A/N: Almost forgot this...don't own Avatar: The Last Airbender, but the personifications are mine.
He stood taller than most men: of the nations, he was second only to the Foggy Swamp Water Tribe. His hair was a rich, luxurious black, deeper than the night, and his eyes were an amber-gold that rivaled the intensity of a dragon. Once, long ago, he had been a sage: but in those days he was young, and thought that wisdom and knowledge and spiritual guidance would make him strong. Now, he scorned the memory of those days, those bright, beautiful days, when he and the other nations—then merely the Water Tribe, multiple city-states and regions of what was now the Earth Kingdom, and the Air Nomads—would play in the fields of their homes, laughing and chasing each other as if they had no cares.
But then he grew, as the Fire Sages that governed him began to venerate one of their own above all others, even themselves. This Sage, the Great Fire Sage, had a smooth tongue, and the Fire Nation began to look to the Chieftain of the Water Tribe, or the Kings and Queens of the Earth Kingdoms, with envy. His Great Sage saw the desire, and one day the Fire Nation left his quarters from his daily meditation to find that the Great Sage had declared himself Fire Lord.
Everyone was happy, it seemed. The Great Sage had been popular before, and now that he ruled the Fire Nation, now that he made it strong like the other nations, he was showered with affections whenever he ventured into the streets. Always at his side in those days was a young boy, just beginning to become a man, who looked up at his Fire Lord with adoring eyes and innocent trust.
The Fire Lord's ascension was not the only thing to occur at that time either. Change rippled across the world: when the Fire Lord next went to visit the Earth Kingdoms, he found only a young girl in their place, standing on a cliff before a great construction site.
"Who are you?" He asked her, wondering where his friends had gone, fearing for their safety. The girl turned her emerald eyes to him, serious yet hopeful.
"I am the Earth Kingdom." Was her reply.
He learned later that, while he had been distracted with his new Fire Lord, a warlord from the northeastern lands of the Earth Kingdoms had brought a great army to bear, and conquered the other Kingdoms in just ten years. The Fire Nation's friends, the Earth Kingdoms, proud Shan, mighty Yan, Dongxue and Diqiu and Dan, all had faded, becoming one with their new sibling, their little sister, the Earth Kingdom.
At first, she was rigid, humorless, with only intense determination showing in her eyes. But after a few years, while she adjusted to the knowledge and experience her brothers had left her and struggled to keep her fragile house from falling apart, she began to smile. Her new ruler, who proclaimed himself the Earth King, had ordered a great city built for his capital, with large walls to protect them from any attacking army. The Fire Nation saw the construction, and wondered if anyone would ever be able to breach such great walls.
Not only the Earth Kingdom emerged then, no: farther north, rumors were heard of a rift in the Water Tribe, isolated at the North Pole. When he was sure the Earth Kingdom would retain herself and her house, the Fire Nation gained permission to go north, to visit the Water Tribe. He was worried of what he might find, fearing he had lost another friend.
What he found was almost worst than simply losing the Water Tribe. Upon his arrival, in a Dragon Ship crewed by his strongest Firebenders, the Fire Nation was at first told to leave. When he would not, the Chieftain reluctantly took him to the Spirit Oasis behind the Grand Palace, warning him that he would not like what he was about to see. His words were not lost upon the nation, who was tempted to run away the moment he saw what had become of his friend.
Lying before the waters, chest heaving as he struggled to breathe, was the Water Tribe. The young man looked at his old friend with glazed eyes, then grinned madly. His body was covered in bruises and cuts, all seeming self-inflicted. A bloody, bone knife rested in one hand: his wrists had been cut.
"Fire!" The Water Tribe croaked. "Long time no see!" A glint appeared in his eye, and the Fire Nation shrank back on instinct. "What happened to your prayer robes, sage-boy?"
The Fire Nation glanced down at his clothing, which he supposed would be foreign to one who hadn't seen him of late. His robes and beads of a sage, once all he would agree to wear, were long forgotten, by insistence of his Fire Lord. Now he wore an elaborate tunic of deep red and black, with matching pants and armguards, covered by a thick fur cloak of crimson.
"What happened to you?" The Fire Nation finally whispered. "Why are you hurt? You…you did this to yourself, didn't you?"
"So what if I did?" The Water Tribe drawled, his mad grin widening. "My people are divided. They want me to die. They want to be two. I've gotta cut myself in half so they can each have a part—no!" Anger flew across his face, and he growled at himself. "No! They will unite again! I will recover, grow strong…" His rage faded, and a sort of insane joy overtook him. "Death to the Water Tribe!" He crowed, as if not knowing he was calling for his own death. "Death to the Water Tribe!"
