Zuko does not want to see the man. Wants to forget his existence. He is tired and aches from the final battle. Even with Katara’s regular healing sessions, the scar on his chest where Azula struck him with lightning still pains him fiercely, and he swears sometimes it crackles with phantom remnants of heat and energy.
Truth be told, he wishes that the Avatar wasn’t a pacifist Air Nomad with a deep conviction about not killing people. Then he wouldn’t even have to worry about this.
(He doesn’t have to worry about it. He is the Crown Prince, soon to be the Fire Lord. If he tells his soldiers to throw the man in a hole and let him rot, no one would bat an eye.)
But Aang is a pacifist (and a generally good kid, not a ruthless killer, and that is, Zuko knows, a positive thing). And so Ozai is alive and a threat and just an all-around thorn in Zuko’s side. Even without his bending, there is no telling how many loyalists remain in the Fire Nation.
And they are too fragile right now to be dealing with a civil war. Zuko is too tired to be dealing with a civil war.
Zuko draws a breath and squares his shoulders. This needs to be dealt with publicly, in the full eyes of the court. This is very nearly his first act as a leader, and it will set the tone for his rule. He cannot duck out and let someone else deal with this.
He knows his uncle is at his side, a respectful distance behind him. Ready to dispense advice or to quash any would-be assassins. Aang and the rest of his friends (and they are his friends, as surreal as that still is) are not far off. A small part of him wishes that this bit fell under “Avatar Duties”, but a much larger, much louder part of him knows that it does not. The Fire Nation will clean up its own messes. And that is why it is citizens of the Fire Nation alone that are attending this sentencing.
Besides, he’s faced down his father before, under much worse circumstances.
Zuko steps out onto the balcony. It is not too high—a few feet above the ground, the neat bamboo planks smooth and lacquered and just slightly uneven beneath his slippers. The soft murmuring of the court die down as he comes into view. In the back, the Fire Sages fan out into their neat pattern, hands folded in their sleeves and their heads bowed in waiting.
In the middle of the courtyard, hands chained behind his back, dressed now in plain (dull) fire nation clothes, is Ozai.
(Not Father. Not even the Fire Lord. Just Ozai, an angry and powerless man.)
Zuko has rehearsed this speech in front of his mirror. He’s repeated it countless times—as he fastened his robes, as he ate his breakfast, as he paced in the hall waiting for his uncle and the rest of his officials and guards to join him. Mai kept him company for a time, her sarcastic deadpans interrupting his attempt to vary his inflections. He hadn’t appreciated her running commentary, but he’d tolerated it.
He had appreciated the way she’d slipped her hand into his and given it a small squeeze just before she left him to his official entourage.
Zuko draws in a breath, the same deep, calming, powerful breath he might use to open a day of training, or to rekindle his inner fire for a battle.
“Before us today is a criminal. He once sat on our throne, defiling our nation with selfish schemes, sending our men and women to die on the altar of his ambition. He is a traitor to the ideals—”
“Traitor?” A soft, cruel laugh swells up from the courtyard, deep and rich in a way that Zuko remembers only too well. Even now, Zuko is painfully reminded of the sheer presence of his father—the way that, even from his knees, he can bend every ear in the room toward him, make them believe that he is the one in control here. “Oh, I’m the traitor, am I?”
Zuko has not looked at the man yet. Not really. He gives himself two more seconds, long enough to wave at the guards behind Ozai to stand down. (And long enough to fantasize, fleetingly, about allowing one of them to knock Ozai upside the head with the shaft of his spear.)
And then he does look, squarely and unflinchingly, holding himself as steel.
Ozai peers up from the ground, his long black hair in disarray, his beard untrimmed, and there is a fierce smirk on his lips. He meets Zuko’s eyes easily, a challenge glimmering there. “Let’s see, Prince Zuko. You failed to kill the Avatar. You fled to join with him. You turned on your people to end a war we had nearly won. And now I can only imagine how you’ll dance to the Avatar’s tune. Reparations, to begin with—and he’ll want to see the whole Fire Nation curled up and cowering like a beat dog, now that he has you in the palm of his hand. But I’m the traitor.”
The rest of Zuko’s speech has long since abandoned him. “You would have burned the world to the ground if it meant you could rule over the ashes.”
Ozai raises a brow. “I would have remade the world. You are too weak to dare. You were always too weak. I can only pray that our citizens see that. No matter what you say, what you pretend, you will never be anything but a traitor and an impostor.”
