The Alchemy of Fire - Arc I: Nigredo
Disclaimer: Mike and Bryan, the show's creators, own Avatar: The Last Airbender, completely. I'm only showing my love of their world by playing in it.
Rating: T for now, just as a precaution. If there are any very violent scenes (and apparently, what I think is violent is really just child's play... ), then I'll be sure to post a warning ahead of the chapter.
Prologue/Chapter One: Where the Stream Ends
A/N I: As a note, I absolutely loved the finale. However, I also think that Mike and Bryan have given us such beautifully and wonderfully deep characters that there were some possibilities left unmined in the short time they were given to wrap the series up. I am also an unashamed shipper. And so here is my story. I am aware that I'm treading on hallowed ground... there are some absolutely magnificent after-the-war fics out there. I just hope you enjoy this one.
Fate is like fire, seductive and sure,
With Trial its friend and Challenge as kin,
One quest that's been won can lead to five more,
For where the stream ends, the ocean begins.
Zuko paced restlessly, the topknot ready for the flame-embossed crown making him feel a little light-headed. There was too much riding on this. And too much besides the ceremony itself to think about.
"I wonder how he's going," he muttered briefly to himself.
"Who, Aang?" Sokka laughed from where he was sitting, his injured leg propped up beneath him. In his warrior wolf armour, he looked decidedly out of place against the red of the Fire Nation corridor, but the laugh and the grin was all his. Still, his normal exuberance felt restrained by his tiredness and his pain. His anxiety over Katara was still drawn firmly over his skin in lines that overlaid his smile, and at his side, Suki squeezed his hand tighter. "Don't you worry about him." Worry about my sister. "He'll be fine. Now he's gotten the Avatar State back, he'll go all glowy and you'll be seeing your dirtbag soldiers coming home in one piece in no time."
Zuko fixed him with a particularly keen glare, glad for the distraction so he didn't have to think about the ceremony minutes away from happening. "Those 'dirtbag soldiers' are kind of mine, now, Sokka."
His injured, erstwhile friend widened his eyes dramatically, before falling back in his chair with a sigh of realisation. "Oh, I see," the Water Tribe Warrior nodded sagely, even while Suki pre-emptively whacked him over the head. "So that just means battalions upon battalions of jerkbender troops. The world sure got better after we won."
Below his breath, the Fire Prince muttered something inarticulate. Sokka laughed again. Suki poked him. The guards standing at the curtain leading to the main Courtyard shifted uncomfortably, and something about their armour and Sokka's words brought Zuko back down to business again.
"I don't think it's my army you have to worry about," he said dryly, his voice low so that only Sokka and Suki could hear him. "There's something else I haven't..."
Too late, he noticed the drawn look in Sokka's eyes again, and cursed himself for bringing up something else that would worry his friend at such an inopportune moment. When one's beloved sister had decided to vanish, it just didn't do to tell him about a possible insurgent movement in the Fire Nation as well. Zuko squirmed and quickly changed tack, hoping that Sokka's pain and worry would be enough to dull his normally astute senses.
"Mentioned. Something I haven't mentioned." At Sokka's skeptical glance, Zuko cursed silently again and fell back on the partial truth. Why do I have to suck at lying? "Like the fact that I'm worried about Katara too."
"Honestly, you two," Suki scolded them before anyone could say anything else, folding her legs and glaring at both. "You're forgetting that Katara's a Master Waterbender! Everyone's forgetting that. Wherever she is, she'll take care of herself until she decides to come back. Besides, doesn't the poor girl deserve a break? She's been running ragged all year taking care of everyone and learning herself."
Sokka's eye's softened slightly. "Still," he said, and he sounded more hurt than anything else. "She could have at least told me. Asked me. Done something..." his thoughts turned in his mind, and he suddenly glanced up at the Fire Prince. "Zuko! It's been just the two of you for the last few days. Did she tell you anything about this?"
Zuko swallowed and looked away for a moment, the movement not lost on either of the warriors. Too late, Sokka remembered again that the ceremony about to take place in half an hour's time wasn't just Zuko's coronation, it was also Azula's funeral.
"She told me a lot of things," Zuko said finally, looking out the window to the Fire Nation docks below. It was a clear, sunny, beautiful day, and the ocean sparkled and smiled under the warmth of the sun. "But I don't know why she left."
