Summary: Eleven years after the battle against the Funshutsu…
Disclaimer: ATLA is the property of VIACOM and Nickelodeon. No profit is made by this story.
Notes: Again, I want to thank everyone who has read, reviewed, drawn fan-art, or otherwise encouraged me. Watch out for an AU called Stormbenders coming soon to an Author Alert subscription near you.
ELEVEN YEARS LATER
Katara's eyes opened slowly. Another creak. We really have to fix the lanai this summer. She quickly shut them again, feigned sleep. He advanced slowly, carefully, quietly, with his old stealth still in his footsteps. She made her breathing slow and even. A hand descended into her hair, traced the rim of her exposed ear, her jaw, moved to her mouth.
She gave him a little bite.
"Faker," Zuko said.
"Pervert," she said. "Honestly, Zuko, taking liberties with a lady while she's asleep?"
The skin around his good eye crinkled. "It's been a lonely week."
"That," she said, "is something we can both agree on."
He settled beside her on the divan. Slowly, he began unbuckling his boots as he stared out onto the farm. Orchards stood high on the plateau, now protected by a break of slender gold-birches. Sokka had cleared the four acres nearest the school and made it training-space: a miniature quarry for Toph and Saya to teach, a man-made lake for Katara and her assistants, a circle of sand for Iroh and Tom-Tom. At the far corner of the training ground, on its own little patch of grass, stood Sokka's ever-expanding workshop. If Katara squinted, she could see Teo hammering something on an anvil while a firebending student carefully blew on the metal to keep it pliable.
Zuko set his boots and socks aside, flexed his feet. He looped an arm around her shoulders and sighed, closed his eyes. "So," she asked, "how did it go?"
Eyes still shut, he leaned over and began kissing her neck. "Don't want to talk about it."
"That bad, huh?"
He pulled away, pinched his nose. He leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees. "They want me to hand the crown to Suzaku."
"We don't even know if she can bend, yet. She's too little."
"That's what I told them. But Kurzu's…" His hands briefly became fists. "'Not the Fire Lord's true son,' they said."
Katara made an indignant sound deep in her throat. "Those old goats can't bend half as well as Kurzu! Next time, I'm coming with you, and I'm telling those purist old fossils where to stick it!"
Zuko laughed. "Please do."
"I could make them all sign a decree of confidence for Kurzu. I could bloodbend their arms-"
"Sweetness," Zuko said. "Kurzu is twelve. We have time."
Katara hugged her arms. "Every time I think about this, I swear I get a rash."
"Maybe you need a bath," Zuko said, his fingers trailing up her spine.
She whirled on him. "Don't you dare try to distract me! This is our son's welfare we're talking about!"
"Our son is doing perfectly fine. He's having a lovely time. Look." Zuko pointed. He had an unerring eye for Kurzu's presence in a crowd, and could frequently pick him out from the other black-haired firebenders in a training squad. Currently, Kurzu stood beside the lake, pants rolled up to his knees, shirtless, blasting tiny fireballs at a waterbender named Pakak. Pakak quickly batted them away with a masterful rendition of a penta-pus. Katara sensed Zuko's attention perk up. "He does know how to pick them, doesn't he?"
Katara pinched him. "He's twelve!"
"Aang was twelve."
"This is different." She squinted. Kurzu tried again, seemed to miss on purpose. Pakak laughed and made a gesture that said What, again? and they resumed practice. "Isn't it?"
"You're as blind as Toph." He leaned back against the divan. "Is she a good student?"
"One of the best."
"Zuko. You said it yourself. He's young. Let's not go asking the calligrapher for invitations just yet."
Katara's palm met her face. "Instincts. Why does it always have to be about instincts?" She stood. "You want to meet Pakak? Let's go meet her."
"I don't want to meet Pakak. I want to go upstairs and make up for lost time."
Katara smiled. "I'm coming home with you. We'll have plenty of time then." She looked back at their son. "Kurzu just seemed a little off; I thought I should stay a little longer…"
"Of course he's a little off! He's infatuated!"
