Annnnnd I'm back! A combination of writer's block and fall semester starting up kept me from updating, but that's life for ya. Here's a nice long entry for you hungry Zutarans. I'm excited about where this is going. The next few chapters are outlined so you should be hearing from me again soon!


Zuko shivers as water trickled down his neck. Letting the droplets slide down his skin he tries to focus on anything except his conflicting emotions. He draws on his meditation techniques focusing only on his measured breathing as he thinks back to the fight.

"Why are you pushing this? What do you want from me?"

"I just want to you to be happy!"

"If you want to make me happy then leave me alone!"

Zuko resists the urge to slap his forehead. If ever there was a need for his Uncle's wisdom, now was the time. He had no idea how to relate to women. Blowing his long hair out of his face in frustration he shifts the heavy stack of firewood in his arms.

"I guess what I'm trying to say is that if you only ever dwell on the bad things that happen then you'll never be able to forgive. Not them and especially not yourself."

She may be stubborn, unreasonable, and rash but she was right about him. He had to make things right starting with the girl he'd abandoned earlier that night. Arriving at the edge of their small campsite, Zuko takes a quick breath before stepping into the light of the dying fire. The firewood he'd collected clatters in his arms as he attempts to make enough noise to avoid startling Katara. Tossing a log into the embers he lights it with a flick of his wrist.

A sudden rustle erupts in the nearby darkness. Reacting to the noise, Zuko swiftly assumes a bending pose while his golden eyes search the darkness around them. Muscles tense, he waits for any sign of danger. After a few minutes of silence he's satisfied that there's no immediate threat. Releasing his rigid fire bending pose Zuko doesn't feel any more relaxed as he turns to face Katara. Though her back is to him, he can see her limbs flails out in her sleep. Emotions stir up in him as he watches her still form and he tries reign them in.

Rubbing his neck uncertainly, he reaches a hand out and gently brushes away the dark hair covering her face. As Katara's smooth features emerges from behind her wall of tresses Zuko's body turns cold as fear grips him. Katara is gagged and unconscious. Blood trickles down her temple. He quickly rips the blanket off her small form only to discover her arms and legs are bound.

"Katara!" he shouts, but he's too slow to save them from the threat that is obviously nearby. There's a short whistling in the air and stab of pain appears between Zuko's shoulder blades. He flinches and bats at it without thinking, but the small dart is carefully placed so its prey can't remove it. He whips around to face whoever dares attack them but the poison is fast acting. His head pounds painfully as each heart beat circulates the serum throughout his body. Swaying on his feet Zuko attempts to focus his vision only to fall to a knee.

"No…" he says with equal parts anger and dread. They could not get captured again. Nausea overwhelms him as he attempts to stand. Falling to his hands and knees he swallows back the urge to vomit and crawls toward Katara- no small feat since his limbs are quickly turning to liquid. Rallying all his strength he reaches Katara. Pulling her into his lap he tries to stand.

He sees the dart coming this time. As it flies toward the both of them he knows there is nothing he can do to stop it. So with his heart racing in exhaustion and head pounding with delirium he lets himself fall on top of Katara in a final attempt to protect her. He doesn't flinch as the needle embeds itself deep in his right shoulder.

The last thing he remembers as his vision fails him is his head banging onto the rough ground and Katara's hair tickling his cheek.

I can't do this again…

Katara woke to a headache. Crying herself to sleep always did that to her. Remembering the reason for her tears she curses Zuko. It was all his fault! She sighs as the memory of the night before come floating back to her. What she hates more than their fight, however, is that she can't seem to summon the biting anger she used to harbor whenever they fought.

Probably because I love that stupid jerk…

Freezing at the direction of her thoughts, Katara opens her eyes in shock. What had she just said? Attempting to track down that errant thought she quickly sits up, her hand banging against the wall as the tosses aside her blankets. Looking over in surprise her brain finally begins to notice important facts she'd ignored up until now.


Weren't they in the forest? She gasps loudly as she hops out of her bed. Backing away from it like it's an angry tigerbear she tries to remember how she got there. The memory of last night comes flooding back to her. Zuko's disappearance. Then he'd returned, but the tall figure wasn't him. It was someone else and- oh yeah. They'd knocked her out.

Katara reaches up to her temple where they'd hit her. She's surprised to find a bandage there but winces as the light touch sends a shooting pain into her skull. Her gaze takes in the room but doesn't waste time appreciating the quaint taste of the décor. She grabs her boots which had been left by her bed and presses her ear to the closed door. Trying the doorknob she's again surprised when it twists and the door pops open.

