In which there is sneaking, a Fire Nation forest, and some banter (which is a fun word, by the way). I'm also experimenting with chapter length, so I would very much like your opinion. I don't want this massive block of text, which can be tiresome. Also, any comments on content are quite welcome!
Thank you to those who've reviewed so far! I have the whole story written already, so there's no need to worry about updates. I just now figured out I can edit documents on here (don't worry, I'm already kicking myself *eyeroll*), so Lilako, I'm fixing the issue with the author's note running into the story. Now it can actually look like it does on my Word doc.
Zuko followed the bounty hunter, Inara, up the tree, then reached a hand down for Katara. The night was pitch black, and clad in black, with their faces covered, the three intruders could barely be seen.
"Just up ahead there is the prison," Inara whispered, pointing toward a squat building surrounded by armed guards. "The wall's solid stone, a foot thick. Guards pass this spot once every minute." Inara began crouch walking across the thick branches, taking them to a point slightly further ahead.
"Hau said you had a map," Zuko whispered, referring to his Chief of Staff, Minister Hau, keeping his good side to her. She had accepted the job to scout out the high security prison from Hau. She had no idea the two "bounty hunters" she would be working with were the Fire Lord himself and the Southern Water Tribe's Ambasssador and part-time Foreign Relations Advisor to the Fire Lord.
"I do have a map, but I wouldn't dare bring it with me." Her voice was slightly mocking as she winked at him. "If you need a chance to rest, or you miss the gap in the guards, there's a shaded spot where that tree hangs over."
Katara was clutching the back of Zuko's shirt, pointing toward the oncoming patrol. "We have company."
Inara nodded and took them higher in the tree. Zuko scaled after her effortlessly, but watched Katara struggle. He wanted her along for combat and moral support, but if she couldn't get over the wall in time, it could end up costing them their lives. This prison was still an Ozai stronghold; some of the guards were loyal to whomever paid them, but many were still Ozai supporters. To have Zuko in their hands? Things would most certainly not end well.
Higher in the tree, they were completely covered in shadow, but still had to keep their voices down. Zuko pulled Katara in front of him as Inara started firing off a series of military hand signals.
"We're resting for two minutes then we've got to get out of here. We'll head two trees over, then drop one by one. Guards stick pretty close to the prison, so the further out we are, the safer we'll be," he whispered in her ear.
"What's the matter? Don't you do military?" Inara whispered, just as close to Katara as Zuko was.
"Sorry, my training was more combat-oriented, not sneaking through trees," Katara whispered, eyes narrowed and arms crossed.
Zuko couldn't help smiling. Her training, such as it was, had been with him during stolen moments at the palace. At Inara's signal, the three began their move, feet jostling the branches so that the leaves whispered against each other. Three shadows in the deep of night. Any guards that caught sight of their movement could easily pass it off as the trees, or native jungle animals, but Zuko's heart still pounded. As Inara dropped silently to the ground, Zuko groped for his dagger, just to make sure it was there. They might be further away from the guards, but that didn't mean danger couldn't find them. They were deep in a Fire Nation forest, after all.
Zuko dropped down after Inara, and only hesitated a second while deciding if he should catch Katara. A hard landing might catch someone's attention, but he didn't want to baby her. It might keep them from getting caught in the moment, but she'd give him hell for it later. As he took cover behind a thicket of berry bushes with Inara, Katara made a sloppy landing, but recovered, rolling to her feet and diving into the bush.
"She's not very stealthy, is she?" Inara asked.
"Like she said, her specialty is combat," Zuko said stiffly. He started to reach for Katara's hand, but thought better of it. It was only a short run from there to their camp. And by run, he meant flat out, and hope you don't trip.
Zuko took the lead, knowing the forest well, and lead them through several twists and turns, only stopping to see if they were being followed. A couple times, he thought he saw someone, or heard a thump, but it could have also been any number of animals. Vaulting over a fallen tree, Zuko hooked a hard right, grabbing onto a branch for leverage. Sneaking around was very therapeutic. Zuko emptied his mind, concentrated on his breathing, pumping his legs, and that dull ache in his back from being stooped over for so long. He would see about getting Katara to massage the tension away later.
