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Broken Hearts and Shattered Breaths

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Broken Hearts and Shattered Breaths



Several loud voices in the hallway distracted Zuko from the report Councilman Sho was giving. He turned his head a little and instantly, his bodyguard Mizu was next to him. “Go check what’s the commotion outside.”

The man bowed and left, silent as a shadow. Moments later, the doors to the courtroom was thrown open with a loud bang. Several things happened at the same time. Twelve imperial Firebenders flanked Zuko from both sides. The Fire Lord himself stood up and instinctively took up a battle stance. His Generals, Admirals and remaining courtiers had all either lit a flame on their palms or drawn their weapons. The intruder was surrounded before he could take three steps into the courtroom.

However, upon seeing the struggling man amid the guards, Zuko dropped his firebending stance and stood straight. “Guards, let him approach.”

The harried man shook off the guards and began to take long, purposeful strides towards the throne. Zuko lowered the raging inferno in front of him and descended the steps to meet his friend. “Sokka of the Southern Water Tribe, this is an unexpected visit.”

The formal address jolted Sokka out of whatever trance he was in and for the first time he took in his surroundings. His eyes widened slightly upon realizing how close he had come to being burned on spot, but then his dark face set into a grim line.

“Fire Lord Zuko,” he said in a way as though every word he said pained him. “We need to talk. In private.”

Seeing the normally jovial and affable warrior so glum and angry, Zuko knew this was serious. He gave his friend a nod and turned to address the court. “Ladies and Gentlemen, I’m afraid we will have to take a break from the proceedings. This is a personal matter. You will all be informed as to when the court will resume.”

Without waiting to hear the inevitable complains of his courtiers, Zuko spun on his heels and marched out, motioning Sokka and Iroh to follow him. The trio walked in tense silence to Zuko’s chambers, followed at a respectable distance by the imperial guards. Once inside the privacy of his chambers, Zuko turned to look at Sokka.

“What’s wrong, Sokka?”

It was as though the words broke a dam in the twenty-nine year old warrior for he crumpled to the floor, sobbing. Zuko shared an alarmed look with his Uncle and crouched next to his friend, now seriously worried. “Sokka, hey, what’s wrong? Sokka… look at me. What’s going on?”

“Help me, Zuko,” Sokka said, his voice trembling. “Help me. Katara is going to die.”

It was as though an Earthbender had slammed a rock into his gut. Zuko felt the air leave his lungs in a whoosh. Iroh’s gasp of horror sounded like it came from afar.

“What do you mean?” Iroh asked urgently. “What happened? Last I heard, Master Katara was perfectly healthy.”

Sokka rubbed tears and snot on his sleeve. Absently, Zuko thought that the warrior looked bizarre crying like that. He also noticed that a clump of hair had come undone from Sokka’s wolf tail. Part of him wondered why he was focusing on the mundane when his friend’s life was in danger but he couldn’t inspect his reaction further for Sokka’s next words chilled him to the bone.

“It’s not her health. Katara is to face a trial. She’s been charged with adultery.”

“What rubbish?” Zuko roared, sparks flying out of his mouth. “That’s preposterous!”

“It gets worse,” Sokka whispered, his head lowered.

Zuko shot up to his feet and began pacing, his hands trembling with rage. How could they accuse her of something so… so immoral? So dishonorable? “How can it possibly get worse?” He asked through gritted teeth.

Sokka looked up at him and with a sinking feeling in his stomach, Zuko knew. Sokka’s words only confirmed his worst suspicion. “They think she had an extra-marital affair with you.”

Zuko stood staring at his friend on the floor, his brain refusing to comprehend what he was hearing. He felt like he was falling from a cliff, with nothing to break his fall. It was only when Iroh placed a hand on his shoulder that the buzzing in his mind cleared. He looked from Sokka to his Uncle and back to Sokka. He opened and closed his mouth several times, but nothing came out. Finally, his voice caught up with the rest of him. And with it, came desperation.

“That’s… that’s insane. Sokka, Uncle, you have to believe me, this is... ridiculous. There’s n-nothing going on between us, nothing. There was never anything. This is all just… this is… No. I would… we would never do something like this. I haven’t even spoken to Katara since… since Aang died. I… I wrote to her maybe twice since then and she didn’t even respond. I… we… this is… Agni!” He ran his hand through his hair, trying to rein in his incoherent mess of thoughts.

Iroh, however, seemed to have composed himself. His brows were knit into a tight frown as he appeared to be thinking something deeply. “What about the crystal catacombs in Ba Sing Se?”

Zuko spun to face his Uncle, his face scrunched in confusion. “What about them?”

“What happened there while you were with Master Katara?” Iroh pressed.

“Nothing!” Zuko threw his arms in the air. “And that was over a decade ago. I can’t believe that you’re bringing all of that up now.”

“Zuko,” Sokka’s broken, low voice caught his attention. “I know. I know you wouldn’t do something like that. I’m sure of it. And that’s why I have come to you. Her trial is on the full moon. And if she’s found guilty, she’ll be killed. Help me, Zuko. You’re the only one who can.”

Even in the frozen tundra of the poles, Zuko had never felt his fingers go as cold as they were at that moment. His hands trembled as he reached up to pinch the bridge of his nose. His breath came out in short bursts, and his heart thudded so loudly in his chest, he felt that everyone in the palace could hear it.

“Zuko,” Sokka called tentatively. “You will come with me, right?”

Zuko looked at Sokka. It took an enormous amount of effort for him to pull out his words. “Of course.”

He shook his head, trying to think what his next course of action should be. The monarch in him took over, and he reacted purely on instinct, his voice measured and clipped. “Uncle, I need you to take over the duties of the Fire Lord for the duration I am away. Sokka, I would need an hour, at the most, to gather my belongings and get ready for the journey. Meanwhile, please do have something to eat.”

Clapping his hands, he summoned his chief bodyguard. “Mizu, I’m leaving for the Northern Water Tribe urgently. I need a warplane fueled and ready. And my retinue as well, in less than an hour.”

The man bowed crisply and walked out. With that done, the monarch slipped away and Zuko took over yet again. At that moment, he felt much older than his thirty years. “Uncle, I don’t have time to meet Izumi…”

“Don’t worry, Zuko,” Iroh said. “I will take care of her. You go. Save Master Katara.”

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 2

 

Zuko stood ramrod straight, his arms locked behind his back and a muscle twitching in his jaw. Beside him, Sokka lay on his bed, curled in a fetal position. Even as he slept, worry marred his features as he twitched intermittently. Every now and then he would mumble something about Katara and his face would crumple further but through all of that, he continued to sleep.

The silence of the cabin was interrupted by the dull thrum of the engines as the warplane flew towards the North Pole. Full Moon was four days away and if all stayed to plan, he would reach North Pole on the morning of the trial.

In the relative solitude, Zuko tried to think back to his interactions with Katara, wondering what could have started the nasty chain of events that led to the current situation.

He had married Mai four years after his coronation. He had been unable to attend Katara and Aang's wedding a year later because Mai was about to give birth to Izumi. The next year had been the happiest one in Zuko's life, till the dart of an assassin killed the love of his life.

Zuko had been inconsolable and it had been Katara, with her stubborn refusal to leave him alone, who had broken through his miasma of gloom. Shortly afterwards, Katara gave birth to Bumi.

Meanwhile Zuko had been absorbed with his work and rearing a motherless child. For the next couple of years, his communications with Katara had been solely through letters and even they were sporadic.

Three years after Bumi's birth, Sokka informed Zuko that Katara was expecting a second child. Upon the birth of Kya, Zuko had made it a point to visit his friends and congratulate them personally. Aang had been a little cold in the reception but Katara had been who she was. Feeling as though he had intruded upon a rather private moment, Zuko had left sooner than he had intended to.

Three years after that, he got the devastating news of Aang's death. The Avatar had been out on a mission and had been, inexplicably, drunk. He never saw the boulder coming for his head. From what Zuko had heard, Aang had died before his body had even hit the ground.

Zuko had abandoned everything and rushed to Katara's side. She had been in shock and hadn't cried for days. It was only when everyone was gone, save for their closest friends, that Katara had broken down into frenzied tears.

That had been a year ago. And now, she was imprisoned, having a staring match with death. But he wouldn't... couldn't let her die. No friend of his was going to die accused of false charges. 


“I wish Pakku was here. He could’ve done something, right?” Sokka asked as the two friends sat having an uneasy dinner. It was a testament to how worried he was that even the meat on his plate didn’t excite him.

Zuko sighed, dumping his chopsticks on the bowl. “Even if he were alive, I doubt he could’ve done much. As both her step-grandfather and her teacher, so he wouldn’t be able to sit on the Tribunal. Conflict of interest. No Tribunal would have allowed it. What about your dad? As the former chief, he should have some power, right?”

Sokka shook his head. “Dad’s powerless in North Pole. He still has some clout in the South, but North, none. The moment he retired, he lost all the powers he had. And since I took up the mantle of Kyoshi’s leadership, I forfeited all the rights to Water Tribe’s leadership. Besides, with a Northern Waterbender sitting at the chief’s position in the South now, South is almost a colony for the North.”

“Tell me everything. How did this happen? How could things get so bad?”

Sokka rubbed his hands on his face, scratching his stubble. “After Aang’s death, Katara sort of withdrew from everyone. She never wrote back, didn’t talk to anyone. It was as if she was lost. She kept moving from air temples to air temples, as if she was trying to look for something. Toph was the one who found her, really. You know how Toph is. She bluntly told her that while Katara moped around, her kids were suffering. She needed to pull her act together and give them the stability they needed. Something she said must have appealed to her, because soon after that, Katara decided to go to North Pole and start a bending school for girls.”

“Why not the South?” Zuko wondered.

Sokka shrugged. “I think she wanted to stay away from us. From her family. I don’t really know, but I got the feeling that she’s running away from something. In any case, Katara chose the North. She was fine till she went there to stay. But then, one fine day, we got a frantic letter from a friend in North, Tanni, that she has been arrested.”

Sokka rubbed his red, blood-shot eyes with the heels of his palms before continuing. “At first I thought it was just some stupid misunderstanding and I took the fastest boat to the North. Luckily, I was close by and I reached there quickly. It was there that I learned that she’s been charged with adultery… with you. I couldn’t believe it, I still can’t. I swear, I ran from pillar to post, but they wouldn’t let me see her.”

After a pause, he continued. “I was told that if she was found guilty, she would be exiled. And I was fine with that. I was willing to take her and the kids to Kyoshi with me and it would all have worked out. But then, ten days ago, I overheard two guys laughing about how the ‘bitch would know her place now’ and ‘how she’d had it coming’. Something told me that they were talking about Katara. I quietly followed them and that’s when I learned that in the North, adultery for women is punishable by death. I couldn’t think. All I knew that I had to save her, somehow. And then I thought of you. I mean, with Aang gone, you’re the most powerful man in the world right now. And… I thought you could help.”

Zuko nodded, cold dread creeping into his heart. “What about Bumi and Kya? Where are they?”

“They’re with Gran Gran and Dad right now, in the North Pole.”

“They’re letting the kids see her at least, I hope?”

Sokka shook his head negatively. Zuko swore a blue streak. “It’s like they’re on a personal vendetta here.”

“They are,” Sokka agreed. “Toph says this isn’t about adultery or about the ‘Avatar’s dishonor’. This is about Katara being a woman and being the best Waterbender of her generation. They’re trying to make an example out of her to dissuade other women from learning combative Waterbending.”

“What nonsense!” Zuko cried, giving up the pretense of eating. “How did this ridiculous rumor even start? Whatever gave them the idea that Katara and I are involved in any way?”

Sokka’s face darkened. “I don’t really know. I have tried very hard to find out but I can’t.”

Zuko sighed, shaking his head. As the Fire Lord, he had headed and been on the bench of multiple Tribunals, both in Fire Nation and Earth Kingdom. Admittedly, he had never been on a Water Tribe Tribunal, but he knew legal systems. He was fairly confident that he could appeal to the Tribunal and speak to them on Katara’s behalf.

“Do you have the Water Tribe’s legal scrolls with you? Where can I look up the laws?”

Sokka shrugged. “South never really had any legal scrolls. If the North has them, I have not been given access to it.”

Zuko nodded, his lips set into a firm line. This was going to be an uphill task.


The Warplane landed on the North Pole’s shores. As soon as the walkway was lowered, Sokka ran down to meet Suki who stood there along with Toph and Kanna. Zuko chose a slower pace, befitting his station. He had made it a point to wear his armor and his crown. He was, after all, entering a war zone of sorts. Up close, both Toph and Suki looked harried and sleep deprived. But Zuko was most stuck by Kanna’s appearance. Every one of her many years were etched painfully on her face, her eyes rimmed with red. As he bowed to the old woman, the little group was joined by Hakoda.

Zuko had always thought of Hakoda as a proud, stubborn man. But now, he looked like a shadow of his former self. His cheeks were sunken and there was a defeated look in his eyes that Zuko hated.

“Fire Lord Zuko,” Hakoda said in a scratchy voice that bespoke of innumerable tears. “I am honored and relieved to find you here. Your testimony will prove invaluable, I am sure.”

Zuko bowed, “Sir. I will do everything in my power to save Master Katara. I will not let this injustice befall on your family.”

Hakoda grasped Zuko in a bone crushing hug. “Thank you! Thank you!”

Suddenly, he felt like the awkward teenager who had rescued Hakoda from the prison. Patting his back, Zuko extricated himself from the arms of the man and addressed everyone in general. “When does the Tribunal start?”

“In about three hours,” Suki answered. “When the full moon rises.”

“Good. Let me see if I can wrestle out a meeting with Chief Hahn in the meantime.”

“Not going to happen,” Toph said. “We have been trying to meet him, but he says, and I quote, “I cannot meet anyone who will dissuade or otherwise try to influence my decision for the case. As the Chief of the tribe and the head of the Tribunal, I have to remain neutral.”.”

Zuko pinched the bridge of his nose, wishing, not for the first time, that Arnook was still the chief. He had had dealings with the former chief and the man, while annoying, was still a reasonable one. He could be spoken to. But then, seven years ago, he had passed away in his sleep. According to people, he had never really gotten over his daughter’s death and grief had finally consumed him.

Hahn, who was supposed to marry Yue and take the mantle of Chief, was never really relieved of his charges. And upon the sudden and unexpected demise of Chief Arnook, Hahn took over the duties. He was half the man his predecessor had been with twice the ego. A pedantic, petty and an ethnocentric man, whom Zuko detested. Based on his past dealings with the man, he was fairly certain that Hahn wasn’t going to budge and Zuko had no time to waste on a futile effort.

“Fine. Any way I can read some Water Tribe laws? Anything that would help me stand in the Tribunal?”

Hakoda offered him the first bit of good news. “I have managed to wrangle a couple of scrolls. I don’t know how useful it would be, but here they are.”

He pulled out two scrolls from his parka and handed them to him. Suppressing his sigh of relief, Zuko followed his friends to a room in the guest house where he could study the scrolls while Hakoda and Kanna went to take care of the kids.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

CHAPTER 3

 

 

Zuko was surprised to find a marble hall in the middle of North Pole. He expected it to be freezing, but when he stepped in, he was pleasantly surprised. Pneumatic pipes pumped heated steam periodically and the thick, fur carpets kept the cold from permeating in. He had a feeling that Sokka was somehow involved in this mini miracle.

The large hall had about fifty chairs, all of which were occupied. Zuko had a reserved chair for himself, along with Katara’s family and friends. Kanna had declined to come, as the children weren’t allowed in the Tribunal Hall. On one side was a chair that had chains hanging from its arms and legs. And on the other side was a simple, unadorned chair, for the witness. Dominating the room, however, was a large and ornate desk with five chairs – the Tribunal bench.

Zuko tried, unsuccessfully, to swallow the lump of cold dread that had lodged itself in his throat. He could scarcely hear the bailiff announce the arrival of the bench. Years of heading and sitting on Tribunals meant that he automatically rose to his feet, as was the norm. As expected, Hahn took the position of the Chief Judge, while four other men (none of whom Zuko knew) took up the remaining seats on both sides.

All men. Not good.

At the nod of one of them, a man flicked his wrist. A door to the far left opened and two soldiers brought in Katara. Words fell short of describing how Zuko felt upon seeing her. Compared to Katara, her family looked like the picture of health. Her cheeks were hollow and bereft of all pallor. Lips cracked, hair matted and gait slowed, Katara looked a wreck. Even from the distance he could see the chaffing of her wrists, the protruding collar bones and the bony fingers. But the worst thing, according to Zuko, were her eyes. They were the eyes of a person who had lost.

Beside her, he heard the gasps of Sokka and Hakoda and the muffled sob of Suki.

“What?” Toph whispered. “What’s going on?”

Zuko shook his head, unable to believe his eyes. What have they done to her? “Just be thankful that you can’t see.”

Katara was led to the seat for accused and was thrust into it unceremoniously. The chains on her hands and feet were opened and the ones of the chair were put up on her again. That done, the guards stepped back. Rage, like one he hadn’t felt in years, boiled within him and it took all of his training to not burn everything down and snatch his friend from this disgusting game.

“Katara of the Southern Water Tribe,” Hahn said, making her look up. “You stand here accused of adultery. You are accused of having an extra marital affair with the Fire Lord Zuko, while you were married to Avatar Aang. Do you have anything to say for yourself?”

Katara stared at him, as if uncomprehending. Somehow, Zuko knew that she was not going to say anything and her silence would be devastating. So he spoke up, “If I may, I would like to represent Lady Katara.”

As one, the five men looked at him. Hahn’s eyes narrowed slightly before he smirked. “Well, it is unusual, but the Fire Lord himself has graced us with his presence. It would be remiss of us to not grant his request. So yes, Fire Lord Zuko, you may represent your paramou… I mean Lady Katara of the Southern Water Tribe.”

Zuko’s eyes narrowed a fraction at the snicker that went through audience. Taking a deep breath, he stood up and nodded. “Thank you, Chief Hahn. Lady Katara pleads not guilty.”

Hahn’s eyebrows shot up but he nodded. “Okay. Present your facts, Fire Lord.”

Zuko cleared his throat and assumed his most official, regal voice. “Lady Katara stands here charged of adultery. She, allegedly, had an extra marital affair with me. Which is funny, because if any such dalliances occurred, I can’t seem to remember them.”

His sentence was met with a couple of chuckles here and there. With a small smirk, he continued, “The allegations against Lady Katara is pure conjecture and complete hearsay. These allegations are false and I will prove it to the Tribunal.”

“I’m sure,” one of the members of the bench spoke up. “But you see Fire Lord, your denial alone isn’t evidence enough. You see, we have witnesses who will attest to the fact that you and Lady Katara have brought dishonor upon the Water Tribe, repeatedly.”

Zuko’s eyebrow shot up. “Witnesses? To what? Something that didn’t even happen? Your powers are impressive.”

A few more snickers. From the corner of his eyes, he saw Sokka nod. On her chair, however, Katara sat motionless, expressionless.

Looking annoyed, the man on the bench continued. “Without further delay and smart quips from the Fire Lord, we shall present the first witness. I call upon, Reng Fe Chui.”

Zuko’s brow knit in confusion as he wracked his brain trying to figure out who this person was. He looked to Sokka and Suki, both of whom shrugged. Even Toph looked confused. Moments later, a tall, heavy set man with a wide jaw and a hooked nose, that looked like it had broken a couple of times, took the chair meant for witnesses. Zuko had never seen this man before.

“Reng Fe Chui,” Hahn said. “Do you recognize this man and the woman on the chair?”

The man looked from Zuko to Katara and nodded. “Indeed, Sir. I do. That man is... was the Prince of Fire Nation when I last saw him. And she was the Avatar’s companion.”

“And how do you know them?” another man on the bench asked.

“I imprisoned them, Sir. I was under Princess Azula’s service at the time and I threw them in the Crystal Catacombs under Ba Sing Se.”

“Together?” Hahn asked.

“They were thrown in one after another, but yes, they were in there together.”

Hahn’s smirk was evident. He leaned back on his chair, his face triumphant as he looked at Zuko “You have any questions?”

“Several, actually,” he said as he walked up to the man. “So, Reng Fe Chui, am I correct in assuming that you worked for the Dai Li?”

“Yes.”

Zuko waved his hand toward the audience. “This is the Water Tribe. Several of them are unfamiliar with the proceedings of Ba Sing Se. Could you, in a few sentences, tell us exactly what the Dai Li does?”

The man’s chest puffed in pride as he cleared his throat and spoke about his work. “The Dai Li is the secretive and elite police force of Ba Sing Se who work to capture, interrogate and imprison political dissidents. The organization was founded by Avatar Kyoshi with the aim of protecting the cultural heritage of Ba Sing Se. The Dai Li works to protect the Earth King.”

“I see,” Zuko said as he pretended to consider something. “How long did you serve in the Dai Li for?”

“Eighteen Years.”

Zuko smiled. “That is impressive. So, in your long, illustrious career, how many people did you capture and interrogate?”

“Somewhere between five to six hundred.”

Zuko let out a low whistle. “And you remember every one of them?”

“Of course not,” the man said and then winced, upon realizing the trap.

Zuko smirked. “No further questions.”

Hahn looked annoyed but he wasn’t put out and quickly called the next witness, Shing Shu, an Air Acolyte at the Eastern Air Temple. This witness Zuko couldn’t discredit so easily because he was talking about things that the Fire Lord was hearing for the first time. The acolyte spoke about how the Avatar had once, in the presence of everyone in the temple, asked Katara about her relationship with Zuko and that the Waterbender had remained silent.

Shing Shu also spoke about how Katara had not cried after the Avatar’s death, instead had clung to Zuko throughout the funeral proceedings, conveniently ignoring the fact that she had also clung to Sokka, Suki and Toph. When Zuko had, in fact pointed that bit out, the bench had disregarded it as irrelevant. All in all, the Air Acolyte had done severe damage to the case.  

Chapter Text

 

Chapter 4

 

Zuko paced the little room in agitation. Things were spiraling out of control rapidly and he was helpless. The tribunal had broken for dinner but he could see that they had already reached their verdict. They were merely taking their own sweet time, relishing their victory. After Shing Shu, they had proceeded to bring in three more witnesses, all of whom testified to Katara and him being seen in compromising positions.

But the point was, each of those instances were taken out of context and twisted to something grotesque. Something so impure and unholy that it left a bitter taste in his mouth. The fact that he had sobbed into her shoulders after Mai’s death had been turned into him kissing her throat.

The complete travesty that was “The Boy in the Iceberg” by Ember Island Players was upheld as fact. It was being proclaimed as the play that dared to speak the truth and that Zuko had used his power to quash it. True, Zuko had stopped the play, but he had done so simply because the play had been atrocious and complete nonsense. But Zuko knew that protesting it was futile. He had stopped the play, that was the truth and people were going to believe the worst.

But the worst of all was what the last witness, a citizen of the Fire Nation, had said. Zuko knew him and the moment the man, Tur Shyuck, took the witness seat, he knew he was done for. The man was a known Ozai loyalist and had been extremely vocal about his dissent of Zuko. Tur Shyuck claimed that after the Agni Kai with Azula, Zuko and Katara had spent three days locked in his chamber.

It was the truth, but only partial one. Yes, they were in his chamber. Yes, it was locked. But that was because Katara had been afraid that Ozai’s or Azula’s followers might want to kill them. She had not dared to open the door till she got the news of their friends’ safety. But most importantly, Zuko had been unconscious for the entire duration.

But who would believe him? Zuko could have been blue in the face, screaming himself hoarse that they hadn’t even touched each other, but no one would have taken his word for it. Knowing a lost cause, Zuko had declined to ask him any questions. Tur Shyuck had struck and struck hard. And as a result, Katara’s life was as good as forfeit.

“Fuck,” Zuko swore. “I don’t know if I made things worse by coming here.”

“Zuko,” the use of his name by Toph reinforced how serious the situation was. “You tried. These people are just… They knew what they wanted and they were armed to the teeth. You went in bare handed.”

“That doesn’t matter,” Zuko roared, smoke curling from his fists. “I couldn’t do a thing! All I did was to somewhat discredit the first witness, but the rest… It was like I was fighting against an unseen enemy.”

“In a way, you are,” Hakoda said. He sounded so tired. “You are fighting against centuries old prejudice. We have not been at peace long enough for people to forget their hate against the Fire Nation. That coupled with Katara’s rebellion meant that the backlash had to come sooner or later.”

“But what do we do now? I can’t let my sister die.” Sokka cried.

“Why is Katara not saying anything? Why is she silent?” Zuko asked.

Suki was the one who answered. “Maybe because she still thinks that she’s going to be exiled. Perhaps she thinks that it’s better to be exiled than stay here and fight.”

“Agni! We have to tell her the truth!”

“Might be too late,” Toph muttered. “We have company.”

All five of them turned to look at the door where a man dressed in dark blue clothes stood with his hand raised to knock. Upon seeing their eyes on him, he gave a tight smile. “To witness the skills of the legendary Toph Beifong is an honor indeed.”

“Who the heck are you?” Toph asked.

The man strode in and closed the door behind him. Instantly, all of them, including Zuko’s two body guards, took up battle stance. In response, the man raised his arms in surrender. “I am a Waterbender, yes. But I am nowhere nearly skilled enough to take out legends. Or fight and live to tell the tale when I’m so hopelessly outnumbered. Please, I come in peace.”

“A Northern Waterbender,” Sokka scoffed. “Yes, we have been seeing your ‘peace’.”

The man lowered himself on to his knees and bowed down, pushing a small object forward, towards Zuko’s feet. He straightened up, but continued to kneel on the floor. “Toph Beifong, I hear that you can tell if someone is lying. Read me and see if I lie when I say that I come in peace.”

“He’s not lying,” Toph conceded grudgingly. Zuko bent down to pick up the object the man had slid towards him, without taking his eyes off him. Golden eyes flicked towards the circular thing in his palm and his eyes widened.

“What’s your name?” he asked urgently.

“Tonaruq. A student of Master Pakku.”

“Why do you have the Lotus Tile?”

“The White Lotus opens wide to all those who know its secrets.”

Sokka collapsed on the floor with a sigh of relief. Suki dropped her stance and Toph’s lips stretched to a smile. Zuko felt hope surge within him. “Stand up, Tonaruq. You are welcome here.”

Tonaruq stood up and bowed. “It’s an honor to meet the nephew of our Grand Master.”

“Please tell us that you come here with some good news,” Suki pleaded.

“I come with a message from the Grand Master Iroh. And I bring a solution.”

The relief that surged through the room was palpable. Zuko held out a hand, “Give me the message.”

Tonaruq shook his head. “Alas, Fire Lord, it is encrypted. Meant only for the eyes of the White Lotus Members. A necessary precaution, lest it got intercepted.”

Zuko dismissed the pang of disappointment and nodded in understanding. “Okay, so what is the solution?”

“You might not like it,” Tonaruq warned. “In fact, your Uncle specifically told me to ask you to remember your breathing exercises and keep in mind that sometimes sacrifices need to be made for the greater good.”

That definitely sounded like something Uncle would say, Zuko mused. “Just tell me.”

Tonaruq took a deep breath and began speaking.


The 'solution' that Tonaruq had provided was extreme. And Zuko wasn't sure how he felt about it. In fact, he wasn't feeling a whole lot at that moment. Save for a buzzing in his ears and a gaping hole somewhere in his abdomen, he didn't feel much. But if there was one thing he had learned in his thirteen years of ruling the Fire Nation it was to maintain an expressionless visage and how to intimidate and make his point. He was no longer Zuko, Katara’s friend. Now, he was the Fire Lord.

 

To ensure that he made the strongest impression, Zuko strode in at the last possible moment. Decked in complete Fire Lord regalia, with the crown on his head and the retinue of twelve Imperial Fire Benders trailing him. As he had expected, everyone in the hall turned to see him, but he held his own head up high and marched in to his designated seat. The Fire Benders lined the two sides of the Tribunal Hall, as the Fire Lord sat down, without once looking at the murmuring crowd behind him.

Every second felt insurmountably long as the five men of the tribunal took their seats. He noticed Hahn do a double take at the retinue and Zuko’s formal attire. When Hahn announced for the accused to be brought in, Zuko felt like his voice floated to his ears from under water. The clanking of her chains made Zuko look up. For the first time he looked at Katara not as his friend but as someone who needed his protection, more than anyone had ever needed it. 

 

She wasn't a damsel in distress, no. The Katara he knew would never be one. However, this person, the one sitting in front of him, was a shadow of her former self. Defeated and lost. Something had happened to her. Something that had taken the fight out of her and that's why she needed help. She had helped him, over and over again, when he had fallen. Now it was his turn to pick her up, dust off the grime, heal her wounds and get her back to her feet. 

 

A part of him felt guilty that he was about to drop a bombshell and that he would be doing it without even talking to Katara once, but he ignored that part. As of now, he needed to focus on the Tribunal and get her out of here. All the uncomfortable feelings that would arise from what he was about to do would have to be dealt with later.

 

With great difficulty, Zuko tore his gaze from Katara, brushing aside the gnawing feeling of guilt and self- doubt. Years had only given him the ability to portray a confidence he didn’t feel. Deep inside, he was still the unsure, second guessing teenager who had taken the throne. Every major decision he took, he found himself weighing the pros and cons, over and over again. This had worked both as an advantage and as a disadvantage for him. On the plus side, this habit of his enabled him to think through every possible scenario and all probable outcomes. On the flip side, however, it meant that making quick decisions weren’t his strongest suit.

 

However, this was not the time to weigh options. As far as he could see, if he didn’t play it just right, Katara could die. And that was not a valid option. Time to think was gone. It was time to act. He channeled the monarch within him and waited for the time to strike.

 

The Northern Water Tribe's chief was now reiterating the case thus far. Zuko leaned forward, focusing his attention on Hahn's words, waiting for the best possible moment to launch his attack.

 

As Hahn neared the end of his speech, Zuko felt a small flutter in his heart and he swallowed. He couldn’t show a moment’s weakness. He looked from Sokka's grim face to Hakoda's strangely hopeful one. While the former had reluctantly agreed to the plan, the latter had enthusiastically given his approval. Anything to save his daughter. 

 

Finally, Hahn had finished speaking. He was making a show of going through some papers, whether to declare the verdict or to deliver a further blow to Katara's already tarnished reputation, Zuko didn't know. Nor did he have the desire to know. He stood up, cleared his throat to get the attention and spoke in his most regal voice. "Members of the Tribunal, before we proceed any further, I’m invoking my right to practice of 'Meiyo no Kaba'."

 

A murmur went through the crowd as the judges themselves looked astonished. Hahn's eyes narrowed slightly and he cast a quick look around, as if to figure out how the Fire Lord became aware of this particular loophole.

 

"Fire Lord," Hahn’s voice had risen a few notches. "Do you understand what you are proposing?"

 

Zuko smirked. "I’m not in the habit of making demands I don’t understand, Chief Hahn.”

 

Translated into common language, ‘Meiyo no Kaba’ meant to provide the ‘Cover of Honor’. It was an old tradition of the Northern Water Tribe where a man who was responsible for tarnishing a woman’s honor could invoke the right to provide her ‘Meiyo no Kaba’. Once invoked, neither party could be punished of the crime they were accused of.

 

"You're the sovereign of the Fire Nation..." Another began, his dark face twisted into an ugly expression.

 

Zuko looked at the man, his expression lethal.

 

Upon spotting his expression, one of the members of the Tribunal leaned forward, addressing his peers. “We have to honor his request.”

 

Hahn began to protest but the older man pressed on. “Think about the repercussions of denying him. If the Tribunal fails to honor the request of a Sovereign of a Nation, think of the message we will send out to the common citizens.”

 

Zuko knew he had won. Hahn's eyes twitched slightly and he opened his mouth to say something when the judge sitting next to him held his hand. The Chief drew in a deep breath and looked at Zuko. "Just so I know that you truly understand what you are offering, Fire Lord, do explain what it means to provide Katara with 'Meiyo no Kaba'."

 

Zuko took a deep breath, looked at Katara, who finally looked at the proceedings with confusion and interest. He hoped he conveyed his apologies with his eyes as he spoke his next words. "I'm proposing a marriage to Katara of the Southern Water Tribe."

 

 

Chapter Text

CHAPTER 5

 

"No!"


That was the first word Zuko had heard from Katara's lips. Thankfully, she had been too shocked to protest at the Tribunal which had dismissed quickly after his bold proclamation. As per tradition, once Meiyo no Kaba was invoked, the woman could reject the proposal. However, over the years, that right had been taken away from the women. Zuko could only imagine the number of times a man might have misused it or lovers used it to get their opposing parents.


As far as he knew, this was the first time this archaic tradition had been invoked in a case of adultery. The Tribunal had been completely blindsided by Zuko's ploy and gave their approval for the marriage, putting in the clause that the wedding should take place within twenty four hours and that they should leave immediately afterwards. Then Tribunal had then been dismissed in a matter of minutes.


It was now, in the guest house where Zuko was staying, that Katara finally spoke. She clutched Bumi and Kya to her chest with a tight grip that belied her fragile countenance. "No," she said again. "I'm not marrying again."

 

Sokka put an arm around his sister. Zuko wondered if he was the only one in the room who noticed the slight flinch from Katara at the action. “Sis, we don’t have any other option. I know you still love Aang, and you are not ready to give his place to someone else. And we are not asking you to do that either. All we are saying is, this is the need of the hour.”

 

The response was a resolute refusal in one single word. “No.”

 

“Sugar Queen,” Toph said with her usual brusqueness. “You need to understand…”

 

Katara’s eyes flashed dangerously as she tightened her grasp on her children. “No Toph! You need to understand that I’m done. I have had enough. I’m not marrying again and that’s that.”

 

Suki tried for a gentler approach, putting a hand on Katara’s shoulder. Yet again, Zuko noticed her flinch. “Katara, think of the children. You can’t stay here in the North and the only way they will let you leave is when you marry Zuko.”

 

“I’m not marrying again. Period.”

 

Zuko sighed, feeling exhausted. He looked at Sokka who had his arm around his sister, and said, "Sokka, can you give me five minutes with Katara, alone?"


Nodding, Sokka pried Bumi and Kya out of Katara's grasp. Not an easy task, but he assured her that they would be back to her in five minutes. Reluctantly, Katara let them go, her big blue eyes trailing them as they stepped out of the room.


Alone, Zuko crouched in front of her, careful not to touch her. "Katara, I know this is not the ideal situation, and I am sorry for doing things this way. Believe me, if there was any other way, I would have done it."


"You could have let me lose the case," she said, not looking at him. "I'd be exiled from Water Tribe, and I would've been fine with it."


"But you wouldn't have been exiled, Katara. They would've sentenced you to death, that’s what Toph was trying to tell you."


For the first time, she met his eyes and in there he saw a glimmer of the Katara he knew. “What?”

 

“Yes. Why do you think I resorted to something so extreme?” Zuko shook his head, every inch of his body aching. “The Northern Water Tribe never got over the fact that you are the best Waterbender of this generation. A woman and from the South. Too big a blow for their fragile egos. They would’ve killed you to make an example. This was the only way I could get you out of their grasp.”

 

"They'd have let Bumi and Kya become orphans?"


"Yes," Zuko agreed. If her children were her focal point, then he would talk to her using them. Any way to get her out of here because Zuko knew, the danger wasn't gone yet. It still lurked and would continue to lurk till she was safely out of here. "These men are still baying for your blood. Please, trust me to get you and the kids out of North Pole safely. Once I get you and the kids to Fire Nation soil, safe and sound, you're free to do whatever you want. If you want to annul the marriage, I will do so. But for now, please, for your kids' sake, just play along."


He must have appealed to some sense in her, for she nodded. "Fine. Let's get this over with."

 


The ceremony was ridiculously short. Dressed in traditional Watertribe garb, Zuko was led to the Spirit Oasis, where he was sprinkled with some of the Spirit Oasis water. The priest intoned something in an ancient language that Zuko didn’t understand but thankfully, he wasn’t asked to repeat.

 

Once the incantations were finished, Katara was brought in. She too was dressed in an elaborate white and blue Watertribe dress with a gauzy material over her face acting as a veil. Waterbending had wrought some major changes in her appearance, such that her wrists were no longer chaffed and her hair was not matted. But she still retained the gaunt look that she had acquired in the prison. Katara sat to his left, without meeting his eyes.

 

The priest sprinkled some of the Spirit Oasis water on her and resumed his incomprehensible incantations. After a while, the priest handed a blue silk ribbon, a stand-in for a betrothal necklace, to tie around Katara’s neck.

 

“Carve a pedant and put it on the ribbon later,” the priest said, answering his unasked question.

 

Taking utmost care, so as to not touch her in any way, Zuko put the ribbon around her neck. He thought he heard Katara release a sigh of relief. For a moment, he was transported back in time, with him holding a different necklace, her tied to a tree and him almost putting it on her neck. He banished the image. Now was not the time for nostalgia.

 

The priest asked the two to hold hands. Zuko noticed the tremble in Katara’s hands as she held his in a feather light grasp. He too tried to keep his grasp as light as possible. The priest pulled a strand of water from the Oasis and wound it around their hands in a spiral, continuing to mutter an incantation.

 

Both of them were asked to repeat a few words, none of which Zuko understood and then he was informed that they were married. Zuko was flabbergasted. Fire Nation weddings were a long and tedious process. He was surprised to know that a wedding could be accomplished in less than half an hour.

 

The priest then pulled off the water and dropped it back to the Oasis. To everyone’s surprise, the water glowed blue for a moment before returning to its normal, colorless state. The few people who were present began chanting something while Zuko looked around, confused.

 

The priest smiled, “By Tui and La! This is a rare occurrence! This union has been blessed by the Spirits. This is meant to last for several lifetimes. We have been blessed to witness such a union.”

 

Zuko felt Katara’s eyes on him and he turned to find his disbelief and incredulity mirrored in them. Without a word, she stood up and bowed to the priest. Zuko silently mimicked her action.

 


Twenty minutes later, a soldier was hefting Katara’s bags onto to Zuko’s warplane. Katara was saying her goodbyes to her family, her face molded into an expressionless mask. It was only when her grandmother whispered something into her ears that the mask slipped and Katara looked shocked. She turned her head to look at him, her eyes holding a question he couldn’t read. Not finding the answer they were searching for, blue eyes dipped down and looked away.

 

“Are you my new dad?” a tiny voice drew his attention away from the woman who was now his wife, to find a little girl looking up at him with wide blue eyes.

 

Zuko knelt down on the snow and smiled at her. “Yes, little princess. Your name is Kya, right?”

 

The little girl nodded, her black ponytail bobbing up and down with the motion. “And you are Zuko?”

 

He held out a hand as he said, “Yes. Pleased to meet you.”

 

She took his hand, her tiny palm disappearing into his larger one as she shook it. “What happened to your eye?”

 

“Kya!” Katara’s voice sounded aghast. Unknown to him, she had walked closer. “You don’t ask people that!”

 

“It’s alright, Katara,” Zuko said with a smile. He had long since made peace with his scar, it no longer bothered him. “It was a long time ago, Kya. When I was a little older than Bumi, a bad man hurt me.”

 

The little girl winced. “That must be so paining?”

 

“Painful,” he corrected gently. “And yes, it was.”

 

“Does it pain now?”

 

Zuko shook his head. Then to his utmost surprise, Kya leaned forward and placed a gentle kiss on his scar. At that moment the little girl stole his heart. He smiled widely and said, “Why, it’s all better now!”

 

Kya giggled and ran to hide behind her mother. He looked up to find Katara smiling at him. He straightened up and was about to speak when he felt another pair of eyes on him. Turning around he found Bumi looking at him. Never before had Zuko seen such animosity in the eyes of someone so young.

 

Chapter Text

 

CHAPTER 6

 

Zuko faltered slightly, swallowing the lump of nervousness in his throat. Shaking his head, he squared his shoulders and walked in, careful not to slosh the goblets of liquid in his hands. 

The journey back to Fire Nation had been uneventful. Katara and the kids had mostly stuck to the cabin. Allowing them full access to the bed, Zuko made himself comfortable on the floor. Kya had continued to be fascinated by Zuko, trying to spend as much time as she could with him. Whenever she could, she would clamber on his lap and Zuko was more than happy to oblige. Kya chattered nonstop and Zuko was completely enraptured by the innocence of the little girl.

He had tried to talk to Bumi several times, but the boy stubbornly refused to acknowledge his presence, except to throw him an occasional, mutinous glare. In fact, Bumi reminded him strongly of himself during his exile, something that endeared the boy to him. It also made Zuko wonder where Iroh found the endless patience to deal with him. 

When it came to Katara, however, Zuko had no idea what to say to her. So he chose to not say anything. She too appeared to be equally clueless and seemed more than happy to follow his cue. Which was fine while they were in the warplane but now, within the confines of his palace, he couldn't keep silent. This was, technically, their first night together as a married couple and Zuko wasn't sure what to say or do. He hoped that the wine he carried would help him tide through the initial awkwardness. 

Walking into the chamber, he found Katara sitting on the bed. She wore a simple red tunic, her hair done up in a bun. His staff had been unsure of how to treat Katara. Not that he blamed them. He himself didn't know how to treat her. So, he had instructed them to show her to a guest chamber, provide her with some clothes suitable for the climate and anything else that she might need, but otherwise leave her alone. 

Till he had spoken to her, he was not going to tell anyone exactly who she was or why she was with him. As of now, her identity would be Katara, Master Waterbender and Avatar's widow. Or so he had thought. Unfortunately, news of their rushed wedding had already reached the Fire Nation and his staff already knew that she was the new Fire Lady. Which made things even more complex. Zuko had spent an hour with Iroh, trying to figure out what to do from here, but the discussion had resulted in giving him a headache. Ultimately, it all hinged on his conversation with Katara.

And so he was here, holding glasses of wine, looking at the woman who sat hunched on the bed, staring at something only she could see. She had not heard or seen him. Zuko cleared his throat to announce his presence and it worked. Katara looked up, startled. 

"Hi," he said, giving her his best smile. "Wine?"

Without a word, she accepted the proffered glass but didn't drink from it. Zuko pointed to the foot of the bed and said, "May I?"

Katara nodded, pulling her feet further inwards. Her gaze was fixed on the glass of wine she had in her hand. After a while Zuko sighed, "I haven't poisoned it, you know."

She looked taken aback for a moment before blushing. "No, no. I..."

When she couldn't continue, Zuko nodded. "It's okay. I get it. I was like that after Mai."

Katara looked up, surprised. "Really?"

He nodded again. "Really. I couldn't trust anyone. Even after the tasters had tasted everything, I personally tasted all of Izumi's food before giving it to her. And let me tell you, baby food tastes horrible."

Katara snickered, the first laugh he had heard from her in all this while and Zuko felt a stab of pride at finally making her laugh. 

"How are you feeling, Katara?"

She shrugged. "To be honest, I don't know. So much has happened, I don't know what to think."

"I hear you," Zuko said, sipping on his wine. "I'm totally confounded about what to do now. I feel like a teenager again."

The two of them lapsed into companionable silence, each lost in their own thoughts. Surprisingly, it was Katara who broke the silence.

"Thank you Zuko."

"For what? Binding you to a marriage that neither of us wanted?"

She shook her head. "No. For saving my life. Suki explained to me how they methodically lied and cut off everything from me. They would have let me die to satisfy their egos, without a thought about what happened to Bumi and Kya. If not for you, my kids would've been left orphaned. And for that, I can't thank you enough."

Zuko shook his head. "It really was the White Lotus. Left alone, I could've done much of anything."

"Regardless," Katara said, curling further into herself. "You were the one who had to marry me, not the White Lotus."

Zuko smiled. "Well, things are not as bad. One of the greatest thing about Fire Nation is, we can annul a marriage, so long as it's not... err... consummated."

The shudder that went through Katara's body at that sentence didn't escape Zuko's notice, but he pretended not to see it. "If you want, I will talk to the Fire Sages tomorrow morning and see what must be done to annul the marriage."

Katara took a deep breath. "Zuko, I have been thinking about it... and... I... I don't think we need to annul it just yet."

Zuko's eyebrow shot up. "What? You want to stay married?"

Katara sighed. "I've seen you with Kya, Zuko. She's really attached to you. She's lost Aang at a really young age, I don't want her to lose another person so soon. Both her and Bumi, they need a father figure in their lives, and... I was thinking... You could be it. Only if you want to, that is." She added hastily.

Zuko looked at her both surprised and pleased. He couldn't deny that he had really grown fond of the two kids, especially Kya. She had made a place in his heart in ways that only little children could, and he hadn't been looking forward to saying goodbye to her. "I'd do it, but on one condition."

Katara raised her eyebrows in a silent question.

"Izumi has never known a mother. Will you be her mother?"

Katara's smile was dazzling. "I'd be happy to."

"That's settled then," Zuko said, relieved. "I will talk to the Fire Sages tomorrow morning and see where to go from here on. There will probably be a formal ceremony and..."

Katara's voice stopped him midway. "But... What about... You know... Us?"

Zuko sighed. "Katara, this is for the kids. Nothing changes between us. We are friends and we shall remain so. Married only in the eyes of the public. What happens behind closed doors is nobody else's business."

The relief on her face was palpable. "Thanks again Zuko."

"Never mind. Sleep now. You'll likely be inundated tomorrow. Good night!"

She repeated the words and drank her wine in one swig. With one final wave at her, Zuko left the chamber, feeling a huge weight lift off his shoulders.

 


Unsurprisingly, the news of his sudden marriage had not gone over well with the courtiers. The noble men had, over the past eight years, badgered him relentlessly to get married. One after another, 'eligible' Fire Nation girls had been paraded in front of him. But Zuko had remained adamant in his refusal.

 

In fact, on one occasion, a tall eleven year old had been dressed up as a much older woman and brought to him. For the fist time in his adult life, Zuko had lost his temper in public. Iroh had had to intervene before the Fire Lord reduced the parents of the said girl to cinders.

 

But now that he had presented them with a new Fire Lady, none of them had seemed pleased. When he had taken the mantle of the Fire Lord, Zuko had sworn to himself that he wouldn't be a Fire Lord like Ozai. He had given his courtiers the liberty to speak their minds. For the first time in thirteen years, though, he was regretting giving the said liberty.

 

The courtiers had, in no uncertain terms, informed him that he had made a mistake. They couldn't understand why he had to choose a twenty-eight year old widow with two children to sit on the throne when he had a plethora of young, dutiful, Fire Nation nobility and most importantly 'virgin' brides to choose from.

Zuko had patiently heard their views and then explained in a tone that he knew wouldn't brook further arguments, that while the position of the Fire Lady was indeed a public one, the choice of his wife was his and his alone. 

That done, he spent the afternoon with the Fire Sages, trying to figure out what needed to be done from here on. After what seemed like an unnecessarily lengthy meeting, Zuko headed to what he knew would be the toughest meeting of all. Izumi. 

She had been the first person he had tried to meet but the girl had refused to meet with him and that hurt Zuko more than he cared to admit.

If anyone truly had a right to be upset with him, it was her. And if he knew his daughter, which Zuko was proud to say that he did, Izumi was proud and stubborn. She wouldn't accept Katara so easily. 

When Zuko strode into Izumi's cabin, the princess was sitting on her writing desk, diligently working on something. He knew she had heard him for as a warrior, her instincts were impeccable. She pretended to not hear him because she was mad. He waved off her tutor who left with a deep but hasty bow. The princess remained seated, her face resolutely turned away.

"Izumi," Zuko called out, tentatively. 

"Go away," she said in a cold, measured tone that was highly reminiscent of Azula.

"Princess, we need to talk, right?"

"I have nothing to say to you."

Zuko sighed and walked up to her. The girl continued to keep her back to him. Pulling up a chair next to her, Zuko sat down.

"Won't you even look at Daddy?"

"No."

"Izumi, princess, I'm sorry," he said, gently reaching out for her hand. She snatched her little hand away.

"Talk to me sweetheart."

"Did you talk to me before bringing them in?" She snapped, uttering the 'them' with unmatched contempt. 

"I had to, Izumi," Zuko said. "I had no choice."

The girl spun to face him, her golden eyes flashing. "There's always a choice. You keep telling me that."

Zuko sighed once again, wondering how children could turn your own words back at you.

"Sometimes, grown ups like to tell children things that they themselves would like to believe. But life has a way of showing us that we're wrong. Guess I was wrong when I said that."

Izumi pursed her lips, as if considering his words. 

"She's never going to be my mother," she said finally.

"Izumi..."

"No!" She screamed, tears beginning to pool into her eyes. "My mother's name is Mai and she's dead. No one else can be my mother. No one!"

Without waiting for Zuko's response, Izumi shot out of the room and ran away. Sitting alone, Zuko's shoulders slumped.



Chapter Text

Chapter 7

Katara opened her eyes, groggily rubbing sleep from them. She blinked a few times to adjust to the change in light.

“Greetings Fire Lady,” a crisp, matronly voice sounded close by.

With a yelp, Katara shot up on the bed. To her utter horror, she found five women surrounding her bed, looking at her expectantly. With a muffled yell, Katara jumped from the bed, her heart palpitating. Her wild, frantic eyes darted from one end to the other, eying the five women with open hostility. But then, two pairs of hands grabbed her from behind, one of which was tugging at the knot of her tunic while another was pulling out her hair. Blind, numbing panic rose within her chest and with a loud yell, Katara commanded the water from the three flower vases in the room into a whip and lashed it at her assailants.

The hands groping her let go and in that moment, Katara ran. Tears streamed down her face, drenched in cold sweat and overtaken by unspeakable terror, she ran. She didn’t notice the strange looks she got from the guards as she ran down the corridor. Blind to all but the horror, agony and pain residing within her, Katara ran, her mind screaming.

She ran as her lungs burned and every breath seemed to be on fire. Her mind’s uncontrolled tumble downhill was abruptly brought to a halt when she ran into something solid, making her topple over. Physical pain from the fall brought her mind’s wanderings to a halt and Katara looked up. She was both surprised and glad to see Zuko looking down at her with concern.

“Katara! What’s going on? What happened?”

When she didn’t respond, he held out a hand offering her help to get up. It would have been so easy to hold out her hand and use it to get up. But she couldn’t bring herself to do it. Instead she pushed herself off the floor and dusted her tunic, ignoring the trembling in her heart. She saw the slight frown on Zuko’s face as he withdrew his hand, but it was gone quickly. She had barely caught her breath when two of the women who had been in her chamber joined them, panting. Instinctively, Katara hid

“My Lord,” the older woman bowed deeply, trying and failing to keep her annoyance from showing.

“What is going on? What’s all this commotion about?” Zuko asked.

Still trembling, Katara was unable to reply. The woman gave a short bow and said, “If I may, milord.”

At Zuko’s nod, she continued. “We were at the Fire Lady’s chamber, getting her prepared for the day but she attacked us.”

Zuko looked from her stricken face to the maid’s annoyed one. Katara could see understanding dawn on his face. “You tried to get her prepared for a bath, I presume?”

“Yes Milord. Lord Iroh had instructed us to aid the Lady and we were only following orders, Sire.”

Zuko pinched the bridge of his nose and breathed in deeply. “I see. Mari, you and your subordinates are not to touch Lady Katara without her express permission. She comes from a different country, a different culture. She is unused to such attention.”

If Mari was annoyed or upset by the instruction, she didn’t show it. She bowed and excused herself from them. Alone, she turned to look at Zuko, acutely aware of how her hair was plastered to her face. A part of her was embarrassed at her overreaction and yet another was still coming to terms with the fear that had overcome her. She fully expected him to berate her for being so problematic on the very first day, but was taken aback at his next words.

“Are you alright?”

Katara licked her lips and nodded. “I’m sorry Zuko, I overreacted.”

“No, no! I apologize,” he said, looking regretful. “I know what happens here and I know you don’t like to be touched. I should have foreseen this.”

Katara was nonplussed. “How… how… how did you know?”

“You flinch every time someone touches you,” he elaborated. “I didn’t notice it at the Tribunal, but later, when Sokka touched you… I saw it. I have seen the pattern since then.”

Katara didn’t know what to say, so she lowered her eyes, Gran Gran’s parting words echoing in her mind.

“I’m sorry Katara,” Zuko continued. “Your very first day here gave you such a nasty surprise.”

Katara shook her head. “No, Zuko. Please, don’t apologize. Not your fault. I… I just… Never mind. You are meeting the Fire Sages today, right?”

Zuko nodded. “Depending upon how things go, you will have people instructing you on Fire Nation etiquettes, rituals, wedding plans and dress trials. It’s going to be exhausting to say the least. Just wanted you to know.”

Katara nodded. “Thank you. I appreciate that. Have you spoken to Izumi yet?”

Zuko shook his head remorsefully. “She’s refused to see me so far. I hope to be able to talk to her today. What about you, any luck with Bumi?”

“No. I haven’t had the chance to talk to him yet.”

With that, Katara suddenly realized that she had nothing else to say. Apparently Zuko too had run out of words to speak and began to fidget uncomfortably.

“I’ve wasted enough of your time,” Katara said. “You have a busy day ahead. I will take your leave.”

The Fire Lord and Lady bowed to each other and walked to the opposite directions.


The next five days were a flurry of activities that had Katara busy from the moment she opened her eyes to the time she closed them. After Zuko had expressly told them to ask her permission before touching, Katara was much more at ease and did not have any panic attacks. She had refused assistance during bathing and wouldn’t allow anyone to come anywhere near her till she had at least put on a shift. Although, Mari did seem a little put off by her reaction, but the woman was professional enough to let it slide.

She barely found time to meet her children, but she made sure that she did. Kya and Bumi were the most important things in her life and she did all in her power to ensure that they were safe and happy.

She noticed that Zuko made it a point to meet all three of them, every day, no matter how tired he was. The ease with which Kya had taken to Zuko surprised Katara. Before her marriage, Kya used to ask her about her daddy, but ever since Zuko came in, the little girl had not asked about Aang, ever. Not that Katara could blame her. Kya was barely three when Aang had died. Even when he was alive, his Avatar duties kept him away for extended periods of time and Kya hardly ever saw him. She probably had very vague memories of her real father, if any.

Zuko, on the other hand, paid complete attention to everything she had to say. In him, she had found a rapt audience and Kya was thrilled. Even when she babbled about nonsensical stuff, he would give her his undivided attention. And for that reason alone, Zuko had quickly become one of her favorite persons in the world.

Bumi on the other hand, refused to even acknowledge Zuko. When Katara had tried to tell him that Zuko was now his father, the boy had somewhat bitterly told her, “He maybe your husband, but he’s not my father.”

While he had not been openly hostile to Zuko thus far, he had not been overly polite either. Every time the latter had approached, Bumi had bottled up and refused to even speak a word, or even look at him for that matter. His arms would be folded, lips thinned and his eyes would be lowered. Katara had to give credit to Zuko for not losing his patience. The younger him would have exploded, but this older man patiently bore with the mistreatment. 

“How do you do it?” Katara had asked once. “You have infinite patience with Bumi and Kya. How?”

Zuko had shrugged. “They’re kids. Patience is exactly what they need. With Kya it’s easy. As for Bumi, he’s reacting exactly how I would have reacted if I was in his shoes, and at his age. He’s gone through a lot of changes in his young life, give him time to adjust.”

Just like him, Katara hadn’t made much headway with Izumi either. In fact, the Fire Nation Princess had refused to even meet her. Six days in the Fire Nation, and she was yet to meet the girl. She had in fact seen her only once, while she practiced her katas. But when she had tried to approach, Izumi had thrown her a look of pure contempt and run away before she could even say hello.

That day, Katara was seated with the wedding planner who was explaining, in rather excruciating detail, the importance of proper seating when Zuko knocked on the door. Since he usually came to visit her before retiring for the night, seeing him there, at that moment made Katara uncomfortable. She refused to give in to the panic clawing at her heart and stood up to bow to him, as she was taught. Being the future Fire Lady, she was almost an equal. Almost.

She wasn’t as yet married to him, as per Fire Nation’s laws and therefore, as his betrothed, she was currently half a rank lower than him. Which meant, she would have to bow to him. Not too low, but not too stiff either. A lowering of her head and slight bending of her knees was enough. The wedding planner though, had to bow low, bending from his waist. With a flick of his wrist, he dismissed the wedding planner and walked into her chamber. Upon seeing him up close, Katara realized that his eyes were guarded and didn’t hold their usual gleam.

“Katara,” he said, distinctly uncomfortable. “May I encroach upon your time for a bit?”

She swallowed, trying to dislodge the cold, empty feeling in her throat. “Are Bumi and Kya alright?”

“What? Yeah, yeah, they’re fine. They’re with their tutors. No, this is about something else. I was hoping you’d meet someone.”

Knowing that her children were fine, Katara heaved a deep sigh of relief. Then she felt a surge of hope, “Izumi?”

Zuko shook his head. “She’s still adamant about not meeting you. It’s not Izumi,” he rubbed the back of his head uncomfortably. “I was talking about Azula.”

“Oh!” Katara had no idea what to say to that. She had not met the Fire Nation Princess after the war. Katara had witnessed Azula’s descent into madness herself. After the war, she had been taken away to a secluded place where she was no longer a threat to herself and to the people around her. Katara had known that over the years Zuko had visited her regularly, but she had no idea how the Princess was now or where she was, for that matter. Somehow, amid all the hustle-bustle, Katara had completely forgotten about her.

“Where is she?” Katara asked finally.

“Here, in the Palace.”

Katara’s eyes widened. “In the Palace? I didn’t know.”

“Yeah,” he sighed. “You have been busy. I have told her about… us. I figured now that you both are… sisters… in a way… you should meet. Will you?”

“Yes Zuko, of course. Take me there.”

His relief was palpable. “Thank you. Come on.”

The two of them walked down a corridor in silence. Katara tried to remember her way, but the Palace was too big and she quickly lost track of where she was going. She briefly wondered how Zuko kept track of where what was, but then remembered that this was the place he had grown up in. Shortly afterward, they were in front of a chamber with ornate doors. “This is the family wing,” Zuko said, breaking the silence. “Every member of the Royal family lives here. You and the children would be moved in here as well after… you know.”

Katara nodded, not saying anything. He took a deep breath and knocked on the door. After a while a voice asked them to enter. Katara didn’t know what she was expecting, but it was certainly not what she was seeing. Azula was sitting on the window ledge, her long, silky hair billowing gently around her. Garbed in a simple red silk dress with thin straps and her face completely devoid of makeup, she looked ethereal in her understated beauty. There was a serenity about her that was surprising and Katara had a tough time reconciling this woman with the aggressive, warrior Princess she had once known.

“Azula, Katara is here.”

The woman tore her eyes from whatever she had been looking at and turned towards her. With one smooth action, she slid off the ledge and moved towards them. She appeared to have lost none of her grace and litheness.

“Katara,” she said in a flat, emotionless voice.

“Azula,” she returned in an equally neutral voice.

“I heard my brother saved you from certain death, yet again.”

Instantly, Katara felt a heat rise in her cheeks.

“Azula,” Zuko’s reprimand sounded more tired than anything else. “Not nice.”

She shrugged, “Whatever. Being ‘nice’ was never really a priority for me.”

“You and Katara are going to be sisters now,” Zuko persisted. “The least you can do is be civil, right?”

“I didn’t know it was uncivil to state the truth,” Azula snapped.

“Zuko,” Katara stopped him before he could argue. “It’s okay. It is true, after all. You did save my life again. I owe you, twice as much now.”

Azula looked at Zuko, as if to say, ‘see?’ “Well,” she said with a world weary sigh. “Welcome to the family, Katara. Be careful though, we are a basketful of crazies.”

Katara didn’t know what to say to her but apparently nothing was needed for Azula continued. “One of us is a tea loving old man prone to give lectures, another was bitten by the ‘honor’ bug at a very young age and has been scratching that itch ever since, Izumi is fine, if a little stubborn but that’s in her blood. And then there’s me, the official, certified basket case. I’m sure you’ll fit right in.”