The way he said it seemed to end the matter, even though he knew it was far from over. Something painful twitched in his chest, and he raised his fingers immediately to it. They brushed over his ceremonial robes gently, and instinctively traced the hole that his sister had left. Two days of healing by Katara, and he was sure that there would only be a faint scar. He tightened his hand over his heart. Yet another thing to thank her for.
Without meaning to, Zuko began pacing again, his memory stoked into whirring by Sokka's question. It made sense; it had been just the two of them supporting each other in those heady yet devastating hours after their victory over Azula. Time enough between the paperwork and the meetings and the giddy rush of peace orders to sit and talk for a night. It hadn't been deliberate. The paperwork had just proved too much, and shock of everything still hadn't worn off. It had been instinct that had led him from his father's study to the infirmary, and then to the garden for peace. He'd found her then, sitting by the pond and spiralling a single ribbon of water in her hands. And then, somehow, since since they'd been bitter enemies for so long during the war and then respected allies throughout the end of it, it had seemed natural to sit down and talk through the first tentative hours of peace.
Zuko closed his eyes. He hadn't been lying. She had told him a lot of things, but he still couldn't exactly pinpoint which one might have led her to run away.
With a sigh, Zuko gave up and pinched the bridge of his nose. There was far too much to think about why his latest friend had disappeared. Logically, that was. He checked the position of the sun in the sky, feeling his heartbeat squeeze his stomach. Twenty minutes to go before he was Fire Lord. Twenty minutes to go before the crown would settle on his head. Twenty minutes to go before he made his first real political gamble.
Zuko turned abruptly away from the curtain. "Twenty minutes," he repeated unnecessarily.
Sokka rolled his eyes. "Surprise, surprise," he said sardonically. "I don't suppose you realised that it was twenty-five minutes ago five minutes ago?"
Zuko shot him another annoyed look, and Sokka's face softened again. "Really, Zuko. Relax. It'll be fine."
"You don't know that," Zuko said, his voice agitated as his pacing increased. "You have no idea the customs I'm about to break, the rules I'm about to bend. What if it all goes wrong? What if I just end up looking stupid and they hate me?" What if security does fail and some two-bit assassin ends me?
Sokka shrugged. "You're the traitor Prince and you're Fire Nation. Most of them already hate you."
This time, the annoyed look morphed into a deadly glare. "Not helping."
It was the Kyoshi warrior's turn to roll her eyes, and she stood up and adjusted her armoured dress. "Look, you two. Just quit it. I can tell you're both nervous, but it'll be fine. We faced down Ozai and the Fire Nation together, all of us. Compared to that, this will be a piece of rice cake."
Behind her, Sokka and Zuko exchanged glances, neither one of them convinced. Finally, Zuko sighed, paused in his pacing, and glanced out to sea again.
"I just wish everyone could be here," he said softly.
Tiredly, Sokka leaned back into the chair, letting its softness take his mind off the twinge in his broken leg. Katara, you're coming back safely or I'm killing you. "Don't we all," he muttered dryly.
Suki shook her head and gave up. "All right, you," she said firmly, taking his arm and helping him get to his feet. "We'd better get going. It'll take us around fifteen minutes to get down and find a good place in the audience anyway."
The corners of Zuko's mouth lifted. "Thanks for keeping me company."
Sokka raised his hand as he limped past, and the Water Tribe Warrior and Fire Prince, two boys who had met at opposite ends of a spear, clasped hands briefly.
"No problem, Zuko," Sokka said, his voice warmer than his hands and his eyes softer than both. "I mean, what are friends for, right?"
Zuko tightened his grasp and then let go. For a moment, he watched them leave, before turning back to the awaiting curtain, woven together with the Fire Nation emblem.
Zuko sighed, and with only the view of his country and the ocean to accompany him, he waited for the sun to reach its zenith.
I lost my way once, long ago,
Then found it in a second's search,
And sold it off to the travelling show,
Who left me empty in the lurch.
But then she found me, one more face,
I'd known before my stumbled fall,
And led me, sweet and full of grace,
To answer when the Spirits Called.
About one hundred miles away from his fiery friend, Aang wound Appa's reins across his knuckles and shivered slightly. Above the sea, the air was cold. Far, far beneath them, he could feel the restless pull of the ocean as the undercurrents clashed with the waves. He wasn't sure what to think.
"Hey, Twinkletoes. You okay?"
