Hakoda arrives a few weeks after tea with Iroh. Katara is standing at the edge of the pavilion in Ursa’s garden, watching Zuko as he plays with Kya and Izumi between his morning meetings, when her father appears next to her. Something in Zuko and Izumi seems to lighten out here in the gardens. There is a similar seriousness in their makeup, something steady and unflinching like the determination with which Zuko approaches all aspects of his life. A deeply ingrained sense of duty and honor, maybe. There are pieces of Izumi that Katara doesn’t recognize, the gentle waves of her hair, the cut of her jaw, things that must be reminiscent of the little girl’s mother. She sees some glimpses of Ursa and Azula as well, but mostly Katara sees the man she loves mirrored in his second child, in all of the children, really.
Zuko’s hesitant, crooked smile and fair complexion are Bumi’s and Izumi’s as well. The glossy sheen of his hair is there in the gentle waves of the girls’, and Kya’s seems to be growing ever darker with age. They share a laugh, too, that must have come from Zuko’s side as well. Perhaps it belonged to Azula before Ozai stole away her humanity or to Ursa before she sacrificed love for honor. If Katara looks hard, she can see all the parts of Zuko that thread through the children, piecing their mosaic family together despite the ruptures of her errors. He is there in the way Bumi holds his practice sword and allows the firebender to refine his forms, always doggedly determined and unwilling to fail. He is there in the way Izumi carries herself, sure and calm, and in the way she speaks, intelligent and tentatively sweet. And he is there in the way Kya attempts to waterbend, sometimes a little too sharp and forceful, as if there is something a little less fluid in her nature.
Katara thinks that it’s fitting that Zuko is the glue that cements their children together. Were there to be more of her in the makeup of their souls, she isn’t certain those parts of her would be strong enough to hold them all together. He has always been so steady and sure in his love for her, even in their distant years.
She isn’t certain she deserves him or his devotion, but the children do. He’s mending the cracks in Bumi’s heart already. Kya has him wrapped around her finger.
In silence, Katara stands at the edge of the pavilion with her father and watches as Kya clings to the Fire Lord’s leg and Izumi hangs from his shoulders. The girls are laughing their shared laugh and Zuko is smiling and something in Katara’s soul breathes the scene in deep as if she has deprived part of herself of some essential oxygen.
“I want you to come home to the tribe,” Hakoda eventually says. “When Bumi is done training with Piandao. Pakku will be wanting to retire and the benders could use a teacher like you. We’re anticipating the new incarnation of the Avatar as well.”
Katara shakes her head. “I’ve had enough Avatar business for this life, Dad,” she says.
“Sweetheart,” Hakoda says, placing a hand on Katara’s shoulder. “I know that losing Aang is hard—”
Katara takes a deep breath. “Aang is dead because of me.”
On the lawn, Izumi and Kya tackle Zuko about the waist and the firebender allows himself to be dragged playfully to the ground. Her daughter is laughing, loud and clear, relishing in the attention bestowed upon her. Katara’s heart shatters into a million pieces for the hundredth time.
“I don’t understand.”
There is an odd freedom in Katara’s burden of guilt over Aang’s death. She notices it suddenly, here next to her father, but suspects it’s been building up for some time.
She remembers being eighteen years old in Ba Sing Se and giving up on Zuko for the first time. There had been a flirtation under flickering lanterns, but there had also been Mai, a line neither of them was willing to cross, as if they could claim innocence if confronted about their closeness.
At that time in her life, Katara had still been so close to what happened in the Agni Kai, Aunt Wu’s words about love and destiny had been ingrained in her impressionable heart. She’d been living her life in conflict when she kissed Aang that night at Iroh’s house, searching for something that would make sense of the tangled mess of feelings in her heart. That kiss had effectively locked her into life with Aang and locked her out of the possibilities that flirtation with Zuko had held. Surprise and vague hurt had been so evident on the firebender’s face when he’d walked in on them, just as worshipful love had been so clear on Aang’s.
Forever girl , Aang had called her before he’d swept her into his arms and kissed her again.
Already constantly worried about letting down Aang in his ideal vision of her, she’d been terrified to do it again, especially after seeing disappointment flicker across Zuko’s face. At that time in her life, Katara simply was not a person who let others down.
