A/N: Hi, there! How have your last five years been?
This fic was written as a donation to the "Babies at the Border Compilation" charity. While the drive is now over, I recommend Googling and seeing what that was all about. It's important stuff.
Please note: world development from Legend of Korra has not been included in this fic - aside from one thing, which you'll likely notice.
I missed these guys. I hope you enjoy.
"Children learn to smile from their parents." -Shinichi Suzuki
Katara almost dies bringing their child into the world.
Everything is fine right up until it isn't. The baby gets stuck, blood soaks the bed, and the mother's healthy birthing screams vanish into frightening silence. The Fire doctor and the Water healer - who have been bickering about best practices since the second month - shove Zuko out of the room and go to work as one.
The Fire Lord can do nothing but wait.
Hours later (it can't be minutes, it can't be, surely it is hours) the doctor emerges with a weakly squirming bundle. "A son, Lord Zuko," he says. "A prince for the Fire Nation."
Zuko doesn't care. "Lady Katara?"
"My lord, it is too soon to know-"
"Then get back in there!"
As his father's roar echoes through the halls, the newborn prince breaks into lusty wails.
-for a flash, for a terrible moment, Zuko hates it. He hates that bundle. He regrets the seed from which it grew. He loathes the energy it stole from his wife in order to emerge, energy she should be using to save herself-
The doctor reads only part of his lord's expression. "Steady your fears," he says compassionately. "He should yet thrive despite being half-Water."
Zuko blinks. "What do you mean, despite?"
"We must of course temper our expectations, but the child seems to have been blessed with good Fire fortune. Ten minutes ago- well, he was lucky to be born at all."
He was lucky to be born.
The terrible moment passes, forgotten, erased, never to return.
"Give me my half-Water son," the Fire Lord demands. "Then, once you have finished healing your Fire Lady, leave this palace and never return."
Katara does not wake for a week. Her husband never leaves her side.
A matronly woman arrives within an hour of the birth, introduces herself as the wet nurse, and opens her arms. Zuko sends her to the kitchens with an order to bring him bottles and warm rice milk.
A Water Tribe elder presents a half-dozen thick seal skin swaddles. Zuko tosses them aside and binds the baby only in a light silk wrap, warmed not by blankets but by the embers beneath his father's skin.
A Fire Sage delivers the royal cradle, carved with fearsome images of dragons, painted with traditional blessings of Agni. Zuko ignores it and lays his yawning son against his wife's side, keeping a hand against the tiny back to hold him in place.
And when Katara finally opens her eyes, it is to see the Great Fire Lord Zuko, Peacebringer, Friend of Nations, The Honored and Restored, asleep in an armchair with a dark-skinned, black-haired infant tucked in the crook of his arm. Both are drooling.
He is named Kazumi, which means Beautiful Harmony.
The Water Tribe healer tells Katara that if she wants her son to grow strong she'll take him to the South and let him learn the ways of true men. Katara orders the woman from the nursery and slams the door in her face.
Recovery is slow. Every medic to examine Katara agrees: there must never be another pregnancy.
The Fire Lady cries, but the Fire Lord accepts the news with equanimity. "We have Kazumi," he tells her, "and we have each other. That's plenty." He pauses. "Besides, it's not like either of us have had great luck with siblings."
Katara snorts through her tears. "My brother never tried to take over the world," she says.
"My sister never served cactus juice at a royal wedding."
"My brother never shot me with lightning."
"My sister never sang karaoke. Ever."
They agree that perhaps their son might be okay as an only child.
Three months pass, and Katara is at last strong enough for Zuko to announce well-wishers may visit the royal palace.
Iroh is welcomed first. Seven years have come and gone since Sozin's Comet; age is catching up with The Dragon of the West, but the twinkle in his eye is as mischievous as ever, and when the new prince is placed in his lap he beams with joy. "Nephew," he says to Zuko, "you would not remember, of course, but your son's nose, and his chin - he looks just a bit like my Lu Ten."
When Zuko asks if his son might call his great-uncle Grandfather, Iroh cries. (Though that may be because Kazumi is pulling his beard).
Hakoda and Sokka are next - they have been waiting in the lower part of the Capital for weeks. Only Zuko's threats to have them thrown off the island entirely kept Sokka from climbing the palace walls to, as Zuko put it, induce a possibly fatal setback in his healing sister. There was a fistfight anyway - the third in their years together - but advantages exist to being the ruler of a nation, as opposed to merely ruler-in-waiting.
Hakoda dangles the baby on his knee with all due patriarchal pride. But he also examines him closely and privately determines that, yes, despite the Fire Nation blood, the boy has enough of his mother's look to him. With convincing, he will be accepted by their people.
(There has been no shortage of those, especially in the Northern Tribes, who have declared Katara a traitor to her homeland for wedding and bedding their hundred-year enemy. They would deny Hakoda's grandson. Hakoda will not stand for it, no matter how he tried to convince his daughter to reconsider, no matter how he warned her of the consequences of her choice. No matter that she did not speak to him for a year after.)
