Eyes blinking, heart racing, breaths coming out in short puffs, Katara wakes with a start. Her head is spinning, it is dark and dusty all around her, and she is lying on her back on the most uncomfortable ground imaginable. Something hard is pinning down her legs, and she feels a sharp object press against her side, hurting and making it impossible to move around. I have to get up, she thinks, so she tries to get herself away from the pointy bit that’s nagging at her side. With a muffled scream of pain, and when it seems she can’t move anywhere without tearing her stomach apart, she realizes maybe this particular pointy bit is not only pressing against her stomach, it’s likely imbedded in it as well.
Sudden hurt and shock make her gasp, and she inhales dust and starts coughing, hard, which has her side burning and exploding in pain, and makes something stir beside her head. Katara doesn’t have the energy or the capacity to look at what is moving, trying to regulate her breathing and assess damages to her body. For one thing: everything hurts. For another: it is dry and dark, where she is, and she can’t feel water nearby or on the rocks surrounding her.
She needs water, she needs to find someone, she needs to have her head not as foggy and her side not as hurting, and she needs to get out of here. Extending her left arm, she starts to feel the ground for anything useful in this situation. What she hasn’t counted on is the warm hand finding hers, and the shushes whispered when she gasps in fear and tries to get her hand back.
“It’s me!” A soft and raspy voice groans. She turns her head towards it and can’t help her relieved cry at the sight. Zuko is lying on his side, pinning her hand with his own, looking tired but not the worse for wear.
“Zuko? Are you okay? What are we doing down here?” She turns her palm around so she can grab Zuko’s hand properly. She’s so glad to find him here with her. She was so afraid that she would be alone and would have had to find a way out by herself, in her condition.
“I’m fine, I just woke up. Some rocks are crushing my legs though”, he hisses, “You don’t remember where we are?”
Katara starts to shake her head no, but bits and fragments of the day start to come back to her already. She came to visit Zuko in her capacity as ambassador, they went down to the Dragon Bone Catacombs to discuss ritual matters with a particular Fire Sage…
An explosion, shouting, the sages yelling at them to get out before the ceiling collapses on them.
“Oh. Yeah. I remember now.”
Zuko fixes his gaze on her face, searching for something, worry etched in his features. “Are you okay? Did you hit your head?”
“No, I think my head is- My head is fine, it’s a little foggy but it’s already feeling better than when I woke up. I think I have something stuck in my side though, but it hurts too much to lift my head and see what it is.” Zuko grits his teeth and tightens his hold on her hand, “Are you bleeding?”
Oh, well if Katara can’t look at her wound, she can at least try to touch it. She lifts her right hand above her stomach and touches around what feels like a metal rod going up, to the rocks over her. She carefully lowers her hand until it touches her side.
Pain explodes behind her ribcage, her breath is stolen from her for a few seconds, she screws her eyes shut until she sees stars, clenches her jaw until her teeth hurt, but still she continues to feel her stomach to assess the damages. She vaguely registers Zuko’s hand crushing hers until she can’t feel her fingers – or is it her own hand gripping his with such force? – and his thumb caressing up and down her wrist, as he whispers words of comfort. When she deems she has probed enough around her wound, she lifts her hand and breathes easier, stars still dancing in her vision.
“Zuko, give me a light, I can’t see right in this obscurity.” She feels the stickiness of blood on her fingers, she knows the skin of her hand seems covered in something blackish, somehow, even in the dark, but she has to make sure. Zuko does as is told, his other hand coming close to their clasped ones, and summons a small flame. In the light, Katara is greeted with a bloody hand, trembling above her face.
Zuko gasps, clutches her wrist and tries to move towards her. His small flame is extinguished, and his yell of pain makes it clear it is impossible for them to be closer than an arm’s length.
“Zuko! Stop moving so much, you’ll hurt yourself,” she hisses at him. “Is it your legs? Do they feel broken?”
“Yeah, I think one of them is, but the other one is just stuck. I can’t move closer.” He sighs, and lights another flame between them. “I’m so sorry, it’s my fault we’re here,” he continues. “If I hadn’t asked you to come, you’d-”
“Stop that,” she glares at him. “It’s not your fault. I insisted on coming down here. It’s me who wanted to see the catacombs, isn’t it? And the explosion… I guess someone was trying to hurt us. Or you, Fire lord. At least down here they didn’t do so much damage as they could have in the streets, or in the palace. I just hope the Fire Sages made it out okay.”
Zuko lets his head fall down on the ground, still looking at her with too much concern in his eyes. She is fine. Does her side hurt? Yes, a lot, but the spike is still in her stomach, so at least she shouldn’t run out of blood sooner rather than later. Are they stuck down here for spirits know how much longer? Yes, but Toph has hitched a ride to the Capitol with her, and is bound to have heard or felt the explosion. They know they can trust her to come help them as fast as she can. Is there a coup preparing to kill them, or at least Zuko? Probably, but they have faced other assassination attempts, in the five years since the war ended, and she knows they can take many more. It isn’t the most dire situation they have been in, and it will certainly not be the last.
