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01 March 2008 @ 03:06 pm
Soi-Disant  
Title: Soi-Disant
Pairing: Iroh & Zuko (father-son), Iroh x Ursa
Fandom: Avatar the Last Airbender
Genre: General, Family, Backstory
Rating: PG
Word Count: 1.313

Soi-Disant

The Fire Nation counted years as they counted seasons. There was a cycle of four (turns up and over the circle and reflected where all past years rested, dormant and barely breathing) and with each tip-and-turn, there would be great repercussions far and wide.

In the Third Year, Ursa was to marry Prince Ozai, and forever bear the stigma of Princess. Her face was scrubbed clean of youth and mirth and caked on with chalky white, blank and fake beauty. For the genuine royal, for the genuine cruel.

“It will be a grand event,” her maid assured her (as if all royal weddings weren’t gaudy).

“Yes, I assume it would be,” Ursa murmured and winced in pain as the woman pulled back her hair. A few strands fall—there goes life—and submerged into the carpet folds before she could gather them up.

“And Prince Ozai is rumored to be very handsome. Quite a catch, I hear.”

And Ursa sighed.

And watched as all her fortunes and happiness were brushed away. Sweep, they go, past the doors and to the gates. All because she was a pretty face.

-x-

“Ozai!” Iroh declared pompously and embraced his little brother wholeheartedly, loved him deep and powerful. Iroh knew compassion and pity all too well.

Prince Ozai looked up irritated and nervous. He was just seventeen-years-old—and to be married that afternoon. “Were you this scared when…before your…wedding?”

“No, I was brave, unlike you.”

The brothers shared a laugh, good and filling, it expanded from their smoldering cores to their fingers, to their toes. It was a mutual, recondite joke just between the two of them. Some things could only be realized backwards, and it was no small thing that Ozai was just a little child in his hallowed, hollowed shell.

-x-

The first time she saw his face, she was terrified. There was something about him that she found appalling, like a vitriolic scythe scrapping away at her skin. Disturbing and agonizing, to say the least. Something was wrong.

And it didn’t help when he closed the gap between them.

Ursa turned away brusquely before he had a chance to kiss her, and Ozai’s lips merely greeted her left cheek.

But she noticed someone else, someone kind and gentle, celebrating and singing with the other girls. He’s only a few inches taller and grinning so joyously she could feel his ebullience erupting, feel his good heart as the hideous reminder.

That one, Ursa thought, that one.

-x-

She gave birth to a baby-boy three years after marriage.

Ozai was now twenty, and he was no father (yet).

But that was all right, even precise, because Ursa knew (and Iroh knew) that Zuko really wasn’t Ozai’s anyway. It was lucky that her son resembled her so much, otherwise, they would both be dead.

Propitious, yes, that was the word. Propitious like how harmless one tiny lie was. But propitious also rhymed with pernicious. Hush, Ursa refused to think of that.

-x-

As the youngest child, Ozai was the spare while his brother was the heir, and Ozai never forgot that fact.

He was volatile and petulant, but not an idiot. He knew Ursa loved Iroh more (she certainly didn’t love him) and knew that Zuko should be hanged. Treason, it must be treason.

But Azulon cannot ever discover their dirty, little secret because Ozai really did love Ursa, even if she hated him.

And he countered her dread and woe with delight when she told him she was pregnant again. This time, it really was his.

-x-

That night, his father commanded him to kill Zuko. Gladly, Ozai almost replied, but remembered that he was supposed to be pretending that Zuko was his precious son.

Still, it wouldn’t have been a shame if that boy died, and it would just be him and Ursa and Azula.

A family.

-x-

Ozai did something bad that day, something that would make Ursa scream in loathing and make her extend her skinny, innocent arms and strangle him. But she was banished for murdering Azulon and securing her husband the throne (thank you, he muttered), and it was perfectly justified that he exile her beloved, darling son too.

Only, it would have been terribly more satisfying if the miserable kid was carted out as a corpse, stiff and white just for his mother.

If only.

-x-

General Iroh calmly sipped his tea, basked in the tranquility that diminished the severity, their austere and hellish and rueful departure. And wished he could comfort his nephew-son. Hold him close and promise that everything will be fine, that he was protected by his dad.

“Prince Zuko,” he attempted, “Come and have some jasmine tea. It will make you feel better, I guarantee it,” and failed.

“Go away,” Zuko said, “You’re not my father. Why did he do this to me? I’m his son.”

And Iroh anguished along with him because it was partially his fault too. But I am your father, he wanted to respond.

So he sat there all alone as the tides rocked them out to sea, where Zuko was to capture a long-gone Avatar. Just so he could heroically return home again, to his “father”.

-x-

Years passed, what could be tangible felt like decades, and Iroh was locked away in the cell.

Zuko visited him from time to time, once brought him food to eat, but Iroh ignored and averted his eyes. It was so unfair that his own second son had betrayed him. So unfair that Ozai manipulated, didn’t care at all about Zuko. Better yet, Ozai wished he was dead—fought to the end for the glory of his nation.

(And that could be easily arranged, just a tip off the mound, and he will tumble down.)

“Uncle.”

He will be the perpetual uncle, when all his children have left him.

-x-

When the war is over, it was always: When the War Is Over. Iroh was beginning to believe that damnation had no cessation, no suspension, no grace.

When the war is over, Zuko had swore, he would go find his mother and take her home, by her ancient, peeling, feeble arms and waist. He would kiss her wrinkled cheeks and comb her hair, falling apart, fragmenting in the wind. That was his mother, and his oath to retrieve her from despair was the only comfort to Iroh for a lengthy while.

It was just too regrettable that Ursa was happy where she was, free from chains, free from the world.

Still, Iroh allowed his son to dream. He was a good father, through and through, to the last.

And when the Avatar really did come with his inhumane destruction and inception, Iroh nearly told Zuko the truth. But then he remembered that it was for the best. Honesty was a fickle thing, and who knows? Maybe it’ll deceive him too.

-x-

On the veranda facing the west, Iroh perched on cushions and silks as an old, decrepit man who had lived a formidable and too long life. Ursa was there sitting next to him, holding his hand (heart) like she did the first time the danced and (formally) met. She was just as old and just as content because they had a secret contained within walls and oak trees too, inside the garden where they kissed.

Now, they were in that garden again, but without turmoil and strife struggling to spread and devour. Together, they could live like anew.

Because Zuko was safe, and there was no need to be entirely truthful and sincere.

“I have always felt like a father to you.” Iroh’s voice was guttural and raspy, out of breath and fading into time, abated like icicles suspended from frigid branches, glowing white and silver from winter.

“I know.”

And that would suffice, left nothing unsaid in its wake, left a place where silence could emerge.

Zuko understood, and Iroh didn’t need to speak one word.