A/N: This is an ALTERNATE ending to Conversations with Ozai that begins during Chapter 12: Mercy. During the events of that chapter, Ozai comes to a crossroads. He will make a choice that will resonate throughout the rest of his life. In the original version of this story, which you can still read if you so choose, he took a path that I felt was most in character for him given the circumstances...however, since the day this story was marked "complete" I have gotten messages decrying it as a shame, and asking for an alternate end. Well, many months later, I finally got around to doing it. What you see below is Chapter 12: Mercy revised; as well as a new Epilogue.
You can read this ending...or you can read the original ending...or, if you are like me and enjoy keeping your options open, you can read both. The changes are subtle at first, but by the end I think you'll find the difference remarkable. Enjoy!
Chapter 12: Mercy
After the initial thrum of activity, an eerie silence took over. He had heard a loud skirmish coming from the hallway, and the sound of boots retreating, but now there was nothing. Through the window he could still see the smoke and fires, hear the explosions, and every once in a while make out the sound of someone screaming or barking orders. He tried to keep his breathing low and steady, though the dreadful mask made it difficult and the sharp pain in his side emanating from his cracked rib made every breath feel shallow.
He looked up quickly when he heard footfalls echoing down the hallway, drawing near. Without warning his door burst open, and someone flew into the room with reckless abandon. Ming, he realized, as the orange glow from the window illuminated her features enough for him to make out the woman's form. She was hysterical, gasping for breath between her shuddering sobs. As she hurried nearer; almost toppling him over when she crashed into him, he could see that she had a large gash on her cheek. Blood and soot smeared her face, her tear tracks leaving trails of pale skin visible through the mess.
"We have to go..." She cried, "...We have to go now! The palace is under attack-oh, Agni!-We have to get out!" She reached to her belt and pulled out her dagger. The weapon was standard issue for the royal guard, but most imperial firebenders never had issue to use it for anything more than popping open their ration tins or trimming the hooves of a kimodo-rhino while out on assignment. Her trembling hand grasped a fistful of his long black hair, and without warning she slashed at it close to his scalp.
Ozai could not speak, but he began to struggle against her, groaning unintelligible curses and profanities as she systematically cut his hair away. He looked down, horrified, as the pile of long dark strands on the floor around him grew.
Ming bawled uncontrollably, her entire body shaking as she went about her task. "I'm sorry...I'm so sorry...If they see who you are they'll kill you! Oh, Spirits, we have to hurry..." When the last of his hair was cropped short, leaving uneven patches all over his head, she gathered up the clippings into a pile on the floor and shot a blast of fire at it.
The stench of burning hair assaulted him, and he was caught unaware as the guardswoman's shaking hands pulled the mask away from his face. "What in the name of-!" He began to shout, but was cut short as she grabbed his long beard and sliced it clean away with her knife.
She tossed the beard into the pile of burning hair and began fumbling at her belt again, the sobs wracking her body making it difficult for her to locate the keys for which she was searching. When at last she found them she scooted around behind the bound prisoner and began unlocking his shackles and bindings.
Ozai cursed at her, growling in frustration even as he felt his limbs move freely once again. His arms tingled down to his fingertips as the blood rushed back into the extremities, and he flexed them to settle their shaking as he reached to his head to touch his newly shorn hair. When he spoke to her it came out more like a growl. "By all Koh's bloody faces, woman, have you lost your mind?"
Ming was still blubbering, subconsciously rocking herself back and forth where she knelt beside him clutching her dagger in one hand and her keys in the other. "It's awful..." she whimpered. "Fighting everywhere-Agni, there are so many of them..."
He bit back some choice commentary and instead lurched to his feet, moaning in pain as the motion caused his cracked rib to shoot an agonizing sensation throughout his side. He had half a mind to leave the crazy wench where she was, but if things were as bad as she said he decided he might want someone to watch his back. He was a bit rusty, after all. Gritting his teeth, he reached down to grab Ming by one of her arms; hauling her roughly to her feet beside him. "Let's go."
She wrapped her arms around him, burying her face in his neck as she cried.
