The Fire Lord's Bride

Epilogue: Caught

Mai Lee was practicing. Tomorrow the Avatar would arrive to escort her to the Western Air Temple where she would learn the ways of the Airbenders. She had been to the temple many times, but had always returned to her home in the Fire Nation. Taking a deep breath, Mai Lee used her Bending, twisted her hands and created a ball of spinning air, and balanced herself on top. That part was easy. The tricky part was sustaining the energy with her mind since she could not actively Bend with her hands.

Her Airbending had caused quite a stir when she was younger. Many speculated Avatar Aang was her father, not the Fire Lord. It was silly, she thought, and anyone who looked at her could see it too. She looked just like her father, with her long black hair and golden eyes. Uncle Aang had been very excited, and told everyone that stood still long enough about how Airbending was not a familial trait, but spiritual. Now that balance had been restored to all of the lands, Airbenders were being born again. Many Firebenders, Earthbenders and Waterbenders had borne Airbending children. Why would the Fire Lord and Lady be exempt?

And so Princess Mai Lee, the youngest, would leave for the Air Temple. She would cease being a princess and become Sister Mai Lee. Or would it be Postulant, or Novice Mai Lee? She didn't know. It didn't matter; the next sunrise would bring her answers.

That should have been proof she was the daughter of a Firebender—like all of her siblings, she rose with the sun. And to prove she was the daughter of a Waterbender, she, like all of her siblings, could feel the phases of the moon. It seemed strange, to be aware of the sun and the moon both, especially since she had no special connection to either. She frowned, and the spinning ball of air beneath her gave out as her concentration wavered. She collapsed in a heap and groaned.

"That's talent," a voice called.

She smiled and twisted around. "Is that sarcasm?"

"Nope, I'm genuinely impressed." Her brother, Koda, reached down and pulled her up. The wind ruffled his brown hair, and his gold eyes glittered with warmth. "You were sitting on that thing for nearly five minutes. My concentration would have broken much sooner." Mai Lee shrugged, but felt her cheeks warm at the praise. "Come, we'd better go in. You know how Father is when we miss a meal."

Mai Lee nodded and followed her brother. She longed for the days when she was young enough to slip her hand into his. He was such a good brother, always keeping her out of trouble, never picking on her. Iroh was the same of course, except Iroh was a Waterbender, not a Firebender like Koda.

She sighed softly to herself as they walked. She remembered sneaking into the kitchen for sweets and trying not to get caught. She remembered using her Bending with Uncle Aang to fling pies across the court and trying to hit people with them, then ducking out of sight before anyone could see. She remembered her father tossing her into the air and catching her. She remembered that time she had a cold, and Ursa came to her and healed her, by using her weak Firebending in combination with her weak Waterbending to burn the infection out of her lungs—that was the only Bending Ursa could perform at all. She remembered watching Kya practice with swords and fans and a boomerang because she could not Bend at all.

But no matter how hard she tried, Mai Lee could not remember her mother's face.

Fire Lady Katara died when Mai Lee was only four. Murdered by Fire Nation Supremacists that did not care for a Waterbender as Fire Lady, or so she read in the history books . It was a dark corner of history that no one liked to talk about since the war was supposed to be over, but there were some details in the books. Like the fact that Fire Lady Katara had died to keep the extremists away from her youngest child, who had just been revealed to be an Airbender.

Her father never talked about it, but he always wore white, and she had learned a long time ago that white was the Fire Nation color of mourning. Normally it was only worn until the funeral, but her father's entire wardrobe was white, even his ceremonial robes. According to the books she'd read, that was a very good thing, since he would be wearing black if he sought vengeance. Since he wore white, he had caught her killer.

She smiled as she walked into the room. Her family had already gathered. Her father sat at the head of the table, listening to the chatter among the others. His scar stood out against the white of his clothes. There was a time when he looked younger, but now his hair was graying, the hair at his temples was entirely white. Time had not been kind.

There was Kya, the oldest, with her tan skin, brown hair and blue eyes, listening to Iroh. Her fans and her specially crafted scabbard (to hold her Dao swords and her boomerang) hung from her chair. Around her neck was a blue ribbon with a carved blue stone. Mai Lee had never been told the significance of that necklace, only that it had been her great-grandmother's. once. Her clothes were plain but well worn, done in earthy tones. That was unsurprising, since Kya was a member of the Kyoshi Warriors along with their cousins, and only home for a visit.

