The Fire of a Thousand Suns
Book Two: Chapter 4
By Amphitrite II
20 years ago, 119 ASC
As the years passed by, Aang's trips to the Fire Nation became both a blessing and a curse. While Zuko was always ecstatic to see his friend—especially when the weight of the crown bore down on him—the visits were also a bitter reminder of the life Aang had chosen to lead. And this time, he found himself confronted with not just one precocious child but two beautiful children who resembled their parents in a way that stung fiercely.
"I guess I should say congratulations," Zuko said as he hugged Katara and kissed her on the cheek.
Aang beamed. Katara glared at him, hand on her swollen stomach. She was five months along now, if Zuko was remembering correctly.
"Stop looking so pleased with yourself," she complained. To Zuko, she confided in a stage whisper, "He's been unbearable since we found out about number three."
Zuko laughed. "Well, if the next one is anything like his brother and sister, you'll certainly have your hands full."
As if on cue, Kya tugged on Katara's skirt and whined, "I'm bored, Mom. Can we go see the turtleducks now?"
"Yeah!" Bumi agreed loudly, jumping up and down. "I want to see the turtleducks! Can we, Mom? Can we?"
Aang tugged them away from Katara and steered them toward Zuko. "Say hello to your Uncle Zuko," he ordered, clasping Zuko on the shoulder. Zuko smiled down at them and waved awkwardly. He was never sure how to act toward children. When he was little, he had hated when adults altered their tone and talked down to him, but at the same time he didn't feel right speaking to children as he would people his age. Sometimes he got the feeling that Aang's kids didn't know quite how to interact to him either. He was certainly a far cry from their Uncle Sokka, who knew how to tickle kids until they were shrieking with laughter and speak to them in a way that made them look up to him.
"Hi, Uncle Zuko," Kya said dutifully.
"Hi, Uncle Zuko!" Bumi said before running off and yelling for his sister to follow. Katara sighed and rubbed her forehead as Kya chased after him, shrieking happily.
"Those two are going to be the death of me," she groaned.
"Aww, come on," Aang said, smiling fondly after them. "They're just being kids."
"Let them play," Zuko agreed, taking their bags and handing them to the guard who had escorted his guests in. "The staff will watch them. Shall we get you settled in? You've arrived just in time for afternoon tea."
"Royal Palace tea!" Aang exclaimed, genuine exuberance written on every feature. Zuko made every effort to keep his uncle's renowned tea garden, and it always pleased him that Aang remembered. "I am all over that."
Zuko couldn't help but add: "We've prepared your favorite kind."
Aang squeezed his arm affectionately and grinned widely, that special smile he always saved for Zuko. Basking in the familiar warmth, Zuko smiled back.
"So I see your beard's finally growing in," Zuko commented, raising an eyebrow at the new facial hair. Aang laughed and raised a hand to rub at his chin self-consciously.
"Do you hate it?"
"Mmm, no," Zuko answered. The attendant brought a tray over and served them their tea, fragrant and strong. Zuko thanked him before adding to Aang, "It's different, but it makes you look dignified."
"Thanks," Aang said. "Katara threatened to shave it off in my sleep," he added. "Says it's too itchy."
Zuko looked down at his tea.
"Oh, hey," Aang said, changing the topic quickly, although Zuko couldn't tell if it was out of guilt or obliviousness, "I have to tell you the big news about Toph!"
"What news?" Zuko said, feeling better after a sip of the hot tea.
"She got knocked up!"
Zuko nearly fell out of his chair. "Toph?" he exclaimed in disbelief, jaw dropped.
Aang burst out laughing. "Yup," he confirmed, unabashedly snickering at Zuko's shock. "I knew I had to see your reaction in person."
"You're having me on," Zuko insisted, shaking his head in denial. "I can't even picture it. Toph—our Toph—a mother?"
Still chuckling, Aang refuted, "To be fair, she is pretty good with those kids at her school."
"Well, yeah, but—a baby!"
"She'll either be the best or most terrifying mom ever," Aang agreed.
"Possibly both," Zuko muttered.
"I can't wait," Aang said with a grin. "Her kid and Number Three will be in close in age. They can be friends!"
Zuko laughed. "Number Three? I hope that's not your baby's official name."
Smiling, Aang rolled his eyes exaggeratedly. "Honestly, we've just been too tired with Kya and Bumi to decide on anything. Besides, the two of them were easy: We had the namesakes all lined up. But I kind of want this one to have their own name. Something to grow into and make their own."
"Maybe something related to airbending, hmm?"
