"Come BACK here, you old scamp!"
It was the eve of Sozin's Comet. Under the summer sun's rays, swords were being sharpened, leather armor was being oiled, and crates of supplies were being heaved--it would scarcely have seemed like a time for levity. And yet, here in the White Lotus camp... for a few magical moments, at least... the laughter of two certain exiled Fire princes rang out loud and free.
Ever since their tearful reunion the night before, no force in the world could have parted Iroh and Zuko. The pain they had both felt over Zuko's betrayal had now been incinerated in the loving flames of Iroh's forgiveness. And even worries of the grim morrow could not douse their joy at this one simple fact--they had their family back. Small, avuncular, two-person family though it was.
Perhaps it was the sheer giddiness of this thought that had led the uncle and nephew to tease each other so. Half a minute beforehand, with a broad grin, Iroh had swiped one of Zuko's dumplings from the makeshift breakfast table. Not even bothering to ask "Are you going to finish that?", as he had so often during their days at sea, the completely dignified and self-respecting Grand Lotus had taken off giggling, clearly expecting his nephew to follow him. Which Zuko did, laughing more than his companions from Team Avatar had ever witnessed him laugh before.
"Whoooofff!" Iroh's breath was driven from his body as Zuko tackled him, the leaner figure knocking the shorter one to the ground. Iroh had already crammed the dumpling in his mouth, so, arms and legs both free, he flopped into a starshape on the grass. Zuko landed sprawled on top of him, still laughing. It was then that he noticed his uncle was crying.
"Oh--oh, I'm sorry, Uncle! Did I hurt you?" Zuko leapt up with alarm, concern painting his scarred features.
"No, my boy..." Iroh answered in his usual gentle, loving growl, as he propped himself back up. Joy and sadness both seemed to find a place between his wrinkles now. "The way you flopped across my belly just then... it just reminded me of when Lu-Ten was a little boy, and we would play together in the garden, that's all," he explained. He turned around to view the landscape between the inner and outer walls of Ba-Sing-Se, and a few more tears leaked out. "That hill..." he pointed; "that hill over there was where he died."
Zuko followed his uncle's finger from their hidden camp to the rolling mounds in the distance. The young prince couldn't tell which of these hills Iroh actually meant, but that didn't matter. What was important was that it mattered to Iroh. What was important was that his beloved cousin, Lu-Ten, had lost his life out there, roughly a decade ago. The breeze caught Zuko's hair as he looked with sympathy at his aged relative. It was time to ask something that he had suspected for a long while.
"Was that when... when you changed, Uncle? Your views about the war, I mean?" The younger Firebender bit his lip, knowing he was treading a painful subject.
"I did change," Iroh rumbled with conviction, clasping his hands fervently between the sleeves of his White Lotus uniform. "I left my 600-day siege of Ba-Sing-Se a different man than I came to it. It is..." his voice broke then, soft and husky. "...It is my heart's greatest sadness that my darling son died, before the violence within me did."
Iroh's old body shuddered, then righted itself again, through a deep breath. With great effort, he smiled gently at Zuko. "...I am sorry we did not get to have this conversation earlier, my boy. You deserve to know."
"General Iroh, come quickly! Your son has fallen!"
Iroh's heart thudded like a stone hitting his chest, then skipped several beats in disbelief. "...What?!!"
He flew past the soldier standing in his tent-flap, leaving his high-ranking lieutenants and their battle map behind. They and the young messenger--his face contorted with a strange mixture of dread and sympathy--could only watch helplessly as their general, the Dragon of the West, barreled towards the skirmish in the hills below.
Iroh ducked a few Earth Kingdom arrows, and stray bits of ash and fire, on his way down. His amber eyes held suspended tears, hoping against hope that the messenger's horrible words did not mean what he thought they meant. Roots and clods of earth sprayed from his armored boots as he slid heedlessly into the largest mass of soldiers. This part of the Fire Nation army--which had been waiting on their general's further orders, under the command of his son, Lu-Ten--had now formed a protective ring around the young officer.
"Lu-Ten!! LU-TEN, NOOOOOO!!!"
Iroh's breath was wrenched from his lungs at the terrible scene before him. His beautiful boy--his only child--lay limp on the ground, his face pale and cold. A shard of rock had lodged through Lu-Ten's armor, piercing his heart--he was dead.
The old general lunged forward to take his son's broken body in his arms. And then he screamed.
Soldiers on both sides would whisper stories of that awful wail for years to come. Some would call it "the scream that ended two years of siege." Iroh's roar of pain was unearthly, rough and guttural but reaching up to the heavens. An involuntary gout of flame erupted from his mouth, making his hot tears appear to literally burn as well.
