Slow Heat

Alternate Ending – I Will Fear No Evil, Part 4

Well, folks. I'm feeling kinda bittersweet here. I started this story in what seems like another lifetime, and I can't believe it's over. It's been a long and fun ride as well as an incredible learning experience, it was cool to try a story that was from first-person perspective rather than my usual third person/omniscient writing.

There were many different ways I could have handled this alternate ending and what happens between Katara and Aang. Remember, the epilogue that you previously read for this story also counts for this one (sans our favorite Waterbender's death and any events that were a direct result of her death, of course) and it took me a while to decide what would happen between Katara and Aang. I have chosen what I think is the best ending that is also a little open, because I like endings that have a bit of openness to them :)

As always, please enjoy this chapter and don't forget to review!

o0o0o0o

~ 1 Year ASC

(Late Summer, 1102)

Katara

I felt a warm pang in my heart as Appa approached Sozun, seeing the tall spires of the Palace rise above the volcano walls, the red and gold shingles gleaming in the sun.

A couple of months after Zuko left the Water Tribe, Aang and I had gone on a trip, visiting Omashu and Ba Sing Se before visiting some Fire Colony towns. He was doing it as part of his Avatar duty, touching base much like Zuko was doing when he had visited the Water Tribes. And since Zuko had officially appointed me as ambassador of the Southern Water Tribe, my traveling with the Avatar was also a duty on my part, though I knew that Aang was happy to not be traveling alone. We had also visited Toph in Gaoling – our last stop before Omashu and the Fire Nation – and she had accompanied us to visit Bumi and would now be coming with us to Fire Nation. I welcomed her company, since Aang's attempts to win my heart hadn't stopped.

Sokka and Dad were also supposed to come to the Fire Nation, as was Suki, and several other key figures. I looked forward to seeing them all again, but of course, the person I wanted to see most was Zuko. It'd been nearly half a year. Doubtless he would have grown taller and more handsome. I smiled at that thought, thinking about how the last time I had seen him, his shoulders were a bit broader, and he was also taller. I had seen his deposed father when Aang and the Order of the White Lotus had brought him in, and the resemblance between father and son was unmistakable, but Zuko had warmth in his eyes that Ozai had been utterly lacking in.

My heart skipped a beat as I saw a small group in front of the Palace. As we came closer, I saw my family, and smiled as I saw them. I also saw Zuko standing with his uncle, and felt a pleasant fluttering in my stomach as I gazed down at him.

Appa landed, and Toph eagerly hopped off, landing on the ground with her bare feet. Aang launched himself off Appa with a small burst of Airbending. It took me longer to get off Appa, but Aang was quickly there to help me, grasping my hand and wrapping his arm around my middle.

I found myself swept up into my father and brother's arms before Pakku came forward to hug me. When I gazed at Zuko, it was hard to not simply rush over to him and hug him. As I gazed at him steadily, I gave him the proper greetings, bowing my head. He bowed back to me, but I could feel the heat in his gaze.

o0o0o0o

Fire Lord Zuko

It had been nearly a year since the War had ended. Even though being Fire Lord was still a stressful job, I had gotten into the rhythm of things and now led a comfortable and manageable day-to-day, though this didn't mean that I didn't have difficulties here and there. Bumi and the King of Ba Sing Se were happy to be my allies, but there were still people in the Fire and Earth lands that were not happy with how the War ended, so we still had a bit of conflict raging here and there, and I also had to deal with the strife within my own Court.

Many of the nobles profited in one way or another from the war, whether it be weapons manufacture, taking over former Earth Kingdom lands, or to my horror, turning captured Earth Kingdom and Water Tribe citizens into slaves. As soon as I found out that such a deplorable thing was happening, I issued a decree that slavery was illegal and that all slaves, regardless of origin or status, were to be released, and Bumi and the Earth King issued similar edicts for the Fire Nation citizens that had been captured. Over the last year, we had been corresponding with one another, working on a set of laws that were to be applied to all of the nations. If we were all to work together and maintain the world's balance, it was only sensible that we share a uniform set of laws. It was something that Avatar Aang also heartily endorsed, and the leaders of the Water Tribes as well. For the first time in history, there would be a set of laws that everyone had to follow, not just members of one nation. It was exhilarating to be part of such a process.

"Welcome, Avatar Aang. It's good to see you again." I said, turning my attention to Aang even though I would very much rather continue staring at Katara. He was now nearly as tall as I was despite being four years younger than I, though he remained lanky. My exile and search for the Avatar seemed almost like a distant memory.

"You've all traveled a long way to get here." I said as I looked at the group before me. Hakoda had arrived with his group just the day before, and had already been set up in the guest wing with the same care that they had received the year before. "I'm sure you'll all want to get reacquainted with one another before supper, or rest if you need." I nodded to Aang, Katara, and Toph. "I'll see you all at supper. Like always, please enjoy yourselves."

o0o0o0o

Katara

To my delight, I was led to the same lavish apartment that I had previously stayed in, and who was there waiting for me but Ging Lei! After several days of almost non-stop traveling, it felt nice to simply soak in the hot bath and have Ging Lei attend me. I sat there as she rubbed my back and feet and shampooed my hair. Afterward, I took a short nap in the large and comfy bed before she put me in a soft blue and silver silk robe and braided my hair. I noticed with a bit of bemusement that she seemed to be taking extra care with my appearance, and casually commented on that as I stared at our reflections in the mirror, watching as she added several pins to my hair.

"Oh, but you want to look good for Zuko, don't you?" she shot back with a small smile. My eyes widened, and I nearly dropped my jaw.

