„The Firelord. The Firelord is here!"
The whispers echoed through the streets and channels of the Northpole, slowly crawling their way with the frightened people warning their neighbors, friends and children. When the scared mothers gathered at the training grounds, Katara and Pakku shared one look before they formed a wave to surf on. Not like everybody else to the walls, but to the assembly hall. The other members of the council were already there.
"…. was to be expected."
"With one ship? Yes, he has a reputation, but even Zuko won't be able to tear down the Northpole on his own. If it's even him."
"It is," Sokka piped up, "it's a really fancy ship. And there's a guy in even fancier robes standing on the deck. Alone. No other ships anywhere on the horizon, too."
Arnok eyed his son in law warily. "Alone?"
"So why don't we hear him out?" The other ones glared at her. It still irked everybody except Arnok and Sokka to have her as a member. But the marriage contract between her brother and the daughter of the Northern Chief to unite the sister tribes again, also said that Katara as the last southern Waterbender had to be treated and trained equally to a man. So she continued, ignoring them. "Our sources say, the Firenation had not attacked anywhere since about three years. Yes, they didn't lose ground either but that means the war is stagnant. We have seen it on our journey here. This allowed us to even form this treaty between our tribes, two years ago. And now the Firelord personally turns up on our doorstep?"
Pakku nodded slowly. "She's right. This can be the step to end the war. Permanently. In whatever way."
"The Firelord is a fool," added one of the elders," his youth dooming his nation. He gave both us and the earth kingdom three full years to regroup and strengthen us again. Now we can crush them."
Arnok rubbed his chin. "And yet he comes right into the seawolves-den. Very well. We will hear him out."
Firelord Zuko was a strange man. His face was made of stone marred with a terrible burn scar and his golden eyes blazed with fire.
Yet, he spoke slow and thoughtful, considering every word that was said before giving an answer. With every other member of the WaterTribe it would be a sign of mistrust, but Firebenders were hot-headed and easily enraged about things others would never see as an insult.
It was a sign that he wanted this truce.
He wanted this treaty, to take a small delegation back into the Firenation: A cultural exchange to get to now and rediscover a nation they once had lived with in harmony. To see which of the world views he had encountered within his short life were the truth. To get the chance to convince them that the Firenation was better than the others and give it them to convince him that it wasn't.
It intrigued her, that he not simply assumed things but wanted to know them.
And when she found him praying at the koi pond in the oasis she decides to take the chance.
So Katara agreed to follow him together with one elder knowing all their myths and legends, a fisherman and his healing-trained daughter, two warriors and another combat trained Waterbender. Really, she was the best choice, being not only the daughter of the southern chief but a healer and Masterbender herself. In exchange a scholar of his own nation, two soldiers, a Firebending-Master, a doctor and an archer were left behind in the pole. Yes, Zuko was everything but a fool.
She was intrigued by him, but she didn't like him. One bit.
She barely saw him, and when he spoke to her, he only asked questions about her bending and her culture. About her hair loopies and her necklace. And next to them a scribe noted everything down, following them everywhere. Even when she trained, he took notes.
It was something personal, belonging to her and only to her. They didn't care.
She hated how they watched her training on the deck, alone or against other benders, fire or water. But never against the Firelord. Zuko didn't need to train. He had killed his whole family and half of his fathers' court in one day at the age of thirteen. Everybody flinched at the thought which powers he held now, three years later.
And then one day, when the scribe asked her to repeat a move again, as he did so often she snapped and asked why she should.
And surprisingly Khiru-as she came to call him- answered.
This was indeed an exchange. She had taken the humiliation and nagging for the sake of her tribe, but apparently, they had tested the borders fully expecting her to tell them about her tribes' customs, including what was considered rude. From then on it was bearable, especially when Zuko wasn't there.
He creeped her out, even more the more firebenders she came to know. His people weren't supposed to be this cold. Controlled but passionate, yes. But not this emotionless calm. It was the only question Khiru dodged. Other than that, he talked constantly with a dry sarcasm rivalling Sokkas' and a knowledge that even surpassed Gran-Grans'.
