Welcome to the conclusion of In the Family Way. I would like to send my sincerest thanks for all the wonderful reviews from everyone, and your continued support in this community. (Sorry I wasn't able to reply to every single one of them!) I would not be the person or writer I am today without all the accolades and lovely praise and criticism this wonderful group has provided.
I am sad to say I will not likely be writing any more Avatar fanfiction, apart from the occasional drabble: I am actively pursuing a romance writing career and need to spend the time honing my craft. When I do get publish (crosses fingers) keep an eye out for an announcement from me at FFnet. I will be dedicating my work to the comm, all the beta readers, the fans, the creators...you just wait.
Epilogue: More than One Lifetime
Epilogue: More than One Lifetime
"Today's the day, isn't it, Momma?" Azuria bounced on the balls of her feet with unfettered glee.
"Yes, my pet. Today is the day." Azula stroked her daughter's silky hair, flicked a bit of fluff off her shoulder. She was a happy child, vain and sometimes a little bossy, but well-loved and as well-behaved as anyone could expect a five-year-old to be. Azula was so proud of her. "Be good, okay? I might have a treat for you at dinnertime if you behave."
"Treats!" The little princess danced her "happy treats" dance, arms waving around wildly, her burgeoning Firebending talent pouring from her in a dazzling rainbow shower of sparks.
"Is someone getting treats?" a voice asked. "I like treats, too!"
"Daddy!" Azuria threw herself into her father's strong, open arms. He lifted her up and gave her a kiss on the nose. "Momma said she has treats for me."
"Only if you behave," Azula reiterated. It was such a trial sometimes to have to repeat herself, but it was all right because it was her daughter. "It's very important that you listen to Mommy, okay?"
Azuria gave her a very serious nod and grasped her father's cheeks between her chubby hands. "You hear that, Daddy? That means no disappearing into the rosebushes to scare me in the garden, or any of your other Earthbending tricks!"
Haru laughed and rubbed the tip of his daughter's nose. "As you command, princess."
"I thought I was your princess." Azula slid her arm around her husband, embracing her own perfect little family. She stuck her lip out petulantly.
Haru's expressive eyebrow quirked up. "Only when Uncle Jet is babysitting and we have time to ourselves." Leaning in, he whispered into Azula's ear hotly, "Later."
"Now that's what I like to see." Fire Lord Zuko—and there was no denying his status now as a man and the leader of his nation—strode into the reception room, a serene Katara at his side. "Happy, smiling faces."
"Without the crazed delusions of grandeur, of course," Katara quipped, though not unkindly. In a sling, she cradled the sleeping one-year-old "royal spare"—though only the stuffiest and douchebaggiest of the court would dare call Katara's precious second son, Iroku, a spare anything.
Mako, stiff and proud even at five years old, marched in beside his parents, chin high. Though he'd been born prematurely and under the most inauspicious circumstances, he was as robust and intelligent as any child his age (or more so, according to his proud parents). As soon as he caught a glimpse of his cousin, he immediately broke rank.
"Did you bring it?" he enthused. "Didja, didja, didja?"
"Of course I did," Azuria answered imperiously. She slid from her father's grasp and reached into her pocket, but hesitated, glancing around warily at the adults in the room.
"What are you two conspiring about?" Katara asked.
"Nothing, Mom." Mako scratched his nose, a sure sign he was lying.
"Son," Zuko loomed over him, "you know how important this day is. You wouldn't do anything to ruin it, would you?"
The boy's lip stiffened. "No, sir."
The Fire Lord's face melted into a smile. He grabbed the young prince and he shrieked as his father dangled him upside down by the ankles. "Are you sure? Really sure? I could torture it out of you, you know."
"Daddy!" Mako complained through his laughter, walking on his hands as Zuko led him around like an inverted wheelbarrow.
Katara planted her hands on her hips. "Stop that, both of you. You're going to ruin Mako's suit!"
"Awww…" Father and son straightened, brushed themselves off.
At that moment, Toph entered the reception room, her mouth a grim slash against her face. Zuko and Azula both rushed forward.
The Earthbender nodded. "It was…really amazing. Aang's…" She shook her head. "That kid's one powerful bender."
"Was our mother there?"
"What was her mood like?"
Toph shrugged. "I couldn't tell. I swear, Azula, you and she have the same inscrutable heart."
"Not so inscrutable," Haru put in, reclaiming his wife's lips.
Toph pulled a face. "Eewww, gross. You'd think three years of the mushy newlywed stuff is enough already?"
"Not nearly." A wide, voracious smile lit Azula's face. She knew her friend was just jealous—monogamy wasn't exactly something Toph was ready to embrace yet, anyhow.
