In the end, they owed it all to how insistently Aang wanted to get everybody together for a party.
“I know it’s not exactly five years since the war ended,” he explained to a number of people on a number of occasions, always with those big, grey eyes of his innocently wide and pleading. “But we’ll all have official parties and meetings and all of that for the exact date. I want us to get together to celebrate it before we all get really busy. Just... just us again. We haven’t been just us together having fun for ages, and I know... Zuko probably needs it. Even though he won’t say so.”
And, really, Katara could argue with none of the points he raised. Their post-war activities had kept them increasingly busy over the years as their increasing maturity allowed them to fill their roles better and better at every turn. It was exhilarating, scary, rewarding, frustrating work, and it did mean that Katara saw her own brother very rarely, despite Sokka being the Southern Water Tribe Councillor to her Southern Water Tribe Ambassador, and all of her other friends, save Aang, even less frequently. She hadn’t even spoken to Zuko since two weeks before his peaceful abdication and the rise of the new, elected parliament, when he was escorting her and the Ba Sing Se ambassador out of the Fire Nation. She’d wanted to stay – all of the group had wanted to be there when Zuko handed over his crown, knowing, despite his truthful insistences that it was the right thing to do for his nation, that it would sting somewhere deep and true to give up what he’d fought so hard to attain and then retain. But even Aang and Iroh had been politely but firmly told to stay away; the Fire Nation would be on lockdown for the next two weeks, holding its breath in twitchy paranoia against the great possibility that something would go horrendously wrong in this first attempt at a democracy.
“Where are you gonna go when Sidzon is officially made president?” she’d asked him, leaning way over the railing of the ship so they could still hear each other.
He’d shrugged, face turned up toward her and gravity pulling some of his hair free of the crown he still wore. “I want... to travel through the Earth Kingdom, again. There are some places... I need to visit. And then... I guess I’ll end up at Uncle’s teashop. If Kuei will have me.” They’d both looked to the Ba Sing Se ambassador, standing innocently on the deck and watching as castoff activities continued around him.
“I’m sure that between the Southern Water Tribe Ambassador, the Dragon of the West and Best Maker of Tea in All the City, the Avatar and the Central Nations Troops Commander, we can twist Kuei’s arm if he can’t,” Katara had said, laughter in her voice as she subtly gestured to the other ambassador on deck.
“My heroes,” Zuko had deadpanned, his eyeroll even more impressive from her position looming above him, the twitch at the corner of his lips unmistakable.
There had been a few minor riots, mostly caused by people scared enough about change that it made them react badly. Zuko, Sidzon and his parliament had worked together to sooth the tensions, and the day Zuko handed over the Fire Nation to President Sidzon had gone, by all accounts, in a calm and orderly fashion that made it almost anti-climatic: just like that, the reign of the Fire Lords, good and bad, was forever over. True to her word, Katara had followed up on King Kuei’s opinions of having the ex-Fire Lord retire into Ba Sing Se’s city walls, and was pleased that Kuei happily and immediately agreed both verbally and in a letter sent to Iroh that Zuko was welcome to make the Earth Kingdom city his home for as long as he wished it so.
Despite all the good news, Katara knew as well as Aang did that a distraction would be exactly what Zuko needed once his redemption trek through the Earth Kingdom had run its course. So, while she contacted all the other members of their team first, ensuring that the little celebration could fit into everybody’s schedules, she eventually also sent a letter to Iroh at the Jasmine Dragon, asking him not only to host the event but whether he thought the date the rest of them had settled on would give Zuko enough time to finally make his way to Ba Sing Se.
The reply from Iroh was shorter than his usual correspondences, and written with a visible air of confusion. He’d be more than happy to host the party at the Dragon, of course, but he had no knowledge of Zuko’s journey through the Earth Kingdom. The last he’d heard from his nephew was by messenger hawk the day before the inauguration – there had been minor tension in the last meeting that Zuko said he’d resolved by promising to leave the Fire Nation as soon as Sidzon’s speech was over, taking up residency with Toph and her Central Nations Troops until people were no longer skittish enough that they wanted him in easy reach of politically-neutral soldiers. Iroh had assumed Zuko was being happily bullied by Toph while he privately dealt with his emotions on stepping down from the crown, and had refrained from sending his nephew any messages in the three months since the inauguration to respect his space, thinking him safe in his friends’ hands.
With trepidation, Katara immediately sent Toph a message, hoping she’d get somebody to read it to her quickly instead of forgetting about it for a while. Her relief at getting a reply less than a week later was quickly dashed and then swallowed by an ugly, afraid feeling that she thought she’d put to bed when Ozai’s reign ended. Toph hadn’t been in Zuko’s presence in over four months. Katara told Iroh so in a hastily-scrawled note, then sent messages out to every known associate they had – Teo, the Duke and Haru included – in a desperate bid for it all to prove to be a misunderstanding.
