She’s a waterbender, Zuko, Katara writes in a letter that should contain so much joy. It’s just starting to show, but it’s there. She can do it. Aang is upset. He doesn’t understand how the child of an airbender can bend anything but air. It’s all the three of us hear about. How Bumi and Kya should both be airbenders regardless of me.
I can’t keep doing this to the kids. I can’t keep failing at protecting them. Bumi is starting to get that look again, like he isn’t worthy of the love he seeks. I’ve hurt everyone and I just can’t keep doing this anymore. It’s time for me to be honest.
It takes Zuko a shockingly small amount of time to formulate and send a response.
Bring Bumi and Kya , he writes. I’ll arrange for him to train with Piandao. And we can figure out a way to tell Aang together.
The messenger hawk takes off like a shot, slicing through the sky until it vanishes into the horizon. Below Zuko’s south-facing windows, in a garden filled with burbling fountains and various plants, his mother is walking Izumi through a botany lesson. When he joins them there, he feels like a seventeen-year-old idealist again, a smile on his face and a lightness in his step. For the first time in nearly twenty years, hope stirs in the ashes of his long-demolished heart and rises, phoenix-like, into his soul.
Izumi likes having visitors in the palace. Her favorite visitor is Iroh. He brings sweet treats and gifts. Her room is crammed full of the books and records he brings her. Zuko had to have shelves built for the books and a table for the phonograph his uncle had once brought. It’s all a bit much, he thinks, but Izumi is such a bookworm and so bright and sweet that he can’t ever bring himself to tell Uncle that the flow of gifts needs to at least slow down.
He makes the mistake of telling Izumi that they’ll soon have visitors after Katara’s reply arrives. Three days later, the crown princess’ tutors come to him, all absolutely flummoxed by her sudden lack of interest in her studies.
“She spent her entire lesson in daydreams,” her calligraphy teacher complains.
“She couldn’t sit in her seat,” her master of etiquette adds.
It’s completely out of character, all of the tutors insist. Princess Izumi loves learning and never acts out.
After his meeting with the tutors, Zuko and Izumi spend some time in his mother’s garden and she sighs when he asks about why she isn’t focused on her studies. It’s a sound that reminds him of Azula and sends a pang of sadness through his soul as he realizes how things could have been for his little sister. Izumi fits her little hand into his, wrapping her fingers around his larger palm.
“I’m too excited to focus,” she tells him.
“You never have problems in your lessons when Grandfather Iroh comes to visit.”
“Yes, but he visits all the time,” Izumi says. “This is a special visit.”
Her little face is so serious and her words so eager that Zuko can’t help the smile that touches his mouth. “It is a special visit,” he agrees. “But it’s still important to stay in your seat and pay attention during lessons. It shows respect to your teachers and it will make you a better Fire Lord one day.”
She wrinkles her nose and considers his words. “I’ll try, Daddy,” she says.
“Thank you.” Zuko produces a pilfered hunk of bread from the pocket of his robes and offers it to her. Her face lights up in a grin. “Shall we feed the turtleducks before dinner?”
The moon hangs in the sky like a pygmypuma’s smile and Zuko’s eyes are drooping with sleep by the time he decides to call it a night. Each night, he tries his hardest to put a dent in the papers on his desk and goes to bed knowing that the dent will be nonexistent come morning. It’s futile, attempting to diminish his workload, but he never stops trying.
Late night silence has fallen in a hush over the palace. The lights under his mother and Izumi’s doors have long been out and he doesn’t bother with the torches in his own room either, intent on face-planting into bed and passing out until first light as always. Tired as he is, he’s removed his crown and his robes before he even notices the shadowy figure standing next to one of the windows. He nearly sets fire to the hem of his robes in his haste to call flames to his fingers.
“You’d think security in this place wouldn’t be so lax,” Katara’s voice comments casually. “To think, I managed to get two rambunctious children and myself into this palace undetected by any of the guards or the Fire Lord himself—”
It’s nearly embarrassing how quickly he crosses the room to pull her into his arms, his heart hammering away at his chest and a stupid smile on his face. And then her mouth finds his, soft and warm and willing, and he doesn’t care about how over-eager he looks.
“I didn’t expect you for weeks,” he says against her lips. “I thought you would arrive by ship.”
“We did,” she says and he can feel the quirk of her smile before she kisses him breathless again. “It was an airship. Would you believe they’re much faster?”
“Where are the kids?”
“Asleep in the nursery. I wasn’t sure—”
“Can I see them?” Zuko interrupts. There is an ache in his chest with Bumi and Kya’s names written all over it.
Katara pulls back, bends an ice slide out his window with one graceful hand. “I’ll meet you there,” she says. Then she presses a kiss to the seam of his scar and his cheek and skates away.
They both look so small while they sleep, tucked under blankets and faces peaceful. Zuko and Katara stand by the beds for a long while, eyes fixed on their children, arms wrapped around one another. He can’t stop looking at them, can’t stop memorizing their faces. The slopes of their noses, the fringes of hair that brush against their foreheads. He thinks that maybe Bumi has his nose, but Kya is almost all Katara.
“We can get them their own rooms in the morning,” he says.
Katara smiles. “Maybe,” she says. “They don’t like to be apart.”
