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The Color of the Stars

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It’s easier the next morning for Zuko to turn his back on Katara at the mouth of the alley system. The way she twirls her dagger between her hands as they make plans to meet back up assuages any of his leftover fear; there’s a subtle hardening in her ocean irises that hadn’t been there yesterday, and it makes it obvious she isn’t going to be messed with by any of the backstreet rabble.

Zuko, on the other hand, is wary of accidentally stepping into gang territory again and inserting himself into one of the Lower Ring’s vicious turf wars. He’d been lucky that the men yesterday hadn’t been benders and hadn’t pinned him as belonging to a rival gang, but just because it could have been worse doesn’t mean it can’t still be. The streets he picks are less arbitrary this time, and maybe it means he doesn’t meet as many homeless bender kids, but it also means he doesn’t run into anyone looking for trouble for the entire morning, which is an achievement for him. Even as a disguised refugee, it had seemed like conflict followed him around.

Zuko’s not going to complain. He could have worse issues than an uneventful day. It gives him a chance to listen to the whispered gossip passing between mouths as he strolls by, secretly anxious for any mention of a prodigy blind earthbender or a young Southern warrior with a boomerang or a mysterious boy that maybe, maybe looks a little like the rumored-to-still-live Avatar. There’s not much to show for his efforts—the word on the street is frustratingly vague and contradictory—but he does find some things out. The Fire Navy is moving east; the Northern Water Tribe is struggling to remain isolated; the Fire Prince and the Southern waterbender and the Dragon of the West are all still at large from the capital prison and are rumored to be taking refuge near Kyoshi Island.

When the last rumor spills from the lips of a frightened-looking mother, he can’t help but smile to himself. Kyoshi Island. They might as well use their real names and start bending again for all the chance they have of being discovered here.

-

She can’t let them catch her. If they do, she’s dead.

This is the only thing Katara can think about as she pushes herself to keep putting one foot in front of the other. It’s not like yesterday. It’s not an indeterminate standoff if she slows by even a fraction—it’s not a fight she could ever win. No. If she stops running, it’s death.

Yesterday, she could judge her pursuers’ distance by the volume of their footsteps echoing against the walls, but these are so silent she wouldn’t even know she was being followed if she didn’t keep catching glimpses of dark shadows gliding along at the edges of her vision. They make no sound, don’t call out to each other as they run, only fly like night spirits after her and don’t seem to slow.

If she could bend, she would coat the ground with ice. She would turn the street to the surface of a lake in winter and they would skid into each other and topple like injured tundra moose. But there’s not nearly enough water and she can’t slow down enough to make the proper movements and besides, she isn’t going to bend. Not unless they are holding the sword to her neck. Maybe not even then, because it could give away her identity and by inference Zuko’s location. They can’t get to Zuko. They can’t have the both of them.

One of them is bad enough.

Katara spares a glance behind her and nearly stumbles. Somehow, they’ve managed to gain on her, even though she’s been running faster than she even thought she could. The shadowy quartet is fanned out across the alley behind her, two at the edges and two dashing parallel up the center in a perfectly symmetrical formation. She veers right, holds her breath, and leaps, her fingers grasping desperately as she remembers the strength she’d had to call on to hoist herself up the side of the canyon and begs her arms to find it again. The momentum is enough to pitch her up halfway onto the low roof, and she scrambles the rest of the way up on her elbows and stomach, ungraceful but quick. A shower of loose tiles clatter onto the street but she is off and running. Her feet barely touch the peak of the roof with each step.

She’s not naïve enough to think she’s lost them, but maybe they’re temporarily confused, at least enough to regain her split-second lead. The roofs are thinner and harder to navigate. Their formation will be useless up here. Of course, she’s far more visible, but the element of surprise has been lost ever since one of the agents took their first menacing step towards her as she bent to talk to a girl in a voice that was maybe just a little too loud and a little too passionate about a topic a little too revolutionary for such a public street. She should have been more careful. But they’d appeared from nowhere, the four of them melding out of shadowed corners and overhangs and she hadn’t noticed until it was too late to do anything but run.

She takes a flying jump across the gap between two buildings and lands hard on the opposite side. The rough tile bites into her palms, but she doesn’t have time to care, not when she sees one of the Dai Li agents approaching from the side, perpendicular to her path. The other three aren’t visible but they can’t be far away.

The dagger is heavy against her thigh. Heavy and useless. There’s no way she can win this one, not without water.

