Title: Life As A Maelstrom
Summary: Iroh has had his share of suffering over the years. But he has hope for the future.
Notes: Spoilers for, like, everything?
He never leaves her side, not for a moment. Of course there are servants to attend to her, but Iroh needs to be there. His hopes have slowly begun to fade, replaced with the gravity of death. It toys with his emotions, hiding in every shadowy corner of the room, seeping into his pores. He secretly asks for the spirits to take him instead. Leave my wife. Please, I beg of you. Leave my beloved...
He leans over in his chair, taking her hand gently. "What is it? What do you need?"
"It's too cold. I need another blanket." Her voice is weak, straining through her lack of energy.
"Whatever you want." Iroh turns to one of the young women sitting nearby, awaiting orders. "Get Princess Uma another blanket, my dear."
"Right away, Prince Iroh." She bows and leaves while the other servants look at each other with worry lining their faces.
Time goes on. Candlelight flickers across the walls. Every hour is the same as the last. Iroh tries not to think about what is happening, what the future holds. Hours turn into long, drawn out days. He has obligations to the army but he rescinds them all.
But then again, no one dares to argue with the crown prince. He is, after all, the Fire Lord's favourite son.
Sometimes, Lu Ten comes to sit with them, but he is now thirteen, no longer a child. He understands that his mother is dying. He spends time with his parents and Iroh can see him struggle to keep the pain and tears at bay. Then he quietly mumbles something about his studies and retreats to the solitude of his room. This is much for him to bear.
One night, she suddenly awakens from her sleep. He watches as her eyes open slowly and she turns to look at him sitting next to her. A smile flits across her face, lighting the room brighter than a thousand candles.
"How are you feeling?"
"Iroh. I love you."
No. No, don't say that. "I love you too, Uma."
"Don't be too sad when I'm gone."
The dark truth bears down upon him and he cannot resist any longer. Iroh closes his eyes and presses her hand to his lips, feeling the tears race down his cheeks.
"As long as Lu Ten is by your side, you will never be alone. He will be with you, and I will be with both of you in spirit."
He brushes her hair and kisses her tenderly, tormented by what he is about to lose. She is gone by daybreak.
He can never get over the feeling of being the odd one out. His father is a strict and unforgiving man, his brother is sly and resentful. Iroh knows that if he is to rule the Fire Nation, he must be the most skilled, the most talented, the most powerful of them all. He does not take this responsibility lightly.
He does his research and goes alone.
The Sun Warriors do not treat him with kindness and he is all too aware of the reasons why. Their leader turns him away, thinking him a threat. Iroh does as the man orders and sets up camp a small distance away from the old ruins. He lies on his back, the ground hard beneath him, and wonders what he could possibly do to convince these people that he is not like the others, not like the rest of his perverse family.
There is a ruffling noise to his left and he sits up, his senses focused on the forest outside his tent. He gets up and crawls outside, waiting. It sounded like an animal...
More ruffling and out of the trees emerges a dragon-moose. But it is unlike any dragon-moose Iroh has ever seen. Not only are its front legs longer than its hind legs, it's also twice the size of a regular dragon-moose with a coat of iridescent orange and gold. It shimmers under the light of the moon, like a fiery patron spirit presiding over its territory...
A light goes off in Iroh's head. He rises and nears the dragon-moose, bowing reverently. "Great spirit, I am taking refuge in your forest in the hopes that I may gain wisdom from the mighty dragons of the Sun Warriors."
The dragon-moose looks back at him, as if it were analyzing the very contents of his heart, then touches its snout to his forehead.
What happens after that is the stuff of legend and myth, but Iroh knows no one will ever know his tale of travels into the spirit world. He retrieves the hidden egg, learns from the firebending masters, and promises on Lu Ten's life that he will never utter a world about the Sun Warriors civilization. He returns home an even larger hero than ever before, deafened by the exaltation of the crowds. Iroh bows respectfully at his father's praise, all the while ignoring the hard look in Ozai's eyes.
Lu Ten is quickly climbing the ranks. He is a skilled firebender and not a day goes by that an important military figure or dignitary tells him that the young man takes after his father.
It is difficult, being both father and mother to his son. He impresses upon him the importance of balance, forethought, of seeking alternate means to your goals. But he also is there to comfort him when he has doubts.