And then something strange happened. As he looked around at his men--the young and the old alike... so weary, so loyal... all of whom he had dragged through this 600-day horror--General Iroh saw his son's face reflected in each and every one of them. He gazed further out across the battlefield, and something even deeper happened. All across the bloodied hills of Ba-Sing-Se, there were Earth Kingdom soldiers--some lying dead, some struggling alive--and far off though they were, Iroh could somehow see their faces too. For a split second, all of them bore the features of Lu-Ten. His precious Lu-Ten.
The aging Fire prince gasped, and shuffled backward. Clutching the body of his son, and still staring at the carnage all around him, he managed to croak out one word. "R-retreat. Retreat!"
...Word was passed, and the Fire Nation soldiers fell back to their fortified camp that night, outside the breached wall. General Iroh himself lay under a blanket in his tent, staring wildly ahead at nothing. He was in a state of fevered shock, as well as natural grief.
...Iroh had always been a cheerful and affectionate family man. He had adored his little boy, Lu-Ten, as well as his sweet nephew, Zuko. He had laughed and played with them, every chance he got. And yet, as he and his soldiers had marched through the Earth Kingdom, and saw its citizens leading lives so similar to theirs--so filled with the same love!--he had ignored it.
He had ignored it so well, he had been able to laugh at the idea of burning Ba-Sing-Se to the ground. And he had sent waves of soldiers to die, in pursuit of his goal. Waves of the Earth Kingdom's, and waves of his own.
They were all somebody's father, like him, or somebody's son, like Lu-Ten.
Iroh's heart exploded with guilt, at the very same time it was exploding with grief. All of the Fire Nation's lies of "superiority," and violence, and conquest--all the evil lies of his father Azulon, and of his grandfather Sozin--all the wicked, wicked lies Iroh had embraced, and made his own--slowly bled out of his being, as he sweated out his fever.
The next morning, he walked to a quiet, secluded spot--a small ring of brush and trees, just outside the camp--and fell on his wretched hands and knees. "Forgive me," he sobbed, begging a prayer to Heaven. "Forgive me... forgive me!"
And Heaven forgave. Just as Iroh would forgive, living by a principle of compassion from then on.
By that afternoon, General Iroh and his army were marching away from Ba-Sing-Se, their attack called off, and their destination home. ...After all, they were all very tired.
"...I never would have dreamed, all those years ago, that one day I would be preparing to liberate this city, rather than conquer it," Iroh finished. He and Zuko were now standing up on their hill, looking out to the faraway inner wall of Ba-Sing-Se.
"I'm proud of you, Uncle," the young prince managed to smile through his worry, placing a hand on his father figure's shoulder. As old and solid as Iroh was, Zuko realized that it had still taken the ex-general much courage and humility to tell this story.
Iroh moved to clasp his own fingers over his nephew's, grateful for the support. "This will be my great apology to the world," he murmured--still humbly, but resolutely as well. His amber eyes firmed as he took in the view of the city, then wavered as they traveled back to Zuko. "Prince Zuko... ever since I saw you as a baby, I knew that I would be your friend. And ever since I noticed your father neglecting you, I vowed that I would always be there for you. If I..." Iroh's rumbly old voice broke again; "if I do not make it back from this battle... please forgive me, my boy. Please forgive me, for this is something I must do."
Zuko swallowed a lump beading in his throat. "Don't... don't talk like that!" His golden eyes shimmered as he looked down at his uncle, trying not to cry.
But Iroh would not change his statement. If the unthinkable happened, and he fell in battle just as his son had, so many years ago--he wanted to leave his nephew with all the care and comfort he could muster. To that end, he only pressed further. "If it has to..." he whispered, "though I pray it does not... may the memory of this last you a lifetime." He suddenly grabbed Zuko into the strongest, most crushing hug the boy had ever felt.
"I love you more than the stars and the sea and the sun, my beautiful little prince."
Zuko almost keened with emotion. They both knew it was Iroh's destiny to take back the Earth capital from their homeland's tyranny--and it was Zuko's destiny to face his sister, and redeem their homeland from that policy of tyranny. But that would not make their temporary parting any easier. The young prince's red traveling robe nearly merged with the former general's blue uniform, as Zuko squeezed his father figure back for all he was worth. "Be careful out there, you old rascal!" he croaked.
Iroh buried his face in his nephew's shoulder, his voice hoarse and muffled. "You... too."
His arms tightening, Zuko realized that he could lock both elbows around his uncle's waist, for the first time in many a year. Iroh had lost a lot of weight during his imprisonment, and was currently a burly yet trim little figure, built like a miniature tank. He had to be, to harness the power of Sozin's Comet in the morn, and lead the White Lotus' charge into the streets of the occupied city.
This summer was a season to fight.
"Okay... open up."
