Chapter 1: Drifting
Iroh always found that the Fire Nation autumn was incredibly underrated. People often gushed about the place as a vacation destination in the summer, and his retired patrons regularly praised the new trend of ‘sailing West for the winter’ but as far as he was concerned, they were missing it in its best season.
The humidity of summer was finally dying but the Northern chills had yet to set in. No, autumn was a truly glorious time to be here. The winds began to blow stronger and with them came the drifting leaves. Their vibrant summer colours having turned to burnt hues of amber, marigold and scarlet. He sat serenely on the balcony of his guest room, set aside especially for him and sipped his tea, watching them flutter by.
Some flew fast, desperate to hit the earth, and he was reminded of his dear nephew, running through life and barely taking a moment to admire the beauty of it all. There were others that fell easily, as though enjoying the ride down, and he thought of Aang, now a man grown but still so full of that childlike enjoyment and wonder. More still twirled as they went, in graceful movements reminiscent of dancing, and Katara came to mind. Others tilted flat, as though having planned to ride the gusts of air as far as possible, and a certain Water Tribe warrior, with his strategizing streak appeared before him. Some tilted themselves against the wind, seemingly trying to fight the rushing winds, and he chuckled to himself at the thought of a stubborn young earthbender he knew.
Yes, he thought between sips of the beautiful ginseng blend, I much prefer the autumn here.
Chapter 2: Ceremony
Life in the palace was conducted with ceremony. Everyone had their place to ensure that everything ran like clockwork each day; functioning as gears in a well-oiled machine, each person followed their routine and reset each night, ready to resume their roles the next day. Deviation wasn’t tolerated, either. Except when it was…
Hiroshi couldn’t help but smile when he first noticed her approaching from behind. Armour that was far to big for her clunked, and her pattering footsteps were predictable. She had a long way to go before she’d be slinking around as silently as her mother, but for now he was happy to indulge her; as Captain of the Palace Guard, he could be late to a meeting once in a while.
Pretending to continue on his patrol, he slowed his step slightly to allow her to keep up. A skip in her step indicated that she was ready to pounce. Bending his knees slightly, he braced himself as the Little Dragon, as the staff had fondly taken to calling her, lunged.
“Gaaahhh!” He feigned shock, making a barely-there effort to wriggle out of her grasp as her arms wrapped around his neck. Two guards rounded the corner upon hearing the commotion and quickly fell into character when they saw Hiroshi flailing about unnecessarily, a small child dangling off his back.
“What’s this, then?” The first demanded. “One of our own guard turned traitor?”
“And attacking our dear captain too!” The second joined in, grabbing Izumi’s oversized uniform.
Through her giggles, she tried to fight back, shooting little bursts of fire that the guards easily deflected. They soon let her wriggle free, running away in mock fear as she chased them. Their game came to an abrupt halt as they heard a voice behind them.
“What on earth are you doing, Izumi?” An amused Firelady appeared out of nowhere.
“Mommy!” Covered in grime and dust from the old uniform, she leapt into her mother’s arms. The Firelady grimaced for a split second before smiling.
“Come on now, sweetheart. You really need a bath.”
Izumi waved goodbye over the Firelady’s shoulder, and Hiroshi waved back, smiling.
As Head Housekeeper, Itsuko regularly made rounds in between managing the female members of staff, and the last room she had to check and have cleaned before their next conference was the library. She made her way down the halls to her destination, taking her keys in hand before selecting the correct one before gently opening the door and taking a step inside.
When she entered, she was glad she’d been as quiet as she had. Tangled up in each other – though thankfully fully clothed she noted, ever the figure of matronly propriety – lay the Firelord and Firelady, fast asleep. They finally found five minutes to themselves, she smiled. The Firelord’s hair was out of its topknot and fell over his face as he slept. The Firelady’s mouth was slightly open in her slumber, a soft rumble emerging with her passing breaths.
Itsuko supressed the urge to giggle at the most powerful people in her nation, who still seemed so young to her. Silently, she closed the door and locked it again. Cleaning could wait a little while longer.
