“I think he’s only mostly dead.”
Katara frowns at him and crosses her hands around her chest. “Very close to dead,” she shudders out, taking in the sorry picture in front of her.
“See,” he continues, dazedly, “mostly dead is still slightly alive.”
Katara is almost a little scared of him, at this moment. He’s shaking, and when he draws his hand back further from the cell she can see red coating his knuckles. Zuko knows how to fight, how to kick and punch, so she doesn’t think that’s his blood. His father— Ozai— is groaning and dragging himself slowly to the other side of the cold ground, and he looks terrified as he stares up into his son’s eyes.
She remembers Zuko by her side as she’d confronted Yon Rha, her mother’s killer. For all that Zuko knows his father had killed his mother. At the best, his father had made his mother a murderer.
She doesn’t quite understand how a human could be so evil. Aang is pacifist as always, and he had refused to kill Ozai in the name of forgiveness. But Katara can remember Yon Rha’s face, and she can remember how close she was to sending ice through his heart. She remembers how alive she felt in that moment, how power fizzled through her. It’s different for Zuko, who has unimaginable power, who may be the most powerful man in the world. He needs something she can only guide him to; this is not her battle.
This is nobody’s battle but his. This is nobody’s life but his.
Katara does not know what Aang would say—probably that Zuko should spare Ozai, because everyone deserves a second chance. Aang would tell Zuko that his father has been punished enough for his misdeeds. Aang would say something about the monks and the importance of an untainted soul, as though the both of them haven’t done quietly destructive things around him to preserve his innocence. Aang is twelve, and he does not understand death the way they both do.
Sokka wouldn’t understand this, like Sokka didn’t understand Yon Rha. Sokka doesn’t understand the pain both Zuko and Katara share, the utter distress that lives in the shared voids of their hearts; the pain of losing a mother. Sokka has always had Katara, so of course he doesn’t understand. What Sokka would think doesn’t matter.
Toph might understand, a little bit. She doesn’t know their pain, but she knows to sympathize with them—she understands that morality is not black and white, and she has a temper and audacity of her own. No . . . Toph might not understand what they are doing, but she would know why.
Suki understands loss, and Suki took up arms at the age of eight because of this man. She doesn’t think Suki would have any problems with the look in Zuko’s eyes.
Katara reaches over and taps him on the arm. He looks stressed and tense and terrified and also formidable. “He’s slightly alive,” he whispers.
“Do you want to kill him?” she asks plainly, simply. The question itself rings of war; those are not the kind of words that should fit into her mouth, but he doesn’t seem to find them odd. He tears his sight away from the pitiful man in the corner and looks at her, stares into her soul.
“There isn’t a single person,” he chokes out, “not a single person— he’s destroyed everyone, Katara. Everything. Mother, Azula, Uncle, Lu Ten, Grandfather, Aang, you, Sokka— Song,” he breathes heavily, lowering himself to the floor. “And Jet, and all of those refugees in Ba Sing Se, and a little boy named Lee—”
“Zuko,” she presses a hand to his chest as he stumbles over his words. In seconds, his expression changes from Fire Lord to little lost boy. “You, too.”
“But I’m alright now,” he tells her in his haze. “But it’s fine. I can live with my face. Not everyone can live with the war. This is his war. All the people he killed. People from his own nation,” he spits out, his voice rising. Ozai can definitely clearly hear him, but Zuko punched his mouth; he’s clutching his face in his hands. Katara can see a few spots of blood in the ground. Good for him, she thinks. He doesn’t need to talk.
“What do you want to do?” she asks again. He had stayed by her side, had crawled up next to her on Appa that day. He hadn’t been like the others; he had validated her. And she wants to be there for him. “You can do whatever you need to do.”
Katara knows that if he decides to kill his father for refusing to tell him about his mother, for being a murderer, for no reason . . . she will support him like he has supported her. She understands the anger strumming through his veins keenly. And Ozai, lolling against the side of the cell, his eyes starting to fade . . .
She thinks Zuko might have already killed his father. She does not know how to put that into words.
“How did you do it?”
“How did you let him go, Katara? I just want to—”
“It’s not the same,” she presses the tips of her fingers into his shoulders, runs her nails over the hair at the edge of his scalp. “It’s not the same, and you don’t have to forgive him.”
“It’s bad,” he tells her. “I don’t want to do any more bad things.”
“I can’t make this choice for you. This is you, Zuko. This is you. And whatever you want to do . . . it’ll be okay.”
He reaches for her, so she leans in and hugs him, and they stare at the pitiful character choking up blood in the corner together.
“Mostly dead,” he says quietly.
Her fingers flex against his as she moves her hand down to capture his sweaty and bloody grip. “Do you know what you want to do?”
Zuko looks down at her with a dark, deep, broken expression. “Can we . . .”
“Yeah,” she pulls on his sleeve. “We can go.”
They leave Ozai sitting in the small prison cell, choking out blood and bile, staring at them with something in his eyes almost stronger than hate—something like acceptance and disgust. Neither of them needs to know what is going to happen next for him. They don’t need to make decisions like these.