…And That's All That Mattered
Katara elbowed Aang first in his ribs then his shoulder to get him to let go of her. She ignored his hands grabbing at her shirt and ran out into the rain. She dropped to her knees beside Zuko's body, rolled him over onto his back. He looked peaceful, serene.
An arrow grazed her shoulder as she leaned down to hug him to her, and she whimpered as she stroked his cheek, and when the arrow came this time she used the steady rain to rip it to shreds. It was them. Them up in the tower of the Fire Sages Temple that had disrupted the flow of lightning, that made it attack his heart—her heart.
She held her arms out, flicked her wrists, and the rain turned to ice, turned to daggers, turned to spears, and she swept the spears across the upper level where the arrows were coming from, and those foot soldiers that made like they were going to attack again stopped. She turned on them, her eyes wild, her heart shattered because twice—twice—he'd sacrificed for her, and she had two gifts left to give him.
Katara's nostrils were flared with pain and anger, because this wasn't the way things were supposed to end. It was war, yes, but none of them had ever thought someone would die.
"Lay down your weapons unless you would attack your Fire Lord," a middle aged woman called as she and a tall man trotted towards the battlefield, trailing behind them a group of soldiers and attendants.
Katara turned her back on them, tuned them out, because if bloodbending could be used to stop a heart, could be used to control the blood, then it could give life as well as it could take it. Someone was keening and whimpering, and she knew it was her when she saw her hands shaking as they pushed aside Zuko's decimated shirt.
She roamed her hands over his chest, searching for the blood underneath, calling it to her. He was cold, no evidence of his inner fire remaining. She gulped and squeezed, thump-thump, thump-thump, thump-thump, the sound of a beating heart. Push and pull his blood. Thump-thump, thump-thump, thump-thump. It wasn't working. Maybe she had the rhythm wrong. He always said she was good at rhythm, being a waterbender. She understood steady push and pull, and Katara laid a hand over her own heart as she lay doubled over, her head resting against his shoulder as it had many times before. As she was determined it would be again. Even her staccato heartbeat was better than nothing.
Thump-thump-thump-thump, hers went. Thump-thump-thump-thump, she made his go.
"Aang, help me! Please, Aang, help me!"
Her voice trembled, and she wasn't sure if he could hear her, because if he could, there was no way he'd just be standing there like that, his mouth hanging open. Zuko wasn't just her friend, he was Aang's too, had given up so much just to be here at this moment. There was no way that Aang, who said he held all life sacred, would back down now.
"For spirit's sake, Aang, he needs air! Don't let him die!"
Aang looked down at Zuko's body before slowly coming over, the accusation in his eyes saying that Zuko was already dead, but she didn't care. As long as her heart beat, so would his, even if she had to follow around him, making it beat herself.
She tried again. Thump-thump-thump-thump. Nothing.
She was rocking back and forth against him, her forehead rubbing his shoulder. She was a master bender, surrounded by her element. She was the last Southern waterbender. She was a master surrounded by her element.
Katara gathered water and willed it to seep into his body, finding the wounds in his heart, coaxing the muscle back together, healing the passageways that would allow it to receive blood. Time meant only the rain beating down on her back, already soaked, and his chest swelled with air, and she started crying harder because she thought that maybe, maybe that was just what he needed. She looked up, hopeful, and yet not willing to hope.
It was Aang, slowly pushing little gusts of air into Zuko's lungs.
"Thank you…" she said feebly.
There was no time to waste. She needed both of her hands and ignored that dizziness that was starting to come over her. Beat, beat, beat, was her mantra as she squeezed his heart with one hand and made the blood flow with the other.
"Zuko," she called, "Zuko, listen to me. You have to come home. We're waiting for you. We need you. I need you. Zuko, please come back to me."
She was the puppetmaster and he was her puppet. Beat, beat, beat, breathe, beat, beat, beat, breathe.
His eyes fluttered open, and she didn't know if he was breathing and beating on his own, but she kept pumping, refusing to stop, just in case.
"You did it, Katara, you did it…"
She'd seen his beautiful gold eyes, made all the more beautiful because she thought she'd never see them again, and the rain keeping time stopped beating against her back, and Katara thought that maybe this was all a bad dream. Katara thought that when she opened her eyes for real, she would be laying next to him in bed, and he would holding her, stroking her hair, keeping away the nightmares.
"We should get him out of the rain. We'll need to keep his body warm and clean his wounds."
People were coming, trying to take him away from her, but she held onto him, struggled against them, saw Aang trying to pry her off.
"Don't you do this to me, Aang. Get off me, let go."
But she was weak, and tired, more tired that she was willing to admit, and she couldn't really keep them off her. She whimpered and collapsed when she tried to stand. Then someone was pulling her up.
"I am Minister Hau, Senior Secretary," he was saying. "We are loyal to Fire Lord Zuko, and you have done this nation a great service."
He was talking to her, walking her in the same direction they'd taken Zuko, holding her up, her feet dragging limply on the ground. He was naming people, giving them titles, telling her their functions, just talking, talking, talking, and Katara tried to focus on the sound of his voice. The woman with the umbrella was the Head of Household Staff, Mistress Yina. The nervous older man was Cultural Minister Ukani, the woman at his side, Cultural Minister Lide. They were there to help.
She was shown to a room in a nearby house, and she slept because she was exhausted and her body could do no more, and when she woke, she ate, but she didn't know what. She bathed. New clothes were given to her. She ate again. They let he see Zuko.
