A/N: Originally, this was intended to be the background story for how Ozai and Ursa meet in my "Fire and Ice" saga. However, because The Search will soon reveal the canon background for their love history, I have instead converted my headcanon into a strictly AU one-shot detailing what I wish would have happened. Enjoy!
By thirteen, Ozai is tired of being shoved to the fringes of his father's affection. One night, he decides he's had enough of his royal life. While his family is vacationing on Ember Island, he sneaks off from the summer beach house on a warm midsummer night dressed in clothes stolen from the servants' quarters back at the palace. For just one night he wants to know what peasant life is like, but he doesn't know exactly where he's going until a loose flyer slaps him in the face. An advertisement, Ozai realizes, for a brand new production at the Ember Island Theater. He huffs. Historically, the local acting troupe putting on these shows only successfully managed to butcher each "performance." But maybe this new play will be better. Or maybe it will be better simply because, for once, no one will make a big deal about the young prince's arrival. No one will gawk as the royal family is ushered to their private viewing box.
For this one night, Ozai will stand not above his people but among them.
The excitement of this possibility is enough to have him trying to break inside, as a miffed door guard claims when the young prince tries going through the line of ticketholders weaving into the theater. "Where are your tickets, huh?" the older boy demands as he drags the young prince aside. The guard's shirt is ripped at the sleeves to reveal toned muscles. "You better buy some or I'll bust your ass for trying to sneak in."
Ozai blinks. "Buy tickets?" He is only aware of such a concept from his formal schooling in the theory of economics and never carries money on his person.
"No tickets, no screening. The hell is wrong with you?"
The prince's eyes narrow. He is not used to such rough treatment. When he speaks, his voice is low and cold. In the palace, his servants would recognize this as the time to bow and cower while praying to remain in service to the royal family. "If you do not unhand me—"
The older boy snorts and rolls his eyes. "You're gonna threaten me, huh?" He raises a fist. "Get lost before some of your face comes off on my knuckles—"
"Hey, Chan," a voice calls from the line. "Do a lady a favor and leave my friend alone, hmm?"
The guard—Chan—releases him, and Ozai glances gratefully at his savior. She is a girl no older than him with loose black hair curling down to the mid-back, pinned back by a small flame hairpiece. She shifts slowly from one foot to the other as if seeking balance. Her outfit is simple, only a plain red dress with a black sash tied around the waist, but something about fabric's rippled sway reminds Ozai of living firelight. Her close-lipped smile is firelight, too, and it lures Chan over. "You know this bum?" the guard boy says, all purring and smooth talk now.
"We hang around sometimes. Come on." The girl grabs Ozai's sleeve and tugs him back into line. "Can I pay you back for his ticket with lunch next week?"
"Done deal, Ursa babe!" the boy calls as he lets them both inside the theater hall. This is how Ozai learns the dark-haired girl's name. Though he's known her for all of two minutes, he feels like burning a lightning-shaped incision through Chan's chest when he glances back. The muscle-bound guard boy thinks it's fine to let his eyes trail too low down Ursa's retreating back.
She drags Ozai by the sleeve into an empty hall. The young prince clears his throat and stalls with a very un-princely uhhhhhhh for longer than he intends. Just like the foreign idea of buying tickets, he is not used to expressing direct gratitude. For many years, his primary interactions have been with servants created for the purpose of obeying his every whim. The proper language now comes to him slowly. "My lady," Ozai begins. "Thank you for—"
She lets his sleeve go and whips around. Her dark hair flips like a curtain of gathered silk over her shoulder. "What, trying to impress me with noble talk? Sorry, I don't fall for that kind of thing."
Ozai's jaw slackens. This is not the kind of sharpness he expected from one with her soft smile and humble dress.
Possibly sensing his unease, she smiles that candlelight grin again. "Hey, it's okay. I can tell you're not from around here. You kind of stand out."
Ozai catches himself smiling. Like his speed in bending, he's also a fast learner. He will learn how to blend from this peasant's mannerisms, like the way she uses contractions that schooling weeded out from his royal vernacular.
