Sorry this took so long. I swear I didn't mean for it to. But I've finished writing, and so I thought I'd edit and post this in celebration of Zukaang week. Check out "thishasbeenahostiletakeover"'s tumblr account for more information on Zukaang week if you're interested!
Anyway, I hope you enjoy! Yay!
Aang stood frozen as he felt hands grasp his arms tightly. Ropes bound his hands together. Ties fastened the thick cloth sack snugly over his head. He began to thrash against his binds, calling out for help. Yells from Zuko told him that the Fire Lord was facing the same predicament. Breathing in deeply, Aang moved to airbend against the large body pressing against him-
And nothing happened. He let out a grunt of surprise, and tried it again. Not even a breeze. What the hell was going on?
"Get off me!" Zuko's strangled yells sounded muffled through his sack. "What the hell!"
Aang gave a gasp as he was suddenly lifted up onto a man's shoulder, bent double like a sack of potatoes. The man began to trot forward, and Aang was bounced up and down, knocking the wind out of him. It was then that the dank, musty smell of the sac wafted to him, the smell of wet dog mixed with a sickly odor. Like it had been sprayed by something...
In desperation, Aang attempted to firebend and got nothing. He even tried reaching out with his earthbending and got only darkness. Panic welled up inside his mind, but he forced it down. He attempted to clear his mind, like the monks had taught him long ago. It was far more difficult than it should have been. His mind felt clouded, as though he'd been awake for days but couldn't sleep. He wracked his mind for an answer, explanations slipping through his fingers. Desperately he snatched at an answer: The sacs... are drugged? The thought came through like a fish through molasses.
"My firebending!" He could hear Zuko still thrashing beside him. Someone must have picked him up too, and from the sounds of it, he was having the same issue with bending that Aang was. The loud roar his friend let out next made Aang wince. He was beginning to develop a killer migraine. He let out a deep sigh. There was nothing for it but to wait and see where the men took him, he supposed.
Bouncing along through the tunnels, Aang let himself zone out, and even thought he fell asleep once or twice. The drug - if it even was a drug - seemed to be sapping him of his energy as well. Even Zuko had calmed down, the only sounds in the tunnel the pattering of their captor's feet. Aang briefly wondered if Toph had met the same fate. Maybe they would meet her at the end of their journey, trussed up like some animal at an Earth Kingdom rodeo.
"The Drouzier wants them taken to the arena holding room," the man carrying Aang slurred suddenly, his accent so thick Aang could hardly understand what he said. Aang blinked, trying to push the haze from his mind. The arena? He couldn't have thought about what that meant had he wanted to.
Aang felt the man turn sharply, descending deeper into the mountain. His captor's footsteps began to mingle with other footfalls echoing off the cavern walls. Aang could hear people whisper as they passed, too low for him to catch what they were saying. He tried to push questions through his brain - Who were these people? Did they have an entire civilization down here? What was going to happen to him? - but his brain was still blurred by the drugs. It was a miracle he could even focus on staying awake.
Without warning Aang was thrown from the man's shoulder. He landed hard, forcing a pained yelp. A moment later the sack was ripped away. Light flooded Aang's eyes. He gave a cry and shut them tight, his headache protesting painfully.
"How long will the drugs last?" Aang's captor asked impatiently. Aang slowly cracked open one eye, watching as the man tossed the sack aside lazily. He was a large, burly man, black hair stretching down to his waist - and, to Aang's slight surprise, completely naked. He closed his eyes again to allow the man some decency - that's what he told himself, anyway.
"I dunno," a second man said in the same slurred accent. A second later Aang heard Zuko hit hard against the floor. "Long enough, I suppose."
Opening one eye against the light, Aang took in the second man. Much the same as the first, the man had long hair - blond this time - and strong muscles. And was completely naked. Aang's eye wandered of it's own accord, and widened as it settled on the man's waist. He was huge! No! Now was not the time to be thinking about that! He had to get free.
"Go inform the Drouzier of our trespassers' arrival," the second man said, crossing arms over a massive chest and leaning back against the small cave-room's wall. "I'll keep watch."
As the first man left the room, Aang allowed himself to study his surroundings. There wasn't much to the room. A small stone desk sat bare-topped against one wall, two plain wooden chairs set beside it. A torch hung from the wall above the desk, it's small fire illuminating the room with a flickering light. The rest of the room appeared empty, save for the burly, naked man. The man stared down at Zuko, a sort of hunger in his eyes. It made Aang flinch. What were these men going to do with them?
Lying there against the stone floor, sack no longer covering his head, the wheels in Aang's brain slowly began to turn once more. It appeared that this Drouzier had known they were in the tunnels and sent for their capture. That meant the entire network of caves was watched and inhabited by this small, underground civilization. Aang hoped that Toph had managed to evade their detection. Whatever was going to happen to Zuko and himself, they were likely going to need Toph to get them out. Aang tried his airbending again, and quietly sighed as it produced the barest of a whisper. It was returning, but painfully slow.
