Disclaimer: Avatar: The Last Airbender belongs to Nickelodeon, and Mike and Bryan. I own nothing; the penguins stole it all, one shred of sanity at a time.
Summary: Because Zuko never, ever gives up without a fight. Companion piece to 'Unbreakable'
Eyes Open Wide
Never give up without a fight (非戰不屈) – the inscription on an Earth Kingdom blade
There are only two ways to die.
With your eyes closed.
Or with your eyes open.
In the countdown of last breaths and final heartbeats, some let Death lead them away meekly. Eyes close in final farewell, finding peace in final rest. Many (he has long since lost count, but never forgotten) have died in silence as he watched their eyes slide slowly, slowly shut.
But he has seen so many more die with their eyes open. War was not kind; he could not afford to be any kinder. He remembers the wide-eyed shock of enemies slain. With their lives snuffed out like flickering candles before a gale, they topple to the earth, staring out at the red fields, the white abyss. A woman reaching out for her loved ones as the light drains from her vision; a man gasping for air as unrealized dreams crumble in his eyes.
He sees the desperate desire to live in those eyes.
He knows why they die with their eyes open wide.
Swish, clang! The maelstrom of blades tears through their ranks like wildfire.
Only cowards and outlaws ambush with serrated blades and steel-tipped arrows. Both kill without warning and without honor.
It is a lack of honor he refuses to reciprocate. Honor defines him in a way he cannot describe – it hums in his blood (the dishonored blood of his ancestors) and guides him away from the mistakes of his forefathers. Fire and lightning come easily to a bender of a Fire Lord's caliber, but he ignores it resolutely, striking only his blades. Killing is too easy. A single blast of fire or a single sweep of his blade take only a second of callousness. Yet, Aang spared his father's life, and he has taken that lesson to heart. The world has seen enough fire and death and destruction. He will not firebend, not in a forest during dry summer, not when there's a small village full of sleeping innocents just a mile away. Not even if it'll save his life.
There's a voice in the back of his mind that sounds like the old Azula, and she whispers like a serpent in his ear. How traitors deserve to be obliterated. How the Fire Lord's life outweighs one measly village. How easy it is to lose himself in the thrill of battle and revel in bloodshed. But he ignores her because he still believes in Aang. Some call it foolishness, but he calls compassion, a trait that everyone who befriends the Avatar eventually comes to share. There's another voice in his head that sounds like Iroh, reminding him that a true ruler must never shun difficulty at the cost of his own beliefs.
He remembers a once angry young prince and understands his uncle a little better now.
A slice to the hamstring, a sharp blow to the back of the head – it's hard to tell how many he's taken out in the dark, and even harder to keep count in the heat of battle. He rolls under a spear thrust and snaps the arrow in his shoulder with a grimace before stabbing the shaft into the nearest boot. They fight with all the grace and precision of drunkards at a bar brawl, but at the same time, he cannot hope to overcome their numbers without fire and lightning at his fingertips. He knows with all the cold clarity of a martial artist how low the odds are.
But his whole life has been about fighting the odds.
Their torches glimmer like maidens in the darkness, the red flames maddeningly tempting to his firebending as his vision blurs with exhaustion and blood loss. Fire is his only ally here, and he can see the bright tendrils straining towards him, begging to help him, save him. But it is almost the Solstice and the village fields have yet to be harvested, a harvest that his people will starve without. He cannot risk a forest fire. Exhaling sharply, he guts the nearest flame and strikes in the sudden black.
The cries of pain and confusion are muted by the blood pounding in his ears and the rasp of shallow breaths in his lungs, and he wonders half-heartedly if remembering harvest quotas and population censuses right now is inappropriate. Being the Fire Lord has changed him, and unknowingly, he has changed what it means to be Fire Lord. After a century of war and neglect, he is the first sovereign to remember his people and forget himself.
He does not know that history will one day immortalize him among its greatest, even long after his father and his father's father have been forgotten.
He does, however, know mortality. Death has brushed by too many times for him to remain unaware of her touch. In his darker moods, he sometimes wonders how Fire Lord Zuko will die. An assassin's knife in the dark. Amidst the raging chaos civil revolt. Or with the taste of poison and betrayal on his lips. On the worst nights when he lies alone and grief keeps him awake, he wonders if the weight of the crown will ever break him and warp him, especially when his bloodline is so prone to cruelty and madness.
