Katara is six and a half months pregnant when she first resolves to tell Aang the truth.
They’re sitting down to breakfast with the Air Acolytes who occupy the Southern Air Temple and the baby is incessantly tumbling around as it always does in the mornings. As an expectant mother, Katara is delighted by the movement. As a night person, Katara is irritated and groggy and hasn’t had a decent night’s sleep in weeks. Last night, the moon hadn’t set until three in the morning. She’d been woken up not even four hours later by the spirits-damned sunrise and the baby kicking her swiftly in the bladder.
Now here she is, short on sleep, a fetus jamming her internal organs into one another in order to make more room for itself, and one of Aang’s acolytes is pressing her hands to Katara’s belly without permission.
Katara scowls at the spread of fruits and vegetables and vows that she will not scream at the woman staring reverently at her belly.
“It is an honor to carry the child of the Avatar,” the acolyte says. The reverence in her gaze falls when she raises her eyes to meet Katara’s. “How fortunate you are to mother the first of a new generation of airbenders.”
Aang’s arm lands heavily around Katara’s shoulders and he tugs her to his side, a grin splitting his face. His arm is a weight, a vice. She has to remind herself not to slide away from him.
“Katara is going to be the perfect mother,” he says cheerfully. There are dark shadows under his eyes, as if he hasn’t been sleeping. “She was like Team Avatar’s mom during the war! Between her and Fire Lord Zuko, none of us could get away with anything.”
This launches him into a story about their days on Ember Island. The acolytes hang on to his every word as though he is a prophet. Katara thinks that he might as well be the way he makes a story about a rather rash prank devised by himself and Toph into an Air Nomad lesson about joy, youthful errors, and forgiveness.
The baby somersaults. Katara stares at her plate and wishes it was filled with nothing but sausage and chickenpig. She’s imagining gua bao with juicy pork belly and suan cai made in the Fire Nation way—ginger and chilies for a nice hint of heat, maybe a little of that fire flake hot sauce Sokka is obsessed with...
Her mouth is filled with saliva.
Aang is still talking about the wisdom he supposedly earned from his and Toph’s failed prank on Zuko. The acolytes are enraptured.
Katara would absolutely give her left arm for Fire Nation gua bao. And possibly her right.
Her half-eaten grapefruit sits on her plate, yellow wedges like the rays of the sun. She wonders how much jerky she still has stashed away from Sokka’s last illicit care package. It won’t kill the craving indefinitely or even completely, but maybe it will be enough to stave off the worst of it.
Cravings like these have run rampant lately. Hot and sour glass noodles like the ones she used to get on market days on Ember Island, chickenpig with yuzukoshō, spicy pork shumai… These cravings have been her constant companions. Katara has scoured the meticulously copied passages Zuko sent to her and come up with nothing that says specific cravings are an indicator of anything regarding the baby. Regardless, a little stone of worry has nestled its way into her heart. She never has the all-consuming urge to gorge herself on egg custard tarts or spring rolls. It’s always seaprunes, mashed tundra tubers, or something distinctly Fire Nation.
She pops a sunny wedge of grapefruit onto her tongue and tries not to think of the way Zuko’s eyes had flickered yellow and gold when he told her that he was in love with her. She watches Aang help himself to a serving of fruit salad while he talks and tries not to compare her knowledge of his touch to Zuko’s. She fails on both accounts.
Her eyes burn with unbidden tears and she presses a palm to her belly. The baby meets her with a little nudge.
It’s so unfair of her. She knows it. Aang and Zuko are vastly different people. Good men with conviction and clear (if not conflicting) senses of justice. She has done wrong by both of them. And in doing so, she has robbed them, herself, and this little one of everything that should have been.
Fear of losing her family more than she already had had frozen her to the spot while Zuko stormed out. It had iced her into this commitment to Aang. To think that her father wouldn’t have forgiven her for calling it off was foolish. To think that Sokka—Sokka, her staunchest of allies since they were small and parentless—wouldn’t have fought every warrior in the South Pole for Katara’s right to follow her heart was stupid. Zuko had hit the nail on its head when he’d brought up Gran Gran and Katara had still failed to do the very thing her grandmother had fought for—the ability to pursue love above all else.
She’d walled herself into a marriage to a man she wasn’t in love with and who wasn’t in love with her.
Aang loved her, that much was clear. And she loved him. But Katara had known the distinction Zuko was so desperate for her to grasp the moment he’d kissed her. If she were to be honest with herself, the difference between love and in love was something she’d had inklings of since she’d jump-started the firebender’s heart after the Agni Kai.
It was a steadily-building, thrumming intensity. It was the ability to see a person for everything they were and could be, and wanting the absolute best for them. It was liberating, like bloodbending a murderer and knowing—knowing, truly, deep down—that you wouldn’t face judgement or retribution for caving to your baser instincts. It wasn’t grasping and possessive. It didn’t ask for perfection.
It had all been there in the palm of her hand and she’d been too terrified of a nonexistent inevitability to actually seize it.
“...that’s why she’ll be the perfect mother for this little nomad,” Aang concludes. He turns soft gray eyes to her and rests a hand on the swell of her belly.
Katara forces a smile that she knows doesn’t reach her eyes.
He loves the baby, has been so excited at the prospect of another airbender. He’s prattled on for hours about the first tricks he’ll teach the little one and how he’s thrilled to no longer be the last of his people. He looks to the future with a sense of childlike wonder that is a testament to the wild, unbridled love he holds in his heart. His sunny outlook does nothing but heap guilt onto Katara’s shoulders. And she knows she deserves it.
One of the acolytes raises his cup of berry juice to the vaulted, frescoed ceiling. “To the next generation of airbenders,” he cheers.
Irritation wriggles its way under Katara’s skin, burning and vindictive. She narrows her eyes at the acolyte. Others have begun to raise their glasses as well, Aang among them.
“It could be a waterbender,” she says spitefully before voices can echo the sentiment.
Cups of juice falter in midair. Several dozen pairs of eyes flick to her and then to Aang. In the pursuant beat of silence, Katara shoves her chair away from the table and stands.
“I’m going to lie down,” she announces to everyone and no one at the same time. Then, she begins her undignified waddle towards the door of the dining hall.
Knowledge, Katara thinks as she eats her hoarded, contraband jerky on her lumpy Air Nomad mattress, is a funny thing. She considers herself an intelligent, well-read woman. She has learned many life lessons about gut instincts and getting the facts before making a judgement call. Nothing in the information Zuko has relayed to her in his heartbreakingly distant letters has given her reason to think that the baby isn’t Aang’s.
But the facts of Katara’s experience with this pregnancy are these:
- Katara very much wants to eat her way through a buffet of the Fire Nation’s spiciest foods with some seaweed noodles and seaprune stew sprinkled in for good measure.
- Katara’s cycle in the months leading up to the commitment ceremony had been irregular due to the stress she was under. When she does the math, it’s likely that she was ovulating the night she slept with Zuko, but not the night of the ceremony.
- Katara’s baby is a morning person. And not in the way that Aang is a morning person where he’s just excited to be alive and see what the day brings. No, Katara’s baby is up with the earliest light of the sun every day. Without fail.
