Sins of the Fathers
"You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me."
—Exodus 20:5 (NIV)
Colonel- and Prince Azulon looked over the smoldering ruins of the Southern Air Temple. He looked at his father, and his father looked at him, and they both could tell that through their heads ran the same thought: What have we DONE? On paper, it had seemed so…so logical. The Avatar was to be an airbender in his next life, and so, in order to disrupt its lifecycle and banish it from this world, the airbenders had to be destroyed. Funny, how no one had pointed out at the time what that really meant: the indiscriminate, merciless slaughter of civilians and children by the boatload.
A soldier came to them. "Survivors confirm that the Avatar was here," she said.
"There are survivors?" Sozin asked, absurdly hopeful.
"…There were survivors," the soldier said.
"Oh. I see," Sozin said. He had ordered this place purged, after all. "So we killed him, then?"
"…Actually, according to the survivors, he ran away almost a year ago."
The Firelord's knees nearly buckled, but he remained standing. It had been a risk, killing Roku so many years before Taru's Comet returned, but Sozin had known that there would never have been a better chance at killing Roku than at the volcano, and there had been some small chance that it would work. There had been gaps between death and rebirth of up to twenty years, after all. "No. No. This…" he gestured at the devastation "…could not have been all for nothing! I will not allow it to have been for nothing! I will find the Avatar if I have to search my entire life!"
Azulon nodded. He knew, as his father knew, that they were well and truly damned. But to do all this and then to fail on top of it…that would just make it even more unspeakably horrible.
"He may have died and been reborn a waterbender," Azulon pointed out.
"Then we will have to start raiding the Water Tribes," Sozin said. "We need to find the waterbenders and…"
"Kill them all?" Azulon asked with a sort of subtle, bone-dry horror.
"No! Not again!" Sozin seemed to almost panic at the suggestion. He shook his head, more calmly. "Never again, no matter what the consequences. No, we capture them. Keep them isolated, so that they can't…you know, make more waterbenders."
"You realize what this means, don't you, Father?" Azulon asked.
Sozin nodded. "We are now at war with the entire world." He looked at the ruins again. "Well, what's left of it, at any rate." And what if that fails? What if, in spite of your best efforts, the Avatar manages to be reborn as a waterbender? What happens then? We start hunting the earthbenders? All Sozin had wanted was to bring peace to the world—everlasting peace, unity, and prosperity. And now, he would never have peace again.
"The comet's almost gone," the soldier said. "We'd best get off of this mountain while we still can." Not everyone could use firebending to rocket all over the place, after all.
Sozin nodded. So we're not even going to be allowed to bury our dead. Well, since this place is a grave, anyway, it might as well be their grave. "Let's go." He jumped into the abyss, using his firebending as thrusters to slow his fall.
"Sir, there's no sign of the Avatar anywhere."
"Well, keep looking!" Sozin shouted, at the fraying end of his patience. A dragon flew overhead. Such a beautiful, majestic creature…it reminded him of Fang. Before he knew what he was doing, Sozin was blasting off at it. The dragon was not used to being attacked by a human-sized enemy, much less a singular one, and so it just watched him, not raising its guard. Sozin shot a fireball at it, and it dodged, breathing fire at him. Sozin cut his way through the fiery breath and landed on the great animal's nose. He firebent right into its eyes, and the great beast cried out in rage and pain, shaking it's head violently to knock Sozin off. But Sozin grabbed its wiskers, and was hanging on for dear life. Then, he let go, and was tossed over the dragon's head. He landed on its back, and ran up the dragon's spine, between the great beating wings, to firebend at the base of its skull. The dragon's scales protected it from Sozin's fire…for a bit. Then it fell into the ocean, dead, and Sozin rocketed back to his ship. A moment of rage, scapegoating a creature who reminded Sozin of the friend he betrayed. He had had no idea it would start a trend.
Sozin was dying. He knew he was dying, feverous, and delirious. That's why it didn't surprise him to see Roku. "Why?" Sozin asked. "We could have brought everlasting peace to the world. Why didn't you help me?"
"You are not the first ruler to think he or she could unify the world through force of arms," the shade of Roku said. "There are many great things about the Fire Nation, you were right about that. But the simple fact is that you can't force people to love you, nor can you have peace at the razor edge of sword. Even when what you want people to do is good, if you force them, they will hate you for it. As it stands, the world sees you as being the same sort as Chin the Conqueror."
