THE FIRST THING he saw was flailing arms. Human arms. A child's arms, struggling up through the river's rushing waters and held down by a tangle of branches.
Instinct took over and he scampered down the bank, wading through the shallow and painfully cold water at the river's edge. The fist-sized, slippery round stones of the river bottom made him look drunk as he charged into the knee-deep waters. He glanced right, timing the approach of floating logs, and prepared to dive.
The limbs of the first log struck him, knocking him off balance. The branches scraped across his back, tearing open his tunic and dragging him down under. Just as quickly he was being lifted up out of the water, resurfacing as he struggled out of the grasp of tangled limbs. Gasping for air, he finally found his balance and dodged the next log, glaring back at a female figure standing on the bank.
"Thanks for the save," he growled, still sputtering out water. "You think you could give me a hand?"
The woman looked at him seriously for a moment and then began clapping. He glowered. She was the waterbender. Why wasn't she the one out here?
Barrelling towards him was the final tree: the one with the human arms he had seen upstream. A tongue of torn wood aimed like a lance, the tree was well over a foot thick and likely weighed at least a hundred kilos or more. Driven by the force of the running river, it would hit him like a battering ram if he didn't avoid it.
He could use his fire to burn it, but he would risk harming the child. But then he no longer saw the arms thrashing, and for an instant he wondered if he had seen them at all. The tree, though, still bore upon him. And if there was no child to begin with, was it worth risking his life? He'd have to react quickly: burn the tree barrelling down upon him or try to jump it and look for the kid, or he could dive underneath and try to catch the child as he sailed by.
Drawing in a lungful of air, he dove the four feet to the river bottom and blindly reached out to grab onto a flat mossy rock. White-knuckled, he held on tightly as the limbs broomed over him, snagging his hair and yanking his head up and back. A chunk of hair tore loose and he screamed into the water. One-handing the rock, he tried his best to protect his face as the remaining limbs scraped raw the flesh of his forearm.
He swore silently at the thought of the waterbender standing on the shore, quietly observing and doing nothing. He knew if he failed, she would succeed. She always did. But it didn't assuage his anger knowing that she was making him do this alone.
Finally, in his blurred vision appeared a child's pale bare foot. He let go of the rock, grabbed the ankle with both hands and followed up the leg to the child's waist. Planting his feet in the maze of rocks on the river bottom, he propelled himself and the child up out of the water and into the snarl of tree branches. The tree limbs whipped and dug into his arms and face, demanding the release of the child, but he would not let go.
Falling back into the water, he waited for the last tree to pass before swimming back to shore. He threw the child down on the beach first before dragging himself onto the damp sand. He opened his eyes to see the terrified boy gazing back at him. And that was when he noticed the colour of boy's eyes. They were golden eyes; they were his eyes.
LYING ON SWEAT-SOAKED sheets, Zuko awoke to the sight of a rusty-coloured stone ceiling. Rays of soft light filtered into his vision, coming from somewhere to his left, signally a new day. Soon the blaring sun would be edging above the horizon. Morning. A time for new hopes; a time to be up and doing.
New hopes. Zuko almost laughed at the thought. Exactly how long had he been asleep?
He moved quickly, too quickly, and the spinning vertigo in his head seized him long before the sharpness in his joints. He fell back onto the bed. The last thing he remembered was telling Katara to kill him. What had he done, and why? Thank the spirits she had stopped him. If she hadn't, he—
No, he didn't even want to think about it. All he wanted to know was that she was all right.
This time he sat up slowly, his entire body aching as he tried to take in his surroundings. Blank walls, not unlike a prison cell, a bedside cabinet to his immediate right, a desk and chair near the foot of the bed. He was in his own sleeping quarters. As he struggled to sit up, sweat popped out on his face and neck. He winced at the pain in his head and limbs, suppressing groans and biting back curses until he was finally upright. Katara had certainly done a number on him.
Zuko instinctively reached for a knife inside his sleeve but stopped. Ouji was sitting on the stone bench near the door, studying him carefully. The young man was dressed as a guard but his hood was down, revealing long brown dreadlocks and brilliant blue eyes. There was a tired sort of calmness in his features, tempered with wariness and relief—relief that Zuko was awake but wariness if he was truly sane or not.
Zuko relaxed, removing his fingers from the blade, and sunk back into the mattress. "Nightmare," he said hoarsely, his voice rusty with lack of use.
He glanced down at the cabinet, noting the silver gleam of his mask. He wondered exactly how Ouji had brought him here and how long he had been out. By the feel of the sun starting to creep down his back, he assumed hours.
"What was it about?"
"What was what about?" Zuko had already swung his legs over the bed, holding his head in his hands.
"Your nightmare." Ouji stood and picked up the chair at the desk, moving it closer to the futon before taking a seat.
"Oh." Zuko let out a long breath and released his head from his hands before sagging back into the mattress. "I—it was more like remembering the past. A long time ago, when my family got along, we used to spend summers at Ember Island. There was this cliff and forest area behind our villa. You know, the kind with rapid rivers and cascading waterfalls?"
"No, I wouldn't." Ouji had spoken the words plainly, without a hint of bitterness, but Zuko still winced. He had momentarily forgot that this boy had only known the desert and walls of prison.
