Chapter 1: One
“You left him.”
“I…I left him.”
“You sent him the papers?”
“I sent him the papers. By courier.”
“And if he won’t sign?”
The other woman hesitated. “I will make him.”
She was met with a moment of silence. “Good…I never liked him.”
Ursa lifted her head and looked at the blue-eyed woman sitting across from her at the kitchen table. She lowered the hot cup of tea in her hand.
“I thought you said you liked him,” Ursa said quietly.
“I said I liked that he would take care of Zuko and Azula as if they were his own,” Kya said. “I didn’t like that he seemed to remind you of that all the time and wasn’t so much a father as a man who gave them a place to live.”
“He still treated my children well,” Ursa said, though admittedly, not as well as she would’ve liked. He even found it uncomfortable when the children called him ‘Dad’, telling them instead to just call him Ikem. “I didn’t mind.”
That was a lie.
“He treated them as well as he could, living most of the time away,” Kya frowned. “I don’t know why he bothered to marry if he’d spend most of his time shooting at some random location, miles from his family.”
Ursa swallowed a lump in her throat. “Ikem had to put food on the table. And even if he was a bit possessive, he was good to me.”
Kya looked back at her and frowned more so. “Zuko and Azula were hospitalized after the fire and he wouldn’t let you fly back,” she reminded her, anger still laced in her voice. “You are their mother. He knows how much you love them and told you to wait with him in that spirit-forsaken swamp, until they were done filming! It’s like he held you captive!”
Ursa closed her eyes tightly. She knew the situation and it had been the last straw.
Ikem had been complaining that the children were old enough to be left with a nanny and could do without her for a few weeks. He urged her to come stay with him in the southern Earth Kingdom, where he was playing a supporting role in some film.
A fire broke out at their mansion and while everyone had gotten out safely, ten-year old Zuko had burned his face and eight-year old Azula broke an arm. Against Ikem’s wishes, Ursa had named Kya and her husband, Hakoda - two college friends of hers, as emergency contacts and they had raced to the children.
Until Ursa returned, Kya would not leave their side, even while caring for her own daughter and son. Ursa looked out towards the pool outside, where Katara and Azula, with her good arm, were throwing water balloons at Zuko, who was trying to float in a plastic donut with a bandage around his head. He was screaming retribution. Sokka was sitting on the low diving board clutching his water gun, cheering them on.
“You didn’t need to marry Ikem,” Kya said softly. “I know you were in love with him, but you rushed into it. He had changed….”
Or perhaps, he had always been that way and Ursa had just ever noticed. The black-haired woman lowered her head. “I was in a troublesome spot. Azula was still a baby and Zuko a toddler…Ikem said he wanted to help.”
Kya frowned. “ You know their father would’ve paid for everything. He would’ve given you everything you needed to help with them.”
Ursa’s face turned away. Her children’s birth father. “Ozai only would because he would feel it’s his responsibility.”
“It is his responsibility!” Kya insisted.
“But he doesn’t love us!”
The brown-haired woman looked at her sadly. “It was an arranged marriage, Ursa, I understand, but Ozai accepted the divorce and wanted to provide financial assistance.”
“He was always such a cold man,” Ursa frowned. “Everything about the business…but his father put so much pressure on mine to marry us….” She lifted her hands to her face. “Even after I said I wanted to be with Ikem! And when I finally could, that was just as big a mistake!”
Kya released a heavy breath. “I know, honey, I know,” she said. She stood up and rounded the table, reaching over to stroke Ursa’s back comfortingly. “You’ve had a lot to do today. Why don’t you go upstairs and rest? I’ll make sure the kids don’t kill each other.”
Ursa shook her head. “What about dinner?”
“Dinner?’ Kya chuckled and smiled warmly. “Since when did the soon to be ex-wife of a famous actor cook dinner?”
