It is nearing midnight on the winter solstice and the waters of the southern sea are calm, a sheet of dark glass that reflects the starless sky above. In the midst of the frigid waters is a ship, its masts draped in a bower of blossoms. Moon flowers turning their faces to the heavens, their stems twined around those of vibrant fire lilies; plum blossoms in bright pink and delicate white; camellias and peonies; star blossoms dotting the hair of many of those on board.
The contingent of those on board is startlingly small, fifteen in all and Toph Beifong is the only one not related by blood or marriage. The rest of the world is otherwise unaware of the arrangement. Toph is, of course, the only person aboard the ship who does not look up with a gasp of wonder when the first ribbons of light streak through the sky, vibrant and ethereal.
At the prow of the ship stands Kanna, stooped and aging, flanked by her granddaughter and the Fire Lord. The bride, resplendent under the midnight ripples of the auroras, wears a dress and parka in shades of purple, impeccably and lovingly hand-stitched by Ursa and Suki. The silver beads that dot her hair like stars are a gift from her intended who spends the entire ceremony unable to tear his eyes from her. He, wearing a parka in a hue of navy so dark it could be mistaken for black, is completely enamored with his new wife and kisses her at the end of it all with all of the heart-wrenching tenderness and love that speaks to the twenty years he spent loving her in silence. And the moment he does, the heavens burst forth into a riot of arcs and rays and coronas in electric shades of pinkish red, shocking violet, and aquamarine. It is so auspicious, so breathtaking, that the entirety of the family gathers close and listens as Kanna weaves a story.
Many hundreds of years ago, before the moon became Yue, before the existence of the Avatar, the people of the world lived as one under the heavens. We were one people, one nation, dedicated to maintaining the balance of the world. It was a time of harmony and light.
It was during this time that Tui, a son of the moon, loved Malina, a daughter of the sun. Like the power she wielded, Malina was bright and beautiful. The daughter of a chief, many admirers flocked close in pursuit of her hand, seeking her beauty and power. Tui, the son of a humble fisherman, dared not make his love known for he had little to offer but his heart.
One autumn day, a boy from the village spotted a group of firefox cubs playing near the forest. As they rolled and tumbled and pounced, their paws kicked up sparks, kindling fires in the brambles and trees. As the flames spread and roared to life, the village boy ran to alert the chief. But the chief was ill and so it fell to Malina to tame the flames.
Valiantly, she tried, but the fire had spread too far for her to manage alone. So she turned to her two most ardent suitors. They were handsome men of considerable power, either of whom would make an acceptable husband. And so she said, “Whoever can stop the fire that ravages the land of our people will earn my hand.”
Confident that he would be successful, Pakaa, a prince of air stepped forward first. He called upon the four winds and directed their power through the flames that rolled across the land. But the winds scattered the fire even further.
And so Malina decided that she would not wed the prince of air.
Upon Pakaa’s failure, Geb stepped forth. The descendent of hundreds of earth warriors, he struck into the ground with the force of a thousand-pound boulder and sent a wave of earth to smother the fires on the ground. But the flames still lept from tree to tree, leaving destruction in their wake.
And so Malina decided that she would not wed the earth warrior.
“Is there no one who can help?” she called out to the people of her village. “Is there no one who can contain this blaze?”
And so Tui stepped forth from the crowd. He called upon the water in the heavens and summoned the seas, and between his mastery of the rains and the waves, he doused the fire’s blaze. And when the threat was gone, he turned to leave.
“Son of the moon,” Malina called. “What is your name?”
“My name is Tui,” said he, turning back to her. “I am the son of a humble fisherman and have naught to offer you but my heart. I have no kingdoms or armies to strengthen the lands of our people.”
But Malina looked into Tui’s face. There, in his soul, she found unquestionable honor, patience, and strength. And so the daughter of the sun decided she would marry a son of the moon.
Geb was a vengeant lover, though, the blood of warriors and warmongers running hot in his veins. Humiliated and angry, he stole into Tui’s home one night and slayed the fisherman’s child while he slept. And so Tui’s spirit was summoned forth from his body and the guardians of night welcomed him home, crowning him the spirit of the moon.
Upon her discovery of Geb’s treachery, Malina’s heart broke and she begged the spirits to summon her own soul to the heavens.
