A blood-bending assassin who is as loyal as a komodo dog, what more could a Fire Lord ask for? Featuring a brainwashed Katara captured by the Fire Nation as a child and a certain Prince who is a little more eager to save her than he should be. AU. Very, very AU.
The Day of Black Sun
The Fire Lord's Bunker, Royal Caldera City
The assassin sits where she is supposed to, her hands folded carefully in her lap. Her legs are aching from hours of kneeling on rough concrete, but she regulates her breathing and slows the pulse of her heart, blinks, and forgets the pain. (If it was required of her she would jump to attention and sprint to ground-level on dead legs.) She can hear muffled whispers from the guards lined up like toy soldiers in front of the Fire Lord, voices echoing tinny and scared through their clumsy helmets.
She is dressed simply, without pomp or ceremony, in a Shinobi shōzoku of the darkest blue. ("Remember what you came from," he'd said, and she'd wanted to ask how she could forget.) The collar, however, is trimmed with royal blue, so that she could remember what she had become.
It fits close to her skin, so that there is no excess material that could be used against her favour in close combat – but it is loose enough to allow freedom of movement. Tuckered in at the ankles and the wrists, she appears in the half-light at the side of the room as a shadow, with only the slight rise and fall of her chest to distinguish her as something living. The man sitting opposite her on a raised platform is her opposite entirely. He is bathed in opulence, from the gold crown on his head to the heavy crimson robes he wears.
All it takes from him is a twitch of a muscle in the side of his jaw, a flash of white from his eyes and she obeys: slipping easily into a state of meditation.
The girls fingertips tingle, and so she clenches them. Her toes curl, and so she straightens them out until they crunch. In her head she walks along the corridors, sweltering heat pounding her from every angle. In her head she resents the droplets of sweat that form in the small of her back. In her head she trails the back of her hand along the cave wall, and it comes back burned pink and blistering orange.
"There is someone coming," she says, and her voice is a low rasp in her throat.
She knows who it is – she knows because his footsteps are even more familiar to her than her own. She is too quiet to be heard when she moves, and he is not. She recognises something of herself in the steps, because it is what she had taught him. Fire Princes were not supposed to be silent shadows.
The Fire Lord considers her words for a moment, a tiny, delicate teacup cradled between his long fingers. He inclines his head towards her, and she melts back into the wall behind her.
"Prince Zuko," the Fire Lord says, and the assassin can feel her breath quickening back up towards a normal rate. It is not panic, she thinks, rationalising as she always does, as is most always expected of her, but recognition. A plain human reaction that all the conditioning in the world couldn't train out of anyone. "What are you doing here?"
(She is not a machine, but nestled into the wall with her heart hardly beating, she seems like one.)
She is like a well-oiled machine indeed, as Ozai summons her out without a word and she complies, easing away from the wall to stand in front of him like some living, breathing shield, all her weight balanced evenly on her two legs, shoulder-width apart. Everything about her (from her easy open palms to her straight eyebrows) is coiled, tense and ready to strike. It is deadly, such precision without emotion.
Recognition, she thinks, is one of the easier reactions to block. Doubt is harder, and anger is the worst of all.
Prince Zuko almost recoils away from her (she can see it in the way his eyes widens slightly, the way his hands ball into fists at his side and then, very slowly, finger by finger, relax with every outward breath) but he catches himself and she finds that she is pleased. Almost proud, in some twisted, dysfunctional way that he can stand there in front of her looking so bold, and so unaffected, knowing that she will kill him in an instant if it is what her Lord commands.
Instead, he is staid as he looks past her, at his father. She does not grapple for his attention. No, she is glad for his distraction. She takes note of the hilts she can just see glinting off the candlelight over his shoulder. His Dao swords. They could be a problem, if she wasn't quick enough. They could be a problem if she wasn't so invincible. One second, it would take one second, one slow, quiet beat of his heart and she would have it crushed beneath her fingers. She could be cruel (eyeballs, synapses, stomach acids) but for all of her bravado it is not the kill that she enjoys: it is the chase.
"I'm going to talk and you… you and your… pet, you're going to listen," his eyes are earnest, flickering back to her face with every pause. She does not quite stare at him, but her attention is fixed on him completely and she can tell that he can feel it (for a minute it looks as though he might begin to wither under her scrutiny) but he lifts his chin and that is it – his moment of weakness is over.
It had reminded her of the Prince as a child, so starkly that she could taste it on the back of her tongue (long days sitting underneath the willow by the turtleduck pond, those rare moments of freedom with the light breeze ruffling her hair and no-one staring at her like she was squashed cavehopper on the bottom of their shoe) but there is no visible change in her.
Her fists do not clench, the muscle in her jaw that jumps is quite still, and so Zuko must know that (for now) he is safe. The insolent way he talks to his father is proof enough of that, and she almost wants to chide him for it.
However, that is not her place, and she stands and she waits.
The conversation between them is heated, a perfect match for their surroundings where the stone walls radiate and the constant sound of bubbling lava is thick in her ears. She watches silently, and waits. For what she is not entirely sure, but when it comes, she will know.
There is tension in the air thick enough to slice through. It does not distress her like it might do others – she watches the exchange (no-one raises the Fire Lord's blood like his son, she is sure, there is a familiar vein twitching on his forehead and when he speaks his eyebrows are wild on his forehead, instead of speaking his snarls like a dog) and her face is blank, her mouth straight and unaffected.
