Disclaimer: I do not own the intellectual properties depicted herein. I do not own the characters portrayed. I make no claim to own any part of 'Avatar: The Last Airbender'. All intellectual properties depicted herein belong to the creators of 'Avatar: The Last Airbender.' and Nickelodeon.
His Father's Son
The global community was in an uproar when not only did Zuko not attend the next council meeting; his representative also announced the cessation of all aid to the Earth Kingdom as long as its current ruler was in power. Failure to comply would result in permanent cessation of aid.
Aang was the first to call on Zuko…and the first to be turned away.
Mai blinked as she watched the Avatar stomp off in a huff from her balcony,
"Was it wise to do that? He is the most powerful being on the planet."
"Power?" Came Zuko's snide reply, "He was born with his power. He didn't earn it." He held her from behind, arms snaking around her waist,
"I was given power when they put this crown on my head, but it wasn't real. I had to take my power." He bent down to kiss her neck, "Thank you."
"For being here. For being with me."
Eyes hinting at something a little more…exciting, Mai pulled off his royal crown, letting his hair flow free, "Well...I know something we could do…together…"
"Lord Zuko! The special prisoner wishes to speak with you!"
A year ago...
"Where is my mother?"
Seeing the steel like conviction in his son's eyes almost brought an inkling of pride in Ozai, despite his current state of incarceration. Where was that steel when Zuko needed it? If the boy had shown such gumption in his early years, all this could have been prevented. The newly crowned Fire Lord repeated his urgent question with a snarl,
"Where is my mother?!"
"How's your sister?"
Zuko nearly choked, "Don't change to subject. What did you do to my mother?!" Ozai shook his head,
"My dear son…"
"You've never considered me a son!"
Ozai shrugged, as best his could as the Avatar's… 'treatment' had more than just stripped him of his power. It had left him near paralytic, though the prison physicians had said he'd regain motor functions in time,
"Not true." Ozai countered, "If I didn't want you, I'd have killed you the moment you were born." The former lord smirked, "No, my boy. You are my son. Mind, body and soul."
"What father treats his son the way you treated me?" Hissed Zuko, nearing his patience, "What father puts his son through Hell?!"
"To teach you the ways of the world of course." Ozai pointed out, "You admitted that my exile of you was the best thing to ever happen to you. You've learned what the world is like."
"Uncle taught me that. Not you."
"He showed you a world through rose colored glass. That my…our rule was wrong."
"People suffered under your rule!" Retorted Zuko, "The war was our family's biggest shame!"
"Our people prospered under my rule." Said Ozai, "There was no want or need that did not go unmet. Had the rest of the world come to realize that, we wouldn't be having this conversation."
"Our people were happy? The steel mills destroyed entire villages and communities!"
Ozai laughed derisively, "Oh yes. That village. That only village." His tone became chiding, "They were offered aid in relocating yet they stubbornly refused to move. They chose to defy their Fire Lord." He shot his son a look, "Keep on the way you are Zuko and you'll find that more will come to doubt your power."
"Stop! You're changing the subject!"
"Ha! Yes I was. And you let me sidetrack you, boy. You still have weakness in you, despite what your uncle or that brat of an Avatar says otherwise."
"They are my friends." Growled Zuko, "And I will not…"
"You are the Fire Lord!" Ozai's sudden outburst caught his son off balance, "You have NO friends! Those that call themselves such are jackals waiting at your door."
"I have Uncle."
The younger son of Azulon snorted, "That may be. But he cannot help you. Iroh is a warrior, not a politician. Let me guess, he told you to set things right. Pander to the rest of the world. Let them raid our vaults and pillage our coffers as a sign of goodwill."
Zuko was about to retort but his father cut him off, "Oh I know he's the head of the White Lotus. But that does not make him a leader of a nation. That cult works to topple governments to suit their needs. As they belong to no single nation how could they understand what it's like to run one? They only know how to destroy them. I've heard the guards complain Zuko. You've cut back on the national budget again haven't you?"
