A/N: I'm going to address this here because it's likely to be a long one and, I suspect, other people might have questions about it.
On the subject of unbending/spiritbending, my take on it is this…it's a talent that Aang has, it's an extension of the bending arts. The entire reason he is able to do it is because his spirit is "unbendable." Therefore, as long as that remains true, he should be able to do it successfully and without physical risk to himself. Just as Toph has metalbending and Zuko can redirect lightning, Aang has this outstanding ability as well. I have a hard time believing he won't use it if a situation necessitates it.
Now does that mean every situation will necessitate it? Likely not. You'll note that the people Aang unbends are the ones who have proven they won't be stopped any other way, short of killing them. We know Aang won't take a life so, there you go. Now that's not to say that just because I don't believe unbending/spiritbending poses a risk to Aang that he will be eager to use it even if the situation does require it.
Remember, he sees into these people when he does it (my take anyway) and so he knows exactly how it affects them when he takes their bending away. I'm sure he has a clear idea of how it breaks them down spiritually. Given the type of guy Aang is, I'd say that's a heavy burden to carry around. I'd say that, while he might not regret his decision, there has to be some degree of guilt involved nonetheless.
And that is where I think unbending/spiritbending will prove to be a problem for Aang. Not in the physical sense. Like any bending art, the more he practices, the better he will become. Instead, I think it's likely to affect him in a spiritual/mental way…perhaps, even make him question whether or not he should truly have the authority to do that to another person. That uncertainty alone and his own reluctance to abuse his gift will temper how he uses it in the future and that's the point I was trying to get across. Neither time Aang did it in this story was he happy, happy, joy, joy following. He's conflicted both times and that was a deliberate thing on my part.
I just wanted to clarify that fact. Hopefully, that helps some of you to understand why I chose to write this the way that I did.
Okay, I've babbled enough now. On with the end of it then.
The Fire Nation palace was now nothing more than a gutted ruin.
From the royal guest house terrace, Ursa stared at the smoking remains and wept. Her tears weren't due so much to the fire as they were a general outpouring of emotion over the last few, hellish days. She cried as much in relief as she did in grief.
In the aftermath of Azula's reign of carnage, dozens were dead and dozens more lay injured. Ursa's future daughter-in-law and her son's waterbender friend were among them. The horror of their princess' monstrous actions was so great that the Nation barely registered the chilling news that their former Firelord had been murdered in his prison cell during the siege. Ursa, on the other hand, was a different matter. She had mixed feelings about Ozai's death. She couldn't bring herself to be happy about it, but then she also didn't find herself mourning his passing either.
Ursa pushed her conflicted thoughts concerning Ozai to the back of her mind and focused all her attention on helping her son reorganize his Royal Council and bringing those who had plotted against him to justice. Treason against the Firelord would be dealt with swiftly and harshly. She and Iroh had also recommended to Zuko that he appoint Iya as his new Prime Minister. The man's credentials were impeccable as he had loyally served Ursa's family for many years before coming into Ozai's employ. He would serve as a trusted counselor for Zuko.
With the stress of that decision put behind him as well as Mai's steady recovery from Azula's attack, Zuko had recently turned his attention towards rebuilding the palace. The task would be a complicated one. The south end of the citadel had been completely demolished while the north end was still standing, but only just barely. After consulting the appropriate channels, the general consensus among the royal architects was that what remained of the palace would have to be razed to the ground and that the Firelord would have to build a new stronghold from the ground up. Ursa had expected Zuko to take the news harshly but, instead, he had surprised her by a buoyed, even excited reaction. "It's a new era of peace, Mom," he'd told her. "It only seems fitting to mark it with the construction of a new palace."
While that construction was underway, the Imperial Family and their friends were residing in the royal guest house, a place usually reserved for important dignitaries during their visits to the Fire Nation. It was a sprawling residence, but even with the impressive grandeur and large, open rooms, with so many people staying, the accommodations were feeling rather cramped. Constantly being on top of one another was beginning to take its toll, manifesting itself in the way of constant bickering. Though it was evident the young friends were less than eager to split up, preparations were already being made for them to go their separate ways once more.