The baby might not be a firebender according to those old wives’ tales Zuko has scrounged up, but Katara is about seventy-five percent sure he or she shares genetics with the man she is actually in love with and not the man she’s supposed to be in love with.
“I can’t keep him in the dark,” Katara says to the baby, her voice garbled with macerated jerky and tears. “If he decides to leave, then that’s okay. We’ll just… You and I will just figure something out. Uncle Sokka might take pity on us. Or maybe your aunt Toph.”
There is a little bump near her bellybutton in answer.
Katara’s heart shatters for the thousandth time and a sob finally springs forth from her chest. “I’m sorry, baby,” she says. “Your mommy is so stupid.”
She allows herself some time to wallow, to let the sadness and regret ebb away. Propped up by her pillow, she gloves one hand in water and presses it to her stomach, seeking out the baby’s hummingbird heartbeat and reveling in his or her taps and tumbles. Anticipation of the most positive and fearful kinds have twined themselves around her heart. She longs to hold this little one in her arms and press kisses to downy hair. At the same time, she wonders about the eyes that will look up at her with love and innocence. She can’t help but fear what Gran Gran and Dad will say if they find themselves looking upon a tiny face that is distinctly Fire Nation rather than Water Tribe or Air Nomad. Because Tui knows, all the spirits know, that Katara does not deserve the gift of a child with ambiguous features.
When the sorrow abates, Katara preps a little speech, running it past the baby each time she makes a tweak to her wording.
Aang, she’ll say. Do you remember Zuko? Of course you remember Zuko. How silly of me. Well, a handful of months ago, he told me he was in love with me. When was this? Oh, right. Just before you and I bonded our lives in front of everyone we knew. Literally a month before—a month in which I could have done the right thing and not ruined all our lives. And when he showed up before the commitment ceremony, I picked a fight with him because I was too chickenpig to do the right thing. And it led to confessions and the best sex of my life—sorry, that’s probably too much information. And long story short, this baby likely isn’t yours.
“How does that sound?” she asks her baby bump.
“Yeah, well, you try to find a good way to break this news.”
Briefly, she considers actually letting the baby be the way the news is broken. The acolytes (all of whom already dislike the Avatar’s wife because she refuses to comply with Air Nomad culture in its entirety) will let Aang into the room after the baby is born. Their faces will be a myriad of disappointed yet smug masks whose subtexts read We told you so. And Aang will look down at the little bundle of yellow blankets in Katara’s arms and see that she’s given birth to Zuko incarnate and it will…
“Destroy everything,” Katara mutters, observing her dwindling supply of secret jerky. She should really not binge it all. There’s no telling if Sokka can send more soon. “Excellent work, Katara. You’ve painted yourself into a corner and now the only way out is through.”
Steeling her spine, Katara shoves the rest of the jerky back into the tin it arrived in, hides the tin under her bed alongside Zuko’s love letter, and then strides out of her room with purpose. It will not do to quail and back down. She is Water Tribe and therefore made of grit and tougher stuff than the fear that threatens to keep her silent.
Aang is in the sanctuary, his face solemn as he ponders a statue of Avatar Kyoshi. At the sound of Katara’s footsteps, he turns, a brilliant, boyish grin gracing his mouth.
“Oh, good,” he says brightly. “I was looking for you!”
Katara frowns, glancing about the sanctuary. “In here?” she deadpans.
Aang laughs. His stony-faced past lives do not. “I got a little distracted,” he says. “Let’s take a walk!”
Katara thinks that getting distracted was a much more charming quality of Aang’s when he was twelve. “As long as we’re walking to a place where I can sit down,” is her unamused reply.
“Nonsense!” Aang loops a lanky arm around her shoulder and begins striding towards the door. “Walking is good for you!”
“I’m growing a person,” Katara snaps. “I think I’m allowed to put my feet up as needed.”
Aang looks about ready to argue, but the petulance quickly flees his face and he is his unruffled, cheery self once more. He steers her towards one of the acolytes’ flower gardens and, thankfully, a bench. They are silent for a long moment after Katara has settled herself. She thinks of hot and sour glass noodles, the heady thrill of hearing the words I’m in love with you as they left Zuko’s mouth. She thinks of the press of his lips against hers after a slow dance under the auroras. She thinks of a flirtation beneath emerald and navy lanterns. She thinks of the crackle of blue-white lightning and a scar that spiderwebs itself across alabaster skin.
“I have something to say,” she blurts out at the same time Aang says, “I have to tell you something.”
They both startle and blink at one another. Aang chuckles sheepishly and runs a hand over his head, long fingers trailing the blue path of his tattoo.
“I need to go first,” he says. “It’s important.”
Katara huffs and settles against the backrest. She waves a hand to concede control of the conversation and then crosses her arms.
“Right. It’s… It’s not a good thing that I have to tell you.”
One of her eyebrows twitches upwards. Paranoia begins to niggle at the back of her mind; fear that he’s found Zuko’s letter or that one of the acolytes witnessed her kissing the firebender and broke the news before she could.
“I mean, it is a good thing,” Aang continues hastily, clearly misreading the twitch of her eyebrow. “Or it will be. For the world.”
Katara presses her lips into a firm line, knowing that if Aang takes one moment longer, she will word-vomit the truth at him.
“You’re probably going to be upset,” he says, his voice taking on an absurdly calm quality as though she is a spooked ostrich horse that needs to be soothed. He kneels before her and takes her hands into his. They are cold and clammy. He doesn’t quite meet her eyes. “I love you and I love the baby, but...Avatar Kyoshi wants me to go on a spirit journey.”
Katara blinks. “What?”
“I don’t know how long I’ll be,” Aang says. “But I need to leave within the week.”
She feels oddly numb to his words, but a new fear raises its ugly head: The fear of being left alone with the acolytes to give birth to a baby that is likely not his. It burns like bile in her throat.
“Aang,” she croaks, “I’m having a baby.”
“I know,” he says.
“I will literally have to push another human being out of my body in a matter of weeks.”
“I can ask Jaya to come in from the Eastern Air Temple—”
Katara scrambles to her feet, drops Aang’s hands like they’re hot coals. “What?” she says again.
“Well, she trained in the Earth Kingdom as a midwife and—”
Aang rises from his crouched position, wiry body unfurling like a flag in the wind. “Katara—”
“No,” Katara says with an emphatic shake of her head. “Jaya doesn’t like me, Aang. None of the acolytes like me. I’m not going to give birth to my first child without someone who cares about me there to offer some support!”
“I can’t abandon my duties as the Avatar, Katara.”
“I’m not asking you to,” Katara shouts. “I am telling you that I refuse to have this baby without someone who loves me in my corner!”
“Maybe we can write to Sokka and Suki—”
“No,” she says a third time. “No. I’m not going to do this here if you aren’t. I want to go home.”
“Katara, you are home.” Aang sounds a bit exasperated. “The temples, the acolytes, me. We’re your home!”
“I want to go back to my tribe.”