Eighteen. She’d been eighteen years old.
And now she is thirty-four and she has spent nearly half of her life terrified of toppling off her pedestal and into the unknown. But her fall from Aang’s grace is over and done with now. No one else who has ever loved her has put her high up on a pillar of perfection and refused to look at her for what or who she is. Not Zuko or Sokka or Suki or Toph. And especially not her father.
Aang is dead. It might be her fault. But she’s freer than she has been in sixteen years.
Katara steps away from her father’s hand and turns to look at him. “I’ve done some terrible things, Dad. I took my children’s father away from them. I made them live unhappily for years.” The words come easier than she expected they would. There is no pedestal for them to crumble.
Hakoda frowns. “Darling, you didn’t take Aang away—”
“That’s not what I mean,” Katara interrupts. She gestures to where Zuko plays with his daughters, a mighty king made human and soft around the edges. “I’m trying to tell you…” She huffs a sigh. Her father’s face is unreadable now. “Aang died because I told him the truth about Bumi and Kya.”
“I’ve been in love with Zuko since I was fifteen, Dad. And I was so stupid about it. He told me how he felt right before I married Aang and I completely ruined all of our lives when I married Aang anyway.” Tears run hot down her cheeks and she scrubs them away with the heels of her hands. “Bumi and Kya are Zuko’s.”
Hakoda is silent for a long moment. Katara watches him study the way Zuko and Kya interact. The similarities aren’t very apparent, but a trained eye can catch them. She wonders how much her father can see.
“Are you certain?” he finally asks.
“Yes,” she says, her voice watery. “Aang and I were never able to conceive.”
“Is Zuko aware?”
“Of course he is. It took years with Bumi. I couldn’t be sure at first given the timing of…things. But…he has Zuko’s smile. His eyes are Zuko’s. Not the color, of course, but the shape. And his temper runs just as hot.”
Zuko roars playfully as he catches Kya around the waist and tosses the little girl up in the air. Her laughter echoes around the walled garden.
“We didn’t intend to… We were young and stupid when Bumi happened. But Kya…we did everything to ensure that it wouldn’t happen again. But she’s still here. And Aang figured it out. Part of it, at least. Something in the way Kya and Izumi were acting one day. He confronted us about the fact that Kya wasn’t his and...we told him everything. He was furious. Justifiably so. I lied to him for nearly ten years. And he took off. Zuko warned him not to because of the storm, but he was so mad that he just…”
She wonders if the brokenness will ever go away. If she will ever wake up one morning feeling like a whole person with a happy, intact family. If she will ever feel like she deserves this freedom given the price it came at.
“I know you’re probably angry with me, Dad.”
One of Hakoda’s hands lands on hers, calloused from ships’ ropes and warm against her cold fingers. “I’m not mad at you, Katara. But I’m disappointed.” Fresh tears spill out of her eyes. “Not because of Bumi or Kya or even Zuko. I’m disappointed that you didn’t follow your heart to begin with.”
“I thought Aang was my destiny.”
Hakoda hums. “Yes. Sokka mentioned something about a fortuneteller.”
“Aang was always so certain. He would talk about the days we spent in Makapu all the time.”
“Your mistakes and missteps are not yours to shoulder alone, Katara. You grew up far faster than you should have,” Hakoda says. There is a tightness in his voice as if something brittle in him may snap at any given moment. “It’s one of my deepest regrets. I wish I had made more of an attempt at preserving your childhood. But after your mother died, I… It became so hard to raise you and Sokka without seeing her in both of you. Like half of me had gone with her. I thought it would be better for you both when I left to join the war effort. No dad was better than half a dad.”
He turns to face Katara fully. Sorrow lines the weathered creases of his aging face. “In leaving, I failed you and your brother. I wasn’t there to guide you when you needed it most. I wasn’t there to remember the good times we had with your mother. And I know that you and Sokka both tried to step in and fill those roles for each other, Katara. When I saw you again after so many years away at war, I was astounded by the woman you’d become. You commandeered that ragtag group so well. You looked out for all of them and you...didn’t need me. Maybe you got so used to putting others first and anticipating their needs and desires that you forgot that you’re also human.”