Iroh glided in, looking a little nervous. Not bad nervous, but giddy, as if it were New Year's and he was waiting to open his first red pocket. "Is he here yet?"
"On his way."
Seconds later, Sokka and Suki pelted through the double doors, their two-year-old twin boys bouncing against their hips. "Are we late? Did we miss anything?" Sokka wheezed, out of breath. His elder son by two minutes, Hikota, grasped at his goatee and tugged hard, protesting the cessation of jouncing movement. Not to be outdone, Kato grabbed at a frazzled Suki's blouse and tugged it down to expose far more than she was willing to in present company. The Kyoshi warrior gratefully handed him over to her proud husband as she repaired her top and ran shaking fingers through her hair. She loved her family dearly, but who would have thought raising Sokka's children would be so much work?
(Toph silently raised her hand, then slowly lowered it. And then she sighed, resigned to the encroaching senility and madness that seemed to claim all the worlds most powerful Earthbenders….)
"No worries. You're just in time, Sokka." Katara went to admire the little boys, smoothing her hand over a slightly rounded belly. Would Mako like another little brother, or a little sister? If she were as lucky as Suki to bear twins, maybe she'd get one of each…
The double doors opened. Everyone turned as Aang drifted in, smiling wanly. He'd grown so much, done so much for everyone. Zuko watched the man who'd once been nothing more than a means to an end serenely come to a stop before the assemblage. His silvery eyes shone with accomplishment…and mischief.
"Whatever you guys do," he began softly, "don't laugh."
Zuko balked. Had things not gone well in the prison? He'd assumed the Avatar had taken his father's Firebending abilities away for the safety and security of all…
A strange rumbling echoed down the long corridor leading to the reception room. The floor trembled and everyone's nervousness doubled. It sounded like…gears. Like machinery as only the Fire Nation made it—loud and heavy and dirty, grinding away at the finely polished marble of the palace floors. As the sound drew closer, everyone shifted into fighting stances. It couldn't be helped—so many years of peace and prosperity had made them antsy.
What the hell was that noise?
Then it turned the corner. A massive sphere of glittering onyx latticed steel. A finely woven cage of diamond-hard space-metal filaments. A—
"GIANT HAMSTER BALL!" Mako and Azuria shrieked in glee.
"It's not a hamster ball!" Ozai moaned from within his black halo prison, humiliated.
At his side, his wife consoled him. "Now, now, dear, we talked about this."
"I can't Firebend anymore! Why do I have to walk around in this thing?"
"Because even though we've forgiven you, we don't really trust you." It was only temporary until they could trust him—everyone knew that, and they all hoped that time would be sooner rather than later. Zuko stepped forward. "Welcome home, father."
"I'd give you a hug," Ozai offered flatly, "but…" He gestured with disdain at his new mobile prison, handcrafted by Toph and Aang.
Zuko caught himself before he said something scathing. The time for family disputes was over—they'd always have disagreements, but their old enmity was in the past. Iroh had told them all the story of the Waterbender who'd saved Ursa's life. He understood Ozai now. And he forgave. Because that was what Aang would do.
But that didn't mean he trusted Daddy any farther than he could throw him…hence the cage. They would see if Aang's bending neuter took and leave the hamster ball in place for a few months, at least. If Ozai proved he was rehabilitated, they would reassess.
Azula rounded up her daughter and stepped forward with Katara and her sons. "Father, I'd like to introduce you to your grandchildren, Princess Azuria, Crown Prince Mako, and the wee one is Prince Iroku."
Iroku snored on, unimpressed by the events around him. The older children were too fascinated by the man in the giant hamster ball to follow social conventions. "Are you really our granddad?" Mako asked in awe.
"Why are you in that giant ball?" Azuria asked, clutching the thin lattice of the cage.
"How do you go to the bathroom in there?" Mako inspected the doorless contraption.
Seeing his grandchildren for the first time in the flesh, Ozai was too overwhelmed with emotion to speak. He fell to his knees and reached out shaking hands to grasp the grubby little fists clinging to his prison. Tears welled in his eyes as he tried to hold his shit together.
Azuria peered at him. "Hey, why are you crying, Grandpa?"
"You didn't lightning-fy the cage, did you?" Mako accused his cousin.
"Of course not!" But it looked like something she was considering now.
"I know what will cheer him up." He nodded to the little princess, who dug in her pockets. "Grandpa, we got you a present."
"You…did?" Ozai sniffled and stared between the two children, the most precious things he'd ever seen. He swore at that moment he would die before anyone ever tried to harm these two beautiful beings.
"Uh-huh." Azuria clasped the thing tightly in her hands and held it out.
The adults leaned in and gasped.
"Where did you kids get that?" Zuko demanded.
Mako and Azuria shrugged together. "Dunno."
"That's Avatar Roku's!" Aang exclaimed.
