For Zutara Week. Prompt seven: Pinch
Frickin' AHH. I know, I know. It's late. I'm a horrible person. I'm going to fandom hell. But Jesus was this piece a bitch. I think I changed the plot three times. But I wanted to go out with a bang, and so I did. This story was inspired by spoilers I've heard floating around, as well as the fact that the comet is coming is less than seven days now. And I don't know about you, but I'm freaking excited. Avatar is alive again, at last!
So, Zutara Week was a blast. It pushed me to limits I didn't think I could ever go, and it helped me idolize my favorite ships. My thanks go out to Courtneyand Ana, who pushed me to carry on and spazzed with me about Avatar, as well as to the amazing reviewers who've stuck to my stories for the last seven days. Maybe next time when I come up with another Zutara fic, I won't be as frazzled and overworked, lol.
So, this is my last piece for the week. I hope you find it all right!
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"Ow, Katara, ow!"
Exhaling a weary sigh, Katara leaned back on her heels and wiped her arm across her forehead, watching the way Sokka struggled to keep the girl pinned. With his hands clamped firmly on her shoulders, he gritted his teeth and did his best not to complain about the gaping wound in his side.
"Toph, I know it hurts, I know." Wincing as she threaded more water from the gourd at her side, she tentatively leaned forward, the liquid pulsing against her palms. "But you have to stay ca--!"
Toph screamed. Sucking in a breath as the blind girl thrashed and wildly kicked her legs, Katara watched with rattled nerves as her brother dug his nails as insistently as he could into the earthbender's clavicles. Clenching his jaw, Sokka jerked his chin up and met her eyes with a steely glare, his own pain pushed to the back of his mind while he suffered over his friend's fate.
"Katara," he said softly as she hesitated, her hands shaking and her gaze darting between Toph and her brother. Cringing as the earthbender furiously twisted in his arms and fisted his hair, which had fallen free from his ponytail, he grunted thickly, "Just get it over with."
Teeth chattering and stomach nervously flipping, she blinked back her tears and nodded, lowering her gaze back to the flow of water in her hands. Toph, her breathing shallow as she sank her nails into Sokka's wrists and buried her face fearfully in his neck, inhaled a sharp breath when she sensed the waterbender's fingers hovering over her wounds.
"My feet," she croaked wearily, referring to the burns that twisted furiously around her lower legs down to the soles of her feet, leaving her in a world of sightless agony. Toph shifted forward to glower pointedly at Katara, making an effort to lurch out of Sokka's hold, but the Water Tribe warrior merely sighed and lowered his arms to wrap around her middle, grumbling short-temperedly when Toph elbowed him in the side. Katara noted with relief that the earthbender took great care to miss the boy's injured ribs. "I don't care about anything else, Sugar Queen. Just heal my feet."
"There's too much blood," she remarked regretfully, and the earthbender's expression screwed up into one of muted fear. Toph wasn't too keen on the sensation of her flesh molding back together, especially when she couldn't see what was going on. "I'm sorry, Toph."
Her hands hovered over the deep gashes ripping through the earthbender's arms, and immediately the blind girl writhed in protest, raking her nails angrily down Sokka's arms as she fought to break free. The boy held fast, clenching his jaw against the pain, and in frustration Toph shouted and kicked Katara in the stomach, howling thereafter when the burns on her feet began to throb. Tears clung to Katara's lashes as she realized just how great the price of freedom had been for the earthbender.
The water pulsed over Toph's skin, and the blind girl jerked in discomfort as she bared her teeth in a snarl and then thrashed wildly in Sokka's arms. It was all the warrior could do to keep her steady, silent tears drying with the mixture of dirt and blood caked onto his cheeks as he squeezed her tight and muttered words of comfort into her ears. Toph would have none of it, however, yelling out incomprehensibly as Sokka did all he could to restrain her.
