A/N: I decided to take a short break from Angstball Zuko to write a little bit of Loveable Dork Zuko.
Canon pairings plus Toph/Haru, because I'm sort of apathetic about Toph pairings in general and I think that one's as good as any. Ruzon's name comes from "Avatar Aang: An Annotated Biography" by The Big Rocky Eye, because I thought it was cool, and I've seen Irah's name several different places. Might write more about these kids later.
The typhoon raged on late into the night. The howling wind was heard throughout the palace's darkened corridors, much to the dismay of two small, frightened children, who fled to their parents' room to escape from the angry shadows of trees swaying in the darkness.
"Dad." Zuko felt himself being dragged out of the comfortable blanket of sleep by his son, who repeatedly prodded his shoulder until he got a groggy grunt of acknowledgment. "Dad, Irah couldn't sleep." Zuko blinked a few times. Ruzon only mentioned his sister, but his own eyes were wide in the darkness. The four-year-old princess had already cuddled up to her mother—Mai's eyes were still closed, but she stroked the little girl's hair with one long, white hand.
"It's just a little wind and rain," Zuko mumbled, hoping that the kids would be reassured and go back to bed. He had a meeting with about twenty governors the next morning, no matter what the weather was like, and needed to be perfectly alert. But it was no use—Ruzon and Irah were wide awake, and so was he. Finally, he sighed and sat up, letting Ruzon scramble up onto the bed where he would apparently be safer from the storm outside. Maybe just this once. They'd have to get used to typhoons eventually, but this time he'd make an exception.
All four members of the family were quiet for a few minutes. Ruzon had wrapped himself in the covers and was peering out with bright golden eyes. Irah was still curled up next to Mai, who had also woken up fully and was now devoting her attentions to braiding her little daughter's hair.
Irah tucked her thumb into her mouth. "Tell us a story, Daddy," she said around it.
"Yeah!" Ruzon perked up immediately. "Tell us the pirate story again! Only, tell it like Uncle Sokka tells it."
"How does Uncle Sokka tell it?" Zuko asked, dreading the answer. Sokka could have told them any number of embarrassing things while all the kids spent the summer on Kyoshi Island with him and Suki. For the most part, they knew the basics—not all of their parents were good friends from the very beginning, but eventually it worked out. They didn't, however, know the details.
"It's a lot different."
"Good different or bad different?"
"Oh… that's good, I guess…" Zuko wondered briefly if they were thinking of the same pirate story, or if Sokka had made one up. "How is it different?"
"You're the bad guy!" Ruzon said gleefully.
Sokka, I am going to kill you.
Four Weeks Ago
There were only so many ways to keep six larval benders and two kids who got up to enough regular mischief to make up for their lack of bending entertained. For the most part, Sokka and Suki were content to let them explore the island's rocky forests all day (with strict instructions not to burn anything down or change the shape of the countryside) and have them come back to the house before nightfall. Luckily, the kids were perfectly happy to spend time with their cousins. Well, only Sokka's twins Amaruq and Taka and Aang and Katara's kids Tenzin and Kyana were actual cousins, but that didn't stop the rest of them from being part of the family.
At the end of the day, the older kids (and sometimes Sokka too, when their games looked too fun to resist joining) came back from their exploring all rowdy and muddy and settled in with the younger ones for some dinner. Dinner was also a chaotic affair—every few minutes, someone's applebanana juice was getting waterbended into someone else's cup, or Tenzin used airbending to snatch the last piece of cake, or Kyana loudly declared that she was a vegetarian just like her dad and tried to make everyone else feel guilty for eating elephant koi fritters, or Wei and Ling used the loud mouths that they had inherited from their mother to press the extremely sensitive buttons that Ruzon had inherited from his father until the latter challenged them both to an Agni Kai, which involved hurled sea prunes rather than firebending. Usually.
