The damage was even greater than Iroh had expected.
Nothing but barren, burning wasteland blanketed with smoking ash remained of what had once been the Fire Nation capitol, home to generations of Firelords, the literal birthplace of kings. Shoulders stooped and with an incredibly heavy heart, the newly crowned Firelord surveyed the extensive damage that seemed to stretch on for miles and wept for the loss.
Centuries' worth of craftsmanship and traditions, all of his boyhood memories, the sacred temples housing the remains of Firelords past and their wives, even the ashes of his own beloved son Lu Ten had been demolished and leveled in the blast. Not even a stone remained. But all that paled in comparison to the catastrophic loss of life. Only a few dozen residents of the Palace City had survived the eruption, those fortunate enough to be beyond the deadly cloud's path. The rest, including his niece, had perished in the holocaust.
When he had received urgent word from his nephew three days earlier detailing the harrowing events in the Palace City, Iroh had fully expected to step into a war zone. It was that and more. There was nothing, not even his many years of military service, could have prepared Iroh for the utter devastation that awaited him.
The living had been in the process of searching for possible survivors when he arrived, but that task hadn't lasted very long at all. It became apparent relatively soon that there were no survivors. Attention had now shifted to recovery. Residents were allowed back into the leveled city so that they could sift through what remained of their belongings and hopefully stumble across something that had miraculously survived the blast.
Iroh watched with a mixture of sadness and pride as former enemies worked together. The barrier between them had seemingly melted away. No longer were they two opposing factions, but simply a group of people united by grief and dismay. All were devastated and all needed to heal.
With that in mind, Iroh turned to regard the bedraggled group, a conglomerate of allies, former enemies and subjects, congregated on what remained of the beach. "We will rebuild," he announced with determined certainty, "Perhaps not in this same place and perhaps not even in my lifetime, but we shall redeem ourselves as a nation and we shall be what we once were…a people of pride and dignity and strength…
"My father foresaw a nation made great on the backs of others, through fear, oppression and tyranny," he went on, "I foresee a nation made great through its strength, determination and forbearance. We will learn from our past mistakes and we will grow stronger. We will be a nation greater than what our fathers and forefathers envisioned because we will do what they couldn't. We will listen to each other, we will love one another and we will stand united, not only as citizens of the Fire Nation, but citizens of the entire world." He turned a glance off in the distance to where his nephew and the Avatar assisted the Waterbender healers in their care for the wounded. "With the Avatar's help, we can accomplish this. We can heal."
Aang found her on her knees, amid the ruined piles of what had once been her home.
Ty Lee stiffened upon his approach, but did not turn around. He almost expected to go unacknowledged so that when she actually spoke aloud, Aang jumped. "I used to think the worst thing in the world was being like everyone else," she whispered brokenly, "I ran away from here because I felt like I had no identity. I wanted to be unique…one of a kind…now I am." She curled her fingers into the mounds of warm soot beneath her knees and bent her head so that her tear-streaked features were concealed behind the curtain of her hair. "I'm the last surviving member of my entire family."
"Oh, Ty Lee…" Aang croaked in sympathy, "I'm so sorry."
Abruptly, she threw back her head and fixed him with large brown eyes shimmering with despair. "I have no friends," she wept, "I have no family. There's no one left!"
"You're wrong," Aang whispered as he came to kneel beside her, "There's me." As Ty Lee dissolved into noisy sobs, he gathered her in his arms tenderly and held her close. "You have me, Ty Lee. I'll be here for you."
He wasn't certain how long he sat there holding her, comforting her as best he could, but when Aang finally glanced up he discovered Katara standing there. A few seconds later, Ty Lee became aware of her presence as well. Feeling self-conscious and awkward, she untangled herself from Aang's hold and fixed Katara with a wan smile. "I…I fell apart," she explained lamely, "and Aang gave me a hug."
"I can see that," Katara replied stiffly.
The thick tension that settled between them was stifling. Katara glared. Aang cleared his throat several times. And Ty Lee bounced panicked glances between the two of them. Finally, she pushed to her feet. "Um, well…maybe I'll go and see if they need a hand out on the beach," she said. Before she took off, she paused briefly to bestow Aang with a faint smile. "Thank you, Aang," she whispered.
"You're welcome," he whispered back.
"'Thank you, Aang,'" Katara mimicked in a childish tone once Ty Lee had taken her leave. She glowered in the older girl's wake, rolling her eyes as she did. "That girl is so transparent."
