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Your Guardian Angel

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Your Guardian Angel

I will never let you fall,

I’ll stand up with you forever. 

I’ll be there for you through it all

Even if saving you sends me to heaven.

 

-The Red Jumpsuit Apparatus

 

~~~***~~~

 

Zuko stands under the archway, hands folded at his front. He rocks back and forth eagerly, bites his lip in anticipation. He adjusts his bowtie; he always hated those, but Katara insisted he wear one. He checks his watch; 30 more minutes until the commencement of the ceremony. Katara should arrive with the girls within the next 15 minutes.



The ceremony takes place at a country club in the Chincoteague Islands, one of Katara’s favorite places. The club they booked overlooks the sea, and sometimes the ponies make themselves visible on the beaches.



He decides to survey the venue one last time, ensuring every detail is as it should be. The five-tier wedding cake stands on a table under a tent, shaded from the sun. Every table is adorned with a bundle of white roses, lavender lisianthus, and Peruvian lilies. He chuckles upon remembering how they had come to agree on the color. Katara had told him, “It is the perfect combination between your red and my blue.” 



The cookie table has their party favors at the very end. Each guest will receive a photo ornament for which guests can take their photos at the picture booth. Each reads “ZuTara 22” at the bottom. 



Zuko makes his way to the photo tables, smiling upon seeing childhood photos from their lives and pictures they’ve taken together over the years. His heart soars when he glances at the picture from the resort down in Cabo San Lucas. Pictured, his cousin Lu Ten has his arms slung around his then-girlfriend, now wife: Yue. Next to Yue stands Katara, and Katara stands with her arms slung over Zuko’s shoulders. 



“Destiny has a funny way of revealing itself,” his Uncle would say. 



He met Katara through Lu Ten and Yue. At the time, Lu Ten had convinced Zuko to head to Cabo San Lucas with them for spring break, promising Zuko that Yue was bringing a “smoking hot” friend Zuko just had to meet. Lu Ten and Yue did not disclose that they had reserved only 2 rooms, and Lu Ten and Yue did not plan on sleeping apart from each other. Naturally, there was only one bed. After the initial awkwardness, Katara and Zuko agreed upon a comfortable arrangement, wherein Zuko would sleep on the sofa and Katara in the bed. Later that night it took a few shots of tequila, some spicy mango margaritas, and an hour of dirty dancing before the two separated from Lu Ten and Yue and stumbled back into their room with no desire for anything else but each other. 



Zuko grins to himself. They haven’t been back to Cabo since, but in his breast pocket, he has two plane tickets for tonight. He is so excited to see her expression, since he's been coy about their honeymoon destination in an effort to surprise her.



He is lost in his thoughts when his uncle comes up behind him, gently resting a hand on the crook of Zuko’s elbow.

 

 

“It is time, Nephew.” 



The harp player begins to pluck a serene melody as Zuko and his groomsmen Lu Ten, Sokka, and Aang make their way to the flower-covered archway that overlooks the lake. Lu Ten claps a hand onto Zuko’s shoulder from behind. 



“About time, man. Congrats!” 



Zuko grins and turns to nod a quick thanks to his cousin, when Sokka makes a crude joke regarding Zuko’s last 15 minutes of freedom, and  he’d be happy to get him the stripper from their bachelorette party. Aang chastises Sokka as Zuko rolls his eyes. 



“Seriously, man. It changes,” Sokka warns in a serious voice. Lu Ten chortles in agreement with Sokka.



Ignoring the raucous behavior of his best friends, Zuko turns to his Uncle Iroh, the man who had been more of a father to him than his own. 



“You have made me very proud, Nephew,” Iroh tells him. He holds a white binder with the script for the ceremony and offers a pearly white grin.



The harp continues to play its preludes, but the ladies are nowhere in sight. 



“Lu, what time is it?” Zuko asks his cousin. Consider him anxious and eager to see the love of his life stride down the petaled aisle runner towards him. Katara has remained coy regarding the design of her dress, much to Zuko's annoyance. She claimed she wanted to surprise him. 



Any second now she'll be here.



“2:53, Zu. You’re good. Still got a few.” 



Zuko’s mouth dries as his nerves best him and adrenaline courses through his veins. He feels his heartbeat quicken and his hands clam. 



“Um, not to be a bother, but do any of you happen to have any mints or gum?” he asks out the corner of his mouth. The guests page through the program and turn back towards the club, hoping to catch a glimpse of the bride. 



Aang taps Zuko’s elbow and hands him a little round of Ice Breakers. Zuko makes a face. 



“I don’t like spearmint,” he grumbles. 



“Suck it up, buttercup,” Aang chirps while Zuko reluctantly pops two in his mouth.



Maybe five minutes pass, and Zuko feels his pulse quicken. He can’t place his finger on the “why”, but something feels wrong. 