She tells him so, not in so many words, but insisting she is fine doesn’t erase the concern from his features, far from it.
“I know Toph will come help us,” he answers her. “If anything, I’m at least glad we’re stuck down here together.”
At that, Katara raises an eyebrow and eyes him with a tiny smirk. “Well if it was Toph down here instead of me, you would already have gotten out. I’m not sure a waterless waterbender is of any use right now,” she teases.
Zuko blows a soft laugh through his nose.
“Yeah,” he smiles fondly. “You truly are useless.”
Some time passes. Zuko can’t really tell how long they’ve been here, he can’t feel the sun this far down and isn’t sure how long he was unconscious after the explosion.
His legs hurt, a lot. His left one feels like it’s in shambles, he can feel blood drying on his calf, and he can’t even feel his right one, pinned down like it is between the ground and the rocks. He just hopes he will be able to walk when this is over. But he knows he is not the worst off in this situation, and glances at Katara, her left hand still in his. Their eyes adapted to the obscurity a while ago, and he doesn’t really need his flame to see, but she is lying on her back, watching the rocks above her head and he takes this opportunity to study her in the fire light. He can’t see much of her, just her head and the beginning of her shoulders and torso, because of some debris forming a wall between their bodies. He can’t see the spear embedded in her stomach, can’t know how bad it looks. He watches her breathe, relieved she seems alert and mostly fine. But he knows, even if Katara was in great pain, she wouldn’t tell him.
At least she’s with me, he thinks. At least I know where she is, instead of having her out of sight and worrying about whether she is alive or not.
He shakes his head then. Idiot. If she hadn’t come see you, she’d be safe at home, not down here with you, hurt and afraid.
“Are you okay?” He asks for what feels like the hundredth time since they woke up here. Katara doesn’t seem to mind, though, she just turns her face towards him and gives him a soft smile. “I’m fine. We’ll get out of here soon enough. How are your legs?”
He gives her a non-committal grunt, not wanting her to worry about him and his stupid legs when she has a fucking spike going through her stomach. He just hopes Toph comes soon. She has to come, right? They can’t die down here, it can’t be the end for them just because some stupid catacombs collapsed on them. Katara seems to guess what’s going on behind his eyes and laces their fingers together, gripping his hand harder. “She will come. If there is someone we can count on to feel an explosion even from the other side of the Capitol, it’s her. An in the meanwhile, your guards can secure the area.”
The explosion. Zuko can’t believe how stupid he has been. How has he not seen the signs? Were the Fire Sages in on it? Was there a plan to lure them down here to bury them alive? Or did the attempt just malfunction, and sheer luck is what kept them alive? No. He can’t start second guessing the Fire Sages. He can’t start being paranoid about people he has trusted for five years. The attack has to have come from outside.
But who? Zuko has a lot of enemies, he knows. People in the Fire Nation believing war is the only way to live, ruling over the other countries is the best way to be. He always managed to catch assassins and arrest ministers that stayed loyal to the old regime, thanks to his guards and, more than once, his friends. This time won’t be different, they will catch whoever planned this poor attempt at killing him and Katara.
Still studying her face, Zuko notices how calm she looks now. A far cry from when she woke up earlier, covered in dust and panicking in the dark. He thinks he woke up about at the same time as her. Maybe her gasps of pain are what made him stir. The only thing he remembers clearly is grabbing her hand and trying to calm her down, before even registering the pain in his legs.
Katara raises her eyes at him, and traces idle patterns on the skin of his wrist with her fingers. It sends jolts of electricity down Zuko’s entire body, until it reaches his toes and the tip of his hair.
“You know,” she whispers, “I’ve been thinking about it, and the attack probably didn’t come from the Fire Sages.”
This girl, he thinks fondly. Count on her to guess what I’m thinking about and try to help me even if she’s in pain. “Yeah I came to the same conclusion. I can’t start suspecting an attack from the inside when we don’t know anything about what happened.”
She turns back towards the ceiling and he mourns the loss of eye contact for an instant, before shaking himself off. Stop thinking about that. This is not the time.
“I’m glad you’re not too badly hurt,” she tells him without looking at him. “The Fire Nation can’t afford to lose you. I… We can’t afford to lose you.”
He sighs. “I don’t care about my legs. You’re hurt way worse than me, you shouldn’t have to be in pain on my account. Or ever, for that matter.” She doesn’t answer at first, just nods softly. Her hand feels slack in his, and he notices her eyelids close for longer periods of times, her expression less awake than before. She’s fine, right? She has to be. She just has to shake off whatever weariness is taking a hold of her. He wants to warn her about that, but she cuts him off. “You should care more about yourself,” she sighs. “Or you should at least let me care. You know I worry.”
Zuko doesn’t answer her. Good. Katara doesn’t want to make it weird between them. She just wants him to acknowledge he is important, not just to the Fire Nation, but to her as well.
The pain in her side has reduced to a dull, throbbing ache. Not moving around helps her breathe easier. Her head feels lighter too. Maybe it’s the blood loss starting to take its toll on her tired body. They have been down here for a while, now, and despite her reassuring words to Zuko, she really doesn’t know if Toph will get to them in time. At least he is not in immediate danger of dying. That’s what really matters.