Toph's voice cut sharply through the wind, and Aang sighed. "I'm fine."
Behind him, her rear end firmly seated in Appa's saddle, his earthbending master cocked her head towards the sea. "We're not even on earth, and I can tell you're lying," she said indignantly, the white buds in her hairband ruffling as Appa shifted with a groan beneath her. "You could at least try to make it difficult."
He hid a smile, even though he didn't have to. "Sorry," he called back over his shoulder. "Next time I'll try harder."
A low snort drifted back at him in response, and then Toph twisted out in the saddle, splaying her limbs to its four sides. It was so large and empty without everyone else. She felt a small chill run over her skin. This wasn't how it was meant to be. It just wasn't. Her left toe should have been poking Snoozles in the ribs, her right Sugarqueen, and her elbow grinding somewhere into Sparky's stomach. And as for Fan-Girl...
Toph bit her lip and pulled her arms and legs back in, curling into an unwieldy ball. "You up to this, Twinkletoes?" she demanded abruptly.
Startled by the change, Aang nearly dropped the reins. "Up to what?" he asked, suddenly unsettled.
For a moment, she briefly wished he was in the saddle too... so that she could give him a good whack. "To saving Sparky's soldiers from the tender clutches of the Earth Kingdom, that's what," Toph rolled her eyes. "Been polishing any peace and hope speeches recently?"
She couldn't see him. Or feel him. Or even hear him. But she knew the instant the words were out of her mouth that the wind had changed. At Appa's head, Aang's mouth firmed, and so did his eyes.
"That's Katara's job," he said softly. "But I guess in her absence, I'll have to try."
Something about the way he said it made her heart leap erratically under her skin. No one had asked her of course, but she had to admit she was a little twitchy about this latest mission. They were her people, after all. And they had a right to be furious. Not so long ago, those same men behind the skull masks had been destroying and oppressing everything they loved. Had even tried to burn the Earth Kingdom to the ground.
If she hadn't known Sparky, if she'd been more personally affected... she might have even joined them.
"You'll have to do more than try, Twinkletoes," she finally muttered. The words came out roughtly, like sandpaper against unshed tears. "Try is what you do when you want to learn a new bending move to impress Sugarqueen. Do is what you have to do to stop people from killing each other."
It had never been said so bluntly before, but Aang kept his eyes on the horizon, drawing a strange strength from the land that was approaching over its rim. "I know," he replied steadily. "I know."
Toph hmmphed and then flopped back out again, curling her tiny fingers into a fist as she stared sightlessly at the sky. Moments trickled by in silence, until even her corded muscles began to relax a little. With just the saddle beneath her, no other heartbeats besides Appa's big, comforting thumps, Toph felt as if she was alone. Or at the very least, she could pretend. It helped that Sugarqueen and Sparky weren't in the same saddle... even after they had decided to stop avoiding each other, their blood had still drummed erratically. Toph screwed up her face. And in a way, maybe it wasn't so bad that Snoozles and Fan-Girl weren't there either, so her supersensitive ears didn't have to hear their whispers and lip-smacking and...
Not going there, Toph resolutely thought, and concentrated back on pretending to be alone. Because when she was alone, she could let herself crack a little, let the walls loosen and the rock slide free from within.
She could stop being the strong one for a little while.
Toph had had plenty of time alone to learn to be strong, to be as tough and stubborn as the element she bended when she'd been at home. But since they'd left, there'd barely been a minute of real rest. Since their pursuit by Azula, the task had fallen on her to warn the Gaang of any approaching danger, even while they slept. Nobody had told her to do that (not even Sugarqueen, surprisingly enough...). Nobody had designated it, or even just suggested it. But it had been there, unspoken, and she hadn't really gotten a proper night's sleep since. Even when they'd been exhausted, when her muscles had ached from moving mountains all week long, a part of her had always stayed awake, measuring the ground with steady fingers.
But there was no need for that, up in the air.
Her eyes snapped open, purely out of instinct since it didn't really change anything. "What?" she snapped, irritation laid thick in her voice.
There was a pause, and then... "Thanks again," he said quietly, and although she couldn't see it as he turned from the horizon ahead to face her, she could hear the sincerity in his gaze. "For clearing my head. I needed that."
