CHAPTER 1: MELTDOWN

Katara, Bumi, and Kya finally arrived in the Fire Nation. It had been a long sea voyage, seeing how Aang had taken Appa and Tenzin and flew off for airbending training…again. It was three years since Aang and Katara discovered that Tenzin was an airbender. Now Tenzin was an excitable and quick witted boy of nearly four years. He reminded her a lot of Aang when he was a kid. Tenzin had a natural aptitude for airbending, but he was not as devoted as Kya had been to developing her bending, to Aang's great frustration. The first time Aang had taken Tenzin for one of his training trips, Tenzin had been only two years old. He felt that Tenzin wasn't connecting to his Air Nomad heritage because he hadn't been in the proper surroundings. After all, all Air Nomad children were raised in the air temples and often visited areas with great spiritual energy. Also, roaming the world freely with no inhibitions was an essential part of Air Nomad philosophy. Before Aang turned 12 he had already traveled the world several times over. Katara had argued that Tenzin was only a two year old, a baby still, and that was why he would rather play than train, but Aang heard none of it. He said that Tenzin was the future of airbending and that the world needed him to learn in order to be truly balanced and that was that.

Every year, Aang, Katara, and their children would visit Zuko for his birthday. He and Aang were still good friends. But this year he ran off with Tenzin a few weeks before. Bumi and Kya stubbornly refused the notion of simply sending a nice letter instead of seeing their "Uncle Zuzu" in person. Of course, Katara had no idea how they would get there in time. It was the stormy season so they couldn't even hop an air balloon for fear of being swept away. Luckily, Zuko was nice enough to send an imperial class ship to the South Pole to get them. When the ship docked, Katara planted her feet on the ground and took a huge gulp of fresh air. It had stormed pretty badly for most of the journey and they had been required to stay in the quarters below deck. Not to mention, they arrived a few days after Zuko's birthday. But now that they were in the Fire Nation though, the skies were clear and the sweltering summer heat warmed the chill she had in her bones. "Lady Katara", bowed an imperial guard. "Your escort awaits". Katara smiled. Zuko had sent a royal escort worthy of Fire Nation royalty to greet her and the children and bring them to the palace.

Zuko and Izumi were there to welcome them to the palace, but the Fire Lady was not. Kya and Izumi flew into each other's arms. After all the greetings and hugs and pleasantries were exchanged, Katara and the children were shown to their usual rooms and given baths and changes of clothes. Kya, Bumi, and Izumi ran off to play and spar with each other and Katara and Zuko sat in a promenade in one of the gardens having tea. "I'm sorry we missed your birthday", said Katara after taking a sip. "The weather was against us". Zuko waved the idea away. "No need to apologize", he smiled. "How are you and the kids doing?". Katara hesitated. "Aang is always taking off with Tenzin for some sort of training or visits to air temples and spiritual grounds. He's still so young…he should be with all of us; his mother and his brother and sister. I'm afraid that he won't bond with them". "I know", said Zuko regretfully. "I tried talking to him. It seems like he wants Tenzin to be a master air bender before he reaches five years old". "Which is ridiculous", Katara added. Zuko shrugged. "Kya became a master waterbender at age six". Katara smiled at the pride in his voice at his daughter's prodigiousness. She felt the pride as well. But she also felt annoyance with Aang and concern for her youngest son. "Yes, but he can't force it on him like that! Kya mastered water bending because it came easily for her. Aang is putting too much pressure on Tenzin, and worse: he's alienating him from his siblings".

Zuko nodded in agreement. She was right. "I can try talking to him again", he suggested. "You can try, but he isn't listening to anyone". She sighed. "The whole point of this was so I could manage him. But it seems like I'm losing my touch after all these years". "I think that for so long all he wanted was to ensure the survival of airbending and Air Nomad culture, that now that he has an actual chance, it's consuming him", said Zuko reasonably. "It's not fair to Tenzin though", said Katara shortly. "And it's not fair to Bumi and Kya. They're missing out on time with their father and brother". "Not to mention Aang is neglecting his duty to be a father to Bumi and Kya", said Zuko irritably. It was bad enough that Bumi was being neglected, but the idea of Aang neglecting Kya burned him up like paper in a flame. (Z) It's true that Kya is my daughter, but Aang doesn't know that! "Bumi asked me if their dad doesn't care about them anymore because they aren't airbenders", said Katara sadly. Zuko shook his head. "I don't know what he's thinking. He can't just pretend he doesn't have other kids just because he has one airbending son!". He paused. "Has….he ever mentioned his suspicions of Kya again?". Katara shook her head. "No, he hasn't. He definitely was suspicious, especially after the New Moon Festival when Kya bended during the lunar eclipse three years ago, but he never mentioned anything". "Could he possibly even know?", asked Zuko. "I mean, she waterbended either way. She can't firebend or anything. And anyway he can't just neglect them off of suspicion alone". Katara shrugged. "Maybe Uncle could try to reason with him?", she suggested feebly. "I don't know who else could talk sense into him". "Well if you want to talk to Uncle about this, you're in luck", smiled Zuko. "I asked him to come to the palace a few days ago". Katara smiled at the thought of seeing Iroh again. "Really? How come?". Zuko gestured towards a tattered old book that was sitting on the table. "Earth King Kuei sent this to me for my birthday". Katara squinted to examine the book. "The Tome of Spirits", she read aloud. "What's that about?". "Scholars discovered it at Ba Sing Se University while they were renovating the libraries. "They think it's one of the oldest books in the world". "Well that isn't a surprise", remarked Katara, eyeing the dingy cover and yellowed pages.

