The five-pronged, golden headpiece was heavy. Zuko resisted the urge to fidget with it. He would never be able to forget that he was wearing it, but then maybe that was the point. He was Fire Lord now. He was supposed to rule this nation. He was supposed to heal the wounds a hundred years of war had caused.
"How do you feel?" Ursa asked.
Azula snorted. "You probably shouldn't tell people that, Dum Dum."
"Obviously. It's not like I'm going to shout it to the whole Caldera."
She pulled a face back at him.
Ursa stepped between them and rubbed his shoulder. "Don't worry, Zuko. We'll be right here with you every step of the way."
"That's right," Iroh said with a warm smile.
Some of the tension eased from Zuko's chest. He looked at his family and realised this was their second chance as well. A chance to just be a family. The war and all that Sozin had started had poisoned them just as much as this world, and Azulon and Zuko's own father had done nothing to mitigate that. But now they had a chance.
They could make things right.
He pulled Azula and Ursa into his arms. Azula squirmed and fussed, demanding to know what he thought he was doing, but he only held her tighter and told their uncle to join them. Iroh chuckled and wrapped his arms around the three of them so they were all squished closer.
"This is ridiculous," Azula muttered. "You've let that bald brat rub off on you too much."
She sighed but didn't pull away.
Zuko smiled and closed his eyes. The hug was awkward, even he could admit that, but it was a start. And when Shizue entered the room and raised her eyebrows at them, she got roped into the hug as well.
After all, this was a new beginning for all of them.
"Make way, make way! Fire Lord Sunshine coming through!"
All the people in the courtyard turned to stare at Zuko, whose face turned tomato-red. He tried to hunch smaller, because as much as he was royalty, he had been banished for three years and he was still getting used to palace life, not to mention Toph had just called him Fire Lord Sunshine. If that nickname caught on …
"Toph," he grumbled under his breath, "you can't just go around shouting that every time you're with me."
"Why? Embarrassed?" She nudged him too hard in the ribs. Several times.
He frowned. "Sometimes I don't know why I put up with you."
A demon grin was all he got in response.
"What are you planning on doing after this anyway?" he asked as they headed down an open-arched corridor. "You're from Gaoling, right?"
Her steps faltered and it was like a cloud descended over her good mood.
"Did I … say something wrong?"
She rolled her shoulder as if trying to shrug off a weight. "Nah. Anyway, I sense Fan Girl up ahead with Sweetness. Let's go annoy them."
"Hey." He touched her arm. "If something's—"
"It's nothing, alright? I just …" Her tough expression cracked and she sighed. "Ugh, fine. I'm not sure I want to go home."
His brow creased. Of course he'd heard about her home, the way her parents had treated her, and why she'd chosen to run away. He knew it had been complicated and there were plenty of valid reasons why she wouldn't want to go back.
"You don't have to," he said quietly.
Her head tilted in question.
"You could stay. Uncle likes you, I know Mum wouldn't mind, and … I'd be happy too. If you stayed at the palace with us, I mean." He rubbed the base of his neck. "To be honest, you kind of feel like family now. It'd be weird if you weren't around."
Colour dusted her cheeks. "Oh."
"But only if you want to, of course. I'm not expecting you to stay here if you'd rather go back to the Earth Kingdom or—"
She punched him in the arm. He winced.
"Has anyone ever told you that sometimes you punch too hard?" he muttered, rubbing the spot that was sure to come out in a bruise.
Her lips curved. "You were ruining it with your babbling. I thought I'd help you shut up."
He rolled his eyes. "Maybe I should take back that offer. I don't think I want you here after all."
"Nu-uh, you already made it. No take-backsies."
"I'm the Fire Lord. I can do as many take-backsies as I want."
"I don't think the people will like you very much if you do that. Besides, it's too late. Now I know that you care." She kept jabbing him in the ribs with her elbow. "What was it you said again? That you see me as family?"
Nudge, nudge, nudge.
He placed his hands over his heated face. She really was embarrassing. Still, as he peeped between his fingers and saw the happy look in her eyes, he couldn't help the smile that tugged at his lips. She was an annoying brat at times, but she was still his annoying brat. He'd gladly put up with a few bruises and blushes if it meant she got to keep that expression on her face.
"Alright, alright," he said, forcing her arm away from him. "Stop it. Your elbow is bony."
She grinned and blew her fringe out of her face. "Better get used to it, Sunshine. You'll be feeling it a lot."
"I'm terrified," he said dryly.