“Lu, the time?” 



Lu Ten clears his throat. 



“Um, it’s 3:07.” 



Zuko’s stomach drops; something is definitely not right. Katara is never late for anything. Her idea of being late is arriving 10 minutes early. He extends his hand towards his friends. 



“Can one of you call one of the girls?” he asks anxiously, trying to keep the worry out of his voice. 



“Zu, they’re fine. They’re just late.” Zuko narrows his eyes. 



“Katara is never late, Sokka. You know that better than anyone," he snaps. “I just want to check.” 



There’s no way she ran out on him. No way she’s left him at the altar, but since she hasn’t shown, a bit of doubt creeps into his mind. Heat flushes his cheeks as he hears the words last spoken to him by his birth father, Ozai:



No one will ever love you, you worthless boy. You’re no good for anything, no good for anyone. You may hate me, but you’ll end up alone, just like me. 



Zuko shakes his head frantically and squeezes his eyes shut, doing his best to block out the voice of Ozai. He claps his hands over his ears, temporarily forgetting he stands before about 100 guests. 



Uncle’s voice grounds him, brings him back to earth, and he relaxes.



“Zuko, inhale through your nose, exhale through your mouth. Repeat,” Uncle hush-whispers before turning to his son. “And you, get on the phone and call Miss Katara.” 



Lu Ten does as he’s told, but shakes his head.



“It went to voicemail, dad.” 



Ten more minutes pass when Zuko’s phone buzzes in his coat pocket. It’s Katara. Relief swells through him and he answers on the second ring. 



“Babe - what’s wrong, why aren’t you here?” 



“Sir, is this Zuko?” an unfamiliar female voice asks on the other end. “This number is saved in Katara’s phone as ‘ICE Zuko’, and I need to verify he is who I am speaking with.” 



Dread creeps in as Zuko affirms that he is the Zuko.

 

“Zuko, my name is Song. I’m a first responder in this area, and I’m at the scene of a limousine crash. Katara is gravely injured. The other girls present are -” 



Zuko drops the phone, in shock. His stomach turns, and he spins around thinking he’s going to be sick. 



Sokka grabs the discarded phone and listens to Song on the phone. “Fuck” is all Zuko registers, and from Sokka’s tone it isn’t good. 



“Katara,” he croaks to his uncle. He whips his head to the guests, all of whom wear shocked and confused expressions at what’s happening up near the archway. Some look back up towards the club looking for the bride. 



Instead, they see a team of police officers hurrying down the hill towards them. Their lead comes straight for Zuko. 



“Are you Zuko?” 



Zuko nods hastily. 



Flashing his badge, the officer informs him, “I’m Jet. My team was contacted by the group of first responders who were on the scene of your, um, fiance’s limousine accident. We're here to take you and your friends to the hospital to see your partners.”  



Zuko looks helplessly at his uncle, wide-eyed with fear.



“Go, Nephew. I’ll meet you there. I can handle this.” 



Zuko and the guys follow Jet and his team before piling into the backs of two Ford Escapes. Jet flips on the signal , and they speed down the winding roads towards the local hospital. Jet quickly dials his connection already at the hospital to find out where Katara, Suki, Yue, and Toph have all been taken. 



Upon arrival, Jet throws the Escape into park and kills the engine. Zuko and Lu Ten sprint like madmen to the receptionist. The receptionist makes a grim face. 



“I have to ask you gentlemen to wait out here in the waiting room. It will be just a moment,” she says emotionlessly. “Please sign yourselves in, and the doctors will be with you as soon as they are available -” 



Zuko slams his hand down onto the counter. 



“I don’t want when they’re fucking available’,” he snarls, “I want to see my wife.”



Lu Ten grabs Zuko by the shoulder and pries him off the counter. 



Zuko . Get it together. They’re going to be fine; they’re going to be alright,” Lu Ten insists. “Yelling at the receptionist is going to get us nowhere.” 



Zuko slumps against one of the pillars, crouching with his elbow resting on his knees, his hands together as if in silent prayer. 



“They have to be. She has to be,” he breathes, barely above a whisper. “It’s our wedding day, Lu. This was supposed to be the happiest day of our lives.” 



Jet walks over to where Lu Ten and Zuko are crouched against the pillar. 



“Hey, um, I was able to speak with the driver briefly. Initial report here says there was a brake failure on the limo. I spoke with Song, the paramedic who called you, and she’ll be over in a minute when she’s done finalizing her report.” Jet offers a sympathetic look that makes Zuko’s heart sink and dread fill his gut. 



He shuts his eyes and bangs his head against the pillar once, hoping that maybe this is some horrible nightmare he can wake up from. He hears Aang and Sokka scuffle in behind him, whispering in hushed tones with Lu Ten, but he ignores them. 



After what seems like an eternity, an elderly woman’s voice calls to them, and introduces herself as Dr. Yagoda, summoning each man and directing them towards their ladies. 



