|More from Harpalyce||Drama||PG-13||None|
|Ordeal by Water|
Katara wasn't surprised by how quickly they came for Zuko again. She wished she had been, but even the small scraps of time were enough to do some good. Enough for some fire within him to be rekindled enough that he struggled against the guards as they dragged him out, even turning to spit in the masked face of one of his captors. It was a primal act of defiance, raw and unrefined. Something about the snarl he wore reminded her uncomfortably of Azula, chained and screaming and spitting blue fire in her madness.
But at least he was fighting again.
Time was slippery in such a dungeon. At the start, she tried to make conversation with the guards, but all they gave her was silence. The thin jook was enough to live on but not much more, and at first it seemed obvious to pull the water out of it to try and use waterbending to hack at the metal bars of her cage. But it was a task that was beyond even her, and it would have taken far too much time. More importantly the guards responded by doubling and then tripling their numbers. It was a show of force that was blunt but effective. Hard to think of escaping when a wall of masked faces were between her and freedom, after all.
It might have been days or weeks. She paced around her cell – she slept – she tried to alleviate her boredom however she could. But mostly she waited for a hint of Zuko. Perhaps they had moved him to another cell entirely – surely that was it. But it still made her unbearably anxious.
The monotony was broken by a striking figure walking down the hall, his robes and mask ornate. The Prophet. Immediately Katara stood, throat clenching. A dark thought scurried in the back of her mind – was he here to tell her that Zuko was dead?
"Ah. Master Katara." The Prophet's voice was infuriatingly calm. "I would be honored if you would join me for a few hours."
"I don't suppose that I can refuse."
"No. You cannot." She couldn't see it, but he was definitely smiling underneath his mask. The cell rattled open, and two guards stepped in to firmly seize her arms, dragging her out. A solid block of them surrounded her, with the Prophet leading the way. "This will be a much more enjoyable outing if you cooperate, you realize."
"Don't expect much of that," she spat back at him. "I'm not going to simply give up and go along with this, no matter what torture to fling at me."
"Torture?" The Prophet clucked his tongue, shaking his head. "I merely want to talk, Master Katara." The dim and eerie glow of the hallway retreated somewhat as they swept her into a side room that reminded her all too well of Lake Laogai. A single chair in the middle. A glowing lamp on a track all around the circular room. She sucked in a quick breath, bristling in irritation, even as the guards held her down and strapped her into the center chair. The leather straps were unyielding as she tested them.
The lamp began to move around on its track, and Katara immediately squeezed her eyes tightly shut, nostrils flaring in irritation. "Well, if we're going to talk, Prophet," she snapped, "you can start by telling me what you think you're even doing - "
"Perhaps later, Master Katara. I find you to be the far more fascinating subject." The click of his heels against the stone – he started to slowly walk around her in a large, predatory circle, almost as if on the same track the light was on. "Your rise to such mastery of waterbending in such a short time, for example, yet... I am amazed at how you missed the obvious. Perhaps it was on account of your age."
His voice grated against her thoughts, and she grit her teeth. "What are you even talking about?"
"How easily you could have finished the Firelord back when he was yet a Prince. He stole your mother's necklace, I do believe. A near-unforgivable sin." He was definitely smirking behind the mask. "Your leniency on him is... admirable, perhaps, from a certain point of view. But you could have quickly ended all of this and made your path much more smooth if you had simply taken care of him accordingly."
She huffed. "I have no idea what you're trying to say." The bright spot of green light twirling lazily in its circular track burned through her eyelids, and she squeezed her eyes shut more tightly.
"Oh, come now. Surely you can follow simple logic. It would have been very easy to simply hold a sphere of water over Prince Zuko's head -"
He reached out with a gloved hand to stroke her cheek, and her eyes flew open. With a sickening swoon, the green light seemed to snake into her eyes, curling and choking her thoughts so she couldn't look away. The world blurred, her memories pitched and swooned.
"So very easy to hold the water there..."
Katara gulped hard but it was useless even as she squeezed her eyes shut tightly. The vile green light was already permeating her thoughts and making fevered illusions dance around the room. She could see it clear as day, now, as the Prophet continued to speak.
