When he is four, a palace gardener finds Iroh by the pond with a squirming turtle-duck clutched to his chest and a deep cut in his shin, blood trickling freely. They rush him to the infirmary where his parents converge on him, all anxious demands and barked orders. Once he is settled and the wound tended to, two pairs of concerned golden eyes loom over him, staring intently.
"What were you doing, young man?"
Iroh doesn't miss a beat with his answer, a beaming grin stretched across his face as pride swells in his heart.
"Savin' turtle-ducks from the dragonhawk! They were gonna get eaten so I rescued 'em!" The smile dips a little.
"But I fell over...still, I tried!"
Both his parents are silent and frozen when he looks to them for approval, mouths hanging open a little. Little Iroh tilts his head questioningly, confused because aren't they proud of him for defending the helpless critter? His father starts to blink, mouth openi–
When a loud barking laugh cuts into the silence as another man strolls into the room, greying hair adorned with the Fire Lord's golden crown. Iroh greets him with a happy shout.
Still chuckling, his grandfather sketches an exaggerated bow before speaking, mismatched eyes glinting mischievously as his thick voice takes on a tone of mock formality.
"Hail Prince Iroh, defender of turtle-ducks and all things fluffy!"
The young boy breaks out into a fit of giggles as the old man joins his somewhat put-out parents, a warm, bemused smile dancing on his lips.
"It seems all is well."
"Yes, dad, though the doctor says he'll have a scar to show for it." His mother looks torn between relief and wry irritation as she shoots him a look, but the boy only laughs happily, naive and carefree.
Iroh's grandfather reaches down to ruffle his hair affectionately, waving off his mother's worries with an easy grin as he steps away.
"A memento of his good deeds."
When he is thirteen, Iroh finds himself slumped against the foot of his sister's bed, biting down on the searing pain of the burn that envelopes his right arm.
The man before him shouts and the girl behind him screams as bright flame surges towards them both. He weaves his hands into the fire, tries to shift it–block it–but the heat roils up his arm, scorching through skin and flesh, before he can push it away.
The young girl herself is cradled against his side, safe in the nook of his arm and the shadow of the imperial firebenders. Mother finds them as they're being escorted to the infirmary, parting the ring of staunch guardians like beasts before a fire to engulf them in a desperate embrace.
Loose cloth brushes against ruined skin, a hiss breaks through clenched teeth and he sees something wretchedly painful seep into his mother's eyes as they snap to his burn. The tears that moisten her gaze and the anguished whimpers that escape her lips shake him, so poignantly out of place in his normally unflappable mother and he feels his own tense resolve weaken. She cups his face gently, murmuring soft nothings under her breath and he crumbles into her touch, letting go of the pain and the fear. Tears burn a path down his cheeks and the coppery taste of blood is heavy on his tongue but as he leans into his mother's warmth, he feels safe–secure.
When he next stirs awake, Iroh finds his sister deeply asleep beside his older brother on a neighbouring bed and his mother dozing in a chair nearby. Quiet mutterings catch his ears and once he's assured himself that everybody is fine, the boy turns away to the voices.
His father and grandfather carry a whispered conversation with the royal physician, hushed words flinging back and forth until his father suddenly stills–fists clenched, flames birthing–
And loosens, just as quickly, when his grandfather lays a firm hand on his father's shoulder, a murmur of reticent words passing between them as the older man's gaze flickers to his.
He watches his father slowly approach, each step painfully hesitant until he stands before him. The man lowers himself and rests a hand on Iroh's unharmed shoulder, squeezing lightly as he murmurs to himself–my dear, dear boy.
"They say it will scar..." The pain is clear his father's eyes, his voice, but as Iroh looks once more to his child sister, shaken but untouched, he finds he doesn't mind.
"It's a price worth paying." At this, his father smiles proudly and after extracting assurances of his comfort, joins the others.
A voice, rough with age, interjects into the quiet.
"Wise words, for one so young, but it is more than just a price for your sister's safety." The boy turns his head to meet the elderly man's soft smile.
"It is a mark of your bravery as well, grandson. Wear it proudly."
And as he looks into his grandfather's mismatched gaze–tinted with warm praise–Iroh finds he might even like the idea of a scar, his badge of childhood honour.
When he is eighteen, in his first year as a captain of the United Forces, Iroh falters and stumbles to his knees amidst the raging battle, an arrow lanced into his chest.
Stumbling through roaring fire and crashing stone, he can hear the screams of his soldiers as they fall to an enemy that holds every advantage. The men dragging him stop at the first defensible location to yank the arrow out and he chokes on blood, collapsing against broken rubble as they fan out into a protective circle and a waterbender presses glowing blue hands to the puncture. Slowly, his ruptured flesh begins to seal, but there's no time to close the wound completely, so as soon as he can draw steady breath, Iroh brushes away water-cloaked hands and lays his own palm over the wound.
Inhale. His lungs burn with the effort but his breath is steady. Exhale. He bites back a scream as flame sears his skin shut.
