A/N: If you like action and fighting and fire, you're in luck! There's plenty of all that in this chapter. Maybe some water, too… ;) Now is the perfect time to mention what I envision Zuko's themesong to be – the lyrics certainly apply: 'You Won't Feel A Thing' by The Script. The title of this chapter even comes from that amazing song.
Disclaimer: Nope, I own nothing copyrighted.
Chapter 23: If I Fall Here
If, the previous year, someone had told Katara that she would befriend the long-lost Avatar and kiss the prince of the Fire Nation and watch an Agni Kai for its throne, she would have probably run in the other direction. Or attempted to waterbend at them, perhaps only succeeding in giving them an icy, irritating soak due to her extreme lack of skill.
But this was real, and beyond anything she could have ever imagined.
Azula began by drawing a gnarled hand back above her head and forcing it forward. Blue flames poured from her palm, quickly growing to twice her height and stronger than if it were a line of komodo rhinos charging across the courtyard. Katara lifted her arms to shield her face, the blinding light and heat bringing moisture to her eyes. Zuko, however, was used to fire rushing at his face, threatening to sear eyes. He did not flinch. He was no longer a whimpering boy crouching on a platform before his hateful father as he tearfully begged for mercy. Zuko leaped forward and thrust his arms out in the shape of an arrow – he cut through his sister's wall of fire, parting it as easily as a curtain.
Azula narrowed her eyes. "You've been practicing, I see, little brother," she called, a hand cupped around her mouth.
Zuko snorted, her insult failing to bother him as he drew closer. "And you've lost touch with reality. You banished your servants before they even had time to prepare the courtyard." He glanced around the grimy, undecorated plaza; the four long water troughs running along its length, two on each side, that were filled with stagnant rainwater; and the banners the Sages had discarded before fleeing. "I thought you of all people would ascend the throne in style."
Her frame shook and she clenched her fists. This was clearly a sensitive topic. "Don't you dare mock me, you fool!" she spat. "You're a worse traitor than the rest of them!" With that, she started wildly hurling fire at him.
He darted ahead, dodging with the ease of countless practice hours and an entire year of watching an airbender dance around his attacks. Zuko sent a burst of orange at her, her rhythm breaking as she crossed her arms in an 'x' to deflect it. Over the next minutes, a fierce exchange occurred – sweeping kicks, blazing whips, even a stream of fire from Zuko's mouth. And all the while, the combatants had not a single scratch – but that impressive record was to end.
One arm pointed forward rigidly so that his palm faced the musty brick floor; the balled fist of the other arm pushed down from the level of the neck to slide along the length of the rigid arm; and streaks of flame gathered on his fist along the way. But there was also heat building beneath the open palm – when the closed fist reached the end, the palm lifted and both joined together to create a vicious spout of fire.
Zuko's unusual move, akin to the lighting of a match, took Azula by surprise. "Argh!" Pounding her in the chest, it sent her flying back, inky hair coming loose as she crumpled to the floor on her stomach. But after hitting the ground… she did not move. She simply laid there, ill-cut hair concealing her face.
Katara frowned, eyes widening, back straightening as she made to rise from her seat on the stone stands. Surely he had not…? No, that move could not have defeated Azula so easily – it must have been quite an impact, but it could not have killed her. Right?
Rooted in place, Zuko bore a frown with less confusion than Katara's. Azula was wearing armour, expensive and fashionable for the occasion, but he knew it suited its function of protection. His move could not have taken her life, especially considering that it was Azula's life – even at the Western Air Temple when she had been tumbling to her death, she was resourceful enough to whip off her headpiece and use it to snag a hold on the cliff. He had no doubt that she was taking shallow breaths, this time, so that he would not notice; waiting for him to come closer and feel her wrath. No, Zuko's frown showed curiosity as to why she would resort to such a childish strategy.
Maybe he had not fully comprehended the extent to which her mind was disturbed.
With a sigh, he assumed a stance and edged towards her sprawled figure. "You're not tricking anyone, Azula. Get up. I can't fire at you when you're lying there."
She did not lift her face, but she did respond. He knew the sound of her smile. "Aw, how honourable. You conform to the rules of Agni Kai even when you know it will mean your defeat."