“Maybe he decided to stick to his original plan,” Aang said, voice over-bright as he tried to hide his worry. “He went to the Earth Kingdom after all, and just forgot to tell Iroh that he was sticking to what he told you, after all.”
“Yeah, Aang.” She forced a smile, forced levity, forced down the whisper of horrified unease that was growing louder and louder in the back of her head. The whisper that was also full of guilt at not having checked. At having left him; one of their own. At not having said what a dumb plan travelling alone through the Earth Kingdom was, even for somebody as competent as Zuko usually was. “You’re right. Iroh will send back another letter and... and it will explain everything.”
Aang believed her assurances a lot quicker than she believed herself, and Katara ate her worries and her anxiety for his sake, just like she always had. Because that was her job ; to protect them all. Especially Aang, whose job it was to protect the world. But... who had been protecting Zuko? She’d sworn – she and Sokka and Toph, all together and hushed and furious late at night – that they’d never let Zuko have to face anything else alone. And they’d failed.
Don’t get ahead of yourself , she cautioned, rationally. Bolstering up hope like a windbreak against the whispering that was turning into a gale. Iroh is going to send a letter, and it will all be explained. He’s just touring the Earth Kingdom. Just brooding again. Everything is fine.
Iroh’s reply didn’t arrive for two weeks. Three. A month.
When it came thirty-seven days after the short note she’d scrawled him, it was as hurried and messy as anything she’d ever seen the older man write, and it cut like a sharpened knife straight through her gut, her heart, her lungs.
The last time anybody had seen Zuko, he’d been getting on a ship leaving the Fire Nation an hour and a half after officially abdicating. He never got off that ship. No messenger hawk could find him to deliver messages. Iroh was seeking out June, the lady with the people-tracking shirshu, and mining every contact he and the Order of the White Lotus had. Until any of them could give him answers, all they could do was wait.
None of the members of the team waited patiently, but they were forced by their titles and duties to wait quietly . Katara had been naive in thinking there would be nothing more difficult than fighting hand-to-hand in a war – politics was a dirty, never-ending, twisted and slow method of fighting that frustrated and often disgusted her to no end. But she was the Southern Water Tribe Ambassador, daughter of the Southern Water Tribe Chief, sister to the Southern Water Tribe Councillor, who was trusted above all by the Northern Water Tribe Chief for both personal reasons and Arnook’s acknowledgement of Sokka’s budding skill and capability. She had close ties to the leader of the Kyoshi Warriors and the Commander of the Central Nations Troops and various Earth Kingdom royalty. She was the sort-of girlfriend to the Avatar. And so, as much as she wanted to, she couldn’t simply drop everything and go scouring for Zuko herself.
And she wanted to. They all wanted to; all grew more anxious and angry and scared as the months dragged by and the trail on Zuko’s whereabouts remained cold. The shirshu had tracked him back to the Fire Nation Capitol, to the steps of the Tower Prison, but that was as far as it had been allowed. The new government didn’t take kindly to a bounty hunter being there without permission so soon after the tentative dawn of a new political era. And they especially didn’t like the insinuations or potential problems that a missing ex-Fire Lord presented. President Sidzon had firmly – privately – assured Iroh that Zuko had left the Fire Nation, and, while he was sorry that something had happened, it was neither his doing nor his great concern. Many others who were let in on the news agreed with Sidzon on one point: Zuko’s disappearance was best kept secret. It would disrupt too much; fracture too much. Even Iroh, hand heavy in his letter, agreed that it was best that they tell only a select few.
And so they shut up amongst others, and talked amongst themselves; a mixture of reassurance and guilt and anger and plans that would never be feasible, but that made them feel better all the same. Toph made an excuse to visit the Fire Nation in an attempt to feel Zuko out, but frustratingly never got to slip away to search. Katara did manage on her short visit to the Capitol, but her late nights yielded nothing but deeper frustration. The proposed date for their celebration party came and went without being marked; there would be no gathering without all team members present. The worst part, in Katara’s personal opinion, was how innocently and insistently the rest of the world continued on even though it felt like it should have been grinding to a halt until Zuko was once again found and returned to them all.
Finally, less than three weeks before the official anniversary of the war’s end, ten months after Zuko had first gone missing, Iroh sent them all a cheery invite for tea that masked a coded message to come fast, come alone, come unseen.
Toph went first, so she could stand guard to ensure nobody was followed and that the meeting truly was private. Sneaking into the Jasmine Dragon, the site of so many relaxed memories, left a bad taste in Katara’s mouth, even though she’d spent nearly a year tasting her worry for Zuko growing. As soon as Aang slipped inside, looking far, far too grave and pinched, Iroh began to speak, low and fast.
