Summary: After defeating Fire Lord Ozai, Aang learns that his journey had only been a test of his worthiness. He awakens in his present- 100 years in the past- and must defeat Fire Lord Sozin in order to save his people.

Aang had never been happier in his life. He had defeated Fire Lord Ozai and the Fire Nation without killing anybody. Zuko was crowned Fire Lord, and the nation was on its way to regaining its honor. To top it all off, he had gotten the girl- Katara. She had kissed him, and they were a real couple now. They were even talking about moving down to the Southern Water Tribe. Everything had worked out perfectly, like the ending of a fairy tale. Aang couldn't understand why Roku looked so grim.

He had been sleeping peacefully next to Katara when the man pulled him out of his dreams and into the Spirit World to speak with him. Aang wondered if he could do that now because he had become a fully realized Avatar, or if the man had always been able to do so and had just wanted to make him work harder. He decided to not to dwell on such a pessimistic thought.

"Did you bring me here to congratulate me on such an awesome job of fixing everything?" Aang asked hopefully.

The white haired man was dressed in his normal attire: red Fire Nation robes that gave him a regal appearance and his pronged flame hair ornament. They stood on the precipice of a rock structure of indeterminate height. Surrounding them were the pale, orange tinged clouds that Aang had come to associate with the Spirit World. Roku didn't look like he was coming to congratulate him. In fact, it looked like the opposite was true. Maybe he had done something wrong? Roku's face grimaced ever so slightly before he answered.

"I'm afraid not, Aang."

Aang's shoulders slumped. "I thought so. Why are we here then?"

Roku sighed. "Your journey, young Avatar, is far from over."

"What else do I need to do?" Aang was glad that he sounded determined and not whiny. He had accepted that it was his destiny and duty to be a tool that would keep the World in peace. Being the Avatar was no easy task.

"There is no easy way to say this…" Roku hesitated and Aang grew nervous. Roku had never been afraid to tell him anything. Aang wasn't sure if it was because the man was just that formidable or because he was dead, but he never seemed fazed by the things that would terrify Aang. "I suppose the easiest place to start is the beginning," Roku said finally. "When you ran away from the Southern Air Temple, before Sozin used the Comet to destroy your people, you entered the Avatar State.

"As you know, when an Avatar who is not fully realized enters the Avatar State, they are not in control of their actions. We are." Roku paused. Aang didn't understand who he meant. "By 'We' I mean the collective of the past Avatars," Roku clarified. "That first time you entered the Avatar State, We had a decision to make: Would we let you die or let you live?"

"What do you mean?" Aang interjected. "Why would you let me die?"

Roku looked grim. "We knew that the Fire Nation was going to attack the Air Nomads, and start the War. There have been many incarnations of the Avatar, and not all of them have been shining examples of what an Avatar should be. It is not common, but there have been incarnations who shirk their duties and reject their destiny. The World could not afford one of those Avatars, not in such a tumultuous time."

"And you were afraid that because I ran away, I would be one of those Avatars," Aang breathed incredulously.

"Yes," Roku agreed. "But some of us argued that it was not your fault. Aang, there's a reason that the Avatar is not informed of his destiny until his sixteenth birthday, and it is not just tradition. The destiny of the Avatar is a terrible burden to bear, and no child can be expected to hold it responsibly. The monks were fools to think that they could expect a twelve year old child- and an airbender, no less- to handle such a responsibility. Many incarnations argued to give you a chance, and some didn't want to wait another sixteen years for the next Avatar to start training. Nevertheless, We couldn't ignore the possibility of you being unfit."

"But in the end you decided to let me live, right?" Aang asked. He was alive, so the whole conversation seemed moot. If they had decided to let him die in the storm, he would be dead.

"No. In the end, we compromised."

"Compromised?" Aang echoed dumbly. How can you compromise on an argument about whether or not to save someone's life? Was he a zombie or something?

"Yes. We decided to let you determine your own fate. We dreamed up a Spirit Quest, a quest that would show you the consequences of your inaction, and the fate of the World should you choose to abandon your duties. We decided that if you completed the quest, We would save you, and if not We would let you be reincarnated into the Water Tribes."

"Why don't I remember the quest?"

"The quest," Roku continued, as if he hadn't heard Aang, "Would determine if you could become a fully realized Avatar, and defeat the Fire Nation. We decided that the best way to show you what would happen if you didn't act would be to have your quest start in the far future. You would wake up to a world ravaged by the Fire Nation, a world on the brink of destruction. You would have to accept your destiny and travel throughout the world, learning the elements, and in the end defeat the Fire Lord and save the world."

"Wow," Aang breathed. "That sounds like what I've gone through in the last year."

Roku shook his head. "No, Aang, it doesn't sound like what you've gone through. It is what you've gone through."

"What do you…? How could it... But that would mean…" Aang's face slowly grew horrified as realization dawned on him. Roku was saying…

The other man nodded. "Everything you've experienced in the last year has been the Spirit Quest."

"Nothing that happened was real?"

"On the contrary, everything that you saw was a version of the truth. If you were to disappear, in a hundred years the world would look just like how you saw it."

"But nothing I did was real," Aang protested. "I didn't really save anyone? I didn't really defeat Fire Lord Ozai? Did any of it even matter?"