The Fire Nation fled, running as fast he could, not stopping until he was on his ship, and refusing to stir from his quarters until they were again in warmer lands. He confined himself to his room upon returning to his house, and would not leave until the Fire Lord himself sat outside the door for over a week, waiting for him to open the door. Once he finally returned to the outside world, he lived in fear of word from the north, telling of his friend's death.
Word finally came, and it was in the form of a group of Water Tribe Benders, Healers, and warriors, and their families, traveling south. They were allowed safe passage through Fire Nation waters, but the Fire Nation noticed one young girl amongst them who reminded him strongly of his friend the Water Tribe. Worried, he questioned her and her people of what had befallen the boy.
"He is dead." The girl said, voice eerily old. "But he died to give my brother and I life. We are the new Water Tribes, he the Northern, and I the Southern. I am traveling now to my home, the South Pole, in the hope that I may establish my people there and guide them to greatness." Her sapphire eyes, exact copies of the Water Tribe's, of her father's, were as blank as the Earth Kingdom's once were. One day, they would grow bright with feeling and thought and life.
But the Fire Nation could only remember his last sight of his dear friend the Water Tribe, and shivered in fear as he wondered what would happen if his people wanted to become two.
Over a thousand years passed. The nations grew to adulthood, as their people banded together and built them into great civilizations. It was in this time that Air Nomads, a sweet, kind girl, gave birth to four children before fading away. With her death, the Fire Nation, who had once been the youngest of the nations, became the oldest. Air Nomad's daughter, Western Air Temple, lived near his house, and out of respect for her mother and a sort of duty that his past friendship to Air Nomads gave him, the Fire Nation often visited, offering her any help she might want.
The line of Fire Lords flourished as well. After the death of his first Fire Lord, a great series of catacombs was ordered built under his capital, where the ashes of the line would rest forever. Due to the fortunate existence of an old dragon graveyard, the Dragon Bone Catacombs were born. It was a place for the Fire Nation to visit his rulers, and he began to spend more and more time there. Sometimes, he even considered becoming a sage again. Certainly he spent enough time around the Fire Sages these days.
Other nations grew troubled, but the Fire Nation only grew. New forging techniques, metallurgy and crafting, gave way to magnificent inventions to the his glory, and he couldn't be more proud of his people. The Earth Kingdom gave birth to several children, Ba Sing Se, Omashu, the Si Wong Desert. More, lesser spirits began to guard separate parts of her house, until you could not walk through a forest without seeing some sort of evidence of an animal-form guardian. A warlord calling himself Chin attempted to conquer her, but she resisted in Ba Sing Se and on a small peninsula until Avatar Kyoshi killed Chin and created Kyoshi Island, and the Earth Kingdom once more gave birth to a child.
There were rumors of another Water Tribe within Foggy Swamp, the remnants of stragglers from the Water Tribe Schism, who had found a suitable home in the swamp and decided not to continue on to the South Pole. Nobody saw the nation, but the Fire Nation gathered, during a conversation with the Southern Water Tribe, that if such a Tribe did exist, it was definitely her son. She refused to say more on the matter, but when the Fire Nation noted that she had once been very friendly with Omashu, she turned a deep crimson and yelled at him that he didn't know what he was talking about.
Somewhere along the line, the Fire Nation realized he was in love with the Earth Kingdom. They were the two greatest nations, so they interacted the most, and he learned that he could not look into her green eyes enough. He didn't know how she felt, however, so he remained silent.
Then a new Fire Lord came to the throne. His name was Sozin, and he envisioned a Fire Nation powerful enough to crush the world and hold the other nations under his thumb. With persuasive words and undeniable charm, the Fire Nation began to think that perhaps he should just take what he wanted, and damn the consequences. Avatar Roku, one of his own, spoke against it, but in the dreams of a life with all he could want at his fingertips, the Fire Nation was deaf to any argument. Because he wanted to have what he thought he never could. He wanted to have her. The Earth Kingdom.
One day, when the Fire Lord deemed their strength enough, he led a small force to the shores of the Earth Kingdom and conquered Taku, a walled city on the coast.
The Earth Kingdom strode into the city angrily, demanding why he had dared to claim a part of her land. "Because my people are so numerous, we must send some elsewhere. Please, surely you can stand for me to share my people and our advancements with you?"