Zuko had walked Iroh into the Fire Palace throne room, playfully covering his eyes from behind. Though the elder Firebender still owned the Jasmine Dragon (gifted to him by the Earth King, after the successful re-liberation of Ba-Sing-Se), he was spending this autumn back in the archipelago with his nephew, helping the young lord get settled into his new role.
Many changes were taking place within the palace, just as many changes were going on throughout the nation, and the world. There were no more palanquin-carriers--Zuko and Iroh both hated that demeaning act of elevating royalty beyond the human, refusing to let them walk on their own two feet. Many of the Fire Nation military uniforms were being redesigned--the proud red crests and leather breastplates would stay, but the skull-like facemasks of the soldiers, and the frightening cowls of the elite guard, would be removed. And the palace itself was being redecorated--Zuko had chosen a more welcoming color scheme, replacing the prominent red-and-black motifs with red, brown, and gold instead. There was even a little pink here and there, from potted trees and flowers--some real, some silk.
Nowhere was this more apparent than in the throne room. When Zuko finally slid his hands down from Iroh's eyes, the old man gasped with delight. "Oh... oh, Nephew, it's beautiful!"
The Burning Throne had been completely demolished--in its place were three smaller golden chairs, sitting humbly on the same floor level as the rest of the court. Healthy sakura trees spread their leaves and blossoms in every corner. Instead of streams of oil, which had once fueled intimidating flame-curtains, there were now streams of water, to keep the plants fresh and well-fed. Not to be disloyal to his native element, however, Zuko had made sure there were still plenty of torch-sconces, and cheerful golden fire-lanterns hung from every rafter. Giant brocades of red and gold silk hung as tapestries--some embroidered with typical flame motifs, some with all four elemental symbols locking together in harmony.
"--You like it?" Zuko grinned hopefully.
"I love it," Iroh beamed. Then he trotted over to the new thrones, examining the smallest one with interest. "Why, this must be where my new grandbabies are going to sit, someday!" he grinned.
The young Fire Lord chuckled softly. Iroh loved children so much.
"And this..." the older man was approaching the medium-sized throne now, rubbing its armrest affectionately. "This must be for the queen! Do you have a Fire Lady of your own in mind yet, Zuko?" He cocked a gray eyebrow pleasantly over at the young lord.
Zuko suddenly stared at the floor, rubbing his arm. "I, uh..." the regretful wince in his voice was obvious. "I dated Mai for a while, the last few months. But we broke up. We decided she wasn't good for me. And I..." his golden eyes winced even further as he whispered, "I don't guess I was much good for her either."
He slumped into the middle throne. Iroh leaned towards his nephew in concern, clasping the top of the boy's hand.
"I'm ashamed of myself, Uncle," Zuko confessed, exhaling painfully. "There was one time when I got angry at Mai just for letting another boy talk to her. What kind of gentleman does that?! She let me talk to other girls! I acted selfish, and possessive, and--and cruel!" he hung his head. A few loose threads of hair fell out from his otherwise-neat topknot.
Iroh gently took a seat in the queen's throne now, so that he could grasp both his nephew's shoulders. "Admitting you were wrong is the first step in doing right!" he declared firmly. "And it is good that you are repulsed by your previous bad behavior! When we want to change something, not to placate others, but simply because we ourselves realize that it is disgusting and wicked and wrong--that is when true growth occurs. I of all people should know!" The old amber eyes glittered with conviction.
"...Even when I joined Team Avatar, I still lashed out in anger sometimes," Zuko continued. He gripped the edges of his new throne fearfully. "You once said that good and evil were at war within me, Uncle. How do I make sure the good keeps winning?!"
Iroh smiled calmly, compassionately. "By asking the forgiveness of Heaven, and letting that forgiveness shape you. Even when you mess up, sometimes." He gathered the hem of his kimono, making himself more comfortable in the chair. "And by remembering that no good thing ever truly passes away," he added, leaning over to hold his nephew's hand fully. "Let me tell you another story."
General Iroh could be a bold little man, when the situation required it. That was why he had left the army camp behind for several hours, in the care of his lieutenants. That was why he had found the portal to the Spirit World in this Earth Kingdom forest, just as local rumors had said. That was why he had traipsed through swamp and shadow, avoiding the more frightening fairy-beasts, and befriending the gentler ones. That was why he had even grabbed the mighty legs of an enormous spirit-crane, riding it up to the top of this mountain. That was why he stood before these light-spirit guardians now--humbly, but unflinchingly.
The Spirit World was not the afterlife per se--but this glittering, astral gate that the tall beings encircled was surely a portal to it. Just as the man-sized crack in the ancient fairy-tree was a portal from the mortal world, which had brought him here.
Iroh had accepted the death of his son, now, though the grief still tore his heart apart. But he wanted to say a proper goodbye. His mother, Ilah, and his wife, Nozomi, had both died in sickbeds--Iroh had gotten to kiss their foreheads, and whisper how much he loved them, before they had breathed their last. He had had no such luxury with Lu-Ten.