Aang gaped at her. "Wait…are you jealous?"
Katara snorted indignantly. "No, of course not!" she flared, but the furious bloom of color in her cheeks told a different story. Aang favored her with a knowing grin. "Oh shush up," she grumped good-naturedly, "It wouldn't be so bad if you didn't eat up the attention she gave you with a spoon."
Aang's smile widened as he stood and closed the distance between them. He pulled Katara into his arms and back against him, resting his chin atop her head as he held her tight. "You don't have any reason to be jealous, you know?" he murmured seriously, "Ty Lee and I are just friends and that's all we are."
"I know that," she acknowledged, "And I realize I'm being petty and ridiculous, but I can't help feeling a little insecure. You're hurting, but instead of turning to me, you've been confiding in Ty Lee. What else am I supposed to think?" Katara also feared that his reluctance to talk to her was due in part to what happened with his sister shortly before she escaped. However, she left that uncertainty unspoken, partially because she feared what his answer might be. His next question to her made Katara glad she had too.
"You really want to hear me grieve for my sister?"
Katara turned in his arms and stared up at him with earnest blue eyes. "I want you to talk to me, no matter what it's about and whether you think I'd want to hear or not," she said, "Maybe I don't understand the attachment you feel for Azula, especially after she tried multiple times to kill you," her eyes touched briefly on his collarbone, where the scar from Azula's latest assault lingered, before she continued, "but if you're sad over her death then you're sad. You don't have to justify that. I know that sounds strange coming from me, but I mean it. I just want to help you, Aang."
"It's not only about Azula," he confessed thickly, "It's about my mom and dad and…everything. Almost none of the people in my immediate family were the people I expected them to be. In reality, they were all virtual strangers, but I still loved them and…and I miss them, even if it makes me seem crazy and pathetic."
"It doesn't make you seem crazy or pathetic." Katara laid her cheek against his chest and tightened her arms around his waist, listening intently to the steady thump of his heart. "I was thinking that if something happened and my father suddenly became this whole other person, it wouldn't erase the memories of the good times we had. I think part of me would still have the hope that the father I'd once known would come back to me. That's all you wanted with your family, Aang, and that's nothing to apologize for."
He shrugged, uncomfortable with the course of the conversation but grateful for Katara's gentle reassurance as well. His eyes flooded with tears at her words, but he didn't allow them to fall as Aang felt he'd already cried enough. Hoping to keep rein on his emotions, Aang felt compelled to change the subject and did so by asking, "Speaking of Hakoda, how is he doing now?"
"He's still a bit banged up," Katara said, "Even though the subs were under water during the eruption, they still got tossed around a whole lot. But the good news is, the Mechanist seems optimistic that he can repair the damage that was done. We're lucky that more people weren't seriously hurt or worse."
"Yeah," Aang sighed, "I'm glad everyone in the submarines made it out okay." Though they left unspoken the dozens of men who hadn't been so fortunate to be on the subs, both Aang and Katara were thinking of them. "There's been more than enough death and destruction these last few days."
"So now what?" Aang wondered.
"Now we clean up this place as best we can and salvage whatever's left," Katara replied, "And after that…I'm taking you home with me."
Aang smiled again, the merriment returning to his eyes as he pulled her closer. "Really?"
"Yeah, you're going to meet my gran-gran."
"But I've already met your gran-gran," Aang protested.
"Yes, but that was in the capacity of goofy and slightly weird boy randomly delivering tea and blankets," Katara laughed, "This time she's going to meet the boy I happen to love."
"The boy you love, huh?" Aang echoed with a pleased blush, "I think I like the sound of that."
Katara rose up on her toes and wrapped her arms around his neck, nuzzling a kiss across his lips. "Somehow, I knew you would."
The necklace dropped into her line of sight from out of nowhere, dangling within inches of her nose. Suki scowled in confusion before she became aware that the hand holding the necklace was Sokka's. She tipped back her head, an amused smile lighting her makeup-less features. "What's this?" she asked gamely, nodding towards the trinket.
"It's for you," he said solemnly, kneeling so that he could press the necklace into her hands. As Suki squealed her excitement and delicately skimmed her fingers over the swirling symbols carved in the precious silver pendant, Sokka added, "I made it myself."
Suki gaped at him. "You made this?" she whispered with incredulous delight, "When did you have time to make me a necklace?"
"I try to make time for the really important things."
"Really important things?" she echoed blankly, "Sokka, I don't understand."
