"It's over. It's finally over," said Avatar Aang, stroking Momo. The winged lemur was sitting on Aang's shoulder as Aang stood on the roof of the Jasmine Dragon, gazing around at the newly-freed Earth Kingdom capital of Ba-Sing-Se. He could hardly believe that just a few days earlier, in this very city, he had fought with the previous Fire Lord, Ozai, and defeated him, thus bringing peace to the world again. "I can't believe it's all actually over."
"Well, it's not exactly over yet," said Zuko, the new Fire Lord, who now worked part time as a waiter in the Jasmine Dragon, the first Fire Lord ever to do so. He had climbed up the ladder leading to the roof and now joined Aang near its edge. "The world still needs your help if things were to go back to the way they were before. A hundred years of damage is kind of hard to undo easily."
"Yeah, but right now, I can just relax and enjoy myself for a while. It's not like a city will be burned down if I don't act right away anymore," exclaimed Aang happily. He needed some rest after the strains and tensions of the last few days. "You know what, I'm going to ask Katara if she wants to go on a ride on Appa with me right now," he exclaimed suddenly, unfolding his glider and jumping into the air. "Come on, Momo," he called to the lemur, who happily soared into the air besides Aang. "See you later, Zuko!"
Zuko watched Aang soar away, smiling, happy his friend could finally enjoy himself once more. He stood on the roof a moment more, enjoying the cool breeze, then climbed down the ladder to the Jasmine Dragon's storage room. Then, he went down the stairs to the kitchen. His uncle needed him. Business was booming and the Jasmine Dragon was getting more customers than ever before, not only because it served the best tea in all of the Earth Kingdom (thanks to his Uncle), but also because word had gotten around that this was the place where the Avatar and his friends hung out during their stay in the Earth Kingdom capital.
As Zuko was scrubbing a table with a piece of cloth in the dining area, a girl in a waitress's uniform approached him. "Hi Lee, I mean...umm...Prince Zuko," she said. Zuko looked up at her. "Oh, hello, Jin," he said recognizing the girl he had once gone on a date with. "What are you doing here?" he asked her.
"Your uncle hired me to serve tea to the customers," she replied. "He needed some new workers since you will be returning to the Fire Nation soon. He is a very kind man you know, your uncle. He pays me a lot just for working here a couple of hours a week. I tried to tell him he was paying me too much, but he wouldn't listen to me," Jin added. Zuko looked affectionately towards where his uncle was standing near the back of the tea shop, speaking to an elderly man. It was true his uncle was very kind. Iroh had been selling his delicious tea for very low prices. He even gave tea for free to those who couldn't afford it.
"Did you hear what he did for Mr. Pao?" Jin inquired, motioning towards the man Iroh was talking to. "Mr. Pao?" asked Zuko, examining the man more closely. "Isn't that the guy who hired Uncle when we first came to Ba Sing Se?" he questioned. "Your uncle found out that Mr. Pao had run out of business since all his customers were going to the Jasmine Dragon now. So he told him that since it was Mr. Pao who gave him his first job and made him famous for his tea, he would form a business alliance with the Pao Family Tea House and sell his delicious tea there as well. That way, Pao could get his business back again and people living in the lower ring of Ba-Sing-Se would not have to travel so far to drink the Jasmine Dragon's tea," explained Jin. Zuko looked at Pao again. The old man certainly looked very happy as Iroh escorted him to a table near the front of the tea shop and offered him some tea.
"But enough about your uncle. What about you?" Jin asked, turning to Zuko once more. "Me?" Zuko said, surprised. "So, you were the prince of the Fire Nation weren't you? I guess it makes sense. Now, I understand how you lit those lights by the fountain. And it also explains why you were so bad at juggling. You never were part of a circus, were you?" Jin asked. "Er, no," Zuko replied. "Sorry about the lie," he added. "It's okay," Jin said. "It's amazing how much you did for the world when everyone, even your own father, was against you. I'm glad I got to meet you, Lee... I mean Zuko. I'm still not used to your real name. Anways, it's because of you that we can now sit down to a nice cup of tea without worrying about the Fire Nation charging in at any moment."
"Um, thanks," said Zuko awkwardly. He was inwardly thankful that Mai was not around at the moment. "Well, I should get back to work now," said Jin, staring down at her apron. "See you later, Zuko." "See you," replied Zuko as Jin walked away. He went back to scrubbing the table, smiling. He was glad that people now thought of him, not as the son of a ruthless Fire Lord, but as a person who had helped restore peace to the world.
"It just goes to show how much good comes from saving the world," thought Zuko with a smile.
Sunlight streamed through the windows of the large, three-roomed cabin where Aang, Zuko, Katara, Sokka, Toph, Mai, and Ty Lee slept. In the girls' room, Katara was standing by a large oval mirror set into the wall, brushing her long dark brown hair and Toph was sleeping in a sprawl on her bed, her body tangled with the sheets, drool coming out of her mouth, and one of her legs trailing on the floor. The sunlight swept gently onto her face and she sat up, yawning and rubbing the grit from her eyes.
