Katara has barely caught her breath, can hardly register the sobbing, thrashing mess that is Azula, when the unmistakable clatter of armor has her reaching with her entire being for the water running through the sewer beneath the courtyard. Her arms are shivering with exertion, she sways in her rooted stance and the water wavers under her shaky influence.
“’S’okay, Katara,” Zuko gasps. His arm lands sharply around her shoulders and the water she’d summon goes crashing back through the grate. “’S’not an attack.”
He’s heavier than she remembers him being at the beginning of his tenure with their little troupe, more muscle coupled with a considerable growth spurt. As he leans his weight on her, Katara has to hold back a grunt of surprise. She braces an arm around his waist and grabs ahold of the hand that hangs near her collarbone.
“They aren’t attacking,” Zuko repeats through gritted teeth. He’s pale, too pale. His hair is still crackling with static.
Katara rips her eyes from his pained face to glance around the courtyard. Scores of soldiers and guards are kowtowing to the banished prince. The Fire Sages who had been seconds away from crowning Azula Fire Lord are now bowing deeply to Zuko, their fists pressed to their palms.
“What’s happening?” she breathes on a whisper. Her cheeks feel hot and wet, her eyes sting.
“A ch…” Zuko’s knees buckle and nearly take both of them down. Katara has to redouble her efforts to keep him standing. “Change of allegiance.”
“Gave up the throne when he decided to rule the world.”
Katara hears the unmistakable grinding slide of her feet in the dirt as she struggles to hold Zuko up. “Where is the infirmary?” she asks him. “We need to—”
“I’m not going to the infirmary, Katara,” he growls. “I don’t need to!”
“You need to lie down,” she snaps back. “I’m sure there’s a doctor around here who can—”
Azula lets out a mighty wailing scream where she lays on the ground, her hands chained to the grate.
“I don’t need the Agni-damned palace physician,” Zuko says. She feels him right himself a little more, relieving some of the weight across her shoulders. Then he raises his voice to address the Fire Sages. “See that my sister is taken to the infirmary. She will receive only the best care. I want ten guards with her at all times.”
“Sir,” one of the Fire Sages stands up, tucks his wizened hands into his broad crimson sleeves, “surely you mean the prison infirmary.”
Zuko’s hand tightens around Katara’s and she feels his body sway into hers an infinitesimal amount. “No,” he says. “The palace infirmary will be sufficient.”
A second sage rises. “Prince Zuko,” he says, “your health takes precedence—”
“I don’t need the palace infirmary or the palace physician,” Zuko growls again. “I’ll have Katara and no one else attending to me.”
“She is the Avatar’s waterbending teacher!” His voice is thunder and Katara can feel her cheeks flush as he begins to list her credentials. “She is a master of her element. She is a master healer. She has saved the life of the Avatar and she just saved mine. If you are questioning her competence, you are questioning me.”
“Zuko,” Katara mutters, “the palace physician can do more for you.”
“Like hell he can,” Zuko replies. He steps forward and she has to follow in order to keep him steady on his feet.
They walk in tandem into the palace, Zuko leaning heavily on Katara. Though nobody in the courtyard makes to follow them, Katara can feel the weight of scrutinizing gazes and she holds her head high to deflect what she is certain is one-hundred years’ worth of indoctrinated ignorance.
“…Crown Prince saved her life,” someone whispers not-so-quietly.
“…saved a waterbender…”
“The waterbender saved the crown prince.”
Dozens of voices echo the same bare facts and Katara’s head and eyes swim with the frank summation of the fight for their lives and Zuko’s crown. Her eyesight has been blurry since she crashed to her knees at his side in the courtyard. Here in the dim, dark corridors of the palace she feels blind, relying on Zuko’s knowledge of the maze of hallways to get wherever it is they’re going.
A grunt explodes out of Katara’s chest when she is jostled into a corner.
“Sorry,” Zuko slurs out on a wheezing breath. “’S’just a little further.”
“Where are we going?” Her voice is high pitched and wobbly. She almost doesn’t recognize it.
“Mother’s room.” Zuko staggers around a corner, Katara in tow.
This hallway is well-lined with windows that let in the eerie red light of the comet. A knot of fear tightens itself in Katara’s guts as the possibility that this is a trap. Any moment now, Ozai will loom out of the red-black shadows, fists blooming with flames that will cut them both down. Thankfully, they tumble through a door and into a room draped with white drop cloths that loom out of the darkness like phantoms of the past. Zuko reaches out to light a torch on the wall with a groaning grunt of pain. The flame makes it to its destination, but barely.
Through her wavering vision, Katara sees a bed along the right side of the room. She deposits Zuko on it without much ceremony and kneels before him, ripping the remains of his tunic from his torso. With shaking fingers, she uncorks one of her waterskins and drenches her hand in her element. Before she can raise her healing hand to Zuko’s chest, he reaches out to grasp her wrist.
She shoves his hand away and presses her fingers to the scar that spiders its way across his skin. Her emotions are too distracting. Her fingers don’t catch their signature glow. Frustrated, she sniffles the snot out of her nose and sends the water back to its container. She bows her head, resting it on Zuko’s knee, attempting to gain control. Her face is too damp and her eyes can’t focus on anything other than watering over.
“Why did you do that?!” she explodes.
“You’re crying,” Zuko says, voice rawer than usual.
“What?” She presses a hand to her cheek and finds that he’s correct. She hadn’t even realized, had assumed it had to do with the comet burning through the air or the intensity of Zuko and Azula’s Agni Kai.
“You’ve been crying since you helped me out there. Why—?”
“How could you?”
“Why are you crying?”
“How could you jump in front of Azula’s lighting for me?” she demands. “You shouldn’t have, Zuko. That was so stupid. You shouldn’t have done that. I don’t matter that much—”
“Of course you matter.” Zuko says it so quietly that she almost doesn’t hear it. The honesty in the statement cuts her to the core and silences her words. “You matter to me, Katara.”
“The Fire Nation—”
“The Fire Nation means nothing to me if you aren’t alive to see what it can become. The world needs your hope. The Fire Nation needs your hope. I need your hope. You’ve shown me kindness and…and goodness. The world needs that.”
Katara feels warm fingertips brush the sweaty strands of hair away from her cheeks, pulling them loose from the tracks of her tears. She squeezes her eyes shut and the moment Azula struck plays over in her mind, electric blue and twisting like a knife between her ribs. She sees Zuko suspended by lightning, hears his body collapse to the ground, a series of horrifying thuds against the stones and dirt.
“You could have died.”
“You could have died,” he counters.
“The world doesn’t need me as much as it needs you,” she says hotly, looking up at him with accusation in her eyes.
“I trust you,” Zuko shrugs. She sees the spasm of pain he tries to disguise. “I knew it would be okay in the end.”
“I didn’t. Zuko, we both could have died.”
“Well,” he gives her a grim sort of smile, “at least I would have died for someone I care about.”
Katara doesn’t know what to do with that, so she rises to her feet, bones in her knees and ankles popping from the exertion of the day. One hand reaches out to gently push Zuko back onto the bed and the other uncorks her waterskin again.
“You need to lie down,” she says. It takes a few deep breaths for her to find her center, to feel the tingle of the water as she prepares to heal her friend.
“So do you,” Zuko says.
“I’ll worry about that when you’re stable,” she says, placing a hand over his left pectoral.
“What are you doing?”
“Checking for heart damage.”
The steady thrum of Zuko’s heart beneath her palm is encouraging. Katara closes her eyes and sinks her water into his chest, sensing and reaching for anything she needs to mend. There is nothing. Not a skipped beat or a murmur, no collapsed arteries or broken capillaries. She can sense Zuko’s chi flowing through his heart chakra unblocked.
“I think I managed to redirect most of the lightning,” Zuko says when she opens her eyes and pulls her hand away. “Contained most of the damage.”
Katara frowns and divvies the water up between her hands. “It’s best that I check you over,” she says. She reaches for his face and he recoils with guarded eyes.
“Now what are you doing?”
“I need to check for brain damage.”
“Um.” Zuko’s eyes dart over her face. One of his hands reaches up reflexively towards his scar and then drops away. “Can you tell… Um… Can you see…” The hesitation is clear on his face and it tugs at Katara’s heart.
“Sometimes I can see how wounds are inflicted,” she says. “I’m still learning how to control that. But I won’t intentionally poke and prod, I promise.”
“Right.” Zuko swallows hard. “It’s just… If you’re going to find out about it, I’d rather tell you myself. So if you see anything or… Um. Just…”
“I’ll save any questions that arise for a later date,” Katara says. “I don’t think they will. I’m going to focus on your brain.”
Zuko is tense as she climbs up onto the soft mattress to kneel next to him. “Deep breaths,” she instructs. “Try to relax.” She slides her coated fingers under the dark strands of his hair and towards his temples, careful to stray as close to the edge of his scar as possible with her right hand. With a slow inhale, she sinks her consciousness into the water and allows it to reach out towards Zuko’s mind. Synapses are firing, nothing seems to be severed or fried. She catches a brief glimpse of her serene face through Zuko’s eyes, but nothing more.
“Everything okay up there?” the firebender asks once she pulls away.
“Seems to be.” Katara takes in the shadows under his eyes, the downward tilt of his lips. She wonders how may days it’s been since he’s had a decent night’s sleep.
“Did you…” He gestures wordlessly towards the left half of his face.
Katara shakes her head. “Nothing came through,” she says.
“Good.” He closes his eyes and she watches his breathing even out. “I’m exhausted.”
“You should try to rest,” Katara suggests again. “I can work on your chest while you sleep.”
Zuko’s eyes snap open and he props himself up on his elbows. It lasts for all of ten seconds before he recoils into the mattress, a fist over the spidery wound. “You don’t need to do that,” he grinds out.
Katara snorts. “You just told half the Fire Nation that you want me to heal you. If I don’t, you’ll bring the wrath of your people down on me. And your chest will scar worse than it probably already has.”
“I don’t care if it scars.”
“You’re being absurd.”
“I don’t,” he insists. “I made this choice and I’m fine to live with the results.”
Katara places her healing hand over the lightning wound and he glowers at her. She glares back, eyes icy and unforgiving. “Just focus on your breathing and trust me,” she tells him.
“I do trust you,” Zuko grumbles.
“Good. I’ll start with the easier stuff.”
“No poking or prodding,” he says.
“No poking or prodding,” she agrees.
Katara traces her fingers across the lighter marks, the ones that would probably heal fine on their own given time. She soothes the blisters that are starting to form and does a brief sweep of Zuko’s internal organs to ensure that he didn’t fry any of them. With her focus on the task before her, she almost doesn’t notice the darkening of the sky outside or the way Zuko slips into sleep with a suddenness that belies his deprivation. As she delves further into the wound, Katara sets to work on the nerve damage.
It’s when her fingers brush over the center of the wound that it happens.
An overwhelming wave of something akin to affection paired with a heavy dose fear ripples throughout her body, seizing her heart and sending her adrenaline into overdrive. Zuko’s protesting yell echoes through her mind and she lets out a startled gasp, inadvertently sinking deeper into the memory.
Lightning crackles through the air, she’s lunging across the courtyard, attempting to catch the blue-white flash with her long, pale fingers. There’s blackness and something is sizzling. Her name is a mantra in her mind chanted in that deep, gravelly voice she’s come to know so well.
Katara Katara Katara Katara—
Something unknown and unspoken is entombed underneath it all. It’s calling to her, daring her to burrow deeper, enticing her with the temptation to unbury something well-hidden and deeply felt. And Zuko has long been such an enigma, such a beacon in her life that Katara dares, just for one moment, to reach out and touch that unknown emotion, brushing the edges of it with her subconscious.
It sends her reeling away from the firebender, a fist clamped to her gasping mouth, tears pricking at the corners of her eyes once more.
“Of all the stupid things to do, Zuko,” she lectures the sleeping teen. “Of all the stupid, noble, selfless things to do…”
She sits up for most of the night, knees drawn to her chest, back pressed to the headboard, not daring to reach out and heal Zuko again when he isn’t awake to hold her accountable. The emotion buried in his chest sings out to her and she doesn’t trust herself to not discover the whole truth of it, to not dive in and let it consume her.
There is another boy half a world away who is waiting for her. Someone she knows is woven into her destiny. Katara unfurls her fist and studies the lines that cross her palm, looking for what Aunt Wu saw, attempting to decipher the mysteries etched into her skin.
“A great romance,” she murmurs, tracing one of the lines. “A powerful bender.”
Squinting at the lines, Katara searches for the meaning she once saw, digs deep for the memory of starry gray eyes and innocent kisses. Somehow, all of it pales in comparison to the intensity burning underneath Zuko’s newest scar. That one small touch has crumbled the pillar supporting Katara’s belief in her destiny. And it’s not fair, she thinks, because Zuko and Aang are such different people. She’s certain that Aunt Wu had meant Aang.
Zuko lets out a snore and rolls towards her in his sleep, one hand curled against the angry red wound on his chest. She reaches out with a shy hand to brush the hair from his eyes, feeling the slide of the strands between her fingers, the ridges of his scar against her unblemished fingertips. The ghost of that mysterious emotion is a tickle at the edges of her soul. Katara can feel the all-consuming burn of it, the temptation to lose herself in its true depths.
“I hardly know you,” she whispers to him. “Not like this. We’ve had so little time. How can that be enough to throw everything into question? Aunt Wu told me it was Aang. She told me.”
Except she didn’t. Katara knows it. And Sokka had told her. He’d warned her about self-fulfilling prophecies and reading too much into Aunt Wu’s ‘mumbo jumbo.’
“It’s a bunch of hooey, Katara,” Sokka said. “You need to make your own decisions and figure out what you want for yourself. Don’t let some batty old lady ruin your life for you.”
The waterbender stares at the creases in her palm, studies the mottled lines of Zuko’s scar, learns the fine, sharp features of his face in a new way that is entirely unrelated to enmity or friendship. And when she finally stretches out beside him on the plush mattress, it’s only to fall into a fitful sleep punctuated by confused thoughts of why didn’t I see it, how didn’t I know, on an endless loop.
As always, I cherish and look forward to your thoughts, comments, kudos, and positivity! Expect the next update rather soon. xx
Chapter 2: Year Three: A Flirtation
You all made this torturous week SO. MUCH. BETTER with your comments and kudos. You absolutely made my day every day and I can't wait to dive into the rest of this story with you!
LET'S DO THIS.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
At first, things with Mai are comfortable and familiar in a boring sort of way that brings Zuko a certain degree of comfort in the years immediately after the war. And when the fact that they evolved into different people during Zuko’s months with the Avatar brings to light the faults in their relationship, their decade-old friendship is the undercurrent that buoys their bond on its worst days, calling them back to mend fractures and heal splits. They break up and get back together so many times in three years that Zuko’s advisors give up on considering the dark-haired beauty a real contender for the title of Fire Lady. Oddly enough, this suits Zuko just fine. As long as he is splitting up and getting back together with Mai on a consistent basis, the advisors keep their mouths shut about other eligible young ladies and stop pressing the idea of marriage.
Mai’s problems with Zuko don’t stem from his duties as Fire Lord. She also doesn’t care that he refuses to discuss his weekly visits with Azula. And when his search for his mother, hidden from Mai like so many other things, brings Ursa forth from a safe house kept by a branch of the White Lotus that not even Iroh knew about, Mai doesn’t bat an eye. She understands the need for secrets and was raised to never pry into others’ business.
Out of everything that could drive a wedge between Mai and Zuko (his hours as Fire Lord, her father’s apparent dislike of him, her distaste for his friends…), her real issue is the scar that branches out from the center of Zuko’s chest and the fact that he won’t be honest with her about how it came into existence.
They revisit the problem again and again. Whenever Mai catches sight of Zuko shirtless, it inevitably incites an argument so intense that Mai actually raises her voice. The fights become so frequent that he stops taking his shirt off during the increasingly few times they fall into bed together. Sometimes all it takes is the absentminded brush of his hand over his sternum to incite her wrath.
Zuko has just stepped out of the bath and is toweling off his hair when he realizes that Mai has let herself into his room. She sits in a chair by the bank of south-facing windows, long hair swept up into a chignon, a rectangle of parchment with a blue wax seal between her fingers. Her pale eyes are fixed on the center of his bare chest.
“You have a letter from that Water Tribe girl,” she says, voice carefully flat.
Zuko bristles at her words and her tone. “Her name is Katara,” he says. “You’ve met her countless times.” He crosses to his closet and pulls a black tunic free from its depths, ignoring the heated emotions blooming behind the lightning scar on his chest, three years older and no less intense.
“Five times, Zuko. I’ve met her five times.” Mai tosses the letter to the table on her left. It slides across the glossy surface and teeters for a moment before falling over the edge. The twenty-year-old Fire Lord watches the missive fall to the floor, waiting for whatever is coming next. It doesn’t take long.
“She knows, doesn’t she? I’ve heard her ask you about it.”
Zuko sighs. “Mai, I really don’t want to do this right now. I have a budget meeting in—”
“You told her about it, but you can’t tell me.”
“I didn’t have to tell her about it,” Zuko says. “She was there when it happened. Just like I don’t have to tell you what happened to my face because you were there when that happened.”
Mai rolls her eyes and folds her arms over her chest. “You’ve told her about that, we both know you have.”
“I’m allowed to talk to my friends.”
“When did you stop considering me a friend?” she bites out. When Zuko kneels to pick up Katara’s letter, Mai rises from her seat to loom over him. “Somewhere down the line, you stopped trusting me, Zuko.”
“I don’t think you really want to get into that,” Zuko says, attempting to keep his voice level in order to counter the volume of hers. The seal on the letter is imprinted with the inverted image of the pendant on Katara’s necklace, a pattern worn into the pad of his thumb after months in his possession so many years ago. When he breaks the seal, blue wax imbeds itself under his thumb nail and flakes to the floor, dusting the toes of his black boots.
“I went to prison for you, Zuko!”
It’s a letter from both Water Tribe siblings, written in Katara’s neat script and criss-crossed with additions in Sokka’s sloppy writing, extending an invitation to a team reunion in Ba Sing Se on the winter solstice. Uncle has offered up accommodations and the use of the Jasmine Dragon, just as he did after the war. Zuko makes a mental note to have the majordomo notified of the impending trip before he addresses Mai’s last statement.
She’s itching for a fight, that much is clear. Zuko’s secrecy surrounding the scar on his chest has long been the thorn in the side of their relationship. He knows it’s burning them to ashes slowly and painfully, but he can hardly bring himself to acknowledge the reason for the wound in the darkest corners of the night. Here in the light of day, in front of his south-facing windows, the bubble of fountains in the gardens below singing up to him, admitting it to Mai is out of the question.
“Do you know what I learned during the war?” he says instead, tucking the letter into his pocket. “Just because you make a sudden about-face doesn’t mean you deserve someone’s trust.”
“Did the waterbender teach you that?”
“Yes,” Zuko says. He crosses to the door, hands smoothing his damp hair into a topknot so that he can affix his crown as he walks to the budget meeting. “I’ll be heading to Ba Sing Se for the winter solstice to meet up with my friends. You should decide if you’re coming along.”
She’s beautiful in the fading winter light of the Ba Sing Se sunset, hair studded with golden beads and tumbling down her back. Zuko watches as she kicks off her shoes and hoists the skirts of her plum-colored dress to step up onto one of the many chairs that litter the back patio of Uncle’s house. She strikes a match and sets about lighting one of the dozens of navy and emerald paper lanterns that hang over the space.
“You know I could light all of these in about ten seconds, right?” he can’t help but say.
Katara smiles and he feels the scar on his torso twinge. “I think tonight deserves more of a personal touch,” she says softly. Then, her eyes find his and he’s struck by Azula’s lightning once more, just like he always is whenever they’re alone during these sporadic team reunions. “Not that it wouldn’t be personal if you did it. Tonight is just…special.”
“Why is that?” Zuko asks, reaching up to light one of the lanterns above his head.
“I’m not supposed to say.” Katara moves her makeshift step stool and sets about lighting another grouping of lanterns. He watches the sunset and the flames cast flickering shadows over her face. These three years post-war have been nothing but kind to her and he might be more enamored with her than he was at seventeen. Distracted by the thudding of his heart and the graceful planes of her face, Zuko narrowly avoids burning one of the paper lanterns to a crisp.
“Since when do you and I keep secrets from each other?” he says teasingly. Mother would admonish him for flirting with Katara when he’s involved with Mai. But Mother isn’t here at the moment and neither is Mai and the way he’s said it has earned him a laugh that encourages him to draw nearer to the waterbender.
They continue their project side by side, exchanging glances and soft laughs. And if he stands a little too close or brushes up against her one too many times, she doesn’t complain and there is nobody around to call him out on it. It turns into a sort of dance wherein they draw away from one another repeatedly, only to return again and again, a little closer each time. He can’t help but remember waking up next to her the morning after the Agni Kai, her body tucked close to his. Tonight, the high collar of her dress covers the slender line of her neck, but he can see the dip of it so clearly in his memory, can recall the feel of her skin and her pulse under his fingertips when he’d reached out to touch her.
“You won’t tell anyone?” she finally says, hopping off of the chair she’s been using to boost herself up and blowing out the match in her hand.
Zuko rolls his eyes. “Who would I possibly tell, Katara?”
“There are plenty of things I don’t tell Uncle, thank you,” he says.
“Oh, really?” Katara smiles slyly, stepping close. Zuko feels her fingers brush over his ribs to rest in the center of his chest. The emotions buried behind his scar begin to howl and he prays that she can’t feel the thud of his heart. “Sounds like maybe you’re keeping some secrets yourself, Zuko.”
“I don’t keep any secrets from you, Katara.” The lie comes out gruffly and the firebender can feel a frown creasing the corners of his lips.
Katara hums thoughtfully, tilting her head to the side. There’s a slight pinch between her eyebrows and something both inquisitive and searching in her eyes. While it’s a look Zuko has become familiar with over the past three years due to the sheer amount of times he’s found it aimed his way, he can’t quite grasp the meaning behind it. It’s almost as if she’s trying to piece together a puzzle that’s missing pieces or searching him for the answer to a question that she doesn’t know.
The golden beads that dot the gentle waves of her hair shimmer in the light of the lanterns. She’s so close to him it’s almost painful. Zuko’s fingers itch to seek purchase against the curves of her waist. Then, suddenly, she’s standing on her tiptoes, her body leaning fully into his, to whisper into his ear that Sokka is proposing to Suki right now and it’s all he can do to focus his attention on her words.
The waterbender pulls back, tongue darting out to wet her lips. Zuko forces himself not to track the movement with his eyes. “He asked me to throw a little party together,” she continues.
“That’s nice of him,” Zuko says. One of his traitor hands reaches out to move some stray strands of hair off her forehead. Her eyes won’t leave his.
“Sure looks lovely out here!” Toph’s voice interrupts loudly and the Fire Lord nearly jumps out of his skin. He and Katara turn to see the little earthbender standing in the doorway, fists on her hips. Zuko steps hastily away from Katara and busies himself with cleaning up the used matches and lighting one last lantern.
“What are you doing out here?” Katara asks, ignoring Toph’s needling.
“Wearing fancy clothes for reasons that you refuse to tell me,” Toph says, finding a seat and kicking her grimy feet up on a spare chair. “Oh! And chaperoning this little…whatever is going on out here.”
Katara splutters and it catches Zuko off guard. He pauses to stare at the back of her head as if it will provide answers to all of his questions that sit bundled behind the scar on his chest. “There’s nothing to chaperone!” she finally gets out.
“Uh huh.” Toph rolls her eyes. “Sure there isn’t.” Somehow her sightless gaze finds Zuko and he knows that she knows. The little smirk playing about her lips proves it. “Your mom just got here. And Mai.”
And if Toph’s arrival hadn’t killed whatever mood was building, that announcement certainly does it. Katara scoops her shoes off the ground with one hand, gathers the skirts of her dress in the other, and dashes down the stairs into the dark yard without so much as a glance back at Zuko.
Later that night, as Suki and Sokka’s surprise engagement party roars on under the green-blue glow of the lanterns, a riot of music blossoming from Iroh’s new phonograph, Mai sends Zuko on a quest to find her a specific snack from inside. And that’s when he unexpectedly walks in on Katara kissing the Avatar in Iroh’s kitchen. Her face is unreadable when their eyes meet and Aang looks absolutely lovestruck.
And Zuko’s heart crumbles to smoldering ashes in his chest.
He tells her the truth when they return from Ba Sing Se. Icy winter rain is pelting the south-facing windows of his bedroom. The flames in the fireplace and the torches lining the walls crackle and pop, casting the room into flickering shadows. He can’t look away from the watery glow of the city, can’t stop hoping against hope that Katara might be somewhere out there, looking north and thinking of him despite the fact that logic tells him she won’t be returning south for a long time. Now that he has her, Zuko knows Aang won’t be letting her go.
“Azula wasn’t aiming for me,” he says, fingers rubbing over the scar beneath his shirt like a nervous tic. Behind him, Mai is silent. “She’s always known me better than I know myself. She can ferret out people’s weaknesses like nothing else. I didn’t even realize until she looked at Katara. But she did. Maybe I was too defensive or maybe it was that I wouldn’t let her fight Azula with me. I don’t know.”
The lights of the city wink in and out, their halos blurring as drops of rain roll over the windowpanes. It’s truly a majestic view, something glorious that should be everything he’s ever wanted but somehow falls short. Instead of candles burning in the night, all he sees are the golden beads that had shimmered in the waves of Katara’s hair back in Ba Sing Se.
“Regardless, Azula figured it out. And the second she took aim, I just knew. And I knew I wouldn’t be fast enough to redirect the lightning completely, but living without Katara was an impossibility. So I took the hit.”
When Zuko turns to look at Mai, she’s standing between him and the door, her face as stoic as ever. A roll of thunder explodes in the heavens, but she stands there, unshaken, her eyes scrutinizing him.
“I don’t regret it,” he says. Mai’s mouth twitches. Whether she’s holding back tears or a a mirthless smile, Zuko can’t tell.
“No,” she says. “I don’t suppose you’d regret saving the woman you love.”
“It’s never going to go away, Mai.”
“Maybe you aren’t trying hard enough to get over it.”
Zuko shakes his head. “There’s no getting over it. Mai, I’m in love with her. It’s…irrevocable.”
“So the last three years…”
“I’m so sorry,” he says and he means it with every fiber of his soul. “You didn’t deserve any of this. And I should have been honest with you from the start.”
“You know the Avatar will never give her up, right?”
“Yes. I’m well aware.”
“Then where does that leave you? And where does that leave us?”
Zuko sighs, flopping into an empty chair near the windows. He rests his elbows on his knees and runs a hand over his face. “There will never be anyone else for me,” he says quietly. “Whatever is in my future, Mai, it’s going to be political on my part. Could you really live with that?”
She is silent for a few moments. He thinks he hears her sniffle, but the sound is buried under a particularly loud pop from the direction of the fireplace. Maybe he should reach out to her, offer her some modicum of comfort or reassurance, but all he can do is wrap himself in the tatters of his demolished heart. And when he finally dares to meet her eyes, he looks up to find that she’s already gone.
SO stoked to bring you the next installment. You don't even know. There's some editing and cleaning up to do, but it will arrive soon. xx
Zuko sees less and less of Katara over the next three years. It’s hard to pin down a moving target and that’s what she’s become since she started dating Aang. They make it to all of the important events, of course. Aang is the Avatar. Missing important summits or meetings is out of the question. But team reunions cease to happen multiple times a year, tapering off until they all run into each other seemingly by chance. Toph is terrorizing her metalbending students, Sokka and Suki are doing who-knows-what on Kyoshi Island (Sokka’s drawings are less than illuminating and his letters filled with exaggeration and hyperbole), and Katara travels the world with Aang, keeping tenuous peace in colonies, schmoozing foreign dignitaries, and recruiting acolytes.
A century of war has worn down the citizens of the Fire Nation. Shifts in industry are difficult. Ozai’s supporters are loud but few. Some days Zuko resents Aang for not doing what he should have done where Ozai was concerned (and also for having the devotion of a certain woman, but that’s beside the point). And though there was a large amount of skepticism at the beginning of Zuko’s reign, he finds himself twenty-three years old and beloved by his people by the time Suki finally relents on her long engagement and sets a date to marry Sokka.
Three years of only seeing Katara at mostly-political events have done much to render his broken heart to nothing more than an occasionally-throbbing wound. They have done nothing , however, to curb his jealousy. This is something that has taken up permanent residence in the bowels of his stomach like a steaming, hissing dragon. Oddly enough, this cements his friendship with Sokka in ways that sneaking into a high-security prison never did. It even allows Zuko to form a real friendship with Suki in the days leading up to the wedding.
Aang and Katara are…gross. The entire gang has been exposed to the soppiness of their relationship over the years, but Sokka and Suki’s celebration finally allows them all to talk about it.
Upon Sokka’s request, Zuko arrives at the South Pole a week early, in danger of freezing off all his favorite bits, and leaving his advisors in an uproar over the fact that he would willingly leave Iroh in charge for so long. He expects Sokka to meet him at the docks. Instead, Katara greets him with a broad smile and an enthusiastic hug that sets his retinue of guards on edge. When she tucks her arm through his and begins to lead him into the city, one of his guards actually attempts to protest. Katara silences the man with a deadpan quirk of her eyebrow.
“Masters of our elements,” she says drolly. “Sifus to the Avatar. Close friends . I think you can all relax.”
Zuko gets the feeling he’s being subtly led on a scenic tour of the Southern Water Tribe, but he doesn’t protest. It’s a work in progress still, the walkways crammed with building materials and scaffolding. He’s reminded of the sister tribe, though, with the endless canals and glittering bridges. When he remarks on this, Katara sighs.
“All of our architects, builders, and engineers are from the north,” she explains. “I think they wanted it to feel like home. Guess that’s what happens when there’s only one southern bender left and she up and leaves to travel the world with the Avatar.”
He cuts his eyes to her face and finds a funny sort of smile there that contradicts the cheer and brightness of her voice.
“Can’t you tell Aang that you want to come back for a while?” he asks. “Or at least more often?”
“Yeah,” Katara says, the words dry. “ Okay . How about you try telling the last airbender that you need to prioritize another culture over his? See how that goes.”
“But you’re the last southern waterbender,” Zuko protests. “And this is your culture. That’s just as important.”
Her eyes narrow. “Not to everyone,” she says. And the hard edge in her voice tells Zuko to stop pressing the matter.
They’ve come to a halt, the twining and twisting pathways of the unfinished city depositing the pair of benders at the rim of a snowy coastal bluff that overlooks the ocean from hundreds of feet up. On the horizon, a series of ice arches loom out of the water, taller than the Gates of Azulon and glittering like a million shattered diamonds in the fading light of late autumn.
Distracted terribly by the view, Zuko completely misses the building that seemingly grows up out of the snow until Katara says, “I did manage to accomplish one thing before I left,” mittened hands propped on her hips and a satisfied smirk playing about her lips.
Before them is a glassy rotunda, it’s domed roof topped with a needle-like spire of ice. The whole thing is nearly as massive as the Royal Palace back home, though it appears to be one level rather than many. Great arching doors of burnished copper etched with the familiar crescent moon and waves swing open seemingly on their own.
“You built this?” Zuko asks, floored.
Katara shrugs. “It’s based on a drawing Sokka did,” she says. “Toph made the doors for us. And I had help from the northern benders.”
“You built this,” Zuko repeats, mouth ajar, breath puffing out into the chilly air. “You built a…a…” He pauses, tilts his head in consideration. “What is it, exactly?”
“The chief’s residence,” Katara smiles. “Arnook is really jealous.”
“You live here?”
The smile falters. “No,” she says quietly. “I’ve never actually lived here. We finished it just before our last reunion in Ba Sing Se. This is the first time I’ve been able to see it in person since then. Aang and I are constantly on the move, y’know?”
“Thanks,” she says. “Wait until you see the view from your window tonight. It’ll get even better.”
Dinner is served buffet-style in the main room of the rotunda that Sokka tells him serves as the tribe’s meeting hall. All dishes have been prepared Katara and her grandmother, a tiny, wizened woman to whom Zuko apologizes profusely maybe a million times before Katara shuts him up. A fire burns merrily in the center of the room. Overhead the entirety of the domed ceiling is littered with panes of ice so sheer Zuko first mistakes them for glass.
“Arnook thought we should have gone with colored glass,” Sokka informs Zuko around a mouthful of meaty stew. “But he’s just jealous because we’ve got the southern aurora and all he’s got is the northern. Killer views in here at night, man. Little trippy, not gonna lie.”
“Especially if you’ve been hitting the cactus juice,” Suki teases, sliding into the seat across from Zuko.
“You’d better believe it.”
Across the room, Katara and Aang have ensconced themselves in a little nook away from everyone else. The Avatar is insisting on hand-feeding bites of his own food to his girlfriend. In the pits of Zuko’s stomach, the beast rears its head and flares its nostrils as though it can sense the simpering smile on the airbender’s face. Try as he might to focus on Sokka and Suki’s lighthearted conversation, Zuko can’t stop his eyes from sliding towards the other couple, his lip twitching up in a curl.
“Disgusting, innit?” Sokka asks.
“What’s that?” Zuko says, cup of wine halfway to his mouth. He forces his gaze back to his friend.
The warrior gestures towards his sister. “The Disgustingtons over there.” He points a finger into his mouth and makes a retching noise. They’ve discussed their mutual feeling of revolt surrounding Aang’s treatment of Katara on several occasions, but Zuko feels the flame of solidarity burn brighter in his heart at Sokka’s immature noise.
He watches the oddly absent look on Katara’s face as Aang nuzzles his face into her cheek. “There’s something weird about them,” he comments.
“I’ll drink to that,” Suki agrees, tilting her cup in his direction.
“What’s weird?” Sokka says. “I mean, they seem happy. Gross, but happy.”
“I think I walked in on them fighting the other day,” Suki says. “It was…cheerfully passive-aggressive and they stopped the moment they saw me. Aang got all happy and blustery and left really fast.”
“Katara seems tense,” Zuko tells her. “She doesn’t write as often as she used to. When she does, it’s always…”
“Missing something?” Suki supplies and he nods. She sighs. “I know what you mean.”
“You wanna talk weird?” Sokka interjects in a joking manner. “Let’s talk Zuko’s absurdly close friendship with my little sister.”
Zuko freezes and feels the back of his neck flush with embarrassment. Suki’s eyes narrow in thought as she looks at him and he swears he can see calculating thoughts running behind her eyes like ticker tape. “Why’s that weird?” he says gruffly. “At least I’m not eating her face while she washes my undies and cooks me three square meals a day.” Then he stabs violently at a hunk of meat in his stew.
His attitude must put Sokka in check because the tribesman immediately changes subjects. He begins to chatter on about a hunt he wants to take Zuko and Aang on tomorrow, a tradition of proving that a husband can provide for his wife by supplying the protein for the wedding meal. The contemplative expression doesn’t leave Suki’s face, though, and Zuko sees her glance between him and Katara several times.
It seems that another brilliant, terrifying woman has seen what he’s so desperately hidden for six years.
Katara isn’t wrong. The view from the icy windows in his room is breathtaking at night. Feet thick but somehow crystal clear, the windows overlook the icy arches that jut out of the pitch black sea. Zuko is enjoying a few fingers of whiskey and watching a stunning display of ghostly colored swaths of light dance over the arches when someone knocks on his door. He heaves himself from the overstuffed, fur-draped chair he’s been occupying for the better part of three hours and opens the copper-plated door. Katara stands on the opposite side of it, a woven basket overflowing with green fabric propped against her hip.
“Hi,” she whispers with a smile that stabs right through his chest and hurts more than Azula’s lightning. “I was wondering if you’d be okay with some company.”
Zuko grunts affirmatively and steps aside, gesturing her into the room with his drink. She brings with her the scent of freshly fallen snow. Flecks of green thread litter the loose braid that drapes over her shoulder. As she drags the second chair around to face the windows and settles in, Zuko closes the door and crosses back to his own seat, attempting to ignore the way his heard thuds and lurches in his chest.
The lights in the sky are utterly transfixing, shimmering and gyrating in shades of pinkish red and bright turquoise. Underneath them, the great ice arches seem to shiver with the reflection of the colors.
“Our tribe’s elders tell tales about the auroras,” Katara says quietly. Zuko rolls his head to watch her as she threads a needle and hefts a forest green parka out of the woven basket. “My favorite is the one that Gran Gran tells on the night of the winter solstice. It says that the lights are the spirits of our ancestors celebrating the union of Tui, the moon spirit, and Malina, the sun spirit. Gran Gran tells it better than I ever could, of course, and it’s lovely when she does.”
“Will she tell it at the wedding?” Zuko asks.
Katara shakes her head. “No. She only tells it on the night of the winter solstice when the lights are at their most colorful and last for days at a time. It’s her tradition.”
Zuko watches her for a while longer. She’s stitching a complicated pattern of green flowers onto the parka, her tongue poking out at the corner of her mouth as she concentrates. He remembers the look well from days of war. He smothers a laugh in his glass of whiskey as he recalls her throwing a half-mended pair of Sokka’s underwear at the warrior’s face in the courtyard of the Ember Island house, the result of a snide remark about duties.
“I thought you swore off sewing after the war,” Zuko says, turning his gaze back to the lights. They appear to ebb and flow in intensity. A faint smudge of shocking yellow has joined the riot of color.
Katara snorts. “I tried. Aang still can’t manage to darn his own socks or stitch up a seam on his pants. But this is different.”
“This is Suki’s wedding parka.” He can hear the smile in her voice. “It’s not so much sewing as it is a gesture. A symbol that she’s part of the tribe. Traditionally, the mother-in-law sews a woman’s parka, but… Well. Anyway, Gran Gran and I have been working on this for over a year. Most of the work has fallen to me, though. Gran Gran’s hands don’t function as well as they used to.”
“It looks complicated,” Zuko says, looking at the dizzying array of flowers out of the corner of his eye.
Katara laughs. “I’ve had this pattern burned into my retinas for months ,” she says. “But the hard part is almost over. Just some final alterations to complete after tonight.”
They sit in silence for a while, the rustle of the fire and the dull push and pull of Katara’s needle and thread the only sounds. Zuko polishes off his drink and watches the auroras until they fade to near nothingness. He is distantly surprised by the warmth of this room with its ice walls and little fire pit. He’d expected to be buried deep under the furs on his bed, achingly alone and trying not to think of the waterbender who’s carried away his heart. Instead, she sits next to him, her feet tucked up on her chair, flecks of green in her dark hair.