"When I was in the North Pole with my gran's people, I learned of this ancient tradition were the man will carve a necklace for the woman he wants to marry," he explained tremulously, "Where I grew up, we don't do things like that, but it seemed appropriate this time. I've…never really done anything like it, so I'm a little scared that I might have messed it up, but…" He swallowed, halting his discursive monologue so that he could collect his thoughts. Finally, he murmured, "This is what I want, Suki. This is what you mean to me."
"Sokka," she breathed, staring down at the necklace with an entirely different perspective now. She swallowed the lump of emotion forming in her throat. "You want to marry me?"
"I know we're still young and I know it might seem really sudden, but I know who I am and what I want, Suki," Sokka whispered fervidly, "I want to be with you. I want you to be my wife."
"I don't understand where this is coming from…"
"I love you and you love me," Sokka stated confidently, "There's no reason to wait, especially when we both know how unpredictable life is. You and Toph nearly died in Ba Sing Se and we came awfully close over here. Why should we put it off?"
"Is that what this is about?" she sighed softly, "Are you afraid that if you don't do this now that you'll lose me later?" She reached out to cradle his cheek briefly, her mouth turned in a small, bittersweet smile. "Death is inevitable Sokka. Marrying me won't change that."
"I know," Sokka acknowledged, "I don't want to marry you because I'm trying to change it. I want to marry you because I want to be committed to you in every way. I don't want to look back ten years down the line and be filled with regrets because I held back with you. I want you to know that I love you with everything I have."
Suki darted a glance from the necklace in her hands, to Sokka's earnestly hopeful features and then back to the necklace. "Yeah, but doesn't marriage seem a little extreme?"
The reluctance in her tone was almost tangible. Sokka frowned, sensing for the first time that she wasn't as enthused about the prospect of getting married as he was. "Don't you want to marry me, Suki?"
"Yes, I do," she replied fervently before added in a stilted tone, "Just not right now."
Her answer was the last thing Sokka expected and his resulting disappointment was stamped plainly all over his face. "What does that mean?" he asked, "'Not right now?'"
"Sokka, you said a moment ago that you know who you are and what you want," Suki reminded him, "Well, I…don't." Before he could deflate completely over that, Suki quickly went on to explain. "I know I want to be with you," she assured him quickly, "That's the one thing I don't have any doubts about. But who I am and what I want to do with the rest of my life…that's the part I don't know. I'm not even sure I know where I want to live."
"I thought you wanted to be a Kyoshi Warrior."
"I'm a Kyoshi Warrior because that's what Oyagi raised me to be and I wanted to please him," she clarified softly, "I wanted to pay him back for giving me a home and loving me. But, as far as what Suki wants…well, she's still trying to figure that part out."
"Do you want to figure it out alone?" Sokka wondered glumly, "Is that what you're trying to tell me?"
"No!" she responded vehemently. "I've got a scary journey ahead of me, Sokka. I don't know if I could make it without you."
The besotted smile her answer provoked soon dissolved into a befuddled frown. "Then, if you feel that way, why are you turning me down?"
"It wouldn't be fair to marry you now. You deserve to have a wife who knows who she is and what she wants," Suki reasoned, "How could I possibly make you happy, Sokka, if I don't even know what makes me happy?"
"I guess that makes sense," he mumbled, "Even though I wish it didn't."
Suki resolutely folded the necklace back into his palm. "It won't be 'no' forever," she promised him, "I want you to ask me again…when the time is right. Will you do that, Sokka? Will you ask me again?"
He looked into her deep, blue eyes, filled with hurt and disappointment, but overwhelming love for her as well. He recognized that she wasn't telling him "no" only for herself, she was doing it for them both because she wanted them to last just as much as he did. "Yes," he whispered, drawing her close for a lingering kiss, "I'll ask you again."
"Sulking by the seaside," Toph remarked blandly, "Why am I not surprised?"
Zuko tossed her an eye-rolling glare. "How do you know I'm sulking?" he challenged, "You can't see anything."
"Oh, I know you, Zuko," she replied airily. She plopped down beside him. "So what's up?"
"Right," Toph snorted. "The war is finally over. You've fulfilled your destiny and you're a national hero and yet, instead of joining the victory celebration, you're over here brooding by yourself. Just when I think you're over it, you turn around and say something that makes me want to throttle you."
"What exactly is there to celebrate?" Zuko asked, "A lot of people died, Toph."
"We didn't," she emphasized softly, "We still have life, but what good is it if you're not going to let yourself enjoy it?"