“Shirshu noses do not lie. Human beings, however, can. The Order sent one of our members to travel with Zuko; to ensure he got out of the Fire Nation safely and to Toph and the Troops, where he would leave him. The member tasked with the job assured us all that Zuko had made it safely.” Iroh leaned heavily on both of his knuckles that were resting on one of the Dragon’s low tables. His face was lined with exhaustion, and age, and a deep anger that Katara had never seen there before. “We didn’t think we had to look for traitors amongst the ranks of the Order,” he said, voice hollow. And then again, this time pleading, as though for absolution from his guilt: “We didn’t think we had to look for traitors amongst those who risked everything to be part of those who ended the war.”
Toph reached up and touched one of Iroh’s elbows without taking her eyes off a faraway point on the ground, jaw clenched. “So... the traitor was found and... he broke?” Sokka guessed quietly.
Iroh sighed heavily. “We only recently began seriously turning our gaze inward. And even once we began investigating, it had to be done... delicately. The man responsible for watching Zuko in our knowledge passed it off to another member due to pressing... private matters that came up. This we were only able to discern as truth about two months ago. The web of lies... ran deep. But, yes; we were able to ascertain that a member of the Order of the White Lotus betrayed us by helping have Zuko captured and then by feeding information back to whomever captured him so that he would remain undetected by our efforts. The shirshu was unable to find him because, in their service to the Fire Nation under Azula, the Dai Li created blocks in the walls of the Prison Tower to stow prisoners undetected.”
“Wait, so Zuko is there? In prison ?” Suki asked, body looking tense enough to snap in two.
“We sent in an undercover agent,” Iroh said with a tight nod. “Spent months ensuring she was trustworthy, and more time assuring the guards at the Prison Tower that she was. She confirmed it just before we routed out the traitor; Zuko is there. Has been there all along. Was hidden every time somebody who may have been looking for him came to the Capitol.”
Toph swore prolifically, even as Sokka demanded, “Why did they arrest him? Who is 'they' anyway?”
“That I’m afraid I don’t know,” Iroh replied heavily, finally easing up from his position to stand tall. “From what we can tell, President Sidzon is truly innocent and ignorant of this matter. The rest of the parliament... has not yet been fully assessed. And, until we know why or who , going in the politically correct way cannot happen.”
“Or,” Toph said, loudly, “we could get Zuko out of there now and ask him all about it.”
Without warning, and to nearly everybody’s visible shock, Iroh suddenly fell to his knees before them in a deep bow. “Please,” he said, voice rough. “I know this is monstrous of me to ask you, given your loyalties and your roles, but I fall under the banishment bestowed upon all ex-royalty. I wouldn’t be able to get close, even under disguise. And waiting until we can convince Sidzon Zuko is even there, let alone – ”
“Pops, come on,” Toph interrupted, voice nearly as rough as Iroh’s. She groped for a bit until she found his head. “Get up. You don’t even have to ask.”
“I’m sorry.” Iroh had half risen, but remained on his knees. He looked, sad but determined, from face to face. “I’m sorry to have to ask you to betray –”
“We’re not betraying anything,” Katara said, voice quiet but coming out like the icy rage that was filling her veins and pounding, snarling, howling in her head. “We’re getting our friend back. And we’re doing it before this week is over.”
“They can’t burst a bladder over losing something they supposedly don’t have in the first place, right?” Sokka said, steel in his posture and in his smile. “They’ll have nothing to come after us for.”
“Unless they catch us there,” Aang interjected.
Sokka and Katara shared a quick look. “Aang,” Sokka said, saying what Katara could not. “You’re not coming.”
“What? What do you – !”
“It’ll already be a shitshow if they find one of us sneaking around the Capitol. Absolute best case scenario, we scare the skunk snakes who are behind this into hiding,” Toph interrupted them.
“But if the Avatar is found there, less than a month before the end of the war celebration, in a nation that’s still teetering in its attempts at democracy...” Suki shook her head. “Aang, you can’t .”
“Zuko is my friend, too!” Aang snapped. “And you’re asking me to do nothing?”
“We’re asking you to do what you can, for both Zuko and the world,” Katara said, softly, and not without sympathy. For Aang, it would always be and the world; a weight to bear that even she suffocated under, sometimes, standing by his side. “Like Iroh is.”
Some of the fight drained out of Aang at the reminder that Zuko’s uncle would also be helpless. “You and Iroh make a big show of being some place other than the Capitol,” Sokka said. “Get as many casual alibis as possible. For us, too, if you can wrangle it without being super suspicious.”
“And we’ll do the jailbreak,” Toph said. Her next smile was nasty. “They’re so gonna wish they built that place out of something other than rock.”
“Thank you all.” There were too many years in Iroh’s voice; Katara had to look away from his face as he finally stood up. “I have the layout of the prison, here, with the information on where Zuko is most likely to be, based on my knowledge of the procedure and what our spy last told us.”
They moved closer as one – even Toph, who wouldn’t be able to see. They had to stand crammed together, each touching the other. The hug would come when the circle was fully complete again.
