Thy Brother's Wife
Disclaimer: I don't own Avatar: The Last Airbender. Sadly enough.
Warnings: Speculation, Spoilers for the Finale
AN: I wasn't certain of the timeline here, so I took liberal amounts of creative license.
He meets her for the first time at his own wedding. Ursa is just a girl, but she's already such a lovely little thing. All soft smiles and big eyes. Only a year younger than his brother. But already, he can see the way Ozai's eyes follow her around the room. Can see how his brother trails after her wake like a messenger hawk in search of his master.
It's rather cute really. Sweet. Not that any boy his age wants to hear that. But Iroh can't help but tease him. But poke at his heated cheeks and ruffle his hair and then whisper advice in his ear afterwards.
His beautiful new wife laughs into her hand beside him as he gives Ozai a subtle push in the right direction. And that laughter only grows as they both watch him stumble over to her. Stuttering and staring at anything and anyone who isn't her. But Ursa just smiles and takes his hand.
And Iroh is nothing short of a proud husband and brother, celebrating the best day of his life.
Years pass before he sees her again. Which isn't to say that he doesn't hear of her. He goes all over the world with the army, but the letters he and Ozai exchange always seem to carry common themes.
Their father is strict. Firebending is hard. And Ursa is beautiful.
Iroh silently agrees with all three. His encouragement isn't subtle, but Ozai is still very much a boy and then later a young man. Sometimes, the obvious is a bit too much for him. As is restraint.
Which is why Iroh encourages the match. She will be good for him. Will hopefully soften his edges and bring warmth to his cold fire. Besides, she's charming. And if nothing else, she will make a wonderful mother.
It doesn't hurt that she plays pai sho. Or that she keeps beating his brother.
He misses their wedding. Iroh really wishes he hadn't. But orders are orders, even for him. And his father the Fire Lord wouldn't allow him to miss months on the field for something as insignificant as the marriage of his younger and only brother.
Still, he makes it back in time for Zuko's birth. He is there when Ozai learns of the babe's difficulty breathing and to hear the healers say that he won't survive. He just watches as his brother storms away without even seeing mother or child.
Iroh is the first to hold his nephew outside of the midwife. The one to count all the fingers and toes and to see those eyes open to the world with wonder. He's the one who sits by Ursa's bedside afterwards, nephew in his arms, son standing beside him with a wide grin. And he's still there days later as both Ursa and Zuko grow stronger.
Ozai is nowhere in sight.
Iroh is also there when Azula is born. Still holding Zuko in his lap as Lu Ten dozes with a head on his shoulder. His brother takes much better to this child. To this girl whose screaming is loud and strong enough to be heard out in the hallway. Ozai actually deigns to not only hold her but to actually smile as he gazes at his daughter's face. Such a stark contrast to the birth of his first child.
But Iroh is too busy being glad that his brother is even there to realize that until much later. Just glad to see that Ozai brushes his wife's hair from her face and kisses her forehead before turning back to the squirming bundle in his arms. Before stepping away to study her in the light of the windows.
And it is later. Much, much later. Years in fact. That Iroh remembers. That he truly sees Ozai walk away with the new baby. Leaving behind Zuko and Ursa and never seeming to come back.
Ursa is barely a decade older than Lu Ten, but in many ways, she's the mother he no longer remembers. She's the one to look after him while Iroh is in the field. To give him reports on his son's wellbeing and general mischief-making. If he wants to read about Lu Ten's academics or firebending skills, he hears plenty about both from tutors. But if he truly wants to know about his son's exploits, he needs only to read Ursa's letters.
And Iroh has no problem imagining that while many of the ideas are in fact Lu Ten's, that Ursa is the inspiration. That her words lead him and his cousin to new heights of naughtiness and boyish wickedness. All in the name of adventure of course.
It just makes Iroh grin. Makes him laugh out loud. Much to the amusement of his aide when he shows her the letters.
And Iroh isn't the least bit surprised when he returns home to find that Lu Ten is missing both eyebrows and that Zuko's clothing is scorched. Nor is he shocked to find that Ursa's hair is a half-foot shorter.
Her tea is always tasty, and she laughingly tells him that the secret ingredient is love. Lu Ten and Zuko play in the garden behind them, but Azula has already run off to find her father. Ozai never comes out there with them anymore. Hasn't for years. Not since before the birth of his youngest.
Of course, Ozai does not value Ursa as he once did either. Doesn't value her at all these days. The love they shared has burned away and become ash in the face of his lust for power. In the face of a firstborn son too soft and gentle. And a prodigy daughter, who while cunning and clever, has problems distinguishing imagination from reality.