The earthbender's motions caused Katara to fumble with the water in her hands, but the waterbender managed to keep hold of her patience, at the very least. Gently she administered her healing powers to the wounds in Toph's upper arms, despite the girl's frantic and fevered efforts towards escape. At last, she was able to focus her attention on the earthbender's burns, which had eaten away the cloth of her pants all the way up to her knees, discoloring Toph's shins as a throbbing, red mass. Wincing, Katara shared a concerned stare with Sokka, who shook his head silently.
The earthbender slumped in exhaustion the moment the cooling water washed over her legs and feet, only her brow twitching in discomfort as the pain momentarily flared and then began to ebb away. Exhaling a shaky breath, she turned her cheek and rested it heavily against Sokka's chest, a stray tear slipping from her lashes and rolling down her face down to her chin. The Water Tribe warrior sighed in relief and unlatched one hand from her stomach, placing it into the earth so that he could support his weary body. His lids, as well, began to droop shut, and tenderly Katara smiled as the water pulsed beneath her fingertips and soothed away the blisters that marred Toph's skin.
Turning her head in the midst of her ministrations, she glanced up to see Suki wince as she gingerly cradled her arm. Smiling distractedly, Katara nodded in acknowledgement before turning back to Toph's slowly healing skin and listened to the rustle of the Kyoshi warrior's clothing as she dropped to a crouch. Sokka, who had jerked to life at the sound of her voice, now smiled sleepily as the two shared relieved glances. Meanwhile, Toph's breathing began to even out as she fell asleep in the Water Tribe warrior's arms.
"There'll be a few scars," she said quietly, frowning particularly at the blisters circling the earthbender's ankles. "But she'll be okay. How're you, Suki? That arm of yours--"
"Katara," she said with a soft smile, glancing away from Sokka to place a comforting hand on the waterbender's shoulder; her shoulders, in response to the touch, sagged in exhaustion. "You should relax. Sokka and I, we're fine. You haven't even looked at your injuries."
"No," Katara groaned, wincing as she stretched her arms over her head and sucking in a pained breath when the bruise on her back throbbed. "There's still so much I have to--"
"Let's find Aang," Suki cut in kindly, slipping her hand under Katara's elbow when the girl frowned and rubbed insistently at the ache in her shoulder. After shooting the Kyoshi warrior a stubborn glance, she then sighed when Suki began to rise, struggling to stand along with her friend. She hissed as her legs buckled slightly and stumbled against Suki, who caught her about the waist. "I'm sure he wants to see you."
Hesitantly, she cast a look down to her brother, who rolled his eyes the moment their gazes met. Lifting his free hand, he waved it carelessly. "Go, go. I'll be here. Just…you know. Sitting around."
"Are you okay?"
He shrugged. "Besides the big hole in my side…" At her panic-stricken expression, he laughed. "Katara, go!"
"When I get back, you're dead," she muttered, limping along to Suki's lead.
"You know where to find me," he remarked, and the Kyoshi warrior waved him farewell as they turned the corner, their shuffling footsteps bouncing off the palace walls.
Nothing but silence met their ears as both girls struggled down the hallway, a determined expression on Suki's face as she supported the waterbender and used a good deal of her waning strength to find Ozai's throne room.
At the thought of the Fire Lord, Katara's stomach gave a sickening flip.
"Aang really did it, right? He won. It's over."
"Yes." Relief flooded the waterbender's body, and heavily she slumped against her friend, who momentarily grinned and patted her head. A weary smile softened the line of Katara's lips as she leaned her cheek against the Kyoshi warrior's shoulder. She blinked, however, when Suki's arm stiffened beneath her. "But, Katara, there's something you should know…"
Her chin jerked up, and she stared wordlessly at Suki, horror etched painfully into her expression. The Kyoshi warrior uncomfortably avoided Katara's gaze, her hair falling about her face in a snarled mess as she frowned and raked her stare along the walls of the palace. "Not Aang. Please tell me he's--"
"I told you." Kindly, Suki turned back to her. "Aang's fine. When I found him, he was so exhausted he could hardly move, but he's all right."