"I am looking for my son," he told the shining beings, plainly. The sturdy, aging little Fire prince did not draw himself up haughtily, nor did he tremble with fright--he simply clasped his hands in front of his armored chest, stating his case.
"You are mortal, Iroh of the Fire Nation," one of the guardians glided closer to him, its shining face stern, but not threatening. "Your immortal soul has not yet left your body. Still-living humans like you are not permitted to pass through these gates."
Iroh stepped one booted toe forward. Two of the other guardians spread their long, almost mantis-like arms towards each other, bringing to mind crossed swords. They barred his path.
Iroh's amber eyes hardened with determination, trying not to tear up. "Then let Lu-Ten come here! I need to talk to him!" he pleaded.
The main guardian's face softened with compassion, but did not change its purpose. "Your son has already arrived in Heaven, Iroh," it told him, its ethereal voice sounding something like a woman's, something like a bell's. "You will see him again, someday, when you follow him there. But not right now. You have your own life to live."
After a slight pause, the light-being's hand reached towards him. "You have done great evil in the world, General Iroh. But now you are a changed man, and your heart is overflowing with love, eating more and more of the darkness away every day. You have so much potential within you to do great good now! There are so many experiences meant to shape you in the mortal world, which have not yet occured. And there are so many people who still need you there, too."
Iroh let the tears fall now, the faces of Lu-Ten and of his little nephew, Zuko, mixing strangely in his mind.
The spirit touched his forehead, and in a flash, he found himself lying in front of his tent, back in the homeward-bound army's camp.
...Iroh had a dream that night, which, strangely, brought him even more comfort than that encounter at the gates of Heaven. He was in a beautiful meadow, and though he couldn't see Lu-Ten's form, the boy's voice hovered comfortingly over him.
"I know you love me, Father. Please do not worry so. I'm at peace now, and I want you to be, too," the voice almost twinkled in the sky.
"...It is hard to imagine peace, without you at my side, my boy," the aging man bowed his head. Then a golden ray filtered down.
"Every time you feel a sunbeam kissing your cheek, that's me, Father," Lu-Ten's voice held a smile. "I'll hug you again in the flesh, when the time comes, and you are up here with me. But until then, I still will never leave you."
...The next morning, the face of General Iroh held a smile, too, for the first time in weeks. His soldiers couldn't know why he was rubbing his cheek so lovingly, but they were rather relieved to see him in such stable spirits again. Especially after the messenger-hawk had brought news of Azulon's unexpected death on top of Lu-Ten's, and the fact that the throne had unexpectedly been passed to Ozai.
Iroh didn't care. He had good to do in the world, now. And he could find plenty of ways of doing it, even without a lofty title.
And though he carried Lu-Ten's urn very carefully in his saddlebag, he knew the boy was not there. He rubbed his cheek again, almost happily, as another warm sunbeam hit it from the sky.
Lu-Ten was here.
Iroh and Zuko had gotten up again, during the telling of this tale, strolling around the throne room's trees. "Is that why you always were able to enjoy yourself so much, even in the hardest times?" the young lord asked, putting two and two together. "Why you could even smile and sip your tea out of an old tin cup, in the back of our cave, when we were fugitives?"
"Yes," Iroh nodded, so gratified that his nephew was beginning to understand. "Every tiny joy is a piece of Heaven's love, flowing through us, which we in turn give out. That love lives in our hearts, and never truly disappears. ...Just like Lu-Ten." Iroh was a bit hesitant to bring up his time in jail, since that was still a sensitive subject with Zuko--it might trigger his guilt. But, knowing how freely he had forgiven the boy, and praying that he would remember it, too, the old man decided that this lesson was important enough to risk it.
"Even in prison, there was a very kind guard lady, Ming, who would talk compassionately with me, and slip me little treats on my feeding tray, when the wardens were not looking. And even before I met her--when a passing guard would open the hallway door, I could sometimes lean over, and see the stars shining outside." A poignant softness grew in the old Firebender's rumbly voice. "I would remember how beautiful they were, and know that something at the heart of this universe was very good, for them to still be there in the sky. ...And that would give me hope."
"...You're a brave man, Uncle," Zuko admitted, managing a poignant smile himself, though not as full a one as Iroh's. He winced, remembering a time when he had shouted up at the sky, daring the universe to fling a lightning bolt that never came. "--I've always tended to focus more on all the suffering Heaven has sent my way instead."
"That is not Heaven," Iroh declared, firmly. "That is the Void. Heaven is always cheering you on AGAINST it, my boy!" his eyes lit up. Then, changing the subject in some ways--yet strangely not in others--he poked his nephew's chest, smiling encouragingly. "...Now tell me. What do you like to do for fun?"