Natsue’s mother had always said that buxom women like her were well suited to kitchen work; their large builds gave them an advantage in churning out endless feasts that a reedy-framed maid could never hope to match. Her mother was right: by the time she was in her late 50s, she’d become Head Cook of the palace kitchen. She’d seen three Firelords and a regime change that she wished more than anything had come just a little earlier, early enough for her daughter to have come home, and yet here she was, still cooking. And currently, still trying to organize the Agni-damned menu for the United Republic Planning Summit.
She was sat in her pantry in the back, just about ready to set her pages alight, when she heard someone in her kitchen. With a whispered ‘shit!’, a sack of flour hit the ground outside, no doubt bursting. Sighing, she set down her things.
“That’d better not be you, Naoki!”
When she was out in the open, she saw him.
“Oh, my goodness! My apologies, my Lord!” She bowed as deeply as her poor back would allow.
“Oh, no… I didn’t mean to disturb you, Natsue. I’m sorry.” She looked up: he was thoroughly embarrassed, like a little boy caught out past his bed time.
“Please, my Lord, don’t worry about the mess.” She said as he moved to find a dust pan and brush. “Can I help you with anything, my Lord?”
“I was uh,” he touched the back of his neck awkwardly. “I was actually wondering if you had any of that Komodo-chicken soup left lying around?”
“Of course, my Lord,” she smiled. “I take it this is for her Ladyship?” No one other than a pregnant woman would be demanding such a thing after midnight, she remembered it well herself. The rumour was that it was going to be a princess, if one believed the scullery maids.
“Yeah,” he smiled as she handed him the soup, heated to perfection. “Thanks. And I’ll uh, get someone on that,” he gestured to the flour.
“Thank you, my Lord.”
Natsue settled back down in her pantry; she knew what she’d be putting on the menu now.
Being a lady’s maid was no small job, especially when said lady was her Firelady, and regularly needed to change into elaborate pieces that were incredibly intricate to put on. Still, Hitomi fulfilled her duties with pride, admiring the silks and satins the Firelady donned for special occasions. The job was however made slightly more difficult by the many knives her Ladyship insisted on wearing at all times.
“Oh!” She breathed as some of the fabric caught, tearing. “I’m so sorry my Lady, I’ll fix this straight away!” Great. She’d gone and given herself another chore on top of polishing the jewelry and setting her Ladyship’s hair later. It would be well after dark before she got home.
Firelady Mai inspected the tear with a bored expression before turning to Hitomi.
“I never cared for this piece, to be honest. Far too orange. You’ve mentioned a younger sister before, yes?”
“Yes, my Lady. Akane, my Lady.”
“Take the fabric. Make her something nice. And don’t worry about coming back to do my hair either, Hitomi. My husband’s council can complain all they like; I’ve decided to wear it down.” She said the words as a standard command as if she hadn’t at all noticed Hitomi’s distress.
As she came up from her bow, she saw, the Firelady give one of her rare smiles. Small, but there nonetheless. She dismissed Hitomi, who practically ran out, giddy with excitement. Her little sister was going to love her new kimono.
The palace only kept a small number of animals, much more sensible than what he’d heard about the nouveau-riche estates cropping up around Republic City, which seemed to keep one of every animal under the sun. Of course, the palace did have one particular beast that the others never would, and a far more demanding one at that, Joji noted.
“Back from the mountains then, boy?” He was supposed to be trimming the fire lilies, but the dragon could be absent for days at a time, and he was always thrilled to see him. Druk’s chest rumbled in what Joji imagined was some reptilian purring, and he continued to watch Joji, his tail shifting curiously.
“I did have other work I was supposed to be doing, but when I saw you overhead, I figured you might like a little treat.” It had taken years for Druk to tolerate anyone other than the Royal Family, and this was no doubt down to Joji’s offerings. If only his grandfather could see him now, stable master for a dragon.
Druk’s eyes bulged as he brought his hand from behind his back, presenting a fresh mutton-cow shank, which he lightly tossed before the creature. Tail shifting frantically, Druk lunged forward. He allowed Joji to scratch his neck for a moment, then indicated that present company was no longer welcome by baring his talons.
“Alright, boy.” Joji chortled, leaving Druk to his snack.
