Okay, this is an idea that was bouncing around in my head for a while. It always seemed to me that Zuko was the one character in Avatar that could never make a truly meaningful decision for himself; he always followed along with what someone else wanted him to do. My question is, what if Zuko lost Iroh, the person who basically acted as his moral compass, before he had grown enough to develop as his own person. Story events take place after The Chase.
Disclaimer: I do not own Avatar: The Last Airbender and do not seek to profit from writing this in any way. Please do not sue!
Yes, I am an Animal
"… which just goes back to what I was saying earlier, my arrest was a total injustice."
A voice. Loud, indignant, annoying, inescapable.
"An injustice? Really? Explain it all to me again, just so that I can get a better grasp of the whole situation."
'Another one decides to join in. Oh joy.' As if one man's incessant rambling about how the entire world has wronged him was not entertaining enough, now the floor was open to second opinions. The brooding young man in the corner attempted to push himself even deeper into the shadows which already obscured him from view. He did not even bother to raise his head in order to see who this new voice belonged to.
"Bastard! I'm here trying to tell you all about how corrupt the Earth Kingdom 'justice' system is, and you're going to sit there and mock me?"
The implied threat in that statement was apparent to all of the thirty-odd men within hearing distance of the verbal exchange. The marked increase in the room's tension was enough to momentarily shake the young man from his melancholy. He lifted his head high enough to cast a wary eye in the direction of the disturbance. In the event that things took a turn for the worse, it wouldn't be prudent to be caught unawares.
The narrator of the tale of woe- a thick necked and, currently, red-faced man who sported a chin beard which appeared to be two sizes too small for his face- shot a venom filled glare at his companion. His counterpart- a sly looking, rodent faced man who sported scar which curved around the edge of his mouth- returned the look evenly, seemingly unaware of the insinuation of violence present in the other man's tone. By the young observer's reckoning however, the rodent face was not oblivious to the possible danger, he was just unconcerned.
Truth be told, there was really no need for anyone to be all that anxious over the possibility of violence for the simple reason that the setting that they were all in would not allow for much of a fight. All of the men were shackled hand and foot in the cramped confines of an Earth Kingdom prisoner barge. Over thirty men and boys were crammed together in a space which, in reality, was suited to hold only half that number.
The men shackled beneath the decks of the prison barge, upon realizing that the possibility of a fight breaking out now would be highly improbable, slowly began to let down their guards. The tension in the hold dropped considerably as the convicts fell back into their original state of melancholic silence.
Silence. The young man both relished and loathed the silence that surrounded him. The silence allowed him time to gather himself. He had been taught that, upon finding himself in new and potentially dangerous situations, to become acquainted with his surroundings, to analyze his options and formulate plans for the future. The quiet helped him to concentrate; he had been taught that more often than not, concentration and forethought were the keys to survival.
But the hush that had fallen over the men down in the hold was both a cherished friend and menacing specter for the Young Man. True, the silence allowed the Young Man the opportunity to think, to plan on ways to protect him and to survive this new trial that the Spirits, in their infinite and utterly unknowable wisdom, has decided to foist upon him. And it is true that the Young Prisoner did think, but he did not, could not think of the things that would help him survive this trial.
The only thing that he could think of was how he had failed. The silence allowed the Young Man the time to remember how he had failed in every single thing he had ever tried to attempt. He had failed in his duties as a son. He had failed to preserve his honor. He had failed to keep all of his grand promises to himself and his mother. He had failed his nation. He had failed his family. And now, he had failed to protect the only person who had stood by him through all of his pain, all of his hardship, all of his misery. And now the only thing that occupied the mind of the Young Man was his own weakness and how, in the end, he was powerless to save his last anchor to the world.
The Young Man twirled a White Lotus Pai Sho tile between his fingers. He could feel his guts as well as the scar that covered the left side of his face burning with the anger he directed at himself for his past failures. Damn it! Why? Why wasn't he able to do anything about anything? Why was it that he the one who had to go on? Over and over, one statement rang in the young man's mind.
'He deserved better…'
"UP, UP, UP! EVERYONE OUT RIGHT NOW!"
