Iroh enters his chamber. For what reason, he can’t remember. Perhaps he is just tired. Perhaps–
A familiar young boy is sat with his back to him, jasmine-scented steam rising past his top-knot.
Perhaps for tea with his nephew.
The few scattered candles cast dim orange light, flickering over scarlet robes. Zuko does not turn as he approaches, instead stares broodingly into his teacup, chin low. Uneasy flames cast navy blue shadows across his boyish cheeks and pointed, royal nose.
He sits across from him, one hand coming to rest on the cup already poured for him.
Its scaldingly hot.
“It’s burnt,” his nephew whispers, almost mournfully.
Iroh chuckles softly. He isn’t surprised. Zuko has never had the patience for brewing tea. He’s very much like Lu Ten–
He lowers his eyelids. Hearing nothing but his own breaths, he remembers. Body breaking against rocks, crumbling like an avalanche, a mudslide, molten lava following bloody ash. Too far away. Too slow. Horrible, horrible slowness inside and out.
He opens again to his nephew, now staring at him with the harsh golden eyes of his father. Metallic, cold. Cold, in the way a firebender shouldn’t.
“Are you all right, nephew?”
Iroh watches as they melt, gaze falling, falling until it’s empty, tilting, locking on the candle over his right shoulder.
“What is wrong?”
He’s an expressive boy. This blankness is unusual.
His voice is flat. The candle behind him goes out, casting the left side of his nephew’s face in smoky darkness. Something icy settles in his gut.
“What’s gone?” he asks slowly, lifting his hand only to freeze.
Iroh glances down, confused. His cup is empty.
“It’s gone,” Zuko says again, suspiciously wet.
He looks up and his blood runs cold.
A drop of something dark, thick and syrupy, runs from the corner of Zuko’s mouth. It draws a line down his chin, landing silently on the wooden table. His nephew doesn’t seem to notice. His mouth is limp. He continues to speak.
“It’s burnt. It’s my fault, Uncle. It’s all burnt.”
His teeth are stained, red spilling over his lips as he stares and stares, eyelids slack, hands still as droplets paint his skin. The table collects tiny puddles, bubbling by the hot teapot.
Horror holds him frozen as his nephew begins to cry, face dispassionate, listless. Tears fall slowly, big and viscous, leaving crimson strokes down his right cheek. His right eye is full, ringed with red, eyelashes clumped and wet. It looks like he’s melting. Sinking into himself. Disappearing right in front of him.
He can’t move. No matter how desperate he is.
Not again. Not again.
As if sensing his struggle, Zuko finally returns his gaze to his. Lifeless.
Choking through his words, he begs, “Nephew, what’s wrong? Tell me. Please, what’s wrong?”
His left eye twitches. Though no longer in shadow, it’s still completely black. It shines in the firelight, dark and reddish and deep. Without warning, this stain begins to grow, pouring over his waterline with a sudden hiss. It catches, orange, yellow, and pure white dancing atop singed lashes. It expands like a wildfire screaming through grasslands. Burning. Ash and smoke clogging. The smell of burnt hair, skin, buffets his nose.
He tries to scream his name, but his throat is closed. The air is petrifyingly silent behind the pounding of his heart.
“I’m sorry, Uncle,” he says, calmly, over the quiet flickering of flames, “It’s my fault. It’s all burnt, now.”
The fire grows, reaching his ear, nose, mouth, spitting sparks, cinders burning welts into the pale skin not yet turned a vicious black.
Candles around them blow dark, collapsing the room to the tea table. Small and confined, Iroh can only watch, tears catching in his beard, as his nephew is consumed, slowly, slowly.
“It’s okay,” a voice soothes, “Long may Agni reign.”
Heart still racing, he continues to lie there. Pillows and blankets are aplenty, he’s sunk deeply into his bed, but he is not comfortable. How could he be?
His dear nephew. His poor, dear nephew.
Face wet, he heaves himself into a seated position with a heavy heart. He sighs into his hand. Zuko’s scream rings in his ears. He should have done something. He should have stopped it.
Yesterday’s Agni Kai was a farce, a simple excuse to maim an innocent child, to rid a callous, selfish father of a loving son, and Iroh had done nothing. Now all he can do is wait. The palace has the best infirmary in all of the Fire Nation. He has to hope.
There’s a knock on his door.
He quickly wipes his eyes.
A young woman in servants garb appears, bowing deep.
“Apologies for the intrusion, Prince Iroh.”
He waves a hand, “Thank you, Akari. Please, rise.”
She does, but her eyes do not.
Iroh stands from his bed and approaches, trying to appear jovial and at peace.
“Is something the matter?” He asks, after a moment of tense silence.
Akari breathes deeply, finally lifting her chin. Tears bead along her waterline. His heart drops.
“I have come to inform you, Your Highness, that Prince Zuko succumbed to his injuries in the night. I– I offer my deepest condolences.”
He barely hears the rest of her words, sinking to his knees. Static rages in his ears and he weeps. He weeps like his heart is bleeding. His lungs scream from his gasping breaths. He breathes like his son can’t. Heavy and hard. His chest aches like his nephew’s can’t. So he weeps. And he weeps.
At some point, the door swings shut, and he is alone.
He is very alone.