Title: Almost

Author: Jakia

Word Count: 3571 (a big one, I know)

A/N: May very well make you cry. Just, uh, so you know.

Summary: They were friends once. Almost lovers but that wasn't the point. The point was that Katara doesn't let her friends die. And in that, she fails.


We were friends, once.

Reluctant friends. Perhaps 'partners' or 'allies' would be a better term to use, because calling them friends seemed like such a stretch.

We were friends she thinks again sadly. …Almost lovers.

If there was such a thing.

As if one passionate, heartfelt kiss in the rain could be counted as 'almost' lovers.

But we were friends once. Reluctant friends, but we were friends. Almost lovers at one point, but that isn't what mattered. We were friends

She cradled his limp head in her lap, brushing away a stray wet hair from his cold and lifeless face.

And I don't let my friends die.


In the clouded haze of her memory, she could remember that much. It's raining, and he's carrying her. Why, she couldn't say. She doesn't exactly remember being injured at the time, but she suspects she could be. All she knows is that his arms are warm and the cloth she's wrapped in is soft. There is something that looks suspiciously like blood running down her face, but she ignores it, and instead tries to focus on the man carrying her, because in the deeper, darker part of her memory she knows this may be the last time she sees him (alive).

He has a stony expression and his hair is all in his face, but she can tell he cares by the way he holds her, tightly yet with a certain gentleness that makes her swoon. She breathes in deeply and leans her head up against his chest. Even in the pouring rain Zuko still manages to somehow smell like smoke and ash.

In the distance she can see their destination. A large slap of earth protects the camp from the surrounding storm, but she can make out Appa's shape underneath it, and knows her friends won't be far off.

She breathes in again, and starts to trace circles into his tunic.

"You don't have to do this, you know." She whispers softly. He doesn't answer—maybe he didn't even hear her, but it's not worth the effort to speak again. She is so tired, and already the world around her has started to blur and soften, but she isn't quite ready to close her eyes just yet.

Not yet.

She thinks she might've fallen asleep even though she tries not to, because when she opens her eyes again she's still in Zuko's arms, but it's stopped raining and she can feel the soft glow of the firelight ahead of them. She's sort of surprised Aang, Sokka, or Toph haven't said anything, because she can feel their eyes watching his every step, wondering and waiting to know who this stranger is, wandering into their campsite with a broken girl in his arms.

He sets her down softly into Appa's fur. She's surprised Appa doesn't growl or fuss at Zuko being so close. Instead, the giant beast just lifts its head and nods, as though it knows and trusts Zuko just as much as she does. She thinks he just might, and wonders if she doesn't give Appa enough credit some times.

Suddenly, the warmth of Appa's fur engulfs her, and the smell of wet bison fur adds to the nostalgia she feels. She thinks she might cry but isn't for sure if she can or not.

Suddenly he stands and turns to leave, and she grabs his hand. "You don't have to go!" She chokes out, knowing it's a lie but saying it anyway.

He smiles at her softly, and bends over to where she's laying. He brushes a damp hair off of her face, and holds her head in his hand. "Yes, I do." He whispers, barely loud enough for her to hear, and she can no longer help herself: she starts to cry, her tears blending in with the rain and blood already dried on her face.

He kisses her forehead softly, and it's over so quickly that she wonders for a moment if it actually happened or not. He turns and walks away, and as it starts to rain again she realizes that nothing she can say will make him stay here with her.

He turns and looks at her; for a moment, there is hope.

But…

His eyes lock with hers. A million things are said in the course of seconds; suddenly, she understands.

"This is where I say goodbye." He says quietly. "I don't know when we'll see each other again, whether we'll be on the same side or enemies again, I don't know. Just—"

Blue meets gold again; he bites his lips, struggling for words.

"You don't have to go," she whispers again.

"Yes, I do." He whispers, repeating the same. "Just… just know that we're even now, okay? We're even, waterbender."

Waterbender.

Not Katara.

Funny how fast they could fall back into their old habits, now that they weren't alone. How fast they could turn back to fire and water, prince and peasant, when there were other ears to hear their words.