Decanting the wine was probably Tadashi’s favourite activity. It signalled the end of his day, and as he poured, he got to have his final look over the figures for the staff finances. It was also when he’d sometimes receive his favourite guest, and as he heard the light rap on the door, he smiled.
The little princess peeked around the door before walking in when he nodded.
“Mister Tadashi,” she began, prim and proper. “I found something today.”
“Did you now?” He dramatically set his things to one side, turning all his attention to her.
“Yes, Mister Tadashi, and I know that lost things are supposed to go to you.” She presented her finding of the day: a beautiful ceramic tea cup decorated with delicate gold petals. Itsuko certainly would have noticed its absence. He’d be sure to return it to her when she came for tea and cakes with Natsue.
“Well, I thank you very kindly, Princess,” he bobbed his head before placing the cup on his desk. She wasn’t yet old enough to register the lack of a full bow, and frankly, his old bones were grateful for the break in formality.
Satisfied with her job well done, she made for the door. It was getting late, after all.
“Goodnight, Mister Tadashi.”
She closed the door and he heard her scamper off a short distance; no doubt one of her parents had accompanied her on her little mission. He sat back in his chair, admiring Itsuko’s tea cup. Such an honourable girl.
Chapter 3: Broken
At least the bastard had the decency to choose a convenient time to die. Things were a lot quieter at the moment, and by the time the body had been taken care of, he’d be needed out in Republic City again for the next Peace Summit; he had time to get the whole thing over with and be on his way. He wouldn’t have to spare a second thought for the man ever again after this week.
“How’s the planning going?” Mai asked, sitting next to him on their bed, leaning against him.
“Still trying to find a sage to do it.”
“And none of them have any idea when to do it, either.”
“Well, you already know I think sunrise would be best. Celebrate the dawning of a new day, and a new world without him in it,” she spat. “Do you think Azula knows?”
“Probably. Although whether she’ll turn up for it…I wasn’t exactly planning on announcing it, and no one has any idea where she is.”
“I still think you should just leave it all with Aang. He defeated him, seems fitting he should be in charge of dealing with him.”
“Yeah…I don’t know…”
“Zuko, you can’t just have him burned in the dead of night and act like nothing’s happened. We’re all going to be there, like it or not.”
Zuko didn’t respond, instead staring at the far wall, lost in thought….
“I don’t know if I can emphasize enough how much I hate this city!” Toph’s voice boomed through the Earth King’s conference room as they began to pack up their things.
“Yeah, I mean if not for the fact that we get to visit our favourite tea shop when we come, I’d probably come down with some sudden life-threatening illness before every conference here,” Sokka added.
“I just can’t believe the way those ministers look at us, like they think we’re still a bunch of kids or something!” Katara chimed in, unceremoniously dumping her scrolls into her satchel.
“I’m sure they don’t mean it, guys,” Aang said. “Sure, we are a lot younger than them, but we’re world leaders now. They’ll come around.”
“Hate to break it to you, Aang, but it’s been what? Fourteen years now? They’re not coming around any time soon.”
“I say the sooner we get back to Republic City, the better. Apparently, I don’t have the ‘authority’ to kick any criminal ass here. I need to get a fight in some time soon or I’m gonna lose it!” She dug her heel in, sending shards of earth flying for good measure.
“Yeesh. Chill out, Sugar Queen.”
Toph repaired the damage she’d caused and continued packing up her things. Just as they were about to head out, the jade and gold doors flew open, and a messenger decked in red and black panted as she sprinted into the hall, bowing before Zuko.
“Oh…you really don’t have to…” he began awkwardly, gesturing for the young woman to stand.
“My Lord, there is urgent news from the capital which demands your attention.”
“What is it?”
The servant looked around, having apparently not noticed the retinue of people in the room.
“My Lord… it does pertain to a rather personal matter…”
“Then you should have found me at another time. Is it my wife? My daughter? Are they okay?” He was feeling frantic now. He hated having to leave his family, but with Izumi still young, he and Mai had decided that it was best for the two of them to stay in the capital; he could attend summits on his own.
“My Lord, former Firelord Ozai is dead.”
He felt like he’d been slammed into a brick wall, while simultaneously feeling nothing at all.
“Zuko?” Mai’s touch shook him from his thoughts.