Not entirely sure of what to say, Katara looked at Zuko who had a palm over face and was shaking his head slowly.

“Let me know if you need any help in understanding Fire Nation’s formalities,” Azula plowed on, ignoring the discomfort of the other occupants of the room. “Not that I will be of much help, but I can at least divert your mind from the inane babble of your tutors.”

With that, Azula seemed to have lost all interest in the conversation and stalked away to sit on the window ledge again. Zuko shot her and apologetic glance and led her out of the chamber. She gave a parting glance at Azula who was back to staring out of the window and ignoring them, before following the Fire Lord out.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 8

 

Katara lifted the water, reveling in the freedom of enjoying her element for herself. As the Avatar’s teacher, water had been her weapon. As his wife, water was her duty. As the Waterbending teacher, water had become her knowledge. But now, as the soon-to-be-Fire Lady, water was just her element. No one expected her to use it for anything else. She felt a stab of guilt at her line of thought, but she brushed it aside.

“I’m not going to feel guilty about the past,” Katara said, whirling a strand overhead, making it ripple in the air.

“Admirable resolution,” a familiar voice started Katara and she almost lost control of the wave. Hitching it back up, she sent the stream into a barrel and turned to face her former enemy turned sister-in-law standing at the gate of the arena. The princess was dressed in maroon slacks, a red sarong skirt and red bindings. Her hair was tied in a ponytail. Katara, dressed similarly in bindings and slacks, grabbed her tunic in a self-conscious act.

“Azula.”

“Katara.”

The waterbender eyed the princess as she walked into the arena, her hands clasped behind her.

“Are you here for a spar?”

Azula shook her head. “I don’t fight these days.”

Katara’s jaw dropped in disbelief, “Really?”

“Ask Zu Zu if you don’t believe me,” she said as she lowered herself on the bleacher along the perimeter. Perhaps it was survival instinct, or maybe it was caution, but Katara made it a point to always face her.

“What brings you here then?”

“I came to talk.”

“What?”

“Talk. Chit chat. Gab. Gossip. I don’t know what it’s called in Water Tribe.”

Katara resisted the urge to roll her eyes and took a couple of cautious steps towards her. “Talk about what?”

“Things,” Azula said as she leaned back and put her weight on her palms. “Things I could not really say in front of my darling brother.”

A part of Katara wanted to bolt and keep running, get away as far as possible. Another part was curious. A small inner battle later, curiosity won. She took three more steps, such that she was close enough that they could have a normal conversation, yet far enough to give herself time, should Azula choose to attack. Azula, meanwhile, dismissed the guards with a wave.

Katara waited till they were completely alone, making sure she was perennially aware of the water barrel nearby. She kept her voice stead and asked, “Such as?”

“For starters, I would like to know what really happened at North Pole.”

Katara crossed her arms across her chest, tapped her left toes on the ground, and said, “You know it. I was facing a trial on some trumped-up charges and Zuko came in and saved me.”

“Yes, yes. My brother has a savior complex, I know,” Azula said waving a dismissive hand, “That’s not what I’m talking about.”

“Then what are you talking about? You will have to be a little more specific.”

“Adultery,” Azula’s words brought a bitter taste and Katara opened her mouth to protest when the Princess overrode her, “Why adultery? Anybody who knows anything about the either of you would know that that’s the most ridiculous charge they could come up with.”

Katara frowned, not sure of what to say. Reading her expression correctly, Azula leaned forward with her elbows on her knees, “I have fought against you. I know that you are loyal to the point of being suicidal. And Zu Zu?” she chuckled, “Zu Zu doesn’t have a dishonorable bone in his body. They could not find two more unlikely people in this world to levy this charge on. Even the thought of it is absurd. And yet, the charges were imposed. Not only that, they ran with it. The tribunal would have killed you had it not been for Zuko’s last minute stunt.”

Katara sighed, “I’m flattered to know that you hold us in such high regard.”

Azula tsked. “That’s not the point. I’ve been thinking and riddle me this, where did this ludicrous rumor start from? No one in their right minds would start a malicious rumor about the Fire Lord and the Avatar’s Widow just out of spite. No. For this to have reached the fervor that it did, the rumor had to have originated from some credible source.”

Katara’s heart hammered wildly as the implication of Azula’s words hit home.

“Think about it, Katara. Any random person saying such things against two of the most powerful and influential people would be, at best, dismissed as a conspiracy theorist, or at worst, put to death for sedition. Someone close to either one of you had to have started the rumor.”

Suddenly, Katara felt as though her legs had turned to jelly. Unable to stand, she stumbled over to the bleachers, and collapsed next to the Princess, holding her head in her hand. Impossible. No. No.

“Ordinarily, I’d suspect me, but I was not involved in this. I swear.”

“I know, Azula,” Katara said weakly. A patina of sweat covered her face and a shiver ran down her spine. Lost in her inner turmoil, she did not see her sister-in-law glance at her with a frown on her face.

“You know who started it, don’t you?” Azula said, in a strangely sympathetic voice.

Taking a deep breath, Katara sat up straight and with a swift flick of wrist, bent her sweat from her face. Don’t show weakness. “I have my suspicions. But no way to confirm it.”

“That’s easy,” Azula said. “Get that blind Earthbender friend of yours to interrogate people… unless you think she is the one –“

Katara let out a bark of laughter. “Toph? No. If Toph wanted to hurt Zuko or me, she’d drop the ceiling on our heads. Not this.”

“Then who?”

“Azula… I know I have no right to ask this of you… but can you please drop it?”

The princess raised a perfect brow in askance, “Why?”

Katara rocked back and forth, trying to decide what to say. Finally, she said, “Because it’s over. I want to move on. My children are safe here, behind these walls. All I want to do now is give them the stability and security they deserve. And hopefully, one day, become a mother for Izumi.”

The other woman looked like she wanted to argue but then sighed, “If anyone else had asked me to drop it, they’d be in a world of misery.”

Katara looked at her in surprise, “Huh?”

“I’ll drop it.”

“I don’t understand. I am… was… your enemy.”

Azula’s lips twitched into a faint smirk. “No. You were just someone on the other side of a war.”

“That is the very definition of an enemy,” Katara deadpanned.

At that Azula threw her head back and laughed. Not a manic guffaw, a genuine laugh of hilarity. Once her mirth subsided, she said, “No. What I mean is, for me you were just a soldier. Like a fly to be swatted. Nothing more. My real fight was with my mother.”

Katara’s jaw dropped, her previous caution of the woman ebbing away a little, “What?”

Azula’s eyes held a faraway look, as though she was seeing something that was visible just to her, “We had shitty parents. Just like Zu Zu was never really chasing the Avatar, just our father’s approval, I was seeking our mother’s. Neither of us ever got what we wanted, though. Zuko… he was lucky he had Uncle to hold his hand when father failed him. Me? When mother abandoned us, I was taken under father’s wings. And if you want to know what happens to a troubled child raised and indulged by a homicidal maniac, I’m the case study.”

She had said all of this without a shred of self-pity. Her words had been calm, controlled, and precise, yet Katara could feel the pain behind them. For the first time, she saw Azula not as the manic princess but as a damaged human being. Her nurturing and caring persona wanted to reach out to her, hold her.

Unaware of Katara’s thoughts, she continued, “When you defeated me… I completely lost control of mind. It took seven years for me to even start healing. It was hell inside my head.”

When she did not elaborate, Katara ventured tentatively, “Azula, why are you telling me all this?”

“Because it takes one to know one.”

“What?”

Azula turned to face Katara and looked straight into her eyes, “You’re broken, Katara. Just like I was. You’re hanging on by the sheer force of will. I can see it in your eyes. Something terrible has happened to you since we fought. Don’t make the same mistakes I did. I too buried my head in the sand and refused to face my demons. Look what they did to me.”

Saying so, Azula lit a flame in her palm. It took Katara a moment to realize what was wrong. “Your flame. It’s not blue.”

“It hasn’t been blue in years,” she said in a quivering voice.

“Does Zuko know?”

Azula shook her head and extinguished the flame. “No one knows. Apart from you, that is.”

Tears welled into Katara’s eyes. She wondered what she would do if something like that happened to her. The mere thought of losing her bending to the point that it was a shadow of her current prowess doused her in fear, “Why didn’t you tell Zuko? Or General Iroh? I’m sure they’d help.”

“No,” Azula said, her lips thinning. “They’d give me pity. I don’t want pity.”

“Do you want me to try and heal you?”

“No.”

“I can try to realign your chakras and –”

“Drop it, Katara.”

The Waterbender opened her mouth to protest but then sighed. This was Azula’s bane. Her pain. Her undoing. Her sore spot. When she had inadvertently hit upon Katara’s sore spot, Azula’s had backed down when asked. It was her turn to return the favor. Katara felt her lips draw into a genuine, if sad, smile, “You’re right. It takes one to know one.”

“This conversation…. Zu Zu doesn’t hear a word of it.”

“No. I won’t tell him. Thank you, Azula, for coming to me with your hypothesis and not to him.”

“My brother and I are barely on talking terms,” Azula said standing up and stretching. “Can’t say I blame him. If I were him, I’d have me executed. But my brother is much too honorable. He even kept Ozai alive, till that miserable fart bit the dust on his own. Even after everything that happened between us, Zuko still made sure I got the proper care. He’s rather stupid with his honor.”

“His honor is what saved me so…”

Azula smiled, “Yes. That was one of his better moments.”

Despite herself, Katara snorted.

“Any luck with Izumi?”

Katara shook her head, “None. Shw won’t even stay in the same room with me. Any pointers?”

Azula shrugged, “Human interaction isn’t my forte.”

“You were doing pretty well here.”

“This is the exception that proves the rule.”


“You seem to be in good spirits,” Zuko said, peering over the teacup he was holding.

Katara smiled and reached for a plum shortcake, a desert she had taken a strong liking to. This had become a routine for them, sharing a cup of tea before they retired to their respective chambers.  “Because I had a chat with Azula today.”

Zuko almost choked on the tea. “What? That improved your spirits? Does your teacup have firewhiskey?”

Katara scowled at him, “I’m not drunk. We had a girls’ chat. Something I hadn’t had in a while.”

Zuko’s good eyebrow shot up. “I wasn’t aware Azula could do a girls’ chat.

“It was nice,” Katara said, enjoying the burst of sweet and savory in her mouth. “She’s… perhaps not who I thought she is.”

Zuko lowered his cup on the table and with utmost seriousness said, “Katara, not to rain on your parade, but this is Azula you’re talking about. She’s a master manipulator. She will say things you want to hear and reel you in, only to pull the rug from beneath your feet.”

On some level, Katara knew that her younger self would have flown into rage at this statement. Now, however, she simply shook her head, “I know who she is, Zuko. But I have a feeling that this one time, she was talking to me without any ulterior motives.”

“Well, I hope you’re right. But, just be careful, alright?”

“I will.”

“Oh… and… ummm…. Our wedding is in seven days. Hope you’re ready.”

“Yes, I remember,” Katara said, dusting off nonexistent crumbs from her dress to appear nonchalant. Fear and anxiety, however, raised their black heads. “Not that my tutors and ministers ever let me forget about it.”

Zuko looked contrite. “I’m sorry. I know they can be a little overbearing, but hey, if you can be in a good mood after a chat with Azula, anything is possible.”

Katara simply nodded, lacing her fingers together to keep it from trembling. Perhaps Azula was right. Somewhere deep down, she was broken. Not surprising, given what happened.

Meanwhile, Zuko reached for a shortcake and said, “I should warn you, at the end of the ritual, we are expected to… umm… kiss.”

Katara’s heart skipped a beat and she looked up at him, unable to hide her alarm. Spotting her expression, Zuko’s brow furrowed. “Surely your instructors told you that?”

“I… must have slipped my mind,” Katara said, acutely aware of how weak her voice sounded.

“As a Fire Lord, I can… maybe… try to get the ritual removed if you want.”

She considered his words and shook her head, trying not to show her tremors, “No. No, Zuko. As such, your rule is marked by opposition. Then, your brought in a Water Tribe citizen as the new Fire Lady. A widow and a mother of two, no less. If you start messing with wedding rituals to accommodate me… things will get worse. Don’t worry about it. I’m a big girl. I can handle this.”

“Are you sure? You can barely stand being touched. How will you handle being kissed in front of thousands of attendees?”

“I’ll figure something out,” Katara said, not meeting his eyes. “I can do this. I can do this.”

Zuko eyed her for a long while before saying, “What happened to you, Katara? The girl I knew could fight the greatest Firebenders without losing her courage. But now… What did they do to you, Katara? What did the Northern Water Tribe do?”

Katara closed her eyes, trying to keep the horrific images away. The loss of control, the feeling of helplessness, the panic, the fear, the humiliation, the pain, the betrayal… it all came flooding back, threatening to choke her. Broken, Azula had called her. She was not broken. No. She was shattered.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER 9

 

The ship bellowed loudly, belching out copious amounts of black smoke as it pulled into the harbor. As soon as the gangplank lowered, Sokka began to make his way down.

“Uncle Sokka!” Bumi and Kya screeched at the top of their voices and they ran up to meet him. Standing some paces behind, Katara grinned, feeling genuinely happy.

Sokka lifted Kya up and spun her around, earning a gleeful whoop from the four-year-old. He then grabbed Bumi and repeated it, making the boy chuckle. However, once he set him down, Bumi straightened his shirt and said, “I’m a big boy now, Uncle. You shouldn’t do that.”

Sokka laughed and ruffled his nephew’s hair. Behind him, Suki walked down the gangplank, followed by Hakoda and Kanna respectively. While the children greeted the others with loud, enthusiastic calls, Sokka made his way to his sister.

Knowing that her family would hug her, Katara had mentally prepared herself. Thus, when Sokka engulfed her into a bearhug, she was prepared and did not freeze.

“Oh,” he said, grabbing her by the shoulders and standing at an arm’s length. “You look so much better!”

Katara chuckled, “Hello to you too, Sokka.”

Her father was the next to pull her into his embrace and there, Katara went willingly. Snuggled in Hakoda’s warmth, she felt her worries melt away. There was no place in the world like one’s parents’ arms. The safety and the security found there was unmatched. For a moment, Katara wished she could freeze this moment in time, just to bask in the warmth of Hakoda’s unconditional love. Soon, much too soon for her, he broke the hug and placed a kiss on her forehead.

“I can’t explain what I feel like seeing you smile, sweetheart,” his voice was choked with emotions. “I… I almost did not think I would see it again.”

Tears pooled into her eyes, but she blinked it back, “I’m fine, Dad. I really am. Welcome.”

After sharing warm hugs with Kanna and Suki, Katara pointed at the two carriages standing behind them. “Come, let’s go. We will have to split up, since one carriage can’t take so many people.”

Suki said, “Don’t worry. I will take Kya, Bummi and Gran Gran with me. You three could use some time alone.”

Katara nodded, a part of her wondering, not for the first time, how her goof of a brother had landed such a wonderful woman. She led her father and brother to the second carriage while, Bumi chatting a storm with Gran Gran, dragged her over to the first carriage. Once they settled in and the doors closed, Sokka turned to face her and took her hands in his.

“How are you, Katara? Hope Zuko is treating you well?”

Katara smiled, “He’s treating me very well. Don’t worry, Sokka. The bad things… the horrible things, it’s all over. I’m in a much better place now.”

Hakoda ran a finger over his beard, “For hundred years, Fire Nation was the one place a Waterbender would never want to be in. Today, Fire Nation is the safest place for you to be in. How times have changed.”

Katara nodded, “Part of it has to do with Zuko, I suppose. No one really wants to get on his bad side.”

“Speaking of, where is he?” Sokka asked. “He didn’t come to meet us?”

“He had a council meeting this morning. Besides, he said he wanted to give me some time alone with my family before he intrudes.”

Hakoda shook his head, a small smile playing on his lips, “He’s grown into a fine man. I remember him when he rescued me from Boiling Rock. I always knew he had it in him to be a great leader. He has more than lived up to my expectations.”

“How are you, Katara?” Sokka repeated.

“I’m fine, Sokka. Now that the shock of what the tribunal was trying to pull off worn off, I’m… I’m just… relieved. Kya and Bumi have a chance at a stable and safe future, I couldn’t ask for more, really.”

“Bumi and Kya have a stable future, “ Sokka said, “But what about you?”

Katara sighed. She had asked this question to herself in the dead of night several times, but an answer had not been forthcoming. She chose to deflect and began pointing out the various food stalls to Sokka.

****

Below him, Fire Nation was celebrating. Their Fire Lord was getting married the next day. After seven years of being a widower, he was finally marrying. For most people, that was a cause for raucous celebration. Sure, some people were not happy about the bride, but after he had made it clear that his wife was his personal choice, people had kept their reservations to themselves. Today, they were going to celebrate.

Standing in his balcony, Zuko looked at his people, but not really seeing them. On his mind was a day, nine years ago, when he was in a similar place. The people had celebrated then too. They were welcoming their Fire Lady then, just like they were now. Closing his eyes, he remembered Mai. She had looked so elegant, so fierce dressed in the golden robe. He remembered the shy smiles, the furtive glances, the excitement, the thrill of marrying the woman he loved. The memory of their lovemaking was still potent enough to harden him. Zuko lowered his head into his hand, allowing for a single tear to escape his eyes.

“Mai,” he whispered, “I miss you.”

The wind fluttered his long, open hair, making him sigh. Things could not have been more different today. Nine years ago, Zuko had been unable to stop smiling. Today, he had tears in his eyes. Then, he had married a woman he loved and one who loved him back. Today, he was tying himself to woman who could not even stand his touch. Then, he had been thrilled. Today, duty lay heavy on his shoulders.

 

Not that he regretted saving Katara, Zuko reminded himself. Katara was a dear friend and he would much rather have her by his side than some other woman he did not even know. But then, how much did he know Katara, really? The girl he had known, the one he had fought with, the one on whom he had once harbored a tiny crush, the one who had worked tirelessly to make sure he lived, the girl who had brought him out of grief after Mai’s death, – that girl was gone. Standing in front of whom was a stranger who just looked like Katara.

 

“Zuko,” Iroh’s voice startled him and he turned to find his uncle approaching him. It suddenly hit Zuko just how old he looked. “How are you, son?”

 

Zuko licked his lips, “I don’t know. I… I keep thinking about her. Mai.”

 

Iroh nodded, “I expected as much. In fact, I’d be surprised if you didn’t.”

 

“I feel so conflicted, Uncle. Why do I feel like I’m betraying one of them by thinking about the other? I can’t stop thinking about Mai, but I feel like I’m being unfair to Katara. But… by marrying like this, have I not broken Mai’s trust?”

 

Iroh sighed and walked up him, “I understand.  But Zuko, tell me something, how are you betraying either of them?”

Zuko looked at his uncle with a frown. “I’m thinking of Mai… on the eve of my wedding with Katara! How is that not a betrayal?”

 

“How do you think Katara would react if you told her that?”

 

Zuko took a moment to think, “I don’t think she would mind. She would understand.”

 

“And what about Mai? If you could talk to her right now, would she begrudge you marrying Katara?”

 

Wordlessly, Zuko shook his head.

 

“Why are you so hard on yourself, Zuko? Think about what this marriage has done. It saved Katara’s life. It made sure that Bumi and Kya wouldn’t be orphans. Izumi now has a mother. You have someone next to you.”

 

“I have you next to me,” Zuko said. He folded his arms and cast a look at the revelries below.

 

“I won’t be there always,” Iroh said. “I’ll be honest with you, Zuko. I have been worried about you. A man needs a mate. Someone to support him, challenge him, love him. When Mai died, I saw a part of you die with her. I can’t express how relieved I am that today, you have someone to hold your hand.”

 

That someone doesn’t want to hold my hand. Zuko thought but refrained from saying it. Instead he said, “Uncle. Would I be able to do this?”

 

“You already did it, Zuko. Don’t forget, by Water Tribe customs, you are already married. You are just making it official for your people.”

 

Zuko took a deep breath and looked out to the celebrations on the streets.

 


Katara looked at her reflection. She was dressed in a dark red furisode embroidered with golden dragons. Her elaborately done hair had small golden bells dangling. Her hand moved to her throat, where her mother’s necklace nestled. Unbidden, images of her yanking Aang’s betrothal necklace and throwing it into the abyss from the Eastern Air Temple. She could still see herself, curled up on the floor of her room, sobbing like her heart was dying.

 

“Katara?” Toph’s voice broke the image to smithereens. She turned to look at her friend who was uncharacteristically serious. “You’re scared.”

Forcing a trembling smile on her lips, she said, “Well, big changes.”

Toph shook her head. “No. Anxiety causes heart to beat rapidly. But it still has a rhythm. Your heart’s beating rhythm is all over the place. You’re terrified.”

Katara scrunched her eyes and took a deep breath, “I.. I…It’s just nerves, Toph. That’s all.”

“Understandable,” Suki said, “But I’m sure you will be fine.”

Unable to say anything, Katara nodded. Toph jerked her head up suddenly, her eyes turning wide. “Oh no!” was all she could say before her door opened and Azula walked in. From the corner of her eyes, she saw Suki pale and Toph’s hands clench, but the princess paid scant attention to the frosty reception she received.

“You look nice,” Azula said casually.

A small, but real smile drew on Katara’s lips, “Thank you.”

Azula looked at Toph and said, “Do you mind? I want to talk to my sister in law in private.”

“We’re not going anywhere,” Suki said a little hotly. It did not escape Katara’s notice that Azula avoided looking at Suki, addressing Toph all along.

“I could, as the Fire Princess, order you out. But that’s not what you want, do you?”

Before Toph could argue, Katara interrupted. “Suki, Toph, it’s okay. It’ll just be a minute. Can you step outside for a moment?”

Toph looked downright mutinous, while Suki drew herself up to her full height. “Katara –“

“Suki, please.”

Neither of them looked pleased, but they complied, nevertheless. As they were leaving, Katara said, “No eavesdropping, Toph.”

The Earthbender gave a thumbs-up, “You got it, Sweetness.”

Once the door was closed, Azula turned to look at her and said, “I wanted to give you something,” She dug into her sleeve and pulled out a red silk bag and handed it over to Katara. “Open it.”

Katara pulled the string and pulled out a bangle. It was a golden cuff studded with rubies. A golden vine weaved over the rubies, with golden flowers branching off in various directions. Tiny chips of diamonds were dotted along the vine and flowers.

“Oh Azula! This is beautiful!”

The princess looked downright bashful as she said, “I know. It… It was my mother’s.”

Katara gaped, “No! No! I can’t take this.”

“Take it,” she said. “I was supposed to wear it for my wedding. That isn’t happening. So… I would like you to keep it. That way, it stays in the family.”

“But Azula…”

She held up a hand to silence Katara, “No. I need it off me. It burns.”

Yet again, Katara saw herself flinging her betrothal necklace into the cliff. It burns. “I understand. I’ll keep it.”

Azula nodded. “Good. See you later.”

With that, she turned around and marched out of the room. Moments later, Toph and Suki barged in.

“What did she want? Did she threaten you?” Suki asked urgently.

“No,” Katara put the bag on the dresser and wore the cuff on her left wrist. She held out her hand and showed them the bracelet, “She just gave me the wedding gift.”

“That’s beautiful!” Suki exclaimed.

Katara smiled, her previous terror receding a little. For some reason, wearing that bracelet made her feel like Ursa was there with her, welcoming her. Maybe, just maybe, things would be alright this time around.


The pomp and splendor of the Caldera City was a sight to behold. Everywhere she saw, there were tiny flickering lights, as though someone had strewn stars on the ground. Katara was led to a room that was adjacent to a platform where the wedding was to take place. A diaphanous curtain hung between the room and the platform. From her sanctuary, she saw Zuko approach the platform followed by his retinue of Imperial Firebenders. The Imperial guards stood on both sides of the stairs and let out a coordinated blast of flame. When the drums began, Katara suddenly wondered if this is what Toph meant when she spoke about vibrations from sound. The Imperial Firebenders let out a steady stream of fire, forming a canopy for Zuko to walk under. He reached the platform and did the Fire Nation bow, leading to an ear-splitting cheer from the crowd.

Zuko took, what Katara recognized a basic Fire Bending stance and punched, sending a flare to the stack of wood that was kept on the center of the platform, setting it ablaze. Katara had to admit, he looked impressive. Dressed in his ornate Fire Lord robes, with his dao swords at his back, and his crown on his topknot, he looked every bit the monarch that he was.

In her mind’s eye, she saw the confused, unsure, traumatized, guilt-ridden sixteen-year-old boy, down on his knees, begging for their forgiveness. That sweet, adorable, dorky boy had grown into a matured and stable man.  While she had been lost in her own, personal miseries, her friend had gone and grown up.

Friend who is now your husband. Her mind countered in a voice that sounded suspiciously like Aang’s. All the pain, fear, and anxiety that Azula’s gift had pushed away, came rushing back to her. As per custom, no one other than the bride was allowed inside this room. There were guards all around, yes, but at that moment, Katara was all alone.

She hugged herself, rocking back and forth. “Please, please, please,” she muttered, “Tui and La, save me. Stop this nightmare, please. Have I not paid enough? I made a mistake. One mistake. When does my punishment end? Please make it stop. Please.”

Moments later, or perhaps it was a lifetime later, Katara did not know, for time had ceased to matter, a woman Fire Sage stepped into the room. In her hand, she held a headdress with a veil.

“Lady Katara,” she said in a surprisingly childish voice, “It’s time.”

Swallowing the icy ball of fear in her throat, Katara stood up. The older woman placed the veil on her head and bowed. “This way, milady.”

Don’t think. Let your training take over. Katara told herself. She put her entire focus on putting one step after the other, forcing her mind to stay completely blank. She did not notice the drape being pulled away, or the flower blanket that was held over her with the help of four poles. She just counted the steps. One. Two. Three.

It took a total of forty-eight steps for her to reach Zuko. Once she reached there, though, her mind and heart began racing again. Thoughts were blending, creating a confusing blur of images. Her standing next to Zuko, both their arms tucked inside their sleeves. Aang hugging her, whispering sweet nothings into her ears. The fire in front of her crackling. Her arms trapped as she struggled against the hands touching her. Zuko pouring the holy oil in the fire. Her lying naked on the floor, sobbing, hugging her stomach, thankful that her dark skin hid the bruises. Zuko removing her veil and tucking a finger under her chin.

The cacophony of her mind comes to a screeching halt. All she could do was stare at his golden eyes, uncomprehending. He lowered his head even as one word resonated in her mind, loud and clear. NO!

“Relax,” he whispered, cutting through her panic. “I won’t kiss you.”

It was then that Katara realized. He was using his long hair and larger frame to shield her. He came close, so close Katara could feel his breath on her skin and stopped. He stayed there, unmoving, not touching. She counted to twenty and then, Zuko pulled back.

A Fire Sage declared them married.

Chapter Text

Chapter 10

 

The Imperial Firebenders stomped on to the platform and arranged themselves into an X shape. A rousing music filled the air as the men and women put on an impressive display of Ornamental Firebending. The twelve of them moved in practiced synchronization, as fire moved around them in swirling waves that resembled the ocean. The fire split apart, revealing two people, one dressed as Zuko and another as Katara. The two actors gave a graceful bow to the Fire Lord and Fire Lady, as the Imperial Firebenders marched out amid deafening applause. The music changed to a soft love ballad, as the two actors turned to face each other.

The man enacting Zuko pulled out a pair of dual dao swords, a skill the Fire Lord was famous for, while the actress playing Katara mimicked Waterbending stances. The two of them danced around each other in a display that was both precise and sensuous. The two moved in unison, twirling and swirling, with a single strand of fire passing back and forth between them. As the music rose to a crescendo, the actors twirled the element into a ring of fire, which began to whirl in a steadily increasing speed until it broke off and turned into a dragon that let out a roar before dissipating into a colorful confetti.

Sitting on a throne-like chair next to him, Katara let out a delighted gasp, smiling with what Zuko knew was genuine glee. Seeing her enjoying the display, the tight band around his chest loosened slightly. He figured she had been troubled about the kiss. Not that he could blame her. He wasn’t comfortable either. He had no desire to kiss a woman who was very clearly not interested in it. Relief made him smile and he turned to look at the performers. A troop was performing the traditional Fire Nation dance.

Beyond the dancers, Zuko met Bumi’s eyes. He gave the boy a smile and a nod, surprised to find the boy nodding at him in. Zuko blinked and smiled wider. Next to Bumi sat Sokka. Meeting his eyes, Sokka grinned and flashed him a thumbs up. Sending his friend a smile, Zuko leaned back on his throne and took a moment to introspect.

Over the past twenty days, ever since he had married Katara in the North Pole, he had been noticing a pattern. Katara would cringe at every physical contact, unless it was with her prior consent or from her kids. Everyone else, even Sokka and Hakoda, elicited the flinch from her. The guards stationed outside her room had reported groans and moans that sounded like she was plagued with nightmares. In addition to it was the fact that she looked on the edge, and wary of almost everything. She would start at any unexpected noise. She almost obsessively checked on Bumi and Kya every day. Initially, he had attributed her behavior to the events in North Pole, but then, a stray remark from Jee had forced him to rethink.

Earlier in the day, as he was making his way to the venue of his marriage, the old lieutenant had approached him, beaming with pride. Having retired soon after Zuko had taken the mantle of the Fire Lord, the old man enjoyed his farm and stress-free life. Being one of the very few allies he had in those days, Jee had gone on to become a close friend. The man had engulfed Zuko into a bear hug, a remarkable feat as Zuko now stood a head taller and some inches broader than him.

“Oh, my dear boy,” he said, grabbing him by the shoulders.

“Jee,” Zuko said with mock admonishment, “I’m thirty years old. Now, the father of three. Time to retire the word boy, don’t you think?”

Jee responded with a chuckle, “You will forever boy for me. You have come a long way from being that scared and angry little boy who lashed out at everything, yes, but you’re still a boy for me.”

Zuko shook his head with a smile, “I wish you would… What did you just say?”

Jee frowned. “That you will always be a boy for me?”

“No, after that.”

“You’ve come a long way from being the scared and angry boy who lashed at everything?”

“Right. That. You think I was scared and angry back then?”

Jee cocked his head to the side, “Of course. You were fourteen. Just burned and banished, tasked with what as an impossible mission then… of course you were scared and angry. You had suffered terribly, at the hands of your father no less. Wounds we receive from the ones we love run the deepest, after all.”

Since then, Zuko had been lost in thoughts. Katara seemed skittish to say the least. That was something that he had never seen before. She seemed wary of even Sokka and Hakoda.

Wounds we receive from the ones we love run the deepest.

Was it possible, and he felt sickened to even entertain the idea, that her pain and terror stemmed from Aang?

No! What are you thinking, Zuko? Aang loved Katara. He would never hurt her.

As if to mock him, a half-forgotten memory rose through the fog in his mind.


Upon receiving the news of Kya’s birth, Zuko hastened to the Eastern Air Temple to congratulate his friends personally. Being overcome with his work and his duties as a father, he had not taken a break in years. This was a time he was looking forward to. Spending time with his friends and a new baby was quite possibly the best way to enjoy a well-earned respite. When the warplane lowered on the balcony, he was greeted by the familiar figure of his favorite Earthbender grinning up at him.

“So good to see you Sparky,” Toph said, punching him on his arm.

“Good to see you too, Champ,” he said, “You grow stronger by the day.”

“Yes, I know. I’m awesome.”

Zuko gave a small chuckle and began to walk inside, when she grabbed his shirt.

“Just a heads up, Sparky, something is different.”

“Huh?”

“Aang and Katara… something is going on there. Some sort of tension.”

“Toph, the birth of a new child is a big change,” Zuko explained with a smile. “It takes time for a couple to find their groove after that. Mai and I were practically biting each other’s heads off the first couple of months.”

“I know, I was there. You were both stressed and that’s why you were reacting the way you did.  But that’s not what’s going on here. It’s different, but… well, I’ll defer to your experience.”

“Each couple has a different dynamic. Maybe whatever you’re sensing is their way of dealing with stress?”

“Maybe. I hope you’re right and I’m needlessly worried. Come, I’ll take you to them.”

The Eastern Air Temple once housed Guru Pathik. Once Aang had defeated Ozai, the Guru believed that his work was done and passed on to the spirit world. Under the guidance of Haru, Earthbenders had since done a fantastic job in rebuilding the temple. It looked nothing like the dilapidated ruins of the past. Today, it was bustling complex with many Air Acolytes. Toph led him through a series of vast and airy corridors to the inner sanctum of the temple, close to the heart of the structure, where Aang and Katara lived. Upon reaching the door, Zuko could hear voices, annoyed and snappy. They were obviously in the middle of an argument. Toph gave him a look that seemed to say, I told you so. Before Zuko could stop her, though, she rapped on the door. The voices halted immediately.

“Come,” Aang sounded brusque.

The door opened and Toph said, “Look what the wind brought in.”

 “Zuko!” Katara cried, holding out her hand to beckon him. In her lap, little Kya slept blissfully. “You are a sight for sore eyes.”

He had already schooled his features to hide his embarrassment at almost walking in on them fighting. At her words, he gave a small chuckle and said, “You must be seeing some terrible things if I am a sight for sore eyes.”

“Evidently,” Aang said before Katara could respond. Not sure of what to make of the Avatar’s words, Zuko stepped inside. He sat on the bed next to her and touched the soft curl of baby hair on the infant’s head.

“She’s so beautiful,” he said, smiling. At his voice, the infant opened her startling blue eyes and fixed him with a stare before breaking into a toothless smile.

Katara smiled, “She likes you.”

Behind him, Aang let out an annoyed huff. “Of course she does! That’s what I’d expect.”

Zuko saw Katara’s face turn into an annoyed scowl for a brief second but then she decided to ignore it and continued talking with him and Toph. But that meeting had set the tone for the rest of his brief stay. Every time Katara said something, Aang would interject with a bitter comment that set Zuko’s teeth on edge. Realizing that he was unwelcome and that he had probably interrupted something, he left the next day.


The wedding feast was a sight to behold. Nobles and dignitaries from all over the world were in attendance. The Northern Water Tribe dignitaries were conspicuous in their absence. The Southern Water Tribe had more than made up for their sister tribe’s absence, their shades of blue dotting the red and gold of Fire Nation nobilities and the brown and green of that of the Earth Kingdom’s.

Zuko addressed the attendees, thanking them for coming and welcoming them. He raised a toast to their good health, the attendees wished the newlyweds a long and happy married life.

The formalities done, the guests intermingled. The children had retired earlier but not before Bumi had muttered a sullen “thank you” to him. Zuko was not entirely sure what the boy had thanked him for, but since it had been the first thing the boy had said to him, he would take it.

Zuko stood in one corner, a glass of wine in his hand and a troubling thought plaguing his mind. A thought he did not dare put to words because that would be tantamount to sacrilege.

“What’s bothering you?” Uncle’s voice cut through his troubled musings.

“Uncle,” he said, staring at Katara, who was talking to King Kuei. Rather, Kuei was talking, Katara was looking at him with a small, fake smile plastered on her face. “Avatars usually live a long life, don’t they? Kiyoshi lived for two hundred years.”

From his peripheral vision, he saw Iroh give him a sharp look. “Yes, they do.”

“But Aang died at twenty-four.”

“Are you suspecting foul play?”

Zuko bit the corner of his thumbnail, considering the words. “I don’t know what I’m thinking.”

After a pregnant pause, Iroh said, “Often, history provides the answers to the questions that plague us. Our problems are not as unique as we would like to think. Someone somewhere has suffered it before. Your particular problem has the advantage of being related to the Avatar. That history is recorded extensively.”

“That it has, yes.”

“Aang isn’t the only Avatar who died young. Read up on Avatar Mayung. An Earth Avatar. He died at twenty-seven.”

“Avatar Mayung... the name doesn’t ring a bell.”

“He was not a very well known one,” Iroh admitted. “But he is the closest to Aang’s age when he died.”

“Alright, I will do it.”

“His is not a long story,” Iroh said. “You can be back before anyone realizes you’re gone. If asked, we can always say the Fire Lord is addressing an urgent matter and would be back soon.”

Zuko smiled. Iroh read him like an open book. Downing the wine in one swig, he cast one final look at Katara, who was now talking to Toph and Suki. Their eyes met and he gave her a small nod, hoping to convey his thoughts to her. She smiled, returned his nod and resumed talking to her friends.

Seeing that he would not be missed in the gathering, he took his uncle’s advice and slipped out of the dining hall. Running in the formal robes of the Fire Lord was an arduous task, something he actively avoided. He had long since learned to take long, quick steps to make up for that. He came to a halt in front of a stone panel. A figurine was carved on the stone, depicting a Fire Bender in mid-stance. He cast a look over his shoulders to make sure no one was watching or following, and pressed his heated palm against the palm of the stone fire bender. The stone palm retreated and the panel swung inward, revealing a dark tunnel. With one last look behind him, he slipped into the tunnel, the panel sliding closed behind him.
Lighting a fire in his palm, he hurried down the secret tunnel. This was a part of the intricate network of tunnels that ran through the palace, known only to the Royal family. Vaguely he realized that now, that would include Katara, Bumi, and Kya.

The uncomfortable thought gnawing him scratched within him again, spurring him on. After what seemed like an eternity, he reached the corridor that would open up in the library. The Fire Nation was nothing of not meticulous in its record keeping. He pushed the panel open and walked into the library, startling the old Fire Sage who was responsible for the library.

“Milord!” The man dropped a scroll he had been carrying. “I wasn’t expecting you. I thought you would be at the feast! I don’t have any documents ready for your perusal, Sir.”

Zuko held up a hand, making the man flinch. Having served under both Azulon and Ozai, he never really got used to Zuko’s milder personality. “Relax, Ryu. My visit here was unplanned. I could use your help, though.”


“Anything you ask, milord.”


“Could you procure the scrolls pertaining to Avatar Mayung?”


The man looked puzzled but bowed and retreated. Zuko lowered himself on a reading chair, wondering what he was hoping to learn. A little while later, the Fire Sage was back with a couple of scrolls.

“That’s it? That’s all we have about Avatar Mayung?”

The sage lowered his head, “He wasn’t a very popular Avatar, milord. In fact, he was... rather despised by his people.”

Zuko frowned, wondering why his uncle wanted him to look into Avatar Mayung’s life. Aang was nothing like this man. Aang was loved by the people and was possibly the most popular Avatar of all times, having been the one who ended the Hundred Years War. Apart from their early deaths, there was nothing in common between the two Avatars. But Iroh had chosen his name, among the hundreds of Avatars that lived and died. One thing Zuko had learned was to not question Iroh’s judgement. If he wanted Zuko to read about Mayung, he would do so without question. He thanked the Fire Sage and opened the scrolls.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 11

2687 BG

Mayung is born to Zhu Mai and Weng, a rich merchant family from Tetsu.

 

2683 BG

Mayung is identified as the Avatar.

 

2682 BG

Mayung is informed of his Avatar status. Bending masters are arranged by his parents.

 

2677 BG

Mayung destroys a grain silo in an Earthbending accident.  

 

2675 BG

Mayung is accused by a couple of children of starting a fire deliberately. He claims it as a Firebending accident.

 

2674 BG

Mayung and a few friends are caught by the villagers terrorizing the animals in a farm. Weng pays for the damages.

 

2673 BG

Mayung is declared an Earthbending Master.

 

2671 BG

Mayung is declared a Waterbending and Airbending Master.

 

2670 BG

Mayung is declared a Firebending Master. He almost drowns his betrothed, Ferien, claims it was a Waterbending accident.

 

2669 BG

Mayung is married to Ferien. He masters the Avatar state.

 

2668 BG

Mayung’s daughter is born with severe birth defects and dies two hours after birth.

 

2667 BG

A local fisherman accuses Mayung of raping his daughter. The fisherman’s house burns down shortly afterward, killing the entire family. Mayung’s son is born at the end of the year.

 

2665 BG

Mayung’s son, Temin, a firebender, dies in a firebending accident.

 

2664 BG

Ferien dies after jumping off a cliff.

 

2663 BG

Prophecy of Mayung’s death is made.

 

2662 BG

Mayung is captured by bandits. Has a narrow escape. Is severely wounded.

 

2661 BG

Mayung is unable to reach the Avatar state. Healers attribute it to wounds sustained during his abduction.

 

2660 BG

Mayung dies of alcohol poisoning.

 

Zuko frowned. He had read through the scrolls twice and yet he had no idea what he was looking for. Other than being one of his previous lives, what was Mayung’s connection with Aang? There had to be something that Uncle wanted him to see. He rubbed his chin thoughtfully.

From what he saw, he could make a few guesses. Born and brought up in a rich, influential family, Mayung let his power go to his head. He bullied and terrorized, but it was always brushed under the carpet by either labeling it a bending accident or his father’s money. Zuko had known people like that all his life. He had no trouble identifying the patterns. But then, he went on to become a fully realized Avatar at the age of eighteen. But from here on, thing got murkier, Zuko realized that he would have to read between the lines, quite literally.

Given what he gleaned off Mayung’s personality, he had little to no doubt that he abused Ferien. But, back in those days, women were often, treated as the second-class citizen. Hence, his abuse of Ferien would not be considered out of the norm in that day and age. Battered and bruised by her husband, unable to deal with the deaths of her children, the poor woman committed suicide. The whole incident with the fisherman’s daughter must have only made matters worse for her.

The last three years seem almost anticlimactic to Zuko. How could an Avatar, the most powerful bender of their era, be wounded by mere bandits? He recalled when Aang had been unable to reach the Avatar state after being struck by Azula’s lightning.

“But that was Azula,” he muttered under his breath. “And Aang hadn’t reached Avatar state by then.”

He bit his lower lip. He had a feeling that the answer was dancing just out of reach. He read through the last few lines again, his eyes zeroing in on one sentence.

“Ryu,” he called the Fire Sage.

A faint rustle of cloaks and the old sage was in front of him, bowing, “Milord?”

“Do we have the copy of the prophecy that was made about Avatar Mayung’s death?”

“We do not keep a copy of the prophecies here, Milord.”

“Oh!”

“But I do know of it, in a manner of speaking.”

Zuko looked up, feeling hope surge through him. “What did it say?”

Ryu bowed his head a bit before saying, “While I do not know the exact wordings, milord, I did hear of it. We Fire Sages have always worshiped the Fire Avatars. An Avatar is a bridge between the world of mortals and the spirit world. It is believed that if an Avatar strays from the righteous path, the spirits’ punishment is swift. That body is considered defiled and unworthy of the Avatar spirit. That body is disposed off and the spirit then moves on to a new, pure body. The prophecy said that the Avatar spirit would be purged of Mayung’s stain.”

Zuko steepled his fingers, chewing the inside of his cheeks. “So Mayung defiled his body?”

“Most certainly, Milord. If the Avatar is true to their cause, the Spirits do not let them die. Take Avatar Aang for example. He stayed frozen in an iceberg for a century. The spirits did not let him die because he was true to his cause.”

Was he, though? Why did the spirits not prevent his untimely death twelve years later, then? Zuko thought. Aloud he said, “Him not being able to reach the Avatar State… do you think it could be because the spirits were angry with him?”

“It is definitely considered a possibility, milord. In the Fire Sages training sessions, this is a hotly contested debate,” the man said with a smile.

Zuko nodded, “What is your opinion about it?”

Ryu rubbed a hand over his beard, clearly flustered at being asked his opinion. He opened and closed his mouth several times before saying, “Personally, I believe that’s what happened. The Avatar State is a spiritual state. The Avatar Spirit is the only spirit that comes to live in the mortal realm. But it is a spirit, nevertheless. Thus, when the human host of the spirit defiles its body, the spirit cuts itself from the vessel so that the vessel can be destroyed, and the spirit can get reincarnated.”

Zuko sighed, “Thank you, Ryu. You were most helpful. I trust you will keep this visit and conversation to yourself.”

“I’m your humble servant, milord. I would not breath a word of this conversation to anyone.”

Zuko nodded, dropped two gold coins in the Sage’s hand as a further insurance and retraced his steps back to the banquet hall. As he had suspected, hardly anyone had noticed his absence. Or so he thought. He should have known that one person would know. She always knew.

No sooner he sat down than the Earthbender sauntered over, a shrewd grin on her face.

“That was one long loo break, Sparky,” she whispered, settling on the chair next to him.

Zuko opened his mouth to tell her that it wasn’t a loo break when he realized that Toph always knew. She would know the answer to at least one of the thousand questions that were burning inside his mind at that moment. He leaned closer so that he could whisper into her ear and said, “Toph, can I ask you something?”

The smile dropped from her face. “You’re tensed. What happened?”

Zuko looked around to make sure no one was paying them any heed before he whispered, “Just before he died, did Aang have trouble getting into the Avatar state?”

Toph fixed him with a look that would have unnerved the most hardened criminal. This petite woman was the embodiment of her element, strong, study, and terrifying. Zuko realized that he did not appreciate this genius enough. Her next words were almost hissed through her teeth, “How did you know that? It wasn’t public knowledge. I doubt Katara said anything.”

“He did, didn’t he?”

“Yes,” she conceded in a whisper. “Technically, I am not supposed to know it. Only Aang and Katara. Even the Air Acolytes were not told about it.”

“How did you come to know about it then?”

“Have you met me?” Toph asked, snickering. “I sorta… overheard.”

In other circumstances, Zuko would have laughed, but at that moment, bile rose up his throat at the realization of what this possibly meant. Did history truly repeat itself? Did Aang choose to emulate the worst of his past selves? That was not possible, was it? He swallowed the bitter taste and said, “Any idea why he couldn’t do it?”

Toph shook her head, “I don’t know. Sugarqueen might be the better person to answer that question.”

“I see. Can you tell me exactly when and what you overheard?”

“Can we go somewhere more private? Too many eyes and ears.”

Zuko nodded and realized that she couldn’t see it. “Yes, come with me.”

He caught his uncle’s eye and jerked his head towards Toph. Iroh, being the incredibly smart man that he was, understood his wordless message. That done, Zuko led her to an adjacent room, which was meant for the Fire Lord and his private guests only. He was certain no one would disrupt them here.  Once Toph was certain they were alone, the Earthbender crossed her arms and frowned, “Why this interrogation, Zuko? What’s going on?”

“Answers, please, Toph. What did you hear and when?”

For a moment, it looked like she would refuse, but then she said, “It was Kya’s second birthday and I had gone to the Western Air Temple to visit them. The tension I had sensed during Kya’s birth, I sensed it then too. Then, one day, I heard them arguing. Now they were keeping their voices low, but it’s me.”

“What were they saying?”

“I wouldn’t tell this to anyone else…. But you’re married to Katara now. Guess you have the right to know. Sugarqueen tried to tell Aang to meditate harder. Focus on his chi. She even offered to look into his chi paths to see what was causing the problems. But Aang wouldn’t have any of it. He said it was her fault that he couldn’t get into the Avatar State. Her shame was besmirching him.”

A vein in his head was throbbing and Zuko found himself wishing he knew what he could do. “Why would he say something like that?”

“I don’t know, but those words made her cry hard. She begged him to stop and said that she’s told him a hundred times that it’s not like that.”

Zuko kneaded his temples, feeling anger pulsating inside him. “Anything else you overheard that might be pertinent?”

“What is this about, Sparky? I can feel scorching heat radiating off you. What’s going on?”

He closed his eyes and consciously lowered his body temperature. “Just answer the damn question, Toph.”

“I know Aang wasn’t very happy that his kids weren’t Airbenders,” she said, thoughtfully. “Don’t tell Sugarqueen, but once, I heard him tell someone that he didn’t think…”

“He didn’t think… what?” he prompted.

“It was the most terrible thing, Zuko,” she whispered. Her calling him by his name only added fuel to the pit of anxiety that was forming in his stomach. “I heard him say to an Air Acolyte that he didn’t think Bumi was his child.”

“What?” Anger rose within him, black and ugly. “Why? Why would he say something like that? Bumi’s eyes look exactly like his.”

“I wouldn’t know that, would I?”

“Why didn’t you say something to anyone?”

“I confronted him,” Toph said, looking both brazen and uncomfortable at the same time. “I beat the shit out of him. Apparently, his argument was that… how can an Avatar’s child be a non-bender?”

“What rubbish?” Zuko roared, sparks flying from his mouth. “Bending doesn’t work that way! Roku’s daughter, my grandmother, was a non-bender. Izumi is a non-bender.”

“That’s exactly what I said. After I knocked the stuffing out of him, that is. I even reminded him that both my parents are non-benders and yet, here I am. You know how he could get sometimes. Completely unreasonable. Took an ass whooping to think straight. He seemed to have accepted his mistake and apologized. He told me that he was being stupid. He even apologized to the Acolyte.”

“Then?”

“He seemed okay after that. I thought it was done. I didn’t tell anyone anything because I didn’t want Katara to know her husband had even briefly entertained the idea. But why are you asking me all this now?”

Zuko ran a hand over his face, wondering how much of his doubts he could share. He knew Toph could keep a secret. That was not something he worried about. But this was the Avatar he was talking about. The dead husband of his current wife. That made this personal. He could not say things based on just hunches. For all he knew, this was a different matter and had nothing to do with Katara’s general distrust and skittishness. Every couple had their fights. Maybe that’s all there was to it. Even as he tried to give that reason to himself, a part of him disagreed.  “I don’t know, Toph. Some things aren’t adding up. Do me a favor, keep all this to yourself. I have a hunch that there is a lot going on here that we don’t know.”

“Hmm. Okay. I’m sure you can connect the dots,” she said with a smile. “After all, when you want something, you are like a Pantherdog with a bone.”


Katara looked up at the waxing gibbous moon and breathed in. She was now married, both as per Water Tribe’s rituals and by Fire Nation’s customs. Bearing the spirits as witness, she had pledged herself to a new man. The last man she had pledged herself to had… No. Katara hugged herself and shook her head. She was not going to think about that. She was not going to go down that lane. Bumi and Kya were safe. They would have their mother with them. And a good father in Zuko. She was now going to let bygones be bygones.

She looked up at the moon, hoping to draw strength from the source of her bending. A deep breath filled her with power, but the knot of cold dread in her stomach stubbornly stayed where it was.

“Yue… am I doing the right thing?”

No answer came from the moon spirit. What did come, though, was a knock on her door. Knowing who it was, a shiver ran up and down her spine. But then, Gran Gran’s words from when she was departing from North Pole came back to her.

Zuko is not Aang. You will do well to remember that.

Swallowing the pit of fear in her throat, she said, “Come in.”

The door opened to reveal her new husband. Like he had done on her first night here, he walked in with a couple of glasses of wine. He came to stand next to her by the window and offered her a drink. She accepted the glass from him with a small smile. He had done away with his crown and top knot, allowing his hair to descend down to his back. He had also shed his royal regalia, favoring a red and gold tunic and a pair of black pants, much like he did back when they camped.

“Beautiful night, isn’t it?” He said, keeping his eyes fixed on the moon.

There was a rigidity about his shoulders that Katara had not seen since the war. “You disappeared in the middle of the banquet for a while. Is everything okay?”

The corner of Zuko’s lips twitched in a smirk, “Apparently my absence was not as inconspicuous as I thought.”

Katara snorted, “If you were trying to be inconspicuous, your own wedding banquet might not be the ideal occasion for it.”

“Point taken,” he said. “Something had come up and it needed my immediate attention.”

Katara nodded, sipping the wine, “Perks of being a Fire Lord, huh?”

The two of them stood in silence, the wind billowing their hair gently. Absently, Katara realized that she had always been able to share silences with Zuko. Not something she had done with Aang or Sokka, both of them needing to fill the silence with chatter.

“You’re wearing mother’s bracelet,” he said suddenly.

With a smile, she lowered the wine glass on the window ledge and held out her hand for him to examine the bracelet. “Yes. Azula gave this to me.”

His brow rose up, “She did? Huh.”

They lapsed into companionable silence once again. Katara allowed the wine to soothe her frayed nerves, enjoying this uncomplicated moment. Much as she had liked the wedding Furisode, she was glad to be out of it. The blue silk robe she had on now was perfect for the heat and comfortable enough to sleep in. Snatches of the ongoing celebrations in the streets of Caldera City floated to her.

“I miss her, you know?” Zuko said after a while.

“Your mother?”

“No. I mean… yes, I miss her, but I was not talking about her right now,” he clarified. “I was talking about Mai.”

Katara nodded, “Naturally. You love her. You don’t stop loving someone just because they are no longer with us.”

“You would understand that, wouldn’t you? I’m sure you miss Aang too.”

The wine in her hand turned to ice as Katara swallowed the bitter words coming to her mouth. She breathed out and thawed the wine, hoping he had not noticed her slip. He had not given any indication or surprise, his eyes still on the night outside. She made a noncommittal sound and changed the subject, “I loved the performances today.”

Zuko sipped the wine and for a brief moment, Katara thought she saw smoke coming through his nostrils, but before she could be certain, he turned to her with a bright smile, “Bumi talked to me today, you know?”

Katara’s eyes widened in genuine amazement, “He did? What did he say?”

“Just ‘thank you’ but I count that as a win. What he thanked me for, I don’t know. He ran away before I could ask.”

“He does that,” Katara replied, nodding slightly. “He runs away when he is shy. On the plus side, he will come back to you when his embarrassment clears up.”

“I look forward to it. I always wanted a son, you know. Not that I have a problem with daughters,” he hurried to explain, “It’s just that… when Ozai treated me like an afterthought, I would often lay awake at nights, wondering what I would do with my son. That’s when I decided I wanted a son, if only to snub it on Ozai’s face as to how to treat one. And now… I have one. Let’s hope I can do justice to that little boy.”

Zuko is not Aang. You will do well to remember that.

Katara licked her lips and leaned against the wall, her face turned to the moon, “You will be a great father, Zuko. You already are.”

“Thank you,” he sipped his wine and then scrunched his face, “Can’t believe I almost forgot.”

“What?”

He dipped his hand into his pant pocket, pulled out something and held it out to her. Confused, she put her palm out and he dropped something in it. Lying curled in her palm was a betrothal necklace, the pendant hanging from the blue ribbon Zuko had tied on her neck in the Northern Water Tribe. Carved on the stone was a three-pronged fire symbol, surrounded by the waves of water.

“Zuko…  this is beautiful.”

He smiled, his cheeks taking a faint color and for one moment, Katara saw the boy she had once known. The confused, unsure, hot-headed, adorable boy who had become one of her closest friends. The boy with whom she had once fallen in love.

Chapter Text

Chapter 12

Katara stretched on her bed, enjoying the warmth of sun. Fire Lady’s chamber had a huge window, allowing sunlight to stream into the room. Last night, after the wine, Zuko left her chamber. Her eyes flicked to the door that connected his chamber to hers.

As he had explained to her last night, traditionally, the Fire Lord and Fire Lady were given separate but adjoining chambers. With most marriages in the Fire Nation being political, it was quite common for the royal couples to lead individual lives, only to come together when the need for an heir arose. Since Zuko already had an heir and she had children of her own, so no one expected any heirs from them.

Those words worked wonders for Katara’s frayed nerves, putting her at ease. For the first time in a long while, Katara slept peacefully, much to her own surprise.

Katara turned to her side, basking in the warmth. She ran a lazy hand through her hair, enjoying the tranquil moment, her first in what felt like forever. On some level, she marveled at the serenity that enveloped her at that moment. Perhaps it was because Bumi and Kya were safe, and Kya at least was happy. Bumi resented the idea of having a new father, a new family, a home. It was a huge change and Katara understood his opposition. With age, she too was getting more and more resistant to change.

 

And in the past few days, her life had changed. Completely. Just a year ago, she had been utterly lost. Not knowing what to do, where to go. The world had seemed dark, threatening to tear her to shreds, coming at her with its teeth bared. She floundered, faltered, stumbled around, not knowing up from down. Toph had been the one to drag her out of her haze and jolt her into action. Maybe she sought familiarity, or perhaps she just wanted to run away as far as she could, Katara was no longer certain why she had chosen to go to Northern Water Tribe. That time of her life was a blur in her mind.

Coming to the Water Tribe, being surrounded by waterbenders and snow had not been what she expected. Between teaching Waterbending to her students and taking care of her children, Katara had hoped that she could maybe quiet her demons. But her demons continued to haunt her. As long as she was surrounded by people, she could function. The moment she was left alone, however, the chaos of her mind left her breathless. It was easy to lose herself in the monotony, bury her head in the snow and try to drown out the cacophony. But then, out of the blue, she was arrested.

Katara closed her eyes, shaking her head. “Stop it, Katara. Those days are over.”

Gritting her teeth against the onslaught of memories, she flicked her blanket aside and shot to her feet. She pulled her hair into a messy bun and marched over to the bathroom.


An hour later, when she walked into the family dining room, a genuine smile split Katara’s lips at the sight that met her eyes. On one side of the table sat Sokka and Bumi as the two giggled over something. Next to them was Suki who was engrossed in a conversation with a woman whose face she couldn’t see. On the other side, Hakoda and Iroh carried on an animated conversation. Next to her, Kya sat enraptured as Toph made shapes with her space metal bracelet.

“Turtle duck,” the girl cried, having fallen in love with the little birds ever since coming to the Fire Nation, “Make a turtle duck.”

Toph obliged, earning a gleeful squeal and delighted claps from the child. Katara leaned against the doorframe, smiling. If she could, she would freeze this moment in time. This simple joy had been a long time coming in her life. She wanted to nurture every moment of it.

Toph, as usual, was the first to notice her arrival. Her head perked up and she fixed her sightless eyes on her. “Sugarqueen,” she said, her voice lacking the usual chirpiness.

The people at the table turned to look at her. Iroh as the first to react, standing and bowing. “Greetings, Fire Lady.”

Taken aback, Katara opened her mouth but found herself at a loss for words. The other people at the table followed his lead, bowing in the Fire Nation salute. “Uh… Um…”

Before she could formulate a response, however, something pink and loud collided with her before she could prepare herself.

“Katara!” a voice squealed just as Katara was knocked off her feet.

She shut her eyes and braced herself for the impact, but it never came. Instead, she found herself resting against something big, solid, and firm. Trying to calm her rapidly beating heart, she breathed in deeply and caught a whiff of smoke and cinnamon. Confused, she opened her eyes and found herself staring at Zuko’s face, who was looking at her with concern.

“Are you okay?” He asked.

Realizing that she was pressed flush against Zuko’s chest, she straightened with a jolt, her cheeks flush with heat. “Oh… I… Yes, um… I’m fine.”

Zuko nodded and stepped into the dining room. Katara shook her head, trying to control the rush of panic and embarrassment that flooded her. She turned to follow Zuko and spotted Ty Lee straightening from her bow for the Fire Lord. Now she knew what the pink thing that had collided with her moments ago.

“I’m so sorry I couldn’t attend the wedding, Katara,” Ty Lee began talking rapidly, bouncing on her heels. Age had done nothing to dampen her vibrant spirit or her seemingly endless energy. “My sister was sick and I couldn’t come earlier than this. I so wanted to and I even picked up this beautiful kimono, you know. I came all the way from Kiyoshi but then everything went for a toss. I have brought a gift too but I don’t know where I have put it. I swear I’m such a –“

“Ty Lee,” Zuko cut her rambling, “Breathe.”

Katara snorted as the other woman snickered behind her hand. She skipped over to Zuko, gave him a brief hug and stepped back. Ty Lee slung an arm around Katara, dragging her along. Zuko fell into step next to them. Katara swallowed the wave of anxiety. As she headed towards the table, something clicked.

“Where are Izumi and Azula?”

“Izumi woke up late,” Iroh explained. “She should be coming in shortly. Azula has her meals in her room.”

Katara’s lips thinned and then she said, “No. That’s unacceptable. That changes now. I’ll get her. Excuse me, Ty Lee.”

