A Royal Drink
T for Teen
Summary: After the final battle, Zuko celebrates with his father's private reserve. Katara & Zuko Part Three of the Drinks series.
Spoilers: Season 3 trailer?
Disclaimer: ATLA belongs to Nickelodeon, not me. No profit is made by this story.
Zuko could think of no more fitting location for the final conversation between himself and his father than the scene of their last one: the Agni Kai arena at the royal palace. Fate seemed to agree. Zuko stood facing his father's back, watching the older man launch volley after volley of flame at Aang. Aang dutifully avoided each attack. Under Zuko's instruction, the Avatar had mastered the curious style of firebending known only to Zuko and Iroh: Ozai deflected fire in the shape of tidal waves and water whips, burst through whirlpools of roaring flame, watched the world tilt beneath him as the Avatar sent the wind under his feet. But Sozin's Comet had done well by Ozai, and the Fire Lord fought with the energy of a man half his age and the cunning of one who thought nothing of killing his own father. Perhaps worried about the Avatar State, Aang had yet to surrender completely to the comet's power. He was losing.
Something exploded nearby. Zuko ducked. Dead Yu Yan archers fell to the blackened earth below. Zuko caught a glimpse of a flying machine – Teo, perhaps, or Longshot and Smellerbee in their modified two-seater. They, Sokka, and Appa had formed the airborne division in the Avatar's strike-force. Zuko wondered if Sokka had achieved his dream of getting Appa to shit all over the war balloons. Somehow, he doubted it.
The explosion had opened a mighty crack in the arena's eastern wall. Through it, Zuko spied Katara engaged in furious combat with Li and Lo. Abstractly, he noticed her unusual beauty: hair loose and curled with sweat, teeth gritted in fury, feet and legs strong and lovely as mandrake roots. She had claimed the old women after hearing what their lightning had done to Hakoda and Master Pakku's ships just moments before the eclipse. Now Azula's former mistresses had Katara backing away from the turtleduck pond. Katara sent ice arrows at them, but they batted them away like flies. She iced over the earth at their feet, but the sisters simply melted it away. They sent twin bolts of sizzling light at her face. She barely summoned a wall of dirty ice in time. My sister was a monster, and she learned at the feet of demons. He was halfway to the crack in the wall when he remembered the needle in his leg, and his personal mission. If I see you in the Spirit World, you and I will send Azula's ghost to Koh the Face Stealer together.
He had acquired the needle while trying to find Katara and stumbling into a grudge match between Suki and Mai and Ty Lee. "Stay out of it, Sparky," the Kyoshi warrior had said. "I've got a score to settle." It was enormously stupid of her and he had said as much, and in that moment Mai embedded three barbs in his leg. He had pulled two, but the third had snapped off inside him. It burrowed there, spiky and painful under the skin beyond his fingers' reach.
"Guess you won't be seeing the waterbender after all," Mai had said, as his vision began to blur.
"Get out of here!" Suki said, and shoved him out of the way. He had dragged himself each step of the way, colors kaleidescoping within his view as the poison took effect. You're no use here, Sparky. Toph had said that. She had stood clad in stones with her new steel-benders at her side: the Boulder, the Mole, and a strange fellow calling himself Fire Nation Man who sang as he hurled rocks and sent Dai Li agents flying. "Go find Twinkletoes and Sugar Queen," she had said. "We'll be right behind you."
But they weren't behind him. They hadn't followed. And now he crouched here under the arches of the arena, his birthright crumbling in flames, watching his father beat up on yet another young boy. Breathing was difficult. He sensed the current of comet-endowed power flowing hot and bright like lava inside him, and he dipped into it just to stand and shout: "Father!"
Ozai turned. Satisfaction lit up his features. "Zuko."
"You can kill the Avatar later," Zuko said. "Avenge your daughter now."
"Zuko, no!" Aang shouted. "Don't do this!"
"Leave us alone, Aang." Zuko stepped into the arena and shrugged off his armor and swords. He unwound his shirt and cast it away. "I'm here to finish something."
"Zuko!" Aang's cries died as the Fire Lord sent a stream of lightning his way. Aang crashed into the opposite wall and fell. Zuko watched him long enough to see the faint rise and fall of his chest, then turned his attention to his father.