Ursa leaned over the top of the stone wall, contemplating her uncertain plans for the future, when she heard the muffled sound of footsteps behind her. Immediately, she straightened, turning slightly, surprised and yet not surprised to find Komo stepping out from the shadows.
"Firelord Zuko said I could find you here," he explained awkwardly. "I needed to see for myself that you were recovered from your ordeal."
"As you can see, not a scratch," Ursa said. She spread her arms wide and twirled once for effect. "I can't say the same for my children, however."
"I…I'm sorry to hear of that," Komo murmured. "How is the princess?"
"Hysterical…bitter, unhappy, full of blame and anger," Ursa recounted despondently. "She feels as if she's lost everything and, from her perspective, I can see why she would believe that." Ursa dropped her eyes in an effort to mask the overwhelming sorrow she felt or perhaps it was simply to hide her tears. "We're not sure if she'll ever recover," she confessed in a broken whisper. "There's not much I can do at this point except reassure her that she's not alone, that she is loved. Perhaps, one day she'll believe me." She brushed away the tears that fell on her cheeks, refusing to feel sorry for herself.
While the gesture was minor, Komo felt his chest swell with even more admiration for her. Even when she was at her most dejected, she never dwelled on the negative for long. She was always looking for the brighter tomorrow and he loved that about her.
"If it's your determination to mend your relationship with your daughter," Komo said with absolute confidence, "then I'm sure it will happen. There's very little you don't accomplish when you set your mind to it." He offered her a tentative smile, his heart rate veering crazily when she smiled back. However, at the same time, he could not forget their last conversation either. While being in her presence filled him with unnamed joy; he didn't want to stay if her desire was for him to go. Considering that, Komo said, "It wasn't my intention to take up an inordinate amount of your time." He surveyed her with a lingering stare. "I just…wanted to see for myself that you were alright."
As he turned to walk away, however, Ursa found herself calling after him. He swept around to regard her expectantly. "You…you don't really have to go, do you?" she ventured timidly. "Can't you stay for a little while longer?"
He literally forgot to breathe in that instant but his heart warned him to remain calm, methodical. Therefore, he countered carefully, "Do I have reason to stay?"
Ursa was confused about many things and would likely remain confused for some time. But as she strode forward to cradle Komo's face in her hands and seal her mouth to his, she was never more certain of anything in her entire life. She wanted to kiss this man and, more importantly, she wanted him to stay with her. Always.
Much too soon for Komo's liking, however, she was breaking the delicious contact between them to ask, "Is that reason enough for you?"
"It might be," he hedged with the glimmer of an amused smile. "But you might want to kiss me again, just to be sure…"
Aang methodically packed gear onto Appa's back and tried not to think of his last conversation with Azula. Unfortunately, he continued to replay it over and over in his mind in a dizzying reel and not even Momo's endless chatter could drown it out. "I left my mark on you, Avatar," she'd told him, "And now you've marked me as well. Do you think that means something?"
He growled in remembrance. Her attempts to bait him had been obvious and clumsy and yet, he was still infuriated because it seemed, even after all the destruction she had caused, including to herself, Azula had not learned a single thing. He supposed the idealistic part of himself had hoped for some self-reflection on her part, some shred of remorse and shame. But then as Aang recalled the glimpse into her soul when they connected, he knew his hopes were naïve. Azula wasn't just twisted and damaged. She liked being that way and that was the most confusing part of all. Aang would never understand her.
Despite that acknowledgment, he was still trying to puzzle it out, mumbling to himself in frustration when Katara's voice sounded from below. "I didn't know you talked to yourself."
Aang speared her with a surprised and disproving glower from his perch atop Appa. "What are you doing out of bed?" he demanded, floating down to her.
"I have a broken shoulder, Aang," Katara replied dryly. "I'm not on my deathbed or anything."
"Still, maybe you shouldn't be moving around so much," Aang fussed. "Come sit down." He urged her around to Appa's tail and carefully settled her down in the bed of soft fur. The bison lowed softly, but otherwise ignored them in favor of munching his bale of hay. "There," Aang sighed in satisfaction. "Is that better?"
"Will you get a grip?" she laughed. "I'm the one who should be asking you what you're doing up in the middle of the night. You haven't been sleeping well at all lately." It wasn't an accusation so much as an observation. Still, his eyes skittered away as if it were the former.