Aang frowns. “Katara,” he says severely. “It’s important that airbenders are born within the temples. The spiritual connection is critical to—”
He stops short when Katara eases into his personal space, eyes narrowed to slits and hands fisted on her hips.
“I am a waterbender,” she says, her voice low and dark. “I am Water Tribe. This baby could very well be a waterbender.”
“Katara, that’s just not how it works for airbenders,” Aang starts. “If at least one parent is—”
“I’m speaking,” Katara says and her partner’s mouth clamps shut in surprise. “I will have this baby in the comfort of my own home with the help of people who love me. Gran Gran brought both me and Sokka into this world, and she’ll do it again. So you can either help me get home on Appa or I’ll bend the sea to my will and get there by myself.”
Fury eats her up inside that day. It gnaws away at her innards and bones as she packs all of her things into her sealskin bag and it prowls her chest like an angry beast as she sits in Appa’s saddle, wind whipping her loose hair away from her face. It’s an anger that she can’t let go of and she simmers with it still when Appa lands in front of her father’s house. Rationality tells her that breaking the news to Aang at this moment isn’t the best choice. There could be a huge blowout. It could trigger the Avatar State. She needs to approach this at a time when she feels on a more even kilter.
So she waits.
In retrospect, Katara would have told Aang about the baby before he left for his spirit journey had she actually believed he’d be gone for an extensive amount of time. The loneliness and fear that she was worried about experiencing at the temple are still her unwanted companions. Even though she has Sokka and Gran Gran and her dad, she feels horribly alone in the impending birth of her baby. Left alone with her dread and despondency one night, she writes to the one person she wants by her side when the time comes.
Never in a million years does she actually expect him to show up.
Katara’s clear agitation results in Gran Gran making her stay in bed for the last few weeks of her pregnancy. It’s supposed to help her relax. But when Katara is woken up from a nap by the sound of Sokka and Zuko laughing and stumbling around the hallway one day, she can do everything but relax.
For two weeks, she hears his low, rasping voice in the hallways of the residence. She hears him giggling with Sokka and making plans to drink and go ice fishing every day. When Sokka brings her dinner each night, bearing bowls of meaty stew and slices of thick bread, she asks after Zuko as casually as she can while they eat. Sokka watches her with careful, guarded eyes the way he has since she found him “looking for his boomerang” in her room not long after she first arrived. The look makes her feel eerie, as though her brother knows something that he shouldn’t and is trying to handle her as delicately as possible.
Near the end of the second week, she tells Sokka, voice small and reluctant, “I just miss him, that’s all.”
He looks at her, a softness in his blue eyes. “I know,” he says. One of his hands reaches out to squeeze one of hers.
The following evening, long after she and Sokka have finished dinner, Katara sits up by herself, stitching a shirt for the baby. The fabric is soft and smooth, delicate under her fingertips as she meticulously sews the fur cuffs and hems. She’s lost herself in the push and pull of the needle and thread when there is a quiet knock at her door. Due to the lateness of the hour, she expects her father coming to tell her goodnight and quietly calls for him to enter.
But when the door swings open, it’s not Hakoda who stands in the doorway.
Katara’s world slows down as her heart skips and then begins a sensationally delighted beat. Zuko stands there in all the winter trappings of the Fire Lord, regal cloak lined with black fur draped over broad shoulders, five-pronged flame in his topknot. The planes of his face are a little sharper, more chiseled with age. He is as unfairly handsome as he was when she was fifteen and in possession of a heart conflicted by war.
She exhales and his name follows the air in her lungs. Her soul gives a mighty squeeze and unravels, and she can feel all of the threads of her being that live and breathe for this man quiver. When he looks at her with tentative golden eyes, the threads tighten, painful and sharp, and she cannot keep herself from dissolving into tears as regret and disappointment in herself bowl over her like the wave of a tsunami.
The baby is beautiful, all blue eyes, brown hair, and fair skin, and Katara thinks that the purgatory she is now in must be a punishment from the spirits rather than the undeserved gift she thought it would be. He is half a day old and she cannot get enough of him, though. The button of his nose, his wide blue eyes, the noises of contentment he makes when she bundles him in a warm blanket. He is hers and he is perfect.
The hour is late, verging on early, and she sits up in bed, tucked close to Zuko’s side, the baby cradled gently in his hands and arms. He reaches with a finger to stroke a soft, rosy cheek and the baby coos, nestling further into the warmth the firebender emits. Katara can’t tear her eyes from the scene. There is an innate rightness to it that she cannot deny. Zuko’s eyes are tender, softly molten as he gazes at the little person he holds with loving hands.
As much as there is that Katara can’t know in this moment, she knows.
Aang arrives and Katara resolves for the second time that she’s going to tell him the truth. Bumi is asleep when the argument begins, a tiny thing swaddled in soft furs and blankets. She is reaching to open her door when Aang barrels through it, gray eyes sparkling and bright but hugged by dark, bruise-like shadows. He looks thinner than he did the last time he undertook a spirit journey and she rushes to clear a chair for him.
“Katara,” he says without preamble. She doesn't even have a chance to offer to get the baby for him. His voice is rough from what she assumes is disuse. “I found airbenders.”
She tips her head to consider what he’s said. “Kyoshi helped you find airbenders?”
He shakes his head. The tips of his ears are red. Katara stokes the fire in order to warm the room up for him. Seemingly unbothered by the cold or his ragged appearance, Aang nearly vibrates with excitement.
“I didn’t go on the spirit journey,” he says. “I was deep in this forest in the Earth Kingdom, trying to find the place Kyoshi wanted me to go, when I found this really strange rock formation and…”
Katara’s ire must be written clearly on her face, because he trails off and has the decency to look sheepish. The waterbender feels her breathing sharpen and speed up. She momentarily forgets her sleeping child as she explodes.
“You told me you were going on a spirit journey!”
“You have to understand why I decided not to do that.”
“Why would I possibly understand why you did that?” she demands flatly.
“Because you’ve always understood. You know what it’s like to be the last of your people. I found them, Katara. Imagine what it would be like to find more southern benders.”
“I don’t have to imagine,” her words are sharp as they slice through the air. “I found Hama. I lost Hama. We all know what choice she likely made rather than accepting a prison sentence. But I’m not the Avatar, Aang. You are. And you have an obligation to the world.”
“I also have an obligation to my people,” Aang argues quietly.
“What about me, then?” she retorts. “What about the baby?”
Bumi has miraculously not stirred yet. Aang blinks at her with solemn eyes.
“I understand that you’re upset,” he begins and Katara cuts him off with a sharp bark of laughter.
“You left me here!” she shouts. “You left me to have a baby without you. And then you come back and tell me that you abandoned your duties as the Avatar?”
She waited. She waited to tell him and he didn't even go on the blasted spirit journey.
It is a rare moment when Aang raises his voice, but he does so now, drawing in a rattling breath as he rises from the chair and lets loose. “I found airbenders, Katara!” And then he pales alarmingly, collapses back into the chair and begins coughing.
Bumi awakes with a piercing wail.