It was a joke of course, Ursa enjoyed cooking. Still, the other woman nodded. She took one last drink of her tea and slowly headed through the large house. Along the way she passed by numerous pictures and portraits on the wall of Kya and her family. Briefly, Ursa wondered if that was how her walls should’ve looked like - dotted with reminders of a happy family.
Kya was a good friend from college. By some stroke of luck, they were paired as roommates their first year and remained so until graduation. Ursa was studying theater arts and Kya was a medical student at the time. Now, she was a doctor specializing in pediatrics. Her husband, Hakoda, was an engineer who, along with some friends, started up a successful company. Yet, the two still had time to raise two children who were now playing with her own.
Ursa remembered the day an infuriated Kya returned from her martial arts lessons, having been shown up by some ‘nerd from the engineering department’. Somehow, the nerd had managed to coax popular and athletic Kya out.
That was how Ursa first met Ozai - he was a friend of Hakoda. At the time, she didn’t know that his father and her father knew each other or that Azulon wanted her father to agree to marrying her to Ozai. She was still madly in love with her high school boyfriend, Ikem - then a struggling actor. While Ursa was in school, Ikem was auditioning for small roles and trying to break into show business in the Earth Kingdom.
Ozai was a business student from a wealthy industrial family. He was arrogant and proud and Ursa thought he seemed only to be in Hakoda’s company because Hakoda was brilliant. She and Ozai were never particularly close; they just had common friends in Hakoda and Kya.
Her view of the spoiled rich boy Ozai changed on her last summer with Kya. While at the beach, Hakoda was trying to catch Kya’s hat as it flew away in the wind. Kya was yelling at him to forget about it, but he was determined. Hakoda lost his footing and fell down a rocky cliff.
Ozai tossed his phone to Kya, ordered her to call the paramedics, and climbed down without any hesitation. He carried Hakoda on his back, up the cliff while saying that the drop was too narrow for paramedics, and went with them to the hospital once the paramedics did arrive.
“Whatever he needs, get it for him!” she remembered Ozai barking at the hospital staff. She had never seen him so frazzled.
“Ozai, it’s fine,” Hakoda choked out as he laid on a stretcher.
“It will be fine,” Ozai scowled. “Don’t worry about the costs, Hakoda. I’ll take care of it.”
“Kya, I’ll buy you a new hat, too,” he told the woman who was sobbing while holding her fiancee’s hand tightly.
“You’re an idiot,” Hakoda wheezed. Ozai didn’t look the least bit insulted.
“I take care of my own,” he stated proudly. “Just…just don’t leave me behind, alright?”
Hakoda had been wheeled off, but smiled. “I won’t. You only have one friend.”
Ozai had raised a brow, suddenly reverting back to his usual arrogant self. “Do you want me to pay for everything or not?”
Yet for a moment, Ursa had seen the loyal friend Hakoda assured her was beneath all that bravado.
Though, all that bravado was nothing in the face of his father. Azulon convinced her parents to agree to an arranged marriage with Ozai by putting pressure on the small beachside business her parents had in Ember Island. Her father begged her to agree to the marriage, fearing that Azulon would completely demolish the island if she disagreed.
Ursa did and Azulon lead Ember Island into a prosperity it hadn’t seen in years. The same could not be said for her engagement to Ozai, who seemed to just do what his father told him.
Hakoda had been the best man at their wedding with Katara the Matron of Honor. Everyone knew the situation - that it was an arranged marriage, but Ursa had put her theater acting to the test and feigned love for her new husband.
She cried her wedding night and Ozai, uncomfortable, left her in the room. Instead, he sent Kya to speak to her. Their first night together and Ozai slept in another room. It would be another two months before he actually touched her.
The man was always busy and since they weren’t a typical couple, didn’t call each other or kept in contact while the other was away. There were times Ursa wished they did, but what would they talk about? She knew nothing nor was interested in business. Ozai thought the theater was a waste of time.
“You need to talk to her,” she once heard Kya and Hakoda chastising Ozai on one of the occasions they were all together. “At least try, Ozai.”
