I don't know if Makani and Rufftoon read fanfiction, but this is for them, because their works on DeviantArt made me love our admiral and his sideburns. I'm not sure what this is - a character study, maybe - but it's their fault.
Zhao belonged in the navy. This had been clear to everyone practically since Zhao had joined the Fire Nation military. He was infamous for his ruthlessness and ambition. Only slightly less impressive, though, was his reputation for being stopped on the docks and asked which vessel he commanded. Few people could say exactly what it was that made them picture him on the iron deck of a ship. It could have been his swagger, or his ferocity, or the way the teenaged Zhao had never seemed quite as attached to the ground beneath his feet as everyone else was. Very possibly this impression was Zhao's doing. He knew that the military was the most important part of Fire Nation society, and he knew that the navy was his country's greatest asset. Here, he could be important. He had been certain of his future in the navy before even his parents guessed it. And once Zhao decided on something, it was no longer optional – it was going to happen.
Zhao was stationed on a cruiser as soon as he had finished basic training under General Jeong Jeong. It was there that he first really saw the ocean. It was one thing to stand on the beach and look out over the water; it was quite another to be on the sea. In less than two days, Zhao could match his steps to the rocking of the ship, and he seemed to take great pleasure in striding confidently past his still-stumbling comrades. In truth, Zhao took great pleasure in a number of things. He enjoyed listening to the steady clanking of his boots against the floors (especially when those around him still teetered to and fro). He liked watching the way the ship sliced through the water. He especially loved being at the helm, feeling the enormous metal vessel turn at his command. When he was at the wheel – and that was often, for the more experienced officers complained that it was a tedious duty and were more than happy to let him have it – he felt powerful. It was as if the entire ship had become an extension of Zhao, and it made him feel on top of the world.
And for a while, Zhao was on top of the world. Granted, he didn't find the glory he was looking for – the glory he'd joined the military for. And his personality was ill suited to taking orders. For the most part, though, he was happier in the Navy than he'd ever been. He didn't think he could have possibly chosen a better career, and his superiors seemed to agree with him. Zhao rose through the ranks at an unprecedented rate, passing his peers by until he was on the verge of gaining his own captaincy.
That was when disaster struck – or, more importantly, the Northern Water Tribe struck. The Rising Dawn's captain ordered a full retreat, but Zhao, still at the helm despite his rank, refused. He plunged the ship straight into battle, bellowing orders at the confused men on the deck below. Something about the snap of his voice sparked action, and soon they were lined up at their stations, firing mercilessly on the three Water Tribe ships. The captain yelled hoarsely, but in vain; they were too far in to stop now. Zhao maneuvered them expertly among the enemy vessels, almost as if he, too, could control the ocean around them. Eventually, the waterbenders were worn down from the constant rain of fire and the struggle not to expose their broadsides to Zhao, and the two remaining ships turned back, defeated. The Rising Dawn had sustained considerable damage, and two crew members had been lost, but it was a victory. Zhao stood before the men, grinning triumphantly, as they whooped at the retreating Water Tribe ships. In that moment, he became infamous.
His success was short-lived. The captain, furious, stormed up to the helm to confront Zhao, and their ensuing argument nearly came to blows. The instant they reached the next port, Zhao was tried in one of the most well-attended courts-martial in years. The captain of the Rising Dawn argued that he be removed from the military forces altogether, but Zhao's record was too commendable. Instead, he was merely stripped of rank and transferred. It would have been another impressive victory for Zhao, but the captain managed to get his revenge.
Zhao was transferred to the Fire Nation army – to a regiment in the desert, no less, as if they knew exactly how to punish him. Driving the cumbersome tanks was nothing like piloting a ship; they were too bulky, and the desert landscape made them slower than usual. Trudging in the sand was even worse. Zhao hated it. He hated the dryness and the rough terrain and how boring being stationed there was. However, he was not one to waste an opportunity. When rumors appeared of a hidden library that contained all knowledge known to man and more, Zhao recognized it as exactly that – an opportunity for glory.
The sandbenders had always been considered a menace, but no one considered them enough of a threat to actively pursue them – at least, that was the case until they executed a major raid on a Fire Nation Army encampment. The soldiers were ambushed in the night, and there were four casualties and more missing supplies than they could spare. Many didn't even wake up until it was over. The general took it as a personal insult, and Zhao's unit was sent out into the desert to track down the rogues. The desert, however, was a treacherous place, and within two days Zhao had gotten lost and separated from the rest of his unit. He was exhausted, but he trudged on, stomping into the sand that he so hated, until he saw it. A huge, shining palace of white marble rose out of the land, gleaming brightly in the sun. Zhao had no idea what it was, but he wanted to be there.
The air was slightly musty, as if it had been hanging inside the colossal dome and arched hallways for an age, but it was cool. The entire building was filled with rows of shelves, and every shelf was overflowing with books. When a spirit being called Wan Shi Tong welcomed him and granted him leave to access any of the information he liked, Zhao saw what he had been looking for all this time: glory.
He went first to the section on the Fire Nation, and there he saw weakness. Every flaw of his country and its defenses was exposed here. There was little chance that anyone else would find this place, but he couldn't risk it. Before solving that problem, however, he went to the books about the Water Tribes. The Northern Water Tribe had been evading the Fire Nation's efforts to eradicate them with annoying hardiness. He intended to find such weak spots as the library revealed about his country. It was then that something even more tempting made itself known. Within the section about the Water Tribe was an even deeper subject; Zhao could learn about the sea. All the secrets of the ocean were available to him. And so Zhao found himself poring over scroll over scroll by firelight. One in particular caught his attention.
