Holy carp (intentional typo) LAST CHAPTER!! I don't own Avatar, but I eagerly await the real Season 3. So there!
I just wanted to say thanks to all of you for making this a success, and I hope that I can continue to please with future fan fiction. Oh, remember the end of Chapter 18? It may help you to go back and read that, in case you don't remember that last part of it.
Oh, and note that while Aang is the last airbender, they never said that he's the last Air Nomad, now did they?
Anyway, readers, I present to you….the epilogue!!!
The temple was in ruins, as Aang had expected it to be. The ancient stones, warmed by the late summer sun, touched lightly with his small feet as he walked through, each step taken by Toph or himself reflecting a million times over through the mountain valleys.
The Western Air Temple really was lovely, though, as overgrown as it was.
The native plants of the Fire Nation mixed with wind lilies and Earth Kingdom blossom trees, whistling in the soft breeze. The vines had long wrapped themselves around every sun-bleached pillar and break in the architecture, which was still magnificent after a century of erosion.
Aang tried to be as quiet as possible. He felt as though the noise would break something fragile, the peace settled over this place like blown glass and not wanting to wake whatever ghosts still hung around. Even Appa did not snort or grunt, only sat down quietly with Momo to wait for his friend to finish his business.
The little earthbender, however, had no such feelings.
Toph strode over, pushing an ebony braid off her shoulder, and quickly knelt with one hand splayed against the old stones, her conscious prodding off through the bloodline of the earth and stone.
"Hmm. This place is pretty big. Sounds like there are some rooms still intact in that one building over there."
She pointed one arm out, to the toppling main temple that slumped among the vegetation which Appa was quietly beginning to chew.
"Great, let's go."
Aang pulled her forward as they went.
It had been two months since the battle with Ozai, three weeks since they departed from the Fire Nation capitol on this strange, impulsive little mission. Why had he wanted to come here in the first place, again? Aang didn't recall, clearly. It must have had something to do with dying for those few minutes, as he faintly recalled a conversation of some kind. Odd how his only clear memory was Toph's voice calling him back.
His thoughts switched quickly back to his friends.
He had left, apprehensive of leaving things in the state they were in, but he had been reassured. Zuko could take it from there. Katara, Sokka and Suki had left as well, bound for the North Pole once again with a whole sack of documents to be read and signed, bonds and ties to be re-constructed.
It was hard, surprisingly hard, to be away from his family, but he had promised Katara that he would come to see her when the autumn season began. Just in time for his birthday, actually.
He looked forward to it, and with a smile, walked forward into the crumbling temple.
The smile faded slightly.
Upon entering, he decided that he would never get quite used to the sight, and to the realization that he was alone in the world, in one sense.
Wedges of dusty white sunlight filtered in through the ruins, a few scars from blasts of fire decorating the floor. The black marks obscured the masterful art that had been carefully painted on the floor of the hall, some depiction of a great airbender among the clouds. He noticed a toppled statue, a rusting sword, scraps and remnants of what looked like quite a battle.
He sighed shakily.
Maybe coming here had not been such a good idea after all.
Aang looked back at Toph, who had plucked a brilliant blue flower that grew on a climbing vine and stuck her nose into its petals. Hmm, didn't smell too good.
She turned and followed Aang.
He looked to the left and right as he walked gently down the temple hall, into the area that branched off into the old studies, the meditation rooms, some with the doorways collapsed and inaccessible.
Far down the valley somewhere, an unidentifiable bird sounded off, a long and echoing whistle that reverberated through the stones of the Western Air Temple.
Aang looked into the shadowy hall, and was suddenly compelled to do something very odd.
Well, why not?
Yes, why not….
The Avatar, slowly and hesitantly, extended his arm out, turned the palm upward as though waiting for someone to take it.
And take it, they did.
Well, not really, but Aang felt as though something that was not entirely him jerked him forward, stumbling to keep his feet under him as he ran down the hall with Toph in hot pursuit.
Not this door, not this one…there!
As quickly as he had started moving, Aang ground to a halt and felt Toph's small body smack against his with an irritated grunt.
"Twinkletoes, what's going on….?"
"Shhhhh," he said. Funny, Aang telling Toph that. But he would savor the humor at some later point in time.
But as for now….
Aang stepped into the room he had been brought to, with its window somehow still intact. Sunlight wriggled in through the grime on the rough glass, the window which faced north.
It was a study of some kind, with ancient, spider-web thin scrolls tumbled from their shelves and strewn about the place.
