Epilogue: Eternity's Blessing

I'm not really sure how I ended up in this situation. Then again, I never really think things out completely. Only the main consequence matters in my eyes. The little side effects don't really amount to much. I have a feeling that this time, it's different. There's warm blood seeping through the worn fabric of my tunic, as I hear Ozai's maniacal laughter. The Firelord stands before me, hand still clasping the bloodied dagger that he would have attempted to take my life with many years ago, although I'm quite sure this time he's actually preformed the task. It's sort of funny, the way he's looking at me; as though he's thrilled and shocked at the same time. I suppose I made it too easy for him.

I have no idea what I thought I was doing, pushing Aang out of the way like that. All I knew was if that hate-driven lightening bolt hit that unsuspecting boy, he would certainly die. Having been able to redirect the attack didn't seem to account for much, however. It came far too close to a nerve and stunned me for only the shortest of seconds... Enough time to plunge your favorite dagger into the heart of your son and watch his eyes dull with loss of blood. It wasn't very clever of me to be caught off guard so easily. Another of my flaws that I feel I ought to point out, as I lie here with a deep gash in my chest.

I think I can hear the Avatar shouting, but it's difficult to say. There's this strange buzz in my head like the sound of a thousand butterfly wings that just won't seem to go away. Speaking of sounds... They've begun fighting again. I hope Aang's okay. He's grown on me, that kid. He brought out the best side of me, a side that I thought had died the day I was banished. The day I lost him. My eyes flicker to the slight left where I can see my sister's body as it lay lifeless, my final contribution to this world. I feel sick to my stomach, although it's hard to differentiate the various aches now. I really did take her life, didn't I?

That waterbending girl. I wish I'd taken the time to get to know her name. She places my head in her lap and begs me not to sleep, that she could heal me if I stay awake. How silly, I think to myself as I watch her fumble with the water from her pouch. She's always hated me, even after I proved myself trustworthy. We both know that the wound is too deep for her to handle, but it is rather kind of her to try. I'll have to remember this and thank her if I get the chance, perhaps in the next life. My lips aren't moving very well at the moment, and my throat is awfully dry with the taste of desert sand. My chest throbs with the pain, but no more than usual. I guess it finally has the physical characteristics to match how I've always felt since that day.

I tapped the handle of the restaurant nervously, my heart pounding with thrill for the first time for a very long, long while. I couldn't deny my surprise that the place still stood its ground after three years, let alone the fresh shingles on the roof. It was just about closing time, and there didn't appear to be any customers at that particular moment. I was dressed simply as I always had in the past, but there was no doubt that I would be recognized now. I just wanted to know if everything I'd been through, every person I'd stepped on, and every terrible choice I'd made, just to get home... Did it amount to anything now?

Upon entering the establishment, my heart ached with all of the lost memories that were sown here. It was virtually identical to when I'd last seen it, and I couldn't help but hope with every ounce of my being that nothing had since changed. I ignored very well the fact that all hope had ever done is hurt me. It was surreal to hear that tiny bell sound upon my entry, as I'd heard it so many times before under far less pressing circumstances. The ring resonated endlessly in my head, its tune more desolate than before. Then again, maybe it was just my imagination. A young raven-haired woman strode out of the kitchen in a hurry, a carton of silverware hugged tightly against her hip. She hardly spared me a glance before sorting the utensils in their proper place beneath the main counter. "I'm sorry sir, but we're closed now," she called out, sounding rather distracted as the clang of spoons and forks cluttered the air unpleasantly. I held back a sigh, lifting my hand to flip back the hood of my cloak and patiently awaited her attention.

Finally her eyes flickered toward me and held my gaze for only a moment, her expression clouded with confusion, then shock, then-

"Zuko."

Realization.

Her hand immediately jumped to her mouth when she realized her mistake, and she bounded out from around the counter and bowed to me in the most awkward way. Upon observing her, I found that the slightest changes such as a more slender face and a fuller figure have transformed her into a far more mature being, a woman if you will. However, my foremost thoughts were far from her as my eyes scoured every detail of the room, far more gloomy than I remembered it to be. "Akiko," I stated in a cold voice that wasn't my own. "It's been a while." It was obvious that my idle chatter unnerved her, so I made a resolution to keep my succeeding statements narrowed a bit more towards the point of my visit.

Her dark eyes remained fixed on the floor in an attempt to repress the flood of emotions running through her eyes. I ignored the tug at my heartstrings as she rose, yet refused to meet my gaze. "Prince Zuko, if there's anything I can-"

"I want to know where he is," I interjected, my burning tongue doing the talking for me. Wincing at the sharpness of my tone, I added in a gentler manner, "Please, can you tell me where I can find him?"