She untangled her arm and turned around. She was about to march out when she spotted a strange expression on Zuko’s face. If Katara were describe the change, it was as though sun had come from behind dark clouds. Unsure of what to make of his look, she raised her brows, “What?”

He bent down, such that his lips were near her ears and whispered, “There’s the Katara I know.”

With that, he straightened, gave her a small smile and walked over to the dining room. As she began to make her way towards Azula’s room, Katara realized that she had a smile of her own on her lips.

As she walked along the corridors, she realized that she still was not familiar with the corridors of the palace. Especially the Family wing, having moved here just last evening. All around her were swathes of red, gold and black. Everything looked the same. Katara turned a full circle, scratching her head.

“Are you lost?” someone said from behind her.

She whirled around to find Izumi leaning against a wall, her arms folded across her chest and feet crossed at her ankles. A posture highly reminiscent of her father. Katara smiled, “Hopelessly.”

“Where are you not going?”

“Huh?”

“You have been turning around in circles, not going anywhere. Really, you’re worse than dad when it comes to jokes.”

“Oh!” Katara chuckled. “No. Trust me, no one is worse than your dad. Have you ever heard of the ‘silver sandwich’?”

Izumi’s lips twitched briefly but then schooled her expression back to seriousness and said, “Yes, I have. Grandpa Iroh told me. So… where to?”

“I was trying to go to Azula’s chamber?”

At that Izumi straightened, a frown on her face. “You want to go to Auntie’s chamber?”

“Yes.”

Izumi’s lips thinned and her golden eyes studied her with a fixed gaze. After a long while she nodded. “Come, I’ll take you.”

“Thank you,” Katara said, smiling widely. The Princess walked like she owned the place, which she did, Katara reminded herself. Izumi led the way through large corridors, reaching a pair of wooden doors. She turned to face Katara and opened her mouth to say something but stopped. Her golden eyes widened in pure horror and she leapt on Katara. For the second time in less than fifteen minutes, Katara was thrown off her feet and she slammed on the floor, her head hitting the ground.

“Oof,” Katara said, stars winking in front of her eyes. Katara sat up to find Izumi yelling orders to guards.

“What? Izumi what’s…”

All around her was chaos as several guards had formed a perimeter around her, couple of them taking a Firebending stance.

“What is going on?” Azula’s irritated voice cut through the commotion. The woman looked around, taking stock of the situation, “Katara? What are you doing on the floor?”

Katara stood up, massaging the sore spot on her head. Izumi stood next to her, the little face red with anger. “There was an assassin. A Water Tribe man!”

Chapter Text

Chapter 13

If Bumi’s arms held her any tighter, Katara was certain she would choke. Yet, she did not have the heart to tell her son to loosen his grip. He had lost his father. He knew death was final. He had seen it, understood the gravity of it. For him, the thought that he almost lost his mother, was terrifying to say the least. The boy clung to her, sobbing into her neck.

Kya sat next to her with a bewildered look on her face. Katara had tried to get her to talk but the girl remained silent, lost in thoughts. Katara wished she could reach out to her. If only to understand what was going on in her mind and to guide her through a situation that was obviously far too complex for her to understand, but the girl had shut everyone out. She sat cross legged, her hand on Katara’s thigh, her eyes following Zuko who was pacing.

To say that he was angry would be an understatement. A muscle danced in his jaw and tufts of smoke curled out of his nose every time he exhaled. He paced back and forth, back and forth, incessantly. Earlier, he had scooped Izumi up in his arms and had repeatedly told her that he was proud of her, reinforcing Katara’s belief that he was a good father. After that, he had checked on Katara, making sure she was unharmed, to the point where she wanted to swat him away for fussing. Once he was assured, however, he had then taken to pacing and was now wearing the floor ragged.

Sokka and Hakoda had taken turns in asking how she was, multiple times. Suki, Toph and Ty Lee had mercifully taken a step back after a single query, each, about her wellbeing. Gran Gran, who was not feeling well after the long journey, was resting and had not been informed about the assassination attempt. Iroh and Izumi stood some way off, the former chewing his lip, while the latter looked at the floor. Azula leaned against the wall in the corner, allowing shadows to engulf her.  

Katara herself was numb. After she had gotten up from the floor, she had spotted an arrow lying on the ground where she had been mere moments before. It was Izumi’s quick thinking that had averted her death. The assassin, having realized that he had been seen, had fled with a couple of guards in pursuit.

“How?” Zuko’s voice was like a shrapnel through the thick and heavy silence, that up until now, was only punctuated by Bumi’s sobs. “How did the assassin get in?”

“I have started an enquiry,” Iroh said, “Mizu is heading it.”

“I want answers by the afternoon, or someone is facing my wrath,” Zuko said through gritted teeth. “No one attacks my friends and family inside my house and get away with it. I thought I’d already made that abundantly clear.”

A chill ran down Katara’s spine as she remembered what had happened to the assassin that had killed Mai. That man had been left in a solitary prison, without light and sound, with food pushed in via a small slot in a door. The man had not been touched, not harmed, but left completely alone and away from sunlight. Being a firebender, being kept away from sun had driven him stark raving mad and had killed himself by biting his own tongue. It was a tale that had attained legendary proportions.

Ozai’s son, the one carrying the blood of a warmonger, had not tortured the man like his father would. But the punishment had been far more severe than anyone had anticipated from Zuko, the Fire Lord that had ended the hundred-year-war. The verdict about the act had been divided. Some thought it had been excessive while others said that he had done right by not killing the man.

Katara herself understood his actions. While not brutal, it was a satisfying revenge and she could not begrudge him that. But she did realize Zuko was unforgiving and merciless when it came to people who hurt those that he held dear.

“Dad,” Izumi’s voice halted Zuko’s pacing and he turned to look at her, “I don’t understand something.”

“What?”

“She’s from Water Tribe, isn’t it? Then why do the Water Tribe men want her dead?”

Zuko exchanged a look with Katara, as though asking a silent permission. She nodded.

“I think we should leave them alone,” Iroh said, waving his hands to usher the others out.

Sokka looked at Katara, evidently displeased at having to leave the room but complying, nevertheless. Once everyone left, Zuko took a seat on the bed where the others were already seated and beckoned Izumi over. The girl walked to them and settled on one corner of the bed, looking like she was ready to bolt. Bumi extracted himself from Katara, wiped his tears and looked at Zuko.

“Is it true?” Bumi asked looking between the two of them. “Uncle Sokka was telling me that the assassin was most likely from the Northern Water Tribe because they have been trying to kill mom?”

The adults looked at each other and reached a silent agreement. Katara sighed and motioned for Zuko to answer.

“I guess we both owe you three an explanation,” Zuko said, running a hand over Kya’s head. “Things have changed, drastically. You three… you can ask us anything you want. We will answer to the best of our abilities.”

“Really?” Izumi said, disbelief clear on her face.

“Yes,” Katara said. “We will. But before we do that, Izumi, I want to thank you. You saved me. I know you don’t like me. Or the situation that we are in. But you still saved me, thanks again.”

Izumi waved a hand, “It had nothing to do with you. I still don’t consider you my mom. It’s just that… I would have done that no matter who was in your place.”

Zuko opened his mouth to say something but Katara overrode him, “That just speaks to how big your heart is. It’s an admirable quality.”

Izumi blinked, opened and closed her mouth several times, trying to figure out what to say. From the corner of her eyes, she could see Zuko struggling to keep a straight face. Katara cleared her throat, and said, “So… now coming to your questions. Bumi, you wanted to know if the Northern Water Tribe wants me dead. The answer is, yes. They do.”

“But why?” Izumi asked, “You’re from Water Tribe.”

Zuko sighed, “You know, sometimes… a person does something that others don’t like. And that can, at times, make people very angry.”

“Angry enough to kill?” Bumi asked.

“Yes,” Zuko said.

“But… what did you do?” Izumi asked.

“I became the best Waterbender of our generation.”

Bumi and Izumi shared an incredulous look, before he said, “Why is that a problem?”

Zuko pinched the bridge of his nose, taking a moment to carefully arrange his words, “Because, she is a girl. Some people think that women are not as good as men. That’s why they want her dead. Because they cannot accept that a woman is better than them in Waterbending.”

Bumi’s face scrunched in confusion, while Izumi pinched her lower lip, thoughtfully. Then she said, “Why did you both marry all of a sudden? Do you… love her or something?”

“No, no, no. Nothing of that sort,” Katara explained, aware that her voice sounded a little squeaky. From the corner of her eyes, she saw Zuko give her a strange look, but mercifully, he stayed quiet. When she did not offer any further clarifications, he leaned forward to fill in the void.

“It was the only way I could save her,” Zuko explained, holding Izumi’s hands. “I did the same thing you did, Izumi. I saved someone’s life. In this case, a dear friend’s life.”

“So… Sokka Uncle was telling the truth?” Bumi said, “You really did save mom there. I thought he was being… dramatic.”

“No, he wasn’t,” Katara explained, rubbing Bumi’s back, “You remember how they took me away?”

“Yes, I do.”

“They took me to a prison,” she explained, making sure to meet the eyes of all three children. “They had a trial. They decided they were going to kill me. Zuko found a loophole in the laws. This marriage was the only way he could get me out of there.”

“So that’s why Uncle told me to thank you!” Bumi said, cocking his head to the side and looking at Zuko.

“Your uncle is a wise man,” Zuko said, “Words I never thought I’d say.”

Despite herself, Katara snorted. The snort then turned into a giggle, which became a full-blown laughter, with tears streaming down her face. Bumi gaped, unsure of what to say. He lifted a hand towards her but Zuko stopped him, shaking his head. Katara was almost breathless by the time she was done laughing. She wiped her tears, gasping for breath.

“Mom?” Bumi asked slowly, “Are you okay?”

“Yes, I’m fine,” Katara said, sniggering, wiping her tears.

“Why are you laughing?” Izumi was looking at her like she’d lost her mind.

“It’s just shock,” Zuko said. “Someone just tried to kill her. People react to shock differently. It happens.”

“Really?” Bumi muttered, scratching his cheeks. “It’s strange.”

“Strange?” Katara asked, her mirth dying down. “Why is it strange?”

 “I mean… you don’t exactly laugh, mom.”

“Excuse me?” Zuko’s head whipped sharply to Bumi. “What do you mean by that?”

“Umm… just that mom doesn’t laugh. Smile, maybe giggle or snort, but laugh? I have never seen her laugh.”

Katara’s heart thudded loudly in her ears as she realized how her children viewed her. Something twisted in her stomach and she wished to wipe out the pain and sorrow she saw on her son’s face. Lost in her own pain and misery, she had not understood that her children were watching. How had she missed something so big? So damning?

“Never?” Zuko asked, his face contorted into a picture of incredulity.

“Never,” Bumi reaffirmed.

His golden gaze seemed to look straight into her soul as he considered his words. After a long moment, he said, “Well, then we know what to do, don’t we, Bumi?”

The boy looked at Zuko and raised an eyebrow, “Huh? What?”

“We have to make your mom laugh more,” he answered. Something passed between the two at that instant. If Katara was to name a point where their relationship changed, it was then. At that moment. This was her family now. For her, this was enough. A place where people could talk to each other. Yes, it had taken a somewhat severe event to get all of them together in one room, but she was glad that they were at least talking. Yes, Bumi had said ‘thank you’ to Zuko the day before but that had been on Sokka’s urging. She still was not entirely sold on Izumi’s reasoning for helping her, especially given her reluctance to even be seen in the same room as Katara earlier.

“Can I ask something?” Kya’s little voice cut through her musings.

“Of course, sweetheart,” Katara said, pulling the little girl on her lap and hugged her. “I’m sure you have questions too.”

Kya tugged on her mother’s collar. Her brows were pulled together, while her lower lip jutted out. “Where is dad?”

“Oh!” Katara said. A hand flew to her mouth and her face crumpled. At a complete loss for words, she looked at each occupant in the room.

Bumi cleared his throat, “Kya… dad… He’s dead.”

“I know! But for how long? When is he coming back?”

“Dead people don’t come back, Kya,” Bumi answered shortly, before anyone else could. “Dad isn’t coming back.”

“No!” She said, shooting out of Katara’s lap. “I want dad! I want my dad.”

Sensing trouble, Izumi raised her hands and in a placating voice said, “I know what you’re feeling –“

“NO!” Kya screamed, her eyes wide and her head shaking. She jumped off the bed and began to tremble, “No. No. I want dad. I want dad.”

Katara and Zuko exchanged a horrified look as the child began to stomp her feet, pull at her hair and scream, “I want dad. I want dad. I want dad.”

Zuko slid off the bed, knelt down in front of Kya, and opened his arms. She gave a sob and flew into his embrace. He held her to his chest and said, “There, there my child. Your dad may be gone, but I’m here for you. I’m not trying to replace your dad, but awesome children like you can have two dads. I’m your second dad. And I promise you, as long as I’m there, you and your brother will never be alone.”


When Zuko entered the Fire Lady’s chamber later that evening, Katara was standing by the window, just like she had done the previous day. Had it only been a day since they got married in the Fire Nation? It seemed like ages. The long day told on his body as he made his way to the window. On the bed, he could see the silhouettes of Bumi and Kya, both fast asleep. Dressed in a blue sleeveless gown, her black hair cascading down, she looked ready to join them soon.

“They wouldn’t leave you, I see?” Zuko said, leaning against the window ledge and crossing his arms.

“More like I wouldn’t leave them,” she answered with a sheepish smile. “I was scared.”

“Understandably so. After Mai, I had Izumi sleeping in my room for almost two years.”

“Speaking of, what do you think really prompted Izumi’s change in behavior?”

Zuko blew out a puff of air and said, “She really would not have let you or anyone else fall prey to an assassin, if she can help it. She lost her mom that way.”

Katara nodded, “Yes, that I can understand. But she was talking to me before I was attacked. I was looking for Azula’s chamber and I got completely lost. She found me and was leading me there when it happened.”

“Hmm. Did she now?” Zuko rubbed his chin thoughtfully, trying to figure out what could have brought on this change. “I honestly don’t know. I’ll see if I can figure it out.”

When silence descended between them, Zuko wondered how to broach the one topic that was on his mind. How could he ask, did Aang ever hurt you, without coming across as a complete and total jerk? How does one ask that question to a friend? What was the best way of saying that he doubted that her dead husband was an asshole? Zuko wasn’t good with words in the best of days. How was he going to say something so damning?

“I heard the assassin was caught?” Katara asked, bringing his thoughts to an abrupt halt.

“Yes, he was,” Zuko answered, glad to have something else to talk about. “Our suspicions were right. He was from the Northern Water Tribe. Mizu was interrogating him.”

“Was? Is the man dead?”

Zuko chuckled, “No. He’s fine. He is a skilled Waterbender. He came in through the sewers. But damn, he spilled everything. Mizu didn’t even have to touch him. He simply held a fistful of fire near him and the man began to talk. Turns out he’s scared of fire.”

Katara gaped, “They sent an assassin who is scared of fire… into Fire Nation? Is Hahn an idiot?”

“I’m going to assume that was a rhetorical question,” Zuko stretched, his muscles aching with the move. “That, or he simply does not care if the assassin blabs. The Northern Water Tribe has made no secret that you are their enemy number one. Everyone and their aunts know about the tribunal. So, I guess he thinks there is no point in stealth and secrecy.”

“But… I’m now the Fire Lady,” Katara said, mirroring his pose to face him. “Doesn’t that mean that they are not only declaring animosity with the Fire Nation, they are also dishonoring the judgement of their own tribunal?”

Zuko shrugged, “This is Hahn we are talking about. He is not really politically savvy. Do you know what he did at an International Summit once?”

“Do tell.”

“It was a few years ago. King Bumi died and his successor, Anga was attending the summit. Granted it was the first time that man was attending, but he was still the King of Omashu. I was chatting with him and Kuei when Hahn sauntered over. Now, keep in mind, in the summit everyone is officially introduced. So, there was no chance he did not know who Anga was. But he comes over and actually said, ‘and who the heck are you?’”

“Oh no!” Katara groaned. “Aang hated the guy. Would rant on and on about how he was impossible to talk to.”

“Yes,” Zuko nodded, realizing that he probably had an opening to talk about what he truly wanted to. “Aang had a particularly difficult time with him. Once he even lost his temper with Hahn and stormed out. Very unlike Aang, don’t you think?”

“Not particularly. Aang ran away from situations he did not want to face. Remember what he did before Sozin’s comet?”

“He was twelve then,” Zuko said, studying Katara carefully. “Don’t tell me that continued as an adult.”

The speed at which Katara’s expression changed, it was as though a door was slammed shut. When she spoke, it was as though she was weighing every word, “He was a very different adult than he was as a child.”

Was this it? Could he, maybe get her to talk? Inadvertently, Zuko’s fingers tightened around his arms. “Different how?”

Katara looked out of the window, her body taut and her expression carefully guarded. After what seemed like ages, she said, “Doesn’t matter anymore, does it?”

Knowing a missed chance when he saw one, Zuko resolved to keep trying. He would not rest till he got his answers. He straightened, about to wish her a good night and leave for his chamber, when something caught his eyes. “You’re wearing the necklace I gave you.”

It looked as though she pulled herself to the present with a lot of effort. “Sorry, what?”

“Necklace. You’re wearing the one I gave you.”

Her hand went to the base of her throat and she smiled, “Of course. I mean… I’m supposed to.”

“I… I thought you’d be wearing your mother’s necklace.”

“Oh, I am, see,” saying so, she turned her left arm. The necklace that once had come to him by some strange fortune, was now tied on her arm like an armband. He knew what her mother’s necklace meant to her. For her to put his necklace there was an honor he had not expected. He was flattered, to say the least. But then, something occurred to him and he turned to look at her other arm. It was bare. He looked down at her wrists, and only his mother’s bracelet adorned her wrist. Aang’s necklace was nowhere to be seen.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 14

Katara swirled a ball of water overhead, marveling the way sunlight trickled through the water. She moved the water in a whirl around herself, making it skim over her body. She then allowed it to go high up in the air and then lowered it down, bringing it to herself. She then froze it and sent out shards in rapid succession. Once the water finished, she held her arms out and summoned the shards back to her, stopping inches away from her.

Over the past week the failed assassination attempt, Zuko had gone on a hyper-vigilant mode. Every member of the family had been given a round-the-clock guard. Even now, four guards were watching her as she was doing some basic stretches with water. Nothing destressed her like water. It sucked up the tension and fear of the past few days. After what seemed like forever, she felt as though a big weight had lifted off her and she could breathe easier. Being one with her element had eased he frayed nerves. Feeling refreshed, she melted the shards, drew the water over her head and allowed it to splash, cooling her.

Behind her, someone clapped. Katara turned to find Suki, Toph and Ty Lee watching her. She raised her hand and waved at them, a smile playing on her lips. Taking that as an invitation, the three of them skipped over to sit on the bleachers. Realizing that her stress had eased and she could use a break, she joined her friends at the bleachers, sitting between Suki and Ty Lee. Toph stomped her foot and a stone seat shot up from the ground, facing the three women sitting on the bleachers.

“It’s nice to see you bending like this,” Suki said, stretching out her feet and propping them on Toph’s impromptu seat. “It’s been ages since I have seen you bend just for yourself. Last time I saw you doing it was probably in Ember Island.”

Katara rolled her shoulders, “Yes, well, life happened.”

“Ain’t that the truth,” Toph said, crossing her legs on her seat. “Life has a tendency to fuck you up, doesn’t it?”

Suki shrugged, “Nah. I’m good. I’m married to the love of my life. Co-leading the Kiyoshi Island. As for losing that one pregnancy… well, I am okay now. Sokka and I are thinking about trying again.”

Katara lay a hand on Suki’s, “I’m glad you’re trying again, Suki. When you do get pregnant, let me know. I would like to help with making sure the baby is safe.”

“Oh, thank you, Katara,” she said with a huge smile, “I might take you up on that offer.”

Ty Lee clapped her hands, “All the best, Suki. Your aura is all pink and happy. I know it will all work out this time.”

“Go Sokka and Suki,” Toph said, punching her in her arm. “Make us all proud.”

“My life has been fine too,” Ty Lee chipped in. “I don’t have a complain about how things are. I’m happy. Blissful. And my aura is completely uncluttered. I know the universe is telling me that this is where I’m supposed to be. Life most definitely did not fuck me.”

“Toph,” Katara turned to face her, “What’s going on with you? Why did you say life has a tendency to fuck us up?”

“Because it’s true. You’re a prime example of it.”

“Don’t deflect.” Katara said, forcibly pushing the dark thoughts that threatened to creep into her mind. “There’s something you want to say but are holding back. Speak up.”

“I just… feel like something is missing, you know?”

Ty Lee poked the Earthbender with her toes, “Oh shut up! You are heading a Metalbending school and are known as the best Earthbender ever. What are you so glum about?”

Toph shrugged, “Yes, I’m doing well professionally. But… I don’t know… I’m feeling restless.”

“Is it a guy?” Suki postulated

“Uh… not really. I mean, yes, he was an ass, but I don’t think he is the reason.”

“What? Who? What happened?” Katara asked, looking from one friend to the other. “Why don’t I know anything about it?”

“Well… you were dealing with a ton of shit. I didn’t want to burden you with my sob story.”

Ty Lee scoffed. “I wasn’t having anything going on in my life. And I’m not aware of it either. Spill.”

Toph blew her bangs, “Well. I was seeing this guy, Kai, and he just went… poof.”

“Poof?” Suki repeated, her eyebrows up to her hairline. “Someone actually dumped you? I don’t know whether to be sad for you or impressed that he managed this.”

Katara shook her head, trying to wrap her mind around this, “You didn’t find him out?”

“No,” Toph said, resting her elbow on her knees and tucking her face on her palms. “I wasn’t all that into him.”

“Could’ve fooled me!” Suki said, with a grin.

“I’m serious. My ego is more wounded than my heart, to be honest,” she said. “It’s not like I don’t know where he is. I do. I just don’t think it’s worth going over and pummeling him.”

Katara shared an open-mouthed look with Ty Lee before saying, “Who are you and what have done with our Toph?”

Toph snickered. “Fret not. It is still me. I just have learned to pick my battles… sometimes.”

“Does the sun rise from west in Fire Nation?” Suki wondered.

 “Oh, don’t worry, girls. Someone else has caught my eyes. May now I will see why I’m feeling out of sorts.”

Used to Toph’s blind jokes, Suki ignored the gags and said, “And? Are you making any moves?”

“Not yet,” she said. “Not the time yet. I’m doing the groundwork, for now. But we didn’t come here to talk about me. We were here to talk about our new Fire Lady.”

Katara rolled her eyes, “Why? What’s there to talk about?”

“What do you mean?” Suki said, raising her brows. “You’re newly married. Have been for a week, or a month, depending on how you look at it. And, as your friends, it’s our moral duty to ask you the details.”

“Details?” Katara asked, not liking the way the conversation was heading. She was looking forward to chatting with her friends after a long time. But now, they were treading into dangerous waters. She hoped against hope that they were not asking what she thought they were asking.

Ty Lee nudged her with her elbow, “You know what we’re talking about. Steamy sessions with your new husband?”

Heat rose up Katara’s ears as her mind inadvertently painted a scene of her and Zuko, naked and having passionate sex. She slapped her hands on her cheeks, trying to rid the image that had burned in her retinas. “Tui and La! Don’t put those images in my mind. No. No steamy sessions.”

“None?” Suki said in evident disbelief.

“None.”

“Why?” Toph asked. “What’s the problem? He’s your husband. You’re allowed… rather expected to have those images in your mind. Besides, if I remember correctly, you were more than ready for it back at Ember Island.”

Katara hid her face in her hands, her heart beating wildly. Oh, Ember Island. She shuddered. They didn’t know. They couldn’t know. There lay a can of worms she had no desire to open. She took a steadying breath and said, “Toph! Stop. That was years ago. I had a crush on him then. I was fourteen. Almost fifteen. It’s been years since then. We’re both every different people now.”

Ty Lee rolled her eyes, “Katara! We are talking about having fun in the sack, not a character study.”

“Yeah, no fun in the sack moments, sorry to disappoint you lot.”

Toph chuckled and held her hand out. “You both owe me twenty ruonz each.”

Grumbling, the two Kiyoshi warriors pulled out their wallets and handed her the money.

“You guys bet on us?” Katara cried, half annoyed, half amused.

“I told them, there was nothing happening,” Toph said gleefully pocketing the money, “But these two were certain you were doing the horizontal tango.”

“You three are just… wow. I don’t even know what to say,” Katara huffed. “No more betting. You hear me!”

Toph simply cackled.


Katara was in trouble. She was in deep trouble. The can of worms that she had fought for almost half her life to keep buried, was now cracking open. Memories. Painful, bittersweet memories were flooding back. The conversation from earlier in the day had hit her like a boulder chucked by an Earthbender. The image that had cropped up in her mind during the conversation haunted her, refusing to leave her. Katara placed the heels of her palm against her eyes and arched her back, feeling the silken sheets of her bed against her body.

Ember Island. Despite her best efforts, a memory pushed through.

Katara breathed in deeply, enjoying the smell of ocean and the sound of waves crashing. She had just finished making lunch and realizing that she had at least an hour before Toph and Aang’s Earthbending practice would end. She decided to make the most of the time she had in her hand and had walked out to the beach. Some distance away, she saw him. He was sitting on the shore, one leg folded up to his chest, with his elbow resting on his knee. The other leg was stretched out in front of him, the waves wetting his foot. His right hand was burrowed in the sand. Something about the way he sat, staring at the ocean, put the word regal in Katara’s mind. Unaware of what she was doing, she walked over to him.

“Mind if I sit next to you?”

He gave a small jump, as though startled out of his thoughts, and looked up, “Katara! Hi there,” he patted the sand next to him, “Come. Sit.”

She lowered herself and followed his gaze. “Can I ask what you were thinking?”

He pointed out to the sea, “See that boat? I was watching that.”

The boat he was talking about was a little more than a speck in the vast blue that stretched in front of them. “Uh? I’m guessing it’s a fishing boat.”

“Probably. I was actually thinking how people are like boats.”

“I… I’m sorry, what? I look like a boat to you?”

He chuckled, “No, no. Not literally. I meant it as a metaphor.”

Katara cocked her head, “Elaborate?”

“When I was commandeering my own ship, I was completely engrossed in its functioning. Keeping the crew maintained. Keeping it well-oiled and fueled, wondering where to anchor it. It occupied a significant chunk of my day just making sure it was running properly. Yet, now, as I’m sitting here and looking at that boat, all I see is… a boat. Not the various nitty-gritties that are needed to keep it running. People are like that too. Don’t you think?”

Katara weighed his words, unable to grasp what he was saying, “How do you mean?”

He sighed and drew some random patterns on the sand, as though trying to get his thoughts together. “I was thinking of Ozai.”

Katara’s eyes widened. This was the first time he had brought his dad up on his own. “Zuko.”

As though he had not even heard her whispered gasp, he continued, “When I was in the Fire Nation, he was this looming figure whose approval I needed. Desperately. I… I did everything. Everything to get his approval. That’s all my life was all about. But now. Sitting here, so far away from him, he is just an enemy I have to defeat. A speck. Like that boat.”

Katara breathed, forcing herself to the present. In the scheme of bigger things, this was a simple and largely inconsequential strand of memory. But her mind had picked that one moment to dwell upon. Back then, she thought that she understood what he had been saying, but she had not. Not really. All she had gleaned from his words were that Zuko no longer craved Ozai’s approval. And that the latter was a shitty father. All of which were true. Yet, she had been too young and naïve to understand the true meaning behind his words.

She did now. Aang had made her understand. When he was alive, her life revolved around him. First as his Waterbending teacher. Then as his girlfriend. Later as his wife and the mother of his children. Somewhere between playing those roles, Katara had lost herself. Aang had occupied the front and center position in her life, come what may.

But now, with him gone, she was suddenly breathing easier. She could now focus on other things. Things she had relegated to a back burner for Aang. Things like her children. Her bending. Her friends. Her family. Herself. He was now just a memory. A speck. Like a boat.

That speck, though, sometimes grew in size, threatening to smother her. The boat that was in the distance, for now, had the power to dump her in the middle of a sea storm without warning.  But at that moment, it was far off. Her monsters were far off at that moment and Katara knew this uncertainty was the path of her life.

Before she had set on that path, however, Katara had momentarily believed that another road was open to her. Zuko. The golden eyed prince who had stolen her heart without meaning to. But then, on his Coronation Day, when Katara was preparing herself to take the first step to building a life that she wanted, the door had been slammed shut on her face.

Katara would never forget the horror she had felt when the lightning had hit him square on the chest. Nothing could compare to the joy that had coursed through her when he had opened his eyes after three days. Even today, she could feel the youthful optimism with which she had skipped through the corridors to declare her love to Zuko on his Coronation Day. The sight that greeted her, however, had been like a hot poker through her heart. There he stood, in the arms of Mai, kissing her. Pain flared through her entire being. She had no idea how she had stumbled away from the scene or how she had found Aang. She remembered sobbing on his shoulders, unaware of what awaited her.

For thirteen long years this road had been forbidden for her. Even the thought was tantamount to blasphemy. She had buried every tender emotion and memory in heart, in an unmarked grave. She had told herself, over and over again, that even his name on her lips was a sin. A transgression for which she had been punished, severely. But now, in a freak twist of events, the road that she had originally wanted to walk on was suddenly open to her. Now she was expected to have ‘those’ thoughts? But the girl that had wanted to walk on that road was long gone. This woman, this broken and shattered shell of a person had no idea how to walk on the road that lay in front of her. She did not have it in her to reach out. And even if she did, would he take her hand? Katara didn’t think so. She was his friend. Nothing more. His heart still belonged to Mai.

“How can I even do this? What kind of a cruel joke is this?” Katara cried, curling up into a fetal position in her bed, feeling tears streaming down her face. “I can’t do this. I can’t. I just can’t. This is not fair!”

“What’s not fair, Katara?” His soft voice fell on her ears like molten glass. With a start she sat up on the bed to find him leaning against the doorframe that connected both their chambers.

“Zuko,” she said, his name both a wound and a prayer on her lips.

Chapter Text

Chapter 15

Zuko frowned, running his finger along his chin as he the scroll in his hand. Councilman Parus, the presenter of the policy, had a long-winded, rambling way of saying things, which required him to sift through a ton of metaphorical muck, before he could understand what the hell the man was saying. How could one possibly speak so many words and not say anything? It didn’t help that the man had a script that looked as though a molespider had fallen into an inkpot and then scurried across the scroll. Zuko rubbed his eyes and reread the line again.

The wishes of the general populace would align with the aspirations of the aristocracy if the last mentioned would find a course of action wherein the desires of the former would be gleaned.

What? Was he saying that the elite will know the wishes of the general population if they find a way to understand what they wished? Why did he even feel the need to say that? That was like saying the sky is blue. He cast a look at the scroll that was longer than his forearm, filled from top to bottom, with that loopy script, and groaned. He made a face and dumped the scroll. He stretched, wincing lightly as the exhaustion he felt.

Zuko pushed the writing desk and stood up. He was about to summon a servant for tea when his eyes fell on the full moon.

Katara!

Engrossed in his work, he had completely lost track of time. She must have been waiting for him for their regular nightly chat. Cursing himself for his lapse, Zuko marched over to the connecting door of their chambers. He raised his hand to knock when something stilled his hand. From the other side of the door, he heard a distinct sob. There was so much pain in that sound that Zuko felt his heart twist. Without thinking about what he was doing, he turned the handle and stepped into her room. His eyes took a moment to adjust to the change in light before he spotted her.

She lay on her bed, curled up with her knees drawn up to her chest, sobbing. He was about to step into the room when her words floated to him. ““How can I even do this? What kind of a cruel joke is this? I can’t do this. I can’t. I just can’t. This is not fair!”

The raw anguish in her words and voice made him stumble and he had to lean against the doorframe for support. “What’s not fair, Katara?” his own voice cracked, coming out more as a whisper.

She sat up on the bed, her face ashen as though she had seen a ghost. “Zuko.”

He took a step into the room, only to have her flinch and pull the blanket up to her chin. He held up his hands in a gesture of surrender and walked towards her. Something about the way she was looking at him reminded him of Azula. For years after the war, his sister too had the same terrified look in her eyes when approached without warning. A part of him wondered if this was the reason the two women seemed inexplicably bonded, each looking out for the other. Grief made strong friendships, after all. He had long since learned that the best way to deal with a person who was that skittish, was to approach them in the most nonthreatening manner. He slowly moved closer, his hands still up in the air.

“Katara,” he said in a low, soft voice. “Can I sit?””

Slowly, she nodded, her breathing still shallow. He walked to the foot of her bed and drew a chair up to the bed, without taking his eyes off her for a moment. She had folded into herself, trying to become as small as she could. Zuko leaned forward and repeated his question. “What’s not fair, Katara? What can’t you do? What cruel joke were you talking about?”

Katara hugged herself, shivering slightly. Unable to meet his gaze, she looked away.

“Katara,” he called. “Please, talk to me. What happened?”

“N-nothing. I’m fine.”

“Clearly.”

She shot him a look that conveyed that she both understood and did not appreciate his sarcasm. He sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “Katara, you don’t want to talk about it, fine. But please, don’t insult my intelligence by saying that nothing is wrong with you.”

Katara looked at him, her face covered in a sheen of sweat. He had seen this look on her face once before. When she had learned that the man she had bloodbended was not the killer of her mother. “Y-you think something is wrong with me?” She sounded breathless.

“Isn’t there?” Zuko asked. “Can you honestly say that you are, absolutely, completely fine? You don’t have nightmares or panic attacks? Can you swear on Bumi and Kya that you are being truthful when you say that you are fine?”

Katara hid her face in her hands and swallowed. “Please, Zuko. I… I can’t. Don’t ask me any questions. I can’t.”

“You can’t… what?” he asked softly. “Please, Katara. Whatever you’re hiding, it’s eating you alive. I can’t see you like this. You don’t want to talk to me, fine. I’ll get anyone you want. But please don’t keep this bottled in. Talk to someone. Anyone. Do you want me to get your dad?”

Katara pulled her knees to her chest and rested her arms on them. She shook her head and said, “No. Dad… he wouldn’t know what to do.”

“Sokka?”

“No.”

“Gran gran, maybe?”

Katara shook her head again. “She’s too old. I shouldn’t burden her with all this. She is just happy to see me married again.”

At least she was no longer denying something was wrong. Zuko counted that as a win. “Suki or Toph? Ty Lee?”

“No. No. I can’t. I… I can’t.”

Zuko swallowed, realizing that he probably should have opened with this name. He was now beginning to understand and appreciate the relationship that the two women shared. “Should I get Azula?”

Katara closed her eyes and breathed deeply. “She will understand. But no. I’m not ready to talk yet.”

“You have to talk,” Zuko said, making sure that his voice stayed calm. “You can’t keep this bottled in. You know that, right?”

Katara hid her face in her hands and nodded.

“Whenever you are ready, just let me know. I’m here for you. Even if you don’t want to talk to me and want me to get Azula, I’m okay with it.”

She nodded, without a word, her face still hidden. Realizing that the conversation, such as it was, was over, he stood up and replaced the chair. Katara had not moved an inch, her face still hidden. He was loath to leave her like this, but he knew from experience that he would not get another word out of her now. He watched her for a few more moments and turned to walk away when he remembered something. He turned to face her and debated for a moment if he should say what he had in mind now. It had to be said but given her condition, he was worried that it might backfire. He decided to go ahead anyway. The next morning would be too late anyway. “I forgot to tell you, but you will be officially introduced to the council tomorrow as the Fire Lady. The event starts at sundown. It was supposed to happen the day after the wedding, but because of the circumstances, we couldn’t do it.”

Katara gave no indication to have heard him, continuing to sit with her head burrowed in her palms. Zuko sighed, feeling as though he was fighting a losing battle.


Hakoda breathed in the fumes of tea, relishing the delicate aroma. Beside him, his mother, Kanna was doing the same. Across from them, Iroh was stirring his cup of tea. Hakoda took a sip of the tea and breathed deeply. Hands down Iroh made the best tea he had ever tasted. Kanna put her cup down and said, “Iroh, what is it that you wanted to talk about?”

“I have been wondering about the situation my nephew and Katara.”

Hakoda looked up from his cup with a frown. “What about them?”

Iroh put his cup down and leaned back in his chair, stroking his beard thoughtfully. “They are both young and have suffered terrible losses. Now they, without meaning to, find themselves married and having the responsibility of three children.”

Kanna nodded. “The situation has been bothering me too. It’s a big shift, not just for the children, but for them too.”

“Indeed,” Hakoda agreed. “And as parents are wont to do, they are putting their kids needs in the forefront.”

Iroh sipped from his cup, “Which is all great, but, what about those two? They were great friends back when the war was on. Eventually, life took over and the two went from being close friends to just friends.”

“And now they’re married,” Hakoda muttered thoughtfully. “After they both lost their respective spouses whom they both loved dearly.”

“It’s not easy getting married for the second time,” Kanna said. “I speak from experience. The older one gets, the more resistant one becomes to change and compromise. It becomes very difficult to adjust.”

“It doesn’t help that they are both stubborn as Komodo Rhinos,” Iroh added.

Hakoda nodded, “Indeed. To make the shift from friends to a couple, after everything, it’s going to be tough for them.”

“Which is why I have a proposal that I thought of running by the two of you.”

Mother and son exchanged quizzical looks before Kanna voiced the thought they both had. “Proposal?”

“I propose that after tonight’s gala, we send the two of them for a weeklong holiday. Just those two. We here can stay with the children.”

“I think it’s a great idea. But Katara might not agree,” Hakoda said, “Since Aang’s death, she is very possessive of her children.”

“Zuko will be tough to convince too,” Iroh said. “Between Izumi and the duties of the Fire Lord, he has not taken a break in years. The last one was when Kya was born, that too was cut short for some reason that he refused to tell me.”

“I can talk to Katara,” Kanna piped up suddenly, with a mischievous gleam in her eyes. “She won’t say no to me. Not if I remind her how far along in life I am, how precariously close to death…”

“Mom! You will use your age to blackmail Katara into going?”

“Yes.”

Hakoda grinned, “I love the idea!”

Iroh had an identical grin on his face. “I’ll take care of Zuko, then. He will fall in line.”

“It’s a deal, then?” Hakoda said.

“Deal,” the other two chorused.


“What’s the matter, Sparky?” Toph asked. “You seem agitated.”

Zuko shook his head, casting a look at the banquet hall where the gala was taking place. He bit his lower lip, “I don’t know if Katara will come here or not.”

“Why would she not come?”

“Last night… she was in a bad place. I don’t know if she even heard my words.”

Toph patted his arm, “Don’t worry, she will be here. Sweetness never backs down from her responsibilities.”

Zuko opened his mouth to say something when the Earthbender cocked her head to the side. “She’s coming.”

Zuko spun on his heels to look at the corridor from where she was meant to come. In the light of the candelabras, he saw her silhouette approach. As she walked closer, his jaw dropped. She was dressed in a red gown that hugged her figure. The golden bodice glittered in the flickering light. A golden fire symbol cinched the waist, from where gold trimmed ruffles tiered down to form a skirt. Part of her hair was tied in a top-knot, while the rest tumbled down in curls. His mother’s bracelet was on her wrist. At that moment, Zuko forgot everything that plagued their relationship. All he saw was a beautiful woman.

“I take it she’s looking good,” Toph said with a chuckle as she nudged him with her elbow.

“Wha… what?”

“Your heart skipped two beats, Sparky. Getting horny, are we?”

“Shut up, Toph!” Zuko grumbled, feeling rising up his cheeks.

The Earthbender giggled and gave him a look, “Oh come on, you totally got a boner.”

“I’m not having this conversation,” Zuko said, walking over to her. Upon reaching her, he cleared his throat and said, “Hey, I didn’t think you would come.”

She looked up at him and smiled brightly, “Why wouldn’t I?”

Oh Agni. I’m in trouble tonight. She’s looking way too beautiful. Zuko thought, spotting the devilish grin on Toph’s face. She knew what was going on in his mind. Swallowing deeply, he proffered his arm to her. “We are supposed to get into the banquet together.”

She nodded and placed an arm on his elbow in a featherlight touch. “Zuko, before we go in… I want to apologize for last night.”

He shook his head, “Don’t worry about it. Shall we?”

Chapter Text

Chapter 16

As soon as Zuko’s eyes moved towards the banquet hall, Katara’s smile slipped from her face. She had spent the better part of the day, standing in front of the mirror, practicing a bright smile that she could paste on to her face for the banquet. The two of them walked into the banquet hall, her hand featherlight on his elbow. They entered the banquet amid fanfare. The loud sound jarred her nerves, but she had worked hard to teach herself to keep her smile up. All her effort paid off as she managed to hold her expression.

Next to her, Zuko walked, looking as though he was in full control of the surroundings. His posture, his demeanor, his presence – he had imbibed the persona of the Fire Lord through and through. Even though he was dressed in the traditional Fire Lord robes, he had stamped his personality all over it. He had done away with the shoulder spikes and had put an ornate but more practical drape instead. He had also gone for a robe that slit in the front, pairing it with black pants, allowing for freer movement.
The two of them walked, matching their pace, to the stage where two thrones were placed. They turned to the crowd and Zuko waved, resulting a deafening applause.

“Esteemed member of the council,” he said when the furor died down, “As you are aware, under some extenuating circumstances, I have married Lady Katara of the Southern Water Tribe. A Master Waterbender, she has been instrumental in ending the Hundred-Year-War. A war-hero, a healer and a teacher, Lady Katara is an inspiration for many. Ladies and Gentlemen, please allow me to introduce your new Fire Lady,” he waved a hand toward her.

Knowing it was her cue, Katara took a step forward and waved to the crowd. Her reception was markedly more subdued, with a polite applause. Zuko gave her a small nod and whispered, “The stage is all yours.”

Swallowing the lump of cold dread in her throat, Katara took another step forward and cleared her throat. The speech that she had spent the day memorizing had vaporized from her brain and she was now at a complete loss. What could she possibly say? She took a deep breath and began speaking, entirely off the cuff, “Member of the council, I am honored to be in your august presence. I thank you for the warm welcome you have extended to me and mine. I hope I would live up to the high standards that the former Fire Lady, may she rest in peace, has set for me. As I am from a different culture, I may require some guidance from your vast knowledge and experience. However, being from the Water Tribe and a Waterbender, I know how to adapt to different situations, much like my element. I look forward to have an enriching experience amid you all as I take the mantle of the Fire Lady.”

She was met with silence. Feeling an inkling of anxiety, her eyes darted around until she found Iroh. The old man gave her a smile and a nod. She was about to have a full-blown panic attack, when two people started clapping. Then another. And another. Eventually the entire hall erupted in applause.

“Well done,” Zuko whispered, coming up to stand next to her. “You have always done well with improvising speeches.”

Katara nodded, feeling relieved about the response she had received. The fear that had been swirling within her all this while was finally diminishing, allowing her to breathe easy. A genuine smile blossomed on her lips and she turned to look at Zuko, trying to gage his reaction. The look on his face, however, stopped her in her tracks. She had seen it, under the dancing lights of the candelabras, but had dismissed it as her being paranoid and anxious. But there it was again. Right there, in his eyes. The look. It was gone before she could pinpoint it but Katara was certain it was there. She had seen desire in his eyes, blatant and naked.

Desire.

 He wanted her. At that moment, however briefly, but he did. And Katara didn’t know how to process this. A part of her, the one that had loved and lost Zuko, was ecstatic. At one point, she had craved his attention and now she was getting it. But now, she had no idea what to do with it.

But the bigger part of her, the one that was damaged, wanted to run and hide. Not again. Never again. Never again.

“Katara? Do you need to step out for a minute?” Zuko asked her, “You look…troubled.”

Breathe, Katara, breathe.

“I’ll… I’ll be okay. I’ll just grab a glass of wine,” she muttered.

Zuko nodded and said, “Just hold on for a bit. The Fire Sages need to coronate you and some people will meet you. I’m right next you.”

I need to get away from you. I need time to think.

“Sure,” she lifted the skirt a little and lowered down on the ground, kneeling with her head bowed. She heard the swish of robes and saw a figure clad in red approach from her side. The buzzing in her mind did not allow her to comprehend the words the sage said. Soon, she felt a small tug on her hair and then the weight of the gold crown settled on her head. She pushed herself up and did the Fire Nation salute, not bowing too low.

Keeping her eyes fixed at an indeterminate point in front of her, Katara allowed Zuko to guide her to the throne with a barely-there hand on her elbow. The two of them took their seats and Zuko motioned for the revelries to begin. By revelries, it meant that every single Council member was introduced to her. The member, in turn, introduced their family to her. By the end of it, the names and faces were one confused jumble for Katara. It was only when the guests began to mingle among themselves was that Katara found a moment to get what she wanted. She informed Zuko as much.

“Someone will bring it for you,” Zuko said, raising his arm a bit.

“No,” Katara cut him, aware that she sounded hasty. “I… I’ll get it myself. Thank you.”

Without waiting for his objection, Katara gave a small, formal bow to him and all but bolted from the stage. As she made her way through the gaggle of people, Katara felt as though a band was tightening around her chest. The mask of normalcy that she had put on her face was slipping away, revealing the nervous, scared and confused person behind. Using the crowd, she managed to duck behind a pillar unnoticed. Concealing herself in the shadows, she breathed deeply, trying to steady her wildly thumping heart. Thoughts clashed against each other as her mind fought with itself.

What are you doing? What are you going to do? What will you do if Zuko tries to –

No. No. This is Zuko. He’s too honorable to do anything you don’t want Katara.

Are you sure? Can you bet your sanity and future on it?

Zuko is not like that!

That’s what you thought about –

A woman’s voice from the other side of the pillar cut through her jumbled mess of thoughts, “…don’t know what he sees in her.”

“Her? Who? Fire Lord’s charity case?” Another woman answered.

“Who else?” the first one said. “She’s so dark. Uncultured. A widow and the mother of two children. Why would he marry her and not a Fire Nation noble woman? I’ll never understand.”

“You really don’t see it, do you? Maybe because you’re both women,” a man said. There was a small pause, where Katara could hear the distinct sound of ice swirling in a glass of some liquor. Katara closed her eyes and concentrated on the fluid in the glass. Firewhiskey. “The Fire Lord, may he live long, spent his exile shuttling between the Earth Kingdom and Water Tribe. He must have sampled the local cuisine and developed a taste for the… uh… exotic.”

The two women tittered, the clinking of ice adding to the cacophony.

“Well, that craving will certainly be addressed,” one of them said.

“But then wasn’t he already sampling the goods?” the other woman said, “Wasn’t that what the whole brouhaha was about?”

“Why nibble when you can have the entire course?” the man asked, much to the amusement of the other two.

Tears of humiliation pooled into Katara’s eyes and before she even knew what she was doing, the Firewhiskey in the man’s hand gave a particularly wild swish. A cry of indignation followed with the flustered man trying to explain that the whiskey had just jumped out of the glass. He was not drunk. He had no desire to ruin Lady Sorma’s dress. The petty victory gave her a moment of savage pleasure, but it was hollow. The bitter taste of disgrace still lined her mouth. Without paying any further attention to the party or the now arguing trio, she marched out of the banquet hall.


Councilman Parus droned on and on about his proposal that Zuko had given up on last night. After his interaction with Katara, worry for her had taken precedence. By the time morning rolled around, he had gotten busy with the preparations of the banquet and amid it all, the proposal had slipped his mind. Thus, when Parus hounded him, Zuko had no idea what the man was talking about. Mercifully, someone tapped his shoulder, distracting him from the barrage of long-winded nonsensical speeches. He turned to find Suki looking at him with a small frown on her face.

“May I borrow the Fire Lord for a moment?” She said, her tone not leaving any room for disagreement.

The Councilman looked annoyed but agreed, nonetheless. With a small bow to Zuko, he walked away.

“Thanks Suki you –“

The Kiyoshi warrior talked over him, “I stepped out to use the restroom. When I was heading back, I saw Katara storming out of the banquet hall, with I think tears in her eyes.”

Zuko frowned and looked around the hall. Amid the throng of red and gold, he could not spot her. “Do you know where she is?”

Suki pointed to the door she had marched out of.  

“Thanks Suki. Could you inform Uncle I’m heading out for a little while?”

“Yes, sure.”

“Thanks,” saying so, he walked out of the door. That door opened to one of the pools in the palace garden and Zuko was certain she would probably be with her element. He walked over to the pool and as he had suspected, Katara stood under a gibbous moon with a ball of water swirling above her fingers. She wasn’t even looking at the little ball floating over her palm, staring off into the darkness. 

“Katara?”

Her posture tightened and she flung the water to the pond with a ferocity that surprised him. But she remained silent.

“Katara? What’s going on? Are you having another panic attack?”

“Stop it! Stop it, Zuko!” she snapped, her voice shrill.

“What? What happened?”

She whirled around and Zuko’s eyes widened. Her eyes were bloodshot. Her kohl had run down, lining her cheeks. Her breath came out in short, irregular gasps, and rage danced on her face. “Why are you here?” she asked through gritted teeth, “Haven’t you done enough?

“Wh… what? What did I do?”

“I don’t need your charity, Zuko!” she spat. “I don’t need your pity.”

Her words twisted his stomach painfully. “Charity? What are you even talking about? What charity? Katara, please, where is all this coming from?”

She scoffed, “As if you don’t know!”

Zuko shook his head, confused, “No. I genuinely don’t know. What are you talking about?”

“You!” she screamed and marched up to him, poking an accusatory finger on his chest. “Do you think I don’t understand? Do you think I don’t know what you’re up to?”

Anger and hurt battled each other within him and anger won, “Oh yeah? What am I up to? Please, enlighten me.”

She ground her teeth and kept her blazing eyes fixed on him, “Just because Aang died, doesn’t mean you have a chance now, Zuko.”

Zuko reeled back as though she had slapped him. “Chance?”

“Yes! I know what men want. All men are the same. Every. Single. One. You may act all high and mighty, but deep down, you are no different. Fire Lord Zuko! The ender of war. The paragon of peace. The most honorable. What a joke!”

“Enough!” Zuko screamed, sparks flying out of his mouth. “I don’t know what’s gotten into you, but I won’t have you stand here and spout whatever bullshit that comes to your mind. Charity? You think I married you for charity? I married you to save your life.”

Katara cried, grabbing her hair in her fists. “Why? Why couldn’t you just let me die?”

“Because I am alive because of you, you fool!” Zuko yelled, grabbing her shoulders in a pincer grasp. “The ender of war? Paragon of peace? You think I am the one of who ended the war? You are so delusional. It was you. Not me. Not Aang. Not anyone else. You. Aang and I were the hands that ended the war and changed the world. You, you were the spine. You were the one that found the Avatar. You were the one that made sure he learned the elements. You were the one that trusted me in Ba Sing Se. You were the one that made sure Aang lived. You were the one that defeated Azula. You made sure I lived. I don’t know what’s going on with you, but this is neither the time nor the place for it. So better pull up your socks and be in the banquet hall for that is your banquet. You are supposed to be there and not wallow here in some freaking self-pity party that you seem to be having on right now.”

With that he dropped his hands, spun on his heels and stormed into the banquet, smoke coming out of his nose.


Tears streamed down her face as Katara ran. The noise in her mind was getting deafening, blocking out everything. She had no idea where she was headed to, she just ran to where her feet carried her. She ran till she could run no more, gasping for breath. Realizing she was still in the garden, she stumbled over to a bench and collapsed on it. She held her head in her hands, wondering what she could do. She was hurtling down a dark hole with no way out. She had been perfectly fine, content and at peace just last morning. How had she come to this? She pressed the heels of her palms against her eyes, breathing deeply. She needed to be back at the banquet, but she couldn’t get herself together. She wiped her tears, hiccupping slightly. She stood up, swaying on her feet. She knew she looked a fright. Her carefully done makeup and hair were now messed up. She needed to fix her face and hair. But before she could make her way to her room and salvage what she could of the evening, a crack of a twig reached her ears.

Instantly alert, Katara pulled some water from the nearby fountain and armed herself with ice-claws. Her mind painted horrific pictures of an assassin killing her, with Bumi and Kya left orphaned. Izumi left without a mother again. And Zuko! Oh Tui! Would her last words with him be a rage filled tirade? No! She wouldn’t let that happen. Gritting her teeth, she whirled around, her eyes scanning the garden. It was a while before she saw the outline of two people walking towards her. Katara steadied herself, ready to launch her ice claws, prepared to attack when the duo walked into light.

“Katara?” Azula looked at her with evident confusion. “What are you doing?”

The man accompanying Azula raised his brows upon realizing who she was. Hastily schooling his features, he bowed in the Fire Nation salute. “Greetings, milady.”

Nodding at him, Katara stumbled over to the bench, “Sorry. I don’t mean to hold you and…”

“Jion,” Azula said. When it became obvious that she was not going to give any further explanations, Jion stepped forward and pointed at the empty place on the bench next to her. “May I, milady? I’m a little drunk and not really steady on my feet.”

When Katara nodded, he sat down, tucked his hands behind his head, and stretched his legs in front of him. Azula leaned against the rim of the fountain, crossing her arms. Upon realizing that the silence between the three was beginning to get awkward, Jion ventured forth.

“Azula neglected to mention that I’m her therapist.”

That piqued her interest and she looked at him, wiping the residual tears off her face. “So… you’re a healer?”

“Sort of,” he said, nodding slowly. “I’m a healer of the mind.”

Katara blinked. “Healer of the mind? How… how do you do that?”

“Through a combination of medicines and talking.”

Katara looked from one to the other, waiting for one of them to say boo. When they didn’t Katara said, “Talking? Are you serious?”

“You’d be surprised just how much talking helps. Azula tells me you are a healer yourself.”

“I am. Yes.”

“Then you, of all people, would understand that ignoring a wound and pretending that it doesn’t exist, does more damage than good.”

“It does,” Katara agreed.

“The mind is no different, milady. The wounds of the mind need healing too.”

Katara looked at Azula, whose eyes were fixed on Jion with an unreadable expression on her face. Thankful for the distraction the two had brought, Katara faced Jion, “But I would imagine the mind is tougher than the body. I can see the wound of the body, but I would suspect the mind is much more problematic.”

“Which is why we talk,” Jion answered with a smile, showing a set of deep dimples. “When a person talks, we get glimpses of who they are. The more they talk, the more we know. And once we know the wound, we can then work at healing.”

Katara pondered on Jion words. Talk. That’s what Zuko wanted her to do. He wanted her to talk. “That sounds… interesting. And I see your point. Maybe… I should talk?”

“Yes, you should. But, more pertinent question for now is, what are you doing here, Katara?” Azula interjected. “That’s your gala in there. Shouldn’t you be inside?”

Katara sighed, the crown’s weight suddenly feeling too heavy. “I know. I should be there but… I don’t think he would be too thrilled to see me now.”

“He?” Jion asked. “Who? The Fire Lord?”

“Yes, yes, Zuko.”

“Why?”

“I just had a bit fight with him and…” her words petered away as the words she had so unthinkingly hurled at him coming back to her, coloring her with shame.

“And?” Azula pressed.

“You said things you shouldn’t have?” Jion asked in a calm and empathetic voice.

“Pretty much,” she said, burrowing her face in her hand.

Azula clicked and waved a dismissive hand, “Don’t worry about that. My brother isn’t one to hold grudges. In fact, I bet he got all shouty right back at you.”

Katara gave a weak chuckle, “He did.”

“Then you are fine,” Azula said. “He might be having a freak out right now. Just go right back in, though, and Zu Zu will be okay.”

“You think so?”

“I know so.”

Azula had a point. This was her gala. She was supposed to be there, not hide out here in the garden. Grinding her teeth at this lapse in her duties, Katara stood up. Instantly, Jion shot to his feet and bowed to her. She thanked the two and turned to walk when Azula called out, “Katara, wait. You can’t go in there looking like that.”

“Oh? I look that bad?”

Azula gave a small chuckle. “You do. Come with me, I’ll fix it.”

Katara looked between the therapist and the Princess and realized she had interrupted something. There was a hint of reluctance in Azula's offer. Thinking quickly, she said, “No, no. Don’t worry about it. I’ll get Mari to do it. Thanks, Azula. And Jion. You both helped me a lot.”


Where was she? Zuko thought, his eyes flicking to the door over and over again. She should have been here. Katara missing out on her own gala would not sit well with the council. In fact, he was sure he had heard a few whispers about how irresponsible it was of the Fire Lady to go missing. A part of Zuko knew that she was having a particularly difficult time at the moment and this gala was not helping her any way. But then, a bigger part of him resented everything that had happened in the garden. He knew she was hurting, but then, he had done nothing but been nice and understanding of her troubles. He done everything he could to accommodate her and now, this was how she was reacting. Blaming him, accusing him, abandoning him now when he needed her to be next to him. He knew he was being unreasonable, but he couldn’t help but wonder why she couldn’t put aside her issues for just one evening and be here when he needed her. Not to sound bitter, but he had signed off his entire life without a second thought, just for her. The least she could do was show up for one evening.

Zuko pressed his thumb against his brow, trying to rein in the irritation that was building up within him, when someone clapped his back. This was almost unheard of in a Fire Nation Councilmember gathering and he knew, without looking, who was next to him.

“Sokka,” he said as a greeting.

“You didn’t even look! How did you know it was me?”

Zuko looked up with the hint of a smile on his face, “There are three people in the world who can do that to me, one of whom is not even in this room, and the other is in the line of my sight.”

Sokka grinned, “One is me. One is Toph. Who is the third?”

“Jee.”

“Who? Eh, doesn’t matter. I just… never got the chance to talk to you, man to man, since North Pole.”

“And you chose this moment?” Zuko said with a small smile. “Not really the place for that kind of conversation. We could talk tomorrow morning.”

“Uh, I figured you’d be busy tomorrow.”

“Busy? My schedule is going to ne not any busier than usual. I usually have the mornings free.”

“Yeah, well, you will be busy,” Sokka said with a finality that Zuko would have caught on, had he been in a better mood. But distracted as he was about Katara’s absence, he had completely missed Sokka’s declaration. “Anyway, Zuk, my bro –“

“Don’t.”

“What?”

“Don’t ‘Zuk my bro’ me.”

“But you’ve always been my bro. Ever since Boiling Rock, we’ve been bros. Now you’re my brother-in-law now. So… you’re more my bro now. Double bro. But I can’t call you that can I?”

Zuko sighed, “Is there a point to all this?”

“Point? To what?”

“Sokka, are you drunk?”

“A little, but that’s beside the point.”

“So, what is the point? What exactly are you trying to say?”

“Oh…um… what was I trying to say again?”

“I don’t know.”

“Ah yes, I was here to say thank you.”

Zuko smiled, finally catching on, “Oh don’t worry about it. It was my duty.”

“Duty? It was your duty to have so much meat on the buffet?”

Zuko took a deep breath and slapped a hand on his head. “Sokka… Why are… This…You’re welcome. Have as much meat as you want.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

“Thanks, Zuk my bro! You’re the best!” Saying so, he walked away. Zuko huffed, wondering why the Water Tribe siblings were trying his patience that day. Deciding he needed a drink, he began to march towards the drinks table, when he felt a strange sensation. Like a tug behind his navel. Odd. He placed a hand on his stomach, wondering what he had eaten to have that sensation. But some instinct told him to turn around. He had long since learned to rely on his instincts and he obeyed.

And there she was. Nothing in her face or demeanor showed that she had been an emotional wreck less than an hour ago. Walking towards him with her head held high and a smile on her lips. Unknown to him, his own lips draw into a smile of his own.

