Disclaimer: Avatar: The Last Airbender belongs to Nickelodeon, Mike, and Bryan. I own naught; the penguins stole everything, one shred of sanity at a time.
Rating: T for violence, language, and adult themes
Some friendships are so strong, they can even transcend lifetimes. – Avatar Roku
"We need to land. Now."
Aang's soft voice cuts through the silence just before she dozes off. He sounds tense and worried at the same time, and the urgency in his voice sends an unsettling feeling lancing through her as she fumbles for a handle on the side of Appa's saddle. The giant sky bison soars downwards toward the forest. She glances at the water skin slung over her shoulder and clings to the saddle tightly as the wind whips past her in their descent and her stomach tries in vain to keep up with her. The cold night air is stinging, vicious, and carries a familiar taint that makes her heart clench.
Copper. The scent of copper and iron. It is the smell of blood, a scent that a master Bloodbender knows all too well.
Appa lands heavily, whipping up a small whirlwind that tears through the meshed vegetation. Her eyes adjust quickly to the dim moonlight trickling through the thick boughs and her fingers seem to act on their own volition, uncorking the cap to her water skin with a smooth, well practiced twist. Scanning the shadows warily, she shifts her eyes from left to right and slips into the ice-sharp awareness of a veteran soldier, but finds nothing. The clearing is devoid of any sign of life, much less violence, even though the tang of blood is heavy in the air.
"This way," Aang urges in his loudest softest whisper. His beautiful grey eyes are eerily luminescent in the dark; he beckons for her to follow before darting into undergrowth, the urgency rolling off him in waves.
She cannot match the Avatar's pace as he leaps from branch to branch above her head with all the agility and strength of an airbender. Instead, she follows him through the undergrowth, shoving leaves and bushes and boughs out of her face as she struggles forward. Aang's low murmurs grow fainter as he stretches the distance, but his voice carries well and she follows him into a clearing.
And chokes on her next breath.
It's like a Lower Ring butcher shop from a nightmare. The bodies are strewn about the clearing, some turned into human pincushions by arrows and spears, some hacked to pieces, and there are one, two, three, four and a half bodies, her brain distantly counts off. The bile rises in her throat, but she is a trained healer, a war hero, a woman who has seen worse. A healer must be like ice, cool, composed, and detached, so she swallows painfully and checks the nearest corpse for a pulse.
Not even a twitch. She's not surprised by the stillness – it's the warmth that makes her recoil. If the corpse is still cooling, then man must have died less than half an hour ago. Her heart shivers violently (if only they had been faster) and she moves onto the next one. Perhaps one of them can be saved.
Dead, dead, and dead.
'Ice,' she reminds herself. 'Be as calm and cool as ice.'
Despite her resolve, her knees still tremble as she slides her stained fingers away from the last dead man's bloody neck. She is not going to be sick. She isn't. Taking a shallow, shaky breath, she steps back on unstable legs, just as a cloud rolls away from the moon.
And suddenly, the man's soiled clothes seem to leap out at her in sharp relief, turning crimson like treachery in the all-revealing moonlight. Red armor, trimmed with gold – the uniform of Imperial Firebenders, personal guards of the Royal Family. Personal guards of the Fire Lord.
His name leaves her lips as a prayer as she tears into the clearing, eyes searching out clues frantically – a charred patch here, a trampled bush there – and she doesn't know why she has to reassure herself, but she does. He can take care of himself. He's a master firebender, after all, and he has survived worse. He would be fine, simply because he couldn't not be.
Aang's orange and yellow habit flashes through the darkness. Her mind still trailing behind her, she feels like a passenger in her own body as she falls to her knees beside the Avatar.
Aang doesn't look at her as she kneels. His shoulders shake silently, and the sharp shadows shade his face from view.
The blood looks out of place, she muses as she stares down at Aang's hands. He cradles one of his best friends' head in his lap and smoothes the bloody black bangs out of the way. Those familiar gold eyes don't look quite right – she remembers eyes like living fire, like the sun itself, not an empty gaze as dull and dead as metal.
But there is nothing that can't be fixed. If she knows anything about the firebender, it is that he is a stubborn man who never gives up. Repeating that thought like a mantra in her head, she draws forth her chi, preparing for a long and arduous healing.
Strange, there is too much blood; no one should be able to survive losing this much blood. His wounds seal sluggishly, as if his own body is not putting forth the effort to heal itself. She has healed him many times in the past and the process should be familiar, but something feels distinctly wrong this time, like pus festering beneath her skin as she toils.