If Sokka remembers this looming trouble, he does not care. "He's so cute!" the proud uncle exclaims, cooing and tickling his nephew's feet. "Do you wanna play with my boomerang, little guy?"
Zuko yanks the weapon from Sokka's grasp.
Toph Beifong turns up a few days later with no warning, just like she always does. "So what will he be?" she asks as she, Katara, and the baby walk the gardens. "Water, or Fire? You and Sparky are two of the most powerful benders in the world, so it's gonna be amazing either way."
"We don't care," says Katara firmly.
"Hah. You'll be the only ones who don't," says Toph. "But what do you think he'll be? You must have a guess, Sugar Queen."
"I don't. And we won't know for years, anyway. It doesn't matter."
It absolutely matters, but Toph drops the subject. "Bring him here," she commands, reaching out her hand.
Katara obligingly holds her son under the blind Earthbender's outstretched palm. Prince Kazumi lays silent and wide-eyed as Toph pats his face.
"He's squishy," she comments at last. "And sticky. But he smells good. Maybe I'll have one of these."
"You will? With who?"
Toph just shrugs.
In spite of her protestations, when Avatar Aang visits at last, Katara cannot help but quietly say to him: "Can you tell? Which he is, I mean?"
Her baby's eyes aren't blue or yellow - they're deep, deep brown. He has her skin and his father's build, Kya's cheekbones and Lu Ten's nose, Sokka's lungs and Ursa's laugh. Kazumi is, as far as Katara and Zuko are concerned, the perfect blend of them both.
But he'll only bend one element.
And Katara - Katara is not a fool.
"Aang, please," she whispers. "Tell me."
But the Avatar only smiles, kisses the baby on the forehead, and asks if Katara still cooks lychee nuts.
On his second birthday, Prince Kazumi is officially presented to the nation as the recognized child of the reigning Fire Lord.
The ceremony lasts hours, which is one of the reasons it doesn't take place until the royal heir is two years old. (The other reason is the risk of infant mortality. It has been centuries since that was a regular concern, but traditions tend to outlast their practical roots.) Kazumi is silent but fidgety, as is his way.
"Let Agni bless his days to come," intones the Fire Sage, his words echoing to the hundreds of citizens packed in the Coronation Temple courtyard. "Let dragons breathe flames into his palms and fires into his heart."
Lord Zuko frowns at the Sage, for he had ordered the last phrase remain unsaid.
Lady Katara - who, as she had at her wedding, as she had at her own crowning, has on this most solemn occasion worn blue brocade sewn with Water Tribe symbols - only raises her chin.
That summer, Kazumi visits the South Pole for the first time.
"I've planned for everything," Katara tells Zuko the evening before their departure. He cannot get away from his duties long enough to accompany them. Water Tribe ships will guide his family through the oceans, not metal Fire Nation vessels. "And it's just for a month."
Zuko groans and pulls her closer. "If you don't feel well," he says, "promise you'll come back immediately."
"I'll be fine."
"It's cold there."
"Yes, I know. Relax."
"What if the canoes sink?"
"What if Kazumi gets food poisoning? Or frostbite? Or is bitten by a penguin?"
"I won't let him- wait, bitten by a penguin? Are you kidding?"
"They're probably poisonous!"
"Penguins don't have teeth, Zuko."
"It's too dangerous. I don't think you should go."
Her husband isn't any fonder of being laughed at now than when they were teenagers, but wives get special privileges, and Katara doesn't bother to hide her amusement at Zuko's petulant expression. "We're more in danger from the summer heat here," she says, "than anything my home can throw at us." Katara steps back, unbinds her sleeping gown, and allows it to fall to the floor. "Now, stop worrying and kiss me goodbye."
Zuko obliges, and they spend the night doing far more than kissing goodbye.
Kazumi does not get food poisoning, or frostbite, or bitten by a penguin, but he does get terribly seasick. So much so that Katara spends the last half of the voyage bending the choppy ocean into millpond-placidity. By the time their ship docks at the South Pole they are both exhausted.
But Kazumi, full of customary toddler resilience, recovers in hours to explore his new surroundings. He picks at his layered coats. He flops into the snow and squeals with laughter. Katara explains that she'd promised Zuko there would be no penguin-sledding, but Sokka takes him anyway, and he immediately gets a black eye from zooming face-first into the side of an ice cliff. (Sokka grabs a healer to fix him up before Katara finds out.)
He gets cold, though. By the night of the welcoming feast the boy is wrapped in so many furs he resembles a bao bun. The Fire Lady does not fail to notice how Hakoda frowns at this, nor how the village elders glance at each other and whisper amongst themselves.
She has not missed how the elders look at her.
Sokka is immune to the tension. "Why doesn't he talk yet?" he asks Katara, slicing bits of seal jerky with his Space Sword and feeding them into the bao-blanket nest.
"He will," says Katara. "He's only two."
"Yeah, well, I remember when you were two, and you never shut up." Sokka pitches his voice high: "Brudda, stoppit! Brudda, come back! Brudda, your socks stink!"
"Oh, I did not say that."
"Excuse me, I'm older, I think I'd remember."
"And I think you're full of s-" Katara glances at her bao-blanket son. "Stuff," she finishes. "You're full of stuff."