"The Avatar fights well for a boy taught by a coward," Ozai said. "Maybe if you had succeeded the day of the eclipse, I wouldn't have to destroy him."
Zuko ignored the mention of their earlier failure. He licked his lips. "You killed my mother."
Ozai's eyes flickered. "She got in the way."
"She died defending me!"
"Then her life was a waste!" Ozai sent a ball of fire at him. Zuko could barely duck and roll away. His limbs moved so slowly now. He opened himself to the comet's power and it surged within him. He directed a whip of fire at his father's feet. The other man jumped.
"More waterbender tricks, I see," Ozai said. He smirked. "What else has she taught you?"
How to stop seeing what you did to me every time I look at myself. "Everything you'll never know," Zuko said, and formed a penta-pus of flame above his head. It spun and as he walked forward, and with a heave of his breath he sent it to batter his father. It forced Ozai to the ground. Zuko kept walking.
"I thought that was Iroh's job," Ozai said. A ball of lightning crackled in his hands. Ozai's long hairs began to lift and stand up on their own. "But I hear Azula cut him down before he could really teach you anything."
Lightning shot from Ozai's fingertips. Zuko watched for the beam and plucked it out of the air. In, down, across, and out. Energy scorched his fingers and sent a smoking black trail up the milky marble walls. Zuko's heart began to race. It thudded painfully inside him. Horrified, he watched his father flex his fingers and stand up. Ozai smiled and Zuko fell to his knees. He clutched his chest. I did it wrong. I'm going to die. Ozai's feet invaded Zuko's clouding vision. Zuko's breath came ragged. His left arm was going numb. Stars danced before his eyes. Ozai's fingers plunged in Zuko's hair and pulled.
"I see you've learned respect at last," Ozai said, pushing Zuko's face into the dirt.
Zuko blinked and saw his father's toes. Blood lay under the toenails. Ozai had kicked someone until they bled. Break his root, Iroh's voice said clearly in Zuko's mind. Tears filled his eyes. Thank you, Uncle. He sat up on his knees and almost vomited. "You're right, Father. I have learned something in my exile."
He moved with the speed only the Blue Spirit could muster, and slid the old Earth Kingdom dagger between Ozai's toes. Instinct told him to twist it. A triangular hole opened in Ozai's flesh. Blood bubbled up. "Never give up without a fight."
Ozai's gaze dropped to his feet. He tried lifting his foot, but it stayed in place. He almost lifted the other one, but Zuko drew a deep breath and thought: This is why they called him the Dragon of the West. Blue flame erupted from his lips and landed on his father's feet. Zuko watched them blacken and char. The skin curled and burst under the white heat. Ozai screamed. Zuko heard a rushing sound and suddenly he was blown backward, straight into the fallen bodies of the Yu Yan archers. Pain ripped through his chest. He looked down. An arrow angled through his body oddly. His fall must have pushed it through when he crashed into a hastily-drawn bow.
Ozai was laughing. He lifted one bloody, smoking stump. "You are my son, Zuko," he was saying. "Truly, you are my loyal son."
Zuko opened his mouth to speak but tasted blood. Distantly, he heard screaming. Katara. He couldn't move his head any longer. The poison. Mai, you've done what my father could not. His eyes fell shut.
"OZAI!" Aang's voice, but also not Aang's voice. A thousand voices and the sound of wind. Zuko forced his eyes open. He saw a brilliant blue glow and smiled. Good work, Aang. Now kill him. There was a roar, and the world went black.
"But why did he call me La-La?"
Zuko rode a dragon high above the ruins of his former home. Up here everything was small. Even he was small. He looked and saw a child's hands, touched his face and felt smooth, unblemished skin. The dragon was cool to the touch. Its scales glittered with Fire Nation gold. It slithered through the sky and shot Earth Kingdom copper pieces from its mouth. They rained down and he thought of poor people catching them and laughed. It barrel-rolled and he saw Water Tribe coins flashing under its wings. Clinging to its head, Zuko peered down into the dragon's eyes. They were black, hollow, and empty.
"That's right," he said, "Air Nomads didn't use money."
But then the dragon turned to tea leaves – whisper-soft and dry, green and gold and black – and it disintegrated. The leaves formed a sweetly-scented cloud above him as he fell and he said: "I could use a cup of tea."
