The firestorm rains chaos onto the caldera with stunning force. Fireballs emerge source less, forming so high in the clouds that by the time they burn through the wisps, whistling through the air, it is too late to avoid them. The ground shudders and buckles under the barrage and in the midst of it, Aang’s clothes burn in patches until the scorched islands of fabric grow to meet.
By the time he makes it to the upper district, the wind has carried the final shreds away. Somewhere in the hell consuming the caldera, the burned residue of cloth is buffeted by air currents into the lungs of a woman who chokes to death waiting for help.
If the ground were not exploding anew with each step he takes, Aang would feel the breath leave her body.
It takes every reserve of concentration he has to maintain the air barrier around him, to funnel the smoke up and away. The soles of his feet burn with sickening pain. He longs to stand still, to gather a storm of air to him and extend the air currents wider, to clear the smoke that hangs like death over the city. But with each step, the barrage grows more fearsome. He cannot take to the air. The heat has burned his glider along with his clothes, and blisters spread like wildfire over his body.
The tattoo on his right hand is gone, burned away along with the top layer of his skin. Tears and smoke choke him as he fights with every step until the palace looms above him, the gardens burned to a wasteland.
The tallest towers lay in crumbled ruins, but this close to the heart of the firestorm, the air is clearer. The fireballs don’t land too close to home.
Aang stumbles and falls to his knees in what was once soft grass. He lets the momentum of the fall carry him forward until he has the sweet relief of letting his weight go, his face flat in the earth. Earth that rumbles and shudders with explosions. Earth that grows hotter the longer he stays.
The pain grows in increments, akin first to hot water and then scalding steam against his cheek and nose. If he cries, the heat takes the tears and gives him pain in turn. He screams into the soft earth until the next inhale draws dirt into his throat and threatens to choke him.
And as it does, he rises with the fury of the Avatar state, spitting the dirt from his mouth. An implosion of air whips the heat and flames away from him in a mile radius. Aang takes to the air.
He finds Zuko at the highest remaining point of the palace. Red welts rise from the firebender’s bare skin as he stands unsteadily on a wrecked rooftop, back hunched, root entirely broken. He bends fire with an otherworldly determination, a strength in him that is not his own.
The veins running up his arm and neck run dark with foul energy. With every pump of his heart, the energy permeates the air around him, spreading thicker into the air.
If he notices Aang land behind him on the roof and the blue glow of the Avatar state blink out, he doesn’t react. He is entirely bewitched by the panorama of destruction he beholds from this highest point in the caldera.
Aang kneels on the rooftop, gasping for air. The air is wretched with smoke thick as a wall. How Zuko is still alive, Aang doesn’t know.
He bends the air away from them both, but it doesn’t give, holding its shape as if it truly were a wall. Aang is sobbing; it feels as if he hasn’t stopped for the past hour.
An otherworldly scream emanates from the smoke and in the negative space of the smoke, a twisted, hulking form seven feet tall emerges.
Aang bends a gust of air at it but it continues undeterred. The wrecked tiles of the roof crunch under its footfalls even as Aang scrambles back, trying to draw moisture from the air to bend at it. If there is any, it is in such miniscule amounts that even he can’t bend it. Desperation rises to meet him and Aang bends fresh tears off his own face, solidifying them into ice shards just as they penetrate the empty space.
The space shudders and oozes black smoke from seven pin pricks left by the ice shards. It stumbles, and Aang sees something trying to reconstitute itself.
Aang’s mouth is entirely dry. The tears don’t come as he stares in horror, his heart pounding in his chest. The clouds high in the sky were burned away hours ago. There is nothing.
Aang rises to a low stance, putting several feet between him and the negative space as he backs away. As he goes, he swipes a piece of broken tile from the ruins and in the next motion, slices his own palm open. The blood flows terrifyingly swift and Aang bends the water in it with a strangled yell.
This time when the shards pass through the negative space, it shudders and crashes to the roof, unmoving, the black smoke oozing from thousands of pin pricks to reveal the outline of a many-limbed twisted form.
Aang whips around to face Zuko, and he is greeted with blackened eyes. The whites are entirely obscured by a twisting smoke expanding from his pupils, and dark veins bulge underneath the thin skin under his eyes. Aang’s breath leaves him in a rush even before Zuko seizes his throat, crushing the cartilage with a force that draws a scream from him.
Fire rises around them and it seems to burn away air, water. The rooftop they stand on crumbles and crashes away from them and yet, they stay where they are, buoyed by some invisible force. Zuko’s other hand seizes the wrist of Aang’s bleeding hand, and the fine bones give under the force as Zuko forces it away from his body.
Aang cannot scream. The earth slips out of reach. Any remaining water burns away with the heat. If there is air, Aang cannot breathe it, much less wield it.
Zuko lifts him until his toes scrabble against whatever incorporeal barrier holds them. Aang has no root from which to bend fire or earth, no air in his lungs to birth flame. His one hand is burned and the other broken.
“Zuko,” Aang chokes out.
“Aang,” Zuko breathes out softly and it is his voice. There is no resonance of a voice filtered through an otherworldly entity. He draws Aang closer to his naked body and presses their cheeks together.
Aang’s vision grows dark at the edges.
“Aang,” Zuko whispers again, this time into his skin. “You came.”
“Stop this, Zuko,” Aang hisses. Tremors are overtaking his body, spasms of panic, but they are so far out of reach, he is helpless to even feel them.
“I waited so long,” Zuko says against Aang’s open lips and exhales as if in a lover’s embrace. Flames lick the inside of Aang’s mouth. He can’t scream. “I begged for you to come. You didn’t listen.”
Aang isn’t conscious, not in any meaningful sense. When he lifts the broken tile to Zuko’s abdomen, it bumps against the skin like a child’s sword.
The black smoke fades from Zuko’s eyes. Distantly, Aang registers that he is looking into golden eyes but it doesn’t click.
“You’ll stay right here with me,” Zuko whispers. His hand drops to Aang’s and he helps to guide the jagged edge of the tile past his own skin and twists. Zuko gasps into Aang’s mouth, drawing stuttering breaths as his fingers tighten around Aang’s throat. “Right here.”
Zuko coughs as he drives the tile deeper into his own abdomen. Blood spatters from his mouth onto Aang’s burned tongue.
Zuko breathes for the both of them until the blood from his abdomen finally runs so free that he can no longer stand. They both crumple together, Zuko cradling Aang’s barely-alive body close to him. He waits until his vision narrows to a tunnel before he crushes Aang’s neck. If Aang has a last breath left in him, he breathes it into Zuko’s mouth.