Her brow knitted in confusion. "Then…what?"
Pain flashed in the Kyoshi warrior's eyes, and she hesitated as her gaze found the entrance into the palace's throne room. Stiffly pushing to her feet, Katara ran fingers trembling with exhaustion through her hair, where they quickly became entangled in the snarls. "It's…it's Zuko." Breath catching in her throat, she sent her wide-eyed gaze towards Suki, who was chewing at her bottom lip as tears pooled into her eyes. "Aang said that he didn't see it coming, that it was too fast, and--Katara!"
Despite the pain in her limbs and the exhaustion weighing down her shoulders, she found the strength to race down the short distance that was left between Suki and the throne room. Emotion clogging her throat as tears burned furiously in her eyes, she frantically threw herself through the open doorway, stumbling over-foot as her balance failed and she nearly hit her head on the marble floor.
But Aang, who had heard Suki's startled cry, was there to catch her around the waist as she thrashed, sinking her fingers distractedly into his arms as she finally caught sight of the exiled prince, lying crumpled and broken several feet away.
"Let me go, Aang! Let me go!"
His grip was weakening. "Katara, please!" She'd heard that note of desperation in his voice before, when she'd been in danger of being hurt, when something terrible had been about to come into being. Eyes squeezing shut, she tried to shut out the tears rushing down his cheeks and the shake in his arms as he held her. "Please…"
Tears slipped from the corners of her eyes as she finally stared down at the younger boy, whose eyes were heavily lidded from exhaustion and whose fingers were clinging with desperation to her Water Tribe garb. Just seeing that broken expression, that look of childlike fear, was enough to shatter her heart to pieces, and, choking on her sudden tears, she gasped and collapsed to her knees, covering her mouth with both hands as she doubled over. Aang frantically fell to her side, wrapping his arms around her in a hug as he pressed his cheek comfortingly into her back, but she was inconsolable.
Shaking her head back and forth wildly, she sucked in a shuddering breath and dragged her forearm over her eyes, gently pushing Aang away with her left hand. As he fell back onto the floor in confusion, he watched as she struggled to her feet, planting her palm against her right temple as tears continued to course down her cheeks.
Her feet tripped over the tiles as she slowly closed the gap separating her from the fallen prince, and, gritting her teeth against her sobs, she fought to remain standing, vertigo slowly weakening her weary body. Picking up speed when her pace wasn't fast enough, she gasped loudly over her sobs and stumbled with every bound of her feet, holding her arms out in front of her as she both tried to reach for him and prepared herself every second for her inevitable tumble. When she did fall, however, it was at Zuko's side, her fingers pressing desperately against the floor as she bowed her head and sobbed uncontrollably.
"Suki, the lightning bolt, it just--"
"I know, Aang."
Curling her fingers into fists, she weakly lifted her head and stared into her enemy-turned-ally's cold and impassive face. Tilting her head weakly, she sniffled and leaned forward to hover over him, lifting her arm to cradle his cheek within her palm as gently as she could. A pained smile twisted the corners of her lips as her tears raced down her face in torrents, and she trailed her left hand along his chest, to where the lightning had singed the cloth covering his heart. Her fingers played weakly with the royal red material, rubbing it against her skin as the side of her hand rested against his chest, and then they hesitated.
His heart. She could feel it thrumming feebly against his ribcage.
Eyebrows drawing downward in concentration, she inhaled a deep breath and splayed her fingers outward, drawing from her cheeks all the moisture that had fallen from her eyes. Exhaling a shuddering breath, she coated the water entirely over her hands, then stiffening the line of her shoulders and pushing up on her knees, her hair brushing over her arms and clouding around her face as she placed her palms deliberately over her heart. The sudden glow of the water beneath her palms gave her hope.
