Who I Am (or Who I Was)
(Epilogue Part Three)
At the center of your being you have the answer; you know who you are and you know what you want.
The party bustles inside.
She doesn't mind crowds, normally; people interest her, and always have. But tonight it's too much - especially when a clear, breezy night beckons.
From the balcony she looks out over the thousand distant that flicker through streets and rooftops. The teeth of the volcano's edge have long since blended seamlessly with the sky, but the capital lights itself in its own excitement. The hot-blooded Fire Nation embraces any excuse to celebrate, even the loss of a hundred years war (though few remember why they were fighting in the first place). Today a new Fire Lord was crowned; their soldiers will be coming home; and distribution of the palace's enormous store of rice wine has certainly helped ease any lingering worries over the future. However temporarily.
She leans against the railing and rests her chin on her fist. "You were right," she says.
There's a surprised noise behind her. (She can't help but smile - like she hadn't known he'd been back there for twenty minutes.) But he recovers quickly enough. "Right about what?"
"The Fire Nation." She points out at the city. "It is beautiful."
Golden fireworks explode over the rebuilt Coronation Plaza. For half a moment they hold mid-air in a perfect circle, then drip down onto the houses below, sparking as they fall.
"They're happy tonight," he says, coming forward to stand next to her. He stares out at his nation. "But they celebrated for Azula, too. Who knows what they'll think next week."
"You probably shouldn't be running away from your own gala, then."
"I'm not running away, I'm... getting some air. Even Fire Lords need air."
She murmurs something non-committal.
The silence is long before he says, in entirely too casual tones: "Aang's leaving in the morning."
"I know." Part of her wants to correct him - to refer to this new, somber, unsmiling boy only as The Avatar. Ozai is dead and the Avatar lives, but the Aang she knew is gone. He sacrificed himself for the world. He'll never go penguin sledding again.
But no good comes of dwelling on that. As they have all learned, doing the right thing can come with a cost.
"Sokka and Toph are going with him as far as the Earth Kingdom. Then Dad sails in the afternoon. And Suki the next day." She tries to hold in the sigh; she doesn't succeed. "They want me to come, too."
"All of them."
"Oh." He doesn't look at her, but his fingers tighten just a little against the railing. After a moment he glances over - not at her face, but rather her wrist, which is just visible along the edge of her sleeve. (She had new robes made up a week ago when she could no longer tolerate the heat in her Water Tribe furs; she'd insisted on having the silks dyed in blue, however. The request was obeyed instantly. The Fire Lord's servants cannot seem to bow to her low enough.)
"I'm fine," she answers his unspoken question, and pushes back the hem to show him. A blood-shaded blemish the size of a coin spiders across her skin, a tiny version of the one that marks his chest and Aang's back. It's the most visible of the dozen or so that are littered across her body. Souvenirs of her own Agni Kai. "How about you? How are you feeling?"
"Still hurts a little," he says, not bothering to lie. "But it's a lot better than it was."
"If you need another session-"
"You should work on your own injuries."
She smiles again, sadly this time. "They're scars. They can't be healed." Even if lightning marks could be easily repaired, she lost her chance. By the time she'd woken up - almost a week after Sozin's Comet - her wounds had closed. She would just have to live with them.
At least they're not on her face.
She doesn't say that out loud, of course.
This reminds her of something she's been meaning to mention; there's been precious little opportunity for a Fire Lo to speak in private. "Thank you, by the way. For staying with me at the hospital while I was recovering."
He looks at her now, obviously startled. Another explosion of fireworks plays shadows across his face. "You weren't supposed to know about that."
"Sokka has a big mouth." He groans, and she adds, "He doesn't hate you as much as he did before, if that helps."
"It doesn't." He's blushing; only the skin on his left cheek remains unchanged. "But you don't have to thank me. It wasn't a big deal."
"Of course it was. I was unconscious for five days. There must have been so much you were supposed be doing-"
"Uncle took care of it all. And besides, it wasn't like I could move much, either. It was either lay around in my room or lay around in yours." The blush deepens. "Uh, not that I-"
"No, I don't think Sokka would like you more now if you had." She moves her hand slightly; her pinky brushes his thumb. "You should find a Water Tribe healer to keep around here. Especially if people keep roasting each other in Agni Kai."
"That's a good idea." There's a moment of hesitation before he says, in one quick breath: "There's you - you're a healer."
"Not really." She can heal, but she's not a healer, and she never will be. She doesn't have the temperament. "You should send a message to Chief Arnook. I bet he'll know of someone. You need an ambassador anyway."
"You would be a great ambassador," he says stubbornly.
She rolls her eyes. "I would freeze people in place when they make me angry."
"I wouldn't let you. It's not- it would be- Look, I understand how a government is supposed to work, but I don't know how to make people like me. But you do. If you talk, everyone will listen. You could… help me." He can't meet her eyes, and she knows perfectly well how hard it is for him to say that. "And I would just block you whenever you try to ice someone."
"You're not fast enough."
"Yes, I am."