"The Earth Kingdom needs rebuilding." Said Zuko, strong in his words and decision.
"At the cost of your own nation? A man sets his house in order before leaving it, Zuko."
Quick to set the topic right, Zuko shot back, "Is that why you sent Mother away? To set your house in order?" His words dripping with venomous ire for the man who would exile his own wife in order to achieve power.
Ozai grunted, "Your grandfather was assassinated in his sleep. Poison found in his ear."
"You made her do it." Accused Zuko, "You made her a murderer."
Ozai replied calmly, "It was either you or him. Would you like to be dead? Hmm?" Ozai continued his confessions, "Actually I'd done it myself. She beat me to it." He smiled wistfully, "I knew there was a reason I loved her so."
"You exiled her!"
"As opposed to execution?! For the murder of the Fire Lord no less?!"
That bit of revelation took Zuko aback. He didn't consider that…at all. But something still didn't add up, "During the Day of Black Sun…you called her a traitor. Said she was…you don't say such things about the ones you love."
"By killing my father she is a traitor. I would have had to execute her. So I sent her away instead." Ozai looked his son in the eyes, "You may think me a monster…but I love my wife. I've kept her safe all these years."
"Then why did you lie to me!?"
"I love Ursa with all my heart but you and your sister would not have grown as strong as you are now if she had been around. And she agreed. Behind every ruler is a dedicated woman."
"Dishonoring your grandparents? I see your Uncle did not teach you family values either."
"Just tell me where my mother is!"
And so to finally answer the question that sparked the whole exchange, Ozai uttered,
"Zuko…come back to bed." Mai stretched herself out and over the their bed, watching with great concern as her lover sat at the table, brow furrowed, hands clasped and deep in thought.
He was in one of his moods again.
"Zuko?" She whispered, dressing herself in a robe and sliding to his side like a shadow. Soft hands capable to killing with minimal effort, began rubbing the rides of his neck and shoulders, "What's wrong? Is it the loyalist vultures in the courts again?"
He reached over his shoulder and patted her hand, "No…not really. I just ignore their endless cawing after a while. I'm just glad your father isn't among them."
He began to laugh, "Because sometimes I entertain the idea of having them all killed."
She slapped him on the shoulder, "That's not funny." Zuko turned his head to look up at her,
"Mai…am I doing the right thing? Letting the Earth Kingdom retake their lands? I know the lands were forcefully taken from them but our people have settled and made families. On one hand I have to redeem the Fire Nation in the eyes of the world. On the other, I have a duty and obligation to our people. I've heard the whispers behind my back. They say I'm not fit to lead. That my power is weak."
Mai wasn't a fool. She knew what the true root cause was. Taking the chair next to him, she held his hands in hers,
"The Fire Nation isn't just one man." Mai kissed his cheek, "That's why you have advisors, Zuko. They advise. It's their job."
"They twist and turn like reeds in the wind." He snorted, "I can't take their words to heart half the time. And I can't remove them…some of them are of old blood lineages. They've got a lot of sway with the people."
"This is going to eat at you for a while isn't it?"
Zuko sighed, chuckling at the end, "Yes."
"We're going to Ba Sing Se for your uncle's shop reopening. I'm sure he'll give you some advice. Better than what I've been saying anyway."
"Nonsense." He started kissing her softly, "You've done more than I could have hoped just by being here."
"I just wish I could do more." She cocked her head, "You're not the only one being criticized. The women of the court gossip."
"When do they don't?"
"They don't think I'm a fit consort."
"Since when do you care what others think?"
"When now that my actions reflect on you." She stated, "I'm a fighter Zuko. Politics is a scary place. The gossip of the courts is even worse."
"I just know the loyalists are going to find some fault with me leaving for Ba Sing Se. Maybe I shouldn't go. I should just stay here." Suggested the Fire Lord.
"Whatever you decide, Zuko. I'll back you all the way."
Zuko let out a small laugh. Smiling as he rubbed his finger tips across her cheek,
"Our once great nation is in turmoil and what does our so called leader do? He makes pleasure trips into the heart of the enemy!"
