Chapter 29: The End and the Beginning
At last the non-aggression pact was signed, the peace talks were brought to a close, and there was – of course – a feast. The Fire Nation delegation prepared to return home, accompanied by Toph and Sokka. Sokka wanted to get a new sword, train a bit more with Piandao, and avoid breaking up with Suki for as long as humanly possible. Zuko welcomed the company.
Since they didn't know when they would next all be together, Katara suggested that Team Avatar should have one last evening together, one last hurrah before going their separate ways. Zuko, Sokka, and Toph wanted to drink themselves silly. This further convinced him that they were going to get along great. But Katara managed to be the voice of reason yet again and they ended up at the Jasmine Dragon, enjoying a quiet evening.
They joked around. They had cake. Sokka painted a picture and was thoroughly mocked. Mushi played Zuko's favorite tune on the tsungi horn without mentioning its significance. Jin systematically beat everyone at pai sho.
The bickering was down to a minimum, which was strange. No one spoke of the future. It was all slightly too nice, slightly too formal. Zuko finally landed on the word "contrived", and decided that it was an accurate descriptor. Jin however labeled it as "bittersweet".
She had just won her third game, smiling victoriously as Suki groaned and Sokka began to splutter. Zuko met her eyes and as the rest of the group was distracted by Katara's attempts to console her brother and Toph's endeavors to make the situation worse, they slipped out of the shop.
They walked in silence for what felt like a very long time. Neither really knew what to say, and they ended up simply walking together, lost in their own thoughts. Eventually, he stopped and she looked up to see that they had found their way to the firelight fountain.
At one point Jin had found this courtyard beautiful. Now she was coming to despise it. It just reminded her of painful memories of torture and heartache and Lee's inconsiderate actions.
The sight stirred her into speaking. "I don't know what to do."
Lee sighed and ran his fingers through his hair.
She slumped down on the edge of the fountain and buried her face in her hands.
"I just don't know."
He didn't say anything and another silence stretched between them punctuated only by the sounds of evening in the lower ring: the buzzing of insects, footsteps on the main street, women announcing dinner to their children playing outside.
They had been in this courtyard twice before. Both times he had left her and she had stubbornly followed him. She had followed him despite her better judgment, despite the dangers, and despite his many character flaws that should have pushed her away.
She heard the rustle of fabric as he sat next to her. "Do you want the torches lit?"
She berated herself that she should never have gone back to the tea shop to see him again after their first date. Back then, she was strong and resourceful. She was a leader. She was a scholar.
But she had followed him. And now she felt drained and fragile. How many times had she cried recently? How many times had she felt alone? How many times had she been unsure of how to continue?
She wasn't sure that she had the strength – or that she even wanted - to follow him again. If she went with him to the Fire Nation, she would be hated by his people. She would lead her life as a docile princess. She would have to leave her friends and family.
But if she stayed here…
She was needed here. She was a leader again. She was respected and she had power and she could change this city for the better. This was everything that she had ever wanted.
So why was the choice so hard?
He slid off the rim of the fountain, onto his knees in front of her, taking her hands into his own. They were so warm and strong and rough and familiar. She looked into his eyes – his bright, expressive eyes.
She remembered why the choice was so very difficult.
"I will wait for you." His voice and his eyes were as serious as he had ever been.
"Our countries need us now. We have to be apart for the good of our people. We have to be selfless. I understand that now. But it doesn't mean that we have to end this completely. I'll have to come here and you'll have to come to the Fire Nation. We can take vacations together. We'll go to Ember Island. Every year. In the summer. You'd like that right?"
He reached up to cup her cheek.
"Then someday… someday I'll retire or you'll find a replacement. Someday things will be better and we won't be needed as much. When that happens we'll be together. I will wait for you. I would wait forever."
The tears started to roll down her cheeks again and she bit her lip to keep it from trembling.
"This doesn't have to be the end. It's only the beginning."
He leaned forward to place a chaste kiss against her quivering lips. Her hand shook in his.
A shaky smile emerged amid her tears. "I'd like those lamps lit now."
AN: Thank you for reading and for your support.