"How am I supposed to enjoy it?" Zuko snapped, rolling to his feet. He began kicking moodily at the shells that littered the shoreline. "So I'm the big hero and I fulfilled my destiny! So what! What do I have now that it's over? You guys are going to go home soon and me? Well, I have no place to go. There's no place I really belong. I'm used to a nomadic existence, but I've never led that kind of lifestyle on my own. Now that my days aren't filled with training and preparation, I'll have nothing but time to focus on the reality that I'm the last of my people."
"Wow, Zuko…" Toph sighed as if preparing to say something utterly profound, "…you really are a whiner."
"Your sympathy is overwhelming."
"You don't need my pity," Toph scoffed, "You need a kick in the butt!" She scrambled to her feet so that she and Zuko were standing nose to nose when she let him have it. "Stop feeling sorry for yourself!" she snapped, "You're so busy crying in your soup over what you don't have, you're completely blind to the things you do have and that's an ironic observation coming from a blind person!"
"Why are you yelling at me?"
"Because you're an idiot!" she flared, "You finally have the weight of the world off of your shoulders, Zuko! Now you can do what you want. You can go where you want. Your life is yours to live how you please."
"But I don't know what to do!" Zuko retorted hotly, "That's the problem! Besides traveling from town to town to help people rebuild their lives, I have no life plans of my own. I don't know what to do. I don't know what the future holds for me."
"What's wrong with winging it?" Toph ventured.
"I'm not a 'winging it' sort of guy," Zuko grumped.
His morose persistence made Toph growl aloud in frustration. "That's it! You're coming home with me."
"I'm taking you home with me," Toph reiterated.
"Toph, I'm not a pet!" he snapped, "You can't just drag me all over the place. If I want to go…" He paused mid-tirade when the significance of what she was telling him finally dawned. "Wait a second…you're going home?"
"Why is that so shocking?" she demanded, "I'm thinking the 'letting my parents think I'm dead' thing isn't going to work forever, you know?"
"Well, I'm glad for you," Zuko commended her. "I think you're doing the right thing."
"Good. You can keep reminding me of that on our way there. Otherwise, I'm not so sure I'd go through with it."
Toph was oblivious to how positively green he became at the idea, but his reluctant tone more than made up for that. "Uh…I don't know if this is a good idea," he hedged, "I don't usually make very good first impressions."
"You made a great one on me," Toph argued with a wide grin.
Zuko opened his mouth to remind her that they had fought the first time they met and then he remembered, for Toph, that was a good first impression. He shook his head in befuddlement. "Why do you want to take me with you?"
"Because you need a family and I have one that I am more than willing to share."
"Well, when you make the invitation so gracious…" Zuko deadpanned sardonically.
Toph practically whooped with excitement. "Awesome! Then it's settled," she said, "We'll leave right after we're done with the little field trip you and Aang have planned for us."
"It's not a 'field trip,' Toph. We're going to scatter Mai's ashes," Zuko reminded her.
"Yeah, that's going to be a roaring good time…I can tell."
Zuko grimaced, torn between shaking his head at her irreverence and snorting in amusement. He did both. "Either you're seriously insane or you have no respect for sacred things," he told her. The blank look on her face told him it was probably a lot of the latter and a smidge of the former. "You make me crazy, but I'm glad you're my friend. Thanks for not taking my mess, Toph."
"And I never will, Moodbender," she tossed back. "Come on. Let's party." She snagged him by the hand and forcibly dragging him towards the camp where faint strains of music could be heard. Zuko shuffled along behind her, unaware of the contented smile that curled the corners of his mouth as he did.
"Okay, tell me again why Mai would like the idea of her ashes being scattered in a slimy cave," Suki wondered.
The small group of friends, along with their newest addition Ty Lee, trekked their way through the underground Omashu tunnels. Led by Toph's keen senses, they confidently through the labyrinth. At Suki's question, however, everyone stopped short and several expectant pairs of eyes swung around to Aang for answers.
He shrugged. "Don't ask me. As far as I know, Mai didn't have a cave fetish."
"You guys are such dunderheads," Toph scoffed laughingly. "This is where Mai and Zuko kissed for the first time."
"I knew it," Ty Lee hissed to herself triumphantly, "I knew you kissed her!"
"Actually, she kissed me," Zuko corrected, only too quickly amend when Aang disputed that with a loud, raucous cough, "Er…well, maybe we kissed each other."
