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Chapter 32

The Road He Traveled

A wave of emotion nearly overwhelmed Aang as he was engulfed in sensations and memories of a life that was not his own. Glimpses of Ozai as a child and his young adulthood flashed by as a disorienting pace, and in moments Aang found himself watching the young man standing in a courtroom. There was a look in the young Ozai's eyes that burned with conviction as he made his case against the man on trial.

"Where is this?" Ozai's voice echoed all around. "How did I get here?"

"That's the question, isn't it?" Aang replied. "How did you get here? How did it all come to this?"

Aang's attention returned to the memory of the young Ozai standing before the courtroom.

"I was so naïve. Standing there in that room believing that my words alone could make a difference only proved how much of a fool I used to be. I honestly believed that the system worked, that the innocent were protected. I did not take me long to learn the true nature of the world."

Aang watched as case after case and year after year blew by. The light in Ozai's younger eyes clouded more with each passing day. Soon it was clear that bitterness and resentment towards the world had taken root where his righteousness once was.

"What happened?" Aang asked.

"The more powerful and influential the criminal, the more heinous acts they got away with through bribery and technicalities. The judges were all but pet dogs wagging their tails for scraps from their true masters. That was when I learned that power was the only thing that could change the world. Unfortunately there are few ways to acquire power. Most often it is in the form of money. Considering how little I had at the time, I settled for the next best thing: fear."

As Ozai said them, the memories began to reflect his words. Images of people showing up in secluded places only to be threatened by a person they could not identify with words of violence or horrible truths revealed. Blackmail and threats became Ozai's tools and he began to use them without hesitance. Over time it became apparent that even the judges of the court were weighing the consequences of who to side with.

"It took little time," Ozai's disembodied voice said. "After only a year I had sent the underworld of this city into a power struggle the likes of which had never been seen. They clung to their power and money and struck blindly at one another, never sure of whom it was that was slowly eating away at their organizations."

Suddenly the memories began to fade into darkness. Another scene slowly began to appear in their place as Ozai's voice fell silent. A woman with long black hair sat on a small sofa with a basket of laundry at her side. A small boy was playing with some toys on the floor next to a basinet with a tiny baby girl resting peacefully.

"It all came at a price though, didn't it?" Aang asked. "You wanted to change the world and it began to change you."

The memory Ozai burst into the room following Aang's statement. He did not say anything, but his face was set in what appeared to be a permanent scowl. First he glared at his wife who only continued to do laundry, and then he glared down at a very young Zuko who only smiled up at him.

"Welcome home, dear," the woman said.

"Hi dad," his son greeted him.

Ozai had not responded. He merely turned away from the boy and stalked out of the room before returning with a drink in his hand.

"The drinking began when I was still under the delusion that it was my fault that wicked men walked free. Guilt had settled in me over the fact that they were not in prison because I failed to do my job of putting them there. Thought that belief was long behind me, the drinking was not."

Aang witnessed several more scenes of the same nature. Ozai would come home to a house that welcomed him, yet he grew more distant each time. Eventually he began to lash out at his family as his drinking increased. Aang could only watch in sorrow as the young man that had seemed so passionate became a dark and angry man.

"The irony was not lost on me at the time either," Ozai said. "Through the years I achieved many things. Through terror and manipulation I gathered the power to control nearly all of the organized crime in the city. Many people suffered and died for me to get what I wanted and I was all too aware of the fact that I had become what I set out to stop. I did not regret any of it. The people I killed were as corrupt as the system I had tried to work within. Though I did not regret it, it did have a lasting effect. I became just as bitter and angry as any man could ever be. I'm sure you've heard from Zuko what kind of father I was."

Visions of the beatings Aang had been vaguely aware of played before his eyes. He could hardly stand to look at them and eventually turned away as his heart cried out for the woman and her two children.

"I hated how it all came so easily to me. I hated how their system worked and how it was the only way I could strike back at them. It had pulled me in and I had allowed it to become all about getting back at those that had escaped me rather than anything else. On some level I'm sure I was aware of this even at the time, but there was one moment of clarity where it all finally sank in."

Once again the image of Ozai's old home came into view. All that was visible was the man's younger self sitting in a chair with his face buried in his hands. His hands were stained with a red that Aang knew immediately. Banging and shouting could be heard somewhere in the distance, but the image faded before anything else was shown.

"To this day I cannot remember how that night started. I don't know what it was that had me angry, or even if I was when I started drinking. All I can remember is her face before I placed the blanket over it. I did not fight when they came to get me. I did not even bother trying to defend myself when I was put on trial. I allowed the system to do what it was put into place to do. That is where it should have ended."

A long silence fell over the darkness that surrounded Aang. Eventually he found the voice to ask the question that was nagging at him.

"Why didn't it?"

For the first time since the darkness had fallen, Ozai himself came into view. His form appeared as it had in reality, swirling combinations of deep red and black hues. He stared at Aang as though it was the most ridiculous question in the world.

"I told you before," he replied. "The system was broken. Even though I knew I deserved to be executed for what I had done, they insisted I could be helped. For many years I refused. I deserved to die for all that I had done."

