Actions

Work Header

The Color of the Stars

Chapter Text

It was doomed from the start.

Katara can see that now. She’d always known it was reckless, but this—this is little more than a glorified suicide mission. Even without their bending, Fire Nation soldiers are vicious and mechanical fighters, and there are just so many of them. Every time she strikes one down, three more appear.

Her ears sting with the bright clash of metal on metal; all around her, their motley band of friends and allies is fragmenting. Snatches of the scene flash by as she dodges and dashes and whirls the water around her arms: Haru, a boulder hoisted in the air over his head. Bato, lunging, scimitar about to make contact with a Fire soldier’s helmet. One of the massive metal caterpillars, battered and shedding its plates of armor, but crawling forward.

Her friends are strong. Katara knows they are. They’re powerful, and they’ve done all they could to prepare, but they are one hundred people from all over the world, half of them without any formal combat training. They are strong enough to fight to a standstill, but nothing more.

Aang, Sokka and Toph have been gone for a very long time. Too long. Being separated from them makes her feel useless. Without them, she’s like an arm cut off from its body, no support and no direction. She can’t concentrate right. Her body is here fighting, but her mind is inside of the mountain.

She ducks away from a Fire Nation sword and hooks her water whip around the soldier’s ankles. Something must have gone wrong. Aang can’t have been fighting the Fire Lord this whole time; even the Avatar tires out. She flicks her wrist. A wave darts out and slaps the sword out of a soldier’s hand.

What if it was a trap? What if the Fire Lord knew they were coming? What if Zuko or Azula or the Dai Li found them, or they shot Appa out of the sky, or they got lost or couldn’t find him or the eclipse went wrong somehow—

She can’t lose them.

Katara’s arms are aching. The water’s heavy on her wrists, and her head is ringing with the screaming, and the sun is uncomfortably warm on her back.

Her father shouts her name.

The sun is too warm.

There is a single moment when Katara realizes that the game has changed, and before she can adjust—before she can even turn to run—the warmth isn’t just on her back anymore, it’s flashing all around her, and she falls.

-

Fire Lord Ozai is smiling, and Zuko’s blood is boiling.

“Don’t you want to know what happened to your mother?” his father asks. His voice is deceptively smooth, like silk over steel.

Zuko did not come here to fight. He came to offer an explanation; he came to keep the peace, because even after all this time, he cannot harm his father. But the word ‘mother’ cuts straight through his artificial calm.

He turns to face the Fire Lord.

“What happened that night?”

As his father speaks, Zuko can feel the fire singing in his veins. It grows louder with every word, enough confusion and rage to fuel a thousand suns, but he cannot find the spark that usually burns in the pit of his stomach. He feels wrong—empty, somehow, and very young, and he thinks this was a very bad idea but Ozai is talking about his mother. His dead mother.

Who might not be dead after all.

The fire is rising. His ears are filling with a deafening rush and he can’t tell if it’s his own heartbeat or the roar of the flames that are longing to ignite and he has never been this furious in his entire life, not even when he was exiled from his home when he was barely a child, not even when he lost the Avatar and what he thought was his last way to reclaim his past.

“Your punishment,” the Fire Lord says, “will not be as merciful.”

His body sparks to life.

Zuko ignites, but Ozai is quicker.

-

She can’t find her father.

There is so much fire everywhere she can see and it’s all she can do to keep the water around her but she knows she won’t last much longer and she is screaming “Dad, Dad, where are you” and the fire is just getting hotter. There are eight of them she can see, eight deathly gray masks and eight jets of flame and one little waterbender who is too young to die. One waterbender alone who needs her brother or her friends or her father or anyone but she cannot face the fire alone.

Katara knows she can’t hold on. Water and fire do not coexist and she is going to evaporate any second now under the heat and there is nothing nothing she can do. Already her vision is fading and she lets the water drop and she can’t see anything but red when she finally closes her eyes and the battle fades away and she slips into the cool ocean in her mind.

-

Zuko has only held lightning once in his life and it is nothing compared to this. Then, it was invigorating—almost exhilarating—to feel his whole body come to life at once, for every inch of his scarred and weary skin to react so simultaneously to the pure energy in his veins. Then, he didn’t want to let it go.

But his father’s lightning is a thousand times stronger. His body was never meant to hold this much energy. He is shaking with the force, and it takes every bit of his wildly overstimulated attention to keep it from exploding.

“Fight, traitor!” the Fire Lord sneers.

Zuko aims at his father.

His father.

Through the blue webs of crackling fire, he can see his father’s face. His father, who banished his mother, who drove his sister to cruelty, who has tried to kill his own son multiple times now.

