Word Count: 7,344
Characters: Zuko, Izumi, Ozai, Azulon, Sozin
Genre: Family and hurt/comfort
Spoilers and continuity: takes into account events from the comics (The Promise, The Search, Smoke and Shadow) and details from the Legend of Korra
Warnings: physical and emotional child abuse, implied marital rape
Pairings: canon, implied only
A/N: Hope you enjoy! Please let me know what you think. —Allison
In the heart of the palace, just outside the curtains of the Fire Lord's war room, lie the tapestry-draped walls of the Royal Gallery. Depicted on each hanging is an elegant figure larger than life—with curling flames and upturned palms, billowing crimson robes and a topknot adorned with the same golden crown. The bloodline of the nation's most important family stretches and vanishes down the hall.
A new portrait has just recently been hung, the paint freshly dried. The red of flame is vibrant; the crown and eyes gleam a brilliant gold. Look closely, and see leaves of precious metal in the irises.
The Artist stands proud before his work.
"Is it to your liking, Your Highness?"
On the tapestry, the Subject's lips are pressed into a thin line, stoic and unwavering. In real life, the Fire Lord peers over her spectacles and pulls one corner of her mouth into a small smile.
"You have done well, Rinza."
The Artist's eyes shine bright as gold leaf as he gives his thanks with the customary bow.
Head cocked to the side, perhaps still unused to the extra weight in her topknot, the Fire Lord studies her image. The newest portrait is arguably the most beautiful yet—more impressive in craft and detail than those that extend to its left.
There is a long history written on this wall, ready for those who care to look closely. Fire Lord Izumi knows it well. Above her great-great-grandfather's head, a comet; in her grandfather's hands, black fire; on her father's face, a blazing scar. The crown has razed its own path through her family tree and, on her head, the golden tips weigh heavy with its legacy.
Her forefathers were leaders, conquerors, ambassadors, mass-murderers, and supreme Lords of their land. Standing in the Royal Gallery, where magnificent likenesses cast shadows over their subjects, this impression is inescapable. The Fire Lords tower as divinity—immortal, legendary, superhuman.
And yet, the crown atop Izumi's head has a story that speaks only of humanity.
— — —
Fire Lord Sozin begets his only son rather late in life. The hair beneath the crown, once jet-black, has begun to grey, and his empire-to-be will need an heir. The child, a quiet and pensive boy, is born and raised in his father's ambition.
The Sages pick the name Azulon—a strong and powerful title fit for the leader he is to be. He has the Spark in his eyes and Sozin looks on, proud of what he has created.
The first flames burn in the boy's palm when he is not yet five years old. Earlier than expected, whisper the Sages. He is to be a powerful bender. That night, music and booming laughter spill out from the Royal Hall. When the Fire Lord has had his fill of feasting, he retires to his chamber to draw up his plan for the world.
Even as a young child, the Prince is in many ways different from his father: quiet where Sozin is assertive, subtle where Sozin is grandiose, underhanded where Sozin is forceful. But both have the uncompromising will of Royalty, and their subjects never dare to look them in the eyes.
The boy's firebending instructors give weekly reports. "He is learning very quickly, Your Highness." Between praises they nurse their burns.
Minor injuries, always, until once when the boy is ten. Healers are called to the courtyard and remove a man from the sparring ring on a stretcher. Bandages cover the whole left side of his torso.
Upon seeing the Fire Lord, the boy's eyes widen. "It was an accident, Father, I did not mean—"
"Prince Azulon. You are never to apologize."
"If that man was injured, it means only that he is not skilled enough to be sparring with a Prince."
The boy responds with a curt nod and the next week, Fire Lord Sozin hears again the scuffle and yelling of healers in the courtyard. Knowing his message has been received, he sends out for more replacements.
The Avatar has been dead a year when Sozin takes his son dragon hunting for the first time. Only fifteen, the boy takes down the beast faster than his father has ever see; in an hour Azulon has the dragon wounded at his feet. The stench is awful—the anguished sounds are worse. But Sozin is experienced in the hunt. He hands his son the dagger.
The blade hesitates above the dragon's fluttering eye.
As quick as lightning, the Fire Lord strikes out with the back of his hand. The boy's face stings bright red. His lip is split.
New resolve burns quietly in the Prince's eyes. The dragon's head hangs for the rest of his life as a trophy over his bed.
Later that year, the boy bends lightning for the first time—the only time the Fire Lord personally involves himself in his son's training. The straw target has a hole in the center of its chest and smoke rises in wisps. Sozin smiles, nods, and returns to his War Room.