A soft gasp erupts in the court. Dangerous words to speak from one’s knees. And suddenly a terrible, awful idea sparks in Zuko’s mind, one ignited by the steady rage that has begun to burn deep in his chest. “You still want the crown, Father?”
He can feel Uncle’s eyes on him, can sense the ripple of shock within the court, from the sides of the courtyard and the balconies and the throngs of gathered noblemen that, he is told, are mostly loyal and repentant.
Ozai’s grin stretches wider. “You are no son of mine, boy. You have not been for a long time. But yes. Our people, our nation, deserve to prosper—not to cower at the feet of a child, Avatar or not.”
Zuko bites his tongue to keep himself from pointing out that Ozai was defeated—soundly and permanently—by said child. Instead, he says what he knows his uncle—and likely Aang and Sokka and Katara and Toph, and just about everyone but Zuko and Ozai—will call a Very Bad Idea.
But Zuko needs this. The Fire Nation needs this. To see Ozai stripped and humiliated, to see him reduced even further than this. “Seems like there’s only one way to settle this, then. An Agni Kai.”
The courtyard falls so silent that Zuko swears he can hear his own heart beating, and he wonders for half a second if the rest of the court can hear it too. If they know how nervous he is, for all he wants to pretend that he is simply cold and furious.
He is satisfied, though, to see Ozai’s eyes go wide with surprise—and not a delighted surprise, either. But the man recovers quickly, though he no longer smirks, only gazes tranquilly up at Zuko. “You believe a duel is the best way to settle the succession? To chart the very future of this nation?”
Once Zuko might have wavered at the simpering tone, at the patronizing attitude that Ozai would employ to undermine him. Not now. Now it is Zuko’s turn to smirk, just slightly, because he can see through to the desperation behind this gambit. “It’s tradition,” he stresses carefully, and he imagines he sees Ozai’s spine stiffen. “Azula accepted. I suppose it would only be logical to defeat you as well, and solidify my claim. So let me be perfectly traditional, Father. I challenge you to an Agni Kai. Do you accept?”
Ozai glares up now at Zuko, lips pressed tight, undeniably and perfectly rigid now.
And because Zuko cannot resist, he adds gently, “Unless there is some… reason… you cannot accept, Father?”
It is a gamble. But Zuko is all but certain Ozai will swallow his own tongue before he admits that he is no longer a bender before the royal court.
“Prince Zuko,” he hears his uncle whisper desperately from behind him.
Zuko casts a glance to the man, who stands straight too, rigid in a different way than his brother, eyes tight with worry, his gaze locked on Zuko’s. He shakes his head just slightly, a warning not to proceed, to call this off.
Zuko hopes that his answer is written on his own face. That he needs to do this. That he’ll be fine.
“Well, Father?” Zuko presses. “Should I educate you about our tradition? When someone challenges you to an Agni Kai, you have to formally accept. And of course, refusing to fight is a shameful act of cowardice, as someone once taught me.”
Zuko closes his eyes for a moment when he hears his uncle whisper again. Not Prince Zuko this time. Not a piece of political advice from an old general to a young ruler—to let old wounds die, to find another, safer way to deal with this. This is a plea for him to not walk down this path, a personal plea.
One he will ignore.
“I accept,” Ozai spits out.
Zuko lifts his chin a fragment in acceptance. “We duel at sundown.” He glances up to track the sun, even as he feels its waning rays on his hands and wrists and face. “One hour, I gauge.”
And with that he turns and withdraws back into the palace, trusting the guards will see to the minor details involving prisoner transport.
Uncle Iroh is already shaking his head as he falls into place at Zuko’s side. “Prince Zuko, you are still recovering—”
“He can’t bend,” Zuko refutes his uncle quietly.
“Do not make the mistake of underestimating an opponent—”
“I’m not, Uncle. This time, I know what I’m doing. Trust me.”
He expects his uncle to sigh and spout off a few more proverbs or pithy phrases to convince him to call this off. But his uncle doesn’t. He remains grim, but he meets Zuko’s eyes and nods once, curtly.
That vote of confidence is enough to ease the knot of worry that has been gathering in Zuko’s chest.
A little, at least.
This will be Zuko’s fourth Agni Kai. He does not know how many his father has fought. He does not know if the man behind him finds this kneeling pose familiar. Does not know if the tension in the air, the buzz of the crowd, the openness of the vaulted ceiling of the arena all make his gut churn with acid like Zuko’s.
