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Since When?

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The air around her is filled with a deadly crackle of electricity as she stands, frozen, staring at the streak of pale blue lightning that spells her end. It’s only a few seconds, she knows. She’s seen how fast Azula’s lightning strikes. She knows this is the end of her, and suddenly time is almost at a standstill. Everything she’s ever done, ever wanted to do, flashes before her, and she’s filled with such an overwhelming sense of despair and loss and regret that she will never get to experience all those things.


And then the lightning is interrupted by a dark shadow throwing itself in its path, and someone is shouting - someone whose voice is raspy and desperate and familiar - and all she can do is stare, horrified, as the lightning meant for her strikes his chest instead, tossing him to the ground like he’s nothing more than a discarded old doll.


His name tears from her throat without a conscious thought, and it tastes raw on her tongue. Tears sting at her eyes as the smell of smoke and burned clothes and charred flesh reaches her, and finally her legs move, carrying her towards the body of the boy who she had hated, who had betrayed her. Who had earned her trust and somehow, without even trying, had laid claim to her heart. And who she had never dared to tell.


She’s cut off by a blast of blue fire, and Azula’s wicked cackle echoes in her ears as reality returns with a painful, horrible clarity.


Her heart is thundering so fast in her chest that she can hardly catch her breath as she rolls to the side to avoid another burst of blue flames. Every nerve, every instinct in her body is screaming at her to just get to Zuko, to fix the brokenness of his body that she’s somehow so sure of, even from a distance.


Azula is taunting her now, her words and movements entirely unhinged, a rabid animal ready to strike, and Katara knows there’s no way she will be able to get to Zuko without dealing with his sister first. But every time she thinks she has her, Azula moves faster, or blasts the water away with a mad laugh, and Katara almost cries from the frustration and fear and unfairness of it all.


A quick glance towards Zuko’s motionless body - his arm outstretched towards her, his cheek pressed against the cobblestones, dark hair concealing the scar across his face - earns her a singed tunic and the sting of fire that got too close for comfort. With a grunt of pain, she manages to duck behind a pillar and, finally, she sees her chance: an underground water source, a grate, and chains.


If Azula were not insane, if her mental capacity was even just a little sharper than it currently was, Katara doubts her plan would work. But as it is, the deranged princess falls right into her trap, determined for a close, personal kill and instead finding herself frozen in a block of ice.


It takes all the self control Katara has left to exhale slowly, to melt the ice around her so she can wrap the chains around Azula’s hands and ankles and secure them to the grate beneath their feet. And the moment she releases the water, she’s running, away from the spluttering, screaming Azula, and towards the silent, motionless Zuko.


She knows, now. Knows why he jumped in front of his sister’s lightning for her. Knows why he chose her, why his golden eyes always lit up at the sight of her, why his smile was always reserved just for her.


Her hands are shaking as she turns him over. His skin is still warm, but clammy. Hot. Unhealthy. His eyes are closed, mouth slightly open - a dribble of blood runs from the corner - and tears sting at her eyes as she gathers water to her hands and places them on the scorched center of his chest. Fear clamps down heavy on her heart. She can’t breathe.


He can’t be dead. 


And then he coughs, a deep, spluttering cough that shakes his entire, broken body. Red drops blood mixed with saliva spray from his chapped lips, staining the stones by his head and landing as flecks on his pale skin. His golden eyes are unfocused for a moment until they settle on her face, and then they steady, warm and golden and achingly familiar.


A sob escapes Katara’s lips as the tears finally fall down her cheeks. The water pooled on his chest is still glowing a bright blue, but something just feels… off.


It must be her fear.


“Since when?” she chokes out, knowing he’ll know what she’s asking. Knowing there’s no point in keeping secrets anymore.


He coughs again, more blood bubbling up inside his mouth, and Katara redoubles her efforts to heal the injury beneath her fingers. She can feel the rapid, arrhythmic beating of his heart, the shallow, gasping breaths as his chest shudders up and down.


She tries to bite back the panic and doubt, the worry that he’s not going to pull through this time.


His eyes are locked on hers and he raises a feeble, shaking hand to her cheek. His movements are clumsy, as though he is fighting against his own body just to touch her, but the gentle sensation of his skin against hers elicits another sob from her throat.


He coughs again, swallows thickly, and takes a rough, shuddering breath. “Ba Sing Se.”


Then his hand slides from her cheek and falls to the ground with a horrible, heavy thud as the blood in his mouth trickles from his lips. Katara’s heart, already racing, speeds up even more, beating impossibly fast in her chest as she watches the gleam of warmth and intelligence fade from his familiar, gorgeous eyes.


“Zuko?” Her voice is almost a scream as she presses her hands harder against his chest, pouring everything she can into fixing him, healing him, bringing him back from the darkness clouding his face.


But his head lolls to the side after a final, shaky gasp, and there’s no denying the fading of the already weak, unsteady heartbeat beneath her fingers.


And then it’s gone.


“Zuko?!” Katara screams properly this time, moving her hands from his chest to his face, letting the no longer glowing water splash to the cobblestones beneath them.


“Please,” she sobs, cradling Zuko’s head, brushing the hair from his forehead as her tears fall freely from her eyes, landing on his pale skin, on the scar that marks him as a survivor, as the honorable man she loves. “Come back, Zuko. Come back.”


Her voice breaks, and she’s rocking back and forth above him, clutching him to her chest, her arms wrapped around his limp body. Sobs wrack her own body as she leans down and presses her lips to his forehead, praying to anyone and everyone to bring him back to her.


But he remains still, his chest unmoving, his body heavy and lifeless, his eyes glazed and empty of everything that had made him Zuko. And Katara knows that even the spirits can’t bring someone back from the dead.


“Me too, Zuko,” she finally manages, still stroking his hair and listening to the screams of his sister nearby.


And somehow this is worse than watching the lightning streak towards her. This is worse than regretting all the things she’d never done. Because now she knows there was never a reason not to tell him how she felt, and now it’s too late.


She was too late, and now there will never be time.


She was too late, and now her heart is torn in two, and she wishes the lightning had hit her as intended, because she’s certain it would hurt less than this.