It was over. It was finally, finally over.
Ozai had been defeated. Azula had gone insane. The Earth King had been restored to his throne and his city. Their friends and family from the eclipse invasion had been released from prison. A new Fire Lord had been crowned. Peace hovered on the horizon for all the people in every nation.
The Avatar had saved the world.
Aang walked outside the Jasmine Dragon, leaving his friends inside to discuss- or rather, complain about- Sokka's less-than-accurate portraying of their little group, and gazed up at the benevolent sunset.
He was content. He had done what he had been born to do- and now, he could look to the future with a hopeful heart.
A soft noise behind him alerted him of someone's presence. He turned and saw Katara, as lovely in green as she was in blue, or red (or any color, in his opinion) emerging from the tea house with a shy little smile on her lips.
His young heart leapt at the sight of her, this one girl he had loved since she first found him in that iceberg a year before. He smiled up at her, thankful that she had made it through all the chaos unharmed.
Blushing, Katara leaned down and kissed the boy, wrapping her arms around him. His heart nearly bursting, he returned the embrace, kissing her back joyfully.
All was well in the world.
The kiss ended and Aang looked up into Katara's azure eyes with a smile. She was still blushing, but she too wore a bashful smile. He pulled her into a hug, needing to feel her close to him, to feel her in his arms.
Katara held onto him tightly, relieved that her faith in him to save the world hadn't been unfounded. She rested her cheek on his narrow shoulder, feeling the rapid beating of his heart though the blood in his veins.
The sound of the door curtain rustling faintly reached her ears and she opened her eyes.
The new Fire Lord stood just outside the doorframe, one hand holding the curtain. An embarrassed expression was on his face.
Gold eyes met blue. Scenes from their fight with Azula flickered through both their minds, with Katara recalling how he had taken the lightning bolt intended for her- and nearly dying in the process- and with Zuko remembering being pulled back from Death by a pair of warm hands… and tears on his skin.
Neither had said anything to anyone about the details of Zuko's Agni Kai with his sister, nor the events following.
"Zuko?" Mai's voice called from inside the tea house. She moved the dark green door curtain aside once more and blinked in the encroaching twilight, her gaze first only seeing Aang and Katara as they parted, the Avatar still holding the waterbender's hand.
Zuko turned to look at his girlfriend. "Sorry. I came out to tell… Aang something, but it looks like I interrupted something."
Mai looped her arm around his and almost dragged him as she led him back inside. "I didn't ask what you were doing."
The younger couple stared after them until the curtain fell again, separating them from those inside the Jasmine Dragon. Aang let out a low whistle.
Katara glanced at him curiously. "What?"
"She's really… controlling."
She covered her mouth to muffle her giggle. "That's one way of putting it."
He folded his hands behind his head and leaned against the railing. "I hope she doesn't tell him not to be friends with us anymore," he said worriedly.
Katara lifted an eyebrow at him. "That is your main concern? He's the Fire Lord! He can be friends with whoever he wants to!"
Aang turned towards her again and gazed up at her with joyful grey eyes. "Yeah. You're right." He put his arm around her waist and together they looked to the horizon, where the sun had finally set and night had begun to envelop the land. "Everything is in place. The world is on its way to peace, and there's the chance for love everywhere." He blushed. "Sokka has Suki, Zuko has Mai… and I… have you."
Katara's cheeks grew warm as well and she rested her head against Aang's bald one. "You'll always have me, Aang. No matter what happens."
"That was kinda rude, you know."
Zuko tried not to heave a sigh as he sipped his tea. He regarded Mai over the edge of his cup. "I didn't know I'd be interrupting anything. It's not like they had a sign on the door that said 'Do Not Disturb- Romance in Progress'."
Toph snorted with a grin. "Bet you got an eyeful, huh, Sparky?"
Sokka choked and spewed tea all over the table- and his painting. "Do I want to know?"
"Probably not," Suki replied.
Zuko's face was now bright red. "Hey, I didn't see anything, okay? All they were doing was hugging."
Mai's normally bored expression didn't change as she leaned back in her chair. "Then you saw enough."
"Children, children," Iroh's gentle voice admonished as he entered the main dining area. "Enough arguing." He set down a plate of dragonheart cookies and smiled as Toph swiped at least four before he had even straightened up. "Young love is fragile enough."
Toph snorted again. "Love is overrated."
Iroh chuckled. "One day you, too, will find love- and then you will see how marvelous it can be." He sat down in a vacant chair and folded his hands in his lap, a wise- and altogether too mischievous-expression on his face. "They say that the love that is forged in the heat of battle can never be broken."
Sokka practically glomped Suki. "See? That means you're all mine!"
Suki gave Sokka's toothy grin an amused look. "What about Yue?"
The Water Tribe warrior's eyes grew teary and his face fell. He sniffed. "Well, maybe she left so I could… be with you?" he said, a bit sadly and a lot hopefully.
