Katara eases back from Zuko's lips and allows her brow to furrow slightly, picking up an old train of thought, and she delicately touches the unscarred left side of his face. "Zuko…what happened to your scar? Why is it gone? Did you get it healed in my absence?" she concludes with a bit more humor.
He shakes his head, although he raises his own hand to keep hers against his cheek. "No, this is just because we're in the Spirit World. Apparently bodily injuries don't affect your soul, so when you're just your soul…" He trails off with a shrug. "It'll be back once we return to the real world, though."
She keeps tracing the smooth contours with her thumb, her expression somewhat scrutinizing. At length she admits, "You know, this is going to sound extremely weird, but I think I kinda…miss it."
He pulls her into an unexpected hug and mumbles into the crook of her neck, "No…I like how that sounds."
When they separate this time, it is to see Kuruk and Ummi approaching them. The Fire royalty gets to their feet just in time for Ummi to collect Katara's hands in an excited grip.
"We are free!" she exclaims, tears of joy still wet on her cheeks. "And it's all because of you, Katara!"
"Oh, well, not really," the waterbender dismisses. "We all had to work together to get out of that bind."
Ummi nods, already moving on to bigger and better things, and she grasps Kuruk's hand tightly. "We're finally going to be wed! Isn't that just wonderful?"
"Better late than never," Kuruk puts in, beaming as he draws his wife-to-be back into his side. "I am deeply indebted to you, all of you, for your help," he adds, glancing around at the benders.
"No problemo, Bearhat," Toph states with a grin.
Aang bows with a little more class. "It was an honor to help one of my former lives," he intones. "I am simply glad we were able to set things right and defeat Koh."
The earthbender glances around. "Yeah, whatever happened to Ugly-Scorpion-Bottom? He kinda lit up like…er, like one of those firecracker things, right, and then more or less vanished from all sight."
As Toph is saying this, Katara regards her with a confused expression. Leaning in close to Zuko, she asks in a whisper, "Why is she talking about this like she's actually seen it?"
Zuko lifts his eyebrows, both his eyebrows, in a meaningful way. "You remember what I said about bodily injuries not applying here…?"
The waterbender blinks in astonishment. "She can see?"
Her husband nods. "And I think she'd like to see you. She already poked Aang and me all over; it's high time it was your turn."
Katara looks uncertain as to whether being poked all over is something she'd enjoy, but nevertheless she leaves Zuko's side with one last parting squeeze of his hand and approaches the earthbender. Toph regards her with her typical quizzical expression, and the older girl ventures, "So…you're not blind, I hear."
"Nail on the head, Sugar Queen," Toph drawls, and after a moment, as if she cannot stop herself, she hugs Katara fiercely. Before the waterbender can even react, the black-haired girl draws away and kicks at the dirt as if nothing ever happened.
"Okay then," the Fire Lady acknowledges. "Zuko said you'd probably want to…poke me, or something."
Toph glowers a bit. "Not poke. I don't go around poking people. It's just that I'm used to seeing you through touch, and now that I can see you with my eyes, I'd like to create a bridge between the two versions of you. That's all. It's nothing freaky or weird. Sparky's just a big baby."
Katara laughs a little. "You didn't have to go on a tangent, Toph. I was going to let you."
She coughs. "Oh. Right then. Here goes…"
After a few minutes, Toph's fingers fall away from her face, but they do not assume their usual places on her hips or crossed on her chest. Her arms simply hang at her sides, and she fails to lower her gaze. Katara thinks that perhaps, given another person and another circumstance, this prolonged eye contact would be disconcerting. But as it is, it only makes the waterbender feel a little sad.
It's not as if she has long to look.
"Just one more thing, Katara," the younger girl says quietly, as if she does not want Aang or Zuko to overhear.
Toph chews her lower lip for a moment, looking oddly contemplative, and finally queries, "What color are your eyes?"
Katara smiles. "Blue," she replies.
The earthbender nods, her own smile flickering at one corner of her mouth, the evanescent expression steeped in bittersweet.
"Blue…" she echoes wistfully. "I think…yeah, I think I'll miss blue."
