Part IV- Purity of Love
Katon regarded the middle-aged man curiously. "You… want me to fight you? The Fire Lord?"
Zuko smirked- and Iroh's heart nearly exploded from joy. The boy was reaching his father's cold heart, melting the ice away little by little. It was obvious by the way he was finally starting to show emotions other than anger and indifference. "I won't go easy on you," Zuko informed him. "If you are who Uncle claims you are, you should have no problems facing me." He shifted his stance ever so slightly. "And I haven't trained in a long time. I'll probably be rusty."
The teenager didn't believe him for an instant. One didn't become the Fire Lord simply for the hell of it. He handed his sword to Iroh and moved a few paces towards his father. Taking up his unique Firebending stance, he locked gazes with the Fire Lord. "Then don't whine if I kick your ass," Katon grinned.
Agni, Zuko thought with a shake of his head. He sounds just like Katara.
It was the first time in years he'd been able to think of her, even just her name, without feeling hollow inside.
He grinned again, getting used to the experience of both not feeling dead inside and the old familiar thrill of sparring.
The boy made the first attack, moving with an incredible grace for a Firebender. Zuko parried the move, his eyes widening slightly as he recognized a lot of his moves- and they weren't Firebending moves. "You're using Waterbending moves… for Firebending?" he grunted, unleashing an arc of fire from his foot as he kicked.
"My sister- er, cousin- Shui is a Waterbender," Katon replied as he countered with a spin and uppercut, which singed the hair on Zuko's short goatee. "I've been training against her and her brother for years." He took a punch to his forearms and ducked, using the momentum to throw Zuko off balance as he took a sweep to his legs. The Fire Lord twisted, avoiding the fall and bouncing onto his feet further away from the boy.
"Sokka sired two Waterbenders?" Zuko asked, immediately turning back to the offensive as soon as he landed.
"Huan's an Earthbender," Katon clarified, meeting him blow for blow. "The bane of his mother's existence, too. Imagine an Earthbending version of Uncle Sokka, complete with insatiable appetite and lazy attitude."
"Toph would be howling in frustration," Zuko chuckled. He blinked as Katon shifted to an Earthbending stance and dropped below his punch to slam his fists into his stomach, pushing him back several feet. "You utilize all the forms when Firebending, don't you?"
"Might as well. It keeps my opponent on his toes."
Zuko was impressed. "You said Ty Lee and Aang had two daughters," he said, rubbing his stomach before returning to his stance.
"Yeah. Lia and Ting. Lia's fourteen." He formed a pair of fire whips in either hand and swung them towards the older man. "Ting's only ten. Cute girls, both of them, but Lia's a pain in the rear."
Zuko's stomach flipped as he watched the boy utilize the fire whips with a skill reminiscent of a certain Waterbending Master. Memories of a confrontation long, long ago, underneath Ba Sing Se, trickled to the surface- and he smiled wistfully. He had been so stupid back then. "Why is that?"
"She's got a crush on me and glomps me every time they come over." He snapped the whip, forcing Zuko to dodge or get caught. "I'm forced to hide whenever they visit."
"Sounds like some girls I met years ago when I went to Ember Island with your mom." Zuko actually caught one of the whips and snapped it in two, creating his own whip. "I thought she was going to drown me. Never make a Waterbending Master jealous."
Katon stopped. Didn't move for a span of heartbeats. "My mom?" he queried, lifting an eyebrow. "I thought I wasn't your son."
The Fire Lord's expression grew sad. "I didn't want to believe… that both of you had been taken from me," he murmured, straightening. "But if I tried to hold on to the hope that you still lived… and then I found out you really were dead… I don't think I would've been able to keep on living." His golden eyes met his son's blue ones- the same shade as Katara's. A pained smile crossed his lips. "So I believed in my heart you were dead- to force myself to move on."
Katon dissipated his fire and crossed his arms over his chest, glaring at him in a familiar manner. "But you didn't, did you? You're still as miserable now as you were then. Have you even looked at the Fire Nation lately? It's gone to hell- and I've only ridden through the countryside with Great-Uncle Iroh. The people are miserable, hungry, and poor. I've heard stories about the great Fire Nation- and frankly, old man, you suck as Fire Lord."
Zuko had to nod. "I know. After… after K-Katara died… I stopped caring. About anything."
The Fire Lord's head snapped up and his eyes nearly shot fire. "Who are you to call me a coward?"
"Someone with more sense than you! What kind of man hides behind his misery and grief for sixteen years and ignores the thousands of people counting on him to protect them and provide for them? You're a selfish coward, Fire Lord- and unfortunately, it's not only your holier-than-thou self that's been miserable."
Damn, but that kid sounded just like his mother. Any lingering doubts Zuko had about this boy being his son vanished like snow in the springtime.
