Together Again

Disclaimer

Avatar: The Last Airbender is produced and distributed by Nickelodeon TV. This is a non-profit work of fanfiction for free distribution through the world-wide web. No infringement of copyright or trademark is intended. No claim of ownership is made or implied.

Author's Notes

This is AU from the end of Book 2 onwards. Little or nothing of the canon Season 3 will be referenced in this story.

Censor:K+ - Not for the little ones, but nothing too bad

Together Again

"Gran-gran…! Gran-gran…!"

The weeping female voice wormed its way into the old woman's mind. Despite her resolute desire to remain asleep, it was only too clear that she would have to face consciousness again. Why was it that people felt that showing sympathy for someone meant keeping them awake? A part of her wanted to lash out at the owner of the voice. After all, in her youth, Azula, daughter of Lord Ozai of the Fire Nation, had a very vicious and fatal temper to unleash on people who annoyed her. However, she was willing to offer forgiveness right now.

Firstly, and most importantly, the tearful voice was her favourite granddaughter. If one went around incinerating kin on the basis that they won't let you sleep, it would give you a completely exaggerated reputation, one of a sort that Azula had long ago decided that she didn't want to have.

Secondly… well, Azula could forgive Jia for her distress. After all, Azula was dying.

It was strange that this thought didn't upset Azula in the slightest. In her youth she was a feared warrior in the minds of friend and foe alike and why does a warrior fight if not to avoid death? However… Well, at a hundred and eight years old, Azula was more than willing to accept that her time had come. She had no regrets. Indeed, she had a lot to be grateful for; hers was a life that, despite its harsh early years, was ultimately lived to the full and had been blessed with great happiness. Just as a bonus, she was the last. Of all of them, she had lasted the longest and seen the most years. She was the last of the Gaang.

With the greatest effort, Azula opened her eyes and looked at Jia. Despite being in her late 50s, her granddaughter had not lost her jet-black hair yet (how annoying – Azula's own hair, now braided and hung over her shoulder onto her chest had gone stringy and white three decades ago). Although clouded by tears, Jia's defiantly gold Fire Nation eyes, contrasting with her blue-and-white Water Tribe clothes, were full of the strength that Azula had sought to inculcate in all her children and their children. No surprise there for anyone who had known her at any point in her life.

Azula looked around her. Of course, her final home was hardly one that she would have expected in those early years. There was no gold-adorned palace bed chamber in Hong Jing, the capital of the Fire Nation. Instead, she was in a bedroom of the Chieftain's Hall in the capital of the Southern Water Tribe. Instead of lying on a bed covered with fire red silk, she was under warm Polar Bear-Platypus furs. This was entirely fitting for she had not been the Fire Lady who ruled over the entire world as she had dreamed as a teenager. No, she was the much-revered widow of one of the greatest leaders that the Water Tribes had ever known.

At the bottom of her bed, her tired, weakening eyes noted two figures, one in red and one in blue. Although they were in the shadows and difficult to see, she knew who they were. Her great-nephew, the current Fire Lord, and her grandson, the current Chieftain of the Southern Water Tribes.

Her eyes might not be so good anymore (wouldn't Toph laugh?) but her ears were just fine, thank you. "Qiang, she may be of your nation's royal blood, but she is our Dowager Chieftainess. There is no question of her being buried anywhere but here."

Qiang sighed, wondering again exactly who had inherited the more Fire Nation blood of the two of them. "I am not disputing that Tao, but she is still of the line of Sozin. Our people will expect something of her to come home."

"That is understood. Perhaps we could return her armour? Possibly her wedding dress or her journals?"

Marvellous, Azula thought sourly. I'm not even dead yet and they are already squabbling over my body like Vulture-Cats. She would have liked to have given both impertinent men hotfoot to remember to show an old lady respect but in the last few years her declining health had robbed her of all but a tiny fraction of her fire-bending abilities. Still, let the boys engage in their politicking; it was their job after all. She was more than a little proud of the fine leaders that had sprung from the families she and Zuko had made for themselves.

"Well, you are kind of famous," a familiar, teasing and oh-so-missed voice added. "Everyone would want something with which to remember you. I guess it makes up for not being famous themselves… or something."

Great. She was going senile. Now her inner voice had decided to sound like her late husband. Sokka, how I miss you!

Yeah, that was the biggest joke of all. She had ended up with Boomerang Boy, the token Mundane of the Gaang, the walking comic relief. When she had first reluctantly thrown in her lot with the Avatar, she could not understand why a band of such powerful Benders would tolerate his presence, let alone treat him as an equal. But as that final, terrible two-year struggle against Ozai gathered pace, she began to see that worth was not always as obvious as her insane sire had taught her.

