A/N: It seems that I jumped the shark, but not in the way that I was worried about. The one line about Earth Kingdom soldiers being stranded seems to be less believable than frickin fusion.
I really should stop being alliterative after this concluding chapter…
Chapter 17: Aftermath and Ascension
For over a week after the solar eclipse Katara worried that all hell would break loose in the Fire Nation capital. Most of the earthbenders from the Earth Kingdom invasion had either perished or were badly wounded in the battle against Azula and Katara, leaving the nonbending soldiers stranded when Toph forced an airship to crash on top of the entrance to the city. Even after Toph metalbended a path through the wreck the soldiers were still stuck on the island, since three airships that were still flying had destroyed the ships the Earth Kingdom used to reach the Fire Nation.
Tensions ran high as generals of the Fire Nation wanted to execute the stranded soldiers while the few Dai Li who commanded them wanted to take what they needed to survive. Only Aang's presence prevented violence from breaking out, neither side willing to face the Avatar after he demonstrated control of the Avatar State. Even with Aang around there were fights over distribution of food and where to house the soldiers until they could go home.
After an examination of the airships, Sokka suggested using them to transport the soldiers back to the Earth Kingdom. The interiors would have to be modified to hold all of the soldiers at once, which took several days of Toph metalbending wider spaces inside the airships. Some of the soldiers had to be taught how to fly the airships for the journey, part of an agreement to ensure that the Fire Nation officers wouldn't simply dump the soldiers into the sea on the way to the Earth Kingdom.
None of it mattered to Azula, who was being held captive inside her old room in the palace. Half a dozen guards watched the door, three from the Fire Nation and three from the Earth Kingdom. Inside Azula sat on her old bed, waiting for whatever judgment her enemies had for her. She considered trying to escape, but quickly realized that she didn't have anywhere else to go.
A knock at the door caught Azula's attention. "Come in" Azula said. The door opened and Katara walked inside, closing the door behind her. "Are you here to gloat?" Azula asked.
"No" Katara answered. "I thought you'd like to know that your mother is recovering."
Azula looked away, not wanting Katara to see the concern on her face for her mother. "Is that it?" Azula asked. "You could have sent a messenger to tell me that."
Katara took a few steps into the room and looked at a bookshelf beside the bed. Despite using the room for over a month Katara had never read any of the books Azula owned. "A messenger couldn't be trusted" Katara said. "Your brother isn't doing so well."
"He can die for all I care" Azula said. "I suppose mother is healing him as we speak?"
"She's trying to" Katara answered. "Your father's lightning did a lot of damage and she couldn't treat the wounds soon enough."
"Zuko is dying, isn't he?" Azula asked.
"That's why I'm here" Katara said. "If he's going to make it Zuko needs a waterbender. He needs you."
Azula laughed for a moment. "For most of my life I've wanted Zuko out of it" she said. "Why would I want to save him now?"
"I suppose asking you to do it out of the goodness in your heart is out of the question?" Katara asked.
"So you finally understand me" Azula said.
"Look, if you won't do it for Zuko, do it for your mother" Katara suggested. "Can you really break her heart by letting her son die?"
Azula stood up and walked over the window, facing away from Katara. She didn't want to admit it, but Ursa was only person she had left to care about. "I'll do it, but I want something in return" Azula said.
"You know I can't let you go" Katara said.
"True, but that wasn't what I had in mind" Azula said. She walked up to Katara, stopping just a foot away from her. "I just want to live a life that isn't in a prison cell."
Katara smiled for a bit. "I'll see what I can do."
Meanwhile in the palace infirmary Ursa tended to Zuko. He was still lying in a bed, the burns on his chest and arms well on their way to becoming new scars. Zuko was only awake for a few minutes at a time, too weak to maintain consciousness for long. Still weak from her own battle, Ursa's fire healing could only keep Zuko's condition stable.
While Ursa focused on treating Zuko's chest she heard someone enter the infirmary. "I asked to be left alone" Ursa said.
"You're going to wear yourself out" the newcomer said, which Ursa recognized by the voice of her brother in law. Iroh set a pot of tea on a table next to Zuko's bed. "It's been so long since we've enjoyed tea together."