His father.

Zuko lets the lightning go. It obliterates the throne immediately.

Fire Lord Ozai laughs patronizingly. “I see nothing’s changed after all these years. I’m disappointed, Zuko. You were always too weak for this nation.”

He advances, and Zuko tries to call fire to his fingers, but his body is too spent, his chi overtaxed and vibrating from the lightning he was never supposed to hold.

“You are no son of mine,” says Ozai, and fires.

-

It’s dark when Katara wakes up. Her first instinct is to pull the water from her hip to her hands, but her wrists are bound behind her back with something stiff and cool—metal, she assumes—and when she extends her fingers and tries to find even a drop where she usually keeps her best weapon, she feels nothing. The familiar, solid weight is gone from her belt.

She strains her eyes to make out any details. Wherever she is, it’s warm, and there’s a slight breeze; she must be moving, because she can feel the wooden slats of the floor shaking, and every few seconds it jolts, thrusting her up for a moment. A wagon?

The memories are returning to her slowly. The invasion was working, and then it wasn’t, and she couldn’t find Sokka or Aang or her father and then the flames—

Oh, spirits.

Katara struggles desperately against the shackles, but they’re Fire Nation steel and even Toph has difficulty fighting against that. Besides, her body feels raw, aching all over like she’d spent too much time in the sun. Either the Fire soldiers were merciful, though, or they’re giving her something to suppress the pain, because it’s a bearable sort of ache—nothing like the burns she still remembers from Aang’s solitary experiment with firebending.

So they didn’t want to hurt her too badly. They wanted to take her alive, instead of ending her on the spot. Katara’s not sure which would have been worse.

It’s just now beginning to sink in that she is a prisoner of the Fire Nation, deep in the heart of enemy territory, and she has no idea where her friends are or if they even survived the invasion and it’s even worse than Ba Sing Se because she is utterly alone and stripped of all her defenses and she is totally at the mercy of the nation that killed her mother and half of her village and there is nothing, nothing she can do about it.

The wagon creaks and then jerks to a stop. Outside, two voices murmur too quietly for Katara to understand the words. A moment later, a lantern sparks to life outside the canvas side, and it’s thrust through the flaps at the back alongside a metal mask.

“Come on,” the soldier rasps. “We’re here.”

-

Zuko can’t suppress the feeling that he’s done this all before. Everything about the situation—the grim soldiers, the oppressive rhythm of the footsteps, the thick gloves secured over his hands to prevent any firebending—is eerily similar to the first time he’d crossed his father. The only thing missing is the agony that had consumed half of his face.

This time, though, he knew exactly what he was getting himself into.

Eight guards really is too much for one escort, he thinks. He’s not sure if he should be flattered, or if his father is just trying to further intimidate him. He’s sure Azula had something to do with it, too. She hadn’t come to see him while he was locked in his bedroom waiting for the guard to assemble. He hadn’t really expected her to.

Nobody had tried to see him, in fact. Not even Mai.

Of course the soldiers wouldn’t let anyone in, but Zuko knows that if Mai truly wants something, she could overpower fifty Fire Nation guards easily. He can’t blame her. That letter was—horrible, really. Nothing even close to an explanation. She deserved better.

Zuko doesn’t know much about love, but he knows enough to know that’s not how to treat somebody he loves.

And now it’s too late to do anything about it, because ahead of him, the Fire Nation royal prison rises out of the mountains, stark and gleaming in the moonlight.

“It’s only temporary,” one of the guards tells him. “You’ll be transported to the Boiling Rock once the city is fully secured again.”

The Boiling Rock? Zuko had known his father was angry, but not that he hated his son that much. Even Uncle hadn’t been condemned to that glorified tomb.

“It’s a shame,” one of the other guards says, so quietly that Zuko can barely hear it. He has distant memories of that voice from his childhood—one of the palace guards that had probably been there at his birth.

He’d always been scared of the prison when he was young, and even recently, whenever he’d come out to visit Uncle, he was filled with unease. But as he marches up the path to the first set of gates now in the thick warm summer air, his hands tied behind his back but his head held high, he is filled with a strange calm. He’d lost, but he’d stayed true to himself. He’d finally done what Uncle believed he could.

He is no longer a prince, but for the first time in three years, he is Zuko.

-

The moon is nearly full. Katara files this fact away in the back of her mind alongside other bits of information about the scene: the prison is ten stories tall. There are three sets of walls surrounding it. There is a pond in the outer courtyard.