"Don't worry. I haven't told anybody, my lady. But I've seen how he looks at you, and you wouldn't be here again in this room if you didn't mean so much to him. The wardrobe had a few new blue robes and dresses added to it, for you. He refuses the attentions of everybody else, especially Mai."

"... And it doesn't bother you the least?" I whispered.

"I do like you, Lady Katara. And nobody else would suit the Fire Lord. The noblewomen are snotty, spoiled girls. It is my duty to serve the Fire Lord, and I wish only the best for him. And you would be better for him than anybody else." She spoke with calm certainty as she checked my hair, making sure that it was all in place.

"Well... thank you." I was flattered to have her support.

"Supper should be any moment now. He's waiting for you. Go now."

o0o0o0o

Zuko

The banquet room was decorated to reflect the mixed company. Banners of red, green, blue, and yellow hung from the walls with the symbols of their respective nations emblazoned on them. I glanced around the table. Sokka sat next to Suki – not surprising, considering their feelings for one another – and Hakoda sat near the Avatar. Toph sat next to Hakoda, and next to her, Mai and Ty Lee, who sat across from Suki and Haru. Pakku and Jeong Jeong were also with us. Since the guest list was short, we only needed one table to accommodate everyone. The chair next to me was empty, and I held back a smile as I thought about who would be sitting there.

Through the entryway, a figure clad in a blue silk dress emerged, and my eyes moved along Katara's body, loving the way she looked in it. She stood there for a moment, her hands folded in front of her demurely as she gazed at the other occupants of the table. I waved to her with a subtle motion, and she came over to the seat next to me. I wanted to tell her how stunning she looked, but I was well aware of the eyes and ears of everybody else in the room.

"It's been a year since we've all been here." Uncle remarked cheerfully from my other side. I nodded in agreement.

"It almost seems like yesterday that the War ended, doesn't it?" I asked.

"Yes, but we've all come a long way, haven't we? All of us have traveled the world one way or another over the last year. It's nice to see that things have been changing for the better. People who have never seen peace before in their lives can now enjoy it." Katara said with a happy smile. There were murmurs of agreement from around the table.

"How about a toast?" Sokka asked, raising his goblet. I smiled and nodded, raising my own as everyone else did the same.

"To peace and unity!" he said.

"To making new friends!" Ty Lee added.

"To the safety of our loved ones." Hakoda stated.

The atmosphere of the meal was considerably more relaxed and casual than a banquet with the Court. People chatted as they helped themselves to the gourmet fare set before them, speaking of things that had happened since the end of the war. I enjoyed Ty Lee's cheerful commentaries, and Sokka and Toph's sarcasm and dry wit. Doubtless my courtiers would be surprised to know that I preferred this kind of company. As we chatted and laughed, I glanced over at Hakoda. I had spent a lot of time thinking about how I would approach him concerning Katara's hand in marriage. I had come to admire and respect Hakoda, and wished that my own sire could have been more like him. He loved and respected both of his children. I sincerely hoped that he would consider me a good match for his daughter.

I fingered the small, velvet-lined box I had in my pocket, imagining what its contents would look like around Katara's lovely neck.

o0o0o0o

Katara

The evening air was cool, and I was grateful for that, remembering just how warm it could get in the heart of the Fire Nation. I strolled along the pond, seeing several turtle-ducks in the water. The full moon cast its clear reflection into the water, and I tilted my face upward as I felt a breeze. It'd been nearly a year since I had seen this pond, yet nothing seemed to have changed at all.

"Katara." I heard a familiar voice whisper, and looked up with a smile as I saw the Fire Lord standing in the moonlight, his eyes glistening under the moonglow.

"Zuko." I held out my arms, smiling as he approached me, wrapping his own arms around me. We embraced tightly for several long moments, neither of us saying anything. It had been hard to not simply reach out to hold his hand at supper, or to hug him when Aang and I had landed in Sozun. I closed my eyes as I felt him stroke my hair, and nuzzled his chest, burying my face against the silk.

"Being parted from you is always so hard." I murmured, lifting my head to look up at him.

"It won't always be that way, my love." He gazed down at me with a fond smile. "Speaking of which, I have something for you." he pulled away from me before sliding his hand into his robe. I saw a small carved wooden box, similar to the kind that I had seen Ging Lei pull out to put jewelry on me during my stay in Sozun. I felt my heart pound within my chest as a smile tugged at my lips. Gracefully, he opened the box, revealing a finely-crafted silver necklace with a pendant that held a stone that appeared to be onyx. Around it were small diamonds that sparkled under the moonlight. He lifted his hand to illuminate it better with a flame.

I gasped softly when I saw flashes of different colors within the large dark stone, especially red and blue. "It's called sunstone. It's a lot like moonstone in the way it flashes colors. At first, I thought of a diamond, or a fire-ruby, but to me, that didn't capture the essence of our union." He extinguished the flame and lifted the necklace from its box.

"Katara of the Water Tribe, will you do me the honor of being my wife and queen?" he asked after dropping to his knees, looking up at me. I smiled at him and nodded.

"Yes, Zuko. Oh, yes." I leaned down to wrap my arms around his neck.

o0o0o0o

The next morning, I had the necklace around my neck, the colors glinting brilliantly under the light of the early morning sun as I studied my reflection, touching the stone. I had worn my mother's necklace for so long, but there was a time and place for everything. I was now betrothed to the Fire Lord, and it felt incredible.

I was nervous about facing Dad and Pakku and informing them of the engagement, but I was also determined. I knew that Zuko was the one I was meant to be with. I grasped the pendant, turning it this way and that to study the lovely flashes of color I saw under the polished surface. The chain fit almost as snugly as a collar, and the pendant rested comfortably between my collarbones, openly visible unless I wore a high-collared robe.

