The Phoenix King spent six months in his cell, stray bits of sunlight for company. He turned his hand this way and that, watching the way it broke across his skin. Ozai cataloged how the intensity of the light changed between the summer, heading into the winter.
He learned that the angle of the window was wrong. That here, in the darkest reaches of the seasons, no light could reach him. Ozai felt cold. The silence was oppressive and he longed for the crackle of flame.
He leaned his head back against the stone wall. The darkness behind his eyes was, if nothing else, more tranquil than the prison’s flickering torches. As a boy he had been afraid of the dark. The Avatar himself could have demanded the information and he would have vehemently denied its truth but…there it was.
He had been plagued by nightmares at one point. Spirits that walked in moonlight had been his most common tormentors, their faces a mask of hate, twisted and dark. There were other creatures. Beasts that crawled up from the earth, leviathans that would swallow him up if he stepped upon their shore, a cadre of creatures. He remembered each of their faces.
And a cage. He’d dreamed of a cage.
Ozai bit the inside of his cheek hard enough to draw blood. The pain pushed back that foreign sensation of helplessness, the…weightless nostalgia. His father had chastised him for his weakness. By the time he had dreamt of his cage (and the spirits who danced outside its bars) he knew better than to seek out his father.
At five, he’d clutched his knees to his chest and wept, afraid to close his eyes.
That boy was stupid, weak…
He’d felt so alone.
Iroh had been his savior. Most memories of his childhood were blurry now but he remembered his brother’s presence. As a boy, still too young for politics, too innocent to concern himself with currying their father’s favor, it had been Iroh who lulled him back to sleep. Iroh who had sat beside him as he tried to explain his nightmares; Iroh who had clasped his shoulder and made him feel safe.
As a boy, he had adored his brother.
He drove that thought away. He hated that memory, that part of himself. In the darkness, it kept resurfacing. As a boy, Iroh had been his savior.
As a man, he had no one.
Zuko made it a point to visit.
It pained him to admit but…his son was more…Competent than he’d initially granted. The boy (young man, and he hated that he could see so much of himself in the child) settled himself in front of the bars. It was an odd contradiction. The Fire Lord, bedecked in all his finery, sitting cross legged on the prison floor. A son consulting his father.
He talked of their nation. He talked of Azula more often than not. His prodigy was…unwell and he felt a swell of nausea. He had taught her better than that, he had made her stronger than that.
Zuko was silent now, the firelight catching off his face. The scar was still prominent, no amount of time would change that, but it no longer looked so glaring. It was a part of him now, acceptable, and thereby held no sway. Time was starting to change his face, the last remnants of baby fat melting away, leaving a fine bone structure. His son would be handsome.
Zuko no longer hesitated when he spoke, “Do you remember Ember Island?”
“You’ll have to clarify.”
“You were different there. I remember that.”
These attempts at redemption were just as commonplace. The boy had strength of conviction, he’d give him that. Ozai dragged a hand through his hair. It was wild now, too long, his beard unkempt. He felt savage, “Love makes all children blind, boy. Age lifted the fog.”
“That wasn’t it. You tried. You were…” he stopped himself. His hand curled into a fist at his side. Still too expressive but getting better at controlling himself. The throne was already shaping him. The thought was strikingly bitter. “That summer. I was six,” his lips turned up in a gentle smile, scrubbing a hand over the back of his neck. “Mom wanted to see the Players again. We’d seen 'Love Amongst Dragons' three times already…”
Spirits, it was difficult to forget. Ursa had kept that little obsession from him all throughout their courtship, hiding behind her grace, her educated mind, her delicate mien. It was only after they’d married that the ugly truth had come out. She’d been infatuated with that garish, ridiculous troupe. His wife, for all her elegance, had boasted hideously bad taste in entertainment.
He shook his head, his voice rough from disuse, “I remember. We’d only arrived the week before.”
“Do you remember what you did?”
Ozai pursed his lips. He spoke very carefully, “I told you to take your sister and go.”
“To find Uncle and hide,” Zuko had the audacity to snicker, the boy grinning, “We crawled under the bed when mom came to find you. Azula had never been so quiet. She was afraid to breathe.”
