A/N: Here's my early New Year's gift to fans of my Fire and Ice saga! When I first drafted the original version of this one-shot, it was far longer (around 8,000 words) and contained many of my Urzai headcanons. However, thanks to the upcoming planned release of The Search which will probably establish a canon love story, I have instead shortened this into a brief look at my headcanon of Ozai's young life. This story is entirely canon compatible with Fire and Ice, and many events described here will be examined in far richer detail over the course of that story. For now, whether you are a Fire and Ice fan or are simply looking for a short story about Ozai, please enjoy this little piece!

On the night of a rare moon, full and blue, the third son of the Fire Nation is born one year after tragedy. A mother holds her child, nothing more than a small crying wisp, as his father sits at the foot of the bed. The father will not touch his son because he has learned a very great lesson about affection. Whether this son will survive, neither parent will know until his eighth birthday. One bond of attachment, nurtured and then severed, is enough to restrain the father's love. The boy's mother decides she will try to love all of her sons equally, though a legend has already begun to form around that which has been lost. They call in the boy's older brother. He is a firstborn son eighteen years his sibling's elder. The two princes share one quiet moment, the younger boy held in his brother's arms. The older brother loves this young boy already, but like their father he is afraid. There is only so much heartbreak a single heart can contain before it cracks. The older boy's heart is near brimming.

They call the young boy Ozai, and for this one moment they pretend he was born because he was desired in his own right and not as a replacement for shoes they already know he will never, ever fill.

For many years, this third son calls himself secondborn because he doesn't know any better. No one will speak of the year before Ozai's birth. But even as a child, he sometimes senses he lives in an unquenchable shadow. He feels it in the sad gazes his mother gives him in the midst of royal galas when there is merriment in the palace and joy in every other attendee's laughter. He especially feels it because his father not only favors the Crown Prince, the older brother called Iroh, but also barely ever acknowledges that he has a younger son. Ozai tries to understand why he has been shoved to the fringes of his father's affection. He wants to reach the edges of the shadow he lives in, even if on some days he feels he will never see the light.

His determination grows over the years. So does his pain. He sees other fathers of the court with their young sons. Fathers lift their boys high up and swinging them round and round until they fall together into the cradling arms of grass and leaves. Ozai wonders what it might be like to be loved like this.

On the day of his fifth birthday, his father gives him a gift he will remember always. The young son is summoned to his parents' private quarters in the early morning hours when darkness is still a curtain across the palace. The tiny prince comes barefoot, having been dragged out of bed by a servant. His heels and toes press small warm spots into the cold stone floor. The servant lets him into his parents' room and locks the door. Ozai smiles and crawls up on the bed so wide and large he could play hide-and-seek under the covers for hours. He wants to wake up his parents and hear his mother say good morning, firelight of my life.

The five-year-old boy doesn't understand why his mother is gone this morning and his father is already out of bed, standing in a black corner of the room. He doesn't understand why his father suddenly turns around, his hands now fists. His father asks how is your firebending training. The boy is very familiar with this question. Even though Ozai can't actually manipulate fire yet, his father likes to ask this question at least once a week to stay updated on his son's progress. The prince is sure this means his father is so concerned about him.

"I've been practicing," the young son says proudly. He sits cross-legged on the bed and tucks his cold feet beneath the covers to warm his toes. "I've been learning my techniques!"

"Have you firebent yet?"

Ozai feels the weight his father's expectations in the sharpness of the question. He sadly shakes his head because he's so far a disgrace and disappointment to his family. How will he ever earn his father's love? "Nope," he admits. "Not yet—"

"You have still not produced fire?"His father's voice is tight with an emotion Ozai doesn't understand yet. He knows his father has two modes: angry and bored. As far as the young boy is concerned, fathers do not tremble and bury their faces in their hands. Since his father's shoulders are shaking and he is making strange muffled sounds behind his hands, Ozai decides he must be angry . . . but what is that water on his father's face? This is all very strange to a small child. His father has never acted like this before in his presence.

The young prince decides his father needs a hug to feel better. This is what his mother does when the other children of the court don't share cookies or push him down because they're big bullies. The boy crawls down off the bed and walks over to his father. He tugs on his father's robes and reaches out with his arms, opening them up wide. "Pick me up,"he says. "Pick me up, Daddy!"

