THE WAR PRIZE
Lu Ten survives the Siege of Ba Sing Se, the Raids on the South Pole, and the Fire Lord's wrath when he claims a young waterbender and her mother. AU.
*Disclaimer: I do not own Avatar: the Last Airbender. Sadly.
*Fic shout-out: DEFINITELY check out the beautiful fic by akavertigo "Tempest in a Teacup" (that fic inspired this fic). It's so haunting and gorgeous. You won't be sorry.
Advisement: Listen to Lana Del Rey's "Born to Die" while reading. Really. But ultra-quiet.
Lost but now I am found, I can see but once I blind, I was confused as a little child
"Your son has returned."
General Iroh, Dragon of the West and Crown Prince of the Fire Nation, looks up from his map of the yet unconquered northeastern corner of the Earth Kingdom and smiles at his lieutenant. "Good—he's earlier than I expected. The southern winds must be favorable. Thankfully, he can still join in the celebration of our victory, and luckily for us all, in the tribute from our new colony, I have discovered a sungi horn! Where is my Lu Ten now?"
His lieutenant, a man called Jee, is a man of exacting propriety and tradition, but he seems more stiff than usual as he hesitates. "He is coming through the upper tier of the city as we speak, but sir—" and again the man hesitates, running a hand over a mustache that is just beginning to gray.
Fear strikes Iroh and although he is a strong man, a powerful man, the Dragon of the West, he clutches his heart as if afraid it will give out. "Lu Ten—he is not—?" It has been six months since his last letter, six months since Lu Ten lead the skirmish against the South Pole, and Iroh fears his son will return to him a lesser man than he was. Wounded. Or scarred.
Lieutenant Jee cuts off his train of thought with a rambling apology. "No, sir, nothing of the sort, no, no. Your son is—is fine. But—he—he returns with the waterbender."
Assured of his son's fate, curiosity now piques him and he sits down heavily on the throne that once belonged to Ba Sing Se's child-king. "The South Pole's last waterbender? So he does exist?"
"Apparently, sir, she does. He brings her with him in his entorage, but unbound. I saw it myself."
Iroh starts. "Unbound? In a newly captured city? Is he a fool?" He knows Lu Ten knows that the Dai-Li are still unaccounted for, and that the Earth Rebels would be overjoyed if a waterbender assassin murdered the conquerer of their Ba Sing Se. Or the conquerer's son.
"A fool who also returned with the waterbender's mother."
"What?" This Iroh cannot believe. There have been men who have claimed water or earth women as concubines, but there is no honor in claiming such flesh, and Iroh thought his son had learned the worth of honor. He dismisses Jee. He detachedly watches the length of a candle burn down to a flickering flame in ivory wax, feeling the weight of each of his graying hairs, and waits for his son.
Lu Ten enters with the confident stride of a Fire Nation prince through the blackened wreckage that is still the Earth Palace doors, not pausing to gaze upon the still steaming frame. "General-Father!" he cries out, laughing at himself.
And he is whole and handsome and smiling, and Iroh's heart leaps to see him. "Son!" he cries, standing and embracing him as tight as his mortal arms could bear. His son smells like salt and fresh rain. And then he lets him go and gazes at the life of his life. Lu Ten looks, not happier than he has seen him in years for Lu Ten is a happy child, but more content, more at home with his self. The water woman, Iroh supposes, is the cause.
Lu Ten's eyes crinkle in fondness. "Father," he says, and how Iroh loves that word! "I salute you on your victory. You will forever be remembered and honored for your conquest of Ba Sing Se. Or is it Dragon's Keep, now? Your soldiers seem to have christened the city in your honor."
Iroh laughs goodnaturedly. "We'll see if the name keeps when the sake has left them. I actually plan to rename the city New Azulon, to honor my father. The christening is tomorrow."
"If we survive the victory sober perhaps we'll attend," his son jokes.