Zuko feels the press of her lips against his neck and tightens his arms around her. Hope is so tentative in his chest, fragile and vastly different to how the past has felt. He breathes deep, drinking the moment in. Katara in his arms, the smell of a summer storm on her skin, their children before them.
“Can we really have this?” he whispers in her ear.
The waterbender pulls back, eyes serious. “Can we, Fire Lord Zuko?” she counters.
He senses it on the horizon. The controversy and scandal. He can almost hear what they’ll call her, call him, call their children and the Avatar. There’s so much to talk about, so much to confront.
“It won’t be easy.”
Katara’s hands find his. “ None of this has been easy,” she says. “I think…”
Zuko’s heart falters at the way she frowns. She’s going to back out, this was too good to be true, he will have to give her up again—
“I think I need to rip my life apart and put it back together the right way.”
He lets out a breath he didn’t know he was holding. “One step at a time,” he says.
The morning dawns balmy and bright. The ache around his eye and in his chest tells Zuko that he can anticipate a storm later today, but he sets about starting his day in high spirits. Between his early morning meetings, he orders breakfast in the southern garden and thinks of falling asleep in Katara’s rooms, skin to skin, bodies intertwined. He hadn’t intended to fall asleep there and definitely hadn’t wanted to sneak out, but found peace in the knowledge that it wouldn’t be like this much longer.
Izumi, not much of a morning person, is groggy and slightly grumpy as they make their way to breakfast, but her interest is piqued when they bypass the dining room.
“It seems like a nice morning for breakfast in the garden, doesn’t it, Fire Lily?” Zuko says conversationally.
The look on her face is highly skeptical and turns calculating when they sit down at the breakfast table in the pavilion. Izumi no doubt knows that it’s her grandmother’s morning to have breakfast with Azula and is attempting to puzzle out why there are five place settings upon the table. Briefly, he’d considered telling her that her anticipated guests had arrived in the night, but he figured the surprise at breakfast might be a little more fun. Indeed, Zuko’s hunch is proven correct when Katara, Bumi, and Kya come strolling through the grass, and Izumi promptly drops her chopsticks and part of her pickled plums in her lap. She gives a joyous shout and races away from the table to catch Katara about the waist.
Zuko watches as Bumi throws himself into the hug and Kya, clearly not wanting to be left out, insinuates herself into the cluster of arms, bodies, and legs as well. Katara stands amongst them all, a grin on her face and laughter pealing out of her mouth, trying to wrap her arms around as much of the children as she can. In that moment, the firebender’s heart feels full in a way he never knew possible. And when Katara manages to extract herself from the loving embrace of all the kids, and they all gather around the table with Zuko, it is loud and happy. She meets his gaze from across the table and smiles, beautiful and brilliant.
And Zuko decides that if every morning is like this, then everything they’re about to go through is more than worth the fight.
Kya is three years old and a precocious speaker. While Bumi trains with Piandao in Shu Jing during the summer weeks, Katara works with Kya on the most basic water bending skills by the turtleduck pond. She isn’t ready for katas yet and she has a hard time focusing for extended periods of time, bouncing from one desire to the next.
Zuko, astounded by her energy, asks, “Is this what you were like as a kid?”
Katara shakes her head. Kya grabs hold of her hand and drags her along the garden to chase after a butterfly.
“No,” Katara says. “But Bumi was. Is . And Sokka was. His kids are...” She trails off and shudders. “I’m glad for Bumi and Kya’s relative calm whenever I’ve seen Sokka and Suki’s little ones. Were you like this?” He can see it in her eyes that she’s looking to blame him, but it’s in jest.
“No,” Zuko says. He bites back a smile. “You’re out of luck there. I just wanted to spend time with Lu Ten, Uncle, and Mother.”
“Azula?” Katara says, casting about for someone else to blame.
Zuko shakes his head. “No. She was just cruel.”
“Kya, baby,” Katara says, pulling the little one to a stop. She wheels Kya around and manages to catch the little girl’s wandering eyes when she kneels down. “Mommy is going to sit with Zuko, okay?”
“Can I splore?”
“What’s the rule in the garden if Mommy isn’t with you?”
“No pond,” Kya says, giving her mother a toothy grin.
“That’s right.” Katara reaches out to smooth Kya’s hair back into its braid. It shines just a little bit darker and a little bit smoother than her brother’s in the sunlight. Katara has dressed her in some of Izumi’s hand me downs today, a red tunic and black pants that are more suitable to the heat of the Fire Nation summer than most of Kya’s own clothes are. She’s spent the first three years of her life on and off the back of a flying bison, living near one pole or the other. It’s the first time Zuko has gotten to meet her.
Over the course of the month that Katara and the kids have been in the Fire Nation, things have settled into something of a routine. Bumi spends his weekdays in Shu Jing with Piandao and comes back to the palace on weekends, eager to show Zuko what he’s been learning; Katara and Ursa spend their days with Izumi and Kya; and Zuko, thankful for the slower pace and pressure of summer, happily finds himself with a little more free time. The palace is, for the first time in a century or more, bustling with energy and enthusiasm thanks to the presence of Katara and the kids. Having lived under Ozai’s thumb for much of their lives, Zuko and his mother share secret smiles when the trio of children sprint through the corridors, shouting and laughing and generally leaving chaos in their wake. Ursa has taken a particular shine to Kya, something that Katara confesses to Zuko late one night in his room feels somehow both bittersweet and perfectly fitting.
