Summary: Fire is life, emotions; to lose the centre of your life, of your world, is to collapse entirely. How can he even begin to rebuild after all he has lost?
Warnings: It could be argued that some characters are OoC, but for story driven reasons.
A/N: Inspired by some articles I read on "the mighty dot com", and recalling how I felt after some of my own familial losses.
My thanks to Sheankelor and PhantomChajo for giving it a read and providing feedback. Constructive criticism is more than welcomed. If I've missed any formatting please let me know, I'm still learning how to set it out.
Nothing made sense any more. The sun rose, the sun set, but it was so dim and never quite drove away the coolness in his bones. Around him the world continued for others, in laughter and smiles abruptly stifled when he was noticed, how even anger was quashed in his presence. It was so quiet, so respectful of his grief and yet he hated it. That sick, twisting mockery of his grief, his loss. How dare they even try to understand everything? The urge to just lash out, even burn those who made him feel that way sickened him.
That wasn't what made him lie awake at night. Those moments where he felt nothing but satisfaction at the thought of hurting them just to make himself feel better were what kept him awake at night. Those moments were the ones he feared and that sick pleasure combined with his dark grief was poisoning him. He knew it as certainly as the fact that it was his failure to save his son.
Those unwanted memories tainted his world be he awake or dreaming and ripped all that was good from his world.
He sat quietly in the library, the faded laughter of children and a young man still echoing after all this time and stared at a scroll recounting . . . something unimportant. On days like this nothing mattered at all, not even when simple duty meant he should focus on the here and now. Today, nothing helped and the memory stole up on him.
"Please! It's urgent. The Prince -"
"What could be so important that the General need hear from you?" Iroh shrugged aside the argument going on outside the tent in favour of listening to the reports from the Lieutenant-Generals. If it was urgent he'd be informed shortly.
"No, I'm from Major Lu Ten's -" He dropped the map and burst out of the tent, heart hammering a tattoo in his veins. The man was covered from top to toe with smoke stains, earth and thick blood trickling down his arms. A broad spike of earth protruded from his shoulder and the Captain was wavering on his feet. "What happened? Report!" Wasn't that Bao, one of Lu Ten's friends from his first day in Officer's Training?
"Iroh, please. Everything was proceeding according to the plans, we were going to take the bunker, but then the wounded earthbenders and soldiers just poured out of the ground like demons! It was a suicide charge and they just pushed through us. They were after the gold marked!
"We tried to get him away, I swear on my sister's life we did! But the earthbender shattered the rock and we couldn't move fast enough. Lu Ten was hit. He's unconscious in the healing tents." Bao dropped to his knees and shook as a pained grimace warped his face, Iroh knew he should go to help him up, but the earth under him was shaking, there was a roaring in his ears and it was all he could do to keep standing himself.
He shook his head. No, Lu Ten would be fine. It was impossible that a filthy earthbender would be able to seriously injure his son. He was beloved by his entire personal squad, they would die to a man before letting Lu Ten come to serious harm. Ignoring the apprehension gripping him he thanked Bao and walked off. He would see his son and upon his waking he would hug him to within an inch of his life, then move him off the front lines for a few months. It was high time to start showing him how the highest ranking Generals decided things in the battlefield anyway.
The clatter of dropped scrolls tore Iroh from the past and back into the present. A mortified librarian stuttered apologies at him, but Iroh ignored him. Though it was still an hour 'til noon it was obvious he'd get no work done today. Perhaps he would find solitude and an emptiness of mind outside. Though he didn't understand why Ozai had seared the gardens immediately surrounding the Palace to cracked, black rock it brought him an odd sense of peace now. He didn't want beauty now, he certainly didn't want to be reminded of the loss of his father, his throne and birthright, his child by looking at the rest of his family.
Lu Ten had worn his hair like Zuko's until he was ten and permanently changed styles in imitation of his father. Even approaching twelve Zuko was small enough to pass for ten, and with that hairstyle the resemblance to Lu Ten was so strong that sometimes even looking at Zuko was enough to make him want to break down in tears again. He prayed that Ozai would never know the loss of his children and the heartbreak it brought.
Best for him to absent himself from the family on these days, he never wanted to hurt his niece or nephew, simply for saying or doing the wrong thing in his presence. And he had found his fist curling in preparation to lash out with fist or fire at them once. It had so terrified him that he had ordered them out of his rooms, terror lacing his words with unjust anger before vomiting profusely into a basin. No, today was a day to avoid the children.
