Pissing off pirates had been a bad idea. Pissing off ninjas was a whole new level of unfortunate.
"Get her!" one of the masked figures yelled.
Katara ducked the knife that was thrown at her and kept running. Geez, these guys were persistent. All she had done was accidentally stumble across them while taking a walk. Oh, and stopped them from assassinating some rich noble. You know, the usual. She might have turned a few of them into icicles as well, but still. This as a huge overreaction.
"She's getting away!"
Smoke ballooned in front of her eyes and created a thick screen. She couldn't see. Katara coughed and covered her nose and mouth, feeling the acrid sting of a nasty concoction getting to her airways. Ugh, her body was going numb.
"I won't give up!" Katara swore.
Summoning her last bit of water, she let out a scream of rage and released her element in a wild attack that would strike anything within a three metre radius. A few cries of pain told her she had hit her mark.
Katara smiled. "Serves you—"
Something jabbed into her back, striking in precise points. Her eyes widened and then she went limp, collapsing to the ground. A second later the world had gone black.
Katara groaned. There was a funny taste in her mouth and her body felt heavy and like it wasn't quite in sync with her brain. Something cold and hard was wrapped around her wrist. She tried moving it and heard the distinct rattle of chains.
Groaning again, she forced her eyes open and blinked. It was dark. The room she was trapped in was small with no door or windows. There was only an open hatch in the roof. The ninjas must have thrown her into this pit-like cell. No wonder she felt bruised and sore. More horrible, they had taken her water flasks and even stripped her to her undergarments. Her skin crawled just at the thought.
Katara sat up to get a better look at the pit. Her left hand was tugged back by a dead weight. She glanced to the left and saw a shadowed, human-like figure slumped next to her. It seemed the chain around her wrist was actually handcuffs, and one of the cuffs was attached to the other person. Like her, the boy—for only a male could have a chest that flat—had been stripped down to his undergarments.
"Hey." Katara leaned closer to the boy. "You okay?"
He didn't respond. She poked him in the arm and, when that didn't work, gave him a firm shake. The boy made a soft sound and murmured something. It sounded like he had just told his uncle to go away.
"I'm not your uncle," Katara felt the need to point out.
The boy sat up in a rush, even as his right hand moved to grab at something over his shoulder. Except, of course, there was nothing there. Also, she was attached to that wrist, and she had not been prepared for his rapid movement. In short, she lost her balance and ended up in his lap. Very provocatively, at that. His body tensed. Her cheeks flamed.
"U-um," she began. Her free hand was still pressed against his bare chest. She quickly removed it as if burnt. "Sorry, I—"
Katara froze. She had finally dared to raise her eyes to his face. Though it was dark in the pit, she was close enough now to make out his features. One side was smooth and angular—dare she say handsome—while the other was a mess of scarred tissue. Her eyes widened.
"You!" she exclaimed.
Zuko just scowled at her. "Can you get off?"
She blinked. It occurred to her that she was still sprawled on his lap. His hands were clenched at his sides, as if he wanted to push her off but couldn't bring himself to touch her. Geez, did he think she was diseased or something?
"You're the one who made me lose my balance," she muttered.
Nevertheless, she swiftly detached herself from him. He let out a breath as soon as their bodies were no longer touching. Katara didn't know why she found his relief so irritating. It wasn't like she had wanted to be close to him. Even if his body had felt rather nice. So toned and—
Her blush darkened. She quickly looked the other way. "Why are you even here?" she demanded. "Shouldn't you be off doing evil jerk things?"
His eyebrow rose a fraction. "Evil jerk things?"
Katara bit her lip. Spirits, she had been around Sokka too much. "You know what I meant!" she snapped. "You're the prince of the Fire Nation. What are you doing in Ba Sing Se, let alone in this prison?"
"I could ask you the same thing. Shouldn't you be with the Avatar and your loudmouth brother?"
"We split up," Katara said haughtily. "I chose to stay in Ba Sing Se."
She tried to fold her arms but, of course, Zuko's wrist came with the cuff. His hand brushed her boob before either of them could react. There was an awkward silence.
"That was not intentional," Zuko said in a strangled voice.