Gripping her boots tightly Katara tiptoes down the hallway making only the lightest of sounds as her feet tread across the wood floor. She almost drops her boots when she hears voices coming from a room on her right.

"Probably won't be up for a while," a deep voice says with pleasure.

"Well it's no wonder. You used two darts! Foolish men! How many times do I have to tell you…"

The voices fade as Katara passes the door undetected. She notices another bedroom on her left before she finally reaches a short intersecting hallway. Glancing down it she sees a kitchen and a backdoor! Katara rejoices at the discovery of an escape but hesitates before sneaking down the hallway.

It's too easy, she thinks. The base doesn't even seem like a real base. It doesn't have the logistical military flare the other Kesai base had. It's more of a cottage than anything else. And there were no guards. No one was even outside my room even though I was left untied. Biting her lip in frustration Katara wants nothing more than to get out of this place. It must be a pit stop, not their destination. That's why they haven't picked up more guards and that's why it seems like a uncharacteristically cozy base.

Satisfied with her explanation Katara quickly steps down the hallway, but just as quickly panics when a door opens behind her. Voices float toward her as she sprints down the hallway and looks around her for a hiding place. Discovering a closet in the kitchen she throws open the door and crams herself behind the sparse rack of coats. She closes the door just as footsteps enter the kitchen.

Katara curses herself for not finding any water before trapping herself in this terrible hiding spot. If Zuko were here he'd have come up with a much better plan. Zuko! How could she have forgotten about him? Was he captured too or had his temper been his salvation? Resisting the urge to growl in frustration Katara rolls her eyes. Now she had no weapon and no idea where Zuko was. Both had to wait, though, because the men in the kitchen seem to be getting comfortable. Slowly and quietly she inches forward to press her ear against the closet door.

"I'm so hungry," a distinctly male voice says.

"Yeah I wish Granny would get over it already and make some dinner," the deep voice from earlier complains.

"You are such idiots," a female voice snaps. "You deserve everything that comes to you."

"Aw c'mon Akira. You know they seemed suspicious."

"No. I don't. What I do know is that they're gonna be pissed when they wake up."

"Yeah waking up in a warm bed when you were sleeping in the dirt definitely makes a person mad."

Katara grows more and more confused as the conversation continues. Who are these people? They certainly don't have the finesse she remembered the Kesai having.

Two loud slaps echo through the door Katara's ear is pressed against. She flinches at the unexpected sound bumping a broom behind her sending it sliding noisily down the wall. Oh no! Her mind screams as she freezes in terror

"What was-" the deep voice cuts off.

"Fine I'll make you idiots some dinner," the female voice says sounding a little strained. Katara can hear some shuffling on the other side of the door but doesn't trust that her own rustling went unnoticed. Careful to avoid making more noise she searches the small space for a weapon to use. Too late though. The door swings open and a woman stands there pointing a sword at her. Just as quickly though her sword falls when she recognizes the girl in the closet.

"You're-" but her surprise is cut short as Katara flies at her sending them both to the floor. Landing awkwardly on top of the woman Katara desperately searches for any kind of water source as she struggles to hold the woman down. The sink across the room explodes as Katara summons the water knocking down one of the men barreling toward her.

"Hey!" he shouts as he tumbles to the floor. Katara quickly creates a shield before her as a second, larger man points a sword at her.

"No!" the woman shouts as he raises his weapon to deliver a blow. He ignores the command but Katara sends him reeling backwards with a light water whip before he can strike her.

"Why you-" the large man exclaims as he pulls himself free of the small shelf he crashed into.

"Stop it!"

Suddenly Katara feels the sharp point of a dart against her neck. Apparently, a fourth enemy had snuck up behind her through the very hallway she'd used to escape. Cursing herself for not paying better attention, Katara is left with no options. She lets her water splash to the ground and raises her arms in defeat.

"Now I don't want to use this but I will," a withered voice says firmly. "Please calm down and let us explain."

"Where is Zuko?" Katara demands as she her three attackers close in.

Opening his eyes Zuko squints against the sunlight streaming through the crack between the curtains. Confusion settles over him as the unfamiliar sight greets him but the feeling is pushed aside as his head pounds and his stomach rolls. He closes his eyes against the pain and focuses on not vomiting. When his stomach settles he sighs in relief only to wince when pain flashes across his side. Groaning loudly now, he wonders what he's gotten himself into. He peers down at his body as he slowly kicks the warm covers off his torso. This one wasn't so bad. Purple and yellow bruising is splashed across his right side with a particularly nasty bruise just below his ribcage. Overall, he decides it's not that bad.

