Well folks, it's been a wild ride, but all good things must come to an end. Thanks for sticking around and reading this series! I immensely enjoyed tickling your funny bones, and thwacking mine real good every now and again so I'd be inspired to churn out the shits and giggles.
"What the— Sokka? The royal box seats are reserved for royalty!" Zuko barked irately.
The Water Tribe warrior pouted. "And Katara's the Fire Lady, making me—"
"Absolutely nothing! Get out of our private box!" Zuko yelled.
"Oh, just let him stay, Zuzu. There's plenty of room." Azula, having changed out of her hideous bridesmaid's dress and burned it, stuffed another handful of fire flakes into her mouth and offered them across her brother's lap to Katara. The new Fire Lady politely declined, stifling a yawn and rubbing sleep out of her eyes.
"Really, nephew, Sokka's your brother-in-law now." Iroh gestured at the concierge to bring another chair. "He's family. Show some respect."
Sokka grinned triumphantly and wedged himself between Iroh and Aang, the only non-family member given special status to attend the event in the royal box.
Growling and grinding his teeth, Zuko began counting backwards from one hundred. The young Fire Lord's blood pressure had been going steadily up ever since the end of the war, and the royal physicians had warned him against losing his explosive temper so frequently.
Aang washed his palms over his haggard face, looking a little worse for wear. Dark circles ringed his eyes. Upon closer inspection, one could discern a crescent of red scores on the side of his neck. The young Fire Lord didn't ask, but he could've sworn those were bite marks.
The Avatar yawned hugely. "Man, why did your mom have to schedule this thing so early, anyhow? I mean, I know you all 'rise with the sun' and stuff, but I barely got any sleep last night…" he swiftly clamped his mouth shut as Azula bent forward and waggled her eyebrows suggestively at him. The young monk turned a becoming shade of bright pink.
No one seemed to notice this exchange.
"Tactical advantage, possibly," Zuko responded to Aang's question seriously. "Father won't have had time to recover his full strength after last night."
Azula added: "That, and it's more dramatic to say 'Agni Kai, at sunrise!' rather than 'Agni Kai, an hour after breakfast!'"
"Hey guys," Toph shuffled in, yawning, and sidled up next to Aang. "Did I miss anything?"
Zuko snapped around, eyes wide. "How'd you get past the guards? This is a private booth!"
Toph shrugged. "Dunno."
Zuko seethed, drawing patience from his inner well of strength.
The Earthbender leaned down and smilingly whispered something in Aang's ear that made him flare to the colour of a tomato. Sensing the princess nearby by the fluttering of her heart, Toph waved in Azula's general direction. The Fire girl blew her a kiss back with twisted lips (not that Toph could see it).
No one seemed to notice this exchange, either.
The blind girl turned her attention to the stadium below. "I can kinda feel someone's out there, but there's too much sand on the dueling pitch. Is it Ozai?" Toph asked.
"No, it's Ursa. She's just doing some warm-up stretches," Katara explained.
Toph curled her toes on the cold stone floor, evaluating the vibrations coming from below. "Hefty gal under all her robes, ain't she?"
"Big boned," Iroh explained demurely. "But don't underestimate that extra bulk. She's fast, and packs quite a wallop."
"Is… is that even physically possible?" Sokka stood up from the chair, bending sideways at the waist as he watched the Fire Matron arch lithely backwards. Not even Ty Lee could pull that move off without dislocating a few things.
"Pretty spry for an old lady," a voice next to Azula offered. "She's pretty hot, too."
Zuko looked over just in time to see Jet saunter in and sling himself over a chair next to the princess. The Firebender smacked his forehead with the heel of his palm.
"Jet? What the… no, scratch that. Who the hell's on guard duty?" he bellowed over his shoulder.
"Relax, Zuzu. I invited him," Azula waved him off, sounding utterly bored.
Everyone stared at her.
Azula shrugged. "For kicks?"
Zuko took a cleansing breath and muttered to himself. I am at peace. I am on a tropical island on the clean blue sea, alone with my wife… I am somewhere—anywhere—that isn't hosting this collection of cretins and their conspiracy to drive me slowly insane…52…51…50…49…
The lanky Freedom Fighter smirked over at the Fire Lord, shifting the ever-present stalk of grass to the other side of his mouth and taking a handful of fire flakes from the bowl in Azula's lap. He slid one gangly arm around the Fire princess's shoulders and began whispering sweet nothings in her ear. She chuckled, rolling her eyes as though whatever he'd just said was the corniest thing she'd ever heard, and playfully shoved him away.
Sokka and Katara all glared daggers at the Freedom Fighter. Toph smiled wryly at a potted plant to Jet's right. Aang refused to look at him at all, and was now the deepest shade of vermillion human flesh could achieve.
No one seemed to notice this strange reaction, either.