The first time he knelt here, the terror was worse, but he’d mastered it then. He knew his uncle was watching from the crowd, and his father too, and he was so determined to make them proud by upholding his honor.
And then he’d turned around, and realized he couldn’t fight. How could he? How could he bear to try to hurt the man he so hoped to impress? The man he’d shamed not hours before?
His first Agni Kai sent his life spiraling out of control.
His second Agni Kai pitted him against Zhao. The commander—and then admiral—who couldn’t even defeat a temperamental child.
(And that was precisely what he had been. Rage and pain channeled into one narrow focus. Brittle and easy to break, and easier still to manipulate.)
His third had broken form. Azula had broken form, the moment she’d gone after Katara. His chest twinged worse when he thought about that, the air hot and crackling, the scent of overheated metal permeating everything. The familiar stench of burnt flesh after the most concentrated pain he’d ever felt, his scar included. Katara had claimed the duel for him then.
And now he kneels in the same place he had for his first Agni Kai, breathing deeply, fanning the flames in his gut, feeling their warmth and basking in it, using it to banish the nerves from his limbs. He hoped this would be his last. The final season of this wretched tradition that has brought him so much suffering. This tradition that he once thought could bestow honor or rip it away.
The gong sounds, and Zuko rises, shrugging off the ceremonial wrap and rising to face his father bare-chested and bare-footed, just as he had when he was a boy of thirteen.
His uncle would say he is still a boy. In some ways, he supposes he is.
Not in this, though.
He does not know what to expect from Ozai—much like he wouldn’t know what to expect from a cornered and raging tigerdillo, except anything and everything.
Ozai faces him in the traditional stance, broad and muscled. There is no denying his raw strength; it radiates from him, even now, as he stands tall, hair pulled back into a top knot, something like a snarl pulling at his features.
But Zuko is confident. The final battle has been recounted to him too many times now, in too much glorified detail (mostly by Sokka). The former Fire Lord (he refuses to entertain the title “Phoenix King”) strikes decisive blows with real power behind them. But he is slow. Inflexible.
In his mind, his uncle whispers to him, Break his roots.
Zuko meets his father’s eyes, and for the first time in his memory, he sees an alien emotion there. Fear. He strikes.
No fire. Not yet. He has plans.
His father does not expect this. He aims a hard, high kick at Zuko, but Zuko sidesteps it easily and lands a blow of his own, a jab of his knee to his father’s side, and then he is circling behind him, seizing the man’s wrist and twisting it back. Ozai is already turning toward him, following in his rage, driven by the instinct to hurt that which has hurt him.
Zuko uses this, leverages the momentum and ducks sharply down, turning the twist into a half-throw that sends Ozai sprawling. And he does not give the man time to recover. He rises, gracefully, cresting on the same momentum, and swings his leg up and down to drive his heel squarely, solidly into his father’s chest.
Ozai grunts and rolls back, scrambling to his feet. Zuko thinks as he kicks both of the man’s arms out from beneath him that the former Fire Lord has not spent enough time picking himself back up. That he has grown weak from never being knocked down, that now he can barely move to counter Zuko from his weakened position.
Zuko thinks, briefly, how much his father reminds him of Sokka on that first meeting. Not that the two are anything alike. But his father fights with as much experience as an untrained child warrior.
Perhaps it was not bending that was his father’s clutch. Perhaps it was the fear of reprisal that allowed him to atrophy in these most basic skills.
Ozai moves to push himself up again, but he is wheezing from the blows to his side and chest, and his arms are trembling with the effort. It is a simple thing for Zuko to place a foot on the man’s back, lean his weight in, and trap him.
Ozai’s arms flail wildly, hands scrabbling for purchase, then scooping back, trying pathetically to dislodge Zuko’s foot. Zuko arcs fire at them, singeing just the fingertips—enough to warn the man. And surprisingly, he subsides.
Zuko holds him there. And does nothing. He can feel the eyes of the crowd on him, can sense the way they’ve collectively held their breath as they wait.
At last Ozai breaks beneath him. “Finish it,” he spits. “Finish it, you coward—”
“Finish what, Father?” Zuko asks as politely as he can manage, as if he is eleven again and is preparing to recite his lessons for the man.
“This farce! I’m not going to grovel, so end it!”