He was the one organizing her soft, thin clothes in her preferred colors and cuts when the climate became warmer and helped her to accustom to the daily routine of the palace once they arrived there. He was the one helping her not to feel like some useless trophy or experiment when the Firelord dropped her of and sailed away to the earth kingdom to repeat what he had done at the Pole.
Zuko was genuine in his efforts, true.
But she knew that as long as he treated her and all her companions as well as the other representatives like this, there would never be peace.
Life at the Firenation wasn't that bad. The climate was warm, and it needed some time to accustom herself to it. But against the rumors, the heat influenced the people here, too. They just learned to live with it, and they taught her how.
They still prodded and probed her, but it was different than on the narrow space of the ship.
She was free to go everywhere, study whatever she wanted. She met healers and blacksmiths, glass sculptors and engineers, farmers and fishermen.
Surprisingly, fish was as important to the Firenation as it was to the Watertribes.
And it was fun, to travel through the different regions, meeting all the different people. Seeing all those amazing accomplishments as well as the downsides of them.
When she asked Khiru about the factory and the pollution of the lake he nodded solemnly and answered that the other nations payed the price of war in loss of ground and people, but his had lost its soul and that was why Zuko took so much effort to stop the war.
It was the first time she heard somebody actually saying that, even if she and Toph knew all along.
Toph Beifong was a representative of the earth kingdom, specifically the daughter of its richest merchant. Officially. Everybody knew Zuko wanted her in the Firenation because of her bending. Because blind, sweet, well-mannered Toph was a menace and the greatest Earthbender alive. Which nobody knew until Zuko summoned her.
No one dared to ask where the Firelord got this Information. He sometimes just knew things. It was another of his unsettling traits.
At first it caused Katara many headaches how Toph easily switched between her court mask and her actual-and very rude- personality but after a few days she came to love her, because the real Toph Katara came to know onher travels and in the sparring arena never held back. No matter in bending or with words. Which was why they left all of them alone in their daily training nowadays. Toph knew with her seismic "seeing" when they weren't.
So Zuko organised downright spectacular tournaments where the members of the three nations fought against each other, now that his scribes couldn't watch them train without the danger of being hit by a massive boulder.
It was strange how downright obsessed Zuko was with their bending. He used the notes of his scribes to produce bending scrolls, to catalogue each end every move and preserve them for the future. More than once it left the other nations representatives with a feeling of dread and accusations of a greater scheme behind it.
Because they knew.
In fact, it was one of the first information about firebending all of them had gathered in this exchange.
Firebenders grew weaker in the night.
A solar eclipse would take the bending away, as did the polar night.
The great comet, returning every hundred years raised a firebenders powers tenfold.
Hundred years ago the comet was used by Sozin to erase the Airbenders within one day, staring this terrible war.
The comet, now called Sozins' Comet was to return this summer.
Even with the strength the other two nations regained over the last three years, they could do nothing if Zuko choose to annihilate them.
And now, mere months away he frantically started to collect information about the other nations.
Nobody who could, was willingly to answer the questions.
It was one of the many secrets of the Palace. Just like the Airbenders.
Katara had met one of them by change, his face wrinkly and his grey eyes shining. An old spiteful master called Aang, named after the last airbending Avatar.
Apparently Sozin had taken prisoners a hundred years ago, a two masters and a few kids, condemned to live in a valley on an Island a few days away under constant watch. Sozin had been cruel, but not stupid.
Zuko's first order had been to let them go, and the most fled into hiding. But some of them went back with the young boy to teach and guide him
Katara thought long about that revelation, also about how respectful Khiru talked about Zuko and his efforts to end the war. About the fear of the other representatives that is all was a trick. About the fact that he had killed 64 people, including his father, uncle and sister in mere minutes. How his own subjects called him a demon, able to appear and disappear out and into thin air, moving without not even a whisper and his burning eyes whenever he got upset. And yet, they trusted and followed him because of his love and loyalty to his people and nation.
Who was the real person?
If he did all those good things, why didn't he simply showed them the other nations?
Why did he hide himself like this?
There were no answers, not to those questions.
Everything changed when she met the Avatar.