“I had Gran Gran when I was small. She taught me so many things,” Katara says. “Kya has been growing up without a Gran Gran of her own. It’s just… It’s another reminder of my mother and it’s another reminder of everything I’ve taken away from all of us. I don’t know how to make amends for all that I’ve done wrong.”
Zuko crosses the room and takes her hands in his. “All I want,” he says, slow and earnest, “is you and the kids. Let’s give this an honest chance.”
“It’s going to make your life so much harder,” she begins and Zuko shakes his head.
“No,” he interrupts. “The hardest part of all of this has been spending the past nineteen years in love with a woman I couldn’t have and not being able to be there for our kids. Katara, I’m not looking for your protection. I don’t need you to make sure I don’t get hurt. I want you and I want our family. Whatever the fallout is, we’ll deal with it together.”
“I’m not backing out,” Katara says. Her hands squeeze around his. “But if the political ramifications are too much for you—”
Zuko smirks. “I’ve never been one for convention,” he says. “And I’m pretty sure I’m not the only world leader with secrets in my personal life.”
“You’re ready for all of this?”
“Whenever you are.”
Katara kisses him soundly and with enthusiasm.
The headache in the back of Zuko’s skull is slowly thrumming its way to migraine status. He’s had a horrendous day filled with meetings that haven’t gone his way, a dismissed minister, and stiff aches in his scars that are the result of the storm clouds rolling in on the horizon. Eight years of hard work are rapidly crumbling beneath his feet and Bumi is supposed to arrive by airship later today, a worrisome thing when his team of meteorologists and scientists are sitting before him and predicting three devastating typhoons in the coming month, the first of which is supposed to arrive within the next two days.
“Start the evacuation process,” Zuko tells the representatives from the disaster aid program. “I’ll ensure that housing and provisions are made available to all the evacuees and talk to the minister of finance about diverting funds to the rebuilding and recovery efforts.”
He knows where that money is going to come from and it’s a devastating blow to what he’s been working on. When he’s safely ensconced in his office, he pulls the flame from his topknot and heaves it across the room. It bounces off the wall and clatters to the floor. He sinks into the chair behind his desk and buries his face in his hands. Long, silent moments stretch out and then there is a soft knock at the door.
The door swings open and Zuko looks up to see Katara stepping over the threshold, a letter in her hand. She is a sight for sore eyes in her Water Tribe blue silks and he drinks her in.
“Hi,” she says.
“Is this a bad time?”
“No, you’re fine,” Zuko says and she shuts the door firmly.
“Is everything okay?”
“Bit of a rough day,” he tells her. “And I’ve got a horrible headache.”
Katara crosses the room on light feet and leans out the open doors that lead to the balcony behind his desk. “Maybe I can help,” she says. Zuko turns to watch her summon water from the very air, her hand elegant and twisting. She steps close, laying her letter on his messy desk and divvying the water up between her hands. It glows gentle blue and when she presses her hands to his head, Zuko can feel the cool tingle of her healing.
As the headache eases, Zuko buries his face in her taut stomach and lets his hands find her hips. “Thank you,” he croaks. The waterbender hums and he hears her deposit the water in a potted plant before she returns her hands to his head.
“Anything you’d like to talk about?” she asks, carding her fingers through his lengthening hair.
Zuko sighs. “Three typhoons have formed off the coast of the Earth Kingdom. The first is going to hit this weekend.” He pulls back to look up at her. “Is Bumi home yet?”
“An hour ago,” Katara says and he breathes a sigh of relief. She smiles. “He’s excited to practice his new forms with you.”
“I’ll make sure I’m armed at lunch,” Zuko says and Katara laughs.
“I’m positive Piandao sends him home on weekends because one round of Sokka’s spirit was enough for him. Bumi might send him into retirement.”
“As long as Bumi’s happy.”
Her smile softens and he feels the ghostly sensation of her fingertips as they trace the scar around his eye. “He is happy,” she says. “We’ve all been happy.”
Zuko’s fingers tighten reflexively around her hips at her words, giddiness burning bright in his heart. He hopes that the smile on his face doesn’t look too much like a love-struck teen’s. Happiness has always felt so out of reach, something for heroes and not scarred men with imperfect souls. Now it’s lingering just in front of him and he can reach out and brush it with his fingertips, can almost hold it in the palms of his hands.
“I’m writing to Aang,” Katara says, tapping a finger on the letter she abandoned on his desk. Zuko can see the Avatar’s name scrawled across the parchment in Katara’s flowing, graceful writing. “I’ve asked him to come the moment he can. I was just on my way to send it to him.”
“Are you certain you’re ready?”
“The kids and I have lived without you for too long,” is her answer.
It takes every ounce of Zuko’s self-control to not blurt out that he has a new ribbon for her necklace hidden away in the depths of his closet, wrapped in velvety fabric and paired with a gleaming golden flame that he hopes to crown her with someday. Instead, he tugs her into his lap and hugs her fiercely.
“What else has made your day difficult?” she asks.
Zuko leans back and looks at her. She sits there on his thigh, one hand resting just over the scar on his chest, waiting patiently for his answer. So he tells her about how he has to divert funds from his educational reforms and projects to pay for disaster relief.