Katara misses dinner to confer with the village healer, Ahnah. Their findings are the same. Something is wrong with Aang’s chi and the illness seems to be more of spirit than of body. Ahnah recommends that Bumi and Aang be kept separate for a while just to be safe.
Sokka pokes his head into her room not long after she’s soothed Bumi to sleep. She’s been lost in thought, recalling the way Zuko’s face had softened as he held the baby close in warm and gentle hands, so she is startled when Sokka makes his presence known.
“I brought dinner,” he says, hefting a plate for her to see. It’s piled with a mound of rice and slices of meat. Katara’s stomach lets out an audible growl and Sokka laughs. “Good timing, I suppose.”
“Thank you.” She takes the plate from him and he crosses the room to sit in the chair near Bumi’s bassinet, a sturdy little bed that he, Hakoda, and Pakku had built and carved themselves.
“Hard to believe you have one of these,” Sokka jokes, reaching to adjust Bumi’s blanket.
Katara laughs and settles onto her bed, digging eagerly into the food. “You’re telling me,” she says.
They are silent for a few minutes as Katara eats and then Sokka asks, “Given everything that you wanted out of life… Is it worth it? Parenthood?”
She freezes, considering the question for a moment. It’s a loaded query. One that she doesn’t know how to answer honestly. What Katara wanted out of life ceased to be an option when she bound herself to Aang. She will never be truly satisfied. She will never be undeniably happy. She will never wake in the morning to humidity and sunshine and look out the window to see Zuko guiding Bumi through a series of katas or showing him how to hold the turtleducks.
If she doesn’t tell Aang the truth, she will forever be the Avatar’s partner. She will help keep order in the temples and always be considered an outsider to his people. If her children aren’t airbenders, they will not be held in the same regard Aang is. Her dreams of effecting change on a large scale will dwindle to nothing.
“I think so,” Katara says. And it's true. Because even though Aang isn't who she wants, even though this life isn't the one she wants, Bumi isn't what ties her to him.
“I worry,” Sokka says quietly, “about what I’ve asked Suki to give up. The warriors, her independence, her home…”
“Did you both want to get married?”
“Do you both want kids?”
“Very much so.”
Katara shrugs. “That’s a good start,” she says kindly. “My best advice?”
Sokka looks at her sharply and nods. She gives him a weak smile.
“Plan for kids. I love Bumi more than anyone or anything, but…”
“But there was more you wanted,” Sokka completes.
The waterbender nods. “So much more,” she says. Then, she turns her eyes back to her food before her brother can see the unshed tears that linger there.
“I don’t know if he told you yet,” Sokka says after a while, “but Zuko is leaving in the morning.”
Katara freezes. She sees that the warrior is focused on his nephew and so he doesn’t notice the way her breathing quickens with pent up emotions. Panic, fear, love. So much love. Katara knows she is on the precipice of losing Zuko now that Aang has returned. He will do what he did nine months ago: Bow out without so much as a goodbye, a silent show of respect towards Aang and a clear message to her that the hurt she has inflicted has cut him so deep she may never have a hope of mending the wound.
“No,” she says, voice wavering. “He didn’t tell me.”
Sokka bobs a nod and he reaches down to tuck a stuffed mooselion cub closer to Bumi. It is a soft and tender moment that inspires Katara to speak. She calls her brother’s name and he looks towards her.
“I hurt him,” she says and her voice splinters as the tears finally begin to fall. “I messed up. Horribly.”
Heaving a sigh, Sokka abandons his post by Bumi and situates himself next to Katara on the mattress. When he wraps his arms around her, she buries her face in his shoulder and cries.
“Look,” he says gently while the shoulder of his shirt grows damp with her tears. “There are things I can piece together, but the less I know, the better. He’s my best friend and you’re my best sister—” this earns him a watery chuckle “—and I don’t want to have to kick either of your asses.” He pushes her away gently, holding her at arms’ length by her shoulders.
“You decided to marry Aang.”
“I know.” Katara wipes at her wet cheeks with the heels of her hands. “I know, Sokka.”
“You know the tribe’s stance on marriage. Even though Aang couldn’t commit himself to it fully and refused the Water Tribe ceremony.”
“You have to stick with this choice. I can’t change the law for you. Dad can’t change the law for you.” He catches her eyes with his own, solemn and serious. “We could have helped you before, but... Katara, you’re going to have to learn how to be happy with the choice you made.”
Katara nods. “I know,” she says.
Sokka reaches out and smooths some stray strands of hair away from her face, presses a kiss to the top of her head. “I’m still here,” he says, “for whatever you need, however I can help.”
She pulls him back in for another hug, squeezing him tight. “Thank you, Sokka.”
Katara paces the halls with a restless Bumi that night, soothing and rocking him in the hopes that he’ll soon fall asleep. She’s traversed the entirety of the chief’s residence no less than five times before he finally nods off, and the more she walks, the more determined she becomes to say something—anything—before Zuko leaves once more. She has hope despite her conversation with Sokka. And because she is Katara, she will cling to it until the last possible shred of it is gone.
There are two guards posted outside of Zuko’s room when she approaches, Bumi in her arms. They are Fire Nation men, bulky and stoic beneath their helmets, and pay her no mind when she knocks. Zuko looks shocked to see her, his unmarred eye widening beneath thick strands of black hair. It is a bit longer than it was three-quarters of a year ago, grazing his shoulders now that it’s free from his topknot. This is the first she’s seen him without his crown since he’s been here. He looks softer, more like Zuko rather than the Fire Lord.
He hesitates openly before allowing her into his room, but takes Bumi with eager hands when they’ve settled into the chairs around the firepit. The tenderness in the firebender’s face plucks at the chords of her soul as she watches him with the baby. Love sings through her body. Fragile strands of hope stir up visions of what could be. It’s all so easy in her mind. Zuko with his hair unbound as it is now, his fingers fisted in Bumi’s chubby hands as he helps the tot walk across the grassy law of a garden towards Katara. She holds her arms out, a joyous smile breaking across her face, and they are a little family encased in fragile, rose-colored glass.
“Zuko,” she says, tentative, “I’m—”
I’m in love with you.
I’m almost positive Bumi is ours.
I’m so sorry for what I’ve taken from you.
I’m going to tell Aang the truth.
I’m going to fix this.
Dozens of possibilities hang there in the split second of liminal space and time between the last vibration of her words and the moment Zuko cuts her off. Which route Katara intends to take, she doesn’t know. And she’ll never get the chance to find out.
“I’m getting married, Katara,” Zuko says.
Her heart and her rosy, hopeful dreams of the future shatter.
The number of airbenders is smaller than Katara expected. Six elderly men and women, a score of adults ages eighteen to fifty, several teens and small children, and three babies. They are, overall, a cheerful bunch of people. She learns from a grandmother named Sumati that they had managed to disguise themselves as Earth Kingdom citizens during the war, forgoing arrow tattoos and restricting their bending to only the smallest of necessities at the most urgent of times. Hidden in a canyon in the farthest-flung reaches of the Earth Kingdom, they somehow, miraculously, evaded Ozai’s notice. It’s the kindness of neighbors, Sumati says, that saved them. The neighboring townspeople had never given up the existence of the small band of benders.