Ursa had been lovely. The ocean air had always suited her better than the stuffiness of the palace. She’d been sun kissed, the cut of her dress more casual. She had smiled at him. He remembered that smile completely, every small detail. The practiced lie he’d had waiting on the tip of his tongue died. She’d stolen away his charm, his bravado. He remembered grumbling…
“You told Azula and me you’d think of something but…you just. Threw your arms up. Uncle couldn’t stop laughing when we told him. It was like…your brain just…stopped.”
“It did,” it had. He massaged his temple, suddenly tired, “Your mother was…difficult to deny.” And she had enjoyed the garbage so thoroughly. That show, among all the other disasters they’d attended, had been particularly egregious. He’d weathered it with what little grace he could manage.
He could hear Zuko’s smile before he could see it, “Every time. Every time you…hurt me. Every disappointed look. I always thought back to that moment.”
Ozai snorted, “To the father who cared enough to save his children from another night at the theater.”
The damnable boy didn’t have the decency to look disappointed. Just shrugged.
For two months he was convinced he was seeing ghosts. A figure, their form obscured by a heavy cloak, would visit his cell from time to time, staying just out of his line of sight. They did not speak, even when he called out to them.
Spirits bathed in moonlight; he chuckled to hide his discomfort, that nightmare still too vivid.
He asked Zuko about it and the boy shrugged.
Ozai picked at his bread, eyeing his son more shrewdly, “It’s strange. These visits always revolved around your mother.”
“You’ve stopped asking about her, Zuko.”
His son frowned, pouring them each another cup of tea. He slid Ozai’s through the bars, steam wafting lazily off the surface. Drinking it was one of the rare times he felt properly warm. “I learned my lesson. You won’t tell me where she is. Why bother?”
It had been his obsession since that night with Azulon. Obsession was in their blood, thick, as damning as the gold hue of their eyes. Ozai pursed his lips, “So much improvement and you still haven’t learned how to lie.” Zuko shifted, his jaw clenched. Not nervous, challenging him to make an accusation. He felt an uncharacteristic swell of pride for his child, “So you’ve found her then.”
“How long ago?”
He shrugged, “Two months, give or take. She wanted to come see you. I refused.”
Just like that, the fury was back. Ozai stiffened, his eyes narrowing to slits, “What gives you the right, boy?”
“A Fire Lord’s word is law, isn’t it, Father?” The (Fire Lord) prince squared his shoulders. “It was for your own safety. Mom was,” he winced, rubbing one hand absently over his shoulder. “Angry. I didn’t know if she would…”
He scoffed, “Kill me?”
Zuko held his gaze, “Yeah.” The two men sat in silence for a time before his son finally spoke, soft. Ozai had to strain to hear him over the prison’s ambient noise. The six words sent a rush of warmth through him, some other sensation he could not entirely put to words. Zuko refilled his tea.
“She still wants to speak with you.”
A year had passed since they first threw him in this cell. He was still cold. That…empty sensation in his chest, the disconnect from his chi, had not faded. Ozai remained an echo of himself.
On his one year anniversary, the spirit finally revealed herself.
Ursa, her mouth pinched, brows slanted in an expression of such silent disdain, stepped forward, pushing her hood back. His wife settled before him, resplendent in Fire Nation Red. When she did not speak, he broke the silence, chuckling, “You’re grayer than I remember, wife.”
Her gold eyes lit, fixing him with a withering stare. Time had not robbed her of her small vanities. Ursa reached up, dragging one hand through her hair. The mass was still almost exclusively black. Only the small wrinkles near the corner of her eyes marked the passage of time. She was still, and he loathed himself for the admission, strikingly beautiful.
Ursa rolled a bit of bread between her thumb and forefinger before sliding him the tray, “Our son made me promise not to strike you before arranging this.”
”It’s poison he should check you for.”
His wife scowled at him, crossing her arms over her chest. He had always loved the look of her like this, fuming. The Spirits had chosen wisely when they had denied her access to her grandfather’s talents. Ursa would have been (irresistible) a nightmare.
“Will you be civil, Ozai?” The sharpness of her voice caught him off guard. Her left fist was balled in her skirt, white knuckled. He fought back the need to reach out to her. “After everything else, I think you can grant me that small indulgence.”
He sighed, staring up towards the ceiling. It was late now. No sunlight. Only the flicker of torches, “Why are you here?”
“I want to talk.”
“Like mother, like son.”
The muscles in her jaw ticked, “It baffles me that Zuko has been marked by assassins and yet no one has made an attempt on you.”