“I’ve been working on these things for eight years,” he says, fingering the stack of papers that detail the projects. “Cutting the funding will drastically alter what I can do. And I had to dismiss my education minister today.”
“He wasn’t willing to be progressive enough.”
Katara pulls the stack of papers into her hands and begins reading through them, her eyes flicking across the pages with impressive speed. “Zuko, this is incredible ,” she says. “You’ve established a universal preschool? And you’re working on free college education?”
“I wish I could take credit,” he says, face flushing. “Izumi’s mother was a teacher before we were married. These were her pet projects.”
The waterbender is up and out of his lap before he can react, her eyes bright and sparkling as she considers the words on the pages. “Zuko,” she says. “I… If we… If you decide that you want to…” Her face has gone a glorious shade of crimson. “I want to take this on. In her name, of course.”
Zuko stares at Katara. The papers in her hands ruffle and flutter as she trembles. There are clear implications in her words.
“I’ll have to get you a reliable education minister,” he says and her face lights up.
“I know someone who would be perfect .”
“Toph was seeing one of the Ogawa brothers for a long time—”
“Zhihao?” Zuko asks.
“Yes! I’m not sure if they’re still together because he was seeking a professorship with a university and Toph didn’t want to give up her school, but… Zuko, you could bring him in for an interview. He’s young and he’d be progressive, I’m sure. He’d definitely want to see these plans through.”
Zuko opens his mouth to tell her it’s a perfect plan, to say that he can’t believe he never saw this path before, when there is a knock on his office door.
A servant opens the door, bowing low. “Fire Lord Zuko, the Avatar’s bison has been spotted overhead. We are preparing for his arrival.” He leaves, bowing once more before the door closes.
Zuko and Katara exchange a look. She has gone alarmingly pale and sinks into a chair.
“The storms,” she says.
“The typhoons!” Katara pins him with a sharp stare. “Aang never told you about what’s going on?”
“Katara, what are you talking about?”
“Your uncle hasn’t mentioned anything?”
“What do my uncle and Aang have to do with the typhoons?”
Katara tells Zuko about Aang’s meeting with the White Lotus three years prior as they walk to the entrance of the palace on quick feet. By the time they reach the hall where they will greet Aang, Zuko is angry enough to blow the doors off his own home and seize the Avatar by the front of his shirt, words of anger on the tip of his tongue.
Zuko and Bumi do not get to walk through his new forms at lunch. The Fire Lord and the Avatar do not make it to the meal at all. They spend the entire hour arguing in the throne room, their voices echoing off the high ceilings and marble floors.
“Your inability to do your job is causing worldwide devastation!” Zuko had thundered, slashing a flaming hand through the air. “Your inaction is worsening the lives of my citizens!”
“I have an obligation to the Air Nomads!” Aang had shot back. “An obligation to everyone of my people who were slaughtered before their time!”
“And you have an obligation to the world, Avatar Aang! To not only your people, but mine, Kuei’s, Hakoda’s, and Arnook’s! I am evacuating people at this moment because of your selfishness. They will lose their homes because you refuse to maintain balance in the world!”
“Restoring the legacy and culture of my people will help restore balance!”
“Tell that to the thousands who will lose everything in the coming month,” Zuko spat out. “Tell that to the Water Tribes whose lands are shrinking due to unnaturally warm temperatures! People are still losing their lives before their time, Aang, and that’s happening on your watch!”
And then he had stormed out of the throne room and demolished half of the practice grounds venting his fury.
Subsequently, dinner is a tense affair.
Bumi keeps his eyes fixed on his food and doesn’t chatter endlessly about Master Piandao and Shu Jing as he has every other weekend he’s come back to the palace; Kya doesn’t spill multiple glasses of water attempting to waterbend bubbles in her drink; Izumi, clearly reading the tension between the adults, pulls a book from beneath her chair and buries her nose in it while she eats; and Katara looks about ready to burst as her eyes dart from Zuko to Aang and back again.
Zuko shakes his head at her, a silent, subtle message. Not tonight . Tonight he feels impotent in his role as the Fire Lord. He is too angry at Aang for stealing away his ability to protect and provide for his people. People will likely die in the coming days and Zuko is nearly powerless to prevent that. Tonight, he is rage embodied and needs time to gather his thoughts and emotions. He cannot in good conscience have their talk with Aang tonight.
Zuko is late to lunch the next day and shoots Katara an apologetic glance when he seats himself at the head of the table, squeezes her thigh with a warm, reassuring hand when he’s sure nobody is looking. This morning in his office, they’d worked out precisely how to break the news to Aang and promised each other they would pull him aside after dinner. Beneath the table, Katara’s fingers slip through Zuko’s and squeeze before sliding away.
“I’m sorry I’m late,” Zuko says. “My meeting with the disaster relief program’s representatives and my meteorologists ran long. It seems the first of the typhoons is expected to make land some time tonight or early tomorrow morning. Earlier than expected.” He sends a glare Aang’s way.
Aang stares stubbornly at his food. He looks terrible, green and gaunt, cheeks hollow and eyes shadowed in purplish rings.
“Were you able to…?” Katara asks and Zuko can hear the question she doesn’t want to voice in front of the children.