“And talk about what? The only thing we have in common are you two,” Ozai pointed out, irritated.
The weekend afterwards, he had taken her to see “Love Amongst the Dragons” - her favorite play. Kya had probably told him. It was a valiant effort. He stayed awake and managed to discuss the underlying themes, but clearly did not share her love it. It was another reminder of their difference.
Sometimes she wondered how they even managed to have two children, though by the time she was pregnant with Azula, she could no longer take the man who spent more time at the office than with them.
When Ozai missed Azula’s birth, as he had missed Zuko’s because he was in Ba Sing Se for business, Ursa told their friends that she wanted a divorce. Kya and Hakoda weren’t sure how to react, but offered their support - for the both of them. Ursa knew she put them in an uncomfortable position.
Ozai was given the documents and after reading them through thoroughly, he signed them.
The last place they had met was at their old house, just a few houses away from Kya and Hakoda’s. They sat across from each other in the kitchen and he slid her the papers across the table.
“At least let me support the children,” Ozai said. He didn’t sound hurt at all and it was another stab in her chest. “I am their father, after all.”
Ursa shook her head. “I will manage.”
“Ursa, you’re still on maternity leave from the university theater. I doubt that’s enough to support you and the children.” He sounded angry. She refused to look at him.
“I have support,” she insisted. “I…I’ve spoken to Ikem.”
He knew full well who Ikem was and when Ursa looked up to see him, she could see a pain in his eyes that she had never seen. It was quickly masked over with anger and Ozai’s shoulders trembled.
“Very well,” he said in a cold voice. “If that is what you wish. I know you’ve been in love with him since we met. I cannot stop you.”
She wanted to cry, suddenly. “I am sorry, Ozai.”
He pushed his seat back and stood up. “Should I the children be in need of anything - anything,” he stressed. “Tell me.”
He stormed out of the house and she had started crying.
They hadn’t talked directly since and Zuko and Azula never saw him again. Ursa choked back a cry as she entered her guest room and slumped back against the door. She began to cry as she slid down and crumbled against the back of the door.
Ikem was a mistake, just as the arranged marriage with Ozai was.
Downstairs, Kya stood at the bottom of the stairs and closed her eyes tightly, silently praying that Ursa stay strong.
“Aunt Kya!” Zuko called from the kitchen. The blue-eyed woman quickly tried to straighten up and turned her attention down the hall.
“Yes, Zuko?” she called as she put on a smile and walked towards the back of the house.
“Where’s my mom?”
“She went upstairs to rest. It’s been a long day for her, but I’ll make sure to wake her for dinner,” she smiled.
Distracted by the thought of dinner, Zuko perked up - his unbandaged eye looking excited. “What are having?”
“Hmm…well…why not seafood noodles? The cold ones, with some peppers,” Kya beamed. “She used to love eating those when we were roommates.”
“That sounds good,” Zuko said. “I’ll tell the others!” Before she could tell him to be careful, he raced out. The sound of water balloons popping was heard, immediately followed by Zuko’s pained cry.
“I told you he’d come back!” Azula laughed. “Katara, let’s get some more water balloons!”
Zuko screamed back at them, his face flushed. “This isn’t over!”
She could hear the sound of muffled voices piercing her sleep. Ursa turned her head to the side, closing her eyes tightly as she tried focus.
Slowly, her gold orbs opened and she looked around the well furnished room. From the window outside, the sun was setting and it would be dark soon. Her room was cast in shadows from the dusk and she was still on the floor, beside her door.
Grimacing at the awkward position she had fallen asleep in, she wiped at her face to check for dried tears. She shook her head. She was a grown woman and she cried herself to sleep on the floor of her best friend’s guest bedroom.
“Mom, what’s going?” Ursa looked back at the door. That was Katara’s voice.