These words hit home with force. For the first time in a very long time, Katara feels seen and understood by someone who isn’t Zuko.
“I always felt like I couldn’t disappoint Aang in his ideal vision of me. Even before the war ended,” she confesses. “He had this idea of who I was and such a strong worldview and he loved me so much. I felt like I had to live up to his expectations.”
Her father frowns. “That’s never the way you should feel in a loving relationship.”
“It was all I knew until Zuko told me he was in love with me,” Katara says. “I thought it was normal. I thought that was how it was supposed to be when you found the person you were meant to be with.”
“If that’s the way a person makes you feel, then you’re not meant to be with them,” Hakoda says, his voice gentle. “Love helps you to build yourself up to who you want to be, but it also provides support so that you can reach your fullest potential. And when you crash and burn or you’re feeling low, it helps you find the strength to put yourself back together.”
“It’s a partnership.”
Katara sighs. “I messed everything up so bad.”
“Then it’s time you start making things right.”
They turn back to the scene playing out before them. Zukos sits beneath a cherry tree, Kya in his lap and Izumi standing behind him to weave braids into the long, dark length of his hair. Kya holds his five-pronged crown in her tiny hands. They haven’t told the kids yet—neither of them even has a clue how to start such a conversation—but the sight of Zuko’s unrestrained smile when Kya jams the flame-shaped crown into her braid is enough to simultaneously shatter the waterbender and make her whole again.
“I had my suspicions,” Hakoda says. “About Bumi. When Zuko showed up and you allowed him in the room… Well. It might be one of the worst-kept secrets I’ve ever encountered.”
Katara gapes at him. “You never said anything,” she says, flummoxed.
The smile her father casts her way is both sad and self-deprecating. “I didn’t know how, Katara. How do you step in to parent a child when she’s twenty-odd years old and has been as independent as the day is long since she was eight?”
Reaching out, Katara takes one of her father’s hands up in her own and squeezes gently. “I’ll always need you, Dad,” she says.
“ Grampa! ” Kya shouts and they turn to see her scrambling out of Zuko’s lap. Her little feet pound through the grass, glee lighting up her eyes. Hakoda crouches down to meet her, arms open and ready, and he swings her up into the air. When he has her in a steady grasp, she presses a sloppy, wet kiss to his cheek and gives him her toothiest grin. “Hi, Grampa.”
“Hi there, little penguin,” Hakoda says. He brings a finger up to touch the little waterbender’s nose and she squeals. “Whatcha got in your hair?”
Kya reaches up with grasping fingers to touch the flame in her hair as though she’s forgotten it’s there. Katara can see that the golden crown is entirely covered in tiny fingerprints and smudges. Under the tree, Zuko speaks quietly to Izumi who is eying Hakoda with somewhat wary eyes.
“I’m a princess,” Kya tells her grandfather brightly. “Like ‘Zumi!”
“Well, princess,” Katara says, plucking the flame from her daughter’s hair and placing it into small hands, “it’s time to give the Fire Lord his crown back so he can return to work.”
Izumi lingers under the tree, looking shy and uncertain as Zuko walks away from her, picking apart the braids she’d woven into his hair with deft fingers. Katara can see through the careful mask he’s schooled his face into; his eyes disclose how shaken he is by her father’s sudden appearance. He looks every bit the awkward teenager he was so long ago.
“Chief Hakoda.” Zuko bows lower than he should given their equal station before extending his hand in the traditional Water Tribe greeting. Katara can see the way he almost falters in the gesture.
But Hakoda simply shifts Kya’s weight to his other arm and meets Zuko’s hand with his own. “Fire Lord Zuko.”
“I have your fire,” Kya says, waving Zuko’s crown in his face.
“Can you help me put it back in my hair?” Zuko asks.
Kya nods enthusiastically and the firebender ducks his head low. Face scrunched in concentration, Kya aims with her uncoordinated hands and somehow manages to spear the flame into his topknot. He straightens and Katara has to slap a hand over her mouth to keep herself from laughing.
It’s terribly crooked.
“Thank you,” Zuko says, his face utterly serious and his eyes daring Katara to laugh at him.
