Chapter XXI Comfort
Zuko had absolutely no idea how he was supposed to break the news to his uncle. For so many years Iroh had hoped and prayed that his son may still be alive, and that he would some day be reunited with him. It was something he never lost hope in, and Zuko could only imagine how he would feel knowing that his son had been alive, but was now gone forever, no hope of returning.
"Here, Miss Katara, I thought you might like this," said the old retired general as he handed the young water bender the glass dragon that Zuko had purchased for her several days ago. "I think it's only suiting that you be given a more comfortable room. I'm sure you would like to rest for a while. You look quite exhausted."
Katara took the dragon from the old man and clutched it against her chest. "No, I….I should really get on Appa right now and go after Aang and my brother. I can't wait anymore. We may never catch them at this rate."
Iroh put his hands on Katara's shoulders to calm her. "Try and rest up first. And you also need something to eat."
Lieutenant Ji took over at that point and escorted Katara to her new room. Iroh next turned to Zuko and took him by the arm.
"Let's go, Zuko. We really need to inspect that wound."
"I'm fine, Uncle," the Prince responded solemnly.
"Oh, you always say that."
Zuko sighed in annoyance. "Uncle, I really need to talk to you."
"In a moment, Zuko. First we'll look over those wounds, and then we'll have a nice, hot cup of tea and you can tell me whatever it is you need to tell me."
Katara stepped into her new room and had a seat on her new, much more comfortable bed. The second her rump heat the mattress, she suddenly realized how exhausted she really was. She looked toward the pillow longingly, but quickly shook the thought of taking a nice long nap out of her mind. "No, I have to rescue Aang and Sokka. I can't sit around like this."
The waterbender quickly jumped to her feat but Lt. Ji pushed her gently back down onto the bed.
"Calm down, child," he said. "Despite how fast Zhao's ship is, it'll still take him a couple of days to reach the Fire Nation. We have time, and you need to take that time to rest up and get something to eat. You're going to need your strength."
"We have a better chance catching them on Appa. We should just go ahead and go now."
Ji had to push Katara back down again.
"Just wait. Eat something first, and rest for a few hours. You can leave tonight. You'd have better luck traveling at night since it'll be harder for anyone to spot you. So just wait. You won't have any luck if you're tired."
"Alright," Katara replied quietly.
"It's kind of cold in here. I should really get this furnace going."
The man walked towards the small furnace in the corner of the room and opened up the door. "As soon as I get this going here I'll get you something to eat."
"There we go. Should be warm in here in a few minutes." Ji shut the door and stood to fetch Katara something to eat. "Bowl of dumplings okay?"
Just as Ji made it to the doorway, Katara quickly spoke up, asking the man a question she wasn't so sure he could answer honestly.
"Wait," she began. "Um…I wanted to ask you something. Ugh…do you…honestly wish the war would end?"
It was plain to see that Ji was not at all surprised by the question. In fact, he sighed, as though he had expected it. He leaned against the door frame and ran a rough, calloused hand through his graying hair. "Honestly…yes. After several years I came to realize that this war was the biggest mistake that ever was. There's no reason for it, and nothing has come out of it except pain and suffering. And as for me….I haven't seen my family in almost three years, and it's unbearable. I have a girl of my own, just a little older than you. But this war has forced me to be away from her, not seeing her grow up. Yes, I want this war to end."
Katara leaned forward, placing her elbows on her knees as she stared at the metal floor. "Aang will need a firebending teacher eventually. This war can be over if Aang learns all the elements and defeats the Fire Lord."
"You're thinking Prince Zuko may teach him?" asked Ji. Katara shrugged.
"I wish he would. Finding a firebending teacher will be the hardest seeing as how every firebender on Earth wants to imprison Aang. Zuko's really our only option."
"I have a feeling if anyone can persuade him, it'll be you."
"I hope so."
After having checked over Zuko's wounds, and putting fresh bandages on his shoulder wound, the Prince quietly followed his uncle into Iroh's room, where a small table sat with a tea pot sitting on top of it. Zuko mentally laughed. He was certain his uncle had at least three different tea pots.
