Disclaimer: I don't own Avatar: The Last Airbender. Sadly enough.
Warnings: Speculation, Spoilers
AN: For AtLA Land's fic-prompting challenge. Companion to Children of Men.
There are words for situations like this. Iroh just isn't sure what they are. He isn't sure what to say or do. How to make the man before him understand that things really aren't as horrible as he imagines. That his mind is making mountains out of badgermole hills. That this is war, and they must all make sacrifices. Do things that they find personally distasteful.
That this is the way of the world.
"I can't do this anymore," Jeong Jeong – his oldest and dearest friend – repeats yet again. He looks tired, exhausted by their most recent battle. Though if Iroh is completely truthful with himself, Jeong Jeong has looked worn and weary for some time now.
Iroh takes a deep breath and pours more tea. "We must, my friend. We must."
He gently sets a cup down in front of both of them. It's mint and honey. Jeong Jeong's favorite since they were both naughty boys scorching off their own eyebrows. Now though, they're general and admiral, meeting to celebrate their dual victory in this strategic port city. It's a time for revelry and merrymaking, and indeed, he can hear the cheers of their men in the distance even now. It's a celebration for everyone, army and navy alike. Everyone but the leaders. They still have other fish to fry and monsters to battle.
"We must what?" his companion demands and nearly sends his cup flying when he jerks his hand. "Keep fighting? Keep killing? Keep burning everything in our path?"
"We must keep honoring our nation and its goals," Iroh replies, and his own tone has grown steely. Jeong Jeong is his friend, and he will tolerate much, but he is still a prince and the Fire Lord's heir. "We must protect our men from all comers and defend their honor with our dying breaths."
"I didn't say we'd abandon our men," Jeong Jeong sends back, and fire licks at the fingers of his closed fist. "But we could've pulled back. We could've retreated. Things didn't have to turn out this way."
"Things turned out better this way," Iroh counters and rights the cup his friend has knocked over, but he waits to pour more tea. "We hardly lost anyone. That's worth celebrating, no?"
He offers a pleasant smile. Jeong Jeong just stares at him, but then, his golden eyes narrow into furious slits. There's something to his face. Something hard and hot and fierier than the sun. Something heavy and sharp and full of hatred that Iroh just doesn't understand.
"Celebrating?" he repeats like he can't quite believe his own ears. "Celebrating?"
But just as swiftly as his voice and inner fire burns, Jeong Jeong turns cool. Cold. Glacial.
"We killed children today," Jeong Jeong says quietly, but somehow, it manages to sound like a shout. "Children! Does that not matter to you at all? You're married and have a son of your own; don't you care?"
"I do care. I do," Iroh insists, and he starts to feel his own temper begin to rise. "It is horrible yes. But that is war. We didn't intend to harm them or their families. We even warned them away. It isn't our fault they didn't listen. That they attacked us first. It was all bad circumstances and collateral damage."
"Collateral-" The other man abruptly breaks off. "They aren't just collateral. These are people."
"People of earth," Iroh dismisses so very casually. "They aren't like us. They aren't fire. They don't have our strong ways or feel like we do. We're helping them in the long run."
Jeong Jeong's face has gone from ferocious to astonished. His fingers slip loose from the fists he had them in and grip the table so hard his knuckles whiten.
"You honestly don't believe that, do you?"
His voice is soft. Troubled. Painful. A piercing agony that tears through his spirit more cleanly than any blade ever could.
"Don't you?" Iroh asks, and he's honestly puzzled.
The Fire Nation is the best and strongest nation in the world. These people only fight them because they don't know any better. The Fire Nation will take what strengths they have and add it to their own, teaching them the right path along the way until all are united under one common banner. The world will be in perfect balance then, all the elements together and no longer separated by difference. That's what his father has taught him. And his grandfather. It must be true.
After all, why would they ever lie?
Jeong Jeong just stares at him. He simply stares and says nothing more. He barely even twitches when Iroh lays a hand on his shoulder and gives a commiserating squeeze.
"You're just tired," he decides then and pulls Jeong Jeong to his feet. He'll probably need help getting back to his quarters as things are. "You need to rest. Take a few days to relax and recover. Your men need a break, too. They've been at sea too long and away from their brothers on land."
Jeong Jeong gives a nod but stays silent during the trip back to his rooms. He doesn't even speak as he opens the door and turns to look at the man beside him.
Iroh offers him another smile. Genuine and full of good cheer.
"Goodnight, my friend," he says then with true warmth. "Things will be better in the morning. You'll see."
Jeong Jeong gazes at him for a long moment before firming his jaw.
Then, he closes the door behind him. Iroh merely shrugs and goes back to his tea
When the sun rises the next morning, Iroh finds Jeong Jeong's quarters empty and his most prized possessions gone. He isn't all that surprised, but Iroh only shakes his head and waits for several hours before finally reporting his friend's disappearance. They search everywhere in the city and the surrounding area, but they find nothing. Iroh isn't surprised about that part either. He doesn't comprehend, but he isn't surprised. He just sighs, drinks his tea, and wonders where his friend went so wrong. Why he didn't and couldn't listen.
And it isn't for many years, nearly two decades, when his hair is completely grey and his son recently buried that Iroh understands what Jeong Jeong was really trying to tell him.