a small platypus-bear, bellowed as a few men continued to squabble. "We're all pissy and ya know why?"

"Yah, cuz we 'aven't been wit a woman since fo'eva!" another man shouted and the rest agreed with him with loud hoots.

Katara felt the blood drain from her face and she gasped, burying herself closer to Zuko.

"Those bastards!" Zuko growled angrily as he cradled Katara closer to him. He had a feeling he knew what the men were up to and he knew that Katara was aware since she had begun to tremble.

The group of men exchanged some whistles and more crude remarks before they all turned to stare at the only woman in their mists with devious intent in their eyes. They laughed when she huddled closer to the angry Fire Lord. Everything was quiet, even the rustling of the leaves was not heard, while the men licked their lips in anticipation. Feng was the one to approach first and he smirked when his comrades cheered him on.

Zuko lifted Katara from his lap and they scrambled to their feet to face the non-bender. Zuko protectively pushed Katara to stand behind him as he straightened himself to his full, intimidating height. He was satisfied to find that he dwarfed the non-bender by a full head.

"Keep away from her!" Zuko warned menacingly as his lips curled into a snarl that made his scarred side look more terrifying.

Feng's stride faltered for a moment before his confidence flared back when the men continued to encourage him on.

"And wat are ya gonna do if I don't?" he taunted with a large smirk. "I'm gonna enjoy meself wit da wa'erbenda while ya watch wat I do ta 'er!"

Feng lunged forward with a raised fist in order to knock down his only obstacle to get to the woman, but Zuko easily grabbed the arm aimed at his face and threw his own fist forward to punch Feng's stomach. The man doubled over and wheezed, but before he could straighten himself out, Zuko grabbed onto the back of his shirt and threw him to the side. The other men cursed and yelled at Feng to stand up and fight back.

"I may not have my firebending, but I can still fight," Zuko growled as the man groaned on the hard floor. "I will not hesitate to kill anyone who tries to lay a hand on her."

From her hiding place between Zuko and the tree, Katara peeked up at Zuko's furious face at the words he uttered and she was convinced that he would keep his vow. She felt a small shiver run down her spine at the darkness in Zuko's voice. She shifted on her feet anxiously, wishing there was something she could do to help Zuko, something she could do to defend herself. But she depended heavily on her waterbending to fight, so all she could do now was rely on Zuko's protection, much to her frustration.

Feng hurled a few expletives as he staggered to his feet.

"Oh, shet up!" he yelled at the men who had begun to laugh and jeer at him for being so weak. He turned back to the glaring Fire Lord and smirked. "Why don't ya prove it?" he shouted.

Katara tensed as Feng sprang at Zuko again. He threw a blow at Zuko's jaw, but the firebender sidestepped his attack and struck him hard across the face. Feng stumbled back as he held onto his aching jaw. He turned his head to the side and spat out blood, only to cry out in anger when a few teeth flew out of his mouth and landed on the ground.

"I'll kill ya fer dat!" he screamed as he pulled out his sword from its sheath on his back and swung at him.

"Zuko, watch out!" Katara shrieked in fright when Zuko leapt forward.

Feng sliced downward, but Zuko evaded the pathetic attack and managed to land a few more blows to the angry non-bender's unprotected side. Feng yelped, but he turned around and slashed at Zuko again. Being a master swordsman, Zuko expected the attack, so he flipped over the non-bender's head and kicked his back, causing the man to lose his balance and fall to the ground once again. Zuko landed lightly on his feet and quickly took his protective stance in front of the wide-eyed Katara.

"How pathetic," Zuko commented impassively as he stared down at Feng. "No wonder you were all driven from my colonies with such terrible fighting skills. I'm surprised Jianguo still keeps you around."

The group of men bristled at the insult while Feng jumped to his feet with an angry growl. He brandished his sword in the air, and with a cry, Feng rushed forward again.

Zuko smirked as he sprang forward to meet him, but his eyes widened in horror when Feng swerved around him and raced toward Katara with his sword raised high and a cruel smirk on his face. Zuko spun around, but he knew he would not make it in time.

"Katara! Move!" he shouted as he watched Feng swing at her.

Katara tore her eyes away from Zuko and gasped when she saw that Feng was coming toward her. She watched as he brought down his sword and she flung herself to the side, but she was not quick enough. A pained cry escaped her as the sword slashed across her stomach before she landed hard on her hands and knees.

A look of horror swept across Zuko's face as he saw the sword rip Katara's shirt in a clean, horizontal line before blood started to seep out.

"Katara! No!" he cried out as he raced forward to go to her.

An angry snarl escaped his throat when a few men leapt forward and held him back. He rounded on them with vicious strikes, but the massive man from before grabbed his arms and twisted them behind him until Zuko let out a pained hiss.

Zuko looked up to see Katara clutch her stomach before she raised her bloody hands to her eyes. Her hands began to tremble as she stared at them before she looked away to look at him with wide and shocked eyes. Zuko watched as her small hands dropped to the floor and her face paled before she fell to her side. He remained frozen in shock at the sight of Katara's blue shirt turning a dark crimson while her blood pooled onto the ground beneath her. He heard the men laugh cruelly around him and he watched as Feng approached Katara and poked her leg with his foot.