Although the small eyeholes made it difficult to see, Katara kept the mask on as she curled around the second floor of the Prison Tower. She was putting out the lanterns as she went – the little hisses as the torches went out and her soft footsteps the only noise she allowed herself to make as she crept around the endless corners – but she was still not going to take the chance of her dark skin and blue eyes being seen in this place. They hadn’t necessarily planned for it to be so, but the moon outside was close to full, and even in the circular passageway, Katara could feel Yue’s influence and fortification.
Said influence would have made it easy to reach out with her bending and close the bloodvessels from the heart to the brain, downing the bored guard busy picking their nose just around the bend from her. But, as angry and powerful as Katara was, she was still collected enough to think of Hama. And of Aang’s look every time they spoke about Bloodbending. So, instead, she sent a hard waterwhip to the side of the guard’s jaw, getting only a faint grunt of surprise before they dropped to the floor in a heap. She checked that the guard really was unconscious on her way past, and then, as an afterthought, snatched the ring of keys attached to their belt. It would be quicker and less obvious what kind of bender had rescued Zuko if she opened his cage with keys instead of ice.
That was, of course, assuming Zuko was on her floor and not the ones below that Sokka and Suki were busy searching. Iroh had assured them Zuko would be held on one of the top levels of the Prison Tower – just not the very top floor. That was Ozai’s domain, crawling with the most guards, and no matter who had arrested Zuko, they would keep him separate from his father. Katara was privately glad she didn’t have to encounter the tyrant on top of everything else.
She nearly ran right past his cell, head full of thoughts about his father and mother and the worry that he was stowed away behind a wall; that they’d have to call Toph up from where she was waiting impatiently on the lower floor as the one ensured to get away and get them help if things went to Koh’s coils in that tower. His cell, at first glance, looked as empty as the others she’d briefly glanced over as she ran past, but some instinct made her look back inside as she began to run past the room to the next, and she caught sight of a thin form huddled into the corner of the cage where the moonlight from the high window could barely reach. Katara had to walk into the room and squint to make the form out, and, even then, she could only see ratty clothes, thin bones and long, dark hair that obscured the face of the person.
“Zuko?” she whispered, tapping on the bars. “Hey!” she hissed louder, tapping again when no response was forthcoming.
This time, the figure shifted just a little, the head raising very slightly to look at her. The flash of the scar was all the confirmation she needed, and Katara instantly began fumbling with the keys in her hand. It took too long and too much noise, to her hyper-vigilant mind, to find the right key. The cage door creaked loudly when she entered and she winced, pausing to listen for coming footsteps. The sound also caused Zuko to raise his head a little more to look at her, but he didn’t say a word about her strange and sudden presence in his prison cell.
“Hey. Zuko.” He still didn’t react other than to dully track her movements forward, and, as she got closer, Katara saw the fevered glaze to his eyes and the slight shiver in his limbs. His thin limbs. His thin and marred limbs – the closer she got, the more she realised that even the bit of Zuko not hidden from her by his curled-up position was not okay. “Zuko,” she breathed, sorrow and guilt and horror. All he did was blink listlessly at her. “Hey, look, it’s me.”
She pushed the mask up onto the top of her head, and pulled down the material that covered her nose and mouth so she could force a smile at him that he could see. With the material gone, the smell of the cell hit her full force, and she had to work hard not to physically reel backwards. And still Zuko didn’t react. Clenching her jaw strong enough that it hurt, Katara once again fiddled with her bunch of keys, trying to find one that fit the lock that bound Zuko to the stone wall.
“It’s going to be okay,” she whispered, crouching beside him, trying not to let her hands shake as she tried to slide a few keys into the lock. She wasn’t even really aware of what she was saying, just that she had to say something to fill the silence to keep her emotions and the reality of the dead-eyed Zuko at bay. “See? We’ve got you, now.”
A key fit and wanted to turn, but needed a bit of extra force, so Katara shifted her stance. As she did so, her hip brushed against Zuko’s shoulder, warm flesh pressing into the bony, cold form. And Zuko jerked like she’d just punched him, so violently and so suddenly that Katara whirled to face him, forgetting the lock.
“Wh...” Zuko croaked, voice cracking and weak but eyes suddenly less dead and as wide as they could go as they looked at her. “Are... you’re real?”
“Hey,” she said, her own voice unsteady, reaching out to put a hand on his knee. “I’m really here.”
Zuko’s flinch at her touch was only slightly less violent, this time, and his gaze snapped to the sight of her glove on his knee. Then he looked back up at her and grabbed that wrist in one quick, awkward motion that sent the chain jangling madly.
“Are you out of your mind?” he hissed at her. “Spirits, Katara! You -! If they -! Get out of here.”
Katara scowled at him. “Nice to see you, too,” she snapped, hurt.