"Katara, what're you doing?"
"Saving his life, Aang. His heart's still beating." Soothing her hands back and forth, she tried to calm the frantic beating of her heart. "I'm all out of water, but that Hama, that witch…she taught me how to make the most of my surroundings. And I'm going to."
"How can you be sure…" Suki began hesitantly. Katara tensed her shoulders and concentrated solely on the boy in front of her. "How can you be sure this will work?"
"I can't be." Her voice sounded so soft and weary in her ears. Tossing a quick glance towards Zuko's face, she felt such an intense feeling of sadness rip through her heart. "But I have to try."
A hush fell through the room as Suki dropped to a crouch and cradled the weary Aang against her chest. Gnawing worriedly at her lower lip, Katara continued to move her hands back and forth in a wave-like fashion, her body rocking into a soothing lull as she fed the flow beneath her hands with her constantly-falling tears. Nothing changed in the throbbing quiet. Zuko didn't stir, Aang didn't speak, and she didn't move from her kneeling position. In the room of the fallen Fire Lord, time stood still, and hardly a breath stirred the hush that blanketed them all.
Frustration began to coil tightly in her heart when minutes passed and still nothing changed. Clenching her teeth, she curled her fingers into fists against his chest, the rigid line of her shoulders trembling as several more tears dropped onto the backs of her hands.
"Why? Why isn't it working?!"
"It's all my fault, Katara. I should have--"
"It's not you, Aang!" she shouted in anger, her fingers fiercely gripping the fabric as her shrill voice rang out and resounded against the walls. Her arms shook violently as her aggravation trailed down along her spine. "I should be able to help him! I've trained so hard! I've done so much! And now…and now…!"
"It's no one's fault. It's a tragedy, but we came into this knowing that not everyone would walk out with--"
"He's not dead yet!" she screeched, closing her eyes tightly as her shoulders hunched and the heels of her palms pressed into his chest. "Stop talking about him like he's gone!"
Shaking her head from side to side vigorously, she poured her strength into the water beneath her hands, trying to tap into any secret reserves of bending power that might have lain hidden within her all this time. She found none, and the desperation only flooded higher in her heart, nearly overflowing the channels as her breaths became shallow and her vision misted over completely. The shake in her hands was so prominent now that her entire body trembled as she choked for air, her teeth every now and again sinking into her bottom lip as she attempted to suppress her sobs.
"Katara, please." Suki's voice was choked with emotion. "It's over."
"You idiot…" she continued to whisper. "You want to make it up to me? Then open your eyes."
"There's nothing left for you to do! You're hurting Aang, Katara! He can't stand to see you like this! Please, just--"
"DAMMIT!" The agonized cry ripped past her lips as she dug her nails into his chest, her cheeks drying instantly as her tears flew in a rush to her fingertips. Her determined façade crumbling into pieces, she waved her arms away, turning the water in her grasp into ice and sending the shards into the walls to her left and right. Curled fists finally falling to press into her eyes, she sobbed out miserably, her voice cracking dryly in her throat and echoing emptily in the throne room.
Quiet, save the lonesome sound of her heartbroken sobs, filled the room.
She'd been so relieved. She'd thought, against all odds, that they would finish the day with the Fire Lord silenced for all time and have no casualties within their immediate group. She'd thought her worst scare had been soothed when Toph had stumbled out from the sudden ambush as the victor, the gashes on her arms and burns on her legs manageable with the right about of care. She hadn't imaged that Zuko, who'd defeated Azula in an Agni Kai, Zuko, who had protected her and had only ever sought her approval since he'd arrived, Zuko, who had sided with the Avatar and determinedly faced his father…would be the one to fall. He'd never fallen before. He'd always been so strong before.
So she'd counted on that. It had comforted her, to think of him as immortal.
