HELLO and welcome to this story's FINAL PART! I swear it is!
Thank you for all the wonderful reviews, which I will answer at the end of this chapter, and I hope you enjoyed this little filler-story that lets Bryke get away with Zuko's insta-heal in the last episode. XD
Mai diligently kept refreshing the compress upon Zuko's brow, in an attempt to help control the fever that was threatening to spike despite the tea and Katara's healings, as well as to distract herself from realizing that Zuko wasn't simply very ill- he was dying. She kept blinking more often than usual, to hold in her tears as she took in her loved one's profile lying as he was before her in feverish stupor. Even his shallow, forced breathing was heard less and less, in that gentle lull towards oblivion that dying in one's sleep was.
Just who are you holding your tears back for? He isn't awake to notice. She swallowed as she removed the dried up cloth from Zuko's brow, and unconsciously dabbed at her own scorching eyes with it before dunking it in the bowl again.
"Damn you, Azula," she whispered into the air, and then, after a pause: "Damn you too, Katara! What the hell where you thinking, idiotic peasant?"
She bit her lip, feeling guilty the moment she had uttered that last damnation, knowing she was being unfair, knowing that Zuko would have jumped in front of anyone if his insane sister were shooting lightning at them to get to him. And the girl had been trying so much to save him all this time, Mai couldn't well keep her ire towards her. Sighing, she passed her hand once through Zuko's shaggy hair that was spilling around his head upon the pillow and swallowed, wondering just what she would do if Katara really did fail, if she did end up losing him the moment she had had him back. Mai just didn't want to think about that for too long.
She heard the commotion of Iroh's arrival outside, and general hubbub of words and news being exchanged, and for a moment she was torn between emerging to find out if new hope had arrived and staying with Zuko. She looked at him. He was paler than she ever remembered him to be, his closed eyes seeming sealed forever. Only his scar that marred the handsome features still stood out in the same dark colour of burned, branded flesh. His lips were parted slightly, to allow for his ever softening gasps. His head was weighing heavily into the pillow.
Mai swallowed again, glanced once more towards the door and then smiled softly.
"I'm not going anywhere, Zuko," she said in her usual calm tones. "If they have something to tell us, they'll get in here."
I will not risk returning to find you gone.
True enough, it wasn't too long before the door burst open, Sokka erupting in the room with so much noise it nearly made Mai whip out her shuriken.
"Mai! We're gonna wake up your beau!" Sokka grinned, his voice scaling octaves on demand. "Well, they are going to do it, Suki and I are here to just pin him down- or pin you down, we'll see," he giggled incomprehensibly, and Mai peered past him hopefully, for someone more coherent to enter and tell her what was going on.
Everyone seemed to come in behind the Water Tribe warrior, spilling into the room and filling it to the point it felt too small. Iroh, Aang and Katara took positions around Zuko's prone form, and Toph shoved her way next to her.
"Move over, healing duty trumps moping duty," she said cheekily, and Mai still hadn't found her voice.
Aang smiled at her encouragingly, and Katara nodded to Sokka, who uncovered Zuko before kneeling by his head and pressing carefully on his shoulders in a tentative pin. Zuko didn't stir. Suki parted his night gown to expose the scarred chest once more. Then, she took hold of the firebender's ankles, making sure the feet were pointing away from her body.
"What are you going to do? Katara?"
"I am going to heal him, Mai," Katara said decisively. "But I don't know how much it will hurt, or what reaction there will be while I bend the Spirit Water to basically reconstruct his artery. So I need him pinned."
Mai paused for a moment, and realized she had taken a few steps back and was now away from where Zuko was, surrounded by the ones he had fought with not too many days ago. Everyone except her.
"Is… there anything I can do?" she asked too feebly for her liking, and Katara glanced at her, as if the tone of her voice had conveyed something more than just her words.