He stalked across the field, a dark look on his face. Katon glared right back, never backing down. The older man got within a mere foot of him- and pulled him into fierce hug, completely shocking the youth.
"My son," he whispered, torn between laughing and crying. "My son's come home."
Katon returned the embrace, his uncertainty evaporating. "We told you that a while ago… Father."
Zuko's laughter rang through the air, reaching the keen ears of the man in black, who sat unseen in the shadows on the roof, eyes narrowing as he gazed at the newly reunited father and son. He would have to move quickly- or all his plans would have been for naught.
Zuko's son would have to die- and this time, he'd do it himself.
"So then this guy keeps coming into the village to bother her, and Suki's getting really irritated by this point, so she tries to go all Kyoshi Warrior on his ass- and instead he kidnaps her and takes her back to his village up in the mountains." Katon snickered.
Zuko shook his head, a wry grin on his face. "Did the mountaintop turn red with his blood?" he asked, chuckling.
"No! After about six months she came back- and turned her leadership position over to her captain! Apparently he'd convinced her that staying warm up in those cold mountains was more exciting than fighting with the Warriors." Katon was nearly dying with held-in laughter. "And it was obvious- six months after that, she gave birth to a son."
"That's one way to keep busy," Zuko agreed, his mind drifting back to his own "adventures" with Katara during their visits to both Water Tribes. "It's been so long since I had heard from anyone- I'd almost forgotten about them."
Katon's blue eyes grew serious. "Like you'd forgotten about Mother and me?"
"I never forgot you- that was the problem. I couldn't forget."
The teenager stood up, jerking his head towards the door. "Come on. We need to go somewhere."
Zuko stood up, bemused. For the past month he and Katon had been nigh on inseparable. They'd talked about everything: Sokka, Toph, Aang, Ty Lee, Suki… even some embarrassing tales about traveling around with the Avatar and his gang.
He followed the younger Firebender out of the Palace and down the hillside, to the rocky beach at its bottom. His face was a mask of pain by the time they reached the water, and Katon turned to his father, his expression one of youthful optimism.
"They told me that you returned Mother to the ocean," he said. "But did you ever once come back here to visit her? Thank her for the time you did have together? You should've been celebrating the life she had… instead of grieving over her death."
Zuko stared with an aching heart at the relentless waves as they crashed against the shoreline. He couldn't reply. His newly cut hair, still long enough to hang in his eyes, danced on the gusts of wind coming off the ocean.
"Would Mother have wanted you to live your life mourning her?"
He shook his head. Katara would've slapped him upside the head if he had even suggested such a thing.
"Can't you tell that she's here, with us? I didn't even know she was my mother until a few months ago, but as I stand here, I can tell she's here." He took a deep breath of sea air. "She's happy you've finally come back to her. Can't you sense it?"
Zuko faced the ocean, his soul crying out in pain. A large wave came up and slammed against the rocks, spraying him with water. Wiping the moistness from his eyes- not all of it seawater- he looked at Katon, a strange little smile on his clean-shaven face.
"She's mad at me."
"You think? You've been kind of an ass, Father."
Zuko's smile broadened and he glanced at the ocean again. "You hear that, Peasant?" he called out to the water. "Our son thinks like you!"
An answering crash of waves showered him again.
Katon laughed. After a moment, he gazed at his sire. "You feel better, though, don't you?"
Oddly enough, he did. It felt like the past sixteen years of torment and anguish had been washed away by the tide. He still missed his Waterbender- he'd always miss her- but he no longer felt so hollow inside.
He took his son in his arms again, thanking Agni for returning his last piece of his beloved wife to him. He opened his eyes, smiling- and saw the glint of something in the trees.
"Katon, look out!"
Pulling the boy aside, the Fire Lord felt a half dozen sharp blows to his back. He fell to his knees as Katon tried to hold onto him, his eyes widening at the deadly knives sticking out of his father's back.
His blue eyes snapped up, finding the same man in black crouched on an outcropping not too far distant. He stood up, watching as the man readied another three blades, one between each finger.
Not knowing really what he was doing, other than protecting his father, he moved his arms in a wide circle, gathering as much Firebending energy as he could. Bringing his hands in towards his chest and then down, he paid no attention to the intense crackling around him, so focused he was on making this stalker feel pain such as he had never experienced before.
Quick as lightning, literally, a bright blue bolt shot from his abruptly outstretched fingers towards the man in black on the cliffside. The assassin had no chance to do more than open his eyes wide in utter surprise as the bolt hit him square in the chest. He dropped off the outcropping like a stone, falling to the rocks below. A wave came up and crushed him, making sure that person would not live to hurt Katon or Zuko again.
Katon turned, breathing hard. He'd never seen anything like it- where had the lightning come from? He didn't dwell on it; instead he focused his attention on his father, who had collapsed onto the rocks. "Father? Father!"
