Disclaimer: i don't own Avatar because i'm not mike, bryan, or nick. i also don't own the phrase "here at the end of all things", which belongs instead to the people who own Lord of the Rings: Return of the King and all its script-ness.
A/N: this is purely hypothetical, of course, and i cringe to imagine the amount of times that this little scene has been written. nevertheless, i was bitten by a ravenous plot bunny that would not loosen its death-grip on my neck until i typed this out, so...yeah. i was a bit surprised by how utterly morbid and depressing i got, but don't let that stop you from reading or stunt your enthusiasm! no! you should read, enjoy, and review!!!! because reviews help satiate ravenous plot bunnies. and we're assuming that Zuko joined up with the gang sometime and became friendly, mostly because i personally am quite fond of redemption!Zuko.
A/N the second: if you've read "Sixteen Years", this could be seen as a prequel of sorts, detailing the events that are alluded to in that story. and you should go read it anyway. :D it provides a much happier ending.
Here at the End of All Things
She had killed her.
She had killed her.
The sentence echoed in Katara's head but found nothing to latch onto; the young Waterbender simply stood there, frozen in place, her mouth slightly agape and her eyes widened in a newfound expression of pure horror. The voice screamed in her shocked mind, urging her to tear her gaze away from the Fire Princess's tortured form, and she finally managed to obey, taking a few haltering steps backward.
She had killed her.
She, Katara, had killed her, Azula.
And she hadn't even meant to.
It had just all happened so fast. They had been in the heat of battle, blows flying, water surging and fire scorching, and then…then Katara had recognized the telltale motions that called lightning at the last possible instant. It had been a gut reaction, an instinctual move for her own survival: Waterbending. She had jerked her hands to the side in a sharp, deft motion, not even aware of her focus, and that was when she had heard Azula's last, strangled scream. Only when Katara opened her eyes and stared at the carnage she had just created did she realize that she had bent all the vital fluids from her foe's body and into thin air.
She passed a half-charred hand across her eyes, futilely trying to rid herself of the blinding perspiration—or were those tears? No, it was both—why was it so hot here? Her mind slowly began shutting down, unable to deal with the reality of death that persisted in setting in.
Don't look again, don't look again, she chanted to herself, her hands shaking uncontrollably. Her entire body was one mass of pain; the duel with Azula hadn't ended quickly enough. Countless burns cut across her skin and seared her clothes, and the acrid smell of singed hair and scorched flesh filled her nostrils along with the battle-scents of blood and death; it was enough to make anyone's head reel, and she dropped to her hands and knees, her vision blurring. She felt a need to vomit, to empty her stomach entirely, but even though she retched and the acid corroded her throat, nothing actually happened. She put a hand to her forehead for support, and when she drew it back, unable to muster even that much strength, she saw that her palm was streaked with blood.
She grimaced; she knew it wasn't just hers. Oh, spirits. This was too much for any fifteen-year-old girl to witness, to experience, to inflict.
The Waterbender raised her head, glancing around the Fire Lord's throne room, the arena for this final, awful showdown. Who had said her name? It sounded like…through the salty, stinging screen of her tears, she distinguished Toph's crumpled form about a dozen feet away, sprawled between the unmoving bodies of Mai and Ty Lee.
"Toph…" she muttered, and she forced her quivering body to cooperate, pushing herself to her feet. An explosion rocked the throne room, but she didn't have the capacity to pay attention to anything but the fallen Earthbender. She staggered to her friend's side, taking in the scene with one sweeping glance. Mai and Ty Lee were both clearly unconscious, although they seemed alive, despite the fact that the bent portions of the room's stone floor appeared to have inflicted serious damage on Azula's cronies.
Azula…She had killed her…
Katara shook her head, denying her own thoughts, and slowly knelt at Toph's side, ignoring the faintness that was rapidly overtaking her body, and examined the other. The petite girl's face was ashen beneath the layer of grime and sweat, the paleness only visible where the tears had washed the dirt away. Her already-foggy eyes looked hazier than usual, and her breathing was low and ragged, each inhale and each exhale seeming to require conscious effort.
