Title: Captive Audience
Rating: T (rating will go up)
Summary: After taking the scarred Prince up on his offer to be their captive in the Western Air Temple, Katara finds she has been assigned the most unpleasant job imaginable.
Note: This fic runs under the assumption that the Gaang took Zuko prisoner when he offered himself up in the Western Air Temple.
Disclaimer: Avatar is owned by Bryke and Nick. Not me. I know right? Wtf. I am not making any money on this, I do not claim these characters as my own, it's purely fan made.
He could hear them talking from where he sat on the stone, the doors were not that thin. He pressed his ear to it, and kept his eyes closed, listening to the unfolding argument. The new boy, Katara, and her brother were bickering loudly. The water bender, however was yelling the loudest of the three, and kept stomping her foot petulantly.
"Haru should do it!! He is a bender!!" She sounded flaming mad, she had sounded that way all afternoon. First she had threatened him when he knelt, and then hit him with a torrent of water. then the earth bender girl, Toph had talked them into at least keeping him prisoner and thinking about his offer of fire bending. To which Katara had yelled some more about how they couldn't trust him, and Toph yelled back that she shouldn't let her personal feelings get in the way of doing what's right for the majority. Zuko sensed the two girls butted heads often, and was grateful that a mustached older boy and a face painted younger one led him to the storeroom to wait.
"You all drew straws, You, Toph, and Haru You got the short end." Her brother was saying, trying to sound reasonable.
"I know, but, It's Zuko! He's a disgusting miserable excuse for a human being!"
"We all know how you feel, Katara."
"He said he was trying to change." It was the new boy talking again, "And he hasn't tried to escape . . . He hasn't fire bent, he hasn't even argued, I think he really wants to help."
"How long is this going to take, anyways?"
"The Duke and I are going into the jungle hunting because I guess we'll have to feed him, Teo, Toph and Haru will work on designing a cage, and Aang-"
"Aang get's NOWHERE near him." He heard Katara hiss with such venom that he cringed.
"I know, you said that already. Aang said he would break down his campsite and fly his things over on Appa. Come on Katara, fair is fair," Zuko never really gave her brother credit, he had not seemed important as he was not a bender and not really a threat, but he was truly proving his mettle standing up to his enraged sister.
"If you really want me to, I can, I've never met a prince before." The brown haired boy with the mustache interjected, his voice small.
They had temporarily locked the prince inside what appeared to be some sort of storage room. There were stone slabs on the floor meant to hold bags of rice or something, and holes in the wall where he assumed wooden shelves had once sat, though they had long ago rotted to dust. There was one small window with bars on it, very high up, designed to keep both rodents and birds out, but still let in enough light to see clearly. A few abandoned, tattered woven sacks hung about, long since picked clean by the vermin and parasites that moved into the temple after the air benders were massacred.
"Yes, that would be great, how many Earth benders does it take to build a cage anyways?!" She was fuming, but he could hear the desperation in her voice.
"Just one that can see the designs that Teo sketches." Her brother again, "Haru has to be there."
"That's not fair!!" Something banged, she had punched the door.
"It is too fair, and it's just a couple hours, come on, you were alone with him under Ba Sing Se for much longer!"
"What about Toph?"
"After the fight you just had with her about whether or not to lock him up, I doubt she will be willing to do YOU any favors. Katara, you knocked each other into the fountain! Haru and I had to haul you off of each other." Sokka sounded almost amused, and Zuko wished he could have seen it. The little earth bending girl had seemed very cool and practical. Plus, like any man, he was a fan of watching soaking wet, pretty girls wrestle.
"Katara, it's got to be either you or Aang." Haru's voice came again, and the ultimatum seemed to work. Katara would do almost anything to protect the Avatar, they all knew it.
"Fine!!" She threw the door open.
Zuko dodged back narrowly missing getting slammed in the head by it, and he scrambled backwards trying to get out of her war path, his eyes wide.
"Just hurry it up Sokka!!" She slammed the door in her brother's face, and locked it, tucking the key down the front of her blue top. There was a pair of shackles on her hip that looked like something out of the dark ages before fire bending, she had several skins of water slung over her arms, and was clad in her tribe armor, as though she was expecting a fight.
A rough one.
Zuko looked down and away, eye contact seemed like a very foolish idea at that point. In fact, anything that might remotely be interpreted as a challenge was best to be avoided.
In his peripheral vision, he saw her shift and cross her arms, her eyes boring holes into the side of his face. He tried to ignore her at first, but that only seemed to make her madder, so he turned his head and nodded a bit, without looking at her. A gesture to respectfully acknowledge she was there, but not in any way meant to provoke her. He saw her shift from leg to leg, and her scowl deepened.
"I bet you think you're pretty smart, huh?" Her voice cut harshly through the silence.
"No." Zuko muttered, the idea of trying to help the Avatar was rapidly looking stupider and stupider. In fact, the perceived stupidity of the idea increased proportionately to how mad she looked.
"I bet you have some sort of plan all worked out." She waved an arm wildly, and began to pace the room, "Gain our trust, become our friends, then suddenly, you go and betray us and drag the Avatar back to your capital to be executed!!"
"No, Katara," he mumbled slowly, "I want to set things right."
"You're not fooling me!!" Katara did not appear to be listening to him, "You're not fooling anyone!! You're just a one trick pony, and I have already seen the show!! I'll never let you get close enough to Aang to do anything! We're just using you to teach him fire bending! You're not one of us!!"