“I can’t believe it’s been five years since the end of the war,” she tells him, if only to ward off the nasty thoughts about death and blood and assassins that are plaguing her. “It seems like yesterday when the coronation happened.”
“Yeah,” he acknowledges. She raises her eyes at him and sees him smile, seemingly lost in thoughts. “It was a good day, I can’t believe it was the last time we were all together.”
Katara notices his smile turning a little bitter, and she grasps his hand tighter. She knows what he is thinking about. “You know, when we’re seeing each other without you, we always want you to come too, right?” He looks up at her, and she continues before he can respond, “We never want to do stuff without you. It’s just, you’re too busy Fire Lording to come see us every time we improvise seeing each other in the Earth Kingdom, and we can’t come all the way to the Fire Nation whenever we want. But we want to. We miss you, every time.”
At this, Zuko smiles and brushes his fingers in the inside of her wrists – she pretends it just tickles when it sends a warm feeling down her arm – and answers, “Yeah. I know. I miss you too.”
They look at each other with soft smiles and talk about the coronation, because it feels good to remember good days, warm afternoons with tea flowing freely, laughter in the air and the sensation that everything is new and exciting in the aftermath of the war.
The more she talks, the more her words feel sluggish and she struggles to string together sentences without winding herself.
Her eyelids feel heavier each passing minute. She feels strangely weightless, like a balloon tethered to the earth only by the ache in her side. Her head is spinning lightly and every time she blinks it gets harder to get her eyes back open. So much for the bleeding being slowed down by the rod, she thinks sarcastically. If it hadn’t still been in her, maybe she would have been able to close the wound using bloodbending, at least.
“Katara?” She hears, and she snaps her eyes open. “Katara are you okay? You seem-”
“I’m okay,” She cuts him off. Katara really doesn’t want him to stress about her so much. Taking a deep breath, and wincing because of the flash of pain it induces in her side, she looks at him and flashes him what she hopes is a convincing smile. She can see worry and fear in his eyes, but behind it she can see something else, something softer she only seems to catch in his gaze when he looks at her. Seeing him look at her like this takes her back to the last time they have spent alone together, a year ago, the last night of one of her week-long trips to the Fire Nation.
A broken bottle. Her drunken giggles. Zuko shushing her while trying not to laugh himself. Their hands reaching for the same shard of glass. The soft look in Zuko’s eyes, that she can’t possibly misread. The mingling of their breaths when he gets closer and closer to her, until his eyes flutter closed and his lips caress her own in a butterfly kiss.
She hasn’t stopped thinking about that night, ever since it happened. After the kiss, as faint and brief as it was, Zuko jumped back - like burned - got up and left. They haven’t talked about it since, both ruling this as a drunken misstep. She left the Fire Nation as planned the morning after that, and they said goodbye like nothing happened, like the best of friends they were since the end of the war.
She doesn’t know what this means for them, this kiss they shared. During the year that followed, they have been corresponding regularly, sending each other letters every few weeks, as usual. And when she arrived at the Fire Nation a few days ago – a year after the kiss, or the incident, as she came to call it in her head – Zuko embraced her like an old friend he hasn’t seen in too long, like every time before that.
Katara doesn’t like to dwell on it, usually, because she knows that even if there is something there, she can’t shake off the fear that the change it would bring would not be worth it. Also, because her belly usually does this fluttering thing that is really annoying and makes her feel like the first time she flew on Appa. So no, she doesn’t like to dwell on it, but right now she can’t make her mind focus on something else, as tired and cloudy as it feels. She wonders if the blood loss is finally getting to her brain and then thinks Of course, think about it, you are falling asleep right now. Wake up Katara. But she can’t shake herself awake, as much as she wants to. Her eyelids are too heavy, her limbs feel like lead, she can only watch Zuko’s worried face slowly fade to black.
Vaguely, she hears him calling her name. She thinks she feels his hand shake hers, gripping her wrist and warming her skin, but she can’t for the life of her open her eyes to check. The ache in her side isn’t so jarring anymore, and she feels so much better.
Don’t worry, she thinks. I’m just resting my eyes a little, they are too tired.
Let me rest, Zuko. Please. I need to…
Leave me alone, nothing hurts here.
“Wha- I’m awake,” She cracks an eye open, annoyed by the interruption. Not a second after, her second eyelid moves up when the pain, the situation, Zuko’s frantic calls, everything comes crashing back to her. I can’t believe I let myself fall asleep like that.
Next to her, Zuko is crushing her hand in his own, breathing hard. “Don’t do this to me,” he seethes. She can see he looks shaken up, but she feels so heavy with sleep she isn’t able to liven up to reassure him. So instead, she tells him “I’m sorry. I promise I won’t fall asleep again.”
Zuko is shaking. His heart racing, he grips Katara’s hand as tight as he can, wanting, needing to feel her alive, awake, with him. She fell asleep, she fell asleep damn it. Thoughts he has tried really hard to keep at bay come hurling at him, like What if Toph doesn’t get here in time? What if Katara falls asleep again? What if the damage is too big, the blood loss too great?