Zuko gritted his teeth ad his knuckles turned white from the grip on the window sill tightened to painful proportions. This was exactly what he was worried about. Listening to a court official blab and bluster his fat corpulent way about the Fire Hall pointing out his fallacies was one thing. But now even the common man on the street…
"What do I have to do?" He asked out loud, though there was no one to hear him. The self appointed town crier continued his tirade,
"Our Fire Lord, barely out of his whelp stages, given the power to lead and rebuild and what does he do? He leads us to ruin! My family starves while our nation's wealth is sapped by the wolves of the world.
That was a blatant lie.
Zuko had done his best to balance the needs of his people with the redemption of his nation. In fact, even now he was gang pressed to cover the reparations to the Earth Kingdom. He hadn't counted on a coup resulting in the Earth King's removal. Reason cited as the man being unable to lead.
Which was true. Zuko agreed that Kuei couldn't lead his way out of a bag. Though the King had spent time among his people to better connect with them, the man's inherent naivety proved his greatest weakness. He had promised too many things to too many people. Unable to meet their demands and with the increasing unhappiness among the population, the sheltered king was dethroned.
His successor was to every one's shock and horror, the once imprisoned Long Feng. Zuko's opinion of the Earth Kingdom's people plummeted. Why would they let a known criminal take the throne?
Long Feng's first act as ruler was a petition to the world council for the Fire Nation to increase its reparations, citing various obscure reasons. Which leads to another point of distress for the young Fire Lord.
Why was Aang on the world council? Being involved with the daughter of the chief of the Southern Water Tribe wasn't a free pass into the world assembly.
Matters were made worse as Aang supported Long Feng's petition. The Avatar should take no sides, especially in the matters of politics. Zuko naturally protested, stating that his nation was already taxed beyond its capabilities and brought up Long Feng's criminal behavior.
"He's changed Zuko. He just wants to make things better for the Earth Kingdom. Just like you." Though he knew it would not succeed, Zuko sorely wanted to tear Aang's head off for that remark. There was a difference between rebuilding a nation and extortion which was what Long Feng's actions amounted to.
The Northern Water Tribe's representative seconded the motion. Zuko could tell by the malicious gleam in the man's eyes that this wasn't about money to the North. More about revenge for a hundred years of war…which was absurd as the North had been largely ignored during the war. It was the South that had suffered the most.
Speaking of the South, Zuko had hoped Katara would be present and act as a foil to Long Feng's black handling. She was not. Aang had taken upon himself to represent both the Air Nomads and the Southern Water Tribe. When approached later asking where and how Katara was, Aang revealed that she'd gone to visit Sokka and Suki and that he didn't inform her off the meeting, wanting to handle this session of the assembly on his own.
Wanting to impress her.
Back at the window overlooking the protestor, Zuko mumbled his father's words under his breath,
"I have no friends."
But what of his Uncle?
Another of his father's statements rang true. A majority of the White Lotus were Earth Kingdom citizens. Though Iroh was Grand Lotus, he could not quell the misguided sense of nationalism within his ranks. All he could offer were the words,
"Do your best Zuko. That is all that required of you."
Thinking back, he couldn't help but snarl,
"My best? My best? My best isn't good enough for the world."
He'd have to be better.
"I see you're able to move again." Zuko noted as he watched his father perform hand stand push ups.
"One must keep active when in prison. I wouldn't want to get weak and flabby."
"You know why I'm here."
Ozai flipped to his feet and dusted his hands off, "No. I don't. Despite what you might think, son. I don't have eyes and ears everywhere."
"Don't call me that." Growled the younger man. If Ozai took any offence he didn't show it,
"As you wish. Fire Lord Zuko. Now…what have I done to prove worthy of your audience?"
"I…I need your help."
"Those words might have well have been swords cutting you up inside." Said Ozai, settling back down on the cell floor. He placed his hands behind his head, "And just what is it you assume I can help with?"