It was probably the complete and utter honesty in his voice that did her in. 'Clearing my head...' what a nice way to put pinning you to the ground until you saw sense. Her life had been a lie, after all. Or rather, her existence. "You're welcome," she said shortly, and then relented. Sitting up, she curled her arms around her knees and rested her chin between them. If she could have, she would have stared out contemplatively into the sky.
"You know, you really don't have to worry about Sugarqueen," she said clumsily, instinctively zeroing in on his hesitation. "It's not as if she's off on some dangerous quest or anything, she just wants to have a break for a while. She can take care of herself. She'll be fine"
The words stirred something deep within him, and Aang sighed. "I know," he repeated, but this one sounded a little more dejected. "It's just that it's hard. We've never fought like that before, and I still," he gulped hesitantly, and then plunged ahead. "I still can't believe she killed Azula."
Toph swung around. The movement made her back leave the comforting reassurance of the saddle, and for an instant the rush of air left her heady. It was just the right amount of rush to fuel her words.
Honestly, if I have to speak to anyone else about this one more time, I'm going to start charging counselling fees.
"I still can't believe the two of you are being so damn ridiculous!" she waved her hands in the air. "Would you have rather Zuko died? Or Katara?"
"What? No!" Aang recoiled.
"Then what bothers you more, Twinkletoes?" the earthbender asked brutally. "The fact that she killed Azula to save Sparky, or the fact that Sugarqueen is less perfect than you want her to be?"
Aang fish-mouthed. "I..."
Somehow, she felt it the instant he did. For him, it was like a crackle of blue-white electricity from far, far away, its current hissing over his skin. For her, it was the sudden freezing of the air from his direction, and she scrambled to her feet almost by instinct.
His hands gripped the reins, knuckles white at the edges. Glad that he didn't have to answer her former question, even though he'd forgotten it already "It's her."
Toph crossed her arms over her chest, as if she could hold her heartbeat in that way. "A little more detail, please?!"
He didn't seem to hear. "Katara," he whispered, and then his legs were moving and he was jerking up, running back over to leap into the saddle and seize Toph's hands. She oomphed at the sudden contact as he brought her crashing down beside him in a tangled mess. Instantly, she opened her mouth to yelp out an indignant "Hey!", but then she registered his panicking breathing and instantly went serious.
He didn't notice his name. "It's Katara," he whispered. "She's in the Spirit World. I can feel it. Please..." he squeezed her fingers tighter, and she wondered if he'd cut off the blood flow. "Anchor me. I'm going in after her."
Now, Toph did yelp. "What do you mean by 'anchor' you? Hey! Listen to me, Twinkletoes, I don't know anything about this spirit-stuff, so you're going to explain it to me before..."
She halted abruptly, suddenly aware of the great, awesome stillness around her. The grip that had tightened around her loosened, imperceptibly at first, before falling away completely. It took a few seconds for her to reach out and grab him back, and then she felt a listless body fall into her lap.
"Twinkletoes?" she asked uncertainly.
But he was already gone,
Before him, two fish circled, yin and yang, white and black, perfect complementary opposites forever entwined in the push and pull of life. Over the image, an ancient voice murmured prayers, the chant accompanied by the the soft splashing sound of water. Aang opened his eyes.
The Spirit World seemed to shift a little every time he visited, small increments that used to bother him, but didn't so much anymore now he felt the balance in his blood. Aang stood from where he sat cross-legged, noting the eerie blueness of the world around him. He was back in the Swamp again, or what seemed like a Swamp. As he looked closer, he saw the great hoary trees disappearing into the sky seeming more like a forest than anything, a forest submerged in a scattered lake which left puddles and streams weaving around the vast roots of the earth.
Aang took a tentative step towards what looked like a path, and found himself ankle-deep in a stream. Instinctively, he looked down to place his footing, and found his own reflection gazing back at him. He waited expectantly for a while, hoping that history would repeat itself. But this time, there was no ripples that changed his the water to Roku, and he was forced to glance up.
Just in time to see a blue speck bob amongst the shadows.
"Katara!" he yelled.
She was a retreating form against the darkness, a mere figure. But he could have picked out her silhouette from anywhere, could have recognised the fall of her braid and the slim shape of her body from a mile away. Without thinking, Aang sprinted after her, still calling out her name even while he dodged around flailing branches and nearly slipped on old shivering pebbles under the surface of the water.
"Katara! Katara! KATARA!"
