A/N I wanted to have this out in time for Zutara week but my week was more hectic than I knew it would be and part of this took two whole days of thought to get right. So, Happy late Zutara week everyone!
As this story draws to a close, with only a short five years on section left, I want to thank my magnificent beta, who really has become a friend through all of this. If not for her help this would never have gotten finished nor been half so good. Excited-Insomniac, thank you so much girl! Also, she has her own Zutara works that are amazing and despite an ongoing project she was on it last week and has a fluffy sweet Zutara week story you should definitely check out.
Thanks so much to everyone that has followed along, loving this as much as I have and thank you extra for all of the awesome comments. They truly are uplifting. I hope my ending satisfies.
Epilogue: Part 2
Zuko had hardly slept in the two weeks since he'd killed his father. There was so much work to do he hardly had the time. Katara, Agni bless her, had been desperate to get back to their daughter after more than a month's separation but stayed for three days healing night and day until she'd collapsed from exhaustion. He hoped the trip back to Omashu was restful. As for himself, the devastation his father had wrought seemed endless. Before the mercenaries had razed the city, its streets had been lined with colorfully painted, ornately carved wooden structures, many of which had stood for centuries. Rebuilding would take decades and it would never be the same. Not for the first time, Zuko found himself immensely grateful that so many earthbending soldiers had taken part in their invasion. They had been able to construct temporary villages for the people that had chosen to stay in the city, some of the more skilled even attempting to recreate traditional motifs where they could.
Wrecked buildings were, for the moment, the least of his concerns. 16,285 of the nearly 150,000 people that lived in the Capital city proper and port villages had been killed, and thousands more were suffering from some degree of injury. The once beautiful and thriving city had been reduced to a smoldering hell, the last of the bodies only having been pulled from the rubble the day before.
As he stood vigil over the last of the mass funeral pyres, some of the older women could be overheard whispering about the vengeance of angry Spirits and divine retribution. Watching the flames fade up into the dark, star filled sky, Zuko was overcome with grief at the realization that the old crones were likely right. Decimating the Air Nomads was merely the first in a hundred year long line of atrocities and war crimes committed by the Fire Nation. Other than soldiers, the Fire Nation had been largely untouched by the violence. Not until his father sank into insanity and desperation did their own people begin to suffer too. Thankful for the darkness to hide his sorrow, Zuko wondered if the Earth Kingdom lords would care that his nation had been so recently devastated when it came to talks of reparations and peace. He doubted it.
After the last of the mourners had gone, Zuko turned to trudge back to the palace. He hadn't made it far before Azula fell in step beside him. Not meeting his eye, she reached up to dust the ash from the shoulder of his stiff white tunic. She sniffled and cleared her throat before staring hard at the rubble to her right. It had been one of the few positive things to come out of their invasion, but Zuko and Azula's relationship had changed drastically. While she spent at least half of her time in the palace tending to Sokka's hideous burns, the rest of her day was spent at Zuko's side, helping the wounded as far as they were able and accounting for the dead. They hadn't actually spoken to each other much, Azula hardly speaking at all, but something important had changed for the better between them. So, when her steps brought her closer as they walked up the road, Zuko put his arm around her shoulders without much thought.
"He really was a monster, wasn't he?" Her voice broke as she forced out the words and Zuko had to swallow down the lump in his throat before he could answer.
"Ya, he was."
"I'm glad he's dead, and I'm glad you killed him." She was quiet for a moment before looking up at him. It was hard to tell in the dark but he could still make out the glistening of tears on her cheek. "I'm glad it was you that did it, well and you and Katara." She looked down, watching her feet. "I wouldn't have been able to do it, but I'm glad it's done."
He didn't know what to say to that so he just nodded and squeezed her a little bit tighter. She hadn't said anything that day after he had told her Ozai was dead, just nodded solemnly and gone back to caring for Sozin. They continued on that way for some time, contemplative silence broken only by the call of night birds as they climbed the gentle sloping high stair to the caldera. When Azula again broke the silence, stopping them abruptly mid stride so she could face him, Zuko was momentarily taken aback by her change in mood and subject.
"I'm glad you married Katara. I was... so, so angry when I found out but… I guess she isn't so bad."
"Thanks… I'm glad you approve, I guess." She gave a little nod and carried on walking without him, her hands folded behind her back and her general posture more rigid. He watched her with mild amusement for a moment before huffing a quiet laugh and following her.