"Go find seats," she suggests. "My girlfriends ditched me tonight so I wouldn't mind killing some time with you. I'll get fire flakes and come back." She turns away, and her hair sways across her back.
Ozai does not yet know he will eventually use words like destiny and fate to describe this encounter. On that day, he does not yet have the right wordsto describe the girl who sits beside him on a crowded public bench so unlike the elegant private viewing box. They are shoved together by a rather large woman on Ozai's left side and a heavyset man on Ursa's right, but the young prince minds less than he thought. Sitting close together only makes sharing a carton of fire flakes easier. Though, he's not used to sharing. His one handful is like five of Ursa's small ones. She rewards his greed by throwing a scoop of fire flakes at his hair. Ozai stares, jaw slack again at her impudence. She grabs the carton away. "You've had enough. These are mine," she tells him.
"Return them at once," he demands. "I am not finished."
"Say give them back, and use please," she teases.
"Insolence," he growls. "That was an order."
She shrugs and pops a handful in her mouth. "Fine, then it looks like you are finished."
Ozai makes a grab for the carton, but she slaps his hand away hard enough to leave a small red mark. No one outside of his immediately family has ever dared hurt him in this way. He leans back against the bench as the red curtain rolls up and the lights dim, shocked at this girl's defiance. Peasant, he thinks. And for once, Ozai's not entirely certain this is a bad quality. What he is certain of is that the play is horrific, as always, but it's made better by Ursa's presence beside him. Even if she refuses to share any more fire flakes. Even if she only secretly glances at him once in the dark, a look that does not escape him.
As they watch the inaugural butchering of Love Amongst the Dragons, Ozai feels like he is approaching the verge of a very great understanding. A horizon is beginning to unfold, one whose soft light he is very far from touching but that he at least glimpses for the first time in a lifetime.
"Farewell," she says when they part outside the theater, an oddly un-peasant word that Ozai carefully notes and catalogues. He is beginning to notice small things about this girl.
"Can I see you again?" he asks.
Ursa's gaze is now downcast. "My parents don't like me sneaking out here too often. But . . . okay." Her eyes flick up. "Same time next week?"
"My family is only vacationing on Ember Island for another few days," Ozai admits. "Perhaps tomorrow evening?"
Though she pretends to think hard about it and make a big fuss over the inconvenience, the young prince already knows her answer will be yes.
They meet on the next night, and the night after, and the night after that. After the royal family returns to the palace, they send one another messenger hawks for months (though Ozai makes certain his can't be traced back to the royal family). Twice every year when his family vacations on Ember Island from then on, they spend the days together. For the young prince, the cold months between their meetings are filled with the firelight of her memory.
She never invites him to her house on Ember Island, nor does he invite her to his own. Their reasons are obviously vastly different. Ozai assumes she's too embarrassed by her humble abode. How can he take her to a Fire Lord's summer and winter home? This peasant believes him to be one of her own kind. This is the playing field he'd like to keep their friendship on, a world in which affection is won not by money or power. He doesn't want to buy a faithful heart. For the first time in his life, he wants to earn it.
And so they make do with all the in-betweens.
They are fourteen and meet on a beach to watch the sunset. He brings wood and she brings blankets. He starts a fire and they look out down the sand, beyond the shore, toward the open sea, to see a distant horizon beyond which water lifts into the light and the sky is painted with fire.
"What do you think the other nations are like?" she asks thoughtfully.
He shrugs. "They're all savages. Probably half-beast."
Ursa laughs, her voice so high and clear. "You believe what the schoolbooks teach us? I say it's all a conspiracy. I bet they're regular people just like us."
Ozai looks at the girl lying beside him on a blanket. Her arms are tucked behind her head, her chin lifted. Her eyes are wide open and staring up as if searching for answers in the stars. "What?" he prompts. He can tell she's thinking something.
"I bet the stars aren't the same everywhere at one time," she says. "Constellations change all the time. I don't think the missing stars totally vanih. I think they just move. When we can't see certain patterns, I think those other nations see our stars while we see theirs. What do you think?"
