Memories from the Western Air Temple

Chapter 61

Redemption and Those Who Fail to Grasp It

They were all the Avatars that had ever been, and all who would come after. There was no room for individuality. They were the collective, the Avatar. And they were aware of everything around them: the burn the comet caused within them, the disturbed calm of the nearby ocean, the air that stood still, the solid rock that made up the battlefield.

Another thing they were aware of was Ozai. They could sense the fire within him and how it yearned to burn, to destroy. They would not allow that. They would defend the entire world from this threat, this one man who embodied more darkness than it should have been possible for a single human to contain.

Ozai called forth his fire; they could feel it rising even before the flame appeared in the man's palm. The heat from the stream of flames shot at them was intense, but with a wave of a hand the flame became theirs and was sent back at Ozai, who in turn dispersed it. The Avatar didn't give him a chance to attack again and tore a sizeable piece of rock off a nearby stone pillar. They sent it at Ozai and when it hit the man's side even when he tried to avoid it, they could sense a bone breaking.

Somewhere, deep inside, a part of them felt satisfaction at that. A part of them felt like the man should be hurt instead of destroyed, punished for his crimes instead of erased for the sake of the world. Those were personal feelings, ones that had no place in the collective and so the Avatar tried to bury the emotion under the justification of this, of the justice and peace they were defending.

During history there had been a handful of opponents who could withstand the might of the Avatar by themselves, and few of them had been fully human. But Ozai's inner fire burned with the comet's might; the man had eagerly given up the remains of his humanity and sanity in order to let his fire grow freely, taking over his mind. There was no doubt that Ozai would keep battling until one of them was dead, which was why the Avatar knew for a fact that when Ozai retreated across the stony valley, his fire propelling him forward, it was in order to gain strategic distance from the Avatar's bending and not to retreat. That didn't mean that they would let him gain that distance.

The Avatar landed to the bottom of the valley, near the shoreline, placing their feet solidly on the ground after which they reached out to the very core of the element, tightening a fist around the energy they found, until the earth quaked and trembled with force that would reach Ozai no matter how far he went to prepare a new strategy.

There was a hesitation, brought on by another personal emotion, this one of worry. There was an innocent here that could get caught up in the damage caused by the earthquake. And that hesitation was what caused the Avatar to be less immersed in the grand scale bending and to notice the quickly approaching fire of their opponent.

Ozai hadn't been making up a plan after all, it seemed; the man had intended to sneak around the Avatar to attack while they searched for him. The firebender sent a ball of fire at the Avatar, who brought their right hand out to redirect the attack to the side. The flames were a pale yellow, intensely bright and hot, and the Avatar idly noticed them singe the skin of their palm. That would make forming a fist harder from here on out.

His opponent was up close now, delivering punches and kicks alight with heated flames. This proximity wouldn't allow them to perform complicated bending and the Avatar avoided the blows to the best of their ability, blocking the ones he couldn't evade.

A spinning kick from Ozai, blocked by the Avatar lifting a knee to take the brunt of the blow, then straightening the limb to guide the ground beneath them to strike up and towards Ozai's torso. The firebender leaped back to avoid the attack, no doubt paying extra attention to guarding his ribs.

Next Ozai stuck his hands out, pointed towards the Avatar's head, giving the appearance of a blade of fire. The Avatar ducked, bringing their own arms up and between Ozai's, spreading them apart and breaking the flames when the firebender's form was ruined. The Avatar then swept their arms down, slicing through the air in front of Ozai's chest and sending two sickles of wind at the man. They wouldn't cut skin at this proximity, there wasn't room to gather enough speed for that, but the force was enough to knock Ozai back a few feet.

It was just enough room for the Avatar to spin around, lifting his arms to chest level to summon water from the nearby ocean. At the end of the complete twirl the Avatar directed the high pressure burst of water at Ozai, throwing the man back with greater force than before. The firebender slammed against a stone pillar a good distance away, releasing a pained groan.

The Avatar dashed to cover the distance, stopping only a short distance away from the man, slamming his right foot down as he both brought his own movement to a sudden stop and pushed up a solid stone to slam right into Ozai's side, where he knew the man's broken rib was, prompting a pained howl from the firebender's mouth.

This was the chance to finish him, the Avatar knew this, but there was a cry of outrage against the notion. One of the individuals claimed to have a plan and the consensus could tell this was the truth. They could see the plan and deemed it good enough.

All at once all of the tension in the air was zapped away. Ozai fell to the ground like a rag doll, lying in a slumped heap only partially propped up by the stone pillar next to him. And it was not the ocean of power, the Avatar consensus watching it happen, but Aang alone, who was gasping for breath like he'd been submerged in water instead of energy.

Having been previously forced down by the hive consciousness of the Avatar State, Aang's worry surged anew and the airbender whirled around trying to spot Zuko, trying to remember where he'd left the other.

He heard the other approach before he saw him, steps uneven as he tried to walk on his injured leg. Aang turned fully to Zuko's direction, frowning when he saw Zuko slump a bit against a stone pillar, his breathing noticeably strained.