"We're even now," he repeats, more to himself than to her. "We're even."

He turns and walks away, for good this time, and she bites back a quiet sob. Three pairs of eyes, each set a different color, look at her for answers, but she can't give them any yet. Instead she closes her eyes and leans into Appa's fur, trying hard to ignore the sound of her heart breaking and the thunder in the distance.

In the cloudy haze of her memory, she realizes that the reason her friends' didn't attack him, didn't recognize him is because his scar, the one way they always knew it was him, was gone.


"Wake up, you bastard." She growls, his limp head still in her lap. "I know you can hear me. You have a pulse." (Not much of one, but shh, don't think like that…) "Wake up."

He doesn't answer. He can't. His body is too cold for a firebender. He could die. He would die.

She kisses his forehead lightly, tears rolling down her cheek. "I can't heal you every time, you know."

She wishes she had water. Water, water, any water would work. But something—something she could heal him with.

She brushes his hair out of his face, and kisses the place where his scar used to be. "Sometimes, you have to heal yourself."


She wakes up to the feeling of a wet cloth being dabbed on her forehead. She bolts up and looks straight into blue eyes identical to her own.

Sokka.

"It's okay," he whispers, wiping her face off with the cloth. "I'm just trying to get the blood off. You're okay. You're safe."

Inside, she screams, but can't find a way to make her voice do any more than choke. "Zuko—" she manages to speak. "Is he still—"

Her brother frowns, his lips form a thin, solid line. "He's gone," is Sokka's faithful answer. "Don't worry, you're safe."

She cries again, and realizes that she's crying partly because she's miserable, partly because her head hurts so damn much.

"We think you might have a concussion." Sokka says, continuing to clean her face. "As soon as the rain stops, we're going to take you to a healer."

She closes her eyes and breathes deeply, letting her brother clean her off as best he can. She's shaking terribly and she knows it's not because of the cold, because Appa's fur is so warm (but not as warm as Zuko).

"Zuko." She whispers again, his name like poison on her tongue. "Why did he leave? Why couldn't he stay when I asked him to?"

She already knows the answer, knows her brother can't give her an answer, but she has to say it out loud, because her head hurts too much to keep it all inside.

Sokka frowns, and continues to wipe the blood off of her. "I don't know. Shh. Don't think about him. He's the enemy."

What an entirely wrong thing to say!

"No, he isn't!" She chokes, even though it hurts to do so, she lifts her head so she can meet her brother in the eye. "He isn't the enemy! He's good! I healed him; he's whole, and good. He's good."

It's a single, solitary truth she clings to. Light is dark, up is down, and Zuko is decidedly good for a time.

"He really is. He saved me. He's good." She sobs. "Don't you believe me?"

Sokka's eyes soften, and he sets the bloody cloth off to the side. "Of course I do." He whispers, and she can tell he doesn't. "Of course I believe you. But you need to be still, and you need to rest so you can get better."

She wonders who this person is and how did they get control over Sokka's body.

"I think I love him." She blurts out before she can stop herself, knowing in that moment that it's the completely wrong thing to confess to Sokka, but isn't sure if this isn't the only chance she'll get to.

Anything can happen in the next few seconds. She expects Sokka to explode, for him to yell and scream and cuss at her until he's blue in the face, pausing briefly to breathe before continuing. She expects him to disown her, to call her a traitor and to hate her and abandon her, all because she loves Zuko, prince of the enemy.

He doesn't do anything she expects him to do. Sokka, she realizes slowly, has grown up somehow when she wasn't looking.

The only thing he does is look at her softly, and tells her rather sagely, "Don't let Aang know that."


She prays to Agni, to Sedna, to each and every god and goddess she'd ever heard off. She is on her knees, her head to his stomach, which is cold to the touch, much too cold. It feels sacrilegious to cry out to the gods only when her loved one is in pain, but she can't help herself. What else was she to do; whom else could she turn to in her time of need? She cries out for forgiveness, for redemption, for anything, just please, please—

Don't take him away from me! She sobs into his chest, trying to warm his body with hers. She ignores his cold flesh and instead focuses on listening to the near-silent beat of his dying heart.