"Well, looks like it's going to be a full house," Iroh remarked, breaking the icy tension in the private box. They surveyed the arena, an outdoor recreational facility with a simple sand-covered pitch that had lines marked into the dirt for use in the hot new game "Redemption." The stadium was also occasionally used for Agni Kais.
The stands were packed. Peasants from the Fire Nation capital who had heard about the duel filled the standing-room-only nosebleed mezzanine. The lower levels were jammed to capacity with last night's wedding guests, most of them still in their banquet finery since they hadn't bothered to go home. After all, no one wanted to miss the greatest fight of the century. Well, second greatest, next to Aang & Co. vs. Ozai I, that is.
"Meh, I've seen bigger crowds at Earth Rumbles," Jet remarked languidly.
Sokka took the bait and snapped. "If you can't appreciate the fine art of Agni Kai, then get out."
"Like you know the finer points of fire duels?" Azula snickered.
The Water boy narrowed his eyes at his sister-in-law. "Don't make me dance with you again."
Azula laughed, a deep, rich sound that raised goose bumps on everyone's necks. Jet hugged her a little more possessively and glowered at Sokka.
"Zuko," Katara put a hand on her husband's elbow, "Your mother's not really going to kill your father, is she?"
Zuko's face betrayed no emotion. "I'm pretty sure she is," he said. "She invoked a duel to win back honour for our family—" he turned, smiling crookedly "—and you know how serious we are about our honour."
"But… he's her husband." Katara fidgeted, tugging at her braid. "Zuko…you'd never kill me in Agni Kai, would you?"
He cocked his one eyebrow at her. "Do you plan on challenging me for the throne?"
"Feel the need to insult my honour?"
"Plan on calling my mother any number of nasty things?"
Katara paused in deep thought. "I hope not."
Choosing to ignore the long, hesistant pause after his last question, Zuko relaxed into a smile. "Then no."
Suddenly, Aang shot out of his seat, excited as a little boy on his birthday. "Guys! Here comes Ozai!"
Everyone in the stands rose on their toes to get a better look as the despondent-looking ex-Fire Lord shuffled into the arena, manacled and surrounded by a dozen guards. Breaching Agni Kai decorum, people broke the terse, solemn silence and began hissing and booing at the man who had nearly ruined the previous evening's festivities…not to mention the whole world.
Only one person did not pay this man any attention: Ursa was crouched at the ready at the other end of the dueling pitch, her standard draped over her bare shoulders exposed above her Agni Kai halter top. A serene, secretive smile graced her lips.
Ozai was released from his chains, and the dozen troops who had escorted him in lined the far wall to prevent his escape. One soldier placed the Fire Nation standard over his shoulders and roughly shoved him down into a ready crouch facing away from his wife. It was hard to tell, but the ex-Fire Lord was trembling.
The crowd settled and silence descended like a heavy blanket. The blood-red sun inched up over the horizon, Agni's bloated crimson eye sleepily floating up to bear groggy witness over the proceedings.
Ozai seemed to be muttering to himself and fidgeting with the waistband of his pants. But whatever he was going to try, it wouldn't work here: he was literally going to be toast.
A gong sounded, marking the start of the match, and Ursa smoothly got to her feet, the banner slipping from her sinewy shoulders, fluttering noiselessly to the ground. Ozai remained crouched at the other end of the pitch.
"What's he doing?"
Azula sneered. "Stalling. Your opponent can't attack you while you stay in the ready position with your back turned. It's considered dishonourable otherwise."
"Of course, it's an act of cowardice to keep on in the ready position," Iroh added, chuckling.
The ex-Fire Lord continued to squat there, working furiously at his wide waistband of his pants, whispering fervently to himself like the half-mad deposed ruler he was.
Overcome with impatience, Ursa snarled and stalked the length of the arena toward her estranged husband. "Come Ozai! Arise and fight!"
"I won't fight you!" he shouted like a petulant child over his shoulder.
The Fire Matron paced forward until she was only five feet away from her opponent. "You will fight me for your honour. Now get up!"
"No." Then the shuddering of his shoulders stilled. Ozai slowly got to his feet, the standard sliding away as though he were sloughing off a skin. Ursa filled her hands with blue fire, taking an offensive stance, her features twisting into a cruel smirk. The resemblance to Azula was unmistakable now.
"I won't fight you, Ursa," Ozai said lowly. "I won't fight you because…because…"
The crowd strained forward, gleefully awaiting the moment he turned to be incinerated into a piece of crispy jerky.
Ozai steadied himself. "Because you're my wife. And I love you."
He turned then, brandishing something in his hand. He held it at arm's length to Ursa and she stared at it. The fire in her palms died. Bewildered whispers rustled through the rapt audience.
"What is that?"
"What's he holding?"
"Why isn't she blasting him?"
A flurry of emotions slid through Ursa's face as she stared at the thing in her husband's tremulous grip. Her eyes finally moved to his face.