"Anyway," Zuko went on with a quick clearing of his throat, "there was this one time when I was really young—Azula was only a baby at the time—I decided to climb these rocks overlooking the rapids. They had been cutting down trees earlier and I wanted to see. I guess I was playing around because I suddenly slipped and fell, tumbling head-first down the cliff into the water below."
"Some sort of childhood trauma, maybe?"
Zuko snorted. He'd had enough of those. It was hard to distinguish one from the other.
"Maybe." He chewed on his bottom lip distractedly. "Only the thing is I wasn't seeing it through my eyes."
"What do you mean?"
Zuko sighed and raked his fingers through his hair. "I remember there was a man who saved me. He dove in and pulled me out of the water. He looked—well, he kinda looked like me. Same eyes."
"Was it your father?"
"No." Zuko shook his head slowly. "No, I'm fairly certain it wasn't him." He stared past Ouji, his golden eyes glazing over. "I'm not sure who it was."
"Well—" Ouji placed his hands on his knees and stood up with a grunt "—seems like it was a relatively normal dream."
Zuko glanced up at the young man. How could Ouji know that—how could even he know for sure?
"How do I know this isn't some trigger?" Zuko hadn't meant to say that aloud, but he couldn't take back his words now; he couldn't retract his open fears.
"Look at it this way," Ouji said with a shrug, "earlier when you went crazy you couldn't remember what was going on or what triggered your change. At least you remembered this dream. That's probably a good sign."
Zuko sighed. "I hope you're right. I really do." He fumbled around for his hood and gripped it tightly before placing his hands on his knees. "So how is Katara?" His voice sounded weak and painful to his ears but Ouji didn't seem to notice, or care.
"Fine. She's the one who knocked you out, you know." When Zuko failed to respond, Ouji brought up his own hood and frowned. "I know you probably have a lot of questions right now, but I'm not the one you should be asking. You need to talk to Kala."
Zuko nodded curtly. "I agree."
He wanted to know more about what they did to him and why. And while he could trust Ouji, he really didn't want to have a conversation about Katara with him, even if Ouji did miraculously have all the answers.
When Ouji turned to leave, Zuko stood up. "Wait, where are you off to?"
Ouji paused, his hand on the door. "Morning check. I gotta be in the coolers before they notice I'm gone."
Zuko should have let it drop at that, but for some reason he didn't quite feel like being alone right then. "Don't forget to use the breathing exercises I taught you yesterday," he said, knowing it sounded lame. But to his surprise Ouji turned and gave him a characteristic grin.
"Yeah, I will. Still colder than hell in there, though."
Zuko smiled. "I hear you."
There was an awkward exchange of silence and then Ouji dropped his hand from the door. He slowly turned around to face Zuko.
"Before I go—" he reached inside his cloak and produced a small stack of papers "—here. I wanted to give these to you sooner but, well, we were both kinda busy."
Zuko stepped forward and took the papers from Ouji's hands. "What are these?"
"They're mo—" Ouji stopped himself and grimaced slightly "—they're your mother's letters."
Zuko stared down at them, dumbfounded and at a loss for words. "I-I—thank you."
Ouji curtly inclined his head. "Well, good luck to you, and see you tonight."
Zuko followed the kid's back as he left, waiting until the door closed behind him. He sat down on the bed and stared at the yellowing parchment for what seemed like minutes before taking in a deep breath and carefully opening the first letter.
"My dearest son,
"I write these letters knowing that you may never read them and for that I am grateful, more than I could possibly express. If anything, I need to know that you are out there somewhere, outside these drab prison walls, safe and happy, living a life unburdened with the dark stains of sorrow and regret. But should you come to find these letters, know that the words I write come from the heart and in these words you will find the memories and truths that belong to you—that are you—because you are my heart.
"Someday when you are older you will seek answers; though others may give you some form of the truth, you must never think that there was something you might have done. It is a mother's duty to protect her children, not the other way around. But no matter what you hear, please remember this: I did what I did out of love. My choices were my own."
Zuko set down the letter. He couldn't read any more. He didn't even notice the salty-wet tears sliding unabashedly down his cheeks. Instead, he gripped the letter tightly in his hand and pressed it to his heart, as though the ink and parchment alone could soothe his phantom wounds.
INSIDE HIS OFFICE, Kenzo paced.
"Yenzi? Where the hell is Yenzi?"
The sun had only begun to rise and the warden's day was already full. He could feel a cluster migraine breeding at the back of his eyes.
"He's in the infirmary, sir," the guard to his right answered tersely. "He came down with the pox last night."
"Dammit!" Kenzo growled, bringing a hand to his head.
The new guard had just transferred the other day and was already sick. Normally he'd blame it on the heat. Even seasoned Fire Nation citizens couldn't handle the arid heat of the desert at first. But the pox? That was another cluster migraine altogether. He couldn't risk his other guards coming down with it.
"We'll have to send him back on the boat tomorrow." Kenzo sighed wearily, rubbing at his eyes. "Atsuo won't get his leave now."
"Perhaps we should take him back tonight," the guard offered, "while it's cool."
"Travel by the light of the moon."
Kenzo spun towards the sound of the distinctly feminine voice. Yin stood regally in the doorway, her long black hair was woven into a tight cable that hung over her right shoulder. Today her robes were plum and gold, pooling over her dainty feet. She looked both out of place yet inexplicably at ease, fearing nothing. Though sightless, her eyes were levelled on Kenzo, filling the warden with an unmistakeable sense of dread. Now was not the time for him to panic, but it was hard to swallow back the urge. Besides, he was fairly certain she and her brother dined on fear.
