The eight year old boy knelt on the floor, his head bowed, his lips pressed firmly together to hide their quivering. His father was holding his parrot-cat by the neck, the furry winged thing letting out helpless mewls as it batted its wings and raked its claws through flesh in an effort to escape.
"You spoke out of turn," his father said, his voice hard, his face set into cruel lines.
"I'm sorry," the boy murmured, trying his best to keep the whimper out of his voice. His father wouldn't stand tears and punished such signs of weakness. The boy kept his eyes averted from his pet, hardened his heart to its pitiful cries.
"You need to learn respect, and suffering will be your teacher. Look at me." When his son had met his gaze, Azulon set the parrot-cat aflame. Ozai made a noise of horror in the back of his throat when the poor animal began to screech in agony, recoiled when his father dropped the burning creature that had spent so many nights sleeping in the crook of his arm to the floor, and choked back a sob when the flames were suddenly extinguished and the charred, bleeding thing made its painful way over to where he knelt.
Ozai stared down at his pet, took in the wings that had been burned down to the bone, the flesh that was bubbled and blistered. And he stared into large, brown, trusting eyes that still regarded him with love even while the poor creature was wracked with pain. Tears streaming down his cheeks, Ozai bent forward and wrapped his hands around the creature's throat, closing his eyes against the trust in the pitiful creature's gaze. He hesitated for a fraction of a second, and the he broke the animal's neck.
Never again. Never again would he love something that his father could hurt, that his father could take away from him. He set the poor creature down on the ground, and met his father's gaze with a newfound hardness in his eyes. At the tender age of eight, he had found a well of true, deep hatred that burned in his belly and lingered on his tongue.
His father smiled when their eyes met, a cold, calculating, feral smile, and Ozai wondered if the lesson had even been about respect at all.
He was thirteen, and his brother was perfect. Crown Prince Iroh had just become General Iroh, and at twenty-one the older man was already showing great promise as a brilliant war tactician. Their cruel, sadistic father managed to find a smile for the ruggedly handsome young man, and gazed at his older son with admiration and pride.
Ozai hated him. He hated how the women of the court fawned over Iroh, hated how the people chanted his name and cheered louder for Iroh than they ever did for him. He hated how Iroh had known their mother, hated that he could speak of the deceased Fire Lady while Ozai had been the one who had killed her in childbirth.
Most of all, he hated how Iroh thought that he could control him. He was continually ordering Ozai around, making him the butt of his jokes, causing their father look at the younger of his two sons with something akin to embarrassment. And then Iroh would ruffle his hair and act like the teasing was good natured and in fun, but Ozai knew better. He knew the workings of his family, knew the cruelty that lurked within them all. Iroh could fool the world with the twinkle in his eye and his crooked smile, but he would never fool Ozai.
Azulon may have taught him how to hate, but it was Iroh who taught him about the bitter taste of resentment.
She was sixteen, and she was beautiful. She had flawless skin the color of clotted cream and cheeks that held the bloom of a rose. Her white hands were soft, delicate, and well formed, adept at playing both the lute and the sungi horn. Her lips were perfection- bow shaped and naturally red; he wondered if they tasted as sweet in reality as they did in his dreams. And her eyes… lovely, soft, made of liquid warmth, and the color of molten gold. A man could drown in eyes such as those.
She was the granddaughter of his grandfather's mortal enemy, the Avatar Roku, but he didn't care. She was everything a woman should be, so it didn't matter to him that the blood of a sniveling fool like Roku ran through her veins. She was lovely and she was kind, and somehow looking at her calmed the fire that raged in his soul. She was a balm to the wounds his father and brother had inflicted on him throughout the years, and so he loved her.
Azulon agreed to their marriage.
Ursa had been paler than he had ever remembered seeing her on their wedding day. He hadn't been able to see her face beneath the thick layers of red gauze that she wore, but he noticed her hands trembling during the ceremony. When he took one of those shaking hands in his, he had felt that they were clammy and cold.
