Hello everyone! This took a while. It took a lot of tears and effort and coffee. I hope it fulfills all your hopes and dreams, and I would like to take this opportunity to tell you all how honored I am by your participation, by your readership, and by this wonderful community of readers. If I ever publish anything, you will be the first to know! Your support is the only thing that made this possible, and I'm very proud to present to you the conclusion to Endlessly, She Said. I started this almost three years ago, and for all you who were waiting this whole time- I dedicate this to you.
Lani went to the shadows and watched Iroh go with the men. She stood there, just behind the wall, pressing her slender little frame against the building and peeking out beyond it with one eye. As soon as Iroh was gone, there was a shrill whistle in the port. The sound made Lani's ears hurt, but it was short, and when it stopped, all the soldiers started running away, towards the hill.
A man glanced her way as he ran by and she whipped back behind the corner, her heart jumping into her throat like it wanted to run away, too. One moment later she checked again, and he had turned and was coming closer, eyes locked on her. Katara would be calm, Lani thought, and she took a deep breath, deciding to run back towards the city. The siren stopped her, as it stopped everyone, and when they all looked up, their mouths dropped open in a collective cry of fear. She couldn't see what was going on, but it frightened her. One woman to her right screamed, "Follow the soldiers!" over her shoulder as she ran after the men in red armor.
But those who followed were being cut down, led into the valley of Caldera to die. Lani wheeled away from the sight, following a dim alley before she doubled back and went towards the water, jogging backwards to look up. Shadows began to creep along the ground, huge shadows as big as clouds. The air was filled with flames and bodies swinging down from black cords.
Never in her life had anything been so fearsome as the fire bombs that dropped then, that boomed and shattered the wooden houses three streets over, causing black smoke to billow in front of the rising sun. Everyone was screaming then. Lani was screaming. As soon as she realized it she stopped. Heroes didn't cower like children, even when they were children. Katara had always done what she could. Lani felt the fear and swallowed it down, straightened up and called out, "Don't go there! They'll kill you from that direction!" but her small voice was smothered by pounding feet and bodies closing in. She ran still, calling anyone with her that she could, seeing how terror made people blind to the danger of following these killers into the hills. The air ships would bomb the city, not the water, where flames died and everything was weightless. She could swim out like a little fish and stay cool while her city burned. Maybe, if Katara could find her there, they would never have to go back to land.
Someone grabbed her collar and Lani yelped as she was turned to face an ash-streaked face, coal-black eyes. "Stop! Go towards the hills!" the woman shrieked. Lani shook her head, but the lady hauled them to a stop. "You're just a child!" she shouted again and again, clutching Lani's arms, trying to make her go.
But they stopped as something happened in the sky. A great big air ship was coming down, its gas bag in tatters, spewing forth steam and fire. On either side, more followed in varying degrees of destruction. Ships were blanketing whole blocks of the city in destruction, shot down by-
Lani gasped and fell back as huge mounds of dark, wet earth roared up from beneath the pavestones and cascaded over the fires, smothering them into nothing but acrid smoke. A great yell burst from her chest and the child jumped in the air, looking all around her. Someone was fighting back, someone was helping! Lani thought of Katara, of the stories, of her friends. "Oh, oh!" the woman was screaming, trying to pull Lani in, squeezing too tight. Lani gripped the woman's fingers and yanked her down to eye level with a mighty wrench too strong for such a little child.
"Let me go," Lani said, "let me go, I'm going to the water." The woman fell back, and Lani ran through the streets she knew by heart, knew from nights spent practicing and fleeing from monsters. She knew her way. She could get there. The little firebender put her head down like Blue had taught her, clutched once at the necklace tucked against her hard-beating heart, and began to pass the wreckage and noise.
Screams for help stopped her, and the child's face lit up with light from a blazing, breaking building.
The belly of the zeppelin was a small space, and most of the soldiers had deployed. It left three men by the entrance and two pilots, and two men manned the furnace with near constant blasts. Iroh took them out first, and then faced the young men who stood ready, but shocked. "If you want to surrender, now is the time," he said. The soldiers reacted slowly, looking at each other. Then, in a rush, all but one pilot dove towards the hole, towards the ropes, and went down it, and Iroh threw the other pilot towards the hole as soon as the man reached for the pulley that would sound an alarm. The pilot gave up then and crawled out, a lucky break for Iroh, who knew he had no time at all- and now, no control over the zeppelin. As he turned around, back to the narrow window at the front of the vessel, the whole thing tilted slowly, out of control.
He went to the panel, pulling back on the joystick that turned the small wings, and held on as the ground rocked under his feet. There was no straight line of ships, they were spreading out among the buildings, narrowing in upon the Third Ring, and as Iroh realized his position gave him little to no advantage, he turned the ship towards the one closest on his left, pointed towards the hills instead of a collision course.