She stirred only slightly when a sudden presence brushed against her side. Lifting red and swollen eyes to glance to her left, she rubbed repeatedly at her cheeks as she stared into Aang's soft stare. His kindness struck her like a slap to the face, and tears pooled into her eyes as she heaved a heavy sob and collapsed against him, breathless and in agony as she curled her fingers into his tattered robe and sought solace in his embrace.
"I tried so h-hard! But why? Why wasn't I good enough! I'm supposed…supposed to be able to heal people!"
His arms tightened around her, and comfortingly he cradled her head as she wailed into his shoulder. "C'mon," he murmured into her ear as she hiccupped. "Let's get you back. You need…you need to rest."
Katara didn't respond. She only let him pull her to her feet, and limply she leaned against him as he struggled beneath her added weight, exhaustion seeping back into his shoulders as he caught her sleeve with his right hand. She should have been more concerned, too – she should have insisted that she could walk, since his strength had been drained so dangerously at the final battle. But she couldn't register much beyond the white emptiness in her head and the sorrow in her heart.
"It's going to be okay, Katara. I'll take care of you. I'll…I'll help you get better."
She nodded wordlessly as tears coursed down her cheeks. The sooner she fled from the room, the better, she figured. At the moment, she felt like her body was going to shatter into a million ice shards, to be trampled upon and crushed into oblivion.
As they walked closer and closer to Suki, Katara wearily lifted her head to meet the girl's sympathetic expression. She was surprised, though, when something in the Kyoshi warrior's face shifted, her posture stiffening as he eyes widened in surprise. As her lips parted, Aang stopped in his tracks, adjusting Katara's weight against him as he jerked his chin up and asked, "What's the matter, Suki?"
Shock jolted through Katara's heart, pulsing in her cheeks, trailing down her spine, and before the Kyoshi warrior could even lift her arm to point she had whipped around, causing Aang to stumble over his feet. Breath hitching in her throat, she raised trembling hands to cover her mouth as Zuko moaned and shifted on the ground, his head sliding against the tiles as he looked to the ceiling and lifted his right hand to cradle his forehead. Tears pooling in her eyes, Katara smiled behind her palms as he groaned again, lowered his arm to his side, and then commenced pushing himself up on his elbows, his entire body trembling with the effort.
And she ran.
The echoing sound of her footsteps slammed against the walls as she fought her way to his side once again, a smile splitting her face this time as he glanced down distractedly and pressed his fingers against the hole in his shirt. Blinking in confusion, Zuko squeezed his eyes tightly shut for a moment, and then, startling at the sound of her approach, he swung his attention in her direction. As the surprise ebbed away from his face, a smile quirked the corners of his lips upwards, and he made an attempt to sit up straighter.
Falling down on her knees beside him, she didn't allow it. Her hands met his shoulders, and she shoved him back down against the tiles, her elated expression shifting into one of rage in a second. He blinked in surprise, his poor eye closed in a wince, as she hovered over him with nails digging into his skin.
"YOU IDIOT!" Her shout echoed in her ears as her chest rose and fell with suppressed rage. As he stuttered to speak, she narrowed her eyes and angrily grabbed hold of his cheek, viciously pinching the skin close to his mouth.
Pain contorted his features momentarily, and then anger quickly took its place as he reached up and slapped her wrist away, his hand curling around her arm thereafter as he snarled, "What the hell are you doing, water peasant?" Inexplicably, those words brought her an insurmountable rush of comfort. A smile once again softening her expression, she watched as he looked away from her, grumbling under his breath as he rubbed his cheek and pushed himself slowly into a sitting position. "I just wake up, and you attack my face for no good reason. Doesn't matter that I just sacrificed myself for you and your precious Avatar or any--"
Roughly grasping his hair with both of her hands, she jerked his head forward to look at her, and she smiled through her tears as she watched the sudden flash of indignation sluggishly ebb away. "I thought I'd lost you."