He closes his eyes, takes a deep breath, tries to calm his racing mind and his frantic heart. When he opens his eyes again, he is focused.
Katara needs to live. Katara needs to not fall asleep again. Katara needs to keep awake.
“Talk to me,” he says. “Tell me stories. To keep you alert.” He doesn’t say please. If he has to make it an order for her to realize how scary it was when she didn’t respond to him for a minute, he will.
Fortunately, Katara doesn’t seem to mind the order, and she nods and looks away, lost in thoughts.
“I can- I can tell you about some Water Tribe legends?” She looks at him like a scared child, and Zuko realizes she is as afraid of this as he is. He is suddenly overwhelmed by the need to comfort her, to take her in his arms and never let go, to whisper soft words in her hair and to breathe in the salt in her skin. He can’t possibly do that, so instead he brushes the back of her hand with his thumb, smiles softly and answers, “I’d like that.”
They trade stories for what seems like an eternity, but it’s working. Katara looks less fatigued and he thinks That’s it, we can do it, Toph will come soon and get us out of here. Katara is in the middle of telling him how Sokka got two hooks stuck in his finger – He already knows the story, of course, but he knows her and her life so well, she is bound to tell him things he already has heard. He doesn’t mind anyway, if it keeps her talking and awake – when she stops, looks at him with a frown and asks, “How are your legs now?”
Zuko sighs, he would very much like for her to think about her own condition right now, but he knows she can’t shake the healer in her, like he can’t shake the worry in him. “They’re fine. They stopped hurting so much a while ago, I think they are getting numb.”
Katara furrows her brows and bites her bottom lip. “I’ll look at them when we get out. I hope the blood flow isn’t too cut off, but with some waterbending I think I can manage to heal them properly.”
At this, Zuko can’t help but smile. “You’re a true healer, Katara. But when we get out, try to heal yourself first, okay?”
She nods and, “Where was I with my story? Oh, right, Sokka got the first hook stuck in his thumb, and then he thinks Oh maybe I can get it out with a second hook, the genius.”
Zuko listens to her stories almost reverently, looking out for any sign of decline in her state. It doesn’t take long to appear, unfortunately. Soon, her words are slower to come, her breath looks shorter, and she doesn’t grip his hand as strongly as before. He knows she can’t keep going like this, they’ll really need to get out soon, and if he didn’t know how dangerous it could be to maneuver into a broken down terrain while searching for them, he would be furious at Toph to make Katara wait for her like this.
But real panic sets in when Zuko feels something wet and sticky touch his finger, where he clutches Katara’s hand. Sucking in a breath, and lighting another flame, his fears are confirmed when he sees a pool of blood slowly and steadily growing towards him. No. No no no please.
“Please stop worrying about me, Zuko,” she breathes. “You’re looking at me like I’m dying.”
I can’t help it, he thinks, irritated. “I’m sorry,” He replies with a snarl, “I hadn’t realized you’d be so calm in a situation where I’m getting covered in your blood and you act like everything’s fine.”
Katara looks hurt, then, and turns her eyes towards the ceiling again, away from him. She tries to get her hand back, but he grasps it tighter, and immediately feels like an asshole. “Katara… Katara look at me. Please. I’m sorry, I’m not- Nothing is your fault, I know you’re only trying to reassure me.” She still doesn’t look at him, and he can see some tears building up in her eyes, rolling down her temple, her ear, and getting lost in her hair. “I’m sorry, don’t cry, Katara- Please, don’t cry.”
She stifles a sob, then, and turns her eyes back to him. “It hurts so much, Zuko. It hurts,” And Zuko is heartbroken. “Talk- Talk about something. Anything. I’m out of stories and it hurts too much to breathe,” she murmurs. “Please.”
Zuko swallows thickly, trying hard to blink back his own tears. He doesn’t want her to see him in this state. She’s fine. They’ll get out of here soon. She’s fine.
“I- I don’t know… If I tell you a story, you promise you won’t fall asleep?”
“Tell me something I don’t know, something exciting.”
At this, Katara’s eyes shine. “Tell me why you kissed me last year. That’ll keep me awake.”
Zuko’s eyes widen, his heart skips a beat, and he stops breathing for a while. He didn’t think she would… Spirits, he didn’t think she would ever want to talk to him about that night.
Everything comes back in a blur. Katara is visiting him for a week, officially on ambassador duty, unofficially because she misses her friend, and he feels like her stays in the Fire Nation are shorter and shorter each year. Obviously, they aren’t, she comes to see him approximately one week a year, when both Water Tribes can spare her, and he gets to see her on the few days a year he goes South for Fire Lord business, or on peace summits in the Earth Kingdom. He doesn’t tell her that her visits are the only period of time he is truly happy, but he thinks she knows. The letters are constant, but not enough, and every time he sees her boat dock in the Capitol’s harbor, he is the happiest man in the world. This time is not different. He welcomes her warmly, takes the opportunity to gather her in his arms and is content with her presence for the week. Of course, soon she has to go back home, and like the past five years Zuko wants to say Stay, please, stay with me, but he doesn’t because he knows it is not his place, not his call to make.