"Tch. I guess I've-"
Azula let out a yell as she cut him off, scissoring her legs to knock him off balance. As fluid as a cat, she got to her feet and laughed as he toppled to the ground with a grunt. And to Katara's horror, she uncurled two fingers on each hand and began tracing circles in the air, electric blue sparks trailing in their wake. "Oh, I'm sorry!" She sneered as he propped himself on his elbows. "Was it not honourable of me to interrupt you, Zuzu?" The air around her body crackling with energy to her satisfaction, just waiting to erupt from her fingertips, Azula released a noisy breath and stabbed her fingers out.
Katara frantically leaped to her feet. "Zuko!"
But he was already rolling to the side, evading the jet of energy; where he had lain, an enormous crack was gouged into the ground. He pushed to his feet, coughing as dust clouded the area; dust from which Azula then emerged, twitching, a blood-chilling expression of wonderment on her face as she stumbled on the crack in the bricks. He lifted a leg and kicked flame at her, gritting his teeth, the dust clearing as she retorted with a shot of blue fire from her palm.
The flames collided in an explosion that sent brother and sister skidding back – Zuko slipped on a puddle of rainwater leaking from the trough a few feet away, falling forward on his knees, but his palms met the stone harshly. He winced and leaned on his haunches to scrutinise the cuts on his hands. Glancing past his hair, he found Katara's eyes heavy on him as she willed herself to stay put and not interfere in the Agni Kai. He curled his fingers into his palms, closing his hands, ignoring the sickening squelch of blood from his wounds, and stood, his eyes never leaving hers.
She gave him the slightest inclination of her head, speaking with her look. Are you all right?
He nodded. Letting her win is not an option. His gaze was ripped from hers when lightning struck the ground right beside him.
Azula's cackle entered his ears. "You surely didn't think I'd give you a rest, did you?"
"Of course not."
"It looks like you took one, anyway." Azula's lips curled mockingly. "Funny, I didn't know you had a taste for filthy Water Tribe peasants."
Zuko's anger reared, teeth baring. Flinging his arm out, he produced a fire whip, seized it with his bloody hand and brought it down, aiming to strike her shoulder, but she leapt agilely out of the way. "Don't talk about her like that!"
"Or what? You'll call me a monster, like Mother?" She laughed but, as he cracked the whip again, sparks springing from where she stood a mere second before, he saw that mentioning their mother brought her pain. The feeling briefly flitted across her face before she continued her taunting. "Even if you do somehow beat me, Zuzu, the people would never accept her as your wife. Doesn't that make you sad?"
"Don't worry yourself with that," he said, hardly, between another strike.
The next time the whip came down, Azula only had to twist her body, the orange flame barely licking the black and gold armour guarding her back. She tossed her hair over her shoulder as she faced him, poison in her eyes despite her smile. "Aw…" She clicked her tongue. "Are you going to kill me?" Chuckle. "You'd murder your baby sister? Hmm, I wonder what Uncle Iroh would say – oh, I wonder how many presents Father would give you for beating me!" Something in her smile faltered. "He'll finally welcome you as-"
"Shut your mouth, now!" Zuko growled and shot blasts of fire at her, each knot of flame an embodiment of his fury.
She laughed maniacally as she punched each one away, and decided to end the series of blasts with a slicing arc of fire; Zuko bent backwards to recoil, the arc just grazing his throat. She bent her knees slightly and dropped her hands, rotating them in circles until spinning discs of burning blue formed at her sides – and dashing forward, she set them loose in Zuko's path. Still recovering from his previous move, a breath left Zuko as he messily kicked off the ground, the discs clashing beneath him as he landed in a crouch in front of the collision.
Reflexes told him to fire as soon as he rose but, to his surprise, his shred of fire tilted off course to whisper against a pillar – because Azula's wrist collided with his.
Katara's feet had now carried her to the bottom of the stands, a few paces from a restless Appa. Cold sweat speckled her palms, her eyes glued to the scene – the first contact – with her nerves tingling and heartbeat thrumming in her ears. The dark fear inside her fluctuated.
