He has a daughter, now. A daughter, Izumi, who's part of Mai and part of him and part of something unique to her— his flash-fire temper, Mai's razor-sharp focus, a gentleness he dimly remembers from how his mother pressed her lips against his temple. And it's both the most wonderful and the most terrible thing to ever happen to him.
Having a child is often one terrifying obstacle after another; not because Izumi causes an unreasonable amount of trouble (Aang's kids have her beat on every count), but because he's become so much more aware that Ozai was a horrific excuse for a parent. Thinking back to his endlessly obscene boyhood, colors he learned from bruises and vases smashed against the walls and flesh warping in sun-hot grips... he has dedicated his life to being the polar opposite of his father. He never wants her to feel the way he did— worthless and small, like a rabbit-deer caught in a trap. Never.
(There's an awful voice in the back of his mind, one that says you are worthless you are revolting I always knew you'd end up at the bottom of a gutter— and sometimes it casts judgement upon Izumi. Slap her and she'll stop crying. Don't let her sleep or eat until her seventh dragon kata is perfect. Take a cane to her when she takes that tone with you. He very loudly reminds that voice about Azula on a regular basis, how she claws at herself and weeps and begs for absolution every time he visits her in the hospital and isn't that a living proof that you're the fuck-up Ozai— but he doesn't know if he'll ever excise it all the way.)
One day, past collides with present. One day, he's tracking her down for some embroidery lesson or other and finds her by the turtleduck pond, shoulders slumped, throwing bread crumbs into the water. "Are you okay?" he asks, sitting beside her in spite of his robes. "Did you and Kya have a fight?" Aang's kids are staying over the weekend of the Fire Festival— usually she and Kya get along well, but based off of what he learned from Azula, preteen girls make fickle and volatile friends.
"No," Izumi says, dropping in the last of the crumbs and resting her elbows on her knees. "Kya was just saying Uncle Aang got hit by lightning and that's why he has a mark on his back."
"I know it's scary to think about," he replies in what he hopes is a soothing tone. "He's fine now, though, and the healers think there aren't going to be any serious heart complications—"
"Dad," she cuts off, obviously not too concerned about Aang's cardiovascular health, "you don't have to tell me if you don't want to— but how did you get your scar? The one on your face?"
Oh. Well. He'd expected her to ask this question, been anticipating the day, just didn't think it would come so soon. "It's a long story," he says lamely, running a hand through his hair. "And I didn't tell you... because it's not exactly a story for kids."
"I'm not a kid anymore," she protests. "I'm eleven. I can handle it, I swear." And she looks so much like him when he was that age, all fire-eyed determination and mule-goat stubbornness, that he has no choice but to acquiesce. She isn't too much younger than he was when he received his brand, after all.
He takes a deep breath to steady himself, because he's never actually told anyone. His crew found out from Uncle, his friends from environmental osmosis. Even thinking about it— almost twenty years later— makes the marrow of his bones ache.
"My father— Ozai," he corrects, swallowing hard, "wasn't a good man." Understatement of the century, there. "He loved power and control, not me or my sister or my mother. And he had... certain expectations of his children, especially about how he thought boys should behave. I didn't measure up, because I wasn't a prodigy at firebending or very stoic, the way he wanted me to be. It made him angry a lot."
"Did he hit you?" she asks quietly. Her eyes look pained, beyond her years.
"Sometimes," he admits. "Aunt Azula and our mom, too, but mostly me. I thought if I could act like a perfect prince he might be pleased, so when I was thirteen, I decided to enter a war council and start learning what the Fire Lord did. Except the guards at the door had orders to block me."
"Why would they block you? Wouldn't Ozai want you to learn all that stuff?"
He shakes his head. "Ozai had his own plans for me. Grandpa was passing by while I was trying to get through, and I convinced him to let me inside. I had to promise that I wouldn't say anything, though. I... didn't keep that promise."
"What happened?" Her face is pale, and he's worried that he might be scaring her too much with this— but she did ask. He can't insult her by sugarcoating the tale, making it more palatable.
