Fire Lord Zuko tried to concentrate on his work that day but couldn't. He had no energy for meetings with his financial adviser or writing letters to the outer colonies. He drifted through the day until evening came, and even then he couldn't sleep. The news sat in his chest like heartburn that wouldn't go away. He wanted to throw up.
When he finally retired for the evening he did not join his wife in bed, but instead sat on his desk nearby wasting the lamp oil. He stared at a blank parchment till almost midnight, trying to find the strength to write a letter to his sister. This would not be easy for Azula to read, and he could not think of how to best describe it to her.
Mai tossed and turned in the bed behind him, trying to block out the light of the lamp. She was annoyed she could not enjoy her husband's company. But this was not new behavior for Zuko, a cronic insomniac. She knew his sleeplessness was a good sign he had something on his mind.
“Zuko,” she said, “change into your night clothes. Wash your face. Come to bed. Whatever the problem is, you won't solve it by staring down at that paper.”
“In a minute,” he muttered, as if he hadn't really heard her.
Mai sat up. She sighed. “You can't do this to me, Zuko. You can't leave me in the dark while I watch you suffer. I know its easier for you to block people out, but... if you can't come to bed can you at least tell me what's wrong?”
He turned around to face her and took a deep breath. “I did something you've asked me not to do. I went to visit my father.”
Mai was silent for a moment. “Why?”
“Because I got a letter from the prison warden saying he wanted me to visit. I won't have many more chances to make it right with him. I want to make the time count.”
“What are you talking about? Who said anything about making it right with him? Zuko, you know that probably will never happen.”
“But I have to try, Mai,” Zuko said. He rubbed his forehead. “He's going to die.”
Ozai was not allowed to send letters from the prison. Zuko had laid these rules firmly before Ozai even went to trial. If Ozai were allowed to write freely, he could slip messages to his followers in the form of codes and ciphers. No paper or ink were allowed in his cell. Ozai was only allowed to directly contact his immediate family and his legal counsel. And if he wanted to do that, he needed the prison warden to transcribe the letter on his behalf.
A few days before Zuko received a letter from his father. Ozai's boxy and refined handwriting was replaced with the warden's scratchier and looser script. But the words were his fathers for sure, aloof, curt, no attempts to be polite.
“Zuko, you must make an appearance at the prison within the week. I need to speak to you on a matter of the utmost importance. --Father.”
The letter was more blank paper then text.
This was the first time Ozai had written Zuko in his ten years of incarceration. He had no reason to want to talk to Zuko. The warden had little time to help with this communication. Zuko didn't need proof that something serious was going on, the letter's mere existence was proof enough.
Before their wedding, Zuko and Mai had come to an agreement. Zuko would have little to no contact with his father. For the first few years after Ozai went to prison, Zuko had actually visited fairly frequently. Zuko didn't know why. He did not enjoy his father's company, that was for sure. Sometimes he came asking for advice. Sometimes he came for a chance to speak his mind freely, which he could never do growing up. Sometimes he came because he thought it was his duty. It wasn't right that his father, the man who gave him life, raised him, taught him a lot of what he knew, was sitting alone in the dark with no one to talk to.
But Mai had noticed the visits had taken a toll on Zuko. Not only was his father's advice corrupting and dangerously bad, but Zuko would often destroy himself in anger and self loathing if the visits went poorly. For the sake of the nation he ruled, and for his mental health, Zuko could not see his father.
Because of this, Zuko almost wrote back to decline the invitaion. He also considered not writing, and not showing up. He considered speaking to Mai first, but knew she would say no. But Curiosity ate Zuko from the inside out. Why would his father actually ask him to visit? What possibly could he have to say? Zuko canceled his afternoon appointments and took the short walk to the Capitol City's prison.
