Disclaimer: I do not own Avatar. I have no monies. Please no sue.
A/N: Well, I'm back. So a few things about this story: 1. This is an AU. 2. It's Taang. I mean Toph and Aang in a romantic pairing. Granted that it doesn't happen right away, but it does happen. There will be Kataang featured but not in the way you would imagine. Which brings me around to the third thing… 3. This story contains the death of a major character and that death will reverberate throughout the entirety of this story. 4. This fic will be taking you on a lengthy ride on the angst train. It's not filled with the happy.
Now then, if anyone is actually willing to read this thing after all of that, I would like to extend a humble thank you for sticking it out. Hopefully, you won't hate me.
Special thanks to my beta: She doesn't quite realize yet that I'm going to be pestering her to death for the next few months but I'm sure she'll pick up on that soon enough.
Okay, I've babbled enough. Let's get on with it.
All Fall Down
"You are so beautiful to me right now."
Aang meant those whispered words deeply, utterly and sincerely. Yet the look Katara angled up at him after they stirred against her ear clearly stated that she would have gladly beaten him to a pulp in that moment. Wisely then, he bit back his answering smile.
After a lingering glare, Katara once again turned her attention towards the midwife and followed the woman's instructions to "bear down" and "push." A low groan of pain and exertion tore from her throat as she rode out her cresting contraction. She blindly groped for Aang's hand and squeezed his fingers. The pressure she caused was so great that he temporarily lost sensation but Aang couldn't have cared less because right then all that truly mattered was that he and Katara were having a baby.
When the contraction finally abated, Katara wilted back into Aang's chest, her breath leaking from her lungs in great, hitching pants. Aang pressed a fleeting kiss to her damp temple. "You're doing really good, Katara…just a little bit more…"
She grunted wearily. "Aang…I know you mean well and you're being really sweet right now, but…could you please stop talking? You're driving me crazy!"
Far from being offended by the surly request, Aang chuckled and dropped a kiss to her shoulder. He supposed she had good reason to be irritated with him. After all, he was smiling, content and in a sickeningly good mood while she was an exhausted, sweaty mess who was currently engaged in a mighty struggle to bring their third child into the world…a struggle she had been waging for close to 14 hours now. With all the arduous pushing she had done it was little wonder that Katara was crabby and tired.
Their baby was coming. The midwife diligently reassured them of that every few minutes, but it was clear that it was doing so on its own timetable. Katara could do little more than arch through the pain and do her part to bring the baby further down the birth canal.
However, the long labor worried Aang a bit. Kya had also taken an inordinate amount of time to come but she had been their first. Bumi, on the other hand, had come only a few hours after Katara felt her first contraction. His birth had happened so quickly that both Aang and Katara were surprised the midwife even had time to catch him. He had been moving like a bolt of lightning ever since. They had expected a similar delivery for this latest pregnancy but, as usual, nature could not be predicted.
However, when Aang murmured his concern over the labor progressing so slowly, Katara reassured him that he had nothing to fear. All births were different, she told him, and their little one was merely asserting his or her personality. The baby would come when it was ready and when it was right. She had been so soothing and serene in her certainty that it was difficult to doubt her…so he didn't.
Six hours later, he was still positioned behind her on the child-birthing bed just as they had practiced in the days leading up to the birth. In between her gripping contractions, he would smooth tender circles in the small of Katara's back and whisper words of comfort and encouragement in her ear. Normally, it was a position reserved for the midwife's assistant as many husbands weren't usually very keen on being present during the birthing experience. Katara and Aang, however, had bucked that tradition almost a decade before with the birth of their firstborn.
Of course, on that particular day Aang had been the one to deliver the baby rather than playing the part of the nervous, bumbling father but that had been matter of necessity and nothing he and Katara had planned. Nevertheless, that unanticipated turn of events had set the precedence for the couple. Aang had been present for the birth of their second child as well, only that time as a supportive husband rather than a replacement midwife. And now that the time had come to deliver their third child and Aang was, once again, at Katara's side. He felt humbled to share the incredible experience with her, awed by her strength, resilience and grace.
Even in the throes of what could possibly be the worst pain of her life, Katara was calm and self-assured. In between contractions she would instruct her midwife on what to do next as well as certain techniques the woman could do to "bring the baby down." Aang sat back and listened in amazement. After all, Katara had been delivering children herself since the tender age of ten. She was no stranger to childbirth…the miraculous joy of it and the devastating tragedy as well. The process was as natural to her as breathing. Aang couldn't help but admire her.
Although her pretty features were contorted with pain and mottled from exertion and her hair was sweaty and hopelessly tangled, in Aang's eyes, right at that very moment…she was glorious. In every sense of the word. This was his best friend, his lover, his wife, his soulmate giving birth to his child. Katara became like a mystical creature in Aang's eyes, something to be revered and cherished and loved beyond reason. And he did…more than he could ever put into words.