"Pull yourself together, Ming." He told her, less than kindly. The former Fire Lord stood there and allowed the woman to compose herself, eyeing the smoking pile of ash that lay on the floor behind her with unmasked contempt. When her sobs subsided to quiet weeping he pushed her away and started for the door. He heard her footsteps follow, but hardly cared. Free...I'm free...
When they stepped out into the hallway he was taken aback by the sight of blood and bodies. Three guards lay with their corpses filled with arrows; one of them with his arm hacked off. Beside them half a dozen un-uniformed bodies were strewn; their charred flesh still smoking.
Ming started to pick a path through the carnage, heading in the direction of the exit that would let out nearest the stables.
Ozai turned and walked the other way.
"Where are you going?" She whispered loudly when she realized he was not behind her. Swinging around to look at him with wide, terror-filled eyes, she started back toward him.
"Stay here. I won't be long."
"What are you doing? We need to get out now!" Her voice was shaken.
He glanced over his shoulder at her, but did not slow his pace. "I can't leave her. Just wait here."
Ming sank to the floor, pulling her knees to her chest and nodded.
There were no guards standing vigil at the entrance to Azula's suite. No doubt they had all abandoned their posts or been driven away when the fighting began. The door was locked, but Ozai had raised a hand and for the first time in over a year called the power of the flame to his command. A wave of euphoria swept over him, and despite the dire situation he felt himself grin. The molten remains of the lock fell away to the floor as he pushed the heavy mahogany door open.
Someone had straightened up the room since the last time he had been in it. The clutter was put away, but old scorch marks still remained. His eyes were immediately drawn to the still figure lying on the bare mattress. She was awake; murmuring to herself incoherently. The self-inflicted scratches and burns that had marred her flawless features when he had seen her last were no longer there-the waterbender must have healed them as Zuko had said she would.
"No...You don't know anything. You weren't even here. You are BANISHED! Shut up. I'm the Fire Lord, now. Quit mocking me. No...Traitor. Traitors. All traitors. No. Be quiet."
He approached the bed, reaching out a hand to lay upon his daughter's forehead as she lay babbling to herself. She jerked slightly at his touch, her wild golden eyes flicking up to meet his. "Azula." he said softly, and she laughed. Ozai sighed.
"You see? He loves ME. I order you to die. Agni Kai! Peasant. I'll show you lightning..."
"Azula..." he said again.
"Father?" She asked before launching into another garbled tirade.
Ozai frowned, and ran his fingers lightly over her cheek. "I can't take you with me. But I won't leave you like this." He sat on the bed beside her and pulled her up against him so that her back leaned against his chest. Her skin was clammy and hot to the touch; far hotter than that of a normal firebender. When she was a child, he remembered, she would have nightmares and on many a night he had awakened to the sound of sniffling and a tiny hand on his. Of course he had complained when Ursa would pull the little girl up into their bed to sleep between them. The child had been like a furnace against his back as she slept; and it had been his first indication that perhaps the extent of her powers was something worth investigating. But being a firebending prodigy, unfortunately, hadn't saved her from this fate.
She began to weep. "I'm the Fire Lord. Father loves me more. Shut up. Shut up. No...I made him proud. I made him proud!"
Wrapping his arms around her shoulders he held her for a moment; his cheek resting against the black stubble that was all that remained of her once beautiful raven hair. "You made me very proud." he whispered, and kissed her head.
He reached around, lodging her neck in the crook of his elbow.
She thrashed and sputtered as he squeezed, and it took every bit of his diminished strength to hold her down as he choked the life breath out of her. When at last it was done, and her body lay limp against his, he kissed her head again-ignoring the hot tears that pricked his eyes, and pushed her off of him. She had earned better than this, truly, but the gift of a quick death was a mercy. No Princess of the Fire Nation deserved to live a life of weakness and indignity. He grasped his side and stood.
Azula's limp form seemed very small to him, prone as it was on the large mattress. Ozai took a few steps toward the door before he turned to look at her again. He punched out with one arm and fired a billowing torrent of fire at the bed. It went up like kindling, and smelled of burning flesh.
Wiping the sweat and tears from his face with the sleeves of his shirt, he turned and headed for the door. Zuko would pay.
