Disclaimer: Avatar: the Last Airbender, its characters, environs, and other pertinent aspects of the show belong to Nickelodeon and their creators. Credit for the story itself is mine.
Katara went numb at the sight of the prince on the ground. He wasn't supposed to be this badly hurt! Azula hadn't held back at all! Zuko was curled on his side, the tatters of his Earth Kingdom tunic covered in blood; a cool, detached part of her mind was astonished that he wasn't crispy and smoking. "No, no, no, no, no!" she chanted while running toward the body.
"Don't be dead," she hissed, dropping to her knees beside him.
To her relief, Zuko was breathing, but the breath was coming in quick gasps, and it was whistling in the creepiest way. Katara wasn't sure how she'd made it across the field at all, much less how she'd done so without being attacked. Where were Azula's goons, her two shadows? Katara decided to trust that Aang had caught up with Azula, that crazy horror of a girl, and that the gymnast and the knife-thrower were with her. That small, distant part of her mind also noted that the sounds of wind and shattering stone, shouts, and screams were coming from quite a distance away. With the direct efficiency of practice and mastery of her element, Katara tore moisture from the air, the ground beneath her, and the grass that hadn't been crisped by the recent battle. Frantically, she spat on her hand twice, and finally, there was enough to create a healing glove.
"Don't you die on me," Katara rasped. "Don't you die. If you die, I will kick your ass, do you hear me?" He didn't respond, and she didn't expect him to. With one hand, she jerked what was left of his tunic off his torso; his body rocked with the movement, and another thick gout of blood spurted from his left side onto the ground.
The glowing hand came up against the wound with an audible slap. "Sorry," she growled out of habit. It took everything she had to concentrate on pulling dirt, char, and fabric from the hole in his chest while preventing even more blood loss. Doing two things at once, doing emergency healing was way more difficult than she'd ever expected it to be. Well, I'm certainly getting practice today, she thought grimly. Katara had spent so much time in the North learning battle bending that she'd not learned more than the basics of healing. She could clean. She could minimize burns and stitch together small cuts. This… savagery that Azula had visited on her brother was beyond Katara's knowledge, and if she didn't figure it out, this boy was going to die. She pressed both hands over the wound; blood still oozed from between her fingers, further distracting her from sealing the torn flesh together.
Dimly, Katara prayed that Aang and Sokka and Toph were okay. For the second time in anyone's memory, benders of all four elements had stood against Azula and brought their bending to bear on her. This time, they'd done more damage, but she had escaped again, leaving none of them unscathed. She had lashed out once with her blue fire to scatter them, and then she'd struck at what she saw as the weakest link in their attack – her brother, who surely wouldn't want her actually dead. Unfortunately, the extent of his wounds would likely kill him. With a shouted instruction for Katara to begin healing Zuko, Aang had sprung into the air on his glider in pursuit of the injured Azula. Sokka had pounded after him, with Toph clinging to his back, leaving Katara to put out the flames and save a life.
"Zuko, don't you die," Katara said again over her shoulder. "Don't you dare." She could feel the three broken ribs scraping against one another on this side. She blanched. Broken bones were so far beyond her skills that she may as well try to firebend. Quickly, she knitted the soft tissue together, and all she could do was hope that the rupture in the lungs would heal along with the muscles nearby. The upside was that Zuko had finally stopped bleeding. The wound was clean, and it was starting to close. His breathing still whistled a bit, but it was slowing down. "I swear that I'll kick your royal butt all over the continent if you die. I will dig you up from wherever you're buried, and I will desecrate your body in the worst possible ways if you die. I will dig you up and I will let Sokka do whatever he likes to your body, and he hates you. Don't you dare die! I swear -" She choked, blinking away sudden tears.
Without thinking, the waterbender in her instinctively drew the tears into the healing glove, which had been steadily losing water as she worked. The chest wound was now closed, and since there was nothing she could do for the ribs, she moved on to the terrible burns that covered so much of Zuko's body.