"Your ankle's too messed up for you to be walking," Aang scolded the other, ignoring the glare the golden eyes shot at him in retaliation. "You should have stayed back."

"You're happy to see me," Zuko rebuffed and pushed himself off the pillar to cross the last of the distance between them. He still looked a touch peeved. "Don't act like you're not."

Aang sighed, long and low, and gave Zuko a fond look that must have been very sappy. Zuko didn't seem to mind, though, as his own expression softened as well.

In a flash Zuko's gentle expression changed into one of pure rage, and suddenly Aang was knocked aside when the firebender rushed past him. Aang turned his head in time to see Zuko barely avoid a flaming fist coming at them before the prince punched Ozai in the chin with enough force to slam the man into the rocks without any help from his bending.

Aang instantly bended at the boulder behind Ozai, morphing it to capture the Fire Lord's arms within the rock. Then he turned his attention to Zuko. The prince's chest heaved with agonized panting and Aang hovered beside the other, ready to catch him should he fall. The firebender ignored Aang's worry, however, opting to instead glare down at Ozai as he snarled: "To strike when your opponents back is turned… You really have no honor, Ozai."

"What would a traitor know of honor?" Ozai snapped.

"I know that doing the honorable thing is to do the harder thing sometimes." Zuko glared down at the kneeling man. "I don't need your idea of honor."

As heated as Zuko's glare was, Ozai's was cold and heartless. "I could have broken you, boy."

"No." The single word was spoken with conviction, even through the pain Zuko must have been in. "Don't mistake bending for breaking. I snapped back when you pushed me too far."

Ozai's mouth pressed into a thin line and Aang laid a comforting hand on Zuko's arm.

"Let me take care of this," he said to the prince. "I…I know what to do with him."

There was a look in Zuko's eyes, one of hesitant hope, that had Aang realizing just why Zuko was there right then. He'd come in case Aang couldn't bring this to the end. But even if Aang couldn't, he'd never let Zuko do that, never let the youth he loved so much hurt himself so terribly.

If this worked, then neither of them would have to end the Fire Lord. The Avatar stepped away from the prince, towards his prisoner.

"I'm the bridge between this world and the world of spirits," he said, knowing that Zuko was listening to every word. "I will show the Fire Lord the spirits he has wronged and he'll have the chance to repent."

"Aang…" There was a warning tone to Zuko's voice and Aang turned his head to meet Zuko's gaze, to let the other know that he knew what kind of a man Ozai was by now.

"Trust me."

Slowly, Zuko closed his eyes while he sighed. Then he nodded, only once, and Aang turned back to face his prisoner.

Ozai still appeared defiant, even a touch smug. He seemed so sure that Aang still couldn't touch him after all of this, even after losing so completely. Neither Aang nor Zuko could force him to back down, but maybe the restless spirits of the dead and the territorial spirits of nature could do what they couldn't.

Aang pressed his hand against Ozai's forehead, fingertips barely touching the skin that was burning hot from the influence of the Comet. For a moment Aang feared that the man would breathe fire at him, but Zuko's presence by his side was not only a comfort to him, but a deterrent to the Fire Lord, who by now knew not to threaten the Avatar in front of Zuko.

"For the next few moments, don't touch me," Aang instructed Zuko. "I don't want you to get hit with whatever I'm going to release."

"Don't worry about me." Zuko's voice held a familiar tone now; the firebender trusted in Aang once more, and the airbender allowed himself a moment to be pleased by that before he focused. He closed his eyes, evening out his breathing, and he reached for that place inside himself he'd only barely touched on his travels when encountering spirits, the place that had called the council of Avatars to him at his time of need.

Aang couldn't affect Ozai by telling him of the atrocities he'd committed, couldn't make the man understand the pain and suffering he had caused through words alone. But the spirits who'd experienced said atrocities first hand could do more than that. They could show him.

Zuko's previous comparison of bending versus breaking was an accurate one. Either Ozai would bend down, humbled and regretful, or he would attempt to stand tall and be broken down by the vengeance of the spirits.

It was his choice to make, for good or for ill.

"Guilt is what sets reformed villains apart from the incurable ones"

~Zuko, MfWAT chapter 13

Author's Notes: I'd like to thank everyone for being so patient with me despite the long hiatus. Usually one year is the point where the harassment starts for an absent author and you've all been really cool and respectful and that's great.

My mother passed away a bit before the start of my hiatus and, well, I was always very close with my mother, so the emotional recovery process has been pretty long and filled with several episodes of utter apathy that had me struggling with just fulfilling all of my obligations. I started working on this chapter soon after I'd recovered from the worst of it, but this story had to be set to backburner for a while yet when I realized that my depression had caused me to fall behind in my studies and I've been spending the last nineteen months completing everything I need for my degree.

Still, thanks for all the support you've been giving me guys. It really made returning to this story after such a long time a much easier feat and I appreciate it a lot.

You're all awesome.