Years pass. Zuko learns how to parent the only child he will ever be able to claim as his own. He works with his fellow world leaders to break ground on Republic City through a series of meetings that the Avatar is often late to, arriving more often than not like the herald of the storms that inevitably hit soon after he touches ground. Kuei says his meteorologists are confounded by the worsening typhoon seasons and Zuko ensures that someone in his government begins looking into it as well. Together, he and Kuei assign a slew of scientists who attempt to work through the mystery.
Aang participates in the meetings, though proves to be more concerned with acting in the interests of the Air Nation as opposed to the world as a whole. He is no longer the last airbender and has devoted himself to training the long-lost descendents of his people. His peculiar illness seems worse during some meetings than others.
Kuei and Arnook butt heads often during meetings, requiring Zuko or Hakoda to step in and mediate when Aang chooses to waffle. Frustration mounts rapidly and Zuko has to send a letter to his uncle on one occasion, requesting that the White Lotus be prepared to intervene if necessary. The letter he receives in return is short, maddening.
The White Lotus watches over the Harmony Ring with caution. Insights are scarce. Pursue balance when others will not.
The drawer in the desk in Zuko’s bedroom that houses Katara’s letters continues to fill with pieces of parchment bearing blue wax seals and the ever-tender signature Yours, Katara . Slowly, she begins to detail more of her thoughts and feelings once again. She begins to entrust her fears and worries to Zuko with less caution. And as she gives him more pieces of herself, Zuko relearns (slowly, ever so slowly) to trust her with his heart once more. This time, she holds it with care, with tender, if distant, hands. Hands that are willing, even if she is bound to someone else.
Bumi does not bend air. Katara doesn’t think he’s a bender at all. And he’s better off for it , she says. I can see your expressions in his face. I don’t think Aang does. He barely looks at him anymore. If Bumi were a bender, it might give Aang more of a reason to notice the things we don’t want him to see .
She writes to Zuko just after Bumi turns six, devastated by the fact that Aang cannot connect with a child who isn’t an airbender.
He wants a father , she says. And Aang doesn’t seem to see that. Sokka tries to step in, but there’s only so much he can do when we’re traveling from temple to temple. His journeys rarely align with ours. And soon he won’t have the time. Suki is expecting their first child.
I’m worried , she confides in Zuko. Bumi is looking for something that I haven’t been able to provide no matter how hard I try.
Zuko writes back the same day he receives the letter. Come visit us , he implores. Izumi and I could both use a friend.
He sends the letter with his fastest hawk.
He meets her on Eien No Honō beach, sand between their toes and sun pinking their shoulders. It’s been a long time since the Ember Island house has been opened up and it waits in the distance. No servants at her request, just a quiet house filled with memories. Katara is standing at the water’s edge, eyes fixed on the sea when he finally sets his eyes on her for the first time since Bumi was born.
Hefting Izumi higher in his arms, Zuko picks his way across the beach, feet sinking into the hot sand, heart pounding like a taiko drum in his chest. The little boy splashing in the shallows near his mother’s ankles gives a shout, finger pointing to where Zuko walks, and the waterbender turns, long blue skirt trailing in the water. Zuko can’t help the smile that breaks out across his lips when he sees the one on hers.
At Izumi’s insistence, he releases his hold on her and lets her tear off across the sand, never out of his sight or that of his well-hidden guards. Her chubby feet kick sand into the air, enticing Bumi out of the water to chase after her in order to make friends. Love unspools into Zuko’s soul once more as he pauses to watch.
Her voice is a siren’s call. He meets her in the tide, water swirling around their ankles. And when he slides his arms around her, her own arms twining around his neck, he cannot keep himself from lifting her off her toes, their bodies pressed together, his face buried in her neck.
“ La , I’ve missed you,” she murmurs.
It takes them a long time to release one another. When they part, Zuko presses his palms to Katara’s face, studying every facet of her before he drops a kiss to her forehead. He has been in love with her for fifteen years and she is no less beautiful for the passage of time.
That night, they cook dinner together while the children play across the kitchen, enthusiastic Bumi trying to muddle out how to relate to serious-eyed Izumi.