“Can we play tea party with Mommy and ‘Zumi and Grampa?”
“I have to go talk to some people for a long time. Can we play after dinner?”
Kya’s lower lip pokes out in a pout, but she says, “Okay.”
“Okay,” Zuko says. And then he nods to them all before departing.
Katara watches him go, smile smothered behind her hand. He carries himself with all the regality of his station, but his crown is smudged with sticky little fingerprints where it sits lopsided in his topknot and he has missed one of the braids Izumi wove into the back of his hair. Just before he vanishes through a door, Katara turns and steps into the sunlight of the garden, gesturing for her father to follow her.
She kneels beside Izumi underneath the branches of the cherry tree and rests a gentle hand on the girl’s back. When Izumi’s golden eyes meet the blue of her own, Katara offers a tentative smile.
“Can I introduce you to someone?” she asks.
The sitting room is quiet. With a scroll unfurled across his lap, Zuko sits in an armchair by the empty fireplace. The sconces in the room flicker in time with his breath. A few minutes ago, Katara had herded the girls off to bed, insisting that she was fine to do it on her own and that Zuko take some time to himself. The scroll, usually one of his favorites, goes largely unread as he ponders the events of recent weeks. The truths, the traumas, the tentative hope… A dizzying array of possibilities and probabilities had whirled through his mind all day, unrelenting, and had forced him to cut his last meeting of the day short, a dispute between departments unresolved.
Movement in the doorway and a smudge of blue in the peripheral vision of his bad eye has Zuko rising out of his chair, ready to take Katara into his arms. Instead, he finds himself face to face with her father. The chief had arrived at some point today. It wasn’t until Kya had let out a joyous shout of “ Grampa! ” and gone tearing across the lawn that he even realized Hakoda was around, a fact that either shed light on a flaw in security or was a credit to that famous Water Tribe ingenuity. Probably both.
The man holds up a hand, an odd smile ghosting over his lips. “I think we can dispense with the formalities right now, Zuko.” He makes himself comfortable in the chair across from the firebender’s. “Especially in light of the discussion I had with Katara today.”
Zuko’s knees buckle and he sinks rather inelegantly back into his seat with a fwoop of air and material. “You had a…discussion,” he restates. “With Katara.”
“Mm.” Hakoda sets about pouring himself some tea. His hair is graying and his face is more weathered than in years past. “I’ve been in the Fire Nation less than twelve hours and I’ve already learned some rather surprising things.”
“Sir, I,” Zuko begins, but Hakoda pins him with a look that the Fire Lord has only ever seen in Katara’s eyes when she’s displeased and he promptly shuts his mouth. He rolls the scroll back up and sets it aside. All of a sudden he’s on the precipice of seventeen again and busting this warrior out of the Fire Nation’s highest security prison. Dinner sits like a rock in his stomach.
“I came here with two goals in mind,” Hakoda continues. “First, I wanted to give Sokka a chance to shoulder some responsibility in the tribe without the opportunity to use me as a crutch. Second, I wanted to persuade Katara to come home and help to train the next Avatar. You can imagine my surprise when she refused.”
“Yes. And then she told me some rather earth shattering things about my grandchildren. I’m sure you’ll forgive me for missing dinner in light of that.”
The firebender feels all of the blood leave his face. Sweat pools under his armpits. Hakoda’s face is entirely inscrutable as he raises his cup of tea to his lips and drinks. And Zuko thinks, panicking, that Katara could have at least told him that she’d told her dad the truth and that it had gone horribly. He’s never been good with fathers and she knows that and he could have prepared himself for this and…
“What I did was dishonorable,” Zuko says, head bowed. “I know that. And I can’t go back and fix anything, but—”
“But,” Hakoda cuts in, “you have provided Bumi and Kya with things critical to their happiness.”
Zuko’s freezes and feels an overabundance of color flush his cheeks. “All I did was find Bumi a sword master,” he mumbles.
“You gave that boy confidence ,” Hakoda says. Zuko looks up hesitantly just in time to see the corners of the chief’s lips quirk up in a sad smile. “Imagine growing up in a home with Katara and Aang—both powerful masters and one of them the Avatar—and not being a bender.”