“Sorry…I…” he felt so lost, mostly unsure about how he felt at all, and simply leaned into her touch.
“How’s Izumi taking it?”
“She never met him. All she knows is that a bad man’s gone, a man that she didn’t know to boot. He’s just a story, barely even real to her. Like telling a child that Koh the Face Stealer is no more; he doesn’t really mean much to her.”
“Good. He shouldn’t.”
“How about you? How’re you holding up?”
“I’m…I’m gonna go for a walk.”
“Zuko,” Mai’s voice came out hurt.
“I’m not trying to block you out,” he said, kissing her forehead. “I just need to move around. I’ll come back. I promise.”
Satisfied that Mai believed him, he donned a light cloak over his casual robes, and took the secret passageways that lead out into the night. It was unusually cold, but he was grateful for it. A northern wind bit his skin and made his body register the numbness that had been settled in the pit of his stomach the past few days. He wandered aimlessly but wasn’t particularly surprised when he found himself at the prison. As he climbed the steps leading to the entrance, he thought back to the last time he’d visited Ozai five months ago. The last time he’d seen him alive.
The setting sun was warm on his back, and he felt its residual heat dying as he neared Ozai’s cell, as though mimicking the cold apathy he felt for the man.
“What do you want, Ozai? Make this quick, I don’t have all day.” Zuko closed the door behind him before turning to face his father, shock quickly replacing his annoyance.
To say he looked bad would have been an understatement; he barely looked human at all. Once ink-black locks had gone an unsettling white, with what little remained falling limp down his back. His clothes covered him as though draped over a drying rack, his body barely filling them. Perhaps the most unsettling thing however, was the man’s face: pallid skin hung off his prominent cheekbones, and his beard seemed to have fallen out. His eyes were sunken in to the point where Zuko could make out the sockets under paper-thin flesh, and the eyes themselves, before a striking gold were now…dull. I was once afraid of you? Was all Zuko could think.
“I see your stunned silence is indication enough as to my condition,” Ozai declared.
“Are they starving you?”
“Oh…well then, what is it you wanted?”
“I have a granddaughter.”
“You have for some time.”
“I would like to meet her.”
Zuko felt his blood run cold.
Ozai had apparently been expecting a different answer.
“Zuko, I don’t have-”
He couldn’t take being there any longer. His breath hitched and spurted as he turned around and sped out of the prison, barely recalling his journey back to the palace. He’d vowed Ozai would never meet Izumi the day she was born.
Zuko shivered as he descended into the prison, finally reaching the small morgue. There were no guards on duty but then again, who really needed to stand vigil over a corpse?
It was silent, unnervingly so. To look upon the dead was considered abhorrent in the Fire Nation, this Zuko knew. But as he stood in the room, just him and the figure beneath the white cloth, he couldn’t help being drawn closer. His hand trembled as he scolded himself for grabbing the sheet, but he couldn’t stop himself if he tried. As he pulled back the shroud, he closed his eyes. It’s not too late, a voice told him. Put it down and just walk out of here. He considered it, he really did, but eventually, he took a sharp breath, and opened his eyes.
He’d expected some vile creature to be laying on the table and he almost felt sicker that there wasn’t one. It was just like when he’d visited Ozai last; he looked exactly the same and that might have been the most disturbing thing. Ozai died a long time ago, his body had simply caught up to him.
Replacing the sheet and walking out of the room had been a blur. When he finally got back to the Royal Family’s chambers, Mai was waiting for him.
“Aang sent word,” she said. “They’ll be here by tomorrow and then we can decide what to do with him.”
Zuko nodded. Mai looked worried.
“Where did you go?”
“The prison.” Mai gasped.
“I had to see him. I had to be sure.” Her hands were freezing as she held his, shaking as her nails dug into his skin.
“No one can ever know,” she breathed.
They arrived in relatively high spirits, with Sokka stating how glad he was that Loser Lord was gone for good, and this did bring Zuko some cheer. But not much. When Izumi saw Bumi climb down from Appa, she darted forward and tackled him in a hug.
“Izumi, why don’t you two go and play?” Mai smiled as the pair ran off together, then embraced Katara, who was holding a sleeping Kya. Aang soon joined them, sending Appa off to the stables and cleared his throat.