He found Ming as he had left her; huddled like a terrified opossum-sloth against the wall. When she spotted him coming her way—alone—she opened her mouth as if to ask about Azula but he cut her off with a dangerous look. To her credit she knew better than to press the matter. The guardswoman fell in step behind him, her occasional sniffle the only sound she dared make. They came across the aftermath of dozens of small battles as they made their way through the halls, each having left an array of charred or bloody victims in their wake. "Wait…" Ming finally said, stopping as Ozai continued past a set of double doors. "The stables are this way."
"I'm not going to the stables." He replied darkly.
"But…But we need to get out of here before we're found. That way will lead us to the central palace; where most of the mob breached the gates…"
Ozai did not break stride. "I know. That's where my son will be."
He heard Ming curse in frustration, and then hasten her pace so that she could catch up to him. "Ozai, please. Please, just let it go—We have a chance. Don't you see that?" Her hand reached out and grabbed him by the sleeve.
"No, Ming. We never did." He stopped, turning to face her.
Her face crumbled, and she shook her head as if denying what he had said would make a difference. "You don't mean that…"
Ozai reached out to run his fingers through her disheveled hair, gliding over crusted bits of blood and singed ends. This woman was not Ursa. She never could be, not even if he let himself give her the chance. It would be as unfulfilling as drinking water to taste fire brandy. "If I leave with you I will never have vengeance." he said simply as his arm dropped back to his side.
"This is madness..." She whispered, fresh tears welling in her eyes. "What do you think could come of it? You can't kill Zuko. Ozai, he's your son..."
"My son? You mean my curse!" he spat, "Look around you! Look what he has done...He's destroyed everything he's ever touched...My nation, my marriage, my family..."
"No, Ozai, he didn't." Ming's voice cut in sadly. "That wasn't Zuko." There was the weight of her trembling hand on his shoulder, and the brush of her lips against the shell of his ear. "That was you."
His mouth opened to retort, but the empty words melted like ash on his tongue. There was a chill that went through his body, so cold that it burned, and his breath hitched in his throat. Through a sudden haze in his vision he saw Ming step away from him, heard the hurried clacking of her boots against the marble, felt the rush of tepid air that smelled of smoke and pitch that swept through the hallway as she pulled the doors open...but in that instant his mind was long gone; lost in the memory of a moment long ago when a Princess of the Fire Nation had kissed him for the last time before vanishing into the night. The dagger that had stilled Fire Lord Azulon's heart was a kindness compared to what losing Ursa had done to his own. He thought of the tears that had run down her beautiful face, and could almost feel the force of her small fists as they pounded against his chest while she begged him over and over again to choose Zuko over the throne—to save the boy and keep him safe because he was theirs; he was her world. And she was his. If he had, perhaps his wife would still be by his side. But he hadn't chosen Zuko; and the price he'd paid was heavy indeed. It had cost him Ursa. It had cost him his family. And now, it had cost him everything else. The sudden clarity that flooded his understanding cut a part of it that he didn't realize he had left. "Agni..." he breathed.
"Are you coming?" the guardswoman asked, her eyes weary and defeated.
Ozai cast one last look over his shoulder down the hallway that led to the throne room before turning and following Ming out the door without another word.
The rolling chair creaked noisily as they made their way down the hall. Zuko resisted the urge to make some disparaging comment. He could walk now, with the help of a cane, but Uncle insisted that he allow himself to be transported in the wheeled chair Sokka had designed for him whenever the distance was strenuous. It had been almost six months since the revolt that had nearly plunged the Fire Nation back into war, and the reminders of it were all around. The most poignant reminders; however, were the ones that weren't there to be seen.
In the chaos that had erupted throughout the capital there had been many lives lost; civilians and guards alike. Revolutionaries had overtaken much of the palace on that fateful day, and by the time Avatar Aang had returned to bolster the Fire Lord's forces and bring the fighting to an end they had already burned one wing to the ground. Zuko himself had uncovered Azula's charred remains; and what remained of his Elite Guard had been forced to admit that chained and bound as Ozai had been, there was little doubt that the former Fire Lord had likewise succumbed to a fiery end. Most people thought it poetic; that the Universe should decide to punish the Pheonix King who tried to burn the world to ash by ending his life in flames. Most people didn't mourn him. Most people were glad he was dead. Most people didn't know that when Zuko had found the steel mask and chains that had once held his father in the rubble, that their locks had been unclasped.
