(AN: I honestly have no idea how this story came up, it was just there all of a sudden like poof, and I had to write it.)
Disclaimer; Nope, nada, zero, I own nothing.
The day of the execution dawned bright and sunny. Birds chirped happily from their nests and butterflies flitted from flower to flower without a whim, it could have been any normal spring day in the Earth Kingdom. But it wasn't. Today was the day that people said would go down in history as the Earth Kingdom's first advance in bringing down the Fire Nation, it was said to be the day that poets would sing of and children would celebrate in the streets for.
Indeed, the small little square in the center of town was busy; a platform was being built, the men laughing and occasionally playfully swinging hammers in one another's direction. Shops were opening their booths and stalls early, to catch the people who were out in the square. Children ran in circles, chasing after one another and then racing back to hide behind their mothers when strangers brushed past in a hurry. The whole town was out early, ready to celebrate the day. Executions were not held regularly in the small town, and usually the citizens did not have a reason to call for the ultimate punishment. Most of the criminals were only robbers, easily dealt with and the people tended to be quite forgiving. But this was different.
The prisoner hadn't committed a serious crime; in fact, he like many others had only stolen a loaf of bread to keep himself going. No, that wasn't the problem. The problem was his identity; the problem was who he was, who he was related too. One could argue that he couldn't be blamed for whom he was, just like a Water Tribe Citizen couldn't be blamed for being born into their tribe, but that didn't concern the people. They believed this was justice.
As the bells struck noon, people began to gather, excited and anxious, around the platform. At the four corners of the raised area were four large boulders, and by each of these was an Earth Bender. The men standing by the boulders laughed and joked with the crowd, they wore normal clothes, not black hoods or dark capes. They were kind men, they had not been born to kill, but the task now fell to them, and they were willing.
It was around this time three travelers found themselves in the square, a tall boy with a scowl, a child with arrows tattooed on his head and hands and a young woman with a long braid. They were tired, hot and a little more than grumpy, the tall boy shoving through the crowd to get to the other side, not bothering to apologize to the people that he brushed aside. The child followed him, his feet dragged and his head was bent, his normally slate grey eyes half shut from exhaustion. The girl however was in a slightly better mood than her two companions, and noticing the large gathering, she paused, blue eyes drawn to the platform.
The people around Katara fell silent as movement started at the end of the square and began to head toward the raised platform. It was a cart that an old horse was pulling, led by two men, and in the cart was a young man, arms tied behind his back. He did not struggle against the bonds, or try to leap from the cart, but he held his head high, even when the cart lurched and he fell forward onto his knees, he kept his dignity, struggling back up to his feet.
At first Katara was sure it wasn't him, the amber eyes could have belonged to any Fire Nation soldier, and besides, this man had short hair, not a high ponytail. But then he turned his head just a fraction and Katara saw the scar and she knew. It was around this point a piece of rotten fruit was hurled from somewhere in the depths of the crowd and it hit the prince right in the face, and the jeering started. It was just a few voices to begin with, uneasy and small, but then they gathered strength and it grew in volume. People began to rush the cart, trying to pull the boy from it and into the crowd to be torn apart at the hands of the people, but officials stepped forward and kept them back. However, even they didn't refrain from spitting in the boy's face, or making crude comments. Through out the entire lurching cart ride, Zuko kept his head up, eyes straight ahead, refusing to look at his tormenters, refusing to cry out when a pitchfork was thrust through the spaces between the planks of wood and rammed him in the side. He refused to be afraid, to show weakness.
The cart stopped a long side the platform, and the men who had been leading the horse pulled the boy from the cart and pushed him up on the platform. He again stumbled, his legs not quite succeeding in the task of holding him up. However, when hands reached to drag him back to his feet, he shook them off and got up on his own, walking to the center of the platform with out a fight but with a noble air. This time it was not his legs giving out, but the hands on his shoulders pushing him down. Ropes secured him and still he did not struggle or even plead. Katara watched him, eyes wide. She waited for the swears and the flames to come, but they never did.
This couldn't be the Zuko she knew, the arrogant prince always looking for a fight, the prince who wouldn't stop chasing after Aang, the prince who had kidnapped her and tried to bribe her for information. This couldn't be the same handsome, dangerous figure she knew so well, now with scratches on his face and torn clothes, bags under his eyes and short, scratchy hair. He couldn't be this meek kitten now about to be put to death. Yet the scar said he was, his expression said he was, his bright eyes said he was and Katara couldn't look away.
Silence fell over the crowd as an important looking man stepped forward and the crowd fell silent. He was dressed in tan and green robes and a thin goatee. His eyes were narrow, and he looked wise and old. He looked over the expectant crowd, their dark faces turned upward towards him, waiting for him to speak. "My citizens," His voice was like cracked wood. "My friends, my family." As he spoke he looked over each person in turn, as if remembering some good thing about each. "We are gathered here, as I'm sue many of you know, to witness the execution of one of our most hated enemies children. With this victory, we hope we can move forward, and like this boy, defeat the Fire Nation it's self!"
There was an uproar of cheering, and the booing started again. Katara couldn't move from her spot. She wanted to go to Sokka, she wanted to tell Aang, she wanted to help, but she couldn't. She could only stand and watch. The old man raised his hands.
