A/N: I'M SO SORRY. A) for the long period of no updates on the story whatsoever and b) for the short length of this chapter. I just wanted to get something out there so that you know I'm alive and continuing the story. I really can't apologize enough, I'm so upset that I haven't updated. I just hope you can forgive me and you stay with me through this process!

I'm working on the second half of this chapter and will hopefully (fingers crossed) have it ready for you by the end of this week! Just wanted to get something out there for you.

So please read & review, and don't lose faith in me! I'll be back soon with another update, that's a promise!

The guards' fingers dug into my arms as they dragged me through the hallways of the fort, the bindings around my wrists jabbed deeper into open wounds. My back was screaming in protest, the cuts stretching with each step I took.

I could feel the stares as they pulled me through the courtyard. My front was bare, with only the cover of my hair to shield it. Guards laughed and called out as I passed, insults and inappropriate comments filling my ears. I was pitiful, really. I should have felt the shame and embarrassment, but I didn't seem to care.

I was numb.

My eyes focused on a spot ahead of me, but I wasn't really seeing anything. I felt hollow, broken. I knew what was happening around me, but I didn't feel like I was really there.

We'd reached the outer wall, and I stood silently as the two guards standing watch unlocked and opened the gate. My escorts shoved me through so I fell to the ground ungracefully, their laughs echoing against the walls behind me. I pulled myself up and stumbled, landing on my side again.

Get up, I ordered.

I struggled, the pain in my back rejecting fast movements, until I was standing on shaky legs again. Tentatively, I took a small step. And then another. It felt like I was walking with a lead ball and chain attached to each ankle, but eventually, I made it to the tree line and far enough into the forest so I could no longer see the light of the fortress behind me. It was dark, the moon being my only source of light, but clouds were settling in and I could feel the cool breeze of an impending storm.

"I want you to kill the Fire Lord."

I was stunned into silence.

"Don't look so dumbfounded, my dear. I've given you a choice."

"You're crazy," I said in frightened disbelief, only to receive a hand crack across my cheek.

"I'll make myself clear, only once more," Zhao started menacingly, his and coming up to violently grip my jaw. "Kill the Fire Lord, or I kill your family and obliterate anything left of the Northern and Southern Water Tribes."

My chest began rising and falling rapidly.

"Why Zuko? Someone else, I can't-," I choked on my words. I didn't know why the words wouldn't come out. I couldn't even control the ones that did. I looked around frantically, desperately trying to find another way to appease Zhao.

"Oh my," he began, his tone light and teasing. "What's this? You actually care for the boy?"

I couldn't speak. My mouth opened to form words, but I could only stare at Zhao with eyes wide in fear.

His laughter boomed throughout the chamber.

I'd been walking for about an hour through the forest when the rain began. The ground became slick with mud and water, and it was beginning to become harder to travel up and down slopes with my hands bound.

You actually care for the boy?

My foot slipped out from underneath me, sending me tumbling down the slope I'd been climbing. I knocked into a large tree root at the foot of the hill, all energy lost.

Who knew falling could be so tiring?

So I lay there, curled up against the tree, soaked to the bone. My body was racked with violent shivers, but I couldn't tell if it was because of the rain or a fever. It felt like I was being stabbed in the back each time a pellet of water hit my skin, but I was too tired to care. Instead, I drifted into darkness and let sleep come.

I'd woken several times, most of them due to agitating my back in my sleep by moving. Others being nightmares so vivid, when I woke, I couldn't tell the difference between dreams and reality.

This time it was a nightmare, and I'd been standing over the dead bodies of people in my tribe, Akemi and her family, my father and brother, red blood dripping off hands. And when I looked up from my hands and the bodies before me, I saw my mother, staring at me with disbelief and terror in her eyes. She only spoke two words. Katara, why?

I'd woken with a scream and decided that I would prefer waking in pain rather than that dream any day. My body was too fatigued to move, and each time I woke, I felt like an invisible pressure was pushing me down harder and harder. The rain had finally stopped, but it was still dark and the moon was high between the trees.

Maybe I could just lay here, lost forever, free of responsibility.

But I knew life wasn't that easy.

I closed my eyes again, not to sleep, but because I felt that it was all beginning to become too much and I wasn't sure I could stop myself from crying this time.

Above me, the sounds of voices and branches snapping caught my attention.

"Sir! I think I see her!"

I didn't open my eyes. I didn't want to be found. More voices barked out orders. I could start to pick them out now, but I still hadn't heard the one voice I intensely dreaded and fervently desired to hear.

They grew even closer and I couldn't stop myself from silently wishing for them to just turn around.

"Katara! Are you alri-," Ryou started and stopped abruptly. I lay still on my side with my back to him, my lips trembling with the effort to keep the sobs in. How weak I must have looked? When it seemed everyone had made it to the bottom, the movements stopped. No voices were heard. I could feel my entire frame shaking with the effort to keep a grip on myself.

Someone took a hesitant step forward behind me.


And then I cried.

A/N: Hope you enjoyed! Review/DM me comments! Always love the feedback! Again, I apologize for the long break between updates.