"How has your father been doing?"
Mai asked from across the low sitting table, perched atop a soft crimson cushion as she gingerly sipped her morning cup of tea. Breakfast had been laid out for the mother and daughter, which consisted of minced fruits and cheeses-- along with buttery and toasted slices of bread. Honora looked up from the book she had been reading and set it down, a part of her missing it already since it was her favorite, The Tale of Prince Kaito. She knew it wasn't polite to be reading when enjoying a meal with someone, as her teacher, Mrs. Yamamoto, had constantly reminded her of.
"Good," she smiled, taking some of the cheese and popping it into her mouth, recognizing a bit of pear that had been cubed and going for that next. "We're sooo busy. But, it's for the spring festival, so I don't mind."
"Oh, that's right. Are you going with anyone special this year?" Mai wore a coy smile as she looked at her daughter, seeing Honora's cheeks turn bright red and her golden eyes widen in surprise by the question. It was adorable to see her daughter have a little crush on someone just as she did at her age, but she was clueless as to who it could be.
"Bumi." Honora admitted, Mai gasping and chucking amusedly.
"Aang and Katara's son? That's a bit of a surprise, but now that I think about it, it doesn't doubt me. You two do spend a lot of time together."
Honora blushed an even deeper shade of red and looked aside, very shy and private about her crush on the boy. He was the same age as her, and from the very first moment they met, they got along swimmingly. Everytime they were together they couldn't ever be seperated, for better or for worse.
"I sent him a letter a couple days ago to ask him." Honora brightened up a little bit as she gained some more confidence, optimistic about Bumi's response.
"I know Bumi would never deny an invitation from you. At least, not on purpose." Mai assured her daughter and stood up from her seat, crossing the room to go to a large wooden bookcase that sat by the entryway to the living room. She grabbed a small case covered in pieces of amber and ruby and handed it to her daughter, encouraging her to open it with a gentle nod of her head.
When she did, Honora's brows raised in surprise, a wide smile breaking out on her face. Inside was a beautiful hairpin with a white lotus at one end, a few pearls being added before it. She picked it up in both hands and studied the metal pin, it looking like a fancy chopstick to her. "Is this for me?"
"Yes. My father gave this to me before my first festival, and I went with a very special guy myself." Mai explained.
"Who was it?"
"Oh," Honora lit up even more, twirling it around in her fingers as she studied it even more closely. At the mention of her father being romantic with her mother, it made her stomach feel all warm and fuzzy. She hadn't been used to hearing things like this, after all, her parents were divorced since before she could even remember. Her father told her that they still loved each other, just not in a romantic way anymore. It made her sad to hear, since everyone seemed to have both of their parents in the same house at the same time, but she was glad to see both of them often. "It must have been really romantic."
"It was. But, that was a long time ago. This is your night, Honora. And, I know whoever you end up going with will be the perfect company." Mai smiled, taking the pin from her daughter and reaching behind her to pull back the top half of her hair, tying it in a knot and sliding the pin through it to hold it in place. "I can tell."
"Thank you, Mom." Honora wrapped her arms around Mai in a hug, Mai reaching down and lovingly stroking her daughter's shoulders.
"You're welcome, dear. But, I think it's time for you to go to school now, don't you?" Mai reminded Honora as she looked outside the window, seeing other school children walking to their academies.
"Oh, no! I don't want to be late! Mrs. Yamamoto's gonna kill me!" The princess panicked as she grabbed her last bite of food to eat and her backpack, haphazardly slinging it over her shoulder as she ran out the door. "Bye, Mom! Love you! See you next week!"
"Goodbye, Honora. I love you too." Mai chuckled, knowing that the girl was so quick it was pointless calling out to her, since she wouldn't be able to hear her. She sighed, sitting back down at her table and sipping on her tea again, looking at the book that was still resting there and making a mental note to send it to the palace later.
The first portion of the day had gone amazingly. There was a calligraphy assignment, which Honora was so good at, it even made Mrs. Yamamoto not have any reason scold her. That was a real feat, since Mrs. Yamamoto was the crabbiest woman alive, and loved to get on her student's cases about every little thing (in Honora's opinion). And then they studied geography, which Honora already knew a great deal about, since she had been fortunate enough to travel a lot. She had been to every part of the world-- the Earth Kingdom, the Air Islands and the Poles-- and of course her home, in the heart of the Fire Nation. She had learned so much, and seen it too.