Katara likes Sumati and spends a great many of her days in the elderly woman’s presence. On days Aang is away on Avatar business, she keeps Bumi strapped to her belly or her back and they traverse the temples with Sumati, doing chores and bending together. When Aang is home—home being whichever temple he’s decided to locate their little family for a time—he takes Bumi wherever he goes, determined to ingrain the lessons of his people in the boy right from the start. As the months pass, some of Katara’s anxieties ease while others heighten further.
At a year old, Bumi’s eyes are as blue if not bluer than the day he was born. For this reason, Katara breathes just a little easier. But she watches closely for signs of bending—any signs of bending. Air, water, fire...she watches him like an eaglehawk. It may take years, she knows, if at all. Still, she looks for little signs and ponders whether it is a more fitting punishment for her if he is a bender or if he never bends at all. Knowing for certain or not knowing…
She isn’t alone in the way she watches him. Aang does as well. Katara can see the way he compares Bumi’s milestones to that of the three airbender babies’. This one sneezed the other day and flew out of her mother’s arms. That one blew a door wide open this afternoon. Bumi does nothing.
Aang agonizes over it constantly.
Katara vacillates between telling him and not telling him every day. Is it kinder, she wonders, to tell him the truth or is it kinder to let him live in the dark and hope beyond hope that the truth never reveals itself? (She knows which is kinder, but can never unstick the words from her throat. Not when he loves Bumi as hard and as joyfully as he does. Not when Bumi shouts with excitement whenever Appa lands in the temple’s courtyard.)
Sumati tells Katara not to worry about Bumi’s bending status. “There are late bloomers in every bunch,” she says. “And the world is not yet in balance. Sometimes imbalances in the world cause imbalances in ourselves.”
Still, the cracks start to show.
One spring day, Aang and Appa land in the courtyard of the Eastern Air Temple like the heralds of an oncoming storm. Perhaps they are. Wind snaps branches from trees and scatters new green leaves to the four corners of the earth. Katara can feel the angry churn of the ocean far below them. The rock and roll of the water signals an oncoming typhoon. She hurries forth, Jaya not far behind her, to help Aang herd Appa to safety.
“Get the nomads and the acolytes to safety!” Aang shouts to Jaya over the wind. “Find a place within the inner temple to hunker down!”
Jaya nods and dashes off, her dark hair whipping about her face and her orange skirts snapping in the wind. Together, Katara and Aang goad Appa into the stables with his few brethren. He goes without much of a fight.
“Where’s Bumi?” Aang asks.
“He’s with Sumati,” Katara says.
“Where?” Aang is frantic, eyes wide. Katara isn’t certain if it’s the color of the sky playing tricks on her eyes, but he looks ill. He’s leaning on his glider as though he might topple over.
“We were in the orchard—”
“The orchard?” He’s incredulous. “Katara! How could you make such a dangerous choice in this weather? That’s not like you!”
His words cut to the quick. “We weren’t anticipating a storm!” she replies. “This came out of nowhere! You know I would never endanger Bumi. Sumati won’t let anything happen to him.”
Katara follows Aang through the halls of the temple at a sprint. He throws open the occasional door, looking for the acolytes, the benders, Bumi and Sumati… Which of these, she isn’t sure. Aang is panting hard, his clothes seem to hang a smidge too loosely on his body. She grabs for his hand and yanks him to a stop.
“We need to get ourselves to safety.”
“We need to find Bumi!”
“Sumati will make sure he’s safe, I promise, Aang.”
He opens his mouth to argue, but his words are lost to loud, hacking coughs that seize his body. Fed up, Katara grips his hand tighter and pulls him into the first windowless room she can find. It turns out to be a broom closet. She upturns a bucket and presses on Aang’s shoulders until he sits. In the silence of their little safe haven, she can hear his breathing, an eerie rattle that cuts through the darkness.
Kneeling down, she uncorks the skein of water at her right hip and summons the liquid forth. With a glowing hand, she reaches out to ease the flow of the chi through Aang’s chest.
“Thank you,” he wheezes after several long minutes.
Katara frowns. “Aang, your chi doesn’t feel right,” she says. “How long have you been sick?”
“It got worse over the journey home.”
“Did you feel this way while you were with Kuei and the others?”
“I didn’t feel great on the way there, but it got better over the week.”
Her frown deepens. “Maybe we need to make a trip to the spirit oasis up north,” she suggests.
“Why?” he says. “For Bumi? I don’t think spirit water will help, but we could try.”
“No,” Katara says, “for you . What are you talking about?”
“Something is wrong, Katara. The other airbenders’ babies—”
Her hackles rise, disbelief thrumming hot through her veins. She rockets to her feet, hands fisted at her sides. They’ve had this argument too many times now. Bumi is too small for such pressure. This is it, she decides. This is her moment.
“There is nothing wrong with Bumi!”
“Katara, there is! There should have been one incident at least by now!” It’s dark, but she can feel the force of his glare. “Jaya has a theory—”
“Oh, yes,” Katara says sarcastically. “Let’s hear what wonderful, all-knowing Jaya thinks! She is an acolyte, Aang. She is far from being an expert.”
“She is an expert! She’s researched our people’s history meticulously, Katara. She knows everything there is to know. And so do I! Bumi wasn’t born in an Air Temple. He wasn’t given the chance to experience the spiritual energy from the moment of his birth. That’s critical.”
“Are you blaming this on me?” Katara demands. The bucket scrapes over the floor as Aang stands. His hands grope for her upper arms in the dark.
“No,” he says earnestly, “I’m not.”
“Good,” she says, wrenching herself out of his grasp. “Because none of the other children were born in an Air Temple either. Nor were any of the older benders!”
Her argument is met with silence and Katara knows she’s effectively squelched it. Aang is throwing off some very agitated energy, though, and she knows he isn’t done.
“You haven’t embraced the ways of our people,” he says quietly. The words hit like a slap to the face. Katara inhales sharply.
“You are blaming this on me,” she says. The worst part is that even though it’s not true, it technically is true. Bumi hasn’t met any of the milestones Aang thinks he must meet and it’s entirely Katara’s fault because Bumi’s father is likely not an airbender.
“I just think you could try harder, Katara. It might help Bumi acclimate.”
“I gave up my family, my home, and my way of life to commit myself to you, and you think I need to try harder?”
“If he saw you embracing the ways and the spirituality of our people, Bumi might be more open to it as well!”
Katara is fury incarnate, raging much more wildly than the storm outside. Her blood is boiling. “Stop invalidating my role in Bumi’s heritage,” she hisses. “Stop it. I am Water Tribe. I am a waterbender. You don’t cancel me out. Bumi is half me and that is valid. Neither of my parents were benders, Aang. Nor are Toph’s. Nor is Zuko’s mom. A parent’s bending status does not dictate a child’s!”
“It does for airbenders!”
Katara has to wait for Aang to stop coughing before she can speak again. “Bumi is part Water Tribe, Aang. And for all we know, he’s not a bender at all.”