Chapter Text

Chapter 17

Zuko kicked in a wide arc, sending a trail of fire in a line. The night before played in his mind in an endless loop, with no relief whatsoever. He had deliberately chosen an aggressive kata to stop himself from going on in circles. Letting out a huff of smoke, he moved in short, precise movements, with bursts of fire jutting from his limbs. He turned to send punches through the air, with accompanying jets of flame, before spinning around and sending a burst of fire from his fingers to end the kata he had been working on. That done, he turned around and breathed in deeply to center himself.

“That’s so cool!”

“Bumi!” Zuko said with a grin, surprised to find the boy there and glad to have something to distract him from the endless cycle his mind had been spinning in. Over the past week, he had not actively avoided Zuko, but had not sought him out either. The few times that they met over the breakfast they had spoken cordially, even going so far as to share a joke or two with Sokka’s aid.  But now, he was here, sitting on the bleachers by himself. This was a clear olive branch and Zuko wanted to use it. He grabbed a towel from the rack, threw it around his neck and walked over to the bleacher to sit with Bumi. “What a pleasant surprise! To what do I owe this honor?”

The boy gave a hesitant smile, “Actually… I wanted to see Fire Bending. Auntie Suki said that you’re the best. So… I… I… I hope it’s okay?”

“Of course. This is your home. You can go wherever you want. Do tell your aunt that she need not flatter me, though,” He wiped his face and bare chest, and looked at the boy, “So, you think it was cool?”

“Very. I have never seen Fire Bending like that.”

“Huh?” Zuko cocked his head to the side, “Your dad was a Fire Bender. And I know I taught him that kata.”

“Oh yes, you were dad’s Fire Bending teacher,” Bumi said, nodding. “Dad told me once. But I guess, I sort of forgot. He didn’t really practice Fire Bending as such.”

Zuko frowned, stretching his leg in front of him, “Hmm. Yes, he never really liked fire as an element. He always preferred water and air, over earth and fire.”

“So… you knew my dad well?”

“In a way,” he said. “We were good friends once. But then… over the years, we sort of got busy with our lives and we sort of… fell apart. He still was a friend, though.”

The boy pulled his knees up to his chest and hugged his legs, his face taking on a serious expression, “What kind of a person was he? My dad.”

Zuko did a double take, wondering what to say to him. Over the past few days, based on everything he had seen of Katara, and of the parallels between Mayung and Aang, his respect and esteem for the latter had taken a serious hit. But this was the boy’s father they were talking about. From what Zuko could tell, Aang had not harmed his children. He may not have been the best father he could have been, but he had not been like Ozai either. Whatever he said at this point could be pivotal and had the potential to make or break the nascent relationship he was building with Bumi. Zuko recognized this moment for the test that it was. He licked his lips and asked, “What did your mom say about him?”

Bumi shrugged and said, “Mom hardly ever talks about him. The few times that she does, she says he was a nice guy. No more than that.”

“What do you remember about your dad?”

Bumi sighed and lay his head on his knees, keeping his eyes on Zuko, keenly studying him, “He used to be busy. I mean, he was the Avatar and he was working on reviving the Air Benders. So… it was tough. But when he did come to play with us, he was fun. If a little… I don’t know what’s the correct word here…”

“Flaky?” Zuko said before he could stop himself and winced internally.

Bumi, however, chuckled. “Yes. That he definitely was. Especially fond of that silly marble trick of his, wasn’t he?”

Despite himself, Zuko smiled, “Yes. Yes, he was. Once, in the middle of this serious meeting that we were having with dignitaries from all over the world, he forgot his speech halfway through. So… guess what he did to get over his awkwardness?”

“Don’t tell me! The marble trick?”

“Yup.”

“Oh dad!” Bumi groaned, hiding his face in embarrassment.

Zuko reached over and ruffled the boy’s hair. “You have his eyes, you know?”

Bumi looked up with a half-smile. “Thanks,” his eyes then flicked to the wound on Zuko’s chest and said, “That looks like it hurt something nasty.”

“It did,” Zuko said, running a hand over it as the memory of the blinding pain came back. “I almost died.”

Bumi looked to the scar on his face, “Which hurt more? The one on your face or the one on the chest?”

Zuko leaned forward, crossing his fingers, startled by the depth of the question, “Wow. No one’s asked me that before, you know?”

“No one?”

He shook his head. “I have not really thought about it, but… I will answer. Give me a moment to think?”

“Sure.”

 Zuko sighed and leaned back, tucking his elbows on the backrest, “Physically, the one on the chest was worse. But mentally, the one on the face.”

“Huh. Why?”

“Because it happened when I was thirteen,” Zuko said, trying to keep it as simple as possible. “At that age, people are just beginning to learn who they are, what they want and all that. It’s a very confusing time in a person’s life. And me? I had to deal with this scar on my face that changed how I looked. That hurt.”

“How did you get it?”

Children really don’t have any filters, Zuko thought. Aloud, he said, “A bad man did it.”

“Where is that bad man now?”

“He’s dead.”

“Please tell me you killed him.”

“No. He died on his own, in prison.”

“Oh! Then you arrested him?”

“No. Your dad did.”

Bumi grinned and punched the air, “Go dad!”

A minute of companionable silence later, the boy continued, “How about the one on your chest? How did you get that?”

“During a battle,” Zuko answered levelly.

“Who won that battle?”

“Your mom.”

Bumi looked confused. “Mom did that?”

“No,” Zuko answered, chuckling. “I was fighting a very skilled Fire Bender. But that Fire Bender realized that your mom is there too and shot lighting at your mom. I jumped in front of it, trying to deflect it.”

“That was both brave and stupid,” Bumi said in a tone that reminded him of Katara.

“That’s what Katara said too. Later. After I woke up, that is.”

“Yeah. That’s totally something she would say. So how did mom win the fight then?”

 “After I took the lightning, I was in no shape to fight. So, she took over the fighting and defeated the Fire Bender.”

“Wow, so mom’s a badass!”

“Totally.”

 “You… you’re…not who I thought you were.”

Zuko raised his brow, “Why? What did you think I was like?”

“I thought you were all mean and nasty and scary,” Bumi said with a grimace. “I didn’t like you very much.”

“I gathered as much.”

“But you’re okay.”

“Thank you. I work hard to be okay.”

Bumi snorted. “What should I call you, you reckon?”

“Zuko is fine by me.”

“Oh no!” Bumi sounded scandalized. “Mom would kill me if I called you that.”

“Okay… so what do you want to call me?”

“I won’t call you dad.”

“I don’t expect you to.”

“Auntie Toph had a suggestion.”

A twinge of fear crept up Zuko’s spine, “I don’t know if that is a good or a bad thing.”

Bumi sniggered, “I know what you mean. But don’t you at least want to hear what she suggested? I mean if you don’t like it, then I’ll think of something else.”

“Sure. Let’s hear it then.”

Bumi’s eyes took a mischievous gleam as he said, “She said I could call you… fatherlord.”

Zuko threw his head back and erupted into laughter. Beside him, Bumi joined. The two of them roared in mirth, with tears streaming down their eyes. “I like that,” Zuko said, after recovering a bit. “Yes, you can call me that.”


As Katara made her way to Iroh’s chamber, she reflected on the night before, still unable to believe how the evening had gone. She had walked back into the banquet hall, fully expecting Zuko to be in a foul mood and berate her for being missing for as long as she had been. He had, however, walked over to her with a smile. Then, to her surprise, had whispered, “Thank you for coming back.”

He had gone on to be perfectly amiable for the rest of the evening. The gala had gone on till late in the night and it had been well past midnight when she had finally begun the walk back to her chambers, with Zuko by her side. At the door of her chamber, she had requested him to come in for a moment as she wished to talk.

Once inside, Katara said, “I just want to apologize for what happened in the garden. I should tell you what happened.”

Zuko nodded, waiting for her explanation in silence.

“I overheard some people say some very mean things about how you’d developed a… uh… taste for the exotic cuisine of Earth Kingdom and Water Tribe. And how… you’d be sating your cravings now and –”

Zuko face scrunched in revulsion, “Agni! That’s disgusting! Who was saying that?”

“I don’t know,” Katara said, shrugging. “I heard only one name. Lady Surna, Surma or something.”

“Sorma,” Zuko said, an understanding dawning on his face, crossing his arms across his chest. “Why doesn’t that surprise me? They had a cushy life under Ozai. But my rule has stripped them off a lot of material comfort, forcing them to actually work for their upkeep. They never forgave me for that.”

Katara felt her lips twitch at his tone, “Well, point is, those words hurt, and I ended up screaming at you, when you were not really at fault. Sorry about that. I… I shouldn’t have insinuated what I did. It’s not fair.”

Zuko shook his head, “I’m sorry too. I said some mean things too. I shouldn’t have said you’re having a pity-party either. Not when I know you’re battling something big.”

Katara looked straight at him, blue fixing on gold, “How? How do you know that?”

“How could I not?” Zuko said, not breaking his eyes contact. “It’s written all over you.”

A sob struggled to break through her as she took a step closer to him. “Even my father and Sokka didn’t see it,” she whispered. “Only you and Azula seem to have realized something is wrong.”

“I don’t know why they haven’t,” he answered coming closer, his voice was a low whisper. “I saw it in back in North Pole.”

Every fiber in her being screamed to crumple into his arms and cry. Somewhere deep down, she knew that he would not judge her or stop her. She raised a trembling and tentative hand to his face, but before she could make contact, her courage gave way. She dropped her hand and stepped back, forcibly putting a distance between them. A shadow of something passed over his face but it was gone before she could pinpoint it.

She cast around to talk about something to fill the heavy silence that had settled between them, “I met Jion today.”

Perplexed by the sudden change in topic, he blinked multiple times, before he said, “Azula’s therapist? I didn’t realize he was at the banquet.”

“He wasn’t,” Katara said, “I met him in the garden. Along with Azula.”

“Really? That’s… unexpected.”

“Why? Was he not supposed to be here?”

“No. I mean… it’s not unusual. He has been given quarters very close to the palace, so he could be here at short notice. That’s not the part that surprises me. Normally, he meets me when he comes over. He didn’t do that today.”

“You were at a banquet,” Katara reminded him. “Maybe he thought he would meet you tomorrow for the update?”

“Possible. Listen, before I forget, Uncle said he has something important to discuss with us tomorrow morning over breakfast.”

“Oh… okay,” She was about to say something more when Zuko tried and failed to hide a yawn. “Oh! You’re tired. Go, sleep. We will talk tomorrow.”

“No, it’s okay. What were you saying?”

“It’s not important. Go. Sleep.”

It spoke to how tired he was that he did not need much more convincing. Katara, however, had spent the entire night tossing and turning. The burden of keeping everything within her was corroding her from within. She was exhausted from carrying the burden that was crushing his soul. If Azula could go from being torn apart, like she had been after the Agni Kai, to the person she was now, Katara was certain she could get some peace too. Jion had said talking would help and Zuko had been trying to get her to talk.

But talking about it, admitting it, acknowledging it would make it all real. Sometimes, pretending that it had all happened to someone else had helped her survive. But then, pretending and running away from her truth was what had landed her in prison in the first place. It had given her more trouble than she cared to admit. Hiding had not helped her, in any way. It had only served to make things worse. She was done being the victim. She was done with her suffering. She was done with letting her wounds define her. She was going to take charge.

Her mind set, Katara walked up to Iroh’s chamber and knocked on the door.


At the knock, Zuko’s head jerked up and he resisted the urge to hide behind the table. He was still reeling from the events of last night and was not sure how to react to her. Something had happened last night. Something had shifted and Zuko was not sure what was happening. Katara’s eyes had held a world of emotions that had knocked his breath out. The way she had looked at him… it had simultaneously warmed and scared him.

Warmed because it had been so soft, so beautiful. No one had looked at him like that. Ever. Scared, because she looked so vulnerable and in so much pain. He didn’t know what he was supposed to do. How was he supposed to react to what had passed? He had been attracted to her at the beginning of the gala, yes, but that had been entirely physical. That was something he could both understand and deal with. It was simple. He was a man. She was a woman. And he had not touched one in seven years. However, in a matter of hours, the simple equation had shifted. Things had changed and he did not know how to deal with it. He let out a breath he didn’t know he was holding. Soon, much too soon for him, the door opened, and she walked in. Even amid so many people, in the low light, he could see the dark circles under her eyes.

“Gran Gran,” she said cheerily. “Good to see that you’re feeling better.”

“Katara, my child,” Kanna said, holding her arms wide. She almost flew into her arms. “Sit, sweetie. We need to talk.”

At that, Katara met Zuko’s eyes and raised her brows, as if to ask what this family meeting was for. Zuko shrugged. He was just as clueless as her. She took a seat on the bench facing Kanna.

“Zuko,” Uncle said, “Join Katara on the bench please. We need to talk.”

No. I need time. With a nod, he obeyed. He lowered himself on the bench, taking care to keep a distance between him and his wife. “Is something the matter?”

Hakoda, who had been leaning against the wall thus far, walked over to them and sat in between his mother and Iroh. Zuko suddenly felt like an eight-year-old boy who had pissed off his teachers. Shaking the ridiculous feeling he said, “What’s this? Some sort of intervention?”

“In a way,” Hakoda said. “Look, I know you both might be averse to the idea, but we have a plan for you.”

He looked at Katara who had an identical expression of horror on her face. “What plan? Did you three hatch it?”

“That’s…. ominous,” Zuko said, his eyes widening.

“Don’t knock it down before you’ve heard the idea,” Iroh objected. “We only have your best interests in our minds.”

“Uh huh,” Zuko said.

“And to that end, we have taken a joint decision,” Kanna said. “We are sending you both on a holiday.”

“What?” the two of them chorused.

Hakoda cleared his throat, “Look, given how you both got married, you both have not had the chance to really bond as a couple. You both have been friends for a very long time. But suddenly, your life has changed. Drastically. We think it would be advisable if you both take some time for yourselves. To understand each other. You both have to spend your lives together after all.”

Zuko blinked. What they were saying did make sense but he wasn’t certain he was ready for it, “Oh… Ummm… yes, I see… When are you thinking we should go?”

“Now,” Iroh said, gleefully.

“Now? What do you mean now?” Katara squeaked. “How can we do it now? The children –“

“We are all here, we can take care of them,” Kanna said.

“I run a nation,” Zuko added.

“And it works like a well-oiled machine, nephew,” Iroh said. “I’m sure I can look after it.”

Zuko shared another look with Katara, wondering what other excuse they could come up with. She spoke next, “What about our bags? At least give us time to pack out bags.”

“Oh that’s been taken care of,” Hakoda said dismissively. “Suki, Toph, and Ty Lee packed Katara’s bag while Sokka packed Zuko’s. They’re on the ship already.”

“But –“Katara began when Kanna cut her off.

“My dear, it has been so tough for me to see you lose the man you loved from a young age, becoming a widow, put on trial, marrying suddenly… I have seen you go through a tumultuous time in life. At this stage of my life, all I want –“

“Gran Gran, stop,” Katara deadpanned. “Don’t play the age card.”

“Tch, you know me too well,” Kanna complained, pouting.

Seeing an old woman resorting to a toddler-like action made Zuko chuckle.

“So… All is set then,” Iroh said, clapping his hands. “Come on, the carriage is ready.”

“Don’t we get a say?” Zuko asked.

“You do,” Hakoda said, “We just don’t listen to it. Now come on, everyone is waiting for you.”

“Everyone?” Zuko rubbed his temple, trying to wrap his mind around the whole shebang. “Of course. Is it too much to ask how long we would be going for?”

“A week,” Kanna said.

“And where?” Katara asked.

“Ember Island.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 18

Zuko lowered himself in the bathtub, his taut muscles easing with the warm water lapping around him. Closing his eyes, he dipped down, letting water engulf him. This morning, when he had woken up, he had no idea that he would be sleeping in a completely different part of the country. After being informed of the impromptu holiday, Zuko had hemmed and hawed, trying to remind everyone that the Water Tribe assassin was still in jail and they were nowhere close to figuring out what message to send Hahn, without upsetting the delicate balance of the World Peace. Iroh waved a hand, claiming that politics would still be there when he got back. One week wouldn’t stop the world. Knowing a lost argument, he had done some quick thinking, and had managed to wrangle a few things from his office, before Iroh had barged in and practically shoved him out.

They had bid a somewhat hasty farewell to family and friends. The situation had been explained to Izumi and Bumi, and while neither of them seemed overly thrilled by the idea of them taking a vacation by themselves, they both had wished them well. Kya, however, had NOT been happy. She had made her displeasure known, very vocally. It had taken a combination of bribery (Ice pops by Suki), distraction (Metal bending by Toph) and some cajoling (by Hakoda) before the girl had let go of the monkey-hold she had Katara in.

Usnig the child’s distraction, they turned to walk. Before they could start climbing, though, Azula called for Katara, who turned around. His sister thrust a parcel in Katara’s hands. “in case of emergency,” she said cryptically and walked off. Katara had shared a perplexed look with Zuko, who shrugged. The two climbed the gangplank and turned to wave at their loved ones. Kya had waved a teary, pouty farewell. Katara had alternatively worried and felt guilty over leaving her kids alone. Zuko had listened and made the appropriate noises.  

 As the ferry sped over the water, Zuko felt his stress, tension, and pressure ease away. The farther he went from the palace, the farther the mantle of ‘Fire Lord’ went from him. Landing on the beaches of Ember Island, he realized that he had truly needed this, despite his mixed feelings about the vacation. On one hand, he intended to use this vacation to try and figure out what had happened to Katara. On the other hand, he was a little scared of the strange feelings about Katara that were budding in him. Maybe this was a good time to clear out the fucking quagmire that was his and Katara’s relationship. All in all, though, Zuko was glad he had agreed to this scheme.  At that moment, in the tub, he was something he had not been in years. Just Zuko. Not the Fire Lord. Not Ozai’s son. Not a father. Not a monarch. Just Zuko.

He broke the water surface with a gasp, feeling more relaxed than he had in what seemed like forever. He climbed out of the tub and grabbed a towel. He caught his reflection in the mirror and realized he needed a shave. A faint stubble was darkening his cheeks. He wiped his face and neck and was about to start on his back when he heard a scream.

Katara!

Panic rose within him as his mind painted pictures of her being attack, or in the throes of panic. He wrapped the towel around his waist in a hurry and darted to her room. The sight that greeted him was both relieving and anticlimactic. She stood at the side of her bed with the contents of her bag strewn all over. She was gaping at a red cloth in her hand, her eyes wild.

“Katara? Is everything okay?” He asked, feeling a twinge of worry.

She looked up at him and raised her eyebrows. It took her moment to school her features before she said, “No! I’m going to kill them. Suki, Toph, and Ty Lee. I. Will. Kill. Them.”

He frowned, only now realizing that water was still dripping from his hair. He gathered them in his hand, it had now grown down to his mid back, and gave it a bit of a shake. He missed his short, messy hair sometimes, but then, he could not cut his hair even if he wanted to. The hair of a Fire Lord carried many symbolic significances. The topknot symbolized their lineage as royalty, which was why for him and Uncle cutting it off at the Earth Kingdom had been an act of rebellion. The long hair symbolized prosperity and stability of the nation. Once, it had also symbolized peace. In fact, centuries ago, when the Fire Lord wanted to declare a war with a country, they would send a lock of their hair as a message. Sozin had done away with that when he declared war against the entire world, because he couldn’t send his hair to every little village in the world. He’d have to go bald. Thus, while the ‘peace’ part was lost, the rest of the symbolism remained.

He gathered his hair and squeezed some of the water on the floor, evaporating it with his foot, and walked into the room. “What happened? What did they do?”

“This!” She said and held up a piece of red cloth.

What could be so offensive about a piece of cloth? He wondered as he grabbed it from her to take a better look.

Oh.

He was looking at what the Fire Nation called, ‘lotus petals’ – a special line of clothing that had only one purpose. In his hand was a blood-red garment that ended before it even began properly. The garment, and he was using that term generously, was supposed to hang from the wearer’s neck by a thin string. A black piping outlined the breasts, most of which the garment would leave exposed. A line of lace ran from the base of the breasts, all the way down to where the crotch would be. The back was a crisscross of thin strings that was meant to hold the cloth in place. 

Heat crept up his cheeks and he cast a look along the bed, hoping against hope that this was the only salacious piece of clothing. No such luck. Every single bit of clothing strewn on the bed were the ‘lotus petals’ clothes.

“Wow. T…They…uh… didn’t pull any punches, huh?”

Katara slapped her hands on her cheeks, shaking her head. “What were they thinking?”

Zuko raised his brow, his lips twitching slightly. The embarrassment of the moment had given way to hilarity in his mind, “Do you need me to spell it out for you?”

She threw him a dirty look, and snatched the cloth from his hand, “No, Zuko. I can hazard a guess.”

“Well, this is what happens when friends pack bags,” Zuko said wisely.

“Yeah? Well, Sokka packed yours.”

Unbidden an image came to his mind. One that had haunted his dreams for days. His eyes widened in horror and he spun around to run to his room. He could hear her tread behind him as they entered the adjoining room.

“No tigerdillo pants, Agni, please no tigerdillo pants,” Zuko muttered as he tried to undo the strings of his bag, his trembling hands making the task difficult.

“Tigerdillo pants?” Katara said, sitting on the bed. “Do I want to know?”

“No, you don’t,” he said, shaking his head. “Actually, on second thoughts… no. You REALLY don’t.”

With a giggle, Katara flung the pillow at him, which hit him square on the face. Evidently, this holiday had loosened her inhibitions too. He was happy to see glimpses of the Katara he knew.

“Very mature,” he scowled. “What the hell? Why can’t I open this?”

Katara cast a look and said, “Ah, Water Tribe knots. You can’t open them.”

Zuko rolled his eyes, “What’s the point of a knot if no one can open it?”

“I didn’t say no one can open it,” she answered smugly, “You can’t open it. I can.”

“Really?”

“Yes. I will open it, if you tell me about the tigerdillo pants.”

“Open it and I’ll tell you.”

She grabbed the bag and undid the knot deftly. “Now tell me.”

Zuko sighed as he opened the bag, “I accompanied Sokka for a shopping trip before his wedding. Before buying, tried on and showed me a few things.”

Katara snorted, “Tigerdillo pants being one of them?”

“An image for nightmares,” Zuko grumbled as he pulled out his clothes, each more outlandish than the other, until finally, he found the offensive pants he hoped wasn’t there. Katara grabbed the brief, a tigerdillo striped pants, and burst out laughing.

“What the hell is this?” Katara chuckled. “Is this Sokka’s idea of romance?”

Zuko shook his head, “I admire Suki more and more every passing day.”

She dumped the pant on top of the heap, still giggling.

Zuko flopped on the bed next to her, “We don’t have clothes to wear.”

Struck by a sudden inspiration, Katara ran back to her room and was back with the parcel Azula had given. “This classifies as an emergency.”

She pulled the string apart and opened the paper, to find two pairs of red tunics and black slacks that looked like they’d fit them.

“I never thought I’d say this, but thanks Azula,” Zuko said, picking his clothes to put them on. He walked behind the wooden partition that allowed him to change, “Don’t peek.”

“Haha,” she said, in an exaggerated laugh, “How did she know we would need this?”

He walked out of the partition, tying his belt on the tunic, “She’s known Ty Lee all her life. I’m sure she guessed it.”

“Well, it takes care of tonight,” Katara said, “But what about the rest of the days that we are staying here? We can’t possibly be wearing all that.

“There is a market nearby,” Zuko said, gathering the ridiculous clothes and stuffing them in the bag, willy-nilly. “We’ll go there in the morning and grab something.”

Katara nodded, folding the paper of the parcel neatly. As he watched, she kept folding the paper over and over. Something about the action didn’t sit right with Zuko. It looked too much like an anxious tic.  He dropped the shirt he had been holding, (yellow with blue sequins. Really, Sokka? Really?), and kneeled in front of her, covering her hand with his. It didn’t escape his notice that she didn’t flinch. Like she had not in the garden, when he had grabbed her shoulders. Back then, he had attributed it to her anger, but now, she was relaxed and cracking jokes. And she still had not flinched. His confidence was bolstered. Maybe, sometime in this holiday, he could give her the scrolls he had brought along with him. Maybe he would get the answers he sought.

“How are you holding up, Katara?” he asked gently.

“I’m okay,” she replied in a somber voice.

“I know you probably don’t like this arrangement –“

“No Zuko,” she cut him, her eyes fixed on his fingers on her hands. “I wanted to come here.”

Huh? “Really?”

She nodded. “Look, I know we decided that we shall remain friends and all that, but whether we like it or not, things are not the same anymore. They will never be. We can’t fool ourselves saying we are just going to be friends, like we have been for so long. We have to talk. There is a lot we both need to unpack.”

Zuko nodded and pulled the paper out of her hand. He sat down next to her and said, “I agree. We have to find our new normal. We have so much to talk about. And here we can do that without any interference.”

“Your hair is dripping water on the bed,” Katara said suddenly. “Didn’t you dry it properly?”

Zuko gave her look, “I was drying up, when someone screamed bloody murder.”

She chuckled, “Sorry about that. Here, let me.”

For one wild moment, Zuko thought she meant to dry his hair with a towel and the thought sat like a hollow in his stomach. But then, she twirled her fingers and pulled the water out, directing it to a potted plant in the corner. Right. She was a Waterbender. How did he forget that? What was I thinking?

“Are you okay? You look… strange.”

 “I’m just tired,” He said more gruffly than he intended to.

“Long day,” she said, nodding in agreement. “I’ll head to bed now. Let’s go to the market tomorrow morning?”

“Sure. Good night, Katara.”

“Good night, Zuko.”


The air carried a smell that made Katara’s mouth water. Next to her, Zuko walked with a slouch, a hood pulled over his head. He had, apparently, taken to carrying this hood with him whenever he wanted to remain undetected in public. This was the only item of clothing that he had managed to grab before Iroh had practically shoved him out of his office and into the carriage. Katara had tried to tell him that he wouldn’t need the hood, he had not needed one in Ember Island back when he was a wanted fugitive. He had, rather high-handedly, answered that he was a much more known face now. He did not fancy being hounded. If she wanted to go to the market, this is how they would go. Or he could ask their security to go and grab them clothes. Katara had quickly nixed that idea and thus, here he was, in a hood drawn over his face, his stooped shoulders making him appear smaller than he was.

“What’s that smell?” Katara asked. “It smells yummy.”

Zuko sniffed the air and said, “Fried Parsin fish. It’s actually quite delicious. You want to try?”

Katara’s eyes lit up, “Yes please!”

Without a moment’s hesitation, he grabbed her hand and said, “Come on.”

The sudden contact had not startled her. For reasons she could not fathom, his touches did not startle her. Not when he had steadied her after Ty Lee had crashed into her, not when he had grabbed her shoulders in the garden, not the night before, or even now. It was strange, and Katara couldn’t help but wonder why this was. She allowed him to lead her as they weaved through the crowd, all of whom seemed to be dressed in brightly colored clothes. The streets were packed, and it seemed festive, “What’s happening?”

“It’s the Summer Solstice festival,” he explained. “They celebrate it in a big way here. They say that Fire Lord Aziman was born in Ember Island on the day of Summer Solstice. He was the one that made Ember Island the holiday destination it is today.”

They reached the stall from where the intoxicating smell was wafting. Zuko used a lower, heavier voice to order two fishes.

That voice is quite sexy.

The thought came from nowhere, starling her. She was glad that he was not looking at her, for embarrassment colored her cheeks. He was ordering fish, for Tui’s sake! She blamed the tawdry trio for the wayward thoughts in her mind. Zuko showing up in her room wet and, in a towel, had certainly not helped.

The problem was, at the heels of these thoughts, though, came horrific images that suffocated her. Dread was snaking up her spine. Katara scrunched her eyes shut, breathing deeply. No. She had come here to exorcise her demons. She won’t let them overtake her.

“Katara?” Zuko’s low whisper broke her thoughts, and she found him looking at her quizzically. “Do you want to go back?”

She shook her head, gritting her teeth against the onslaught of bitter memories. She grabbed a plate from his hand and thanked the vendor. Zuko led her away from the bustling crowd to an alley that was somewhat isolated. There, he leaned against a wall, removed his hood, and said, “This fish doesn’t have many bones, except the center one. You shouldn’t have any problems eating it.”

His statement jolted her to the present and she looked at him through narrowed eyes, “I grew up in the South Pole. We mostly ate fish. I can handle this.”

He grinned, “You never know.”

Katara broke off a piece of white meat and took a bite. Flavors erupted inside her mouth. She shut her eyes and said, “Mhhhh. This is so good.”

“I thought you might like it,” he said, sounding rather pleased.

“I love it!” She devoured the fish in record time, enjoying every morsel of it. “This was so good.”

Then Zuko took her by surprise and held his plate of untouched fish out to her, “Here. Have this.”

Katara’s jaw dropped. “You don’t want it?”

“I have had this many, many times,” he said, smiling. “You seem to be really enjoying it. So, go ahead, dig in.”

“Are you sure?”

“Absolutely.”

“Thanks,” she said and accepted his plate, finishing the fish in a matter of minutes. She looked up to find Zuko looking at her with a small smile. “What?”

He shook his head, “Nothing. What would you like to do next?”

“Me? I don’t know.”

He nodded and held out a hand, pulling his hood up with the other. “Come then, let’s grab some clothes and then, I’ll show you around.”

Without the slightest hesitation, Katara took the proffered hand. He took her through the crowd, weaving in and out with dexterity. That reminded her that he had been the Blue Spirit, and for a very good reason. As they walked along, Katara saw Mizu, who was keeping his distance but keeping an eye on them as well. She knew at least four other imperial Fire Benders were following them at a distance. Before they entered the store, Zuko gave her arm a small tug and reminded her that out here, he was to be called Lee. An hour later, they were having an argument.

“There are other colors in the world beside red, black, and gold, Lee!

“I don’t like other colors.”

“What’s wrong with green?”

“Reminds me of Lee.”

“What?”

“That tea vendor in Ba Sing Se,” he reminded her.

“Oh, that Lee. Okay, so blue?”

“No. That’s your color, not mine.”

Katara raised her brow, “Did you just say that’s not your color?”

Zuko demurred, “I didn’t mean it that way. What I mean is… I have always associated that color with you. Not with me. It’s just how it is.”

“Okay,” she tried not to focus on the butterflies in her stomach and instead focused on pushing some more clothes aside, annoyed with the plethora of red. She found a grey shirt with a black and brown pants and decided that finally she had found something that he would not object to. She grabbed the set and turned, but he was nowhere to be seen. Her heart gave a wild leap as for a second, she imagined him being abducted, but brushed the irrational fear when she spotted Ren, another of the Imperial Fire Bender, standing someway off, examining scarves a little too casually.

“Here,” Zuko’s voice startled her. Unaware of her surprise, he held out a parcel for her. “This is for you.”

“What’s this?”

“See it back at home,” he said, gruffly.

Katara smiled. That was so typical of Zuko. Whenever he did something nice impulsively, he became grumpy to hide his embarrassment. She handed the clothes she had picked for him and the two made their way out. One of the Imperial Benders took the packets of clothes from them and disappeared in the crowd. Some of her surprise must have shown on her face because Zuko said, “He will put the clothes back in the summer house.”

Just then a loud horn sounded, and someone began to call people cheerily. Zuko and Katara exchanged a quick look and arrived at a mutual decision. They hurried over to the crowd that had gathered around the stage. A crew of five people were going around in a circle, throwing confetti and declaring that they were about to start their play soon. A trumpet call sounded through the air, silencing the buzz all around. Four out of the five dispersed and one of them stood in front. The man cleared his throat and said, “Today, we, the Ember Island Players, gather here to present a small tribute to our beloved Avatar Aang.”


Next to him, Zuko felt Katara go rigid. Her face had taken on the pallor of a corpse. Whatever little doubt he had in his mind about her condition not being related to Aang evaporated. He tugged on her hand slightly to get her attention, “Let’s go.”

“No,” she said through gritted teeth. “I want to see this.”

“Katara,” he whispered. “Don’t do this to yourself.”

She didn’t respond.

“Katara, please, let’s go.”

“No.”

Before he could protest further, a young boy, using a rope to mimic Air Bending, landed on the stage. He put his glider behind his back and said, “I am Aang. I escaped the Air Nomad’s extinction with my flying bison, Appa.”

“Nice glossing over,” Zuko muttered, feeling anger rising within him. As the Fire Lord, one of his first edicts had been that Fire Nation’s brutal history would not be trivialized. People in Fire Nation would never be allowed to forget their bloody past. This opening had been a mockery of that edict and he hated it. Beside him, Katara was shaking, looking like she might collapse at any given moment. He draped an arm around her shoulders. Instantly, she slumped against him. Agni! She was so cold. He raised his body temperature, giving her some much needed warmth.

On stage, the actor Aang was describing how he learned his elements. One by one, actors came on stage, dressed like them. First it was Katara and Sokka. (They had again glossed over the entire fiasco of Northern Water Tribe siege). Then it was Toph. Lastly Zuko. (They still had the scar on the wrong side. What on Earth?) Then they moved on to talk about how as a group they fought against many evils (again, no mention that the said evil was Fire Nation), until finally, he had brought an end to the Hundred Year War. The troop seemed to be giving entire credit to Aang.

“Typical,” Katara muttered and straightened. “Let’s go. Nothing to see here.”

Zuko didn’t need to be told twice. He took her hand once again and led her away from the gross display. He didn’t even need to look at her to know that she was furious. He walked over to a different part of the market where there was a large fountain. He figured being near her element would help. “I guess we shouldn’t have much hopes from an Ember Island Players troop.”

Katara’s lips twitched slightly in mirth and in a hoarse voice said, “At least they got Aang’s gender right this time.”

“Katara… Aang… did he…”

“Not now, Zuko,” she cut him off, as though she knew what he was going to ask. “Can we go somewhere else?”

“Let’s have lunch then.”


“Just a little further,” Zuko said.

“Where are you taking me?” Katara complained good-naturedly. Zuko had successfully blown away the dark cloud that had come on her upon seeing that little play. A lunch of seafood noodles, a game of target shooting (in which he cheated shamelessly, using Fire Bending) and a game of hoop throwing later, Katara was happier than she had been in a long time. Then, some forty minutes before sunset, he had brought her to the beach.

“Just over this hill,” Zuko replied.

“Why?”

“Just come, will you?”

Katara huffed and made a show of rolling her eyes, but followed him, nevertheless. The sun was on the horizon when they reached the top. He led her to the very edge and sat down, patting the place next to him.

“Okay, so what are we doing here?” She asked sitting down.

“Nothing. Just wanted to show you something.”

“Sunset?”

“No. I mean, yes, it’s pretty stunning, but that’s not what I got you here for. Just wait for a bit.”

Katara stretched, raising her hands above her head, groaning as her body ached, “I’m getting old.”

“Nonsense. You’re not even thirty.”

Below them, the waves crashed against the rocky outcrop, creating a beautiful symphony. Katara held out her hand and pulled a strand of water to her, twirling it around her. Zuko let out an appreciative whistle from her right. “What?”

“That’s impressive.”

Katara looked at him nonplussed. “You have seen me play with water like this many, many times.”

“It’s not what you’re doing now that impressed me,” he clarified. “We are sitting forty feet above the sea and you summoned the water to yourself without even breaking a sweat.”

“Oh that,” Katara grinned. “Last I tried, I had successfully pulled water from a distance of seventy feet.”

“Incredible! You really are the best Water Bender of this generation.”

Katara smiled, feeling a surge of pride swell within her. Coming to this island had been cathartic. The day she had spent with Zuko had helped her a lot in bolstering her courage. She was ready to talk.

“Look,” Zuko said, cutting through her thoughts. Following his outstretched finger, she saw something that stole her breath away. The sun had set, leaving behind a darkness in which the waves glowed.

“What? What’s happening?”

“Bio luminescence,” Zuko replied, his eyes on the waves. “Some algae emit light, just like fireflies do.”

“It’s beautiful!”

The two of them lapsed into a companionable silence as Katara wondered how to start saying what she wanted to. Before she could find the right words, however, he said something. His eyes were still on the waves, his legs dangling on the cliffside, when he spoke.

“Katara, can I confess something?”

“Uh… sure.”

“You know, I once had a huge crush on you.”

If Katara had not been sitting, she would have stumbled. “What? When?”

He turned to look at her, his face a symphony of light and dark, “I think it started in Ba Sing Se. Not sure. Then Wester Air Temple and Ember Island.”

It was as though the air had been sucked out of her lungs, “Why didn’t you ever say anything?”

 Zuko shrugged. “I was sixteen. We were in the middle of a war. Plus, Aang had heavily implied you guys were dating. Besides, when Mai came back, I realized that everything I felt for her was far stronger.”

Katara dropped the water she had been playing with and held her head in her hands. Unbidden a laugh bubbled within her. A high pitched, uncontrollable, mirthless laugh that robbed her breath. A laugh at her missed opportunities. Laugh at her pain. Her misfortune. She laughed till she could laugh no more. She grabbed her hair in her hands and pressed her palms against her eyes.

“This is too cruel,” she muttered under her breath. But as luck would have it, he had heard.


“Katara? What’s too cruel? What happened?”

She looked up. Her manic laugh had receded and had been replaced with a look of pain. She swallowed and said, “I had a crush on you too, once.”

That was not what he had expected at all. “What?”

She pulled her knees up to her chest, hugged them, and began to rock back and forth. Her eyes were fixed on the crashing waves, “I know for certain it began in Ba Sing Se. Then… you went with Azula. I was so angry with you.”

“I remember.”

“But then, you got my dad back. Then you helped me with Yon Ra. And that made things a little more complicated for me. I didn’t know what was happening.”

Zuko did not know what to say to that, so he just said, “Oh.”

Completely unmindful of him, she continued, “Then… you took a lightning bolt for me. No one ever did that for me. As I saw you fall and lay still, I knew… I knew that… I had fallen in love with you.”

Zuko’s eyes widened. “Katara,” he whispered. “I… I had no idea.”

“Of course, you didn’t,” she said in a low, scratchy voice. “I never told you.”

“Why didn’t you?”

She breathed in and looked at him, her eyes brimming with tears. “I tried. I came to talk to you. On your coronation day. But I saw you… with Mai.”

Zuko looked at her, not knowing what to say or do. Struck by a sudden thought, he tentatively asked, “Katara… are you… still… you know…”

“In love with you?” Katara asked without a shred of emotion in her voice. “I don’t know. So much has happened since then.”

“What happened, Katara? What did Aang do?”

Her eyes fixed him with a penetrating stare and gave a mirthless, empty smile, “Aang was the one who found me after I saw you. I cried into his shoulder, telling him everything. He told me he understood and stood by me. In Ba Sing Se, when he asked me out, I agreed because I was trying to get over you. It was fine. It was good, we were busy. I had actually learned to love Aang. But then, I attended your wedding. And I realized that I was fooling myself. I loved Aang, yes, but I wasn’t in love with him. That was you.”

Zuko raised his hand, meaning to give her a hug but she shook her head. “Don’t. Please. I need to get it off my chest.”

He dropped his hand, something twisting in his chest painfully, making it hard for him to breathe. Unaware of the impact her words were having on him, she continued, “As I saw you get married, I bid you goodbye. I let you go.”

“Oh Agni! Katara!”

“Aang heard me say ‘Goodbye Zuko’ and was not happy,” Katara said, tears streaming down her cheeks. “Not that I blame him. He felt cheated. But I managed to assure him that I was loyal to him. That I had let you go. I was the one that wanted to get married.”

Zuko closed his eyes, trying wrap him mind around what he was hearing.

“Then… Mai died. I was three months pregnant then, but I had not shared the news with anyone. Aang… he saw you hugging me and… did not take that very well. He left. When we returned to the Southern Air Temple from there, I thought telling him that I was pregnant would make him happy. But… Aang… well… when he realized that Bumi was a non-bender, he was convinced he was not his son. His logic? Avatar’s son could not have been a non-bender.”

Zuko shook his head, the knot in his chest tightening to the point of suffocating him. When Toph had revealed this nugget of truth, he had not realized that Katara knew about Aang’s irrational argument. But hearing her say these things ripped through him like a shrapnel.

Taking a deep breath, she continued, “He would tell me that Izumi was a non-bender. And Bumi was a non-bender. And I had a thing for you. So…. Bumi had to be…yours.”

Zuko buried his head in his hands, feeling his body temperature rising with his anger.

“I would have still convinced him, you know. He loved me enough for that… but then… I made a huge mistake.”

His head jerked up, breathing deeply to control his rising temper and heat. “What mistake?”

Katara looked away, no longer really seeing the glowing waves. She was looking at things only she could see. “I had a dream about you. For some reason, you were dominant on my mind at that time. Maybe it was the stress of being a new mother. Maybe it was loneliness because Aang was focused more on Air Acolytes. I don’t know what happened. But, I did. I kept thinking about you. And then, while Aang and I were having sex once… I… I blurted out your name.”

“Shit.”

“That… that was it. That’s where he changed,” Katara sobbed, putting a trembling hand on her mouth, “The sweet, lovable, Aang that we knew… he was gone.”

The tears streaming down her eyes wouldn’t stop. Neither could she. It was as though the volcano that had been bubbling within her erupted. “It started as constant jibes, and accusations of cheating. No matter how much I told him, he wouldn’t believe it. Then… it started.”

“Did he hit you?” Zuko asked in a low, scared whisper.

Katara sobbed, hiccupping, “Hit me? Yes. Yes, he did. He hit me. He burned me,” her voice cracked at this point, “He… he…r…raped me. Over and over and over and over and over again.”

In a flash Zuko was next to her, holding her against his chest. Clutching his tunic, she wept. “I…I couldn’t… couldn’t… do anything to stop it, Zuko. I…I tried. But… I couldn’t… I’m a Master Waterbender but…I …”

“He was the Avatar,” Zuko said, “He was the strongest bender in the world.”

“I… I tried to bloodbend him,” Katara said, sobbing. “Didn’t work. He used the Avatar state to get out of it.”

Zuko’s grip tightened around her, realizing that he had tears of his own. Her face burrowed in his chest, she let out a howl of pain. A loud, animalistic shriek of pure agony.

Chapter Text

Chapter 19

Katara woke up from her dreamless sleep suddenly and completely. The first thing she realized was that Zuko was not next to her. Last evening, after she had poured her heart out to him, they sat in the cliff in an awkward tangle of limbs for goodness knows how long. Eventually Zuko reminded her that their security detail, who had been standing out of earshot, needed to eat. It was only then that they made their way down the cliff and into the summer house.

They had made their way back to the house in silence. Katara had wanted to forego dinner and head to bed, but Zuko wouldn’t have any of that. He insisted on her having a cup of soup at the very least before she hit the bed. She didn’t have the energy to fight him and complied without a word. Once done, he had taken her to bed and picked out a night gown for her from the clothes they had purchased earlier that day. She could barely remember changing and flopping on the bed, completely spent.

When Jion had told her that speaking would help, Katara had not believed him. Not completely. But now that she had shared her deepest and darkest secret with Zuko, she felt as though a mountain had been lifted off her chest. She breathed easier than she had in a lifetime.

“Good night, Katara. I’m right next door, should you need me, okay?” With those words he had turned to leave. She didn’t know what possessed her to call him.

“Zuko… do… if you don’t mind, will you please stay till I fall asleep?”

She was not surprised when he complied, sitting at the head of the bed, patting her head like he was putting a scared child to sleep. It had worked and she fell asleep in a matter of minutes. Sometime in the middle of the night, she had woken up to find him still there, leaning against the headboard, hand on her head, feet straightened in front of him. The sight had only served to reinforce why she had fallen for this man. When Zuko cared for someone, he did it completely. There were no half-measures with him. How he could give all of himself to every relationship in his life, Katara could never understand. She had meant to wake him up, but, in a moment of utter Zuko-ness, he had lurched awake when she had but just stirred. He had then insisted that he was fine, and she was the one who had to sleep. That had resulted in a brief argument before Katara, with a little annoyance, told him to just lie down so both could catch some sleep. He had still been awake, though mercifully lying in bed, when Katara had fallen asleep.

Katara rolled over to her side and was instantly greeted with a whiff of his smell – smoke and cinnamon. She was just wondering what it was that had woken her when she heard it. The sound of intense Fire Bending. She got off the bed, grabbed the overcoat, and walked to the window overlooking the courtyard. Below her, Zuko was Fire Bending. But he was not alone. Mizu was with him.

Initially, Katara thought they were sparring but it quickly became apparent to her that the latter was struggling to keep up with the Fire Lord. Zuko was bending with a ferocity she had never seen before. As Katara watched, Zuko dropped down in a crouch and drew his leg in an arc on the ground, the resultant blast of flames destabilizing Mizu’s stance. Once the Imperial Fire Bender had been thrown off his stance, Zuko further pressed his advantage, sending burst after burst of flames from his feet, not allowing Mizu to regain his footing. He only stopped when the man had fallen on the ground. To Katara’s surprise, Zuko did not offer his hand to Mizu to pull him up, instead continued to bend, shooting flames into thin air. Something was wrong. Something was very wrong. Katara was about to rush downstairs when he forcefully lowered his burning fists to his sides, tilted his head up and roared, a gust of fire leaving his mouth. Behind him, Mizu looked both scared and concerned. Without thinking, Katara raced downstairs.

Ren was the first to meet her, bowing to greet her. “Milady.”

“What’s going on?”

The man cast a look over his shoulder, his brows knit into a frown. “We’re not sure, milady. The Fire Lord has never bended like this. None of us is able to keep up.”

“Hmm,” Katara walked out in the courtyard and came to stand next to Mizu.

“Milady,” he said bowing slightly. The two of them studied the angry Fire Lord punching an unseen opponent, unmindful of his onlookers.

“Leave. I’ll handle this.”

Mizu looked at her with evident concern on his face. “Milady.”

“I’ve fought him many times,” Katara said, summoning water from the well nearby. “I’ll be okay. Leave.”

The man bowed and obeyed. She gloved her arms with water and walked over to him. Zuko was no longer following any attack pattern. He was lost in his own world, throwing increasingly random and uncontrolled bursts of flame. Katara took a deep breath, walked next to him and laid her hand on his flaming fist. Water met fire, releasing steam with a hiss, extinguishing the flame.

Face contorted in rage, he whipped around to look at her. Seeing her, a plethora of emotions flitted on his face before he screamed, “What are you doing? I could’ve burned you!”

“I could heal it,” Katara replied steadily. “What are you doing?”

Zuko huffed, sparks and fumes coming out of his mouth, “I’m angry.”

“Yes, I see that. But is this a healthy way of taking it out?”

“What else can I do?” He replied through gritted teeth, snatching his hand from hers. “It’s not like I can direct it at the one I am mad at. This rage is fucking impotent. This is all I can do.”

At those words a small sob escaped her lips, “I can’t watch you burn yourself like this because of me.”

“Agni! Katara!” He extinguished the remaining flame in his hand and steadied himself. Taking a deep breath, he pulled her into a tight embrace. She was not surprised to find that she did not flinch. On the contrary, her arms went around him of their own accord.

“I’m sorry, Katara,” he said, his breath tickling her ear. “I’m so, so sorry. You went through hell because of me.”

Katara blinked, completely thrown off guard by this logic. She pulled back and looked at him incredulously, “What? How is any of it your fault?”

He stepped back and tucked a lock of her hair behind her ears. Then he pulled his hands back and scrubbed his face. “I’ve been thinking back to our interactions. I can’t believe I never realized how a fourteen-year-old girl would interpret the things that happened? I was so wrapped up in everything I was feeling, in everything that I wanted to do, everything I was supposed to do, I didn’t even pause to think the impact it might have had on someone else.”

Katara crossed her arms, realizing that he was doing that thing where he found a way to blame himself for everything. It was something Zuko excelled at. But this time, she would not allow him to twist things to make it his fault. “So… I get a pass because I was fourteen and misread a boy’s actions. But you don’t because you were sixteen and being who you are?”

Zuko looked at her, torn between surprise and confusion. “What do you mean?”

She smiled and cupped his face in one hand, “Zuko, that’s who you are. I throw you in the same situations again, ten out of ten times, you will behave the same way. It’s not your fault. I have never blamed you for what happened to me. Neither will you. If anything, I must take my share of the blame. I should have stayed loyal to Aang and…”

“Stop,” he growled, whirling around and grabbing her shoulders. Suddenly Katara realized just how much taller he was compared to her. “Don’t do this. You were not cheating on him. So what if you fell in love with… with… me? And I’m not saying this because it was me. I’d have said the same thing if it was… I don’t know… Haru.”

“Haru?” Katara raised an eyebrow. “Really?”

“His was the first name that popped up in my mind. That’s beside the point. Point is, when Aang accepted you, he knew everything, right? Then why could he not support you?”

Katara sighed and moved his arms away. She hugged herself and looked up. Above her, a pair of birds circled, chirping happily. “He tried. He really did. But I couldn’t love him the way he wanted me to.”

“And that gives him the right to abuse you?” Zuko said, steam rising from his entire body. “Why couldn’t he just see and understand the way you did love him and be okay with that? Why were you the one who was supposed to live up his expectations? Why couldn’t he lower his expectations?”

“It’s not that easy, Zuko,” Katara whispered, her lower lip trembling.

“It really is that easy, Katara! Mai never loved me the way I wanted her to. I didn’t punish her for it. I taught myself to find happiness in the way she did love me.”

“Really? I always thought you were head over heels in love with each other.”

Zuko shook his head, pacing around the courtyard, “I loved Mai. I still do. But… we were two very different people. You know me. As a teenager, I wore my heart on my sleeve. Even as an adult, I’m… expressive. Mai bottled up. To the people who didn’t know her, she would appear cold and unfeeling. I had to work really hard to get her to even smile and that used to frustrate me. But then, I realized that she showed her love in a very different way. Subtly. Once I learned that, I was happy. It really is that simple.”

Katara gave a humorless snort and walked over to the wall to lean against it, “You know, when I was leaving North Pole, Gran Gran told me something. With each passing day, her words ring truer.”

“What did she say?”

“She told me, ‘Zuko is not Aang. You will do well to remember that.’ I think she told me that because she thinks I will compare you with him, and find you wanting. Because according to my family, Aang was perfect in every way. And I haven’t done anything to disabuse them of that notion. But yes, Gran Gran does think I should not compare. But I do. I do compare the two of you. I can’t help it. The difference between you both is stark.”

“Well, we are two different people.”

“Which is why you don’t see why it was so difficult for Aang to accept everything.”

“Maybe, but that doesn’t justify the abuse,” Zuko bit out, coming to stand in front of her.

“You wouldn’t understand, Zuko,” Katara began but he cut her off.

“On the contrary, Katara, I do understand. I spent years trying to justify what Ozai did to me. To live up to the image he had in mind for me. I was miserable. You wouldn’t believe the lies I told myself in order to not face the truth – Ozai was a terrible human being. Period. It was not my fault that he burned me. In the same vein, it’s not your fault that Aang was a piece of shit.”

“Zuko!” Katara felt annoyance stir within her. “Despite everything he did to me, a part of me still loves him and I will not have you talk bullshit about him.”

“No. No, Katara! This is not love,” Zuko said vehemently, shaking his head. “This is the power of abuse. That’s what abusers do. They make you think that you can’t live without them. That it’s somehow your fault for not being the perfect being. Aang was not in love with you, Katara. He was in love with the idea of you. Whenever you slipped a little from that ideal, he couldn’t handle it.”

Katara gaped at him, her heart thudding loudly in her ears. He was putting into words her deepest, darkest thoughts that she had not dared to tell even herself. Hearing her most private thoughts laid out in the open made her stumble. Instantly, he was by her side, holding her.

“What happened to you?” he sounded aghast, stabilizing her against himself.

“How do you know this?”

He led her to the edge of the flowerbed and made her sit down, before lowering himself next to her. “Do you need some water to drink?”

She shook her head. “Just answer my question.”

“I noticed this, over and over again during the war.”

“Really?”

“Yes. I saw the pattern,” Zuko flicked a pebble with his big toe before continuing, “At Ba Sing Se, when he discovered us in the Crystal Catacombs, he was not very happy. At that point I thought it was jealousy. Then, it happened again when we were going for Yon Rha. He was not happy that you were not forgiving him. He looked so disappointed in you. Do you remember what you told me when you explained blood bending to me?”

“That Aang wouldn’t understand,” Katara whispered.

“You said he would be very upset if he knew you’d used blood bending,” Zuko said, undoing the string that held his hair in place. He ran a hand through it, mussing it. “I couldn’t understand why he would be upset. For me, it was as simple as Fire Bending. A form of bending that has the potential to become dangerous but in the hands of a stable bender, an incredible form of bending. As I see it, no bending is inherently evil. It’s the bender that makes it evil. In fact, I had once had a discussion with Aang about how Air Bending can be dangerous too. He was harping on and on about how Fire Bending was the cause of so much suffering, and how he was ashamed that he was a Fire Bender too. I snapped and told him that an Air Bender can suffocate someone to death if they want. He got all sanctimonious about it and… well, I’m digressing. What was I saying again? Ah, yes, the idea he had of you. The next time I saw it was during that ridiculous Ember Island Players play, ‘a boy in the iceberg’? He got angry on you because your stage actor was saying some things that he didn’t agree with. Ridiculous. What you told me it just shows that the pattern continued. He kept doing the same thing, but to increasingly disastrous outcomes.”

He licked his lips and continued, “Bumi is born a non-bender? That must be because you slipped from the ideal. Not because it has happened before. Roku’s daughter, my grandmother, was a non-bender. But he conveniently forgot or ignored that bit. Facts seldom mattered to him when he wanted to be obtuse. He just did. Ignoring what everyone said. He was just set on his ideas.”

Katara frowned, keeping her eyes fixed on her feet. “How did you know it was Aang did something to me? Most people won’t make that connection. What with Aang being an Air Nomad and harping on and on about peace?”

“I’ll admit it wasn’t my first thought,” Zuko said, picking up a pebble from the flowerbed and examining it. “I originally thought something happened to you in the jail cell… They didn’t do anything to you, did they?”

“They starved me, kept me from my children… typical prisoner things.”

He nodded, relief showing on his face. “That’s a relief.”

“You were telling me how you realized Aang did something to me.”

“Ah yes. I recognized the signs of abuse. Been there, done that, after all. But I thought it was Northern Water Tribe guys. It was Jee who made me realize I was wrong.”

“Jee? How does he know?”

“He doesn’t. He just said, Wounds we receive from the ones we love run the deepest. He was talking about Ozai, but it applied. That was when I began to suspect it. But then, I read something, and I was convinced.”

“Read something?”

“Wait here, I’ll be right back,” he said and marched into the house. Katara blinked back the tears and looked up. Within a day, her life had changed, and she did not know how to deal with it. Zuko seemed to have understood that she was not averse to his touch and he was not holding back. She had no doubts in her mind that he cared for her. But to what extent, she did not know. What she did know, however, was that if they continued down this road, her old feelings were going to flare up. She had never really fallen out of love with him, simply buried her feelings. But Zuko, being who he was, was dredging up her feelings. Only this time, Katara did not want to fight it. He was her husband now. She was allowed to have these feelings, wasn’t she? Could she, finally, give in to her heart for the first time in her life?

“Here,” his voice startled her from her thoughts. He was standing next to her, holding out a couple of scrolls.

“What is this?” she said, taking them from him.

He resumed his place next to her and said, “It’s the chronicles of Avatar Mayung.”

“Who’s that?”

“An Avatar from ages ago,” he said. “Read it. Might help you.”

Katara unfurled the scrolls and read through the two of them. Finishing the second scroll, she rolled it back and said, “Aang had trouble getting into the Avatar state in the last year of his life.”

“I gathered as much,” Zuko said. “According to the Fire Sages, if an Avatar strays from their righteous path, the spirits punish them. Honestly, my only solace is that fact. I just hope Aang got his due punishment.”

Katara grabbed the scrolls and lay them against her chest. Seeing the scrolls had been, for the lack of a better word, like a prayer had been answered. “Thank you, Zuko. This helps.”

He nodded. Then all of a sudden, he said, “Have you ever tried a sizzler?”

 “What? What is a sizzler?”

“Come, I’ll treat you to some good food. I’m hungry.”

Before Katara could understand what was happening, he held out a hand and said, “Let’s go.”


Sitting in the shack, Zuko found that he could not take his eyes off her. She was dressed in the outfit he had selected for her. A simple red, short sleeved blouse that tied at the front, leaving her midriff exposed. Paired with it was a red and blue sarong. The sarong was the reason he had chosen the outfit to begin with. The color scheme was very indicative of her – the best Waterbender who was now the Fire Lady. She had tied her hair in a ponytail, pairing the outfit with simple golden hoop earrings. His betrothal necklace sat at the base of her neck, her mother’s necklace on her arm, and his mother’s bracelet on the wrist. She looked beautiful.

Since she was busy studying the menu, Zuko leaned back on the chair and took his time studying her. He had been under the impression that he was prepared to hear her out. He had figured out that Aang had hurt her, after all. But, actually hearing everything that he had done had been akin to being hit by lightning, again. Only this time, he did not have any scars to show for it. What he was left with instead was this desire to burn. The rage he had experienced earlier that day had felt like the Sozin’s Comet had been ripping through him. Zuko was not unfamiliar with pain, but the agony he felt within him now felt unlike anything he had felt before. It was only the thought of Katara’s safety that had calmed him down.

When Ozai had burned and exiled him, the wounds in his psyche had run deep, tattering him. It had taken him years to recover from it. Shame, betrayal, homesickness, the feeling of being unjustly punished, anger – he buffeted between those emotions. But at Katara’s words, regret, guilt, and anger rose in him. Regret that he had not been there for her when she needed him the most. Guilt that it had all been because of him, regardless of what Katara said, he had to take some of the blame for everything that had happened. But, he was also feeling, for the lack of a better word, jubilant.

His Uncle used to say that there was no joy like being loved by someone selflessly. No treasure more precious, no person more beautiful. Till yesterday, he had merely thought he understood what Uncle had meant. But yesterday, when Katara had confessed her feelings, Zuko realized that he had been mistaken. There was nothing in this world that compared to the rush of feelings that were coursing through him. She had loved him, without asking anything in return. She had gone through hell, all because she had loved him. How could he ever make up for that? To try and describe what it felt like was akin to attempting to hold a rainbow in a box. This gift that she had given him, it was more precious than all the jewels in his coffers. She truly was the most beautiful person he knew.

“Zuko,” she said, cocking her to the side. “You’re staring.”

He blinked, “Oh? Sorry, didn’t mean to.”

“What are you thinking?”

“You’re beautiful,” his brain caught up with his mouth and he realized what he had just blurted out. Brilliant, Zuko. Foot straight in the mouth. Good job!

“Errr…thanks?” she made it sound more like a question. Her cheeks had a gentle flush, making his heart hop like a rabiroo.  

Oh Agni! This woman will be the death of me.

“Ready to place your orders, Sir?”

Pulling his hood closer, Zuko used his heavier voice to place his order. Katara cleared her throat and placed her own. The waiter bowed and left. He leaned forward, placing his elbows on the table. In his mind he could hear his uptight Councilmen and Councilwomen gasp in collective horror at this complete lack of decorum. Ignoring that mental voice, he said, “How are you feeling, Katara?”

She shrugged, “I feel… like a big weight is off my chest. It’s all gone. To use Ty Lee’s words… poof.”

He raised his brow and chuckled, “Poof?”

Katara laughed a little and said, “I can’t explain. I have been carrying this inside for what feels like forever. But now that I’ve told you everything, I’m… I feel on top of this world.”

He reached over and grabbed her hand, resisting the urge to peck it. “I’m glad you feel better. Not to rain on your parade, though, but I want to warn you about something. Just because it’s a good day today, doesn’t mean that the anxiety and panic won’t return.”

“I know. The road to healing will be long.”