“Just stay in you rroom,” she heard Kya saying. Curiously, Ursa turned the door knob and opening the door, peeking down the hall. All four children were crouched by the stairs, looking through the railing bars and down to the foyer. She could see Kya’s head disappearing down the stairs in a rush.
“I know you and your wife are hiding her! She’s not at the house, so bring her out here!”
A cold chill ran down Ursa’s back and she stumbled back into her room. That was Ikem’s voice - and he sounded furious.
“You are not welcomed here!” Hakoda growled. “Leave before I call the police!”
“I’m not leaving until Ursa comes down and tells me what the hell this is all about!” The sound of papers slamming against the marble tiled floor filled the foyer. He had received the divorce papers.
Ursa could see Katara withdraw against her brother while Zuko wedged himself between the railing and Azula. Azula, however, was glaring down at the foyer.
“He’s upsetting Auntie and Uncle,” the golden-eyed daughter said. “I’m going to tell him to leave.”
“Azula, no,” Ursa said, opening her door and getting their attention.
“Mom, it’s Ikem!” Zuko whispered. “He’s looking for you! Stay there!”
It was not the job of her son to protect her. Not now. His words filled her with a sense of irritation and anger at Ikem. How dare he make Zuko worry about her? He was only a child. Taking a deep breath, Ursa straightened up and walked down the hall.
“What’s going on here?” she said as she stood at the top of the stairs.
Hakoda was firmly standing in the doorway of the entrance, with Kya behind him. Ikem was standing on their front stop, wanting to go inside, but hesitant to fight two people he knew were still active martial artists.
“Ursa!” he called. He was fuming and narrowed his eyes as he watched her walk down the stairs. “What is the meaning of this!? Divorce papers? Is this a joke?”
Ursa reached the foyer, but did not get any closer to the door. “No, it isn’t,” she said. “I want a divorce.”
“What?” A genuine look of confusion filled Ikem’s face and for a moment Ursa wanted to throw something at him. Did he really not understand what he was doing wrong? Even Ozai had acknowledged that it wasn’t working out and in part due to him. “What are you talking about, Ursa? Stop this non-sense and come home.”
“I’m not leaving,” Ursa said as Kya moved closer to her in an effort to show her support. Hakoda had not moved from the door and kept his eyes on Ikem. “I understand now that while you’ll offer your support to raise my children, you only see them as a means of controlling me. You don’t care about Azula or Zuko,” she said. “You don’t care about my relationship to them or how much I love them. You never did.”
“Ursa, I am in love with you!” Ikem choked out. “I’ve told you a thousand times! I never once stopped loving you! I don’t care if you had children with another man or were married before, I just want you!”
“You want to keep me like a prize!” Ursa had tears in her eyes. “Always at your side and not to be shared. Since we’ve been married, I’ve hardly seen my friends or family. You had Zuko sent away to boarding school and are planning to do the same with Azula! You’re taking everyone I love away from me! You try to keep me away from those I love!”
“Ursa, you don’t understand,” Ikem told her desperately. “I am the one who loves you the most. If anyone should be at your side, it should be me.”
She shook her head, a pained expression on her face. “So you would keep me away from my children.”
“They are just reminders of that man who trapped you into a marriage years ago, remember?” Ikem told her. “I am only trying to free you of the marriage that made you so miserable, you came crying back to me.”
Ursa was shaking. “I love my children,” she said in a low voice. “And I will never stop loving them, regardless of who their father is.”
Ikem’s eyes narrowed. “Their father?” he spat out. “Who they haven’t seen since he left? Do they even know how he looks like?”
“I’ve seen pictures!” Azula shouted from the stairs.
Kya whirled around. “I told you four to stay in your rooms!”
“But Aunt Kya, he won’t leave until Mom goes with him!” Zuko said.
“She’s not going anywhere with him,” Hakoda assured them. “Ikem, I’m telling you one more time, get out of here. Ursa wants a divorce and she and the kids are welcomed to stay with us as long as they want.”
