Chapter 21: Avatar Aang
"Oh, I've missed my baby so much!"
Azula leaned back against a moon peach tree in the Fire Nation royal gardens as her mother and uncle played with Sonam. They hardly noticed that she was there, but that was fine. They were engrossed in every little move Sonam made; every sneeze, every burp, every smile was the most fascinating thing in the world. At least it had given her time to respond to Aang's letter.
He'd been in the Earth Kingdom for two months, only able to make it back home once, since Ai was putting him through his paces. It was unfortunate that he was missing so much of Sonam's early moments, but he was the one who insisted that he needed to stay there to try and patch up some relationships. And if his last letter was any indication, it was starting to work. Slowly. But they couldn't expect an immediate change, now could they?
Azula turned the letter over in her hands, her uncle's voice blending into the background along with the rustling leaves and the chirping birds as he talked to Sonam. She held the letter with two fingers, letting it dangle by the corner, her eyes travelling along the deep creases where the ink had begun to fade from being folded so many times. For some reason, she kept coming back to that one letter.
"Is that Aang's letter?"
Azula snapped her hand closed on the paper as Zuko reached for it.
"When did you get here?"
"Just sat down about two minutes ago. You've been completely out of it."
Her mind had been a thousand miles away, or more accurately, her mind had been in Ba Sing Se. She cringed inwardly. Her mind had been with Aang, with his political triumphs and struggles, his pain at not having his daughter near, and his acceptance that this was his life. She pulled away, forcing herself to return to the Fire Nation and the pleasant, uneventful evening with her family. She didn't even notice that her brother was holding a now sleeping Sonam, and she reached out to smooth the baby's hair, tucking one unruly curly black lock behind a tiny ear.
"I'm surprised at how much she looks like Aang."
"I don't know why. He is her father, after all," Azula said. "She's got my eyes, though."
Azula fought back the smile as she watched her sleeping daughter. Sonam had a habit of sticking her tongue out whenever she slept with her mouth open. Sometimes Azula would play with it to see if she'd wake up, pushing it back in her mouth or poking it. No matter what Azula did, though, Sonam would remain fast asleep. She wondered if Aang had noticed.
"Mom said you used to sleep funny, too. Sometimes you'd sleep with your arm stuck in the air."
"Aang's coming home, soon," Azula blurted, immediately regretting everything about the way she said it. She cringed, pinching the bridge of her nose. "He said that his tour of duty was temporarily done in Ba Sing Se. They don't have much need of him these days, so he'll be heading here to spend time with Sonam. If you don't stop smiling at me like that, I will take my daughter back, then set you on fire."
"I get it," Zuko said, nonchalantly, flapping his hand about. "You've gotten used to having him around. Honestly, how hard was it these two months without your Avatar?"
Azula narrowed her eyes at her brother, warning him to say just one more word. Zuko gave her a sly smile, even though he held his hands up in surrender. This wouldn't be the end of his teasing, but she had her own form of hell to give him. Motherhood wouldn't tame her fire.
"He sounds pathetic without Sonam."
"Really? That's the only reason?"
Azula shrugged. "A man deserves to see his daughter. You'll understand one day when you grow up."
Zuko almost outright laughed at that, but did his best to stifle his laugh, pressing both hands tightly against his mouth. Azula allowed herself a quiet chuckle. How far they'd come to be able to laugh like that, and yet how far they still had to go.
"And now, the most important question, how's Ba Sing Se?"
The most important, and the hardest. If she was truly giving up her title as Princess and her right to having an opinion in political matters, she should keep quiet and tell her brother to speak with Aang. But she knew Aang, and knew that he would need help and that he might not be so keen on asking for it, especially with Ai breathing down his neck.
"His letters hint that things are complicated, and that there is still much animosity toward the Fire Nation."
"I can't say I didn't expect that. The Earth Kingdom has always been rather…vocal. Is there anything I should know?"
Azula looked at her brother, willed him to read the message in her eyes. If she'd learned nothing else during her stay in Ba Sing Se, she learned that certain parts of the world still, and probably always would, consider her a symbol of the old regime. Regardless of the role she played, the changes she'd made in her life, she would always be Ozai's daughter to them. It was her reality, just as surely as Aang's reality was having to leave Sonam behind occasionally.
"Private citizens can still have opinions," Zuko said. "It would be no different than a Fire Nation citizen telling me what they overheard in Ba Sing Se on their vacation."
"I doubt that, but I would say expect higher trade prices, some flat out refusals of goods and services. Expect hostilities and the occasional cold shoulder. Will it go further than that? It's hard to say." Azula leaned back against the tree, turning over words and scenarios in her mind like she did long, long ago. It felt good. "Kuei will not act against the Fire Nation, and despite all her fussing, I doubt Grand Secretariat Ai will, either. She respects the peace, even if it means having to swallow such bitter medicine."
Zuko was quiet and pensive, and Azula imagined she could see the workings of his brain. She knew her brother well enough to know that he might try to confront the problem head on, which would likely only make things worse. She knew he hadn't dealt with Ai much, and coming on the heels of her disdain for Azula, the worst thing Zuko could probably do would be to confront Ai.
