Sitting in the Space Between Night and Day
1. The day Lu Ten is born.
For all that his wife remains delicate (Tanvee smiles, still his best friend and having a private laugh, and she rolls her eyes at the midwife's words as she humms lullabies to their son) Iroh can't believe that there's anything wrong as he looks at his first son.
He's tiny and wrinkled and pink, and Ozai mutters that he looks like a dog even as he keeps trying to take a peek over his shoulder, but Iroh sees ten tiny little fingers and ten tiny little toes and he had heard the way his son had cried into the world.
Lu Ten is sleeping now, small and precious against his mother's chest and as Iroh finally dares to lay a hand on the back of his son – so fragile! so warm! - there is no war and there is nothing else.
2. When he meets Ursa.
Iroh has known Ursa's brothers all his life: Xianzi has been his best friend from the moment they met when they were ten years old; together they teased Niansu on his habits for study that in the end made him chose a life as a monk; Huojin has just been placed under his care.
So Iroh knows about Ursa from her brothers – the pranks she played and the way she could have Avatar Roku playing with her, no effor at all - the same way that she most likely knows about him, but it's different to just know than it is to see her playing with Lu Ten on her lap the very first day she arrives to the palace, eyes warm and joyful and not minding at all that Ten's muddy hands are dirtying the silk of her gown. She's never been to the capital before and Iroh has never been sent to the Avatar's island, so they might as well be strangers.
Iroh smiles at the way his son babbles excitedly, squirming off his lap and running towards him. Ursa smiles back, moves a hand through the ruin of her clothes before she gives up and smiles. Ozai makes a noise as Ursa bows to them both that probably translates to 'galkjalkjg' if Ozai is lucky.
3. The day Zuko was born.
The midwives don't answer to his or Ozai's questions about Ursa, which makes them both wait for the worst. It's been a difficult pregnancy, the risk of miscarriage high, the risk of losing Ursa even higher. Ozai doesn't pace down the hall like Iroh had done when Lu Ten was born, but Iroh knows his brother enough to recognize the set of his shoulders, the way his jaw is tense.
It's worse, Iroh thinks, because Ursa's parents aren't here. Iroh knows his father and he knows that both he and the Avatar are too stubborn to give up unto their pride, even like this, and while they haven't been asked to take sides, Iroh knows what he is supposed to do... which even so, hasn't exactly stopped him from making sure Ursa's letters to her parents arrive, if perhaps a bit delayed.
The idea of having to write to Ursa's parents and her brothers to inform of her demise chills his blood the way not even a Waterbender could do. It had been terrible to do so once, after Tanvee's death. Her parents, if they've received her last letter, can't possibly know that she's giving birth almost eight whole weeks before she's due.
Suddenly, as his hands have started curling into tight fists over his thighs, the door opens and one of the midwives nods to them both. She's looking grim and Iroh does his best not to hold his breath.
Ursa lays over her bed, hair tangled, face pale and sweaty, holding her son against her breast. She's not even looking at them as she hums a lullaby that Iroh thinks might come from the Earthbenders, since it talks abot the earth.
"Lady Ursa will need bed rest, but she should recover. But, the young prince..."
"What about my son?" Ozai asks.
The woman shakes her head. "He's too small, too weak. He was lucky to be born at all."
Ozai says nothing more before he stalks out of the room. If not for the way his jaw had set that betrayed pain rather than anger, Iroh would have felt ashamed of his brother's behaviour, rather than understand that for strength there is also the need of sometimes breaking down.
So instead he goes towards the bed and sits down the new mom and her son and he smiles at them both.
"Have you decided on a name?"
Ursa nods and if Iroh doesn't reach for her face when the tears start to roll down, he does reach a finger to stroke his nephew's sleeping face.
4. The day before he and Lu Ten were sent to Ba Sing Se.
They haven't noticed him, Lu Ten helping Zuko with his lessons in a far better way than the teachers his brother sends. Iroh stays under the shadows of a pillar, smiling as his son corrects his nephew's pose.
"Now, remember," Lu Ten says, and even though he can't see him, Iroh hears his smile. "What's the key for a good fire?"
Lu Ten laughs at Zuko's dubious tone. "Well, there is that. But mostly, it's to remember that there are too sides for it. The one that protects and the one that hurts. Cousin, you should try to always be the fire that protects rather than the one that strikes in anger."
"You sound like uncle," Zuko mutters, breaking his pose and scoffing a foot against the ground.
"I wish," his son crouches then, low enough to raise Zuko's face, a concerned look over his face. "What's the matter?"
"I'm never going to get this," Zuko mutters and Iroh can see the way his nephew keeps trying to duck, to avoid looking at Lu Ten. "And now you're going for good."
"Not for good," Lu Ten says. "Just until the Earth Kingdom falls, which shouldn't take long. And you will get this if you--"
"But it could last ages!" Zuko insists, and Iroh supposes that, for a nine years old, more than a few weeks is an eternity. Lu Ten did always complain about the same. "And uncle is going too!"
"And that is why this won't last much," Lu Ten laughs and Iroh shares his mirth, if silently. "We're taking the best general so that we can come back home before the Rebirth's Celebration."
"You won't!" Zuko keeps insisting. He stoms a foot down, all ready to start throwing a tantrum since his pouting didn't seem to convince his cousin. "It'll be ages and ages and ages and then, even if you do come back here soon, you'll be gone again since you're getting married!"
"I don't see what's so good about stupid girls anyway," Zuko mutters, crossing his arms. "They poke you and punch you and bite you and throw you things and tell on you and--"
"Thankfully, my Jia isn't my sister so she doesn't do that," Lu Ten says, sounding amused before his voice softens again. "But I won't be gone even then, Zuko. We're cousins, remember? I'm counting on you bothering me for a long, long, looooooooong time."
Zuko cries Lu Ten and Lu Ten laughs again, running away from the young prince just slow enough for Zuko to be able to chase him and they are so happy that Iroh wishes for eternity as he keeps on looking, commiting this memory to his heart to have some comfort until the war ends.
5. The day he and Zuko met again.
A thousand words seem to be coming to Zuko. Iroh doesn't say a thing, lets his nephew face this alone.
Finally, Zuko kneels and bows low, hands to the floor, forehead to the ground.
"Uncle, I'm sorry."
Iroh kneels down, curls a hand over Zuko's shoulder.
This time he faces his nephew as he sheds a tear and smiles.