"Don't compare me to that monster!" Sozin retorted. "He—! Oh."
Roku almost-half-smiled with a sort of gallows humor but no real amusement. "Were you going to point out how he had persons with Air Nomad ancestry executed? Gee, killing Air Nomads doesn't sound anything like anyone I know."
Sozin began to cry. "Yes, I was."
"Tell me, Sozin…"
General- and Prince Azulon spent a lot of his time on the front lines. In fact, he had recently missed the birth of his first-born son, Iroh. He had to be, because his father was so preoccupied with the hunt for the Avatar. But he was here at his father's deathbed. He was crying when Azulon walked in the door. "No, Roku," the Firelord was saying with a forlorn softness. "No, it was definitely not worth it."
"Daddy!" Iroh shouted, jumping into his father's arms.
"Hey, there, sport," Firelord Azulon said, tossing the four-year-old kid into the air and catching him. "Where's your mother?"
"In the tent with the midwives," Iroh said.
"I'd best go see her, then," Azulon said. He stepped into the tent, and kissed his wife. "Hey, there, beautiful."
"I'm not feeling very beautiful," Princess Consort Ila said. Indeed, she was very pregnant, and covered in sweat and other, less savory substances.
"Nonsense; you're always beautiful to me."
"Shouldn't you be on the front line somewhere?"
"I missed the birth of my first child; I'm not missing the birth of my second," Azulon said.
Little Iroh waited outside the tent for several hours. Then his daddy came out. "Is it a boy or a girl?" Iroh was hoping for a girl. Then he noticed the look on Azulon's face; something was wrong—very wrong.
"Iroh, your sister arrived stillborn," Azulon said.
"What does that mean?" Iroh asked.
"She's dead. She died in the womb," Azulon said.
It seemed absurd (or would have if Iroh knew the word) that he wanted to cry for someone whom he'd never even met, someone who had never drawn her first breath and so had never actually been alive, but he did. And he did cry. And his daddy held him.
Azulon held his son, and contemplated the cold, aching blackness inside. He wanted to cry, too, and yet, his mind went back to the Southern Air Temple, the slaughtered men, women, and children. He had the distinct feeling that he didn't have the right to cry anymore.
On her tombstone, the girl was named Sozsa.
"Man, why don't we just wipe out the Water Tribes like we did the Air Nomads?" the private said.
Iroh overhead this unfortunate comment, and sighed. "Private, a word?"
"Uh, s-sure, Prince Iroh."
"We're on duty, so it's 'Major Iroh,'" Iroh said as they walked. "Would you like some tea?"
"No, thank you, Major Iroh, sir."
Iroh sat, gesturing for the private to sit, and studied him while he sipped his tea. He was rather young. Is this what it's come to? Sending children to fight the war? Somehow, he did not think that this was what his grandfather had envisioned more than half a century ago.
Iroh remembered being an impetuous youth (You're not exactly ancient now, being all of twenty he mentally teased himself), and having asked his father the same question. And remembering how Azulon had answered. "So you'd like to exterminate the Water Tribes."
"Yes, sir," the private said, somehow conniving to be both defiant and differential.
"Would you like to be part of the task force which does the exterminating?"
"That would be an honor, sir."
"I see," Iroh sipped at his tea nonchalantly. This next bit was the key part. Too bad he's not drinking tea; I'd have liked to see the spit-take. Iroh continued, every bit as nonchalantly as if he were talking about the weather: "Have you ever skewered a baby on the end of your sword?"
The private's eyes widened. "Sir?"
"It's a simple question, Private. Have you ever skewered a helpless, mewling baby on the end of your sword?"
"Uh, no, sir."
"And what is it that you imagine that you'd be doing if you were part of the force exterminating the Water Tribes?" Iroh asked somewhat less nonchalantly.
"Waterbenders are born, just like everyone else," Iroh pointed out, getting progressively less nonchalant. "Villages are not composed entirely of warriors. There are farmers, hunters, craftspeople, men and women of every shape and description. And these people have children. After you kill the warriors, you have to kill these people, and then you have to kill the children. And then, you have to kill the babies. That's what it means to wipe out a people; it means murdering babies. Lots and lots of babies. The Firelord knows this, because when he wiped out the Air Nomads with his father, he found out the hard way."
"I…see, sir," the private said, subdued.
Iroh nodded. "I believe you do. You may go."
A messenger almost ran into the private as he left. "Major Iroh, the Firelord needs to see you."