“She looks like you,” Katara comments as she seasons the fish.
“Do you think so?” Zuko asks. He looks over at his daughter where she stands, wavy-haired and skeptical of the wooden boomerang Bumi is gesturing with. Truth be told, he sees traces of Azula in her features.
Katara hums in acquiescence. “She’s lovely.” One of her hands shoots out to wrap around one of Zuko’s. “I’m so sorry about her mother.” She catches his gaze, eyes sad and sincere but without a trace of pity.
They return to preparing the meal in relative silence, Katara calling out the occasional firm reminder to Bumi that he is not to throw his boomerang in the house.
Sokka has had a large influence on Bumi. Perhaps too much of one. He has a knack for spinning tall tales and wears his hair in what he proudly calls “a warrior’s wolf tail, Uncle Zuko! One day, Uncle Sokka is going to take me on my first hunt. And ice dodging!”
“Bumi,” Katara says carefully as she sets four glasses out on the little table in the kitchen, “Uncle Sokka lives far away. He’ll have his own children to look after soon. He may not be able to—”
“He promised! ” Bumi thunders, stamping his little foot. And Zuko, for the first time, sees his own rage at his own father mirrored in this child. The pinch of his brow, the downward tilt of his lips, the shape of his eyes... Zuko can feel the ghost of it all on his own face, the history of his younger self painful and sharp like a knife to the gut.
He sets aside the plates he is holding, drops to a knee in front of his first child (there is no mistaking it when the evidence is so plain on Bumi’s face), and places a gentle hand on the boy’s shoulder.
“I know I can’t hold a candle to Uncle Sokka,” he says quietly, “but maybe there are some things you and I can do together.”
Katara presses a fist to her mouth and chokes back a sob.
He meets her out on the lanai that night, feet bare, a bottle of wine and two glasses in his hand. Bumi is tucked away in Lu Ten’s old room, Izumi in one that belonged to her father twenty-odd years ago. The moon has been high in the dark blanket of the night sky for some time.
“I’ve missed the ocean,” Katara says quietly when the creaking of the wooden planks signals Zuko’s arrival. He settles himself next to her and sets about uncorking the bottle. “We spend so much time high up in the mountains.”
“You should come here,” Zuko replies, handing her a glass of wine. “Make use of the house whenever you want. Bring Aang. It’s been a while since there’s been a family vacation here.”
“I’m not sure we’ve ever been a family,” Katara says. “Not really. Not in the ways that count.”
When he looks at her, there are tears rolling slowly down her cheeks. She doesn’t move to wipe them away. The liquid in the glass clasped between her hands trembles in time with her shaking fingers.
“I’ve taken so much away from everyone,” the waterbender whispers. “From Aang. From you and Bumi. I have been so selfish , Zuko.”
He shifts closer to her, slipping an arm around the exposed skin of her waist to draw her near.
“I don’t understand how you can still love me after everything I’ve done that’s hurt you.”
He wants to pose a similar problem back to her, to ask how she could even begin to love him after all he did to hurt her so many years ago. Instead, he draws one of her hands into his with a sigh. Honesty, he reminds himself, over hiding the truth.
“I didn’t want to, Katara,” he says quietly. “I told myself I wasn’t going to after I told you how I felt and you...didn’t. And then Bumi came along and the semantics...what I was trying to get you to understand about the difference between what I was saying and what you were saying… It all seemed so superfluous after that.”
Katara shakes her head, her hair tickling as it brushes against his arm and shoulder. “No,” she says. “The semantics weren’t superfluous, Zuko. They were necessary. You were right .”
She shifts to kneel between his legs, leaving her untouched glass of wine on the worn boards of the lanai to press her palms to his thighs. “Ask me again,” she murmurs, face open and honest, eyes brighter than the moon as it hangs over the ocean behind her.
Zuko reaches out much in the way he did nearly seven years ago, his fingertips firm against the curve of her neck, his thumb tracing the line of her jaw.
“Are you in love with him?” he asks, voice little more than a rasp.
