Time is an illusion and so is death.
Her hands find themselves on his chest, just above where his heart should be. She reaches for the blood underneath, and finds a stagnant puddle of life.
Her face grows hot. She pushes; the frustrated thrust of a desperate child, grasping at straws.
The life swishes, and his eyes open, only just. The golden irises focus on her, just before they glaze over, receding into oblivion.
She is blinking a lot. Her vision is going blurry. She pushes again.
There's not much use to pushing around dead blood.
Her face crumples, she cries:
He can't be gone. They have barely started. He hasn't finished apologizing to her, and she hasn't finished trusting him, and he can't die, he always comes back, he always sneaks up on her when she least expects it-
With her hands on him, she feels everything. All of that potential slipping away. Forever.
Not again. Not this again. Not another boy she can't save; not another boy robbed of life when she'd only just begun to forgive him.
Soon she is hunched over merely a corpse, crying into a dead boy's shirt.
He is too young. He has only just begun to know himself. She has only just begun to know the real him. She has only just begun to allow herself to be nice to him. He still hasn't explained to her what it all meant, the things he does for her-
His body is warm. She places her hand on his cheek, over the scar. Her thumb finds his mouth. His lips are warm too. Her hand lingers, and then slips away.
She wipes her tears on her arm, but it doesn't do much good to cease the stream. And now her arm is wet.
She looks back down to his face. She closes his eyelids with a sweep of her palm.
Eventually, Katara moves on.
His spirit watches her as she moves. Watches her play her part in destiny. Watches her tell Iroh and the others what has happened. Watches her embrace her friends. Watches her explain to the Avatar the kind of love she felt for him. Watches her cry at his empty expression, and then his anger. Watches her cry ugily in the dark of her room at the Fire Palace.
"It's not right to linger like this," says the Death Spirit.
"I don't want to leave her," Zuko says.
"They never do," says the Death Spirit.
She attends the coronation of Fire Lord. Afterwards, he summons her to his study.
"Before you say anything, I would like to apologize," Katara says. "I'm sorry I was so slow. He – he jumped in front of me before I could even register what was happening."
Iroh lets his eyes close, the pain folding the skin between his eyes.
"Miss Katara, my nephew died honorably. While I wish he was still in the world, I cannot blame you. In these dark days, the best way to die, I think, is in the place of someone you love."
Her expressions shifts toward discomfort, and settles impassively.
"Why did you summon me, sir?"
"I thought you might like some tea."
His uncle gestures to the table behind him, on which an ornamental tea set sits expectantly.
She nods, feeling numb.
They have tea.
"Is there any way I can talk to her?" Zuko asks.
"No mode exists, I'm afraid," the Death Spirit replies.
The former prince wishes very dearly for something to exert his anger on, but it is slim pickings in this strange place between reality and whatever exists beyond. Might it be the Spirit World? Zuko doesn't know. He can't help but think that he might know, if he had listened more closely to Uncle.
"I wish I was alive."
"If you were, you'd be doing paperwork."
"If you had lived, you would have become the Firelord, and you'd be doing paperwork."
Zuko watches Katara's fingers fumble as she grasps the teacup. She only just prevents it from shattering.
"Where would she be?" he asks.
"Dead," the Spirit says, "or, perhaps, alive."
Toph becomes somewhat a mute. Staring unseeingly as always, her gaze becomes somehow dejected. She camps out in the gardens and ruins the lush green lawn by hiding away in an earthen tent of her own creation.
Sokka is conflicted. He feels sad, certainly, but isn't overt about it. And he is only too happy to find solace in the Kyoshi warrior.
Aang takes it surprisingly well. He recovers quickly, and it becomes only one of the countless things that haunt him.
Zuko knows Iroh's grief well, has seen it before. It is familiar, yet strange. He has to remind himself that he is the cause of this, not his cousin.
And so he continues to trail Katara, who has become a creature of action and reaction. She heals. She helps. She doesn't cry much anymore.
His spiritual companion seems to become more and more impatient as the weeks pass.
"You are most…persistent. Most stay a few days at maximum and continue on their way. You seem to have an abnormally tight hold onto this world."
"I didn't want to die."
"Not many people do, but still you are stronger than most."
"I haven't given up yet."
The Spirit bristles. "Death is not a force. You cannot choose to yield to it. It is inevitable. You are dead."
"Your body has been cremated in the traditional ceremony. There is no more physical form for you to possess. There is no way to reverse the process."
Zuko doesn't say anything.
"It would be best for you to come with me."
Zuko meets the Death Spirit's gaze. The spirit stares back at him without sympathy.