With a yawn the man guarding them strutted - there was no other word for it - over to one of the chairs and plopped himself down, tapping fingers against the stone table. Aang watched him a moment before making a subtle attempt to roll over so that he was facing Zuko. His friend looked as ragged as Aang felt, staring up at the ceiling with his mouth hanging slightly open.
"Zuko..." Aang whispered, so quietly that he himself barely heard it. He quickly glanced at the guard and, satisfied that the man hadn't heard him, returned his gaze to Zuko. His friend hadn't heard him either, continuing to stare up at the ceiling like a dead ferret-weasel. His half-lidded eyes were out of focus. Maybe he had been knocked unconscious?
Summoning up the nerve, Aang muttered a bit louder, "Zuko." Again there was no reaction from neither guard nor Fire Lord. With a sigh of frustration, Aang slowly reached out with his bound hands, keeping one eye on the guard, and shook Zuko slightly, then forcibly. Zuko snapped back to the present with a jolt, his head swiveling to meet Aang's eyes. Aang could see the guard watching with some interest now, his brow furrowed as through ready to intervene.
Attempting to use his eyes to communicate, Aang motioned up, then to the side, then around. Meaning, "We get up, run over to the guard, and surround him." Zuko raised an eyebrow, obviously confused. So instead he held up his hands, fingers hidden from the guard behind his body, and motioned, "Up, walk, fight."
This time Zuko's raised eyebrow wasn't out of confusion, but realization at how ridiculous that plan was. Aang shrugged. They were drugged, unable to bend or even move properly, and facing a man four times their size, but it was the best plan they had. It was that or... Aang still refused to think about what these nude men with their large members wanted with them. He felt uncomfortable just thinking about thinking about it.
Before Aang could convince Zuko to give it a try the first man, Aang's original captor, re-entered the room with a small smile on his face.
"What did the Drouzier say?" the second man asked as soon as the first entered the room.
"An arena match. Against the Beast."
Aang watched as a smile spread across the guard's face. Well, Aang thought, that sounded a lot better than... the alternative.
Before he could so much as wiggle, Aang was lifted into the air and thrown over the blond man's shoulders like a slain Deer-Cow. Once Zuko had been scooped up in a similar fashion, the men trotted from the room, down a dimly lit hall where other naked people had stopped to gossip and wait for a glimpse of the captives, and across a small cavern to a small hole. Once through the hole, they proceeded down a flight of crudely shaped steps, and out into what Aang could only call the most cavernous room he had ever seen. Ceiling too high to see from his position, the room sunk further down. What looked suspiciously like seats were worked by the hundreds around a large oval space, slanted so that the farthest seat was also the highest. The space at the center was empty, but it certainly brought to mind an arena. As Aang glanced around the room, he could see people already filing in from dozens of other entrances, rapidly filling the seats, a low murmuring buzz settling over the cavern. It appeared that they were to be the entertainment for the afternoon. Great.
Moving down toward the oval, the men passed a massive seat. high backed and studded with uncut gems, it was flanked by two smaller yet intricately worked chairs. Aang wondered if that was where this "Drouzier" would be sitting. Was he their leader, perhaps? If Aang could get free, maybe he could talk the man into some sort of peace treaty. He doubted it though.
With a grunt, Aang's carrier leapt from the viewing area, landing hard on the ground of the oval fifteen feet below. It took him only a moment to recover and walk over to where Aang could see a set of chains laid out against the ground, attached to the wall with thick links. Experimentally Aang pushed a circle of air with his legs, and nodded in satisfaction as it pushed forward. His bending was still returning. Those links would be no problem as long as they had enough time.
Aang was dropped unceremoniously to the floor, his binds cut with a sharp knife. Aang immediately grabbed a handful of dirt and threw it at the man's face. The burly man swatted the dirt away with lightning reflexes, grabbed Aang's ankle, and threw a set of chains around them, locking his legs together. Another pair went around his wrists, and a thick chain, oddly, went around his neck. He felt thoroughly captured as he watched the man walk toward a small door set in the arena's side. The only other entrance or exit to the arena was a large caged hole against the far wall, the bars rattling loudly every so often. Aang stared at that a moment, swallowing unconsciously.
"Aang," Zuko called from across the arena, pulling futilely at his chains. "Can you bend yet? Do you have it back?"
Closing his eyes, Aang summoned all the strength he had, and formed an air knife, swiping it against the chains around his wrists. They shuddered under the pressure, but it left no mark. Not nearly as strong as a full bend would have done.