If he could move from vessel to vessel, maybe he could steer them away. Maybe he could save lives. With this new plan, Iroh went to the hole in the bottom of the empty zeppelin and grabbed the rope. Without resting, with a sweet little brown-eyed face flashing in his mind, Iroh swung himself down, knotted his foot into the rope and waited for an opportunity to jump to the ropes on the ship headed his way.
A shout from the ground had him looking down, then scrambling for cover in the open air as
a hundred boulders the size of his head shot up from the ground and through the gasbag of the zeppelin he'd been aiming for. He yelled in shock as the vessel groaned and lurched in midair, straight towards his ship. He had one choice, and three seconds- Iroh loosened his grip and dropped down the rope, burning his hands, falling like a stone through the air and jerking to a terrifying stop only twenty feet from the ground. He hung for another moment, his head swirling, then climbed hand over hand to the ground and landed at a run as the belly of the zeppelin bore down upon the city. Thankfully most of the gas was escaping- there wouldn't be an explosion if there was no fuel. Screams came from every direction, and people surged from the buildings into the streets. Joined by them was a mismatched force of armored warriors, from silver-haired waterbenders to young Fire Nation soldiers with their spears and their shoulder pads. Some he could see were locals, with their cudgels and their butcher knives, their torches, and as they ran, they surged into the buildings, carried the wounded, shielded others from the debris flying through the air.
Iroh grabbed one of them and held him tightly by the shoulder, staring deep into his eyes. "Who do you defend, and who leads you?" he yelled over the noise, jostled on all sides as the sun colored the sky light purple and orange, and the crashed zeppelin hissed in fire and melting framework.
"We defend our homes and the citizens, and we are led by Fire Lord Zuko!" he yelled back, a triumphant cheer, a battle cry. Another barrage of rocks hit a zeppelin near the port just as it unleashed a horrible barrage on a tenement building, setting the whole thing afire. Iroh turned away, knowing his task.
"I am looking for a girl who is of the utmost importance to Master Katara and Fire Lord Zuko. You must help me find her," he demanded.
As Sokka charged towards the port with dozens of men and women running alongside him, splitting off into houses to check them for citizens, he watched that strange, otherworldly fire engulf the streets in his path and felt the heat on his cheeks, roughened with stubble and soot. There were still soldiers coming down into the fray, and his archers had taken up positions to shoot at the ropes, felling bodies, and, when their aim was particularly good, slicing the ropes in two. The battle had started and escalated suddenly. Every citizen killed was a justified target, and Azula's orders were clear.
"This way!" Sokka yelled to his remaining warriors, taking a side street to avoid the smoke billowing out of the buildings. His arms pumped and his legs flashed, running as fast as he dared, checking all angles-
He was so busy checking for soldiers that he almost ran right by the little girl who raised her hands and said, "Wait! Help!" as he passed.
Sokka screeched to a halt, snapping himself out of his driven state of mind, and went back, kneeling quickly. "What is it?" he asked the girl. Her hair was long and light brown, and her eyes streamed with tears as she pulled his hand and started hopping backwards anxiously.
"The soldiers, they're keeping these people in the buildings- they can't get out!" Sokka followed her to the end of the alley and saw people spilling from the windows, pleading, screaming as smoke seeped out from the building and flames licked the foundation. Sokka pushed the girl back into the safer alley and went forward, towards the tenement house, towards the line of black and red men keeping the people inside.
Sokka was full of a deep, unending rage for those who killed the innocent. He leaned in and held his sword high, but the soldiers turned and fired, keeping them back as the situation in the house grew steadily worse. All the evacuation missions had depleted Sokka's army, so he growled in frustration as he and his remaining warriors were forced back. He sprang forward, narrowly missed a jet of fire, fell back and rolled behind a group of his earthbenders and villagers, breathing hard.
Sokka felt a small hand on his arm, tugging, and without looking down, yelled to the little girl, "Go back to the alley where it's safe!" It surprised him to see a little boy standing there, holding a coil of wet rope, bouncing up and down. "What?" he asked, and the child pointed to his blue gear. Something odd struck him- the kid was serious, but not scared, his eyes alight with determination.
"Are you a waterbender?" the child screamed over the roar, and Sokka shook his head. The child mimicked him, shaking his head as well, then held up one end of the dense, frayed cord.
Sokka pulled the kid behind him and ran back as a soldier broke through some of his men and fired at him. In the confusion he lost his grip and the child stood up, one knee high, then brought his leg down and sent a blast into the air with his first two fingers, knocking the other firebender back and turning back to Sokka, who knelt with his eyes and mouth wide open. The kid was obviously fine, unconcerned, and shook the cord at Sokka with his other hand. "We need to get this between the house and the bad guys!" he shouted, "I dipped it in the fuel barrel at the port, it's going to burn really big. If we had a stream of water we could carry it up there, to the roof where it's burning, then get one end into the fire! It'll separate them!"
