Must be strong and we must let go, cannot say what our hearts must know. How can I not love you? What do I tell my heart? When do I not want you, here in my arms? How does one waltz away from all the memories? How do I not miss you when you are gone?"
- "How Can I Not Love You" by Joy Enriquez
"Kya, for the last time, please stop waterbending your brother into an ice cube." Katara begged her 10-year-old daughter for what felt like the hundredth time that week.
"Yes mom." Kya huffed and bent her brother free from his icy encasement.
12-year-old Bumi glared balefully at his sister and Katara sighed with utter exhaustion. Shading her eyes she looked out over the horizon searching for any signs of her husband and his flying bison, scowling when only the crystalline clouds were to be seen. A week, she thought, he said he'd only be gone for a week.
Turning back to the laundry she took the wet clothes and continued to spread them across the line to dry in the spring sun. While bending the water out was faster sometimes Katara preferred to let nature dry the clothes for her.
Suddenly, there was a large growling noise in the sky startling Katara from her chore.
"Mommy look!" Kya exclaimed, pointing to the sky, "It's a dragon!"
Katara's heart thumped. For a moment she had thought it was Aang returning on Appa but the wriggling red streak in the sky was definitely not Appa. A red dragon meant only one person. It's been five years, what could he possibly want to come here for?
Bumi and Kya raced excitedly to the entry gate to greet their incoming guest. Katara intentionally lagged behind, combing her fingers nervously through her long chestnut hair. There was no reason to be so worked up she told herself, for all she knew this was purely a business visit.
With a mighty grumble the great red dragon, Yan, descended. He touched down on the ground just in front of the temple and Katara awed the beast as she approached. It had been years since she had seen the Fire Lord's dragon companion but he had certainly grown. Lowering his massive head Yan allowed his rider to dismount just in front of the bright eager faces of her children.
"Uncle Zuko!" Both kids erupted at once, running to embrace the man.
Fire Lord Zuko chuckled warmly as Kya and Bumi hugged him, nearly knocking him to the ground. Katara smiled wistfully, years of practice managing to reduce the pain in her heart to a dull ache. It had been five years but Zuko looked much the same as last she had seen him. Long dark hair draped his shoulders, half pulled back and adorned with the flame symbolizing Fire Nation royalty.
"It's good to see you too, look at how big you're both getting!" Zuko made a show of admiring both Kya and Bumi. "Kya I think you're almost as tall as Youmei."
Kya beamed proudly, "Mama says I'll be ready to start working on more advanced forms of bending soon."
"Is that so?"
"Uncle Sokka's been teaching me how to use a sword." Bumi boasted, not to be out-done by his younger sister.
"A wooden one." Kya teased.
"Everyone has to start somewhere." Her brother shot back hotly.
"Now children, I'm sure the Fire Lord is very exhausted from his trip, why don't you let him come in and rest before hounding him on all your progress?" Katara admonished gently as she walked down the steps.
Zuko looked up, a look of surprise on his face, which he expertly schooled so that it was only a flicker. "Hello Katara." He greeted, smiling faintly.
"Zuko, to what do we owe this pleasure?" She smiled politely in return. She was no longer a silly girl unable to control her feelings. Decades of experience had taught her how to hide what she really felt.
"You'll have to forgive me for visiting without notice, but I was on my way back to the Fire Nation and Aang asked me to swing by."
"Let me guess," Katara said frowning, "He's going to be longer than he thought?"
"Unfortunately, something came up while he and Tenzin were at the Eastern Air Temple." Zuko grimaced, looking rather uncomfortable being the messenger with such disappointing tidings. "He says he's sorry and that they'll come back home as soon as they can."
Katara sighed openly; it was so very like her husband to send someone else to tell her he wouldn't be home as he had promised.
"Well, that's to be expected I guess. Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to come here personally and tell us. I'm sorry my husband inconvenienced you like that."
"It's never an inconvenience." Zuko said, frowning at her stiff formality. "I was overdue for a visit anyway."
"Come on Uncle Zuko," Kya ran forward taking one of his hands and tugging on it, "Bumi and I can show you around."
"Yeah, I bet you haven't seen the Sky Bison stables!" Bumi added excitedly, rushing forward to take Zuko's other hand.
As the kids began to drag him off Zuko chuckled, "You're right, I don't think I have. Do you think there's enough space for Yan?"
Kya pursed her lips in thought, "There might be, but I don't know if the other bison would like that."
"That's not a problem, Yan's friendly, he won't hurt them." Zuko promised.