"Oh yes, Aang," Roku smiled for the first time. "It mattered. You accomplished something great. You passed the Spirit Quest, and proved that you are worthy to be the next Avatar."

That didn't comfort Aang too much. He had spent the past year (did any time even pass) agonizing over his final confrontation with the Fire Lord. It had haunted him constantly, and now that he had finally (not) realized his destiny, he had thought that he could just relax- not forever, but even just for a week. Now Roku was here telling him that his journey hadn't even begun? It was like a slap to the face.

"I've got to start all over now. I won't have any friends or allies. Everyone I know won't even be born yet. How am I supposed to defeat the Fire Nation alone?" Aang cried desperately.

Roku only smiled. "But you're not alone, Aang. Your Spirit Quest didn't take any time in the real world, and even though We debated, our decision also didn't take any time in the outside world. You have passed the Spirit Quest, and so We will act through you, now in the Avatar State, and save your life."

"Err, I'm glad to live and all, but I don't want to be frozen again," Aang said tentatively.

"Aang, you were never frozen. We are capable of doing far more than just freezing you in ice to spare you."

"You mean… I'm going to wake up before I was ever frozen… before… the Comet?"

Roku nodded, and Aang's face morphed into a grin.

"You mean I can save my people?" He realized that he was a fully realized Avatar; he was capable of… "I could fight Sozin during the Comet. I've mastered the four elements now. If I could beat Ozai I bet I could take on Sozin too!"

"No Aang," Roku said, cutting into his glee. "You have not mastered the elements."

Aang's face fell. "You mean what I learned in future- I mean, the Spirit Quest, won't carry over to the uh, the real world?" It was weird to refer to what he had thought was the past as the 'real world.'

"What you learned in your Spirit Quest you will know in the waking world. However," Roku said dryly, "You hardly mastered the other elements."

"I didn't master them?" Aang asked

"No," answered Roku. "Were you as good at waterbending as Pakku? Were you as good at earthbending as Bumi? Were you as good at firebending as Ozai? Those were masters of their respective elements. You were merely proficient at best."

"But you were the one who told me to master the elements in less than a year!" Aang protested.

"An impossible task," Roku said, waving his hand in dismissal. "It was part of your test. You were never expected to actually master all four elements in such a short period of time, only to try. In the end, your bending ability meant nothing to the Spirit Quest, only your determination and spiritual fortitude. You were able to defeat Ozai not because you were a better bender than him, but because you were stronger spiritually. The Spirit Quest measures your strength of character, not your bending prowess. If you were to face Fire Lord Sozin during the Comet, he would crush you."

Aang opened his mouth, and then closed it. He wanted to protest but when he thought about it, Roku was right. He hadn't come anywhere close to mastering the four elements (well, maybe he had been on his way to mastering waterbending). "So what can I do then?"

"You can go back to the Southern Air Temple, and warn them about Sozin's plan. Save your people, and then master waterbending, earthbending, and firebending. Only then can you stop the war."

"You mean there's nothing I can do to prevent the war from happening?" Aang asked dejectedly.

"No Aang. Preventing the war was never your duty." Roku smiled humorlessly. "Preventing the war was my responsibility, my failure. I knew of Sozin's plans and did not act decisively enough to stop them. Do not blame yourself for this war, Aang. It is not within your power to stop it from occurring. The culpability for this rests solely on my shoulders. Your responsibility is to master the elements as quickly as possible. Just because the war will happen does not mean it has to be the same century long war that you came to know. You can stop this war before it becomes the nightmare it could be."

"But I don't know if I can," Aang said, biting his lower lip.

Roku smiled at him encouragingly. This was the Roku he knew, the old man who always seemed to have faith in him and have all the answers. "But Aang, you've already proven that you can. Not only do I have faith in you, but now you've earned the faith of all your past incarnations. You can defeat the Fire Nation. Now go, and change the fate of the world."

Slowly, Roku seemed to be fading into nothing, and Aang could tell that he was waking up…


The storm was raging around him. Beneath him Appa was roaring, trying and failing to fly through the strong winds and rain. Aang knew with complete certainty that this was the storm that had (would? Might have?) led to him becoming trapped in ice for a hundred years- in his Spirit Quest at least. He was vaguely aware of the glowing light emanating from his tattoos and eyes. He was in the Avatar State. Aang felt the otherworldly sense of calm and detachment that always accompanied the State, and felt his arms rising towards the sky. Except for the last time he had used the Avatar State in his quest, he had never been in control of himself while under its influence.

Aang saw himself wave his arms around in a complex series of motions he recognized as both waterbending and airbending, and the storm around him obeyed him. It was massive, but the immense power of the Avatar State was capable of overcoming it. First, his hands cut a massive line through the dark clouds all around him, and then the clouds on either side of the line parted. He could tell that the clouds' path had changed, and instead of the storm front moving in one direction, it was now moving in two separate directions, opening a path between the two fronts. Aang wasn't certain where he was in relation to the Southern Air Temple, but he figured that his best bet would be to follow the massive trail in front of him.

He patted his soaked Sky Bison as the light faded from his eyes. "C'mon Appa. We need to get back home as fast as possible." Appa roared in agreement and flew towards the Temple. Aang didn't know if Appa could sense his urgency or just wanted to be out of the storm as quickly as possible, but either way the bison flew faster than Aang remembered him ever flying before. The entire way, he was in a sort of numb haze. Intellectually he knew that his people were still alive, but he still had a paranoid fear that when he reached the Temple everyone would be dead.