I'm on my way," Iroh got to his feet, forgetting his tea, and swiftly walked to his father's tent. He entered. "Sire?" He saw the look on his father's face…a look he saw once before. "Father?" he amended, for this looked like family business.
"I missed your birth, Iroh, have I ever told you that? That was why I was so intent to see Sozsa's birth…only, it didn't work out too well." Iroh allowed his father to ramble; he'd get to the point eventually. "It affected me; I didn't want to risk that kind of pain again. But the more years went by, the more people kept telling me that I needed more heirs, in case anything ever happened to you. So recently, your mother and I have been trying again…"
"It happened again, didn't it?" Iroh asked softly.
Azulon shook his head. "I thought, maybe, if I wasn't there, like I wasn't with you, it would go fine. I know that that's stupidly superstitious, but it's what I felt. Or maybe what I convinced myself I felt; maybe I was afraid that if it did happen, it would be more real for me if I was there. Your brother lives, but your mother died bringing him into this world." For the first time in decades and the last time ever, Azulon was crying. "She died, and I wasn't there for her." They were both crying, and hugging. "She was dead, and I wasn't there, and the baby needed a name, so the midwife named him 'Ozai.'" He chuckled, but there was no humor in it. "We didn't name our own second son. How do you like that?"
Azulon was never the same after that.
"Ozai, stop picking on Lu Ten!" Iroh barked.
The ten-year-old let go of the five-year-old's pony tail. "You can't make me! You're not my father! He's not my brother! You're my brother!" he shouted and ran away.
Iroh made sure that his son was alright, and then he chased after his brother. Ozai was sitting under a tree, crying. "I take it you miss Dad." Azulon had promised to come home from the front this week, but something had come up, and now Ozai would have to wait another month to see him.
"Was he like this when you were a kid?" Ozai asked.
Well, it wasn't quite this bad; he was a different man before Mom died, and, I think, maybe the fact that he wasn't there when you were born and they didn't name you means he doesn't connect as well to you as he does to me. Iroh decided to omit that part. "We've been at war with the entire world for seventy years, Ozai, and it demands constant attention. That doesn't mean that Dad doesn't love you, okay? He's just…very busy. Want some tea?" he finished lamely. Wow, I suck at this; one of these days, I'm going to have to learn how to give sage advice to family members in torment.
"No. I hate tea," Ozai said sullenly. He could sense that Iroh was either lying or hiding something. He also could sense how distant Daddy was when he visited. Daddy doesn't love me! But he loves you! If there could be said to have been a moment when Ozai's lifelong resentment of his elder brother began to feed into an equally powerful true hatred, this was probably it.
Ursa stood next to the drink table and drank in the party. "Hello," a stunningly handsome young man said, bowing. "You are looking quite radiant, and I was wondering if I might have this dance?"
"You look familiar, somehow," Ursa said.
"You don't recognize me?" the boy raised an eyebrow. "Well, I am tired of people worshiping at my feet, so why don't we dance while you try to figure it out?" He grinned. "Don't worry, if you go rigid from shock when you figure it out, I'll try to shake you out of it; wouldn't do to dance with a statue, after all."
She laughed. "Alright." She took his hand, and they went out onto the dance floor. "Do you want to lead, or shall I?"
"Whichever the lady prefers," he said chivalrously. And so she led. "So, have you figured it out yet?" he asked near the end of the song.
"Can I have a hint?"
"I'm precisely two heartbeats away from being the Firelord," he said.
Ursa did freeze as she stared. "Prince Lu Ten?"
"Bingo," he said, shaking her out of her paralysis as promised.
Ursa was mortified. "I met the crown prince and didn't recognize him; I'm never, ever going to live this down."
"Actually, my father's the crown prince. I'm just…whatever you'd call the crown prince's heir. Just a regular prince, I guess," Lu Ten said.
"'Just a regular prince,' are you?" Ursa said dryly. "That's a bit like saying 'just a regular dragon.'"
Lu Ten laughed. "The animal, or the firebender who has managed to kill the animal?"
"Either-or," Ursa said. "Though it's getting to the point these days that the latter's more common than the former."
Lu Ten frowned, "Yes, it makes me worried for dragon-kind." He shook it off. "This is a bit dour of a topic to get into at a party, however. So, now that you've figured out who I am, may I have your name?"
"Ursa. My mother is the Countess of Tor. My father is the son of Avatar Roku." It was her turn to grin as he missed a beat.
