Iroh calmly walked into the chambers of the Fire Lord, Cadence at his side looking somewhat nervous. It had been years since he'd last seen Ozai, save his presence at the funeral and at the coronation, and he had no idea how much had changed between them. After all, Iroh never would have believed his father would disinherit him in favor of Ozai, especially so soon after his own son's death.
The one thing that stuck out in his memory regarding Ozai was his ambition, an ambition bordering on zeal. He truly believed to the depths of his soul in the ambition set in motion for the Fire Nation by Sozen. Iroh himself had merely pursued it as a means to an end, towards rebuilding the world as the Order of the White Lotus taught was the true path. Perhaps, towards the end, their father had seen that of the two of them, and chosen Ozai to guide the Fire Nation for that reason.
As he entered the chambers, guards lined the walls behind the fire pots, as Ozai himself knelt, in the arraignment of the Fire Lord, at the top of the dais. Iroh knelt before the steps, Cadence beside him. The little pony stared up nervously at the Fire Lord.
"Leave us," Ozai ordered the guards, and they promptly vacated the room.
Once the guards were gone, Iroh bowed low in obeisance to the Fire Lord. Cadence, beside him, glanced up at him before mirroring his movements.
"None of that, Iroh," Ozai said firmly, rising to his feet and descending the stairs. "Not just between us, and especially not now..." As Iroh stood in surprise, Ozai pulled him into a fierce embrace. "I can't begin to understand your pain or loss, brother," Ozai whispered, emotion thick in his voice. "All I ask is that you let me be here for you in any way I can."
Iroh smiled sadly as he returned the embrace. At least nothing between them had changed. "Thank you, Ozai," he whispered back.
Cadence let out a happy squeak, climbing up Iroh's robes to nuzzle Ozai's cheek. The Fire Lord pulled back in shock. "Iroh, what is this adorable creature?" he asked gaily, breaking the embrace to open his arms to her. A look of ineffable joy crossed his face as she leapt into his arms to nuzzle him.
"Her name is Cadence," Iroh replied, pleased to see that Cadence and Ozai were able to get along. It had seemed at first that Cadence would have rejected Ozai as she had Azula. "I believe her to be a Spirit Creature, one of the Love Spirit's."
"She certainly seems to respond to love," Ozai agreed, tickling Cadence's tummy with one hand, making her wriggle happily. "Was that why she was so nervous when I was up on the dais? Because I was keeping my emotions hidden?"
"Perhaps," Iroh allowed, accepting the explanation. "I am pleased that she has become so fond of you. It would not be good for her to dislike her Uncle." At Ozai's shocked expression, Iroh smiled goofily. "She has chosen me to be her Father."
The amazement on Ozai's face made him look almost boyish again. "Truly, you are beloved of the Spirit World, brother," he breathed. "So soon after your time of grief, they send you one to love and be loved by...a great destiny must surely await you."
"I hope it won't wait too long," Iroh joked. "I am not as young as I once was."
His brother chuckled in amusement. "I am sure that you will have time enough to see to both your destiny and your new ward," he assured. Stepping back, he returned to the dais, and all three of them resumed their former positions. Cadence was smiling up at Ozai now, rather than looking nervous. Having seen his true heart, his outward coldness no longer confused her. "So tell me, brother," Ozai continued, now once more in the tone of the Fire Lord, "is there anything I can do to ease your grief? To help you recover?"
Iroh thought about this for a time, his eyes trailing frequently to Cadence. "...can you release me from my duties as a General for a year or two?" he asked. "I feel it would be appropriate if I were to journey for a time, to understand what the Spirits have planned for me...and what they have planned for Cadence."
"Of course," Ozai replied. "Take all the time you need. As much as your counsel and expertise will be missed - not to mention your presence - it is for the benefit of the Fire Nation that you be whole in mind and heart when you return to duty." His smile was soft, though his eyes sad. "I will miss having you here...but it is for the best that you do what you feel you must in this regard."
Iroh smiled as he bowed, though not as low as before. "Thank you, Fire Lord Ozai...my brother." Cadence mirrored his movements, smiling.
"Are you really leaving, Uncle?"
Iroh looked up from his packing. He had discarded his robes as a Fire Nation General and had dressed plainly in Earth Nation colors. While he had all his paperwork to certify his identity should he encounter any officials, he felt it best that he not parade that fact before civilians, especially when not surrounded by an army to protect him. He was under no illusions of how the common people felt about the Fire Nation's conquest. "Yes, Zuko," he stated calmly. "I am. I need some time and solitude to come to terms with my grief, and understand my future."
"I could come with you," Zuko offered.
"No, Zuko," Iroh chided gently, shaking his head. "You have a duty here, as a Prince. You must remain and continue your studies, and your training. Fire Lord Ozai needs you by his side, you and your sister."
Cadence made a very rude noise as she popped up out of the luggage, her face screwed up like she'd eaten something sour. This set both Iroh and Zuko to laughing.
"And you needn't worry about the weight of grief crushing me in my loneliness," Iroh reassured his nephew. He scooped Cadence up into his arms. "This little one won't let that happen."
Zuko nodded. "You take good care of my Uncle," Zuko told Cadence. "Alright?"
Smiling, Cadence nodded. With an air of solemnity, she drew an X on her chest with one hoof, fluttered her wings, and then put the same hoof over her eye, all the while babbling nonsense baby sounds.
"...what?" Zuko asked in confusion.
"I believe she was swearing a special promise," Iroh translated. "Childish words carrying great seriousness to a child."
"What, like..." Zuko began performing the motions. "Cross my heart, hope to fly, stick a teacake in my eye?"
Cadence tilted her head for a moment, then squeaked, clapping her hooves.
"Something like that, apparently," Iroh translated good-naturedly.
Zuko managed a smile, before hugging Iroh around the middle. "I'll miss you, Uncle."
Iroh returned the embrace. "And I will miss you too, my nephew."
From her place clinging to Iroh's arm, Cadence gave Zuko a kiss on his forehead.
Some of you may be wondering about how I characterized Ozai here.
The thing is, all of his actions in the show can be interpreted in one of two ways.
One, he's a sociopath like Azula.
Two, he's a true believer. A zealot. Everything he says in the show to justify his actions...he genuinely believes it.
There are two reasons I choose the secondary option. The first is plot related, and will unfold over the course of the story. The second...
Ozai exiled his wife after his father was dead. If he were a sociopath, the logical course of action would have been eliminating her quietly because she was dangerous to his ambitions as long as she lived.