On her own impulse now, the waterbender captures her friend in an embrace. When she pulls away, she points out, "You know, Toph…I would really like to get back to my body, and I'm sure Zuko will be only too happy to leave this place, but…you don't have to go yet if you don't want to. As long as Aang stays around to help you leave and such, I think you could probably stay here. Not forever, but for awhile. Just so you don't have to lose this yet."
The earthbender swallows and scuffs her feet on the ground. At length, shiftily, she glances up at Katara. "Yeah," she agrees. "I might have to do that. Although I wish it wasn't more time with Twinkle Toes," she adds, pulling a face, "but what can you do."
Katara grins at that remark but hastily straightens her face as Aang meanders over to them. He is doing his best to avoid meeting her eyes, but she's not surprised at his discomfort. This was all basically a product of his continued affection, after all, and now everybody knows it.
"I couldn't help but overhear that last bit," he says, sparing a certain earthbender a brief glare, "but you don't have to go yet, either, Katara."
She wrinkles her brow. "Um, no offense, but why would I stay?"
Zuko has walked over now as well, and he drapes an arm around her waist. "What? Why's Katara staying?"
"I'm not staying," she corrects.
"Well, you might want to," Aang perseveres. "I mean…well, Katara, you realize your mother is here, right?"
Something unfocuses in her expression, her eyes growing distant, and her brow pinches, ever so slightly. It takes her a moment to remember to inhale, however habitual the action still is, and when she does, the air shakes all the way down.
"Katara? You okay?" her husband inquires, trying to catch her eye.
Her hand rises halfway to her neck, but she is not wearing the necklace, and even so, her hand falls away again.
"No," she breathes eventually. "No, I don't think that's…no, I'm not staying. I can't."
Aang frowns in confusion. "I don't mean to press, but why not? Haven't you always wanted to see her again?"
"I know what I've wanted," she replies, the words slightly edged. "But…I think those wounds are finally healing. I don't want to open them up again." She pauses, shakes her head. "I don't want that anymore."
"So what do you want to do?" the Avatar asks.
Katara glances up at Zuko. "I just want to go home."
The monk sighs, but it is a commendably subtle exhalation. "Alright. If you ever want to, though, I can apparently bring you here. You're staying, though, right, Toph?" he says, changing his focus.
The petite earthbender chews her lip again, looking at Katara for some kind of sign, but the older girl only shrugs, indicating it's all Toph's decision.
"I…I don't think so," she eventually says. "This has all been…well, beautiful," she admits, glancing at Zuko, "but it's also like a dream. I'll remember this forever, cherish it forever, but…this isn't how my life is. Besides," she adds with more of her usual humor, "I'm really missing my earthbending. Throwing rocks with your hands just isn't the same."
Aang nods. "So we're all going back."
"Sounds like it," Katara confirms.
"By the way," the Avatar says as they assemble themselves into a line. "Katara, your body isn't in the Spirit Oasis with us. It's still back in the Fire Nation capital. This means that it'll be a few days before we see each other again."
She processes this and ultimately sulks a bit. "That was shortsighted of you," she complains, and she tightens her hold on Zuko's hand.
"A few days are a lot better than forever," he reminds her, dusting a kiss onto her hair.
She huffs. "Alright, alright. Aang, take us home."
The Avatar concentrates and then, as he begins to glow, sends a beam of light into the center of their chests. Softly, everything fades to white.
In the royal suite of the Fire palace, Katara opened her eyes.
She stared up at the ceiling, or at least at the blood-red draperies that enveloped the four-poster bed. She blinked a few times, not yet moving, wanting to re-adapt herself to the world before just jumping headlong into it. The mixed scent of volcano smoke and sea salt tickled her nostrils, and slowly, she shifted up onto one elbow, twisting at the waist to gaze out the open balcony doors.
The sky was bright and blue, not even one cloud disturbing its majesty.
Katara sighed inwardly. "Toph would've liked to see that," she murmured to herself.
A particularly loud noise sounded from the other direction, and before she could even think, she already had a waterwhip in her hand, streamed directly out of the air and ready to unleash. But with a little laugh, she realized it was only Sokka, asleep in a chair at her bedside with his head lolled back and his mouth wide open.
