There is a story behind every betrayal, behind every stab of pain. And only in these stories can we learn how to keep those pains, those betrayals, from ever happening again.
This is my take on what Zuko was thinking as when he survived the destruction of his ship. Since we don't exactly know how he survived, I surmised that he probably lived by climbing onto a piece of debris in the water, and went with that. Someone may have already done a story like this, I don't know. But this is my take on what went on in Zuko's mind during the times that he was betrayed. Here, Zuko reflects on his life and the most important teacher that he will ever know.
I thought this was an interesting concept. The stages of hatred talked about here were learned through personal discovery. Tell me what you think.
I gripped the piece of driftwood tightly as I watched what was left of my life go up in flames.
Fire. Such a peculiar thing. My entire life, I have been surrounded by it. The most powerful element. The element to rule over all of the others. I had been taught that fire was the most important thing in my world, in anyone's world. Both a blessing and a curse.
I had known the blessing. And now, I know the curse.
When I was a child, the blessing of fire had always been upon me. It had been a promise of my birthright, of the life that I was to live when I was old enough to accept it. I was surrounded by people who exalted fire above all else. My people lived by the light that our element provided.
I was a child then, and I was treated like one. It was only as I started to grow up that things began to go wrong.
I always thought that I picked up Firebending easily enough. I was impatient, yes, and wanted to move onto new skills as soon as possible, but this did nothing to obstruct the fact that I completed my lessons. Completed them to my own satisfaction, that is. I would learn a skill, practice it for a few minutes, then demand to go on. I always thought that this was a measure of my strength. My father, however, saw it as evidence of my weakness.
And I never knew. I never knew how much he hated me, even then.
My sister was the true golden child. She was skilled and completely complacent. She picked up new Firebending moves with ease, and had the ability to combine them with other moves to make incredible, deadly combinations. And she did what she was told. By "complacent", I do not mean that Azula was quiet and well behaved. Actually, it was really the opposite. "Complacent" simply means that she did as she was told. Y there was a dangerous fire behind her amber eyes, a fire that was never quenched. There was something that she wanted that she wasn't getting. It wasn't approval, I know that much. Zula had all of the approval and support that she could possibly need, coming from the one person whose opinion actually mattered to me.
He calls her by her birth name, Azula. I call her Zula because it pisses her off. She always insisted on being called Azula because it was her royal title. She said that "Zula" sounded like the name of some disgusting intestinal flu. I agreed with her, which was why I continued to call her that. Zula really was the diarrhea of my life. She would strike me suddenly and painfully, leaving my life as a pile of shit on the ground.
There was one time that stood out above all others. One time that Azula's filthy hands changed my life in a way I would never be able to undo.
The ones who knew this story would never be able to forget it. I know that what happened would haunt me for the rest of my life. And whenever I could manage to forget my failure, a simple look in the mirror would reassure me that I was worthless.
I thought I was condemned that day. I realized much later that I had been damned much longer than that.
I would not fight my father that day. And it was not for the reason he thought. Fire Lord Ozai thought that the reason I would not compete in the Agni Kai was because I was a weak, shameless coward. In reality, it was much different than that. I loved him. I loved this man who had struggled to make me miserable. He was my father. He was my king. And I had devoted my life to his service. I honored him above all other people, and that honor was laced with a love that I was never able to explain. I looked up to him. That's all that you need to know. Saying any more than that would be meaningless.
But my father never saw this. He never knew, and I never had the chance to tell him. When I finally raised my face to the light, he attacked me. I have only the memory of wailing in pain before the world went black.
I woke up in my chambers, covered in sweat and in horrible pain. Iroh was by my side, holding my hand and gently wiping the sweat from my body. Seeing him brought in a wave of gratitude, the last of the gratitude I would ever feel in that portion of my life. I was grateful to have him there. I was grateful that he was caring for me.
On a dark night, a long, long time later, I found out that Uncle Iroh had been caring for me against my father's wishes. My father had ordered everyone in the palace to stay away from me. He wanted me to suffer alone for what I did. He knew how to break a child. He knew how to make me want to die inside.
He knew that leaving me alone would break what little resolve I had left. And once I was broken, Fire Lord Ozai hoped that I would simply lay down and die, succumbing to injuries both mental and physical.
But I survived.
I was stronger that he thought, even then. I am much stronger now, and I will tell you why.
I will tell you of the strength that hatred can bring to any mind.