Sokka understood immediately, and his jaw dropped. "Smart idea," he told the little one, who grinned quickly, and then Sokka reached into his holster and grabbed his boomerang. "Maybe we don't need a waterbender." The child blinked for a moment at the weapon, and Sokka tied the near-weightless cord around the middle of his boomerang. "Okay, that's one end, now where else does the rope need to go?" he shouted.
Inside the house, something creaked, and the first story crackled and shifted, the whole building. A cry rose up, but the soldiers didn't relent, and Sokka's fighters kept barraging them. It gave them a pocket of calm to work in, and Sokka swore to himself that as soon as the child had told him the plan, he'd push him back towards the alley and keep another young boy from having to grow up like he did. But the boy shook his head and yelled, "I'll run it there!". Before Sokka could grab him, he'd started to run away.
"Stop!" the man yelled, unwilling to let one so young get involved, but the child just smiled impishly over his shoulder, in a way that spoke to something in Sokka's memory, and gave him a thumbs-up.
"Just aim your boomerang right! I'll do the rest!" the child said, and Sokka had only a brief second to wonder how the Fire Nation kid even knew what a boomerang was, let alone how it worked, before he ran to a good spot, uncoiling the rope as he went, and watched the kid.
The soldiers had turned back to the house to fire at a man trying to jump from the window. The crowd surged forward, making the soldiers turn back to them in one collective move, and Sokka glimpsed the child darting behind the line of firebenders. The child was ducking low, staying unnoticed, and as Sokka looked for a place to stand and throw, the child tied the rope to a grate in the street and waved his arms wildly above his head to Sokka. There was a crowd of people between them, all transfixed by the roaring chaos in front of them, and Sokka stalked to the other end of the rope, just inside the boundary, next to the house. He cocked his arm, calculated. The child grinned and jumped up in victory.
Just as Sokka's arm whipped to the side and the boomerang and cord whizzed away from his fingers, he glanced around and saw one of the soldiers turn and spot the child waving triumphantly. Sokka read the surprise, the shock. He saw those armored hands come up, sparks flying.
"No!" he yelled, reaching his arm out, his fingers stretching towards the child. The world hung in the balance.
The boomerang struck the roof, wrapped around a chimney, and ignited. The strange fire raced down the cord like it was devouring it, lighting up a quick path and then spiking into a hissing, roiling wall of flames. Sokka fell back, momentarily stunned by the sight and the sheer force of the blast. The wall of vicious fire was a story high, between the house and the soldiers, who fell back in pain as the light seared their eyes. Sokka was in a small corridor between the burning house and the burning wall, and he knew they had to move quickly. But where did that kid go? Sokka spun in a circle, his heart in his throat.
A small body darted close to him, bringing the smell of burned hair with it. "Close one," the little boy panted, his cheek rough and red, the hair at his ear smoking. Sokka grabbed his shoulder, relief coursing through him at an almost painful speed.
"You need to get out of here! You could be killed!" he bellowed over the noise. He understood courage, but this was just a kid- it wasn't normal, and it sure as hell wasn't safe. He couldn't let a child fight his battle. But at his words the child smiled up at him, and Sokka was suddenly struck by the realization that the child was a girl, her hair chopped short, but unable to hide the length of her eyelashes or her impish chin.
"They still need me!" she shouted up at him, and put her hands into fists, her first two fingers extended. Sokka craned his head. Then, he fell back, hopping away from the heat as the girl surged up and blasted at the windows, huge fronds of bright, crackling fire cracking the glass inwards, opening the window. At the same time, Sokka roared in pain as fire seared his back, and he turned with a swing of his arm and the clang of his sword to defend the line he and the girl had made. The soldier snarled at him and blood flecked the air, and then he was down and Sokka waited, poised for more.
"Don't go in there!" he ordered the little girl, who stood by the entrance she'd created, tense as if she was prepared to jump through. He'd go in himself when there were no more soldiers- already people were jumping from the second story, clambering down the drainpipe, but so many were still trapped inside. Sokka saw the light hit her face, and his stomach twisted strangely. He had the weirdest feeling he'd seen that expression before.
"I will never run away from people who need me," she shouted to him, her voice content and solid. Her chest rose and fell quickly, her face shone with purpose and elation. "If my mom had ran away from me, I would be dead."
Sokka lunged and caught hold of the child's collar as she jumped towards the window, towards the cries for guidance through the smoke and debris. "Your mom is probably looking for you!" he yelled, angry now, starting to feel scared that this little girl wouldn't go. "I'm not letting you go, kid. You've done more than you needed t- hey!" he shouted over the noise of rushing fire, pulling the girl by her collar behind him as two men leaped through the wall of flames, their armor smoking and glowing, the men inside crying out in pain. They were close- too close- Sokka raised his sword, and in his other hand, he felt the fabric slip, felt the child duck out of his grip.