Running won’t work. They’re smart, but she’s evaded more dangerous enemies. There is more than one way to lose a tail. Katara dives to her stomach and skids along the roof, praying Ba Sing Se architecture doesn’t differ severely between buildings.

It doesn’t. She pitches over the edge and lands in a crouch on the balcony she’d suspected would be below. A woman stringing laundry from a basket along a line shrieks, but Katara hooks a hand over the line and slides away before her position is given away. The other end is attached to a large, squat building with a mercifully long railing along the edge of the top story that she ducks down behind as she runs, and before she sets off, she snaps the clotheslines with a quick clip of her knife.

Shouts are beginning to rise in her wake, but Katara doesn’t allow herself to think of anything beyond her next maneuver. The end of the roof leads to a wide avenue, but she hops down and runs along it instead of across until she can use two carts passing in opposite directions as cover. Judging from the commotion, she hasn’t lost the Dai Li yet, but she hadn’t even expected to go this long without capture. Maybe if she can keep it up long enough—until she finds an abandoned building, an empty doorway, a sewer cover—maybe—

She skids to a halt. Her arms fly out to steady herself even as her feet turn to run in a different direction, and the agent in her path follows, but Katara grabs at the nearest obstacle and heaves as she tears by. A series of loud, heavy thuds fills the street, followed by a cry of “my cabbages!”

How had that happened? She thought she’d lost them!

The next building is low, only one story, and she jumps back to the rooftops with the aid of a series of crates, using them as steps to get back up to her vantage point so she can survey the city. From here, it’s impossible to pick out the agents—the streets are too choked with people to make out any individual figures, and if they occupy any less crowded alleys, they’d blend in with the shadows. But at least there isn’t anyone else on the rooftops. Katara can take a breath, reassess, plan, figure out how to—

Or apparently not.

With a rush like the flap of a wolfbat’s wings, the agent to her right pulls to a perfect stop, his cape fluttering behind him. “Don’t try to run again,” he says, staring her down. Katara holds back a shiver.

She twists halfway, planning her next leap, but another agent appeared behind her while she was distracted and is advancing slowly. His arms are at his side but she knows they could snap up at any moment and rip the clay roof off the building. Up here, there’s nothing but dry air—not even a hint of rain in the deathly hot summer. Monsoon season isn’t for a month. She doesn’t have anything to fight back with.

Something sharp jabs into her thigh as she stumbles back. The dagger. Of course. At least she has that. Her movements are slow, precise, as delicate as possible to avoid alerting the two—no, three now, another is pacing down the adjoining railing towards her—and then she’s got her and behind her back and the familiar grip in her palm.

“This doesn’t have to be difficult.” The agent’s voice is icier than the walls of her village. “Just come with us. It looks like you need a vacation to Lake Laogai.”

Green light. Jet’s sickly, contorted face staring up into nothing with unseeing eyes. There is no war in Ba Sing Se, no war, no war.

It breaks through her concentration so completely that for a moment, she forgets that she’s on a roof in broad daylight and not in a stone vault under a lake. It’s long enough. They pounce, silent and precise, and she strikes out desperately but she was doomed from the moment she trapped herself up here. There are hands on her back and neck and arms and then something passes over her mouth and nose, a sour taste fills her throat, and green light envelops her.

-

Zuko gets to the main alley a few minutes after sunset. It’s a little later than they’d agreed, but he figures Katara probably won’t mind the extra time to relax a little, and besides, he’d been in a fascinating discussion with an Earth Army veteran about the Dragon of the West’s original conquest of Ba Sing Se and what mistakes the Earth Kingdom had made that they’ll be sure not to repeat. The sun had been at a safe height when Zuko had stumbled into him, but by the time he pulled himself out of the story enough to glance up, it had gotten late without him noticing. It had been a beneficial conversation, though; not only had they gotten a veteran soldier’s support and offer of leadership to the renegade forces, he’d heard all about how a young Iroh and his ingenious son had singlehandedly taken down the walls of the city with a method so devious even the Earth soldier couldn’t keep his admiration out of his voice.