Aang is shaking her shoulder, and she distantly hears something like "Katara, please stop", but only a little more, and she'll be done healing him. Any moment now, he'll groan and crack a wry smile ('Thank you, Katara'). Yet his expression doesn't even flicker and the only movement is a quiet drop of blood trickling slowly from the corner of his silent lips.
The last wound closes over, nothing more than a raw and tender memory. She watches his face, his gaze, expectantly.
Aang's hand suddenly comes between them and he slowly, trembling, closes Zuko's eyes. The motion leaves a faint smear of blood against a pale cheek. If she just ignored the bloodstains, ignored the coldness of his skin and the stillness of his chest, she can almost believe that he is only resting, like any injured patient ought to.
But Aang's gleaming, glistening grey eyes somehow find hers, and in them, she sees the answers, all of the answers. The Avatar's spirit is unbendable, and his gaze holds all the truths of war, peace, and a thousand lifetimes too many, reflecting too much grief to hide. The layer frost over her heart splinters and truth hisses through the cracks like acid.
"He's gone, Katara."
Those quiet, grief-stricken words finally shatter the ice.
Zuko was missing. She felt the wild hysteria well up inside her, but with a will of iron befitting the greatest earthbender in the world, she stomped it back down twice as hard. 'He can't be gone,' she told herself, 'I'm just not looking hard enough.' Sliding sharply into a grounded earthbending stance again, she inhaled deeply and was one with the earth.
Familiar heartbeats and breathing patterns washed over her at once like a warm, welcome symphony of sound.
Aang was just a pace and a half to her left; he was like a wind-chime, a sparrowmouse, his footsteps lighter than rainfall and his spirit belonging more to the sky then to the ground where mortals dwelt. Aang walked like he was dancing and danced like it was easier than breathing; even as a grown man, his inherent childlikeness had never truly left him. She could feel it in each one of his vibrant heartbeats and echo like laughter in his deep breathing. Oh, Twinkletoes could play the wise and somber Avatar to the rest of the world, but Toph knew better.
Yet, his breathing and heartbeat were rarely subdued, and never as frighteningly heavy as they were now. She almost didn't recognize him.
Sokka stood to her immediate right. His pulse was all over the place: fast one moment, slow the next, as changing and unpredictable as he was. She knew that Sokka put on many masks for the rest of the world – a fool, a comedian, a warrior, a hero – but she had never cared much for masks. He was always Sokka to her, because though the rhythm may change, the fierce loyalty and hidden strength behind each beat of the drum stayed the same. He was as dauntless as a mountain and could move the entire ocean, even if he had to do it one handful at a time. He was their warrior, their strategist, their brilliant, ingenious idiot; a walking contradiction, the epitome of everything a friend – a brother – ought to be.
But the water tribe warrior was quiet, very quiet, and though they never faltered, the drum beats slowed to the tempo of a funeral march.
There was no way she could miss Katara. Sokka had masks, but Katara wore her heart on her sleeve. Toph swore that if anyone else felt emotions even half as intensely as Katara did, they would explode in a matter of seconds. With a heartbeat that expressive, the waterbender could be an entire symphony on her own; one minute, she was positively furious and then, in the blink of an eye, all was forgiven and she inevitably slipped back into the mother-hen role of their mismatched family. Katara was her opposite in many ways, but Toph recognized strength of will when she saw it, and Katara had it in spades.
So why did she seem so fragile? Toph sensed her trembling; a sporadic pitter-patter of water fell softly on the ground in front of her, and even a blind earthbender could tell that it wasn't waterbending.
And then, nothing. Nothing. A silence amidst the chorus of her friends' heartbeats.
Zuko's heartbeat should have been there. She should have sensed him from miles away. Just like the strong and passionate fire he wielded, the firebender was inexorable and powerful, like a clash of cymbals, a bolt of lightning, like the warmth of the rising sun. He had become a truly great Fire Lord, strong enough to take the accumulated guilt of a century onto his shoulders and pull his country back together while carrying it. But more than that, he was still their friend, the same Zuko that everyone crowded against on those cold nights at the Western Air Temple, who scoffed at Sokka's jokes, mutely endured Katara's nagging, unrelentingly coached Aang through the harder firebending forms, and carried Toph around on his back when she demanded it.
