I'm not entirely sure how I originally thought this would be a oneshot, but I did. Since it proved so popular I couldn't resist keeping it going, and it really is blooming wonderfully. Although why precisely anybody keeps reading after this chapter is beyond me, since in my opinion it is by far the worse in the entire story so far, which is why I have demoted it to 'prologue status'. Anyway, enjoy the rest of it, if you can struggle through this awful-ness!
Aang was too slow. Zuko was too slow. Everybody was too slow. The wall of rock that Toph threw up shattered like it was made of glass. The shards of ice Katara threw at the Fire Lord didn't make it in time. Zuko nearly managed to make it between the lightning bolt and Aang, but it only arced over his shoulder, searing flesh and moving onwards towards the young Avatar. There was a scream from Katara as Aang tried to shift into the position Zuko had showed him, to try and redirect the lightning just as Zuko had done not so long ago...but it was too late. In the last moment Aang's eyes and tattoos began to glow with a radiance of a thousand suns as the memories and skills of a thousand past Avatars coursed through him to try and stop the inevitable. Everybody was too slow. Only Ozai timed it perfectly.
The lightning bolt didn't strike Aang's outstretched fingers but hit him full in the chest, the burning, greenish light closing about him like the legs of a spider about to feast on it's prey, the crackling smell of ozone and burning flesh filling the air as the Airbender's limp body was picked up like a rag doll and thrown against the wall as the seemingly neverending stream of lightning ceased, the Avatar hitting the immaculately tiled floor of the palace throne room with a very final thump. Zuko heard Katara scream again, but it seemed to fade to a mere whisper as he stared at the prone body of the Airbender, tattoos flickering like a flame trying to hold onto life, just before it goes out. Zuko reached down, then started back as Aang began to turn his head.
He looked so forlorn, and so sad, despite the horrific pain he must have felt. Or maybe he didn't feel anything at all, now. The glow of the Avatar State had dimmed to the merest whisper of a light, the Avatar Spirit in its final throes, the life leaking out of it as surely as it did out of the Airbender. Zuko felt his heart wrench. Beneath the glow he could see the slate gray eyes fill with tears, and one of the hands tremble and twitch softly, as if Aang was trying to reach out and failing as his body slackened and hadn't the strength to obey. In the corner of his vision, Zuko saw one of Toph's airborne rocks explode as the battle continued to rage around the Fire Prince and the Avatar, but they were like an oasis of calm in the middle of a warzone. Zuko reached out and gently wedged and wriggled his fingers under the Airbender's hand, grasping it in a firm but reassuring grip.
It was over, now. It was because of his stupid mistakes that this had happened. Maybe if he had joined them at Ba Sing Se instead of fighting them, Aang would have had longer to learn Firebending. He would have learnt enough to successfully redirect the lightning. They would still have had the Spirit Water to bring him back from the brink of death, and even beyond. It was all his fault. It was at that moment that Zuko realised the rumbling beneath his feet had stopped, and footsteps approached at a run. As Katara threw herself to her knees beside him and water began to flow over the burnt chest, Zuko had to fight to stop tears welling up in a rare display of utter loss. He knew his father had to be dead now, and became dimly aware of Toph standing to his other side like a silent sentinel, face scrunched up and snuffling.
Zuko felt the tears well up anyway. Aang was in so many ways a better person than anybody had any right to have as a friend. He kept his childlike trust and happiness despite everything they had been through. Even though it had faded the closer the group came to the inevitable confrontation with the Fire Lord, it was always there under the surface. As Katara stopped her healing, realising there was nothing to be done, Aang smiled weakly, as if reassuring her. The Avatar State still clung to him, but it seemed more like a shroud now, a spiritual mist that would fade away with the Last Airbender. The Last Avatar. Katara was begging him to let it go, and Aang's reply was soft, carried out on a soft exhalation. "I can't."
Katara hung her head and cried. Toph was yelling at him, telling him not to give up. Sokka had come up behind them at some point, black sword still unsheathed like a naked threat. But it seemed impotent now, like a shade of danger. It didn't wasn't important anymore. Aang seemed to have used the last of his strength, and was just staring at Zuko, who smiled bitterly as if acknowledging his fault, that he was the reason for all this. He knew that Aang would have told him otherwise, gently reminded him that it was Ozai who did this. But Aang didn't have the strength, and whispered something with the echo of a thousand voices, on the edge of hearing. Zuko instinctively leaned in, as if the dying Avatar would repeat himself, even as he filtered through his memory to hear it again, focus on it. It came to him as he entirely focused on it, the muted gasp of Katara as the Avatar State began to glow brighter than it ever had before going unnoticed. Because what the Avatar had said only seemed to punish him.
In a flare of blinding light, Zuko found himself falling. It wasn't like a fall without end, like what he imagined death might be like, before one entered the Spirit World. Because he always thought that would be without sensation, but this was more immediate, as if gravity had just reached up and yanked him downwards for defying it. His foot made contact with invisible ground and slid out from under him, sending his side into bruising contact with it as colour bled into the world, giving definition to hazy and indistinct darkness. Zuko finished his roll after a few tumbles, his face and cheek pressed into what felt like icy-cold metal. Groaning at the nauseating sensations suffusing his body, Zuko tried to rise and immediately collapsed as his head punished him for it. It was as though his entire skull had been shaken independently of his body, with everything inside and around it smacked a few times for good measure.
