Chapter 13: Vengeance

He could hear the shouts of the crowd, the jeering and chanting amplified tenfold by the grand acoustics of the palace halls. Small fires burned everywhere, igniting ancient tapestries and priceless relics along the walls-but he passed them by with little thought. He did turn to stare for a moment at the gaping hole in a wall of sheer marble, but only until he saw another chunk of rubble ripped from the floor by an earthbender and thrown in the same general direction. People in the colonies were said to have allowed their bloodlines to be tainted with that of Earth Kingdom peasantry; the product often being green-eyed earthbenders sired or whelped by Fire Nation citizens. He had hoped that such abominations would be wiped out when he, as the Phoenix King, had launched his campaign to burn the entire wretched continent to ash...sort of like an added bonus to the total conquest of the world. Perhaps when Zuko was dead rounding up the crossbreeds and exterminating them would be his first act as the newly reinstated Fire Lord.

Waves of angry protesters surged past him; looting and vandalizing anything in their paths, but no one seemed to pay him any mind. For that, he decided, perhaps he should have thanked Ming. He ran a hand absently through his short hair. Dressed only in simple clothing and with neither topknot nor beard to mark his station he probably appeared to be just another disgruntled colonial peasant. Such anonymity afforded him the freedom to move unhindered through the mob. And so he did.

"Down with the Restoration Movement!" A group of half-starved colonists cried, inciting a disjointed chant that spread over the sea of bodies.

"Give us back our homes!" another loud voice bellowed, and was answered with cheers and shouts of agreement.

Ozai smiled to himself and pushed through another mass of people, slowly but surely making his way toward the front of the gathering-the entrance to the throne room. Zuko would be holed up there with his elite guard, and likely his friends. Minus the Avatar, of course.

"Stand back!" someone shouted, and suddenly a boulder of marble was ripped from the floor-several people who had been standing on it toppling over as it shifted-and four great hulking earthbenders hurled it at the grand doors. They splintered into a thousand pieces.

In the blink of an eye everything had disintegrated into complete chaos. The crowd burst forward, trampling and hurtling over anything or anyone in their wake. Fire erupted from the throne room, and as he was pushed forward in the current of protestors Ozai could make out the ranks of elite firebending guards as they attempted to hold back the angry mob. They fell quickly to the sheer numbers against which they stood. The screams were deafening. Men wielding anything from Fire Nation steel to rusty old pitchforks were embroiled in heated battle with the rapidly dwindling guard force, and underfoot he realized his foot was no longer standing on hard marble, but the leg of a trampled corpse.

As he neared the entryway he felt something grab his shoulder, attempting to hold him back. Ozai spun, his fist already aflame, and shot a burst of fire right into the face of the unfortunate guard. He was dead before he hit the ground. He could see them now; the young earthbending girl, the water tribe boy. The Avatar's waterbender. And Zuko. They were retreating toward the far corner of the throne room; where Ozai knew the escape tunnel would lead them to safety. That would never do.

He pushed violently through the crowd, throwing guards and colonists alike aside as the adrenaline pumping through his veins spurred him onward. He stopped when he realized he would never make it in time at the painfully slow pace, and took the only form he knew that would give him the power to block the exit. The air around him crackled and sparked as he drew his arms around, and brilliant white light exploded from his fingertips as it arched through the throne room and struck his mark. A giant section of the ceiling burst down where his lightning had hit, falling nearly atop the Fire Lord's small group. One of them went down when a piece struck her in the head-the little green-clad earthbender. The rest of the rubble formed a massive pile; impassible. The escape route had been blocked; and with it pandemonium erupted. Over the crowd he could see Zuko's eyes searching frantically, full of fear. The boy knew his father was here the moment the lightning flashed overhead. Ozai grinned to himself. His unfortunate disguise certainly did have its benefits.

