A/N: Do I need to be starting another story? No. But I've been working on this one for a while and I just couldn't help it... *sigh*
This does not follow the original storyline! It's my little branch out into 'what if' territory. So it's probably going to be a bit different than the original, especially with regards to violence. Even the past Avatars told Aang to kill the Fire Lord, so it makes sense to me that the world as a whole would be a bit more violent than what we saw in the show, which centered around Aang, who is such a pacifist.
Anyway, I'll state it now, this will probably become Sokka/Zuko. So no complaining on that front. I warned you.
On with the show.
He hated this place. Oh, that was the point; after all, it was a prison, but what he couldn't quite figure out was why he hated it so much. It wasn't the fact that he was sleep-deprived, or the way he was starved to mere skin and bones. It wasn't even the way he wasn't allowed to firebend, though that played a large role in it- it felt like the driving force behind his life had been taken away. But that alone wouldn't be enough to break him. No, what would break him would be the silence.
The monotony was unbearable. He knew his cell like the back of his hand- no, better, since he hadn't bothered looking at his hands in a while. Perhaps that would be up next.
He'd been sitting in his cell for Agni knows how long. He couldn't see the sun, and the only way he could tell time was by the changing of the torches, and he had long since lost count of that.
If he had to guess, he would guess that he had been in there a few months, maybe as long as a year. But for all he knew it had been as long as two. A long time in which the only sound he could hear was that of the guard changing the torches- once every three hours, with the next one in about forty minutes or so- and that of his own frenzied thoughts.
Well, sometimes frenzied. Other times he would be in a state so catatonic that that one would think him comatose. It was always during those times that they would give him food and water, either then or while he slept, as if they were afraid that he would try to escape. He almost snorted at the thought- as if he had the energy to escape!
He just wanted to see another person. Was that really so much to ask? Just that, and he would die peacefully.
Unfortunately, they didn't seem too keen on letting him see anyone. Or letting him die. A shame, really.
It was a rather fitting punishment, he supposed. After all, he had nearly killed the Fire Lord.
The thought almost made him laugh- almost. His throat, rough from disuse, only issued a harsh coughing sound. The noise made him jump.
His greatest regret? That he hadn't finished the job cleanly. Then he would have gotten away unscathed, instead of being arrested by Azula after his father had stalled him.
Still, he supposed it was a fitting punishment for the infamous banished prince to end up in the Boiling Rock, the Fire Nation's most infamous prison. Not only that, but he was the only person in the entire facility put in such complete solitary confinement.
Ah, well… Even if he didn't get to practice firebending- the shackles rather severely restricted his movements, so he could do no more than summon a small, simple flame- he had found himself with nothing better to do than meditate on his breathing. And since breath was the basis of all firebending, he had achieved a harmony with his inner fire like nothing he had ever felt before. Now if only his body was strong enough to support this harmony… Maybe the he could break out. But he hadn't eaten enough in months and was as weak and helpless as a child.
Light, padded footsteps… Ah! That was the torch being changed. He did wish he knew how many of those he had been there through…
But no, all he knew about his stay at the prison was what he had seen on the inside of his little cell.
If only the monotony would end…
"Sokka, what are you doing?" Katara shrieked.
"I think that it would be perfectly obvious what I'm doing," Sokka retorted, hardly pausing in his packing. "I'm going to rescue Dad."
After the botched attack on the fire nation, Sokka, wracked with guilt, had poured everything he had into finding where his father could have been taken. After questioning a couple of rather intoxicated fire nation soldiers in a bar, he had discovered where the most important war prisoners were taken: the Boiling Rock.
"You don't even know he's there!" his sister protested.
"Katara, I've heard that there are water tribe people there. Do you really think that dad isn't there? And besides, the place is in the middle of a boiling lake. You're a waterbender. You shouldn't have any problem taking these guys on with that much water at your disposal. Especially not on a full moon and with Aang to help you."
"You think I'm letting Aang come on this little venture? Not a chance!"
