“I want to look into the eyes of the man who murdered one of our people.”
Zuko’s head hung in shame. All evening, people had been peeking through the flap, gasping in horror at his pale skin and golden eyes, and spitting at the ground by his feet before dashing off. He didn’t blame them. If something like this had happened back home, the prisoner’s treatment would have been far worse.
Gentle brown hands cupped his face and he looked up in shock.
Rather than answer, Katara gently tilted his head this way and that, examining the large bruise that covered most of his eye.
“Don’t worry about me,” Zuko insisted, pulling his head back. “I’ve been in far worse scenarios than this.”
The statement brought Katara’s attention to him, her skeptical look reminding him of just how severe his sentence was. Death at sunrise, so that the sun could witness the loss of one of its warriors, just as the moon had to witness the unfair loss of one of hers.
He grimaced. “Okay, so I can’t think of any at the moment, but–”
“I can’t help you out of this.” As if weakened by such an admission, tears began to flow freely down Katara’s face.
Zuko immediately tried to reach for her, but his arms were firmly secured to the pole behind him. “No. No, shh, don’t cry!” He did his best to shift his position toward her as she wiped at her tears. “Listen,” he said urgently. “I have an important task for you.”
Katara’s hand dropped with a snort. “What?”
“I’m serious!” he exclaimed lowly, glancing at the tent’s flap. “You know how I’m the son of the leader of my people?”
“The prince.” Katara spoke the term with the same mocking lilt as when she had first learned it, and Zuko couldn’t stop the scowl from crossing his face the second time around.
“Yes. Well, despite the justice of it, my people, the Fire Nation, are going to find my death as a great affront and will very likely start a war over it.” At the fiery spark in Katara’s eyes, Zuko rushed on, knowing how stubborn she got over the Water Tribe’s bravery. “Katara, listen to me. Your tribe will not survive a war against the Fire Nation. We work with fire, and this place will burn until there’s nothing left.”
But Katara was already shaking her head as she backed away from him.
“No, listen to me! I know how my country works! They won’t stop until there’s nothing left! Your culture will be gone! But I’m not asking you to save me! I want you to gather up the children and the elderly – the future and keepers of your past – and get them out of here while you can! Take your boats and sail through the ocean, and don’t you dare stop until you see land. Actual land, with dirt and grass on it. Okay? Hide amongst the Earth Kingdom until the Fire Nation gets a new ruler – my sister – and this is all forgotten, okay? I don’t want to die with the knowledge that you will be following me soon after.”
Katara was crying once more, but at least she had stopped from pulling back. Instead she threw herself forward, wrapping her arms tightly around his neck as sobs wracked her body.
“Why are your people so cruel?”
Something ached deep within Zuko at the question, and shame forced his eyes shut.
“Because we’re like our element. Like fire,” he recited, new words forming in his mind to be added on to the old classroom statement. “And like fire, we get carried away when left unchecked.” His eyes opened and he stared sadly at the ground as he tilted his head to nuzzle into the soft waves of Katara’s hair. “And we’ve been left unchecked for far too long to know how to stop burning now.”
The predawn light was far from peaceful.
From his bound position against the large flat rock, Zuko could hear the hollow thrums of the animal-skin drums. Ahead of him, he could see black smoke rising from the red glow of the Fire Nation as the men and women shed their new titles of explorers and slipped back into their old skins of soldiers. It wouldn’t be long now before they would arrive to the bottom of the cliff and see his blood staining down its icy walls.
His eyes slipped closed at the thought. And entire race would be wiped out because of him. Because he was stupid enough to think his pride was worth it. Because he was stupid enough to fight a jealous man to the death. Over a kiss that was so far from innocent.
It was the only part of the events leading up to this that he couldn’t bring himself to regret.
He hoped Katara had taken his advice and that some of the elderly were waterbenders, otherwise he wasn’t sure they would be able to get away fast enough.
The distant clanking of armor had him opening his eyes, and he looked on in horror as the Fire Nation army came trudging around the hill. Behind them the sun broke past the horizon, blinding him from his people, but giving them the perfect view of their prince humiliatingly tied to a boulder. Of the chief standing behind him with his large, blunt weapon of bone and rock, and of the warriors surrounding them.
This would not be viewed as justice. This would be viewed as an disrespectful declaration of war.
The sun’s light warmed the tips of his fingers and he knew his time was up. Behind him, the drums stopped. Ahead of him, he heard the gasps of his army. He braced himself for the impact of the killing blow–
The scream tore through the crisp morning air, and Zuko felt a warm body throw itself over his.
“Katara!” the chief gasped.
Katara? Body now shaking at the adrenaline rush of almost certain death Zuko turned his head to the side, to try and catch a glimpse of the girl. What was she doing here?
The chief seemed to get over his shock, and when he spoke again, his voice was in the same hardened tone as when he had delivered Zuko’s sentence.
“No.” Katara’s arms clung harder around Zuko’s body. “If you kill him, you’ll have to kill me, too.”
Zuko’s jaw dropped in shock.
“What are you doing?” he hissed, fear running cold through him. “This isn’t your–”
A sharp pinch to his side was the only acknowledgement he received as Katara kept her defiant gaze firmly on the man standing over them.
For a long moment, silence hung through the air, and then – the crunch of snow as the chief dropped his weapon.
Katara’s body sagged on top of his, causing Zuko to relax as well. She pushed off of him none-to-gently as she ran to her father, and Zuko was dragged to his feet so that his bonds could be cut.
Relief washed through Zuko and he looked to his army, ready to raise an arm to show that all was well. But instead his sight fell upon a fireball, hurdling through the air and straight for the chief.
Unthinking, Zuko ran forward to push the chief and Katara out of the way – just in time to feel the heat of the fire over his face, burning hot against his left eye before the pain overwhelmed him and the world went dark.