Together they laugh, but Iroh can see that is son is anxious, distracted. He keeps breathing in deep breaths (a trait Iroh taught him for meditation), so Iroh asks gently, "Is it the water tribe woman that troubles your mind, son?"
His son lets out the air in his lungs, and rubs his hands together. "I guess I shouldn't be surprised that the gossip has traveled this fast. Yes, it is the water tribe woman that is on my mind. I've claimed her as mine, father—"
Iroh closes his eyes.
"—And I've claimed her daughter. The waterbender."
Iroh opens them. "The waterbender, my son? High status war prisoners cannot be claimed for the seraglio, nor for servants. The law of our nation is that the war prisoner go to either Capital City Prison or the Boiling Rock; there is absolutely nothing that can be done for that."
"I have named her my heir."
The words are short, clipped, but they sound long in Iroh's ears. "Oh, my son—oh, my son, oh my son ohmyson."
But Lu Ten seems immune to his horror. "She will be safe from our prisons. Naming her my heir will protect her."
"But my son," Iroh whispers, "What will protect you?" For Iroh knows the history of the war and his beloved nation, knows the wrath of his beloved father, knows the burn of his beloved fire.
It takes only a few seconds to make his decision. "Undo it," he begs, no, he orders. "Undo your claim that the waterbender is your bastard child and perhaps all can escape unscathed."
All the pain in the world is held in Lu Ten's golden gaze. "That I cannot do. For you, Father, I would, but the mother—well, the mother."
And that is that. There is silence while Iroh tries to recover from his son's refusal.
"She is here now," Lu Ten offers. "Her and the waterbender. See them, please. Father."
Then, at the door, there is a woman, carrying the limp bundle of a sleeping child, the size of his niece or smaller—he had not realized the long-sought waterbender would be so young—both dark-skinned and in water tribe garb. The woman is very beautiful with tired blue eyes that arrests his gaze. He can see why his son is so besotted, and for an instant, the torch-flames in their sconces jet two feet upward.
The woman recoils away from the rushing heat and brilliance of the fire, stumbling slightly with her child. The firelight glints off of a water tribe stone at her neck, strung with a well-worn ribbon. Iroh recognizes it for what it is—a promise, an engagement, a marriage—all to another; oh my son, his spirit cries out, for there is certainly no honor in this, what have you done? Lu Ten crosses the room, and against the glow, the silhouette of Lu Ten's hand drifts at the woman's waist, his stance leaning into his hers. From his vantage point, Iroh can see what Lu Ten does not—that the woman allows the hand but stiffens.
The woman turns, and then it is the child who draws his attention. Though her face is shadowed in the curve of her mother's neck, nestled between lightless waves of hair and blue furs, Iroh can see the creased lines of sleep on her face. Small fingers are curled tightly around the water tribe pendant.
He remembers when Lu Ten's fingers were that small.
Something akin to curiosity stirs within him. He reaches for this child—the heir of his heir, the foreign of flesh, the water of his blood. His fingers barely outstretch before the mother flinches, drawing the child closer and tighter. He withdraws as well, feeling strangely old and tired as he has never felt before. The mother doesn't take her eyes—blue so very blue—off of his hands; she clasps the child to her chest tighter and tighter, white knuckled, until he protests and the child cries out.
Swift and sure, Iroh's hands find themselves around the child's ribcage, prying at the mother's hands with greater strength until the child is pulled from her arms into his own. She is a comfortable weight, lighter than she should be. Visions of tea parties and shopping trips and a small hand in his dance in his head. Lu Ten steps forward then, but Iroh sharply waves him off, and takes his first true look at the child.
It's so painfully obvious that she's a water child. Her skin though dark, mirrors the sheen of the moon, and her hair, loose and long, is less hair than it is ink—though not so much in color as in texture—it falls in waves and rivulets and streams. And her eyes are her mother's, beautiful, defiant; he can already tell that she reminds him more of Zuko than Azula. She's a beautiful child, but there is no hiding what she is, what danger she presents for them.
