"My name was Roku and I was to be the Avatar."
Roku stared at the bowed heads of the Fire Sages. Surely, surely they were joking. There was no way that he could be the Avatar, not Roku, the third son of a half-rate nobleman lucky enough to befriend Prince Sozin at the Academy. Not him, a mediocre firebender trained by a so-so teacher. "You're joking," he said at last, to the prostrate crowd, to the idiot sages, but mostly to Sozin who needed this him-not-being-the-Avatar (and Roku wasn't!) more than he did himself.
But the sages said nothing.
Do you doubt our truth, youngling? The wind whispered.
And suddenly, Roku knew that this was not a joke, even as his body shook like autumn leaves in a winter tempest, as his golden-summer eyes sought out the moon-pale face of his best and dearest friend who wouldn't meet his. He took a step backward, shaking his head, protesting the truth and wishing the world were a lie, and he took another step—away from the world—and another and another until he turned around and bolted.
Roku was not the Avatar, no matter what the wind and earth and sea and flame searing inside his heart told him. Roku would never be the Avatar.
"I was told to say goodbye, to pack my bags and prepare for becoming the Avatar. I was nowhere near ready."
"I want you to have this," Sozin said, palm outstretched and offering the gilded headpiece.
Roku's eyes widened, and flickered between Sozin and the crown. "But-but it's a royal artifact only meant to be given away to your firstborn."
The older boy grinned. "All the more reason for you to come home, Roku." Sozin thrust the crown at Roku. "Besides, it's meant for the heir of the Fire Nation. And," Sozin looked down, "I just…want you to have it."
"Sozin, are you alright?" Roku focused on his friend who hadn't been anywhere near the same since the sages declared…since their birthday.
Lackluster pyrite eyes meant his for the briefest of moment, before looking away. "No."
There were no more questions over whether or not Sozin could give away the headpieace. Roku would wear it proudly for the rest of his days.
"I first sailed south and trained under the airbending masters of the Southern Air Temple."
Airbending was different than firebending, Roku learned. Who were they to say that a firebender didn't know how to breathe properly? But he was young, too, and learned quickly, like a bird learning to fly for the first time.
He had also gained a new friend through one too many crash landings, misfired pranks, and shared punishment. Roku had befriended Sozin much the same way.
Roku pulled the pie out of the oven. "Now the secret, young Gyatso, is in the gooey center."
The airbender smiled wickedly. Roku smiled back. The masters would never know what, er, who had hit them.
"I made many friends in my travels and learned many things. But the most difficult lesson of all I learned in the North Pole, under my waterbending master, Parnook."
Red. He had grown up with the color red. He had worn deep scarlets, rich crimsons, deep carmines intermixed with sunshine gold and summer scented orange. He had at one point or other, in an attempt to best Sozin at something, bent all the shades of red.
Or so Roku had thought.
But there was something cold about blood frozen in the snow. Perhaps it was the bodies or the faces of corpses, of children too young to die.
"Master Parnook, what, what is this?"
Arctic silence reigned for what must have been a thousand lifetimes before Master Parnook answered, his own eyes fixated not on the dead Water Tribesman but on the less fortunate enemy, "This is war, Roku. Don't forget it."
"I only wish I knew."
"Of all my masters, Sud was perhaps the one I looked up to the most. He was uncompromising, tough, disciplined—and reminded me of home."
Roku let out a long sigh as he cradled the green cup of tea in his hands. Tea, while not native to the Fire Nation, was second only to the famous Blue Snapper Wine brewed in the south. And to think, a person could get five pounds of even the rare White Dragon leaf for less than fifty copper heads in the Earth Kingdom.
"You could have at least brought a man's drink," Sud complained. "Then I could enjoy my bottle of whiskey and you could drink that leaf juice of yours." The earth bender made face as he sipped the tea. "You didn't even bring sugar!"
Roku hid a grin. "And ruin the taste of good tea?"
"No taste at all, that's what I say." Sud sighed. "But I suppose you passed my test, little Avatar, and deserve to drink whatever you desire—although, whiskey would fit the occasion better." Sud set his cup down and stood. "I suppose that this is goodbye, young Avatar."
"I suppose it is."
The sun drifted lower in the sky, making shadow mountains spread across the land.
Sud looked Roku straight in the eye. "With things the way they are now…we might not see each other again." He paused. "Promise me that you won't come looking for me?"
"Don't do anything stupid, master."
And so one crotchety earchbender and one avatar said goodbye, knowing they would never see the other again.
"And so I was the Avatar, master of all four elements, the great balance between the Four Nations, and diplomat between the Spirits and the living…"
"And you are my brother in everything but blood, Roku," Sozin said, releasing his friend from the bear hug. "You need never worry about bowing before me, or my children, or my children's children." A mischievous glint entered his eyes. "Although, perhaps at some point we should arrange a marriage between them, hmm?"
"It's good to see you too, Sozin," Roku laughed, studying his friend. How different Sozin was from the boy Roku left all those years ago. "I've missed you." Roku reached for the crown.
"No, Roku," Sozin said. "I told you before, didn't I? It's yours."
"It's still a royal artifact."
"Which is why we must plan the marriage of our children," Sozin motioned toward one of the anterior rooms.
"Neither of us are even engaged!"
"And soon married to one of the most singularly beautiful women in the Fire Nation, Ta Min, who wasn't exactly pleased at the arranged marriage between our not even conceived daughter and the unconceived son of Sozin but said nothing against it. And it was there, at my wedding, that I faced my first true test as the Avatar."
"You can't do this, Sozin! The Four Nations were meant to be just that—four!"
"But think of it, Roku, if there was one nation, if everyone were united, there would be no war."
Roku shook his head. "No wrong can make a right, old friend. I don't want to hear about this again."
"If the Four Nations could live in harmony as One Nation, there would be no war, no more children slaughtered, no villages burned, no more bloodshed…"
Roku could smell the infection even before he entered the antechamber, had known of the wound long before he had mustered the courage to come, but knowing and seeing Sozin on his deathbed were two entirely different matters.
Roku knelt before his friend's bedside. "It is I, Firelord. I have come as you requested."
Sozin weakly waved a hand. "Haven't I…told you…to dispense with…formalities?"
"It is customary for a citizen of the Fire Nation to treat his Firelord with due respect."
Sozin let out a dry chuckle, "I did say that…didn't I? I…apologize. I…wasn't…thinking." He turned his head toward Roku. "Roku, before I die…I have…one final…request of you." A smile. "And no, I-I don't want that stupid headpiece back so don't…don't even think about it."
"Anything, old friend."
"…and no more dead friends."
Roku had known what Sozin would ask, had known since the day Sozin first offered him the trapping of crown prince. And he had known he would accept Sozin's request as he had accepted his offer back when they were children and ignorant of the cost of war.
The wind whispered its displeasure, the earth grumbled, the sea stormed, but they had chosen him to be the Avatar and should have known long ago that this was his destiny. His calling. His duty. Sozin had been his prince, his Firelord, his closest and dearest friend...and on his deathbed, he had not asked Roku to do something he could not do.
"My name is Firelord Roku and there will be no more war."