Suki pondered that for a moment. "I suppose I can accept that." As Sokka hugged her again, she flicked his forehead with her fingers. "But no more pining over the moon, got it?"
Toph laughed so hard she nearly fell off her chair. "Ooooo, she's got you whipped, Snoozles."
Iroh chortled softly. "He is in love, young Earthbender. And when you love someone, you will do amazing things for that person." He stroked his beard with a smile. "Sometimes… you'd even give up your life for them."
Zuko averted his eyes from his uncle's too-knowing gaze. As the subject shifted to the matter of Sokka and Katara's grandmother's marriage to Master Pakku, he found himself mulling over Iroh's words.
Love that is forged in the heat of battle… can never be broken.
No. Things are as they should be. That old man is just looking for what isn't there. I love Mai.
His golden eyes lifted to look at his girlfriend, who sat silently, as usual, as the room buzzed around her. No expression on her face, save for the endless ennui that was always present.
"Don't ever break up with me again."
He shuddered slightly at the memory of her words when they had been reunited after Ozai's defeat. Yeah, his girlfriend did have some emotions… anger and irritation.
He sighed and sipped his tea. His mind drifted back to when he had nearly died. Would Mai have cared? Of course she would've cared. She said she liked him, right? That had to count for something.
Well, it was all for the best. Everything was as it should be and the world was on its way to peace. However, he had one more task he had to perform before he could focus on rebuilding the Fire Nation.
"Hey, Zuko," Aang's voice called from behind his chair. The Fire Lord turned to the young Avatar, slightly startled. Firelight from the sconces on the walls reflected in happy grey eyes- and off his shiny bald head, almost obscuring the blue arrow tattooed on it. "You needed to tell me something?"
Zuko blinked, momentarily lost. "Oh… uh, yeah. I wanted to… uh… get your opinion on something."
Mai crossed her arms over her chest. "That's a dumb reason to bother someone when they're making out."
Sokka let out a scandalized gasp of horror as both Katara and Aang blushed. He leapt to his feet, arms held away from his body much like a boar-monkey in full fury. "Aaaaaaaaaang!" he whined, blue eyes blazing. "WHAT are you DOING with my BABY SISTER?!"
"Nothing you aren't doing with your Kyoshi warrior," Mai replied dryly.
Suki smirked. "She's got a point, Sokka."
Torn between the instinct to protect his sister's honor and argue the point that he and Suki were older and thusly more mature, Sokka only managed a handful of incomprehensible words before collapsing back into his chair, a hint of nausea around his face.
"I… don't want to talk about this anymore."
Releasing Katara's hand, Aang walked closer to Zuko's chair. "So what's up?"
He paused, then stood up and headed towards the front of the tea shop, away from Sokka and his brotherly hysteria. Aang followed behind, leaving Katara to stare after the duo with a slight frown on her face.
When they had gotten out of the others' hearing range, Zuko stopped and sighed. He turned his head slightly and looked at the younger boy. "I need to find my mother," he said without preamble. "But I can't leave the Fire Nation while it's in this state of chaos. We need to rebuild what was destroyed during our… my fight with Azula, there's the military to deal with, homeless to support, treaties to sign…"
Aang held up his hand to cut short Zuko's list of consuming issues. "Hey, hold on. Don't lose your head." He placed the hand on the taller boy's shoulder. "We're your friends, Zuko. We can help you find your mom."
"It's not that," the Fire Lord protested. "I need you to stay here and protect our friends while I'm gone."
Aang looked stunned. "You… don't want us to come along?"
Zuko pinned the Avatar with his topaz gaze. "I won't put you or the others at risk again. Besides, the people need to know you're around… It'll help keep the peace."
He scowled. "That's not fair, Zuko. You're going to need your friends with you, wherever you go. You'll need Sokka's brain, Toph's earthbending, Katara's-!"
"That's enough, Aang," Zuko interrupted. "I can't ask you to come with me- it would be selfish and foolish. No. I am going to find my mother by myself. I've already confronted my father about her, and I believe that I can get him to tell me where she is."
The young airbender's scowl deepened, and he opened his mouth to protest further when the front door to the tea shop slammed open and an Earth Kingdom soldier burst into the room.
"Fire Lord Zuko? Fire Lord Zuko!"
Everyone in the room was immediately on their feet, concern on all of their faces. Zuko stepped forward, immediately shifting into Fire Lord mode. "What is it?"
Immediately the soldier bowed in respect. "I bring news from the Fire Nation, sir," he said formally.
"Out with it."
The soldier was visibly perspiring. He turned nervous eyes to the young Fire Lord. "It's about your sister, my Lord. She… she's escaped."
Wincing at the shout from all the people in the room, the soldier nodded. "And… she's… she…"
Zuko stepped forward, concern evident in every line of his body, but it was clear he was fighting for control of his emotions. "She what?"
"She broke in to your father, Fi- uh, Ozai's cell… before she vanished.