The trial takes place under the cool light of the moon. Its ethereal light catches the shadows of people and buildings and creates monsters in their image. (Let it be known that the Fire Nation feared Water Benders most because they were so other; none of the raw passion or eruption of motion that led to victory they were familiar with; rather they were a roaring, frothing river – an ocean. Carving its way through land itself to create new paths, endlessly patient. Look at how the Northern Water Tribe stood. They might have, ‘would have’ the youth mutter among themselves, outlasted every attempt to conquer them. For their power is as a mystery to the Fire Nation as the depths of the ocean.
This trial takes place under the moon, as it has always been and will always be, no matter the Fire Lord. For to be in the Sun is a luxury those given a public judgment do not deserve. And these men. These men will face a reckoning.
The crowd is already calling for blood, the peoples tempers a hot flame that was too often fed under the reign of Ozai. However, as the prisoners are led forward; their heads downcast in the gray prison garb (gray as ash, gray as an extinguished flame; but no one ever accused the Fire Nation people of subtly, did they?).
They are forced to their knees in front of the four ceremonial steps where the intimidating throne of Ozai once sat, but now a steel throne sat there instead. High-backed with nine distinct carvings of men performing a dance, or perhaps Fire Bending, mirrored on each side of the top of the throne. The design ends with the two carved men pressing their fists together. It also has the curious effect of making anyone that looks at it think dragon. There is even a rumor that one of Fire Lord Zuko’s friends made it herself, but who ever heard of someone bending metal?
Their Fire Lord sits on his throne as dignified now as any can hope. His face set impassively and the mark of his father’s sins a reminder for everyone to see over his left eye. He is an embodiment of the victory of youth, of balance. Of what happens when one person’s power goes too far unchecked (no one dares think of the Avatar in this context, not when so many of the Avatar’s are so content to stay to themselves until the unbalance of their time strikes).
His amber robes stand out against the pale light of the moon, like a Sun God trapped in flesh. To his left, standing a step behind the throne, is Prince Sokka of the Southern Water Tribe and in his mirror position is his sister, Princess Katara of the Southern Water Tribe. The pale moonlight seems to bend around them. It makes the normally jovial grin of Prince Sokka’s face, seen often around the palace, seem sharp toothed and cruel. A Catagator lying in wait for its prey.
The change in his sister, if anything, is much subtler and thus, more disturbing. She stands proud, her chin high as the white fur of her robes blows in the soft breeze, but her eyes. Her eyes, how could they ever forget her eyes were the ocean? They looked so caring during the day, but the ocean is deep. It lives in deception and how could the people forget as much as she can forgive their children – their medics and non-combatants; they have still killed most of her Nation, their Queen, her mother.
Her eyes are glaciers; cold, hard, and unforgiving. A winter tundra. In the absence of the sun, under the waxing and waning of the moon they begin to see how the Water Benders are born. If the Fire Benders are made in the flames of passion and raw feeling, then Water Benders are formed in the coolness of lost kin and the ice-cold desire for vengeance.
None of these giants hold a candle to the smallest form standing evenly with Fire Lord Zuko. Just in front of Price Sokka, cast in yellow robes the color of sunrise, of renewal. A shiver runs down the spines of the crowd even as they shout their abuse at the prisoners – never mind that these people were war heroes to the Fire Nation just a few months ago, there are war crimes even the Fire Lord – who ordered the genocide of an entire civilization didn’t partake in.
(An argument could be made that he just didn’t see a point in it, but the people needed him to have a scrap of decency because he had led them and they prospered, didn’t they? And no one in the Capitol, who had never traveled to another Elemental Nation, wanted to know the truth of how their Nation flourished. Better to turn a blind eye, better to keep their heads down. They remembered what happened to those who tried protest the wars, the invasions, to Fire Lord Sozin. By the time Fire Lord Ozai began his reign the resistance in the Capitol was so deep underground no one breathed a word of it or it was non-existent. Though there was always some graffiti of white lotus tiles appearing randomly around the city, kids had the weirdest hobbies, didn’t they?)
As soon as the prisoners were forced to their knees the Fire Lord cast his piercing gold eyes at them.
“You know why you are here. You know what you have done, this is not a trial. This is a judgement.” His booming voice rang around the courtyard, controlled and yet furious, the perfect contradiction of a Fire Bender, “Today, I am not your judge. Your judge is the last of a people you tried to erase.”