"Aren't you supposed to be helping the Avatar keep the generals in check" Ursa asked, not looking away from her son.
Suddenly the entire palace vibrated for a few seconds. "It appears the Avatar is sufficient to keep them in line" Iroh said, guessing that Aang had just used the Avatar State to stop the generals from attempting something. Then Iroh placed a travel sized Pai Sho board on the table. "May I have this game?"
"I don't have time for games" Ursa said.
Ignoring her objection Iroh placed his set of Pai Sho pieces next to the board, then poured some of his tea into two cups. "Indulge an old man just this once" Iroh said.
Ursa sighed, and once she was certain Zuko wouldn't get any worse she stepped away from his bed. Taking a seat opposite Iroh at the table, she took one of the tea cups and sipped it. "Ginseng tea, you remembered" Ursa noted.
"I made your favorite on the day Zuko was born" Iroh said. He placed a tile on his side of the board. "It was one of the happiest days of my life."
After another sip of tea Ursa placed an air tile on her side of the board. "I heard that you looked after Zuko for three years."
"Yes" Iroh said, placing an earth tile near the middle of the board. "He never said it, but I know he missed you."
"And I missed him" Ursa said. The conversation paused for a few turns in the game. Ursa used an aggressive strategy, focusing on cutting off any opportunity for Iroh to make a winning pattern with his pieces.
Iroh played with an unusual strategy, deliberately avoiding flaws in Ursa's strategy that could let him win the game. He placed a white lotus tile in the center of the board. "Have you thought about the future?" Iroh asked.
"Not really" Ursa answered, placing a jade tile on the edge of the board. "I expect Zuko to become Fire Lord once he recovers."
"He's certainly earned it" Iroh said, placing his last tile on the board, a water tile in the middle of Ursa's tiles.
Looking at the board with her last tile in hand, Ursa found only one spot left to place it. Her fire tile had to go in the middle of Iroh's group of tiles opposite of hers. "How in the world did you pull this off?" Ursa asked, noticing the pattern of tiles on the board. It resembled a yin-yang symbol, each player having one tile in the middle of the other group of tiles.
"I've gotten better at this game since we last played" Iroh said, avoiding the question. Iroh finished his tea and stood up. "We really must do this again sometime."
"I would like that" Ursa said.
In the palace's war room Aang was trying to negotiate a cease-fire and withdrawal of Fire Nation forces from the Earth Kingdom. Lacking any kind of diplomacy skills Aang brought Sokka and Suki along, hoping they could help get the generals to cooperate. But even with the Fire Lord dead and the capital effectively captured, the generals refused to end the war.
"What do you mean you can't order the army to leave?" Aang demanded, slamming his fist on the war room's map of the Earth Kingdom.
On the opposite side of the map stood General Shinu, representing the nobility still holed up in their personal bunkers. "None of us have the authority to recall the troops from the Earth Kingdom" Shinu explained.
"Why not?" Sokka asked. "You certainly can deploy them anywhere you like in the Earth Kingdom."
"Deploy them, yes" Shinu said. "But recalling them to the homeland is another matter."
"What's the problem?" Suki asked.
"The generals in the field have standing orders to only bring the troops home if the Fire Lord orders them to return" Shinu explained. "If I or my colleagues give the order the field generals will not obey it."
"In case you haven't noticed, we don't have a Fire Lord to give the order!" Aang yelled, getting frustrated with the general.
General Shinu stepped back a bit, worried that Aang might enter the Avatar State and blow him out of the war room like the previous general that negotiated. "That could be remedied" Shinu said. "There are two heirs to the throne still alive."
"We know" Sokka said, glaring at the general.
"Then I recommend you let one of them take the throne immediately" Shinu suggested.
"Get out" Aang said, refusing to let the discussion continue in this direction.
"NOW!" Aang yelled, using the Avatar State to intimidate the general. He remained in the Avatar State for the few seconds it took for Shinu to leave.
Once the general was gone Sokka turned towards Aang. "You really should stop doing that" Sokka suggested.
"Besides, he did have a point" Suki said. "This would be a lot easier if we had a new Fire Lord to order these people around."