When he tightened his fingers, they caught on a small, gritty chain, hooked around it as the girl slipped right out of it, and Sokka couldn't look to see what he'd grabbed, just held onto the little chain and clapped that hand to the hilt of his sword, swinging it with two arms, curling, slicing through the air, felling bodies. Hurry, he commanded himself, fearful for the child. This was not a child's burden.
It was only a moment, but Sokka had lost the girl. He whipped around just in time to see her small form flicker through the charring window, arms whirling to bend the fire away, and he screamed, "No!" His heart was full of horror. He ran at the house, but the heat forced him back, burning his hands on the ledges trying to see inside.
Smoke clouded around him, and he saw nothing inside.
The courtyard in the palace was quiet for just a moment after Zuko stepped in. Her body bursting with light, Katara couldn't stop the elated cry, his name torn from her lips like a song; like a battle scream it welled inside her and spilled into the air. "Zuko!" Finally, his name tasted sweet again, but she breathed in smoke, and through the musty air she saw Azula staggering, crouched, her arms hanging limp at her sides.
At first, Katara had a fantastical thought that all Azula's evil was spilling from her mouth, black in the light of early morning, but as Zuko stepped towards the faltering figure with his fists alight, Katara saw, in the flickering light, blood and her body undone- jerking, rasping.
"Azula," Ursa murmured faintly from the ground, bleeding from the head, blinking, her arm pinned underneath her body. Katara finally got one wrist free and swirled her fingers, managing a small pull to slice her ropes with the blood on the ground. Desperate times called, and she answered, leaning over Ursa to keep her away, watching Zuko, who had come to a halt standing over Azula. It was clear now that she wasn't going to get up again.
His flaming hands quelled, and he kneeled and grabbed her wrists and shoulders, hauling her into his lap. The girl gasped, but her brother held on. For a moment, they sat there; Zuko curled up, holding his sister, who gazed up at him in fear.
A wind blew through the courtyard, and the girl shivered.
"Azula," he said then. His voice was gentle. "It's okay." Azula grabbed at Zuko, snatching his hand, holding it tightly with trembling fingers.
"She- tried to k-kill me," Azula whispered, shaking her head, forcing the words as her eyes leaked red. Katara felt intrusive, horrified, stuck.
"Jin did that on his own. Not her." Azula moaned, then shook her head with wide, agonized eyes, past words, past sight. "It's okay," Zuko continued strongly, "she's okay, and you're going to be alright... okay? You're alright, Azula." Zuko paused, his arms wrapped closely around his little sister's twitching shoulders.
Katara didn't hear Azula's last words, if they were words at all, but Zuko understood the way a brother does, understanding through silence, those two identical faces mirroring expressions, those golden eyes speaking. Katara closed her eyes and turned her back, tugging Ursa upright, clutching at her. Zuko nodded and shushed his little sister. "Azula," he tried again, his voice choking off as he put her back against his chest and she began to convulse harder. "Azula, you are loved," he told her firmly, feeling her go. "It's alright. You are loved."
Her breath came short and fast, and her last breath drew in, long and unburdened. She breathed out his name, and Zuko closed his eyes, his face twisted.
Sokka's heart leapt, then fell as a body materialized in the smoke- too big, but he reached in and pulled, heaving the man through the window only to see his hand grasping that of a woman, who was pulling a child behind her, all linked by their hands. A siren filled the air in the background, and the skies stilled, the air ships pivoting where they hovered, turning around. Cheers rose up, and the bad soldiers ran. It was ending.
Other hands joined Sokka's, pulling people out. The first man vomited, and then Sokka was hauling him up, smacking his face to get his eyes focused. "Where's the girl who came in for you?" he begged, shaking the man hard, "Where is she?" The man was beyond words, pointing, coughing. Sokka let him go, watching for the little girl, though no more people were coming out of the wreck.
A cry rose up as the cord that had protected them began to turn to ash, no more fuel for that fire. Sokka saw no more soldiers through the smoke, his eyes swollen with grime, and so he turned to the house just as it snapped and creaked, the flames smaller and smaller. An earthbender had joined the fight, raising the streets to pull damp dirt from under the stones and blanketing the flames. But still the house fell, beginning to collapse in on itself.
"Everyone back!" people yelled, surging away from the wreckage. "Get back, it's coming down!"
"No, no, no!" he was yelling, until he could no longer hear anything but a ringing sound. Sokka ran towards the building again and again, and felt hands yanking him back, hauling him to the ground. "Get off me!" he screamed, struggling, not hearing their warnings, "I have to get her! Let me go! Let me-"
With one last surge of energy and light, the fire consumed the framework, and the structure folded.