Zuko laughed shortly. "Well I thought it would be of interest to Uncle. He's been to the Spirit World before, you know". Katara nodded. "I knew the rumors. So have you read anything?". "A little", said Zuko honestly. "I'm so nervous about turning these pages. The book feels so fragile. But it seems like it's a sort of catalogue of all of the spirits known to man". Katara's eyes widened with interest. "Wow. There must be thousands of entries. But I wonder why Earth King Kuei would gift that to you specifically. That seems like it would have been more up Aang's alley". Zuko nodded. "Well, supposedly, it was written by a firebending Avatar who was also a Firelord". He gingerly turned the book on its back. "See those symbols? They're the same ones in the temples of the Fire Sages". Katara examined the back of the book with interest. "The writing is strange", she observed. "It's an old version of our writing system", said Zuko. "I think it says something about…the Firelord scroll?", asked Katara. "You're right. That's what it roughly translates to. It's supposed to be the Book of the Firelord". Katara smiled. "Oh". (K)Of course Zuko would know the translation. He studied ancient writings and language since childhood! "But why this be a book for the Firelord?". "Well, after the first Fire Lord drove the warlords away in ancient times, the Fire Sages were created for spiritual leadership. Supposedly, that Firelord was a Fire Sage but he was just the first and most spiritual among them". Katara nodded. The Fire Nation had come a long way away from that! They were interrupted by a servant who bowed low. "Excuse me my Lord, my Lady. General Iroh has arrived in the Fire Nation". Zuko smiled. "Good. Have the guards send a royal escort to bring him to the palace at once". The servant bowed and ran off.

After a few minutes, Zuko and Katara called the children to them to head to the palace entrance to welcome Iroh. When the escort arrived, as soon as he exited the carriage, Zuko embraced his uncle hard. "I've missed you Uncle!". "I have missed you as well, my nephew". Izumi scurried over to him and Iroh scooped her up in a hug. "Every time I see you, you are taller and more beautiful than the last". Izumi smiled brightly and buried her face in his neck. "I'm so happy you're here Uncle!". Iroh set her down and smiled at Katara and her children. "And what a wonderful surprise!", he remarked, arms wide and heading towards her. "Katara". He hugged her warmly. "And these little ones! Or should I say big ones!", he smiled at Bumi and Kya. "I heard that you are becoming quite the swordsman". Bumi nodded cheerfully. At thirteen, he was already taller than Iroh. He turned to now nine year old Kya. "And you, little waterbending master. I hear that you have your own pupil now". "I do!", Kya nodded excitedly. "You will be a great bender one day, much like your parents". He gave a secret smile to Zuko. "Uncle Iroh I have so much to tell you too!", exclaimed Izumi. Iroh smiled. "Why don't we go inside and have a nice chat over some tea?".

After tea, the children went back to play out in the gardens and Zuko, Katara, and Iroh sat inside with the Tome of Spirits. "It's also called the Book of the Firelord", explained Zuko. Iroh rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "I see. May I?". Zuko gently handed his uncle the book. Iroh flipped carefully through the pages. "Some of these are spirits I have never heard of", he murmured wonderingly. The colors were faded now, but it was obvious that this had once been a very vivid book. "I knew it would interest you", said Zuko smiling. "Yes, nephew. This is indeed a remarkable discovery. I am surprised the professors at Ba Sing Se University parted with it so easily". "Did they even mention the finding in Ba Sing Se?", asked Katara. Iroh shook his head. "The first I heard of this book was when Zuko sent a letter to me about it". "Maybe they thought it belonged in one of the temples of the Fire Sages", suggested Zuko. Iroh shrugged. "I could not say". He yawned and stretched. Zuko smiled indulgently. "You look tired Uncle, and I know the journey was long. Why don't you go ahead to your rooms and take a rest?". Iroh stood up. "Yes, I could probably use some rest. A man needs his rest". "Here. You can take the book too", said Zuko passing it to him.