“Won’t Aang be wondering where you are?” he asks. The dragon of jealousy in his stomach stirs, winking open an eye and sniffing the air.
“Doubtful,” Katara answers. She pushes a lock of hair behind her ear. “He fell asleep in the stables with Momo and Appa hours ago. Wanted to spend quality time with them before your hunting trip tomorrow.”
“I’m sorry,” Zuko says, “ what? ”
Katara huffs and rolls her eyes. “I mean, you know Aang,” she says briskly, waving her hand. “The only reason he’s going tomorrow is because Sokka promised him that he won’t have to participate in anything he doesn’t agree with.”
Zuko pictures Aang with his fingers plugged in his ears and a loud song humming out of his throat while the others hunt and tries not to snigger.
“You’re telling me,” he says, spurred on by the whiskey and the dragon, “that Aang voluntarily chose to spend tonight in bed with animals as opposed to you? ”
“Well, um,” Katara stammers. He hears her shift uncomfortably in her seat. “I mean, it’s Aang, y’know?”
“Aang’s an idiot,” Zuko’s mouth mutters without permission from his brain.
The pull of Katara’s needle and thread halts mid-stitch. Zuko’s brain catches up with his mouth and his heart goes into overdrive. He thinks his face might actually be on fire and hopes he can blame it on the whiskey if Katara says anything. But the rhythmic push and pull of her stitching starts back up again and she does’t say another word until she calls it a night an hour or so later. She gathers her things with a quiet whisper of “Goodnight, Zuko,” and then lets herself out of his room.
Zuko makes a mental note to tell Sokka not to let him near any weapons on this hunting trip because he’s positive that he’s either going to harm Aang or off himself. Then he strips himself of the trappings of a Fire Lord and buries himself under the furs on his bed, achingly alone and able to think of nothing but Katara.
Zuko, Sokka, and Aang are joined by Hakoda and Pakku on their hunt. The firebender could not be more grateful for the presence of the older men. It means more people to make awkward conversation with and fewer opportunities to be left alone with Aang. Much to his surprise, he and Hakoda get along swimmingly. Perhaps it's his respect for the tribe's traditions or his years'-long friendship with Sokka. Either way, Zuko finds himself welcomed into the company of his fellow world leader. In certain ways, Hakoda reminds him of Uncle. The love of a good joke, the air of wisdom, a talent for advice (though much more straightforward than Uncle's)... Spending time with Hakoda also means spending time with Pakku who seems to like Zuko less than his son-in-law does. To be fair, the older man seems to like everyone less than Hakoda does.
Though it lasts three days, and Zuko is pretty positive he will never regain feeling in his toes and that his balls have somehow managed to burrow their way into his body, the hunt goes off without a hitch. They bring home a sled piled high with carcasses that Kanna promptly sets about skinning and butchering.
Toph arrives the following day, another member of the Aang and Katara are a Gross Couple Coalition who commiserates with the older three over meals and also complains loudly and frequently about wearing shoes. She becomes Zuko’s default drinking buddy, something Katara disapproves of with pinched brows and whispers of “Zuko! She’s only nineteen!”
At the end of the week, the gang piles onto a Water Tribe ship just after sunset with Hakoda, Kanna, Pakku, and a phalanx of Kyoshi Warriors who Zuko cannot keep straight, though he knows Ty Lee is among them. With Hakoda at the helm and Katara bending at the prow of the ship, they journey smoothly and easily through the water as the auroras begin to ripple through the sky. When Kanna throws out a hand, Katara ceases her fluid movements and Hakoda drops anchor.
There, in the middle of the ocean, on a ship festooned with winter blossoms, under the brightening lights of the southern aurora, Kanna, as the elder of her tribe, joins Sokka and Suki in marriage. It is small, short, and simple but the spirituality of it resounds in Zuko’s blood like a plucked shamisen string. Despite Toph’s persistent, sharp elbows to his ribs, however, he cannot seem to keep his eyes from wandering to Katara where she stands next to Aang, one arm wrapped around the airbender’s waist, her free hand grasping at the pendant on her necklace. Zuko can see tears shining bright in her eyes.
Pakku, in a surprising display of musical talent, starts the celebration on the way back to the tribe, his hands moving deftly over a set of drums that set the Kyoshi Warriors dancing and stomping. Kanna joins in with a pan flute, the clear, crystalline tune seeming to rise and fall in time with the auroras.
“You’re bringing me down, Sparky,” Toph mutters at Zuko’s elbow. “Either get over it or make a move.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Zuko whispers back.
“That’s a bunch of bullrhino shit and we both know it.” The earthbender pulls a flask from the pocket of her parka and drinks before offering it to Zuko who accepts it eagerly. “I want off this fucking boat.”
“Is land any better here?” Zuko says wryly.
“It’s all shit here,” Toph says.
“It’s not so bad,” he counters. “The auroras are pretty stunning.”
“Aang tried describing them to me.”
“Yeah,” Toph says. “He’s got a real knack for describing colors in a way that helps me to understand them a little better.”
“Another weapon in his arsenal of talents,” Zuko mutters bitterly.
“Hey,” Toph snaps. “I know you’re all angry and hurt over here, but he didn’t do anything wrong.”
“You’ve told me on no less than twelve different occasions that you think they’re a disgusting mess.”
“They are. But that doesn’t mean you get to act like a dick about Twinkletoes. He’s a decent guy and this isn’t a pissing contest. Either get over it or making your fucking move. I won’t say it a third time!” Toph snatches her flask out of his hands and punctuates her words with a drink.
Everyone in the tribe greets the wedding party at the docks. Sokka and Suki are swept through the city on the wave of their own personal parade and deposited on the bluff outside the chief’s residence. Someone has erected a massive pillared pavilion from ice and a ragtag band has struck up a tune. Tables groan under the weight of all the food. People, it seems, have already been dancing for some time. Several large bonfires warm the area.
Zuko manages to remain on the periphery of the party thanks in large part to the scar and scowl on his face and the five-pronged crown in his top knot. Unfortunately, none of this deters his friends. Ty Lee, nearly unrecognizable under her full face of Kyoshi Warrior paint, manages to drag him to the dance floor no less than five times where she proves to be nothing short of an enthusiastic partner. Some time after his last turn about the floor with the acrobat, he is nursing a tankard of Earth Kingdom beer at a table by himself when Suki settles next to him onto the bench. She faces away from him, back and elbows propped on the table.
“How long?” she asks without preamble.
She levels him with a pointed stare. “You know what.”
Zuko sighs and shoves his drink away. “I knew you’d figured it out,” he grumbles.
“You are shockingly easy to read.” Her foot is tapping along to the beat of the drums and her eyes are fixed on the dancers.
“Vomiting in Pakku’s spare boots,” Suki says.
“Stop trying to change the subject.”
The firebender rolls his eyes. “Why does this even matter to you?”
“Because I love her and I like you and none of this surprises me in the least.” She nudges his forearm with her elbow. “C’mon, Zuko. I won’t tell anyone. I know how to be a friend.”
“I wasn’t aware you considered me a friend, to be honest. I thought you tolerated me because I was friends with Sokka.”
“War changes people,” Suki says with a shrug. “Now knock it off. How long?”
He heaves a sigh. “I don’t really know,” he confesses. “Sometime before the comet, but sometime after we stole Appa so we could murder a man.”
Suki lets out a low whistle. “And you haven’t cracked yet? Spirits , Zuko. How are you this tightly wound?”
Sokka reenters the party to raucous cheers and Suki stands up. Before she leaves to rejoin her husband, she places a gentle hand on Zuko’s shoulder. “For what it’s worth,” she says in his ear, “I don’t think you’re alone in what you feel.”
Zuko freezes, tankard of beer poised near his mouth, and raises an eyebrow. Suki shrugs.
“Call it a hunch,” she says before she walks away.
The party is dying down and Zuko is picking through the sweets table when a smooth, tan hand slips into his and tugs. He looks up into Katara’s clear blue eyes and feels his scowl instantly melt off his face. She’s shed her parka despite the freezing air and he realizes that she’s wearing that same dress from Ba Sing Se three years ago.
“Aren’t you cold?” he says.
“I won’t be cold if you come dance with me,” Katara says with a smile.
“Oh, um…” Zuko looks away from her face and locates the beat of the music while subtly scouring the diminished crowd for Aang. It seems the Avatar has called it a night. “I don’t really know how to dance to slow songs.”
“It’s not that hard.” She tugs at his hand again. “Come on. This is one of the last songs and you haven’t danced with me at all.”
“I’m not much of a dancer.”
“That’s not true. You danced with Ty Lee plenty tonight.” She gives another tug and Zuko’s feet disobey him as if they know it’s impossible for him to tell her no and mean it. She’s as stunning as ever. He’d rope the sun, the moon, and all the stars and hand them to her on a silver platter if she asked.
While he doesn’t know exactly what he’s expecting, he certainly knows it’s not for Katara to press so close to him that they can do little more than revolve in tight circles. It’s suspiciously easy to sink into this moment, her head on his shoulder, their clasped hands resting against his chest. The beads that dot her hair tonight are silver, winking up at him under the effervescent lights of the auroras. Thoughts of Aang fade to nothingness, the gaping chasm behind the scar on his chest shrinks to the eye of a needle, and for three soft, slow songs, Katara is Zuko’s.
As the final drumbeats fade away, he walks her to the door of her room in the chief’s residence, their arms looped together, their eyes locked. They linger for a moment in silence. When Katara leans in and presses her lips to the corner of his mouth, Zuko’s entire universe shrinks down to the electric air around the two of them. Without a second thought, he turns to catch her lips with one light, lingering kiss. It’s all he dares to do and far more than he should have honorably done, but the rightness of it threatens to bring him to his knees. When he opens his eyes, Katara’s are still closed and her hands are fisted in the lapels of his dark, heavy cloak. She swallows hard.
“I’ve, uh…” Her eyes flutter open. Her cheeks are pink. “I’ve had some drinks tonight.”
“Right,” Zuko says, mouth drier than Si Wong. He pulls away, the cold reality of what he’s done sinking under his skin. “Goodnight, then, Katara.”
The chasm in his chest cracks open again like thunder splitting the heavens as he leaves her alone in the hallway and retreats to his own silent, empty room with naught but jealousy and dishonor to keep him company.
This story should just be called "Brilliant, Terrifying Women Who See Through Zuko's Shit, Call Him Out on It, and Encourage Him to Follow His Heart."
Gimme your thoughts! I'd love to hear from you all! xx
Chapter 4: Year Nine: A Misstep, pt. 1
I was going to post this on Friday, but I'm a few chapters ahead now and things are really beginning to happen. I am VERY excited to post the coming chapters, so I figured... Why wait? Let's toss another out tonight.
Zuko curses a lot in the beginning of this chapter. He also drinks a lot. Just FYI. And hopefully you enjoy a few chuckles with our favorite bewildered firebender before the angst tag kicks in again.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Nine years after the war, four weeks before the autumn equinox Zuko reluctantly claws his way into consciousness feeling like someone has pummeled his head with a rather large hammer. The light streaming through the windows is ungodly . When he reaches for a pillow to cover his face, however, he hears only the distinct glassy rattle of a bottle rolling across the stone floor. He cracks open his eyes to find himself sprawled across the floor of the communication tower in the Royal Palace, surrounded by messenger hawks and bird shit.
“Ah, fuck ,” he groans, digging the heels of his palms into his eyes. When he looks at his hands, he sees that they’re stained with ink as vacuum black as his memory of the night before. “What the fuck .”
One of the hawks screeches as Zuko rolls to his hands and knees.
“Fucking shut up ,” he growls at the bird, flipping it off.
Grasping an empty perch with both hands, the Fire Lord manages to lever himself to his unsteady feet. Somehow, he’s missing a shoe. He stands there for a moment, stomach rolling, convinced that his heart has taken up pounding residence in his skull. Bile burns at the back of his throat and he swallows it down hard. The hawk at his right shoulder cocks its head and surveys him with inquisitive eyes.
“What in the name of Agni happened last night?” Zuko croaks. His throat is raw, his mouth feels like it’s been stuffed full of cotton, and his eyes feel oddly puffy. Given his sleeping accommodations, he can’t help but wonder if he’s having some sort of allergic reaction to the birds. The hawk at his right shoulder emits a questioning chirrup and Zuko groans. “I wasn’t asking you .”
Staggering for the door, Zuko scoops up the empty bottle and begins his un-lordly walk of shame back to his room, examining the label with aching eyes as he goes. It seems he’d gotten into the private whiskey reserves last night, and the highest quality stuff at that. The question of how much and what else he’d imbibed before the whiskey does not have an answer.
He makes it to the imposing double doors of his bedroom where he stares at his guards in confusion and they gape back, equally baffled before remembering themselves and hastily bowing in deference.
“Fire Lord Zuko,” the one on the right stammers out, “we hadn’t…we weren’t…” He clears his throat. “It’s a pleasure to see you awake, m’lord.”
Zuko squints at the guards. “Did I…” He pauses to scratch at the back of his scalp, knocking loose a few hawk feathers in the process. “Did I… start my evening in my room?” he asks.
The one on the left, Chen, always the more honest of the two, licks his lips nervously. “Sir… We, uh…” He and the righthand guard exchange a glance. “We weren’t… aware that you’d left .”
“So I was here at some point?” Zuko asks.
Chen nods. “Yes, sir.”
“Right.” Zuko frowns, rubs at his pounding forehead. “Okay. If I forget that you didn’t know, will you two forget that this just happened?”
Chen and Righty bow in unison. “Yes, sir,” they say.
“Okay,” Zuko says. “Good.” He opens the door to his room. “No disturbances for a while. I need to vomit in peace.”
He thinks he sees Chen smirk but decides to forgive it as his stomach lurches violently. Slamming the door closed, the Fire Lord nabs an empty, decorative, likely antique vase from a pedestal nearby and promptly hurls his guts into it.
When his stomach is empty and his eyes stop watering, Zuko shoves the vase away and surveys the chaos that is his bedroom. There are several large, damp ink spots on the rugs that cover the marble floors. Crumpled pieces of parchment litter nearly every flat surface from his bed to his desk to the top of the wardrobe. A bottle of wine has spilled across his desk. He finds two more empty whiskey bottles under the sofa in the sitting area.
“Why the fuck…?”
Zuko gropes for one of the balled up pieces of parchment and straightens it out, his good eye widening as he reads aloud the contents.
“‘Dear Katara, I love you.’ Oh no. Oh no, oh no, oh no .”
Cursing quietly to himself, Zuko picks apart another balled up piece of parchment.
“‘Dear Katara, Don’t marry him. I’m in love with you.’ Ah, fuck. Oh, shit.”
He nearly rips apart a third in his shaky attempts to open it.
“‘Dear Aang, Go fuck yourself.’ Oh, nice one, dumbass . Fuck up relations with the fucking Avatar . Oh, what the fuck.”
Zuko opens letter after letter, each along the same lines in terms of content and tone. Most are directed to Katara, a few towards Aang. And so this is how Ursa finds him: In shock on the floor of his room, surrounded by tear-spotted, wine-stained, whiskey-scented letters that are partially-written and clumsy in their attempts to revert a decision long made. Stuck to his bedpost with Uncle Iroh’s knife is a wedding invitation with the ticking time bomb of a date four weeks hence. Ursa pries the knife from the mahogany post and examines the invitation with a frown and a sigh.
“Come on, Zuko,” she says softly, leaning down to help him up, her hands gripping his elbows.
Zuko allows his mother to walk him into his ensuite bathroom where she parks him next to the vanity and sets about filling the tub with steaming water and soothing oils.
“I think I did something terrible,” Zuko tells her as she works.
Ursa rises to her feet and reaches out to pat his scarred cheek, a sadness in her eyes. “Let’s not worry about that right now, sweet boy,” she says. “Clean yourself up. I’ll see that your room is taken care of.”
She sweeps out of the bathroom, a rustle of silk skirts, and closes the door behind herself, leaving Zuko alone with the jealous dragon in his stomach and a specter of regret in his heart. He turns to face himself in the mirror, hands braced against the counter. His puffy eyes make more sense when he adds in the bloodshot sclerae and the letters he obviously sobbed over. He discovers five further hawk feathers stuck in his hair and takes note of the fact that one of the birds apparently shit on him when he was passed out in the communications tower, as evidenced by the glaring white splotch on the front of his shirt.
“You’re a real fucking winner,” Zuko tells his reflection before he divests himself of his clothes and submerges himself in the bath.
While he’s underwater, a servant deposits a change of clothes and a fluffy white towel near the tub. He can hear his mother’s soft voice through the door as she issues instructions. Zuko floats through the water for a long time, allowing the heat to soothe his aching back and pounding head. He scrubs his hair clean and bends the water warmer when it cools off too much.
Afterward, he dresses himself in the fine, smooth clothes of his station and cleans his teeth. His mother sits in one of the two chairs by the south-facing windows, a pot of tea on the table next to her. The only trace of Zuko’s drunken letter writing frenzy is the crackle of the fire where a mound of parchment burns. He takes a seat in the empty chair and accepts the cup of strong black tea his mother offers to him. They sit together in silence for some time, eyes fixed on the city sprawled out before them.
“What do I do?” Zuko finally asks.
“You wait,” Ursa says.
“An answer. If Katara doesn’t want you there, she’ll be sure to tell you.”
“How can you be sure?”
A wry smile twists the corners of Ursa’s mouth. “Because I loved another man before I married Ozai and I received a letter not unlike the one you sent.”
“I’m not even sure I sent one,” Zuko says, ears burning hotly under the blanket of his hair. “And Katara doesn’t love me.” He rolls his tea cup between his hands, watching the liquid slosh around. “She’s marrying the Avatar.”
Ursa lets out a little hum and takes a sip of her tea. “Loving someone and being in love with someone are vastly different things, Zuko,” she says. “You know that. But sometimes it takes people a bit of a journey to figure it out.”
Hours pass in the following weeks at an exceedingly slow pace. Zuko’s temper and his attention span become so short that his advisors begin cancelling meetings on him and seem to spread the word to his ministers. When he does manage to find himself in a meeting, he spends the entire thing thinking about Katara and drafting letters of apology to her in his head. This seems to be an exercise in futility, however, because each day that passes fails to bring a letter of rebuke from either Katara or Aang.
The servants pack Zuko and Ursa’s belongings, an airship is readied, and the Fire Lord convinces himself that there is absolutely nothing to worry about because the lack of response must mean he never managed to send a letter at all. While the flight is lengthy and allots Zuko plenty of time to fret, what had seemed like the world’s worst hangover begins to feel much more manageable. And though he doesn’t necessarily want to watch Katara bond her life to Aang’s, politics dictate that he must and his fears rapidly dwindle to not looking like a wounded fool the entire time.
Until the airship lands and Zuko’s carefully crafted sanity takes several blows.
Rather than being met by Aang or Katara, Zuko and Ursa are welcomed by an acolyte with a cool, discerning gaze that reminds the Fire Lord alarmingly of Mai. She looks at them with calculating green eyes, greets them on behalf of Aang and Aang alone, and escorts them to their rooms while relaying the schedule for the days ahead in a very no-nonsense tone.
His mother doesn’t comment on the lack of propriety before she is shuffled off to the women’s quarters, but Zuko is left with a sour taste in his mouth and the distinct feeling that he isn’t wanted.
Things devolve from there.
Zuko, relegated to the mens’ dormitories with Hakoda, Pakku, Sokka, Uncle Iroh, Kings Bumi and Kuei, Chief Arnook, and dozens of male acolytes he can’t keep track of, doesn’t see hide nor hair of Katara at all within the first forty-eight hours of his arrival. It isn’t until the third night when a massive dinner is held that Zuko finally sets eyes on the waterbender. She sits at a table packed with female Air Acolytes, her face closed off in a way that Zuko has only ever seen on the faces of his family members. The women chatter and laugh, but he can’t help noticing that none of them draw her into the conversation. It strikes him as odd that one of the kindest, most caring people he’s ever met should look so alone and friendless amongst people she has come to call her own.
Aang is goaded to stand up and make a short speech at the end of the meal. He does so, rising from his seat, goblet of the odd banana juice provided with the vegetarian dishes in his hand. The Avatar’s soliloquy is accentuated with a wide grin and several chuckles that might be meant bashfully, but to Zuko come off cocky and inadvertently ignorant. No doubt due to the jealousy burning in his blood.
“I’ve gotten a lot of questions in the past year or so,” Aang says near the middle of his speech. “And it’s always nice to know that the Air Acolytes want to learn how to accurately acclimate to and represent Air Nomad culture. Especially because what I’ll be doing the day after tomorrow doesn’t follow the traditions of my people.”
Across from Zuko, Sokka grumbles something under his breath and scowls at his plate of mostly-untouched vegetables.
“To clarify,” Aang says with one of those strange chuckles, “the Air Nomads never practiced marriage. We were a people of free and unbound love. But my intended is Water Tribe. And she’s been so understanding and so kind as to meet me halfway. At the end of the week, we will be participating in the first ever Air Nomad commitment ceremony.”
This is punctuated by applause from the many guests and acolytes in the hall. Next to Sokka, Hakoda sits with a straight face, his arms crossed over his burly chest.
“How delightful,” Uncle whispers to Zuko under the applause. “New customs are being forged and we will bear witness!”
“My favorite question,” Aang continues, “is why I chose this temple for such an auspicious moment. It’s been the hardest to renovate and is really nowhere near what it used to be. The thing is, this temple has a lot of significance for me.
“What people don’t tell you about being the Avatar is that you’re required to do all of this really difficult stuff in order to be the ultimate arbiter of balance in the world. During the war, I traveled here to spend time with my friend Guru Pathik, who sadly passed away earlier this year. He sought to help me on my quest to master the elements and guided me through the unlocking of all my chakras so that I might master the Avatar State. But when we got to the last chakra, Pathik told me that I needed to let go of my earthly attachments. By that, he meant that I needed to let go of Katara.”
“Oh, dear,” Iroh murmurs.
Iroh shakes his head. “No Avatar has ever forgone mastering the Avatar State, Nephew.”
This exchange takes place under the cover of several loud gasps and sighs that Aang quiets with a dismissive gesture of his hand and a bemused smile.
“I chose Katara,” Aang announces, “the strongest, most perfect woman on the face of the planet. And I would choose her again were I to be given that same choice. Here’s to commitment and the next generation of airbenders!”
Many of the acolytes lurch to their feet, applauding and whistling raucously. Zuko’s eyes seek out Katara and barely have time to register her stricken face before she leaves the room in a blur of blue fabrics. Suki hastily follows after her. Their departure goes unnoticed by most everyone else.
“Uncle,” Zuko says, “what the Avatar just said… What does that mean for the world?”
Iroh clears his throat and shifts in his seat. Across the table, Hakoda and Pakku lean in to listen, their lips taut lines of tension. Sokka, having caught his wife and sister leaving the room, looks torn between listening in or pursuing them. Hakoda, apparently sensing this, weighs his son down with an arm around his shoulders.
“As I said, Nephew,” Iroh says quietly, “this is unprecedented. I do not know what it means for the state of the world. But I think that maintaining positive relations with your fellow world leaders will be of the utmost importance until Aang learns to master the Avatar State.”
“Iroh,” Sokka says, “Aang is stubborn and avoidant. When he doesn’t want to learn something, he just doesn’t.”
“Then we must all do the hard work of learning how to come together to maintain balance if we cannot rely on a fully realized Avatar to help us.” Iroh and Pakku exchange a significant look. “This will be no easy task.”
None of them see Ursa leave the room.
Zuko is filing out of the dining hall in a mass of people when a pale, short-fingered hand shoots out of the shadows between two pillars and tugs him into the dark depths. Alarm bells ring in the back of his mind until he realizes he’s staring down at Toph in all of her grimy glory.
“Where have they been keeping you, Sparky?”
“The westernmost dormitories,” Zuko says.
“With Snoozles and the other men?”
“Swell,” Toph says. “Your room have a balcony?”
“Is that a fact or a question, Zuko? I need accuracy, not dawdling.”
“It’s a fact,” Zuko snaps. “I’m just not sure why you need to know.”
“Fantastic! Round up Snoozles. Suki and I will be along in a bit. We’ll bring the booze.”
“Why the need for a balcony?” Zuko asks.
“It’s this stupid ‘no-fraternization’ rule. We’ve gotta be sneaky. I think Suki’s going to kill one of Aang’s savants if she doesn’t get some time with her husband soon.”
Toph shoves him back into the crowd without ceremony.
Bewildered, Zuko makes his way back to the mens’ dormitories, roping in Sokka along the way. His guards, baffled by their lord’s abrupt disappearance and reappearance make sure to stick closer to Zuko’s side for the duration of the walk.
“What’s going on?” Sokka mutters, glancing sidelong at the Fire Nation guards.
“Do you want to see your wife or not?” Zuko asks and the tribesman claps him on the back.
“You’re a gentleman and a scholar, Zuko, my man.”
The girls arrive shortly after Zuko and Sokka, sneaking over the balcony’s railing like catowls. Zuko, knowing exactly how high off the ground his room is, is thoroughly impressed with their stealth tactics, a feeling which quickly fades when Sokka promptly launches himself onto his wife.
“Not on my bed!” he protests, accepting one of the bottles Toph pulls from the bag draped over her shoulder.
Sokka and Suki surface from their loud, sloppy kiss with twin grins of satisfied shame. They settle side by side on the mattress, a tangle of limbs and love. Zuko’s gut twists as the dragon rears its ugly head in the pit of his stomach.
“Get a room,” Toph grumbles.
“We would like to,” Sokka says. “ Believe me.”
“You know, we all complain about Katara and Aang being gross,” Toph muses, her frosted gaze drifting towards Zuko. “Why have we never commiserated about these two?”
Zuko uncorks the bottle with a grunt. “They have no shame, Champ,” he says before taking a swig of what turns out to be Earth Kingdom rum.
“Just a whole lotta love,” Suki says with a grin.
Sokka is the first to address what Zuko feels must be the elephant in the room. “How’s Katara?” he asks.
Toph digs into her bag, passes out bottles to the others, takes one for herself, and then throws herself onto the stone floor with a sigh of delight. Zuko takes the only chair in the room, eyes on his bottle, but ears alert.
“I don’t know,” Suki says. “It’s more of the same. She seems really frustrated about things, but she keeps talking in circles. I left her with Zuko’s mom.”
Zuko looks up. “You did?”
The warrior shrugs. “Your mom has a wonderfully calming presence. It’s the kind of gentleness of spirit that only a mother can have. I think Katara needs that...particular comfort right now.”
“You’d think she’d be all excited,” Toph muses.
“She isn’t?” Zuko asks, peeling his feet off the floor. He tucks them onto the chair in the hopes that Toph will have less of a read on his heartbeat. Not that it matters. She, like Azula, probably knew before Zuko himself did.
“She hasn’t mentioned it to you?” Sokka asks. “ Sheesh . Tell me your trick, man. I can’t get her to shut up about all of it.”
Suki elbows him. “Don’t be such an insensitive pig, Sokka.” She cuts her eyes to Zuko. “She’s upset about the way Aang views the wedding. You heard his speech in there. He would only settle for a commitment ceremony.”
“What does that even mean?”
Sokka sighs. “I guess it’s an airbender thing. He didn’t want a Water Tribe ceremony because he wants to stay true to his culture.”
“And what about Water Tribe culture? Is that not important?”
“To be fair,” Toph says, “it’s not an entirely unreasonable ask on Aang’s part.” When Sokka opens his mouth to protest, she holds up a hand to silence him. “It’s not an unreasonable request on either of their parts. You would think that they’d be able to meet in the middle to find a compromise that makes them both happy, but they’re both so avoidant that they’ve ended up with this .”
“Katara is the least avoidant person I’ve ever met,” Zuko says.
“Where you’re concerned,” Toph says. “Where I’m concerned. Where literally any of us in this room are concerned. But we’re all different people than Aang. And Katara is a waterbender. She adapts. So where Aang avoids the difficult things, so does she.”
“She really hasn’t mentioned any of this to you?” Suki asks.
The bottom drops out of Zuko’s stomach, a sickening plummet that he hasn’t felt since waking up to find a hundred desperate letters scattered across his bedroom. “I haven’t even seen her since I arrived,” he says.
This is when the world’s worst hangover truly begins to reveal the consequences of Zuko’s whiskey drinking frenzy a month before.
Your plethora of kudos are MUCH appreciated and make me feel warm and fuzzy inside. I will be responding to all of your comments soon! Please leave me more. Comments, I mean. (Is that desperate? Maybe? I just enjoy hearing all of your thoughts.)
Next update coming soon! xx
Chapter 5: Year Nine: A Misstep, pt. 2
There's no way I'm skipping out on the usual Friday update. Not when we're nearly in the thick of it. I have a writing playlist if anyone would care to check it out. I update it occasionally with songs that I've listened to while working on a chapter.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The morning before the autumn solstice finds Zuko restlessly using his free time to explore the unrenovated rooms of the Eastern Air Temple. Truly, it is a gorgeous place. Thousands of years of spirituality seem infused with the very air in the rooms. Someone has been restoring the frescoes that climb the walls beneath a century’s worth of ivy—paints and brushes litter the halls. There is a room that houses a four story statue of Avatar Yangchen and the roof has been blown off, exposing the room to the elements and creating a sort of atrium. Moss and flowers and vines grow wild, crowning and robing this iteration of Aang’s past life and rendering her some sort of nature goddess.
Zuko spends a great deal of time meditating before the giant rendering of Yangchen, hoping that her spirit will offer up some sort of wisdom regarding Katara’s uncharacteristic silence and how to give his sincere support for the match. He receives no answers, though. It’s useless, he supposes in the end, hoping that the past life of the man marrying the woman Zuko loves will give him guidance.
Aimless, unescorted wandering leads the Fire Lord to an unassuming room hardly larger than a storage closet. It boasts nothing more than a table, a single chair, and a musty cot, but the view out the window pulls him through the doorway. Cloud-wreathed mountain peaks stretch out before him like the maw of a tigershark devouring the sky. A familiar disgust for his family legacy burns at the firebender’s heart coupled with a newer sense of shame for daring to hope he could ever take something else away from Aang.
The door slams open and Zuko turns, hands at the ready, only to face Katara. Her eyes are blazing with a fury that he hasn’t seen since he was on the verge of seventeen and groveling for her acceptance into their group. Lowering his hands, he watches with wary eyes as she crosses the room with quick steps and slams her hand down on the small table, a piece of parchment trapped between her palm and the surface. Vaguely, he wonders if his thoughts of her have fused with the spirituality of the temple and brought her forth or if this is Yangchen’s answer to his questions.
“Suki told me to talk to you,” Katara says loudly, cutting the firebender off. “So let’s talk.” She slides the parchment towards him with her fingertips. “What in the name of La do you have to say about this , Zuko?”
He takes a moment to assess her anger. She’s angled her torso away from him and crossed her arms over her chest. Her eyes are flinty, but she can’t seem to look at him too long, her gaze flicks between his face and the paper incessantly. Every once in a while, her mouth and nose twitch like she’s forcing back a sneeze or a sniffle. Landing somewhere between her defensive anger at his joining the group and her misplaced anger at Yon Rha, Katara’s current mood is familiar enough that Zuko doesn’t feel too out of his depths, but alien enough that he approaches the table with caution.
Heart pounding a frenzied beat in his chest, Zuko unfolds the parchment and takes in the entirety of his sloppy, drunken letter. It’s addressed to the waterbender, luckily, and not her intended. And the writing is lovely. Some of Zuko’s best. A little poetic for his sober taste in places, but accurate and eloquent nonetheless. The veracity of his feelings has been unerringly scrawled across the page with a sense of care and fervor that he could have never managed sober or verbally.
When he looks up, it’s to see Katara crying, tears quivering in her eyes and rolling silently down her cheeks. Her lower lip is trembling. It is at this moment that the abruptness of his letter hits home in Zuko’s head and heart. Somehow, he thinks, even after everything, she hadn’t expected this. It takes everything in him not to reach for her when he has a feeling it’s the last thing she would want.
“Oh, shit . Katara.” He looks at the letter and back at her face. Her nose is turning pink and he can’t quite fathom the emotion shining behind her tears. “Oh, fuck . I didn’t mean...”
“You didn’t mean it?” she whispers, voice strangled.
“No!” Zuko exclaims. He can’t deny the truth even if doing so would make things easier on her, even if it would mend the chasm he has inevitably rent in their friendship. He attempts to reach a hand out to her shoulder, remembers himself, and aborts the action halfway through, arm falling awkwardly to his side. “I meant it, Katara. Of course I meant it. I just...never meant to tell you. Not like...not like this .”
Shaking hands are shoved into his pockets. He can feel his face burning. It takes a moment for Katara to say something. In that time, all Zuko wants is to evaporate on the spot if it means his love will stop causing her pain. And then she speaks and it riles him up almost as much as she is.
“We’ve been friends for almost a decade , Zuko. You should have said something before this!”
Zuko lets out a sharp bark of a laugh and scoffs at her, feeling his hackles rise. The two benders step opposite one another, circling each other around the table and trading sides.
“What did you want me to say, Katara? ‘Hi, remember me, the guy who tried to capture the world’s one last hope for peace and taunted you with your mother’s necklace? I think I’m in love with you and I’d love to hear your thoughts?’ Agni , Katara. I was seventeen ! I didn’t know what to do about it!”
Katara’s eyes widen. The tears abruptly halt. “What do you… What do you mean you were seventeen?” she asks, backing up a few paces. “How...how long have you been in love with me, Zuko?”
“How many years?”
“Does it really matter? ” Zuko counters, unable to put a stop to the rising suspicion that she’s attempting to interrogate him.
“Oh, my…” She rakes a hand through her hair. “For the love of La , Zuko! I spent years mired in confusion, trying to work out what was between us. But you were… I couldn’t tell if you were serious or not. You were unreadable .”
“What do you mean I was unreadable?” Zuko exclaims. “Katara, I dove in front of lightning for you!”
“You would have done that for any of us.”
“Not for the reasons I did it for you.”
Katara blinks. She looks somewhat pale.
Zuko steps closer to her, the little table still between them like a stalwart wall. “I flirted with you. Openly. For years . And you flirted right back, if I’m not mistaken.”
“You were dating Mai!” the waterbender hisses. “What exactly was I supposed to do?”
“Okay. Yeah,” he admits. “That’s my fault. But what about the night of Sokka’s wedding?”
She freezes. The dragon of jealousy in Zuko’s stomach crows with delight.
“ You kissed me , Katara. And then I kissed you. Or did I miss the memo that we’re conveniently omitting that little detail of our personal history from here on out?”
“I didn’t think you would remember that in the morning,” Katara says.
“I remember every moment we’ve spent together,” Zuko replies. “All the bad, all the good. It’s like they’ve become parts of me. I carry them with me wherever I go, every single day of my life.”
The waterbender sniffs and wipes her hands over her damp cheeks. She casts him a small smile that sends something stirring in the ashy remains of his long-demolished heart.
“I remember all of them, too, Zuko,” she says, her voice soft.
“Then why are you marrying him, Katara?” he asks. Nine years of defeat sit heavy in his words.
She sighs and looks away, wraps her arms protectively around herself. “He loves me.”
“ I love you. I’m in love with you, Katara.”
“I made a promise to him, Zuko. What do you expect me to do?”
“Are you in love with him?” Zuko asks in lieu of an answer.
“Of course I love him. What kind of a—”
“I didn’t ask if you love him. I asked if you’re in love with him.”
“What difference does that make?” Katara demands, propping her hands on her hips, her eyes flashing.
Zuko sighs and backs towards the door, shaking his head. “That’s just it, Katara. It makes all the difference in the world.”
“Where are you going?”
He pauses, a hand on the open door.
“Why are you walking away?”
“Just…” He groans and squeezes his eyes shut, nine years of love and jealousy and sadness threatening to ignite his short fuse. “Just give me a little time alone, Katara. And think about what I said. Because there’s a really big difference between love and in love .”
That night, the night before Katara marries Aang, Zuko gives his guards the slip, finding silence and solitude on a parapet in the farthest reaches of the Eastern Air Temple. This high up in the mountains with the air so shockingly clean and clear, the constellations are thrown into such sharp relief that Zuko can take in nearly all of the azure dragon. He counts the stars in the horn, the neck, the root, and the room, and is making headway on the heart when soft footsteps pull him from his distraction. Any of his guards would have announced themselves and a life of war hasn’t dulled the edge of his paranoia. He’s on his feet, dagger of flame flaring in his hand before he registers the long ripples of chestnut hair and silvery eyes.
The flame in his hand gutters out. The restless green beast in the pit of his stomach howls with jealous anger and the mark on his chest twinges. He should have known she would have sought him out tonight. There was only so much time she had left to leave him alone.
“Why now, Zuko?” Her voice is gentle in pitch, but it carries clearly across the balcony.
He sighs. “I got tired of not being honest with you, Katara. And I got drunk one night and I got upset and I made a choice that was obviously stupid.”
“Why not after the comet?” Katara demands. “Or that night in Ba Sing Se? Why not literally any of the other times we’ve seen each other over the years?”
“It wasn’t that easy!” Zuko exclaims. “Do you know how many times I wanted to tell you, Katara? Do you have any idea what it’s like to watch you walk into a room or...or get fired up during peace talks? Have you ever seen yourself intimidate cowards in one moment and selflessly give your whole heart to people in need the next?” He’s breathing heavily, her cheeks are pink. “What I feel for you, Katara, is not as easy as stopping you in a corridor to talk for a moment. Having earned your friendship, the thought of asking for your heart is terrifying .”
“It’s just me , Zuko.”
“There is nothing just about you, Katara. There never has been.”
“I just…” She shifts her weight from one foot to the other, rubbing at an elbow with the opposite hand. “I just don’t understand why you didn’t say anything until now.”
The Fire Lord shakes his head and runs a hand through his loose hair. “I told you, Katara, I didn’t ever plan on saying anything.”
“ Why? ”
“Aang was a primary factor in my decision.”
“What about all those years before Aang became relevant?”
Zuko snorts. “Katara, Aang was always relevant. He’s worshipped you since he was twelve.”
“So a twelve year old kid prevented you from telling me how you felt after the comet?”
“After everything I asked you to overcome in order to build trust between us,” Zuko says, ignoring the barb, “I was astounded that you wanted to be friends . Can you honestly stand here and tell me that if I’d said something back then, things would be different now?”