Zuko shut his eyes in a way that she knew would be accompanied by him pinching the bridge of his nose if his hands were free. “This is the – ” He choked on his words and began to cough, and Katara automatically reached for him until he jerked at her touch, again, and she let go instinctively. “Get out before they get you,” he gasped at her, still half-coughing.
“Do you know how hard it was for us to break in here?” Katara whispered back, furiously. “We’re not –”
“We?” Zuko interrupted, and actually groaned a little. “Koh’s coils.”
“We’re not coming all this way and going through all of this only to leave you here,” Katara continued, ignoring his interruption. “Now shut up so I can get you out.”
She knew Zuko well enough to tell the flavour of his silence was sour and agitated, but she ignored his bad mood in favour of getting his arms and legs loose. The shackles on his ankles came off entirely, but while she could unchain those around his wrists from the wall, the restraints themselves looked to be welded shut around his wrists.
“Leave them,” Zuko told her, curtly, when she poked around at the shackles to see if she could break them off by encasing them in ice. “Later. It doesn’t...” He looked away. “I can’t bend, anyway.”
Katara swallowed, buried the emotions, grabbed onto practicality. “Here.” From the folds of her black tunic she pulled another strip of cloth and a mask similar to hers. “Put these on. Make sure your nose is fully covered; some of Teo’s new gas that we used to knock out the guards is still lingering in the air downstairs, and if you inhale it you’ll be taken down, too.”
A moment later, she realised her stupidity; not only were Zuko’s hands tightly bound, but his arms shook horribly when he tried to raise them to pull the offered items onto his head. Without a word, Katara took them back and, hoping her manner was clinical to save Zuko the embarrassment, she pulled them over his head for him. His skin was clammy and too hot, even for Zuko. And injured; there were half-healed cuts on the right side of his face that she avoided touching as carefully as she avoided his scar. Zuko still jerked a little every time she made contact with some part of him, and that involuntary movement hurt her every time.
When his face was obscured, Katara pulled her own masks on and then jumped quickly to her feet, offering Zuko a hand up. He took it with his left arm, oddly, but she had little time to puzzle that out because getting him up was more of a chore than she’d anticipated. And, almost as soon as he was vertical, his knees buckled. She grabbed him to keep him from falling, and Zuko let out a choked groan of pain.
She didn’t apologise. If she started saying sorry to him right then, the thin control she had over her emotions would burst. That could all wait until he was safe . Without a word, she inserted herself under his arm, looping his bound hands around her neck and causing a few more soft grunts of pain. And then they set off, Zuko all but dead weight but far, far lighter than he should have been. He was walking strangely, as well; a limp that would not be out of place on an old man. She grit her teeth, pulled him closer, and stalwartly continued onwards, pausing only to close the cage doors and drop the keys on top of the unconscious guard.
Zuko tried to urge her to go faster, at first, even though he was barely keeping to his feet, She resisted his silent attempts to walk quicker, and said attempts tapered off by the time they reached the stairs. She could feel the jolt of agony each stair down was on Zuko, and if his arms hadn’t been locked around her neck by his shackles he would have slipped out of her grasp when he collapsed on the fifth stair down. Not daring to so much as whisper, Katara simply crouched beside him, trying to ask him what was wrong with only her hands. His breathing was harsh and erratic, and she considered pulling off the mask to give him some ease, but before she could come to a conclusion he pushed his left shoulder against the wall and started to painfully, slowly, drag himself back onto his feet.
Katara rose, grabbed his arm, and hauled him upright with all her strength, as well, not missing how her touch made him jerk yet again . She pushed him against the wall for a moment, helping the stone keep his trembling body upright, hoping to give him a moment to adjust. But all that happened was that he started to slump down again, and Katara quickly pulled hi s weight onto her once more . This time, she went down the stairs slower, making sure Zuko only stepped down with the leg that didn’t appear to be injured. It still hurt him, she could tell, but it was slightly less agonising.
They paused as they reached the next floor, huddled around the corner and listening. It was near impossible to hear anything with Zuko’s loud panting in her ear, but she knew he couldn’t exactly help it. When nothing seemed to stir, much, she let out a low owl sparrow hoot, tensing as the noise echoed in the circular corridor. A moment later, a faint response call sounded. Despite the signal, Katara stayed tense and wary, her free arm encased in water just in case. She wouldn’t be able to do much damage with Zuko hampering her, but she could do enough. Sokka’s masked form was equally wary as he crept around the corner, and he only lowered his sword once he’d checked the area around them was clear for himself. Then he hurried forward, sheathing his weapon so that both hands were free as he approached Zuko.
“Easy,” Katara warned him in a whisper as they worked together to get Zuko off of her and leaning on Sokka, instead.