She snorted and the two of them kept walking. It seemed his little family was growing.
"You really won't come?" Ty Lee asked, shoulders drooping.
Mai folded her arms across her chest as they stood in her bedroom. "I told you I have no interest in being around her."
"But Azula is different now. You have to see that."
A sigh. "Look, I'm not ready. I don't know if I'll ever be ready, let alone want to be. Too much has happened."
Ty Lee frowned at her feet, long plait hanging over her shoulder. "Is it really so impossible for us all to be friends again?"
Mai placed her hand on her arm. "I'm not saying you shouldn't be her friend. I'm not even saying I don't think Azula has changed a little. I just … it's not so easy for me to go back to how things were. Can you respect that?"
Their eyes met.
"Okay," Ty Lee said with a small nod. "I understand."
"But you're going to miss out on the custard buns."
Mai rolled her eyes. "I'm sure I'll live."
"You sure, because I hear the South Pole doesn't have much in the way of—"
"I'm only going there with Sokka and his family for a visit. It's not like I'm moving there."
Ty Lee's lips quivered. "You're blushing."
"I am not."
Except her heated cheeks told her she definitely was. Damn it.
Ty Lee's half-suppressed smile crept into a grin. "You know, he is a Chieftain's son. I'm sure even your parents would come around if—"
"We are not having this conversation."
Laughter brimmed in Ty Lee's eyes. "If you say so, but judging by that pink aura of yours, I think one day we will."
Ty Lee giggled as she was chased out of the room.
"How's he doing?" Yuzo asked, coming to stand beside Hina.
Yuzo bit his lip and a lump formed in his throat. "He's not going to live for that long, is he?"
"No. Maybe a year or two at most."
Tears prickled free of his eyes. "I hated him for so long. I wish I could take it back. I wish I had realised sooner it was Shūrin controlling him."
"You were young. It's not your fault you didn't know."
The tears continued to slip free.
She hesitated before she placed her hand on his shoulder. "I'm sorry, Yuzo."
"I let you believe Shen had turned on you, and … I helped Shūrin to hurt you."
He touched the jagged scar on his throat. "Did you know I'd survive?"
Well, he supposed that was something.
They both fell quiet and looked down at Shen, who was sleeping in the bed.
"I think I understand why you did it," Yuzo said softly. "You love him, right?"
"Then I guess we can leave it at that. You were trying to protect him." He looked up to meet her gaze. "Besides, I heard you looked after Atsuo as well."
"I should have done more."
He shook his head. "You did enough."
Hina was amazing. The truth of that hit him then. He couldn't imagine what it must have been like to spend all those years at Shūrin's side—all those years being with the man she loved but knowing it wasn't really him, all those years trying to free him, all those years obeying cruel orders. Yuzo wasn't sure he could have done the same, not even for Atsuo.
He frowned at his hands. "You know … Zuko is planning to end the secrecy of fire healers. He and Lady Ursa have been trying to figure out the best way to do it."
"Shen will probably feel obligated to go back and help sort out the tribe, won't he?"
"Do you think we could persuade him not to?"
A flicker of surprise entered her eyes. "Why?"
"Atsuo doesn't want to go back, and I've never liked the place." He gave an odd shrug. "It's just … we've been forced to live how the tribe wanted for so long, and Suki was telling us about Kyoshi Island …" His voice took on a wistful tone. "It sounds nice. Peaceful."
"You and Atsuo want to settle there?"
Heat brushed his cheeks. "It was just a thought. Nothing is confirmed, and I don't want to leave Shen. Not when he's …"
The unspoken word lingered between them.
"I'll talk to him."
Now it was his turn to look at her in surprise. "You will?"
Her expression softened as she looked at Shen. "Peaceful might be just what he needs."
"I'm going to miss these banquets," Sokka said around a mouthful of food. "I will say one thing for the Fire Nation, it knows how to do meat. I don't even know what this spicy thing is but it's delicious."
"Those are moosepig balls," Zuko observed.
Sokka choked. "Come again?"
"Because of the shape, idiot," Azula said with a roll of her eyes.
"Oh." He blushed. "I knew that."
The siblings gave him identical looks of disbelief.
"You know, it's kind of creepy when you guys do that."
This earned him identical unimpressed looks.
"Right …" Sokka picked up another moosepig ball. "I'll just keep eating."
Their attention was soon claimed by Aang, who was moving about the centre of the banquet hall to clear a space.
"What is he doing?" Azula said, scrunching her nose.