Aang grinned ruefully. "You know me too well. I feel bad about hoping for that, but I kind of don't want to actually be the last airbender ever. It… Well, let's just say I would be excited if I could pass that legacy on. I'm more than grateful for the Air Acolytes, but it's not the same."
Though he was sympathetic, Zuko could barely imagine it. Firebending was so integrated into Fire Nation culture that even in peacetime there was such pride in honing benders' skills. Children learned how to bend as they learned how to walk. To have none of that; to be the only person in the world who could bend their people's element, something was so at the core of who somebody was—it was incomprehensible. And yet Aang did it, bearing that weight on his shoulders on top of being the Avatar, on top of all the other responsibilities he had accumulated over the years. Not for the first time, Zuko looked at Aang and wondered how such an amazing human being existed.
"I hope you get what you want," he said, hoping his feelings weren't too obvious on his face. "But I know that either way, the child will be lucky to have a father as wonderful as you."
Beaming, Aang said, "Thanks, Zuko. I'm doing my best." He sighed. "Sometimes, though, I'm just exhausted. I know I'm hardly old, but I can already feel my age in my bones. Traveling so much takes a toll on me, and whether I bring them with me or leave them and Katara at home, I feel bad." He sighed, "Between you and me, sometimes I wish I could get away from all the people and all the responsibilities and go meditate in the mountains for a year."
"I know what you mean," Zuko said, rubbing his forehead. "I've been renegotiating this trade treaty with Kuei for months and am at my wit's end. That's on top of four border disputes, three mayoral scandals, the soybean crops producing an alarming low yield, and accounts of labor abuse in the construction of the Transnational Railroad."
Aang patted the back of his hand. "I'm sorry, Zuko. You know I'm willing to help in any way I can."
"And you know that I appreciate it," Zuko said. "And that I'll ask for your assistance if I need it."
Raising an eyebrow, Aang laughed, "You are so full of it! We both know that you're terrible at asking for help."
Zuko rolled his eyes. "Yeah, yeah. A Fire Lord shouldn't need the Avatar's help in dealing with such petty things."
Aang grinned in that knowing way, shaking his head. He reached for Zuko's hand again, squeezing it this time. "How about a friend's help?"
Sighing, Zuko said, "All right. I'll show you the treaty tomorrow. Maybe you'll be able to see what I'm missing. Kuei isn't usually a problem, but he's really dragging his feet on this one."
"Good," Aang said, and Zuko quickly shut off the part of him that itched to kiss that smug grin. "It's so easy to get caught up in the day-to-day problems, but we have to remember not to lose sight of the big picture. This world we helped bring about—it's a good one. The people aren't always perfect, and harmony can be elusive, but it's a better world, and it's getting better every day."
"Yeah," Zuko murmured, feeling some of the tension uncoil from his stiff shoulders. "I'll promise to try to remember if you do."
Smiling, Aang said, "Deal."
The now empty teapot was replaced with a new one, and Zuko refilled their cups. Aang's fingers brushed against his when he picked his cup back up again. They drank in a comfortable silence.
"Hey," Zuko said after a moment. "Thanks for making it, despite your stress and exhaustion. I'm glad you came."
"Are you kidding?" Aang said. "I wouldn't miss it for the world. I love these vacations and catching up with you.
"Yeah," Zuko said softly. "Me too."
They shared a smile, and deep down, Zuko wished things were different.
"So, Zuko, is there anyone special in your life?"
"Uh," Zuko said, the unexpected question throwing him off, "no. For spirits' sake, you think I have time for things like that?"
Looking taken aback, Katara said, "Sorry. I was just wondering. It's been a long time since Mai…"
Zuko scrubbed his face and steadfastly ignored the mention of his ex-girlfriend. He tried at all costs to avoid thinking about Mai and how that had all gone south. Years later, his pride still stung. "No, I apologize for snapping. It's just that my advisors are nagging me about finding a wife, and it's getting on my nerves. They've completely given up being subtle about it."
"Would you consider a political alliance?" Aang wondered, and his odd tone made Zuko look at him sharply.
"Only if the Fire Nation would benefit in a way that no other alliance could ensure," he said. The answer seemed to appease Aang, whose tensed shoulders loosened—another thing Zuko was not going to think about.
"What about the throne?" Katara wondered.
Zuko had wondered the same thing much too often. "I don't know," he said honestly. "I guess that fits the criteria of benefitting my country. But part of me wants a family, you know? Not just three people together by happenstance, to serve a political end." Then more quietly, he admitted, "I don't know if I'll have a choice in the end."