“I shall never love another,” she cried. “My heart belongs to a man of honor and patience. There are none with his strength of spirit. I cannot live my life without him!”
She wept so pitifully and without end that the hearts of the guardians of the day shattered. They reached their warm, welcoming palms down to the earth and summoned her home, crowning her the spirit of the sun.
And it was there in the sky that Tui and Malina were reunited, their celestial spirits forever intertwined in the heavens. In celebration of their love, the spirits sent forth a rainbow of light into the night.
It is this love that we are reminded of when we look up at the auroras. A love that is not demanding or falsely confident. A love that is humble and steady and true, worthy of the celebration of our guardian spirits.
And so it is that Fire Lord Zuko marries the love of his life under the mystic dance of the southern auroras on the winter solstice without the approval of his advisors or the knowledge of the world. After two weeks spent blanketed under the polar night, the couple and their children prepare to board the Fire Lord’s ship, their loved ones crowded around them on the docks.
“We spent a lot of time trying to figure out the best wedding gift,” Sokka says. “I mean, what do you give people who literally have piles of gold and a palace?”
“I wanted to build a monument to your debauchery,” Toph supplies with a wicked grin. “Really immortalize your imperfections for all of time. But someone thought that was insensitive.”
“I took us some time to figure it out, but then your mom and uncle came up with a great idea,” Sokka says, proffering a scroll.
Zuko takes it, unfurling it to take in its contents. On the scroll is a letter of support for Bumi and Kya, detailing evidence of their parentage. The firebender, hearing the sharp way Katara inhales as she reads the content, fits an arm around her shoulders, knowing there are probably tears in her eyes. They look up at the cluster of their little family, astounded.
“We all wrote one,” Suki says, offering her own. “We figured the best thing we could give you was your family.”
Iroh, Hakoda, Sokka and Suki, Ursa, even Toph. All stand, offering their letters of support.
Upon taking Toph’s scroll with fragile fingers, Katara flounders hopelessly for words, mouth agape and cheeks dark with embarrassment. The earthbender envelops Katara’s hands in her own.
“I’ve known since that night in Ba Sing Se,” she says quietly.
“You never said anything,” Katara whispers.
“Eh. Who am I to get involved in your business?” Toph replies, gesturing to her own rounding belly. “Aside from Suki, you’re one of the strongest, smartest people I know. I knew you’d figure it all out one day. Just don’t push for Boomer to be first in line for the throne. I dread to think what his attention deficit and hyperactivity would do to the world if he had that much power.”
“I was thinking,” Zuko says a few mornings later when he and Katara have finished up a spar on the deck of the ship. “Maybe we can make a pit stop at the Ember Island house on our way home. Treat the kids to a beach vacation for Bumi’s birthday.”
“Can you afford to be away any longer?” Katara asks. There are drops of water sparkling like dew in the loose length of her hair. Her cheeks are flushed from the exertion and cold, and her eyes glitter as she draws close.
There will never be a day where Zuko looks at her and doesn’t think she’s beautiful or that he isn’t the luckiest man in the world. It has taken decades, but he is grateful for the luck Ozai once claimed was his curse. As long and heart wrenching as the journey has been, and despite the hardships that remain, Zuko no longer thinks of his luck as a burden but a blessing because he has Katara’s love and the love of their children.
“Mother and Uncle took an airship,” he replies. “They should be home by now. Either of them can serve as regent in my absence.”
He can see the yes forming on her lips, see it in her eyes, but Katara’s attention is ripped away from the conversation before she can answer by the arrival of Bumi who has appeared on deck sans parka. A frown tips the corners of her mouth.
“For La’s sake, Bumi!” she calls. “Go put your parka on this instant! I don’t care how Water Tribe you think your blood is. It’s too cold for you to be out here without it!”
“But I’m hot ,” Bumi protests.
Katara rolls her eyes. “I’m not going to tell you again,” she says, storming her way towards him. “It’s too cold .”
“But I’m not cold ,” Bumi says. Zuko tilts his head, eyes tracking the way Bumi’s breath leaves his mouth, puffing out into the cold air. He squints.
“Spirits, Bumi,” Katara snaps. “If your sisters see you acting this defiant, it’s going to…”
She trails off when her hands make contact with the boy’s shoulders. Zuko sees her frown deepen. She presses a palm to Bumi’s forehead. He heaves an open-mouthed sigh.
