The war is over, but some things still aren't right. Aang tries to help the poor and ends up helping himself more than he realized.
It was four years after the defeat of Ozai when Aang ran into Jet while visiting Ba Sing Se. He turned a corner and there Jet was, chewing on that stupid blade of grass and dressed in worn clothing. There were lines on his face that didn't belong there- he was barely twenty- and he looked tired, but there he was.
There was a moment when they stared at each other.
“Jet,” Aang said. He added, a moment later: “I thought you were dead. I saw-”
Jet shook his head. “Nope. I lived. Just barely. Thought I wouldn't, but fate has a funny way of doing things.”
He took a step toward Aang, bringing them close enough for a comfortable conversation. He limped, and Aang realized that that he walked with a limp. He was alive, but he had not escaped unscathed.
“Thank you,” Jet said, abruptly.
“You saved the world from the Fire Nation. Brought back the balance. Seems like thanks are the least I owe you, right? I mean, we're all free now.”
He faltered on the word free, and Aang wondered what he had been doing for the past four years. Certainly nothing fun. The lines on his face were not laugh lines.
Aang frowned. “It's been four years. And...”
And the balance hadn't been restored, he wanted to say. Fire had been defeated, but his own people were gone. Aang was still the last airbender, and nothing would bring the others back. Even if he married and had children, and they were airbenders- it wouldn't be the same. They wouldn't be the same people, concerned with freedom and spirits. They would be part of another culture, too. Their mother's.
(In his mind, he thought: Katara's. But that wasn't certain yet, nothing was certain.)
How realistic was it to expect his children to be children of the air if they were surrounded by a different culture?
And he didn't know everything about his own culture, anyway. There were no older monks, no other airbenders. You couldn't resurrect a whole society from one kid who'd been taken from it at the age of twelve. He couldn't pass on what he didn't know or remember. His people were completely, irrevocably lost.
“You don't owe me anything,” Aang told Jet, after too long a pause. “I'm just glad you're alive.”
He started to walk away, and Jet said: “Would you like to meet my family? I'm married now. If you could come for dinner...”
Aang didn't know what he was thinking. But he said yes.
Jet had more than just a wife. He had two twin girls, just old enough to walk. They ran at their father, tumbling several times on the way, and he held them and spun them around, his limp for just one moment not visible. He looked happy.
Aang found himself happy against his will. It was hard to brood when there were two toddlers begging for attention. And with an excellent though small dinner, his mood become much lighter.
He did notice how thin the whole family was, and how the rooms were small and bare. It wasn't right, that they had to live like this. No wonder Jet had looked so unhappy, when the two of them had run into each other.
He showed the little girls how he could fly with his glider, and they laughed and begged to come up with him.
““Show me how!” they shouted. “Show me!”
After that, his mood soured again, and he excused himself.
He had reason for visiting Ba Sing Se, after all, and this wasn't it.
Visiting Iroh's tea shop was always pleasant. But after seeing how Jet's family lived, the beautiful tea shop seemed opulent. Expensive. Why were people in the upper ring living such amazing lives when others lower down couldn't eat enough? It wasn't fair. He had to do something about it. But it wasn't clear what he should do.
“The poor will be poor,” Iroh said, when Aang talked to him about it. “Some places are not as rich. Some people cannot earn as much money. That is why we must be charitable to them.”
“But not enough people are charitable. There won't ever be enough charity, will there?”
Iroh shook his head sadly, and said: “Some things not even the avatar can fix.”
There hadn't been any poor among the Air Nomads. Everyone had shared. The monks had made sure of that. And there had never been too many people, so it wasn't difficult to see to it that everyone was at least fed.
Ba Sing Se was just too big. And it had different rings, so that the rich and the poor never even saw each other. Of course things weren't quite right here. Things hadn't been right here in a long, long time.
In Katara's tribe there hadn't been poverty, either. And most of the small villages they'd seen- well, either everyone in them had been poor, or they were all pretty well off.
If the poor in Ba Sing Se could be moved somewhere smaller- somewhere they could get a fresh start, and grow their own food, maybe things would be different.