Although some of the mob standing nearby had turned disbelieving eyes upon him after his stunt, they were not going to look a gift horse in the mouth. The crowd needed no prodding. In the blink of an eye the small group was put on the defensive. From where he stood Ozai could see the young Water Tribe warrior dragging the earthbender's limp body away from the pile of rubble, swinging wildly with his black-bladed sword as he tried to protect her from the press of the mob. Zuko and the waterbender had lashed out immediately, working back to back to form a protective zone around their comrades. It wasn't working, though-they wouldn't be able to hold off the sheer volume of furious colonists for very long. The waterbender was already running out of her element; much of it being steamed away in her attempts to ward off firebender's flames.

Ozai moved ever closer, his predatory gaze never leaving the scene unfolding before him. It was as if the spirits themselves had delivered him this most perfect opportunity to exact the vengeance that he so deserved.

The Water Tribe boy had been disarmed at some point in the fray and had resorted to shielding the unconscious earthbender with his own body. As his sister realized his plight she fell back to help him, leaving Zuko to defend alone. This was his best chance, Ozai decided. He breathed deeply and summoned a powerful flame; reaching out to burn himself a path through whoever was unfortunate enough to stand in his way. A column of hungry fire burst from his hand; bright and hot.

Zuko's eyes met his. In them Ozai could see the swirling depths of hatred, fear, and...something else. The young Fire Lord brought his arms up as his father approached, ready to block his fire or redirect his lightning. Ozai prepared to unleash Hell; and it seemed the mob had parted to save themselves-until a large rock flew from the crowd and struck Zuko hard in the hip. He went down, crying out in agony; attempting fruitlessly to drag himself upright.

"ZUKO!" Katara screamed; and even in the mad chaos her voice rang out clearly through the throne room turned warzone.

Ozai laughed low in his throat-this was the moment he had so long awaited. "This ends now." he spat, and began the motions that would generate a powerful bolt of lightning. The air around him crackled and flickered; white hot light gathering at his fingertips. Electricity shot up his arms...and pain ripped through his back?

Something was wrong-terribly wrong. He felt the energy pulling back against him, crackling back into his body; drawn there by the point of metal that had emerged from his chest. The tip of a dagger pushed at the fabric of his shirt, soaked in blood. My blood...

The lightning burned so hot that he felt his nerves seared as waves of it rippled through his body. He needed to discharge-but the dagger's metallic pull was attracting it back into him. In seconds he would lose control of the bolt, and it would fry him from the inside out. His breath fled him, and he felt something warm and slick bubble up his throat and spill from his mouth. He looked ahead, at Zuko-his son-staring in frozen horror. The waterbender turned his head away, "Don't look..."she mouthed.

He felt his knees hit the floor, and then his shoulder as he toppled over. It was too much, now. He couldn't hold the energy any longer. Through the bluish white haze he looked up, and into the eyes of his murderer.

And saw Ming's bloody, broken face.

Zuko clutched Katara to him, watching with revulsion as his father's electrified body sparked and burned.

"Don't look, Zuko..." She murmured through her tears, pulling him closer.

But he could not tear his eyes away. Ozai, former Fire Lord, the Phoenix King-his father-was dead. Done in by his own greatest weapon. "He's gone."

The mob had backed away, giving wide berth to the horrific scene. Even their shouts and chanting had died away; the shuffling of their feet making more noise than their weapons. He wondered how long the lull would last.

A lone Fire Nation guard stood over Ozai's body; though most of her armor had been stripped away. When the woman raised her head he almost didn't recognize Ming's swollen, bloody face. Her nose had been broken, and likely her cheekbone along with it. Most of her flesh was black and blue, and her jaw hung open as if she was unable to close it, but she turned despite the difficulty to face her Fire Lord and saluted.

She probably saved my life, Zuko realized. He reached down to clutch at his hip where the rock had smashed into him; a groan escaping his lips. His legs would barely move, and sharp pain enveloped his body below the waist. "I can't get up, Katara."

"We have to move...Now..." Sokka's voice cut in. When Zuko turned his head to glance his way he saw that the other boy had slung Toph's little frame across his shoulders; carrying her the way he'd haul in a koala-deer carcass after a hunt. "Before they mobilize again."

"His hip is shattered, and I don't have enough water to heal it." Katara said, her chin quivering as she fought to quell her tears. She shook her head. "The passage is blocked. We're trapped."