“You have already taken the first step towards healing. The first step is usually the toughest. I must say though, what you did yesterday, that was so brave. But then, you were always were brave.”

Their moment was broken by the waiter bringing in the food. “Careful, the plate is very hot,” the waiter cautioned as he put the food in front of them. Katara’s jaw dropped at the sight. Sizzlers were a Fire Nation specialty. An iron skillet, heated with Fire Bending, was placed on a wooden tray. Strips of meat, vegetables, and a sweet, sour, tangy, and spicy sauce flavored the dish. A dollop of cold butter would be dropped on the side, making it sizzle. Which is what earned the dish its name, sizzler.

“Would you like anything to drink, mam?”

“Coconut water,” Katara said.

“Sir?”

“Same.”

Once the waiter left, Katara picked a fork, took a bite and sighed. “Oh my! This is wonderful.”

“I knew you’d like it,” Zuko said, feeling a surge of pleasure.

Katara took a couple of bites before saying, “Brave, yes. I have always been brave. Sometimes, bordering on the stupid. Wouldn’t you agree?”

He chortled, “It would be pretty hypocritical of me to call anyone stupid. I have made some really stupid ones in my life. Remember me trying to drag Aang through a blizzard in North Pole?”

Katara laughed, “Oh yes. What were you thinking?”

“I was…”

“Your coconut waters,” a new voice cut their conversation as a different waiter lowered the glasses in front of them. “Enjoy your d… Katara?”

Huh? Zuko looked up and a sickeningly familiar face was looking at her.

“Jet?” Katara gaped. “You’re alive?”

“Yeah. I was hurt, but I lived.”

How the heck does Katara know this jerk? Zuko wondered, feeling a tad annoyed at the interruption.

Jet, being the overconfident asshole that he was, pulled a chair and plonked himself down.

“Fancy seeing you here after so long!” He said, completely ignoring Zuko. “I looked all over Ba Sing Se for you, you know?”

What?

Both Katara and Jet turned to look at him, which made him realize that he had spoken aloud.

“And who are you?”

“Jet, this is –“ Katara began but Zuko pushed his hood down to reveal his face. Jet looked like he was about to pass out.

“Lee?”

“You know each other?” Katara said, sounding surprised.

“We’ve met,” Zuko said, his eyes fixed on the other man.

Jet looked from one to the other, trying to understand, “How do you both know each other?”

“We’re married,” Zuko answered.

If it was possible, Jet looked even more annoyed. “What a small world! The only girl I ever really liked is married to one guy I can’t stand.”

Katara, for her part, looked mortified. A smidgen of the anger he had been feeling earlier bubbled within him and Zuko wondered if he could punch a firefist on Jet’s smug face.

“What has…Lee… done to you that you hate him so much?” Katara asked, “He was just a tea vendor in Ba Sing Se.”

Jet scowled at Zuko, “He’s Fire Nation,” he replied, as though that settled everything.

“Look around, idiot,” Zuko growled, yanking his hood up as the realization of where he was sunk in, “You’re in Fire Nation.”

Ignoring the jibe, Jet grinned at Katara, “I must say, though, Kat, you have a type.”

“Excuse me?” Both chorused.

“Kat?” Zuko said while Katara said, “Type?”

“What? You can’t deny that Lee and I are very similar.”

“No,” both said again.

Zuko looked at Katara, not bothering to hide his irritation, “Was he your boyfriend or something?”

“NO!” Katara said, forcefully.

“We did have some good time in the treehouse, though,” Jet said suggestively.

“Don’t make it sound so sleazy, Jet,” Katara snapped, looking thoroughly disgusted. “It was just one kiss. Ages ago. Z… Lee, let’s just go, shall we?”

Without a word, Zuko dumped more than enough money to cover the meal and got up to leave when Jet said, “How the heck does a stupid street rat like you end up with this kind of money?”

Zuko turned his head a little and said, “I was born rich.”

Keeping his eyes pointedly fixed on Jet, he wrapped his arm around Katara’s waist to lead her out. The other man, realizing his unspoken message seemed to take it as a challenge and said, “See you around, Kat.”

Behind him, a torch burned brighter.

 

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 20

Zuko lay on his bed, trying to think of anything but Jet and the way his eyes had roved over Katara. The man had almost been drooling over her. Objectively speaking, Zuko could understand Jet’s reaction. Motherhood had filled Katara’s body, giving her curves. The red blouse she had on had played against her dark skin fabulously. Over the month, she had lost the emaciated look she had in North Pole and had gained a healthy glow on her face. Those impossibly blue eyes had the power to reel one in, hook, line, and sinker. As a man, he understood that Jet saw a very sexy woman.

But Zuko was not willing to consider objectively, not when it came to Katara. This was his friend who had just now begun to trust him. This was the person who had been badly hurt while he wasn’t looking. She was the woman he was sworn to protect. This was his wife, for Agni’s sake! How could Jet look at another man’s wife like that? His wife! With a growl, Zuko punched his pillow, imagining Jet’s face in its place.

A part of Zuko was sending out a warning. Jet’s arrival couldn’t have come at a worse time. The fury that had been building within him all day, had only exacerbated with Jet’s lecherous attitude. The fact that he was unable to hurt Aang, make him feel the pain he had put Katara through, was burning him up from within. For Jet’s sake, Zuko hoped that he would not bother them any further. He had a sneaking suspicion that if Jet kept poking, all the wrath that lay coiled within Zuko would erupt and Jet would be swept away in the pyroclastic blast. 

Not that he didn’t deserve it. The mere thought that he had kissed Katara, even if it had been years ago, was enough to make Zuko want to shake him. But if he looked at her that way once more, then all bets were off. He would poke a pair of flaming fingers through Jet’s eyes. Katara was not a display item for him to ogle at. Nor was she a thing to be used and abused. She was meant to be respected and treasured. Jet viewed her as a commodity and Aang had failed her. But now…

 “Zuko.”

With a jerk he shot up, in complete darkness. When had the torches gone out? How had he not noticed them flicker out? And who had called him?

 “Who’s there?”

No answer. He called forth his element, trying to light a flame, but nothing. There was no fire. Confusion and panic struggled in his mind. Blindly groping around a little, Zuko realized he was still in his own bed. Gaining some bearing, he leaned over to the side to grab his dual dao swords from the side table, only to have his hands pass right through it.

“What’s happening? What’s going on? Am I dreaming?”

Bizarre, he did not remember falling asleep. From the periphery of his vision, he caught a flicker of green light. He jerked his head and if he were to hazard a guess, he would say that the light was coming from the balcony. What was happening? Was he hallucinating?  Was this some kind of an assassination attempt?

As he watched, aghast, the green light tore through the darkness and he spotted the silhouette of someone standing there. The fluorescent green light grew and grew, banishing the darkness. Zuko looked around frantically, trying to understand what had happened. He was relieved to learn that his initial judgement that he was still in his own room was right. Yet, there was something very wrong. He could not put his fingers on what, though. Then, his eyes fell on something that made him scream and leap off the bed. He rubbed his eyes and looked again, seeing but not believing. On the bed was his own body, unmoving.

“What the heck?” He screamed, now truly scared. “What’s happening?”

“Zuko,” the voice called again, now closer than ever.

He whirled around to find someone he had not expected. Fear, anger, relief and confusion battled within him as his mind tried to comprehend what was happening, “Aang? What? What’s happening? Am I… Am I dead?”

Aang’s lips twitched, “No. You’re in the spirit world.”

He looked at his body on the bed and then to his own hand and realized that they had a greenish hue. “You got me here?”

“I did. We have to talk.”

With those words, fear and confusion retreated. A smidgen of relief remained but then, anger took over. Without thinking about his actions, Zuko punched Aang. His fist, however, went right through the monk who was looking at him with a sad yet amused smile.

“Yeah, that won’t work,” Aang said. “All you can do here is talk.”

Zuko scoffed, “Talk? What is there to talk about?”

“Zuko, I… I need you to…”

He raised a finger and shook his head, “No. No Aang. Just shut up. You’re lucky I don’t have my bending here otherwise I’d have burned you. Turned you into a charred crisp.”

Aang didn’t say anything, just lowered his eyes. Zuko crossed his arms and asked through gritted teeth, “Tell me something Aang, have you seen what has happened since you died? Please tell me the you have seen everything.”

“Yes. I have,” he replied meekly.

Zuko gave a poisonous smile, “So you must have seen how she ran up to me the moment you died? How she’s been in my bed all this time, right?”

Aang had tears in his eyes as he said, “Zuko… I…”

“Shut up!” Zuko barked. “Why did you come to me, Aang? Why not her? Don’t you think you owe her a fucking apology? That’s the least you can do. But you’re too much of a fucking coward to do that. Why are you here? Why me?”

Aang closed his eyes and sighed, “You’re right. It was easier to come to you than to face her.”

“You mean easier to face me when I don’t have my bending, can’t grab my swords or punch you, for that matter?”

Aang remained silent.

Zuko shook his head, “Even in death you can’t do what you should.”

“Zuko… could you… could you tell her I’m sorry?”

“No. No way. No fucking way,” Zuko shook his head, pacing angrily, his voice rising with every word. “She was your wife! You should have loved, cherished, and respected her. She was your responsibility. It was your job to protect her. You vowed to be next to her through thick and thin! What do you think that means, Aang?”

The monk shook his head, his face contorted with pain. 

“It means you love her for who she is. Her strengths and her failings included. Not set some impossible fucking standard for her and then punish her when she can’t meet it. You were supposed to treat her like she was the most precious thing in your life. Instead, you went out of her way to damage her. Tell me something, Aang, what would have happened if Sokka couldn’t make it to me in time? Or if I wasn’t in Fire Nation when he came? Or if Uncle didn’t find that archaic law of Meiyo no Kaba? What then?”

The Air Nomad’s spirit stood there, head bowed, crying.

“She would have died, that’s what! Bumi and Kya would have become orphans. Because of you! You professed to love her. Is this what love is? She can’t bear to be touched by her own brother and that’s your own fault. Sokka and Katara had the most beautiful relationship and you have taken that from her. And you want me to be your fucking messenger? Not happening. Grow a damn spine and apologize yourself.”

Aang sat down on the bed at the foot of Zuko’s body and wept. “I let him in. I made a huge mistake by letting him in.”

“Mayung?”

Aang nodded. “I’m not surprised you know about him. You always were thorough with everything you did. I wish I knew then what I know now. I shouldn’t have spoken to him, ever.”

“How the fuck did you even find him? There were hundreds of Avatars that you could have spoken to. How did you land up with the biggest dick of them all?”

“I just asked if anyone knew what to do when your spouse cheats on you,” Aang sobbed. “I was so convinced she was cheating on me. I didn’t know what to do, who to talk to, so I asked the Avatars. And Mayung stepped forth. I wish Roku had warned me once about how poisonous his words could be or what the outcome of talking to him would be.”

“For once take some fucking responsibility, man!” Zuko screamed. If he had his bending, his entire body would have been flaming at that moment. “You’re dead! High time you took some responsibility for your own actions. Roku didn’t warn you about Mayung? Why should he? Mayung didn’t make you hurt her. Mayung didn’t make you burn her. Rape her. That was YOU! That. Was. All. You.”

Aang held his head in his hands and said, “I regret everything so much, Zuko. So much.”

Zuko narrowed his eyes and asked, “Did the spirits punish you?”

“They did,” Aang sighed. “They cut me off from Avatar State. Then, one by one, all my bending was taken away. I saw the boulder, but I couldn’t bend it away.”

Zuko gaped, “What? I didn’t know that.”

“No one did,” Aang said in a low voice. “It happened seven days before my death. I didn’t tell anyone. I knew I was going to die, the spirits told me.”

His anger ebbed a little and Zuko took a place next to Aang, “You had seven days, why didn’t you try to make at least some amends?”

“I couldn’t,” Aang said. “Once the spirits gave me the judgement, I knew I was done for. That happened with Mayung too.”

“The least you could do is say ‘I’m sorry Katara.’”

“How does one beg for forgiveness after what I did, Zuko?” Aang asked.

“Forgiveness? That’s where you’re wrong,” At that moment, Zuko felt like he was once again Aang’s teacher. “When you’re asking for forgiveness, you are seeking to absolve yourself. But that’s not what this is about. This isn’t about you. You were judged by the spirits and found wanting. You were poised to receive your punishment. Your fate was sealed. This is about Katara. If she knew that you understood where you went wrong and regretted what you did, it would have made her healing easy. You owe her that.”

“Now you’re dealing with the aftermath of my actions. Again,” Aang said, looking at him. “I left Ozai alive and your life became difficult. Now, once again, you’re cleaning up my messes.”

“Meet her, Aang. Tell her you’re sorry.”

Aang shook his head. “No Zuko. I don’t want to show my face to her. She’s started healing. If she stays with you, she will get better. You will respect, cherish, protect, and love her like I never could. I don’t want to take that away from her. Seeing me won’t help her.”

Zuko took a deep breath and shook his head, “Why, Aang? Why didn’t you believe her? Why couldn’t you just ask me? Why didn’t you come to me and just… talk?”

Aang closed his eyes, “All my excuses, all the reasons… they sound so hollow now.”

“How did the Spirits punish you?”

“My punishment is still on,” Aang replied with a wan smile. “The Avatar spirit, Raava, has already chosen the next Avatar. My spirit will spend a very long time in torment. I don’t want to detail it. Given who you are, you probably will never see it, anyway. Just know, I’m paying for my sins. Heavily.”

“How are you here, then?”

“This? This is because of the good I did do in my life. This is the reward for that. Do you remember when you married her in North Pole, the water glowed blue for a moment?”

“Yes?”

“That was me,” Aang said with a smile. “I was giving my blessings to the two of you.”

Zuko did not know what to say.

“Once you married her, I was finally relived,” Aang said, “Now, she could live her life in the peace she deserves. You will drive my memories away from her mind, I know.”

The green light surrounding them winked suddenly, making Aang sigh. “It’s time. I have to go. You won’t remember this conversation, unless you need to. “

“But… you wanted me to pass on your message to Katara. How could I have done that if I didn’t even remember the conversation?”

“If you had agreed, you would have remembered the relevant bits. You will still have some residual memories, but nothing significant. Before I go, let me tell you something you will remember, though. Something that will, perhaps, bring some peace to you. Ozai burns in a place worse than me.”

Inadvertently, Zuko’s lips drew to a smile. The green light and Aang dissipated in a mist.


Katara was on her bed, reading. It had been ages since she had done something so simple as sit and read. Seeing Jet earlier in the day had been rather unpleasant. For one moment, she had been happy. Happy to realize that he had been alive and unharmed. That joy, however, had been short lived. Nothing had changed in Jet. He was still that slimy, lecherous, smooth-talking idiot that he had always been.

What she had not expected was Zuko’s reaction to him. He looked like he was about ready to spontaneously combust, or burn Jet on his feet, depending on which was more convenient. He had even thrown caution to wind and dropped his hood, showing his face. Katara had been rather taken aback to find him do that and to see the anger on his face.

The rage from earlier, she could understand, but for Jet to elicit that kind of reaction, the two had to have some interesting history. She was curious but Zuko had clamped shut, not saying anything more than absolutely necessary. She had not missed the silent challenge that seemed to have passed between the two men before they left the shack, (even though she had been almost entirely focused on the hand that had lay against the bare skin of her waist and the tingly, giddy sensation that brought with it), but why were they engaging in, what Suki referred to as the “measure my weapon” contest? What was going on?

As though summoned by her thoughts, Zuko appeared at her door, with a strange look on his face.

“Zuko? Aren’t you asleep yet?”

He walked over to her bed, where she was reading, and perched himself on one side, “I… I’m… I have to tell you something important.”

Katara put her book aside and looked at him. He was dressed in a sleeveless black shirt, a golden belt, and a black pant. He had tied his hair at the base of his neck and was clutching on to his dual dao swords like his life depended on it. “I’m listening.”

“I… I don’t know what I’m supposed to tell you.”

“What?”

“It’s…It’s very important… but I can’t, for the life of me, remember what it is.”

Now that she saw it, he looked rather pale. Which was saying something because he was so pale to begin with. Maybe that’s why she had not spotted his ashen pallor earlier. Feeling a prickle of concern for him, she scooted closer to him and lay a hand on his shoulder. “What’s going on?”

“I don’t know.”

“Okay…. Ummm…. Why don’t you tell me what you do know?”

“Ozai is burning.”

“What?” Katara stared at him, not knowing what to say or do. She slid off the bed and tried to take the swords from his grasp. His fingers were cold! What was going on with him? “Zuko, let these go.”

“Uh… But I can finally hold them, now that my hands are not green,” he answered as though that sentence made perfect sense.

Oh boy. “Zuko, are you… drunk? Did you… smoke something?”

He made a face, “No Katara. I’m not high. But this is… weird.”

“No arguments there,” she said. “You know what? Wait here.”

Saying so, she quickly ducked into the adjoining bathroom to change out of her nightgown into a pair of pants and a tunic and stepped out. Zuko had not moved from where she’d left him, still clutching his swords in a death grip. Katara felt a prickle of fear. In all the years that she had known him for, she had never seen him this out of sorts. Mercurial as his temper was, he had been a calming influence over their entire group. Seeing him like this was troubling to say the least. Her mind made up, she walked up to him and held out her hand.

“Come with me,” He looked at her questioningly but took her hand. “You can leave the swords behind. We are not going anywhere dangerous, okay?”

Taking a deep breath, he put the swords down reverently and allowed her to pull him up. “Where are we going at this hour?”

Oh good, so he’s not completely checked out. That’s good. “Just to the roof.”

“Roof?” He gave her a confused look. “Why the roof?”

“Oh, Suki and I used to sit there for hours sometimes.”

Katara brought him up to the window and climbed on the ledge. She jumped on the parapet and motioned for him to follow. He looked at her incredulously but followed, nevertheless. With her back flat against the wall, she slithered along the parapet, till she reached a pipe. As she climbed up the pipe, she heard him mutter something before climbing with her. Upon reaching the tiled roof, she grabbed the edge, tried to pull herself up and failed.

“Oh for…” he muttered before he put a hand on the small of her back (damn those tingles!) and pushed her. With his boost, she hoisted herself up. She slithered to the side a bit and held out a hand for him, but he pulled himself up without needing her aid. Katara led him a little further, sat down and patted the place next to her. Even in the darkness she could feel the roll of his eyes, but he complied.

“I remember the climb being much easier than it was,” Katara said, surprised to find herself a little out of breath.

“Maybe because you’re not fourteen anymore?” Zuko supplied helpfully.

“You’re older than me and you haven’t even broken a sweat,” she complained.

“I’m trained. And I keep up with my training.”

In response, she stuck her tongue out at him.

Ignoring her act, he asked, “What was the big idea bringing me here?”

“I wanted to get you out whatever funk you were in. Looks like it worked, didn’t it?”

He gave a small chortle, “Definitely looks like it. You always had the weirdest solutions to problems.”

“Excuse me?” she said indignantly.

“What? How do you get Toph to stop scamming? Pull an even bigger scam with her. How to get rid of The Duke’s crush on Toph? Make him wash her clothes.”

“What? It worked, didn’t it? Toph used to be dirty like a pig! Washing her clothes did make him see that.”

“I didn’t say your solutions are ineffectual. I just said they are weird.”

“At least it’s better than your I-glare-at-my-problems-till-they-burn-away approach.”

“I do not glare.”

Katara gave a fake laugh and raised her eyebrows. “Really?”

“Okay… maybe I glare a bit.”

“You want to try and explain again what happened to you earlier?”

He sighed, leaned back on his palms and stretched his legs in front of him. “I honestly can’t explain. I mean one moment I was in my bed, thinking about… err… something. Next moment, I’m glad that my hands are not green anymore and I can hold my swords. And I’m happy that Ozai is burning.”

Katara cocked her head to the side, “Is this a euphemism of some sort? Because I’m really not getting the meaning here if it is. What does Ozai have to do with green hands or swords? How are any of those things even remotely related?”

“No. I’m not implying anything. It’s bizarre, I know but yes, this is what I was thinking.”

“Okay, I think you fell asleep without realizing and had a really weird dream.”

“Maybe. But he said I must be his messenger,” Zuko said and then went, huh?

“Who said? What message?”

“I… don’t know. Agni! My brain is scrambled.”

“And talking didn’t help?”

He looked at her, his scar prominent in the moonlight. “You heard everything I had to say. Did any of it make any sense?”

“No,” Katara admitted. “If I weren’t worried for you, I would laugh.”

“Thanks, Katara,” he said in a low voice. “Both for bringing me here and for being worried.”

“It’s what I do,” Katara said with a smile. “I worry.”

He raised a hand and moved a stray lock of hair from her face. The touch set butterflies fluttering in her stomach, making her sigh softly. “You don’t flinch when I touch you,” he whispered.

“I don’t.”

“Why?” His voice was so soft that had Katara not been hyper-focused on him, she would have missed it.

“I don’t know.”

He had a soft expression as his hand traced her face, down her neck and settled at the base of her throat where his betrothal necklace lay, leaving behind a series of small explosions on her skin. “Really?” he whispered. 

Was it her imagination or was he leaning closer? Alas, she would never know because at that moment, notes of a song floated over to them. Below them, somewhere in the city, a bard sang, unaware that his song had interrupted their tender moment. He dropped his hand and looked away; his shoulders taut. Katara blinked, trying not to feel disappointed. The two of them sat in silence, the wind billowing their hair as snatches of a magnificent song reached them.

“That’s so beautiful,” Katara said. “What song is this, do you know?”

Zuko’s shuffled in the way he did when he was mildly embarrassed, “Inamorata.”

“Inamorata? What does that mean?”

He mumbled something.

“What?”

“The female lover.”

“Oh… um is it like bawdy or something?”

He shook his head, “Not at all. It’s actually a very beautiful song. It speaks of a sculptor that fell in love with his own creation. He poured all his heart and soul in his creation, his inamorata, knowing full well that his love would not be reciprocated. Then, once his masterpiece was created, he decided to hide it from the eyes of the world for he could not bear to see others look at her and see a mere sculpture. A thing. When she was so much more. But in hiding her away, the sculptor had also distanced her away from himself. He was in so much pain that Agni, in his benevolence, decided to bring the sculpture to life, and fill her heart with his love. Inamorata then gets out of the hiding place and goes to the sculptor. But unable to take the separation, the sculptor had taken his life. The song ends with inamorata pleading Agni to make her a sculpture again for a heart of stone is incapable of love.”

“Zuko! That’s beautiful! Why were you embarrassed about it?”

“Because, as a child, I used to find the song stupid. How could one expect a sculpture to come alive? That was just silly.”

Katara chuckled, scooting slightly closer to him. “That sounds like something Bumi would say.”

At the mention of Bumi, he grinned, “Did he tell you what he’s planning to call me?”

“He asked me about it and nixed all my suggestions. I’m guessing he came up with something?”

“Indeed. He’s calling me Fatherlord.”

Katara sniggered. The two slipped into companionable silence, listening as the bard’s clear voice went through a series of complex notes. The cool air, the silvery light of the moon, the stars winking overhead, and the song cast a spell. Katara realized that she was at peace. Without a thought, as though it was the most natural thing to do, Katara leaned over and lay her head on his shoulder. For the briefest moment she felt him stiffen. She was just beginning to wonder but then his hand found hers and his fingers threaded through hers. As the two sat there, listening, Katara realized that Zuko was humming along. If it were in her power, she would have lived her entire life in that one moment.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 21

Katara sighed, allowing her element to flow down her body. Unsurprisingly, she thought of the last night. In fact, the last night had not left her thoughts, even for a moment. It had been the happiest she had been. Ever. Without any doubt. They sat on the roof long after the bard had finished the song, in companionable silence. Her head on his shoulders, his one hand threaded through hers and the other playing with her hair. Neither had felt the need to break the silence or the moment. Finally, when Katara’s head had dropped off his shoulder in sleep, Zuko had urged they step inside. Neither of them even seemed to question anything as they lay on the bed in Katara’s room and went to sleep immediately.

He was gone by the time Katara woke up, which was not a surprise. Even back in the days when they camped together, he had always been the first to wake up, right at the crack of dawn. ‘It’s a Fire Bender thing,’ he would say.  But judging by the warmth of the bed and the lingering smell, he had left much later than his usual time. He had lay there for at least an hour longer than usual. She knew him well enough to know how much he despised sleeping in. Even after he had been struck by lightning, once he had woken up from his three-day-long stupor, it had taken the combined efforts of herself, Iroh and Toph to keep him on bedrest. Toph had, in fact, cuffed his feet to the bed so he would stop fidgeting. Even then, his eyes would snap open with the sunrise. And he would fidget. Non-stop. At one point, Suki had attacked his face with a pillow and Sokka had threatened to shove his boomerang in… err… unmentionable places, before Zuko had calmed down enough to keep still.

But this morning, he had stayed in the bed for at least an hour. Katara did not believe he had been asleep. It was physically impossible for him to stay sleeping once the Sun had broken through the horizon. But he had not fidgeted either. Katara was not a heavy sleeper. She would have known if he had. He had stayed absolutely still. Doing what, though? The answer eluded her.

Perhaps he was sleeping, Katara told herself as she washed her hair. He didn’t sleep very well the night before and they had gone to bed late last night. Besides, he had been rather out of sorts when he had come to her room.

 “You’re overthinking, Katara,” she muttered as she bent the water out of her hair. “So he slept in, big deal.”

But he doesn’t sleep in! Another part of her mind countered stubbornly. She dried herself and draped the bathrobe on herself before stepping out of the bathroom. She walked into her bedroom and stopped in her tracks. Strewn all over her bed were rose petals, with an outfit laid out for her amid them. That gesture was highly unlike Zuko. Based on her previous experience, Zuko would thrust something in her hand and grumble that it was for her. This rather over-the-top gesture seemed very out of character for him. But it had to be him. No one else was there to make a gesture like this. She walked over and lifted the outfit to study it. Green halter-top and slacks paired with a translucent yellow shin-length cloak that was open in front. It was a pretty enough ensemble, but she could see this as being better suited to someone like Suki or Ty Lee. Yellow clashed terribly with her skin. But if Zuko had chosen this outfit for her… she didn’t want to disappoint him. So, despite her misgivings, Katara changed.

She found Zuko downstairs, working. She smiled. Trust Zuko to find a way to work during vacation.

“I thought you were on a break?” Katara said as she poured herself a cup of tea and settled on the chair opposite him.

He looked at her and gave a quick, but genuine smile. No reaction to the outfit. He took a sip of his tea before saying, “A messenger hawk brought this in this morning. Some changes in the housing policies of the Earth Kingdom colonies. It needs my approval. Uncle can’t do it because I was the one that drafted the original proposal to begin with. And this needs to be done because the previous contract lapses by the end of the month. If I wait till end of the week, it might be a little too late.”

“Oh yes, I read that policy. Didn’t realize you’d drafted it,” Katara said, nodding. “The colonies have become a major source of contention between you and Kuei, huh?”

Zuko dropped the quill he had been holding and let out an irritated huff. “Oh, don’t ask! I had originally proposed not to disturb the status-quo of the civilians. My plan was to recall the military troops in stages. No point destabilizing the economies of both the colonies and the Fire Nation at the same time. But Kuei wanted them gone. Immediately. He gave me one month. One fucking month to recall all troops. But how could I do that? I can’t bring in thousands upon thousands of people into the country overnight. Where am I going to keep them? What will I feed them? What are they going to do?”

Katara shook her head, “That sounds like a nightmare. I had expected better of Kuei.”

“Really?” Zuko raised a brow. “This is the King that allowed the Dai Li to basically run amok in his country while he was busy playing games with his bear. He ran away with his bear to ‘explore the world’ when Ba Sing Se fell. Why is this a surprise?”

“Has he improved any?”

“Oh yes, he is much better now. He now gets politics and sometimes even comes up with intelligent solutions. I would take ten Kueis over half a Hahn.”

Katara snorted.

Zuko grinned and picked his scroll back up. “I would never forget the day Bumi flicked a pebble at Kuei’s head and then blamed his pet, floosy…flippy, something, for it.”

“Flopsy,” Katara provided.

“Ah yes, Flopsy. But you know the best part? Flopsy was nowhere near the room.”

Katara threw her head back and laughed, “That sounds like Bumi, alright. He was such a nutter. But a great King.”

“Truly. He could really think of out of the box solutions,” Zuko agreed, his eyes scanning the lines on the scroll. “I miss him sometimes.”

“Have you eaten anything yet?” Katara asked.

“No, I was waiting for you,” he answered without looking up.

“Mind if I whip something up? I haven’t cooked in ages.”

“Please, go right ahead. I like your cooking.”

Katara became aware of a wide grin on her lips as she made her way into the kitchen.


Later in the morning, the two of them walked over to the beach. Being so close to ocean, Katara was itching to have a go. Zuko sat back on the sand and watched her as she took off her cloak and walked into the water. She got in the water waist-deep and held out her arms. She raised the water to her command and began to whirl it around herself in a great arc. Push and pull. It was like watching a Goddess in her element. As she took a stance, he realized that she was using Earthbending moves. Or, to be more precise, Toph’s moves. It was a sight to behold.

Zuko lay back on his elbows and threw his head back, basking in the warmth of the Sun. His inner fire stirred and without thinking, he lit a flame in his fingers and twirled it in his hand. This morning, like always, his eyes had snapped open at dawn. The first thing he realized was that he could not move his arm. It had taken him a few moments to realize that it was pinned down by Katara, who was fast asleep. Sometime in the middle of the night, they had moved closer and she was lying on his shoulder.

Zuko didn’t believe in magic. But at that moment, had anyone told him what he was seeing was magical, he would believe it. Completely. He had lay there, unable, rather unwilling to move. He took the unprecedented chance to study her. Her black hair fell in soft waves on her angelic face. At this distance, he could spot a couple of white hairs in the dense mass of black. He wasn’t surprised. Given how hard her life had been, the stress would manifest somewhere physically. Her lashes formed tiny half-moons on her plump cheeks. She had a pert little nose that turned slightly upwards. Funnily, it had been her nose that he had noticed first as a teenager. When he had grasped her hands, mouthing the corny line, ‘I’ll save you from the pirates,’ he had noticed the nose. His first thought had been that it was a ridiculously cute nose. Even now, he found her nose adorable. His eyes dropped further down to her lips. Full and delicate, they beckoned him. Last night, he had been moments away from claiming them. He wondered if they would taste as sweet as they looked. Unable to stop himself, he lifted his other hand and with his thumb, outlined them slowly. In her sleep, Katara stirred and snuggled a little, making him draw his hand away. Unfortunately, given the way she had moved, accentuated her cleavage, drawing his eyes there.

Oh no!

Zuko scrunched his eyes, trying to rein in the wayward thoughts. But the thought had planted itself firmly in his mind. He could see her in his mind’s eyes, in her complete splendor, beckoning him. Zuko found his body answering and he had to shuffle away, lest he wake her up. Just then, Katara let out a soft grunt and turned to the other side, releasing his arm. Zuko had all but shot out of the bed.

“I was right, wasn’t I?” A voice interrupted his thoughts. Zuko looked up, blinking against the Sun to find Jet standing there, looking at him.

“Oh you,” Zuko said, putting as much disdain as he could in his voice. He took his eyes off him and looked back at Katara who was now surfing the waves. “What exactly are you prattling about?”

Without an answer, Jet flopped on the sand beside him and said, “You’re a Fire Bender.”

“Congratulations. Do you want an award?”

Jet snorted, “Tell me something, Lee. How does a guy like you end up with a girl like her? What does she see in you, man?”

Despite his irritation, Zuko paused. Jet had asked him the one question he had been asking himself too. What did she see in him? Why had she loved him the way she did? Zuko sighed, “I don’t know. You’ll have to ask her.”

Jet grinned, “You mean, I should talk to her? Happy to comply.”

Zuko’s irritation flared again and he turned to look at Jet. He let a lick of flame on his finger and said delicately, “I would like to see you try.”

“Typical Fire Bender,” Jet scoffed. “Using intimidation to drive their point.”

“Jet,” Zuko said getting up to face the man, “What is your problem? Why don’t you just leave us alone?”

“I can’t,” Jet replied, softly. “I know I should, but I can’t. I just… I like her too much.”

Zuko gritted his teeth, “Jet, that’s my wife. Keep your eyes to yourself. The only reason I am not doing anything to you is because I have always felt guilty that you fell in the Dai Li’s clutches because of me. But my guilt has its limits. I won’t tolerate you bothering my wife.”

Jet opened his mouth to say something but Katara’s voice cut them. “Jet! Why are you here?”

As one the two men turned to look at the Waterbender and Zuko’s throat dried. Droplets of salty water lined her body, making him want to lick them off her. The wet fabric clinging to her skin in ways that left little to imagination. Her wet hair dropped down to her waist in soft curls. Words left Zuko’s mind, all that was left was a heady lust. Next to him, Jet swore under his breath. Zuko didn’t need any special powers to know what was going on in that man’s mind.

“I knew those clothes would suit you,” Jet said, making Katara gasp.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 22

“You broke into our house!” Katara screamed as she drew the water from her body to attack Jet. She’d barely had the chance to register the shock on Jet’s face before Zuko’s fist made contact with his jaw. The former rebel groaned as he dropped on the sand but to her surprise, made no move to defend himself when Zuko hoisted him up by the collar.

“Too far,” Zuko growled. “You went way too far, Jet.”

He held up two fingers, lighting the tips like candles and pulled his hands back. Katara realized, with a sickening feeling in her stomach, that he was about to gouge the man’s eyes out. Judging from the fear in Jet’s eyes, he too had surmised as much. Zuko pulled his hand back and was about to attack when Katara cried out.

“Zuko, no!”

A second later, the fire on his fingers went out and he dropped Jet, who dropped on his knees. “You’re lucky,” he growled. “She saved you.”

“Zuko?” Jet whispered. “Zuko? Fire Lord Zuko?”

“One and the same,” he replied coldly. “And do you know what happens to the man who trespasses into the Fire Lord’s property with the intent to harm the Fire Lady?”

“Trespass? What are you talking about? I didn’t go anywhere near your house, Lee…. I mean… Zu… Fire… Your Highness. I don’t know where you live.”

Katara gritted her teeth, froze the water around her fingers like talons, just as the Imperial Fire Benders, Mizu and Kian, came into her vision, “Stop lying! There were rose petals strewn on my bed! And this outfit was on it!”

“What?” Jet was nonplussed. “But… This was a wedding gift. I… I even had a dagger for L… I mean him… in the package. I said so in the note!”

“What?” Katara and Zuko chorused.

Jet stood up, trembling, and said, “Believe me, I’m not stalking you. I’m not that guy anymore. Besides, you are married. Why would I… rose petals? What… that makes no sense.”

Jet was far too incoherent, far too bewildered and scared for this tale to be anything but the truth. She remembered him in Ba Sing Se. He had sacrificed himself to save them from the Dai Li. Maybe he was still an annoying person, but that did not necessarily make him a bad person. Katara bit her lower lip, wondering what to believe.

“How did the outfit get on my bed then?” Katara asked.

“I don’t know, ask that man.”

“What man?” This time it was Mizu who asked.

Jet shrugged, “I don’t know. After you both left that shack, a man approached and told me that he was a friend of yours,” he nodded at Zuko. “He told me that he saw our interaction because he was sitting a few tables away. I had no reason to doubt him because I did serve him. He told me that he understood that I had made a wrong turn and then said that in Fire Nation, it is believed that gifts pave way to hearts or some such thing.”

“Gifts pave way to a heartfelt apology,” Kian said. “That’s a proverb in the Tinzu province.”

The three Fire Benders exchanged looks, as a silent communication passed between them.

“What happened then?” Katara asked.

“So… I told him that I could buy something for the two of you and he said he would make sure you both got it. I… I went to the market, grabbed this outfit and a dagger for you,” Jet gave a sad smile, “I know you like sharp, pointy things. I even wrote an apology note.”

“That still doesn’t answer why you’re here,” Zuko said, though with much less hostility.

“I come here frequently,” Jet answered, his eyes on the ocean. “I like to sit in the sand and watch the ocean. Reminds me of my home. I didn’t know you would be here too. When I saw you, I came over to just make amends. Katara please, you have to believe me. I knew you were married to the Avatar… But then, when he died… I looked for you all over Ba Sing Se… But then… I…”

When his words faltered, Mizu asked, “Can you describe what that man looked like?”

Jet nodded and looked at Mizu, “About your height. Short black hair. Little on the heavier side. Brown eyes, I think. Has a gap between his front teeth.”

At that, Katara’s hand flew to his mouth, while the icy claws dropped from her hand. He had described Ren to the T.


Anger roiled within him, stroking his inner fire into an inferno. Zuko paced the length of the seating area, a vein throbbing in his temple. Katara sat on a chair, her hands tied together in a tight bunch, her thumbs hitting against her lower lip. Her left leg danced to an unheard rhythm. Jet stood someway off, leaning against a pillar, slouching, as though trying to fold into himself. The silence lay heavy between the three of them.

A male laugh sounded from the courtyard, making the three of them look up. Ren was the first to enter, followed by the other Imperial Fire Benders, Kian, Taro, and Mizu. The moment Ren spotted Jet all the laughter drained from his face. Jet, meanwhile, stood up straight and pointed at Ren, “That’s him.”

Before Ren could do anything, Mizu, Taro, and Kian had flamed fists pointed at his head. Zuko marched right up to the Imperial Fire Bender and grabbed him by the collar, “Explain.”

“Milord… I…The man is lying.”

“No. Try again.”

“Milord I…”

“Explain,” Zuko’s voice was icy cold.

Ren’s face twisted into a mask of anger and disgust. “Her,” he pointed at Katara with vitriol. “I refuse to bow down to the man that besmirches the illustrious line of Sozin by putting a filthy water peasant on the throne that once seated illustrious women like Lady Fa Huen and Lady Mai. But now, you, you are putting her on the throne! Your ancestors are wailing in the Spirit World.”

Katara hid her face in her hands while Zuko let go of his collar. “So, you decided to use him to try and sow misunderstanding between us?”

“Her honor is already tarnished,” Ren spat venomously. “She brought dishonor to the Avatar! And she brings dishonor to you! And the Fire Nation! Why is that a surprise?”

“You were the one that led the Water Bender assassin in,” said Zuko. It wasn’t a question.

“I will not let this whore sit on the throne! I will do whatever it takes to –“

“Take him away,” Zuko growled. “Take this man away before I kill him. For conspiring against the crown, send him to Azulon’s Lair.”

Mizu and Kian grabbed him by the collar, while Taro led the way, and dragged the protesting man away, even as he kept screaming about how Zuko was bringing shame to the throne of Fire Nation. Once left alone, Katara simply stood up, walked over to her room, and slammed the door shut. Jet looked at her retreating figure, then turned to face him. “I’m sorry, man. I… didn’t want to…”

Zuko waved a hand, “Go away, Jet. Don’t show your face again.”

The man cast one final look at the closed door and walked out. Zuko took the stairs, two at a time, to reach to her bedroom. He knocked on the door, “Katara! Katara, open the door!”

Silence.

“Katara! Don’t listen to Ren. He is a lunatic. Please, Katara, open the door.”

“Go away, Zuko,” her voice came through the door, hollow. The peace and joy he had been hearing in her voice all this while was gone, transporting him back to the frozen tundra of the North. No. This was unacceptable.

“Katara, open the door, please.”

“Go away Zuko! Leave me alone.”


Finally, after another four tries, he gave up. Katara closed her eyes and slid down the door, feeling utterly spent. Her honor is already tarnished. She brought dishonor to the Avatar! And she brings dishonor to you!

Katara clawed at her eyes, trying to erase the image of that man looking at her like she was something stuck under his shoe. Tears streamed down her face as she pulled her legs up and rested her head on her knees.

“How did you think it was possible, Katara?” she muttered, “Just because you had two good days, you thought you were free. You don’t get to be free, Katara.”

She hugged her legs and sobbed, trembling like a flame about to die out. Suddenly, a pair of warm and calloused hands curled around her hands, making her jump. She had a moment of pure terror before she realized she was looking at Zuko. Her jaw dropped, while her mind tried to make sense of what she was seeing.

“Um...ah…y…you? How did… you get here?”

“Through the window,” he said, settling down next to her, still holding on to her hands. “You showed me the way.”

Her fear began to recede, and she shook her head with a tremulous smile on her lips, “I thought you’d given up.”

“When have I ever given up?”

Katara sniffled, realizing that by coming in front of her like this, when she least expected him to, Zuko had pulled her back from tumbling down the monkeyrabbit hole. He reached over and wiped her tears. “Shh. Don’t waste your tears on someone like Ren. He is not worth it.”

“I’m sorry, Zuko. I’ve become more trouble than worth, haven’t I?”

Zuko tapped a finger on his chin, pretending to consider her words. “Hmm. Let’s see. Because of you, I became the dad of two adorable kids. My daughter gets a mother. My Uncle has stopped worrying about me and is actually breathing easy. My sister is actually forming a human bond with you, something I never thought was possible,” he moved his hands as though he was weighing the options, “While on the other side, I’m facing some opposition. But I have been facing that since before I got coronated. So yes, you are so much trouble!”

Katara gave a watery chuckle, “How did you become so good at not being awkward? You used to fumble with your words.”

He grinned, his thumb drawing circles on her hand, “Practice. Thirteen years of being a monarch will get rid any awkwardness.”

“How are you so unaffected by Ren’s betrayal?”

Zuko lay his head on the wall, his face taut. “I will be lying if I say I’m unaffected. But this is part and parcel of being a monarch. Someone or the other will betray. I wish I could say that it hurts less with each occurrence, but it doesn’t. It hurts, every single time. I have just learned not to let it get to me. When I married you, Katara, I knew this was coming. I mean… I didn’t expect Ren, but I knew someone somewhere would do something like this. A lot of these men and women still cling on to the belief that the Fire Nation is superior. I put a Water Bender as their Fire Lady. That too without any warning. Backlash would come.”

Katara nodded, considering his words.

“Which brings me to something I’ve been meaning to say,” he said in all seriousness. “Once we get back, you will have to take up the duties of the Fire Lady.”

Katara lay her head against the wall and nodded, “Yes. I know. I’m both excited and nervous about it.”

Zuko punched her arm gently, “I totally get it. But you’ll be fine.”

A sudden gust of wind came in through the window, blowing some of the rose petals on the floor. Zuko reached over and picked one of the petals, twirling in his hand. “I wonder what Ren was thinking though. He couldn’t have known that Jet would show up at the beach or that he would tell everything. What were the rose petals for?”

Katara sighed and stood up, inspecting the bed. “Maybe he thought you would see it and assume Jet and I were having a thing or something?”

“Convoluted,” Zuko said, still seated on the floor, “That leaves so many things to chance. For starters, how and why would I see it? Assuming I did see it, why would my first assumption be that Jet and you were having an affair?”

“Not everyone thinks like you, Zuko,” Katara explained, having borne this attitude for years now. She was glad that her back was turned to him. She could not bear to look at his face. “Once the North has charged me with adultery, the label is going to follow me everywhere. That’s how I will always be seen. My name is tainted.”

“Katara,” he dragged her name a bit as he came to stand in front of her, “No one reaches the age of thirty without at least someone thinking they are the worst person alive. Anyone who claims otherwise is lying. Those people out there, they don’t know you. The people who know you, love you for who you are, theirs is the opinion that matters, not some random man’s babble. Don’t give others so much power over yourself. If you keep going down that road, there’ll be no end to your melancholy. You can’t make everyone happy. Not everyone will like you. And that’s okay. So long as you can look at yourself in the mirror and not feel ashamed of the person staring back, you are good.”

Katara looked at him, mouth agape. “When did you become so wise?”

Zuko grinned, scratching the back of his neck in embarrassment. “A lifetime of listening to Uncle has paid off, I guess?”

 She chuckled and looked down at herself, only now realizing that she was still wearing the yellow cloak, and grimaced. “You know what? I’ll change. I don’t like this outfit.”

“Huh? What’s wrong with it?”

“Yellow! I look so…bleh in yellow. I hate the color.”

Zuko’s lips twitched in obvious mirth, “Why did you even wear it then?”

Katara tugged on the end of her hair, feeling a blush rising up her cheeks, “Oh… um… that… I thought… I thought you gave this to me… so…I’ll go.”

Katara whirled on her heels and was about to run away when he grabbed her hand. She scrunched her eyes close, feeling a tremor pass through her. Before she could understand what was happening, she was flush against his chest, making her lose the capability of a coherent thought. But then, Zuko’s lips were on hers and the world ceased to matter.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 23

If asked, Katara would have described the kiss like a tsunami that swept her off her feet. Or perhaps it was like the spring-time thaw after a long winter. Or maybe like the first rain in parched dessert. The moment his lips touched hers, for Katara, nothing else mattered. Her world had shrunk into the tiny space where the two bodies met. Of their own accord, her arms went around his neck, while her lips opened up to his gentle coaxing.

Reading her implied request, Zuko moved his head a little to get a better access. He dipped his tongue inside her mouth and her very soul lit up, like the polar lights that danced on the skies above South Pole. Her nails dug into his back, as she pulled him closer hungrily. He made a sound between a moan and a growl and wound one of his hands through her hair, and the other around her waist. She responded with greeting his tongue with her own. She felt his tremble at that. He leaned against the wall, pulling her along with him. She followed, and leaned against his broad, muscular chest, loving every second of it.

The need for breath made them pull apart. Eyes still closed he touched his forehead to hers. The two of them, stood there for a few moments, gathering their bearings. Finally, he said in a raspy voice, “Wow. That was…”

Katara gave a small, breathless chuckle. She grabbed his shirt and burrowed her face into the crook of his neck, at a loss for words. His arms tightened around her, holding her so close that ideally, it should have been uncomfortable. But Katara would not have it any other way. In fact, she moved closer, hating even the air that was between them. He hummed in approval and ran his hands along her back.

“Katara,” he breathed, “Agni! I want you. I want you so bad.”

Her skin broke into goosebumps as heat pooled between her legs. But, on the heels of it came images. Her hands bound to the ground with stones she could not break. Her back being burned. Her biting her lips to the point of bleeding, to not scream and wake Kya sleeping someway off.

With a gasp, she jerked back. Tears flowed down her face as she no longer saw her room in Ember Island.  The rose petals strewn on the bed was not visible to her. She did not see Zuko. She was back at Southern Air Temple, where she was burned. She was in Western Air Temple, trying to blood bend to save herself. At Northern Air Temple where she lay naked on the floor, bleeding and burned. Losing herself in Eastern Air Temple. She was caught in the mire, unable to find a way out.

Katara.

He was looking for her, his voice booming in anger.

Katara.

Louder and closer.

Katara.

His voice had another voice interlaced with it. Avatar state!

“Katara!” Someone shook her shoulders. She blinked and looked up at the horror-stricken face. So familiar. The one from her dreams where she sought refuge.

“Zuko?” she said, her voice shaking and pained.

“Katara! What happened to you?”

Her eyes widened as she raised a quivering hand to his face. “Y… You’re real! Yo.. you’re really here?”


“Yes, Katara. I’m right here,” Zuko said, struggling to keep the sob out of his voice. But lost in her own pain, she did not catch on to it. He grabber her icy cold hands, kissed her palms and pressed them against his face. “See? I’m here. I’m real. He is gone. He can’t hurt you anymore. He’s not here.”

“Not here?” she asked, her blue eyes pools of agony. “Are you sure?”

“Yes, Katara. I’m sure. He’s dead.”

“Dead. He’s dead,” she repeated, but Zuko doubted she understood the words. Her breathing was short and ragged, coming out in gasps. Slowly, he pulled her closer, making sure she could hear his heart. He concentrated on his breathing, keeping it deep and steady.

Do you see what you’ve done to her, Aang? His mind screamed. Oddly, he had a feeling that Aang knew it. In fact, a part of Zuko was certain that the monk was there with them at that moment. And he was crying. How and why he knew it, Zuko couldn’t tell. In fact, he was sure that Aang was standing by the door, watching and lamenting. Zuko’s hold around Katara tightened and his eyes darted over to the closed door. Nothing.

Giving himself a mental shake, Zuko turned his attention back to the woman in his arms. So small, so broken. He was determined to put her back, even if it took all his life to do so. Every time she cried in pain; her tears burned him. The wounds on her body had healed, but the ones on her mind were deep. But Zuko had never been one to give up. He would do whatever it took to make sure that she was reacquainted with her older, real self. This woman was his wife. His responsibility. His duty. His.


Katara lay in Zuko’s bed, exhausted from the emotionally draining day. Zuko was downstairs. She could hear some clattering downstairs as someone dropped something on the floor, followed by a loud cursing. Lying motionless in her bed, she felt her lips draw into ghost of a smile. Zuko, for all his maturity and wisdom, was still the same person. Prone to random outbursts. Her thoughts drifted back to the kiss they had shared earlier.

Katara raised a hand to her lips and smiled, feeling pools of tears forming in her eyes. Zuko had made the first move. He had made it clear that he was interested in her. Not that she didn’t know. She had seen desire in his eyes, on more than one occasion. But to actually feel it. Hear him say it. It had been euphoric. But, like everything good in her life, Aang’s shadow had corrupted that moment as well.

“Why can’t you leave me alone?” Katara screamed, clutching her hair. “Why can’t I just be happy?”

“Katara?” Zuko’s voice came from the door, startling her. “You’re awake?”

Huh? I was asleep? Katara sat up and the world spun in front of her eyes. Instantly, Zuko was by her side, grabbing her arm and helping her lean against the headboard. She noticed a bowl of something in his other hand. “Easy, easy there. Don’t go making sudden movements yet. You fainted a while ago.”

“Fainted?”

“Yes,” he said, sitting by her knees. “We were in your room and you had a panic attack. You fainted after that. Exhaustion, dehydration and stress, I believe. Since your bed still has those damned petals, I got you here. When I splashed water on your face, you got up and then promptly fell asleep. I broke the door in your room, though.”

“Broke the door?” she asked, nonplussed.

He shrugged and handed her the bowl he had been holding. “Here, have some soup. Yes, I was holding you and the door was locked. So, I kicked it. What else could I do?”

Katara smiled accepting the bowl, “Toph would be proud.”

“Don’t tell her,” Zuko groaned, “Knowing her, she would make this into a sleazy joke.”

“You have a point,” Katara said, hating the way her voice was sounding. She spooned some soup and sighed. “Wow. This is good. Refreshing. Where did you get this?”

“I made it,” he replied.

Her jaw dropped. “You can cook?”

“Limited repertoire, but yes, I can whip up a meal. Uncle and I had to feed ourselves for months while we were in Earth Kingdom. Picked up a few things.”

Katara’s eyes narrowed, “And you never thought of helping me while you were with us?”

Zuko backpedaled immediately, “I… I’m not a very good cook and I have never cooked for so many people. And… I did help. I washed the clothes and the dishes, remember? Even chopped the vegetables sometimes.”

“But never cooked,” Katara said, fighting to keep the laughter in check. His expression of horror was too funny for her to maintain her angry façade.

“Hey, I cleaned even,” he said emphatically. “Do you have any idea what it is like to clean Toph’s room? Or worse still, clean up Sokka and Suki’s post-coital room?”

At that, Katara burst out laughing. “Relax. I’m just teasing you.”

“I know,” he smiled. He cupped her face with a hand and said, “How are you feeling now?”

She leaned into his touch and nodded, not trusting her voice.

Zuko cleared his throat and said, “Katara, what I’m about to say might sound very strange. But… I think what I have to say might help you.”

“What?”

He dropped his hand and laid it on the bed, such that his arm and body formed a canopy over her knees. “I think… Aang regrets what he did.”

Katara’s lips thinned as anger and hurt swirled in her. “You can’t possibly know that!”

“I know. I know.”

“No, you don’t, Zuko!” she screamed, tears streaming from her eyes. “You don’t know. You cannot know it. He has taken everything from me. Every good memory, every happiness, everything that I could treasure, he has snatched it from me. Now you tell me he regrets it? How could you even say that?”

“I don’t know how I know it,” Zuko said, his face scrunched in concentration, “I just know that he really does regret it. I… I almost feel like he is here, somewhere.”

Katara’s voice was cold as ice as she raised her brows and said, “He is here you say? Well then, I have a message for him. Aang, you can take your regret and shove it up your ass!”

With that Katara slapped the soup bowl into Zuko’s hand and got off the bed. Or tried to. Her feet, though, wouldn’t support her weight and she tumbled. But like always, Zuko was there, holding her hand to steady her. He lowered her to the bed again and put the soup bowl on the bedside table.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “This anger. This panic. I brought it on, didn’t I?”

For the first time, Katara realized how her actions might have looked to him. Fresh tears leaked from her eyes and she threw her arms around him, burying her face into his chest. “No, Zuko. I am sorry. I… I panicked. It’s not your fault.”

He patted her back slightly, “It is. To a certain extent. I should have known you are not ready.”

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 24

At Sunrise, Zuko woke up, even when his eyes were still closed. The first thing he felt upon waking up was her smell. A mix of water, something floral, and her own unique scent. As his senses came alive, he felt her. All of her. Her body was pressed against his. Head on the crook of his shoulder, one arm across his waist, other clutching his shirt, her leg between his. The sound of her steady measured breathing told him she was still sleeping, peacefully. He opened his eyes and drank in her the sight of her. Whatever she was dreaming of was pleasant, for she had a small smile playing on her lips. Sight, sound, touch, smell – she had filled four of five if his senses. Only taste remained, but he was in no rush. That sense too would be sated, soon.

Last night, after Katara had calmed down and had the soup he had prepared, they had a pretty intense make out session. She had, multiple times, assured him that she was not rejecting his advances. Nor did his desire faze her. She was not ready to go all the way yet, and Zuko was perfectly fine with that. It was much too soon for that level of intimacy anyway. The most important thing, at that moment, was that Katara was healing. Slowly, steadily, arduously, but she was healing. That’s all that mattered. That she was an enthusiastic participant in their make out sessions, was just an added bonus. Zuko pulled her closer, placing a gentle peck on her head.

“Good morning,” she muttered sleepily, eyes still closed.

“You’re awake?” he said, drawing slow circles on her back.

“Sort of. Not quite.”

“I’ll let you sleep then,” he said and moved to get off the bed, but she tightened her grip on him.

“No. Stay.”

Zuko didn’t need to be told twice. “You were having a pleasant dream?”

“I was,” she said, burrowing her head further into him such that her breath tickled his neck, making his skin break into goosebumps. “I was back at South Pole. Watching the Polar Lights. Everyone was there. Bumi, Kya, Izumi, Iroh, Azula, Dad, Sokka, Suki, Gran Gran, Toph, Ty Lee and you. I was happy.”

At that, Zuko realized something that he had not really thought of till then, “You miss your home, don’t you? How long has it been since you have gone there?”

“Three years,” Katara said, opening her eyes blearily. “I don’t think I can go back, Zuko.”

He drew back a little to look at her face, “What? Why?”

“There is a Northern Waterbender sitting as the chief of Southern Water Tribe,” Katara’s lips thinned. “As of this moment, the South is as good as a colony for the North. There is no way I can go there.”

“You will go. That’s your home, Katara. I’ll make sure you do,” the reversal of the situation did not escape his notice. He had been at the seas for three years, torn away from his home, with no hope of ever returning. But then, Katara and the others had paved the way for him to return home. Now, it was his turn to return the favor.

“Ummm,” Katara groaned, curling into him. “Too early in the morning for such a serious discussion.”

He chuckled softly and said, “Fine. Day four of our vacation. What do you want to do today?”

For a moment, she was silent, and he wondered if she had fallen asleep. But then, she said, “I was thinking, let’s spar. I haven’t sparred in ages.”

“I have gotten better,” Zuko said, tightening his arms to pull her closer, “Think you can keep up?”

“You’re on, Fire Lord,” she said in a slow, seductive purr and ran the tip of her tongue along his neck, effectively ensuring that sparring was the last thing on his mind.


As Katara pulled her hair into a braid, her eyes were drawn to a dark spot at the base of her neck, where it met her shoulder. Frowning, she leaned forward, and peered into the mirror. It took her a couple of moments to understand what she was looking at, for this was not something she had seen before. At least not on herself. She had seen it on Suki a few times, who had called them love bite or hickey. But not on herself. Never. Because that was not the kind of mark Aang left on her body. Gritting her teeth, Katara pushed the disturbing thought aside. Closing her eyes, she forcibly reminded herself of how the mark on her neck came to be. The image of her leaning against Zuko, as he hugged her from behind and gently sucked on her skin, was a pleasant experience. She chose to focus on that, not on the haunting thoughts of her previous marriage.

With that, the gloom that threatened to overcome her was finally pushed away from her mind. Smiling, she finished tying her hair, pulled her hair-loops, something she had not done in a long time. She pulled a tunic atop her sarashi and walked out. Upon reaching the stairs near the courtyard, she found Zuko doing some basic stretches. Katara took a moment to study the man.

Even when he was a teenager, he had a beautiful body. Muscular, toned and lithe. As an adult, he had gained some more musculature. The red patch of shriveled skin on his chest, shaped like a star, brought the memory of how he had earned it. For her. Upon spotting her, Zuko stopped mid-stretch and gave her a smile.

He smiles a lot more now. She realized suddenly.

“Here for a rematch?” he asked with a wide smile.

Katara grinned and said, “Trust me, Zuko, it won’t be much of a match.”

He chuckled and said, “Oh I know, Water Bender. I know.”

While she had been getting ready, he had arranged for three barrels of water surrounding the courtyard. Smiling slightly, Katara took off her tunic, laid it on the stair and walked into the courtyard. She pulled water to her and coated her arms with it. Zuko took a deep breath and took his stance. A few moments of silence followed where both of them studied each other for a moment. Then, he made the first move, sending a blast of fire at her which she blocked easily.

The one thing she had learned over the years was the best way to defeat a bender was to destabilize their stance. She had seen Zuko do that to Mizu, so she knew that he was aware of it too. She just had to do it before he could destabilize her. Katara began to send darts after darts of ice needles at him which he easily dodged.

“Oh, come on,” he said, “You can do better than that.”

Without waiting for her response, he sent a relentless barrage of flames at her, each of which she blocked. Then he lifted his hands high up in the air in what was a Waterbending move and pulled a curtain of flame in front of him, then pushed the tapestry towards her. Katara raised a wall of water, the flame died out in a sizzle. She dropped the water on the floor, only to realize he was not where he had been. Katara whipped her head around to find him right next to her, fist engulfed in flame and a victorious smile on his face.

“Boo,” he said and sent the punch towards her but Katara dodged it easily, dropping down to her haunches and pulling the water on the floor towards their feet. Zuko, meanwhile, was taking a different stance, preparing for his next attack. But Katara quickly froze the water into slick ice. Zuko lost his footing, slipping slightly.

Katara stood up and said, “I win.”

He heated his feet and gained his footing and said, “You wish.”

With that, he sent a slice of fire towards her feet. Katara danced away, pulling water in an arc and freezing it, blocking the fire. She then made an octopus form and began to attack him with the tentacles. With attacks coming from different sides, he was having a tough time. Then, in a typical Zuko move, he dropped to his back and whirled his feet, sending a circle of fire to cut the base of her octopus form.

She then sent waves at him, but Zuko was quicker. He imitated her movements, cutting her waves with one of his own. The two of them moved in increasingly tighter circles, panting and sweating, each keeping their attack going. When they got close enough, she froze an icicle and used it as a knife.

He gave her a lazy smirk, grabbed her wrist, moved it behind her and pinned her against him. His golden eyes bore into her as he whispered, “I win.”

Katara didn’t know who made the move, but the next thing she knew, they were kissing. Messy, sweaty and grimy as they were, a part of Katara wondered why she was not objecting to the physical contact. Instead, she arched into him, threading her hand through his, long, black, silky hair, enjoying the moment fully.