"Listen up, Sugar Queen. He'll be fine, and so will I," Toph said nonchalantly, finishing off the last of her breakfast porridge with a satisfied belch.
"You're not coming either!"
"Of course I am! And you are too, aren't you, Aang?"
Aang, who had been playing with Momo up until that moment, took one look at the two incredibly irate girls behind him and held up his hands, backing away slowly. "There's no way I'm getting involved in whatever you two are arguing about."
Katara turned back to Toph. "See, he's not coming."
Unfortunately for Aang, this caught his interest. "Coming where?"
"Nowhere!" Katara yelled.
Aang cowered in fear, slinking away. He ended up asking Sokka, who convinced him to go, which caused even more arguing. Eventually, though, it was decided that everyone would go on the little rescue mission. Of course, by then the sun was starting to set, so their departure had to be delayed a day.
"Hey, Snoozles, how long will it take to get to this place anyway?" asked Toph, not bothering to look up from where she was holding a lychee nut just out of Momo's reach.
"Hm?" Sokka grunted through a mouthful of seal jerky.
Toph bent a rock at his head. "How long 'til we get there?"
He swallowed his overly large mouthful painfully. "A couple of weeks. Maybe a month, at the most, if we hit some bad weather."
"A month? We don't have that much time!" Katara protested.
"What, we need to find a firebending teacher for Aang? Is that it? Where better to find a firebender who hates the fire nation than in a fire nation prison?"
Katara was silent, no longer having any reasonable-sounding objections that she could voice. Toph, however, spoke up in her stead.
"Why's it gonna take so long? Is it really that far away?"
Sokka cringed. He didn't want to admit it, but… "I'm not quite sure exactly where this place is… The guy I asked was a little bit drunk…"
Katara threw her hands up into the air. "Great! Now we're taking directions from drunkards! This is a new low for you, Sokka. You're going to get us lost in the fire nation based on directions from a drunk man!"
"Even the smallest chance that we'll find Dad is well worth the risk!"
Aang tried to placate the two, saying, "You guys really shouldn't be fighting like this."
"Stay out of this, Aang," Sokka said warningly, knowing full well how volatile his sister could be.
At the same time, Katara began yelling at the poor monk. "Stay out of this! You have no idea what's been done to this family, with Mom dead and Dad always gone! So butt out!"
"Don't attack him like that," Toph snapped. "He's just trying to keep you two from fighting. Honestly, Katara, whenever you're around you start fighting with someone!"
Katara stopped in her tracks, looking as though she'd been slapped. After a moment, tears welled up in her eyes. She turned and fled, sobbing.
"We probably ought to go after her," Toph put in unenthusiastically.
"Yeah," Aang agreed, but he made no move to do so.
"Don't bother," Sokka replied. "She'll come back when she finishes having a good cry."
Away from the camp, Katara ran blindly through the woods. She didn't understand why everybody seemed so set on attacking her. Even Aang was siding with her brother against her! She was so upset that she didn't even bother looking where she was going. Later, she would wish she had, for she ran straight into a fire nation soldier.
He leered at her and, while she struggled to reorient herself, took some leather restraints and bound her head and foot. She tried to struggle, to put up at least a decent fight, but succeeded only in hurting herself as the restraints dug into her skin.
"Let go of me!" she screamed desperately. "Someone help! Sokka! Aang!"
The soldier backhanded her, silencing her protests, and threw her over his shoulder. He marched through the woods for a long while, though Katara wasn't sure how long, as she drifted in and out of consciousness. Eventually she spotted something through the trees- a flash of red. As they neared the object, she could see that it was the sun reflecting off of armor. They had reached the camp.
They entered the largest tent without much ado, and Katara was thrown to the floor. The soldier snapped to attention, bringing his hand up to salute.
"Admiral Zhao, sir," the soldier greeted in a surprisingly young voice. Katara would have thought him in his late twenties at least, but by his voice he was just leaving his teens. "I brought the Avatar's waterbender, sir."
