Leaving Things Behind Us

Forced down different paths, peace brings new definition to the lives of the Gaang as some grow apart and others grow closer. Taang/Zutara.

I'm assuming by the end of the series Aang and Toph are 13, Katara is 15, Sokka and Suki 16, and Zuko is 17. Defiantly Taang and Zutara, with some Sukka thrown in. Forgive any errors, I am great at picking apart other peoples work but terrible at my own.

Chapter One - Departures.

"The fatal metaphor of progress, which means leaving things behind us, has utterly obscured the real idea of growth, which means leaving things inside us." G. K. Chesterton

The fire crickets were chirping their usual late night songs outside of Aang's bedroom. Yue was brightly lit and high in the night sky, while in the distance, some midnight revelers were setting off firecrackers.

Two months- Two months had passed since Zuko's coronation and the world was slowly settling down into peace. Aang brought his feet together, then his hands, and bowed his head trying to clear his mind. They had done much: helped Zuko weed through the ministers, rebuilt, calmed rioters, even replaced military commanders with more loyal subjects. The job, however, was far from over. Still, change was in the air- he could feel it creeping along his bones, threatening to unsettle everything he hoped for.

Aang felt the wind shift through the balcony doors, settling in the room. Taking another deep breath, he felt the soft contours of the bed beneath him, the silken feel of the sheets against his body-

"Give it up, Twinkle Toes."

Aang sighed and cracked open an eye to peer at the small earthbender. He had not heard the door opening, but there she stood, leaning casually against the doorframe with silk covered arms crossed over her chest. "I'm trying to meditate." He finally answered her.

Toph scoffed, "Your breathing is keeping me up." Aang chose to ignore her presence and comment, instead opting to take another deep breath and close his eyes, reaching towards the elusive inner calm he sought. The bed suddenly creaked under added weight. Aang launched forward, the covers yanked from underneath him as he went flying face forward into the sheets, his butt protruding into the air. Glancing over his side, he caught sight of the small earthbender curling into the ball, "Stop hogging the covers, Twinkles."

"Uh, Toph," Aang pulled himself upright and turned to the small ball of blankets. "What are you doing?"

"What's it look like, Twinkle Toes?" The blankets muffled her voice, but he could still catch the sarcasm dripping off it. "My room stinks of fire and it's cold, I like yours much better. Besides, your sheets are nice and warm, and you're not planning on using them- so I will."

"Fine, as long as I can meditate." Aang turned his back to the lump of covers and slowly resumed his position. A deep breath filled the cavity of his lungs as silence settled over the room. The crickets and firecrackers faded into the distance. Another deep breath-

"What do you think is going to happen now?"

"Toph-" He tried hard to keep the exasperation from his voice, but had to admit a slight failure.

"What, you're not mediating- I can tell. You never breathe this much when you meditate." Silence followed her comment. The wind seemed to still outside. Aang started to take another breath- A small foot gently poked his side. "You didn't answer my question."

"Fine-" Aang broke his pose and addressed the foot that was peeking out of the covers. "I don't know, are you happy now? Can I please go back to trying to find some inner peace?"

The foot retreated under the covers. "Don't get your panties in a bunch Twinkles." The form moved beneath the covers. "I was just asking the question that's on everybody's mind. You guys are just too chicken to talk about it."

Aang sighed for what felt like the hundred time that night and let his body fall back against the bed, his hands coming up to support his head as he stared up at the ceiling. "Change is frightening. We've already been though so much and worked so hard to get here. No one wants to lose what we have, but change is coming- I can feel it in the wind."

"A bad change?"

"No- but change."

The bed shifted as Toph slowly pushed the covers off her head. "Huh, well- I guess that makes sense. You defeated the demon Fire Lord, now peace has to reside in place of war. And now everyone has to go."

The concept bothered Aang more then he wanted to admit it. "What do you mean?"

"Everyone has something. Suki will need to head home, as will Sokka and Katara. Zuko has to stay here and run his little domain. Iroh wants to return to his teashop. And you, you have the world to baby-sit. Everyone has something to go to, everyone but me."

Aang sent a quizzical look towards Toph, and then remembering she couldn't see it, he added, "Huh?"