"It seems your lineage is just as impressive as mine, in its own way. Ursa; a beautiful name for a beautiful lady. Shall we dance the next one, as well?"
"That's hardly fair, nephew; I haven't had a chance to dance with the lady, yet."
Lu Ten's uncle who isn't much older than he is, Ursa prompted herself. "Greetings, Prince Ozai."
"Charmed…Ursa, was it? Forgive me; I couldn't help but to overhear as I approached," Ozai said.
"In this noise? You have impressive ears, Uncle," Lu Ten said.
"Why, thank you, Nephew," Ozai said. They were taking great care to remain cordially flippant with one another; Ursa got the distinct impression that they did not like each other very much. "Lady Ursa, the next song will start soon; shall we dance?"
"We shall," Ursa said.
Lu Ten bowed out. He grinned at his uncle (with only the slightest hint of steel in his eye betraying that the grin was anything but what it was), saying, "Just remember that I saw her first, Uncle." It was a joke, of course, but it was also not.
"So, do you and Prince Lu Ten always address one another as 'Uncle' and 'Nephew,'?" Ursa asked.
"He's just trying to convince you that I'm some sort of old fogey, of all the crazy ideas, whereas I am trying to make you see the obvious fact that he is clearly too young to be drinking that fire-wine," Ozai grinned self-deprecatingly. Ursa laughed. "Still, he's quite the ladies' man, my nephew."
Ozai shrugged. "That's what all the ladies say, at least."
"Oh, really?" Ursa's voice was a few degrees cooler this time.
Ozai grinned mentally without letting it touch his face. I'm winning, Lu Ten.
Ursa nearly collided with Lu Ten on the balcony as she stomped out there, half-blind with rage.
"Oh, hi, Lu Ten."
Lu Ten bowed politely. "Greetings, Aunt Ursa."
"Don't start that crap with me," Ursa snapped. More gently: "Just…not now." She stood at the edge with her back to him, staring at the stars.
Lu Ten joined her. "What's wrong?" he asked, concerned.
"Oh, nothing much; I'm just convinced that I married a monster is all," Ursa said.
"My uncle and I have never gotten along real well, but surely you exaggerate?"
"You know what Azula just said to me? 'Daddy says you love Zuko more than me.'"
Lu Ten staggered as if from a physical blow. "Oh." Then: "It's not true, is it?"
"Of course not! And even if it was, what kind of father says that to his own daughter?" Ursa shook her head, blinking away tears. "So many times over the last few years, I have wished that I'd married you instead of him, but never this strongly." Lu Ten was struck speechless by the admission. "I shouldn't have said that; it just sort of…slipped out."
"You still can." Lu Ten said.
"You speak nonsense."
"No, you can. Divorce Ozai, and take your kids with you. I'll officially adopt them; hell, it'll bump their position up a notch in the succession."
"But what if I don't get custody of them?" Ursa asked. "I can't leave them with Ozai."
"You will. Get custody of them, I mean."
"You can't be sure of that."
Lu Ten opened his mouth to reply, but realized that he really couldn't be sure of that. He thought for a second about rigging the trial somehow, but Ozai was a master manipulator himself, and would discover and counter anything Lu Ten might try. Even if Ursa decided to go to trial and Lu Ten decided to trust in the…shall we say, "unaided"…justice system, that would not guarantee that Ozai would decide to do the same—especially considering that Ozai was apparently even worse than Lu Ten had ever given him credit for. "So what are you going to do?"
"Do my best to protect my children. What else can I do?"
Lu Ten bit his lip. "Nothing, I suppose. But Ursa? I love you."
She said nothing to this; instead, she kissed him.
Prince Ozai studied his family's reaction to his nephew's death. Ursa sure was crying, wasn't she? He wondered…and then he put it out of his mind. He looked at his children, Azula and Zuko. Zuko. He didn't like Zuko. Zuko reminded him of Iroh, though he couldn't have put his finger on why, other than the fact that they were both firstborn. More than that, it was clear that Azula had the talent in the family. (He knew, already, that when—not if, when—he was Firelord, he'd skip over Zuko entirely and have Azula inherit his title) Rather fortunate, that.
When Zuko was born, Ozai had considered naming him "Azul", but decided against it. It was…not quite right. So he asked Ursa what she thought they should name him, and she said "Zuko." Zu-ko; rather clever, that, if a bit feminine. Then his daughter came along, and he knew that she should be named "Azula." Ozai wasn't just naming her after his father, he was following in his father's footsteps with the naming convention; the second-born child, firstborn daughter, named for her grandfather. He hoped that it showed.