...and she would see the bubbles pouring out of the bratty prince's mouth, out of this upstart who was out to kill Aang, out of the same Fire Nation that took her mother and called her father to abandon her, out of this idiot... he wanted that burn on his face quenched? She would make sure he got all the ice he could handle for it, then -
...then he would gasp out the last of the air in his lungs, and she would see his hands grasp uselessly at his throat (hilarious how that fine royal collar didn't help him now), and he would fall to his knees, and perhaps behind him, Uncle Iroh would scream for help, beg her to stop, but she wouldn't, she wouldn't, because hate for him and all he stood for was burning in her veins, all she could think about was how much she loathed him -
"N... n-no, that's – that's not what happened – it's -"
...his lips would turn blue, just a tinge, just as his mouth hung open as if desperately trying to gain some air from the water that she held there, but no, he wasn't getting away that easily, he wasn't, because the hate would make it steadfast, and she would see his damn amber eyes gloss over in death, and his Uncle cry out in dismay, and the soldiers stare in shock, all of them would be amazed at the Water Tribe peasant girl who had defeated their exiled prince – one child battling another –they were just children and she killed him soeasily and it felt so good –
Her shout rang out and echoed in the small room. Katara sucked in deep breath after deep breath. No. It hadn't happened. That wasn't what happened at all. That hate hadn't burned inside her like that – it hadn't – even though it felt so good, and the room was spinning, and...
The Prophet laughed. "How charming. You hadn't even considered that possibility."
She huffed as the glowing light slowly came to a halt, eyes watering, still dizzied. It was taking effort to push those things out of her mind, to remind herself of what was reality and what wasn't. "No. No, and I won't. He's... he's changed. He just needed time to realize what a good person he is."
"Ah, yes, I am aware. But have you changed, Master Katara?"
That wasn't the question Katara had braced herself for. Not that much was really making sense – the room was still spinning even as the Prophet chuckled darkly and the guards unfastened the straps holding her down, dragging her to her feet. "Of... of course I have," she bleated out weakly. "I'm older, it's... the world is different, and..."
"Yet some things remain immutable," the Prophet purred. The dim green light of the hallway was almost a relief. "I would like to show you a demonstration, if you please, Master Katara."
"I don't, but I guess I don't have a choice."
"Exactly." Another bark of a laugh. "You possess more cruelty than you give yourself credit for, or perhaps even more than you realize. I'm sure if you asked Avatar Aang, he could confirm this."
Katara immediately bristled. "You don't need to bring him into this conversation – he's - "
"He would have been your lover if your heart had not been so cold. I already know this quite well, Katara." She bit her bottom lip as the Prophet walked in front of her, turning by a large corridor that led up a set of stairs to an observation catwalk. "No matter how hard the wind tries, it cannot make waves on a frozen lake."
She stumbled up a stair, but the guards held her up. At least her head was seeming to clear. In the distance – yes, that was surely the slosh of water. Would explain why the guards were holding her arms so tight they were going numb, at least. "I... I already know how much it's my fault," she snapped at the Prophet.
"I have no doubt. But you should be wary if that ice thaws, Master Katara..." The sound of water was nearer, now, and finally the corridor opened up into the catwalk above another large room. "I would like to remind you what water does to flames."
The room was centered on a large grate, apparently closing off a channel to the outside. No doubt it rose and fell naturally, but beside it stood a masked waterbender, identifiable only by the blue markings on her mask. She drifted lazily from foot to foot, pushing and pulling the water along with her. Something in the water – she caught a glimpse of it – dark and snaking in the current – seaweed?
Then it abruptly became clear when Zuko clawed his way to the surface, gasping.
Another wave slammed him hard into the wall by the grate, and he clawed desperately for its iron bars. But his hands were too slippery and wet, and he couldn't get a firm grip. He spluttered, wild-eyed, before the current sucked him back under again.
For a moment Katara's mind was full of a blind, white panic. "Zuko –ZUKO!"
The wave reversed its direction and Zuko coughed and gasped, this time managing to successfully grab onto the grate, the only anchorhold he had. He peered up through its bars, searching blindly for her, his long black hair sticking to his face. "Katara?" His voice was shaking badly – more than he had ever heard it before -
She struggled in the guards' grip, but it was useless. Even as they dragged her out and back to her cell, she could feel her arms and then legs hanging limp and numb. Not as sophisticated as Ty Lee's momentary chi blocking, but it meant that even with Zuko surrounded in her element, she could do nothing to help him.
The Prophet surely smiled behind his mask as they tossed her back into her cold cell. "Thank you for your cooperation, Master Katara. I'm sure you found my demonstration enlightening."
The torrent of invective Katara flung back at him surely would have made Toph blush, possibly out of sheer pride.
And all she could do was wait.
Feeling seeped back into her fingers and toes. She got up, paced like a caged animal, shook the bars of her cage uselessly, and then finally settled in to meditation. Whatever came next, she thought that likely she would need a clear mind. And the cobwebs of the false vision needed to be swept away. Hours passed.