Lu Ten opts to stay behind with Zuko as Aang and Sokka rush off down the hall towards Toph and Suki, both of whom have major cuts and are battered up, but have no fatal injuries.

 

“Come with me, Zuko,” Dr. Yagoda says quietly. “I wish to speak with you in a more private environment.” 



A rush of panic surges through Zuko’s body. “No. No. No . Why can’t you tell me out here?” he demands to know impatiently. “You told the others!” 



Dr. Yagoda doesn’t answer directly. 



“Really, I insist.” 



Lu Ten shuffles his cousin after the doctor. For once, he does not wear a smirk or a teasing smile. He is as serious as Zuko. 



They follow Dr. Yagoda into a cool hospital room, the curtain drawn around the bed. Lu Ten claps Zuko on the back and forces him to exhale the breath Zuko did not realize he had been holding. Dr. Yagoda motions for them to sit in the chairs. Inhaling deeply and swallowing hard, she begins to explain. 



“It seems from the reports that the limousine experienced brake failure. Upon descending the T-shaped intersection of Twin Valley and Cedar Grove roads, they collided with the hillside.” She pauses, taking a break before continuing. “Unfortunately, it seems as if the ladies weren’t wearing their seatbelts. They may have been drinking. From the looks of it…Zuko, I’m so very sorry.” 



A pause. Zuko already knows what she’s about to say before the words are spoken. 



“Katara did not survive. She was dead at the scene. Whiplash from being tossed around had snapped her neck,” Dr. Yagoda says quietly. “There was nothing we could do for her.” 



“Fuck,” Lu Ten breathes. “Oh fuck.” 



Zuko blinks back the tears burning in the backs of his eyes, a strangled noise escapes his lips. His vision blurs, and he shakes his head subconsciously, disbelieving the words he just heard spoken. 



“No.” he growls hoarsely. “ No !” 



A sob wracks through his body; he trembles from head to toe. The tears flow down his cheeks now, and he collapses against his cousin for support. 



“She can’t be,” he cries. “No, you’re wrong. You’re fucking wrong . This is some horrible misunderstanding, you’ve got the wrong girl,” he manages between gasps. He hangs his head in his hands. “Fuck, not Katara.” 



“I really wish I were. I wish we were here congratulating you instead,” Dr. Yagoda looks at him sadly, heartbreak written all over her face, “for your wedding and the birth of your baby.” 



Zuko falls out of his chair. He begins to hyperventilate. Blood pounds in his ear, and the world spins awfully fast. 



“The birth of my, my - what! ?” 



Lu Ten claps a hand to his mouth “Motherf-, uh, sorry, Zu…”



Zuko ignores his cousin and falls to the floor, on all fours, his hands gripped together as if in silent prayer. His head drops to the cool tile. He bites his knuckles in his anguish and draws beads of blood. The sting is nothing compared to the raw pain he feels. 



“She can’t have been…she wasn’t…I didn’t know,” he whimpers brokenly. It is then when another sob surges through his body. He sobs, guttural moans of sorrow resounding throughout the room, uttering words of nonsense as he comprehends what has happened, what he has lost.




The doctor offers him a paper bag as Zuko's breaths become more erratic and short. Lu Ten kneels beside him and grasps his shoulder, lending his cousin whatever strength he needs. He too is heartbroken at having lost Katara.



The pain of being burned by his own father pales greatly in comparison, and Zuko finds himself wishing he could relive that pain a thousand times over if it would mean the events of the day would undo themselves, if it would mean Katara and their unborn child would live. Zuko would gladly relive all the pain he has ever endured for a thousand more lifetimes if the events of the day would only reverse themselves. 



“Would you like to see Katara one last time?” Dr. Yagoda asks him quietly, crouching to the floor near him. He eyes a paper cup filled with water in her hand, which he takes gratefully. 



Sitting up, he shakes his head and wipes his face with his shirt. 



“No. I don’t want to see her like that. I don’t want to see her…you know.” He can’t bring himself to say the word “dead” aloud. 



Zuko closes his eyes and considers the magnitude of his decision. He so desperately wants to see Katara, but he wants to see her alive. Laughing in her clear voice that always sounded like sweet music to him. He wants to see her dancing around the kitchen when she thought no one was watching, feeding the kittens they’d just gotten from the shelter. He wants to drown himself in her ocean-blue eyes one more time, hear her murmur his name - he’d even go for hearing her scold him one more time for not putting his dishes in the dishwasher. He chokes back a sob as he remembers the night he first told her he loved her, when he attended a school play she and her fellow teachers put on for their students, when he saw how caring she is for everyone in her life. The first time he made love to her and she fell apart in his arms with his name spilling from her lips, and he found he never wanted to let her go. The night he proposed to her, when he took her swimming with the dolphins; one of the instructors had attached the box with the ring to one of the dolphin’s dorsal fins. They had laid in bed that night, fingers intertwined, and whispered about their forever and all that “forever” entailed: a big house with a picket white fence, two kids, and two cats…