Iroh knows he owes much to the kindness of his sister-in-law, who stepped in to fill much of the void when Uma died. Lu Ten is like a son to her, just as Zuko is like a son to Iroh. Some days, Iroh catches her eye and knows she is thinking the same thing he is. We walk a very fine line. Being royalty has its price, and we will protect our loved ones from whatever we can.
He has a dream one night, soon after his son is promoted. He is in the Earth Kingdom, standing atop a rocky precipice. Arrayed behind him is mighty army, benders and tanks and soldiers pulsing forward like a living thing, straining against the legendary walls of Ba Sing Se. Iroh utters a cry, a call to arms, a demand for victory. The army replies in kind and makes one final push; the walls fall. Cheers erupt all around him. As triumph rushes through his heart, he hears a voice. I'm so proud of you. There is so much love in her words, so much love...
His vision is clear, his path is set. That very morning, in an audience before his father and all of the Fire Nation's military leaders, he announces his quest to conquer Ba Sing Se.
"You are as strong as you are skilled, Iroh." Azulon is proud of his first-born son. "Do this in the name of our glorious nation. I am certain you will succeed."
"I'm coming with you." Lu Ten has already packed what few belongings a lieutenant is allowed to carry and has his pack slung over his back as he walks through Iroh's door. "My unit is one of the best. We'd be honoured to fight under you, father."
Iroh turns to look at his son, tall and fair, a rock of strength amidst the chaos in the outside world. "It is I who would be honoured to fight with you."
Lu Ten smiles, slightly exasperated. "Don't be silly, you're the hero. Not me."
"Not yet. I'll see to make a hero out of you in Ba Sing Se." Iroh says, holding his son by the shoulders. "Your mother would be proud. You have her smile, you know."
"Mom would be proud of both of us." Lu Ten replies quietly, embracing him. "Now, let's go. We have a city to conquer."
The world is made of mirror and it has shattered into a million pieces. He cannot breath, cannot think. He is the powerful and illustrious General Iroh, the Dragon of the West, Crown Prince to the throne to the Fire Nation, and he cannot even speak a single word. Sounds and sights rush past him but he is not aware of their presence. No, it cannot be. My son...
What is he doing here? What is the point of all this needless war? All this tragedy and suffering out there on the battlefield, his own now added to the strife in the city before him. No more. I will have no more of this senseless hostility. It has taken my only son, who had the eyes of his mother, away from me.
He leaves without a second thought, bitter with the tears of his broken heart.
His legacy is one of thorns and ill blood. Sometimes, looking at his brother and niece, he suspects madness runs in the family. Will I go mad too, trapped amidst this desire for power and domination?
Maybe it's because there are no women to temper the rampant war cry of the men. First his mother, followed by his wife...
... And then Ursa is gone as well.
He shares the burden alone now, of looking after Zuko. So impetuous and hasty, but in the boy's heart lies something unique. He is not like his father and his father's father. He knows mercy, kindness, and equality are not things to be scorned at. He could be the answer to the Fire Nation's tragic shadow.
In many ways, Zuko is nothing like Lu Ten, who was calm and kept his emotions closely held to his chest. But in many ways, he is: proud, contemplative, just.
Iroh plays against Zuko's weaknesses; he is patient where Zuko is impatient, he is reserved where Zuko is boiling kettle of emotions. It's easy to play this role of the annoyingly carefree old man, to wax poetic about tea and Pai Sho and pretty ladies. He has changed over the years. Life has forced him to. And so the years pass and he continues to change. He does not know if it is because he has been to the spirit world, but he senses something in the air. Winds shifting.
Whatever way the winds shift, Iroh takes comfort in his time with Zuko. With each passing day, despite every outburst and every pot of tea smashed to the ground, he loves his nephew even more.
Part of him is still disappointed. Part of him still worries. But it is a very small part of him, the emotions a father will always endure for his wayward son. But those emotions are dwarfed and smothered by everything else, by his love and his joy and his hope, to find Zuko kneeling before him, tears in his eyes and throat, so certain that his uncle would not forgive him. I understand, dear one. A man must discover his path for himself. I was only waiting for you at your journey's end.
Iroh holds his nephew tight and for a moment it doesn't even matter if they cannot liberate Ba Sing Se, if Aang cannot defeat the Fire Lord. Zuko has returned to him; the future will be different now. They can undo all of their people's mistakes. Together, they will make everything right.