It's light outside. Somewhere, in the back of her mind, Katara is dimly surprised: The darkness in the wake of Sozin's Comet had seemed pressing, suffocating, almost as if she were drowning. Although, sitting on the steps of the Fire Nation palace (the last place she'd have expected herself to be a year ago), her heart thrumming against her ribs so hard they might snap, she has to admit that it's not like the feeling's gone away in the past...
How long has it been since she's been able to breathe? Surely more than a few hours? Because she definitely hadn't been afraid of battling Azula, or of losing to her. No, this fear runs deeper, longer – back to realizing Aang's absence yesterday (was it really only yesterday?), back to that sleepless night on Ember Island, back to the catacombs of Ba Sing Se. Her exhaustion and terror blur the hours and seconds and days together and she wonders, briefly, if the sun is rising or setting. If it's the beginning or the end.
She wants to put her face in her hands but doesn't want to look away from the sky. I'm so stupid.
Shuffling and grunting beside her and she flicks her gaze to the side just to be sure – she's still kind of on edge – and she can't stop her mouth from forming a thin line.
"You should be resting."
"So should you," says Zuko, and he can see the fatigue in her shoulders so they silently agree to disagree, even though Katara really doesn't like the way he's holding his bandaged chest.
To stop the air from becoming stifling again, she says, "What are you going to do about all the guards Azula banished?"
He appraises her. "You don't care."
Katara's throat is tight. She clenches her jaw. "You're right, I don't." She grips her elbows and leans forward, murmuring almost to no one: "He has to come back."
Zuko abruptly stops watching her some moments later, sitting stiffly to avoid causing himself pain (inwardly, she laughs bitterly at the symbolism and irony). Then he starts to tell her that the guards probably haven't gone far, it shouldn't be hard to bring them back, whatever they think is the truth may or may not cause problems; all of his words seem loaded, like he's been taking lessons from his uncle on speaking metaphorically. But he knows how heavily the silence can weigh, so he doesn't stop talking until his voice gets rough and Katara's grateful enough that she has to swallow tears.
He has to come back.
Aang's whole body, his whole being is aching – not just from the wounds he suffered during the battle (and those really do hurt and he hopes it'll be Katara's warm hands that heal him), but also from the release of a century of self-doubt and overexertion and now worry, anxiety, fear. They're flying over the sea at a speed at least equal to Appa's – I can't lose him again – and there's no land as far as he can see in any direction. The effect is disorienting, more so than usual, and he just wishes he could know.
He alternates between pacing and meditating, and switches often, because every time he starts moving he wants to be still and when he's still he just wants to move. Toph makes her opinion on this clearly heard: "Knock it off, Aang! I can barely see in this deathtrap and I know you're driving everyone else almost as crazy with that as me!" but she doesn't call him Twinkle Toes and he knows she hates flying in any form and it could serve as a good cover, but she's lacking her usual bite. He's just as irritated by his own restlessness, although maybe more for the cause of it than for the thing itself.
And he just can't stop thinking, and it's horrible because, against his will, he's imagining every worst scenario – lighting arcs through Katara's body and she falls to the ground, convulsing, then she turns into ashes, devoured by flames as large as Ozai's; Azula's smirking in victory, lunging toward Katara's throat like an animal, claws extended, blood dripping from her hands and jaws –
STOP IT! Aang wants to scream at himself. JUST STOP – THINKING!
But he can't. Not after he's come this far.
So he thinks and hopes and fears and tries and believes and pretends the whole way there. It's all he can do.
Katara lifts her head from her hands and squints into the growing sunlight, shielding her eyes. Her heart is pounding again.
"Do you hear that?" Zuko says, standing, and she's glad she's not apparently insane as she rises, too.
"I can't see anything," she says.
"Give it a minute."
They do and then, impossibly, a dot is approaching them, getting bigger and bigger, becoming clearer until it takes the shape of an airship, a little banged up, a little unsteady, but definitely coming in for a landing right in front of the palace.
"Is it them?" he asks.
She looks for a moment and replies, "I can't tell." Then, grimly: "Let's just hope it's not Phoenix King Ozai."
"It won't be." He's surprisingly confident and when she asks what makes him so sure, he points out that if Aang failed (oh please no please no please no), Ozai will be celebrating his victory in the Earth Kingdom.
She lets out a long, shaky breath. "That really doesn't help," she says.
"I know," he says, wincing and clutching his ribs.
Slowly, very slowly – agonizingly slowly – the airship begins its descent.
"Do you see her?" Aang says, attempting to peer over Sokka's and Suki's shoulders to see through the cockpit windows.
"Aang–" Sokka's teeth are gritted and he leans more heavily on Suki before sighing, maybe relieved that the pain's subsided, maybe impatient with Aang's insistence. He backs off, his stomach rolling.