Iroh quickly set to work and started preparing the tea.
"It was hard enough having to sit back and pray that you two would make it out alive, but I can only imagine how hard it must have been for you. I was terrified you wouldn't make it out alive."
"Yeah, I kind of was, too," Zuko responded, taking a seat on the pillow in front of the table. He sat in silence for a moment, lightly tapping his index finger against the surface of the table. He knew what he wanted to say, but the words just would not come out. He watched his uncle wait eagerly for the tea to start steaming. The man had gone through enough stress over the last 24 hours. Finding out that his only son was dead would be twice as traumatic. Zuko pondered the thought of not even breaking the news to him. But then living in false hope for the rest of his life wouldn't do him any good. Knowing the truth would bring him closure, although for the next few days, it was going to be hell trying to digest the truth.
Iroh held up a finger. "Just a moment, it's almost ready," he said, beaming. He pulled two, small cups his way and lifted the kettle to fill them with the steaming liquid. "There we are," he said as he pushed one cup towards his nephew. "Now please drink. After what you've just been through, a nice hot cup of tea is what you need to relax."
Zuko smiled softly. Iroh and his tea. There was no way on Earth you could separate the man from his tea. Zuko took a sip just to please his uncle, then set the cup aside for a moment. It couldn't wait any longer.
"Listen, Uncle, there's something I need to tell you…and I honestly don't know how to say it."
A frown crossed Iroh's face, and Zuko found himself growing more fearful of how his uncle would take the horrible news. He gripped the edge of the table firmly, inhaling deeply.
"Natsu was there," Zuko finally said, followed by a deep exhale. Iroh's eyes widened as he set down his cup.
"Natsu…he is alive," he said with happiness, but then he looked rather puzzled. "But why didn't he come back with you? Was he ashamed? Does he have a family now? What kind of life does he have, Zuko? I must know."
"He wanted me to tell you he was sorry," replied Zuko, stalling as much as he could. "He didn't want to hurt you. The war was something he refused to take part in. It had nothing to do with you."
Iroh nodded in understanding, looking down at his cup of tea. "But why did he not come back with you?"
Zuko tried to look anywhere but at his uncle. A lump began to form in his throat and he tried as hard as he could to swallow it. "Uncle, Natsu…he's dead. It was Zhao…he killed him."
The old man grew pale, and the usual twinkle his eyes harbored ceased to exist. "D-Dead…how…why..? No…" The man was at a loss of what to say. He suddenly found himself shaking his head rather aggressively. Emotions of many kinds raged through him: anger, hopelessness, sadness, and worst of all, regret. Iroh had done well to be a good father to his son, but the war had kept him away from him so much, and now to have learned that he'll never see him again made him feel lost and alone.
"Uncle, I'm really sorry. Are you alright?" Zuko felt compelled to go over and embrace his uncle, something he hardly did at all anymore, but he was almost afraid to approach him while he was in such a state of shock.
The poor man stared wide-eyed at the table, his right hand still lightly grasping his cup of tea as he tried to digest the horrible news of his son's death. "He's gone," he whispered. "There's…no hope anymore. He was right there. Right there on that island, just a couple of miles away from me…He was so close to me, and now I'll never see him again."
Zuko noticed Iroh's hand suddenly go to his chest and he abruptly stood up. "Uncle? Are you alright?"
"I…" Iroh looked to be in pain, and his grip on the cup suddenly tightly. The sharp pain in his chest only intensified and the grip he had on the cup became so great that the cup finally shattered, some of the shards actually embedding themselves into Iroh's palm, though that pain was nothing to what he was feeling in his chest. Before he knew it, he found himself falling over onto his side, Zuko's loud cries of "Uncle Iroh!" barely audible.
"Someone help!" came the Prince's loud cry through the metal halls. Ji had just prepared Katara a bowl of dumplings and a fresh loaf of bread to eat when he heard then teen's desperate cries for help. The Lieautenant set the tray of food down on a table and quickly exited the galley. He found the Prince running through the hall, his left hand pressed against his wound while he banged on every door in sight with his right.