“So, um, what’s the plan?”
“My council and I have decided it should be small. He still had some supporters, so any fanfare could blow up in our faces. Just a quick cremation and that’ll be the end of it.”
“We’ve managed to find a sage willing to do it, one who’ll be retiring from public service soon anyway.”
“Good. Sounds good.”
They walked back into the palace together, Zuko deflecting all their questions and changing the subject whenever possible. Eventually, they got the message.
It was in fact a quick affair. Aang said a few words, Zuko said nothing, and then Ozai’s body went up in flames. Though she didn’t make her presence known, Azula was there, he just knew. He hoped she’d be okay, that perhaps one day she’d be able to come to terms with her feelings, but that was pretty bold coming from him seeing as he couldn’t seem to do the same.
Later that day, after floating through a seemingly endless stream of conversations and interactions, he found himself on a roof, watching the sun finally set. The entire day he’d felt nothing; it was like looking at Ozai’s body had been enough to drain the life from him. As the numbness began to feel overwhelming, he heard a tile crack underfoot behind him.
“Hey,” Aang said, sitting down beside him.
“So?” For the first time all day, Zuko was beginning to feel something: irritation.
“Zuko…Zuko, we know you’re not okay,” Aang sighed.
“Why wouldn’t I be okay?” His tone was defensive, and he knew it.
“Because you’ve been-”
“No! There is absolutely no reason for me not to be fine. So why don’t you all just fuck off and leave me alone!”
“You want to know the first thing I felt? In Ba Sing Se when that messenger told me my father was finally dead? Relief!” He slammed his fist against brick slate. “I was so relieved that the man who’d put me through so much pain and continued to exist in my nightmares was finally dead! I was so relieved that he’d never be able to dig his claws into Izumi like he had with me and Azula!”
“A few months ago, he asked to see me. I went.”
“Turns out he just wanted to request an audience with my little girl. I said no, obviously.” Aang nodded, gesturing for him to continue. “But part of me always thought he might say sorry…and I know it’s stupid, alright. I do. It’s just…I’m realising now that my father never apologized to any of us, and now he never will because he’s fucking dead.”
Aang was silent for some time, contemplating his next words carefully.
“You want to know what I think?”
“Sure,” Zuko snorted. “What could I possibly have to lose from hearing some good old ‘Avatar Wisdom’?”
“I think it’s going to take more than Ozai dying for you to find peace. I think it’s going to take longer than you think for you to heal. And I think you need to accept the likelihood that you probably won’t ever heal. Not fully, at least.”
Huh. Well, he certainly hadn’t expected that.
“I…uh…thanks.” He finished lamely.
“No problem.” Aang sat there for a moment before moving to get up.
“You gonna spend the rest of the night up here or do you wanna come with?”
Zuko had been considering staying on the roof all night. The thought of letting the warmth drain from his body with the setting sun to be replaced by bitter winds that would stab into his skin and irritate his joints felt…appropriate, if not fun. However, for all the pain he’d been feeling towards his father, he realized he’d barely registered his own child’s existence all day.
Ozai may have had nothing in the end, but Zuko did have something, something very real and precious. As he made his was to the rest of their party, the thought of spending the evening with his wife and daughter made the air around him feel a little bit warmer, and for the first time in a while, he found himself able to smile slightly.
Family. Definition: A group of people involved in criminal activity.
Azula could count on one hand the three things she knew for certain:
1. That her brother was running for office again and this was the last thing he needed;
2. That she was already a wanted criminal and shouldn’t be drawing more attention to herself;
3. That she was going to rob El Museo del Prado.
Was this a practical plan? No. Did she really need to steal the most valuable painting in Spain? Absolutely not. But what better present for her beloved niece’s 18th than a painting stolen on her birthday 15 years prior? They'd be able to hide it long enough for things to blow over and by the time she gifted it, Zuzu was unlikely to cause a scene given he too had a penchant for theft or at least for valuable things. He always referred to Izumi as his “princess”, and so “Las Meninas” seemed a fitting gift. Of course, this wasn’t the only theft they’d be committing according to the plan, but it was the part she’d be leading and therefore the part that would actually succeed. Speaking of the plan…
“Joder!” Rosario slammed her fist on the table.