Katara stares at him in silence. And it is in that silence that something dawns on him in an alarming wave of clarity.
“Why didn’t you answer my letter?” he asks.
“You could have told me not to come. You could have put me in my place.” He studies her face with narrow, thoughtful eyes. “Why let me come here?”
Slowly, ever so slowly, she crosses the balcony to stand in front of him. Her cheeks are flushed, her eyes earnestly search his face. “Do you think,” she says, “that I don’t understand how you feel?”
Zuko’s heart crams itself into his esophagus.
“Is it arrogance or poor self esteem that kept you quiet all these years, Zuko? Do you honestly think I couldn’t possibly understand how you feel? Or do you think so little of yourself that you’ve completely negated the possibility that I might feel the same?”
“That’s not funny.”
“I’m not trying to be funny,” she says. “I’ve thought about this every day since the Agni Kai with Azula. But you never said anything, Zuko. And who was I to cross that line? You try having feelings for the Fire Lord when you’re nothing more than some peasant waterbender from a decimated tribe.”
“You’re so much more than that, Katara—”
“To you ,” she says darkly. “ Now .”
“You’re formidable and distinctive,” the firebender argues. He dares to reach out for her hand and she twines her fingers with his, drawing closer. “And you’re brilliant. Somehow you simultaneously strike fear into the hearts of men while inspiring people to hope in the face of the world’s biggest disappointments. People see that. You’re admirable. Anyone would be proud to stand at your side. They’d sacrifice anything—crown and country, if they had it.” He reaches out to brush the fingers of his free hand over her cheek. “I could live a thousand lives and give up everything I ever had and it still wouldn’t be enough. There would still be those with kinder hearts and families who weren’t responsible for the destruction of yours.”
She’s gazing up at him with eyes like starlight and she’s close, so close. It’s entirely too easy to allow his hand to wander from her cheek to the graceful slope of her neck, his thumb ghosting over the line of her jaw to angle her face just so …
“I’m in love with you,” he says. There is a specific sort of freedom in the words that lightens the weight on his shoulders and banishes the dragon from his stomach. “And I would spend every day working to right those wrongs and trying to be someone worthy of your love, Katara.”
The waterbender surges up then, her lips molding to his in a gentle collision, igniting a spark of something infinitely stronger than electric blue lightning. When her free hand comes up to cup his cheek, fingers splayed over the mottled ridges of his scar, Zuko drops the other, looping his arm around her waist and pulling their bodies flush together. In this moment, this kiss, their lips a perfect, intuitive push and pull, Zuko is positive he could die an almost happy man.
It's so much fun to hear from all of you! I am so deeply emotionally invested in this story that I'm glad to know I'm not the only one. Learning your theories and what you've enjoyed about each chapter just makes me that much more excited to continue.
The next chapter will be ready Monday morning, and I am looking forward to it more than any other update thus far. In the meantime, let me know your thoughts! You all make the angst so much more bearable. :)
Chapter 6: Year Nine: An Interlude
A few things before we begin.
1. This chapter is titled as an interlude, but do not skip it! There are many things to learn here because we will revisit Katara. She has a lot to say.
2. This is really where we start earning those tags and that rating. Infidelity. Questionable life choices. Mild sexual content. If you are not on board by now, this is now officially the place to jump ship. Those tags will not fade soon.
3. Your comments moved me to tears on the last chapter! I’m not kidding. To know how much you all love this story or have been pleasantly surprised by the direction it’s gone is EVERYTHING. The quotes and scenes you love are the quotes and scenes I love. Please continue to share your thoughts with me. And know that it’s 100% okay if those thoughts are ever, “I cannot stick with this story.” Katara is not always a good person in this. Zuko (though I love him) is not always a good person in this. There will be other people making questionable choices here. I know that can be hard to stomach. But... Life is complicated and messy. Humans are flawed but still somehow beautiful. Those are the messages of this story.
4. This chapter was written while Bon Iver’s “Blood Bank” played on repeat in the background. I recommend you read it in much the same way. You will find it on the LIYS playlist.
5. No notes from me at the end. I just want this chapter to stick with you for a while. ;) I hope you enjoy and I’ll see you all for the Friday update! xx
And I said I know it well
That secret that you know
But don’t know how to tell
It fucks with your honor
And it teases your head
But you know that it’s good, girl
‘Cause it’s running you with red
- Bon Iver, “Blood Bank”
There is a letter tucked away in a box underneath Katara’s bed. Its creases are well-worn from repeated folding and unfolding, its imperial red seal nearly worn away. The words on the page are written in an angular, practiced hand that does not hint as to the depth of emotion conveyed—everything she accidentally discovered after the comet, but somehow so much more . She has read the letter perhaps three dozen times since it arrived a month ago and she will read it hundreds of times more over the coming years.
It has made her already tumultuous feelings about her upcoming commitment to Aang that much more complicated.
They were supposed to have a wedding, a real Water Tribe ceremony presided over by Gran Gran under the southern lights. The whole thing had been his idea in the first place.
“It’s what the Water Tribes do, right?” he’d said. “I mean, we’ve been together so long. And I know we’re going to be together the rest of our lives. You’re my forever girl! So maybe we should just do it.”
Somehow, Katara had imagined the proposal would be a little more...not necessarily romantic (though that certainly would have been nice), but...confident. Like it wasn’t something that Aang was doing just to placate her even though she’d never even brought up the idea of getting married to begin with.
Aang’s insistence that they include more Air Nomad elements had slowly begun to weather away at that plan, though.
“It’s just a lot to commit to, Katara,” he’d said. “I mean, it’s not what Air Nomads do. Maybe we can do something with a little less pressure?”
Katara, tired of going in endless circles of cheerful disagreements, had conceded more and more, eventually abandoning her meticulously sewn wedding parka and agreeing to saffron and canary yellow robes that made her skin look sallow.
And then the letter had arrived in the dead of night.
Thankful for once that the Air Nomads had a tradition of not allowing men and women to share a room, Katara sat up all night reading and rereading Zuko’s words, tears of remorse clouding her vision. She packed and unpacked her belongings every night for a week following that. She wrote and burned multiple letters of her own. And when Aang had come to her, eager gray eyes and bright smiles, with the idea of the first ever Air Nomad commitment ceremony, she’d felt so guilty in the face of his excitement that it had been impossible to say no.
When Zuko and his mother arrived, Aang had left it to the waterbender to see that they were appropriately greeted. It was the same thing he’d done with every other person save King Bumi.
“Some of the newer acolytes and I are in the middle of a crucial lesson. You understand!”
Katara couldn’t bring herself to do it. Instead, she’d entrusted that particular task to an acolyte by the name of Jaya who had looked at her as though she must be the most incompetent imbecile on Earth.
For two days, Katara managed to avoid even a mention of Zuko. She caught glimpses of him from afar, a broad, towering figure in blacks and crimsons, golden flame glinting in his hair, but ducked behind corners and into rooms with crumbling roofs before he had a chance to spot her.
It was hard to reconcile the quiet, somber-faced Fire Lord with the words hidden under her mattress. As hard as she tried to convince herself that he hadn’t meant it because he hadn’t even bothered to seek her out, Katara knew that every word of his letter had been honest. Zuko was a terrible liar and it was impossible to deny that he’d been telling the truth given her broken promise of ‘no poking or prodding’ after the Agni Kai.
There were other things that became harder to deny the night of Aang’s speech.
Zuko was something of a hot commodity at the table of Air Acolytes she’d had to sit with. She hadn’t been in the mood to participate in their conversation. It was always a struggle to relate to the women who had devoted their lives to Aang and Air Nomad culture. But she’d listened as they’d discussed Zuko without shame. A man of significant power and honor, perpetually single—
“And that aura of tragedy. Spirits, I’d like to devour him!”
“I’ve never seen someone look so devastated at a wedding.”
“I have. I wonder who broke his heart?”
Her own heart sinking to the floor, Katara knew the answer to that question in more concrete ways than she knew her own name. Still, had Aang not started speaking to the crowd at that moment, she might have been able to continue muddling her way through dinner without incident. She would have likely been able to continue lying to herself about jitters and cold feet.
Because Aang wouldn’t have made a speech that was about him instead of them. He would have never alluded to an entire generation of airbenders borne from the hips of the Southern Water Tribe’s last waterbender.
And Katara would have never glanced Zuko’s way and seen a different destiny laid out before her in its entirety: A life with a man who was sincerely devoted to her and who valued what she brought to the table. A potential path that had been rendered nothing but a series of beautiful impossibilities thanks to one promise that had not been considered carefully enough.
It wasn’t that Aang didn’t care about her and it wasn’t that she never felt valued when she traveled with him, but he had the acolytes and he had the resurrection of his culture and the task of tracing rumors of sky bison and hidden descendents of his people to their roots. Katara was not an acolyte no matter how much he might want her to participate in the lessons and, at the end of the day, she received hardly a fragment of Aang’s time if she didn’t devote hers entirely to his cause.
He didn’t even realize he was doing it. When she asked for more of his time, it was Let’s go ride the Unagi! Or, Let’s visit Bumi and tear up the mail chutes in Omashu! Or, Let’s find some flying dolphin-fish and see if we can get them to take us for a swim—it’s the perfect activity for an airbender and a waterbender! Go, go, go. Do this silly thing to ease the tension, do that absurd thing to forget about troubles. Aang’s choice, always Aang’s choice, because there was no way Katara wouldn’t love what Aang loved because Katara and Aang loved each other.
Zuko was, perhaps, the only one of the gang who was as busy as, if not busier than, Aang. The life of the Fire Lord and all that. But he wrote to Katara faithfully every week regardless of the many times she’d failed to respond. He asked for her advice on tricky situations with his subjects and his ministers. He sent her detailed descriptions of the turtleducklings he had shown her years ago during his recovery from Azula’s lightning strike. He asked for details of her day, no matter how mundane. He told her about Azula’s slow progress and had confided in her about his search for his mother so many years ago.
She’d seen him less frequently as the years had passed, but there was always that unmistakable glimmer of more in his eyes when they crossed paths. It was all-consuming. It chased her, it pushed her, relentless and preoccupying. It lingered in her heart and occupied her thoughts at inopportune moments. And, somehow, Zuko, with his honor and his short fuse and his relentless drive to succeed, began to take up more and more room in her already crowded heart.
She thought about him on lonely nights. She thought about secretive, nearly accidental touches—the brush of warm fingertips over the skin of her wrist, the stroke of a pinky against hers as they sat in the garden, a long-fingered hand lingering on her lower back when he escorted her into a room. When they did see each other in person after long periods apart, a funny little frisson never failed to pierce through to the core of her soul.
She thought about what had happened after Sokka and Suki’s celebration more times than she cared to admit. The way that kiss had been little more than feather-light but had set her afire. How he hadn’t touched her anywhere else, just let his lips linger on hers. She’d clung to him, hands fisted in his cloak, knees like jelly.
But there was Aang. There was always Aang. With his desire for airbending babies and his persistent request that perfect Katara assimilate to life with the acolytes. Those things formed the undercurrent of his speech and insinuated things to the world that she didn’t agree with and hadn’t agreed to . She’d fled the room when others had risen to applaud, angry tears spilling hotly down her face.
When Suki had followed, she’d assured her sister-in-law that it was only a case of nerves. The look of skepticism that crossed the warrior’s face when Ursa had arrived and Katara broke down even harder was unmissable, though. Ursa had urged Suki back into the dining hall and herded Katara back to her room.
There, she knelt behind Katara on the mattress and began combing out the younger woman’s hair with a whalebone comb inherited from Kya. She talked as she worked out the tangles and never mentioned the letter that had sat, open-faced and bearing Zuko’s unmistakable angular signature, underneath the comb on the small bedside table. Softly, her voice wove the tale of a man named Ikem who had loved an actress descended from a powerful bender. The woman had loved Ikem, Ursa had said, with all of the love her heart could possibly hold and agreed to marry him. But a prince had come along and bestowed a great honor upon the actress’ family. He’d offered her the world and, despite her better judgements, she agreed to his proposal. She loved her parents. To refuse the prince would have brought dishonor to their name.
“It shattered Ikem’s heart,” Ursa said. “He wrote the actress dozens of letters begging her to come home to him, asking her to leave the prince. He was a man of deep devotion and boundless love. But, like so many others before him, he was honorable at his core. When the actress told him that she could never go back on her promise to the prince, Ikem never wrote again.”
“What happened to him?” Katara asked, chin resting on her knees, the pull of the comb soothing in her hair.
“I don’t know. I’d like to think he’s out there still, loving her with every part of his soul.”
“What happened to the actress?”
Ursa hummed, low and somber. “Tragedy, Katara. She never saw her parents again. She lost the man she loved and married a prince who hoped that her bloodline would bear him powerful heirs.” She set the comb aside and began to weave a braid in the waterbender’s hair. “Their son was a bright and beautiful child, her only spot of hope in the darkness. She murdered a man to save his life but was never allowed to see either of her children again.”
The story had begun to feel muzzily familiar at this point. Like a tale told in one of Zuko’s old letters. Katara turned her head to look at the Fire Lord’s mother who cast a small smile at her, golden eyes so like her son’s and so full of sadness.
“That poor boy was abandoned by his mother and raised by a monster in a pit of two-headed ratvipers. He didn’t know much love in his early life. Imagine how stunned people were when he went on to help save the world.”
“I don’t think I have to,” Katara whispered.
“He’s a good man, Katara,” Ursa said. “Flawed and sometimes foolish, but he has an incontrovertible sense of honor and one of the kindest hearts in the four nations.”
“Do you regret any of it?”
Ursa sighed, tucking her hands into the wide sleeves of her dress. “I used to,” she said frankly. “But had one thing changed, none of us would have Zuko.”
The princess had stayed with her a while longer, finishing the braid in Katara’s hair and asking to hear stories of Kya and life in the South Pole. Katara had gone to bed that night feeling significantly less alone, but no closer to understanding the intricacies of her own heart or what she should do about it. She’d slept very little, reading Zuko’s letter again and again before finally putting it back in the box it belonged in lest it be discovered by someone less tactful than Ursa.
When Suki approached Katara after breakfast the following morning and demanded to know why she was avoiding Zuko, it was the last straw. The hard, lumpy mattress that knotted up her back? She was used to that. Her frustration over how things were going with Aang? She’d lived with it for years. Her feelings of dwindling away into insignificance? Well...she wasn’t coping well , but she was still alive. That had to count for something.
But the fact that Zuko had effectively dropped a bomb on her a month before her marriage to someone else, never followed up on it, and had yet to speak to her but could somehow confide in Suki? It wasn’t Suki’s fault at all. Katara knew that. Lack of sleep did not lend well to patience for the warrior’s questioning, though, and Katara had snapped.
“He wants to talk?” she’d snarled, diving under her bed for the box. “Fine! I’ll go talk to him!”
And she’d waved the folded up letter in Suki’s face before tearing off to confront Zuko.
The temple was big.
Zuko was small in comparison.
Needless to say, it had taken her several hours to find him. By the time she caught sight of him entering some musty room in an untouched wing of the temple, Katara was beyond frustrated and just plain exhausted. She’d tried her hardest to hold back the tears, but nerves and anger had gotten the better of her.
Zuko had stood there, unfairly handsome, crown in his topknot and honesty on his lips.
It was one thing to make this illicit discovery in the first place. It was another thing to read about it in a letter. And it was an entirely different beast when she finally heard him say it aloud.
She’d tried hard to be defensive, to act like she hadn’t seen this coming, like she hadn’t known and denied it all along. She’d probed and she’d pressed until he’d finally turned the tables on her and then walked away, leaving her to question herself on something she couldn’t quite fathom even after nine years of trying.
He’d said it twice. He loved her. Or he was in love with her. There seemed to be some sort of distinction there that she couldn’t grasp.
Loving was easy. It was one of the things she did best. She loved Sokka and Suki. She loved Dad and Gran Gran and even Pakku. She loved Toph and her grubby feet and poor manners. She loved Aang. And she loved all of these people in much the same way.
Loving Zuko had always been different. No doubt because of how Katara had come to love him. Begrudgingly at first and then as real friends and then…
She’d agonized over Zuko’s insistence that there was a difference for hours, drifting aimlessly through the temple until night deposited her on the little terrace outside her room. Perhaps this had been luck or Aunt Wu’s so-called destiny because a look down and to the right revealed Zuko one floor below and two rooms over from her. He wasn’t supposed to be there strictly speaking, this was the women’s side of the temple and Jaya and the other female acolytes would have a fit if they saw him.
They would have a fit if they saw Katara with him.
She went anyway.
There is a letter tucked away in a box underneath Katara’s bed. It bears the distinct signature of Fire Lord Zuko and details the hopeless depths of his love for her. When he tells her again under the light of the moon and all her stars, Katara forgets about commitment ceremonies and airbending babies.
She kisses Zuko.
Katara has had boyfriends. However fleeting and sporadic. She has kissed Jet in the golden light of a treehouse. She has kissed an earthbender on the sandy beaches of Kyoshi Island. She has kissed a warrior from the Northern Water Tribe on a snowy bluff overlooking the southern sea. She has kissed Aang thousands of times in hundreds of different places. And none of those kisses hold a candle to the way it feels to kiss Zuko.
He whispers her name between kisses, breathes that he loves her as his palms cradle her face.
It is more than she dared dream of all those years ago when Aunt Wu told her her fortune.
She maps his body with her fingertips as she presses her mouth to his. Broad shoulders, warm skin, a shag of dark, silky hair between her fingers. The taste of warm honey on her tongue as his touches hers. Hips that press into her when she runs her fingers over the scar on his chest.
“I’d do it again,” he murmurs. “Even if things still turned out this way. I’d do it again.”
Katara has slept with men before. She is not a novice in the bedroom. Still, she is stunned to find that Zuko willingly stumbles into her room with her, his foot kicking the door shut and her hand reaching around his body to set the lock.
She presses him to the door, a frenzy of hands that grapple at clothing and lips and teeth that seek purchase against skin. She remembers learning curves with others, awkward fumbling, chemistry that was a little off. In this way, things with Zuko are refreshingly new and easy. It’s intuitive the way she finds spots on his body that elicit groans or cause him to tug at her hair. A spot below his right ear, the scar splashed across his sternum.
He peels her tunic from her body, his hands warm and firm against the dip of her waist, and she wrenches open the belt over his shirt, reaching to run her fingertips over the mark that bares his feelings for her.
“Are you sure about this?” he whispers, his voice rougher than she’s used to. It sends a shiver of want rippling down her spine.
“Yes.” His hands are pushing at her leggings now. “Are you?”
“ Yes ,” Zuko nearly growls. Then he sears his lips to hers, slow and hot in a way that turns Katara’s knees to water.
When he picks apart the knot of her upper sarashi without a problem, she reels back to look at him in surprise.
“What?” he deadpans. “You think I don’t know how to take a woman out of her clothes?”
Katara laughs and pulls his mouth back to hers. “No one’s ever done it that fast before,” she grins.
“Well, I’m sure no one’s ever been in love with you and imagining this for the better part of a decade before.”
They both know the reasoning behind his emphasis. Katara chooses to ignore it and divests the firebender of his pants before she shoves him towards the bed. He lands on the mattress, eyes molten and hungry as she begins to unloop her sarashi from her legs and hips.
“Can I be on top?” she asks, moving to straddle his lap. She can feel the tickle of his fingers playing through the ends of her hair.
“We can do it however you’d like,” he hisses before otherwise occupying his mouth.
Katara keens and grinds down into Zuko’s lap as he licks at her breast, mouth and tongue blazing hot against her skin. The length of him pressing up to her core through the thin fabric of his underwear shocks her eyes wide open. She pulls him away from her chest by his hair. He growls , teeth bared.
“ La , Zuko!”
“What?” he asks, golden eyes going suddenly round with worry. “Did I do something wrong?”
“No,” she says, bending to kiss him. “I’m good. I’m great . I just…” She grinds against him again with a soft moan and his face goes adorably slack. “I wasn’t expecting this .”
“Oh. I… Um…” His fingers absentmindedly tug at one of her nipples, sending shockwaves through her body. “Good?”
Katara can’t help the starved grin that slides over her lips. “Let’s find out,” she says and shoves him flat onto the bed.
The groan he lets out when she finally takes him into her mouth is unholy and it delights her in new and curious ways. She wants to hear it a thousand times tonight, wants to never forget the broken gasp of her name on his tongue. He is at her mercy and he is beautiful , pupils blown wide and dark. Rippling, defined muscles shivering at her softest touch. He is verbal and encouraging. He touches her in ways that make her want to respond loudly and in kind.
“We have to be quiet,” she whispers, nudging the line of his hip and his groin with the tip of her nose. “You’re not supposed to be here. For so many reasons.”
Zuko props himself up on his elbows, determination blazing in his eyes. “I can be quiet,” he says.
“Oh, yeah?” she asks. She licks her way up the long length of him, eyes locked on his. “You’re sure about that?”
“I bet,” he says, lip curling in something like a restrained snarl, “that I can be much quieter than— Fuck, Katara! ”
It was the look in his eyes that had done it. Determination and daring blazing hard in those golden depths. That look had been completely irresistible and the waterbender finds that she has no regrets as she sits astride his hips, chest heaving as she adjusts to the feel of him.
“For the love of Tui, Zuko.”
The firebender exhales twin plumes of steam from his nose and flexes his hips beneath her. Katara doubles over, biting down on the juncture of his neck and shoulder to silence the needy moan that threatens to rip its way out of her throat. It takes her a moment, Zuko’s hand running the length of her spine in delicious, sweeping strokes.
“You okay?” he grits out.
“So good,” she whimpers in his ruined ear. “Feels so good .”
“Can I move?”
Katara peels her torso away from his and rolls her pelvis, feeling the shift of him within her. “ Please ,” she says.
In the end, she thinks maybe it would have been easier for them if it had been some sort of quick and dirty moment. Something lust-driven that they had just needed to get out of their systems. Because this is it and she knows it is, the one night she will get with him before the long succession of nights without him that reside in her future.
But it isn’t quick and dirty. Because Zuko is in love with her. He tells her this over and over, a hymn whispered into her ear as he worships her body with reverent hands, lips, and eyes. He is the sun of her universe, burning hot and bright under her hands and in her blood, igniting her soul. They love each other late into the night and somewhere in the relentless rocking of their bodies, he ends up on top of her, his hips driving into hers, his fingers deftly urging her on. And when they fall apart together, hot and heavy breaths, locked eyes, trembling lips and limbs, Katara knows that whatever results from this will be just as much her fault as it is his.
As much as she can’t admit it to him and as hard as it is to admit it to herself on the eve of her commitment to the Avatar, Katara is in love with Zuko.
It is irrefutable. And it is irrevocable.
Chapter 7: Year Nine: A Misstep, pt. 3
Thought it was gonna be ten chapters, bumped it up to fourteen because this thing has grown a plot that I didn't expect it to have. Truly. This was originally designed to be a series of vignettes that linked together to form a lengthy one-shot. I did not expect to wind up where we are.
Also, I'm working on a delightful winter-themed story that is just chock-full of fluff because this angst train has been a rough ride. I feel like I need to post something happy after this. So that's what I'm going to do. It will feature meddling Iroh and Azula, solstice-happy Katara, surly Zuko, and some delightful bromance between Suki, Sokka, and Zuko. (I haven't forgotten Wind-Songs, for those of you who are following it. I just hit a bit of a creative block. I'll find my way back sometime soon.)
We are wrapping up the "Misstep" arc in this chapter. It's a short one, but it's about to turn your world on its head. Enjoy the drama and don't forget to drop me a line! You've all been blowing my mind with your analyses and your theories and your enthusiasm. I always have a huge smile slapped across my face whenever I hear from one of you. I treasure each and every one of you! So glad you've all decided to stick around for this. :)
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
They are holding each other in the aftermath, face to face, chest to chest, lips brushing in soft kisses. The sheets are sweaty and Katara’s inner thighs are sticky when she flings a leg over his hips. He wants her again. Maybe not right now, but later tonight or as the moon cedes the sky to the sun. He wants her every night possible for the rest of his life. He wants to put a crown in her hair and power in her hands. He wants to watch her shout down his ministers when they’re being impossible and win over the hearts of his people with her unfathomable kindness.
But most of all, Zuko wants to stand side by side with Katara for the rest of his life.
He’s thinking about how to convince the sages and his advisors to accept his decision. Truth be told, it’s an argument he’s made to them in his head multiple times a year for nine years. But he’s thinking of it again when she says it. The thing that takes that bright and shining hope and shatters it like a wave breaking on a rocky shore.
“At least we’ll always have this night...to remember.”
Zuko pulls back as the hurt begins to sink in through the scar on his chest and she rolls away, her back to him. The dragon comes roaring back to life in the pit of his stomach, wounded by her words and hissing streams of fire.
“You’re not… Katara, you can’t be… You can’t be serious . You’re not still going to...to marry him?” he asks, alarmed and incredulous.
“Zuko, I made a promise,” Katara says. She stands and begins weaving her bindings around her legs. “In the Water Tribe, a person’s word is all she has. If I don’t keep my promise, that will follow me. I’ll bring shame to all of us. To you and me. To Aang. To my dad and Sokka and Suki...”
“You’re willingly going to bind your life to someone you aren’t in love with?”
“What about your grandmother?”
“What about her?”
“You told me—”
“Gran Gran ran away to the other side of the world to escape an arranged marriage. She wasn’t freely agreeing to commit herself to the Avatar. There wasn’t another man involved, let alone the Fire Lord . And she still never saw her family again because of the shame that decision brought on them!”
“Then what in the name of Agni did we just do , Katara?” he thunders, scrambling out of her bed and to his feet. “Are my feelings for you some sort of joke to you or something?”
Her mouth drops open as she turns to face him. Her bindings fall from her hands, unraveling loosely about her thighs and hips. Tears waver in the corners of her eyes and her lower lip trembles. “Spirits, Zuko. No .”
“Then what ,” Zuko demands, “was that ?” He jabs a finger at the bed they’ve abandoned, feeling dangerously close to setting the thing on fire. He can still feel the spark of her touch on his body, the sound of his name on her lips like a prayer still rings through his ears.
“Are you in love with me?”
“Zuko, I love you. So much.”
She reaches out to touch his arm and he jerks away, wounded heart once more a smoldering mess.
“That’s not what I asked.”
She’s crying now, big tears that well up out of her eyes and roll down her cheeks. “I… Zuko. What do you want me to say?”
“Are you in love with him?”
“I don’t know.”
It’s all the answer the firebender needs. He begins snatching articles of his clothing from the floor and shoving them back onto his body.
“What are you doing?” she asks in a tremulous voice.
“What does it look like, Katara?” Zuko casts about for his shirt and finds it near the door. He can’t look at her. If he does, he’ll shatter into a hundred million pieces. “I can’t hold you tonight and watch you commit yourself to the Avatar in the morning. You’ve already broken me enough.”
“You’ll still be there tomorrow?”
Zuko freezes, his hand on the doorknob. “If I don’t show up,” he says to the wooden planks of the door, “it’ll raise questions with the others. I’ll leave immediately after.”
“Message received, Katara,” he bites out, wrenching open the door and slamming it behind himself.
The walk back to his room on the other side of the temple is lonely and cold. Zuko spends the duration of it fuming at himself for a lack of foresight and an over abundance of weakness, traits Ozai had always detested in him. Thoughts of Ozai, however fleeting, lead to thoughts of Aang and Zuko’s contempt for the Avatar’s decision to let the bastard live out the rest of his days in what amounted to relative peace. This leads to thoughts of the Avatar himself which leads to Katara. He can’t erase the feel of her lips on his, can’t burn the memory of her, bare-skinned and gasping, from his mind. He will never be able to unhear the sincerity in her voice when she told him that she felt the same.
But she hadn’t told him what he’d told her. Not really. She loved him. But Katara loved everyone. Loving and being in love were different. Surely ( surely ) she had to see that?
From there, it’s back to remembrances of Ozai spitting vituperative vitriol about his failure of a son and Zuko is caught in an angry, hurtful circle of misery that he cannot break free from.
He doesn’t bother sneaking back into his room the way he left it. He storms up to his door, an inferno of fury that allows for no snarky remarks or jesting exchanges.
“Chen!” he barks as he approaches. “Alert the airship’s captain and crew. Send a note to my mother. We are leaving immediately after this infernal ceremony tomorrow!”
Zuko blows through the door and slams it shut without waiting for a response. Heart pounding and eyes blurring, he sinks to the floor, forehead pressed to his knees and hands fisted in his hair. He spends the night in that spot, attempting to get a grip on his frenetic emotions and let go of Katara.
He wants to let her go. He wants to unburden himself of this lifelong, torturous love he’s somehow signed on for without the permission of his sense of logic. He doesn’t want to be in love with her anymore. It can be over and done with.
But she’s buried herself deep in his heart, roots grown tight around the craggy, rocky soil there. He can’t rip her free without destroying what is left of himself and she will never leave on her own.
If anyone notices the red rims of his eyes or the dark circles beneath them in the morning, they don’t let on.
Yellow isn’t really Katara’s color. Neither is orange. But she looks disarmingly lovely in her traditional Air Nomad robes nonetheless, a crown of wild daisies in the waves of her hair. And now she’s married. Or something like it. The official partner of the Avatar.
Zuko had refused to let himself look away from her. Forcing himself to watch the ceremony was his self-inflicted punishment for allowing himself to worship her body the night before. Toph had hovered at his side the whole time, the ever-loyal little sister he’d always wanted but never seemed to deserve. His mother had stuck close to his other side, a sad, serene presence. He knew without asking her what his situation made her think of. Never before had he been more thankful than ever for her reappearance after the war. The furtive looks of concern Suki had cast his way as the acolyte had performed the rites hadn’t gone unnoticed either. As he stood there, face unemotional and drawn, he found himself astonished by the gratitude he felt for those three formidable women and their unwavering concern for him. It granted him the power to maintain a carefully crafted mask of calm through it all.
He’s just finished hugging his uncle goodbye after the ceremony and is making his way towards the door when Hakoda meanders over. Though Zuko has had to look down into the chief’s eyes for some years now, he still finds his friends’ father an intimidating force and quails slightly at the odd, hard look on the man’s face.
“Leaving so soon, Fire Lord Zuko?” He pounds his fist to his palm in a bow that Zuko returns before he extends the same gesture to Ursa. “Princess Ursa.”
To Zuko’s shock, his mother throws out a hand and Hakoda meets her midair, hands clasped around each other’s forearms.
“Always a pleasure, Chief Hakoda,” she says with a small smile.
Hakoda turns back to Zuko and quirks a questioning eyebrow.
“There’s a, uh...a pressing matter. Back home,” Zuko lies terribly. “Uncle is here, so I left my advisors in charge. Apparently I’m needed.”
The chief gives a sort of affirmative grunt that doesn’t sound like he is entirely convinced and levels the firebender with a calculating stare.
“Well,” he says finally, extending his hand. “I hope we meet again soon.”
Zuko wraps his hand around the chief’s forearm and is surprised when Hakoda uses this to tug him sharply into a one armed hug, a hand reaching to thump him on the back.
“Whatever you need, kid,” Hakoda mutters in his ear. “A drinking buddy, advice, a friend… The South Pole is there and my home is always open to you.” He pulls away and nods gruffly, mouth a grim line.
Zuko’s eyes narrow. “Sir?”
But Hakoda just claps a hand on his shoulder and then walks away into the throng of celebrants without another word.
The Fire Lord turns questioning eyes to his mother who shrugs and loops her arm through his as they walk through the door and towards the dock where the airship awaits. Guards walk behind them dutifully, armor clattering.
“He’s a good man,” Ursa says. “Kind. Understanding.”
“How do you even know him well enough to make that judgement?” Zuko asks, bewildered.
“We’ve met a few times. Summits, peace talks. There are some things we agree upon.”
“Like what? ”
“The things most important to us, Zuko,” is all she says before patting him fondly on the cheek and stepping lightly up the ramp onto the ship.
He is about to follow her, when a feminine voice calls out his name and he turns to see two blurs of green sprinting over the bridge to the airship dock. Toph and Suki have caught him leaving. Because of course they have. He shouldn’t have expected a clean getaway with the two of them watching him the way they did throughout the entire commitment ceremony. They hurtle to a stop in front of him, their eyes wide and their chests heaving for air.
“What happened, Sparky?” Toph asks in a much gentler tone than she’s ever taken with him in the last nine years.
“It’s best that we don’t talk about it,” Zuko replies. He steps off the ramp of the airship, waving his guards on without him. With the Blind Bandit and the captain of the Kyoshi Warriors as company, he’s positive there’s no reason for him to be worried for his own safety.
“You’re leaving,” Suki says. It isn’t a question, but she does seem at a loss.
Zuko sighs. “Yes,” he says, rubbing at the back of his neck. “Since Uncle is here, I left my advisors in charge. They need my presence to resolve an urgent situation.”
“Sparky,” Toph says, voice laden with disappointment at the blatant lie.
“I’m fine, Champ,” the Fire Lord says. He reaches out to gently sock her shoulder.
“Zuko,” Suki says, shaking her head, “I’m sorry, but there’s no way you’re fine.”
He looks at her, golden eyes sharp and unyielding. “What’s done is done, Suki,” he says with finality. “She and I talked. It didn’t change anything.”
Suki and Toph exchange a look and Zuko is struck again by the immensity of his gratitude for these two women, one a surrogate sister, the other an unexpected friend who, he realizes, under better circumstances would have been a legal sister in her own right. These two women, one whose home he destroyed in his youth and the other whose feet he had burned in a frantic moment, have freely given him their friendship and their affection. They have rooted for him and encouraged him and bolstered him when he needed it most.
And so it’s a strange moment and a strange gesture, but Fire Lord Zuko opens his arms wide and beckons them in for a group hug. The three of them stand there, clustered together, arms squeezing tight as the winds of the Eastern Air Temple swirl around them.
“You’re not so bad, Sparky,” Toph says affectionately into his chest and Suki lets out a watery laugh.
Zuko pats them both on the back and then steps away, offering a small, rare smile. “You two aren’t half bad yourselves,” he says. “ Thank you. ”
“What now?” Suki asks. She wipes the hem of her sleeve under her eyes.
Zuko shrugs. “It’s time to move forward, I guess.”
Not on , he realizes. Never on . Just... forward .
Two months after the autumn solstice, Zuko walks back to his office after a rather lengthy meeting with his advisors. One they had been anticipating for years and pressing at any available opportunity. He is resigned to it now. It is a necessary part of moving forward. Still, the words had not been easy to say as the advisors knelt around the table with him. His tongue had been dry, the dragon in his stomach had wailed, high and keening.
“Gentlemen,” he’d finally ground out, “it’s time to find a Fire Lady.”
They’d been disturbingly prepared for this, pulling out dossiers and counseling him for hours. This stop at his office is meant to be nothing more than a brief moment on his way to bed. He wants to leave the stack of files on potential matches on his desk before he calls it a night.
He sees it just as he is about to leave, a letter sticking out from underneath a plethora of missives he is to look over. It’s sealed with blue wax and imprinted with the image of Katara’s necklace. Zuko hasn’t heard from her since the night before the ceremony and hasn’t tried reaching out to her himself. It’s his way of deferring to Aang and attempting to give the newlyweds a shot at their relationship. It’s his way of moving forward.
The night is growing into early morning and Zuko is tempted to set the letter aside until he has a free moment in his day tomorrow. But he has missed her. He has tortured himself every night for a long succession of nights with thoughts of her. Her smile, her laugh, her mouth pressed to his.
So he breaks the seal, chips of blue wax fluttering to the polished surface of his mahogany desk.
Zuko , she writes. I know I hurt you. I know you’re furious with me. I’m furious with me, too. I never wanted to cause you pain. (Here, there is a large swath of words that have been scribbled out and cannot be deciphered.) And I wanted to give you time. Honestly, I did. But, Zuko…
He has to read the rest of her letter several times for it to really sink in. His world staggers to a jarring halt.
She hasn’t yet told the Avatar.
It might be his. Or it might be yours. But there’s no way to know right now, Zuko. Oh, La, I am so sorry. But you needed to know, Zuko.
You needed to know.
Drop me a comment down below. I'm sure you have things to say. :)
See you for the Monday update! xx
Chapter 8: Year Ten: An Heir, pt. 1
You’re all KILLING IT with the theories and the feelings!! If I’ve made you angry or sad or frustrated or if I’ve made you question that pesky “Eventual Happy Ending” tag, then I’ve done what I set out to do. I wanted to demolish everything that happened after Zuko and Katara took down Azula, but I also wanted to work within the confines of what we were given. (We were robbed. Zutara was robbed. AANG WAS ALSO ROBBED.) So, yes. This is a messy situation. Yes, Katara seems terrible (ask yourself though, how much we truly know about her thoughts and feelings and daily life in a story that has been so heavily Zuko-centric).
This story was meant to be small. The narrative structure I originally intended to use did not do the story justice. So things were expanded upon. And I’m glad for it. This story requires emotional investment. Believe me when I say that I’m right there with you in all that you’re feeling. Hang in there. Know that the original intent of this story survived, even if the structure evolved. If you’re questioning the tags, good. I wouldn’t have written the story I intended to write if you weren’t questioning the tags and throwing theories at me.
This is the first of two halves that make up the “Heir” arc.
Also! Happy birthday, tvmpting.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Sokka writes to Zuko six and a half months after Aang and Katara’s ceremony. It’s an odd letter. Nothing like the ones he’s received from his best friend in the past. It’s somehow straightforward but oddly elusive at the same time. There is no hyperbole. There are no silly, difficult-to-decipher illustrations. Just, Suki is heading back to Kyoshi Island for a few months to train a new captain before she makes her move here permanent. Maybe the esteemed Fire Lord Hotman can make some time to visit the South Pole and chill (haha! Geddit?) with his best bro soon? In the next month or two? That would be ideal.
Zuko frowns, flips the letter over, expecting to see some absurd drawing of himself and Sokka ice fishing or penguin sledding. There is nothing.
He almost feels as though it isn’t a request.
But this is Sokka. Sokka lacks tact and doesn’t understand subtlety. He is the bane of King Kuei’s existence at summits and Arnook seems hardly capable of tolerating the warrior’s lack of decorum as well. And there is a terrible joke in the letter. So maybe Zuko is reading too much into it. Maybe this is just a sign that Sokka is growing up at last.