The former prince glances back to the silhouette of Katara standing in front of her armoire. It is early day. The soft morning light shines through her room at the palace. She brushes her hair methodically.
Her hands are trembling.
"Reluctance will not be tolerated for long," the Death Spirit utters softly; a thinly veiled warning.
That's bullshit. You can't just abandon a soul. Zuko knows this.
The spirit does not leave in the traditional sense. Its presence fades with time; Zuko hears its unearthly voice in his consciousness less and less.
Zuko likes to think of it as somewhat of the ultimate fuck-up, his crown jewel of disastrous mistakes. Abandoned and alone he is, even in death.
Time passes unusually. At least, Zuko thinks it is unusual, tries to remember – that yes, time is not so irregular when you are alive. Months pass him by without him noticing until he finds himself at Katara's sixteenth birthday party. Her brother teases her; she is of marrying age now. Katara tells him to mind his own business.
A party guest stumbles as they pass through Zuko's nonexistent presence. Later, Zuko swears he feels the ghost of feeling in his fingertips as he brushes a wall. It's as if all of the nerves in his body have become numb, but a few spark occasionally. Infrequentedly. Once in six hundred days.
This world between the worlds is not perfect, Zuko realizes. It's fraying at the seams. He wonders if he can find a hole.
Years later, Katara marries a firebender.
He likes to make her happy – with flowers and poems and a good deal of mediocre bending. When they duel, she goes easy on him. He makes her laugh, and Zuko is disgusted.
When Toph meets him, she pulls Katara aside.
"Do you think this is healthy, Sugar Queen?"
"He's nothing like Zuko."
Here Zuko feels something like what he remembers sadness to feel like; the sort of sadness he'd sometime felt about his mother. Bittersweet.
"No, he's not," says Toph, carefully. Katara stares at her friend, looking desperate. The gaze is useless; Toph can't see her. Zuko aches to reach out and touch her, but knows, from experience, that he won't feel anything. He never does when it comes to her. His fingers never awake across her skin.
The firebender calls out to Katara, and she grins at him.
Aang likes him. They bond over silly bending tricks.
Sokka likes him. They bond over a love of food.
Suki does not like him – Zuko can see it in her pursed lips, the restraint tugging at her mouth as she withholds all the words she wishes to say. Unlike Toph, she does not call Katara out.
She seems content to let Katara have some happiness, no matter how dubious the method is.
At first Zuko is angry, but then he understands.
He'd always liked Suki.
Zuko trails after many people, but Katara is the one he always comes back to. He watches Toph mature. He observes as his sister slowly regains her sanity; watches her grief grow as she realizes that he died by her very own hand. He watches Mai's apathy and bored almost instantly by it. He watches Ty Lee find peace and happiness.
He flirts with the idea of finding his mother, but the idea is quickly squashed. He has no means of asking information from anyone. He has no leads.
And besides, if, by a miracle, he did find her – what then? Would he watch her as he does Katara, watch her anguish with some sort of masochistic curiosity?
What kind of life is that? Zuko asks himself.
Existence, he corrects after a moment.
Everything goes perfectly on the day of the wedding. Zuko doesn't stick around to witness the night of the wedding.
Instead, he tries to rip the world apart.
He finds the place where the corpse had laid. He feels the fabric of this non-reality, and sure enough, finds it. The center of this universe, and the gateway.
The hole. It stretches with the spreading of his fingertips, and he pulls with everything he has.
He hears a voice he hasn't heard in years.
"This is not what you think it is. By destroying this, you are only destroying yourself," says the Death Sprit.
"I'm already dead. All I want to do is slip back into life."
"You may very well slip into non-existence."
Oh. Of course. Of course this is dangerous. But Zuko cannot feel apprehensive now, can't feel much at all except this desire to destroy this world. He hates this world he has lived in all this time, a world which he can observe but cannot partake in. He hates the happiness and sadness of his friends in equal measure; he hates the hollowness of his own conscience. He wants to destroy it. He wants to burn it.
He wants to feel the fire in his veins again. He does not wish for oblivion, but then again, he has been wrong before in determining what will bring him peace.
"Well," Zuko says, "I'll try very hard not to." He pulls, again, harder this time.
The world is tearing at the seams. Everything all around him is unraveling. The image of the Death Spirit flickers, melts, and then abruptly disappears – almost like an escape.
Let him run. Let him fear me.
"After all," says Zuko as the sky dissolves and the earth vanishes below his feet, as something rushes in reverse inside his mind. "I never give up without a fight."
He wakes up gasping in her arms.