It was hard to tell with the lighting, but his unscarred cheek looked a bit pink. Katara opened and closed her mouth like a fish out of water, too embarrassed to speak. Much as she wanted to rant at him, she knew the boob grope really was just an accident. Best to change the subject.
"A-anyway," she stammered, "you still haven't answered my question. What are you doing here?"
Zuko shifted into a more comfortable position. "Why should I tell you?"
She pursed her lips. "Fine. I bet you were just hunting Aang anyway."
"Well, what did you do to end up here?" he retorted. "Steal another waterbending scroll?"
"Of course not! I stopped those ninjas from killing a guy." She poked him in the chest. "Besides, if we're to talk of stealing, you're the one who stole my mother's necklace!"
Zuko rolled his eyes. "I didn't steal your necklace. I just picked it up because I recognised it as yours."
"Yeah, and then you kidnapped me and tried to use the necklace as a bargaining tool to make me sell out Aang." She glared at him. "You're a horrible person."
He didn't respond, though the tightness of his jaw suggested he was clenching his teeth.
Katara huffed and leaned back against the wall. This was so frustrating. Of all the people to be handcuffed to, why did it have to be him?
"I don't believe this," she muttered.
Zuko ignored her. They stayed this way in silence for a while, both careful not to move too much or touch each other. Katara's stomach gave a low growl. She tensed, far too conscious of the sound when her enemy (who did not look nice without a shirt) was right next to her. It was kind of embarrassing.
"How long are they going to keep us in this pit?" she complained.
She was bored and hungry. She was also worried about Momo. The lemur had not been with her when she had got captured.
Zuko played with a loose pebble. "Those ninjas are probably deciding what to do with us. We were both captured in the Upper Ring, so they will assume we are important people. That's the only reason we aren't dead yet."
"You don't sound too concerned."
"I don't plan on dying," he said frankly.
She brought her knees up to her chest, hugging her legs with the arm that wasn't cuffed to Zuko. "Well, I don't plan on dying either."
He was quiet for a moment. "So, how about a truce?"
She paused. Her gaze flickered to his face. "What kind of truce?"
Zuko lifted their cuffed wrists. "We're stuck together anyway, so even if I wanted to, I can't escape without you." His eyes locked with hers. "If we work together, we can get out of this place." He shrugged. "Do what you want after that. I need to find my uncle."
She considered the matter. On the one hand, it meant cooperating with the angry jerk who had chased her and her friends all over the world. On the other, she needed his help if she wanted to get out of this pit.
"Okay," she agreed. "Let's work together for now."
Zuko nodded and then asked her if she had any weapons on her that the ninjas had missed or even something small and thin like a hairpin. Katara raised her eyebrow and gestured at the white wrappings that covered her otherwise naked body.
"Does it look like I have anything?" she demanded.
Zuko's gaze swept over her, pausing on her chest. Katara's cheeks warmed. It was obvious he was assessing whether she could hide something in her cleavage.
"Stop staring!" she snapped, clamping her free arm over her breasts.
Zuko blinked. "You're the one who told me t—"
"I didn't mean literally!" She pinched the bridge of her nose. "Geez, are you an idiot?"
Zuko had the grace to blush. "Alright, so you have nothing," he said, quickly changing the subject. "My weapons were taken as well, so that rules out picking the lock on the handcuffs."
"What about bending?" Her eyes lit up as she got an idea. "I don't have any water I can use, but maybe with fire—"
"It won't work." Zuko touched the handcuff on his wrist. "This is a special metal designed to subdue firebenders. The amount of heat it would take to weaken the metal would do more damage to us."
She sighed. "Then what do we do?"
Zuko fell quiet. He seemed to be examining the walls. "Stand up," he said suddenly.
He got to his feet, tugging on her arm in the process. She had no choice but to stand. With a few more tugs, he got her to move to the centre of the pit with him. Zuko's brow furrowed as he stared at the walls and then up to the open hatch.
"It could work," he murmured.
Zuko gripped her shoulders. "Do you think you could climb this wall?"
She blinked. His hands were big and warm on her bare skin. It was distracting. "U-uh—"
"Can you or can't you?"