They didn't slow down until they were a mile out from camp. Zuko gave a hand signal for them to spread out and search the area. He couldn't remember if he'd tried teaching that one to Katara or not, but hoped that she'd get the hint from what he and Inara were doing. It took her a few seconds, but she did. Good girl.
"Camp" was by a stream, and they weren't even in a clearing. They'd picked a place surrounded by dead leaves and twigs, and had taken great pains to not move a thing. They'd done a pretty good job of making the spot look uninhabited. Inara was about to step into the camp area, but Zuko motioned for her to stay put. He wanted to wait a little longer. It was clear Inara was tired, and she crossed her arms and rolled her eyes to mime her frustration, but Zuko kept them there, crouched around the campsite in the bushes for ten minutes before giving the all clear. They'd heard nothing but the unmistakable noise of the forest.
"Someone's a little paranoid," Inara said, voice now at full volume, kicking at a pile of leaves. They'd stashed their gear before heading out on their scouting mission.
"It's kept me alive," Zuko said, heading to the stream. He enjoyed the exercise, but hated that sticky feeling, or the sweat running down his back. He peeled his shirt off and tossed it to the side as Inara and Katara started digging up their supplies.
"Any idea how long you'll be working this one?" Inara asked Katara as they sorted out their supplies.
"This job? We're just here to raid the prison."
"Heh, figures Hau would send in someone fresh just for the raid, when I've been stuck scouting and relaying information for the past six months. It's ok, though. I see Hau sent me a present."
There was a pause in the conversation, and Zuko hoped like all hell that she wasn't talking about him. He dipped his hands in the stream, conscious of the two women watching him, and rubbed the water on his face and smoothing it back into his hair. It was like ice, and refreshing against his overheated skin. He did it again.
"Hau sends you men?" Katara asked.
"Think of it as a consolation prize. And I must've been a real good girl for him to send me this one."
"He can hear you, you know," Katara said, no small amount of irritation in her voice.
"No he can't, he's too far away."
"She's right," Zuko called, turning toward them. He picked up his shirt and headed to look through their supplies. There were a few water skins and some food, but mostly weapons, maps, rope and some official documents that would absolve any bounty hunter that he employed of all wrongdoing in case they ran against the law. They didn't actually plan to spend the night in the forest; they'd planned to meet, stash their gear, and scout out the prison. Inara would be their guide for two nights before leaving them to finish the mission on their own.
When everything was separated, Katara stood closer to Zuko, rubbed his arm, took his shirt from him. "Want me to wash this out?"
"It can wait until we get to the inn. Everything's already arranged?"
Inara laughed. "Oh, I see. You've already claimed this one for yourself."
Zuko rolled his eyes and made a mental note to talk to Hau about the way certain people were rewarded.
"As a matter of fact, this one's been mine for three years." It wasn't entirely true, especially since they'd been dating other people for a large part of those three years, but Zuko kept quiet. He found Katara's possessiveness amusing and endearing as she stepped in between him and Inara, like she as guarding her prize.
He did not, in any way, appreciate the look Inara gave him. It wasn't terribly far from the look Sokka gave meat on someone else's plate. He crossed his arms across his bare chest and looked at the both of them. "I'm not currency, you know." It was all too much like being groped when he waited tables at the Jasmine Dragon in Ba Sing Se.
Inara shrugged. "Suit yourself. But if you ever want to try a different flavor, look me up. We'll meet back here tomorrow night?"
Inara gave them a brief salute before heading deeper into the forest with her bag slung over her shoulder. Zuko didn't wait for any comment from Katara before taking both of their packs and trudging off in the direction of a town five miles from their campsite. Katara tried to start a conversation at least four different times, but Zuko always silenced her. They stopped frequently, and a journey that should have taken them an hour at the worst through the densest vegetation, ended up taking them twice as long. After the first fifteen minutes, Katara had given up trying to talk to Zuko. She might be mad at him, but she'd get over it.
Zuko still hadn't made up his mind if the silence was reassuring, or if it just meant they were about to die.