Akiko visibly shuddered and pursed her lips, her gaze finally meeting mine with a distraught quality that resembled, but could not nearly rival my own. "You have been away for a long while," she murmured, inclining her head slightly. "Perhaps you should sit down." The conversation that followed those words was hardly discernable through my numb state of mind, as portions of the conversation ran fruitlessly through my head.

"After you left... Emotions took a toll... Cells divided at... Blood... Had to quit... Once or twice Hoshi and I would... Never was the same following... Suffered fainting spells... I couldn't bear to see him... Took to writing up his novel... Really only ever thought of you... Terribly pale... Two months before his twentieth birthday... In critical condition... Only survived that long waiting for you... Lingered on the brink... Passed only three months ago..."

I hadn't realized that I'd been shaking until Akiko's hand had gently captured mine from across the table, her eyes filled with unshed tears. "His legacy still lives on. I collected up the best of his works into an anthology and had it published. His novel was a huge, if not controversial success. I kept the original manuscript on hand, but I think he meant for it to go to you." She reached down under the table and retrieved a stack of parchment bound by tightly woven lace from her hand bag and pressed it into my hands. I couldn't help but wonder if she'd always kept it by her immediate side, or if she'd only done so once my presence in the Fire Nation was made known. "It's yours," she whispered, a tear cascading down her cheek as I made no move to accept the offering. "Take it."

Slowly my hand grasped the thick collection of papers, and I hugged it tightly against my chest for fear that it would disappear in an instant. I couldn't possibly describe the way I was feeling at that moment, but I knew that the uncertainty that I'd felt for so long had finally eased in my heart. Whether it was a numbing or a revelation I wasn't sure, but I knew that I was going to have a sleepless night.

And I did. I spent the entire night reading every last word on those two hundred and eighty-eight pages of hand-written, slightly untidy work that my lover had composed. I neglected food, water, and rest, my eyes devouring page after page by dim candlelight. By the end of my literary excursion, my hands were soaked in blood from where the binding had cut into my skin and my entire body was trembling with awareness. It was a familiar story of forbidden love and the anguish that followed, although I understood very well the plight of the characters myself. Putting a hand to my heart, I turned to the last page to find a humble dedication in the very center of the page.

I love you,

I live for you,

And I'll wait for you forever.

My Prince.

I left the Fire Nation the next day, the Day of Black Sun.

He told me that he would wait for me forever... Perhaps even beyond death? Yes. One person's 'forever' does not halt at the end of their days on earth. Eternity is time without end, a prospective that isn't entirely clear. Nevertheless, I have a feeling that it will reveal itself to me very soon. Suddenly, it takes too much effort to breathe properly, let alone keep my eyes open. Surrounded by an absolute darkness, the noises that surround me fade and all I can sense is my heartbeat, which is more of a tremble than a beat at the moment. The pain is finally receding, my fear tamed at the idea of seeing him... And my fear spurred at the notion of nothingness. In a leap of faith, I allow myself to lose conscious control of my body and submit to the gentle wave drawing me from the shore of my unsightly reality.

When I finally come to a dazed and pathetic consciousness, I'm surprised when my eyes flutter open and I can feel my body respond to my direction. Wincing as a bright light strikes my line of sight, I'm pleasantly alarmed by the comfortable warmth surrounding my form and practically lulling me back into the sweet depths of sleep. Nevertheless, my eyes finally adjust to my settings only to find myself in a very familiar place: I'm in his house, in his bedroom, lying in his bed, the blankets falling to my clothed, unharmed chest. And beside me, beside me is-

"Takumi," I breathe, my voice sounding rather far off, as I gain the ultimate strength and become undeniably weak at the same time. His smiles at me, lifting a hand to caress my face with only love shining in his chocolate eyes. "You haven't changed at all," I murmur after a period of silence, my eyes wandering his figure to find how true my words were. His face still holds the same young, handsome quality that he'd possessed when I'd left, although the measure of sadness I'd once recognized is no longer visible. He is still my beautiful lover of seventeen years, despite living out almost three years on the earth without my presence.

"It's kind of strange how things work in the Spirit World," Takumi whispers in a soft voice, his touch descending to my collarbone. There's a note of pride in his tone as he speaks, "I appear to you the way you've always known me. Should you have met me in the state I left the earth, I don't think you would be very pleased. I was rather sickly looking, in truth." He leans forward to give me a light kiss on the forehead. "But you... You're more beautiful than ever, my Prince. You don't seem to have changed much either." He begins to stroke my hair, pleased by the way it's grown out.