Only for a moment though. He will never let it come to that, because he knows himself and he knows his friends.
There is only one death he truly fears.
That he will become his father. That they will be the ones who stop him.
That he will die with Sokka's knife in his heart, that Toph will look on in disgust as his blood stains the earth red, that Uncle will silently turn his face away, and the last thing that he sees will be the betrayal in Katara's eyes. As everything goes black, he will hear Aang's voice, colder than the northern winds, declare his damnation. He has told no one his greatest fear, his recurring nightmare. Every time, he wakes up in a cold sweat, panting, and touches his scar, the closest physical reminder that he is Zuko. Not Ozai. Not Sozin. Zuko.
A familiar bloom of heat suddenly sears across his back, and he barely has time to throw himself out of the way before a blast of fire roars past. A thrill runs through him as he sees the sparks dance towards the dry underbrush, and his hand reacts instinctively, dispersing the flames with his sword before they become a wildfire. The distraction costs him – another man nearly drives a knife into his back.
Nearly. In the nick of time, he flattens himself against the ground and the blade only tears through his shoulder. The shoulder he just snapped an arrow out of. No matter how battle-hardened, pain is still pain, and he bites down on his lip viciously to keep from screaming as he smashes an elbow viciously against the man's ribcage to the crunch of breaking bones.
In his heart, he thanks Agni that their firebenders are few and ill-trained, unable to firebend in close quarters melee.
He's already moving on, running up a tree and vaulting over the heads of three men whose spears pierce the space he occupied just a heartbeat ago. A hilt rammed into the back of one man's face, the flat of a blade smashed into the neck of another, and a crushing axe-kick to the last one's head - they crumple silently.
Landing in a crouch, he barely has time to breathe before he hears the sharp twang of a bowstring. An angry, lead-tipped arrow sprouts from the earth just a fraction of an inch from his side as he rolls out of the way. If firebending wasn't bad enough, now they're flinging arrows in almost complete darkness. Either the enemy commander is exceedingly stupid, or the enemy commander is damn smart, and neither option is particularly comforting. Forcing his burning muscles to keep working, he ends his roll with an upward leap, just in time to block a downward swipe with an arm-jarring clang.
And finds himself staring into a wild, panicked pair of eyes. His breath catches – the boy in front of him can't be any older than fifteen, no older than Katara or Sokka or Azula all those years ago, and the blatant fear in that expression all speaks of inexperience, innocence, and idealism.
The soft, somber 'twang' of the bow sings again behind him.
But he has seen so many die with their eyes open. He remembers the wide-eyed shock of enemies slain. With their lives snuffed out like flickering candles before a gale, they topple to the earth, staring out at red fields and the white abyss.
For a single heartbeat, time stands still. And for a single heartbeat, it's not the boy's face he sees, but the faces of the not-quite-children, who grew up too quickly and grew old too young, to fight a war of adults for the fate of the entire world. The face of someone who shouldn't be trapped in this nightmare, shouldn't have to die with eyes open wide when he dodges the arrow that will pierce his heart.
So he doesn't.
'You never think things through…' A distant echo of Uncle's voice, tinkling with a touch of exasperation, and strangely enough, a touch of grief, just moments before his world shatters into white pain.
The steel sliding through him is so cold it burns like fire.
Distantly, through the crazed curtain of agony, he feels the twin dao swords slide from his slack fingers. His enemy tenses at first, but then notices the blood, glistening darkly all over the front of his shirt and his hands. He can see the horror in those widening eyes as the boy's confused gaze darts up to meet his, utters a strangled, choked scream, and scrambles away.
His legs give out, and he falls to his knees as the world tilts dizzily to one side. Once upon a time, he would have been humiliated at this show of weakness. But life has taught him the difference between honor and pride, and pride has no place on a battlefield. As calmly as he can, he presses a hand to his chest and draws it back wet with blood – and he realizes that the wound is fatal, beyond a shadow of doubt. The Azula in his head rails hysterically (what fool Fire Lord dies for a village, for a boy?) and Iroh is silent. He thinks, though, that his uncle would understand.