She can’t even begin to think about escape, though. Sokka had always been the strategist. He would know what to do. But alone, she can’t see any way out of the situation. Not with her hands tied, not with this many guards, and not alone.

Katara is very, very alone.

The soldiers tighten their grip on her biceps as they pass the pond—not that she could do anything, anyway—and pass through the second set of gates. She is acutely aware of their gloved hands on her arms. All of her senses are heightened by the fear. If she concentrates, she can feel the sweat beading on her forehead.

The third gate is the largest by far, and once they are through, it slams shut behind her with a clang that sounds like a funeral gong. The prison is completely silent and dark aside for the torches that line the walls. The whole place feels heavy and oppressive and too final. She feels a sudden spark of empathy for the fish her father used to catch in his metal trawling nets. Katara is a fish out of the ocean here, cut off completely from her element and trapped a world away from everything she has ever known.

She misses her family with every drop of blood in her body.

The heart of the prison is a winding staircase that’s lit so sparsely it might as well be as dark as the night outside. She loses count of the steps after four hundred have passed away beneath her boots. They spend eternity climbing upwards, farther and farther, and Katara is beginning to wonder if they are planning to chain her to the roof when they stop.

“Welcome home,” the guard says.

_

They left his hands free.

It’s an inconsequential detail. There’s really no reason to bind his hands; even if Zuko did try to bend, the door to his cell is thick metal and he’s in the highest and most heavily guarded area and there are nine floors of the Nation’s best soldiers beneath him and three walls beyond that. Nobody escapes from a Fire Nation prison.

But still, it gives him a tiny bit of relief that they left his hands free, because he didn’t realize that being imprisoned would be so utterly boring. At least this way, he can amuse himself by calling up little flames in the palm of his hand and sending them to float around the cell.

He thinks he’s alone on the top level of the complex. At least, nobody protested when he sent his tiny lanterns out beyond the metal lattice and followed their path with his eyes. The whole level is small—there’s the hallway leading to the stairs, and only one other cell that he can see directly across from his. As far as he can tell, it’s empty, which Zuko finds a little odd. The best-protected location in the whole Capital City, and it’s not in use? It’s not as if there’s a lack of powerful benders to occupy the space.

Zuko stretches a jet of flame between his hands and watches the way the colors flicker against the damp stone. He’ll almost be glad when they move him to the Boiling Rock, because at least it’ll be more interesting than this terrible solitude.

He elongates the flame, stretching it into a bamboo-thin sliver of shining orange, and twirls it around his hands idly. Maybe they’ll let him out someday, if the Avatar wins the war, even if he never got the chance to help—

In the hallway, heavy footsteps echo. Zuko quashes the flame between his palms.

Looks like he got his wish. Something’s happening.

The footsteps grow louder until they pass in front of his cell. Zuko counts three soldiers facing away from him and a fourth pair of feet, smaller, and not wearing the black and bronze boots of the Fire Nation uniform. The bulky metal armor the soldiers wear blocks the rest of the last body from sight.

He hears a clink, a key in a lock, and Zuko strains to see. “Welcome home,” one of the soldiers says, and the small set of feet stumbles forward until they hit the ground of the cell opposite him, followed by two blue-clothed knees and two hands.

The key clicks again, and the soldiers march away. They are talking about him, and Zuko hears one of them laugh, but he can’t concentrate on whatever they are saying because for the first time he has a clear view of his new prison mate and he knows her.

“Katara?” he says.

-

Just when Katara thought things couldn’t get any worse, the spirits proved her wrong again.

Being captured by the Fire Nation was one thing. She’d known all along it was a very real possibility that she’d end up a hostage at some point over the course of the war; she’d made her peace with it long ago. Being separated from everyone she knew—from Sokka, from Aang and Toph, from all of the people who might have been able to help her—is an added insult. Being locked up in a dank cell cut off from the moon and the water is barely bearable.

But being imprisoned alone with, out of every single person in the whole world, Prince Zuko? That’s something she’d never even considered in her worst nightmares.

At least he’d finally stopped talking. When she first was thrown into the cell, as soon as he recognized her he’d started pestering her with questions, a rapid-fire interrogation that she neither had the energy nor the desire to address. He seemed to get the point after fifteen minutes of silence on her behalf, and he’d lapsed into wordlessness, too.

Katara can feel his eyes on her. She stares as hard as she can at the wall opposite her, counting the slimy stones to distract herself from giving in. She is not going to look at him. This is all his fault in the first place—if he hadn’t betrayed them in Ba Sing Se, if he hadn’t chased them all over the world, if he hadn’t driven them straight into the heart of the Fire Nation—

“Listen to me, Katara.”

