Epilogue - The Invisible One
As Chief Investigator of the United Republic, Sokka normally didn't bother with Republic City street brawls- at least those that didn't offer the possibility of nailing one of the depressingly major crime figures- but one Firebender taking out a gang of five Red Monsoon Waterbenders was striking enough to prompt him to drop by the crime scene. He saw many strange things, traveling the lands of the United Republic and fire-ferreting out trouble, but somehow the most interesting stuff always came from Republic City.
When he arrived Downtown, he made straight for Toph. "So, Chief, where's our hero?"
"What are you doing here? This isn't a hate crime." Toph, of course, didn't turn to face him, but Sokka was used to that. "Don't tell me this guy's connected?"
"Not that I know of. I'm just being nosy and trying to ruin your investigation. As usual."
Toph snorted, and turned to where a couple of her officers were babysitting a young man in a fancy red jacket. "Hey, kid, get over here! Someone else needs to take a statement." She raised a finger at Sokka and said, "Make it quick, we need to reopen this street to traffic soon."
Sokka, though, was barely listening. He was watching the young man in the red jacket walk over with his police escort, unconsciously analyzing his movements and mapping them to the various martial arts he had observed in detail. As soon as the guy arrived, Sokka said, "Since when is Kyoshi Island teaching men the advanced Aikido arts?"
The man, though, scrunched his brow. "Where the flambé is Kyoshi Island?"
The servant motioned, and announced, "Lady Ty Lee of the Gaipan Healing Temple."
A walking shadow immediately broke away from the rest of the assembly to move towards the entrance, and Ty Lee could no longer contain herself. She trotted over and hit the shadow with a running hug, eliciting a sigh. "One of these days you're going to press up against me wrong and stab yourself on something."
Ty Lee pulled back and stuck her tongue out at her second oldest friend. "I've been hugging you long enough to know which parts are safe. After that one time-"
"No need to get into that. Mistakes were made and we've both moved on." Mai finally showed a smile, albeit a small one she could deny if anyone else claimed to have seen it. "It's... nice to see you again. How are things at the Healing Temple?"
"Great! The forest is coming back so well that they're spinning off the Herbalists into their own institute, because there's just so much to teach and study. Sneers and Kori are helping to fund it, so things are moving really fast!" Ty Lee gave Mai back her personal space, and let her friend lead her back towards the rest of the gathering. She couldn't help but grin with excitement at being back in the Fire Palace. The structure was the same, but all of the decor was different, lighter, a physical symbol of the reforms Zuko had made during his years as Fire Lord. Just this assembly alone- a meeting of the Fire Nation's most prominent philanthropists to discuss ways to support each other's efforts- was such a wonderful change from the old reasons Ty Lee had used to visit.
That thought brought a little gloom to Ty Lee's mood, and of course Mai noticed it immediately. Not only that, but she also figured out something close to the reason; anyone who thought Mai knew nothing of emotions had no clue how much study she had given them. "If you like, I could arrange a visit to the Royal Crypt. You could give your regards to Azula."
"That's okay." Ty Lee forced a smile. "The memories are just shifting my aura, but that's a natural part of honoring those who have passed. I'd rather focus on the people who are here, now."
Thankfully, Mai accepted that. Ty Lee had gotten better at lying since she left Kyoshi Island, but she was sure she wasn't good enough to make herself bow before an urn that contained nothing but the ashes of wood and a small mountain lion-ram.
She was called the Helping Hand.
After speaking with that Firebender who walked like a Kyoshi Warrior, Sokka found himself traveling the smaller settlements of the United Republic. They were places where the ways of the Old World still lived on, places that looked no different than the villages that Sokka had visited during the war, save that the people wore a mix of colors. The world would always need farms, and some people liked dirt roads and skylines that didn't rise above two stories. Sokka had to admit, there was a certain charm to that kind of thing, once you got past the dirt and the bugs and the drafty walls.
They were the kind of places that the Helping Hand liked to visit. The descriptions all agreed that she was a woman about Sokka's age, with golden eyes and auburn hair, a Firebender of unusual skill and style. She could summon and control the lightning, they said, and she could meditate for three days straight, appearing as though dead and taking only one breath each hour. She was wise in the ways of tactics and combat, Sokka's sources all mentioned, and by the time she entered into combat with her enemies, she had already defeated them. She freely taught anyone- not just Firebenders- a derivation of her fighting arts and way of strategizing, but those lessons came with a price.
In addition to the lessons on how to defend oneself, her students had to accept lessons in how to Decide.
In one village, she had instructed a young lady in how to defend herself from the hand of her father, but by the end of the lessons, the girl in question left home- never to return- without need of combat.
In another village, the Helping Hand had organized a team of six other warriors, and they in turn all taught the local farmers how to defend themselves from a bandit army. The battle that broke the bandits was said to be one destined for an epic poem.
In a village closer north, she trained the son of the local Baron, and he changed from a weak and spoiled child into a man who challenged his father's unfair laws.
In one village in what used to be the Southern Colonies, she trained a group of orphan thieves, and by the time she was done, they had become deputy lawkeepers.
In a village not far from the Gaipan Forest, she had organized a protest that overturned laws preventing Earthbenders from owning businesses, and then led a march to another village to protest laws that banned Firebenders from owning land.
Sokka continued to chase rumor of her, plotting out a timeline of her appearances, and worked to minimize the gap between her departures and his arrivals.
The Two Faces Tavern had a secret.
On the surface, it looked like any other dockside tavern in Buui Mun. Like most of the former colonies, the settlement had grown in the last few decades and modernized, expanding its docks and upgrading them to handle the new large cargo ships that were making the world smaller. Those changes, though, didn't affect the role of the taverns; sailors still needed places to eat, drink, and find company, and the best such places were owned and operated by former sailors themselves.