She moved further away from him, following some path through the trees and water that he couldn't see. Frustrated, he launched himself high into the branches, swinging and leaping from one living trunk to the next.
It wasn't long until he realised that she couldn't hear him. He'd gotten close enough to see the outline of her face now, and so he could see the direction of her widened eyes as she followed something he couldn't glimpse. Pursing his lips, Aang contented himself with keeping up with her along her invisible path. But as she went deeper down wherever she was headed, he started to fall behind. It was strange... there was nothing in the air in front of him, nothing blocking his way, and yet the further they went, the more it felt like his body was moving through tar even as she almost glided through the water. Finally, the darkness of the forest path opened up into a clearing, and he saw the river pool anxiously around a glittering ice dome.
Katara paused, still facing away from him, but somehow he could tell she was smiling. Then slowly, she raised her hand, and the frost parted like a curtain. Aang watched as she walked through, blissfully unaware of the Avatar hot at her heels, and he sped up his pace as he saw the ice beginning to form again.
But the strange weight that had pulled at his limbs before seemed determined to bring him to the ground now, and by the time he reached the place where she'd been, he was met by the smooth surface of the dome's reformed walls.
"Hey!" Aang cried out indignantly. "HEY! Open up! Avatar here!"
Stubbornly, it didn't respond. Aang hissed frustratedly through his teeth and then tried raising his hand, the way he'd seen Katara do it. But again, nothing happened. He was about to start pounding on its pristine walls when a sharp voice cut into him from behind.
"Oh stop that. You're not going to get in that way."
Aang spun around. When they'd entered, he'd sworn the clearing had been empty. But still, when he turned he found himself face to face with a small Fire Nation girl, her hair pulled up in a dainty ponytail and her golden eyes bright and intelligent. She sat on a rock rising out of the water, her little legs swinging against its surface. There was a certain sweetness about her, sharp-edged, but youthful and innocent nonetheless, and he found himself quirking an eyebrow in faint recognisance.
"Who are you?"
She matched his eyebrow, bend for bend. "You mean you don't recognise me?" she asked, folding her arms. Her sleeves peeked out at the sides of the simple but elegant red tunic, the gold and black embroidery matching her beauty. Mutely, Aang shook his head. She sighed at his response, a little girlish sigh, and then held up her hand to cover one half of her face.
"I must capture the Avatar to regain my honour," she said softly, and when she pulled away her fingers her face was sad. "You can't see the family resemblance?"
It took a moment, but then Aang physically felt his heart fall from his throat into the deepest pits of his stomach. "Azula," he said softly, taking a step towards her. "I'm so sorry, I..."
The little girl snorted, and for a moment, she sounded remarkably like Toph. "What is with you lot and apologising? Was it your fault?" she shook her head adamantly. "No. So stop it."
Aang halted, one hand outreached to grasp at nothingness. "It's a little harder than that," he smiled at her painfully. "You see, it kind of is. Maybe if I'd..."
"If you'd what?" she tilted her head. "Done something different? Well, granted, I'd have liked Father, Mother and Zuko here too so we could all be together again, but I guess I'll just have to wait." A shred of mirth glimmered in her eyes, and he was startled to see that it held no rancour. "Are you sure I can't at least have Father? I think he'd be different here. Like me. Like everyone."
Aang swallowed. "Uh, I..."
"No? I didn't think so," the little girls sighed again, more dramatically this time, and hopped down from her perch. Down on the ground, she was a little less than five inches shorter than him, and he guessed that she must only be about four or five years old.
"Hello? Anyone home?"
He blinked, and she chuckled. "Heh, got you there. Anyway, what are you doing here? Last time I checked, your name wasn't on the guest list."
Aang stared at her dumbly. "Guest list?"
She rolled her eyes. "Are you sure you're the Avatar?" she asked irritably, crossing her arms over her chest again. "You seem awfully slow."
He couldn't help it. The corner of his mouth quirked, and then he exploded into a full-blown laugh. It was partly hysteria... there was something so incongruous about seeing Azula here like this, sweetness and sharpness in equal measure. She'd certainly lost none of her deadly intelligence in the transition.
And yet it was also partly sadness, a laugh to cover up the choking cry in his throat.
"Oh stop that now!" she stamped her foot before he could blink, and he realised that a thin mist of tears had developed over his vision. "I'm here, I'm dead. It's better than being chained up in jail for the rest of my life, which is what probably would have happened."