“Bending doesn’t matter,” Zuko says. He can’t help thinking of his kind, quick-witted Izumi, his mother, Sokka, Suki...even Hakoda himself.
“No. It doesn’t. But imagine being a child and wanting the approval and love of a father who is disappointed in you and who you are.”
Zuko frowns. “I don’t have to imagine that,” he says roughly. “That was my entire life until Uncle stepped in.”
Hakoda acknowledges this with a nod of his head. “Then you understand why your acceptance matters to Bumi. No, Aang was never cruel or cold, but he was distant and his disappointment ran so deep that he couldn’t connect with the boy. The way Bumi relentlessly sought his approval made Katara sad.”
“I’ve witnessed that sadness.” Zuko shifts uncomfortably in his seat. “It’s not all Aang’s fault. It’s mine, too.”
“But you’ve sought to remedy it. In doing so, you’ve lightened Katara’s load and you’ve made her happier. You’ve invited her and the children here multiple times to help ease her burdens. You’ve put her happiness and the children’s happiness first. You’ve loved them all. Those are some of the traits of an honorable man, Zuko. You haven’t lost your grip on that entirely.
“Now,” Hakoda sets his teacup aside and leans forward, forearms braced on his knees, “exactly how does this end?”
Zuko’s mouth goes dry without warning. “Um,” he says, tongue a wad of paper in his mouth. “What?”
Hakoda frowns. “Do you intend to let my grandchildren live a life without their father?”
“What?!” Zuko yelps, alarmed. Sweat rolls down his spine. He’s absolutely drenched now. The room is way too hot . “No! I just… Katara and I haven’t discussed it yet. What she wants.”
The Water Tribe chief sits back and folds his arms over his chest. “What do you want?” he asks pointedly.
“Everything I’ve wanted since I was sixteen,” Zuko blurts out, face beet red. Hakoda’s eyebrows shoot up his forehead in a way that would be almost comical were it not for the situation. “Oh, Agni .” He’s way past flustered now and so tempted to bury his face in his palms. “Chief Hakoda… Dadkoda… Ah, fuck . Hakoda .”
Said Water Tribesman is outright chuckling at the Fire Lord now. Zuko’s misery must be quite plain on his face because the laughter only lasts for a moment before Hakoda attempts to school his features. “I’m not trying to interrogate you, Zuko,” he says. His lips twitch and he attempts to suppress a giggle. “Really! I just want my family to be happy. And apparently that includes you.”
“I’m touched,” Zuko says dryly. This is worse than the time he called Ozai the Father Lord. Sokka still won’t let him live that down and he has a feeling that Hakoda will be relaying this slip up to his son the moment he gets a chance. Dealing with the Southern Water Tribe’s proclivity for levity during serious situations has never been one of Zuko’s strongest diplomatic skills. “Can we please forget that just happened?”
“It’s forgotten,” Hakoda says with a wave of his hand. Amusement still twinkles in his eyes, though.
Zuko, wishing for nothing more than the ability to evaporate on the spot, presses his humiliation down and attempts to clarify himself. “A, um…” He clears his throat. “A few years ago, before Katara and Aang got married, I did something...stupid.”
“Let me guess,” Hakoda says. “You wrote my daughter a letter that was remarkably inappropriate given the situation.”
“It wasn’t inappropriate ,” Zuko grumbles. “Not like that . I just… Wait.” He pauses. He frowns. “Did she tell you about that letter?”
“Sokka found it amongst her things not long before Bumi was born,” Hakoda says. “Claimed he was looking for his boomerang.” This is punctuated by an eye roll.
All of a sudden, the conversation Zuko and Sokka had over the flask the night before Bumi’s birth makes a lot more sense.
It could have been anyone.
It could have been you.
Sokka knew . He’d known for years .
"He told me you were in love with Katara like it was news to me."
At the way Zuko's gaze sharpens, Hakoda taps his chest. Instinctively, Zuko raises his own hand to mirror him only to feel the ridges of the lightning scar beneath his fingertips. His face flushes scarlet. It seems he's been an open book to everyone from the start. Lovely.
“Anyway,” Hakoda continues, “he told me about your letter and I told him to let sleeping polar bear dogs lie, but you know Sokka.”
