The ride on Appa’s back towards the Earth Kingdom was uncomfortably quiet except for Momo’s chittering as he explored his new surroundings. Katara and Sokka did not know what to say as Aang secluded himself on the other side of the bison’s saddle. They were all thinking about what had just occurred at the Air Temple, and their first witness of Aang’s Avatar powers.
Chasing the lemur to the site of the genocide had been a humbling experience for Sokka, if only to see the true result of what this war had done to the world. Sokka had never seen so many bones in one place, but he couldn’t help but think of what it must’ve looked like to Aang, who, if given time, might’ve been able to identify each person those bones would’ve belonged to.
Sokka watched the young airbender sink to his knees in front of one particular body, whispering the name of his teacher, and saw Aang’s hands clench into tight fists.
“Oh no...c’mon Aang, it’ll be okay. Let’s get out of here.” Sokka placed his hand on the Avatar’s shoulder, and then flinched upon seeing the full weight of Aang’s glare, complete with glowing eyes. Slowly, the tribesman backed away, but not fast enough in time to get fully knocked back by a sharp gust of wind. Slamming into the wall, Sokka curled up into a ball, shielding himself from debris as the wind picked up, sending rocks and bones flying around. Cracks formed in the roof and walls, and soon the noise was deafening.
Katara was still in the room of statues when the eyes all started glowing, and she stepped away in shock, before realizing something. She ran to try and find Aang and her brother, and soon the noise of the wind alerted her to their location. Seeing Sokka try to shield himself from harm, she saw Aang a few steps away, encased in a swirling ball of wind. The room around them was crumbling, and Katara could feel the air pushing her out of the room. She struggled to reach Sokka, and had to yell just to get him to hear her.
“He found out that Firebenders killed Gyatso!” Sokka shouted back, and Katara’s expression shuttered.
“Oh no! His grief must’ve triggered the Avatar Spirit! I’m going to try and calm him down.”
“Do it! Be careful, but do it, before he blows us off the mountain!”
“Aang! Aang, I know you’re upset! I know how hard it is to lose someone you care about, especially to the Fire Nation. I went through the same thing when I lost my mom. And when the Fire Nation took Zuko too! Monk Gyatso may be gone, but you’re not alone! You still have a family! Sokka and I, we can be your family now! And we won’t let anything happen to you!”
The wind softened, and Katara was able to get closer and closer to the airbender. She could see the tattoo on his head stop glowing, and Sokka approached the Avatar with his sister, until they could pull him into an embrace.
“We’ll keep you safe, I promise.” Sokka whispered, trying to think of what Zuko would do in this situation.
“C’mon, we should get out of here.” Sokka told his sister, and then his attention was dragged back down to Aang, who appeared as if he were waking up, despite not having been unconscious.
“You guys were right. Firebenders did find this temple. And if they found this one, they probably found the others too. I really am the last airbender. I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay,” Katara brushes her hand over Aang’s forehead. “It wasn’t your fault.”
“Let’s go. It’s not safe here.” Sokka presses, noticing the structural damage that has been done to the ancient masonry. Together, the water tribe siblings pull Aang to his feet, and guide him back to Appa. Just as they climb into the saddle, Aang takes one last look at the temple, and then a small skitter emerges, and the flying lemur they had been chasing scurries up Aang’s clothes, perching on his shoulder, before jumping onto Sokka’s head.
“What the...” Sokka startles, going to brush the animal away, when it pulls a clump of berries out of it’s pouch, and drops it on the older boy’s head.
Katara laughs and says “Looks like you made a new friend Sokka.”
Sokka chuckles, and shoves the berries in his mouth, savoring the sweet flavor. The animal curled around Aang’s neck, and Aang smiled, scratching the lemur’s head.
“Hey little guy. I guess between you, me, and Appa, we’re all that’s left of this place. That means we should stick together. For that, you’ll need a name...hey guys, meet the newest member of our family!”