“Not nearly enough of them,” Zuko replies. He’s still thrumming with anger at Aang and refuses to sugarcoat the truth. “This will be one of the largest nationwide tragedies in twenty years.”
“Send me out,” she says immediately.
“What?” Zuko says at the same time Aang says, “Katara!”
“I mean, I can’t weaken the storm without a team of waterbenders,” she amends, “but I can help heal people and bring them safe drinking water in the aftermath. And I can write to my dad and Arnook. I’m sure they have benders they can spare. We can assemble a team that will stay here through typhoon season.”
The conversation is interrupted when a piece of steamed broccoli beans Bumi in the forehead. He lets out a cry that is decidedly Sokka in tone and grabs a fistful of rice, diving over the table to shove it down Kya’s shirt. Katara seizes Bumi around the waist and hauls him backwards and away from the girls who sit side by side on Zuko’s left.
“It wasn’t me!” Kya yells, throwing her own small fistful of rice at her brother. “It was ‘Zumi!”
Zuko turns astonished eyes to the eldest girl who is muffling laughter behind her hand, flecks of broccoli smudging her fingers.
“Kya!” Katara scolds. “Apologize to your brother this instant!”
“No!” Kya grabs a piece of chicken teriyaki with her tiny hand and takes aim. “It was ‘Zumi!” The chicken goes flying and sticks to Bumi’s cheek.
Bumi lets out another yell and sends a hunk of pineapple flying across the table where it pegs Izumi in the ear before bouncing to the floor. In response, Izumi gathers an entire fistful of broccoli and reels her arm back, chuckles bubbling from between her lips. Kya mimics her, her own broccoli in hand and an identical giggle accompanying her smile.
Zuko, shocked by how similar their laughter is, chokes out, “Girls!”
Wide eyes in shades of blue and gold turn to look at him. Broccoli plunks back into porcelain bowls. The girls purse their lips in the exact same way, attempting to stifle sniggers of laughter. Zuko can see it in the way Katara blinks at them that she has also started to tally their similarities. Her eyes find Zuko’s as she presses Bumi back into his seat. He can almost hear her begging the spirits not to let it happen this way.
Kya and Izumi are still giggling.
“Stop throwing your food and apologize to one another this instant ,” Zuko tells all three children.
His tone commands respect and squelches the atmosphere of sibling rivalry. Three muted apologies sound out around the table, but Aang’s face comes over sort of funny as he looks at Kya. She’s still living in Izumi’s old things, her hair is noticeably darker than Bumi’s, even in the dim lighting cast by the oncoming storm and the flickering torches.
“Aang?” Zuko can hear the tremor in Katara’s voice. “What’s wrong?”
Aang frowns deeply. “Nothing. I just... I thought...” His voice is stilted. He shakes his head and snatches up his glider. “That’s absurd,” he says more to himself than Katara or Zuko. And then he bolts out of the room.
Katara and Zuko stare at one another in the ensuing silence, breathing heavily and ignorant to the way the kids look around in confusion.
“He knows,” the firebender whispers unnecessarily.
In unison, he and Katara are out of their seats and running after Aang, hollering his name and whipping around corners just as he’s about to vanish from view.
“Aang!” Katara yells as she and Zuko stumble out into the courtyard.
But Aang snaps open his glider and takes off like a shot, spiraling and looping up into the stormy sky until they can’t see him anymore.
Katara and Zuko stay awake late into the night. Izumi has insisted on having a slumber party with Kya and Bumi in the nursery, their lunchtime spat long forgotten. All three kids are long asleep when Aang finally returns. He finds them in Zuko’s office, a pot of lukewarm tea sitting on the table next to an in-progress game of pai sho. They’ve been playing halfheartedly, both too keyed up to fully concentrate. The unmistakable sound of Aang’s glider snapping shut on the balcony rouses them.
Aang steps in through the doors, drenched and dripping rainwater all over the carpet. Katara rises from her seat and moves to bend the water from her husband’s clothes, but he throws a hand out to stop her.
“I can do it myself, Katara.” His voice is hard and bitter.
Katara sinks back into her chair. Zuko nudges his toe against her foot in an attempt to offer her a modicum of comfort.
“I think the three of us need to talk,” Aang says, he still hasn’t bent the water from his clothes despite his protests.
“Yes,” Katara says and Zuko’s hand tightens on the tile he’s holding. “I suppose we do.”
“Kya isn’t mine, is she?” The words hit like a slap and land loudly in the center of the study.
The next thing Aang says is directed at Zuko. “You slept with my wife?”
Zuko’s head snaps up. He meets Aang’s stormy gaze, feels fury rise like a flame in his throat. “It’s not like that,” he says softly.
Aang snorts in derision. “I think that’s exactly what it’s like!” he bellows.
Katara’s foot presses up against Zuko’s and doesn’t back away, a silent signal to find his sense of calm. He takes a few shaky breaths. “I’m in love with her—”
“What a bunch of bison—”
“It’s true ,” Zuko insists. “I’ve been in love with her for nearly twenty years.”
“And that gives you the right —”
“No,” Zuko says. “It doesn’t.”
“Then why the hell did you do it, Zuko?” Aang’s eyes flash silvery gray, his neck is flushed red in anger. The flames in the hearth leap higher for a moment.