She dissipated the whip, and just as she did this, Suki walked in carrying a tray.
"Oh, hi, Suki," Katara greeted, sitting up a bit more in the bed and adjusting the covers.
The Kyoshi warrior nearly dropped the tray, and only her quick reflexes allowed her to recover it. She also managed to contain a yelp of surprise, but her navy eyes were wide when they fixed on her sister-in-law.
"Katara?" she croaked. "You're…?" She left it hanging, clearly at a loss for adjectives.
"Back, awake, alive, yes," the waterbender supplied with a smile.
Suki haphazardly set down the tray and gathered up the other girl's hands with her own. "Oh, spirits, this is just…just fantastic! I'm so glad you're okay…hey, Sokka! Sokka! Your sister's awake."
The Water tribesman woke as grumpily and lethargically as he usually did. "Eh? Wha? Something's what now?"
Suki batted his shoulder. "Your sister, Katara, silly! She's awake!"
He swung half-open eyes in her direction, and then, with comic abruptness, they opened wide. "Dear, spirits, Katara!" he exclaimed, falling most inelegantly out of his chair. He scrambled to his knees and reached across the mattress, grabbing one of her hands. "You're not dead!"
The Fire Lady glanced at his wife, who shook her head. "Um, Sokka, I don't think I ever was dead…"
"Doesn't matter," her brother mumbled, pressing his forehead against her hand, and when he lifted his head to meet her eyes, she was startled to see tears glistening. "You can never scare us like that again, alright? I already lost Mom…I couldn't even bear the thought of losing you."
"Sokka, I'm so sorry," Katara said, slightly taken aback by the strength of his fingers on hers and the sheer weight present in his eyes. He just made a pathetic little noise and buried his forehead back into her hand.
Suki rose from her half-seat on the mattress' edge. "I'll go fetch your father, Katara. After that, I'll track down General Iroh, and—"
"No, wait," the waterbender burst, finally retrieving her much-wetter hand from Sokka. "I can't stay here, Suki. Zuko and the others are in the North Pole—I have to get going! I have to at least meet them halfway!"
As if they'd rehearsed this, both Sokka and Suki pushed her smartly back against the pillows.
"No can do, little sis," the male warrior said with a cluck of his tongue. "You had your soul stolen from your body and have otherwise been completely out of commission. No ice skating across the oceans for you, nuh-uh!"
She fought against their hold, but she realized that he was right; even this small amount of exertion was rapidly draining the energy from her limbs, and she was forced to slump back into the pillows.
"But…but Zuko…" she began unhappily, protesting only slightly when Suki tucked her in.
"He'll be here soon," the Kyoshi warrior promised as she finished her task. "In the meantime, have this broth I've brought for you."
Katara lazily bent a small whip from the bowl and pulled a face after tasting it. "No offense, but it's a little bland, isn't it?"
Suki put her hands on her hips. "Well, you didn't complain before."
"I was unconscious before," the other girl felt the need to point out.
Suki huffed but could not retain this indignation for long. "Yeah, okay. I'll get something more substantial from the kitchens. No, actually, Sokka, get something more substantial from the kitchens. Not everything," she added swiftly, "just something. I have to find Chief Hakoda."
As she bustled out of the room, Sokka smiled crookedly at his sister. "It'll be okay. The Angry Jerk will be here soon."
She arched a brow. "You really need to stop calling my husband that."
He pretended to gag. "Ew, husband. Ew, you married Zuko—" He cut himself off as she chucked one of her many pillows at his head. "Never mind, Katara," he called over his shoulder as he retreated to the kitchens. "Maybe you'll be up and about sooner than we thought, with that kind of arm on you!"
She crossed those arms on her chest and looked back out the window.
"Oh, you just wait and see. I'm counting on that."
Toph at first became aware of the grass tickling her legs and feet, and then of the gentle slosh of the koi pond's waters, and then of the koi themselves, swirling in their eternal dance, and then of the distant roar and pound of the waterfall. There was crisp, snow-edged air and the faint fragrance of earth and the curious, hot-spring-like warmth that permeated the Spirit Oasis.
