A series of drabbles dedicted to Iroh and his history-- leading from his birth as a prince of the Fire Nation to his steadfast loyalty to Prince Zuko on the hunt for the Avatar. First in a series.
Iroh would not think, as he grew up, that this was true. Double the firebenders meant double the competition for the throne, double the fireproofing, and double the accidents.
Iroh was wild and free, a flame fanned by the wind, flickering and aimless. Ozai was slow burning embers, waiting for something to spark and create a blaze. They were as different as could be, but this only heated their rivalry as they grew older.
The first 'accident' was with a table knife; Iroh at age twelve, Ozai at eight. Iroh still bears the scar across his ribcage, where the knife was deflected. Ozai had 'tripped', really. It was an 'accident'.
Such 'accidents' would mark their lives as they struggled to ensure their own ascension to take the Fire Lord's throne.
Before he was sixteen, Iroh proved himself at Agni Kai, against many foes. It was a time-honored ritual among noble youth. Waterbenders, rare and expensive slaves, were kept on hand as healers. Some opted to keep their scars, badges of manhood. Women rarely did so, preferring the men of the dueling grounds as their prizes in harsh, hot battle.
They were like wild cats, the women. It came as no surprise that Iroh found his first love with one. A year later she was dead on the front, her name merely a footnote on a duty roster and his heart.
Ozai was a constant threat. Accidents got less common, but when they did occur, they were more dangerous. Outright assassination attempts were discouraged, but the rest was business as usual. Sozen's sons had done it, and now so did the next generation.
Iroh poisoned his food. Ozai recovered, and a viper slid into Iroh's private chambers. Wine laced with hallucinogen was counted by a deadly poison dart, put through the shutters by an unseen attacker.
It was over, when Iroh was eighteen. He went to the front, to serve his country and prove he was worthy to become Fire Lord.
At first, Iroh thought he was doing the right thing, what his Nation asked. He led the sweep through the Southern Water Tribes. He laughed at the weeping of widows, and he slew their sons without a second thought. They were obstacles before the Fire Nation's plan. All would be subjugated.
Slowly, though, he noted the taste of ash on his tongue. Wine was not so sweet, nor women so warm. Things seemed less enjoyable as time dragged on at the front.
Then it didn't matter; he was called home. His father had chosen him a bride.
Ozai replaced him.
He married a girl he did not know. She was from one of the many families that in the time of Civil Unrest had sided with Sozen. They were the families that the Dynasty chose women from to wed to keep the feudal lords of the city-states within the Fire Nation bound.
Their marriage bed was uninspired - he had tumbled a number of women, and he had occasionally wondered how many Princes of the Blood he has left behind among the Earth and the Water women.
Now? It was his duty to sire heirs. Ozai was at the front, now.
Ozai did not come home until it was time for him to marry, as well. It was five years later; already, Iroh had two children, and they were working on a third. His wife did not love him, nor did he her, but they found an alliance against the forces arrayed against them mutually beneficial. She made him laugh, and she was good in bed; he did not think to expect more.
Ozai's wife was a viper; where Iroh's was a lioness, protecting her family, the woman Ozai married was out for her own advancement. Iroh hated her on sight.
Ozai's time on the front had been unproductive. He had been given a task by his father; find the Avatar and rouse him from hiding. Ozai had come home with nothing. The Avatar must be dead, he said; Dead among the Air Nomads, and then born again to the Water Tribe-perhaps killed in the massacres that Iroh himself had lead, which meant that he must have been reborn in the Earth Kingdom somewhere.
Iroh was certain this meant more war within the Earth Kingdoms. Ozai was a warmonger; violence had never soured in his mouth like it had for Iroh.
Ozai mysteriously fell ill. Bedroom trouble, it was said. A man that couldn't sire heirs could not have a dynasty, and thus it seemed that Iroh's succession was secured through sheer stroke of luck.
But then Ozai's wife turned up murdered in her bed, a dagger in the style of the Earth Kingdom's in her throat. Bloodlust whipped to fever pitch - blame for the dead woman was laid at the Earth Kingdom's feet.
Iroh held his wife, and promised her, no matter how displeased he might someday be, he would never murder her in her bridal bed.
She trusted him.
Iroh was now thirty-five. His oldest son was only twelve, the middle ten, and the youngest, seven. It was a reasonable brood - but he was called back to the front. He had served in the war room and the bedroom, but for now, Ozai needed to find a new wife and sire heirs.
In one year, there was news of his youngest drowning in the garden pond. He could not return home to bury him, to hold the hand of his wife, his only ally. She was alone among enemies, and already, a child was lost.
He dreaded more letters.
Four years passed; another accident occurred. Iroh wept, then, when he was told of his middle son trampled to death in a riding accident. He turned to drink, then, and took his rage out on his men. They endured with aplomb.