Her smile became a real grin. Unbeknownst to her husband, he sounded more like Iroh every day. The metamorphosis was rather beautiful to watch. "So do you want to meet your future daughter-in-law or not?"
Zuko levered himself off the divan. He squared his shoulders. "I would like to see my children."
Zuko dug his toes into the grass before taking her hand and letting her lead him toward the water. With each step he took, she sensed the tension leaving him. This fight with his ministers had existed almost since she had formally adopted Kurzu and married Zuko. Zuko maintained he had the right to name his own heir; his ministers claimed the Fire Nation needed the stability only a genuine royal bloodline could provide. Half of them still privately believed Kurzu to be Katara's own child; they simply wanted her and Zuko to expose a scandal that did not exist. Now Zuko took regular retreats to the All Nations Academy every month with Katara. He needed to hear the sea, he needed to see something green, otherwise he'd end up as tightly-wound as he was when she first met him.
Seeing their children also helped. "Dad!" Kurzu straightened up and smiled at his father. Distracted, he didn't see Pakak's water-whip headed straight for his ankles. A moment later, he was on the ground.
Smirking, Pakak looked up to see Zuko and Katara giving her a look. Her blue eyes went huge and suddenly she was bowing. "My Lord! My Lady! I'm sorry!"
Zuko helped his son up. "You'll have to watch out for this one, Kurzu."
"Thanks, Dad." Kurzu neatly side-stepped his father's attempts to smooth down the rough thatch of black hair springing from his head. He was already developing the square jaw common in Southern Water Tribe men -- Katara was oddly reminded of her own father -- and he remained smaller than most children his age. But when he filled out he'd be compact and solid.
"I'm sorry," Pakak repeated, still staring at the ground.
"Consider it training for Fire Nation politics," Zuko said. "You're quite skilled."
Pakak's ears burned. "Thank you, my Lord. Lady Katara is a very good teacher."
"You have no idea." Zuko turned to her. "How many times did you sweep me off my feet?"
"I can still sweep you off your feet."
"Are you challenging me?"
"Never," Katara said. She winked at Pakak. "It wouldn't do to injure your pride in front of all our students." Both children giggled.
Zuko sighed. "Pakak, my wife tells me it's Water Tribe custom that the woman is always right. Is this true?"
Pakak's teeth showed as she smiled. "I wouldn't know, my Lord. I'm from the Foggy Swamp."
"Pakak says I should try swamp-skiing," Kurzu said.
"Has Uncle Sokka told you his swamp-skiing story?" Katara asked.
"Well, there's a reason for that." Katara noticed that Pakak's eyes had wandered in the direction of her throat. She touched her necklace. "Would you like to see?"
Pakak blushed anew. "No, that's okay, I-"
"She likes showing it off," Zuko said, as Katara unclasped the necklace. She held it out for Pakak to take. The girl carefully lifted it from Katara's fingers. She examined the strand of smooth amethysts first, running them through her fingers, before staring at the pendant. It was a fat tear-drop of mottled violet rimmed in gold filigree. Katara watched the girl hold it up to the afternoon sunlight; the light exposed the intricate spatters of color inside the pendant -- blue, red, even gold.
"I've never seen a stone like this," Pakak said.
"Dad made it," Kurzu said. "Well, Dad and Mom. With stormbending."
"When lightning touches down, it can be very hot," Zuko said in his teacher-voice. "Sometimes, it fuses the earth into this substance. The oxides in the ground can make special colors."
"Minerals. Special kinds of rock. They get tilled up when an earthbender makes a big seam in the ground, like the one that helped start this lake."
Pakak smiled. "You made this here?"
"That's right," Zuko said.
"It was during a big fight," Kurzu added. "Dad and Mom were all-" he made a waterbending form, sent a tongue of fire spiraling skyward. "Only it was water, and all this lightning came down, and then-" He split the fire into a shuriken, kept it spinning. "And then it touched down and-"
"Everyone's heard the story, Kurzu," Zuko said, resting a hand on his son's shoulder. Kurzu's fire dissolved. "The good news is those people can't hurt us, any more."