Zuko didn't respond, he crossed his legs and slumped. It would be a long few hours if she insisted on talking through it the whole time, and longer if she did not. The rant seemed to be over, and Katara slumped onto one of the stones and simmered, her icy blue eyes fixed on him.
The minutes crawled by slowly, one after another, and finally, he dared a glance at her. She was still glaring at him from where she sat on one of the stone slabs. He wondered if she had even blinked.
"Don't talk to me!" She bit out hatefully, cutting him off, "You are not good enough to talk to me."
Her tone of voice made it very clear that she believed it to be true.
Zuko dropped his gaze and turned away, the girl was one nice pair of pointed toed shoes away from a fire nation noblewoman. He wondered how a peasant could act so much like a haughty aristocrat without ever having met one. They lapsed into silence again, and Zuko watched the shadows in the room slowly shift and crawl by, minutes lapsed into hours. How long could it take to build a fire proof cage? The thought made him shiver. He didn't like the idea of being a prisoner, but it had been a last resort, and apparently, the only way the small group would take him.
It wasn't like he was a stranger to the notion. He had been a prisoner in many ways all his life. He just could never seem to find the bars to the cage until the eclipse. It had been liberating to shatter through them, to stand up to his father, to break out of his mental confinement, and now, it was horridly disheartening to find himself encaged again.
At least this time he could see the bars. They were sitting across the way from him, glaring moodily, and chewing on their lower lip. It was nerve wracking, her penetrating eyes had not moved from him, and he was uncomfortable with getting watched for so long. He had been stared at for the last two years of his life, largely due to his disfigurement, and he carefully turned his head so that she could only see his good side. It was clear that she was not staring at his scar, she and his scar were well acquainted, and she was the only woman in the world who he had allowed to touch it besides Mai. It made him feel better though, slightly less vulnerable, slightly less self conscious. It was hard to believe that the same girl who had caressed him so compassionately under Ba Sing Se was the same one that was staring at him with obvious revulsion. He had really fucked it up big time.
"You know." She sounded a little less angry, the passion in her voice had turned to dull hatred, "If it was up to me, you wouldn't be here at all, you're lucky that Aang wants you, I would have thrown you into the river."
"I'm very sorry Katara. My behavior was inexcusable."
She stood up and took a aggressive step forward, a fist raised as she yelled, "You think you can just fix it with an APOLOGY?! Well you can't!! Aang could have died because of you!!! I'll be watching you're every move, you give me the slightest reason to think that you're going to hurt him, and I will personally see to it that you never have to worry about your honor again. I will end you!"
Zuko nodded numbly, he didn't doubt it. He cringed as she took another step forward and uncorked her water skin, expecting a blow, or a torrent of freezing water, but she only laughed superiorly.
"You're pathetic, you know that?" She waved her hands, gesturing wildly, "I remember when I first met you. I was terrified of you, no, I was petrified of you. You were this great big brute of a man vomiting fire and violence, threatening us defenseless women . . . and now? Now you're nothing! You're just a washed up prince who doesn't know who he is or what he wants, and everyone, EVERYONE, his family, his friends, everyone he's ever MET hates him."
Zuko looked up, the insult hitting too close to home for comfort, "I gave up my title to come here and help the Avatar. I gave up everything." He defended.
She didn't acknowledge his case, only muttered "Face it Prince Zuko, you're a failure."
Although it was true in a way, it was still uncalled for, Zuko's temper flared, and he jumped up, his fists balling. Before he could shout back though, something slammed into his chest like a kick from an ostrich horse, and he found himself frozen to the wall, the wind knocked out of him. He gasped, but could barely breathe due to the ice's constricting hold on his ribcage.
Katara stood across from him, another skin opened, a water whip snaking out, ready to attack should he try to melt the ice.
"I'm not here to fight you." He reminded her breathlessly; he left the ice alone, although it stung his bare skin. She would unfreeze it soon, he trusted, the group would be annoyed with her if the only fire bender around lost all his fingers to frostbite and was unable to teach.
"Well maybe I want to fight!" She poked at his face with a finger, not actually touching him, "Maybe I think we need to finish what we started under Ba Sing Se!!"
"I refuse to fight an ally over her injured pride." He stated, bending his skin warmer to try to compensate for the chill of the ice. It sounded crazy to him anyways, but he had learned long ago that girls were pretty crazy, plus he didn't think that now was the best time for any such interaction.
The ice encasing him melted suddenly and yanked away.
"You think I have a wounded PRIDE?!" She swept her arm, and the water whip struck him across the chest, ramming him backwards into the wall, "I am NOT the one who has the surplus on THAT particular personality trait, Prince Zuko!!" She spat his name out like it was something vile.
Zuko held up his hands, trying to pacify her, "I am deeply ashamed of my actions and will never repeat them. I will be loyal to the Avatar from now on, please forgive me." He repeated, pleading to the spirits that she would calm down, he was sure he would have to take a beating from her if she worked herself up any more. He knelt down in front of her and bowed his head again, pressing his forehead to the rough stone floor.
"No, no matter how many times you ask, the answer is no!" He heard her take a few deep breaths, and saw her shift from foot to foot. Was she nervous? He sat up.
"I didn't say you could get up!" She barked, and he swallowed and quickly threw himself back down. His mind reeled in confusion, what was she playing at? Was she going to wage war on him psychologically if he refused to duel her physically? He knew from a host of childhood experiences with his sister that he did not fare well with psychological battles.