"No, it's not over." Zuko rasped, reaching for Katara's hand. "We're not giving up."

"How are we supposed to get out of this?" the Water Tribe warrior asked.

"Well, for starters, you could put me down and let me bust us a path outta' here."

Golden eyes and two pairs of blue ones flicked to Toph's grinning face.

The rolling chair creaked noisily as they made their way down the hall. Zuko resisted the urge to make some disparaging comment. He could walk now, with the help of a cane, but Uncle insisted that he allow himself to be transported in the wheeled chair Sokka had designed for him whenever the distance was strenuous. It had been almost six months since the revolt that had nearly plunged the Fire Nation back into war, and the reminders of it were all around. Earthbending craftsmen mulled about one section of the palace as they passed; pausing to bow to the Fire Lord and his esteemed Uncle before returning to the repairs they were making.

"I never liked that wall there, anyway." Uncle commented as they continued. "Pretty soon this place will look as good as new. Just like you, Nephew. Why, if you would take that trip to the Northern Water Tribe like Miss Katara and I have been asking you to do, I'm sure their master water healers could complete your recovery in no time."

"You know I can't do that right now, Uncle. I'm too swamped with all the treaties and contract negotiations; and I've got to find money in the budget for the last of the colonist relocation stipends. Aang will be back here any day now with that new land concession agreement from the Earth King, and I still haven't even finished looking over the blueprints for Republic City." The young Fire Lord ran a hand through his shaggy dark hair. "Maybe after the groundbreaking ceremony at the end of the year I can fit in a side trip."

Iroh heaved a melodramatic sigh.

Zuko repressed a smirk, shielding his eyes from the sun's glare as two servants held open a pair of double doors for them to pass. The chair bounced and creaked loudly as it made its way over the cobblestones and down the path to the garden. As they neared the turtleduck pond Zuko noticed two figures already standing there. He had only been expecting one.

"Finally!" Katara smiled, waving him over. She approached and gave Iroh a peck on the cheek before leaning down to embrace Zuko and plant a kiss on his lips. "You were supposed to be here an hour ago."

"I'm a busy man." He grinned, pulling his cane from the seat beside him and putting his weight upon it as he stood. His other hand found Katara's and he gave it a little squeeze before turning his attention to the other person standing there. "Hello, Ming."

"Fire Lord Zuko." She greeted softly, folding her hands into the traditional Fire Nation flame as she offered a slight bow.

Iroh padded past where he and Katara stood, approaching the young guardswoman and making a show of inspecting her. "Ah, my dear, look at you! You are positively glowing!" His hand shot out to pat the rounded swell of her belly.

Ming looked away, a rosy blush coloring her pale cheeks. Her face wasn't as pretty as it had once been, but the royal physicians and Katara's healing waters had done much to ease her injuries. "Thank you, General."

"I was just telling Ming how different she looks without her uniform." Katara put in, a lovely smile gracing her lips as she led Zuko down to the bank of the turtleduck pond and helped him to sit with his back against the willow-ash tree. "I guess Fire Nation standard issue doesn't exactly accommodate all shapes and sizes."

Zuko nodded, taking a moment to look over the woman who had saved him from the fiery death his own father had intended for him. She was unremarkable by Fire Nation standards, with plain honey-colored eyes and a build that a million other girls from the Caldera had inherited. She must have noticed the scrutiny, for she raised a hand self-consciously to rest on her pregnant belly and lowered her gaze. Ming had never volunteered the name of her child's father, and neither Zuko nor Iroh had ever deigned to ask. Toph had, much to the embarrassment of Katara and the rest of them, but Ming had only replied that she didn't know. Later, Toph had confided in Zuko that she was lying. He had never pressed the matter, though. Ming was brave and loyal, and as far as he was concerned, she was entitled to her secrets. "I suppose I could have a set altered to fit you; though in truth I expect you'll be taking a leave of absence to focus on your…uh…family…soon."