There is rustle from the prisoners, the beginning of a protest, but they are cut down before they can accomplish anything concrete. “This is not about the massacre of the Air Nation’s, of its people. No matter how heinous, it is also recognized that those soldiers were under Fire Lord Sozin’s rule, and as it was over a hundred years ago – all those soldiers have died. No, your crime is for the desecration of a dead people. Of trying to destroy all traces of a civilization, after the war had ended, with no orders other than my command to end all hostilities.” As he said this he leaned forward to look them all in the eye as his own burned with the gold of a supernova. “You know I could have your heads for this. The Fire Nation is ruled by Martial Law, but death is a mercy I will not grant you.”
Slowly, so slowly, Fire Lord Zuko straightens before gesturing to his left. “As the only survivor of the wronged party, your judgment is in the hands of Avatar Aang.” Silence has never been so loud as the crowd looks upon the face of this hero, child, god. This boy, this titan, steps forward and it is like nothing else exists except this moment, this time, this judgment.
It feels as if everybody is holding their breath, but as the Avatar’s face shifts from careful indifference to something far more foreboding they know there is more yet to come. It’s in the hardening of the eyes and the set of the mouth that bring reality to the forefront. For all that he looks young, for all that he is a child, he is still the Avatar. Still the master of balance and what these men, soldiers, monsters have done…well they have always known it would catch up to them eventually, but not like this. Never this.
The prisoners stare into the blank, unreadable eyes of their judge and find themselves wanting. The Avatar looks into each of them and what he sees is unknown to anyone else. Finally, he breaks the aching silence with the most painful words they have ever heard, if only because it marks their doom.
“Do you want to know the most surprising thing about this? I could never imagine killing the Fire Lord, but you? You, who went to my people’s, to my family’s, graves and desecrated them? Who broke and stole and pawned sacred items because destroying a whole race wasn’t enough you had to try to wipe out the fact they even existed? You, who I will never forgive?” The Avatar’s eyes blaze blue and they have no pupil and the prisoners wonder how anyone can look at him and think human.
Even as they wonder this the air around them rolls forcing them to their knees, water starts to pool around the stone at their feet before freezing them to the ground, and the earth shoots up and seals their hands. And the fire. The fire is out of them, extinguished. They can still feel it, but it will not respond to them. All of this is without the Avatar making a motion, not a sign of Bending, and in that moment, he is a blazing, vengeful god to all the people watching. And it is in awe they watch him, but awful, awful awe for he could so easily crush them all.
The Avatar takes a deep breath and the glow of his eyes dim. “I am not a killer. I am not. As much as you would like to think otherwise I am human and I am so, so angry.” He takes another breath, shudders.
“I have looked into you and I find you unrepentant. My judgement is this: You will be a monument of my people, as well as your sins. I will gift you the knowledge of all the Air Bender culture I possess and the memories and warmth I felt from every member of my Nation that I, or my previous reincarnations, can recall and you will record their history. You will tell it to all who ask and all who will listen. And your punishment will be without end until you have shared as much culture and history as you have destroyed. Balance.”
A brave prisoner looks up at the Avatar and sees only a member of the Air Nation and his hate overrides any other thought or instinct. “Doesn’t seem like much of a punishment.” He spits at the Avatar’s feet. He catches the blazing of the Fire Lord’s eyes as his fists tighten on the arm of his throne and that water girl’s eyes freeze over, but before anyone else can react Aang takes a step forward.
And this is what the world does not understand. The Avatar is all about balance. But Aang? He has so little left and will always try to do what’s right, but if you hurt what is his? He will do anything in his power to stop it, stop you. Does no one remember the stories of what he did (would have done had his friend’s not been there to stop him) in that desert when Appa was taken from him? Did they think destroying the history of his people would be treated any better?
So, he takes a step forward and leans down close to whisper for the unruly prisoner to hear (the air carries it to everyone. It is grieving, enraged, angry. Its people are gone, and these things tried to take even their memory). “You will remember all these people like you knew them. It will be as if you lived your whole life with them, as if they were your family. And every second of every day you will know they are all dead and that you destroyed what was left of them. As if you destroyed your own nation, your own family. And you will also know that you are being forced to restore some of what is left of them because you would not show them that respect of your own free will.”
Aang leans back, smiles.