"Don't taunt me, Takumi," I warn, submitting to the pleasant sensations I'd once considered lost. "I'm not the same person that I was, and I'm certainly not beautiful." I look away from his gaze when I see a skeptical glint in his eyes that tells me I'm selling myself short.

"Alright. You may have changed, but you're still my Zuko," he insists, nuzzling his head into my hair. It's unimaginable, feeling his touch after such a long time. I can hardly bear our flesh to flesh contact, as he strokes my body in ways I've only ever allowed him to do.

"I'm not so sure about that," I whisper, as my hand finds a way to his chest. I think I could very well die happy n- ...Oh, wait.

"I've been watching you," Takumi murmurs, his eyes suddenly losing their focus as they stare deep into mine. "I've seen the way you've transformed." His voice betrays no opinion of what he thought of my actions, but the thought of his constant vigilance makes me hang my head in a flushed shame. Noticing my distress, he gently lifts my torso, squeezes flush against the headboard, and allows me to rest against his body.

"I made a lot of bad choices," I state softly, feeling his hands intertwined with mine. It's a beautiful sensation, to be touched so chastely, yet intimately by someone you love. "I lost my way for a long while, as well as my heart." I choke back tears with a shaky breath, under the impression that maybe he no longer loves this bundle of mistakes that is myself.

"That's what happens when you lose your way," he explains, resting his chin on my head. I can almost feel a pulsing energy emerging from his form. Must be a spirit thing. "You have to make some choices, love. It's a trial and error system. Sometimes there are more errors than trials, but that doesn't mean you lost your heart along the way. You've always had an unimaginable heart of gold, and you've only proved my point by what you did today." He chuckles when I give him a strange look. "You saved Avatar Aang's life, and it wasn't for the world's sake. You did it for him, because his life is precious to you." His eyes grow very sad at this point, and his hand lingers on the spot where my physical body had been fatally wounded.

"You were my lover, my most precious," I challenge, tilting my head up to glance at his expression. "I couldn't seem to save you."

"You did save me," Takumi counters, his eyes suddenly glistening with joy. "Didn't you read my book? There's a reason it ends the way it does. You know that there are much worse things than dying. And the most prominent is-"

"Dying without loving," I quote, deriving the phrase from his novel.

"That's right," he says proudly, wrapping his arms comfortably around my stomach. "So stop beating yourself up, because you haven't failed anyone." His nimble fingers rub my chest affectionately, and I know right then I would have thrown myself in front of a hundred lightening bolts to be with him for eternity.

"So, what does this mean?" I finally ask quietly, feeling his form stiffen behind me. "Can I- Can I stay with you?" I know that I must sound vulnerable, but I can cast away my hesitations around him.

Takumi refuses to answer me for a very long time, as though trying to will the words in his mouth away. Nevertheless, he bows his head and looks into my eyes "Zuko, I know it's incredibly selfish of me, but I wish with all of my might that you could stay with me in this realm. To your fortune, you haven't separated from your body quite yet." He bites his lip, but continues to look into my confused eyes.

"I-I'm not...what?" I stammer, fearing the answer I will receive. If I'm not dead then-?

"You still have time on the earth," Takumi murmurs, attempting a shallow smile. "The world still needs you, Zuko. Especially the Fire Nation. It needs a leader with a strong heart and an understanding of true honor to bring it back into its age of peace and genuine glory." He looks almost pained as he speaks this, knowing the heavy burden this places on my shoulders.

"Don't send me back," I plead, suddenly wishing I had furthered treasured his touch on my skin. Quite honestly, I am done with the human world. It's selfish, cruel, and had altogether nearly killed me quite a few times. No longer do I wish to be a part of such a reality. No... No, I just want him.

"It's not my choice," Takumi assures me very quickly, his hands sneaking into my robes and caressing my chest as though to soak in as much contact as he could. "If it was up to me, you could come back with me to the Spirit World, but I'm merely a messenger of Avatar Roku. Lu Ten wanted to see you, but only one soul is allowed to greet those of the earthly realm."

"Lu Ten?" I breathe questioningly as my lover kisses my neck. The thought of my passed cousin makes my chest ache with additional hurt, though Takumi's touch seems to soak it away. I still regret the grounds upon which I parted with the man, and could never quite forgive myself for it.

"He wants to tell you so many things," Taki explains, his voice full of a loving quality I had often imagined in my dreams. "I offered to tell you for him, but I think he needs to speak of it on his own to make things right."

