Disclaimer: I do not own Avatar: The Last Airbender

A Long and Lonely Night

Silence descended with the night. All was still and quiet, the bright moon pendent in the clear sky washing the land in it's gentle lambent light. The hushed darkness enclosed the small campsite, beckoning the tired and weary travelers to a blissful and untroubled slumber. But sleep was not an easily attained solace, was not simply a quiescent destination to be entered at will. For in the darkness, one is forced to face the truths that can be hidden in the bright light and bustle of day, to grapple with the consuming doubts that are carefully veiled behind the mask that is shown to the world...

Aang breathed a gentle sigh as he carefully rolled onto his side, wary of the tender injury on his back. It still hadn't completely healed, not even after several days of Katara's ministrations; but it wasn't the physical injury that weighed on the Avatar's mind. He knew that, given time, his body would heal. His concerns were of a far graver sort.

He had died. Katara had tried to gloss over the details, had tried to emphasize the fact that the Spirit Oasis water had healed him, but the truth was that he had died. His heart had stopped beating, his lungs had stopped breathing. He had died while he was in the Avatar state.

Aang was lost. All sense of himself was shattered. Was he even the Avatar anymore? He didn't know, wasn't sure he wanted to know. But he had to. He had to find out. And there was only one person alive who could help him...

Guru Pathik's brow furrowed in concentration. For the first time in recent memory, he was unable to meditate, unable to clear his mind of all the thoughts jumbled within. Opening his eyes once more, he cast his gaze across all the land visible from his high perch in the Eastern Air Temple, unconsciously seeking what he knew he would not find.

He had waited the greater part of his life for the Avatar to reappear, so that he could serve him, help him, teach him. The day had finally come, the waiting finally over. The Avatar had finally arrived, and Pathik had failed. He had not taught him to unlock the Avatar state. Aang had left too soon, had not completed the training. Pathik hoped that the world would not suffer for the child's impatience, for his unwillingness to let go of what held him to the earth...

Katara watched from her own bedroll as Aang gingerly rolled over. His back still hurt him. She had done her best every day, done everything she knew to do, but it wasn't enough. The wound was still there, still an angry blemish on his smooth skin.

The burn wasn't the only thing bothering him, though. He was changed, somehow. He tried to hide it, but she could tell from the moment he regained consciousness. His confidence was gone, his easy optimism was now forced. He looked at everything differently now. Even her.

A chill danced down the waterbender's spine, and it wasn't from the gentle breeze rustling through the trees that ringed their camp. She shut her eyes tightly, determined to fall asleep, knowing that as soon as she did, she would see a bright flash of crackling light and Aang falling from the air to reveal the sadistic grin behind him...

Azula stared up at the elaborate canopy of her luxurious bed. She had taken residence in the royal apartments very shortly after seizing control of Ba Sing Se. The rooms were exquisitely furnished, decorated with all the elegance and extravagance she had grown accustomed to at home. She was, after all, a princess.

She had done in a few short days what the Fire Nation had been unable to do in a hundred years. She had captured the impenetrable city. She had proven her worth a hundred times over, as a leader and as a warrior. She deserved honor, respect, fear, power. She deserved the Fire Nation throne.

That was never to be, though, no matter what she did or how much she accomplished. She was, after all, a princess, dutiful daughter to the Fire Lord. She was female, and she knew that in some minds that was a blemish that could not be cleansed, that it was a sin that would never be forgiven...

Ozai rolled off the woman, laying back among his soft pillows, panting to catch his breath. When she reached to gently touch his shoulder, he roughly grabbed her hand, carelessly throwing her from his bed and ordering her out of his chambers in an icy voice, sending a jet of flame after the concubine in punishment for her familiar presumption.

Today was a good day. He had received a message from Ba Sing Se. His daughter had captured the city, almost single-handedly, while at the same time locating his traitorous brother and son. There was even the distinct possibility that she had killed the Avatar in the process. She was quite the resourceful girl. He would have to give very careful consideration when it came time to find her a husband, and not just because that man could possibly be the next Fire Lord. No, the man he chose would have to be very strong, capable of appreciating her power and abilities while at the same time keeping her under a firm hand. A man like Ozai.

But that was for the future. For now, he had a war to finish. He had no illusions that the entire Earth Kingdom would surrender quietly now that their precious city had fallen. There were battles yet to come. There would still be pockets of resistance, still soldiers fighting for their kingdom. To end it swiftly would require a decisive stroke, a single gesture that showed them they had no hope left. He needed their king's head on a pike...