"Uh-huh." Sokka cuts off another fistful of jerky. "Well," he says, shoving half a slice in his mouth and giving the rest to the little hand reaching from the furs, "your kid's full of meat, so he should be fine. Can't grow up wrong if you eat enough meat."
At the end of their visit, Hakoda asks Katara for permission to name Kazumi as second-in-line for Southern Water Chieftain.
Katara refuses. "He can't lead two countries at once," she tells her father.
"And what if the Fire Nation won't accept him?"
"And the Water Tribes will? I heard the things they said. You should be glad it's me and not Zuko who's here."
Hakoda snorts. "As though the Lord of the Fire Nation would ever visit the South Pole."
"You liked Zuko!"
"Yes, before I knew how you met!"
Katara reminds herself to leave Sokka frozen to a mountain top before she leaves. Her brother kept his mouth shut for two years, then - like the idiot he was and still sometimes is - blabbed the whole complicated truth to their father over a campfire and too many drinks. "Dad, I married the Fire Lord. Get over it."
"Besides," she adds quickly, because her trip is almost over, and what good does it to leave things like this, "it probably won't matter. Sokka's still got lots of time to have kids."
The sigh from Hakoda could melt icebergs. "If only he had married Suki," he laments.
(Katara opts not to remind her father that Suki and Mai have been quite happy together for many years and that's not likely to change. It goes in one ear and out the other. She knows the North Pole still arranges marriages and denies combat training to girls. The 'traditional' customs of the Water Tribes are no longer something she can bring herself to defend.)
"He'll find someone else," Katara says.
Before boarding the boat, Katara hisses to her brother: "Start having babies. Now."
Sokka only sputters.
Kazumi tries to take snowballs with him as souvenirs, and wails when they melt. Katara could refreeze them, but this is probably an important life lesson.
The trip back is less choppy, but more somber. The Fire Lady remembers the days when she was the Last Waterbender of the Southern Tribe. She remembers when her people looked at her with pride instead of suspicion.
But her baby pats her wet cheeks, burbling with wordless concern, and when she hugs him tight she remembers why she made the choices she did.
Zuko is waiting when their ship docks. The moment Kazumi sees him, he wriggles from Katara's grip and dashes down the barely-lowered ramp.
"Papa!" he shrieks. It is his first word. "Papa! Papa! Papa!"
The Fire Lord grabs his son into his arms and bursts into tears.
Katara descends more slowly, not minding that her husband barely notices (she will have her welcome later, and she is very much looking forward to it - South Pole beds are cold). Besides, beyond Zuko is-
"It's about time you're back," Toph says. "I was starting to get nervous." She points at her belly, which is full to near-bursting with child. "Do you think you can blood-bend this kid out of me? I hate getting kicked. You didn't tell me about the kicking."
Katara blinks. Multiple times. Then finally asks: "Who's the father?"
Toph just shrugs.
Kazumi is six the first time he sees his parents fighting.
He's escaped his minder again. His minder is boring. His minder is always saying It's time, like It's time to work on your arithmetic and It's time to take a bath and It's time to stop feeding your peas to the turtle ducks. And it's not so hard to get away. Kazumi knows the palace and all the secret spots and he is not eating more peas today, he does not have room for more peas (but yes he still has room for cookies, he saved a special spot in his belly for cookies!) so he slipped away to find something not boring or pea-related and that's when he heard the shouts.
"You're getting lazy, Fire Lord!"
"Lazy? I'm not a Master Waterbender who can't keep a whip in one piece! When's the last time you tried something else, anyway?"
"Why would I even need anything else when you never- "
Kazumi runs down the corridor, following the voices. He bursts into the inner courtyard, and-
His parents are trying to hurt each other!
Mom pulls water out of the pond and she's making a big wall, but Papa is throwing fire, and Mom is going to miss, she's going to burn up-
So Kazumi does the only thing he can think of. He bolts screaming into the fray, waving his arms, jumping between the two most important people in his world. "Stop! Stop! STOP!"
The water falls back into the pond, and the fire disappears.
And when both his parents come forward to reach for him, saying stupid grown-up lies like It's okay, it's okay and Oh honey don't be scared, Kazumi runs away.
Mom comes to his room later. "It's a game your father and I play," she tells him, wearing her Very Mom Face. "I know it can look like we're fighting for real, but we're not. It's only pretend."
"I don't like the game." Kazumi has stopped crying, because he is Too Big To Cry. But he couldn't help it, this time. (He knows about bending, he sees it all the time, but it's never looked like that before. He's never seen bending where it looked like something terrible could happen.) "I don't want to play."
"Well, that's good, because you aren't allowed to yet. It's a game for grown-ups, and only for grown-ups, okay?"
"And if you ever see Papa and I playing like that, you need to stay away. It's not for you. Do you understand?"
Mom gives him a hug, and stays with him that night until he falls asleep.
A few days later Auntie Toph and Lin come to visit. Auntie Toph goes to talk with everyone about The Colonies, which are far off but very complicated and important and require lots of meetings; Kazumi and Lin are too little for stuff like that, so they play together instead, like always.