Zuko found himself sweating and almost shaking as he headed to the prison. Even now, when his father was imprisoned, fireless, and powerless, even now when Zuko no longer had the need to try and please his father, he still felt fear. It had been thirteen years since Zuko had received his scar, half of his life had passed since then, but the fear was still there, still visceral. He ran dialogue in his head as he walked, trying to anticipate what his father might say, and how he might respond. It didn't calm him down.
Even though Zuko arrived in his Fire Lord's formal robes, the guard gave him no special treatment. Zuko still was required to hand over the dagger he kept in his belt, and to sign his name in the log book. The lack of special treatment—for the purpose of security—was another rule Zuko had imposed. They couldn't take the chance of any impostors sneaking in and helping Ozai escape.
The guard led Zuko down the hallway, but instead of turning left, to where Ozai was usually kept, they went up a flight of stairs instead.
“Wait, you didn't move Ozai, did you?” Zuko said.
The guard turned to answer. “If you're upset about the move, Sir, I can inform the warden, but we thought it was necessary.”
“Was he causing trouble with the other prisoners?”
“Look, I actually don't know much about what's going on... and if I did... well it might be best to hear it from Ozai himself.” The guard handed Zuko a torch from the wall, and opened a heavy door. “I'll give you two a moment alone.”
Zuko looked around for a minute. The new cell was a lot warmer than the other had been, mostly because it was above ground. But Zuko also noticed the area outside the cell had an ash-covered alcove, for a fire. The move could hardly be called special treatment, but Zuko had to wonder about the sudden extra care for his father's comfort.
“You brought tea last time.” Ozai stirred from the cot in the back corner of the cell. He looked nothing like the virile warrior king who had been thrown into this prison. His hair had turned gray and had receded up his scalp. His rough-spun robes hung off bony shoulders. But he hadn't forgotten what it meant to be royalty. His mannerisms were no less intimidating.
Zuko inhaled and stood up straighter, preparing himself for an argument. “You only asked me to come. You didn't ask me to bring anything. Not that I would have brought anything if you had asked.”
“Oh, Heavens,” Ozai said. “What did we talk about last time you visited? I can barely remember. Something about that girl of yours. Mai. I cannot believe you married Governor Ukano's daughter. Such a homely girl, and not even a fire bender. You could have at least asked me for some suggestions before you got married.”
“And what was going on with Mai when you came? Yes... that's right... you came because she was pregnant. Azula believed I deserved to know, so she convinced you to come and tell. How old is that baby now, Zuko? She's what, three? Four? And you haven't brought her to visit “her grandfather?”
Zuko was growing impatient. “Izumi is five, and she and Mai are better off having nothing to do with you. I haven't got all day, Ozai. Get to the point.”
“You haven't come to see me in five years, and now you're in such a hurry,” Ozai said. “For the love of Heaven, Zuko. It was bad enough that you threw me into this hell-hole. But to forget I exist is an entirely different cruelty.”
“A mercy compared to what you put me through.”
“It's not a competition,” Ozai said. “I'm simply saying, it would be nice if...” He stopped, interrupted by a cough. It was raspy, loud, and it shook his whole body as if he were being beaten. The old tyrant had trouble catching his breath when he was done. It suddenly made more sense why they had moved him to the more comfortable room.
“Whatever,” Ozai said, wiping the saliva from the side of his mouth. Zuko thought he saw a tinge of blood on the old man's lip, but only briefly. “If I want someone to bring me tea and talk to me civilly, I can have the warden write Azula.”
“What do you want, Ozai!” Zuko said.
“I want to know what on this demon-ridden earth is going on outside these bars. I just asked you about my grandchild.”
“Izumi is off limits!”
“Obstinate as always, aren't you Zuko!”
“You're not in a position to demand anything from me, old man!”
Zuko saw one of the guards cautiously peek into the room in response to the rising voices. The guards were used to dealing with spats between prisoners and visitors. Zuko wasn't sure how they would respond if the Firelord himself attacked one of their charges. He was very much tempted to find out.
Ozai yelled banged his hands on the bars. Zuko stepped back. He hated that his father could still illicit a reaction from him. And then the old tyrant yelled again and sat back down. “Damn these walls!” Ozai said. “And damn these guards for not telling me anything!”