There were times when she couldn't take it anymore and fled the palace in the night to take a walk at the seashore. Sometimes, when the questioning and prodding had irked her too much even the calming push and pull of the ocean wasn't enough and she had to blow of stream.
That was why Katara was standing in the arena in the middle of the night wreaking havoc to the training puppets made of her own ice.
Heavily breathing she took in the sight when there was a noise. Apparently, she had been loud enough to attract the guards.
In a swift motion she melted the Ice around her and lifted herself up to the spectators' seats before guiding the water back in the canal it came from and dodging between the rows. Somebody cautionary stepped into the arena. Katara held her hand before her mouth to silence her heavy breathing but the steps didn't turn.
Tui and La, please. It was not forbidden for her to leave the palace, but there still was enough mistrust between the representatives that her behavior would seem suspicious.
The water splashed and there was a silent curse. Carefully she linseed over the rim of the chair.
And really, there by the canal stood a figure slowly lifting a small ball of water. Kulo?
So the other waterbender sometimes sneaked out, too.
The sphere exploded, and the person cursed again. No, that wasn't Kulo.
But there weren't any other male waterbenders here and….
She forgot to breathe.
The figure had taken a step and raised his fist and with it a chunk of the floor.
And now he went trough some of the easier earthbending forms Toph had shown the scribes, before he jumped in the air and flew. He performed multiple airbending forms in a bizarre dance of jumps and gusts of wind before he settled down, just to begin a rapid sequence of the most advanced firebending moves Katara had ever seen, ending in sending a crackling lightning bolt in the sky.
Tui and La, she didn't even know firebenders could do that.
But then, this was the most powerful bender in the world.
She couldn't believe it.
The Avatar not only lived but was here at the Firenation Palace.
But then, it made total sense.
After the death of Avatar Aang four years after the genocide, the records about the whereabouts of the Avatar got muddled.
There were no records of a waterbending Avatar but about thirty years after Aangs' death an earthbending Avatar turned up but was killed only three years later.
After that, another waterbending Avatar returned, which lead to the conclusion that the former was a fake.
But now, with the knowledge of the continued existence of the Airbenders, Katara realised, he wasn't.
The Avatar-Cycle had turned twice in the last hundredth years.
Because Avatar Fen-Ray, the last Earthbending Avatar died between ninteen to ten years ago(nobody knew exactly when because he was hidden in Ba-Sing-Se) and he definitely had been the real one.
The missing firebending Avatar was probably killed before anybody realised who he was, as well as the Airbending one.
Otherwise the world wouldn't be what it was today, she was sure of that.
The Avatar rubbed his hands and shook them as if to get rid of a particularly tingly feeling in them.
Then he positioned himself again before the canal and reached out. Again, the sphere of water begun to rise before it exploded. Katara grinned and jumped down into the arena. He made the typical beginners mistake. And if she was already here, she could as well help him.
"You try too much to keep control…"
Before she was near enough to see his face in the dark he fled.
This war had claimed the lives of seven avatars before him. She completely understood.
When she directly asked Zuko about it, it was the first time his masked slipped to reveal a part of the monster underneath which his subject feared so much to enrage.
From then, she avoided him even more.
The Avatar on the other hand didn't avoid her.
There had been this ominous presence before, watching them from the shadows of the arena whenever they trained. The one always returning regardless how many times the earth tried to swallow him or the metal of the seats tried to strap him down. The keyword was tried.
They had never seen him.
Toph insisted it was a him and called him Sparkles.
At first, they thought it was one of the airbenders, for his stance was way to light compared to the grounded, yet agile stance of a firebender.
But now, there was another possibility.
"He's there again."
Katara shattered the boulder with a well-placed Whaterwip. "Who?"
"Sparkles." Toph buried her hands in pebbles and used them as a shield. "You really think it's the Avatar?"
"I've seen him bending all four elements. It makes perfect sense. Zuko's collecting all that information to train him."
"Then why he lies about his existence. It's more than fishy."
"I don't know."
Toph stamped and all the dust of the fight fell of her, the usual sign she was finished. "Then let's find out."