Beside her sat Ursa, who had a matching necklace, but with a red ribbon and apprentice healer's robes. Despite her innate healing ability, she insisted on going through the entire healer's program. She wanted to learn everything there was to learn about healing. Bending, she claimed, was not always the right solution. Why use the energy when a simple tonic would suffice? Besides, the tonic would allow for natural immunities to build, but Bending the illness away would not. She was busy talking with their grandmother, her namesake.

Iroh was dressed in Water Tribe blue, despite looking every inch a Fire Nation man, with fair skin, black hair and gold eyes. He was only a few years older than her, and a few years younger than Koda. He was laughing about some of the goings on in the Southern Water Tribe, where he was the Ambassador. It was the ideal position for him, since no one worried about dishonest dealings since he was borne of both elements.

"I apologize for our tardiness, Father," Koda said diplomatically. "The young princess was meditating—it did not seem proper to disturb her in that state."

Fire Lord Zuko nodded regally. "I see. Meditation is important for mastery over any element. You are to be commended, Mai Lee, for you dedication. Please, be seated, both of you."

Grinning, Mai Lee took her normal seat beside her father—the seat usually reserved for the designated Heir, but Koda always let her sit there. "So, Kya, what's your latest weapon to master?"

"The whip," Kya replied easily. "There's a retired bounty hunter, June, who is staying on Kyoshi Island." Kya rolled her eyes. "She gives me weird looks all the time, and tells me she's only teaching me to pay off an old debt. Uncle Sokka and Aunt Suki seem to be the only ones with any idea what she's on about, but no one is talking." She leaned forward. "I think she recognizes my necklace or something, because she stares at it all the time."

"She knew your mother," Grandmother said. Everyone quieted and looked to her, except for Father. She continued her explanation. "She and June had an agreement, one that allowed June to hunt bounties in the south and Katara could call on her at any time."

There was silence for the rest of dinner. No one knew quite what to say. No one talked about the departed Fire Lady. Whenever someone brought her up, their father become reclusive for the rest of the day. That day was no different. Grandmother was not cowed by his behavior, or the dark looks he gave his meal, and held her head high.

Her father excused himself early from dinner, citing work.

"I wonder what she was like," Mai Lee blurted before she could censor herself. She winced at her outburst.

"She was serious," Ursa said quietly, "but she loved us. She used to tell us stories, legends she called them, of the Water Tribe."

"She used to sneak us out of the palace, and would take us around to the stalls to talk with the vendors, to get to know them without the trappings of royalty," Koda said fondly.

"And beautiful," Iroh said, warming to the topic. "The portraits don't do her justice, because it was her smile and her eyes that made her so breathtaking. No painter has ever been able to capture that."

"I remember how fair she was," Kya said. "I can't Bend, but she didn't treat me any different from any of you. I remember hearing about some kids being pushed aside because they weren't Benders in favor of kids who were, but she just said it didn't matter, as long as I could be happy with myself. She was happy when father started teaching me to fight with swords. She wanted me to be able to protect myself. She wanted me to safe. She wanted all of us to be safe."

"I had never seen Zuko be so happy as when he was with her," Grandmother said. "He was always so solemn, so sad. With her…" she shook her head. "He was just so different."

"I wish I knew her," Mai Lee said.

"Don't worry," Koda said. "You will see her one day." He ruffled her hair gently. "Not any time soon, of course, we don't want you leaving us for the Spirit World just yet."

Mai Lee smiled, and the atmosphere around them relaxed. Conversation resumed for the rest of their meal as they discussed Ursa's healing apprenticeship, trade agreements Iroh was working on, and Koda's duties as the Heir. No one brought up Kya's work with June again. When everyone was finished, they stood to leave, ready to go about their tasks—sewing for Grandmother, practice for Kya, studying for Ursa, and work for Koda and Iroh.

"Well, this is surprising," a voice called cheerfully. Everyone turned to see Uncle Aang standing in the doorway. "If I'd known about dinner, I would have hurried Appa along so I could dine with you."

All work was forgotten for a short time as they chatted with Avatar Aang, who'd arrived early so he could talk with Mai Lee about what would happen when they left. He wanted to prepare her as much as he could, since most Airbenders came to live at the Temples much sooner.

"So, where's Zuko?" He asked finally. "I didn't see him with you."