"Yeah, because the White Lo-"
"Kurzu." The boy instantly clamped his lips shut.
Pakak squinted again at the pendant, then fixed Zuko with a look. "Um, I don't know if you know, but these are supposed to be carved."
Zuko threw his hands up. "There is no pleasing waterbenders! They-"
A high, thin scream sounded from the trees. Kurzu's eyes narrowed. "Suzaku."
The water seemed to launch him and Pakak both. They were off and running before Katara and Zuko could move. Their small arms knifed through the air as they charged toward the trees. Then Zuko was running, too, his bare feet pounding the grass flat. Katara took off after him. They crested the round of the hill and found Tom-Tom and Saya staring up at a creaking gold-birch. There in the tree was Suzaku, her dark curls askew, her amber eyes wide. She clung to the rough saffron bark of the tree. A wind came up and the tree groaned. Katara spied a rotten place where the tree had already begun to split.
Zuko turned to Tom-Tom. "How did she get up there?"
The firebending instructor looked guiltily at Saya. "We…"
Zuko growled. "I'll deal with you later."
Wind rattled the tree again; golden leaves drifted down and Suzaku shrieked: "Daddy!"
Zuko made to scale the nearest tree. "Suzaku! Stay there! Don't move!" The wind whistled. Katara heard splintering. Suzaku screamed. "Hang on, baby, I'm coming!"
But Pakak was zigzagging through the gathering crowd. Her slender, muddy foot connected with the bark above Zuko's head and she kicked away, arcing up and across. With the lightest of touches, she bounced from tree to tree. They stared up at her. Zuko backed away slowly. Katara stepped up to meet him. The wind rose. The tree swayed and their daughter cried. Blindly, Zuko reached behind him; their hands found each other and enlaced tightly. Pakak was still leaping; she pushed off the tree as though kicking off into water, her body twisting in mid-air as the tree snapped and their daughter fell into the waterbender's arms and Zuko's hand went to iron around Katara's. The tree fell with a shudder and a whisper of leaves; a quick-thinking Saya sent up two intersecting pillars of earth to break its fall. But Katara's eyes were on Pakak as she floated -- she floated -- down to earth.
Her heart hammered. Zuko's hand shook. Pakak's wet toes touched the grass and she let Suzaku -- her six-year-old face smeared with dirt and tears, her messy curls full of golden leaves -- slide down from her arms. Then Kurzu pushed forward and gripped Suzaku by the shoulders and shook her. In the silence of astonished children, he shouted: "Don't ever do that again, Suzaku! You could have really hurt yourself! How did you even-"
"Kurzu," Zuko said in a rough voice. Katara recognized it; he was holding back tears. "Let your sister go."
"Son." He spoke with his father-voice, soft and loving with just a hint of steel underneath. Sighing, Kurzu let Suzaku's trembling shoulders go. Pakak blinked down at them; Katara had vague memories of the waterbender being an only child. Their daughter promptly launched herself anew at her brother.
"I'm sorry! I promise I won't do it again! I thought I could climb it! Please don't be mad!"
"See, that's just cute," Katara heard Senzo say, and wondered how quickly Sokka's son had run there.
"It's shameful what a sap you are," said Tom-Tom. There was the sound of his twin hooks moving before he directed his voice to the other children. "All right, the distraction has passed; it's almost time for more lessons!"
A collective wail arose. "But Sifu Tom-Tom, Sifu Senzo…"
Saya joined in: "Move it!"
The three adults herded their charges away from the tree. But as they did, Senzo turned and cast a lingering look at his cousins. Then it was just Katara and Zuko and Pakak and their children. Suzaku continued sniffling. His cheeks pink, Kurzu patted her head. "I didn't mean to make you cry, Suzaku, I'm sorry…"
Suzaku risked a look at her father from very puffy eyes. "Am I in trouble?"
