Foreword: Smidge more depressing than most of my stuff, but Eh. It was written in the span of two or three hours on a Thursday night.
Soundtrack: Kansas - Dust in the Wind
Prince Iroh joined the Fire Nation army at the age of fourteen. He turned down any attempt at being given a formal rank, and went through the standard motions of training even though he was already considered a near-expert at Firebending. He was partnered with several other boys, from poor houses to a Noble or two. By the end of training, they were like a band of brothers; Akiro, Isoroku, Kua and Po-han--the sons of a Fire Sage, Admiral, painter and laundryman, respectively. Together, the five of them served under a crotchety old fart who was universally nicknamed Yoshi because of his excellence at judging the morals of his students.
Their first mission, as luck would have it, bumped the lot of them up to what may as well have been a special forces unit. Untested and unprepared, Yoshi's boys were sent to gather information on an Earth Kingdom encampment several miles from the Eastern front line. Kua, out for a bit of glory, noted the encampment's lax defenses. Po-han, ever willing to go with whoever was the loudest, seconded him. Akiro was neutral, Isoroku sought to temper the situation with strategies and Iroh was the sole objector. Yoshi was not present, because Yoshi was still at base, arguing against the mission even being put together.
Kua died first. Iroh remembers it as plain as day, simply because it was the first time he had ever seen 'floating rocks' kill someone. After that, the entire night is something of a blur. When it was all said and done, Iroh, Isoroku and Po-han were the only ones standing. Akiro survived, but spent most of the night screaming himself near insanity while half-buried under burning bodies and tons of rock. Iroh cremated Kua, Isoroku and Po-han dug Akiro out and the four returned on captured Earth Kingdom ostrich horses; the mission was deemed a resounding success. Primarily because of the complete annihilated of a two hundred strong encampment, but also because the men of the Fire Nation army had fried ostrich that night.
Their next mission was less of a long shot and more a waste of talent. The men--Yoshi included--were put in with the main army and sent on an early push to Ba Sing Se. Before they ever saw the city walls, Akiro was captured. Iroh and Yoshi defied orders in an attempt to rescue him, but by the time they found him, it was too late; Earth Kingdom soldiers crushed his arms and legs, then buried him alive and screaming even while Iroh and Yoshi fought their way through hundreds of men trying to reach him. In the end, Yoshi lost an eye and Iroh lost what little remained of his youthful sense of invulnerability. For the losses though, Iroh gained two things: Nightmares and the ability to perfectly describe the scents of burnt flesh and melting iron helmets.
Po-han died next. Iroh never quite thought the diminutive little peasant had it in him, but Po-han was the only one of the squad who died a hero. He didn't look for glory; it found him, spoke to something in his heart and made him listen. At a battle near a volcanic mountain, where both the Earth and Firebenders were at their peaks, Po-han took up a Fire Nation banner and hoisted it up at the mountain's highest point. It should've taken twenty men to do what he did, but Po-han achieved it singlehandedly. Then he walked down the mountain, and Iroh watched as his squadmate became a legend. The Fire Nation doesn't sing of its heroes, but whenever someone asks about Po-han the Peasant, the only answer they get is this: "Po-han raised the flag at Imo Maji."
Perhaps, Iroh now believes, that is enough.
For a long time after Po-han, it was just the three of them; Iroh, Yoshi and Isoroku. They were given jobs as they were needed--stop an offensive with minimal and overly taxed forces, defeat this General, assassinate that one, choke their pride on the smoke from the flames you use to burn them to death...and when you're done, try not to go insane because we're going to need you later. Then things got complicated.
It was all because of an assault on the weakened Southern Water Tribe. Isoroku, then a Commander, noted that they could completely wipe the South out of the war in one strike. He was good at coming up with ways to solve things in one blow, and this was no difference. Iroh, then a Lieutenant, seconded him. Yoshi did not approve, but he was going blind even in his good eye and had begun suffering from a hacking cough that left black slop leaking from his nostrils. Nobody took him seriously. Now, Iroh looks back on it and wonders whether or not he should be thankful or in mourning because of his willful ignorance to Yoshi's wisdom.
The Siege of the South was nothing like the later Siege of the North. The Southern Tribe was already weak from years of fighting and an eery drought of Bending blood. Those Waterbenders who remained, however, were as fierce as twenty Northerners. They fought, and the first time Iroh saw them in action, he couldn't help but be awed at the sheer effort they put into defending their home. If he had learned pain and sadness from the Earth Kingdom, he learned respect and humility from the Southern Waterbenders. And then he killed them.