When everyone was fed and sleepy and the little ones were cleaned up, they all gathered around the fire for story time. Suki and Sokka held Irah (always sucking her thumb) and Qian (always sucking her favorite rock) in their laps while the rest of the kids argued over which story they wanted to hear. Their parents had had plenty of adventures, but each one of them had their favorite.
Wei liked the story where Aunt Katara accidentally got his dad arrested, and then helped him escape. Taka and Ling, the nonbenders, preferred Sokka's stories about Piandao's crazy training or the destruction of the evil Firelord's airship fleet. Ruzon and Amaruq both liked the story where their respective parents and Grandpa escaped from the Boiling Rock. Kyana liked the one where her mom challenged Master Pakku to a fight because he wouldn't teach her. Tenzin liked the story about his dad escaping from Big Dummy Admiral Zhao's clutches with the help of Uncle Zuko, and by the end of that story Ruzon was so enthralled he didn't think to ask why his dad had to wear a mask. Qian and Irah liked any story that involved pretty dresses.
"Calm down, calm down," Sokka said over the noise. "I'm not going to tell any of those stories today. I'm going to tell you all a new one."
"Is it the one about Sparky Sparky Boom Man? Because we've heard that one," Tenzin said a little skeptically.
"Nah, it's not that one."
"Are you going to finally tell us about the time that Mom met a real live witch?" Kyana asked. Sokka shook his head. There were some stories that he wouldn't ever tell, and that was one of them. And even though he liked to tell things the way they happened, some of his other stories were sanitized a little—Ozai and Azula didn't have names, for one; Zuko had said that he wanted to keep his family skeletons firmly in the closet until his kids were old enough to handle the ugly truth. And Sokka flatly refused to relate any stories from the North Pole.
"You guys want to hear a story about pirates?" Sokka asked. An excited chorus of yeah! followed his words from almost every one of them.
"My dad told us that one," Ruzon protested.
"I'll bet my boomerang he doesn't tell right," Sokka said with a grin. He braced his hands on his knees and leaned forward. "When me and Katara and Aang were traveling together—this is before we met your mom, sorry guys—Aang found out that Sozin's Comet was gonna come and wreck the world unless he could stop it in time. But to do that, he had to learn how to bend all four elements. Now, he was only an airbender, always flying around, making all kinds of other stuff fly around, sneezing so hard that he flew ten feet in the air… you know, airbender stuff." He reached over and gave Tenzin a high-five.
"So anyway, he was all freaking out because he could only airbend and this comet was coming at the end of the summer," he continued. "Katara said she would teach him how to waterbend, only the problem was that she wasn't very good at that yet. So we stopped at this cool waterfall lake place so they could practice. I hung out with Appa and Momo while they splashed around, and Katara got kinda mad because Aang was really good at waterbending without having to work at it. And then we both got mad because Aang washed all our supplies away by accident, so we had to go find a market so we could get some more stuff."
Ruzon didn't see how this was any different than the way his dad told it. So far, everything matched up.
"The closest market was in this scary little town where thieves and other bad people hung out. They sold all kinds of cool junk—shrunken monkey heads, dried beetle-crickets for snacks, swords and weapons and stuff… we were walking down by the docks when this little lizard-looking dude comes up to us and says," he cleared his throat and continued in a sly, slightly creepy voice, "'I can see from your clothing that you're world-traveling types. Can I interest you in some exotic curios?' And Aang was totally gullible, so he said sure! so the little lizard guy brought us to a ship where they sold a bunch of stuff. It was kind of creepy in there too—they had all these goods from all over the world, like expensive vases and statues with jewel eyes and a whole ton of boomerangs, which was kind of cool, but then this guy comes out of the darkness… and he's a pirate. You know how in stories pirates always have big hats with feathers in them and reptile birds?" the kids nodded. "Well, it turns out they look like that in real life, too. So me and Aang and Katara are kind of freaked out because this guy is obviously a pirate."
"Did he have a peg leg?" Ling asked.