For a peasant, she asks wiser questions than his royal tutors.
He loves Ursa for her wisdom.
They are fifteen and decide to visit a market square where performers gather to play music in the evening. A grassy area surrounds the square so friends can spread blankets and sit together to listen. She claps to a Tsungi horn and hums a song to the tune of a singer. Her head is on Ozai's shoulder. There's a strong wind, and her long black hair blows up and against his face. In this dark place filled with the glimmer of firefly lights, her eyes shine amber. The fireflies brighten her smile in the night, though this glow is nothing compared to her own internal fire.
He loves Ursa for her firelight.
They are sixteen and meet for a picnic by a lake. He chases her through a grove of trees down to the shore, their heels deep in leaves and then in sand. They eat their lunch, but by then clouds pile against the horizon and roll slowly across the whole sky. The clouds are stained black, even purple, with the promise of rain.
"We should get going," Ozai says. "It's going to storm."
"Not before I swim," she tells him.
"We can swim tomorrow. Let's go."
Ursa crosses her arms and sticks her lip out in a pretend pout. "Not a chance."
Before he can call her back, she's running directly to the water. He watches her run with her arms crooked at the elbow and her legs taking such wide strides. Her feet throw sand back until she's right at the shore. Then she lifts her head high and leaps forward into a clean dive. Her heels flick above the water for a moment before vanishing beneath. When she comes up, she rolls over with a twist to float on her back. She gazes up at the black sky as if daring it to rain before she's done. Ozai watches her defy the weather, and he smiles.
He loves Ursa for her courage.
They are seventeen and meet on a rooftop because that brings them so close to the sky. She tells him about her best friend's strange habit of practicing kisses to impress her future boys. This friend will smear lipstick on her mouth and practice kissing mirrors. She kisses in bathrooms, she kisses in bedrooms, she kisses handheld mirrors and leaves lip prints on everything.
"Is she any good?" Ozai asks.
Ursa shrugs. She's playing with a long, loose strange of hair and gazing shyly out at the night. "Sorry, never tested out her talents. You want to try kissing her?"
He smirks. "I'm a poor man. I can't afford to waste kisses."
Ozai would kiss this girl, but she turns her face away with a knowing little smile. She won't come easy. He wouldn't want it any other way.
He loves Ursa for her wickedness.
They are eighteen and meet on the beach again in the evening. Ozai arrives first and lays out the blankets, then realizes she's going to be late. He stands at the edge of the water looking out at the failing light. There is wind and waves, and the sound of the wind and waves, and a black island floating somewhere very far off. It's an unusually cold night. The wind goes right through his thin peasant clothes.
Suddenly she's behind him. She touches his hand with her own. Then Ursa wraps her arms around Ozai's waist and rests her head against the center of his back. She stays there and holds him even though he can't hold her from that angle. And meanwhile he watches the water and is sure he's never seen a more beautiful sight.
He loves Ursa for her comfort.
Ozai loves Ursa because she's his true family now.
Every fresh visit reaffirms emotions about which he's already absolutely certain. Physically, their growing affection rarely exceeds a brush of the fingertips or a lingering touch on the jawline. Ursa will touch his hair sometimes and let her fingers weave through the long strands falling over his shoulders. Her own hair grows longer, reaching the small of her back by the time they are eighteen. Ozai's royal training (and her teasing ways) keeps him from kissing her even after these many years—even after he's already decided that, whatever path unfolds for him, he wants Ursa along on the journey.
Ozai remembers the first time they do kiss. He remembers it because they both believed it would be the one time they would kiss, the only time.
The day before setting off for a usual summer beach house vacation when he's nineteen, Ozai's father summons him to the garden with the turtle duck pond. "Walk with me," his father requests. They discuss many things the young prince will forget five minutes later—the weather, politics, business as usual in the Fire Nation. Then his father stops and places his hands on his son's shoulders. "As a prince of this nation, you have an obligation to have heirs—and besides, I would not mind grandchildren," he says with uncharacteristic generosity. "In one month's time, you will be married."
