Zuko imagined that death would feel much less painful than this.
His last conscious moments were spent with the energy of a thousand suns inside him, exploding all at once--rupturing every cell, every atom, every fiber of his being. It almost seemed funny that many months ago, he had asked for this. Had stood in the chilling rain as it poured in relentless sheets that streamed down his face; He begged for lightning’s wrath only to be ignored because predicting the timing of when and where lightning would strike was impossible. Until it left his sister’s fingertips meant for someone else. Someone who mattered to him. Zuko ran and then lept, momentarily defying gravity as he abandoned all pretense of proper forms and energy flow. Because his nation had already taken too much from her, and he would not allow it to take her life. It was her life or his, and he could not bear to acknowledge the calamity of a world that existed without her.
The pain he experienced now dulled in comparison, not quite as consuming as the first impact. Just enough of an indicator that his spirit is still housed within its earthly frame.
As his mind began to uncover itself from the fog of unconsciousness, he was aware of slight pressure and a cooling sensation near his torso, just barely inches from his chest.
A steadfast push and pull of the energy swirling in circles within him.
And a distant voice cycling through its mantra every few seconds, “I have to keep trying.”
Katara . He’d know her voice anywhere.
Hazy, indiscriminate blobs shroud his vision in an indecipherable flurry of colors before his eyes settled into their function, his vision slowly sharpening into focus like a camera shifting its aperture. The first conscious thing that he was receptive of is blue.
It flooded his vision as it occupied much of the space that was within his immediate vicinity. Traditional water tribe outerwear strewn haphazardly among the red silk sheets on the bed. Bronze hands were encased in luminescent blue held firmly onto the purple-red exposed skin of his torso. And of course, the impossible blue of Katara’s eyes, which were currently unyieldingly transfixed on their task of mending.
Her face was a testament to her willpower and determination--Her teeth indenting her bottom lip, brows knitted together in concentration. Dark, twin, half-moons were set underneath her eyes, making him wonder how long she’d been there.
Because he’d been watching her, silently, he caught onto when she first noticed his wakefulness. How devoid of lethargy her movements were as her face shifted from shock to relief. She threw her arms around him.
“Zuko!” she exclaimed, and because she hadn’t left any space between them, because their bodies were completely flush to each other--he felt her release the breath she’d been holding. If she was tired, her voice betrayed no evidence of it, though she allowed her shoulders and arms to sag into a relaxing position.
If he still had doubts of being alive, they were gone now.
She pulled away after a few beats, and held him at arms’ length. Blue orbs quickly searched his face for signs of pain.
“Nice of you to join us in the land of the living, Firelord .”
She tried mockingly slipping back into their usual teasing banter, but the tears formed in her eyes betrayed the genuineness of her words.
Wordlessly, he points at her hands, the wrinkles etched on her fingertips, no doubt from continuous water healing sessions. He noticed the paleness of her skin and again wonders--
“How,” his voice came out scratchy from disuse, “long…?”
And of course she knew what he was getting at because a ghost of a smile crossed her face.
“Zuko, you really could’ve just said I look terrible,” she teased with a smirk on her face. Even though the phrase made him smile, reminded him of when she had said the same thing to him after a night without sleep, he can’t help but feel guilt curl in his gut.
She tilted her head slightly, pupils shifting to the top of her lids as she tried to remember. As if time had passed without her giving much notice.
“It must’ve been four days now,” Katara said finally.
She reached for his hand.
“Zuko, you’re alive, that’s what matters. You saved my life,” she smiled gently, squeezing his hand.
“--and you didn’t miss anything. Aang defeated the Firelo--I mean, Ozai, and Sokka’s got a broken leg, but that’s about it.”
“Sounds like I missed a lot actually.”
He attempted to sit up, but in an instant, she was hovering over him with her hands on both sides of his shoulders. She wouldn’t budge, even cocked her eyebrow at him stubbornly, so he conceded, leaning into his pillows again.
“my...sister?” he asked.
“She is safe,” she said, knowing that this was the first thing he would want to hear. And then,
“Azula’s under surveillance from the best kyoshi warriors the Earth kingdom has to offer.”
He nodded, content with her answer.
Silence clung to the space between the two of them; the air separating them no longer weighed down by the pressures of the war or any bitter feelings. It was more than that somehow, though. Her eyes once held icy glaciers that had melted since then, and spilled over her cheeks as she wept. When she had brought him back from death twice. Lips that once reserved biting remarks to accompany those frosty stares had since only spoken words that showed trust and comfortability. It felt as if the air between them had shifted with words unsaid.
She kept opening and closing her mouth, as if thinking of ways to start a sentence. Despite himself, he was filled with a sense of impending dread because he has never known her to be rendered speechless.
She looked away first, quickly dropping his hand, leaving him confused.
“Everyone will be so happy you’re finally awake.” She finally settled on her phrasing, a small smile on her face.
He nodded, swallowing back the lump formed in his throat. He had to ask.
“There’s something else,” he reached for her hand, not to hold, but because he hoped that it would make her look at him, “something...you’re not telling me.”