To the west of the Palace was a small outcropping he could sit behind, not much more than waist height on a child it wasn't enough to truly conceal him, but he knew none would approach anyway. It wasn't wise to approach a member of the Royal Family, let alone the Great Dragon of the West without announcing oneself. Though how great could he be if he couldn't even safeguard his own son from a desperate attack from earthbenders whose worth was less than the dirt beneath their feet.
Nearly six decades of habit had him settle into a meditative pose as he began to breathe. The instinct that had driven him all his life had him settle his breathing and reach inwards for a forced calm. It had been months since he had felt truly centred and confident in himself, a fire on unshaken rock untouched by the waters around him. Now though, the raging tides within were drowning him as surely as the stars followed their pre-destined paths in the heavens above.
While he had bent a few flames every now and again, he had scarce practised at all. In truth, his choices had shattered the root of his fire so decisively that Iroh was certain that Azula would outstrip him in terms of power right now. Though he had firmly avoided all glimpses of Zuko practising his bending due to the fear of grief's pain, he knew that the boy was now roughly his equal in terms of sheer strength and power.
What a worthless man he was, to be the firebending equal to a delayed child who'd barely been bending five years. His focus gone, there was even a good chance that Zuko would be able to beat him in a spar. Lu Ten had only just beaten his father in an all-out spar two weeks before he'd been injured.
He shook his head violently and stared at the inside of the compound walls. As they were blank, so too would his mind be blank. Within, there would be his formless awareness and the pale, guttering flames of a broken spirit.
"Lu Ten cannot return from the Spirit World. I have seen this and know it. This body is but an empty anchor, a mere thread tying it to Lu Ten." The too-steady breath sealing down his grief as he delivered a signed scroll. "My son is dead for all that the body still breathes. Let him go, let him freely walk the World of the Spirits."
"General, are you cert-"
"Do it! He can't come back. He can't. I have tried to bring him home. I've tried!" Iroh dropped the scroll permitting the merciful death of his son and pressed his hands to his eyes to drive away the tears. He drew three shuddering breaths and fought down the maelstrom within. "My child is dead through my own fault. I have failed to retrieve him safely from the Spirit World. His death is already on my hands. The flesh is but a container for the spirit, the spirit is gone and the flesh is useless." If he told himself this often enough, maybe he would even come to believe it one day.
The silence was thick and stilted. The physician tried to maintain a professional mien as she prepared for – as she prepared. As long as there was one person around, he would not break, he wouldn't. Why was the Chief Physician still glancing at him with an odd look in her eyes and her mouth pinched? Did she disapprove of his actions? Didn't she believe him? One full week of waiting for Lu Ten to wake followed by three weeks of terrified silence on both sides after the Dragon of the West had gone out and personally seen to the problem of the bunker. And then executed all involved in the incident. Another week passed as he'd stormed into the Spirit World with the ferocity of a firestorm and sought out his son. Lu Ten was never coming back. It was time to free him.
"Iroh?" He raised his weary head and gazed at He. With a voice softened by compassion she asked, "Do you want to wait outside?" On a table to the right sat a small cup with wisps of steam rising from the concoction within. If he didn't know any better, he'd have said that it was tea.
Grimly, he took the cup. He had murdered his son through carelessness and weakness, it was fitting he finish the deed. "Leave us."
"You shouldn't have to - "
Peace settled over him. "Chief Physician He, if you don't leave now I will have you, your family and all of their friends executed to the last. This I swear as Iroh, Dragon of the West and Heir to the Fire Lord." He smiled and knew that it was terrible. She actually stumbled backwards before drawing herself up with all the dignity that had lead to her rank. When she spoke, recrimination coloured her words. "General, I leave you to your son. My condolences." Face pale, she left, though with one last backward look as if she hoped to dissuade him from his path.
"Will it hurt?" The foolish words tumbled from him just before she left the tent. Of course it wouldn't hurt Lu Ten, he wasn't even within his body to feel physical pain. Her posture relaxed and she took just two steps back into the tent. "Iroh, from one parent to another, I swear that it won't hurt him. It's merely the strongest concentration of a sleeping draught. It will be like going to sleep." She bowed deeply and spoke again, "My deepest, sincerest sympathies." This time, Iroh knew she meant it. She left.