“What did you call him?” Katara asked, securing the bedding rolls to the saddle.
End of Flashback
“Um, Aang, can I ask you a question?” Sokka broke the uncomfortable silence.
“Sure.” Aang tried to sound normal, and perhaps forced his tone to be a tad too high.
“That thing you did, back in the air temple. Your eyes were glowing, just like the ice that you had been in. What is that?”
“I don’t really know.” Aang admitted. “I don’t know a lot about being the Avatar, actually. The monks never really got time to explain it to me. The room of statues in the Air Temple didn’t really help either.”
“The statues started glowing around the same time you two must’ve found...” Katara chimed in, but trailed off, trying to avoid voicing the horrors of what they had seen.
“Really?” Aang looked interested. “Huh. I guess there’s more than just a connection to the statues than just them being physical tributes of my past lives.”
“My grandmother told me once that the Avatar is able to connect with their past lives, but I don’t know, I hadn’t really understood that at the time.”
“I guess. I wish there was someone who could guide me through this whole Avatar thing. I don’t want to hurt anyone, and I really could’ve today. I’m sorry.” Aang apologized, making eye contact with Sokka.
Soka smiled, and thought for a moment, remembering when Zuko had been teaching him about swords. “Zuko once told me that being aware of your environment is important to being a good fighter. But I think that also having a good awareness of yourself is equally important, and for you, that’s a lot of history to be aware of. It’s going to be confusing, and it’ll take some time for you to get there. Don’t worry about it.”
“That’s a good point,” Katara perked up. “There’s a lot of history there! There must be someone who knows the history of the Avatar! Maybe we could find them!”
Aang shrugged. “Maybe. There might be information in the Northern Water Tribe!”
“Or here!” Sokka called out, and Aang and Katara realized that he was looking at the map Aang had. His finger was located right next to one of the areas on the map that Aang had wanted to go to.”
“What’s there?” Katara asked, and Sokka revealed the name of the location.
“Kyoshi Island. And if I’m remembering anything Gran Gran taught me...”
“Avatar Kyoshi was the avatar before Roku!” Aang exclaimed, jumping to his feet. “If the island is named after her, maybe they know some history about the Avatar!”
Katara and Sokka exchanged smiles. “Looks like we’re going to Kyoshi Island.”
Azula was right about one thing, the Earth Kingdom was very dirty. Disembarking at the harbor, Zuko could see that the entire place was practically glazed in layers of soot and dust. Iroh could see his nephew’s nose wrinkle in disgust.
“Most of it comes from the coal exhausts of the engines. This harbor is frequently used by Fire Navy ships, and they can create a bit of a mess.” Iroh half-heartedly explained, feeling slightly guilty for the state of the environment.
“If it’s doing this to the land, I’d hate to know what we’re doing to the water.” Zuko replied, glancing at the shallow water of the docks, seeing clumps of algae cling to the sides of the ships in the harbor.
Azula inspected her nails. “Who cares? If the colony peasants want to live in filth, why shouldn’t we give it to them?” Looks of disgust were garnered from some of the dockhands, all of which wore Earth Kingdom colors.
Zuko had no response, but Iroh did. “No one wants to live in filth, Princess. The Earth Kingdom has actually been very innovative at waste disposal, and transportation...”
Azula cut him off. “Dearest Uncle, I do not care.” She snapped, and Iroh glared at her behind her back. Ty Lee came cartwheeling down the gangway, joining the group.
“Wow, I can’t believe we’re in the Earth Kingdom! I’ve never left the Fire Nation before!”
“Ty Lee, don’t be silly. We haven’t left the Fire Nation, just simply the mainland.” Azula corrected, and Ty Lee’s smile faltered for a millisecond.
“Right, of course.”
“I doubt they think the same way.” Zuko commented, and Azula rolled her eyes.