"Eyepatch?" Wei was picking his nose and wiping it on an oblivious Taka.
"Are you sure he was a pirate?"
"Very sure. Anyway, back to the story. While I'm talking to the pirate, Katara sees this scroll with a Water Tribe symbol on it. She opens it up and is all like 'ooh! It's a waterbending scroll! Look at these fancy splashes I can learn how to do!'" The kids giggled at his high-pitched Katara voice. "She and Aang really wanted to have this waterbending scroll because otherwise they would have to teach themselves waterbending until they got to the North Pole. They're still worried about the comet, remember, so they didn't have time to waste. Unfortunately, the scroll is way too expensive and there's no way we can afford it, but Aang tries to buy it anyway because he's a monk and didn't understand money back then. While the pirate was distracted, Katara took the scroll and hid it in her dress."
Kyana gave a little scandalized gasp. Sokka smirked. So Katara hadn't told this story either.
"We managed to get off the ship without them noticing, but then they figured it out and came running after us. It was pretty scary—they had all these weapons and we were just three kids and a lemur. So they chased us through the marketplace. It was intense—cabbages flying all over, knives getting thrown at us, and that creepy reptile bird thingy chasing Momo…" he pantomimed two flying things chasing each other with his hands. "Finally, Aang flew us out of the marketplace and we got away. Whew!"
Ruzon still didn't know how this version of the story was any different than his dad's. Soon it would get to the part where the pirates came after the kids for stealing their scroll, and then his dad's ship would show up and he and his men would help fight the pirates, because pirates are bad.
"After that, we went back to our camp in the forest so Aang and Katara could practice with the scroll. Remember, kids: stealing is wrong, unless it's for the good of the world at large."
"Sokka," Suki said, her eyebrows arching in disapproval.
"What? It turned out all right, didn't it? Anyway, it got dark soon, so we made camp for the night. But Katara was too interested in practicing with the scroll, so she took it down to the river while me and Aang were asleep and started splashing around. There was this one technique she couldn't quite get, so pretty soon she was just splashing around randomly and yelling at inanimate objects. Can anyone tell me what's wrong with this picture?"
"Water isn't an inanimate object," Kyana said with a tone of righteous indignation.
"She went off by herself in the middle of the night and started making a bunch of noise," Taka said. Sokka nodded.
"Taka's right. The pirates were probably still after us, and we had a bunch of other people on our trail that we didn't want to alert to our presence. But Katara kept making a bunch of noise, and eventually she hears this CRUNCH, the sound of a metal boat landing on the shore. She tries to run back to camp, but there's a pirate in her way! She tries to run a different way, but there's another pirate! She only has one escape route left, and suddenly—" Sokka grabbed the nearest kid, Tenzin, by the wrists. "She's caught by this bald, scary-looking Fire Nation kid! He holds her wrists real tight like this and says, I'll save you from the pirates…" Sokka's voice became a low rasp. "And Katara's all like, oh no! It's Prince Zuko!"
Ruzon's jaw dropped.
"That's right, little guy, your dad was working with the pirates. So Zuko takes the waterbending scroll and ties Katara to a tree. He tries to get her to tell him where Aang is so he can capture him, but Katara was really awesome and didn't tell him, even when he tried to use her necklace, which he found a couple of weeks previously, to make her cooperate. The pirates were getting a little irritated by now… they had made a deal with Zuko where they would catch us in exchange for the waterbending scroll, but Zuko wasn't going to make the trade until he had Aang. He sent the pirates back out to find us, and we were just barely waking up, so they caught us in like three seconds."
"A warrior always has to be vigilant," Amaruq said, quoting one of Sokka's oft-repeated lessons.
