Iroh watched in mild amusement as Cadence got more and more excited as the massive balloon vehilce - the 'zeppelin', as the ponies called it - approached a castle town that rose up out of the side of a tall mountain. From his own perspective, it looked like the place was built by masters of Earthbending, to reshape the very land to defy gravity. But the delicate spires rising into the sky was more Airbender architecture, the flowing lines of structures more Waterbender style, though Waterbenders didn't work in stone. But the way the place was illuminated and the overall brightness felt like home to him. It was like a city that had been built by all the peoples of his world.
As they approached, Iroh began working on control of his elemental energies. The 'magical' fields of this world made his Bending far stronger than normal, as he'd discovered when he'd tried to light a fire for tea and wound up torching his room. This was especially frustrating as, unlike when under the power of the Comet, the fire inside him didn't feel any stronger. The fire also behaved somewhat differently, as he found he could pull a string of fire from his hand, and practice control by wrapping it around his fingers or toes without burning himself. One of the unicorn guardstallions had suggested a technique young unicorns used to practice the fine control of their magic, called "cat's cradle". While unicorns used string, Iroh made good use of his own fire around his fingers to make the various patterns, twining the strings of flames together.
Iroh continued his fine control practice even as the zeppelin docked at the castle at the peak of the city. As the ramp lowered, he made his way down alongside Cadence, keeping one eye on where he was going and the other on the intricate pattern of flames he was shaping. With what the guards had talked about with making pictures in string, Iroh had focused on a simple sunburst pattern, feeling such would be familiar. Despite his best efforts, however, the sun's rays in the pattern kept curving back and forth as he pulled the flame strings taught. While not the traditional Fire Nation art style, it was still recognizable as a sunburst pattern, and the exercise was more about fine control than the picture itself.
As they reached the bottom of the ramp, Iroh noticed a particular pony waiting for them. Unlike the others he'd seen before, this one also had wings and horn like Cadence, but was much larger, easily as tall as himself, and the first pony he met eye to eye. Her coat was pure white, and her mane and tail waved in the breeze, like a piece of an aurora cut from the sky. Pale purple eyes met his own, before glancing down at his burning cat's cradle in amusement. It was at that point he caught sight of the mark on her flank, the one Cadence had told was a 'Cutie Mark', and somehow of great personal significance to each individual pony (the actual mystical mechanics thereof had been a bit more than he could wrap his head around at the time, with everything else he was learning and putting more emphasis on memorizing things of personal and social significance to Cadence' life here). The sunburst he'd crafted in the flames exactly matched this mare's Cutie Mark.
"Cadence," the mare greeted warmly, her voice soft and wise, "won't you introduce me?"
"Of course, Aunt Celestia!" Cadence replied quickly. "This is my father, Iroh. Father, this is Princess Celestia, Diarch of Equestria."
Collapsing his fire weaving for the moment, Iroh put his hands together before his chest and bowed. "It is a pleasure to meet you, Your Highness," he greeted formally.
"And you as well," Celestia replied, inclining her head politely. "From what I can tell, my niece has been through a great deal more than just the diplomatic mission I sent her on since I last saw her. Thank you for looking after her so well."
Iroh smiled warmly. "It was a pleasure, I assure you," he replied. "She enriched my life far more than you could imagine."
"You might be surprised," Celestia replied. "But we can discuss that later...perhaps over a cup of Neighponese Jasmine?"
Iroh grinned widely. "I will enjoy that," he promised, once more shaping his flames around his fingers.
"For now, I think there are two ponies in particular who are eager to see you again, Cadence," Celestia murmured. "And I think you should meet them as well, Iroh."
Nodding, Iroh walked with Cadence as they made their way towards a pair of towers. "I find myself surprised that she was so sanguine about my appearance," he muttered to his equine daughter. "She wasn't even surprised at my appearance, and just welcomed me as family so easily."
"Aunt Celestia has always been rather welcoming," Cadence admitted, "and has her ways of knowing things she really shouldn't. I've been trying to figure it out for years." She blinked for a moment. "Er...at any rate, I had been before this all happened...or after...I think? Having been gone 35 years in 5 minutes makes tense really confusing!"
Iroh burst into laughter, both at Cadence' statement and her irritated expression as she dealt with the conundrum of language and time manipulation. "I do understand the difficulty," Iroh admitted. "Let us put it from our minds from now and meet these two, shall we?"
Nodding, Cadence led the way up to the top of the tower, where a bridge crossed to the next tower. Two ponies and an owl awaited them. Iroh decided to hold back and let Cadence have whatever reunion was appropriate before he stepped out to meet them.
The first pony to spot Cadence was the lavender unicorn mare with the starburst Cutie Mark. "Cadence!" she shouted out, rushing forward.
"Twilight!" Cadence called just as eagerly, letting Iroh know this was the Twilight Sparkle that Cadence had told him about, the filly she used to sit for.
As they got close to each other, the pair broke into a song and dance Iroh found quite familiar.
Clap your hooves and
Do a little shake!"
As the pair finished, they laughed and embraced eagerly. "Oh it's so good to see you again, Cadence!" Twilight gushed. "And you're marrying my brother! We're going to be sisters! That's so great!"
"Yes it is, Twilight," Cadence replied as she nuzzled Twilight. Then she caught sight of the white unicorn stallion with the blue mane, who had stepped back and let Cadence and Twilight reunite. "Shiney!" Throwing herself at the stallion, she clung tightly to him with forelegs and wings as she peppered him with kisses, he eagerly returning Cadence' affections.