His fears were proven baseless when he saw the Southern Air Temple in the distance. His heart had jumped to his throat then. So far away, it looked barren and lifeless, but as he flew closer he could see gliders and Sky Bison in the air. Aang felt tears well in his eyes. He could save these people. When he had almost reached the Temple, he saw Gyatso and four other monks waiting for him serenely. The entire Council of Elders of the Southern Air Temple was awaiting him. Before he would have been ashamed and nervous, but now the only emotion he could summon was exhilaration. Aang threw himself off of Appa and into Gyatso's arms.

"Gyatso!" Aang's cry was muffled by his mentor's shirt. "I missed you so much."

"Aang, you were only gone for a few hours," Gyatso said soothingly.

He didn't get a chance to reply because another monk, monk Tashi he recalled, cut into the conversation. "How dare you do something so reckless? Flying off into a storm all by yourself! Do you have any idea what could have happened to you?"

Monk Tashi's interjection was unwelcomed, but it reminded Aang of his purpose. "I need to tell you-"

"No, what you need to do is listen to your elders!" Tashi snapped.

"But I-"

"We were right to decide to send him away," another monk interjected. "His attachment to Gyatso clouded his judgment."

"Listen! I went on a Spirit Quest-"

"A likely excuse," Tashi said again, scowling.

"Listen to me!" Aang shouted, except this time it wasn't in the high pitched voice of a child, but rather the deep, echoing voice of the Avatar State. He took a deep breath and calmed himself down. He knew that the monks wouldn't respond to threats or displays of power. He had to be calm and show them that he wasn't just a distraught child (even if he was). Aang swung his arms in a flowing motion, and the puddles from the storm obeyed him, swirling in a loose spiral. Then he stomped his foot on the ground and a pillar rose from the smooth stone. Finally, he thrust his fist forward and a fireball burst through the air. The monks around him were stunned speechless. Monk Tashi was gaping at him open mouthed. Even Gyatso looked at him, amazed.

Aang swallowed nervously. "I went on a Spirit Quest," Aang said again. "And Avatar Roku warned me that Fire Lord Sozin is planning to use the power of a Comet," he could hardly call it 'Sozin's Comet' "To attack all of the Air Temples. He wants to start a war, and needs to make sure that the airbenders- and the Avatar- are out of the way."

There was a pause before High Monk Pasang, Abbot of the Temple, spoke. "Hmm. We must meditate on this."

"Meditate!" Aang cried indignantly. "There's no time to meditate! I don't know how long we have until the Comet comes! It could be any moment now. We need to evacuate the Temple, and send word to the others!"

"We cannot act without considering the consequences," Pasang said sternly.

"You need to consider the consequences of not acting!" Aang countered hotly. "The fate of our people rests in your hands!"

"We will meditate-"

"Then I'll get everyone ready while you waste time being indecisive." Aang scowled, refusing to back down. Pasang frowned down at him, but before he could reprimand Aang a voice spoke up to the side.

"What's the harm?" Gyatso spoke calmly. Aang had forgotten that he had an ally on the Council. "If Aang is wrong, the worst that will happen is a bit of shock. I daresay that we could use the exercise, even. But if he's right, then we will have saved our race from annihilation. It seems to me that we have nothing to lose and everything to gain." Gyatso paused and smiled. "Besides, who are we to go against the word of not only Avatar Aang, but Avatar Roku?"

Head Monk Pasang sighed and looked defeated, and Aang knew that he had won. "They will never believe the messengers," Monk Tashi argued, but he didn't sound contradictory anymore.

Gyatso reached up and removed his necklace, the one that proved he was on the Council of Elders, one of the twenty monks and nuns that governed the Air Nomads. "They will if we give them these." Gyatso looked over at Aang and winked, and he knew that everything was going to turn out alright.


They had been in the Southern Water Tribe for a week. The Tribesmen had offered them shelter and protection. Aang was stricken by how different the tribe looked from both the Northern Tribe and the small village it had become in the Spirit Quest. For one, it was completely inland (as inland as a polar ice cap can get) and it wasn't on an incline. It was a massive maze of igloos, and although it was slightly bigger than the Northern Tribe, it wasn't as resplendent. Five days after the monks of the Southern Temple arrived, Aang was relieved to see another group of Sky Bison over the city. They turned out to be nuns from the Eastern Temple. The Elder Council had sent their fastest runners (in short bursts, an airbender trained to send messages could travel much faster than a bison) to the three other Temples right after the storm had broken.

Two days after the nuns had gotten to the Water Tribe, the sky turned red, and Aang could feel the power of Sozin's Comet filling him to the brim. "No," he said softly. "It's too soon. There hasn't been enough time."

"You don't know that for sure," Gyatso said. "Just because the others aren't here doesn't mean that they didn't get the message."

"There's no way that it would have gotten to the Northern Air Temple in a week. Maybe the Western… maybe."

Gyatso's eyes betrayed his sorrow, even if his voice didn't waver. "It doesn't matter. The only thing we can do it hope and pray."