But Avatar Roku was furious, and threatened his Fire Lord unless the colonies were abolished. Shamed, the Fire Nation returned home, staying on deck to watch the land until he could no longer see the Earth Kingdom. He knew she was angry, but he would make it up to her. After all, he could only do as his Fire Lord commanded: centuries ago, he had declared himself but property, property that belonged to his beloved Fire Lord. The Earth Kingdom would understand when he explained to her.
But she refused to see him, angered by his actions, and in frustration the Fire Nation returned to his factories and his training camps, throwing himself into the rigors of a soldier's life, training until he wanted to collapse. Avatar Roku continued to defy Fire Lord Sozin, and the Fire Nation grew to wonder if the former friends would ever make up. He continued to train, to build, to grow strong, claiming he was simply working for progress's sake.
One night, a rumbling woke him, and the Fire Nation felt a burning in his chest. A volcano, one of many that made up his home, was erupting, and he staggered to a window to see if it was visible. Miles away, fire and lava burst into the sky, and the ground beneath him trembled with the fury of its eruption. A flash of blue, and he realized the Fire Lord was riding his dragon towards the island, going to save it and its people as the Fire Lords, his great and benevolent rulers, always did.
What happened on that island, what truly happened, only Sozin would know. But he returned with the grim news that Avatar Roku had died attempting to protect the village at the foot of the volcano. The people had fled, including the Avatar's wife Ta Min, but their homes were lost.
When Ta Min and the other refugees arrived at the capital, she drew the Fire Nation aside, and pressed a bundle of fabric into his hands. "My husband couldn't be bothered to remember to retrieve this." She whispered, voice thick with tears. "But you should have it. Give it to whomever you see fit." Then she vanished into the crowds. He never saw Ta Min again: she committed suicide upon returning to her quarters, unwilling to live without her beloved husband.
He never opened the bundle. Years later, he would give it to Princess Ursa, Ta Min and Roku's granddaughter, but he never knew what was wrapped in that cloth.
Twelve years later, Sozin came to him and declared that they were ready to continue their Glorious March of Civilization, which Avatar Roku had interrupted. To ensure the Avatar would be unable to disrupt them this time, they would target the nation that the next Avatar had been born into: the Air Nomads.
The Fire Nation understood that the first attack must wait for the Comet, which he named for his great Fire Lord, but he was itching to get on with it. Despite his former closeness with the Air Nomads, despite the fact that the Western Air Temple still trusted him with her life, he just wanted to throttle all of their throats. Amongst them was the Avatar. And the Avatar kept him from his great goal: the Earth Kingdom. His beloved.
When the comet arrived, the Fire Nation mounted his dragon steed and prepared to storm the Western Air Temple. On the other side of the world, a great fleet of warships had brought a similarly-large force to the Eastern Air Temple, traversing the nearly-impossible currents of the sea to the west of the Fire Nation and the east of the Earth Kingdom. Others had gone to the Northern and Southern Air Temples. But the Fire Nation wanted this Air Temple, this girl who had been so close to him in the past, to die at least by his hand. He thought it might be easier on her that way.
Later, he would learn he had lost substantial numbers to the other Air Temples. Airbenders, though pacifists, were still incredibly strong fighters, and they were able to take out many of his forces before being overwhelmed. All he knew was that the Western Air Temple, thinking his military force merely a group of training recruits, welcomed him eagerly, with open arms.
She died with confusion in her eyes as the Fire Nation shoved his sword into her chest, her arms still opened wide to give him a welcoming hug.
With the fall of the Air Nomads, the Avatar should have died as well. But he slipped through their grasp, and Sozin became obsessed with finding him, even as his son Azulon was born. Sozin's eldest son, Tozan, took over the affairs of the war so his father could go out and search for the Avatar. The boy would die in later years, him and his next three brothers, leaving Azulon the only heir to Sozin.
The first attack after the Air Nomad's destruction was once more on Taku. This time, the Fire Nation burned it to the ground, and ordered the construction of a new Fire Nation town on its ashes. His beloved, the Earth Kingdom, had known he would first attack that city, and had joined its defenders. During the battle, she was captured, and suddenly she was at the Fire Nation's mercy.
He could barely believe it at first. After years of desire, first to be met with indifference, then anger, she was his, bound at his feet as he sat on a throne in his command tent. With a voice that threatened to shake, he ordered his advisors and servants and generals to leave them while he discussed the possibility of a simple surrender by the Earth Kingdom.
She glared at him, those emerald eyes charged with hatred, eyes that he still remembered from when they were dull and lifeless, then passionate and happy. For her to look at him like that, he almost wanted to die: but she would come around. He knew that the love he felt for her would convince her, if not today then one day in the future, that they were meant to unite their respective nations and people. But for now, she would learn that the Fire Nation would not back down.
