“She’ll be alright, Zuko.”
They repeat the words constantly to him, as if he is a child who needs comforting. ‘She’ll be alright,’ and they say it with a tone of pity, as if they know what he is going through, as if they think he will fall to pieces without her. He knows she’ll be alright - it’s Katara. She’s always alright. Always.
Except this time, she’s not. Not yet, not after days and months of waiting. The war is over, the battle is won, and her heart still beats while her eyes remain closed, the scar from Azula’s lightning clear across her chest. The scar that was meant to be on him, another mark of many marring his ruined flesh; the damage that was meant to have taken his life has taken hers — nearly, not quite, but close enough. She’ll be alright, but the words sound hollow in his own mind, even more hollow than when coming out of the mouths of others, and he hates himself for not having the conviction, the belief that she deserves.
That she needs.
Katara believed in him. Always, even when he betrayed her trust, let her down, she kept faith that he could change. And he had changed, because of one day in a cave, where she had offered to heal him. Not because she had to, or because she felt any obligation, but because, after one short conversation she’d decided he was worth it. Worth the effort, worth her compassion and tentative trust. Of course, he had ruined all that when he turned his back on her moments later, but even after that he was certain she kept up hope. It wasn’t hope that he deserved, or had earned in any way, and it was a hope he was sure she would deny, but it was hope nonetheless, and he knew it was there. Zuko had seen it in her eyes — clear as water, they reflected the truth deep within their crystalline depths. Maybe other people couldn’t always see it, but he could. He could see lots of things about her that others couldn’t.
Like how passionately she loved, how fully and deeply, how much she gave herself to something or someone without even thinking about the consequences. And how hard she tried to be loved in return, how desperate she was for the approval of everyone — not because she needed it, but because she couldn’t stand the thought of having anyone see anything other than light in her. She couldn’t stand the thought of disappointing anyone, of seeing others hurt, or letting someone down.
All so painfully obvious to Zuko, and yet no one else seemed to care. No one had ever seemed to appreciate it, other than him.
And now she lay in a tent, surrounded by healers, limp and lifeless and hanging on by a thread. Her cheeks were still tainted with the faint pink glow of life, but with every day it faded, the gentle rise and fall of her chest growing shallower and shallower with each passing hour. And every day with her he sat, Katara’s hand gripped tightly in his own as he felt it grow steadily colder in his hand, and every day they gave him a comforting pat on the shoulder and said the words, the same words that burned a hole in his chest with every syllable.
“She’ll be alright, Zuko.”
“No, she won’t,” he says, but he doesn’t think they hear him anyways. Lately it seems like they never do.
When the sun sets on the hundred and forty first day of her gradual death, he is woken from his sleep by an old lady in white robes with a solemn look and a face coated in tears. For a moment he doesn’t comprehend what is happening, and he thinks, ‘She’ll be alright,’ but he knows then the words have lost all hope entirely. She’ll never be alright again, and that thought alone hurts him more than any lightening ever could.
They take him to the tent to say goodbye — there is a glimmer of light remaining, they tell him, a sliver of hope, and she just might hear his final words. As he sits by Katara’s broken body, however, in a moment he has prepared himself for for ages, he finds his mouth empty, his throat dry. For he has never been good at saying how he feels, especially not when it came to her, and sitting infront of her painfully fraily body he is almost amused to see that things have not changed so much as he thought. It’s a pathetic thought, though, and all it serves to do is be the driving force of the first tear that runs down his cheek, a tear that is painfully hot against his numb skin.
He has no words to say to her. Not anymore. So instead he leans over the lifeless doll that he once called his friend, his ally, his love, and he gives her what she deserves after all this time.
The kiss isn’t one filled with flaming passion, or burning desire. It is one he never thought he would be capable of, certainly not with Mei. It is sweet and simple, lips just brushing her own as if she was made of glass, mouth parting slightly over hers. A force has taken over him now, one he cannot identify but doesn’t seem to wish to. Without thinking, without knowing, Zuko lets out a breath.
It is nothing extraodinary, nothing magnificent to behold. There is no shining light or magical force that surrounds them. It is nothing but an ordinary life process, a breath shared between two people. Except it is everything more.
It is him, pouring his life into hers and making it her own. It is him, giving her everything he was and everything he would ever be. It is his thanks, his forgiveness, his appreciation, his love, and it goes on for days and minutes and years and months, and when it is over he sits back and looks over her, feeling no great change taking place in his body.
It is finished. It is done. She is gone.
And then there is a flash of blue, not magic, but the simple opening of her eyes as she blinks once, twice, adjusting to the lights she has not seen in one hundred and forty one days. Zuko watches as she breaths in, breaths out, and then casts her gaze upon him, a spark of recognition to be found deep in her eyes. Breath in, breath out, and she smiles, and the world is hushed as if in waiting, as if enthralled, as if her awakening has frozen time in itself, and he wouldn’t be surprised if that was just the case.
‘She’ll be alright,’ he thinks, and for the first time they are words he can believe in.