Ensconced in the privacy of his bedchambers on their wedding night, Ozai had seen her tears. She was young and she was frightened, but since he had never received comfort he did not know how to give it. So he had ignored her tears and took her as roughly as he took his father's whores, and he knew he would never forget the look on her face. Part agony, part terror, part sorrow, and part hatred.
That night had taught him that there are some things that can never be undone. And for the first time in his life, Ozai had learned what it felt like to truly regret.
She was sitting beside the turtle duck pond, red silk pooling around her, her soft, lovely hands breaking a loaf of bread into pieces. She didn't jump when she saw him like she used to, and for once, fear didn't fill those mesmerizing eyes. Silence stretched between them for several moments, and then she patted the ground beside her in a wordless invitation.
Ozai swallowed and made his way forward, and took a seat close to his wife but not too close. He didn't know how to act around her, didn't know how to treat her. A part of him wanted to apologize for this lack of knowledge but his pride made the words stick in the back of his throat.
"Would you like to feed them?" his wife murmured softly, and Ozai could only stare at her, suddenly rendered mute. As though understanding, she gave him a soft, shy smile and broke off a small piece of bread before placing it in his hands. "Throw it to them gently," she instructed, and Ozai nodded before doing as she bid. Despite himself, something like happiness bubbled up inside of him when he watched the small creatures rush to peck at the offering that he had given, and he didn't realize he was smiling until he felt Ursa's hand on his lifted cheek.
"You should smile more often," she said, her voice as soft as a whisper. For a moment, their eyes met, and Ozai took in a deep breath to steady himself. All at once the spell was broken when Ursa let out a soft gasp and pressed her hands to her rounded belly. "He's kicking," she said softly, her lips curving into the first real smile that Ozai had seen in months.
He said nothing, merely stared at her in mute wonder as she cradled the unborn child that had been conceived in the midst of her fear and broken sobs. "Here. Feel your son," she whispered, taking Ozai's hand and guiding it to the swell of her belly. He felt the movements of his unborn child, and Ozai gasped, having never realized that he was capable of such wonder.
Feeling Ursa's gaze on him he glanced up and saw the warmth in her eyes, the tenderness in her smile. And just like that, he had learned something of forgiveness.
She was seventeen and she was dying. She had been in labor for two days, attempting to birth a child that refused to come. At first, he had hoped that it was the typical trouble of a woman's first birth, but when the midwife had come from the room weary and gray faced and had told him that he could visit his wife, he knew it was near the end. Men were not allowed in birthing rooms otherwise.
He barely recognized her when he saw her writhing on the bed, the sheets damp with blood and sweat, her face pale, her body soaked and cold to the touch. She had screamed for hours, he knew, but now she was too exhausted to scream, and she was only able to let out pathetic whimpers so reminiscent of his parrot-cat that Ozai wanted to plug his ears against the sound and flee.
"Can't anything be done?" he asked the midwife, who shook her head.
"I do not have the skill. But if you were to summon a physician… he will be able to save your wife at the expense of your child," she said softly, and Ozai looked back to the woman on the bed before nodding his head.
"Do it," he replied, and heard a long, mournful moan come from Ursa.
"No. No, Ozai. Please," she whimpered, and Ozai crossed over to the bed to stare into his wife's weary face and eyes that were half-crazed with fear and exhaustion. Her face contorted in pain and Ozai could see all the muscles in her body tense as she attempted to push out the fetus that refused to be expelled. She relaxed suddenly, and it looked as though she had lost the strength to even keep her eyes open. "Please," she whispered, and Ozai swallowed hard.
Gently, he stroked her face, pressed a gentle kiss to her temple, and he lied. "I won't. I won't do it," he murmured into her hair, and he could feel the relief roll off of her in waves.
The midwife drugged her before the surgeon came into the room, and Ozai watched in morbid fascination as his child was removed from his wife's womb in pieces. There was no cry when the child finally came forth; the remains that managed to come out in one whole piece could hardly be called a child anyways.