Some were burnt, others torn up terribly as though ripped up by some wild beast.
A faded Air Nomad banner decorated the wall, but everything else was shelves, although one had long fallen over.
Aang walked farther in, stepping forward and picking up each scroll delicately.
No, it wasn't this one.
He could tell without even reading its faded markings: some sort of gut instinct told him so, and placed it on the shelf where it belonged.
Wasn't what? He asked himself.
You'll find out when you find out.
"What, are we playing librarian now?" he heard Toph say, if only to break the silence. It's not as though she could help him, at this in particular.
He smiled at her, the marvel that she was, and shook his head. "Nah, I'll only be a second. You can help me put these back onto the shelves, though."
"The monks always liked things in a certain order. I'm sure the Western Air Temple sisters would want it no different." He put the next scroll onto the shelf, rolled up another, then another, wondering at himself.
Slowly, the pile deteriorated as the two benders gathered everything up, placing things back, Aang opening each one to skim it before doing so.
He bent down to retrieve another scroll, and something jerked inside him.
That's it a voice whispered into his ear excitedly.
What was it?
He hesitated, if only for a moment of pure apprehension.
Aang rolled open the scroll, squinting at the characters that had long since begun to fade. But somehow, perhaps by a stroke of luck, this one was not so damaged as all the others. He struggled to read it, the blurry but refined hand, and Toph heard him muttering. She walked over, placed her chin on his shoulder as though she was actually reading the scroll.
He was very quiet, his heart racing all of a sudden, and Toph felt the odd need to hold her breath.
And as Aang read, his eyes grew wide.
Each day the clouds gather, I can feel it. It's odd, how we have all expected this for so long, how many have seen this battle written in the stars, and yet how it shocks us all.
Trust a firebender to get notions into his head like this. And here is the world on the eve of battle, all with one held breath as the armies gather. I don't know where the first strike will fall, nor what Fire Lord Sozin intends on doing once the first move is made. I should be frightened, but I knew this was going to happen. I have known for twelve years now.
Some have fled the temples, aboard the flying bison, and Tam is beginning to tell me that we should have followed suit. It was only our Nomad brothers and sisters, there were no airbenders among them: they said they were bound for the mountains of the Earth Kingdom. Those are so vast and so empty, that if they do hide there to wait out this war, I can imagine that one could search a hundred years and never find them. The Han Mountains, Sana told me. I wish her the best of fortunes, but I know were my place is.
I will not turn and run. It just isn't in my blood, as I have told my husband time and time again.
I knew this would happen, I will say it again. The Avatar always comes at a time soon before he or she is needed: that is the workings of the spirits, surely. And I have done my part in it. I can so clearly recall what that strange woman told me, that I would have a child, against the odds, that would one day banish the darkness and quench the flames, deliver this world.
I can only hope that my son is well, and that he is being watched over now. He will do great things, I am sure of it. I was sure of it before he was born, in a way. And even if I was able to see my Aang's face for so short a time, I hold him in my heart twelve years on.
And if it should come to a final battle, if the Fire Nation does indeed come to this place, it is for my son that I will stand and fight. If he needs to be strong, then I as his mother should be as well. It is the least I can do, for love of my child and for this world, however fragile its peace is.
Ah, Aang, I wish you the best. You give your old mother some peace of mind in these times.
-Aya of the Air Nomads.
Aang's mind was fuzzy around the edges, shocked and numb, barely intact to speak. He was desperately trying not to wet the precious parchment with the tears that had sprouted up into his eyes as he turned to Toph.
"What, Twinkletoes?" she questioned, sounding perplexed as she offered him a rough piece of cloth from her bag to wipe up the tears that oddly splashed onto her hand.
Twinkltoes sniffled, and there was laughter, so much happiness, in his voice as he spoke.
"Up for a trip to the Earth Kingdom?"
The voice called into the dark cell, bouncing around the walls and coming back to the man who had spoken: the response was a rattling of chains and nothing more.
The Dragon of the West sighed, leaning his back against the adjacent wall to continue what he had to say. He knew that Zuko would not be able to do this, and had gladly taken up the task for him.
After all, he knew his brother far better than anyone else. He had known him inside out since the day he, as a young and ignorant prince, had leaned over his new brother and looked into those dark eyes for the first time.
Iroh sighed and cleared his throat.
"I have spoken with Zuko on the matter of what is to be done with you. Have been debating it for a while, sorry to keep you waiting."
There was a gruff, throaty sound somewhere between a snort and growl.