Panting, he frowned at Azula. "What are you doing?" It was uncommon for an Agni Kai to progress with hand-to-hand combat. And he did not like to admit it, but he was not expecting – or wanting – to fight her this way. There was a tremendous sense of finality about this type of attack, as it could only have one decisive end – and she would fight her best and not think twice about killing him; and he would have to rebut and choose to imprison her or end her life. After Aang's aversion to killing and what his uncle said yesterday and what she said a few minutes ago, it was inhumane to murder a sibling for a throne… But she would be aiming to do just that. He was willing to take any measures to keep his life and country – and he knew that if he did not kill her, she would certainly kill him.
He sighed. This was an inconvenient time to be filled with his infamous inner conflict.
She adopted her signature smile of superiority, causing memories of childhood at the Fire Palace to ghost across his mind. "You aren't aware?" she asked sweetly, before her tone deepened to something cutting and gruff and unlike her usual cultured tone… Animalistic. "This is the part where I destroy you with my bare hands!"
Tears of relief welled in Sokka's eyes as he yelled the name of the Kyoshi Warrior he would marry if they got out of this alive. Waving and grinning, she steered a war balloon, with its heavily dented armour and metalwork shaped into a scowling dragon; it was perhaps one of many stored in each airship for emergency escapes. Thank the Spirits. He did not care that he was a teenage boy and he was crying – Toph, trembling in the shelter of his left arm, would not be able to see or feel it; her arms were wrapped around his chest in an iron grip, blind to her surroundings save for Sokka. He knew that being in the air scared her, but this time it was different. This time, there was no friendly sky bison to scoop them up if they fell.
As for Suki… After the colossal airship had been split in two, separating her from them, he had been quite sure that he had lost her. As smoke and air from the turbines chopped around them, the atmosphere thick and smothering, he had been filled with such a great dread that he had nearly let Toph slip from his grasp to go tumbling over the edge and into the ocean… And he knew that was unacceptable. He would never let that happen – rather him than her, the stout earthbender he had come to love as a sister.
And so, after struggling to stay alive and not get hurt too gravely, Sokka and Toph found themselves clinging onto one of the large wooden spikes decorating the head of the airship, now drifting idly in midair – but an explosion a few moments before spotting Suki told him that that would not be the case for much longer. Sokka tightened his right arm's hold around the spike, and used his left to crush Toph in a hug. "It's gonna be okay now – she's here. Suki's back."
Toph's face broke into a smile, her little hand clutching his sleeve. "I wondered what all that screaming was about. She okay?"
Sokka glanced uneasily at his shaking right arm, which had begun to ache. He was uncertain as to how long he could hold on for, even though he knew he had to… "Yeah, and now we need to make sure you are too – argh!" Sokka jerked as another explosion sounded within the airship, causing the area directly in front of them to burst into flames, wood and metal flying into the air. He turned their bodies away, tucking his head lower, as heat and splinters washed over them. Panting, he cautiously raised his head. "Are you hurt, Toph?"
"N-No…" She was trembling. "Sokka, is that heat over there… fire?"
"Yeah, it is," said Sokka, looking away from the steadily nearing flames. "It's not only falling we have to worry about now, meaning we have to find a safe way to get off this thing. Just stay still, Toph, and-"
"Whoa, what? What are you gonna do?" Her grip on his sleeve tightened threateningly.
"Shush! It won't take long – you just need to stay still while I toss you over to Suki-"
"You're going to throw me off this damn airship?" she demanded. "Hey, no offence, and I know this isn't the time to diss you and all – but you're not exactly the strongest and I'm not exactly a sack of potatoes."
Sokka huffed. "You're right – this isn't the time, Toph! This airship is collapsing and making boom sounds behind us. Do you want to die in a fire?"
"And I know you aren't fond of drowning, either. Suki!" Sokka yelled, noticing that his fiancée was steering her war balloon closer with some difficulty, putting her full weight into yanking a lever. "Can you hear me?"
"What is it?" she shouted back, cupping her hands around her mouth.
Sokka shrugged Toph up so that her feet dangled slightly off the ornate spike – but the movement caused it to bend, hanging dangerously lower over the debris-ridden sea. No longer in a standing position, Sokka's cheek pressed into the wood, his legs scrabbling and curling until he straddled the structure. But Toph's legs swung freely, hands coming up to wildly clutch at his arm – all that was holding her up – and with screams, they both felt pangs of fear and adrenaline ricochet through them. Heart pounding, Sokka hurriedly hoisted her up so that she could hook her toes into a groove, providing momentary support for herself. He jerked his head up to Suki, who stood with wide eyes, hands covering her mouth. "I'm going to throw Toph to you!"