"What is it, sir?" the Lieutenant asked loudly, making sure the Prince knew he had gotten someone's attention.
"It's Uncle Iroh! Something's wrong!"
Ji quickly followed Zuko's lead back to the Iroh's quarters, where they found the retired general lying on the floor still, slipping in and out of consciousness. "Here, help me lift him into bed and then you go find the healer."
With shaking hands, Zuko helped the lieutenant lift his uncle into his bed. He was barely conscious, and his breathing was shallow and uneven. A hand was placed right over his heart, and he grit his teeth in pain. Zuko wasted no time in trying to find the healer, though he nearly knocked Katara down on her butt as he sprinted through the halls.
"Zuko, what's going on?" she called out to him. Zuko skidded to a halt and turn around to look at her.
"It's my uncle. I…I don't know what's wrong. Something happened. He's sick, I don't know! I can't talk now!"
Zuko was already gone, leaving Katara alone, wondering what on earth had just happened. Whatever it was, it must have been very bad, judging by how panicked Zuko was. She figured she should stay in her room, but she needed to know what had just happened.
"Alright, what happened?" the healer asked as he stepped into the room, Zuko right on his heels.
"He went down. I have a feeling it might have been a heart attack," Ji replied. "You were there, sir. What exactly happened?" he asked Zuko.
Zuko tried to get himself together to actually answer the question. He felt as though he couldn't even stand up straight.
"Umm…well he…I…" Zuko took a deep breath. "It was his son," he began calmly. "Natsu…he's dead. Zhao killed him," he said with a shaky voice.
Ji looked shocked, obviously not expecting such an answer. "His son was on that island?"
"Y-Yeah. He's been there all this time." Zuko began pacing the room, unable to stay still.
"Well, Ji, your assumed diagnosis would be correct. It's very obvious that he had a heart attack."
"My uncle isn't old!" Zuko shouted. The healer sighed.
"Age isn't always the factor. Stress obviously played a key role here. With your uncle worrying about you for many hours, and finding out of his son's tragic death on top of that, it was a disaster waiting to happen. But since he's still hanging in there, I'd say it was only a minor one. But even so, he will need to stay in bed and rest for the next couple of days. I'm sure he'll be fine, just as long as he rests."
Zuko looked from the healer down to his uncle, whose breathing looked to be evening out now. His expression was not quite as pained as it had once been moments ago. Zuko then found himself starting to relax a little. He had been terrified that he was going to lose his uncle, too.
"We should all probably leave and let him rest," said Ji as he headed toward the door, followed by the healer. Zuko remained in the room, eyeing his uncle with concern. Iroh managed to crack one eye open and glance over at his nephew. He tried his best to force a smile.
"Do not worry, Zuko. I'll be just fine."
Zuko made his way towards his uncle's bed and knelt down, wincing as the movement brought pain to his wound. "Do you need anything?" he asked.
"No, no…I'll be fine."
Zuko heaved a sigh, then slowly stood up to leave the room and allow his uncle to get his much needed rest. He slowly closed the door on his way out, feeling more helpless than he had ever felt before. He didn't even notice Katara standing there on the other side of the door, staring at him with concern as he slowly took a sit on the steel floor.
"What happened?" the water bender asked as she knelt down next to Zuko.
"I told my uncle."
Katara was silent for a moment. It was clear that Iroh had not taken the news well. But then again, who would? However, judging by Zuko's look of anguish, it was clear that there was more to it than that.
"He had a heart attack," he said next.
Katara's eyes widened. "Oh no…No, is he alright?"
The Prince nodded. "I think he'll be alright. He just needs to rest." Zuko leaned back against the cold, metal wall, unable to bring himself to look at Katara.
"What about you?" she asked.
"Me?" the Prince replied with a hallow laugh. "I wish I knew. Seems like every time I turn around, I lose something. My mother, my honor, my home, Natsu…and now I've almost lost the only person who has ever been a real father to me. If I lose him…I…I won't have anything anymore. I'll be alone."
Katara moved a bit closer to Zuko, reaching out a hand to touch his shoulder. "No, you're not alone. I'm here, remember?"