Before he could respond, she leaned forward on her knees and crushed their lips together. She forgot that Aang and Suki were in the background. She forgot that the boy in front of her had for so long been the only enemy in her mind. She forgot that she had never admitted to him that she'd forgiven him for all that he'd done, that she'd come to rely on him, that she'd even come to appreciate his presence in the group. She only relished the soft feel of his hair as it became crushed in her hands, as well as the warm sensation of his mouth as her lips hungrily caressed his own and she pressed insistently up against his body.
Drawing away from him as she slid her hands to cradle his cheeks, she rested her forehead against his chin, relieved to hear the way his breath shuddered past his lips and to feel how his blood pulsed in his cheeks. Lowering her right hand gently, she pressed her fingertips against his chest, wincing when he flinched and caught her fingertips within his hold.
"You almost died," she murmured, pulling his hand along with hers and guiding it to her mouth. Tentatively, she brushed her lips against the callused skin. "I thought…I thought you…"
"I didn't think you'd care."
Stiffening, she dropped his hand and jerked her chin up, narrowing her eyes in a glare. "Oh, what? I'm so cold-hearted now that I can't care that you almost died?! Is that what you really think of me, Zuko?! Well?"
Rolling his eyes, he rubbed the side of his hand against his forehead, heaving a heavy sigh as he glanced away from her. "You're such a pain, you know that? I was just saying--"
"A pain!" she shrieked, effectively cutting him off. "I'll show you a pain." Reaching forward, she angrily pinched his skin again, causing him to yelp. "That'll teach you to come off the brink of death and insult me!"
"O-ow! You're crazy!" he snapped, trying to fend her off. She had the advantage, however, and effectively shoved him down onto his back once more. Her fingers viciously squeezed his cheeks as he scowled and batted at her arms to fend her off.
"Uh, guys?" Katara and Zuko remained unaffected. "GUYS!"
Snapping to attention, the waterbender gasped and splayed her palms against the tiles, turning her head just as the firebender beneath her did towards the source of the interruption. Katara immediately colored when she saw an embarrassed Suki struggling with a smile on her lips, as well as a flushed Aang awkwardly scratching his cheek.
"We just escaped a near-death experience," the Avatar remarked now, rolling his eyes to the ceiling as he rubbed absently at the back of his head. "Do you think we could call it a day?"
Sighing, the waterbender grumbled irritably and rolled off Zuko. She didn't remember when she'd reached the point where she'd started straddling him, but that time had come and gone, and now she awkwardly rose to her feet, brushing her hands idly against the cloth of her dress. Then, after toying for a moment with her hair, she turned her head and smiled at Zuko, who remained crouched over on the ground and still affronted, his forearm thrown over his knee as he sulked and kept his eyes averted. At her movement, however, he glanced up to meet her eyes, and suspiciously he narrowed his stare, placing his hand in hers. Wrapping her fingers around his, she allowed her smile to widen and then pulled him with some effort to his feet. She caught him as he swayed, resting her forehead against his chest and placing her palm over his heart.
"Yeah," she remarked, tilting her head back to softly meet Zuko's eyes. Wearily he glanced down at her, and she could see within his expression the affect that battle and injury had left on him. Her smile flickering on her lips, she eventually frowned and reached up, yet again pinching the skin by his lips. Immediately he inhaled a sharp breath, smacking her hand away. "Smile, Zuko. We're going home."
The clouds in his expression cleared as he watched her reach up with a grin, prodding him gently in the cheek. Momentarily his eyes strayed from hers, and she listened to Suki and Aang shuffle awkwardly, wanting to leave behind such a tender scene and hasten out the door. But then his gaze flashed back, and she watched a hopeful expression wash over his countenance as he tentatively nudged her hand. Opening her palm, she cradled his cheek and smiled.
"Home," he murmured gently, awestruck, and she thought about the years that had passed, the places she had seen, and the people who waited for her just beyond the doors of the fallen throne room. And she smiled.
"It's time to go."
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Oh, Lord. Oh well. Please review.