It's not until he reaches down to massage his injured side that he notices the rope leashes tying him to either post of the bed. Dammit! Yanking at the bonds, Zuko spends a moment of fruitless escape attempts during his initial panic. After he wears himself out and his wrists burn from the chaffing he stops rattling the bed so he can form an actual plan.

"This is pointless..." he mutters. Leaning back against the headboard he finally takes a moment to analyze his surroundings.

He's in a relatively small room with furnishings typical to a bedroom. There's a squat bookshelf, a decent sized dresser and a small, wooden chair next to the door. They all look like they've been formed straight from freshly cut lumber, though you can tell great care was put into creating them. The folksy, rustic style nags at something inside him. Shaking off the feeling of déjà he decides he should be more worried about waking up and having no idea where he is- not that it was an uncommon occurrence.

The blankets fall off of Zuko as he shifts into an uncomfortable squat and he shivers as the cool air hits his bare chest. Twisting around to look at his bonds he's forced to twist his arms over each other awkwardly. Zuko smirks with pleasure. The idiots had not only left his legs untied but they'd bound him in mediocre knots at best.

Just as he sets to work on the ropes the door of his room suddenly opens and a woman dressed in casual earth kingdom clothes enters with a tray of bandages.

"Well this is a new technique," she comments with some humor as she stares at Zuko looking awkward as he faces the wall.

"Who are you? Where am I?" demands Zuko as he twists around attempting to face the stranger but only manages to slip on the bedding and face plant onto the mattress. The woman laughs hardily before setting her tray down and walking toward Zuko.

"Akiro. About two days outside of Ba Sing Se. And I'm not going to hurt you in case you were curious about that," she says with a smile.

"Waking up in ropes doesn't exactly make you look like the good guy," Zuko cynically replies into the bedsheets.

"True, but you reacted poorly to the dart serum so we had to tie you up because you get violent when you're delirious."

"What are you talking about?"

"I'm talking about you almost killing my brother in your feverish delirium, but you know what they say. An eye for an eye," Akiro says looking pointedly at his bruised side. "Though you did most of that to yourself."

Fury grabs at Zuko as he imagines these people beating him into submission. He doesn't trust a single word that's come out of that woman's mouth. If there's anything he's learned it's that when someone ties you up they're not your friend- especially if they feed you a line like 'they're not going to hurt you.' So he decides the time for playing nice is past.

"Look I don't know if this is the Fire Nation trying to pin me with false accusations but you'd better get one thing straight. There's a lot you don't know about me lady and I don't really enjoy fighting defenseless women but I'll do whatever it takes to bring down Ozai and his twisted schemes. Or Azula. Whoever is behind this."

Turning back to his ropes Zuko attempts to disintegrate them, but nothing happens.

"Wha..?" He takes another deep breath and- nothing. "Why can't I bend?" Turning back to Akiro he shouts, "What the hell did you do to me?"

"We didn't do anything! I told you. You reacted badly to the serum in our darts," her eyebrows pull together in concern. She'd been waiting to see if the effect would last and now she worries that it might be permanent.

"What are you talking about?" Zuko shouts as he begins to yank against the ropes again. This time he doesn't stop when his wrists ache and burn. The headboard rattles against the wall and the frame threatens to crack beneath him as Zuko thrashes around on the bed. "Get. These. Off. ME!"

"If you dont' calm down then I'll make you calm down!" the woman threatens.

Zuko ignores her and shouts in frustration as he struggles to remember what happened knowing that the memory is locked away in some foggy part of his mind. The last thing he remembers is escaping from the Kesai base, traveling and fighting with Katara- mostly fighting, then…nothing. What's more frustrating is that he is having trouble coordinating his fingers so that he can untie himself.

Maybe what that woman said about a bad reaction was true. All he knows is that he needs to find Katara. Zuko ignores the muffled shouts drifting through the door until a familiar voice rises above the rest.

"I told you we're not Fire Nation!" Zuko freezes. He'd recognize that voice anywhere. Before he can react though the door opens again and an elderly woman flanked by a lean, young man carrying a tray of food enters.

"I want to see Katara," he demands forcefully. The two women exchange a look then approach Zuko's bed. The older woman sets the tray of food on the bookshelf next to the bowl of water while the man looks on with a tense expression. He notices his hand twitching to his side where a sheathed sword is tied.

