Katara and Iroh managed to secure the Princess but there was still the case of the Prince. Zuko was no where to be found. Katara stayed with the raving, mad Princess while Iroh went through the Palace in search for his nephew. He came back empty-handed and with a report on the lack of servants at the Palace.
“He’s not there! It’s all your fault! He’s gone! Because of you!” Azula snarled.
Katara highly doubted that Iroh had anything to do with Zuko not being there. If that was the case, Zuko would have listened to Iroh back at Ba Sing Se and fought Azula. He didn’t so it wasn’t Iroh’s fault.
“It’s your fault! You did it! You-“ Azula’s voice was cut off when Katara bent ice to cover the Princess’s mouth. Before Azula could bend the ice off, Katara found a cloth to tie around so they didn’t have to hear Azula’s ramblings.
“Do you think that was necessary?” Iroh asked.
Katara shrugged. “I didn’t want to hear her blame you anymore.”
Katara walked away so she didn’t have to hear Iroh’s disappointment in her decision. She managed to find a Fire Sage and convinced him to take the Princess away. Not to prison, though Katara thought she deserved that, but to a place that could help her. By the time Azula was gone, the sun was starting to fade, the comet long gone. She kept her eyes on the sky, waiting for the rest of the group to appear.
Iroh was a patient man. (He had to be to deal with Zuko at times.) He could wait until his brother showed to find out where his nephew was. Perhaps Zuko was with his father. It would devastate Iroh to know that, but he could work with Zuko. He could help his nephew see what was right.
A part of him was terrified though. The more Azula screamed, the more he worried he missed something important. The larger the pit of fear grew. He shouldn’t be afraid. He shouldn’t worry. He shouldn’t be impatient.
Yet, as the minutes ticked by, the fear of being too late ate away to the point no tea could calm him. When he saw the airship and heard the cheers of Sokka, he couldn’t help but feel this was wrong. They didn’t win.
Sokka couldn’t be happier. Sure, he was injured and he had to deal with Loser Lord the whole way back to the Fire Nation. But! They won against Ozai. Aang defeated him, without killing him. His sister was safe. His friends were safe. They won. There shouldn’t be anything wrong.
“We did it!” He screamed as he wobbled over to his sister.
“You’re injured!” She cried. “Sokka! What happened?”
“It’s fine. I’m fine. Landed on an airship but I’m alive.” He smiled. “How about you guys? Where’s Azula and Zuko?”
“Azula snapped. The Fire Sages are taking her somewhere safe where she can heal.” Katara glanced at Iroh before continuing. “We haven’t found Zuko.”
“Oh.” Sokka frowned.
Laughter behind Sokka caught his attention. Aang was bringing their prisoner down the plank and he was laughing at them. Sokka wasn’t sure what Ozai found so funny when he lost it all.
“Aang, you did not kill my brother.” Iroh glared. It was at that moment Sokka was reminded how dangerous Iroh could be.
“I took his bending away.” Aang said. It was odd how serious Aang was compared to how much Ozai was laughing.
“What did Azula tell you?” Ozai asked when he stopped laughing.
“She said Zuko isn’t here.” Katara said before Iroh could open his mouth. “She was crazy so I’m not sure how truthful she was.”
“You won’t find Zuko anywhere.” Ozai laughed. Sokka really wanted to punch Ozai to stop that laughter. “I would show you, but I’m a little tied up.” He held his hands up, showing his wrists encased with metal Toph was able to bend to keep him from moving.
“Where is Zuko?” Iroh stepped forward. “What did you do?”
Ozai hummed. “If you want to know, ask a Fire Sage. Perhaps they would tell you.”
Though Sokka had no idea what that meant, Iroh must have because he paled and took a step back. Was it a Fire Nation thing? A royal thing? He looked at his friends but they seemed just as confused as he was.
“Ozai...” Iroh whispered. Sokka was more afraid of the quiet Iroh than the Dragon of the West Iroh. “What did you do?”
Ozai smirked but did not open his mouth. Iroh repeated his question and Ozai just shrugged. Iroh stepped away from them and ran back towards the Palace. The rest of them had no choice but to follow Iroh, Sokka a little slower than the rest. He wasn’t sure why Iroh was in such a hurry but knew it must be bad.
Toph knew heartbeats. She could tell when a person was lying. She could tell when someone was happy. She could tell when they were resting or sleeping. She could tell when they were afraid. She could tell when a person died-she hated that the most. Uncle’s heartbeat stopped when Ozai mentioned the Fire Sages and then sped up in fear. She had never felt his heartbeat go crazy like that before. A small part of her was afraid for him.
When Uncle started running, she was right behind him. She didn’t pay attention to see if the rest were following her or not. Uncle was afraid and she had to protect him.
She heard Appa roar from behind them. No doubt he was following Uncle and Toph and carrying an injured Sokka and their prisoner. She missed the fluffy beast but she had no desire to be up in the air again. She had enough.
Uncle stopped in front of a building. She couldn’t tell what it was, just that it wasn’t a Palace. It didn’t feel as fancy or big. She felt the pitter-patter of feet coming down steps. She didn’t recognize these feet. She did recognize Uncle’s feet staying in place and the rest of the group joining them.
“General Iroh, is there anything I can assist you with?” The new person asked.
