The small hand he clutches is clammy, cold, and most alarmingly still. He’s run out of known entities to pray to, but that won’t stop him from promising anything -- everything. He won’t survive the death of another child.
“Please,” he whispers, pressing his lips against the skin in his hand and averting his eyes from anything else.
“Tch,” Mistress Ioun clucks at him, and only practice keeps him from startling. She moves deceptively quietly for someone of her stature. “Have more faith in your nephew, Gener--”
“Just Iroh, please,” he interrupts, eyes still locked on the hand in his grasp.
The sigh she gives is the sort that usually accompanies an eye roll, but he very deliberately doesn’t allow her to draw him out. “Have more faith in your nephew, Iroh. He survived the first three days, and you have me here now, to keep infectIon away. He’s going to be fine,” she falters for a moment, “physically.”
“He hasn’t woken up yet,” he points out, though the pulse against his fingers does feel strong, “it’s been almost three weeks.”
“He hasn’t woken up yet because I haven’t let him. He survived a fireball to the face and lightning to the chest, I’ll be damned if infectIon or depressIon does him in while I’m here.” She bustles to the other side of the sick bed, and he starts to look up instinctively, but his gaze gets caught on the web of scar that stretches over Zuko’s skinny chest. “And a ship,” she continues, tart, “is a cesspool of bacteria.” She sniffs again, and he is able to move his gaze away from the nephew he failed. “But I can keep him sanitary, and he will heal until we land. He’d get better care, obviously, if you were taking him North but --”
He’s not sure what it says about him, but the familiar argument brings a small smile to his face instead of the annoyance he thinks it probably should. “I have better connectIons in the South, you know, and we’ll need it if we don’t want anyone to know he’s lived.”
“Well, yes,” she grants, reaching out a glowing hand to hover over the side of his nephew’s face -- he turns his own face away. “But it’s so backwards there! They let the woman fight and the men heal. It’s against the natural order of things, and they’re not as good as us at either!”
The hand in his twitches slightly, and Iroh drops his forehead to it, praying again. The lightning to the chest almost took his nephew from him, and he wasn’t there to stop it -- to step in and stop that mockery of an Agni Kai and --
“You firebenders,” Mistress Ioun lays a hand on his shoulder and squeezes slightly, “are fighters. Your nephew redirected the lightning well enough to survive, have faith that he’ll survive the rest of this too. Now,” she says, brisk, “why don’t you tell him one of those stories, make it less gloomy in here?”
Iroh sighs, and raises his head to look at the ceiling. “Once upon a time,” he begins, “there was a spirit who was very curious.”
Once upon a time there was a spirit who was very curious. He wanted to know why people where the way they were, and none of the other spirits would or could tell him. Perhaps he was very young, or perhaps he was very old and out of touch. Spirits don’t age like you and I, and one could never tell.
So the spirit decided that the only way to really understand people was to become one. But where was he going to get a body? He thought and he thought and he thought and he found an old wise man who was meditating, and in his meditating he could hear the spirit. “What is a body?” the spirit asked the old wise man.
“A body is simply a shell for the spirit,” says the wise man into the silence of the mountain air, “anything can be a body but what is important is that the spirit is pure.”
The spirit spent no time pondering this. After all, he was a spirit and he was only a spirit, so that meant anything was a body. So he just needed a shell.
He wandered and he thought, and he made a shell out of fire. After all, he was in a nation where people revered fire and it was easy to shape into the shape of a man.
Ion wakes Zuko up two days before they’re to land in Harbor City. “You’ll want some time to tell him, at least a little time to get him adjusted,” she advises, unasked.
“Uncle?” Zuko says, voice clearer than Iroh was expecting. But then, he supposes, if you have a waterbender healing you, you’re unlikely to get dehydrated.
“I’m here,” he says, and Zuko clutches his hand.
Zuko’s other hand flutters towards his chest, but before Iroh has to stop it -- stop him from making contact with the newly healed skin, it drops back to his side. “Is father very mad?” he asks, voice heartbreakingly earnest.
Iroh has practiced a thousand ways to tell Zuko, but he hasn’t found one he’s happy with even yet. How do you tell a thirteen year old boy that his father was willing to kill him, because his grandfather saw his objecting to the slaughter of other young men as weakness? How do you tell a thirteen year old boy that he’s been removed from succession and that as far as the rest of his family is concerned he is dead? How do you tell a thirteen year old boy that his father didn’t even bother to check if he was dead or not before making that pronouncement?
There is no good way. There is no balance between kindness and honesty that is anything but hurtful.
And so Iroh opens his mouth and hurts his nephew. He watches the light go out of his eye, the other still bandaged over, and he watches the boy close in on himself, and he prays that there will be a way through this for them.