The Earth King stared into the slowly dying embers of the fire, shifting uneasily on the thin blanket that overlay the hard earth. These last few days were the first times he had ever tried to sleep on the ground. It wasn't pleasant.

The ground wasn't the cause of his restlessness, though. He had lost his entire kingdom in a few short days, and it was all his own fault. He had listened to a traitorous adviser. He had invited the Fire Nation Princess into his home. He had abandoned the last refuge the world had against oppression. He had abandoned his people.

He adjusted again, moving away from a sharp rock that dug into the small of his back, curling in on himself in an attempt to conserve what feeble warmth he had. It was hard for him to believe that just a few short days ago he had been enjoying the thrilling terror of his first ride on a sky bison...

Fear. Uncertainty. Guilt. Pain. Appa could smell all of this and more wafting over from the forms laying on the ground. He snuffed loudly to try to clear his nose. Never had he experienced the acrid odors with such strength. Not since being away, when it was he that reeked of terror and pain. But that was before. Before finding them again. Before the warrior girl had helped him...
Suki carefully daubed Niko's face with a cool cloth, trying to bring some comfort to the feverish girl. Comfort was all Suki had left to offer her. There was nothing else to be done for her, and Suki forced herself to wait up, to be with her at the end. Just like with the others.

Suki gritted her teeth in pain as she adjusted her right arm in it's sling. None of Kyoshi's finest had escaped the battle unscathed. All would carry scars for the rest of their lives. Some would not have to carry them for long. Even now, days after the battle, a few were still fighting against their wounds. Burns were hard to treat.

But it wasn't the firebender who haunted her. Suki, like her mother before her, joined the Kyoshi warriors because she refused to be a weak, helpless girl. She owed it to herself, to her ancestors, to the memory of Avatar Kyoshi to be a fierce, strong woman, to fight to protect her village. For some time now she had led the warriors. They had trained long and hard, learned how to defend against all manner of weapons, prepared themselves to fend off vicious firebenders. Nothing, though, had prepared Suki or her squad for the utter helplessness, the loss of control, of strength, of their very wills, that was brought about by the smiling, laughing, acrobat...

Ty Lee pulled the thick blanket up under her chin, carefully watching the dark surroundings of the large empty room. She hugged her stuffed rabbiroo tightly, once again grateful that she had brought it all this way in spite of Azula's teasing.

She hated being alone. Even at night, she liked to know there were others nearby, to hear the reassuring sounds of their deep, even breathing. This room, assigned to her as befitting one of the companions of the new ruler of Ba Sing Se, was too big, too dark, too empty. Too lonely.

She had never been lonely in the circus. There were always people; crowds watching in delight, children laughing and clapping, other performers eager to learn or teach a new trick. Never a dull moment. Even if everyone else was somehow busy, there were still the animals. They never got too busy running a city to listen, never got all gloomy and bored while watching her tumble and twist. Ty Lee brought the ear of her stuffed toy close to her mouth and whispered softly, "Sometimes, I wish there was an animal here I could talk to..."

Bosco ambled away from the camp. He didn't understand. Why hadn't he been fed? Where were his cushions to sleep on? Why had he spent yet another day on a giant flying beast? He didn't know. All he knew was that he was hungry. And the little flying monkey had come from this direction with an armload of nuts...
Momo finished off the last of his dinner, licking crumbs from his paws. He looked around curiously at the restless humans. More restless than normal. Danger nearby? Momo, eyes searching and ears cocked for any cause of alarm, ready to give warning if any threat presented itself, sat alertly on the peak of the little earth tent...
Toph mumbled under her breath, counting softly, trying to coax herself into sleep. The vibrations from the other uneasy travelers were distracting, though. She sat up slowly, keeping both hands flat on the ground, attempting to reconcile what she was feeling now with the way their campsites had felt before. No gentle beating of her comrades hearts against the dirt, no slow, even breaths, no deep rumble of Appa's snoring.

Nothing felt right anymore. Not at night, not during the day. Not since they fled Ba Sing Se. Everyone was anxious and worried and jumpy. That wasn't the worst part, though.