But then, something new occured.
"Alright, girls, you're in for a treat. Mr. Kazuo will be coming in to give you all firebending lessons. If you are a non-bender, please raise your hand and I will take you to art class. If not, please go to the outdoor courtyard."
Honora froze in her seat for a moment. She didn't know if she could bend or not. Her father was a firebender, but her mother was a non-bender, and that scared her. What if she couldn't bend? What kind of Fire Lord would she be in the future if she couldn't even bend fire? These thoughts and many more overwhelmed her, but she stopped to realize that her father hadn't taught her any bending before. Honora understood that he was a busy man, but they spent their time together doing much more peaceful activities. If not working for the kingdom together, they were drinking tea with Grandfather Iroh or sitting by the turtle duck pond together, talking or reading stories. Sometimes he'd even take her around the castle atop his shoulders, teaching her the history of their ancestors as they walked by the beautiful ink portraits of the Fire Lords before him. And on the best days they'd visit her Grandmother Ursa on Ember Island and she'd play fun games with them or take them out to see a show.
It was never about bending, which surprised her.
So many of her friends from school always bragged about how their parents would teach them bending tricks at even younger ages then they were now, but the Fire Lord himself never taught anything to his own daughter.
"Honora, are you paying any attention? I don't care if you're a princess or a toad-- you don't get special treatment to slack off."
Honora's eyes widened as she snapped back to reality, bowing her head in apology to Mrs. Yamamoto. "I'm sorry, Mrs. Yamamoto. I just...I don't know if I can bend fire or not."
"Well, you're the princess of the Fire Nation, child! Surely, you can." The old woman snapped.
"But ma'am, my mother is a non-bender. And so is my grandmother, and my other grandparents, too."
"Not to worry," a man looking to be in his late thirties or so entered the room, with tanned skin and tawny eyes. "I'll take her, and if she can't, I'll send her back to you, Mrs. Yamamoto."
"Very well. Honora, go with Mr. Kazuo."
Honora nodded and followed behind the new firebending teacher with the other firebenders in the class, most of them being people she didn't even know. All of her acquaintances-- Chen, Yuki, and Mina-- they were non-benders. Having fun in one of Honora's favorite classes.
"Now, listen up, ladies! Let's start easy. Create a fire in the center of your palm. Like a gentle little heartbeat."
The seven or so other girls with Honora did it as if it was as easy as simply snapping their fingers, but Honora struggled when she stuck out her palm. She carefully imagined the fire there, and even imagined her father doing it as well. A tiny little heartbeat...like a candle. Just a flicker.
"Do you feel something in your stomach, Honora? Like butterflies? A fire, perhaps? That's a way some people can tell if they can bend or not." Mr. Kazuo asked her, kneeling down in front of Honora and gently guiding her along to see if she was capable.
"I...I guess? I don't really know."
"I can't believe it. The princess doesn't know how to firebend. What a joke!" One of the other girl's quipped, which earned snickers from the rest of them. It went unnoticed by Mr. Kazuo, which made Honora angry, since she couldn't speak out and ruin her reputation.
"Try again. Really feel for the fire." He instructed her again.
Honora closed her eyes and squeezed them tightly, willing fire to come from her palm. Come on...come on!
The other girls laughed again, except louder this time, as Mr. Kazuo gave a disappointed sigh.
"We'll try another exercize. Let's see if that gets you going."
The girls joined up in pairs, Honora being matched with the girl who had first insulted her lack of bending, with soft brown curls and gray eyes. Her name, she learned, was Kazumi.
"Gather that flame in your palm again, and gently pass it around. As if you were playing with a water balloon." Mr. Kazuo said, but when Honora looked into Kazumi's eyes, she saw that there was nothing gentle about her. The other pairs did exactly as told without any flaws, but just as Kazumi gathered a large ball of fire which took up her entire hand, Honora knew it would be trouble.
"U-Um, I think it's supposed to be smaller...than...that?" Honora whimpered, afraid of being burnt. She remembered her father's scar, which she knew from her Grandfather was a burn scar. It was a constant reminder of the pain that he felt when someone had burned him. Honora didn't know who yet.
"I don't care. Let's have a little fun, Princess!" Kazumi made the fire grow even more before she threw it at Honora, Honora panicking and throwing her arms up in the air to shield her face from the flames.