It’s all right there on the tip of her tongue. Her night with Zuko, her suspicions about Bumi being a product of that night, her irrevocable love for the man she chose not to be with. She manages to get out the words You should know before Aang collapses.
“You shouldn’t be traveling like this in your state,” Katara says as she leans against the door jamb, arms folded over her chest. She watches with cool eyes as Aang crosses his room repeatedly, packing things into his bag.
“It’s Zuko’s wedding,” he says. “You should be coming with me.”
“I don’t really feel like traveling anywhere with you right now,” she replies. Weeks have passed, but their argument the day of the typhoon still burns like a torch in her heart.
“What am I supposed to do if he asks about you?”
She shrugs a shoulder. “You know how I hate traveling on Appa with Bumi.”
Cinching his bag shut, Aang releases a gusty sigh and turns his shadowed eyes to her. “I wish you would rethink your decision,” he says.
“Katara,” he approaches with trepidatious feet. “I’ve apologized a hundred times. Forgiveness is—”
“I know what forgiveness is, Aang,” the waterbender snaps.
“I just want us to work past this,” he pleads.
“If you want to work past this, you’ll stop talking to Jaya about our family and start talking to me. And you’ll really talk to me, Aang. Not at me. You chose to tie your life to mine,” at this, she sees a shadow of regret flicker in his eyes, “so it’s time you start seeing me for who I am and learning to love me.”
“I do love you.”
He surges forward and she pulls back.
“The real me, Aang,” she says. And then she walks away.
And so it comes to pass that the third time she intends to tell Aang the truth, she doesn’t.
Over the course of several years, Katara tries valiantly (and eventually fails) to distance herself from Zuko and attempts to build a stronger foundation in her relationship with Aang. The longing for what she could have had never subsides, but the pain of losing Zuko gets easier to manage. She reaches out to him every month with updates about Bumi.
He’s a sweet boy with boundless energy and a face that mimics his father’s when he’s angry. His smile always starts out as a small smirk and is gentle and crooked when stretched to its fullest, just like Zuko’s. Each night, he sleeps on a cot in Katara’s room at the Air Temple of the season. She tells him Water Tribe legends and helps him tie his hair into a wolf tail so that he can be like his uncle Sokka. They devise experiments and never fail to give Sumati a good spook during games of tag or hide and seek. With every day that passes during which Bumi does not airbend, the more distant Aang grows.
Katara watches as Bumi insinuates himself into the acolytes’ lessons and observes the way he clamors for Aang’s attention during mealtimes, her heart a heavy lump that has taken up near permanent residence in her throat.
“Later,” Aang tells Bumi. He is never cruel, he is never mean, but he is detached. It is always later, Bumi. And later never comes.
They try and try and try for another baby. Katara will never meet him in her designated room at the Eastern Air Temple. The one time they tried, she couldn’t stop thinking of Zuko and put an effective end to the evening with broken-hearted sobs. Every month, Aang looks at her with hopeful eyes and every month she shakes her head.
No airbender for Aang to dote upon.
Katara hears what Jaya and the other acolytes whisper in her presence. Bumi isn’t an airbender and it’s the waterbender’s fault. It’s been nearly six years and she hasn’t had another child. It must be intentional. She wishes it was intentional. At least that way the blame they saddle her with would be true.
“Give it time,” Sumati says. “It will happen when you least expect it.”
But Katara wants to give Aang an airbending child if only because it will mean there’s at least a reason for him to give Bumi so little of his time and attention, even if it would be a shitty reason.
Sokka and Suki arrive for an extended visit a few weeks before Bumi’s sixth birthday. Aang has settled on the Southern Air Temple for the season, so it’s not too much of a journey for them. Bumi and Sokka have long been fast friends, nothing short of kindred spirits. Under the shade of an apple tree, a picnic spread out around them, Katara and Suki watch as uncle and nephew work out the logistics of their own secret handshake. For once, Bumi has someone who can match his own boundless energy adventure for adventure, prank for prank, grin for grin.
“Sokka is a blessing from La herself,” Katara muses to Suki. “I don’t think I’ve seen Bumi this happy in years.”
Suki looks at her, sharp and discerning. “Are you happy, Katara?”
“I’m working on it,” she says mildly.
“Maybe you should take a break from all this for a while. Go visit Toph.”
Katara snorts. “The last time Toph and Bumi were in the same room, it was pandemonium. They brought down a ceiling and Aang somehow ended up covered in feathers,” she says, taking a bite out of a peach.
“You don’t have to take Bumi with you.”
“I couldn’t ask Sumati to watch him for an undisclosed amount of time.”
“Aang would take care of him.” Suki’s eyes study Katara’s face. “Wouldn’t he?”
“Where I go, Bumi goes,” Katara responds. “He’s not an airbender and Aang is having a hard time accepting that. It’s better that Bumi doesn’t have to face that disappointment without me.”
When she looks to her sister-in-law, she sees the way Suki inhales, revving herself up to rise to Katara and Bumi’s defense. The waterbender shakes her head. They are not going to talk about it. If they do, Katara’s wafer-thin will to make her relationship with Aang work will shatter. She will snap and tell him the whole, horrible truth.
“Surely,” she says, “we have happier things to talk about. Sokka keeps telling me something about good news.”
The way Suki’s face flushes and a smile lights up her eyes tells Katara everything she needs to know. She leans in and envelops the warrior in a fierce hug. They cling to one another in laughter and happy tears, and Katara whispers, “I’m so happy for you,” in Suki’s ear.
Across the lawn, Sokka is teaching Bumi to climb a tree. Suki watches them with soft, reverential eyes. It makes Katara’s heart ache for everything she once imagined for herself and Bumi.
“We were hoping that you could be there when it’s time,” Suki says. “There’s no one else we’d rather have bring our little warrior into the world. I know it’s hard for you to get away—”
Katara grabs Suki’s hand and squeezes. “I’ll be there,” she promises. “Whatever it takes.”
Overcome with love, Katara spends the rest of the day in the company of three of her most treasured loved ones. And though the pain of all she’s wrought upon herself still lingers, it ebbs to a dull ache as she, Sokka, and Suki play games with Bumi and shower him with the love and happiness he longs for.
A few nights after Bumi’s sixth birthday, Katara intends to write to Toph in order to arrange a visit. She dreads the hijinks that will ensue—Toph has always been a wildcard—but knows that a month of uproarious laughter and good times are something she and her son sorely need. Bumi sits on his cot, admiring the hand-carved and -painted wooden boomerang Sokka made for him. Around his neck is a whalebone necklace much like his uncle's, a gift from Gran Gran and Pakku. In the corner of her room, a tiny glider, a gift from Aang three years prior, collects dust where it sits, folded up and unused. Aang insists that they keep the glider for the next baby.
She has just sat down at her desk when a hawk lands on her windowsill in a flutter of wings. It blinks golden eyes at her and offers up a small scrap of parchment. The crimson seal of the Fire Lord winks at her. Katara’s heart begins to slam a staccato beat against her breast. She’d written to him on Bumi’s birthday. Rarely does his response arrive so quickly.