He looked at her incredulously. "How can you be so... blase about this?" he demanded. "You're talking about your death as if it was a choice between mango and papaya for breakfast!"
"Mango," she wrinkled her nose. "I hate papaya."
There wasn't much he could say to that. Or anything, really. Her golden eyes pinned him down, saying silent words that he could not respond to, and the only thing that he could think suddenly was that those same eyes that had once aimed a lightning bolt through his chest.
He lowered his gaze first.
"Guest list?" he finally repeated weakly.
That did the trick. Azula rolled her eyes and hmmphed at him, and the air changed back to normal. "Well, if you haven't figured it out yet, it's the people that Katara needs to see while she's here. It's something about finding her path, I think. Anyway, that's not what you're here for."
He stared at her, a little exasperated at being dismissed from his primary goal so quickly. "Oh? So what am I here for then?"
Azula shrugged. "How should I know? I'm only here waiting my turn."
Before he could ask her what she meant, however, a faraway look settled onto her face and she held up her hand, cocking her head slightly as if she was listening to someone. As he watched, an ethereal wind stirred the ebony black strands of her hair, a gentle caress in the Spirit World's strange twilight. Aang sighed again, and really looked at her.
Despite the shock of it all, Azula already looked as if she belonged. The way she moved in this foreign place was comfortable, relaxed. In the glowing blue light, she looked so ephemeral it was hard to recognise her as the adversary he had known in life; the princess so skilled and deadly for her mere fourteen years. So prodigious. So... cold.
He couldn't help but wonder at this transformation. Was this all death was? It had to be more...
But before he could ponder further, her eyes snapped open. For a moment, she looked disgruntled, but then the feeling passed and she laid her arms down to rest loosely at her side.
"Well, well," she said dryly. "Looks like I'm now your tour guide for this round. Follow close and be quick, do you hear me? I don't want to be late for my main appointment."
She moved off before he could respond, and with another sigh, Aang collected his will and followed, taking care to remain on the path that she made. It reassured him that he could see it this time; a strong little road of firmly-packed earth that wound above the water and skirted past the tree roots. It was an easy enough path to follow, and she didn't take him far, or at least it didn't feel that way. Then again, it was the Spirit World, so distance wasn't particularly the most important thing. But before what felt like a minute had gone past, Aang found himself staring at a pool of water a little off the path Katara had been following. He raised his eyebrow. It was kind of muddy.
"And how exactly is this supposed to help me?" he asked.
"Just look in already," Azula answered impatiently, squatting down in the grass. "Really, I expected a fully realised Avatar to be more..."
But even her sharp words couldn't pierce through Aang's sudden attention on the pond. Something was glinting in its depths, and he realised that even though the pool had seemed like little more than a largish puddle from the path, up close it was much deeper, much broader. The wind of the Spirit world breathed across its surface, creating strange ripples that never seemed to reach the edges. And as his eyes traced their movement, he began to see the faintest flickering of a moving image.
They started off indistinct at first, like a ship welling up through the mist. But then as he watched closer, looked harder, the pictures revealed themselves detail by detail, until he could make out the first main one, a scene he'd hoped to find less than a day ago.
Katara's corporeal body sat at the edge of a pool, her brown hair falling freely over her loose blue shift. In front of her, a series of three waterfalls leapt ebulliently through the air to crash into the river, The picture was soundless for a moment, and Aang was about to open his mouth to ask when he heard the faint echoes coming from the water itself, the rush of the waterfalls Katara was sitting besides muted, but definitely there nonetheless.
With the coming of the sound, the picture sharpened, and Aang watched as Katara breathed, watched her sit motionless and still. Watching her, he was surprised to realise that he'd never seen her like this. She'd always been moving in his memory, always reaching out to take care of something or someone else. It was with a shred of guilt that he fixed his eyes on the image until it faded away into the muddy swirls and Aang could see nothing but dirt.
"What...?" he started.
"Shh!" Azula snapped. "You'll miss the next one!"
He clamped his mouth shut, wondering when he'd learn, and focused back on the water. It hovered in front of his eyes innocuously for a moment, before he began to see something else amidst the restless element.