They soon found out when Aang came bouncing over and asked them to dance with him.
"We don't dance in the Fire Nation," Azula said flatly. "It got banned under Fire Lord Sozin's rule."
"Well, now's your time to learn!"
He grabbed her hand and dragged her onto the makeshift dancefloor before she could protest.
Sokka whistled. "Aang is a brave kid. I don't know if I'd have the guts to do that. Not with her anyway."
Zuko considered the two. "Ah, he'll be fine."
Sometimes his sister still got a bit fire happy when she was annoyed, but she seemed to like Aang well enough. (Or at least was willing to humour him as much as she humoured Ty Lee's more overenthusiastic antics.) That said, Zuko was a bit surprised when Azula actually did dance with Aang, though her expression seemed more competitive than happy. Maybe he'd challenged her.
Other brave souls soon joined in the dancing, mostly from the younger crowd and Zuko's own group of friends, though a few oldies were content to try their hand. Even the Mechanist was out there dancing.
"There goes your uncle," Sokka observed.
"Of course he joined in."
"He's not bad. Also, Jee has got some serious moves."
A reluctant smile. "I know. For all that dancing was banned here, my crew still did it during music night."
Zuko didn't get a chance to explain, as Ty Lee came and snatched them both to dance. The boys tried to protest, but a circle had been formed and now there were arms around Zuko's shoulders, and it seemed he and Sokka had become part of the circle. There was no escaping the circle.
"What are we even doing?" he muttered, face hot with self-consciousness.
"No idea," Ty Lee said as she beamed from the opposite side of their trap-circle, "but this is fun!"
Fun. That was a word Zuko hadn't heard in the Fire Nation for a long, long time. Everything had always been so controlled and rigid, not like this weird circle dance. There didn't seem to be any rules (except that one couldn't leave the circles), yet more and more people were joining the dance. The normally grim hall had become filled with music and laughter.
Aang encouraged them to break off into partners and follow what he was doing. Zuko blinked when Suki got shoved at him. They exchanged an awkward glance before she shrugged, grabbed his hands, and guided him into copying Aang and Azula.
"Um, so I heard you're going back to Kyoshi Island," he said as he spun her.
"It is my home."
"It, uh, seemed like a nice place."
"Before or after you burned it?"
He winced. "I really am sorry about that. I was an idiot back then."
"You're right. You were an idiot then." A smile curved her lips. "But I do consider you a friend now."
"Are you saying you don't consider me a friend?"
He blinked. "No, no, of course I do. I just … didn't want to presume."
She laughed. "You don't need to be so—oh, looks like we're changing partners."
And with that they were being swept apart. Zuko ended up dancing with an elderly woman, then Aang nabbed him for a bit, and then he found himself holding Katara's hands. Her cheeks were flushed and she was smiling so brightly as they spun and moved, clumsily following whatever Aang was now doing with Ty Lee. Zuko's lips curved into a mirror of her smile.
"This is fun," she said in an echo of Ty Lee's earlier words.
He drew her closer with a laugh. "Yeah."
Dancing was kind of fun.
"Did you see some of those nobles' faces?" Katara giggled as she and Zuko slipped out onto a balcony. "They looked so scandalised."
"Not everyone here is willing to embrace Aang's weird dances, it seems."
She smiled and leaned into his chest, arms wrapping loosely around his middle. His hands skimmed her upper arms and their foreheads touched. Neither of them said anything. Neither made any motion to get closer either.
"I'm going to miss you," she whispered.
"No one is making you leave tomorrow."
Her lips twitched. "I can't just not go home. I haven't seen Gran Gran in so long, and there's things I need to do. Things I want to do."
They'd talked about this. About his duties, about her dreams, about how they could make this relationship work.
His hands slipped into her hair and he met her eyes. "I'm going to miss you too, but I think you need this. Besides, everything is going to be busy here for the next … I don't know how long. We'd barely get time to do anything even if you did stay. Unless you want to start a career in politics and listen to old people argue with me every day."
"Hm, tempting. Can I splash water on them if they annoy me too much?"
He gave her a look, which earned a cheeky smile out of her, though she soon sobered again. Her hand traced an aimless pattern on his robe.
"Promise you'll write?" she asked softly.
"And I'll write too, and we'll meet whenever we can."
"Yes," he whispered.
They kissed until his heart pounded and he had committed everything about her lips to memory.
Her hand clasped his and they shared a smile before heading back inside the banquet hall. She stayed close by him for the rest of the night.