Zuko almost had to laugh, seeing as his uncle had unknowingly mirrored Jin, that nice Earth Kingdom girl, who had asked him that exact question on their date. He gave Iroh the same answer he had given her, albeit a little more self-depreciatively this time. "Nothing."
"Oh, come now!" the shorter noble elbowed his nephew in the ribs, half jovial teasing, half all concern. "You were so excited and happy just a moment ago, bringing me in here to show me all these lovely sakura trees. And you even told me that you enjoyed serving some tea to your friends at the Avatar's camp--for which I am very proud of you," his merry eyes twinkled.
Zuko smiled timidly again, lacing his fingers. "Sometimes I think I get more pleasure out of seeing all your reactions, though."
"Well, that's love!" Iroh beamed from sideburn to sideburn, seeming even prouder of Zuko now. "And love is the greatest and purest and noblest pleasure of all."
"I'm scared all my other pleasures are destructive sometimes, though," the young Fire Lord hesitated, his scarred face drawing with worry again. "Like... like Firebender training."
Surprisingly, Iroh's gray eyebrows shot up with an instant solution. "You like to fight? Then dance! Just turn your passions into something creative, rather than destructive!" He actually demonstrated this by tugging his nephew forward, twirling him into a little jig.
Zuko laughed aloud--he would never have expected this. His uncle was a rich and hearty little soul, but physical activity was not usually his forte. Perhaps because of this, Iroh did quit after a few hops and turns--but he never gave up on impressing his lesson.
"You see? When we remember that loss and pain are temporary things, we can enjoy living in the moment, every day of our lives--brightly, deliciously, FEARLESSLY!" Zuko's uncle was in his absolute element now, spreading his large hands in one final, exuberant twirl before perching on one of the raised tree-beds. There he sat, wrapped in red silk and bubbling over with chuckles--the warmest, most joyful little sage to ever grace the Fire Nation court.
Despite all this, the young Fire Lord had one more misgiving to add. "It's hard to be fearless, though, when... when before, Father and Azula were always around every corner... hunting me." His hand flitted up to his scar, almost unconsciously.
Iroh's mood changed from jolly to heartbroken in an absolute instant. His wrinkles almost seemed to deepen as his face fell. "...I know, my dear child." Zuko had not heard the older man's voice break so much since he had told the story of Lu-Ten's death. "I am so sorry if I did not do enough to protect you from them."
The younger Firebender took a step closer to his uncle. Iroh opened his hands hesitantly--his face still so lined with pain and regret. ...Suddenly, the pair found themselves in an embrace nearly as fierce as the one they had shared at the White Lotus camp. From his seat on the edge of the sakura planter, Iroh was actually a head higher than Zuko--just as he had been when the young lord was a child. And now, just as if Zuko was indeed a tiny child again, the old man cuddled him soothingly.
"I promise," Iroh vowed to his nephew, his voice still shaking, "I will always do whatever I can to keep you safe, and make you happy."
"You already do," Zuko sniffled, burying his face in his father figure's chest. As he wrapped his arms around Iroh's waist this time, he noticed that he could only lock his wrists together--some of the old roundness was coming back. And as silly as that may have seemed, it made Zuko smile softly again. His uncle's growing belly was yet another sign of a return to normalcy. A new and better normalcy than they, and their nation, had ever experienced in both of their lifetimes.
This autumn was a season to heal.
Sssssss...pop! The Earth Kingdom berries rolled merrily over each other in the cookpot, simmering in syrup as they started to boil. Iroh leaned over and sniffed them appreciatively, feeling his stomach rumble. He had wanted to make a traditional Fire Nation cherry pudding, but as cherries were not as common in Ba-Sing-Se, these local offerings would do just as well. "Luftberries," he remembered they were called. They were almost as red and round as the cherries from home, and they tasted quite nice.
He was making a pot of tea, too, of course. A light chamomile mixture, rather sweet but not too sweet, so it wouldn't compete with the pudding. Both would be so nice and warm for this winter evening. Iroh would normally have been fixing them in his apartment, at this hour--but today, he had stayed late at the Jasmine Dragon after closing, using its kitchen instead. There had been a few things to tidy up, after all.
Before the autumn was out, Fire Lord Zuko and his uncle had both decided that the space between the Fire Nation Capital and Ba-Sing-Se was far too distant for them. Iroh may have had his old apartment there, but it would simply be a vacation home, now. He was staying with his nephew. Zuko needed him. And--the older man smiled softly, remembering the advice a certain little blind girl once had given him--he needed Zuko too.
Of course, Iroh still wanted his teashop bliss--but the solution to that was simple! He could open up a new branch of his business in the Fire Nation Capital, a short walking distance from the palace. He would still own the Jasmine Dragon, but he would delegate its running to a manager. Part of why Iroh had been staying late this evening was to pack up some trinkets he wanted to take back home with him.