But he can't dwell on it now; it takes every ounce of strength to stay conscious. Pain is drumming against his brain, slowly seeping past his mental discipline, impossible to ignore. His thoughts scatter like ash in the wind, going every which way, a confused jumble because even after Iroh's scolding, he hasn't thought this through. 'What now?' he wonders, and has no answer.
His sight is failing. The ring of darkness contracts around him slowly, like a countdown, creeping into the corner of his eyes. Agni, he needs to breathe, but with every attempt he can feel his lungs strain against the arrow's shaft, bubbles of agony welling up in his wound and his throat. Every hacking breath brings up thick, brackish mouthfuls of spit and blood. He can feel himself slipping into unconsciousness as his mind fogs over, and he arches his neck upwards in a desperate attempt to breathe, but there's no air up there.
Only a huge, black sky full of stars.
It's a familiar sight, one he used to hate with a passion. As if the universe had been laughing as he stood on the deck of his boat, angry, deluded, and banished. An unchanging, unsympathetic sky as he starved in the endless plains of the Earth kingdom. Bright stars twinkling against a yawning void, unreachable without an Airbender.
He doesn't hate it any more. It is nostalgic now, of nights spent around a campfire, talking in low tones. Or cool gardens in the summertime, a warm hand in his and a soft whisper in his ear. With a pang of sorrow, he realizes that he has not stargazed since his wife's death. To walk along the dim hallways she once graced and to see shadows of her ghost around every corner is a trial he isn't brave enough to face alone. So he has always shut himself in his conference room or his study, working through the endless issues that demand a Fire Lord's attention, retiring early for the night to an empty room and an empty bed. He avoids his uncle's knowing look and sometimes wonders if Ozai ever loved Ursa because he cannot understand how his once-father could not. Seeing that sky makes him remember, and with the memories, the grief comes trickling back too, quiet and empty enough to break him.
He still misses her.
As if in answer, he can feel her ghostly, alabaster fingers threading themselves through his hair, tracing his jawbone, her smile glowing sardonically behind him. His blood-choked gasp hitches slightly; the feeling of loss is so fresh that it aches, and if only he could turn his head to look, he knows she's waiting because she promised she would. But then his heart gives an almighty lurch and another mouthful of blood splatters onto the ground as he collapses.
Her presence vanishes like the hallucination it was, leaving him with only a lingering memory of her touch, old grief and new sorrow.
A rough hand grasps his hair and yanks his face upwards, so drastically different from her familiar, gentle touch, so that he's staring straight into someone else's glittering yellow eyes. He recognizes that expression – suspicious and guarded, eyes that hide far more than they reveal. No one lies better than Azula though, and she has taught him how to read eyes. For an assassin, the man's eyes show a startling amount of regret.
"Shame, ain't it? The only half-decent Lord we've had in decades, and he dies young," the man murmurs, voice mocking and disdainful, eyes telling a different story. The words sound distant to him though, as if he's listening to them underwater. He isn't young – no one can fight a war and still be young. Not Aang, not Katara, not Sokka, not Toph, not him.
But his lips hardly move as he tries to answer, and his limbs feel like lead. If he were anyone else, he would close his eyes and relax into Death's waiting embrace.
"Any last words, Fire Lord Zuko?"
He is the Fire Lord, and he is Zuko, but the man calling him that doesn't have the slightest inkling of what it means to live for duty and honor and friendship. But there's too much blood and not enough air in his lungs to explain, and only a cough, a raspy 'no' makes it past his lips. No, there isn't anything he can say. Not to this man who knows nothing.
"Agni shield yer soul then."
It is only as he watches the blade come down that all his blurry thoughts coalesce on the edge of a knife.
Something inside him snaps.
With a last, desperation-driven rush of power, he lashes out with a trail of lightning at his fingertips, and the heel of his palm smashes into the hilt of the knife, sending its reflective blade spinning away into the darkness. His vision goes white as lightning surges through every broken fiber of his body and hurls the man away from him. The spasm of pain drives every thought from his head, but he clings to consciousness tightly with all the sheer willpower he possesses.
Never give up without a fight.