Zuko clenched his fists. He hated coming to Ozai for this. But the former Fire Lord once ran the nation, balancing both war and internal peace effortlessly. Surely Zuko could learn how to balance a hungry nation and an equally unforgiving world from him.
"I give and I give and I give. But this nation never seems to have enough. I've already risked a fall out with the other nations over my reparation cut backs. I've channeled my efforts inwards. To heal our nation. But it never seems enough."
"But why come to me? Surely your valued friends are a better source of help."
"I have no friends."
Ozai began to laugh whilst clapping, "Finally! You've learnt something of value!"
"Don't patronize me."
The elder man raised his hands in apology, "Oh forgive me Lord Zuko." His tone reverted back to the Ozai of old, "Now where was that fire you just showed me? Was it present at whatever peace loving meeting you were at, having your nation raped by others?"
"I'm talking about an internal matter!"
"Same thing! The world is filled with jackals. It's the ones closest to home you have to be wary of. The court was without corruption in my day. How's yours?"
"They suffer along with the rest. Surely they…"
"No, boy. Stop looking at the covers and starting reading between the pages. You'll find some interesting things in old books previously thought read." Ozai caught himself and laughed, "Oh Iroh, I do share your sense of pointless analogies." He continued,
"You have to ask yourself, who would benefit the most from all this? You send more and more money and aid to the Earth mongrels. Who stands to profit?"
"Zuko? Am I reading this right? You're cutting back on the Earth Kingdom reparations?" Mai waved the parchment in question after proofreading it.
"I am not going to be extorted by Long Feng." Said Zuko with finality, "The world council is chaired by the vindictive and the foolish."
Mai's brow was raised, "That's a new term for your friends."
"I have no friends, Mai. At least not any that understand my position. Sokka and Suki? Happily married on Kyoshi island with their new born as their center of the world. I wish them happiness but they don't understand what I'm going through. Toph? She's simply vanished. Her parents are beside themselves. The less said about Aang and Katara the better. The two people I've sacrificed everything for stab me in the back. Aang by being the naïve fool that he is and Katara for indulging him."
"Those are harsh words Zuko. You don't really mean them."
Her husband threw open the windows to the room, "Look out there Mai. Look at our nation. It's dying." He turned to her, gently holding her arms, "Mai…I need your help."
"Of course. Anything."
"I need you to be the shadow you were trained to be."
He held her tightly, "I'm going to make things right again."
It took months of surveillance and shadow work but in the end, Mai and her team of elite spies managed to collect and compile a list of conspirators against the throne.
Politicians, merchants, captains of industry. Each an individual yet as a whole. Mai personally uncovered a few working within the White Lotus itself.
They were getting rich off the exports the Fire Nation had to provide in the rebuilding effort. They had acquired the rights to be the sole exporters and distributors, which Zuko signed him self unaware of the underlying plot.
By providing their services, they would be compensated handsomely by the government. As with all deals, someone, somewhere got greedy. The details were sketchy but according to Mai's report, Long Feng was chosen as a replacement for the amiable King Kuei who was perfectly fine with the amount of reparations being sent over.
A lot of strings were pulled between the conspirators and the Earth Courts to release Long Feng. Knowing Long Feng to be the man he is, they knew he would once again attempt another take over of the throne. Using his charisma and inciting general unrest, Long Feng succeeded. From there the usurper would demand more from Zuko, thus increasing exports. Which meant those involved would get paid.
Right out of the Fire Lord's own pocket.
Needless to say, the Fire Lord exhibited the fury his family was infamous on the day he discovered the plot.
However, he could not move against the conspirators for they were among the elites of the Fire Nation.
Moving against any one of them would be detrimental to his rule.
There had to be a way.
The moon peeked through the curtains casting her silvery shine on the two lovers as they lay together. One was sleeping fitfully, arms wrapped around her husband, dreaming of better days, free of worries and stress. The other, however, wasn't so lucky.
His mind was a hurricane of vicious thoughts and violent ideas. The very sort of thing he condemned his father for.
Zuko smiled sardonically.