And the first thing Kazumi does, of course, is tell Lin he that saw the grown-up game.
"Oh, that game," says Lin knowledgeably. (Lin is two years younger, but she always seems to find out about stuff before Kazumi.) "Mama plays it too."
"Yup. I see'd it one time when Mama's door was broke. It's called The Sex."
Huh. Mom hadn't told Kazumi the grown-up game had a name. "It looks like it hurts."
"I know. But Mama said it doesn't. She plays with boys an' girls she meets sometimes an' I have to go play in the yard an' sometimes I have to stay outside forages, like a whole hour." Lin sounds disgusted. "She said it's fun."
Kazumi frowns. "It didn't look like fun. Mom and Papa were yelling."
"Yeah. It's stupid an' noisy."
"I get in trouble when I'm noisy."
"Grown-ups don't get in trouble for noisy. An' Mama said The Sex is only for grown-ups an' I'm not allowed till I'm big. An' I'm suppos't to Talk To Her 'fore I do."
"I'm not ever going to play The Sex," says Kazumi firmly. "Not even when I'm big."
"Me neither," agrees Lin. She stomps her foot and a bunch of perfect little circles of dirt pop out of the lawn. "I don't wanna talk about dumb grown-up things. Let's eat mud pies."
(Kazumi always gets sick when he and Lin eat mud pies. He does it anyway. Lin is littler but, somehow, she's really hard to say no to.)
That night, after Kazumi's done throwing up, Papa comes to tuck him into bed. That's usually Mom's job, or Mom and Papa's job, but tonight it's just Papa, and he looks very serious.
Uh-oh. "Am I in trouble?" Kazumi asks. "If I'm in trouble, I'm sorry now, and I didn't do it on purpose, and it was Lin's idea, and I won't do it again." (Kazumi has figured out it's best just to apologize fast when he's done something his parents don't like. That way it's over more quick.)
"No, no. You're not in trouble." Papa smiles at him, but the smile is serious too. "I want to talk to you about what you saw the other day between me and your mother."
"Mom already talked about it."
"Yes, but- there's other things, too." Why is Papa so grim? "You were afraid, when you saw us, right?"
"What were you afraid of?"
Sometimes Papa asks Important Questions that Kazumi's supposed to think about really hard before answering. This is definitely one of them.
"That… that you might get hurt. Or that Mom might get hurt." No, that's not it, that's not enough. "And… and that you were hurting each other." Yes, that's what it is. "I don't know what I'm supposed to do, if you hurt Mom."
It makes him sicker than the mudpies, to think about Papa doing something bad to Mom. It makes him want to start crying.
"Okay. I'm glad you told me, Kazumi. Because I want you to know - I promise you - that you never, ever have to be afraid of my hurting your mother. And you never, ever, ever have to be afraid that I would hurt you. Not with fire, not with anything."
Kazumi frowns. This is a foreign concept to him. "I know you wouldn't hurt me," he says, bewildered. "You're my Papa."
There's a long pause, and Kazumi gets that feeling he has sometimes, the feeling where it seems like the grown-up wants to say lots of things but doesn't think they should because they think Kazumi is too little. Grown-ups always seem to think that.
Eventually his father whispers: "That's right." Then he kisses Kazumi on the forehead. "Sleep well, Kazumi. I love you."
"I love you, too. Papa?"
"How big were you when you first played The Sex?"
In the morning his parents make Kazumi sit down for a very long talk about the real kind of The Sex. It sounds even less fun than he thought.
The prince turns eight, and even the Fire Lord is becoming - well, not worried. He would never say worried . But he can no longer deny the important question that needs to be answered.
He brings Kazumi to the courtyard. The private one, near their personal chambers. He orders the servants away (even asks them to take the turtle ducks, just in case). And he kneels before his confused son. "Close your eyes," he says.
"Because I told you to."
Kazumi scowls - oh, he looks just like Katara when he makes that face, and sometimes Zuko thinks it's not possible to feel this much love and survive - but does as he's told.
"Hold out your hand. Palm up."
"I'm always breathing, Dad."
"I know that. But slowly. Don't just feel the air in your lungs - feel it in your whole body, from the top of your head to the soles of your feet." Zuko watches how Kazumi's ribs expand and contract. "Slower than that. Good. Now picture a flame - just a little one - on the tip of your finger."
"Like a match?"
"Yes. A tiny match."
(What if he burns. What if he starts bending and burns. Zuko has had nightmares about it since the day Katara told him she was pregnant; he dreamt of Kazumi crawling into a hearth, he dreamt of dragonfire, of Agni Kai, of his firstborn son begging on his knees as Zuko raised his fist-)
"I don't feel anything," says Kazumi, eyes still closed.
"That's okay. Try again."
They practice all afternoon.
Katara waits for a full moon, then brings Kazumi all the way down the mountain. She places him at the shoreline where the ocean can pull at his bare feet. "Tui is the spirit of the moon," she explains, "and La is the spirit of the sea."
"Uncle Sokka said Yue is the spirit of the moon. He said he made out with her."
Of course he did. "Don't listen to Uncle Sokka."