She nodded, setting her hands on the steering wheel until she hesitated. "Are you sure?"
Sokka glanced around for emphasis. "Uh, yeah, I'm pretty sure, Suki!"
Suki nodded once gravely. "All right." Fiddling with a few gears, she coaxed her war balloon into a slow advance.
"Wait, that's enough," said Sokka, stopping her.
Her eyebrows furrowed. "Why? I can still come closer."
"Only a little bit, but the balloon will catch on fire." He cocked his head towards the roaring flames behind him, before meeting her gaze and giving her a reassuring smile. "It's all right." He did not mention how the sweat was building as the fire drew nearer, heat creeping along the wood, flickering but an inch from his foot. This needs to be fast. "Get ready, Toph."
Suki did not return his smile, because she knew better, and firmly pulled on the brake lever. Sokka studied the distance between them as Suki held out a firm hand – it was only a few feet. Toph would make the distance, as well as himself if he jumped. But the new angle at which the spike dipped did not allow him to pass on Toph without being unbalanced – unless he could find a way to stand…? He threw his head back to look over his shoulder – there was no other choice: The spike would come off completely in mere moments, and the heat was starting to burn his leg, his teeth sinking into his lip to stifle a noise of pain. And he would not let Toph fall.
That was unacceptable.
Swallowing and breathing deeply, he ignored the ache in his arm and steadily rose, planting a palm against the wood and pushing himself up, knees straining around the spike. With both arms around Toph, he shakily sat upright, leaned back as far as he could manage – and with a last whisper of "I'll see you in a bit", he heaved the earthbender out into the air.
The only thing keeping Toph from screaming and flailing as she flew through dark, hot nothingness was Sokka's advice of staying still. And his quiet words to her before his arms disappeared – his effort to reassure her was nice, but she knew that he was lying. Well, half-lying, anyway. Her arms outstretched, she shut her eyes against ashes and sparks, and before she knew it, she was met with a sure hand grasping her elbow and a slim arm curving around her shoulders, hauling her upwards; she winced as her legs smacked into the body of the war balloon. Toph instinctively locked her arms around Suki's neck as the older girl deposited her on the basket's floor. The similar certainty and strength of their grips made it somewhat realistic for Toph to have confused Suki and Sokka for one another, so long ago when she had almost drowned.
As Toph sat on the metal floor, she rubbed her legs and felt grateful for the return of her personal brand of sight. Suddenly, she heard the wrenching crash she had been preparing for, a scream, a yell from Sokka which gradually faded with distance… and once again, she felt grateful that she did not have the sight to be able to behold the horror on Suki's tearstained face, or an expression she would not be able to read the further Sokka fell.
Eyes remaining closed, Toph hugged her knees to her chest.
Whatever had overcome Azula made her a savage fighter.
Instead of possessing calculated fluidity, her movements were choppy and brutal, grunts pushing past her teeth with each strike. Every attack the one made was blocked by the other, fire lying under their flesh for an added sting upon coming into contact with their opponent. Knocked back, Azula kicked her leg out; it was swatted away by Zuko's, and when that same leg landed, he lifted the other in another kick aimed at her shoulder. Like a snake, she ducked under it and slid behind him – as he pivoted to face her, her hand sliced across his face and opened his lip. In the split-second that he was dazed, she gave a leap and kicked, ramming her boot hard into Zuko's chest – as he cried out, flying backwards to fetch up against a trough, he could have sworn he saw blue sparks leaving her foot upon impact.
With the raw power in her offence and the armour to protect her, he could not afford to be caught off-guard like this.
But he had sparse time to think, as a pair of cold hands suddenly closed around his throat – and his head was plunged into the murky water of the trough. He could hear the triumphant cackling past the water muffling his ears. A swarm of bubbles escaped his mouth as he fought against Azula's firm grip, his hands grabbing and swiping at where he estimated her face to be, but it felt as if she were placing her entire weight behind her attempt to drown him.