When Ursa awoke the next day, she was told that the babe had come, but was stillborn. When she asked to see her child, the midwife looked away and told her that Ozai had ordered it to be cremated already. Ursa had looked at him then with a knowing glint in her eyes, but Ozai forced himself to keep eye contact and tell her that there would be other children.
"Do you swear, Ozai?" she had asked him softly, her voice trembling with emotion. "Do you swear that he was just stillborn?" her eyes were pleading then, and Ozai swallowed hard against the memories of the flesh that he had seen torn from her womb.
"He was blue," he found himself saying, "but he was perfect."
Ursa's face crumpled and she dissolved into tears, and Ozai had never been more grateful for the lessons he had been given in lying than at that moment.
He was twenty two, and he could feel everything beginning to unravel. He had made his mistakes with Ursa, but he had loved her. And while he had known that she did not love him in return, he had thought that she had at least begun to care for him. She had taught him about forgiveness, gentleness, and tenderness; had managed to keep him sane and help the raw wounds that had been inflicted on his heart scab over.
And then he had found her, naked, tangled up in his brother's limbs. They hadn't noticed him at first. His brother had continued grunting and thrusting, squeezing his wife's breast with one hand and reaching between their joined bodies to touch her intimately with the other. And Ursa… her face had been flushed with pleasure, and she had been gasping, saying Iroh's name over and over in a reverent mantra, cupping his cheeks and looking at him with so much love- love she had never deigned to shower on Ozai.
And then, Agni, and then… her eyes had slid over to where Ozai was standing, and her face had contorted with horror.
Ozai had thought that he had known pain before; had thought that he understood what suffering was. He had been wrong. This was what true agony was made of- staring into the face of the woman you loved while she was making love to someone else. All at once the wounds that had begun to scab over were ripped open again, and anger, resentment, and betrayal once again took control of his being.
He didn't remember running forward, didn't remember pulling Iroh off of his wife's body, was only dimly aware of wrapping his hands around her throat and doing his best to choke the life out of her. His brother was trying to get him off of Ursa, was screaming in his ear, but Ozai didn't hear him. It was within his rights to kill the whore he had been fool enough to marry. Had been stupid enough to love.
But her words, gasped out through a constricted throat and spoken by lips turning blue, were enough to make him release her and stumble back, dazed. "I'm pregnant."
In the months that followed, she promised him that the child was his, promised him that she had taken proper precautions with Iroh. But he knew how easy it was to found such promises on lies. She apologized, but this time there would be no forgiveness. He hated her, just as he hated Iroh and Azulon. Iroh attempted to apologize, but Ozai had slugged him and had stormed off before his self righteous older brother could begin to try to explain himself.
When his wife went into labor, he almost hoped that she would die. This time, there would be no calling the physician. This time, he would stand at her side and watch her suffer in satisfaction until her breath stopped and her eyes dulled. Unfortunately, the child was born. Born healthy and squalling and wrinkled as a raisin. And Ursa was in love with the little brat already, he could tell, when he saw how her face glowed when she stared at the infant.
"What would you like to call him?" she asked him softly when he came into the room and looked at the infant that his heart insisted was his brother's bastard. The act of his wife's betrayal made into flesh and blood. She reached out to touch his arm and he brushed her off.
"I don't care," he replied coldly, and he stalked out of the room.
He found out later that she took it upon herself to name the infant Zuko. Zuko, the child that should have died in his mother's womb when he learned of Ursa's betrayal. Zuko, the child who was lucky to be born.
She was four years old, and she was a prodigy. Azula, the daughter of Fire, the child that he knew was his. Azula, the little girl who could manipulate fire at an age where taming the flames should have been impossible. Azula, the girl who had been born lucky. Azula, the product of her mother's shame.