"A little," he replied, trying again. Still no mark. "Nothing to be of any use. You?"
A small puff of fire whirled around Zuko's hand, and he shook his head. "What are we going to do? You don't suppose this is some crazy trick of Toph's, do you?"
Aang snorted. If it was, he was going to strangle her with his own hands. "The only thing we can do is keep trying," he said, and sliced another air knife.
Above them, where the three large seats stood, a man appeared. He was massive, muscles bulging as he crossed his arms. And as naked as his captors had been. Torchlight glinted off his teeth. The man was smiling as he watched them struggle with their bonds. It was a game to him. A show.
Zuko's fire began to truly rage, slamming against the shackles again and again. Aang could feel the heat from the fire from across the arena. Marks had begun to appear on Aang's own shackles, small but enough to give him some glimmer of hope. Only a few more minutes and he would have his hands free, then the rest of him soon after. He could make it.
As he fought his shackles, Aang couldn't help but wonder if Toph was nearby, watching them. Had she known this was going to happen? Where the hell had she gone? It seemed unlikely that she had simply been captured, not without Aang and Zuko hearing some sort of resistance. Crap, maybe she had planned this out!
And, despite the situation, Aang's mind went to his and Zuko's relationship. They had wanted to put it aside and ignore it, for the good of the world, though it hurt Aang to think that they wouldn't be together. He had hurt Katara for nothing, and made it awkward between him and his best friend. Knowing Katara, she wouldn't stand for that. Once she got over the initial shock, Aang would have to deal with her nagging for them to get together. The others would likely follow suite.
...No! Aang slammed hard against the shackles as a realization came to him. That's why they were there! That's why Toph had unexpectedly invited him and Zuko out to explore these caves, and then completely ditched them. It was a conspiracy! A plan to get him and Zuko to talk to each other! The way they had been acting, Aang was sure his other friends had noticed the tension between them, and he was willing to bet money that they were all involved in this little scheme. Well! Now it had backfired, put them in-
"Prepare the beast!" The deep voice echoed through the entire cavern, ominous. A murmur rippled through the people already gathered in the arena. Crap, how long did "preparing" this beast take? Panic began welling up inside him.
Aang pulled against the iron shackles, hitting them with one air knife after another. They rattled under the abuse, but refused to give in.
"Aang!" Zuko called from across the room. The heat of his firebending was suffocating the air, but it seemed to be having the same effect as Aang's airbending. Where the hell was Toph!
Glancing up at the man standing above them, Aang could feel the sweat begin to pour down his face. People continued filing into the stadium's seats, their forms mere shadows in the dim light of the torches.
"This isn't funny anymore, Toph!" Aang shouted, his voice echoing against the cavern's walls. "Toph!" He knew she was close!
The man above turned away with a laugh, and began speaking quietly to a figure shroud in shadows.
Biting his lips, the panic beginning to well inside him, Aang turned to Zuko. "I'm sorry," he said, his voice quiet so that only Zuko could hear. "I should have admitted my feelings for you in the beginning and... I'm sorry."
Zuko raised an eyebrow at Aang. "Is this really the time for this?" he said, his voice strained.
Aang shook his head, and buffeted his shackles as hard as he could. They could talk about it once they were free. At the moment, they-
Bars fell forward in apparent slow motion, landing against the floor with a loud "clang". The creature that leaped forward from the shadows was a thing of nightmare. Twenty feet tall and covered in horns, it had a massive black carapace, six stalking legs, and a face set with two gargantuan, red eyes. It stepped forward, sniffing angrily, lids sliding sideways against its eyes. It looked like some sort of giant insect.
Bend! Bend! Shit! Toph! Aang's thoughts streamed together, his eyes darting between the beast and his shackles. The creature appeared to be sizing up its prey, preparing for the kill. They were dead men!
A strong burst of air broke his wrist shackles with a snap, the chains dropping to the floor. That grabbed the beast's attention. Realizing its prey was getting free, it let out a massive roar, one that shook the cavern to its core, and charged, dozens of teeth hanging in a gaping maw.
Not taking the time to think, Aang summoned all the power he could and sent a wave of fire toward the beast. It left his hands at the same moment a blast of fire left Zuko's, both slamming into the beast's face. It slid to a halt, emitting a roar of pain, and Aang took the moment's reprieve to start slashing at his leg chains. They gave more easily than the wrist ones, and as the beast recovered from the attack, those chains too fell away.
The beast wasted no time in beginning its charge anew. Holding his breath, Aang took a swipe at the chain linked to the brace around his neck, and a second. As his third landed, the links broke, and he lurched forward, rolling under the beast's legs. It passed over him, skidding to a halt as it realized its mouth was still empty.