Just as he thought that this was the end, that his death would be cheap and watery, a particular memory kept skidding around his brain, but he struggled to grapple its meaning. It was a duel – with Katara – that seemed to emerge from another lifetime; wherein he had lifted his leg to release a stream of fire, and she had placed her hands on his shoulders, boosting herself off the ground to avoid his flames, curving her body ever upward… As he choked underwater, Zuko realised his hands were doing the wrong thing.
Black etched at his vision, but with a scowl of effort he pushed past it and lowered his hands to the rim of the trough. Bracing himself against it, he heaved his body upwards, driving his knee into her abdomen and simultaneously lifting her off her feet, launching her over the trough to land elsewhere with a howl. His thighs stung as they hit the opposite rim, but he – thankfully – graced the surface world once more. Zuko pulled himself upright, coughing and spluttering, chest hurting, and neck sore where her nails had dug in. Running a hand through his wet hair, he scrambled from the trough onto unsteady feet.
But he was not met with a reprieve, for a livid Azula stood a few yards away, a bleeding gash in her marble cheek from where it dragged on the bricks of the courtyard. Yet it was not this demented sight which startled him – from her quivering hands hung a chain, each link glinting in the torchlight. Hissing, she lunged forward – and the chains were binding his arms to his body. He tried in vain to struggle, but the pain in his chest was beginning to burn and his vision was blurry from deprivation of air…
On the stands, Katara was sickened with the heavy feelings within – terrifying and dark, they reared their heads. I knew something bad was going to happen, they whispered, urging her feet across the impossibly large space to where Zuko slouched in a chain. Azula's lips were moving, but Katara could not hear her – only her own breathing, a strange rustling noise, in and out of her lungs. "Zuko!" she shouted, but it sounded faraway. "Zuko, snap out of it!" It was as though he could not hear her – had she screamed at all? Azula did not acknowledge that she heard…
Oh, the heaviness inside Katara was overwhelming. She barely registered how her arms swooped up as she ran, swiping Azula with an enormous gush from the trough, crushing her against a pillar and freezing her in place with a thick layer of ice. Katara did not hear the curses spilling from Azula's mouth, the enraged screams as she writhed. She only focused on Zuko, slumping to his knees, the chain around him slackening.
"Zuko," Katara whispered. She dropped into a crouch beside him, unwinding the chain, the dark fog in her mind clearing. She had to be alert. She wet her lips, yanking the last length of chain away and tossing it to the side, before wrapping her arms around his shoulders. "I couldn't let her do that. She can't win. I don't care if I broke the rules of Agni Kai-"
He coughed against her shoulder. "It's okay, Katara," he responded weakly. "It's fine."
And then everything happened at once.
His head snapped up and he was suddenly putting all his energy into shoving Katara to the side. She stumbled over the bricks, falling on her back and, propping herself on her elbows, she saw the lightning bolt pierce Zuko as he forced himself to his feet. Katara knew nothing of bending lightning, but intuition told her that his reflexes were not quick enough in his weakened state to redirect all of it, a much thinner bolt channelling off into the air from his convulsing hands. Katara started forward as Zuko collapsed, her eyes burning as if electric blue light still bounded over her face. But before she could reach him, Azula, now free, fired a second bolt of lightning that struck right where the waterbender's foot was about to step.
Katara shielded her face as rubble and dust clouded around her. A frustrated growl entered her ears – and Azula was directly in front of her. Katara gasped, recoiling, her hand flying to the side and summoning a water whip – with more force than necessary, she knocked Azula off her feet and released the water to splash over the Fire Nation princess.
Without thinking over her actions, Katara wheeled and dashed for a water trough; she raised her arms, the water mimicking the action, softening the slap as she threw herself into the trough. Submerging herself could be considered cowardly, but she needed to gather her thoughts. She needed to. How would she heal Zuko with Azula ready to melt her head off? And a worse thought was the matter of whether it was too late… Using waterbending to breathe underwater, the fear churned at Katara's very core.
Death was a curious sensation, Sokka decided, for lack of a better description. He could not put a name to what was happening to him, but whatever it was, it was certainly shiny. And very blue. Yes, lots and lots of blue, all around him. Perhaps he could be optimistic for once – this was an appropriate death for a Water Tribe warrior, and honourable considering the circumstances. Ironically, he chose right at the very end to be optimistic, when he had one foot in the Spirit World… if the Spirit World accepted him. Surely it would – the time he had spent there could not have been for nothing, but it would be so like the Spirit World to shut him out for fun. He wondered if all dead people went there – then there would be no reason to deny him.
