He woke before the others. Aang rose from the sleeping bison and stretched, wincing from the soreness in his back. He shimmied his shirt up and craned his neck. An ugly purple bruise spanned shoulder to shoulder.
Tenderly lowering his shirt with a sad airbender sigh. Katara wouldn't hesitate to look at it, but Aang would only ask if she felt up to it. His waterbending teacher would heal until her legs gave out. Her caring heart couldn't help it.
Aang stood over the others, watching as even Katara's mouth hung open in an adorable snore. Their unkempt hair that always seemed more a hassle he didn't envy. And they probably smelled like sweat and smoke the same as he did.
Deep cuts in Katara's wristbands etched into his grey eyes. The gloomy girl with the knives.
He stared unblinking at this until a cloud passed overhead.
Aang palmed his forehead, then dragged his hand over the smooth skin of his arrow.
The others didn't stir. He'd grown accustomed to it. More so now that he began to understand who he was.
Growing up in the air temple, Aang always rose first to greet the sun, and was last to see the moon.
It used to baffle him why other kids at the air temple tired so easily. Why they couldn't play or train as long as he did. As he delved further into other bending disciplines, it made sense.
Nature energized him more than anyone else. The sun fueled the firebender inside. At night the moon pulled to surface the waterbender within. When the moon had vanished from the sky, it felt as if something reached into him and ripped a piece out.
Aang shook away an empty, sickly feeling clinging to his memory of the North Pole.
Usually the vacuum of silence irritated him. Training would occupy this time. But Aang needed solitude with his thoughts.
He walked away from his group, sitting in the lotus posture with his back to them. Knuckles of his fists interlocked.
From the cliff, through dim light, he found the small dome in the town below. He made out Iroh's figure leaning against the remains of the corner they'd trapped Azula. Aang couldn't tell if he was awake.
He closed his eyes, letting the tension fade.
Yesterday's battle had been their most difficult. Aang was not particularly proud of how he responded. He didn't think Gyatso would be either.
Striking another living creature with the deadly arts blasphemed the Air Nomad teachings. And he'd done so with anger burning in his heart.
He'd wanted to hurt her as she callously predicted the demise of his friends. Ugly and childish emotions. It shamed him to feel such things. They were of the world. Only his friends brought forth such emotional tumult.
Warm, sometimes scolding yearning for Katara's affections and approval. Craving Sokka's companionship. Enjoying Toph's humor and wicked smile. And Appa was forever a part of him.
He'd been taught not to become attached to the world. Now they had his heartstrings in their palms. And for them...
I could have killed her.
Conflicting feelings roiled in his stomach. He'd restrained himself. Closer to that edge than he'd ever wanted, Aang didn't step over it. But he never should have been that close to begin with. Gyatso wouldn't have. His mentor was the epitome of an Air Nomad in ability and belief. Aang had to master the other elements, become as good an Avatar as the thousands before him.
More than that, he truly aspired to become as good an airbender as Gyatso someday.
He didn't know what to do with Azula. Their prisoner. He doubted the others did either. That's why they considered crippling her. They were just tired and scared and unsure.
Being held captive, they had experience with. But keeping a prisoner?
Azula was far too dangerous for that, certainly. They didn't have any restraints that would hold her. She'd burn through rope and he wasn't about to let an irate firebender on Appa's saddle. Fur was flammable.
The alternative wasn't even an option. His friends would understand this after they rested.
Yesterday he'd found a recurring unlikely ally in his position. Zuko seemed adamant his sister not be harmed, which Aang found a relief. Despite the duel, the blood between them was not so bad. At least on Zuko's part.
They wouldn't maim Azula, he was sure of it. Still, it left him without aim, groping in the dark for an answer. What options were left?
Katara was right of course, Azula would hunt them down again. She was… Aang hesitated to think it of anyone in such ungenerous terms, but the princess struck him as somewhat… malevolent.
On the surface. There had must more beneath her visage.
Mad laughter in the face of peace echoed in his bones. Aang shivered.
A wisdom greater than his own would have the answer. And such wisdom dwelled within. His body served as a channel for more than one soul. Aang searched deep inside himself.
"Avatar Roku," he called, "I need your wisdom."
A piece of his collective self bubbled up and sprang away from him to take shape. It tickled.
"Hello, Aang," Roku said, a slight smile on lips, hands fastidiously tucked into his Fire Nation robes.
Aang smiled and bowed his shaved head. The astral sight lifted some weight from the boy's shoulders.