"I wish I could see him," I mutter, my tone growing increasingly bitter. I have so many apologies to make, it is simply eating away at me. "I can't stand to return to earth now. Takumi, I've waited so long-"

"And surely you can wait a little longer?" he implores, tightening his grip around me. "Now that you know I'm here?" Taki's fingers brush a rather sensitive area of my chest, making me shiver with bliss.

"I always knew," I whisper, deeply inhaling his scent. My chest begins to tighten when I realize what he's trying to say. I'm supposed to return to my body, become miraculously healed, and lead a nation that may very well come to despise me for suppressing our reign of splendor. Ah, I can hardly imagine how many assassination attempts will made within the first month. At least the rest of the world will appreciate my efforts. "But to leave you now will break my heart," I admit, finding enough strength to pull myself up and straddle the man's form, who looks visibly pained by my words. This is partially untrue, for he and I both know my heart is already shattered beyond human repair.

"I'm sorry," he says, pulling me into our first genuine kiss. I let out a soft moan, bringing my hands to caress his face in a daze as he wraps his arms around me in a gentle embrace. Our tongues twist and tangle until I've lost track of my own and my body trembles from the thrill. That touch... I so desperately want to lie back on the mattress and beg him to take me, but I'm fairly sure that this temporary spiritual body that I now possess has limits that simply cannot be surpassed. When we pull away he whispers into my ear, "The world still needs you. I completed my service, and now it's your turn. Everything we dreamed about can become a reality for so many other couples. Think about what you can do for them! You can give them everything we were deprived of."

"What about what I want?" I ask softly, avoiding his eyes. "What about what you want?" This is just like me. Being selfish at a time when the entire world may very well be in peril. I'm finding it harder and harder to care as Taki's hands run their course around my figure. I've wanted this for so long, I'm ashamed to say that I almost feel like I deserve this happiness... Which I don't.

"I want you to be happy," Takumi says with sincerity, pressing his lips against my scarred cheek. "But I want you to live out your life." He closes his eyes and presses our foreheads together. "I've had my time on earth. You still have precious time to spend among your friends, your uncle. People who love you as much as I do. It would be selfish of me to take you away from that."

And I'd like nothing more than to be selfish. "I understand," I murmur begrudgingly, though tears fall freely down my cheeks. Hearing that Takumi still loves me set off a whirlpool of emotions deep in my chest. It almost seems cruel of the Spirits to tempt me with my lover, only to take him away so quickly. "I'll do as I must, but the next time death strikes I want in," I add sharply, watching Takumi's face shift into a beautiful smile. At first I'm afraid he might consider that I would commit a great sin to join his realm, but it seems he knows me better than that.

"Of course," he agrees, laughter eminent in his voice. "Let's just hope that's not too soon." As he draws me into another kiss, I can tell it's almost time for me to depart. He kisses me with desperation, his hands clinging to the back of my head and he presses his body against mine. When we break apart, my suspicions are confirmed when I see Takumi's eyes shimmer with unshed tears. "This is so silly," he whispers to me, as I kiss away the first fallen tear. "I'm not the one who should be crying. Decades are merely a blink of the eye in comparison to an eternity."

"It's okay," I soothe in a gentle tone of voice, a tone I'd long abandoned. "Someone has to be the girl in this relationship." My rather sexist remark provokes his laughter, although I struggle not to let my own tears show.

"Zuko," he murmured, looking me straight in the eye. "It's so easy to love you." I stare at him in shock, trying to remember the last time anyone other than him had told me that they loved me. Even Uncle uses such phrases sparingly, for his heart is consumed with those who are lost to him. Certainly Father and Azula have never made such a remark. Perhaps maybe Aang had said something to the effect once, in a more of a brotherly aspect. How could it possibly be easy to love me when so few do? My eyes seemed to display my confusion, for he gives me a teasing smile and brings me in for a slow kiss.

"I want you to know," he begins in a soft voice, while I can feel a gentle pull drawing me back to the physical realm. My throat tightens excruciatingly as I listen intently to his words. "I want you to know that if you find someone that you love as you did me, I don't want you to hold back. Let yourself love, and don't feel compelled otherwise. Things are different in the Spirit Realm. It would kill me to watch you struggle with your emotions if you fall in love again." I ignore the irony of that statement. He is obviously pained as he says this, but he tries so hard not to let it show.

"How could I?" I whisper, attending to the tugs on my heartstrings. "How could I possibly love another when you wait for me?" That is unthinkable! That is criminal, dirty, cheating, and wrong!