"Sorry." He muttered, pressing his forehead back into the stone.
She stomped her foot and began pacing back and forth. He watched her stalk the room like a caged lion, dread beginning to build in the pit of his stomach. It was easy to tell she was trying to figure out what else she wanted to scream at him, and he cringed at the thought. It seemed like she almost intuitively knew what would sting, everything he had told her in confidence under Ba Sing Se was coming back to bite him in the ass.
"Get up!" She ordered suddenly.
He straightened, sitting back on his heels.
"ALL the way up!" She hissed, and he scrambled up to his feet, scratching the back of his head and looking away. If Azula could only see him now she would be off her feet with laughter, the idea of the Fire Prince scrambling to follow a Water Tribe peasant's orders. It made him flush, but he quickly pushed the thoughts back down, he had lived for almost a year as a peasant himself. He had gone hungry, he had slept in the cold, and he had learned humility. That practice would serve him well now. For all intensive purposes, for the next few hours, she owned him.
She took a step forward, and he involuntarily took a step back, running into the wall behind him.
A small, cruel smile tugged at her lips. She was enjoying herself in a bizarre way, enjoying seeing the fire boy staring at her with terror in his eyes. He looked how she had felt that first day they met on the ice and the ones that followed, and she wondered if it had given him such sick satisfaction to watch her cower; sick satisfaction to grab her old grandmother and threaten them. Probably, though a back corner of her mind, the one that always defended him insisted that it was desperation not sadism that spurred his unforgivable behavior.
"Disgusting, cowardly spoiled brat. I hate you!" She muttered, but without the passion that had laced her voice earlier, in fact, she seemed almost resigned to the fact that she would need to stomach his presence for the next few months. Bending the water from the floor back into her skins, she sank back down onto the slab of stone, her head turned away and her jaws clenched.
Zuko had spent enough time with his father and sister to know when he was dismissed. The problem was that he couldn't exactly leave the room. He circled his chest with his arms, and stole a glance at the bender. She sat with both her arms and legs crossed, her nose in the air. He turned his back to her and sat back down, facing the wall. It was like Ba Sing Se all over again, except he had already squandered his second chance. He closed his eyes, trying to clear his mind.
Another half an hour must have passed before she got up, he heard the rustle of the fabric as she stood. She paced across the room, then paused, glaring at the damn fire bender's back.
"Katara, what are you expecting me to do? You have me prisoner." Zuko reasoned, not looking at her, maintaining his meditation stance, but every fiber of his attention was concentrating on her. She didn't answer, but he heard her walk over to him and crouch down in front of him. Her face had to be inches from his, he could feel her breath on his good cheek, he could smell the delicate seaweed aroma that clung to her skin and hair. He swallowed hard, would she slap him? Would she freeze him to the wall again? He shouldn't have said anything.
"Was it worth it?" She snapped, just for the sake of snapping.
Zuko opened his eyes, she was leaning closer than he had thought, her nose mere inches from his. She grabbed the front of his silk shirt in her fists and hauled him closer as he strained back.
"Was what worth it?" He tried to adopt the reasoning tone that her brother had earlier, with just about the same amount of success.
"Nearly getting the Avatar killed, nearly destroying the last hope for peace. Were the fancy food and the silk sheets and the pretty courtesans worth it?"
"That wasn't why I did it." Katara shook him, and he protested, grabbing her wrists, "Stop it!"
"Then why?!" Was it his imagination or were her eyes tearing?
Zuko bit down agonizingly hard on his lower lip, reciting to himself again all the reasons that it would be a bad idea to remove her from his person. She would fight back, she would call her friends, they would throw him out of the group . . .
The pain helped clear his head, and when she stopped with the shaking, he whispered, "I thought . . . I thought it would make my father love me." It was the first time he had confessed it to anyone. It sounded childish and naive, and made him feel as such. He let go of her fingers, and pulled his bangs out of his face, "I thought he would forgive me for the things I did the day before he gave me this!"
For a minute, he saw a flash of compassion in her eyes, the tenseness in her brow loosened, and her lips opened and closed, then pressed together guiltily.
"Zuko . . ."
"It worked too, he welcomed me back with open arms," He studied her face, her eyes had returned to the soft, tender ones that he remembered, and it encouraged him, "But . . . it wasn't me he loved, it was the honor I brought to the Fire Nation, the fame that his son had killed the Avatar."
The compassion vanished as quickly as it had come with the mention of the Avatar.
"You're doing just what you did under Ba Sing Se!!" She accused, "You're trying to make me feel bad for you!! Well FORGET it!!"
"I'm not, I didn't mean to, please forgive me," Zuko tried again, frustrated, "What do I have to do to convince you to trust me?"
Katara pressed her lips together, a strange, unreadable expression flitting across her face and then vanishing. She shook her head as though to shake out an unwanted thought.
"I told you, I want to finish what we started under Ba Sing Se, I want to beat you to within an inch of your life, I want to pay you back for what you did to Aang!!" She resumed her shaking of him by his silk shirt as she spoke, she was a lot stronger than she looked.
"I understand that." He wanted very much to win her over. To prove to her and to himself that he had changed. To have solid evidence to lay at her feet, not just ask her for blind hope that at the crucial moment, he would make the right call.
"What?" Her voice had turned to ice, and she let him go, sitting backwards.
"Your desire for revenge, I understand. Sometimes things can only be settled through vengeance." Zuko pulled the tie of his shirt open, baring his chest, "Take it. Just bear in mind I will have to be physically able to teach Aang to bend once you're through with me."
