Disclaimer: Avatar: The Last Airbender is not mine and WOE IS ME.
A/N: This is random. And rambling. And probably other words beginning with "r-a-...". And is basically one big conversation. BUT, it fulfilled the requirements of my muse (which admittedly weren't lengthy and can be summarized thusly: WRITE ZUTARA, FOOLISH HUMAN! To which I cowered in fear and succumbed to.), so la-de-da. Um...so as stated in the summary, this takes place during the series finale, and can conceivably fall into place within the bounds of canon...shockingly enough. So, um, I don't know why I really bothered telling you that. Huh. Well, I'll wrap this pointless paragraph up: read, enjoy (the punnage of the title, ah ha ha ha...'cause...of the lightning...um...), and do feel obliging enough to REVIEW!!!
Azula's wild, maddened shrieks had degenerated into fitful sobbing; she lay crumpled on the metal grate, her whole body shuddering as her tears dripped into the flowing water below. Zuko and Katara stood as they had stood for the past several minutes, the only witnesses to the once-fierce princess's complete breakdown.
The waterbender kept her hand on his arm, no longer paying Azula any attention; it was clear, painfully so, that she was not a threat. Instead, she focused on Zuko's profile, trying to catch the emotions in his half-lidded eyes and distressed by the ones she found. She didn't like seeing her friend like this, conflicted and raw.
Friend. He had certainly earned that title, hadn't he?
"Zuko…" she began, but then she hesitated. What could she say, anyway, that would not ring pointless and hollow? Asking him how he felt or was seemed rather unconstructive. So she swallowed in lieu of words and simply tightened her fingers on his arm.
His muscles tensed beneath her hold, his frown momentarily deepening, but then he exhaled heavily and sharply yet shallowly inhaled, as if he had not been breathing for the interim and now suddenly remembered the need for oxygen. He blinked several times, even though she could tell his eyes were dry, and parted his lips to speak.
But he seemed at a loss as well because he closed his mouth again, maintaining his silence.
Azula hiccupped and shifted, her head lolling back and her bloodshot amber eyes pointing towards the reddened sky without focusing on it.
Zuko shifted, a partial movement, as if he intended on going to his sister's side. But once more, he ceased reacting halfway through, and he just stood there, one foot slightly ahead of the other. After a strained sort of second, he released his charred and ruined shirt and used that hand to cover Katara's instead. She almost flinched, surprised at the sudden contact, but loosened her grip enough to allow him to curl his fingers around hers.
"How did it come to this?" he finally asked, weary and barely audible.
She wanted to say something wise and reassuring, but everything trite lodged in her throat, and all she could offer was the bleak, useless truth. "I don't know," she replied, her voice equally quiet. "I kind of wish I did, but at the same time, I'm glad I don't," she continued, more musingly. "I'm not entirely sure I want to experience the kind of suffering necessary to understand something like this."
His features twisted in a grimace, his eyes still pinned on his sister. "I should think we've seen enough suffering to understand absolutely everything," he remarked darkly, humorlessly.
She had even less of an answer to that, so she flexed her fingers again, hoping that would manage to convey some ounce of comfort.
He continued staring blankly as time slid unrelentingly by, and when his hand slid from hers, she took that as her cue and released his arm. He pressed his palms to his face and then ran his hands back through his hair, holding it off his forehead for a moment before he dropped his arms and huffed another sigh.
"I guess that's that, though," he said absently, his arms still swinging from the inertia.
She nodded, a vague gesture, and her gaze remained glued to his face, as if endless scrutiny would allow her to see all the way down to his soul. "I really should look at your chest again," she offered at length. "I didn't do too much healing, really. We'll need to find some bandages, too," she went on, her voice gathering strength as she assumed a businesslike tone. "It's not as bad as I thought it would be, especially considering what happened to Aa—to—well—"
"He's fine, Katara," Zuko stated, his eyes finally meeting hers.
She stared back at him, somewhat surprised that he'd read her so easily, and then nodded, this time more firmly. "I know that," she said, meaning every word. "I know he's okay." She allowed herself a small smile. "If anything, I've always known he'd win…and put everything right…and all that."
He held her gaze several moments more, cerulean ice reflecting the golden sun, and she was even more surprised at how comfortable it was, at the total lack of awkwardness. But some tiny part of her was still relieved when he looked away, glancing back towards the still-smoldering palace.
"We can probably find bandages in there," he pointed out, and he spared Azula another look. "I don't think she'll be any more trouble," he added. With that, he began walking, albeit in more stagger than stride, towards his ruined home. Katara caught up with him quickly, and she slung his arm across her shoulders, more or less silently demanding that he lean on her. He obeyed uncomplainingly, his free hand rising to clutch at his abdomen again.
"Does it hurt?" she inquired, and then mentally belabored herself for asking such an idiotic question.