"I know I'm driving you crazy," he said when she collapsed back against him for another countless time, "but I just wanted to say that…I love you, Katara."
She favored him with a tired smile, beckoning him closer for a brief kiss. "I love you too, Aang."
"You're almost there…" he cheered as she tensed in anticipation of her next contraction, "Just a few more pushes and then our baby will be born…"
"Easy…for…you…to…say…" she grunted between laboring, "…I'm…the…one…doing…all the…work!"
Aang buried his smile in her shoulder, masking it behind a kiss. "Actually, I'm working too. Just so you know, this entire process has been very mentally exhausting for me."
Katara clenched his thigh hard in response to that and cut him a sideways glower. "…I'm…gonna pretend…I didn't…hear that…!"
"Give me another good, strong push, Katara!" the midwife instructed, "Baby's head is crowning now!"
After that things seemed to move with tremendous speed. Katara pushed three more times and in the 14th hour their baby finally slid into the world and the midwife's waiting hands with an indignant cry. Before either parent could even ask the sex, she declared joyfully, "It's a boy! You have another son!" Aang and Katara were half laughing, half crying as she swiftly bundled the newborn and placed the slippery, squalling little boy into Katara's eager arms. Afterward, the midwife busied herself with clamping off the umbilical cord while the new parents marveled over the newest addition to their family.
Aang and Katara traded teary smiles of joy, quietly considering how elated Bumi would be upon learning he had a little brother. They also laughed when they considered Kya's inevitable disappointment over that same news. And then they sighed over how incredibly beautiful their little son was, gratefully counting each of his ten tiny fingers and ten tiny toes.
"Well, he has all of his parts and he's healthy and strong," Katara murmured with a tired smile, "We're going to have to think of a name for him now, Aang."
Aang nibbled on his lip. "Hmm…that's a lot of pressure. Can't we just call him 'third child born to Katara and Aang?' I think that has a nice ring to it."
Katara rolled her eyes with a small bubble of laughter. "We'll definitely keep that one in the consideration pile, but we might want to think about some other names too."
"Fair enough," Aang sighed.
"We could name him Aguta," Katara considered, "After my grandfather…that's a strong WaterTribe name." Aang started to nod his head when she added, "Of course, it does mean 'gatherer of the dead.'"
His approving nod abruptly became a dissenting one instead. A look of unconcealed distaste flittered across Aang's features as he hedged, "Yeah…on second thought, I think maybe we should pass on that one."
"Maybe," Katara giggled softly, leaning over to nuzzle her son. She stroked her finger over the baby's miniature palm and smiled when his little fingers curled around hers. "He doesn't look much like an Aguta anyway, does he?"
Aang cocked his head to one side to appraise his new son with a critical eye. "Actually, I think he looks kind of squishy. Maybe that's what we should call him."
Katara elbowed him in the ribs, which did little more than incur Aang's laughing grunt. "Ugh…you've been spending way too much time with Sokka. You're even beginning to sound like him." She was cut off from admonishing him further when the midwife informed her that it was time to deliver the afterbirth. Once that was finished, however, she leaned back into Aang's chest with an exhausted little sigh and resumed their name discussion. "What about Gyatso?" She glanced up at Aang with a softened expression. "We could name him for Gyatso. What do you think of that?"
All remnants of teasing and laughter faded from Aang's countenance with Katara's soft query. An acrid lump of emotion rose in his throat and he could feel the tears welling in his eyes as he leaned down to brush a loving kiss across her mouth. "I think that I love you, Katara," he whispered thickly, "You have no idea how honored I am that you would want to name him after someone who meant so much to me, but… Let's not do that again, okay. Enough with naming our children after the dead. I think our son deserves to have his own identity, don't you?"
Katara tried to nod in agreement, but she didn't quite make it. She was beginning to feel very tired and lethargic. She was vaguely aware that it seemed to be taking the midwife longer than usual to slow her bleeding. However, after such a prolonged labor, Katara wasn't surprised that her uterus was sluggish about contracting. Sometimes that happened. Katara had seen it many times before when she had delivered babies. She didn't see any real reason to panic.
Aang, on the other hand, likely would panic. He had already had a mini fit over the fact her labor had progressed so slowly. If he discovered that her bleeding was prolonged as well, he would definitely flip out. She didn't want to worry him needlessly and thus ruin the quiet moment they were sharing together. Consequently, Katara decided to keep the matter to herself, confident that her midwife had the matter well in hand.