A strong pair of calloused hands roughly roused Young Prisoner from his uneasy sleep. All things considered, he was not all that disappointed at the invasion of his slumber; his dreams had been filled malevolent golden eyes and blue fire. By comparison, the harsh shouts of the prison barge's guards were a welcome alternative. The Young Prisoner surmised from the amount of commotion that was going on outside of the holding cell that the vessel must have gotten to wherever it was they were going.
Still chained together, the prisoners were quickly hustled from the hold to the upper decks of the ship. Those who were sick or weakened from the less than stellar conditions that they had been forced to travel under were encouraged to keep pace with the rest of the line by blows from the heavy truncheons carried by the guards. After about five minutes all of the prisoners had been gathered into a relatively straight line.
Before the unwashed assemblage stood a thin man who radiated an imperious aura. The man was dressed in what appeared to be a modified version of an Earth Kingdom army officer's uniform and was flanked by two burly subordinates dressed in a similar fashion.
"Greetings. I am Major Zhang-Hsu, commandant of the Jade Passage regional prison of the Earth Kingdom's Songhay dominion."
At this point the commandant paused and took the opportunity to look at each individual convict with what the Young Prisoner assumed was intended to be an intimidating look. Whatever Zhang-Hsu's intentions were, they were of no concern to the men and boys shackled before him. He received nothing but empty stares and angry glares in return. The message was clear; they were not about to be frightened by the facial expressions of some backwater prison official.
Major Zhang-Hsu, for his part, seemed not to notice the looks of death that were being sent his way and continued with his speech.
"You are all here," he began, "Because, by your actions, you have proven yourselves unfit to live in proper society."
The major began to walk down the line of prisoners. The Young Prisoner couldn't help but feel slightly impressed at the at the short man's ability to look down his nose even at the prisoners who were taller than him. That kind of arrogance could give any Fire Nation courtier a run for their money.
"You are murderers! You are rapists! Thieves! Con artists! Highwaymen! Pickpockets and deserters! As criminals you have shown that you are incapable of serving the greater good of the Earth Kingdom!"
At this point the major stopped his tirade and his face broke into a wide, predatory smile. The Young Prisoner could sense that he was not going to like the next thing that came out of Zhang-Hsu's mouth.
"But rejoice!" He began. "All is not lost. Each of you has the opportunity to redeem himself, for here at Jade Passage you all are offered the opportunity to repay your debts to society. Before you arrived here your lives were meaningless; now you have the chance to help your homeland win the war against the Fire Nation!"
"You all have been given another chance at life, be sure not to waste it."
And with that, Major Zhang-Hsu turned on his heel and walked back down the gangplank and onto the shore.
Once the commandant was safely ashore one of the guards raised his voice.
"Alright maggots, shows over. All of you queue up, single file, and if we hear any talking rest assured that you will regret it!"
With that, the line of prisoners was quickly jostled off the ship and towards the prison complex.
The experience of being processed was something which the Young Prisoner could have definitely done without. Having to strip naked in room full of other, similarly naked, men and submit to having his body cavities searched was added to an already lengthy mental list of personal indignities that he had been forced to suffer through for the past three years.
As he reclined on the top bunk of a bed situated close to the center of the prisoner's barracks, near the iron woodstoves, he absently ran his hand across his freshly shaven head and sighed. Just when he was starting to get used to having hair again, it had to be cut off. Damn prison regulations! It wasn't enough that they took his freedom, they had to take his hair too?
The Young Prisoner knew indulging in self-pity about something as trivial as the loss of his hair was both pathetic and useless, but really, at this point, who could blame him for wanting to feel just a little bit sorry for himself? Hell, he'd earned the right to a bit of self-pitying. It's not as if he was going to make a habit out of it.
So immersed was the Young Prisoner in his internal monologue that he did not initially notice that someone was making his way right towards him.
"Hey Scarface. Get off that bunk, its mine."
The Young Prisoner recognized the voice, but could not place a face to it. He looked to his left to see who it was that presumed to address him and found himself face to face with one of his fellow convicts. That's where he recognized the voice! It was none other than thick neck from the prison barge.
The Young Prisoner slowly rolled himself off of the bunk and landed on the floor. Thick Neck was standing about an arm's length away from him and wore a decidedly unpleasant smirk on his doughy face.