“I told you. I’m in love with her.”
“That’s not an excuse.”
“You didn’t ask me for an excuse. You asked me for a reason. And that’s the reason.”
“You were my friend .” The past tense is a punch to the gut. Zuko winces. “Being in love with my wife does not give you the right to...to seduce her!”
Katara leaps from her seat, eyes wild. “He didn’t seduce me, Aang,” she says, her voice very near a hiss. “Don’t you dare assume that. I was a willing participant.”
It takes a moment for her words to register with Aang. When they finally sink in, he staggers back, knocking a stack of papers off of Zuko’s desk.
“I fell in love with him years ago. Before Kya. Before Bumi. Before he took lightning to the chest to save me.”
“And yet you married me.”
“I thought that I was in love with you too!” Katara yells. “You kept telling me that I was your forever girl. You said it was destiny. You knew what that meant to me.”
“So it’s my fault that Kya isn’t my child?”
“That’s not what I’m saying! Stop trying to twist this around, Aang. It’s already fucked up enough! We’re trying to be honest!”
“It’s a little late for honesty, Katara!”
Zuko thinks that any other woman would have crumbled by this point. Katara builds herself up stronger. She straightens her spine to its fullest extent, her short stature no restriction to the way she suddenly dominates the shadowy room. A strange sort of calm washes over her.
“Then let me get it all out in the open once and for all,” she says, voice low. “Kya isn’t yours. Neither is Bumi. It took years for me to be certain, but I know for sure.”
“How many times did we try between Bumi and Kya, Aang? How many times have we tried since Kya? Over and over and over again because you couldn’t live with the fact that neither of them were airbenders. The very idea of Kya bending water was enough for you to push her away. You haven’t looked directly at Bumi since he was five. You insisted that we keep on trying because you had to have your airbender despite already having found dozens that you were helping to mastery.
“We tried so many times, Aang. And do you know what happened? I bled. Zuko and I didn’t intend for Bumi to happen. We did everything we possibly could to prevent Kya. Yet here she is. The acolytes blamed me for not producing an airbender. They laughed at me and mocked me. But I wasn’t the problem, Aang. If you bothered to listen to your own people, you would know what Sumati has told me countless times. Imbalances in the world can cause imbalances in ourselves.”
“So you went to Zuko ?”
Katara splutters, indignant. “Zuko is not some...some stud ostrich horse who gave me kids because you couldn’t, Aang!”
Zuko feels his face turn scarlet at the comparison. Katara is still on a roll, relentless as the typhoon that is about to break upon the shores of his nation, twenty years of heartache spilling out of her without ceasing.
“Bumi and Kya were gifts from the spirits,” she says. “They were not conceived or born to hurt you. You can try to belittle the feelings I have for Zuko because you’re angry, but it won’t lessen what I feel or even take it away. When Zuko told me that he was in love with me, I made the wrong choice because I was afraid of hurting everyone. I married you even though it was the wrong thing for all of us. Zuko and I hardly spoke after the ceremony. We said that we wouldn’t for a while so that I could honestly devote myself to this marriage. But then Bumi happened. And do you know who was there when he came into this world? Zuko. All thirty-six hours of labor. He was there by my side.”
“I was on a spirit journey!”
“ No you weren’t! ” Katara shrieks and the lid blows off the teapot. A jet of tea rockets up into the air. “You said that’s where you were going, but you didn’t! ”
“The Avatar isn’t supposed to have earthly attachments,” Zuko cuts in.
“Don’t act like you know what you’re talking about,” Aang snaps.
“I studied your past lives extensively when I was in exile. I know a lot more than you’d ever care to give me credit for. And I bet that if you asked any of your past lives when they mastered the Avatar state and when they decided to have a family, all of them would tell you that they mastered the Avatar state first.”
“That’s rich,” Aang sneers. “ You of all people telling me how to live my life.”
“I’m not telling you how to live your life,” Zuko says. “But I have known you a long time, Aang, and I’ve always had a hard time understanding your priorities.”
“Pot?” Aang says sarcastically. “This is Kettle. You’re black!”
“Don’t you dare,” Katara says. “You know Zuko is a man of conviction.”
“Well, his conviction certainly served him well when he was sleeping with my wife .”
Zuko can see the tremble in Katara’s hands. Their teacups rattle where they sit on the table. “Quit acting like Zuko is the only one at fault here,” she says. “All of us are in the wrong.”
“I didn’t do any—”
“You didn’t prioritize Katara,” Zuko cuts in. “ Or Bumi or Kya.”
“You know nothing about our family life.”
“Katara is, first and foremost, my friend,” Zuko says, rising from his seat. “I wanted to marry her, Aang. After the war, once we were both of age, if the opportunity arose and I could convince the Fire Sages, I was going to marry her. But she told me that she loved you. She married you . I knew my place.”
“There are two children in this world that can prove you didn’t.”
“I overstepped the boundaries. That’s apparent. I’m in love with her. When she writes to me and tells me that she’s hurting or that our children are hurting, or that she’s hurting on behalf of our children, of course I’m going to offer my assistance. Katara’s happiness is my priority.”
“You told me you loved me,” Aang says to Katara, his voice dark and bitter.