He could tell by her expression that she was considering it. She wanted to, by Agni, she wanted to. Her eyes practically lusted for it, and he saw her lick her lips, as though she could taste the delicacy of drawing his blood. In the back corner of his mind, he wished she would, and not just because it would vent her frustrations and she would be kinder. He wanted her to because pain was something that he understood, and it was an easy fix to their complicated problem, and because when he fought her, he felt the most twisted sense of exhilaration.
Maybe that's why they were destined to be enemies, because they enjoyed hating each other so very much. He tensed as she stepped forward, her hands balling into fists, but no blow followed.
He raised his head, questioning, her eyes were still narrowed, "You want me to! You're looking forward to it!"
How had she picked up on that? Zuko wasn't sure.
"You want me to!" She repeated reproachfully, "So what? You'll have an excuse to escape? 'Sorry Aang, Katara started fighting with me! I had to escape, let's go train alone in the woods now'"
Zuko bristled, he did NOT sound like that. In her impersonation of him, she had given him a lisp and a whiney, vacant pitch. She had also put her hand over the wrong eye.
"No, I won't." It was just his word, all he could offer, and he knew how much it was worth in her eyes. Absolutely nothing.
To his surprise, Katara looked around, perhaps looking for someone to stop her, or a logical reason not to indulge herself in the pleasure of battering him. It was a tempting offer, one she doubted he would make a second time. Her fingers practically itched to render him to his knees, and her mouth watered to taste his whimpers of pain. He was sorry for hurting Aang, but not as sorry as she would make him.
Her eyes narrowed and in a quick, catlike movement, she struck him, punching him hard in the stomach. He doubled over and grunted loudly, luckily his abs took most of the force and protected his organs. Still hurt like hell though and left him gasping. Damn the girl could throw a punch. She stood up and seized his hair, hurling him into the wall where his head hit with a rather loud crack. The fire prince sank from his knees to the floor, staring at her, stunned. He closed his eyes, another kick in the stomach collapsed him to the ground, where she kicked him a few more times before she finally stepped back. He looked up, she appeared to be waiting for him to get up.
Panting from the exertion and adrenaline rush, Katara pulled her hair back off her shoulders, and waited. Her eyes were glinting with something he couldn't quite place, pleasure yes, but something even more carnal as well. It was terrifyingly beautiful, and made his lower stomach tighten in ways Mai never had. He wanted more, he wanted to stand up.
Zuko pulled himself to his elbows, deciding he would examine the new concept later. There was surely a logical explanation.
On shaky knees, he stood up again, waiting for the next barrage, but it didn't come. Her happiness had fled, and Katara looked unsure. Revenge never made one feel better, it made you feel worse and he could see she was realizing this. Only forgiveness could make you feel better, but she would have to figure that out the long way round, and he would be the test dummy. The thought made him feel both pride and dread.
"Do you feel better?"
"You don't, do you? I bet you feel guilty and childish."
"Shut UP!!" It seemed like she was at a loss for comebacks. Maybe she had never lashed out so violently before. Maybe he was the first one she had hurt for the sick satisfaction of hurting someone.
"I understand the anger," He ventured, "I've spent most of my life angry too."
"SHUT UP!" she reached up and covered his mouth with both her hands, pressing him back into the wall. The sudden contact and sensation of pressure on both sides of his head made it throb horribly, and he saw stars. Her shoulders were shaking, was she crying? Laughing? Panting? He couldn't tell as he looked down at her. Her shoulders spasmed once.
"What the hell are you playing at?!" She yelled, her head was angled down, so he couldn't see her face. She was probably biting back emotion, but he didn't know which.
He swallowed and reached his hands up slowly to touch her shoulders comfortingly. As soon as he rested them there, he felt her tense. He shouldn't have touched her, that made her angry again, and he muttered a hasty apology into her palms which were still pressed to his lips.
She stiffened even more, and looked up, her face pale, and she snatched her hands away. For a second, Zuko was scared he had somehow accidentally burnt her. Jerkily, she rubbed them on the hips of her pants, trying to shake off the lingering tingling that still danced across her skin, then looked up at him accusingly.
It was not a new sensation, the sudden electricity in her system, Jet had made her knees weak and her body tremble, it wasn't even a new sensation with him, once or twice, when she had a passing chance to admire him, she would use it fully to do just that. Somehow though, Katara was always taken by surprise, each time, she would write it off to temporary insanity, or living her life in a village full of women, and forget about it. She had hoped with his final betrayal under Ba Sing Se, the flutterings would go away. Apparently they had not, and his lips moving against her palms had felt so foreign and wonderful that it had unsettled her horribly.
Bastard. She thought again, using anger to cover up her uncertainty and to push away her guilt. Her heart was pounding, and she felt vulnerable again. The damn prince always made her feel so vulnerable.
"I thought I told you not to apologize." She grumbled finally.
"I thought you wanted to 'thrash me to within an inch of my life'." Zuko replied provoking her, some of the amused arrogance returning to his face. He knew something was happening beneath the surface, but wasn't sure what.
The torrent had slammed him in the chest before she fully decided how she was going to react; she had simply moved reflexively.
"Ow . . ." Zuko sat back on his heels and began brushing his drenched hair out of his eyes, "Feel any better now?" Was he taunting her? Teaching her? He wasn't sure. Things were getting out of control really fast.
When he looked up, Katara stood ridged, her face screwed up into a contorted grimace, her fists clenched so tightly her elbows shook, and her olive knuckles were practically white.