Zuko, meanwhile, had been in a long series of meetings with Earth King Kuei. The young man now lounged happily on one of the Jasmine Dragon's couches, wiggling his feet back and forth. His uncle was right--it was completely healthy to let the day's tension seep away like this. After a while, though, he pulled one of the packing-boxes towards him, inspecting its contents musingly. His golden eyes widened.
Iroh had been mixing the rice-flour into the fruit pudding now, but turned at the sound of his nephew's voice.
"Where did you even find this?!" Zuko held up their old "wanted" poster--its edges a bit frayed, but the portraits and text quite intact, mostly unsplotched.
"Ahaha! From an ancient bulletin board downtown. It hadn't been serviced in months," Iroh chuckled in explanation. "I thought it might make an interesting little conversation piece for the new teashop." He turned to stir his berry creation again.
Zuko managed a soft half-grin himself, thanking Heaven that this old placard, which had once threatened their very lives, was now just a harmless souvenir. --Their likenesses were quite well-painted, though of course their hairstyles had changed. Zuko now had long, draping black hair behind his topknot, instead of a mostly-bald head and a thick scalplock. Iroh, meanwhile, had worn his old, trimmer beard-style in the summer and fall, but had decided to grow it back out for the winter.
Zuko's smile faded, though, as he re-read the letters of the poster. Doing so brought back mixed memories--and questions.
"Uncle Iroh, there's something I've been meaning to ask you." The young monarch paced the kitchen floor now, a bit nervously. "You've explained to me before what you were doing during our time at sea. How you were sort of a 'secret agent,' looking out for the Avatar, as well as for me... how you would've tried to get Aang to a White Lotus safehouse, if I'd ever caught him." Zuko managed another self-depreciative chuckle at that. So much of his outlook had changed in the past year.
"...I even understand why you sort of encouraged me more, during the times when Admiral Zhao was getting really close. Of course it was better that I took the Avatar, than him... even if you weren't able to speak openly about your motives, back then," the boy added.
Iroh wiped his hands on a dishcloth and turned around again, facing Zuko with open and compassionate eyes. He and his nephew had indeed had these conversations before, over the past few months--and the subject was not a sore one, now that they all were on the same side. Zuko had even laughed in retrospect, about that little stunt Iroh had pulled with his "missing" Pai-Sho piece. So Iroh wondered where he was going with this.
"But why the Siege of the North?" Zuko's open face now met his. "I would have thought... I mean... I know you did it to protect me, Uncle," the boy faltered, almost getting teary-eyed again. "But it must have been so difficult for you. Wasn't it like a betrayal of all you stood for, inside, after you changed your beliefs about war and conquest? After Ba-Sing-Se?"
Iroh sighed heavily, putting away the dishcloth now. The pudding could simmer for a while.
"It was very difficult. Of course I was protecting you, and the Avatar, in a way--not stopping you on your quest to capture him, in case the North Pole did fall--Aang, our last hope for peace, had to be kept out of Zhao's hands." Iroh shrugged helplessly. "The siege was going to take place regardless, of course. Zhao was in command, and my only choices were to join him, or not. There was no way I--the old disgrace, the dethroned prince--could just wave my hand and stop the invasion fleet, which my brother himself had already sanctioned."
His amber eyes glittered conspiratorially at his nephew. Though Zuko was still not a White Lotus member yet, perhaps he could be trusted with a few of its secrets. "...So I sent a message to Pakku."
Iroh clutched the side of the ship, feeling quite ill. Blast, blast, BLAST! THAT was the best assassination attempt the Water Tribe could come up with?! That idiot boy?!!
It had taken all his soldier's discipline to keep his face blank, as the brash young Water Tribesman had bellowed to Zhao (getting his name wrong in the process), outright announcing his intentions, and waltzing up in a fake uniform outdated by almost a century. The boy had charged Zhao with his lance, and the skilled admiral had simply sidestepped him, grabbed the weapon, and flipped him into the water.
If the circumstances hadn't been so dire, it would almost have been laughable.
But the circumstances were dire, and Iroh had had to excuse himself to go stand on another side of the boat ("to survey the left squadron," he had said), fighting the urge to throw up.
The night before, while Zuko had prepared his own disguise, Iroh had sent a messenger-hawk to Master Pakku, stamped with the seal of the White Lotus, in deadly secret. He did not want to be a party to his nation's rampant violence yet again. The least he could do was warn the Water Tribe at the North Pole, while he and Zuko (partially unbeknownst to the prince) stood by to be a lifeline for the Avatar, in case all went wrong.
"I will hold off the attack for as long as I can," Iroh had told his confederate, in the letter. As he now had, repeatedly urging Zhao to wait until dawn. "I am retired and unofficial, and Admiral Zhao in his current capacity outranks me. But perhaps if you could get a man in place to assassinate him, cutting off the proverbial 'head of the snake,' I then could step in, and believably order a retreat." Iroh would probably be known as "the ever-retreating Dragon of the West" after that, but that was a sacrifice he was willing to make.