"Roku, I…" he struggled to find the words. "I have a dilemma."
"Yes," he said, stroking his beard. "I have observed this with... interest."
"She's crazy dangerous! Except now she's helpless, mostly. I don't want to hurt her. But she'll never stop coming after me if I let her go. There's some other way, isn't there?"
Roku remained silent a long time. Flickering emotions crossed his face. Fear. Anger. Regret.
"I fear I am unable to properly guide you in this matter. I myself feel conflicted."
Aang's eyebrows shot up. "What?" He broke his peaceful meditative stance to lean on his hands. "You can't be conflicted! That's my job! You're supposed to be infinitely wise!"
"Yes," Roku said with a grim, apologetic smile, "however, family is a complicated matter."
Aang sat back. "What?" he asked in a flat voice.
Roku frowned and hummed thoughtfully. "I knew Fire Lord Sozin well, Aang."
The name felt like ink in the airbender's ears.
"He was my best friend. A man whose decisions were not dissuaded by anything. I knew of his plans to occupy territory in other nations. I felt hesitant to harm someone who was once a friend. I issued Sozin a warning. Years later, he betrayed me.
"I wanted the best of both world's, Aang, to let Sozin live and end the threat he posed. Instead, my indecision left Sozin poised to throw the world into chaos.
"I see much of Sozin's ambition in this girl. It makes me doubtful a peaceful solution is possible."
Aang's hopes sank.
"However, Azula is also my descendant. That makes me cautiously optimistic."
Aang stared. He sat back and blinked slowly. "Azula. That girl with the blue fire. Your descendant?"
Roku nodded. "My great-granddaughter. Zuko as well, my great-grandson that is. Azulon sought out my bloodline in hopes of creating a powerful lineage of firebenders."
"Uh… It worked?" he offered with fluctuating, befuddled cheer.
"Yes, they are quite talented children. Much better than I was at their age," Roku said with a tinge of pride that pricked Aang's patience.
Roku sobered. "For this reason I cannot be certain that my connection will not cloud my guidance."
Aang sat back and shook his head. He looked at Roku and shook it again."I don't know what to say."
"In every way, Aang, my mistakes continue to haunt you," Roku said, deep mourning in his eyes.
Aang sat tight-lipped. Ordinarily he would assure anyone that the blame was not theirs, trying to guard them from the familiar agony of guilt. That generosity had fled as his predecessor spoke.
His silence seemed to relay dormant bitterness. Roku grimaced.
Aang sighed. Some wise words from the past whispered in his ears. He looked at Roku.
"We can't concern ourselves with what was. We must act on what is."
It wasn't absolution, but Aang couldn't hold a grudge very well.
Roku seemed taken aback. Fairly the closest he'd seen the dignified man to gawking.
He wore a smile as one did when greeting an old friend. "You are wise child, Avatar Aang. This is one of many trials along your path. It may seem overwhelming, but you will overcome this challenge and any you encounter. The world is in capable hands. I know you will redeem me, and restore balance to the world."
People often looked to Aang for answers he didn't have. Roku's words went to his heart.
He didn't have to know the solutions instantly, but he would find them if he kept looking.
"What do you want me to do about them? Zuko and Azula?"
Roku shook his head. "Your burdens are far too great for me to ask…"
"I'm not asking Avatar Roku. I'm asking Great-Grandpa Roku," Aang asked with a disarming smirk.
For the first time, Roku fixed him with a calculating look. Aang didn't know why. "As a spirit with ties to the world, nothing would be a greater relief than to see my descendants realize and correct the errors of the Fire Nation."
"They don't know any other way to live, Roku. Spirit's sake, they were trying to kill each other yesterday!"
Roku's eyes narrowed. "Yes, the royal family is truly a," he shook his head. "Sozin corrupted the art of firebending itself."
"What's there to corrupt?" the child muttered. "Firebending is evil."
"Are you not a firebender, Aang?" he asked, raising a white eyebrow.
Aang crossed his arms petulantly. "No. I won't need it. It only causes pain."
"Fire is more than simply destruction. It is warmth and life."
"There wasn't any life left at the Air Temples," Aang snapped. He reeled back from the harshness of his own voice. He rubbed the back of his head. Where had that come from?
Roku waited him out, then said, "Firebending is the tool of the hand guiding it. With a tainted will, fire consumes all."
You are not ready! You are too weak! Jeong Jeong had told him.
"That is why they need someone to show them the way, Aang. You were wise to attempt to sway them. If you can lead them, they can lead their country."