A decade later, Azulon puts his father's technique to good use. Thick red seeps through singed yellow cloth. Smoke rises in pillars from the Eastern Air Temple and Prince Azulon inhales the now-familiar stench. Overhead the sky blazes orange as raw power and ambition surge through his veins.
Twenty-two years after the comet disappears on the horizon, Fire Lord Sozin dies in his sleep—the son sheds no tears as his father's corpse burns. The Sages place the long-awaited crown in his topknot and Fire Lord Azulon ascends to the throne.
. . .
Azulon's firstborn comes to him as a gift from Agni. The infant has been blessed with the Spark, the Sages proclaim—his irises burn as bright as his father's. And yet, there is something different about the boy that neither his father nor the Sages can place. They name the infant Iroh.
The firstborn is a strong and uncompromising bender. He is not a prodigy, but neither does he fall behind. "He has Sozin's spirit," his instructors claim. "He conquers."
Iroh does not give his father reason to be disappointed.
When the boy is twelve Azulon begets a second son—an accident, really, from the womb of a Fire Lady proclaimed infertile after disease ravaged her body years before. The physician's mistake provides Azulon with a spare heir. The Sages name him Ozai.
The second-born's prodigious skill with fire goes largely unnoticed. Accelerated forms and powerful blasts are not enough to draw his father's eye, not even after Iroh is sent away to the Royal Military Academy to train in the ways of war.
Azulon reads aloud from his firstborn's letters at the dinner table, savoring each word on a satisfied tongue. At his left hand, Ozai pushes food around on his plate and feels resentment course hot through his veins.
Prince Ozai does not understand his father's favoritism, but he lets it fuel his fire.
When his second son is fifteen, Fire Lord Azulon is called to the courtyard. The air prickles with electricity and the red of the palace flashes a blinding blue. The target lies smoking on its side.
It is the most precise and deadly lightning Azulon has ever seen, and he does not understand. The instructor answers his unspoken question in a hushed tone. "He learned it on his own, Your Highness. We think perhaps from watching his brother."
The second son stands tall, with crackling energy still radiating from his skin. The flames of his irises burn so hot as to be cold—as piercing and unmerciful as his lightning.
"Good, Prince Ozai."
The Fire Lord offers nothing else.
A few hours later, the esteemed Admiral Iroh returns triumphant with his fleet and the tale of his hunt of the last two remaining dragons. That night the Royal Hall bursts with celebration and boasts a decadent spread of desserts and delicacies from all over the empire. The Fire Lord himself attends the feast. He bestows upon his first son a new title: The Dragon of the West.
Prince Ozai leaves early and only a servant notices.
Two years later, another feast. The Crown Prince's bride is the beautiful daughter of a wealthy nobleman. She will make for the Fire Nation an heir of pure, respectable blood. When their son is born a year later, the Fire Lord throws a feast in the infant's honor.
Azulon does not understand envy, so he pays no mind to the boy sitting at his left hand. He does not know how bitterness hardens as hatred and from there how quickly it grows…
To Iroh, first, then to the boy's firebending instructors, who encourage him to slow his pace. To the servants, who fear him less than his brother. To his mother, who dies.
Then, eventually, to the Fire Lord. The word father is consumed entirely—in the eyes of his second son, Azulon is only the crown atop his head.
When the Fire Lord finds a wife for his spare child, the Prince acquiesces. She is as beautiful as Iroh's wife but her blood is far from pure. I seek to make my bloodline stronger through this matrimony, Prince Ozai. An experiment. The crystalized, obsidian hatred creeps around the woman's neck and her new husband takes cruel, extra pleasure on their wedding night.
The second son bides his time until his brother falls from grace, but even then—a three-year siege abandoned in a display of shameful weakness—the Fire Lord remains loyal to his firstborn.
The next morning Fire Lord Azulon, son of the great Sozin and father of the Dragon of the West, a pinnacle of health predicted to reign for a decade to come, is found dead in his chamber. His body burns and his crown is placed on the head of not his first, but second son.
Fire Lord Ozai ascends to the throne.
. . .
A child is born to Ozai a year after his marriage to the Avatar's granddaughter. The boy is small—nearly two weeks premature and born nearing the winter solstice, when the days are short and Agni's power the weakest.
He does not have the Spark.
Ozai does not hesitate in his decree. Such a humiliation—a nonbender as his firstborn, imagine!—cannot not be tolerated. But the boy's mother weeps and pleads at his feet, and even the Sages beg that His Highness reconsider. They babble about spirits and retribution. Ozai does not have time for this.