"One of the generals wanted to sacrifice an entire division of new recruits— sixteen and seventeen-year-old boys, from poor farming villages— so he could win a battle without his elites breaking a sweat. I knew it was wrong and I spoke against the plan, but Ozai said that I was showing complete disrespect. That the matter should be resolved with an Agni Kai."
"That's illegal!" she cries, and he almost cracks a smile— her sense of justice is strong, but terribly out of place in this story. "You have to be an adult to fight in an Agni Kai."
"It wasn't the law until I became Fire Lord and passed it. Back then, I had to accept the challenge— and the general was so ancient, I thought I could take him. I was even excited, going into the arena, to prove myself as a man to my father."
"Did the general beat you?" she asks, brow furrowed. "Was he as strong as Grandpa or something?"
"Not exactly," he says with a grimace. "Ozai claimed that since he was the Fire Lord, and I had mouthed off to the general in his war chamber, that he'd been insulted. Once I saw him come out, I got on my knees and begged. Said I wouldn't fight my own father."
She launches herself at the front of his robes, not too far from his old lightning wound— he instinctively draws an arm around her, pulling her close. "I wouldn't fight you, either," she says, her words muffled by the fabric.
"You'll never have to," he says fiercely, hoarsely. Just the thought of his daughter prostrate before him, begging, is enough to make him want to retch and retch and retch. "I'll never—"
Agni's ashes, he needs to get a hold of himself. It's been a long time, too long to react so violently. She releases her iron-tight grip, looking at him with wet eyes, and he resolves to finish the story as fast as he can. "He told me to get up and fight, and when I didn't, he said that I would learn respect and suffering would be my teacher. Then he burned my face, and I was banished for my cowardice in the arena. I could only come home if I captured the avatar."
He stops there, because she knows how it goes after that. "I love you," he says, his voice cracking despite his best efforts. "More than anything, Izumi. I'd rather— the day I raise a hand to you is the day I cut it off."
She throws her arms around him again, and he can feel the hot moisture of her tears on his chest— his mouth is so very dry, his ribcage so very tight. "How could he do something like that?"
"He wanted Aunt Azula to be Fire Lord once he died, and— he was a sick man, Izumi. He hurt people to make himself feel strong," Zuko says, stroking her quivering shoulders. "But it's never strong to hurt people who can't fight back. It's the weakest thing you can do." These are the lessons she must learn, before she takes the throne. She has inherited the same good and evil duality, the duality she will have to reconcile just as he did— though hopefully with more guidance.
"Do you hate him?" she asks, almost inaudibly. "I hate him."
"I used to think that I made him do it to me," he says, "and I thought I loved him when I was younger. Then I did hate him when I realized that it wasn't my fault. Now— I don't feel a lot towards him. He's not worth anything to me. He's not important enough for you to waste a second thinking about him."
She falls quiet, and they sit like that in the garden for some time, the spring sunlight and rose bushes and katsura trees so incongruous with the horrors he's been detailing. When she asks, "does it hurt?" he's startled, unsure of how to articulate an answer.
"I won't lie to you," he decides. "It does— but it hurts less, as I get older. I have so much now in my life. He didn't ruin me."
"Can I touch it?"
"Of course," he says, and when she timidly skates her fingers across the surface, it never even occurs to him to flinch. Ear to temple to cheekbone. "It's just a scar. And if a girl as pretty as your mother agreed to marry me, I don't even think I'm too ugly."
Izumi smiles; he brushes ropes of wet, dark hair out of her face, where they had been clinging to her jaw. "I missed my calligraphy lesson," she suddenly says. "Sifu is going to be mad."
He laughs and kisses the top of her head. "It was embroidery," he recalls, "and don't worry about your sifu— I'll cover for you. He's scared of me." Really, it's not his fault that the man decided to report on Izumi's progress right as he'd finished a meeting with his shit-for-brains agricultural minister. Maybe a bit.
"That's dumb," she scoffs, leaning against him. "You're not scary, Dad."
"I'm glad you think so," Zuko murmurs, and for once in his life Ozai has nothing to add.