Zuko doesn’t respond right away. He wants to consider the offer in great detail. Though the Fire Nation is headed into the hottest season and Zuko’s ministers and advisors will adjourn to vacation with their families, it will be midwinter when Sokka wants Zuko to visit. It wouldn’t be unheard of for the Fire Lord to vacation as well, but the firebender isn’t sure he’s too keen on an undisclosed amount of time spent in a world of darkness and whirling snow. He isn’t sure he wants to look up at the auroras and think of Katara. Not when the year is inching closer to the solstice. She anticipates the baby on the solstice. Zuko knows this.
He also knows, thanks to the scrolls he's sneaked from the palace library, ones he never expected to read under these circumstances, that children born near the summer solstice are likely to be strong firebenders. Not that there is any certainty. Especially with a Water Tribe mother. Not that Katara is positive the child is his. But they have written many illicit letters in the past six months. He has detailed to Katara various Fire Nation practices for determining whether or not a child will be a firebender while the mother still carries the babe in her womb.
They might be old wives’ tales. They might not be accurate. But he sent the list to her anyway.
She’d found no signs. But that didn’t mean anything.
Zuko decides to decline Sokka’s offer. He’s going to make up something about calling an emergency session with his advisors. He doesn’t want to look up at the auroras and think of silver beads twinkling in the rippling waves of her hair. He doesn’t want to walk down the halls of the chief’s residence and think of the place he first kissed her.
He doesn’t want any more strong reminders of the woman he is desperate not to love and the child they may or may not have made. He doesn’t want to think any harder on what will happen if Aang learns about their indiscretion.
And then Katara writes to him.
The hawk flies in from the south and sits, perched on the windowsill of one of the many south-facing windows in his bedroom. The letter clutched in its beak and sealed with the imprint of her necklace is nothing like the terse, tense letters they have exchanged since she broke the news to him.
It details loneliness and fear. It speaks of sadness.
It is a plea.
If anyone finds it odd that the Fire Lord chooses to vacation in the Southern Water Tribe in the weeks leading up to Katara’s due date, nobody says a word. She is one person, after all, and seemingly inconsequential to the Fire Lord’s daily life. It’s the dead of winter in the South Pole, so there is some buzz around the palace and the capitol that the Fire Lord is a little touched in the head to willingly spend time there as opposed to anywhere else. But he does have a close friend in the chief’s son, so his decision goes unchallenged by anyone of note.
Zuko arrives when the auroras paint the sky for most of the day. The sun rises for an hour at most, but only barely. It skims the horizon before ducking below it once more. Eventually, it doesn’t rise at all.
Katara has been forcibly put on bedrest by Kanna. Forcibly, Zuko assumes, because he hasn’t forgiven her and he cannot bring himself to actually see her now that he’s arrived. Instead, he hears her grumpy complaints to her grandmother when he passes the door of her room and is regaled with Sokka’s tellings of her hormonal wrath over trips to the ice shanties to fish and drink.
The South Pole has fantastic vodka. It’s not Fire Nation whiskey, but Zuko develops an appreciation for the way it burns down his throat in the freezing winter air. He and Sokka come home drunk many times with no fish to show for their time at the shanties, but it’s fun . He’s missed Sokka. And he’s missed Suki. And their love is so pure and without shame that it makes him a little jealous to hear the stories Sokka tells of his fearless, funny wife. Mostly he’s happy for them, though. He knows what Sokka overcame to love Suki with his whole heart and he knows that Suki worked through a lot to get past her own hurt as well.
“She’s willingly moving here, huh?” Zuko asks, studying the hole in the ice as they drink and fish one day.
Sokka shrugs. “We’re talking about a family,” he says. “Not now. But soonish. A few years maybe. It’d be hard to shuttle kids back and forth from one place to another. And Dad wants me to start learning the ropes.”
Zuko tries not to be mortified and terrified of the fact that one day he will sit down to meetings at summits across from Sokka rather than Hakoda.
They discuss Toph and her adventures around the Earth Kingdom. Sokka mentions that he and Suki have seen the earthbender with an array of partners over the years, but no one permanent or too specific. Toph doesn’t strike any of her friends as the type to settle down for long, so this doesn’t come as a surprise.
They do not discuss Aang and Katara’s relationship. This is a purposeful choice on Zuko’s part, but he can’t be sure if it’s the same for Sokka. He still hasn’t forgotten the odd letter Sokka had sent him.
The warrior doesn’t hesitate to bring up Katara outside of the context of Aang, though.
“She wants to know why you haven’t popped in to see her,” he tells Zuko.
The firebender’s hands start shaking and he nearly drops the bait he’s attempting to spear onto his hook. He sends up a prayer to Agni that Sokka doesn’t notice him fumble. “Does she even want to see me?” he deflects, not meeting his friend’s eyes.
“Look, man,” Sokka says levelly, “I know that regular Katara is scary. And, yeah, pregnant Katara is much more terrifying when she’s angry. There’s this vein that pops in her forehead and she gets all red in the face and she kind of looks like she’s about to explode…” He trails off, shaking his head at his digression. “I think she could use a friend right now, Zuko. Someone who isn’t Gran Gran or Dad or me. Suki might’ve been fine if she were here, but you know Katara. She’s always liked you more than the rest of us.”
“I don’t know about that,” Zuko mutters.
“She asks about you every single day, man. I think… I think she misses you.”
Zuko cuts his gaze to Sokka who shrugs, his tan, rugged face open and honest.
That was the end of his first week in the South Pole. It takes him another week to work up the courage to knock on Katara’s door.
He doesn’t know what he’s going to do or say. He doesn’t even know how to feel other than angry and hurt. But she’d asked him to come and he was here. He was going to have to face her at some point.
Her voice is small and soft when she bids the person at her door to enter. When Zuko steps into the room, she drops the sewing in her hands, shock written clearly across her face.
He wishes he could say that she looks ethereal and glows like some sort of spirit brought to life, but she looks miserable and tired propped amongst the pillows and furs on her bed. His love for her stabs like a knife through the scar on his chest, twisting and turning so that the wound will bleed out until he has nothing left to give.
And then she’s crying, deep sobs heaving her swollen belly and chest.
Zuko’s first instinct is to rush to her side, but righteous hurt and anger slice through him halfway across the room and he comes to an abrupt halt.
“Don’t cry,” he says weakly. “I don’t… Why are you crying?”
“You’re-you’re… You’re actually here ,” she wails through her tears, pressing her hands to her face.
Zuko splutters, tosses his hands up in the air. “Of course I’m here , Katara!” he explodes. “You asked me to be here!”
“I didn’t… I didn’t think… That you would actually show up.” She uses whatever it is she’s been sewing to mop at her eyes. When she looks at him, her eyes round and rueful, tears spilling down her face, the steel in his spine softens.
He takes a few more hesitant steps towards her.
“Why wouldn’t I show up, Katara?” he asks miserably.
Katara takes several deep, shaking breaths. “Because I…” She pauses, wipes her sleeve under her nose. “Because I hurt you .”
Zuko blinks at her. The hurt is still there, roiling its way through his veins, an inferno that cannot be quelled by anything but the ridiculous, pointless hope that this will all somehow work out in the end. That they will be happy in the end. It’s what she does, he’s realized. She makes people hope. Even when hoping has been proven...well, hopeless.
He sighs and reaches for a chair, dragging it across the icy floor to rest next to her bed. This is bigger than the both of them now, he knows. There is a child involved. Possibly their child. They need to start working past this. Before he speaks, though, he makes sure that he captures her gaze, staring at her intently.
“You did hurt me, Katara,” he says.
“I’m sorry,” she whispers, her voice hoarse. “La, Zuko. You have no idea how sorry I am. I’ve ruined everything .”
Zuko holds up a hand to cut her off. “Katara,” he says, “I’m here because at the end of the day I…”
...am in love with you.
Those words come as easy as breathing, even after everything. After all the hurt and the miscommunication and the bad choices. He wants to say it. Now. As they sit here in this icy room, she with her swollen fingers and puffy face, he with his demolished heart. He wants to tell her. He will never not want to tell her.
“I haven’t forgiven you, Katara,” Zuko says instead. “But there’s no way I’m letting you do this alone.”
Katara gives him a watery half smile. “I’m scared,” she admits quietly.
“Me too,” Zuko says honestly.
She lays a hand out on the mattress, palm facing up, and Zuko considers it for a moment before slipping his fingers through hers. Her hand squeezes around his a little and he has to resist the urge to press a kiss to her knuckles. Instead, he bows his head, resting his forehead on their clasped hands. Her free hand lands on the top of his head, stroking the smooth black hair he’s pulled back into a topknot that bears his five-pronged crown.
“I’m so sorry,” the waterbender murmurs again a few minutes later. He doesn’t look up at her, just focuses on his breathing, on the icy, fresh scent of the room. “For so many things. Zuko, I… You really have no idea. I wanted to say it. I wanted to tell you that I…” He hears her sniff. “But I was so scared of...of hurting you by saying it without a...a promise.” A woeful little laugh burbles out of her throat. “I guess I fucked it all up anyway, huh?”
Zuko doesn’t answer her. But for the first time in the past nine long, painful months, for the first time since she didn’t tell him what he wanted to hear, Zuko cries.
“Why is she here?” Zuko asks Sokka as though Katara hadn’t told him two months ago that this is where she would be.
They are sitting outside of their usual ice shanty, passing a large flask of Water Tribe vodka back and forth, their half-lie of going ice fishing long since abandoned. The auroras are dim tonight, milky white and gyrating behind a thick blanket of clouds. Zuko has kindled a little fire near their feet to keep them warm in the frigid arctic air.
“Aang is on a spirit journey,” Sokka growls. “Apparently it ‘just couldn’t wait.’ Couldn’t even tell Katara how long he’d be gone. He just dropped her off one day and then disappeared.”
He’s angrier than Zuko has ever seen him. The firebender has seen the same rage simmering in Hakoda’s eyes. It must be a family trait. He remembers the way Katara had burned with it eons ago when they were enemies.
“Surely there are women at one of the air temples who could help her through this,” Zuko says. “One of Aang’s acolytes?”
Sokka shakes his head. “That’s just it ,” he says. “They’re Aang’s acolytes. I don’t know how much you and my sister talk anymore, but she’s dealing with some shit there. She and Aang argue about it a lot, I guess. The fact that she’s not an acolyte. That she doesn’t uphold the Air Nomad values. And she’s told him, y’know? She’s a waterbender. She’s Water Tribe through and through. She doesn’t want to give up her identity in order to become an Air Acolyte when it’s not true to who she is. Especially because she’d never ask him to do that for her.
“And the acolytes, man. They seem like they’re all peace and love, but they hate her for it. They call her the Avatar’s wife. She’s the waterbender. They chose to be acolytes. She made the choice not to be one of them. They don’t like her for it. And they aren’t afraid to let her know it.”
“Why doesn’t Aang do something about it?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know if he’s blind to it or if he’s afraid of losing his last hope of rehabilitating his culture and willing to sacrifice her happiness as a result.”
“Then why hasn’t Katara done something about it?”
He knows why. It’s because he was too late. It’s because he was too afraid. If he’d said something sooner, maybe none of this would be happening.
“They have a kid now, man.”
“She could have done something about it before this, before they got married.”
It’s true, Zuko thinks. Katara is at fault in this, too. It’s something he feels acutely, hitting home with the jealousy and brokenness that has torn him apart from the inside out. Neither of them are solely to blame. This is a mess they’ve made together.
“Well,” Sokka says matter-of-factly before he takes a deep drink from the flask they’re sharing. “You can blame Aunt fuckin’ Wu for that.”
The name rings with a familiarity that Zuko can’t place.
“Fuckin’ Earth Kingdom fortune teller. Told Katara this was her destiny way before you joined up with us. Way before we met Toph, even. I think you still had the ponytail back then. Anyway, this fortune teller tells her that she’s going to marry a powerful bender and Katara decides to turn her life into some sort of self-fulfilling prophecy.” He shoves the flask at Zuko who takes it gratefully and drinks.
“It’s so stupid ,” Sokka mutters. “Even if that batty old woman could see the future, it could’ve been anyone! She could’ve meant anyone . It could have been Toph or Haru or...heh...it could’ve been you .”
With a noncommittal grunt to brush off Sokka’s comment, Zuko drinks. And then he drinks some more.
The next morning’s peaceful silence is rent apart by a scream. Zuko barrels through the darkness of his room, fumbling to find his robe and too hungover to bend a light for himself. He and Sokka literally run into each other in the hallway, bouncing off of one another and into the walls. Sokka is cursing, eyes bloodshot, hair standing on end, boomerang held aloft. There is another scream and they sprint toward it in unison, coming to a skidding halt in front of Katara’s door.
“You go low,” Sokka says. “I’ll aim high. We’ll kill this piece of shit.”
It’s too early.
It’s too dark.
Zuko is too hungover.
His brain is piecing things together too slowly.
Sokka already has the door open by the time Zuko thinks to warn him.
Kanna turns to look at them with narrowed eyes, her mouth a grim line as she helps Katara who is hunched over next to her bed, face twisted in pain. Sokka pales alarmingly and sways into the doorframe. His sister’s eyes snap open and her nostrils flare as she snarls.
“ What the hell are you two doing?! ” she bellows. “Don’t just stand there. Either get in here and help or leave! ”
Sokka staggers away from the door and into the opposite wall where he leans, skin waxy and sweaty. Zuko, eyes locked on Katara, hangover forgotten, reaches blindly and grabs Sokka by the front of his shirt.
“Go get some of the other women in the village,” he barks.
Kanna shakes her gray head. “It’s no use. This little one decided to join us in the middle of the worst blizzard this year. You can’t see a foot in front of yourself out there.”
“What can we do?” Zuko asks hoarsely and he sees Kanna smirk.
“It’s like Katara said,” she says, patting her granddaughter’s hand. “Good job, dear. Keep breathing.” Her eyes, heavily lined with crows’ feet, turn back to Zuko and Sokka. “Either come help or go wait with Hakoda and Pakku.”
“Let’s go, man,” Sokka wheezes. “I can’t.”
Zuko frowns. “I’m not letting her do this alone,” he says and steps into the room. The door swings shut behind him.
“Good,” Kanna says. “Come here.”
Together, she and the Fire Lord help Katara settle herself as comfortably as possible in the bed. She walks him through a breathing exercise to coach Katara with and shows him how to hold one of the waterbender’s thighs when the time comes for her to push. Zuko crawls up on the bed beside her in order to offer support and leverage. Katara grabs his hands with fingers that could crack an iceberg. He can feel bruises forming from the force of her grip.
“You’re incredible,” he whispers in her ear. Kanna is preoccupied, her back to them across the room, so he dares to press a kiss to Katara’s pulse where it hammers away in her throat.
The feel of her skin under her lips is right. So right . But his timing is shit. He’s pulling away from her at the moment another contraction hits. She throws her entire body into it, headbutting him. Multicolored stars wheel and explode in his vision and he wavers on his knees. Her grip on his hands and the scream ripping out of her chest are all that keep him from blacking out.
Hours pass. Zuko isn’t sure how many. If the blizzard stops, he doesn’t notice. If it wails on, he has no clue. His entire world narrows down to this room, this woman.
The child has a puckered, angry red mouth, a tuft of soft brown hair, blue eyes. Kanna declares that he must have inherited his father’s complexion. Paternity, Zuko realizes, is still up for debate.
Katara cradles the baby to her breast, tears running hot down her cheeks.
“That happens,” Kanna whispers to Zuko when he panics and tries to offer her a handkerchief and incoherent words of comfort. “A woman’s body undergoes a trauma for this miracle. You’re a good friend to see her through this. She needed someone.”
“We’ll have to wait,” Katara says hours later. Her eyes are fixed on Zuko as he holds the child in his arms. They are huddled together on her bed. Everyone else is long asleep. “Sometimes babies’ eyes change.”
“You’ll tell me?” he whispers.
“Of course I will.”
His heart shatters. “I love you both,” he chokes out. He presses his nose into Katara’s hair and curls into her side, the baby nestled close to his chest.
A few days later, the Avatar blows into the South Pole on Appa and a chilling gust of wind. He is gaunt and looks a little green about the gills, as if he isn’t feeling well. Sokka and Zuko meet him outside and offer to herd Appa into the stables, allowing Aang some time with his wife and the baby. Bumi.
Katara told them that Aang had picked the name.
Zuko doesn’t like it. He would have picked something else. Iroh or Lu Ten. Maybe something Water Tribe to honor the child’s roots. But as far as the world is concerned, this child is the Avatar’s, so Zuko’s opinion doesn’t count.
When the two friends reenter the chief’s residence, snow dusting their shoulders and wind biting their cheeks pink, Katara and Aang are arguing. Loudly.
“...me you were going on a spirit journey!” That’s Katara, her voice high pitched and filled with anger.
“...do that,” there is Aang, a little quieter. Excited, maybe. Not angry.
“You left me here!...left me to...baby!...abandoned your duties as the Avatar!”
“I found airbenders, Katara!”
This is punctuated by loud, hacking coughs. The baby starts wailing, sharp and clear, the cry echoing throughout the residence. Katara and Aang fall silent. Zuko and Sokka exchange a look. The quiet, cold fury in Sokka’s eyes cuts through the firebender, more intense than it had been the night before Bumi arrived. And Zuko knows, in the moment their eyes meet, that this is something his best friend will never forgive Aang for.
He wonders if Sokka would ever forgive him for his part in this.
The great ice arches loom up out of the sea like gateways to the spirit world, ghastly white in the blanket of darkness that is the night. There are no auroras tonight. The clouds are too thick, heralding snow once more. Zuko twitches the curtains on his window closed and sends up a plea to Agni that the airship will be able to take off in the morning. Captain Inoue hasn’t given any indication that it won’t be possible, but Zuko isn’t above asking Agni to help get him out of here now that Aang has arrived.
The Avatar had been herded off to a room on the opposite side of the chief’s residence not long after his argument with Katara. She had tried to pass healing hands over him in order to ease his illness, but instead asked Sokka to run for one of the village healers, an odd look on her face. The healer had also come away from Aang’s room without answers. It was best, she said, to keep the baby from him until he made a concrete recovery from whatever was making him ill.
Zuko isn’t afraid of Aang’s sickness. He just feels like an intruder now, a trespasser on something that isn’t wholly his.
He has just pulled his crown from his hair and his topknot loose when there is a soft, short rap on the door to his room. Zuko muses with a yawn that it’s likely Sokka. When he opens the door, though, ruffling a hand through his hair, Katara is standing there, Bumi cradled close to her chest.
“Oh,” he says, feeling his good eye widen.
“Hi,” Katara whispers.
He remembers the last time she came to him here, a wedding parka in a basket rather than a baby in her arms. It sends a pang of longing singing through his chest. Longing for the past, for possibility. For her.
“Sokka says you’re leaving in the morning.”
Katara nods and her eyes dart from Chen to Righty who flank Zuko’s doors as they always do. Neither of them acknowledge her.
“I thought you might...like to say goodbye before you go.” Her eyes flick down to Bumi.
Zuko considers it for a long moment. They haven’t spoken much. He’s been avoiding it, avoiding the hurt of nine months ago. Doing so has helped him shove down all he feels for her. It won’t go away, he knows. He’ll live with it all every day, an invisible scar much like the one on his chest, both linked to her.
But he gestures her through the door in the end because they do need to talk. He wasn’t honest with her for nine years and if they are to salvage any of this, he knows he needs to start again now, sober and face-to-face.
They sit in the chairs that flank the firepit and Katara passes Bumi to Zuko, her hands gentle and soft. The baby is asleep and he nestles closer to Zuko’s warmth, absurdly smooth cheek nuzzling towards the finger Zuko runs across it. Something in the firebender’s chest squeezes hard and then begins to unravel, threads of love unspooling into his soul. Part of him asserts that Bumi has to be his. He has to. Because Zuko has never been one for children and he finds it hard to imagine loving any baby this much if it isn’t his.
A few silent minutes pass before Katara’s voice cuts through them.
“I’m getting married, Katara,” he says over her and hears her sharp inhale of breath in response. The tenderness with which she had started to speak was too unbearable. If he’d let her continue, he would have never been able to tell her. “The decision was made just before you wrote to me about Bumi.”
He can’t look away from the little face they may have created, can’t look at her.
“ Oh ,” she says. Her voice sounds odd, tense. “I didn’t… I didn’t know.”
“I didn’t know how to tell you.”
“So you… You found someone?” The question wobbles.
“My advisors and I haven’t made a decision,” Zuko says. “There are quite a few candidates.”
Zuko does look at her now, golden eyes studying her. Her own eyes are shining bright, glassy with tears unshed. She’s biting at her lower lip.
“It’s political,” he tells her softly. “Arranged.”
“I have to move forward, Katara,” Zuko says. “ We have to move forward. But I’m here for you and for Bumi. Whatever you need. Even if we...if we never know for sure. Even if we do.”
He thinks that maybe she tries to smile at him, but whatever emotion twists at her mouth doesn’t resemble happiness in the slightest.
Katara is finally getting her much-needed reality check. Zuko is moving forward. And I'm POSITIVE you all have theories regarding Sokka. There are feelings regarding Aang's elusive, scattered storyline as well, I'm sure.
Drop me a line. Gimme your rants or make use of that little ❤️ button. I added four chapters to our total, so remember that we're still in the thick of it. There's a resolution for sure. A light at the end of the tunnel. It's just...off in the distance. :) Friday’s update will inch us just a little bit closer. xx
Chapter 9: Years Eleven and Twelve: An Heir, pt. 2
Happy Friday! I hope you all had a wonderful week! Without further ado, I bring you part 2/2 of the "Heir" arc.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Tea in the southern garden is the last step. It is always the last step. Much to his advisors’ increasing displeasure, Zuko insists on it every time. And every time it results in the need to return to the drawing board. Advisor Kawakami grows more irate by the day and makes it no secret that he believes the twenty-seven-year-old Fire Lord has no intention of ever granting his affections.
In a way, Advisor Kawakami is correct.
Zuko has a speech that he delivers over tea in the southern garden. It never fails to give every woman under consideration for the title of Fire Lady a reason to withdraw her name. There has been a shocking rash of young women in the nobility who have begun to rebel against their parents’ wishes of engaging them in political marriages. Most of them have taken tea in the garden with the Fire Lord.
Today, Zuko sits amongst the bubbling fountains and budding cherry trees with Ami, the eldest child and only daughter of the Ogawa family. She is thirty and willowy. Her dark hair falls around her shoulders and down her back in gentle waves that are unusual for a woman of the Fire Nation. Advisor Kawakami considers her amongst the dregs of Zuko’s options because of her age.
Zuko isn’t sure what to think of her.
She bests him in Pai Sho, brown eyes bright and studious behind her glasses. She quotes the old poets clumsily and errs when declaring that she likes a painting that does not belong to the artist his advisors have told him to mention. She has been a school teacher for much of her adult life and chatters to him about her students at long length, something that a good Fire Lady should never do.
Clearly, Ami has not been born and bred for this.
That is what he likes best about her. It makes him feel less alone and less like a novice at his own job.
Still, Zuko has a speech.
He pours out the tea and they drink.
“I should be honest,” Zuko says, setting his cup back on the table. One of Ami’s eyebrows jumps up her forehead, but she doesn’t look surprised. Rather, Zuko gets the impression she has been waiting for this moment, has heard rumors of it. “I fell in love with a woman several years ago. It is...irreversible. Lifelong.” He runs a finger around the rim of his teacup, tries not to think of Katara as the fountains burble happily. “I would never be a physically unfaithful husband to you, but I could never promise you my heart. Is that something you could live with for the rest of your life?”
Ami takes a sip of her tea, brown eyes studying him over it. He expects her to say yes quickly, as her predecessors have. He expects to have to press the issue, to really make her think. Instead, she places her cup back on the table, a soft, dull thunk of china against wood, and surprises him.
“May I be honest with you , Fire Lord Zuko?”
She sighs and leans back in her chair, gaze wandering about the garden and all of its spring greenery before she begins.
“Twelve years ago, I disobeyed my parents and married a man they did not approve of while studying at Ba Sing Se University. It was an Earth Kingdom marriage so it will likely not be found in any records your advisors search. It...didn’t last long. Hardly a month later, he was conscripted to the Earth Kingdom military and deployed to the front lines. He died in a skirmish soon after.”
“I’m so sorry,” Zuko whispers.
Ami lets out a quiet huff of a laugh. “As am I, Your Majesty.”
“You can...call me Zuko. I’m not big on formalities.”
He knows the irony isn’t lost on her, but doesn’t mind that she doesn’t address it.
“I loved him. I still love him. With every part of my soul,” Ami continues. There is a fierceness to her voice that Zuko understands. It’s the same fierceness of love he feels for Katara. “I never intended to marry again.”
“You can say no,” Zuko tells her softly. He reaches out to refill their empty cups, wrapping his hands around the pot to warm the tea before he does so.
“You do my family a great honor by even considering me,” Ami says. “I am certain you have met with many other women far more qualified for this title than myself. But perhaps we are...well-suited for one another in a way.” She tilts her head and looks at him with keen eyes. “Like you, I can never promise my heart.”
“Are you certain this is a decision you are willing to live with?”
“I would never turn away the honor this will bring my family.”
Zuko thinks of his mother, living loveless at the side of a monster all for the sake of honor. Then, Ami says,
“You strike me as being a far different man from your father.”
He cuts his eyes to her face and sees something of a small smile on her lips.
“Perhaps we won’t love one another, Fire Lord Zuko,” she continues. “But maybe we can learn to be friends.”
Katara writes weekly missives to Zuko about Bumi. How he’s learned to stand and will soon be walking. His love for the dragon toy that Zuko sent him last month. His blue eyes. Zuko doesn’t reply often. Anything more than a biweekly or monthly letter from him might raise more suspicion than they’d like.
At this point, he knows what they’re waiting for now. Something that will take years. Nearly seven of them if they are as unlucky as Zuko was. Still, he tries to assure himself, even he showed signs of firebending before he officially began. Sneezes and coughs that brought forward smoke. Warmth from an inner fire. Katara says that, aside from his complexion, Bumi seems no different than any Water Tribe baby she’s come across. Though she does make a point of noting that Aang is baffled by the fact that the baby hasn’t exhibited any signs of airbending.
That night, after tea with Ami and a meeting that Advisor Kawakami leaves with an exceedingly pleased grin stretched across his face, Zuko replies to the letter Katara’s usual hawk brings to his south-facing window. It’s not his typical night to reply, but he feels she should be the first to know.
Fire Lord Zuko marries the lady Ami, eldest child of Vice Admiral Ogawa, hardly two months later. The unprecedented haste sends Zuko’s advisors and ministers into an uproar over tradition and convention. But Zuko has never been a conventional Fire Lord. Besides, he doesn’t really see the point in putting off the inevitable.
Toph and Aang are the only ones able to make it to the wedding on such short notice. Sokka and Suki are bogged down with work in the South Pole and, “Katara hates traveling on Appa with a baby,” Aang informs Zuko during the wedding celebration. “She says it makes changing diapers difficult.”
“How is Bumi?” Zuko asks Aang stiffly.
Across the hall, Toph has clearly hit it off with one of Ami’s brother’s, a huge grin splitting her face, her shoulders shaking with laughter. It’s good to see, he thinks as he takes a sip of his wine. Sokka and Suki aren’t the only ones who deserve to be happy.
“He’s fine,” Aang says. “Bit of a late bloomer, which is a little worrying.”
The Fire Lord tries not to scowl and schools his face into a carefully blank mask. “How do you mean?” he asks.
“He hasn’t shown any signs of airbending,” Aang says. A cough rumbles out of his chest. He clears his throat. “No weird sneezes, no random bursts of wind.”
“He’s just shy of a year old,” Zuko says. “I’m sure it’s fine. Children have been known to start exhibiting signs far later than that.”
“Not airbenders,” Aang insists.
“Well, his mother isn’t an airbender.”
“That shouldn’t matter.”
Zuko nearly chokes on his wine and slams his goblet down on the table they are standing next to. Irritation ripples through him like the first signs of a tsunami. He takes several deep breaths in an attempt to control the anger that swells under his skin on behalf of Katara.
Aang doesn’t notice. His eyes, rimmed with dark shadows, study the people swirling about the dance floor. He looks like he hasn’t completely recovered from whatever was ailing him in the South Pole.
“Jaya has a theory,” the airbender tells Zuko quietly and the Fire Lord’s pulse ratchets up. “She thinks Bumi is struggling with airbending—”
“How can he be struggling if he hasn’t even begun?” Zuko interjects.
Aang ignores him. “Jaya thinks he’s struggling because Katara hasn’t embraced the spirituality and culture of our people,” he says.
“Jaya is just an acolyte,” Zuko grumbles. “She’s not an Air Nomad. She’s not even an airbender . I’d say she’s far from being an expert. And besides, Katara is Water Tribe, Aang. You can’t expect her to give her identity up.”
“The Air Nomads are her people now—”
“No,” Zuko says sternly. He seizes Aang by the upper arm and turns his friend to face him. “ You are Katara’s person now. Your loyalty should lie with her . Your support should always go to her . If Jaya and the others are coming to you with bullrhino shit like this, you need to tell them where they can stick it.”
Aang doesn’t answer. The party wheels on, celebrants dancing and drinking in honor of the Fire Lord and his new wife who have only shared one dance tonight. Iroh and Ursa can be spotted cutting an enthusiastic yet graceful line across the floor, smiles bright on their faces.
“We could use your help with the United Republic of Nations,” Zuko says offhandedly after a few minutes of silence. “Arnook and Kuei can’t agree on anything.”
“Psh!” Aang waves a dismissive hand through the air. “You and Hakoda have got it under control. Besides, the airbenders and I are so busy with the temples and the acolytes. We’re reestablishing our culture and our religion! That takes a lot of time.”
“So does peace,” Zuko argues.
Aang merely claps a hand to Zuko’s shoulder and gives him a grin. “You can handle it, I’m sure. Just give me a shout if anything gets out of hand. Y’know. Like if they declare war on one another.”
Ami is a wonderful wife, kind and gentle and patient. As per custom, Zuko’s advisors insist on delaying her coronation until there is an heir to solidify her claim to the Fire Lady’s crown. She doesn’t let this delay the impact she wants to make, immediately setting out a series of new education bills for Zuko’s review and requesting more funds for the rural districts. Her pet project is free education for all Fire Nation children. She wants Zuko to establish a universal preschool.
Zuko is a terrible husband. He backs all of Ami’s bills, signs a few into law, battles ministers over the others, and asks her to draw up presentations for the funding, the idea of free education, and the preschool that she will present to the ministers. But he also spends his entire marriage in love with another woman.
He is considering one of Katara’s letters with an over-thoughtful, critical eye one summer day. It is barely three months after his wedding, the peak of the hot season, and humidity drenches the air. Zuko is pondering the fact that Katara has taken to signing her letters Yours . It seems a significant development, one that he isn’t sure how to address. Reciprocating seems dangerous to the process of moving forward. However—
A knock at the door to his office jolts Zuko out of his thoughts and he hastily shoves Katara’s letter into a drawer in his desk before calling for the door to be opened. It swings inward, revealing Doctor Mizushima, one of the palace physicians. Zuko frowns.
“Doctor,” he says, surprise lancing his voice. “Have I missed an appointment?”
“Not at all, Your Majesty.” The doctor shuts the door and makes herself at home in one of the chairs across from Zuko’s desk. She is his mother’s age, perhaps a little older, her dark hair feathered with gray along her temples. “I thought I might come to offer my congratulations.”
Brow creasing in confusion, Zuko tries to glean meaning from her words. He thinks of recent measures passed, the establishing of the new Department of the Interior, and comes up blank on what a doctor might want to congratulate him on.
“I’m sorry,” he says. “I don’t follow.”
“Fire Lord Zuko,” Doctor Mizushima says with a smile, “your wife is expecting.”
“Expecting what?” Zuko asks.
Amusement creases the corners of her eyes, turns her smile a little more humored rather than happy. “A child , Your Majesty,” she says.
Zuko blanches, feels his jaw drop open and his mind go blank. “I don’t…” He clears his throat. “I don’t understand.”
The doctor frowns and glances over her shoulder as though she is ensuring the door is closed and they have their privacy. “Sir,” she says, her voice low, “if you have reason to think this child may not be yours—”
“No!” Zuko says emphatically. “I just…” He shifts in his seat, face flushing red. “It was one time . We haven’t… Um… Not since the…” He gestures vaguely with his hand.
“Ah,” Doctor Mizushima settles back in her chair and clasps her hands in her lap. “I think paternity can almost certainly be assured then, if that is your concern.”
“It isn’t ,” Zuko insists. “I just… This is all rather sudden . Does it always happen this quickly?”
It’s fortunate, he thinks, that he’s talking to Mizushima about this. Her male counterpart would no doubt make Zuko feel stupid for asking so many ridiculous questions and bumbling through this conversation like an idiot. Mizushima just offers him another gentle smile.
“Sometimes,” she says. “Not often.”
“ Not often?”
“Oftentimes it takes many tries.”
Zuko thinks of Ami. He thinks of Katara and Bumi. He thinks that he is either the unluckiest man in the world or the luckiest. Which one, he isn’t sure.
“Fire Lord Zuko,” Doctor Mizushima says with frankness, the smile melting from her lips, “you are young and virile. I have no doubt that you will be able to have as many children as you please.”
He blinks at her blankly, the absurd superfluousness of her statement not lost on him in the slightest.
“However, I do have concerns that I wish to address with you,” she continues.
Zuko commissions a portable Pai Sho board and orders that carts of books and scrolls are brought from the palace library to Ami’s room every day. Each night, they take dinner in her room, bowls cupped in their hands, the Pai Sho board laid out between them on the mattress. As his wife’s stomach rounds out, Katara’s letters fade in frequency, arriving once a month rather than weekly. She continues to sign them Yours , but they grow shorter, filled solely with details of Bumi rather than littered with details of herself as well.
Doctor Mizushima is a constant in Ami’s daily life and assures Zuko that the health of mother and child are of utmost priority. It's why she's been confined to bed after all.
They do become friends in the end, whispered details of life-long loves passed between them over the gameboard, political ideals challenged and debated, memories of beloved family members brought up laughingly. Zuko learns about Ami’s favorite brother and listens as she tells him what it was like to receive her husband’s body, to bury it beneath Earth Kingdom soil and know that she might never be able to visit again. In exchange, he shares only his vaguest memories of Katara and never divulges her name. If Ami ever guesses as to who Zuko’s mystery woman might be, she respectfully doesn’t say.
They never discuss the doctor’s concerns.
The Fire Nation slogs through a wet and rainy winter and Ursa leaves to visit her brother-in-law, tired of the weather and hoping for something a little less gloomy. She kisses Zuko’s cheek at the door of the palace and assures him that she and Iroh will return before Ami’s due date. In her absence, Zuko’s life continues on in much the same way.
He is presenting Ami’s proposed budget for the rural schools to his ministers and advisors one chilly morning, fog and rain shrouding the world outside, when a servant bursts into the chambers, panting for breath, eyes wide. Several of the ministers hiss about impropriety.
“Fire Lord Zuko,” she says over them, “I’m so sorry to interrupt. Lady Ami has gone into labor.”
Zuko abandons the presentation without a second thought, dashing from the room, the servant girl at his side as they sprint through the palace, tapestries and paintings a blur. Doctor Mizushima meets them at the doors to the infirmary where she bars Zuko from entering, a stern, unforgiving frown on her face.
“I don’t care if it’s unprecedented,” Zuko thunders. “I’ve helped a woman through labor before and I can do it again!”
“Fire Lord Zuko!” Doctor Mizushima shouts.
His mouth clamps shut. He looks at her, affronted. She straightens her coat and draws herself a little taller.
“You recall my concerns, correct?” she asks, voice leveling out.
“Yes,” Zuko says. He feels a petulant pout tug at his mouth.
“The child is early by a month and a half. We anticipate a difficult labor. There will be enough of us in there without a panicking father to worry about. I must be in there at all times from here on out. Can I trust that you will follow my directions and stay put ?”
“I can help,” Zuko insists weakly. “I helped when—”
The doctor reaches out, her hand landing on his upper arm, sympathy written in the premature lines on her face. “The best way to help,” she says, “is by waiting here. I will send updates out with Lian whenever possible.”
The servant girl who had sought Zuko out dips a bow. Zuko sighs, his shoulders rounding in surrender.
“Ami is a good person,” he says.
“The line of succession comes first,” Doctor Mizushima reminds him not unkindly, “and then your wife. We will do everything in our power.”
Zuko paces the hall outside the infirmary. He refuses the chair a servant offers him, has another send for Ami’s father as well as his own mother and uncle in Ba Sing Se, and pens a letter to Katara using a windowsill as a writing surface. It is a different experience being locked out, one he does not prefer. It sounds different, too. Unsettlingly so. The bustle of nurses and servants in and out of the room only compounds the heightening fear.
Doctor Mizushima finally exits the room, her face as gray as the evening sky, a small bundle of red blankets in her arms. The baby is tiny, smaller so when held by its father.
“She will need to be monitored closely for a while,” the doctor says, “but she’s strong, sir.”
“She?” Zuko whispers out, his voice squeaking on the word. He looks up to meet Mizushima’s eyes and nearly loses his next question on the overwhelming wave of sadness he sees there. “What about…?”
Mizushima shakes her head almost imperceptibly, the silvery strands of hair that have escaped her sleek chignon fluttering around her face. “My deepest condolences, my lord,” she says.
Zuko and Doctor Mizushima meet with Ami’s grief-stricken father in the most comfortable sitting room of the palace. The doctor is the one to break the news. Zuko feebly offers to have the baby brought in so that she might be held by her grandfather, but the vice admiral declines with an adamant shake of his head and tears in his eyes.
“I will see to it that we give her a farewell befitting a Fire Lady,” Zuko says. “She gave her life in service of our nation and deserves no less.”
“Thank you, my lord,” Vice Admiral Ogawa says, wiping a handkerchief under his nose.
“I do have a request,” the Fire Lord continues and the vice admiral looks at him sharply. “She told me a lot about her first husband, how much she cared for him, even now. With your permission, I would like to have half of her ashes buried with him in Ba Sing Se.”
It takes a long moment for the vice admiral to answer. Though he never gives a reason, he agrees.
And so Zuko is left a widower with a wailing daughter at the ripe old age of twenty-eight.
