Izumi had snuck away from her guards just to remind herself that she could.
With the peace summit a week away, security at the palace had ramped up. She had only seen Dad at dinners. The circles under his eyes were growing darker by the day. And from the things she had overheard from the palace staff, he had been sending his meals back to the kitchen half-eaten, so it wasn’t just dinner he had been picking absentmindedly at.
Grandpa always said there were some things Dad did that she shouldn’t, and had taught her the fine art of self-care. Alone time counted as self-care, didn’t it? Izumi thought so. She needed to prove to herself that she could spend a few hours without her constant shadows, so on a day when she didn’t have any lessons planned, she slipped her guards, found her favourite unused room, and curled up on a slightly-dusty chaise.
She lost herself in her reading. A thump jolted her back to awareness. Time had passed. The room was tinted orange from the setting sun—and an adult man was climbing through the window.
She lunged for the door, book flying out of her lap. He caught her by the back of her robes and threw her to the ground.
“Guards!” she yelled. A palm smothered her next attempt at a scream.
Working on instinct, heartbeat in her ears, she elbowed the man in the ribs and rolled out from under him.
He dove at her again. She dodged, but wasn’t fast enough. He grabbed a fistful of her hair, knocking her crown to the ground, and yanked her back. It hurt. She barely felt it.
There was a flash of silver. A knife. The man had a knife. He was going to kill her. Strangely, though, he didn’t shove the blade into her chest; he reached up, where his fingers were knotted into her hair, and aimed for her topknot.
She screamed and lit her hands on fire. She had always been a weak bender, but her instructors reminded her that it wasn’t about strength but precision.
Dad had occasionally joined her lessons, learning by her side as if he wasn’t a master firebender. Sometimes, he was the one that taught her. Those were the best days. Izumi soaked up everything he said.
“Surviving is not dishonourable,” Dad told her, guiding her hands, showing her how she might defend herself against him, an adult man. “Do what you have to, even if that means running away or fighting dirty.”
(I would never hurt you though, he had told her repeatedly. Your family loves you, and they should never, ever hurt you.
But she had never been frightened of Dad, or Grandpa, or her many godparents. Why did he think she needed that reassurance?)
She dug her thumbs into his eyes. Her attacker screamed and dropped both her and the knife. Izumi tumbled out of his grip.
“You bitch,” he spat, blinking rapidly.
He was blocking the door, and she was still too far away from the royal wing, and he was properly angry now, angry enough that fire licked up his forearms, smoke billowing from his palms.
She had grown up watching Dad’s precise, rainbow-coloured fire knifing through the air like ribbon. This man’s bending was crude. But it was still fire, and it would sear her skin the same as any flame would.
He grabbed her hair again and threw her to the floor. She scrambled to get her knees under her, trying to find enough purpose to knee him in the balls like she’d been taught, but he was too strong.
“You love your father,” he mocked. He brought his flaming hand closer to her face. The heat pricked her cheeks. “Don’t you want to look just like him?”
Dad’s scar. This man was talking about Dad’s scar.
She loved that scar. When she was too young to know what it was, she had smeared red paint over one eye and stuck a paper five-pronged crown in her ponytail. Dad didn’t like it. She didn’t understand why, until he explained what a scar was and why it hurt him to see her pretending to have one.
And now this man was going to give her one for real.
The smoke burned her throat. She choked, crying too hard now to form proper sentences, too scared to say anything other than, “Dad.”
She wanted her dad.
The man laughed, an ugly sound, and brought the flame closer. She screamed and twisted as the heat intensified, pain blooming, and—
The man was tackled. Izumi scrambled back on her hands and knees, breathing hard. The ground titled under her. She was too dizzy to stand, let alone run.
A roar of colour-streaked fire made her look up. Dad. The pink-and-green flames pushing her attacker back, the gold-hemmed robes whipping around his legs—that was Dad.
She breathed out roughly. She was safe. Dad was here and she was safe.
She didn’t recognise the expression on his face. She had watched him train hundreds of times before, but she had never seen him bend like this—fierce and rough, like he wasn’t in control of his body. It was almost feral.
The guards came thundering into the room soon after. Ming grabbed her around the waist and carried her bodily out of the room. She didn’t put her down until they were in a more populated area of the palace.
She thrashed weakly in Ming’s arms. She was crying so hard it was hard to breathe. Everything hurt.
And then Ming was gone and Dad was there, lifting her into his arms and holding her like she was a baby. His hands were broad and warm. His chest heaved under her cheek. She thought he was just breathing heavily, but when she emerged from the folds of his robes, she saw he was crying.
When he saw her, he paled. He looked like he was going to throw up.
“Your face,” he said.
She reached up and traced the edge of the shallow burn. It was hot to the touch, and hurt, and Dad looked as though he had been cracked open, something intensely raw in his expression.
“This was about me,” he rasped. “They hurt you to get to me. I’m so sorry, baby.”
He didn’t use traditional pet names often. He called her turtleduck, sometimes. Princess, when he was teasing.
But now, curled up on his lap, her face throbbing, she didn’t want to demand that he treat her like a big kid. She didn’t feel like a big kid at all. But that was okay. This was Dad. He had told her often enough that she would always be his baby, no matter how big she got.
He buried his face in her hair, still crying. “I’m so, so sorry, baby.”
Izumi clung to her dad and just let herself cry.
Dad carried Izumi to the infirmary. When they got there, the Head Healer bustled Dad towards the beds. He sat down, Izumi in his lap, holding her gently while she inspected Izumi’s face.