It’s the last night of her stay when the kiss happens. Uncle Iroh came to visit from Ba Sing Se, and he wants to toast to her, to her achievements with both the Northern and the Southern Water Tribes, to the reconstruction going smoothly and her success in opening a bending school back home. They drink a lot, that night. When Iroh retires in his quarters, Zuko takes Katara’s hand and leads her to his study. “I have a secret stash of fire whiskey,” he whispers loudly, like he is afraid his ministers will scold him if they discover his horrendous secret.
Katara can’t stop giggling, as they hurry down the corridors, hand in hand. Zuko is giddy, he thinks this is the happiest he has been in a long time. He never wants to let go.
In his study, they laugh until their sides hurt, and as he watches her drink and smile freely at him, he wants to burn this view in his mind’s eye forever. She is perfect, this moment is perfect.
She passes the bottle to him and he startles when her fingers brush his, and they drop the bottle. Glass and whiskey fly everywhere, and for some reason it makes Katara laugh harder. “Shh, don’t want to wake Uncle, his quarters aren’t far,” he warns her, but he laughs with her anyway.
They crouch down to pick up the shards of glass and their hands meet again. This time, Zuko doesn’t flinch, instead he takes her fingers in his and looks up at her, his snickers forgotten. She is still smiling from laughing so much, and she is looking at him with tears of mirth in her eyes. He can’t tear his eyes away from hers, and frankly, he doesn’t want to.
“Katara…” He truly doesn’t know where he is going with this, so he stops talking altogether and just leans in. She doesn’t step back, and his drunk mind can’t register anything besides the facts that he’s so close to her he can almost touch her lips with his, and she’s not flinching away, and she’s so beautiful, Spirits, she’s beautiful, so he leans in some more and kisses her.
And it feels amazing. Kissing her is like answering a calling from Agni himself.
Only a few seconds later does he realizes what he is doing. He is kissing Katara. In his study. And they are drunk. He jumps back, looks frightfully at her for just a second – she looks disappointed but he can’t let himself hope – and leaves hurriedly, shards of glass, whiskey and girl left behind in his study.
He runs back to his room, breathing hard, and flops down on his bed before screaming in frustration in his pillows.
Honestly, Zuko hasn’t let himself think about that night. He already spends too much of his time thinking about her, and they haven’t talked about it the morning after, when she left, and he doesn’t want her to hate him, and this was a mistake, and he wants to make that mistake again, and he should really answer her question soon because she’s looking at him with her beautiful blue eyes and he hasn’t talked for a while, lost in his memories as he was.
He has a lot of answers for this particular question. He has a lot of things to say to her, after five years of pining and hoping against hope.
“Katara, I…” I’ve been wanting to kiss you for a long time. I love you. Stay with me in the Fire Nation, please. Marry me. “I shouldn’t have kissed you. I’m sorry,” he says instead.
Coward, a little voice in his head tells him. “We were drunk anyway,” Katara tells him. She seems to accept his lack of explanations readily enough, but he knows she isn’t fighting him on his answer because she is too tired to argue with him, and his heart breaks a bit more.
A few minutes pass when they don’t say anything, when Zuko thinks of that night and beats himself up for not telling her how he really feels. He tears his eyes from the rocks above his head and gazes at Katara. Whose eyes are closed.
No. No no NO NO, “Katara? Stay with me. Please? Open your eyes, for me,” he pleads. He feels the burn of tears behind his eyes, and he grips her hand and forearm with both his hands, and shakes, pinches, anything to jolt her awake. “Katara if you wake up, I will tell you everything, please. I lied about the kiss, I lied, you can’t fall asleep without knowing the truth, I will tell you why I really kissed you, please,” he almost yells. “Like the fact that I know we were drunk, but it’s not like I hadn’t thought about kissing you before,” he rambles. “Please Katara, open your eyes. Let me tell you why I kissed you-”
“I would have kissed you back, you know,” she murmurs slowly, her eyes still closed. Zuko stops breathing to listen to her. “If you hadn’t run away. I would’ve.”
Her sentence trickles to a stop, and he feels his heart freeze. “Katara? Keep talking? Please?”
This time she doesn’t answer, no matter how much he pleads, yells, begs her to stay with him.
Katara feels so heavy and weightless at the same time. She wants to cry, she wants to stay awake, she wants to talk to him, to listen to his voice calling for her, ordering her to wake up, but every sound fades away slowly, as she thinks I’m sorry Zuko, I’m sorry.
“Hey, hey, hey, stay with me, Katara, please,” Zuko continues to beg. Tears are running freely down his cheeks and panic is threatening to engulf him, he feels it creeping in the corner of his blurry vision. Katara, Katara, Katara, he chants softly, barely above a whisper, because his voice is cracking and all air has left his lungs and it’s too much, it’s just too much.