“She will need a name, Nephew,” Iroh says some days later as he, Zuko, and Ursa cluster around the crown princess in the infirmary. She is swaddled in a blanket of crimson and gold, her eyes closed as she sleeps. “We cannot call her Princess her whole life.”
It takes a while for Zuko to find a suitable moniker. Still hopelessly in love with the last waterbender in the Southern Water Tribe, he names his daughter Izumi.
Though Katara isn’t a physical presence in this chapter, Zuko is still faced with daily reminders of her. The windows of his room face south. He has intentionally picked a room near a garden filled with fountains. That his final step in meeting with potential wives consists of tea in that garden is not a coincidence. The air is humid in the summer. It rains throughout the winter. Except for Ami, all of the original characters that appear in this chapter have names that are related to water (if I did my research correctly). Even then, her family name is Ogawa.
Zuko is literally surrounded by reminders of Katara’s element every day of his life. She is, symbolically at least, as much of a presence in his life as ever before. All of these are, perhaps, heavy-handed choices on my part, but they are purposeful nevertheless.
Leave me a comment or make use of the ❤️ button! As always, I love hearing your thoughts and theories!
Chapter 10: Year Fifteen: A Father
I am SO THRILLED you all loved Ami and felt her loss as keenly as I did! I was very nervous about creating an original character to be Izumi's mother. She had to be everything Zuko deserved and needed without infringing on our ultimate goal of Endgame Zutara. While I can't promise you that the angst and tragedy are over with, I think there are a few moments of levity in this chapter that will help lighten the load if only a little bit.
After all, Zuko has Izumi now. And I DID tag Dadko. It's time for me to start delivering on that. 😉
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Years pass. Zuko learns how to parent the only child he will ever be able to claim as his own. He works with his fellow world leaders to break ground on Republic City through a series of meetings that the Avatar is often late to, arriving more often than not like the herald of the storms that inevitably hit soon after he touches ground. Kuei says his meteorologists are confounded by the worsening typhoon seasons and Zuko ensures that someone in his government begins looking into it as well. Together, he and Kuei assign a slew of scientists who attempt to work through the mystery.
Aang participates in the meetings, though proves to be more concerned with acting in the interests of the Air Nation as opposed to the world as a whole. He is no longer the last airbender and has devoted himself to training the long-lost descendents of his people. His peculiar illness seems worse during some meetings than others.
Kuei and Arnook butt heads often during meetings, requiring Zuko or Hakoda to step in and mediate when Aang chooses to waffle. Frustration mounts rapidly and Zuko has to send a letter to his uncle on one occasion, requesting that the White Lotus be prepared to intervene if necessary. The letter he receives in return is short, maddening.
The White Lotus watches over the Harmony Ring with caution. Insights are scarce. Pursue balance when others will not.
The drawer in the desk in Zuko’s bedroom that houses Katara’s letters continues to fill with pieces of parchment bearing blue wax seals and the ever-tender signature Yours, Katara . Slowly, she begins to detail more of her thoughts and feelings once again. She begins to entrust her fears and worries to Zuko with less caution. And as she gives him more pieces of herself, Zuko relearns (slowly, ever so slowly) to trust her with his heart once more. This time, she holds it with care, with tender, if distant, hands. Hands that are willing, even if she is bound to someone else.
Bumi does not bend air. Katara doesn’t think he’s a bender at all. And he’s better off for it , she says. I can see your expressions in his face. I don’t think Aang does. He barely looks at him anymore. If Bumi were a bender, it might give Aang more of a reason to notice the things we don’t want him to see .
She writes to Zuko just after Bumi turns six, devastated by the fact that Aang cannot connect with a child who isn’t an airbender.
He wants a father , she says. And Aang doesn’t seem to see that. Sokka tries to step in, but there’s only so much he can do when we’re traveling from temple to temple. His journeys rarely align with ours. And soon he won’t have the time. Suki is expecting their first child.
I’m worried , she confides in Zuko. Bumi is looking for something that I haven’t been able to provide no matter how hard I try.
Zuko writes back the same day he receives the letter. Come visit us , he implores. Izumi and I could both use a friend.
He sends the letter with his fastest hawk.
He meets her on Eien No Honō beach, sand between their toes and sun pinking their shoulders. It’s been a long time since the Ember Island house has been opened up and it waits in the distance. No servants at her request, just a quiet house filled with memories. Katara is standing at the water’s edge, eyes fixed on the sea when he finally sets his eyes on her for the first time since Bumi was born.
Hefting Izumi higher in his arms, Zuko picks his way across the beach, feet sinking into the hot sand, heart pounding like a taiko drum in his chest. The little boy splashing in the shallows near his mother’s ankles gives a shout, finger pointing to where Zuko walks, and the waterbender turns, long blue skirt trailing in the water. Zuko can’t help the smile that breaks out across his lips when he sees the one on hers.
At Izumi’s insistence, he releases his hold on her and lets her tear off across the sand, never out of his sight or that of his well-hidden guards. Her chubby feet kick sand into the air, enticing Bumi out of the water to chase after her in order to make friends. Love unspools into Zuko’s soul once more as he pauses to watch.
Her voice is a siren’s call. He meets her in the tide, water swirling around their ankles. And when he slides his arms around her, her own arms twining around his neck, he cannot keep himself from lifting her off her toes, their bodies pressed together, his face buried in her neck.
“ La , I’ve missed you,” she murmurs.
It takes them a long time to release one another. When they part, Zuko presses his palms to Katara’s face, studying every facet of her before he drops a kiss to her forehead. He has been in love with her for fifteen years and she is no less beautiful for the passage of time.
That night, they cook dinner together while the children play across the kitchen, enthusiastic Bumi trying to muddle out how to relate to serious-eyed Izumi.
“She looks like you,” Katara comments as she seasons the fish.
“Do you think so?” Zuko asks. He looks over at his daughter where she stands, wavy-haired and skeptical of the wooden boomerang Bumi is gesturing with. Truth be told, he sees traces of Azula in her features.
Katara hums in acquiescence. “She’s lovely.” One of her hands shoots out to wrap around one of Zuko’s. “I’m so sorry about her mother.” She catches his gaze, eyes sad and sincere but without a trace of pity.
They return to preparing the meal in relative silence, Katara calling out the occasional firm reminder to Bumi that he is not to throw his boomerang in the house.
Sokka has had a large influence on Bumi. Perhaps too much of one. He has a knack for spinning tall tales and wears his hair in what he proudly calls “a warrior’s wolf tail, Uncle Zuko! One day, Uncle Sokka is going to take me on my first hunt. And ice dodging!”
“Bumi,” Katara says carefully as she sets four glasses out on the little table in the kitchen, “Uncle Sokka lives far away. He’ll have his own children to look after soon. He may not be able to—”
“He promised! ” Bumi thunders, stamping his little foot. And Zuko, for the first time, sees his own rage at his own father mirrored in this child. The pinch of his brow, the downward tilt of his lips, the shape of his eyes... Zuko can feel the ghost of it all on his own face, the history of his younger self painful and sharp like a knife to the gut.
He sets aside the plates he is holding, drops to a knee in front of his first child (there is no mistaking it when the evidence is so plain on Bumi’s face), and places a gentle hand on the boy’s shoulder.
“I know I can’t hold a candle to Uncle Sokka,” he says quietly, “but maybe there are some things you and I can do together.”
Katara presses a fist to her mouth and chokes back a sob.
He meets her out on the lanai that night, feet bare, a bottle of wine and two glasses in his hand. Bumi is tucked away in Lu Ten’s old room, Izumi in one that belonged to her father twenty-odd years ago. The moon has been high in the dark blanket of the night sky for some time.
“I’ve missed the ocean,” Katara says quietly when the creaking of the wooden planks signals Zuko’s arrival. He settles himself next to her and sets about uncorking the bottle. “We spend so much time high up in the mountains.”
“You should come here,” Zuko replies, handing her a glass of wine. “Make use of the house whenever you want. Bring Aang. It’s been a while since there’s been a family vacation here.”
“I’m not sure we’ve ever been a family,” Katara says. “Not really. Not in the ways that count.”
When he looks at her, there are tears rolling slowly down her cheeks. She doesn’t move to wipe them away. The liquid in the glass clasped between her hands trembles in time with her shaking fingers.
“I’ve taken so much away from everyone,” the waterbender whispers. “From Aang. From you and Bumi. I have been so selfish , Zuko.”
He shifts closer to her, slipping an arm around the exposed skin of her waist to draw her near.
“I don’t understand how you can still love me after everything I’ve done that’s hurt you.”
He wants to pose a similar problem back to her, to ask how she could even begin to love him after all he did to hurt her so many years ago. Instead, he draws one of her hands into his with a sigh. Honesty, he reminds himself, over hiding the truth.
“I didn’t want to, Katara,” he says quietly. “I told myself I wasn’t going to after I told you how I felt and you...didn’t. And then Bumi came along and the semantics...what I was trying to get you to understand about the difference between what I was saying and what you were saying… It all seemed so superfluous after that.”
Katara shakes her head, her hair tickling as it brushes against his arm and shoulder. “No,” she says. “The semantics weren’t superfluous, Zuko. They were necessary. You were right .”
She shifts to kneel between his legs, leaving her untouched glass of wine on the worn boards of the lanai to press her palms to his thighs. “Ask me again,” she murmurs, face open and honest, eyes brighter than the moon as it hangs over the ocean behind her.
Zuko reaches out much in the way he did nearly seven years ago, his fingertips firm against the curve of her neck, his thumb tracing the line of her jaw.
“Are you in love with him?” he asks, voice little more than a rasp.
“No,” Katara replies, pressing closer.
“Are you in love with me?”
And because Zuko kissed his honor goodbye so many years ago when he first kissed her , he doesn’t wait for her to voice the answer that glints at him in the softness of her eyes and begins to form on her tongue. He closes the distance between them without needing to hear it, meeting her mouth with his own, longing and love tethering them together.
It is far too easy for them to fall into bed together again.
And every night for the long succession of nights that she stays in the Fire Nation, save for one week in the middle where he keeps her bed warm merely by tangling his body hopelessly with hers. He cannot sacrifice her freely-given love, even when he has to return to the palace, sneaking out of his room in the middle of the night to slip through the doors of her balcony and crash into her bed like a wave upon the shore.
They are careful. They are so, so careful. Katara drinks contraceptive tea. She bends what she can. No one ever catches him leaving his room at night or returning in the morning. And though it rends the wound in his chest open once more and he knows they should stop, he can’t bring himself to give her up.
They trade children one day after they have settled back into Zuko’s routine in the capitol. He takes Bumi to see a play at the child’s request. Bumi enjoys the special effects immensely and comments to Zuko in loud whispers throughout the whole performance. It reminds Zuko of Sokka. It reminds him of the Ember Island Players, of the days leading up to the Agni Kai and the realization that he was in love with Katara. The gaping wound in his chest grows larger, unspooling more and more threads of love from his soul, binding him tenaciously to Bumi and Katara.
Bumi is curious about the Fire Nation military.
“Are they all firebenders?” he asks. “Is that what you have to be?”
“Of course not,” Zuko says. “Some of our most brilliant generals and commanders are nonbenders.”
Bumi’s face is so blatantly full of wonder that they make a stop on their way back to the palace to watch some of the nonbending soldiers train at the base. Zuko finagles him a tour of the armory and a decommissioned war balloon as well.
The boy chatters about it endlessly the whole palanquin ride home.
“Can Uncle Sokka do things like that?”
Zuko has to repress a smile of amusement. “Uncle Sokka is a...creative warrior,” he says. “You won’t see many of his tactics in the Fire Nation military.” Water Tribe ingenuity Sokka calls it. “But he trained with the same sword master I trained with.”
Bumi’s eyes bulge in his head. “ You can do things like that too?! I thought you were only a firebender.”
“I once saved Aang with two swords and no bending,” Zuko says. He can’t bring himself to call the Avatar Bumi’s father. “And your mother and I once went on a top secret mission that required lots of stealth.”
“Whoa! Cool! Can I see your sword when we get home? Do you still have it?” Bumi is all eager blue eyes and a smile as bright as his mother’s.
“I have two swords,” Zuko says, unable to say no. “They’re called dao swords. And yes. You can see them, but you can’t touch them.”
When they return to the palace, Katara and Izumi are still out, so Zuko shows Bumi the swords and then teaches him how to sneak into the palace’s kitchens.
“Uncle Zuko,” Bumi says as they munch on stolen cookies by the turtleduck pond, “I think you’re my favorite grownup.”
“What about Uncle Sokka?”
Bumi considers this with a furrowed brow and wipes cookie crumbs on his pants. “Maybe it’s a tie,” he says. “Is that okay?”
That evening over dinner, Bumi talks everyone’s ear off about his day. He turns their outing into nothing short of a tale of derring-do. Izumi listens, her four-year-old face enraptured. There is a sparkle in Katara’s eyes that Zuko hasn’t seen in nearly a decade.
“What did you do with Mom, ‘Zumi?” Bumi asks abruptly before shoving noodles into his mouth.
The sentence hits both Zuko and Katara harder than Azula’s lightning. The sparkle in Katara’s eyes is lost to tears that she blinks away. All Zuko can do is look at her, morose and wishing for things he can’t have.
“We went to the bot... bot... botanimal garden with nai nai Ursa,” Izumi says in her small, quiet voice.
“Botanical garden, sweet one,” Katara corrects, dabbing her eyes with a napkin.
“Yes,” Izumi says. “We went there. We learneded about plants.” She turns her big, golden eyes to Zuko and whispers loudly, “Auntie K’tara makes plants move with magic .”
“That’s not magic ,” Bumi says. “That’s waterbending! Mom is the bestest waterbender in the whole world! She saved my dad’s life and your dad’s life and she made the war stop!”
Katara excuses herself from the table, hands wiping frantically at her eyes. Bumi and Izumi watch her go and Zuko buries his face in his hands.
“Is Auntie K’tara okay?” Izumi asks after a moment.
“I think she’s just a little tired, Fire Lily.”
“She was crying,” Bumi says accusingly. “Why was she crying?”
Zuko looks at the children. At his children. Documents their differences. You’d never know, he thinks, Bumi’s true parentage. There’s enough Katara in him to make the flickers of Zuko ambiguous to the untrained eye.
“She’s a little sad, too.”
“Are you sad, Daddy?” Izumi asks.
He looks at her with a rueful smile. “Sometimes I am, Fire Lily.”
Zuko puts the children to bed on his own. They crowd together on one of the beds in the nursery, Bumi with his wooden boomerang and Izumi with the new doll Katara purchased for her during their outing. It’s a Water Tribe doll.
“I picked it,” Izumi says. “So I don’t miss Auntie K’tara when she leaves.”
Zuko sits between his children and reads aloud a scroll until they fall asleep. It takes some careful maneuvering, but he manages to extract himself without waking them. He observes their faces as he dims the sconces and tries to ignore the way the wound in his chest grows more painful.
When he lets himself into Katara’s room, she is sitting on the windowsill, gazing out over the city. The moon hangs round and full in the sky. He can see her trunk lying open at the foot of her bed, half-packed but forgotten.
“Don’t leave,” he says hoarsely.
“We have to.”
It’s a stupid question. He knows why. They’ve been gone a long time and Aang will be waiting for them to come home. But when Katara finally looks at him, he sees a different reason written plainly across her face.
“Don’t say it,” he pleads. “Don’t say it if you’re going to leave.”
She eases herself off the windowsill and crosses the floor to insinuate herself into his arms. When her fingertips graze the mark on his chest, he nearly crumbles.
“I’m in love with you,” she says.
The words bring Zuko to his knees. He fists his hands in the fabric of her skirt and buries his face in her belly, a broken man.
“You have to know,” she sobs. “You have to. I can’t let you think that I’m not. That this isn’t... I can’t leave without telling you that I care.”
“Stay,” he says.
She too collapses to the floor. They’re clinging to one another, a mess of tears and impossible love and broken hearts.
“I love you. I love him . Izumi...she needs someone like you. We could be a family.”
“What about Aang?”
Zuko doesn’t have an answer.
“I made a commitment, Zuko. The Water Tribe doesn’t look kindly on broken promises.”
“You didn’t marry a Water Tribe man,” Zuko counters. “You didn’t marry a man whose culture recognizes marriage.”
“But I’m Water Tribe, Zuko.”
He makes love to her as many times as he can that night. Neither of them sleep. In the morning, he and Izumi see them off at the port and Zuko tries to not let the way Bumi clings to him tear him in two. Izumi snivels tears into Zuko’s neck and refuses to hug Katara goodbye on her own. So Katara pulls all three of them close and they stand together on the dock, a web of limbs and tears, a family for a moment.
It happens again. The letter arrives scant weeks later bearing blue wax and Katara’s seal.
We were careful , he thinks.
So careful , Katara’s letter agrees. But sometimes being careful doesn’t allow you to outwit destiny.
She will bluff to Aang, but Zuko knows it will destroy another piece of her soul.
This time, Zuko can’t be there because Aang actually is. Zuko rages and howls, destroys half the furniture in an old, forgotten storage room. He spirals down into a hole that he doesn’t think he’ll ever dig his way out of.
Katara sends another letter. She’s beautiful, Zuko. Water Tribe through and through.
Together, in secret letters, they had decided on a Water Tribe name because that is as true to their child’s heritage as they can ever be.
I named her after my mom.
Zuko sends his second daughter a Fire Nation doll that Izumi picks out herself.
If I promise you all that the next chapter revisits Katara's perspective, will it make you hate me less? Because I promise that it is. You're about to get so many answers. This story is about to reach its climax. Shit is about to hit the fan. The moment of no return is nigh! (How many ways can I say it?)
Also, Eien No Honō beach is my name for a private stretch of beach that abuts the Fire Lord's Ember Island house. If you need some happy, less-complicated Zutara goodness and you haven't yet read A Delicate Balance, check it out! Eien No Honō beach is the location for one of the chapters in that story.
Gimme your thoughts, your feelings, your theories, your rants... And some ❤️s if you don't hate me too much.
Chapter 11: Years Nine Through Sixteen: A Chronology
Y’all’s comments about Zuko’s astounding virility SENT ME. Every goddamn time. So let me tell you a thing about this story:
Because it started off as a series of interconnected vignettes, I didn’t pay too much attention to timelines. It was just going to be this short, devastating, sort of nebulous piece. And then I realized it needed to be longer in order to have the impact I wanted. So I expanded it. And then it hit me that in order to make the plot work the way I wanted it to, I couldn’t change anyone’s ages. Suddenly, Izumi had to arrive earlier than expected and Zuko had to have this hilariously unfortunate talent for impregnating women at the drop of a hat. And I just ROLLED with it. The story is already so tragic that Zuko’s virility just amplified it for me.
Let this hilarious bit of absurdity be a lesson to all of us in not changing our minds about story length at the last possible second. And then let's all participate in a group-wide suspension of disbelief and roll with Zuko’s super sperm. Because this is fanfiction and I shall use my creative license as I please.
(But good gravy, you all killed me. It was HILARIOUS. I scrolled through my inbox and it was just message after message of OMG ZUKO’S VIRILITY. I adore you all. You’re all spectacular and I am so fortunate to have such a splendid group of people who are willing to love such a controversial story.)
Also, this sucker clocks in at around 11.5k words. What is chapter length anymore? Because I clearly don't know. This was a beast to write and proved challenging for a myriad of reasons, but I promised you insights into Katara's perspective and I am delivering. So strap yourselves in, friends. And maybe find some tissues and a pillow to scream into. Our girl is about to frustrate you to no end. At least some of your questions will (hopefully) be answered, though!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Katara is six and a half months pregnant when she first resolves to tell Aang the truth.
They’re sitting down to breakfast with the Air Acolytes who occupy the Southern Air Temple and the baby is incessantly tumbling around as it always does in the mornings. As an expectant mother, Katara is delighted by the movement. As a night person, Katara is irritated and groggy and hasn’t had a decent night’s sleep in weeks. Last night, the moon hadn’t set until three in the morning. She’d been woken up not even four hours later by the spirits-damned sunrise and the baby kicking her swiftly in the bladder.
Now here she is, short on sleep, a fetus jamming her internal organs into one another in order to make more room for itself, and one of Aang’s acolytes is pressing her hands to Katara’s belly without permission.
Katara scowls at the spread of fruits and vegetables and vows that she will not scream at the woman staring reverently at her belly.
“It is an honor to carry the child of the Avatar,” the acolyte says. The reverence in her gaze falls when she raises her eyes to meet Katara’s. “How fortunate you are to mother the first of a new generation of airbenders.”
Aang’s arm lands heavily around Katara’s shoulders and he tugs her to his side, a grin splitting his face. His arm is a weight, a vice. She has to remind herself not to slide away from him.
“Katara is going to be the perfect mother,” he says cheerfully. There are dark shadows under his eyes, as if he hasn’t been sleeping. “She was like Team Avatar’s mom during the war! Between her and Fire Lord Zuko, none of us could get away with anything.”
This launches him into a story about their days on Ember Island. The acolytes hang on to his every word as though he is a prophet. Katara thinks that he might as well be the way he makes a story about a rather rash prank devised by himself and Toph into an Air Nomad lesson about joy, youthful errors, and forgiveness.
The baby somersaults. Katara stares at her plate and wishes it was filled with nothing but sausage and chickenpig. She’s imagining gua bao with juicy pork belly and suan cai made in the Fire Nation way—ginger and chilies for a nice hint of heat, maybe a little of that fire flake hot sauce Sokka is obsessed with...
Her mouth is filled with saliva.
Aang is still talking about the wisdom he supposedly earned from his and Toph’s failed prank on Zuko. The acolytes are enraptured.
Katara would absolutely give her left arm for Fire Nation gua bao. And possibly her right.
Her half-eaten grapefruit sits on her plate, yellow wedges like the rays of the sun. She wonders how much jerky she still has stashed away from Sokka’s last illicit care package. It won’t kill the craving indefinitely or even completely, but maybe it will be enough to stave off the worst of it.
Cravings like these have run rampant lately. Hot and sour glass noodles like the ones she used to get on market days on Ember Island, chickenpig with yuzukoshō, spicy pork shumai… These cravings have been her constant companions. Katara has scoured the meticulously copied passages Zuko sent to her and come up with nothing that says specific cravings are an indicator of anything regarding the baby. Regardless, a little stone of worry has nestled its way into her heart. She never has the all-consuming urge to gorge herself on egg custard tarts or spring rolls. It’s always seaprunes, mashed tundra tubers, or something distinctly Fire Nation.
She pops a sunny wedge of grapefruit onto her tongue and tries not to think of the way Zuko’s eyes had flickered yellow and gold when he told her that he was in love with her. She watches Aang help himself to a serving of fruit salad while he talks and tries not to compare her knowledge of his touch to Zuko’s. She fails on both accounts.
Her eyes burn with unbidden tears and she presses a palm to her belly. The baby meets her with a little nudge.
It’s so unfair of her. She knows it. Aang and Zuko are vastly different people. Good men with conviction and clear (if not conflicting) senses of justice. She has done wrong by both of them. And in doing so, she has robbed them, herself, and this little one of everything that should have been.
Fear of losing her family more than she already had had frozen her to the spot while Zuko stormed out. It had iced her into this commitment to Aang. To think that her father wouldn’t have forgiven her for calling it off was foolish. To think that Sokka—Sokka, her staunchest of allies since they were small and parentless—wouldn’t have fought every warrior in the South Pole for Katara’s right to follow her heart was stupid. Zuko had hit the nail on its head when he’d brought up Gran Gran and Katara had still failed to do the very thing her grandmother had fought for—the ability to pursue love above all else.
She’d walled herself into a marriage to a man she wasn’t in love with and who wasn’t in love with her.
Aang loved her, that much was clear. And she loved him. But Katara had known the distinction Zuko was so desperate for her to grasp the moment he’d kissed her. If she were to be honest with herself, the difference between love and in love was something she’d had inklings of since she’d jump-started the firebender’s heart after the Agni Kai.
It was a steadily-building, thrumming intensity. It was the ability to see a person for everything they were and could be, and wanting the absolute best for them. It was liberating, like bloodbending a murderer and knowing—knowing, truly, deep down—that you wouldn’t face judgement or retribution for caving to your baser instincts. It wasn’t grasping and possessive. It didn’t ask for perfection.
It had all been there in the palm of her hand and she’d been too terrified of a nonexistent inevitability to actually seize it.
“...that’s why she’ll be the perfect mother for this little nomad,” Aang concludes. He turns soft gray eyes to her and rests a hand on the swell of her belly.
Katara forces a smile that she knows doesn’t reach her eyes.
He loves the baby, has been so excited at the prospect of another airbender. He’s prattled on for hours about the first tricks he’ll teach the little one and how he’s thrilled to no longer be the last of his people. He looks to the future with a sense of childlike wonder that is a testament to the wild, unbridled love he holds in his heart. His sunny outlook does nothing but heap guilt onto Katara’s shoulders. And she knows she deserves it.
One of the acolytes raises his cup of berry juice to the vaulted, frescoed ceiling. “To the next generation of airbenders,” he cheers.
Irritation wriggles its way under Katara’s skin, burning and vindictive. She narrows her eyes at the acolyte. Others have begun to raise their glasses as well, Aang among them.
“It could be a waterbender,” she says spitefully before voices can echo the sentiment.
Cups of juice falter in midair. Several dozen pairs of eyes flick to her and then to Aang. In the pursuant beat of silence, Katara shoves her chair away from the table and stands.
“I’m going to lie down,” she announces to everyone and no one at the same time. Then, she begins her undignified waddle towards the door of the dining hall.
Knowledge, Katara thinks as she eats her hoarded, contraband jerky on her lumpy Air Nomad mattress, is a funny thing. She considers herself an intelligent, well-read woman. She has learned many life lessons about gut instincts and getting the facts before making a judgement call. Nothing in the information Zuko has relayed to her in his heartbreakingly distant letters has given her reason to think that the baby isn’t Aang’s.
But the facts of Katara’s experience with this pregnancy are these:
- Katara very much wants to eat her way through a buffet of the Fire Nation’s spiciest foods with some seaweed noodles and seaprune stew sprinkled in for good measure.
- Katara’s cycle in the months leading up to the commitment ceremony had been irregular due to the stress she was under. When she does the math, it’s likely that she was ovulating the night she slept with Zuko, but not the night of the ceremony.
- Katara’s baby is a morning person. And not in the way that Aang is a morning person where he’s just excited to be alive and see what the day brings. No, Katara’s baby is up with the earliest light of the sun every day. Without fail.
The baby might not be a firebender according to those old wives’ tales Zuko has scrounged up, but Katara is about seventy-five percent sure he or she shares genetics with the man she is actually in love with and not the man she’s supposed to be in love with.
“I can’t keep him in the dark,” Katara says to the baby, her voice garbled with macerated jerky and tears. “If he decides to leave, then that’s okay. We’ll just… You and I will just figure something out. Uncle Sokka might take pity on us. Or maybe your aunt Toph.”
There is a little bump near her bellybutton in answer.
Katara’s heart shatters for the thousandth time and a sob finally springs forth from her chest. “I’m sorry, baby,” she says. “Your mommy is so stupid.”
She allows herself some time to wallow, to let the sadness and regret ebb away. Propped up by her pillow, she gloves one hand in water and presses it to her stomach, seeking out the baby’s hummingbird heartbeat and reveling in his or her taps and tumbles. Anticipation of the most positive and fearful kinds have twined themselves around her heart. She longs to hold this little one in her arms and press kisses to downy hair. At the same time, she wonders about the eyes that will look up at her with love and innocence. She can’t help but fear what Gran Gran and Dad will say if they find themselves looking upon a tiny face that is distinctly Fire Nation rather than Water Tribe or Air Nomad. Because Tui knows, all the spirits know, that Katara does not deserve the gift of a child with ambiguous features.
When the sorrow abates, Katara preps a little speech, running it past the baby each time she makes a tweak to her wording.
Aang, she’ll say. Do you remember Zuko? Of course you remember Zuko. How silly of me. Well, a handful of months ago, he told me he was in love with me. When was this? Oh, right. Just before you and I bonded our lives in front of everyone we knew. Literally a month before—a month in which I could have done the right thing and not ruined all our lives. And when he showed up before the commitment ceremony, I picked a fight with him because I was too chickenpig to do the right thing. And it led to confessions and the best sex of my life—sorry, that’s probably too much information. And long story short, this baby likely isn’t yours.
“How does that sound?” she asks her baby bump.
“Yeah, well, you try to find a good way to break this news.”
Briefly, she considers actually letting the baby be the way the news is broken. The acolytes (all of whom already dislike the Avatar’s wife because she refuses to comply with Air Nomad culture in its entirety) will let Aang into the room after the baby is born. Their faces will be a myriad of disappointed yet smug masks whose subtexts read We told you so. And Aang will look down at the little bundle of yellow blankets in Katara’s arms and see that she’s given birth to Zuko incarnate and it will…
“Destroy everything,” Katara mutters, observing her dwindling supply of secret jerky. She should really not binge it all. There’s no telling if Sokka can send more soon. “Excellent work, Katara. You’ve painted yourself into a corner and now the only way out is through.”
Steeling her spine, Katara shoves the rest of the jerky back into the tin it arrived in, hides the tin under her bed alongside Zuko’s love letter, and then strides out of her room with purpose. It will not do to quail and back down. She is Water Tribe and therefore made of grit and tougher stuff than the fear that threatens to keep her silent.
Aang is in the sanctuary, his face solemn as he ponders a statue of Avatar Kyoshi. At the sound of Katara’s footsteps, he turns, a brilliant, boyish grin gracing his mouth.
“Oh, good,” he says brightly. “I was looking for you!”
Katara frowns, glancing about the sanctuary. “In here?” she deadpans.
Aang laughs. His stony-faced past lives do not. “I got a little distracted,” he says. “Let’s take a walk!”
Katara thinks that getting distracted was a much more charming quality of Aang’s when he was twelve. “As long as we’re walking to a place where I can sit down,” is her unamused reply.
“Nonsense!” Aang loops a lanky arm around her shoulder and begins striding towards the door. “Walking is good for you!”
“I’m growing a person,” Katara snaps. “I think I’m allowed to put my feet up as needed.”
Aang looks about ready to argue, but the petulance quickly flees his face and he is his unruffled, cheery self once more. He steers her towards one of the acolytes’ flower gardens and, thankfully, a bench. They are silent for a long moment after Katara has settled herself. She thinks of hot and sour glass noodles, the heady thrill of hearing the words I’m in love with you as they left Zuko’s mouth. She thinks of the press of his lips against hers after a slow dance under the auroras. She thinks of a flirtation beneath emerald and navy lanterns. She thinks of the crackle of blue-white lightning and a scar that spiderwebs itself across alabaster skin.
“I have something to say,” she blurts out at the same time Aang says, “I have to tell you something.”
They both startle and blink at one another. Aang chuckles sheepishly and runs a hand over his head, long fingers trailing the blue path of his tattoo.
“I need to go first,” he says. “It’s important.”
Katara huffs and settles against the backrest. She waves a hand to concede control of the conversation and then crosses her arms.
“Right. It’s… It’s not a good thing that I have to tell you.”
One of her eyebrows twitches upwards. Paranoia begins to niggle at the back of her mind; fear that he’s found Zuko’s letter or that one of the acolytes witnessed her kissing the firebender and broke the news before she could.
“I mean, it is a good thing,” Aang continues hastily, clearly misreading the twitch of her eyebrow. “Or it will be. For the world.”
Katara presses her lips into a firm line, knowing that if Aang takes one moment longer, she will word-vomit the truth at him.
“You’re probably going to be upset,” he says, his voice taking on an absurdly calm quality as though she is a spooked ostrich horse that needs to be soothed. He kneels before her and takes her hands into his. They are cold and clammy. He doesn’t quite meet her eyes. “I love you and I love the baby, but...Avatar Kyoshi wants me to go on a spirit journey.”
Katara blinks. “What?”
“I don’t know how long I’ll be,” Aang says. “But I need to leave within the week.”
She feels oddly numb to his words, but a new fear raises its ugly head: The fear of being left alone with the acolytes to give birth to a baby that is likely not his. It burns like bile in her throat.
“Aang,” she croaks, “I’m having a baby.”
“I know,” he says.
“I will literally have to push another human being out of my body in a matter of weeks.”
“I can ask Jaya to come in from the Eastern Air Temple—”
Katara scrambles to her feet, drops Aang’s hands like they’re hot coals. “What?” she says again.
“Well, she trained in the Earth Kingdom as a midwife and—”
Aang rises from his crouched position, wiry body unfurling like a flag in the wind. “Katara—”
“No,” Katara says with an emphatic shake of her head. “Jaya doesn’t like me, Aang. None of the acolytes like me. I’m not going to give birth to my first child without someone who cares about me there to offer some support!”
“I can’t abandon my duties as the Avatar, Katara.”
“I’m not asking you to,” Katara shouts. “I am telling you that I refuse to have this baby without someone who loves me in my corner!”
“Maybe we can write to Sokka and Suki—”
“No,” she says a third time. “No. I’m not going to do this here if you aren’t. I want to go home.”
“Katara, you are home.” Aang sounds a bit exasperated. “The temples, the acolytes, me. We’re your home!”
“I want to go back to my tribe.”
Aang frowns. “Katara,” he says severely. “It’s important that airbenders are born within the temples. The spiritual connection is critical to—”
He stops short when Katara eases into his personal space, eyes narrowed to slits and hands fisted on her hips.
“I am a waterbender,” she says, her voice low and dark. “I am Water Tribe. This baby could very well be a waterbender.”
“Katara, that’s just not how it works for airbenders,” Aang starts. “If at least one parent is—”
“I’m speaking,” Katara says and her partner’s mouth clamps shut in surprise. “I will have this baby in the comfort of my own home with the help of people who love me. Gran Gran brought both me and Sokka into this world, and she’ll do it again. So you can either help me get home on Appa or I’ll bend the sea to my will and get there by myself.”
Fury eats her up inside that day. It gnaws away at her innards and bones as she packs all of her things into her sealskin bag and it prowls her chest like an angry beast as she sits in Appa’s saddle, wind whipping her loose hair away from her face. It’s an anger that she can’t let go of and she simmers with it still when Appa lands in front of her father’s house. Rationality tells her that breaking the news to Aang at this moment isn’t the best choice. There could be a huge blowout. It could trigger the Avatar State. She needs to approach this at a time when she feels on a more even kilter.
So she waits.
In retrospect, Katara would have told Aang about the baby before he left for his spirit journey had she actually believed he’d be gone for an extensive amount of time. The loneliness and fear that she was worried about experiencing at the temple are still her unwanted companions. Even though she has Sokka and Gran Gran and her dad, she feels horribly alone in the impending birth of her baby. Left alone with her dread and despondency one night, she writes to the one person she wants by her side when the time comes.
Never in a million years does she actually expect him to show up.
Katara’s clear agitation results in Gran Gran making her stay in bed for the last few weeks of her pregnancy. It’s supposed to help her relax. But when Katara is woken up from a nap by the sound of Sokka and Zuko laughing and stumbling around the hallway one day, she can do everything but relax.
For two weeks, she hears his low, rasping voice in the hallways of the residence. She hears him giggling with Sokka and making plans to drink and go ice fishing every day. When Sokka brings her dinner each night, bearing bowls of meaty stew and slices of thick bread, she asks after Zuko as casually as she can while they eat. Sokka watches her with careful, guarded eyes the way he has since she found him “looking for his boomerang” in her room not long after she first arrived. The look makes her feel eerie, as though her brother knows something that he shouldn’t and is trying to handle her as delicately as possible.
Near the end of the second week, she tells Sokka, voice small and reluctant, “I just miss him, that’s all.”
He looks at her, a softness in his blue eyes. “I know,” he says. One of his hands reaches out to squeeze one of hers.
The following evening, long after she and Sokka have finished dinner, Katara sits up by herself, stitching a shirt for the baby. The fabric is soft and smooth, delicate under her fingertips as she meticulously sews the fur cuffs and hems. She’s lost herself in the push and pull of the needle and thread when there is a quiet knock at her door. Due to the lateness of the hour, she expects her father coming to tell her goodnight and quietly calls for him to enter.
But when the door swings open, it’s not Hakoda who stands in the doorway.
Katara’s world slows down as her heart skips and then begins a sensationally delighted beat. Zuko stands there in all the winter trappings of the Fire Lord, regal cloak lined with black fur draped over broad shoulders, five-pronged flame in his topknot. The planes of his face are a little sharper, more chiseled with age. He is as unfairly handsome as he was when she was fifteen and in possession of a heart conflicted by war.
She exhales and his name follows the air in her lungs. Her soul gives a mighty squeeze and unravels, and she can feel all of the threads of her being that live and breathe for this man quiver. When he looks at her with tentative golden eyes, the threads tighten, painful and sharp, and she cannot keep herself from dissolving into tears as regret and disappointment in herself bowl over her like the wave of a tsunami.
The baby is beautiful, all blue eyes, brown hair, and fair skin, and Katara thinks that the purgatory she is now in must be a punishment from the spirits rather than the undeserved gift she thought it would be. He is half a day old and she cannot get enough of him, though. The button of his nose, his wide blue eyes, the noises of contentment he makes when she bundles him in a warm blanket. He is hers and he is perfect.
The hour is late, verging on early, and she sits up in bed, tucked close to Zuko’s side, the baby cradled gently in his hands and arms. He reaches with a finger to stroke a soft, rosy cheek and the baby coos, nestling further into the warmth the firebender emits. Katara can’t tear her eyes from the scene. There is an innate rightness to it that she cannot deny. Zuko’s eyes are tender, softly molten as he gazes at the little person he holds with loving hands.
As much as there is that Katara can’t know in this moment, she knows.
Aang arrives and Katara resolves for the second time that she’s going to tell him the truth. Bumi is asleep when the argument begins, a tiny thing swaddled in soft furs and blankets. She is reaching to open her door when Aang barrels through it, gray eyes sparkling and bright but hugged by dark, bruise-like shadows. He looks thinner than he did the last time he undertook a spirit journey and she rushes to clear a chair for him.
“Katara,” he says without preamble. She doesn't even have a chance to offer to get the baby for him. His voice is rough from what she assumes is disuse. “I found airbenders.”
She tips her head to consider what he’s said. “Kyoshi helped you find airbenders?”
He shakes his head. The tips of his ears are red. Katara stokes the fire in order to warm the room up for him. Seemingly unbothered by the cold or his ragged appearance, Aang nearly vibrates with excitement.