Was this the punishment of a vengeful Avatar Spirit, striking out at him for his mistakes and helping cause its death? There was a hand on his shoulder, soft but firm. It had to be Sokka. Katara would never have left Aang in this situation, or any situation. Zuko felt like he should feel bitter about that as well, but he couldn't summon up the energy for it. Then the voice filtered through the slowly receding darkness. It was too old, too deep to be Sokka's, the resonating quality to it bringing instinctive feelings of comfort. Uncle? Zuko shuddered and slowly turned onto his back, letting out a deep breath as the sky slowly swam into focus above him, a brilliantly clean and clear light blue. In the corner there was what seemed like a great mountain of white, too big to be any cloud. It slowly swam into focus along with the sky and Uncle's face. It was much closer than a cloud...ice? Ice?
Sitting up abruptly, Zuko almost yowled in frustration as the swimming sensations poured back with a vengeance, hands pressing to his temples. Uncle kept droning on, and Zuko began to realise with something of a sinking feeling where he was. "You cannot learn more advanced forms until you master the basics, Prince Zuko. Your frustrations are understandable, but you must keep trying. For now, a break." Zuko knew this. He had just tried one of the basic forms perfectly, but Uncle insisted that he wasn't doing it right, and firebending came from the breath, not the muscles. Was this an afterlife, forcing him to relive his failures even more spectacularly? At least the first time he hadn't slipped and taken a tumble.
Taking Iroh's hand and struggling up, Zuko looked about as the world finally solidified and sharpened into what it should be. This was his ship, his home during the banishment. His crew taken from him by Zhao at the North Pole, then destroyed by pirates on Zhao's orders. He had been lucky to escape that alive. Would be lucky? This didn't make sense...he wasn't too far away from meeting Aang for the first time. What followed...what would follow was a chase lasting months, exile, existence as a refugee, redeemed by his betrayal under Ba Sing Se, Uncle imprisoned for treason...and then joining the Avatar, throwing away all he had worked for. Why here? Why now? And what in Agni's name was going on?
Zuko reached up and ran his hand through his hair...or where his hair should be. He only found his ponytail and a worrying amount of bare skin. He was exactly as he had been...he heard Uncle walking back inside. The cold had evidently proved too much for him while he waited for his nephew to thank him or move back to training. Zuko couldn't help but feel a twinge of guilt, which he realised was new. At this point he didn't feel guilty about such things. He didn't even notice them, because he was too...obsessed. Obsessed with training and the finding the Avatar. How Uncle put up with him he had no idea. Turning and staring across the prow of the ship, he looked towards the horizon where a small Water Tribe village would soon appear. What was he supposed to do in this afterlife? Relive all his suffering, just to lose it all at the end and have it repeat itself?
Driving a spurt of flame out of his nose in a rather physical expression of his frustration, Zuko placed his hands on the cold metal of the handrail of the prow, staring downwards as it cut through the churning water. Maybe what Aang had said wasn't a condemnation, or a reminder of what he had done, but...some sort of second chance? If he was somehow in the past, he couldn't even begin to wonder about the mechanics of what the Avatar Spirit had done. He wasn't physically any different...had his memories just been catapulted back through events, to try it differently? It brought a faint smile to his face as he was suddenly reminded of Aang's praise when Zuko opened the door to the sanctum of the Sun Warriors. "I don't care what they say, Zuko. You're pretty smart."
Aang...Zuko's hands tightened into fists for a moment, the skin going white under the pressure. There was a mistake that he didn't intend to repeat again. The young Avatar was somebody he was honoured to have as a friend, and a student. To let him die again would be like confirming his own failure. Afterlife, dream, or reality, it wouldn't happen, not this time. It was an odd sort of hope, that things wouldn't turn out so badly. In the end the War was finished, but Aang was dead. In history, looking back, people would have said that his sacrifice was a necessary and honourable one. That the Avatar had done his duty to the world, though it cost him his life. Turning to go back inside, Zuko mentally repeated the four words Aang and a thousand Avatars had whispered to him in their last moments. Mistakes of the past. The War will end, Zuko told himself. But not with the death of a child.
To be honest, I'm not really sure whether this is going to be a oneshot/twoshot or not. I just don't know whether I should just leave it for people's imagination to fill in or to actually continue this. I guess your reviews will have to tell me. If it does develop into a story it will focus on important segments of the journey like the first meetings, the Southern Air Temple, Roku's temple, the Siege of the North, then meeting Toph, Ba Sing Se, the Day of Black Sun and the final battle(AU), to name a few. But it won't be a constant commentary, but more jumps forward to important events.
So if you want to see any of that, review and say so! If you don't, review and say so. If you have nothing important to say, review and say so! We authors need reviews, or all the colour bleaches from our skin and we become dependent on human blood. It's true. Vampires are deprived authors. Do you want another vampire on the streets? I thought not.