“Right. He and Katara have discussed that letter at length. Many times. He’s always considered you one of his best friends, you know.”
“Doubt that’ll hold once the rest of this comes to light,” Zuko mutters.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if he already knows about Bumi and Kya.”
Zuko looks at Hakoda sharply, feeling paranoia rise like bile in his throat. “What?”
Hakoda shrugs. “For a long, long time, Sokka was the only friend Katara had and vice versa. They’re close to this day. And… alarmingly good at keeping one another’s secrets.” At Zuko’s terrified silence, he is careful to add, “I don’t think you need to be worried about any sort of retribution at his hands. Things were tense between him and Aang the past few years. Aang didn’t like how much of an influence Sokka was on Bumi and Sokka… Well, Sokka felt strongly about how ambivalent Aang seemed to be towards the kids. You, like Sokka, have stepped in to fill the spaces in their lives that Aang refused to fill. He respects that. And he respects you.”
Respect isn’t something Zuko is positive he deserves considering the circumstances, so he lapses into an uncomfortable silence, pressing his lips shut and staring into the bottom of his tea cup.
“I’m sure the last years haven’t been easy,” Hakoda ventures after a moment.
“What comes next won’t be any easier,” Zuko replies. “If Katara wants to… If she wants to stay, I’m not certain I can grant Bumi his birthright.” He drags his eyes up to the chief’s, rolling the cup between his palms.
“You took Bumi to watch Fire Nation soldiers train when he was six years old and it’s all I’ve heard him talk about since,” Hakoda says. “Something tells me he won’t have the temperament for politics.”
“It does require sitting still for large portions of the day,” Zuko says dryly.
Hakoda chuckles and it fades away into a smile.
“Life is peculiar, isn’t it? If someone had told me twenty years ago that my grandkids would share blood with the Fire Lord, I’d have eaten my own shorts and maybe gone to battle over it.”
“I’m certain Azulon is rolling in his grave,” Zuko bites out and can’t help the sadistic smile that spreads across his face. “His failure of a grandson on the throne, the father of Southern Water Tribe peasants, neither of them firebenders…” He lets out a low whistle. “If I hadn’t tarnished the family reputation before… Might as well finish the job.”
“Tarnishing the name of murderers and tyrants in the name of peace? There is honor in that, Zuko. History will remember you for all you’ve done to make the world a better place. What you do sets precedence for the years to come.” Hakoda winks. “That’s half the fun in being a revolutionary.”
“And it’s ninety percent of the stress,” Zuko counters.
This is answered with a shrug of deference. “You’re not alone,” the other man says. “She’ll stay, you know. And when she does, you’ll have the full force of both tribes to support you. Arnook is getting old and he’s not looking to start an inter-tribe war with me over my daughter’s love life.”
“She might not stay.”
“She will. She didn’t follow her heart all those years ago. It’s a mistake that she won’t make again.”
Caldera City stretches out under the stars, lights sparking in and out through the dark cover of night. Katara stands before the southern windows, a robe of blue silk draped around her body, the long, dark waves of her hair damp from a bath. Several stories below, the collection of fountains in Zuko’s favorite garden send their bubbling, flowing music up through the air. On silent feet, he comes to stand behind her, slips his arms about her waist, and rests his chin on the crown of her head. When she leans into him, he can’t resist the urge to squeeze her just a little tighter.
“I like this room,” she says quietly. “I feel like I could see the southern auroras all the way from here if I just looked hard enough.”
Zuko hums and nuzzles his face into the dewy strands of her hair. “I didn’t want to sleep in Ozai’s room,” he says. “And this one made me think of you.”
“What can I say? I’m a bit of a masochist.”
In the dim reflection of the window, he sees a sad smile touch her lips. She raises her hand to cup his cheek, fingers stroking along the mangled ridges of his scar.
“You never told me that, you know. What you told Aang.”
“How strongly you felt for me all these years. That even when we were stupid kids you saw everything we could be if we were both willing to fight for it.” Her voice is little more than a whisper. “You never told me that you wanted to marry me.”