"I don't even like you, and I'm saving your life. You'd better live! Don't be ungrateful, you spoiled jerk!" Another couple of tears joined the healing glove. In a moment, Katara had covered the entire left side of Zuko's torso in a too-thin layer of glowing water, and the deep burns there began glowing with an incandescent whiteness. Very slightly, the prince's face twisted, and a whistling breath became a faint whimper. "Yes, yes, I know it hurts," Katara cooed, her tone switching from shrill to motherly. "It's going to hurt. It's a good sign. You'll live if it hurts."
Sitting back on her heels for a moment, Katara took a moment to refocus her exhausted wits. The diminishing supply of healing water wisped sluggishly around her fingers; she shifted it toward the center of his chest, where an oozing wound edged with crisped skin still smoked just below his collarbone. Sympathetically, she winced as the cool water washed over an injury that resembled half-cooked cowpig. Katara knew that this one should hurt badly, but Zuko's face showed little reaction. Tentatively, she touched the edge of the hole. Nothing. Not even a wrinkled brow.
Katara tried not to panic.
"Dammit, Zuko, come back!" she screamed, thumping him on the least wounded part of his chest. A wheeze of breath escaped him, but she raised no other reaction.
"Dammit, dammit, dammit," she cursed. Her fingers were digging white half-circles next to the rough circle of char on Zuko's chest, where she was trying to direct the last bits of her healing water. "Please don't be dead. Don't die, please don't die," she began to beg. More tears kept the water glove supplied for a few more moments. "Don't be dead. I'll do almost anything, come on!"
All dignity cast aside, Katara straddled the prince and braced her hands against his chest; her fingers slipped marginally in the blood, and she fought back nausea. With every bit of the strength and determination that had caused even Master Pakku regard her with respect, Katara forced the water to enter the burnt edges of the wound. The thinnest edges flaked off, and the blackened flesh took on a more natural reddish tinge. That used up all but a drop of the water, and Katara wept again in her fear and frustration. Those precious drops stopped the blood from oozing. "Come on, dammit, Zuko!" she shouted. "Don't you want to get Azula back for this? For what she did to Iroh? Don't you want to live long enough to tear her apart?"
Katara raised her hands and tried to pull more moisture from the already bone-dry air, looking up for the first time in minutes. All around her in a perfect circle, the ground was covered with desiccated or charred grass. The two or three of the trees nearest her had limbs that were drooped and wilting; their neighbors had gone prematurely brown and were shedding leaves like Appa shed spring fur. There was no water left for her to pull, and the prince beneath her was still only barely clinging to life.
"Look! I've killed the trees for you," Katara murmured, reaching under the collar of her robes and fishing out a leather thong. A decorative blue glass pendant came into view; the water from the North's sacred spring sloshed inside. "I was saving this for Aang or Sokka – to save the world or to save my brother. And now I have to use it on you." She pressed her lips together, vaguely shocked at the venom in her voice. Another tear emerged, and she immediately put it to use. "If they die because I used this on you, then I'll - I may murder you anyway." Coldness washed over her, and she realized that she didn't mean it. Katara wept a little at her stupid, girlish gentleness; ignoring the grittiness developing under her eyelids, she grimly used those tears to enact a little more healing.
The stopper of the pendant came free with a soft pop, and Katara was too exhausted to bend the water from inside. She just upturned the whole of it onto Zuko's last major injury, set it glowing, and used it up.
There was nothing left. The wound was still open, but it was now shallow and only as wide across as her hand. She couldn't even hear the whistling of his breath anymore. Katara wearily rolled to her knees beside the fallen prince. The crust of dried blood and brown grass crunched beneath her. "Now live," she whispered. "I won't give you Aang. I won't give you Sokka. I will give almost anything else." Helplessly, her body folded up, and she rested her forehead on the prince's shoulder.