"Hello, anybody home? I can't go back to my parents. I don't want to live in that cage again. You've shown me freedom, Twinkle Toes, how can I go back to the polar opposite?"

Aang felt like slapping his palm against his forehead, "I never thought of it like that. I just always assumed you'd be with us, that we'd be together."

"And she will, if Katara has anything to say about it." Sokka interrupted, dragging his slouching form into the room to slink into the nearest open chair. "Now that the future is settled can we have some quiet in here? I'm trying to sleep."

Toph merged herself back beneath the covers, "Huh, funny, I don't remember noise ever stopping you before."

"Especially when it's not even your room." Aang quipped up. "I didn't know the fire palace walls were so thin."

"Fine, fine-" Sokka made a face at the Avatar. "You caught me, I don't know what it is about tonight, but it's rendered us all insomniacs." Leaning back in his chair, Sokka pressed his fingertips together. "What we need is a plan- and it so happens that plans are my forte. In fact, I think I have one already in store. As soon as 'Sparky' gets his groove on and tames the great Fire Nation, the five of us hop on the flying bison and head south."

Suki snorted as she strolled casually into the room. "What makes you think I want to freeze my butt off," she questioned, leaning against Sokka's chair.

"What- you have to come."

"Says who?"

Toph let out an angry growl as she bounced upright- covers haphazardly thrown away, consequently burying Aang. "What is this, a party? I was in here first, so the rest of you can just come back another night."

Katara made a disgruntled noise from the doorway, "Seeing as how Sokka and I were the ones that discovered Aang in that icicle, I'd say that technically we'd have first rights to the Avatar on any given day. What with being his rescuer and all-"

"Says you, Sugar Queen."

Aang kicked the covers back over Toph and sat up, "What am I, a toy to pass around."

"Yeah, just about the coolest toy we've ever had." Sokka quipped with a roll of his eyes.

"No, Aang, your not." No one missed the glare Katara shot off at her elder brother. "And I only came in here to break up this party. You're making a lot of noise and I'm sure Zuko needs all the sleep he can get. It can't be easy running a Fire Nation."

"I personally find it exhilarating," the man in question declared as he came to a stop beside the shocked waterbender.

"Ughh-" Toph growled, "All you people drive me crazy. Twinkle Toes and I were having a private conversation."

"Ohhh- private conversations," Sokka winked in Aang's direction, invoking a small punch from Suki and an eye roll from Katara.

Zuko glanced around the room, "What are you five gossiping about in the dead of the night?" He questioned, leaning against the doorframe and crossing his arms across his chest.

Sokka shrugged, "Oh, the future, the south pole, freezing bottoms off, how tired you are, you know- the general stuff."

"That's it-" Aang interrupted leaping to his feet and ignoring the startled cry as he accidentally stepped on Toph. "No more small talk, no more debating the future. I was trying to meditate when everyone decided they just 'needed' to spend some quality time with me. Everybody out- now!"

"Alright, alright, cool your jets. We'll leave you to your 'private conversations' with the cranky earthbender." Pushing up, Sokka dragged his limbs out of the chair and across the room, Suki following a step behind. Zuko nodded goodnight and turned to follow, exchanging a brief glance with Katara before briskly walking out of the room.

"Goodnight, Aang." The waterbender pulled the doors closed behind her and silence once again settled over the room. The Avatar dropped back down to the bed and reformed his mediation stance. He took a deep breath- and felt the bed shift again, by no movement of his own. "Well-"

"What?" Toph questioned, struggling to get comfortable again.

"Out- I need to meditate."

"Look Twinkles, I told you already; my room is stinky and I won't bother you. So go ahead- get your meditation on."

Life and war had taught Aang many things, and one of those things happened to be that there is nothing is more stubborn than a tired earthbender. Realizing he was possibly fighting a pointless battle and only wasting time, Aang resumed his stance and took a deep breath. The room was still, the air cool and crisp. Toph's breathing slowed and evened out, signifying either that the earthbender had fallen asleep, or that she was honoring her word and keeping quiet. Aang felt his body relaxing as he focused in, taking comfort in Toph's presence, his mind clearing as the world melted away from him. And just as suddenly, he found himself floating in the clouds, "Success."

"Hello, Aang."