Zuko lifts his foot, testing the waters, and uses it to roll Ozai over. The murderous expression that greets him is muted by the blood trickling from the man’s nose—smashed, Zuko gathers, when he took that fall. His breathing is coming in short pants now. He makes no move to rise.
“But Father,” he protests insincerely, “you haven’t even had a chance to firebend. It’s not really a proper Agni Kai yet, is it?”
The loathing burns brighter in Ozai’s eyes. Zuko see’s a muscle in the man’s jaw ticking.
“Unless,” Zuko continues, raising his voice to ensure the arena can hear him, “you can’t bend anymore because the Avatar took away your firebending as a punishment.”
The gasps and whispers are satisfying, even though Zuko knows they shouldn’t be.
“Come on, Father, get up. Fight me.”
It is even more satisfying to fling those words back in the man’s face.
But it is most satisfying when Ozai’s face turns red, and he does try to struggle to his feet, curling forward, tucking his knees a bit as he rocks to get upright. He staggers up and executes a basic firebending strike, one Zuko recognizes as intended to level a powerful gout of flame toward him.
Instead, Ozai sways, shaking arms extended before him, palms pressed together and fingers splayed, looking, Zuko thinks, like a complete fool. Or perhaps a child learning the katas without fire, waiting now for his instructor’s criticism.
Zuko turns a heel toward him, breathing out and allowing a flash of fire to extend toward Ozai’s feet.
Ozai stumbles back, his arms windmilling, and he crashes to the ground with an “oomph”. Zuko imagines he hears his uncle barking out a laugh somewhere deep in the crowd.
This has gone on long enough. Zuko stalks forward, kicks his father’s arm down when he raises it as if to fight Zuko off from his position on the ground, traps Ozai’s wrist beneath his foot as he positions himself over his father.
There is no pretense of composure now. Fear has morphed into panic, true panic, the likes of which Zuko has never been able to imagine in this man. He recognizes, Zuko sees, that he is utterly powerless, utterly at another’s mercy as he has so rarely been.
And this time, he is not at the mercy of a kind-hearted child who refuses to kill, whose very culture eschews vengeance of any kind.
And Zuko recognizes, for the first time in his life, that his father is not brave or strong. That he is a coward.
“Don’t,” Ozai chokes. “I yield—I submit. Don’t….”
“You won’t fight me?” Zuko wonders if his father knows where this is going, or if it is merely the panic talking. The whisper Zuko knows too well—that he is weak, helpless, that pleading is his only hope now, that his suffering is out of his own hands. “You have been most disrespectful to me today, Father.”
And yes, it is written there in Ozai’s eyes. He knows.
Somewhere in the back of his mind, Zuko is cataloguing anyone else present who might know the significance of the words he is about to speak.
He crouches down, shifting his weight carefully so that his stance remains solid. He reaches out to cup the man’s face in his, his thumb pressing just barely into the man’s left eye socket.
“Mercy,” Ozai whispers.
“Mercy,” Zuko echoes blankly. “Remind me, Father, did you show me mercy?”
For a brief moment, fury roars up in him like kindling catching in a sudden gust of wind. Before he had felt so cold, so calculating—so detached from the scene before him. But now, that word—the word he has longed to hear the most from this man’s lips, the word he has strived to be worthy of. The word leveled against him now in a last-ditch effort to stay his hand.
Breathe. In, hold. Out.
The fire in his gut subsides back, fierce but controlled once more. “I am no son of yours. But you will show me respect. And suffering will be your teacher.”
Ozai flinches back as Zuko’s free hand catches with fire, as he starts to lift it, draws it close until he knows it must be painfully hot against the skin, even worse against the lid of the man’s eye—
And he quenches it. “That’s what you’d say, isn’t it? If you were standing in my place?” He releases his father’s face, lifts his foot and steps back slightly, watching closely as Ozai continues to pant hard. “But I’m not you. And I never will be. Mercy comes from the strong, not the weak.” He turns back to the crowd. “I accept my father’s surrender.” And he bows formally.
The gong sounds. The crowd cheers. A servant brings him an ornate kimono to shrug into. And with Ozai still slumped on the ground, reeling from the blows and the reprieve, Zuko has no doubt, the soon-to-be-Fire Lord picks up his sentencing speech. “This man,” he says, feeling the words carefully in his mouth, “has committed war crimes too numerous to mention.”
Somewhere in the crowd, his uncle is beaming.
“Ow! What was that for?”
Toph jabs a finger squarely into his chest with enough force to bruise. “You didn’t invite us to your fancy little duel.”