His father's eyes narrow, and his fists are shaking. Ozai jumps back as fire leaps into his father's hands. He recognizes this mode as angry. This one means he has to hide now. His father brings down a curtain of fire in the place his young son stood moments before, but Ozai has already run to the door. This is his greatest talent: his speed. One day, his mother tells him, you will be the fastest firebender in the world. His father always shakes his head at these words. If he is a bender at all, his father reminds his mother. This is another one of those moments when the young prince notices his mother looking at him sadly, and again he feels the great shadow suffocating his life.

For now there is the immediate matter of his father's rage. Ozai tugs on the door handle, but the servant has locked it. Only now does he remember this. The tiny boy turns and looks up at his father's black outline. One day, this man will be a beloved Fire Lord. Today, this man lifts his son, who has been five years for only a few hours, by the collar of his nightgown. Ozai claws at his father's arm because he's choking. The little boy is thrown onto the bed. Then his father grabs him by the shoulders.

"Enough nonsense," his father snarls. "You have stalled too long. Firebend."

"Daddy, please, I can't—"

His father lifts a handful of fire to his son's face. He gives one final command. "Firebend, now!"

Ozai punches his tiny fists as hard as he can, but no flames fill the air. He can't. He can't. "Daddy," he begs. He's crying because there's nothing but fire in his father's unforgiving eyes now. Ozai shouts it: "Daddy!"

There is a knock on the door and a servant's voice. His father looks startled. He stares at his son and turns him loose. They're both breathing hard. Their panting fills up the room. His father runs a hand across his face and turns away. And Ozai, remembering the cookies and the bullies, climbs down off the bed again and hugs his father's robes. The warm, thick cloth makes a good sponge for a small boy's frightened tears.

His father shoves Ozai away. The boy lands on his back with a yelp. "Until you firebend, you are not my son." Then his father unlocks the bedroom door and goes out, leaving the boy alone but with the most precious of gifts: the truth at the heart of all things. The young prince runs back to his room and pulls the great door open with both hands. He climbs under the covers and digs out his favorite stuffed animal.

"Sozin, guess what?"The boy grins as he kneels in front of his audience, a blue dragon plush sewn by the servants. "I think I got it! Daddy wants me to be a firebender, right? If I become a really great bender, then he'll love me. He'll love me for real."

The young boy hugs his dragon plush and falls back against his pillow. Despite the scare with his father, it's still early morning and he's sleepy. Besides, he's used to little scares like this. They happen too often for him to worry much. Ozai tucks his friend, who he calls Sozin, under his chin. He picked this name in honor of his grandfather, a mighty Fire Lord who found a dragon egg and raised the hatchling as his own. The young boy has always dreamed of having his own dragon. He often tells this dream to his older brother when the Crown-Prince-in-training has time to listen.

"That's the secret," he whispers to himself as he lies in bed hugging Sozin. "That's the shadow I gotta get out of, me not being a bender yet."

For the next three years, the boy spends long days mastering firebending techniques while his older brother masters the art of political intrigue. Ozai hopes his skills will be impressive; there is still nothing he wants more than his father's love. Going beyond simple firebending moves, he secretly studies dusty scrolls from the royal library and trains himself in the art of generating cold-blooded fire. He masters the physical form, a circular motion with the arms. He prepares for the required absence of emotion and peace of mind by mediating in the garden by the turtle duck pond when no one's watching.

Ozai learns about meditation from scrolls about the air nomads, people he finds strange and mysterious. Such lonely wanderers, living alone and without meat, yet ones with the strongest of spiritual connections. He wonders if air nomads look like humans or some strange new animal. He's forced to make his best educated guess because in all his years of life, he's has never seen a person from outside the Fire Nation. One day, he's determined to journey outside his nation and have a chance to see the world and the mysterious things in it. Perhaps his father will even take him some day. For now, with full theoretical knowledge of how to generate lightning, Ozai is certain he will soon make his father proud at last.

The only remaining component: proving he's a bender at all.

"Father, where are we going?"the young prince asks on the morning of his eighth birthday. His father woke him up again extra early. He hasn't seen his mother yet, which is strange because every other year she's always been the one shaking him awake with small kisses. His father takes him to a palace room the boy has never seen before. The chamber is small and nearly bare. The metal floor, fairly fireproof, holds a single furnishing: a wooden stake set on a metal pedestal.