"It'll be fine Kya, most of them are just babies anyway and Moogi is with dad and Tenzin." Bumi told his sister. "Come on!"
Bumi and Kya tugged the Fire Lord off in the direction of the stables, babbling excitedly to their guest. Katara watched them off, smiling she called after them, "Just make sure you're back inside for dinner!"
"We will mom!" Her kids answered in unison.
Ambling behind her children Zuko looked over his shoulder, gracing her with one of his crooked smiles that made her heart skip a beat. He hadn't changed at all. Sucking in a breath Katara reminded herself that she wasn't a child anymore and turned back to go inside and start preparing dinner.
Dinner had been quite an event. Katara couldn't get a word in edge-wise between her two children constantly chattering at Zuko. The last time he'd seen them they'd been much younger and not nearly as articulate, but now they carried on back and forth on a multitude of subjects. Kya loved telling Zuko about her training and how she couldn't wait to see Youmei, Zuko's daughter who was only a year older than Bumi, and show her what she could do. Bumi, on the other hand, was beyond excited to share some of the moves Zuko had shown him.
"It was so amazing mom, did you know Uncle Zuko uses dual dao blades! I've never known a bender who learned how to use swords before." It was all he could do to remain in his seat, he was bursting with energy.
Katara chuckled, "Zuko's always been unique in that regard. It's come in handy many times, for as powerful as benders are without our bending we are defenseless. Your Aunt Suki taught me how to defend myself in hand to hand combat—bending isn't everything kids."
Bumi nodded happily in agreement while Kya seemed to grow quiet in contemplation. "Do you think Aunt Suki might teach me some moves momma?"
"Of course, sweetie, and I can show you what she taught me."
Kya seemed to brighten at this, taking a few more bites of her dinner.
"Mom," Bumi piped up next, "when are dad and Tenzin coming home?"
Katara couldn't help the frown that crossed her face, shooting a look at Zuko who cleared his throat and replied, "He told me that he would be home as soon as he could. There were just some more things he wanted to show Tenzin before he came back home."
"Oh," Katara's heart caved a little as Bumi's face crumpled with disappointment.
"Your father will be home as soon as he can," Katara assured her son, reaching over to rumple his brown hair lovingly, "and then you can show him how good you're getting at the sword."
"I guess," Bumi said apathetically.
Silence descended over the table as the kids ate their dinner, but the mirth had gone from their faces. Zuko looked at Katara with concern shining in his golden eyes and all she could do was return the look sadly.
Aang meant well, taking Tenzin with him as he traveled the world on his Avatar duties, spending most of the time at the different air temples training Tenzin and teaching him Air Nomad culture. Katara could understand—they'd had a hundred different… talks… about it; she knew this was important to him and ever since Tenzin had shown his abilities to airbend Aang had been determined that Tenzin would carry on his legacy. But he was never there to see the pained looks on Kya and Bumi's face when they were left behind.
"Okay kids, it's time to get ready for bed. Go and wash up and I'll be by in a little bit to tell you stories." Katara told them.
"Can Uncle Zuko tell us stories tonight mom?" Bumi asked as he got up from the table.
"It's up to him honey."
"I would be more than happy to, my uncle told me lots of stories and Youmei has grown tired of hearing most of them by now." Zuko chuckled awkwardly.
Both kids exchanged happy looks and headed off to their rooms to get ready for bed. Katara stood and began gathering dishes from the table; diligently pretending that being alone with her firebending companion wasn't making her heart pound nervously.
"Here," he offered, "let me help." Stacking his empty dishes together he reached for the ones Katara was unable to get.
"Oh, please, you don't have to—"
"For old time's sake?"
Katara felt the heat rise on her cheeks and immediately tried to get better control of herself, "Thank you."
He helped her gather up the dishes and followed her into the kitchen, placing them in the basin to be washed. Katara busied herself with cleaning the dishes, Zuko falling in beside her to dry them.
"It's been a long time since I've done this," He admitted with a laugh.
"Just don't break anything."
They stood there, cleaning and drying the dishes in companionable silence. Katara mused internally that it felt as if no time had passed at all and they were teens again, things had been so much easier then.
"How's Mai?" She finally decided to break the silence.
Zuko sighed, "She's good; she took Youmei to visit her parents for a few weeks. It gets her out of the palace which makes her much happier."
"Being Fire Lady is a tough job," Katara commented, she and Mai had never been particularly close but they had managed to come to an understanding over the years. She knew the raven-haired beauty never liked politics, but she did her best out of her love for Zuko but took advantage of any opportunity to leave the confines of the royal palace.