“What’s wrong?” Azula meandered across the dimly lit room they’d been renting for the stakeout and rested her hands on the other woman’s shoulders.
“They keep changing guard duties. It’s like they know we’re going to rob them.”
“Maybe they do,” Azula smirked, “or maybe they know ‘El Tesoro del Delfín’ is going to be taken out for cleaning tomorrow and are currently shitting themselves.”
“I know, I know,” she sighed. “But why are we doing this tomorrow? Isn’t security going to be insanely difficult to get around?”
“Not for us. We’re going to be in a completely different section of the museum and all their attention’s going to be on ‘El Tesoro.’ A nice distraction for us to get in.” Azula pulled a small bottle from the cabinet above the computer monitor.
“But, if you are still nervous, need a bit of Dutch courage?”
Rosario smiled before taking a swig.
“It’s a shame, you know…”
“There’s a temporary exhibition on,” she opened a different tab on the computer. “Cai Guo-Qiang. I’m sorry we’re not going to be able to browse a bit; he’s quite good.”
“My heart bleeds for you, truly. How’s the rest of the museum looking? I take it our zone’s pretty clear so far?”
“Seems to be at the moment. I doubt they’re too worried about anyone stealing our target. It’s stupidly big.”
“I don’t like small prizes.”
“Oh, I know you don’t. How’re you doing with those glass panels anyway? This is gonna have to move fast once they realize there’re two teams.”
“I’ve got it covered. There’re only so many types they could use. I’ll be up and down in an hour, all we need is the uniforms from Raúl and our side’s good to go.”
“And we can trust him?”
“Enough to get us out of there.”
El Prado closed at 8 pm, but there’d be security patrols during the night. Azula had memorized exactly where she’d be dropping in and where they’d be procuring their little treasure; all she needed to do was get onto the roof and free the glass panels in the ceiling. Decked in black with her hair firmly braided, she calmly walked as if though out for a late-night stroll until the Goya entrance came into view. From there, she slowly made her way closer, leaning and ducking, avoiding falling under any lights. She’d picked this spot because of the large tree nearby that she’d be able to climb and get onto the building. Those childhood gymnastics lessons had been invaluable in her current occupation.
Sprinting and keeping her center of gravity low, she then leapt as high as she could, scrambling until she grabbed a lower branch. From there, she jumped onto a smaller building adjacent to El Prado proper, landing with a slight thud, wincing as her leg muscles tensed to absorb the impact of her land as silently as possible. She lunged towards the main building, grasping the top of a window sill before climbing. When she stood on top at last, she checked her watch: fifteen minutes to scale a building. Child’s play.
The rest was simple from there. She found her mark, knelt by the glass, and using the small tools she’d been able to bring with her, pressed the glass until she felt it begin to give. With a satisfied clink, the panel shifted, and she gently released it from its seal. Content that it would move when she needed it to, she replaced it and descended down the side of the building before continuing her evening walk.
Her hands always tingled the day of a heist, but she knew it would wear off once she focused. Raul had got the uniforms: Rosario as a curator and her as a janitor. All they had to do now was wait for the signal, so Azula had positioned herself by the roof entrance, her gear hidden in her cleaning cart. At 2:43 pm, the alarm went off. They’ve gone for El Tesoro, Azula smirked; they weren’t going to get away with it.
She quietly ran onto the roof to her spot, taking the sleeve for the canvas, and hooked her harness onto the side of the building. From there, she quickly removed the glass panels and descended into the gallery where Rosario was waiting, the area having been cleared due to the security breach in the basement.
“You ready?” She smiled when her feet touched the ground.
Leaning the it into the wall, they hefted the enormous painting onto the ground before prying it from its frame. Azula hated having to fold it in half and roll it up, but there was no other way to get it out of the museum, and she then slid it into the canvas sleeve she’d brought with her. Suddenly, the lights came back on.
“Looks like we’re about out of time,” Rosario breathed.
“Time to leave,” Azula grinned.
Slinging the canvas over her shoulder, she hoisted herself up along the rope, replacing the glass when Rosario joined her. Police sirens were blaring, but eventually they found a spot secluded enough to make their escape, ducking behind buildings until they reached a back ally, where their ride was waiting.