"Stand against the post," his father instructs. Ozai happily does so, though his certainty wavers when his father binds his arms and legs and ties him to the stake.

"Father," he calls to his father's retreating back. "What is this for?"

His father kneels and slides open a secret panel in the floor. If the boy squints, he can just make out a pile of roughly cut wooden logs inside. His father takes out two and drops them at his son's feet. The boy tries to read his father's eyes as the man says I love you and piles more logs around the stake.

The father kisses his boy's forehead. "Always remember that I love you," he says. Then he steps back and makes a fire in his open, upturned palm.

That day, Ozai learns more than firebending. He discovers that strength can't be forged in peace and ease. Pain, though a tough teacher, is unquestionably an effective one. Pain brings suffering, and suffering brings the overcoming of itself. And from the ashes of survival on his eighth birthday, a powerful firebender steps forth who is now more man than boy. The right kind of understanding can age a person quickly. That day the young prince understands something clearly about his family. In the royal family, power is valued above human life.

This moral stays with him, as does his fear of the man called Azulon.

From that day forth, Ozai prefers to stay at the fringes of his father's affection where he was shoved for the first eight years of his life. This time, it is by choice. No matter that his father now claims to truly love him. No matter that his father now calls him son. The young prince flashbacks too often to the nightmare of his eight birthday. He begins to resent his family. He begins to resent the structured demands of powerful positions in society.

In the long weeks following his birthday, the boy's dreams become nightmares with a single recurring theme. In each dream, his father kills him in increasingly creative ways. On one night his father orders a chi blocker to render his son's bending useless, ties him to a wooden stake set on a metal pedestal, and lights the prince on fire. On another night his father sets up a mirror and orders Ozai to look at his own reflection. Ozai is ordered to shatter the mirror with lightning. He fires a double bolt, one generated with each hand. But instead of breaking, the mirror reflects the blast back at the prince himself.

The boy can't stand it because he never knows when these dreams will become reality. They could today, tomorrow, any day when his father feels like it.

To make life bearable, he still whispers to his dragon plush in the late hours of the night. Now these secret talks are filled with dreams of a future life where he can be free to forge his own path in life and not that demanded by his father. Thankfully, the dragon plush is not his only friend. His best friends aren't human, but he always finds comfort with them because unlike people they will never judge him. They simply accept him as he is.

And so when Ozai wakes up sweating in the black night hours with his hands fisted against sweaty sheets soaked from his nightmares, he goes out to the turtle duck pond in the royal garden to visit these friends of his. The garden is one of his favorite places in the palace. Once when he was three years old, he heard a rumor that his father planned to rid the pond of the little ducklings. He stripped his pillow of its case and ran out barefoot in the middle of the night to scoop up flightless little babies into the sack. The young prince took the ducklings to his room and set them out in a fluffy row on his bed. He promised to keep them safe as long as they stayed quiet and obedient, but the babies didn't seem to like listening. They scattered around the young prince's room and the servants spent hours trying to search for them afterwards in every dark nook.

Ozai remembers this story as he kneels by the turtle duck pond. That night his dreams were especially bad. His eyes shine with tears in the moonlight. He kneels by the water, though in his wet eyes every surface is liquid. A mother duck's feet ripple through the lake. She veers toward shore when she sees the prince hold out fragments of bread crust. She is familiar with Ozai's gentle hand. A baby duckling waddles out to shore after its mother. The young prince offers an open palm filled with bread, and the duckling steps onto his fingers. He lifts his hand quickly. The baby is stunned into stillness. It watches this strange boy with its two black eyes. Ozai pushes his nose into the ducking's soft feathers where it's safe. Good and safe.

One day he hopes to find a home where he's loved the way these turtle ducks love him. If only human affection could be like this. Trusting. Simple. Unconditional.

The baby duckling makes an angry quack as a droplet of water hits its beak. This youngling is not used to the hot tears of a small boy whose heart holds only one wish: that he never forgets what it's like to be human. That he never becomes his father, a man who would have killed his own son had he not proven himself to be a firebender on the eighth birthday of his life.

But that's the tendency of life.

It ruins everything.

A/N: Thank you for reading! Anyone interested in having me write more about Ozai?