Sokka was strong despite his lack of elemental abilities. He could hold his own in a fight with his sister, with Toph, with Zuko, with the Avatar, even with Azula herself. He had an inner strength that gave him immense courage. He was also usually The Man With The Plan; even Uncle Iroh deferred to the boy's great tactical sense. He was also the last to accept Azula as anything more than an ally-of-convenience. His thoughtful, sober analysis of Azula's character both infuriated and fascinated the fire-bender woman and his trust, when given, left her feeling humbled and valued in a way that she had never truly known except from her late mother.

Yeah, so he was a goofball. However, like his brother-in-all-but-blood Aang, it was obvious that he only did it to relieve tension. When it mattered, he was a precision instrument.

Of all her allies and friends, Sokka was the only one who had never feared Azula. He had respected her skills and power. He had mistrusted her motives. However, he had never feared her. That lack of fear meant that he and he alone was able to reach into her soul and help her rediscover the humanity that Ozai had so nearly succeeded in burning out of her forever. He had taken her fragile heart, treasured it, protected it and nurtured it for sixty long, joyful years.

Agni, I miss him. Why did you take him away from me? Was it my punishment for my many sins? No one could doubt that it was a death worthy of the greatest Chieftain in the history of any of the Water Tribes. Despite being in his 70s, Sokka had led a Grand Coalition navy against a powerful pirate group operating in the western coastal waters of the Earth Kingdom. The enemy was crushed but Sokka was hit by a completely random arrow in the side. He actually made it home, despite his injury. Azula considered it one of her greatest blessings that she had been able to kiss him one more time before his end.

"It was one of my greatest blessings too, Golden-eyes." Sokka's voice again. Well, in her condition, it was only fitting that she should hear the dead.

There were so many things in Azula's long life for her to remember and for which to thank the Spirits. She had been mother to three beautiful children who all grew up strong, brave and loved. She had become a counsellor and peer to three generations of world leaders. She had seen her once-scorned brother Zuko become the greatest Fire Lord of history, re-uniting his people and forging a peaceful unity of nations of a strength and lasting power that Sozin's attempted world conquest could only have dreamed to emulate.

Zuko! Azula managed a weak laugh as she thought of her beloved 'baby brother', Zuzu. Who would have imagined that he had absorbed so much of Iroh's and Ursa's wisdom? He was strong when needed, wise always and compassionate when required. He had been a great Fire Lord, a military and a civil leader without compare. Everything the people of this world had now they owed to his vision. To think that Azula had once scorned him as weak! Well, he had shown her!

Zuko had always been his own man, of course. Ozai had called it 'weakness' and Azula, in her youthful naiveté, had believed him. It had taken his stunning triple-cross at Ba Sing Se, freeing Iroh from captivity and leaving her vice-regency of the Earth Kingdom in tatters, to teach her that there was more to strength than Ozai's narrow world-view would allow.

Another smile touched Azula's age-chapped lips. Yes, Zuko had always gone his own way in all the things that he did, from war to politics to love. Of all the Gaang, only Azula had realised the significance of Zuko and Toph's continual banter over meals and long walks in the evenings. She had been the only one to see it coming when, after the deflection of Sozin's Comet, Zuko presented Toph with an Earth Kingdom betrothal armband, forged from white gold in his own fire.

Toph, for all she had lacked physical sight, had seen the real Zuko from the start. Even her teasing nickname of 'Princess Serious' had shown that she could see the nobility of the man. She had once told Azula that, if beauty was an attribute of the heart, it was something that Zuko possessed in abundance. Zuko, in turn, had seen past Toph's sarcastic, tough façade to the vulnerable young woman within; someone with the understanding of both strength and weakness needed to help him rebuild the Fire Nation.

Azula remembered that day after the deflection of the comet as if it were yesterday. By some miracle that no one ever understood and no one wished to question, the effect of Toph, Katara and Azula channelling their powers through Aang as he was in the full grip of the Avatar State had given Toph the sight that she had been born without. The nearly-delirious girl had been led through the Free Alliance Army camp by Katara and Azula until she saw Zuko, Sokka and Aang conferring by a map table. Toph had shaken off her friends' hands and walked up to the boys. She grabbed Zuko and spun him around. "Hey, Prince Serious." (she had taken to calling him 'Prince' after his return from Ba Sing Se). She had reached up and ran her hands over Zuko's face and through his untidy hair. "You are as beautiful outside as you are inside, Zuko" she had then given him a kiss that made every fire for a mile around burn a little hotter.

She missed them all. She really did. Somehow, being the last didn't really make up for being so alone.

"Hey, you never lose your friends so long as you remember them," Sokka again. The ghosts were obviously crowding close tonight.