Reality hits Zuko like a freight train. He would never believe their forever has been cut short unless he sees it for himself. 



He takes another swig of water before announcing the change of heart. 



Wait - I do…I want to see Katara.” 



Somewhere above and behind him, Lu Ten coughs. 



“Are you sure, bro? I don’t want you to remember her like that.” 



“I have to, Lu. It’s the only way for me to accept that this is real. That she…” he trails off at the end and represses his urge to sob. He turns to Dr. Yagoda. 



“Take me to her,” he says quietly, “I want to say goodbye.” 



Dr. Yagoda pulls back the curtain slowly. Zuko bites his battered knuckles and holds his breath. He chokes back his brokenhearted sobs as he gazes upon the peaceful angel before him. Lu Ten swears behind him and drags his hands to his topknot and yanks it out of its elastic and kicks a chair as he turns in the opposite direction. 



Katara lays peacefully, as if in a deep sleep. She's as beautiful as an angel. He chokes and resists the urge to vomit upon seeing the beautiful ivory splattered with various shades of crimson. The gown is every bit as beautiful as Zuko imagined it would be: a sweetheart neckline, a lacy bodice, and a flowing skirt. Her veil lies discarded over the hospital chair. For just a moment he imagines what she might have looked like had she walked towards him down the aisle today, her hair blowing in the breeze and the sun shining down upon them…



Katara is still as a statue, unmoving, her hands folded across her navel. Her expression is oddly peaceful. 



Zuko collapses against his wife’s lifeless body, a feral scream ripping through him. His grief is made raw again as he reaches for her hand, but finds it ice cold. He nudges a hand against her pulse point, hoping to find a sign of life, but fails. 



“Open your eyes, Katara,” he begs, tears blurring in his vision. “Open your eyes for me, please. I’ll do anything you want. I promise. Katara, please , open your eyes.



“I’m so sorry for your losses,” Dr. Yagoda whispers from behind him. “If it’s any consolation at all, she wouldn’t have suffered. It would have been quick. Painless.” 



Time stops as Zuko lays sprawled over his wife. His tears soak the fabric of her gown. 



Finally he asks for a moment alone with her, and Dr. Yagoda and Lu Ten depart quietly. He overhears the doctor telling Lu Ten that Yue is injured and has a mild concussion, but should be fine. A flare of jealousy courses through his veins, but is soon extinguished. He's relieved Yue is okay and makes a mental note to check on the Toph and Suki.



Sighing deeply, he pulls up a chair and takes her hand in his, one last time. He presses her cool hand to his warm lips. 



Katara ,” he croaks, heartbroken. “Katara, if you can still hear me, wherever you are -” he stops, taking a deep breath, “I want you to know that it was the greatest privilege of my life. Loving you. Being yours. The last five years with you were the best. You made every day worth living for. I am so helplessly in love with you, Tara. And I’m so angry we were robbed of our forever. God - I don’t know how I’m going to go on living a life without you in it.” His voice quivers and he sniffles back his sorrow; he pounds his knee with his fist in his rage, taking a moment to himself. His chest heaves as he cries, cupping her limp hand to his scarred cheek in the way that she used to when she comforted him. 



“I was so proud today to stand up there, to marry you. I wanted that so badly. Love, I’d give anything to trade places with you right now because your life is worth so much more than mine. I know you always hated when I talked like that, but it’s true. You lit up a room just by walking into it, you had your students, your family, and friends… You saved me in every way a man could ever be saved, and I wish so badly that I could have saved you.” He pauses again and lets his tears soak the fabric of her crimson-stained gown. 



“I would do anything to see you one more time. I don’t want to say goodbye. This is not how our vows were supposed to be. “



He gently lowers her hand and takes out the crinkled up piece of paper from his breast pocket. Teardrops spill onto the college-ruled notebook paper, smearing the blue ink. Maybe an hour passes by; he isn’t sure how much time passes before he’s ready to do this. With as calm and clear a voice he can manage, he recites: 



“I, Zuko, take thee Katara to be my lawfully wedded wife. In sickness and in health, for rich or for poorer for as long as I shall live.” 



He takes the band from his pocket and slides it on next to her engagement ring before taking his band and sliding it down his ring finger. With that he stands up and presses one last soft kiss to her cool lips before he leaves. 



“I love you, Katara. Always.” 



