UPDATED A/N!: This is a pivotal chapter wherein Ozai makes a decision that will determine the path he follows for the rest of his life. In the original incarnation (as it is written below), he makes one choice. However, I have written an "Alternate Ending" that explores that other path...If you wish to read it, I am uploading it as a new chapter at the very end. You can read that one, this one, or both-but I just wanted to make you aware of the options. 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. "Ming." He murmured as he pulled her close and tangled his fingers in the long black strands. "You are immaterial to me."

She gasped softly at his harsh words, tears streaking anew down her filthy face. Her eyes searched his desperately, delicate features contorting to show her confusion and heartbreak.

"And you've outlived your usefulness."

Ming realized too late to scream when he grasped her roughly by the hair and slammed her head into the wall. She collapsed in a heap upon the floor; blood oozing into a crimson puddle around her face and staining her pale skin.

Ozai did not even spare the woman a second glance as he turned and made his way down the hall. Vengeance awaited, as did his throne. He would not tarry.

A/N: Yeah, I know this is short. And yeah, I know I just updated a few days ago. Sorry? This story is really winding down to the end (as you can probably tell), and I guess I'm just a little anxious to wrap it up. Most of you probably saw the first scene coming, but I wonder if I managed to throw a curveball with the second and last. The Azula bit made me sad to write. But I wanted to show the juxtaposition of Ozai's really perverse ideas of love and kindness with the reality that he just murdered his own daughter. And of course, it's all Zuko's fault he had to do it. What isn't? Ming, as many of you saw coming, had to find out the hard way that Ozai didn't love her.

Reviewers, I was very appreciative of the wide array of insight that you all gave me last chapter. Your comments were instrumental in framing the details of the events in this one, and to follow. Please keep the suggestions coming! Next chapter, there will be some fight scenes. I'm dreading it, because I've never really written one before (and I scrapped the entire rough draft I'd started because it was just awful). Tips and advice would be much appreciated.