His eyes opened. Stars flickered above. Someone had covered him in his shirt and left one of his hands resting on his swords. Toph sat beside him, picking a scab off her knee with one hand. Her other held his hand. "Nice of you to join us, Fire Lord."
He tried moving his fingers inside hers. "Katara."
Toph's sightless eyes rolled. "Sugar Queen's fine. She asked me to watch over you. I told her it was pointless-" Toph waved a hand before her useless eyes "-but she wouldn't listen. So hurry up and shake it off, so I can go join the party."
He blinked. "I'm still in the arena."
"Score one for the super-genius."
"Katara healed me?"
"The firebender goes two for two! Nice work, Sparky." She shifted, but Zuko held her hand.
Toph shrugged. "You know. Doing the Avatar thing. Keeping the peace. Freaking out about Appa's foot."
"He caught an arrow in there."
Zuko nodded. His lips hurt terribly. A thought occurred to him: "Is Sokka-"
"Sokka's fine. Do you think he'd let you take all the glory? Come on." She shrugged again.
Toph looked at the ground. Zuko bit his tongue and silently asked his uncle to look after the Kyoshi warrior's spirit. "Damn Mai and Ty Lee both, then."
"Don't worry. Sokka and Katara took care of them." She smiled a little. "They each had their reasons, I guess."
Zuko nodded. He tried to imagine Katara killing Mai and the image wouldn't form. Instead he saw Mai sitting in the fountain in his mother's garden, annoyance and shame all over her pale face clear as water. His throat hurt and he had to catch his breath. He closed his eyes and squeezed Toph's hand. "You," he said.
"What about you? Are you hurt?"
"Nice of you to finally ask," Toph said. She pointed at her neck. Ugly purple bruises stood out on her throat. She swallowed. "Long Feng tried to choke me with those Dai Li manacle things and I sort of passed out, but it's all good." She grinned. "King Bumi showed up. Said he just had to see me lose our bet with his own eyes."
"Whether I could take Long Feng down on my own," Toph said. "I mean, I was just about to bend the manacles away, but no, Bumi just had to show up and ruin everything."
Zuko almost laughed. "Did he say what took him so long?"
"Snacks. He was buying snacks for the victory party. That's what he said."
Zuko stared at the stars. "But… How did he… If he wasn't…"
"He's a mad genius, Sparky. Let it go." Toph tugged on his hand. "Can we go to the party now? I'm really hungry."
Groaning, Zuko sat up. A wave of dizziness hit him and he had to count to three before he stood. Even then, he shook on his feet and Toph slid an arm around him. It hurt to breathe. He could still feel where the arrow had pierced him. Trying to control his breath, he took a look around the arena. A deep, black pit scarred the earth where he last remembered his father standing. "Is Ozai in that hole?"
Zuko swallowed. There was something he had to do. Just thinking about it was enough to turn his stomach. There was no way he could complete the task in his current state. "Right." He turned away and squeezed her small shoulder. "I need you to help me find something."
"You do remember that I'm blind, right?"
"Do you want inside the royal vault, or not?"
"It's called ryu-nyuu," Zuko said. He took Toph's hand and touched it to the dragon-shaped bottle. "Legend has it that Sozin's own grandfather spent years perfecting the recipe. Since then, it's been made only for the royal family."
Toph snorted. "You brought me all this way just to get alcohol? I could have been at the party!"
"You can address your adoring public later," Zuko said. He looked around him. They stood in an underground vault beneath the war chamber. Zuko had his back to an open, circular door adorned with golden dragons. A second golden door led to a secret exit through the royal apartments. Gem-encrusted weapons hung beside suits of ancient ceremonial armor and chests of what Zuko guessed was gold. Even his mother's wedding robe was here: someone had draped the golden silk over a dress-maker's mannequin and placed the ruby-dotted headdress over it. "Pick something."
Toph tapped her foot. "What, you mean from in here?"
"That's the idea."
She folded her arms. "Are you giving everyone presents, or just me?"
Zuko found the idea of allowing Sokka to plunder his father's vault both repellent and appealing. The others, though… "Everyone," he said. "I'll give everyone a gift."
Toph nodded and scratched her nose. "I've already got money," she said. "And I'm not too big on jewels."
"Perhaps a marble statue of Azula?" Zuko asked. "You could blast it apart."