"They certainly seem happy together," Iroh murmured as he stepped into the light.
Twilight yelped, spinning to see who spoke, only to gasp. "A human!" she squealed. "I thought humans were a myth? Who are you? Where did you come from?"
Iroh chuckled. "I am Iroh, Cadence' father-"
"Cadence!" Twilight squealed angrily. "Why didn't you ever tell me your father was human! I had that huge debate with Lyra Heartstrings about whether or not humans even existed back in debate class! You could have resolved the whole thing!"
"He was dead at the time," Cadence replied, "and he wasn't human until he got better."
Twilight tilted her head, confused. "Umm...transfiguration in the resurrection spell?"
"I get the feeling it's a bit more complicated than that," the stallion offered, stepping forward. "Iroh, I'm Shining Armor. It's a pleasure to meet you." While he tried to keep his eyes on Iroh's face, they kept being drawn to the pattern of fire between his fingers, which had somehow come to picture a sword between the strings of flame.
"Ah, so you are the fiance Cadence has told me so much about," Iroh replied warmly. "From how she greeted you, I assumed so, but it is good to get confirmation." Noticing the line of Shining's sight, he chuckled. "My Fire Weaving interests you? I find that my fire is far stronger than I'm used to, so I am practicing my fine control. It would be a shame if I lost my temper with somepony and, all unmeaning to, accidentally roasted them." He shook his head softly. "Such a terrible shame."
Cadence lifted a hoof to stifle her giggles as Shining Armor went visibly pale despite his white coat. "Sir, I promise you that no matter what happens I would never willingly hurt your daughter, whom I love more than life itself!" he stated quickly, terror in his eyes and voice.
"Oh, don't be like that!" Iroh chided. "I am not the vengeful type. Trust me, young knight, that should you ever end up hurting Cadence in such a way that it would call for retribution, I will do nothing to whatever Cadence leaves behind once she's finished with you."
Cadence was no longer able to stifle her laughter as Shining somehow went even paler. "That's hardly comforting," he whimpered softly.
As the owl finally spoke up, Iroh turned towards him, seeing what appeared to be an ordinary brown owl staring at him with wise eyes.
"Oh, this is Owlowiscius," Twilight introduced. "When I told him about the wedding, he insisted on coming along for some reason. Even prettied himself up." At that last, she giggled, pointing to the White Lotus blossom the owl wore behind one ear...a blossom that Iroh and Cadence both immediately recognized.
As Cadence's eyes widened, Iroh cleared his throat. "A pleasure to meet you, Wise One," he greeted the owl pleasantly, dispelling his Fire Weaving to bow.
"Who," the owl replied, nodding his head.
"I think, for now, I should leave you to catch up with your fiance and soon-to-be sister-in-law, Cadence," Iroh suggested. "Myself, I think I will accept Princess Celestia's invitation to tea. Where might she be at this time?"
"Probably the throne room," Cadence offered.
"Who." The owl promptly took to the air, flying along the bridge.
"It appears I have a guide," Iroh chuckled, following along.
"But...but I've never brought Owlowiscius to Canterlot before," Twilight murmured, confused. "How does he know where the throne room is?"
Iroh smiled knowingly as he followed the owl along. He was rather unsurprised to find Celestia waiting for him, a table for three set up with two chairs and a perch. "I thought you'd take me up on my offer," she said mysteriously as she poured the tea. She nodded to the owl, who returned the greeting in a gesture of equals.
Iroh smiled as he took the prepared seat. "I must say, this world and its people hold many surprises for me."
"And more yet to come," Celestia replied mysteriously. She gestured to carvings on the tabletop. "Perhaps a game will help settle your nerves?"
Iroh glanced down at the table, and his eyes widened. "This world has Pai Sho as well?" he gasped, surprised. He eagerly pulled his own tile set out of his sleeve. "I feel more at home already."
"Would you do me the favor of letting me have the first move?" Celestia asked archly, setting her own tiles down to the side of the table.
"It would be an honor," Iroh agreed readily.
Smiling, Celestia levitated an intricately carved tile from her box - the edges practically a living painting with the interweaving designs - and set it in the exact center of the playing field.
Iroh stared in amazement. Even if the style of the pieces was different, the basic design was similar enough that he couldn't mistake what that tile was if he tried. "I see you favor the White Lotus Gambit," he stated in wonder. "Not many still cling to the ancient ways."
Celestia smiled mysteriously. "Those who do...can always find a friend."
Iroh's eyes widened, a great many questions answered only to spawn dozens more. "Then let us play," he replied, raising his tiles one by one, shaping the pattern with the Princess before him as the Wise Owl watched.
As the pattern completed, Celestia smiled warmly. "Welcome home, Grandmaster," she greeted. "The White Lotus opens wide to those who know her secrets."
Iroh sat back in his chair, sipping his tea. "I have so many questions...a lifetime of them, I believe."
Celestia chuckled as she lifted her own tea to her lips. "I have many questions of my own...and it is the duty of a member of the White Lotus to share knowledge with their fellows."
"It will surely take a long time for us to answer all of each others' questions," Iroh cautioned.
"A most pleasant way to spend said time," Celestia replied easily, returning the tiles to their boxes for another game.
Sighing happily, Iroh settled himself in for what was sure to be the beginning of a wonderful friendship...and, as he remembered the words of Aunt Wu, perhaps something more.