Ming shook her head, smiling sadly. "No, that isn't necessary, my Lord. Actually, that's sort of the reason I came here to see you." She reached into the belt of her dress, withdrawing a tightly rolled scroll and proffering it for him to take. "I wanted to give you my formal resignation."

Zuko nodded, accepting the scroll. "I understand, though I hope you will reconsider. I need people I can trust; especially in the Elite Guard. It really would be a shame to lose you." He felt Katara's hand on his back, rubbing light circles between his shoulder blades.

"You honor me, my Lord." She bowed again, accepting the praise humbly. "Thank you for your offer, but I have already accepted another. Master Toph has asked me to accompany her to Republic City once her peacekeeping force is established and provide oversight on the firebending end. I can best serve our people there. It's a good opportunity for me...and a chance for a fresh start. For both of us." She sounded so very sad despite the fortunate circumstances she was describing.

He offered her a smile; though in truth he almost wished he could talk her out of it. Perhaps he would need to have a little talk with Toph about stealing talent. "I accept your resignation, Ming. But if you ever change your mind..."

She nodded; and then-almost as an afterthought-she pulled something else from her belt and held it out to him. "I...thought you should have this."

Katara reached out to take it so that Zuko would not have to lean forward again, but stopped when she realized what it was. "Oh..." It was the long dagger that the guardswoman had used to thwart Ozai's last attempt to kill his son. The weapon was sheathed in a simple brown leather casing; completely unremarkable save for the story it told.

"You keep it." Zuko told her, repressing a shudder. "The fewer reminders of that monster I have around the palace, the better."

Ming said nothing, tucking the weapon back into the fabric of her belt. Her hand moved to hold her belly once more, and Zuko swore he saw her blinking back tears.

"Come, my dear." Iroh's calm voice interjected as he placed a hand on the woman's should and guided her gently toward the palace. "I'll help get your paperwork started. I'm sure Miss Bei Fong will be thrilled to have your help getting security up and running in Republic City!"

He watched their backs as they went; tearing his eyes away only when a stray turtleduck waddled up from the pond and 'quacked'its displeasure at being kept waiting. Katara's giggle elicited a smile from him, and the young Fire Lord reached into his sleeve to retrieve one of the stale dinner rolls he had pilfered from the palace kitchens. "I wonder what the future holds." He said absently.

Katara snuggled close, laying her head upon his shoulder as she held out a finger to stroke the shell of a turtleduck. "Good things." She said.

He lay his cheek upon her soft brown hair. "Yeah. You're probably right."

A/N: Holy crap, did I just finish a story? Well, not quite. There is an epilogue in the works, and I'll probably post it in the next day or two. I just had to throw in some stuff about Republic City…Have you all seen the first two episodes of Korra yet? A-Mazing. But I digress. "Conversations with Ozai" is at its end, and I do hope that you all have enjoyed it. I know I left a couple of big things ambiguous—trust me, it wasn't an oversight. I thought it best left unsaid that the Gaang managed to put down the revolt, that Aang eventually forgave Zuko and Katara, and that he realized how much suffering the Harmony Restoration Movement was causing. It just didn't seem necessary to go into great detail over those things, as they would have stifled the flow of this story. So I glossed. Liberally.

I also hope that I was able to do justice to Ozai's tragic end. Not that it was really all that tragic, because he was a total bastard by the time it came about, but I went into this story hoping to explore his character and try to show that maybe, once, there was a part of him that wasn't 100% Grade A Evil. Things just aren't that black and white, and to me the best characters in any piece of fiction have been the ones who walked that line of gray. It was surprisingly fun to have the opportunity to play around with what made him tick, even if things didn't turn out great for him in the end. The things that drove him to hate, and his hunger for power ultimately won out over whatever piece of him might still have been human.

Of course, he did leave a little piece of himself behind. I just couldn't resist. More on that in the epilogue…*cackle!*

Reviewers: As always, you all are the best. I know I said it last time, but the credit for a lot of this story truly goes to you. Your reactions, thoughts, suggestions, and even your criticisms were instrumental in writing this piece. Thanks to every one of you who has taken the time to leave a review; but especially to those of you who have done so chapter after chapter. You've been inspiring.