Dedicated to my parents, who taught me so much. Dedicated to my teachers, who did not give up. Dedicated to my role models, who guided my way. Dedicated to my brother, who lit up my day.
And this is also dedicated to Iroh, who taught me more than I ever thought a cartoon could.
"Well?" Fire Lord Zuko asked.
"He's very cold…and he's having trouble keeping his eyes open." Avatar Aang paused and lowered his head. "He's ready."
"He wants to see you." Aang said, holding the curtain open. Zuko nodded and went inside. Aang closed the curtains behind him.
There he was, the mighty Dragon of the West, as frail and as weak as the day he was born. He had spent the last twenty six years of his life working in the little tea shop in Ba Sing Se, handling most of the work by himself. He even moved into the floor above it so he could keep an eye on it.
Zuko had not been there to see him ages. Now that Iroh was ready to leave the world of the living, Zuko regretted ever going away.
"Uncle?" Zuko asked to see if he was awake.
His wrinkled head lean toward the warm voice, shaking softly like a baby rattle.
"…there…is my nephew." Iroh's smile was as soft as a baby's. His gentle, warming eyes were the only other thing that did not age.
"Uncle, I'm so sorry." Zuko ran to his side, got down on his knees and grabbed his uncle's withered hand.
"Easy now, easy." Iroh spoke calmly, with no fear of his life ending.
"I should have come sooner." Zuko lowered his head.
"You were busy. Being Fire Lord is a great responsibility."
"I could have left earlier. I know I could have. Uncle, you mean so much to me." Zuko began to cry. "I don't want you to die."
"Why not?" Iroh asked with a cough.
"Because…" Zuko thought about it. "Because I need you here. I haven't learned enough from you."
Iroh laughed gently. It sounded like his lungs were hurting. "You silly boy. I was not there for decades…and you took care of our country. You did not fail me. You were able to walk on your own two feet without."
"Uncle…" Zuko didn't say anything.
"Zuko, do not be sad." Iroh spoke slowly, loosing strength with each word. "Death is not evil. It is not the enemy. It is as natural as puberty, as natural as aging, as natural as breathing. It is something everyone must do in life. This…is how it is supposed to be. Our role models, our parents, our mentors…they need to leave us. Their purpose is not to always hold our hands, but to teach us how to walk on our own. It is essential that they do not stay forever, so that their survivors can move on." Iroh coughed heavily "And…and so their students can become teachers themselves."
"I…understand." Zuko did understand, he really did, but he still didn't like it.
"And besides…" Iroh smiled wider and closed his eyes, giggling to himself. "…death is not the end. Not really. Tell me Zuko, your favorite story when you were a boy, the one that inspired you…when did it end?"
"What?" Zuko gripped Iroh's hand tighter. "I don't understand."
"Your favorite story. You favorite adventure. The fable that changed your life. It will always be there. Even if the last chapter finishes, the Story does not end. Stories never end."
Iroh struggled to pull himself out of his covers. Zuko tried to push him down, but the Dragon was stubborn. He reached out with his boney finger, and touched Zuko's heart.
"It is here Zuko. That is where the Story stays. The characters that you loved, the ones that taught you and helped you through the hard times. They are always going to be right there." Iroh paused. "And so will I. Don't ever forget that."
Zuko's composure vanished. Like a river breaking through a weakened dam, he began to weep like a young child and hugged his uncle gently.
"There, there." Iroh patted his shoulder. Zuko remembered when Iroh would slap his back so hard that he'd nearly fall over. Now, Zuko felt a pat as gentle and as chilling as a breeze in winter.
"I don't want you to leave." Zuko's tears landed on his uncle's robe, the clothes that he'd be buried in.
"I know. And I don't really want to leave…now that you are here again." Iroh paused as Zuko cried. "But…there is one last thing I have to tell you. Before I have to go."
Iroh sat back down in his bed, preparing himself. He grabbed Zuko's still young hand and patted his knuckles.
"You have done something wonderful by being here, my boy. No man should die wondering what his legacy will be. I was not sure of what my legacy was going to be until I saw you. You being here means more to me than anything else. You have done more than you know by just being here." Iroh smiled again. "I'm a happy man."
Zuko cried. He never felt so helpless before. He covered his eyes with his free hand, ashamed of his weakness. Blinded, he did not see Iroh close his own eyes.
"Thank you…for everything…" Zuko hesitated. He felt Iroh's hand become cold as ice. "…father. Thank you father. You were always...always..." Iroh's lungs emptied out, his final breath departing. Zuko sobbed and screamed into his palm.
Zuko would never know if Iroh heard what he said, that he was the real father in his life, that he was the real guardian. But a happy grin stayed on the old man's face even after his spirit left. And a tear on his cheek rolled down his wrinkles so slowly, like it was holding on long enough for Zuko to look down and see it.
Maybe Iroh did hear him. Maybe he did not. Later, Aang would tell Zuko that Iroh already knew, regardless. And that he loved him.
After so many years of strife and pain, searching for wisdom and knowledge, becoming a legend and having a story so amazing that most would never believe it, the final page had turned.
The Dragon was finally gone.