He faded away, giving of advice to the young Avatar.
"Whatever you decide, Aang, you must act decisively."
Aang released a harsh breath of air. That meditation session wasn't very relaxing. Roku's faith did reassure him though.
"Hey Twinkle Toes," Toph said, startling him. She sprawled out by his side. "You done talking to yourself?"
"Good morning, Toph. I was talking to Avatar Roku, the Avatar before me."
He awaited her astonishment with glee. Surely Toph would find it impressive.
"...Maybe you should get some more sleep."
Aang sighed. Toph picked at her toes the way he did for Appa.
"Yeah?" she grunted, seemingly annoyed he distracted from her task.
"Sorry I blamed you yesterday."
She locked sightless eyes on him for a moment. Then shrugged. "Don't sweat it. I'll just have to make training that much harder for you." She punched him.
The throbbing in his arm meant he was forgiven.
"One more thing, Toph."
"Yeah?" she drawled.
"You were right."
"Naturally." She paused. "What about? The fur?"
"No. Well, yes, but that's not what I meant." The bursts of blue fire seared into his mind. Appa plummeting, falling asleep mid-flight. "We should have stayed and fought them."
She sat up with a stricken expression. "Wow, you really came around, Twinkles. I can see I'm having a positive impact already."
Aang laughed at her deprecating joke.
"You really think that, Aang?" Katara asked.
He turned to see Katara tidying her hair a bit. Sokka stretching awake on Appa.
"Yes," Aang answered as she sat by them. "I'm not saying it's always the answer, but we ended up falling apart trying to run. I know we always hold back against the enemy…"
"Whoa, whoa," Toph held her hands up. "I couldn't hold back this much awesome if I tried. Which I don't."
He rubbed the back of his head. "Oh, well, we always try not to hurt anyone more than necessary."
"Speak for yourself, Aang," Sokka said through a wide yawn, rotating his shoulderblades. "I'm not crying if some firebenders get hurt."
Aang desperately turned to the kindest person he knew. Surely she felt the same. "Katara?"
"Well," she looked away, fidgeting with her hair loopies. "I used to only think about getting out safely. Master Pakku showed me techniques meant to end things… permanently."
Inescapable whirlpools to drag the target under. Skewering ice spears. Those were Pakku's style. He thought the knowledge was to further understand bending.
He'd also thought the monks respected life above all.
"But," he gulped, "you wouldn't use them against a person, right?"
The soft lines of her lips twisted into a hard frown. That dangerous anger boiled up. "I would against her," Katara said, almost hissing 'her'.
"Wait," Sokka sprang up. He was finally awake. "Aang, you're saying you always go easy on whoever's trying to set you on fire!?"
"Of course I do!" he blurted. Aang shook his head. "I mean, not easy, just as easy as I can. I don't want to hurt anyone. I shouldn't hurt anyone at all if I can avoid it. If I'm quick and clever enough, I won't have to."
"So what are we gonna do with the princess?" Toph asked.
Aang felt the hairs on his neck prickle, as if Roku's stern gaze burned his back. "We're not going crush her hands. That's… cruel."
"It'll be good practice for dealing with Ozai," Toph said, drumming her fingers on the ground.
Aang stuck his jaw out in a frown. "Toph! How would you feel if someone wanted to crush your feet?"
She jerked her legs under her protectively and glared at him. He'd hit a sensitive spot. "I tell them to give it their best shot. Since I'm not a maniac!"
"I know you're not," he said with a soft tone of apology. "But imagine the pain of living like that. Everyday for the rest of your life."
Toph blew her bangs from her face and said nothing.
Sokka scratched his chin. "That's not gonna be a problem, right? Ozai won't be feeling much of anything when you're done with him."
"No, Sokka! I'm not gonna kill him either!"
Sokka's head snapped to him. Katara grew more uncomfortable. Toph didn't react at all.
"You're the Avatar! You have to kill him!"
Aang opened his mouth, then bit his tongue. His conversation with Roku hung like fresh rainfall. Right or wrong, if Roku had killed Sozin, the war would not have happened.
Ending one life would have saved countless, priceless lives. His people. Gyatso.
Did he have no choice?
No, he did. He could choose not to face his destiny and responsibilities, and let the world would burn.
"So," he looked between the siblings, a horrible realization dawning. "Every time anyone told me to face the Fire Lord, defeat the Fire Lord…. you meant kill him?
"Yes!" Sokka said, throwing his hands up. "Of course!"