Aang, after finally regaining consciousness, claimed he was good as new. He was lying. Katara said that she believed him, that he just needed rest to be back to his old self. She was lying. Sokka told her that he didn't blame himself for not being there to help fight. He was lying. The Earth King said that his kingdom would rally, would still defeat the Fire nation. He was lying too.

Toph flopped back down to the ground. There were times when she wished that she didn't have that particular ability, that her earthbending skills had stopped at providing her with sight and the ability to kick major butt. It wasn't something she could control, though. She had to take the bad with the good, and there were times she wasn't sure it was worth it. Times like the last few days. Times like under Lake Laogai, when she had realized that the boy who said he would be fine actually knew he was dying, as did the two friends that watched over him...

Smellerbee sniffed quietly, trying to hide her soft sobs from Longshot. She hated herself for still crying over their fallen leader, even after days of traveling, avoiding detection, trying to put as much distance between themselves and Ba Sing Se as possible. She couldn't help it, though. Nothing had gone as planned. It wasn't supposed to be this way.

This was supposed to be a chance at a fresh start, for all three of them. A chance to know a life beyond swinging in trees and fighting and hurting and pain. A chance for them to just be regular teenagers for a while and worry about regular stuff. A chance for her to finally be a girl again...

The moonlight glinted off the fresh tears that coursed hotly down Smellerbee's face, cutting small streaks in the dirt. She didn't know what her and Longshot would do now, but she knew that their chance, their new life, was gone. She knew that the old man on the ferry wouldn't be the last to mistake her for a boy...

Iroh leaned his head back against the hard, cold metal of his cell. It was the only movement allowed to him. His hands were bound together with rock and attached to the base of the wall behind his back by a very short chain. His feet were each chained separately to the floor in front of him, leaving him sitting against the wall, incapable of moving. He had no idea how long he had been here, or even if it was night or day. There was no window by which to judge time.

It didn't matter though. Any last vestiges of hope for salvaging his life, for making a difference, for doing something worthwhile, had been swept away in a single moment by the decision of an angry and confused boy.

History repeated itself. What had almost killed him the first time would surely destroy him the second. He had once again led someone he cared about into destruction. It even happened in the same place. He had led Lu Ten to Ba Sing Se to take part in the siege, where he succumbed to the war. He had led Zuko to live in the same city to find a new life, but Zuko had succumbed to himself. Both were equally lost to the old man.

Iroh knew he wasn't long for this world. Even if his grief did not kill him, Azula would not let him live. A strange thought floated to his mind, a remembrance of a woman in a village he and Zuko had been through while chasing the Avatar. He idly wondered if perhaps he should have let her tell his fortune...

Wu turned the final card over. It was the lighting struck tower. Again. This was the third time in as many tries that that card had appeared in the pattern. Something was very, very wrong.

She had been seeing signs for almost a week now that foretold trouble. Not just local trouble for the village, but on a much larger scale. In the clouds, in the cards, in the bones, in the tea leaves, everywhere she looked there were indicators of doom. It had been weighing on her mind all night, stealing her sleep, and so she had gotten up, careful not to disturb a snoring Meng, and tried the cards again, hoping in vain that there would be a change.

It could only mean one thing. Something was happening with the war, and that probably meant something was happening with the Avatar. She had met him once, not too long ago, just a child dealing will all the normal issues of growing up while at the same time trying to lead the world to peace. It was too much for one person.

She began to shuffle the cards again, hoping, in spite of all the signs, that he was doing well. Him, and the waterbender girl, and, yes, even the skeptical young man...

Sokka kept his eyes squeezed tightly shut. He couldn't look up at the sky. Not tonight. He couldn't stand to see her shining brightly from the starlit heavens, a reminder of his past failure. He was still dealing with his present failure.

He hadn't been there. Aang had almost died, Katara was almost captured, and he hadn't been there to help. No, while they were struggling for their lives, he was busy rescuing a stupid bear. He was supposed to protect them, to protect Katara. It was something ingrained in him from a very young age. Protect your little sister.

Would it have even mattered? Katara was a waterbending master. Aang was the avatar. They had faced two master firebenders and several earthbenders. What good would a guy with a boomerang have been?

Sokka rolled to his side and opened his eyes. He stared into the fire, allowing the bright glow of the dying embers to blind him to the surrounding night. He wasn't a protector. He was barely even a warrior. Warriors were brave and confident. He was scared and confused. He was nothing more than a frightened kid, no matter what someone else might say...

