For Tati

There was a frosty chill in the air following the spring rain; the garden was too cold to walk in without a coat, but Ozai did anyway. There was a time when the heat of his own body was enough to keep him warm, always. But now even though he could feel the cold, he pretended not to, and walked in the cultivated garden, which his jailor continued to tend to, despite his stated indifference.

His jailor. An officer of no importance. Who was even now coming towards him with a steaming cup of tea, with that disgusting grin on his face. Probably over the moon because he'd remembered to put honey in it, or something ridiculous like that. Ozai stopped, crossing his arms and narrowing his eyes. "What do you want."

The jailor continued to smile like an idiot, and held out the tea. "It's a gorgeous day! I am so pleased to see you out! My lord, do you enjoy the azaleas? They gleam so wonderfully after a rain." Ozai looked up. The sky was positively grey. "Here, drink this, so you can walk some more and be fortified!"

Ozai thought about refusing it, and even turned his head to the side as if to pretend this whole scene was not happening. But from past experience he knew that pretending to ignore this person, this Gai, would do nothing. The jailor would follow him around, smiling as if following his charge like a dog was the greatest pleasure imaginable, and yet.. .because the jailor was the one with all the power, Ozai would be the who ended up feeling tethered. Best to take control actively. Taking a deep breath, Ozai finally turned back and nodded, uncrossing his arms and accepting the tea silently.

"I used the newest oolong tea, sent by your brother. It is a rare first flush blend. I am told it has restorative powers!" Ozai examined the golden, steaming liquid with added distaste. Unfortunately, all of the tea in this house of exile had come from his brother, so it wasn't like he could be choosy. Beggars, he thought bitterly, ought not be anyway. So he took a sip. "Not unacceptable," he conceded, his eyes flashing challenge.

"I love that rosy glow! Already you are more fortified!" The jailor did one of his strange gestures then, which looked like some kind of drunken fighting form, the sort a child would make up when triumphing in some trivial game. "I will walk with you, and keep you warm with tales of my many adventures with my pupil and comrade, Rock Lee, who even now serves the Fire Lord with great honor and distinction!"

How was that supposed to keep him warm? How was it possible to pack so many offensive statements in one over-enthusiastic package? This was the sort of thing Ozai had early on contemplated performing savage murder for, but the few times he attempted a direct assault on his jailor, it had been he who ended up pinned and shamed. And by now, Ozai was more or less used to it. Was it worth showing even a little disdain for? Ozai decided yes. "Ah yes. Rock Lee, the master of a thousand bungled missions. Please, enlighten me on his exploits."

They began to stroll, together. Gai-- the jailor-- seemed to not care that his most beloved charity case was being insulted by his most recent charity case. As usual, he started to unfold his tale, one of many-tailed foxes and encounters with benders of unusual skill, such as the one with the water tribe Puppetmaster Pein, who after a stirring defeat was now living in some kind of ignominy. Much like Ozai. This was a tale he'd heard far too many times before, but had grown to endure. When they came upon a rather large puddle, Gai tugged on Ozai's sleeve, stopping him. "My lord," he said in his most respectful tones. Ozai knew he was in for some massive indignity, and steeled himself for it.

Half expecting Gai to burn the water away with his fire bending, or to strip so as to create a sodden bridge, Ozai remained unsurprised when the jailor opted for Option C: picking him up bodily and splashing across the 3 inches of water, as if he was defending the current Fire Lord's father from some teaming Earth Kingdom horde. There was a time when Ozai would protest this, but when every sarcastic jab was countered with a disgustingly cheerful rejoinder, there was less than no point. And of course, struggling was out of the question. It would just make him feel like a child, like a helpless and weak creature, instead of like the peerless warrior he remembered himself to be.

But then once they'd crossed, instead of putting him down, the jailor continued to hold him close, and Ozai could feel the heat from the tall man's chest radiating through his clammy tunic. This was just far too disturbing. There was clearly something wrong with this man. "What are you doing." His voice was quieter than usual.

No embarrassment. No fear. Gai simply looked down at him, looking as pleased as if he'd captured the moon. "Carrying you, my lord. Isn't it obvious?" Gai stopped for a moment, hitching his arms more securely around Ozai's suddenly tense body. "The grounds have become shamefully muddied. They are my responsibility, and I would not fail you by allowing you to fall victim to my incompetence." The worst part, Ozai thought wearily, was that Gai-- the jailor-- meant that with utter sincerity. "Your robes will not be sullied while I am on watch!"

Of course, this was a large estate, and the central grounds were not insignificant. They'd probably be walking like this for some time, especially if the jailor got it into his head to make for multiple laps instead of one shameful turn. Viciously, Ozai swallowed the last of his tea, which he'd been holding without making a single spill, and ejected the empty cup to the side, tossing it forcefully into the well-maintained rose shrubs. What an unsatisfying end; he'd hoped for the glass to shatter on the pavement, wanting the breaking sound and the violence it implied. "Where do you get these asinine notions?" Ozai crossed his arms, glaring balefully up at the one holding him.

"I don't need to get it from anywhere. Everything I do comes straight from the heart." Gai turned to look towards Ozai, which ended up causing him to rub his nose and cheek against the back of Ozai's head. Disgraceful impertinence. "You must know what that is like. You are well known to be a passionate man."

Well known, was he? Ozai pondered this. He rarely gave much thought to how the commoners saw him, but in this case he had no choice. And it was probably true; he'd wanted to rule the world with all of his heart. What a large mountain of good that had done. "Passion is for fools," Ozai said bitterly, not bothering to disguise the resentment in his voice. "And stop touching me." Perhaps that was a ridiculous thing to say, considering that Gai was not going to put him down and he knew that, but the meaning was obvious: any idiot would get what he meant by that.

"Ahh, you are right, my lord." Gai sidestepped some more troublesome puddles, and took a small leap over a less significant one. Ozai had to admit that he wasn't cold anymore; perhaps the tea had done the trick. "But I am a fool, and I make no apologies for that." Ozai wanted to remain stiff, to signal his rejection of this impertinence via his posture, but that seemed to be becoming tiring; he relaxed, a little. "And I have been assigned to you for a long tour, my lord. I asked for this assignment. Perhaps that was foolish too." Anyone else would sound wistful or defiant, spouting such sentimental nonsense; Gai was serene.

Ozai had to admit: it could have been much worse. His son had done him a kindness, finding this kind of an idiot to watch over him. Another crime to place at Zuko's feet; he needed the pity of no one. But why had this soldier requested such an assignment; every time Ozai pondered the question, his mind came up blank. He had never been the sort to inspire personal loyalty in his troops; everyone loved the glory he represented, and had adored him as if he were a god. But all who knew him as a man and not a god avoided him. Zuko rarely visited. Iroh only sent tea and sympathy. His wife... well, wherever she was, whatever love she had once felt must have died years ago. Ozai had no problems with being alone.

Ozai had long since passed denial and anger and homicidal rage into acceptance. "I want you to put me down," he said, the closest thing to a request he could manage. This was getting to be too much; he wanted to go lie down, suddenly feeling inexplicably weary. "You should leave me alone."

Gai simply hitched him up again, adjusting his grip: Gai's left arm was under his legs, pressing against his thighs, and his right was around his back. It was a humiliating way to be held, and despite his resolve, Ozai felt himself wanting to squirm like a cat from his captor's grip.

"I'll put you down once we are back in the villa, my lord. And I'll make you some more tea. Did I add enough honey this time?"

And they continued to stroll, under the grey but beautiful sky. Somehow Ozai managed to calm himself.

It was hard.