Aang sighed and rubbed his temples. "Zuko's in no condition to become Fire Lord and there's no way we're letting Azula take it."
Both Sokka and Suki stared at Aang. "There is one other option" Suki said.
"I know where you're going with this" Aang said. "We could have Katara pretend to be Azula becoming the Fire Lord."
"It would work" Sokka said.
"But that still leaves us with Azula being the Fire Lord after Katara gets her body back" Aang said. "There's just too much at risk with that."
"We also risk a lot if we wait for Zuko to get better" Sokka said. "If those Fire Nation soldiers are still in the Earth Kingdom when Sozin's Comet arrives they can do a lot of damage."
Aang took a moment to think about the options he had. "Let's get everyone together and talk about this before committing to anything" Aang said.
Katara personally escorted Azula through the halls to the palace infirmary. Neither of them said a word along the way. At every turn Katara suspected Azula might try to escape, but it never happened. On arrival at the infirmary Katara opened the door and Azula walked inside. Katara gave Azula a few minutes alone with Ursa before entering herself.
With Azula at her side Ursa examined Katara, finally seeing what her daughter should have looked like. It reminded Ursa of herself at that age, the only difference being how Katara held herself. But Ursa knew nothing about the person behind the eyes, and really didn't want to know. She didn't trust Katara, having heard about how she and Azula had been trying to kill each other only a week before.
"Why are you still here?" Ursa asked.
"No offense, but I'm keeping an eye on Azula" Katara answered.
"I would expect nothing less" Azula said. She walked over to Zuko's bed and observed how vulnerable he appeared. "Do you have any advice on healing?"
Katara shared what she learned from the healing lessons at the North Pole. She was surprised by how little she remembered, having forgotten most of it through lack of use. Only the first lesson was clear in Katara's memory, which was all she could explain to Azula. It was enough to help Azula improve on what she had figured out before through trial and error.
With water coating her hands Azula went to work on healing Zuko. The burns had already started to scar, requiring Azula to work slowly to avoid causing any new damage. Azula focused on the chest burns first, wondering how Zuko could have survived them. After an hour of uninterrupted healing Zuko was breathing better and the chest burns were more manageable.
Azula had just pulled her hands away from Zuko when he suddenly woke up. With the first thing he saw being Azula he instinctively tried to pull away, nearly tumbling out of the bed before Ursa could stop him. At first Zuko didn't feel the pain in his arms, fear suppressing the pain with adrenaline. Then he noticed Ursa and Katara and settled down, then felt the pain immediately.
"What happened?" Zuko said, trying and failing to hide the pain.
"You saved my live, son" Ursa said. "Do you remember the lightning?"
"A bit" Zuko said. "I wasn't sure if uncle's technique was going to work."
"You weren't sure!" Katara yelled. "You could have died! You almost did!"
"Feels like I did" Zuko said. He tried to move his arms, but pain seemed to paralyze them.
"Don't move" Ursa said, trying to hold Zuko in place. "You're still in pretty bad shape."
"That must be why she's here" Zuko commented, glancing at Azula. "What's the price for her healing?"
"I'll handle that" Katara said. "Just get some rest."
"That sounds good" Zuko said. He tried to relax and within a minute he fell asleep.
Azula resumed her work, starting the healing on Zuko's arms. Immediately Azula noticed that one of the arms suffered far more damage than the other, being the arm that released the lightning. The burns on the arm followed the chi path through it, getting worse towards the hand. Even if Zuko recovered Azula suspected he might have to lose the arm.
After taking twenty minutes to heal Zuko's shoulder, Azula looked at Ursa. "This is worse than I thought" Azula said.
Ursa looked at Zuko's burned arm, finally admitting to herself what Azula had noticed. "You can't heal it?" she asked.
"If I had gotten to this right after it happened, maybe I could" Azula said. "Now, I really don't know."
"Why not?" Katara asked.
Both Ursa and Azula stared at Katara. "You've never healed burns like these" Ursa said, knowing that only a novice healer would ask such a question. "Once they start to scar they become much harder to heal. Permanent if too much time passes."
"I might be able to, if I focused on just the arm" Azula said. "And a few days to work on it."
"But then the rest of him wouldn't heal" Katara said.