"Yin-sama." He bowed lowly. "To what do I owe the pleasure?"
"I came here to request your services," she said with a velvety purr and a cat-like grin to match. It was almost as if she was trying to charm and unnerve him all at once. It worked, especially the latter. "But I shall wait until you're finished with your roll call."
"Tha-thank you," Kenzo stuttered, shocked at her patience.
Yin didn't wait to hear his words of appreciation. She was already gliding out the room, the golden hem of her robes barely grazing the floor. Outside the door stood her brother, Yang, dressed in matching plum colours with his sleek black hair loose, cascading down to the middle of his back. His face was smooth and cold, like chilled wine.
Yin nodded and a raven lock slipped loose from her braid. "He'll be looking for her. His shame won't keep him away for long." She tucked the errant strand behind her ear and tilted her head ever so slightly, her face impassive marble. "And soon it will all be over."
ZUKO MADE HIS way down the stairs towards the cool halls of the interrogation floor. Draped in a hooded cloak with his silver skull mask set in place, he somehow blended in with the stone and dark shadows that danced along the sconce-lit hallways.
He was a man on a mission, and not even the twins themselves could stop him now.
He passed a pair of guards along the way, walking in the opposite direction. They eyed him with open curiosity but not a hint of suspicion. And why should they? He wasn't just General Yao's assassin; he was Yin and Yang's man now, at least as far as they knew. He had full access to the prison and its inmates, and not a single guard batted an eyelash at this or at the fact that he never spoke.
Bring the old waterbender to interrogation cell two was what was written on the memo. No questions answered for no questions were asked.
Those same two guards glanced over their shoulders twice more before continuing on their way. They always gave the assassin his space, a wide berth. They no longer even bothered to stay on the same floor while he held an interrogation, leaving him to his work. Zuko hoped this naïve lack of suspicion would carry over well into his escape tonight. After all, why would they suspect him of a prison break? Better yet, what sort of mad man would have broken into this hell-hole in the first place? At least that's what he hoped they would think.
Hand on the door to cell two, Zuko unhooked the latch and slid it open smoothly. Kala was seated at the table in the middle of the room. Unperturbed, she turned her head slightly, steadily meeting his gaze. Those milky blue eyes of hers seemed to see right through him, not cruelly or accusingly, just intensely. It was as though she could see everything, and maybe she could.
"So this was your doing, then," she said calmly. It was more of a statement than a question.
Zuko slid the door shut behind him and removed his hood and next his mask, setting the latter down on the table. "My apologies, but I needed an excuse to come down here and release Ouji from the coolers before noon."
"Are you sure that's all?"
Zuko smiled thinly. "I should know better than to try to trick a mind-reader."
"You can try," she said with a simple shrug. "You just need to be less obvious about it, and less open with your thoughts."
He suddenly felt like a child being taught a lesson. So, with some care, he organised his thoughts. He locked away his darkest secrets—his deepest shame—in a place where the old woman's eyes could not follow. And then he concentrated solely on the matter at hand, the answers he sought from her.
"I need to know how you healed me." He absently fingered the black hood in his hand. "Or if you even did."
"Depends on your definition of healing." When he gave her a pointed look, Kala raised an eyebrow but continued, "I discovered how Yin and Yang were able to reach you—in your dreams."
"They were sending you impulses in your sleep, imprinting a behaviour onto your subconscious."
"How?" Zuko's brow creased in confusion. "How can they do something like that?"
"It's difficult to explain, but you are at your most vulnerable when you are asleep. Yin and Yang were able to enter your dreams and manipulate them. Over a prolonged period of time they were able to infiltrate your memories too, ultimately affecting your personality. Then, whenever they wanted, they would suggest tasks that you would later fulfil—when triggered."
"What is the trigger?"
Kala shrugged uncomfortably, a look of regret lingering on her features. "That I do not know. I did not have the time to walk freely through your mind—not with Yin and Yang paying such close attention to you."
Yin and Yang. When were they not pulling the strings?
Zuko swiftly brought his arms down to his sides and a sudden white-hot fury seized him. He trembled with rage. So no one knew what exactly had been done to him, how it was triggered or whether or not he would lose control again. Great. He was back to square one—with no options and no hope.
"So you don't know if I'm cured or can be cured," he said in a growl of a voice, pacing back and forth in a vain attempt to contain his anger. "They could activate me at any moment and get me to—get me to . . ." He couldn't finish his sentence. He didn't want to.
"They do not have complete control over you," Kala said, "not so long as you are aware of their control." She was regarding Zuko with a look that could have been considered sympathetic. "I can help you protect yourself against them, but—"
"But time is running out." Zuko stopped pacing, feeling the white-hot anger inside him deflate like a balloon. There was no point in remaining angry, not when everything was completely out of his control.
"You know what they want you to do," the old woman spoke plainly.
Zuko recoiled at the thought and took a step back before drawing in a deep breath. He shook his head and measured the old woman sitting in front of him, mulling over her words.
"I know what they want me to do, but I don't understand why." Dark thoughts seized him and he raked his fingers through his hair. "Do they want to break me, watch me betray my friend? For what, a laugh? To watch the Fire Lord fall from grace?" He slammed his fists down on the table. "No! Katara should have killed me."
Kala observed Zuko with calm silence. His head was bent and his shoulders trembled. He must have looked pitiful.