“Your niece is going to love it,” Rosario said, nestled into Azula’s side as they finally crossed the French border.
“Of course, she will,” Azula smiled. “I always give the best gifts.”
Probably ooc but hey Azula's hard to write and this idea was kinda slapped together woops
Chapter 5: Coming of Age
“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.
Chapter 6: Beautiful
She’d never put much stock in gifts, considering them to be more frivolous than anything else. Besides, she was the Firelady, the most powerful and wealthiest woman in her nation; what could anyone give her that she couldn’t get for herself? Maybe that’s not the point, she mused as she looked at the box before her.
It was sleek and black, with small latches along one side. Zuko had left it in her parlour before bidding her and Izumi goodbye as he headed to Republic City for some conference or other. He hadn’t told Mai he was doing this, and she generally didn’t care for surprises. A five-year-old running around the palace was unpredictable enough, thank you very much.
Still, she couldn’t help but feel her curiosity piqued as she walked over. She brushed her fingers along the top, feeling the leather on wood. Even the box was of fine craftmanship, although perhaps she should’ve come to expect that by now. Slowly, she flicked the latches on either side, and eased the lid open. She immediately felt her breath escaping her: nestled in velvet slots were knives, but not just any set. These were unlike any she had ever seen. The three blades looked like they’d been dipped in crimson ink, the colour elegantly spread across the metal, most vibrant at the edges, muting as it approached the handle.
She eased one out to examine. It was the larger of the three, with the one it had been beside slightly smaller, and the one beside that smaller still. Tilting it to catch the sunlight streaming into her parlour, the colour along the blade seemed to recede and grow in intensity like a red tide ebbing and flowing. Running along the length of the blade she also noticed an engraved dragon, simple in design but whose scales glimmered in the blade’s true steely silver.
Upon further inspection, she noticed dragons on the other two blades as well. The one on the knife she held was broader set, and breathed swathes of flame from its mouth, extending right to the tip of the blade. The one on the middle knife was slimmer with an elegance that seemed to have missed the former dragon and breathed no fire at all.
Her heart skipping, Mai picked up the final knife. Perhaps I could tolerate surprises such as these, she thought. On the last blade lay another dragon, quite a bit smaller than the other two and almost soft in appearance. Like a child, Mai smiled. Similar to the largest dragon, the little one breathed fire, although not quite as far as what she presumed was its father; it was still learning, after all.
With a shaky smile and through blurred vision, she placed all the knives back in the box, admiring them for a moment longer before closing the lid.
Chapter 7: Reckless
It was completely stupid, and she knew it. As soon as her parents found out – and she was certain they would – she’d probably be banned from leaving the palace for a week, but she couldn’t bring herself to care. Soon enough, she’d have to grow up for good, and be the dutiful Crown Princess the world thought she was. She could steal this moment for herself. She needed this, this feeling of recklessness.
She’d waited a few weeks to not arouse any suspicion, but when her father had told her that he’d been the Blue Spirit during the war, well, she knew she’d have to pick up that mantle. Just for one night. Of course, her father had been a thief when he’d donned this persona in his youth, and she wasn’t about to rob innocent people. Still, she couldn’t resist the theatrics of such an alter ego, and figured that perhaps she’d channel her energy into a more…productive route. And so, with her mother’s knives in her sleeves and her father’s swords on her back, she donned the mask. There’d be no need for firebending tonight.
It was almost too easy to escape the palace unnoticed. As she made a mental note to bring up palace security to her parents, she jumped and tumbled across the palace roof before leaping onto the surrounding walls. From there, she quickly found herself on the roofs of homes and shops, running as fast and as far as she could. She eventually found herself on the outskirts of town and perched at the edge of the newly built train station, listening for the faint whistle that would indicate the next step of her adventure. With new technology had come new security issues, and highway robbery had simply evolved into train looting.
After waiting patiently for some time, she began to worry she’d missed it. As her hope for her evening waned, however, she felt her ears prick. The deep thundering of gears and grinding against track grew with every second that passed, and then the whistle pierced through the air. No one was at the station at this time; the train was simply passing through, so she took several paces back to the top of the roof then ran forward and jumped. With a hard thud and a roll that nearly sent her over the other side of the carriage, she landed on the train. She slowly edged her way forward, trying to ignore the smoke billowing from ahead - at least the mask provided a good barrier for her to breathe properly – and gripped the edge of her carriage.