They had finally made it into the caldera when she spoke again.
"So… You and Sokka, you're friends, you like him right?"
Zuko frowned, slowing to stare at her in confusion. Noticing that he was no longer beside her, Azlua stopped and glanced primly at him over her shoulder, her face red up to her ears.
"Azula… are you blushing?"
Eyes going momentarily wide with indignation, she blustered as her blush deepened.
"What? Me, blushing?" She scoffed. "Certainly not brother, don't be ridiculous." The poor attempt at her old haughtiness made Zuko narrow his eyes in suspicion, something between dread and humor settling in his chest.
"I like Sokka just fine, I would have thought it obvious. Why do you ask?"
The look of determined nonchalance as she picked idly at the pressed white sleeve of her dress was almost too much but he knew that if he laughed at her, she'd be hurt and probably never bring up whatever it was she wanted to say again. With as much restraint as he could muster in his currently exhausted state, Zuko kept any reactions to himself until she was finished.
"I just wanted to know if you'd… well, if he.. I sort of thought that he, and I… well." Sighing in frustration, Azula stared fixedly at a spot somewhere over Zuko's left shoulder and finally let it out in a great rush. "It's just that I quite like him a lot and I think he might feel the same way but I'm not really sure as we've not exactly had a chance to discuss it and now he's in a coma so he doesn't have a whole lot to say when I talk to him and I know that things are tense right now and that we both have responsibilities for the next few months that would make it difficult but I just wanted to know," pausing for breath, she finally looked him in the eye "what you'd think if we made a match."
Now that she seemed to have said everything she wanted to say, Zuko felt momentarily at a loss for words. There had been more than one significant bit of information in her rushed monologue and he couldn't decide which to focus on first. She had said she was interested in someone but she wasn't entirely sure if her feelings were returned and yet she had essentially asked his permission before initiating any kind of relationship. For the second time in as many years, he was reminded of the stark differences between the Fire Nation and the Southern Water Tribe when it came to courtship. Zuko wasn't entirely sure but he didn't think Katara had so much as mentioned their relationship to her brother before she'd gotten pregnant. Such a casual and un-arranged tryst was absolutely unheard of in the upper rings of Fire Nation society. Had their family not been entirely fucked, they both would have had arranged marriages, Zuko having moderately more freedom to refuse or accept a match than Azula, with little to no care given to mutual attraction. As it was, no such arrangements had been made. His banishment at 13 and Azula's favored position, along with the appearance of a certain bald air bender, distracted their father from such trivialities.
Then there was the fact that she had brought this to him at all. He would have thought she would have gone to their mother once she was back in the city or even their uncle before mentioning it to him. Although, now that Ozai was dead, Zuko was both her brother and her Fire Lord. In any normal situation, he would have had final say over her suitors. But this wasn't a normal situation. Their relationship was still so fragile and with their history, he would never have presumed to intrude into her life that way. Never mind the fact that Katara would have been horrified. Realizing that, for the first time in her life, Azula seemed to care about what he thought almost had him misty eyed. If she wanted to be with Sokka, who was he to stop her?
Sokka? Had she said she was interested in Sokka? When in Agni's name had that happened? All previous thoughts of touching sentiment and courtship rituals fled his mind as he tried to wrap his head around the idea of Sokka and Azula together. It just seemed wrong. His rapidly changing emotions must have shown on his face because Azula's tentative, hopeful smile had melted into a defensive frown. For just a second, something in the stubborn tilt to her lip reminded him of Katara and suddenly it all made sense. If anyone had suggested to him before the Western Air Temple that he'd be married to Katara, he would have laughed them right off of his ship. Now she was everything to him. Realizing that he had better say something and that he only had one chance not to screw it up, Zuko cleared his throat and tried to arrange his face into something less shocked. She was bringing this to him, he would take her seriously.
"Sokka is a good man and a skilled warrior, I respect him a lot. I'm just a little shocked, is all. I knew you had spent a decent amount of time together but I had no idea… I mean I never would have imagined you to care for him like that."
Azula wrapped her arms around herself and a small smile graced her face.
"Well, I'm not the same person I used to be, and... he sees that."
Zuko smiled at that. She was right, she had changed so much in the last two years and no one seemed to appreciate that more than Sokka. Even if her romantic interest had caught him off guard, anyone could see that they were good friends. He did have one concern though.
