He was rising into the air, powerful and almighty and unstoppable and terrifying - and now he's falling.
She was watching him, watching him with the faintest glimmer of hope in her eyes, as if maybe things could turn out okay after all.
But now she's crying.
And he's falling.
And she realises that she needs to gather herself, needs to pull it together and save him because he's falling, and Aang can't die, he can't, she won't allow it.
And so Katara blinks through her tears and furrows her brows, summoning a wave that will knock them all aside because these people, Azula, Zuko, they're not human , they are just puppets made of china that whisper sweet lies into your ear and make you believe them. They whisper that they will help you, that they'll protect you, and it's only when you see them pulling the strings that you realise that they're not the puppets, no, you are, and they are instead the puppeteers, gleefully making you dance.
And she can't help the tiniest little murmur of satisfaction that comes from the demons inside of her as the siblings flail and yell and choke on the water, because even though water is used to heal, it is also used to destroy, and that is when the demons inside her become the puppeteer and come out to play. And she hates it when this happens, hates it , because they only come when someone she loves is in danger - Sokka, Toph, Aang - and that happens far too often but she can't control it, she tries to but she can't .
He's falling and she's riding the wave, falling, falling, falling, and then he's in her arms and Spirits, he's so small. So small and burnt and quiet and still, and so, so young. His eyes are closed, his mouth gaping wide and when she gives him the gentlest of shakes his head just flops and she feels sick to her stomach because no, no, not Aang, not Aang .
She remembers riding on Appa with him for the first time, remembers getting lost in the Cave of Two Lovers, shining crystals reflected in his eyes that are so much like the crystals here. She remembers water-bending with him, exploring new towns and cities, places she'd never let herself even dream she could visit. She remembers when he took her on his glider for the first time, and she felt as if she could fly.
She remembers soaring down the mail-line in Omashu and for a split-second, she can almost hear his ringing laugh, and it reminds her of wind-chimes. She remembers how closed off he was to her when they lost Appa, and she remembers his tears and his lies of how he was fine, and she remembers the physical pain it caused her.
She remembers dancing in the rain with him, singing around campfires, making fun of Sokka behind his back, and she remembers the absolute terror she felt when she lost him in the North Pole, when she woke up and he was gone.
She remembers a lifetime in the seconds she holds him in her arms because that's what Aang has given her: a life, something to fight for, someone to fight with , and she remembers, she remembers, she remembers.
And they're closing in, Zuko with his fake words and false lips, and she instinctively holds Aang tighter because she'll be damned if they ever hurt him again.
She wants to look around, wants to search for a way to escape, but all she can do is clutch Aang to her chest as tears slowly trickle down her skin. She kneels, onto the cold hard stone and glances up and gazes at the approaching fire-siblings with the force of the Dai Li behind them, and there's a calm kind of broken in her eyes, something that was shattered the moment she saw the lightning coursing throughout his body -
A yell. A drop, a whoosh of flame, and Katara forces her eyes to look and sees Zuko's uncle, the fire nation general, shooting red-hot fire at his niece and nephew and everything, everything he has always been trained to be.
" You've got to get out of here !" he yells. " I'll hold them off as long as I can !" His voice sounds distorted, as if it’s coming from a place far away, but somehow it’s calm and doesn't waver, despite the shock in his eyes as he stares at Aang's body, limp in Katara's arms.
But Katara doesn't see this. She barely hears him, but something in her brain registers, a voice inside of her whispering to escape even as the demons in her veins howl for blood. And so she loops Aang's arm around her shoulder and runs, half dragging him, flames and firebenders roaring with fury as a family tears itself apart at the seams.
But Katara doesn't see this.
She runs until she reaches the waterfall, whole body throbbing but hardly noticing, and she bends the water around her to carry them up and out with a graceful swirl of her hands that is in stark contrast to the battle waging below. She fixes a determined expression onto her face so that the tears don't spill over, because she needs to focus, she has to, and she can see orange in the reflection of the crystals - orange flames that sear with a heat she can feel even from this far away - but she doesn't stop, doesn't turn around to see the flames and the chaos, because she has to keep going, she can't stop, she can't stop .
And vaguely she hears it all come to an end.
She knows that the general has seen they're safe, they're leaving, and he's surrendered himself, and there's an inexplicable pang of guilt in her chest, but she barely feels it compared to the pure, aching terror in her heart.
And then they're out, out of the crystal catacombs, the literal embodiment of hell disguised as a sanctuary, and the air is fresh and damp and cold and she breathes it in, breathes it in and lets it fill her lungs. She lands roughly on the ground, pulling Aang's body protectively to her.
