The City of Walls and Secrets left me feeling rather inclined to write some more angst.
Rated T for character death.
Disclaimer – I don't own Avatar.
Two guards drag the prisoner in and dump him a respectful distance away from my dais before leaving the room. His appearance disgusts me. The topknot that he used to wear proudly has now been severed showing that he had publicly declared that he has no attachments to Fire Nation. Even through I have long disowned him, I still feel slightly betrayed. His hair is now short and matted with blood and sweat and his breathing is so heavy and ragged that I can hear it over the crackling of the flames. The tattered remains of his clothes hang on him limply and the wounds of every shape and size that tattoo his body can be seen through the torn holes.
He kneels in chains; his head bowed low hiding his eyes from view. Whether it was in a respect or exhaustion I do not know.
I survey the person before me, the boy, no man, I once called my son. There is no denying it. He is a man now. A part of me wishes I could have watched him grow up but I stamp out that mutinous thought. I am Fire Lord. I must do my duty and cast judgment regardless of the fact that he shares my blood. Of course, I already know the sentence. He has committed more crimes to be executed three times over.
I can't help but find the man's position ironic. It was the same one in which he had pleaded with me three years ago. He was pathetic then. He was a weakling and a coward. And he still is I try to convince myself. If he had been stronger he would have captured the Avatar. I gave him a chance to redeem himself and he failed. It is his own fault that he kneels bruised, bloodied and broken before me. Execution was the punishment for speaking out of term. He had to be disciplined. Discipline must be reinforced properly or the country would fall apart. I had let him off easily. He should be grateful.
But even as I look at the man who once called me father, a tiny, unbiased part of me respects him. He has wounds that would make an ordinary human cry like a baby in pain but he utters no sound. 'Perhaps he is too weak to scream,' a part of me hisses. He does not plead with me for mercy like the way I thought he would. He just kneels there, his head bowed, waiting for his sentence.
My chop feels cold and hard in my palm. I finger it distractedly as I survey the captive. As I lift it to sign the death warrant, time seems to slow. Memories that I had shoved to the furthest corner of my mind break out in torrents. My grip on the marble tightens until my grip becomes so heated and strong that it shatters. The flaming trench separating the dais from the main war room burst upwards twisting into a mass of flickering chaos. Shards of stone cut into my hand. Nonetheless I feel no pain. I am too busy trying to push back the rebellious flashbacks of the past to notice it.
I remember precious moments when I had been acting as a father and not a Fire Lord, times when I had taken Zuko and Azula to the hills for picnics. I remember the most memorable day I spent as a father was when Zuko was twelve. I had taken my children to Dragon's Peak where we had played tag and watched the clouds float by.
The past blurs into the present and Zuko's gentle laughter rings in my ears blocking out all my other sense. All I can hear is the laughter which gets steadily louder until it becomes a deafening roar and then molds into a pleading voice.
"Please, Father, I only had the Fire Nation's best interest at heart! I'm sorry I spoke out of turn! I meant you no disrespect. I am your loyal son."
The memory is too much for me to bear. Young Zuko's tearstained face swims into my vision making my heart feel heavy and grief-stricken.
As suddenly as the dam burst, my head clears. I pant heavily for a while, glad that no guards were in the room to witness my moment of weakness. I straighten up and convince myself that banishing my useless son was necessary. I should put my country before my family. That was the pain of being Fire Lord. It was a burden I had chosen for myself and it was burden that I would follow through with no matter what the consequences. Life was too short to have any regrets. There was no point mourning over actions passed.
I remind myself that I have no use for a weak son. A weak son would mean a weak future Fire Lord and in times of war, weakness would not be tolerated. The strength and power to do what is right for the country is all that matters. It is the survival of the fittest. Those that aren't strong enough were weeded out. My duty is more important than my heart.
The man raises his head slowly, his breathing straining just out of one simple action. 'Look how weak he has become,' I tell myself. 'I do not want a failure like him dragging me down.' Yet, as he catches my eye, my train of thought is lost and once again I am at a loss with what to think of my son. His eyes are hollow and tired, tinted heavily by grief. He looks so weary of life that a death sentence would be a treat.
"I'm sorry…" he trails off, struggling to breath. "I'm sorry I couldn't be … be the son you wanted."
His face contorts into one of pain. Coughs wrack his body splattering blood on the tiled surface. His eyes close and he slumps forward. I watch, keeping my face impassive saying nothing. I have taught myself the art of keeping an emotionless mask even though my mind is reeling in turmoil. I do not know what to think; whether I should be proud that even through exile, my son still remains loyal to me or whether I should be angry that the boy, man I correct myself, has learnt nothing in his punishment. He still clings to feeble beliefs about kindness, forgiveness and love. To be the future ruler of a country he should be independent and strong. He should not apologize. Apology is a sign of weakness and that is a quality I will not tolerate.
I pick up the broken shard with my chop with my symbol still engraved into it. (Luckily, the sign was remained intact). My hand trembled just holding the stamp. I have to focus my very nerve too force it down and seal my only son's fate. The stamp was in red ink, blood red ink. The same colour as my son's blood that now stains the floor. The same colour as the blood that run down the numb wound from my hand. The piece of parchment with the death warrant now feels a ton heavier that it should do. It is a struggle rolling it up and handing it over to the guard who has come in to drag the limp body of the man to his cell. It is a struggle to prove to myself that I have done the right thing. But of course I had done what was right. The man was weak and weakness should be punished regardless of who you were.
Whilst I leave the war room, I hear two officers walking down the corridor, who were part of the team that apprehended the man.
"I'm surprised Zuko didn't die on the journey."
"My Grandfather once said that sometimes, if a man holds on hard enough, he can live a few more days longer than he should as long as he has someone he wants to say goodbye too."
Their voices grow further and further away as the footsteps recede, leaving me alone in the corridor.
Had Zuko fought to live just to see me one last time?
A messenger came an hour later to inform me that Zuko had died in his cell. The news left me feeling numb. Had my son really cared that much?
I think I need a hobby that doesn't involve putting Zuko (or any other character for that matter) in as much emotional / physical pain as possible.
There were plenty of ways I could have written Ozai's POV. I did think of having Ozai say 'I hate you' or something along those lines and then have Zuko's spirit breaking completely but I prefer to have Ozai a bit more subtle than that and Zuko a lot more mature. I quite like how this has turned out.
Please leave your thoughts in the form of a review :D