Ozai grins. He has been hoping for an opportunity to discuss precisely this for several months now. "Father, I know the most wonderful woman . . ." But the young prince—no, not young any more if he is to be married—trails off because of the way his father's shoulders sag. The older man seems apologetic for the first time in Ozai's memory. Then he says the one thing that cracks his son's heart. He says I'm sorry, but your marriage has already been arranged. You will meet your bride on your wedding day.
And this, to Ozai, is the end of everything.
When they meet on Ember Island a few days later, he does not remember the moment when he tells Ursa that he is going to be married off. He does not remember her saying she has a similar fate: an arranged marriage to be held a short time from now. All he remembers is holding on to each other those final seven days when they still cling to the hope—false hope, but he tries to ignore this—of being together forever. What he remembers is the moment of their parting on the last night of eternity.
"Run away with me," Ozai offers as they sit on a beach in the dying sunlight hours. He has read this line in many literary scrolls many times before as the act of defiance lovers do when they are threatened with separation.
Ursa looks out at the ocean, its waves rippled with light the color of spilled blood. A bird's silhouette slices across the sun. Its wings pass low over the soft water. "I can't choose between you and my family," she says, her voice very small. She looks at him. Please don't make me, her eyes beg.
Ozai gently takes her hand. His thumb brushes the sensitive inner curve of her wrist. "I will never force you into anything. I have already promised this," he reminds her. "I will only ask that you stay with me tonight." He kisses her wrist, the first time his lips touch her skin. "Please."
Ursa's chin drops. Her eyebrows bunch together. "My parents will worry. So will yours."
He understands this is not a refusal. "At least consider it." Then it occurs to him why her face may have suddenly filled with worry. "I ask that you sleep beside me just once, on this last night. Nothing more than lying beside each other. Nothing that would violate your honor as a woman. You have my word."
She returns to looking at the ocean, but not before he notices a mist of water across her golden irises. "And then what? We never see each other again?" Her shoulders tense. "We'll be officially married by the time we come back here on vacation again. Marriage means having obligations to our families." She says all of this without looking at him, like she's just trying to convince herself first. "To my husband, Ozai, and to your wife—"
"An obligation established by what? A marital contract? Ursa. No paperwork governs my marriage. I choose that for myself."
She's shaking her head. "No, we can't meet again. So stop it! Will you just—"
"I already have an obligation. To you."
All Ozai wants is to hold her and for her to hold him back. On this night, the last night they can be together without ties to other people, he doesn't care about punishment or consequences. Let his family worry. Let them arrange a supposed love for him. Ursa is his final reference point. His present field of vision, which contains only her and the beach and the sea, is the landscape in which he would choose to live forever.
Even though Ursa still won't look at him, Ozai kisses her neck. He kisses her jawline. His voice rises against her cheek. "I don't care what any papers say. I love you."
It is the first time he speaks these words.
She turns her face and he is suddenly kissing the corner of her mouth. Ozai leans back, and Ursa leans back. Her eyes are liquid. Kissing, Ozai will eventually learn, is more intimate than any other physical pleasure. The other boys of the court who bed prostitutes spread this wisdom: never kiss a whore. Kisses are too precious.
Ozai will never experience cheap nights of passion with such women. He will never even consider this possibility. In his family, you fall in love only once and forever. Love, he discovers that night, is Ursa crying into his shoulder. Love is him touching her face, her tears. Love is her body trembling as she kisses him. Her fingers hold on to the folds of his robes. Ursa's cheeks grow cold as the night passes, but her mouth is so warm and her face is so wet. She leans away to take a breath sometimes; breathing is something Ozai has difficulty remembering how to do in her presence. Before she kisses him again, their noses touch.
High above, the rolling moon is a small white leaf floating in the dark. It lights their bed of sand as they lie beside one another in the dark. And in his heart, for that one night, Ozai believes maybe the spirits will let him keep the woman he has already married in his heart.