It was only later that they found out the fate of the other two Temples. The messenger sent to the Western Temple had arrived before the Comet, but it took him a little longer to reach it, and it took the Council there a little longer to decide to evacuate. In the end, the most damning factor was their proximity to the Fire Nation. The Fire Nation forces hadn't reached the Southern and Eastern Temples before they started evacuating because they had to make sure that the Temples didn't get word of the assault until it was too late. Because the Western Temple was so deep in Fire Nation territory, they hadn't had to hide their troop movements. The nuns hadn't stood a chance. Only eighty of the one thousand nuns made it to the South Pole. Of those, only ten were unscathed. Aang wept openly when he saw the burnt and blistered flesh of a five year old girl. Not even the waterbending healers could do anything but amputate her left arm and leg.

Of the Northern Temple, there was nothing. The messenger hadn't even gotten to it before the Comet. By the time he had gotten to the other side of the world, the Fire Nation had already slaughtered every man and boy in the Temple. In a way, Aang mused, it had been kinder to wake up a hundred years after the genocide. There had only been bones and dust left over. He hadn't had to see the blistered, blackened flesh of the innocent. He hadn't had to listen to children crying for their lost loved ones, children crying in pain. He hadn't had to witness the broken gaze of respected elders who before had known only the peaceful life of a nomad.

The Councils of Elders were meeting to discuss what to do next. Only one of the five Elders from the Western Tribe survived the attack, and the blistered, still fresh burn on the left side of her face and neck showed that she had fought her way to safety. Despite the pain of her injury, she insisted on attending the meeting. For whatever reason, they had also invited him to join. Gyatso was guiding him gently to the hut that the Southern Water Tribe offered to them for the occasion. The mood inside the hut was solemn, and the Western Elder, Gu-Lang, sat on a cushion, looking weary, half her face swaddled in bandages. Aang had thought that he had cried all of the tears he had in him, but tears welled in his eyes at the sight of the once-proud woman looking so beaten down.

He ignored Gyatso pulling him towards his place at the back of the room, and walked over to Gu-Lang. "I'm so sorry that I couldn't protect you and your Temple from the Fire Nation," he whispered brokenly. His gaze was down at his feet, so he was surprised when he felt a gentle touch on his head, telling him to look up. He was shocked to see the woman getting down to her knees in front of him. He wanted to protest but the sight of the raw emotion in her one visible eye made the words catch in his throat.

"Avatar Aang," Gu-Lang said. Her voice was soft, but it had a certain melodic quality to it that made it carry across the silent room. Aang could feel the gaze of the ten other Elders on his back. "You are only reason there are any airbenders left at all. Every single Air Nomad here in this room and in this village owes their life to you."

Aang's eyes met hers, and he found that he couldn't speak. Her gaze was piercing, but not accusatory or angry. "Thank you," she whispered, her voice thick with emotion. "Thank you, for saving my people from extinction." Her grip on his arms was tight, and Aang could feel her trembling with the force of her grief. Gu-Lang broke eye contact to bow her head to him. He felt himself choking up, and he didn't know what to do. Gyatso helped Gu-Lang up and took Aang's arm gently, leading him away. He was reminded in that moment of why he loved his mentor so much. Everyone was looking at him. Even though he was the Avatar, he was still a child and Aang knew the Elders couldn't forget his acts of youth and immaturity. Even so, they looked at him with respect, grudging respect sometimes. They also couldn't forget that he saved their lives and the lives of their people.

Head Monk Pasang cleared his throat. Because Gu-Lang was only an ordinary Elder, he and Mother Superior Iio, leader of the Eastern Temple, were the highest ranking airbenders. Clearly the meeting was beginning. Aang was in a daze, and he ignored the talk about numbers- the numbers of the dead, injured, and dying. Gyatso prodded him, and he listened to the conversation.

"We cannot go back to the Temples," Pasang said.

"No," Iio agreed. "But neither can we stay here. We would bring too much danger to the Water Tribe, and they do not have the force to protect us from the full might of the Fire Nation."

"Where will we go," asked Tashi softly. Aang wouldn't mind if Tashi's face would regain its arrogant, all-knowing look, if only it wouldn't look so broken.

"There was a time," Gu-Lang began hesitantly, "Where the Air Nomads had no homes. We would wander for our whole lives, going where the wind took us."

"Could we live like that?" Gyatso asked.

"We must," said Pasang. "Eventually it will be safe to return to the Temples, when the full force of the Fire Nation is not focused on us."

"If…" Aang spoke quietly, tentatively. "If I were to draw their attention away…"

"No," Pasang said. "The Fire Nation does not know who you are, or even what your gender is. As long as one airbender still lives you will be safe. And as long as any one of us still draws breath, you will remain safe." Pasang shook his head. "No Aang, you will stay here, in the Southern Water Tribe, and master waterbending. The Fire Nation will not expect you to train in the other bending disciplines until you are sixteen. We will lead them away from you so that you can learn in safety."

Aang stared at him, before looking around at the other Elders. Some were scared, but none of them lacked the spark of determination in their eyes. They were going to act as scapegoats for him. "I can't allow you to do this." It was his responsibility to keep them safe, not the other way around.