The first time he had held Lu Ten the babe had been a week old, storms having delayed his rush home. He'd been able to cradle the boy in the crook of his arm and had wept with joy when his little boy had curled an entire fist around just the tip of his finger. Even after preparing himself for fatherhood he had still been surprised to see how small their unnamed child was.
Now, as he sat on the bed and held Lu Ten just as gently as he had the very first time. The grown Lu Ten was so much bigger and yet just as frail. Iroh felt his heart break. "Sshhh little man, Daddy's here, he loves you so much. Don't forget me, don't hate me please." Awkwardly, he massaged Lu Ten's throat to get him to swallow the drink. He had spent so long holding his precious son that the draught had gone cold and shadows darkened the tent walls.
He began to hum melodies he hadn't sung since before Lu Ten had started his education properly. Traditional lullabies and the soft, wordless songs every loving parent hums to their infants filled the air as he stroked his son's unbound hair. Lu Ten's breaths grew shallower and then stopped.
Moments later his heart stopped.
Iroh bolted awake with a wail of grief trapped in his throat. His whole body wracked with silent sobs, he leant against the stone at his back as the late autumn sun finished setting. Why did his little boy have to die when Zuko had survived all that had beset him during his first year? Better that Zuko died than – before he could complete that thought a hand tentatively touched his back.
He flinched away as if scalded.
"Sorry! I didn't mean to scare you," Iroh whirled around and saw Zuko babbling away, though the words were lost in shock. Had he really just wished death on his nephew? Staggering to his feet, grace lost entirely in the aftermath of the pain of his dream and the guilt roiling his stomach, he hissed, "Leave me be! No one wants you around you worthless child!" His voice rose to a bellow, "Get out of my sight!" The boy fled. Iroh collapsed and all the turmoil just disappeared. Everything had gone, even the icy ashes of his sorrow was gone. He was dimly aware that he should be terrified, that this couldn't be normal, but he couldn't bring himself to care for anything. He stood, brushed himself off, dried his face and walked back to his rooms. He would have dinner brought to him tonight.
The following days past with all precision of a machine. He ate because food was brought to him or he was summoned to the dining table. He drank water because it was convenient. He slept when he was exhausted. He worked because there was little else to do. His mind was enshrouded with fog and the apathy was welcomed. Even years later, even calculating backwards he would never be able to accurately work out how long he had spent lost in that numbing condition. He knew, oh he knew very well the day of Lu Ten's death. He knew the day when he woke up and felt happy about the day ahead for the first time since word of Lu Ten's injury had reached him. The interim time just seemed to slip and jump around; sometimes only remembering a few hours of a day before the blur took over again. There was just that strange catch in his throat, almost as if something had lodged there was on the verge of choking him, that interfered with his calm.
But that day, he woke up and it was a good day. He pushed open his windows to allow the cooler winter air in and provide an invigorating start to his day after such a wonderful breakfast. He had much to do today! He was negotiating with some merchants for reduced rates of food, clothing and other essentials to the inhabitants of Lu Dao Island after a recent, severe typhoon had decimated their crops and primary township. Azula was happy with her friends, even at this early hour he could hear their laughter from Azula's bedroom. Ozai seemed content enough in his own way and he'd spoken almost eagerly of some form of blueprints for prototypes being delivered that day. Zuko . . . hadn't been at breakfast. When had he last seen Zuko?
Consternation gripped him and he put down his teapot slowly. He couldn't remember the last time he had seen Zuko for more than a few moments, and always Zuko had been walking away from him. He hadn't been at the family meals either. Had no one had remarked upon this? As the water boiled he searched further back into his memories. " . . . you worthless child! Get out of my sight!" His hands rose to cover his mouth, shame tearing through him. He had hurt his nephew and the poor child had obviously taken him at face value. How could he have done such a cruel thing?!
Lu Dao could wait, it was time to find Zuko and try to fix the damage he had wrought. Where would his nephew hide? He remembered how much Zuko had loved practising his forms and his music, so the first place he went after the music rooms had proven empty was the indoor exercising halls. No Zuko. The outdoor ones held Azula and those lovely friends of hers practising their skills as they played. He stood and watched for a while. They truly were extraordinary for their ages, though there was still room for improvement. "Azula, young ladies, you've greatly improved since I last observed you. Would you permit an old man to pass on some tips to a younger generation?" He half expected them to decline it out of a need to respect his loss, but he did need to reconnect properly with all his family now that he had learnt just how delicate and transient it was.