Her son looks so much like Zuko when he's skeptical. "So he didn't make out with the moon?"
"No, he- it was- that's a story for another time. I want you to focus on the moon, and feel how it affects the water. It pulls, can you sense it?"
(She knows it would be easier on everyone if the Fire Prince bends fire. She's always known that. But she's also fantasized about this, standing here, she and the only child her body will ever bear, bending together as one. Why shouldn't the Lord of an island nation be a Waterbender? Are they not surrounded by water?)
Kazumi's face is bright in the moonlight. Yue shines on his skin. But: "I don't sense anything."
Katara bites her lip. "That's all right," she tells him. "Come a little deeper into the waves and try again."
They concentrate until Kazumi nearly falls asleep in the surf.
The Fire Lord and Lady write to Avatar Aang.
"But I don't want to spend the summer with the Avatar," Kazumi complains, flopping face down on his bed.
"You'll have fun," says Mom. "Aang told me you're going to Ba Sing Se, Omashu, the Air Temples-"
"The Avatar is weird, Mom."
"Don't be disrespectful."
"But he is! Even Dad doesn't like him!"
"That's not true."
"Then how come he does the twitchy thing and sets napkins on fire whenever you talk about him?"
(The servants packing Kazumi's bags glance at each other.)
Mom narrows her eyes, and that's how Dad gets dragged out of a council meeting to explain to Kazumi how the Avatar is a hero (ugh, everyone is a hero), and spending weeks visiting different nations with the Savior of the World as a guide is a very, very great honor, even for princes.
Kazumi is not fooled. "Whenever he visits, Mom cries. That's why you hate him. I'm not a baby, Dad."
Dad's face darkens.
(What? Did they think he didn't notice? He's eight.)
But after a minute, Dad pinches the bridge of nose and sighs. "Sit down, Kazumi."
"I don't hate the Avatar. But, yes, you're right, he upsets your mother, and I don't like that. But I should try harder not to be angry about it. It's important to learn to let things go."
"Why does he upset Mom?"
"Because before the end of the War, he was a different person."
"Well, he was… silly. And funny. And annoying, I thought-" Dad smiles a little "-but I was very serious back then."
Kazumi's only met the Avatar a half-dozen times, but silly is not how he'd describe him. (Dad can be a little too serious, though, so that part's probably true.) "Okay."
"And Aang loved your mother very much. Very much."
Kazumi blinks. "He… loved Mom? Like… loved-loved her?"
Dad nods. "But he had to sacrifice the part of himself that loved her so that he could save the world."
"Because the Avatar can't love the way most people do. Not if he wants to use all his powers. That's what makes Aang a hero, Kazumi - he gave up what he wanted most so that he could save us all." Dad half-smiles. "I don't think I could have done it."
"You definitely couldn't have done it." Kazumi sees how Dad looks at Mom. It's gross. "Is that why Mom cries? Does she- does she wish he still loved her?"
"No. And yes. Your mother thinks Aang made the right decision, but she still misses the way he used to be. So seeing the Avatar makes her sad. Do you understand?"
Not even a little. "Uh-huh. But wait. Did you and the Avatar-" this is too icky even to think about "-did you fight over Mom? Like how Eito from the kitchens kissed Reiji from the bathhouse and then Zhi from the library slapped them both in the gardens and yelled that they were mink snakes? Like that?"
"Not- uh, not exactly. Maybe a little…"
Kazumi's eyes widen. "The Avatar was a mink snake with Mom?"
"So you were the mink snake? Dad!"
When it's time to leave, Mom kisses Kazumi all over his face. In front of people. "Have a good time," she tells him, smiling even though she's crying. "Write to us. Remember all the people you meet. Keep your socks clean. Remember to say please and thank you…"
Dad tells the Avatar over and over not to let Kazumi drive Appa. Not for anything. Not under any circumstances.
And the minute they're out of the Capital, Avatar Aang turns to Kazumi and says: "Hey, do you want to drive Appa?"
Aang isn't anything like Kazumi thought.
Whenever they met in the Fire Nation, he was always The Avatar. He was nice, but only came when he had important things to talk about, and then had to leave again right away to do more important things.
But traveling together, flying on Appa and camping wherever they land and doing not just big important things, like saving countries, but little important things, like convincing neighbors not to fight over whose ostrich horse is whose and then helping that same ostrich horse lay the biggest egg anyone has ever seen and getting really slimy in the process - it's fun. Aang is fun.
And Aang always has things to say. Like, Concentrate always on the present moment and Never cook moon peaches in coconut milk. Kazumi tries to listen to everything (he's going to not eat animals anymore, except for when he's with Uncle Sokka, because Uncle Sokka would have a heart attack if Kazumi told him not to cook meat) and he learns a lot. A lot a lot.
He sees the great walls Ba Sing Se and Omashu. He sees the ice towers of the North Pole. He sees the colonies the Fire Nation left in the Earth Kingdom that now no one knows what to do with, he sees the great Si Wong desert, he sees the Foggy Swamp and gets bitten by forty million mosquitos.