He meets the man's eyes calmly, because a true sovereign can muster dignity even as he lies bleeding to death in the dirt. In the next few heartbeats, all is silent save for the occasional moan of the wounded and the crackle of the remaining torches. His will is stronger than theirs – the man finally looks away, picking up his knife and beckoning to his men.
"Have it your way. Ain't no way you're getting up with that arrow in yer chest anyhow."
They leave. He is well and truly alone now, left to his own thoughts as blood trickles slowly from his lips. His arm slams back onto the ground with a heavy thud. He has nothing left; it takes every ounce of self control just to keep breathing. In, choke, Out, cough. Each breath is a struggle, just like everything he has ever faced, just like every step of his life. He was lucky to be born, not born lucky, but it doesn't matter anymore. His father's acceptance, capturing the Avatar, regaining his honor…he wonders if he would have fought as hard if he knew then that the road ended here, dying amongst the fallen leaves.
He regrets so many things.
The world that the Fire Lord faces isn't nearly as innocent as the world that the Avatar protects. He has done his best to keep all the poverty, politics, corruption, and devastation that follows in the wake of war to himself, done as much as he could bare to preserve his friends' innocence, because they have all suffered enough and he owes Aang, owes all of them too much to make them face the horrible choices that a sovereign must. Peace is so much harder than war, just as mercy is harder than death, and there are days when the gold crown is heavier than it looks in his hands.
Duty means integrity in what you do. Honor, though, means integrity in who you are.
Honor has always defined his life in a way he cannot explain. It is the will that forces his heart to keep beating even now, because honor will not let him leave behind a nation that he has sworn to heal or a peace he has sworn to protect. But honor does not keep him from feeling weary, and honor does little to heal grief. He has buried his wife, buried his mother, and honor does not keep him from missing her smile, her touch, her voice. As he blinks, slowly, he realizes that his tears have nothing to do with honor.
He wants to see Aang's wedding.
He wants be there to give a speech at the reception. He wants to see Katara smiling like the sea as she twirls in her brilliant blue wedding gown. To visit Kyoshi Island again, listen to Sokka's children nag him for fire-candy and tales of dragons, and smile at Suki scolding the father along with the kids. He wants congratulate Toph's Earth Rumble championship as she punches him in the shoulder, embarrassed. He wants to see his uncle's face light up as he drops in on the teashop, and spend long hours talking to the man who is all but his father in name.
He wants so badly to live.
He's only twenty-two.
Blinding pain blocks out almost everything else, but his throat is too strangled to scream and his body is too weary to writhe. The yawning darkness is swallowing the stars one by one, and Death doesn't care for honor or duty.
He doesn't have long. He knows, he knew from the moment he heard the bowstring's song, but he never realized dying was so hard. Every moment, he can feel his own heartbeat getting weaker; he can feel the blood trickling away as he becomes colder, and he can hear his own ragged gasps for air growing quieter and quicker. The truth is as plain as the scar on his face.
He's dying. He's dying.
And for the first time in who-knows-how-long, he's suddenly scared out of his mind, not because he's abandoning his nation, not because he's afraid to die, but because there's no one here except the cold and distant sky, and whatever words he has to say are going to die with him. He has always known that Death was just half-a-step behind, that too many people had too many reasons to want him dead, for him to make any promises about the future, but he had forgotten. He had sent Aang off at the Capital and laughingly promised to be at the wedding, promised to take Sokka with him, had made so many promises, and lied to so many people.
But there's so much he wants them to know. So much he has to make up for.
He won't let go. He's fighting, trembling, and his battered carcass is hacking and coughing as he tries and tries to breathe, but the darkness above that swallows the stars suddenly blurs as another searing, unconscious tear slides down his cheek from his unscarred eye. For all his helplessness and fear, the tears are calm and unhurried. Grief is always lingering.
And the memories hurt a thousand times worse than death.
"Zuko-!" "-never accept you." "No, we WON'T!" "-time to start asking yourself the big questions! Who are you, and what do YOU want?" "-maybe we haven't failed after all!" "-I's sorry it has to end this way-" "-but I am ready to forgive you." "Then you've learned NOTHING!" "-that's how I show affection." "Yeah, we ARE friends." "-Zuko…" "-Zuko!" "ZUKO!"
They blur together, one bleeding into another, until everything fades away into a hollow, empty silence.