“Katara,” Zuko says. His feet begin to carry him across the deck of the ship.
“You’re burning up!” Katara says. “Are you feeling alright, Bumi?” She bends her face close to his, peers into his eyes.
Bumi pulls his head back. “ Mom .”
“Katara,” Zuko says again, reaching out to grasp her hand. “I don’t think he’s sick.”
“What are you talking about?” Katara huffs. “He’s burning up, Zuko. We need to get him inside.”
Zuko kneels down in front of Bumi. “Can you sigh again?” he asks. “Like you just did?”
Eying the Fire Lord warily, Bumi does so, a grayish cloud of air wafting forth from his lips. Zuko turns his gaze back to Katara. She studies them, worrying her lower lip between her teeth.
“Trust me,” he says.
“I do ,” she says. “Just… Maybe we should go below deck. He’s too warm.”
“I think it’s better if we’re in open air,” Zuko tells her. He feels his lips twitch in the barest of smirks. His wife notices, her blue eyes narrowing infinitesimally.
Bumi’s eyes dart between them. “Mom?” he questions. “Uncle Zuko?”
“Let’s try something cool,” Zuko says, chucking the boy under his chin with a knuckle. “Can you give me all of your trust for five minutes?”
Bumi scrutinizes him for a moment before nodding. Zuko bites back a grin. He holds out his hands, palms up and open.
“Hands,” he says and Bumi slips his small fingers into Zuko’s hands. “Great, now,” he takes one of Bumi’s hands and places it over his own heart, “do you feel me breathing?”
“Good. I want you to breathe when I breathe, can you do that?”
Again, Bumi nods. It takes a few moments for them to fall into sync. When their breathing patterns align, Zuko instructs Bumi to close his eyes and focus on his breath.
“What do you notice?” he asks.
Bumi’s smooth, pale brow furrows as he concentrates. “It feels funny,” he says. “Kind of warm. Like a tickle. Right here.” He uses his free hand to point at the base of his sternum.
“That sounds about right,” Zuko says and his voice comes out somewhat odd, sort of strangled. He realizes there are tears pricking at the corners of his eyes.
“What is it?” Bumi asks, opening his eyes.
“We can talk about that when our five minutes are up,” Zuko says. “Keep this—” he taps at Bumi’s hand where it rests over his own heart “—right where it is and hold out your other hand. Keep breathing the way I am.”
Bumi holds out his free hand, his palm small and empty. With hardly a thought, Zuko calls a small lick of flame forth to his own palm.
“Zuko,” Katara breathes, her voice a tenuous warning.
“It’s okay,” he replies, sliding his eyes towards hers. He sends up a prayer to Agni that she’ll find reassurance there. “If you’re calm, we are calm.”
He knows Katara doesn’t miss the way his eyes flick towards Bumi with the emphasis. She clamps her lips shut into a thin line and nods.
Zuko turns his attention back to their son. Bumi is eyeing the little flickering flame in Zuko’s hand with something that looks like trepidation mixed with intrigue.
“Are you ready?”
Bumi swallows hard. “What’s going to happen?” he asks, voice small.
“I’m going to hand this off to you,” Zuko says, holding up the flame. It dances across his palm, flickering in the cool arctic breeze.
“What do I do?”
“The way you breathe?”
“Exactly.” Zuko gives an encouraging nod. “Are you ready?”
“Can I close my eyes for a minute if I’m scared?”
Bumi nods and closes his eyes. He and Zuko breathe in unison for a moment, neither of them falling out of the pattern. Smashing down the jitters in his stomach, Zuko aligns the outside edge of his palm with Bumi’s. He can feel Katara’s eyes boring into them, watching. Waiting.
They breathe in. The tendril of fire brightens in Zuko’s grasp.
They breathe out. It leaps into Bumi’s waiting hand.
“Oh, La ,” Katara whispers.
The grin that had been threatening to overtake Zuko’s face finally breaks across his lips. An arrow of pride pierces deep in his heart, ribbons of joy and love riding its tail.
“Keep breathing with me,” he tells Bumi quietly. “And when you’re ready, open your eyes.”
