At ten, Iroh dreams of dragons: one blue and one red, circling the sun. He tells his parents about them once and gets a pinched ear from his mother, who scolds him for eavesdropping on what are supposed to be private military reports to the Firelord. Thankfully, baby Ozai chooses that moment to raise a fuss, and his father smiles indulgently at Iroh while she's distracted, praising him for his stealth and imagination.
Actually, the dragons are so vivid in his memory that Iroh isn't quite convinced about the imagination part, but it is the day of the summer solstice, and such thoughts are easily forgotten in the flurry of social obligations that follow. As the Fire Nation celebrates the sun's peak, Iroh stands at his father's flank and watches the newly-instated officers pledge allegiance to Firelord Azulon. He knows that as the heir apparent he is not only expected to join them, but to outshine them.
Later, the Fire Sages are instructed to take him to the Dragon Bone Catacombs. "It is time you read the last testament of Firelord Sozin," his father says.
So Iroh does, all five scrolls, but while the parts about Sozin's friendship with Avatar Roku are new to him, he's not sure he sees the point.
"When you become Firelord, the welfare of our nation must be your first priority," his father tells him. "You must be ruthless when it comes to the nation's interests. Firelord Sozin knew this, and was able to stand against the Avatar despite their childhood friendship."
Iroh can't imagine being disloyal to a friend, but being disloyal to his father is even more unthinkable. "Yes, sir," he says, and hopes he will never have to choose between the two.
On his sixteenth birthday, Iroh is betrothed. Lady Chiyo is from a provincial family, but it is very old and powerful, one of the most influential houses in the Fire Nation. Their first meeting is in one of the gardens in the inner palace, a private enclosure with a lily pond which is supposed to be romantic but only makes Iroh feel uncomfortable. He isn't new to or (usually) terrible at the art of flirtation, but it's much harder knowing that there's family present, even if Chiyo's parents are affable and charming and currently being entertained indoors.
It doesn't help that Chiyo seems to be laughing at him behind her painted fan. "I'd heard your Highness was an excellent pai sho player," she says- teasing, Iroh suspects, though her voice is so artlessly casual that he can't be sure.
Iroh frowns at the board, and the embarrassingly large pile of captured pieces arranged neatly by her right hand. "Clearly I still have much to learn. My lady is a cunning opponent!"
"Pai sho is a reflection of one's thinking," Chiyo says serenely. "You play the way you do because you are accustomed to bold action, and I play the way I do because I am always looking for more options."
"I look for options," Iroh protests, moving his tile. "It's my responsibility as a commander."
"You do," Chiyo agrees, capturing two more pieces neatly in response and preventing him from further expansion. "But there are many approaches to consider outside of the battlefield."
Iroh considers the board again and finally spreads his hands in resignation. "I yield," he says. "I didn't know the Lotus could be so versatile."
"Even a humble flower has its uses." Chiyo sits back and rearranges her sleeves. "It is late. Perhaps we should go inside?"
Iroh looks up, surprised to see the full moon above the horizon. Turning to help her put away the tiles, a flicker of motion catches his eye, something like a carp's tail disturbing the surface of the pond.
Curious. He doesn't remember seeing fish in the pond on any of his previous visits.
Shaking his head, Iroh follows his fiancee indoors.
When he is twenty-five, Iroh decides it is time to join his father's Dragons. Chiyo's mouth draws tight when he announces his decision, but she doesn't raise objections. "Be careful," she says. "The records say that the dragons are wise, and the original firebenders are worthy of our respect."
Iroh looks at her, wondering if he's supposed to glean some hidden meaning from her words. Even after five devoted years of marriage, Chiyo's subtleties are difficult to fathom. "I know," he says. "I'll be back as soon as I can, I promise."
But the Western Air Temple is many weeks' travel away, and the caves by the Sun Warrior civilization, where the last of the dragons is rumored to be hiding, are beyond even that. By the time he manages to climb down the cliffside to the Temple, Iroh is exhausted. Pitching camp and peering into the mist below, he wonders at a people who could defy gravity to build such a marvel, who found such peace in moving with the wind that they could consider any place to be home. The undiscovered Avatar is the greatest threat to the goals of the Fire Nation, but looking at the serene statues and the echoing, upside-down towers, Iroh can only feel an overwhelming sense of loss.