"My Prince," a messenger said.
"Yes?" Ozai asked.
"Prince Lu Ten had ordered that, should he die in battle, this should be delivered to you."
Ozai looked at the date on the letter; it was several months old. He broke the seal and read:
If you're reading this, I am dead. You and I have never gotten along; let's not pretend otherwise. Still, I can't bring myself to believe that there is nothing good inside of you, so I hope that this letter serves as a wake-up call for you, and I hope that I'm not making a terrible mistake by even setting this brush to paper. I find I have to try, though, and if this information hurts Ursa or the kids…well, may the spirits have mercy on my soul. And I will, somehow, personally see to it from beyond the grave that they will not have mercy on yours, so beware before you use this letter for ill. The Avatar is here somewhere, after all, and its got something of a bone to pick with our family, I would imagine.
The fact is, my uncle, your wife believes you to be a monster. On several occasions over the last two years, she has cried into my shoulder (usually metaphorically; sometimes literally) about the various mind games and other such elaborate mental abuses you lay on your children. I am telling you that this has to end. They are your children! Must I explain to you why that is wrong? I don't think I can; it would be like explaining that the sky is blue. Ursa once believed that you were a good man; be a good man to the woman we love and her children.
Ozai managed not to destroy the letter, incinerate the messenger who had brought it, and then throw fire and lightning at Ursa without thought for whether or not he hit his own children. (If they are my children; that might explain why Zuko's so…Zuko.) In fact, all he did was nod and grunt, folding the letter and putting it in his robe while he shooed the messenger away. So Ursa and Lu Ten had been sneaking around behind his back for two years. And the idiot had told him about it. Or maybe he wasn't an idiot; maybe this was his way of bragging, a final insult to his much unloved and unloving uncle, and the whole perfect prince act was just that: an act. Ozai maintained an iron control. I'll just dispose of this, and then, my dear Ursa, I will make you pay. It will not be today, and it will not be tomorrow, but soon enough. In the mean time, however, I have other things to worry about.
Azulon was angered at his second son, and had said something he regretted…for about a second. That was how long it took Ozai to stand, bow, and turn to leave. "Sit back down! Tell me that you were not actually going to go and do it! Kill your own son?"
Ozai was off-balance, and looked, absurdly, like a child with his hand caught in the cookie jar. "…No."
"Just—what—gah—what the—AAAGGH!" the firelord was speechless.
"What did you want, Father?"
"I wanted you to beg and grovel for your son's life, to ask me to take yours instead if I was so pissed, to challenge me to an agni kai, to panic, to try to kill me before word could leave this room—something a human being would have done when his children were threatened! I have no idea what happened to turn you into a monster, and that's probably my fault for never being around, but you are no longer my son. You will leave my house, leave your family, just…leave. I'll give you a week before I tell anyone that you've been banished; that ought to give you time enough to get clear of the Fire Nation before people start looking at you and whispering. Perhaps when Iroh gets back, he can fix whatever the hell it is you've been doing to Azula. Get out of my sight; you sicken me."
Ozai stood, bowed, turned, and left. Azula snuck out after him. Daddy was leaving forever, and she had concluded that it was Zuko's fault. To be fair, this sort of scapegoating was something older and supposedly wiser heads did with depressing frequency. And so, she decided that she'd find him and make him pay.
"Tell me it's not true," Ursa said.
"What's not true?" Ozai asked.
"I overheard Azula telling Zuko that you were going to kill him. That Azulon ordered you to kill him. Tell me it's not true."
Suddenly, Ozai saw a solution to all of his problems that was as elegant as it was genius. "I'm afraid to say that it's true."
"And what are you going to do?"
"I'm going to do as my father ordered."
"You can't! I won't let you—I'll kill you!"
"Kill me? Do you think you can beat me in agni kai? Or are you planning on assassinating me? You won't have the opportunity to do so before I kill Zuko, and even if you did, you'd be executed for your crime, and then who'd raise the children?"
"Wait—what about Azulon?" Ursa asked.
Ah, bingo. "What about him?" Let's see if your mind is as devious as I think it is.
"What if we kill him?"
"There's only one problem with that suggestion—Iroh will be Firelord."
"While I kill Azulon, you can adjust his will to say whatever the hell you want."