The old woman notices where Zuko's attention is directed. "Thank you for your help, Takumo. Why don't you go check in with your father."

"But he's dangerous," the boy named Takumo says obviously referring to Zuko.

"You bet I am, little Takumo," Zuko sneers.

The sound of scraping metal cuts through the air when he responds by unsheathing his sword.

"Takumo that's enough," commands the old woman. "Go. Now."

Zuko's attention returns to the old lady as she turns to face him, not waiting to see if the boy obeys her command. He grins as the young man angrily sheaths his sword and slams the door behind him.

"Now young man," the woman's weathered voice reminds him of his Uncle. "I understand that this must be difficult for you but you won't improve your situation by throwing a tantrum." Despite his situation, Zuko has the unexpected urge to reply with a 'yes ma'am.' He quickly stifles it, though, as the woman continues. "My name is Sasaki Hana, but you can call me Granny. I believe you've already met my daughter Akiro."

"A pleasure I'm sure, Granny. But I'm guessing you already know my name since I can hear Katara in the other room. So let's skip the friendly 'introductions' and get to the point," Zuko says with venom. "What do you want with us?"

"You will show Granny respect," Akira interjects as she steps forward aggressively.

"It's alright," the old woman say with a chuckle. "I like his directness. You're quite right Prince Zuko. Let's not play games."

Zuko's inside freeze at the mention of his former title. He guesses that trying to explain his new allegiance would probably be pointless now. "Your water bender tells me that you are traveling to Ba Sing Se so that you can send word to your traveling companions. Now that sounds perfectly innocent to me but it's been a long time since I've had the pleasure of entertaining such interesting guests and I'd like to hear more of your story."

Zuko hesitates. They're obviously testing him to see if his story matches Katara's. Keeping them separate was smart on their part. Desperation begins to sprout within him. He wants to see Katara. He needs to look into her eyes and hear her tell him that she's okay. More importantly, though, he has to apologize to her for everything. But asking for Katara now would seem like he was trying to corroborate his story with hers.

"It seems like you already know a lot about me and Katara, but I don't know much about you. How about you tell me how I wound up tied to a bed and I can tell you how I wound up in that forest. I scratch your back. You scratch mine." While it was obvious that Katara told them where she and Zuko are headed, he isn't sure how much else she's shared. Most of all though, he doesn't know if he can trust these people with their story.

"Fair enough," says Granny. "Since I wasn't there when my children found you, I'll let Akira share that story." With that Granny turns to the tray of food and begins to prepare it. Akira rolls her eyes as she crosses her arms but doesn't step any closer to Zuko.

"I guess Granny probably wants me to tell you why we were in that forest to begin with. My brother, his son and I were in that forest looking for an animal that had been picking off the livestock of the nearby villages.

After a few hours of searching the forest we saw your fire and decided to investigate. Thieves were just as likely as an animal," Akira says giving Zuko a distrustful stare. "It became obvious as we approached that there was no guard so we decided to wait and see who you were. There was a girl crying alone by the fire," Akira gives Zuko another accusing look as she continues. "We were about to reveal ourselves when Takumo pointed out that your traveling supplies suggested there were two people in this traveling group.

That's when I told them to wait while I went out to find the girl's companion. Imagine my surprise when I returned to discover the two of you passed out on top of each other. You with two darts stuck in your back, the girl tied up and bleeding, and my stupid brother and nephew standing over you." At this point Akira rubs her face in frustration. "They told me that you had used fire bending so they had to capture you. I told them that didn't mean they had to attack you from behind like cowards but being the idiots they are-"

"Thank you Akira," Granny says cutting off Akira's rant. Picking up the tray of prepared food she sets it in front of Zuko. "They brought you and your friend back to my house since I have so many empty rooms. We bandaged you all up and then waited for you to wake up. Of course, we did not anticipate your poor reaction to the darts but that's how you ended up here."

"Yeah what are you talking about when you say I reacted poorly?" Zuko asks.

Granny reaches a hand out to place it on Zuko's arm in a natural display of motherly affection but retracts it when he eyes it distrustfully. "We did not know you were already recovering from injuries when the boys decided to shoot you with a dart. Our darts are dipped in a home brewed sedative. It's a precise combination of a few local herbs that is meant to knock even the largest man out in seconds, which is why the boys panicked when you appeared to be resisting the serum."

"But what do you mean when I reacted badly?" Zuko persists. "Does this have something to do with why I can't bend?"

