Author's note: I got the feelings from the episodes that Iroh really only became the genial wise old man that everyone loves after the shock of Lu Ten's death. So he's a little more bitter here than Canon Iroh. Let me know what you think!
The mist surrounded him, choking off all sound and all light. Iroh stood his ground, head bowed with his harms in his sleeves, and forced himself to breathe with calm, even breaths. The mist tightened further; he could feel the weight of it against his skin. It seemed almost as if he was being prodded and judged, but if he was found worthy or not… well, Agni only knew.
Almost as if hearing his thoughts, the mist dissipated at once. Iroh glanced quickly about himself; taking note of the scenery of the Western Air Temple – no different then the one he had just left, save for the odd muted hue. It was as if Agni had been cast behind a darkened veil, although Iroh knew logically that it was the middle of the day.
Iroh whipped around towards the sound of the voice. He had only a moment to take him in – his beloved son standing there, straight, tall and smiling, before they were embracing.
"Lu Ten!" Iroh clung onto his son. Lu Ten had long ago outgrown him, Iroh's chin only reaching to the boy's shoulder, but he was solid under his arms; warm to the touch. He could hear a slight huff of surprised laughter in ear and felt the weight of Lu Ten's embrace… he was real… he was real… "My son…"
"I'm fine, Dad." Lu Ten pulled away, allowing Iroh to gaze up at him. Gone were the hollowed cheeks, the lines of sickness and pain that Iroh had remembered so vividly of his only son's last remaining days. Now he looked only happy and healthy. "I'm not hurting any more."
And again they were hugging. A sob, unbidden, rose from Iroh's throat. "I should have helped you… Lu Ten, I should have been there…"
His son shook his head in silent denial, and murmured words that were supposed to bring comfort, but nothing he could say would ever assuage Iroh's guilt. It was his duty as a father to protect his son, and he failed. When they pulled away again, Lu Ten's eyes were shining wetly, and Iroh knew that his own tears had leaked into his own beard.
"How did you get here, father? How did you get to the spirit world?"
Iroh wiped his eyes on his sleeve. "It is… a long story. It took me many months, and I finally had to seek aid from a friend." Lu Ten looked like he was about to interrupt and Iroh quickly shook his head, "It doesn't matter, now. I've found you. I don't intend to leave."
The look his son gave him at that moment could only be described as resigned amusement mixed with… pity. As if Lu Ten knew more of the Spirit world then any mere mortal. Iroh reminded himself that this was to be expected – his son had been dead for many months already and of course knew more about this place. While Iroh had not been dead physically, mentally he had been destroyed. It didn't matter. He had nothing back in the other world.
Almost as if Lu Ten had been following his thoughts, he spoke, "Father, this place is much different than you could even imagine. There isn't time… there isn't distance. You can stay here as long as you want." He smiled then, a dazzling smile that reminded Iroh so strongly of himself as a young man. The smile that would drive all the ladies crazy at the Palace. Lu Ten placed a hand on Iroh's shoulder. "Come on, there's someone you need to meet."
His son led him through the Air Temple with an unfaltering sense of direction, and Iroh was happy to follow, overjoyed at being in his presence – relived beyond words that his son seemed so content, so at peace. He had been worried that the drama of his death would have followed him into the afterlife.
Presently, they came to a court-yard of sorts. An open area that had a clear view of the wide Spirit world tinted canyon walls outside. An old man, thin with long wisps of beard and mustache, sat on a mat in the dim sunlight, drinking tea.
Lu Ten paused and then smiled, motioning for Iroh to step forward. "Go on, Dad. He's been waiting to meet you."
Iroh threw a quizzical glance at his son, but obeyed. As he got closer, he could see that the man wore an ancient insignia of the fire nation on his top knot. It wasn't one that Iroh recognized personally, but it spoke of the royal family. Was this one of his ancestors?
The man glanced out of the side of his eye, and seeing Iroh, put down his tea cup. He did not rise, but did bow with one fisted hand against his palm, which Iroh returned.