"Now, frankly, I thought it best to leave you down here, to get a full appreciation for the life of a prisoner that you have led so many people to live. Honestly, I was planning on it. And wouldn't you know, your son spoke on your behalf!"
Iroh knew the boy was good at heart. It still amazed him how Ozai could have sired the present Fire Lord, how such compassion could have been passed into Zuko.
No use thinking about it now.
"And wouldn't you know? He says we should banish you."
When an actual reply came, voice harsh from disuse, it was with a raspy fury.
Iroh shook off the surprise of hearing his brother speak, but continued.
"Yes. Since the life of an outcast was suitable for your firstborn, then I am sure that it will be suitable to you. Granted, I will have to do some research, something to block up your chakra…can't have a powerful firebender loose, after all…"
"Ah, and leave your brother defenseless? Cruel, Iroh," Ozai said lightly, a mix of bitter sarcasm and anger.
"And why would you let me free? I'm sure you realize that I'll be back for you. The soldiers are still loyal to me…"
"Ah, I have to disagree," Iroh interrupted, finally looking into the dark cell. Now a palm-full of flame was hovering in the far corner, highlighting the former Fire Lord's face in a shadowy, haunted manner. His cheeks had grown hollow, his powerful frame shrunken and emaciated, but he was still intimidating. He was still Ozai.
Iroh was never a man to be intimidated, as he continued.
"You see, the people of the Fire Nation follow the crown, not the one who wears it. Blind Patriotism, you could say. And, as I can recall, that crown now sits upon the head of your firstborn son. The people have wanted this war to be over for some time now: everything else in this once-great nation has fallen into neglect in the meanwhile. No more graves to dig, Ozai."
Iroh smiled broadly at his brother, who only matched it with a glare. Iroh kept speaking, at the ready should the Fire Lord strike out at him suddenly.
But all of the fighting spirit seemed to have escaped his brother during his imprisonment, oddly enough.
"After all, you are the former Lord Ozai. There isn't a man or woman between the shores of the Earth Kingdom to Ba Sing Se who wouldn't like to see you dead. And I think the Earth Kingdom is an excellent territory for nomadic roaming: trust me from firsthand experience. And if you do stir up trouble, then the least we can do is put a good bounty on your head. I'm sure that any Fire Nation solider will cave for a hefty reward."
He let that sink in to his brother, awaiting his Ozai's response.
There was none. And the flame had gone out.
Iroh nodded, and turned to go.
"He grew stronger," came the rough voice.
Iroh turned back, hesitating before replying to this man, this cruel man who was at last defeated, this brother of his.
"Yes. Zuko never ceases to amaze me. You never realized what a treasure you had, brother."
"And it was odd, what with all the cold ambition that runs in this family, that all he wanted was your respect. He wanted you to look upon him as worthy, as a true member of the royal family worthy of the throne, and you never did. How ironic, that in the end he bested you."
There was no sound from Ozai. As hard as Iroh squinted into the dark, he could no longer see the outline of the man, who had pulled back into the shadows completely. Then, finally….
"Why, I wonder?"
"Why what?" Iroh asked, gray brows knitting together.
"Why couldn't I? Why could I not kill him, in the end? It haunts me; it claws at me, that moment. I'm sure it will hound me until the day I die."
"Perhaps it is not so impossible for you to have sired him after all." He paused. "I'm sure Ursa is proud of him."
The comment was more to himself and his thoughts as he turned to go once again, with the common Fire Nation parting, saluting as he did and speaking it pointedly with a smile.
"Hail Fire Lord Zuko."
And as Iroh, the Dragon of the West, departed, he heard one last thing called out to him from Ozai's cell. The voice was still rough, but it sounded strangely broken in pitch as it was said.
"Hail Fire Lord Zuko."
The Fire Lord was, several days later, sitting at his desk, reading a laborious document that would place the expenses of the war, from the Earth Kingdom, upon the already depleted Fire Nation's economy. He sighed loudly, shuffling in the robes he wore, until he placed it down and stood up.
The door squeaked open.
His uncle walked in, a tray of tea held in one hand, and he turned past the desk to throw open the window of the stuffy room into the late summer morning. The progress on the city was moving faster now, the ocean glinting in the corner of the scenery, and a slow breeze ruffled the papers on Zuko's desk.
He snatched them up quickly and walked over to join his uncle, trying to shake off the odd weight that had been pressing upon him for some time now.
Since they had left, coincidentally.
It felt like there was a space missing somehow.
But his duty was to his country, after all.
"Good morning, uncle."