He had not touched Ursa for over a year after he had learned of her betrayal. The thought of her arms around him repulsed him, the thought of entering the place that his brother had desecrated horrified him. Until he came to the realization that she was grateful that he was staying away from her, that she wanted to be alone with her bastard son that she dared to pass off as his. She needed to be punished, and suffering would be her teacher.
He stormed into her rooms one night as she was playing with her son, and he could see the fear in her eyes as she gazed up at him in surprise. He relished her scream as he backhanded her, laughed at her cries as she pleaded with him to let her put the child in the nursery first. The first time he had lain with her, he had been rough because he did not know how to be otherwise. This time he was rough because he wanted to see her tears, wanted to cause her pain, wanted her to feel the anger, shame, and degradation that had been his constant companions since he had caught her making love to another man. She screamed and cried and the child on the bed beside them wailed and reached out to his mother, watching a scene he couldn't understand with wide gold eyes.
Several months later, she told him that she was pregnant. He had been thrilled; she had been despondent. She was not as attached to her third pregnancy as she had been to the two before it; she rarely cooed over her growing belly or thought aloud about what the child would be like. And when the infant came forth, she had barely been able to look at the baby girl.
"Any preferences on the name?" Ozai had asked her courteously as he held his little princess, and Ursa's gaze slid away from her husband and her child.
"I don't care," she had murmured softly, tears choking her voice, an echo of his sentiments from her previous birth.
"Azula. After her grandfather," Ozai said, lightly touching the cheek of his daughter. Ursa had turned her face away then, and Ozai had smiled, knowing that the name horrified her. She hated Azulon, blamed the man for Ozai's cruelty. The woman couldn't grasp that she was more to blame for his sadism than Azulon ever could have been.
Azula grew up beautiful, like her mother, but Ozai kept her away from Ursa. When Ursa began to show an interest in her daughter, began to cuddle and play with her, Ozai attempted to drive a wedge between the two. Ursa had Zuko to do with what she would. Azula was his.
Ursa began to fight with him then, began to insist that Azula belonged to her just as much as she belonged to Ozai. He knew better. A child conceived of rape was never truly the mother's. It would always belong to the memory of the attack. Ursa had merely been the vessel; Ozai was the one true parent. Regardless, Ursa continued to fight. She fought until the now four year old princess proved to be a fire bending prodigy. It was at that moment that she realized that she had lost, and Ozai resumed full control over the child.
Azula was perfect. Perfect enough to be Fire Lady one day. Ozai would win the kingdom for her, he decided as he watched her shape the flames into a dancing dragon. The crowds would cheer for him louder than they ever cheered for his father or brother, and when he died his daughter would rule the world.
He was thirty three, and he had underestimated her. She stood before him, a bloody knife in her hands, fire in her eyes of molten gold. Dried speckles of blood dotted her face, and she had never looked more fierce, had never seemed more beautiful. Covered in his father's blood, she was the very image of perfection. And for half a heartbeat, he wondered if he had ever truly known the woman that he had married. Perhaps this fierce creature had been there all along and he had merely loved a figment of his imagination, borne of dreams of a better life.
Opportunity had come knocking when his nephew had died and his brother had retreated from the world in grief. His inability to continue with the war highlighted Iroh's weakness, proved that the crown prince was not worthy to bear the title of Fire Lord. And so Ozai had gone to Azulon, had requested the throne for himself. A deal had been struck, a deal in which Ozai's firstborn would be killed so that his favorite child would one day be able to assume the throne. He found it to be a fair trade; he had never believed that Zuko was his anyways.
But now here his quiet, meek wife stood, drenched in his father's blood, her face set into hard lines of anger. "Azulon is dead. Now Zuko will live," she said, her voice hard as steel as she tossed the knife at his feet. "I should have killed you too for planning your son's murder," she ground out, her pale, lovely hands clenched into fists.
Ozai could merely stand silent, struck dumb by fierce figure that was his wife. "How did you know?" he asked softly after a time, and Ursa's chin lifted into the air a fraction. Had he really never noticed that stubborn tilt of her jaw before? Had he truly never understood that beneath her loving heart ran a strength forged of steel?