With a wave of his hand, he allows the child to live. A few days later, through a servant, he learns that his son's name is Zuko.
He impregnates his wife once again, strategically this time. His second child is born on the summer solstice, and the Sages say her spark burns brighter than even her grandfather. Ozai himself picks her name.
Though a year and a half younger, Azula creates fire long before her brother; Ozai praises his daughter and humiliates his son in the same breath. The boy only tries harder—and after innumerable failures, always succeeds eventually. A stubborn spirit, the bending instructors say. In those moments when the child completes a form correctly, when fire blazes from his fists, his father gets a glimpse of the heir he might have been.
But when it comes to his son, Ozai finds that withholding praise produces far better results. The boy works himself sick, until every muscle aches and his stomach retches and his arms are singed from misdirected flames, but never once gives in to despair. He improves.
Still, the second-born improves faster. Her flames burn white-hot and Ozai sees himself often in his daughter.
There are times—rare, yes, but there are times—where Ozai catches a glimpse of himself in his son. The sharp nose, pointed jaw, golden eyes burning with sheer determination… The semblance strikes him like lightning once, standing together before an Ember Island sunset. Of the few happy memories Ozai has, most take place on these sands. It is not so hard to see himself in the straight-backed, resilient boy beside him.
He places a hand on Zuko's shoulder and the child smiles.
But it does not last. The hardened hatred trumps all, for Ozai hates far better than he loves. Zuko is too much his mother's son.
When Ozai's firstborn is ten years old, word of Iroh's only child reaches the Palace from Ba Sing Se. Tragic, whispers the Nation in mournful breaths, and Ozai sees an opportunity.
It does not go as he has planned. No matter. He chooses the knife with care. The throat, he decides—a lot of blood, but the boy will suffer little. Ozai will do it while the child sleeps; his fate is regrettable.
A better solution arises that night and the child is spared from his father yet again.
Only a week later, Ozai raises a hand to his son for the first time.
"She's not coming back. Stop sniveling—you're a pathetic excuse for a prince." The back of his hand comes away a stinging red and wet with tears. Prince Zuko falls to the ground and his father does not stay to watch him get up.
Fire Lord Ozai has no doubt that the boy is unfit to inherit an empire. He bides his time. Opportunity comes three years later, in a war meeting.
The second time the Fire Lord raises a hand to his son, it is covered in white-hot flames. He watches as the boy's face burns and desperate tears sizzle away as steam. Prince Zuko collapses with a choked scream and his father does not stay to watch him get up.
Three years later he signs an order. Permission is granted to kill him on site. A half a world away, the boy clutches his wanted poster in shaking hands but does not—cannot—give up on his father's love.
The third and final time Fire Lord Ozai raises a hand to his son, his fingertips crackle with lightning. The energy leaves his body with deadly precision—he aims for the boy's heart, and regrets nothing.
Except that, yet again, the child manages to live. When the flames die down, the traitor prince has disappeared and the rope Ozai had wrapped around his son's neck at birth lies singed and severed in his hand.
Fire Lord Ozai falls under an orange sky and the comet sinks below the horizon, taking with it one hundred years of conquest. A cell door slams shut behind the father; the outcast son kneels humbly before his people. The Sages place the crown in his topknot and Fire Lord Zuko, a peaceful smile on his scarred face, ascends to the throne.
. . .
Fire Lord Zuko begets his only child rather early in life. Unlike his forefathers who began their reign after decades of study and training, Zuko inherits a nation rife with political unrest when he is barely seventeen years of age.
And yet, he was calmer the day the crown is placed on his head than the day, seven years later, that his newborn daughter is placed in his arms.
The Sages have picked the name Izumi, and both mother and father think it lovely. She has the Spark, Your Highness, as bright as we have ever seen it. But the Fire Lord does not hear their proclamation—he is too busy counting and recounting her fingers and toes; too caught up in the warm, fragile weight of her in his arms; too stunned by her soft and sweet-smelling skin.
"She's…" The word catches in his throat.
The Fire Lady, lying on the bed and covered in sweat, gives him a knowing smile. "She's perfect."
The infant's heartbeat flutters against his fingers and Fire Lord Zuko holds his child like fire in his palms.
The Avatar's son had cried for his mother the first time he met the Fire Lord, but as a baby Izumi finds only comfort in her father's face. Chubby fingers reach up and feel their way over red and ruined skin and she falls asleep easily on his chest.