There was also darkness, so much darkness.
She blinked her useless eyes and absently shoved her hair back from her face, as if that would make any difference. When it didn't, as she had known all along that it wouldn't, she let it fall back.
"You guys might feel a little light-headed for awhile," she heard Aang say, and she was, as usual, barely aware of his vibrations as he sprang to his feet. "Sit tight, and I'll fetch Appa."
"Alright, but hurry," Zuko replied, and she sensed him getting slowly to his feet and brushing off his knees. He groaned softly as his knees clicked in protest, but otherwise managed to straighten to his full height.
Toph studied the subtle vibrations of him with her earthbending, trying to re-paint his colors into this meager silhouette. It wasn't as easy as she would have liked, and she couldn't quite swallow a sigh.
He turned his head to look at her—how she missed looking!—and stepped a few paces closer. "You okay, Toph?" he asked with honest concern.
She pulled a face. "Can you keep a secret, Sparky?"
He crouched down next to her, as she remained slouched back on her hands. "You know I can."
She blinked again, but this time because tears, shameful and stupid tears, were burning her sightless eyes.
"I miss it."
Zuko sat down all the way, crossing his legs comfortably, and laid a hand on her shoulder. "I'd be incredibly surprised if you didn't," he told her, his voice gentle.
"I never really knew what I was missing before," she went on, hating how her voice was cracking and weak but unable to make it stronger. "So I wasn't all that bothered. But now…now that I've seen…"
He was silent, at a momentary loss, and merely flexed his fingers to convey a sense of comfort. "I know it's not at all the same," he said at length, "but it was such a relief, in a way, not to have my scar for awhile. It was like that whole chapter of my life had been neatly erased and replaced with something so much better, happier, something." He shook his head. "And now that it's back…well, I'm reminded that all that stuff happened, too. It's kind of how you described seeing, back before we returned here…it was like a dream."
She scoffed, but quietly. "I'd like to dream it again sometime," she confessed.
He tapped his fingers against his chin, thoughtful. "Y'know…I bet you will dream it, literally. As long as you remember it, as long as it's there in your head," he said, teasingly poking her forehead, "then I'm sure it'll come back to you while you're asleep."
She laughed, one weak exhalation, but it was still a laugh. "If I start sleeping twelve hours a day, you'll know why."
He raised his good eyebrow, and she was just aware of the expression. "What, you don't already do that? Ow!"
She waggled her fist at him, letting him know she was more than ready to strike him again, but he glanced skyward and interrupted their moment.
"Oh, here comes Aang," he stated. He began to rise, but she caught onto his arm.
"Wait, Sparky," she blurted, and he lowered himself back to her level. "Before we leave, I just wanted to…"
"To what?" he prompted, but then her fingers settled on the left side of his face and traced the folds of his scar, and he didn't need an answer.
"Y'know, it's funny, Zuko," she said softly, "but I never really knew you had this. Like I never really knew Aang had that stupid arrow tattoo. So in a way," she continued, more seriously, "you've always been that boy with the happier past, because I'd never known otherwise."
She lowered her hand from his face. "And in that same way, I guess that's all you'll ever be to me," she concluded. "I don't know what you look like with it, so I'll always remember you without it."
He smiled, and it was faint and hard to sense, but she was aware of it all the same. "I suppose, ironically, you're the only one who can truly see past it," he quipped, his smile broadening to a grin.
"Don't push your luck, Sparky," she dismissed offhandedly, needing to reclaim her nonchalance. But nevertheless, she accepted the hand he extended in her direction and allowed him to help her to her feet, just as the sudden and startling vibrations of Appa's landing rode up through her toes.
"You ready to go?" Aang called down from his lofty perch.
Toph groaned, her shoulders slumping. "Oh, I hate flying…"
When Sokka and Suki came by Katara's suite to deliver her lunch the next day, the former was forced to throw up his hands and theatrically sigh.
"Spirits, that girl just can't obey one single order, can she?" he asked, lowering his arms to cross on his chest and observing her very empty bed.