It’s comical the way Bumi’s eyes nearly bug out of his head when he sees the flame fluttering in his palm. Zuko is able to enjoy the look and the sound of Katara’s watery laughter for all of two seconds before a devious grin the likes of which have only ever crossed Sokka’s face lights up the boy’s entire face.
“ Cool! ” he exclaims and the flame flares.
Zuko clamps his palm down over Bumi’s hastily, extinguishing the fire.
“Why’d you do that?”
“Because,” Zuko says. “Now you have to learn how to do it on your own. From a master.”
“Mom says you’re a master,” Bumi says.
“A proper master,” Zuko tells him. “Maybe even the one I learned from.”
Bumi has a lot of questions after that. Katara and Zuko usher him below deck and into his cabin. There, they crowd together on his narrow bunk and field whatever queries he throws their way. Some have easy answers: The tickling warmth in his chest is his inner fire; he can still train with Master Piandao; if he prefers swords over fire, that’s fine, but he still has to master his element so he knows how to control it.
Some have not so easy answers.
“I don't understand,” Bumi says, staring at his empty palms as though they hide all of the answers to every question he’s ever had. “If you’re a waterbender and Dad was an airbender, why am I different?”
Zuko and Katara exchange a look over their son’s head. It’s been a year and they’ve still come up with no good way of telling Bumi and Kya the truth. But Katara, much like her element, adapts with the flow of this change of course. Zuko watches as she moves to crouch before the boy, her hands cupping his, steady and sure.
“Do you remember the tale of the Fire Lord?” she asks.
“That’s the story you used to tell me about Uncle Zuko before bed.”
“That’s right,” Katara says. “Did I ever tell you why the Fire Lord saved the life of the master waterbender?”
“Because he was brave,” Bumi replies. “And honorable and kind.”
“Yes. But there was another reason. See, he was in love with her. And she was in love with him. But they were very young and she was scared. Sometimes things like that can lead a person to make foolish decisions.”
“Gross,” Bumi says. “You guys were in love?” He pulls a face.
“We’re still in love,” Katara says with a good-humored smile. “We’ve been in love for a very long time.”
“You do realize,” Zuko interjects dryly, “that your mother and I are married now, right?”
“That doesn’t mean love isn’t gross,” Bumi argues.
“Hey!” Katara says. “Focus!”
“Sorry,” Zuko and Bumi say in unison.
Gravitas satisfactorily reestablished, Katara takes a deep breath. “Aang and I loved each other in our own way,” she says. “For a time. But…” She shifts uncomfortably where she sits on the floor. “Bumi, Zuko is your real dad.”
Bumi goes very still. In the silence that ensues, Zuko can’t help but wonder if the room has turned into a vacuum, all the sound and oxygen sucked out of it by the truth. The conversation can go in any of a hundred ways from here. Zuko expects rage. He does not expect tears. And that’s what they get.
“Is that… Is that why Dad h-hated me?” Bumi asks through several sobs.
“Oh, Bumi, no! ” Katara cries, gathering him into her arms. “He didn’t hate you! He didn’t know.”
Zuko watches, helpless, as Katara rocks Bumi in her arms, pressing kisses to his head and smoothing her hands over his back. He can see it in the crushing expression on her face, the burden that she’s carried for just shy of eleven years. She’s confided in him countless times that she feels like she failed Bumi greatly. He’s known for years that she felt as though she couldn’t give Bumi everything he needed. And now evidence of her sorrow is here before him and he feels himself shatter irreparably.
“Listen to me,” Katara says, pressing her palms to Bumi’s cheeks. “You are so loved, Bumi. You are so, so loved. I love you and Zuko loves you and your sisters… They love you so much. And your grandfathers and your grandmother. Uncle Sokka and Aunt Suki. Aunt Toph. We all love you with all our hearts. You’re brave and you’re kind and you’re such a good brother.”
“But Dad…” Bumi can’t even finish the sentence. His shoulders heave and he hiccups through his tears.
“No,” Katara says firmly. “Aang did not hate you. He spent most of his life feeling very alone in the world and looking for people who were like him. If he hated anyone, he hated me because I didn’t give him what he wanted. But he never hated you.”
It takes her a long time to reassure Bumi, to quell the tears that issue forth. When it’s over, Zuko is in awe of how she’s managed to hold herself together for so long. Years of this sphere of hurt and she has borne it all with the kind of sheer fortitude that only Katara has.