"How often does Aang take Tenzin off on his trips?"
The question was innocent enough but Katara dropped the dish she was scrubbing with a weary sigh. "Ever since Tenzin started airbending they've become more frequent. It used to just be for a few days, now it's been turning into weeks.
"Aang insists that it's always just to the air temples to expose Tenzin to his culture, but Tenzin came home last time raving about the elephant koi and Kya and Bumi were so heartbroken. Aang had been promising to take them to ride the elephant koi when they were old enough, but he took Tenzin even though he's not even 7 yet."
There was a warmth on her shoulder and Katara turned to see Zuko looking at her with sympathy, his hand a comforting reminder that she could confide in him about anything.
"I don't know what to do, I tell him that he needs to take Kya and Bumi too but he always says 'next time'," Katara swallowed the lump in her throat, "but he's never here to see their faces, to hear them question if he really loves them as much as Tenzin.
"Zuko, I love him but he just doesn't understand. Growing up he lived in a community with other airbenders, he's not used to the idea of a traditional family and he somehow thinks I should be enough for Kya and Bumi. He doesn't realize how much they need their father."
The tears broke free then and Katara felt so foolish. It had been years since she and Zuko had been alone like this but he always understood and never judged her feelings. Ever since that day in the caves a life time ago she somehow found herself sharing her burdens with him in a way she was never able to share them with anyone else.
Silently Zuko took her in his arms and let her cry, holding her close. He was so much broader and solid than Aang. Aang was literally like trying to hold air, Zuko was warmth and stability. With a pang in her heart Katara realized she had missed this. There had been a chance, long ago, that they could've been something very different, but duty and obligation took precedence and they had agreed that whatever it was they had would have to be put aside.
Katara allowed him to hold her, burying her face in his chest as she cried. It was as if the dam had opened and she was able to release all those feelings she had buried deep within.
"I could take him on a field trip of my own again if you want," Zuko's chest rumbled as he spoke.
"No, that's okay." A choked laugh bubbled up from Katara's lips; lifting her head from his chest she tried to scrub the tears from her eyes. "I'm sorry, I haven't seen you in years and here I am blubbering on you."
"Hey," Zuko said, tucking a finger under her chin to look into her eyes, "you never have to apologize to me, you know that."
Katara gave him a watery smile, "Thank you."
"Mom?" Kya's small voice came from the doorway.
Pushing away from Zuko with a speed that would have made a komodo rhino jealous Katara whirled to face her daughter, hoping that it wasn't so obvious that she had been crying. "What is it honey?"
"Bumi and I are ready for bed."
"Okay, I'll be right there in a moment." Zuko told her.
Kya nodded with a smile, looking curiously between Zuko and her mother before wandering back down the hall to her room.
As soon as Kya disappeared around the corner Katara sagged against the counter with a sigh, covering her face with her hand, her heart pounding furiously in her chest. She had let her emotions get the best of her and completely forgotten herself.
"I'll go tell them some stories, hopefully they'll get so bored they'll fall asleep, Youmei usually does." Zuko said, followed with an awkward chuckle.
Katara lifted her head so she could smile, "You'd be surprised with those two."
"I'm sure I will be," he said with an affectionate smile, heading off down the hall in the direction Kya had gone just a few moments before.
Katara watched him go, smile fading from her face. This was harder than she thought.
Once the chores had been completed for the evening Katara went to check on Zuko and the kids, making her last rounds before settling in for the night. As she approached down the hall she could hear Zuko's muffled voice trailing from the bedroom. Treading quietly Katara came to the doorway; the sliding door was left slightly opened so that she was able to peek inside.
Both kids were curled up on Kya's bed, Kya already fast asleep but Bumi was fighting it, raptly paying attention to the tale Zuko was telling. Zuko sat at the end of the bed, hands gesturing dramatically as he told Bumi, "And then from their mouths erupted a great swirl of flames in more colors than you can imagine! Your father and I stood transfixed in the middle, watching the flames whirl around us. To this day I have never seen a more beautiful sight."
"Will you teach me the Dancing Dragon?" Bumi's eyes shone bright with wonder despite their obvious exhaustion.
Zuko smiled indulgently, "Sure, I'll show you the moves before I leave tomorrow."
"Aww, do you have to leave so soon?"
"I'm afraid so buddy, the Fire Nation can only run itself for so long."
"Will you come visit us again?"
