NOT FADE AWAY
Aang stood before the bowl of water, moving through a waterbending kata with careful deliberation. The bowl's water tilted gently from side to side, swaying in time with the Fire Nation ship.
"Come on," he hissed through clenched teeth. "WORK!"
The water did not bend.
"The Avatar," Gyasto had told him, "is called to maintain the world's balance. It is the work of a lifetime, but do not despair, Aang. You will not be alone. You will have your friends, those you love."
"Great," he muttered, glaring down at the court where his so-called 'friends' were playing Airball. "I'm SO glad I signed up."
Screaming in rage, Aang kicked the clay bowl. As the bowl arced through the air towards the cabin wall, its water spilled everywhere... before freezing in place mid-flight. The bowl hit the wall and shattered.
The bended water shocked Aang for a moment but then he sank to his knees, drunk with relief.
He snapped upright and twisted his head around. Katara stood in the doorway to his cabin, absentmindedly weaving one hand through the air as she gathered up the levitating water and froze it into a small ice block at her feet.
"What's the matter, Aang?" she asked, concerned.
"H-how long were you standing there?" he asked.
"Long enough to see you abuse that poor bowl. Wh--"
Aang didn't hear the rest. He collapsed onto the cool metal floor, howling in anguish.
Katara had asked, "Why didn't you tell us you were the Avatar?"
Aang answered honestly, "Because... I never wanted to be."
Katara had to bring Sokka down to help lift him off the floor. Aang couldn't stand, didn't want to stand. Aang didn't answer their questions. He didn't speak for hours. Katara stayed with him all night, leaving only for a half hour to deal with some commotion on deck. There was trouble with a Fire Nation ship that had come up alongside them.
Aang was pitifully glad that everyone wanted to keep him out of sight.
What could he do to help anyone now?
His friends thought he was in pain; that he couldn't deal with the trauma of Azula shooting him through with lightning. It was even true in a way.
When Katara returned, he waited until she fell asleep to slip out. He had to move carefully for fear of waking Katara, who was a light sleeper, but Aang was still a twinkletoes if nothing else.
The Water Tribe men who saw him smiled, thinking they were seeing the Avatar up and about at last. The hope in their eyes made Aang's heart hurt. At least they left him alone on deck with the breeze and the moonlight.
More than anything, he needed to talk to someone who would understand. He couldn't bear to disappoint Katara or the others. Not yet. But Gyatso was long dead and Roku... was too, now. That left only one person he knew. Aang looked up into the sky. "What do I now?"
The Moon was silent.
Aang run a hand through his short hair. "Right."
"If you are killed in the Avatar State," Roku had said, "the reincarnation cycle will be broken and the Avatar will cease to exist."
The next morning Aang called his friends into his cabin. He didn't want to tell them but he needed to put a stop to the invasion plan before people deluded themselves any further.
"When Azula shot me," Aang explained, "I was in the Avatar State. And when I d-died, I was in the Avatar State."
"Yeah," said Sokka, "and then Katara healed you."
"I know, but... it was too late." His friends stared at him, not understanding. He had to force out the next words, not wanting to say them and make it official. "I came back to life. The Avatar Spirit didn't. I can still airbend but that's it. I'm not the Avatar anymore. The Avatar... is dead."
"You can't bend water or earth?" asked Toph.
"Have you, y'know, tried not being a wuss about it?"
Aang glared at his friend. "Yes, Toph. I have!"
She threw up his hands. "Okay! Okay! Sheesh, I was just asking."
Katara covered her mouth. "This is horrible," she whispered. "I'm so sorry, Aang! I-If I had been faster--"
"No," he cut her off. "It's not your fault, Katara. It's mine." Aang bowed his head. "If I had kept better track of Azula, she would never have gotten the drop on me."
A heady silence fell over the cabin.
"...Okay," said Sokka. "Well, this changes the invasion plan a little."
"A little?" asked Aang, incredulous. "How am I supposed to face the Fire Lord now?"
Sokka grinned at him, like Aang had just told the funniest joke in the world. "You're still a master airbender, yeah? And the last time I checked, we have a world-class waterbender and the greatest earthbender ever."
"Aww." Toph slugged Sokka's shoulder. "Flatterer."
"Ow," said Sokka.
"But I'm not the Avatar anymore," Aang insisted. "I'm just the last airbender."
"So?" asked Toph. "Like Chuckles said, we'll just do it together." She cracked her knuckles. "A three-on-one fight against a powerless Fire Lord sounds awesome!"
"Yeah," said Sokka. "Besides, what's the big deal? Everyone in the whole world KNOWS you're the Avatar."
"But the Avatar Spirit di--"
Sokka gestured to the closed cabin door and the world beyond it. "They don't know that."
Aang frowned. "Wait, you're saying we lie about me still being the Avatar?"
"No," said Katara, a grin spreading across her startled face. "Sokka's saying we fake it. Toph and I can cover for your earthbending and waterbending. We don't tell anyone. People will still have hope in the Avatar!"
"You're all CRAZY!" Aang shouted, stumbling to his feet. "Don't you get it?! I'm not the Avatar anymore! There is no more Avatar! IT'S ALL OVER!!"
"I'll never give up, Aang," said Katara. She came over to him and put her hands on his shoulders. Looking him in the eye, she said, "I'm not going to give up and let the Fire Nation win. I couldn't live with myself if I didn't keep fighting. And we may not have the Avatar anymore, but we still have you. And you have us."
Sokka poked his head around Katara. "Yeah, what she said."
"I'm with Sweetness," piped up Toph. "Fight 'em 'till we can't!"
Katara asked, "What do you say, Aang?"
And Aang considered.
The waters were still. The earth did not move. The Spirits were silent.
On the plus side, he would never have to be afraid of burning Katara again.
Hope seemed impossible. Even with the Day of Black Sun, how was he going to defeat the Fire Nation without the rest of his powers? It made more sense to turn the ship around, maybe find someplace far away, a remote island or an oasis in a desert, and hide away forever.
He wasn't the Avatar anymore. He was free to just be a kid again. He could let the war be someone else's problem. After all, if the Fire Lord was going to be powerless then anyone could fight him. It didn't have to be Aang, the last airbender.
But the world had fought the Fire Nation for a hundred years when the Avatar had deserted it. Even after the fall of the Earth Kingdom, the people of this ship were still fighting on. His friends were still going to try, even knowing what he'd lost. Gyatso had gone down fighting when things must have seemed hopeless. None of them had been the Avatar. They had still fought for the people they cared for, for the Balance.
Avatar Aang had had to do it, but Airbender Aang had a choice.
And Aang knew the right choice to make.
Katara asked, "What do you say, Aang?"
After a long moment, Aang nodded. "Let's do this."