She nearly snaps ‘does it look like I have a choice?’ The venom stills on her tongue.

“I know we haven’t had the…smoothest beginning. And I’m sorry, I really am, and you have no reason to trust me.” She can’t stop the derisive snort that escapes at that. “But the thing is—well—you can help me. I mean, I can help you. We can help each other.”

Is he always this nervous when he speaks? It’s almost refreshing to hear the proud prince reduced to this—a stuttering wreck, locked up and finally subjected to the same treatment she and her friends have endured for months. Katara’s still not sure exactly what he did to get thrown in here, but it doesn’t matter. They’ve been in this situation before, and she remembers all too well how it ended up.

Zuko sighs. “We’re both out of plans, okay? It doesn’t matter what happened before. Well, I mean, it obviously does—and I’m sorry, I was wrong, I made a huge mistake and I know how wrong I was and I’ll do anything to make it up to you—“

“Save your breath,” Katara mutters, and immediately regrets her lapse in willpower.

There’s a scraping sound and a series of clinks, and when Zuko speaks again, his voice is a little louder. “They’re going to move us to the Boiling Rock in a few days,” he says. “A guard told me. It’s the most heavily-guarded military prison in all four nations. You don’t get out of that place once you’re in. And I don’t know about you, but I don’t really want to die in prison.”

Katara’s not listening to him. Not really. It’s just that there’s no possible way to stop herself from hearing him short of putting her hands over her ears like a child. And anyway, it’s not like she believes anything he says.

It’s possible that she does turn her head ever so slightly towards him, though.

It seems that’s all the encouragement Zuko needs. “I know you need to get back to the Avatar, and I don’t want to spend the rest of my life rotting in jail, either. And I really do want to help you, even if you don’t believe it.”

“So what are you saying?” asks Katara, and when she does turn to look at him for the first time, he’s kneeling at the front of his cell, hands folded but chin raised proudly. Even in the dim light, his honey-gold eyes glimmer dangerously.

“We could break out,” he says.

“How?”

He rocks back on his knees and ducks his chin. “I…sort of haven’t gotten to that part yet.”

“Oh, fantastic.” Katara crosses her arms and turns back to the wall. At least it makes sense. “Great idea. I’m so glad I actually bothered to get my hopes up that for once in your life, you’ve thought of something useful and intelligent.”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t realize you wanted to stay in jail forever!” Zuko snaps. The chain clinks again, and out of the corner of her eye, Katara can see him collapse back into a mirror of her own position. “I mean, do you have—“ He abruptly stops talking and inhales slowly through his nose. His eyes flutter closed when he breathes back out. “Sorry,” he mutters. “I’m not going to lose my temper.”

“But you’re so good at that,” Katara deadpans.

Did he just chuckle? She was trying to make him angry! “I know. I’m trying to fix it. I swear, Katara, I really have changed this time.”

There is not a single person in the world that Katara trusts less than Zuko. Not even his wicked sister. But there’s something in Zuko’s voice, in his face and in his eyes, that makes her wonder if there’s at least a grain of truth behind his adamant protests. He can’t have just switched sides that quickly—not the boy that tracked them around the world to kidnap Aang just to buy his way back onto the Fire Nation throne.

He’s in a Fire Nation prison now, though. They both are.

“Alright,” Katara says. “Let’s pretend that I do agree with you. Hypothetically. If I did—and I’m not saying I do—what do you think we could do?”

She can practically feel Zuko smiling at her from across the narrow hall. When he speaks again, his voice is notably brighter. “This is the prison that my Uncle Iroh is kept in, and I used to come visit him all the time. I know my way around it pretty well. If we could get out of these cells, I’d know how to get us out of the tower, at the very least.”

“That’s a start, but there are still all the guards and the walls and the fact that we’re ten stories up in the air,” Katara points out.

Zuko huffs out a breath of air, and Katara swears she sees the air spark under his nose. She shivers involuntarily. “Give me a little more time, okay? I’ve only had an hour to think about it.”

“We’re kind of on a tight schedule,” she protests. “Didn’t you say they were going to move us to another prison soon?”

“They said they had to secure the city first. That’s going to take a few days. For so few people, your friends caused a lot of destruction. My family doesn’t show it, but it rattled them. They’re not letting anyone in or out of the capital for at least three days.”

Three days. That’s three days closer to Sozin’s Comet, three days she could be spending training Aang, three days that she’ll be apart from them when they need her the most.

Three days compared to a lifetime.

“Fine,” Katara says. “I’m in.”