When the Siege finally ended, the Southern Tribe had been decimated down to less than five hundred people. Prisoners were taken on top of that, and those who weren't captured simply dispersed. Iroh saw defiance in their eyes, and he wondered if Isoroku pulled back out of pity, remorse or boredom. Afterward, Iroh descended to his ship's brig for an inspection. Coincidentally, this was where he met his future wife.
She was a beauty like nothing Iroh had ever seen before--and he had seen beauty of every type. He had seen the beauty of Noble women, the beauty of peasant girls and the beauty of last resort soldiers trying to defend their homes because their husbands were dead or crippled. He had seen the beauty of nature and the beauty of the Fire Nations mockery of it. Then he saw her, and all of it paled in comparison--literally. She was as tanned as the side of a cliff, smoother than glass and with hair all the way to her knees. Her eyes were bluer than the sky and deeper than the ocean. She was in chains when he first saw her, but still she remained defiant and unbroken.
Her voice, Iroh remembers, was like that of a Spirit's song. He can clearly recall the first thing she ever said to him, and it still makes him tingle in his stomach; "What're you lookin' at, charcoal breath?"
It took twenty-two attempts at an initial conversation, four years, an irritated Fire Lord, poorly learned Tribal customs and no less than a hundred-and-sixty-two slaps in the face and yanks to the beard before she finally consented to marry him on the condition that she name any children they had--she didn't want them named after butchering torch-bearers. Iroh agreed, then burnt a perfect Fire Nation crest into a blank coin and hung it from her neck on an auburn-colored choker. It was the only red she ever wore, and Iroh thought she looked absolutely stunning in it.
Iroh's son was born sixteen years to the day after Isoroku's attack on the Southern Tribe. His mother died from child birth, but not before giving the boy a name. "Lu Ten," she said, and it was the most beautiful name Iroh had ever heard in his life.
Iroh was a single parent, but there was war to be fought and Lu Ten grew up with many uncles. Isoroku versed the boy in strategy, Azulon tolerated him for ritual's sake and Yoshi taught him that might doesn't make right. In the middle of it all, he was a boy growing up just behind the front lines. Lu Ten saw combat from the perspective of a child, and Iroh watched with a broken heart when war took away his son's concept of death and replaced it with propaganda's ideal of glory. In a sense, it was like the diminutive Po-han got the last laugh on him after all.
Iroh made General the same time that Isoroku made Admiral. Both were dispatched for personal missions; Isoroku to lead a second great assault on the South and wipe out the people there for good, Iroh to conquer Ba Sing Se and end the war once and for all. Yoshi stayed behind. Wise and disillusioned, he was discharged from the military and allowed to stay at the Fire Lord's palace due to associations alone. The last time Iroh spoke to him, Yoshi warned him to look out for falling rocks. Iroh laughed. Now he wishes he didn't.
Iroh's army plowed through Earth Kingdom territory like a hot knife through butter. Their distinct personal banner--a dragon spiraling about the Fire Nation's emblem--earned Iroh his title as Dragon of the West. In less than two months, they made it to Ba Sing Se and the Siege began.
At the same time that Iroh threw his first fireball at Ba Sing Se, Isoroku's task force arrived at the South Pole. They were underequipped, because constant victory and poor intelligence left Isoroku overconfident. He had four ships. The locals had no Benders, but they had the defiance that Iroh so respected, and they had the ingenuity that only desperation breeds.
Five-hundred-and-ninety-two days after the Sieges began, everything fell apart. Isoroku's ship was boarded and disabled by a Water Tribe youth named Bato, and Isoroku himself was reportedly seen being dragged under its keel. At the same time, Lu Ten was killed. He charged up towards a newly made hole in Ba Sing Se's West Wall, only to have it collapse right on top of him. An hour later, Iroh watched in horror as the rocks finished chewing Lu Ten up and spitting out what little was left of him. It rained pebbles and blood that day, and Iroh was only able to identify his son by virtue of the brutalized coin hanging from his belt.
Two months later, Iroh and his beaten army arrived home to a chorus of angry shouts and jeers. He stepped in to the palace to find that the world really had fallen apart on him: Azulon had died, Ozai was the Fire Lord, Ursa was missing, Isoroku was presumed dead and Yoshi had passed away in his sleep from Soot Lung. The shock alone was such that Iroh laughed until he coughed black snot all over his brother's shoes. Then he cheerfully declined an aggrevated Fire Lord's challenge to Agni Kai and retired his commission as General.