He didn't seem to mind. "Not as much," he admitted. "Whatever you did before definitely helped."
They reached the stairs where Azula had almost been crowned, and she rather forcibly made him recline on the stone steps. "I'll poke around," she said, an authoritative edge in her tone. "You stay here and don't move around too much. I'll find something to act as a bandage as quick as I can. I'll be back soon," she added, although she wasn't entirely too sure why. The words just tumbled out as if coaxed into being by unconscious reflex.
He bobbed his head in acknowledgment and settled himself more comfortably on the steps, grimacing again and holding his stomach more tightly.
Katara had only just stepped inside the palace when she located some curtains; drawing them taut and shut, she withdrew some water from her pouch and effortlessly bent the liquid into a razor's edge. A few deft motions later and several strips of burgundy fabric floated slowly to the floor, crumpling up in coiled red ribbons. Gathering the cloth, she returned to her injured friend, who hadn't moved an inch.
"Told you I'd be back soon," she quipped, again not entirely positive that she'd ever thought the words, or why she felt the need to say them. But when Zuko smiled, even close-lipped and crooked, she felt distinctly rewarded for the comment.
"It seems you were telling the truth after all," he replied in kind, and he began tugging his torn shirt off. His movements were restricted, however—he couldn't stretch properly—and she had to help him, easing it off his broad shoulders and carefully from each arm. She folded it neatly, even though it wasn't much of a garment anymore, and set it aside, returning her attention to his wound.
It looked a lot like Aang's—the same layering, darkening in color as it bore deeper into his flesh. Tender pinks gave away to angry reds, and her slender fingers danced above the surface, not wanting to prod him wantonly and cause him additional pain. But she noticed that it also wasn't the same as the Avatar's, that it seemed shallower altogether and that there wasn't any obvious exit wound; Azula's lightning had blasted Aang's boot off, but Zuko didn't seem to be suffering from any other injuries.
A thought occurred to her, and she glanced up at him briefly, a little glad for the distraction this afforded her. She would've had to be as blind as Toph not to notice the firebender's well-defined physique, and while she'd seen him shirtless before, she'd certainly never been this close to him, both literally and figuratively.
She realized belatedly that she was just staring blankly at his nose, and she gave herself an internal shake. "Er…I wonder…did you use your bending somehow? Because really, you probably shouldn't be conscious, let alone alive."
"Yeah," he confirmed. "It wasn't really planned that way, though. I just sort of…diffused it through my system, I think. Not really redirecting it, but something similar."
She swallowed at the implications in that statement, and very carefully, she allowed her fingertips to rest on the edges of the burn. With a good measure of hesitancy, she locked her eyes on his. "So…when you…jumped in front of it, you knew you might…die?"
For some reason, she had a hard time articulating the word. It nearly caught in her throat.
He stared back at her, his lips parting and brow furrowing so gradually the change almost went unseen. His jaw worked several times before he managed to say anything. "Katara, I…I wasn't exactly thinking. I just knew that I couldn't let you die. I…I couldn't. Not you."
Her gaze flickered away and then back to his, and she exhaled a breath of a laugh. "Me, the girl who gave you hell when you showed up. You need to get your priorities straight."
He frowned anew at that, genuinely distressed. "What? I had to save you—"
"To prove something?" she asked, more sharply than she'd like, and for the most fleeting instant, she almost considered that this was all still some ploy.
He seemed to recognize this, as his expression crumpled further. "No," he breathed, the soft-spoken word even more fervent than if he had screamed it. "No. Not because I had something to prove, not because I'd never be able to face Aang again…not any of that. No motives except protecting you." He raised his hands, a bit slowly, and settled them solidly on her shoulders. She glanced at his fingers sidelong before looking at her own, hovering near his heart.
"I know it might be hard to believe," he said, smiling faintly, "but I don't want anything horrible to happen to you. I don't want to see you get hurt. I especially don't want you to die. You're…you're my friend, Katara. You mean something to me. Actually," he admitted, "you mean a lot to me."
She stared at him, needing some time to process such a revelation, and found an effective distraction in finally summoning some water. Gloving her hands in it, she laid them back on his chest and began gently plying at the frayed muscle fibers.
"You still shouldn't have risked it," she rebuked, trying to think about anything but that soft, soft look in his eyes. "You're all set up to be the Fire Lord and help fix the world—you're more important than me."
"I hardly think—" he began to protest, but she overrode him.
"I'm a peasant waterbender," she replied sternly, truthfully. "My role was teaching Aang my art, and he's learned it. I have no more duty to the world, unlike some people. If you had died, where do you think we'd be?"
He studied her for several stretched seconds. "And where do you think we'd be if you died?" he eventually posed. "How well do you think Aang would cope with that? Or Sokka?" He paused, as if reluctant, and added, "Or me?"