"Thanks Uncle, that would be very helpful, wouldn't it girls?" Azula smiled and looked at her friends. What were their names again? He truly did need to involve himself in the young ones' lives if he couldn't even remember their friends' names.
"Oh yes Prince Iroh! That would be marvellous! The chance to learn from such a skilled person would be amazing!" The young girl with the plaited hair certainly bubbled with energy, but the other little girl was rather dour. He spent an hour teaching Azula, Ty Lee and Mai before regretfully leaving. "I have need to speak with Zuko concerning an important matter. Would you perhaps happen to know where he is?"
"Oh? Did Zuzu get himself into trouble again?" She spoke fondly and the smile certainly seemed warm, but there was something odd about her eyes. Perhaps it was just jealousy, so he put it aside deeming it unimportant for now..
"I simply require him for now."
"Well if he isn't hiding in the library he'll be be doing something in his rooms. He's so far behind that he has to work all the time just to keep up with his studies. He's almost never left his rooms these last weeks." She pouted, "He's just no fun at all any more!" It was strange that Zuko spent so much time in the library, he usually read outside or in the family rooms. Perhaps he really was struggling to learn the duties of the Heir as it had only been a few months since - Iroh paused and took a deep breath. Since Lu Ten and Azulon had died so close together and Iroh had been too grief stricken to assume his duties.
"Thank you dear niece. I will be busy for most of the day, but I would like to speak more with you. Perhaps during dinner?"
Azula smiled warmly. "That would be really nice Uncle. But no tea, please?"
Zuko wasn't in the library. He was in his rooms, but in the small study that he never used. Whatever he was supposed to be working on certainly wasn't holding his attention as he was staring at a small tapestry and tapping his brush on the edge of the desk. Iroh's breath caught in his throat as a myriad memories of Lu Ten sprung to life. He closed his eyes, tilted his head back and let the quick flash of grief roar through him. Once the pain had eased he opened his eyes again. Zuko was still oblivious to his presence.
"Nephew?" Zuko whipped around in his chair and almost pushed his chair over in his rush to stand. The young man refused to look him in the eyes.
"Uncle. Have I – why are you here?" Though Zuko was clearly trying to stay composed, Iroh could see the subtle way the boy was leaning back against his desk and the whitening knuckles gripping the desk. How could he have so wounded Zuko that Iroh's mere presence was enough to scare him?
"Come with me to your sitting room." Perhaps a more comfortable place would help him feel better. Reaching the chairs Iroh waited for Zuko to sit down, but after some moments of standing had to gently prompt Zuko to sit first. He did, though he still remained tense and refused to speak. As Iroh realised he would have to speak first Zuko blurted out another apology, "I didn't mean to bother you. I tried to keep out of your way, I promise!"
"Stop Zuko." Zuko flinched back and Iroh would have touched him reassuringly, but some instinct he had thought died with Lu Ten warned him to stay seated. "I have wronged you greatly Zuko, and for that I can only beg your forgiveness even though I don't deserve it." Iroh bowed deeply and waited for Zuko to speak. As the silence continued Iroh felt hope begin to wither in his heart, perhaps Zuko would rightfully refuse him. It would be the least he deserved for striking at an innocent.
"I don't understand. I bothered you, so I did what you wanted." The boy was so confused that his voice bordered on the plaintive.
"What were you thinking when you came to me that night?"
Zuko fiddled with his sleeves a little, still refusing to look Iroh in the face. "You've been so sad recently and I thought we could talk. If you wanted to, I mean. I know you don't like me around and you always leave if I'm around too long, I just thought you'd had enough of me." Oh, his too-perceptive nephew being right for all the wrong reasons. "And I saw you sleeping, but then you woke up and started crying. I just wanted to help you." He placed his hands in his lap and looked down at them. "I didn't mean to offend you, I swear."
"You have done nothing wrong. The fault lies entirely with me." He had refused to talk about everything, it was just too raw and he feared that speaking the words would irrevocably destroy him. But today he felt alive and his nephew deserved to know the truth even if it broke Iroh. "Lu Ten died weeks before his death was announced. The true events were hidden because of my reactions. There was a suicidal charge by a group of soldiers. They specifically targeted those wearing the gold because they knew that royalty had taken the field. Lu Ten was knocked out.
"For the first couple of days I thought he would wake soon enough. He was so strong and full of life that it was impossible to think otherwise."