"Katara wanted me to save you," Kala said softly. "Do you think she could have lived with herself if she killed you, even for your sake?" Zuko took a deep breath and shook his head. Of course not. She would have been devastated. "You do not see yourself how she does. You have so little faith in yourself but she has so much in you."
Zuko swallowed thickly and clenched his right hand into a tight fist. "Even a faithful dog must be put down if it begins to foam at the mouth."
"You cannot afford to think that way," the old woman chastised. "Not if you want to get her out of here alive."
The Fire Lord released his fist. That did it. Kala was right. He had to stop thinking about himself. He couldn't afford to wallow in self-pity, not now. He had to find a way around this predicament if he wanted to free Katara. But in order to do that he would have to figure out how to resist Yin and Yang, or else his entire planning was for naught. Could he kill them? Was that even possible?
Zuko took the seat across from the old bender. It was time to look at this situation objectively, as something he could solve.
"Yin once said that when you resist their powers for too long, you will die." He glanced over at Kala. "Is that even true?"
The waterbender mulled over his words for a moment before inclining her head. "Through a direct reading, yes. But what Yin and Yang are doing is far more subtle than that. They are not pulling thoughts from your mind; they are merely observers in your dreams. They simply lie in wait for images to surface and manipulate them. They do not have the total control over you that you believe."
"As long as I don't fall asleep," Zuko muttered mirthlessly, and Kala nodded.
"As long as you don't fall asleep."
Zuko sighed, slightly comforted by Kala's words. He might not be in control but the twins weren't in total control either, and that was something.
"Good thing we're breaking out tonight," he joked, a pitiful attempt at levity, and then his expression hardened. "Is it even possible to kill them?"
"Anything is possible," Kala said with a slow shrug of her shoulders. "However, there is no telling what the repercussions of their deaths would be to you and Katara and countless others who have yet to be released from their triggers."
Zuko cleared his throat, nodding, and then another thought seized him with abject fear. "Wait—if the twins have been in my dreams and seen what I've dreamt, they—they must know who I am. And if they know who I am, why haven't they killed me?"
Kala calmly followed the Fire Lord with her eyes, her eyebrow raising just a fraction of an inch. "Are you asking for my opinion or merely talking aloud?"
"I'm sorry," Zuko muttered, bringing the edge of his palm to rub just above his scarred eye. "It's just that I don't understand their motives. Yin and Yang are obviously the leaders of the Fifth Column, but what is their purpose in getting me—in getting me to do that to Katara?" Bile rose to his throat and he lowered his hand. "Why are they doing this to me?"
Kala folded her hands together. "Instead of looking at things through a mirror, try looking through a window."
Zuko glanced up, bewildered. That was the kind of answer he'd expect from his uncle. "You remind me of my uncle," he blurted aloud, thankful that at least it wasn't a tea analogy.. "And what do you mean?"
"What I meant was you are focussing too much on yourself instead of what is going on around you. Try looking at this situation from a whole instead of in pieces. Don't look at what is merely being reflected back at you—look beyond yourself."
"You mean try to think like Yin and Yang, always three steps ahead?"
When Kala failed to emote, Zuko sighed. She was right, as usual. He had to look beyond himself. The twins most likely already knew who he was, which meant they knew the crown was vulnerable. He could also assume that they knew Zuko had replacement and that replacement was most likely under their control. Politically, there was no use for Zuko since the Fifth Column already had their puppet Fire Lord. Something else was keeping him alive.
"I have to assume they've known who I was all along, a spy in their own organisation," Zuko mused aloud. "But they've never made a move to capture me or even attempt to release my father from prison. They've shown no interest until now. Why? Do they really not know where he's being kept? Do they actually care?"
The Fifth Column had captured Katara for that exact information, to find the whereabouts of Ozai's prison, as well as the metalbender who constructed it. But why wait so long for this information, and what was their interest in Toph? And why wait two years to kidnap Katara and get the information from her when they knew where he was all along? Unless they didn't really care about his father. Unless Zuko was never a target.
Why are you here in the first place?
"Katara!" Zuko stood up, his hands reaching for his face. "This was never about me. It was about all about her." He dropped his hands. "But why?"
"Why do you think?"
"I don't know." Zuko shook his head, as if in pain. "To get Aang—to capture the Avatar?"
Kala snorted derisively. "Men. Always thinking everything has to be about them in some way. Is it the man behind the woman or the woman behind the man?" She waved her hand dismissively before continuing, "The Fifth Column specifically chose a time to take Katara when the Avatar was gone. Do you really think the Avatar's capture was their priority?"
"No." Zuko folded his fists on the table, cursing himself for not having figured this out sooner. But it still begged the question: why was Katara their priority?
"Do you know that I never met Katara until only a few days ago?" Kala posed the question nonchalantly, meeting Zuko with a steady gaze. "When they first brought her here they kept her in the cages away from the others. They starved her, only giving her water through a ladle on the end of a long stick." A wry grin surfaced on her wrinkled lips. "Do you think they'd take so much care with someone they didn't see as a threat?
"You see, this prison was built specifically for waterbenders. The cages, even the desert climate, are all meant to keep us in line, to ensure that no one could escape, that no one would even want to try. But even Kenzo and his predecessor knew the cages were an inhuman sort of torture, for both prisoners and guards. They were never meant to be used as a regular means of incarceration. Instead, they were only to be used as a form of punishment, like the coolers.