Pasang smiled. "Ah, but I'm afraid you have no choice. You saved our lives, Aang, and now it's our decision what to do with them. Until you are fully trained, we have no hope of defeating the Fire Nation. We will scatter to the four winds, and the Fire Nation will never be able to catch us all. Their only hope was catching us by surprise and overpowering us using Sozin's Comet. Now… they might as well try to catch the air itself." Pasang did a good job of hiding it, but Aang still detected the hint of scorn in his voice when he spoke of the Fire Nation. It seemed like even the wisest of the Elders were still human.

Aang wanted to protest, but Iio held up her hands. Even the normally mothering and passive woman looked firm. "Our decision is made, Avatar Aang, and this meeting is dismissed."

Airbending wasn't about controlling the wind, not really. Air was a friend, a companion, and it could only be bent by moving with it. It was not a servant to be ordered around. Aang could see that he could no more force the Council of Elders to change their minds than he could force the wind to blow. "I don't want anyone to die for me."

"No good man ever does," Gyatso said, smiling down at him. "But this is a choice that you cannot make for us, Aang. We aren't just doing this for you, but for the world. Fire Lord Sozin will wage war on the world, but he will not attack in earnest until he is sure that the Avatar is dead. Until you are sixteen, the world will be safe from the full force of his wrath. If you can master the elements before your sixteenth birthday, Aang, you can stop this war before it truly begins."


Aang tried not to feel bitter as he watched his people fly away from him. He had lived with the guilt of his people's deaths for a year, and the fact that they were going to fly off to die for him only weighed on him more. Only those too injured to fly remained in the Tribe, and they would leave (or be carried away, he thought angrily) as soon as they could. No one wanted the Fire Nation finding out that he was training to master waterbending.

His new teacher stood beside him. Ahnah was in her forties, but she stood strong and tall, with only a hint of grey at her temples. She dressed in the traditional blues of the Water Tribes, but unlike most benders, she also carried a spear. The first thing she had done was made him wear the blue clothing and furs of the Water Tribes. "Do not forget that you are of the Water Tribes, Aang. You are not just an Air Nomad who also waterbends," she had said.

"Come, Aang," Ahnah finally said, when the Sky Bison were out of sight. "It's time for us to go train."

Waterbending training was easy. He had spent the most time in his quest learning waterbending, and Ahnah was just testing what he knew. She seemed to be pleased by his knowledge of the discipline, and ended training before the sun had set. Aang walked with her back to their igloo; he would be staying with her and her daughters. Apparently part of becoming a waterbender included living like a waterbender, and so he would be staying with her to learn the importance of family in the Water Tribes. He didn't see any problem with the arrangement until it came time for dinner.

"I'm sorry," Aang started, "but I don't eat meat." They had served him seal jerky.

Ahnah raised her eyebrow. "My daughters worked hard to prepare this meal and you refuse to eat it?"

Aang blushed. He had travelled across the whole world (at least in his mind) and no one had ever made a fuss about his dietary needs. He wasn't used to having to defend them. "Err, I'm really sorry but it's against Air Nomad beliefs to kill other living beings to sustain ourselves."

Ahnah looked unimpressed. "As long as you are living in my house, you will eat the food that I serve you."

Aang's mouth was hanging open. "But- but you… In the Quest…"

Ahnah glanced at her daughters, and they left the igloo wordlessly. Very few people knew about Aang's Spirit Quest, but as his teacher, Ahnah was one of them. "In my Spirit Quest," Aang began again, "I trained in the Northern Water Tribe, and they never made me eat meat."

Ahnah sighed. "Yes, I assumed as much. Don't forget that even though the quest was as real as it could be, you were still ultimately in control. Beyond that, it was a hundred years since the Avatar was last sighted that you trained in the North Pole."

"What does that have to do with anything?" Aang asked, trying to reign in his temper and confusion.

"Aang… do you think that just anyone gets to train the Avatar?" Ahnah asked.

"Uhh…" In truth, he had never thought about it.

"I was trained to be your waterbending teacher since your birth. I am descended, very distantly, from Avatar Atka, the waterbending Avatar before Avatar Kuruk (1). When I was a little girl Avatar Roku taught me waterbending because he suspected that I would one day teach his reincarnation. Not only am I a master waterbender, but we have a spiritual connection. I am certain that your Master Pakku was nowhere near as prepared to train the Avatar as I am. It's not only my job to teach to waterbending, but to turn you into a real waterbender."

"But why do I have to sacrifice my beliefs that I learned as an airbender to learn waterbending?" Aang protested. He had managed to defeat the Fire Nation without letting go of his airbender morality, and he didn't want to throw that all away.

"I have studied your history," Ahnah said, unyielding. "Avatar Yangchen, and Avatar Rinzen, the Air Nomad Avatar before her, ate meat when they learned the other bending arts. You must integrate yourself into our culture, not only to learn bending but to learn our ways so that you can be an ambassador between our people and yours. That is the duty of the Avatar. You don't learn our bending just to become a stronger weapon, but you learn it to learn us. You are not an airbender, or a waterbender, or an earthbender, or a firebender. You are all four. That is why you're the only one who can truly understand all of us and mediate between us in times of strife."

Aang imagined that he must look extremely stricken, because Ahnah's face softened. "Once you become a fully realized Avatar, you can choose to live your own way. But until then…" She gestured to the seal jerky on his plate.