In the reflection behind me, I saw Zuko stir, rolling over in the sheets and murmuring softly as he stretched awake. I rose from my seat and went back to the bed, snuggling against him and rubbing his belly, nuzzling and kissing his face to rouse him from his sleep.

"Good morning, sunshine." I whispered, pressing my lips against his temple. Usually, he was the first to rise, but we had a rather long – and passionate – night celebrating our engagement. His arms wrapped around me, and I smiled.

"The sun's up. You better sneak back to your room before your servants notice that you're missing."

"Ahh, I'd rather stay here and cuddle with you."

"There'll be plenty of time for that once we're married. Come on, up with you." I climbed out of bed, picking his pants and robe off the floor. He pulled them on before running his fingers through his hair. The longer it got, the easier it was to tangle it. I missed the mophead he was sporting the year before, though he did look good with longer hair. I pulled him in for a fierce kiss, and he responded just as eagerly before I gently pushed him away, ushering him to the wall panel that led to the secret passage.

I was practically floating on air for the rest of the morning as I got ready for the day. I would glance in the mirror every now and then, seeing my beautiful new necklace. That didn't mean I wasn't nervous, and I felt my heart pounding as I made my way down the stairs for breakfast. I had considered wearing a high-collared robe, but instead opted for a comfortable sleeveless robe with a bit of an opening in the front, so my necklace could peek through without being too obvious. Near the guest wing, a table had been set up outside on the wide veranda so we could sit outside and enjoy the sunshine. The fire-lilies were in bloom, and I thought about the vases of the flowers that had been set up in my room the night before, filling the chamber with their lovely scent.

"Good morning, everybody." I said cheerfully as I came to sit down at the table. It was a more quiet setting, without any of out Fire Nation friends. I chose a seat next to Dad, and looked up at him, hoping he would react well to my good news. He stared down at me with a fond smile, and I smiled back.

"Look at you, you're glowing. You look just like your mother did after I proposed to her." he stated. My eyes widened in surprise, and he chuckled softly.

"After supper last night, Zuko asked to see me privately. I'm sure you can imagine what we talked about."

"And you were okay with it?" I asked, my heart pounding. He nodded slowly.

"I'm a little sad that my little girl is now old enough to be married. But I'm also glad you're going to marry a good man."

"Of course, Dad can brag to his friends about having the Fire Lord as his son-in-law." Sokka teased, and we all laughed. I heard congratulations and well-wishes from around the table – but one person was markedly silent. That was the one sore spot amidst all the happiness. I knew even before Zuko had proposed that Aang wouldn't take it well. During our trip together, I had carefully avoided intimate moments with him. I always insisted on separate rooms if we were staying at an inn, or Toph's parent's house, or Bumi's palace. I might let him hug me once in a while, but I avoided his attempts to hold my hand, or kiss me and the like. And when he started talking about us, I would change the subject or find something else to do. I had maintained this strategy, subtly rebuffing his attempts to woo me.

Suki asked to see the necklace, and I was happy for the distraction, opening my collar a bit more and letting my family and friends admire the gift that Zuko had given me. I had my mother's necklace in my pocket, unsure of what to do with it. Part of me wanted to hold onto it and keep it as a treasured memento of my mother. But I also wondered if I should return it to Pakku, since he had carved the pendant, or give it back to Dad, or perhaps to Sokka.

After breakfast, Dad pulled me aside, and we went for a stroll by the small lake. I pulled Mom's necklace out of my pocket.

"Now that I have Zuko's gift around my neck, I was wondering if you... might want this back. To remind you of me and Mom."

"You've always been so loving and considerate of others, Katara." He glanced down at the proffered necklace. "Are you sure?"

I smiled wistfully before nodding.

"I am my mother's legacy. When I look in the mirror, I see her in myself." It was true. As I grew older, I recognized my mother's features in my own. After nearly a year, I had been almost startled to see my reflection illustrated so vividly in the silver-backed mirror in my room here.

"I had a feeling that this might happen, but I was not sure of it. When the Fire Lord came to our village, there was a way that he looked at you, a certain look in his eyes that told me of great affection. I've seen it in my father's eyes for my mother up to the day he died. I could see how the Avatar felt for you too, but I could tell that you did not feel for him the same way." he said gently. My eyes widened slightly, and I stilled. He smiled at me.

"Ever since the end of the War, and your nearly dying, I could not help but pay more close attention to you. I wanted to see what made you happy, and make sure you had the best husband possible. Zuko has asserted me that he understands your needs and wants, and would do his best to make you happy here."

I smiled and nodded. There would be challenges here, to be sure, but Zuko had also assured me that I would enjoy freedom. I could Waterbend and study whatever I liked, and I certainly wasn't expected to learn embroidery or other trivial things if I didn't want to. He had even promised that he would build me my own private garden and pond. Since Ging Lei and I got along so well, she would become my primary attendant when I moved here. As Fire Lady, I would enjoy many privileges and luxuries amidst the responsibilities I would undertake. Zuko certainly could plan for things!

"I can honestly say that I'm glad you're not marrying him just yet. I still see you as my little girl." Dad sounded wistful, "It was so wonderful having you and Sokka with me while we were rebuilding the village."

It'd be nice to stay here with Zuko, and the temptation to marry now was great, but we had already agreed to wait one year, and grow a bit more. I still wanted to see more of the world.

"I enjoyed it too. I'm happy to spend one more year with you. Part of me is really excited, but another part of me is also nervous. Sometimes I wonder if this was all just a dream."

"The War has been a long nightmare for many. Let's consider this the happy waking."

That sounded so corny, but it was perfect. "Yeah. I can definitely go for that." We both laughed.

