Time is an illusion and so is death.
Aang's eyes widened, his pupils dilating. For a moment he saw a bright light. Then it was gone. He took a shuddering breath and gripped his staff. They were happening more frequently now, moments where he almost blacked out, his mind seeming to travel out of him. The feeling was not dissimilar to entering the Spirit World. Yet Aang knew this was a different experience altogether. And one that he had been expecting for some time.
Zuko laid a hand against Aang's shoulder, the aged Fire Lord still retaining much of his strength in his grip.
"Is it...?" his golden eyes had not faded in intensity either.
Aang smiled and patted his friend's hand. "Not yet," he said calmly. But soon.
Zuko seemed to relax for a moment but his face quickly turned grave. "I wish you would let one of the healers look at you."
Aang shook his head. "They wouldn't be able to do anything." He continued walking back to the Fire Nation palace. Before, the trip from the city to the palace wouldn't have taken so long. But those were younger days.
"How can you be so sure?" Zuko questioned, walking beside him.
Aang shrugged. "I'm the Avatar?" he replied jokingly.
Zuko's mood did not lift. "Katara would have done something," he muttered.
Aang turned his head away. His smile kept on his face but his eyes drew down sadly. "She would have, wouldn't she?"
She danced beautifully. Aang smiled to see the proud delight on Zuko's face. The rest of the dinner guests had pushed aside their plates and were clapping in time with the music. There were cheers and shouts and laughter. The Fire Lord's great grand daughter certainly had talent. Her betrothed wasn't so bad either. The music swelled and she spun. Her partner side stepped around and caught her. The audience roared its approval.
Bright light. A glow full of warmth. And a memory.
...It's just you and me right now.
And it was gone again. Aang's hands shook as he gripped the arms of his chair. Something soft brushed against his cheek.
"You're crying uncle Aang."
The girl had stopped dancing and had bent her head down to be on level with him. Standing close behind her was her young man, breathing deeply, perspiration glistening on his brow.
Aang blinked and smiled warmly at her. "I'm crying because you danced so beautifully."
She smiled back, flashing white teeth. The music started a different tune. Her fiancé tugged her hand and she eagerly went with him to the dance floor. She turned and waved a hand goodbye at Aang. Aang grinned back. Inside he felt his heart falter.
Aang made to stand and felt his legs waver under him. They almost gave way before he found his strength and straightened. Zuko was looking at him, his face unreadable. Aang smiled weakly.
"Just going out for a bit of air," he called.
Zuko did nothing for a moment then nodded slowly.
The night was chilled but not unpleasant. Aang walked slowly through the gardens, the occasional guard saluting swiftly as he passed by. He had to stop every now and then, mostly to rest, once or twice because of another blackout. He finally got to where he wanted in the end.
Appa took a moment before he became aware of Aang's presence. He sniffed the air and grunted softly. Aang patted the animal's head.
"Hello buddy," he murmured with quiet affection. Appa nuzzled at his hand. "Time for us to go."
Appa stood heavily, his arthritic joints creaking. The sky bison had not flown in some time since growing older. He now seemed to be relishing the coming trip. Aang readied himself and then paused. His senses twitched at someone's approach. He knew who.
He turned and smiled at the sight of Zuko; the man who had been his enemy, the man who became his best friend. The man who now felt like a brother.
"You would leave without saying goodbye, Aang?" Zuko's head was lowered, his voice quiet.
Aang's face creased in a frown. "I was never good at them."
Zuko was silent for a moment. "Yeah, I'm pretty hopeless at them too." He looked up suddenly and his eyes were determined. They were also crying. "So I won't say it," he said fiercely. "I searched and found you once before. I can do it again."
Aang grinned, feeling the tears in his own eyes. "Then I look forward to meeting you again."
Zuko roughly embraced him. Aang hugged him back. When they pulled back his friend was grinning too. "I'll see you around, Avatar."
Aang smiled back. "Count on it."
Aang stepped up to Appa with a lighter step than he had felt in years and airbent himself atop the sky bison. He looked down one last time at Zuko. His friend waved and Aang returned the gesture.
"Appa," he said finally. "Yip yip."
Appa drifted aimlessly through the clouds. They brushed softly against Aang, leaving drops of moisture on his robes. He didn't mind. The wind gusted across his face and hi closed his eyes to savour the feeling.
The bright light flashed in his mind. It was so close now; just a hair's breadth away.
Appa moaned. Aang opened his eyes and patted his friend's head. "You don't have to come, buddy. I can go it alone."
The animal's responding bellow made Aang laugh. "Okay, okay. I get it. You're coming too."
Light and warmth and...memory? No, not memory. Something else.
Aang laid back and watched the stars fly by. It came again. In and out. In and out. Each flash lasting longer and longer. The stars seemed to melt in to one another. It wasn't memory, it was something closer, something...
In and out. In and out. Like his breath he realised now. Like his heartbeat. And it came to him. Not memory but reality. Here was the dream, there was home. The stars became one light. Home, where everyone returned to and where they rested. Rested from their aches and weariness and loneliness.
Aang smiled and time and age departed from his face. "Home," he said and embraced the light.
He was home.