"Now, now, as it is with every case, the condemned should be allowed a few final words. Do you have anything to say?" He turned to Zuko, his voice almost soft, almost sad, but not quite. Zuko looked at him for a moment and then at the crowd. He didn't say anything. He wasn't defending himself, it hit Katara's gut like a stone and she felt sick. Zuko was the enemy, she should hate him, she should be happy she or Aang wouldn't have to deal with him anymore. But she wasn't. She was afraid for him, for Zuko, who was going to die alone and hated by so many.
The man turned back to the crowd. "I almost think it is not worth asking, but does anyone have anything to say in defense of the condemned?" His eyes scanned the crowd, no one stepped forward to say anything, only the automatic chaos of insults and thrown trash started up again. Katara felt tears welling up. Zuko was alone, no one cared that he too was a person. Sure, she didn't particularly like him, but he had only done what was necessary for him, and that was all anyone could be expected to do. He had tried to do what he thought was right, and for that people hated him. He wasn't so terrible, he wasn't like Zhao, he didn't do things only because he was told too, he did things because he believed. And there had been times, times when she had seen something more.
The old man on the platform sighed and backed away from the crowd, giving a signal to Earth Benders by a raise of a hand, and the boulders lifted into the air. The crowd grew more rowdy and swarmed up to the edges of the platform, jeering and leering at the Fire Prince. The boulders hovered above the prince's head and suddenly Katara felt her feat carrying her forward, tears blinded her eyes and she couldn't see where she was going, but her feet seemed to know. She pushed through the crowd, her heart beats counting seconds and words, wait, wait, wait. Her body slammed into the platform and she scrambled with shaking legs to pull herself up. Before her, swimming in the ocean of tears in her eyes she could see him. He was looking up at the boulders and now down, giving into death, awaiting the blow. Katara choked on a sob and then a desperate push of her arms and her legs she was up on the platform. Without thinking, she hurled herself onto the tied prince, arms flung around his shoulders face buried into his neck and tears flowing down her cheeks to stain his dusty, torn clothes.
She barely registered the crowd had fallen silent, she could only feel him, the scratchy clothes, the roughness of skin and his scent, a musky but comforting smell that let her know he was still there. She felt his body tense beneath her and she felt him shivering, with fear or anger, Katara didn't know, all she knew was that he was still alive, and that was enough.
There was a thump and she realized the boulders that had been hovering over them had touched down to the earth around the platform and a gnarled hand was on her shoulder. She looked up into the face of the old man who had spoken before, into his old eyes that were filled with confusion but also kindness and all she could do was weep and repeat over and over again, 'don't do it, please don't kill him,' and then gulp for air.
"What is it child? Why don't you think this man should be killed? He is after all the enemy," The elder said gently.
Katara shook her head, tears still flowing down her face. "No, no, please don't. He doesn't have anyone. He's alone." The words didn't quite make sense, even to her, but Katara couldn't stop. "He's banished from the Fire Nation. Please, please don't." Her arms tightened on Zuko and she wept into his shoulder. He didn't say anything, but he kept breathing, the steady rise and fall of his chest comforted her and she tried to focus her breathing to match his, but it was too shaky.
The old man frowned. "He is, but he is still the enemy. We cannot simply let an enemy of ours who is so great go free once we've caught him, now can we?" Katara shuddered against Zuko as a fresh wave of sobs over took her. She felt Zuko's arms jerk, to push her off or to hold her and comfort her was a mystery, but he still didn't say anything. The old man looked concerned. "My dear, the only thing he could do if we didn't kill him would to have someone look after him and keep him under control. Who do you think would take such a job? It would mean looking after this boy for the rest of his life, making sure he didn't sneak off. My dear, no one will do such a thing." Katara looked up at him
"Me. I will. Please, just don't kill him." Katara begged.
"Child, you are so young though, how could you possibly control him?" the old man asked softly.
"I'm a Water Bender, and I'm traveling with my brother and the Avatar" Zuko jerked under her at the mention of Aang. "We have a history with him, we can control him." She took a shaky breath again as she heard Zuko give a small scoff. "Please. It's better than killing him." The old man looked hesitant and then sighed.
"If that is what you wish, if you really think you can handle it. I'm afraid I'm turning soft," He said as he turned away from Katara and Zuko. "I can no longer say no to a pretty girl." The crowd below them had a range of different emotions, some were angry, some seemed happy and some were confused, but each dispersed as they realized nothing more would happen that day. A guard released Zuko's restraints and the cut the ropes from his arms and wrists. The rope had chafed the skin of his wrists, some places deep enough that it was bleeding slightly, but there would be time to worry about that later. Katara released her hold on Zuko and stood, helping him up when his legs didn't quite work. She held out her hand for him to take, and slowly, he took it.
Making sure to go slowly, Katara helped him from the platform and down to solid ground. He was weak, his eyes narrowed in concentration to make himself move, to just take one more step forward. Katara stayed with him, supporting him when he tripped, and pausing to let him rest. How long he had been locked up Katara didn't want to know, but it must have been a while, this was not the Zuko she knew. The Zuko she knew did not trip and fall, he did not accept her help, and the Zuko she knew did not breath a soft 'Thank you' into her ear.