It was difficult to explain his chaotic emotions to her. While he was elated that the conflict was finally over, Katara's injury had presented him with a blinding moment of clarity. If he hadn't known before how much she truly meant to him, then he did now. It was safe to say he'd be lost without her, physically, emotionally and spiritually. The realization of such an awesome attachment was difficult to accept and understand. In fact, it was downright terrifying. Now Aang understood completely why Katara had felt so overwhelmed before. He was feeling a little overwhelmed too.
"What are you thinking?" Katara whispered, watching the flurry of intense emotions chase their way across his face.
Aang sank down beside her. "I was just thinking how close I came to losing you," he answered honestly. "I don't know if I could have handled it."
She quieted him with a mild "shh." "Don't say that."
"It's true," Aang insisted in a hushed tone, staring down at his hands. "You're everything to me, Katara. If I ever lost you…I don't know…"
"I know. You could have handled it," Katara replied with absolute confidence. "And you would have." When he still looked uncertain at that, she reached over to place a hand on his shoulder. "One of the things I admire most about you is your commitment to your duty and your beliefs, Aang. You've always done what needed to be done, how it needed to be done, even when it hurt and even when you had to stand alone."
Katara thought back to how he'd stood his ground about Ozai and his determination not to compromise himself by killing Ozai. She had questioned his resolve then. She had been like everyone else in thinking he was being too idealistic. And she, like everyone else, had been wrong. Aang had defeated Ozai on his own terms. He had believed in himself when no one else had. The young man beside her had the courage of his convictions and he stood by them steadfastly. Katara had promised herself after Ozai fell that she would never doubt Aang again.
"You are the strongest person I know," she began expressively. "I'm not talking about just in the bending arts. You're strong about your beliefs, too. I know that you can accomplish anything you set your mind to, Aang, and I don't ever doubt that you'll do the right thing. You always have."
"You really believe that?" Aang asked, wondering why he could be so unsure of himself when Katara didn't seem to have a doubt at all.
"I really do."
"I don't know, Katara," Aang sighed. "Sometimes I feel like my love for you is my greatest weakness…and my greatest strength."
Katara cupped his cheek. "I feel exactly the same way about you," she whispered. "It's scary and wonderful all at the same time."
"So then we'll be scared together, okay?" she said with a tender smile. "And we'll work it out together, just like we always have."
He expelled a shuddering sigh of relief and turned a fleeting kiss against her palm, feeling infinitely better. "Okay, you've helped me," he said, gently taking hold of her uninjured arm to assist her to her feet before ushering her towards the exit. "Thank you. Now you can go back to bed."
"Wait a minute. Not so fast…" Katara protested.
"What?" Aang half laughed, half groaned.
"Toph said you were planning to take her back home in the morning…" she began.
Aang nodded. "Yeah, that's true," he said. "I thought she could use some more time with her family. She gave me a hard time about it, but I can be persuasive when I want to be."
"Sure, that's you all right…Mr. Persuasive," Katara drawled with an indulgent smile, knowing full well that Aang wouldn't have been able to convince Toph of anything unless she was already fully on board with the plan. Rather than shattering his happy delusion, however, which she found ridiculously sweet, Katara cut to the chase of her argument. "Actually, I think taking Toph back home to spend more time with her parents is a great idea! That's why I'm coming with you."
"Oh no, you can't do that," Aang argued firmly. "I thought you wanted to go back home, Katara. You're still recovering from your injury and I'm not even sure how long I'll be gone this time. I think I might have to stay in the Earth Kingdom on Avatar related business so I—,"
He never finished the sentence because Katara was stifling the stream of words with her lips. At first, he was too surprised by her bold move to react, but Aang quickly recovered and was soon framing her face in his hands and returning her fervid kiss with equal enthusiasm. They broke apart minutes later, their breath coming in deep, laughing pants, their gazes fused.
"Wow. What was that for?" Aang asked dreamily. It was clear from the besotted expression on his face, however, that he was not complaining at all.
"I love you," Katara said simply. "I'm not afraid to feel it and I'm not afraid to say it. I want to be with you, Aang, wherever you go, whatever you do…from this moment on."