His body felt like a prison, and the pressure was unbearable. Sokka writhed, got one arm free, and pushed himself up. "Stop!" they yelled at him, but he rose, kicking them off, running forward to keep from falling. His ears rung. The building smoldered in front of him, and he could see nothing but shadows and embers. There was an opening through the doorframe. He pulled his shirt up over his face and busted in, singeing his shoulders and head, his eyes watering. Every step was over a burning beam or through a screen of fire, and wet earth filled the air as his soldiers realized he was in there.
They were trying to save him, but Sokka knew if he didn't find that girl-
He felt a small hand tug on his shirt, and turned, crouching to see the girl pinned under debris, her face strangely serene, almost dazed. He felt something metal scratching against his face and realized the hand holding his shirt up was still tangled in the girl's chain. He held on to it and worked quickly to pull the child out. He was suffocating, but he had her. His body meant nothing to him as he went back out the way he came in, stumbling under the weight of the child.
The street was never quiet, but Sokka heard nothing, unwilling to process what he saw as the daylight revealed her face to be too pale, blood coming from her nose and ears. He sank to his knees, laying the little girl out on front of him. Her brown eyes were blinking, taking in the stretching sky, but her fingers scrambled at her throat. "My necklace," she breathed. Even now, her eyes were not fearful.
Sokka was already crying, wiping the grit off the little round emblem he held, tears blurring his vision as he wrapped the child's hand around it. She shook her head though, pushing the charm back at him, and Sokka felt helpless, maddened by it. "You have to give it back. Mama… have to give it back," she said. A tear slipped down her face and onto the stones beneath her body.
"I will," Sokka promised her. "I'll find her." The girl's mouth trembled, and Sokka grabbed her hand and kissed her on the forehead, feeling the coolness of her skin.
"Mama would have saved them too," he heard. His eyes were closed, but he forced them open for this child without her mother, and he found himself nodding, smiling down at her.
"Your plan worked great. You saved them, kid. Okay? Your mom is going to be so… proud," he forced out. He was running out of time. "What's your name? Honey, tell me what your name is. Where can I find your mother?" he begged, hating himself for not doing anything.
"Lani," she whispered, "tell Mama…" Her voice trailed off. Sokka didn't wait, knowing how little time it took between last words and last breaths, and he kissed her forehead again, rocking back and forth with the pain like an old, widowed woman.
"I'll tell her Lani," he promised. "You did so good. I'm so proud of you," he told her.
A moment after that, he told her again, quieter, because the spirit is always more sensitive after it leaves the body, and he didn't want to frighten her.
When he rose, he took a moment to untangle the chain from her fingers, and felt down the links to the weighted pendant. And when he first held the stone, he froze his eyes on the little' girl's closed eyes, and didn't look down. Instead, he let his fingers explore the smooth lines and sanded down curves, a picture forming in his mind, a familiar picture that he loathed to recognize. "It's not you," he said aloud, then looked down.
His mother's necklace- Katara's necklace- shone up at him from his dirty hands. "It is you," he murmured, and looked back to the child on the ground, his hands shaking. "Who are you?" he asked, and the spirit must have been a very good one to move on so quickly, because no voice answered him, not even the wind.
Zuko held his sister for a long time, even after she was gone, getting her blood on his hands and his shirt, wiping it from her face and hair. "It's alright," he said again, but this time, it was to himself, it was a lie, and his voice broke over the tears. Ursa sat motionless, and Katara knew better than to move her. She healed the cuts that were bleeding, and then she went to Zuko. He didn't react to her approach and gripped Azula's body in a steel vise until she touched his shoulder, pulled at him. He let go then and followed her, rising to his feet slowly and leaning down against her, and Katara wrapped her arms around him as best as she could. For just a moment, she was scared, because he said nothing.
"I love you." His voice was rough and quiet, his eyes wet against her neck, and she relaxed every muscle and pressed against him. She felt the words, and the thrum of his pulse, she felt the exhilaration of letting her guard down because he was safe, and he was here. Mine, she thought, you are finally mine.
"I love you. I have loved you, even when I didn't know it was you." She took his cheeks, his healed face, in both hands, brushing the skin with her fingertips, and made him look at her. There was something still missing, still searching in his gaze. He wasn't healed yet, but now she knew they had time. "There is no way I could ever love anyone else," she told him carefully, sure he would listen, "and I'm so glad you found me." He kissed her then, a small, tired token, one that spoke of later to come when they had better timing. Then, they turned to Ursa, and went to pick her up off the ground. She was small and quiet, staring at Azula, tears slipping down her pale cheeks.
Men flooded into the courtyard. "Is she dead?" one of them cried, and without waiting for an answer, all of them began to speak at once. "Signal the ships!" they cried, "stop the attack, send them back!" Everyone began to scramble for control and knowledge, asking what happened, calling off the attack, raising a great white plume of smoke as sirens filled the air.