Toph paced the small room. Her hands ran over things as she passed: ornate armoires full of fine silk, a turquoise-inlaid bow, gilt-edged maps. "You don't think you could write a letter to my parents telling them that I'm not their fragile little princess, could you?"
"I could, but I doubt it would make a difference."
She sighed. "Yeah. It probably wouldn't. Even when they found out that I was a champion earthbender -- that the Avatar wanted to be my student -- they still thought of me as this tiny little baby who needed their protection."
Zuko looked at the darkening bruises on her slender throat and decided to remain silent. Toph rarely needed rescuing. When she did, it came from kings. It's a good thing Bumi crushed Long Feng. I've killed enough Dai Li in my time. Toph took a deep breath and pointed. Her finger nearly jabbed a jade urn -- Zuko reached for it at the last moment to avoid having ashes spill everywhere. "That's why you're going to grant me citizenship, Sparky."
He frowned and re-settled the urn. "Citizenship?"
"That's right. The passport, the jury duty, all of it. I don't want to go back to the Earth Kingdom. I'd rather make my own way here."
Running away from what they think of you won't help. "There's less earth for you to bend here."
She snorted. "I've bent rocks. Your navy could use a good steelbender."
"I'll be less inclined to give you citizenship if you keep insulting our navy."
"Oh come off it, Sparky. Do I get the papers or not?"
He thought of his uncle's hand on his shoulder as they faced the sea, and he was glad she couldn't see his face. He cleared his throat. "It will be my first official document as Fire Lord."
"Nice," Toph said. "Now, can we party?"
"Your first act as a Fire Nation citizen can be to escort me there."
"It's called ryu-nyuu," Zuko said for what felt like the hundredth time. "It's a drink traditionally reserved for Fire Nation royalty. Have some."
The burly man standing before him eyed the liquor suspiciously, then threw it back in one gulp. Zuko saw heat rise in his face. "The Boulder's mouth…is on fire," the earthbender said, and he ran toward the nearest pitcher of sweet chuhai.
Three drinks ago, Zuko would have agreed with this sentiment. His first sip of the liquor made him wonder if perhaps the drink had gone rancid. It burned his tongue so thoroughly that he wondered if he'd be able to taste properly again. Concerned, he had asked the palace's head chef -- a terrified man covered in sweat and oil who didn't seem sure if he should kneel to his new Lord or run for the hills -- to sniff the liquor. The chef said it was fine. Then he made some noises about the Avatar wanting more egg custard, and Zuko waved him away.
The party, if it could be called that -- for it was more a gathering of hungry, tired, wounded people telling each other stories that got progressively less believable each time -- was only just starting. Aang had just been pried away from Appa's side. Now he sped around the dining hall on his air scooter with a plate piled high with desserts. "Have you seen Katara?" Zuko asked as he passed.
Aang's face fell. He slid off his scooter. "I think she's still healing the wounded."
Zuko nodded. "Of course." He risked another look at Aang. There were crumbs and ashes in his hair, and Zuko had to restrain himself from picking them out. That's the boy who killed my father. In one corner of the room, a man wreathed in flowers began strumming his instrument and singing: "Two lovers, forbidden from one another / A war divides their people, and a mountain divides them apart…"
"Wow," Aang said. A faint blush tinged his cheeks. "That song really takes me back." He shifted the plate in his hands and rubbed the back of his neck. "Zuko?"
"Do you love Katara?"
The bottle of ryu-nyuu slipped from Zuko's hands and he had to reach quickly to grab it. His mind flashed helplessly to late nights and furtive touches and the way her eyes closed as she dipped her toes into bathwater he'd warmed himself. "Yes," he said. He straightened his shirt.
"Are you going to marry her?"
"I don't know."
Aang's eyes widened. He set the plate aside and grabbed Zuko's sleeve. "What do you mean, you don't know? How can you not know? I thought you loved her!"
"I do," Zuko said. "But whether she'll have me is another matter."
"Oh." Aang's hands fell. "Well, she isn't sixteen yet. Princess Yue had to be sixteen -- that's what Sokka said, anyway."
"I know," Zuko said. He adjusted his cuffs. "Katara and I have discussed it."
Too late, Zuko realized this might be the worst thing to say. Katara had not been a rift between them in some weeks -- "I'm not a thing to be won," she had said, "and I'm not talking to either of you until you stop this fighting," -- but Aang catching them holding hands and Aang understanding that they talked about a life together in their few private moments were two different things. Not that they had strategy sessions on the subject, just little hints here and there: "You're wearing your hair like a Fire Nation lady." "I thought it might come in handy."