I remember the last thing I said to my father before he banished me from the Fire Nation.
Iroh seemed to have a sixth sense of knowing exactly who was around him. He could sense presences unlike anyone I had ever known, or have known since. He was safe enough in the beginning. No one would dare violate the Fire Lord's orders, aside from himself, that is. And Ozai himself wouldn't come check on me until he felt that I had spent sufficient time suffering. And knowing my father, I could be alone for days before he finally "blessed" me with his presence.
Iroh knew this. He understood this. He understood most things.
He still does.
Uncle Iroh had already been at my side for a few hours before I had awakened. He had treated my burn and kept me warm as I struggled inside of my own head, fighting nightmares that I would never remember. I had never known that a burn victim needed to be kept warm. Iroh told me, though. He told me many things as I lay there, writhing in pain.
His voice was soothing to me. I clung to the sound like a child clinging to his mother, clinging to the one person who could possibly keep me from the dark.
Time passed, maybe a little, maybe a lot. I'd lost track of time. It meant nothing to me. Each new moment brought only pain from my wound and despair from the gaping holes in my mind. There was no reason to catalogue them. I was in so much pain already…I didn't need memories of even more pain.
So I don't know how long I had been laying there when Iroh suddenly stiffened and stood up. Panic lit his eyes, panic that he quickly tried to hide. He glanced around the room briefly, looking for something. I saw the moment that he found what he was looking for. The look of fear softened a bit…but only a bit. He glanced at me a last time and then crossed the room. I watched in near amusement as he proceeded to try to stuff himself into my closet.
The closet was full of laundry and the occasional bat. Yes, I know, it's disgusting to have bats living in a man's closet. I knew this firsthand. The stupid things crapped all over everything. But there was a hole in the top of my closet that I could never seem to seal tight enough. The hole would remain covered for a few days, but ultimately the bats would always break through. If I left my closet door open at night, they would fly around my room and shriek, demanding to be let out. Well, the damned things weren't my problem. If they hadn't gotten in in the first place, they wouldn't have wanted out.
In the night, I would throw anything within reach at the bats. Boots, armor, books. Anything that happened to be sitting on the floor. I never hit a single one of the damned things, but throwing boots at them eased my sense of laziness a bit. I was doing something to solve an annoying problem I my life, even though I wasn't doing much.
I knew that there were greater problems in my life. Maybe that was why I left the bats to do as they liked.
But that's another story for another time.
I couldn't help but smirking as my Uncle Iroh tried to cram himself into my bat inferno. Why was he doing it, in the first place? To make me laugh? I needed some cheering up, that much was obvious. And if anything would make me laugh at a time like that, it would be the sight of my closet door bending out a bit as Iroh's belly pushed on it.
I just hoped that he could stand the bats. And I'm sure that my dirty laundry didn't smell like a basket of roses, either.
The closet door slid shut as much as it could, and Iroh went silent. I couldn't even hear him breathing. I frowned, confused. What exactly was he doing in there.
My question was answered a few moments later as footsteps approached my room.
I understood then. I understood why my uncle was hiding.
I managed to turn my head away from the closet door mere moments before my father entered the room.
"It sickens me to know that you survived," Lord Ozai said as he strode toward me. "Without care, that burn could have easily been fatal. It would get infected and suck the life out of you."
My voice that day was barely more than a whisper. The simple movement of my lips brought agony to my body.
"I am dead, Father. As dead to you as I can be."
I thought that I had only died to him that day. But I was wrong. I had been dead to Fire Lord Ozai for years and years.
He glared down at me. I could see my crumbling future reflected in his eyes.
"Your failure has been a complete act of disrespect. You will not get away with this. I had thought to kill you, and I had every reason. You're weak. You have no honor. You're not worthy of taking the throne. In the end, your weakness will be the weakness of the Fire Nation. As Fire Lord, it is my duty to make sure that such a threat does not live."
I shrunk back, expecting a blow. My father scowled, taking this as yet another sign of my weakness.
"Your sister, however, suggested a more attractive alternative. The Fire Nation can use you yet. And what Azula wants for you is more than appropriate."
I don't remember the words that he spoke next. I was in too much of a state of shock. But I understood the meaning behind them. And that meaning, I would never be able to forget.
My father banished me from the Fire Nation. I was to leave that very day. He would give me a ship, a small, broken ship, and a crew. And with that crew, I was to go out and capture the Avatar.