"Azula, I'm honored that you'd bring this to me, and assuming he feels the same way I would be happy for both of you. But, speaking as someone who knows, there are a lot of things our two cultures do very differently." Zuko felt his good ear burn with embarrassment at what he was trying to say to his younger sister. "What I mean is that if it didn't work out and you wanted to marry into the Fire Nation nobility, such that it is now, if you weren't… Well Sokka might, and it's not like I have any kind of right to say anything but... You see Azula, it's very cold in the South Pole and they don't have the same standards about a woman's virtue as most people do here and…"
Horror had replaced the smile this time. "ZUKO! Stop! Right now!"
"It's not that I care what you do, it's just that I know how crazy people here are about that and I…"
"I just want you to keep that in mind is all. It's a stupid double standard but it is what it is and…"
Eyes squeezed tight, face as red as their flag, Azula had surged forward and clamped her hands over his mouth
"PLEASE, Zuko, shut up."
His nervous laugh was muffled behind her hands as he reached up to pull them away.
"Ok, ok fine. I just.. don't want you to get hurt, is all. I was stupid and selfish and didn't think of the possible implications for Katara when we were.. well you know. If we hadn't worked out she could have married anyone from her tribe that she wanted to but when Sokka and I went to the North Pole.." A sour look passed over his face as he remembered Hahn. "They're just as bad as here, maybe worse. She never could have married anyone worthy of her there." He sighed and put his hands on her shoulders. "I also want you to know that I'll always be here for you."
Rolling her eyes even as she smiled, Azula laughed softly.
"Thanks Zuko. And I know all that already. Even if he does feel the same way, anything between us would have to be very official and we probably won't even see eachother much for a while anyways so you don't need to worry about me, ok?"
Zuko gave an exaggerated nod and the pair turned back to the palace when a sudden thought struck him.
"I had to ask Hakoda for permission to marry Katara. I was more than a little intimidated and Sokka thought it was hilarious. If this works out, he'd have to ask me. You know what, please marry him Azula, let me have that!"
Her sharp jab to his ribs only made him laugh harder.
Katara returned the next day. It had only been two weeks but he'd missed her terribly. His days had been filled with devastation that left him emotionally exhausted. By the time he'd finally made it to bed every night, all he wanted was to hold his wife while he closed his eyes and tried to sleep. After so long away, the lavish room and overly plush bed were uncomfortable and facing the big empty space alone after a long day pulling his dead countrymen from rubble was unbearable. Two nights after Katara left he'd started sleeping on a small couch in Sokka's room so he wouldn't be alone.
That morning, Zuko was inspecting what was left of their food and medical supplies. Iroh walked beside him as they pondered the starvation of their people. For so long the Fire Nation had largely relied on imports from the colonies for much of their food supply. The once great rice plantations and vegetable farms were no longer able to sustain the home islands after a century of preference for cheaper colony imports. At least they had maintained their fishing trade, but even that wouldn't be enough to feed everyone. It would take time to reestablish their own food supply, time they didn't have. Thanks to Ozai's obsession with the Avatar, and later finding Zuko and rebuilding his air fleet, almost no money had been spent on importing food in the last two years. There was hardly enough to last the Capital the year.
"I've saved my people from my father only to watch them starve to death."
Iroh sighed, looking over his shoulder at the ledgers. "It does seem that way. Would that Ozai had as much care for rice as he had for machines of war. We may need to ask for help from the Earth Kingdom, Zuko."
Zuko scoffed at that. "Why would they help us? We've only spent the last century making unprovoked war on them, I'm sure they would love to see us starve. Most of the Lords and landowners that helped us plan and end the war only worked with us because they had no better option. I am sure they are sitting in their jade and carved stone manors, excitedly waiting for the first peace meeting so they can demand reparations we have no hope of paying."
"I am certain you are right about some of them. However, I am equally certain there are those who would help us, should we humble ourselves to ask. It would serve no one if the Fire Nation ceased to exist."
Frustration and exhaustion hindered Zuko's ability to accept what his uncle was saying but before he could respond, a soldier came running up to them from the docks.
"My Lord Zuko, Master Katara's ship has returned but it is not alone. There is a large, Earth Kingdom ship waiting to dock in the harbor too. What should I tell them?"
He all but threw the ledgers he had been agonizing over at Iroh in his haste. "Nothing, I'll see to it myself." A late-remembered "Thank-you" was shouted over his shoulder as he ran for the ships.