"Ah, good to see you, Fire Lord Zuko," Iroh said in reply, handing him the cup of jasmine with a smile. He much enjoyed the sound of the title and the mixture of emotions it prompted in his nephew.
Zuko nodded, moving to take a sip of the hot tea. He had missed it, in some way. Katara's tea every morning, he missed that too, but he pushed the thought down before it had a chance to rise any farther.
"And how are you doing?" his uncle continued, moving to sit in a second chair as Zuko returned to his work.
"Admittedly, I have been better," Zuko replied flatly.
The young Fire Lord shrugged, resting his chin in his palm in a strangely undignified way that had suddenly become a habit as he read. That was what happened when you traveled with peasants for so long, he supposed.
"So, how long had it been since they left, again? It seems so much quieter without them around…particularly Master Sokka," Iroh grinned. "And Miss Toph certainly knows how to be loud, if need be."
Zuko waited before responding, counting back the weeks.
"About a month, I would say. I haven't bothered to keep track."
In a way, he had thought it was best that they had left when they did…particularly Katara. Yes, for the best.
He had not liked the way that her voice seemed to stick in his head, how he had started noticing the different shades of blue that mixed in her eyes, the warmth of her smile.
Another great sigh and he plodded on through the dull letter. How much had been written, in this scrawled hand?
"Hmm. Do you care for them, Zuko?"
The molten gold eyes flashed upwards, a perfect match for the crown that sat upon his head as he looked at his uncle once again. His dark hair had grown longer still, now able to wear it back in a proper dragon's tail as he had before his banishment, and it held the crown in place.
"I don't know what you are talking about, uncle."
"Care for them. I know it was not something you had intended to do, but sometimes things in life are unexpected, I suppose."
"I suppose," Zuko echoed. He knew what his uncle was really asking, and he did not enjoy the prodding... even if it was from the man that he had come to realize had truly been his father all these years.
"Ah, you suppose."
Iroh looked down into the tea, pushing a pulse of fire into it that warmed it up a bit.
"Do you remember what I asked you, Zuko? Beneath Lake Laogai?"
Zuko swallowed and shook his head.
So much had happened between that time and now.
A lifetime had occurred. He could look back at this window in his life until he reached old age, and he would never fully understand what had happened to him in the company of the Avatar. Maybe it was not meant to be understood.
Iroh answered for his nephew.
"I told you that you needed to ask yourself the big questions. You needed to ask yourself who you were…."
Zuko nodded slowly.
"…and what you wanted. Just you. Just Zuko."
The Fire Lord thought.
Who was he? He was a mess of things, really. A son of fire, a member of the royal family, the ruler of his country that had before been lost to him.
He was a friend of the Avatar, for lack of a better word. He was someone who kept going even though it was hard, and he carried a mark of honor upon his face to remind him of that.
Because, as Katara had said, that was what it was.
He was Zuko.
It would take some time to figure out in whole, but it was a start. He was no longer lost and wandering, he knew that much.
But what did he want?
What did he want, now, with his life?
Why did it feel so incomplete, sitting here?
What did he want?
Zuko stared down at his hands, and then rose up with an agitated sigh, pushing past his uncle and leaving the room, throwing up his arms as though in surrender.
Iroh sighed, rather sadly, as well, and picked up the scroll his nephew had been reading. It was frightfully boring in flow and language, not to mention it exhibited a sloppy hand as Iroh observed it.
Hmm, he wondered if there was any tea left in the pot. Ah, yes, there was. Lovely.
He sat there for a long while, reading and enjoying his tea.
As Iroh poured himself another cup, the door opened behind him, and he turned.
A brow rose at what he saw.
And there was Zuko, having shed the lavish robes and crown in favor of the plain armor, the simple bronze crown fixed in his hair as he walked in hurriedly, snatching up scrolls into a small traveling sack.
"Uncle, I need you to look after things for a short while. And I'll need a ship. Something small, something fast. Just a few crew members, I don't want to drag too many from their homes now."
He paused, looking down at the scrolls and pulling one open to skim it before tossing it aside.
"Going somewhere, Fire Lord Zuko?"
Zuko strode past his uncle once again, and a second before the door shut in his wake, Iroh heard his voice, filled suddenly with new life and happiness.
"The North Pole."
"Ah," Iroh laughed.
And the Dragon of the West turned his head to look out the window, listening to his nephew's footsteps fade, at the sun and the sky over the city, the scent of late summer drifting in as he did. He smiled, and sipped his tea again.
"That's my boy," he laughed softly.
"That's my boy."