"Avatar Roku." Aang sat up a little straighter as his former life appeared before him. Pressing his hands together, the airbender bowed to his honored past life. "What a surprise to see you, I thought-" Aang left the last part of his sentence unfinished as he pushed himself up to meet the spirit.

Roku returned the bow before speaking, "You did well in the final battle, my friend, and I congratulate you on your success. But, I fear I have some ill tidings to bring."

"Is there a new threat to the balance?"

Roku inclined his head slightly, "There will always be a threat to the balance, Aang." He explained. Turning away the elder avatar strolled along the clouds, Aang following at his side. "It is part of the reason we exist, to ensure that the ever threatened peace and balance remain. Now, after so many years of war, we must be on guard. Many will seek to restore unbalance for their own purposes."

"What must I do then?"

Roku pressed his fingertips together and turned to face the younger avatar. "You must complete your training."

To say Aang felt shocked could not cover the emotions that suddenly spring to life within his spirit. "But, I thought- I don't understand. I have mastered all forms of bending and I can control the avatar state now."

Roku shook his head, "You have not mastered all the finer elements of bending, nor do you have 'complete' control over your Avatar state. If Ozai had not opened your last chakra, we might not be having this conversation. Besides, those are but two of the stages in the many steps to becoming an Avatar." It would have been hard to miss the crestfallen expression on Aang's face, but Roku passed it off and continued. "If fate had not interceded, you would have taken these steps as you mastered the elements. Instead we spirits fill the need to guide you through the remaining steps in a spiritual journey."

It took a second for Aang to come to grips with the information and a battle of wills played across his face. "How long will this take?"

"It depends, you learned your elements exceedingly well over the last year, our tasks may only take a few months, or they could take a lifetime." Roku glanced down at the younger man, "I have faith in you, my friend. You can accomplish what is needed in the time that you desire to."

"But my friends-"

Roku lifted a hand, silencing his younger protégée. "-Will remain your friends. But your paths may not always intercede." With a wave of his hand several colored strings appeared before Roku, some entwining, some separating only to entwine again later. The strings vanished just as quickly as they had appeared. "As you were once joined, you will now be separated. But fear not, for a true friend is never truly parted." Roku turned away from the crestfallen avatar and continued, "You must learn to understand and shoulder the burden of your responsibility. It is a journey you have already started, but you must complete it in order to find balance with both that burden and your own needs." Turning back the elder spirit watched his younger compatriot. "You will not need your friends on this journey."

For a second Aang contemplated the meaning of Roku's words. He had already trained so hard and for what felt like so long. The prospect of spending time with his friends was foremost in his mind; a time when he could just kick back and experience the joys and hardship of growing up with the people he cared about. But that all seemed to be rapidly vanishing before him, "But my friends have-"

Roku shook his head, silencing Aang. "I can not guide you, if you do not wish it. Make your choice and if you choose to take your burden then I will await you on Whale Tale Island. There is a small secluded spirit oasis along the northern coast where you may enter the spirit world." Roku turned away from Aang, his form slowly vanishing as he spoke his last few words, "If you do not choose to take this task, I can do naught but wish you luck."

A foot knocked into Aang's side, and he suddenly found himself back in the cool air of the bedroom. Toph's light snores broke the air, her small foot pressed firmly to his side. Aang let his face fall into his hands as Roku's words played through his mind. Once again, he found himself wishing for a simpler life, wishing he could go back to being just the air bender, not the avatar. Nevertheless, this time he would not run away, he couldn't leave the world to its own care again. The foot in his side shifted again, drawing Aang's eyes back to the smaller earthbender at his side- but how in the stars was he going to tell the rest of them?

"Alright," Sokka burst into the private breakfast room waving around a small scroll. "Mail call's here."

Zuko glanced up from the head of the table as he stabbed his fork into a piece of fruit. "Oh joy." To his right Katara sat up a little straighter. On his left however, Aang only seemed to sink lower into his chair.

Noting her friends sinking position, Toph tried to ram an elbow into his arm, hitting his shoulder instead, "Hey, Twinkles, you trying to crawl under the table or something."

"Huh, uh- no." Pulling himself upright Aang ignored the questioning glance from Katara. "I- I just didn't sleep very well last night." Picking up his fork, he started shoving the food on his plate around. "Must have been the snoring."