“I didn’t go on the spirit journey,” he says. “I was deep in this forest in the Earth Kingdom, trying to find the place Kyoshi wanted me to go, when I found this really strange rock formation and…”
Katara’s ire must be written clearly on her face, because he trails off and has the decency to look sheepish. The waterbender feels her breathing sharpen and speed up. She momentarily forgets her sleeping child as she explodes.
“You told me you were going on a spirit journey!”
“You have to understand why I decided not to do that.”
“Why would I possibly understand why you did that?” she demands flatly.
“Because you’ve always understood. You know what it’s like to be the last of your people. I found them, Katara. Imagine what it would be like to find more southern benders.”
“I don’t have to imagine,” her words are sharp as they slice through the air. “I found Hama. I lost Hama. We all know what choice she likely made rather than accepting a prison sentence. But I’m not the Avatar, Aang. You are. And you have an obligation to the world.”
“I also have an obligation to my people,” Aang argues quietly.
“What about me, then?” she retorts. “What about the baby?”
Bumi has miraculously not stirred yet. Aang blinks at her with solemn eyes.
“I understand that you’re upset,” he begins and Katara cuts him off with a sharp bark of laughter.
“You left me here!” she shouts. “You left me to have a baby without you. And then you come back and tell me that you abandoned your duties as the Avatar?”
She waited. She waited to tell him and he didn't even go on the blasted spirit journey.
It is a rare moment when Aang raises his voice, but he does so now, drawing in a rattling breath as he rises from the chair and lets loose. “I found airbenders, Katara!” And then he pales alarmingly, collapses back into the chair and begins coughing.
Bumi awakes with a piercing wail.
Katara misses dinner to confer with the village healer, Ahnah. Their findings are the same. Something is wrong with Aang’s chi and the illness seems to be more of spirit than of body. Ahnah recommends that Bumi and Aang be kept separate for a while just to be safe.
Sokka pokes his head into her room not long after she’s soothed Bumi to sleep. She’s been lost in thought, recalling the way Zuko’s face had softened as he held the baby close in warm and gentle hands, so she is startled when Sokka makes his presence known.
“I brought dinner,” he says, hefting a plate for her to see. It’s piled with a mound of rice and slices of meat. Katara’s stomach lets out an audible growl and Sokka laughs. “Good timing, I suppose.”
“Thank you.” She takes the plate from him and he crosses the room to sit in the chair near Bumi’s bassinet, a sturdy little bed that he, Hakoda, and Pakku had built and carved themselves.
“Hard to believe you have one of these,” Sokka jokes, reaching to adjust Bumi’s blanket.
Katara laughs and settles onto her bed, digging eagerly into the food. “You’re telling me,” she says.
They are silent for a few minutes as Katara eats and then Sokka asks, “Given everything that you wanted out of life… Is it worth it? Parenthood?”
She freezes, considering the question for a moment. It’s a loaded query. One that she doesn’t know how to answer honestly. What Katara wanted out of life ceased to be an option when she bound herself to Aang. She will never be truly satisfied. She will never be undeniably happy. She will never wake in the morning to humidity and sunshine and look out the window to see Zuko guiding Bumi through a series of katas or showing him how to hold the turtleducks.
If she doesn’t tell Aang the truth, she will forever be the Avatar’s partner. She will help keep order in the temples and always be considered an outsider to his people. If her children aren’t airbenders, they will not be held in the same regard Aang is. Her dreams of effecting change on a large scale will dwindle to nothing.
“I think so,” Katara says. And it's true. Because even though Aang isn't who she wants, even though this life isn't the one she wants, Bumi isn't what ties her to him.
“I worry,” Sokka says quietly, “about what I’ve asked Suki to give up. The warriors, her independence, her home…”
“Did you both want to get married?”
“Do you both want kids?”
“Very much so.”
Katara shrugs. “That’s a good start,” she says kindly. “My best advice?”
Sokka looks at her sharply and nods. She gives him a weak smile.
“Plan for kids. I love Bumi more than anyone or anything, but…”
“But there was more you wanted,” Sokka completes.
The waterbender nods. “So much more,” she says. Then, she turns her eyes back to her food before her brother can see the unshed tears that linger there.
“I don’t know if he told you yet,” Sokka says after a while, “but Zuko is leaving in the morning.”
Katara freezes. She sees that the warrior is focused on his nephew and so he doesn’t notice the way her breathing quickens with pent up emotions. Panic, fear, love. So much love. Katara knows she is on the precipice of losing Zuko now that Aang has returned. He will do what he did nine months ago: Bow out without so much as a goodbye, a silent show of respect towards Aang and a clear message to her that the hurt she has inflicted has cut him so deep she may never have a hope of mending the wound.
“No,” she says, voice wavering. “He didn’t tell me.”
Sokka bobs a nod and he reaches down to tuck a stuffed mooselion cub closer to Bumi. It is a soft and tender moment that inspires Katara to speak. She calls her brother’s name and he looks towards her.
“I hurt him,” she says and her voice splinters as the tears finally begin to fall. “I messed up. Horribly.”
Heaving a sigh, Sokka abandons his post by Bumi and situates himself next to Katara on the mattress. When he wraps his arms around her, she buries her face in his shoulder and cries.
“Look,” he says gently while the shoulder of his shirt grows damp with her tears. “There are things I can piece together, but the less I know, the better. He’s my best friend and you’re my best sister—” this earns him a watery chuckle “—and I don’t want to have to kick either of your asses.” He pushes her away gently, holding her at arms’ length by her shoulders.
“You decided to marry Aang.”
“I know.” Katara wipes at her wet cheeks with the heels of her hands. “I know, Sokka.”
“You know the tribe’s stance on marriage. Even though Aang couldn’t commit himself to it fully and refused the Water Tribe ceremony.”
“You have to stick with this choice. I can’t change the law for you. Dad can’t change the law for you.” He catches her eyes with his own, solemn and serious. “We could have helped you before, but... Katara, you’re going to have to learn how to be happy with the choice you made.”
Katara nods. “I know,” she says.
Sokka reaches out and smooths some stray strands of hair away from her face, presses a kiss to the top of her head. “I’m still here,” he says, “for whatever you need, however I can help.”
She pulls him back in for another hug, squeezing him tight. “Thank you, Sokka.”
Katara paces the halls with a restless Bumi that night, soothing and rocking him in the hopes that he’ll soon fall asleep. She’s traversed the entirety of the chief’s residence no less than five times before he finally nods off, and the more she walks, the more determined she becomes to say something—anything—before Zuko leaves once more. She has hope despite her conversation with Sokka. And because she is Katara, she will cling to it until the last possible shred of it is gone.
There are two guards posted outside of Zuko’s room when she approaches, Bumi in her arms. They are Fire Nation men, bulky and stoic beneath their helmets, and pay her no mind when she knocks. Zuko looks shocked to see her, his unmarred eye widening beneath thick strands of black hair. It is a bit longer than it was three-quarters of a year ago, grazing his shoulders now that it’s free from his topknot. This is the first she’s seen him without his crown since he’s been here. He looks softer, more like Zuko rather than the Fire Lord.
He hesitates openly before allowing her into his room, but takes Bumi with eager hands when they’ve settled into the chairs around the firepit. The tenderness in the firebender’s face plucks at the chords of her soul as she watches him with the baby. Love sings through her body. Fragile strands of hope stir up visions of what could be. It’s all so easy in her mind. Zuko with his hair unbound as it is now, his fingers fisted in Bumi’s chubby hands as he helps the tot walk across the grassy law of a garden towards Katara. She holds her arms out, a joyous smile breaking across her face, and they are a little family encased in fragile, rose-colored glass.
“Zuko,” she says, tentative, “I’m—”
I’m in love with you.
I’m almost positive Bumi is ours.
I’m so sorry for what I’ve taken from you.
I’m going to tell Aang the truth.
I’m going to fix this.
Dozens of possibilities hang there in the split second of liminal space and time between the last vibration of her words and the moment Zuko cuts her off. Which route Katara intends to take, she doesn’t know. And she’ll never get the chance to find out.
“I’m getting married, Katara,” Zuko says.
Her heart and her rosy, hopeful dreams of the future shatter.
The number of airbenders is smaller than Katara expected. Six elderly men and women, a score of adults ages eighteen to fifty, several teens and small children, and three babies. They are, overall, a cheerful bunch of people. She learns from a grandmother named Sumati that they had managed to disguise themselves as Earth Kingdom citizens during the war, forgoing arrow tattoos and restricting their bending to only the smallest of necessities at the most urgent of times. Hidden in a canyon in the farthest-flung reaches of the Earth Kingdom, they somehow, miraculously, evaded Ozai’s notice. It’s the kindness of neighbors, Sumati says, that saved them. The neighboring townspeople had never given up the existence of the small band of benders.
Katara likes Sumati and spends a great many of her days in the elderly woman’s presence. On days Aang is away on Avatar business, she keeps Bumi strapped to her belly or her back and they traverse the temples with Sumati, doing chores and bending together. When Aang is home—home being whichever temple he’s decided to locate their little family for a time—he takes Bumi wherever he goes, determined to ingrain the lessons of his people in the boy right from the start. As the months pass, some of Katara’s anxieties ease while others heighten further.
At a year old, Bumi’s eyes are as blue if not bluer than the day he was born. For this reason, Katara breathes just a little easier. But she watches closely for signs of bending—any signs of bending. Air, water, fire...she watches him like an eaglehawk. It may take years, she knows, if at all. Still, she looks for little signs and ponders whether it is a more fitting punishment for her if he is a bender or if he never bends at all. Knowing for certain or not knowing…
She isn’t alone in the way she watches him. Aang does as well. Katara can see the way he compares Bumi’s milestones to that of the three airbender babies’. This one sneezed the other day and flew out of her mother’s arms. That one blew a door wide open this afternoon. Bumi does nothing.
Aang agonizes over it constantly.
Katara vacillates between telling him and not telling him every day. Is it kinder, she wonders, to tell him the truth or is it kinder to let him live in the dark and hope beyond hope that the truth never reveals itself? (She knows which is kinder, but can never unstick the words from her throat. Not when he loves Bumi as hard and as joyfully as he does. Not when Bumi shouts with excitement whenever Appa lands in the temple’s courtyard.)
Sumati tells Katara not to worry about Bumi’s bending status. “There are late bloomers in every bunch,” she says. “And the world is not yet in balance. Sometimes imbalances in the world cause imbalances in ourselves.”
Still, the cracks start to show.
One spring day, Aang and Appa land in the courtyard of the Eastern Air Temple like the heralds of an oncoming storm. Perhaps they are. Wind snaps branches from trees and scatters new green leaves to the four corners of the earth. Katara can feel the angry churn of the ocean far below them. The rock and roll of the water signals an oncoming typhoon. She hurries forth, Jaya not far behind her, to help Aang herd Appa to safety.
“Get the nomads and the acolytes to safety!” Aang shouts to Jaya over the wind. “Find a place within the inner temple to hunker down!”
Jaya nods and dashes off, her dark hair whipping about her face and her orange skirts snapping in the wind. Together, Katara and Aang goad Appa into the stables with his few brethren. He goes without much of a fight.
“Where’s Bumi?” Aang asks.
“He’s with Sumati,” Katara says.
“Where?” Aang is frantic, eyes wide. Katara isn’t certain if it’s the color of the sky playing tricks on her eyes, but he looks ill. He’s leaning on his glider as though he might topple over.
“We were in the orchard—”
“The orchard?” He’s incredulous. “Katara! How could you make such a dangerous choice in this weather? That’s not like you!”
His words cut to the quick. “We weren’t anticipating a storm!” she replies. “This came out of nowhere! You know I would never endanger Bumi. Sumati won’t let anything happen to him.”
Katara follows Aang through the halls of the temple at a sprint. He throws open the occasional door, looking for the acolytes, the benders, Bumi and Sumati… Which of these, she isn’t sure. Aang is panting hard, his clothes seem to hang a smidge too loosely on his body. She grabs for his hand and yanks him to a stop.
“We need to get ourselves to safety.”
“We need to find Bumi!”
“Sumati will make sure he’s safe, I promise, Aang.”
He opens his mouth to argue, but his words are lost to loud, hacking coughs that seize his body. Fed up, Katara grips his hand tighter and pulls him into the first windowless room she can find. It turns out to be a broom closet. She upturns a bucket and presses on Aang’s shoulders until he sits. In the silence of their little safe haven, she can hear his breathing, an eerie rattle that cuts through the darkness.
Kneeling down, she uncorks the skein of water at her right hip and summons the liquid forth. With a glowing hand, she reaches out to ease the flow of the chi through Aang’s chest.
“Thank you,” he wheezes after several long minutes.
Katara frowns. “Aang, your chi doesn’t feel right,” she says. “How long have you been sick?”
“It got worse over the journey home.”
“Did you feel this way while you were with Kuei and the others?”
“I didn’t feel great on the way there, but it got better over the week.”
Her frown deepens. “Maybe we need to make a trip to the spirit oasis up north,” she suggests.
“Why?” he says. “For Bumi? I don’t think spirit water will help, but we could try.”
“No,” Katara says, “for you . What are you talking about?”
“Something is wrong, Katara. The other airbenders’ babies—”
Her hackles rise, disbelief thrumming hot through her veins. She rockets to her feet, hands fisted at her sides. They’ve had this argument too many times now. Bumi is too small for such pressure. This is it, she decides. This is her moment.
“There is nothing wrong with Bumi!”
“Katara, there is! There should have been one incident at least by now!” It’s dark, but she can feel the force of his glare. “Jaya has a theory—”
“Oh, yes,” Katara says sarcastically. “Let’s hear what wonderful, all-knowing Jaya thinks! She is an acolyte, Aang. She is far from being an expert.”
“She is an expert! She’s researched our people’s history meticulously, Katara. She knows everything there is to know. And so do I! Bumi wasn’t born in an Air Temple. He wasn’t given the chance to experience the spiritual energy from the moment of his birth. That’s critical.”
“Are you blaming this on me?” Katara demands. The bucket scrapes over the floor as Aang stands. His hands grope for her upper arms in the dark.
“No,” he says earnestly, “I’m not.”
“Good,” she says, wrenching herself out of his grasp. “Because none of the other children were born in an Air Temple either. Nor were any of the older benders!”
Her argument is met with silence and Katara knows she’s effectively squelched it. Aang is throwing off some very agitated energy, though, and she knows he isn’t done.
“You haven’t embraced the ways of our people,” he says quietly. The words hit like a slap to the face. Katara inhales sharply.
“You are blaming this on me,” she says. The worst part is that even though it’s not true, it technically is true. Bumi hasn’t met any of the milestones Aang thinks he must meet and it’s entirely Katara’s fault because Bumi’s father is likely not an airbender.
“I just think you could try harder, Katara. It might help Bumi acclimate.”
“I gave up my family, my home, and my way of life to commit myself to you, and you think I need to try harder?”
“If he saw you embracing the ways and the spirituality of our people, Bumi might be more open to it as well!”
Katara is fury incarnate, raging much more wildly than the storm outside. Her blood is boiling. “Stop invalidating my role in Bumi’s heritage,” she hisses. “Stop it. I am Water Tribe. I am a waterbender. You don’t cancel me out. Bumi is half me and that is valid. Neither of my parents were benders, Aang. Nor are Toph’s. Nor is Zuko’s mom. A parent’s bending status does not dictate a child’s!”
“It does for airbenders!”
Katara has to wait for Aang to stop coughing before she can speak again. “Bumi is part Water Tribe, Aang. And for all we know, he’s not a bender at all.”
It’s all right there on the tip of her tongue. Her night with Zuko, her suspicions about Bumi being a product of that night, her irrevocable love for the man she chose not to be with. She manages to get out the words You should know before Aang collapses.
“You shouldn’t be traveling like this in your state,” Katara says as she leans against the door jamb, arms folded over her chest. She watches with cool eyes as Aang crosses his room repeatedly, packing things into his bag.
“It’s Zuko’s wedding,” he says. “You should be coming with me.”
“I don’t really feel like traveling anywhere with you right now,” she replies. Weeks have passed, but their argument the day of the typhoon still burns like a torch in her heart.
“What am I supposed to do if he asks about you?”
She shrugs a shoulder. “You know how I hate traveling on Appa with Bumi.”
Cinching his bag shut, Aang releases a gusty sigh and turns his shadowed eyes to her. “I wish you would rethink your decision,” he says.
“Katara,” he approaches with trepidatious feet. “I’ve apologized a hundred times. Forgiveness is—”
“I know what forgiveness is, Aang,” the waterbender snaps.
“I just want us to work past this,” he pleads.
“If you want to work past this, you’ll stop talking to Jaya about our family and start talking to me. And you’ll really talk to me, Aang. Not at me. You chose to tie your life to mine,” at this, she sees a shadow of regret flicker in his eyes, “so it’s time you start seeing me for who I am and learning to love me.”
“I do love you.”
He surges forward and she pulls back.
“The real me, Aang,” she says. And then she walks away.
And so it comes to pass that the third time she intends to tell Aang the truth, she doesn’t.
Over the course of several years, Katara tries valiantly (and eventually fails) to distance herself from Zuko and attempts to build a stronger foundation in her relationship with Aang. The longing for what she could have had never subsides, but the pain of losing Zuko gets easier to manage. She reaches out to him every month with updates about Bumi.
He’s a sweet boy with boundless energy and a face that mimics his father’s when he’s angry. His smile always starts out as a small smirk and is gentle and crooked when stretched to its fullest, just like Zuko’s. Each night, he sleeps on a cot in Katara’s room at the Air Temple of the season. She tells him Water Tribe legends and helps him tie his hair into a wolf tail so that he can be like his uncle Sokka. They devise experiments and never fail to give Sumati a good spook during games of tag or hide and seek. With every day that passes during which Bumi does not airbend, the more distant Aang grows.
Katara watches as Bumi insinuates himself into the acolytes’ lessons and observes the way he clamors for Aang’s attention during mealtimes, her heart a heavy lump that has taken up near permanent residence in her throat.
“Later,” Aang tells Bumi. He is never cruel, he is never mean, but he is detached. It is always later, Bumi. And later never comes.
They try and try and try for another baby. Katara will never meet him in her designated room at the Eastern Air Temple. The one time they tried, she couldn’t stop thinking of Zuko and put an effective end to the evening with broken-hearted sobs. Every month, Aang looks at her with hopeful eyes and every month she shakes her head.
No airbender for Aang to dote upon.
Katara hears what Jaya and the other acolytes whisper in her presence. Bumi isn’t an airbender and it’s the waterbender’s fault. It’s been nearly six years and she hasn’t had another child. It must be intentional. She wishes it was intentional. At least that way the blame they saddle her with would be true.
“Give it time,” Sumati says. “It will happen when you least expect it.”
But Katara wants to give Aang an airbending child if only because it will mean there’s at least a reason for him to give Bumi so little of his time and attention, even if it would be a shitty reason.
Sokka and Suki arrive for an extended visit a few weeks before Bumi’s sixth birthday. Aang has settled on the Southern Air Temple for the season, so it’s not too much of a journey for them. Bumi and Sokka have long been fast friends, nothing short of kindred spirits. Under the shade of an apple tree, a picnic spread out around them, Katara and Suki watch as uncle and nephew work out the logistics of their own secret handshake. For once, Bumi has someone who can match his own boundless energy adventure for adventure, prank for prank, grin for grin.
“Sokka is a blessing from La herself,” Katara muses to Suki. “I don’t think I’ve seen Bumi this happy in years.”
Suki looks at her, sharp and discerning. “Are you happy, Katara?”
“I’m working on it,” she says mildly.
“Maybe you should take a break from all this for a while. Go visit Toph.”
Katara snorts. “The last time Toph and Bumi were in the same room, it was pandemonium. They brought down a ceiling and Aang somehow ended up covered in feathers,” she says, taking a bite out of a peach.
“You don’t have to take Bumi with you.”
“I couldn’t ask Sumati to watch him for an undisclosed amount of time.”
“Aang would take care of him.” Suki’s eyes study Katara’s face. “Wouldn’t he?”
“Where I go, Bumi goes,” Katara responds. “He’s not an airbender and Aang is having a hard time accepting that. It’s better that Bumi doesn’t have to face that disappointment without me.”
When she looks to her sister-in-law, she sees the way Suki inhales, revving herself up to rise to Katara and Bumi’s defense. The waterbender shakes her head. They are not going to talk about it. If they do, Katara’s wafer-thin will to make her relationship with Aang work will shatter. She will snap and tell him the whole, horrible truth.
“Surely,” she says, “we have happier things to talk about. Sokka keeps telling me something about good news.”
The way Suki’s face flushes and a smile lights up her eyes tells Katara everything she needs to know. She leans in and envelops the warrior in a fierce hug. They cling to one another in laughter and happy tears, and Katara whispers, “I’m so happy for you,” in Suki’s ear.
Across the lawn, Sokka is teaching Bumi to climb a tree. Suki watches them with soft, reverential eyes. It makes Katara’s heart ache for everything she once imagined for herself and Bumi.
“We were hoping that you could be there when it’s time,” Suki says. “There’s no one else we’d rather have bring our little warrior into the world. I know it’s hard for you to get away—”
Katara grabs Suki’s hand and squeezes. “I’ll be there,” she promises. “Whatever it takes.”
Overcome with love, Katara spends the rest of the day in the company of three of her most treasured loved ones. And though the pain of all she’s wrought upon herself still lingers, it ebbs to a dull ache as she, Sokka, and Suki play games with Bumi and shower him with the love and happiness he longs for.
A few nights after Bumi’s sixth birthday, Katara intends to write to Toph in order to arrange a visit. She dreads the hijinks that will ensue—Toph has always been a wildcard—but knows that a month of uproarious laughter and good times are something she and her son sorely need. Bumi sits on his cot, admiring the hand-carved and -painted wooden boomerang Sokka made for him. Around his neck is a whalebone necklace much like his uncle's, a gift from Gran Gran and Pakku. In the corner of her room, a tiny glider, a gift from Aang three years prior, collects dust where it sits, folded up and unused. Aang insists that they keep the glider for the next baby.
She has just sat down at her desk when a hawk lands on her windowsill in a flutter of wings. It blinks golden eyes at her and offers up a small scrap of parchment. The crimson seal of the Fire Lord winks at her. Katara’s heart begins to slam a staccato beat against her breast. She’d written to him on Bumi’s birthday. Rarely does his response arrive so quickly.
The hawk waits as she breaks open the seal, patient and attentive, as if it has been asked to bring her reply.
There are a mere two sentences scrawled across the page in Zuko’s neat, upright script, his angular signature almost an afterthought beneath them.
Come visit us. Izumi and I could both use a friend.
“What story tonight, Mom?” Bumi’s voice breaks through the silence.
Katara sets the missive aside before moving to sit next to her son. She tucks his blankets around him and he huddles close, boomerang clasped to his chest. As she unwinds the cord from his wolf tail, he watches her with blue, blue eyes. Hope springs anew in Katara’s heart, the tether that binds her soul to Zuko’s across oceans and through clouds seems to grow brighter.
“Have I ever told you the tale of the Fire Lord?” she asks.
Bumi shakes his head. That night, for the first time ever, Katara tells Bumi the story of a lost boy in search of his father’s love. She tells him of a ship breaking through the ice, of pirates and a bartered necklace. She tells him about crystal caverns below Ba Sing Se and how that boy, so desperate for love and a restoral of his honor, came to the side of good and proved himself to the world. And she tells him how that lost boy learned to love so deeply that he sacrificed his own life for a girl who had once threatened it.
Katara dreams a memory of golden eyes flickering at her in the darkness, fine red sheets pressed against her skin. Smooth black hair slips between her fingers like silk. Lips and fingertips, adoring as they brush over her body, learn the map of stretch marks their child left on her body. I love you, he whispers before he sinks into her. His name is all she knows, their love burning bright between them as he coaxes her to meet him at the breaking point. I love you, she says, I’m in love with you. And he pleads, Stay, in her ear as their hips collide. Stay with me. Please stay. Staystaystaystay…
She jolts awake and it is dark outside. Her cheeks and pillow are damp with tears. Outside the window, the moon hangs, round and bright, casting its glow on Bumi’s peaceful face. It sings to her, calls out for her. And so Katara slips into her shoes and makes a pilgrimage to the moonlight, drawing water from the distant ocean as she goes.
As the moon drifts overhead, Katara bends, fierce and forceful at first and then delicate and ornamental, her element sparkling and rippling through the air. When the sun begins to crest on the horizon, she slips into a meditation, strands of water orbiting her body as she allows her awareness to sink into her soul. Up through her fingers, the waterbender follows the path of her chi to her heart where it thrums, steady and sure. Then, down through her belly as she breathes deep. Down, further, and—
There is a divergence.
Katara’s eyes fly open and the threads of water splash to the ground beneath her. She calls some to her palm and, with trembling fingers, seeks out the divergence of chi within her pelvis. It is soft and gentle, fluttering like a butterfly’s wings, but it is there.
She laughs. Even as tears roll down her face, she laughs, disbelieving and incredulous. Carefully administered tea, meticulous bending, both somehow rendered futile. There is no questioning it this time. After two weeks on a ship, she has only been at the temple for three days. She’d spent a month and a half in the Fire Nation, in Zuko’s arms. She’d even bled while she was there.
“Is this some sort of cosmic joke?” she asks the spirits in a whisper. “Six years of trying and this is how you let it happen? I did everything right for six years. I asked you for this every month. Are you punishing me for falling in love with someone else? Is this retribution for not following my heart or is it for not being faithful?”
In the distance, the temple begins to stir with life as benders and acolytes begin their day. The spirits offer no answers. Katara is left to collect herself, gathering up as many pieces as she can before she goes to wake Bumi and hopes that nobody sees through her fragile facade.
Katara has a plan. In the dead of night, several weeks after her discovery, she packs away everything she and Bumi own into the trunk at the foot of her bed. When morning comes, she will tell Aang the whole truth and then she will leave for the South Pole with Bumi, southern marriage laws be damned. She sleeps poorly, in fits and starts, and wakes later than she intended. Shooing Bumi off to breakfast with Sumati, Katara sets out with purposeful feet to find Aang.
She locates him on a balcony, preparing for a tattoo ceremony. He works at a table, sorting out the needles and pigments, conferring with a list of names, the airbenders he has coached to mastery. Her stomach lurches with anxiety and, as she clears her throat, she feels nervous and sick. Aang looks up with a bright smile and moves to gather her in his wiry arms.
“Good morning, Sweetheart!”
When he pulls away, Katara looks him dead in the eye and, despite the squirming of her insides, says, “Aang, I have something to tell you.”
“Of course,” he says brightly. He’s always bubbly on ceremony days and Katara nearly gives up in the hopes of not ruining his excitement. Nearly.
“Aang,” she begins, “I’m—”
Her stomach rolls again and there is nothing for her to do but empty it over the railing of the balcony. When it’s over, she can hardly bring herself to look at him. She knows what she’ll see when she does.
“You’re pregnant!” he exclaims and Katara has to look at him then. It’s the beginning of Bumi all over again, joy and delight childlike on his face. The prospect of an airbending child, the hope of someone he can call his own.
“Aang,” she says.
But then he whoops jubilantly and swings her into his arms. She doesn't know how to rip this pure, unadulterated joy away from him.
Katara helps Suki through her labor and finds herself with not just a niece, but a nephew as well. The gobsmacked look on Sokka’s face when Katara tells him that the next one will be along soon is enough to make her laugh herself to tears.
There are days when Aang literally walks on air because he is so looking forward to Katara’s own impending due date. She tries to tell him dozens of times, but her attempts fall on deaf ears. Likely having learned from their fierce arguments after Bumi’s arrival, Aang actually suggests that they stay in the South Pole until the baby arrives. Katara agrees. Perhaps, she thinks, the location will make it easier for him to leave her behind once she breaks the news or he lays eyes on a child that isn’t his. Whichever comes first.
She’s nearly to term when a White Lotus delegation arrives in the middle of the night. Summer in the South Pole means incessant daylight and they don’t arrive by any ship that can be seen on the horizon or at the port. Katara doesn’t know how they arrive. She just looks around the village one day to see familiar, aging faces in the crowds.
“We’re experiencing a lot of ice and snowmelt,” Hakoda explains when she asks why Iroh and his cohorts are there. “Record melt at that. Arnook is reporting the same. Typhoon season has grown longer and the storms have increased in intensity. Iroh believes there is imbalance in the world that needs to be addressed.”
The Dragon of the West makes a point of having tea with Katara and Bumi one day between his many meetings. He says nothing out of the ordinary and is as sweet and kind as ever. Things go off kilter, though, when he tells Bumi that the boy can call him Uncle.
“Like Uncle Zuko and Uncle Sokka?” Bumi asks, turning his eyes to Katara.
“Kind of,” she replies. There is a sharp twinge throughout her pelvis and she winces. “Uncle Iroh is Uncle Zuko’s uncle.”
Bumi puzzles over this for a moment. “He’s the kind general in your story about the Fire Lord!” he exclaims.
Katara’s tale of the Fire Lord has fast become Bumi’s favorite bedtime story and he is sharp enough to start working out who is whom. The Fire Lord is Uncle Zuko. The Blind Bandit is Aunt Toph. Uncle Sokka and Aunt Suki are the Warrior and the Captain respectively. Dad is the Avatar and Mom is the Waterbending Master (but those had been easy to figure out).
“He is,” Katara concedes.
Bumi looks back at Iroh, his eyes narrowed in thought and his mouth pulled into a slight frown.
“You bear a striking resemblance to a boy I once knew when you think,” Iroh tells Bumi quietly. Katara’s pulse ratchets up. “What is on your mind, little one?”
“I don’t think Uncle is your name,” Bumi says, eliciting a laugh from the aging firebender.
“And what is a more fitting name for an old man such as myself?”
“Grampa,” Bumi says seriously.
Katara’s mouth drops open. “Bumi! ” she scolds, but Iroh doesn’t bat an eye or so much as glance her way. Her face burns with shame.
Iroh hums thoughtfully and reaches out to warm the pot of tea before pouring himself a third cup. “If that is what the spirits wish you to call me, then I don’t see why not,” he says.
“Iroh,” Katara begins.
The general holds up a hand to silence her. “I have but one grandchild to spoil, Katara,” he says genially. “Another is a welcome blessing.”
Left speechless, Katara remains silent for the rest of tea. Bumi and Iroh keep up a steady stream of chatter, most of which is lost to her. Her son eats too many cookies and likely spoils his appetite for dinner, but she can’t even bring herself to stop him. She is both helpless and unwilling to prevent the bond that is beginning to form between the boy and the general.
Eventually, Iroh announces that he must leave. “The other Grand Lotuses and I have a meeting with your husband,” he tells Katara as she walks him to the door of the sitting room. “I don’t think you should expect him until long after dinner.”
“About Bumi,” she mutters. “I don’t—”
Iroh cups her face in his warm dry palms and casts her a smile before dropping a kiss to her very red, very embarrassed cheek. “The whims of children, my dear,” he says. And then he is gone.
“Bumi,” Katara says a few hours later as she monitors the boy’s bedtime routine, “it’s best that you call General Iroh Uncle.”
“Why?” Bumi says.
“Because it will hurt your father if you call him Grampa.”
“But I feel like that’s his name,” the boy protests. He climbs under his blankets and furs. “I don’t know why, I just do.”
“Listen to me,” Katara says, tucking the blankets around him and locating his boomerang. “Sometimes we feel things very strongly and we want to act on them. But sometimes those feelings can hurt people who care about us very much. If being selfish will hurt someone who loves you, do you think it’s worth it?”
“No.” The word is petulant and comes forth on pouty lips.
Just as she is about to speak again, Katara is cut short by a loud explosion from somewhere else in the residence. Bumi scrambles closer to the wall, eyes wide.
“What was that?”
She heaves herself to her feet and uncorks the waterskin at her hip. “I don’t know, baby.”
The bedroom door flies open moments later and Sokka and Suki tumble inside, a wailing twin in either of their arms. As Suki sets about settling the infants on Katara’s bed, Sokka pulls his sister aside, the hard edges of his face sharpened by the serious look there.
“It’s Aang,” he mutters. “He blew the door off the meeting hall.”
“He headed outside. I’m going to go see if I can talk him down.”
“What if he triggers the Avatar State?” Katara demands. “You can’t—”
“Oh, and you can?” Sokka challenges, his eyes flicking to her very round belly and the way she presses a hand to her cramping uterus.
“We’ll go together, then,” Katara says. She looks around Sokka to her sister-in-law. “Suki, are you willing to watch Bumi?”
“Mommy?” Bumi’s voice cuts through the conversation, small in a way that Katara hasn’t heard in at least a year. He blinks at her from his bed, eyes watering over with tears.
She crosses the room and he meets her at the edge of his mattress, wraps his arms around her as far as they will go.
“I’ll be right back,” she promises, kissing the top of his head. “Everything is going to be okay. Aunt Suki is going to stay with you until I get back, alright? She’ll help you be brave.”
There is snot hanging from his nose and smeared on the front of her shirt when Bumi pulls back, but he nods. Suki pats her hand on Katara’s bedcovers and he clambers up to her, carefully avoiding his cousins and burrowing into his aunt’s side.
“It’s okay, Boomer,” Suki says, pulling him close. Her eyes find Katara and Sokka. “Come back to us in one piece, yeah?”
Sokka darts forward to kiss her and all three kids, and then he and Katara are on the move, as fast as Katara can waddle.
Aang is a whirlwind near the precipice of the coastal bluff. He paces like a caged animal, snow swirling about his orange and yellow form. Sokka’s hand clings tightly to the back of Katara’s parka as she edges closer, calling Aang’s name. The airbender turns towards her voice and she breathes a little easier when she sees that his eyes aren’t shimmering white. She swats Sokka’s hand away.
“It’s okay,” she hisses to her brother. “He didn’t trigger it.”
“I’m not leaving you,” Sokka retorts.
“Then just stay back. Let me talk to him.”
Her brother releases the back of her parka, but she hears him mutter, “If he makes one wrong move, I swear I’ll…”
Katara approaches slowly and her nearness seems to help Aang calm down. The winds die into a light breeze, snow begins to settle back to the ground. It takes some coaxing and Aang cries throughout the whole conversation, but she draws forth details of his meeting with the Grand Lotuses.
“The White Lotus thinks that the storms are a sign of serious imbalance in the world. Pakku says that record ice melt and the frequency of typhoons are the result of heightening temperatures. They say it’s all tied to me. Iroh says that it’s a sign that I’m not doing enough as the Avatar.”
He looks at her, eyes pleading as he grabs her hands. “I’m doing so much, Katara. I have the Air Nomads and the acolytes and—”
“Aang,” Katara says gently, “are you doing those things as the Avatar or as yourself?”
The airbender gapes at her, clearly bewildered. “How could you ask that?” he says.
Katara frowns. “What else did they say?” she asks, in an attempt to divert an argument.
He sniffs deeply and runs a palm over his bald head. “They want me to master the Avatar State and go on an extensive spirit journey. The one I was supposed to undertake with Kyoshi a few years ago,” he says.
“I think you should.”
“Katara, something like that would take years!”
“So?” she says, folding her arms over her chest.
“So, I’ll lose all the progress I’m making with the airbenders and I’ll miss out on training the baby and what will already take decades will take so much longer!”
Katara is about to give him an earful—You’re the Avatar. Your duty is to the world as a whole. You need to stop acting like a child. Learn to sacrifice your earthly attachments so you can master the Avatar State—when something trickles down her inner thigh. She looks down at her soaked pant leg and then up at Aang.
“I think I’m in labor,” she says, stunned.
Katara doesn’t want Aang in the room, but she doesn’t know how to tell Gran Gran this when Zuko was by her side last time. She doesn’t know how to say that she’s afraid for him to find out immediately that the baby isn’t his. Aang chirps positive words into her ear and spouts Air Nomad proverbs about the miracle of birth and he is there when Kya comes squalling into the world, every inch the spitting image of her Water Tribe mother.
This is the last time that Katara tries to tell Aang the truth and fails. The next time she resolves to be completely honest, she succeeds.
As a heads up, Monday's update may arrive later in the day or possibly early on Tuesday due to circumstances outside of my control. I will do my best to make sure that it arrives as scheduled. If it's late, please know that I'm doing my best to get it to you!
The roughest part of the road is coming up next. And then it's all smooth sailing from there! Let me know what you think below via comments or kudos. I do so enjoy hearing from all of you! xx
Chapter 12: Year Nineteen: A Crescendo
There is one more tag for us to earn here, friends. This is the plot point I have been most worried about because I know it will be controversial. Again, I understand if you choose to bow out of the story. It will not be for everyone and I respect that. When you get to THAT POINT (you'll know it when you read it), just try to make it to the end of the chapter at least. I've attempted to give it a sufficient explanation.
I may come back here at some point this week to make some edits and clarifications as needed, but I really wanted to get this to you all when it was still Monday. My weekend was difficult and stressful, but thoughts of getting us all closer to that happy ending kept me going and I churned this out in the spare moments I could find.
Responses to your comments will be on their way soon!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
She’s a waterbender, Zuko, Katara writes in a letter that should contain so much joy. It’s just starting to show, but it’s there. She can do it. Aang is upset. He doesn’t understand how the child of an airbender can bend anything but air. It’s all the three of us hear about. How Bumi and Kya should both be airbenders regardless of me.
I can’t keep doing this to the kids. I can’t keep failing at protecting them. Bumi is starting to get that look again, like he isn’t worthy of the love he seeks. I’ve hurt everyone and I just can’t keep doing this anymore. It’s time for me to be honest.
It takes Zuko a shockingly small amount of time to formulate and send a response.
Bring Bumi and Kya , he writes. I’ll arrange for him to train with Piandao. And we can figure out a way to tell Aang together.
The messenger hawk takes off like a shot, slicing through the sky until it vanishes into the horizon. Below Zuko’s south-facing windows, in a garden filled with burbling fountains and various plants, his mother is walking Izumi through a botany lesson. When he joins them there, he feels like a seventeen-year-old idealist again, a smile on his face and a lightness in his step. For the first time in nearly twenty years, hope stirs in the ashes of his long-demolished heart and rises, phoenix-like, into his soul.
Izumi likes having visitors in the palace. Her favorite visitor is Iroh. He brings sweet treats and gifts. Her room is crammed full of the books and records he brings her. Zuko had to have shelves built for the books and a table for the phonograph his uncle had once brought. It’s all a bit much, he thinks, but Izumi is such a bookworm and so bright and sweet that he can’t ever bring himself to tell Uncle that the flow of gifts needs to at least slow down.