Suki set the tray down on the vanity table and lifted a hastily scrawled note. "'Sorry, I hate waiting'," she read, and set it back down. "Well. It's concise, at least."
Sokka walked over to the balcony and glanced out over the city, as if he could actually spot his escaping sister. "I guess she's always had a mind of her own. Her and that silly magic water," he said, shaking his head.
"Don't worry. I'm sure she's fine, and she'll be back soon enough," Suki consoled him.
He threw up a hand and stalked away. "I'm not waiting up for her this time!"
"You didn't even wait up for her last time," his wife pointed out with a wry smile.
He flourished his hand again. "No! No-no! I'm going to storm out and you shall not stop me!"
Suki just rolled her eyes and quietly closed the door behind them.
Shading her eyes against the fierce brightness of the sun, Katara peered up into the sky. Her ice-sled bobbed on the waves beneath her, not requiring much in the way of conscious thought to remain frozen, and she was free to scan for Appa. The bison would be flying, well, as the bison flies, or in the straightest line possible between the North Pole and Fire's capital. She was assiduously following such a path, but she had yet to come across any sign of them. Of course, she couldn't bend as fast as Appa could fly, even if she were capable of traveling at quite a clip, and even two solid days of travel on her part wouldn't equate to much on theirs. It would probably still be another day yet…
She frowned, narrowing her eyes further as if that could actually extend the range of her vision. Was that tiny dot on the northern horizon what she hoped it would be? There was only one way to find out.
Calling upon her powers, Katara changed the waves and currents to suit her needs, and soon she was skidding along the foamy crests, leaping from wave top to wave top like a particularly feisty salmon.
High, high above her, Appa was indeed crossing the skies, and thankfully Aang happened to glance down at the ocean in time to see the very waterbent geysers she was using as a signal flare.
"Hey, it's Katara!" he yelled, and he pulled sharply on Appa's reins, causing the bison to veer down and around in a tight, controlled spiral.
"What, here?" Zuko wondered, although that didn't stop him from flinging himself at the edge of the saddle and searching the sea.
"Oh, yeah, it is her!" Toph joined in grumpily, still firmly seated with her head tilted back and her eyes closed.
The male benders didn't seem to notice as Appa flew quite close to the waters and Katara catapulted herself up, living up to her note and not being a remotely patient person. She landed smack in the middle of the saddle and was instantly tackled by Zuko.
"You're here, in the real world, with your real face!" he exclaimed, and he took her head in both hands and kissed her soundly.
"Yes, yes, I'm all back in one piece," she confirmed, giggling as he crushed her anew in an energetic embrace. "And you guys all made it back, too—it's nice to know you really are a bridge between the worlds, Aang."
He grinned, vaulting the lip of the saddle to join the gang. "Well, I never figured I was like an actual footpath, but there ya go," he laughed. "How about a group hug?"
The three of them did just that, but Katara raised her head and glanced at Toph. "C'mon, he said group hug. Not most-of-the-group hug. Get over here!"
"Yeah, no, I'd really rather nooooot!" The earthbender dragged out the last syllable as Zuko snatched onto her wrist and hauled her into the huddle. "Oy, Sparky, careful! I'm a very delicate person!"
"Yeah, yeah, of course you are," he dismissed.
She pouted. "Sugar Queen, your Sugar King's being mean to me!" she fake-wailed.
"Zuko, be nice," Katara chastised, though she had to dissolve into laughter once more. "Sugar King? Dear spirits, that was unexpected!"
The Fire Lord spared the earthbender a glare. "That's not to become official, is it?" he growled.
"Nah," Toph assured him. "I'm much too fond of Sparky."
Aang frowned. "Hey, can I get a new nickname? I've never really appreciated Twinkle Toes."
Toph grinned, or at least she showed her teeth. "How about Stupid Arrow Head?"
The Avatar glared at her as well. "No, no, Twinkle Toes is fine. By the way, this group hug is over," he declared, retreating to the far side of the saddle from Toph, but as Katara began to settle into Zuko's side, he reached out and touched her arm. "Wait…can I talk to you?"
She glanced between the air- and firebender and shrugged. "Yeah, why not."