~~~***~~~



In the days that follow Zuko returns the wedding gifts they received, but becomes increasingly frustrated as guests who would have attended their wedding send back sympathy cards with little handwritten notes to keep the gifts. He becomes furious when people tell him "they know what he's going through". Somebody sends him a business card to a shrink they know, and Zuko tosses both the business and sympathy cards into the roaring fireplace without a second glance. 



No one mentions the unborn child, and Zuko can’t decide whether he is grateful or not. 



The night of the funeral he cracks open a bottle of his long-sought after and rare  single-malt scotch by Gordon and MacPhail that Katara gifted him as a wedding present. He thought it ridiculous to spend so much money on liquor, but she insisted it’s something he always wanted. He’s getting married, they could share it together upon their return from their honeymoon, she reasoned. 



He pours himself a glass, swirling it around before taking a generous sip. He relishes in the burn as it passes down his throat and into his stomach. He turns on their wedding song, “Unchained Melody," by the Righteous Brothers. He dims the lights in the kitchen and sways by himself to the music.  This one, small act makes him feel as if he's close to her again. Their kittens meow in the background, as if in approval, and he scoops one up in his arms and twirls it around the kitchen instead of his wife. . 



He imagines what it would have been like, dancing to this song with Katara in his arms at their wedding, how he would have dipped her and pressed a kiss at the base of her throat. She would have giggled before weaving her hand in his hari and dragging his lips up to hers, joining them once again. 