“Hey, Buddy,” Sokka murmured, quieter than she’d ever heard him being. Katara couldn’t see her brother’s face, but she could imagine the expression on it all too well, both because she knew Sokka and because it would be a mirror of the roiling going on inside her chest. “Have a good vacation?” Sokka breathed in fake cheer as the necklace of Zuko’s arms went around his neck and he snatched at Zuko’s middle to keep him upright.
Zuko flinched at the contact, but Katara couldn’t tell if it was pain or that strange reaction to touch he’d had since the cell. “Never coming back here,” Zuko panted, sagging even more against Sokka as his knees buckled. “Terrible views.”
Sokka didn’t throw back another quip or joke, simply shifted Zuko around some more until Zuko was mostly splayed over his back, a mockery of a piggyback ride.
“Won’t that hurt more?” Katara breathed, eyeing the position with doubt.
“’m fine. Just go,” Zuko grit out, and Sokka began moving without another word.
As he mostly carried, somewhat dragged Zuko to and down the next flight of stairs, Katara took point, hands gloved with water and entire body alert. She reached the next floor well before Sokka and Zuko, and so she crept a little ways down the passage and gave the signal whistle for Suki. Nothing replied; she went to the next flight of stairs and started down it, silently beckoning the men to follow her. Repeating the call on the next level got a hushed response, and then a masked Suki crept around the corner, also wary until she was sure it was only her friends in the party there to meet her. With a nod, Katara started down the next flight of stairs, and Suki hung back to bring up the rear, fans at the ready, but head turning to give Zuko worried little glances every now and then.
On the last flight of stairs down Sokka hissed at her to wait, and they paused in the stairwell while Suki helped Sokka pull Zuko fully onto his back, using the stairs as natural leverage. The motion made Zuko bark out a strange noise of pain, and another moan followed when Sokka grabbed at his legs. Suki’s hand appeared in Katara’s vision and placed itself on Zuko’s head; the only comfort she could give at that moment. Sokka nodded to Katara, and she continued down the stairs, going slower now to be mindful of Sokka and his burden.
The Spirits seemed to be on their side that night; the bottom floor was as quiet and still as they’d left it, guards slumped over in strange positions as the vestiges of gas hung around the stone floor. Katara gave the signal to Toph, who simply hissed back that it was all clear. When they found her beside the hole she’d created in the stone floor, she had her hands and feet pressed firmly to the stone, watching with all her might for any intruders coming their way. Katara dropped into the hole and stood, ready to help Zuko down into it. Suki stooped to pick up Teo’s canisters on her way past, then helped Zuko off of Sokka’s back before the two of them lowered Zuko to Katara’s waiting arms.
From there, things were laughably quick and easy: everybody else slipped into the hole. Toph closed up the hole above them, taking a bit longer to ensure that the stones fell back into place in a way that wouldn’t mark their entrance. Toph created a giant rock that they all clambered onto, the motion made easier when Toph snapped the shackles on Zuko’s wrists in one angry, powerful motion. And then they were off, being sped down the tunnel Toph had created underground, pausing every so often so she could cave in their escape route behind them.
Sokka worked off the masks from Zuko’s face, and, although the touch made him shiver a bit the outright flinch was gone. Once he no longer had to hold his head up, Zuko collapsed against Sokka’s crossed legs, panting and coughing and not looking in any mood to attempt to move. Katara sat to his side, Suki hovering by her shoulder in case the bumpy rock journey caused the need for Katara to be grabbed and steadied, holding aloft the single lantern they had to stave off the darkness. With her balance assured by a trusted ally, Katara was left to focus all her attention on healing Zuko. The superficial cuts and bruises and scrapes healed easily under her hands. The ribs in various stages of broken were slightly harder to do, as was his dislocated right shoulder and the hip that had shattered and healed wrong. She could do little for the fever and the internal effects of starvation and malnutrition. And he’d have to work the muscle and strength back into his body by himself.
The healing helped her deal with her helplessness and some of the deep, bitter anger in her gut, but she could still empathise with the tight lines on Sokka’s and Suki’s faces when she was done. Exhausted but relieved, Katara’s hands fluttered around uselessly without their purpose until she grounded them on Zuko’s arm. He shivered very slightly at her touch, and forced his good eye open so he could look at her blearily.
“Thank you,” he murmured, words slurring. “All of you.” His gaze flickered to Sokka directly behind him, Suki up and to his left, and then to where he supposed Toph was hidden behind them all. “It was stupid and reckless and dumb but... thank you.”
“Please, Sparky,” Toph snorted, trying to hide the fact that she was panting a little from exertion. “That was totally a cakewalk.”
“Besides,” Suki said, gently, as Katara gloved her hand in water and held it against Zuko’s fevered forehead. “Now you owe us lunch or something. Or a bottle of the rice wine your sailors taught you to brew.”
“I’ll get you a whole keg,” Zuko muttered, eyes already closed as sleep began to claim him.