A minute passes, then two, then three, where he continues to shake her and to beg her to wake up, but it soon becomes clear to him that she is too far gone to open her eyes again. Despair and panic tear at his heart, and he can’t help a frustrated scream from ripping out of his throat, his nails scraping at her skin. He needs to know she’s alive, he needs to help her, to keep her with him, because he doesn’t know what he’ll do in this life without her, doesn’t know how to keep living without the promise of seeing her smile.
Zuko grabs her wrist in both of his hands and waits, holding his breath. The few seconds it takes for him to feel a pulse – faint, barely enough, but here and fluttering and alive – are the longest he’s ever had to live. He keeps his thumb on her pulsing point; he just can’t tear himself away from the proof of her heart still beating.
Katara, stay with me, you can’t die, please, He thinks, because he can’t speak anymore, sobs are beginning to rack his body and the shock is too much to bear. You can’t die before I tell you.
“Sparky? You down there?” Toph. He hears her faint voice coming from above and his heart starts beating again.
“WE’RE DOWN HERE,” he yells, as loudly as he can with his cracked voice and his empty lungs. “Where is Sweetness?” he hears her shout back.
She’s right here. “SHE’S RIGHT HERE, WITH ME,” he yells back. Toph waits a beat, then, “I’m coming to get you.”
Why couldn’t she tell Katara is with me? Couldn’t she feel her? She’s right here, damn it, she’s with me, she’s alive, please, Spirits, let her be alive, I love her too much for this, I love her, I love her-
Zuko can hear the scraping of rocks being lifted and tossed out of here, the grunts of Toph coming closer and closer to them. “Toph is here, Katara, she’s here and she’s going to get us out of this hell hole.” He clutches her hand again and fresh tears spill out because he can’t do anything except hold her fucking hand.
He hears Toph grumbling about stupid assassins damaging perfectly good catacombs and destroying great statues while she makes her way down to them. She’s somewhere above him when he hears her say “You know Sparky, you should really consider hiring earthbenders in your royal guard, I could really use the help.”
He doesn’t feel like laughing. He knows Toph is just saying that to get their minds off of the situation, but he can’t summon even a sliver of response, because Katara’s hand is getting cold in his own and he’s never been so afraid in his life.
Finally, finally, the rocks above his head are lifted and sunlight comes burning his eyes. Toph drops down to their level, starts feeling the ground around them with her feet, and gasps. “Is that Katara?” She points at a place right by the waterbender’s head. “Yes, Toph, please, please just get her to a doctor, she’s lost too much blood, please,” he starts rambling, and Toph has a scared expression on her face and, when she crouches down to clear the rocks from their legs, he hears her mumble about pulse, weak, couldn’t even feel her.
“I’ll have to get the spear out of her, or the medics won’t be able to take her as soon as we reach the surface,” she tells him. “Get ready to press on her wound.”
Zuko can’t help a loud gasp – Fuck, fuck, it hurts – when Toph lifts the rocks from his body, his legs are pulsating with pain and he can see, now, how one of them is shattered in several places. But still, he sits up, crawls to Katara and positions his hands above her wound as Toph starts to metalbend the spike in her side. She slims it down to get it out more easily, and as she pulls on it, Katara’s back arches and her mouth opens in a silent scream, but she doesn’t wake up. Zuko presses as hard as he can on her stomach to stem the fresh spilling of her blood, and he gathers her in his lap, pain in his legs be damned.
Toph moves her arms and their platforms lifts up, towards the surface. “We’re getting you out of here,” he murmurs against Katara’s hair, rocking her back and forth and holding as tight as he can onto her. “We’re getting out. You’re fine. We’re fine.”
And then it’s a blur of doctors, guards, people touching him and trying to get him away from Katara, and No, no, take care of her, save her, she’s dying, someone, but the medics are holding onto him and they pry her away from his arms.
“NO,” he shouts to them, “No, take care of her first, she’s lost too much blood,” he wants to firebend at them, to scream in frustration, to make them see that it’s not because he is the fucking Fire Lord that he has to be treated first.
He watches in despair as they take Katara away from him but he wants to stay with her, he can’t let her out of his sight, let me accompany her, please, but the doctors hold him back, and he thrashes and feels his fist connecting with someone’s jaw, and then something sharp is jabbed in his neck and he can’t fight anymore, can only watch the medics leave with Katara, before his eyes close and everything goes dark.
Katara feels sunlight behind her eyelids, and its warmth comes kissing her cheeks and her neck where she sprawls lazily across her bed. She can hear birds just outside the window, singing joyfully. She just knows this is one of those mornings, when she can’t seem to get herself out of bed because it is just so damn perfect.
A warm hand comes tracing idle patterns on her naked back, and she gives a soft smile, the one she reserves just for her husband. She’s dead set on just staying here, baking in the sun with Zuko drawing random shapes on her skin, but she has to let out a yelp when he grazes the sensitive part of her ribs. With her eyes still closed, she takes his hand in hers, lifts it to her mouth so she can kiss his fingertips and groans, “Not fair, you know I’m ticklish.”