"You're smiling," Aang said. "You must be really happy."
Zuko wiped the smile from his face. "Ozai is dead. The people we love are safe. It's hard not to be happy."
Aang's head tilted. "He was your dad, Zuko. It's okay for you to be sad."
Zuko uncorked the ryu-nyuu and sucked some back. Spices and heat flooded his throat, his head, his stomach. He sighed and golden flame eased past his teeth. "I'm fine," he said. "I have work to do."
With that, he left. He passed servants with downcast eyes and Water Tribesmen who clapped him on the back and thanked him for the food in between congratulations. He felt Aang's eyes on his back until a voice called out "Master Arrowhead! Come join us!" By then, he had pushed through the curtains and into a sea of wounded: the great hall -- what remained of it -- was a triage. Men and women in Fire Nation livery carried bowls of water and towels. Katara stood at the far end of the room, in the shadow of a huge blown-glass Agni whose glittering jaws seemed ready to devour her. She caught sight of him, and pointed to the remaining wounded: I'm busy. He waved a hand: It's all right. I'll find you later.
He found Sokka first. He sat in the war chamber facing Ozai's throne with a sword in one hand and a jug of something in the other. The Water Tribeman had pushed his mask far back on his head. Tears and blood and sweat had streaked the paint on his face. Dirt blackened his fingernails. "I hate you," he said.
Zuko leaned against a red pillar. "Do you?"
Sokka turned to him. His eyes glistened. "Sometimes, yeah, I really do." He sniffed hard. "I mean, I was talking to your old man just now, but sometimes I could just…" Sokka made a strangling motion with both hands.
"Kill me?" Zuko asked.
"Yeah," Sokka said. "But I don't want to joke about stuff like that any more. I don't think I can." He held his hands up. "I just buried Suki." His hands shook and the sword dropped from them. The jug fell and rolled away. Clear fluid drained away to a puddle on black marble tile. "I found a nice spot…under a moon-peach tree…"
"My mother's garden," Zuko said.
Sokka's breath caught in his throat. He curled his knees to his chest. He sobbed quietly into his knees and Zuko wondered what to do. The last time he had cried had been as he rode away from Ba Sing Se in the rain. He had been covered in Azula's blood and carrying a teapot meant for Iroh, and wondering how to explain himself to the Avatar. The memory made his eyes prickle, but he blinked hard and moved to sit beside Sokka.
"Don't," Sokka said.
"Fine," Zuko said. But he didn't leave before righting Sokka's jug and poured a measure of the ryu-nyuu into it. "This is ryu-nyuu," he said. "It's for men who have proved their worth."
On his way to his old room, he found brushwork hangings of Ozai and Azula. They were beautiful likenesses: Azula's heart-shaped face and full lips, Ozai's proud shoulders. His breath of fire now laughably easy with the assistance of the ryu-nyuu, Zuko blew flame to both and watched them burn. Then he did the same to Sozin and Azulon.
"Couldn't wait to renovate, could you?" a creaky voice asked behind him.
Zuko turned to see King Bumi, his be-ringed fingers twirling a pig-hen drumstick, eyeing the burning portraits with one huge eye. Zuko took a small step back. The old man smelled as though he hadn't bathed in a week.
"Do you fancy a game of Pai Sho?" Bumi asked, nibbling meat from the bone. "This fire makes good light."
"Not right now, thanks."
"Iroh was good at Pai Sho. Robbed me blind. That's why I sponsored him into the Order of the White Lotus."
Zuko blinked. "He never said…"
"Of course he didn't," Bumi said, gesturing with the drumstick. He pointed at the gap between Azulon and Ozai where Iroh's portrait should have hung. "Iroh was no tattletale."
Zuko could not think of what to say, other than: "I have little understanding of the cryptic arts."
"You don't say." Bumi sucked marrow from the bone. "I hear you're making that little earthbender a citizen."
Suddenly Zuko's ear rang with pain as the old man pinched it between his gnarled fingers and twisted it. Bumi brought him close and Zuko was enveloped in a stink of sweat and dirt and meat and unwashed velvet. "You be nice to that one, little Fire Lord," Bumi said. His breath reeked. "Aang may vouch for you, but he was always a little thick."