“I don’t care what they think. If they didn’t want to be conquered, Ba Sing Se shouldn’t have surrendered. Not that it would’ve mattered, of course. We would’ve won the war anyways.” Azula smirked, and looked around. “Uncle, I thought you had arranged transportation to the city of Omashu?”
Iroh nodded, and said “Yes, a military tank is escorting us there. It should be here any moment. We were in the wind’s favor arriving.”
Azula made a noise of disgust. “That shouldn’t matter. They should have anticipated fluctuations in arrival times, and been here when we got here. Poor preparedness should not be tolerated in our military.”
“You’re just saying that because you’re impatient.” Zuko sniped, just as the tank pulled up to the docks, and three uniformed officers got out, accidentally making it so that Zuko would get the last word in.
A green iguana parrot sat on a post nearby shrieked a mimic of Zuko’s word, shouting “Impatient!”, and the noise echoed around the dock, and Azula practically did her best to obliterate the bird with her gaze.
Ty Lee sniggered behind her hand, and Azula scowled at her friend. The soldiers approached, and bowed to Azula, and then Iroh, recognizing chain of command. “Princess Azula, General Iroh, welcome to the Colonies.” The highest ranking of the three, a captain spoke, and both acknowledged his greeting.
“Shall we?” Azula prodded, and the captain nodded, and soon enough they were rocketing through countryside towards Omashu. The internal mechanics of the tank made the inside nearly unbearably hot, and Zuko could feel himself melting under his black armor. Even Ty Lee looked unusually flushed, despite her usual-perfect appearance, as she sat next to Zuko.
“So, Zuko...you must be excited to see Mai now that you’re not married anymore!” She hinted, driving her shoulder softly into his.
“I would have been happy to see her anyways, married or not.” Zuko spoke freely, and Ty Lee’s face lit up. Zuko had never been that open with her, especially when they were younger.
“Aww, that’s so cute!” She squealed, and Zuko winced at the high-pitched noise.
Recognizing his discomfort, she lowered her voice slightly. “So, d’you think you two might start dating?”
Zuko blinked at her. “What?” He asked dumbly.
Ty Lee smirked at him. “Well, neither of you are in a committed relationship anymore, so you’d be free to get together! You’ve both liked each other for years, and without that pesky treaty, you could date anyone now!”
Zuko was speechless, having never even considered dating now that his marriage was practically over. “I. ..don’t think so.”
Ty Lee looked crestfallen. “Why not?”
“I was married, Ty Lee. I gave up my title for it. Mai deserves something better than that.” Zuko lied boldly, truthfully not being able to picture himself being anywhere near as happy with Mai as he had been in the Southern Water Tribe.”
“Oh Zuko, that’s not true!” Ty Lee tried to convince him.
Azula cut in. “You don’t think Mai deserves better?” Ty Lee shot her a look.
“That’s not what I meant! I meant that there’s something really admirable in giving up everything for your country, and anyone would be lucky to be with someone who’s that loyal, Mai included.”
“I see.” Azula continues. “Well, I personally think that Mai deserves to be with someone that hasn’t filthied themselves with a Water Tribe man.” The last word of her comment was emphasized, and it was like everyone in the room froze. Clearly, the details of Zuko’s marriage were still obscured from common knowledge.
“...oh.” Ty Lee looked between Zuko, who had locked himself in a death glare competition with his sister.
Iroh made to speak, but Zuko cut him off. “I’m not entirely sure I understood your point there Azula? Did you have a problem with me being married to someone of the Water Tribe royal family, or being married to a man?” Pure venom dripped from Zuko’s words, and anyone not involved in the conversation quickly looked away, trying to avoid attention from the arguing siblings.”
“Honestly, Zuzu , I find issues with both. I mean, if I were to marry someone, I would be disgusted to find out that they had been with someone of their own gender prior to me. And as for the Water Tribe royal family, please. What do they rule over? Penguins, polar bears, and ice? The title hardly means much.”