Hakoda glanced up at the stars, checking his bearings. With a firm hand on the tiller he slightly adjusted course. As leader of the Southern Water Tribe warriors, he could have delegated the night watch to someone else, but he enjoyed it. It was quiet and peaceful and gave him a chance to think.

For the past few days, the warriors had been hearing a steady trickle of disturbing news from Ba Sing Se. The city had fallen to the siege. The city was destroyed by new Fire Nation weapons. The Avatar destroyed the Fire Nation army and the city was free. The city had surrendered and a Fire Nation princess now ruled. The Avatar had betrayed the city to the Fire Nation. The Avatar was dead.

He didn't know what to believe. All he did know was that everyone spoke of something big happening in Ba Sing Se, and it usually involved the Avatar in some way. Sokka and Katara were with the Avatar. If something had happened to him, then Hakoda's children would be mixed up in it as well. Only, they weren't children anymore. It had been years since he had seen them. Bato had told him all about them, but he had still been shocked by how much Sokka had grown. And Katara would be a young woman now. They had grown up without him. They had grown up in a war. A war in which they now fought.

Hakoda stared up into the sky at the shining moon that meant so much to his people, and whispered a quiet prayer to the moon spirit...

Yue stared solemnly down on the world, her face a bright radiance that offered light in the darkness. Things were happening down there. Great and terrible things. She tried to understand, tried to grasp the slowly dissolving threads of her own humanity in order to make sense of what she saw, but she couldn't. She was the moon spirit, and there was little of her human life that she remembered. Only a few images. An older man, with a stern but kind face, dark hair and a goatee. A large white city of ice and snow. The smiling face of a young man, eyes sparkling with mischief and humor.

But those memories would eventually be gone, too. She had given those things up to become the moon spirit. It was a decision made from necessity, but one she would make again. She regretted nothing, even if the face of the young man appeared before her when she thought that. She was the moon, casting her beams of silver light upon all, the rich and the poor, the good and the evil, the loved and the forlorn, the happy family and the hopeless orphan...

Longshot lay very still and quiet, doing his best to fake sleep. Smellerbee had finally stopped crying, but he knew she was still awake. He thought it best if she didn't know he had been listening, waiting up in case she needed something or wanted to talk. It would only embarrass her. She thought crying was weakness. Longshot knew better.

He had cried long and hard when the Fire Nation burned his home, when they killed his parents. It wasn't weakness, it was motivation, it was remembering. It was the reason he had joined Jet. He hated the Fire Nation. He had hated them for almost as long as he could remember. Now, though, he didn't know who to hate. It wasn't the Fire Nation that had stolen away a chance at a new life from him and Jet and Smellerbee. It wasn't the Fire Nation that made her cry herself to sleep every night. It wasn't a firebender who killed his best friend. No, all of that had been done by an earthbender...

Long Feng stumbled into his tiny room. He didn't even bother to undress before collapsing on his hard bed, grimacing in disgust at the coarse fabric of the bedding. He would have to be up again in a few hours, ready to report to the princess at dawn.

It was amazing how fast things could change. He had been the most powerful man in the largest city in the world, controlling every aspect of Ba Sing Se. Now he was little more than a servant, working to all hours of the night, constantly being watched by his own Dai Li agents, living in a filthy little room barely fit for a peasant.

Long Feng was a man of action, though. Instead of cherishing the few hours of sleep he would be allowed, he sat up, plotting in his mind how to reverse his fortunes, how to betray those that had betrayed him, how to once again rule his city and expunge the sociopathic firebender, the vapid acrobat, and the gloomy assassin...

Mai sat in the window seat of her room, knees pulled up under her chin, staring out at the palace grounds washed in the pale light of the moon as it marched across the heavens. Being in an Earth Kingdom city once again brought back memories of the brief time she spent in Omashu.

She sighed quietly. She had been gone for a while now. She would never admit it to anyone, not out loud, but she missed it. She missed her family. Yes, they were dull and boring and wearisome, but they were her family, and she wanted to see them. Even her annoying little brother, Tom-Tom. Most of all, though, she missed her mother.

It was something she could never say to Azula, or even Ty Lee. What teenager is willing to admit that they miss their parents? But there is something about knowing that someone is there who you could talk to about anything, someone who would love you no matter what you did or said. Mothers were special.