It's a typical argument for them—he said, she said, my side, your side—but still they growl and cuss and the rain proves to only make him that much more irate.

"No." He growls determinedly, but she isn't fooled and can sense how torn he is.

"Let me try." She says quietly, her hand vainly brushing his scar. "It can't hurt to try."

He flinches away from her touch. "You don't even have your holy water this time." He says almost mockingly, but she knows he's hurt and unsure and—

"It can't hurt to try." She says again. She doesn't know why, but she thinks it will work this time, even if the water is just pond water and she isn't any more powerful than she was before—

But something is different about them. This time, they aren't strangers, enemies who have but a similar sad, tragic past in common. This time, they're sort of friends, sort of something else, but what she doesn't know.

"It can't hurt to try."

Reluctantly, and sort of skeptically, he closes his eyes and leans into her touch. A small part of her wants to heal him just to prove she can, to prove to him and to herself that she's a great waterbender; perhaps the most powerful in the world, if she can heal his scar with pond water.

The world goes silent for a moment. Even the rain overhead seems to realize the need for quiet, for it slows down to a gentle sprinkle, barely even there. In the back of her mind, she thinks they might've been wiser to find shelter first, because oh boy, they're going to be sick being out in the rain this long, but it's too late now. Her hand is covered in water, caressing his face with a single thought in her mind:heal

He flinches, and she thinks this must be hurting him, but doesn't pull away. Gran-Gran always said what doesn't kill you makes you stronger, and she thinks it might be true. She can't really tell if she's healing him or not, but if her heart doesn't stop beating so fast she thinks it might burst.

Slowly, she moves her hand away. Staring back at her is a stranger's face: two symmetrical yellow cat eyes look at her with emotion she can't read. Damp wet hair covers a pair of eyes, but there isn't a shade of red or pink burnt flesh for it to cover. She realizes slowly that the rain has started to pick up again, and suddenly it's pouring and—

She doesn't know what to say. Everything she thought she might say after it happened suddenly is no longer appropriate, and all she can do is look into his eyes and remind herself to breathe.

After what feels like eternity, he picks up her hand from her side and puts his own hand on top of hers. Together, they move their fingers through the indentions of skin where his scar use to be, as if to remind themselves that it really was there, once. While the action itself is purely innocent, there is something that feels sensual about the way his fingers are laced with hers; the feeling of wet skin on skin sends shivers down her spine.

In that moment, she thinks she might be in love with him.

Maybe that's why his scar healed. Maybe it was never a matter of the special oasis water or plain pond water. Maybe it was just the fact that he was a broken boy who needed someone to love him, and someone to love in return. Maybe he just needed someone who cared, actually cared about him to try to heal him. Maybe—

He kisses her unexpectedly, interrupting her thoughts. The contact is warm and hard and makes her insides explode. His hands are everywhere, on her face, on her neck, in her hair, on her waist. She thinks she might ought to push him away but that thought is even more terrifying, because somehow she's started to kiss him back. In the time it's taken her to think she's suddenly wrapped her arms around his neck and is trying to shove her tongue in his mouth. For some reason they feel so close but not close enough, because they keep trying to get closer but it's just not enough.

She wonders why man needs to breathe, and thinks she would happily die suffocating if it meant she could die like this.

He pulls away but not for long, only long enough to breath and not think. His tongue is entangled with hers, and it feels like they're fighting but not, because it's better, oh-so-better.

It's all happening too fast, yet not fast enough. She's suddenly on the ground, her back against a tree and her shirt on the ground and she's finally managed to get his shirt over his head. Her hands tangle in the length of his hair that she's finally managed to pull out of that ridiculous excuse for a ponytail. Now it's long and black and in his face and just the way she likes it. The rain has suddenly turned to steam on their skin, and she doesn't know if it's just because he's a firebender, or if it's because her skin feels like it's on fire.

He starts kissing her other places, his lips traveling to her chin, her neck, to the part where her breast bindings hide her cleavage, and she stops herself from begging him to go further. She's in ecstasy, her mind racing, and soon she finds her head back and her eyes watching the sky, moaning and watching the rain and the lightning fall from the sky.