Sokka shook his head and clicked his tongue. He did not really want to go there anyway; there were no bathrooms and familiar meats. "Well, it's official. Optimism sucks."
"Sometimes you're optimistic even when you don't realise it."
Sokka started and tried to turn around, but found that his body was not moving properly. With a gasp, he discovered that he was underwater; and although he had gasped, water had not entered his mouth and flooded his lungs to drown him. He was simply… floating, suspended limply in an orb of water that sparkled brighter than the dark depths into which he had plunged. As he processed this knowledge, he was noticing more – how he could just barely make out the calamitous world beyond the surface, and the pair of gentle, frail hands lightly holding his own in an almost ghostly demeanour.
He gasped (again) and did not choke (again) as he beheld her face. "Yue…"
Indeed, the spirit of the moon hovered before him, glowing with the same brightness of the glittering water. She smiled that timid yet radiant smile of hers. "Hello, Sokka. I'm glad I can speak with you again."
And he tried to speak, but felt his voice cracking. Here she was, his first love who had vanished into the Spirit World with their parting kiss. His heart felt a pang of remembrance, but… "Yue," he said again, in a murmur, before clearing his throat and speaking up. "What… How are you here right now?"
"It may not be my time in the sky just this moment, but I watch over you sometimes, when I feel you looking at me at night or if I sense that you are in danger. I always want to keep you and your friends safe – and right now, Sokka…" She paused, glancing down briefly before raising her eyes with a stronger air about her, one that had become part of her when she became the moon. "Right now, you aren't safe. You and Katara."
"Katara?" he spluttered, dread leaking into him. "What do you mean? Is she hurt?"
Yue's eyes were kind but sad. "No, but she will be. I sense that her life force will become what yours is at present."
Sokka's eyes widened slowly. "How bad is my life force?" he asked quietly.
"I felt you on the verge of entering the Spirit World."
"A-Am I in the Spirit World right now?"
"No, Sokka. I prevented it. You are currently one step into the Spirit World. It would take another step to either enter it or stay behind and live a life."
Sokka could not help a smile – he had totally been right. "So… what now? I didn't know you could, uh, stop death."
She chuckled. "Trust me, if you hadn't been to the Spirit World before, I would never have been able to sense you and your loved ones as I can. But even so, everything is connected."
Sokka snorted. "Tell me about it. Are Suki and Toph okay?"
"They are doing well. There is another thing I'd like to tell you… Sokka, you have my blessing to marry Suki. The harvest moon will smile fondly on your wedding day, and it would bring me joy to see you and her happy."
Sokka's smile fell. "But Yue…" Another pang in his chest. He grimaced, feeling uneasy as he looked at her. "You're here right now. What does that mean for… us?"
She smiled. "You loved me once, and I you, but your place is there." She released hold of his right hand and pointed up at the surface. "Your heart remembers me – I can feel it and I'm glad for it. But it is not love your heart feels for me – care, yes. You treasured what we had a time ago, and I do too. But you and Suki love each other, and I am so happy that you do. It would take one step to go with me, but I don't want you to take that step especially because you, yourself, do not." She took his hand again. "And I saved you because I know that the life that awaits you there is amazing, and you deserve to live it."
As Sokka stared at her, he felt a warm relief and found himself wanting to cry – yes, he knew that he did not love her as he once did, but she was definitely precious to him, and the beauty of what she was doing struck him hard. She had saved him from dying, brought him back from the very clutches of death. Sokka nodded vigorously and threw his arms around her shoulders. "Thank you, Yue. Thank you so much. That's not enough, I know, but thank you. I'll never forget this – or you, and-"
She laughed and carefully disengaged him, taking his hands once more. "Be careful, Sokka, you can't let go of me until I bring you to complete safety. Otherwise, you'll have no choice but to enter the Spirit World. And…" She paused, smiling to herself. "You're very welcome. I promised myself I'd do my best to protect you, your friends and your family. You were good to me."
Sokka looked down. "You said Katara was in danger… Could you go to her, like you came to me?"