"I just want you to be happy. To be certain, I will miss you dearly, but I want you to be happy. Just promise me that you'll visit me every now and then?" he asked, gently nudging my arm.

"You're also welcome to come here. Admit it, you like the luxury."

"Oh, maybe. This place sure does feel like a vacation, doesn't it? Make sure to not let it go to your head, don't forget who you are and where you come from."

"Of course, Dad. And besides, it won't be a easy life. I will have my duties as Fire Lady and as Ambassador of the Water Tribes. The luxury's just the gravy."

"Never forget that." He gave out a soft chuckle before his expression got more serious. "Last winter, the Avatar asked me for your hand in marriage. But I told him that the decision was yours."

I nodded slowly. So Aang had thought to ask Dad about marriage? I couldn't say that I was really surprised. He had been through a lot, and I tried my best to understand where he was coming from and be patient with him, but it could only go so far. I let out a quiet sigh of relief.

"Thank you for letting me decide."

"I want you to be with the one who makes you happy. And I know Zuko will take good care of you."

o0o0o0o

Over the next few days, I received congratulations and well-wishes from various people. Iroh acted as if I was already his daughter-in-law. There wasn't a obvious change in the way the servants or guards treated me, but there was a subtle difference. Ging Lei asked me if I would like for her to be in charge of my care. Basically this meant that she would attend to me personally, and manage the rest of my staff to make sure that I had what I needed or wanted, and any command or errand I wished would be performed by the appropriate servant or guard. Zuko already trusted her to manage his own personal staff, so I was happy to agree. I liked and trusted her, and was happy to know that when I came to live here, I could count on having someone to help me around the Palace.

Zuko and I went to the Fire Temple, where Shyu served as Head Priest. We wanted to pick a good wedding date for the next year, and as if the spirits themselves were smiling upon our union, Shyu picked the first day of summer – which also happened to have a full moon that very night. The longest day of the year – celebrated in the Fire Nation – along with the full moon, which had its own portent for Waterbenders! It was as if that day had been made for us. So we set it down as the official wedding date, and we informed Dad, Pakku, and Iroh. They were all happy to agree on that date as auspicious. Everything was going along beautifully.

Except for one thing, of course. It was hard to not feel Aang's unhappiness. He performed the duties demanded of him, attending meetings, touring the city and meeting its inhabitants, and the like. But he was conspicuously absent otherwise. I honestly wished it could have turned out a different way. I wanted to ease his pain, but how could I make him feel better when I could not give him what he wanted? Of course, I could just cancel my engagement with Zuko, but naturally, there was absolutely no way I was going to do that.

For three days now, I had been engaged to Zuko. It was a relief having our relationship in the open. Of course, we kept our intimacy private, but now, nobody considered it curious when we headed off for private walks or spending time together. It was nice sitting next to the pond with the man I loved, feeding the turtle-ducks as servants brought us tea and treats. We would walk through the orchards, enjoying the shade as we escaped the summer heat. During recesses in Court, we would sit out among the flowers, enjoying the fire-lilies as we chomped on fresh strawberries.

I decided to take a walk and enjoy the cool night air. I didn't mind walks during the day, but the heat could get oppressive and even distracting. At night, without the sun beating down on my back, I felt more clear-headed. The guards stood silently as I moved through the darkened hallways and stepped outside. The Palace complex had several gardens, but there was one that was my favorite because it surrounded a small lake. I enjoyed seeing the reflection of the moon in the water and seeing the water-lilies. So many of the flowers in the Imperial gardens were fiery colors, ranging from violet and deep magenta to blood-red and fire-crimson, and warm oranges with bright yellows completed much of the palette to be found within the Palace walls. Here, the soothing white water-lilies and the pale blossoms of the moon-peach trees lining one side of this lake made for a peaceful area. And it just as I suspected it would, it looked more beautiful under the moonlight, making the white flowers almost glow like little moons. I smiled to myself, waving my arm and Bending the water for a while, seeing the moonlight distorted against its surfaces.

The water looked so inviting that I took off my slippers and rolled up the silk trousers I was wearing. The pond was lined with soft sand, and I wiggled my toes contentedly. Being Fire Lady would require several changes in the way I was used to living. I would have to be ever aware of the presence of servants and guards whenever I went outside, though for the moment I had privacy. If I closed my eyes and used my Water-sight, I could sense the water in several bodies nearby, but there was nobody in the immediate vicinity of this garden.

So I remained alone until I sensed an body approaching. I opened my eyes to see Aang, and I stilled, the water whip stopping in mid-air. It was the first time since we arrived here that I was alone with him. The moonlight made his gray eyes seem like silver. He was staring at me so wistfully it tugged at my heart. He always had such expressive eyes.

He said nothing and sat down in the thick grass, hands folded loosely in his lap. Did he want to talk to me?

"Aang... are you all right?" I asked as I set down the water whip gently.

"Do you honestly think I am?" he retorted quietly. His voice bore no anger or hostility, but I could not help but feel guilty.

"I wanted to talk to you, but whenever I looked for you, you simply... disappeared."

"It was hard to talk to anyone. It was hard seeing you at Zuko's side, looking so happy..."

"I'm sorry."

"I don't want you feeling sorry for me. I'd rather have your love, but that's not going to happen, is it?"

"What do you want?"

"What I want isn't what I'm going to get, so there's no point in asking me."

I walked out of the water and sat next to him.

"I know life has been hard for you..." I said, placing my hand on his shoulder.

"It's not fair." he whispered. I was silent for a moment, seeing the intense emotion on his face.

"You're right. It's not fair. But there have been a lot of unfair things. It wasn't fair for any of us to have our mothers or other loved ones killed. This war has been unfair to more people than anyone can count. Granted, you have lost a lot more than some people. I'll always be your friend, if you want it. I wish I could make you happy too, but I'm not the one." I avoided saying that he was not the one for me, as that might make him feel worse.