Luckily, the fire was aimed low enough so it only singed her uniform a bit, but as Honora felt the heat against her stomach, she screamed and ducked down to extinguish it. Hot tears slipped down her cheeks as she curled up into a tight ball, it taking a moment for her to recoup before she stood up again. Kazumi was laughing again, and so were the other girls, it making Honora feel so isolated and angry in that moment.
She was a princess...she couldn't afford to lose her temper. But--
"You all are so rude! It's not my fault I'm not a firebender!" Honora screamed at the other girls, crying even harder as she turned on her heel and ran off, not giving a single care to being in trouble in that moment. She felt so humiliated...and she knew her father would be too if he found out she couldn't fire bend. So, she went to the only place she knew she could seek solace in that moment.
The green sign of the Jasmine Dragon stood out like a sore thumb in the middle of all the garnet and gold buildings, but it reminded her of something she loved the most-- her Grandfather Iroh. His calmness and kindness could make anyone feel better, and that's exactly what she was looking for.
Honora tore open the door to the fairly large tea shop and looked around, the customers gasping when they saw their princess singed and on the verge of breaking down in tears again. She scanned the crowd for the familiar sight of Iroh, and when she saw him turn to greet the person that had opened the door, his face twisted into one of cheer into one of shock.
"My granddaughter...what a surprise!"
Honora let out a sob and ran to Iroh, burying herself just below his chest, which was the height she reached. Her arms wrapped around him to seek comfort, and Iroh's arms instantly wrapped around her small frame to give her what she needed.
"I'm afraid I'll have to close early today. Please come in next time for tea, on the house."
The customers, some sympathetic and others irritated, all left with the promise of a refund later, giving Iroh and Honora the whole shop to themselves, since Iroh had dismissed the staff as well. He guided her over to a chair and poured a hot cup of jasmine tea for her, sitting next to her patiently as he kept a hand on her back to reassure her that he was still there.
"Grandfather, I'm a failure!" Honora wailed, burying her face in her hands. "I'm an absolute failure to the Fire Nation!"
"I'm sure whatever it is you are worried about, is not such a big deal as you think, Honora." Iroh gently told her, noticing the pin in her hair with a smile. He remembered that pin, and the happiness of the day when Honora's mother first wore it.
"It is!" She exclaimed. "What kind of Fire Nation princess can't firebend?!"
Iroh realized what she was distressed over, and knew very much how the pressures of being royalty were, especially when he was a young prince just like her. Being the firstborn wasn't easy, and being the only born was an entirely different, and much more difficult story.
"You may not be able to use bending now, but I can assure you, this does not mean you cannot bend at all. As I remember, your father was the exact same when he was your age. It comes more naturally to some than it does to others, and it takes a lot of spiritual and physical discipline. Please, my granddaughter, do not be discouraged this easily. It will come with time." Iroh tried to use his wisdom to help Honora, and knew that she tended to look more optimistically on things when someone she knew had been similar to her.
"Do you really think so?" Honora sniffled, coming out of her little shell to look up at Iroh with a sad expression. It hurt to see her this way, but he knew that it wouldn't last too long.
"I know so! I'm an old man, which means I'm also wise! I've learned and taught firebending for many years of my life, after all. You're a little snapdragon ready to blossom into firebending! It just takes the right moment and conditions." Iroh chuckled, and Honora joined in as well, leaning in to her grandfather as they shared each others warm embrace.
"But what about the other girls? The whole academy is going to know that I can't yet. And then they'll start telling people I can't at all." Honora frowned, her brows furrowing in concern.
"Then you turn the other cheek, and remember what your Grandfather told you. The people who make fun of you are no one you should concern yourself with, and the ones that defend you, are true friends." Iroh instructed, which made Honora's concern disappear into thin air again. She was still scared of going back to the school, and scared of what her father would think, but her Grandfather Iroh's words made her feel a whole lot better than how she felt when she first ran away. "Now sit and drink a nice cup of tea. When worst comes to worst, tea is the best method of personal tranquility."
Honora nodded and did what Iroh told her, letting him go back into the kitchen to finish cleaning the dishes from that day's service. After a while, the two broke out the Pai Sho board like they always did and began to play, both young and old having their fair chances at winning and losing. It was a much needed distraction from Honora's own thoughts, especially since she hadn't healed all of them yet.
"And what do you think you're doing here, young lady?"