Ignoring her growing fatigue then, Katara snuggled deeper into Aang's arms. She smoothed her fingers over his downy cap of dark hair, so enamored with her son's perfect features that she didn't notice the worried glances that the midwife traded with her hovering assistants. Aang didn't notice the anxious looks either. He had eyes for his wife and son alone.
"He's beautiful, isn't he?"
Katara regarded him with a sideways smile. "I thought you said he was squishy."
"He's beautifully squishy," Aang amended gamely.
"You're so weird." Although Katara made a big production of scowling over his silliness, the faint smile tugging at the corners of her mouth was unmistakable. "I think you're right about the name," she whispered, "He should be called something that is all his own. So then the question remains…what are we going to name this little guy, Aang?"
"Maybe we should include Kya and Bumi in on this decision too," Aang considered after a thoughtful pause, "I could have them brought over from the temple. I'm sure they're driving the acolytes crazy by now."
"No…" Katara protested softly, though she was endeared by the idea of naming their newest edition as a family, "…if Kya had her way he'd be called Coco or some other cutesy name like that. And who knows what Bumi would come up with! I want you to do it." She tipped a trembling smile up at him. "I want you to pick his name, Aang, because I know that no matter what you say…you have one in mind already."
"You think you know me so well."
"I know I know you so well."
At that point, Aang knew he couldn't possibly deny the charge so he didn't even try. He smiled wistfully and stroked one, slender finger across the baby's downy cheek. "Tenzin," he whispered, "I think we should call him Tenzin."
Suddenly feeling as if she couldn't keep her eyes open another second, Katara lolled back her head with a small, satisfied sigh. "Tenzin…" she murmured, "…I like that…that's a good name…"
Aang knew immediately that something was wrong with her. Only seconds before Katara's eyes had been vibrant and bright but now they were lackluster and heavy. There was a sinking feeling of foreboding unfurling in his stomach long before the midwife anxiously indicated that there was a problem. The change in Katara was stark. She seemed confused and disoriented, like she was battling not only to stay awake but to remain conscious altogether. Her color, which had been flushed and healthy a few minutes earlier, abruptly began fading to a pallid gray right before his eyes. Aang quickly scooped the baby out of her slackening hold, his heart seized with panic.
"Katara? What's wrong? Tell me what's happening!" When Katara didn't answer, couldn't answer he threw the midwife a look of rising panic. "What's happening to her right now?"
The harried look the woman threw Aang filled him with dread. "She hasn't clotted yet! Sometimes this happens to women who have long labors. The womb gets tired and it won't contract to constrict the vessels. I'm doing what I can to help her, but she's lost so much blood already…" She lifted defeated eyes to Aang's horrified ones. "I'm…I'm not sure I can stop it, Avatar."
Aang stared at her blankly, as if she had spoken to him in a foreign tongue. "What? No! What…what are you saying to me?"
"There's nothing we can do," her assistant inserted meekly, "She won't last."
"What are you talking about? Yes, there is something you can do! You will! I'm not going to let you stand here and watch her die! Make it stop! Do something now!"
He felt Katara's feeble nudging against his shoulder. When he looked at her again she was hovering somewhere between stupor and awareness. Her deterioration stunned Aang because it had happened so rapidly, really within a matter of seconds. "Aang…Aang…" she mumbled, "…don't…don't…"
"Katara, please don't do this… Can't you fix this?" he begged her even as he knew just by looking at her that Katara was far beyond "fixing" anything. "Do you need your water? Katara, please! Tell me what to do!"
She knew she didn't have much time. Her life was swiftly slipping away and she could feel it. There was an odd disconnection Katara felt in her limbs, a surprising lack of discomfort, an unexpected feeling of peace that pervaded her body and she wasn't afraid. She had accomplished great things, produced three beautiful children and had loved a lifetime's worth. It had been a good life, albeit an altogether brief one.
There was little time for anger or bitterness. She was hemorrhaging uncontrollably and she knew that no mother ever recovered from that. Even if her midwife were somehow able to slow and stop her bleeding, the loss she had already suffered was too great. She was going to die and there was nothing that anyone could do to stop it. In a matter of moments her heart would cease to beat and then it would be over.
Truly then, her entire existence had reduced down to the span of a few minutes, but Katara could focus on little else beyond Aang…his tears, his anguish, his fear. Even as the final currents of her life began to flicker out, her thoughts were filled with him. There were many things that she wanted to say to him, too many things to fit into the span of a few seconds. And in the end, Katara said the only words that she could say to him…the only thing that truly mattered anyway. Long after she was gone, long after the pain of that moment had faded into a dull ache, Katara wanted him to remember how much he meant to her. She wanted him to remember that she loved him.
With the final vestiges of her dwindling strength, she whispered the words that had dominated her heart since the tender age of fourteen. She meant them deeply, utterly and sincerely and she said them with her dying breath.