"I know, he always used to win the spars and battlefield training at home. He never wrote about any failures either, except against you and some of the Generals and Admirals of course." said Zuko as he reached over the small table to briefly touch his uncle's arm.
"Ah, but he beat me once too. He was so happy he didn't stop smiling for days." Iroh felt himself smile even against the pain he was thinking of. "But Lu Ten never woke up. After the first week I went and took out the encampment on my own and ordered the deaths of all involved."
"Even our own men. I failed my men because of my fear and I struck out like a wounded animal. Only twenty-one of Lu Ten's personal sixty had survived the attack in the first place because they sought to save their friend and commander." He laughed bitterly and buried his face in his hands. "And how did I repay their bravery? Their loyalty to their commander? By executing the lot of them!" There was a deep silence after Iroh's revelation and he just knew that Zuko would never be able to respect him again. He heard his nephew get up and leave. Iroh wondered if he could still keep Azula's love as long as he kept silent about the truth.
A blanket was draped over him and Zuko sat next to him. "I, it wasn't good, what you did. They shouldn't have hidden the ex – executions either, it was dishonourable. I don't know why you did it, but maybe you were hurting too much to think? I know sometimes when I feel really bad it gets hard to think properly. I don't understand, but you do feel sorry, don't you?"
"Of course I do. But by the time I did it was days too late. I knew that if Lu Ten woke up he would never speak to me again, he would have been within his rights to order my arrest and I'd have gone willingly! After four weeks of nothing I went to the Spirit World through terrible methods to bring him back; his body still lived and was healing, but his spirit was gone. I thought I could bring him back, that Lu Ten would be willing."
Heedless of Zuko's young age Iroh spilled out as much as he was permitted about his visit. How past, present and future had no meaning and time varied depending on the whim of nearby spirits, on the location within the Spirit World and with no true pattern whatsoever and the timeless voids of the fractures between the territories. To Lu Ten it had been as if a century had passed because he was so far from his ancestral shrines that there was no anchor to the human world. Of Lu Ten's last words, "I wish I could come with you, but the time's gone when that could be possible. It would have been too late within a day and you didn't know that anything was wrong until several days had passed. Dad, I forgave you years ago for everything, and I love you."
"I killed Lu Ten."The final moments spilled from him in a torrent and finally Iroh stuttered to a halt. Zuko was crying almost silently. He rubbed at his nose with the back of his hand and gave him a hug. Gratefully, Iroh clung to Zuko and wept. The storm passed and Iroh disengaged from Zuko feeling exhausted, but almost at peace.
"You said Lu Ten was ready to go. You said he was already dead, and Lu Ten said it was okay. I, Lu Ten really couldn't come back? That he was dead in all ways that matter? There was just a body?"
"I think maybe I could do that if I knew there was no chance ever. I could be strong. It would hurt so much, but I would try. I don't hate you. I don't. I don't think I understand, it's all so hard, but I don't hate you. I don't think it's right, he's your son and Lu Ten shouldn't have died before you.
"Is that why you hate me? Because -"
"No. It is true that I've been avoiding you because sometimes you look so much like Lu Ten when he was about your age. Even your hairstyle," He reached up to touch Zuko's phoenix tail and run his fingers though it.
Zuko leant into the caress and said, "I know. I've seen the pictures." His hands lifted to the binding. "I can change it if you want. I don't mind."
Iroh shook his head and pulled his nephew's hands away from his hair, content merely to hold them. "No, no. Don't change yourself for me or for anyone else. I should have spoken of this sooner so that I wouldn't hurt you. It's not your fault you bear such a resemblance to your cousin. Keep your hair like this as long as you wish. Your destiny, your choices, are yours to make. And if there are days when I'm sad, can't even really speak with you or anyone else, it's not your fault.
"That night I wasn't shouting at you. I wasn't shouting at anyone present, save perhaps myself. Or maybe I was shouting at the spirits, the soldiers who attacked, those who failed to protect my son, maybe even Lu Ten for not moving fast enough. It all hurt so much and I didn't really see you until it was too late.
"Fire is a violent, explosive force and firebenders are often the most vulnerable to the emotions within. This is one key reason why we meditate, to help us learn to understand ourselves and come to terms with what has happened to us for good or for ill. To neglect meditating properly as I have done is to lose control." He drew Zuko into a hug, this time seeking to give comfort. "I am sorry that you have been the victim of my loss of control."
