Five years after Sozin's Comet, and Aang wonders if the aftermath will ever stop.
Aang looked up from where he had fixed his gaze on the horizon. Zuko was standing over him, his court garb cast in black and silver by the moonlight. "What?" Aang said.
"It's past midnight," Zuko answered. "Five years ago today was when the comet came." He didn't need to elaborate. Five years ago, the Fire Nation's court was lit in flashes of scarlet and azure as brother fought sister. Five years ago, the coast of the Earth Kingdom burned. Five years ago, Aang had learned how to let the Avatar State flow out, giving him the power to defeat Ozai... and to reign it in, to spare Ozai's life, and to make it unbendable to remove his bending.
At the time, it seemed an ending, even with Zuko's coronation. Now, it seemed like only the beginning of the Avatar's world. He'd spent five years on Appa's back being a mediator -- between the Fire Nation and Earth Kingdom, between humans and spirits. Those were hard in a far different way than fighting Ozai. With Ozai, it was just a matter of power and principle -- it had been clear that any path to balance went through taking Ozai's finger off the scales. Here, he was seated in a room with people all wanting something, and finding a solution where everyone could walk away happy -- or not angry enough to start fighting again -- made Aang wish he was far smarter than he was. He knew Zuko and the Earth King and the Order of the White Lotus -- all of his friends, for that matter -- were helping, making sure he only saw the problems that needed the Avatar, but it was still bitter work sifting through a century of grudges.
He stood up. "You aren't going to ask me what I'm doing out here instead of asleep in my room?" He'd come back to the Fire Nation's capital for Zuko's own anniversary of his coronation. The preparations were underway, but Aang had heard the undercurrents as well, of guards worried that discontent among the military or nobility would come to a head to challenge Zuko's rulership. At least, after Ozai, no one wanted to challenge the Avatar to a fight. Somehow, Zuko's Agni Kai against Azula hadn't had the same effect. Or, perhaps it was just a different playing field. Or firebenders were scared of ending up like the imprisoned Phoenix King, stripped of the power to even light a candle or warm a cup of tea. Aang didn't like being feared, but he didn't like being a target either, so add it to the list of problems he'd like a solution for.
Zuko shook his head. "Not at all. I recognize brooding when I see it. Experience, you know?" There was a rueful smile, and Aang reflected that even with the politics and backstabbing, Zuko wasn't as... as angry as he had been when Aang had first met him. Then again, he was home and had come into himself. They all had, during that year.
"You..." Aang looked thoughtful, trying to think how to praise his question. "You ever wonder why all the stories end with the heroes defeating the villains and going home? I think it's because all of the messy bits afterward aren't as easy to make a story out of."
"Probably the same reason the artists around here all want to draw me facing off against Azula, or challenging my father when I left, or teaching you," Zuko said. "No one wants to look at a painting of Firelord Zuko versus the Imperial Budget."
Aang laughed. "Or 'Avatar Aang's Third Return to a Disputed Valley."
"How did that go, by the way? Are the colonists finally going to come back? Should I be sending them ships?"
"They're going to try a joint village council with the local Earth Kingdomers, with the understanding they're still part of the Earth Kingdom politically," Aang said. "We'll see how it'll go. Things nearly broke into a fist fight when the leader of the colonists discovered his son wanted to marry an earthbender. But it worked out."
Zuko nodded. "We need more of that. Not forbidden love affairs, necessarily, but people meeting people from other nations."
"Yeah, we do. I mean, look at Sokka and Katara. If you told them they'd be celebrating with you in the Fire Nation capital six years ago, they'd probably think you were crazy." Or the whole crowd, really. It was something Aang had taken for granted, that he'd had friends in all four nations when he was growing up, before Sozin had wiped out the Air Nomads and ushered in a century of war.
"If you'd told me back then that I'd be having a late-night conversation with my friend the Avatar five years after I became Firelord, I'd have thought you were crazy."
"Probably," Aang said. "Thanks, Zuko. For reminding me of what's important." Perhaps it would help him carry on, remembering how to weave in the four nations like a four-stranded braid, like his friends.