Red. Black. And then a white face with slanted golden eyes and distinct Fire Nation tresses falling down on her thin shoulders. The image blurred a little before zooming out, and then Ty Lee burst into the picture, sweeping a blinking Fire Nation youth in the foreground into an exuberant hug as Mai kept her distance in the shadows, her gaze curious but wary. As Aang focused on her, he saw a flicker pass over her face. There was a shred of something in her eyes that he had never seen before. For a moment, Aang briefly wondered whether it was hope, but then dismissed the thought quickly. Two weeks in prison wasn't going to change that much. Still, it was something, something real, and he was about to open his mouth again when Azula answered for him.
"It's feeling," she said softly, and he turned to see the child gazing at her friends' faces, a curious yearning overlaying her youth. "Mai's feeling something."
"Well sure, doesn't everyone?" Aang shook his head in confusion.
Azula's lips quirked upwards. "Mai's not everyone," she responded cryptically, before directing him back to the pool. In the few seconds he'd glanced up, the image had disappeared, to be replaced by what seemed to be tranquility. A man stood in ceremonial Fire Nation robes before a red curtain, facing a window that looked out towards the sea. The room seemed empty besides its single occupant, but then before Aang could blink, the empty air suddenly filled with flying daggers, a white face of fear, and then strands of glimmering wire arcing through space. The man swung around with a shout, his topknot sweeping his hair back from his face, and Aang gasped as he recognised the scar.
"Did someone just try to kill Zuko?" he gasped.
"Oh Avatar," Azula laughed, the tinkly little giggle coming out of her mouth completely at odds with her innocent smirk. "Since he was born, almost everyone's tried to kill him. And that little trend certainly isn't going to change since he's about to become Fire Lord."
Aang shot an annoyed glare at the girl beside him. "That's not exactly reassuring, Azula," he said severely. It helped that here in the Spirit World, for this amount of time at least, she was eight years younger than him. "Are you telling me that Zuko's in danger? Is that why the Spirits led me here? Because there's a problem with that, I'm kinda flying over to the other side of the world at the moment! I can't exactly fly back, or at least not in time to save him!"
"You know, if you were looking closely enough, you'd have seen that the problem's already been dealt with."
The reprimand in her voice was just as childishly petulant as her sudden pout, and Aang blinked before turning back to the pool once again, one last time as he felt his patience begin to seep away. As if in response, the pool churned more agitatedly this time than ever before, like some warlock's cauldron. And when the image finally appeared, it roared out of the depths like a demon possessed and seized every last inch of all of his senses.
And then, to call it an image became a lie, because he suddenly couldn't look away. Picture after picture flashed before his eyes, some so black he could barely see, others so bright they were like flaming daggers. Dimly, he realised that the pictures had morphed into an Avatar vision, before his consciousness was plunged back into the stream of it, feeling every last empty space plugged up with sounds and sights and smells. The echoes that had accompanied the last scenes metamorphosed into words, some indistinct, some hate-filled, some shouted, and they stormed through his mind like an army of full-clad soldiers. The scent of blood and fire rose up in the air, and he felt sharp metal scrape against his skin as an old, wheezing laugh bubbled in his ears. The vision escalated and whirled, and Aang found himself lost in a typhoon of fear and anger, of old hate and new loathing, and he cried out.
Three old men sitting around a blocky table. One old woman with her hands clawing at the rain. Two young girls dancing through blasts of fire, the first sleek with water and the other sharp as steel. A mask of blackened flesh that crumbled away to reveal a scar. The earth shifting beneath feet to crush someone's bones to powder. The marching of soldiers' feet over soil and rock, inexorable and deadly. The smell of smoke and burning. Fire. Earth. Water. A child screaming. Someone laughing...
How long it went for, Aang could not say. All he knew was that each second spent in the ghastly vision stretched out like a moment in a nightmare. When it was over and he finally dared to open his eyes, he found himself on his back, staring at the endless sky of the Spirit World. his thin chest heaving in fevered gasps.
What was that?
Slowly he became aware again of the soft earth on his skin, of the grass tickling his bald scalp. Hesitantly, Aang sat up. The muddy pool was still at his feet, but now its ripples were opaque, as if nothing had ever disturbed its surface.
But something had.
Taking a deep breath, Aang turned slowly to face Azula, his enemy and his slayer, with growing dread in his eyes.
"What was that?" he whispered.
She returned the quiet horror in his gaze with a grim look of her own. "It's what is to come," she answered. "Maybe, Certainly, Almost definitely. I'm afraid I can't really say."