Another year passed, and he returned home, praying that he was not leaving in time to miss a letter, praying he would get there and his son would be alive, his only child - now sixteen, two years away from going to the war front himself.
It was then he realized that Ozai had left him alive for just that reason.
Shortly after Iroh returned home to wife and son, Ozai announced he was to be married again. This time, he's chosen the viper himself - his father approved. They, like Iroh and his wife, were unified in their amibition; the woman especially loathed Iroh's wife and son.
He wanted to send them away, but they refused. Two years would pass, and Iroh's son was going to the front anyway. So, they were spent with his father.
While Iroh savored his time with his son, Ozai worked to sire one. By day, he cemented his position with statecraft, caring not for family matters.
The year Iroh's only living son died on the battlefield, Ozai's first born came to the world.
Zuko, they called him. Left alone with the infant just once, Iroh considered killing him in his cradle, so that Ozai might know the suffering of loss, the agony of defeat. He had his hands on the pillow, ready to stifle a baby's breath.
Then, he realized - the boy was replaceable to Ozai. Rife with grief, Iroh, now nearly fifty, concocted an insane plan.
He would teach the boy what Ozai would not, could not. He would teach him honor and beauty - and pai-sho.
Zuko was swiftly followed by a sister, but her mother guarded the girl jealously, favoring her over her son. Ozai was too busy for the boy, having secured succession with the death of all of Iroh's children and his manipulations of the court. He discounted his now aging older brother, as Iroh began to find peace in watching Zuko grow as he had never been allowed to watch his sons.
The boy grew quickly, too. One moment he was toddling about in nappies, the next he was bending flame.
Ozai had trained Iroh's sons in bending. Now, Iroh trained Zuko.
As Zuko grew Iroh realized that the boy had few of his father's traits. There was that singular intensity that was common between him and Ozai, yes, but Zuko did not look upon others as pawns. He did not even attempt to slay his sister as a threat to his throne!
Iroh worried that he would not be strong enough to take the throne. The Fire Nation was a dangerous place, and the family was not the only group who would look to dispute his claim. Already, generals looked askance on the tawny eyed boy who asked too many questions.
Zuko was a singular bending student; impatient, yes, but he enjoyed what he did. Iroh loved to teach him. Certainly, getting him to sit long enough to simply heat tea was a chore, but watching him turn his focus to a single task and light the spark gave him joy.
He had barely known his sons - but he loved this boy as if he were his own. Zuko loved him, too - but his father had the boy's heart, and Iroh grieved. He knew, someday, that Zuko would have to face the truth: Ozai cared for no one but Ozai - not even for Zuko.
His wife did not approve; not of their closeness, the plan, of anything to do with Zuko. The alliance that had been forged early in their marriage had been shattered by unhappiness and the death of their sons. She couldn't forgive him for replacing them with his nephew.
Iroh could only mourn and move on. Zuko came between them. He chose the boy without a second thought. She understood the reasons, but could not accept them. She moved into the woman's wing, and he did not pursue her.
He missed the sex, but he missed her humor most of all.
Zuko excelled at nearly anything put to him. He cared little for more delicate arts, and he took seriously the burden on his shoulders. He was going to rule the Fire Nation, greatest of peoples, and he applied himself with a seriousness not befitting an eight year old boy.
In short, he didn't play often. Troubling, thought his esteemed Uncle Iroh.
Iroh taught him pai-sho and music in secret, away from prying eyes. He hid the purpose in the xiao flute as 'bending', a way to master the breath - in time, it didn't matter. Eight years old, Zuko loved the sound.
Despite all his efforts to strip his son of decency and humanity, Zuko held firm. He believed people were valuable, that soldier's lives were not to be spent like coins and that there needed to be changes.
He was not certain, however. Every time his father put a question to him, he wavered in his resolve. Iroh watched him with worry; would Ozai break down everything he had painstakingly built within Zuko?
The answer came out in a single mistake: trusting a fourteen year old boy who asked too many questions to keep his mouth shut in the war room.
Iroh never forgave himself. When they carted the boy's body, curled in on itself from the pain, he was with them. When the healers came, they had to pry him away. When Zuko finally gave in and screamed when they peeled away layers of flesh, he was nearly ill.
He, the Dragon of the West, he, who has laid siege to a single city for six hundred days, he, who could have held the Fire Throne - General Iroh, wept at his mistake. For it was his mistake, as much as speaking had been Zuko's.
He knelt before his brother, ashamed.
Iroh begged for leniency, despite that he knew that there would be none; he did not weep in front of Ozai; it would only earn Zuko more harshness. He argued with logic and passion - who would inherit the dynasty? Ozai's bratty daughter? Never! Laughable! Zuko was his only hope.
But Zuko was called a traitor; execution would have been the next logical step. But Ozai's madness seemed to reach fever pitch when he turned to Iroh and smiled.
Zuko needed to learn to be like his father; so like Ozai, he would hunt the Avatar.