He pulled back and said, “Now, this is the kind of sparring that I look forward to.”

 

Chapter Text

 


Chapter 25

Zuko got off the gangplank and sighed. The seven days he had spent with Katara at Ember Island were, arguably, the most memorable days of his life. When he had married her, Zuko’s entire focus had been to ensure that she was out of the Northern Water Tribe’s clutches. He had not expected anything out of the marriage. But some higher power somewhere was perhaps very happy with him, for without asking, he had been given a wonderful family. Kya and Bumi had wormed their way into his heart. Unsurprising, really since he loved children and children seemed to love him back. But then, in Ember Island, he found someone he was not expecting.

In Katara, he had found a friend, a partner, and a mate. In her, he had found his wife. A woman he could rely on. Someone he cared for. Someone he cherished. He could see himself growing old with the person who matched him in every aspect. She was just as stubborn as him. She bended with the ferocity of a Fire Bender and had a temper to match.

Their relationship was based on mutual trust and understanding, After the emotionally exhausting first three days, they had slipped into a comfortable rhythm. Every morning, they woke up in each other’s arms, and spend a very pleasurable time just enjoying each other’s company. Their makeout sessions were steamy to say the least, but they knew where to draw the line. They had not taken it to the next level, no matter how much he wanted to. Katara was not there yet. After that, they would spar. Their afternoon was spent roaming in the island or at the beach, and the evening at home where the two of them would cook a meal together. She would insist that Mizu, Kian, and Taro have dinner with them as well, because that’s who she was. Taking care of people was an integral part of her and for that one quality alone, he knew she would be a wonderful queen. One worthy of sitting next to him. One he thought of as his.

Such was the heart of this woman that she had gone on to forgive even Jet. She had, in fact, told him that they were the ones who owed him an apology. Zuko, who was not quite comfortable with the way Jet looked at Katara, had begrudgingly agreed. (In fact, Zuko had a sneaking suspicion that he would not be able to say no to her, ever.) But as Katara had pointed out, he had threatened to gouge Jet’s eyes out. Zuko wasn’t entirely surprised that he had given in to her persuasion. As an apology to the man, Zuko had gifted him a dojo where Jet could teach martial arts to non-bender kids, the rent of the space would be paid for by the crown.

The crunch of gravel told him that Katara had come down the gangplank as well. He smiled at her and opened his mouth to say something but before he could get his words out, a shrill voice cried out, “Mommmmyyyyyyy.”

As he watched, a blue blur crossed him and flew into Katara’s arms. She lifted Kya up, peppering her face with kisses. “Aww, my baby! I missed you so much!”

Kya was busy hugging her mother. Meanwhile, Bumi skipped up to them, gave a huge grin to Zuko and said, “Welcome back, Fatherlord.”

“You lost a tooth!” Zuko said with wide eyes, “You lost your first tooth! You’re now officially a grown up.”

Bumi snorted and rolled his eyes, “As if!”

“It’s a rite of passage, Bumi,” Zuko said seriously.

Next to him, Katara was chuckling. Bumi shook his head, grinning, “I can’t believe I thought you were a serious guy. You’re as bad as Uncle Sokka.”

Zuko raised a brow, “Nah, he’s funnier.”

“Or so he thinks,” Bumi said.

Izumi, being the princess that she was, walked over to them slowly and said, “Hello dad.”

Zuko pulled her into his embrace and half a beat later, she returned the hug. “I missed you, sweetheart.”

“You’re being mushy, dad,” she said, even though she had a small smile on her face. “You’ve been gone a lot longer at times.”

“Not on a vacation,” he said.

Izumi simply shrugged, “Whatever, dad.”

She then gave Katara a nod of acknowledgement but refrained from saying anything else. Seeing this as her chance, Kya leapt from Katara’s lap to Zuko’s. He grabbed the child and Bumi used the moment to clamber on his mother’s lap. Kya threw her arms around Zuko’s neck and said, “Grandpa Iroh said that when you were my age, you hated to wear pants.”

Katara gave him a look of barely suppressed mirth while Bumi and Izumi began to chortle. Zuko glared daggers at Iroh who stood someway off, grinning. “Ummm, why is Grandpa Iroh telling you all this?”

“He says it’s always better to know people,” Kya replied sagely.

“Let’s just go home,” Zuko grumbled.


Katara stepped back and examined her reflection. This would be the first dinner she would have after returning from Ember Island. The children and Iroh had been the only ones meeting them at the wharf, with the rest of them waiting for the dinner to meet them. That made sense. What was the point of coming all the way to the wharf, when they would have to get back in different carriages and immediately separate to prepare for dinner? She much rather preferred the idea of meeting them during the dining. This was meant to be a private dinner with friends and family only.

For this particular occasion, she had chosen the same blue and red sarong that Zuko had gifted her. She had her usual jewelry, Zuko’s betrothal necklace, her mother’s necklace, and Lady Ursa’s necklace. She had tied her hair in the usual Fire Nation style, with a top-knot and leaving the rest of the hair open. She had deliberately not put the crown on, as she had noticed Zuko didn’t on private dinners. She tucked a strand of hair behind her ears and looked at the hourglass. She had another half an hour before she had to leave for dinner. Just as she was wondering what to do for the time she had in hand, a knock sounded on her door. She walked over and opened the door, surprised to find her grandmother standing there.

“Gran Gran?”

“Can I come in?”

Katara stepped aside, allowing the old woman to enter the chamber. “Come, sit.”

Gran Gran hobbled over to her bed, settled down on the bed, and Katara joined her.

“How are you, my dear?” Kanna asked, holding her hand.

Katara looked at her grandmother’s shriveled hand atop hers. “I’m fine. What’s going on, Gran Gran?”

Kanna patted her hand and said, “I have been very worried for you, Katara.”

“Huh? Why?”

“Well, things in your life have changed drastically,” Kanna said slowly. “I have had very limited interactions with Zuko and I… I just… can’t rest easy. Is he, Zuko, I mean… is he okay with you?”

Katara’s eyebrows shot up, “Where is this coming from?”

Kanna sighed, “He’s a Fire Bender and …”

Even though she didn’t say it, Katara understood. Gran Gran had seen war for almost all her life. At eighty-eight, she had seen war for the better part of her life. In fact, she had believed that war was all she would see. Katara could understand her mistrust of Fire Benders in general. In fact, she herself had been vindictive and angry towards Zuko when he had joined them. She could not blame her grandmother for her doubts.

“Relax Gran Gran,” Katara said, hugging her grandmother. “Zuko is nice man and he is taking very good care of me. Don’t worry about me.”

“Are you sure? You are not saying this just to make me feel better?”

“No Gran Gran! I’m being absolutely honest. Zuko is being very nice, understanding, and caring. He is going over and beyond to make sure I adjust to my new life. I’m happy, Gran Gran.”

Gran Gran sighed, “Thank you. I feel so much better. When I sent you to Ember Island, I was both worried and hopeful about your future. I, of all people, know it’s not easy to get adjusted to a new marriage. Especially second marriage. I’m just glad it was an old friend of yours that you got married to.”

“Gran Gran, thank you for worrying about me. But really, I am perfectly fine.”


In the adjacent chamber, Iroh was having a similar conversation with Zuko.

“Really, Uncle, I’m fine,” Zuko said, running a comb through his hair.

Iroh sighed and walked up to Zuko, who now stood more than a foot taller than him. Because of the considerable height difference, the older man had to crank his neck up to look at him, “Nephew, I worry about you.”

“I know,” Zuko said, tying his hair into a top knot. Once Iroh had walked in, he had dismissed the servants, despite the fact that he was not dressed for dinner. Satisfied with the top knot, he ran his comb through the remainder of his hair. “But really, I am okay.”

“Zuko… Please… I know it is tough to be married to a woman who has been another man’s wife. A woman that loves another man.”

No, Zuko’s mind countered, rather furiously. She loves me. Always has. Aloud he said, “Uncle, we both know and understand that we have had other people in our lives. We have had long discussions about it while we were at Ember Island. We know where we stand with each other. It’s okay. You don’t have to worry about me.”

“If you say so,” Iroh said, not entirely convinced.

“Anyway, tomorrow, I would like to sit with you and Katara to try and figure out what message to send to the Northern Water Tribe.”

“Good. I have a few ideas.”

“As do I,” Zuko looked at the hourglass. “Come, it’s time for dinner.”


Sokka could not believe his eyes. Katara was laughing. He had missed what the joke was that had made her laugh, mainly because his eyes were fixed on his sister’s face. In his mind’s eye, he could still see the Katara he had seen in North Pole. That haggard, broken, haunted look had made him want to strangle baby seals. But now, she sat in front him, laughing with Ty Lee and Toph. As he watched, the Earth Bender leaned over and whispered something in her ears, making her throw her head back and whoop in laughter.

Sokka’s own lips stretched in a big smile of his own. Whatever had happened at Ember Island, had gone a long way in bringing his sister back and for that, Sokka was beyond happy. Pulling his eyes away from his sister’s joyous face, he looked at the person sitting next to her. The man who had once been his friend, and now, his brother-in-law. Zuko was currently in a deep conversation with his dad. Something about him was different too. The perpetual frown of his face was gone. He was smiling a lot more too. It was then, at that moment, Sokka dared to hope. Maybe, just maybe, whatever had happened at the North Pole, was a blessing in disguise.

Smiling to himself, Sokka picked a piece of Komodochicken with his chopsticks and put it in his mouth. Another laugh from Katara drew his attention. As he watched, his sister nudged Zuko with her elbow. The two of them leaned towards each other with an easy familiarity and she said something to him, making him chuckle. Then, to Sokka’s intense surprise, Zuko put a hand on her waist (which was bare in her current outfit) and drew small circles, while the two were engaged in a conversation with other people.

Sokka paused and his jaw dropped. As far as Sokka could see, Zuko was not even aware what his hand was doing. His entire focus was on his dad. And Katara? She too didn’t seem to have any problem with that intimate touch either. She was completely engrossed in her chatter with Toph, Ty Lee and Suki. Sokka knew that action. That little touch. He had done it himself. It was such a… couple thing to do. At the heels of the thought came yet another, rather disturbing realization. He had never seen Aang do that.

Chapter Text

Chapter 26

"Will you stop moving!" Suki swatted at her husband, who grunted in response. "What's going on with you? Why aren't you sleeping?"

"I can't… Something is bothering me."

Suki sighed and sat up, "Clearly. Is it the heat?"

Sokka shook his head and pushed himself up to sit cross-legged and face his wife, "I saw something today that was very strange."

"What?"

"At the dinner table, Zuko's hand was at Katara's waist."

"So?" Then understanding dawned on her face, "Please don't tell me that your older brother instincts have kicked in. Please don't tell me you are planning to teach Zuko a lesson for touching your sister. If so, let me remind you, they are married."

Sokka made a face, "I know. But that's not what I am talking about. I don't have a problem with Zuko. He's my bro and a great guy. I couldn't ask for a better guy for Katara, but… something isn't adding up. Like a giant puzzle piece is missing which is why the picture is all wonky."

Suki raised a brow, "Explain."

Sokka huffed and scratched his nose, "I was thinking about the way they got married. According to Zuko, they were hardly talking to each other, barely three letters in like two years. And then, one fine day, out of the blue, wham! They're married. Both of them were married to people they were in love with. And now, suddenly, just little over a month later, Zuko is touching her bare waist? And she doesn't have a problem with that. Doesn't strike as odd to you?"

Suki shrugged, "They both suffered a terrible loss. Sometimes, when two people go through the same pain, they bond better. Besides, they were good friends to begin with, and now they have come close. Maybe even had sex. So?"

Sokka shook his head, trying to articulate his thoughts, "No. No. I mean, yes. I know. That's not the bit I have a problem with. That's their life and they are welcome to do what they want. That's why we did all that, right? The clothes we packed. It was to nudge them in the right direction."

"And maybe it worked," Suki answered, still not seeing what he was getting at. "Why is that bothering you?"

Sokka shook his head, "I know my sister, alright? She is not really comfortable with this public display of affections. This… it was really out of character. Also, that kind of familiarity… it doesn't come within a month into a relationship. At least not with Katara."

"Why? Katara has always been free with her hugs. How can you say that she is not that big into public display? Rather, I'd say it's Zuko who would be uncomfortable with it. Remember how he hated the group hugs?"

Sokka sighed and rubbed his face, "You have a point. But tell me, do you ever remember Aang putting a hand across her shoulder? On her knees? Or her ever hugging him publicly? I'm talking about after they began dating."

Suki bit her lip as she thought back. "No. I don't think so. But I don't think you should worry too much about it. Maybe Aang wasn't so much into showing affection. It's possible, right?"

Sokka considered her words for a while, mulling and chewing them before he said, "Of course. But I feel like there's more to the picture. My instincts say there's something more here."


When Katara woke up the next day, Zuko was not next to her. Instead there was a note that said he would see her at the sparring arena if she woke up within an hour of sunrise, else he would see her at the dining area. When she walked into the sparring area, however, Zuko was not alone, much to her surprise. In fact, him and Sokka were already engaged in a fierce round, each with their swords. Sokka with his replaced space-sword that Piandao had crafted for him from the remaining meteorite that was left at the smelting shop. Sokka had never been more thrilled at receiving a gift as he had been that day. Zuko, on the other hand, was arms with his dual dao swords. They were both involved in a heated match that Katara did not want to interrupt. She walked over to the bleachers where Suki was perched, watching them.

"Hey, good morning!" Katara said, "You guys are up bright and early."

"Sokka couldn't sleep last night," Suki answered with a shrug. "You know how distracting fidgety husbands are. But he was getting very antsy."

"Why?"

"Who knows? What about you? How are you up so early?"

"My husband is a Fire Bender," Katara dropped her voice in a poor imitation of Zuko's heavier tone and slight lisp, "He rises with the sun. I seem to wake up soon after he leaves."

Suki nodded, apparently satisfied with her words. The warrior mulled on Katara's words, then opened her mouth to say something when a loud curse from Sokka interrupted their chat.

"Not fair!" Sokka cried. "You use two swords! How am I supposed to keep an eye on both at the same time?"

Zuko shrugged, sheathing his swords, "I beat you fair and square. I have always used two swords, so you knew what to expect."

Sokka sheathed his sword and said, "Why do you use two swords, anyway? Is this a compensation for something?"

Beside her, Suki gave a snort as Katara's own lips twitched. A younger Zuko would have flown into rage or be reduced to an awkward, blubbering mess at the risqué joke. The older version merely rolled his eyes, "Did you just crack a phallic joke about my swords? I'll have you know that I don't need any compensation. No problems whatsoever in that department."

Katara felt a blush creep up her cheeks while Suki doubled over in suppressed laughter.

"Not bad!" Sokka said, grinning. "You cracked a joke! Impressive."

"I'm not a humorless person," Zuko replied a little defensively.

"No, you are just bad at remembering actual jokes."

"I don't need to, as long as you are here. You can keep us entertained."

Sokka clapped his back with a good-natured laugh and the two of them walked towards their wives. "Good morning, sweetheart!" Sokka said cheerily, and settled down next to Suki, giving her a kiss on the lips. "Morning, sis."

"Morning, Sokka," Katara said as Zuko stood in front of them.

"Can you believe that in less than a month it's going to be fourteen years since the war ended?" Suki said.

Katara gaped, "Fourteen years! Wow!"

Sokka agreed, "I know! Seems just like yesterday, doesn't it?"

"At this time, fourteen years ago, we were watching that godawful play," Suki giggled.

Zuko groaned, "You all be thankful you haven't had to witness the revised version of the play."

"There's a revised version?" Sokka asked interested.

"Not anymore," Zuko grinned. "I put a stop to it."

"Fire Lord! That's an abuse of power!" Katara said, giggling.

"Yep. Not ashamed of it. That play was worse than the original."

"How is that even possible?" Suki asked.

"For starters, you didn't even exist in the play," Zuko said to Suki. "Ozai was this benevolent ruler that abdicated his throne for his prodigal son. And Azula was shown as… a lovestruck girl who was left heartbroken at the end of the war. Oh, and best part, Sokka, you had an affair with The Boulder."

Sokka blanched at that while Katara howled with laughter. Suki shuddered, "I'm so glad I never saw that one."

Zuko sniggered. From the corner of her eyes, Katara saw him put his middle and ring finger on his chest and rub it a little. Instantly, she was on her feet and next to him. "Your chest hurts."

"Sometimes," he said, looking straight into her eyes. Katara felt a slow warmth envelop her at the soft expression on his face. The way he looked at her these days set her heart beating at a frantic pace. This man, the one she had loved for so long, was finally, finally returning her affections. He had seen her at her most vulnerable. Had heard the deepest, darkest secrets she held in her bosom, and after all that, had accepted her completely. He still held her close, gave her the support she needed. And for that, Katara could not be grateful enough. She loved him. There was no point denying it. She had always loved him and had long since acknowledged it as the one cardinal truth of her life. But just when she had believed that she was dead in all but her body, Zuko had stormed in and breathed life back into her. And for that, she had fallen in love with him – again.

Katara shook her head a little to clear the thoughts and called her element to herself from the trough nearby. "Let me see."

Zuko frowned, "What?"

"Your chest, the wound. Let me see it."

Even as he unbuttoned his shirt, he said, "It's an old wound. It tingles sometimes. What will we gain from this?"

"Let me just have a look, will you?" Katara said.

"Go ahead."

Katara laid her water gloved hand on the star-shaped scar and closed her eyes, allowing the water to seep into his pores. The first thing she noted was that there was a jumble of scar tissue, mottled together in a mass. It took her some time, but then she spotted it. A pair of nerves that were pinched with the scar tissues growing around it. She willed the liquid to ease the tension a bit, but she knew she would not be able to do more than that. Not then.

"I did what I could for now," she said pulling the water out and sending it back to the trough. "But I would look at it again, later. During full moon."

Even though she didn't say it, she knew he understood what she meant. He nodded and said, "It is better, thanks. Anyway, I must go now. I have to attend the court. As do you. Your first day as Fire Lady."

Katara nodded, "I know. I'll be there soon."

Then, before she could move, Zuko pulled her in his arms and kissed her. It was short, just a touch of lips. But to her, it spoke volumes. In that one action he told her that he knew what she wanted to do to heal him. He knew of the doubts that lay coiled in her stomach. Of the nervousness that fluttered in her. She was troubled, both with the prospect of using her bloodbending and for her first day in court, and he knew it. With that one small kiss, he was assuring her that she was not alone and that he was there for her. Through it all.

Spirits, I love this man so much!

Neither of them noticed the look exchanged by the other couple that sat on the bleachers, just a couple of feet away physically, but miles away from the little world Katara and Zuko were in.


Zuko and Katara took their positions in the throne room as he raised the curtain of flame. He had to make sure he did not make it too hot, because Katara was not used to sitting behind a wall of flame. Being a Fire Bender, his tolerance for heat was much higher. By the time he was slightly discomfited, Katara would be dehydrated. Keeping the heat moderated would go a long way in ensuring that she would stay comfortable. Zuko raised a hand as an indication for the proceedings to begin.

"Welcome back, Fire Lord, Fire Lady," Councilman Sho said with a bow. "I would like to take this moment to say that it is a great honor for us to see Fire Lady seated on the throne. The place next to our Lord has been vacant for far too long."

Zuko nodded. There was a persona he maintained as the Fire Lord and he had long since learned that one of the key things of that was to speak as little as possible. He had communicated that to Katara as well and she was now following his lead.

"Now, with your permission, Milord, we would like to commence with the order of business," Sho said.

"Permission granted."

For the next few hours, the council went on and on about various issues. Next to him, he could feel Katara fidget a couple of times, but she stayed quiet. Not that he could blame her. It took a while for the body to get accustomed to sitting like that for hours upon hours. He remembered the first couple of months that he had struggled with sore knees, cramping thighs, stiff back and aching ankles. Now, he had gotten used to it. At one point, he saw her wince slightly and moved her left knee slightly. Using the fire curtain as a shield, he placed a heated hand on her knee and kneaded it lightly. In response, she squeezed his hand a little.

Finally, the day at the court came to an end. With Councilman Sho read out the closing for the day, Zuko allowed a small exhale to escape his lips. He waited for the courtroom to be empty before lowering the flame. He stood up and held out a hand for Katara, who stood up with a groan.

"Oh spirits! How do you do this? My legs are killing me!" Katara said in a low voice.

"I know," he said, nodding sympathetically. "I'm sorry. It does take some getting used to."

He waved a hand, allowing her to step in front of him. She descended the throne first, followed by him. The stiffness of her movements spoke about how sore her body was. Zuko lay a heated hand on her lower back, earning a sigh of relief from her. As the two of them walked out of the throne room, Zuko saw someone approach them from his peripheral vision.

"Milord," Councilman Sorma bowed, catching his attention. "May I take a moment of your precious time?"

Zuko's lips thinned slightly, because he particularly disliked being approached outside the throne room but nodded, nevertheless.

"Milord, may I be so impudent as to invite you to my abode for dinner?"

"I do not attend dinners at the abodes of my Councilmembers, Councilman, to avoid the impression of favoritism. Surely you knew that."

The smile on the Councilman's face faltered only for a moment before he hitched it back up. "Milord, I had a matter of utmost importance to discuss with you and would require your audience."

"Take it up with Mizu," Zuko answered. "I am certain he can find a slot for dinner."

Sorma's smile was a shade frigid as he bowed and said, "As you wish, Milord. I'm honored that you are willing to consider my request."

Zuko nodded. The Councilman bowed and withdrew.


Azula had not come for her meal again. Katara had tried, over and over again, to get the other woman to attend the family meals but she steadfastly refused. According to her, no one wanted to see her and that her presence would upset everyone. A convincing argument that Katara could not fully refute but she was not about to give up. She had seen a side of Azula that hardly anyone was privy to and she seemed too reluctant to let anyone else see it. But Katara was not about to let her latest friend hide away from her own family.

Stars lit overhead as Katara was walking along the corridor, now a little more familiar with the way to Azula's chamber. The royal family wing was designed in a square, with the turtle duck pond at the middle. As Katara walked along, she heard the distinct sound of someone sniffling. Startled and worried, she made her way to the garden. She walked carefully, making sure she didn't startle whoever was sitting near the lake, hidden in the bushes. It took her eyes a moment to adjust to the change in light. When she finally did, she realized that it was Izumi who was concealed by a clump of flower bushes.

"Izumi?" Katara said, as softly as she could.

The girl looked up and her lips thinned. "What are you doing here?"

"May… may I sit down?" she asked gently.

The girl shrugged, wiping off her tears. Katara sat on the grass, careful to keep distance between them. Just like Zuko had done with her, Katara let silence be the language between them. The gurgling of the lake and the squawking of the ducks broke the quiet once in a while, but the two of them sat, facing the lake. Finally, Izumi broke the silence.

"I don't know what to do," the girl said in clipped tones.

"About what?"

"About you."

Katara blinked, not knowing what to make of that sentence. The words were hostile, but the tone was resigned. "Is something bothering you, dear?"

"Like you care," Izumi responded, the barb strong and icy.

Katara pushed away the pain that she felt at the words and concentrated on the angry child. "Izumi, I know you don't consider me your mother. But for me, you are no different than Bumi or Kya."

Izumi scoffed. "No. I am different. I'm the cast away."

Katara wanted to reach out and hug the lost, confused, and angry child, but she knew that would not be received well. Instead, she said, "Izumi! No sweetheart. You are not cast away. This is your family. We love you."

"Really? What do you even know about me?" Izumi said, now riled up. Her spine was taut, and her teeth clenched. "If you truly loved me, you would know why I am out here, crying. If Dad truly loved me, he would be here with me. He is not. All because of you!"

Katara felt her heart twist uncomfortably as she realized the child was feeling neglected. "No, sweetheart. I assure you, your father has not forgotten you. He is working right now."

Izumi shook her head and shot to her feet. "Working? He is working? How can he be working now? How could he forget?"

"Forget? What did he forget? Izumi, did something happen?"

"Something?" Izumi spat, her hands curled into fists and she was quivering. "Yes. Something happened. Day after tomorrow is my mom's birthday and dad doesn't even remember it! All because of you!"

Saying so, Izumi ran away, leaving Katara behind.

Chapter Text


 

 

Chapter 27

Zuko frowned over the numbers as his treasurer, Fazin briefed him on the budgeting, with his political advisor, Wei, pitching in every now and then with his inputs. The three men were engaged in a deep conversation, each with a quill in their hands, making notations as needed.

“We could increase the rentals of the stalls by the canals,” Fazin said, “Since they attract the most traffic, they could easily shell out one additional gold coin per stall, per day, without making much of a dent in their earnings.”

Zuko nodded, putting his symbol on the sheet, “Approved. Next.”

“I propose to reduce the price of the tickets by five copper coins,” Wei said. “We would be able to attract more customers.”

Zuko frowned and shook his head, “Make that fifteen. Five is too nominal a difference to make any significant change.”

“But Milord, at fifteen, would it not be too drastic a drop?”

“But with that change, a lot more people would be able to afford the tickets,” Zuko pressed on, itching a spot on his chin, “That would increase the footfalls. And that would cover up the reduced prices.”

Wei and Fazin exchanged a look and nodded. Fazin made a note.

“Next.”

Fazin pulled another parchment and laid it in front of Zuko, “We would need to set aside at least three hundred gold pieces for the cleanup afterwards.”

“You have the funds, I believe,” Zuko said, studying the document.

“Yes, Milord. We have that amount in the –“

Before Fazin could complete his sentence, the door to Zuko’s chamber was thrown open with a loud bang, making the three men look up. He heard Mizu’s voice, trying to stop whoever was storming in, but failing spectacularly. Zuko stood up, clicking in irritation at the disruption. Then, much to his surprise and anger, Katara marched into his vision, followed by a flustered Mizu.

Fazin was the first to gain his composure and bowed low, “Milady.”

Snapped out of the shock, Wei copied the action. Zuko felt a vein throb in his temple and his jaw clenched. Unaware of the glare he was shooting at her, Katara straightened her spine and said, “Treasurer Fazin and Advisor Wei, could you please resume this later. I need to speak with my husband urgently.”

Zuko’s eyes narrowed a fraction but he refrained from saying anything. Unable to refuse a direct order from the Fire Lady, the two men bowed and left. Mizu lingered for a moment, uncertain of what to do, but then bowed and left, closing the door after them. Once assured that they were alone, Zuko let his anger show.

“Katara,” he said in a cold voice. “No one. I repeat, NO ONE barges into my room like this and demands my time like this. You maybe my wife but even you don’t have the right to simply dismiss my meetings like this.”

“Zuko, this is important.”

“More important than budgeting for a festival that would provide for hundreds of families?” Zuko shot back.

Katara’s eyes flashed dangerously and she said, “I’m not going to ask you to prioritize your tasks. I know you have the burden of the entire nation on your shoulders but –“

“But what, Katara?” he snapped. “What could possibly be more important than this? Didn’t Mizu tell you what was happening in this room?”

“He did.”

“And you still thought it was important enough to barge right in and dismiss my men?”

“Yes.”

Zuko shook his head, fumes curling from his nose with every breath. He ground his words through gritted teeth, “What could be more important than this?”

Katara folded her arms across her chest and said, “Zuko, what day is it today?”

“You stormed into my budget meeting to ask me what day it is?” Zuko screamed.

“Answer the damn question!” Katara shouted in return.

Gold met blue in a furious stand-off for a moment before Zuko bit out, “Sixteenth day of the Third moon of South Dragon.”

“And? What’s day after tomorrow?”

“Seriously Katara –“

“Answer. The. Question.”

“First day of Fourth moon…” Zuko’s words trailed off as realization sank in. “Agni! It’s Mai’s birthday.”

“You forgot. Izumi noticed,” Katara said softly.

Zuko slapped a hand on his face as his heart twisted painfully, his anger blowing away into smithereens. “Shit! Shit! Shit!”

Katara lay a hand on his shoulder and said, “She is feeling neglected, Zuko. She told me she is the cast away.”

Zuko’s head whipped, “What?”

“Go to her, Zuko. Now. She needs you.”

“Thanks, Katara.”

“Never mind that. Go to her. Now.”

Without a word, Zuko turned and ran.

 

 “Izumi?” Zuko called out in the dark. “Princess, are you there?”

No sound but Zuko knew she was there. Since she was two, whenever she was angry or hurt, Izumi would take refuge in the dark. He had tried the turtle duck pond, but she was not there. The next place would have been Mai’s former rooms, where Katara was now housed. There was no way Izumi would be there. So the only other place she would be, was her own chamber.

Zuko lit a small flame in his palm and walked over to her bed. Sure enough, a small quivering bundle lay under the sheets. He walked over and put a hand on her shoulder. “Princess? You’re angry at dad, aren’t you?”

“Go away,” she said, her voice quivering.

“No, not when my baby is crying.”

With a sound that was a mix between a growl and a sob, she slithered away from him.

“I forgot mom’s birthday,” Zuko said, slowly. “You have every right to be angry at me. It was not okay.”

Izumi sat up and Zuko sent a spark at a lamp by the bedside. “How could you, dad? How could you forget this day?”

“I’m sorry, baby,” he said. “So much happened and… but that’s not an excuse. I should not have forgotten. It is not acceptable.”

Izumi wiped her tears and snot with the back of her hand. “She told you?”

Zuko shook his head, “More like scolded me.”

Despite herself, Izumi’s lips turned into ghost of a smile, “Good. You deserved it.”

Zuko bowed his head, “I definitely did.”

Her face took on a pinched look, “How could you forget, dad? Have they become so important that you forgot your family?”

Zuko snapped back, as though she had slapped him. “Izumi! I thought you were getting along with Bumi and Kya.”

“I was trying to,” she said as tears flowed down her face. “Because Auntie told me that I should at least try before I reject them outright. But… you are more focused on them than you are on me. You forgot mom’s birthday. Tomorrow you will forget me.”

Zuko scooped the little girl in his arms and said, “No. No. Don’t think that. Ever. You mean the world to me, Izumi. I can never ever forget you. You heard me? You are a part of me. My baby girl. I have never loved anything or anyone like I love you. Never forget that, okay?”

“But… you forgot mom’s birthday…” she said, albeit with much less hostility.

“I did. It was a mistake. But it wasn’t because of Katara,” Zuko said firmly. “I forgot because I got busy with budgeting for the end-of-war anniversary celebrations.”

“Budgeting? But aren’t you done with that by now?”

Zuko felt a surge of pride at the little girl’s knowledge, “Normally, yes. But because I took the vacation, things got postponed. But then, like the wonderful daughter that you are, you found a way to remind me.”

“Not really. She found me entirely by accident.”

“Well, as Grandpa Iroh says, the spirits work in mysterious ways. Katara finding you there by accident was so that you could correct my mistake through her. It’s all you. But Izumi, the next time I make a mistake, you come and tell me. You know you can talk to me, right?”

Izumi nodded, wrapping her arms around his neck. “We will do the usual things, right? On her birthday?”

“Absolutely.”

“Dad, will you… will you stay here tonight?”

Zuko nodded. A part of him wondered if he should send Katara a message but he decided against it. Given Izumi’s current mood, he didn’t think it would go down well with the child. Besides, Katara would understand. She was a parent too. He lay the child down, who curled into a fetal position in his arms and soon fell asleep.

 

Zuko looked at the little girl sleeping next to him, clutching his shirt in her hand. Even though she was tall for her age, she was still thin. A spitting image of her mother, the only nod she had to him as a parent were her golden eyes. Right now, holding her in his arms, Zuko thought back to the moment he had first held her. A tiny, frail little bundle who had stolen his heart with a yawn. She was born earlier than expected and was at risk. The healer had suggested that they would need to give her body heat to ensure that she made through the tricky first month of her life. Zuko had spent hours upon hours keeping the tiny being on his chest, carefully regulating his body temperature. It had been a nerve-wracking time of his life when he gave it his everything to save his little girl.

And now, that very girl, the one for whom he had, without a complain, stayed up for nights at a stretch, was feeling neglected. Zuko shook his head, pulling her closer to him. How had he allowed this to happen? How had he allowed this doubt to creep into his daughter’s mind? He had seen her talk politely with Bumi and Kya, acknowledge Katara, and he had assumed she was fine. He had not checked up on her. He had not asked her how she was feeling. He had not tried to find out how she was doing. How could he just assume that she would be fine? After all she was just like Mai. She would bottle up her feelings, bury them deep inside. But then, when she reached the tipping point, the part that was him would burst forth and she would explode in a burst of anger. Just like she had done at Katara.

He lay a gentle peck on her hair and cuddled her closer. “I’m sorry, sweetheart. This won’t happen again. I promise.”

 

When he woke up with the sun a few hours later, she was still sleeping. He gave her a small kiss on her forehead and pulled his arm from under her head. As she was wont to do, she had managed to tangle her sheet between her legs. Smiling slightly, he pulled the sheet from under her and draped it on her legs, knowing full well that it was a futile action. The sheet would end up tangled between her legs again within minutes. But he couldn’t help himself. He ran a hand through her raven hair and said, “Sleep well, Princess.”

He walked out of the room and made his way to his own chamber. Once inside, he walked over to the door that led to Katara’s chamber and lay a hand on the doorknob. He debated if he should go in. If she was in the chamber, he would be next to her in a heartbeat. He would not be able to resist it. The need to hold her, touch her, breathe the same air as her, to drink in her presence – the ache was almost physical. No. He couldn’t go in there, not when he had so many things to do. Besides, he owed her an apology for last night. He had lost his temper at her when she was trying to remind him of his most important duty.

Zuko lay his forehead against the wood panel. He felt a tug behind his navel, something he had felt just once before. During her coronation. He had needed her then, albeit for political reasons, and his body had let him know when she was near. And now, again, he needed her, and his body was telling him that she was there. Right behind that door. Zuko closed his eyes and his lips turned up into a tiny smile.

“Might as well admit it to yourself at least, Zuko,” he whispered. “You’ve fallen for her. Hard.”

He sighed and pushed away from the door. He would not go in. Not now. It took every bit of his strength to walk away.

 

Where in the name of everything that was holy was she? She had not come into the sparring arena. She had not been in the dining area, and she had not come to the throne room. Granted, he had been the one who had told her that her presence would not be needed today, given that they would be discussing the end-of-war celebrations. And she could opt out if she wanted to, but spirits above, he needed to see her! Just one look. At that moment, sitting behind the wall of flame, he regretted not opening the door earlier. Closing his eyes, Zuko inhaled deeply.

Get a hold of yourself, man!

 

The Sun was setting in the horizon when he walked into his chamber. He rolled his shoulders, trying to get rid of the niggle between his shoulders. He had, maybe an hour, before he needed to get to dining room and then to Izumi’s room. He still hadn’t seen Katara. It had been almost one whole day since he had seen her and longer still since he had held her. He needed her. Now.

Zuko buried his face in his hands, “Agni! What do I do?”

At that, he felt the now familiar tug behind his navel and whirled around. There she was, standing at the doorway connecting their chambers, with a smile on her face. Without thinking about how desperate he seemed or how she would see his actions, Zuko crossed the room and scooped her in his arms, kissing her with a bruising intensity. He held her against him, letting her essence drown him. Envelop him. Cocoon him.

Finally, when that aching need within him had eased, he pulled back to find her looking at him with a beautiful blush coloring her cheeks. He cupped her face and kissed her eyes, trailed his lips along her nose and brushed his lips against hers.

“Wow. And to what to I owe this beautiful greeting?” She asked with a smile as she draped her arms across his neck.

“I mi… I owed you an apology.”

“Huh? Whatever for?”

“I got angry at you last night. Unfairly. You were trying to help me and I –“

She cut him off with a kiss on his lips. “No apology required. Certainly not after that greeting.”

He pulled her closer, burying his head in the crook of her neck. “I’m going to stay with Izumi tonight as well.”

“I know,” she replied, her hand drawing small circles on his back. “I would have it no other way.”

“And tomorrow, I will be with her to celebrate Mai’s birthday.”

“Yes, I know. You need to be there.”

Zuko tightened his hold on Katara. “I… Thank you, Katara.”

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 


 

Chapter 28

Katara sat up on her bed, all of a sudden. She had the strangest feeling that someone had called her. She looked around, trying to understand why she had woken up, with the last traces of sleep dissipating fast. Her first thought was it was Zuko. But he was in Izumi’s room and being the protective father that he was, he would never leave her in the middle of the night, not when his daughter needed him. Her next thought was it was probably one of her children, but a look around the room told her she was alone. She reached over to the lantern and increased the light. After Aang, she had lost the ability to sleep in dark rooms. The few days she had slept in Zuko’s arms had been a different, though. Truth be told, she could not even remember if the lamps were on or not. All she remembered from those days was Zuko and his warm embrace.

Katara shook her head, forcing herself to focus on the present. She had, without a doubt, heard someone call her, but her room was empty. Out of the blue, a terrifying thought came to her. At Ember Island, Zuko had been certain that Aang had visited them one day. She had gotten angry with him then but now… she had to wonder if her former husband, her tormentor, the man she both loved and hated, had come to her. But after a moment, she dismissed the idea. Aang was in the spirit world and spirits did not visit people willy-nilly. Besides, whoever it was that had called her, had not scared her. Startled her, yes, but she was not afraid.

“Perhaps you just had a dream, Katara,” she said as she bended water from the pitcher on the bedside table and directed the stream into her mouth. With her thirst quenched she was about to lay back down when she heard it again. A soft whisper, carrying in the wind and the feeling of someone being in the room. For one terrified moment, Katara wondered if it was another assassin and was about to call her element to herself, when she had the distinct feeling that whoever was in the chamber was amused at her reaction.

“Who’s there?” Katara called, feeling a tad silly doing so.

Almost as though in response, a flower vase near the dresser crashed on the floor. Instantly alert, she called the water from the pitcher on the bedside to herself, arming herself. Her eyes scanned the chamber, but she saw nothing. Frowning, she walked over to the dresser and peeked behind it. But there was no one in the room. Katara turned one full circle, now completely confused. She stood there, scratching her head, wondering what was going on when, as distinct as the element she held in her hand, she felt a tap on her shoulder.

“Who’s there?” Katara said, whirling on her heels, sending shards of ice that flew through the air and embedded on the wall. There was no one there. On some level, Katara realized that she should be terrified, but somehow, she knew whoever it was, did not mean her any harm. In fact, she had a shrewd suspicion who was paying her a visit.

“Mai?” She called out softly. “Is that you?”

The candle on the dresser flickered for a second and burned brighter. Startled, Katara took a step back and her bare foot fell on a puddle of water that had formed when the flower vase had crashed. Katara lifted her foot and was about to bend the water away when she noticed something odd. Instead of the amorphous shape that the puddle should have formed, one edge of the puddle was a straight line, culminating in a perfect crescent shape. Curious, she knelt next to it and ran a finger along the edge of the puddle, till she reached the crescent shape. There, she saw a miniscule hole that would be invisible to anyone who was not looking for it.

“Is this what you wanted me to see?” She asked.

The answer came in the form of the metal kohl stick that rolled down from the dresser. Katara bent the water away. She picked the kohl stick and inserted it into the hole, not knowing what she was expecting. Several moments passed before with a mechanical click, the floorboard in front of her snapped open.

“Huh? A secret compartment?” Katara smiled. Unable to contain her curiosity, she pulled at the floorboard. Her eyes widened as she saw the board come apart, with hinges holding the end of the panel in place. The floorboard revealed a compartment that was narrow and deep. She slid her hand in and her fingers closed around a thin, flat box. She pulled the box out and checked the compartment again, just to be sure she wasn’t missing anything. Groing around, her fingers brushed against something small and metallic. She pulled it to find a small knife, inside a sheath. She pulled it out to realize it was a red tinted knife.

“Mai, your knife,” she muttered.

She covered the floorboard and carried her find to the bed, cradling them like they were treasured artifacts. She put the knife aside and examined the box. It was a thin, flat wooden box decorated with intricate carvings. A gold and silver thread outlined the box, with tiny diamonds studded in the design. She flicked open the latch and opened the box, to find a several sheets of parchment inside them. Frowning, she picked them up. All of them was written with the same neat script. As she skimmed through the contents, she realized they were select pages from a diary kept by none other than the former Fire Lady, Mai.


Dressed in white, Zuko kneeled down in front of Mai’s grave. Next to him, Izumi did the same. Iroh lit an incense stick and took his place next to the girl.

“Hi Mai,” Zuko said softly as he placed a bouquet of flowers on the ground. “Happy birthday.”

“Happy birthday, mamma!” Izumi said in a quivering voice as she placed a candle on them. Zuko stole a quick glance at his daughter and was relieved to see that she was smiling, even as she had tears in her eyes. Zuko patted her head lightly, earning him a smile from her.

Iroh repeated the wish and as one, the three of them joined their hands in the Fire Nation salute, closed their eyes and bowed. They stayed there for the longest time, leaving only when it began to drizzle. Coming back to the palace, they made their way to the dining room. On this day, Zuko always instructed the kitchens to make Mai’s favorite dishes. Upon realizing that they were the only ones in the dining room, Izumi frowned. “Dad, they are not joining?”

Zuko and Iroh shared a surprised look. Iroh turned to look at her, “You want them to come?”

Izumi shrugged, “They are our new family, right?”

“Yes,” Iroh said, “But we figured you would want to stay with only us.”

Izumi gave a small smile and said, “I like having Bumi around. He makes me laugh.”

Iroh nodded, “I’ll have a servant call them and your auntie for lunch.”

“Auntie won’t come,” Izumi answered, “She doesn’t like people looking at her.”

As Iroh went to send a servant to call the others, Zuko kneeled in front of her and said, “Izumi, Princess, this is your day. You don’t have to accommodate for anyone today. If you want it to be just us, I will be okay with it. You don’t have to adjust for me or anyone else today.”

Izumi shook her head, “No dad. I’m not adjusting. I know this is my day. It’s just a dinner and we can have it together. I like having a full dinner table. Kya is cute.”

“So are you,” Zuko said, pulling her into his embrace. “You are my beautiful little princess.”

“Dad,” she said in her typical long drawn, overly patient way when she was embarrassed by his display of affection, yet enjoying it at the same time, “You’re being mushy again.”

Zuko chuckled and pulled back, bopping her head lightly with his knuckles. “Tough luck, girl. You have a mushy dad.”

Izumi gave an exaggerated eyeroll but had a big grin on her face. Shortly afterward, Kya was the first one inside the dining room. The kid bounded up to Zuko and clambered on his lap, chattering something about toy soldiers sitting on the grass and laying eggs. Zuko and Iroh shared a confused look but then Iroh gave a shrug. Izumi, however, much to his surprise, began talking to her about the toy soldiers in earnest. The two girls were having a serious conversation, not a word of which was making any sense to him. Bumi and Sokka were the next ones. Bumi gave a two fingered salute to Zuko and shot a grin at Iroh before sitting next to Izumi.

“Hey, I hear it’s your mom’s birthday?”

Izumi nodded, “Yes.”

Zuko paid close attention to the conversation between the two. Bumi held out a small package to her and said, “This is for you. I mean, your mom’s birthday… I can’t give her a gift, but I can give you something, right?”

“Thank you,” Izumi said, smiling. He was not surprised to hear a catch in his daughter’s voice.

“Open it,” Bumi said.

Izumi opened it to find a metal statuette of Mai, making her gasp. “Oh my, this is beautiful! Thanks, Bumi!”

The boy grinned and said, “Auntie Toph made me a statue of dad for me the other day. That’s how I thought, I should ask her to make one for my new sister. Mum suggested I should give it to you today.”

“I love this!” Izumi said.

Zuko leaned over and gave Bumi a one-armed hug, touched by the thoughtfulness of the boy. “Thanks, Bumi.”

At that moment, the tug behind his navel told him she was here. Katara was here. The realization that had dawned on him last night had both relieved and scared him a little too. He had fallen in love with her, yes, he understood that. What he didn’t understand was how had this happened? For seven years after Mai, he had not even looked at a woman. He had been offered, of course. Many, many women had practically thrown themselves at him, mostly because of the power he wielded. But he had never even felt the temptation.

But somehow, this woman seemed to have woken something in him. And truth be told, he was scared. Correction, he was terrified. Not because of what he was feeling, but more because he was scared that he was misreading his own feelings. The previous man in her life had hurt Katara something terrible. He could not imagine what it would do to her if he confessed his feelings, only to realize that it was just sexual attraction and not love. He could not do that to her. He needed to be absolutely sure of what he was feeling before he could say anything to her.

Carefully schooling his features, he looked up to find Katara talking to Iroh. She was showing him a piece of parchment, whispering something to him. Having read through it, his Uncle nodded and gave a big smile to her. Katara folded the parchment and walked around the table to come and sit next to Izumi. Unfortunately, that meant, she sat next to him. Zuko swallowed and turned to look at Sokka, striking up a conversation with him. But he had half an ear on the conversation taking place next to him.

“Hey Izumi, can I talk to you for a minute?”

“Sure.”

“First, I want to send Mai the best of my wishes on her birthday. I didn’t know her very well, but what I do know is, if she could see you today, she would be so, so proud of you.”

The conversation around the table stopped, with everyone unabashedly staring at the two. Izumi and Katara, however, only had eyes on each other.

“You think so?” Izumi asked.

“Of course. You are mature beyond your years. A brave warrior and a wonderful child. Mai was a fierce warrior herself. She would be thrilled to see her daughter like this.”

“Thank you.”

Katara smiled, “Also, I found something interesting in my chamber yesterday. I think you would like to have it.”

Izumi frowned, “What?”

Katara held out the parchment she had shown Iroh and a sheathed knife which he recognized immediately. Before he could stop himself, he said, “That knife belonged to Mai.”

Izumi gasped, her eyes missing over as she glanced from Zuko, to the knife, to Katara and back to the knife. “T-tha-thank you.”

“Open the parchment,” Katara said softly.

Izumi dropped the knife on her lap and opened the parchment, her hands trembling. Seeing the contents though, the girl burst into tears. To Zuko’s surprise, Izumi flung herself into Katara’s arms, holding her and saying ‘thank you’ over and over again. Curious, Zuko picked the parchment from the table and glanced at it, immediately recognizing Mai’s neat script. He had known that his late wife used to write a diary, but he had no idea where Katara might have gotten a page from that.

I can’t believe I am a mother. How did that happen? This tiny person, she is mine? How? She is so beautiful though. She looks like me, but she also looks like Zuko. How? How did we make something so beautiful and so delicate? She is barely three days old and I feel like I can’t love her enough.

Zuko looked at Katara, who was now holding all the three kids in her arms and wondered why he was even doubting his feelings. This warmth that was spreading through him, it could not be anything but love.

“Hey, Fatherlord,” Bumi said suddenly, cutting his ruminations. “It’s a new family hug. You’re a part of it too. Come here.”

Like mother. Like son. Zuko chuckled and moved in, wrapping his long arms around the four of them. His family was now truly complete. He was vaguely aware of the whoops of approval and tiny applause by the rest of the occupants when Toph piped up suddenly, “What happened? Why are you scared so much?”

Startled, each person turned to see Toph staring at a servant standing at the doorway, looking like death. “What happened?”

“M-M-Milord… Milord…”

“What? What’s going on?”

Outside, a storm was building up, the wind starting to screech, and the afternoon began to get dark. The servant swallowed, and said, “Milord, the… Princess Azula is missing.”

 

Chapter Text

 


Chapter 29

The storm outside rose to earsplitting levels, its howls cutting through the pin-drop silence that had fallen on the dining room. Zuko was the first to recover. He shot to his feet, and let the monarch take over. “Order a search party. Seal all exits. No one comes in or leaves without my express approval.”

The servant bowed and hurried away. He then turned to Iroh, “Uncle, take the children away. Keep them safe. Suki, Toph, I would require your skills. Ty Lee, Katara, please be ready. We would need you at any moment. Azula responds the best to you. Sokka, I’m entrusting the safety of the family to you. We don’t know if this is an attack or Azula has walked off somewhere of her own volition. In case it is the former, I want you to make sure that the children and the elders are taken to safety. Now, move, everyone.”

The authoritative voice and his decisiveness spurred everyone into action. Zuko, however, did not wait to see if his words were followed, for he knew they were. He marched out of the dining room, undoing his mourning robe of white as he walked. Within moments, Mizu and Taro had taken their positions next to him. Zuko handed his robe to one of the servants, and accepted the tunic, mentally thanking his exile years where he had taken to wearing slacks under his robes so as to be ready for a battle within seconds. He undid a hair tie that he always wore around his wrist and tied his hair into a low-hanging ponytail. He was set.

“Details,” he said.

Taro filled him in, “Sena, the Princess’ maid was the one that realized that the Princess wasn’t in the chambers in the afternoon. She searched her majesty’s usual haunts, but she was nowhere to be found. We assumed she maybe attending Lady Mai’s birthday celebrations, given their past, but when the dining room attendant came looking for her, Sena realized that the Princess was truly missing. That’s when you were informed.”

Zuko exhaled, feeling a lick of dread flit through him. Ozai loyalists, even though they had reduced in number since the time he had taken the throne, were still not an insignificant minority. Ren’s hate-filled tirade came back to him and he had to wonder if putting Katara on the throne had spurred them into action. The general populace of Fire Nation did not know the real nature of his sister’s affliction. Rumors of her condition ranged from being exaggerated, at best, to it being a downright lie. Right after his coronation, a faction of people had rallied against him, clamoring for Azula to be reinstated as the Fire Lord, as Ozai had planned. Over the years, the protests had reduced to a bare minimum. But now, with Katara’s arrival, things were bound to get nasty.

Azula! Where are you?

The next two hours was spent combing every inch of the palace, as the storm built and built into a frenzy. Zuko stood in the middle of the garden, drenched to his skin, now at a complete loss as to what to do. He was vaguely formulating a plan for a city-wide search when Hena, one of the Imperial Fire Benders, came running to him.

“Milord,” she said, panting, “Lady Suki has found the Princess.”

Zuko closed his eyes and sent a prayer to Agni. “Where is she?”

“Next to Lady Mai’s grave. Lady Suki, along with Master Toph and a couple of guards, are keeping a watch.”

“Get Lady Katara and Ty Lee to the grave,” Zuko said as he took off. He ran through the corridors, vaguely aware of the guards following him. By the time he reached the grave, he was slightly out of breath and clutching a stitch in his side. The sight that welcomed him froze his feet to the ground.

Suki and Toph stood a little distance away from Azula, while six guards formed a half-circle around them. Azula herself lay across Mai’s grave; her muddied hair splayed around her hair. His body informed him that Katara had arrived, but he kept his eyes fixed on his sister.

“What do you want us to do, Zuko?” Katara asked, coming to stand next to him.

“I don’t know,” he whispered. “Maybe you can reach out to her?”

Katara had barely opened her mouth to say something, when Azula stirred. She pushed herself up and turned to look at them. Seeing her, Zuko took a step behind. In one look, he was transported back to the Agni Kai, thirteen years ago. The similarities were eerie, to say the least. Azula sat in front of him, her face covered in mud, hair hanging around her in matted clamps and a feral look in her eyes. Beside him, Katara let out a gasp of horror and Zuko knew she was thinking the same thing. She had been the only other witness to Azula’s breaking, after all.

“Zuzu. Or should I say Fire Lord Zuko?” his title and name were thrown at him like the poisoned dart that had claimed Mai.

Katara and Zuko exchanged a look and came to a mutual, unspoken decision. With a flick of her hand, she dismissed the guards. Reading the situation, Suki, Toph and Ty Lee stepped away as well. Unmindful of the change in her surroundings, Azula rose up unsteadily, her arms hanging limply in front of her and her left knee bent slightly – yet another throwback to the wretched Agni Kai.

Katara grabbed his arm, her nails digging into his skin. Zuko took a deep breath and steadied his stance for whatever was coming.

“Why are you here, Fire Lord?” she made the title seem like an insult. “What is my punishment, Your Majesty?”

Zuko and Katara shared another perplexed look before he said in a hoarse voice, “Punishment? What are you talking about?”

“For being your sister!” She screamed.

“Azula… what are you talking about? Why would I punish you for being your sister?”

In response, she snorted. “Why not? I have always paid the price for being your sister.”

The words hit Zuko with the same intensity as the lightning she had shot from her fingertips. “Azula!”

“What? Don’t tell me you don’t see it,” she sneered as she half-walked, half-lumbered towards him. “Grandpa died because of you. Mom died trying to save you. Because you had some stupid moral indecision, my brother was exiled. You left me! Mai and Ty Lee betrayed me because of you! You took my throne from me. Father died in prison, where you kept him. Mai died because she was married to you. And now… he is gone because of you! You take everything away from me!”

It was as though, with each word, she had twisted daggers into his heart. Zuko felt a tremor run through his spine. Swallowing the cold, painful sob lodged in his throat, he straightened his spine and said, “Katara, take Azula to her chamber.”

Saying so, he spun on his heels and walked away.

“Where are you going? Come here, Zuko! Fight me! Agni Kai! I’m challenging you to an Agni Kai!” Azula screamed.

Zuko paused, and turned slightly, such that she could see his scarred side, “No. I refuse. You are in no condition to fight.”

Without waiting to hear her screaming protests, Zuko marched away.


When Katara walked into his chamber, Zuko sat on his bed, his head in his hands and elbows on his knees. He had done a rudimentary job of drying himself, but he was mostly still wet, little water droplets gathering together to form a small puddle at his feet.. She stepped next to him and ran a hand through his hair. The simple action broke something in his and he crumpled. His arms went around her hips and he burrowed his face into her abdomen. Hugging her, he broke into anguished sobs.

“I can’t, Katara. I can’t. I can’t do this again. Last time… last time it took her seven years! Seven years before she even had a modicum of control on her feelings and emotions. I… I can’t do all that again. I can’t. I can’t. Katara… I… she… how could she do this? How could she do this? She took every pain, every hurt of my life and threw back at my face.”

His anguish broke something inside her and a sob escaped her own lips as Katara held him closer. “Zuko, it’ll be okay.”

“No,” he shook his head and pulled away, wiping his tears. “It won’t. Azula hates me. She always has. These past years, she was being a little better and I thought… maybe…. But no. I don’t catch a break, Katara. Not me.”

“Zuko!” she said and knelt in front of him, holding his hands, forcing steel into her voice. “No. I won’t accept this answer. No. It won’t take her seven years to recover from this. I will get to the bottom of this. She was fine a few days ago. Something triggered this relapse. I will find it out and I will make her better. Like hell I’m letting my family suffer.”

Zuko held her gaze for the longest time, a hundred emotions swirling in the beautiful golden eyes. She could see the miasma of gloom dissipate from his face and getting replaced by a small smile.  After a long time, he cupped her face and said, “How did I get so lucky, Katara?”

She leaned into his touch and smiled, “I was the one who got lucky. For the first time in years, I am happy.”

He shook his head, grabbed her by the shoulders and brought her up to sit next to him. “You… You gave me a family, Katara. I didn’t even know how incomplete I was until I held the four of you in my arms today. And now, now you are taking care of Azula when I can’t. Tell me how am I not the lucky one?”

Katara smiled and leaned over, touching her forehead to his, “Fine, we both got lucky. Does that work?”

He wound a hand through her hair, “Hmm. Maybe we should send Hahn a thank you note instead?”

Katara snorted and lay her head on his shoulder. Zuko, Iroh and her had been breaking their heads, wondering what to say to the Water Tribe Chief. “That’d stroke his ego.”

“Like it needs any more stroking,” Zuko mumbled against her hair and pulled her into his arms. Patting his back, she asked him something that had been bothering her from the moment the words had slipped out of Azula’s mouth.

“Zuko, what did Azula mean when she said, ‘he is gone now’? Who was she talking about?”

Zuko pulled from her embrace and sat straight, his hand laying on her thigh, face tight with concentration. At that casual touch, Katara realized something. Zuko touched her. Ever since he had realized that she didn’t flinch at his touch, he would, sooner or later, touch her. A hand on her head. Her arm. Her face. Her back. Her knees. Her thigh. He touched her. These were outside of the times he kissed her or when they made out. No. These touches were different. More often than not, like right now, he was not even aware that he was doing it. Katara weighed on what she thought about these touches and decided she liked them. Scratch that. She loved them. These little contacts sent tiny explosions of pleasure through her. She was not going to bring it to his attention and make him conscious about it.

“I’m not sure,” he said, cutting through her thoughts. “Maybe she was talking about Ozai?”

She shook her head, forcing herself to concentrate on the conversation at hand, “She seemed aware that Ozai was dead. I think she was talking about someone else.”

He frowned, “Who?”

She shook her head, “I don’t know. But… that guy, her therapist, he might know.”

At that Zuko’s eyes widened and stared at her, “Jion! She was talking about Jion!”

“What? Are you sure?”

“Yes. He came to me day before yesterday. He told me that he was having some issues in his family back at Tetsu and he wanted an extended leave. I granted him that leave.”

At his words, something clicked. “Zuko… I… it may sound very strange, but I think Azula is in love with him.”

He stared at her, mouth agape. “What? Really? What makes you say that?”

Katara got to her feet and began to pace across the room as she tried to rein in her thoughts. “I should have seen it that day. On my coronation day. Remember how I fought with you?”

“Yes?”

“I was distraught after that,” she brought her palms together and lay it against her lips. “That was when I met Jion. I didn’t notice it then, but Azula was looking at him in a way that…” she paused, realizing what she was about to say. Oh, Tui and La!

“That? How was she looking at him?”

Katara closed her eyes. The words dancing on her lips, coupled with the things pages from Mai’s diary had revealed, set her heart beating in a wild frenzy, “She was looking at him… how…how… I looked at…”

Her words and courage faltered. When he didn’t say anything, Katara felt her heart skip a beat. Had she, maybe, spoiled the tenacious place their relationship was at? The nebulous, undefined quality of their relationship where they were somewhere between being friends and being lovers? What were they? They were married in the eyes of the law but were not really a couple. They were great friends, but they were also attracted to each other. They were a family. One that was cobbled together by misfortune and was only now finding a path to walk on.

Plagued by self-doubt, she did not hear him move until he was right in front of her. He snaked an arm across her waist and pulled her flush against himself. “Say it. Finish your sentence. How you looked at…what?”

Katara scrunched her eyes shut and burrowed her head under his chin. “You know.”

“I do. But I want you to say it.”

She took a deep breath, inhaling his scent that was now mixed with the smell of rain. “You,” she whispered. “How I looked at you.”

“Looked?” he said, and she could hear the hum of his voice against her ears. “In past tense?”

“I… Maybe not. I’m… I can’t say yet,” she lied. She was sure, she just wasn’t prepared to say it.

“Hmm,” he ran his fingers along her spine, a featherlight touch that set her body on fire. “You’ll let me know if things change?”

“I will.”

“Good,” he placed a small, barely felt peck on her head and took a step back, hands still placed lightly on her waist. “Where is Azula now?”

“In her chamber. She was exhausted by the time we got her there. She’s sleeping now. Ty Lee is with her.”

“Good. Let me send a message to Sokka that he can get off his guard duty.”


Sokka sat on the ground leaning against the door, elbows on his knees, his eyes fixed on the three children who were busy chattering. His dad and Gran Gran were making full use of Iroh’s tea making skills, enjoying a hot brew. In his hands, Sokka cradled a brew of his own. Although his eyes were fixed on the people in front of him, he was looking inwards.

Over the past couple of days, he had been watching his sister and her new husband. He had also taken to casually asking his friends things about them, masking it as concern. Toph has seen right through him. She told him to mind his own beeswax and to let Zuko and Katara be. According to her, they had gone through some really bad times as individuals, and if being together was making them happy, then that was all that mattered, and that Sokka should not stick his nose where it did not belong.

The outcome of the conversation with Ty Lee had been very different. The conversation ate away at him and he could not understand what to make out of it. Sokka pursed his lips, thinking back to the words the woman had said.