They'd cleaned and bandaged his wounds, and Katara checked every inch of him with her hands and her bending, because she would not trust them to do it right and to keep him alive. His heart was still beating steadily, weakly, and she ignored the familiar voices calling her name. Sounding like Sokka and Suki and Toph, and she just focused on her water and watched it flow over him, touching him, answering to her will. Mend, she told it. Mend.
She hadn't realized she'd been talking out loud until Sokka came and threw his arms around her neck, hugging her, but still letting her work.
"Suki had to take Toph out," he said, his voice thick. "It was too much for her to see Zuko like..." He shrugged.
She lost control of her water, and it splashed over him, and she turned in Sokka's arms and hugged him and cried, because it wasn't fair, and the weight of all they'd done was only just beginning to seep into her core being.
"I know," Sokka said, crying himself. "We never thought…"
But he didn't finish, and she was grateful for that. Then there were other arms around her, and she realized that they'd all come together, everyone, and they were standing at his bedside, hugging each other and crying, unable to keep this darkest of realizations out of their minds.
They fought in a war, and there was no such thing as war without death. They'd killed. They'd been killed. Nothing would change the weight of what they'd done.
For the first week, they gathered like this at his bedside, hugging each other and crying and hoping. Slowly, others began to trickle into the Fire Nation. Her dad, Haru, Teo, The Duke. The Order of the White Lotus. They all came to stand at his bedside. Haru once said that he'd come to pay his respects. Katara bent him out of the room, yelling that Zuko was not dead, that his heart was still beating. Her father had pulled her into a hug and held her as she cried, because guilt was starting to catch up to her, too. If she could go back in time, would taking Aang's advice and never hunting the Southern Raiders have prevented this moment? If they had never gone on that trip together, had never started sharing secrets and kisses and intimate moments and themselves… Would that have prevented his death? Would she be willing to give that all up?
Yina was making people swear fealty to him, even though he was unconscious. The men Iroh said had been the crew on his ship stood watch to make sure no one tried anything. But they did, anyway. These people did not fare well.
They took turns watching over him. The second week, the man named Hau called Iroh to the side, and they spoke in quiet tones, and Iroh nodded solemnly. Katara didn't care what they were talking about. She gently combed through Zuko's hair, brushing it away from his face. His body was warmer, and by the third week when she was healing him, it almost seemed back to its normal temperature.
"Iroh's holding the throne for you," she told him. She'd taken to talking to him. "Zuko, we miss you. I miss you." Tears were dripping on his face. "Aang's working with Iroh and Hau on a peace treaty, but everyone wants to wait for you to sign it. Your heart's stronger now."
Sometimes she would fall asleep at his bedside, even though it wasn't her turn to keep watch.
"Katara?" It was Aang. "You can get some sleep now. It's my turn to watch."
"That's ok," she said, wiping away fresh tears. "I'm… I'm fine."
"You're exhausted, Katara, you should get some—"
"I said I'm fine."
She hadn't meant for her voice to be that harsh, to make Aang recoil like that, or to make him look questioningly between her and Zuko. He sighed and closed the door, sitting down in a chair on the opposite side of the bed. He was looking at Zuko, but he talked to her.
"Do you love him? Is that why you're doing this?"
Is that what he came to ask? Katara gripped the sheets in her fists, glad that Zuko was unconscious, unsure whether she would call it love, sure that it wouldn't matter anyway. They knew what was between them was only a thing, something fleeting. She would never be accepted by the Fire Nation. He had duties. She had duties.
"That's not what this is about, Aang," she hissed at him. "Zuko is my best friend, and he gave his life to save us, to end the war."
"I know he did, and believe me, Katara, I'm thankful for everything. It's just that—"
"Then why are you here?"
Aang frowned at her, that look he got when he was disappointed in someone. Her bottom lip trembled. He wondered if he saw the hesitation in her eyes, the way she was questioning the depths of her own feelings. Every moment she and Aang had after this would always be tainted by her avoidance of his question. Every moment would be tainted by her lack of a concrete answer. At least she had given him the truth. Whatever else she felt for Zuko, she knew that, without a doubt, whether it would ever be possible for them to be together in anything other than their dreams, nothing would change the fact that Zuko was her best friend.
"No one was supposed to die. I…I didn't think…"
When he started to hug her, she let him, even throwing her arms around him, but he was so thin, so fragile feeling. He pulled her tighter and held her, and she didn't push him away.
"He's Sifu Hotman," Aang said, trying for a little levity. "He chased us all the way around the world, fought against you in the Spirit Oasis, faced down his father and his sister, went with me to find the dragons. Katara, he took on Sokka's socks. He doesn't give up without a fight."
Katara laughed despite her anxiety and fear.
It was four weeks after the final battle when she felt a hand, heavy on her head. There were only two people in the room. Her and Zuko. And it wasn't her hand. She gasped and looked up to see him smiling weakly at her.
She didn't dare manage anything more than a slight whisper, treating him like a skittish animal, afraid that some part of him would run off and he'd be comatose again. He nodded briefly, and when his eyes closed, they didn't stay that way. They opened again. Gold eyes looked at her.
She kissed him. Kissed him for all she was worth, because there was no sweeter joy ever to be felt in her life. She pulled away, then thought better of it, kissed every part of his face, every part of his scar.
He smirked at her. That silly little half smile of his. So him. So Zuko.
Ozai didn't know the meaning of the word phoenix.
A/N: To the person who believes I ever shipped Kataang: Lolwat? Again: lolwat? And I'm not sure we're reading the same fic if you think this ended Kataang. Because it didn't. Also, small edits.