Aang gulped, before picking up his knife and ever so hesitantly slicing off a tiny piece of the sausage. He looked up at Ahnah, and saw her staring back at him intently. He figured that no tricks would get past her, so he raised the meat up to his mouth slowly. Aang had sacrificed many things for his destiny, but he had managed to avoid sacrificing his principles. He screwed his eyes shut as the morsel hit his tongue, and he felt a piece of himself die. Aang chewed slowly, and gulped down a glass of water, swallowing the meat with it. An image rose to his mind unbidden of an innocent baby seal being slaughtered just to feed him.

Aang ran outside and hurled, falling to his hands and knees. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Ahnah kneeling next to him and felt her hand rubbing circles into his back. "I'm sorry," he said bitterly, not meeting her eyes. To his surprise, the woman lifted him up into an embrace.

"Oh Aang, there's nothing to apologize for. Avatar Yangchen threw up the first time she was made to eat meat as well." Aang heard her sigh. "I never said that I expected it to be easy, only that I expected you to do it. I know that this will be hard for you, and it probably won't be the first time you can't keep it down."

Ahnah went on to explain how they didn't kill any animal needlessly. All parts of the creature were used- nothing went to waste. The furs were used for clothes and protection from the cold. The fat and meat was eaten, and the bones made into tools. "There isn't enough vegetation in the Poles for us to survive on," Ahnah had explained. "The Air Nomads have been vegetarians for millennia, and their bodies have adapted certain ways of living without meat that we simply haven't. We do what we must in order to survive."

It took him a month and a half to keep any meat down and not vomit it back up. He was improving as a waterbender faster than ever though. The only time Aang had spent focusing solely on training one element, and not running around the world, was when he had been in the Northern Water Tribe. He had been so childish back then, though, and he hadn't really put his full effort into learning. The fact that every day he spent training, another one of his people might die for him was a good motivator. Aang threw himself into his training and he grew more and more skilled. He might even be better than Katara was…

The thought of Katara still made his heart ache, but he was slowly getting over it. It also reminded him of the realization that he had made early in his training. Ahnah had three daughters, but her youngest (who was a couple years younger than him) was named Kya. Aang remembered that Katara told him that her mother had been named after her great-grandmother. Although the resemblance wasn't striking, Ahnah and her daughters did look similar to Katara. Also, even though Master Pakku had taught him originally, through the majority of the Spirit Quest it had been Katara (who through her potentially great-great-grandmother Ahnah was descended from Avatar Atka) who had taught him waterbending. Zuko was Roku's great-grandson, and it wouldn't surprise Aang if Toph had a hidden Avatar ancestor somewhere. Aang wondered if the Avatar Spirit had been pulling the strings behind the scene. Nevertheless, it comforted him to know that he might someday see Katara again.

Waterbending wasn't the only thing he learned in the Southern Water Tribe. They taught him how to sail a boat, how to fish and hunt (although Ahnah had to twist his arm to get him to do that), how to prepare the food that he caught, and how to clean up his igloo. He learned the basics (make that the very basics) of using a spear and a boomerang. Aang also learned Water Tribe politics, and travelled with the Tribe to the North Pole on the New Moon Celebration. He learned that it was disrespectful to speak about your wife's mother unless your wife brought her up first, and that breaking someone's spear would result in a blood feud between families (legend had it that the Southern Water Tribe was born from such a feud). He realized that he wasn't just trying to master waterbending, but also to master Water Tribe Life 101.

Eventually the day came that he threw a boomerang and it hit the target more often than the hut next to it, he caught the seal more often than it escaped, and most importantly, he won his spars against Ahnah more often than he lost them. He had just recently turned thirteen, and he could tell that Ahnah didn't have much left to teach him. Aang had been learning from her for nearly a year, and he knew that he had come a long way. Ahnah was the best waterbender in the South Pole, and she was the only one who could beat him at all anymore in a spar. Lately she didn't even win most of the time. "You still can't steer a ship worth an otter-penguin's tail," she said stubbornly.

"Master Ahnah," he said gently, "It's not my destiny to be a shipman. It's my destiny to be the Avatar." He knew that she considered him her own, and she didn't want to see him leave the nest. Ahnah scowled before drawing him into a fierce hug. That was something he'd grown used to- the affection. Gyatso sometimes hugged him, but that was far more affection than the man was supposed to show as a mentor. Ahnah, on the other hand, was an overbearing Water Tribe mother, and she wasn't afraid to smother him in love. It was important though, because as an Air Nomad he had never been able to understand the emphasis that the Water Tribes put on family. It wasn't until he had someone love him unconditionally that he had understood why Sokka would throw himself off the end of the world to keep Katara from getting hurt.

"Fine, fine. You're a master waterbender, brat." The jibe had no heat behind it. "You better not forget about us off in the big bad Earth Kingdom, alright?"

Aang smiled. "No way. You can leave the Water Tribes but the Tribes can't leave you, right?"

Ahnah smiled back. "You'll be alright, kiddo."


On Appa's back, Aang traveled from the Southern Water Tribe to Omashu. It was dangerous, because the Fire Nation was hunting down all airbenders, especially airbenders Aang's age. However, it was less suspicious for an Air Nomad to be flying around the world than for a Water Tribe escort to carry him to the Earth Kingdom. The Fire Nation didn't know that he had started his training, but they weren't stupid. Given enough evidence they could put two and two together. Besides, he had spent a year in his Quest running from the Fire Nation, and he had a lot more places to run to now than he had then.