Silence, then Kya stepped forward. "Mom came up during dinner." It was the only explanation needed. Uncle Aang frowned and excused himself. He did not go to the Fire Lord's office, but to the rooms set aside for the Avatar's exclusive use.

After that abrupt end to the conversation—nothing could end mindless chatter like bringing up the deceased Fire Lady—they went about their work. Mai Lee returned to the garden to practice her Bending. It was a useless endeavor. She couldn't concentrate. Her thoughts wandered back to the mother she never knew. The more she thought about it, the angrier she became, the more erratic her Bending.

Finally, so angry that she had been denied knowledge of her mother from her family, she stormed into the palace as the sun set. She went to the Council Room, where her father sometimes worked. He wasn't there. She went to his office, but again, there was no one. Growing angrier with every step, she made her way to his rooms. Had he lied? Was he sulking in his room? What right did he have to sulk? After several long minutes, she reached his door. It was locked.

Seething, she turned away and took a secret passage. Nearing the end, she frowned. The door was slightly ajar. She could see through the tiny sliver of light into her father's room. Mai Lee stopped and peeked in. Her breath caught in her throat.

It was her mother.

She was…transparent. She could see through her mother, could see the portrait of the royal family through her. She was standing in front of the window, bathed in moonbeams. Fire Lady Katara was dressed in Fire Nation attire, with the Fire Lady hairpiece still in her topknot. Around her neck was a necklace that Mai Lee somehow knew was the same necklace Ursa wore.

"It isn't fair," her father was saying.

"I know," her mother replied, her voice ethereal and seeming to echo. Her voice was still warm and soft, like the voice Mai Lee sometimes heard in her dreams.

"Children should be able to see their mother," he said miserably.

Her mother said nothing, only nodded sadly.

"I had a portrait done for our anniversary," her father said then. "It's us, with the children, if you hadn't been taken."

"It's beautiful," she said, smiling softly. "The children are beautiful. I watch over them, visit them in dreams, whisper to them in the wind."

"I've always wondered how you did that."

Her mother smiled, a mischievous glint in her ghostly eyes. "How many times do I have to tell you? I'm extremely well connected."

"Even in the Spirit World?"

"Oh I'm even better off here than in the Living World. I am as loved in death as I was in life."

There was a long silence, then Mai Lee watched her father step into view. He looked so sad. He swallowed and tentatively reached out.

"Zuko," her mother said warningly.

"I don't care," came the hoarse reply. He gently cupped her cheek, leaned forward and kissed her.

The hand clamping over her mouth was the only thing that kept her from crying out as she watched more of her father's hair turn white. She looked up to see Uncle Aang gently pressed a finger to his lips to silence her. He released her and backed away. Stealing one last glance at her mother, she followed, feeling guilty for catching her parents in what was obviously a private moment. He led her through the passageway, taking passages she never knew about and took her to his set of rooms. They took their seats. Neither spoke as he prepared tea for them.

"Your mother always had a strong connection to the Spirit World when she was alive, so it should not surprise anyone that, being a spirit herself now, she would have a strong connection to the Living World. But that original connection to the Spirit World was something I did not understand. I spoke to Avatar Roku, my predecessor, and he revealed to me the reason for her abilities."

Uncle Aang leaned back tiredly in his chair. "He showed me another world, a world where I did not run from my responsibilities but embraced them. I would have stopped the war, but I would use up too much energy and die young—well, young for an Avatar. I would have died at the exact moment your mother was born." He gave her a penetrating look, willing her to come to the realization on her own.

"She was supposed to be the next Avatar, wasn't she?"

He nodded. "The Spirit World changed a few things when I made my mistake, had to change a lot of things actually. But she always had a connection to the Spirit World. She couldn't travel there, but she could sense spirits, even met a few that I didn't. Now, as a spirit, she has a connection to the Living World, a connection humans are not supposed to have. It's weakened, which is why she can only come on a full moon and has to stay in the moonbeams, and not everyone can see her, but she's there."

"Why can I see her? And Father?"

"Your father also has a strong connection to the Spirit World. It makes sense, he is descended from Avatar Roku, he took on the guise of a spirit a few times, and your Great Uncle Iroh was able to see spirits. It's actually more surprising that none of your brothers or sisters can see her than the fact that you can."

"They can't see her?" She asked then winced. She was a sixteen year old young woman, not a wide-eyed six year old girl.