Princess Izumi is a quiet, wide-eyed child. At three she develops a love for turtleducks and after that, on any given afternoon, the Fire Lord can be found with his mother and daughter in the Royal Courtyard, sitting with a loaf of bread beside the pond. The Princess has names for each of the creatures—among them, Fluffy, Quacky, Snappy, Flippy, and Flappy.
"Which one is that? Flippy?"
"That is Flappy. He doesn't like to be called Flippy. You should probably apologize to him." Her expression is deadly serious and the Fire Lord apologizes to the slighted turtleduck.
One morning, Zuko finds his daughter sitting in the courtyard beneath her favorite tree. She is four years old and an orange flame flickers for the first time in her hands, reflecting off fascinated, golden eyes. She cannot seem to look away.
The Fire Lord kisses his child's forehead, breaking the trance, and attempts to express the pride swelling in his chest.
"What do I do now?" she whispers. He recognizes her fear and tries to radiate calm.
"Give it more energy, Izumi. It won't hurt you as long as you control it. Breathe deeply—firebending comes from the breath. Feel the sun on your skin."
The tiny flicker of flame expands to fill the child's trembling hands.
"Fire is energy, and energy is life. Can you feel it, Izumi?"
She nods, eyes wide. Their hands close together around the flame. That evening, after a full day of trade negotiations, the Fire Lord retires to his study and begins his search for the best firebending instructors in the land.
He sits in on her lessons at first, until his wife brings it to his attention that he is being overbearing. Quietly, he backs off.
Two years later, on his way to bed after working late into the night, the Fire Lord hears yelling coming from his daughter's bedroom. Assassins, as always, are his first thought. Icy fear locks around his heart as he breaks into a run.
There are flames and smoke and three non-bender guards who can't get into the room. The fire has engulfed curtains and tapestries and the canopy around the bed, but the Princess sleeps on.
The Fire Lord shouts, and his daughter sits straight up in bed. All she sees is the world burning.
It takes him mere seconds to extinguish the flames, and only a second more passes before he has her in his arms. He whispers comforting nothings and says shhh, it was just a bad dream, but the scorched-black room says otherwise.
"I didn't mean to, I didn't know—"
"Shh, it's okay." He strokes her hair. "It happens to everyone at some point."
Zuko himself had been nine and humiliated. "Even me."
The Princess sleeps with her parents for the rest of the night. Her room is repaired in a matter of days and, to their relief, she never sleep-bends again.
As she grows older, Izumi develops a taste for tea. This delights the Fire Lord's uncle, who visits twice a year from his teashop in Ba Sing Se. The child listens with rapt attention over steaming cups of ginseng to her great-uncle's stories: of his military conquests, of his trip to the spirit world, of his adventures with her father when he was young. Her favorite story is of Iroh's famed dragon hunt. She demands he tell it again at each visit.
"But you didn't kill them!"
His eyes glisten with mischief. "Exactly."
"And the Dragon Masters liked you so they liked Daddy so they gave him Druk!" On the Fire Lord's shoulder, the baby dragon, gifted to him only months ago by the Sun Warriors, exhales a tiny puff of flames. The Princess pats his head.
While discussing her studies at the Royal Fire Academy, eight-year-old Izumi lights up. Her eyes sparkle as she regales her father and great-uncle with the story of the beginning of their nation. Her great-uncle proclaims with a booming laugh that she is surely the smartest girl in the whole world.
"Her nose is always buried in a book," the Fire Lord tells the Dragon of the West. Izumi scrunches her nose.
"You sound like Aunt Azula and Aunt Kiyi. They think reading is silly. All they ever want to do is spar."
And with that the conversation moves to firebending training. Progressing wonderfully, the Fire Lord beams. Behind the porcelain cup of tea, the Princess's smile has faded. Her father notices but does not understand—
Until a month later, he does. The words of his daughter's firebending master are on his mind as he searches every corner of the Palace—I am concerned for the Princess, Your Highness. It seems she has been falling ill remarkably often, and...
He finds the child curled up in the Royal Library, the infant dragon on her lap and a book about early Earth Kingdom history at home in her hands.
The Fire Lord casts a long shadow over his daughter. "You don't look sick, Izumi." His anger is not explosive—rather it boils just beneath the surface, beneath his severe expression and fiery golden eyes.
Those same eyes stare up at him with flaring panic. "Dad, I can explain—"
"You've been skipping your lessons and lying to your instructor." It is not a question. Each syllable is thin and measured.