"And just who are you supposed to be," the Young Prisoner spat. He was really not in the mood for idiots like this eating into what little personal time he was afforded in a place like this.
Thick Neck, however, seemed to take the Young Prisoner's obvious displeasure as a source of amusement, rather than as the warning that it was.
The large man chuckled.
"Didn't you hear me boy," he began. "I'm the man whose bunk you stole. Now be a good lad and move along someplace else."
The condescension in Thick Neck's voice was as thick as a bowl of the Water Tribe's Five Flavor Soup.
The Young Prisoner glared at the larger man. His scar began to get an all too familiar burning sensation. He could feel the simmering annoyance in his gut boiling over into anger. The Young Prisoner may have fallen from his former glory, but Agni damn him if he was going to let some fat, inbred, back country peasanttalk to him like that.
The Young Prisoner crossed his arms and stuffed as much haughty attitude as he could into his next statement.
"Too bad! I don't feel like moving."
He might not officially be a prince anymore, but at the very least he remembered how to talk like one.
Thick Neck stared at the young man as if the latter had just sprouted a second head. This initial bewildered expression was soon replaced by one which held nothing but the promise of pain for the Young Prisoner.
Any prisoners who had previously been standing in the aisle between the Young Prisoner and his opponent quickly made themselves scarce. Like wild animals who flee from the forests because they sense the coming of a flood, so innate animalistic instinct told everyone in the barracks that things were about to get violent.
Thick Neck methodically cracked his knuckles. "You arrogant little shit," he said. "All you had to do was to give up the bunk like a good boy." He shook his head in mock pity as he saw his young opponent drop down into a fighting stance. "But now, you've gone and made things worse for yourself."
Now, the Young Prisoner knew that he really should not be doing what he knew he was about to do. In fact, the logical part of his brain was already cursing him for being twelve different kinds of an idiot. He had never been to prison before, but he had enough sense to know that fights disrupted the day-to-day order of facilities like this, and the guards would not handle disruptions pleasantly. Being labeled as troublemaker on his first day at Jade Passage would not win him any friends amongst the prison administration.
Then, of course, was the fact that he was about to fight someone who was twice his size and weight. Under normal circumstances the other man's physical advantages would not have mattered all that much; the Young Prisoner could have left him a smoldering corpse in a matter of seconds. However, bending was definitely out of the question. He was not just an inmate in prison, but an Earth Kingdom prison. Forget revealing himself as a firebender, revealing that he was a bender of any kind would be like wearing a giant sign around his neck that said 'kill me.'
The Young Prisoner found that he would not be given any more time to consider the consequences of his actions as Thick Neck practically strutted towards him as if the outcome of the fight was a foregone conclusion. The fat man was obviously underestimating his much smaller opponent.
"What's the matter, afraid to make a move after all of that big talk," Thick Neck jeered while leaning into the Young Prisoner's face. The dare was obvious.
Rather than replying verbally, the Young Prisoner's hands shot upwards to grab the collar of the other man's shirt. He had just enough time to register the look of surprise and confusion on Thick Neck's face before he slammed his head into the other man's face.
Thick Neck reeled in pain, his hands clutching his nose and mouth. The Young Prisoner saw blood streaming from between Thick Neck's fingers; he smirked in satisfaction.
"You fucking bastard!! I'll kill you for this!" Gone was the conceited air that the fat inmate had worn before- in its place was a look of pure murder.
"You've only got yourself to blame for leaving yourself that open to an attack fool," the Young Prisoner coldly responded as he dropped back down into a fighting stance.
With a yell of rage, Thick Neck charged.
The Young Prisoner and Thick Neck were focused totally on one another. Consequently, they were completely oblivious to the fact that their brawl had attracted a sizable crowd of interested inmates. One pair of eyes- belonging to a certain inmate known as Jiji- was very interested indeed.
He had remembered seeing the younger of the two combatants in the hold of the prison barge. The youngster hadn't made much of an impression; he had spent most of the time curled up in the shadows, fidgeting with what looked like a Pai Sho tile. Truthfully the only reason why Jiji remembered the lad at all was due to the fact that it looked like somebody had tried to burn off half of the kid's face. Nope, there was no forgetting something as distinctive as that.