Before Katara was able to protest Toph turned and waved to the dark alcoves the Avatar preferred to hide in. "Hey sparkles, get off your backside and come down here! You can't learn earthbending by standing by and doing nothing except lurking around like a creeper! Hey! Get back you coward!"
But of course he was gone.
It seemed there were more means necessary to meet him.
She was crazy. Utterly completely mad.
She had seen what that man was capable of and yet she ambushed the Avatar. Or tried to.
It had been a week full of nightly visits to the arena without any sign of him returning.
Even worse, the Firelord somehow found out about their nightly escapades. It was a pain to escape the extra guards, but it was worth it.
Apparently Zuko had told the Avatar that his secret training sessions were save again because there he was.
Toph rose her eyebrows when he started another earthbending sequence.
"He's … not bad., "she reluctantly admitted, "For learning from scrolls."
"Will that be a problem," Katara carefully asked. That was praise for Toph's standards after all.
"Pah, who do you think you're talking to! I said not bad from scrolls. Everybody with a normal teacher can take him an I learned from Badgermoles, remember!"
And with that Toph attacked.
The boulder sent the Avatar flying against the arenas border without knowing what hit him, but he reacted with a fireball witch Katara countered with a water shield.
The Avatar used the time to drive to the left entrance but Toph sealed it with a wall before he could reach it.
They payed for that with burst of wind which even crumbled Tophs' shield made of two triangles.
He leapt over them in a burst of air but was hit full force and frozen solid against the wall.
They got him.
Or not because a second later the ice started to stream and shattered a second later, followed by a wave of fire knocking them backwards and lightening the whole scene fully. Still Katara was only able to see his simple clothing and that his long black hair was bound back into a simple ponytai,l as he again slithered between them to the door.
Toph caught his foot in a hoe and sent him tumbling on the floor which left Katara enough time to ice the other entrance. He was trapped now.
Which the Avatar seemed to realise too, because the few scattered leftover flames of his former attack started to grow immensely while he pressed his hand on the floor and forced the earth to free him.
Katara gulped, remembering the taste of ozone in the air after he had shot that lightning.
"Please, we don't wasn't to hurt you. We just want to talk," Katara reasoned carefully.
The Avatar laughed bitter, pressing thumb and index finger of his right hand on the bridge of his nose.
"Ok, it doesn't look like that, but I promise," she continued, trying to get him at least lift his head so she could see his face.
"Your fault, when you're running away," added Toph unhelpful.
He rose his head and Katara took a step back.
"What did you do to your guards."
"They're kind of frozen… Not dangerously frozen, I know what being frozen does to a firebender," she stuttered nervously.
"I see," Zuko's face was a pained grimace of a smile. "Leaves the question what to do with you two now."
"Let us teach you," Katara blurred out.
He blinked surprised, but Katara continued because it made sense now. "That's why we're here after all."
"Yup, not even that stiff woodblock of a Firelord can stop us if you say yes!"
Katara and said stiff Woodblock stared at the blind earthbender, before Zuko shifted his weight, standing tall and regal as he normally did.
Toph started laughing. "Now that's the greatest joke in the universe!"
Zuko rolled his eyes. "At least somebody gains something out of this debacle. I'm glad to contribute to your amusement, Lady Beifong." But his voice lacked his normal bite.
"Lady Beifong is my Mother. Call me Toph, Sparkles." She grinned and stretched out her hand. He didn't move.
"Oh come on, Sugarqueen here is right. That's why we're here. What, rabbitcat got your tongue?"
Zuko's eyebrow rose. "You…. are really always like that?"
"What, just because you have not only one but two fancy titles you think I'm going to be on my best behaviour? I just wiped the floor with you oh mighty Avatar Firelord, you have to re-earn that!"
Zuko learned forward a smirk on his face and a glint in his golden eyes. "Is this a challenge."
Katara eyed them unbelievingly. Toph crackled her knuckles with a grin. "Bet you it is!"
But suddenly the spark in Zuko's eyes died and he turned. "I can't."
Katara didn't understood. "But why? You can bring balance to this world, you can end this war and bring peace!"
He whirled around. "What do you think I'm doing right now."
Katara rose her hands in a calming gesture. He sighted.