"You, you want me?" There was a rawness in Zuko's voice that reached out and clung to some part of Iroh that was hurting. He responded the only way that he could to such a need.
"You are wanted. And I shall do my very best to never harm your in such a way again." He paused for a moment wondering if he was right to make another promise when the remains of so many broken promises littered his past. "There will be bad days and good days, and I can't promise I won't ever shout at you, or say harmful words, but I promise I will do my best not to hurt you."
"I believe you. And I forgive you for scaring me so much."
"It will always be wrong to hurt someone just to make yourself feel better. You don't deserve to be hurt like that. Even if you had done something wrong, then to hurt you in response would have been a greater wrong in my part. You would only have learnt that it's okay to hurt people. It isn't.
"I can never forgive myself for what I did to the Fourteenth. It was disgusting and I am shamed forever. I only hope that one day you can actually be proud of me in spite of all I have done wrong."
"Okay." Zuko drew back from Iroh and he realised that his kind nephew really was too young to properly understand everything they had spoken of. He would wait until Zuko was older to return to some of these topics. He shouldn't have burdened Zuko with an old man's guilt, but he refused to deny that he felt better for it.
Zuko withdrew a box from one of his voluminous pockets. "I wanted to talk to you back then, but I also wanted to give you something." It was a small thing made from some form of teak cross-breed with cherry wood inlays carved in the almost wave-like patterns of fire seen on the older paintings. The style had fallen out of common favour, so Zuko must have commissioned the box himself based on what he knew his uncle liked.
He was already poised to thank his dear nephew for being so thoughtful when Zuko continued shyly. "You always said that tea helped you, and I know it won't help you a lot, but I thought maybe you'd like it a little." Zuko offered the gift with both hands, the box barely twice as long as his two palms together, and only a palm wide. Equally formally, Iroh took the box and looked inside. Two small compartments and in one was his favourite blend of tea, in the other, a new type. Even if it was a sub-par tea Iroh knew that it would become one of his favourites.
"I got your favourite jasmine, and the other is Cloud Jade. It's mountain grown and needs a lot of mist during the spring, so it can be hard to cultivate right. It's imported from one of the colonies and it's hard to get here. I think you'll like it?" Zuko's voice lilted up in a nervous question as Iroh looked at his gift. Not only had Zuko listened to him talk about tea, but actually remembered what he'd said. It even looked and smelled like it would be a nice, calming white tea.
He closed the box and gave his first true, full smile in weeks. "I love it. Now, shall we have some tea. I would like to hear about what you have been learning. Perhaps I might even be of some help." Zuko smiled, true it was a little tentative, but he spoke freely nonetheless.
He was content to listen and advise and though he knew there would still be many bad days, he had hope that perhaps he would be able to do more than just survive and actually live one day. He was so happy that Zuko had forgiven him. He would never truly forgive himself for it, but he felt that he might one day come close to forgiving himself. Hope would be enough for now.
Settling back into his rooms again as he helped his nephew prepare for his coronation, Iroh found himself feeling an odd sense of dislocation. He'd said his farewells so definitively that day he'd followed Zuko into exile, all but certain that Zuko would never be able to return and vowing to be the home that Zuko so dearly wanted and needed, that the thought of returning to the Palace hadn't hit until then.
He had made a home for them both, first on the ship until it was taken from them. Then at the Jasmine Dragon, his new home. Zuko's home too whenever he felt the need of refuge, no matter how long Zuko spent away. Iroh looked around, his furnishings strangers to his eyes, and his brow furrowed. He shouldn't resent these rooms, yet he did. Surely there should be some residual feeling to them? Something other than a vague shadow of nostalgia and lingering negativity.
Oddly bereft he walked over to the wall lined with shelves. If nothing else, he would have copies made of all his scrolls and bring the originals back to the Dragon; the copies could remain for those who wanted to learn. He would have to sort through the personal items he'd abandoned too. One day these rooms would belong to his grandchildren or great-grandchildren, so he might as well sort through his memories now.
Letters to and from his family were gathered up carefully and laid aside. Here, the first dizzying letter home after his brave, intelligent Zhang Min accepted his proposal; here, a tear-stained letter from Zhang Min informing him of her pregnancy. His mother's sudden illness and being begged home. Letters on Lu Ten's progress of an infant, his returned lamentations about war keeping him absent too often. Her last letter to him with the pool of ink from where she'd dropped her brush after she'd lost consciousness. Secrets confided and advice sought, first from his dear son, then from both nephew and niece.