Earthbending craftsmen mulled about one section of the palace as they passed; pausing to bow to the Fire Lord and his esteemed Uncle before returning to the repairs they were making. "I never liked that wall there, anyway." Uncle commented as they continued. "Pretty soon this place will look as good as new. Just like you, Nephew. Why, if you would take that trip to the Northern Water Tribe like Miss Katara and I have been asking you to do, I'm sure their master water healers could complete your recovery in no time."
"You know I can't do that right now, Uncle. I'm too swamped with all the treaties and contract negotiations; and I've got to find money in the budget for the last of the colonist relocation stipends. Aang will be back here any day now with that new land concession agreement from the Earth King, and I still haven't even finished looking over the blueprints for Republic City." The young Fire Lord ran a hand through his shaggy dark hair. "Maybe after the groundbreaking ceremony at the end of the year I can fit in a side trip."
Iroh heaved a melodramatic sigh.
Zuko repressed a smirk, shielding his eyes from the sun's glare as two servants held open a pair of double doors for them to pass. The chair bounced and creaked loudly as it made its way over the cobblestones and down the path to the garden. As they neared the turtleduck pond Zuko allowed his gaze to settle upon the familiar form he had been expecting to find.
"Finally!" Katara smiled, waving him over. She approached and gave Iroh a peck on the cheek before leaning down to embrace Zuko and plant a kiss on his lips. "You were supposed to be here an hour ago."
"I'm a busy man." He grinned, pulling his cane from the seat beside him and putting his weight upon it as he stood. His other hand found Katara's and he gave it a little squeeze before turning his attention to the scroll she had tucked into her belt. "What's that?"
The waterbender shrugged, guiding him over to a grassy patch beneath the tree and helping him to sit before reaching for the scroll and proffering it. "I'm not sure—it arrived just today. It's addressed to you and I both, so I wanted to wait until we could open it together."
Zuko nodded, accepting the scroll and sliding his thumb under the wax seal absently. As his eyes began to scan the characters he felt Katara's hand on his back, rubbing light circles between his shoulder blades.
She must have felt his spine stiffen, for she ceased her ministrations immediately. "What's wrong, Zuko?"
"I..." He began, but couldn't find the words. The ghost of a smile fleeted across his lips, and he turned his face to regard Katara. "Here."
Frowning; her brows furrowed with concern, the young woman accepted the opened scroll and softly read it aloud. "Honorable Fire Lord Zuko. She was right to choose you. My greatest regret is that I did not. Please forgive me." She turned it over, examining the blank alternate side and then flipped it back once again; confusion marring her pretty features. "That's it? I don't get it. No one's signed it...what does it mean?"
The young Fire Lord blinked the moisture from his eyes, glancing over to find his uncle smiling at him from where he stood near the rolling chair. "It means I was right to take a chance."
From the quirk of her eyebrow and the pursing of her lips Zuko could tell that Katara was unsatisfied with the cryptic answer. "A chance on what?"
"On second chances." He leaned over and kissed her even as she rolled her blue eyes at him, tearing himself away only when a stray turtleduck waddled up from the pond and 'quacked' its displeasure at being kept waiting. Katara's giggle elicited a grin from him, and the young Fire Lord reached into his sleeve to retrieve one of the stale dinner rolls he had pilfered from the palace kitchens. "I wonder what the future holds." He said absently.
Katara snuggled close, laying her head upon his shoulder as she held out a finger to stroke the shell of a turtleduck. "Good things." She said.
He lay his cheek upon her soft brown hair. "Yeah. You're probably right."
It was cold. The snow had slowed, but the chill in the air left no doubts that the high banks of white powder through which we trudged would be amassing for quite some time. High Winter clouds streaked across the brilliant blue sky, their feathery tendrils obscured by the soaring stones of the dozens of tall buildings that made up Republic City's growing skyline. I pulled my thin coat tightly around myself, bracing against the frigid gusts that swirled snowflakes all around my ankles and into the tops of my boots; my teeth chattering inside my skull. Clasping ungloved hands before my chapped lips, I blew against my pale fingers and hoped that my breath would combat the numbness that had set in. This time of year always made me wish I had been born in the Fire Nation.