Katara held her breath as her son peppered her old friend with questions, Zuko clearly hesitating before thoughtfully answering, "I can't promise you anything, but I will try, okay?"
"Bumi," she called softly, pushing the door open all the way to enter Kya's room, "it's getting late honey, and you need to get to your room."
Crawling out of Kya's bed Bumi started to leave the room, turning to look over his shoulder at Zuko, "Thank you for the stories Uncle Zuko."
Katara hugged her son, kissing the top of his dark hair, "Good night sweetheart, sleep well."
"Night mom," he said with a tired, but contented smile, walking across the hall to his room and closing the door behind him.
Making her way over to her daughter's bed Katara pulled the sheets up around Kya's sleeping form, leaning over her to kiss her forehead tenderly. Zuko stood beside the bed, watching quietly, following her when she exited the room, bending the flames from the lanterns as they slid the door closed.
"I hope they weren't too much trouble," Katara commented.
"Not at all, they were very attentive. Youmei hardly lets me tuck her in anymore."
"13 the going age for adulthood now?"
"Something like that," Zuko smirked, "she's her mother's daughter."
A laugh escaped Katara's lips, "Somehow I'm not surprised by that at all. Come, I'll show you to your room." She gestured for him to follow her.
They continued down the hall to the guest rooms, Katara stopping before the first unoccupied space. "It isn't quite up to Fire Lord standards I'm afraid, but I think it should suffice."
"So long as it's not those horrid silk sheets I've had to sleep on, I think I'll be fine." Zuko bantered in return, entering the room and looking around.
Katara lingered in the doorway, there was more she felt she wanted to say but part of her knew that she just needed to walk away before she did something she would come to regret.
"Kya…" Zuko broke the silence, "she's a lot like you too."
Blinking, Katara looked at Zuko curiously. "What do you mean?"
"I see you in her, Bumi may be older, but he lets Kya mother him. She has your determination, your passion, and your eyes." Zuko added the last bit with a tender tone that Katara hadn't heard in years. It threatened to overwhelm her.
"I-I should go," Katara took a step back, ready to fled the room.
Zuko's hand lashed out and grabbed her wrist, "No, wait, please."
With a gentle tug he pulled her closer and Katara was unable to will her body to leave as his warm arms enveloped her once more. "Watching her today—Kya, she showed me how far she's gotten in her bending training and watching her… it was like watching you again."
Katara smiled weakly, "Every day, I see more and more of myself in her. I think that's why Aang spends so much time with Tenzin, Tenzin is so very much like his father."
Zuko frowned, gold eyes darkening in thought as he gazed down at her, bringing up a hand to caress her cheek. Katara felt her resolve crumbling, nuzzling into the feel of his touch. It had been so long.
"For a moment, I wondered what it would be like if Kya and Bumi were ours." Zuko said softly, knowing that admitting the thought alone meant betraying everything.
"I know—I know what we said all those years ago. I know that we did what we thought was best but Katara, seeing you earlier; seeing how Aang's absence is hurting you and the kids… it kills me inside. I thought I was giving you up to a greater happiness, not this misery."
"It isn't always like this…" Katara explained, "He really is a good father."
"When he's here," Zuko finished for her.
"He can't help it."
"Yes he can, just like my father could've."
That statement drove the pain home. Katara knew Aang didn't have malicious intent like Ozai, but his clear preference of one child over the others was starting to give her children the same broken, haunted look Zuko had as a teen. It made the tears well up in her eyes once more.
"Aang loves them all, he does Zuko. I know you mean well, but we made our choice a long time ago." Katara forced herself to pull away from his embrace.
Zuko gazed at her forlornly, "I just hate seeing you cry."
"I know," she told him with a soft smile, "but it's not your place to rescue me anymore."
"Maybe, but I will never stop being here for you, if you need me."
Katara could feel her heart swelling and breaking all over again. Why did he have to understand so well? She swore to herself that she would never regret her choices, but today she found herself doing just that. It was tearing her apart inside. All the carefully crafted walls she had built all came tumbling down the instant Zuko was around.
"I will never stop needing you," she confessed in a small pained voice, "but that doesn't change anything."
"It's late," Zuko changed the subject, "you should rest."
Katara nodded numbly, "Good night Zuko."
Taking a step forward, Zuko pulled her close again, cradling her face in his hands and pressing a gentle lingering kiss on her forehead. "Sleep well Katara."
Stepping from the room Katara escaped down the hall, fleeing to her room before the sobs threatened to overtake her. Whipping the sliding door open she rushed inside, immediately sliding the door shut behind her. For the first time in ages she cried herself to sleep, dreaming of Kya wearing red and Bumi with amber eyes.