Standing, he looks over the chaotic battlefield, to the battered faces of his soldiers, desperately searching for a way to turn the tide, to stand and fight, but he knows there is no chance for victory–not here–and he cannot let his men die for nothing. The order for a full retreat tastes like ash in his mouth, the bellowing horn call, sullen and defeated but Iroh doesn't look back as he leads what troops he could rally into the darkness of the forest. His thoughts are with those still trapped in the fighting, cut off and abandoned with only battle and death to wait on them.
The roiling bile in his throat overwhelms even the thick taste of blood.
Iroh manages to hold the battered remains of his force together long enough to break through the lines and reach friendly ground, four days later. When the numbers have been checked, he's told almost a hundred are unaccounted for.
Almost half of his entire command...Gone. Dead. Lost to the fury of the enemy and his own failure.
They tell him it isn't his fault, that he'd been set against impossible odds, that he should be proud of his escape, of the lives he did save. But the words feel like empty consolations against the remembered faces of those he left behind.
Weeks later, as he sits again in the royal infirmary after yet another session with the waterbenders, the sight of that self-inflicted burn still sparks bitter shame and sharp fury in him.
It is a constant reminder of his defeat and the lives lost–the people he failed–scorched into his very skin.
He spends a week, then two, at the Fire Palace, slowly falling into the infinite depths of hindsight and regret. Distant and brooding, he drifts through familiar hallways, haunted by an emptiness that eats at his will. He becomes brusque with his father, cold to his mother and removed from his brother and sister. As the days drag on, the festering guilt within him only grows and Iroh takes to long days of painful rumination, obsessing over maps and tactics–what-ifs and maybes.
A black rage engulfs him, thick and despairing, whenever his gaze falls on that patch of ruined flesh and more than once he calls fire to hand, thinking of burning it away, of masking it behind more blistered flesh.
It is at the turn of the month, on the day of the summer solstice, when Iroh's grandfather finds him angrily blasting flame in the courtyard. The older man watches silently as he brings the form to a close, breath shuddering as he tries to ignore the gleam in those worldly golden eyes.
"Do not let yourself drown in the perceived disgrace of your failure, grandson."
Iroh freezes, bites back the furious retort on his tongue because he knows the stories of his grandfather's turbulent youth; knows that if there is anyone who can understand him, it is the elderly Fire Lord.
"It is a pain we all confront on the path of life but it is one that can consume us; one that can twist our spirits–our minds–and break us if we let it."
He wants so desperately to let go of this churning inner turmoil–to be free of it–but again the solemn chanted names of men and women lost to battle ring in his ears and the bitterness surges anew.
"Who will remember them, who will bear the weight of their deaths, if not me?"
A hand lingers inadvertently over his scar, fingers pressing hard against the marred flesh, his blistered symbol of shame. The old man just sighs, tired and exasperated, lifting his gaze to meet Iroh's glare with a fierce intensity buried in his eyes.
"I knew a boy once, scarred as you are, marked for his weakness. He wandered the world for years, a caustic, hateful soul–fragmented and lost–as the pain of his brand slowly consumed him."
Iroh's gaze lingers over the old wound stretched across his grandfather's visage, as much a part of the man as the gleaming crown or his golden eyes, glinting with rueful nostalgia.
"If we let ourselves fall into that well of regret and bitter self-hate the scars will only bite deeper, far deeper than any flesh wound; they become festering mutilations of the spirit itself that can leave us withered and broken."
A firm hand claps down on his shoulder as the older man continues, voice stern yet compelling.
"Our scars are far more than the marks on our skin, the simple badges of our victories and strengths–our failures and our weaknesses. They are the lessons of our lives, the collections of our experiences; each of them is a piece of our identity and a thread in the fabric of our lives, a strike of the chisel that shapes us into the people we are. They are the marks of our growth; the words of our stories scrawled into soft flesh."
Something creeps into Iroh's weary heart, like warmth and light and free, as his voice spills forth, achingly hushed in the grasp of his frantic hopes for closure–for absolution.
"And what happened to the boy with the scar, grandfather?"
His grandfather pauses, lips pulled into a knowing smile.
"I think you already know."
He does. And with that spark of understanding, the weight about his shoulders begins loosen as his mind–his spirit–is finally, finally freed from the heavy shackles of remorse.
"Embrace your scars, the lessons learned and those memories of sacrifices paid, of promises owed; you will find in them the understanding, the purpose and the strength to keep moving, to keep growing–living."
His grandfather grins, pressing something into Iroh's hand before ambling away, leaving him standing in the courtyard with his last echoing words. The dagger is reassuringly solid in his hand, an heirloom passed from his namesake to his grandfather and now, from his grandfather to him.
"Never give up without a fight."
That night as Iroh explores the rough skin of his scar, there is no surge of bitter guilt–of shame–or darkened fury, only a steady acceptance and the understanding that giving in to despair is the first step to defeat. It's a lesson he'll never forget.