“No,” Katara replies, pressing closer.
“Are you in love with me?”
And because Zuko kissed his honor goodbye so many years ago when he first kissed her , he doesn’t wait for her to voice the answer that glints at him in the softness of her eyes and begins to form on her tongue. He closes the distance between them without needing to hear it, meeting her mouth with his own, longing and love tethering them together.
It is far too easy for them to fall into bed together again.
And every night for the long succession of nights that she stays in the Fire Nation, save for one week in the middle where he keeps her bed warm merely by tangling his body hopelessly with hers. He cannot sacrifice her freely-given love, even when he has to return to the palace, sneaking out of his room in the middle of the night to slip through the doors of her balcony and crash into her bed like a wave upon the shore.
They are careful. They are so, so careful. Katara drinks contraceptive tea. She bends what she can. No one ever catches him leaving his room at night or returning in the morning. And though it rends the wound in his chest open once more and he knows they should stop, he can’t bring himself to give her up.
They trade children one day after they have settled back into Zuko’s routine in the capitol. He takes Bumi to see a play at the child’s request. Bumi enjoys the special effects immensely and comments to Zuko in loud whispers throughout the whole performance. It reminds Zuko of Sokka. It reminds him of the Ember Island Players, of the days leading up to the Agni Kai and the realization that he was in love with Katara. The gaping wound in his chest grows larger, unspooling more and more threads of love from his soul, binding him tenaciously to Bumi and Katara.
Bumi is curious about the Fire Nation military.
“Are they all firebenders?” he asks. “Is that what you have to be?”
“Of course not,” Zuko says. “Some of our most brilliant generals and commanders are nonbenders.”
Bumi’s face is so blatantly full of wonder that they make a stop on their way back to the palace to watch some of the nonbending soldiers train at the base. Zuko finagles him a tour of the armory and a decommissioned war balloon as well.
The boy chatters about it endlessly the whole palanquin ride home.
“Can Uncle Sokka do things like that?”
Zuko has to repress a smile of amusement. “Uncle Sokka is a...creative warrior,” he says. “You won’t see many of his tactics in the Fire Nation military.” Water Tribe ingenuity Sokka calls it. “But he trained with the same sword master I trained with.”
Bumi’s eyes bulge in his head. “ You can do things like that too?! I thought you were only a firebender.”
“I once saved Aang with two swords and no bending,” Zuko says. He can’t bring himself to call the Avatar Bumi’s father. “And your mother and I once went on a top secret mission that required lots of stealth.”
“Whoa! Cool! Can I see your sword when we get home? Do you still have it?” Bumi is all eager blue eyes and a smile as bright as his mother’s.
“I have two swords,” Zuko says, unable to say no. “They’re called dao swords. And yes. You can see them, but you can’t touch them.”
When they return to the palace, Katara and Izumi are still out, so Zuko shows Bumi the swords and then teaches him how to sneak into the palace’s kitchens.
“Uncle Zuko,” Bumi says as they munch on stolen cookies by the turtleduck pond, “I think you’re my favorite grownup.”
“What about Uncle Sokka?”
Bumi considers this with a furrowed brow and wipes cookie crumbs on his pants. “Maybe it’s a tie,” he says. “Is that okay?”
That evening over dinner, Bumi talks everyone’s ear off about his day. He turns their outing into nothing short of a tale of derring-do. Izumi listens, her four-year-old face enraptured. There is a sparkle in Katara’s eyes that Zuko hasn’t seen in nearly a decade.
“What did you do with Mom, ‘Zumi?” Bumi asks abruptly before shoving noodles into his mouth.
The sentence hits both Zuko and Katara harder than Azula’s lightning. The sparkle in Katara’s eyes is lost to tears that she blinks away. All Zuko can do is look at her, morose and wishing for things he can’t have.
“We went to the bot... bot... botanimal garden with nai nai Ursa,” Izumi says in her small, quiet voice.
“Botanical garden, sweet one,” Katara corrects, dabbing her eyes with a napkin.
“Yes,” Izumi says. “We went there. We learneded about plants.” She turns her big, golden eyes to Zuko and whispers loudly, “Auntie K’tara makes plants move with magic .”