Katara reached over to squeeze his hand. "You've still got plenty of time to meet someone, Zuko. I mean, you're a pretty eligible bachelor, if we're being honest."
Zuko raised an eyebrow, and Aang mock-glared at her. "Hey, what's that supposed to mean?"
Katara rolled her eyes and began to tick items off her fingers. "He's an emperor and a war hero, he lives in this big, beautiful palace, he's wealthy…"
"And attractive, strong, generous, smart…"
Both Katara and Zuko's heads swiveled to look at Aang sharply. Zuko's gaze skittered away again immediately, his cheeks burning. But Katara continued staring, something hard and inscrutable in her eyes.
"What?" said Aang defensively. "It's true."
"Yes, it is," Katara agreed slowly, dropping her eyes to her nearly empty teacup. Her fingers tightened around the porcelain.
The silence that followed was uncomfortable and stifling, and Zuko busied himself with refilling their cups.
"I'm sure it'll turn out okay," Aang said after a moment, though Zuko noticed that his lips were slightly downturned. He wondered if he was imagining the slight tremor in the words that followed: "Heirs aside, we just don't want you to be lonely."
"I appreciate it," Zuko said, because it was something to say, and if the conversation didn't take a turn, he just might die from awkwardness. What a shame for old friends to be reduced to this.
"Oh, Zuko!" Katara said with perfect timing as she very clearly forced a bright smile on her face, "have you heard about Toph?"
"Yes, Aang told me yesterday—but please tell me more, because I'm still not convinced this is actually happening."
As Katara shared the story of how Toph had dropped the bomb, Aang shot him a look of gratitude. Zuko gave him a small nod in return. The flame within him—after all these years, still refusing to die—gave a commendable attempt to sputter to life, but he quickly tucked it away. Aang was his friend. Of course he thought highly of him. In no way was his praise an indication of romantic affection. And even if it were, Aang was a family man. He had a wonderful wife and two beautiful children, with another one on the way. Any hope for the two of them had slipped through Zuko's grasp many years ago.
Wishful thinking never got anybody anywhere, and he was done with that.
The thick, heavy fragrance of incense wafted through the dimly lit room as Zuko lit the tips of the sticks with a gentle brush of his fingers. Bowing his head, he clasped the incense sticks between his palms and breathed in the smoky sandalwood scent. Above him, Iroh's portrait watched him benevolently, eyes kind and smile easy.
His uncle's shrine was the only one Zuko kept around and made sure was constantly replenished. Though the servants always left fruit meticulously arranged on the altar, Zuko only ever brought tea, which he always served in what had been Iroh's favorite tea set.
Zuko placed the incense sticks in their ornate holder and knelt on the floor with his cup of tea, the red-and-gold rug soft beneath his knees.
"I miss you, Uncle," he said. "I miss having family around. Most of the time, I'm so busy that I don't even think about being alone. But sometimes, I think it would be nice to have company. Someone to hold onto, to give it all some meaning.
"The council keeps trying to play matchmaker. I've been on way more diplomatic missions and visits to governors and mayors and their families than necessary, all because they hope I'll meet someone and finally alleviate their fears of ending up without an heir. Who knows, maybe I will."
The tea was rich and smooth going down his throat, and he closed his eyes to focus on the taste, remembering all the layers of flavor Iroh had always waxed poetic about.
"I want a family. I want to be with someone I love, and I want to raise kids and do right by them. Be the father that Ozai never was. The thought of that responsibility terrifies me—but the thought of never having a chance to do so scares me more." Then, softer, he continued, "But nobody I meet measures up to Aang. And that scares me the most."
Zuko looked up into Iroh's likeness and wished the wise, jolly man were still here with him, always so full of spirit and wisdom and affection. Their time together hadn't been nearly enough, and Zuko missed him more and more with each passing season. He had never outright told Iroh about his feelings for Aang and what had transpired between them that summer, but he always suspected that that keen mind had known anyway. But Iroh never said anything, and Zuko had always been too timid to bring it up himself. He wished now that he had, though, because he wished iroh could answer the question that haunted his days:
"Uncle, why do we love when it makes living so hard?"
The last person Zuko had expected to find by the pond at this late hour was Kya, whose little legs dangled off the stone bench as she hummed to herself and tore the petals off of a fire-red chrysanthemum blossom. The moon, full and ivory, was reflected in the surface of the water, and the stars twinkled above their heads.
"What are you doing out here?" Zuko asked as he tucked his cloak around her bare shoulders and took a seat next to her. The late spring nights had yet to take on the thick, heavy warmth of Fire Nation summers, and he welcomed the crisp air traveling through his lungs.