"I thought you said you want to finish what we started under Ba Sing Se." Zuko asked, he dabbed tentatively at the back of his head, it didn't seem to be bleeding, but it was hard to thing straight through the pounding.
She growled and turned away, her back stiff.
"You're not worth my time."
"Have you 'finished what we started'? I didn't fight back, will you trust me now?" He reached out and touched her elbow caringly, then moved to clasp her arm and turn her back around.
"Don't touch me! You don't EVER touch me!!" although she barked it and turned around to glare at him, she didn't yank her arm away.
"Okay, I wont, girls like their personal space," Even though he conceded to her terms, he did not let go, "but Katara-"
"And don't do that either!"
"Stop saying my name like that!" there was the hand yank, and he sighed and let her arm twist from his grasp without protest.
"It's your name, isn't it?" He sat back tiredly, looking away at the floor, "What else would you have me call you? You didn't like 'peasant' either."
Her glare deepened.
Ok, he thought, peasant joke = not funny.
"How about Master Water Bender? That's your title, right? Or Avatar's Water bending Sifu?"
She couldn't tell whether or not he was teasing her, and it was making her mad.
"Excuse me if I don't like it when people lie to my face by saying my name like that. I know what you're doing." He was saying it like they were old friends, friends that laughed and loved and cared for each other. He was saying it gently, and it was unnerving.
"I'm not plotting anything." Zuko insisted, "I've changed, I don't want to be a 'spoiled prince' anymore."
Once again the silence enveloped them.
"Prove it!" She said suddenly.
"You said you would earlier, prove that you don't want to be a spoiled prince anymore."
"Umm, how exactly do you propose I do that?"
"I don't know, do something un-princely."
"I've been begging for your forgiveness, scrambling to follow your orders, and taking your verbal and physical attacks for the past few hours!" Zuko huffed, "Do you want me to grovel now too?!"
"What if I do? Show me some humility, Prince Zuko, and maybe I'll consider believing you." Katara raised her eyebrows expectantly.
Zuko looked up at her dumbly from where he knelt on the floor, "I'm afraid you'll have to be more specific, Master Water Bender, I don't exactly know how NOT to act like a Prince."
It was intimidating, Katara chewing on her lower lip like that and giving him an appraising look. He probably shouldn't have yielded her the power of making the decision. He had willingly given her the upper hand, and he had absolutely no idea where she would choose to place it.
"Let me tie your hands. No bending, no protesting, no fighting." She said suddenly.
He seemed to consider her proposition carefully, his suspicion poorly concealed.
"What do you plan on doing to me after you restrain me?" he asked, slowly. It seemed silly, he had already agreed to let her strike him, what else could she do?
"You agreed to show some humility, that's what I'm asking . . . no bending, no protesting, no fighting, and no questions asked."
"This is not about humility but humiliation, there's a difference." His pride was fighting hand in hand with his desire to show her that he meant well, but even atonement had a limit. There was no honor in degradation!!
"No, Prince, this is about trust, not humiliation. Why should I even consider trusting you if you won't trust me?"
He picked up the semantics: 'me' and 'I' instead of 'us' and 'we'. She was not talking about her group, her brother, her friends or even her precious Avatar. She was talking about herself, and then it dawned upon Zuko son of Ozai that this was a battle in a war that have been going on for a year, since that day he manhandled an old woman in the snow and was struck by the most amazing pair of blue eyes he had ever seen. But Zuko was a child of warfare, raised and bred on military conflict and court intrigues, and he knew that even if battles per se don't win wars, they can completely lose them.
"I trusted you in Ba Sing Se." She reminded him.
"Are you going to use those shackles?" He asked, why did it feel so different now from when he had offered them to the Avatar, even if he seemed to have been talking to their group. In his mind, the Avatar was the only one with enough hierarchy to take him prisoner. It had come out as a complete surprise to Zuko that the powerful child-bender he knew to be so confident in confrontations was so willing to relinquish power to a group of misfits and decide everything by committee. If he would have been the Avatar instead, he would have run this group differently.
"I changed my mind. I have no use for 'friends' who cannot follow simple instructions." Katara turned her back to him, if he wasn't going to trust her, she would never trust him. She had been the first to offer it the last time, and he had shattered it into oblivion. Stupid boy, he wasn't the first, and she doubted he would be the last, but as she had with Jet, she expected some tribute. A peace offering to prove that he was trying. Jet had helped them find Appa and sacrificed himself for the cause, and in her mind, his transgressions were nowhere near as grave as the ex prince's.
"Wait! I'll let you do it," he said hurriedly, offering his wrists like he had done just a couple of hours before. The ultimatum had spurred his decision far more effectively than coaxing ever would.
"You lost your chance." She looked deadly serious.
Something rebelled inside him. She was playing a game with girl rules he didn't understand.
"I shouldn't. Ka- I mean, you have tried to hurt me just as often as I you . . . trust can never be automatic. You know that by experience."
"You and your nation taught me that, Prince." Katara was suddenly livid again, "Maybe it's time for you to learn a few new lessons. I'm sure I could teach you a thing or two!" He flinched. Every time she said his title the word was so full of venom that he could feel the sting of a two headed snake biting him. He wished that she would call him by his name, with no title in front. Somehow the poison didn't reach his name the way it soaked his title.
He offered his wrists again in silence, to appease her, feeling like a blood sacrifice to the gods. She pondered something, tapping her chin with her finger. She walked to where he was kneeling and stopped in front of him.