"I love you, Katara. How could anyone else make me happy?"

"Give it time. You're just fourteen. You have your whole life ahead of you. You're the Avatar, that will be rather handy with the ladies later on. You'll see more of the world and see plenty of beautiful women while I'm stuck with Zuko." I replied, trying to lighten the situation a bit.

"You're beautiful." he shot back quietly, looking down at me. I blushed and looked away.

"Work with me here, Aang, okay?"

He let out a sigh. "I know, I know."

"I don't blame you for being sad and if you need some space, I understand. But please do not disappear like that. I was worried about you."

He nodded slowly.

"We started out as friends, and I definitely don't want to lose that."

"Good. Neither do I." I replied, squeezing his shoulder.

"But I don't think I can ever stop loving you."

"Dad loves my mother. But he's married now to a different woman. He cares for her, but that doesn't mean he stopped loving Mom."

"Everyone has someone else. You have Zuko. Your father has Seda. Sokka has Suki. Iroh has Jun. Chit Sang found Jiang and they're together again. Pakku even has your Gran-Gran."

"You'll find someone. Just have patience. The world is now at peace, and you helped bring about all of that. You defeated the Fire Lord. Think about that. You did an incredible thing for the world. Things will work out in the end."

"I certainly hope so." he replied dryly. I shrugged.

"You'll always have my support." I whispered.

"Thank you."

We sat there for a while in silence. He appeared to be meditating, but his eyes were open and he was glancing at me sideways. I closed my eyes, thinking of the time I had healed Aang's scar. He had been so close to death. And then, Zuko had been attacked by his sister, and I had saved him as well. How odd. Struck down by the same person, to be saved by another, again the same person. There was no denying the fact that I shared a bond with both of them.

"I admit that I will always hope that you will change your mind about Zuko and want to be with me. And I will be there for you if such a thing happens. But I will respect your decision."

"Thank you. That means a lot to me."

o0o0o0o

2 Years ASC (Late Spring)

(Mid-June 1103)

Katara

The air was warm as the waves lapped in a steady but lazy manner at the sides of the ship. Another winter had come and gone by, with a trip to the North Pole – and seeing Zuko again – before spending my last months as an unwedded woman with my family, watching the Southern Water Tribe grow.

Many of the Benders from the North decided to stay, and some had already married into the tribe and starting their own families. The village was looking more like a town, with complete buildings made of ice. More Benders would be born into the tribe, and we no longer had to worry about Fire Nation raids. I could not help but wonder what had happened to Hama. What she had done to the innocent Fire Nation villagers was wrong, but I could see where her rage had come from. I had regarded Zuko and the Fire Nation with such rage before.

It felt a bit strange returning to the village as the Fire Lord's fiancee. The women asked me what it was like at the Palace, what my finance was like, and all kinds of other questions about my time in Sozun and the upcoming nuptials. Due to my unique position as a Water Tribe woman becoming Fire Nation royalty, it was decided that I would remain in my position as an Ambassador. I would be a familiar face in Sozun for visiting Water Tribe delegates, and my knowledge of our customs and traditions would help facilitate a efficient way of making agreements with them. And as I learned about Fire Nation customs, I could also use that knowledge. So during the winter I continued working as Ambassador, talking with the Fire Nation men that came to our village.

Being Zuko's fiancee also meant I had a few guards of my own, and I could not help but feel a little bad for these men that stayed through the winter, having to fare the bitter cold simply to serve their future Fire Lady. They brought books with then and often sat with me during the long winter nights, holding flames over their hands so I could read. I have to admit, these long nights passed quickly with so much interesting material to read.

Aang only stayed for about a month after my homecoming before he was off to travel the world again. It was nice to not have to worry about him following me around or looking at me with sad eyes.

The end of winter came with a trip to the North Pole, to see my sister tribe. Since the Fire Lord had visited the South Pole a year ago, he went to the North this time around, so we were able to spend several glorious days together. Months of being separated from him made our reunion all the sweeter. And then spring came with a trip to Ba Sing Se. The Earth King was much more knowledgeable about the running of his city, and though he was by no means a master Earthbender, he was much more confident than before. Toph had spent some time in Ba Sing Se whipping the Dai Li in shape. They were no longer so creepy anymore, and there was no suppression of the news in the city.

After that... well, it was a trip to the Fire Nation. My new home. I almost couldn't believe it. I was nearly seventeen. Almost three years ago, I had woken up the Avatar and started an exciting new chapter in my life. I had seen and experienced so much. I met all kinds of guys and fell in love with the man who had been my enemy. And now, I was soon to become Fire Lady.

I had an escort made up of my father, Sokka, Bato, and the men Zuko had instituted to serve as my official guard for the last year. They had served me well, since my safety was their top priority. But they had also learned a lot living amongst the Water Tribe, even dressing as our men did. When they went back to their homes in the Fire Nation, they would tell their family and friends about what they had learned from the Water Tribe culture. These men had experienced firsthand that we were not barbarians, and that we had our own complex culture and traditions. The youngest man in my retinue had also fallen in love with a young woman in my tribe, starting to court her before we left the South Pole. Only time would tell us if Taji would go back to the South and continue to court Inana. It would be interesting to see how that worked out.

We stopped at the first island of the Fire Islands, and there, a elegant ship awaited us. I was treated to the luxury I had enjoyed in Sozun, with a servant washing and buffing my feet, and another one giving me a manicure as my family received their own comfortable cabins. I thought we were going to Sozun, but the ship took a surprise detour.