And just like the night he had told Aang of those plans, Zuko finds that there is no childish embarrassment in hearing them spoken aloud. He doesn’t feel foolish and he isn’t mortified that she knows, that she heard and remembers. No part of him is worried about her reaction to it. He thinks that maybe they’ve been inevitable all along, that maybe his mother was right. Sometimes it takes a journey.
“I still want to,” Zuko says.
Katara turns in his arms to face him, her blue eyes wide and searching. “You do?” she asks.
“When you’re ready,” he tells her. “When the kids are ready. And if you really want to take on all that that would entail.”
“If I wanted to, I could enact a law that says every Fire Lord for the rest of time has to marry a waterbender and nobody could stop me,” Zuko jokes, gesturing to the golden flame he’d discarded on the desk in his room. “It’s one of the perks of wearing the fancy crown.”
Katara laughs and stretches up on her toes to press a kiss to his mouth. “I can’t believe I messed all of this up so horribly. I spent so many years loving you and missing you and wishing that everything had been different,” she says. “And you were here all along. I should have never married him. I should have…”
Zuko can see the way her eyes shimmer, tears welling up without falling. Wordlessly, he pulls her towards the bed and they sink to the mattress together, finding their way back into each other’s arms without effort.
“That’s all in the past,” he says earnestly, holding her tight. “We have the rest of our lives if that’s what you want.”
She kisses him, sweet and soft and wanting, swinging a leg over his hips to settle atop him. Nimble fingers pick apart the knot that closes his tunic. It’s entirely too easy to lose himself in her, his hands in the soft length of her hair as her mouth parts. When her cool fingertips brush over the scar on his chest, it sends a shock of love to his heart and he holds her ever tighter, a palm sliding down her back to press her hips to his.
“I’m in love with you,” she murmurs, grinding her hips down. She’s bare beneath her silk robe, sliding slick over him through his pants. “I’m so in love with you.”
Zuko growls, ruts up against her, seeking the friction. “Stay with me,” he pleads between kisses. “Please.” It’s the same request he made of her three years ago.
And this time, Katara says, “Yes.”
The tie of her robe unravels easily and Zuko is shoving it off her shoulders when there is insistent knocking at the door of his room. Katara pulls back, but he shakes his head. “They’ll go away,” he tells her. “Give it a minute.” He sinks his teeth into the juncture of her neck and shoulder and she goes boneless, a soft moan escaping her mouth.
But the knocking continues, this time accompanied by a small, insistent voice that calls, “Uncle Zuko!”
Katara is off of him like a shot, scrambling back into her robe and shoving the belt of his tunic into his hands. Zuko sits up, half hard and confused.
“What are you doing?”
“That’s Kya!” the waterbender hisses. She’s halfway to the door.
“Are you answering the door? Katara, she’s looking for me!” Zuko scrambles off the bed, tying the belt of his tunic in a sloppy knot. “Do you want her to know you’re here?”
Katara scoffs and rolls her eyes. “The kids are going to find out at some point , Zuko. And she is three . She won’t know what’s going on.”
“The guards don’t know you’re in here,” Zuko states. Katara freezes, her hand on the doorknob.
“Good point.” She steps aside, but there is a strange look in her eyes. She doesn’t like that she can’t answer the door to his room.
Heart clenching at Katara’s dissatisfaction, Zuko opens the door, looking down into the tear-stained face of his youngest daughter. “Hi, turtleduck,” he says. An odd sound comes from Katara’s direction. “What’s going on?”
When he kneels down, Kya shuffles forward and throws her arms around his neck. “I had a scary dream,” she says, her voice tiny and her fists small where they grip the back of his shirt.
“I can’t find Mommy.”
“Oh.” A sigh gusts out of Zuko’s mouth and he gathers Kya into his arms. He stands and closes the door. The little girl’s tears are rolling down his neck and he’s pretty confident she’s wiping her nose there too. “Well, that’s okay. Mommy is here.”
Katara is at his side in half a heartbeat, her hand smoothing over Kya’s hair. “Hi, baby.”
Kya hiccups and sniffs, turning to rest her cheek on Zuko’s shoulder so that she can better see her mother. “Hi, Mommy.”
“Did you have a bad dream?”
“There was a dragon.”
“Do you want to sleep in my room tonight?” Katara asks and Kya shakes her head. “No?”
“Uncle Zuko’s warm.”
