She'd been too afraid to look at him, certain that he'd take one look at her and know, that she'd kept her head down as they reached the cell. Unfortunately this meant that the unexpected shove from the guard nearly sent her sprawling, caught only at the last moment by Zuko's waiting arms. He swore at them until the bars were closed, even as his fingers skimmed lightly over her skin in search of injuries.
"Are you okay? What did she do to you-" He cut himself off as he brushed the burn on her shoulder and a hiss escaped before she could stop it. The blood drained from Zuko's face and he gently turned her around. "Fuck. I can't believe - Fuck."
Katara peeked over her shoulder to find an inscrutable expression on his face. She swallowed, and the thought flashed across her mind unbidden. Azula's ruined me. No one could love me with their mark on my back. Zuko spun her again, this time barely touching her, and she thrust the thought away.
"Katara, I- I'm sorry. It should have been me. I should've fought harder. I shouldn't have let you come with me." He whirled and punched the wall. "I failed. Again."
He braced himself against the metal, head bowed and breathing heavy, and she felt her heart squeeze. He flinched as her hand touched his shoulder, and she hesitated for a moment before gently pulling him back. He kept his head down, and Katara would have laughed at the irony of the sudden switch if the situation wasn't so serious. She stepped closer until he was forced to meet her gaze, cupping his scarred cheek. His hand flew up as she touched it, eyes widening, and she thought he might push her away. He seemed to have the same thought. Instead, he laid his on top of hers.
"Zuko, you haven't failed me. You've done everything you can to protect me. We both know you couldn't have stopped me from going with you; this is as much my fault too."
"How can you touch me?" His voice was a whisper. "How can you look at me when my family did that to you?"
Katara traced the edge of his scar with her fingertips.
"You are not your family." She poured every ounce of sincerity and feeling she had into making him believe her words. "Azula did this to me, not you. I know you wouldn't hurt me. I trust you."
A tear shone as it rolled down his face, and it took everything in her to pull away from him. The moment was over. Zuko cleared his throat, shifting awkwardly, and without the distraction Katara's headache and pain returned full force. She slumped down on top of the nearest mat, and he copied her silently. They remained that way for a while, and she tried to find a position comfortable enough for her exhaustion to claim her.
They came for him while she was asleep.
Katara wasn't sure how long she'd been in with Azula, or at what point Zuko had been taken, but she was sure he'd been gone far longer than she had. Time stretched on, with no way to tell its passing. At one point she was given a simple meal of rice, fish, and water, and found that without her tail, her bending was gone again. She was taken to relieve herself, then returned. Still no sign of the prince.
By the time the guards brought him back, Katara had nearly paced a hole into the floor. Her heart leapt into her throat; while she, at least, had been able to walk back, Zuko's bloody, unconscious form was dumped unceremoniously at her feet, a tray of food left as an afterthought. She scrambled to his side, straining to pull him onto a mat. He groaned and shifted, but his eyes remained closed. Katara eyed the water left for him, worrying her lip between her teeth.
I could get myself wet, and as long as he stays asleep he wouldn't see me. But he'd know that I healed him, Azula would know that I healed him, and I'm not supposed to be able to bend…
Her fingers itched to help, and the inability to made her feel horribly claustrophobic and on edge. Zuko groaned again, and Katara absently brushed his hair away from his face. It was really quite soft, even if it was thick with sweat and grime. She idly wondered when Azula would allow them to clean up and wished for at least a rag. That gave her an idea - she grasped the end of her skirt, working it with her fingers and nails. But the silk was too well made, and it refused to tear in her hands. She huffed, sitting back on her heels. Her eyes were drawn to Zuko's shirt. It was dirtier than her clothes, but...
I couldn't, could I?
Katara pushed her hesitation aside and began drawing the shirt up his torso. Her breath caught as her fingers trailed along the hard planes of his abdomen, and she gave a start when she realized how long she'd been letting them linger, recoiling as if Gran-Gran had caught her sneaking and extra kale cookie. She swallowed, willing her face to cool, before returning to the task at hand.
Katara forced herself to think clinically, pulling at the fabric with professional detachment. But as she bared his chest, she recoiled for a different reason; Zuko's skin was marred by uniform rows of alternating holes and burns.
The image of guards holding him down as Azula drilled into him rose unbidden, and Katara's stomach heaved again. Her tongue became a numb weight in her mouth as her thoughts whirled.
She's evil. Pure evil. How could anyone do this to their own brother?
Another groan finally broke through to her, and she cried out at the unexpected sound, eyes darting around the cell until focusing. Her hands must have kept moving without her, because the shirt was bunched up in her hand and Zuko was mostly free of the grime, blood, and other fluids that had oozed from his injuries. Gold eyes caught the dim light as they squinted up at her.
"Katara." He rasped.
She cast the soiled clothing aside, her anxious energy returning with full force as she leaned over to inspect his face.
"Zuko, thank the spirits! Are you okay? How do you feel?"
"Not good. How," He paused, screwing his eyes shut for a moment, before continuing. "How long was I out?"
She bit her lip.
"I'm not sure… I think it's been a few hours since they brought you back here, at least; it's hard to keep track of time in here." She gave him a weak shrug in apology for her lack of a solid answer. "What happened?"
For a few long moments she thought he wouldn't answer, and Katara cursed herself for making him relive the experience so soon.
"Azula… Azula told me that she was taking me home. That even after all I've done, Father wanted me back- as the Prince. I wish I was still stupid enough to believe her." His bitter little laugh transformed into a rasping cough, and Katara reached out to soothe him before she knew what she was doing. "I told her she could go to hell before I'd ever believe her lies and… she wasn't too happy about it. She told me the full truth while she… punished me; a prince is a powerful figure, as a pawn for a political marriage or an example to the people that disloyalty will not be tolerated, regardless of status. My father just hasn't decided which choice he favors more."
"Zuko, I'm so sorry. I can't imagine… I won't let them do this to you."
His eyes seemed to blaze and anger warped his features as his fists clenched at his sides, before extinguishing as quickly as it had come, leaving his eyes hollow even as they bore through her.
"Katara, she's taking us h- back to the capital. To the palace. Once we're in that place, we'll be lucky to stay alive. We have to escape - soon."
Author's Note: Thanks for reading and reviewing! This chapter was a bit shorter because I'm planning for the next to be a bit longer than usual. Anyone have any predictions for what's going to happen next? Will Katara break her agreement with Azula? Will Zuko find out? Can they escape in time? Let me know your thoughts!
Much love, Miss Luxe