I did not rewatch any episodes to check information for this (and regardless of the technical accuracy of the last line, it has a deeper meaning). And I am sure some people will be dubious about my Ozai characterization. I'll just say that this is from Iroh's POV, so his interpretations color everything, and secondly, I believe Ozai is a complex character just as the rest of his family is.
For now this will be marked as finished. However, I'm considering a second chapter, in which the prisoner and visitor are reversed.
He was in the middle of a set of one-handed pushups when he heard footsteps echoing in the stone hallway outside of his cell. Iroh reacted quickly, stuffing his blanket up under his shirt, pulling his hair loose so that it fell in front of his face, and slumping over to stare aimlessly into space. He allowed saliva to build up in his mouth, fully ready to start drooling if need be, but hesitated – Zuko had been visiting again lately. It was heartbreaking enough to give the boy the silent treatment, in the hopes that he would finally learn for himself to turn away from Ozai's cruel path; despite knowing it would cement his disguise, Iroh could never bring himself to play the witless old fool in front of his beloved nephew.
Sure enough, he heard the guard saying, "Here you are, Your Majesty. I'll be waiting right outside if you need me, sir."
Iroh fixed his gaze on the back corner of the cell and firmed his heart. He heard Zuko stepping into the room, without any acknowledgement of the guard, and listened to the outer door shut loudly.
There was a long, long pause. Iroh stared determinedly at the wall.
Finally, his visitor spoke – and he almost jolted around in pure shock.
"So this is what you have been reduced to." Ozai's voice was calm, betraying no emotion. "The Dragon of the West… nothing more than a senile coward."
Iroh stayed perfectly motionless, gaze vacant, but his every muscle was tensing, and he had swallowed his mouthful of saliva. He had never expected Ozai to come and visit him. They were long estranged, and he had believed himself to be of no interest to the Fire Lord, now that he was safely locked away.
The silence stretched out in the small room along with the shadows, fading at the edges and settling down heavy on Iroh's shoulders. When Ozai sat on the floor, the rustle of cloth was loud and clearly identifiable in the quiet. It was equally surprising – Iroh had never known Ozai to willingly lower himself in another's presence, and the fact that he was symbolically placing himself in an equal position as his own prisoner was beyond unexpected.
He must be up to something.
After a few moments, the rustling ceased, and Ozai spoke again. His words were suspicious, indeed.
"When I was young, I wanted to be you. You were hardly ever home, yet our family revolved around you. Our mother doted upon you; she never spoke without worrying aloud for her darling son, off fighting in the war. Fire Lord Azulon was always distant. But… it was clear in what direction his hopes lay. And that was right. You were the eldest son: heir to the throne. You were already an accomplished firebender and commander. You were even sensitive to spirits. You were kind, honorable, and your people loved you."
Iroh listened quietly, wondering when Ozai would get to his point. He had never been the most patient of men.
"I wanted to be you," Ozai repeated quietly. "But you never noticed me. No one did, particularly. I was talented, intelligent, clever – but so were you, and I… I have never had your way with people."
This almost made Iroh look around. Ozai never admitted any personal failings, and now his voice was so low, so resigned… But he had raised Azula, after all.
Iroh let his eyelids droop a little further, his mouth slacken a bit more at the edges.
Ozai sighed, a dull, empty sound. "Of course, I resented you. It was only natural. But I knew my place, and I did not intend to do any less than my duty. While you fought the Earth Kingdom, I studied the laws of our kingdom and honed my own firebending. You slew the last dragon; I did my time searching for the Avatar. You married and produced a fine son. I thought to do the same. I thought to serve our nation – to serve our father, and then inevitably you."
Drool slowly leaked down Iroh's chin. He stared at the point when the bars of the roof and the wall met, and tried to ignore the tight feeling in his chest. When Lu Ten had fallen in battle, Ursa had sent dozens of white chrysanthemum to him in camp; it had been the last he'd ever heard from her. Ozai had shown no sorrow at all, and had only capitalized on the opportunity to seize the throne.
Yet he had just called Lu Ten a fine son. A cheap trick to be sure, but like all the dirty tactics he favored, it worked.
"But you let me down," Ozai murmured. Iroh tried to imagine the smirk on his face, but it didn't help. His voice was so convincing, so contemplative, as though merely thinking aloud. "You let me down, again and again ever since I was a child. You were never there. You were never interested in my successes – and in the beginning you had no reason to be, I knew that. However, you did not seem to understand what I could bring to you, what you lacked. You did not understand the political climate, or how to make a show of power. Over time, I recognized your amiability for what it was: weakness."
Ah, finally. Finally, Iroh thought, and he ignored the wetness gathering in his eyes as merely the product of not blinking enough.
But Ozai did not sound triumphant, when he continued. His voice remained quiet, his tone as subdued as his volume, and the shadows spread across the room as the sun set beyond the window.
"You would never have brought glory to the Fire Nation. You could have, if you wished; you had all the skill, but none of the inclination. You did not care to remarry after your wife died so young. You did not care to learn about the needs and worries of your own nation. You did not care to realize the necessity of harsh action. You did not care to listen to the advice of one such as I. You preferred to hunt after fame, to win the affection and love of all by never making the difficult decisions, to indulge your own selfish desires over the good of your people."