"I find it to be one of life's greatest treasures, sharing a cup of tea with a friend." The old man's voice was graveled by age, but very warm, "Would you care to indulge an old man?"
Iroh glanced up at his son, and receiving an encouraging nod, sat down. "I would be honored. I'm afraid that in my recent travels I haven't had the time for anything, even tea."
"The great General Iroh going without tea? Why, that's nearly unheard of." As he spoke, the old man had bent down, carefully pouring the brew, his cascade of long white hair nearly hiding his features. As he straightened, Iroh had a clear look for the first time at his face. Nearly half of one side had been disfigured about his eye and cheek by a terrible scar. It looked like an old burn.
Iroh took the tea and sipped. Jasmine tea, his favorite. "Have the habits of my past life reached the Spirit World? Or do we know each other?" There was something very familiar about the old man, although Iroh was sure he would have remembered that scar. Had he seen him in one of the hall portraits of his ancestors?
The old man smiled. "Past life? If I'm not mistaken, General, you are still very much alive."
"Perhaps," Iroh narrowed his eyes, clearly seeing where the old man wanted to steer this conversation. He had to nip it in the bud. "But I have nothing back there. My throne has been taken, my honor is gone, and my son…" he closed his eyes against a sudden onslaught of emotion. Even though Lu Ten was standing there, not twenty feet away, the memories of his death were still vivid in his mind. "There is no reason for me to go back."
"I see. Then you feel Ozai is competent to lead the Fire Nation in the war?"
Iroh opened his mouth to answer affirmatively, but found he could not. He couldn't lie here. Not in the Spirit world. So he looked away.
"You do know your brother best," the old man mused, taking another sip of his tea, "We both knew Sozin's comet is only a few years away. Will Ozai harness its power to benefit the Fire Nation's campaign, or his own quest for power? And what of his children?"
Iroh glanced sharply at the old man. "What do you mean?" Although he thought he had a good idea. Iroh was present at Ozai's coronation… he knew Ursa had left.
The old man was in the middle of taking another sip, and appeared to be in no hurry to answer, leaving Iroh to drink quietly on his own. The tea was quite good. Finally, he the old man spoke.
"When I was a boy, I was lucky enough to have a surrogate father step in when I needed him most – even if I didn't want to acknowledge it. He taught me everything I knew, and he eventually turned an angry embittered teen into a wise young man. If it wasn't for him, all would have been lost. When it came to my time to rule, I used the wisdom that he taught me, and was able to usher in the Fire Nation into an era of peace."
Peace. That word struck a chord with Iroh. Before Lu Ten's death, before the despair had set in, and he had abandoned the siege on Ba Sing Se he had sometimes wished for peace – but only in the depth of night and very quietly inside his head. It was a traitorous thought, a cowardly wish. Iroh was neither a traitor nor a coward.
He stared at the old man for a moment, feeling as if he was missing something… something very important. Then he shook his head. It didn't matter. The Fire Nation had been at war for almost a hundred years. Whatever lessons this old man must have learned long ago were simply not valid anymore. Still, he didn't like what was being implied. "I know that my brother can be a little… distant to his son," he began carefully.
The old man raised his one eyebrow, the other one apparently had been burned off. "Oh?"
"Zuko is a strong boy. Besides, it isn't my problem any more." Iroh continued. The old man didn't answer, sipping his tea, but watching him over the rim of his cup in a way that said more than words ever could. Iroh found himself getting annoyed. "Haven't I done enough already? I've failed my son. Why would you… why could you think that I would want to mentor Zuko, or that he would even accept my advice?"
"Because you are his uncle."
"I am a failure." He closed his eyes, admitting his own thoughts to himself out loud for the first time. "When my son… when my father passed away I didn't fight Ozai's claim to the throne. I couldn't."
The old man sipped his tea, unperturbed. "Ozai had already stepped into the role of Fire Lord by the time you were able to come to the palace, and you knew what a battle for the throne would do to a nation already suffering from a hundred year war. Do you believe unrest from the very top at this time would benefit your country?"