His only intent was to try convincing her, and he removed the gag to speak softly to her, hoping to hear a positive answer. But she heard his words with stony eyes, then spat in his face when he asked for an answer. Wiping her spittle off with a discarded Earth Kingdom flag, the Fire Nation informed her grimly that, one way or another, he would win.
"You may burn my children and my home, and chain me in the deepest dungeon." She growled at him. "You may whisper words of your pretend love to me and bind our hands together. But I will never surrender."
"My 'pretend' love?" The Fire Nation was hurt by her words, so hurt. Perhaps this was how the Western Air Temple had felt when he thrust his sword into her chest. For a moment, he wavered in his resolve—was this right? Should he continue this war?
Then he looked into her eyes, and his beloved Fire Lord's words once more rang in his head. "If you desire something…take it." He had to prove to her that he loved her. And he knew how.
"I speak only the truth when I say I am in love with you." The Fire Nation murmured, kneeling down next to her. He pulled her into a forceful kiss, and wrapped her in his arms, and forced her down. She realized what he intended, and fought back, only convincing him more that she needed to see how much he truly loved her.
She escaped the next day, as he had thought that surely after his display of love she would not want to leave him. He woke up to an empty bed, and screamed and cried tears of despair while his guards tried to find just how she had gotten out unnoticed.
But she had vanished into the depths of Ba Sing Se, and the Fire Nation waged his war relentlessly, establishing over the next year a strong foothold on the Earth Kingdom's western coast. His armies raged across the world, conquering in just a few months several key ports and trade centers. With a fervor not unlike madness, the Fire Nation slew cities and villages, decimating the inhabitants to make way for his own citizens to settle and cultivate the land.
A year and a half after her escape, the Earth Kingdom sent him something that changed his life forever. I hate you, the note read. But the baby, their baby, their beautiful daughter, was living proof of the love he felt for the green-eyed, raven-haired woman.
The Fire Nation Colonies grew slowly, but before he knew it the War had been raging for forty years and she was the physical age of four. Her mother had been unseen for years now, and the Fire Nation left the Earth Kingdom campaign briefly to travel south.
There, he trained a special group of Firebenders and warriors, christening them the Southern Raiders, and led them in their first attack on the Southern Water Tribe. A great city had sprung up in the south, and the little girl had grown to a strong, brave woman. She faced him on a plain of snow, the humans about instinctively knowing to leave them to their battle, while his men used their nets to capture as many Waterbenders as possible. Her eyes were still exact copies of Water Tribe's eyes, and the Fire Nation felt a surge of regret as he remembered her father, the last sight he had of the man before his death.
Southern Water Tribe glared at him with her father's eyes. He raised his sword.
And he left.
The Southern Raiders were instructed to continue their attacks, brief but devastating raids, at least once a week. They would continue to capture Waterbenders, and the first group of captives were brought to an outlying island of the Fire Nation, where they were kept in conditions that could not possibly allow them to Bend.
Years passed, the War continued, and the Fire Nation conquered more land in the Earth Kingdom. He had taken all the Waterbenders from the south early into the raids, only losing one ship in all of his attacks. Now he focused his efforts on the Earth Kingdom.
Fifty-six years after the start of the War, the Fire Nation saw Azulon's son Iroh enter the military. Sozin had died thirty-six years prior, at the age of 102, and even as Iroh took command of a force in the northern Earth Kingdom, another Prince was born.
Iroh was a puzzle. He spoke of the glory of his nation, but preferred to drink tea and play games rather than strategize for his nation's military victories. He had defeated the last dragon, earning himself the name "Dragon of the West" at the young age of fourteen, but he only resorted to his legendary skills when there was no other option. The Fire Nation hoped he would be a greater leader when he was Fire Lord, though Azulon would hopefully last for many more years.
Then, in the ninetieth year of the War, during a great siege of the walls of Ba Sing Se itself, he saw her again. As he stood on the cliff he had first met her on, surveying the walls, wondering where best to mount an attack, the Fire Nation spotted a figure clad in green walking the wall. His breath caught, and he pulled out his spyglass to get a closer look at what his heart was screaming to see.
Years of war had not changed her beauty. Flanked by her sons, Si Wong Desert and Omashu, the Earth Kingdom was walking the Outer Wall, observing the tents of the Fire Nation Army below her. She seemed to be looking for something, and the Fire Nation hoped beyond hope it was him. But after ten minutes, she left, though not before giving the tents one final look.
The next day, they breached the wall.