But no matter how hard Toph searched for that familiar fiery heartbeat or strained her ears to catch that familiar rasping breath that was unique to Sparky and Sparky alone, he wasn't there. Zuko was gone.
And it was that jarring, gaping loss in the symphony of all her friends' breathing and heartbeats that really drove the truth home.
Toph wondered why the hell her face felt wet. Toph Bei Fong didn't cry. She was stronger than that; only little girls cried, and she hadn't been a little girl since forever. Still in disbelief, she stretched out a hand – or rather, Sokka wordlessly guided her hand, since she couldn't 'see' Zuko anymore – and she felt the familiar contour of the scar beneath her finger tips. The familiar curve of his cheekbones, his forehead, his lips; Toph knew her friends faces by touch better than even their heartbeats, and she knew, without a doubt, that her fingers were indeed trailing over Zuko's face.
But it wasn't familiar. It was, but it wasn't. Zuko always felt warm, but this face was cold. He was never cold.
"Get up," Toph commanded as she irreverently slapped his cheek. And was promptly horrified by how hoarse and feeble her voice sounded. Pathetic. She sounded pathetic!
Maybe that was why Zuko ignored her. He lay completely still in that smooth, ivory lacquered casket with his hands folded and his eyes closed, completely content with ignoring her demands.
And then, in a voice too soft for anyone else to hear, "bro..th..er...?" She tried out of sheer desperation, because if he didn't respond to that, he wouldn't respond to anything.
'It means a lot to me, Toph. It really does.'
She clutched the edge of that casket, her mind reeling and her knuckles turning white as she clamped them so tightly they threatened to splinter the wood. Tried to understand this betrayal, abandonment. But no matter how she told herself to be as strong and immovable as a boulder, there were too many memories, too much shared laughter and camaraderie and warmth; too much was missing: a heartbeat that should have been there, a warmth that wasn't, and a voice she couldn't hear. The unbroken silence was her answer. It flooded through her like a raging ocean, strong enough to sweep away even the heaviest rocks.
Oh gods, he was gone.
Toph threw back her head and screamed.
"You're a bastard, you know that?"
He could remember the last time he had been so…so…infuriated! In fact, he could count on the fingers of one hand the times he'd been angry enough to exhaust his entire collection of Water Tribe, Earth Kingdom, and Fire Nation swearwords. But as much as he liked to consider himself a pretty patient and easy-going guy, he couldn't help but want to clobber some sense into a few Fire Nation heads. A particular Fire Nation head.
"I mean, when everything is finally settling down, you go and pull this kind of crap on us! How the hell are we supposed to fix this, huh? You think Aang can be Fire Lord? Or that we should give Ozai his crown back? Or maybe Azula. Yeah, that's a great idea! Why don't we give sovereignty of the most powerful nation on the face of the planet to the crazy megalomaniac?"
The bottom of his glass met the counter with a heavy thud, followed shortly by his forehead. He could smell the alcohol all around him – on his breath, in his clothes, in his hair – but at the moment, he really didn't give a shit. Katara could go berserk and motherly on his ass later. He needed this now; this conversation with thin air that had half the bar's patrons staring at the out-of-place, completely wasted Water Tribe man with varying degrees of astonishment.
The inebriated warrior shifted and grunted, "Yeah, laugh for all I care. I'm sick and tired of cleaning up after you. You know, I think I'm gonna ask them to decorate the ceremony in pink, just to spite you. Bright, Ty Lee pink. Baby mooselion pink. Just so everyone thinks you're a sissy."
The thin air laughed at him again and rasped something in return that really riled him up.
"What the hell do you mean, we can't do shit without you? We did just fine without you! What do you think we were doing that whole time you chased us around the world? What about right now? See, Great Warrior Sokka of the Water Tribe, doing great, without YOU! Just abso-bally-lutely great."
He tried to emphasize his point by striking a dashing pose, but his limbs weren't cooperating and his head was still situated about three feet above his shoulders, so he face-planted into the counter before he had figured out which way was up. Damn. The universe loved proving him wrong – how had he forgotten that crucial fact?
"Okay, you can stop laughing now. You've made your point," Sokka growled, peeling himself off the counter and realigning his limbs into some semblance of order. "We're fucked. What do you want me to do about it?"
He wasn't really expecting an answer, but just then, he could have sworn he heard a soft whisper, somewhere in the back of his mind, 'Never give up without a fight.'
Sokka looked down and realized that his hand had fallen on a particular dagger fastened to his weapon belt. The smooth, black sheathed dagger obviously not of Water Tribe stock; it had been a gift of sorts over five years ago.