Now he was beginning to wonder if that hawk had been eaten by a sea-serpent, and Pakku had never gotten his instructions at all. And where was Zuko?! Iroh and his nephew had gone over the extraction plan again and again, repeating it even as the boy had pulled on his procured navy-boots.
Zuko was to apprehend the Avatar. Put a bag over his head, with a small slit to breathe, so that no one would realize the boy's identity. Keep his own soldier's disguise on as well, and head back to the ships, demanding to speak to General Iroh, with an important Water Tribe prisoner. Zuko and Iroh would then excuse themselves for a moment, and take Aang to one of the minor supply-ships at the very edge of the fleet. This was the boat commanded by Lt. Jee, and Iroh had pulled several strings to get him and the rest of their old crew there. Both because it would probably be the safest ship in the battle, and because those men and women were their friends, and would likely still be loyal enough to them to then take off, once Zuko revealed his identity. They'd be home free with the Avatar.
And, while he didn't tell this last bit to Zuko, Iroh would then try to move Aang to the safe custody of the White Lotus, before they actually got back to the Fire Nation, as always.
Now the old man's gut was gnawing with worry. He hoped nothing had happened to his beloved nephew, who had missed the projected timeline ever since dawn. And Iroh's conscience was screaming at him meanwhile, wondering how in the world he could continue to save Water Tribe lives instead of take them, as he now was expected to give occasional orders to Zhao's men.
He had played the buffoon at first, albeit in a much more serious and covert way than he ever had on Prince Zuko's ship (oh, what a happy, happy, carefree little ship theirs had been, compared to this ugly, gold-crested vehicle of war!). "Take out the decorative seals on the city walls, and blast the heads off their giant statues! Break their spirits!" Iroh had told the crews of the frontline ships--secretly feeling sick at the thought of destroying such beautiful architecture, but not nearly as sick as he would be at the thought of those missiles being aimed at living humans instead.
Waste the ammunition. Waste the ammunition. He had also suggested several warning shots in the North Pole bay, to "intimidate them into surrender." It was at this point that the word "senile" had frequently entered the sailors' mutterings.
And now General Iroh had been summoned to the strategy table, to "advise" Zhao yet again. Drawing his red cloak about his aching joints, and cursing under his breath, Iroh stomped off to the admiral's cabin, unable to refuse.
When he got there, the real scene began. Zhao wanted to send the tanks to bulldoze one of the civilian sectors of the city. One of the CIVILIAN sectors!
"We are here to conquer, Admiral! Not destroy!" Iroh put his foot down--already hating the word "conquer," but wheedling it to his temporary purposes.
The middle-aged officer's face held an angry sneer. "We are here to wipe out these ignorant savages, and place our own flag in these waters, General Iroh! Or didn't you get the memo?"
"I will not have potential Fire Nation cit--" Iroh gulped, and amended the term "citizens" to "servants." He hoped this would flatter Zhao's cruel nature enough to get his guard down. "--potential Fire Nation servants murdered needlessly!" he continued, his growly voice only slightly calmer than it had been at the beginning of that sentence.
It didn't work.
Admiral Zhao's black sideburns moved further apart as he scowled, looking down on his dumpy strategist in every literal and figurative way. "Have your head and your heart grown as soft as your gut, General?! Deploy the fifth battalion immediately!" He pushed some tank figurines forward on the map-table.
Iroh pushed them right back, the light in his amber eyes growing angrier. "Send the tanks to fortify the bay squares!" he argued. (That ground had already been lost by the Water Tribe, unfortunately--and at least the tanks couldn't do much further damage if they stayed there.)
"Are you countermanding my orders, old man?!" Zhao's brown irises glowed hotly in return, lit by a small flame now licking out of his nostril. The admiral's short temper was notorious.
"Maybe I am!!" Iroh finally decided to fire right back, a spittle-ember or two escaping his lips. Good. I'll bait him. Anything to stall for time.
That did it. Zhao flipped the table, grabbing several war-figurines as he did so. "No one is listening to you, oh great Dragon of the West!!" He flung one of the small pewter tanks at the general, hard. "You are a fat, useless badger-toad!!!"
Strictly-speaking, Zhao was wrong--now every eye in the room was glued to the argument. The Fire Nation soldiers and sailors took several hesitant steps back from their officers in a ring, but watched and listened intently.
"Ruffian!! You have no idea what honor even is, Zhao!!" Iroh bellowed, flinging a soldier figurine across at him in return.