"But the first place they sent Katara to was the cages. They starved her and they weakened her, but certainly none of this was done to get answers about the Avatar."
Zuko let out a sharp breath he hadn't even known he'd been holding. "Then why?"
"Because they were afraid of her—because they're still afraid of her. And they should be. The first time I spoke with her she was bloodbending rats at sunrise. It was the same time you arrived here, not long after Yin and Yang." Kala shook her head. "It was almost as if they knew, as if they were testing her."
Zuko swallowed thickly. Had the twins already known Katara was a bloodbender? How could they possibly know that? Katara had always kept it a secret, vowed to never use the power after she had confronted Yon Rha.
The Fire Lord breathed deeply. He could feel sweat beading on his forehead. Somehow he was sweating in the cool dampness of the interrogation room. How much did Yin and Yang really know? How much was under their control? Did he even have any control? Had Yin and Yang already won?
"This changes everything," he muttered, slumping down on the chair in defeat. What was the point in continuing a game he had already lost?
"All things change," Kala said slowly. "Until we wake, the dream drifts on the wind. But you are aware now, are you not? You have taken back your will and reduced their power over you by doing so. This can possibly change everything back into your favour." Her smile was cunning. "Now you can manipulate them."
ZUKO SET OFF along the passage heading back to the surface of the gallery with Kala in tow. He was personally escorting the waterbender to the mess hall for her meal; however, it was really an excuse to meet up with the others.
He couldn't help but feel a twinge of apprehension; not about the walk there or the risk of his movements being reported to Kenzo or even the twins, but of the meeting with the inmates who, according to Kala, now knew everything thanks to Ouji. This included what he had done or tried to do to Katara.
Leading Kala through the labyrinthine hallways, Zuko glanced outside the slit-like windows that lined the passage. The desert outside was as arid and unforgiving as ever, a sweltering mass of blinding hot sand and the distant rumble of thunder that never signalled rain. Zuko was more than glad that they would be travelling at night, but he was just as sure that the path below wasn't any safer than the one above.
When they finally reached the mess hall Zuko signalled to the guard, who quickly stepped aside to grant the assassin and his prisoner entrance. Once inside with the door slammed shut behind them, Zuko's shoulders instantly tensed. Wasn't he supposed to feel more secure in here with the prisoners than the guards outside who would likely kill him on sight if they knew who he truly was? Maybe before last night, but today he felt hateful eyes lingering on his back.
Zuko surveyed the room with sharp eyes, as if he expected enemies hidden behind a table or an overturned chair, ready to strike out at any moment. But to them he was the enemy. He could tell by the wary looks in their eyes, the way they turned from him when he entered the room. They were angry and afraid.
There was plenty of contempt to go around. It was plain that they didn't trust him after all. And why should they have? He attacked Katara, his friend that he had come all this way to rescue. Frowning, Zuko considered the luck that had let him come this far without killing anyone to begin with. But that luck couldn't possibly hold out, not by tonight. He knew it and they certainly knew it. What if he snapped again and there was no Katara around to stop him?
"Stop acting like you're walking on egg shells!" Kala snapped, stirring Zuko from dark reverie. "You won't reach them by tip-toeing around." She pushed towards the middle of the room before issuing him a hard look. "They don't trust you? Fine. Make one of them believe you and the rest will fall in line."
Zuko regarded the old waterbender with a look of open incredulity. Very few people had the audacity to address him in such a familiar tone; fewer still didn't immediately drop their gaze when their eyes met, and they certainly didn't man-handle him. But this old woman was different; she was far from afraid and far from intimidated by the likes of him. Zuko was convinced she could stare down stone itself, and he couldn't help but grin wryly at the thought. She reminded him of Katara and how stubborn she could get. Were all waterbenders like this or only the ones from the south?
But while her words might have seemed like wisdom—and they were—what she asked of him was easier said than done. How could he possibly convince these prisoners that they could trust him, especially after what he had done? But there was someone in the room, someone besides Kala, who was not afraid, someone who would not turn away.
The old earthbender was openly studying him, not warily like others. Then, without so much as a warning, Chen was standing beside Zuko. He had come up on him so quickly that Zuko hadn't even noticed. Instinct told him to switch into defensive mode, but his mind told him to wait. For once, his mind won out.
"Nice day for a prison break, wouldn't you say?" Chen asked with a grin, and Zuko looked at him sideways. Was Chen really okay with him?
Zuko scratched the back of his head. "Sure, I guess."
Chen laughed and clapped Zuko's shoulder roughly, his entire body vibrating from the impact. "Boy, what's the matter with you? Aren't you here to discuss plans? I really didn't figure you came here for the food."
"No, you're right it's just—" Zuko wiped his palm over his mouth, glancing around at the other inmates "—it just seems like everyone here is waiting for me to go mad again, except you." For a moment Zuko studied Chen, his eyes instinctively narrowing in suspicion. "Why?"
Chen only shrugged, grinning behind his thick grey moustache. "When I joined the royal guard as a young man, I was made the personal bodyguard of the newly appointed king of Omashu, King Bumi.
"He was madder than a hare in spring thaw. Twice every day he'd check his manservants for poison and eat nothing but rock candy, claiming it made him sovereign against the men who threatened to poison him. Once he even had an entire grove of oak trees cut down because they looked at him funny. Then he insisted they be given a proper burial, with him presiding over in oration." Chen leaned in close, his moustache-grin removed. "Do you have any idea how long it takes to bend earth graves for a hundred and forty-seven oak trees?"