The problem was, no one had seen the idiot for a hundred years.
It was a death sentence. A long, slow death sentence. This, too, had been Zula's idea. She was the one who had thought up this impossible mission and convinced my father to adopt it. It couldn't have been that hard.
Death would have been a mercy, and Zula knew it.
Oh, Father. Can't you see what you've done?
But even then, my love for him remained.
I do not love him now. I do not honor him. The very thought of Fire Lord Ozai makes me sick.
And here is why. Here is how my mind was changed forever.
The crew of my ship consisted nearly entirely of convicts. People who chose being banished from their country over rotting in prison. I was to leave the Fire Nation with them and never return. Forget the mission. It never really existed in the first place.
I had known that my closet could never hold Iroh. He had barely fit as it was, and had no room to move at all. My father obviously did not know that Iroh was there as he turned to walk out of my life. And Uncle would have made it undetected if a bat hadn't chose that exact moment to drop from the hole in the ceiling.
He yelled a swear word and burst out of the closet, breaking the door. The bat flew out screeching, and circled Iroh's head, attacking him every few seconds as he yelled curse words that I had never heard before.
I didn't know whether to laugh or cry.
My father was enraged. He punished Iroh, punished him as bad as he had punished me.
Uncle Iroh was forced to join me on my death mission.
We left that day as the sun set. My father did not come to see the boat off. No one did. No one cared about the newly banished failure of a prince. And no one had cared about my uncle, a retired general, after he had screwed up a great battle.
There was, however, one person on the docks who was not a member of my crew.
She smirked as she watched me carry my meager belongings onto the ship. I ignored her. I was despairing enough already without having to deal with her. But Zula wouldn't leave, not by a long shot. As the minutes crept by, she came closer and closer to the ship until she was standing at the loading ramp.
When I came down the ramp to collect the last of the supplies, I nearly knocked her over. She stepped nimbly out of the way as I struggled to right myself. The smile on her face darkened.
"I came to say goodbye to my brother," she said softly, her amber eyes alight with joy. "I came to wish you well. As well as one can be while dying, anyway." She touched my cheek gently. The gesture made me shudder. Azula leaned forward and whispered in my ear.
"I hope you die a long, painful death. You're a disgrace. I'm Father's favorite. I always have been. But you were always first in line for the throne, simply because you're male. But now, with you gone, I'm going to be the next ruler of the Fire Nation. And you are going to watch my rise to power, Zuko. I know that you won't die for a long, long time. You're too stubborn for that. If I had wanted you out of my life, I would have let Father kill you. But no. There is one last thing I want you to see."
I clenched my fists, barely controlling myself enough not to hit her. Azula noticed this and her smile widened.
"You're going to see me take all that you were meant to have. You'll watch my rise into power as an outcast, as a criminal. I will be everything that you ever hoped to be. And you will watch it happen knowing that such a blessing will never be yours." She laughed, the sound dragging a chill up my spine. "And once I assume the throne, you will die, Zuko. Your mind will be too shattered to go on. You're nothing now. You were never anything to begin with. But now, the only difference is that the entire Fire Nation knows this as well."
"Get out of here before I kill you."
I meant it, and she knew that. Giving me a final smirk, Azula turned and walked off.
I turned and walked onto my ship, my feet leaving the ground of the Fire Nation for the last time. Iroh commanded the crew to leave the harbor.
I stayed up on deck as the ship powered up and began to steam away. I stayed in that exact spot for hours and hours, until the Fire Nation was no longer even a speck in the distance.
The first of the stages of hatred ran rampant in my mind at that time.
How could my life have come to this? I had done everything right. I had grown up as a good child. I honored my father and my country. I trained hard to become the best I could be. I was born a prince, dammit! I had no place on a godforsaken ship going on a hopeless mission!
But there I was. My life was I had known it was over, ruined. And there was nothing I could do to change it.
I went into my chambers on the ship and lay down on the hard mat that would be my bed. I began to wonder if I really had failed. Should I have fought my father? Would that have restored his faith in me? It was what he had wanted. He had told me as much. I was a coward to not fight him…
But I did not feel like a coward. In my heart, I thought I had one the right thing. I had honored my father above all else.
I still loved him too much at that point to even begin to accept the possibility of hurting him on that fiery night.
But that would change. Oh, how it would change.
I cried that night, alone in my room. But even this simple release was agony. The salt of my tears felt like acid on my burns.