He visits Grandpa Iroh, who is having a hard time leaving his tea house lately, but always plays pai sho with Kazumi and never lets him win, which Kazumi kind of likes. He visits Grandpa Hakoda and Uncle Sokka, and then Kazumi and Uncle Sokka and Avatar Aang go penguin sledding, which is extra fun when airbending stops them from smashing into too many things. (The penguins don't seem to like it too much, though. They weren't made to fly.)
He meets the kings of Ba Sing Se and Omashu, who both throw big parties for the Avatar with lots of really rich people. (Kazumi has to go to Fire Nation parties like that sometimes, but he doesn't like them much; his clothes always itch and a lot of the most important people look at him funny, which Mom and Dad don't think Kazumi notices, but he does, and they also don't think he notices how angry it makes them, but he does.)
The really rich Earth Kingdom people don't look at Kazumi funny, but they do make him talk to all their daughters.
"Like, all of them," Kazumi complains when they stop to spend a week with Auntie Toph and Lin. "Whether they're little babies or almost grown-ups. What's that about?"
Lin rolls her eyes. (She's in a bad mood; she's been trying to bend a metal pipe all day and nothing has happened yet, and also Auntie Toph is having a new baby and Lin doesn't want to talk about it.) "They're hoping you'll marry one of them, dummy," she says.
"Y'know, one day. That way their grandkids can be Fire Lord after you're dead."
"After I'm dead?!"
"Yeah. It's Politics. Mama says it's stupid." Lin throws down the pipe and flops on the ground. "But not as stupid as metalbending!"
"I'm not marrying some Earth Kingdom girl so a rich guy's kid can be Fire Lord when I'm dead!"
"Then don't. You're a prince. No one can make you." She kicks the pipe across the room. "I'm not doing this anymore! I hate bending! Don't you hate bending?"
Kazumi shrugs. "I don't know."
"Huh? Why not?"
"'Cause I haven't done any."
"You haven't? " Lin sounds appalled. "I thought you just didn't 'round me 'cause fire can hurt people real easy! What about water?"
"Really? You don't bend at all?"
"I'm only eight," Kazumi says defensively.
"It's supposed to start by now. Everyone knows that." Her eyes widen - and she blurts out the words no one has ever, in his entire life, said in front of Prince Kazumi of the Fire Nation.
"What if you're not a bender?"
"Uh-oh," says the Airbender, smiling at Kazumi from across the campfire. "I thought you'd finally learned to call me 'Aang'. This must be serious."
It is. "I can't bend, can I."
Kazumi waits for him to deny it - and the Avatar would know, he'd have to know, he's the Avatar. He'll laugh this off and tell Kazumi not to listen to Lin so much, that-
"No. You can't."
Aang says it so calmly, like this won't shake the world. But above the smile, his gray eyes are watching Kazumi like an eagle hawk.
Kazumi opens and closes his mouth a few times. "But… Mom and Dad-"
"It's not always who your parents are."
"No, I mean… they'll be really upset." Kazumi swallows, remembers the hours with the candles and the waves. "Don't you think?"
"Nope!" says Aang.
"It's maybe not what they expected," Aang admits, scratching at the place where his beard clings to the tip of his chin, "but overall I think they'll be more upset that I've made you a vegetarian."
"But I'm going to be Fire Lord." That's not a big deal to Kazumi - at least it didn't seem like a big deal, it's just been part of his Future in some fuzzy, indistinct way - but now- "I have to bend."
"Didn't we meet King Kuei? That was last week, not one of my past lives, right?"
"Kuei's never bent a rock in his life. Probably never lifted one, either. And King Gang-Hao of Omashu?"
"No, he's not a bender, I guess…"
"And what about your grandfather? And Sokka, spirits help us all - he'll be Chief. He doesn't bend."
"But they're different than the Fire Nation."
"Well, yeah. Every Fire Lord there's ever been has been a bender."
"Maybe," says Aang, "it's time that one wasn't. Pass the lychee nuts, please."
The rest of the summer is spent in the Fire Nation, in the little islands on the horizon of Kazumi's country. Some people recognize him, but most don't; they see his skin, not the shape of his face and his eyes, and think he's from the colonies. (Aang sneaks around too, wearing a huge hat and saying "Flameo, hotman!" all the time, and it's so embarrassing.) They meet almost no benders.
Mom's always made sure Kazumi goes to lots of places outside the center of the Capital, but even in his classes and the garrisons and the harbor fishmarkets, almost everyone he knows bends.
But lots of the Fire Nation doesn't.
On his return: "I'm not a bender." Kazumi says it in a rush, almost before he's even off of Appa. "Not of fire or water."
Mom and Dad glance to the Avatar for confirmation. Aang nods.
"Okay," they say, and hug him tighter.
That night, long after their son is abed, Zuko and Katara look at each other.
Katara tries: "The Fire Sages-"
"I don't care." Zuko's back is straight. Fire flashes in his eyes. "It didn't matter what they said when I married you. It doesn't matter what they say now."
Katara smiles, and grieves, because Zuko still lies to himself.
The future ruler of the Fire Nation is named Crowned in his tenth year of life. Always.
The nobles of the Capital swear fealty. Always.