"Quit dawdling." He called back over his shoulder, the condensation of his hot breath ghosting into the air as wisps of fog. His hands were in his pockets, but he wore no coat and yet seemed hardly to notice that it was cold enough to freeze piss before it could hit the ground. It was a firebender thing, no doubt; though such techniques were still far beyond my own modest abilities. My mother had been a patient teacher, but she wasn't around anymore and trying to learn anything from him was about as painful as pulling teeth. Not that he didn't try—in fact, when my abilities had first manifested he had taken a special interest in my training—but it soon became apparent that I would be a "late bloomer" (as mother had so gently put it), and our sessions always ended in mutual frustration. He was never cruel to me, but I think perhaps whoever trained him as a boy never showed him much leniency.
"Do we have to do this today?" I asked, careful to keep any trace of a whine out of my voice. He had no patience for such childishness. "It's already getting late, anyway. Maybe it would be better to wait until tomorrow when the snow stops."
"No." He shook his head, the short tail of dark hair tied at the nape of his neck swishing against his shoulders. It was streaked with gray now, especially at his temples. He would sometimes look in the mirror when he thought no one was watching and frown as he picked at the silvery strands, so I knew it must have bothered him. Not that he would ever admit it.
I heaved a quiet sigh. There wasn't really any point in arguing with him; not about this. Instead, I bit my tongue and focused upon putting one foot in front of the other. The angry squawk of an ostrich-horse startled me from the exhausting monotony and I looked up to see a cart with its wheels stuck in a high snowdrift. The animal stomped impatiently, while its driver uselessly snapped the reigns again and again. I grimaced and tossed a sympathetic glance at it as I passed. We both knew it wasn't going to move until it was good and ready. Perhaps I'd been thinking on that too hard, because I didn't realize that we had stopped to cross a street until I shuffled full force into his back. I backpedaled and lost my footing, slipping on the slick ice covered cobblestones and landing firmly on my rear.
His golden gaze met my own, and from the ever so slight twitch at the corner of his mouth I could tell he was resisting the urge to say something. Mother had always insisted that if he didn't have anything nice to say, he should say nothing at all. Sometimes I resented her for that, especially after she died, because it oftentimes meant that he and I would go days with hardly a word between us. When he held out his hand to me I wasted no time taking it; relishing the warmth of his skin against the prickling numbness of my own as he pulled me to my feet. It was all too fleeting.
"Are we almost there?" I ventured, glancing around at the frost covered windows and decorative awnings of the buildings around us. We were near Central Station, clear on the other side of town from the tiny apartment we shared in the residential borough of Dragon Flats. He worked long hours at the plant in neighboring White Falls, heating great cauldrons of water to steam to generate electricity for the city's power grid. Most days he would be gone for his first shift before I even awoke in the mornings, and would not arrive home until it was nearly time for bed again. Still, with so many skilled firebenders from the old imperial army having flooded the workforce after the war ended, jobs were scarce and the pay was scarcer. His grueling labor barely earned him enough to keep us clothed, fed, and sheltered. When mother had been well enough to find work in the factories it hadn't been so bad. We'd had enough to keep our bellies full back in those days. As I looked around at the rows of newly constructed shops and town homes; their decorative stone facades finer than the fanciest tenement in the richest neighborhood back home in Dragon Flats, I couldn't help but wonder why the spirits blessed some people with such means, and others with nothing. "I'm freezing..." It wasn't a lie.
I heard him sigh, and after a moment he slowed his pace. The door to a shop swung open half a block ahead of us, and two women dressed in Earth Kingdom greens stepped out into the cold. Their arms were laden with furs and bolts of fabric; the silks and koala-wools dyed in a dozen shades of azure, emerald, and scarlet. We approached as they began loading the goods into the back of a large metal ostrich-horseless steam carriage. They were a relatively new sight around the city. I eyed the contraption curiously—it was probably the closest I had ever been to one.
A man who was clearly a water tribesman emerged from the machine a moment later, a string of curses falling from his lips as he slammed a mittened fist onto the hood and kicked the panel of one of the doors. "Piece of tiger-seal shit...Damned starter light went out again." The two women seemed dismayed.