All in all, it had been a very successful day. He’d talked with even more people than he had yesterday, and they all seemed receptive, and not a single one of them had commented on his pale skin or gold eyes or the distinctive scar aside from a few bitter remarks of “the Fire Nation got you already, huh?” In fact, it had almost helped to have the burn covering half his face—people became sympathetic, but never asked about it, and he never had to lie. It had been a good day. He’s tired now, though, and looking forward to a quiet night at the tea shop with Katara. Maybe he could find Uncle’s old Pai Sho board. Zuko’s not sure if Katara knows how to play Pai Sho, or if it’s even played down at the South Pole, but he could teach her. It shouldn’t take too long. She picks things up quickly. It had taken a while for Zuko to learn it, but he was young and irritable and he didn’t really care about playing anything except Hide and Explode when he was growing up.

He’ll go easy on her. Not so much that she’ll notice it, and only for the first few games, but he can imagine the look of triumph she’ll have on her face after she beats him on the first try. That thought alone is enough to quash any dishonesty he might feel for not being particularly competitive.

He can cook tonight, too; Katara deserves a break. As long as she talks to him while he works, he won’t mind at all. Maybe he could make her cherry komodo chicken dumplings. She would like those. Of course, finding fresh komodo chicken around here might be difficult—

He pulls up short at their usual spot. There’s a stray cat and a pair of old men, but no small green-clad girl. No Katara.

Weird. Zuko had been sure she would be here by now. It’s pretty late, late enough he’d been worried she might start wondering where he is, and even by the loosest standards sunset had ended a long time ago. From what Zuko knows of her, Katara doesn’t like to be late, especially not around him; she still acts like she’s walking on eggshells except for the few short and rare moments she lets her guard down. This wouldn’t be one of those. She wouldn’t be late to spite him, and she wouldn’t just forget about him. At least, he hopes she wouldn’t.

Maybe she’d gotten sick of waiting for him and went back to the shop? Zuko wouldn’t blame her. He wouldn’t want to hang around out here alone, either. Ugh, if only he had paid closer attention to the time! She’ll probably be mad now. He’ll just have to make her a really nice dinner. And some more of that oolong tea.

Zuko tries to ignore the uneasy feeling in the pit of his stomach as he hurriedly gathers up the items he needs for dinner and makes his way home so fast he’s almost running. It’s logical—very probable, almost certain—that she’s already there, waiting for him, but there’s still a small voice saying what if she isn’t? What if she’s not home?

Which is ridiculous, because where else would she be? Of course she’s at home. Just yesterday, she’d fended off a pair of grown men with only a knife. If it comes down to it, she can always use her bending. Katara’s too smart to be caught. Too proud.

Still, Zuko rushes through the errands a little faster than is strictly necessary.

The roads on his way home are packed. There seem to be extra lanterns going up on every street; crews of uniformed workers are stringing up decorations from the rain gutters and cornices, and gold posters are hung from every balcony, inscribed with characters for fortune and love and happiness. Zuko had heard mentions of a festival throughout the streets today, but he hadn’t realized it would be this big. It seems like every building has some form of embellishment hanging off of it. He’s not up to date on his Earth spirits; once upon a time, during his lessons with the rest of the palace boys when he was young, he’d seen long lists of deity names and what they protected and which nations worshipped him, but it hadn’t been very emphasized and that tutor had mysteriously disappeared two days after Zuko excitedly told his father all about the legend of Tui and La over dinner. A summer deity, though, must be for prosperity because of the ensuing fall. Harvest festivals in the Fire Nation had been massive—or so he’d heard. He’d never been allowed outside the palace walls on festival days. There had been celebrations inside the palace, but they’d been small and controlled.

This must have been how the Capital City was, though: thrumming with excitement and ready to burst. Zuko wonders how he hadn’t noticed the preparations before. The mission must have taken up more of his attention than he realized.

On his street, there is a gold paper symbol affixed to every door except the tea shop’s, and wreaths of some kind of artificial pink-flowered vine are dripping from second-story clotheslines. There aren’t any lights on in his shop, but he didn’t expect there to be. Katara would have no reason to be in the front.

He pushes through the door with his hip, his arms too full of bags to be of much use, and calls out her name as he passes over the dark threshold. She doesn’t answer.

She’s asleep, he guesses. Today must have been long for her. He won’t wake her up just yet, not until dinner is ready; she deserves the rest.

Except the bedroom’s empty, too. The whole apartment is empty. There’s no sign she’d even come back.

A nervous pulse is beginning to thrum between his eyes. She’s not here. She’s out there, somewhere in the city, somewhere and he has no idea where.

Did she leave him?