In the dreary, drab dark of her room, while thinking of her own family, Mai couldn't help but wonder how things would have turned out for Azula if her mother hadn't disappeared...

The laundry woman dipped her hands into the water once more, doing her best to cleanse the dirt and blood from the tattered uniform. It was very early in the morning, the moon still visible in the sky, most of the other residents of the tiny Earth Kingdom village still snug in bed. She would be in bed herself, but she had to finish these. She had been tasked with making these castoffs of dead and injured soldiers adequate for the new recruits who would be leaving in a few hours.

She let out a bitter chuckle. New recruits? They were hardly more than children, boys who wouldn't need a razor more than once a week, if that often. Most of them were probably no older than...

She pulled the uniform forcefully out of the water, holding it up for inspection, trying to see it clearly through the blur of tears. It was as good as she could do. The blood was still visible, but blood does not wash away easily. She hung it on the line to dry and grabbed another, jamming it into the water and scrubbing it viciously.

She forced herself to pause in her work and take a deep breath, fighting back the unshed tears. She began to hum a tune, something she often used to try and calm herself. It was sometimes the only thing that worked.

After a few minutes of humming, her hands were moving smoothly and gently once more. She began to sing quietly to herself, the same song as always.

"Leaves on the vine,

Falling so slow,

Like fragile tiny shells,

drifting in the foam"

Tears began to fall again, but not angry and bitter tears. These were tears of love and remembrance. That was his favorite lullaby, something she had learned from his uncle. He always insisted on hearing it before he would fall asleep.

It had been so long since she had last seen him. Did he hate her for what she had done? Did he even remember her? Was he fighting in this damned war? As she continued to wash the uniforms, she offered up a silent prayer to whatever spirit was listening that wherever he happened to be, he was safe and sleeping peacefully...

Zuko leaned his head back against the hard, cold wall of his bedroom. Sleep had eluded him. Again. He wasn't sure what time it was now, but knew it must be close to dawn. He stood up and grabbed his pack, filling it with everything he would need.

He didn't understand. He had restored his honor. He was no longer in exile. He was once again a Fire Nation prince. He had persevered, gone through countless trials and hardships, done whatever was necessary in order to regain his father's favor.

If all that were true, though, then why did he feel like a failure? Why did he spend most nights sitting up and thinking about what he had done, all the decisions he had made? Why did he see Uncle Iroh's disappointment whenever he closed his eyes?

Zuko shouldered his light pack and moved to the exit, casting one last glance back to make sure he had not forgotten anything. He left and walked slowly towards the throne room, silently wondering to himself. He didn't understand. If he had regained his honor, then why was he being sent to search for the Avatar once more...

The first light of dawn was creeping over the rim of the world when Aang finally sat up. He did his best to stifle a yawn, feeling achy and tired all over. The night had not been restful. It hadn't been useless, either, though. He had finally decided on a course of action. They wouldn't just be flying aimlessly in vague attempts to evade possible pursuit. As soon as his friends woke up, he would inform them that he needed to go back to Guru Pathik. He was going to learn the truth of what had happened.

Aang cast a glance towards his sleeping friends, only to discover that they were not sleeping. It appeared that he was the last one up. Katara was filling a pot with water while Sokka was slowly coaxing the fire into life. Toph and the Earth King were both sitting unobtrusively to the side. None of them were talking. They all looked tired and worn out, dark smudges heavy under their eyes, their actions slow and deliberate. Even the animals appeared sluggish and lethargic.

Aang suddenly realized that he was not the only person who had spent a long and lonely night.

A/N: This was originally going to be a short little story about the end of season two. As I was writing, it mutated into the really long series of short, tenuously linked, angsty, connect-the-thought little sections you now see before you. I don't know if that's a good thing or not.

Honestly, I'm pretty ambivalent about this story. I have never done drabbles before (which is basically what these are), and have never written most of these characters. The structure and format are a little odd. There is no real plot and nothing actually happens. There are a couple of sections I really like, and several that I really don't. Some of the links between characters are obvious, while others border on ridiculous. I'm extremely curious to see what others think of this, just because it is such a departure from how I normally write.

Thank you for taking the time to read my story, especially if you leave a review. If you do review, please be totally honest and let me know who you thought was OOC, what parts seemed implausible, etc. I promise you won't offend me. Any feedback is greatly appreciated. I will be sure to reply to all signed reviews.

Thanks again!