"Because it is a great gift to be loved by you," Takumi murmurs, pulling me into a final, loving kiss. Our lips linger for seconds, my earthly ties slowly fading my presence. "As it is a great gift to love. I know that you will probably never glance at another person twice in such a way, but I want you to know that you have my blessing." I groan as I have to consciously fight to remain in this ghostly representation of my lover's house. There is so much to say, yet I can't seem to speak. I settle for three words I know will last until we meet again.

"I love you, Taki." My voice has finally obtained a softness that makes him truly smile, though he's clearly in as much pain as I am. "My heart will ache for you."

Takumi murmurs into my ear, "Do not speak with in such a forlorn manner. Because we are physically separated does not mean that we are lost to each other. I'll watch over you."

"I have my own guardian angel," I whisper back, my heart filled with bliss that counters my pain. I intertwine my hands in his as the pull towards reality becomes unbearable. "I'll try not to cause you too much grief." Even through my heartsick tone, he can understand that I'm teasing.

"I love you," he says tenderly, his grip on my hands tightening as I begin to lose consciousness once again. Our tears intermingle as our cheeks touch, and I slowly allow myself to slide into a state of darkness that isn't frightening anymore.

When I awaken, the first thing I notice is the pain coursing through my body. The second thing I notice are the tears running down my face. The third thing I notice is that the tears are not mine. "Aang, stop slobbering on me," I groan in a sullen and dry voice. "For heaven's sake, you're no better than your damn bison." A blessed moment of silence is soon interrupted by a chorus of irritatingly loud and joyous voices-

"Zuko!"

The next thing I know I'm being embraced by a sobbing airbender emitting enough tears to be deemed a fountain. "Zuko! I-I thought, you- We, we thought..." His voice fades as his embrace tightens unbearably. I'm able to gain enough information from my surroundings and the unconscious, perhaps lifeless form of my father awkwardly sprawled on the palace floor to believe that we've won the battle.

"You won't get rid of me that easily," I inform him, trying to escape his harsh grip. "Or maybe you will if you keep squeezing the life out of me." I turn my head to the waterbender, whose name I've suddenly remembered. "Katara. I suppose I have you to thank for saving my life?" I ask with a raised eyebrow, trying not to sound accusing.

She shakes her head, giving me a watery smile. "It was by the Spirits' blessing that you survived that wound."

And how very blessed I am. "Aang?" The monk finally turns his head towards me, his wordless lips moving in quivering motions whilst trying to express his gratitude towards me. "Thank you," I say warmly, pulling the boy into a fairly comfortable embrace. "I think I'm finally on the right track," I whisper to him, and he looks merely dazed when I pull away. He knows that I've experienced some personal revelation, for he looks upon me with recognition in his eyes. If there's one person whom I can count on to understand me, it is this mere child and savior of the world.

Even though things don't always seem to fair towards my best interests, I have a feeling that there's a reason things turned out the way they did for me. I'm a far different person from when I was merely fourteen, but no one else has the liberty to judge if these changes have affected me for the better. I'm a whole person now, and I'd never have become this if I hadn't gone through the experiences that I did. Things are going to change drastically from now on, but I have a feeling that I'll be able to withstand time's strain. There's one thing I know that's never going to change, and that is the love I share in my heart for a man named Takumi. In knowing this maybe, just maybe, my heart can be healed once more.

(A/N: Thank you to every single person who was kind enough to leave me their input. It meant a lot for me as a novice writer to recieve the valuable reviews of experienced readers. If you flip back through previous chapters, you'll notice I've adjusted the format and improved my chapters in a grammatical sense.

Special Dedication To: RueBroadway, who was with me since the near-beginning. Your constant support was my lifeline for this story, and I'll never forget your penname for as long as I live.

SifuZuko, whose words of inspiration kept my love for this fanfiction burning until the very end. You are the prominent energy that kept my fingers tapping at this keyboard.

Party in the Afterlife, whose reviews and PMs provided me the inspiration I needed to put my heart and soul into creating an ending for my story. You've given me a sense of how much this fanfiction means to me.

Secret Thought, bloodstar, Oirarana... You guys are the blood in my circulatory system and the oxygen in my lungs. Thanks for your kind words and nudges in the right direction.

And of course, my Beta whom I adore very much. How could I have survived without your guidance? I surely would have failed without you!

As my first fanfiction comes to a close, I'm very aware that I was fortunant to recieve the response that I did. Please don't hesitate to leave me a final overall critique, thank you very much. If you enjoyed this story, check out my work-in-progress, Bloodlust. wink)