"We do not lie, Princess Izumi."
Her eyes—wide and golden and panicked and his—brim with tears. The child looks up at her towering father and trembles. "Please, Dad, I'm sorry, I..."
It hits him all at once: the similarities. His own measured voice echoes angrily in his ears and her tearful apology strikes straight through to his heart. She is afraid of her father, of her Fire Lord, and for a moment he cannot breathe.
He kneels beside his child, takes Druk onto his shoulder, and asks why she would do such a thing.
And he listens, to every last word. She hiccups on tears but once she has started she does not stop… I hate it, I hate it, I hate how it makes me feel…Sifu Rozhu always wants me to make more…bigger…what if I can't control it…what if I lose control...I hate how it makes me feel…
The Fire Lord holds his child until she quiets and wipes the saltwater from her rosy cheeks. He tucks a lock of hair behind her ear. "You shouldn't have lied, Izumi. You should have come to me with this, I would have understood."
The girl's response is a whisper. "You are always so proud of me when I bend fire. I didn't want…"
I didn't want to disappoint you. The Fire Lord feels sick.
"You can always come to me, Izumi. I will never be disappointed with you for that. But I am disappointed that you hid this from me and lied about it. Do you understand?"
She nods, hiccups, and buries her face in his robes.
"As far as bending goes, I think I know how to fix your problem."
"I have some… experience… with firebenders that are afraid of wielding their element. Did you know Uncle Aang had the exact same problem as you?"
"The Avatar? Really?"
"Really. But fire does so much more than burn and destroy. We learned that lesson together. I think it's time you learned it, too." Princess Izumi knows every story of her father's early adventures by heart, so she catches on quickly. Her eyes flicker to Druk and grow round and wide.
"Do you mean…?"
His mischievous, slightly sheepish grin is all the answer she needs.
They leave at dawn in a small, red war balloon and are welcomed that evening by the Sun Warriors. Father and daughter each take a piece of the Eternal Flame up to the mountain, but when they reach the steep stairs Izumi continues on alone. The sound of drums and the flavor of fire rise through the air. No one doubts that the child will be judged worthy, but the Fire Lord cannot curb his anxiety.
His daughter forges upward bravely, never once looking back, her small hands nourishing the flame with expert care.
Druk takes flight and flies circles around his Zuko's head when the Call echoes off the mountainside. The ground beneath them rattles and when the Masters appear, the very sky seems to dance along with them. Izumi moves fluidly through the motions—her father has taught her well.
The drumming stops and the air is still. Then, fire.
The Fire Lord has witnessed this a number of times: once, up close. Still the colors and the sheer majesty rob him of breath. Only when the Masters have retreated to their caves and his daughter has descended to meet him does he dare to breathe deeply again.
She stands straight-backed and calm. Understanding burns the colors of dragon's flame in her eyes.
"You always said fire was life. I never totally understood what you meant… But I get it now."
She sends a plume of flame into the air that shimmers and dances in the setting sun.
On the trip home, the Princess tells her father that fire is like power. In every history book she has read, everything goes terribly wrong when power is placed in the hands of someone who is not prepared to respect and control it. But in the right hands—like yours, Dad—it can be used to give light and warmth to the world.
The Fire Lord thinks it a remarkable analogy for an eight-year-old. She helps heat the balloon the rest of the way home.
Despite the protests from his advisors, Fire Lord Zuko appoints himself as his daughter's principal firebending instructor. Everyday at noon he unburies himself from beneath proposals and treaties and intelligence reports to meet his child in the courtyard and teach her to bend. Fire is life and the Princess has taken this lesson to heart. The trained eye catches glimpses of indescribable color in her flames.
When she is thirteen, he teaches her to redirect lightning. He speaks of yin and yang, positive and negative, chakras and the watery flow of chi from fingertip to stomach to fingertip.
"Hopefully, you'll never need to use this technique."
His daughter is a quick study, her face set in stoic concentration so like her mother. Princess Izumi reminds the Fire Lord in many ways of his wife—their glossy, jet-black hair, their sharp focus and attention to detail, their composed and careful way of studying the world around them.
But when she gets the motion correct for the first time, her awkward, lopsided smile is all Zuko.
They open every lesson from then on with that motion and Izumi never complains. She has seen the scar on her father's chest and heard the stories a thousand times. With each repetition—fingertip to stomach to fingertip, feel your chi follow the path—the Fire Lord's ever-present worry is soothed just a bit.
It will be many years before he allows her to attempt lightning herself. She does not complain, for she knows the stories well.