“That’s not magic ,” Bumi says. “That’s waterbending! Mom is the bestest waterbender in the whole world! She saved my dad’s life and your dad’s life and she made the war stop!”
Katara excuses herself from the table, hands wiping frantically at her eyes. Bumi and Izumi watch her go and Zuko buries his face in his hands.
“Is Auntie K’tara okay?” Izumi asks after a moment.
“I think she’s just a little tired, Fire Lily.”
“She was crying,” Bumi says accusingly. “Why was she crying?”
Zuko looks at the children. At his children. Documents their differences. You’d never know, he thinks, Bumi’s true parentage. There’s enough Katara in him to make the flickers of Zuko ambiguous to the untrained eye.
“She’s a little sad, too.”
“Are you sad, Daddy?” Izumi asks.
He looks at her with a rueful smile. “Sometimes I am, Fire Lily.”
Zuko puts the children to bed on his own. They crowd together on one of the beds in the nursery, Bumi with his wooden boomerang and Izumi with the new doll Katara purchased for her during their outing. It’s a Water Tribe doll.
“I picked it,” Izumi says. “So I don’t miss Auntie K’tara when she leaves.”
Zuko sits between his children and reads aloud a scroll until they fall asleep. It takes some careful maneuvering, but he manages to extract himself without waking them. He observes their faces as he dims the sconces and tries to ignore the way the wound in his chest grows more painful.
When he lets himself into Katara’s room, she is sitting on the windowsill, gazing out over the city. The moon hangs round and full in the sky. He can see her trunk lying open at the foot of her bed, half-packed but forgotten.
“Don’t leave,” he says hoarsely.
“We have to.”
It’s a stupid question. He knows why. They’ve been gone a long time and Aang will be waiting for them to come home. But when Katara finally looks at him, he sees a different reason written plainly across her face.
“Don’t say it,” he pleads. “Don’t say it if you’re going to leave.”
She eases herself off the windowsill and crosses the floor to insinuate herself into his arms. When her fingertips graze the mark on his chest, he nearly crumbles.
“I’m in love with you,” she says.
The words bring Zuko to his knees. He fists his hands in the fabric of her skirt and buries his face in her belly, a broken man.
“You have to know,” she sobs. “You have to. I can’t let you think that I’m not. That this isn’t... I can’t leave without telling you that I care.”
“Stay,” he says.
She too collapses to the floor. They’re clinging to one another, a mess of tears and impossible love and broken hearts.
“I love you. I love him . Izumi...she needs someone like you. We could be a family.”
“What about Aang?”
Zuko doesn’t have an answer.
“I made a commitment, Zuko. The Water Tribe doesn’t look kindly on broken promises.”
“You didn’t marry a Water Tribe man,” Zuko counters. “You didn’t marry a man whose culture recognizes marriage.”
“But I’m Water Tribe, Zuko.”
He makes love to her as many times as he can that night. Neither of them sleep. In the morning, he and Izumi see them off at the port and Zuko tries to not let the way Bumi clings to him tear him in two. Izumi snivels tears into Zuko’s neck and refuses to hug Katara goodbye on her own. So Katara pulls all three of them close and they stand together on the dock, a web of limbs and tears, a family for a moment.
It happens again. The letter arrives scant weeks later bearing blue wax and Katara’s seal.
We were careful , he thinks.
So careful , Katara’s letter agrees. But sometimes being careful doesn’t allow you to outwit destiny.
She will bluff to Aang, but Zuko knows it will destroy another piece of her soul.
This time, Zuko can’t be there because Aang actually is. Zuko rages and howls, destroys half the furniture in an old, forgotten storage room. He spirals down into a hole that he doesn’t think he’ll ever dig his way out of.
Katara sends another letter. She’s beautiful, Zuko. Water Tribe through and through.
Together, in secret letters, they had decided on a Water Tribe name because that is as true to their child’s heritage as they can ever be.
I named her after my mom.
Zuko sends his second daughter a Fire Nation doll that Izumi picks out herself.