"Ta bad we didn't git ta enjoy 'er," Feng lamented before he laughed with the rest as he moved to joined them.

Something in Zuko snapped as he watched the manner in which they were disrespecting the woman he loved while she lay in pain, bleeding on the forest floor. His blood started to pound in his ears as his rage rose to dangerous levels. He could feel his fury boiling inside him until it began to grow into an intense inferno.

I will make them pay! I will make their blood run for daring to spill Katara's! Zuko thundered in his head as the heat festered inside to the point that he saw red. The air around him began to grow extremely hot as steam began to rise from his body and swirled around his trembling form in a smoldering heat.

With an enraged roar, Zuko threw his head back and spewed a column of white fire from his mouth while the stone manacles encircling his wrists shattered and flew in every direction.

The unexpected burst of flame caught the large man holding him back right on the face. The man released him and he let out a scream of agony as his whole body caught on fire. The men scattered away as he ran towards them in search of help, but he crashed into a tree in his frantic search. He was dead before a firebender finally went to him to extinguish the fire.

The stunned men turned back toward the infuriated Fire Lord crouching protectively over the injured woman with blazing hands alight with white fire—the hottest part of a flame. He was panting heavily as he glared at them all with such malevolence that it made the hairs on the back of their necks stand on end.

"Git 'im!" Xiao shouted and the nine remaining rushed forward to avenge their fallen comrade.

Zuko moved away from Katara and swiftly met them halfway. Katara watched from the ground as Zuko spun in the air, and with a fiery kick, he was able to slash the first two men that advanced on him. The white arc of flame that erupted from his kick seared through clothes, flesh, and bones as if they were made of butter. The two men screamed in torment while blood and intestines spurted everywhere, staining the grass and the trees before the men lifelessly fell to the ground. Zuko uncaringly stepped over them as he then threw a large blast of white fire that consumed two more men instantly. Their charred corpses dropped to the floor like burning stones.

A sword was thrust to his chest, but Zuko flipped backwards, kicking the rusty sword out of a small man's hands. The sword scattered to the floor and slid a few feet away, but before the stout man could scramble after it, Zuko wrapped his arm around his neck and twisted. A loud crack was heard before Zuko dropped the dead man unceremoniously to the hard ground.

A large rock struck him from the back and sent him crashing to the floor, but Zuko swiftly regained his feet and ignored the pain in his blinding rage. He turned to face the earthbender who had attacked him and he growled when he recognized Ping positioned in a horse stance a few feet away. Remembering the revolting comments Ping had also thrown at Katara, Zuko felt his fury flare to an almost unbearable level. With a snarl, Zuko spun around and a large tendril of white fire encircled him before he lashed it out toward Ping. The earthbender summoned a stone wall before him to block the attack, but the fire blast broke through the wall and struck Ping on his chest, hurling him through the air until he crashed into a tree.

Xiao and another firebender stepped forward and began to run around Zuko while shooting fire from their hands. Through her intense pain, Katara gasped in fear as Zuko disappeared inside a tornado of fire and she felt her eyes sting with tears, but a white explosion of fire dispelled the orange flames and engulfed the two men. Their screams rang into the dark forest as their flesh melted from their bodies and their blood burst from their veins, their unrecognizable forms falling to the floor in black heaps of charred carcasses.

Clutching her bleeding stomach and whimpering in pain, Katara watched as Zuko emerged from the fire with an enraged snarl still in place, staring down at the two dead men with fire still burning in his hands. She had seen Zuko fight many times before, but she had never seen him be so ruthless. The horror in her stare was mixed with admiration.

Being the last one standing, Feng gulped when the furious Fire Lord leveled his livid gaze on him. With a loud cry, Feng raced at him in an attempt to kill with his sword raised high in the air. He swung it horizontally, but Zuko crouched to the ground, and with a spin, kicked Feng's legs right from under him. Feng cried out as he tumbled down.

Before the man could stand up, Zuko sprang at him, snatched the sword from his hands, and grabbed him by the neck. Zuko lifted the shorter man up by the throat and snarled in his face. Feng coughed and wheezed as the hand tightened around his throat and blocked his air supply. He clawed at Zuko's hands, but Zuko held firm.

"Don't kill meh! 'Ave mercy on meh, please!" Feng pleaded in a choked gasp.

"You should have thought of that before harming what is mine!" Zuko growled at him. "None of you deserve any mercy from me!"

Zuko raised the sword with his left hand, and without a second thought, plunged it right through Feng's stomach. Feng cried out before he let out a loud scream when the sword was twisted until it broke right through his back. Blood spilled from his mouth and a gurgling sound escaped his lips before Zuko dropped him to the floor where his blood continued to flow and his eyes glazed over in death. Zuko did not pay any attention to this, however, as he raced toward Ping who was trying to lift himself from the floor.

Ping cried out as he was pinned to the ground with his face to the dirt. He was lifted harshly from the ground and dragged a few paces to where the waterbender lay in pain. Ping was about to lift his hands to bend, but he tensed when he felt a sharp metal at the back of his neck.