"It's supposed to be worn by the crown prince," Iroh corrected the Avatar. His eyes shifted accusingly to Zuko. "Don't tell me you lost it after I gave it to you?"
"I… Well, it was kind of the wrong time to be handing me trinkets, Uncle. I mean, we were in the midst of war! And then I defected and ran off, and I was traveling with the Avatar and—"
"You couldn't have stashed it away? Zuko, I managed to dig that artifact out from beneath hundred-year-old volcanic rock! Do you have any idea what it took for me to smuggle that thing into prison?" Iroh winced at the uncomfortable memory.
"I thought it was a napkin ring! How was I supposed to keep track of it after—"
"You hung on to my nasty old slipper for months, but you couldn't keep a little top-knot ring safe? What in the name of Agni made you prioritize my slipper over a centuries-old royal artifact…?"
Mako and Azuria grew bored of the adults' bickering and turned back to the more interesting and bemused man in the room. "We thought you should have it," Azuria said. "It would look much nicer on you, anyhow."
Ozai stared. "Mako…that belongs on your head. You are the crown prince."
"It's just a hair ornament," Mako replied. Dutifully, he recited, "Father says that it's not the garments that make you a prince, but how you don your mantle of responsibility and honor. The lowest of refugees can be princely, and the richest of men thugs." He took the little top-knot ring from his cousin and held it out to his grandfather. "This is for you. I heard a story once that Great-great grandfather Sozin gave this to Avatar Roku so they would always be friends. I want us to always be friends, too."
"Me, too!" Azuria chimed in, not wanting to be excluded.
Ozai couldn't help but point out, "You realize that in the end, your great-great grandfather betrayed and murdered that friend and started the Great War, don't you?"
Mako's face screwed up in deep thought. "I don't think he really wanted to. He was just unhappy and missed his friend lots. Uncle Iroh says people do stupid things sometimes when they're sad and lonely." The little boy's eyes glowed with their clear, auric intensity. "Were you ever sad and lonely, Grandpa?"
The ex-Fire Lord smiled softly, and tears flowed down his cheeks. "More than you'll ever know. But never again." He reached out and took the top-knot ring from his grandson, slipped it on over his bare head and fixed it on. He raised his chin, felt the weight of the little crown…but it was nothing at all.
"It becomes you, Ozai," Ursa said, her voice full of soft pride and love.
Iroh and Zuko looked upon the hamster-ball-encased third member of their trifecta of family strife, felt a soul-deep click. They were whole once more.
Azula's heart felt heavy. For the first time ever, she saw her father as a man to be loved instead of feared. And she knew her daughter would love him, too.
The other members of the congregation sniffled, wiped tears from bright, hot eyes. Aang watched passively, and he felt the shift of lives and the stirring of hearts deep in his spirit. All the Avatars of the past as far back as eternity seemed to sigh as one within him. The healing process was finally complete.
"Well, this was fun," Toph announced loudly to the overemotional crowd, "but if you ask me, we could have done with fewer waterworks."
"You say that about all our adventures," Sokka ribbed her.
"Only because you're usually the one who ends up crying," the Earthbender returned with a sniff.
"Funny how it's all come to this," Aang said, beaming around the room. "Pretty hard to imagine what would have happened if Katara hadn't complained about washing Sokka's dirty socks."
"As if you barely needed to life a finger?" Zuko asked. "Avatar, you don't give yourself enough credit. You're the one we should blame for all this romantic drama."
Aang shrugged, smiled. "What can I say? The spirits work through me. I am just their humble tool."
"Yeah, you're a tool all right."
"Aw, Toph, why do you always have to ruin perfectly good moments with sarcasm and witty quips?" Katara moaned.
"Because life needs more laughs," she declared firmly. "And the end always feels a little too sad for me."
"The curtains never come down on life," Iroh said sagely. "Ours is a story that transcends lifetimes. And it will continue ever after."
"Aww…guys…you're making me feel all mushy." Aang held his arms open. "Group hug?"
One by one, they gathered around the last Airbender. Katara and Zuko, the quintessential lovers; Sokka and Suki, the enviable pair; Toph, the all-seeing oracle; Iroh, the sage; Azula and Haru, the unexpected tricksters; Ursa, the mother; and Ozai, the hamster-balled outcast returned to the fold.
Oh, and all their brood, of course.
And Jet, who managed to sneak himself in to cop a feel. (He was kinda lonely, silently hiding in his little corner of the room—but even he had his place among this set.)
That was them. One big happy family of friendships that would last over lifetimes, generations and incarnations….
"Hey!" Katara flinched. "Who's grabbing my ass?"
"Oh, Katara." Aang smiled. "Just hold hands."
Best Wishes and Fishes, Vicki So.