Once Iroh left Zuko and Katara sat in silence for a little bit before a messenger hawk cawed loudly and landed on the stone table, flapping its wings urgently. Zuko and Katara exchanged a curious glance at each other before Zuko went ahead and removed the message. "It's addressed to you Katara. It's from Aang". "From Aang?!", she held out her hand instantly. All of a mother's worries came to her mind. (K) I hope nothing's wrong with Tenzin! I hope he isn't sick! I hope he hasn't broken anything! She hastily opened the letter and scanned the page quickly. "Is everything alright?", asked Zuko after a few moments. Katara's eyes were wide and roving the page quickly. She put her hand to her heart. "Tenzin is fine, thank goodness. And Aang says that...he found an ancient tribe off the southern coast of the Fire Nation, called the Bhanti Tribe. He says they have five adult sky bison!". "How is that even possible?", asked Zuko incredulously. It was common belief that when the air temples were attacked, the sky bison along with the Air Nomads had faded away. "I don't know!", said Katara, half excited and half distracted by reading. Suddenly she frowned. (Z) I wonder what she just read. Katara's whole demeanor changed. She dropped the letter and it gently fell to the table. "What is it Katara? What did he say?". Katara was silent. She just stared ahead of her, seeing nothing.

"Katara, talk to me!", said Zuko more urgently now. "What happened?". "It's…Aang", said Katara in a tiny voice. "He says….he says that he has to take Tenzin into seclusion for a year, so he can train….so that by the time there are new air bison babies, he can choose one to be his animal guide". Katara's tone sounded as if she hardly believed what she had said. Zuko could hardly believe it either. "What?!", he exclaimed. He had never felt more confused. She had to have misread something, "Can I see the letter?", he asked, stretching his hand out. Katara nodded her head numbly and Zuko scooped the letter up. He quickly skimmed through.

"…As you know, sky bison are a major part of Air Nomad culture. Every Air Nomad child has to go and choose his or her sky bison at the age of five. Tenzin is four this year, but he hasn't had adequate training in order to fully make a spiritual connection with his air bison. I need to take him into seclusion for a year or so to meditate and prepare him for his lifetime spiritual friend. This is a very critical time, so we won't be able to correspond. We'll miss you all, and see you next year!

P.S.- Give the children my love and Tenzin's."

Zuko shook his head disbelievingly. "He can't be serious. He can't be!". Katara was still stunned silent. "Katara, say something", Zuko urged her. "What is there to say?", she asked in a near whisper. "What can I say?". A single tear streamed down her face. "He has my son, my baby, and I don't know where he's gone. If I send him messages, he won't respond!". Zuko felt his heart ache for her and Bumi and Kya as well. Now several tears were flowing freely and silently. "Zuko, what am I going to do? What can I tell Bumi and Kya? How can I say they won't see their father and brother for a year? How could he do this?!". She cupped her face in her hands and sobbed. Zuko wanted to take her in his arms, but they were too out in the open. "Katara…I….", he was at a loss for words. (Z) What can I say to her? I have no idea what she should say to Bumi and Kya either! She sat up and wiped her face in her hands and looked pleadingly at Zuko. "What should I do, Zuko?", she asked desperately. Zuko shook his head. "I'm…sorry Katara. I don't know". A small sob escaped her and she sniffled. "He can't do this…", she started feebly. "He can't keep doing things like this!", she roared as she slammed her fist on the table. "He keeps leaving me with alone with two children to look after! I can't do this alone!". Zuko felt his insides contorting. He couldn't bear to see her so sad and confused.

"Katara, everything will be alright", said Zuko. His voice was choked up. "I'm so tired Zuko", Katara confided weakly. He suddenly remembered how years before she had told him the same thing on their journey to search for his mother. "He always leaves and I have to play both roles, mother and father. These kids are so bright and so intuitive. They know when something's wrong. I keep trying to make excuses as to why their father always leaves us all behind and takes Tenzin everywhere, but they only ever half believe me if even that". "I will do everything I can to help the three of you", said Zuko solemnly. "You…you will?", asked Katara. Zuko nodded. "Of course! Why would I not? How could I not?! I love you Katara! And Kya is MY daughter. And Bumi is family to me as well". Katara gave him a small grateful smile as she held back the flowing tears. "Thank you, Zuko".