"I know" Azula said.
"Tend to the rest of him" Ursa said. She got up and walked around the bed to get closer to the burned arm. "I'll heal it."
After another hour of watching Azula and Ursa heal Zuko, Katara was convinced that Ursa wouldn't let Azula do anything that might harm Zuko. Evening came sooner than Katara realized, and she left the infirmary leaving guards watching it. She figured that Ursa and Azula could just sleep in the infirmary and continue their work in the morning.
The next day Sokka called for a Team Avatar meeting in the throne room. Filling in for Zuko was Iroh, who arrived in the middle of a conversation with Toph. Suki and Sokka were talking to each other when Aang arrived with Katara. Everyone gathered in front of the empty throne, all of them wondering who would end up filling it.
"Alright, I call this meeting of Team Avatar into order" Sokka declared.
"Why so formal?" Toph asked. She was lying on her side scratching an itch behind her ear.
"Seeing as we don't have to worry about running for our lives now, I thought it might be nice to try it" Sokka explained.
"I don't like it" Toph said, scratching the inside of her ear and then flicking a bit of earwax at Sokka.
"Can we just get on with this?" Suki asked.
"Oh right" Sokka said. "We need someone to become Fire Lord to order the army around."
Katara pointed her thumb at Iroh. "Can't we just have him take the throne?" Katara asked.
Iroh shook his head. "It is not my place" Iroh said. "The people would only see a brother seizing power from the other."
"That's kind of the point" Katara said. "You would be taking back what should have been yours from the beginning."
"But that would not lead to true peace" Iroh said. "Someone new must take the throne."
"What about Zuko?" Toph asked.
"Have you seen him since the eclipse?" Suki asked. "He's not in very good shape right now."
"And we kind of need a Fire Lord right away" Aang said.
All eyes drifted towards Katara. "Why is everyone looking at me?" Katara asked.
"I'm not" Toph said.
"You do have the body of Fire Nation royalty" Sokka said.
"Are you nuts?" Katara yelled. "There's no way I'm becoming Fire Lord with Ms. Slayer of Fire Lords around here!"
"Hey I thought I was supposed to come up with the nicknames" Toph said.
"Ursa will not be a problem" Iroh said, ignoring Toph. "As long as you don't threaten Zuko, she will leave you alone."
"And what about Azula?" Katara asked. "Do you think she'll cooperate as Fire Lord once we're back in the right bodies?"
"Well you could just…" Sokka said.
A moment of silence passed before Katara realized what her brother implied. "Oh no…" Katara said. "No no no. I am not staying like this for the rest of my life!"
"Katara, listen" Sokka said.
"No!" Katara yelled, turning away from everyone. "I can't believe any of you would ask me to do this."
Katara walked away from her friends, none of them trying to stop her. Aang was about to follow when Sokka grabbed his shoulder, telling him to let Katara be alone. After leaving the throne room Katara wandered the halls of the palace with no destination in mind. She entered the tunnels beneath the palace, hoping to get lost in them as well as in her thoughts.
As she wandered through the dark tunnels Katara thought about what her friends had wanted. They wanted her to give up her life, to give up who she was. It felt like a betrayal of everything she stood for, everything that made her Katara. And yet her thoughts drifted back to the battle with Azula just before the eclipse had arrived.
I could not have allowed this to end otherwise.
The decision had been crystal clear in the heat of battle. Katara remembered choosing to end Azula then, the only way to make sure she stayed down. At the time she hadn't thought about living as Azula, focusing on making it through that day alive. Part of her had always assumed that Zuko would be the next Fire Lord, and that she could live her own life even in the wrong body.
Wandering around the tunnels beneath the palace led Katara to the Fire Lord's bunker. No one had gone inside since Zuko and Ursa had been taken to the infirmary, no one wanting to visit Ozai's final resting place. Katara opened the door and entered the bunker, lighting the lamps inside. Immediately Katara saw Ozai's remains, left where they lay near the back of the bunker. The Fire Lord's crown was still resting among ashes and blackened bones.
