Lu Ten is the Crown Prince's son, and has been coached on how to act and what to say ever since he could walk and talk. That's not to say that with his father he couldn't be a kid. In fact, he encouraged Lu Ten to just be whenever it was the two of them. Iroh isn't one for constant formality. He can't remember his mother, but Dad always says he had has Mother's eyes. Sometimes he stares at them in the mirror and tries to get some recollection of those eyes looking down at him to surface in his mind.
He never can, no matter how hard he tries.
Lu Ten practices his firebending every day after breakfast, and has lunch with Dad when he can make it, does his studies in the afternoon, and in the evening as the sun goes down, he sits by the turtleduck pond and has tea with his father, and they talk about their day.
On some days, when his study work his particularly light, he wanders around the palace, causing mischief in the kitchens, and annoying Uncle Ozai, and never going near the Firelord unless Dad said it was time to visit.
He trains to become a soldier, because as long as the Firelord is nowhere near death, his job is to serve.
Dad tells the Firelord one day that Lu Ten is excelling, and the young teenager resists the urge to puff his chest up proudly, and sips at his tea to hide his smile.
Lu Ten is nearly nineteen when Uncle Ozai marries. He is nineteen and about to ship out on his first deployment when Lady Urse, his aunt, friend, gives birth to a baby boy. Dad tells him that morning that Zuko, the baby, was small and quiet. Weak - weak, all babies are weak - Ozai calls him, and Lu Ten clenches his jaw because Ozai's definition of strength and weakness were not the real ones.
He visits Ursa and the baby that evening, when Uncle and Dad are with the Firelord, and holds the tiny boy.
"He's going to make it, Ursa," he says quietly, defiantly, because Ozai didn't give a flying bison about his wife or son, but Lu Ten does, and he won't let Ursa lose her son, or Zuko lose his mother.
Iroh finds him crying on the floor by the foot of Iroh's bed, and there is no reprimanding. Iroh sinks to the floor and holds his son, and Lu Ten knows that Dad knows why he's crying.
Lu Ten is twenty-three when he returns from his first deployment to find the streets of the Caldera lined with streamers and adoring subjects.
Lu Ten is twenty-three when he kills for the first time, face to face.
Shooting fire out of tanks is one thing - shoving a knife into the throat of a would-be assassin and watching him choke on his own blood is another.
At the feast the next day, he can barely look at little Zuko, not so little since the last time he saw him, or baby Azula.
He spends a week at home, mostly alone in his room, but then Dad convinces him to go with them to Ember Island - and how can he say no, because he doesn't know the next time they will all be together.
He plays in the water with Zuko, and teaches him to swim, and they catch geckofrogs and put lightning bugs into paper lanterns.
He shares a room with Zuko because he wants to be near someone, and then he finds out why Ursa wanted him to be in his own room.
Small, little Zuko, who can barely make sparks, and loves to catch turtleducks, and makes pictures in the sand, wakes up crying because of a bad dream, crying because he wants mama and because he doesn't want father to see him, and Lu Ten hugs him to his chest until Zuko falls back asleep and doesn't let him go.
He spends the next two years wading through the mud of the southeastern Earth Kingdom, losing brothers- and sisters-in-arms, setting fire to damp wood and earth houses, and leaving resistant towns a blight of thick smoke and ash and mud.
Lu Ten is promoted to Captain, then Commander when his commanding officer takes a hit on the battlefield and is given a dying promotion.
The more time he spends in the midst of the war, the more he begins to equate a victory with being still alive.
He returns home victorious - alive - without his father there to greet him, even as the Firelord gives him an approving nod, and Ursa smiles carefully from the background, and Zuko glances around before giving his cousin a tiny wave.
Lu Ten spends that evening with his Uncle's family, and when Ozai is gone, he rough-houses on the courtyard with Zuko, and tustles carefully with Azula, rambunctious and more of a talker than Zuko was a three.
The night before he ships out again, he sends a little to his father - he's going to meet him at Ba Sing Se to help begin the siege - and then attends a farewell feast in his honor.