Even the letters that now gave him cause for fury or self-recrimination he kept. The mere two sentence letter Ozai sent, cold and clinical, informing him of Zuko's early birth and likely imminent death. Ursa and Lu Ten's equally short, near-illegible letters imploring him to come home and say goodbye to his nephew before it was too late. Old letters from former comrades congratulating him on his victories and telling of their own victories. Azula's now patently fake letters 'regretting' how far Zuko had fallen behind her.
Jewellery and keepsakes were kept for whomever Zuko would one day marry and their children. Tears had been shed when he'd found Lu Ten's old fire ferret doll; the one he'd stubbornly given up at the age of ten, but insisted be kept with his father, "For your first grandchild!" Zuko's first-born would love it, Iroh was certain, so it too was kept.
Moving on to his desk Iroh began to strip it bare. Aside from the brushes gifted to him from his mother there was nothing that couldn't be replaced. His eyes lit upon a small, simply decorated box tucked away with great care in a drawer. Iroh gasped and picked it up. He remembered regretting to bring it when he'd left with Zuko, but now he was grateful for the haste with which he had packed. To have lost this with the ship would have been awful. It was by luck, and luck alone, that he had decided to bring Lu Ten's portrait with him on his walk that day so that they could speak surrounded by nature's peace.
This small gift from Zuko had been the first step on his road to healing, of forgiveness and redemption. It had reminded him that he was still loved and thought of every time he opened the drawer to retrieve more paper. A great warmth spread through him manifesting in a wide grin. How foolish of him to think that things meant home. Zuko was here, so Iroh was home. With great pride, and even greater love filling his spirit he placed the box firmly in position on top of his desk for all to see.
First, on a personal note, I've been in the situation where I heard confessions that were too mature for my age from an adult relative when I was ten or eleven years old. I listened, I heard, I tried to understand and I gave comfort. It did mess me up a bit and left me feeling very conflicted, but at the time I saw that the person in question needed me, so I put that aside. I based Iroh's reactions and even some choices on unrelated events centring around familial deaths, both my own and those I observed.
Storywise, yes, I gave Iroh extra guilt. Yes, I doubled up his reasons to journey to the Spirit World to bring Lu Ten back. Iroh hurts because of his choices. Even in canon I have no doubt that he blamed himself, this time he just blames himself more.
I originally had a fair amount of writing here where I talked about the implausibility of the Royal Family's timeline. Once you work it all and apply the canon birth years (minus Lu Ten's which I estimated from his portrait) it means that late babies are just too frequent in this family. Frankly, I believe that the entire Royal Family has fertility issues. A royal family in a world that has just entered the Industrial Era – a royal family of a nation at war with the entire world – should be popping out children every couple of years because of things like assassination, suicidal charges on the battlefield to destroy royalty and simpler things like illness, death and natural disasters.
So, in short form; at the time this story takes place (very early winter, 95AG) the ages are as follows:
Azulon: ninety-five - recently deceased. Born the year of the genocide - 0AG - when his father was eighty years old. He ascended the throne in 20AG.
Iroh: sixty-three. Born 32AG.
Ozai: forty-two. Born 53AG. Ascended the throne in the autumn of 95AG
Ursa: thirty-one -missing, status unknown. Born 64AG. Yes, she's only two years older that her nephew.
Lu Ten: twenty-nine - recently deceased. Born 66AG.
Zuko: eleven. Born 83AG. He's a winter baby and turns twelve only a few weeks after the main bulk of the story finishes. He's the only one to be born to to Royal Family and survive past his second year in over three hundred years.
Azula: ten. Born 85AG. She's a summer baby like the rest of her family.
Then again, consider this. Roku died in 12BG. Rina (Ursa's mother) must have been born in 11BG at the latest. Ursa was born in 64AG. Rina gave birth to Ursa at seventy-five at the earliest. Maybe the menopause simply doesn't exist in the Avaverse. Maybe those with exceptionally strong chi are simply fertile for far longer than most, and it would tie in to the reason why Azulon arranged Ozai's marriage with Ursa: creating a powerful bloodline.
Or, most likely, Writer's Can't Do the Maths and didn't realise that an additional generation, at least on Ursa's side, would help balance things out when people tried to piece together histories.