“Zuko. My nephew. Where is my nephew?” Toph heard the heartbreak in his voice. She wondered if it was just a her thing or if anyone else noticed.
The heartbeat of this new person skipped a brief moment. She didn’t like the way it felt. It meant trouble. It meant they didn’t want to tell Uncle something heartbreaking. If they were a Fire Sage like she assumed, she was afraid what they were going to say.
“Of... of course General Iroh. Right this way.”
They were led up the stairs and into the building. Toph felt the heat from the flames getting closer as they walked. She could feel where they were heading and she wanted to run away. She knew.
“Uncle...” Toph whispered and stopped walking. She shook her head because she didn’t want to think about it. He wasn’t going to be happy.
She felt the shift of his body as he turned towards her. She couldn’t feel Zuko or tell where he was but she knew it wasn’t good.
“Ozai what did you do?” Uncle repeated. “Where is your son?”
“If you haven’t figured it out yet, I won’t spoil the surprise. I think the blind one figured it out.” Ozai chuckled. “Haven’t you?”
“Why?” Uncle asked. Toph wasn’t sure if he figured it out, if he was desperate, if he didn’t want to admit to himself, or he thought he should ask a different question.
Ozai said nothing and Uncle resumed following the Fire Sage. Toph could tell when Uncle found Zuko. If his heartbeat didn’t give it away, the gasps from her friends did.
“No! No! No, no, no,” Uncle cried out and ran to the center of the room. “No, not him. Not Zuko.”
Toph could feel Uncle’s heartbeat race and could feel him bend down to hold something. She could not feel another heartbeat next to Uncle. She knew there was a body next to him as she could feel the shape of a body laying and a body shake as Uncle shook. She felt a hand fall to the ground but there was no heartbeat with that hand.
For the first time, she wished she was truly blind. That she couldn’t see or feel anything. Because she didn’t want to feel this. She didn’t want to not feel a heartbeat.
Aang thought he did the right thing. He didn’t murder Ozai like his friends and past lives told him to. He ended the war with no death. But seeing Uncle break down as he held his dead nephew, he wondered if he did the right thing.
“Why? Why did you do this?” Uncle cried out. “He was your son!”
“He took after you.” Ozai snarled. “He confronted me during the Eclipse, told me he was going to rescue you and join the Avatar. I should have known he was too weak.”
“He was not weak!” Uncle yelled. It wasn’t often Aang thought of how powerful Uncle was. How dangerous he could be. “He was never weak.”
“He was weak and stupid. He tried to rescue you. You left already. He was caught before he could leave the prison. I made sure he remembered how weak and stupid he was to try to save you. You know what he always said? That it didn’t matter because he did the right thing. He would make you proud.” Ozai scoffed. “Weaklings always stick together.”
“You tortured him?! How dare you-“
“I do what I want!” Ozai interrupted Uncle. Aang had not been this terrified of Ozai when they fought. Only now, when he was admitting what he did, was Aang afraid. “I’ve wanted him dead since he was born. You and Ursa made him soft. I was going to make sure he knew how disgusted I was with him.”
“You didn’t have to kill him.”
“Traitors are executed.” Ozai shrugged like he was talking about the weather.
“You never executed me.”
“You were different. You had a strong reputation. You still had supporters. But a young Prince who turned his back on his nation after his father so graciously allowed him back? That’s different.”
“You didn’t have to kill him.” Uncle repeated, holding onto Zuko as if that would bring him back.
“I knew you were going to try to stop me from burning everything to the ground. I had him executed yesterday. Before I left. If I won, I would show you what your weakness cost. If I lost, you would still lose. Either way, I no longer have to deal with him and I broke your spirit.”
Ozai gave a small smile. “Perhaps, but the Avatar spared my life.” Ozai turned to face Aang. “Do you regret that?”
The Monks told him all life was sacred. That fighting was never the answer. Seeing Zuko dead because of Ozai made Aang second guess everything. This wasn’t supposed to happen. Zuko was supposed to be there and Uncle would talk to him. Aang would mention friendship again and they would be best friends.
“He was your son.” It was the only thing that came out of Aang’s mouth. Nothing of how horrible it was a life was taken. Nothing if what the Monks would say.
“He stopped being my son the moment he was born.” Ozai snarled.
Aang wished he said anything in defense of Zuko. The problem was, he didn’t think Ozai would listen. Besides, it was too late. Zuko was dead.
Iroh knew his nephew was gone, he could feel how cold the body was in his arms, but that didn’t stop him from cradling him. He wished he wasn’t too late. He wished he waited. He wished he hinted to Zuko he would be leaving like he did to Ming. He wished he asked if Zuko what he was going to do.
He wished a lot of things. Most of them were about his boy. His sweet, precious boy who wanted the love of his father. His boy who was more a son than a nephew.
It was the second time Iroh was holding a dead son in his arms. The first was Lu Ten at Ba Sing Se. It was war, but it was Iroh’s fault Lu Ten died. Iroh made the decisions. And Lu Ten suffered. Zuko was also Iroh’s fault. Zuko was rushing to save Iroh and was caught. Zuko suffered because of Iroh. Zuko died because of Iroh. There was no way he could convince himself otherwise.
“Oh my Zuko.” He whispered, brushing his hair back from his face. “Oh my boy. My sweet boy.” He placed a kiss on his forehead. “I love you. I hope you knew how much I loved you. How much I’ll always love you.”