|More from Harpalyce||Drama||PG-13||None|
|Trial by Fire|
He dreamt of water.
It wasn't uncommon for him to dream of things that flummoxed him. And it was natural that water was confusing. His element was fire, after all. And he still struggled with the intricacies of it. A nice challenge. Kept his mind sharp. But water? He couldn't understand it. Especially how different it could be to him. Odd, since he was familiar with how flame could both cause searing agony and yet was needed for life, burning in a person like a fire in a hearth.
He had endured what seemed like ages of black water tossing him back and forth, into the metal grate, dragging him under, riptides clawing at him, leaving him battered and exhausted until the waves had crashed over his head and drawn in close like a smothering blanket. He had remembered looking up and his limbs feeling distant and weak and being unable to do anything but drift.
Now the water was no longer oppressive. It was light, clear, glimmering. Instead of swamping over his head in merciless waves, it merely pushed him along. It was warmer, now. Gentle. Lifting him up instead of dragging him down. The buoyant sea water was polite enough to only lap at the very edges of his mouth, as soft as kisses. He did not understand how this and what had been inflicted on him before were the same element, but they were.
The vague sensation of being pushed towards something. Shore? Maybe. Warmth. Safety. He knew that innately. Maybe the water whispered it to him.
Slowly, his golden eyes opened, and he focused, squinting. Katara's face, locked in a quiet frown, and the soft shimmer of water hovering above him. Warmth, again. Something soft on his cheek. It took him a moment to realize that his head was in her lap, and the gentle heat was from her thigh. His body still felt distant in a distinctly strange way – he took a moment to curl his hands into loose fists before letting them relax once more. A long huff of a sigh rolled out of him, but it took a few more minutes for him to try and get his lips to cooperate. As it was, he still slurred as he spoke. "...Katara?"
She jumped a little, and immediately stiffened, but didn't shove him away. It seemed she was the one who had placed him there, anyway. Easier for her to work. Her lips parted, as if about to say something, but only a small sound of sheer relief made its way past her teeth.
Spirits, did his head hurt. But he had to ask. "Did I...?"
"Yes," she said curtly, but even her laconic response didn't completely hide how her voice was shaking. "Mostly." Katara cleared her throat. "In any case, save your strength. Don't talk."
Neither of them were all that sure it would really help, but wrestling out an appropriate response seemed like an impossible task. Even if Zuko hadn't gotten to finish his question of '
'did I die', he wasn't really expecting that answer. One expected death to be permanent. One also expected death to be an all-or-nothing deal. Being only mostly dead made very little sense. Maybe when he was back at court he would ask the scholars and philosophers to figure it out for him. Yes, that was an excellent plan... and it had always been one of Mai's favourite things to do, to set out an impossible question and ask them to explain it... watch them flounder and sweat until they caught the barest hint of a smile and relaxed, finally in on the joke...
The darkness was waiting for him again. This time he relaxed, drifting off to something closer to true sleep than before.
A few hours later, Katara braced her feet against the bars of the prison cell and gave another huff. It was rather hard to stare down someone behind a mask, but she was managing quite all right. And she certainly wasn't letting go of his cape.
"Just let me have it, and I'll let go!"
The guard stared back at her, mute behind his mask. His cape was wrapped halfway around him, the edge firmly in Katara's grip. With a grunt, she tried to pull it further, but there was no satisfying snap of cloth beginning to tear.
Behind her, Zuko was thankfully asleep – truly asleep, and not just unconscious. She would likely have to tease him later about his habit of sleeping like a hibernating armadillo-bear. Probably some Firebender habit. Or maybe just a Zuko habit. Spirits knew the few times she had gotten up before him, sneaking around in the predawn light back when they , he was inevitably curled into a ball, huffing and snorting as he put in the most effort into sleeping Katara had ever seen. But now he was shivering lightly in his sleep, bruised shoulders twitching instinctively. If Katara had a cloak, she would have given him it, but she merely had her plain dress. The guards, however, did have suitably comfortable-looking cloaks...
But this one wasn't budging. "Come on," Katara whined. "It's not like you even really need it!" The guard said nothing, did nothing, and she huffed while glaring at him. She was twisting around the cloth, trying to get a better grip, when a voice came from down the hall and startled her.