He chuckled despite himself. In a fit of uncharacteristic charity, he tore the loaf of bread in half, offering a piece to her without comment.
When they speak again, he is almost civil.
There's was a careful balancing act.
They didn't speak of her life, the six years they'd spent apart. She always shifted when the conversation drifted that way; he had enough regard for her left to steer them back to neutral ground.
They did not speak of the Avatar or how far Ozai had fallen. He would only sulk and then the two of them would be left to sit in silence.
They do not speak of their children. Ozai understood that to so much as use their names in her presence was a sin, prone to leave her snarling at him. While she could not return to save her young she had spent those years cataloguing every perceived failure, every...misstep.
Those conversations always ended with her storming out, dark hair whipping behind her.
For all that vitriol, she always returned to him.
Ursa arrived with an armed guard and a straight razor.
He was not amused.
Over the past few months, her visits had been more commonplace. Shared experience allowed them to settle into a new routine. The old rules were allowed to bend even if they refused to break She spoke (vaguely) of her life these past six years. Of the man their son had become (and not the events which had facilitated his change). Those brief encounters were frequently the high point of his day. If nothing else, there was a…pleasure in listening to her speak. It made him feel…more human. More like the man he was.
So here they were. Settled near the turtle duck pond, surrounded by guards. He owed her for this field trip. Even without asking, he knew arranging it must have been an ordeal. Zuko, wisely, did not trust him. The sun beat down on his face. The air was humid, too thick in his lungs. His bride’s proximity did not help. The woman was knelt in front of him, coating her hands in some foaming mess. She applied it liberally (and none too gently), to his face before grabbing the razor.
When he’d asked “why,” she’d shrugged, looking so much like their son it ached. She turned his head to the side, her voice coming somewhere near his ear, “The reasons, husband, are two fold. For the first, our son asked me to make you presentable.”
“And the second?”
Ozai rolled his eyes, unable to keep from gritting his teeth, “We have servants for this.”
Ursa chuckled, her breath ghosting across his cheek. He was shocked by the warmth of it, shivering in the morning air. After spending months in the cell, cold, vaguely damp, he had forgotten the pleasure of such…simple contact., “Our son has servants, husband. You do not.”
“Must you remind me.”
“Until it finally sticks in that idiot head of yours, yes,” Ozai winced, the scrape of the razor just shy of breaking skin. His wife mumbled an apology.
Silences between them had never been uncomfortable. In truth, it was one of the reason he’d initially found himself so infatuated with her. Ursa’s face, her eyes in particular, were woefully expressive. Her body language was an extension of her voice, rigid when they fought, liquid when she was at ease. Despite her verbal irritation, she was not truly angry, not in the violent way he knew she could get. Her left hand only gripped his chin lightly, the majority of her body weight pitched against his shoulder as she worked.
Ursa was tired.
She arched one well manicured brow when his arm snaked around her waist, holding her more firmly, but did not protest. She was thinner than he remembered, her breasts less full against his chest. He wanted to ask her what had prompted that, how she had supported herself over the years but found he could not. In truth, he had no desire to learn.
It was her hands that kept catching his attention. The pads of her fingers were less smooth then they had been; he could feel calluses, thin but there. Frowning, he shifted out from under her touch, catching one of her wrists. The nails were painstakingly manicured. He did not miss the subtle discoloration, as if dirt had been deeply embedded beneath them for a time.
He pursed his lips, folding his fingers over hers. The disparity in their size still intoxicated him, “This should never have happened.”
She snorted, the sound so distinctly unlike her that he stared, “It’s the calluses that have decided you?” He glared. She had never withered under his attentions in the past but had always displayed at least a trace amount of caution.
“Your hands, my body,” his bending. The Phoenix King grit his teeth, “The world was mine, Ursa.”
“And you lost it. Along with everything else.”
“I remember you having more tact, wife.”
She smiled. There was something fond in the expression, something closer to what they’d used to share. She smoothed her thumb over his collarbone, “Years in banishment have a way of lending perspective, husband.”
Once upon a time, he’d been better at lying to her. Never adept; he’d never felt a need to justify his behavior to the woman but…decent. Now, he was left to stare at her, his mind pointedly blank. He opened his mouth to speak before shutting it, nodding.
He had meant to call her back to his side. That had always been his intention. Once Iroh was resigned, once the court had settled back into their rut, once the question of “succession” was finally put behind them, he had meant to call her back.