It’s a thought Zuko hasn’t entertained since the moment he saw Katara’s shoulders shaking at the top of that cliff, but now it bursts out, unable to be held down: did she finally leave him behind? Did Katara finally come to her senses, understand who she’s traveling with and everything he could do to her and her friends? Was being in this city with him again finally too much for her, and she remembered what had nearly happened—had happened—not even a whole season ago? It would be so easy for her to slip away. Effortless. His stomach lurches like the ground had pitched him into the air, and he grasps for something solid, anything to balance him. Maybe none of this meant anything at all.

But she could have left anytime, if she’d really wanted to. It’s not like Zuko was ever forcing her to travel with him. She’d agreed. She’d invited him along. The whole time, it had been Katara’s choice, and if she chooses to leave now it’s still her decision. Leaving without at least saying goodbye to him just doesn’t seem like something she’d do.

Slowly, Zuko relaxes, and his fingers release their death grip on the edge of the table. It doesn’t make any sense for Katara to leave. Not now. She must have gotten worked up about talking to people and not realized the time. That’s more like her—to get so invested in her cause that she loses track of herself in helping others. She’ll come home when she can. In the meantime, he’ll just have to wait.

And he’s got the food now, anyway. He might as well make it. As soon as Zuko sets into the old but familiar motions of stirring and rolling and stretching, nostalgia washes over him, calming his racing nerves.

The cloying scent of cherry brings him back to a different version of himself: smaller, more innocent, completely assured of his identity and home and family, standing on his tiptoes in a cavernous boiling kitchen with his mother. The skin of his face doesn’t feel tight anymore. He can almost hear Ursa’s voice repeating the steps to him, and it helps. For now, he can concentrate on the rhythmic movement of his hands and not the thought of Katara, alone and Spirits know where. She’ll find her way back home eventually, and when she does, Zuko will be waiting.

-

When she wakes up, the first thing she feels is relief, because it’s not to sickly green lantern light and slick stone walls and the tantalizing, infuriating drip of a thousand tiny leaks but to a modest room paneled in wood filled with fresh air. Her wrists are bound, and she’s slumped against a wall, but she’s definitely above ground—the weight and energy of the lake isn’t pounding above her the way she remembers last time. They haven’t got her yet. Up here, wherever here is, she’s still got a chance.

Most of that optimism dissipates once she takes stock of the room, of course, but at least she can see the door from where she is behind a thick wooden lattice. Between it and her are five Dai Li agents, milling around the dim room beyond like buzzard wasps around a carcass. Escape is currently and indefinitely out of the question.

One of them notices her open eyes before she can take in much else, and before she can even open her mouth, he’s descending on her, his hat shadowing most of his face from view. “You have disrupted the peace in our great city,” he intones. “It’s time we refreshed your lessons, citizen.”

“Here?” Katara squeaks. She’d been counting on at least one night without the dizzying green lantern.

Four other heads snap around to stare at her. The first shakes his, braid swaying. “Not yet. Tomorrow, we will transport you to Lake Laogai for a vacation.”

She lets out an internal sigh of relief before remembering the role she is playing: hapless, confused young Earth girl who knows nothing of Ba Sing Se’s terrible re-education methods. “Why are we going to Lake Laogai?”

The Dai Li agent peers more closely at her. For the first time, Katara catches a glance under the brim of his hat at his face, and she almost wishes she hadn’t. There is nothing there except clinical scrutiny. No emotion, just a sterile blank mask.

“What is your name?”

“Nozomi.”

“Where did you first hear lies about an invasion of our great impenetrable city?”

“How is it—” she catches herself just in time. Still, it seems too ridiculous even by Long Feng’s agents’ standards to deny an attack and an ongoing occupation that had turned the entire city on its head. Azula’s influence is impossible to ignore. They can’t keep pretending there is no war; they are the war.

But she can’t say any of that. She has to play along.

“I overheard it,” she mutters.

“From who?”

“A man in the Yang District.”

“It is false.” There is a chilly finality in the agent’s voice that leaves no room for argument. Katara is nearly convinced he believes it himself. “There will be no invasion. Ba Sing Se is at peace.”

She hangs her head and attempts to look defeated.

The agent pauses, allows a tiny quirk of his thin lips at her subservience, and then continues. “Tonight, you will stay in our accommodations until you are ready for your vacation. I’m afraid you will have to share the room. We have been busy.”

It’s not a room, it’s a cell, but that’s not what Katara focuses on when she’s shoved through the doorway. What she does pay attention to is the other figure, because when she sees it, her heart stops beating in her chest.

Ice blue tunic. Dark hair, pulled back with bone beads. Tan skin.