"Her name is Katara," Lu Ten offers, and the child—Katara; foreign syllables, light flicks of the tongue, the click of ice over rolling water—turns towards the sound of his voice. She is wide-eyed and alert, cautionary. Her breathing rough, shallow. Iroh's study sharpens, cataloguing her paling face and expanding pupils. With a careful hand, he spans her rib cage, prodding tenderly at each bone in the practiced manner of a soldier who has doctored many injuries. During this exchange, Katara does not cry out until he reaches her left ribs, but then the aftermath has her trembling. She is a brave one.
Iroh sighs. "Her left ribs, third and fourth, are bruised," he says, and if his voice holds blame, so be it. "She should have those ribs bound and iced." He glances at Lu Ten, but his son's concern is directed towards the mother. He follows his gaze. The mother's face is bloodless, but her eyes are not on her hurting child; instead, they are on his own hands, on their close proximity to her child's beating heart, on the flames embroidered on his red cuff, and he knows she does not see the hands of a medic or grandfather on her child, but the hands of the Dragon of the West, bender of fire and destroyer. But then, he was not the one who bruised the child's ribs.
"Ice will ease your pain," Iroh asks softly. "Can you form a brick of ice, little waterbender?"
Katara is silent, but she visibly starts at the request. Her lips thin, her eyes thin, and a look of stubbornness Iroh had only associated with his nephew crosses her face. She looks towards her mother.
Iroh waits. Katara does nothing. Iroh's patience does not wane.
The stalemate is broken by Lu Ten's intervening. "I do not think her bending was encouraged. And she does not speak," he adds softly.
"She does not speak?"
Lu Ten sighs. "Not yet. Not to me. Not to us. But she will." The latter is said with the confidence of a Fire Nation prince. "She will learn to." He hesitates before leaning forward, each word hushed with reverence. "We mean to be a family, father. We ask for your blessing and protection. I have claimed Katara daughter. May Katara claim you Grandfather?"
"No—" Iroh looks at the child's eyes, such beautiful, gleaming, very blue eyes, and is very aware that he has blinded such eyes before in realms of snow and ice. These eyes evoke not redemption but condemnation, and Iroh is old and wise and foolish enough to know that to embark on this path is to submit to his demons of conscience. He glories in his ancestry, in the weight of his grandfather's crown in his hair. To walk with his son he must diverge from his father, and that is something he cannot yet bear. But he looks at her and sees his nephew. "—But she may call me Uncle. Come, now. Our little waterbender needs a medic, son. Let us see to that." He bows his head at the child but his eyes are on his son.
There is a flurry of movement as the mother noiselessly reclaims Katara, and Lu Ten clasps him on both shoulders, laughing. "Well then, let us! And then let us celebrate your victory! Ah father, our worries are behind us!"
But Iroh sees how his son looks at the water tribe mother, how the mother looks anywhere else, how the child looks at the moon. And he worries for them all.
*Thank you for reading! This fic is meant to be multi-chaptered, but if you want another chapter, YOU HAVE TO REVIEW. That's how it works. Bonus points will be given to people who visit my blog listed on my profile—I'm willing to do requests and suggestions if you comment. Just throw me a message :D
*I mean this fic to explore the impact (positive or negative) a young Katara would have on Lu Ten, Iroh, Zuko, Kaya, Ozai, Azulon, Azula, Ursa, etc. For this first chapter, I thought it important that Iroh agrees to help, not for Katara or Kaya, but for Lu Ten. Don't worry though, there will be PLENTY of Iroh-Katara/ Zuko-Katara/etc. interaction later on. PLEASE, please, please REVIEW! Let me know if you like how the plot is going, how you are liking my characterization of Iroh, Kaya, Lu Ten, etc. I personally think that Iroh would not be as "open" without losing Lu Ten, so this Iroh is more soldier than calm tea-drinker, but I would like to hear your opinion.