They want me to take that Katara thought, staring at the crown. She didn't want it, sickened by all the horror committed with its authority. Katara wished that she could throw the crown into a smelter and destroy it. Walking up to where the crown lay Katara considered using her firebending to melt it right there, the only thing stopping her was the thought that her fire wouldn't be hot enough to completely melt it.
"Look at me, thinking like a firebender" Katara muttered. She could imagine Ozai laughing at her from beyond the grave, amused by the last southern waterbender corrupted into being Fire Nation.
Hearing footsteps took Katara out of her thoughts. Turning towards the door Katara saw Ursa entering the bunker. The older woman looked exhausted, and Katara could swear she saw more gray in Ursa's hair than she remembered seeing the day before. Ursa slowly walked into the bunker, saying nothing as she got closer to Katara. The guards that escorted Ursa remained at the door, keeping an eye on her.
"Shouldn't you be healing Zuko right now?" Katara asked.
Stopping just a few feet from Katara, Ursa glanced at the crown. "Azula and I had to stop for a while" Ursa explained. "The body can only take so much healing at a time."
"And you come here during your break?" Katara asked, crossing her arms.
"I don't expect you to understand" Ursa said, looking away from Katara.
Katara looked at the crown, and then kicked it across the floor. The crown hit the wall and bounced back towards Katara, sliding and coming to a stop at her feet. "Maybe I don't want to understand" Katara said. "Maybe I just want to go back to the life I had before being forced into your daughter's life."
"Many would kill to have what was forced on you" Ursa said.
"And I'd kill to be rid of it!" Katara yelled. Then Katara realized her choice of words. "See? I'm already starting to be like her."
"You're nowhere near being like Azula" Ursa said. "She would take that crown without any hesitation."
"I don't want it" Katara said, kicking the crown towards Ursa. "Zuko should have it."
After letting the crown hit her foot, Ursa bent down and picked it up. "I never wanted either of my children to have this so early in life" Ursa said. "Neither of them are ready."
"At least they were raised to expect it" Katara said. "I don't have a clue about how to run a country, let alone end a war."
"Ending the war could be the easy part" Ursa said with a short laugh. "I've heard about the way you and the Avatar look at each other."
"How could you possibly know about that?" Katara asked with her hands on her hips. "You've never seen us in the same room."
"Servants talk" Ursa explained. "Even the guards suspect there's something between you two."
"What does this have to do with anything important" Katara asked.
"True peace could be achieved if there were a bond between the Fire Lord and the Avatar" Ursa said. "It would be a political engagement, to pacify both sides in this war by wedding their leaders."
"You think that I should marry Aang?" Katara asked.
"Not right away of course" Ursa said. "A few years of courting, some time for a show of romance, the usual rejection of other suitors, et cetera. And if there's some genuine affection, it will make a good lovers tale for the common folk to enjoy."
For a few minutes Katara thought about what Ursa was suggesting. "How do I know you won't kill me like the last two Fire Lords?" Katara asked.
"Both of them threatened my son" Ursa said. "Leave Zuko alone, and I'll leave you alone."
Katara turned away from Ursa, considering what she said. While she could understand what Ursa had suggested, Katara couldn't figure out Ursa's motives. "What about Azula?" Katara asked. "Do you expect me to believe you're fine with her being a waterbender permanently?"
Silence lasted for a few minutes as Ursa hesitated to respond. Katara was about to leave when Ursa finally decided to admit the truth. "It was years since I saw my daughter, before she found me" Ursa said. "I didn't know what she was supposed to look like. You could say I've gotten attached to the way she is now."
Ursa stepped towards Katara and held the crown towards her. Katara looked at the crown, then into Ursa's eyes. "I still don't want that" Katara said. "It's been used to cause so much pain."
"I know" Ursa said. "But now, you can use it to heal that pain."
Still holding the crown in front of her, Ursa waited for Katara to act. Slowly Katara raised her hand and placed it on the crown. "I'm not ready for this" Katara said.
"You don't have to be" Ursa said, letting go of the crown. "You have your friends to help."
Staring at the crown in her hand, Katara found her reflection in the metal. For the first time the reflection seemed tolerable, finally starting to get used to seeing it as hers. "I'll try" Katara said.