The old man inclined his head ever so slightly. "Then you must forgive yourself for not acting. A very wise man once told me that you must never give into despair. In the darkest times, hope is something that you give yourself. Your destiny, General Iroh, still lies ahead of you."
"I'm not going back!" Iroh felt a flash of anger. "Haven't I done enough already? I failed to breech the walls at Ba Sing Se—"
"Oh, you still may one day see the walls of Ba Sing Se from the inside." The old man's smile was faint, his eyes clouded by some far distant memory.
"I failed my son—"
"It was his time to join with the Spirits. Look inside yourself, Iroh. There is much good within. Can you say that your heart has become so full of heaviness and sorrow that you cannot love or live again? The Fire Nation will suffer without your wisdom."
Iroh shook his head, silently denying the old man's words. "If nothing else, Ozai has a military mind. He will lead my country into victory."
The old man paused, placing his tea cup to the side as he regarded Iroh with serious eyes. "After all you have seen and heard during your siege of the Earth Kingdom, do you honestly believe in the conquest of the fire element?"
"Those are… traitorous words you're speaking."
The old man spread his hands almost as if to remind Iroh exactly where they were. The Spirit world wasn't bound by countries or alliances.
Iroh gave him a long, hard look, setting down his tea cup as well. Then, slowly, he shook his head. He couldn't bring himself to say the words. Not yet, but no, he didn't believe that fire was the one element that should rule above all others.
"And what of the Prince and Princess? What kind of a world will they grow up in, without a mother? What sort of a man will Zuko grow up to be, with Ozai as his only role model?"
Images flashed before Iroh's eyes, unbidden memories of the rare times when he had returned home from the battle and visited his family. There was no denying the fact that Ozai was hard on boy, dismissive of him even in Iroh's presence. Iroh didn't ever want to think of how his brother behaved behind closed doors, so he had always found time to be kind to Zuko. Now…
Iroh closed his eyes, and felt a warm hand on his shoulder – Lu Ten. Iroh hadn't even seen him come up and join them.
"Father," Lu Ten's voice was soft, yet firm, "You cannot stay here."
Iroh drew in a long breath, hearing his words and accepting them for the truth. "I know, my son, I know… but to leave is so, so painful."
Lu Ten's hand gripped shoulder with compassion and strength. "You have a big heart, father. Let Zuko have the father that he deserves, and let yourself have the son that you need."
Another tear trickled down into his beard, and Iroh nodded. "Will we meet again, Lu Ten?" It was more of a question than a statement, and he was relived beyond words to look over and see the proud smile on his son's face.
"Of course we will."
The three stood up, and Iroh turned towards the old man for the last time. "Thank you for the tea. It was… delicious."
"I consider that a high compliment, coming from you."
Something about the old man's smile… for a moment, Iroh forgot about the disfiguring scar on the side of his face, and focused on the whole side, and the light golden eyes. He looked almost like… but that was impossible… "Zuko?" Iroh breathed, hardly believing. Yet, the old man smiled again, confirming his suspicion. "But—but you're only ten years old! Why—how—"
The mist was closing in again, obscuring the scenery. Iroh could still feel Lu Ten's hand on his shoulder, guiding him back to the real world. The mist tightened more and Iroh had to strain to hear his nephew's response, "Time and distance are the concerns of the living. Go now, and good luck, Uncle. I dare say… I won't make things easy on you."
"What else would I expect from a son in our family?" Lu Ten muttered, and Iroh could almost see him roll his eyes.
Then they were gone, and Iroh was back in the physical world.
In the years that followed, through all of the trials and tribulations Iroh endured—more than a few caused by Zuko himself… he hadn't been kidding — Iroh could sometimes feel a warm weight on his right shoulder, almost as if Lu Ten were still there, still at his side and smiling proudly.
Lu Ten had been right. There had been room in his heart to love another son.
This is my first attempt in the Avatar universe. Let me know if you liked it, or if you think there's an area where I need improvement. And thanks for reading! :D