"Ozai…" she breathed. "A panda lily…?"
"Not just any panda lily, my love. This is the first flower I ever gave you, while we were courting. I had it pressed and preserved years ago, before we were married."
The woman's eyes brightened with unshed tears and her lips trembled. "I thought the servants had thrown it out…" she reached out and cupped the flower in her hands. "And you had it all this time…?"
Ozai launched into the confession of his life. "I love you, Ursa. I loved you so much, I didn't know what to do after you left. I didn't know why you'd gone, or what I'd done to drive you away…no, wait, that's a lie. I did know what I'd done to drive you out, but still….
"I was beside myself with grief, rage, fear… And I took it out on the children, on the world, and I was so wrong to do that…so very wrong. I can see that now. But I was so madly in love with you then, I couldn't deal with the loss. I loved you, I still love you…"
"OH, COME ON! KILL HIM ALREADY!" Iroh shouted from the stands.
Ozai fell to one knee, his expression open and mooning and...hopeful. "Marry me again, my love. We'll start over, begin a new life. No war, no kids to hold us back…"
"HEY!" Zuko and Azula cried indignantly.
"…We'll go away for a second honeymoon. To Kyoshi, or Ba Sing Se, or even the Northern Water Tribe! You've always said you wanted to go there, right?"
"Take her to Omashu!" Bumi crowed from a distance. "It'll ROCK her world!"
Ursa's delicate mouth gaped. Her brow furrowed, but one by one, the creases of fury were smoothing over, her lips curling slowly upwards into a blatantly girlish grin of glee. Fat tears of joy spilled over onto her blushing cheeks.
"Oh no…" Iroh buried his face in his palms.
"Oh, Ozai!" Ursa threw herself into her husband's arms as he surged up to receive her, and hugged him tightly. "Yes, my love, I will marry you again! We'll go away and start over and really make it work this time!"
"I love you, my sweet, precious Ursa." Ozai held her tightly, then lifted her up at the waist and spun her around before bringing her back down for a long, passionate kiss.
The pitch of the crowd's "Awwwww" oscillated between saccharine approval and resentful disappointment.
Aang shot out of his chair, throwing his hands up in the air in disgust. "That's IT! If he tries to take over the world again, I'm blaming your mom." He jabbed Zuko in the chest with his finger. "And when that happens, DON'T call me!" He stomped away muttering profanities that would have made a pirate blush.
Toph groaned. "I'm getting outta here before they start making out." She followed Aang.
Sokka's jaw hung slack. "Did she…? She just…? And he…?" He stammered, and his face went crimson. "I PAID GOOD MONEY TO SEE THIS! I WANT TO SEE BLOOD! BLOOD, I SAY! BOOOOOO!" He shrieked.
"Hmph. Pretty smooth talker," Jet idly munched another handful of fire flakes. "I'll have to ask him about that panda lily thing sometime."
Azula huffed. "I can't believe she fell for that… that sentimental CRAP!" She folded her arms over her chest in disgust. "For once—just once—I wish this family would have a domestic fatality!"
Zuko cradled his throbbing head, squeezing his eyes shut, rocking back and forth ever so slightly, moaning. "She'd better not ask him to move back in with us. Please Agni, don't let her ask Father to move back in…"
Katara wiped a tear out of her eye, touched by romantic scene below. "But they're so sweet together. And it would be great to have your whole family back together, don't you think? I mean, doesn't everyone deserve a happy ending?"
The young Fire Lord stilled and peered up at her, and his haggard features smoothed over. He slowly smiled, feeling the swell of pride and contentment this perfect, wonderful, absolutely-made-for-him young woman inspired in him.
"You know, that's why I love you. You look at the world and you see all the happy, shiny, sparkly, beautiful things about it…" he stroked her cheek lovingly "…before it all goes to hell." He rose and took her hand, leading her out of the stadium.
"Zuko? Where are you going?" Iroh asked.
"To bed." He draped an arm around Katara's waist, his hand sliding down her spine to her buttocks. She grinned mischievously up at him and squeezed him tighter as Zuko gave his uncle a pointed, arch look. "Nodisturbances."
Thanks to everyone who laughed and encouraged me to write this, especially storybender, who got the ball rolling on this series simply by requesting it; also to Ambrant Arandel, Rashaka, and all the others who helped to contribute their ideas, jokes, suggestions, speeches, and the +1,300 reviews I got for this series up to the point I wrote this note. I would not and could not write without your continued support and criticism.
For those of you waiting, I swear I am working on the sequel to Bent, but I'm also working on a modern AU Zutara at the same time, plus a number of other drabbles and things. Really, I'm waiting to see what will happen at the end of the season before forging on ahead with a bunch of other projects, but I am also trying to step into the realm of regular fiction, so if I disappear for a while…well…
Best Wishes and Fishes, Vicki So.