"Yeah, yeah, whine about it to Sparky here so I can get a non-stinky room."

"I bet it's from dad." Sokka interrupted. Squeezing in-between Katara and Suki, he reached eagerly for his fork and dropped the letter. "Ah, glorious meat, how I've enjoyed our time together. You brighten my mornings, and give sweet, sweet joy to my afternoons. Oh, that we are never parted again-"

"Well," Zuko interrupted, Sokka glanced up from shoveling food onto his plate with a puzzled expression. "The letter, why don't you read it?"

"Huh," Sokka's eyebrows hiked up as he continued shoveling food onto his plate. "Its meat time, letters can wait." He barely avoided the whack Katara sent his way and continued shoveling food into his mouth.

"Let me then." The waterbender picked up the scroll and carefully unraveled it. "It is from dad; he says all is well in the tribe, Gran-Gran sends her love, but he wants us to return home. There's a ship waiting in the harbor to bring us back." The already quiet table went still as all eyes shifted over to Katara.

"Ship, what do we need a ship for?" Sokka questioned, pointedly ignoring the tension. "Appa can get us there in half the time. We can pack up; the five of us hop on the flying bison, and be home in a matter of days. "

"Uh, five of us?" Suki interrupted. "What part of 'I don't want to freeze my butt off' did you not hear last night?"

The meat on Sokka's plate was suddenly abandoned. "What, no, you can't not come."

"Sokka, I need to return home," the Kyoshi warrior explained, "I have to help take care of my people, I can't just abandon them. I'll be glad to come and visit, but there are things I need to take care of first."

"Alright, fine- I understand. But, I'm not happy about this." Grudgingly Sokka's attention returned to the meat, but not without a healthy amount of muttering.

"Alright then, after we finish breakfast we should pack. I'm sure that we can arrange to drop Suki off on Kyoshi Island, right Aang?" Katara questioned, her gaze returning to the Avatar sitting across from her. Aang shifted uncomfortable, unsure of how to proceed, Toph elbowed him in the shoulder again as Katara questioned, "Aang, are you alright?"

"Actually, you should probably take the boat. I don't think I can take you."

"What?" Sokka demanded, "Not you too."

Katara reached across the table to place a comforting hand on the airbender's before speaking, "Aang, what's going on?"

The Avatar shifted nervously, "Last night Avatar Roku visited me."

"That means trouble." Toph interrupted, adding a sad shake of her head for emphasis and invoking a glare from Zuko and a warning sound from Katara. "What, it's the truth; whenever that guy shows up you guys learn something tragic. Who told you about Sozin's comet, huh?"

"Go ahead Aang, what did Roku tell you." Katara encouraged.

"My training is not complete." A chorus of 'whats' and 'that's crazy' followed his statement. "I have not learned all the finer points of being the Avatar. Roku says I must learn to shoulder my responsibility and to balance myself; only then will I be fully prepared to act as Avatar." Silence dropped on the table for the third time, it was getting to be a habit with them lately.

"Well, that's settled then." Katara declared with a confident nod of her head. "We'll just go with you. After all, it's important that you're prepared to face the challenges of being the Avatar. And who better to help you train then your former teachers?"

Aang frowned, shaking his head, "No Katara, you should be with your family."

"But, Aang, you are family."

"I have no idea how long this will take, or even where I'll be going, whether I'll be training in the Spirit World or in the Physical World. I just know I need to do this, I need to finish my training, I need to be a complete Avatar or everything we worked so hard to accomplish will be for nothing."

Katara slammed her fork down on the table, "This is ridiculous, you've already faced more than enough challenges and done so much. If I could give Roku a piece of my mind-"

"He would convince you that this is needed." Sokka interrupted with a wave of his fork. "You can't say we didn't all expect this to happen. Aang needs to train and we need to go home to Dad."

Katara sat up straighter, pressing her fingertips to her forehead as she tried to straighten out her thoughts. "This is all happening to quickly. Five minutes ago, we were just sitting here having breakfast, and now suddenly everyone is going their separate ways. Zuko might-"

"I'll be fine." The Fire Lord glanced up from his plate to meet the waterbenders eyes. "Sokka is right; I think we all knew this would happen sooner or later. The world needs its Avatar, your father needs you, and I must remain here to govern my people. It would be selfish and dishonorable to deny those in need- not when we've worked so hard to bring peace."