"I'll light it for you." I offered, smiling despite the pain it caused my cracking lips. The younger of the two women returned the gesture; her cheeks flushing prettily as she leaned over and whispered something in her companion's ear. When the man waved me over I quickly picked my way through the snow to them, being careful not to lose my footing again. He opened one of the panels on the front of the carriage and pointed to a small wick that lie deep within. I reached my hand inside and touched my fingertip against it, willing my chi to bring a flame forth. It would not come. What color there was quickly drained from my face, and I could hear the soft giggles of the two women behind me. I tried again...and failed. "Maybe the wick got wet..."
"Step back." I heard him say, and with shame in my eyes I obeyed. He took my place, reaching his long arm into the machine and easily sparking flame to life upon the wick. I heard the water tribesman grunt his approval and a moment later he was sitting in the driver's compartment. The engine roared to life. My heart sank, and I felt the back of my throat begin to sting.
"However can we thank you?" the older of the two women asked. She batted her eyelashes and glanced back and forth between him and the younger girl.
"Sell me a length of wool." He nodded toward the colorful array of fabric in the back of the vehicle, and the woman quickly waved him over. I glanced at the younger of the pair again and felt heat rise in my cheeks as I realized she was looking at me, too. Her eyes were a shade of green that would make the most brilliant crystal in all of the Earth King's court seem like some dull rock in comparison, and I thought that in that moment I could stare into them forever. When I felt his hand on my shoulder I was startled back into my senses and lowered my gaze sheepishly. "Sometimes the cold can make it difficult." He said under his breath, "Don't be ashamed." Suddenly there was a feeling of warmth, and the glide of something soft and fluffy against the skin of my neck.
"What's this?" I asked as I ran my hands along the deep crimson scarf he had wrapped around my collar. The garment was tightly knit from thin fibers of koala-wool, not silk, but it was finer than anything else that either one of us owned. "We can't afford this..."
"You said you were cold." He replied simply, and gave me a look that suggested I not argue further. I pressed my lips together and watched as the older woman pocketed the handful of yuans that he had traded for the red scarf. It was easily half a week's rent. When I realized that he was already walking again, it was all I could do to glance back at the girl with the pretty eyes and her companions as I reluctantly followed.
It was several moments before I caught up to him, and by then we had turned down one of the main avenues. This was a part of Republic City that we rarely visited—it was far from our home and the shops here catered primarily to the growing middle class of the United Republic. I had come here with my mother the Summer before she fell ill. She'd gone to the Justice Building and applied to join the new Republic City police academy; but when the Chief of Police, Toph Bei Fong herself, had walked in to the room to conduct her interview my mother must have changed her mind. I don't know what the legendary Metalbender said to her, but she wept the whole walk home. By then I was used to seeing her cry, though. She loved me dearly and told me so every day of my life, but at times I wondered why she stayed with us. They fought mostly when they thought I was asleep, but I would often lie awake and listen to the harsh words they exchanged. If they ever had love for one another at all, there was none left by the time I was old enough to remember it. "Is it much farther?"
"Over there." He answered, nodding toward the station entrance. I had to quicken my pace to keep up with him, but once he rounded the corner ahead of me he came to a halt. Both of our eyes were drawn to the magnificent statue in the center court; a towering likeness of Fire Lord Zuko that stood vigil over the station like some bronze sentinel out of a children's tale. Piles of flowers and sticks of faintly smoking incense lay piled around the base of the imposing figure; most covered in a thin layer of freshly fallen snow. A cone of flame burned steadily in the statue's upraised hand, and even from where I stood I could feel the heat radiating from it. For an instant I forgot the biting cold and my aching feet, and could do nothing but bask in the glory of all the statue was meant to represent—The brave prince who had become a savior to his nation and the world when he helped Avatar Aang to end the Hundred Year War; who had gone on to co-found the United Republic and the city itself. Fifteen years had passed since Sozin's Comet, and in that time the world had found peace and balance once again. The Fire Lord was a living legend.
"It's amazing..." I breathed. Today was the anniversary of the Fire Lord's coronation. At only seventeen years old he had taken the crown and officially called an end to his forefather's brutal legacy. "To think that he accomplished so much when he was barely older than I am now." Awestruck, I turned to regard him with a smile. "He saved the world, even after everything terrible that it threw at him...after what his own father did to him..." I glanced back at the statue; gaze drawn to the gruesome scar that marred its upturned visage, and my hand rose instinctively to touch the left side of my face.