Zuko didn't stir. Katon was on the verge of panicking. What was he going to do? He couldn't possibly carry the Fire Lord all the way up the hillside and into the palace by himself.
"What the hell happened here?"
Katon whirled around at the familiar voice. "Dad!"
"That's Uncle Sokka to you, Squirt," Sokka replied, his eyes locking on the still form of his brother-in-law. "We need to get him back to the palace and quick." He turned. "Yo, Toph!"
The blind Earthbender appeared. "I got him." She pushed her foot along the ground and the rock Zuko was lying on lifted up slowly. She walked resolutely to the other side of it and proceeded to push it- a boulder bigger than she was with a grown man lying on top of it- up the hillside like it was nothing.
"You're losing your touch, Sparky," she muttered to the unconscious man. "The old you would've seen these things coming."
"He did," Katon said, his voice cracking. "He… he saw them… and moved so they hit him instead of me."
Sokka put an arm around his nephew. "So whose lightning was that we saw?"
"Say that again, Snoozles?"
He rolled his eyes. "That I saw?"
Katon wiped the tears from his eyes, but they kept falling. "That… was me. I hit the assassin who's been after me for the past month. He… fell onto the rocks over there."
Sokka moved away from his wife and nephew. "I'm going to check," he told them. "Get Jerkbender back to the palace as fast as you can."
"I'm on it already," Toph reminded him, bending the rock- and Katon- up the hillside. "Get Pops!" she hollered as he reached the top of the hillside. "He's waiting just outside the palace!"
Katon watched as his diminutive aunt run after Sokka and he wiped his cheeks again. This was no time to get nervous.
Katon glanced anxiously at the black-haired healer. "Minoru, isn't there anything else we can do?"
The healer shook his head. "The knives were poisoned, your Highness," he said sadly. "I've done all I can- the rest… is up to your father."
Dejected, the teen dropped his head to the mattress once more, his heart heavy with guilt. If only he hadn't jumped in the way…
Zuko opened his eyes slowly, aware of a very dull ache in his back and a general lethargy he hadn't felt in… well, ever. Turning his head, he first noticed a familiar head of unruly black hair.
"You know… now that I've cut my hair and shaved that beard off… it'll be impossible to tell us apart."
Katon's head shot up. "Father!"
"Agni, but I love hearing you say that."
Minoru stepped forward, a grim look on his handsome face. "Fire Lord…"
"I told you, Minoru. Call me Zuko."
"…You were seriously wounded. The knives that stabbed you were covered in a lethal poison. I've done what I can to remove the toxin, but…" The healer's chocolate brown eyes were filled with remorse.
Zuko sighed slowly. "I see."
The door opened up and several old, overweight, bearded men appeared, obviously in a tizzy. "Fire Lord!" the one in front called out, sounding rather frantic. "We heard you were ambushed by an assassin!"
Zuko's gold eyes were as hard as diamonds as he regarded the Council now invading his bedroom. "The assassin was targeting my son," he informed them bluntly. "I merely protected him."
"At the cost of your own safety!" another old geezer hollered.
"The Fire Lord is above all others," the first man reminded him, his voice positively oozing. "The Water Tribe boy cannot come first. You should've thought about your own wellbeing, my Lord."
Katon merely sat there, listening as the old busybodies discussed him as though he weren't even there. Abruptly he stood up with the intent to escape.
"Katon, bring me that scroll that's in the drawer of my nightstand, will you?"
Nodding, the teen slowly did as he was asked, listening to the arguments and complaints from the Council. Couldn't they see that his father needed rest, not more stress?
Turning back to Zuko, he handed the scroll to him, mildly curious as to why he'd ask for such a thing now. Maybe he'd hit all the old farts over the head with it. He mentally chuckled at the thought.
Zuko held out the scroll to the head of the Council. "This is my decree," he announced. "It's been witnessed and sealed, so it is to be law, no matter what you or the Advisors try to change. Katon is my legal son and heir, and will be the next Fire Lord."
The old men exploded into a frenzy. Complaints and demands were shouted- halted only when a column of fire shot over their heads.
"Shut up and show respect to your Fire Lord," Katon growled. "He is speaking- therefore you should be listening, not bitching like old biddies."
"Well said," Sokka observed, entering the royal chamber. "I swear, you sound more like your mother every day."
"Doesn't he though?" Zuko chortled weakly. "He definitely has her attitude."
"You cannot claim this… half-breed as your heir," the head of the Council protested. "You don't even know that he is truly yours!"
Zuko and Katon exchanged a glance. "Have you all gone blind in your old age?" Zuko demanded. "The boy couldn't look more like me if he'd been cut from Ozai himself. He is my son, and as you will read, is the heir to the Dragon Throne. The Fire Nation will prosper under his rule, unlike how it declined under mine."