Seeing the kid fighting- and from the looks of things, holding his own- against someone who was twice his size caused Jiji to reassess his first impression of the boy. 'That kid is somebody that I should probably keep a weather eye on.' Jiji thought to himself.
Suddenly, the spectators let out a collective groan as the younger prisoners head snapped backwards. Thick Neck had finally managed to strike the kid.
'Depending on whether or not he gets his skull caved in of course.'
Flashing lights danced a merry waltz before the Young Prisoner's eyes. He was disoriented, he couldn't tell where he was, his knees felt like giving way, and he swore that he could feel his brain rattling like a marble on the inside of his skull. Had the Young Prisoner been capable of constructing thoughts at that moment, he would have considered it a small miracle that he was able to stay upright after taking a shot like that to the head.
As his senses returned to him, the Young Prisoner realized two things. The first thing was that he had been stupid to get that close to Thick Neck. The large man was quicker than he had anticipated; the man's counterpunch had caught him completely off guard. He had underestimated the abilities of his opponent, one of the very worst things that one could do in battle.
The Young Prisoner's second realization came when Thick Neck bounded forward and drove his fist into the younger man's gut. As the Young Prisoner doubled over in pain he realized that he was now at a serious disadvantage.
Up until this point the Young Prisoner had been in control of the fight against his larger and stronger opponent by employing one of his few physical advantages over Thick Neck; his speed and agility. The aisle area in between the rows of bunks provided just enough room for the Young Prisoner to move with some degree of freedom. His strategy had been to quickly jump in, strike his opponent, and then retreat before the fat man could catch him with an attack of his own.
But he had made the mistake of staying too long within the reach of Thick Neck and had been caught by the bastard's counterattack.
The Young Prisoner could taste the familiar coppery taste of bloody in his throat. Thick Neck continued to rain blows upon his back and head. The Young Prisoner curled himself into a fetal position, arms protecting his head as best he could as the assault continued.
Thick Neck was merciless; he put all of his ample weight in every single kick that he directed towards the pitiful ball before him. "Not such a tough guy now, are you? Little bitch! This is what you get for disrespecting me!" Thick Neck punctuated his sneers with ever heavier blows to the Young Prisoner's back. "I'll break you in two you little shit!"
The Young Prisoner could feel his strength ebbing away with each blow that he felt. Every strike took more and more of his strength and resolve and he had to force himself not to pass out from the pain. Thick Neck was obviously enraged enough to kill him. He could not die curled up on the ground like a lost babe crying for its mother. He could not die like this. He would not allow himself to die like this, not after all that he had endured.
As Thick Neck's latest kick connected with his side, the Young Prisoner rolled with the blow. Using the momentum generated from the strike to place to aid in his roll, the Young Prisoner scrambled on his hands and knees towards one of the bunks.
Thick Neck barely suppressed the hearty chuckle that was building in his gut as he took in the sight. The little punk was so afraid he was about to shit himself. "What's the matter boy? You running away from me already? What happened to all of that tough talk that you were spouting off before, eh?" At the sight of the Young Prisoner clutching on to the wooden bed frame of the nearest bunk bed, Thick Neck gave up all pretenses of seriousness and indulged in a jovial belly laugh. This really was too rich!
As he clutched the bed frame, the Young Prisoner watched as the fat bastard strolled leisurely towards him, ready to finish off what he obviously thought was a defeated enemy. The youngster watched as the fat man made his way towards him. Step…step…step; as Thick Neck made his way ever closer, the Young Prisoner kept his eyes averted downwards towards the floor.
On the outside, the Young Prisoner's body language screamed submission. Thick Neck grinned as he stretched his hand towards the younger man's neck. Things certainly had worked out well for him. He was able to establish his dominance over this barrack right off the bat! After he made an example out of this little annoyance, the weaker inmates would all get the idea.