"I know, I have to gain control about my… abilities. I killed my family because I wasn't able to control myself. The Avatar state is a defence system, yes and Father did attack... But I killed them. All of them. I can't be the Avatar. I… I don't expect you to understand Katara, our state systems differ too much for that. But I'm the only person who can be the Firelord. My people would not except any other family on this throne. There is nobody else left but me. The Firenation would tear itself apart, if there would be a vacancy."
"I do understand," Katara whispered, because finally, finally she did.
He was the Avatar, devoted to the people of this world, their protection and wellbeing.
But he was also raised to be a ruler. Something which was forbidden to happen, because the Avatar was balance and neutrality. And thus Zuko had discovered a bitter but nonetheless valuable true and made his choice.
A conflict can only be ended by a change in leadership. Either by removing said leader or changing said leaders mind which both were tasks for the Avatar to fulfil.
But there had to be a leadership for this to happen.
The world had survived hundredth years without the constant watch of the Avatar.
It wouldn't last longer without a Firelord. Not with the return of Sozins' Comet in a few months.
But with a sane and reasonable leader on the dragon throne who wished for peace, an Avatar wasn't needed.
By discarding the Title of the Avatar in favor of the one of the Firelord, Zuko still was able to fulfill his destiny, even better than if he had chosen the one of the Avatar.
"Let's make a deal," Toph piped up. "We won't tell anybody else and you let us teach you. Plus we're using all our influence and power to get a peace treaty finished. What you say, Sparkles?"
The Treaty of the nations was signed under the red glow of Sozins' Comet, ending the war exactly hundred years after it started. The only incident was a panic attack of Earth King Kuei when Firelord Zuko choose to arrive on his very real and alive Dragon called Drug. And Lord Zukos' yelp when Lady Beifong punched his arm for hiding that 'awesome scaly lizards' existence from her.
Katara and Toph, true to their words never told anybody, but they were able to persuade Zuko into rekindling old friendships and contacts again. A friendship grounded on the fact that all members of it could and would wipe the floor with each other if necessary tends to do that.
Not that Zuko had many friends to start with. But the few he had were important.
Like his sister's friend Mai, who married him six years later and not only gifted him with three children but also put up with all the weirdness sometimes occurring around the Firelord. Humanity may saw him as Firelord but for the spirits this title held little to no importance. All three of the friends suspected Mai knew, but she never said anything and so neither did they.
His satirical humor, (mostly) perfect control over his hot temper, fierce passion, strange fits of wisdom and withdrawn, very practical yet overthought-full personality (not moppy, definitely not moppy) made it difficult in some ways to find new friends but in others like with Sokka it even helped.
It took time and more than one uprising to bring peace, real peace and order to the world again and the colonies proved to be their own problem yes, but they managed. Somehow, they did, despite having no Avatar. They knew there was one around, but nobody ever caught his face.
On the day of the official Establishment of the United Republic, the fifth nation the colonies were turned into, one could see him riding the Firelord's dragon, bringing the newly born spirit of the town down into his home at the city palace of Republic City but other than that one barley saw him.
Firelord Zuko on the other hand was nearly everywhere, as if he had made it his personal quest to right every wrong in the world regardless if it was caused by his nation or not. The people loved him for it and it surprised nobody that he resigned and passed the throne to his oldest daughters on her fortieth birthday, to be able to freely travel the world as an ambassador of peace. He let people feel important, like they mattered successfully cutting of any rebellion or social problem by being there and listening and doing something against it. Yet, nobody could tell you anything personal about him regardless how much he spent time with his and the other nations subjects. Because with or without the crown, as long as he lived he still was The Firelord. He also spent much time at the Airtempel in the bay before Republic City and it was also the place where he rather suddenly died at the age of 98 years, forever remembered to the world as the Firelord who brought peace.
The first time Avatar Bujin willingly entered the Spirit world a crowd of seven people awaited her. There was a particular bad series of crimes which the victims left bereft of their bending and memories of the incident altogether and it was one of the most difficult riddle the young Avatar had encountered yet.
She was the first full known Avatar in probably the last hundredth years or so after Avatar Fen-Ray. Because that Fire Avatar after him never left a Name. So there were huge expectations on her shoulders, and she needed to know.