The hawk waits as she breaks open the seal, patient and attentive, as if it has been asked to bring her reply.
There are a mere two sentences scrawled across the page in Zuko’s neat, upright script, his angular signature almost an afterthought beneath them.
Come visit us. Izumi and I could both use a friend.
“What story tonight, Mom?” Bumi’s voice breaks through the silence.
Katara sets the missive aside before moving to sit next to her son. She tucks his blankets around him and he huddles close, boomerang clasped to his chest. As she unwinds the cord from his wolf tail, he watches her with blue, blue eyes. Hope springs anew in Katara’s heart, the tether that binds her soul to Zuko’s across oceans and through clouds seems to grow brighter.
“Have I ever told you the tale of the Fire Lord?” she asks.
Bumi shakes his head. That night, for the first time ever, Katara tells Bumi the story of a lost boy in search of his father’s love. She tells him of a ship breaking through the ice, of pirates and a bartered necklace. She tells him about crystal caverns below Ba Sing Se and how that boy, so desperate for love and a restoral of his honor, came to the side of good and proved himself to the world. And she tells him how that lost boy learned to love so deeply that he sacrificed his own life for a girl who had once threatened it.
Katara dreams a memory of golden eyes flickering at her in the darkness, fine red sheets pressed against her skin. Smooth black hair slips between her fingers like silk. Lips and fingertips, adoring as they brush over her body, learn the map of stretch marks their child left on her body. I love you, he whispers before he sinks into her. His name is all she knows, their love burning bright between them as he coaxes her to meet him at the breaking point. I love you, she says, I’m in love with you. And he pleads, Stay, in her ear as their hips collide. Stay with me. Please stay. Staystaystaystay…
She jolts awake and it is dark outside. Her cheeks and pillow are damp with tears. Outside the window, the moon hangs, round and bright, casting its glow on Bumi’s peaceful face. It sings to her, calls out for her. And so Katara slips into her shoes and makes a pilgrimage to the moonlight, drawing water from the distant ocean as she goes.
As the moon drifts overhead, Katara bends, fierce and forceful at first and then delicate and ornamental, her element sparkling and rippling through the air. When the sun begins to crest on the horizon, she slips into a meditation, strands of water orbiting her body as she allows her awareness to sink into her soul. Up through her fingers, the waterbender follows the path of her chi to her heart where it thrums, steady and sure. Then, down through her belly as she breathes deep. Down, further, and—
There is a divergence.
Katara’s eyes fly open and the threads of water splash to the ground beneath her. She calls some to her palm and, with trembling fingers, seeks out the divergence of chi within her pelvis. It is soft and gentle, fluttering like a butterfly’s wings, but it is there.
She laughs. Even as tears roll down her face, she laughs, disbelieving and incredulous. Carefully administered tea, meticulous bending, both somehow rendered futile. There is no questioning it this time. After two weeks on a ship, she has only been at the temple for three days. She’d spent a month and a half in the Fire Nation, in Zuko’s arms. She’d even bled while she was there.
“Is this some sort of cosmic joke?” she asks the spirits in a whisper. “Six years of trying and this is how you let it happen? I did everything right for six years. I asked you for this every month. Are you punishing me for falling in love with someone else? Is this retribution for not following my heart or is it for not being faithful?”
In the distance, the temple begins to stir with life as benders and acolytes begin their day. The spirits offer no answers. Katara is left to collect herself, gathering up as many pieces as she can before she goes to wake Bumi and hopes that nobody sees through her fragile facade.
Katara has a plan. In the dead of night, several weeks after her discovery, she packs away everything she and Bumi own into the trunk at the foot of her bed. When morning comes, she will tell Aang the whole truth and then she will leave for the South Pole with Bumi, southern marriage laws be damned. She sleeps poorly, in fits and starts, and wakes later than she intended. Shooing Bumi off to breakfast with Sumati, Katara sets out with purposeful feet to find Aang.
She locates him on a balcony, preparing for a tattoo ceremony. He works at a table, sorting out the needles and pigments, conferring with a list of names, the airbenders he has coached to mastery. Her stomach lurches with anxiety and, as she clears her throat, she feels nervous and sick. Aang looks up with a bright smile and moves to gather her in his wiry arms.
“Good morning, Sweetheart!”
When he pulls away, Katara looks him dead in the eye and, despite the squirming of her insides, says, “Aang, I have something to tell you.”
“Of course,” he says brightly. He’s always bubbly on ceremony days and Katara nearly gives up in the hopes of not ruining his excitement. Nearly.
“Aang,” she begins, “I’m—”
Her stomach rolls again and there is nothing for her to do but empty it over the railing of the balcony. When it’s over, she can hardly bring herself to look at him. She knows what she’ll see when she does.
“You’re pregnant!” he exclaims and Katara has to look at him then. It’s the beginning of Bumi all over again, joy and delight childlike on his face. The prospect of an airbending child, the hope of someone he can call his own.
“Aang,” she says.
But then he whoops jubilantly and swings her into his arms. She doesn't know how to rip this pure, unadulterated joy away from him.
Katara helps Suki through her labor and finds herself with not just a niece, but a nephew as well. The gobsmacked look on Sokka’s face when Katara tells him that the next one will be along soon is enough to make her laugh herself to tears.
There are days when Aang literally walks on air because he is so looking forward to Katara’s own impending due date. She tries to tell him dozens of times, but her attempts fall on deaf ears. Likely having learned from their fierce arguments after Bumi’s arrival, Aang actually suggests that they stay in the South Pole until the baby arrives. Katara agrees. Perhaps, she thinks, the location will make it easier for him to leave her behind once she breaks the news or he lays eyes on a child that isn’t his. Whichever comes first.
She’s nearly to term when a White Lotus delegation arrives in the middle of the night. Summer in the South Pole means incessant daylight and they don’t arrive by any ship that can be seen on the horizon or at the port. Katara doesn’t know how they arrive. She just looks around the village one day to see familiar, aging faces in the crowds.
“We’re experiencing a lot of ice and snowmelt,” Hakoda explains when she asks why Iroh and his cohorts are there. “Record melt at that. Arnook is reporting the same. Typhoon season has grown longer and the storms have increased in intensity. Iroh believes there is imbalance in the world that needs to be addressed.”
The Dragon of the West makes a point of having tea with Katara and Bumi one day between his many meetings. He says nothing out of the ordinary and is as sweet and kind as ever. Things go off kilter, though, when he tells Bumi that the boy can call him Uncle.
“Like Uncle Zuko and Uncle Sokka?” Bumi asks, turning his eyes to Katara.
“Kind of,” she replies. There is a sharp twinge throughout her pelvis and she winces. “Uncle Iroh is Uncle Zuko’s uncle.”
Bumi puzzles over this for a moment. “He’s the kind general in your story about the Fire Lord!” he exclaims.
Katara’s tale of the Fire Lord has fast become Bumi’s favorite bedtime story and he is sharp enough to start working out who is whom. The Fire Lord is Uncle Zuko. The Blind Bandit is Aunt Toph. Uncle Sokka and Aunt Suki are the Warrior and the Captain respectively. Dad is the Avatar and Mom is the Waterbending Master (but those had been easy to figure out).