Aang crossed his arms. "Airbenders don't kill people, Sokka."
"You're more than an airbender if I have anything to say about it," Toph supplied, lacing her hands behind her head.
Sokka stared at him incredulously.
Aang could tell the Water Tribe warrior did something rare. He navigated around words carefully. "Aang. Do you remember when we found Gyatso's body?"
Aang breathed in, thinking of Appa, his favorite animal. Calming as Gyatso taught him. The cold ache in his chest faded.
"I remember," he said without emotion. "What about it?"
"Do you remember the firebender corpses around him?"
Aang answered with a stare.
"Where do you think they came from?"
"Probably from firebenders," Aang said.
"When the war came, Gyatso killed."
Aang clutched his head, trying to block the image of enhanced firebenders cornering his elderly mentor. Gyatso injured, outnumbered, choking on smoke. "Sokka, stop."
Sokka said no more, because he had made his point. Aang dropped his gaze into his lap.
It might shock people if they knew, but there were times Aang would ignore things that made him uncomfortable. He could always come back to deal with things when he was older. He had time to figure things out.
That's what he used to think.
Even his powers of denial could only withstand so much when confronted so directly.
Was that what the monks were going to teach him? To kill in war?
Gyatso said they needed him. Was his mentor prepared to guide him toward bloodshed? Dip his hands into the well of stolen lives? It so clashed the image of the peaceful monk who cared for him all his life.
Even the people who taught the value of life had killed to preserve their own and protect each other.
He wondered if Bumi had killed.
Kuzon? Had he been swept up in Sozin's war as well?
Was there anyone who could withstand this world without staining their hands in blood?
Aang removed his tattooed hands from his face.
The last airbender hadn't killed. Neither had his friends. Sokka hunted, but Aang respected the diets of others as the natural cycle of life.
"There has to be a better way."
"What if there isn't?" Sokka demanded.
Aang screwed his face up, feeling the pressure build up around his eyes. He shot a current under him, rising to his feet. He jabbed his thumb at himself. "I'm the Avatar! If there isn't a better way, I'll make one!"
He hadn't used airbending to do it, but his friends seemed blown away. Katara's shocked expression gave way to a proud smile.
"Humiliating without wounding is a fine art requiring great skill," Toph said. Aang almost detected approval in his tone.
Sokka made his groaning noise. "Fine. Then how do we deal with the firebending girl trying to kill us, hm?"
"I know this might be difficult for you guys to accept, but… We're gonna let her go," Aang said.
Sokka's heart would give out early if he kept putting it through this type of stress. He clutched his chest and hyperventilated.
"You're gonna what!"
"Aang, she even tried to kill her own family..." Katara shuddered.
Family. Roku's family. That alone made him feel responsible for the royal siblings, more personally than the people of the world. It made him consider telling them about the connection.
Aang shook his head. He wasn't sure what to do about it himself. They didn't need more to worry about.
"I know she's dangerous, Katara. More than Zhao or Zuko. But I don't know how to deal with her yet. I'll find a way. But until I do letting her go is the best option."
"And what about when she attacks again?" Toph asked, not sounding too upset.
He looked at them, comforted by a calm brought by an inevitable absolute. "I'll fight her. And I'll win." The strength in his voice surprised him. He chuckled. "Besides, I'll be an earthbender by then. I'll bury her myself.
"Right, Sifu Toph?"
He caught a fierce grin under her bangs. "You got it, Twinkles."
"If that's what you think is best," Katara said. "But I still don't like it."
Sokka dropped bonelessly, making no effort to cushion his fall. "Fine. Whatever. Just... do your Avatar thing."
Katara tilted her head to look at her brother. "Sokka, are you okay? You've been fidgety all morning."
"I'm good, actually. Just feeling really limber." He stretched backward like a tiger-seal. "I felt cramped after that circus girl got me yesterday. Now I'm nice and loose."
Nodding with a grimace, Katara said. "Your muscles relax once the effects have worn off. It was the same way for me when she took my bending away."
Took my bending away. The words echoed in Aang's head.
Inspiration struck like lightning.
"That's it! What if I learn to take her bending away?" Aang asked, holding his hands out emphatically. "Then she won't hurt anyone!"
Aang knew this was one of his inspired ideas, because they looked at him in wonder.
"She would be harmless," Toph said airily.
Sokka muttered, then said, "It's only temporary, Aang."
"What if it wasn't?" Aang said through a smile, all his worries slipping away.