Iroh's heartbeat rang loud in his ears.
"And in doing so, you let us down. Perhaps I was the only one to see it; certainly Azulon always sided with you until his death." A trace of bitterness there, subtle but all the more effective for it, and Ozai went on: "But just as I foresaw, you collapsed. You retired in disgrace, abandoned your campaign, all but vanished for long months following your son's death. Your weakness took control, and all your former glory fled. These past eight years you have been doing little more than hanging on."
Iroh absolutely did not move. He did not move, but his heart wrenched horribly and he wondered how long had Ozai been so cruel? How did he manage to see right into the core of the matter, why had he never spoken of this before, why did he know these things that Iroh had never wanted to admit to anyone?
If he wished to cause pain, his job was well accomplished. Iroh felt sick, and wanted nothing more than to be alone.
But Ozai still spoke, word after word as bricks in a wall steadily blocking out the sun.
"You corrupted my son with your weakness. You and his mother both adored him to a fault. I wished to avoid Azulon's mistakes. I have given both my children the attention they have earned. I have been harsh, when necessary…"
A sudden spike of rage lit within Iroh, a spark erupting instantly to a bonfire within his chest. He realized suddenly the last time he had seen the Fire Lord – when Ozai burned Zuko. Afterwards, Iroh had stayed with his nephew throughout the exile, and when he finally returned it was in chains.
He wanted to turn and look Ozai straight in the eyes, and to give him a matching scar. He wanted to forget all his plans, to take his revenge, to stand up and demonstrate that he was anything but weak –
But three years ago, he had seen what Ozai intended. He had known what would happen when the fire exploded from the Fire Lord's fist… and he had turned away. He had turned away and listened to Zuko's screams, and even still he turned away when Zuko came begging and shouting for guidance or forgiveness or even a single word, Uncle, please!
Iroh remained still.
"You took my heir away from me," Ozai said abruptly, and Iroh wanted to laugh at the pain of that. "I know it. I knew it three years ago. But you have never seen the need to be concerned for Azula. Just as you were never concerned for me."
He lapsed into silence once more. Iroh realized this was the longest conversation they had ever had, and wondered suddenly if Ozai might have a point. But of course he didn't really mean these things he was saying. That bare edge of vulnerability was no more than steel painted gold. He was only here to cause pain, to test Iroh's façade of senility. He meant nothing he said.
"I was told you had lost your mind," he said, almost a whisper. "It seems you have indeed."
A sudden crackling sound; warmth that called out to Iroh's very soul, so long deprived of its element in this pitiful cell. Ozai had lit a fistful of fire; he knew that without looking. He wanted to look, though, and not just at the flame. Something about this moment, something about the warmth in Ozai's hand and the wounded dark of his voice, the shadows flickering on the walls – Iroh wanted to turn and just look.
He wanted to see Ozai smirking, gratified that his trick had paid off. He wanted to see Ozai standing tall and regal and cruel as ever, a man with an empty space where his heart ought to be. He wanted to see Fire Lord Ozai: mocking, hateful, his every action leading to death and unbalance and pain.
He did not want to see any sadness in Ozai's eyes. He did not want to see that there had been truth in the words he'd spoken today. He did not want to see the fire in Ozai's hand, warm and alive. He did not want to see dust on Ozai's robes from sitting on the floor to spend almost an hour talking at a completely unresponsive prisoner. He did not want to see a boy who he had failed years before.
And though there should have been no question about it, Iroh was not really certain what he would see if he looked at Ozai right now. He told himself it was far better not to look, that looking now would only give him away, that he needed to wait for the day of the black sun. He told himself this was prudence, not cowardice.
He was not sure he believed that.
"I came here to say one thing only," Ozai said, and though the fire in his palm remained small, its heat skyrocketed. Iroh felt it calling to his blood, like a miniature sun, and marveled inwardly at such nonchalant power. Even he did not possess such skill.
"I could very easily kill you where you sit," Ozai said. Iroh knew it to be true. The guard would not say a thing, or would possibly be executed for murdering his own prisoner. Ozai would not be questioned, and though Zuko might suspect – he could do nothing.
No fear thrilled through Iroh's veins. He wanted to believe that was because he was brave.
"I could kill you, brother, but I am not going to," Ozai said. The fire in his palm snuffed out. And without another word, he turned and left the room.
Iroh remained still, listening to the footsteps echoing away down the hall. The guard outside saluted loudly, but was ignored; and Iroh continued to sit still and act the idiot when he came in and vented that frustration.
Many minutes later, after the cell was long dark and all the world quiet, Iroh stood. He wiped away his drool, and brushed back his hair. He wiped at his damp eyes. And then he turned, and finally looked through the bars at the empty room.
The moonlight was dim, but he could see that nothing was there. Whatever had once been, was long gone.
Iroh closed his eyes and tried to remember if he had ever called Ozai 'brother'.