“I shouldn't have come. I don't know why I came,” Zuko said. He turned to leave.
“Zuko don't you dare leave me here!” Ozai said. “I raised you. I provided for you as a child. I taught you everything you know. I am your father! And I deserve your respect!”
Zuko kept walking.
Ozai yelled again. But then he said something Zuko never expected. “Please!”
“Please!” Ozai was wearing a look on his face Zuko had never seen him wear before. Ernest, desperate, almost sad. “Please, Zuko. Just listen to me.”
“What?” Zuko said.
The old tyrant took a deep breath, which was difficult for him. It almost sent him into another coughing fit. “I need to talk to you. And I won't have many more chances to talk to you again. So please, Zuko. Don't leave.”
Zuko wanted to turn and leave anyway, which probably would have been wise. But the fact his father, someone who was so used to the world bowing to him and catering to his every need, had actually uttered the word “please.” Once again, Zuko was overwhelmed by curiosity. So he sat back down in front of his father's cell and waited.
“I want to know what's going on outside,” Ozai said. “I want to know what disgraceful thing your mother is doing now. I want to know if Azula's still going to see that physician for her hallucinations. I want you to bring your child to see me. I want you to tell me how the affairs of my Fire Nation are going after all these years of your mediocre leadership.”
“You don't care about any of those things,” Zuko said.
“I don't have anything else to occupy my mind,” Ozai said. “There's nothing for me to do in here.”
“Damn it!” Zuko said. “Please, can you tell me what is really going on?”
Ozai clenched his fists. He was quiet for a minute, avoiding eye contact. The truth was infuriating to him. “At first it they thought it was another one of those fevers the rats carry between the cells. They have enough of those in here. The prison physician is overworked and under-trained as it is,” Ozai said. “Not that you, the Fire Lord himself, has the power to do anything about that.”
“Save the snark,” Zuko said. “It isn't helpful.”
Ozai huffed. “The prison physician was clueless. So they called in our family physician. He took one look at me, and he knew. It is the same thing that killed your uncle and your grandmother. And if some savvy assassin doesn't get to you first, it is the same thing that will probably kill you.”
Ozai paused. The weight of the news heavy on him, as if he had once again heard it for the first time. Zuko was speechless. The damp, silent prison air hung in between them, almost like a third participant in the conversation.
Ozai almost laughed. “For years I tore out my hair over the traits I failed to pass on to you. My intelligence, my work ethic, my wit. Wouldn't it be ironic if this was the one thing you did get from me?”
Zuko sat very still. “How long... how long do they think it will take?”
“Ha! Anxious to be rid of me, aren't you, Zuko?”
“Just answer the question.”
“A few weeks.”
“Does Azula know?” Zuko asked.
“I've been meaning to get the warden to write her for me. Of course he won't know how to put it to her in a way that won't destroy her. She has enough burdening her, Zuko, after what you did to her the day of the comet... It would be easier if I could simply do it myself.”
“I didn't do anything to her! I only....” Zuko stopped himself. This wasn't the time for an argument. “No. Ozai. The rules do not change, even in sickness. No parchment, no ink.”
Ozai exhaled. “After everything I did for you, after everything I gave you. Including your very life. This... this is what you do to me? You're going to let me die in here, alone, disgraced?”
Zuko didn't answer that.
“Whatever I did to you, to this nation... It was so long ago. I'm an old man now. You've had more than ten years to forgive me.”
“And you've had just as long to apologize,” Zuko said. He felt a little sick to his stomach. “But you never did. Ozai, I have to go now. I have to go home to my wife and child. I promised myself I would treasure them in a way you didn't treasure your own family. And you have a lot of gall asking for forgiveness.” Zuko felt like his body weighed a thousand pounds as he stood to leave.
“Promise me you'll see me again before I go,” his father called after him.
But Zuko didn't promise anything.