Zhao turned around from where he was seated at the other end of the tent. "Your name, soldier?" he asked.
"Private Yung, sir."
"Well, Private, you have done me a great service by locating this girl. You have my thanks. Dismissed."
Yung saluted smartly and quickly departed, though not without a look of disappointment at receiving no more than thanks, leaving Katara standing face to face with Zhao. She tried to squirm away – his gaze was incredibly threatening – but her bonds held her still.
Zhao smirked at her as he noticed her discomfort. "Hello, girl. I believe that you have some information I need." Katara shivered. "Don't worry, you won't be mistreated. Just tell us where your friends are and we'll let you go."
She quailed, but managed to whisper "no" with her remaining courage.
His face took on a murderous glare that made his earlier smirk seem friendly in comparison. "Where are they?" he thundered.
"I- I won't tell you!" she yelled back.
He leaned back and smiled, and that one action froze her heart more than anything she had ever seen before. She prayed that she would have the fortitude to withstand whatever he had in store, but she doubted it.
She closed her eyes and tried to hold back tears as several soldiers entered the tent and dragged her away. Sokka, Aang… Forgive me. I'm not sure how long I can hold out…
Sokka sneezed. He was stuck trying to do laundry, since Katara hadn't come back from her little crying fit yet. At this point, he wasn't sure if he should be angry that she'd been gone so long, or worried for the same reason. It wasn't like her to disappear so suddenly, especially without returning.
"Shit!" he exclaimed. As his mind had drifted from the scrubbing, he had splashed water all over himself. Sighing, he pulled off his shirt and leggings, hanging them up to dry with the rest of the laundry.
He turned around and spotted Aang. The younger boy was running toward him, waving his arms wildly and panting for breath.
"What is it?" he asked wearily. Sometimes he just couldn't deal with Aang's bursts of energy.
"The fire nation has Katara! I was looking in the woods and I found her water holder and she wouldn't leave that behind and the plants were squished down so she must've struggled and-"
"Aang," Sokka interrupted, "hold on a minute. Breathe. Now, where exactly did you see this?"
"Over there," he replied, pointing behind him. "About a hundred yards in, maybe? Do you think she's okay? Where could they have taken her?"
Ignoring the younger boy, Sokka grabbed his boomerang and one of the Kyoshi warrior fans – a parting gift from Suki – and stuffed it into the waistband of his undergarments. So equipped, he followed Aang into the woods. Toph caught up with them a moment later- he could only assume that she had overheard their conversation from wherever she had been.
Sokka winced as they arrived at the scene. There had definitely been some sort of struggle taking place here; the plants were rather squished, and he thought he saw a couple locks of Katara's hair glistening in the sunlight.
"Oh, Yue…" he moaned, falling to his knees.
"So what now? You're just going to give up?" Toph scoffed acerbically.
"Of course not!" he snapped. "But there's no way I can rescue both Katara and Dad at the same time!" He fell silent, thinking.
"So we split up," said Toph matter-of-factly.
Sokka sighed. "Aang, I need you to take Appa and see if you can find the firebenders. Scout out the area, look at the size of their force, and then come straight back. We'll decide what to do from there."
Aang nodded, tears still evident in his eyes. He practically flew back to the camp (which may have actually been the case, Sokka realized in hindsight, with him being an airbender), and mere moments later Appa soared into the sky.
"There he goes," Sokka mumbled.
"Yeah, I see that," Toph replied.
Sokka was so distraught that he didn't even notice what Toph had said, avoiding her usual trap of blind jokes. They both walked back to camp, painfully aware of their own thoughts and fears.
Aang was back an hour or so before dusk. Appa flew into a clearing and immediately lay down to recuperate. Aang slid off his back and staggered over to where Sokka was building a fire. He plopped down on the ground, sighing.
"They've got thirty or so men, with then of them on guard at any given time. Two men are always guarding Katara, sometimes a few more. Zhao is in command."
"You mean that funny-looking bastard who's chased us all over?" asked Toph.