"I'm apparently loaded with it compared to you, Iroh, at least in the sight of your brother!!" Zhao's wild-eyed smile was truly malicious now. "You couldn't even babysit your bratty little dead nephew properly! No wonder old Lord Azulon didn't trust you with the throne!!"
The knowledge that Zuko had, in fact, survived the explosion, unbeknownst to Zhao, was all that kept Iroh from answering that truly low blow. Instead, he focused on twisting "patriotic" words again--even as he and Zhao "exchanged" more "presents" of pewter tanks and troop-markers mid-air. "You are a disgrace to our nation!! Once we sought to elevate the other kingdoms under our rule, not grind them into dust!"
The two officers were circling the overturned table like caged gator-lions now.
"Do not question me, you outmoded, hedonistic old ingrate!!"
"You invited me on this venture to do just that, Zhao!! Is the Fire Nation's top admiral nothing but a spoiled child who pouts and throws tantrums, never listening to his elders?!!"
"GET OUT OF MY SIGHT!!!" Zhao's curdling voice rose to a roar.
...Thus ended the strategy meeting of the hour. Wherein nothing actually got done, the admiral had become so incapacitated with rage. Forgoing his usual calm, even-tempered nature had actually helped Iroh to save a few Water Tribe lives, that day.
But it also had caught the attention of several soldiers. Soldiers who would report this incident--and several of Iroh's other bloodless, "senile" orders--to Fire Lord Ozai.
Zuko raised a hand to his cheek, slack-jawed. "So that's why this line was on the poster! I had always wondered about that!"
He pointed to the "wanted" placard's text. High on the list of Iroh and Zuko's supposed traitorous crimes was "refusal to exterminate Water Tribe savages."
"...I only hope I did enough, given my position," Iroh sighed. "Sometimes I've begged forgiveness for standing by that day, while so many lives were still lost, on both sides... war is a horrible thing, Prince Zuko. Though I was thankful we were able to liberate this city for the Earth Kingdom, even that battle was still awful, in its own way, this past summer." He looked down at the floor slightly, hugging himself, as if suddenly cold.
Zuko put a warm hand on his uncle's shoulder, ignoring the habitual lapse in title. He smiled compassionately. "I promise, you'll never have to march to war again. Not if I can help it."
Iroh smiled up at him then, softly. His brave little prince. His new Fire Lord, dedicated to upholding a new era of peace. "Thank you, my boy."
Then he turned to the stove to take up their pre-dessert tea. "I'm going to miss Ba-Sing-Se," he admitted, after a few moments. "But I would miss you more, Nephew."
"Well, I may even have good news about that," Zuko grinned, accepting his cup. "King Kuei and I have agreed that we need permanent embassies, now, to foster good will and communication. The new Earth embassy will be right in that underdeveloped area near the palace--you remember, it's less than a mile's walk. It's the perfect place for a little neighborhood to grow up around it... and it's the perfect place for your new teashop!"
Iroh beamed, suddenly seeming for all the world like an excited child. "You really think so, Zuko??"
"I know so!" the young lord nodded encouragingly. "What better protector, negotiator, and friend could a mixed neighborhood of Fire Nationals and Earth Kingdom expatriates have, than old Mushi, the Dragon of the West?"
They both grinned even broader at Iroh's Earth Kingdom alias, which now had become something of an affectionate nickname.
"You'll have the best of both worlds, Uncle," Zuko continued, "a happy little Earthtown straight out of Ba-Sing-Se. And you'll be able to walk straight from it into the royal gardens and up to the Fire Palace, any time you want."
Iroh clasped his own teacup with both hands, staring into it as he imagined playing with Zuko and his new family beneath the sakura trees. Teaching old songs to the Earth children. Making new and delicious blends to please Fire Nation and Earth Kingdom customers alike. ...Friends at every corner, satisfying meals, long naps in the sun, and stories by the hearth. Days filled with softness and light. His smile nearly split his features. "It almost sounds too good to be true."
Zuko got up and hugged his uncle then, slipping his arms playfully around him from behind this time. "No more suffering, General Iroh. From now on you'll be prince of the pies, commander of the kettles," he whispered affectionately.
Iroh grinned and pressed his snub nose into his nephew's, repaying that affection. "Let me go get our pudding, then I'll be right back." He clearly had a big hug in store for his nephew too, right after he rescued the luftberry mixture from burning.
"I think somebody's been having quite a lot of pudding lately," Zuko teased before he let go, squeezing his uncle's huge tummy meaningfully. Try as he might, he couldn't quite lock his fingers together around it, now.
"Sokka's drawing is entirely accurate again," Iroh agreed, his rich chuckle (and the resulting jiggle) showing that this was quite all right with him.
The aforementioned parchment lay carefully rolled up in another of the boxes, ready to be framed in their new home. Everyone would be able to see it, whenever Aang and his friends came to visit.
Things were going to be so good now.
This winter was a season to enjoy.