A moment's rest turned into her startling awake as soon as she heard movement coming from down the hall. She was on her feet before her eyes were fully opened, and pacing back and forth as if that would help hurry them along. The Prophet walked lazily at the front of the procession, guards behind him, dragging something – someone – along.
They flung Zuko down on the floor in front of her cell. "Zuko?! Zuko, are you - " She glared at the masked guards. "What did you do to him!?"
"We did nothing. It was the water, Master Katara." The Prophet chuckled lowly, and Katara knelt down, trying to get a better look at Zuko's face. "The meeting of water and flame."
That same damn panic was starting to creep up her throat again. "Zuko? ...For spirits' sake, Zuko, answer me!" He didn't move – didn't shift – and it was then Katara noticed how very still he was, and how the color had drained from his face...
"I was wondering if you could humor us with a demonstration, Master Katara. I'm sure you can feel how far the Firelord is slipping. Surely the only way to rekindle this is to give us a demonstration on bloodbending, to rouse his heart into beating once more."
That strangling panic. She gulped desperately. "No. No. I will never bloodbend again – I'm not some circus show you can order around!"
"Come now, Master Katara, be reasonable. I have even made sure it is the full moon." The Prophet gestured at Zuko as he laid limp and still on the floor. "Is this not suitable motivation?"
A thick sob ripped through her, startling her. Her hands stretched out towards him through the bars. She could do this – she could do this on her terms, she was sure of it – the dim glow of his spirit was fading quickly, but it was still there, even as tenuously as Aang's had been after they were driven out of Ba Sing Se. All of this had a horrible deja vu hanging over it. But now she had no water from the spirit oasis, just her own willpower...
Her hand lashed out in a smooth arc, and she drew the water out of his lungs, past his lips, and tried not to think too hard about its pale-pink, bloodstained shade.
"Please, do go on, Master Katara. We're waiting."
She blinked rapidly, tears threatening her again. "Come on, Zuko. Damn it – damn you – hurry up and breathe -" She grit her teeth, voice fierce in anger. "Breathe!"
And yet he remained so very still.
There was no spirit oasis water infused with the power of Tui and La. There was not even the moonlight beaming down onto her back directly, just the full moon's power diffused and distant. With a numb sickness, she started to realize that the Prophet was right. Everything was stagnant – his body wilting like a flower from the stem -
A few more hot tears were squeezed down her cheeks, and she took a deep breath, concentrating hard.
Her audience stared at her through their masks before, with great effort, Zuko's chest rose and he gave a ragged gasp.
The Prophet's applause rang out, slow and steady, punctuating the sound of the guards throwing open her cell door and tossing Zuko in beside her. Under other circumstances she would have tried to run, but instinctively she grabbed for Zuko, his weight dragging her down. Clumsily, she slid to the floor, trying to guide him down as gently as possible. At least he was breathing, even if each gasp was shallow and pained. The cell slammed shut once more, and purely on instinct, Katara curled around Zuko protectively.
But the Prophet merely laughed. "Thank you for that informative demonstration, Master Katara. I am sure we will have more to discuss in the morning..."
She would have spat another round of curses at him, but her throat was constricted with awkward sobs, and she couldn't quite understand why she was crying. But at least the guards and the Prophet were shuffling out and away now, leaving them relatively alone. She could concentrate on trying to rekindle embers and ashes into a flame again.
It was lonely and hard work, harder than it had even been before. But she didn't let herself rest even for a moment. At times it seemed like she was one woman with a bucket of water going up against the entirety of Ba Sing Se consumed by flame, but she paused, reminded herself to be calm, and carried on. Most important things first. Stopping bleeding. Redirecting chi to where it flowed smoothly. And when she was too exhausted working on those, there were always the small things she was sure she could do – healing the gash on his head from where it had struck the iron grate, for instance.
Every little bit helped him breathe easier, even when she tried to help keep him warm by cradling his head in her lap and picking up his hands in her own, softly rubbing his slim fingers in-between hers, the friction driving some of the chill away. Sometime during the night his amber eyes opened, unfocused, trying to see her through the haze of exhaustion. It wasn't pain that dragged him down into unconsciousness again. It was the simple fact that Katara was so near, and the knowledge that things would be all right – or at least better than they had been.
It took hours for Katara to finally stop sniffling even occasionally, and to feel as if she could pause enough in her healing to collect her thoughts.
"I swear, Zuko, to any spirit you please, if you die now, I'm... I am going to be so mad at you."
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