Not surprisingly to many, maybe, but surprising to the others was that Aang was the first to cry.
Aang was the Avatar, but he was also a child, most outsiders would think. If they knew him, kind of, they’d know that he was easily emotional. They figured he was relieved. That assumption was refuted when he sank to his knees with heaving sobs.
The others—the ones who’d traveled with him, and lived with him, and loved him for the past few months up to only a year ago—knew him better. The tears shocked them because they thought he’d be elated. There was no blood on his hands, the war was over, he had no more responsibilities to the world other than what usually was expected of avatars. But he was on the floor, sobbing and sobbing and sobbing like something great had been lost.
Katara fell beside him, arms automatically curling around him, offering frantic assurances. “It’s okay,” she said, even as he sobbed into her shirt and she looked like she had no idea what to do. “We won.”
“We did,” Zuko said, on the ground, too but only because he’d only just been brought back from the brink of death. His baby sister screamed with a terribly horrible agony, chained in the pavilion like a wild animal that would lash out at anyone. Far under the palace, where no one but the Earth Kingdom and Water Tribe guards could hear him, Zuko’s father cried out in unity.
Zuko, too, began to cry.
“No, no, we won-“ Katara insisted. “It’ll all be okay-it’ll-“
Toph sat presses against Zuko’s hip on the cushion he’d been given, feet firmly on the stone floor. She could feel the others around her as they could see, feel their heartbeats through where they touched the ground, felt everyone’s emotions spiking the same way she knew when people were lying.
She took one of Zuko’s hands between hers, held it tight-tight-tight and brought both her feet on the cushion to curl up to his side and began to cry.
“We made it,” Suki said from under Sokka’s arm, propping him up until his leg would be able to hold him again, when Katara’s widened eyes fell to her.
“We made it,” Sokka echoed, thinking of Toph’s fingers sliding from his, leg and shoulder and fingers throbbing as he tried desperately to hold onto her, even when he was sure it wouldn’t matter in a moment either way.
And he was supposed to be the strong one, ever since his father and the other men left him on the shore with an entire village full of women and children and his little sister to protect. He was supposed to be the responsible one, when it mattered, when Aang was only a child and Katara was playing at being more mature than she was and Toph cared for no one but herself. He was supposed to be the one to protect them, the only fighter in a group of children, but he was only fifteen, wasn’t he, a year older than Katara and Ty Lee and a year younger than Yue and Zuko and the same age as Suki and Mai—a year older than Azula—and he tightened his arm around Suki, eyes overflowing as he croaked, “We made it.”
Katara watched as everyone broke down, panic rising in her chest. They weren’t supposed to be crying, they’d won. The Fire Lord and Azula both were removed as threats, the Fire Nation was now in the hands of Iroh and Zuko and the other Nations, and the world hadn’t burnt to ashes. The war was over.
Yet, there was Aang in her arms sobbing and Zuko and Toph holding tight to each other on the ground and Suki and Sokka that were leaning on each other with near-silent tears tracking down their faces. Aang who was the Avatar, Zuko who was the prince, Toph who bent to nobody, Suki who lead the Kyoshi warriors, Sokka who was her big brother-
Yes, they had won. But not without a cost.
Hakoda had been the one to find them, searching for his children amidst the chaos of the palace as Fire Nation guards and civilians alike were organized and watched and Fire Nation rebels and Earth Nation soldiers and Water Tribe men and the Swamp Benders and every other odd collection of people that his kids had helped bring together celebrated their victory.
He eventually was drawn to the sounds of a young girl’s screaming. It didn’t sound like Katara, but it made him think of her anyways. The girl was chained by her wrists, forced to her knees over grating that couldn’t be comfortable, screaming and sobbing and spitting blue flames from her mouth. Her bangs were cut unevenly, her eyes wide and crazed.
“The princess?” he asked the soldiers that warily gathered in the archways and watched the girl.
“Yes,” said an Earth Kingdom man.
They watched her, for a moment, flames sputtering and raging less than a moment apart.
“Have you seen the avatar, or his friends?” Hakoda asked.
“They’re in there,” a Fire Nation rebel said, gesturing to a door, eyes never leaving the princess, filled with such pity. She was only a girl, after all.
Hakoda entered the room to find the children. There was less of them than he was expecting. None were from that groups of kids that raided the Fire Nation within the Earth Kingdom, only one from the group of teenage girls from Kyoshi, and neither of the girls that fought against the princess when Sokka came to break him out of the prison.
All of them, from the little earth bending girl and young Avatar to Sokka and the Fire Prince, were crying.
“Are you hurt?” he asked immediately because Sokka was balancing on one leg and leant on the Kyoshi girl and the prince and the earth bender were laid on a cushion and the Avatar and Katara were knelt to the ground.
“Dad-“ Katara said, startling and trying to wipe away tears.
“No, we’re not,” Sokka said, swaying in the Kyoshi girl’s hold. “Not badly, anyways, just my leg. Zuko-well, Katara fixed that.”
“Okay,” said Hakoda, relief making his head almost spin. “Okay. What’s wrong?”
“It’s just-“ the Avatar began. “It’s-we did it. We did it and everything that-all of this past year-it-“
“It actually meant something,” Suki said, when it was clear the boy wasn’t going to be able to finish.
“Oh, kids...” Hakoda sighed.
Azula’s screams in the courtyard died down to whimpering cries and soft, broken laughter.
((She would stay there until her uncle came with the rest of the White Lotus, a few hours later. He would wince at her pain and unbind her hands and lead her to the dungeons as far from his brother as he could take her, until arrangements could be made for her in the coming days.))
Hakoda sat with the kids, first making Sokka sit and elevate his leg then making Katara and the Avatar get off the stone floor and that all of them had at least drank something since the incursion had worked.
Somehow, in all this, he ended up at the center of a desperate embrace for comfort.
Maybe it was when he had Katara all but in his lap alongside the Avatar because the two wouldn’t let each other go, or when he put his arm around Sokka’s shoulder, or when he pulled the prince to his side as he was too pale and shaking, or when he told the earth bender that he was going to wipe her tears and snot from her face and she let him, or when the Kyoshi girl leaned her cheek on his hand, where it sat on his son’s shoulder.
However it happened, he ended up staying there while his legs went numb until all of them fell asleep.
What they had been through, what they’d had to do...Hakoda had left his son behind when he’d set off for the Earth Kingdom nearly three years ago because war was no place for children.
War was no place for children.