"Fine, it's settled then." Sokka turned back to Suki, "We could drop you somewhere if you like."

A brief smile crossed Suki's face, her hand grasping his tightly. "That would be great, Sokka."

Pushing back in his chair, Sokka glanced down the table, "Toph, at least your coming with us, right."

"Um, I guess." The earthbender answered as she reluctantly abandoned her plate. The entire table seemed to have lost all appetite, as food was shoved aside and forks neglected.

"Great, don't sound so enthusiastic about it." Sokka stood up, "We'll need to pack, and probably quickly. I don't think the boat is going to wait long, and without a flying bison the sooner we leave, the better." Suki rose to follow him out.

The four remaining occupants sat avoiding each other's gaze. "Why," Katara began, only to pause. "Why does this feel like the end?"

"It's not the end," Aang assured her, "It's only the beginning of something else."

"Sure feels like the end of an era." Toph whispered, kicking the ground roughly with her foot.

"But it's not. Gyatso always said-"

"It is, Aang." Katara interrupted. "And claiming that it's not, would just be deceiving yourself. It is the end of an era." She bowed her head for a second, afraid to meet the gold or gray eyes. "But, I refuse to accept that the end of one era and the beginning of another will mean an end to family or friends. Just because we separated does not mean we're no longer family. Sokka is right, we must accept this." Pushing back from the table, the waterbender moved swiftly and determinedly away.

Zuko stood up abruptly, "Excuse me." Inclining his head to the two remaining occupants, the Fire Lord swept out of the room and followed Katara's footsteps.

"So, I guess this means what you said last night is out."

Aang glanced up, his head wiping around to stare at the girl still sitting next to him. "Huh- oh, yeah, I guess-" He watched her for a brief second, noting the fine porcelain features and the way her bangs seemed to conceal so much of her face. The story was so different for her, no quest awaited; no one needed her to come home. No one, except, maybe-

"Spit it out, Twinkle Toes, I can tell you want to say something, so just say it already."

Aang shrugged and turned his eyes away from the blind girl. "I guess I was just thinking that it wouldn't hurt if you came along- I mean if you came along with me."

Her forehead wrinkled, hands dropping to grip the seat, "But, you just said- you just told Katara-"

"I know, but her family needs her." What was he doing, Roku would kill him if her brought along someone else. Okay, maybe not kill, but the Avatar's Spirit would defiantly not throw her a welcoming party. "Are you just going to go back to Gaoling and to your parents? I mean- on the other hand, you could go live a blind life in the South Pole. I don't know, just neither of the options really seems like options." Great, his mouth was decidedly carrying him along an unknown path that could result in his spiritual homicide.

"Oh, I get it." Toph nodded her head in understanding. "Thanks, Twinkle Toes, but I don't need your pity."

"Good, because I'm not offering it."

"Will you stop talking gibberish?"

"I'm not; I never said this would be a vacation. Who knows how long I'll be in the Spirit World, you could find yourself starving or stranded on a beach somewhere. Nevertheless, I'm going to need someone to watch after Appa and Momo, and I'm going to need someone to pound me in the head when I start running away." Toph crossed her arms over her chest, the expression on her face doubtful. "I guess if you don't want to I can-"

Toph launched herself at him, small warm arms suddenly encompassing his slight form in a boulder-crushing hug. "Thanks, Twinkle Toes." Pulling back just as quickly, she punched him roughly in the

shoulder. "No one saw that- it never happened."

"May I come in?"

Katara glanced up at the sound of Zuko's voice to find the Fire Lord standing quietly in her doorway. "Of course you can."

Zuko nodded his thanks and stepped into the room, his hands clasped behind his back as he observed her slowly packing her belongings into a familiar blue duffel. "I'm sorry to see you go, the time you have spent here has been very enjoyable. I had hoped-" He paused as though unsure of himself, though his expression failed to give away any turbulent emotions. "I still can not thank you enough for what you've done for me and my people."

Katara smiled gently, folding up a tunic, she stuffed it in the bag and turned to face the Fire Lord, "No thanks need, we did what was right. It's not as if you were no help in the final battle. What you did was not easy, we all know that and appreciate it."