By the time he reached the docks, Katara had already disembarked and was shouting orders at Earth Kingdom men on the other ship. Taking a moment to catch his breath, he watched her as she directed the unloading of cargo. He was glad to notice that she did in fact seem well rested. Her face was aglow as it hadn't been since they'd left Omashu and her stride was full of focused energy. The white mourning robes were simple and the only adornment she wore was the hair comb he had given her on their wedding night but Zuko thought she had never looked more like a queen. Like the Fire Lady he would soon crown her to be.
"Katara!" She whirled around and smiled when her eyes found him amid the crowd of sailors and soldiers. Zuko wove around a man pushing a large pallet of produce and ran the last few steps, wrapping her in his arms at last.
"I missed you." he murmured into her hair. When she lifted her face up from his chest to respond, her smile faltered and her hand came up to cup his cheek.
"Oh Zuko, have you been sleeping at all? You look terrible."
He had to blink back tears as everything he had been holding back since they'd killed Ozai threatened to overwhelm him at once. She didn't need him to explain, wrapping her arms around his neck and holding him tight as he pulled himself together.
Clearing his throat and pulling back, he looked around in confusion at the soldiers unloading what he now noticed were cases of rice and other food staples.
"What is all this?"
She smiled again. "While I was in Omashu, I had a long talk with King Bumi. When he heard what Ozai had done he was as serious as I've ever seen him. I know we don't have many allies right now and we are going to need help to get the Fire Nation back on her feet after everything Ozai did and well… King Bumi seemed sympathetic to our people so... I may have talked him into sending enough food to get the Capital cities through until we can feed ourselves. They have had good harvests for many years so they had plenty to share."
Iroh had been right. Zuko smiled and took his wife's face in his hands and kissed her. The way she referred to his people and his country as her own so naturally made him love her even more.
"Look my little turtle duck, there's daddy! I told you we'd see him soon!"
Zuko looked up to see his mother, holding Kya, waving at him as they stepped onto the dock. Taking Katara's hand, he ran to meet them. He had been nervous that his daughter might not recognize him after more than a month apart but as soon as he was standing in front of them, chubby little arms reached out for him. Kya's warm little body tucked under his chin, her gurgled "Da!" and he was finally undone. The tears he had been fighting all week fell into her feathery black hair as he wept silently. Ursa choked out a sob watching them and reached up to wipe his cheek, wrapping them both in her arms.
"Oh my son, I am so sorry."
Squeezing his eyes shut to stem the flow of tears and not fully trusting his voice, Zuko whispered to Ursa. "It… It was so horrific. Why did he, how could he...?"
"I don't know, Zuko. I never could have imagined it either." When she pulled back, her face was grim and tear streaked but determined. "But I know you must be blaming yourself and I need you to understand that this was not your fault. You are not responsible for the decisions your father made, do you understand me Zuko?"
Scoffing self deprecatingly, Zuko looked down at Kya, suddenly unable to meet his mother's eyes. "Of course it is. If we hadn't attacked he wouldn't have set the mercenaries on the city."
"Please forgive my intrusion, Fire Lord Zuko, but the Lady is right."
With a sudden flush of embarrassment at the reminder that he had just broken down in a very public place, Zuko turned towards the voice. An officer, some years older than himself and newly familiar after the last two weeks, had gone to one knee before him. Looking around, several of his soldiers had done the same. Sailors and dock workers had stopped what they were doing to bow their heads and the few Earth Kingdom soldiers that had come with Katara stood in solemn silence. Shifting Kya to one side, Zuko wiped roughly at his face and turned his attention back to the soldier who had spoken, nodding for him to continue.
"No one could have predicted that Fire Lord Ozai would have gone to such extremes. The blood of our people is on his hands only. Those of us that abandoned him to follow you did so because we understood that you were our only hope for peace and prosperity for our families. We still believe this. It is gratifying to know that you share the pains of your people even as Fire Lord, but please, do not blame yourself for their suffering."
Beside him, Katara placed a hand on his shoulder and gave a small smile. Taking a deep breath and looking up at the city beyond the harbor, Zuko nodded again. They were right. It was difficult to separate his guilt over what his father had done from the pain at witnessing the suffering of his people but he could not continue to carry that burden. Meeting the serious eyes of his loyal soldiers, Zuko stood straighter.