"Azula overheard everything and repeated it to me," Ursa replied, and Ozai merely swallowed, lost in observing the woman that he had been married to for fourteen years, but who he had never truly known.
For the first time since the incident with Iroh eleven years ago, Ozai felt respect for this woman bubble up inside of him, felt the seeds of love begin to take root once more. He could forgive her for her indiscretion now, he realized. Suddenly he understood that he had been holding onto his anger for far too long. He wanted her to forgive him for what he had put her through for the past decade, wanted to somehow start over again.
"I'm leaving, Ozai," she said, her voice hard, her face stony, shattering the tender dreams that where just beginning to grow in his fertile imagination. Stunned silent, Ozai could merely stare at her, panic beginning to wrap its vice grip around his heart. "I will be discovered, and I refuse to spend the rest of my life in prison. I must leave. I came to you to say goodbye," she added, and Ozai shook his head.
"You cannot leave me," he said hoarsely, and cursed himself for sounding so desperate, so vulnerable.
"I must," she replied, her demeanor frosty. Suddenly, her face thawed a little and she took a step closer to him. "We have made our mistakes, Ozai, but our children should not have to suffer because of them. Zuko is yours. I swear it on Agni, on my grandfather Roku's grave. Please, Ozai. Please keep him alive," she whispered, her voice thick with emotion.
Ozai said nothing for several long moments, lost in thought. He had resented the sniveling fool of a boy since he had been born, and he would never be able to love the child whose existence had spared his mother's life. But he could try to make amends with Ursa now, not by promising to care for the child but merely by letting the boy live. "I swear on my throne," he said hoarsely, and Ursa managed a smile of gratitude.
She kissed his cheek and then turned away, and walked out of his life forever. And Ozai stood in the garden, staring at the pond where she had offered him forgiveness so long ago, and grieved for the happiness that he now realized he had so foolishly tossed aside.
The boy was thirteen and he was insufferable. Iroh, foolish, thickskulled, weak-willed Iroh, had allowed Zuko to talk him into letting the boy sit in on a War Council, and now the incompetent fool couldn't even keep the little idiot quiet. Sending in the raw recruits as a diversion had been an excellent plan, but the boy had been too weak to see it, had protested over the moral lacking of such a situation. The child couldn't see the bigger picture, couldn't understand the definition of respect.
Ozai had been too lenient with him, had allowed him to get away with entirely too much. Azulon would have beat him black and blue if he had behaved half as foolishly as Zuko did daily. Agni, even he would whip Azula until she cried if she was as weak and pathetic as her brother. Because he cared for Ursa, he had been soft with the boy, had allowed the child's mistakes to go unpunished. Not this time. If it was the last thing he did, the child would learn his lesson. So he had challenged the boy to an Agni Kai.
He would never forget the look on the boy's face when he realized that it was Ozai he was fighting, not the general who had put forth the strategy. The boy had sunk to his knees and begged for forgiveness, refused to fight on the principle that he loved his father. Ozai knew better. The boy didn't love him. The boy was weak and was just attempting to cover up said weakness with pretty lies.
As the boy knelt there, he stared up at Ozai with wide, pleading eyes. Eyes made of liquid warmth and molten gold- Ursa's eyes. He couldn't stand to see Ursa in this weakling's face, couldn't bear to look one more time into a pair of eyes so similar to the ones of the woman that he had hated and loved with equal passion.
So he lifted his fist and repeated the words that his father had told him when he was a boy of merely eight years old: "You need to learn respect, and suffering will be your teacher." With that he set his fist aflame and put out one of the eyes whose presence refused to allow him to forget his wife.
The boy's screams echoed through the courtyard, as he fell to the ground, clutching the ruined half of his face, staring up at his father with a combination of horror, confusion, desperation, and love in his remaining eye. Suddenly Ozai remembered his charred, blistered parrot cat that had been burned on his account, that had gazed up at him with love and trust in those large brown eyes as its body had been bleeding and smoking from his Azulon's fire.