She missed Mei and Ty Lee, her first and truest friends. When Ozai had decided to kill them to punish Azula for letting Iroh (and, at the same time, the Earth Kingdom) slip through her fingers, he had shown his usual terrible understanding of his victims' weaknesses. Although Azula had suppressed it, her two lieutenants were her friends and their deaths would have been a more terrible punishment than she would have previously understood. It was a good thing that her battle-trained reflexes, and the questions that Iroh and Zuko had placed in her heart, had allowed her to deflect those terrible blasts of blue flame in time.

She missed Aang and Katara – The little boy with eyes that were too old for him to have so few years and the graceful water-bender whose heart and strength saw her through war and peace as one of the greatest healers and most compassionate souls she had ever met. Of course, those who only knew the gentle and caring Mistress Healer Katara did not know the fierce water-bender who had defeated and then nearly drowned Mei during their last battle on opposite sides. Her sister-in-law was as fierce a warrior as any in their little band.

And the Avatar… Who could forget him?

With a start, Azula realised that, along with the two quietly bickering rulers and her weeping granddaughter, there were others in the room with her. Her grandson's attendants and her great-granddaughter Nuo were expected. The bald man in a yellow-and-orange Air Monk's habit was not.

For a few frozen seconds, Azula strained her eyes to see the face of the man with the blue arrow tattoos uttering quiet prayers to the Spirits. Then she remembered that Aang was gone. This was his son, Shen-Ru, who had adopted the rule and faith of his father's long-extinct monastic order and was slowly returning it to life as the Air Nomad nation re-emerged from the shadows of near-genocide.

The Avatar who had deflected Sozin's comet, defeated Ozai (and a dozen would-be warlords since) and helped Zuko negotiate the global peace that endured to this day had died fifteen years ago. His had been a strange death; one of choice rather than circumstance, for his powers were still strong, his mind was intact and his senses still acute. Azula knew this as she had been there. Katara had died only a few minutes previously. Aang had finished his prayers, placed a final kiss on his wife's forehead and had bid farewell to his gathered children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He then climbed into the bed next to Katara and, with that serene smile that she knew so well, he had simply breathed his last. He thus followed his wife into the next life as willingly and uncomplainingly as she had followed him from one corner of the globe to another in his never-ending quest for peace and justice.

The current Avatar was a girl of the Earth Kingdom, Azula's sources had told her. She didn't know the girl and, frankly, she was glad. In her heart, Aang would always be The Avatar. Whoever ended up with his spirit after he was gone would only ever be a poor shadow of the man who could switch from being a one-man-army to a gentle comforter and wise counsellor without breaking his stride.

The end was now near at hand. After Katara and Aang's deaths, Azula had returned from the Southern Air Temple to the South Pole, knowing in her heart that she would never leave it again. At ninety-three years old, she knew that her strength could not much longer avail her if Katara's vitality had been unable to avail her.

Soon, the twinges of arthritis that she had kept at bay by strength of will had begun to stiffen her joints. Her fire-bending powers faded and the days grew colder, no matter how well she wrapped herself in the thick furs worn by her adopted people. Chills that once would have been mere annoyances left her feverish and incapacitated. Soon, she had found herself bedridden, her strength fading. In these last few months she had been unable to do anything for herself, depending on Jia and Nuo for everything, unable without careful help from her two kinswomen to even swallow the thin, bland fish broth that was all she was still able to stomach.

Now, all she could do is lie there as what she knew were her last minutes ticked by. Jia's cries were becoming quieter and more heart-breaking with every passing moment. She longed to stroke her Little Beauty's hair one more time and reassure her of her love, but her body ached so and she was so tired. She longed for the pain to stop and for the balm of sleep.

Those cracked lips opened and, somehow, Azula was able to speak, although her voice was little more than a parched whisper. "Jia… Be strong. You are a woman of the Water Tribes… But you are also a fire-bender of the line of Sozin. Never forget who you are… and honour me."

"I will Gran-gran." Jia made a valiant attempt to suck down her sobs and will away her tears but it was a futile effort.

"Come on, Azula! She loves you! What is she supposed to do, dance a jig?" Thank you, husband.

Despite everything, Azula was happy. Yes, she had known love, had known peace and had experienced wonders and miracles that most could not even dream of. As her body grew colder and the shadows darkened, reducing even her beloved and loyal granddaughter to grey shadows, she could only thank Agni, Yui and all the Spirits for the blessings she had experienced.

Azula had avoided the damnation of continuing the pathway that her sire had laid out for her. She had found a future and destiny that had been a source of true joy and she had seen both her nation and all the others take their first strides into a new golden age in which she and her friends would doubtless be remembered by history with honour.