Zuko scowled. "How exactly is this helping my case?"
"King Bumi might have been insane, but the man could out-think and out-general anyone. He never lost a battle, not even close to losing."
Zuko raised his good eyebrow. "So you follow me cause you think I can out-general Yin and Yang?"
"I follow you because of who you are," Chen answered gruffly. "You are just as much your mother's son as you are your father's. And if any of us wish to get out of here alive, we have to trust you, mad or not."
Zuko nodded at the old man's words, his confidence slowly returning. Maybe it was best they didn't quite trust him, best they stayed clear of him. Best for them. That way maybe some of them would make it out of here alive.
"Besides," Chen added with a bark of a laugh, "no one's as mental as Bumi, and I have faith that Kala set you right."
"Thank you," Zuko said, before adding, "I think."
Perhaps it was enough that Chen trusted him. While Zuko wanted to be the leader of this group, he had to be practical. He was all too aware of the fact that he was out of his depth here. He would have to appoint his own general, a man the people would listen to, and that man was Chen.
"General Chen, I'd like to test that faith of yours," said Zuko, and the old earthbender raised his brow.
"Yeah?" Chen grunted, studying the Fire Lord intently. "And how's that?"
"By asking you a favour."
SHORTLY AFTER HIS conversation with Chen, Zuko was summoned by the standing guard. Apparently Yin and Yang wanted him to interrogate Katara. Though suspicious, Zuko complied, promptly heading to the interrogation floor.
He had wanted to find Katara the moment he had awoken that morning, but the niggling shame (or was it fear?) at the back of his mind prevented him from seeking her outright. How could he face her after what he had done, or what he had tried to do?
Be a man, he told himself.
Squaring his shoulders, he walked down the empty hallway and opened the door to interrogation cell one. Katara was slumped over the table, her arms cradling her head. She was unbound and, at first glance, looked to be relatively unharmed and fast asleep. Closing the door shut behind him, Zuko removed his mask and hood, setting the mask down with a clink on the table.
Katara didn't stir at the sound, nor did she wake when he touched her shoulder, shaking her gently. A slight murmur of exhaustion escaped her lips and she whimpered, turning her head to the side. He called out her name once, then twice, but there was no movement. She was out cold.
Frowning slightly, Zuko exhaled loudly and tucked his hood into his belt. His fingers grazed along crisp parchment and he paused. His mother's letters. Gently pulling out one of the letters, he unfolded it and smoothed the fine creases on the table. He glanced over at Katara, who was still fast asleep, and sat down, deciding to let her rest a little while longer.
His mother's neat cursive stared up at him, enticing him to read.
"I look at these prisoners, these people, with a new-found respect that can only come from one who is about to share the same dark path. I pray that I will have their courage someday, to be as strong in spirit and mind."
Zuko turned the letter over. A new date, a new entry:
"I brought new life into this world today—a baby born in chains.
"He is so beautiful, so small and fragile. I'm almost afraid to hold him sometimes, scared that he will break. He reminds me of you, Zuko. You were so small when you were born, so tiny and beautiful. I want to tell him stories of the Blue Spirit, to see the same look of wonder and amazement in his eyes that you had. His eyes—they are so blue, as blue as the sea. They remind me of home.
"I have decided to name him Ouji. His mother died giving birth, so I took him in as there was no other. I pleaded with the warden to take the child away from this accursed place—to an orphanage, anywhere but here—but Yin and Yang objected and thrust the child into my arms. It's hard to believe that these two who brought me here were the same ones who saved your life so long ago—"
What? Zuko looked up. Yin and Yang had saved him—when? Then it hit him. It was Yang he had seen in his dream. It had been Yang who dived into the water and saved him from the rushing logs and ice cold water.
"I should have known that any personal servant of Azulon's would be just as cold and ruthless as he was. Perhaps they brought me here out of anger, for what I had done to their master. Was this revenge? I suppose I deserve it, but this child does not—"
Abruptly, Zuko became aware that he was no longer alone. He could feel someone's eyes on him. He glanced up to see Katara's sky blue eyes flutter open to meet his. They reminded him of the winter skies he used to stare up at when he was in the south—solid and clear, but so very cold and empty.
She lifted her head. Her hair hung in sweat-soaked ringlets down her neck and back, thin strands clinging to her face. She looked dazed, half-asleep, but then she slowly pushed away from the table and off the chair and onto her feet. She swayed, barely able to hold her balance, but her eyes never left his.
"Katara?" he repeated her name, softer now and gentle, like he was trying to soothe a skittish ostrich-horse.
He tucked his mother's letters back into his belt and raised his hands defensively, to show her that he was unarmed. Maybe she was still afraid of him from last night. Maybe.
Deliberately, she crept closer, a silent shadow crawling in the half-lit darkness. Zuko watched her controlled movements with a sense of morbid curiosity and peril. But still he observed her carefully, keeping the look of surprise from his face. He didn't want her to think that he was afraid of her, but for some reason he was. He really was.
She met his gaze again, their eyes locking. Her expression seemed avid and intense and something else he couldn't quite put his finger on. Then she drifted even closer until she was directly on top of him, a mischievous fire springing to her eyes.