"I'm sure we can arrange such a trade, Master Katara."
She jumped, scrambling back from the bars of the cell. Instinctive fury made her frown, nearly snarling, as the Prophet glided into the room. A full company of guards followed him, and one stepped forward, key to the cell at the ready.
"I've already told you, I don't want whatever deal you're trying to offer," Katara snapped boldly.
"After you so generously demonstrated bloodbending for us earlier? A shame." His voice was a low purr.
Katara's eyes narrowed. It was a gamble, but there was a thread of something familiar in the Prophet's voice. "I'm – I'm not afraid of you," she blurted quickly. "I know exactly who you are, Long Feng."
The sudden chill in the room that followed stabbed straight into Katara's gut. The mere silence was enough to let her know she was off the mark, but the Prophet's thready laughter made her skin crawl in earnest. "You flatter me, Master Katara!" He cooed behind his mask. "But I am merely a servant of the Master, as all Prophets are."
She gulped softly around the knot in her throat.
"Surely you did not think I was the most important? I am merely a delegate. Though I am sincerely pleased to receive such a compliment, of course. This is but one spoke of the Burning Wheel, Master Katara. But I suppose in repayment for such an honor, however misguided..." He waved a gloved hand, and the guard that Katara had been staring down earlier shrugged off his cloak, tossing the now-free end into the bars of the cell.
Katara scrambled back, holding the cloak close to herself. Behind her, Zuko shakily raised himself up onto his elbows. The guards flooded the small cell, pressing in around them, and two of them roughly grabbed Zuko and pulled him to his feet. He let out a sharp grunt – Katara could see from the expression on his face that they had, at the very least, managed to dig their fingers into fresh bruises, if not actually twist his shoulder. He staggered and swayed, momentarily breathless.
"We'll take what's ours now, if you please." The Prophet gestured, beckoning the guards forward.
For a desperate moment Katara tried to think of some way to fight back, but the air was painfully dry. It was likely part of another ploy to goad her into using bloodbending, and the idea infuriated her. And her stomach twisted in worry. "Zuko -"
He gave a pale, thin smile. She barely managed to catch it through the crowd of guards. "Don't worry, I'll be fine." The way his voice was rough and hoarse didn't really help her confidence.
"Don't you dare -"
"Give up? I won't." The cell door slammed behind him, and he looked back over his shoulder even as guards pinned him in on all sides. "Aang's already given me a good lecture about that."
Before she could ask him what he meant, they half-dragged him down the hall, the Prophet leading the columns of guards. Katara gripped at the bars of the cell, shaking them in useless desperation, before sliding down to sit on the cold stone. The cloak was of no use at all against the cold.
And time slipped by once more, sucked out from under her like a retreating wave at the shore pulling away sand from underneath her feet. She paced in her anger, even resorting to slowly cutting at the metal bars of the cell. Even if she barely made a dent, it was still something to do. Something to keep her mind off of the ever-present worry.
When the Prophet appeared once more, she greeted him with sullen silence and a stern glare. But he smiled behind the mask.
"Master Katara. Would you care to join me?"
"I don't suppose I have the right to say no," she observed dryly.
"No." The cell door rattled open, guards stepping in to drag her to her feet. "You very much don't."
She was not in the mood to even attempt conversation. Instead she glared at the Prophet's back the entire time while they shoved her down corridor after corridor. The pale light cast oddly diffused shadows, seeming to drain away all color and leaving behind only sickly chartreuse. Everything was silent except for footsteps.
The hall they finally shoved her into had obviously been built for assemblies. Although it was flat, it was impressively large, and a row of dimly lit green panels stretched out across the floor. The Prophet strode ahead of the group, leaving two of the guards to hold Katara. Their grip was like iron on her arms, fingertips deftly managing to find pressure points that made her arms ache and start to go numb. Not as effective as Ty Lee's chi-blocking, but something similar enough to make her aggravated.