The moon and ocean spirits had confined themselves to mortal forms, and both were at the heart of the Northern WaterTribe. Zhao couldn't believe that he had found it. This was all the information he needed. He had found both the essence of the sea and the ultimate way to destroy the Water Tribes, and both were in the same place. Zhao had a plan, a goal. He couldn't be stopped now.
Zhao memorized the precious scroll and put it back. He wanted to be the only one with this knowledge for now – he had to be the one to provide the answer to this war – but there was no sense in destroying the evidence. He went to the books on the Fire Nation and, with one mighty roaring blast, set them all aflame – and then he ran. He didn't look back, not when a horrible screech sounded behind him, not when a powerful gust of wind and the too-close brush of feathers followed him out of the library, and not when the ground shook and shifted under his feet as he escaped through the sand.
From that moment on, Zhao had a new sense of purpose. When he suddenly began to excel in the Army and even used an expert maneuver to halve sandbender numbers, his superiors asked what he wanted. He wanted the Navy; he wanted to be on the sea commanding a fleet of iron ships, and after they were convinced of his unwavering determination, he got exactly that. If Zhao had flown through ranks before, now he soared through them, fiercer and sharper than ever. He was brutal and relentless, and most of all, efficient. Whenever the situation could not be won, the Fire Nation called on Zhao. With him, they began to win real victories.
Zhao had resolved to slay the moon. The moon was the source of all waterbenders' power. With the moon gone, he could conquer the Water Tribes; only the Earth Kingdom would stand in the way of the Fire Nation's ultimate victory. They had struggled too long, and Zhao could end this now. If he could just do this, he would be the hero of the Fire Nation, and the sea would be his; no tides, no waterbenders would be able to lay claim to it. He would rule it all.
Determined as he was, Zhao was almost distracted by the sudden appearance of the Avatar. His goal was almost in reach, but how much recognition would he gain if he could bring in the one threat to all the Fire Nation's plans? More than once, he had nearly had the Avatar within his grasp – once, he had actually had the boy in a cell before the traitorous Prince Zuko rescued him – but never did he succeed. Only later did he realize that his two goals were compatible. The Avatar was headed toward the Northern Water Tribe. With one fell assault, he could destroy them all.
And so, as an Admiral at last with a fleet of hundreds at his back, Zhao set off across the ocean toward the only enemies he had left. This time, Zhao wasn't at the helm; he stood at the bow of his personal flagship, occasionally turning to see the lines of vessels flanking him. He faced the icy fortress at the forefront of his troops, baring his teeth and daring the waterbenders to try to stop him. As a young officer, he had thought that he was on top of the world when he had manned the helm of a single ship. Now, in command of the largest single fleet seen in years, Zhao knew he had been wrong. This was that feeling. This was the top of the world.
The sun began to fall toward the horizon, and Zhao broke through the Water Tribe's defense wall. As battles broke out around him, Zhao took a small escort and headed toward the center of the city, where he knew he would find what he had been searching for. Behind the palace, in a strangely warm chamber, there was a pond. In the pond were two simple coy fish, circling one another rhythmically, almost hypnotically. Zhao scooped one of them up in a bag and held it, still struggling and dripping with water, out in front of him. Above him, the moon's light turned an unnatural red and illuminated the grin that split his face. He had it. All he had worked for was here, in his hand. He was going to be immortal….
His joy was stilled when the Avatar and General Iroh appeared. The boy he did not fear, but when the general threatened him, Zhao could not ignore it. Fury burned where manic triumph had been a moment before, and he let go of the moon spirit. He stared at it as the coy fish slipped back into the water – as his dreams slipped just out of his grasp. He clenched his fists, shaking with rage. He was Zhao. He was unstoppable! He would not allow this to happen. With a wrathful bellow, almost a war cry, he struck out with muscle and fire at the moon spirit.
The moon went dark, dead. Even as he fled, Zhao was grinning victoriously. Throughout the city, waterbenders were falling helplessly to his men, their bending useless. Fire flashed across his vision, and he came face-to-face with an angry Prince Zuko. He had thought the boy dead, but no matter – if he wasn't yet, he soon would be. Zhao would make sure of that. Full of the thrill of victory, he attacked. They were more or less evenly matched – or so Zhao thought before a fire blast knocked him onto his back. He looked up from the ground, but his ire turned quickly to horror.
The moon burned in the sky, white and brilliant. Even as he cried out against it, living water closed in around him. It wrapped around him and lifted him off the ground. Zhao struggled against it. He had known the sea could be merciless – he had liked that, seen it as a challenge, a force to push against – but he had never known it was vengeful.
Prince Zuko, the traitor, reached for him, trying to save him. Zhao could take the boy's hand. He could live. He almost did – he had no doubt that the ocean would crush him, drag him down – but he hesitated. He was shamed; his entire plan, his ultimate victory, had been denied him. What would he be if he went back? For this failure, he would probably be exiled, banished like the disgraced young man before him. He would have nothing, be nothing. There would be no glory for him.
Zhao was meant for the Navy. He was a man of the sea – always had been, and always would be.
He would rather let the ocean take him.