Katara's mind raced for a moment- she hadn't thought of Mai at all in her plan to save Zuko, but could she deny Mai's unspoken plea to help? Mai was a warrior just like all of them, and the stakes were the highest for her. She was the one who had pledged her life with Zuko's and had run the highest risk of losing it for him. Could she tell her to just wait in the sidelines?
"Do you want to take Suki's place?" she found herself saying, with Suki immediately jumping up to relinquish her position.
Mai said nothing, but hurried to kneel and hold Zuko's ankles firmly pinned upon the futon. The skin was clammy there, and hot. The pulse was not quite the same in the two legs.
Katara watched Suki go stand at the door. She breathed in. The moment of truth had come. Everyone had their instructions, everyone was as ready as they would ever be- and so was she.
She uncorked the three vials and bended the water into a glistening silvery orb. The room had stilled, but the air was crackling with tension. Katara glanced around, as if to ensure and reassure, finally locking her eyes once with Aang. He nodded in encouragement, and Katara set her shoulders and sent the Spirit Water to wrap around Zuko's chest. She flexed her fingers and the band of water tightened. Zuko groaned, his features animated by the stab of pain, but not waking.
She turned to Toph.
"Go on, Toph," she said. Toph nodded, and with a sudden movement clenched her fist, pulling it upwards roughly towards the water around the unconscious firebender. The water immediately turned a milky light brown under the earthbender's influence, the particles of earth in the water energizing and releasing their power within it.
Katara's eyes went to Iroh next. The Dragon of the West nodded and, while Toph was still bending her element, he shoved his splayed palm towards the water too, and though no flame erupted from it, the milkyness within the water seemed to combust, and even more power was catalyzed into force, the power unleashed in it threatening to cause the water to evaporate. Katara groaned, the sensation of the bending shifting now as if she was stirring boiling water. She knew that if she lost even a little bit of concentration, the Spirit Water would evaporate.
She tightened the control over it, and with it tightened the band around Zuko, making him moan again and race for his breath.
The water was now looking like liquid fire more than anything else, for both Toph and Iroh were still bending their elements within the Water obeying Katara's will.
"Do it Aang!"
Aang waved his fingers gently towards the water, his gentle movement nothing like the sheer power he forced into the flaming liquid. The liquid fire shuddered, and Katara also shuddered, and the Spirit Water shifted and twisted under the simultaneous bending of four masters.
To Katara it felt as if the flesh upon her bones was boiling off while the Spirit Water, already far more powerful and difficult to control than regular water, now was becoming about a thousand times more …elemental. It took her all to keep it liquid, when every particle in it pushed against her will to be free and lost in the ethers. Sweat began trickling down her temples and back and the energy it took for her to keep control was nothing like she had before expended.
The Spirit Water looked like steam, though Katara knew it was still liquid.
It was Water encasing the power of all four elements, just like the Spirits had told Aang they should. It was the single most powerful thing Katara had come to wield.
And it was ready to be used.
She flexed her fingers in a twirling fashion, and the band of Spirit Water that could have been steam shivered in response.
"Upon my word," she whispered, "stop."
And she pulled her hand carefully back, causing the water to pull forward and Zuko to arch forward, and Sokka and Mai to tighten their grip to keep him pinned.
Toph, Iroh and Aang abruptly stopped bending as Katara shoved forward, her hand nearly slamming against Zuko's chest, and the whole of the water was forced in his chest, around his heart, and through and around his artery.
Zuko's eyes snapped open, yelling in reflex at pain so harsh that the yell was unable to express it, and therefore died out. Only his mouth remained wide, still yelling although no sound was coming out. Mai whimpered, feeling the Zuko's flesh shudder under her hands, but she still kept him firmly against the futon and from thrashing and making Katara's task harder. Sokka had a much harder time, because the impact of the water being bended within made Zuko convulse violently along with his attempts to react against it.