“He is,” Katara concedes.
Bumi looks back at Iroh, his eyes narrowed in thought and his mouth pulled into a slight frown.
“You bear a striking resemblance to a boy I once knew when you think,” Iroh tells Bumi quietly. Katara’s pulse ratchets up. “What is on your mind, little one?”
“I don’t think Uncle is your name,” Bumi says, eliciting a laugh from the aging firebender.
“And what is a more fitting name for an old man such as myself?”
“Grampa,” Bumi says seriously.
Katara’s mouth drops open. “Bumi! ” she scolds, but Iroh doesn’t bat an eye or so much as glance her way. Her face burns with shame.
Iroh hums thoughtfully and reaches out to warm the pot of tea before pouring himself a third cup. “If that is what the spirits wish you to call me, then I don’t see why not,” he says.
“Iroh,” Katara begins.
The general holds up a hand to silence her. “I have but one grandchild to spoil, Katara,” he says genially. “Another is a welcome blessing.”
Left speechless, Katara remains silent for the rest of tea. Bumi and Iroh keep up a steady stream of chatter, most of which is lost to her. Her son eats too many cookies and likely spoils his appetite for dinner, but she can’t even bring herself to stop him. She is both helpless and unwilling to prevent the bond that is beginning to form between the boy and the general.
Eventually, Iroh announces that he must leave. “The other Grand Lotuses and I have a meeting with your husband,” he tells Katara as she walks him to the door of the sitting room. “I don’t think you should expect him until long after dinner.”
“About Bumi,” she mutters. “I don’t—”
Iroh cups her face in his warm dry palms and casts her a smile before dropping a kiss to her very red, very embarrassed cheek. “The whims of children, my dear,” he says. And then he is gone.
“Bumi,” Katara says a few hours later as she monitors the boy’s bedtime routine, “it’s best that you call General Iroh Uncle.”
“Why?” Bumi says.
“Because it will hurt your father if you call him Grampa.”
“But I feel like that’s his name,” the boy protests. He climbs under his blankets and furs. “I don’t know why, I just do.”
“Listen to me,” Katara says, tucking the blankets around him and locating his boomerang. “Sometimes we feel things very strongly and we want to act on them. But sometimes those feelings can hurt people who care about us very much. If being selfish will hurt someone who loves you, do you think it’s worth it?”
“No.” The word is petulant and comes forth on pouty lips.
Just as she is about to speak again, Katara is cut short by a loud explosion from somewhere else in the residence. Bumi scrambles closer to the wall, eyes wide.
“What was that?”
She heaves herself to her feet and uncorks the waterskin at her hip. “I don’t know, baby.”
The bedroom door flies open moments later and Sokka and Suki tumble inside, a wailing twin in either of their arms. As Suki sets about settling the infants on Katara’s bed, Sokka pulls his sister aside, the hard edges of his face sharpened by the serious look there.
“It’s Aang,” he mutters. “He blew the door off the meeting hall.”
“He headed outside. I’m going to go see if I can talk him down.”
“What if he triggers the Avatar State?” Katara demands. “You can’t—”
“Oh, and you can?” Sokka challenges, his eyes flicking to her very round belly and the way she presses a hand to her cramping uterus.
“We’ll go together, then,” Katara says. She looks around Sokka to her sister-in-law. “Suki, are you willing to watch Bumi?”
“Mommy?” Bumi’s voice cuts through the conversation, small in a way that Katara hasn’t heard in at least a year. He blinks at her from his bed, eyes watering over with tears.
She crosses the room and he meets her at the edge of his mattress, wraps his arms around her as far as they will go.
“I’ll be right back,” she promises, kissing the top of his head. “Everything is going to be okay. Aunt Suki is going to stay with you until I get back, alright? She’ll help you be brave.”
There is snot hanging from his nose and smeared on the front of her shirt when Bumi pulls back, but he nods. Suki pats her hand on Katara’s bedcovers and he clambers up to her, carefully avoiding his cousins and burrowing into his aunt’s side.
“It’s okay, Boomer,” Suki says, pulling him close. Her eyes find Katara and Sokka. “Come back to us in one piece, yeah?”
Sokka darts forward to kiss her and all three kids, and then he and Katara are on the move, as fast as Katara can waddle.
Aang is a whirlwind near the precipice of the coastal bluff. He paces like a caged animal, snow swirling about his orange and yellow form. Sokka’s hand clings tightly to the back of Katara’s parka as she edges closer, calling Aang’s name. The airbender turns towards her voice and she breathes a little easier when she sees that his eyes aren’t shimmering white. She swats Sokka’s hand away.
“It’s okay,” she hisses to her brother. “He didn’t trigger it.”
“I’m not leaving you,” Sokka retorts.
“Then just stay back. Let me talk to him.”
Her brother releases the back of her parka, but she hears him mutter, “If he makes one wrong move, I swear I’ll…”
Katara approaches slowly and her nearness seems to help Aang calm down. The winds die into a light breeze, snow begins to settle back to the ground. It takes some coaxing and Aang cries throughout the whole conversation, but she draws forth details of his meeting with the Grand Lotuses.
“The White Lotus thinks that the storms are a sign of serious imbalance in the world. Pakku says that record ice melt and the frequency of typhoons are the result of heightening temperatures. They say it’s all tied to me. Iroh says that it’s a sign that I’m not doing enough as the Avatar.”
He looks at her, eyes pleading as he grabs her hands. “I’m doing so much, Katara. I have the Air Nomads and the acolytes and—”
“Aang,” Katara says gently, “are you doing those things as the Avatar or as yourself?”
The airbender gapes at her, clearly bewildered. “How could you ask that?” he says.
Katara frowns. “What else did they say?” she asks, in an attempt to divert an argument.
He sniffs deeply and runs a palm over his bald head. “They want me to master the Avatar State and go on an extensive spirit journey. The one I was supposed to undertake with Kyoshi a few years ago,” he says.
“I think you should.”
“Katara, something like that would take years!”
“So?” she says, folding her arms over her chest.
“So, I’ll lose all the progress I’m making with the airbenders and I’ll miss out on training the baby and what will already take decades will take so much longer!”
Katara is about to give him an earful—You’re the Avatar. Your duty is to the world as a whole. You need to stop acting like a child. Learn to sacrifice your earthly attachments so you can master the Avatar State—when something trickles down her inner thigh. She looks down at her soaked pant leg and then up at Aang.
“I think I’m in labor,” she says, stunned.
Katara doesn’t want Aang in the room, but she doesn’t know how to tell Gran Gran this when Zuko was by her side last time. She doesn’t know how to say that she’s afraid for him to find out immediately that the baby isn’t his. Aang chirps positive words into her ear and spouts Air Nomad proverbs about the miracle of birth and he is there when Kya comes squalling into the world, every inch the spitting image of her Water Tribe mother.
This is the last time that Katara tries to tell Aang the truth and fails. The next time she resolves to be completely honest, she succeeds.