"Yes, your majesty," Zuko said.
The older man let him go. Bumi squinted. "Sure you don't want to play Pai Sho?"
Zuko had barely finished the perimeter check of his old room -- he had no doubt that Azula had left it full of nasty surprises -- when Katara found him. She announced her presence by sliding the door shut with an audible rattle. "What's this I hear about you adopting Toph?"
He frowned, corked the half-empty bottle of ryu-nyuu, and turned. "Hello, darling," he said. "How was your day? Oh, you became Fire Lord? How nice for you."
Katara's shoulders slumped a little. "Okay, you're right. I'm sorry." She strode across the room and enveloped him in a hug. "I know you're fine. I healed you myself. You're the one who should be asking about me."
He gave her a little kiss over her temple. "And how are you?"
"Then sit down." He took her wrist and guided her to the bed. He pushed the gauzy red curtains aside -- the bells at their hem tinkling as he did -- and sat her down. Katara looked a mess. Blood and dust stained her Fire Nation clothes, and someone had singed off a lock of her hair. Aside from the hollow, exhausted look in her eyes and the way she swayed on her feet, they were the only signs that she had been in battle. She must have healed the rest on her own.
She leaned on his shoulder. "You're not off the hook for Toph, you know."
"I'm not adopting her."
"She said she was coming to live here."
"I'm granting her citizenship. That's different from naming her as my heir." I could do that, if I wanted. I'm Fire Lord, now. It would make Sozin turn in his tomb.
"She said something about working for the Fire Navy."
"She can do that if she likes."
Katara sat up. "Toph is too young to start working. She's only twelve!"
Zuko thought of mentioning that Katara was only two years older, but decided against it. "She's as old as Aang is now."
Katara held up one finger. "That's different, and you know it."
"Why? Because Aang is the Avatar? Or because he's not blind?"
Katara stood. "How dare you? This isn't about Toph's blindness at all!"
"Then what's it about? If she wants to live here, let her live here."
"She has parents, Zuko!"
"Parents who paid thugs to hunt her down and kidnap her! Does that remind you of anyone we used to know?"
Katara's mouth worked. She straightened and sighed. "You didn't see Toph when she thought she was reading her mother's letter. She wants to reconcile with her parents. I know she does."
"What she wants and what is possible are two completely different things. Trust me."
"This isn't about you!" Katara's hand clapped over her mouth. "I'm sorry," she said through her fingers. She sat down beside him again. "I didn't mean that."
"It's all right," Zuko said, but it wasn't.
"It's just…" Katara's hands twisted. "It's just you can't ask someone to just give everything up and join you here."
A cold, heavy sensation washed through Zuko's stomach. "Toph asked me, not the other way around." He willed himself to look at Katara. Sweetness, don't do this to me tonight. Please. "What is this really about?"
Katara's face crumpled. "Do you really love me?"
"You know I do."
She swiped at her face quickly. "But you didn't come to find me after you woke up," she said. She pointed at the bottle of ryu-nyuu. "You went looking for that thing instead. Would you rather get drunk than spend time with me?"
"That's ryu-nyuu," he said. "It's for Fire Lords."
"I know that. The Boulder told me."
"It's served at their coronation. It's tradition."
"I don't care! It's just some stupid drink!"
"As Fire Lady, you'd be entitled to some, too."
Katara opened her mouth, then closed it. "You can't get out of this by asking me to marry you, Zuko."
He sighed flame and pushed himself back on the pillows to stare up at the canopy. "Perish the thought."
Katara's sigh became a frustrated growl. She crawled up beside him. "You still haven't answered my question."
Zuko sat up on his elbows. "You want to know why I went to find the ryu-nyuu? Really?"
"So I could cremate my father in a single breath," Zuko said. He blew a little ring of fire from his lips. "Ryu-nyuu increases firebending ability. I have to burn Ozai before the animals get to him. I'd rather get it over with quickly, and yes, I'd rather be drunk so that I don't have to see how many pieces the Avatar left him in."
The corners of Katara's lips turned down. "Zuko, I-"
"And even if I didn't have that little task," Zuko continued, "I'd still have left you alone until now, because you were healing people. Because you were doing important work and I didn't want to interrupt you. Despite what everyone thinks of me, I'm not that selfish."