Honora froze and bowed her head in shame, forgetting her move in the game and sheepishly looking over at her father, who wore a cross expression on his face. "I-I ran away from school. To Grandfather's tea shop."
"I can see that very well, yes. I'm sorry you had to go through all of this trouble." Zuko apologized, going over to the two of them and looking at the Pai Sho board, finishing Honora's move for her and winning the game. "Please send my apologies to your customers, as well."
"It is nothing for my family. Besides, the tea will always be here. They can come whenever they like, just as you two may come whenever you'd like as well." Iroh stood up and smiled, packing away their cups and the game. Honora avoided her father's gaze, looking down at the ground as she tried to make herself seem as small as possible.
"Thank you, Uncle." Zuko rubbed his shoulder to say goodbye, and Honora hugged him to do the same, Iroh waving them off as they left the shop to go back to the Royal Palace.
The two walked in silence for a while as they went along the almost deserted streets, everyone being at work or school, exactly where Zuko and Honora weren't in that moment. As they approached the palace, Zuko took her aside to the gardens, sitting down by the turtle duck pond like they often did together. Honora stood for a moment, unsure if she had angered her father enough to the point where he wanted her to leave him alone, but when he patted the spot next to him on the grass, a wave of relief flooded her and she sat down with him.
"Are you alright, Honora? From what Mrs. Yamamoto told me, you were acting very out of character. It isn't like you to break the rules this much, even when you get mad." Zuko calmly asked his daughter, looking at her with concern that greatly overpowered the slight anger he had before. It was nothing like how his father used to act, which was the man he refused to be anything like, especially for his daughter's sake.
"I can't help it!" Honora burst out in anger, tears welling up in her eyes once again. "They were making fun of me. Kazumi burnt my clothes!"
"What?" Zuko's concern raised as he examined his daughter for any sign of injury, noticing the burnt holes in her uniform and the slightly singed ends of her long obsidian hair. He frowned heavily, feeling a bit of anger gather inside of him. His protectiveness over Honora made him feel this way, but he knew he couldn't get too mad. He was the Fire Lord, after all, and he always had to keep a peaceful diplomatic air about him. He couldn't help that the sight of his daughter so worked up made him angry...but also scared. She never got like this. Sure, she was a hot head, and tended to get frustrated about the littlest things, but nothing like this. Not like running away from school. "Honora, tell me what happened. From the beginning."
"Today we had to start firebending practice at the academy. I was so worried because I know Mom isn't a bender, and neither is Grandmother Ursa. Neither is Grandfather Ukano or Grandmother Michi. I thought maybe I wasn't either and if I wasn't--" She paused in her tracks, looking up at her father with a quivering lip. Honora normally spilled out anything that was troubling her to Zuko, since he was so easy to talk to and always made things better for her, but this confession was a hard one for her. Especially because she still believed that her father would be disappointed in her once he learned that she couldn't firebend yet. "I--"
"Tell me. It's alright." Zuko gently reassured her, placing a hand on her back.
"If I wasn't...that you'd be disappointed in me. And the Fire Nation would be disappointed in me, too."
"Honora," Zuko shook his head, holding his daughter's shoulders as he firmly looked at her, making sure she understood the depth of what he said. "Bender or non-bender, it doesn't change the fact that you're already so good at being a princess. You're kind, and so smart too. The Fire Nation loves you. But not more than I love you, just for who you are. So what if you aren't a bender? It doesn't make you any less of a royal, and it certainly doesn't make you any less of a person. And besides, it can take some time to develop your skills. It's partially my fault, anyway. I haven't taught you anything or helped you realize your bending abilities myself. I'm sorry for that, Honora."
"Why haven't you taught me anything?"
Zuko frowned at his daughter's question, knowing the answer full well. It was time she learned more about her family's past, the good and the bad. "When I was a bit older than you are, my father, Fire Lord Ozai, challenged me to an Agni Kai. You know what that is, right?"
Honora nodded, following his answer intently.
"Well, that is how I received the scar on my face. My father used his bending, the same methods he taught me, to hurt me. And then-- then I was banished from my own kingdom. For a long time. You know the rest." He explained, giving a deep sigh and letting out the anxieties he felt, gently placing a hand on his daughter's soft cheek and stroking some of the tear marks as if he were erasing them away. "I'm scared sometimes. I'm scared that I might be like Fire Lord Ozai and hurt you. And that is the absolute last thing I want."
