Chapter 2: Candy

It had been a few hours since dawn—give or take—from what Ozai could garner based upon the angle the sunlight hit the stone wall from the single high window in his cell. Since his firebending had been taken from him, he no longer felt the innate urge to rise with the sun, and his chi no longer allowed his body to warm itself whenever it was overhead. He missed that feeling of warmth. If he permitted himself to dwell upon it, he began to feel nauseous in the pit of his stomach. It was a new sensation…one of many he had experienced for the first time since his defeat during Sozin's comet and subsequent imprisonment. Coldness. Boredom. Discomfort. Weakness. Hunger…

Yes, hunger. That was the culprit of the moment, he realized, as he felt his stomach churn once more. The food here, he had been told, was the same that soldiers had been rationed when serving overseas during the war. It was meager and unremarkable, but hearty, and kept the troops well nourished. At least, that's what his Generals had always told him. How he wished he could melt their eyeballs from their skulls for that lie…

He was roused from his moment of reflection by the sound of the door creaking open, and the guard Ming's familiar footsteps as she padded over to the cell.

"Breakfast." She explained unnecessarily as she set the tray down on the floor within arm's reach through the metal bars, nudging it just a little closer to Ozai with the toe of her boot. "Don't worry, nobody's pissed in it." That last part was a bit more acidic that Ming's temperament usually exhibited, and he found himself wondering if Zuko had misconstrued his sarcastic comments the night before and taken up the issue with the guards.

For the briefest moment Ozai wondered if perhaps he should apologize, but quickly dismissed the notion. He gave no word of thanks, only a nod as he reached for the small bowl of rice and fish. Picking up the chopsticks, he prodded the food around disinterestedly and took two small bites before glancing up as he realized Ming was still standing there. Hands upon her hips in a most matronly way, she 'tsked' softly and shook her head.

"Fire Lord Zuko says I'm to make sure you finish your meals from now on." She explained, nodding her head pointedly at the barely touched bowl in his hands.

"Tell 'Fire Lord Zuko' I would be more apt to finish them if they didn't taste like they had already been in the digestive tract of a kimodo-rhino." was his dry response. As if in protest, he set the bowl down and pushed it away.

That brought the slightest smirk to Ming's thin lips. "I never realized you were such a spoiled brat."

Ozai glared at the woman incredulously. If he were still Fire Lord—"What did you call me?"

"I said you're acting like a spoiled brat." She repeated, raising her chin and crossing her arms over her chest. "People are out there starving in the streets, and here you are turning your nose up at perfectly decent food. Some would kill for that bowl of rice, you know…"

He rolled his eyes, though her lecture did bring the faintest blush to his cheeks. "Well then, give it to them."

Ming sighed, shaking her head as she crouched down so that she could look him in the face at eye level. "Look. I know you're angry. And I know this isn't what you're used to being served…" she drawled on as if speaking to a child. "…but you don't live in the palace anymore, and chances are you're going to be here for a long, long time, so it would be in your best interests to start adapting to change."

Ozai opened his mouth to speak, but was cut off as a raging ball of fire sprung to life in Ming's palm. Involuntarily, the former Fire Lord flinched.

"Now. Are you going to eat that food, or am I going to have to shove it down your throat?"

Ozai picked up his bowl and chopsticks.

A week had passed since Zuko's visit, and despite feeling slightly less sick to his stomach than he had before Ming's mealtime regimen had been instituted, Ozai found his thoughts meandering toward the conversation they had shared that night. He had been so sure of himself, so convinced that Zuko was falling into his grasp. But perhaps he had underestimated his son. It wouldn't be the first time, after all.

Still, it bothered him that there was so much he didn't understand. Living in solitary confinement wasn't exactly conducive to staying up to date on current events, and with so much political upheaval after his defeat it was hard to deduce just how things would play out; how they had played out. How could he be expected to effectively manipulate Zuko when he hadn't the slightest idea what was going on outside the thick stone walls of his prison?

Moreover, there were two other factors whose statuses remained a mystery to him. Iroh, for one. His traitorous brother had long held Zuko's leash, and Ozai found himself boggling not for the first time over the fact that his son had bothered to come to him at all on that night. Why hadn't he run to his beloved uncle, as he always had before? And then, there was her

"Where is my daughter?" Ozai asked as Ming set his dinner tray on the floor.