"Over here?" Aang continued, jerking his thumb at Appa's large, furry head.
Katara frowned faintly but got to her feet anyway and clambered off the saddle, catching onto the reins for stability. Aang sat across from her, although given the space he had available, he was almost sitting atop her.
After not speaking for an awkward duration, the airbender sighed. "I just…wanted to apologize."
She nodded and said, with a bit of a smirk, "I'd say it's not your fault, but, well…it kind of is."
Aang studied his interlaced fingers before finally managing to lift his gaze to hers. "I know that," he confirmed quietly. "That's why I'm apologizing. I should've let go of you a year ago, but…I didn't. I didn't want to, is the truth of the matter," he confessed. "I've always wanted you to be happy, Katara, I've never lied about that, but I always figured that you'd…well, that you'd realize that being happy was the same thing as being with me."
She listened in silence, letting him have his say, and only watched him with a serious, contemplative expression.
"Even after you got engaged to Zuko…" He shook his head. "I kept thinking you'd…heh, come to your senses before it was too late. Even at your wedding," he said, whispering now, "I thought maybe you wouldn't show…"
"Aang," she interrupted now, soft and sympathetic, but he raised a hand before she could continue.
"No, no, I'm not saying this as some last-ditch attempt to get you back," he said firmly. "I'm explaining myself in the hope of forgiveness. Because I realized during all this that we're not meant to be together. I mean, I was deeply hurt by what happened to you, but Zuko…it was like something inside him had started to die. And I knew that it was my fault he felt that way. Koh might've actually taken you away, but I had always wished you would leave him, so when it happened, it was like I'd willed it to happen…"
"Aang, please," Katara said, reaching across the short distance to take one of his hands in hers. "You're kind of rambling now. You don't need to beat yourself up about any of this. Love's not an easy thing to fall out of, so I don't blame you for still having feelings for me. I admit myself a little surprised, but I'm not mad or anything about it. You have nothing to worry about."
The airbender bowed his head. "I think we've had this conversation before," he mumbled.
"Kind of, yeah," she agreed with a half-grin.
He smiled a bit, too, just one corner of his lips curling. "I promise this will be the last."
She poked him in the arrow. "Is that an Avatar promise?"
His smile broadened. "Yeah. An Avatar promise. None of my future lives will bother you, either."
She got to her feet carefully, steadying herself on the bison's saddle. "Well, don't go dying on me any time soon," she remarked as she clambered back into the saddle's safety.
"I have no plans to," he assured her, and he gathered the reins back in his hands and looked towards the horizon. After a deep inhalation, he let it out slowly, focusing on the sensation of expelling the air. He reopened his eyes and reclaimed a remnant of his previous smile. Letting go of her wouldn't be as easy as letting go of that breath, but it was the same principle.
He just had to want to.
Night's shadows cloaked the royal suite in darkness, but a darkness with shades to it, not a darkness that was absolute. Moonlight also flooded across the floor, spilling in from the floor-length windows, but despite the differences, to Katara, it still seemed too much the same.
She cuddled further into the safety of Zuko's body, and he brushed his fingers against the hair above her ear.
"You don't need to be scared," he whispered. "Koh won't be coming back."
"I know," she admitted, but that didn't make her spine any less rigid. "It's not something I can easily shake, though. I'm afraid logic doesn't often stand up well to fear."
He frowned and wrapped her even more thoroughly in his arms, drawing her as close as physically possible. "Trust me, love, I won't let anything happen to you. Besides, Koh kind of…exploded, or something. Even if he did survive that, I think he learned his lesson when it comes to stealing faces."
Her brow furrowed thoughtfully. "Y'know…what did happen to him? I wasn't really aware of what was going on; he was rotating faces so quickly, I was just stuck in this blur of Spirit World and Koh's abyss. It was dizzying, and then suddenly you were there, waking me up…"
"Yeah, I don't know," Zuko agreed musingly, and he eased onto his back, the fingers on one hand still toying with her hair while his other hand slipped comfortably behind his head. "Aang said he was some sort of incredibly ancient spirit, and if he is the brother-spirit of the Avatar, well, can he be killed?"