He is arrayed in full armor, only missing his helmet, and he stands at attention by the Firelord. Ozai and his family are the first to pass by him, Azula clutching her father's stiff hand, and Zuko walking carefully next to Ursa and looking like he wished he could hold her hand. His cousin stares up at him with something like awe in his eyes, and Lu Ten can't help but meet Zuko's eyes, and give him a sliver of a half smile, and it makes Zuko's face light up.
He sneaks into Zuko's room that night, finds Azula already there, the sheet over their heads as the whisper together without prying eyes and ears around. Lu Ten sticks his head under the blanket, making Azula and Zuko clamp their hands over their mouths to hush their giggles, and he makes a tiny flame on the end of his finger so they can see each other, and they talk about nonsense and make up stories.
Lu Ten doesn't know what it's like to have a sibling, but he's pretty sure Zuko and Azula are close as he's going to get to one. He knows that Azula antagonizes Zuko a lot, but he wishes they could always be like they are now - snuggled together, happy, tired together with the bonds of blood. He has a feeling it won't last.
He falls asleep, his arms spread across the edge of Zuko's bed as a barrier, his head resting on the mattress, and he wakes before the sun.
Lu Ten kisses Zuko's forehead and then Azula's, and then he hurries back to his room to get ready. Ursa is waiting by the turtleduck pond when he leaves his room, donned on armor, his bag thrown over his shoulder, and he takes a detour to say goodbye.
He's not sure what makes him want to tell the people he cares about goodbye, but he knows he isn't going to see them for a long time.
He opens his arms and steps into a hug whenever he reaches Ursa, and folds her into his chest, almost half a head taller than she. He knows she has a hard time. He wishes his Uncle wasn't such a bastard.
"I'll see you again," Lu Ten promises, but it feels like a lie.
Ursa smiles thinly, and it feels like a lie to her, too.
Waiting for him at the doors are his uncle and Grandfather. Ozai wishes him good luck, but the words taste mocking, insincere. Lu Ten doesn't know why Ozai hates him so much. He bows to Azulon, and is surprised when the Firelord places a stiff hand on his shoulder and says,
"Agni be with you."
It's the closest thing Lu Ten has ever gotten to affection, and he relishes it.
"Thank you, Grandfather."
Azulon only humphs a little and turns away in dismissal, and Lu Ten thinks today is a miracle day, because he got away with calling the Firelord grandfather.
Lu Ten is the Crown Prince's son, and has been coached on how to act and what to say ever since he could walk and talk and when he finally arrives at Ba Sing Se, his father greets him with a joyous nod and smile. Hugs are private, and only when they are by themselves does Iroh fold his son into a hug.
"Welcome, my son."
"It's good to see you, Dad."
Calling your father Dad isn't allowed in public, either, but Lu Ten lives for the moments when he can call Iroh Dad, and hug him, or make jokes with him, or criticize his pai sho strategy even as he loses.
Lu Ten is the Crown Prince's son, and has been coached on how to act and what to say ever since he could walk and talk, and calling his father Dad in public is strictly not allowed, but there is a boulder crushing his legs and digging into his spine, and pressing his lungs, and he calls, he cries out for his dad.
Shang, his brother-in-arms, his comrade, bunkmate, best friend, is kneeling over him, stricken, as he grasps one of Lu Ten's hands in his own.
"Come on, Lu Ten," he says, and calling a prince by his name in public, calling your superior officer his name is public is not allowed, but there is earth crushing him, and Lu Ten wheezes because it's so hard to breathe. "Just hold on a little longer."
"D - Dad," Lu Ten chokes. "Where's Dad?"
Dad is organizing the charge to the middle ring when a courier dashes up to him and gives him a rushed whisper.
Dad is racing back through his troops, distressed, something the Crown Prince should not be in public.
Dad falls to his knees next to his son, his son who is in pain and dying and all he can do his hold him and cry,
"My son, my son."
Iroh is the Crown Prince, and has been trained, ever since he could walk and talk, in what to say and not to say, and what to do and not do, and cry your son's name in the mud while a pivotal battle rages around you is not allowed.
Iroh does it anyways.