He thought of the empty air temples. They were on his mind a lot lately. There were three of them that had no inhabitants. They were just empty.
Well, it wasn't like airbenders would be coming back to live there. Aang would be never able to bear living in the temples- they were too full of memories, and too empty of the people he had once known.
He would leave one temple empty. He'd seen what happened when people moved into the temples. They wanted to change things. It wouldn't be the same.
He'd save the southern air temple. But the others- well, he'd offer them up, and help people settle in.
They deserved a better life.
The western air temple quickly became home to a dozen families, Jet's included. Aang helped them farm the gardens of the temple, and used earthbending to build railings around the edges of the temple. After all, none of the children here were airbenders. It was safer to have railings.
A few people from the northern temple came to help, too. They knew more about farming than Aang, and they were a great asset in the first few weeks.
It was a mostly empty temple, still, but with children running around and people here, Aang could close his eyes and almost- almost- pretend things were alright again.
It was a surprise to him when people started migrating from other nations. There were desperately poor Fire Nation villagers, and one girl who had traveled all the way from the north pole to escape her abusive family.
“I heard you were doing something new,” she said. “I wanted to go somewhere new.”
Her arms were scarred and she had traveled halfway across the world. She was welcomed with open arms.
The strange thing, though, was that there were no benders at all among the people who came to live in the temple.
“Why would benders come here?” asked Jet when Aang talked to him about it. “It's too dry for waterbending, too cold for to be comfortable for firebenders, and too high up for earthbenders to be much use. And it isn't like a bender is going to be desperate, is it? It's easy for benders to find work. They're useful. Not like us. There isn't any reason for them to run away.”
The temples had been made for airbenders. They had been designed to fend off invasions, to be hospitable only to airbenders. Of course other benders wouldn't feel welcome. The very design of the place made it impossible for them to feel comfortable. None of them would want to live here.
It did seem excessive, though, when none of his bender friends wanted to visit the temples. Even Katara only came to visit him once. There were important things to do at the south pole. Her tribe needed her.
“Didn't your people need help expanding the village?” he asked, when she finally did visit.
“It's your birthday,” she told him with a smile. “They can do without me for a little while. It isn't like I'm the only waterbender there any more. We have Pakku.” She smiled, and looked off into the distance. “It's looking better here. Not so abandoned. Are you happier now?”
To his surprise, Aang was.
It was another few months before the western air temple was settled enough that Aang felt he could start settling the eastern temple. He took a break for a few weeks before starting. After all, he hadn't visited Toph or Zuko in forever, and there were other friends all over the world. And as the avatar, he had to make sure things were running smoothly, all around the world. He couldn't afford to repeat the mistakes of his past lives, and assume things would work out.
And he had to see Katara for a while, too. He'd missed her. But she belonged to her people, and Aang would always be an outsider there, no matter how they welcomed him. He wasn't part of the water tribe. He was something else. Something alone.
The guru had long ago left the eastern temple. Aang didn't know what had happened to him. But that meant there was no one around to interrupt Aang as he made it habitable. That was more work, but he welcomed it. He needed to be doing something, or he felt restless.
But once he had both the temples settled, he had nothing else to do.
“I don't know what to do, Katara. I thought it would be good to see the temples full of life again. And it is. But I still feel a little empty.”
She gave him a hug, quickly followed by a kiss, and he felt a little better.
“They aren't air nomads,” he said sadly. “They're all lost.”
Katara sat with him for a while, and said: “You can't get back the monks, Aang. You knew that. But you've helped a lot of people. Without your help, they would be starving. Isn't that something to be proud of?”
“You need to stop dwelling in the past. You've made something new. It isn't the same as what you had, but it can be beautiful. It can be home. If you let it be.”
He leaned against her. He didn't cry, because he'd cried all the tears he had already, years ago. There was nothing left.
“There's never going to be anther airbender,” he said. “I'm the last one.”
“Don't be silly,” Katara said. “I mean- we might get married, someday. Our children could be airbenders.”
“I thought you said we were too young to think about that kind of thing.”
“That was a year ago. We're still a bit young, but... I mean, eventually. In another few years.”
“But they might not be airbenders. They might be waterbenders. Or not benders at all.”