Zuko found his gaze roving over the voluptuous curves of her body, and he shook his head as though he could shake away his inappropriate thoughts. She leaned forward and put her hands on the arms of his chair and unceremoniously lowered herself down on his lap. Shocked, Zuko could only sit still, his back ramrod-straight, as he tried to ignore the comfortable feel of her weight on his thighs. Then, with a sinuous grace he didn't even know Katara possessed, she raised her mouth to his ear, nibbling gently as her soft, firm flesh pressed against his chest.
"Katara—" Zuko swallowed uncomfortably, his voice a raspy whisper "—w-what are you doing?"
She leaned back, gazing directly into his eyes, and smiled. It was an odd smile, an unnerving smile. Then she reached out and grabbed his face, kissing him hard. Stars exploded in front of his vision as he reeled from the impact. He could feel her tongue sliding along the seam of his mouth and one of her hands came up to grab at the back of his head.
Slender fingers ruffled through his hair as she sought purchase on the skin of his scalp. Her nails scraped across his flesh and pain hit him first before awareness. When he finally had the sense to reach up and lightly push her away, she was already using the momentum of her own bodyweight to push him down off the chair, and her with him.
They both fell back, tumbling onto the floor with her on top, and Zuko's head bounced off the stone. She kissed him roughly, devouring him as she trailed bite marks down his neck and across his collarbone.
Even more stars were exploding now, dotting like firecrackers across his vision, and Zuko sat up. He shook his head and tried to grab a hold of his senses. He reached up and seized Katara by her upper arms, flipping her over onto her back. Then they were both turning, winding over each other in their struggle for dominance.
But Zuko was stronger. He weighed more. He was already on top of her, pinning her shoulders and head against the wall.
"Katara, stop it!" He shook her shoulders roughly, still feeling the heat of her lips on his neck. "Resist this. Resist them!"
"No," she breathed, propelling herself forward and knocking him onto his back. She slowly and agonisingly slid up his body with only a moan of protest from the firebender. "Why don't we find out if you can resist me."
Zuko was about to retort when he felt a sudden cold rush of foreign chi flowing through his body. It was exhilarating and terrifying—terrifying because it was not his own. Some strong force was invading his body, manipulating it. His eyes widened in shock and he scrambled to get up and move away from her. The only thing was he couldn't. He couldn't move.
"How—" Zuko struggled in vain, his eyes bulging out of their sockets "—how can you bloodbend during the day?" For that matter, how could she do it without her hands or without even moving?
Katara's mouth twisted into an evil smirk. "The real question you should be asking is how I don't even need the moon."
Zuko blinked nonplussed and his eyes suddenly widened, remembering what Kala had told him; how she had seen Katara bloodbending the rats at sunrise. He had even experience first-hand, himself. Zuko swallowed hard at the realisation, a dry, audible click at the back of his throat. Katara didn't need the full moon; she didn't need the moon at all. This was why Yin and Yang wanted her, not him. And now he was helpless under Katara's control.
No, Yin and Yang's.
Straddling his lap, Katara reached down and gently raised his chin with two perfectly slender fingers. She leaned in close, her nose almost touching his. He was unable to blink, unable to turn away. The way she looked at him, regarding him like prey, like something she wanted to swallow whole, made him wonder if the real Katara was even there. Who was this woman?
Then she was grabbing him by the lapels of his cloak, pulling him up to her. She crushed her mouth to his in a rough kiss, biting his lip so hard he was sure she drew blood. In fact, he was certain of it, feeling the salty copper liquid dribble down his chin. It had felt less like a kiss and more like her marking her territory.
"Oh, Zuko," she purred, sounding amused. "You fell so easily into their trap."
"It was their will that you came here; bringing me here, expecting you to follow." Katara dug her elbows on his chest, resting her delicate chin on her finger as she studied Zuko with dark blue eyes. "Everything was planned."
Zuko tensed. "For what?"
She leaned forward and licked wetly across her upper lip, tasting his blood. Grinning wickedly, Katara placed both hands on Zuko's chest and pushed herself up into a sitting position.
"Why, to unlock powers the world has never seen."
Her eyes were cold and blue, so blue they could have been polished sapphires—if sapphires were deadly. She then reached down and touched his swollen lip with a finger. He winced. She drew back her finger, now covered in his blood, and smiled. Bringing her fingers to her own lips, she dug her nails in deep. A thin stream of blood beaded to the surface and she bent forward, crushing her mouth to his, mixing each other's blood.
"Consider this a blood oath," she said in a husky voice that was not her own. "My blood flows freely in you and you in me." She raised her bloodied fingers to her mouth and licked at them deliberately before dabbing at her own blood and bringing it back to his mouth, rubbing it across his lips and teeth. "Let this be the beginning of our union."
She laughed softly, almost sweetly, and sat back, pulling the hem of her tunic up around her hips. Bare underneath, she wiggled on top of him and brought her hands to his belt. Helpless, Zuko could only watch as she undid the leather cumber and threw his knives and letters across the floor. When her fingers slid into the waistband of his trousers, he sucked in his breath before gritting his teeth, the tangy taste of salt and copper filling his mouth.
Smiling, Katara wrapped one hand around his throat and the around his length. He hissed hotly at her touch. It was both warm and cool all at once, tingling.