Ah, good. But you're bluffing, or at least you think you are. You're buying time. You want me to agree to wait, so that you have some time to prepare a trap for me. And you can probably do it, too, you cunning creature. But, my "darling," it's time to put your money where your mouth is. "You better come up with a plan in the next couple of hours, then, because if I don't kill Zuko tonight, I'm banished. And I don't intend to be banished." Yes, keep her running. Keep her running too fast to stop and really think about it. This time tomorrow, you may well be Firelord Ozai.
Azulon sighed, looking at the letter he'd received from Lu Ten in the event of his death. Reading it had angered him. Listening to Ozai propose that he be skipped ahead of Iroh in the succession had added fuel to the fire. When he had actually agreed to kill his own son, well, he'd just exploded. Azulon looked at the half-moon shaped wounds in his palm, where his fingernails bit his flesh because he'd been clenching his fists so hard. He hadn't even noticed at the time. He hadn't of been fully convinced of the letter's accuracy, at first, but Ozai's own actions convinced the Firelord that, if anything, Lu Ten underestimated the danger Ursa and her children were in.
Something was seriously wrong with Ozai. And at least part of it was Azulon's own fault. After all, he'd barely even been in the boy's life, always gallivanting around the world with Iroh at his side, conquering cities and states, raiding the Water Tribes. This damn endless war. This was not what his father had had in mind. But it wasn't just that; even when he was present, he was cool with Ozai. Ozai just wasn't…as real to Azulon as Iroh was. As if Azulon didn't have enough sins to pay for after the Southern Air Temple.
He put the letter from Lu Ten away, with his will, and walked down the hall. I wish we had never done this. Even leaving aside the oceans of blood on his hands, there was the time wasted, the wealth squandered. He was realizing that the war had gone on for far, far too long. He and his father had been unwilling to let it go, because of the horror they'd unleashed at the Southern Air Temple. The thought that all that could have been for nothing had been the most horrible thing that they could imagine…they should have imagined harder. As horrible as it was, it was one atrocity, on one day, times however many tens of thousands of people had lived in the Air Temples. The war, it just went on and on and on. Kidnapping waterbenders—waterbenders with parents, spouses, children—attacking cities, sending earthbenders to the middle of the ocean…
He remembered his father's, final words. No, Roku. No, it was definitely not worth it. "Amen, Father; amen." And then he was consumed by a giant ball of fire Ursa had shot at him.
Mommy's gone. Daddy always said Mommy loves Zuko more than me. Daddy says Mommy left because she heard what I said. Daddy says she thinks I'm a monster. Azula wanted to cry, but she couldn't cry, because crybabies were weak, and she didn't want to be weak. If she was weak, Daddy wouldn't love her any more, and everyone else already liked Zuko more than her. Her room was dark. Mommy used to put a candle in the hallway and leave the door ajar so that the monster in the closet couldn't get her, but Mommy would never do that again, because Mommy wasn't here. Azula sat up and stared into the darkness at the back of the closet. She could feel the darkness staring back. "Hey, listen up, monster," she said. "I'm a monster, too. And Mommy's not afraid of you, but she is afraid of me, so that means I'm scarier than you, okay? So you better behave yourself in there, because you don't want to mess with me!" She lay back down. She didn't pull the covers up to her hair, and she didn't crack an eye to check and make sure the monster wasn't sneaking up on her—these would have been signs of weakness, and if monsters were anything like Daddy and her, they didn't respect weakness. And so, she acted like she wasn't afraid at all. And, eventually the act would become the truth.
Iroh couldn't believe that he'd been skipped over in the succession. Still, on the bright side, this just might convince Ozai that Father did love him, after all.
"Firelord Ozai," Iroh bowed.
"General Iroh," Ozai nodded. "What can I do for you?"
"It's something I've talked with Father about on several occasions, but I could never get him to agree with me," Iroh said.
"Indeed?" Ozai asked.
"Yes, brother. The raids on the Water Tribes. They're…rather pointless. Father and Grandfather have been squandering precious resources on this when we could have been marching through Ba Sing Se several decades ago. I mean, just look at how much these waterbender prisons cost to operate—"
Ozai held up his hand to silence him. "You make an excellent point, brother. In fact, I've been going over the numbers myself, and have come to much the same conclusion."
"I'm glad you can see it, brother."