She had avoided much grief. Despite her heartbreak at Sokka's death, she had kept her health and her senses until this last illness had claimed her. She had been lucky enough to keep her wits. She thanked anyone who might listen that she had not suffered the awful, lingering dementia that stripped poor Mei of first her memory and, ultimately, her sanity in her last decade. She had avoided many pains and could go her way in peace.

As the world faded into shadowy greys, an odd thought occurred to Azula. She even still had her teeth! She had avoided becoming a toothless crone like so many others of similar antiquity!

"Heh! How could you not keep 'em Golden-eyes? You ate the same healthy diet as me!"

Okay, now that did it, as far as Azula was concerned. There is no way that she could have an inner voice that so sounded like Sokka and even reflect his often-trivial attitude towards all things. Azula's head snapped to the right and noted that, yes, her so-called 'better half' was leaning casually against the wall by her bed with his usual smarmy smirk on his face. She didn't think it even slightly odd that her (startlingly young-looking) husband was completely clear to her sight as the rest of the world finally faded into darkness and shadows.

Azula swung her legs out of the bed and leapt to her feet. All she cared about was that Sokka was here! She threw herself at her husband, her black hair streaming out behind her, and hugged him with all her renewed strength. "Beloved! You came!"

And as she lunged for her husband, ignored and forgotten behind her, an old woman's body breathed its last and a loyal, loving granddaughter's voice rose in one last keen of grief and loss.

"Hey, Firebug, were you expecting us to forget you?" Toph was grinning impudently, her green eyes shining with humour and happiness as she leant back against Zuko's chest. Toph and Zuko as they were during the golden years of their adulthood, when their children were young and the world was at their feet.

"Indeed not; we have been waiting for you, Azula." Azula looked at an ageless Aang, dressed in his Monk's ceremonial finery and wearing that serene, wise, all-knowing smile that Azula, Toph and Katara frequently all longed to scratch off of his face during times of crisis. Katara stood at her husband's side. The dark-skinned woman smiled at her sister in welcome, something that Azula sometimes feared she would never receive and something that spoke volumes that no voice could do. Then, as if to confirm her identity, one of those sapphire eyes closed in a mischievous wink.

"We would never have left you behind, Azi," Zuko added, his deep voice strong and resolute as always.

Suddenly two arms looped through Azula's elbows from behind. The fire-bender's head snapped from side to side and she saw that Mei and Ty Lee had grabbed her from either side. "Come on, Azula, we're missing a party!" Ty Lee laughed.

Mei's more composed smile assured Azula that 'party' was one of the excitable former acrobat's usual exaggerations. Nonetheless, the presence of all her old friends told Azula that it wasn't an event to miss.

Sokka firmly detached Azula's childhood friends from his wife and tucked her in against her side – how she loved fitting into the crook of his arm – and led her towards the others. "Okay, beautiful, there is a lot to do. My mother is waiting to meet you… so are Aang's folks… Monk Gyatso… your mother too…!"

If allowed to, Sokka would have probably listed everyone waiting to meet Azula. She cut him off before he made himself look too silly. "Okay, I get the message. I've never missed an important event before and don't intend to start." She smoothed down her red-and-black dress, made sure that her blue betrothal choker was on straight, linked arms with her husband and joined her friends walking into a wonderful light.

Beyond the light… Well, things were far more real than anything could have prepared her for. However, through it all, she had her friends. The Gaang were together again. This time, it was for eternity.

Endnote

Okay, just some concluding notes.

Firstly – I am no A:TLA shipper and don't care who supports which pairings and which pairings are more likely and/or cooler. You can love or hate the futures that I gave the characters; frankly, I don't care. This is simply a story that has been crawling around in my head for a while. When a Plot Bunny bites, you must react.

Secondly – This is my first Avatar story. I do not know if I have missed anything important – I have seen maybe a half-dozen episodes of late Season One and must base everything else on what I can deduce from fanfictions. With this in mind, I apologise if characters that I have never seen, like Toph and Azula, are completely OOC.

Finally… You may have noticed, but there is a big post-Season Two back story hiding behind this tale. I'm not sure if I have it in me to tell this alternate story of how the Comet was deflected, how Ozai fell and how the peace was won. However, I might put together a series of drabbles of major events some time in the future.

Translation of Names

Jia – From the Chinese "Beautiful". It sounds like the sort of name a doting mother would give her pretty daughter

Hong Jing – "Great Capital"; C'mon, what did you think the Fire Nation would name their capital city?

Qiang – "Strong"

Tao – "Great Wave"

Nuo – "Graceful"

Shen-Ru – "Deep Scholar"