"It makes sense that there would be someone who was allergic to the serum," Grenny prefaces. "It's unfortunate that the boys shot that person with two darts. You are lucky to be alive, young man. You came down with a high fever, had a seizure and were semi conscious with delirium for the past three days. Because the serum is injected in your blood stream there was a very real chance you would not wake up."

"And now I can't bend." Not to mention control of my limbs seems to be tenuous.

"I'm afraid we'll learn along with you whether or not that is permanent." Clapping her hands together Granny motions toward the tray before Zuko. "Now I'm guessing that you are very hungry since you've been dancing with death for a few days. I'll bet you want your hands free for that. In your own words Prince Zuko, I've scratched your back. Now it's your turn to honor your word. Akira?"

Though she obviously disagrees with this decision, Akira removes the dagger from her belt and approaches Zuko. He forces himself not to flinch away from her. She cuts his left arm free then his right. Zuko wastes no time thanking his captors as he jumps up from his bed and darts toward the door. His fears are confirmed as his slow, uncoordinated limbs send him banging painfully into the corner of the dresser. He tumbles over the wooden chair before he finally escapes out of the room. He curses his weak legs as he trips over his own feet forcing him to lean against the wall for support. His bruised side throbs but it is the least of his worries.

He hears Akira shout after him but senses no pursuit. Protecting that dotty old lady no doubt. He stumbles forward until he sees a hallway to his left. Quickly plunging down it he belatedly realizes that two men sit in kitchen at the end of the passage and he curses his luck until he notices Katara sitting with them at a table. Zuko stands in the doorway staring at the scene in confusion. Katara sits next to the window on the opposite side of the round table with the man named Takumo to her right and another burlier man to her left. Katara hops up when she notices him panting in the doorway.

"Zuko!" she exclaims in surprise. The two men immediately swivel around to stare at the wild escapee. One tries to inconspicuously reach over to a sword leaning against the table but Zuko doesn't hesitate as he charges forward into the larger of the two.

"Zuko, no! Don't fight them!" he hears Katara shout, but he ignores her warning.

As soon as the first man falls the other, Takumo, yanks him up off his comrade. Zuko throws an elbow back into Takumo's nose who immediately yelps and releases Zuko to cradle face. He aims another blow at the younger man's face but strong hand grabs his arm before he can deliver the blow. The big man yanks Zuko off his feet using the arm he'd grabbed so he's dangling a few inches above the wood floor.

"Stop this," the large man commands as if Zuko was merely acting like spoiled child. He jerks Zuko back and forth as he attempts to literally shake some sense into him. Zuko grabs at his shoulder in pain. It was still weak from being dislocated a week ago. He can feel it groaning against the abuse.

"Please put him down, Hiro" Katara says in a strained voice as she moves from behind the table. No doubt she knows the condition of his shoulder since she'd been the one to heal him after they'd escaped from their first capture. When neither man moves Zuko attempts to make his captured hand scalding hot. Sweat beads on his forehead as he struggles to produce the basic bending technique. After a moment of intense concentration he senses a slight change in his inner fire. Suddenly the man drops Zuko with a pained shout. Zuko gives a triumphant laugh as he crouches on the ground.

Upon seeing his comrade burned Takumo shouts angrily and raises his sword. Steeling himself against his growing dizziness Zuko looks around him for another sword. Finding himself with no options Zuko balls his fists and lunges despite the raised weapon. Before either can connect with their target, a large wave of water collides with Zuko, Takumo, and the large man sending them into the wall. With his dizziness finally overwhelming him, Zuko slides to the floor unable to recover from the shock of Katara defending his attackers. They, however, are able to recover quickly. Just as quickly though Katara slides between the two men to place herself between them and Zuko.

"Stop fighting!" she shouts as she throws her arms out blocking Zuko from their fists and weapons. Zuko watches in complete surprise as the two soaked men immediately step back and lower their fists. He doesn't know why they stopped and he doesn't care. He focuses his failing energy to pull himself back up into an upright position. Katara quickly turns around points an angry finger at Zuko who flinches away from it.

"Zuko stop it. These are not our enemies," she says with authority.

"What are you talking about?" he shouts back. "I wake up tied to a bed, unable to bend and you're defending them?"

Katara immediately regrets her harsh tone. Placing a cool hand on his cheek she continues in a gentler voice. "It's not what you think. Let me explain."

You are going to hate me for this chapter because it poses more questions and offers only a few answers. Like who has captured our two lovers? What do they want? Will Zuko and Katara ever reconcile? All in good time folks.

please, Please, PLEASE review! love, M-useless100