Blue caught gold once more, and she fumbled her bending. There was that expression again, that tone, which seemed to imply that he really, truly cared. And she couldn't quite wrap her mind around the concept, not all in one go.
Without a better reply, she simply conceded, "Good point. We're lucky the world doesn't have to lose either of us, I suppose. However, I maintain that you were being a bit foolish."
He grinned lopsidedly. "Yeah, I can agree with that."
Silence fell after that, and she worked through it, pushing and pulling the water in his wound. After several minutes of intent healing, she directed the liquid back into its pouch and reached for the makeshift bandages.
"Alright, that's about as good as I can do for now," she informed him, sitting back on her heels as she sorted through the strips of heavy cloth. "Maybe if I can drag you back to the North Pole, I can do a better job with some of the water from the Spirit Oasis. But otherwise, it's going to scar."
He sighed, nearly inaudibly. "Another scar," he murmured, his eyes becoming distant.
She experienced a sharp pang at that, and her hand rose unbidden to his face, fingertips caressing the toughened folds of his signature mark. "Zuko…" she breathed, heartbroken at that. And then, abruptly, she realized what she was doing, and she hastily pulled her fingers from his face.
He shrugged, attempting to lighten the atmosphere. "Another scar received honorably," he remarked. "And at least this time I managed to follow through on my good intentions and save someone. So really," he said in a conclusive way, "it's all good. I'd rather live with this scar than without—than—ah—well. It's…it's all good, and that's the end of it," he finished, almost a little petulant and obviously embarrassed.
A few taut moments drifted by, neither teen looking at the other, and finally Katara lifted one of the longest strips. "It's high time I wrapped this for you…" she pointed out, somewhat hesitantly, and she wished her cheeks would stop flaming. Blushing was so uncalled-for in this situation.
"Yeah, yeah," he agreed swiftly, and he helped her, holding the loose end to his body while she wound the rest around his torso. He assisted her like that several times, and within a minute or two, she had completed her task. Awkwardly and cautiously, she helped him back into his scorched tunic and to his feet. They stood there in silence for a seemingly eternal moment, and then she crushed him—carefully—in a hug. He wrapped his arms around her, apparently not terribly surprised or distressed by her abrupt embrace, and tugged her closer so that she was flush—carefully—to his chest.
She was rather bewildered at the way her body so willingly settled against his, so perfectly, even. Sheltered within the breadth of his shoulders, she experienced a fleeting sensation of absolute safety, a nonsensical conviction that as long as she stayed within the cradle of his arms, nothing in the world could possibly harm her. But the feeling passed, and she gratefully listened to his heartbeat, instead.
"Did I thank you yet?" she asked quietly, nearly speaking directly into his skin. "For saving my life?"
She almost heard him smile. "Yes," he replied, "I think you did."
She held him a little tighter, still wary of digging her ribs into his wound. "Well. Thank you. Again. Really," she added, as if desperate to impress her sincerity, and she eased back to meet his eyes. "I…I am so indebted to you, I don't even—"
"You're not indebted to me," he chastised gently, retracting his arms until just his fingers were loosely fisted in her robe, settling at her waist. "Don't think you have to pay me back. This is just what friends do for each other."
"What, jump in front of lightning bolts?" she retorted, only half-teasing, even as her mind echoed, Friends. Oh, yeah. We're really friends now, aren't we?
He smirked. "Well, you're up next, so you better make it good. Uncle learned redirecting from studying waterbenders, so maybe you'll be able to improvise something more impressive."
"I'll study up," she replied, laughing through the words, and had half-turned when he stopped her; his hands, still holding onto her robe, fisted more firmly and did not allow her to finish swiveling. She looked back at him, arching one eyebrow in question.
He swallowed, and after a blank silence, he ventured, "I haven't thanked you yet, either."
Her brow only rose higher. "For healing you? Hey, it's no problem—"
"No," he said, more strongly. "Not for that. Although, thank you for that," he added in retrospect. "But, what I meant was…thank you for…practically everything. For believing in me in Ba Sing Se. For forgiving me on Ember Island. For coming here with me today. And…mostly…" He slid his fingers from her clothing and tried to shrug lightheartedly. "For becoming my friend. We—we are friends, right?"
She nearly laughed at his sudden insecurity, but it wasn't really that funny. "Yes, Zuko," she agreed, and her hand found its own way into his. "I do believe we are."
He smiled the biggest, truest smile she'd ever seen, and above them, the sky cleared to a bright, unblemished blue.
A/N the second: And something like this wasn't in the finale why, Bryke? Zutara has the awesomest dynamic ever, and they only get the last five episodes to actually be friends? You are so mean. Ah, well...told you it was rambling, didn't I? ^_^