Ozai learned that he was his father, after all.
Zuko was seventeen, and he was a fool. When the boy had returned home after killing the avatar, Ozai found himself impressed. The young man had betrayed his Uncle, and in so doing had gained Ozai's respect; the enemy of his brother was his friend. It also helped that the boy had become a powerful bender over the course of his travels, and no longer shamed Ozai with his unsuccessful, pitiful attempts at manipulating fire.
He was quiet, he was obedient, he was everything a crown prince should be. For the very first time, Ozai began to believe that perhaps Ursa hadn't been lying; perhaps this young man was his son after all. He began to feel that he had done right by Zuko in sending him off to chase the avatar at the tender age of thirteen. The boy had learned temperance and determination as a result. And so he welcomed Zuko back into the family, gave him everything a prince was entitled to have.
And now here Zuko stood, ready to give up his crown to follow a rag-tag team of children in the name of world peace. It struck Ozai down to his core that this child that he had accepted into his family and had begun to allow into his heart was so mercilessly casting him aside. Deserted by mother, father, brother, and wife, he was now being deserted by his son as well. It hurt him more than he would ever admit. And so Ozai responded to pain the way he always did: he repressed it, locked it away in a corner of his mind. And he turned to the anger that fueled him once again.
"Banishment was too merciful for you," he muttered, feeling the eclipse begin to pass and the fire return to his veins. He had promised Ursa that he would allow the boy to live, and had fully intended to keep that promise up until this moment. But treason such as this… it could not go unpunished. Zuko would have to die. "Now your punishment will be far steeper," he added, and in that moment he drew a bolt of lightning through his fingers and aimed it at the child who had caused him so much turmoil.
The brat was more capable than Ozai had given him credit for, however, and harnessed control of the energy before shooting it back towards him. As Ozai flew backwards through the air, he couldn't help but to see Zuko's eyes through the smoke- golden eyes, eyes so like Ursa's- and he clung to the memory of white hands and perfect lips and golden pools of warmth as his world faded into blackness.
He was forty, and his life was over. He sat in a dank cell, his hair hanging in greasy tendrils, his skin gray from lack of sun. He, the Phoenix King, a god among men, was reduced to this pitiful existence. He could not bend, could not converse with anyone or anything save for the rats that ran across his floor.
In the corner lay the remains of what had once been an expensive tea set, a gift sent down by his older brother to taunt him. Crumpled in a heap beneath his bed lay the silk coverlet his son had sent for his cot. He didn't want their gifts, did not want their pity. He had enough hurt in his breast to nurture for a lifetime; he would pity himself. They did not have to do so for him.
He had heard that his daughter, his bright, lovely, lucky Azula, had gone mad. That she had chopped off her hair and talked to thin air and saw apparitions of her mother in the shadows. Her sickness was what hurt Ozai most of all. She had been the one person in his life who had understood him, his greatest hope for the future, and now she too had left him, lost in the depths of her own troubled mind.
He had been tormented by his father, overshadowed by his brother, betrayed by the woman he loved, forsaken by his son, bested by a twelve year old, and forgotten by his people. For a long time, Ozai allowed himself to wallow in self-pity, allowed himself to dwell on past injustices. But as the months passed by and he was left alone with his thoughts, the self pity slowly began to transform into self loathing.
For the first time he saw his life as it had really been lived- he had been manipulated by his father, and had become so jealous of his brother that he had begun to hate him without just cause. He himself had turned the woman that he loved against him, had aborted their child, had raped her, and had put his stupid, selfish pride before his love for her. He had forsaken his son long before the boy had ever been born, so it wasn't that surprising that when the boy became a man he would abandon him in turn. And his daughter, his intelligent, lovely little prodigy, had been driven to the brink of madness by none other than Ozai himself.
Abandoned and alone in a rank prison cell guarded by men who once revered him, Ozai learned that his life was a hell of his own making.