The red and blue flames clashed, exploding around them, filling the air with choking smoke and smouldering ash. Sozin's Comet burned bright in the sky, its crimson light overpowering the silvery glow of the moon and stars.
Standing on the sidelines of the intense Agni Kai, Katara felt her heart clench every time Azula's fire got too close to Zuko. He shouldn't have been fighting alone. This was not the plan they had agreed on. They were supposed to take on his crazy sister together, something even the great General Iroh thought would be the best plan of action.
But, no. Instead, Zuko agreed to a one-on-one battle with one of the most powerful firebenders in the world.
Still, even as fear swelled inside her chest, Katara couldn't help feeling awed as well. The flames the two siblings created were enormous, the battleground filling with each blast. And, despite his prodigious sister's enhanced strength and completely merciless attitude, Zuko held off every strike seemingly effortlessly, perfectly calm and controlled.
She had never seen him fight in such a way before. It was incredible; a true display of what a powerful bender he had become.
Unable to defend herself against one of his strikes, Azula was knocked back, rolling painfully across the ground. Moving to a spot where she could see around the prince, Katara listened to him taunt his sister. A knot slowly twisted her gut.
Breathing deep and bracing himself for the lightning, Zuko was the epitome of calm and focus. His obvious confidence was a slight reassurance, easing the tense feeling in Katara's stomach.
Then Azula struck, the electricity leaping not toward her brother, but instead directed at the sole bystander. The waterbender's feet seemed to glue themselves in place at that moment, refusing to budge no matter what her mind screamed at them. The world slowed and silenced, until it was just her and the lightning inching forward, a blue deadlier than any she had seen before. Her heart felt as though it had already stopped.
She was going to die. At barely fifteen, she was going to die and leave behind everyone she cared about. Suddenly, her mind was whirlwind of thoughts and memories; all the awful things she had done, people she never apologized to or told how much she cared, the wonderful things she had only dreamed about ever doing.
Was this where it all ended?
Then, in an instant, something was blocking the oncoming lightning. But it didn't come as a relief – her insides twisted tighter as her heart was squeezed in a cold, iron grip.
Because it was Zuko.
It was the shout that caught her attention – a pained, desperate 'no' as the crackling blue rushed closer with barely enough time for him to stop it. Horrified, she watched him careen toward the ground, sparks flying from his body, the lightning seeming to be trapped inside his chest.
A moment later, the bolt shot out, illuminating the sky and the tortured expression on Zuko's face.
He couldn't die. Not now, not ever. Aang needed him, the Fire Nation needed him – Katara needed him.
Every memory she had of him (every word, every action, every moment of silent understanding or angry shouting matches) flooded through her mind, overwhelmingly relentless. The fist around her heart squeezed tighter, a grip of icy fear and sorrow and devastation stronger than anything she could ever remember.
Finally, her feet unglued themselves and the knot of insides loosened to release her vocal cords. Dashing forward, she let out her own pained, desperate shout.
Belly-down on the hard, scorched earth, Zuko was acutely aware of the fire continuing to explode around and inside him. However, the agony of his wound was pushed to the back of his mind (as much as it could be, anyway), overpowered by the knowledge that it was now Katara fighting off his sister.
He had no doubt in the waterbender's strength – just fear for the fact that Azula was clearly insane and stronger than ever thanks to the comet.
Lifting his head, he reached a shaking hand toward the two battling females, wincing at the white-hot pain and the blue flames narrowly missing Katara.
This wasn't right. He was supposed to be the one taking all the damage, all the risks, while she escaped to somewhere safer! He was supposed to take the bolt and tell her to run somewhere – anywhere – as long as it was away from Azula.
Everything was completely backwards and he was helpless to change it. He couldn't keep fighting (the slightest movement sent more electricity stabbing through him), he couldn't shout (too painful – all he could manage was a strained, breathless whisper), he couldn't rewind time and better prepare himself for the unexpected, low move.
So he squeezed his eyes shut, pressing his forehead to the ground and trying to ignore the explosions surrounding him. He didn't want to risk having Katara's death as his last memory.
The explosions and taunting cries seemed to last forever. Finally, they ceased, allowing an eerie silence to fall over the smouldering battle field. Zuko was too pained and too worried to lift his head and see the victor.
He didn't need to, however. Gentle hands were slowly, carefully turning him over, and he knew immediately who had won. Relief and agony surged through him simultaneously. A familiar sensation touched his abdomen as healing water soothed the searing lightning wound.
He barely had a second to enjoy the absence of burning in his stomach; Katara engulfed him in a crushing hug in an instant, arms wrapped tightly around his neck and head buried against his shoulder. A few tears trickled down her cheeks to his shirt, seeping through the fabric and onto his skin.