When his daughter turns fifteen, the Fire Lord develops a newfound appreciation for his uncle's patience with him throughout his years in exile. If he finds dealing with Izumi's attitude trying, he cannot imagine the inner-calm the Dragon of the West must have possessed to get him through his nephew's angst-ridden teenage years.
No, Fire Lord Zuko can deal with haughty generals, scheming lobbyists, and obstinate ambassadors from foreign nations, but he does not know how to deal with his daughter's huffing and puffing and eye-rolling.
His wife knows. The Fire Lady merely has to fix her daughter with a warning stare and the girl cedes. Zuko, on the other hand, is always left frustrated and hoarse from shouting matches that, later, he can hardly even recall.
We all just need a break—Uncle's idea, and so the family travels to Ember Island to have their woes smoothed away by sand and saltwater. The Royal Vacation Home has long been repaired. His daughter, the Fire Lord knows, loves it here.
Zuko's mother and her second husband take tea with Iroh on the porch; on the beach his sisters and daughter practice their bending. The Fire Lord stands nearby with his wife and watches the waves.
But an argument over something petty escalates and shatters the peace of the moment. He draws closer and listens. The salty air carries a volley of quick-tongued quips that he doesn't quite follow nor understand, until—
"Yeah well, Azula, not everyone gets to be as heartless as you."
The insult, carelessly slung and callously sharp, came from his daughter's mouth. Eroded by months of fighting and frustration and I don't know how to deal with this, finally something inside of him just snaps.
The Fire Lord's hand is in the air.
The second the movement registers consciously Zuko yanks his arm back as though burnt. His hand never makes contact with its target—in fact, few even notice that it ever left his side. His wife is one. But his daughter is the other and she is staring at him with wide and fearful eyes.
He feels sick.
When he recovers his voice, it comes out sounding so small. "Young lady, that was inexcusable. Apologize to your aunt and go to your room."
Fire Lord Zuko empties the contents of his stomach into a wastebasket three times that night. He leaps from bed and his wife holds back his hair as he retches and retches. There is nothing to say; the air fills with the sounds of a father violently ill over what he had almost become.
Sleep is futile. With the bitter taste of sick in his mouth he wanders down the hallway to the only bedchamber in the whole house left empty. The door creaks open; dust coats every surface. On the desk, a small, framed portrait—he picks it up, brushes it off, and sits on the regally adorned bed.
A woman and a man on their wedding night: he has a goatee and a glint in his eye. Zuko chokes on the dust in the air.
She sounds so young, like the little girl he remembers coming to his room in the middle of the night because she couldn't fall asleep. His stomach twists and turns. He makes room for her on the bed.
"I'm sorry, Dad. For… well… I know I've been… Yeah. I'm sorry."
—I don't know how I can ever make it up to you, but I—
His daughter is about as eloquent as he had been. "You know, if you could have met me when I was your age, I think you'd find that you don't have that much to apologize for. Relatively, I mean."
She smirks. "Uncle Iroh says you threw temper tantrums."
"I did. Often." A sigh, then silence, then, "I'm sorry too, Izumi. For… earlier."
Her response is a whisper. "I know you wouldn't have."
"Either way, there is no excuse."
His daughter's fingers trace over the man in the portrait. "Did he ever… You know…" She clears her throat. "To you, I mean."
Wry sarcasm is the Fire Lord's defense mechanism of choice. His mouth tips upwards. "You mean besides the obvious?"
Izumi rolls her eyes. "I meant before. Before all that."
"Yeah. Yeah, he did."
"It was only once, after your grandmother disappeared. He… preferred to use words."
His daughter swallows and looks at her hands. "I shouldn't have said that to Aunt Azula."
"So why did you?"
"I was angry."
"Anger isn't an excuse to say cruel things to the ones you love."
A whisper. "I know."
"You have a gift, Izumi, a gift of reading people. Your mother, your aunt, my uncle, my father—you all have it."
The Fire Lord scoffs. "Not like them. They—you—can study a person so quickly and see what he's feeling, what motivates him, what makes him tick. That can be a good thing—I mean, your mom and my uncle always know exactly how to deal with me. But it can also be used to manipulate someone and hit them where it hurts the most. Do you understand?"
"I think so."
"You have to be careful with this gift, Izumi, just like you have to be careful with your fire. Use it for empathy and good." He wipes the remaining dust from his parents' portrait. "Don't use it like he did."
"I want to meet him."
The Fire Lord's blood runs ice cold. "No."