There was a hideous duality to his nature. Ozai understood that better than most. He had spent his youth clawing for scraps of approval from a man who would have preferred him dead. He had lied, cheated, killed for that throne only to achieve it through no merit of his own. He’d fantasized about claiming the mantle of Fire Lord and his Lady would rule at his side. They would make a name for themselves, legends, and yet his time at the head of their nation had proved a lonely vigil.
The world had hated him but his people had adored him. His generals feared him. He finally had his authority, his throne, but the hungriness had never faded. That hollow point in his chest had remained as empty as ever. He had the Nation but not the world…
He longed for approval and despised those that offered it. He had what he wanted and he found something else to devour. He had loved Ursa but what was the love of one woman compared to the world?
His bride shook her head, eyes sad. She returned to her work, silent. This time, he felt the weight. It pressed against his sternum, threatening to crush him. Ursa dragged the razor over his cheek. He pursed his lips, “You would have killed me.”
Ozai dared her to look away, his fingers digging into her hip, “If I had called you back. If I had done as I intended and you had sat at my side,” the razor stopped, his face almost entirely clear now. She let the blade fall to his shoulder, an absent threat; she barely seemed aware of just how close she was to his jugular, “You would have killed me.”
Ursa’s brow furrowed, “I was always loyal.”
“Your ambition was beautiful, wife,” he reached up, stroking the backs of his fingers across her throat. He was weaker now than he’d been in decades but he was certain: if he truly wanted, he could kill her. The guards would jump into action but…there’d be nothing for it. He could crush her throat, snap her neck. Her death would cause his son such agonies. Ozai took a steadying breath, folding his fingers behind her neck, “Could you have watched as I burned our son? Stood by as I shaped our daughter…”
There was a warning in her tone, her grip on him tightening. Her nails threatened to break skin, “It would have killed you. So I think…” he chuckled, tipping his head to the side. A dark swath of hair fell across his face, “You would have killed me first.”
She frowned, her attention flicking down. She would not deny it. At her core, in the fabric of her essence, Ursa was a good woman. Not a moral woman; he was certain his wife would have set the world ablaze if it meant protecting her young, but fundamentally good. She would not have stood by as he committed his atrocities. She cleared her throat, “How did you imagine it happening?”
“Why, Ursa, what a macabre question.”
He had never stopped to appreciate how bright her eyes were. Neither of their children had inherited the color, not exactly. The man chuckled, tipping his head back, scanning the courtyard. The guards were eyeing them with more interest, unnerved by his proximity to the woman. Their new Lord would be displeased with the liberties his deposed father was taking. He lowered his voice, leaning in to trace the shell of her ear with his nose, “ Poison, most likely. You were always so talented. A knife, maybe, if I’d truly hurt you. The how doesn’t matter,” He smiled. Something shifted between them, heavy, hungry, and his bride shivered despite the humid air, “I always imagined I’d die inside you.”
He let his words hang between them, catching her gaze, holding it. The years apart had frayed the strings tying them together, yes, but nothing had snapped. She stared at his lips, her tongue smoothing along the seam of her own, before shaking her head.
Ursa feared him. He saw it. Had always seen it, recognized the wisdom in her fear. He was dangerous, with his mercurial temperament and his dizzying drive and genius. When he was up, there was nothing more beautiful in the world. When he was down, it was like living in a cage. She was afraid because years apart hadn’t changed anything and by rights it should have. Nearly twenty years of marriage should have changed something between them.
Someone had blended them together a long time ago. Someone had cut up her fibers, everything that made her Ursa, and everything that made him Ozai, and then stitched them together. It’d been a patchwork job, but Agni, he felt it every time she tried to put distance between them. They were a sickness. When they were together, occupying the same space, it was manageable, just a low level fever, an ache. When they were apart, it was nausea and longing. Being with Ursa was being whole again; being apart from her left an emptiness in his chest, a clawing sensation in the back of his skull.
She was his. She belonged to him.
He stroked her chin, “Tell me I’m wrong, princess.”
One of the guards was approaching, saying something. He couldn’t make out the words.
“No,” it was a whisper, her breath tickling against his skin, “No, you’re not wrong.”