"Stand up," she ordered.
He did so, awkwardly, still holding his wrists out in front of him. She circled him, slowly, studying him and Zuko felt every tendon, every nerve on his body tense out, in weird ... anticipation. Like on the battlefield, he was hyper aware of everything going on around him, the heat of her body and breath, the sound of her feet scraping across the floor, the crack of her knees as she stopped, the birds singing outside the window, and the fountain water splashing in the next building over. He visibly jumped when he felt her place a hand on his shoulder, and he reddened, hearing a soft, amused snort behind him.
Smoothing over the burgundy fabric of his sleeve, her hand slid down his arm, making it's way to his wrist inch by torturous inch. Blood was still clotting on the tips of her fingers, and it had probably soaked into her fingerless black gauntlets. Zuko closed his eyes, feeling suddenly like he couldn't watch. Fingertips gave way to a palm, and she closed her hand around his wrist, and squeezed once before drawing it back behind him delicately.
She pressed his hand into the small of his back, forcing his spine to align and him to lean back a bit, and she leaned in to whisper into his scared ear. Seeing him squirm was surprisingly enjoyable, and for a minute she wondered how far she could push him before he snapped.
"Too bad we don't have a tree . . ." She saw him stiffen, remembering, and she carefully drew his other hand behind him until it joined the first. She was having fun, and she took her time. His pulse was practically throbbing through his wrists where she held them, an echo of his heart. Spirits, it must be racing . . . I don't even need the full moon to feel it.
For his part, Zuko was praying for it to be over soon and also to never end. He wanted her to just shackle him and be done with it, yes. The problem was, he did not know what she would do to him once she had him shackled. He was tense, waiting for her to strike again, thinking deep down that hitting someone in the back was cowardly.
She did not.
He felt one of her hands let go, and the other move to hold both his wrists, squeezing them together in a firm, almost uncomfortable grip. He knew he could break it easily if he wanted to, but this wasn't about physical strength but mental fortitude. Her other hand pressed into his hair and pushed his head forward smartly. Only her fingertips touched him, as though he were something loathsome and slimy that was to be handled with care not because it was valuable, but because it was rancid and liable to stain.
Zuko desperately wanted to ask her what the hell she thought that she was doing, but after her reaction to the last question he voiced, didn't dare. Making her mad while she had him by the wrists and neck was a bad idea. Nobody would do something like that. Plus, he was so close to appeasing her, he could rough out the last few uncertain moments. He was positive that she was just trying to psyche him out so she would not have to uphold her end of the trust bargain.
Moving from the crown of his head, her fingers traced along his jaw, to his chin, then across his Adam's apple, she pressed her two main fingers into his throat. It made him swallow several times, and her thumb quickly sank into the flesh of the opposite side of his neck, into the slight hollow under his ear. She practically had her fingers around his windpipe and jugular. If it had been Azula, it would have been long nails scraping him. Luckily, she was not Azula, and anyway this girl didn't have long nails. It was just her cold finger, sinking into the soft flesh of his neck. He almost wished she would claw, At least he knew where he stood with unbridled violence.
Is she taking my pulse? Zuko wondered, the feeling familiar, he knew how to monitor his vital signs, though he had never actually had someone else do it for him. Particularly not in such an outlandishly terrifying way. She was considering something about him, all her fury from before, the terrifying passion of her rage now at bay, held back, like if she was keeping it in check in a leach. A very unnerving thought struck him that she was considering something about his blood, but immediately rejected the thought. This girl was not Azula, he hoped that she didn't share his sister's tastes.
"It'll be a long time before I trust you again, Prince." she told him, biting every word, "But maybe I will if you trust me . . ."
She removed her finger from his neck, and he could feel her distaste. Squeezing his eyelids more tightly shut, he felt the shackles snap on, the cold metal tightening and clicking into place around his right fore arm. The hinges were old, but sturdy, and he could tell instantly he wouldn't be able to bend or wriggle out of them.
Instead of fastening the other wrist right away, she hesitated for a long time, he was actually about to clear his throat when she began moving again. She led his arm by the chain around to the front, and held out her hand expectantly. He gave her his unbound wrist hastily, no questions asked, placing his wrist in her palm lightly.
It was a small victory, and it heartened him greatly. She trusted him enough to bind his hands in front, and if she was feeling generous and was going to give him that much more freedom with his arms, it meant that she was softening.
It was a start.
The shackles had been Sokka's. She had never asked where or why he got them, she wasn't sure she wanted to know. She assumed he had found them in the desert library, he had stolen a bunch of old things from there. Whereever they had come from, she was thankful for them, and she fingered the key where it was tucked into her bindings.
"Katara?" Someone knocked on the door, "Katara, we're done with the cell, can you open the door?"
"Gladly!" She ignored him for a minute and fished down the front of her shirt, extracting the large old door key and slipping it into the lock. "Okay Haru, I'm opening the door now." He heard Haru slide a dead bolt and then the door swung open.
"Katara, did you really have to restrain him?"
"I know," Zuko saw the little earth bending girl lounging on the rocks nearby, the soles of her feet nearly black with dirt, "I don't think we need to go through all this, he seems pretty nice, and let's face it, I am an excellent judge of character."
"You're so humble about it too, Toph." Katara muttered under her breath, still in a bad mood from the unsettling experience alone with the Fire Bender. Though Zuko had to strain to hear the snarky remark, the girl, Toph, reacted as though Katara had shouted it.