"Morning," said Katara. "Or afternoon, I should stay." "Where's everyone else?" asked Toph, disentangling herself from the sheets and stretching. Through her feet, the blind Earthbender could feel that no one else was in the girl's room, the boy's room next door, or the main room. "They all left earlier. Aang and Zuko went to the Jasmine Dragon, Ty Lee dragged Mai on a sightseeing tour with her, and Sokka and Suki went off together somewhere," explained Katara.
Toph went over to the water basin and splashed water on her face. "I don't see how any of you can have any fun in this boring city," she yawned. "Things have been pretty dull around here now that there are no more Fire Nation butts to kick. Hey, what's that I hear?" she said, suddenly tense.
There was a flurry of wings by the open window and then two messenger hawks flew into the room. Katara rushed over to them, and unbound the letter from one of them. As she read it, Toph felt Katara's body stiffen. "What does it say?" Toph inquired. "Oh, it's...it's nothing," said Katara, putting the letter away. Toph knew she was lying, but before she could question her any further, Katara let out a startled gasp. "It's Hawky!" she exclaimed, pointing to the second messenger hawk.
"Hawky?! You mean the hawk Sokka got? But isn't he the one we used to send a letter to my parents?" cried Toph. She felt a mixture of anticipation and dread. It had been so long since she had run away from her parents. She had sent a letter through Hawky to them, apologizing for and explaining her actions but she wasn't sure if her parents had really forgiven her and accepted her for who she really was.
"Do you want me to read it for you?" Katara asked gently. Toph hesitated then slowly nodded her head. Katara began reading the letter out loud.
"Our Dearest Daughter,
We have heard about how you helped the Avatar defeat the Fire Lord and we are very proud of you. We are very sorry for how we hid you from the world, but we were worried about your safety and were only trying to do what was best for you. But we now realize that you are not just a helpless blind girl but a strong young Earthbender and that you will never be happy with the life we made you lead. We have therefore decided to give you the freedom you so desire, but we also want you to return to us as we miss you dearly.
Your loving parents,
Lao and Poppy Bei Fong"
Katara, looked up, having finished reading the letter and was surprised to see tears in Toph's eyes. Toph, who had always been such a strong person, hardly ever cried. "Are you okay?" Katara asked gently. Toph nodded tearily, turning her head away. "It's just that it's been so long, you know, since I've last seen them. I've missed them more than I realized," Toph said. "And they're finally giving me what I've always wanted," she added.
"Are you sure this letter is genuine?" asked Katara. "I mean, didn't you get a letter from your mom before, but it turned out to be a fake and a trap?" "Yes," said Toph, "but this one is really from them. I don't know how I know it; I just do."
"So are you going to go back?" Katara asked. "Yes, I suppose I will. I mean," said Toph, wiping away her tears, "they are my parents, aren't they? I can't just abandon them. Anyways, it will give me an excuse to get out of this awful city," she added jokingly. Katara smiled, glad her friend was cheering up.
"Could you sent them my reply, telling them I'll come back home soon, Katara?" asked Toph. "Of course," said Katara, taking out parchment, ink, and a quill from a drawer. "I'll begin right now." "Thanks," said Toph. "And maybe you should use something else to send it besides Hawky. We've borrowed him from Sokka long enough. Anyways, I'm going to get some lunch. I haven't eaten breakfast and I'm starving," said Toph, taking off her nightclothes and changing into her dress behind a screen. She opened the door to the cabin, waved to Katara, and then took off down the street.
Meanwhile, Aang who had been soaring off around Ba-Sing-Se on his glider with Momo, searching for Katara, found her in the cabin just as she had finished writing the letter to Toph's parents and sent it with the other messenger hawk. "Hi, Aang," she said, coming out of the cabin and smiling up at him.
"Hello, Katara," Aang said, shyly. "You look nice." Katara really did look very pretty in pale green Earth Kingdom robes and with a pink flower set in the back of her hair. "Thanks," replied Katara, blushing.
They stood there awkwardly for a moment, then Aang asked, "Do you want to go on a ride around Ba-Sing-Se on Appa with me?" "Sure," said Katara. They went around to the back of the cabin where Appa slumbered peacefully on a large patch of unused ground. "Aww, look at him," said Katara, "He finally gets to get some rest. I guess flying around the globe for the past year really tired him out." "Not for long," said Aang. He rushed up to the great bison and nudged him gently on the side. Appa opened one eye. "Ready for another ride, old pal?" Aang asked. Appa opened his other eye and growled in agreement, then waited for Katara, Aang, and Momo to climb onto his great back before setting off into the golden sunset.
Aang and Katara talked about many things, from the view to the past, then settled into a companionable silence after a while, content just to be with each other, as Appa flew to the outskirts of the capital. Katara looked at Aang out of the corner of her eye. She wondered whether she should tell him about the letter she had just gotten, but then decided against it. No need to ruin what might be one of her last evenings with Aang for a while. There would be plenty of time later.