She’d put her hair back in a phoenix tail, and it flapped wildly behind her as the wind blew around her, threatening to knock her off the train. Perhaps it should have felt unsafe, but as the scenery rushed past her and gusts of air continued to bounce off her body, she couldn’t have felt freer. Maybe this is what Uncle Aang means when he talks about flying.
Behind the mask, she was grinning from ear to ear, but soon enough, a new noise called her attention. Yelling and hooting and howling erupted around her, accompanied by the rapid steps of Komodo-rhinos. The train began to slow to a halt as the newly emerging company had evidently blocked the tracks ahead. She crouched low to the hood of the carriage as the train ground to a halt, then watched as one of the assailants made for the driver’s carriage, dragging him out onto the ground.
“Well, look what we got here, boys.” A tall man with dragon tattoos running down both arms yelled as the others jeered. “Looks like we got ourselves a freight train tonight!” His companions erupted with cheers and laughter.
Izumi counted them once they were all in sight. Six. Not a problem, she smiled to herself. As they kicked the driver around and began to organize themselves, she slid off the top of the train and onto the tracks, preparing to face them. The Blue Spirit is silent, she reminded herself. The Blue Spirit doesn’t need to make a sound to terrify you. Back straight, she slowly walked towards them, skip in her step, waiting for them to notice her. Eventually, one of them did.
“Hey, you!” He brandished two axes. “What’re you doing over there!” The others turned to face her. The driver they’d been tormenting paled on the spot.
“It’s… the Blue Spirit!” He yelled. Amid their confused gasps and mumblings, she ran forward.
Knives first, her mother had taught her. She sent two blades forward, hitting two men wearing head gear in the temples, knocking them out. As they fell, she threw four more knives to pin their arms to the wooden doors of the train. Only four now. The nearest one charging at her was the one with the axes. She jumped out of the way with ease, then sent two more knives into the handles of his axes, tearing them from his grasp. During his confusion she closed the distance, ramming into his solar plexus with her shoulder. He flew back a few feet then stayed down. Three left.
At this point, the driver had been able to run to the side of the fray. As she went, she noticed the loose chains hanging from a carriage that hadn’t been needed to secure cargo. She retreated back and grabbed them just as another bandit closed in on her. She wrapped the chains around his arm and sent him flying into his friend, who hit the grand hard.
Satisfied they’d be staying down, she turned to the last advisory, the man with the tattoos. She slowly headed his way and unsheathed her swords. He unsheathed his. Each ran forward, and their blades clashed. He was good, she’d give him that, but she’d once sparred with her father after he’d been stuck arguing with Minister Ito about track placements for five hours. She could handle this guy. His movements were just a bit too sloppy, his footwork a little too wide. When she saw her opening, she kicked him right in the back of the knee. His balance gone, he fell before her. She brought the pommel of her swords back then hit him on the head. He was out cold.
Grabbing the rest of the chains, she restrained the defeated bandits and retrieved her knives.
“Who are you, really?” The driver asked as she sheathed her swords.
She looked at him for a moment before the sound of a train running on tracks once again emerged, coming from the opposite direction. She’d always loved a dramatic exit, and rather than answer the driver, she ran just in time to meet the train, lunging forward and flinging herself onto it. The driver of this train would alert the authorities to the damaged track, and soon enough they’d find the bandits. It was time for her to go home.
“Hmph.” Zuko frowned as he read the newspaper at dinner the next evening.
“What is it, dear?” Mai asked.
“Apparently a bunch of bandits were prevented from robbing a freight train by the Blue Spirit. Just outside of town.”
Mai leaned over and grabbed the paper. After a while she smirked.
“Apparently the ‘Blue Spirit’ was wielding throwing knives and a set of dual dao swords.”
Her parents turned to her, barely hiding their disbelief.
“You wouldn’t know anything about that would you, sweetheart?” Her mother asked coyly.
Pretending to suddenly be very interested in the rice left on her plate, Izumi smiled.