“Nephew, for the last time, you need not worry. Izumi and I will be fine.”
Even Mai was ready to go, and she was often loathe to leave her daughter with anyone for longer than five minutes. Zuko gave one last cursory glance as Mai tugged on his sleeve.
“Okay,” he huffed.
The pair of them showered the girl with kisses, for which she giggled her appreciation, then left. They’d definitely kept the other dignitaries waiting for some time at this point. Izumi, for her part, immediately began to fuss when she realized her parents were gone. Iroh scooped her up from where she’d been sat with her toys, her favourite being a plush otter-penguin curtesy of ‘Auntie Katara’ and then began to rock her back and forth.
“Now then, why are you crying, little one? Your parents will be back soon, and for now, you get to spend some time with grandpa. Doesn’t that sound nice? I can show you all my teas!”
She didn’t seem at all enthused by the notion of tea. This apple certainly hasn’t fallen far, he bemoaned, shifting the still sniffling toddler onto his hip leaving his right arm free.
“Hmm. Perhaps I can show you something of slightly more interest to you?” He lifted his hand out a safe distance in front of her then created a tiny flame in his palm. Her golden eyes bulged, and her toy fell to the ground forgotten. Iroh grinned triumphantly.
“I see you are eager to be a firebender, no?” Her chubby fingers reached out towards the flames and she grinned.
“Does daddy do this for you, little one?” She was completely enthralled by the flickering light. As she continued to be dazzled by his basic show of bending, Iroh heard the door swing open and a bell chime.
“It would appear we have some company,” Iroh slipped her into the too-small sling that Mai had been kind enough to leave with him. “Shall we go and greet them?”
Ming grinned as she saw him approach.
“Oh, Iroh! Is this your great-niece that you’ve been telling us all so much about?” Her husband Pao soon closed the distance created by her rushing to see his charge.
“What a beautiful little thing,” he remarked. “What was her name again?”
“Izumi,” Iroh beamed. However, the smile didn’t last long as she soon began fussing again. How odd, she usually loves attention.
“Aww maybe it’s all too much for her,” Ming glanced at the now crying girl. “Perhaps you should put her down for a nap? Pao and I can wait, we don’t mind.”
“No, we don’t,” she finished with an elbow to his side.
“That certainly is most generous of you,” Iroh smiled. “I will be back shortly.”
Gently bouncing Izumi, Iroh retreated to his kitchen. As he tried to assess her needs, he gave her cheek a little stroke, but quickly pulled his hand at the unexpected heat. He moved his hand, brushing it against her forehead and down to her nose; her entire face was warm.
“Your parents would have told me if you’d been feverish, surely? And you certainly don’t show any signs of being sick…”
Her crying began to crescendo and he found himself starting to worry. Mai and Zuko certainly wouldn’t be pleased to come back to their daughter in tears. Almost at a loss, he began to consider closing the shop and finding them. Maybe she really misses them? Just as he was about to announce his plan to Ming and Pao, Izumi started rubbing her face against his chest, snuffling up against him, as though…trying to get something out. Then it clicked, and Iroh felt himself relaxing as he walked over to the pantry.
“You certainly are a bit young,” he chuckled. “You just need help getting the heat out, don’t you?”
He gently poured the powdered pepper onto the crook of his hand where his thumb and index finger met, then held his hand up to Izumi’s nose. Her frantic breaths began to hitch, stopping for a beat, then…
He moved his face just in time, although perhaps not fast enough to save his beard as his great-niece let out a burst of flame before relaxing back into his embrace. Ming and Pao shot through the swinging doors.
“Iroh, are you alright?”
“We heard a noise and-”
They both stopped in their tracks.
“Iroh, what happened?” Ming gestured to his beard, which had been singed almost to his chin. He guffawed.
“Not to worry, Ming. It appears Izumi here simply had to let off some heat. It’s an old trick I discovered with my own son.”
“Is…are they supposed to do that?” Pao was shocked, having probably never encountered a firebending child before.
“Oh yes,” he responded. “It’s not uncommon for those too young to bend on their own to show signs of it early on. This is merely one of them. Although, this is slightly earlier than most.” He lifted Izumi from her sling and cuddled her to his chest, so she was face-to-face with him.
“What a talented bender you’re going to be some day,” he cooed.
Just sitting in the chair for so long was beginning to make his weary back ache, and even in the midday sun his energy was beginning to wane. He wasn’t long for this world now, he knew, but he wouldn’t miss this for the world. He knew today would be the day she was declared a master, and comfortable in this knowledge, he felt no need to fret over her success or failure or scrutinize her movements. He could simply relax and watch her go.
He could feel the heat of her blasts from his seat next to her parents, and though his hearing had dimmed in recent years, he could still make out the muffled crunch as her fire made friction with the air around her. She twirled effortlessly, the movements as natural to her as walking. With a graceful flip she kicked her fire out, landing and shooting off again, spiraling forward. Her long dark hair whipped around, following her movements and the light from the flames made it sheen.
He looked at her face; she was truly alone in the moment, her moment. As she captivated the crowd without so much as a second thought, he saw the unbridled joy in her pure golden eyes and the way her eyebrows rose in awe of her own power, her mouth widened in a less than dignified grin with each perfect move she made. He painted the image of her happiness into his memory and knew he would look back on it often in the limited time he had left.
Her fire began to cool, and her movements calmed. She was almost done with her evaluation, although in Iroh’s mind it should have been called a performance, as it was a majestic show for those lucky enough to witness it.
She finally landed in the center of the arena. She inhaled, then, while pushing her downward-facing palms to the earth, she breathed out. With a steady stance she moved her hands out. With her middle and index fingers pointed, she made slow circling movements. Iroh’s beard tingled from the stating building, and Izumi’s hair was beginning to poof slightly on the top. Finally, when the tension in the air felt almost too much, she quickly brought her hands together, then shot her left hand out towards the distance. The crack tore through the air as it left her fingertips, bright blue and white energy shooting away, splintering wildly before her. She held the position until all the energy had escaped her body, then thrust her palms down again, breathing calmly.
The pavilion was completely silent as she turned to face them: her invigilators, her parents, pseudo aunts and uncles, dignitaries privileged enough to witness the event, and him. It seemed upon having remembered she was being watched that the shyness of her youth resurfaced, and her face gained a nervous expression. He caught her eye, giving her a grin and a wink before letting the invigilators begin.
Of course, you’re going to pass, little one, he tried to impress upon her with his smile. You’ve always been such a talented bender.