As the sun was disappearing over the horizon, Appa swooped back in the direction of Ba-Sing-Se. As he was flying towards the Jasmine Dragon, Aang and Katara caught sight of Sokka, Suki, and Toph, who had met up with the other two earlier, walking in the same direction. Aang tugged on Appa's reins and Appa landed besides the trio. "Need a lift?" Aang asked. "You're going to be late for the dinner party if you don't hurry."
"Thanks," said Sokka, as he leapt onto Appa then reached out to help Suki climb on. "I'll walk," said Toph. "No offense, Appa, but I prefer it on the ground, where I can see. I've had just about enough flying to last me a lifetime." With that, the blind Earthbender started bending the Earth around her so it carried her over the ground in a rapid motion, easily keeping pace with Appa, who had taken off into the skies again. Katara smiled as she watched Toph, glad her friend was acting normal again. Then, she bent close to Sokka and started whispering urgently into his ear.
The group reached the Jasmine Dragon in no time. The tea shop was closed so there were no customers there, but the doors had been left unlocked for Aang and the others. A group of tables had been clustered together in the dining area with a bunch of seats grouped around them. Large platters of delicious food filled the tables, along with many kettles of the Jasmine Dragon's finest tea, of course. Iroh, Zuko, Mai, and Ty Lee were already seated around the tables.
"We were waiting for you," said Zuko, as the others sat down. As soon as everyone was seated, Iroh and Zuko served the food. Everyone dug into the delicious courses. Aang, Katara, Toph, and Zuko soon entered a heated discussion about the superiorities of one element over another. Everyone soon joined in and Sokka claimed that weaponry was better then bending. He was backed up by Suki, who said those who knew weaponry and martial arts were more resourceful than benders. Mai and Ty Lee agreed, saying a bender was completely dependent on his or her element, so blocking their chi or pinning them down would render them completely powerless. Zuko then pointed out that the same was also true for those who used weapons and martial arts. Aang soon ended the discussion by saying that as the Avatar, he knew each of the bending arts may have some weaknesses but they are all equal and weaponry and martial arts are also great ways to fight.
During a lull in the conversation, Katara turned to Aang and said, "Aang, I think now might be the best time to tell you: Sokka and I are leaving." Her words were followed by a shocked silence and then Aang exploded. "WHAT?! WHEN?! WHERE?! WHY?!"
"Calm down, Aang," said Katara. "Dad sent us a message this morning. We're going back to the Southern Water Tribe. Not right now, but soon." "But why do you have to leave so suddenly," asked Aang, crestfallen. Just when he thought he finally had Katara, she seemed to be slipping away from him again. "It's been so long since we've last seen our home," explained Katara, gently. "We really miss Gran Gran and the rest of our villagers. And we can finally be with Dad again."
"But Aang, this doesn't mean we have to be separated," Katara continued. "I was kind of hoping you would come with us. I know you might not be able to stay forever, but at least accompany us on our journey," Katara implored sheepishly. "Of course I'll come," said Aang, cheering up instantly. "Although, you're right: I can't stay there forever. The rest of the world still needs me," he added, remembering what Zuko had said to him earlier.
"The rest of you are also welcome to come if you wanna," said Sokka, helping himself to some more food. Katara had broken the news to him on Appa so he wasn't surprised by it. "You're coming aren't you, Suki?" he asked. "Sorry, Sokka, but I can't," Suki said sadly. "I was already separated from the Kyoshi Warriors for a long time and I need to go back to them. And we were also sort of planning to go back to our hometown, you know, Kyoshi Island," she explained. "I'm going with you, Suki," piped in Ty Lee. "After all, I'm now a Kyoshi Warrior, aren't I?"
"Well, I don't think I'll be going with you guys either," said Toph. "There's someplace else I need to go," she continued, turning her head slightly in Katara's direction. "And besides," she added, "I hate ice and snow. I can't see as well on them as I can on solid ground."
"And I'm going to have to return to the Fire Nation soon. I'm now the Fire Lord, after all, and my nation needs me. So I can't come with you guys either," said Zuko, putting his arm around Mai, who had been seated besides him. She smiled at him to show that she would accompany him to the Fire Nation as well.
"That reminds me," said Iroh, leaping up, suddenly. "All of you will be leaving Ba-Sing-Se tomorrow, won't you? That means we'll have to start preparing for your journey immediately." "Before we go our separate ways," said Zuko, "I hope no one has forgotten about the royal ball I'll be throwing in the Fire Nation Royal Palace. I hope you all will come. It might be our last chance to get together for a while." "Of course we'll come," said Sokka, who couldn't wait to show Suki his dance moves. There were cries of agreement from everyone else.
"I'm glad we'll be spending that day together," said Aang, looking happily around the table. "And we won't be separated forever after that, will we? We'll still have many more adventures together, I can tell." Everyone else murmured in agreement.
Meanwhile, in a small cell in Ba-Sing-Se's prison, the former leader of the Dai Li, Long Feng, sat quietly by himself, contemplating his choices. "So you have come back, Avatar, haven't you?" he said, looking up, his eyes flashing.