"Katara…my leg…Ty Lee did…something…it hurts…make it stop…" Toph begged, half-coherent through the excrutiating pain.
She scrutinized Toph's right leg, which was twisted and bent at entirely wrong angles; there were multiple broken bones. Popping the cork from her waterskin, Katara began to bend the water out, but then an image flashed before her mind's eye: Azula's destroyed body, collapsed in a pool of her own blood. Gasping, she lost control of the water, and it splashed uselessly on the shattered limb.
"Please…make it stop…please!" Toph cried out, her hands gripping her leg as a spasm ripped through it.
Get a grip! something still alert within Katara's head yelled at her, and her trembling fingers managed to summon the fallen water into a workable stream. There was no way she could possibly heal Toph in her present state, and so she did the most merciful thing she could think of: she applied the water to her friend's forehead and eased her unconscious, freeing her momentarily of the pain.
"I'm sorry," she managed, pushing herself unsteadily to her feet. Her disconnected thoughts began to form patterns once more and wandered to Aang—where was the Avatar, and how was the battle with the Fire Lord faring? She attempted to walk but her legs buckled beneath her, and she dully prepared herself to strike the floor when a pair of strong arms caught her up.
"Katara! Are you alright?"
She knew that voice—Zuko's. His scarred face swam in and out of her vision, and she couldn't properly read his expression. Concerned, perhaps? Or maybe he was angry; oh, spirits, he knew about Azula! She had killed his sister!
"'M sorry," she mumbled, struggling to clear her head. She needed to find Aang, and quickly…
"Sorry for what?" Zuko echoed, obviously confused. He brushed the question and the apology aside, however, repeating his own. "Are you alright? You're crying."
It was only then that she realized that the tears had been leaking freely from her eyes the entire time, and she raised a hand to her cheeks and scrubbed them away. There were more pressing matters, and she needed to focus on them. "Where's Aang?" she asked, her voice hoarse and raw.
Zuko looked away, and she followed the line of his gaze. In the place where Ozai's throne had been, now nothing more than a smoldering crater, were two still figures, and one of them was clearly the Avatar. She let out a half-choked cry, wresting herself from the Firebender's grip and stumbling towards her motionless friend. She dimly recalled an explosion—had that been what caused this? Her knees gave way, and she fell heavily, the impact with the stone floor jarring her from knees to skull. Unable to gain her feet again, she crawled to his side, where the smell of smoke and charred flesh was overpowering.
If she had thought her own injuries were bad, they were nothing compared to the Avatar's. His duel with Ozai had taken its fatal toll; he was literally covered in scorch marks, and the mortal blow had been dealt to his abdomen—the fires had burrowed into his flesh, incinerating part of his stomach and burning the rest beyond recognition as someone's torso. Katara retched, although she could again not vomit anything, and quickly snatched a nearby fallen Fire Nation banner, covering him up. She did not want to remember him like this. His body convulsed, shaking, and his fingers twitched at his sides; his face was drawn into an expression of total agony, tears leaking from his once-spirited, now-dulling eyes and blood leaking from the corner of his mouth.
"Oh…Aang…" she breathed in horror, trailing her unharmed hand down the side of his face.
His eyes sought hers as he registered the comforting, familiar gesture, and a tiny bit of the spark returned. The barest hint of his old ear-to-ear smile appeared as well, curling the corners of his cracked lips up ever so slightly. "Ka…Ka…Katara…" he whispered, and visible calm crossed his tensed features. "Y-you're here…you're…okay…"
"Of course I'm here," she replied quickly, the tears welling in her eyes anew and finding their old trails down her face. "Why wouldn't I be? I'm here and everything's going to be fine." She tightly grasped his hand in hers, her other hand still gently caressing his cheek.
His expression became frightened amidst all the pain, and his fingernails dug into her burnt hand, but she paid it no heed. "D-don't…leave me…"
"Never," she assured him, smiling the smallest of smiles. "I'll always be with you."
He seemed marginally more relaxed at that. "A-always?"
She fought against the sudden faintness that swelled against her, pausing to regain her composure before she leaned close, kissing him lightly on the forehead. "Always," she promised.