'No, not a gift,' he grimly reminded himself. 'A promise.'
"Sokka, I need you to do me a favor. The others won't understand, so it's gotta be you." Zuko pressed the black sheath into his hands and gold met blue unwaveringly as the young Fire Lord quietly intoned, "Swear to me that, if I ever become…my father, you won't hesitate to drive this through my heart."
'I never had to. You're nothing like your old man, and you never will be.' The dagger slid out of the sheath smoothly, its blade gleaming coldly as Sokka stared at the inscription, and he was almost drunk enough to believe that he really did hear his friend's voice in the back of his mind. Almost.
'But what use is it,' he thought bitterly to himself, 'if you fail anyway? How are we supposed to restore balance without a Fire Lord?' His hands tightened around the hilt as he tried to remember something important, but instead of an answer, all he could come up with were blurry memories, hundreds of battles fought back-to-back, arguments, jokes shared around a campfire, and the rare laughter of a man who was his brother in all but blood. And suddenly, his heart was gripped by an all consuming fury, and he half-cried, half-roared in agony as he arm hurtled through the air, ready to fling the despicable knife with the despicable inscription as far away from him as possible.
"Look, Sokka. You're going to fail a lot before things work out. But even if you'll probably fail over and over again, you have to try every time."
And he collapsed onto the counter again, the knife shaking in his grip as he fell.
"We'll make it. You're the one that keeps everyone going, Sokka. Don't sell yourself short."
"But I can't do this without you," he whispered, as his throat became raw and his eyes burned. "I can't do this without you."
Almost ten thousand. That's the number of people who showed up for your funeral. And I didn't even count all of the people lining the streets as the procession went by. There are ten thousand people in that pavilion below us, and I have to speak to them.
You'd think that, after being the Avatar for seven or so years, I'd be good at public speaking.
Heh, I wish. But no - I still go weak-kneed, my palms are sweaty, and my mind's blanker than a sheet of parchment. I'm a nineteen-year-old, fully realized Avatar, and public speaking still scares me more than Ozai did when I was thirteen. It's just not my cup of tea. If I had to give speeches on a daily basis like you, I'd probably freeze myself in an iceberg for another hundred years. Any tips you can give me would really help right now.
Or not. I'm supposed to be giving your eulogy, after all. It'd be in pretty bad taste to ask you about...you-know, never mind the fact that you're dead.
Spirits, you're really gone. I just can't wrap my mind around it. You always come back. You survived exploding ships, enraged ocean spirits, Zhao, bottomless ravines, Azula, Ozai, assassination attempts, and even Toph's cooking. I know everyone dies someday, and considering the amount of danger we get ourselves into, I really wasn't expecting all of us to die of old age, but Zuko…You're supposed to be invincible. You're the Fire Lord, one of the greatest firebenders alive, and, and…you're family. You're not allowed to die.
I shouldn't be standing here, in front of ten thousand people, listening to the Fire Sages and wondering what in the world I'm supposed to say to a nation that's lost their Fire Lord.
"Fire Lord Zuko. You have restored the Fire Nation and helped unify the world. Our unfaltering leader through the trials of peace, a guiding blaze to a nation that was lost. You are the son of Ursa, now passed. Nephew of Iroh. Husband to Mai, now passed. Cousin of Lu Ten, now passed. Friend of the Avatar, beloved by your nation. We lay you to rest."
The old sage guy isn't kidding when he said 'beloved by your nation'. They didn't cry for Sozin, or Azulon, or Ozai, but they cried for you. There were people on every single street your casket went past, and everywhere I looked, I saw people - housewives, school kids, old men - crying and crying and crying. I don't know whether I should feel happy or sad seeing that many people mourn, but it's proof. Your people love you, Zuko. You were the best Fire Lord they've had in a long, long time.
And I have to give them a speech telling them you're gone. I open my mouth.
'People of the Fire Nation. My name is Aang. Some of you know me as the Avatar. But I'm not here today to be an Avatar. I'm here today to mourn one of my closest friends. I –'
And close it again. I think I was supposed to say that, but guess what? None of it made it past my lips. Something's wrong with my throat; there's a lump stuck in it that hurts every time I swallow, and my chest feels all constricted and tight and painful.
I told you I suck at public speaking.
Give me a moment to figure out how to make my voice work – it has something to do with breathing and moving my lips, I'm sure – and to remember, well, everything.