Still, she wasn't ready for this many of her past lives, especially since the most of them were kids or barely older than herself. Everybody from Aang to Fen-Ra was there but none of them had fully finished their training. They sprouted wise sayings she had heard on that matter a thousand times but no real advice, and it was difficult to go even more back. Roku was a strange man, but he was wise enough to admit that the world had changed too much for him being of any use anymore.
He, too pointed out that the person she needed was the Avatar before her, but it was very difficult to reach him. And so she returned frustrated in the human's world, vowing to never return if the spirit world was always like that. Her friends and masters laughed and gave her the security that they find another way. They did, that time.
Six years later she got too deeply tanged into the politics and was hunted down for a crime she never committed. Without the help of her friends she hid her body on the tops of the highest mountains and fled in the solace of the spirit world. She walked and walked searching for help she knew she wold never find until she broke down sobbing at the roots of a tree. She didn't know how long she laid there, curled into ball even after her tears run out, when there suddenly was a horse old and creaky voice.
"My, my. You should be careful, child, there are living misery spirits in this Forest, and we won't attract one of those, will we?"
Bujin sniffed and raised her had. Surprisingly, it was a human or a last it looked like an old man. Clad in red and golden robes, a part of his long white hair in a topknot while the rest was freely flowing over his shoulders mingling with the white bead and bushy eyebrows. No Eyebrow, because the left side of this face was marred with a faded but still terrible burn scar, even if his glinting golden eye seemed to be unaffected by it. Wait.
She sat up fully. "I know you."
He laughed and sat down on a root. "Well, I hope you do."
"You are Firelord Zuko. What are you doing in the spirit world?"
He stroke his beard. "Apparently I died. Rather sudden. A pity."
Bujin shook her head. "But normally when people die they don't go into the spirit world."
"Ah, yes, yes indeed. But we can be glad I didn't. Otherwise I wouldn't have find you. Now, may I ask what caused the Avatar so much distress that she ventured into the realms of misery?"
Finally somebody who might help her. Zuko had always helped when he was able to. "I'm searching for my past live. The Avatar of your time, actually."
Zuko's smile wavered. "Oh. That will proof to be difficult. You see, there was no Avatar around in my time."
Bujin gulped. "That's a lie. People have seen him. He existed, or otherwise I wouldn't be here today. I'm an airbender."
" Yes, he did. But he made the choice not to be the Avatar. If you understand what I mean."
Dumbstruck she blinked. "What! But why would anybody choose not to be the Avatar!"
He chuckled. "It was a very unique situation. The Avatar is a powerful being, being able to influence the world yes. But in a passive way. Even if you chose to replace a leader you can never be sure if they follow your advice or won't. Most of the time it's good that way, because the Avatar, too is not flawless, and so a balance is created. That time through he had the change to directly influence the worlds fate. To lead a whole nation, something the Avatar the bearer of the spirit of the whole world was never allowed to do. Favouring one nation above the other three. So he chose not to become the avatar. Yes, he trained and fully developed all his abilities, but he never used them to influence the human world. He's not that good with spirits either. You should seek the council of Roku or Aang instead."
She stared at him and slowly shook her head. Now, that was surprising. Or not. "As far as I know you used the half of your life to travel around helping everybody you could."
"I wasn't the Firelord anymore, yes. But alone that picky distinction shows that I'm a politician, not an Avatar."
"It looks like I have to be both," Bujin sighted remembering the chaos caused by the Earth kingdom. Then she narrowed her eyes in thought. "Actually, I need the help of a politician right now."
Zuko's lonely eyebrow rose and he leaned forward in a conspiring manner. "How may I be of assistance?"
The hundredth-year war indeed had changed the world and how people saw themselves. The rapid technological development and the still existing spiritual side more than often conflicted in the following centuries and ages, adding new and different duties for the Avatar.
Yet they managed somehow, mostly because of the council of one single Avatar that choose to live a different life, expanding their world view in a way no other experience ever could.
Lord Zuko indeed succeeded in his wish to end the war and rightfully claimed his title as ambassador of peace in his own way.