On an impulse he doesn't entirely understand, he lights a candle. He's never put much thought into the spiritual aspects of meditation, but he figures he should at least pay his respects to the dead if he's going to practice his firebending here tomorrow.
The Sun Warriors' city is vast and sprawling and can hardly be described as ruins at all. Despite the weathered stone and the cracked surfaces where weeds and wildflowers have taken root, the buildings are in excellent condition, certainly not uninhabitable. Iroh discovers a sunstone calendar much like the one in Crescent Island's Fire Temple, but when he manages to open the door it only reveals a chamber full of silent statues. With no clues as to where the dragons might once have lived, he spends the afternoon poring over the intricate carvings and experiments with what appear to be ancient firebending forms before venturing into the mountains at the edge of the city.He doesn't expect to blunder into a booby trap on the trail. A quick sting at his neck, and suddenly Iroh is opening his eyes to a circle of hostile faces.
"You're Sun Warriors?" he says incredulously.
"Who are you? What were you doing in our city?"
"My name is Iroh, crown prince of the Fire Nation."
The leader scowls. "Your father and grandfather have hunted the dragons, which are sacred to us, for decades. Why should we let you go?"
"I am-" Iroh pauses, considering. "It is my duty to my father to become a Dragon, but the original firebenders are my forebears, not my enemies. If it's possible, I would learn what they have to teach me."
The leader looks at him for a long moment, then nods. "I am Chimalli. If you are telling the truth, the opportunity is yours. Make an offering to the Masters Ran and Shaw, and they will judge your worthiness."
Climbing the mountain is a relatively simple task, though Iroh has to devote a certain amount of concentration to maintaining the flame he's been given. The Sun Warriors are waiting at the summit when he arrives. Taking a portion of the fire, Chimalli points to the raised platform. "Present your fire to the Masters there. Wait for their arrival, and do not let it go out."
Iroh squints at the platform. "How will I know when they're arriving?"
"Be patient, and you'll find out."
Iroh's legs are burning a little by the time he reaches the top of the staircase, and he stretches surreptitiously. There are cave entrances on either side of the platform, but there's no way to tell how deep they run. If these mountains are anything like the dormant volcanoes in the Fire Nation, the dragon could be hiding anywhere inside them. Preoccupied with dredging up what little he knows of the geography, he is startled to realize that it's already past sunset.
He glances down. Chimalli and his warriors are still standing in the plaza below, perfect rings of fire blazing in their hands. There are no new arrivals, and as far as he can tell, none of the warriors has even moved from their position. Huffing out a breath, Iroh turns back to his own flame and wonders if it would be acceptable to sit while he's waiting for the Masters to show up.
Or to nap- except that he can't firebend if he's sleeping, so he watches the constellations instead, his thoughts returning to the dragon. He has no personal desire to kill it, despite his orders, and if it is the last of its kind... The Western Air Temple crosses his mind again and Iroh admits to himself that what he told Chimalli was true, even if it was also the best excuse he could think of at the time. The dragons aren't his enemies, or even enemies of the Fire Nation. He doesn't think he can erase his own people's history, when there's nothing that can bring it back.
By the time the sky starts to lighten, his feet have gone from sore to numb. Iroh feels his blood warm with the sun, but he can no longer spare the mental energy for much beyond maintaining the fire in his palm. His heartbeat thrums in his ears so loudly that it takes a few minutes before he recognizes that part of the noise is coming from the Sun Warriors' drums.
He has an instant to register Chimalli calling Ran and Shaw, red and blue arrows streaking from the caves, before he finds himself standing between them. Dragons. Chiyo, he thinks, would probably have figured that out a long time ago. Iroh extends his open hands, having nothing more to offer. Ran and Shaw exhale, and-
From here, watching the world open up in a swirl of dizzying color, a great many things are possible.