Only when he wakes up in the morning, he is alone on the beach. The prince sits up, but Ursa is gone. He understands, of course. Their parting would be him walking away and stopping, walking away and stopping, returning again and again until they kissed goodbye for the real last time. She wished to avoid this pain. He understands, of course he does, but it does not help heal the empty, hurting place in his heart that will have to be filled with memories of her firelight. Ozai stands and looks down at the place where they kissed last night. He does not want to leave this spot. He does not want to turn around and be faced with the realization that he was never going to see Ursa again, that he had lost this piece of himself and would never have it again for every day of the rest of his life.
As he stands there not moving, Ozai does not know which is worse: understanding that he could not live without Ursa, or knowing that he would have to.
But life is one thing and one thing only: a journey that goes on despite the things happening in it. Life is simply something you live with whether you can bear its weight or not. And this is what Ozai realizes he would have to do beginning from that moment on: live with the reality that is losing Ursa. And so he walks away from the piece of his heart that remains where a peasant girl and a young prince molded the sand to their shapes. He leaves the piece that was his first friend, his best friend, his first love, his true love, the love of his life.
Ozai does not remember much from that moment onward until the night before his wedding. Over the weeks, he goes through the motions of being measured for a new royal outfit and all of the other formalities. None of it matters. He will never care as much about anything as he cared about the girl who made Love Amongst the Dragons a palpable experience. The peasant girl who loved a peasant boy for who he really was and not for his power and position.
When moonlight falls across the palace on the night before his wedding, the prince goes out to the turtle duck pond as a free man one final time. He sits by the water and looks out at the turtle ducks he so dearly loves. He's brought bread with him and holds out small crumbled pieces on his open palms. Little ducklings, familiar with his gentle touch, swim to him. Ozai imagines what this moment might be like if Ursa came up and wrapped her arms around his waist from behind. If she rested her head against the center of his back and just stayed there like that one day at the beach. But of course, tomorrow some stranger will do these things to please her new husband.
His tears make small ripples in the otherwise still pond water.
The next day, Ozai is told to go here and stand there. Servants dress him in the softest of silk robes whose design he does not notice. He thinks of Ursa's clever questions, her quiet humming, her defiant gaze at the sky, the wicked tilt of her head, her warm face against his back. Their parting kisses. Their last kisses.
Many strangers who are called honored guests fill the palace. There is a ceremony only his body, but not his mind, observes. He waits at an alter. A woman approaches, her face covered with a red silk veil. She, like him, will not learn of her husband's identity until this moment—although, after being escorted to the royal palace this morning, it could not be so difficult for her to guess. Ozai imagines she must be happy to have the honor of marrying a prince. He knows he will probably ruin this woman's dreams because he is already obligated to his true wife, and he is sad for this stranger.
Someone—in his black grief, Ozai is beyond recognizing voices—instructs him to lift his bride's veil. The young prince turns. There is something familiar about her posture, the way she slowly shifts her weight from one foot to the other as if seeking balance, her head tilted up. His hands are shaking. Ozai takes the firelight fabric and raises it to see the brighter light of his betrothed's face for what every watching guest believes is the very first time.
And this, to Ozai, is the beginning of everything.
It is only that night after her hands find his headpiece and undo it so his hair falls around his face, only when she is curled against his side with her feet tucked up and her cheek pressed against his shoulder as she sleeps, that Ozai believes the spirits have truly brought them together. He lies back against the pillows and looks wide-eyed at the ceiling. To be so close to Ursa—to his wife; he needs to get used to that most precious of words—is to be cradled in a light so soft he wants only to hold her luminous being in his arms until it hurts. He would agree to simply sit beside her all day forever and watch his princess shine, a glow that comes not from her skin or hair or body but an untouchable light. It is this light he fell in love with when an unruly noblewoman disguised as a peasant just like himself first tossed fire flakes at his face when they snuck off to see Love Amongst the Dragons and found that dragons can indeed find love in the most unexpected places.
That night he's sure, he's certain, their love would outlast all things.
A/N: Urzai is my OTP beyond all other OTPs. I love them so dearly and hope this little story has warmed your heart at least a small bit to this pairing. If this has influenced your Urzai headcanon or feelings even slightly, please review and let me know.