There's a low grumble and a slight wind, and she looks up to see Appa in the sky, standing out as a white beacon against the inky blackness of the night, and she can vaguely hear Sokka yell her name as the sky-bison lands with a thump away from her. She doesn’t respond. And then Sokka's running and Toph's trying to catch up on her tiny, powerful legs and Spirits, she's so young, they are both so young, far too young and this world isn't fair, it's not, but it's theirs and it's all they have.
And Sokka's screaming for her, she realises, as she's on her knees, shoulders slumped with her back to him and not moving, not moving except for her shaking shoulders and shuddering breaths, and Aang's tiny, burnt frame is hidden from sight in her arms.
And then Toph stops, and Katara hears her pause and feel the earth through her feet, hears her take stock and whisper Aang's name, and she lets out a cry that reaches into Katara's chest and squeezes her heart so that it hurts . And Sokka's stopping now too, both of them not moving and not coming any closer towards Katara's trembling body. She catches her brother's voice, whispering to Toph and just filled with fear, and he's asking her what she feels - (or what she doesn’t feel, Katara thinks, and an icy fist grips her heart) - asking her what's wrong, because neither of them has ever seen Toph cry before, not in the way she is now, hysterical and unashamed and just racked with grief. And when Katara looks around she can see Toph shaking her head, eyes filled with a tortured look in their unseeing depths, and her hand is over her mouth and she's shaking - and Sokka looks into Katara's eyes and she can see the absolute terror in his own.
But Katara knows, and Sokka doesn't. Katara knows that Toph can feel him, or rather the lack of him - can feel Aang's limp body and the way his hand is dangling towards the ground, slack and dangling like a rag doll's, and she is so terrified as she wonders if Toph can feel a pulse, if maybe she won’t feel a single breath in his lungs. But Katara doesn't need to wonder, because she already knows the answer.
She knows, Toph knows and Sokka doesn't know and Spirits, she wants to keep it that way.
"Katara?" Sokka says quietly, and his voice is uncertain and child-like and so, so afraid. "Katara, where's Aang?"
Falling. He was falling, Aang was falling.
And Katara breaks then, splinters and fractures into tiny little pieces, and she holds Aang tighter and she holds him closer as she sobs like her heart is breaking, because it is . And his head is lolling on her neck, his chest still and motionless and his skin is far too cold, far too pale, and she knows, she knows and she understands and she wishes, she wishes she didn't.
And Sokka must catch a glimpse of this, maybe of the blue of Aang's arrow shining in the moonlight, because suddenly he’s running again, running and leaving Toph alone and crying behind him.
He lets out a yelp when he sees him.
It's a tiny little broken noise, one that reminds Katara of a lost baby penguin they found wandering in the snow alone in the South Pole months ago, back where everything was cold and meaningless before Aang came and gave it meaning . And Sokka drops to his knees and takes Aang from Katara with shaking hands and holds him to his chest, and Aang seems so tiny, so, so tiny compared to Sokka, and Spirits, Spirits, he's twelve years old, he's only twelve . Sokka's rocking Aang gently and saying his name, over and over, and Katara sees that Sokka's crying, crying with choked breaths in between words.
And Katara remembers, in her numb state of mind, that Sokka didn't cry when they found their mother's body, burned and unrecognisable, but he's crying now, and when she realises this it's like a punch to the gut. She doesn’t know what to do.
She doesn't know what to do.
Tears are running down her brother's cheeks that glisten in the moonlight. Katara clenches Aang's dangling hand and looks up at the moon and inside, inside she's screaming, screaming at Yue for a reason , a reason as for why this cruel, unfair world had to be his to protect and not someone else's.
Toph is standing there, looking at nothing, and for once Katara envies her, envies her lack of sight and in this instance, lack of pain. And Katara wants to ask, wants to ask if Toph feels anything , a breath, a heartbeat, anything that can alleviate the heaviness of her heart, but she's also filled with an unthinking terror at what the answer will be.
Sokka asks instead, his voice hollow and without emotion as if he already knows, because of course he does. They both do. How could they not, when they look at the cold, white face with the closed eyes that used to be so warm and bright and open and alive .
And yet somehow, when Toph shakes her head listlessly, when tears fall out of her unseeing eyes and she makes no move to wipe them away, Katara's throat still burns and her heart still aches, and the useless, useless vial around her neck feels so heavy and it's pointless, anyway -
And then Katara's eyes widen and her head shoots up and she rips Aang from Sokka's arms, and she stands up and runs, runs to Appa as if her life depends on it.
And it does, in a way.