He reaches boiling point quicker than the assassin would have guessed – "you will obey me, or this defiant breath will be your last," and then she is distracted by the scrape of a blade against its sheath, and now, finally, she is paying attention.
Nonetheless, she is obedient, and she waits for her command.
It doesn't come, so she steps back and ignores the way the Prince's eyes waver, the way they flicker towards her as he points one of the swords at his father (sometimes it's a curse, this habit of noticing everything). She'd expected this sudden show of disobedience to incite the Fire Lord further, but he sits back down and he smirks.
That is a dangerous look on him, she thinks. She knows then, when he crosses his legs so very delicately, what she should do.
The assassin steps forwards and roots her feet. Her arms are almost lazy, and her fingers look lax, but the effects of her movements are noticeable – the Prince's arm's droop to his sides and the two swords he'd been brandishing clatter out of his hands and scrape along the floor.
What had he expected, really?
That she would fight bravely, that she would fight with honour?
She is an assassin: a shadow in the daylight; a sword in the darkness. Honour is not a virtue that she could ever cling to.
There was never a chance for him, her Prince.
She feels his heart pulsing between her fingertips, and his eyes are wide and his cheeks are pale. 'Don't do this,' his face says as his lips tremble and he clutches at his chest with his hands. (That much she will allow.)
Her hand will not close.
She frowns down at it, and the Fire Lord sits up straighter. His back is ramrod straight, and his mouth flickers down at the edges. She jerks backwards as if some invisible force has pushed her, the soft soles of her boots dragging noisily across the floor. Something is wet, her lips, something wet and irony is in her mouth and she drags the back of her wrist across her nose and it comes away streaked in crimson red. She flicks it all away with the slightest tinge of disdain curling her lip – but it will not stop. The blood keeps coming and coming and coming. She can feel the Fire Lord's impatience, and she leans forward into a fighting stance to fend Zuko off in some other way.
Thinking on her feet, she swipes the water from the atmosphere (there is not much) and her Lord's supply of tea. It bubbles around her hands, twisting along the length of her fingers as though it belongs there. (It does, she thinks, it does.)
Zuko has picked up the pair of his swords, but he makes no move towards her. His face is tilted the tiniest bit to the side, and his weapons are neither held in a defensive or offensive position.
"Katara," he says, unsure of himself, as if the mere mention of her name will stop the oncoming tide. She is Katara of Caldera City and she will not be stopped.
She is riled up, far more than she should be, given the situation, and it all starts with a scowl and an ice dagger that should have grazed his cheek, if he had not lifted his right sword and batted it away easily.
"This isn't your battle, Katara. Don't you see how he's manipulating you?"
That is the wrong thing to say, when her blood is up.
Her eyebrows furrow darkly on her forehead, and she glides towards him. He is almost as resigned as she is as they come together in the centre of the room, metal clashing and sparking against ice and tealeaves. They twist around the room together in some perverse impression of dance (again she is reminded of her childhood, of him as an innocent and not being sure whether she pitied him or hated him for it), at a stalemate for no other reason than the assassin is completely and utterly distracted. She comes to the conclusion, cold-hearted and logical, that she cannot do it. That she won't. And there goes that muscle in her jaw, leaping in raw abandon. She can feel the Fire Lord shifting in his seat behind her, and she flicks the beads of sweat from her back, from Zuko's forehead, and freezes his feet quick to the ground. The pleasure almost radiates off of Ozai, she can feel it seeping into her, and she turns to face him, subservient in every way, bowing her head and stepping off to the side.
There it is – her order. Outright and inarguable, there is no room for negotiations within those words. Zuko is steaming and she calculates that it will take only a few minutes for the ice around his feet to melt. She wishes that time would stop. Her head feels thick, she feels drowsy, she can't function. She wants to grip her hair in her hands and scream. Her impulses have never been so brash, pushing her into action no matter how hard she tries to stem them.
She is a not a machine, she thinks.
But she wishes that she was.
"Katara!" The Fire Lord's voice snaps her out of her reverie and she stops chewing at her bottom lip (when had she started?) When she looks up at him his face is deadly impenetrable. His voice is soft, but she is not fooled. "You disobey me now? Remember what you have done, and how I have saved you," she hardens again – she remembers, the memories burn like the touch of fire against her skin, "now, finish what you have start-"
There is a shift in energy within the room that sets her teeth on edge and without finishing his sentence he is on his feet and the room is filled with blue, spitting hissing cackling, and she jumps out of the way, back to safety of the wall, where she can creep carefully out of the way with her hands to guide her to safety.
She is blind, choking on smoke and heat, little electric shocks sparking at her feet, and then for an instant there is sharp metal at her throat, then warm fingers twisted through hers like they'd never left.
"Come with me," he says, tugging at her hand insistently.
"I can't-" not when her Lord needs her, and she pulls back, her lips tight white and grim, "your father, he needs me, I can't leave… not now."
"Please," he interrupts – and that word is so foreign that it grabs her attention, her heart bumps painfully in her chest – "I need you. Come with me."
Okay. She nods, okay.
This is it, she thinks, sliding around the corner with the Prince so close behind her that the toes of his boots scrape at her heels (he doesn't trust her, and why should he?) this is it, her absolution. But nothing here is new, not the steely glint in her eyes (a woman who won't be moved) or the slow deliberate pulse of her heart. She can remember precisely the day all of this started, and it began with black snowflakes catching in her eyelashes.