Katara pulled herself together. "Maybe with my bending, but I've got no water. Plus, we're handcuffed together and there's nothing for me to grab onto. I don't see how anyone could."
Zuko took this in his stride. "The fact we're handcuffed doesn't matter. If you need a foothold to get started, we can work around that. Here—"
He turned her around and linked his non-cuffed arm with her from behind. Since he could not link with her other arm, he simply held her hand and pulled her close to him, locking their arms in place as much as possible. Now their backs were pressed together. She couldn't help but note that his back was very broad compared to hers.
"Okay, push against me and step onto the wall," he ordered.
Heat rose to Katara's cheeks. "What?"
"Just do it!"
Katara swallowed and put all of her weight onto Zuko's back. Carefully, she stepped onto the wall. Sure enough, she stayed in place.
"It worked," she said in surprise.
"By using our bodies as an anchor, we can walk up the wall like this and escape," Zuko explained. "We have to be in sync, though."
A few creases formed on Katara's brow. "What happens when we get to the top? Won't we just get stuck and not be able to climb out?"
Zuko went quiet.
"I'm thinking," he snapped.
Katara rolled her eyes. "Geez, you didn't even think that plan through."
"It would work. All it takes is timing and good reflexes." He paused. "But you could be right that this isn't the best method for you. You're a lot smaller than me, and an unbalanced weight will only make it harder once we get to the top."
"Then that's the end of that." Katara stepped off the wall and unlinked herself from him. "Let's think of a new plan."
Zuko didn't complain and went back to staring at the walls. Katara focussed on the square of light above them. She wondered if it would be best for them to just wait until the ninjas brought them out of the pit. They'd have a better chance of escaping that way. Then again, what if no one ever came? There had been no sound from outside the pit. It was entirely possible that she and Zuko had been abandoned.
"I could carry you," he said after a moment.
She blinked. "What?"
"I can climb the wall on my own," he elaborated. "You're light, so it shouldn't be an issue."
"But there are no footholds."
His mouth curved upwards. "Like that's going to stop me."
Something fluttered in her stomach. That cocky smile was dangerous. So dangerous, in fact, that she quickly listed in her mind all the horrible things she could think of about him. Those little prickles of attraction stirring inside her were not allowed to blossom. Reminding herself that he was nothing but a big jerk seemed a good way to nip all positive feelings in the bud.
Katara stared at the open hatch. "You can really climb up there?"
She let out a breath. It wasn't like she had a choice. "Fine. I'll let you carry me."
Zuko shifted on his feet, suddenly embarrassed. "Uh, but I'm going to need both my hands, so you'll have to keep hold of me yourself."
In other words, she would have to ride piggyback. Her face warmed at the thought. They were about to get very close, and neither of them was wearing nearly enough clothes. Oh spirits. This was going to be awkward.
Zuko turned the other way and crouched so that she could easily get on. She swallowed and stared at his bare back. The toned muscle was visible, even though his build was more slender than bulky. It was hard for her not to feel flustered. Aang and Sokka, the only other boys she had seen shirtless, were so scrawny in comparison.
"What are you waiting for?" Zuko asked.
She flushed and bit her lip. Tentatively, she curled her free arm around his neck and then pressed herself close, wrapping her legs around his waist. It was a shock of skin on skin. He was warm and soft to touch, but there was something unrelentingly firm about his body. Her curves had to mould to him. It made her hyperaware of her breasts—of every hint of femininity that she possessed. The fluttery wings started back up in her stomach.
"You good?" he asked.
"Yeah," Katara managed to say.
It was incredibly hard to stay focussed. Even replaying through her list of all the horrible things Zuko had done didn't help. He was too close. She tried to put more space between them. It was the only way to stop her from thinking stupid thoughts, like how, for an angry jerk, he actually had one hell of a body.
Zuko stood to his full height. The movement was faster than she had anticipated. She slipped and almost lost her hold. His hands gripped her thighs and pushed her back into position. Heat sparked through her blood from the contact.
"You're going to have to hold onto me tighter than that," he said bluntly. "I won't be able to help once I start climbing."
"Sorry," Katara mumbled.