She stymied his flow of words yet again with an adamant, "shush," before pressing her mouth to his once more. This time Aang was prepared for her and he kissed her back without restraint, laughing into her mouth. "What's so funny?" she grumbled a moment later, pouting slightly over his reaction.
Aang soothed her wounded pride with another kiss. "I was just going to say," he clarified with a smile, "that I love you too."
They met the next morning near the fountain in the center of the pavilion to say goodbye. Mai was still weak and pale from her injury and had to lean on Zuko for support, but she was smiling. In fact, they were all smiling. The sun shined bright in the mid-morning sky, which was a crisp cerulean blue and completely cloudless. It seemed the perfect day to bid farewell, a day made for laughter and smiles rather than gloom and tears.
"Well, I guess this is it," Sokka announced after they had converged together for their traditional group hug. "Time to go our separate ways again."
"But you'll be back, right?" Zuko prompted hopefully.
Aside from the time they had spent dealing with Azula's mayhem and the craziness afterwards, they hadn't really had the opportunity to kick back and enjoy themselves. It seemed to Zuko that they had only just arrived and now, all too soon, they were leaving again. He hated that.
Reading his friend's expression, Sokka clapped him on the back. "Cheer up, Zuko!" he said. "Suki and I should be back here in time to pitch in with the palace work. We're going to spend a few days at the South Pole with my family before heading back to Kyoshi, but that shouldn't keep us away too long."
Zuko looked over at Aang. "What about you? Will you be back soon?"
"I don't know how long Earth Kingdom business is going to keep me away," Aang replied with a pensive frown. "I'll probably be tied up for few months, but Katara, Toph and I will definitely be back in time for the wedding. You know we wouldn't miss that, Zuko."
"You'd better not," Mai warned dryly. "There would be no end to his angsting otherwise and then…I'd have to come looking for you." Though she meant to sound annoyed, the pure look of love she gave Zuko belied her tone of voice completely.
As everyone laughed over Zuko's affronted expression, he sputtered his mock disapproval. "I'd just like to interrupt your laughter at my expense to clarify…I don't angst," he stressed, pouting. "I reflect."
"Sure you do," Katara teased him, spurring yet another round of laughter.
"Well, maybe you won't be 'reflecting' about Aang," Toph ribbed him mercilessly, "but I'm sure your mom's new boyfriend will give you plenty to reflect about."
She nodded over to where Komo and Ursa stood together near the front of the house, arm and arm and kissing tenderly like the new lovers they were. Zuko might have visibly gagged were it not for his uncle choosing that exact moment to serve tea to Ursa and that man. "Thank goodness for Uncle Iroh," he thought in relief, while aiming a death glare at his mother's suitor.
"Awww," Sokka cooed. "Looks like Zuko has a new daddy."
"He is not my daddy, Sokka!" Zuko blazed predictably, prompting Toph's self-satisfied, "Score!"
Zuko hadn't yet made up his mind about his mother's boyfriend, though there was no denying that the firebender made her happy. It was only that Zuko had just gotten his mother back and he wasn't exactly eager to share her with someone else, especially when that someone was stealing attention away from him. He scowled over the thought.
"You guys leave him alone," Katara scolded, valiantly biting back a smile. "You know how sensitive he gets about his mommy." Zuko leveled her with a penetrating glare that promised retribution. "Well, you do!" she cried defensively.
"Chill, Zuko," Aang advised in his usual, laid back manner. "Komo's a good guy and he makes your mom smile. Give him a chance."
"Okay, I'll try," Zuko grumbled without much enthusiasm. And because he could sense the lecture coming from Aang even before the younger boy opened his mouth, Zuko smoothly changed the subject. "You guys should probably get going while the weather's still good." Conversely, he regretted the words almost the second they left his mouth because the last thing he wanted was for them to leave.
Knowing their time together was drawing to a close, the girls congregated around Mai while Sokka thanked Zuko yet again for letting him borrow one of the war balloons. "You saved Aang from having to make two trips," he said.
"I did it for Appa," Zuko deadpanned, but it was easy to spot the sentimental glint in his eyes.
Meanwhile, Suki, Katara and Toph carefully enfolded Mai in another group hug. "Take care of yourself," Suki murmured affectionately.