The generals and sages kneel. Always.
But by his tenth year there is no one who doesn't know the heir of the Great Fire Lord Zuko, Peacebringer, Friend of Nations, The Honored and Restored, is not a bender.
Rumors spread, and Zuko digs in his heels. Katara writes to Mai for advice.
(When she does, she smothers the old, young, inexperienced part of herself that always wonders if someone like Mai would have been a better Fire Lady. Maybe; possibly; but not in the ways that counted most.)
Don't worry about the rich people, Mai replies, their complaints are all about appearances. For them, this is great news. They think the next Fire Lord will be weak and easy to control.
(Katara crushes the letter in her hands, then remembers herself and smoothes it back out.)
The generals and sages are more serious about the whole 'good of the Fire Nation' thing, but they're just a bunch of scared old men. Call a council. Let them rant and rave for a few hours. Make them feel important. Then nod a lot, tell them you'll think over their wise advice, and do whatever you want.
But no matter what, don't let Zuko lose his temper.
(At the bottom of the message is a small scribble from Suki, sending her and Mai's love and warm wishes, since Mai hadn't remembered to add that, along with a question about whether Toph has talked to Sokka recently or if they're still fighting about seal jerky, which is how Katara finds out eighteen-month-old Suyin Beifong is her niece.)
The council is called.
The Fire Lord sits upon his throne, wreathed in flames (he looks uncannily like his father though no one dares say so), stone-faced and still as the most powerful men in the country explain to him why his son cannot rule the Fire Nation.
(If, at his wife's pleading, he has bitten his tongue until his mouth fills with blood, they do not know.)
One general is diplomatic. We mean no disrespect to Prince Kazumi, my lord. But the fighting men and women are still so fragile. They trust your wise and steady hand, but one day we may be at war again; they may not feel a non-bender can guide them should that terrible time come.
"I will take their concern under advisement," says the Fire Lord.
Another general is resolute. There are still many in the Earth Kingdom who resent us. The Fire Nation must never show weakness to allies or enemies. Only the strongest of our nation can lead. Bending is strength.
"The Kings of the Earth Kingdom are not benders," says the Fire Lord, "but I will take that position under advisement."
One sage is studious. I have read scroll after scroll, Lord Zuko. The findings of the Conclave of Crescent Island could, perhaps, have provided leeway had Prince Kazumi been a Waterbender. But there is no precedent for a non-bending Fire Lord.
"The Conclave of Crescent Island," says the Fire Lord, "took place four centuries ago. But I will take their findings under advisement."
Another sage is pious. My lord, if the spirits had smiled upon your son, they would have granted him fire. It would bring great ruin upon this nation to elevate a child Agni deemed unworthy of His blessing.
The Fire Lord's hands clench around the arms of his throne, but his calm expression endures. "I will take your warnings under advisement."
And so it continues.
Once the council finishes presenting their objections, the discussion turns, naturally, towards possible solutions.
Princess Azula lives, but her broken mind forever replays the days of Sozin's Comet. Those who guard her do so at risk to life and limb. The prospect of fathering a future Fire Lord would not tempt the most ambitious nobles to woo her, were the Princess even capable of understanding the situation, or carrying a pregnancy to term.
Inquiries have already been made as to whether Lu Ten could have fathered an illegitimate child during the Siege of Ba Sing Se. All evidence concludes the soldier-prince lived as a monk.
Whatever they may say in private, no one dares suggest Lord Zuko set his wife aside. The people would revolt. And the man who spoke the words would likely not leave the council chamber alive.
Then one sage proposes a compromise and, so gently, suggests their Lord take a Firebending lover. If the child of the union is a bender, the sage tells him, you may bring him or her into the palace to be adopted by the Lady Katara. Your mistress would understand this arrangement from the outset, and be compensated accordingly-
"We're finished here," says Lord Zuko, standing. "Thank you. I will take it all of your input under advisement."
Which everyone in the room understands, correctly, to mean the Fire Lord will not take any of their input under advisement.
(None notice the council room door has opened.)
It is one general - one who has been rather quiet until now - who rises before his Lord and looks him in the eye. I have served you faithfully, Lord Zuko, he says. My father served your uncle. My grandfather served your grandfather. My ancestors and children have devoted their lives to the Fire Nation .
"I am grateful for your family's service," says Lord Zuko.
Then you understand why this cannot continue, replies the general. He is an older man, gray at the temples, but still strong and proud, very proud. My lord, your half-Water son can bend no element, yet you refuse to sire another. Your bloodline has led this nation for centuries, but you have allowed it to be polluted beyond recognition.
Your choices prove you are no longer fit to lead, my lord. For the good of the Fire Nation, I must - I must - issue a challenge for Agni Kai.
The room breaks into pandemonium.
And from the entryway, the Fire Lady Katara says: "I accept."
The date is set for the next full moon.
Kazumi lies awake that night listening to his parents scream at each other down the hall.
Zuko calls for Iroh, who rushes to the Capital - only to side with Katara. "The nation loves her, but those in power have never shown her the respect she deserves," he tells his nephew. "Trust her to earn it."