However, he cannot deny his daughter forever. A year after they sat together in a dusty room on Ember Island, Princess Izumi turns sixteen and officially enters adulthood in the eyes of her nation. His daughter is no longer a child and his protests carry little weight now. They argue at her birthday celebration.
"I'm trying to protect you, Izumi!"
"Protect me from what? He can't hurt me."
"The Avatar took away his bending but he didn't take his voice. He—"
"—doesn't know me. I'm not you. He doesn't know how to hurt me." She pats her father's shoulder. "Besides, I'm not a little girl anymore. I can handle it."
He cannot deny that she has a good point, but his arms remain folded over his chest. "I don't like this."
"You don't have to." A mischievous grin. "I'm an adult now, remember?"
The Fire Lord finally acquiesces, but only on the condition that he go with her and wait just outside the cell. He opens the door for her and sees torchlight bounce off of grey-white hair. He has not seen his father in five years.
He waits at the door with bated breath.
The Princess emerges a few minutes later, as composed as she was when she entered. "Well?" he asks.
"He's exactly what I thought he'd be."
"Yeah? And what's that?"
The Fire Lord wraps an arm around his daughter's shoulders and they walk together away from the prison cell.
Two years later, Princess Izumi graduates at the top of her class from the Royal Fire Academy. She gives a speech before her class where she speaks of the world, of its troubled past, and of the conflicts that still plague it today. As the Fire Lord listens, an idea begins to form in his mind. He runs it first by his wife and half-sister before revealing it to his daughter.
"Are you serious?"
"You… you would really let me do that?"
"I've kept you cooped up in the Fire Nation—in this palace—for long enough. We've taken a few trips to other places but you've always gotten the royal treatment. You haven't gotten the chance to experience the world, Izumi."
"Like you did."
"Yeah, like I did. And if you are going to rule this nation one day, you need to really explore the world first. You'll find things out there that you won't find in your books."
The Fire Lord, when looking back on that moment, will remember thinking that he has never been hugged so tightly.
He presents his daughter with a small, unmarked ship fully stocked with provisions for a long journey. She has exchanged red robes for light, traveller's clothing colored Earth Kingdom green. Black hair hangs straight down past her shoulders, forsaking its traditional topknot. Incognito, had been the suggestion; it would be much better that way. Her aunt had already nicknamed her "Izi."
"Never drop your guard, Izumi. You are a great firebender and I know you can defend yourself, but you are only as safe as you are alert. And listen to your Aunt Kiyi. She's there to keep you safe and out of trouble." The Fire Lord shifts his stare to his half-sister. "Bring her back in one piece, please."
The ship pulls out of the harbor and, atop his dragon in the cover of clouds, Fire Lord Zuko follows it all the way to the shores of the Earth Kingdom.
Her letters arrive once a month by messenger hawk and he lingers on every brushstroke. He reads as she tells him of Omashu, Republic City, Ba Sing Se (Uncle Iroh says hi); all four air temples and both water tribes (Uncle Sokka says hi); countless tiny villages in both the Earth Kingdom and Fire Nation. She writes of her new favorite foods, of interesting colloquialisms, of fascinating people she has met, of her aunt's antics, and occasionally of homesickness.
In the long breaks between letters the Fire Lord often curses himself for ever sending his daughter away. His meetings are long and the turtleduck pond lonely. Even Druk pines for his missing friend. But when Zuko opens those long-awaited letters he can never regret his decision, because her characters are slanted with the hurried excitement of discovery.
Three years later, his daughter returns to him a changed woman. Behind new spectacles she holds the world in her eyes. When she bends, he sees the other elements in her technique.
Her journey has humbled and matured her, and Fire Lord Zuko cannot help but see their similarities.
She returns also with ideas. The names of Fire Nation villages he has scarcely heard of roll off her tongue with ease, and she knows the problems facing each by heart. Yanzhu would benefit from a dam built further upstream on a nearby river, Rakar needs safety inspections of its coalmines and wage regulations for its miners, the municipal government of Zhu Ling is corrupt and need to be brought to justice. Izumi's list is long and she does not rest until each and every problem has been addressed by the Fire Lord's court.
Her father observes, with great pride, that Princess Izumi has only the Fire Nation's best interests at heart.
At twenty-two, armed with her adventures, she returns to her studies. Between classes she spends her free time in the Dragonbone Catacombs, reading through every scroll of the Fire Sage's history. She writes a paper first, then a book, then a multivolume analysis of the cultural, military, and political history of her nation.