"Katara," Sokka calls as he runs after her, and his voice is full of anger and grief and tears. And she knows that he must be confused and so, so lost, because so much has happened in the last few minutes alone. Spirits, if she's being honest she doesn't understand it either. And she knows, she knows what's it's like to have your whole world turned upside down in a matter of seconds, and she knows that her brother feels so much at the moment but doesn't understand any of it, not really. But she doesn't listen to him, she blocks it out because there's a chance , and lately, Katara has learnt that clinging to a chance, however unlikely, is not a weakness, just like hope isn't a weakness. It's a strength, and it's hers, just like Aang is hers, and she never lets go of what is her own.
She clambers onto Appa's head clumsily and he groans in displeasure, and she wonders if he knows, or even has the slightest inkling, that his best friend, the only thing he has left from his own lifetime, is hanging in the balance of chance and hope and healing.
"Katara!" Sokka shouts again as he struggles into the saddle and helps up Toph and the Earth King and his stupid bear - and she's taken aback by the rage in her brother's voice. And she knows that she has that same fury boiling underneath her skin, and the grief and pain and blind panic is the only thing keeping it under the surface.
And hope , a small, optimistic voice ventures, and she tries desperately to listen to it.
But then she sees the tear tracks shining on Sokka's skin, and she remembers that he just lost a brother.
Katara doesn't reply, makes no sound she even hears him. Hugging Aang to her chest, she gently lowers him onto Appa's fur, his head lolling to the side, and she wants to vomit . His grey, laughing eyes are closed and he would look so peaceful, if it weren’t for the gaping hole in his back and the burns all over his body… and maybe, if it weren’t for his still chest and his cool skin, Katara could kid herself that he was sleeping.
Except he's not , the demons whisper, and she wants to scream.
Her hair is blowing wildly in the wind as Appa flies through the sky, and when did he leave the ground, again?
When did any of this go so horribly, so terribly wrong?
Her hands quiver as she fumbles with the vial around her neck, this precious thing that holds her best friend's life in its depths, and she pulls out the spirit water and it spins in a never-ending circle in her palm, and it spins and spins and glimmers and glows and maybe, maybe, maybe...
And Momo chirrups and Toph is silent and Sokka watches with eyes that are empty.
And gently, so gently and so cautiously that she feels as if she might split in two, Katara lowers the spirit water into the... the wound, Aang's wound, and as it sinks into his skin she prays . Prays to the spirits, Yue, the avatars themselves, to anyone who would listen, and she lets herself hope for a miracle as her face is lit up by a brilliant light -
And then the water vanishes, it goes dark, and the light disappears and with it, Katara goes too. Aang is still and quiet and cold and without a breath in his lungs, and Katara can't hold it in as she lets out a dry sob because that's it, it's over, everything they've learnt and achieved and everything she's felt and the relationships they've built from the remains of the shattered foundations of their lives - it's all been for nothing, and she pulls his head into her chest, kissing his arrow and holding his broken body so she can be close to him because she doesn't want to let him go, she can't, and she's whispering words in a voice choked with tears that have no meaning, and he will never hear them, anyway -
Through her scrunched-up eyelids, she sees light.
She gasps, and she opens her eyes and pulls away so she can see his face, and his eyes are open.
And they're filled with pain and exhaustion, and he smiles a tiny smile that's barely there, but it's still his smile , and it's enough, it's enough. She beams at him, tears pooling in her eyes, as if he's the literal sun.
And as they lie there against Appa's soft fur as he soars through the night sky, as Aang’s eyes close again immediately after, she doesn't know that they won't open again for several weeks, or that she will spend hours a day healing him tirelessly and pleading and yet again hoping, hoping, hoping.
She doesn't know he will have a huge, ugly scar that will split his arrow in two, or that whenever she looks at it she will be back there, back in the catacombs as he convulses in mid-air with lightning coursing through him and his mouth open in a silent scream... Or that she will wake up sobbing and screaming in the middle of the night when it seems like the whole world is asleep, or that she won't be able to talk about what happened down there to Sokka and Toph for days because she knows that she would fall apart if she delved into those memories for too long.
She doesn't know she won't be able to trust Zuko long after the others have accepted him, because she will not believe that he is really on their side, won't believe it, not after his earnest and heartfelt words surrounded by sparkling crystal were tainted with lies and betrayal and flame.
She doesn't know she will fight Azula, will fight her even after her bones are aching and her mind is weary because the demons in her skin are shrieking for revenge and all they want is to hear Azula scream and this time, this time she will not protest. Because Azula took the best thing away, the very best, and Aang is hers before he is anyone else's and she never, never lets go of what is her own.
And she doesn't know these things, as she sits on Appa's head with Aang unconscious by her side, and maybe that's a good thing.
Maybe there are some things we shouldn't know if we don't want to think we are destined to be broken, even if we don't need to be fixed.