Katara calls for Sokka, who rushes to the Capital - only to side with Zuko. "What the heck are you thinking?!" he tells his sister. "You almost died when Kazumi was born, you still get sick, don't tell me you don't, if this jerk kills you I'll have to kill him and then the Fire Nation will go to war with the Water Tribe and the whole world will fall apart! Again!"
Toph arrives of her own accord. "Just here to see Sugar Queen kick ass," she says, balancing Suyin on her hip.
If the Avatar knows of the events in motion, he sends no word.
"Mama's not worried," Lin tells Kazumi, "so you shouldn't be, either."
Kazumi is silent. How is he supposed to not worry? Maybe he didn't inherit the bending, but he comes from a whole line of worriers. Agni Kai are where people get killed.
And it's all his fault.
Lin's got this weird thing where she usually knows what Kazumi is thinking, so she punches him in the shoulder. "Really, though," she says, "it's gonna be okay. Mama will crush everyone with rocks if it's bad."
"No one can interfere with an Agni Kai," says Kazumi. "It's the law."
"Then I'll do it," Lin says firmly, "and I'll go to jail."
"Stop it, Lin."
"I mean, I've gotta. Su's my sister, and she's your cousin, so that makes us family, so I'll smash everyone and then I'll just bend the bars of the jail and escape. We can both escape, and you can grow up in the Earth Kingdom with me, and then you'll come back when you're old, like eighteen or something, and we'll crush everyone and you can be Fire Lord without any trouble. No problem, right?"
Kazumi misses being eight. Stuff like that sounded possible when he was eight.
The night before the full moon, Kazumi slips into the Lord's study, where his father is pacing back and forth, back and forth.
"Dad," he says - then he stops, straightens his back, continues, "Father, I want to fight the Agni Kai."
The Fire Lord stops in his tracks.
"It's all about me," Kazumi explains. "They're angry because I'm not a bender. I don't care that it's a fire duel. I should be the one who fights, not Mom."
His dad is silent, and for a minute, Kazumi really thinks he's going to say yes.
Then Fire Lord Zuko sinks to his knees before his son. "When this is over," he says hoarsely, "I'm going to give you my broadswords. It's time you learned how to use them. You're old enough now."
"Exactly! I'm old enough! I'm ten, I can do it!"
Then he's in a hug so tight he can barely breathe. "You have no idea," says his father, "how young ten is, son."
"Dad, you're crushing me."
Kazumi swallows. "Do you think- Dad, what happens if Mom loses?"
"She won't," says the Fire Lord.
Kazumi isn't allowed to sit in the front row. He sits next to Grandfather, who looks more serious than Kazumi has ever seen him. When he notices Kazumi looking, Grandfather smiles slightly and says: "I've seen too many of these in my life."
Lin sits on his other side, because she threw a fit until Auntie Toph said she could go. "Don't worry," she whispers to Kazumi for the hundredth time. "I'll drop a bazillion rocks."
(Dad isn't there. And Kazumi knows why. He knows his father might accidentally burn the whole plaza to the ground if Mom gets so much as a bruise.
Kazumi wishes he could, too.)
The general steps forward. The crowd falls silent as he issues his formal challenge.
He does not bend his knee.
Then the Fire Lady enters the grounds. Red silk binds her breasts. Red pants encase her legs. Spiderweb scars speckle her skin. Silver stretch marks stripe her stomach.
"I am Katara, daughter of Hakoda, wife of Zuko, mother of Kazumi, Lady of the Fire Nation." She uncorks the waterskin at her side. "I am the source of the pollution of the royal bloodline."
She, too, declines to bend the knee.
Kazumi makes himself watch.
And when it is over, when the general sinks ice-bound and defeated, the Lady Katara does not take his head. "That is my son," she says, pointing to Kazumi with a hand covered in bright new burns. "That is my half-Water, half-Fire, non-bending son, and your future lord. Kneel."
Prince Kazumi stands.
The general kneels.
There is silence.
Then - then - a boy from Kazumi's class, a boy from a noble family, a boy Kazumi knows can't bend either, stands up and starts to whistle.
Soon, every non-bender in the plaza is cheering.
There are more of them than there are benders.
After Katara has been healed, Zuko crowds her into their bedroom and clutches at her in a way that reminds her of a ship, of red cushions, of a thousand years ago. "Never do that to me again," he says.
"Now you know how it feels."
"Please. Never again."
"I had to. For Kazumi, and for you." She smiles. "For our honor."
"Fuck honor. Never again."
He kisses her.
The next month, beneath the moon, the Fire Sages place the flame in their son's hair and proclaim him Crown Prince Kazumi, heir to the throne of the Fire Nation.
Every man, woman, and child bows.
"Do you know," says Avatar Aang, who makes a rare visit for Kazumi's twelfth birthday, "that I was your age when I saved the world?"
"Yeah, Dad told me. Twelve's pretty old."
Aang smiles. "I'm going to tell you a secret, Kazumi - it's really, really not."
Obligatory Social Media Promotion: I am still on Twitter audreyii-fic, and am now on YouTube at Two-Thirds Blind doing snarky video game playthroughs. Geekiness continues to abound.