"Yes," Zuko said. "But you're also safe, and that's the most important thing." He opened his arms. He plucked the air with his fingers. Suzaku ran for him and jumped up. Zuko grunted as he lifted her, shutting his eyes briefly as he cradled her head against his neck.
"I love you, Daddy."
"I love you too, my darling." He tilted her chin up to face him. "But you're still in trouble. And you're too big for me to carry you." He set her down. Suzaku pouted and crossed her arms.
"Don't be that way, Suzaku," Katara said in a warning tone. "You should thank Pakak, and then we should think of something nice to do for her."
Pakak shifted weight. "Oh, that's all right, I'm just good at climbing…"
"Good at climbing," Zuko said. "Right." His funny little smile played across his face. He squeezed Katara's hand. "Whatever you say, Twinkletoes."
Kurzu turned to him. "Hey, how did you know about that? Aunt Toph said that was Pakak's secret codename!"
Katara was blinking hard. "Secret codename?"
"For late-night kitchen re-con," Kurzu said.
"What's re-con?" Suzaku asked.
"It means midnight snacks," Pakak said. Again, she blushed. "I mean, not that I would… Sifu Toph said…"
"Sifu Toph bends rules like they're mud," Zuko said. "She also loves her midnight snacks." He broke Katara's grip, bowed to Pakak, and saluted her. "It's a perfect nickname. And I am in your debt."
"Oh! Um…" Pakak tried to salute back. "Right. Sure."
Zuko rose. Katara saw him reach hesitantly for Pakak. He wanted to hug her, Katara could tell, but didn't want to frighten her. Instead he settled for plucking a twig from her hair. "I'm glad you're here," he said. "You're… You're a talented kid."
"Dad, you're embarrassing her," Kurzu said under his breath.
The bell gonged in its tower, announcing a shift between lessons and duties. "That's kitchen duty for us," Pakak said, clearly relieved at her chance to escape. "Come on, Kurzu."
"Man, I hate kitchen duty…" The boy trudged after her.
"Just be lucky I don't make you eat a giant bug!"
He brightened. "Giant bugs? There are giant bugs in the Foggy Swamp?"
"Boys are nasty," Suzaku said, watching her brother chase after Pakak.
"Shouldn't you be with Master Sho, practicing your writing?" Katara asked.
Suzaku made a face. "Do I have to?"
"That depends. Do you want to learn how to read, or do you want other people to do it for you for the rest of your life?"
Suzaku smiled. "Do it for me."
Their little girl sighed. "Master Sho is boring…"
"So are people who don't know how to write at all," Katara said. "Shoo."
Suzaku groaned in a very un-royal manner, and dragged her feet as she left. Zuko slid an arm around Katara's shoulders as they watched her go. Katara leaned against him and her hand found one of his pockets. Breath sighed out of them in the same moment. "So," Zuko said. "Twinkletoes."
"Could be a coincidence," Katara said.
"Or it could be destiny," Zuko said.
"You and your destiny…" She shook her head.
"I won't be laughed at by a woman who visited Aunt Wu on a repeat basis," Zuko said.
"She said I would marry a powerful bender! And she was right! Both times!"
He kissed her scalp. "Thank the sages for that." He leaned their heads together. "An Avatar would make a wonderful daughter-in-law-"
"I'm merely saying that-the Avatar and the Fire Lord have always shared their fate," Zuko said. His eyes darkened. "And sometimes more than that, too."
Katara pursed her lips. "All the more reason to hope our son doesn't get his heart broken when he realizes she belongs to the whole world, not just him."
"Ah, so you admit it could be her?"
Her hands met her hips. "You're impossible." Her head tilted. "Next you'll tell me that this whole school was part of some elaborate scheme to find the next Avatar, just so that we could all be her bending masters again."
Zuko smiled. "Who, me?" He looked back toward the school. "You know why we built this place. It's a place for the world's children to learn together, to encourage international cooperation and peace. It's a place our family can be together." He sighed. "It's the only kind of empire worth fighting for."
Katara slid her arm around his waist. "Very noble."
"It's also a good way to keep the other nations at bay, by keeping some of their children on Fire Nation soil."