“Aang,” Katara pleads, “there’s a difference between loving someone and being in love with someone. I love you. Of course I do. But I’ve been in love with Zuko since before I even realized there was a difference.”
“So Zuko fathered our children and you never loved me. Is that what you’re telling me here, Katara?”
“I love you, Aang. But I was never in love with you, just like you’ve never been in love with me. Not the real me. And you haven’t loved the kids in years.”
“Of course I love the kids.”
“If you loved them, you’d give them your time, Aang. They feel like they aren’t important to you because they aren’t airbenders.”
“Their parentage is important to me.”
“That’s not a sound argument and we both know it. Their abilities were your first care.”
“I’m the last airbender, Katara. Of course it mattered to me that they were able to do what I can do!”
“But you’re not. You haven’t been for years now. Your students are masters in their own right. The kids are little more than a footnote in your day to day life. I brought them here so that they could start to learn their own merit. Not once have you asked how Bumi’s training with Piandao is going. You’ve never bent water with Kya since she started.”
“Well,” Aang says, “none of that matters now anyway. Our marriage is over. Not that it was ever really one to begin with, it seems.” He makes for the door to the balcony.
“Where are you going?” Zuko asks, voice sharp.
“I would think that’s obvious,” Aang says. “I don’t want to see the two of you ever again.”
“You can’t go out there in this weather,” Zuko presses. “They’re predicting that the worst typhoon in history will make landfall tonight. You’re the Avatar and—”
“Exactly,” Aang snaps. “I’m the Avatar . I’ll be fine, regardless of whether or not I’ve mastered the Avatar state as the all-knowing and ever honorable Fire Lord has so kindly suggested I do.”
He steps out into the storm and slams the door shut behind himself, glass rattling in the panes.
The typhoon is worse than even the worst predictions. With it comes horrific cracks of thunder and shocks of lightning, something that Zuko’s meteorologists tell him is exceedingly rare. The Caldera survives purely because of its volcanic walls. Little fishing villages along the coast are decimated and the death toll rolls higher and more devastating with each day that passes. Zuko isn’t sure if they’ll ever find all of the dead.
When Aang’s body is found washed up on the shore nearly a week later, the world grinds to a halt. He is brought to the palace by a White Lotus delegation led by Iroh and Pakku. A physician selected by the delegation determines the cause of death to be a lightning strike. Heart heavy with shock and horror, Zuko summons Katara back to the palace from the front lines where she has been leading the medical and recovery teams.
The White Lotus physician shows the waterbender into the infirmary where Aang’s body lies and she emerges some time later, sorrow shadowing her eyes and her hands trembling. Before seeking something like solace in the open arms of Zuko’s embrace, she writes to her friend Sumati and requests that the nomads come to perform last rites. Zuko sends the missive and an airship for her, knowing that the technology will get Aang’s people there faster than airbison will.
They cry together for a long time, guilt a heavy, overbearing, and unwanted companion. Eventually, Katara leaves Zuko’s side to tell Bumi and Kya on her own. Zuko watches her leave, wishing he could stand by her side in this moment, but knowing that it’s not his place to intrude.
A few days later, the Air Nomads, led by Sumati, arrive on their bison and scatter Aang’s ashes to the four winds in a ceremony that signals a month of mourning for the world as a whole. The day after the ceremony, Iroh requests a meeting with Zuko and Katara in Ursa’s gardens.
He has an indulgent tea spread out in the pavilion and the three of them sit together in their mourning whites, a delicate blend of white rose tea steaming in their cups. The shellshocked look has finally left Katara’s eyes, but Zuko can still see the guilt that lingers there. He’s sure there is culpability in his own irises as well, but he can hardly bring himself to look in the mirror for fear of noticing it.
“I think,” Iroh says, helping himself to a small cake and sounding utterly unruffled, “that it is time for the three of us to have a necessary discussion.”
Katara swallows hard and nods, her mouth a thin line of nerves.
“How was your meeting, Nephew?”
Startled, Zuko looks to his uncle. “It went better than I expected,” he says, voice raw. “The two storms we were expecting have died out, one entirely and the other almost completely. The meteorologists expect it will never make landfall.”
“I suspected that such would be the case,” Iroh says. “I know that Katara knows the reasons for the state of imbalance in our world, but are you aware?”
“We discussed it briefly. It’s...something to do with Aang.”
“Yes.” Iroh downs his last bite of cake with a sip of his tea, then tucks his hands into the billowing sleeves of his tunic. “Avatar Aang forgot what it meant to pursue balance in the world. He neglected to fulfill his duties as the Avatar. There have been such cases throughout history, times where the Avatar has gone off course and the world has fallen out of balance. Never before, however, has such a situation ended in such a way. Until Aang, all past iterations of the Avatar have been steered back to course. Teachers have stepped in, the spirits have sent signs, past lives have sent out summonses for spirit journeys… Every other time, the Avatar has forgone his or her earthly attachments to set things right.”
The old general settles his gaze on Katara. “I know that you sought to guide Aang in your own way, my dear,” he says kindly. “You both did. I fear that Aang’s experiences in the past did not show him the necessity of listening to other people than himself.”
“I could have tried harder,” Katara whispers, her voice hardly carrying over the distant quacking of turtleducks.
“We both could have,” Zuko amends.