"You wouldn't hurt me, Dad. You love me." She simply replied, smiling up at Zuko without any more worries in her mind. Now, the bad thoughts had been silenced, and she could focus again. "I hope I'm a firebender. So I can be more like you and Grandfather Iroh. I love Mom, but her dart thingys freak me out."
With that, Zuko laughed, feeling quite a bit honored that his daughter thought so highly of him. "You don't want to be more like me. I think you're perfect as you. Honora."
"Yes, I do! You're awesome!" Honora cheered, lunging herself at Zuko as she threw her arms around his shoulders, hugging him just as tightly as he hugged her back. "You're the Fire Lord! And you saved the world! I wanna be just like you."
"Man, I hope this stage will never end. Please don't grow up and become a cranky teenager, who will say the opposite things." Zuko begged, laughing some more as he stood up with his daughter still in his arms, walking them towards the palace again with the intention of letting Honora get into some non-burnt clothes.
"I won't, I promise."
"I think I need that in writing."
They laughed again and Honora spilled the rest of the story out to her father, Zuko sympathizing very much with his daughter in that moment, since he was a bit late to firebending as well, as Honora had learned. He was glad she had no sibling to be compared to, in that case, and knew he would never compare her to anyone else, since she was just perfect in his eyes. His crossness from earlier had completely gone away, and now he was just happy that Honora was alright, and felt alright with however she turned out to be.
"Stay together so that you don't get lost! And make sure you don't waste all of your money on food, Bumi. Let Honora play a couple of games if she wants." Katara told her son, who had come to the Fire Nation to go with his best friend, Honora, to the spring festival. She had given Bumi plenty of coins for a fun time, and Honora often had free perks as the princess, so she wasn't worried about them not being able to do anything.
"Yes, Mom..." Bumi sighed, ignoring his mother's lecturing for the most part, but thanking her and getting excited when he received a pouch full of money.
"Now, Bumi," Aang went over to the boy, kneeling down and pulling him aside just a little bit to talk to him, like he was giving him an inside tip. "If you really like Honora, you've gotta put the moves on her, you know? The smooth moves."
Before Bumi could respond, Zuko glared at Aang, which made chills run down Aang's spine. "Watch it, Avatar. No one is putting 'the moves' on my daughter."
"Haha, of course not." He passively held his hands up in surrender, letting Bumi go off to play with his younger sister, Kya, who was the infant in Katara's arms. "They're only kids after all."
"Go on!" The familiar and sweet voice of Ursa filled the living room as she nudged her granddaughter out of her bedroom to meet the others. Honora shyly walked into the room, a blush on her face as she saw Bumi for the first time that night. She had put on her summer robes, which were red with a golden sash in the middle, and pink flowers decorating the trims of the dress. Her new hairpin was in as well, and she wore black sandals to go with it. The whole outfit had been carefully planned by Honora the night before, and she thought Bumi looked very nice in his Fire Nation robes as well, which matched hers minus the flowers.
"Finally, you're ready. Geez, you take longer than my mom, Honora." Bumi sighed, which made Katara scoff at her son disapprovingly and roll her eyes. He went up to her and inspected her hairpin, which he then tried to analyze what it was made out of.
"Go away, weirdo. I want to say goodbye before we go to the festival." Honora aloofly shoved him off, but wore a small smile on her face, excited to be going with the person she had thought was special.
Honora said her goodbyes to everyone and when she finally reached her father she gave him a big hug, Zuko bending down to place a kiss on the top of her head. "You look beautiful, my little turtle duck."
"Daaaad! " Honora whined at the nickname, feeling embarrassed by him saying it in front of everyone. "Don't call me that! Not in front of Bumi..."
"Oh, yes in front of Bumi." Zuko snickered, letting her go to the boy she had mentioned as they began to leave the palace to go to the festival. "Have fun, my little turtle duck!"
He watched her rush out of the building and drag Bumi by the hand, looking over them with a smile as he remembered his young little escapades with Mai. Honora reminded him of himself every single day, with mostly the good qualities, which he was thankful for. Aang and Katara drew him back to sitting, where they discussed a multitude of things over rice wine, like the adults they were.
But one thing was for certain, even Honora's imperfections made her the perfection she was, and that was a lesson he wished he had learned a whole lot sooner about himself.