She flinched when the healer reached for her cheek. Dad’s hands tightened on her arms and then quickly loosened, like he was scared he’d hurt her. Izumi fumbled for his hand. She clutched it tightly as the healer gently inspected her throbbing face.
After a few minutes, the healer announced, “It won’t scar. The burn is shallow, it should heal up within a few weeks.”
Dad slumped in his chair, looking so relieved and exhausted at once. “Thank Agni.”
When her burn was cleaned and bandaged, they just sat there. Izumi didn’t want to crawl out of Dad’s lap. He didn’t seem to want to put her down either.
“I’m sorry,” he said at last. “You shouldn’t have been attacked today.”
“You’ve been attacked before,” Izumi said.
Dad nodded. “I have.”
“Were you hurt?”
He hesitated. “Sometimes, yes. But I’ve gotten better at fighting, and my guards are very good at protecting me. You don’t have to worry about me, Izumi.”
“You don’t have to worry about me, either,” she insisted. “I’m going to get big and protect myself too.”
He tucked a lock of hair behind her ear. “I’m always going to worry about you, even when you’re Fire Lord and I’m just your embarrassing old dad. You’re my daughter. It’s my job to worry.”
She leant into him, closing his eyes. She liked being independent, since she was approaching ten years old (and then she’d be double-digits, practically an adult), but she liked this, too. She liked being able to tuck herself close to Dad and know, deep in her bones, that she was safe and loved.
It was late afternoon. The sun would be setting soon. They were sitting in the private gardens, holding stale bread that they pinched from the kitchens. Dad stared into the turtleduck pond, eyes far-away. The loaf hung limply from his hands.
Dad had been acting strange since she had been attacked. It had rattled him. Possibly more than it had rattled her.
“Dad,” Izumi said, jarring him out of his thoughts.
He smiled tiredly. “Yeah?”
“How did you get your scar?”
The smile dropped off his face. He looked down at the loaf, crumbling in his fingers. “I got it a long time ago. Way before you were before.”
“But how did you get it? Did someone break into the palace?”
“No,” Dad said. “It wasn’t anything like what happened to you. That won’t happen, okay? It won’t happen. We’ll protect you.” She’s not sure who he is reassuring: himself or her.
“Did you get it during the war?”
He got the scar on his belly during the war. Aunt Azula had given it to him. It was wrong, but she wasn’t well when it happened, and she promised to never, ever do it again.
Izumi cocked her head. “Did Aunt Azula give it to you?”
“No,” Dad said, voice rough. “Aunt Azula didn’t give it to me.”
After a few minutes of tense silence, Dad sighed and put down the bread. A turtleduck waddled closer, snagged it, and disappeared into the reeds to eat it out of sight of the other turtleducks. Dad didn’t even seem to notice.
“I knew you had to find out one day,” he said, voice distant. “But a part of me wanted to keep this from you forever.”
He turned so he was facing her full-on. Izumi straightened.
“I want you to know that this happened a long time ago,” he began. “I’m alright now. And the man that did this is locked away and he will never be able to hurt anyone again.” Izumi nodded. Dad took a bracing breath, and said, “My father, Fire Lord Ozai, gave me this scar.”
Izumi blinked. “Your father?” It made no sense.
“You know Ozai was an evil man,” Zuko says, and Izumi nodded again, because she did. It was why Dad had to work so hard sometimes. The world was hurt by evil men in the past, before her Dad and godparents came along to fix things. “He was cruel to me and Aunt Azula, but especially to me. He didn’t act like a father should.”
“Which is why you and Grandpa are so close, right?”
Izumi chewed on her lip. “Did… Did Ozai attack you, like I was attacked?”
Dad opened his arms, and Izumi crawled into his lap. There were only a handful of guards around, she reasoned. No one will care that she wasn’t being strong, her Dad especially.
“When I was thirteen,” Dad said, “I convinced your grandpa to sneak me into a War Meeting. I wasn’t supposed to be in there, but I was the Crown Prince. I wanted to learn as much as I could.”
Izumi was the same. She had memories of being very small and sleeping on Dad’s lap during more informal meetings. And now that she was older, she wanted to learn as much as she could, so she could be a good Fire Lord like Dad.
“But they were talking about awful things, hurting people, so I spoke up when I shouldn’t have. No one listened to me. They thought I was being disrespectful. To make up for what I’d done, I had to fight in a fire duel—against Ozai.”
“And then he hurt you,” Izumi said.
“I want you to know,” Dad said quickly, “that I would never hurt you. And I would never let anyone else in the palace hurt you either. I always love hearing your opinions and you should never be afraid of speaking up.”
“I know.” She took Dad’s hand, trying to channel Grandpa. He was the only person who’s able to calm Dad when he looked this frantic. “I’m sorry I snuck away yesterday.”
“Don’t—don’t apologise.” Dad’s eyes were glassy. He buried his wet face in her hair. “I’m the one that’s sorry. I’m so sorry you got hurt because of me, baby.”
Tears pricked at her eyes. They had always been a family of sympathetic cries. She even caught Aunt Azula tearing up once when Dad was crying, though she made Izumi swear to keep that a secret.
Izumi had been so scared yesterday, and the burn still ached beneath her bandage—a hot, deep kind of hurt that was hard to ignore—and she knew this could happen again.
But Dad chased the fear away, just by being there.
Dad, who fought off her assassin like a wild animal. Dad, who was hurt badly by evil men, who worked tirelessly every day to make sure Izumi and the palace staff and everyone in the Fire Nation were okay. Dad, who held her as gently as a baby turtleduck and pressed kisses into her hair and made me feel like the safest person in the world.
“It’s okay, Dad,” she said, leaning her wet face into the familiar softness of his robes. “We’re gonna be okay.”