“Oh, I’m so glad you asked me this because I have been dying to tell this to someone. You see, ever since they came back from Ember Island, their auras are a bright orange.”

“What does that mean?”

 “It means they are in love!” she trilled happily. “I am so happy for them. They needed this. Their auras have been a jumble since…forever. It is finally uncluttered and steady.”

“What do you mean their auras were a jumble? How so?”

“Take Katara for example. Her aura has always been orange around Zuko. But it was riddled with green. Like… green spots in an orange sheet. Green is guilt. Her aura around Aang was more confusing. There was pale orange and grey, and green, but most disturbingly, black.”

“Okay, so orange is love. Green is guilt. What are grey and black?”

Ty Lee bit her lips and looked down, “Grey is sorrow and black is fear.”

Sokka nodded, his brows tightening. “And Zuko? How has his aura been around Katara?”

“Zuko is a little more complicated,” Ty Lee answered, rocking back and forth. “His aura used to be grey and red. Grey for sorrow and red for anger. But then, when Mai came around him, he would take on a shade of orange.”

“Yes, understandably.”

“But then, when Mai died, his aura was so dense grey, it was almost black. Not quite but almost. But then, when you guys came in, I saw spots of orange. Not bright, but noticeable. I figured, he loves you all. That helps.”

“Yes. I understand.”

“Then, as years passed, the grey reduced to a lighter shade. It was still there, but not as prominent. But, sometimes, on occasion I would see orange smeared here and there. I didn’t pay it much attention. But then, he got married to Katara and the orange smear was brighter. But there was also red. And green. I never understood what he was angry about or what he was feeling guilty about. But yes, he loves her. No doubts in my mind. Just like she loves him.”

Sokka took a deep breath and pinched his nose. A part of him was happy for his sister. She had found happiness and he could not bring himself to begrudge her. But… what was he supposed to do with the knowledge he had gained? The evidence had been staring at him, he had just not seen it. How had he not seen it? How had he not realized?

The reason Katara’s aura had always been orange around Zuko, while mottled with green, grey, black and orange around Aang. Clearly it was because she felt guilty for loving Zuko and sad for having to live her life with Aang. She was clearly scared of what would happen when Aang found out. The green came from the guilt that originated from her feelings for Zuko. As for Zuko, he was clearly better at hiding his emotions. But he too had a guilt-ridden aura.

All of this added up to one thing and one thing only – Katara and Zuko had an affair behind Aang’s back.

 

Chapter Text


 

As a special thanks to all my reviewers, here's a shoutout to y'all. If I've missed your name, apologies and do let me know that I did.

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Chapter 30

Katara’s day began with Zuko getting up at the crack of the dawn, as usual. Katara glanced at him through sleep laden eyes as he went to the adjacent bathroom to freshen up. The next thing she knew was a loud knock, coupled with someone calling for Zuko. Katara sat up on the bed and rubbed her eyes, trying to rid the last remnants of sleep from them. She was about to answer when Zuko’s voice sounded, “Coming.”

Realizing that she was not likely to sleep any more, she got off the bed, and was donning her overcoat when she heard Mizu’s polite yet panicked voice, “Milord, apologies for disturbing you, but Mari says she cannot find the Fire Lady.”

“What?”

“The Fire Lady, Milord. She is missing.”

Huh? Confused, Katara walked over to the chamber door just as Zuko said, “Umm no.”

“Mizu?” she said, her voice still heavy from sleep. It took her a moment to realize that Mari was standing next to him, gaping at her. Mizu stared at her for a moment, then at Zuko and then, the pale man took on a shade of bright red.

“A… Apologies Milord, I… I didn’t…,” the poor man looked ready to pass out

Katara could almost hear the laugh Zuko was struggling to hold back. She too had to bite the inside of her cheek to stop herself from guffawing. “Don’t worry about it,” Zuko said.

Mari bowed low and said in a small voice, “It was my fault. After yesterday… with the princess…. I panicked.”

Katara smiled, “It’s okay. You both were looking out for me. Thank you.”

The two of them bowed, muttered another apology and all but ran from there. Closing the door behind him, Zuko turned to look at her. One look was all it took and the two of them erupted into peals of laughter. Nothing about the beginning of the day told her how the rest of the day was about to unfold.


Zuko looked at his schedule for the day and suppressed a groan. Most of the day was fine but the dinner was what had earned the reaction. He really was not looking forward to spending an entire evening listening to Councilman Sorma and his family. He debated on whether to go and meet Azula, since he had some time in his hand. She had been at a bad place yesterday. Maybe it would be wise to give her some time to, hopefully, regain some coherence before she saw him again. He dropped the idea of meeting his sister and instead, looked at Mizu, who was carefully avoiding his eyes. Zuko suppressed a smile and said, “Send a message to Jion that I want to talk to him.”

The man bowed and left. He decided to use the little time he had in his hand to meditate, something that he had not done in a while. He would later be grateful that he had chosen to do that.

When he walked into the dining room that morning, he was surprised to see that the children were nowhere to be seen. “Where are the kids?” he asked as he sat next to Katara.

She shrugged, “Sokka said he has something serious to talk about. And apparently, it would be better to have only the grown-ups in the room.”

Zuko raised his brow and took in the other occupants, trying to gage the mood of the chamber. Most of the people in the room, namely, Uncle, Hakoda, Gran Gran, Toph, and Ty Lee, all seemed normal. Suki’s mouth was set in a tight line, something he knew meant bad news. Then there was Sokka. He could almost see the dark cloud that was hovering over him.

“Okay,” Zuko said, frowning. “Is this private?”

“Preferably,” Sokka answered.

“Then let’s go to my study. It’s more secure.”

As he walked down the corridor, leading everyone to his study, he had a mental picture of himself as a mother turtleduck leading her brood to the nest. He smiled to himself at the silly image as he opened the door, and ushered them in. Once everyone else was inside, he closed the door and leaned against it and said, “Go on.”

“Sit please,” Sokka said, as he leaned against a wall and crossed his arms.

Ty Lee climbed on a table, while Toph sat on a chair, with her feet firmly on the ground. Iroh, Hakoda and Gran Gran claimed separate chairs while Suki stood behind her father-in-law. Katara sat on the cushion at the writing table, propping her elbow on the table. Zuko remained where he was.

Sokka waited till everyone had taken their positions, before he turned to look at Zuko and then to Katara, before turning his gaze back to him. He licked his lips and said, “Zuko, Katara, can I start by saying that I am very happy for the two of you. You both seem to be at peace now, and that is something I can’t begrudge.”

“Come to the point, Sokka,” Katara said, a frown lining her forehead.

Sokka took a deep breath and looked at Suki, who refused to meet his eyes. An action that struck him as odd, but Zuko was unable to dwell on it further as Sokka straightened his shoulders and turned to Katara.

“I have been thinking,” Sokka began.

“Never a good sign,” Toph interjected, earning a pointless glare from Sokka and a snort from Ty Lee.

“Moving along,” Sokka said through gritted teeth, “I have been thinking and I realized something.”

“What?” Iroh asked.

“There’s more to the story than you are telling us, isn’t there?”

“Like what?” Gran Gran questioned.

The smile playing on Zuko’s lips disappeared as he cast a look at Katara who was staring at her brother with a pinched look. He pushed himself off the wall, walked over to her, and stood with his hand on her shoulder. “What do you mean?”

Sokka’s blue eyes flicked to where Zuko’s palm met Katara’s shoulder and then he looked back at them, “Zuko, Katara, will you tell me… tell us… the truth?”

“Truth?” Zuko asked slowly, his fingers digging into her skin slightly. “What truth are you talking about?”

“What I am about to ask, I… I hate myself for even thinking this, and I feel like I shouldn’t even be talking about it.”

“Then maybe you should shut up,” Toph snapped.

“No, I want to hear this,” Katara said in a strangely flat voice. “What is this truth that you are talking about, Sokka?”

Zuko watched the warrior’s Adam’s apple bob up and down as his mouth set into a firm line. “I’m looking at you now, Katara. Do you know what I see?”

“What?”

“I see mom’s necklace on your arm, Lady Ursa’s bracelet and Zuko’s necklace. You know what I don’t see? Aang’s necklace. Why is that, Katara?”

Katara’s eyes narrowed to slits as she said, “What are you getting at, Sokka?”

“The Northern Water Tribe were not wrong, were they? You both… you did have an affair back then, didn’t you?”

Instantly, Zuko felt his inner fire flare. He was only vaguely aware of the smoke curling from his nose. He ground his teeth and took a step towards him. Before he could react, however, Katara shot to her feet and flung black ink on Sokka’s face. She did not even use her bending. Simply picked the bottle and threw it at his face. She did not even wait to see his reaction, as she almost flew out of the room, leaving stunned silence in her wake.

Zuko turned to Sokka, a muscle throbbing in his jaw. “You idiot,” he said through gritted teeth. “You absolute fucking moron! You want to know the truth? The truth is that you crossed a line today. The truth is that you have no fucking clue what you are talking about. The truth Sokka is that you are so far off from it that you might as well be on another fucking island.”

“Zuko –” Uncle began but he held up a finger, eyes still on Sokka.

“I’m not done,” Zuko took a couple of steps towards his friend, his entire body thrumming with sheer rage. He knew he looked menacing, but he didn’t care, “You have no idea what you have just done. Don’t you remember what she was like at North Pole? Do you have any clue what I have had to do at Ember Island to get her to where she is today? And now, with one sentence, one fucking sentence, you have torn it all down! Next time you want to mouth off bullshit, Sokka, do not direct it at her, or I shall forget that you are her brother and my best friend.”

Zuko spun on his heels and was about to storm out, when he stopped, turned to look at Sokka, “Oh, and since you asked so nicely, I will say this once. Just once. No. We did not have an affair. Ever. We were both completely loyal to our respective spouses. No matter what the cost.”

Saying so, he began to march out. Before he slammed the door shut, however, he heard Toph say, “He isn’t lying.”

Zuko did not wait to hear what Sokka or anyone else had to say. He found Katara at the training arena. When the guard had informed him about her whereabouts, Zuko had expected to find her bending ferociously. Or crying hysterically. But he she was doing none of that. Instead she stood straight, her muscles taut, with water forming an orbit around her waist, spinning rapidly. He paused, marveling at her control over her element. She was controlling it without moving a muscle. She sensed his arrival before he could even speak.

“How could he?” she asked in a voice that was cold and empty. “How could he?”

“Katara… I’m so sorry.”

She shook her head and let the water splash on the ground. She looked at him and Zuko had to take a step back. The blankness on her face took him back to the Tribunal room. Why? Why? In less than eighteen hours, both his sister and his wife had regressed. What was he going to do now? Swallowing the pain that lodged in his throat, Zuko simply held his arms wide. Katara’s face crumpled and she flew into him, burying her face into him.

“Why?” she asked in a trembling voice. “Why? Why did he do this? The Northern Water Tribe, random council members, Ren… I can understand. I can deal with that. But… Sokka? How could he say that?”

Zuko tightened his arms around her, “No. Katara, no. Don’t. You and I know the truth, right. It doesn’t matter what anyone else says.”

“But he is not anyone else,” she sobbed, clutching his shirt. He could feel her tears soaking through the cloth. Even when he had been chasing them all around the world, Zuko had never wanted to hurt Sokka as badly as he wanted to do now. “He’s Sokka. My brother! He never asked me how I was when I was with Aang. Not one member of my family was worried. I was married to the Avatar, after all. The guy I had chosen. So naturally, all had to be fine and dandy. They didn’t even see when I was dying on the inside. They turned a blind eye to my pain and suffering. They never even thought to ask me the kind of questions they have been asking about you. But now, now that I am happy, suddenly my relationship is everybody’s business? They keep asking me hundreds of questions. And… Sokka downright accused me of adultery? The very thing that almost got me killed! Wasn’t Sokka the one who came to get you? Wasn’t he the one who said that he was certain Northern Water Tribe was dead wrong and that I was innocent? Then how could he say this now? How? And dad? Gran Gran? None of them objected? What… what…what…”

When her words trickled off, Zuko shook his head and gave a small kiss on her forehead. “You want me to talk to them? You want me to tell them?”

Katara shook her head, “No. I don’t want them to know.”

“Why? Don’t you think they should know the truth, especially after what Sokka said? Don’t you want to clear your name?”

Katara stepped back and wiped her eyes, “Clear my name? This is not a tribunal where I must clear my name. This is my family. People who are supposed to know me. If my brother cannot have this much trust on me, on you, whom he calls his best-friend, then what’s even the point?”


Katara sat in front of the dresser as Mari worked her hair into a low-hanging bun, tucking a ruby and diamond comb above it. Over the days, despite the rather disastrous beginning to their relationship, Mari had warmed up to her. When she had headed to Ember Island, Katara had given her maid a holiday. Mari had only returned two days ago, which explained why she had hit the panic button when she had not found her in her chamber this morning.

After her outburst at the arena, Zuko had suggested she take the day off court proceedings and go to the market to cheer herself. But Katara had categorically refused. Instead, she attended the court. Concentrating on politics had helped her immensely.

In fact, a project had caught her interest even. With the rise in population and the surge in the economy, the council had been contemplating a dual-crop system. But the irrigation minister, Councilman Sheng, was having trouble with finding ways to direct the river to the fields, without disrupting the various settlements. Katara, being a Master Water Bender, understood water better than anyone in the court. She could plot out and even direct water in ways that the Fire Council could not even think of. She had spent the better part of the day with Councilman Sheng, a polite, well-spoken, pleasant man in his forties. The two of them had poured over the maps of the Fire Nation, trying to plot out the canal ways. Lost in her work, she had finally managed to calm her frayed nerves and left her only mildly angry.

Finally, when it was time for their dinner with Councilman Sorma, she had taken leave of the minister and made her way to her chamber. She could still hear the nasty words Lady Sorma had said at her coronation gala. That coupled with Sokka’s words from the morning meant that the thought of the dinner brought a bitter taste in her mouth. Pushing the disturbing thoughts aside, she stood up and cast a look at herself.

In a fit of rebellion and anger, Katara had chosen a red low-cut gown that might have been considered downright improper in Water Tribe but was very fashionable in Fire Nation. The gown sat snugly on her body, highlighting her figure down to her mid-thigh, before flaring out widely. A golden edging ran along the neck, through the front, right down to her feet. Golden flames were embroidered on the gown, lining the front and the base of the skirt. The full sleeves ended in golden cuffs. A long red gauze scarf was pinned to her cuffs. A part of her was sad that her mother’s necklace would not be visible on her arm, but she always wore these three pieces of jewelry. Just knowing that she still had it on her arm was enough. Satisfied with her appearance, she nodded and slipped on her golden shoes. She was just about to step out of her chamber when someone knocked at the door connecting her chamber to Zuko’s. She exchanged a glance with Mari whose eyes gleamed with mischief. Mari leaned over and said, “The Fire Lord would not be able take his eyes or hands off you, Milady.”

Despite her rotten mood, Katara chuckled. “Open the door, Mari,” she said sniggering.

Mari opened the door and let Zuko into the chamber. He walked in, buttoning the cuff of his sleeve. “Ready?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“Come, let’s –“ his words and steps faltered as his eyes traveled over her, studying her with a slack-jawed expression. Behind him, Mari raised her brows a couple of times, as if to say, told you!

Fighting the blush that was coloring her cheeks, Katara walked up to him. “Let’s go?”

“Y-yes, sure. Let’s…let’s go.”

He held out his arm and she looped her own arm through it. Once they stepped out, he bent down till he could whisper into her ears. “You’re looking gorgeous.”

Her previous gloom had dissipated to a degree that Katara found she could smile. “You’re not looking too bad yourself.”

Garbed in the dressed down version of Fire Lord’s attire, he really looked breathtaking. The two of them walked into the formal dining room, where the family of Councilman Sorma sat waiting. The dining room attendant introduced the family. The Councilman, Koza Sorma, his wife Rozui Sorma and her niece, a pretty girl named, Orula. Koza and Rozui were dressed in the usual Fire Nation fineries. But it was Orula’s attire that was rather bizarre. The girl, who Katara guessed was in her early twenties, was dressed in an off-shoulder red gown that ended somewhere in mid-thigh. A slit on the skirt ran almost up to her groin. As surreptitiously as she could, she stole a glance at Zuko, who was looking at them with an expressionless face.

The formal dining room held a round table, so as to give everyone equal footing. Following a nod from Zuko, everyone made their way to the table. Katara took her place to Zuko’s right, not entirely surprised to find Orula taking the seat to his left. The girl tossed her hair, touched her bare shoulder, and batted her eyes at Zuko. She had a smile on her face that stoked the simmering coals of Katara’s rage, making her want to smack the girl on her face. Koza and Rozui took their seats next to each other, making sure to keep as much distance from Katara as they could. She saw Zuko’s eyes narrow slightly at the obvious snub but Katara pressed his knee gently, silently asking him not to react.

“Milord, thank you for giving us a moment from your busy schedule,” Koza said in the most disgustingly oily voice.

“You are welcome,” Zuko replied.

At that moment, the servants walked in with the dinner of fired Parsin fish (Katara’s favorite) and flavored rice, with an assortment of sauces and vegetables. Once they walked away, Rozui smiled, “I must apologize for bringing in my niece, Milord, but she begged to be brought here to be reacquainted with you. My brother was, after all, a friend of yours.”

“Reacquainted?” Zuko turned to study the girl whose blood red lips drew into a simpering smile as Orula touched the swell of her breast.

“Yes, Milord,” she said in a husky voice, clearly meant to be a seductive purr. “My father was Admiral Zhao. You fought together I’ve been told.”

“Zhao?” Katara was unable to keep the surprise from her tone. “I met him.”

Orula stared at Katara, looking aghast. Rozui turned her head up a bit and looked at her as though she were something stuck under her shoe, “That’s Admiral Zhao for you.”

“And that’s Milady for you,” Katara allowed ice to creep into her voice.

“Of course, of course, Milady,” she replied, looking chastised.

Zuko interjected with his observation, “I don’t know what you have been told, but Admiral Zhao and I were not friends.”

“But you both fought in the siege of the North, didn’t you, My Lord?” Orula said in that same whispery voice.

Katara did not miss the usage of My Lord instead of Milord. The unabashed flirting was setting her on fire.

Oblivious to Katara’s anger, Rozui added, “I hear you were there when my brother was martyred.”

Zuko lowered his chopsticks, started at Koza, and said in a flat voice, “I was. I saw him die. We did fight at North, but against each other.”

“But he spoke very highly of you, My Lord,” Orula said, twirling a strand of her hair around her finger.

Katara could only gape. Hadn’t Zhao tried to blow Zuko up? From the little that she knew of him, Zhao had not seemed like the kind of person that would praise his enemy. She looked at Zuko to see if he would counter the words, but he was sitting very still, his face blank.

“I do have a proposal for you, Milord,” Koza said.

“And what might that be?”

“Milord, you ended the war, rocking a lot of boats. You ended several taxes, increased some more. You changed a lot of things about the Fire Nation.”

“I did,” Zuko acknowledged.

“This upset a lot of people. And then, your marriage to… Lady Katara…also was a little bit of a… surprise.”

Katara’s teeth ground in fury while Zuko’s expression remained carefully still. Taking his silence as cue, the other man continued. “I was proposing that maybe, as an appeasement to the masses, you should reinstate an old custom?”

“Old custom?”

“Yes. Your great grandfather, Sozin, may he rest in peace in Agni’s arms, was the one who set aside this custom to focus on the war. If you reinstate the custom, especially in current circumstances, would earn you support from a significant chunk of people.”

“And what custom would that be?”

“You see, Milord, we understand why you had to do what you did at North Pole and we respect you for it. But being a Fire Lady is not an easy task. It requires someone who has been trained for a very long time. My proposition is that you should consider reinstating the old custom of polygamy. That way you can have a proper Fire Lady.”

Something hot and nasty roiled within Katara. She could taste bile in her throat, and it took all of her will to stop herself from upending the contents of the gravy boat on the heads of the family members. After thirteen long years of burying her feelings, denying herself, trying to do what was expected of her, Zuko was now, finally hers. She would freeze anyone to the ceiling if they suggested she should share him. Hell no! She was not going to share him, with anyone. Zuko was hers. Period. Katara glared at the woman who was being dangled in front of her husband. To Orula’s credit, she met Katara’s icy stare with a steady one of her own.

Keeping her eyes on Orula, Katara said, “Too bad you are stuck with me as the Fire Lady.”

Koza gave a smile that looked like he was severely constipated. “And we are happy to know that our Fire Lord possess such a warm and charitable heart. And we would not dream of suggesting that the Fire Lord abandon you and the poor children. We are merely suggesting –“

“That I marry your niece and thereby strengthen your political position,” Zuko said conversationally.

Rozui beamed, “Indeed, Milord. Who better than my late brother’s daughter to take up the mantle? But I can assure you, we have no ulterior motives. We just have your and the nation’s best interest in our hearts.”

“I see. Unfortunately, the mantle of Fire Lady is already taken by the most eligible person,” Zuko replied. “And, even if it weren’t, your niece would not be someone I would consider. Now if that is all, I think we can call the dinner to an end?”

As one the family’s expression soured. Zuko gave a nod and stood up, effectively bringing the uncomfortable and annoying dinner to an end. He held his hand out and when she took it, he brought it to his lips giving a very obvious and pointed kiss on the back of her hand. He gave a nod to Sorma and the two of them walked over to Zuko’s chamber.

Once inside, Katara grabbed Zuko’s arm and turned to face him. The rage and frustration of the day mounted, and she stared at him, “Polygamy? Really?”

“It was a thing back in the day,” he responded.

Katara grasped his collar and pulled him down a bit, “Just so you know, if you so much as even think about it, that girl will die of frostbite.”

Zuko chuckled, “Jealous, are we?”

“I’m not sharing you. If that makes me jealous, then yes, I am jealous.”

He ran a finger along the neckline of her gown, lingering on her cleavage. “No. You don’t share me. I’m yours.”

Chapter Text

 


Long Ass Author's Note

So here it is, the smut chapter. Not very explicit (at least not according to me), as I don’t do that, but still, warning you. What’s erotica for me can be porn for someone else, so yeah, this be your heads-up. Proceed with caution. I honestly wanted to include a lot more here than what has come out, but it was getting far too long. So the next chapter will essentially be the continuation of this chapter.

I will most likely be updating Subterfuge next. A couple of confessions here, (don’t throw your brickbats at me, pls).

Confession 1: I am having a little bit of insecurity with this story. Like I know what I am doing, where I’m going, what I am about to do. But the result is turning out to be far longer than I expected. This has never happened to me before. Even when I am writing my novels, I usually have a very good guess what the final word count will be like, with a margin of error of about 5k words. Right now, at 84k+ words, the story still has at least 20-25k words more to go. Which means I’m looking at 100k+ words!! Holy shitballs! That means I have been off in my estimate by about 45k words. What? What? What?

 

Confession 2:  Okay, this is where the brickbats are coming but I like Subterfuge’s Zuko better. XD

 

Alright, now that all of that is off my chest, here you go. Have fun. Oh and reviews please. I love you all!


 

Chapter 31

“What?” Katara said, the word coming out more like a squeak.

Zuko smiled as he pulled her closer and whispered in her ear, “Is that a surprise?”

“D-d-do…what do you mean?” Katara stuttered, her mind struggling to catch up to her racing heart.

Zuko’s head dipped down to her throat, lining her with featherlight kisses, “Isn’t it obvious?”

Her body trembled, while her heart swelled to a size too large to reside in her chest. “Zuko,” his name tumbled from her lips, freeing her of a thirteen-year-long bondage. Without realizing, her eyes fluttered shut.

Oblivious to her condition, he brought his lips to hers and murmured against them, “I love you, Katara.”

This. This moment was a prayer that was long buried. A desire that was burned alive. A wish that she had stifled. A craving denied. Her hands tightened around him as she clung to him, laughing and crying at the same time. She didn’t know if the tears were from joy or sorrow. Was it pain or was it liberation? She didn’t know. Didn’t care. Zuko kissed her tears away and held her in his arms as though she were the most precious thing in the entire world. He rubbed his cheek against hers and said, “I love you. So much. You were always special to me, but now… if I don’t see you at least once a day, I go absolutely insane.”

Katara sniffled and looked at him, “I’m sorry. You’re saying… something so important and I… I’m ruining everything by crying. You must think I’m being stupid.”

He shook his head, running his hand along her back, “No. Not at all.”

She rubbed her tears and folded her hands in prayer. Was it okay? Was she now really, truly allowed to say it? The words that had stayed buried within her, providing her warmth in the darkest of days? The words she had guarded with all her might, was she just… meant to say it? The words that she had told herself, over and over and over, were sin. Were they no longer a transgression?

“It’s okay, Katara,” he said cupping her face. “I understand it is a lot to digest for you. You don’t have to say anything to me. Take your time, I’ll wait.”

She shook her head, “No. I want to say it. I’ve kept them buried in for far too long. I need to say it.”

With his thumbs, he brushed her tears away, “Go ahead then. But trust me, it’s okay if you can’t. I will understand.”

She made a sound half between a sob and a laugh. Closing her eyes, she took a deep breath and whispered, “I… I… I love you, Zuko.”

Before she could even revel in the weight that was lifted off her chest, Zuko claimed her lips in a deep, demanding kiss. One after another, they kissed till all that remained between them was the need for each other. He plucked the haircomb off, letting her tresses tumble down to her waist. Still joined at the lips, she took his belt off and pushed the tunic from his shoulders. He shrugged the garment off and draped his hand behind her, fidgeting with the collar. His hand then came over to the front, and then with a growl, he pulled back.

“How the heck does this open?”

Unable to stop herself, Katara giggled and undid the hidden clasps at her shoulders. The silk gown slid to the floor to pool around her feet. Clad in a red chemise, she was suddenly conscious. She pulled at the thin strap, curling a little into herself. He took a step forward and grabbed her hands. “I want to look at you,” he whispered.

Taking a deep breath, she loosened her arms, allowing him to pull them apart. She looked up to find him looking at her with hooded eyes, love and desire written distinctly. “Beautiful,” he said and claimed her lips in another kiss as they moved. Soon enough, Katara felt the bed hit the back of her knees. Breaking off, she got on the bed, lay down and held out her arms for him. With a smile, he lowered himself to hover over her. For the longest time, all they did was just look at each other. He was magnificent. A strand of his hair coming down to rest on her neck. Golden eyes looking at her with the softest expression.

“I want you, Katara,” he whispered.

The words were enough to send shivers down her spine. She didn’t respond in words, instead she pulled him closer and bucked her hips, brushing against his hard arousal. A beaming smile of pride blossomed on her lips as she understood her power over him. He released a trembling breath and began exploring her. Hooking a finger on one strap and pulled it down, kissing her shoulder as he moved. Katara arched her head back, moaning.

“Zuko,” she whimpered as he pulled the chemise lower to uncover her breast.

“Oh spirits,” he groaned, gently cupping it. He ran a thumb over her nipple, sending a shudder through her. He bent down and captured it in his mouth and Katara was lost to the world. Sucking, kissing, licking it, he gave her breast his attention, while his other hand brought the twin out. He then shifted to the newly uncovered one and took it into his mouth. Katara arched her spine, shivering and quivering. As he pulled the chemise down, he planted open mouthed kisses on the skin he discovered. Under his ministrations, Katara felt her toes curl in pleasure. With one tug, he pulled the chemise off her and threw it away, leaving her clad only in her red silk shorts. Zuko lifted her leg and began his ministrations on her inner thigh, setting a trail of fire in the process. He moved lower and lower but stopped right before he reached her core. She could feel the heat of his breath and the ache of her own arousal, driving her to a frenzy.

“Please, please,” she said, not knowing what she was begging for.

Gently, humming in approval, he thumbed her over the cloth. Incoherent noises tumbled from her lips as she tried to contain herself. Whatever little thought Katara possessed was lost when his mouth came over her clothed center, his hot breath consuming her. When he hooked his finger on her waistline, though, something cut through her haze of love and lust.

“Zuko wait,” she breathed. “Please, wait.”

He looked up, confused, “What? Did I do something wrong?”

She shook her head and sat up. “No. No. It’s just… I had a moment of panic.”

He moved over to her and gathered her in his arms. Skin touching bare skin was a sensation she was not prepared for. She felt as though she had been roaming in the Si Wong desert for years, parched to her core, only to unexpectedly find herself caught in a deluge. She ran her fingers over the scar on his chest. Her scar. The mark of the moment when he had stolen her heart and stamped his authority all over her mind and soul. Now, it was just a matter of surrendering her body to him, something that was his to begin with. She belonged to him. Had belonged to him for years. Now, when it was time to actually act on the one truth of her life, she was having a panic attack?

“Should I stop?” he asked, snapping her out of her head.

“What?”

“You’re panicking, right? I don’t want to make things worse for you.”

Katara took a deep breath, refusing to let Aang’s memory ruin this moment that she had craved for half her life. Unbidden, Zuko’s conviction about Aang being around came back to her. Something defiant rose within her. So he was watching, was he? Well then, let him see. She would show him that he no longer controlled her life. She lifted her chin in determination and sat up straight.

“Katara?” Zuko asked with a frown. “Are you okay?”

“More than,” she said and turned around. Putting a hand on his shoulder, she straddled him. “Don’t worry about that. I want to do this. I… I want you.”

Zuko gave a crooked smile, looped his fingers on her hair and pulled her to himself, kissing her. He held her against himself, lips still joined, as he pushed both to a kneeling position. She broke their kiss and pulled back. With the same care that he had employed while undressing her, she pulled his pants down, freeing his length. With slow, trembling hands, she ran her fingers along his member. She loved the way he hardened and shuddered at her touch. She curled her fingers along the girth to begin pumping. Stroke by stroke she increased the speed, keeping her eyes on his absolutely ecstatic expression. His eyes were closed, head thrown back while he moaned in delight. Grinning to herself, Katara lowered her head and closed her mouth on the tip.

Zuko let out a gagging sound as he bucked, “Oh Spirits! Katara! What… Oh my.”

Loving every second of his reaction, Katara ran her tongue along his length. She took him in her mouth again and bobbed her head up and down. Zuko ran a hand through his hair, mumbling incoherently, as he panted. Suddenly he grabbed her and said, “Katara, stop. Stop. Love, please, stop.”

She pulled away with a pop and looked up at him, “What? Did I do something wrong?”

“No. No. No,” he pulled her close to him and kissed her on her lips. “I just was… I didn’t want to come in your mouth. I want to be inside you when I do.”

Katara felt a pleasant blush rise up her cheeks as she grinned. “Then what are you waiting for?”

He let out a sound that sounded like a growl, as he spun her around and fell on the bed. He tugged at her pantie, ridding her of the last bit of garment. “My turn,” he said and before she could say anything, his lips covered the nub that lay nestled between her legs. His hot breath set the bundle of nerves on fire. Her back arched as she surrendered herself to the moment. But then, Zuko dipped his tongue inside her and Katara was gone. Stars winked in her vision. “Oh, Tui and La! Zuko!”

When he came back up, a fine sheen of sweat covered her body. He allowed his weight to come down on her, kissing her like she was the air he desperately needed. She tasted herself on his lips and mouth and realized that it was the most erotic moment of her life. He parted her legs with his knees and slid inside with ease. In that one moment, Katara knew she was home. They moved together in perfect synchronization till stars rained down on them.

When Zuko rolled off her to flop to the side, he lay a hand on her stomach. “Wow!”

Katara gave an exhausted chuckle, “That was quite something.”

“Talk about ending the seven-year-long draught with a bang.”

Katara gaped at him, “Seven years? You didn’t… you were celibate for seven years?”

“I was,” he replied. “Mostly for a political reason. I couldn’t risk having a heir running around.”

Katara nodded and snuggled closer to him, laying her head on his shoulder. “As unromantic the reason maybe, I still have a huge task in front of me.”

He curled his hand, laying it on her shoulder, “Huh? What task?”

“I have to make up for seven years of your celibacy.”

He chuckled, turned to face her and said, “Well, not that it’s a competition, but I have you beat there.”

“What? How so?”

“I have to make up for thirteen years of love,” he ran a hand along her nose and said, “You know, Uncle often said, there is no joy like being loved by someone selflessly. No treasure more precious, no person more beautiful. I used to think I knew what it meant. But then, back at the cliff, I realized what the saying truly meant. I think it was at that moment that I fell for you.”

Katara licked her lips and nuzzled into him, “I love you. I love you so much!”

“Keep saying it,” Zuko said, “Because I intend to keep saying that I love you.”

“I can’t believe you’re so sappy,” she laughed, tapping his nose.

“You should talk to Izumi. This is her regular complaint,” he laughed. “She calls me mushy dad.”

Katara laughed, trailing a pattern along his chest, enjoying his firm muscles. Stuck by a sudden thought she looked up at him and said, “Zuko, this was not the first time some noble dangled their daughter or niece in front of you, was it?”

“No. My most memorable one was where this nobleman dressed his eleven-year-old daughter and brought her in front of me.”

“Yikes! Did they leave the palace unscathed? You didn’t burn them?”

“Uncle stopped me from that.”

“Orula is fairly pretty,” Katara said stretching her arms. “If you weren’t married to me, you could have considered her.”

Zuko snorted. “No. I would much rather marry the Unagi before I consider Zhao’s daughter.”

Katara laughed and was about to say something when Zuko turned her around and said, “The last thing I want to talk about now is some other woman. Not when I can make love to my woman.”

Katara barely had the chance to gasp before his lips were on hers.


When Katara walked into her chamber next morning, she was surprised to find Toph sitting on her bed.

“Hey Sugerqueen.”

“What are you doing here?” Katara took her place in front of the dresser and picked up a comb, undoing the tangles in her hair. She was not feeling particularly charitable to her friend at that moment. She knew that Toph, for her part, had tried to stop Sokka from saying the things he had said. But at that moment, she was still smarting from the pain that Sokka had inflicted on her and not happy with her friends and family.

“I’m here to apologize.”

Katara’s eyebrows rose and she stared at her friend through the mirror. “What? What exactly are you apologizing for?”

“Not for Snoozles’ behavior, if that’s what you’re thinking. That’s a stake he impaled himself upon. I ain’t rescuing him from that.”

“Then what exactly are you getting at?”

The Earthbender scratched her face with both her hands, then blew her bangs. “For not intervening when I should have.”

Katara put the comb down and turned to look at her friend. “What are you talking about?”

“I knew that your marriage with Aang was not… the paradise everyone seems to think it was.”

Katara stiffened, whishing Zuko was here with her. But he was at the training arena, far away from her. She gulped, trying to steady her wildly beating heart and said, “Toph, I … I don’t want –“

“Please, Katara.” Toph’s voice was so small that Katara could not bring herself to ask her to shut up, as she had been planning to do in the first place. “I knew Aang thought that Bumi was not his.”

Katara’s eyes widened,” What? How did you know that?”

Toph licked her lips and picked at a thread in her dress. “Judging from your tone, I realize the news in itself is not a surprise. Just the fact that I know it, is.

Katara walked over to the bed, both to take time to think and to have a more private conversation with Toph. She lowered herself on the bed, trying not to smile at the slight pain between her legs from too much sex last night. The two of them had practically been stuck to each other, unable to stay away for more than five minutes. Katara shook her head to focus on the conversation at hand. “Aang did tell me of his suspicions, yes.”

“He thought the child was Sparky’s, didn’t he?”

Katara nodded, realizing that the overcoat she had taken from Zuko to cover herself was huge on her, falling off her shoulders.

“I know you’re moving your head to say yes or no, but I can’t see it.”

Katara slapped a hand on her forehead. “Oh sorry. I forgot. Yes, yes he did think that.”

“I’m guessing it’s because Aang knew you loved Zuko?”

Katara wasn’t surprised Toph knew it. “How long have you known it?”

“Since Western Air Temple,” Toph replied softly. It was rather surprising that she was not gloating about her knowledge. “I was honestly very surprised when you began to date Aang. Or when Sparky went with Madam Sighsalot.”

Katara gave a half-smile, “Zuko loved her.”

Toph nodded, “Yes, but he had feelings for you too.”

“I know,” Katara said, “Anyway, it’s all in the past. I want the bygones to stay bygones, Toph.”

“Will you answer just one question of mine?”

Katara leaned back, resting on her palms, “Depends on the question.”

“Yesterday, Zuko said that you both have always been loyal to your spouses, no matter what it cost. I have been thinking and I can come to only one conclusion of that statement. He was talking about you, wasn’t he? Aang… he hurt you, didn’t he?”

Katara took a deep breath, surprised to find that the words didn’t twist her insides the way they would have mere fifteen days ago. It still hurt, but it was more of a dull throb and not the gut-wrenching agony that she had endured earlier. “Yes, Toph, he did.”

Nothing in the world would have prepared Katara for what happened next. The Earthbender threw her arms around her neck and tackled her into a bone crushing hug. “I’m so sorry, Katara! I knew something was not right! I knew it! Damnit! But I didn’t think it was so bad. I thought… I thought after I whupped his butt in that spar and made him apologize to the Air Acolyte.”

Katara pried herself from the arms of the Earthbender and looked at her, “Wait, what are you talking about? He told that to an Air Acolyte? And when did you whup his ass?”

Toph gave a half-hearted smile. She lifted a pillow and put it on her knees, leaning her elbows on it. “Yes, he told an Air Acolyte about his doubts, the dumbass that he was. To be honest, I think that’s how the entire rumor of your affair started. I’m fairly certain that Acolyte told the others and then, they told others. You know how it goes, right?”

“Yes,” Katara bit the corner of her thumbnail, brows furrowed in thought. “I had a feeling that Aang was somehow responsible for it, but I didn’t have any way to confirm it. But now, what you’re saying, it makes sense.”

Toph slapped a hand on her head and groaned, “Shit. I failed you, didn’t I? I trusted Aang. I thought once I had given him a stern talking to, he’ll behave. I didn’t investigate further. When I was there for Kya’s birth, I knew there was a tension between the two of you, but I let Sparky talk me out of it. Fuck. Why did I trust Aang over my own gut feeling? Oh Spirits! Why didn’t I listen to what my instincts were telling me! You must hate me for this.”

Katara frowned, trying to formulate a reply, “Can I be absolutely honest, Toph?”

“I wouldn’t have it any other way, Sugarqueen. I owe that much to you.”

“I don’t hate you. I love you all too much to really hate any of you. But I am not happy with you all either. Your apology, though, does go a long way. A part of me does wonder what would have happened had you really caught on. Maybe I wouldn’t have gone through what I did,” Katara pinched the bridge of her nose. “But I have decided not to let my past weigh me down anymore. So… fuck it. I won’t go down that ‘what if’ road. I’m happy with Zuko. I have three kids and a nation to take care of. I won’t let Aang take that from me. So… yeah… I forgive you.”

“You know, you’re a bigger person than I am,” Toph said. “I don’t know if I could have done the same.”

Katara stood up from the bed and stretched, “A lot of it has to do with Zuko. He’s healing me. It’s truly from him that I am getting this strength. He’s the best thing that’s happened to me.”

Toph snorted, “You’re so stupidly in love.”

“Get out,” Katara said laughing. “Idiot.”

Her friend gave a mock-offended gasp, “You’re kicking me out! Oh, the indignity.”

“With those theatrical skills, you can look at a career in Ember Island Players if your Earth Bending School doesn’t work.”

“Oh I’d knock them off,” Toph said grinning as she hopped off the bed.

“Now seriously, go. I have to get ready for court.”

“Okay, okay, I’m off,” she began to walk away when she paused at the door, turned and said, “You have some time before court starts, don’t you?”

“Yes, but I have to bathe.”

A downright devilish grin cracked her face when she said, “Sparky’s headed this way. I am sure a Water Bender and a Fire Bender make for the greatest bathing experience. EVER.”

“Go away!” Katara said, laughing.

 

Chapter Text

 


Chapter 31

Casting a side-eyed glance, Zuko studied Katara’s immobile face. He wondered how she felt at the news. Since they were no longer in the formal court, he did not have the wall of fire in front of them. He could not reach over and provide her with the comfort she most likely needed. To her credit, Katara did not display any emotion. Her face was a blank mask. With a lot of effort, Zuko tore his eyes from her face and turned to look at the messenger.

“When?” Zuko asked.

“Winter Soltice, Milord,” the messenger said.

“What better day than that to honor the Water Avatar,” Iroh said, smiling.

“Indeed,” Zuko agreed, making sure to regulate his breathing. This was a new Avatar. This was not Aang. He would not channel his hatred and anger at an infant. He would not. “We would definitely be there.”

The messenger bowed and walked backward till he was out of the informal meeting room.

“Any other matter that we need to discuss as of now?”

“Milord,” Mizu said, bowing slightly. “We have found the Princess’ therapist, Jion. He should be coming to visit you this evening.”

“That’s perfect. Anything else?”

“None, Milord,” Councilman Sho replied.

“Dismissed,” he said, waving a hand. As one, the select council members and the guards left the room, leaving him, Katara, and his Uncle. Zuko stood up and stretched. Next to him, Katara leaned back to on the chair. He walked over to the corner of the room and began to fix three cups of tea. He had a sneaking suspicion that his Uncle had something to say.

As if prompted by his thought, Iroh said, “Zuko, Katara, we need to talk.”

“I know, Uncle,” Zuko said, putting down the cups in front of them.

“You know me too well, my nephew.”

He sat down next to Katara, patting her knee in the process. She gave him a small, but genuine smile, but continued to remain quiet. Iroh picked a cup, took a sip, and nodded, “Your tea making skills have improved, Zuko.”

Zuko felt himself swell with pride. His Uncle was the connoisseur of tea. He was not one to give false praises. If he said the tea was good, then the tea was good. He couldn’t suppress the smile that was on his face as he sipped the tea. Iroh took another deep sip and put the cup on the table.

Clearing his throat, Iroh said, “I’m not going to ask anything about what Sokka said yesterday. Zuko said it’s not true and I believe him. I know neither of you is capable of doing something like that. But, if the doubt has planted itself in the minds of your own brother, Katara, you realize what the average person might think?”

Katara nodded, “I do.”

Iroh said, “The position of Fire Lady should be beyond reproach. But if this rumor takes hold, you might become the source of much ridicule and mockery.”

“We’re aware,” Zuko said.

“Should we issue a public statement denying it?” Katara asked but both Zuko and Iroh shook their heads.

“No,” Zuko said. “Any such announcements, especially without any evident rumor, will only make us look guilty.”

“What do we do then?”

“Nothing,” Iroh said. “We will just have to let the rumor die its natural death. But, in the meantime, you both must make sure that you present exemplary behavior in front of the council and the general populace.”

“I agree,” Zuko said, sipping on his tea. “Eventually people will find something else to talk about.”

“But… if this rumor takes hold and reaches the children…”

Zuko’s heart skipped a beat at the thought of Izumi hearing this nasty rumor. And Bumi? Oh, Spirits! The boy’s heart would break into pieces. Kya was mercifully too young to understand. But the other two would only understand bits of it but it would deliver a devastating blow to them.

“I understand,” Iroh said. “They deserve an explanation. I’d suggest you both talk to them before they hear the rumor from elsewhere.”

“You’re right, Uncle,” Katara said. “Zuko, should we go to them now?”

“I have actually taken the liberty to have them summoned here,” Iroh said.

“Why am I not surprised?” Zuko said, smiling.

Within moments, a guard walked in to announce the arrival of the three children. Iroh patted Zuko’s shoulder, nodded at Katara, and turned to leave. On his way out, he gave Izumi a hug, high-fived Bumi, and tickled Kya, making sure that all the three children were laughing by the time they reached them.

“Hi kids,” Zuko said, shifting slightly so they got a place to sit. Promptly, Kya jumped on to his lap, planting a huge, wet kiss on his cheek.

“Thank you, little Princess,” Zuko said and planed a kiss on her cheek.

“Grandpa Iroh said you wanted to talk to us,” Izumi said, settling down between Zuko and Katara while Bumi took his place next to Katara.

“We do,” Katara said, draping her arms around the two children. “You both are big kids, aren’t you?”

Bumi raised a brow, “Uh oh. I know that tone. Which of us is getting punished?”

“Punished?” Izumi said, looking confused.

“What? None of you are getting punished,” Zuko said. “We called you here to talk to you about something important.”

“What does important mean?”

Zuko and Katara exchanged a bemused glance. Before either of them could say anything, Izumi strove to explain, “Important means something big.”

“What’s so important?” the question came from Bumi.

“Do you guys know the meaning of rumor?” Katara asked.

“I think it means a false story?” Izumi said.

“Indeed, smart girl,” Zuko said tapping her nose.

“There is one rumor that is going on about us,” Katara said. “A false story. We thought perhaps you should know about it from us before you hear it from someone else.”

Bumi cocked his head to the side, “What rumor?”

“People say,” Zuko licked his lips, “Some people say that your mom and I… we were… together before we got married.”

“Together?” Bumi looked at Izumi who shrugged. “What does that even mean? You both lived in different places.”

“Not like that,” Katara said. “When he said together… he meant… like, boyfriend and girlfriend.”

“But I thought you were friends,” Kya said. “And Dad is a boy and you are a girl mom.”

Bumi slapped his forehead, “No dummy! Boyfriend doesn’t mean a friend who is a boy.”

Izumi, however, was thoughtful, “But you said you didn’t love each other or something.”

Katara sighed, “Well, it’s sort of complicated. But just so you know, we were never boyfriend and girlfriend.”

“Okay,” Bumi said. “Then why do people say you were?”

It was Zuko who strove to answer, “Sometimes, people say mean and nasty things. Just because they want to be mean and nasty. This rumor is one such thing.”

“Dad,” Kya said, looking at Zuko. “You don’t love us?”

Zuko gaped at her, “What? Whatever made you think that, My Princess?”

“Izumi just said you didn’t love each other,” Kya’s eyes were brimming with tears as her lower lip jutted out.

Zuko hugged her, cuddling her into his chest, “Oh no, sweetheart. I love you. And I love Bumi and Izumi. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise, okay?”

“And mom?” Bumi asked.

Zuko looked at Katara who had a small smile on her lips. “Yes, I love your mom too.”

“Then why is the rumor nasty?” Bumi asked. “There is nothing wrong with loving someone, is it?”

Katara patted his head and placed a kiss on his head, “My dear boy, love is the purest emotion a person can have. But love can be of many types. And sometimes, some loves, they can be bad –“

“How so?” Izumi asked. “What do you mean bad love? How can love be bad?”

Katara opened her mouth but paused, evidently unsure of how to answer that question. When the silence stretched, Zuko spoke up, “Sometimes, some relationships are forbidden. That kind of love can be considered bad by people.”

“What kind of relationships are forbidden?” Izumi asked.

“The kind that people think Katara and I had,” Zuko said. “Some people seem to think that Katara and I were boyfriend and girlfriend, while Bumi and Kya’s dad, Aang was alive. If it were true, that would be a bad love.”

“But you were not boyfriend and girlfriend, were you?” Izumi asked.

“No, we weren’t,” Katara replied in a steady voice. “We were just friends.”

“Then why do people say that?” Bumi asked, his face scrunching in a way that looked like the boy was close to tears. “Why do people say that mom had a bad love?”

Zuko held out an arm and said, “Come here. Come to me.”

The boy jumped from his place on the bench and skipped over to Zuko, climbing on to his other leg. He draped his arm around the boy and gave him a small kiss on the head. “Buddy, your mom did not do anything that is bad. Don’t ever listen to people who say otherwise. No matter who says what, remember, your mom is a great woman and you should never doubt her.”

Izumi had the next question for them, “Is that what people meant when they said she was charged with adultery?”

“Yes,” Katara answered. “That is a word used for the bad love that we were talking about.”

“No. My dad can never do something bad,” Izumi said firmly.

“You’re right. He did not,” Katara said, looking Izumi straight in the eye. “Your dad is the most honorable person I have ever known. He didn’t do anything that is dishonorable. Don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise.”

“Mom,” Kya asked suddenly, drawing Katara’s attention. “Why is love bad then but not bad now?”

Zuko was surprised that Kya had understood as much as she had. Katara smiled and said, “Grownups are silly sometimes. They make things so complicated sometimes that it is not easy for children to understand. Just know that these stories are false. And if any of you hear anything about your dad or me, come to us. Either of us. We will answer all your questions as clearly and honestly as we can.”

“Yes, that’s a promise,” Zuko added.


Katara stepped into her chamber and stretched. She pulled the crown off her hair and placed it inside the velvet-lined box. She then moved to undo the tie that held her hair in a top-knot and hissed at the soreness in her scalp. She was about to undo her obi when a knock sounded on the door.

“Come.”

The door opened to reveal her Gran Gran and her Dad.

“Can we come in?” Hakoda said.

Katara nodded and walked over to her bed. The two of them came over to her and took their place across her.

“My daughter,” Hakoda began, “We owe you an apology.”

Katara continued to remain silent.

“We did not stop Sokka from saying the things he did,” he continued, “We should have but we didn’t.”

“Maybe because Sokka said the words that you both have been trying to say but couldn’t?” Katara spat.

“No!” Gran Gran said, shaking her head. “Not at all. It’s true that we had our doubts about Zuko as a husband because he is Ozai’s son and a Fire Bender. We all knew how much you and Aang loved each other. But yesterday, after you stormed out, he gave Sokka a piece of his mind.”

“A well deserved one,” Hakoda said. “We heard everything he said, and I must say, I agree. Sokka stepped out of line.”

“We trust you, Katara,” Gran Gran said patting her hand, “We know you would never do something like this.”

“Listening to Zuko’s tirade, I am sure of at least one thing,” Hakoda said, “He loves you a lot. That puts us at ease. We can now rest easy.”

“Milady,” Mari came in, with her head bowed. “The Fire Lord has requested your presence.”

Katara nodded and stood up, “Gran Gran, Dad, I’ll talk about this later. I need to go.”


“Milady,” Zuko said formally, bowing his head a little in greeting. “Please, do join me in this discussion with therapist Jion.”

“Milord,” Katara gave a small bow to him and took her place next to Zuko. She looked at Jion who bowed. “Please, Jion, sit.”

The man obeyed, his face an unreadable mask. Katara looked at Zuko, and he gave a small, curt nod at her, indicating that she should speak.

“Jion, are you aware why we summoned you?”

“I have a few ideas, Milady.”

“Could you explain what you were doing in Caldera City when you took your leave from the Fire Lord to go to Tetsu?”

Jion licked his lips, cleared his throat, and said, “I knew the Fire Lord would summon me soon. I wasn’t expecting it to be this soon.”

“So you knew about the Princess?” Zuko said.

Jion nodded, his brows furrowed into a frown. “She thinks she is in love with me. I’m aware of that.”

“She thinks?” Katara said, feeling a throb of annoyance at the man.

“Yes, Milady. There is a reason I chose to say she thinks,” Jion said. “It is very common for the patient to develop romantic feelings towards their therapist. More often than not, it is a projection. The patient thinks that the therapist is the only one who listens to them. The only one who understands them. That’s why they start projecting all their feelings and emotions on the therapist. That’s what has happened to the Princess.”

“And how can you be so certain of it?” Zuko asked.

“Because, Milord, the Princess said so herself,” Jion said. “I left because my presence was not helping her. She needs to improve on her own.”

“Azula said that herself?” Zuko asked.

“Indeed Milord.”

“And what about you, Jion?”

“What about me, Milady?”

“What are your feelings?” Katara pressed.

He sighed and said, “For me, princess Azula is nothing more than my patient.”

“What would you do, Jion, if contrary to your beliefs, Azula’s feelings are true?”  Katara asked.

“Assuming her feelings are true, I don’t reciprocate it. And even if I wanted to, I can’t. I am married.”

 

Chapter Text

Hello to all my readers who have patiently waited for me to update this. I was having a bit of an issue with this story. However, now I want to finish this story. Hardly 4-5 chapters more to go. This story is not one for action or thrill. It is simply a story of healing and relationships. That’s what I want to focus on, not elaborate on politics and stuff. That said, I had a tough time writing that letter, but I think it did turn out decent. What do you think? Do let me know in the comments.

I plan to update this fic on Tuesday/Wednesday and Friday/Saturday.
An update on my other fics:

Subterfuge: The fic is on a brief hiatus for such time that I am finishing this one. Once I am done here, I will get back to that.

Sleepless in Ba Sing Se: It is a small love story that I am writing to address a condition I have. I am trying to pay an ode to the monkey on my back – insomnia. Do check it out.

Trigger Warning: Mild sexual content.

 




Chapter 33

With a sigh, Katara leaned against Zuko’s chest. He rubbed her arm slowly as the water sloshed around them. His skin against her back was warm and sent small electrical jolts through her body. He kneaded her shoulders. His fingers traveled to her collar bones and then, settled on the pendant around her neck.

“I love seeing this on your neck,” he said. “When I carved this, I wondered if you would wear it. I knew what your mother’s necklace means to you.”

“I had to. This was the first thing you gave me after marriage.”

He smiled and gave a small kiss on her shoulder. His hand moved from the collar bone to her bare breast, cupping it and squeezing it none too gently, eliciting a moan from her. But then he dropped his hand and threaded his fingers through hers. She turned her head a little to look at him and spotted the frown on his face.

“Hey, what’s wrong?”

“Azula. I can’t stop thinking about her. I thought she was fine, but clearly, she was not. I don’t know what to do about her.”

Katara turned around to face him, the water moving with her, “Zuko, she will be alright. I know she will.”

He sat up and she saw his adam’s apple bob, “Katara, what I’m about to ask you… I’d understand if you said no.”

“Tell me.”

“Azula… You know exactly what she is feeling, don’t you?”

“Yes.”

“Will you be with her? Support her through this?”

Katara smiled, “You don’t have to tell me twice, Zuko. I’d do it happily.”

“Thanks,” he said and pulled her into his arms. “I can’t tell you how relieved I am.”

Katara drew back and scowled, “Did you really think I’d say no?”

He shook his head. “No. I didn’t. But I wanted to give you the option to back out if you wanted. I mean, you have enough issues of your own to deal with.”

She gave a half shrug, “I have you for that.”

He gave a small chuckle and leaned in closer, “That you do.”

Over the next half an hour, Katara learned that Toph had indeed been right. A Water Bender and Fire Bender did make for the most pleasurable bathing experience, ever.


Katara lay on the bed, her hair fanned out behind her. Her brows were knit together as she read a document about the irrigation project that she was working on. Zuko sat next to her, reading a report of his own. He leaned over to pick up the quill to make a notation when a knock on the door startled him. He exchanged a perplexed look with Katara.

“Who is here now?” he wondered as he got off the bed.

“I hope everyone is okay,” Katara said, sitting up on the bed. Zuko stopped mid-stride as she robbed him of his breath. Half her hair wass falling on her bare shoulder, with a strand finding its way on her cleavage. The blue silken slip she had on provided a stark contrast against her darkened skin and he felt the stirrings of desire in him yet again.

“Stop letching and go answer the door,” Katara said with a laugh as she pulled the housecoat from the nightstand.

“I’m letching at my wife. Perfectly acceptable,” he replied but made his way to the door. Opening the door, however, his mood soured. Standing there, looking down was Sokka. “What are you doing here?” Zuko knew his voice was sharp, but he did not care.

“I… I figured I owed the two of you an apology,” Sokka said, not meeting his eyes.

“Oh, accuse in public and apologize in private, is it?”

Sokka squirmed, clearly uncomfortable. “Toph tore into me this morning,” he said, fidgeting with his shirt. “She pretty much said the same thing that you did. That I don’t know anything about the truth.”

Zuko crossed his arms, only then realizing that he was shirtless, and leaned against the doorframe, not allowing Sokka in the room. “So you are here to demand the truth, disguised as an apology?”

“No no!” he said, finally meeting Zuko’s eyes. Seeing his friend’s red rimmed, puffed eyes, Zuko felt a twinge of pity for him. He had clearly spent a while crying, something Sokka had always decried as unmanly. “Zuko… I hurt my baby sister. And my best friend. I have to make amends. I can’t let this slide.”

Zuko nodded and said, “I’ll let you in, but on one condition.”

“Anything.”

“You won’t press for anything. She is the one who decides how this conversation will go. She forgives you or chooses to stay angry, you will accept it.”

Sokka smiled and laid a hand on Zuko’s shoulder. “She’s lucky to have you, man. I promise. I’ll take whatever she gives.”

“Come in,” he said and moved to the side. The warrior took a deep breath and stepped into the chamber. Katara was still sitting on the bed, mercifully wearing a housecoat on top. He had a feeling that Sokka was not in the right frame of mind yet to see them as husband and wife. Zuko lowered himself on a chair and gestured at Sokka to take a seat. Katara was looking at her brother expressionlessly.

“What do you want?” she snapped, not bothering to diminish the hostility.

“I…I wanted to apologize,” Sokka said. “I should have known you both are much too honorable to do this. I’m not trying to defend myself or anything, but I always thought you both had feelings for each other. Just that neither of you ever acted on it.”

Zuko shared a glance with Katara. When she didn’t say anything, he leaned forward and said, “Neither of us acted on any feelings that we might have had for each other because we both had other people in our lives. People we loved and cared for. We never betrayed our partners.”

“But why didn’t you?” Sokka asked. “In Ember Island, both of you were single.”

“We were also in the middle of a fucking war!” Katara replied shortly.

“And I’m not exaggerating but the weight of the world was on my shoulders,” Zuko added. “Shared only with a twelve-year-old, overpowered child.”

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said the things I said.”

“And most definitely not in front of everyone,” Katara added. “Why did you think that was a good idea?”

Sokka groaned and hung his head. “I thought if everyone was around, you would not hide anything. But I didn’t think it through. You know how I get when an idea comes to me. But I realize now that I overstepped my boundaries.”

“I’d say you pole vaulted over it, buddy,” Zuko said.

Katara climbed down the bed and began pacing. Her words were still cold when she spoke, “You are my brother, Sokka. You have every right to ask me questions. But ask me. Not in front of everyone. And you don’t have the right to fucking demand answers. You can ask, whether I want to answer or not depends on me.”

Sokka nodded, “I know what I did was terrible. I just hope you don’t cut me out because of that.”

“No, I won’t,” Katara said as she walked around the bed and came to sit face to face with her brother. “But, it’s time I set some hard boundaries for you. You don’t get to ask me questions about Aang and why I’m not wearing his necklace. If you want to know what happened to his necklace, I threw it away. It’s probably lying somewhere in the ravines of Eastern Air Temple. Make what you want of that bit of information. I am not telling you anything more. Another hard boundary for you is that you don’t get to ask anything about how things are between me and Zuko. In short, you don’t get to ask anything about my relationship with my husbands. Am I clear?”

Sokka nodded, his face pinched.

“Depending on your behavior from here on, I will decide if the boundaries can or cannot be eased. Any doubts?”

Sokka shook his head.

“Then you may leave now.”

“Katara… will you forgive me?”

“Eventually, yes,” Katara replied. “But not just yet.”

He nodded in acceptance and looked at Zuko, “Zuko? Will you?”

“I wish you had trusted me enough to at least come and talk to me about your doubts,” Zuko said. “Anyway, what’s done is done. My forgiveness here is immaterial. If Katara forgives you, consider yourself forgiven by both of us.”

Sokka nodded again and stood up. “Thanks. Good night.”

“Good night,” Zuko said while Katara simply waved.


Respected Chief Hahn,

We trust this letter would find you in the best of your health. Ideally, this letter should have reached you earlier, but we did not send it because we were firmly of the opinion that we were mistaken.

Recently, there was an assassination attempt on Fire Lady Katara. Let us reassure you, the Fire Lady is in perfect health. The reason we are sending this letter to you, is because the assassin, for some reason, is under the impression that he was sent by you. We interrogated him several times, but the man remains adamant. The assassin is now in a high security prison.