Iroh knows this. Knows his brother is changing. Turning into something all too much like their father at his worst. Becoming someone unrecognizable. Someone who no longer sees Ursa's beauty or compassion or laughter for the joy they are.
But she is still his wife. And Iroh's own has been dead for years. Dead since his son was still in diapers. And his bed has been so lonely and cold and empty.
Ursa is young. And lovely. And tender. With large eyes and a warm smile.
But more importantly, she's kind to Lu Ten. And Zuko. And even Azula. And loves them all the same.
Iroh returns to the palace older. Still a widower and now a man who has just buried his son. His father is dead. His army has failed. And he's barely hanging on.
Zuko is just as bad off as him. Azula is smug and gleeful. Ozai couldn't care less for any of them. And Ursa is nowhere to be found.
No one will tell him where she's gone or even if she has died, too. The servants just shift uneasily and lower themselves to the floor. Unable to meet his gaze. Unwilling to say the truth out loud lest their lives be forfeit. But their silence speaks volumes. It says enough.
He doesn't know what his brother has done, but Iroh knows he has to be responsible. Knows that their father was in excellent health just months before. But as surely as he knows this, he also knows that he can do nothing. That he doesn't care for the way Ozai looks at Zuko. Cold and calculating and without any of the love a father should hold. Nor does he like how Azula quietly gloats. Or the fact that she's heir in all but name.
All he can do is wait. Train his nephew to be smarter and stronger. And pray.
Iroh travels the world with his nephew, his second son, for over three years. It isn't a hard time. At least not for him. Zuko is growing. Maturing. Even if he still despairs. Still yearns for a father who loves him. He already has one but has yet to realize it. Hopefully, one day he will.
But he misses his mother. Misses Ursa. And so does Iroh.
He misses the sound of her laughter. The taste of her tea. The tenderness of her hands as they pat Lu Ten's cheek or smooth over Zuko's hair. The way she plays pai sho, seemingly without a strategy but somehow still winning half the time.
Most of all, Iroh just misses her. Misses having a friend. Someone who listens. A companion.
She isn't his wife. Has never been. But when he tries to remember his own, it is Ursa's face he sees. Her eyes. And her smile.
He's never been prouder when he wakes to find his nephew in his tent. He doesn't need to see the tears to know Zuko has shed them. But no forgiveness is necessary. Iroh was never angry. Only sad, scared. Afraid that his nephew would never find his way again.
But he has. And he's here. The only thing that could make this moment better is if Ursa could see it. If Ursa could see the man her son has become. Strong but humble and passionate. Warm where Ozai was always a little cool and then later cold.
Powerful enough to stand on his own. Brave enough to save the Waterbender. Compassionate enough to spare Azula.
Iroh is so proud. And he knows that somewhere, Ursa has to be as well.
They find her tucked away in a little corner of the Earth Kingdom. As far away from the war as possible and still be on the same continent. News of their victory hasn't reached her yet; people there barely even know the Avatar has returned. The inn she operates but doesn't own is small and tidy. Warm and full of a strange hodgepodge of people. Many just as displaced and lost as her.
Ursa is older now. As are they, truth be told. But she is still lovely. Hair still thick and full without a trace of white or gray. The lines on her face are from a mixture of laughter and sorrow. But her eyes tell the true tale. Loss and indescribable sadness that fall away in the face of a better world.
She hasn't seen them in years. She doesn't know that Zuko is scarred or that he has gone completely gray, but she recognizes them in an instant. The tray in her hands clatters to the wooden floor, and she is by Zuko's side seconds later. It's all his nephew can do to bring his arms up in enough time to catch her.
There are tears, but she beams nonetheless. Bright and happy and full of life as she looks them over. As she loosens her hold on Zuko just enough to pull Iroh in closer, too.
Even with his back to the room, he can hear the laughter of his nephew and his friends. But that only brings a grin to his face as he sets the pot and cups on the tabletop and slips into the chair across from her. She smiles at him easily, gaze going from Zuko to the others and then back to him.
"Would you care for some tea?" Iroh asks.
But what he really means is if she would like to stay. If she would care to be here forever and never leave again. If she would like to be part of their lives as she once was. If she would like to be more.
Her fingers brush along his as she accepts the teacup. A gentle touch from hands that are no longer soft and belonging to the wife of a prince. Wearing clothes not meant for a lady of breeding or a woman of wealth. Her face is still beautiful though. And her eyes are bright with hope and something a lot like promise.
"Yes, I very much would."