She shifted her weight from one foot to the other, rocking back and forth along with the teetering thoughts in her head.
And then, like a rush of air being released all at once, she said, “Mai came to visit you...earlier.”
Mai is alive, he thought. The wheels in his mind turned, but he could not come up with a scenario where that wasn’t a good thing.
“Oh. Where is she?”
“She...left,” Katara all but mumbled, her gaze keenly set on her hands folded together in her lap.
“Zuko…” she started. He wondered if her heart mirrored his right now in its temporary arrhythmia.
“Do you...remember anything after the Agni Kai?”
He shook his head, a little too quickly, and pain lanced through him. He cursed slightly under his breath as the fire ants inside him seemed to dance in his wound. She whipped her head up towards his, worry flashing over her features in an instant.
“I’m fine.” He managed to grit through the discomfort.
Doubt clouded her features and she pinched her eyebrows together in concern, but continued,“You spoke earlier...when Mai came into the room.”
She worried at her lip, wringing her hands as if she didn’t know what to do with them at the moment. It took all of his resolve to be patient, to not scream in his panic, ‘ What happened?’
“She asked to see you. I told her that you couldn’t have any visitors because you were resting and needed to heal... she pushed back on it. But then, you mumbled something, in your uh...sleep. And when we got closer...you..y-you said my name.”
His train of thought stalled, crashed into an 18-wheeler full of gasoline and burst into flames.
“You said my name… repeatedly,” she turned to look at him now, her face a mask of sincerity, no trace of her usual teasing.
Zuko’s heart rattled against his ribcage, panic squeezing his chest so tightly, he felt lightheaded. Still, he tried to school his features into his normal expression, as if the words meant nothing to him.
“And then?” he asked almost breathless.
“She wished me luck,” she paused, her face frowning a bit, “and then she left.”
He cringed, visibly cringed. He tried imagining the scenario playing out. How Mai felt. She had always held her mask of perfect emotion, but--
“Zuko, you look upset,” she frowned and rose from the bed, facing away from him. Her arms were pulled tightly around her torso.
“ I’ll just go explain this whole thing to her. Where does she li--”
He could’ve laughed at the irony if she didn’t look so distraught.
She whipped around to face him again.
“I mean, maybe subconsciously you just called out to me because you needed to be healed and I--”
She was in full ramble mode, hands gesturing wildly, her face slightly tinged red.
“Katara, you didn’t do anything wrong.”
He implored her to look at him, to return his gaze and to see the truth in his words. To see that within the depth of his eyes had always been respect, but now, there was a little more than that.
“Well, you didn’t see Mai’s face,” Katara scoffed, crossing her arms over her chest as she flopped back onto the bed near him once more.
A tiny smile pulled at the corners of his lips.
“Describe it to me,” he said.
“Well, her face didn’t change exactly, but I felt like she was seething. Probably thought that some water tribe peasant--”
“That’s not what you are--”
“Was stealing her boyfriend--”
“That’s not who I am.”
Her mouth closed promptly. The words shocked even him, to admit it aloud, but he knew them to be true.
Katara’s eyes narrowed into slits. “Sokka told me about Mai after your ‘bro-trip’” She said, her hands making air quotes.
Zuko felt his heart plummet. Because if Katara had asked him before that trip to the boiling rock, she would be right to believe that he had romantic feelings and a complicated entanglement with Mai. But if she asked him about his feelings afterwards... once Katara had forgiven and accepted him into the group? Once they naturally grew closer, and spent nights revealing their deepest and even sometimes silliest secrets under Yue? Or during their dawn sparring sessions when they were evenly matched? His answer would be very different. Because when Mai stood up to Azula he felt worried for her safety, but his heart hadn’t felt like it was being wrenched out of his chest like when-
And that made him a terrible person, didn’t it?
“If you are so convinced, then why didn’t I call out her name?”
For the second or third time since he awakened, she was speechless again for a few moments. Her eyes narrowing to accompany her stern pout.
“Because….well...there are a lot of reasons probably,” she sputtered, unconfidently.
But none of that would carry the same meaning, he thought.
He felt laughter bubble up inside of him at the inopportune timing of his realized feelings. But he supposed it came as no surprise that his treacherous mind would reveal, with great impertinence, the existence of his growing crush on Katara.
Because even though he had said he didn’t remember anything after the Agni Kai, in a way, it wasn’t quite true. He remembered a voice echoing in his head, the featherlight pressure of a hand in his, keeping him tethered in his earthly form until he was finally able to shatter the cracks of consciousness. And he had recognized that voice as hers.
He knew he could just feign exhaustion, avoid the words altogether.
But he didn’t want to hide from her. Call it a side effect of being struck with lightning, if you will. So he told her in more than three simple words, how he felt. That he hoped it didn’t change their friendship because he didn’t expect the impossible. And then, with closed eyes, braced to hear the impact.
Instead, he felt the slightest brush of lips against his forehead; then, a hand pressed into his cheek.
“Zuko, is it so impossible to believe that I like you too?” She asked, her voice so teasingly light that he could hear the smile with his eyes closed.
Well...he hadn't expected her to say that.