The war hadn't really begun in earnest because the Fire Nation's priority was still to hunt him down. They had started the siege on Taku(2) because of its strategic location and its importance in Earth Kingdom commerce, but Aang doubted the city would come down in the near future. Taku was a trade city, and so it had a very weak military presence. In the Spirit Quest, the Fire Nation had annihilated the city easily, but the surviving airbenders proved to be a thorn in their side. They flew soldiers from Ba Sing Se and Omashu to Taku, and they were able to stop the Fire Nation attack. In return, Taku made weapons and other manufactured goods and gave them to the cities. Also, it was impossible to put the city under an effective siege because the Air Nomads would fly food and other supplies into the city. Trade didn't even stop, because merchants were flown in and out of Taku.

The Earth Kingdom and Air Nomads made a great team, even though they probably would be hard pressed to admit it. The Fire Nation couldn't focus their attention on the Earth Kingdom until they neutralized the Air Nomads, but they couldn't catch the Air Nomads because the airbenders could flee faster than they could chase, and they could find shelter in the Earth Kingdom cities. Even though it was dangerous for Aang to travel alone, most of the Fire Nation's attacks were centered on Taku and the villages of the northwestern part of the continent. They didn't dare attack a city as powerful as Omashu so early in the war.

Aang reached the city without any issue, other than a slight scare with a Fire Nation ship. The familiar walls of the city were comforting to him. Omashu was a city that had remained unchanged even through a hundred years of war. As he approached, some people stopped and stared at the flying bison, but just as many of them went on their way as if nothing exciting was happening. Only one of them mattered to Aang.

"Bumi!" Aang cried, throwing himself off Appa and into the arms of his friend. The boy laughed before setting him down.

"Are you going to teach me earthbending?" Aang asked.

"I might have," Bumi cackled, "but you broke all the rules!"

"What do you mean?"

"Avatar Roku mastered airbending when he was nineteen-almost twenty- years old. If you had taken that long to master waterbending, I would have been twenty two." Bumi was two years older than him. "That would have been old enough to teach you. But as it is…" Bumi shrugged.

"Bumi will be assisting me. That is- if he can stay focused for long enough to be of any use." Bao, Bumi's father, had always been a stern man, but Aang didn't remember him being so severe. He imagined that being a King during a war would make you very crabby. Aang wanted to shout that Bumi had kept Omashu free for nearly a hundred years, but his friend didn't look fazed at all by his father's temper, so he decided he would only make things worse.

Bao didn't waste any time. As soon as Aang's things were moved to his quarters, the man started teaching him (his teaching involved liberal amounts of shouting and earth-shaking stomps). Aang was reminded of Toph, except without any Katara to run interference. His only reprieve was the fact that Bao was a very busy man, and couldn't dedicate all of his time to training Aang. Whenever he left them, he would order Bumi to take over. Bumi obeyed his father, of course, but his idea of training was a lot more enjoyable than his father's. They would slide down the mail chutes, earthbend rock candy, or play earth soccer.

The most jarring part of living in the Earth Kingdom was the meat. Aang had gotten used to (as much as he could, anyway) eating meat, but at least in the Water Tribes they had respected the animals they slaughtered. In Omashu, they ate only the best parts of the beast, leaving the bones, organs, or even just tougher meat to rot. Bumi tried to explain that they buried the animals to keep the earth fertile, but Aang wasn't convinced. Yes, they did bury the carcasses, but that didn't excuse their attitude about it. In the Southern Water Tribe, the hunters sent a prayer to Tui and La every time they killed an animal. In the Earth Kingdoms the beast was killed, cooked, and discarded. Some people even hunted just for the sake of enjoyment, murdering the creature and then letting it sit and rot.

He was so disturbed that on the Winter Solace he meditated and talked to Avatar Yangchen.

"Yangchen, how can we just sit back and let people disrespect life like this?" Aang asked. Seeing that his past life had an almost patronizing expression on her face, Aang continued quickly. "I understand that eating meat is sometimes necessary, especially for earthbenders who need big muscles and lots of energy. That still doesn't excuse the waste of life. I'm the Avatar. Can't I fix this?"

Yangchen smiled at him, but the expression had no mirth to it. Aang wondered what had happened in her life that had made her so bitter. "Young Avatar, I myself asked the same question many times. What you must realize is that no one culture is inherently better than any other."

Aang began to protest, but Yangchen cut him off.

"Aang, what do you think your waterbending teacher, Ahnah, would do if you tried to take her children away from her?"

Aang didn't understand the change of topic, but decided to go with it. "I'd have to kill her first. There's no way you can take a Water Tribe mother's children from her." Everyone knew that.

"Yes, but isn't it true that in the Air Temples we take children from their parents? Isn't it true that we never let those children know who their parents are?"

"But that's different!" Aang protested.

"Why?" Yangchen said quietly, but intently. "Because that is our culture? It makes sense to us, but what about all of the Water Tribe Avatars? To them, stealing children from their parents is evil. Don't you think that at least one of us," Yangchen said, referring to their past lives, "Has considered righting what they consider is wrong?"