Sokka kept Zuko’s head in his lap as they continued on to the shore, not complaining louder than a few muted winces as time made his position more and more uncomfortable. Suki eventually went to sit at his back, giving him something to lean against, and Katara stayed at Zuko’s side, dipping the material they’d covered their mouths with in water and placing them over Zuko’s warm forehead in intervals in an attempt to bring down his fever. They planned in whispers to remain underground when they reached their destination, if only so Zuko would not be woken, but Toph had barely flopped down on her front, utterly spent, onto the floor when Zuko startled himself awake.
“Hey, Buddy,” Sokka said, quickly, leaning forward so Zuko could get a look at him before he freaked out.
“Our ship out of here is still going to be a while,” Katara explained, placing the back of her hand against Zuko’s forehead and right cheek with a frown. “You can go back to sleep until we have to move.”
“I, uh...” Zuko was much more lucid, this time around, and he seemed embarrassed to find himself in Sokka’s lap. “I...”
“What’s wrong?” Katara asked, peering at him as his face turned red as a radish.
“Before I...” He stopped, sighed, clenched his jaw, and spit it out like bitter papaya seeds. “You’ll want to wash my hair, first. I have lice.” Sokka squawked in horror and instinctively crabbed out from under Zuko, who just managed to stop catch himself on an elbow. “Sorry,” he muttered, half mortified and half petulant.
“Oh, man. Zuko, that is not the kind of gift I was expecting!” Sokka made a show of doing a dance around the last little circle of tunnel, wiping at his legs and throwing strange shadows around the place. “Gross, gross, gross, gross, gross.”
He was trying to make a big joke out of it; reacting as he would to any minor inconvenience. But Zuko was curling in on himself subconsciously instead of sniping back, and Katara threw her brother a warning look.
“Sokka!” Not the time. Not the means. “Come on then, Sparky,” she said, trying to keep her voice gentle and nonjudgemental as she motioned for Zuko to sit on the edge of the rock. “Lean forward, and I’ll wash them out for you.”
Toph peeled herself off the ground and warily trudged closer. “I wanna see the lice,” she said by way of explanation.
Zuko flushed even deeper, but bent forward as instructed, shoulders tense and hands clutched together. He went too fast; swayed in vertigo and didn’t faceplant off the rock only because Toph’s hand shot out and grabbed his shoulder. Once again he jerked at being touched and Toph, who hadn’t experienced his reaction firsthand yet, let go like he’d burned her again, face twisting into something unsure.
“Okay, let’s get this over with,” Katara said quickly, to fill the awkward, pained moment that had just occurred. “It would be easier to cut your hair, but I want to leave it long as a disguise until we get to your Uncle, okay?”
“Is that safe?” Zuko murmured as she began to wash out his hair. “Me going to Uncle...”
“It’ll be harder for anybody to get to you in the heart of Ba Sing Se. Some of the Troops will be hanging around the Dragon for a while to be sure. And, when they’re called away, some of my women will be on call,” Suki said, voice hard and unyielding. “You’ll be safe there, I promise.”
“I was thinking more about Uncle and you guys,” Zuko muttered with a little sigh. “But I suppose...Everywhere is about as safe as the next.”
Suki and Katara shared a quick glance. “Zuko,” Suki said, slowly and hesitantly. “Why... who grabbed you?”
Zuko was quiet for a beat and then said, “Ozai’s supporters. That’s all I know. There’s a bunch of them in the Capitol and... I don’t know much. They never spoke around me, really. But it... I think some of the parliament...”
“We’ll talk about it in Ba Sing Se,” Sokka said, folding his arms. “With Iroh and the other Lotus members who are there. We’ll piece things together, okay? Let’s just... get there, first.”
For a few beats everybody was quiet, letting Katara methodologically pull lice and eggs from Zuko’s hair. Then Zuko shifted a little to give Toph a glance where she stood, still close but carefully not touching.
“Toph. Could you...” Zuko’s hesitation lasted a long time and was full of struggling embarrassment. “They didn’t... they didn’t talk to me. Or... or touch me. I – Could you-? The hand felt...”
Toph inhaled long and sharp as Katara’s heart clenched and sank in her body, the implications sharp and icy and horrid. Beaten, but not touched or spoken to. For close to a year . Mouth working, the Earthbender took a step toward Zuko and put both of her arms around his shoulders, holding him fierce and tight and close. Zuko’s laugh was humourless and choked, and Sokka got up without a word to begin pacing, finally unable to handle everything without some kind of action.
Once Katara was done cleaning Zuko’s hair and checking everybody else for lice transferral she wedged herself beside Zuko and declared she was going to sleep until it was time to meet the ship. If she’d put herself any closer to Zuko she would have been on top of him, and Zuko from before would have shifted away a bit, still awkward about casual physical affection. This thin, feverish Zuko leaned into her, as though sinking into a warm bath, and he didn’t utter a word of complaint when Toph curled up across his legs.