"Well, there is that."
"And our students are certainly friendlier to Fire Nation interests than previous generations."
"We do keep them well-fed."
"And if you wanted to find the next Avatar-"
"Sweetness!" Zuko's good ear had pinked. "You make it sound like I laid out this school like Pai Sho board, planned all my moves, and executed a master plan." He took her hand. "We both know I'm not that clever."
"Iroh, though…" Zuko rocked on his toes. "He's a very intelligent man."
Katara squeezed his hand. "Well, it's a beautiful place," she said. "No conflict in eight years, happy kids, nice sunset over the ocean…a girl could get used to it."
He smiled. "You're so beautiful when you love the world."
Welcome to the Special Features portion of Ozai's Vengeance. Opinions expressed here are solely Fandomme's, and have not been approved by VIACOM, Nickelodeon, or Paramount, because she does not work for them and makes no profit from this story. Please feel free to disregard them, as they are surely the stuff of epic fannish wank.
Ozai's Vengeance (OV) is a very special story for me. It's probably the story I'm most proud of, because it's the hardest I've ever worked. I wrote it after taking stock of my previous stories and wondering how to fix the problems I saw there. I also wrote it after reading my share of Zutara and identifying a couple of commonalities: Katara's tendency to let others take control of her life via capture or arranged marriage or even slavery, and flagrant displays of Fire Nation wealth in a post-war era. Much of OV is about trying to invert all those characteristics: Katara insists on being included and has her own realm of influence and skill that extends beyond her capacity as a wife or mother, and the Fire Nation has real problems that stem from its past. (At least, that's what I was going for. You all can decide if I pulled it off.)
I also enjoyed having the chance to re-mix elements from canon into the story. There are numerous points at which Zuko and the others make reference to past events from canon in one way or another. Sometimes these are subtle, other times not so much. For example, the final battle chapter features Zuko resting a hand on his nephew's shoulder and staring at the sea, much as Zuko himself appears during the flashback sequences in "The Beach."
This story is all thanks to Mike and Bryan and the show's writers, to whom I am profoundly indebted. Without their world and their characters, none of this would be possible. So, guys, if you're reading, thanks. (And thanks for not suing me. I hope.)
It's also thanks to my husband. If you fell in love with Zuko, you fell in love with him. (But he's mine all miiiiiiiiine, and you can't have him. So there.)
You can expect most if not all of these elements that I personally invented within this series -- sky opals, secret passages, pneumatic locks, the Fire Nation vault, Ursa's house, stormbending -- in an upcoming Season 3 AU called Stormbenders, if and when I start it.
Things I Didn't Do:
There were several places I could have gone with this story that I didn't. Among them:
-Ending the story at Tetsushi.
-Kurzu as the Avatar. (Look for the clues. They're there.)
-Toppling the Fire Nation monarchy.
-Explaining in greater detail what happened to Mai, Ty Lee, and others. Someone asked me once to explain what had happened to Ty Lee: as far as I'm concerned, until canon tells me differently, she and her sisters have formed their own all-female traveling show, and it is quite popular in all three nations.
Things You Might Still Be Wondering:
-Suzaku is likely a waterbender. At least, Katara thinks she will be.
-Tom-Tom and Saya have chemistry. Tom-Tom goes on to become Kurzu's Iroh-figure, a playfully-sarcastic advisor.
-Kurzu may or may not fall for someone else once Pakak realizes the sacrifices inherent to being the Avatar, especially when Katara has a nice long conversation with him about what Aang's Avatar-hood did to their marriage.
-Pakak's name is the Inuit word for "one who is into everything."
-Sokka and Suki do adopt Sa Ming, and Sokka spoils her rotten.
-Iroh is still a stone fox, and is probably having lots of fun with Xiao Zhi.
Oh, and About the Funshutsu:
Rather than beginning a long, unwinnable quagmire of a war with insurgents originally from the Earth Kingdom, Zuko chose to let the White Lotus' Earth Kingdom branches know about it. All traces of the Funshutsu died within three years.