Ikem was seething. He never did like Ursa’s friends. His face and neck were flushed red as his hands fisted at his sides. “She’ll come back,” he said in a low voice. He looked towards Ursa and shot her a haughty look. “You came back before, Ursa, and when you’re ready, we can talk through this. I’m sure we can work it out.” He raised his eyes and looked up at the children crowded at the top of the stairs. “I’ll even accept your scarred and broken children if you do. After all, you don’t have a job or any means of support. You won’t be able to survive without me.”
“Leave, Ikem,” Hakoda’s voice was now threatening. “I’m warning you.”
Ikem sneered at Hakoda and took a step back. “Let’s see how long you’re willing to house that whore who sold herself for Ember Island.” Both Kya and Ursa let out gasps of shock as Hakoda stepped forward.
“You take that back!” Zuko yelled behind them. He was running down the stairs, red-faced with his hands in fists. Sokka darted after him to try to hold him back.
“Zuko!” Kya yelled. He ran past her, ready to fight the older man. Ikem laughed and held her arms open wide.
“Go ahead and try, you one-eyed brat! Take your best shot!”
A pale hand grabbed onto his right shoulder and suddenly, Ikem was whirled around. The cocky look on his face disappeared as one of confusion filled it. He barely recognized the man behind him as a fist slammed into his face and sent him tumbling to the ground.
“If you say anything more about them, you’ll be lucky if you have one eye remaining after I’m through with you,” a low, male voice said from the brick walkway.
“I heard a crack,” Kya said as she rushed to the doorway. Ikem was curled on the grass, grasping his nose as blood poured from between his fingers.
“If he didn’t break it, I would’ve,” Hakoda said. He looked towards the man looming above Ikem. “That’s enough, Ozai. I think he understands.” He craned his neck and saw some men rushing out of a car parked across the street. They were calling Ikem’s name.
“Ozai, get in here before his bodyguards try to fight you,” Kya said as she grabbed his arm and pulled him into the foyer. “Hakoda and I will talk to them.”
She slipped outside with her husband to confront the body guards, demanding they take Ikem away before they called the police.
“Tell the media, too!” Azula said. “It’ll ruin him!” She was yelling towards the door, but kept her eyes on the tall, slender, black-haired man in an expensive suit standing in the foyer.
Katara glanced from her friend to the man below. “Uh…,” she said. “Hi, Uncle Ozai!”
“Hello, Kat. Sokka,” he greeted. Sokka, who had run after Zuko, gave him a nod. Even as he spoke, his eyes were on the black-haired woman in a wrinkled pink blouse and dark pants over baby blue guest slippers. “Ursa.”
Her heart was racing. She opened her mouth to try to speak to the man she hadn’t seen or spoken to in years, but nothing came out.
“Excuse me,” a little girl appeared and seemed to squeeze between them. Black hair in neat pigtails moved around her head as she tilted it upwards to get a better look at the man. She seemed to be studying him. “Katara, is this him?”
“Uh-huh,” Katara said. “That’s him. Mommy said so.”
Azula narrowed her eyes. “Mom,” she said, not taking her critical eyes off of the man. “Is he our dad?”
If Ozai was surprised, he didn’t show it. Ursa could barely breathe. She nodded her head slowly. “Zuko…Azula…,” she said. “This is Ozai Souzin.” As she said their last name, the two children seemed to perk up. “He is your-”
“Ooh! Wait, wait!” Sokka said, earnestly moving in front of them. He tugged on the sleeve of Ozai’s blazer. “Uncle, you have to say it! Say the line!”
A wry smile tugged at his lips. “Alright,” he said. “Zuko, Azula,” he began as Sokka looked on excitedly. “I am your father.”
Chapter 2: Two
It was the most awkward dinner she had ever been in, which is a difficult thing to admit after the years of putting a smile on her face and sitting through meals with Ikem and his peers.