The next morning flew by in a haze. After breakfast the kids immediately dragged Zuko outside so that he could teach Bumi the Dancing Dragon, Kya naturally wanted to go along, having missed out on the ending that particular story but no less interested. Katara had spent the morning coasting from one task to the next, trying not to focus on the aching in her chest.
Katara barely saw any of them until lunch time, but as they sat around the table one last time she tried to enjoy herself. After the meal Zuko announced that he would need to be heading back home before his Chancellor sent the army out looking for him. Kya and Bumi whined in protest.
"Uncle Zuko has responsibilities and duties he needs to return to," Katara chided them, "and you two have some stables to clean."
Another unified complaining groan came from both children.
"Come on, you two can help me get Yan ready." Zuko offered as a compromise, rising from the table.
"Next time you come to visit can we ride him?" Bumi asked as he jumped up to follow Zuko.
"Hopefully it won't be so long until next time," Kya added readily, following behind Zuko and her brother.
Their excited chattering faded out the door as Katara remained behind, standing up to clear the table. Placing the dishes in the basin, she stood there for a few moments, weighing her heart. A part of her was glad that he was leaving and that her life could go back to normal, but another part of her was falling apart. It was easier to put that part of herself away when he wasn't around, be Aang's wife and mother to his children; play her part.
Inhaling deeply and then exhaling slowly Katara wandered back outside toward the stables to see off their guest. Yan had indeed been too big for their stables but he had settled in peacefully enough in the open space. The few sky bison that they kept on the island were intrigued by their new companion and when Katara approached she found the bison licking and grumbling at the dragon in their own form of good-bye. It was an intriguing sight that had the kids and Zuko laughing.
Yan made a low growling noise that almost sounded like a purr, then bent down his great head so that Zuko would be able to crawl onto his back.
"Okay," Zuko said turning to her kids, "it's time to go. Thank you both for being such great hosts."
"Come back soon," Kya told him.
Zuko knealt to be at eye level with her, "I will do my best."
Rushing forward, Kya threw her arms around Zuko's neck, hugging him tightly. It was all Katara could do in that moment not to cry as Zuko returned her daughter's embrace, closing his eyes and whispering something in her ear.
Kya sniffled and nodded, stepping away to let Bumi say good-bye next. Zuko rose from his knees to face the young boy but Bumi remained unmoving with a sulking frown on his face.
"Maybe, next time, I can come visit you and you can teach me about how to use dual dao blades, like you."
"You'll have to talk to your mother about that one buddy, but you are always welcome."
Bumi kept his gaze stubbornly fixed on the ground in front of him, Katara could tell he wanted to cry but was doing his best to put on a brave face. Zuko placed a hand on his head, "Keep practicing and you'll be an amazing fighter in no time."
Giving in, Bumi stepped forward and wrapped his arms around Zuko's middle, hugging him tightly. Zuko returned the hug, a sad smile on his face. Katara watched the exchange with a sense of bittersweet sadness. Bumi moved away, joining his sister at Katara's side, both sharing twin looks of melancholy.
Katara braced herself as her turn to say good-bye came. She wasn't going to crack, "Thank you so much for coming, it had been too long."
"Yes, it was." Zuko agreed.
"Please feel free to return anytime, you are always welcome here." Katara was well-versed in this script; she had practiced it many times. It wasn't until she allowed her eyes to really meet Zuko's that she nearly lost herself.
Stepping toward her, he leaned forward and placed a chaste kiss on her cheek, lingering to whisper in her ear, "If you need me, you know where to find me. I'll come running, always."
Her heart pounded in her ears and Katara did her best to pretend that what he had said hadn't affected her quite as much as it had. Not with her children watching. Zuko pulled back, golden eyes boring into hers and Katara had no trouble reading their depths. His eyes spoke for him when he was unable to say the words.
I love you.
Katara sucked in a breath and nodded, managing a tremulous smile.
Turning, Zuko walked to Yan, climbed onto his back and took the reins. "I'll see you all again soon," he called down from above as Yan lifted his head. Extending his wings Yan flapped and pushed off the ground, wind whipped around them as Katara, Kya, and Bumi waved. The red dragon took off into the sky and flew away towards the west. Kya and Bumi ran after his retreating shadow, waving and shouting good-bye. Katara stood transfixed, watching the red streak become smaller and smaller as it flew off into the distance.
I love you too, her heart cried out silently.