"Be sure to kick Zuko's butt often. He needs it," Toph advised.
"And get plenty of rest," Katara clucked in characteristic motherly fashion. "Don't do too much. Remember, you're still healing."
"I will," Mai promised, still a bit flustered over their open display of affection. "Suki, please give my love to Ty Lee when you see her again."
She and Zuko turned together to observe the group as they went off to their separate modes of transportation and prepared themselves for the journey. As Hawky and Momo engaged in yet another round of clawing, screeching and biting, Aang scooped Katara into his arms and hopped nimbly onto Appa's back to deposit her in the saddle. Toph's intention to do likewise, however, was halted when Sokka snagged hold of her sleeve.
"You remember what we talked about, right?" he asked in a low tone, taking advantage of Aang's distraction with breaking up Momo and Hawky's fight to address his concerns.
"We're clear, Sokka," Toph assured him. "I will watch them both like a hawk. Not literally, of course, but… I'll make sure everything stays cool."
"No alone time, Toph," Sokka specified meaningfully. "None! If they go for a walk, you go with them."
"I got it already," Toph huffed.
"Please tell me you're not asking Toph to spy on your sister," Suki groaned, having overheard part of their conversation as she loaded the last of their belongings onto the balloon.
"Noo, I'm not, Madame Eavesdropper," Sokka denied in a superior tone. However, before Suki could commend him and apologize for jumping to conclusions, he added, "I'm asking her to spy on Aang!"
Suki regarded him with a blank stare. "You're pathetic."
"Aang and Katara are going to be traveling through the Earth Kingdom for the next few months without a chaperone, in other words, me," Sokka explained. "I'm being proactive."
"You're being silly," Suki countered glibly.
"I wouldn't expect you to understand the delicate dynamic between an older brother and his little sister," Sokka dismissed. "I'm acting in her best interests."
"Oh, you mean the overbearing, controlling, disrespecting her right to privacy dynamic?" Suki ventured dryly. "I think I understand that just fine."
Sokka scowled at her. "Oh, just get in the balloon, woman!" Suki made a dangerous face at him that had Sokka meekly and wisely adding, "Please."
Five minutes later they were all ready for departure. Aang airbended Appa's reins into his hands and directed one last look down at Zuko, his comrade in arms, his friend, his brother. The moment seemed strangely bittersweet. Aang had spent the better part of a year running from the young man below him and now…he dreaded putting distance between them.
"Goodbye, Firelord Zuko," he said with a wistful smile.
Zuko smiled in return, the same sense of nostalgia pulling at him. "Goodbye, Avatar Aang," he murmured, linking his arm around Mai's waist and watching with her until both Appa and Sokka's balloon disappeared into the gleaming, golden rays of the sun.
imotel, you feel my pain. Bless you, lol.
arizony, no, thank you for reading. I seriously appreciate it.
tege, looks like Connor Kent might start a trend, lol. I may need to get the soundtrack after all.
Shinobi Bender, you have to know I'm all choked up right now. The finale was awesomesauce on a bun. So for you to make that comparison…sniffle. Oh wow…blech, emotion.
Quathis, that was one of the things my beta went over and over again with me. We knew the good guys were going to prevail, but then she kept challenging me to do it in a way that was spectacular. I determined, after multiple rewrites, that I couldn't do it and you got what you read today, lol.
EvilNor, I'm pretty sure he would have stopped too. You're right. Zuko doesn't truly hate his sister. But I do think he might have come close to doing it and even that would have probably been too much for him. It's not something I explored but I can imagine that Zuko has fears there are traces of his father in him somewhere. Becoming anything remotely close to Ozai is probably Zuko's worst nightmare. I think the man difference between Zuko and Azula is that, while they both have a dark center, Azula embraces that part of herself and Zuko shuns his. That is what makes them intrinsically different.
As for the spiritbending thing…(see above comment, lol)
JacktheMonkeyxo, I'm glad to hear that. I worked really hard.
Brendan Aurabolt, I was hoping so. The whole thing with Deshi was meant to foreshadow Azula's unbending.
Satyuros, I guess I was just saving all that you mentioned for the epilogue, lol. Hopefully, I summed it up well for you.