Sokka directed a disgruntled glower at Zuko. "So let me get this straight," he began, "while we were busy fighting to stay alive and worrying about you, you were off making out with some hot girl?" That comment earned him a forceful elbow to the ribs from his girlfriend. "But she wasn't nearly as hot as you, Suki," he wheezed dutifully.
"Well, I think it's romantic," Katara said.
"I do too," Ty Lee added with a dramatic sigh, "It's almost like they were destined to be together."
"Wow, it's a miracle," Toph laughed, "Sugar Queen and Pixie Dust actually agreed on something for once!"
The observation provoked and uneasy glance between Katara and Ty Lee and some degree of amusement from mostly everyone in the group, with the exception of Zuko. He was too grimly aware of the task ahead of him. "If we've finished recapping my love life, do you think we can move on now?" he asked a little testily. "You know how antsy Appa and Momo get when we're gone for a long time."
Within a few short minutes, and after some very expert tunneling on Zuko and Toph's part, they reached the chamber where the remains of the two lovers were enshrined. Toph, predictably, was the first to react while her friends were too busy taking it all in. "Uh…so what is this place, Zuko?"
"It's a tomb," Sokka provided helpfully. "We're in a tomb. Yay."
"It's not just any tomb. This is where the two lovers from the legend were laid to rest," Zuko explained. He pointed to the small step podium directly in front of the sepulchers. "That's where Mai and I kissed."
"Hmm, kissing for the first time in what amounts to a creepy, smelly burial site," Sokka considered dryly, "Still think it's 'romantic,' Katara?"
"Shush up, Sokka," came his sister's snippy reply.
"This is the spot where we became friends," Zuko said, "We kind of began here. It seemed fitting to bring her back to this place because now we're saying goodbye."
"So…um…should we say a few words or something?" Suki wondered.
"Mai wouldn't like that," Ty Lee, Aang and Zuko answered in unison. The three laughed, amazed by how well they'd known Mai even though they'd known her in very different ways. "Mai wasn't the kind of girl who was big on ceremony," Aang elaborated, "If she were here, she'd probably just shrug and say, 'Well, I'm dead and it sucks. I'll miss you guys.' And that would be that."
"Sounds like my kind of girl," Toph laughed.
"She was definitely something special," Zuko murmured nostalgically.
After Aang and Ty Lee shared a few more touching anecdotes about Mai, the seven worked together to spread a careful circle of Mai's ashes around the base of the lovers' tombs. Once that emotional task was complete, they shuffled off into an adjoining cave, sensing Zuko's need to be alone. He crouched down low and traced his fingers along the pictures painted on the tomb, remembering the conversation he'd had with Mai only a few months earlier.
"It's strange that someone I knew for such a short time could change my life in such a huge way," he whispered, "I hope you're happy wherever you are, Mai. I hope you're smiling."
When he felt the hand settle against his shoulder he automatically stiffened with wild hope, half-expecting to turn up his gaze and find Mai standing there above him. Instead, Toph's stoic features filled his line of sight, but somehow he wasn't disappointed to find her standing there. It felt right.
"You're not alone," she whispered reassuringly, "I'm never going to let that happen, Moodbender. I'll never let you be alone again."
"Wow, you almost sound like you mean it, Toph."
She shoved him in the back for his altogether rare teasing, but smiled in spite of that. "So…uh…you okay now?" she asked uncomfortably.
Zuko pushed to his feet. "Yeah, I'm good," he said, "Let's get out of here. This place is morbid."
Smiling, Toph looped an arm around his neck and pulled him close in a genial hug. "I know I've never really said it before, but just in case there's any confusion on the matter I want you to know…I really, really love you. You're my family."
"We feel the same. We love you too, Zuko," Aang added from the entrance of the adjoining cave. He was flanked by their friends who were nodding their heads in vigorous agreement.
"Aww, you guys…" Zuko griped good-naturedly before his face cleansed with unguarded emotion and he rasped thickly, "I love you too."
As they started to exit the mausoleum Zuko felt inexplicably compelled to turn back one last time. When he did, he wasn't entirely surprised to see Mai's ethereal form floating there above the lovers' tombs, a faint smile pulling at the corners of her lips. She looked much as she had the day they'd been trapped in the crystal catacombs together, when she finally admitted aloud that she cared about him. She looked…at peace. Zuko smiled at her in return, feeling peaceful as well.
"Be happy, Zuko," she seemed to whisper.
I will, Mai, he answered her in his heart, I will.