At the large dining table, Hakoda was on one end, flanked on either side by Ozai and Sokka, who sat next to Zuko, and then her. Kya sat beside her, at the other end of the table, with Katara on her left, followed by Azula, who had decidedly taken the seat beside her estranged father.
Azula hadn’t been able to stop looking at the man confirmed to be her birth father, even after Hakoda closed the front door behind them. Ikem’s bodyguards had carried him away after Kya said he had a broken nose and maybe further damage to his jaw and should go the emergency room. When Ikem threatened to sue them, Kya laughed in his face, welcoming the threat with one of her own.
“Go ahead. Do you think you scare us? If you come near Ursa or the children again or even try to drag their names through the mud, we will destroy you,” Kya hissed. “Not just your career,” she added with a darkened look. “You.”
Hakoda had ushered her inside and closed the door. When he turned around, the tension in the air was clear as Ozai and Ursa stood a few paces away from each other, in the same room, for the first time in eight years.
While it was no secret that Ozai was still friends with the couple - after all, he was one of Hakoda’s business partners and closest friend, it was still a shock to run into him…at least so soon.
“You didn’t tell us you were coming,” Kya said in calm, even tones as she crossed her arms. She stood beside, a bit in front of her, as if to draw Ozai’s burning gaze from the other woman. “I would’ve made extra for dinner.”
“I didn’t plan to,” Ozai said. His voice was slow and measured, but it seemed to take effort to pull his attention away from Ursa. “I came by to drop off the souvenirs from the nomad territories that your husband forgot at the office.”
Hakoda seemed to perk up behind him, as if suddenly remembering something. “Oh…the sugar cookies.”
“Sugar cookies!?” Katara gasped.
Hakoda gave her a weak look. “Sorry, honey. I forgot to get them from your uncle on the way out.”
Katara gave her father a pout and Ozai reached down at patted her head. “Lucky for you, I brought on my way home.”
Azula narrowed her eyes as Katara beamed at the assurance that she would still get her cookies. Once more, Azula wedged herself between Ozai and whoever had his attention. “Pardon me, I would also like some cookies!”
“Azula!” Ursa scolded.
The little girl didn’t falter in her demands. “Please!” she added, instead.
Ozai lifted his hand, used to patting Katara and Sokka on the head, and reached to do the same to Azula. Then he stopped. His hand pulled back before he touched her head and instead gave her a nod.
“I left it in the car,” he said. He turned around abruptly. “I’ll go get it.”
Kya let out a heavy breath and glanced back at Azula. She was trying to keep an expectant look on her face, waiting for the cookies, but there was a look of disappointment there that she couldn’t quite hide.
“I”ll come with you,” Hakoda said as he unlocked the door. “That idiot may not have left.” Ozai gave him a curt nod of his head.
Just as he stepped out after Hakoda, Kya called out after him. “Will you be joining us for dinner?”
He seemed to freeze at the threshold. “Dinner…” he muttered. Ursa was looking back at Kya with wide, gold eyes. That’s right, it was time for dinner and Kya couldn’t simply send the man off without at least an invitation. And under normal circumstances, Ursa was sure he’d say he would be.
Would he stay? Was he waiting for her to agree or disagree? Would you flat out say no?
“You should stay,” Azula said suddenly. She turned towards her brother. “Right, Zuzu?”
Several pairs of eyes turned towards the boy with the black hair and stunned gold eyes. He seemed hesitant to answer and glanced at his mother, as if asking if he should agree or not. However, the fact that he hadn’t immediately disagreed with his sister meant that part of him wanted Ozai to stay.
Perhaps he was curious, too.
Ursa swallowed a lump in her throat and gave a small nod. “If you are not in a rush, Ozai, and do not mind the company….”
His eyes narrowed. “I have no reason to.” Even as he said it, his voice was cold. He looked back at Kya and gave her a nod. “I hope you made extra.”
“We have two growing boys here,” Kya said as she lifted her chin, satisfied with his answer. “Of course I did.”
