Dinner that night proved to be a tense affair. Azula stared at Sué like a basilisk whenever Ozai wasn't looking, and Zuko stared at his plate. Only Iroh was in good spirits—exclaiming loudly and often about the deliciousness of the food.
Azula bowed from the room as soon as she was finished eating, and Zuko declined the invitation to stay with his father and uncle after they had finished dessert. Ozai poured himself a bowl of embers and toasted his brother.
"To your health, Iroh," he drank. "Well, you're finally not eating, what's on your mind?"
"Nothing," Iroh replied. "There's nothing in my head anymore. Haven't the jailers told you? Sometimes I wonder if I'm hungry purely out of habit."
"You're lying again. So you don't care about my promise to Zuko?"
"Not particularly. I'm tired, Ozai. I've been tired for the last five years."
The Fire Lord clapped his hands twice, "I almost believe you. If you want to know my plans, just ask me."
"I just want to go to bed. No, I won't ask you."
"Ozai, I know your mind nearly as well as I know my own."
"If you're so smug, then why don't you care that I have no intent to keep my promise to Zuko?"
"Ah, there you've miscalculated. I do care, but I am puzzled as to why."
"I need more children."
"You have children!" Fire danced in Iroh's eyes, "You should treasure them; you don't need more!"
"'Treasure them?' Look at them! Zuko is your and Ursa's accomplishment—I want no part of that weak, cowardly excuse for a prince! I can't even imagine how he managed to kill the Avatar!"
"I have no doubt that Azula never lies to me."
"And she's your accomplishment," Iroh stepped away from the table. "You should have her see a doctor before it's too late."
Ozai drank and didn't speak.
"They're your children!"
"Like my hair and fingernails, and I'm cutting both."
"You really mean to do it. For the last five years you've lived with everything I've lost, and now you're throwing away your richest treasure because things aren't perfect? I could—"
The bowl shattered against the elegant floor tiles. "Yes? Is that a challenge to Agni Kai? Shall we duel now?"
Iroh took a deep breath to calm himself. "No, I don't want to challenge you."
Ozai used firebending to evaporate his spilled drink.
The retired general continued, "Of course, we both know I'd win. I was always the better bender."
A black scorch mark appeared on the floor where the bowl of embers had been. Ozai turned around, his eyes literally burning.
"I'll show you," he growled then wrenched open the door and shouted at whoever happened to be nearby, "Get me a priest! Someone dig me up a priest!"
Iroh stroked his beard thoughtfully, "I haven't heard him shout like that in twenty years… perhaps I went too far."
He followed his younger brother down the hall. Azula, Zuko, and Sué came running. Sué looked as if she'd left her bath; her hair was down, her face was make-up free, and she was wearing a thin, pale orange robe. Zuko pointedly did not look at her.
"What happened?" The prince asked.
"Has there been an attack?" Azula added.
"The Fire Lord is getting married," Ozai said, taking Sué's arm.
Zuko couldn't keep from asking, "What? Now?"
"The speed of your mind amazes me," Azula sneered.
Ozai steered his betrothed towards Iroh, "You can give the bride away."
"What are you doing?" Sué demanded.
"Keeping my promise," he answered.
"To whom?" Iroh asked, "There are so many."
A servant ran into the hallway, stopped short at the sight of the royals, and bowed deeply. "The priest is ready, Fire Lord."
"We won't keep him waiting," Ozai said, and the man disappeared.
"Which promise are you keeping?" Sué repeated Iroh's question, looking from the Fire Lord to the prince and princess.
"Yours, of course," he replied affectionately.
"I knew it!" Zuko exclaimed, "More lies… you lie all the time! Azula has that of you."
Azula jerkily folded her arms and snapped, "You've certainly inherited a penchant for treason. Shall I tell Father what I overheard in the garden today?"
"It's not treason if it's common-knowledge."
Ozai let go of Sué and threw his arms in the air. "What is this? Must we begin every meal with who we love and who we hate? Fine, then…."
"I am the heir to the throne," Zuko interrupted.
"You're heir to what I give you," his father replied. "And you'll get nothing from me! Neither of you! You're not mine, and I hope all your flames are smothered!"
For a second, dead-silence reigned—as silent as the Avatar room of the Southern Air Temple. Sué looked shocked, Iroh sad and worried, and Ozai still seethed.
"I already knew," Zuko said, but he looked at Iroh as he spoke.
Azula, whose face had been unreadable, suddenly burst into hysterical laughter. Then it was mixed with sobbing, which she seemed powerless to control.
"You think I'm a monster, too," she pointed at Ozai, laughing and crying at the same time. "You and Mother. And Sué, too. No one likes me—if I went up in flames no one would pee on me to put the fire out!"
She brought fire to her fingertips and set her robe on fire. For a second the others were mesmerized in horror, then Ozai quickly grabbed her and beat out the flames. Azula fainted, as the flames extinguished.
The Fire Lord cursed under his breath, "That's not what I intended."
Sué put her hand against his cheek, "No one thought that."
"I could have conquered the world by now if not for my family," Ozai stood all the way up, the unconscious Azula still held securely in his arms.
"It has been a long day," Iroh sighed.
The Fire Lord looked at the people around him. "Get out. I don't want you here."
"It's no great pleasure to be here," Zuko glared at him.
"Go. I give you free reign of the palace—just go."
"Ozai," Lady Sué spoke up quietly.
"Go to your room," he said, though his voice softened.
With a sad look, she obeyed. Silently, Iroh and Zuko began to walk down the hallway towards the main entrance to the palace. After watching their departure for a moment, Ozai carried Azula to her room.
Zuko looked at his uncle, "It's midnight, you're going back to prison, Azula's gone mad, my life has been in vain, and you're smiling?"
Iroh laughed, turning with glistening eyes. "It's the way I register despair."
"Uncle… about Ba Sing Se, I—," His gaze dropped to the ground; he couldn't bring himself to say any more.
The Dragon of the West hugged him affectionately, "But you'll let me out of jail."
Surprised, Zuko looked up. "Yes, and we can do this all over again."
"Next time, we'll win," Iroh climbed into the barge that would return him to prison and waved goodbye.
Zuko began to laugh as he waved back, "Do you think there's any chance of it?"
Cartoons » Avatar: Last Airbender Rated: T, English, Drama & Family, Iroh, Ozai, Words: 3k+, Favs: 1, Published: 8/31/2013 Updated: 9/25/2013}
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