Leaping to his feet Aang ran over to where Zuko was still struggling with his chains. He lashed out with his airbending, feeling it returning to full power. As Zuko's final chains fell away, the beast turned, examining its prey. They were more dangerous now, no longer chained to a wall. Aang smiled smugly, using a swipe of air to release the brace still wrapped around his neck.
Crouching down into a fighting stance, Aang readied himself. Now that he was free, and had the majority of his bending back, this creature should be no problem for him. A little fire here, a little air there.
As the beast began its charge once again, Aang ran forward, and then leapt straight into the ground, bending the rock around his body. He shot up again, layered in a thick coating of rock, headed by a sharp lance point. He felt more than saw his human-sized rock lance rip through one of the beast's legs. A cry of pain threatened to bring his headache back as Aang landed lithely on the ground. He smiled. It appeared he had not only his bending back, but the full use of his body. The drug hadn't lasted long at all, not on the Avatar.
Fire erupted against the beast's face once, twice, three times as Zuko jogged around the squirming mass of carapace, hands flying with fire. As he approached Aang, he let his hands drop, hands on his knees. His firebending didn't seem to be back to full yet, or his energy. Aang wondered briefly what that drug had been.
"What did you mean?" Zuko breathed, watching the beast carefully.
"Huh?" Aang replied intelligibly.
"Before, when you said that you should have told me how you felt to begin with," Zuko clarified. The beast was stirring, and Aang could see anger in its eyes.
"I thought you said this wasn't the time for that." Aang stomped a foot, sending a slab of earth crashing down on the beast's head. At least his earthbending seemed to be working again too. Perhaps it hadn't been the cave walls earlier that had stopped it. Aang was going to have a few choice words with Toph when he saw her next.
Zuko stared at the beast a moment, then shrugged. "We're not in any real danger now. I think you have it subdued rather nicely."
"Kill them!" a voice suddenly boomed, and Aang's gaze shot to where the Drouzier stood in front of his chair. Two rather naked women hung from his sides, breasts hanging free. Aang blushed at the indecency of it. Feelings for Zuko or no feelings for Zuko, naked women still made him uncomfortable.
"Time to go," he said, turning toward the same door his captor had used only minutes before. He could already hear feet landing on the ground behind him. A shot of fire blazed passed his ear, and he winced, feeling the skin singe from the heat.
As they reached the door, a slab of earth jutted up, barring their way. Aang moved to bend it back into the ground, but it slid away on its own, revealing their path once more. They continued forward hastily. Another slab blocked their path and was pushed aside, and then a third. Zuko ran a step behind Aang, looking over his shoulder and trying his best to negate any fire sent their way.
"What the...?" Zuko muttered as one wall seemed to jolt back and forth, as though not sure whether to block their path or not. As they passed it slid shut, giving them a second's reprieve from the ever increasing shots of fire.
"Toph," Aang explained as quick as possible. "At least we know where she is now."
As though the name were a summons, Toph slid out of the ground, already at a run. "Hi guys," she said nonchalantly. She ducked as the barrier was pushed aside and a ball of fire shot over her head.
"Where the hell have you been?" Zuko demanded, his breath already starting to come short. Between months of desk work and the drugs they'd been wrapped in, Aang wasn't sure Zuko was going to be able to keep up all the way to the top.
"Oh, you know, around," Toph shrugged, then smiled. "So, anything interesting happen while I was gone?"
"Agh!" Zuko shouted in frustration and stopped dead. "This!" He gestured at the pursuing army of people crowding the tunnels. As he did so, a massive wave of fire shot from his hands, engulfing the entire tunnel. Sweat sprung up on Aang's brow from the heat as he watched their pursuers get torched alive.
Dropping his hands and breathing hard, Zuko turned away and began trotting forward again. Aang took a moment to lift a slab of earth to bar their retreat, and followed. He couldn't help but think that had been an unnecessary cruelty, but he let it go. They had been trying to kill him, after all.
"Talk about much?" Toph asked once she had determined they were on the right path to the exit.
"Subtle much?" Aang quirked an eyebrow.
Toph stuck her tongue out at him. "I heard you. All, 'Ooo, Zuko, I had feelings from the beginning!'"
"You were close enough to hear that and yet you didn't do anything to help?" Zuko appeared ready to lose his temper, and no wonder. Had Aang not had years of training with the monks, he might have taken a swipe at Toph himself.
"Well, yeah. The goal of the trip was to make you talk. I had to listen in to make sure you did." She shrugged as though it were no big deal.
"We'll talk when we get back to the palace," Aang told her. They rounded a bend in the cave, the slope began to lead sharply upwards. "In private," he added when he saw her smile. He muttered silently to himself. His friends were going to be the death of him.
Next Chapter should be up later this week! I'll add more comments here when I have time. To work with me!