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Hey, I wrote a fan fic!

Title: Choices
Fandom: Avatar: The Last Airbender
Rating: PG-13
Characters/Pairings: Zuko, Ozai, Aang, Mai, Katara; no pairings
Warnings: Angst, discussion of capital punishment
Summary: Aang didn't save Ozai's life. He merely put his fate in someone else's hands.

“In the matter of war crimes, each nation shall undertake an investigation of the conduct of its soldiers and military commanders of every rank over the course of the previous twenty years. Any soldier or military commander found guilty of excessive cruelty against citizens of his own or any other nation shall be tried as a war criminal and punished according to the custom of his own nation.”

- Treaty of the Western Air Temple, Article Ten

It’s been two years since the war ended, since the Avatar defeated Ozai but allowed him to live. It was a noble choice, everyone said, an act of supreme compassion worthy of praise to see the value in all living things. Truly Avatar Aang was a good man.

Of course, when these same people were drafting the peace treaty that formally ended the hundred years of hostility, they saw no problem with including that little clause that required all war criminals to be tried and punished according to the custom of their own nation. It had been an agonizingly slow legal process, fraught with controversy, but Ozai had eventually been found guilty of war crimes and high treason. In the Fire Nation, the punishment for both was death.

He had barely made it back to his office after the sentencing when the Avatar burst in, full of righteous fury.

“This isn’t right, Zuko! You can’t just sentence your father to death!”

With a sigh, Zuko sank into the chair behind his desk. He’d seen this argument coming, had an inkling of it ever since the treaty was ratified and known it was a sure thing the moment the verdict had been delivered.

“The court found him guilty of high treason. I couldn’t sentence him to anything less. It’s what the law demands.”

“Well then the law is wrong!”

“And I’m sure you’ve got plenty of suggestions for a reform of the penal code. But I’m still trying to figure out how to undo a century of damage without my country collapsing around me. A complete overhaul of the justice system isn’t high on my list of priorities.”

Aang’s temper seemed to cool somewhat, and Zuko hoped he was beginning to appreciate the difficulty of the situation.

“Besides,” he added, “this is what the treaty calls for. ‘Tried and punished according to the customs of their nation.’ Those are the exact words we all agreed on.”

“But I didn’t know…” Aang began, “I mean, I didn’t think…that this is what that would mean.”

Zuko understood that feeling. He was well aware of his own youth and inexperience, how completely unsure of himself he was and how unprepared for this job. How much worse must things be for Aang, four years his junior?

“There must be something we can do,” Aang insisted. “Can’t you, I don’t know, make an exception? Pardon him?”

“I could do that,” Zuko admitted, not liking the hopeful look that dawned across the Avatar’s face.

“That’s it, then! You’ll pardon Ozai and he won’t have to die!”

With a deep breath, Zuko steeled his resolve.


Aang had not taken his refusal well. He had repeated all his old arguments about how killing was wrong, no matter the circumstances, but he’d been unable to influence his decision. The arguments sounded a bit more hollow now, anyway. Aang hadn’t intervened on behalf of the handful of generals facing similar sentences, nor had he, to Zuko’s knowledge, made any attempt to dissuade the rulers of the Earth Kingdom from punishing their own war criminals equally harshly.

The thought of commuting Ozai’s sentence to banishment had certainly been tempting in its irony, but Zuko knows that even without the ability to bend he is too dangerous not to be kept under close watch at all times. And though his advisors say that a pardon would show him to be equally magnanimous to the esteemed Avatar, Zuko can already hear the whispers: Unwilling to solidify his claim to the crown, such sentimental weakness, his own people would say. In the short two-year span of his reign, four plots against him have already been foiled. Three had been in his father’s name. Stubborn loyalty to Ozai is a defect not limited to his children, and to tolerate such a threat would not inspire confidence in Zuko’s leadership.

And in the other nations, what would they say? Unwilling to carry out justice, still acting like the Fire Nation is above the rules. A century of hostility and suspicion can not be easily erased. The Earth King and the Water Tribe chiefs are still wary of him, their people more so, and not without reason. He’d participated in some capacity in acts of war against all of them. How can he convince them he is nothing like Ozai unless he repudiates him in the strongest terms possible?

The world is at once praising Aang for sparing Ozai’s life and calling for Zuko to spill his blood.

In spite of the resolve he’d shown to the Avatar, as Ozai’s execution drew nearer, Zuko began to second-guess himself. A week before the scheduled date, he ordered his scribes to draft an official pardon. They’d already had one prepared. Zuko didn’t want to think about what that said of their loyalties.

The document had been delivered to his office for signature, but he had done nothing with it for three days, allowing it to become buried under the endless flow of paperwork that crossed his desk.

Mai had immediately known something was wrong.

“Who ransacked your office?”