Katara just stood with Zuko and watched her battles end, her heart throbbing and aching with some unknown feeling. It was all over, but she lived on, which meant that there had to be something new starting.
She gritted her teeth as suddenly, her stomach dropped, and she clenched Zuko's hand. He looked at her, raising his eyebrows silently as life went on around them.
Katara shook her head. "I just got this feeling," she started, then trailed off.
A cheer rose up in the streets. "The Fire Lord is dead! We won!"
Tired soldiers filtered through, dragging their weapons behind them, sporting cuts and burns, coughing smoke. People ran everywhere, carrying water, putting out fires, finding each other. The airships were gone.
Iroh stayed with the fighters, listening for any mention of someone he recognized. The palace stood behind him, the plumes of white smoke signifying the death of a Fire Lord, and somewhere in his mind, he said goodbye to his niece. Most of his focus remained on what he saw. Lani was still missing.
"That's my friend," one of the men said suddenly, pointing towards a figure holding a bow on the roof of a house at the end of the street. A crashed zeppelin blocked the path before them, so they headed over the rooftops and dropped into the other street to meet him.
The archers wouldn't go with them. "We've got to stay here and keep an eye out," they said, "our commander went on to the port, but we stayed behind to keep the bastards on their air ships."
"Who commanded you?" Iroh asked, wondering if that meant Zuko was not at the palace.
"Water Tribe warrior," one mentioned. "Sokka, he was one of the Avatar's allies during the war."
Iroh nodded. "Tell me where he went," he requested, and soon, he was making his way towards the water. He went alone, feeling it would be quicker, and he tried to pay no heed to his surroundings, knowing his purpose could not be set aside for later. Each street unleashed new horrors at him, but as he rounded a corner and saw Sokka from the back, crouching in front of a little corpse covered with a sheet, it seemed that all Iroh's deepest fears had been combined into a terrible nightmare.
"Sokka!" he called, his voice hoarse. "Sokka!" The warrior looked up and Iroh saw the tears in his eyes. Iroh looked past him, to the body, trying not to calculate the size or remember the shape. "Who?" he begged, wondering if fate could really be so cruel. In response, Sokka held up a little chain, the moon and waves pendant winding and unwinding in the breeze as Iroh fell to his knees and pulled back the sheet. "Ah," he sighed, clutching his chest, because it was Katara's little girl lying there with closed eyes and grey skin, it was Lani. "Ah," he cried again, "I'm sorry." He said it only once, and kept the rest of his sorries inside, feeling them on his tongue like a bad aftertaste.
"Who was she?" Sokka demanded, his eyes shining with tears, his face etched in stone. "Iroh, this is Katara's necklace. She would only give this to her daughter, and I know this little girl can't…" His voice broke, and he curled his head in, closing his eyes as he dissolved into tortured tremors.
He needed a moment, but Sokka still waited. Iroh couldn't quell the tears that formed, and tasted them as he spoke. "Her name is Lani. Your sister saved her and then the girl had nowhere to go… she was her daughter, Sokka. I let them kill her daughter." He choked on sobs that wracked his body, and he could speak no more. He felt for her hand under the fabric and grasped it tightly, rocking back and forth, hiding his face. He was not the Dragon of the West. He was an old man, a tired, sad old man who lost a piece of his heart.
Sokka had never had that piece. He looked down at the girl. "Lani," he whispered roughly, thinking of Katara, wondering if she was alive, wondering at the state of the world. He knew she'd never forgive him for what he'd done. He had to- he had to do something, but-
Sokka shook his head to clear it, his emotions rising. "Let's go," he said numbly, stumbling to his feet, focusing on his body. Iroh didn't move, so Sokka grabbed his arm, fighting for control of his body as rage and despair battled on equal ground. "Come on!" he said.
As Iroh stood, Sokka knelt. He was gentle when he tucked the cloth around her little body, picked her up like he would his own child and cradled the girl to his chest. Her thin arms flopped as he got back to his feet, and Iroh arranged them in her lap as Sokka carried her, an arm under her neck and one under her knees, through the post-war streets. Noise faded wherever they went, people falling silent at the sight of a warrior huddled around the body of a dead little girl, and none of them knew who she was. No one knew she had helped to save them.
"You should have had better than this," Sokka whispered to her. Iroh lifted the chain over her head, settling the pendant against her ashen throat, and Sokka shook his head. "She wanted to give it back to Katara," he said. "She knew how important it was."
Iroh sighed and held his shoulder. "It will be safer around her neck than in my hands," he said, and that was that. Nothing more to be said or done.
They proceeded towards the palace.
"Zuko?" Katara asked, breaking the silence. They had retreated to a corner of the courtyard, watching the ships dock again and the soldiers come out like prisoners, watching their world recover from its near brush with death.