He makes the mistake of telling Izumi that they’ll soon have visitors after Katara’s reply arrives. Three days later, the crown princess’ tutors come to him, all absolutely flummoxed by her sudden lack of interest in her studies.
“She spent her entire lesson in daydreams,” her calligraphy teacher complains.
“She couldn’t sit in her seat,” her master of etiquette adds.
It’s completely out of character, all of the tutors insist. Princess Izumi loves learning and never acts out.
After his meeting with the tutors, Zuko and Izumi spend some time in his mother’s garden and she sighs when he asks about why she isn’t focused on her studies. It’s a sound that reminds him of Azula and sends a pang of sadness through his soul as he realizes how things could have been for his little sister. Izumi fits her little hand into his, wrapping her fingers around his larger palm.
“I’m too excited to focus,” she tells him.
“You never have problems in your lessons when Grandfather Iroh comes to visit.”
“Yes, but he visits all the time,” Izumi says. “This is a special visit.”
Her little face is so serious and her words so eager that Zuko can’t help the smile that touches his mouth. “It is a special visit,” he agrees. “But it’s still important to stay in your seat and pay attention during lessons. It shows respect to your teachers and it will make you a better Fire Lord one day.”
She wrinkles her nose and considers his words. “I’ll try, Daddy,” she says.
“Thank you.” Zuko produces a pilfered hunk of bread from the pocket of his robes and offers it to her. Her face lights up in a grin. “Shall we feed the turtleducks before dinner?”
The moon hangs in the sky like a pygmypuma’s smile and Zuko’s eyes are drooping with sleep by the time he decides to call it a night. Each night, he tries his hardest to put a dent in the papers on his desk and goes to bed knowing that the dent will be nonexistent come morning. It’s futile, attempting to diminish his workload, but he never stops trying.
Late night silence has fallen in a hush over the palace. The lights under his mother and Izumi’s doors have long been out and he doesn’t bother with the torches in his own room either, intent on face-planting into bed and passing out until first light as always. Tired as he is, he’s removed his crown and his robes before he even notices the shadowy figure standing next to one of the windows. He nearly sets fire to the hem of his robes in his haste to call flames to his fingers.
“You’d think security in this place wouldn’t be so lax,” Katara’s voice comments casually. “To think, I managed to get two rambunctious children and myself into this palace undetected by any of the guards or the Fire Lord himself—”
It’s nearly embarrassing how quickly he crosses the room to pull her into his arms, his heart hammering away at his chest and a stupid smile on his face. And then her mouth finds his, soft and warm and willing, and he doesn’t care about how over-eager he looks.
“I didn’t expect you for weeks,” he says against her lips. “I thought you would arrive by ship.”
“We did,” she says and he can feel the quirk of her smile before she kisses him breathless again. “It was an airship. Would you believe they’re much faster?”
“Where are the kids?”
“Asleep in the nursery. I wasn’t sure—”
“Can I see them?” Zuko interrupts. There is an ache in his chest with Bumi and Kya’s names written all over it.
Katara pulls back, bends an ice slide out his window with one graceful hand. “I’ll meet you there,” she says. Then she presses a kiss to the seam of his scar and his cheek and skates away.
They both look so small while they sleep, tucked under blankets and faces peaceful. Zuko and Katara stand by the beds for a long while, eyes fixed on their children, arms wrapped around one another. He can’t stop looking at them, can’t stop memorizing their faces. The slopes of their noses, the fringes of hair that brush against their foreheads. He thinks that maybe Bumi has his nose, but Kya is almost all Katara.
“We can get them their own rooms in the morning,” he says.
Katara smiles. “Maybe,” she says. “They don’t like to be apart.”
Zuko feels the press of her lips against his neck and tightens his arms around her. Hope is so tentative in his chest, fragile and vastly different to how the past has felt. He breathes deep, drinking the moment in. Katara in his arms, the smell of a summer storm on her skin, their children before them.
“Can we really have this?” he whispers in her ear.
The waterbender pulls back, eyes serious. “Can we, Fire Lord Zuko?” she counters.
He senses it on the horizon. The controversy and scandal. He can almost hear what they’ll call her, call him, call their children and the Avatar. There’s so much to talk about, so much to confront.
“It won’t be easy.”
Katara’s hands find his. “ None of this has been easy,” she says. “I think…”
Zuko’s heart falters at the way she frowns. She’s going to back out, this was too good to be true, he will have to give her up again—
“I think I need to rip my life apart and put it back together the right way.”
He lets out a breath he didn’t know he was holding. “One step at a time,” he says.
The morning dawns balmy and bright. The ache around his eye and in his chest tells Zuko that he can anticipate a storm later today, but he sets about starting his day in high spirits. Between his early morning meetings, he orders breakfast in the southern garden and thinks of falling asleep in Katara’s rooms, skin to skin, bodies intertwined. He hadn’t intended to fall asleep there and definitely hadn’t wanted to sneak out, but found peace in the knowledge that it wouldn’t be like this much longer.
Izumi, not much of a morning person, is groggy and slightly grumpy as they make their way to breakfast, but her interest is piqued when they bypass the dining room.
“It seems like a nice morning for breakfast in the garden, doesn’t it, Fire Lily?” Zuko says conversationally.
The look on her face is highly skeptical and turns calculating when they sit down at the breakfast table in the pavilion. Izumi no doubt knows that it’s her grandmother’s morning to have breakfast with Azula and is attempting to puzzle out why there are five place settings upon the table. Briefly, he’d considered telling her that her anticipated guests had arrived in the night, but he figured the surprise at breakfast might be a little more fun. Indeed, Zuko’s hunch is proven correct when Katara, Bumi, and Kya come strolling through the grass, and Izumi promptly drops her chopsticks and part of her pickled plums in her lap. She gives a joyous shout and races away from the table to catch Katara about the waist.
Zuko watches as Bumi throws himself into the hug and Kya, clearly not wanting to be left out, insinuates herself into the cluster of arms, bodies, and legs as well. Katara stands amongst them all, a grin on her face and laughter pealing out of her mouth, trying to wrap her arms around as much of the children as she can. In that moment, the firebender’s heart feels full in a way he never knew possible. And when Katara manages to extract herself from the loving embrace of all the kids, and they all gather around the table with Zuko, it is loud and happy. She meets his gaze from across the table and smiles, beautiful and brilliant.
And Zuko decides that if every morning is like this, then everything they’re about to go through is more than worth the fight.
Kya is three years old and a precocious speaker. While Bumi trains with Piandao in Shu Jing during the summer weeks, Katara works with Kya on the most basic water bending skills by the turtleduck pond. She isn’t ready for katas yet and she has a hard time focusing for extended periods of time, bouncing from one desire to the next.
Zuko, astounded by her energy, asks, “Is this what you were like as a kid?”
Katara shakes her head. Kya grabs hold of her hand and drags her along the garden to chase after a butterfly.
“No,” Katara says. “But Bumi was. Is . And Sokka was. His kids are...” She trails off and shudders. “I’m glad for Bumi and Kya’s relative calm whenever I’ve seen Sokka and Suki’s little ones. Were you like this?” He can see it in her eyes that she’s looking to blame him, but it’s in jest.
“No,” Zuko says. He bites back a smile. “You’re out of luck there. I just wanted to spend time with Lu Ten, Uncle, and Mother.”
“Azula?” Katara says, casting about for someone else to blame.
Zuko shakes his head. “No. She was just cruel.”
“Kya, baby,” Katara says, pulling the little one to a stop. She wheels Kya around and manages to catch the little girl’s wandering eyes when she kneels down. “Mommy is going to sit with Zuko, okay?”
“Can I splore?”
“What’s the rule in the garden if Mommy isn’t with you?”
“No pond,” Kya says, giving her mother a toothy grin.
“That’s right.” Katara reaches out to smooth Kya’s hair back into its braid. It shines just a little bit darker and a little bit smoother than her brother’s in the sunlight. Katara has dressed her in some of Izumi’s hand me downs today, a red tunic and black pants that are more suitable to the heat of the Fire Nation summer than most of Kya’s own clothes are. She’s spent the first three years of her life on and off the back of a flying bison, living near one pole or the other. It’s the first time Zuko has gotten to meet her.
Over the course of the month that Katara and the kids have been in the Fire Nation, things have settled into something of a routine. Bumi spends his weekdays in Shu Jing with Piandao and comes back to the palace on weekends, eager to show Zuko what he’s been learning; Katara and Ursa spend their days with Izumi and Kya; and Zuko, thankful for the slower pace and pressure of summer, happily finds himself with a little more free time. The palace is, for the first time in a century or more, bustling with energy and enthusiasm thanks to the presence of Katara and the kids. Having lived under Ozai’s thumb for much of their lives, Zuko and his mother share secret smiles when the trio of children sprint through the corridors, shouting and laughing and generally leaving chaos in their wake. Ursa has taken a particular shine to Kya, something that Katara confesses to Zuko late one night in his room feels somehow both bittersweet and perfectly fitting.
“I had Gran Gran when I was small. She taught me so many things,” Katara says. “Kya has been growing up without a Gran Gran of her own. It’s just… It’s another reminder of my mother and it’s another reminder of everything I’ve taken away from all of us. I don’t know how to make amends for all that I’ve done wrong.”
Zuko crosses the room and takes her hands in his. “All I want,” he says, slow and earnest, “is you and the kids. Let’s give this an honest chance.”
“It’s going to make your life so much harder,” she begins and Zuko shakes his head.
“No,” he interrupts. “The hardest part of all of this has been spending the past nineteen years in love with a woman I couldn’t have and not being able to be there for our kids. Katara, I’m not looking for your protection. I don’t need you to make sure I don’t get hurt. I want you and I want our family. Whatever the fallout is, we’ll deal with it together.”
“I’m not backing out,” Katara says. Her hands squeeze around his. “But if the political ramifications are too much for you—”
Zuko smirks. “I’ve never been one for convention,” he says. “And I’m pretty sure I’m not the only world leader with secrets in my personal life.”
“You’re ready for all of this?”
“Whenever you are.”
Katara kisses him soundly and with enthusiasm.
The headache in the back of Zuko’s skull is slowly thrumming its way to migraine status. He’s had a horrendous day filled with meetings that haven’t gone his way, a dismissed minister, and stiff aches in his scars that are the result of the storm clouds rolling in on the horizon. Eight years of hard work are rapidly crumbling beneath his feet and Bumi is supposed to arrive by airship later today, a worrisome thing when his team of meteorologists and scientists are sitting before him and predicting three devastating typhoons in the coming month, the first of which is supposed to arrive within the next two days.
“Start the evacuation process,” Zuko tells the representatives from the disaster aid program. “I’ll ensure that housing and provisions are made available to all the evacuees and talk to the minister of finance about diverting funds to the rebuilding and recovery efforts.”
He knows where that money is going to come from and it’s a devastating blow to what he’s been working on. When he’s safely ensconced in his office, he pulls the flame from his topknot and heaves it across the room. It bounces off the wall and clatters to the floor. He sinks into the chair behind his desk and buries his face in his hands. Long, silent moments stretch out and then there is a soft knock at the door.
The door swings open and Zuko looks up to see Katara stepping over the threshold, a letter in her hand. She is a sight for sore eyes in her Water Tribe blue silks and he drinks her in.
“Hi,” she says.
“Is this a bad time?”
“No, you’re fine,” Zuko says and she shuts the door firmly.
“Is everything okay?”
“Bit of a rough day,” he tells her. “And I’ve got a horrible headache.”
Katara crosses the room on light feet and leans out the open doors that lead to the balcony behind his desk. “Maybe I can help,” she says. Zuko turns to watch her summon water from the very air, her hand elegant and twisting. She steps close, laying her letter on his messy desk and divvying the water up between her hands. It glows gentle blue and when she presses her hands to his head, Zuko can feel the cool tingle of her healing.
As the headache eases, Zuko buries his face in her taut stomach and lets his hands find her hips. “Thank you,” he croaks. The waterbender hums and he hears her deposit the water in a potted plant before she returns her hands to his head.
“Anything you’d like to talk about?” she asks, carding her fingers through his lengthening hair.
Zuko sighs. “Three typhoons have formed off the coast of the Earth Kingdom. The first is going to hit this weekend.” He pulls back to look up at her. “Is Bumi home yet?”
“An hour ago,” Katara says and he breathes a sigh of relief. She smiles. “He’s excited to practice his new forms with you.”
“I’ll make sure I’m armed at lunch,” Zuko says and Katara laughs.
“I’m positive Piandao sends him home on weekends because one round of Sokka’s spirit was enough for him. Bumi might send him into retirement.”
“As long as Bumi’s happy.”
Her smile softens and he feels the ghostly sensation of her fingertips as they trace the scar around his eye. “He is happy,” she says. “We’ve all been happy.”
Zuko’s fingers tighten reflexively around her hips at her words, giddiness burning bright in his heart. He hopes that the smile on his face doesn’t look too much like a love-struck teen’s. Happiness has always felt so out of reach, something for heroes and not scarred men with imperfect souls. Now it’s lingering just in front of him and he can reach out and brush it with his fingertips, can almost hold it in the palms of his hands.
“I’m writing to Aang,” Katara says, tapping a finger on the letter she abandoned on his desk. Zuko can see the Avatar’s name scrawled across the parchment in Katara’s flowing, graceful writing. “I’ve asked him to come the moment he can. I was just on my way to send it to him.”
“Are you certain you’re ready?”
“The kids and I have lived without you for too long,” is her answer.
It takes every ounce of Zuko’s self-control to not blurt out that he has a new ribbon for her necklace hidden away in the depths of his closet, wrapped in velvety fabric and paired with a gleaming golden flame that he hopes to crown her with someday. Instead, he tugs her into his lap and hugs her fiercely.
“What else has made your day difficult?” she asks.
Zuko leans back and looks at her. She sits there on his thigh, one hand resting just over the scar on his chest, waiting patiently for his answer. So he tells her about how he has to divert funds from his educational reforms and projects to pay for disaster relief.
“I’ve been working on these things for eight years,” he says, fingering the stack of papers that detail the projects. “Cutting the funding will drastically alter what I can do. And I had to dismiss my education minister today.”
“He wasn’t willing to be progressive enough.”
Katara pulls the stack of papers into her hands and begins reading through them, her eyes flicking across the pages with impressive speed. “Zuko, this is incredible ,” she says. “You’ve established a universal preschool? And you’re working on free college education?”
“I wish I could take credit,” he says, face flushing. “Izumi’s mother was a teacher before we were married. These were her pet projects.”
The waterbender is up and out of his lap before he can react, her eyes bright and sparkling as she considers the words on the pages. “Zuko,” she says. “I… If we… If you decide that you want to…” Her face has gone a glorious shade of crimson. “I want to take this on. In her name, of course.”
Zuko stares at Katara. The papers in her hands ruffle and flutter as she trembles. There are clear implications in her words.
“I’ll have to get you a reliable education minister,” he says and her face lights up.
“I know someone who would be perfect .”
“Toph was seeing one of the Ogawa brothers for a long time—”
“Zhihao?” Zuko asks.
“Yes! I’m not sure if they’re still together because he was seeking a professorship with a university and Toph didn’t want to give up her school, but… Zuko, you could bring him in for an interview. He’s young and he’d be progressive, I’m sure. He’d definitely want to see these plans through.”
Zuko opens his mouth to tell her it’s a perfect plan, to say that he can’t believe he never saw this path before, when there is a knock on his office door.
A servant opens the door, bowing low. “Fire Lord Zuko, the Avatar’s bison has been spotted overhead. We are preparing for his arrival.” He leaves, bowing once more before the door closes.
Zuko and Katara exchange a look. She has gone alarmingly pale and sinks into a chair.
“The storms,” she says.
“The typhoons!” Katara pins him with a sharp stare. “Aang never told you about what’s going on?”
“Katara, what are you talking about?”
“Your uncle hasn’t mentioned anything?”
“What do my uncle and Aang have to do with the typhoons?”
Katara tells Zuko about Aang’s meeting with the White Lotus three years prior as they walk to the entrance of the palace on quick feet. By the time they reach the hall where they will greet Aang, Zuko is angry enough to blow the doors off his own home and seize the Avatar by the front of his shirt, words of anger on the tip of his tongue.
Zuko and Bumi do not get to walk through his new forms at lunch. The Fire Lord and the Avatar do not make it to the meal at all. They spend the entire hour arguing in the throne room, their voices echoing off the high ceilings and marble floors.
“Your inability to do your job is causing worldwide devastation!” Zuko had thundered, slashing a flaming hand through the air. “Your inaction is worsening the lives of my citizens!”
“I have an obligation to the Air Nomads!” Aang had shot back. “An obligation to everyone of my people who were slaughtered before their time!”
“And you have an obligation to the world, Avatar Aang! To not only your people, but mine, Kuei’s, Hakoda’s, and Arnook’s! I am evacuating people at this moment because of your selfishness. They will lose their homes because you refuse to maintain balance in the world!”
“Restoring the legacy and culture of my people will help restore balance!”
“Tell that to the thousands who will lose everything in the coming month,” Zuko spat out. “Tell that to the Water Tribes whose lands are shrinking due to unnaturally warm temperatures! People are still losing their lives before their time, Aang, and that’s happening on your watch!”
And then he had stormed out of the throne room and demolished half of the practice grounds venting his fury.
Subsequently, dinner is a tense affair.
Bumi keeps his eyes fixed on his food and doesn’t chatter endlessly about Master Piandao and Shu Jing as he has every other weekend he’s come back to the palace; Kya doesn’t spill multiple glasses of water attempting to waterbend bubbles in her drink; Izumi, clearly reading the tension between the adults, pulls a book from beneath her chair and buries her nose in it while she eats; and Katara looks about ready to burst as her eyes dart from Zuko to Aang and back again.
Zuko shakes his head at her, a silent, subtle message. Not tonight . Tonight he feels impotent in his role as the Fire Lord. He is too angry at Aang for stealing away his ability to protect and provide for his people. People will likely die in the coming days and Zuko is nearly powerless to prevent that. Tonight, he is rage embodied and needs time to gather his thoughts and emotions. He cannot in good conscience have their talk with Aang tonight.
Zuko is late to lunch the next day and shoots Katara an apologetic glance when he seats himself at the head of the table, squeezes her thigh with a warm, reassuring hand when he’s sure nobody is looking. This morning in his office, they’d worked out precisely how to break the news to Aang and promised each other they would pull him aside after dinner. Beneath the table, Katara’s fingers slip through Zuko’s and squeeze before sliding away.
“I’m sorry I’m late,” Zuko says. “My meeting with the disaster relief program’s representatives and my meteorologists ran long. It seems the first of the typhoons is expected to make land some time tonight or early tomorrow morning. Earlier than expected.” He sends a glare Aang’s way.
Aang stares stubbornly at his food. He looks terrible, green and gaunt, cheeks hollow and eyes shadowed in purplish rings.
“Were you able to…?” Katara asks and Zuko can hear the question she doesn’t want to voice in front of the children.
“Not nearly enough of them,” Zuko replies. He’s still thrumming with anger at Aang and refuses to sugarcoat the truth. “This will be one of the largest nationwide tragedies in twenty years.”
“Send me out,” she says immediately.
“What?” Zuko says at the same time Aang says, “Katara!”
“I mean, I can’t weaken the storm without a team of waterbenders,” she amends, “but I can help heal people and bring them safe drinking water in the aftermath. And I can write to my dad and Arnook. I’m sure they have benders they can spare. We can assemble a team that will stay here through typhoon season.”
The conversation is interrupted when a piece of steamed broccoli beans Bumi in the forehead. He lets out a cry that is decidedly Sokka in tone and grabs a fistful of rice, diving over the table to shove it down Kya’s shirt. Katara seizes Bumi around the waist and hauls him backwards and away from the girls who sit side by side on Zuko’s left.
“It wasn’t me!” Kya yells, throwing her own small fistful of rice at her brother. “It was ‘Zumi!”
Zuko turns astonished eyes to the eldest girl who is muffling laughter behind her hand, flecks of broccoli smudging her fingers.
“Kya!” Katara scolds. “Apologize to your brother this instant!”
“No!” Kya grabs a piece of chicken teriyaki with her tiny hand and takes aim. “It was ‘Zumi!” The chicken goes flying and sticks to Bumi’s cheek.
Bumi lets out another yell and sends a hunk of pineapple flying across the table where it pegs Izumi in the ear before bouncing to the floor. In response, Izumi gathers an entire fistful of broccoli and reels her arm back, chuckles bubbling from between her lips. Kya mimics her, her own broccoli in hand and an identical giggle accompanying her smile.
Zuko, shocked by how similar their laughter is, chokes out, “Girls!”
Wide eyes in shades of blue and gold turn to look at him. Broccoli plunks back into porcelain bowls. The girls purse their lips in the exact same way, attempting to stifle sniggers of laughter. Zuko can see it in the way Katara blinks at them that she has also started to tally their similarities. Her eyes find Zuko’s as she presses Bumi back into his seat. He can almost hear her begging the spirits not to let it happen this way.
Kya and Izumi are still giggling.
“Stop throwing your food and apologize to one another this instant ,” Zuko tells all three children.
His tone commands respect and squelches the atmosphere of sibling rivalry. Three muted apologies sound out around the table, but Aang’s face comes over sort of funny as he looks at Kya. She’s still living in Izumi’s old things, her hair is noticeably darker than Bumi’s, even in the dim lighting cast by the oncoming storm and the flickering torches.
“Aang?” Zuko can hear the tremor in Katara’s voice. “What’s wrong?”
Aang frowns deeply. “Nothing. I just... I thought...” His voice is stilted. He shakes his head and snatches up his glider. “That’s absurd,” he says more to himself than Katara or Zuko. And then he bolts out of the room.
Katara and Zuko stare at one another in the ensuing silence, breathing heavily and ignorant to the way the kids look around in confusion.
“He knows,” the firebender whispers unnecessarily.
In unison, he and Katara are out of their seats and running after Aang, hollering his name and whipping around corners just as he’s about to vanish from view.
“Aang!” Katara yells as she and Zuko stumble out into the courtyard.
But Aang snaps open his glider and takes off like a shot, spiraling and looping up into the stormy sky until they can’t see him anymore.
Katara and Zuko stay awake late into the night. Izumi has insisted on having a slumber party with Kya and Bumi in the nursery, their lunchtime spat long forgotten. All three kids are long asleep when Aang finally returns. He finds them in Zuko’s office, a pot of lukewarm tea sitting on the table next to an in-progress game of pai sho. They’ve been playing halfheartedly, both too keyed up to fully concentrate. The unmistakable sound of Aang’s glider snapping shut on the balcony rouses them.
Aang steps in through the doors, drenched and dripping rainwater all over the carpet. Katara rises from her seat and moves to bend the water from her husband’s clothes, but he throws a hand out to stop her.
“I can do it myself, Katara.” His voice is hard and bitter.
Katara sinks back into her chair. Zuko nudges his toe against her foot in an attempt to offer her a modicum of comfort.
“I think the three of us need to talk,” Aang says, he still hasn’t bent the water from his clothes despite his protests.
“Yes,” Katara says and Zuko’s hand tightens on the tile he’s holding. “I suppose we do.”
“Kya isn’t mine, is she?” The words hit like a slap and land loudly in the center of the study.
The next thing Aang says is directed at Zuko. “You slept with my wife?”
Zuko’s head snaps up. He meets Aang’s stormy gaze, feels fury rise like a flame in his throat. “It’s not like that,” he says softly.
Aang snorts in derision. “I think that’s exactly what it’s like!” he bellows.
Katara’s foot presses up against Zuko’s and doesn’t back away, a silent signal to find his sense of calm. He takes a few shaky breaths. “I’m in love with her—”
“What a bunch of bison—”
“It’s true ,” Zuko insists. “I’ve been in love with her for nearly twenty years.”
“And that gives you the right —”
“No,” Zuko says. “It doesn’t.”
“Then why the hell did you do it, Zuko?” Aang’s eyes flash silvery gray, his neck is flushed red in anger. The flames in the hearth leap higher for a moment.
“I told you. I’m in love with her.”
“That’s not an excuse.”
“You didn’t ask me for an excuse. You asked me for a reason. And that’s the reason.”
“You were my friend .” The past tense is a punch to the gut. Zuko winces. “Being in love with my wife does not give you the right to...to seduce her!”
Katara leaps from her seat, eyes wild. “He didn’t seduce me, Aang,” she says, her voice very near a hiss. “Don’t you dare assume that. I was a willing participant.”
It takes a moment for her words to register with Aang. When they finally sink in, he staggers back, knocking a stack of papers off of Zuko’s desk.
“I fell in love with him years ago. Before Kya. Before Bumi. Before he took lightning to the chest to save me.”
“And yet you married me.”
“I thought that I was in love with you too!” Katara yells. “You kept telling me that I was your forever girl. You said it was destiny. You knew what that meant to me.”
“So it’s my fault that Kya isn’t my child?”
“That’s not what I’m saying! Stop trying to twist this around, Aang. It’s already fucked up enough! We’re trying to be honest!”
“It’s a little late for honesty, Katara!”
Zuko thinks that any other woman would have crumbled by this point. Katara builds herself up stronger. She straightens her spine to its fullest extent, her short stature no restriction to the way she suddenly dominates the shadowy room. A strange sort of calm washes over her.
“Then let me get it all out in the open once and for all,” she says, voice low. “Kya isn’t yours. Neither is Bumi. It took years for me to be certain, but I know for sure.”
“How many times did we try between Bumi and Kya, Aang? How many times have we tried since Kya? Over and over and over again because you couldn’t live with the fact that neither of them were airbenders. The very idea of Kya bending water was enough for you to push her away. You haven’t looked directly at Bumi since he was five. You insisted that we keep on trying because you had to have your airbender despite already having found dozens that you were helping to mastery.
“We tried so many times, Aang. And do you know what happened? I bled. Zuko and I didn’t intend for Bumi to happen. We did everything we possibly could to prevent Kya. Yet here she is. The acolytes blamed me for not producing an airbender. They laughed at me and mocked me. But I wasn’t the problem, Aang. If you bothered to listen to your own people, you would know what Sumati has told me countless times. Imbalances in the world can cause imbalances in ourselves.”
“So you went to Zuko ?”
Katara splutters, indignant. “Zuko is not some...some stud ostrich horse who gave me kids because you couldn’t, Aang!”
Zuko feels his face turn scarlet at the comparison. Katara is still on a roll, relentless as the typhoon that is about to break upon the shores of his nation, twenty years of heartache spilling out of her without ceasing.
“Bumi and Kya were gifts from the spirits,” she says. “They were not conceived or born to hurt you. You can try to belittle the feelings I have for Zuko because you’re angry, but it won’t lessen what I feel or even take it away. When Zuko told me that he was in love with me, I made the wrong choice because I was afraid of hurting everyone. I married you even though it was the wrong thing for all of us. Zuko and I hardly spoke after the ceremony. We said that we wouldn’t for a while so that I could honestly devote myself to this marriage. But then Bumi happened. And do you know who was there when he came into this world? Zuko. All thirty-six hours of labor. He was there by my side.”
“I was on a spirit journey!”
“ No you weren’t! ” Katara shrieks and the lid blows off the teapot. A jet of tea rockets up into the air. “You said that’s where you were going, but you didn’t! ”
“The Avatar isn’t supposed to have earthly attachments,” Zuko cuts in.
“Don’t act like you know what you’re talking about,” Aang snaps.
“I studied your past lives extensively when I was in exile. I know a lot more than you’d ever care to give me credit for. And I bet that if you asked any of your past lives when they mastered the Avatar state and when they decided to have a family, all of them would tell you that they mastered the Avatar state first.”
“That’s rich,” Aang sneers. “ You of all people telling me how to live my life.”
“I’m not telling you how to live your life,” Zuko says. “But I have known you a long time, Aang, and I’ve always had a hard time understanding your priorities.”
“Pot?” Aang says sarcastically. “This is Kettle. You’re black!”
“Don’t you dare,” Katara says. “You know Zuko is a man of conviction.”
“Well, his conviction certainly served him well when he was sleeping with my wife .”
Zuko can see the tremble in Katara’s hands. Their teacups rattle where they sit on the table. “Quit acting like Zuko is the only one at fault here,” she says. “All of us are in the wrong.”
“I didn’t do any—”
“You didn’t prioritize Katara,” Zuko cuts in. “ Or Bumi or Kya.”
“You know nothing about our family life.”
“Katara is, first and foremost, my friend,” Zuko says, rising from his seat. “I wanted to marry her, Aang. After the war, once we were both of age, if the opportunity arose and I could convince the Fire Sages, I was going to marry her. But she told me that she loved you. She married you . I knew my place.”
“There are two children in this world that can prove you didn’t.”
“I overstepped the boundaries. That’s apparent. I’m in love with her. When she writes to me and tells me that she’s hurting or that our children are hurting, or that she’s hurting on behalf of our children, of course I’m going to offer my assistance. Katara’s happiness is my priority.”
“You told me you loved me,” Aang says to Katara, his voice dark and bitter.
“Aang,” Katara pleads, “there’s a difference between loving someone and being in love with someone. I love you. Of course I do. But I’ve been in love with Zuko since before I even realized there was a difference.”
“So Zuko fathered our children and you never loved me. Is that what you’re telling me here, Katara?”
“I love you, Aang. But I was never in love with you, just like you’ve never been in love with me. Not the real me. And you haven’t loved the kids in years.”
“Of course I love the kids.”
“If you loved them, you’d give them your time, Aang. They feel like they aren’t important to you because they aren’t airbenders.”
“Their parentage is important to me.”
“That’s not a sound argument and we both know it. Their abilities were your first care.”
“I’m the last airbender, Katara. Of course it mattered to me that they were able to do what I can do!”
“But you’re not. You haven’t been for years now. Your students are masters in their own right. The kids are little more than a footnote in your day to day life. I brought them here so that they could start to learn their own merit. Not once have you asked how Bumi’s training with Piandao is going. You’ve never bent water with Kya since she started.”
“Well,” Aang says, “none of that matters now anyway. Our marriage is over. Not that it was ever really one to begin with, it seems.” He makes for the door to the balcony.
“Where are you going?” Zuko asks, voice sharp.
“I would think that’s obvious,” Aang says. “I don’t want to see the two of you ever again.”
“You can’t go out there in this weather,” Zuko presses. “They’re predicting that the worst typhoon in history will make landfall tonight. You’re the Avatar and—”
“Exactly,” Aang snaps. “I’m the Avatar . I’ll be fine, regardless of whether or not I’ve mastered the Avatar state as the all-knowing and ever honorable Fire Lord has so kindly suggested I do.”
He steps out into the storm and slams the door shut behind himself, glass rattling in the panes.
The typhoon is worse than even the worst predictions. With it comes horrific cracks of thunder and shocks of lightning, something that Zuko’s meteorologists tell him is exceedingly rare. The Caldera survives purely because of its volcanic walls. Little fishing villages along the coast are decimated and the death toll rolls higher and more devastating with each day that passes. Zuko isn’t sure if they’ll ever find all of the dead.
When Aang’s body is found washed up on the shore nearly a week later, the world grinds to a halt. He is brought to the palace by a White Lotus delegation led by Iroh and Pakku. A physician selected by the delegation determines the cause of death to be a lightning strike. Heart heavy with shock and horror, Zuko summons Katara back to the palace from the front lines where she has been leading the medical and recovery teams.
The White Lotus physician shows the waterbender into the infirmary where Aang’s body lies and she emerges some time later, sorrow shadowing her eyes and her hands trembling. Before seeking something like solace in the open arms of Zuko’s embrace, she writes to her friend Sumati and requests that the nomads come to perform last rites. Zuko sends the missive and an airship for her, knowing that the technology will get Aang’s people there faster than airbison will.
They cry together for a long time, guilt a heavy, overbearing, and unwanted companion. Eventually, Katara leaves Zuko’s side to tell Bumi and Kya on her own. Zuko watches her leave, wishing he could stand by her side in this moment, but knowing that it’s not his place to intrude.
A few days later, the Air Nomads, led by Sumati, arrive on their bison and scatter Aang’s ashes to the four winds in a ceremony that signals a month of mourning for the world as a whole. The day after the ceremony, Iroh requests a meeting with Zuko and Katara in Ursa’s gardens.
He has an indulgent tea spread out in the pavilion and the three of them sit together in their mourning whites, a delicate blend of white rose tea steaming in their cups. The shellshocked look has finally left Katara’s eyes, but Zuko can still see the guilt that lingers there. He’s sure there is culpability in his own irises as well, but he can hardly bring himself to look in the mirror for fear of noticing it.
“I think,” Iroh says, helping himself to a small cake and sounding utterly unruffled, “that it is time for the three of us to have a necessary discussion.”
Katara swallows hard and nods, her mouth a thin line of nerves.
“How was your meeting, Nephew?”
Startled, Zuko looks to his uncle. “It went better than I expected,” he says, voice raw. “The two storms we were expecting have died out, one entirely and the other almost completely. The meteorologists expect it will never make landfall.”
“I suspected that such would be the case,” Iroh says. “I know that Katara knows the reasons for the state of imbalance in our world, but are you aware?”
“We discussed it briefly. It’s...something to do with Aang.”
“Yes.” Iroh downs his last bite of cake with a sip of his tea, then tucks his hands into the billowing sleeves of his tunic. “Avatar Aang forgot what it meant to pursue balance in the world. He neglected to fulfill his duties as the Avatar. There have been such cases throughout history, times where the Avatar has gone off course and the world has fallen out of balance. Never before, however, has such a situation ended in such a way. Until Aang, all past iterations of the Avatar have been steered back to course. Teachers have stepped in, the spirits have sent signs, past lives have sent out summonses for spirit journeys… Every other time, the Avatar has forgone his or her earthly attachments to set things right.”
The old general settles his gaze on Katara. “I know that you sought to guide Aang in your own way, my dear,” he says kindly. “You both did. I fear that Aang’s experiences in the past did not show him the necessity of listening to other people than himself.”
“I could have tried harder,” Katara whispers, her voice hardly carrying over the distant quacking of turtleducks.
“We both could have,” Zuko amends.
“That as may be,” Iroh says, holding up a hand to silence them, “you were not the only ones who sought to bring this to Aang’s attention. Kyoshi called him forth for a spirit journey six times.”
“Six?” Katara’s eyes bulge in her head. “I thought it was just the one time and that the White Lotus encouraged him to take it on a second time.”
“No.” Iroh’s voice is sharp. “Avatar Kyoshi called on him six times.”
“How can you be sure?”
“Uncle has ties in the spirit world,” Zuko informs her. “Lu Ten and my aunt.”
“They are my anchors there,” Iroh says. “Just as Zuko is my anchor here.”
“ Six times?” Katara says and the general nods. She looks as Zuko feels: At an utter loss for words.
“The first time Kyoshi failed to summon Aang was just before the two of you decided to bond your lives together. When she failed a second time just before Bumi was born, the world and the spirits sought to seek balance in a different way. The assumption was that Aang might be more willing to devote himself to his spiritual cause if he had few people or things to tie him to this realm.
“Which brings me to the topic of Bumi and Kya themselves.”
Zuko and Katara find themselves subjected to a very knowing look. The waterbender freezes, teacup halfway to her mouth, and Zuko feels himself turn scarlet. Suddenly, the already oppressive heat of the Fire Nation sun that is bearing down overhead is simply too much to stand.
“What were you two thinking?”
Katara rises from her seat before Zuko can even open his mouth to speak and he half thinks she’s about to leave. Instead, she plants her hands firmly on her hips and says, “It was my fault.”
“Katara,” Zuko says, flustered, face burning even brighter, “it takes two to...do what we did.”
“It was my fault, Iroh,” Katara insists. “Zuko told me he was in love with me and I could have… There was enough time for me to make things right. And I failed because I was afraid of who I would hurt and what I would lose.”
Iroh sits back in his seat, eyes wide. His mouth works open and closed several times as he casts about for words. Sweat rolls steadily down Zuko’s spine.
“You told her?” he finally says, incredulous.
“You knew ?” Zuko yelps.
Iroh snorts a laugh. “Of course I knew, dear boy. You showed up at the White Lotus encampment positively mooning about after her—”
“I don’t moon .”
“—and then you took Azula’s lightning to the chest for her and the whole world knew.”
Katara’s knees must give out, because she falls into her seat with alarming speed. “What do you mean?” she says.
“There are only so many reasons why a young man would do that for a young lady he has been at such loggerheads with. It was quite the story among the Earth Kingdom nobles for quite some time. They’ve always been a secretly romantic people. A legend of love such as Oma and Shu will do that, I suppose.”
“Zuko would have done that for any of us,” Katara says, her cheeks pinking as she folds her arms over her chest.
“Not for the reasons I did it for you,” Zuko mutters. When she looks at him, he shrugs. “You know that. We’ve talked about it before. We said we would be honest, Katara.” He squares his shoulders and looks at his uncle, hoping that his nerves don’t show.
“Bumi and Kya are mine,” he says.
Iroh looks at both of them for a long while, his face utterly inscrutable.
“I know what you must think of me, Iroh,” Katara says.
“I think nothing ill of you, Katara. It is my sincere belief that Bumi and Kya are the spirits’ gifts to us all, a sign of what was meant to be all along.”
“I know what people around the world will say when the truth comes out,” Katara’s voice cracks and Zuko scoots closer to her when he sees that tears are welling up in her eyes. “But I want you to know that I’ve been in love with Zuko since before I knew what I felt. It doesn’t look that way. I know it doesn’t look that way. I’ve done wrong by so many people because I couldn’t see that I was doing the very things that were hurting us all.”
Pulling a handkerchief from the pocket of his stark white tunic, Iroh passes the scrap of fabric to Katara and says, “I do not doubt that you are aware of the injustices you have brought upon yourself and others, Katara. You have no doubt learned many lessons, especially in recent times. So I will not lecture you, except to say that you have been saved a great deal more strife by nothing short of a deus ex machina. For that, you are lucky. All three of us know that the path forward will not be easy, but...the White Lotus would like to offer its support as the two of you move forward.”
Zuko’s mouth drops open and his uncle shrugs, a smile teasing about his mouth.
“We are but a group of old men and women who see the beauty in something that may go down in history a great romance.”
Katara’s head snaps up. The handkerchief falls out of her hand. To Zuko’s extreme bewilderment, his uncle merely winks at her.