“We’ll keep watch for the ship’s signal,” Suki said as she and Sokka climbed out of the tunnel, leaving the three of them to their awkward bundle.
It was good, Katara thought sleepily as she snuggled into Zuko’s side to use his shoulder as a pillow. Sokka would rant to Suki, and that would help him sort through some of the pain that evening had caused in them. He could even hit a few rocks up there without Zuko seeing. It was very good.
Suki shook her awake what seemed like moments later, and Katara peeled herself off the hard floor before helping Zuko to his feet. Toph lifted them out of the hole easily before filling the cavern up and sealing their entrance snugly and without a trace. And then began the silent trek down to the shoreline, where a faint, swinging lantern out to sea was slowly making its way. Apart from tripping more than usual, Zuko seemed to be keeping up with their pace, shrugging off help with quiet instance. And then, all of a sudden, Toph was stopping dead in her tracks, nearly making Sokka run into her.
“What is it?” Sokka asked, panicked, hand going to the hilt of his sword.
“Zuko. We need to stop; he can’t do this.”
Katara whirled to face him at once, hands pulling up the precious last reserves of her water from the water skin. The hand he held out to halt her was shaking all the way up to his shoulder, and she cursed herself for not paying better attention.
“’m fine,” he gasped. “Gotta go.”
“We’re going,” Katara told him, gently taking his wrist and lowering his shaking hand. “But not in a way that undoes all the hard work I’ve already done on you. Spirits, Jerkbender, be considerate.” Her gentle touch belied her words as she searched for a problem she could fix.
But there was none; Zuko was simply exhausted and weak and too underfed, and the trek was impossible on him. Suki and Sokka each took an arm, despite his protests, and they continued on their way.
“Man, your ego makes you heavy,” Sokka huffed as they finally stumbled onto the shore.
“If... I had a hand free,” Zuko panted, staggering like he was drunk even with Suki and Sokka’s continued support. “I’d... flip you... the bird.”
“Consider the gesture noted. It proverbially hurt my feelings.”
“Shhhh, you two,” Suki scolded gently.
The sand made it more difficult in many ways; easier to be tracked, harder for Toph to see, almost impossible for Zuko to slog through in his exhausted state. But they finally made it to the water, and Katara conjured up an ice floe for them before steadily taking them out to sea, ignoring the deep, burning ache in her arms and the answering ache behind her eyes. The same owl sparrow hoot was exchanged between them and the boat when they came closer, but Toph still clambered on first and did an interrogation before the rest climbed on, too. Zuko had to be dragged over the railing, and he simply did not get up from where he landed on his ass, back against the side of the boat.
“There’s a spare room for the women,” the captain said in a low voice. “But I’m afraid the men will have to sleep on the spare nets...”
“We’ll make it work,” Katara said with a forced smile. “Thank you so much for all your help,” she added, as the captain began to protest.
Sokka and Suki dragged Zuko upwards, and they all staggered and dragged to the room set aside for them. Toph knocked the bunks together with Earthbending, and the whole pile of them just collapsed down onto the mass of semi-comfortable bedding, worming around until they were all covered and able to breathe around the others. They didn’t bother to say goodnight; simply passed out one by one, limbs entangled haphazardly.
When Katara next woke, the room around her was the almost-light of approaching dawn. Sokka was snoring behind her back, something warm she presumed was Suki was pressed against the back of her legs and there was a very obvious patch of cold right in front of her. She lifted her head and saw Toph on the edge of the bed mash, one leg hanging down toward the floor for all the good it did her out in the ocean. Zuko’s space was indeed very empty, and although she knew he could possibly have just gone to relieve himself, she couldn’t get the image of him battered and too thin out of her head.
And so she slowly crawled out of the mass of people, accidentally kicking Sokka and making him yell at Momo in his sleep. She tiptoed out of the room and onto the deck, finding Zuko so quickly it startled her. He was draped in one of the blankets from the bed, hanging so heavily on the railing she was afraid he’d collapse right over it. Her feet carried her forward in her concern, sharp rebuke on her tongue and then the ray of sunlight broke over the horizon and blinded her for a moment.
When she looked back from the sunrise to Zuko, her heart stopped, and then broke a little more. He was watching the sun and crying, silently but obviously, shoulders shaking as he strained toward the source of his bending. How long since he’d seen the sun? I can’t bend, anyway, the memory of his voice told her, ashamed and defeated and full of pain. She shakily stepped back, sunk to her haunches and let him cry in private for a while, shedding her own tears for all he’d been through, all she’d been unable to stop, all they’d still have to face in the days and months coming forward.
When the sun had properly risen she got to her feet and padded toward him, eyes itchy from her tears, and she wrapped her arms firmly around him. He exhaled, long and shaky, and refused to turn away from the sun even as he brought up his hands to grip the arms gripping him.