Grabbing the Young Prisoner's collar, Thick Neck took a second to look upon the kid's face. He licked his lips. 'Who says that I've got to get rid of him right away,' he thought. While the scar provided a rather large blemish, the boy was still quite handsome. 'No sense in getting rid of him without having a little f-'
"Ghaagh!" Thick Neck was jolted out of his musings by the quick kick that his victim had managed to connect with his knee. The fat man clutched at his wounded limb as he felt a hot lance of pain shoot up his left leg. The crowd of prisoners, for their part, gave a cheer at the ingenuity of the smaller combatant and many shouted words of encouragement to the Young Prisoner.
With the help of the bed's frame, the Young Prisoner quickly propelled himself to his feet. His senses now fully returned to him, he quickly took up a defensive stance and tried to appraise his current situation. While satisfied that his gambit had paid off, he still knew that he was in trouble. He had hoped to break Thick Neck's knee with his last attack, but from his prone position he wasn't able to put enough force behind the blow to pull that off. And while he did notice that his enemy now moved with a significant limp, he was still able to remain upright.
He spat on the ground between himself and the fat man; it landed on the floor red. The Young Prisoner quickly sprang on the offensive, weaving left to right as he moved forwards. He directed a snap kick towards Thick Neck's injured leg, hoping to do even more damage to the already fragile limb. With a grunt of pain Thick Neck forced his body to twist backwards and away from the incoming blow. The Young Prisoner connected, but was only able to land a glancing blow.
Using his superior mobility to his advantage, the Young Prisoner darted around Thick Neck's left side, taking care to keep himself just out of arms reach of the larger man. Thick Neck stumbled. The fat man would have had a hard time keeping up with the young man's speed even when he was uninjured; now he was struggling just to stay upright on his wounded knee.
Seeing an opportunity, the Young Prisoner made a feint as if he were about to once again go for Thick Neck's injured leg. Seeing the Young Prisoner's movement, Thick Neck turned his body to protect his injured left leg from the expected attack. Anticipating his opponents reaction, the Young Prisoner-rather than attacking low and to the left as expected- instead attacked high, driving his elbow into the unprotected face of Thick Neck.
The other mans hands flew to his face, muffling the pitiful howl of pain that leaked through his swollen lips and broken teeth. Quick as a leaping hog-monkey the Young Prisoner dropped to the floor and sent Thick Neck to the floor with a sweep kick. Thick Neck had time for a single utterance of surprise before he was sent tumbling onto his back, his head impacting with the stone floor with an audible 'thwap.'
Charged with adrenaline, the Young Prisoner pounced upon his senseless foe; he was going to make sure that there was no mistake about who won this fight. The Young Prisoner clamped his legs securely around Thick Neck's torso, pinning the fat man's arms to the ground and brought his right fist behind his head before bringing it down in a vicious strike. 'Thwap!'
Amazing how satisfying that sound was- the sound of a solid weight impacting with a slab of raw meat. Grabbing a firm hold of Thick Neck's shirt collar with his left hand, the Young Prisoner continued to punish the insolent worm that had started this whole thing. With every new strike, more blood flew. As more blood flew, the Young Prisoner felt the urge to spill even more of the other man's essence. He saw red.
'You can't do this to me!' he thought. 'You've taken too much from me already! I'm not going to let these things happen to me anymore! I'm not going to allow you to destroy me; I won't let anyone destroy me!'
The face that he was destroying no longer belonged to Thick Neck. The face that he was doing his very best to maim did not have the dull brown eyes that were so common amongst the people of the Earth Kingdom; the eyes he saw were as golden as his very own and shown with a hateful aura. The face that he was disfiguring did not have the rounded, blunt features of an Earth Kingdom convict; these features were sharp and angular. The nose wasn't wide and blunt, it was thin and aquiline.
It was Thick Neck's voice, so soft as to almost be inaudible. That pitiful voice was all that it took to break the Young Prisoner out of his madness. His hand was up, poised to continue striking but he did not follow through. Instead, he simply put his hand down and stood up. The Young Prisoner felt his rage draining from him, only to be replaced by something else, some other emotion that he could not quite place a name to.
'…Euphoria?' He did not want to acknowledge it, but deep down in his heart he knew. He had been through so much, hurt so badly and now he had finally gotten the chance to hurt someone else. He could deny it until the day he died, but the truth was it had felt good to hurt somebody else for a change.