He is, but she's not going to admit it. Besides, she's fast enough to block him, too - and she suspects she's not the only one who would lose her temper with bureaucrats from time to time. He could stand to have the occasional fireball diffused. Or at least blow off frustration with a good dueling session.
"Stay." She can barely hear him over the crowds below. "I want you to stay."
A beat. "No. I mean, yes, but… not just as that."
She feels her cheeks warm. "Wouldn't it be a problem?"
"I..." Now he's staring toward the horizon again, which she knows he can't see in the dark and wouldn't be looking at even if he could. "No, it wouldn't. I wouldn't let it be a problem. You could be ambassador - you could be whatever you want - and it wouldn't have to be anything else. I want you to stay anyway."
"I meant me being a waterbending peasant," she corrects. "That's probably not something you need right now. No one would like my being here."
He shakes his head and half-smiles. "You're a lot more popular in the Fire Nation than I am." She makes a small noise of disbelief, and he amends, "More respected, anyway. Everyone knows about how you defeated Azula."
"You would have if she hadn't cheated," she protests.
"A village on an outer island swears you saved them from a witch-"
"Only sort of. It's complicated."
"-and there's a soldier who got court-marshaled last week for calling you a spy-"
"That's not fair, he was right!"
"-and even the people who call you a peasant think you're the most powerful waterbender in the world."
"Ooh. I bet Master Pakku doesn't like that."
"Believe me," he continues, ignoring her, "you'd be doing me more good than harm." He pauses. "In a lot of ways."
She watches the fires below for so long that spots dance in her vision when she closes her eyes. "Dad thinks I should come back to the Southern Water Tribe and help rebuild."
He wisely remains silent.
"Sokka and Toph and Suki... they're all going to go do their own things."
"And Aang thinks I'd be useful with Avatar stuff."
A hint of smoke rises from where he grips the railing.
"Not like that. You have got to get over your jealousy issues."
"I'm not jealous." At her derisive snort, he mutters, "I wouldn't be, anyway, if you stayed."
She keeps her eyes closed, takes a slow, deep breath, and stretches her senses outward, as far as she can reach.
Ponds in the gardens. Pipes below the street. Oceans surrounding this island and every other island in the nation. As much water as she could ever ask for.
She's amazed sometimes that there aren't other waterbenders here; when the very first of her tribe built their very first canoes and made their very first voyages, why didn't they decide to stay when they found these distant shores? Was it the heat?
The turtle ducks squawk in alarm as she pulls up a little bubble of water from the pond below. With a gesture she creates a ball of ice and opens her eyes to watch it hover mid-air. Just to see how long she can keep it from melting.
Heat isn't so bad in blue silk.
"I want my necklace back," she blurts out.
He freezes for a long moment. But then he coughs, clears his throat - what was he expecting her to say? - and digs into his pocket.
Her carving is now attached to two red ribbons; they shine bright even in the darkness. "The leather ones burned off during the Agni Kai," he explains, tone low and embarrassed. "I just put these on so I wouldn't lose it. I'll find something else."
"No, don't," she says. "It's... nice. It looks right." His eyes widen, and she reaches back to lift her hair out of the way. When he doesn't move she raises an eyebrow. "Are you going to put it on?"
His hand brushes against her neck as he ties the carving in place.
"I'm not Northern Water Tribe," she reminds him. "So it's not actually an engagement necklace."
"No," he says.
"I'm not marrying age yet."
"I'm not promising anything anyway."
"Not then. Not later. Nothing for sure."
"We might kill each other first."
"But I want to wear it."
"Because you gave it to me."
"And I'll stay."
She lowers her hair, but his hands stay on her shoulders - a warm and heavy weight. The ice ball still hovers in front of her. Not a single drop has dripped free. She is a Waterbending Master. "I like it here."
He wraps his arms around her waist, pulls her closer. "We lived through tomorrow," he tells her. He's asking.
"There's a lot more tomorrows to live through," she tells him. She's answering.
And she leans back to kiss him.
A/N: It took me six months to write the first 59k words, then a year and a half to write the last 13k. I really have no excuse for that, so, um... yeah. Sorry. I suck.
Thank you to everyone who stuck with this until the end; in fact, thank you to those who didn't. (Every reader is important!) And, once again, a super-duper thank you to Like A Dove, whose three Zuko-bits of this fic are invaluable. I owe her bacon.
A number of people have asked about the Sparrowkeet chronology, which I understand; it's certainly jumpy. While I still believe that the most thematically and developmentally appropriate way to read is in the order published, for those who are inclined, here's the timeline:
Simultaneous (in recommended order):
Strategies for Sister-Rescuing
The Teachings of Tea
A Man of the Sea
I Don't Have a Clue
Observations from a Rock Ledge
A Rush of Blood to the Head
The Fourth Wall
Aang and the Avatar
Duels of Honor: Part 1
Hot Leaf Juice
Duels of Honor: Part 2
The Final Chakra
Who I Am (or Who I Was): Part 1
Who I Am (or Who I Was): Part 2
Who I Am (or Who I Was): Part 3
Thanks again, guys.