Aang would be by any moment. All I had to do was send a letter off with one of the visiting Air Acolytes later in the week, and the very next day, I heard word that Aang would be by the following evening. Even as he aged, Aang maintained that admirable enthusiasm for all things. I wasn’t quite sure he aged mentally in the slightest, but he had physically changed quite a bit the last I heard. Thinking on, I couldn’t help taking count of my own physical changes.
I certainly had grown taller, though not by much, and my hair was down by my shoulders now. I had no intentions of cutting it any time soon, but most importantly, the scar on my face had altered. It was no longer angry and red but had hardened and faded to a color that almost matched my skin tone. It was still noticeable, no doubt, but overall it had softened its once firey appearance – much like my own thoughts and feelings had settled down.
It was then my thoughts drifted to who I hoped to be a future guest – Katara of the Water Nation. Based on Aang’s response, she was doing better than all of our old party combined. She had started training a whole new crop of water benders – men and women alike – in both fighting and healing styles. The tribes were expanding, though they were maintaining their traditional ways. Even Sokka was taking part, training those who weren’t benders by birth to fight and defend themselves using the multitude of methods he had encountered on their long journey.
In all honesty, the more I heard of their success, the more self-conscious I became. The Fire Nation had changed, of course, but had I done enough? Even now, whispers and rumors of war raged among the people. Every report he heard from his council hinted at the need for violence. Whole generations had been brought up in that environment, including me. It was no wonder no one knew what prosperity was if it didn’t involve taking over a city or destroying one.
All of these thoughts made it difficult to focus on the ever-growing pile of documents that passed over my desk. Tax reform documents, military budgets, and schedules, school curriculum reform – all of those words were twisting and turning among the many other worries and thoughts to the point all of it had lost all meaning. I sighed and pushed the paperwork to the side – both mentally and physically. My Uncle, who had rooted himself to the far corner of my study, was sitting at my reading desk, book in one hand, teacup in another.
“Don’t be so bothered, Nephew. You should be excited. Your friend the Avatar should be here soon.”
I scrubbed my face with my hand, noting the stubble that scraped against the hard flesh of my palms.
“That’s partly why I am so bothered, Uncle.”
My Uncle set both his tea and book down before crossing both arms into his sleeves. This was a familiar stance, one that often followed sage advice.
“Friends aren’t typically something to be bothered over. Relax. Let’s talk about Tea Appreciation Day. That should ease your mind.”
“I think Tea Appreciation Day only eases your mind, Uncle.”
His laugh in response echoed around my library, warm and boisterous. I had to admit I missed his energy. It was probably the only thing that truly did provide me such clarity. It was then I took stock of how much he had changed. Wrinkles cascaded across his face intermingled with a mosaic of tiny scars that he had picked up through the many wars he had been part of. I could barely make out a few missing teeth as he laughed, and once he settled down, I noticed a glassiness in his eyes that I didn’t remember being there.
Uncle Iroh seemed much older than I remembered, and that lit a flame of panic in the pit of my stomach. My terror was only punctuated as he stretched, joints popping as he bemoaned over his own age.
“I may need to take a vacation to the spirit world soon. This body is becoming harder and harder to work with. You will understand soon, Nephew. You look older by the day.”
He flashed me a cheeky green which I ignored with a frown of my own.
“Please don’t joke about such things, Uncle. You’ll give me an ulcer.”
“An ulcer? What do you know of ulcers?”
He was laughing loudly now, to the point he wheezed between his words. It took everything in me not to egg him on and smile. Our joyful banter was soon interrupted as my study door swung open, and before me was a bald man dressed all in orange robes – bright and obnoxious enough to match his personality. His arms were wide open as if beckoning me for a hug.
“Is that the great Fire Lord Zuko, I see?”
I blinked, shocked by how much he had changed since the last time I saw him. He was tall, much taller than I was. I could tell even as I was sitting down at my desk. Then there was his face. I had seen him a few years ago, but he still had some of the lingering baby fat of youth even then. Now, though, his face was sharp and angular – longer even, and it seemed he was trying out facial hair as a small goatee had taken root at the center of his chin.
He didn’t look like the Aang of my memory anymore. This was a man standing before me. Trying to shake my shock, I cleared my throat and stood up to meet him. He came prancing toward my desk and leaned over it with ease, taking me into his arms. My face was pressed into his chest, my eyes just barely reaching over the top of his shoulder.
He was much, much taller.
“Aang, so good to see you. I thought you were a stranger for a moment.”
My Uncle’s voice was a welcome reprieve from all the shocking new things I had to take in all at once. Even as he responded to my Uncle, his grip held firm to me.
“Iroh, Zuko didn’t mention you were here. It’s so good to see you!”
As Uncle and Aang fell into idle conversation, I noticed someone else taking their place in the doorway. Her hair was a rich brown, cascading down her shoulders. Braids decorated the crown of her head, accented with beads of various sizes and shapes. While reminiscent of the clothes she wore in the past, her gown was thicker and embroidered with symbols and shapes reminiscent of ocean waves and water bending. Fur lined every hem, which made her attire seem much more fashionable than it was for its intended purpose. Much like Aang, she too has lost most of her baby fat in her face, but her features were still soft and delicate – perhaps even more so than he recalled. She no longer looked like a girl. She was a woman, no doubt.
“Aang, you might want to let the prince go. He might burn up.”
Her voice was deeper and richer. It was a pleasant sound, not unlike a song, and it stirred something deep inside him that he couldn’t quite put a name to. In response, Aang finally released me to stand to the side and hold out his arm to introduce the stranger standing in the doorway.
“Zuko, here she is! Katara!”
Katara’s lips, rosy in color, turned up into a soft smile.
“Long time no see prince Zuko, or, should I say… ‘Fire Lord Zuko.”
As she said my official title, her slight smile broke into a wide sarcastic grin. Yep, that was Katara. That unfamiliar feeling reformed into something I could put a name to – annoyance. While I did respect her and everything she stood for, I couldn’t help recalling all of the arguments and petty fights we often fell into while traveling together.
As I looked her over, remnants of the strange feeling floated about in the recesses of my mind. My face was warming, even as she crossed her arms and frowned in my direction.
“Well, don’t look so excited to see me.”
While my face probably didn’t display it, I had to admit it. In a way, I was excited to see her.