The guard could have been no older than sixteen. His hands were shaking badly, standing out of arm's reach. His gaze kept flicking between the two of them, as if frightened to take that final step. His wife shook her head, “It’s alright, Xao.” She frowned, looking away from him. Ursa wiped the razor against her sleeve (ruining the beautiful fabric, most likely), turning his head to the side once more, “I promised our son I’d make you presentable.”
They spend the rest of the evening in silence.
He’s forgotten how long he’s been left to rot in this cell. Time was mostly immaterial, he supposed, lifting his hand, smirking at the stray sunlight. It was summer, he knew as much, even without his connection to the elements. He had begun to catalogue his day less by the passing of hours and more by the presence of sunlight and his wife’s visitations.
She sat with him, closer than before. Ursa had grown tired of decorum and that old wooden chair, the way it creaked when she moved and threatened to give out when she stood. If asked, irritation was the cause of her proximity. The Fire Princess was settled on the floor, her left shoulder fetched up against the bars of his cage. If he wanted, he could reach out and touch her.
After so many months, she might have tolerated the contact.
Ursa hummed to herself as she worked at setting out their meal. Her voice had never been particularly strong when she sang but the notes were even and the prison’s natural acoustics shored up most deficits. He shook his head, adjusting to rest his weight on his right arm. He no longer sulked near the back of his cage. The low lighting made it too difficult to observe her from any great distance.
The smell of fresh bread wafted on the otherwise stale air, mixing awkwardly with the scent of sweat and ash. She set his portion on a tray in front of him, poured him a small portion of oil for dipping, before turning to retrieve a string of grapes. He shook his head, “Feeling nostalgic, were we?”
No one else said his name in the quite the same way. He clenched his jaw to keep from reacting. The Phoenix King reached out, rolling one of the grapes between his thumb and forefinger, “You only ever wanted this after spending the day by the sea.”
She laughed, “I was always tired and this was easy. And safe to eat in bed.”
“For the most part.”
Ursa rolled her eyes, “I’m surprised you remember.”
“Thank Zuko for that,” he huffed, gratefully accepting his meal. The food Ursa brought was always far superior to the prison rations He felt a hint of a smile tug at his lips, “The boy insists on dragging up old memories whenever he visits.”
She reached up, tucking a stray bit of hair behind her ear. Her shoulders squared in that way she only really managed when the conversation turned towards her children’s achievements. Pride and something else, something melancholy, warred for dominance in her tone, “He’s grown into a wonderful person. Better than either of us.”
“On that we agree.”
She smiled, a hint of color flooding her cheeks. She was too old to blush, no young maiden. It suited her nonetheless. Ursa plucked at her meal, fingers ghosting over the bread before settling on the grapes. She had a taste for sugar, always preferring fruits, sweet wines. Such things always left him with a biting headache. It had never stopped him from indulging with her.
Love made fools out of the wisest men.
He glanced down, making a show of chewing his bread, “He did remind me of just how often you dragged us to the theater.”
“The Players are a national treasure, Ozai.”
“I hated their performances.”
Ursa threw him an arch look, “Of course you did. You never had any taste.”
“Your son agrees with me.”
His wife scowled at him, the expressions clearing exaggerated, flicking a crumb of bread his direction. “Our Zuko is famously a paragon of cultural refinement.” A moment passed. He watched as she weighed her next statement, eyeing him cautiously, “You never went along with anything you didn’t like, Ozai. If you truly hated the experience...why indulge me?”
“I would have thought that was obvious.”
“For once, stop playing the enigmatic lord and answer,” she dragged a hand through her hair, sounding so tired, “Please, husband.”
Ozai sighed, glancing around his cell. The darkness was making him weak, the loneliness eroding him. Sitting here had worn holes in his impenetrable armor. And Ursa...had always been a weakness. She stared at him, her eyes bright and full of challenge, still beautiful despite the passage of time. He reached for the (damnably sweet) wine, “You were always...brighter after. Humming to yourself, trying to entice me to dance.” He grit his teeth, forcing himself to finish, “It was worth a few hours of tedium to see you that way.” Ursa jerked back as if he’d struck her, eyes wide. She opened her mouth before shutting it. The Phoenix king crossed his arms over his chest, grumbling, “If you would keep this confession to yourself, wife. Our son needs no more incentive to redeem me.”
Her fingers brushed against his and he felt fire light in his blood. She squeezed his hand, “Of course.”
When she leaves, he’s cold again.