"That's right, and that's why we got captured, because we weren't vigilant. So, two lessons from this story. Don't steal, and be vigilant." Sokka cleared his throat. "We're getting to the good part now. The pirates had me, Katara, and Aang all tied up on one side of the beach, and Zuko and his firebenders had the waterbending scroll on the other side of the beach. They were getting ready to make the trade when I came up with a brilliant plan. I said, you're really going to hand over the Avatar for a stupid piece of parchment? and that kind of made Zuko mad, because he hadn't told the pirates that Aang was the Avatar. He was all like Don't listen to him! He's trying to turn us against each other, which I totally was. But I kept at it, because a Water Tribe genius never stays in captivity for long. Why not turn him in to the Firelord and get a whole heap of gold? I said, which really made Zuko mad, because that's what he wanted to do."
Ruzon was starting to like this story. The idea of his dad as a scary-looking villain, as opposed to a quiet man who liked turtle-ducks, was a rather cool novelty.
"So the pirates break the deal, and this big fight breaks out. There's smoke and firebending and swords all over the place—me and Aang are trying to get out of it, and Katara's still tied to that tree, but luckily, Momo flies in and bites Katara's ropes. While everyone else is still distracted with the fight, we run down the beach to the pirates' ship so we can escape. Aang and Katara pull the water in so that the ship can float out into the river, and we all get on and start escaping."
"That seemed too easy," said Ling.
"That's because it's not over yet. Zuko and the pirate captain were dueling on the beach, so they didn't see the ship go by. Uncle Iroh noticed, though, and broke up the fight—the pirate captain saw that his boat was floating down the river and ran off to try to stop it, but it turns out that the pirate crew stole Zuko's boat and were using it to chase after us! Eventually they caught up to us and started boarding—we managed to knock them off into the water after some little scuffles, but we didn't notice the Giant Waterfall of Doom coming toward us."
"Mom can reverse a waterfall," Tenzin pointed out.
"She couldn't back then. All she and Aang could do was make some little whirlpools to keep the boat from going over the waterfall. But the pirates on Zuko's boat couldn't do that—so they plowed right into us, and we all went crashing down the waterfall! Guess who saved us?"
"APPA!" chorused the kids. They knew that most dramatic rescues happened courtesy of their big fluffy friend.
"Yeah! Appa showed up and snatched us right before the boats crashed at the bottom of the waterfall. We flew off into the sunset, and Zuko stomped off to his ship to sulk. The end."
The kids cheered.
Ruzon decided that he had just heard the coolest story of his life. He lay awake remembering it long after everyone else had fallen asleep.
"…And that's how they escaped," Ruzon finished.
Mai was grinning. Zuko's cheeks were scarlet even in the darkness, and he rested his forehead in his hands.
"No more Kyoshi Island," he said in a slightly strangled voice once he had regained his composure. "Next summer… Ember Island. Not Kyoshi Island. I'm going to tell all those stories the right way."
"But Uncle Sokka said that is the right way," Ruzon said.
"Uncle Sokka can take his boomerang and shove it—"
"You're just proving his point," Mai said gently. "Which version did you like better, Ruzon?"
"Uncle Sokka's," Ruzon said after a moment's consideration, and then looked guilty. "Sorry, Dad. I liked your version, too."
"It's all right. I'm sure Sokka tells it better anyway." Zuko sighed and just hoped that Sokka wouldn't get it in his head to tell the "Zuko hires a whip-wielding bounty hunter to attack a convent full of nuns" story. He knew it was impossible to keep the truth from the kids forever. Sooner or later they would find out that he used to be (and still was, sometimes) an arrogant, thick-headed ass. He just wanted to be a good dad. That was all he wanted to be, from the very minute Ruzon was born.
"Will you tell us about the time you and Uncle Aang met the dragons?" Ruzon said. Zuko sighed and relaxed. There was a story he could tell in good conscience.
Later, when the story was finished and Ruzon and Irah and finally fallen asleep in little bundles, Mai looked across the bed at Zuko, looking suddenly and uncharacteristically horrified as if she had just realized something terrible.
"Do you realize you volunteered us to look after a bunch of wild eight-year-olds all next summer?" she said.