She hears him laugh, that deep, warm, adoring chuckle he seems to let out only around her. She can feel him shift closer to her body, his skin pressing against hers, and his face coming to rest in her hair, his lips kissing her temple. “I just can’t help myself,” he murmurs in her ear. “You’re so beautiful in the morning light.”
Finally, Katara opens her eyes, turns on her back and looks proudly at him as his eyes take her body in appreciatively. “Like what you see, Fire Lord?” She teases. He doesn’t answer, instead just lowering his head to her neck and pampering her with kisses.
She’s in the middle of her laugh when she feels something sharp stabbing at her stomach. Suddenly, she can’t breathe, she feels sand coating the inside of her throat, she sees blood on her hands, and Zuko, the bed, the sunlight and the birds, all of them are gone.
Everything is dark, and hard, and strange, and her body hurts everywhere, but Katara doesn’t feel panicked. She just feels… Tired, incredibly lethargic. Like her brain, her limbs, everything turned to jelly and she’s just starting now to realize she can’t move.
But amongst all this, something feels more real than the rest. She is lying on something soft, and there is light, somewhere, she just isn’t able to find it yet. Somewhere in the back of her mind, she wonders if her eyes are closed, if maybe she is asleep, or dead. But no, the jarring pain in her side lets her know she is definitely alive.
She thinks she feels warmth on her face, the same sunlight as the one in a dream she’s already forgetting. Birds… Were they birds, earlier? She thinks she hears them now.
She feels so… Gauzy. Like her entire body is made of steel, and she’s sinking deep, deeper, in a calm ocean blocking her senses. But- No. There. She can feel it. Something is clutching her hand.
Sensations are starting to come back. She feels a mattress at her back, a warmth at her fingers, a sting in her side, and a dryness in her mouth and throat.
Water. She needs water. And to maybe open her eyes. She has to, doesn’t she? She can’t just stay in the coziness of her dreams forever.
Come on Katara. Open your eyes, she orders herself. One. Two. Three-
-Brightness, like she’s never known before, comes burning her retinas. She has to blink several times before the sting in her eyes subsides. The first thing she sees is red. Red everywhere. So I’m still in the Fire Nation.
Katara next notices the bed in which she’s lying. A huge, burgundy thing, way too big for one, and definitely not a hospital bed. Am I… In the palace?
Her head turns left, where she is greeted by a vision that brings a fond smile to her lips. Zuko is here, asleep, his body on a chair and his head and arms on her bed. He has her hand firmly enclosed in his and his breath comes caressing her skin at every exhale.
She can see some scratches on his skin, healing already. How long was I asleep? How is his leg? She tries to sit up some more – she already is propped up on quite a few pillows, the softest things she has ever rested on – to see his leg, but a sharp sting in her side has her gasping and crying out in a second.
That has Zuko waking up in a jump, immediately sitting upright and looking at her with big, round eyes. “You’re awake.” He breathes. She gives him a weak, tired smile, but can’t say anything because suddenly his arms are around her, his face in her neck and he is shaking and whispering things like, Thank Agni, thought I lost you, never do this to me again, thank you thank you thank you-
She wonders if he is crying, but when he steps back, his eyes are dry and his face more shocked than tearful. They look at each other for a minute, him taking her over like he wants to make sure she is definitely awake, and her to examine the shadows under his eyes, the weariness in his expression and the exhaustion in his movements.
“How long have I been asleep?” Her voice croaks, throat too dry to manage more than a whisper. At this, Zuko immediately hands her a glass of water that she downs greedily. He waits for her to finish drinking, sighs, runs his hands over his face, as if to get rid of any tiredness giving him away, and says, “Three days. Well, the explosion was three days ago, but you’ve been here for a little more than two days.”
She nods. Three days isn’t bad. It’s not ideal, but it’s better than lying here for several weeks, having Zuko worrying over her and not functioning properly because he feels guilty. Oh yes. She knows him well. “Are you okay? How is your leg?” She asks, if only to keep herself rooted in something more real than the thought that she’s been sleeping for days.
He smiles, a soft expression with a twinkle in his eyes, and says, “You know, I should’ve bet with Toph that that would have been one of the first things you’d ask when you wake up.” She swats playfully at his hands, and he continues, “My leg is fine, they reset it and put it in a cast, see?” He lifts his leg up and yes, she can see a heavy-looking cast all around his foot, going up to his thigh.
Zuko’s smile drops as he takes her fingers in his. “When we got to the surface, the doctors shot me with a sedative and I didn’t wake up until hours later. I didn’t know where you were, or if you were even alive. I- I was so scared.”
“I’m so sorry you had to go through that, Zuko,” she sighs. She feels so badly because she fell asleep, back in the catacombs. He shouldn’t have to be scared like that on her account. “Where are we, anyway?”
“In my bedroom.” Oh. “Oh,” she says, because she can’t think of anything else to say. The exhaustion on his features suddenly makes sense; he has left her his bed, the stupid man.
“The guards didn’t catch whoever was behind the explosion”, Zuko tells her, a faint pink coloring his cheeks. “I thought it best to get you treated here, safer.”