"What changed?" Aang asked. "If you're to repent or absolution then you're going about it in a pretty messed up way."

"Absolution?" Ozai scoffed. "You are a fool, boy. There is no absolution. There is no reprieve from the evil that I have committed. There is no forgiving or saving. I tried to find what so many others had found while they were in prison; some sort of spiritual uplifting or salvation. None exist. Only fools believe that by finding a way to alleviate themselves of the wrongs they have done can they ever find a way to set things right.

"It was a year or so ago now that I remember seeing him. It was some newscast about some martial arts competition. One of the local television stations was covering the event and I saw my son Zuko for the first time in half a decade. He had changed. He fought with such ferocity, such anger, and I knew from where it all stemmed. I had corrupted my son in the same way that I had allowed the world to corrupt me. I had to end it."

"Is that what this is all about?" Aang asked. "You've done all of this so that you could end your own son?"

"No, you fool!" Ozai growled. "I did it so that he would end me!"

Aang simply stared at Ozai in confusion. "I don't understand."

"Of course you don't, boy," Ozai replied. "You've ruined everything and you don't even know it. All that I have done was meant to lead my son to this moment, the moment that you have taken. He was supposed to be standing above me when it all ended. He was supposed to strike the final blow so that I would finally receive the punishment I so rightly deserve and so that he may have closure to the darkest days and memories of his life. His anger would die with me."

"You started a war in Serpent's Pass so that your son would kill you?"

"I couldn't just bring myself to him. He had to have a justifiable reason. Gathering the gangs together was a means to an end, and if a few dozen street thugs had to die for that as well, then the world is no worse off. The mercenaries were just a tool to keep them under control until my son's eventual challenge. Once I was dead and my promises of riches and power died with me, the others would have just walked away."

"Do you really believe that your son is filled with nothing but hate?" Aang asked. When Ozai did not answer, Aang shook his head sadly. "You're so sure that anger, hate and corruption fill this world that you can't even see your own son for who he is. Look at him through my eyes."

Aang raised his hand to Ozai and gently placed his palm on the man's forehead. Instantly the red and black chaos in his eyes changed to a bright shining light. Before Ozai's eyes flashed instances of his son's happiness and laughter, tender moments that he had shared with his friends, uncle and sister. Along with these were moments of doubt and confusion where he was comforted and supported and also moments that he did the same for others. In the end, Ozai saw his son as a man he had never allowed himself to believe he could become. He saw his son as the man that he himself had always hoped to be.

"You give our son too little credit."

The voice that reached Ozai's ears struck him much deeper than he believed he could even feel anymore. Where Aang had stood only moments ago was now his wife, smiling at him with that same gentleness that he remembered being able to love wholeheartedly once.

"Ursa? How is this possible?"

"Does it really matter?" she asked.

"I've wondered for so long what I would say if I had ever been given the chance to see you again," he admitted. "Now that you're here, I have no idea where to begin."

"I have something I've wished to say to you for a long time as well," she told him. Ozai prepared himself for her hatred. If anyone had any right to hate him, more than anyone else it was her. "I'm sorry."

That was not what he had been expecting. Tears came unbidden to his eyes as he just stared at her in utter disbelief.

"You're sorry?" he repeated as the tears began to fall. "What in this or any other world do you have to be sorry for to me?"

"If I had been a better wife to you, maybe I could have saved you from the path you were on. If my love had been enough then maybe—"

Ozai wrapped his arms around her and wept like a child.

"Don't you say that," he begged. "Don't you ever say that. You loved me as no one else ever had or ever will and I cast you aside for bitterness and hate. Don't you ever apologize to the likes of me. I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."

As Zuko fought through the gangbangers that tried to block his path to the roof he had prepared himself for anything that he might see. He had been prepared to see Aang lying dead on the ground; head had been prepared to see Ozai lying defeated; he had been prepared to see both men fighting for their lives. What he had not prepared himself for was the sight that was before him as he pushed open the doorway leading out onto the roof.

There Aang stood with his eyes staring up into the night sky, the picture of tranquility and peace. His hand was placed on Ozai's forehead as the man sat on his knees before Aang, his eyes downcast and red. Zuko could not tell if it was the rain that was falling or not, but Ozai appeared to be crying.

"What's going on?" Zuko asked as he tentatively approached Aang.

"Nothing," his friend answered calmly. "It's over."

Zuko stared at Ozai, waiting for him to make a move. This had to be a trick. There were no noticeable injuries on the man's body and it was not like him to be in such a submissive position. The other shoe was about to drop.

"He is right, Zuko," Ozai's voice came out weak and hoarse. He finally raised his gaze from the ground and met his son's eyes. "It's over."

For years Zuko had known this man to be one of the most manipulative men to have ever lived. Every word out of his mouth was to be met with suspicion and mistrust. The man lied so well that he convinced a correctional facility that he was rehabilitated when clearly he was not. However, looking into the man's eyes at that very moment, to his own disbelief Zuko believed him.

A/N: I'm sorry for the incredible delay on this release. I've written this chapter more than half a dozen times and this is the least sucky version of the lot and I still think it sucks compared to what's in my head. Please forgive my inadequacy.