Toru used to be a captain, but then the gold of Fire Lord Zuko had allowed him to build the Two Faces Tavern, and he had happily retired from the sailing life to live out his old age in busy comfort.
That didn't mean he had abandoned his smuggler's instincts.
This night, the crowd was as full and boisterous as always, and Toru was busy pouring grog and collecting coin, but a visitor came in for whom he could always make time. At first glance, the visitor might have been taken for a thin man, with such close-cropped hair, but Toru's smile grew at the unmistakable sight of his daughter. Meisai slipped behind the bar and they shared a hug, and then sat down to exchange news of both their individual lives and the wider world.
At one point, Toru said, "I've heard that Hyeonjang, a little ways up the coast, has had trouble. A couple of the reject bosses from Republic City have set up shop there, and are treating the village like a turf war. They put aside their differences when anyone tries to shut them down, of course. It would take a devious mind and a cool exterior to solve that village's problems."
Meisai grinned. "I'll pass on the word."
It was near a village called Hyeonjang where Sokka finally caught up with the Helping Hand. He no longer pretended that he was investigating her in an official capacity, not even to those who asked.
"When she arrived, everyone thought she was a mercenary of some kind, and she didn't do anything to disabuse us of the notion," the village's mayor told Sokka. "Both of the gangs tried to recruit her, but she- well, to be honest, we're not entirely sure what she did. She somehow escalated things between the gangs, and they finally had it out in the war we never thought would come. Then she swept in with her lightning and took care of the survivors. Those gangs had us under their yoke for two years, and she walked in and solved the problem in two days. She must be a Spirit."
Sokka just smiled, and asked in what direction she had gone when she left. After only a day of riding, he spotted the smoke of a campfire in the distance.
On an unimportant street, in an unimportant neighborhood of Republic City, a woman left her home in the dark, early hours of the morning and walked to the bakery and eatery where she worked. It was a quiet neighborhood, and though she was a relatively recent arrival, she had already become used to the safe and happy life she had found here. She walked the lonely streets, her black hair and heavy green robes blending with the night, and almost didn't notice when a shadow stepped out in front of her from between two lifeless buildings. Before she could react, the shadow spoke. "Get in here, or I'll burn you."
Her stomach flipped at those words, freezing fear trying to spread out from it to slow her limbs, but another instinct took over. She shifted into a stance that had been drilled into her by a capable companion she had met on the road to Republic City, a strong, golden-eyed lady who insisted that all unarmed immigrant women be able to defend themselves from Benders and warriors both. The attacker snapped an arm out, the fires already blossoming from his knuckles, but the woman reached and grabbed the stretching arm before the flame fully bloomed.
Then she twisted.
The Firebender started to scream, but the woman was not finished. She locked his arm in a position that rendered it useless, the pain cutting off any sound he tried to make, and then went to work on the rest of his body. A second later, he was face down on the ground, pinned into stillness.
He was almost grateful when the beat cop showed up and arrested him.
The woman went on to work, no longer afraid of the night.
Sokka found her sitting at the campfire, and when she turned her gaze on him, her expression betrayed no surprise. He couldn't help but smile; he should have known that she would discern his pursuit. He may have been Chief Investigator of the United Republic, but he had no doubt that she had the advantage over him in tricks and intelligence. He stopped a few steps from the little camp and said, "I've been hoping to meet you." Then, he swallowed, a little nervousness cooling his mood. "What- what's your name?"
She looked at him, and said a name that he had never heard before, but found beautiful nonetheless.
Sokka stepped forward, holding his hands out like a surrendering prisoner. "I'd like the chance to get to know you. To see if we could be happy together."
She stood, all grace and power, and regarded him. Then her lips curved into a smile, and she gave a nod. "Join me. The campfire has been lonely." Sokka came forward, and as he did, the campfire turned a rich, glorious blue.
It ended with a dream that walked the waking world, as these things so rarely do.
Author's Notes: Thanks to Aurelia le for serving as a beta-reader, starting with chapter 28. The proofreading was invaluable and the reactions very helpful. Or maybe it's the other way around? ;)
Thanks to all the readers, to those who reviewed, to the diligent people who shared comments and thoughts for every chapter. Thanks as well to those who added this story to their Favorites lists, and to those who shared links with their friends. You all actually helped shape this story, for though I had the plot and ending planned out from the start, I was continuously adjusting the details and nuances of new chapters based on your reactions. Just as Azula's legacy lived on in the United Republic and the lives of everyone who tried to be a friend to her, the legacy of every reviewer can be found in the words of this story. You were my Inner Fire, the reason why I stuck to an update schedule and forced myself to complete this complicated yarn in just over a year. With every reveal, plot-twist, cliffhanger, and gag I wrote, I was always picturing your reactions.
Special recognition goes to Light Penguin, who drew a great three page manga-style adaptation of the first half of this story's prologue. The link is on my Profile.
Sadly, there will be no sequel to this story. The tale has come to an end, and Azula's new name is left to each reader to determine. I do invite you all, however, to try rereading the completed story. I sprinkled lots of clues and foreshadowing throughout each chapter, and I would like to think that spotting them would add a new enjoyment to your reading.
The most special thanks goes, of course, to Lavanya Six for coming up with the original idea and allowing me to run with it:
"AU. There wasn't always a Suki. When Firelord Zuko needed to hide/rid himself of the crazed contender to his throne, he had the mindbenders of Ba Sing Se work with Aang's energybending to strip Azula of her firebending... and her memories. Thus was born Suki, a girl with a fresh start on life - and no greater ambition than to live on backwater Kyoshi Island. (What, you though Ty Lee moved there for the good weather? She's totally a watchdog.) And Sokka's attraction to 'Suki' is drawing more than a little disapproval from his friends and family."