“We did so many things wrong,” Zuko protests. “The Avatar—”
“Avatar Aang’s untimely end is the spirits’ referendum on his time here in our world,” Iroh says. “It will no doubt give him unique wisdom to impart upon his next life.” He stands, bones cracking, and shuffles over to hug both Zuko and Katara in turn. “If you don’t mind, I have lost time to make up for with some young people,” he says.
As he ambles slowly through the garden, stopping here and there to admire one of Ursa’s plants or to breathe deep the scent of a flower, Zuko and Katara watch his progress, identical looks of bemusement on their faces.
“He will never cease to confound me,” Zuko muses.
“Oh!” Iroh calls when he’s reached the end of the path. “Do keep an eye on young Bumi.” He casts his eyes to the sky with a mysterious smile. “If I’m not mistaken, we shall all soon find more balance in ourselves in the days to come.”
IS it a bit of a deus ex machina? Perhaps. But I have no regrets about it. This was the way the plot demanded to go and so it did. The end of Aang's storyline will not be for everyone. As the writer, I was wary of putting it out there because I know how this can come off. Zutara shippers get a lot of guff for Aang-bashing and I know that there will be some people who perceive the end of his storyline this way.
This is a darker, sadder take on post-war Zutara. It is not a happy story. It is also not meant to be Aang-centric, hence why Iroh is our messenger of the spirits here. I wanted to work within the realm of what could have been possible. Given the fact that Aang never really has to learn how to give up his earthly attachments and Katara completely subverts her own storyline to get together with Aang in the canon ending, this story could not be anything BUT tragic for all involved. In this vision of the characters' future, Aang does not learn the lessons he needs to learn and ignores the signs he's given from the spirits and Kyoshi. Do I believe that this is absolutely the way Aang's life MUST go? No. But I do believe that it's within the realm of what's possible. Aang has a fatal flaw in this story. He's a bit arrogant, something that can easily evolve from a lifetime of getting away with your own deeply flawed choices and never learning lessons from them.
Again, I respect anyone who chooses to walk away from this story at this point. It's not for everyone and I understand that. But I hope there are those of you who are willing to hang on for that happy Zutara ending. Because there are a bunch of good things heading their way!
I might drop back to this story sometime midweek to make some edits and clarifications as stated above. In the meantime, my inbox is open and I love hearing from all of you! (Even if it's just a quick stop in to say you liked it or even that you didn't!) Let's all look forward to some Zutara goodness on Friday. We will have a much-needed visit from Hakoda and finally get that warm and fuzzy feeling we've all been longing for! xx
Chapter 13: Year Nineteen: A Family
It's not Friday, I know. But if Taylor Swift can drop another album on us out of the blue, then I can drop this chapter a day early. 😉 The final chapter (an epilogue) will be up Monday at the latest. Could it show up earlier? QUITE POSSIBLY.
You all knocked my socks off with your wave of support last chapter. I was SO nervous about it and just... THANK YOU for being willing to go on this wild and crazy ride with me!
Have some Dadko. ❤️
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Hakoda arrives a few weeks after tea with Iroh. Katara is standing at the edge of the pavilion in Ursa’s garden, watching Zuko as he plays with Kya and Izumi between his morning meetings, when her father appears next to her. Something in Zuko and Izumi seems to lighten out here in the gardens. There is a similar seriousness in their makeup, something steady and unflinching like the determination with which Zuko approaches all aspects of his life. A deeply ingrained sense of duty and honor, maybe. There are pieces of Izumi that Katara doesn’t recognize, the gentle waves of her hair, the cut of her jaw, things that must be reminiscent of the little girl’s mother. She sees some glimpses of Ursa and Azula as well, but mostly Katara sees the man she loves mirrored in his second child, in all of the children, really.
Zuko’s hesitant, crooked smile and fair complexion are Bumi’s and Izumi’s as well. The glossy sheen of his hair is there in the gentle waves of the girls’, and Kya’s seems to be growing ever darker with age. They share a laugh, too, that must have come from Zuko’s side as well. Perhaps it belonged to Azula before Ozai stole away her humanity or to Ursa before she sacrificed love for honor. If Katara looks hard, she can see all the parts of Zuko that thread through the children, piecing their mosaic family together despite the ruptures of her errors. He is there in the way Bumi holds his practice sword and allows the firebender to refine his forms, always doggedly determined and unwilling to fail. He is there in the way Izumi carries herself, sure and calm, and in the way she speaks, intelligent and tentatively sweet. And he is there in the way Kya attempts to waterbend, sometimes a little too sharp and forceful, as if there is something a little less fluid in her nature.
Katara thinks that it’s fitting that Zuko is the glue that cements their children together. Were there to be more of her in the makeup of their souls, she isn’t certain those parts of her would be strong enough to hold them all together. He has always been so steady and sure in his love for her, even in their distant years.
She isn’t certain she deserves him or his devotion, but the children do. He’s mending the cracks in Bumi’s heart already. Kya has him wrapped around her finger.
In silence, Katara stands at the edge of the pavilion with her father and watches as Kya clings to the Fire Lord’s leg and Izumi hangs from his shoulders. The girls are laughing their shared laugh and Zuko is smiling and something in Katara’s soul breathes the scene in deep as if she has deprived part of herself of some essential oxygen.
“I want you to come home to the tribe,” Hakoda eventually says. “When Bumi is done training with Piandao. Pakku will be wanting to retire and the benders could use a teacher like you. We’re anticipating the new incarnation of the Avatar as well.”
Katara shakes her head. “I’ve had enough Avatar business for this life, Dad,” she says.
“Sweetheart,” Hakoda says, placing a hand on Katara’s shoulder. “I know that losing Aang is hard—”
Katara takes a deep breath. “Aang is dead because of me.”
On the lawn, Izumi and Kya tackle Zuko about the waist and the firebender allows himself to be dragged playfully to the ground. Her daughter is laughing, loud and clear, relishing in the attention bestowed upon her. Katara’s heart shatters into a million pieces for the hundredth time.
“I don’t understand.”
There is an odd freedom in Katara’s burden of guilt over Aang’s death. She notices it suddenly, here next to her father, but suspects it’s been building up for some time.
She remembers being eighteen years old in Ba Sing Se and giving up on Zuko for the first time. There had been a flirtation under flickering lanterns, but there had also been Mai, a line neither of them was willing to cross, as if they could claim innocence if confronted about their closeness.
At that time in her life, Katara had still been so close to what happened in the Agni Kai, Aunt Wu’s words about love and destiny had been ingrained in her impressionable heart. She’d been living her life in conflict when she kissed Aang that night at Iroh’s house, searching for something that would make sense of the tangled mess of feelings in her heart. That kiss had effectively locked her into life with Aang and locked her out of the possibilities that flirtation with Zuko had held. Surprise and vague hurt had been so evident on the firebender’s face when he’d walked in on them, just as worshipful love had been so clear on Aang’s.
Forever girl , Aang had called her before he’d swept her into his arms and kissed her again.
Already constantly worried about letting down Aang in his ideal vision of her, she’d been terrified to do it again, especially after seeing disappointment flicker across Zuko’s face. At that time in her life, Katara simply was not a person who let others down.
Eighteen. She’d been eighteen years old.
And now she is thirty-four and she has spent nearly half of her life terrified of toppling off her pedestal and into the unknown. But her fall from Aang’s grace is over and done with now. No one else who has ever loved her has put her high up on a pillar of perfection and refused to look at her for what or who she is. Not Zuko or Sokka or Suki or Toph. And especially not her father.
Aang is dead. It might be her fault. But she’s freer than she has been in sixteen years.
Katara steps away from her father’s hand and turns to look at him. “I’ve done some terrible things, Dad. I took my children’s father away from them. I made them live unhappily for years.” The words come easier than she expected they would. There is no pedestal for them to crumble.
Hakoda frowns. “Darling, you didn’t take Aang away—”
“That’s not what I mean,” Katara interrupts. She gestures to where Zuko plays with his daughters, a mighty king made human and soft around the edges. “I’m trying to tell you…” She huffs a sigh. Her father’s face is unreadable now. “Aang died because I told him the truth about Bumi and Kya.”
“I’ve been in love with Zuko since I was fifteen, Dad. And I was so stupid about it. He told me how he felt right before I married Aang and I completely ruined all of our lives when I married Aang anyway.” Tears run hot down her cheeks and she scrubs them away with the heels of her hands. “Bumi and Kya are Zuko’s.”
Hakoda is silent for a long moment. Katara watches him study the way Zuko and Kya interact. The similarities aren’t very apparent, but a trained eye can catch them. She wonders how much her father can see.
“Are you certain?” he finally asks.
“Yes,” she says, her voice watery. “Aang and I were never able to conceive.”
“Is Zuko aware?”
“Of course he is. It took years with Bumi. I couldn’t be sure at first given the timing of…things. But…he has Zuko’s smile. His eyes are Zuko’s. Not the color, of course, but the shape. And his temper runs just as hot.”
Zuko roars playfully as he catches Kya around the waist and tosses the little girl up in the air. Her laughter echoes around the walled garden.
“We didn’t intend to… We were young and stupid when Bumi happened. But Kya…we did everything to ensure that it wouldn’t happen again. But she’s still here. And Aang figured it out. Part of it, at least. Something in the way Kya and Izumi were acting one day. He confronted us about the fact that Kya wasn’t his and...we told him everything. He was furious. Justifiably so. I lied to him for nearly ten years. And he took off. Zuko warned him not to because of the storm, but he was so mad that he just…”
She wonders if the brokenness will ever go away. If she will ever wake up one morning feeling like a whole person with a happy, intact family. If she will ever feel like she deserves this freedom given the price it came at.
“I know you’re probably angry with me, Dad.”
One of Hakoda’s hands lands on hers, calloused from ships’ ropes and warm against her cold fingers. “I’m not mad at you, Katara. But I’m disappointed.” Fresh tears spill out of her eyes. “Not because of Bumi or Kya or even Zuko. I’m disappointed that you didn’t follow your heart to begin with.”
“I thought Aang was my destiny.”
Hakoda hums. “Yes. Sokka mentioned something about a fortuneteller.”
“Aang was always so certain. He would talk about the days we spent in Makapu all the time.”
“Your mistakes and missteps are not yours to shoulder alone, Katara. You grew up far faster than you should have,” Hakoda says. There is a tightness in his voice as if something brittle in him may snap at any given moment. “It’s one of my deepest regrets. I wish I had made more of an attempt at preserving your childhood. But after your mother died, I… It became so hard to raise you and Sokka without seeing her in both of you. Like half of me had gone with her. I thought it would be better for you both when I left to join the war effort. No dad was better than half a dad.”
He turns to face Katara fully. Sorrow lines the weathered creases of his aging face. “In leaving, I failed you and your brother. I wasn’t there to guide you when you needed it most. I wasn’t there to remember the good times we had with your mother. And I know that you and Sokka both tried to step in and fill those roles for each other, Katara. When I saw you again after so many years away at war, I was astounded by the woman you’d become. You commandeered that ragtag group so well. You looked out for all of them and you...didn’t need me. Maybe you got so used to putting others first and anticipating their needs and desires that you forgot that you’re also human.”
These words hit home with force. For the first time in a very long time, Katara feels seen and understood by someone who isn’t Zuko.
“I always felt like I couldn’t disappoint Aang in his ideal vision of me. Even before the war ended,” she confesses. “He had this idea of who I was and such a strong worldview and he loved me so much. I felt like I had to live up to his expectations.”
Her father frowns. “That’s never the way you should feel in a loving relationship.”
“It was all I knew until Zuko told me he was in love with me,” Katara says. “I thought it was normal. I thought that was how it was supposed to be when you found the person you were meant to be with.”
“If that’s the way a person makes you feel, then you’re not meant to be with them,” Hakoda says, his voice gentle. “Love helps you to build yourself up to who you want to be, but it also provides support so that you can reach your fullest potential. And when you crash and burn or you’re feeling low, it helps you find the strength to put yourself back together.”
“It’s a partnership.”
Katara sighs. “I messed everything up so bad.”
“Then it’s time you start making things right.”
They turn back to the scene playing out before them. Zukos sits beneath a cherry tree, Kya in his lap and Izumi standing behind him to weave braids into the long, dark length of his hair. Kya holds his five-pronged crown in her tiny hands. They haven’t told the kids yet—neither of them even has a clue how to start such a conversation—but the sight of Zuko’s unrestrained smile when Kya jams the flame-shaped crown into her braid is enough to simultaneously shatter the waterbender and make her whole again.
“I had my suspicions,” Hakoda says. “About Bumi. When Zuko showed up and you allowed him in the room… Well. It might be one of the worst-kept secrets I’ve ever encountered.”
Katara gapes at him. “You never said anything,” she says, flummoxed.
The smile her father casts her way is both sad and self-deprecating. “I didn’t know how, Katara. How do you step in to parent a child when she’s twenty-odd years old and has been as independent as the day is long since she was eight?”
Reaching out, Katara takes one of her father’s hands up in her own and squeezes gently. “I’ll always need you, Dad,” she says.
“ Grampa! ” Kya shouts and they turn to see her scrambling out of Zuko’s lap. Her little feet pound through the grass, glee lighting up her eyes. Hakoda crouches down to meet her, arms open and ready, and he swings her up into the air. When he has her in a steady grasp, she presses a sloppy, wet kiss to his cheek and gives him her toothiest grin. “Hi, Grampa.”
“Hi there, little penguin,” Hakoda says. He brings a finger up to touch the little waterbender’s nose and she squeals. “Whatcha got in your hair?”
Kya reaches up with grasping fingers to touch the flame in her hair as though she’s forgotten it’s there. Katara can see that the golden crown is entirely covered in tiny fingerprints and smudges. Under the tree, Zuko speaks quietly to Izumi who is eying Hakoda with somewhat wary eyes.
“I’m a princess,” Kya tells her grandfather brightly. “Like ‘Zumi!”
“Well, princess,” Katara says, plucking the flame from her daughter’s hair and placing it into small hands, “it’s time to give the Fire Lord his crown back so he can return to work.”
Izumi lingers under the tree, looking shy and uncertain as Zuko walks away from her, picking apart the braids she’d woven into his hair with deft fingers. Katara can see through the careful mask he’s schooled his face into; his eyes disclose how shaken he is by her father’s sudden appearance. He looks every bit the awkward teenager he was so long ago.
“Chief Hakoda.” Zuko bows lower than he should given their equal station before extending his hand in the traditional Water Tribe greeting. Katara can see the way he almost falters in the gesture.
But Hakoda simply shifts Kya’s weight to his other arm and meets Zuko’s hand with his own. “Fire Lord Zuko.”
“I have your fire,” Kya says, waving Zuko’s crown in his face.
“Can you help me put it back in my hair?” Zuko asks.
Kya nods enthusiastically and the firebender ducks his head low. Face scrunched in concentration, Kya aims with her uncoordinated hands and somehow manages to spear the flame into his topknot. He straightens and Katara has to slap a hand over her mouth to keep herself from laughing.
It’s terribly crooked.
“Thank you,” Zuko says, his face utterly serious and his eyes daring Katara to laugh at him.
“Can we play tea party with Mommy and ‘Zumi and Grampa?”
“I have to go talk to some people for a long time. Can we play after dinner?”
Kya’s lower lip pokes out in a pout, but she says, “Okay.”
“Okay,” Zuko says. And then he nods to them all before departing.
Katara watches him go, smile smothered behind her hand. He carries himself with all the regality of his station, but his crown is smudged with sticky little fingerprints where it sits lopsided in his topknot and he has missed one of the braids Izumi wove into the back of his hair. Just before he vanishes through a door, Katara turns and steps into the sunlight of the garden, gesturing for her father to follow her.
She kneels beside Izumi underneath the branches of the cherry tree and rests a gentle hand on the girl’s back. When Izumi’s golden eyes meet the blue of her own, Katara offers a tentative smile.
“Can I introduce you to someone?” she asks.
The sitting room is quiet. With a scroll unfurled across his lap, Zuko sits in an armchair by the empty fireplace. The sconces in the room flicker in time with his breath. A few minutes ago, Katara had herded the girls off to bed, insisting that she was fine to do it on her own and that Zuko take some time to himself. The scroll, usually one of his favorites, goes largely unread as he ponders the events of recent weeks. The truths, the traumas, the tentative hope… A dizzying array of possibilities and probabilities had whirled through his mind all day, unrelenting, and had forced him to cut his last meeting of the day short, a dispute between departments unresolved.
Movement in the doorway and a smudge of blue in the peripheral vision of his bad eye has Zuko rising out of his chair, ready to take Katara into his arms. Instead, he finds himself face to face with her father. The chief had arrived at some point today. It wasn’t until Kya had let out a joyous shout of “ Grampa! ” and gone tearing across the lawn that he even realized Hakoda was around, a fact that either shed light on a flaw in security or was a credit to that famous Water Tribe ingenuity. Probably both.
The man holds up a hand, an odd smile ghosting over his lips. “I think we can dispense with the formalities right now, Zuko.” He makes himself comfortable in the chair across from the firebender’s. “Especially in light of the discussion I had with Katara today.”
Zuko’s knees buckle and he sinks rather inelegantly back into his seat with a fwoop of air and material. “You had a…discussion,” he restates. “With Katara.”
“Mm.” Hakoda sets about pouring himself some tea. His hair is graying and his face is more weathered than in years past. “I’ve been in the Fire Nation less than twelve hours and I’ve already learned some rather surprising things.”
“Sir, I,” Zuko begins, but Hakoda pins him with a look that the Fire Lord has only ever seen in Katara’s eyes when she’s displeased and he promptly shuts his mouth. He rolls the scroll back up and sets it aside. All of a sudden he’s on the precipice of seventeen again and busting this warrior out of the Fire Nation’s highest security prison. Dinner sits like a rock in his stomach.
“I came here with two goals in mind,” Hakoda continues. “First, I wanted to give Sokka a chance to shoulder some responsibility in the tribe without the opportunity to use me as a crutch. Second, I wanted to persuade Katara to come home and help to train the next Avatar. You can imagine my surprise when she refused.”
“Yes. And then she told me some rather earth shattering things about my grandchildren. I’m sure you’ll forgive me for missing dinner in light of that.”
The firebender feels all of the blood leave his face. Sweat pools under his armpits. Hakoda’s face is entirely inscrutable as he raises his cup of tea to his lips and drinks. And Zuko thinks, panicking, that Katara could have at least told him that she’d told her dad the truth and that it had gone horribly. He’s never been good with fathers and she knows that and he could have prepared himself for this and…
“What I did was dishonorable,” Zuko says, head bowed. “I know that. And I can’t go back and fix anything, but—”
“But,” Hakoda cuts in, “you have provided Bumi and Kya with things critical to their happiness.”
Zuko’s freezes and feels an overabundance of color flush his cheeks. “All I did was find Bumi a sword master,” he mumbles.
“You gave that boy confidence ,” Hakoda says. Zuko looks up hesitantly just in time to see the corners of the chief’s lips quirk up in a sad smile. “Imagine growing up in a home with Katara and Aang—both powerful masters and one of them the Avatar—and not being a bender.”
“Bending doesn’t matter,” Zuko says. He can’t help thinking of his kind, quick-witted Izumi, his mother, Sokka, Suki...even Hakoda himself.
“No. It doesn’t. But imagine being a child and wanting the approval and love of a father who is disappointed in you and who you are.”
Zuko frowns. “I don’t have to imagine that,” he says roughly. “That was my entire life until Uncle stepped in.”
Hakoda acknowledges this with a nod of his head. “Then you understand why your acceptance matters to Bumi. No, Aang was never cruel or cold, but he was distant and his disappointment ran so deep that he couldn’t connect with the boy. The way Bumi relentlessly sought his approval made Katara sad.”
“I’ve witnessed that sadness.” Zuko shifts uncomfortably in his seat. “It’s not all Aang’s fault. It’s mine, too.”
“But you’ve sought to remedy it. In doing so, you’ve lightened Katara’s load and you’ve made her happier. You’ve invited her and the children here multiple times to help ease her burdens. You’ve put her happiness and the children’s happiness first. You’ve loved them all. Those are some of the traits of an honorable man, Zuko. You haven’t lost your grip on that entirely.
“Now,” Hakoda sets his teacup aside and leans forward, forearms braced on his knees, “exactly how does this end?”
Zuko’s mouth goes dry without warning. “Um,” he says, tongue a wad of paper in his mouth. “What?”
Hakoda frowns. “Do you intend to let my grandchildren live a life without their father?”
“What?!” Zuko yelps, alarmed. Sweat rolls down his spine. He’s absolutely drenched now. The room is way too hot . “No! I just… Katara and I haven’t discussed it yet. What she wants.”
The Water Tribe chief sits back and folds his arms over his chest. “What do you want?” he asks pointedly.
“Everything I’ve wanted since I was sixteen,” Zuko blurts out, face beet red. Hakoda’s eyebrows shoot up his forehead in a way that would be almost comical were it not for the situation. “Oh, Agni .” He’s way past flustered now and so tempted to bury his face in his palms. “Chief Hakoda… Dadkoda… Ah, fuck . Hakoda .”
Said Water Tribesman is outright chuckling at the Fire Lord now. Zuko’s misery must be quite plain on his face because the laughter only lasts for a moment before Hakoda attempts to school his features. “I’m not trying to interrogate you, Zuko,” he says. His lips twitch and he attempts to suppress a giggle. “Really! I just want my family to be happy. And apparently that includes you.”
“I’m touched,” Zuko says dryly. This is worse than the time he called Ozai the Father Lord. Sokka still won’t let him live that down and he has a feeling that Hakoda will be relaying this slip up to his son the moment he gets a chance. Dealing with the Southern Water Tribe’s proclivity for levity during serious situations has never been one of Zuko’s strongest diplomatic skills. “Can we please forget that just happened?”
“It’s forgotten,” Hakoda says with a wave of his hand. Amusement still twinkles in his eyes, though.
Zuko, wishing for nothing more than the ability to evaporate on the spot, presses his humiliation down and attempts to clarify himself. “A, um…” He clears his throat. “A few years ago, before Katara and Aang got married, I did something...stupid.”
“Let me guess,” Hakoda says. “You wrote my daughter a letter that was remarkably inappropriate given the situation.”
“It wasn’t inappropriate ,” Zuko grumbles. “Not like that . I just… Wait.” He pauses. He frowns. “Did she tell you about that letter?”
“Sokka found it amongst her things not long before Bumi was born,” Hakoda says. “Claimed he was looking for his boomerang.” This is punctuated by an eye roll.
All of a sudden, the conversation Zuko and Sokka had over the flask the night before Bumi’s birth makes a lot more sense.
It could have been anyone.
It could have been you.
Sokka knew . He’d known for years .
"He told me you were in love with Katara like it was news to me."
At the way Zuko's gaze sharpens, Hakoda taps his chest. Instinctively, Zuko raises his own hand to mirror him only to feel the ridges of the lightning scar beneath his fingertips. His face flushes scarlet. It seems he's been an open book to everyone from the start. Lovely.
“Anyway,” Hakoda continues, “he told me about your letter and I told him to let sleeping polar bear dogs lie, but you know Sokka.”
“Right. He and Katara have discussed that letter at length. Many times. He’s always considered you one of his best friends, you know.”
“Doubt that’ll hold once the rest of this comes to light,” Zuko mutters.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if he already knows about Bumi and Kya.”
Zuko looks at Hakoda sharply, feeling paranoia rise like bile in his throat. “What?”
Hakoda shrugs. “For a long, long time, Sokka was the only friend Katara had and vice versa. They’re close to this day. And… alarmingly good at keeping one another’s secrets.” At Zuko’s terrified silence, he is careful to add, “I don’t think you need to be worried about any sort of retribution at his hands. Things were tense between him and Aang the past few years. Aang didn’t like how much of an influence Sokka was on Bumi and Sokka… Well, Sokka felt strongly about how ambivalent Aang seemed to be towards the kids. You, like Sokka, have stepped in to fill the spaces in their lives that Aang refused to fill. He respects that. And he respects you.”
Respect isn’t something Zuko is positive he deserves considering the circumstances, so he lapses into an uncomfortable silence, pressing his lips shut and staring into the bottom of his tea cup.
“I’m sure the last years haven’t been easy,” Hakoda ventures after a moment.
“What comes next won’t be any easier,” Zuko replies. “If Katara wants to… If she wants to stay, I’m not certain I can grant Bumi his birthright.” He drags his eyes up to the chief’s, rolling the cup between his palms.
“You took Bumi to watch Fire Nation soldiers train when he was six years old and it’s all I’ve heard him talk about since,” Hakoda says. “Something tells me he won’t have the temperament for politics.”
“It does require sitting still for large portions of the day,” Zuko says dryly.
Hakoda chuckles and it fades away into a smile.
“Life is peculiar, isn’t it? If someone had told me twenty years ago that my grandkids would share blood with the Fire Lord, I’d have eaten my own shorts and maybe gone to battle over it.”
“I’m certain Azulon is rolling in his grave,” Zuko bites out and can’t help the sadistic smile that spreads across his face. “His failure of a grandson on the throne, the father of Southern Water Tribe peasants, neither of them firebenders…” He lets out a low whistle. “If I hadn’t tarnished the family reputation before… Might as well finish the job.”
“Tarnishing the name of murderers and tyrants in the name of peace? There is honor in that, Zuko. History will remember you for all you’ve done to make the world a better place. What you do sets precedence for the years to come.” Hakoda winks. “That’s half the fun in being a revolutionary.”
“And it’s ninety percent of the stress,” Zuko counters.
This is answered with a shrug of deference. “You’re not alone,” the other man says. “She’ll stay, you know. And when she does, you’ll have the full force of both tribes to support you. Arnook is getting old and he’s not looking to start an inter-tribe war with me over my daughter’s love life.”
“She might not stay.”
“She will. She didn’t follow her heart all those years ago. It’s a mistake that she won’t make again.”
Caldera City stretches out under the stars, lights sparking in and out through the dark cover of night. Katara stands before the southern windows, a robe of blue silk draped around her body, the long, dark waves of her hair damp from a bath. Several stories below, the collection of fountains in Zuko’s favorite garden send their bubbling, flowing music up through the air. On silent feet, he comes to stand behind her, slips his arms about her waist, and rests his chin on the crown of her head. When she leans into him, he can’t resist the urge to squeeze her just a little tighter.
“I like this room,” she says quietly. “I feel like I could see the southern auroras all the way from here if I just looked hard enough.”
Zuko hums and nuzzles his face into the dewy strands of her hair. “I didn’t want to sleep in Ozai’s room,” he says. “And this one made me think of you.”
“What can I say? I’m a bit of a masochist.”
In the dim reflection of the window, he sees a sad smile touch her lips. She raises her hand to cup his cheek, fingers stroking along the mangled ridges of his scar.
“You never told me that, you know. What you told Aang.”
“How strongly you felt for me all these years. That even when we were stupid kids you saw everything we could be if we were both willing to fight for it.” Her voice is little more than a whisper. “You never told me that you wanted to marry me.”
And just like the night he had told Aang of those plans, Zuko finds that there is no childish embarrassment in hearing them spoken aloud. He doesn’t feel foolish and he isn’t mortified that she knows, that she heard and remembers. No part of him is worried about her reaction to it. He thinks that maybe they’ve been inevitable all along, that maybe his mother was right. Sometimes it takes a journey.
“I still want to,” Zuko says.
Katara turns in his arms to face him, her blue eyes wide and searching. “You do?” she asks.
“When you’re ready,” he tells her. “When the kids are ready. And if you really want to take on all that that would entail.”
“If I wanted to, I could enact a law that says every Fire Lord for the rest of time has to marry a waterbender and nobody could stop me,” Zuko jokes, gesturing to the golden flame he’d discarded on the desk in his room. “It’s one of the perks of wearing the fancy crown.”
Katara laughs and stretches up on her toes to press a kiss to his mouth. “I can’t believe I messed all of this up so horribly. I spent so many years loving you and missing you and wishing that everything had been different,” she says. “And you were here all along. I should have never married him. I should have…”
Zuko can see the way her eyes shimmer, tears welling up without falling. Wordlessly, he pulls her towards the bed and they sink to the mattress together, finding their way back into each other’s arms without effort.
“That’s all in the past,” he says earnestly, holding her tight. “We have the rest of our lives if that’s what you want.”
She kisses him, sweet and soft and wanting, swinging a leg over his hips to settle atop him. Nimble fingers pick apart the knot that closes his tunic. It’s entirely too easy to lose himself in her, his hands in the soft length of her hair as her mouth parts. When her cool fingertips brush over the scar on his chest, it sends a shock of love to his heart and he holds her ever tighter, a palm sliding down her back to press her hips to his.
“I’m in love with you,” she murmurs, grinding her hips down. She’s bare beneath her silk robe, sliding slick over him through his pants. “I’m so in love with you.”
Zuko growls, ruts up against her, seeking the friction. “Stay with me,” he pleads between kisses. “Please.” It’s the same request he made of her three years ago.
And this time, Katara says, “Yes.”
The tie of her robe unravels easily and Zuko is shoving it off her shoulders when there is insistent knocking at the door of his room. Katara pulls back, but he shakes his head. “They’ll go away,” he tells her. “Give it a minute.” He sinks his teeth into the juncture of her neck and shoulder and she goes boneless, a soft moan escaping her mouth.
But the knocking continues, this time accompanied by a small, insistent voice that calls, “Uncle Zuko!”
Katara is off of him like a shot, scrambling back into her robe and shoving the belt of his tunic into his hands. Zuko sits up, half hard and confused.
“What are you doing?”
“That’s Kya!” the waterbender hisses. She’s halfway to the door.
“Are you answering the door? Katara, she’s looking for me!” Zuko scrambles off the bed, tying the belt of his tunic in a sloppy knot. “Do you want her to know you’re here?”
Katara scoffs and rolls her eyes. “The kids are going to find out at some point , Zuko. And she is three . She won’t know what’s going on.”
“The guards don’t know you’re in here,” Zuko states. Katara freezes, her hand on the doorknob.
“Good point.” She steps aside, but there is a strange look in her eyes. She doesn’t like that she can’t answer the door to his room.
Heart clenching at Katara’s dissatisfaction, Zuko opens the door, looking down into the tear-stained face of his youngest daughter. “Hi, turtleduck,” he says. An odd sound comes from Katara’s direction. “What’s going on?”
When he kneels down, Kya shuffles forward and throws her arms around his neck. “I had a scary dream,” she says, her voice tiny and her fists small where they grip the back of his shirt.
“I can’t find Mommy.”
“Oh.” A sigh gusts out of Zuko’s mouth and he gathers Kya into his arms. He stands and closes the door. The little girl’s tears are rolling down his neck and he’s pretty confident she’s wiping her nose there too. “Well, that’s okay. Mommy is here.”
Katara is at his side in half a heartbeat, her hand smoothing over Kya’s hair. “Hi, baby.”
Kya hiccups and sniffs, turning to rest her cheek on Zuko’s shoulder so that she can better see her mother. “Hi, Mommy.”
“Did you have a bad dream?”
“There was a dragon.”
“Do you want to sleep in my room tonight?” Katara asks and Kya shakes her head. “No?”
“Uncle Zuko’s warm.”
The waterbender chuckles. “He is, isn’t he?” She turns her eyes to Zuko’s. “Do you mind if she stays with you tonight?”
“Not at all,” Zuko says. He reaches blindly with his free hand and grabs one of hers. “You both should.”
They don’t do this. There have always been carefully placed rules and Zuko has been the one to break them only once or twice. He’s asking her not to leave before first light and he knows she knows it.
The answering look in Katara’s eyes adds fuel to the steadily burning flame he holds for her in his heart.
Together, they make Kya comfortable beneath the sheets and blankets on Zuko’s bed. They settle on either side of her and something compels Zuko to say, “Do you want to hear a happy story about dragons?”
Kya nods. So he tells her about two brave young men who discover a long-forgotten city deep in the mountainous jungles of the Fire Nation. And he tells her of a golden sunstone and about the band of warriors who dedicated their lives to protecting the last two dragons. She and Katara are both asleep by the time he reaches Ran and Shaw and the colorful dragon fire, but he continues on. And when the story is over, he extinguishes the torches around the room, holding them both close.
“I was wondering,” Zuko says one evening a few weeks later as he and his mother scatter crumbs for the turtleducks, “what your sewing skills are like.”
“My sewing skills?”
The sunset is a riot of color in the sky, shocking pinks and oranges with ripples of yellow. On the other side of the garden, Katara is bending a stream of water into different shapes that their children take turns calling out. Izumi’s eyes are wide with wonder as she watches the water shift and shimmer.
“There’s a tradition in the Southern Water Tribe. When a woman gets married, her mother-in-law sews her wedding parka. It’s a gesture. A way to welcome her into the family.”
Ursa dumps all of her crumbs into the water below them, dusting them from her palms. “You’re getting married?” she asks.
“I haven’t asked her yet,” Zuko clarifies. “But I know it takes a long time to make one. I’ve written to Suki and she’s willing to work on part of it if you’ll work on the other. I thought maybe that would be a nice way of welcoming Katara into our family while still paying homage to the ties she has to hers. We could surprise her with it.”
His mother is silent for a long while, her face pensive as she watches Katara and the children.
“I know it’s been a lot to process,” Zuko says solemnly. “Katara and Bumi and Kya… It was all a bit of a mess. But—”
“I adore Bumi and Kya,” Ursa interrupts. “And Katara is wonderful. I think the three of them have brought a lot of joy to your life and Izumi’s. It was...shocking to hear the truth, Zuko, but you’re a grown man. Your choices and actions are out of my hands.” She withdraws a scroll from the pocket of her robe and holds it out. “I did find this for you, though.”
Zuko takes the scroll and unfurls it. The parchment is old and prone to crumbling at the edges. He feels his good eyebrow jump up his forehead as he scans the contents.
“Many years ago, I caught your father in a lie. I suspected that he was interfering with my correspondence, so I wrote a letter to the man I had been engaged to before I had to accept Ozai. In that letter, I alleged that you were not Ozai’s child.”
Mouth hinging open, Zuko states at his mother. “But I… But I am ,” he says weakly. “I look just like him!”
“You are.” Ursa reaches out to pat his hand. “But Ozai was a jealous and controlling man from the start. I had to know for certain what lengths he had gone to in order to cut my ties to my old life. He was furious, to put it lightly. When he showed me this document, it wasn’t so much to threaten all that you would lose but all that I would lose. If another man had been your father, the penalty would have been death. In showing me this, Ozai was telling me that I needed to decide between the freedom I had in my chains here and the ability to protect you from him or losing everything and sentencing you and the other man to die.
“I believe I did you more harm than good in the end. He never fully believed you could be his child after that.”
Zuko swallows hard around the lump in his throat.
“We all… We all make mistakes, Zuko. And while we might bear the brunt of the consequences of those mistakes, our children should never have to suffer alongside us.”
He looks back at the ancient, faded writing on the scroll. The content is lengthy, but begins with the words that could change everything for Bumi and Kya.
A father must acknowledge and provide for any children resulting from any intimate relations…
“I learned how to sew when I was in exile,” Ursa says. “I’m not the greatest, but perhaps the palace seamstresses can offer me some advice.”
Did it give you that warm and fuzzy feeling? I hope so. We all need it after the angst and drama!
I'll see you all soon for the final update. In the meantime, keep an eye out because I'll be posting a couple of Zutara AUs. One involves a lot of Dadko (because I can't stop now that I've started) and the other is that solstice piece I mentioned a few chapters back.
Don't forget to drop me a line down below or leave ❤️s if you liked it! I adore chatting with all of you! xx
Chapter 14: Year Twenty: A Denouement
What started out as roughly 5-7 pages is now 190 pages. Thank you all SO MUCH for sticking with me for this very tragic ride. I am grateful for all of you and your unwavering support of this story! Your feedback has meant so much to me and I hope that you'll continue to stick with me for future Zutara projects.
You've all had your theories and wishes for this story. I certainly hope this ending does not disappoint!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
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.”
Because if LOK can give Bumi airbending powers when he's like 50 years old, I can make him a firebender at age 10 or 11. Nyah.
A few final notes:
1. The Aang/Jaya theory: Y'all were all over this. And while I can confirm nor deny anything on Aang's part (I'll leave that up to your own interpretation), Jaya certainly was jealous of his commitment to Katara.
2. Sokka and Suki go on to have what I termed in the original ending "a small horde of warriors." Sokka also becomes chief of the Southern Water Tribe and absolutely floors his skeptical brother-in-law the Fire Lord when he kicks ass at it. Suki establishes a branch of the Kyoshi Warriors in the South Pole and never stops kicking ass either.
3. The original ending also touched on the birth of the next Avatar, a girl born in the Foggy Swamp Tribe (because no one thinks about the Foggy Swamp Tribe and can you IMAGINE?). But there was no natural place for this within the narrative. And I know that people really love Korra, so I didn't want to take away from that.
4. Toph still has Lin and Suyin. I fully believe that she would never reveal the identities of their fathers because Toph Beifong is above that nonsense. (But my firm belief is that, within the parameters of this story, at least one of her daughters is fathered by Ami's younger brother Zhihao because I can't resist the idea that all of these fools' kids are somehow related. IMAGINE THE PANDEMONIUM.)
5. Tenzin is a nonentity in this story because we have other airbenders.
6. Katara carries on Ami's work in education and also reforms medical care throughout the Fire Nation. Her methods and techniques are used in the other nations. Despite the controversy of her relationship with Zuko, she eventually goes on to be one of the most well-loved and -respected Fire Ladies in Fire Nation history. Together, she and Zuko transform what it means to rule a nation. They are known for being kind, generous, and thoughtful regents. Their story encourages people to pursue love above all else.
7. Bumi has an illustrious career in the Fire Nation military, relying on his skills with swords over firebending. Like his father, he uses Dao swords. Like his Uncle Sokka and his Aunt Toph, he is forever a bit of a wildcard. He later goes on to abdicate his role as crown prince of the Fire Nation in favor of his sister Izumi because he knows she's better suited for the role of Fire Lord than he is. He forever idolizes Zuko and Sokka and later credits them for making his life wonderful.
8. Zuko becomes a big-time family man and he is HAPPY.
You are all absolutely incredible. I have loved spending this time with each and every one of you. If you'd care to join me, I have a winter-themed piece in progress and would love for you all to check it out! It promises to be heartwarming and not a tragic, angst-ridden ride like this.
Thank you again! ❤️