The next week, Iroh's son Lu Ten died.
When they left the siege, their most promising chance at conquering Ba Sing Se (at capturing her, laying her at his feet again, convincing her that he loved her so much he had continued this War to bring her to him), the Fire Nation flew into a rage. He screamed at Iroh, tried to attack him even, sent word to Azulon that his eldest son must be cut from the line of Fire Lords. Leaving Iroh to grieve his loss, the Fire Nation returned home mere days after Azulon's death and Ozai's ascension.
Ozai, there was a true Fire Lord. He was ruthless, insisting on no quarter for their enemies. When the Fire Nation told him that the Earth Kingdom, once conquered, must be given to him, he agreed without hesitation. For years, the Fire Nation continued his War, believing Ozai the greatest Fire Lord since his grandfather Sozin, or perhaps even the very first Fire Lord.
When Zuko spoke against an aged general, and ultimately his father, the Fire Nation supported his banishment.
When the Avatar reappeared, the Fire Nation approved of putting Commander Zhao in charge, and pressed for Zhao's promotion until he was proclaimed an Admiral. As they gathered a fleet to attack the Northern Water Tribe, who hadn't been seen since the fifteenth year of the War, the Fire Nation went to a secret camp near Ba Sing Se's walls to oversee a great project.
He spent the rest of that winter, and most of that spring, watching the Drill's assembly, dreaming of when it was complete and could finally take him through the walls to his beloved. It was finished all too soon, and the Princess, Azula, promising to be as great as her father, personally commanded the attack as the Fire Nation waited in the forward-most section of the drill, so that when they broke through, he would be the first to step out, the first to see her face. Because of course she would be there, waiting for him. Perhaps she would even have realized by now how much he loved her.
But the drill was destroyed, and they were forced to flee, and the Fire Nation wanted to tear the walls down with his own hands. Azula assured him she would prevail, and captured a group of Earth Kingdom warriors from Kyoshi Island, then disappeared into the walls. He paced for four days, waiting for word, unable to contain his excitement and apprehension.
And she won. She won. Ba Sing Se fell to his troops. The Fire Nation had conquered the Earth Kingdom. Again, she was presented to him in chains. Again, he told her of his love.
This time she did not speak. She merely looked at him with dull, dead eyes, eyes that did not betray any emotion, any passion or life. It was as if she were dead.
He wondered what he had done.
An official wedding date was set, and he remained in Ba Sing Se with her, allowing Joo Dee to run the city while he spent his days with her. They ate in the gardens of the palace, walked the beautiful streets, listened to the best musicians. The Fire Nation was happy, happier than he had ever been. A hundred years of war, and finally she was his. In his arms. He thought it would last forever.
At the end of summer, he received word that a great, final attack on the Earth Kingdom would take place. Using the returning comet's power, a great burning would take place. On that day, the Earth Kingdom nearly died, her land scorched to ashes. But the Avatar saved the day, proclaimed the War over, and suddenly the wedding was canceled, he was forced to return to the Fire Nation, and life blazed once more in the Earth Kingdom's eyes.
Before, she had not said a word. Now she spoke.
"I hate you."
Fire Lord Zuko almost ordered the Colonies be given to her mother, the Earth Kingdom, but she clung to her father and cried in terror at the thought while he heatedly told his Fire Lord that without her their economy would collapse. So he kept his daughter, the last relic of his love for the Earth Kingdom, who now hated him more than life, and the world was once more at peace.
Fifty years passed. Avatar Aang, the last Airbender, had children, then died an early death. A new Avatar came: Korra, of the Southern Water Tribe. Troubles came and went. Zuko died, his son took the throne, then his son's son, and then Zuko's great-grandson ruled, then his great-great-grandson. Without the Earth Kingdom, the Fire Nation could not care what happened.
A hundred and thirty-two years after the War ended, Fire Lord Jizo's wife, Fire Lady Song, bore a daughter. As he had at so many royal births, the Fire Nation left his secluded house in the Spirit World to greet the child, to hold her.
Crown Princess Li opened her eyes for the first time to see her nation. Her tiny fingers grasped one of his. He fell in love all over again.
Now she was gone. Li, his Li, was gone. The years had healed his relations with the Northern Water Tribe: the Southern Water Tribe grudgingly accepted him, but things between them would never be as casual, as friendly, as they were before the war.
His beloved Earth Kingdom had forgiven him at last, but he no longer wanted her. Now, of all the foolish things he could possibly do, he had fallen in love with a human, his future ruler. A girl who had been snatched away from him.
He would kill to get her back.