"Yeah… Wait, how do you know he's funny-looking?" Aang asked, confused.
Ignoring Aang's obliviousness and Toph's attempt to lighten the mood, Sokka asked, "Toph, does that sound like something you and Aang can handle?"
"In that case, I'm going to rescue Dad. I only ever get in the way in these bending fights anyway. You're sure you can handle it?"
"How weak do you think I am, Snoozles?"
He chose not to gratify that with a response, ignoring her scandalized tone. He left first thing in the morning, taking Appa and praying that both rescues went off without a hitch. Oh, if only…
If Zuko had thought that he hated the Boiling Rock before, he was sorely mistaken. Something had changed. The guards now entered his cell freely, if only to torture him. The only reason that he could think of was that Azula had finally gained some measure of ruling power. His father enjoyed more passive methods of punishment; Azula liked to torture. She found it fun, especially when she did it herself.
A rattle of the door handle shook him free of his musings- the sound brought with it a deep wave of despair. He struggled in vain to keep it from showing on his face. He had company.
He brought his hands in front of him and took up a basic firebending stance- his shackles were gone, since there was obviously no sport in torturing such a heavily incapacitated prisoner- and waited for the guard to get out from behind the cell door and present him with a target. There! The guard's hand.
He sent a ball of fire at his target; its owner fell to the ground, screaming with a mixture of pain and fury. Another guard jumped over the prone form as the door slowly swung open, wrestling Zuko to the ground.
"No firebending, you little bastard!" the man growled, striking his prisoner across the face.
As he struck, Zuko felt the man's center of gravity shift sideways, so he rolled, sending the guard sprawling across the floor. The prince pushed himself up quickly, kicking out and sending a floor-level wave of flame at his opponent.
By then the guard with the burned hand had gotten up, and he stepped in, sending the flames harmlessly off to the sides and lashing out with flames of his own.
Zuko ducked, but was thrown against the wall by a burst of flame from another guard just entering the cell.
"To the cooler?" asked one uncertainly- he had to be new.
Another, this one female, snorted. "In a while. Let's have some fun first."
"I get him before he passes out," said Burned Hand. "Little bitch burned me."
Starting to recover from his collision with the wall, Zuko opened his mouth and blew fire onto the trio. The newbie and the woman diverted the flames, but Burned Hand, who had stood with his back to Zuko, dropped to the ground, shrieking. He rolled, trying to put out the fire, but it consumed him. After a moment, he stopped thrashing, but the pungent odor of burned flesh and hair lingered in the air.
The newbie turned away and threw up, but he woman threw a knife that struck Zuko in the shoulder. He gasped as it sunk in, rendering his left arm all but useless because his shoulder was ablaze and he couldn't feel anything beyond that consuming pain.
He felt movement and could tell that they were taking him somewhere, though he couldn't tell where. But when they reached their destination, he heard the heavy clank of a thick door being pulled aside. He was thrown into a small room, and as he heard the heavy sound of the door being closed he though to himself that it was a rather final sound and he prayed to Agni that they would just let him die.
After a while, he noticed that his shoulder no longer hurt so much, and he was relieved. Even when he realized that he could no longer feel his hands or feet, he was fine, because it seemed like such a painless way to die.
It was then that he noticed how beautifully warm his still-flowing blood was against his skin, so he reached up and pulled the knife out, using only his sight as he could no longer feel his hands to do so. A fresh rush of blood coated his arm and chest, beautiful in its warmth.
He felt himself becoming light-headed and happily embraced sleep…
…Only to later wake up again in his cell, his shoulder crudely bandaged and the scent of burning flesh still fresh upon the air. He gagged at the smell and tried to push himself up, but fell back as his injured arm gave way. Unable to find the energy to move, he resigned himself to counting the stones in the ceiling once again.
A/N: So there's the first chapter... Please review, with concrit or praise or, hell, even tell me how terrible it was if that's how you feel. I could use the feedback... Please?