Zuko couldn't remember how it had come to this. All he knew was that the pain, oh God the pain, was shooting through his chest and he had some vague recollection about lightening…But how did he get struck? Zuko groaned, moving slightly in a vain attempt to sit up before giving up. Finding it to be a futile effort, he decided to think. It had something to do with Azula, he was pretty sure of that.
Biting his lip as a fresh wave of pain spilled over him, recollection returned. Katara. She was there, and Azula tried to hurt her. He had blocked it. And Zuko felt pride, stirring gently in his chest, momentarily overriding the pain, because for once he had been the one helping. He had redirected the lightning. Katara was safe.
Or was she? He furrowed his brows, eyes still shut tightly against the world, listening. Yes, that was Azula's voice. And destruction, lots of destruction. That was expected, Azula never was good at holding in her temper. But that wasn't what Zuko needed to know. He was desperate; he had to know who she was fighting. If he had succeeded in protecting the girl who just recently had come to trust him. He required that knowledge. Zuko had to keep her safe.
He fought with his eyelids to open them, blue sparks dancing across his vision. For a moment he believed that it was a side effect of the blow he had been dealt. All too late, he remembered the color of the lightning Azula was so fond of.
Eyes fully open now, Zuko looked upwards, seeing lightning playing over his view. Azula was on the roof. Perfect. He had known how fragile she had been, how close to the breaking point. But now he knew that she was far, far beyond that point. Her sanity was lost, some way far behind her on this path she had chosen, as she threw bolt after bolt of lightning at her opponent.
It only took a quick look to the side to ascertain her adversary, despite his head refusing to turn. It was Katara; dodging around pillars that were swiftly being decimated by the girl he was ashamed to call his sister. And Zuko fought with all his strength to get up, to help, to send some burst of fire to distract Azula, to aid Katara's escape. For if there was one thing Zuko had wanted for the day, he wanted Katara to stay out of it. The Agni Kai had seemingly been the perfect solution. Only he would have been in the line of fire, Katara would have been safe.
(A part of him wondered why he would care so much if she got hurt. It wasn't the same as the concern he felt for Sokka, Aang, and everyone else who he had met. Zuko mused on whether it was because she was important to the Avatar. It wasn't really the answer, Zuko could feel that it was incorrect, but it was the safest story, and he was sticking to it until the end.)
And now Zuko could only watch, helplessly, as she avoided the lightning, using her waterbending as the last of her barriers were destroyed to avoid the deadly bolts. He was a prisoner in his own body, incapable of moving even his fingers, doomed to watch her… That thought trailed off. Zuko didn't know what the outcome of the day would be, but he'd be damned if he was going to dwell on it in what was sure to be his last few minutes on earth.
Yet suddenly, the lights stopped. And try as Zuko might, he could not see where they had gone. His amber eyes flickered quickly from side to side, taking in the carnage that was left from the once immaculate courtyard. But no figures were there to greet his eyes. For the first time he wished he saw as Toph did. At least then he would not have to wait in such suspense to see how it would end. Who would emerge from the destruction. Each moment was the purest agony, Zuko had never been used to emotional turmoil, a side effect of caring for very few people, and the new sensation was almost unbearable.
(Although really, Zuko thought that he might be okay with never knowing, as long as it kept Katara alive. Ignorance could be bliss, because if she died, he would never be capable of facing Aang or Sokka again. Hell, he'd never be able to look in the mirror without shame, and for once it wouldn't be the burned flesh over his left eye to evoke it.)
He struggled to sit up. The waiting was torturous, and with his hope slowly ebbing away he felt the pain return in earnest. Zuko moaned and laid back against the stones biting into his back. His chest felt as though it was on fire, an anticipated sensation, but unwelcome and nigh unbearable nonetheless.
Zuko's vision faded to black, and his eyes rolled up in his head. He made no effort to fight it. For if this was the end, he would welcome it. There was nothing left for him here anyway.
So Zuko embraced the sweet oblivion without any fear. And for once, he felt at peace.
The rest of the universe, it seemed, had other plans. Feeling slowly returned, the pain dulled by the slow return to consciousness. Zuko could not suppress a low moan in protest to his awakening.
It took him a few seconds to realize that his back was no longer being brutally abused by the stones of the courtyard and there was a cool feeling right over where the pain had been greatest. He forced his eyes open, it came much more easily than it had before, and was greeted with a lovely sight. Katara was bent over him, hands cloaked in shimmering water that was siphoning away his pain. And Zuko grinned, because no matter what else happened she was safe and he was alive, and for the moment no one else existed or mattered.
And Zuko was pleased to see her worried look desert her and leave a much happier expression upon her visage. He knew he should ask about Azula, ask what had happened, but that thought was shoved into the back of his mind. It could wait, the world could wait. He attempted to sit up, and Katara, noticing his movement, placed her arm at his back to aid him.
A long silence followed. Zuko knew he should probably say something, a thanks, tell her how glad he is that she's alive, but it's all that he can do to keep his amber eyes fixated upon her blue ones, and he wonders how pleasant it could be to drown in them. (But that's not his to wonder, because she is the Avatar's, no matter what that botched play might have said, and Zuko doesn't deserve someone so light and pure. He doesn't even know how he has merited these few brief moments, but he's not one to question when good things come to him.)
He sat up completely and looked around. A tattered fire nation flag waved feebly in the promise of a breeze, one of few signs of movement. But then there was Azula, raging, and Zuko could see the chains Katara bound her with and almost nodded in approval. Even the lightning that burst from Azula's mouth in her dismal attempts at escape failed to worry him, and he realized how far he had come from his childhood days. Zuko stood, and turned away from that sight, choosing to leave her for someone else to deal with. Katara took a step forward and turned slightly so that he could meet her eyes.
She cleared her throat embarrassedly and Zuko looked away, familiar enough with the look in her eyes to know that his stare was making her uncomfortable. "So," she asked, voice ragged from disuse but growing stronger as she went on. "How is your chest?" And just the faintest pink stole over her cheeks and Zuko wanted to grin because after all they had just been through together it was still the sight of his bare chest that would cause her this discomfiture.
He only allowed the silence to reign for a few moments before he broke it, answering her query. "Much better," he replied, and his voice was in worse shape than her own, but the sound paled in comparison to the hacking cough that erupted from his throat, causing Katara's grip on his arm to tighten. He wanted to moan in pain as her hold became uncomfortably vise-like but he stifled it, allowing her to remain unaware of his suffering. If it were up to Zuko he'd stay there forever, but life was calling them both back as he heard the sounds of a battle dying down snapping them both back to the reality of the moment.
Katara stood, brushing off the fine white dust that had settled upon her clothes with one hand as the other retained her grip. Zuko readjusted himself so that he was sitting up straight, and she slowly took away her hand, a loss that he felt keenly as his upper arm grew cold. For a minute he thought she was going to turn away, ready to leave and search for the others, but a soft light came into her eyes as she stretched a hand down.
At first Zuko simply stared at the appendage as though it was a foreign object until Katara offered him a smile, and he felt the corners of his own mouth twinge in response.
And he reached up his callused hand to clasp hers.