"K-Katara?" he managed to gasp, his still-tender injury not taking well to being crushed.
"Thank-you, thank-you, thank-you," she whispered in a rush. "I'm sorry. I'm so, so, so sorry. For everything. I-" she cut off, choking on a sob. Taking a deep, shaky breath, she murmured a few more 'thank-you's.
For a minute, he wondered who she was thanking.
However, the moment was difficult to enjoy – he was torn between returning the embrace and letting her hold him for the next century, or telling her to get off him so he could breathe properly.
Eventually, she decided for him, sitting up and smiling tearfully at him. "Thank-you."
An enraged scream interrupted them. The pair turned to see Azula chained to a drainage grate, spitting blue flames in a fit of hysterics. The sight actually made Zuko pity her, something he never in his life thought would happen.
"C'mon," Katara said, easing him to his feet after a moment of solemn staring. "Let's get out of here."
Later, they were drifting through the clouds on Appa's back, prince leaning against peasant for support. It was unusually peaceful, the war still raging below them forgotten in favour of the bliss of their solitude in the sky.
With the panic and chaos of the battles no longer disrupting her mind, Katara was able to think clearly and realize how crazy the earlier events had been. The ideas and worries and possibilities that had filled her thoughts when Zuko took that bolt... His weight at her side made it impossible to forget.
Really, though, it was the magnitude of the fear she felt that made the biggest impact. Not even Aang or Sokka or her own father had warranted that amount of distress.
She found herself thinking back to his confession (It seemed so long ago, yet, at the same time, as though it had happened just days before), to how she had believed his feelings would forever be unrequited. Maybe she had been wrong. Maybe it was possible that, somehow, she had fallen for him, too...
That was a dangerous place to let her mind wander, she decided, and promptly forced a change in subject.
"So... What are we going to do with Nikko once all this is over?"
Zuko shifted slightly, keeping his arm draped around her shoulders while pulling away enough to see her face. "I guess... If we win, I could take her back to the palace. If not-"
"Don't think like that!" she quickly chastised. "Aang will defeat the Fire Lord."
"Alright then. I'll take her back to the palace," he decided. Then, eyes widening, he rushed to add, "If that's okay with you, I mean. If you wanna take her back to the Water Tribe, that's-"
"It's fine," she assured him. With a shy smile, she glanced away, hesitantly adding, "I think the palace would be a more suitable place for us to live."
Staring down at the reigns in her hands, Katara wondered how red her cheeks had turned. She knew he was hoping for some kind of explanation; however, she had none to give. When and where and how was a mystery, but she had fallen for the prince in spite of their past grudges and fighting and hate.
Actually, that wasn't quite right. It was because of all they had been through. They had known each other at their best and worst, seen each other through thick and thin, yet persevered through it all. Yes, there were moments of honest hatred, but it was something they (well, she) always got passed.
It was amazing, really, thinking back on it.
"I..." she started, tentative, choosing her words carefully. "I think... maybe we should try raising Nikko together. And, maybe, while we're at it, we could... give dating a try?"
For a moment, Zuko only stared at her, eyes wide and jaw slack. "R-Really? You're serious?"
"Why would I be lying?"
He was silent, continuing to stare in mute disbelief, mouth struggling to form words. Not for the first time, Katara found herself amazed at how quickly he could go from frighteningly determined to sputtering and awkward.
"So, what do you say? Wanna give it a shot?"
"I... Yeah, okay. Y-yeah."
Smiling at how red his cheeks had turned and knowing hers probably looked the same, Katara allowed herself to lean against the prince and lose herself in his warmth...
Then he winced and let out a muted gasp of pain. Pulling back, she began apologizing fervently and checked his wound for signs of further damage. After he assured her that he was alright ("I'm just a little sore! Calm down!"), she allowed herself to relax again, though was careful not to put any pressure on him. Instead, he resumed leaning against her.
They drifted through the clouds, comet fading from sight on the horizon. Soon, their friends and the fallen Fire Lord came into view, waving and shouting and eager to retell the story of their victory.
A smile tugged insistently at Katara's lips.
Author's Notes: Sorry I took a while to get this up. Weekend was more crazy than usual. xP
Anyway, I really hope you guys enjoyed this fic and that ending is satisfying. I really, really appreciate all the feedback and encouragement you've given me. I hope you like whatever fics I write in the future as much as (or more than) this one.
Uhhh... I'd say more, but I gotta go help put my Christmas tree up. Happy Holidays!
Disclaimer: 'Avatar' and its characters do not belong to me.