"Still, I've enjoyed the time we spent together. I've never truly had any friends, you've shown me what it is to love and be comforted. For that I will be eternally grateful." Zuko fidgeted slightly with his hands, turning his gaze away from her as he stiffened. "I will miss-"

Katara threw her arms around him, pressing her face against his chest she clung tightly to her friend, "Gran-Gran always says there's no such thing as a true goodbye with the people that matter, only a 'see you later.'" His arms slipped around her waist to rest lightly on her back. "Promise you'll write. I know you'll be busy-"

"I promise, on my honor, to write."

"Good, I know you won't break that promise." A smile cracked Zuko's face as Katara laughed gently and pulled back, wiping a tear from her check, "It's funny, only a few months ago we were the worst of enemies, now the best of friends."

"Uncle Iroh would say fate works in mysterious ways."

"I think Gran-Gran would agree with him."

"Hey Toph, where's your stuff?" Sokka questioned, hauling his and Suki's duffels up the plank of the boat he tossed it to the nearest sailor. The docks were bustling with merchants and ships as the Fire Nation slowly repaired it's trading industry. Suki and Toph stood at the bottom of the gangplank, Aang hovering just a few paces away. "Boats going to be departing soon, don't tell me your going al la neutral."

"No, I'm not going."

"What?" the Warrior demanded as he quickly shuffled back down the walkway to join them. "Is this some kind of practical joke or is it just 'abandon Sokka' week and nobody told me."

The Blind Bandit shrugged, "Yeah, as if I'd really have a blast in the artic freezing my butt off and being totally blind." Crossing her arms across her chest, she continued. "Aang invited me to baby-sit Appa and Momo while he's off hunting spirits or something."

"Good," Katara called as both she and Zuko walked into view. Zuko nodded in agreement with her statement and tossed Katara's duffel to Sokka. "At least now you'll have someone to watch your back while you're tramping through the Spirit Lands." She ignored the slight pang of jealously in her heart and reached out to pull Aang into a tight hug. "I've already got Zuko's promise to write, do I get one from you too?"

"Really, Katara," Sokka piped up as he sauntered back up the ship's ramp to toss the duffel, "how often do you think he's going to be able to write while doing mysterious things in the Spirit World. Probably just as often as you wrote Gran-Gran while trying to save the world." He ignored the glare and clambered back down, tossing an arm around Suki's shoulder.

"I'll do my best," Aang promised, "You'd probably better send any letters to Omashu, Bumi will hold on to them until I can pick them up."

"Yeah, and the crazy bat will probably read and publish them all too." Toph added, "So be carefully what you say Katara, don't go confessing anything unless you want the world to know." The comment sent a blush to both Aang's and Katara's cheeks- but invoked a slight frown Zuko, one that he quickly wiped off.

Pulling away from the younger boy, Katara turned to wrap the smaller earthbender in an equally strong hug. "Take care of yourself and promise me that you'll come to the South Pole as soon as you're finished."

Toph scoffed, but returned the hug, "Don't worry, Katara. We'll be fine. And where else would we have to go once the monk here finishes. You guys are family now."

"Well," Sokka declared, breaking the moment. "It's been fun, Zuko. I enjoyed the power, really enjoyed the power, not so much the sweating and rebuilding, but the power was fun." Zuko raised an eyebrow impassively at the younger boy, before sharing a brief glance with Katara. "Alright, alright- enough with the hugs. Tides going to turn and we'll get left behind."

"Make sure to write, and take care of yourselves." Katara pulled Zuko, Toph and Aang back into one more hug before following her brother and Suki up the ramp.

The ship lurched beneath the three, pulling slowly away from the docks as the steam from the engines billowed overhead. Suki smiled warmly and turned away from both the brother and the sister, "I'm going to go see about our things."

Silence settled over the pair as the docks began to shrink. Sokka leaned forward over the railing, addressing his sister, "You seem fine with this."

"Yeah, I mean, Aang's already been through so much, what else could he have to learn?" Katara questioned. "I think we'll being seeing them again really soon, maybe in only three months."

"Huh, funny, because I get the feeling we won't be seeing them for a long time." Sokka turned away, leaving the waterbender alone on the deck. The tide churned below, pulling the ship rapidly away from the three figures still standing alone on the docks.