"But my Lord-!"
A huge wave of water splashed down on them and both Zuko and Katon blinked in surprise. "Shui? That wasn't very nice."
The twelve-year-old Waterbender shrugged. "They were making Mom mad," she explained. "Since Dad told her no bending in the palace, I decided to take care of them for her."
"Thanks, kiddo," Toph grinned. "Don't know what I'd do without you."
The Council regarded the newcomers. The head eyed the bundle in Sokka's arms. "And what is that sopping wet mess you are dragging into the Fire Lord's chambers?" he insisted, sniffing in distain.
"You're one to talk," Huan muttered under his breath.
"What, this?" He dropped it onto the carpet with a thud. "Just your assassin. Thought you might want to get a good look at him."
Zuko struggled to sit up and Minoru was at his side in an instant, disapproval clear on his face. "Who is it?"
Sokka crouched down and flipped the cloth off the head- and the entire gathering gasped, except for Toph, who frankly couldn't see the gore- and already knew the identity of the body.
The crushing waves had broken every bone, the rocks slicing deep into the pale skin. Only the face remained as it was, save for a long slice from eyebrow to jawline and the wide, shock-filled eyes.
Sokka grunted before straightening. "Are you really that surprised? We've known for years how jealous she was of Zuko's love for my sister. She was probably overjoyed when Katara died in childbirth, but knew that even if she had managed to get Zuko to marry her, any children they had would be second to Katon, as he was the firstborn. So she eliminated all traces of Katara from Zuko's life so that she could start over anew with him."
Toph snorted, crossing her arms over her chest. "Stupid Needles made a mistake, though, in hiring her hitman to take out Katon instead of doing it herself. Ty Lee knew how Mai felt and figured out what she had done, so she intercepted the guy, paying him three times what Needles had done and bringing Katon to us."
Zuko lay back down on the bed, Minoru watching him worriedly. The man hovered like an old grandma. "Get that filth out of my sight," he commanded, his voice hoarse and cold. "And remember that she was your choice for my bride- not mine. Reflect on your choices- and accede to mine."
The old men scurried from the room like rats, a pair of guards entering to take away the mangled remains of the former Lady.
"Sorry to drop that on you, Sparky," Toph said. "When we realized who it was, we had to tell you."
"I'm grateful… for that," he murmured honestly, his energy used up in his last outburst, "and… I'm eternally grateful… you raised my son… to be such a good and honest young man."
"Tui knows if he'd stayed here he would've ended up like you," Sokka agreed with a wry grin. "Can't have that now. Katara'd never forgive me."
Zuko closed his eyes, smiling gently. Agni, he was tired. Too much arguing and excitement so soon after being so close to death. "Yeah," he agreed, remembering how the ocean had sprayed him when he'd finally gone to see her. "She still holds grudges."
Minoru left the room for a moment before coming back, something held in his hands. "This rightfully belongs to you," he said quietly, handing him the Prince's fire crown. "Wear it with pride, and don't ever let those old fools tell you that you are unworthy of it."
Katon bowed respectfully, knowing he and the healer were going to be good friends. "Thank you. I promise I will wear it with honor."
Zuko grinned just as he faded from consciousness, glad he had stayed awake long enough to see his son pull his hair up in a topknot and place the flame crown in his hair. Katon had smiled at him, and Zuko had seen himself as he had been before life had thrown so many hardships and responsibilities at him- but he also saw the wisdom and determination of his Waterbender.
His son… The best of both worlds.
Zuko blinked, the sun shining brightly on his face as he sat under a tree. Squinting, he gazed up at the sky, noting the perfect shade of blue. It'd been a long time since he'd been able to look at the sky with such a light heart.
A splash of water hit his face and he looked over, startled. He glanced around, searching for the perpetrator but finding no one.
He wiped the water off his face and paused. Ran his hand down his left cheek. The skin was smooth, unblemished. Unscarred.
His scar was gone.
What the hell…?
Water hit him again, this time from behind. He spun around quickly and was rewarded with only a familiar laugh.
What is going on?
A shadow fell across him and he turned back, looking up. His gold eyes flew wide at the beautiful face of one dearly loved.
Zuko nodded before taking her hand and standing up, gazing with unrestrained emotion at his beloved Waterbender.
"There was something I had to take care of first," he replied, brushing his knuckles against her cheek. She still felt the same, all softness and femininity. "…I missed you."
She grinned, her blue eyes sparkling.
She tugged at his hand, leading him away from the tree. "You look different without your scar."
"Funny. You look exactly the same."
She paused, gazing up at him. "Will he be okay?" she asked, a look of maternal concern on her face.
Zuko thought about it for a moment. "Yeah," he replied honestly, smiling again as she pulled him along. "Our son… will be just fine."