It feels like fever. His limbs are hollow, shaken, bitten by one thousand insects. It feels like he has just been born.
The boy-Earth-man-Avatar is looking down at him. Limbs bathed in incandescence are as thin as twigs, and he could snap them, splinter them, char them to ashes—
Except that the fire, its livid eyes blazing behind his own, never stronger than now, never borne by more energy than that the hurtling comet brought, has turned its back on him. He can still taste the fire on the outer curves of his lips, heat from blast after blast of conflagration that could have razed villages but could not beat one little moth away from the light…His skin cools slowly against the rock, and he feels and mourns every joule lost, because it is the last.
Fire always illustrated him. How lovely, he always thought, that men were not mere muscle and flesh and bone. For a punch to not end in the smack of flesh against flesh, but in the huff of air as fire sucked the oxygen into itself—for anger to be personified, to simmer at the fingertips or heels or the fringes of the mouth. How lovely for power to enable one to make a throne of jets of flame, to radiate majesty in spectrums, to externalize the spirit--
…not like now. Now, he is shaking and helpless and merely his body.
He does not ask himself how this came to be. He does not wonder how he could come to fail. It is obvious, because he is a man of power, and might not be alive today if he did not respect the power of others. One must always watch for a greater power—from the lands one rules, from mistakes, from one's own family…one must beware of usurpers. There's always a bigger hawkfish, as the saying goes. It is obvious that the Avatar simply had more power.
It is the nature of that power that is disturbing. It is the wrenching lightning-touch of those hands, seared onto his forehead and his chest, ripping without touching just like lightning. It is the memory of a green crystal light like leaves in the sun. It is a sensation of age, of outside-the-world.
Because for a moment, when the universe was flayed bare by the Avatar's hands, he saw that the boy's body did the reverse of what fire did—it internalized. It held within itself, never letting anything eke out into the world so that that one seam would become a breach and a crucible, the energy of ages. Hundreds of lives, hundreds of Avatars, bodies, people, histories. All leaning their weight against one Ozai, and tearing his soul out.
Fire had always been with him. But more than that, there had been the connection to the elements. No matter how many tanks he might commission, how many spire-decked, steam-lunged airships he might order to draw black-smog curtains across the sky, he had always known how indebted to the elements of the earth his people were. All people were. They named their cultures for forces, and those cultures grew strong, even if the people within them—like the Air Nomads—grew weak and ripe for conquering.
Now, fire—country, ground, surrounding, weapon, ancestry, ally—does not heed his calls. He can feel its absence, an empty, dusty chamber in a populated house, even without trying to bend. He
can feel it as a distance, between himself and everything. There is darkness in that distance, darkness like falling, like a child's fears.
He remembers the imagined things that lurked in every unfamiliar room when he was yet a child, and he remembers surrounding his pale, young fists with fire to drive them away.
Baby-weak, with his freed hair across his eyes and in his mouth and the wind smelling of water, he has enough strength to say that he is alive, but no more. It is not just the Avatar's deceptively human eyes (what a false front those eyes are! What a vessel--) watching him now. There are other children. He is being mocked by children, and he is feverish with want of fire.
But behind his eyes, there is still simmering. He cowers for the watchers, but…he is Phoenix Lord Ozai. Even without—he can barely think of without, but—he is still more powerful than children. He is still more powerful than the Avatar, even if now he knows that no finesse is needed, no sending others out after the boy—he must train and learn and chase the Avatar himself, until it is all over and finished in flesh and muscle and brain, not in fire, water, air, or stone.
He has bested the Air Nomads. He has bested Azula, by leaving her behind, tempting her with power, letting her slide slowly into a fire that burns her brain to nothing. He has fallen to the Avatar, fallen to the world—but Aang's pity will be the boy's downfall.
Because now Ozai is the monster lurking in the dark, sneaking up on the royal children, waiting in their closet-dungeons for a moment of opportunity.