Aang didn't know how to respond.

"Aang, every Nation has things that make it unique. Yes, we may consider some of them 'good' and some of them 'bad,' but to remove those distinctions would be to destroy all four of the Nations. That is what you are fighting to prevent right now."

"I don't understand," said Aang. Suddenly mist swirled around Yangchen, and she disappeared. When the mist dissipated, Roku sat in her place.

"Aang," he said, "This war did not start because Sozin was greedy, or because he lusted to rule the world. Sozin saw the world as a land divided. He saw the Air Nomads as a disorderly mess, the Water Tribes split in twain, and the Earth Kingdoms a massive mesh of anarchy."

"But I thought the Earth Kingdom was ruled by the Earth King," Aang said, confused.

"If there is a true Earth King, then how can Bao be king of Omashu?" Roku challenged. He shook his head. "Each city-state is independent of each other. The king of Ba Sing Se calls himself the Earth King because when Chin conquered the Earth Kingdoms, Ba Sing Se was the only city-state that remained independent. In fact, the city-states often come to blows and miniature wars. This war against the Fire Nation is the first time in centuries that they have ever cooperated. Fire Lord Sozin saw that the world was divided, and often warred against itself.

"You see, Aang, the Fire Nation is ruled supremely by the Fire Lord. Even if the Lord is wrong, or evil, it is considered dishonorable to the highest degree to disobey your Lord. The Fire Lord is considered the Son of Agni, and to dishonor your Fire Lord is the same thing as dishonoring Agni himself. It has been over a thousand years since the last civil war within the Fire Nation. Sozin believed that if he could spread his culture to the world, that he could end all war permanently. It was very simple logic: the Fire Nation didn't have any civil wars, so if the whole world were the Fire Nation, there would be no more wars."

"You mean," Aang said weakly, "That Fire Lord Sozin wants to create an era of world peace?"

Roku chuckled mirthlessly. "Yes, rather hypocritical of him, don't you think, to make peace by creating the worst war in thousands of years? Sozin didn't understand or respect the cultures of the other Nations, and the whole world paid the price. Do you understand now, Aang? You are learning the four bending arts, yes, but you are also learning to understand and accept the cultures that created said arts. It is natural for someone to be offended, or even disgusted by certain aspects of other cultures. That's the reason that the Avatar exists. We are of all Nations and of none. It is not your job to change the world as you see fit. It is your duty to keep the four Nations in balance, and therefore in peace."

Aang didn't get a chance to respond, because the Spirit World faded away like water slipping through his fingers, leaving him face to face with Bumi. After his conversations with Yangchen and Roku, he tried to see past his disapproval of Omashu's customs, and instead see the good. Everyone knew that people of the Earth Kingdoms were stubborn, but few people could see the good side of that stubbornness. Water Tribesmen were loyal to their families, and secondly to their tribes. Friends were well and good, but blood was far thicker than water. While family was important to the Earth Kingdoms, loyalties were formed independent of family bonds.

Once, Aang accidently broke a vase that was passed down from generation to generation, the kind of vase that no one actually cared about until it was in pieces. King Bao had been furious, but Bumi argued with him for hours. It was the only time Aang had ever seen his friend yell. The other boy had argued that the vase was ugly and useless, and that no one had actually liked it. In the end, the two boys were cleaning out toilettes with toothbrushes.

"Bumi," Aang had said, "Why did you bother? It was my fault. I broke the vase and I was wrong to be so careless."

Bumi looked at him like he had said the sky was orange. "What does it matter if you're right or wrong? You're my friend."

Aang understood then that Bumi would walk off the end of the earth for him- not because he was the Avatar, but because he had earned Bumi's loyalty. He also understood why the Earth Kingdoms could never be united under one ruler. The people of Earth weren't like the Fire Nation, or even the Water Tribes, who would respect their Lord of Chief simply because the man was in charge. In the Earth Kingdoms, respect had to be earned, by working and sweating and bleeding with someone. Loyalties existed in many different forms in the four Nations. The Fire Nation was unquestioningly loyal to the Fire Lord, the Air Nomads to their Elders, the Water Tribes to their families, and the Earth Kingdom to their friends and comrades. Aang knew then that he would never have a friend as faithful as Bumi.

When he finally mastered earthbending after two years it was bittersweet. He was on track; he still had one more year to master firebending before the Fire Nation would stop looking for him among the Air Nomads and begin destroying the world in earnest. Even so, for the first time he wished that he was just an earthbender, and not the Avatar, so that he could stay with Bumi. Unfortunately, he had a destiny to accept, and a world to save.

"Promise that you'll visit me," Bumi whispered, embracing him.

"Of course, maybe I'll even make a mountain right next to Omashu so that I could live there and visit you all the time."

The two friends shared a smile and one last hug before Aang got on Appa and flew away.


A/N: (1) = I was going to have her be a descendent of Kuruk, but then I realized that Ummi was abducted by Koh before they were married (and therefore presumably before they had had children) and that Kuruk went to the Spirit World on the anniversary of their wedding every year to try to get her back (meaning he probably never remarried). Unless he had some bastard children somewhere along the line (which is highly possible, given what we know about his character) I doubt that he would have had any kids.

(2) = This is canon. Check it out on the Avatar Wiki.