“What other questions do you have?” she asks quietly.
“Kya isn’t my real sister?”
“Kya is very much your sister,” Zuko says and Bumi looks at him, wiping the back of his hand under his snotty nose.
“Are you… You’re her dad, too?”
“Yes. But blood isn’t what makes people family, Bumi. Love makes people a family. Your grandfather Iroh taught me that.” Zuko reaches out to place a tentative hand on his son’s shoulder, relief coursing through him when Bumi doesn’t pull away. “Your mother and I love you with all our hearts. And so do your sisters. None of us will ever stop.”
Bumi studies him with serious blue eyes, sniffles a couple of times. “Am I… Do I call you Dad now?” he asks.
Zuko shrugs. “If you want to,” he says. “I hope you will one day. When you’re ready.”
“What if I’m never ready?”
“Then that’s okay. It won’t make me love you any less.”
The first time Kya says it is three weeks after Katara’s coronation.
It’s a rare day wherein Katara has more meetings than he does. She’s working to push through all of the education initiatives Ami had begun work on and has no shame in spending hours giving Zuko’s advisors a piece of her mind when she thinks they’re being pig-headed or moving too slow.
“Fire Lord Zuko,” Advisor Kawakami had told him. “I’m not certain that your wife understands the role of the Fire Lady. Perhaps we should sit her down with some protocol tutors—”
“Fire Lady Katara’s scope of authority will have no limits,” Zuko had said. “Just as those who came before her had no limits.”
“Sir, I can assure you that they did! This is very untraditional!”
“It may not be traditional, but I beg you to show me the law against it,” he’d said. And then he’d ended the meeting with his most feral smile. There was no such law, and Kawakami knew it as well as Zuko did.
So Zuko is in his mother’s garden with the children after lunch. Bumi and Izumi are commiserating about their hideously dull geography tutor as they scatter crumbs for the turtleducks, their feet clomping over the wooden planks of the bridge that arches over the pond. Kya is sprinting through the garden, as energetic as ever, the silky black waves of her hair rippling through the air.
The Fire Lord sits on the steps of the pavilion, watching them all and feeling uncharacteristically satisfied, when Kya darts up to him and presses a kiss to his cheek.
“I love you, Daddy!” she calls before dashing away again.
And Zuko sits there, stunned, heart impossibly full. “I love you, too, turtleduck!” he shouts back after a moment.
It takes Bumi a couple of years. He’s thirteen when it happens and unaware of the significance it holds for Zuko. The age, the word, the setting.
They’ve just finished their weekend routine of firebending and refining Bumi’s mastery of Piandao’s techniques when it happens. Bumi says the same thing every time: “Thanks, Uncle Zuko! That was fun!” Then he bounces off to antagonize his sisters.
This time, the heat of fire is still stifling in the air and Zuko is ruffling the sweat from his hair with a towel. Bumi is getting better with firebending, but it’s his skills with swords that are pushing Zuko’s own limits and skills. He has a shocking talent for them, so much so that Piandao had recently written to Zuko and Katara and notified them that Bumi would soon be crafting his own weapon. Zuko knows he’s getting up there in age. His fortieth year is around the corner. He’s not rusty, though, Bumi is just good . Fire Nation drive paired with Water Tribe ingenuity. The perfect balance of unpredictability and terrifying skill.
This time, the end of their routine does not go as expected.
“You’re a really good firebender, Dad,” Bumi says casually. “I hope I’m as good as you one day.”
And then he’s gone, disappearing down a corner, the tune of a Water Tribe song a whistle on his lips.
Zuko stands there, wide-eyed in the smoky air, a lump in his throat and his chest tight with emotion.
He’s still overcome by it hours later as he and Katara sit near the southern windows in their bedroom, rain on the windowpanes and tea steaming in cups. His advisors and ministers had been thrown off by his quietly pleased mood all day, his demeanor a shocking change from the stoic man who usually oversaw things. There had been questioning looks and the stirrings of rumors about his good mood. Had they known the reason for it, they would have thought it absurd.
“You’re quieter than usual tonight,” Katara says. “Rough day?”
“Far from it,” Zuko says with a fond smile. “Bumi called me Dad today.”