Crossroads of Desperation

Chapter 4: Zuko

I've never felt so lost in my life. I know where I'm going, and where I've been, but I just…don't know what I'm doing anymore. I mean, I'm on a ship, heading back home…home…Even saying it, even being on this ship cutting through the waters on our way back to the Fire Nation, I can't begin to put to words how long I've waited for this day. And yet, it's not at all like I thought it'd be.

I never expected parades or anxious servants tripping over one other to accommodate my every whim; congratulations from war veterans who respect me even if I'm still too young to have experienced all they've seen. Well, perhaps once I had envisioned a life of surging esteem, worship and unshakable devotion from those who bowed in homage to be in the presence of my greatness. I'm almost certain, at one point in my life, I expected the prostrating loyalty of all my subjects, that it should be granted to me not because I earned it, but because it was my birthright. I was their prince, and they should feel privileged to honor me.

That thought is almost comical to me now. I've seen too much, I've changed too much to ever be that pompous child who believed I was great because I was born great that I once was. I've seen families torn apart by the war we've initiated for the sole reasons of spreading our greatness. I've helped those same families when help was needed most; only to have them turn on me, throw stones and rotten cabbages once it was discovered whom I was. I've stolen, I've begged, I've lied and killed and pilfered my talents and my ambitions all in the pursuit of my honor…and now that I have it restored, I don't know who I am any more.

It seems terrifying to know that, even when I have done good, I was spat upon and turned out because of who I am. Does the entire world hate us so much? Have our crimes been so unspeakable that even our deeds of generosity and kindness are met with hatred and mistrust? Is our desire to extend our greatness, to show the world united under a common banner just one never-ending hypocritical atrocity? Where did we go wrong…or were we ever in the right to begin with?

I blame uncle.

Before I listened to all his nonsensical pearls of wisdom, I never considered any of these issues. We were the Fire Nation. The proud country that wanted to share its greatness with others. I never thought, considered really, how much that greatness affected other nations. If other nations rejected our desire to share our gifts with the world, then why did we persist in this useless war? What was the point of it all?

Damn you uncle for making me question everything I thought I knew. I thought I understood the way the world worked. But after all I've seen, after all I've done…I can't really be sure any more. Never forget who you are. My mother's words haunt me still, because I have forgotten who I am. I forgot a long time ago. Because that person I thought I was, isn't me. Because I've realized in my three year exile, that the choices I make, the actions I take, they just don't impact my life, they affect everyone around me.

It's a startling realization to understand that principle, because it was never a lesson I learned at the palace, pampered by those nameless, faceless servants who lived to accommodate my every whim. That girl, Song, and her mother whose Ostrich-Horse I stole, the Earth Kingdom family who's son went missing because of the war, that man who humiliated uncle for a laugh before giving us a gold piece, I've hurt so many people, and I never would have given it a second thought three years ago. Why does it bother me now then?

I know why. Even if I don't want to admit it, I know what it was that caused this metamorphasis in me. It was him. Not uncle, but him…the Avatar. Even thinking about that last fight in the caves still sends a chill up my spine. For so long, I had only one single obsession. Capture the Avatar, and restore my honor. And now, as I think about all the people I hurt and betrayed in my quest…I'm forced to dwell on the Avatar because I've realized, he was a person.

It's strange to even discount, but I had never thought of the Avatar as a person before, at least not really. I think that was partly because it would have interfered with my mission. How could I have pursued a boy, a child really, for the sole purpose of locking him in chains if I concerned myself with his hopes and dreams, his desires and ambitions and friendships and loves? How could I have maintained my desire to regain my honor at the cost of the Avatar's freedom if I put a face, a real human identity to him? The short answer is, I couldn't. That's why I never thought of him as anything more than a tool to regain what was stolen from me.

But everything has changed now. I do feel regret for my actions, I do understand the consequences of my choices, and I am burdened by my guilt. Betraying uncle, stealing the Ostrich-Horse from that mother and daughter who cared for us, betraying my mother's final words to me…because I have forgotten who I am. I sacrificed my identity to achieve my honor.

And then there's the Avatar. I may not have killed him, but I might as well have. All the times I've hunted him, pursued him, tracked him across the earth as if he were just another possession that served only my justifiable greed. He was a piece of property and nothing else. Yet, I'm forced to remember his lively banter, his energetic evasions, and every instance that proved a reminder of just who he was as a person has come haunting me on the echoing screams of his dying breath. Azula's lightning strike was accurate and as deadly as I expected it would be, and it killed the Avatar. I still remember seeing him dance like some grotesque marionette, the screams of his waterbending friend as she watched him die, and the limp, lifeless body that no longer resembled the all-powerful Avatar, but just a frail and helpless boy as he fell to the ground.

The Avatar is dead, uncle is in prison…mother is, no one knows where she's disappeared. And with that realization I finally begin examining the one question I've been afraid to answer. What, if anything, do I have waiting for me back home?

As if carried on the wind, I hear the Avatar's voice asking a similar question, one that seemed to be asked a lifetime ago. 'If we knew each other back then, do you think we could have been friends?'

I grip the banister and tighten my jaw against the sob threatening to overwhelm me, because now I'll never know.

A/N: I rather enjoyed this one. Zuko has always been a deep character and his character evolution has always been one of the better developments of the series, so I wanted to touch on that part of Zuko, the realization that his actions have consequences that extend beyond himself.

Aang's quote is from The Blue Spirit, at the end. I really think it was touching, almost desperate, that Aang really, truly wanted to be Zuko's friend, and I really wanted Zuko to realize that as well.

Anyway, as always, if you're kind enough to read, please be kind enough to review. Thank you.