“I get it, I think I prefer being here rather than in a hospital full of strangers,” she smiles at him. “I’m sorry for falling asleep, back there.”
To her alarm, she can see tears building up in Zuko’s eyes, so she squeezes his hand as hard as she can. “I thought,” He starts, his voice shaking, “I thought you were dead. For a few seconds, when I couldn’t feel your pulse, and I couldn’t see you breathe, I thought you had left me.”
Katara feels her own eyes threaten to spill. This boy, this man before her is crying because of her, because of what she put him through. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, Zuko. You don’t know how much.”
“Don’t. Don’t say that, Katara. Nothing is your fault. I was just so scared, that, that… That I wouldn’t ever see you again, that-” Katara puts a hand on his cheeks – his scarred one, she realizes – and murmurs, Shh, stop crying, I’m okay, we’re okay, but Zuko takes her hand in both of his and continues, “No. I have to say this. I can’t… You can’t not know how I feel, because you almost died and I can’t put it off any longer. I don’t want to put it off.”
Katara thinks she knows where this is going. She has to stop pretending not to notice the lingering looks in her direction, when he thinks she’s not looking. She can’t go on without acknowledging the way his eyes light up when he sees her, or the way he seems to orbit around her when they visit each other. But whether she is too afraid of this change, of what this means for them, or not, she can’t keep him from telling her what he feels, and she can’t help but want to hear it anyway.
Zuko doesn’t look at her face when he talks, he just squeezes her hands between his and talks to the mattress.
“I’m really sorry this had to happen to you for me to finally have the guts to face this,” Katara wants to protest, to tell him to stop blaming himself, but he doesn’t give her the occasion, as he keeps going, “I love you. I know, what a shock, right?” He laughs between his tears. “I just… I just need you to know. I don’t- listen, I don’t care if you don’t want me. Well, yes, I care, but I couldn’t go on and pretend to be happy just being this, just being your friend, because it’s a lie, and you almost died without knowing, and now I’m saying it, I’m saying I love you for the first time while you’re hurt and I’m- I’m so sorry. But, wow, it’s easier now that it’s out, isn’t it? I love you, I love you, I love-”
“How-” She interrupts. Her cheeks feel wet, she hadn’t even noticed she has started crying. She swallows thickly and asks him, “How long have you felt like this?”
He still isn’t meeting her eyes when he answers, “I think I always felt this way, but I didn’t put a name on it until two years ago, when you broke up with Aang and I was happy, so happy about it, I couldn’t even feel bad for him. I’m a horrible person.”
So it’s been years. Katara takes in his dejected look, the way he is leaning forward on his chair, not letting go of her hand and never looking at her face, and thinks, I’ve put him through this. I was the blind one. It’s just like with Aang.
“You’re not horrible,” she tells him. “Or I am horrible too, because I was glad when you broke up with Mai.” That has Zuko finally raising his head toward her. He blinks, and she can see a faint blush adorning his cheeks. Oh, well, I’ve let him ramble about his feelings for me, might as well return the favor now. It's okay. I'm ready for this.
“I think I’ve always felt something here too. I didn’t want to acknowledge it because I thought it was just me, and when you kissed me last year I finally understood that it was a great possibility that I loved you, but I was just so scared of changing everything, then you just ran away and I had to go back to the South Pole and we never talked about it again, but I never, I swear I never stopped thinking about it, about you, and I’m still scared of change and of what this means for us, for your country, I mean you’re the Fire Lord for Spirits’ sake, you can’t possibly be allowed to love a Water Tribe girl-”
-And then she can’t talk anymore because his lips are on hers, and it’s nothing like the first time they kissed. This time, it’s not a butterfly press of shy lips, it’s bruising, desperate, it’s change and it’s coming home at the same time. Katara closes her eyes and feels fresh tears spill out on her cheeks, but she doesn’t care. Zuko steps back, just a hair away, and she takes this opportunity to whisper I love you, and they’re kissing again.
When they break the kiss and Zuko sits on the side on the bed, he just looks so happy, so fulfilled, and Katara doesn’t doubt she is wearing a similar look on her face.
Zuko takes her jaw in his hands and puts his forehead on hers, closes his eyes, and says, “You have no idea- no, no idea, how much I’ve wanted this.”
“I’m still scared of what this means for our lives,” she murmurs. “We’ll figure it out,” he tells her, brushing his thumbs on her cheeks. “I’ll talk to my council, I’ll make them see-” How much you make me happy. How you can be good for the Fire Nation. How we can have a great life together. She knows that’s what he is thinking, because she is thinking it too.
Katara nods, and they embrace again, Zuko pressing his face in the crook of her neck, and she feels home.
Until a sharp jab of pain in her side makes her remember why she is here in the first place. Zuko steps back at her wince, and frets, and orders for water to be brought in so she can heal herself, and slaps his forehead for not having asked for water earlier, and fluffs her pillows, and she just has to laugh because he is the Fire Lord and he is taking care of her the way she would take care of sick children.
Remnants of a dream filled with morning sun, songbirds and soft caresses tug at her heart and she thinks she already knows what it feels like to be loved by that man.