Jee was the leader of the ship, and I asked him why the ship was veering south when I remembered well enough from the maps I studied that to get to the Gates of Azulon, one had to travel west, just slightly north. But we were headed south. As soon as I was certain that this was our direction, I went up to the bridge to confront Jee.

"It was supposed to be a surprise, but at least you're improving on Fire Nation geography."

"Surprise?" I narrowed my eyes, thinking about our course. Where exactly were we? Hadn't I looked at the map yesterday with the helmsman? I didn't have Sokka's love for maps and geography, but I did my best to remember. If I was correct, the new course would lead to... Ember Island?

"Why are we going to Ember Island?"

"The Fire Lord wishes it."

o0o0o0o

Fire Lord Zuko

I stood in the balcony that led off the master suite at the Ember Island Palace. When Katara and I had been here before, it was as fugitives. Now she would be coming as my bride. We would eventually have an proper coronation ceremony in Sozun, but I did not want to marry the woman I loved in some large, formal affair. We had happy memories here on Ember Island, and I wished to create more. What better place for our wedding ceremony than this wonderful place?

We would honeymoon here after everyone else left. Just the two of us, with a few servants and guards. We didn't have to hide. We were husband and wife, and no longer needed excuses or ploys to find time alone. And there would be no Avatar moping around.

The wedding would be tomorrow. I silently prayed to Agni that Katara would arrive on time even though I received regular messenger birds to assure me that the ship was on course.

I walked over to the two long boxes that held our wedding robes. Mine were of black and deep red silk with intricate gold thread-work. Katara's were mostly blue, with a bit of black and white. Traditionally, a bride wore red, but Katara was not a Fire Nation woman, and I wanted our wedding and coronation ceremonies to hold some significance for Katara and her role as Fire Lady. Like my own outfit, hers was adorned with intricate threading, in the style of the phoenix. The bird complemented the dragon, but at the same time stood out on its own, a elegant vision of blue and gold.

I could not wait to see Katara in her wedding robes, along with the richly adorned headdress and veil she would wear. Us as a pair would make for a splendid wedding portrait.

I ran my fingers along the blue silk and closed my eyes. Two years ago, we had declared our love for one another. Now we were to be married proper.

I looked around, seeing the lavishly decorated bedroom. Last time we were here, Katara and I had to sleep on a dusty futon in this room. But now the bedchamber was free of dust and cobwebs, the freshly polished mahogany surfaces gleaming. The bed was made up, crisp white linen sheets under a red silk quilt, pillows fluffed and arranged in an artful manner against the headboard. I could not help but imagine my bride-to-be sprawled against the sheets, enticing and welcoming. Suddenly, a soft knocking broke through my reverie.

"What is it?" I called out.

"My lord, the Southern Phoenix has been spotted. It will land within the hour."

The vessel I had given to the Southern Water Tribe had been named Southern Phoenix, partly as a homage to the future Fire Lady. And after the coronation, it would go back to the South Pole with the rest of the Tribe.

"Very good, Kidoji. Go down to the kitchen and tell them to prepare a welcoming banquet. Nothing fancy, just simple food we can all enjoy." There would be time for intricate and complex dishes at the wedding dinner, and I was sure everybody would appreciate just relaxing the night before such an important day. As he left, I rose to my feet. I needed to meditate for a bit before Southern Phoenix landed.

o0o0o0o

Avatar Aang

The night air was warm as I sat at the top of the mountain, looking down at the island devoid of people. This was where Avatar Roku had died. I didn't want to go to Ember Island early, so I had decided to spend the night here, meditating, and leave early in the morning, Ember Island wasn't far off.

It had felt weird to unroll the scroll and read the invitation to the wedding. I remembered Ember Island all too well. It was where I had lost Katara to Zuko. It was as if them being married there was some kind of cruel joke. I knew that neither of them wanted to hurt me or were trying to, but it was still hard to deal with. Was having the one woman I loved so much to ask for from the universe? Didn't I deserve something for all the hard work I did as the Avatar? The last two years had been almost nonstop traveling, from one city to another, a circuit that almost seemed to never end. Girls flirted with me, but I could never stay in one place too long.

I lay there on Appa's tail, gazing up at the stars. Tomorrow, I would see my best friend and the woman I loved marry a man who had once started out as my enemy but then became a friend.

Part of me wanted to turn back so I would not have to witness the ceremony. But I also knew that it would be disrespecting all three of us. They were both still my friends. I let out a quiet sigh, closing my eyes. A good night's sleep should clear my head.

o0o0o0o

Katara

When I climbed off the ship and saw Zuko waiting for me, I did not hesitate to dart into his arms. It felt incredible to have his strong arms around me, and I leaned my head against his chest contentedly. He looked so handsome, becoming taller and more broad-shouldered in the last two years, his mophead grown into a long, silky black mane. His attire was less formal than I would have expected, but I was the last person to complain. He had a comfortable silk tunic and matching knee-length trousers, the only sign of his status as ruler of the Fire Nation the elegant gold nine-pointed Imperial flame pinned in his topknot.

I was to be married tomorrow. It frightened and thrilled me. I had been preparing for this for two years, ever since we had promised ourselves to one another.

Servants ushered me to the Fire Lady's room, already cleaned out and set up for my comfort. And who was waiting for me there but Ging Lei! She even had a comfortable silk dress set out for me, and matching sandals. I relaxed with a quick shower before coming down for the banquet, wearing my pretty new silk dress. The materials and cut were of Fire Nation, but the color was not. I saw the appreciation in Zuko's eyes as I came down the steps, and Dad smiled a little as he saw me.

