They call him the Dragon of the West.
Well, they don’t call him that when he is young. When he is young, he is Prince Iroh, and Crown Prince Iroh, and Young Heir, and to a select few close family members, he is Small Dragon. When he was young, young enough to barely understand he was a prince, what it meant for his future, he’d snap his teeth at the staff and when his parents weren’t around they’d play along, pretending to be scared of the ‘fierce dragon’ attacking them.
“My little dragon,” Iroh’s mother would say and trace a finger from his shoulder around his back and end at the other shoulder. Iroh would giggle and squirm in her lap.
Azulon did no such thing. He loved Iroh greatly, had many expectations of him and high standards. They were always things that Iroh had to work to achieve, but when he did the praise of his father was worth more than all the riches in Ba Sing Se.
(Iroh would lay claim to all the riches in Ba Sing Se for that praise.)
“The dragons were the first firebenders,” Azulon would remind Iroh, “And every firebender has a spark from the great dragon Agni within them.” And Iroh would puff out his chest proudly. How could he forget? He always had a reminder on his back.
The dragon spread from shoulder to shoulder, long and thin body doing a loop around the entirety of Iroh’s back. The dragon was red, perfect for a fire nation prince.
“The biggest soulmark I’ve ever seen,” Said every single professional that Azulon called upon, “You will surely have a destiny to match it. A powerful future lies before you.”
“I’m going to finish what Grandpa started!” Iroh always told them and they would chuckle if Azulon was not there and nod sagely if he was.
“You must remember your duty to your people.” Iroh’s mother said when he was older, when he began to understand what being a crown prince meant. She rarely traced the dragon birthmark anymore, but instead would poke the center of his back, right on his spine, where the second soulmark was. One that represented him - the dragon, it had to be the dragon - and one that represented the other half of his soul.
A small orange butterfly.
“I will.” Iroh promised.
“The dragon encircles the butterfly, protecting it, and as Fire Lord you must protect the citizens.” Ilah would go on.
“I will be the best fire lord.” Iroh said and his mother would smile at him.
“I have no doubts.”
“You’re not even a full person!”
Ozai spat the words at Iroh, and the candles in the room flared dangerously, the wax running down the sides of them with increasing speed.
“At least I can control my firebending!” Iroh growled. He always told himself not to rise to Ozai’s taunting. He was always considered the far more level headed of the two, but there was something to be said of fire and tempers and sometimes Iroh couldn’t help himself.
Not when it was this.
Not when it was about him and his soulmate.
“You’re just one half of whole, you shouldn’t even be considered the crown prince!” Ozai’s words were treasonous, but they both knew Iroh would repeat them to no one no matter how much they made his blood boil.
“Sozin had a soulmark!” Iroh countered with his usual counter, what he clung to when there were whispers of his mark being a sign of weakness, of an inability to rule alone, of needing his other half to be complete and that he wouldn’t be a true person without having at least met them.
“And just look at who his soulmate was.” Ozai whispered, loud enough for Iroh to hear.
It was something never spoken of.
Iroh wouldn’t be surprised if those outside of the royal family didn’t even know.
Iroh tried not to think about Sozin being fatedly bound to Roku.
When Iroh breathed fire for the first time, his father’s mouth had twitched up into the slightest of smiles.
“I’m so sorry.”
Iroh looked back at the woman who had come to read his future through his soulmark, as so many others had tried to do. She shook her head, hand covering her mouth and holding back tears.
“Sorry? About what?” Iroh asked and she shook her head again, reaching out and fingers trembling as they graze where he knows the butterfly marking to be.
“I’m so sorry,” Is all she says.
There were still dragons.
Iroh thought about his mark, of the dragon around the butterfly, and made a decision of who truly was the dragon and who was the butterfly.
When he wrote home, he claimed to have killed the last dragon.
Now, they call him the Dragon of the West.
Iroh knew finding soulmates could take your entire life in some cases. He had been told this many times throughout his childhood. But the waiting became too much, and he knew if he were to be fire lord, he should have an heir. He had always imagined marrying his soulmate, marrying his butterfly as it were, but some things were not meant to be, and he had no way of knowing if his soulmate was even the romantic kind at all. Plenty of times - far more often than plays and stories made it out to be - soulmates were destined to fulfill other roles in their other half’s life.
He would never forget the day his son is born, holding his young Lu Ten in his arms for the first time as the baby fussed about, no longer screaming like he was dying but still clearly upset with the whole thing.
Iroh held Lu Ten close to him. He could hold the small thing in one hand if he really wanted to, but he doesn’t dare, too afraid to drop the precious bundle. Still, he can see the marking. He had never been able to get a good look at it before, what with it being on his back and all.
The dragon and the butterfly.
Iroh holds Lu Ten closer, encirlces his little butterfly he’s waited his whole life to find, and promises to protect him to his final breath.
Iroh isn’t able to keep his promise.
Lu Ten was killed by a blow to the head. A heavy one, easily made by any kind of object an Earthbender could throw around. He doesn’t move when Iroh shouts his name, screams it like saying it loud enough will make him move, will make him get back up and grin and say ‘I’m okay dad, I’m okay, let’s keep going, we’ve got another wall to take down’.
Lu Ten does not get up, does not flinch, does not breath.
There is fire all around them, the fighting still continuing on, only a few of the fire nation soldiers near them realizing what had happened, hearing it through the din of the battle, but even they still have their hands full with the earthbending they must fight off and are unable to do or say anything.
His skull is bashed into itself, his hair bloody and matted down, and for a second Iroh just hovers over him, not sure what to do.
He remembers not being sure what to do when Lu Ten was first presented to him, and the midwife patiently instructing him.
‘You need to make sure you support his head. He can’t hold it up on his own yet, so you have to do it for him.’
Iroh puts his hand underneath his son’s head and wraps the other around his torso before gently lifting him onto his lap. His eyes are still open, gold and unblinking, unseeing, but the gold is steadily benign overtaken by a cloudiness.
Iroh isn’t sure how long he sits there, cradling his son in his lap for a final time, before his third in command - not his second, his second was right in front of him - finds him and suggests a retreat that Iroh has to agree with.
His son is no longer small enough to hold in one hand, but he is young enough that Iroh could pick him up and carry him himself out of the city, followed by their troops.
They say your soulmate changes your life.
Iroh never thought that change would come about because of his soulmate’s death.