“That as may be,” Iroh says, holding up a hand to silence them, “you were not the only ones who sought to bring this to Aang’s attention. Kyoshi called him forth for a spirit journey six times.”
“Six?” Katara’s eyes bulge in her head. “I thought it was just the one time and that the White Lotus encouraged him to take it on a second time.”
“No.” Iroh’s voice is sharp. “Avatar Kyoshi called on him six times.”
“How can you be sure?”
“Uncle has ties in the spirit world,” Zuko informs her. “Lu Ten and my aunt.”
“They are my anchors there,” Iroh says. “Just as Zuko is my anchor here.”
“ Six times?” Katara says and the general nods. She looks as Zuko feels: At an utter loss for words.
“The first time Kyoshi failed to summon Aang was just before the two of you decided to bond your lives together. When she failed a second time just before Bumi was born, the world and the spirits sought to seek balance in a different way. The assumption was that Aang might be more willing to devote himself to his spiritual cause if he had few people or things to tie him to this realm.
“Which brings me to the topic of Bumi and Kya themselves.”
Zuko and Katara find themselves subjected to a very knowing look. The waterbender freezes, teacup halfway to her mouth, and Zuko feels himself turn scarlet. Suddenly, the already oppressive heat of the Fire Nation sun that is bearing down overhead is simply too much to stand.
“What were you two thinking?”
Katara rises from her seat before Zuko can even open his mouth to speak and he half thinks she’s about to leave. Instead, she plants her hands firmly on her hips and says, “It was my fault.”
“Katara,” Zuko says, flustered, face burning even brighter, “it takes two to...do what we did.”
“It was my fault, Iroh,” Katara insists. “Zuko told me he was in love with me and I could have… There was enough time for me to make things right. And I failed because I was afraid of who I would hurt and what I would lose.”
Iroh sits back in his seat, eyes wide. His mouth works open and closed several times as he casts about for words. Sweat rolls steadily down Zuko’s spine.
“You told her?” he finally says, incredulous.
“You knew ?” Zuko yelps.
Iroh snorts a laugh. “Of course I knew, dear boy. You showed up at the White Lotus encampment positively mooning about after her—”
“I don’t moon .”
“—and then you took Azula’s lightning to the chest for her and the whole world knew.”
Katara’s knees must give out, because she falls into her seat with alarming speed. “What do you mean?” she says.
“There are only so many reasons why a young man would do that for a young lady he has been at such loggerheads with. It was quite the story among the Earth Kingdom nobles for quite some time. They’ve always been a secretly romantic people. A legend of love such as Oma and Shu will do that, I suppose.”
“Zuko would have done that for any of us,” Katara says, her cheeks pinking as she folds her arms over her chest.
“Not for the reasons I did it for you,” Zuko mutters. When she looks at him, he shrugs. “You know that. We’ve talked about it before. We said we would be honest, Katara.” He squares his shoulders and looks at his uncle, hoping that his nerves don’t show.
“Bumi and Kya are mine,” he says.
Iroh looks at both of them for a long while, his face utterly inscrutable.
“I know what you must think of me, Iroh,” Katara says.
“I think nothing ill of you, Katara. It is my sincere belief that Bumi and Kya are the spirits’ gifts to us all, a sign of what was meant to be all along.”
“I know what people around the world will say when the truth comes out,” Katara’s voice cracks and Zuko scoots closer to her when he sees that tears are welling up in her eyes. “But I want you to know that I’ve been in love with Zuko since before I knew what I felt. It doesn’t look that way. I know it doesn’t look that way. I’ve done wrong by so many people because I couldn’t see that I was doing the very things that were hurting us all.”
Pulling a handkerchief from the pocket of his stark white tunic, Iroh passes the scrap of fabric to Katara and says, “I do not doubt that you are aware of the injustices you have brought upon yourself and others, Katara. You have no doubt learned many lessons, especially in recent times. So I will not lecture you, except to say that you have been saved a great deal more strife by nothing short of a deus ex machina. For that, you are lucky. All three of us know that the path forward will not be easy, but...the White Lotus would like to offer its support as the two of you move forward.”
Zuko’s mouth drops open and his uncle shrugs, a smile teasing about his mouth.
“We are but a group of old men and women who see the beauty in something that may go down in history a great romance.”
Katara’s head snaps up. The handkerchief falls out of her hand. To Zuko’s extreme bewilderment, his uncle merely winks at her.
“We did so many things wrong,” Zuko protests. “The Avatar—”
“Avatar Aang’s untimely end is the spirits’ referendum on his time here in our world,” Iroh says. “It will no doubt give him unique wisdom to impart upon his next life.” He stands, bones cracking, and shuffles over to hug both Zuko and Katara in turn. “If you don’t mind, I have lost time to make up for with some young people,” he says.
As he ambles slowly through the garden, stopping here and there to admire one of Ursa’s plants or to breathe deep the scent of a flower, Zuko and Katara watch his progress, identical looks of bemusement on their faces.
“He will never cease to confound me,” Zuko muses.
“Oh!” Iroh calls when he’s reached the end of the path. “Do keep an eye on young Bumi.” He casts his eyes to the sky with a mysterious smile. “If I’m not mistaken, we shall all soon find more balance in ourselves in the days to come.”