Uncle Aang smiled, but it was a sad smile. "There have been several times over the years where your brothers and sisters have gone to talk to him while she was there. No one saw her. It bothered them so much that Zuko started locking his door each full moon so that he wouldn't have to pretend she wasn't there."

"Why didn't she know I was there?" Mai Lee asked, hating the slight whine in her voice.

"She doesn't know everything. If she's watching Kya train on Kyoshi Island, she can't see what Iroh is doing in the Northern Water Tribe. She's a spirit, not omniscient." She nodded, not knowing what to say. "So," he continued, "would you like to hear more about your future home?"

Sister Mai Lee walked beside her husband, Tenzin. She held their son, Meelo, tightly as he squirmed in her arms. It had been over a year since she had returned to her former home in the Fire Nation. She had visited the Fire Nation over the last ten years, but never stayed for more than a day, and eventually those visits became more and more infrequent as she started a family of her own.

"Are you sure you are fine?" Tenzin asked. Meelo continued to squirm. "I can take him."

"It's fine," Mai Lee replied. Meelo touched the arrow on her forehead and smiled. "He's calming down."

"That is good. It seems inappropriate that he should be so happy as we attend his grandfather's funeral," Tenzin commented.

"He's so young, there is no way he could understand. No one will fault him if is not morose," she replied loftily.

"Hmm."

"Hello, Mai Lee," Koda said.

She turned. Koda looked so old to her now. "Fire Lord," she inclined her head.

Koda smiled grimly. "We are family, Mai Lee, that is not necessary. And I'm not Fire Lord yet. I will not be crowned until the end of the ceremony. Come, we need to go. That ceremony is about to begin." He turned to Tenzin as he led the way. "Your father asked to officiate. The Fire Sages pitched a fit, but he pulled the Avatar card. He'll be leading. We think Father would prefer it that way."

Tenzin nodded. "They were good friends. Your father was a good man. The Winds mourn him with their voices," he said, reciting the traditional Air Nomad words of condolence. As if to prove him right, a gentle breeze blew by them.

"The Winds, the Waters, the Flames, even the Earth itself seems to be in mourning," Koda said distantly.

"Perhaps the spirits are not mourning, but welcoming him," Mai Lee offered. The two men looked at her. "He did help restore balance to the world, and what we see as grief may be excitement. I am sure the Spirit World is welcoming him."

Tenzin nodded. "You are wise, my wife."

The walked in silence, and joined the procession that would carry her father's body to his final resting place. His body would be committed to the earth instead of the flame, to be with her mother. Avatar Aang led, Koda behind him as the next Fire Lord. Then came Koda's wife and their tiny son. There were her sisters and their families, Iroh and his family, then her own. Behind her walked the Aunts she was named for, Mai and Ty Lee and their families, and her Uncle Sokka and his wife, and Aunt Toph and her daughter.

The procession was long and tiring, the ceremonial chanting grating on her very patient nerves. Meelo tried to escape several times, but she or Tenzin always caught him. He continued to wriggle in her grasp until, suddenly, he stopped. She frowned down at him then followed his eyes. He was watching something.

It was a spirit, a Water Tribe girl from the look of her, running through the trees, grinning widely. There was another figure, grinning just as widely, chasing her. It was a male, she decided, with his broad shoulders. They seemed to be playing a game, with the young man swiping out at her and the young woman dancing away from his grasp. She could hear them laughing faintly as they continued to play. Then, just as the Avatar began to speak, the man caught her around the waist and kissed her. The couple turned, slightly, and Mai Lee saw the faint, silvery outline of a scar around his left eye.

Mai Lee smiled and turned away. She'd caught her parents together once before, and had no desire to repeat history.

She caught a few more glimpses of the couple throughout the rest of the ceremony. Finally the Avatar demolished the old headstone that marked her mother's grave, and used his Earthbending to raise a new stone. There were no words, only a simple design. It was the Fire Nation insignia over the symbol of the Water Tribe.

As everyone turned to make their way back to the palace, the couple vanished. She smiled, satisfied that they were happy at last.

A/N: All standard disclaimers apply; anything you recognize belongs to Bryke/Nickelodeon.

Alas, here endeth the tale.

Well, this had been quite a ride. Yes, I know that my ending may not be popular, but it is the one I had planned from the beginning. I actually had this one written before I finished the first chapter. Still, I hope you enjoyed it. Please read and review.

Bandy