"Katara," he answered, his voice exhausted. They knew people were waiting for them, waiting to find out what happened, but first they just needed to be together, unmasked, honest. She'd been waiting more than two years for this feeling and now that she had it, all the old questions came flooding back. She couldn't wait anymore to ask them. His eyes were steady through their pain. "What do you need to know?"
"What started this? There's a secret… I know that I'm not supposed to know, but I've been fighting this whole time to know the truth, and…" she shrugged her shoulders, half-helpless. Zuko studied her, his eyes full of love and wonder. She could keep hold of his eyes for the rest of her life, and his love. He owed her the truth.
"I had to do this," he told her. The words fell from his lips, imagined a thousand different times and coming out once, so it had to be perfect. She had to understand. Zuko said, "I went to see my father when I decided I had to be with you. Mai was a noblewoman, so political connections had to be reconsidered, and also, I knew my life wouldn't be right without my mother. I went to Ozai. I tried to find out what happened to her."
Katara nodded, thinking back to when they were still children, just after that war, still growing up. She thought of Lani, and how the child would never have to feel that uncertainty Zuko had for his mother. It made her smile.
"Ozai told me that if I married you, we would have to go live in with your people, because my people wouldn't accept two bastardizations on the throne. I was angry, but I was confused. I asked him about it…" Zuko took a deep breath, looking into her eyes. "Ozai told me the truth. I'm not his son, I couldn't be. And another man's son couldn't inherit the throne."
"Zuko," Katara gasped, but the man shook his head, his black hair falling around his ears.
"I had to find my mother. I had to find her, and whatever man fathered me, because I knew that would mean with me gone, Azula was the heir. I left, and lied so that no one would make her suspicious. She found out, somehow. Maybe before he died, Ozai… I don't know, and if I did, I've forgotten."
Katara felt dread licking at her heels as she waited for his next words, the ones that would banish them from this palace forever. She waited, ready for it because Zuko was alive, and even without being a prince, he was hers. She would stay with him, and they would be happy. They'd all be happy. "So who's going to be the Fire Lord if you're not?" she asked, "They don't know! You don't have to tell them."
Zuko shook his head, and the last piece of the puzzle hovered in his mind. They told him no one must know, but it was his secret, and they understood that. Katara was his other half, and she knew everything he knew. "The son of a commoner can't take the throne," he said, "but the son of a prince, even if he is a bastard, is still the son of a prince, and can still take the throne. That was what Azula didn't know."
Katara frowned. Zuko could tell she didn't understand, and he wished he didn't have to remember the moment, remember Ursa telling him on the ship home. "But if Ozai's not your father, then…" she hesitated.
Zuko studied her. "There were two princes, Katara."
On the ship, Zuko sent a table flying, sent saucers crashing to the ground, tea soaking into the tapestries. Ursa sat in the midst of it, unmoving, unafraid. "Tell me you're lying!" Zuko demanded, and she shook her head.
"You must understand, Zuko. We all grew up together, and a marriage was not of love, but of social obligation. When Ozai turned cruel, Iroh and I became great friends. He protected me, and he kept me sane. When I found out I was pregnant… I knew Ozai would kill me, and you inside of me. We kept the secret for our sakes, and now, I give it to you. You are the son of Prince Iroh, the rightful heir, and a good man. Please, forgive me." Zuko stared down at the woman in front of him, her head bowed, her mouth drawn in tight.
Then, he said in a low, unrecognizable voice, "Mother," and fell to her side. She held him like he was a child again.
"My son," she said, "my sweet Zuko. Your family is whoever you need it to be."
"Your uncle?" Katara whispered in shock. That kind old man. Had he really been capable of betraying his own brother? But Katara knew that it was a different time, that the Fire Nation was a different place. She glanced at Ursa, who stood at the top of the courtyard stairs, her cheeks sooty and singed, directing the palace guards on where to go, who to help. She looked over and Katara read the sadness in her eyes. They shared a moment of understanding, and when Katara looked back to find Zuko studying her, she lifted her mouth into a smile and squeezed his hand. Zuko nodded, and then her eyes slid from his, to the staircase leading up from the village. The crowd was quieting. "Your uncle," she said again, this time pointing, and Zuko pivoted, spotting Iroh.
"Uncle!" he shouted in relief, and the old man raised his eyes to his true son's face. Zuko stopped breathing, knowing that look, his unwilling eyes taking in the sight of Sokka hunched and walking, carrying a little body that didn't breathe and didn't move. Zuko felt Katara go still beside him, and grabbed her tightly as her brother carried the body closer. Iroh cried, and Sokka too let the tears flow as he knelt and laid the little girl in front of her mother. Katara was frozen, staring with wide blue eyes, with one hand outstretched as if she could pull the soul through the air and back into flesh.