And somehow, she still finds time to feed the turtleducks with her father.
Princess Izumi of the Fire Nation is a visiting professor first at Ba Sing Se University, then a few years later at the University of Republic City. It is there that she meets a fellow professor who becomes first a friend but very quickly…
Of all the members of the family, Fire Lord Zuko finds out last. His daughter is nervous, an unusual break in her unruffled demeanor.
"He's a nonbender, and his mother was a firebender but his father is from the Earth Kingdom, and I know how the Fire Sages would feel about this and I understand tradition, me of all people, and I know that our children would be of mixed blood and how easily that could be an issue if our firstborn for some reason turned out to be an earthbender, but—"
"Do you love him, Izumi?"
She does not hesitate. "Yes."
"Then I will talk to the Sages for you." He raises his eyebrow. "But I want to meet him first."
He presses a kiss to his child's forehead. "It's a changing world, Izumi. Every day we have fewer divisions than the day before. Tradition is good, but there's nothing wrong with tweaking it every now and then."
Fire Lord Zuko spares no expense for his daughter's wedding. The Royal Hall booms with celebration for days. A few years later, not long after his uncle's peaceful passing, his grandson is placed in his arms.
"His name is Iroh, Dad."
Royal blood beats in a new heart and the Sages announce that he has the Spark. Under the careful watch of a new mother, Zuko holds the infant like fire in his palms.
The first thing he teaches the boy is the proper way to feed turtleducks.
No one accuses the Fire Lord of favoritism when he appoints his daughter as Chief Policy Advisor, as she is widely regarded as the foremost expert on world history and international relations. At her father's side, Princess Izumi serves her nation for decades.
But Fire Lord Zuko's hair has long since turned grey. He has reigned justly over his people for sixty-seven years. One day, he decides that the time has come.
"You're sure, Dad?"
"Completely. It's your turn, Izumi."
The world gathers to watch as father and daughter kneel side by side before their people. The Fire Lord bows his head as the Sages take the crown from his topknot and place it upon the head of his heir. They stand. The crown glistens and the crowd cheers. Zuko watches, a smile lighting his eyes.
And Fire Lord Izumi ascends to the throne.
— — —
"What do you think?"
"I think it suits you."
"So do I."
"It wouldn't have killed you to smile a little bit, though."
"Ah yes, so I can be remembered forever not as a serious, all-powerful leader but as the Fire Lord that inherited her father's awkward smile."
In the Royal Gallery, the former Fire Lord and his successor stand together before the newest portrait. On the tapestry is a woman larger than life: a crown on her head, a written history of her nation in one hand and a white-hot flame in the other. Gold-leaf irises shimmer behind her spectacles. Look into them, and see her father's devotion.
The portrait of Fire Lord Zuko hangs to the left. In his palms, flames burn indescribable colors and a dragon lays trusting at his feet. His golden eyes, one seared into a permanent glare, are young but wise. Look into them, and see his father's mark.
Further left, the portrait of Fire Lord Ozai: there is black fire in his palms that threatens to engulf and consume. Hatred burns in his eyes—look into them, and see his father's disregard.
Left again, to Fire Lord Azulon. Prodigious fire burns in his palms and a vanquished creature lies at his feet. His eyes, as cold and piercing as lightning, stare down from above—look into them, and see his father's ambition.
Then, Fire Lord Sozin, with an army at his feet and a flaming comet above his head. Power is a fire in his palms and it threatens only to burn.
The line of portraits in the Royal Gallery tells a story, for those who care to listen.
"What do you think they'd say? If they knew what you did?"
Zuko smirks. "You'll have to be more specific than that."
"Oh." He pauses. "They'd never understand it."
Izumi nods her agreement. "This crown meant something very different to them." On her head, its pointed tips weigh heavy. "You can't take off gallivanting around the world yet, you know."
"You call being an ambassador for peace gallivanting?"
"Either way. You can't leave until I've finished your biography. I might have questions."
"You aren't done with that thing yet?"
"I want it to be perfect."
"Well, you've got a country to rule now, Fire Lord."
"I can multitask."
"When do I get to read it?"
"When I'm done."
The former Fire Lord wraps an arm around his daughter's shoulders. "You have made me so proud, Izumi."
They leave together, father and child, down the hallway, past their bloodline traced in the long line of portraits on the wall—their legacy illustrated on tapestry after tapestry. History has a cautionary tale to tell of the Royal Family, and the new Fire Lord has listened closely to its warnings.
Yes, she thinks. The crown atop her head means something different now.