His eyes shone brightly with fear and pain, his grip tightening on her hand until she lost all circulation. "I don't…want to go…" he whimpered, tears slipping down his temples.
Katara squeezed her eyelids shut, not wanting to hear that from him, not wanting him to refer at all to the inevitable. "Shh," she soothed, her thumb brushing his teardrops away. "I'm here. I've got you. Shh."
He closed his eyes, seeming content with that reassurance, and if it hadn't been for his vise-like grip on her hand, she would've thought he had gone. But then he looked back up at her, even though his lids only managed to rise halfway. "Y-you're always…beautiful…" he whispered, his gaze locking on hers. "I love you."
She choked on a sob, her shoulders quaking, and she was amazed that more tears could possibly escape. The small smile wasn't about to be stopped from quirking her lips, though, and she bent closer so that he could hear as she replied, "I love you, too, Aang."
He mirrored her smile, but then pain flashed across his features, and his whole body stiffened before suddenly and frighteningly relaxing.
"Aang?" she whispered urgently, terrified that he had died.
His eyebrows contracted, a confused frown replacing the smile. "I…can't feel…below my…n-neck…"
"You can't feel my hand?" she asked, all too aware of what this meant. What little time the Avatar had left was waning fast, and all she could do was sit here and watch helplessly. A wave of nausea from her injuries rode through her system, and she forcibly suppressed it; she could be sick later. Now she had to focus on Aang before she lost the chance.
"N-no…" Terror streaked across his face. "I-I'm scared…Katara, don't…don't let me go…"
"I'm still holding on, Aang, I swear," she told him, lifting their joined hands so that he might see. "I won't let go. I'll be here."
"D-don't leave me alone," he pleaded, half-delirious from the pain and the knowledge of the impending end.
She shook her head, words failing her as her throat closed up, and she leaned in and kissed him tenderly on the lips, praying to all the spirits that that would bring the solace he so desperately needed. As she pulled back, the faintest of smiles had decorated his young face again, and just a touch of his innocence returned to his ravaged features.
"You're…here…always…" he stated, no longer making it a question or a plea.
"Always, Aang, always," she repeated, her fingers still caressing his cheek in soft, soothing strokes.
He simply lay there, smiling faintly up at her, before his expression faded into one of peaceful contentment, his eyes gently falling shut, and his hand relaxed in hers.
Katara stared at him, unbelieving, for an undefinable moment until reality set in. Her entire body trembled, and without releasing his limp hand, she pressed her forehead to his shoulder, sobbing, her tears soaking his bloodied tunic and still-warm skin. He couldn't be gone, she chanted inanely in her head. He just couldn't be gone…He was Aang, the Avatar. He always came back…he just couldn't…
The voice penetrated the madness roiling within her mind, but she ignored it. It wasn't Aang's voice. And that was the only voice she wanted to hear.
More forceful, urgent, desperate this time, and hands accompanied the voice, gripping her shoulders.
She jerked away, resuming her broken crying, the pain wracking her body only partially due to her injuries sustained in the battle. The battle…she could barely remember what had happened before she'd found Aang. But Aang…he was…he was…
"Katara, you have to come with me! You're seriously hurt, and you can't stay here—"
Zuko's voice. She dimly recognized it now, and she screamed, "No! You can't make me leave! I promised him I'd stay! I promised!" Her yells dissolved into sobs, and she was vaguely aware of arms wrapping around her waist and shoulders, easing her back from the Avatar's body. She clung tightly, obstinately to his limp hand, fighting with everything she had left.
"Katara, please, you—"
"I promised him, Zuko!" she cried again, feeling him slacken his efforts somewhat, now sitting besides the body and cradling her in his lap; she maintained her hold on Aang's hand. "I told him I'd always be with him…I can't leave him now…don't you see?" she peered up at his face, her vision completely obscured by her relentless tears. "He didn't want to be alone…I can't let him be alone…" she barely managed to choke the words out, her throat was so clogged with emotion.
Zuko began to rock back and forth slowly, murmuring soothing things as she sobbed into his chest. Long minutes passed, but finally all the trauma and strain mercifully caused her to pass out and drift into comforting blackness.
And in the end, all she had left was his fingers still curled around hers in a gentle embrace.