Much thanks to wordswithout for inspiration; her fic "Afterthought", and Mark Hamill, have endeared Ozai to me.

Another Burning Year

It was a time of splendor for the fire nation. Pennants flew from every iron tower, and two whooping boys rode the Nation's fastest ostrich-horses through the streets. Teenage Prince Ozai would not take his eyes off his brother's back as houses, people, and vendor's stalls flashed past his cantering steed. Prince Iroh's rich black hair flapped behind him like the tail of his mount. Ozai kicked his ostrich-horse's side with the spurs.

He came even with and passed Iroh. Both rode half-standing in the saddle, smiling with half of their mouths. Ozai shouted, "I've got you this time!"

"Not yet," retorted Iroh. Their ostrich-horses snapped at each other, and then Ozai's found a staircase in its path and bounded away down a side street.

"Not that way, "muttered Ozai, teeth bared. He hauled on the reins and the creature turned around. He kept spurring his mount on, the rust-colored blur that was Iroh never growing closer even when Ozai regained the proper path.

Ozai spied an unlit torch outside a vendor's stall up ahead. It blossomed with fire on his wordless command as he punched toward it. A push of the red flames sent the torch falling into the street in front of Iroh. His mount swerved, stalling as it almost tripped over its taloned feet. Ozai screamed a Fire Nation battle cry as he passed his older brother.

The race continued through the city, ostrich-horses breathing with more and more difficulty, firebenders smiling more widely as they went. Closer to the heart of the city the courtyards became wider and more familiar to the young men. Their steeds drew closer together and matched strides, and then Iroh's dashed into a courtyard where an iron stature of a flame reached toward the sky. Ozai cursed. It took precious moments to turn his steed around and take advantage of the shortcut he had forgotten about in his focused, competitive mood.

When he finally arrived at the finish line, the peak-roofed stables, he found Iroh sitting smugly on a bench drinking a cup of cold tea. Pink-leaved trees overhung the elegant yard.

Ozai dismounted and stalked toward his brother. The differences between them were exaggerated when Iroh sat and Ozai stood. The younger firebender was of skinnier, more muscular build and thinner, more jagged face. His brown eyes burnt copper. Iroh's eyes had already formed laugh lines around them in his pale face. He appeared not to care for his appearance as much as Ozai did; he ate whatever he desired, and his body showed it. However, the royal family and plenty more knew that he was a competent, clever fighter as much as or more so than his more impressive-looking brother. Both wore their hair clean and tied into a topknot high on their heads. Both wore tunics, black pants, and short crimson capes.

"Ah," said Iroh contentedly. "Have a cup of tea."

"No thank you," growled Ozai. He heard Iroh babbling as Ozai guided his ostrich-horse into the stable and handed it to a servant to be relieved of its tack.

"But it's the finest green tea, grown in the high mountains of the Earth Kingdom! Very good for the complexion."

Ozai walked back into the sun. "How do you know so much about tea and excel in every task we're set?"

"What?"

"Nothing." Fire rippled over Ozai's fists.

Iroh apparently never noticed the outburst. He bent to the ground to examine a distinctly colored leaf.

Ozai snarled again. Iroh turned. "Eh?"

"How do you do it? You defeat me in every arena. Iroh! I'm doing something wrong…" He occupied himself with conniving, frightened thoughts, but Iroh interrupted. He stood and put a hand kindly on his brother's shoulder.

"Ozai, that doesn't matter to me! Ha…you're better with the ladies than I am."

Ozai pulled away. "That doesn't matter!"

Iroh laughed. "Yes it does—"

You will get a Fire Lady. You will be a Fire Lord! Ozai turned and slammed a ball of fire into the ground. Dust poofed from it, smelling of char. Ozai closed his eyes and imagined a battlefield. The imagined scent of burnt enemies comforted him. There he would excel. He had been born to. "No it doesn't."

Again Iroh fearlessly touched Ozai's shoulder. "Brother, I don't like to see you like this! Please, relax. It was just a race for fun, a game! Have some tea. You feel too hot."

"Is that supposed to be funny?" Ozai allowed himself to be lead to the obsidian bench and sat down.

"No. Firebenders do produce more heat in their bodies than other sorts of people do, but that means we can more easily be overheated if we do not control our breathing, our bending, monitor our heartbeat…" Iroh peered at Ozai's face and amended, "Oh, I'm lecturing again, I'm sorry."

"Fine," Ozai said as if it was a concession, but in his thoughts he had added another face to the burning battlefield. Iroh would not be on the winning side.