Hello. Relik here. I haven't really written for the Avatar fandom, aside from two character study-ish things. This is a story-story, albeit a relatively short one (I anticipate 9 or 10 chapters). It investigates an alternate series of events, what might have happened had Iroh not been able to stop Azula's lightning on that ship at the start of season 2.

Falling Slowly

I. I Don't Know You

Zuko floated in a haze of fire and pain. Someone pulled at his arms, causing jagged bolts of agony to throb from his chest. His heels dragged; every jolt to them sent more pain lancing up his legs. He moaned, a cracked, wheezing sound.

His arms were put down, quickly but gently, and hands touched his neck and cheek. "Prince Zuko!"

Uncle. Pain ate his words and all Zuko could do was moan again, feeling like he was caught in beach surf, waves of agony crashing against him again and again, pinning him down, drowning him. He couldn't even open his eyes.

He felt his uncle pulling at his clothes. There was a sick sort of rip from his chest, and a flare of new pain. Zuko couldn't help but cry out, and darkness washed over him.

Katara was tired, and had been tired since they left General Fong behind to pick up the wreckage of his folly. Though Katara put on a brave face for Aang and Sokka, she still had nightmares about the earth pressing against her. Fong had dropped her into an air pocket below his stronghold's courtyard, but there had been several lengths of stone for him to move her through before she reached it. In those long moments, Katara had been entirely surrounded by stone, unable to move, unable to breathe…

She had to take a moment to force the air in her lungs out, and then dragged in a deep breath, to banish the phantom pressure of stone around her.

"I'm just saying, I think it'd be best if we headed toward Omashu right away. Bumi's your old friend; he'll definitely teach you earthbending, right?" Sokka was saying. He and Aang were walking behind her, trailing along as she wandered between the market stalls.

"I guess," Aang replied, pouting. He'd probably wanted to stop by some place that had some strange kind of animal he could play with. Katara tucked her latest purchase—some potato-carrots—into her bag and joined them where they were standing. She put a hand on Aang's shoulder.

"I bet training with Bumi will be a lot of fun," she said. "He doesn't seem like he's as… um… strict as Master Pakku."

Aang's lips tilted in a slight smile.

"Yeah! Bumi's great."

"Good! Then it's decided," Sokka said. "Let's get our supplies and head out."

Katara glanced at the coins left in her hand. Or rather, coin. A battered specimen of the very smallest denomination of coin lay in her palm, dull and tarnished. They wouldn't find anything they could afford for that much. They were out of money again. She sighed. "We've got everything already," she said. "Let's just go get Appa and get out of here."

"Wait, please," said a voice from the alleyway behind them. The trio spun, hands going to weapons or whipping up into bending stances.

And older man stood in the shadows of the alley, stocky, grey hair and beard, and a grim look in his amber eyes.

"You!" Katara, Sokka, and Aang exclaimed in unison, recognizing the Fire Nation man who had accompanied Zuko as the banished prince had chased them across the world.

He wasn't wearing Fire Nation robes or armor this time. Instead he just had a plain robe of undyed linen, trimmed in red. Rough clothes for someone who'd been traveling with a prince.

He spread his hands to show he wasn't intending an attack. His eyes were fixed on Katara.

"Please," he said, and there was nothing proud or strong in his voice. Not like the commanding tone he'd used against his countryman in the Spirit Oasis. "You were training at the North Pole. Did you learn waterbending healing?"

Katara blinked. "Why?"

The old man's expression tightened a little. Worry, Katara thought. "My nephew… he's badly hurt."

Katara went rigid. "What?! No! Do you really think I'd heal—"

"Katara, wait," Aang said. Katara gaped at him, but the monk was looking worriedly at the Fire Nation man.

"What happened?" he asked.

"We had a run-in with my niece," the old man said. He hesitated, then said lowly: "She struck him with lightning."

They stared at him, surprised. Finally, Katara said: "Yeah right! We're supposed to believe she could attack her brother?"

"Can and has," he replied. "This is not the first time Azula has hurt him."

Sokka and Katara traded looks. It was difficult to believe. Aang was silent, eyes downcast.

"Even if it's true," Sokka said, stepping in front of Katara and Aang, "why should we help you? You're our enemy!"

"You have fought many times against my nephew, haven't you?"

"Yes…" Sokka said warily. The old man pinned them with a look.

"And how many times have you been burned?"

"What?" Katara blurted, surprised. She heard Sokka take a sharp breath.

"In all the times you have fought against my nephew and his bending, how many times have you been burned?" the old man asked again, firmly.

"Never," Aang whispered. "None of us were ever burnt by Zuko."

"Aang," Katara hissed. He lifted pleading eyes to her.

"Katara. He tried to protect the Moon spirit," Aang gestured toward the old man. "And… and, I never told you, but… Remember when you guys were sick, and I went to get medicine? I… well, I was captured. By Zhao. And Zuko saved me."

"What?" Katara and Sokka said, Sokka's voice cracking. Aang shuffled uncomfortably. The old man watched, still and silent.

"I never told you guys 'cuz, well, I was afraid you'd be upset. It wasn't a big deal! I wasn't hurt, and I got those frogs for you guys…"

"Stop!" Sokka threw out a hand. "I thought we agreed never to mention that again!"

Katara chewed on her lip. "Aang…"

The monk's grey eyes locked on to her, huge and worried and hopeful. "Katara… I think we should help him…"

Katara squeezed her eyes shut. But he chased us halfway around the world! He threatened Gran-Gran, scared everyone at home! He stole my necklace! He's the Firelord's son! He took you away and the Moon spirit died!

So like Aang to be willing to look past all that.

"Aang, I don't know if this is a good idea," Sokka said, seriously.

"But he's never hurt any of us. He even helped, once!" Aang turned to the old man, who was watching their argument with an expression as stern as stone. "How badly is he hurt?"

"He will die without help," Zuko's uncle said. Katara felt cold and numb.

"Please, Katara. I think this is the right thing to do," Aang's voice was earnest.

"…Fine," she whispered. The relief and hope that bloomed quietly in Zuko's uncle's face made her look away.