The song ends, and Zuko reluctantly turns the lights off before heading to the bedroom. He carefully pulls back his side of the covers and crawls in. He embraces the enormous body-length pillow Lu Ten gave him, but the pillow does not reciprocate hugs, nor does it smell like Katara. 



He rolls over to his side, baying at the moon, and wondering if Katara is somehow lending her beauty to the celestial body. He is half asleep when he hears her voice faintly, like a whisper in the night.



“Zuko. Oh Zuko , my love. I miss you so desperately, but I am okay. We are okay. I will never let you fall, Zuko, I'll stand up with you forever. It would have been the greatest honor of my life, being your wife, having a baby girl with you. I love you.” 



Zuko swears he feels a slight pressure against his lips, like a goodbye kiss. 



“Until the next lifetime…” 



~~~***~~~

 

Forty-seven years later



The faint beeping of the monitor is the only sound that grounds Zuko to earth. He’s lived a long life; not a full life, but one in which he can be proud of, given the hand that Fate has dealt him. He had a successful career in marketing and sales and bought Katara's dream house when it became available. Many women tried to date him, but he was never interested. It's not that he intentionally became celibate, but he always felt like he was being unfaithful to her. Their two cats died many years ago, and Zuko replaced them with two more. He never removed their engagement photo from above the fireplace, wore her wedding band and engagement ring on a chain around his neck that he never removed. He kept her mother's necklace in a jewelry box in his nightstand. Every year, on what would have been their anniversary, he would go swimming with the dolphins and stay up late, watching the moon rise over the ocean at night. He lit incense for her before bed and prayed to any God who would listen, praying that her soul was at peace even if his never would be.



He faintly hears the sounds of Lu Ten’s and Yue’s grandchildren, hears his nieces and nephews running around the hospital room. They ask if Uncle Zuko is dying. Yue hushes them and tells them yes



Zuko is at peace with dying. He finds he doesn’t mind it. He’ll get to see Uncle again, and that makes him happy. 



But he can’t wait to see Katara. 



Zuko dozes off, and suddenly he finds himself in Cabo on a white sand beach near a rocky alcove. He spots a table with two mango margaritas on it under a brightly colored beach umbrella. He cocks a brow and looks around skeptically, seeing nothing but the turquoise waves of the sea crash against the sand for miles at end. He catches the scent of water lilies lingering in the air as the breeze passes. It smells like her



“I’ve been waiting for you a long time,” she calls from behind. He feels her before he sees her. Soft arms wrap around his waist, pulling him close. Her full lips press a kiss between his shoulder blades. 



“I’ve missed you so much, Zuko.” He spins around. 



She is as beautiful as he remembers: her chocolate tresses are wavy and flowing, her dusky skin glows in the sun, and her eyes sparkle like stars in the night sky. His heart pounds furiously as he admires her with his own eyes, like he's seeing her for the first time.



Katara .” 



He sweeps her off her feet bridal-style the way he always intended as she marries her lips to his. Tears of joy burn in his eyes; he's missed her for so long , and he finally can be with the one he's loved his whole life.



“I love you, Zuko,” she whispers, “Spirits, have I loved you. Forty-seven years would never change that.” She kisses him again. He grumbles his declarations of love against her lips as he holds her close, hardly daring to believe this is real.



“If you put me down, there is someone I want you to meet” she murmurs quietly before glancing behind her at the alcove. 



“Izumi, love, come here.” 



Zuko falls to his knees as a little girl stumbles towards him, arms wide open. Her caramel skin glows in the sunlight like her mothers, but her eyes burn like the sun in the sky - just like his. His heart skips a beat, and tears burn in the backs of his eyes as he takes in his daughter for the first time.



“Da-da!” she squeals as she leaps into his arms. “I missed you, Da-da. Mama and I kept you safe. She said we were your angels.” Zuko’s heart soars with joy and fulfillment he had never experienced before as he is finally reunited with his family. Tears of joy stream down his cheeks as his daughter cups his scarred cheek like her mom used to. 



It is in this moment where his tethers to the earthly world are severed, and the monitor flat lines back in the cold, hospital room.



He is reunited with his family at last. 



Zuko is finally at rest with his Katara.