“What? Oh, yeah, I guess it’s a bit of a mess. I’m just kind of swamped at the moment…”

“Zuko, you never let your office get disorganized, and you’ve been swamped for the last two years.”

She began sifting through the papers on his desk, sorting them into neat piles the way he usually kept them.

“You don’t have to –” he began, reaching for her hand to stop her. “Here, why don’t you just let me –”

Too late. She’d found the heavy official document he’d been ignoring for the last few days. One eyebrow inched upwards gently as she realized what it was, then held it out to him, waiting for an explanation.

“Right. That. It’s just something Aang suggested –”

“And you agreed?”

“No! Well, not at first. And I still don’t! But I…considered it?”

He really wished that last part hadn’t sounded like a question, but the truth was he wasn’t quite sure why he’d asked for the document. He’d never really intended to sign it. But…

“You wanted to do it,” Mai finished his thought.

"I thought I did. Maybe. I don't know."

"Zuko," she told him firmly, "I know this is difficult. But you can't afford to show any leniency towards your father. It will be seen as favoritism, or worse, sympathy."

"I know that, Mai. And I know it's childish, but I just wish...I wish there were another choice."

It’s late at night and he’s shut himself in his office. His desk has been organized once more and its surface cleared. Well, almost cleared, with the exception of that document. The lamps are burning low, but moonlight pours in from the window, and the blank space on the parchment for his signature and seal seems to glow pearly white. Ozai’s execution is scheduled for tomorrow morning, but there is still time. If he chose to sign the document, a messenger hawk could deliver it to the prison in a matter of minutes. Just a few characters and a quick trip to the aviary. It would be so easy.

Shortly after his argument with Aang, Katara had come to see him as well. She’d spared him any outrage or moral platitudes, but had urged him no less strongly to pardon Ozai.

“Remember Yon Rha? Killing him wouldn’t have brought my mother back, and killing Ozai won’t undo the war.”

“This is different. This isn’t about revenge. This is justice.”

The words sounded slightly less certain than he would have liked, and Katara was apparently not quite convinced. She looked at him with sympathy for a moment.

“It won’t bring your mother back, either.”

It had been over a year since his search for his mother had ended at a gravestone, but those words still cut deep. If it were anyone but Katara, that would have been taking things too far.

“I know,” he said after a moment. “But it’s what I have to do.”

He paces his office, from one end to the other and back. He is being pulled in two directions. On one side is the Avatar, and Katara, and everyone who has counseled him towards mercy. Some part of himself is there as well. He’s been accused and believed himself guilty of serious crimes in the past – dishonor, insubordination, treason – but the charge of patricide does not rest easy on him. On the other side is the treaty and its demands, Mai’s pragmatic advice, his mother’s grave, and a cold voice saying, “Suffering will be your teacher.”

He does not want to do this, and yet he must. He wants to do this, and yet he cannot.

Zuko halts his pacing before the window. The view is towards the east. The moon has disappeared from the sky, but he thinks he can just make out a faint line of pink on the horizon. He can feel the sun coming.

The execution is in a few hours. It will be a private affair, inside the prison – spectacle is the last thing they can afford. His father will be allowed a final meal, before his hair is shorn and he is dressed in plain white clothes. The guards will blindfold him and lead him to the waiting executioner. They will make him kneel, and the cold steel of the executioner’s sword will rest against his neck for a moment.

Zuko wonders if his father will be afraid, or if he will welcome death over a life of disgrace. He wonders if he will curse his son with his last breath, or if maybe he will finally be proud of him for following in his footsteps.

The night is cool, but his office feels stifling and confining. The document is still on his desk, awaiting his decision. He wants to sign it immediately and rush its delivery. He wants to incinerate it and scatter the ashes in the night.

He flees the room.

When Zuko was five years old he began his firebending lessons. After a few months, his teachers arranged a demonstration of what he had learned for his parents.

It wasn’t anything particularly impressive, as much of the early training was dedicated to theory and meditation. Still, he answered most of his teachers’ questions correctly with little hesitation, and at the end he proudly produced a small flame and held it cupped in his hands for his parents to see.

“Prince Zuko is a diligent pupil,” the head teacher had said. “He works very hard at his studies. I think he has much ambition, and we will no doubt see great things from him one day.”

Zuko had watched his father’s face throughout the demonstration, but his expression had remained unchanged from its usual sternness. Yet at those words, he thought he saw one corner of his father’s mouth quirk upwards, just a little bit.

When morning came, the Fire Lord could not be found. Somewhat frantically, his servants and advisors searched the palace. It was nearly noon when they found him in a small audience room that had not been used in years. He was seated on the floor near the entrance, staring in the direction of the dais. There were dark circles under his eyes and, though it would be the height of impropriety for anyone to notice, faint traces of tears on his face.

In his office, on his desk, was an official act of pardon. It was unsigned.