He feels suddenly blind and helpless and while he knows she's not weak, he's so glad he's not Toph. He's being torn in two, between please let me see her again and please don't make me see her like that, because in his head she is so beautiful, her eyes shining and her hair spilling down her shoulders, and he just can't lose that.
Suki glances at him, her arm around Sokka's waist. In a flash of tiredness, Aang thinks that she must make a very good crutch.
"Nothing's on fire," she says quietly. "If it helps."
The airship touches down some hundred feet from the palace doors, kicking up a cloud of dust and dirt. Katara's not sure what she's expecting – a hatch to open, maybe, or something of the sort – but all that happens is that a small group of people steps off a platform at what she assumes to be the front. A small group of people she recognizes.
She takes off, running toward them as fast as she can, doing her best not to stumble – and tears fill her eyes when she only counts three and she runs even faster, has to know for sure – no, no, we can't have come all this way and just – he can't be – but then someone – Sokka – he's leaning on Suki, she realizes, and her insides lurch like she's missed a step going downstairs – Sokka looks behind him and shouts something like, "Aang!" except that can't be right because Aang isn't here –
But then he is, that really is him and she can hardly believe her eyes: His tunic's been ripped to shreds and he's covered in faint bruises that are only going to get worse, and although his shoulders are sagging with exhaustion he seems taller; his eyes are locked on her, but he's too shocked to move, so Katara ends up just running into him because she never wants to stop running and now she's crying with relief as he wraps his arms around her and hugs her so tight she can't breathe and she wonders if he'll ever let go but she doesn't really want him to.
"Katara," he mumbles then, and they must be the same height because it's right into her ear and the sound of his voice is just – the way he says it is just so tender, so – so loving –
"I was so scared," she whispers.
He finds a way to press her closer. "Me, too."
"No, Aang–" She pulls back just enough to look at him, their noses almost touching. "I was never confused, I was – I was just scared, I was so, so scared."
"Of what?" he says softly. "Of me?"
"What? No, of course not – I was scared for you." A pause and a deep breath. "Of losing you."
Aang's gaze is intense and she struggles to hold it. "Oh."
"And I was scared of..." She bites her lip for a second. "Of how strongly I feel for you."
No going back now – but why would she want to?
She doesn't think. She kisses him – just a peck, on the corner of his mouth, but it's the first time she's ever kissed him so he doesn't protest when she buries her face in his neck.
Zuko's a bit slower in catching up, not really being able to run, but he's smiling slightly when he reaches them. Sokka kind of slaps him on the back but nobody goes further than that in terms of affection, being mindful of his injury. After a while, Katara reluctantly removes herself from Aang and swipes at her cheeks to give her brother a one-armed hug and real ones to Suki and Toph.
"So what happened?" she asks, glancing from one of them to another.
"What happened with you?" Aang returns.
With a huge yawn, Sokka interrupts. "As much as I'd love to hear this, I think story time can wait until morning."
"Sokka," says Aang. "It is morning."
"I meant tomorrow morning. I don't know about you guys, but I could sleep all day."
Zuko nods in agreement and turns to Aang. "Where's my father?"
Aang points at the airship.
"Is he dead?"
Katara's heart seizes. She'd forgotten about that part. But Aang shakes his head and she feels sudden, incredible pride.
"We locked him in a spare room," he says. "We don't have to worry about him. What about Azula?"
"Chained up in a courtyard."
"Great," Sokka says. "Everyone's filled in on the essentials. Now can we please go to bed?"
"That sounds good to me," says Toph. "I bet it sounds even better to you, Snoozles."
They shuffle behind Zuko toward the palace; Katara frowns at Sokka's odd hop-limp but decides it can wait; at the base of the stairs, Aang pats Appa's nose and he rumbles a greeting; and then, as they walk through the doors, their fingers intertwine and they're finally on even footing.
a/n: still can't believe we were cheated out of a reunion. ridiculous.
but, um, i just wanted to bring it to people's attention that about a week passed, i think, between Azula/Ozai's defeats and the scene in Ba Sing Se. Zuko's coronation was in the fire nation - Ba Sing Se is in the earth kingdom. and they definitely weren't ready for an immediate coronation, either, the other nations had to arrive and word had to be spread, so that's a few days. and if you look, in Ba Sing Se, Sokka's leg isn't broken/injured anymore. That at least takes a few days, too. see what happens when you pay attention? :L
sooo i have a Korra/Kataang drabble up called Dead Hearts that you should check out. just sayin'. and also, HOW PUMPED ARE YOU GUYS FOR THE REST OF KORRA. AHHH. i'm like foaming at the mouth guy.
um. if you find any typos or inaccuracies or OOCness or general weirdness, please tell me, especially in the ending. or if you liked it, you can tell me that too. peas and tanks. :)
so, yep, thanks for reading. 'tis always much appreciated and i hope you enjoyed it.
disclaimer: it all belongs to bryke. i claim no ownership. no copyright infringement is intended.