Chapter 1: Seed
The hour was late, Ozai realized, as the sound of jingling keys roused him from uncomfortable sleep. He lay with eyes still closed, listening curiously to the quiet words being exchanged just outside his external cell door. The lock 'clicked' and old iron hinges creaked their displeasure as a lone shadowed figure pushed his way through the entrance and padded into the room, stopping a few feet short of the metal bars that had become the disgraced former Fire Lord's whole world.
"Zuko." He said simply, not bothering to open his eyes. Who else would come this time of night to bother the most despised man in all the four nations?
The visitor breathed a quiet sigh, folding his arms across his chest and crouching to take a seat upon the cold stone floor. With a wave of his hand the lantern on the wall sparked to life, its small flame casting a dim but ample light across the small space of the cell. "Ming says you haven't been eating well."
Ozai sat up at last, sparing a cursory glance toward his son before turning fully to look him in the eyes. The face before him may well have been his own twenty years ago—Well, half of it, anyway. "You didn't come here to discuss my diet." It was not a question. The desperation was plain to see in Zuko's eyes, and in the dark circles beneath them. The slump of the young Fire Lord's shoulders betrayed the truth of many a sleepless night. "Have they tried to kill you yet?"
At that Zuko leveled a dark glare at his father, but did not answer. He didn't need to.
A rare smile pulled at Ozai's lips, though it did not linger for long. "Very well. We can make believe that I don't know exactly what's brought the Fire Lord to my cell to awaken me in the middle of the night." He cleared his throat, sitting up a little straighter and gesturing theatrically, "The food here is simply awful! Why, I do believe my guards have taken turns pissing in the kimchee…Surely, oh great and merciful Fire Lord, you would not let your faithful and repentant subject suffer a slow death by starvation!" Indulging in a sneer, Ozai reached out a hand to grasp one of the metal bars. "Now, can we dispense with the formalities and get on with it?"
"Enough…Alright. I-…I just want to talk. I need some…advice…" The soft tenor of his son's voice was tinged with shame.
And why wouldn't you be ashamed, boy? You betrayed me, crushed everything I built, took everything I had, and now you seek my aid? My comfort? Why? Why didn't you go to Iroh? "Hm. I see." He didn't, really, but was no sense in betraying his curiosity to Zuko. Not when there was information to be gleaned, and perhaps used. With some measure of difficulty Ozai schooled his features into something resembling a sympathetic look. "Zuko…My son…I know well the burdens that you must bear to sit upon the throne. The crown—" He nodded toward the golden hairpiece that was perched in the younger man's haphazardly tied topknot, "—is far heavier than it looks."
"But you were a terrible leader!" Zuko exclaimed at last, his brow furrowed in frustration. "You were a tyrant, a monster…At least Azula had an excuse, she was insane…but you? You ruled our people like none of their lives mattered; like the rest of the world didn't matter…But they followed you anyway. No one ever sent assassins after you."
"They loved me." The former ruler shrugged.
"They feared you." Zuko countered matter-of-factly.
Ozai snorted softly, shaking his head. "What difference does it make? The point is that you need to secure the loyalty of your subjects. Let them love you, or let them fear you, but never, ever let them think they can get rid of you."
The young man pursed his lips, considering.
"The Fire Nation is in chaos," Ozai continued, pressing his advantage as he watched his son falter, "and all your people see is a puppet King who dances this way and that at the whim of the Avatar. Tell me, Zuko, do you think your friend was right do what he has done?" It was all he could do to keep from spitting the words. The boy who had taken his ability to firebend from him forever was a sore subject with him.
A few moments passed before the young Fire Lord answered. "Do I think it right that the war was ended? Absolutely…It's just…Everything after that. I tried to tell him. He wouldn't listen, not even when Katara said it was too much. The reparations…The colonies…" he closed his eyes, shaking his head, "Some of those families had been there for generations. The Earth Kingdom was their home…"
"And?" Ozai asked gently.
"…No." Another moment's hesitation. "I don't. I don't think it was right." Zuko looked up, golden eyes burning. "And neither do my people."
A genuine smile etched its way across the imprisoned man's face, cracking his chapped lips as he gave in and allowed it to spread ear to ear. Sometimes, the smallest victories were the sweetest. "Indeed." Ozai folded his arms across his chest and leaned forward; savoring the spark of power his tiny manipulation had won him. Sow the seed, and reap the harvest…I have you, now. "So what are you going to do about it, Fire Lord?"
A/N: And there you have it, Chapter 1. I realize it's a little short by most standards, but I felt like adding more for the sake of wordcount would have detracted from the mood I was going for.
To my reviewers: Thank you all so very much for the kind words and encouragement! I've been hesitant about my first foray into the crazy world of fanfiction, and it's reassuring to receive such great feedback!