Katara sniffed. "Zuko…" She reached down to his face.
He caught her hand before she could touch him. "And Toph isn't up for discussion," he said. "If she wants to live here, fine. If she never wants to see her parents again, fine. As far as I'm concerned, she's earned her citizenship in service to this nation. And if her parents ever darken my door, I'll make them wish they hadn't. Giving Toph citizenship will give her a leg to stand on during her negotiations with them, if she's ever foolish enough to have any-"
Katara brought their two hands over his mouth. "Stop." She laid her head on his shoulder. "Just stop for a minute."
They lay there breathing together for a moment. An alcohol-induced haze of exhaustion fogged over Zuko. Suddenly his limbs felt very heavy. Maybe finding the ryu-nyuu and taking one of Mai's darts in the same day wasn't such a good idea. He tightened his grip on Katara and closed his eyes.
"You called Toph something strange while I was healing you," Katara said.
"La-La," Katara said. "What does that mean?"
Zuko willed the small hairs on his arms to lie down again. "My sister," he said finally. "It was my name for Azula before I could say her whole name."
The breath seemed to drain from Katara's body. "Oh."
He slit one eye open. "Please don't tell me you were jealous."
"You should be so lucky," Katara said, pinching his side. He jerked and retaliated with tickles. Katara shrieked and suddenly she was sitting on him, trying to writhe her way out of his grasp while failing to bat his hands away. Her fingers raced up under his shirt and then he was laughing, too. His body bent up like a bow under hers. He struggled but made no effort. His hands moved to her hips and her hands fell to the pillow at either side of his head, and then he was looking up at her through one pair of eyelashes while her breath came fast enough that he felt it curling damp and warm around his neck.
"I'm lucky already," he said, and they were kissing. Her lips opened and she settled down over him and from within the curtain of her hair Zuko thought: Father was right; I was lucky to be born.
She pulled away with one of his hands tangled in her hair. "This is wrong," she said, panting. "Suki is dead. Dad and Master Pakku are dead. Iroh and Kuei and Teo's father…"
"The Earth King and the mechanist…?"
She nodded. "And Smellerbee was touch-and-go for a while…I've never heard Longshot shout before…" She managed a smile. "I know there's nothing wrong with being so happy you're all right, but…" Her eyes fell, and she drew away from him.
He sighed. "If you want to mourn, then do it at my side."
She nodded, and lay down beside him again. After a moment, she took hold of his hand and pulled it over her. Their fingers remained enlaced. "You've never really held me like this."
"We've never been alone," Zuko said into her hair. The realization sent interesting tendrils of heat into his gut.
"And we're not really alone, now," Katara said. "There's a whole army out there."
He propped his head up on his hand. "Would you rather we go sleep in the stable with Appa? It might feel more like home."
She stuck her tongue out. "Just don't expect me to help you with an heir tonight or anytime soon, Fire Lord," she said. "I'm not ready yet, and you'll just have to wait."
He laid down and burrowed between her neck and shoulder. "Spoken like a true Fire Lady."
Watery blue light filtered through the tiny skylights in Zuko's room. He heard morning birds. His nose itched. That's Katara's hair. Wincing from soreness, he sat up. Someone promptly kicked him in the kidney and he had to bite his tongue to keep from swearing. He looked to his left and Toph rolled over in her sleep. Why is Toph here? He squinted. Beside Toph but on the floor was Sokka. Momo had curled up on his chest. And in the corner -- was that King Bumi with Bosco?
A wave of embarrassment hit him. The rest of his little family, including Katara's brother, had seen her asleep in his arms. Strangely, I'm still alive. He twisted his neck this way and that to rid it of stiffness, and carefully slid around Katara -- and narrowly missed stepping on Aang, who clutched his bison whistle in one hand.
The Avatar's eyes opened. "Where are you going?"
Zuko picked up the bottle of ryu-nyuu. "I must prepare Ozai for cremation."
Aang sat up and nodded. "I guess I should go check on Appa."
"Then we'll go together."
Outside, Zuko frowned at the blue light and pinched his nose. He twisted his neck and a mighty crunch ran down it. He had not meditated, only stopped at a lavatory before picking his way quietly past the wounded and heading outside. His teeth were dirty and his mouth tasted of fermented milk and spices. He thought of meditating now. Perhaps it would give him the focus necessary for the task ahead. And perhaps it would just serve as another distraction.