A yelp escaped my lips; breath trailing white mist into the cold air around me, as I felt his fingers wrap around my wrist and yank it away. Before I could even react he was pulling me into a tight embrace; his strong arms wrapping around my back and cradling my head against his chest. He was so warm. I huddled closer to him; allowing myself to enjoy his rare display of affection. I knew that long ago my mother had served in the palace of the Fire Lord, and she had told me stories of his kindness that had led me to admire him as much as she obviously did. He had come from the Fire Nation, as well—though he spoke very little of his life before he and mother had made their way to Republic City. I assumed that he must have done something that he wasn't proud of during the war. So many firebenders had back then. It had never occurred to me that he, too, might have idolized Fire Lord Zuko and supported his ascent to the throne. Something about this day seemed to be one of the few things that meant anything to him. "Is this why you brought me here?" I asked after a long spell, when his warmth had returned the feeling to my extremities.
He did not answer me, but I felt his shoulders quake and jaw tremble where it rested atop my head. Even when mother died he had not shed a tear, but I was certain that the droplets of water that fell against my neck were not snow. It was unsettling to me.
"Dad?" I whispered. "Are you okay?"
"Promise me something." he said, some softer quality that was unfamiliar to me having overtaken the usual gruffness of his voice. When I pulled away and looked up to meet his eyes he continued, "Some day, when you have children of your own, you must always keep them safe. Do you hear me? No matter what the cost."
I nodded, my brow furrowed in confusion, and murmured a quiet "Of course...".
For the longest time I wondered why he had said those words, but nevertheless I carried my promise with me. Perhaps knowing that I would need to be strong for someone was the reason, but in the years that followed I came into my own as a firebender. He even taught me to bend lightning—a technique that in the olden days had only been reserved for firebenders of the highest order. When I married that girl; the one with the green eyes, he reminded me of the promise I'd made that day at the station. He lived long enough to see his first grandson born. My wife and I had considered naming him after Fire Lord Zuko, but something about the look in my father's eyes when we told him that made us change our minds.
It was the black lung that took him. Firebenders are prone to it since they spend so much time inhaling the smoke from their flames, and he had spent a lifetime doing it. The night he died I had sat at his bedside mopping the sweat from his brow and the blood from his lips. He turned to me; his golden eyes so, so tired, and made me promise again to keep my children safe no matter what. I was a father, then, and understood completely what I had struggled to comprehend that day as a boy. "Of course, Dad. I would give my life itself. You can rest now."
He did. The fever had touched his mind by that point, and I believe at the end he had forgotten himself. He spoke words not meant for me, but a woman whose name was not my mothers. When he breathed his last, it was with a smile on his face. I cannot help but think that he was ready.
Time passed, and I thought on the promise I had made to him every time I looked at my son...sons, actually, as by then my wife had borne me a second boy; this one with eyes as green as hers. They were my world.
On the 60th Anniversary of the end of the Hundred Year War, we dressed in our warmest coats and set off toward Central Station to celebrate by laying flowers at the statue of Fire Lord Zuko's feet. It was a cold evening, just as it had been all those years ago, and I still wore the red scarf my father had put around my neck that day. My boys were six and eight, and loved one another dearly as brothers should. The younger complained of the cold, so the older one took of his coat and put it around brother's shoulders. I smiled and pulled the scarf from my neck; wrapping it around my firstborn's bare one. "To keep you safe from the cold." I explained, and he grinned before running up ahead to catch up to his sibling.
I remembered the promise I had made to my father so many years ago. And when three men stepped from an alleyway; putting themselves between my children and me, I kept that promise. I paid the highest price.
I do not regret it.
A/N: Once again, I would like to thank all of my readers for taking the time to see this through to the (alternate!) end. I hope you've enjoyed it.
I would love to hear your thoughts-especially from those of you who are familiar with the original ending. Which do you like better?
As a sidenote, I thought the epilogue was written vaguely enough to stand on its own as a one-shot over in the Legend of Korra section of , so it is posted there as On a Cold Day. If you would like to leave comments specific to that section, feel free to do so either here or in the reviews for that one.