"Listen here Sugar Queen!!" Toph straightened, "I was right about Jet, wasn't I?"
"Sugar Queen?" Zuko asked, and received a water bender's elbow jabbed into his ribs smartly, and he growled at her and dug his heels into the ground, refusing to follow her. The nickname was pretty ironic.
"Who is Jet?" Haru asked a little anxiously.
"Jet was her boyfriend." Toph supplied with a grin, "The Duke and Pipsqueak were some of his freedom fighters."
"He wasn't my boyfriend!" Katara tugged but Zuko didn't budge.
"I can tell you're lying . . ."
"He wasn't! I can't believe we're having this discussion right now!" She distractedly hauled on the chain then hooked her foot around Zuko's and leaned into him, tripping him into taking a step.
"Oh yea, I forgot . . . he was her lovesick puppy crush that betrayed her so she insisted on hating him for months afterwards." She explained to Haru, who was frowning, apparently unaware that he had competition other than the Avatar.
"He was not! I mean, I did not! It wasn't days . . . Haru, can you help me move this flaming idiot?"
Toph giggled, well, not exactly giggled, it was too maniacal, but in the most good natured way possible, as though teasing her friends was one of the ways she showed affection. Zuko was starting to think Toph was an evil genius. Either that or she really liked to mess with Katara.
"Come on, Prince Zuko . . ." Haru was at least being polite, "I don't want to have to earth bend your feet out from under you."
Zuko considered it, but then decided that he had no interest in the earth moving him, and he sighed and began walking again.
"Thank you Haru, you're really sweet." He felt Katara's hand on his back as she shoved him forward for good measure, and he stumbled a few steps, doubling over before regaining his balance.
Zuko raised an eyebrow, was she trying to flirt with the earth bender? He tried to remember how Ty Lee said girls did it . . .
Toph hopped up and trudged along behind them, and Haru fell back to talk to her. They chatted back and forth amiably about some earth bending form or another, and then the Earth Rumble something-or-other tournaments, Zuko hadn't ever heard of them. Katara would turn and interject something crossly every few minutes, usually a negative snap.
It was getting on everyone's nerves, and Toph and Haru fell further and further behind until suddenly Katara turned her head and they were no longer following them. They must have ducked down a corridor and fled. It had probably been Toph's idea.
Katara fumed and hauled him roughly around another corner, leading him like an Ostrich Horse. Looking around, Zuko found himself following her down a hallway of doors. They were cells, monk cells, the Fire Sages had quarters similar back in the capital. There was a boy in a wheelchair sitting there, flipping through bits of parchment. As they neared him, he looked up and waved them over.
"Hey Katara, you have to come and check this out, me and Haru put it together, and it is genius! Well, almost genius."
"Toph helped too, but she kept making mistakes and we would have to start over, that's why it took so long. It's weird, normally she is so precise with her bending."
As he spoke, Haru and Toph rounded a different corner. Katara glared at them and crossed her arms.
"Haru!!" Toph exclaimed suddenly, "I TOLD you it wasn't that turn . . ." She gave an innocent smile, and batted her lashes at the water bender.
"But Toph, you said-"
"Hey Goggles, you show Katara how the contraption works?" Toph stomped her foot and a jut of rock hit Haru in the shin.
"I was just going to," The boy replied, adjusting said goggles on his forehead, "See Katara, the stones sit on hinges, on one side, and a stopper on the other. Each has a channel full of water at the top and you can bend it to trip the latch. Toph, Aang, or Haru could just earth bend the latch though. We designed it special for you."
Katara did her best to muster a proud, nontoxic smile, though she didn't quite succeed.
"It looks amazing Teo."
She walked over to the strange thing and practiced unlocking and opening the things a few times.
"So, you're Prince Zuko." The wheelchair boy, Teo, was scrutinizing him.
"Yea, I met his uncle once." Toph informed them, "He was a pretty together guy, It's weird to think he had such a crazy brother . . . no offence." She added quickly.
"None taken." Zuko fidgeted and twisted his wrists uncomfortably.
"Jeez, Katara!" Teo exclaimed, "You trying to torture the man? You need to take those manacles off,"
Katara turned and argued, "If I take them off he could try to firebend."
"I'm not going to do anything." Zuko insisted.
"Okay, okay . . ." Everyone seemed to be walking on eggshells with an angry Katara on the loose.
She brushed past him, and with a wave of her hand, opened the door and hauled him inside by his chained hands. He surveyed the room as she closed the door behind them, old, dusty, decaying, it hadn't been lived in for at least a hundred years. There was an old bed, a table, a chair, and a small dresser, all had been cleaned a bit, but still looked very shoddy. His things were piled in the corner where Aang must have left them. He took a step towards the pile, he was definitely ready to lay down for a while, his head still ached where it had connected with the wall, and his stomach felt queasy from the blows it had taken.
Before he had made it far though, he felt a heavy hand on his shoulder, stopping him.
He did so, expecting the worst.
"What time do you want to start your lessons?"
"What?" It took him a second to realize that she meant him teaching Aang, and not the ones she had mentioned earlier with her teaching him. It was slightly disappointing.
"So I can tell Aang what time to be ready."
"An hour after dawn." He told her, and she crinkled up her nose in distaste.
"Very well." With an air of superiority, she turned and walked out of the room. The latch snapped, sealing him inside. He could hear her and the two Earth Kingdom boys chatting as they walked away, they were grilling her on what Sokka was hunting, and what might be for dinner.
