Disclaimer: I don't own Avatar: The Last Airbender. Sadly enough.
Warnings: Speculation, Spoilers up to Season Three
AN: For AtLA Land's lottery writing challenge. Prompt was "The Crewman's Song."
He's just an old man now. Not really a general. Not even a prince. His knees creak with age in the morning, and if he stays up too late, his hands shake when he places the pai sho tiles. He no longer has any taste for alcohol, not even in celebration, and he has trouble reading fine print these days.
Time is creeping up on him. Creeping ever onward.
Lu Ten would well be a father by this point, one with half-grown children. Zuko's own are already shooting up like lily-weeds, and the oldest boy is taller than Iroh himself now. Even Ursa's hair has grey in it, and Iroh notices that wrinkles have started to line Mai's mouth and eyes.
They're all growing up. Growing old.
But that isn't necessarily a bad thing either.
Iroh has never been as content – as happy – before as he is now. His teashop is a dream he never even dared have as a boy. A secret fantasy he kept hidden from his father and everyone else. Such a thing was beneath him, the heir apparent and future Fire Lord. A man of his station would never sink to wait on others personally or to even make his own drinks.
Now, he doesn't have to hide who and what he really is. An old man living out his golden years in peace with his family and friends. He can do what he wants, when he wants. He can speak to everyone he passes and give them friendly words. He doesn't have to be stern or aloof or always in control.
If he wanted, Iroh could sleep away half the day. Imbibe as much tea and snacks as he can stomach. And play his horn until dawn.
He doesn't, but that doesn't mean he can't. The neighbors might not much like it, but it's his choice. His life now. Even if it's growing shorter.
Time isn't his enemy. It only makes each moment all the sweeter. Makes each breath worth more. Makes him cherish every visit with his nephew and every childish laugh from Zuko's children.
And really, it's a joy to be with them now. To see two little heads bowed over a pai sho table and a third coloring on the floor by their feet. To hear Ursa and Mai laugh over their drinks. To watch as Zuko goes from table to table with tea.
It's nostalgic. Makes him think of years ago when he first opened this shop and the war had just ended. When the room was filled with laughter and joy at winning.
Makes him remember other times further back still. When he was just a young man and his brother only a child. But things weren't pleasant then. Ozai was already starting to draw away. To scheme and connive in the shadows behind their father's throne.
But those days are gone, and Iroh's glad for that. Even better, Zuko isn't his father. His nephew is a good man. A great Fire Lord. And an even better father. He is all that Ozai was and everything he wasn't. He has never so much as raised his voice to his daughter or to his sons, and he cherishes each one singularly. Iroh grows prouder of him every day, and he knows that Ursa does, too.
Time has been kind to them, where life often hasn't. But Iroh is glad for that, too. Glad for living to old age. Glad for this chance. Glad to be here right now and nowhere else.
Life, after all, is the best cup of tea. Sometimes, it is bitter. But it can also be incredibly sweet.
The voice that calls him is familiar. Understandably so.
Iroh glances up to see Zuko hovering over him, tea tray still in hand. It's almost cute in some ways – though he'd never say that aloud – and amusing in others. The great and powerful Fire Lord serving tea to the patrons of a quaint little shop. Just another of life's little ironies, Iroh supposes. Just another way for the world to make happy fools of them all.
"Uncle," his dear nephew asks softly, worriedly, "what's wrong?"
Iroh shakes his head with a smile. He reaches up to pat Zuko on the shoulder, glad that his nephew doesn't flinch away anymore. It's taken them years to get here, but every one of them was worth it.
All of it was worth it. All the sorrows and the joys. Every single one.
Iroh's smile widens.
"Nothing, my boy. Nothing at all."