A/N: Thanks to Idhren24 for betaing. Avatar doesn't belong to me.
Long ago, the Firebenders were said to have been forged from various metals in the centre of the world. Or in the centre of the sun, depending on what stories you listened to. It was no longer a popular theory, but it was one Iroh had embraced wholeheartedly.
Iroh has always thought he was made of steel. He was hard and capable; and each flame he was exposed to only made him stronger. Like steel, he shined brightly, especially in his father's eyes. And like the finest steel, he easily cut down his enemies. He kept his regrets on the outside so they would drip away like the blood from a sword.
He was eleven when the first assassin came to murder the Fire Lord's children. It was his first kill, but he was too late to save Etsu, their baby sister. He wondered sometimes if Ozai ever relived that bloody night, or even remembered their sister who had only known the world for that short month. Sometimes he thinks of Azula, and believes Ozai is not one to forget anything.
His brother was made of gold, the fire metal, though it must have been mixed with many other elements. Ozai was anything but soft.
When it was time for Iroh to go to battle, his tactical genius came as no surprise. He had been navigating the complex politics of the palace all his life; keeping soldiers happy was simple compared to keeping his father happy. Years later, he remembered to credit his tutors and the soldiers who had taught him, but by then they were all either burnt or buried. On the rare days when Zuko remembers to thank him for his teachings and support, Iroh can't help but think that Zuko is already more of a man than Iroh will ever be.
Azulon had fancied himself a conqueror in his youth, like his father and his father before him, but he had not the skill to match his ambition. In Iroh, he found the path to the future he had envisioned – the entire world ruled by the Fire Nation. Iroh knew his father had intended to be there for Sozen's comet's second pass. In the meantime, Iroh was the one to set about the more mundane details of conquering the Earth Kingdom, one city at a time.
Around that time, the world began to call him the Dragon of the West. He was thrilled by the title, not because of its flair (though that certainly appealed to him at that age), but because it was the first title he had received on his own merits. He was no longer just the Fire Lord's heir, but a man in his own right. Yet, to his father he was still only a means to an end. That hurt in ways Iroh couldn't describe no matter how much sake he drank or women he distracted himself with. He knew that if he ever showed weakness Ozai would pounce like a starving wolf. It was what they'd been taught. The problem being that Iroh still didn't want to fight his brother and the longer he stayed from home the more the need to please his father was slowly fading away. They say that many men lose their humanity when they go off to war – Iroh found his.
His marriage was arranged to a young woman from one of the many noble families vying to be closer to the throne. He met Miya a week before their wedding. She had long dark hair and a little dimple when she smiled. They were not marrying for love, but he remembered thinking, as they parted two weeks later, that they could easily grow to love each other. She died in childbirth; Iroh returned to find himself the father of a two-month old boy, Lu Ten. He was never as nervous as when he held the child for the first time.
Iroh hardly saw the boy's first years, and in fact, left him at the palace to be raised by the same caretakers who had taken care of him and his brother. He returned when Lu Ten was five, his conscience prompting him to remember just what happened to little boys who were raised in the palace. Thus, Lu Ten went to war.
He idolized his father, and Iroh, determined to fight the spirit of his father in this one instance, adored his son though he was often at a loss about how to show it. If his men wondered why he was suddenly quizzing them about their fathers and children, he never heard of it. Lu Ten grew up into a fine young man and an excellent soldier. And Iroh learnt what it was like to have a real family.
His son was bronze, the ancient warrior's metal, burnished in the sun.
Lu Ten was seventeen when they were both summoned to see the Fire Lord. It would be Lu Ten's last time, and the final time Iroh would call the palace home. Rather than dwell on his arguments with his father and brother during his stay, he likes to remember showing Lu Ten the highest point in the palace and spending the night talking with the young man who had grown up when he wasn't looking. Is it any wonder that his other favorite memory of that time concerns a young boy, one who found a strange man drinking tea and decided to trust him with the care of a wounded bird-lizard the boy had rescued? Many years later, Iroh would realize that the "monster" Zuko had rescued the bird-lizard from was his little sister.
The one trait Iroh will happily admit to having inherited from his father is his stubbornness, and so their arguments lasted well on into the new year. In the end, they both got what they wanted. Iroh agreed to bring down Ba Sing Se, and the Fire Lord permitted Lu Ten to continue serving under his father. It was a decision fuelled by paranoia and selfishness, and even today, Iroh cannot decide whether his choice preserved Lu Ten's life for two more years, or cut it short. The years of easy warfare under Iroh's grandfather had weeded out the better generals and replaced them with a crop of pompous fools who seemed to undo everything Iroh had ever accomplished the minute his back was turned. He would never trust his son to such idiots, and he would prefer to have a man of Lu Ten's talents under his command for what was sure to be a long siege. His father didn't understand why Iroh was so attached to his son, but he respected Iroh for it much to their mutual surprise. They parted on good terms.
Lu Ten was promoted to captain the day after they arrived at Ba Sing Se after an entire cohort was wiped out by the sudden collapse of miles of Earthbender tunnels. Iroh remembers he made a joke then about how he had hoped they'd at least offer them a cup of tea before trying to kill them. His men kept a straight face – all but one young lieutenant who broke into laughter that quickly turned to tears.
"Even the Dragon of the West was stopped at Ba Sing Se," goes the proverb. And sometimes Iroh finds it hard to quell the urge to burn any person who quotes the words so blithely. Two years is a long time, and no one but Iroh knows how close and how far they were from conquest when he called off the siege.
Lu Ten died.
Iroh found out what it really meant to be steel. He couldn't break. Oh, many would say that he did since he called off the siege, but as the shock wore off, all he found was that he was frozen inside. He didn't care about anything. News came quickly of his father's "change of heart" regarding his heir, followed even faster by news of his death. Iroh signed the document declaring his allegiance to the new Fire Lord without a single flinch. His additional postscript renouncing his claim to the throne was probably the best present he ever gave his little brother.
The coldness stayed even as he began the long process of an orderly retreat. Each step away was more distance between him and his son. He took to wandering the camp at night, haunting the edges of his men's fires in the hopes of absorbing some of their warmth. And surprisingly, one day he did. A young soldier's tale of a woman who petitioned Agni for the return of her lover caught his ears. No matter how many times he told himself to stop dreaming, Iroh couldn't deny the small flame of hope that had sparked in his heart as the message of the story became clear: he could bring back his son.
His brother would deny him, so Iroh didn't ask. He planned everything meticulously, from his fake illness to his detour to the proper temple. There he met a hermit who'd waited for him for ten years, and there he crossed into the spirit world.
When he returned, he was no longer steel, and he understood something his family had missed for generations – there must be balance. He sought to somehow restore the balance, and in the absence of the Avatar, set his sights on a young prince who had captured a piece of his heart a long time ago.
Zuko was iron, and though it was harder to find that little boy who rescued bird-lizards, the boy's heart was still there protected by a thin shell of tempered steel. Iroh made it his goal to not let that shield grow, and to make sure no one shattered Zuko's heart in the process.
As in so many things, he failed.
But under that hardened shell, nonetheless, his nephew is still iron. He can still change, and he will have to change to survive what is coming. Iroh will be there for him. He has made sure of that.
Iroh wonders if there is a metal that is liquid because he cannot be water. Water quenches fire, and he is still burning brightly. That core of flame he plans to pass on to his nephew – no, his son, and maybe the Fire Nation will survive the return of the Avatar and balance will be restored.
Or maybe it won't, and he is simply a fool.
For now he needs another cup of tea.