"Let Aang, handle it," Azula whispered. "Ai hates the very air I breathe, and for the next year or so, she'll look at you like a male version of me. Let the Avatar be the Avatar and broker peace."
"I wasn't going to—"
"You would have confronted them about the drastic change in prices." Azula looked at her brother and smiled at his guilty look. "Let the Avatar be the Avatar."
There was never a time in his life when Aang had been this excited. It was taking everything he had not to run through the halls until he made his way to the gardens. In just three turns, he could see his baby again. When the light from the gardens began to spill into the hallway, Aang flat out ran, his arms outstretched. Azula didn't disappoint, holding a laughing, smiling, adorable Sonam out to him, and he scooped her up in his arms, and squeezed her against his chest. He didn't realize just how much he missed that tiny girl until she clung to him, and the tears started, and he sunk to his knees, just holding her and crying.
"Ok, pull yourself together," Azula said, patting him on the head.
Sniffling, Aang stood, cradling Sonam and showering her with kisses.
"Daddy missed you so much."
Sonam babbled, and he babble back, completely ignoring everyone else. For the moment, they didn't matter. All that mattered was that he had his daughter and she was holding onto him as if he was her whole world. He would brave Ai's wrath a thousand times over just to have this moment with Sonam.
"She's gotten so big," Aang said, wiping away his tears. "I can't believe she's crawling already."
Aang sat her down, and she took off in the garden, stopping to investigate random blades of grass and flowers, and reaching for butterflies. She hadn't even really done anything yet, and he was already so very proud of her. She was just so beautiful and charming and full of love and life.
"You know, there's nothing more rewarding than coming back here after having to deal with Ba Sing Se."
"Did they give you a hard time on your way out?"
"Surprisingly, no." Aang glanced at Azula, but she was busy watching Sonam speeding toward Iroh. "To be honest, I think they were just as glad to see me leave as I was to get out of there."
"Listen, I told Zuko about the problems he'll likely have with trade with the Earth Kingdom."
"Don't worry, I told him to let you handle it. You're the Avatar. Making peace is your job."
"Do you really have that much faith in me?"
When Azula didn't answer for a few long moments, Aang turned to her, forcing himself to look away from Sonam, who was very interested in everything Ursa was eating. She seemed so much more calm now that she was away from Ai. It was a good thing that she decided to leave; had she stayed there, there were few doubts in Aang's mind that she would have suffered a serious relapse. She needed to be around family that loved her.
"I've had faith in you so far, haven't I? It's a bit late to turn back, now."
Aang couldn't help but smile. That was as close to a thank you as he was ever going to get from Azula. He almost put his hand on her shoulder, but that would be pushing her boundaries too far. No matter who it came from, it was nice to hear that people still had faith in him. Perhaps it meant even more since it came from Azula.
"I'll talk to Zuko about it. It's not right for them to do this, and in the end, they'll be hurting everyone. You know, things are still pretty delicate, there."
"I can imagine. Ai still on a rampage?"
"Meh." Aang shrugged. "She's angry. Can't say that I'd call it a rampage."
When there was a lull in the conversation, Aang just let it be. He didn't feel pressured to say something like he did in Ba Sing Se. As much as he hated to admit it, the Fire Nation was feeling more like home than anywhere else in the world. He'd always imagined that he would return to the Air Temples. Make them functional again, and maybe open a school. He didn't have concrete plans beyond "open Air Temples." Katara might have been fine with living there, but Azula? There was no way she would ever agree to it. And watching Sonam crawl around in the Fire Nation royal gardens, splashing her hand in the water as Ursa and Iroh kept a watchful eye on her…it all seemed right. Like, this was the way things were supposed to be. Like the universe had finally found balance, and there was a true peace, not just a peace where people sneered behind each other's backs.
"She makes me believe that everything will turn out ok," Aang said quietly. "Even though things are really rocky right now, I look at Sonam and I know things will be ok. Eventually. But they'll get there."
"Are you going to tell me the story about the baby in the Serpent's Pass again?"
"No," Aang said, laughing. "Not this time, I don't think."
It felt good to be home.
A/N: This was a hard chapter to write, mainly because I think the story's done. I finished writing the paragraph where Aang reunites with Sonam, and, well, I almost couldn't make anything else come. I'll probably do an epilogue just because I want a proper end, or something that feels more...I don't know, final? Yes, Aang and Azula will still fight and struggle, but I feel like they've gained a mutual respect and acceptance at this point, and they'd be able to co-parent rather efficiently. I don't see Aang having to Avatar off anytime soon, so he'd probably just hang out at the Fire Nation with his baby. I really wish I could draw, so I could make some pictures of how I think their family would look. I might have mentioned this before, but I don't always like a story that ends with a nice, neat bow, so Aang's conflict with the Earth Kingdom and Kuei's struggles with being a king won't be resolved here. Partly because it's not their story, and mostly because that's an issue that will span years, which is beyond the scope of this story. As a side note, the title of this chapter is kind of a "fuck you" to Bryke because by now, I feel Aang has fully accepted and understood the sacrifices required of an Avatar.
Once again, I can't thank all of you enough for reading, reviewing, favoriting, and following this story. For such an odd concept, I think this is one of my biggest stories, if not the biggest. You guys rock. I'll miss you :)