In the middle of the hall was an elegantly embroidered blanket, gold on red, and on it were two impressive dao swords. The sheath was nearly as elaborately decorated as the cloth. Good quality construction, likely well-balanced. With all of the firey emblems, it was clear that the swords were only intended for one person – Firelord Zuko himself. But they had been made by someone who didn't know him well enough to see how he kept his own swords utilitarian and plain.
And the two swords waited.
Katara frowned deeply, a question almost at her lips, eyebrows furrowing, but a commotion from the other end of the room interrupted her. A grunting cry – definitely Zuko. He struggled every inch of the way, hair wild in his face, eyes wide. If anything it seemed like they had been easy on him for the past few days; there was a certain color back in his face, and he did seem much more energetic... even if he did have to stop and catch his breath, letting the guards hold him firmly. He seemed much more ready to snap at the Prophet, scowling.
The masked leader stepped in-between them – Zuko and one end, Katara at the other, and the Prophet in the middle, by the elegant swords. "Thank you ever so much for your patience," he purred smoothly. "I would have liked to do this with a bit more... finesse. But the Master wants results, and quickly."
"What – what are you even talking about?" Zuko spat, tone full of anger. He narrowed his eyes at the swords by the Prophet's feet. "If you're expecting me to use those... for anything..."
"The Firelord would turn his nose up at such a gift?" The Prophet tutted. "How very ill-mannered of you. But I do not expect. I know."
Even while the guards tightened their grip on Katara, the other group abruptly pulled back from Zuko. He swayed a moment, glaring at them warily, before turning back to look at the Prophet and the swords. For a breathless moment, it was a twisted power game, the Prophet daring Zuko to prove him right and snatch the swords up.
Then the Prophet spoke.
"Firelord Zuko... your attention, please." His voice was smooth as silk. Zuko glared, almost snarling – but only for a moment. The Prophet chose his words carefully, though in a sing-song tone, reciting from rote. "All warfare is based on deception..." Zuko froze, amber eyes going wide, face going slack as if all emotion was steadily drained from him, only to be replaced with something... something else. "But a kingdom that has once been destroyed..."
Zuko's voice was flat as he started to chant along, finishing the phrase. "...can never rise again, nor can the dead be brought back to life."
Katara's heart thudded wildly in her throat. Her fingers were numb, but she tried to desperately get away from the guards holding her in place anyway. Zuko dragged a foot forward, his head dropping as he walked forward. He pitched and swayed in a wholly unnatural way, limp with jerking movements as if being controlled by a novice puppeteer.
"...Zuko?" Her voice was trembling madly, now. "Zuko, what are you doing..."
The metal of the swords gave a cold rasp at he dragged them up from the stone floor. It settled into a screech with every footstep, hunched enough that the tips of the swords dug into the tiles and kicked up sparks in his wake.
Katara knew that walk.
"Zuko –please -"
It was the same stumbling she had seen Jet do, after his invitation to Lake Logai. Moments before his death. This was all some bad parody of Ba Sing Se – the earthbending guards, the same tactics, the unearthly green glow – but somehow more serious, as if all the bloodshed from before had been a mere game played by children. Now they were adults, and it was time to suffer like adults.
He took another step forward.
No. Not quite the same as Jet. More like Azula, drunk on hubris, stumbling forward with her hair in her eyes and cruel laughter on her lips. The same drag and then turn of the heel. Just like his sister.
Her arms were as numb as her mind was. Talk was cheap, but her mind was desperately scrambling to find some solution. The air was painfully dry – bloodbending was her only choice, but he had already been through so much torture, and she was relatively inexperienced in that art – the terrible possibility of crushing him to death made her tremble – and more importantly, if this was some gambit to force her into bloodbending again – which one, exactly, were they trying to turn -?
Closer, now. She couldn't see his face, his expression obscured by his hair, hanging in front like a messy makeshift curtain.
"Zuko – look at me –look at me! This isn't you – you have to look at me, focus on where you are, on who I am – you have to fight this - "
He was breathing heavily, dragging in gasps and letting them go through gritted teeth. Perhaps he was fighting. But he was still moving forward. Katara desperately tried to struggle in the grip of the guards, feet kicking at the stone floor, but they lifted her up just enough to find no traction. She could see the way his shoulders trembled, now.
The twin glint of sword blades lashing out -
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