“Maybe they'll be both. And even if they aren't- someday, there will be another. Grandchildren, or great grandchildren. And in another hundred years, who knows how many there'll be?”
“And if it happens too much later, I won't be able to teach them anymore. They'll be alone. “
Katara held him for a while more, and then she sat up abruptly. “Aang- you took away Ozai's firebending. Could you give airbending to others?”
Aang's mouth fell open. “I hadn't thought of that!”
“Would it work?”
He untangled their limbs and paced. “I think it could! I do! I need to-” he dashed out the door, then dashed in again for a moment. “I love you, Katara! I'll be back, okay?”
She smiled at him, and he was glad she was used to his impulsiveness.
He went to the northern air temple, and found Teo.
“Teo!” he said. Teo was in his glider chair, and if Aang didn't know better he would have mistaken him for an airbender already.
If Aang could do this at all, if it was even possible, he could give Teo airbending.
They flew through the air around each other, and it was more fun than Aang had had in weeks. He'd been working so hard that he hadn't played enough.
They landed, and Aang said: “Can I try something?”
Teo didn't even ask what Aang was going to do. He just agreed.
So Aang touched Teo's forehead, and found the spot in Teo's spirit where airbending would go. It was empty, and Aang reached out with some of his own power, and then- it wasn't that he filled the empty space. It was that something bloomed that had been dormant.
He opened his eyes, and Teo said: “What did you just do?”
“I think I just made you an airbender,” Aang said.
Teo picked up airbending amazingly fast. But then, he'd been using his glider chair for years. He'd grown up in the air. In a matter of two months, he had a firm grasp of the basics.
Aang gave airbending to anyone who asked. After all, every other nation had hundreds or thousands of benders. The air people needed more than a handful. Teaching took up a great deal of his time, but teaching airbending wasn't work. It was fun. He flew on his glider, and was followed by a group of others. The air temples were alive with benders.
Katara came to visit again, and she laughed in delight when she saw all of them up in the air.
“You look more alive when you're in the air,” she told him later. “All of you.” Her eyes sparkled, and he leaned in impulsively and kissed her.
“I think I want to marry you, Aang,” she said, as if it was an off-hand remark.
Aang's eyes widened.
“You said- in a year or two-”
“What, so you're the only one that gets to be impulsive?” She glared at him, but there was no real anger there. “I want to marry you, Aang. I'm tired of being at home while you go out and have adventures. I want to travel around with you. I love being part of the water tribe, you know that- but I need to be more than that. I'm not going to stay at home while you help the world.”
She gestured around, at the laughing children in the air. The gliders and the “You're doing amazing things, Aang. I want to be with you, and do those things with you.”
“But your tribe-”
“My tribe doesn't need me. We have four water benders now.”
“And you think we're old enough now?”
He didn't know why he voiced all of these objections. It was as if, now that she agreed with him, he couldn't quite believe she had thought it through.
“Why should we wait just because we're young? I know my own mind. You know yours. We're in love. It doesn't have to be complicated.”
She kissed him fiercely, and finally, Aang said: “I think I want to marry you, too, Katara.”
And that was that. Katara came with him after that.
The people at the temples put up banners with the symbol of the air nomads.
“I know we aren't air nomads,” Jet said, when he caught Aang looking at them sadly. “But- we aren't Earth Kingdom or Water Tribe or Fire Nation. We're something new. You showed us how to be. You gave us the temples, and gave us airbending. We're people of the air now.”
Aang looked at the banners, and they didn't seem wrong anymore. They were the banners of the people of the air, and they belonged there now.
He had planned to leave the last temple untouched, but he didn't.. He added dozens of pools of water. There were little waterfalls and huge fountains. It took weeks.
This was going to be a place where Katara would feel at home.
Then he opened it up the way he had opened up the other temples, until it was full of laughter and flying and streams of water flowing. There were waterbenders here as well as airbenders. It was a place for both of them. It wasn't the same as the air temples had once been. It wasn't like the poles. It was something new. But it wasn't empty any more. There were people here, and flowers, and laughter.
The last empty place was full. It had bloomed.