"This is going to be great!" Ty Lee declared and reached up to pet the lemur on her shoulder. "Momo and Appa think so too. Right, guys?"
Momo chirruped happily while Appa rumbled in his gentle way from where he sat curled up in the courtyard.
Aang rubbed the base of his neck. "You're really okay about coming with me? I mean, you have all your family and friends here and—"
"Silly." She pulled him into a big hug. "You're my friend too, and my family know I prefer being on the road."
His cheeks warmed. Ty Lee hugs were very … soft.
"Besides," she added more soberly, "I can't be the only one who had the ability to airbend dormant inside me. There have to be others out there like me, right?"
"Roku seems to think so."
"Then I'll help you find them." She beamed again. "It'll be like an adventure!"
Her smile was infectious, and a sense of peace and hope settled in his heart as he realised he really wouldn't have to do this alone. There were already two airbenders in the world now.
She leaned back from him and her brow creased. "Wait, you're not going to expect me to shave all my hair off, are you?"
"Uh, not if you don't want to."
The female monks didn't tend to shave all their hair off anyway.
"What about meat? Can I still eat meat?"
Aang bit back a smile. "Ty Lee, you don't have to change who you are just because you're an airbender. I'll be happy to teach you about the ways of the Air Nomads, but how and whether you follow those teachings is up to you."
"You really mean that?"
She grinned and enfolded him into an extra cuddly hug. He wrapped his arms around her and closed his eyes, even as Momo chirruped and snuggled into them. Appa must have felt like he was missing out, as he crashed into them and sent them all tumbling to the ground. Aang and Ty Lee were soon covered in bison slobber. Both also laughed.
It was a good beginning.
A gentle breeze passed through the garden, easing the mugginess of the day. Zuko sat next to Aang under the shade of the big cherry blossom tree. They watched a mother turtleduck swim about in the pond with her ducklings.
"You know," Zuko said softly, "sometimes none of this feels real. I have these dreams where the war is still going on and … to be honest, they feel more real than this."
"I think that's only natural after a hundred years of war."
"I guess …"
They fell silent. It was an undemanding silence, the kind that could only be shared when two people were so comfortable with one another that just sharing space was enough. Zuko watched a turtleduckling try to get out of the pond, but it slipped back in with a little splash.
"I'm glad it's you," Aang murmured.
"As the Avatar, I'm expected to work with all the nations. I'm glad you're the Fire Lord. I'm glad I get to work with a friend."
"It's not going to be easy. Most people are relieved the war is over, but there are plenty who didn't want it to end." He sighed and tugged at a few blades of grass. "Plenty who won't like the decisions we make either."
"I know, but that's okay. I think it's all part of the balance in a way."
Zuko scrunched his nose.
"If you say so."
Aang laughed, though his expression soon softened into something more pensive. "The war is over and balance has been restored. That's a fact. But that doesn't mean we can just do away with everything unpleasant either. There'll always be happiness and sadness, life and death, peace and strife. It's just up to us to try and keep all that in a balanced state."
Zuko raised his eyebrow. "You know, that was pretty wise."
"Well, I am a hundred-and-twelve-years-old."
A snort escaped Zuko and he shoved Aang's arm, earning a small grin.
"I'm serious, though," Aang said more quietly. "I think there are a lot of people out there who are feeling a bit like you—who maybe don't know how to live in a world when it's not at war, who maybe don't know what to do now or where they really fit. But we can show them that. I want to show them that." He looked down at his hands. "My world, the one I know best, it was peaceful and all the nations got along and worked together. I want to see that world again."
"I think you will."
No doubt it would take a while. Too many wounds were still fresh and the sparks of conflict were not erased so easily, but the war was over. That was at least one step to moving forward.
"Yeah, I think so too," Aang said with a smile. "We just have to work together, right?"
"Together," Zuko agreed.
I can't believe this is the end. I've been working on this since 2012 and now it's finally over. I'm still trying to comprehend it, haha.
In any case, I know this fic series ended up different to what some people were expecting, but I never went into this wanting to write some edgy new take on AtLA. I love the original series, I love the characters, and the whole reason I started writing The Undying Fire is because Zuko and Aang are my BroTP and I wanted more of them. So yeah, writing this was more about enjoying an adventure with characters I love. Hopefully, you enjoyed it too.
I will say now that there will be no sequel or anything like that. This is well and truly the end. However, I do want to thank everyone who read and left reviews! Seriously, thanks so much!