The Young Prisoner spared a moment to check the status of his own body. His tongue worked around the inside of his mouth. 'Good. No missing or loose teeth.' Besides a split lip and a sizable bruise on his cheek from where Thick Neck had landed his haymaker, his face was undamaged. His back and sides however, were a different story. All of that time that he had spent on the ground under Thick Neck would definitely be taking their toll on him tomorrow.
The Young Prisoner glanced at the prone form of the loser of the battle. Suddenly, his own injuries didn't seem as bad as they were before.
Jiji was glad that he had decided to watch the whole fight instead of heading back to his bunk when it looked like the kid was going to be crushed by the fat prisoner. The whole affair had been very amusing, but the altercation could provide greater dividends besides temporary entertainment. That was the reason why Jiji was slowly making his way towards the kid, who had made his way back to his bunk and was nursing his right hand.
'The way he was hitting that fatass, I wouldn't be surprised if he's broken a knuckle or two.'
Jiji could already see the gravestone eyes of the kid watching his approach from across the room. He was already looking out for more enemies; that was a good sign. He was beginning to like the lad already.
As he moved himself ever closer, he could feel the kid's tension rising with every step he took. To the boy's credit though, he was able to hide the outward signs of anxiousness fairly well. Two marks for the kid already. Setting himself right up next to the edge of the kid's bunk, turning his body so that his eyes were focused solely upon the still prone form of Thick Neck, Jiji said, "That was very well done kid."
"It was nothing." The Young Prisoner did not have the feeling that the older man standing next to him would attack him, but he wasn't about to let down his guard.
"So let me guess, this is the first time you've been in prison isn't it." It wasn't a question; it was a statement of fact. The Young Prisoner shot a suspicious glance down at the man standing at the edge of his bunk. A middle aged man. Tall, well built, scars on the face, and a left eye that was the creamy complexion of a dead organ. In short, a veteran prisoner and not someone he should bother with trying to lie to.
"And you can tell that because…"
"A couple of ways actually," the mysterious convict answered. "But the most important way was the fact that you left him alive. An experienced prisoner would've taken the chance to kill the sonnofabitch. You let him go."
What did that matter? The Young Prisoner might have enjoyed beating up Thick Neck, but there was no reason to take it as far as murdering the other man. "He submitted," the Young Prisoner replied. "There was no reason to take it any further."
The older man just sighed and shook his head. "Spoken like a true fish alright." The two stood in silence for a moment before the Young Prisoner got fed up with the peace.
"What is it that you want," the Young Prisoner asked. "I doubt that you came over here just to make polite conversation."
Jiji scratched the developing stubble on his chin. He might as well get to the point; it wouldn't do to have the youngster getting angry at him before he had a chance to say anything.
"I'm here to extend an invitation to you."
"An invitation to what exactly?" The kid made no effort to hide the naked suspicion in his voice.
"You're a tough little bastard who probably thinks that he can take care of himself." Jiji turned and looked at the Young Prisoner dead in the eyes. "Well let me make one thing clear to you; in here, you can't take care of yourself. If you want to survive for more than a week, you need to make friends."
The Young Prisoner shot his older counterpart a quizzical look. "So you're offering to be my… friend?"
"You can't be alone in here. Things are soft right now because these are the barracks for the new arrivals. It's a whole different world once you get put into the general population."
So there it was, all laid out before him. The Young Prisoner mentally weighed the pros and cons of the offer he had been given while the older man waited patiently off to the side.
"Thank you for the offer, but I don't feel like being affiliated with anybody."
Jiji sighed. He half expected this answer. Still he couldn't fault the kid for not wanting to be beholden to anyone else; he'd felt the same way the first time he had been locked up. He had learned the error of his ways eventually, either this kid would do the same, or he would die. Simple as that. Regardless, Jiji was in no mood to try and force the issue.
"Alright. When you change your mind and you will change your mind, come and find me. My name is Jiji; ask around for me in the eastern block."
The Young Prisoner simply nodded. Shaking his head one final time, the older conflict prepared to make his way back to his own bunk before he remembered something important. "By the way, you got a name?"
"...They call me Lee."