For all the evil his father did, the man served his country well. For what good is a ruler who abandons the every people he's sworn to protect. His great grandfather went to war over the crazy notion that they were superior to all others.
A war continued by his grandfather and father.
Misguided and ultimately a failure.
Now as the latest in the line, his war was internal.
Would his war be doomed to failure?
Would he be his father's son?
"High Judge Yang. Please have a seat."
The older man bowed respectfully, "I am honored to be a guest in your home, Lord Zuko. For tea no less." Zuko beamed cheerily in response. Yang was an old friend of his uncle's but it didn't make what he was about to do any less difficult.
As they sipped their tea and chatted about the weather and fire bending, Zuko slipped a folded parchment towards the older man. He smiled and winked at Yang, who was quite honestly confused.
"My lord?" He asked holding the paper up, "What is this?"
Calmly Zuko finished his tea, "Open it. Recognize the names? Recognize your name?"
Zuko waved off Yang's frantic explanation, "No, you don't have to explain." He took a small bite out of a steamed bun, chewing slowly before swallowing.
"Lord Zuko…please I…"
Yang's words were halted by the touch of cold hard steel against his throat, the edge of Mai's throwing dagger just barely breaking the skin. The Fire Lady stood impassively by, her hand steady and unwaveringly ready to slit Yang's throat.
Zuko made a show of wiping his hands, "I have to hand it to you and your friends Yang. You played me for the fool for a long time. Good play. I'll give you that."
Zuko ignored his pleas and continued, "I've been reading up on our laws. Now I know murder gets the death penalty but did you know conspiracy against the throne gets not only the guilty party executed but their entire family as well? Barbaric isn't it? I'm going to abolish that part."
Yang's sigh of relief was premature. "Your family gets to live Yang. You? I'm undecided." Noting the look of shock in Yang's eyes, Zuko clarified, "Oh? Surprised that I've got this killer in me? Well don't be. I am Azula's brother."
"And I am also Avatar Roku's descendant." Finished Zuko, "I wanted to do things differently from my ancestors. Rule through peace and harmony. I thought I was a poor leader by leading my nation into such a sorry state. I am weak. I admit that."
Zuko reached out to Yang and patted his trembling hand,
"Why? Why did you force me to this? I wanted to have peace." He laid out another scroll and handed Yang a mortar, pestle and the judge's own official seal, "This is an order for the arrest and execution of your friends for various unrelated violent crimes. I'd list them but my wife is present."
"Surely you can't expect me to sign it…my lord." Bleated Yang reluctantly holding the jade seal with trembling fingers.
"Either your seal or your blood is going on that document." Hissed Mai, pressing the blade deeper, eliciting a yelp from her captive. Zuko pushed the paper closer,
"I can't charge your partners directly. They're much too high profile. This will discredit and shame them. Note your name isn't here. That's offer on the table."
The seal was stamped without a second thought.
Zuko's trek down the prison corridors was accompanied by a slow dignified clap, courtesy of Ozai.
"Well done, Lord Zuko. Well done."
Zuko brushed off his father's praise, "I thought you didn't have eyes everywhere?"
Ozai waved his hand nonchalantly, "Oh the guard's talk. They don't know it's you of course. Don't worry. I won't tell a soul. I'm just happy you've finally grown into your crown."
Zuko chose his words carefully, not wanting to spill any secrets, especially in a prison his father had admitted as an obvious security leak. "How did you know about...what I was up against?"
"Son, I've been at this far longer than you can imagine."
"Did you set all this up?"
"Ha! Please, son. You give me too much credit."
"Then what do you want to tell me…" He didn't know why or how but he just felt he had to say it, "…father?"
Ozai chuckled, "And you say it with less venom than usual. An improvement I suppose." The elder delighted in the way he made his son fidget in impatience, his next words stopping his son's heart,
"It's about your mother."
I haven't written in so long…but that's no excuse.
Hmm...a Maiko. Why? Because having Zutara wouldn't work for this story. I doubt the Waterbender would let Zuko pull such a stunt.