"Thinking," Kya replied matter-of-factly, as if Zuko were thick-headed for not automatically assuming that a five-year-old was prone to late-night ponderings.
"What do you have to think about?" Zuko said with a laugh. Kya peered at him suspiciously before deeming his amusement the product of mirth rather than malice. She threw the flower aside and crossed her arms.
"Lots of things," she said adamantly. "Daddy says it's important to find a quiet place and think about stuff sometimes."
"That sounds like him," Zuko said, and it was impossible not to smile at the thought of Aang teaching his boisterous kids the value of meditation.
"Bumi's not very good at it," Kya added.
"Are you?" Zuko asked, genuinely curious.
Kya scrunched up her nose. "No, not really," she admitted with a scowl. Zuko burst out laughing.
"I'll tell you a secret," he said. "I'm terrible at it, too."
The confession drew a smile from Kya. "But Daddy says you're really, really good at being a Fire Lord," she said.
"He said that?" Zuko ignored the little skip in his heart. No matter how many years passed, he would never be used to Aang's compliments and avowals of faith. "That's very generous of him."
Smiling brightly, Kya patted his arm. "When I grow up, I want to have my own best friend like you and Daddy."
Zuko swallowed and couldn't think of anything proper to say.
A silence fell between them, and Zuko wondered if Kya was trying to meditate. But a quick glance to his left revealed that she was staring down at her lap and chewing on her lip. He didn't say anything, certain that her thoughts would come spilling out in no time. She was hardly a shy one.
"Why are you so sad, Uncle Zuko?"
Surprised by the perceptive question, Zuko looked down at her, marveling at the fact that he could already see parts of Aang in her: the nose, the effortless smile, and the gangly limbs.
"I'm just tired today," he answered. But she shook her head, thick dark braid flying everywhere.
"No," she said, in that petulant way children spoke when they weren't being understood by adults. "You're always sad," she explained. "Why?"
He thought about the way he always counted down the days to Aang's visits, and the way he had gotten his hair trimmed just in time for Aang's arrival, and saved his best robes for that first day. He thought about Aang's kind words and Katara's suspicious gaze, and the casual way Aang took every opportunity to touch him in a manner Zuko wasn't sure he was even aware he was doing. He thought the letter he had received five years ago announcing Katara was with child, and the sharp pang of sadness that had eaten away at him at Aang's thinly veiled enthusiasm. He thought about "I think of you all the time" and "You won't lose me" and "There never was."
"There was once something I thought I could have," Zuko said softly, craning his head to look up at the moon. "But I missed my chance. I will always regret that." Craning his head to look up at the moon, he continued, almost to himself, "I don't think about it as much as I used to, but there are some things you carry with you throughout life."
To his surprise, Kya didn't say anything, seeming to mull his words over. "But there's always hope," she said slowly, as if she weren't so sure about it herself. "That's what Dad always says."
"Yeah?" said Zuko, choking out a self-deprecating laugh. He didn't have the heart to tell her that he was pretty sure Aang's optimism didn't apply in this case.
A moment passed. Kya watched him as he fixed his eyes on the moonlight reflected in the water.
"Did it hurt?" Kya wondered suddenly, blue eyes huge with innocent curiosity.
Confused at the abrupt change of subject, Zuko asked, "Did what hurt?"
She pointed at his face, nearly poking him in the eye. Zuko didn't feel so self-conscious about the scar anymore, and people usually refrained from commenting on it nowadays, so to have it brought up was a surprise. For a brief moment, he debated lying, but there was something so innocent about her curiosity that he couldn't bear to.
"It did," he admitted. "But it hurt more on the inside than it ever did here."
They were not words he had ever articulated aloud, but they were the truth. There were times he still felt Ozai's ghost weighing down on him, criticizing his every decision, second-guessing every political move. Though he had not been much of a father in the end, Zuko had still looked at him as such, and all that had transpired between them was a deep gash in the core of his being that would never heal.
"Can I touch it?"
Startled, Zuko blinked at her uncomprehendingly for a moment before nodding. He bent his head toward her. She laid her small, delicate hand on the burnt flesh, an age-old reminder of his family's legacy and everything he had to atone for, something he had to face in the mirror every morning.
"I'm sorry you got hurt," she said solemnly, blue eyes wide with the straightforward honesty of children. "I hope it gets better."
A lump formed in Zuko's throat. Unable to voice his emotions, he folded her tiny body in his arms, marveling at this miracle of life with Aang's heart and Katara's soul.
"Come on," he said quietly. "Let's get you to bed."