The waterbender chuckles. “He is, isn’t he?” She turns her eyes to Zuko’s. “Do you mind if she stays with you tonight?”
“Not at all,” Zuko says. He reaches blindly with his free hand and grabs one of hers. “You both should.”
They don’t do this. There have always been carefully placed rules and Zuko has been the one to break them only once or twice. He’s asking her not to leave before first light and he knows she knows it.
The answering look in Katara’s eyes adds fuel to the steadily burning flame he holds for her in his heart.
Together, they make Kya comfortable beneath the sheets and blankets on Zuko’s bed. They settle on either side of her and something compels Zuko to say, “Do you want to hear a happy story about dragons?”
Kya nods. So he tells her about two brave young men who discover a long-forgotten city deep in the mountainous jungles of the Fire Nation. And he tells her of a golden sunstone and about the band of warriors who dedicated their lives to protecting the last two dragons. She and Katara are both asleep by the time he reaches Ran and Shaw and the colorful dragon fire, but he continues on. And when the story is over, he extinguishes the torches around the room, holding them both close.
“I was wondering,” Zuko says one evening a few weeks later as he and his mother scatter crumbs for the turtleducks, “what your sewing skills are like.”
“My sewing skills?”
The sunset is a riot of color in the sky, shocking pinks and oranges with ripples of yellow. On the other side of the garden, Katara is bending a stream of water into different shapes that their children take turns calling out. Izumi’s eyes are wide with wonder as she watches the water shift and shimmer.
“There’s a tradition in the Southern Water Tribe. When a woman gets married, her mother-in-law sews her wedding parka. It’s a gesture. A way to welcome her into the family.”
Ursa dumps all of her crumbs into the water below them, dusting them from her palms. “You’re getting married?” she asks.
“I haven’t asked her yet,” Zuko clarifies. “But I know it takes a long time to make one. I’ve written to Suki and she’s willing to work on part of it if you’ll work on the other. I thought maybe that would be a nice way of welcoming Katara into our family while still paying homage to the ties she has to hers. We could surprise her with it.”
His mother is silent for a long while, her face pensive as she watches Katara and the children.
“I know it’s been a lot to process,” Zuko says solemnly. “Katara and Bumi and Kya… It was all a bit of a mess. But—”
“I adore Bumi and Kya,” Ursa interrupts. “And Katara is wonderful. I think the three of them have brought a lot of joy to your life and Izumi’s. It was...shocking to hear the truth, Zuko, but you’re a grown man. Your choices and actions are out of my hands.” She withdraws a scroll from the pocket of her robe and holds it out. “I did find this for you, though.”
Zuko takes the scroll and unfurls it. The parchment is old and prone to crumbling at the edges. He feels his good eyebrow jump up his forehead as he scans the contents.
“Many years ago, I caught your father in a lie. I suspected that he was interfering with my correspondence, so I wrote a letter to the man I had been engaged to before I had to accept Ozai. In that letter, I alleged that you were not Ozai’s child.”
Mouth hinging open, Zuko states at his mother. “But I… But I am ,” he says weakly. “I look just like him!”
“You are.” Ursa reaches out to pat his hand. “But Ozai was a jealous and controlling man from the start. I had to know for certain what lengths he had gone to in order to cut my ties to my old life. He was furious, to put it lightly. When he showed me this document, it wasn’t so much to threaten all that you would lose but all that I would lose. If another man had been your father, the penalty would have been death. In showing me this, Ozai was telling me that I needed to decide between the freedom I had in my chains here and the ability to protect you from him or losing everything and sentencing you and the other man to die.
“I believe I did you more harm than good in the end. He never fully believed you could be his child after that.”
Zuko swallows hard around the lump in his throat.
“We all… We all make mistakes, Zuko. And while we might bear the brunt of the consequences of those mistakes, our children should never have to suffer alongside us.”
He looks back at the ancient, faded writing on the scroll. The content is lengthy, but begins with the words that could change everything for Bumi and Kya.
A father must acknowledge and provide for any children resulting from any intimate relations…
“I learned how to sew when I was in exile,” Ursa says. “I’m not the greatest, but perhaps the palace seamstresses can offer me some advice.”