"The Avatar spirit can be killed if the vessel is killed in the State," Katara reeled off as if she'd memorized that for an exam, adding in her own contradiction, "but the Avatar spirit is bound to a mortal. I guess that makes it mortal."
"And Koh has no such bond," the firebender finished. "So I guess he wouldn't die, per se."
She draped an arm across his body and used his chest as a pillow. It was so comfortable here, and her head was so heavy… "Maybe he just faded away," she guessed, her voice soft with sleep.
"Either way, he can't hurt you now," Zuko promised, kissing the top of her head.
"Not with you here," she mumbled, her eyelids sliding shut.
"No," he whispered as she drifted asleep, "not while I'm here." He ran his fingers carefully down the curve of her cheek and kissed her softly again.
"Sweet dreams, Katara. See you in the morning."
In the darkness, it weeps.
Cringing, it retreats into the depths of shadow, hunkering in on its shapeless form in an attempt to hide its shame and failure from the worlds. It is nothing now, not even a ghost of something else; it is merely unsculpted clay, not even worthy of fashioning.
"I am nothing," Koh moans, writhing in agony. "Is this what you wanted? I am nothing!"
Have you not learned the truth, my son?
The combined voice of the oldest spirits wells up from the ground and rains down from the sky, and in its safe darkness, Koh shudders at the sound.
"The truth?" it spits, spiteful even in its deepest sorrow. "What truth? That you have hideously tortured me for all of eternity? You sicken me!"
It was not your destiny to be the Avatar. It was not your place to take upon endless forms.
"Is that how you justify taking away mine?" it says in a weary half-demand, half-plea. "I had to make my own face, and then when that was lost, now you deign to visit me? Now you come to gloat? Leave! Leave!"
We did not steal your face. You simply could not see the truth.
The miserable spirit hesitates, and if it had retained features, it would have frowned. "What?" it whispers.
We did not steal your face, the elder spirits repeat. You might not have been meant to wear your brother's, but you were always meant to wear your own. We only disguised your face in the hope that you would discover it by yourself and learn to love it again. Have you not learned the lesson?
Koh doesn't immediately know what to make of this; it must ponder the words, turning them over and over until they begin to glimmer in the light. "I…have always been here? The same, underneath somewhere?"
Underneath our masks, we are all the same. You simply wore more masks than most, but eventually, you will delve deeply enough. Do you not realize that in striving to make your own face, you only deviated further from the truth?
The spirit squirms uncomfortably. "How can this be so?" it rallies. "What am I, then?"
The mortal humans have a saying, my son: Change is the only constant. But that is not necessarily true. All things must be balanced—your siblings, Fire and Water, and also Air and Earth, and even we form two halves of a whole, perpetuating space and time. But you also have a balance, and you share it with your brother the Avatar.
"If he is change…" Koh begins, quiet in the dawn of comprehension.
Then you shall be permanence. As he flits from form to form in an infinite succession, so you shall stay the same. And when the mortal world ends, when all that is physical fails and crumbles to less than dust, it shall be you who is called upon to remember; it shall be you who may never forget.
Many things are fleeting, my son. You alone are permanent.
"Then all this time…" he breathes, tears welling up in his eyes. "Then all this time I have been a lie? All this time I've sought to be the very thing I can never be? Changing?"
You could never wear your brother's face—not in the beginning, not now. There must be balance.
Koh swallows. "And if I accept this role? How do I embrace permanence?"
It is not something you must choose. It is something you already are.
Their voices fade back into the ether, melting effortlessly into the ground and the streams and the wind and the sun. They are silent now, but he can still sense their presence in this place, in the passage from second to second. He smiles faintly at the shadows, the merest whisper of an expression, but it is still an expression.
In the darkness, Koh unfolds and rises to his feet.
And from the darkness, he strides into the light.
A/N: Thank you so very much for reading, especially those of you who started it two years ago, or whenever I started this story...it means a lot that you picked it back up and continued supporting it. As always, this story wouldn't be anything without readers, so thank you. And also as always, reviews are love.
Long live Zutara!