The following day, just before the airships would depart to return the Earth Kingdom survivors to their nation, a coronation of the next Fire Lord was held at the Fire Sage Temple. The temple courtyard was filled with people from both nations, soldiers and nobles alike. After three Fire Lords all failing to secure victory, many of the citizens simply wanted the war to end.
Rumors of a change in the rules of succession were already spreading through the crowd. Using Ozai's succession as precedent, the second heir could take the throne if the first were not available. Many wondered what the fate of their prince was, or discussed the implications of the first female Fire Lord in several generations.
Inside the temple Katara just finished adjusting the royal robes she wore, getting ready to face the crowd. Her friends were already outside keeping an eye on everyone, leaving Katara alone to prepare. This was the point of no return, and she still questioned whether or not this was the right thing to do. Just before Katara was about leave she heard someone walking behind her.
"I hope you're happy" Azula said, walking up to Katara. "You're about to have what I've always wanted."
Turning around Katara noticed that there weren't any guards watching Azula. "Why are you here?" Katara asked.
"I'm not going to miss my own coronation" Azula said. "Even if I don't get to participate in it."
"It was your mother that convinced me to accept this" Katara said. Then she laughed for a moment. "I suspect she wants you all to herself."
Azula laughed at the suspicion. "My family has always had a problem with sharing" Azula said. Then she looked Katara straight in the eyes. "Whatever you do after today, do it well. When all is said and done I want history to see Azula as a great Fire Lord."
"Even if it's all a lie?" Katara asked.
"Especially if it's all a lie" Azula answered. She turned and walked away from Katara, leaving to spend some time with her mother.
Once she was alone, Katara turned and left through the curtain leading outside. Immediately she heard the crowd cheering for the princess, chanting Azula's name. Katara walked past the Fire Sages which rang a gong as she passed them. Once Katara was standing in front of the crowd the people silenced themselves, wanting to hear the ceremony.
On Katara's right were her friends, with Aang in front wearing brand new Air Nomad robes. On Katara's right were Iroh and Ursa, with Azula just arriving to join them. This is it… Katara thought as she observed the crowd. Katara knelt in front of the crowd, and heard one of the Fire Sages walk up to her to place the crown in her hair.
"All Hail Fire Lord Azula" the Fire Sage decreed, setting the crown in Katara's topknot.
Over the years Katara governed to the best of her ability. She gradually withdrew the forces the Fire Nation had in the Earth Kingdom, only leaving a small contingent to assist King Kuei's reclaiming of Ba Sing Se. The colonies in the Earth Kingdom were granted independence from the Fire Nation and Earth Kingdom, and were allowed to create their own government. A United Republic of Nations was born, where people from all nations could live and grow in harmony.
On the day of Sozin's Comet a betrothal between Katara and Aang was made official. Several years later, when both could finally kiss with Azula's face, they wed. The union was celebrated across the world, the first grand party to ignore national divides in centuries. When Katara threw the bouquet at the end of the wedding it was caught by Azula, attending as one of Katara's bridesmaids. Katara didn't know who Azula was dating at the time, just that it was some young Fire Nation noble. She didn't care to find out before her honeymoon with Aang.
As time passed the people started to figure out who Katara really was. Rather than trying to suppress the truth, Katara told anyone she thought was suspecting anything wrong. The servants of the palace were the first to know, many of which already knew by eavesdropping on Katara's private conversations. Eventually the name Azula became a public formality in the capital, and using the name Katara in private became a measure of trust.
When Katara first discovered that she was with child, she decided to drop the façade altogether. She didn't want to potentially scar the baby with the ruse. With the world prospering, Katara figured the people would forgive the deception. A month after the birth of Prince Tenzin, Katara told the truth to the entire world.
All Hail Fire Lord Katara
A/N: And that's a wrap.
I'll admit that from the beginning I never intended to reverse the body switch, which a few of you guessed correctly. My original plan also had Zuko and Azula die at some point, but I couldn't bring myself to do it. Koh was a Red Herring, until the cameo in the previous chapter.
And for those of you who care about Shipping, Kataang was the only feasible option for this story. Zutara was out of the question, the premise making it Zucest as well.
Now I better get back to work on my other stories, current and future. I've got a few plot bunnies caged for the story I put on hold for this one.