He turned and began digging through his things, the manacles made it difficult, but not impossible to navigate.
"Good, they're gone." He turned around and saw his door swing open, the little earth bender leaned against the frame, grinning.
"What are you doing here?"
"Well, I kind of wanted to apologize for Sugar Queen, I think I pissed her off and she took it out on you." Toph shut the door.
"It's okay, it's not totally your fault." Zuko scratched the back of his head with one hand, the other dangling limply on the end of the chain. "Katara and I, we have history . . ."
"You know," Toph changed the subject and made herself at home, sitting on his table, which luckily didn't break as it must have been a hundred and fifty years old, "The first time Sokka mentioned you in front of me, she defended you."
Zuko looked up, interested.
"Yea, well, not so much you as your ponytail, but as far as I hear, it made up at least sixty percent of your personality." Toph straightened her legs and wiggled her toes, "Sokka said you were an 'angry freak with a ponytail'."
"Well, I don't think she is planning to stick up for me at all anymore." Zuko said wryly, "And I don't have the ponytail anymore."
"HA!! Maybe that's why!" Toph laced her toes together and chortled at her joke.
"I doubt it." He opened his pack, pulling his cloths out and began to fill the old wardrobe with them.
"Yea, she's been mad at you ever since you guys were under Ba Sing Se, but she won't say why, but I think I figured it out. Well, I have a theory, but I still need to . . . what's the phrase Goggles uses? I still need to run some tests, that's it."
"That's nice." As long as the water peasant didn't try to kill him in his sleep, he was pretty sure that it wouldn't matter very much why she was angry, it was pretty obvious she felt betrayed, and she seemed to have decided to hate him for it just like that kid Jet. He wasn't quite sure how he felt about that, when she looked at him the way she had, he had been willing to do anything for her. He had a sneaking suspicion not just to earn her respect and forgiveness either.
"Before I forget . . . ." Toph sauntered back over and with a touch of her fingers, the metal shackles wrenched open with a groan and clattered to the floor, mutilated beyond usability. They writhed for a minute, then sprung back, and Toph scooped them up and held them out.
"How did you do that?" Zuko rubbed his wrists and hands happy that the blood was again flowing to his abused fingertips.
"I am the greatest earth bender in the world!!" Toph pounded her chest in a very macho masculine fashion, "and the only known metal bender of all time!!"
He had never heard of a metal bender before.
"Just put them back on before Sugar queen sees or she'll pitch a fit." She swiped her foot across the floor to open the stone bars, then again to close them after she had walked through.
"Someone will come get you for dinner in an hour." Her voice floated down the hallway.
Katara sat brooding, staring into the pot of rice she was cooking, using an old spoon to stir it. She barely looked up when Haru sat down next to her, beginning to roast meat and vegetables over their kitchen fire. She didn't notice at all when Toph strolled in and sat down opposite her, grinning like a fox in a henhouse.
"Hey Sugar Queen!"
Katara looked up at the smaller girl, "What is it Toph? I'm busy cooking your dinner."
Katara's heart hammered and jumped into her throat, "What about him? Did he get out?!" She looked over her shoulder and around the small plaza, searching for errant fire benders.
"No," Toph leaned back, shrugging nonchalantly, "I just felt like saying his name. Pretty name. Zuko."
Katara shrugged and went back to her stirring.
Again her pulse leapt, this time her cheeks flushed as well, and she was thankful that the earth bender could not see it. She growled and chucked the spoon, it bounced off the pot with a clang and landed at her feet.
"Why do you keep doing that Toph?!" Katara's voice trembled, and she stomped her foot, partly because she was mad, and partly because she was trying to cause interference in the vibrations her friend felt.
Haru flipped the meat over, "Shouldn't you be fetching him for dinner or bringing him dinner or something Toph?" he asked, their first fight had been scary, and he was not quite up for mediating round two, "The food is almost ready."
Katara muttered something about letting him starve.
"Why can't Sokka do it?" Toph stole a glance at the warrior who was practicing angry faces in the reflection of his black sword. Aang sat next to him, feeding nuts to Momo by tossing them into the air and watching the lemur catch them.
"Can't you see I'm busy Toph?" he called back. "Intimidating your opponent can make or break your battle with them!"
Toph rolled her unseeing eyes and stood. "Okay okay, I'll go fetch Sweetness's new pet."
"He isn't my pet!!" Katara yelled after her in the same tone she insisted that Jet had not been her boyfriend. The vibrations however, whispered to Toph that it was only technically true, and of course, that was practically lying.
"What's gotten into that girl?!" Katara asked the group in general as she watched her go.
Haru shrugged and Aang smiled obliviously.
"I bet I know, she's in lava . . ." Sokka joined in on the joke, "You get it? Lava? Because you asked-"
"I get it Sokka." Katara bent the water from the rice and pulled the pot from the fire with a cloth.
So after reading one too many 'Zuko captures Katara and holds her prisoner on his ship' story, and having a rather interesting chat with a friend who I recently learned the hard way (don't ask) is a BDSM subbie, I decided it was about time to turn the tables!
I mean, come on, what goes around comes around.
Sorry to anyone waiting with baited breath for Midsummer Madness, I will get on that next, but I wanted to . . . strike while the iron was hot . . . so to speak. Plus I am stubborn and like to finish what I start.
Thank you to Adridere for bailing me out of a writer's block, you helped me soooo freakin much!! You are the Obi Wan Kenobi to my Luke Skywalker!!