"Ah," Katara moaned, agonized, falling to her knees, falling on top of her little one. It wasn't real. They couldn't have come this far- she was supposed to be safe. "I- no," she sobbed, and that was when her eyes flooded, as she pounded the earth and held her daughter's body. "No!" she told the spirits and the earth, and anyone who would listen. No, she wasn't dead, she was asleep, and Katara would join her, just close her eyes and sleep too. The rest of the courtyard fell silent, and as if the wind were magnifying every sound, Katara heard the wails coming from the women of Caldera, and heard the muted pain squeezing from Ursa's lungs. She felt the burden of motherhood as she never had before. She would have died before letting her child go, as her own mother had done, but before she could even know, her little girl was gone. Just… gone. She waited still, to be gone as well.
Her heart kept beating. Her breath didn't stop. Her life went on, and she hated it. "I'm sorry, baby," she crooned. Tears splattered Lani's face, wiping clean streaks through the ash on her skin. Katara kissed her, again and again, clumsily, with a shaking mouth. She didn't let go. "I love you baby, I'm so sorry." She raised her face to Sokka and Iroh, her eyes questioning. "What happened?" she cried.
Her brother shook his head, and the men told her about the tenement building. "She saved an entire building full of people that I couldn't, and I tried to keep her out, but she went in. I wanted to get her Katara, I swear I tried," Sokka begged for forgiveness, his body curved like a question mark under the weight of his guilt. "The building came down. I let it- I let her- Gods," he whimpered, overcome. Katara gazed down at the sweet little face, brushing the dirt and ash off her skin. She held her, the little girl who was no longer there to sing her battle songs and save her from darkness. She smoothed her clothes, cried, wiped her own tears off Lani's face again and again.
She knew it wasn't their fault. It wasn't anyone's fault but hers.
She felt a hand on top of hers, and she realized Zuko was at her side, cradling Lani's neck in one hand and picking up the pendant with the other. She watched the conflict inside him, as something flashed in his eyes, as Blue flickered to life in the movement of his shoulders and the bend of his neck. "I remember you," he said softly, so that only Katara could hear. "I… I was- I wanted you to stay." She closed her eyes and curled over the body.
Ursa's voice was the first to cut through the ringing in her ears. "They need to crown you, Zuko. I'm sorry. Your duty and your people wait for you."
"Let them wait," Katara heard him say harshly, then, "Get away! We don't need you!" She looked up, and there were two medics standing with a stretcher and a clean white cloth, looking apprehensive through their expressions of sympathy. Zuko held onto Lani's body, and Katara suddenly saw herself years ago, clinging to the dead, living in shadows.
"No," she said. It didn't come out as any sound, but they all looked at her, battleworn and bleeding, their eyes hooded with sorrow. "No," she said again, "it's time to… they need to take care of her." Zuko shook his head, squeezing the little girl's hand, and Katara grabbed his hands and made him look at her. "Zuko," she keened, "you have to go. We need you to move us forward. I need you to-"
"Katara," he said, strained, and she pushed him up until he stood and steered him towards the crowd, where the Fire Sages waited with a shining crown of flames. She watched as he turned his back and lifted his chin. He knew they couldn't see him mourn, and in that moment, Katara saw the rest of her life. She would stand there, at his side whether she felt like it or not, and they would raise what was once the most power-hungry nations into its new era of peace and unity.
Katara knew she couldn't stay there forever. If it had taught her anything, life always moved on faster when it felt like it had gone still. There were years to mourn her little girl. There were years to remember her, keep her alive that way. Ursa put her hand on Katara's shoulder and said, "Katara, we have to let them go today. I know… I know you'll always love her." Azula's face flashed in Katara's head, and it hit her life a wave, the sudden brilliance inside her mind, the tranquil clarity.
With that feeling, she finally stood with a quiet, "Thank you, my brave little one," and one last kiss. A heaviness stayed behind as she moved to the top of the stairs with Ursa, and watched Zuko kneel, head bent, in front of the Fire Sages for the second coronation of his life. Katara knew that this was the only way to live, to love those who left, keep them here with thoughts and quiet memories. A warmth remained inside her, like the weight of a tired child's head on her shoulder. Lani would always be there with her, always a child, forever loved.
As Zuko received his birthright, and turned to receive his people, the sun rose before them and there was a new world. Behind them flowed a new part of the past to be remembered, and in that way, time stretched on.
And in that way, Katara knew that everything was endless.
Thank you all so very much. I need to know, please, how this has affected you or entertained you. It's taken so much that you'll never realize, and I owe it all to you, and to the feedback I get. Writing is about sharing what you love, but sharing goes two ways. So please- leave a review.
I'm considering an epilogue.
But as for the actual story, the one I set out three years ago to tell, my work is finished. I've told the story I came to tell. It's complete, and it's been fun.
Thanks again! Signing off,