Taking a step closer to the man that had spoken, Zuko laid his hand on his shoulder.
"Thank you. And you're right. My father told me all my life that I wasn't good enough, that I wasn't worthy to be Fire Lord. If I allow guilt over his sins to rule me I will only prove him right. Please continue to advise me well, General Katsu."
The new General gasped and watched with wide eyes as Zuko turned away. His uncle was standing beside Ursa, evidently having followed him to the docks, and seemed to have heard the conversation if the proud smile on his face was any indication. Sharing a look with Katara, Zuko turned to address the crowd, many of who were now staring curiously at Kya and Ursa.
"My mother, the Lady Ursa, was banished by my father and has now returned home at last. And this," He turned Kya in his arms so she faced the curious people "Is my daughter, Princess Kya."
Katara beamed at his side amid the applause and cheers. After a moment, he turned to her.
"Are you needed here for much longer?"
"Yes, I want to oversee the unloading of the ships personally and then I want to visit with the wounded in the city. Leave your new General with me and I will join you at the palace later."
She leaned up on her toes to kiss him and then their daughter before approaching the soldiers. Zuko turned back to his mother and extended his free arm to her.
"Come Mother, Uncle Iroh and I will walk with you to the palace. We have a lot to talk about."
She smiled at him and took his arm and together they left the docks.
His coronation had been nothing like a traditional Fire Nation coronation. For as long as anyone could remember, new Fire Lords were crowned in the caldera at the royal palace. Lords and Ladies, military leaders and, before the war, forign dignitaries flooded the halls for balls and dinners that sometimes lasted a week. In the city below, the people celebrated their new monarch with festivals and parties of their own. This time there would be no balls, no grand celebrations. The war was over and the world was relieved but in the Fire Nation, few felt like celebrating and a festival seemed wasteful. Instead, Zuko opted for something more subdued.
The ceremony began just before noon. Zuko, his family, his generals and as many people from all three nations that could fit filled the city square around the massive statue of Ozai. Katara had been itching to tear it down since they'd first passed it on the day of their invasion and she wasn't the only one. Soldiers threw thick ropes around the effigy and the royal family stood aside as eager citizens pulled it down. Toph had offered to take it down herself but Zuko assured her it was the sentiment that was important. The replacement would be dedicated as soon as a local mason had it completed in a little more than a month.
It was there that Zukko was crowned, not in some gilded hall or elaborately decorated stage but at the foot of the volcano amidst the ruined city. He, his family and his newly appointed officials all wore white capes over formal uniforms or robes. It was the first time any of them had worn the traditional red since the invasion. After the statue had fallen, the capes were removed, signifying the end of mourning and the hope of this new beginning. As he knelt before Yun Sui, his newly appointed High Sage, Agni was at his zenith and his rays glinted off the five pointed flame as it was held aloft for blessing and placed on Zuko's head. When he rose, Fire Lord Zuko, his shoulders felt the immense weight of that slight piece of gold.
Nothing that he could have said would have been adequate to the moment but he did his best. When he looked out at the sea of faces, more than a few were openly weeping by the time he was finished. After his speech, his beautiful, powerful, bride who had already won the hearts of many of his people, knelt before him. Katara looked resplendent, the red and gold of her new home accented perfectly with the blue of her people. They shared a tender smile as he placed the golden flame of the Fire Lady in her hair. There had been a small and public ceremony with the Fire Sage the night before in the same place to bless their marriage in the Fire Nation tradition. It had been almost as heavily attended as the coronation and it was then that they had presented Kya officially as the Princess.
When they stood together as Fire Lord and Lady, the applause was thunderous. In that moment, Zuko reflected how different it was compared to how he had pictured as a boy. Nothing about this was how he'd thought it would be but, both for the man he was and the woman at his side, he was thankful.
Instead of a festival, there had been a memorial service that lasted well into the night. It was for the war, the soldiers and peoples of all four nations that had suffered and died for one hundred years. Hakoda and Sokka had represented the Southern Water Tribe, Master Pakku and Sitka the North, and Toph and King Bumi, who had surprised everyone by showing up two days after Katara, stood for the Earth Kingdoms. There were more speeches and many tears. Zuko felt Aang's absence more keenly than he ever had. The Avatar should have been there, both for his people and as the Avatar. But watching his mother and father in law gesticulating animatedly with his daughter across the crowd, Zuko supposed that in a way, he was.