"I don't know if she would see me – she does not have a strong connection to the Spirit World, and the danger she is in has not brought her to the brink of death yet. But I fear it will. I'll try to help her before it's too late."
Sokka sighed, calmed with relief and gratitude (again). "You have no idea how grateful I am, Yue."
She patted his hand. "It's time to go now."
With his hand firmly in hers, Yue turned and twirled her free hand in graceful circles, conjuring a current of water. The luminescent silks wafting about her body and her shimmering hair trailed behind them as they sped in a horizontal direction – strange, Sokka thought, that they were not making for the surface. As the current carried them swiftly and loyally, Sokka suddenly recalled how a different kind of current had dragged him beneath the waves to his supposed doom… It made him cringe.
After a while, Yue's hand manipulating the water slowed and relaxed, and they glided along at a steadier pace. Finally, they came to a stop – and as Sokka looked around, he realised with a shock that only blackness now surrounded them. But Yue looked at him evenly and smiled that same smile, before lifting his hand to her lips, dabbing a light kiss on it. As she began to drift into the air, her fingers slipping from his, she said, "Goodbye, Sokka, and good luck. You're safe now."
He opened his eyes.
The Water Tribe warrior bolted upright, coughing and spluttering water, fistfuls of sand clutched beside him. His chest heaved and burned, and as he whipped his head around, he took in his surroundings. Sokka was now on the shore, away from the flaming wreckage of airships that had by now crashed into the sea – away from death. He fidgeted in the sand, and saw with dismay that he had lost his boots and wolf helmet, his hair wet and free and pasted to his face. His shoulders slumped, then, as he sighed with relief (again).
"What? You f-feel Sokka? Where?"
"On the beach. I told you, my sandbending's pretty great now. I'm sure it's him – and he feels alive enough."
"Sokka!" Footsteps began to run. "Sokka!"
"Hey, wait up! Don't let him see you've been crying!"
Sokka's face broke into a huge grin, but as he opened his mouth to respond to Suki's shouts, he simultaneously made to stand up – and learned, quite painfully, that his leg had been broken. Sokka's head fell back as he clasped his leg. "ARGHHHHHH!"
Katara trembled in the cold water, lying at the bottom of the trough with her hands tensed before her, ready to shoot forth a spike of ice and impale any foe who found her. Crying was the last thing on her spinning mind – she was trying and failing to think of a strategy. The sound of lightning echoed in her ears, pounding at her brain together with Azula's laughter; and shocking blue light lingered in her vision each time she blinked. Her left eye, in particular, was aching heavily, perhaps an effect of Azula's lightning blast. These were of no help to her frantic strategising – and neither did they allay the coiling darkness in her gut.
Katara's shoulders tensed. Where had that ghostly voice come from? It sounded nothing like Azula or Zuko or Aang – no one she recognised. It had a strong, significantly feminine sound, but a hundred other voices whispered and sang along with it, in that single word.
Rise, it urged again. This time, the feminine voice entered her ears stronger than before. It almost sounded like…
A fire sparked in Katara's chest, steadily building, melting the cold dread that had driven her moments ago. A knot inside her stomach was unravelling, unwinding. Her mind was clear and crisp again. Her trembling ceased and steel entered her eyes, past the ache in her left and the memory of deadly lightning. She looked to her left and right, glaring at the enclosing walls of the trough, the dirty water in which she had immersed herself to escape Azula's wrath… Zuko was out there, the life draining from him with every second that went by because Azula had shot him. And if Azula won, millions would die.
And Katara had to stop her. Facing the surface, the waterbender scowled and dropped her hands to her sides. "I won't hide." Her hands began to work, building energy beneath her skin. Bubbles fizzing about her mouth, the ghostly voice unearthed words from the past which Katara found herself saying: "I will never, ever turn my back on people who need me."
Rise, Katara, and fight. Don't give up. The voice rang clear, and with a small smile, Katara knew to whom it belonged.
"Don't worry, Yue. I won't."
Katara flung her hands up and felt the power rushing through her chi paths, generating a powerful surge of water behind her. The water blasted upwards, carrying her so that she was lifted out of the trough. After coming into contact with the hot air outside, she twisted the water so that she was moved into a standing position, perching fearlessly on the crest of the wave she suspended beneath her, towering from the trough.