Zuko regrets deciding to take dinner with his friends. (They really are his friends. Truly. Someday he will be able to accept this.)
He especially regrets it because Toph is currently blocking his path to said dinner, a scowl on her face.
Not that being at the table would be much better. Katara is glaring, Sokka looks betrayed for some reason, and Aang—well, okay, Aang is currently amusing himself by tea-bending for Momo. But Sokka, Katara, and Toph are most definitely not amused.
“First of all, it’s an Agni Kai, not a ‘little duel’. Second, I didn’t know I was going to be dueling, and by the time I did, I didn’t have long to prepare. Third, it was Fire Nation business—ow! Stop doing that!”
“It wasn’t ‘Fire Nation Business’, melon head! It was Zuko business, and we had every right to be there!”
Zuko is glad Toph’s blind (and boy does he feel guilty for thinking that) because it means she can’t see the blush on his cheeks right now. They wanted to be there for personal reasons. To support him. “Oh,” he says, because he can’t think of a better response.
“He shouldn’t have been fighting in the first place!” Katara bursts out. “He was just struck by lightning! What if you’d been injured again?” She turns those sharp, concern-brightened eyes on him, and the slight prickling him starts to grow into something much harder to ignore. “What if you’d been seriously hurt, Zuko?”
“Guys, come on, I took away Fire Lord Ozai’s bending. How dangerous could he be?”
Toph snorts just as Sokka cries out, “hey!”.
Aang seems to quickly realize his gaffe. “Hey, I didn’t mean all non-benders are useless. I just meant that Ozai’s pretty fire-happy, you know, so he probably doesn’t, like, fight-fight. You know. Regular fighting.”
“Just because I don’t shoot lightning out of my boomerang doesn’t make what I do just regular fighting!” Sokka protests, his voice hitching up an octave.
“Yeah it does,” Toph interjects helpfully.
Zuko uses their distraction to begin inching toward the table. With any luck—
“OW! Toph, come on!” Zuko can’t stop himself from rubbing his arm vigorously. Stupid earth-bending seeing letting stupid Toph precision-target the same exact spot on his arm for all of her punches.
“I think we’re even now,” she announces flippantly, before strutting over to the low-to-the-ground table and claiming a cushion beside Katara.
“Look, it was just… something I had to do—”
“Confront your messed-up dad and try to discourage national uprisings at the same time?” Sokka interrupts.
“And probably deal with some pretty painful memories? While you’re recovering from a bad injury?” Katara adds. “Things that we could’ve maybe been there for?”
“Yeah, we could have rooted for you against Ozai,” Aang adds cheerfully.
“It’s an Agni Kai, not a sporting event! You don’t root for people.”
“That’s dumb,” Toph says. “Come on, Melon Head, I think you need another arm-punch, since the first three didn’t work.”
Zuko huffs. “Okay, fine. I’m sorry I didn’t invite you guys to my Agni Kai.” He even makes a spiteful, half-hearted bow, dipping down maybe an eighth of the way. “Please accept my apologies.”
“Good enough for me,” Toph says.
“So tell us how it went,” Sokka urges, scooting over a little as if to make the open cushion next to him even more apparent. “Did he cry? I bet he cried. Ow! Katara!”
“He doesn’t have to tell us!” She turns her kind eyes on Zuko. They’re soft again, all traces of irritation gone. “Unless you want to, of course. I bet it was hard.”
Zuko breathes in deep, and exhales as he sinks onto the cushion. And strangely, he can feel every bit of tension leaking out of his body as he takes his place. He feels… right. Safe. Like the layer that is Prince Zuko has been stripped off and hung up, and now he can be just plain Zuko.
“Yeah,” he admits. “It was hard. But I think I did the right thing.”
Katara’s hand settles on his lightly. “I know you did.”
“So,” Sokka continues blithely. “Did he cry? And was it like a little girl? OW! Toph! What was that for?”
“Because that was really sexist,” Katara explains for him, a satisfied smirk playing about her lips.
“Oh.” Sokka seems to think about it for a moment. “Did he cry like a little baby?” he tries. “Ow! Toph, how was that sexist—”
“It wasn’t. That was a ‘good job’ punch.”
“Well, you might want to work on making them more distinct—no, not right now, come on, my arm’s already bruised!”
Zuko hides a smile behind his teacup, feeling the lightest he’s ever felt in his entire life.