Lightning.

Blue lightning.

"Zuko." She says, trying not to moan his name, regaining what little sense she has left. "Zuko, look—"

But he's seen it too, because he's stopped his kissing and is looking to the sky. "Azula." He whispers, and she trembles in his arms.

Silently, they pick up their discarded clothing and dress hurriedly. Reaching for one another, they hold hands as they run for their lives, stopping only when they can run no further, and even then it's not far enough.


She is running out of options. His heartbeat has slowed tremendously and there is nothing left she can do to help. All she can do now is hope and pray that he'll be conscious long enough so that she can say goodbye.

It's horrible, sitting here and watching the man she loves die, but there is little else she can do. All she can do now, is sit and wait, wait and listen, and hope that her presence, however meager that it is, is enough.


Stupid firebender.

Of all the people to rescue her from Azula's clutches, why had it been him? Him, the boy, the firebender who she had had a ten minute conversation with in the underground of Ba Sing Se. The boy she thought had changed, had thought was good deep inside, but wasn't.

Stupid Zuko.

Well, if he wants her forgiveness, he would have to work for it! Just because he "rescued" (please) her from Azula did not mean she would forgive him! Oh no—she put her trust in that boy, and what did he do? Took it out and stomped on it, basically.

No, he would have to work for her trust. If that meant she had to sit here on the riverbed in her underwear, watching him try to catch dinner as she did laundry, then so be it.

Which, watching him try to catch a fish, is proving to be the most entertaining thing she has ever experienced. He would trip and fall, splashing about in the water, and when he finally catches one, it's so small and pathetic that it makes her laugh out loud.

He turns and glares at her. "You could help me, you know." He says, bitterly, soaking wet from head to toe.

"Why?" She laughs at his folly. "You're doing such a good job! I'm sure we'll have something to eat by next month, if you keep this up!"

She doesn't see the mischief in his eyes, doesn't see the spark of his temper or see the flash of childish immaturity. Instead she turns her focus on waterbending the dirt out of their clothes. She never sees him sneak up behind her, doesn't realize he's there until it's too late, and she's in his arms, up in the air, and—

SPLASH.

--Oh, that boy! Picking her up and throwing her into the water. Of all the nerve!

And he's laughing at her, too. Funny, she didn't know he could laugh. It's a nice sound, she thinks, the gentle cackle of foreign happiness in his voice, and for a brief moment, doesn't mind that it's come out at her expense.

"Well, what do you know? The waterbender's all wet!" He laughs, taunting her. "Splish, splash. What are you going to do about that, little Miss Water Tribe? Huh? Going to hurt me with your waterbending?"

She pushes the wet hair out of her face and looks him in the eye, cold and wet and miserable, and secretly having a wonderful time.

"You know, it's a bad idea to taunt a waterbender when she's in her element." She threatens playfully, bending a small water whip out of the stream.

"Please—" He splashes a small wave of water towards her, soaking her even more. The grin on his face is worth it. "Anybody can waterbend. All you do is splash the water around. See? Splish-splash, I'm a waterbender too."

She can't help it—she laughs. It's a good thing Zuko's not a waterbender, because he would be the worst one in the world.

"You're doing it all wrong." She says gently, pulling herself out of the water. "You've got to move more gently. Push and pull. Water is balanced, you see. You have to move like this."

They spend the rest of the night in each other's arms. She teaches him to waterbend, and he teaches her to firebend, and they've both learned to ignore the shocks that run through their body every time they touch.


She lies on his chest as he takes his last breath, just seconds before the rain begins to pour, and the rain that could have saved his life. As she cries, she thinks about the time they've had together, but mostly about the time they've lost. They will never marry. Her belly will never grow large with his child. She will never hear his voice; will never hear his laughter, never again. Never again will they play and taunt one another, flirting as they dodge ice and flame.

They were friends, once.

But no longer.

And in that, she has failed.


END

A/N: I may go back and write a happy-alternate-ending to this… but then again, I may not. I'm a sucker for tragedy. Let's see how my first week of college goes, no?

Jak (who has been writing this since February/March)