'We weren't always friends. In fact, he used to chase me all over the world, trying to regain his honor. But though we were enemies then, he was still every bit as honorable, determined, and strong.'
Not a single word leaves of my mouth, even as my mind runs through the words. The people are still waiting, the silence is crushing me, but for all of my Avatar wisdom, I can't eke out a single freaking word. It's this stupid lead weight in my chest, this weird burning feeling in my throat – grief. It's grief; I can't believe it took me that long to figure it out! Sokka said that I was in shock, but it must be wearing off now, because I think I'm only just realizing that you're really dead, that this time…
You're not coming back.
And Spirits help me, it hurts.
'Zuko's a lot of different things to me now. He's one of my bending masters, and he helped me learn the true meaning behind fire - it is life. It is passion. It is power; Zuko taught me all three, not just as a bending master, but as a friend, through who he was and how he lived.'
You're not just a friend. I have lots of friends from everywhere - Haru, Teo, the Duke, Onji, and dozens of people I've met all over are my friends, and they're all great. You aren't like them. You and Katara and Toph and Sokka and maybe Suki too.
You're the closest damn thing I've ever had to a family after Gyatso. You and Sokka are like my older brothers. You've both taught me so much, from big things like how to propose to Katara, to little things like how to shave. Or to brew tea. Or mail letters by hawk. Or a thousand and one other things that I had to learn as I got older. How to be a man and not a kid.
I wish you were here. I wish I could feel your hand on my shoulder, like before, see you smile wryly, and hear you mumble the lines of my speech that I forgot to me. But you're not; you won't be, not ever again. So I'm just standing here, not saying a word, and it feels like the whole world is silent.
You told me, once, to cherish the people I love, after you lost Mai. I took extra good care of Katara after that. Now I know wish I extended that to everyone I love. I should have been able to save you, but…I just didn't think that you'd be the one we lost first.
You didn't even say goodbye.
"When you lose someone that close to you, it feels like you can't go on. So I'm going to stop and mourn and remember, because it does hurt, and it's going to keep hurting for a long time. That's nothing to be ashamed of. It means that Zuko was important to me, and I'll miss him more than I can ever express in words."
I just stand here and breathe, because I can't get those words out of my mouth no matter how hard I try. It's the silence – it's too heavy, I can't break it. So I just stare out into the crowd and wonder what you'd say if you were here.
'You can do it. I know you can.'
It hurts to remember your voice, saying something you said way back when on the way to see the dragons seven years ago. Wonder why I'm remembering it now. Oh, right. Shadows of the past can sometimes be felt by the present. The monks taught me that. As long as I remember -
"But as long as I remember, he won't truly be gone. As I look around, I see this nation that he's pulled back together - all of you are a living testament to what Zuko's done, and as his friend, as the Avatar, I swear to uphold the peace he lived and died for."
For some reason, I close my eyes, and strangely enough, the crowd is still completely silent, even though I haven't said a word. Wait, is that a tear? Yup, it's a tear. Okay, now I'm standing in front of ten thousand people, not saying a word, and crying to boot. I feel like the most pathetic Avatar ever.
I do swear to protect it though. The peace, I mean. I'll protect it. The image is burned into my mind, and though I don't want to think about it, I remember your dying message, the last word you scrawled in the ash. I don't want to imagine what you were thinking as you died, or why you chose that particular word, but it's the last thing you've asked of me, and I owe you at least that much.
Somehow, I'm not surprised. It's just so very, very like you, Sifu Hotman, to give me homework instead of saying goodbye. I'm sorry I can't say goodbye either. Not aloud, at least, not in front of these ten thousand people who are still watching in silence, not with any words in any language that can properly express what I want to say. So I here I am, giving a wordless speech to a wordless crowd, and I can't stop crying because this is the only farewell I can offer.
A broken, wordless goodbye.
'守' means 'to protect' or 'to guard' in Mandarin Chinese. It's can also be used to mean 'keeping an appointment or a promise'.
Thus, I conclude the first, pilot chapter of 'Unbreakable'. Tell me what you think, and feel free to point out mistakes, criticize, or ask questions. And this goes without saying, but there's no way I'm letting Zuko offstage that easily.
Hopefully, everyone was pretty in character. If it wasn't clear enough, the narrations are from Katara's, Toph's, Sokka's, and Aang's POVs respectively. The switching between past/present tense and first/third person view is intentional.