Zuko finally turned to face the waterbender. Looking down at her other hand, which was placed on his arm, he reached over and took it in his, squeezing it slightly. Katara pulled him close, letting his head rest against her shoulder. She felt him tremble slightly, and she was certain that he was crying. She had known that it was only a matter of time before the dam would crumble…and it had.
Zuko gazed out the window of his quarters, noting that the sun was beginning to set and that night was moments away. He knew they had to start preparing for the mission. He only hoped that his concern for his uncle did not distract him, otherwise the consequences could be deadly.
Speaking of his uncle, he figured it wouldn't be a bad idea to go check on his condition and to let it be known that it was time for him to depart, along with Katara.
He made his way down the hallway in somewhat of a daze, still not believing all the events that had happened in the last twelve hours. He knocked on his uncle's door twice before entering it, calling out to him softly. But his uncle was nowhere to be seen.
"Uncle? Uncle, where are you?"
Zuko began making his way down the hall in a haste, wondering where in the world his uncle could have gone. He shouldn't be up walking around. He need to stay in bed.
'Maybe he's in the galley,' Zuko thought. But a quick scan of the galley proved that his uncle wasn't there. He next started making his way towards the deck, figuring he had to be up there somewhere.
Sure enough, as soon as Zuko stepped out onto the deck, he saw his uncle standing over by the edge of the ship, staring out over the ocean. The large sky bison stood near him, nudging the man slightly with his nose. It was clear the animal could sense that the man was troubled.
Zuko slowly approached the man from behind and placed a hand gently on his shoulder. "Uncle, you shouldn't be out here. You should be back inside, resting."
"I've been resting for hours, Zuko. A man can only stay in a bed for so long without going insane."
Zuko came around to his uncle's right side, glancing out over the ocean with him. After a moment's pause, he turned and looked towards the man, and quickly took note that his uncle was aging, as much as he hated to admit it.
"I didn't even get to see him one last time," Iroh said suddenly. He then grit his teeth angrily, muttering a murderous, "If I ever see Zhao…" he gripped the railing, his knuckles turning white. "…I don't know what I'll do."
Iroh turned and looked towards his nephew, his face instantly softening. He held back his tears and slowly pulled the boy into an embrace. "But I should be thanking Agni that I still have you."
"I'm sorry, Uncle."
Iroh sighed. "This is all this war has done: just cause death and pain. This war was a mistake, and it needs to come to an end."
"Exactly how long have you felt this way?"
"Quite some time now."
Zuko looked puzzled. "I don't understand, Uncle, if you're against this war and want it to end…then why did you try to help me capture the Avatar?"
"There are some things, Zuko, that you need to discover for yourself. You had to find your own way. I could not do that for you. You had to find your own destiny. Soon, Zuko, you won't need me at all."
Zuko shook his head, smiling. "No, Uncle, I'll always need you."
A/N: I am deeply sorry for the long wait. But as you all know, my interest in this fanfic has done nothing but go downhill. I am just thankful that it's almost over. Yes, there will be one more chapter after this, and then an epilogue. Shocker, right? And honestly, I can only be happy. I'm happy because for the first time in a very long time in at least 3 years, I will have completed a multi-chapter fanfic, and I'll be happy because I'll never have to worry about it again. I don't much like this fanfic anymore. I think it's awful and it doesn't interest me anymore, and I'm just glad it'll be done soon.
I don't know when the next chapter will be up though. It's hard to say. I currently have two other multi-chapter PPG fanfics up that I'm more worried about. So it could be another few weeks, or even months before chapter 22 is out. But we'll just have to wait and see.
And wow, I'm really close to 800 reviews. It'd be really cool if I could reach 1,000 by the time this story comes to an end, or after. But with only two chapters left, I don't think that's going to happen. However, the most reviews I think I've ever gotten for a story I think was 810. It was for a really shitty story that I wrote like back in 2003. I've long since deleted it, but I've always wanted to beat that record, which I'm pretty sure I can do. And THAT story was 48 chapters. So it'll be cool to get that amount again but with half the amount of chapters lol. So help me break the record, guys!