Time lost meaning again. There was no trace of the Avatar, no direction that we should go. I spent my days brooding, pacing about my room. All day long I was alone with my thoughts. I didn't even let Uncle Iroh speak with me.
And as those days went by, the despair began to fade.
Before long, my pain was replaced by the second stage of hatred.
My thoughts changed course. I was no longer depressed that my father had banished me, that my sister had betrayed me. Now, I was furious about those very things.
How dare they? How dare they banish me? I'm the rightful heir to the throne! The next Fire Lord! I'm a powerful Firebender, and I have a love for my country that my father will never have. I want the Fire Nation to prosper. My father just wants power over it.
I could have been a better leader than Lord Ozai ever could have been. It was my birthright to take the throne, and it would have been my choice to make the people of the Fire Nation happy. How dare he! How dare he deny such things from our people!
I knew what I had to do. I had to win back all that had been taken from me. And I knew that there was only one way to do this.
My mission became all that mattered. It became the focus of my life, the very fire that drove me to survive each day. I was livid. Livid that life was so unfair, livid that I had never been the one in control of my life. I thought I had been, but I was wrong. My father was the one who pulled the strings.
And Zula was the one who guided him.
I was angry at her most of all.
And slowly, but surely, my anger blossomed into hatred.
There are three stages that can bring a man's hatred up to a dangerous power. Those stages are depression, anger, and resolve. Before a person truly hates another, he or she must live through all three of these stages.
Within a month, I had seen two of them. Depression, then anger. Depression is the most powerless feeling that exists. I learned that on those long days and nights when I was alone. Depression turns into a despair that consumes every bit of happiness that a person has left after a betrayal. The person doesn't know what to do. If he had had control over his life in the first place, the betrayal would have never happened at all. But now that it has…
Depression comes first. Depression that there was nothing that I could have done to prevent it. Depression over the state to which my life was reduced. And that horrible feeling of helplessness that left me trembling at night.
But I would not remain helpless for long. After a little while, a person begins to come up with rationalizations for the betrayal they have suffered. And with these rationalizations, they begin to get angry. Angry that such a thing happened, angry that the world was cruel enough to let it happen. And with that anger comes the first inklings of resolve, the first traces of a plan that will be fueled by one's newly nourished hatred.
By the start of the second month, my anger had turned into resolve. I was never, ever going to allow myself to be helpless again. I would never again allow myself to be betrayed. And most of all, I would reclaim what I had lost. I would reduce Zula's dreams to ashes and bury her face in the dirt. I would turn the tables. She would be the one to watch in misery as I fulfilled her dreams.
This is how it should have been by birthright. And in the end, this was how it would remain.
I no longer cared about proving my worth to my father. And I knew exactly why.
I had grown to hate him. In those three stages, my love and honor had turned into a detestation for which there was no words.
Depression that he had banished me. Anger that he had ruined my life. And resolve to prove him wrong and regain my life, whatever the cost.
These three things created the hatred that I nurse even today.
There was only one person that I needed to prove my worth to. One man, one lost man who was only now finding the true roads that crossed his life.
I would find the Avatar not for my father, but for myself. I knew that I would never be accepted with open arms, no matter what I did to try to prove myself. So I would open my own arms to my own success. And someday I would show the people of the Fire Nation what it really meant to have a leader who watched over them.
My father ruled through fear. I would rule through compassion and justice.
Someday, Fire Lord Ozai would die. Someday, he would fall. And on that day I would take the throne and lead my people from the darkness that my father had created for them.
As hatred drove me, I realized that there was no correct choice that I could have made during the Agni Kai. Should I have attacked my father, he would have declared me a traitor. Attacking the Fire Lord is a crime punishable by death.
There was no choice that I could have made that would have spared me from this punishment. But in my eyes, I did the right thing. I crawled out of that fight with my honor intact.
I wondered why I had ever loved him, why I had ever honored him.
But even then, I knew that my suffering would be worth it.
I had discovered something that I didn't know existed, something powerful enough to drag my life from the ashes and raise it back toward the sun.
I would rise with the sun again.
Determination. Determination was the power that I had discovered. The resolve to form a plan to gain back what I had lost. And the strength of mind to accomplish that plan.
I knew that I would never allow myself to be helpless again. Through pain I would be stronger than ever before. Strong enough to take whatever life threw at me, no matter how agonizing it may be.
And this is what hatred taught me.