“Well, I would think that anyone who would be forced to marry you would be disgusted with your entire personality in general.” Zuko shot back.
Azula rolled her eyes. “Any man would be lucky to have me.”
“Any man would be lucky to survive you.” Zuko replied.
Azula’s eyes narrowed. “What is that supposed to mean?”
“Well, I don’t know if I would be able to live with being married to a monster.” Zuko elaborated, and Azula shot to her feet.
“How dare you speak to me that way?” Her voice was furious.
“Guys, stop!” Ty Lee pleaded, trying to push herself between the two.
“What, how dare I tell you the truth?” Zuko asked, egging her on.
Azula’s face warped. “Fine, you want truth? Here’s some! You were just forced to marry so that we could be rid of you! Desecrating your reputation was just a benefit!”
“Princess Azula, that is enough!” Iroh interrupted, his face guarded, but his body language displayed a stance of aggression .
Zuko smirked. “You think I care about that? I was happy to leave, at least it meant doing something other than getting people to do stuff for you because they’re scared of you.”
Iroh turned to Zuko. “I said, that is enough, Prince Zuko. Or have you both forgotten yourselves?”
The siblings glanced around, looking at the uncomfortable faces of the soldiers around them. “No matter.” Azula composed herself. “Once we go our separate ways, it’s not like you’ll have time to date Mai anyways. She’ll be too busy hunting the Avatar for you.”
“Whatever.” Zuko rolled his eyes, and Azula stormed off, probably to go shout some orders at unsuspecting soldiers, leaving Zuko alone with Iroh and Ty Lee.
Zuko sank back down in his seat, exhaling harshly. Ty Lee was quiet for a moment, before speaking. “I wouldn’t have had a problem with it.”
Turning to her, Zuko gave her a confused look. “With what?”
“If I had a partner who had been with someone of their own gender. I wouldn’t have had a problem. In fact, I’d be interested in trying it myself.” She continued, and Zuko’s face took on a look of surprise.
“It’s...different.” Zuko tried to explain without being able to fall back on any experience, thinking back to the dynamic of his and Hakoda’s platonic relationship, and how Zuko had fit within the small family.
Ty Lee smirked, looking Zuko up and down. “I’m sure it is.” Zuko blushed, and shook his head, trying to push her away from what she was thinking.
“No, not like...that. Men have...different expectations, I think.”
“How so?” Ty Lee asked, confused.
Zuko paused, trying to formulate his words. “I think, just dating girls is different to dating guys. Different things mattered more.”
“Huh.” Ty Lee thought a little. “To me, I don’t really think the gender of the person is that important. It would just depend on the kind of person they were.”
“Agreed, but I think gender would play a factor in romantic inclination, for me at least. I don’t think a person’s gender is a dealbreaker, but I would be lying if I said it didn’t matter to me a little.” Zuko tried to explain.
“So, if you’re not interested in dating Mai, is there a boy more appealing to you?” Ty Lee asked.
“No. There’s no one I’m interested in dating. I’m not really interested in dating at all right now. I am recently divorced after all.” Zuko tried to joke, and Ty Lee smiled.
“Okay. Well, I’m just saying, no matter who you were, or are with, it wouldn’t matter to me.” She reaffirmed.
Smiling at her, Zuko nodded. “Thank you.”
“It would not matter to me either, for the record.” Iroh chimed in, and both teenagers glanced at him, forgetting that he had been there for a moment.
“Thank you Uncle .” Zuko’s chest felt tight, almost as if he were about to break down crying. A soft alarm echoed around the tank, alerting every that they were nearly there. Looking out of the main viewport, they could see the city of Omashu in the distance, piled like spice into a neat cone at the market on top of a mountain. The Fire Nation emblem shone brightly over the front gates, and for a moment, Zuko remembered his plan, glancing at his uncle, hoping for the same forgiveness for his actions as his sexuality.