Lu Ten never had an actual grave. Iroh simply cremated what was left of him on the way home, then spread his ashes onto his mother's grave. There, under a cloudy sky, he promised to see his son again--soon.
Iroh left the Fire Nation capitol a few days after Lu Ten's funeral. The day he left, he woke up to find that Prince Zuko had snuck into his room, crawled into bed with him and cried himself to sleep with utterances about his mother. Iroh didn't have the heart to move him. Zuko was the last person he said good-bye to before leaving, even though the boy was too busy sleeping to know it.
Months later, Iroh heard rumors of the Ghost Witch of the East--a woman who was almost as much of a bridge between the living and Spirit worlds as the Avatar himself. He sought her out at what remained of the Eastern Air Temple, and though he was astounded by her beauty, that small part of him speaking in his youth's voice always reminded him that his wife had been even more magnificent than the Ghost Witch. Iroh had the sense not to say this out loud.
Iroh went to the Spirit World. He stayed there for weeks on end, with Malu to guide him. He still cannot quite describe everything he saw there, but by his return, Malu was a faceless corpse and Iroh himself a tear-wracked mess. As he had with so many others, he cremated her. All he could do to make up for his failures in the pilgrimmage was to throw her ashes into the wind.
Later still, Iroh returned to the capitol to find that Zuko had grown. He was insecure, and inexperienced, but eager. The Generals tried to welcome him back, but Iroh came along solely to give advice to those who would listen. Tired as he was, and hiding the signs of his sickness, he allowed Zuko to come along for one visit. His penance for all that happened as a result was to stay by Zuko's side for as long as destiny allowed.
Two years of exile saw Iroh becoming more and more introspective. In Zuko, he saw so much that all he could do was to look at himself and wonder whether or not Zuko saw anything in him. In the boy, Iroh saw potential. He saw cunning, justice, honor, heroism and perhaps, most dishearteningly, martyrdom.
In himself, all Iroh could see was Yoshi's blind face, slowly leaking sooty drool from the corner of a tight lipped smile.
Then the Avatar came, and Iroh saw something new in Zuko: Hope. He didn't know if that was a good thing or a bad thing.
And now, weeks on end after that, Iroh sits before a camp fire. Nearby, tucked away under a blanket of barely woven straws and grasses, Zuko sleeps. Iroh knows he should wake the boy--the young man--and tell him things. Tell him about all those White Lotus secrets, give him a war story or two, relate to him that Water Tribe girls can be nice once they beat you up enough. He wants to mention that blind bandits can see better than old veterans, that defiant idiots in skull make-up can be more dangerous than the Avatar and that Airbenders are worth trying to befriend, rather than kill. He wants to tell Zuko that he is Iroh's son--not his replacement for Lu Ten, not just a nephew-turned-surrogate, but Iroh's son in every way that really counts for anything. But...
"The knife will have to tell him instead," Yen-lo says with a voice as cold as the arctic and as soothing as a sunset. Iroh smiles, and allows himself a cough.
"It was never my intention to have my last message passed on with a blade," he replies, then leans forward and exhales. It's a slow process; he's already breathed in, his now he breathes out. Smoke exits his nostrils in a slow puff...
He pauses. He pauses because he doesn't know what to say. His hand pulls back, and the fire is blue; beautiful, crisp and calm blue. It's the most intense flame he has ever produced.
The day that Zuko turns sixteen is the day that he cremates his uncle's body.
Author's Notes: Hoy. This one was probably the biggest angst muffin of a fic I've ever written. That said: This story was written in partial tribute to Makoto Iwamatsu, a.k.a. Mako, who passed away recently from esophageal cancer. For those who don't pay attention: Mako is Iroh's VA. Without him, the character may as well be dead, y'know?
That said: The names of Iroh's partners and teacher were all inspired by Mako's roles. Akiro from the Conan movies, Kua is a jumbled Aku--the villain of Samurai Jack, Po-han was Mako's first big role and Isoroku Yamamoto was one of his bigger roles in general. Yoshi is more obscure; Mako was going to play Splinter in an upcoming Ninja Turtles movie. Splinter's original master and owner was a man named Yoshi.
Yen-lo is another name for Yama, King of the Underworld according to Chinese and Buddhist beliefs. Originally, the ending was going to be Iroh simply walking off with him and Zuko waking up to find his uncle missing. As to the knife...Don't give up without a fight.
And no, that last bit at the end was not indicative of any 'shipping. I've got my own theories regarding Avatar's prospective romances, but I have no interests in bringing them into my writings or in getting into fandom debates about them. Interpret it how you will, but a 'ship indicator was not my intention.
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