He's about to lose it all. He has found something that means more than his country, more than his honor, more than his throne, and now they're on their own. He's dying...and even if he fights, it's a fight he knows he's going to lose.
He's not ready to die.
Another cold shudder shakes him like a rag doll, but he keeps his eyes open, staring upwards at that unreachable sky. He's not ready, and it's only now that he realizes fearing death and wanting to live are two completely different things. Agni, what is the Fire Nation going to do without a Fire Lord? Who can they trust to lead a nation still settling into such a fragile peace? What about Aang? Katara? Toph? Sokka? Uncle? He remembers the dark hallways his wife once graced and the grief as he sees her ghost around every corner. Her death still haunts him, and he wonders if his will haunt them. He knows the devastation of a farewell without a goodbye, and he refuses to imagine Katara's tears or Sokka's stony silence or the hoarseness in Iroh's voice.
He's not ready to die.
More stars are disappearing from the sky now – the ones that were lingering in his peripheral vision have been blotted out by the blackness, their bright points of light snuffed out like pinprick candles – and the starry patches shrink into themselves as the shadows bloat and spread. He can't stop it, nor can he slow it down, because no matter how determined he is, sheer willpower alone can only do so much. He knows Death's touch; he knew from the beginning.
And yet, he still has so much he needs to tell them. He won't die, can't die, not until he says what he has to. That he's not abandoning them, he swears that he tried and…a single message, a single word –
Move, move...he bends every ounce of his will to the task...and his hand twitches.
Heart beating sluggishly, deafeningly loud in his ears, he draws the first stroke through the dirt.
Katara. 'Thank you, Katara.' He doesn't have the strength for anything more. For everything. For every healing, for being there, for understanding, for giving him the honor of 'best friend'. Promise–
The second stroke.
Toph. 'It means a lot to me, Toph. It really does.' She'll do fine without him; she doesn't need a big brother to take care of her. He knows 'sorry' isn't anywhere near enough, but all it's all he can muster. Understand–
The third stroke is a struggle, but he drags his finger across the ground and it is weak, but legible.
Sokka. 'You're going to fail a lot before things work out. But even if you'll probably fail over and over again, you have to try every time.' Fall down seven times; stand up nine. Sokka still has the knife. Never give up without a fight. Remember–
Shaking badly, he etches the fourth stroke in the dirt, and it tires him more than anything he can remember.
Iroh. 'Uncle. You're the one who's been a real father to me.' He…what can he say? Nothing he can do will ever come close to equaling all that Iroh has done for him. He owes the man so much, and he can't give anything in return. Uncle, father –
He can't lift his hand anymore, but somehow, by sheer force of will or some miracle, the fifth stroke appears in the ash.
Aang. 'You're a talented kid. You can do it. I know you can.' Avatar – no, just Aang. That kid did the most growing up of all. He saved the world, already, and only he can protect it. Believe–
Just one more. One more stroke.
He's not shaking anymore. He's not coughing up blood either. Even the pain is dulled, barely noticeable, because every drop of blood that seeps through his clothes takes the pain away with it.
He's not breathing.
Just one last stroke.
His hand doesn't move.
In his darker moods, he sometimes wonders how Fire Lord Zuko will die. Honor. Redemption. He wonders if he would have fought as hard had he known then that the road ended here, dying amongst the fallen leaves. Responsibility. Regret. A man gasping for air as unrealized dreams crumble in his eyes. There's no breath in his body; one more tear rolls down his face, and that's how he knows his eyes are still open, he hasn't closed them; he cannot close his eyes and die. The night has swallowed up everything, everything but one star left in the entire sky, and he cannot look away.
He has never given up without a fight.
Even when he knows, he cannot win.
Never give up without a fight.
The last stroke.
The last star disappears.
He dies with his eyes open wide.
'Eyes Open Wide' is a companion piece and prequel of sorts to my fanfic 'Unbreakable', but it can stand on its own as a one-shot. Character death from first person is always so hard to write though, so I'm not sure if it turned out well.
Zuko was writing a Chinese character; you can speculate on your own, or you can read 'Unbreakable' and find out - Aang mentions it.
If there are any questions, or if you saw something you think could be improved, caught a mistake, or there was something that particularly stood out to you, please let me know in a review.