The Marrow of the Matter
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The Book of Primal Illusion



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Chapter 17: Parley to Parlay

"You... should have run."

It had taken Zuko a few very long minutes to actually manage to struggle out the words. The guards had stared Katara down for what seemed like ages before, finally, more of them dragged Zuko in. He was obviously exhausted, but was still struggling weakly against their grip. At the last moment he turned his head to spit in one of their masked faces – a desperate and primal gesture of defiance. Then they flung him into the cell catacorner to her own, and she could barely see him where he had slumped up against the nearest wall to her.

"I was expecting a warmer hello," Katara grumbled, snapping out of anxiousness. "And I'm not leaving without you, either." She tried to press herself against the bars, reaching out for him. "Come on. Give me your hand."

His answer was cut off in a series of rough, desperate coughs. Katara's voice grew a little more strained. "Zuko, give me your hand. It'll make it easier for me to heal what I can."


"What do you mean, no?" There was more anger in her voice than she realized.

"It's what they want." His voice was rough. "They're keeping you here... just to keep me alive. Let me go -"

"What? No! I won't -"

"Then you'll be... free to go." Another few deep breaths. He was in pain – that much was obvious. Katara's mouth drew in a thin frown. "Soundest strategy."

"I think you're forgetting that we can still escape. Now give me your hand!"


She stretched her hand out through the bars, groping for him. Her fingers stretched over the cold stone. He didn't answer immediately, so Katara let her voice become soft and pleading. "Zuko, this... isn't you. I don't know who you are anymore." No malice or accusation, just an observation. "Because the Zuko that I know – that I met – never gave up for anything, or anyone. Not even when success seemed impossible. ...Not even when I chewed him out again and again about how much I didn't trust him."

This brought forth a short gasp of a laugh.

"And besides, if you end up dying on me, I swear I'll get Aang to go into the Spirit World and find you – Air Nomad philosophy has a lot to say about the sanctity of life, but it's a little fuzzier about the sanctity of kneecaps." Another soft laugh. Katara let her voice grow quieter and kinder. "Give me your hand, Zuko." Her fingertips stretched out towards him again. With great effort, he managed to snake his hand across the floor, out between the bars to grasp her own. The physical contact made it easier to at least do what she could for him – to clean up the abrasions, heal over the cuts, maybe coax the bruises into something less painful. And it was a relief to feel his heartbeat thudding at the pulse-point of his wrist. Perhaps even if his mind seemed ready to give up, his body was still fighting.

"We'll figure out how to get out of here tomorrow," she whispered, knowing that the masked guards were still staring her down. "There has to be a way. I know there must be. And I'm not going back to Mei Lien and your uncle to tell them that you're gone." She squeezed Zuko's hand lightly, barely even aware of the action until he squeezed back. "Just... hold on until I can figure this out."

She cleared her mind, taking a deep breath, leaving no room in her mind for words. Water flowed throughout the body, taking the same paths as chi, in organized lines. Never mind that in Zuko's case those organized lines currently made about as much sense as a pile of cooked noodles rolled into a tangled ball. But there were at least some rough edges she could correct immediately. Some good she could do.

Instinctively, her grip on his fingers grew tighter even as his hand went progressively limp in relaxation.

"Katara?" His voice was still rough, but at least now not as despondent or weak. "...Thank you."

She couldn't do more than give a vague hum in reply, but he knew what she meant.

The temple was buried deep in the jungle, overgrown and half-ruined. All of the other temples had been carefully censored by the Fire Sages to remove any mention of Avatar Roku, save for the very briefest murals. So Suki could see the appeal of this place. This temple would have been old even to Roku. Instead its murals, worn down in stone, stood humbled by time and moss. They still told the story of the fire Avatar before Roku – Zahira the Shining.

Suki liked her already. After all, Zahira had favored fighting fans, same as Kyoshi. It made her feel a little more at home.

Under other circumstances, Suki would have appreciated the peacefulness of the place. Perhaps she didn't have Aang's spiritual sense, but there was something in the air here that made it seem like the wall between the physical and Spirit World was a little thinner than usual. All of the animals of the jungle were busy calling to one another, each trill and howl and cry weaving into a tapestry of vibrant sounds. The few Fire Sages who still lived near the ruins – a mostly-defunct order of all women – were good cooks, and had promised their visitors a good dinner. Under other circumstances, Suki would have put her feet up and relaxed and been content to let Aang sort out the problems of the Spirit World while she enjoyed the peace the physical realm provided.

But the dispatch that had come this morning was still in Sokka's hands and he hadn't let go of it since. He had fought with Aang – a rarity – before the Avatar convinced him that they simply couldn't go charging in blind against such an enemy, not when he had such a worrisome hunch that the kernel of this corruption was in the Spirit World and would not respond to all the sword slashes Sokka could manage. Sokka had even been snappish to Suki as he paced in tight circles and then stomped into the ruins to try to find a bit of peace. She knew him well enough now to gauge about when he would have cooled off, even if she still wore a quiet frown on her face.

Sokka was there among the overgrown remains of a wall that had long since fallen, in the shade of where some very determined tree had grown up, over, and into the remaining wall and archway. In the distance, Aang was perched on the remaining intact tower, already deep in meditations – Suki could see the light glow of his tattoos as he made his way around the Spirit World. The four goat-dragon heads carved into the sides of the tower remained on seemingly vigilant guard for his safety. Still, Suki was glad she had done another looping patrol over the area of the ruins.

And Sokka still had the letter in his hands.

He glanced up at her momentarily, hearing her footsteps, but his gaze was quickly dragged back down to the letter. She saw him pinch his nose in frustration as he laid it out over his thighs. Silently, she placed a hand on his shoulder, crouching down by him.

"It's been three days, Suki."

"I know."

His voice was constricted in furious worry. "Three days since anyone has seen Katara. Or Toph. Or even a hint of them."

Suki gently squeezed his shoulder. "I'm sure they're fine, Sokka. We've all been through worse. And besides, they're not alone out there – they have each other. I think a waterbending master and an earthbending master can look out for themselves." She tried to give him a cheerful smile, but he wasn't buying it, not even looking up at her. Instead his expression remained rather gloomy in worry.

Gingerly, Suki sat down beside him properly, tucking her heels underneath her to sit on her knees. "Here. This just came by messenger hawk." He immediately perked up, and she internally winced – perhaps the wrong phrasing. "It's from the palace, not from Katara. But I thought it would cheer you up a little nonetheless."

She had already broken the wax seal, and the letter itself was an intensely dry affair from Captain Deshi about the state of the palace's security. With such heavy repairs needing to be made, already Iroh was considering going on the move – especially since it was feasible to constantly go from port to port in a small and agile section of the royal navy. A moving target was harder to hit. But there was also a second part to the letter.

Sokka frowned a little in confusion before a slow smile spread over his face. A child's clumsy attempt to make some sort of picture. Her tutor had obviously attempted to get her to paint some feminine and graceful cherry blossoms before the entire picture veered off into something completely different. It was certainly very colorful, but mostly Sokka could spot the turtle-duck whose feathers looked suspiciously like his hair. The artist's signature took up a good third of the piece, but Sokka didn't mind.

"I didn't realize you looked so much like a turtle-duck, Sokka."

"Well... Mei Lien does think my hair looks pretty stupid," he finally joked, a genuine smile coming over his face.

At least they could be slightly more cheerful while they waited for Aang.

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[[Category:A to Z (Fanon)

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