We are of the opinion that this is a conspiracy to undermine your position as one of the leaders of the free world. We have all fought hard and sacrificed so much to put an end to a century long war and attain balance. We know that you, as the benevolent and kind ruler of the esteemed Northern Water Tribe, would never do something to jeopardize the hard-fought peace. We at Fire Nation do not take the attack of a member of the royal family lightly. Neither should you take an attack at your integrity lightly. If there is conspiracy afoot to undermine you, we would recommend you look into it. We are willing to assist you in any manner that you would need.

Best Regards,

Fire Lord Zuko and Fire Lady Katara.

Katara nodded, put her seal in the bottom, and rolled up the parchment. It had taken them a while to come up with a response where they could threaten Hahn, yet not hurt his overlarge ego, not appear accusatory, and yet communicate to him that they were not going to take him lightly. It was a delicate balance that took them several tries to get the tone right. She put it into the canister and handed it to the servant.  The man bowed and excused himself.

That done, she stretched and stood up. Sokka’s apology last night did soothe her pained heart a bit and gave a slight spring to her step. She did not like fighting with Sokka. He was an integral part of who she was and fighting with him felt like cutting a part of her own body. Setting the hard boundaries with him was tough but a much-needed precaution. As much as she loved Sokka, she needed him to understand that he could not just do whatever he wanted without any repercussions. He was a smart man and she knew that he would get the message.

Katara walked along the corridor, making her way to Azula’s chamber. She turned the corner, and almost ran into Zuko. She gasped comically, while he grabbed her arm to steady her. “Careful there.”

“Sorry, didn’t see you there.”

“No problem. Where are you headed to?”

“Azula’s chamber, like I said last night?”

“Ah. Come, I’ll walk with you.”

Katara frowned, “Don’t you have a council meeting in some time?”

“I have fifteen minutes. I want to check on Azula too.”

The two of them walked along in silence for a while before she said, “I sent the letter to Hahn.”

Zuko nodded. “That’s one big headache solved. Do look over the end-of-war anniversary planning later today. I could do with a fresh set of eyes.”

“Okay,” she said. Slowly, Zuko was pulling her more and more into the role of Fire Lady, easing her into her responsibilities. He gave her a brief of what to expect, what she needs to make sure is included and add any suggestions she might have. The duo reached Azula’s chamber and Katara stopped in front of the door.

She licked her lips and placed a hand on Zuko’s arm. “The last time Azula saw you, she blamed you for everything. I saw the pain you were in after that. I don’t want to see you go through that again. Do you really want to go in there?”

Zuko bit his lower lip for a moment and said, “I know what she did. But that is my baby sister. I can’t just let her be in this state.”

“I understand. Let’s go.”

Katara knocked on the door and was met with silence. She pushed the door and stepped in, not knowing what to expect. The Azula she saw now was not who she had seen since the wedding. Nor was she the broken woman whom she had seen on Mai’s birthday. This Azula sat huddled in her chair, staring out into nothing. Katara took a step towards her, but stopped, not sure how to approach her. Seeing her indecision, Zuko took the initiative.

“Azula?”

Silence.

“Azula?”

Silence.

Zuko shook his head and looked at Katara. “She doesn’t even know I’m here.”

“Go to your council meeting, Zuko,” Katara said. “I’ll take care of her.”

Zuko looked from her to his sister and back at her. “Call me if anything changes.”

“Will do.”

Once Zuko left, she walked over to Azula and sat down next to her. If the woman knew she had company, she said nothing. She was lost in her own world. Katara reached over and took her hand in hers, feeling encouraged that Azula didn’t pull her hand back. The two women sat there, in silence, holding hands till the horizon began to darken.

“Come, let’s have dinner,” Katara said, knowing full well that the request would be denied. Azula let go of her and dropped her hand on her lap. Katara ran her hand over her head and said, “I’ll be back soon, okay?”

Katara was almost at the door when she heard her name. “Katara?”

She spun around to find Azula looking at her. “Yes?”

Azula licked her lips and said, “Thank you.”

“For what?”

“For being there.”

“Anytime, Azula. I’m not leaving my sister alone.”

Azula’s lips drew into a ghost of a smile before she was lost in her own world again.

Chapter Text


A very small but an important chapter. The next chapter onwards, things will get more serious as some more people start learning about Katara’s past.
Not much to say here, except that this little chapter is perhaps one of my favorites. With this, I have fulfilled my promise of updating all three fics this week.

As usual, R&R.





Chapter 34

Two days before the end-of-war anniversary, Katara found herself working harder than she had done in a long time. Coupled with the irrigation project, for which she would have to head out to the countryside after the festival, Azula’s recovery, and the kids, Katara’s plate was full. To her, it felt like she was busy from the moment she woke up, till the time she went to bed, often having her meals in the study. Zuko, however, insisted that they had at least one meal with the family.

Soon after Sokka’s apology, her family left for the South Pole. Toph and Ty Lee planned to return after the End of War Anniversary celebrations. Even though the farewell had been a tad bit distant, but Katara had allowed Sokka to give her a hug. To her surprise, she did not flinch at the contact, something that had thrilled Zuko to no end. She did feel a sliver of fear, but it was more like a discomfort in her stomach than anything else. Something she could live with.

That morning she was having her breakfast with Zuko and the children. Bumi was excitedly informing them that Izumi had come to see him train. He had shown a keen interest in swords. Master Piandao, while alive, was now bed ridden and unable to teach. Hence Zuko had arranged for another tutor, Master Yao, to train Bumi. Whenever he could, Zuko also attended the training sessions. Izumi who was truly her mother’s daughter and was getting better and better at Shuriken-jutsu.  She had dropped in on the training twice and was interested in trying swords. Yet she was not fully convinced.

“Why not?” Katara asked. “Go for it.”

“But… swords? Do girls even fight with swords?”

“What does you being a girl have to do with swords?” Bumi asked.

“Precisely. Give it a try at least,” Zuko pressed. “If it’s not for you, it’s not for you. But the only way you will know for sure is if you give it a try.”

“Kya, stop tearing the bun and eat,” Katara chided the little girl before moving her attention to Izumi. “Give it a try. Just once. What say?”

Izumi curled her lips in thought. She was about to open her mouth when Kya knocked over a glass. Four heads turned to see that instead of splashing on the table, the water rose up and fell on the floor.

“Was that you, mom?” Bumi asked with wide eyes.

“Not me,” Katara said, pulling the little girl on her lap and grinned widely. “Kya! My darling! You’re a Water Bender.”

Just as Izumi whooped in joy, Zuko stood up and walked around to kneel next to Kya. He kissed the child on her head and said, “I’m so proud, sweetheart.”

“I’m a Water Bender?” Kya asked, confused.

“Yes, my dear,” Katara said hugging her. “I’ll teach you everything I know!”

Kya giggled and snuggled into Katara. She pecked the little head and cuddled the girl to herself. It was only when Zuko nudged her that she saw Bumi walk out of the room.

“What happened to him?” Izumi’s confusion was evident in her voice.

“I don’t know. I’ll go and see,” Katara said and began to pry Kya off when Zuko lay a hand on her shoulder.

“Allow me. I have a good idea what’s going on.”


Zuko found Bumi sitting in the library, pretending to read a scroll. But judging from the stoop of his shoulders and the lowered head, Zuko was certain that the boy had not taken a word in. He cleared his throat, letting the boy know that he was approaching, giving him time to wipe any tears he might have. Sure enough, Bumi wiped his face.

“Hey buddy. Can I sit down?”

He gave a noncommittal shrug that Zuko took as consent and perched on a chair next to him. He ran a hand through Bumi’s silky hair and said, “It stinks, doesn’t it?”

“What? My hair?” he said with a half-hearted grin.

“You have your Uncle’s sense of humor,” Zuko replied.

Bumi groaned. “I’m doomed for life then.”

“You still may have hope,” Zuko said. “With your mother and I guiding you.”

“Ummm. I’ll pass,” Bumi said, now smiling a little wider. “Izumi says you crack terrible jokes. And mom is so bad at jokes.”

Zuko chuckled, then he patted his back, “You know, when I was a child, I used to hate it.”

“What?”

“My sister was by far the better bender. I would work on getting something right for months and she would get it by the second or third try. Sometimes even in the first try. I felt like I could do nothing right. You know what I mean?” Bumi’s face fell and Zuko knew he was right. “Kya showing her bending hurt you, didn’t it?”

Bumi’s face crumpled and he broke into sobs. Zuko reached over and pulled the boy into his arms, who complied without resistance. “My dad…,” Bumi said slowly, through sobs. “He… He wanted me to be a bender. So badly… I… I remember thinking… he would love me more if I was a bender… I once tried to hold fire…”

Zuko’s hands instinctively tightened around him as he felt his anger towards Aang intensifying. Fuck man! What the hell happened to you? How did you become that man?

Unaware of Zuko’s anger, Bumi continued, “Mom had cried so much that night… Dad… he told me that holding fire doesn’t make a bender.”

“Bumi,” Zuko said trying to keep the edge off his voice. Bumi sat back in the chair, listening with rapt attention, “Listen to me. Don’t ever think that being a bender makes you any better than the anyone. The worst person I know, the one who gave me the scar, was a bender. Some of the best people I know are non-benders.”

“Like who?” Bumi asked, wiping his eyes.

“Your Uncle Sokka, Aunt Suki, Grandpa Hakoda, Gran Gran. Are you telling me they are not good enough because they’re not benders?”

Bumi’s lips were pursed in deep thought and he didn’t respond. At his silence, Zuko continued, “Izumi’s mom, Mai, she was a non-bender. But trust me, I was terrified of her.”

Bumi snorted.

“Seriously. She was deadly. You have met Ty Lee, right? I don’t know any bender who can take her down.”

“Not even Auntie Toph?”

Zuko pondered, “Toph, maybe. But I won’t bet on it. I’d say the scales are evenly balanced there.”

“She’s that much of a badass?” Bumi said, his eyes widening. “But she looks so…,” he waved his hands around to signify what he thought of Ty Lee.

Zuko laughed, “Yes, she is all that. But she is also a deadly fighter you don’t want to meet in battle.”

“So… you’re saying…”

“I’m saying that if you want to be a warrior, you have to have the heart of one,” Zuko said, pointing at Bumi’s chest. “If you have that, then whether you’re a bender or not is inconsequential.”

Bumi looked as though someone had lifted a heavy weight off his shoulders. With a soft sob, he threw his arms around Zuko’s neck. “Thanks Dad.”

For Zuko, no words had been as joyful as those two simple ones. He pulled the boy up close and kissed his head. “Any time, my son. Any time.”

 

Chapter Text

Sorry for not updating last week, life was being a B. Things are a little better now, thankfully. But yes, writing isn’t really happening as such. But I am pushing through. Hopefully, I’ll get back to the quick updates again.

As for updates regarding my other fics, I’m hoping to update Subterfuge by Saturday.  Not sure about Sleepless in Ba Sing Se, will update it when I can. Also, just to let you know, I’ll be taking part in Zutara Week this year, which will be from 26th July to 1st August. Expect daily updates then.
Thank you so much for all the love and support you have given me. This story is soon coming to an end. Not much left.

As usual, read and review. Your reviews make me smile. Thanks a bunch. LOVE YOU!

 


Chapter 35

Katara looked at the parchment, chewing her lips as she tried to understand what she was reading. She made a note on her parchment to get back to the point that was confusing her. Sometimes talking the point over with the members of the council or Zuko helped. She moved on to the next point, reading through it when someone knocked on her door.

“Come in,” she said without looking up.

The door opened and Bumi peeked in. “Mom? Can I talk to you?”

Katara put her quill down and nodded. “Sure. Come in.”

Bumi walked in, slowly. He approached her and settled down next to her. “Mom, can I ask you something?”

“Sure, baby. What’s up?”

“Today… today he came to talk to me,” Bumi said slowly.

“You mean, Zuko?”

Bumi nodded. “Yes. He told me, that to be a warrior, all I need is a warrior’s heart. I don’t need to be a bender.”

“He is right,” Katara said. “You know, there was a boy I knew a while back, named Teo. His legs were damaged. He couldn’t walk. Do you know what he used to do? He used to fly.”

“Huh? He was an Air Bender?”

“No,” Katara said. “His father was a mechanist. Like Uncle Sokka. And he made gliders for Teo. That he couldn’t walk was never an issue for Teo. He never let that get in the way of his life.”

Bumi nodded, “He said the same thing. That it doesn’t matter if I’m a bender or a non-bender.”

“That’s true.”

“Then why did dad hate me, mom? Why did he not like that I’m not a bender?”

Katara opened her mouth, feeling a sob threatening to break through. She pulled her son to her, not knowing what to say to the little boy. How could she tell him that Aang did not believe that Bumi was his son? That him not being a bender was the reason he suspected that Bumi was Zuko’s son?

“Bumi,” she said, trying to make sure that he didn’t see her tears. “Your father was the Avatar. He was also the last Air Bender. He wanted to repopulate the Air Benders. He felt like it was his job, you know? That was all. That’s what it was. Your father didn’t hate you, Bumi. Never think that, okay? I love you, my baby. We all love you. Don’t you doubt it, okay?”

Bumi nodded, “Mom, he… fatherlord… he’s a nice man. I like him.”

Katara lay a kiss on her forehead. “He is.”

Bumi wiped his tears and said, “I called him dad today… didn’t mean to. It just slipped out. But… I don’t know if I can keep calling him that.”

Knowing that Zuko had always wanted a son, Katara could only imagine how he would have felt hearing that. “Bumi, I’m sure he understands. He’ll be okay if you still called him fatherlord. You don’t have to call him dad if you don’t want to.”

“You’re sure?”

“Yes,” Katara said.


“You look so pretty,” Katara said as she put the hairpin into Izumi’s hair. “I love your hair.”

“Really?” Izumi looked up at her with wide eyes. “I always thought my hair is rather straight and dull.”

“And what is wrong with straight hair?” Katara asked, threading flowers on her hair. She tugged on a strand of hair, lining it along her cheek. “There, little princess.”

“I’m not so little,” Izumi retorted and stood up to examine herself in the mirror. “See, I look so grown up.”

“That you do!” Katara said, smiling at the girl. She was dressed in a red-one shoulder top and a black skirt, with swathes of golden clothes draped on her body. With her hair done up in an elaborate style, she looked every bit the crown princess.

“Can I ask you something?” Izumi said.

“Sure.”

“For Kya, my father has been dad from the beginning. Bumi too has sort of accepted him. But… I don’t call you anything. Does that hurt you?”

Katara shook her head. “Can I tell you something, Izumi?”

“Yes?”

“I was six when my mother died. My grandmother was the one who brought me up after that. Even then, she was my grandmother. I never thought she was my mother. She never could be. So yes, I understand. I don’t mind.”

“Thank you.”

“Ready for the festival?” Katara asked.

“Let’s go.”

As the two went along the corridor, they found Zuko, Bumi, and Kya waiting for them.

“Kya!” Katara sighed. “What have you done to your hair? I spent half an hour putting that together.”

“Look, mommy,” Kya said holding up a wooden rattle. “Grandpa Iroh gave this. He said it was his son’s. He gave Bumi a horse.”

Katara’s jaw dropped and she shared a quick glance with Zuko. If that rattle belonged to Lu Ten, then…

“Oh hello, I see I’m late,” Iroh’s voice interrupted Katara’s thoughts. She turned to find the old man walking towards them. “Are we all set?”

“Yes, let’s go,” Zuko said, leading the way.

As they filed out of the corridor, Katara hung back for a moment and moved next to Iroh. “Uncle, thank you for giving Kya the rattle. I can only imagine what it must mean for you.”

Iroh smiled, “Having these children here, it’s been very enjoyable. I have loved every moment of it. This was just a little thing. A small gift for today. I have something for you too. Remind me to give it to you later today.”

“Oh, Uncle, you don’t have to.”

Iroh waved off her objection. “If you’re going to call me Uncle, I’m going to pamper you. You’ll just have to deal with it.”

Katara could only laugh.


Something was not right. Truth be told, Iroh had suspected something was off from the moment Sokka had stepped into the courthouse, begging for Zuko’s help. Knowing that Katara had been charged with adultery, with Zuko no less, had only reinforced his belief. While Zuko was headed to the North Pole, Iroh had taken hours upon hours to pour over the scrolls of Water Tribe history that they had in the library. Upon receiving the news that Zuko had married Katara in the North Pole, Iroh’s joy had known no bounds.

Zuko would never admit it because his honor got in the way, but a part of him had always loved Katara. Iroh had not missed the look of longing he had seen on his nephew’s face when they had come to Ba Sing Se before Sozin’s comet. A look he had spotted on Katara’s face as well when Zuko had not been looking. But Zuko, being the honorable young man that he was, would never make a move on Katara because she was meant to be with Avatar Aang. Somehow, he had convinced himself that his feelings were nothing more than an infatuation. That is not to say that he did not love Mai, he did. Which is why he had been perfectly content accepting Mai as his wife. Yet, his feelings for Katara had never quite died. He had just buried them deep down because even the thought of it would have been dishonorable. Thus, when he had married Katara, Iroh had prayed to Agni that Zuko would finally understand and accept that he loved that woman.

But when Katara had walked into the Palace, Iroh was left aghast. Her appearance had been downright nightmarish. She was skittish and wary. In fact, if he were to hazard a guess, he would have said that she was terrified of something. Zuko’s question about Aang’s untimely death had sparked a nasty thought in Iroh’s mind. Something he loathed to even think, but the parallels between Avatar Aang and Avatar Mayung had been too stark to ignore.

Slowly, with patience and steady support, Iroh had watched his nephew chip through her defenses and brought the real Katara out, and he could not be prouder of Zuko. Seeing Katara recovering, Iroh had decided to bury his troubling thoughts. But then, Sokka had said something that awoke the questions anew. Katara was not wearing Aang’s necklace. The things Zuko screamed at Sokka only reinforced Iroh’s doubts.

Doubts which were now getting reconfirmed. They were seated at the podium, watching the End of War Anniversary festival. In front of them, artists were reenacting the war. This was a reenactment Iroh had seen many times and had enjoyed it every year. But this time, his eyes were fixed on Katara. The woman was watching the proceedings, getting paler and paler with every passing minute. Her breath was coming out in short, irregular gasps. As Iroh watched, Zuko grabbed her hand, running his thumb over her knuckles. Beads of sweat lined her upper lip and her eyes were wide, glimmering with unshed tears.

Sokka may have been dead wrong about Katara and Zuko having an affair, but he was right about one thing. Katara was hiding something, and Iroh had a shrewd suspicion what.

Somehow, for some reason, somewhere down the line, Avatar Aang had followed the footsteps of Avatar Mayung.

 

 

Chapter Text

People have been asking me when I would update this. So here it is. It took me a stupidly long time to come up with a way I could introduce Mai's pages to Zuko without Katara just handing the pages to him and going, "Here you go!"

This is an emotionally taxing chapter. So have fun.

I might be updating a Zuko & Azula flashback chapter in Subterfuge soon.

 

As usual, R&R.


 

Chapter 36

In the play actor Aang hugged actor Katara, declaring that she was his forever girl. In the viewing gallery, the real Katara shuddered. Zuko curled his fingers through hers, patting her hand.

“He’s not here,” he whispered. “You’re safe now. It’s all over. He can’t hurt you anymore. You’re with me now. Remember that, Katara. I’m here.”

Katara nodded, his words piercing her veil of panic. On some level, she wanted to bolt from there and hide herself away. But she knew that she could not. She was both the Avatar’s widow and the Fire Lady. If she walked out this celebration, she would set the rumor mills spinning. But as the play went on, it chipped away at her strength. Her resolve to stay seated was beginning to falter. As the play moved on to the Day of the Black Sun and she saw the actor Aang kiss actor Katara, she felt as though something cold and sinewy slithered down her spine. Her breath shuddered and her eyes misted over. It felt as though someone was grabbing her windpipe, choking her. Suddenly she was back in the Western Air Temple, splayed on the floor while Aang sat on top of her, his fingers tightening around her throat. It had only been the cooing of a four-month-old Kya that had stopped him.

All sense of propriety, of duties, of responsibilities, flew away from her mind as she pulled her hand from Zuko’s and fled. She did not know where her feet carried her. She just ran. Ran from the terrible images that came to haunt her. The suffocation. The reptilian feeling of fear. Tears streamed down her face unchecked. She finally came to a stop at the turtle duck pond. She dropped down to her knees and sobbed. The warm night air burned and froze her skin at the same time and Katara felt as though the walls were closing in on her.

It took her a moment to realize that someone was stroking her hair. “There, there, my child,” a familiar and comforting voice said to her.

She looked up to find Iroh standing over her. Somewhere deep down, she knew that she needed to wipe her tears, but she could not bring herself to do it. Iroh smiled and said, “May I sit down next to you?”

Hiccupping a little, she nodded. The older man settled down with a groan. “My joints! I’m no longer the spy young man I once was.”

Katara, who had always seen Iroh as someone old, had a tough time trying to reconcile the image of him as a spy young man. Not knowing what to say, she turned her gaze to the pond. The two of them sat in silence while the chirping of crickets filled the air. His quiet company halted her mind’s downward spiral. The moments of silence were a much welcome respite from the oppressive pain in her mind.

“Life is a funny thing, isn’t it, Katara?” Iroh said suddenly.

“Sorry?” her voice sounded scratchy to her own ears.

“My wife, Ayon, Agni bless her soul, fell sick soon after Lu Ten was born. She would be sick on and off. Once, she was at the court and fainted. She passed soon afterwards.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Katara said but Iroh waved off the apology.

“I have accepted and moved on from her death,” Iroh explained. “That was not why I brought it up.”

“Then?”

“You reminded me of her today.”

Katara looked at Iroh in confusion. “I did?”

“Yes. Today, I was scared that you’re going to pass out on the stage, just like she had done.”

Katara licked her lips, not knowing what to say.

“As an older man who has had a tad more experience with the royal court and life than you, can I say something?”

“Sure.”

“If a situation is making you uncomfortable, is pushing you to the brink of panic, it is completely okay to remove yourself from it. Don’t worry about who will say what. The Royal family has already seen a boatload of scandals. It can handle a few wagging tongues.”

“That… that’s not what you told us when we were explaining the children about the rumors?”

“Katara, my child, when I spoke about the rumors, it was a lie about your affair with my nephew. We were discussing a rumor that has the potential to be seriously damaging. But a fainting spell? At most people would say that you are pregnant. Or sick. Both of which are easier to refute than a rumor that vilifies your character. I stand by what I said back then. The position of Fire Lady is beyond reproach. Your behavior in public must be impeccable. That said, nothing is more important than your well-being. You, my child, have gone through hell. I would rather you work on yourself. Heal yourself. My nephew and I are with you, supporting you.”

Katara looked at him, trying to understand his words. Panic rose in her mind  as she reached a conclusion that felt like a stab through her heart, “Zuko told you?”

“About what happened to you? No. Not a word.”

Relief and confusion battled within her as she looked at the older man in askance. “Then how?”

“Give this old man some credit, my dear,” Iroh said. “I haven’t bleached my hair in the Sun, you know.”

“I don’t… Don’t know what that means.”

Iroh smiled, “It means that I have seen life. I know how to read people. I have come to the conclusion entirely by myself. You don’t have to say anything, Katara. Just tell me, am I wrong in thinking that Avatar Aang did something to you? Something terrible?”

Memories of Aang, her Aang, the once sweet and lovable boy who had turned into her worst nightmare, came rushing back to her. She lay a hand on her heart and sobbed. Iroh draped her arm around her and said, “Ideally, Zuko should have been here. But he is the Fire Lord and he has to stay there. You have me instead. Your Uncle. Afterall, that’s how family works, right?”

“Family?” Katara breathed.

“Indeed. You are my niece, aren’t you?”

Katara nodded.

“Then allow your Uncle to take care of you.”

“Thank you, Uncle.”

“Nonsense. You’d do the same for me, I know.”


As he walked to his chamber, Zuko felt torn between anxiety and exhaustion. When Katara had pulled her hand off him and taken off running, every instinct in him had wanted to follow. However, Uncle had laid a hand on his shoulder and said, “Stay, I’ll go.”

For the next hour, Zuko felt like he was sitting on a bag of nails. He wanted nothing more than to run to her, hold her, calm her down. But he chose to trust his Uncle. The one person who had never led him astray. When he came back, he just gave Zuko a smile and a nod. Katara, however, was nowhere to be seen. After another hour, he let the nurse take the kids to their quarters. Zuko pulled off the crown, just before entering his chamber. He lowered the crown in the bejeweled chest that kept it safe before taking off his shoulder pads. Katara wasn’t in the room and he was not pleased about it. Worry for her continued to gnaw at him. He opened the door that opened into her chamber. Even before he stepped into the room, he knew she was there. His body told him. The prevalent silence and darkness in the room told him that she was asleep. He lit a small flame in his palm and tiptoed across the room to where she lay, just to check up on her. He had to know she was fine. The sight that met his eyes filled his heart with an unprecedented warmth. Katara lay on the bed, her face a picture of peace. Bumi was on her right, Izumi on the left and Kya was sprawled over her. Each of them in deep sleep.

“Sleep well, my sweethearts,” Zuko whispered. He debated upon joining them but then decided against it. He did not want to disrupt their sleep. With one last glance at his family, he walked over to his chamber. The second he stepped into the chamber, though, he was greeted with a smell that was very familiar to him, but one he hadn’t smelled in ages. His heart and step faltered, making him stumble.

“Mai?”

A pale gold light percolated into the room and bathed in it, stood his late wife. The grief and pain of losing her hit him anew, like an anvil to his gut.

“Zuko,” she said, her husky voice reaching him after years.

The ten steps it took for him to reach her felt like ten long years. As he stood in front of her, it felt like his breath was being pulled out from his lungs and was replaced with molten fire. “Mai, is that really you?”

“Yes, Zuko. I came to say goodbye.”

He frowned. One of his biggest regrets in life was the fact that she had been taken from him too quickly. Before he could say his goodbyes. The wound of his wife being snatched from him was one that had never healed. “Mai,” he whispered, raising a trembling hand to her face, only to have it pass right through her. The knife that had stabbed in his heart only twisted further.

“Zuko, please. Don’t weep for me. Don’t grieve me.”

“Mai… I… I’m so sorry. I couldn’t save you.”

“You couldn’t have,” she said. “I know that now. Our time in this world is limited. My time was over.”

“Mai… Izumi… she misses you. I miss you.”

“I know. But I also want you to know that I am very proud of you, my love. Today, Izumi has a mother, you have found love again, and you have brought light into the lives of three people who needed it. You made our family whole again.”

Zuko stared at her, unable to speak, tears streaming down his face. At that moment, Mai flickered like a flame about to die out.

“It’s time for me to go, Zuko. I can rest in peace now. I no longer have to worry about you and Izumi. Thank you, my love. You have brought peace to both your wives. Goodbye Zuko.”

With that, Mai dissipated, leaving him alone in his chamber.


When Katara walked into Zuko’s chamber in the morning, she found him sitting on the bed. His stooped shoulders and bent head told her something was wrong.

“Zuko?”

He looked up and Katara had to bite back her gasp of horror. His eyes were rimmed with red and his cheeks were hollowed. She rushed over and knelt in front of him, clutching his hands.

“Zuko, what happened? What’s going on?”

“Mai was here last night,” he whispered. “She-she came to say goodbye.”

“Mai?”

“I know how it sounds,” he said, shaking his head. “But she… she was here, Katara. And yet again, I could not say goodbye. I could not tell her that I love her. That I always will.”

“Zuko, she knows it.”

“How can you say that?”

“I can because she came to me too.”

“What? When?”

Katara smiled and said, “I’ll be right back, okay?”

She all but ran inside her room, grabbed a box and ran back into his room. “I was going to give this to you on your birthday, but… I guess this is a better time.”

“What’s this?” He asked, taking the thin box from her.

“Open it.”

Zuko did as instructed, without a question. From within it, he pulled out the pages. “Mai’s diary. This is how you found the page you gave to Izumi?”

Katara nodded. “And the knife. Mai gave them to me.”

“Why didn’t you tell me before?”

“I wanted to surprise you,” she said. “Like I said, I wanted to give this to you on your birthday.”

Zuko ran a finger over the hatch, his brow puckered. “How are you doing, by the way? Last night, you were in a bad place. When I came to see you at night, you and the kids were sleeping. I didn’t want to wake you up.”

“I’m fine. Uncle Iroh stopped me from panicking. He helped me out.”

Zuko gave a small, but genuine smile. “I’m glad. Also, sorry. I should have come to you last night.”

“Zuko, I’m fine. You had a duty to your people as well,” Katara said. “I would be lying if I say I wasn’t a little irritated that you weren’t there, but after my chat with Uncle, I was okay. Don’t worry about me. Read.”

 

Chapter Text

Have you ever tried to type a chapter with a wonky key? It's a torture I tell you. The H and Enter keys in my keyboard have gone completely nuts. I have to type it like three times before it registers. Bloody $$#$^%&$#%@$T%Y^$%@#%*.

Now that I have gotten that off my chest, let's talk about this story. The thing is, I have lost my interest in this story for some reason. I am not sure why. But I will finish this story. There's not much left. As I envisioned this story from conception, this story ends with people coming to know Aang's truth. As of now, other than Zuko, Iroh and Toph are the only ones that know the truth. The rest will come to know too, soon. Here I give you some more of Azula's thought process and Katara putting Zuko together.

All three of my fics, viz, Broken Hearts and Shattered Breaths, Subterfuge, and Sleepless in Ba Sing Se will not be updated next week. Because next week is Zutara Week. I am taking part in it and the awesome FictionallyFun is helping me loads. So expect an update after Zutara Week is done.

Thank you for all your love. As usual, R&R.


 

Chapter 37

Zuko chewed the inside of his cheek, his mind filled with a buzzing. He was staring at the pages that were written in what he knew to be Mai’s handwriting, but he wasn’t reading a word of it. He closed his eyes and counted to ten. That usually worked for him. Having gained a modicum of control, he opened his eyes again and focused his attention on the papers in is hand.

He did it again last night. He called her name out in sleep. He does it sometimes. Wonder what he dreams about? He never speaks about those dreams. He even avoids taking her name when he is awake. But yesterday, we got the wedding invite. She’s getting married to the Avatar, and Z didn’t react at all when we got the invite. But then, I found a charred handprint on the writing desk. He says he loves me, does everything I ask him to. Takes very good care of me. But I wasn’t the one he took a lightning for. I was the one he locked in a jail cell and abandoned to be tortured.

Zuko felt a patina of sweat cover his face as he tried to make sense of the words he read. He turned to look at Katara who was looking at him with a soft expression.

“She… What does… did she think I didn’t… because of you? I did have nightmares about the Agni Kai sometimes but that doesn’t mean that I didn’t love her. Yes, I had feelings for you, but I loved her too.”

“I know. She does too. Read on,” was all that Katara said, rubbing his back gently.

I’m pregnant. Told Z and he is practically bouncing on his heels. He has been telling me that he loves me to the point that it’s annoying. But also adorable.

Zuko felt a smile twitch his lips as he moved to the next page.

He was with me all day. I’m not feeling too well, and he has been taking care of me in a way no one ever has. He doesn’t even go away when tell him to. Over the past few days, he has been very caring. He hasn’t called her name in dreams in a long time. Maybe I have been overanalyzing things. Z wears his heart on his sleeve. If he says he loves me, he does. That’s all there is to it.

He turned over to the last page, not noticing the slight tremble in his hands.

Z will fall sick if he continues this. Izumi needs warmth, so he sits with her for hours together, keeping his body warm. Then, when the nurse takes her away, he insists on ensuring that I am kept warm and comfortable. When I tell him to get lost and leave me alone, he then goes to work. His world seems to revolve around me and Izumi. He is willing to put the entire nation second, for me. I was stupid to ever think he didn’t love me.

Zuko sighed, cradling his head in his hands.

“See? She knew,” Katara whispered, draping an arm around his shoulder. “Don’t weigh yourself down, Zuko. She knew.”


“You did what?”

Katara’s eyes widened as she watched the situation escalate out of control. Earlier this morning, after Zuko read the papers, he had managed to pull himself together. Katara had managed to even convince him to come with her to pay Azula a visit. Azula, who had been absolutely calm and composed around Katara all this while, she completely flipped out upon seeing Zuko. She began to rant and rave, something along the lines of what she had said earlier. Katara asked Zuko to leave and had been trying to get Azula under control when the woman shouted behind Zuko’s back.

“You should be kissing my feet for your new family.”

The words had stilled both Zuko and Katara. Slowly he had turned and looked at her with narrowed eyes. “What does that mean?”

“Izumi! Do you really think she would have been so open to your new wife and kids if I had not talked to her?”

“You did what?” Zuko’s expression was downright lethal as he took a couple of steps closer.

Not knowing what to do, Katara placed herself between the siblings, but Azula moved her to the side. “Stay away from this, Katara. This has nothing to do with you. And Zuzu, I spoke to Izumi.”

“What did you tell her?”

Azula shrugged, “Just told her that her life has changed, whether she likes it or not. I told her that she could be a child about it and sulk. Or she could be a grown up and try to talk to the other kids.”

“You did not!” Zuko growled.

“I did too. And guess what? It worked. She is being receptive, isn’t she?”

“You manipulated an eight-year-old! You’re starting it all over again!”

Azula’s expression faltered for a second before she lifted her chin in defiance. “I’m not starting anything. I’m helping you and if you can’t see that, then you’re dumber that I thought.”

Zuko’s hands curled into fists with smoke curling out of them. He pointed a finger at her and said through gritted teeth, “I’m warning you, Azula. Do not play your tricks on my children. Or else –“

“Or else what?”

“Enough!” Katara shouted, dousing the siblings in water.

“What the hell, Katara?” Both of them chorused.

“You,” she turned to Azula and said, “will go inside and stay there. And you, Zuko, out. If you both cannot talk like two adults, then you deserve to be in time out, like children.”

The two of them stared at her with fire burning in their golden eyes. Zuko opened his mouth to say something but then thought the better of it and stormed out of the room. Azula wiped the water from her eyes and said, “You’re lucky I consider you a friend. Anyone else and I would have burned them to ground.”

Katara leveled Azula with a stare and said, “You can try.”

Azula sighed and suddenly looked like she was exhausted. She dropped down to her knees and hugged herself, “I messed up, didn’t I? I always mess things up. First with mom, then with dad and now with Zuzu. I messed it all up.”

Katara kneeled next to her and said, “He’s a grown man. He’ll get over it. You didn’t mess anything up. You were trying to do the right thing.”

“Right thing?” Azula asked. “You saw how he acted, right? That looks right to you?”

“He will be fine. I’ll talk to him and he’ll understand. Are you okay?”

Azula swallowed and buried her face into her hands. She stayed that way, for a long while, unmoving, unresponsive. When she finally looked back up, Azula’s face had slipped back into the neutral expression she held. She stood up, and looked down at Katara in a way that reminded her of the Princess whom she had fought as a fourteen year old. But then, Azula smiled. Not the menacing one that she used to give when they were enemies but the smile she was used to seeing on her sister.

“Talk sense into that brother of mine, Katara,” Azula said. “I can’t talk to him without one or both of us going nuts.”

With a chuckle, Katara stood up and said, “I will. Don’t worry.” Giving Azula a pat on her shoulder, Katara followed her husband. She found him in his chamber, preparing for the day. As he was putting on the cuffs, he was muttering to himself under the breath.

“Zuko.”

“I don’t know how you have managed to get close to her, Katara,” he spoke without looking at her. “We can’t even stay in the same room!”

Katara crossed her arms over her chest and said, “That’s not true and you know it. The two of you have a very complicated history. Too much baggage. But you will have to put your baggage away. For your sister’s sake.”

He whirled around, his eyes blazing. “I tried, Katara! I looked past every insult, every mean crap that she’s thrown at me, the times she taunted me, when she tried to have me arrested, when she tried to kill Uncle, killed Aang, put Mai into the prison to torture her, tried to kill you. I looked past all of that and provided her all the damn support that I could. And how does she repay me? By manipulating my daughter? No. I draw a line at that.”

Katara opened her mouth to say something but he held up a hand and shook his head, “Don’t. Whatever you want to say in her favor, I don’t want to hear it.”

Without waiting for an answer, he grabbed his crown and began to march out.

“She was seeking your approval, Zuko,” she said to his retreating back, making him stop dead in his tracks. “She went about it the wrong way, but her heart was in the right place. You know what that feels like, right? Seeking the elusive approval of someone older and getting their rage instead?”

Her words made him stumble and he had to grab on to the door frame to avoid falling. Slowly, he turned around to look at her, “My approval?”

“Yes. Your approval. She wanted your mother’s approval and didn’t get it. Your father messed with her mind in ways we cannot even comprehend. Now you are the only family she has left. Yes, she has Iroh and Izumi and us, but she wants your approval, Zuko. You. Her older brother. The Fire Lord. Don’t hold it back. Don’t push her further into the abyss. Pull her back. I know you can do it.”

“I don’t know if I can, Katara.”

She smiled and walked up to him, placing a hand over his heart, “At sixteen, you found it in you to stand up to your father, and go against everything you ever knew and believed, to come support us. At seventeen, you took up the mantle of the Fire Lord. You accepted another man’s children as your own, without so much as a frown on your face. You found the strength in you to accept and love a widow as your wife. I was a mess when you married me. Yet, you put me together. If you can do all of that, you can pick up your sister too. And, of course, I’ll be with you.”

Chapter Text

The story is coming to an end, as you will see here. Next chapter would legit be the climax. There won’t be a big fight or anything. (Because I am very bad at writing action scenes and I have to write a lot of them for Subterfuge, I have no intentions of using my brain cells to come up with yet another one.) After the next chapter, I would be ending the story with an epilogue.

Someone asked me if Raava cut off Mayung from the Avatar’s powers, how did Aang find him to talk to him. Well, I don’t know if I had clarified it or not in the story, but this is my answer: Raava is the Avatar Spirit. She blocked Mayung and Aang from their bending abilities, and thereby the Avatar, but that did not mean that they were no longer the Avatar. They were still part of the cycle and could talk to the other Avatars if they wanted. In fact, this would be explained in the next chapter in greater detail.

 

As usual, read and review.


 

Chapter 38

Zuko paused in front of Azula’s door, chewing on his bottom lip as he contemplated what to do. The last few interactions he had with her had resulted in a bitter fight. He was no longer the bitter, angry teenager who had gone in search of the Avatar. Today, he was at peace and he had control over his emotions. He had imbibed the life lessons that his Uncle had taught him and had attained the level of maturity and stability that Uncle always wanted for him. Yet, all of his peace, his stability, his wisdom, all seemed flee him the moment he came face to face with Azula. She brought out that angry self of his, the one he worked so hard to bury. She effortlessly peeled the layers, and revealed the person he longed to leave behind.

But if Katara was right, then he owed it to Azula, his little sister, what his father never gave him. Or even Azula, for that matter. Unconditional approval. He swallowed the dread that tasted metallic in his mouth and pushed the door open. Azula sat on a chair, with her legs dangling over an arm, reading a book. All at once, he was transported to their childhood. That was how she would sit, whenever she would sit on a chair, only for their mother to reprimand her. Apparently, some habits died hard.

Inadvertently, the name he used for her back then was the one that slipped from his mouth, “Baby bird?”

Azula gave a start, dropping the book. The color drained from her pale face as she slowly stood up. “Zuzu?” For the first time since they were children, the name did not sound like a taunt.  More like a plea.

“I’m sorry,” He said, feeling his throat close up painfully from the sob he was holding back. “I always complained that you weren’t a good enough sister. But I was quite a dick of a brother myself, wasn’t I?”

Azula blinked a couple of times before she shrugged and said, “Kind of runs in the family, doesn’t it?”

Zuko snorted. The two siblings stood facing each other, both at a loss for things to say. Finally, he took a step closer and said, “What are you reading?”

“Tenzu’s Lotus Philosophy,” Azula said, settling down on the chair and pointing at the seat opposite hers.

“Heavy reading,” he said, taking the chair she had pointed to. “Do you understand all of it?”

Azula opened her mouth and then closed it. Taking a deep breath, she said, “You know, if you had asked me this question about fifteen years ago, I would have said of course I do. I’m not an idiot. But I think now I can say, without feeling odd, that no, I don’t. He rambles a lot.”

“He does!” Zuko agreed, surprised to know how easy it was to talk to her. “I dozed off the first few times I tried reading it.”

“Tch tch, very un-Fire-Lordy of you,” she said, but without a trace of the malice he expected from her.

“Un-Fire-Lordy?” He said with a smirk.

“It’s a word now. Deal with it.”

He chuckled. “Yes, Princess.”

Slowly, tentatively, he reached over and took her hand in his. When she didn’t pull back, he asked, “How are you feeling, baby bird?”

To his surprise, she went down on her knees and looked up at him, “I don’t know, Zuzu. On some days, like today, I am perfectly fine. But on some days, I am all over the place. And I’m scared.”

“Scared?” he asked, coming to the ground next to her. “What are you scared of?”

“I see them,” she said, slowly. “Our parents.”

He ran his fingers through her hair and said, “They’re gone. They can’t hurt you anymore. I’m not going to let anyone hurt you anymore.”

“I know. But there is something I must show you.”

He frowned as Azula pushed herself to her feet and walked over to a drawer. She pulled out a scroll, returned and handed it to him. Zuko unfurled the scroll and read through the contents, his brows tightening to a frown.

“What is this?”

“Just what you read,” Azula said with a sigh as she sat down next t him. “Ozai loyalists keep sending me these missives, wanting me to take the throne. Usurp you or something. They had stopped for a while, but ever since you married Katara, they have started up again.”

Don’t lose you temper. Don’t lose your temper. Zuko closed his eyes and counted to ten before saying, “What have you replied to them?”

“I haven’t,” she said. “I usually burn them. But… I think you should see it.”

Zuko nodded, repeatedly telling himself to give her a chance. A part of him wanted to scream at her for keeping something like this from him, but his inner voice, which surprisingly sounded like a weird mixture of Uncle and Katara, told him that this was Azula’s olive branch. He recognized that if he lost his temper on her this time, he would burn the last bridge between them. If he wanted to have any kind of relationship with his sister, he needed to tread carefully at this moment.

“What do you want to do, Azula?”

“About this?” she asked pointing at the letter. At Zuko’s nod, she said, “I don’t want the throne, Zuko. Last time…. I lost everything that mattered to me. I… It scares me. I’m not… fit for it, regardless of what Ozai thought.”

“I’m surprised to hear you say that.”

“I know,” Azula said flopping down on the ground and leaning her head on the chair. “You aren’t the only one who has grown, Zuzu. Ozai’s poison broke my mind and took away something that defined me.”

“What?” he asked, folding up the scroll and pocketing it. Even though Azula said that she did not want the throne, Zuko could not bring himself to fully believe it. For a significant part of his life, Azula always lies, was a thing he told himself over and over again. He could not just start believing her now. He needed to look deeper into this. If Azula noticed his action, she did not show it. In response to his question, she lit a flame on her palm.

“Not blue,” he whispered, feeling a twinge of guilt.

“Hasn’t been blue in a while,” she said slowly. “All I want, is my fire to be blue. That’s all.”

Zuko nodded, “We will get that back. Come with me to fire bending practices.”

“Really? You want that?”

“Indeed,” Zuko licked his lips and tentatively asked the one question he wanted to ask. “How… How are you handling the whole Jion thing?”

Azula shrugged, “I don’t know. I’m okay today, but I may not be okay tomorrow. I’m bouncing all over the place.”

This was a better answer than he had expected or hoped in the first place. He smiled and said, “Come on, let’s have dinner. I’m hungry.”

To his surprise, Azula stood up. “Let’s go.”


Katara found that her fingers trembled as she tied the knot of her shoulder pad.

“You look nervous,” Zuko commented as he fastened the strap of his armbands. “Nervous about going back to your home?”

“They want me dead,” Katara replied, unable to keep the irritation off her voice. “So yes, I am bloody nervous. That’s why I told you to keep the children here.”

Zuko walked over to her and put a hand on her shoulder, “If you want, you stay here.”

Katara shook her head, “No. I mean, yes, staying here is easier and less confrontational. But doesn’t that also imply that we did something wrong? I have to go there. Just to prove that we did nothing wrong. We are blameless and I want to prove that. I’m not hiding.”

“I know you won’t,” he said and leaned to place a quick kiss on her forehead. “If it makes you feel any better, the Imperial Fire Benders are coming with us.”

“I know.”

“And what are you thinking about meeting the Avatar? Still okay with it?”

“I have been thinking about it and I understand that Korra is not Aang. I’m not going to hold her responsible for what Aang did. She’s just a year old. It’s not fair that I hold a grudge against a baby. Not fair.”

He nodded and draped an arm around her. “Remember, I’m there with you.”

Katara smiled and lay her head on his chest. “I love you.”

He pulled her in closer and said, “I love you, too.”


The repurposed warplane landed in the South Pole four days later. Even though Katara had spent a good chunk of her life in the poles, the cold air that welcomed them made her cringe. She subbed her palms together as she got off the warplane, flanked by four Imperial Fire Benders. Zuko, who had stepped out first as was the protocol. Katara came to stand next to her husband, yearning to curl into him. As a Fire Bender he was warmer than average, and the cold did not bother him much.

“Katara!” Hakoda said, rushing to meet her. As he came closer though, he seemed to remember the norm and bowed to Zuko, who returned the bow. He then turned to his daughter and gave her a quick bow before engulfing her in a bear hug.

As they parted, Katara spotted Timuk, the Northern Water Bender who was now the chief of Southern Water Tribe. The man’s blue eyes were fixed on Katara with an unmasked loathing as he bowed. “Fire Lord Zuko, how kind of you to grace us with your presence.”

“Chief Timuk, the Fire Lady and I are thrilled to be here to honor the new Avatar.”

Upon Zuko’s subtle reminder, Timuk gave Katara a sort, stiff bow before saying, “This way, please Fire Lord. Some dignitaries are already there.”

The two of them shared a quick look and made to follow the man. As they made their way to the big communal hall, Suki joined them. She gave a quick bow to them and hooked her arm through Katara’s. “How are you guys?”

“Okayish,” Katara replied, realizing that it truly encompassed how she felt.

“Sokka is in the igloo,” Suki said. “He is still a tad nervous to meet you.”

Katara shook her head, “I guess there’s a first time for everything?”

Suki chuckled. “I guess. Toph isn’t coming, is she?”

“No,” Zuko answered. “She hates the poles and she has ignored her school for far too long.”

“That she has,” Suki agreed.

They kept up a light chatter on the way to the igloo. Upon entering the igloo, however, Katara felt as though the temperature had dropped dramatically. Ignoring the hostile looks she was getting, Katara turned to Mizu. The Imperial Fire Bender handed her the ornamental robe that was their offering to the new Avatar. As one, Katara and Zuko walked to the crib that housed Korra, got down on their knees and laid the offering at the foot of the crib. As Katara lowered her head in a bow, a scoff reached her ears. Ignoring the sneer, she finished the ritual and stood up, intending to back away.

“Would you look at that?” Hahn’s unpleasant voice set her teeth on edge. “The adulteress and her Lover Lord are here to pay tribute to the reincarnated Avatar.”

“Chief Hahn,” Zuko said, his eyes blazing. “That’s the Fire Lady you’re talking about.”

“Yes, she’s the Fire Lady, because you brought up some archaic law to save her,” Hahn spat. “You took her away, fine. But I didn’t think you would be so shameless as to show up like this at the welcoming ceremony of the new Avatar.”

“Chief Hahn,” King Kuei, who was also in the igloo, said, “This is neither the time nor the place to say something so inappropriate.”

“You don’t know, do you, King Kuei? Lady Katara and Fire Lord Zuko had an affair behind Avatar Aang’s back.”

“That is not true and even you know it, Hahn,” Sokka yelled. “You drummed up some charges to satisfy your own ego which simply couldn’t handle the fact that Katara is the best Water Bender of this generation.”

“Of course, you would think that. You’re her brother,” Timuk said, crossing his arms. “But these two have betrayed Avatar Aang’s love and trust. They should not be allowed to be here.”

“Chief Timuk,” Zuko said in his most dangerous voice. “Are you insinuating the Fire Lord and Fire Lady are unwelcome in the Fire Lady’s own home?”

Realizing his slip up, Timuk flinched. In the silence, King Anga of Omashu spoke up, “This has to be the singularly most repulsive display of impropriety I have seen by any leader since I have taken the throne. Disgusting. Is the Water Tribe looking to start a war with Fire Nation?”

“Indeed,” Kuei added. “It definitely appears to be the case. This insult of not just the Fire Lady but the Fire Lord too is abhorrent. Should Fire Lord Zuko decide to attack the Water Tribe, Earth Kingdom would support it.”

At that proclamation, Timuk paled. Hahn, however, in a characteristic display of idiocy, plowed on, “That’s all the Fire Nation can do, isn’t it? Fight and steal. They fought for a hundred years and now they want to fight again, when Avatar Aang is no longer around to keep them in check and Avatar Korra is too young to handle these warmongering people.”

“Hahn, stop,” Timuk, who was evidently reading the room better than his counterpart, said, “Please.”

Hahn shook his head, “No. Avatar Aang was a personal friend. Besides, the Avatar’s insult is everyone’s insult. In the Avatar’s Aang’s absence, I intend to avenge his honor, even if that costs my life, but I cannot let this whore walk out of here alive.”

In an instant, Katara, Zuko, the Imperial Fire Benders, Anga, Sokka and Suki had taken up a fighting stance. The air in the room crackled as the Water Tribe, left with no choice, had to take up their own defensive stance. Silence sat heavy in the room as the two sides stared at each other.

“Enough!” A voice boomed across the igloo and suddenly, all around the igloo, it was green.

My hands are not green. Zuko’s words from Ember Island suddenly began to make sense to Katara. Her heart thudded wildly in her chest as she slowly turned. There, next to Korra’s crib and bathed in the strange green glow, was Aang.  

Chapter Text

This is it, fam. The last two chapters. This is the climax and then an epilogue follows. Some of you maybe left disappointed with the end of the story, but this is how I have always envisioned this story coming to an end. I don’t think there would be a sequel to this story. Forty chapters and hundred thousand words later, a long and beautiful journey comes to an end. Thank you, each and everyone of you, for all the love and support you have given me so far. I love you all. I’m uploading the epilogue as well.


Chapter 39

Time had slowed for Zuko, or maybe the world was moving faster than him. He did not know. All around him, people were dropping down to their knees, the words Avatar Aang falling on his ears like lava. He stood rooted in his spot, unable to tear his eyes off the man who had once been his friend.

“Please,” Aang said, his voice rebounding around the igloo as though in a testimony to his otherworldly presence. “Do not bow down to me.”

“Avatar Aang,” Hahn began but Aang held up a hand to stop him.

“Rise.”

It was only when people began to follow his command that Zuko realized that him and Katara had never bowed down. At the heels of the realization came the thought of Katara and what she must be feeling. He whipped around to find her trembling down to her toes, eyes fixed on Aang and mouth opened in a silent scream. Urged by a sense of urgency, he grabbed her icy cold hand. It looked as though she was not even aware of his presence as she was staring at her late husband. Her tormentor.

Aang’s sad grey eyes turned to look at her. But he was unable to meet her blue eyes and looked away, choosing to focus on Hahn instead. “Hahn,” he said as he walked a couple of paces to close the distance between them. “Why would you say what you did?”

“Avatar Aang, as the Chief of the Northern Water Tribe –“

“Positions mean nothing to the dead, Hahn,” Aang cut him off. “What does bear deep meaning are lies perpetuated in our names.”

“L-lies?” Hahn’s voice was squeaky.

“Lies. You used my name to further your own propaganda. I would have let it slide if it were minor lies, but in your attempts to sate your ego, you brought the world to the brink of another war. In the presence of the new Avatar no less. Korra maybe a baby, but she is not defenseless. Hundreds of Avatars are connected to her and will come to her aid.”

When Hahn stayed silent, Aang continued, “You claimed to be my personal friend, which is untrue. You said Katara was in an adulterous relationship with Zuko. Another lie. But that one is not your fault. That blame lies solely on me.”

A sob escaped Katara’s lips and she turned away. Her fingernails were digging deep half-moons on Zuko’s hand, but she was standing erect. Even as she trembled like a dried leaf in the storm, she stood on her feet and her head held high. Zuko had never been more proud of her. Very gently, he draped an arm around her shoulders, offering her the support she needed. From the corner of his eyes, he saw Aang look at him and nod.

Thank you. Aang mouthed before turning his attention back to Hahn. “Today, I had to intervene because the world leaders were on the verge of starting another war. A war that is, in a large way, the outcome of my actions. My insecurities, my inability to see the truth, my errors in judgement, my misunderstandings, and my troubles that brought the world to the brink of another war. As an Avatar, and as the person directly responsible for this situation, it is my duty to come in and clarify things.”

“What do you mean, Avatar Aang?” Kuei asked, looking brothered. “How is this your fault?”

Aang turned to look at Katara and said, “I believed she was unfaithful. I was the one that not only started the rumor but fueled it as well. I was convinced about it and nothing would distract me. Not even when you told me that I was wrong. I should have believed you. You… You were my wife, I should have trusted you. I didn’t. And for that, I am sorry.”

Tears streamed down Katara’s cheeks, but she kept her face resolutely turned away from Aang. The monk gave a small, tired nod before he turned to look around the igloo.

“Why are you defending her now?” Hahn asked, looking incensed. “That they got married almost as soon as you died and –“

“Need I remind you the circumstances we got married in, Chief Hahn?” Zuko spat. “Or the role you played in it?”

Hahn clicked his tongue, “Fire Lord, you and I both know you used that case to give legitimacy to your relationship.”

“Enough!” Anga screamed. “I don’t know what is happening here, but one thing is certain. I have come to the realization that Chief Hahn is unfit to be a world leader.”

“I concur,” Kuei said. “I declare that if the Water Tribe would not issue a formal apology to the Fire Nation and if Chiefs Hahn and Timuk do not step down, the Earth Kindgom will stop all trade with the Water Tribe forthwith.”

“As will the Fire Nation,” Zuko added. “I do not want another war, but I would not stand by and let them insult the Fire Lady either. Especially since Avatar Aang has openly admitted to being in the wrong.”

“Yes,” Aang added. “It is my fault. I made mistakes. So many of them. Everything is my fault. I was the one. Katara,” he said, slowly walking up to her. He dropped down to his knees, but Katara kept her back turned to him. His form flickered slightly as he said, “I don’t have much time, but I need to do this. You were the one I wronged the most, Katara. I cannot even begin to say how sorry I am and how much I regret it. Death has given me the perspective life could not. I understand now. I don’t expect you to forgive me, but I want you to know, I am sorry. So sorry.”

Saying so he stood up and turned to face the occupants of the igloo. “The spirits have punished me for my mistakes. Even though I am not ejected from the Avatar cycle, my bending was taken away in life. However, I still remain the previous Avatar. I would guide Korra along in her journey. She will restore balance to the world. I would be the one teaching her Air Bending. And she would bring Air Benders back. That is all I have to say. I leave the world to you.”

Saying so, Aang and the green light dissipated, leaving a lasting silence in their wake.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Epilogue

Two Years Later

Katara rocked two-month-old Kuzon in her lap. He opened his eyes, golden like his father, and yawned.

“He looks like me,” Kya declared. This was an ongoing argument between the three siblings, each of them claiming that the latest addition to the family was their copy.

“He has golden eyes! So clearly, it’s me,” Izumi protested, running her index finger through his patch of downy hair that decorated a patch over his forehead, leaving the rest of his head bald.

Bumi gave a fake laugh and held his fist against Kuzon’s tiny one. “See that? His skin color is like mine.”

“What’s the bet he’s a Water Bender like me?” Kya said. “I’ll be teaching him Water Bending then.”

“Nah, he’ll be a Fire Bender. Golden eyes!” Izumi insisted. “Also, I will teach him how to throw knives.”

“I’m teaching him sword fighting,” Bumi said, nodding.

“How about we wait till he gets his first teeth, at the very least?” Zuko walked into the chamber, interrupting before the argument devolved further. “I don’t think Kuzon is quite ready to learn any kind of fighting.”

“Yes, yes,” Bumi nodded as Kya giggled. “We know that.”

“We won’t be teaching him anything right now,” Kya added in a reassuring voice. “We will wait till he learns to walk.”

“You lot are so generous,” Katara said laughing.

“Okay, now off you go. The lot of you,” Zuko said, waving a finger. “Your tutors would be waiting. Plus, Kuzon needs to sleep.”

“Okay!” Bumi said cheerfully, jumping off the bed. At nine, the boy had now shed all his inhibitions, and was becoming a precocious and active child. Kya was the next to follow, chattering away about the latest Water Bending technique she was about to try. All of six years of age, she was already showing signs of being a Water Bender who could rival her mother in her skills. Ten-year-old Izumi was the last to leave. She was growing up to be a fair, just and balanced individual. Someone who could become a great Fire Lord someday. Zuko and Katara tried their best to not let the weight of the throne sit on her young shoulders, but she seemed to be developing a personality that would make her worthy of the throne. Left alone, Zuko settled down next to Katara and pecked her on the forehead.

“Are you okay?” He asked.

Katara sighed and ran her hand over Kuzon’s arm, “I’m okay. Just… when I look at him, I feel bad. Gran Gran did not get to see him or Sokka’s first child. But it’s okay. She lived a full life. Tough as it was.”

Zuko nodded. “She would have loved to see Kuzon and Sonnit. But, I’m sure she is watching them, proud of her grand children and great grandchildren.”

“Thanks Zuko,” she whispered. Even though it had been almost six months since Gran Gran had passed away of old age, Katara still missed her.

“I got news from Uncle,” Katara said, leaning into Zuko’s shoulder. “He’s about to start another branch of the Jasmine Dragon, this time in Middle Ring.”

“I have news for you,” Zuko said, procuring a scroll from the folds of his clothes. “Ty Lee sent a letter on behalf of Toph. Ty Lee is happy with the new girl, Marin. And Toph is pregnant.”

Katara paused, halfway through swaddling Kuzon, “What? What did you say?”

“Toph is pregnant.”

“What? How?”

Zuko gave her a deadpan look, “The usual way, I guess?”

Katara slapped a hand on her head, “I mean who’s the father?”

Zuko scanned the letter, “Doesn’t say.”

Katara grinned, “That’s wonderful news, Zuko! I’m so glad for her.”

“Me too,” Zuko leaned back on a pillow, sighing softly. “I need a bit of help from you today, whenever you can.”

“What?” she asked, climbing off the bed to put Kuzon on the crib.

“The revised trade agreement with the Water Tribes,” he said, rubbing his hand over his injured eye.

“Tonraq seems reasonable,” Katara said, settling next to Zuko. “Definitely better than his predecessor, Timuk. It helps that he is Korra’s father. He would be okay with the trade agreement.”

“It’s not Tonraq that I’m worried about. I’m more concerned with Takar, the new chief. I don’t know what kind of a man he is,” Zuko draped a hand around her shoulders.

“I met Takar when I lived in North for a while,” Katara said, leaning into him. “He is better than Hahn.”

Zuko snorted, “Even Bumi would do a better job than Hahn and he is not ten yet. Hahn is a very low standard to set.”

Katara laughed, “Honestly, though, I’m glad Hahn and Timuk were taken off. They were doing the Water Tribes more harm than good. New leadership will prove good, I’m certain.”

Zuko nodded in agreement.

“How was Fire Bending with Azula?” Katara’s words came out garbled thanks to the exhausted yawn.

“It was good. She managed to hold on to a blue flame for three whole seconds today.”

“That’s fantastic,” she said, her eyes drooping close.

“Sleep, sweetheart,” Zuko said, laying her down on the bed and giving her a kiss. “I love you.”

“I love you too,” she said and drifted to a peaceful slumber.

 

The End