He’s far too burly to be Sokka, but for a moment, she can’t think of anything else. He glances up at her when she stumbles in, his eyes—his blue, blue eyes—glowing as the door clangs shut behind her and when he speaks, she could swear it’s her father’s voice coming from a different mouth.

“You don’t look Earth Kingdom.”

-

It’s past midnight by the time Zuko admits to himself that Katara isn’t coming home.

Dinner is long cooled on the table, completely untouched, and a pot of her favorite tea is sitting next to it half-empty. He drank half of it to try and calm his nerves. It had worked for a little, but with every minute that passed, the dread lying deep in his gut grew heavier. He should get up, go out, search for her, but leaving the table would be making what he already knows true: he couldn’t even pretend to be waiting for her anymore. She’s out there alone, and he’d spent the night making dumplings. She could be hurt. She could be dead.

Katara could be lying in an alley at this moment in a pool of her own dark blood, staring up at the moon and wondering where he is and why he isn’t there backing her up, because that was their deal. Back each other up, no matter what. She is his responsibility and he is hers and she’d kept up her end of the bargain and Zuko can’t.

No sooner has he realized all of this, though, than he feels all of it slipping away. He’d spent the last few hours of consciousness on borrowed time, and now this—the horrible conclusion, the final strike—is too much.

A teacup falls from the edge of the table and shatters onto the floor as his head drops down to meet the cradle of his folded arms. No one is there to catch it.

-

“Who—what—how—”

“Quiet down,” the Water Tribe man hisses. “They’re always listening. You have to be careful.”

He crooks one finger in her direction, and Katara walks forward slowly, unable to turn her gaze from the three blue beads strung onto the strand of hair pulled out to frame his face. It’s such a small detail—so insignificant—but she hasn’t seen anyone wear them for three weeks now, and the sight hits her somewhere low in her chest like a punch, the way feeling her father’s arms around her after so many years had felt. He can probably tell she’s staring. He’s probably wondering what’s wrong with her.

When she stops a few feet away from him, he sweeps a searching gaze from the crown of her head to her feet. “What’s your name?” he asks. “Your real name, not your silly made up Earth name.”

Her throat is dry. She stutters twice getting it out, but then—“Katara.” It feels so good falling from her lips. Her own name, her water name, for once not a lie. It feels so good she says it again.

“Katara,” he repeats. “That’s Southern, right?”

When she nods, the corner of his lips quirk up in a charming smirk. “Well, Katara of the Southern Water Tribe, it’s nice to meet you. I’m Kesuk of the Northern Water Tribe.”

“What are you doing in—” she gestures helplessly at the walls, trying to encompass everything she means—in the holding cell, in Ba Sing Se, in the Earth Kingdom—into her abbreviated question.

His shoulders ripple under his thin blue tunic. “Same thing as you, I’d suppose.”

You definitely suppose wrong, thinks Katara. What she says, though, is “are you a bender?”

“That’s a pretty forward question.”

“Please,” she says simply. “I need to know.”

Kesuk searches her face for a moment, his ocean eyes so painfully similar to Sokka’s in the color, the shape, the concentrated furrow of the brow over them, before he seems to recognize something there he was looking for.

With exaggerated slowness, he lifts one hand. A trickle of water that had spilled on the ground of the cell rises, shining, to flow midair in front of his face.

Katara reaches out and grabs the other end of it and pulls it horizontal between their chests. “Me too.”

“Good.” His teeth gleam in the dark—or maybe that’s the white of the shark-bone earring dangling from his earlobe. “I need to get out of this place, Katara. I assume you do too.”

She nods. “You know what will happen, right?”

“Big field trip to the Lake Laogai Brainwashing Facility and Day Spa, yeah. I’ve seen it happen. Rather not end up there.”

“Me neither.”

Kesuk chuckles. The deep tenor vibrates through the air. “So what’s the plan, Katara?”

“The plan?” she squeaks.

“Yep. I never was the ideas person.”

“Neither was I,” she confesses. “That was always my brother.”

There’s a scrape and a slide and next time Kesuk speaks, his voice is suddenly coming from somewhere much closer to her. “We’ll, I’m sure if we put our heads together we can figure something out. We’re Water Tribe, after all.”

“We’re Water Tribe.”

Saying the words sparks something inside her—something she hasn’t felt in weeks, not since she woke up alone in the dark. But she’s Water Tribe, and the Water Tribe doesn’t let hope die.