Zuko shifted a bit in response, but Katara didn't have the strength to raise her head. All she could do was bargain with him for his life in the voice of a dead woman. "I'll buy you wallaby puppies. I'll take you penguin sledding. We'll go riding down the mail chutes in Omashu." There was another weak movement in the body under her forehead. "I will drown Azula. I will dry up the Fire Lord till he catches himself on fire. When I get more water, I'll learn how to reattach Iroh's arm." She coughed. Even more weakly, she said, "I will offer you my firstborn. I will bear your firstborn. Anything – just don't be dead."
"I'm not dead."
It took a moment for Katara to make herself breathe again, and when she did, it was in great, dry, sobbing gulps.
Zuko groaned, and the arm attached to the shoulder Katara was resting her head on reached over to gingerly touch the left side of his torso. "I'm starting to wish maybe I were…"
The prince's movement and Katara's own weakness finally toppled her onto her side, from which vantage point she glared. She opened her mouth to inform him that if that was how he felt about it, he could have gone ahead and died and saved her the trouble. But the look of frightened wonder Zuko was giving her stopped her words in her throat.
The expression was fleeting, and Zuko shut his eyes and turned his face back to the sky, continuing, "But you gave me so many good reasons to keep living." He panted around the pain of the broken ribs. "It would just be rude not to … oblige."
Katara couldn't decide whether to laugh or protest that she mightn't be able to do everything she'd promised, though she'd certainly try most of them… She settled, instead, on remaining curled on her side in the dust, blinking past the scratchiness of her eyes.
Zuko's throat and jaw worked soundlessly for a moment. And then, with the quietness and sincerity of a truly indebted proud man, he said, "Thank you for my life." His head turned toward her again, and a bit of his black finger-length hair fell messily over the scarred side of his face. "It's yours. Once Azula is brought down, and this war's done, you may do whatever you like with it."
Blushing a bit, she answered weakly, "What would I do with your life? If you want to pay me back, you can get me enough water to drink and finish your healing. After that, as long as you leave my brothers and sister alone, you can do what you want."
"Brothers?" Zuko bit his lips in an effort not to make a noise while he pushed himself into a sitting position. The effort set him panting again. "I thought the idio- the… water tribe boy was your brother." He tried not to look too shamefaced at insulting the family of his rescuer.
Snuffling faintly in with laughter and then sneezing from the dust it kicked up, Katara admitted, "He can be idiotic. He is my brother. We … we adopted Toph and Aang. We all agreed."
Zuko grunted and nodded. After a few failed, jerking attempts, he rocked himself onto his hands and knees. This left him panting again, and Katara realized that now would be a bad time to speak. The boy was prideful, and acknowledging his weakness to him would have been cruel. It took a while, but he finally managed to get on his feet. He then staggered away. Was he just leaving her? For water? For dead? Would he return? Who knew? Katara decided that she was too tired to care and eventually fell into a light, fatigued sleep.
The noise of his approach woke her some time later. She lifted her head an inch and stared out of slit-open eyes in his direction. In his right hand, he carried a lidless water skin and the soaked and dripping tatters of his tunic. Even the proximity of her element revived her a bit.
"Oh," she whispered in tones of wonder and reached out for the skin.
Zuko kneeled and, with a pained grimace, shifted the water to his left hand. Ignoring Katara's disappointed whimper, he wrestled her into a reclining position against his raised right knee. Only then did he reach behind her with his good arm and switch the skin once more to the right hand. "Support the bottom of it," he rasped in her ear. "My left hand can't bear the weight." He held the neck of the skin against her mouth. Katara gulped greedily at the liquid, and she kept drinking till her vision wavered. Zuko jerked the skin away, and she choked. "Not so fast. If you're going to die, it's not going to be because you drowned yourself."
Wheezing laughter squeezed out between each cough. Katara curled into something more closely resembling a sitting position. "You do have a sense of humor," she remarked, sounding more like herself than she had in a while. "That's a good reason for you to live. Gimme that," she said, taking the water skin from Zuko. He sat down, trying proudly not to curve his body around the broken ribs. More moderately, Katara drank till the skin was empty.