Iroh packed his bags that night.
The boy was left in the furthest wing from the palace; used for 'visiting' dignitaries, he was a prisoner within the palace compound. He sat in the dark. The xiao no longer touched his lips, and he suffered in silence.
Iroh went over the reports with guilt stabbing at his heart; Zuko's eye was damaged; the lids no longer worked properly, and the tear duct was ruined. His hearing on his right was poor, and he would always be vulnerable to attack upon that side. In time, his right ear might fail him entirely.
Iroh would teach him to compensate.
When he saw him again, in the light, for the first time, the change was drastic. Iroh wanted to slap him; he had finished what the doctors had begun - shaving his head except for his queue, the mark of his royal heritage that would have someday been tied up in a noble's knot. His lips were white, pressed tightly together, and he was surveying the ship that was to be his prison.
He saw now that this was not the boy he had taught bending through music. He had lost his innocence.
This was the Fire Lord's son, Prince Zuko.
"I'm coming with you."
"I don't need you where I'm going."
"But, Prince Zuko, if you fight the Avatar - how will you defeat him? Your firebending skills are good, but he is the Avatar. Will you not allow me to continue your training, nephew?"
Zuko had looked at him, his jaw set. "Only if you dispense with the frivolous nonsense you've been giving me," he replied tersely. "I want to bend, not be a musician."
Iroh sighed, but Zuko won that battle. In retaliation, Iroh founded Music Night less then a month out to sea.
Zuko hated it.
Those two years were hard. Watching his nephew chase every lame lead, come to a hundred dead ends; the boy did not give in, though. He did not collapse and weep in the dark, though Iroh thought that might be better for him then what he did - sleep poorly, bark orders at an unhappy crew, and act as if his misery demanded company.
For every tantrum, Iroh endured. Zuko fought with the crew? Iroh smoothed it over. Every storm had its eye, every tempest its port, even with Zuko.
It was just harder to find them, as the months dragged on.
The light was the beacon. Iroh knew that display had not been the celestial lights - they did not come up out of the ground. But he did not know what it was, and did not want to upset his nephew.
The Avatar did a fine job of that as it was, anyway.
Prince Zuko was a man revitalized. At sixteen, two years after his maiming, his crushing defeat - he had hope again. He could capture the Avatar, and all would be set right in his world. It would never be normal again, but he could regain what he had lost.
Secretly, Iroh took some pleasure in his nephew's victories, grieving at his defeats. When he dueled Zhao honorably, Iroh could have hugged the boy; instead, he slipped him a subtle compliment and accepted the boy's meek and hopeful disbelief as the best reward possible.
In turn, when the Avatar escaped Zuko time and again, Iroh shared in his frustration. Not because he wanted the Avatar captured; anything that could sway his people's destructive course was alright by him. But what hurt Zuko hurt Iroh.
If he had to choose between the world and his nephew, the world could be damned.
He, too, was damned. He knew this with the calm of one who had settled his stakes with life and found redemption within the smile of the child he had raised. Still, he had not expected his end to come like this -- caught in the cross fire of Zhao's benders, Zuko's crew and the Avatar's small party of scared if hopeful children.
When Zhao ignited the explosion that destroyed the ships, it was a diversionary tactic. He had not expected the ships to chain-reaction, exploding along shore.
He had not expected to murder the wrong Prince of the Blood, either.
The impact was relatively painless. A sharp something, and then nothing. He dimly remembered drifting through a strange, bodiless sensation, dimly aware of being stripped of his arm, of his nephew's shrill voice, already grieving.
He wasn't dead, though. This was a scratch, wasn't it?
He watched them, disconnected, as they pulled blades of the propeller free.
This was not a scratch. This was going to be his life.
Now he saw fit to struggle - surfacing to consciousness to Prince Zuko's face, tear streaked on one side, blood-spattered on the other.
"Uncle! Hold on, please hold on!"
He did his best.
Zuko spoke to him as they bandaged him. Fire cauterized his wounds with the precise measures that he himself had taught the Prince.
"You'll be alright. We'll get you to a Fire Nation port where you'll get care, Uncle. Just hold on for me, /please./"
Prince Zuko never used 'please' anymore. He used it even less then 'sorry'. It made Iroh laugh, and that made his head swim.
It was not long now.
"Zuko," he said. "My best years, my happiest years, were with you. Always remember that."
"Don't talk like that."
Iroh wanted to say more, but could not.
It was a fitting death, he decided. He had died as he had lived-loved by one person above all others, but still a casualty to another's ambition. Better Zhao then Ozai, in Iroh's mind.
He hoped Zuko understood; these had been the best years of his life. Away from the serpent's nest, alone with the boy he had loved as a son. They had been too short, but he was certain they were the best of his life.
Iroh slipped away, cradled in Zuko's arms, at peace. His nephew would never understand why, despite the pain, he died smiling.