Ozai stood, and addressed the court. "As my first order of business as Firelord, the raids on the Water Tribes in which we kidnap waterbenders are now officially over." He paused, letting the crowd absorb that. Then he added: "From now on, when we raid the Water Tribes, we kill the waterbenders."
Zuko watched as his father was hauled away in chains. Energy-bending; well, whatever gets the job done. He looked at Aang, who was off to one side with Katara.
"Hey, you know," Aang was saying, rubbing the back of his neck nervously, "about the time on Ember Island when I tried to kiss you in spite of what you had just said about needing more time? Yeah, I shouldn't have done that. Not that I don't want to kiss you! I do, very much! But you said you needed more time, and if you need more time, I can respect that. So, what I'm saying is—"
Katara shut him up with a kiss. "You talk too much." She kissed him again, and he melted in her arms.
"I see that move runs in the family," Suki said to Sokka. Aang and Katara froze, remembering that they weren't alone, and broke the embrace.
"Aw, don't stop," Toph teased. "You're so cute together."
"It appears I taught her well." Heartbeat. "Yeah, that sounded less disgusting before I said it," Sokka said.
"Hey, Zuko, you okay?" Toph asked. "We won, you know."
"Yeah, I know, and I'm happy about it," Zuko said. "It's just…my freaking family, man."
That put a damper on the mood. "That's harsh, buddy," Sokka nodded. "What are you going to do?"
"I don't know…yet…"
Ozai stared at his captor mutely. Firelord Zuko stared back. He had explained the way things were, and he had asked his question, and Ozai wasn't talking. It's amazing, how long I spent trying to please this man. All those wasted years of my life. I wonder what it was like for Azula? "I'm only going to ask nicely one more time, and then I'm going to ask not-so-nicely: where is my mother?"
"Azula's…in there?" Ursa asked, staring at the gloomy building. She rubbed her eyes, shaking; these last years had not been kind to her.
Zuko nodded. "It's a hospital, but it's a prison, as well. Azula is…not well."
"I see," Ursa said forlornly.
"You did the best you could, Mother," Zuko said.
"Did I?" Ursa asked, thinking, as she had done many times over the years, of Lu Ten. Lu Ten or no Lu Ten, I should have divorced Ozai. But I never dreamed that it could have gotten this bad! "Did I really?" I let my husband pit my children against one another, and they became mortal enemies. And yet, Zuko had brought her here. "Are you coming with me?"
Zuko shook his head. "I don't think she's ready to see me. Or that I'm ready to see her."
Ursa nodded. She hugged her son, and walked to the building. Zuko turned, and walked towards the flying bison.
"Are you sure about this?" Katara asked.
Zuko nodded at Aang. "You said something once about forgiveness, right? Well, if you believed that Katara ought to forgive the man who killed her mother, I probably ought to work on forgiving Azula. I can't, yet, but I'm working on it." He shook his head. "I have to at least try to repair my family. It's too late for Father, and honestly, it may be too late for Azula, as well—but it may not be, on the other hand. And so, well…" he shrugged, "whatever happens, happens. But we can always hope to heal."
AN: First, let's address the random Kataang moment. Did it need to be in the story? Frankly, no, and I have no strong feelings either way about Kataang, but the canon could have executed it better. We didn't actually see the resolution of that; Katara was still undecided in one scene, and then we flash into the future, where she wasn't. It seemed so freaking easy to fix, but I wasn't going to write a whole story around it. Slipping it into this story seemed easy enough, so that's what I did. Also, it lightened up an otherwise depressing piece.
I never realized how messed up the Avatar timeline was until I started writing this story. I mean, these people had to be very, very old when they started having kids. It's kind of gross, actually. But lets ignore that detail—the canon did, after all.
Azulon came out of this more sympathetic than I'd originally intended (though the throne scene was pretty much word-for-word the way I'd always imagined it). I'd also not intended for Lu Ten to be so important to the plot—or really, to factor in in any significant way, to be honest—but the story evolved even as I was typing it. As for Ozai giving the order to kill the waterbenders instead of capturing them, clearly it happened something like this. I mean, come on, Sokka and Katara were about the same age when their mother died as Zuko and Azula were when Ozai became the Firelord. Also, I don't know if you've noticed, but their lives sort of run in parallel. Destiny, I guess.
Oh, and that private whom Iroh chewed out? I was originally going to make him turn out to be Jeong Jeong, but, well, I didn't. It didn't really seem like it would have added much to the story, and kind of seemed a bit contrived. Maybe I should go back and change that? Eh…I don't know…