Katara's eyes were wide and dilated as she bended the water to heal, and heal fast and wholly. The artery collapsed under the pressure, but the water wrapped around, not allowing the blood to spill over, and the elements alive in it coaxed the cells to reconstruct, build the artery anew. The heart lurched and sent waves of hurt to Zuko's every nerve end, forcing him to sense and experience all of the pain the reversal of his death demanded as payment.
If Sokka and Mai had not kept Zuko on the mattress, he would have flailed around helplessly like cloth in stormy water. But they held him fast, and so he only shuddered, heaving against their grip, and groaned more to manage to breathe rather than yell.
And then, it was suddenly over.
Zuko's body remained still upon the mattress, and Katara gently raised her palms- and no water followed them, fully consumed in the healing. Katara leaned forward, panting heavily, and Aang rushed to her, holding her gently by the shoulders. Iroh held Zuko gently upwards in an effort to see if he was breathing, if he was better, if he was saved. Sokka stood back, visibly shaken. Mai wrung her fingers, and forgot to wipe her eyes.
Zuko's eyes were shut again, and he looked ashen- and very, very dead.
"K-katara…" Toph's voice sounded young and frightened. "His… his heart isn't beating, Katara!"
"No, Zuko!" Iroh shook the lax body with one violent, desperate move as Katara was scrambling up- and it seemed that this was what was needed.
Reflexively, Zuko convulsed and made a painful, gurgling sound that Iroh read correctly, and immediately turned Zuko over. A geyser of blood erupted from his nephew's mouth, and all the dead blood and tissue spilled out, as the firebender retched, then heaved in deep breaths with hoarse gasps- but he blinked and shivered, and he was awake.
"Zuko!" Iroh begged.
"Un…uncle," Zuko breathed, exhausted.
"You're okay! He's okay!" Mai said in the same time as Toph exclaimed:
"Got a strong heartbeat, Sweetness!"
Mai looked at Katara in thanks, though Katara was too busy crying out of relief to notice. Zuko stirred, trying to sit up, and Iroh helped him, even though his mind screamed to make his nephew lie down again.
Zuko's voice was hoarse with yelling and heavy with the exhaustion of physical hardship, but it was his, and it was strong despite everything.
So she dared look up.
Zuko's eyes were heavy lidded still, but bright with health rushing back to them.
"If you don't accept thanks for saving my life… then I will feel insulted," he half-bantered, though Katara was certain he actually meant what he said.
And so, she grinned and got up with Aang's help, saying:
"Well, let's just call the score between us even."
HA! FINISHED! I hope you liked what you read, and that it was a fun ride, even if one of the most volatile characters of the group was out of commission. :p
So, stay tuned to the end of this, because I got an important question for y'all- but before that, review replies, for both chapter 5 and 6!
The Alliegator: Thank you! And lo and behold, I'm done! I am happy you like the way I write the characters.
Ayame of the Azuma: Cliffy? That was no cliffy. She already SAID she'd heal him :P
Things24: Yes, pretty much :(
Dragowitch250: the whole healing issue with ATLA canon isn't very well explained. But the concept behind this, is that the Spirit Water can be turned into a 'cure-all' if all four elements in it are energized into a glowy 'healing state' so to speak, provided a master bender can keep the Spirit Water from evaporating AND bend it properly.
Omolara: Yes! That is exactly what I wanted conveyed! Strong friendship is a very rare thing- and being emotionally constipated (as Mai tends to be) doesn't mean you don't love.
AND NOW FOR THE QUESTION:
I kind of like writing ATLA stories, and there is a vast array of possibilities of where to go from now on. I was thinking something along the lines of 'Finding Ursa' and writing a 'next generation' fic. Complete with a new avatar. (he/she's going to be in the Water Tribe next, right?)BUT, with all the canon cast still being main characters.
OR, if you have any other ideas, feel free to throw them at me now, while the wheel is still turning. XD
So, that's that for now! Hope you liked it and reward me by dropping a note, and a suggestion about the next ATLA fic. ;)
See y'all soon!