"You look beautiful. Just like your mother." Dad whispered as he took my hand, leading me to the table that had been set on the beach. I was glad we weren't doing anything formal. It would be nice to just relax and enjoy a meal and watch the sun go down as the waves lapped at my feet. The servants had set up a barbeque, so we could enjoy grilled meat and kebabs.

My family and closest friends were here. My coronation would be an official and formal event, with delegates from the Earth Kingdoms and the like. But here, I was surrounded by those near and dear to me. Suki and Toph were here. So was Ty Lee. A few of Zuko's men were here – his most trusted personal advisers. I saw Kamas and Jeong Jeong, and of course, Iroh was with us. But there was one noticeable absence.

Zuko had promised me that Aang's invitation was hand-delivered, done face-to-face so there was no way it could have been lost. Was he just late, or did he just decide to not come?

o0o0o0o

Zuko

People were lounging around the bonfire, enjoying treats. Sokka was toasting mallows for Suki. Ty Lee was entertaining a few Water Tribe men with her acrobatics. Uncle was playing his Tsungi horn, adding some lively music. Chit Sang's young son was running around in the sand, laughing and having the time of his life while his parents watched. All in all, it was turning out to be a rather enjoyable night. I sat back against a rock, wiggling my toes into the sand.

Katara was sitting on a smaller rock, away from the fire and everybody else. She looked beautiful in the blue silk, her hair pulled back loosely to show her shapely neck and shoulders. I rose my feet and went over to her, placing my hands on her shoulders and squeezing them gently.

"Tara..." I murmured.

"Hey."

"What's wrong?"

She let out a soft sigh before she looked up at me. "Aang's not here. I'm worried."

I stiffened before closing my eyes for a moment. "He cares about you. He might have chosen to not come because..." I trailed off. She looked so sad that I could not help but wrap her in my arms. I couldn't help but feel annoyed with Aang. Katara was such a warm and loving person. She should be able to enjoy her wedding without thinking of someone else being sad.

I thought of Mai. Like Aang, she found herself loving someone who couldn't return her feelings. After I had announced my engagement the year before, she left Sozun.

"He has made his decision. This wedding is about us, not him." I replied in a quiet but firm tone as I gave her another squeeze.

o0o0o0o

Avatar Aang

It had been a while since I walked along the Cosmic Path. I hadn't done it since my battle with Fire Lord Ozai, when I finally was able to trigger the Avatar State. After Ozai's defeat, there were still fights and conflicts, to be sure, but if I had to use my abilities, it never got so bad that I had to enter the Avatar State again.

The Avatar Spirit waited at the end of the path in the distance, glowing purple. It was a familiar sight even though I had not seen it for two years. I knew I should go to it, but I could not help but feel resentful about the wedding. Yes, I know I should just suck it up and get over it, but how could I when my heart hurt so much?

"The path of an Avatar is not always easy." I heard someone say from behind me. I turned around to see Avatar Roku.

"That's easy enough for you to say. You got to marry the woman you loved." I retorted. He glanced at me, nodding slowly.

"I was very blessed. But you know my life was by no means perfect."

I sighed softly. "I know." It was almost impossible to believe that he and Fire Lord Sozin had once been the best of friends. Sure, it hurt that Katara gave Zuko the love that I wanted, but she hadn't done it to betray me, and she would never try to hurt me or leave me for dead. What had Sozin been thinking when he abandoned Roku to the rage of the volcano? Had he ever come to regret his actions? Did he wish that he had never done such a thing?

If he had actually helped Roku, the the last century would have been completely different. There would have been no War. I would still be with the Air Monks. I would have never met Katara or gone on my great adventure. I'd be an old man right now if I were still alive after living so long.

"Every time the Avatar Spirit attaches itself to a new life, nobody can predict what will happen to it, or the world around it. Some of us were lucky enough to live in times of peace. Some of us were born rich, or into happy and loving families. I was blessed to be able to be with the woman I loved. I truly wish that you could have the same joy, but it is not to be. At least, not in this life."

"What?"

"The world is full of life-energy, which the Avatar can tap into. The energy is in constant flux, ever-changing. Death is not an end, but a new beginning for many."

I stared at him for a few moments.

"I know this life has been hard for you, and you will still have to deal with difficult matters. But the Avatar Spirit has traveled through countless lifetimes. It is connected to the life-energy, just as you are. If you work hard and do your best, you will be given a new beginning at the proper time."

"And Katara?"

"All souls are connected to the Cosmic Stream. One lifetime is but a blink of an eye in the inexorable passage of time. But that does not mean one lifetime is not important."

I closed my eyes. I hated to admit it, but he made sense. And what he said gave me a bit of hope. I could see Katara and be with her in a different life? Would I even remember or recognize her? What would the world be like? But I couldn't dwell on that. I did have a duty, and I would fulfill it.

"Thank you, Roku." I opened my eyes and bowed to him. He bowed back before fading away into nothingness, and I brought my foot forward, going forth on the glowing path to the Avatar Spirit.

o0o0o0o

Katara

I stirred awake, feeling the morning sun on my face as I stretched along the sheets. I stared up at the canopy for a moment, feeling a light breeze from the open windows. I lay there for a few minutes, just thinking. I would be married this afternoon. It was scary and thrilling at the same time.

I crawled out of bed and approached the window, seeing the mountains and palm trees. Since my suite was across the hall from Zuko's, I had the view opposite his. Clusters of red here and there alerted me to the presence of freshly-blossomed fire-lilies. I smiled faintly, remembering the scent of these flowers and how Zuko had once put several in my hair. To one side, I could see the courtyard. I saw servants moving about, cooking food in several large pots or over barbeques, making breakfast for the occupants of the manor. The smell of rich spices wafted over to me, and I took a deep breath. I was ravenous!

I heard a knocking on the door, and called out for them to come in.