She was glad he could not see her face. Her blush would put the setting sun to shame. With no other choice, she pressed herself even closer to him, clinging onto his back like a koala-cat wrapped tight around a tree. He let go of her thighs, but her heart continued to race, pounding against her ribcage so that her whole body seemed to throb to the beat. She hoped he could not feel it.
"Ready?" he asked.
Katara made a small sound of affirmation. She felt shy and off her game. It was frustrating. Her only consolation was that Zuko didn't seem to be faring any better. His voice might sound neutral, but the blushes she had seen on his cheeks and his quickened heart beat couldn't lie.
He inhaled and exhaled deeply, trying to prepare himself for whatever he was about to do in order to climb the wall. That made her nervous for quite a different reason. There were no footholds within reach. Just what the heck was he planning?
Suddenly, he was running—straight at the wall. She let out an undignified squeak, but the collision never happened. Instead, they were moving vertically, up and up and up, and then his fingers dug into the slight groove in the stone. He barely paused before he pushed down with his feet, propelling them up again to the next foothold. Katara could only cling to him. Her heart felt like it had got lodged somewhere in her throat. This was insane. He was insane. She had no idea how he had even managed to spot the indentations in the wall.
The square of light got closer. Zuko jumped and half-climbed, half-ran his way up the wall, timing each movement with precision. It was like being carried by a spider-monkey. She didn't even have time to panic properly. He moved so fast that all she could comprehend was a blur of stone and the sheer power of his body. Who knew he'd been hiding that much agility and strength?
Zuko thrust them up towards the opening with one last boost. For a moment she felt as if she was floating—until gravity kicked in. Then it was just scary. Her eyes widened, and a fluttery, plummeting sensation assailed her stomach. She was so sure they were going to fall. Any moment now the descent would begin, but then he latched onto the edge of the hatch. A grunt escaped his lips. No doubt her added weight had worsened the impact.
Muscles straining, he pulled them both up the rest of the way and stumbled to his knees. Katara could feel his heart racing against her palm. His chest rose and fell quickly. She wasn't sure if it was from adrenaline or if, despite how effortless he had made their ascent appear, climbing up with her had actually taken more out of him than she had realised.
Katara slid off him. "I can't believe you just did that. Are you even human?"
Zuko laughed. The sound was so normal—and, hence, so unlike him—that it made her blink. "There's nothing special about climbing a wall."
She begged to differ. What he had done was more impressive than she cared to admit—especially since he had carried her the whole way. It was kind of annoying, actually. She was practically useless without her bending, but it seemed like he was just as dangerous without his, if not more so.
"Come on," Zuko said, getting to his feet. "We should get out of here while we have the chance."
"I need my stuff."
He tugged on the handcuff, pulling her forward. "Forget it."
Katara dug her heels in. "You don't understand. They've got my mother's necklace and the vial of Spirit Oasis water that Master Pakku gave me. I can't leave without those things."
Zuko made a tsking sound. "You realise that neither of us is in any condition to fight those guys, right?"
She raised her chin. "It doesn't matter. I'm not leaving."
His eyes narrowed. They both knew that he could not leave without her, since they were still handcuffed together. Something about the slight twist of his mouth made her feel like he was contemplating just picking her up and carrying her out with him, but then he sighed.
"Fine," he said. "I'll help you find your stuff, but you have to listen to everything I say. Got it? If I tell you to run, you run. If I tell you to shut up, you shut up."
Katara puffed out her cheeks in frustration. "Who died and made you leader?"
He leaned in close. "This is the only way I will help you, waterbender. We're at a disadvantage right now, but I at least have some experience with getting through guarded areas without being seen. So, either you do what I say or I will make you leave without your precious belongings, because I don't plan on getting stuck in that pit again."
She exhaled. "Alright. If you say you know what you're doing, then lead away."
It wasn't like it would make a difference to her in the long-run. All she cared about was getting her stuff back from those thieving ninjas.
Zuko turned without a word, only to stop abruptly. Katara saw why a second later. She had finally taken in their surroundings, and it was obvious from a glance that they were no longer in Ba Sing Se. There were no grand buildings, no train lines or walls to represent the different rings. There was only the raised platform that she and Zuko were standing on and a fortress that had been designed to blend into the trees.
Katara repressed a groan. This was not good.