Opposite Katara, at a break between two troughs, the Fire Nation princess had a gnarled hand resting on one of the pillars lining the courtyard, body ducked in an exaggerated manner as she peered around it. As soon as she heard the sound of water, she whipped her head over her shoulder and took in the sight of Katara with a malignant grin. Azula turned her whole body and began to walk, menacingly, towards the waterbender. "There you are at last, you filthy scum."
A quick glance to her right told Katara that a groaning Zuko lay at the end of the courtyard, out of range of what she was about to do next. In the space of a single second, deciding that Azula was close enough, Katara firmed her control over the water and gave a small jump. In midair, she brought her right foot down and gave the wave a vicious kick forward, simultaneously thrusting her arms out – the wave pounded forward with enough strength to hold Azula off.
Kicking her right foot had provided leverage for Katara to somersault and land in a crouch behind the trough, and she watched as Azula screamed, the wave smashing into her. Katara's chest was heaving but without further pause, she leaped over the trough to land smoothly on the other side. She darted forward, boots smacking on the bricks, to where Azula was recovering from being dashed against the metal grates, covering the underground channels, behind her. Leaning on her hands, she glared at the impassive Katara, and with a snarl flung a fist out to possibly burn the girl's face off while she stood there.
But Katara had anticipated it. Calmly, she lifted her hand and brought Azula's body under her control, a light plucking motion constraining the princess' body into an arch, her head yanked back as she was forced to kneel.
"W-What is this power? What are you doing?" she demanded, hysteria rising. "What is this, you water witch?"
Katara walked forward, momentarily uncertain how to keep her subdued while she tended to Zuko, until she spotted the chains attached to the heavy metal grates. That's what she used to bind Zuko before. Stooping, Katara motioned so that Azula's wrists clamped behind her back, before tightening the chains around her wrists and ankles. Azula began to weep messily when Katara broke off her bloodbending, ensuring she was secured, and whirled and dashed across the courtyard. Alone, Azula escalated to a tantrum, continuing to ramble and wail and scorn Katara, who knew that in this state she would never find a way to break free.
Meanwhile, Katara almost reached Zuko when her speeding heart urged her along even faster – because Zuko had stopped groaning. As she ran, she pulled water from the humid air around her. A cold sweat formed all over her body, and her breath came in gasps, and her eye was still hurting, and moist heat was building in both eyes, and she just hoped and hoped that he was going to be okay.
She dropped to her knees beside him and turned him onto his back, pressing two fingers to his neck – it was still warm, but… but there was no pulse. Katara's eyes widened as she summoned more water to pool around her hands, and she pressed them to the savage burn on his chest, right where his heart should beat. "Please, Zuko," she whispered, the healing water bright with a purity she had not seen in Azula's lightning bolt. "It can't be like this. I-It can't.
"Please, live," she pleaded, shutting her eyes, tears running down her cheeks, forcing more energy than she had into healing Zuko back to life. This could not be happening. Not now. Not at all. It can't. He was alive and breathing a few moments ago. It could not just end like this, over here, before she had told him…
Katara choked out a sob, salty tears dripping into her mouth, as she felt her strength waver – but she had to carry on. Yue had even asked her to. She would not stop until he was okay. "Zuko…" she whispered, calling out to him, knowing that no matter what, she could not give up. She opened her eyes, but his remained closed, not a flutter of the lashes, and the cut on his silent lips was startling red with blood. "Don't leave me alone after the end."
Tears fell from her eyes to mix with the healing water, a glow she refused to let die.
I don't want to keep you all waiting too long for the next chapter, for obvious reasons… And man, this chapter took more banging into place than any other chapter I've ever written ever! Sheesh. Chapter 24 is coming along much nicer, though. :) And btw, Katara wasn't in the trough for too long – probably panicking in there for about five minutes.
I hope we're all excited that this story is drawing to a close after, what, three years? When I published it, I did not expect it to take this long, but thank you all for your continued support! On this story, and my other stories (speaking of which, I've posted more…).
Remember, reviews = love! I enjoy reading about what you all think and in these dark times, they make me feel very happy and are fantastic self-confidence boosters. :3 Thanks for reading! You guys rock!
(I can't believe I'm so cheerful when Zuko is possibly going to die… Hmm…)