Sighing, he uncorked the ryu-nyuu and took a swig. The spices tingled down his throat and warmed him all over. Clearing his throat, he marched toward the black pit. His steps grew slower as he approached the hole. My father's in there. For a single bizarre moment he wondered if he would look inside and find that Ozai had escaped. I never saw him die, after all.
But Ozai was there. A single body lay at the bottom of the pit, shrouded in what looked to be one of Bumi's cloaks. Flies buzzed above the cloth. Zuko sat at the edge of the pit and stared down at it. He would have to roll Ozai's corpse into the cloak and carry it to the public dais on the eastern side of the palace. As much as he wanted to burn his father right here, right now, it would do nothing for his reign if his people could argue that Ozai might still live. Zuko would have to cremate him right before their eyes, as Ozai had done with Azulon. He took three deep breaths, and crept down into the pit.
This close, Ozai smelled like charred meat. Zuko sat beside him for a moment with Bumi's cloak pinched between thumb and forefinger. Rationally, he knew he should pull back the cloak. Some part of him would not rest until he'd done so -- otherwise, that part would always wonder if Ozai was really dead, if the fight was truly over. But that didn't mean Zuko had any real desire to pull back the cloak. I imagined defeating him. I just never thought about the day after. He bit his lip and ripped the cloak away in a single motion.
Ozai stared up at him. His face was a rictus of pain. His huge right hand reached for his chest. Zuko almost laughed. The Avatar's justice was not without irony. There's a hole where his heart should be. The hole gaped open, blackened like something turned on a spit for the evening meal. Zuko looked through it and saw ashy earth. He reached to close his father's eyes, but his hand hovered.
"I hate you," he said. "You were an evil man. You killed my mother. You tortured me. I should let the animals get you for that. I should let the vulture-wasps pick you apart and leave their maggot-lings to hatch in what's left." His hand descended. "But I won't," he said, vision blurring, "because I'm better than you."
When he had closed Ozai's eyes and covered him over, he wrapped the body in the cloak and lifted it. Ozai was heavy, and bits of him stuck to the earth where Aang had burned him into place. But Zuko lifted him out of the pit and scrabbled up a moment later. Katara sat at the edge of the pit. She had her waterskin uncorked.
"Should I wash him?"
Zuko snorted. "He'll poison your bending water."
"But would you like me to?"
Zuko scrubbed at his eye with the back of one hand. "I'm not sure I can carry him," he said. His voice came out rougher than he'd meant it to.
"It's okay to cry, you know."
"I would, but he burned out one of my tear-ducts," Zuko said. He blinked, and his good eye leaked something wet and hot.
Katara summoned a thin water whip and made it dance in the air above Ozai's corpse. "He never asked for your forgiveness, did he?"
"I should have made him beg for it."
Katara formed a dragon out of water. "But he would never have done that," she said. "You were his son. Even if he'd loved you the way he should have, he would never have asked you for anything." She peered up at him. "Sit down."
"I don't want to sit down. I want to take him to the eastern dais, so I can burn him. I should ask Aang to disperse his ashes. Let his remains become no better than dirt, let him get ground down into the pavement-"
"Zuko." Katara put a hand on his ankle. "Sit down."
He didn't sit so much as crumple. He stared at the inert form under the cloak until it blurred and his throat hurt. "Why doesn't it feel better?" he rasped. Katara's water returned to its skin. Her hand covered his lightly. "What's wrong with me? Everyone else is celebrating. We triumphed. He's dead. He can't hurt me any longer. So why…?" His knees drew to his chest. He gripped Katara's hand tightly. "He scarred me so deeply, Katara, I'll never be rid of him, he's in me, he's in my blood and I'll never, ever-"
"Stop," Katara said. She squeezed his hand. "He was your father, and he was the Fire Lord. And by being those two things, he gave you the chance to do something great with this country."
Zuko turned to her. He blinked and his vision cleared -- Katara was smiling, but tears had made their way down her face. Something luminous filled him. It glowed warm and bright as his own fire. This is right where I'm supposed to be. Everything I've ever done has been to bring me closer to the opportunities that await me today. "Have you ever seen a sky opal?" he asked.
She frowned. "Huh?"
He stood. "Let's go to the vault."
"Right now. There's something I've been meaning to give you."