Wriggling the floppy skin in Zuko's direction, she observed, "I probably should have saved some, shouldn't I?"
"Will this be enough?" he asked, lifting the sopping wet remains of his tunic from the ground beside him. He eyeballed the dust that was becoming mud on the fabric and worried, "It's filthy…"
"No, no, that's all right," Katara assured him. "Forget the mud." A curving back-and-forth movement of her wrist later, and clear water snaked out of the tunic and around her hand. "Hold still. It will hurt –"
"But it's a good sign," he chimed in with her, echoing her earlier assurances. A wry smile just barely curved his mouth. "I'll live if it hurts."
"Or hurt if you live," Katara amended with an uncomfortable expression.
It did hurt. Zuko had been mostly unconscious, or at least insensate since Azula had put him on the ground that last time. His brain had registered only certain parts of the last hour, but it had mercifully forgotten to register much of his pain. With Katara pressing one bracing palm between his shoulder blades and burning her eerie, glowing, healing touch across his chest, it was all Zuko could do to remain silent. He couldn't keep from sucking shuddering breaths through his nose and shutting his eyes, but he refused to speak. Watching his flesh pull itself together again and quickly regrow skin was out of the question; feeling it was enough.
Suddenly, the pain lessened, and Katara released him. She flopped backward off her heels onto the ground again, but when he opened his eyes, he saw she was propping herself upright on her palms.
"That's all I can do," she said, somewhat out of breath. She cast her eyes away and bit her bottom lip. "I can't do anything else. I know how to fight and perform first aid. I can't fix bones."
Zuko's eyes widened, and then he shook his head. "You did plenty. I've had broken ribs before." He lifted his right hand to his collarbone and ran a finger over the smooth new skin; it tingled, a little tender in its newness. The dusting of hair that had been there hadn't grown back with the skin, leaving a bald patch the size of his two hands. "You saved my life. Doing more would be asking too much."
"I should know more," Katara insisted heatedly, glaring. Shamefaced at her outburst, she looked down again and continued, "I was embarrassed at the North Pole when Master Pakku told me to go to the women's hut and learn healing with the little girls." She bit her lip. "I wish I hadn't been so proud. I could do more if I hadn't been so eager to learn how to kill."
"Enough," Zuko snapped. He staggered to his feet. "Don't talk to me about pride and regrets." He overrode Katara's offended gasp with, "I trump you, believe me. If you hadn't known what you do, then the Avatar, your brother, and I wouldn't even have gotten this far in the battle." He stepped closer to her, and Katara had to crane her neck painfully to look him in the eye. One long arm reached toward her. "Remedy whatever mistakes you can when you've finished your duty here."
Katara paused, her eyes following the hand and arm back up to their owner's face, and Zuko finally found the first tinge of understanding in her blue eyes. The waterbender reached up and let the firebender lift her to her feet. As one, they turned in the direction of the sounds of war. Booming bursts of air and stone still sounded. Red and blue light flickered, and the occasional stab of lightning in the clear sky caused a roar of thunder. Katara and Zuko fell into step, Zuko saying, "We can fill that water skin and pick up a few from the fallen on our way across the river. The battle looks like it's just on the other side, past the trees."
"Did you know that the Fire Nation doesn't bury its dead?"
Katara turned to Zuko.
"You couldn't dig me up and desecrate my corpse like you promised. We burn the dead on enormous funeral pyres." After a pause, he continued, "But if we can get the Avatar to come back this way, you can keep your promise of drowning Azula."
She wished she could be astonished, but she could feel her lips curve in the same grim smile that was growing on Zuko's face.
"Then, we can talk about those other promises you made."
Goodness, he was cheeky for someone who'd defied death and was marching off to meet it head-on again! He owed her! She'd have to remind him of that. Later.
Katara ignored her blush and tossed her head. With a sniff, she retorted, "If we both survive this, then I'll consider opening discussions on the matter."
"We'll survive." His tone was one of unquestioning certainty.
"Yes." Still ignoring the blush, she smiled. "Yes, I think we will."