"Good morning, my lady." Ging Lei said as she entered my room.

"Hello." I smiled as I looked at her. Though she was my attendant, we had become more than just mistress and servant. We got along well, and I trusted her and found it easy to submit to her attentions or fussing.

"What a big day we have ahead of us. I think it's best that you eat breakfast alone. You'll be so busy most of the day that you'll appreciate the quiet time."

"Sure, if you think that's appropriate." I replied. Whenever Ging Lei suggested I do something, it was for good reason. She nodded and went to the armoire, pulling out a plain and comfortable silk outfit.

"There's no need to put on the bridal robes right now, so you'll be more comfortable in this for the time being." she said as she offered it to me. "I'll go get you some breakfast. Is there anything you're in the mood for?"

"I'll just eat what everyone else is eating."

"Very good." She bowed and left. I stared at the door for a moment before taking off the nightgown I was wearing and putting on the clothing Ging Lei put out for me. Even though today was my wedding day, I was almost afraid that I would wake up and all of this would have been but a dream.

I sat down at the small, ornate table near the windows as Ging Lei returned with breakfast and set the table. I was hungry, but my stomach also felt fluttery.

Don't be nervous. You're marrying the man you love, I told myself as I looked down at the table. I ate a few bites, chewing slowly to quell the churning in my stomach. After a while, I did feel better and ate the rest of my breakfast. I stared out the window, my hands folded on the table as I contemplated my future. Did every bride deal with the same feelings I did before their wedding?

I felt a gentle hand on my shoulder and looked up to see Ging Lei.

"You have a visitor."

"Who?" I asked.

"Come and see for yourself."

I let Ging Lei lead me out of the room and down the hall. There was a large, sunny room on the second floor with a open design so people could have a banquet or party up here in private. I wondered why I was to be here until I saw a figure standing by the window. A soft gasp escaped my throat, and he turned around to look at me.

"Aang." I whispered.

"Katara." He had a faint smile on his face as I approached him. "It's been a while since I saw you."

I nodded slowly. He had become even taller, almost as tall as Zuko, though he remained lanky.

"I missed you." I said. His smile became a bit wider before his expression became more serious.

"I missed you too. I was hoping to see you again..." I fell silent, unsure of what to say next.

He nodded.

"Don't be sorry, Katara. This is supposed to be a happy day. Let's keep it that way." He held out his arms. I went into them, feeling him wrap them around me.

o0o0o0o

Zuko

The gentle lapping of waves against the shore permeated the peaceful silence on the beach. The sky was clear, the afternoon sun warm, and the breeze cool. It was almost as if Agni himself had blessed this day.

I had been prepared for this ever since I declared my love to Katara two years ago, but I was still damned nervous. Was it like this for every groom? I tried to not fidget or look too impatient as I waited for my bride and her attendants. I'd be glad when the ceremony was over. As I waited, I glanced around me at the scene surrounding me. Everyone was in their place. The guests were seated and waiting for the emergence of the new Fire Lady. Sage Shyu stood near me, ready to perform the sacred rites and blessings.

I let my gaze slide over to the Avatar. After he didn't come last night, I thought he had decided to not come. I had been surprised when he came this morning, but I welcomed him. He seemed different, somehow changed. He was calm, but it wasn't the kind of ominous silence that preceded a breakdown or a fit. It seemed that he had fully come to terms with his relationship with Katara, and for that I was glad and relieved. When Aang realized I was looking at him, he bowed his head slightly, showing respect.

A flash of blue filled my vision, and I turned towards the path that wound down to the beach. My breath caught in my throat as I stared at her, taking in how beautiful she looked in her bridal robes. As she took note of my attention, she shot me a gentle smile. In her hands was a bouquet of fire-lilies, standing out against her blue and gold robes.

As she approached me, I lifted my hand. As she came to my side, her hand slid into mine. I looked into her azure eyes, smiling down at her as she squeezed my hand.

o0o0o0o

THE END

o0o0o0o

Well... that's it, folks. It still feels weird for me to be ending this story, but I had fun, and I'm sure y'all did too. :) I really enjoyed doing this alternate ending. It had not been part of my original plan, but as I found myself approaching the original ending and seeing my reader's reactions to that upcoming ending and Kiss of Fire, I thought it would be fun to do this bonus ending, since I had fun with writing Volcano as an alternate ending to Hot Water.

The conversation between Roku and Aang was inspired from what I saw on the show. It seems to me that Aang's soul/spirit (or Roku's, or Kyoshi's, etc) are separate from the Avatar Spirit and from Aang himself. I was led to this conclusion by the very fact that Aang talks to Roku as if they are two entirely different people (rather than just hearing a voice in your head) so in a past life (and a future life) Aang could lead a normal life, free of the Avatar Spirit.

This made me wonder, and it brings up another possibility. Perhaps the Avatar Spirit holds the memories of all the previous Avatars. If you have read the sci-fi Dune series, think of the Bene Gesserit and their Other Memory and what Aang sees is merely a copy/memory of Roku, as preserved by the Avatar Spirit, though personally I prefer another idea.

The idea I like best is that the Avatar Spirit remains connected to all the souls it once shared bodies with and is able to 'recall' them to the Spirit World to talk to the current Avatar if need be. Of course, we're all free to draw whatever conclusions we want regarding the Avatar Spirit and Aang's soul and whether the two are the same or wholly separate.

Good night (or morning, or afternoon wherever you might be) my dear readers. Please do not hesitate to let me know what you think of this story or how you enjoyed it, as I crave feedback.

Spleef/Spleefmistress/CultOfStrawberry, started 2006, first version completed June 29, 2010 (just before the Last Airbender movie came out, lol) Final version September 2012