"Release the stone bracelets around Katara's wrists, now!" Zuko ordered harshly.

The earthbender nodded vigorously before he flicked his wrists and the stone cuffs around Katara's wrists fell to the ground. With the hilt of the sword, Zuko drew a harsh blow at Ping's head, rendering him unconscious. Zuko threw the sword away and dashed to Katara's side, dropping himself heavily on his knees beside her.

His rage lowered down into a simmer as his worry and anxiety grew as his eyes landed on Katara's silent form. Her once tanned skin was pallid, her cobalt eyes were closed with a few remaining tears gathered on her dark lashes, her now colorless lips were slightly parted, and the lower half of her blue shirt was drenched in her blood.

Zuko felt his breathing quicken and his heart pounding fast in his chest as panic and dread spread through his body. He reached a trembling hand to her cheek as fear seized his heart.

"Katara?" he called out softly as he caressed her skin. "Katara? Please…say something."

He felt instant relief and he sighed heavily when Katara fluttered her eyes open and gave him a shaky smile when she saw him, which then turned into a grimace as the pain increased. A whimper escaped her and a few more tears ran down her face, leaving a trail down her cheeks.

"Katara!" Zuko exclaimed in alarm as he pressed his hand against her stomach in an attempt to stanch the flow of blood. "Please hold on! I'll get you to water!"

He pressed her hands to her bleeding abdomen and told her to keep them there. Zuko gingerly picked her up, but froze when she let out loud whimper of pain.

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry," Zuko chanted against her hair. "I need to get you to the stream so you can heal yourself."

Katara moaned in pain, but nodded that she understood. Zuko secured his hold on her and quickly made his way away from the bloody scene and to the clean stream. He cringed when he felt her blood run down his arms. He swiftly and carefully made his way until he finally arrived at the edge of the calm brook. Without any hesitation, Zuko strode into the water, but the stream was small and shallow, so he had to sit on the smooth stones at the bottom. He shivered slightly when the chilly water touched him, but he ignored the discomfort as he placed Katara on his lap so that the water could reach her. The water around them instantly turned red before pink ribbons of blood floated down the current.

Zuko looked back down at Katara and his fear once again surfaced when he saw that her eyes were closed. He gently patted her cheek to get her to open her eyes again.

"Katara?" he said softly as he tried to keep his anguish under control. "We're in the stream. You can heal yourself now."

Katara heard what he said even though she knew they were in water. Once her bending was restored she could feel her element call out to her, but she was so tired…so sleepy.

"Come on, Katara!" Zuko called out a bit more loudly. He gathered water into one of his hands and let it trickle down her face to encourage her, but Katara did not stir.

"Katara, heal your wound!" he said forcefully.

Katara opened her eyes to look at him. She heard the desperation in his deep voice and saw the anxiety on his face, and it pained her to cause him such concern, knowing that it will cause him sorrow when she left him. She knew she had lost too much blood, she could feel herself weakening, her life slipping away. A small part of her wondered if perhaps she would be able to be reunited with her mother.

She heard Zuko call out to her again, but his voice sounded so far away and she could barely keep her eyes open to stare into the face of the man she had come to love. It saddened her to know that she never had the chance to confess to him what he really meant to her, how much she loved him. She reached a trembling hand to cup his cheek, feeling the light stubble tickle her fingers, and she gave him another small smile.

Zuko grabbed her small hand and leaned into her touch, pressing her hand closer to his cheek.

"Start healing yourself, Katara! Please!" he pleaded desperately.

He saw her smile at him once more before she closed her beautiful, sapphire eyes and let out a soft sigh. Her hand slipped from his grasp, her head lolled to the side, and her breathing halted. Zuko's breath hitched in his throat and he felt his heart stopped cold in his chest.

"Katara? Katara!" Zuko cried out in horror as he grasped onto her hand again.

No, no, no, no!

He pressed his ear to her mouth, but he did not feel her sweet breath coasting over his skin. He then pressed his ear to her chest, but he could not hear the beating of her heart.

"No!" he shouted as he clutched her body to him. "Katara, wake up! Don't you dare die on me!"

Zuko pulled back and smoothed Katara's hair out of her serene face as he waited for her to respond, but when she didn't, he crushed her limp body to his once again as he began to rock back and forth in his anguish. Tears fell down unchecked from his good right eye and landed on her skin as Zuko buried his head on her neck.

Sobs threatened to fight their way out from the back of his dry throat, scorching him raw and leaving him gasping. He reared his head back.

"Katara!" he screamed into the night as he continued to hold onto her limp body.

A distressed, choking sound fell from his lips. A desperate sound that surfaced from his very soul as he struggled to realized it all. All that he had lost, all that he would never gain, and all that he would never have.

Tears still running down his face, Zuko cried quietly against her neck as he continued to hold Katara's cold body close to his own.

"Katara, don't leave me," he whispered despairingly in her ear, "I can't live without you! I don't want to live without you! Please, come back to me…"

Gasping brokenly, he pressed his lips against her skin.

"Katara…I love you."

End of Part Three

A/N: Ahh, evil cliffy!