Well that's helpful, Aang wanted to bite out, but something in him restrained it. It wasn't her fault, after all. It had been once, but it certainly wasn't now. He looked down at his hands, fingers once used to spinning nothing but marbles with gusts of air, but which now held all the power in the world.
You'll have to do more than try, Twinkletoes.
He swallowed. "What do I have to do?" he asked hoarsely.
Azula replied instantly, as if it was the simplest thing in the world. "Whatever you have to."
He looked at her, and she tried to smile at the uncertainty that suddenly overshadowed his face. "Really, I'm sure you'll be fine. That's what you hero-types do, isn't it? Save the world?"
He was suddenly very, very small. "But that... whatever that was..." he took a breath and shrunk in on himself. "I don't feel as if I can save the world."
Azula would have rolled her eyes again, but something in the way he said it made her pause. The former Fire Nation princess bit back the movement and studied him instead. It was incomprehensible that two days ago this boy had stood up to her father and won. But then again, she could see the steel beneath the softness, and she only hoped it would be enough.
"Don't be ridiculous," she said brusquely, in the way only a little girl advising someone over double her age can sound. "You've already saved the world, dum-dum. From my father, remember? And for now, all you need to do is go back. The Spirit World's given you all the answers it can now. The rest is up to you."
Dum-dum? Was this how Zuko had felt when he'd been young? Suddenly, Aang wanted to say something, he wanted to say something desperately, but he chose not to. Instead, he set his shoulders for what felt like the hundredth time that day and nodded to her, once.
I can be strong.
"Okay," he said at last. And then he concentrated.
The last time, HeiBai had guided his faltering footsteps back. This time, Avatar Aang felt the exact moment when the world around him began to feel even less corporeal, when the mist grew thicker and the strange blue glow grew lighter. He looked up at Azula, one last time, trying to sear the strength she radiated even as a child into his heart.
She was littler than when he first saw her, or perhaps that was his imagination. But what was most striking about her now was that the innocence was gone. Instead, he saw age reflected back at him, an age and a wisdom that somehow seemed settled on the five year old's face. "Good luck," she said seriously. "You're going to need it. You're all going to need it."
Aang smiled. From far away, he could feel the beat of a heart brushing lightly against the skin of his feet. He could take luck. "Um... thanks?"
"You're welcome," she stood up, brushed the grass and leaves from her pants and tossed her ponytail. The mists slowly crawled across his eyes as she turned to leave and retrace her path to the ice dome where they'd met. But just before he felt his spirit shudder back into his body, her eyes flew open in remembrance and she turned. "Oh, wait! One last thing."
Aang tried to focus back on the Spirit World, tried to catch the last words of what had to be something important. "What?"
The little girl suddenly paused, frozen in mid-action. She opened her mouth. She closed it. And then, of all things, Azula blushed. A faint tinge of pink stained her childish cheeks, and it looked so foreign to her sharpness that Aang had to blink a few times before the image actually admitted itself to his mind.
And then she was speaking, and he had to shake his head violently to remember to listen.
"More of a warning than anything," she said almost regretfully, like it pained her. "And well... I only really learnt this myself after I came here."
Aang narrowed his eyes. There was something wrong with the way she glanced down at her feet, and the way she'd been blushing not two seconds ago. It didn't seem to fit. But when Azula looked at him again, her gaze was serious.
And for a moment, for just a moment, he really could see the family resemblance.
"Remember you have enemies out there, Avatar. Both you and Zuko. A lot of them. So just be careful, okay? After all, nothing's set in stone."
Aang blinked. Whatever he'd been expecting, it certainly wasn't this. "Careful of what?" he started, before the mists finally closed over and she was gone.
And though it ends swiftly and looks to be closed,
A tale so great must keep being told,
Life moves, as does love, and together they'll show,
That destiny's funny when its players are bold.
A/N II: For anyone confused, yes I have redone this chapter again (for the last time, I promise!), and it is set a few days into the future from when the next chapter picks up quite soon after the final battles. Also, to my other readers... I shall hopefully finish Starlight one day, when that world comes alive for me again.
But in general, thank you for reading this and please drop me a line! Because reviews and constructive criticism (always welcome!) are awesome and inspire me to write faster . Oh, and I'll say it now; I am planning to continue this for what might stretch into a long while, but the exact details are a bit hazy besides the main ones, so you do have a chance to influence where this goes. :)