This wasn't her, he told himself. This wasn't Katara. But she was already directly over top of him, pressing him inside her with a hitched gasp. He wasn't sure who gasped first, but he knew he couldn't breathe. Rubbing her cheek against the side of his neck, Katara let go of his throat and began a slow rhythm, her lips dragging against his skin as he bared his teeth in an animalistic grimace.
"Stop!" he grunted, trying his best to ignore the pleasure that rolled in waves over his body. "They can't control you, Katara. You're stronger than this."
"You're right," she whispered, nipping at his ear with sharp teeth. "I am stronger."
He tried to move, fingers taut as he willed himself to resist her bending, but she easily threw him back with a flick of her wrist. He was completely immobilised and she knew it.
Planting her feet firmly on either side of his thighs, she tipped her head back and drove downwards, letting her reactions do the speaking for her. He cried out despite himself, unable to move, only able to watch the chestnut curtains of her hair swaying back and forth with each rippling roll of her hips. With each rise he would suck in his breath, imagining anything but how good it felt to be inside her. But he couldn't ignore the curves and gentle folds of her body or the way she enveloped him fully, pulling pleasure from every part of him. He could feel the firmness of her bottom hitting against his thighs, her sharp breathing on his neck and the scrambling for purchase on his shoulders as her fingers tore through his flesh.
And then after a few minutes, Katara came—she came with Zuko gritting his teeth, the muscles in his thighs and abdomen contracting and spasming with barely contained pleasure. She let out her hoarse cries for all to hear, her face turned upwards at ceiling. She felt like a dam releasing, an overpowering current that had swelled and exploded in ripples of pleasure. And that current had rolled outwards towards him, impaling and devouring him with a hot electricity that coiled inside his loins.
With no control left, Zuko gave in, letting that electricity surge. Snarls ripped out of his throat and he came jerkily, his hot semen pumping deep inside of her. He was sweating; his vision was swimming, blurred and spotted as his entire body arched with hers.
After a moment, they both settled. She fell forward with a shuddering gasp, trembling as she rested her damp cheek against his chest. Still, he could not move but he could feel his heart beating wildly as small tremors racked his body. And when his vision finally cleared, he became vaguely aware that he was still inside her. She hadn't let him go.
Pulling back from his chest, Katara sat up on his lap and let her head roll back, bringing a hand to the smooth umber line of her stomach. There she sat, eyes closed, slowly breathing in and out. He could feel his own warm semen drying in a congealed smear on his thigh and he desperately wanted to move out from underneath her. After a minute, she finally opened her eyes and pushed herself up so that she was squatting over top of him, sliding his length out from her with a moan as she stroked warm, wet palms down his legs.
"It is done," she said with a sense of finality, standing to her feet. She wobbled slightly, her legs shaking like quivering grass stems. When he spotted the wetness on her inner thighs, he turned away in embarrassment.
"What—" he gasped for air, suddenly winded "—what is done?"
"You have served your purpose, Fire Lord." Katara grinned down at him maniacally, a touch of the macabre in her expression. "Now it is time for you to die." She watched as his face contorted in shock and gave him a little nod. "Let's die with some dignity, shall we?"
With a slight flick of her wrists Zuko was suddenly lurched to his feet with a roaring gasp, as if all the air was being squeezed from his lungs. She was twisting him now, contorting his body in ways it was never meant to be twisted. His back arched so painfully that he was sure she was going to snap him in half. But then she flung both his arms open wide, fingers spread and bending so far that they seemed they must break. He was shaking, like a cloth caught in a windstorm. Dark flakes of dried blood fell from his ears and temples while wet bubbles of blood gurgled from his throat, spilling down his lips and chin. He could feel the vice on his heart tighten, his vision fading.
This was it. He closed his eyes. This was how he was going to die.
"Zuko?" Katara's voice was suddenly soft, a terrified whisper. "Zuko, what's going on?"
He opened his eyes. Katara was shaking like a leaf. She looked confused and frightened. The evil dancing fires in her eyes had been snuffed out, gone. This was the real Katara, his Katara.
"Katara—" Suddenly the pain in his heart and limbs intensified, and he cried out in agony.
"I can't!" She was trembling uncontrollably now, tears spilling down her cheeks. "I can't stop, Zuko! I can't stop myself!"
She was trying to control her hands but they were working against her will, bending him into excruciating pain. The look in her eyes was that of terror, pure terror, and he wanted nothing more than to tell her everything was going to be okay.
Was this how she felt when he turned on her?
"Katara, listen to me!" He felt like he was going to faint, but he gritted his teeth against the pain and forced his eyes open. "None of this is your fault, do you understand me?" She whimpered in reply, barely holding on. "It's up to you now." He could feel the black fingers of unconsciousness tearing through his head. "You have to get them out of here."
"No!" she screamed, straining as she agonisingly turned her hands towards herself. "I. Will. Not. Let. Them. Win."
And almost as soon as it had begun, it ended. Zuko immediately fell forward, slumping to his knees. His hands reached up to his chest, groping desperately as the pain slowly subsided. He could breathe again; he could move again. He was alive.
He was alive? How?
Zuko glanced up to where Katara had once stood, but she was no longer standing over top of him. Lying in a crumpled heap on the floor was his best friend. She had bent herself into unconsciousness.
Slowly crawling over to where she lay, Zuko picked Katara up and cradled her limp body in his arms.
"Everything is going to be okay," he whispered into her temple like a mantra, nudging his forehead into the crook of her neck. "Everything is going to be okay."
But everything wasn't okay.