"You know I'm not allowed to divulge that kind of information to a prisoner." She replied, though he could have sworn there was some measure of sympathy audible in her voice.

"Is she alive?" It was a simple question. And why were his eyes burning?

"I can't…" Ming sighed softly, glancing back over her shoulder. "I can't tell you where she is."

So she is somewhere. Which means she isn't dead. Ozai felt a sense of relief sweep over him, and wondered why his body would react that way.

"Are you okay?" the guardswoman asked, her tone most definitely one of concern.

Ozai only nodded, though his mind was already elsewhere.

Wrapped in a threadbare towel, the former Fire Lord walked barefoot through the quiet stone corridor to his cell. Four male guards flanked him, watching him carefully for any sign that he might try to make a break for it. He knew he wouldn't get far, and so did they. Yet once a week they did this anyway—escorting him from his cell to the communal bathing chamber and allowing him a few brief minutes to scrub away what sweat and grime he could in the tepid water. Firebenders took hot baths for granted, he always mused as he shivered in the wash tub; though his pride would never permit him to ask one of the guards to heat the water for him. His soiled clothing from the past week was whisked away to the laundry facilities and he would be given little more than a towel to cover himself before being marched back to the small stone room with the bars.

One guard took him by the arm and shoved him back inside the cell while another closed the gate and locked it behind him. The guardsmen filed out of the room and once more the prisoner was left to himself. There was a pile of freshly laundered prison scrubs on his cot, and Ozai wasted no time changing into them.

"All decent?" Ming called as she rapped her fist on the outer door. When he didn't answer she turned the lock and let herself in anyway. "Did you have a nice bath?"

Ozai stood in the corner of his cell wringing his long hair out with the old towel. "No." he rasped out, as usual, still shivering.

"Well, that's too bad." She lamented dryly, by this time accustomed to the prisoner's grouchiness. "I have something that might cheer you up, though." With a smile the woman produced a small parchment bag from her pocket and slipped it through the bars.

"What is this?" Ozai asked warily, reaching for the package and testing its weight against the palm of his hand.

Ming smiled. "It's a gift from Fire Lord Zuko. I told him in my last weekly report about how much progress you've made with your mealtimes and behavior, and he sent that for you. Apparently it's supposed to help with your stomach troubles. He said I'm supposed to tell you that it's something he learned while at sea for three years…"

Scowling in spite of himself, the prisoner unfolded the top edge of the bag and dumped some of its fragrant contents out into his open palm. "Candy?"

"Ginger candy." She clarified, as if that were supposed to help everything make sense.

Ozai put one of the candies in his mouth and winced at the bracing taste. "Is that it?" he asked, rather shortly.

"No, actually," said Ming, "I'm also supposed to let you know that you may expect a visit from the Fire Lord this evening. After dinner. He said the two of you will share tea."

"Did he, now…" The candy was sweet on his tongue, but not so delicious as the tiny inkling of triumph that warmed the back of his mind.

Ming turned and started for the door, presumably to go about her other duties in the meantime.

"Wait, Ming."

The guardswoman stopped, slowly turning back to face the man behind the bars. "Yes, did you need something?"

Ozai paused a moment, mulling his words over in his head before he spoke them. "What do you know about the people in the colonies?"

Ming raised an eyebrow, somewhat surprised by the question. "A bit, I guess. My uncle moved over there and settled down a long time ago. Before I was born, even. My cousins were born there…They ran a small grain mill. One even married a woman from the Earth Kingdom." She shrugged, her face taking on a more sullen appearance. "When they were all deported after the Avatar's decree, he had to leave her behind. My uncle died aboard the ship on the crossing, but my cousins all live in the tent city that's been set up for former colonists on the East side of the harbor. Things are tough there…rations are even tighter than in the city proper."

For a long while Ozai didn't say anything.

"Is that all?" Ming prodded quietly.

"Yes…That's all." Ozai sat down, clutching the small parchment bag to his chest. "Thank you, Ming."

A/N: I hope no one was overly turned off by the fact that Zuko doesn't make an actual appearance this chapter, but I wanted to take some time and focus on the mundane aspects of what has now become Ozai's life. It was also a good opportunity to develop his rapport with Ming. Don't worry, though—he'll be around in Chapter 3.

To the Reviewers: Thank you again for your kind comments, and especially for your suggestions! I love suggestions, and appreciate the time you've taken to share your thoughts!