Ursa and Ozai’s eyes met once more before he walked out. As soon as he was out of sight, heading towards the driveway, Ursa let out the breath she had been holding in and reached for Kya. The other woman held her steady as Zuko ran towards her.
“I’m fine, I’m just…surprised,” she assured him. “Why don’t you help Sokka set the table?” She saw Sokka look towards his mother and after Kya gave him a nod, Sokka herded the rest of the children towards the kitchen.
Kya helped Ursa to the stairs and let her take a seat. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know he was coming.”
“Ikem or Ozai?” Ursa said as she raised her hand and rubbed the bridge of her nose. She shook her head. “It doesn’t matter. Either way, it’s my fault.”
“I hardly see how Ozai coming to deliver cookies is your fault,” Kya said with disbelief. “Are you sure you are alright with him joining us for dinner?”
Truthfully, Ursa shook her head. She wasn’t ready to see Ozai. She didn’t even ever plan to. “They want to see him. To meet him,” she said, referring to Azula and Zuko. She tilted her head upwards and looked at Kya. If she didn’t agree to it now, she’d never agree to it. “Didn’t you see Azula? How she looked at him? And Zuko?”
Kya smiled. “I saw. It is sudden, but if you are up for this…”
Ursa nodded. “There is no reason for me to be uncivil towards him. Besides, he is your friend and this is your home. You can bring whoever you want in.”
Kya rolled her eyes. “You are our friend, too. If it starts to get too much for you, let me know. Ozai can take a hint and he won’t hold it against us.” Ursa nodded once more.
That was how her ex-husband ended up sitting on the other side of the table, talking to Hakoda about recent developments in a data storage facility their company ran.
She ate in silence, despite Kya’s attempts to get her to talk. Beside her, Zuko was shaking his head as Sokka elbowed him.
“Just ask!” Sokka finally exclaimed. The table went silent and Zuko’s face turned red. All attention was on him.
“Ask what?” Hakoda raised a brow. Sokka elbowed Zuko once more.
“Go ahead!” he urged. Zuko looked hesitant and glanced up, across the table, at Ozai.
“Do you remember me?” he asked in a quiet voice. Ursa felt her chest ache as her son spoke. She wanted to reach over and embrace him, but he was looking at his father, waiting for an answer.
“That’s a foolish question.” Ozai said as he drew his head back, looking almost offended. Zuko looked as if he had been struck.
“Oh, spirits…” Hakoda placed his fork down before rubbing his head. Kya was staring at the other man as if he had lost his mind and Ursa had immediately turned red, wanting to scream at him.
“Of course I remember you, Zuko,” Ozai continued on, unperturbed. “You are my son. How could I forget you.”
He had said it rather roughly, but it was clear that the thought that he’d forget about them was absurd.
“What about me?” Azula asked as she reached over and tugged at his shirt sleeve. “Do you remember me?”
As if he couldn’t appease them with a mere verbal answer, Ozai reached into his back pocket and took out his wallet. It was nice and black - designer and smelled of real leather. He ignored the cards and the money and reached into a small pocket. He pulled out worn piece of paper and showed it to her.
“You were just born,” Ozai said. “Your Uncle Hakoda sent me the picture while I was stuck in Ba Sing Se.”
Azula crinkled her eyes and seemed to study the picture just as hard as she had studied him. “That’s me?”
“Azula, 0 days,” Ozai said as he turned the small photo around. “Can you read?” She nodded proudly. “In your head?” She nodded once more.
“I can, but Zuko can’t.”
“Hey!” the boy shouted across the table.
A small smirk tugged at Ozai’s lips. He tapped the back of the picture and Azula beamed.
“What does it say?” Kya asked gently from one end of the table. Azula shook her head.
“It’s a secret,” she said, her pale cheeks blushing. Ozai put the picture back into his wallet.
“I have one of Zuko, too,” he said. He grinned. “He was taking a bath. Want to see?”
“No!” Zuko looked horrified and turned red once more. Ursa gave Ozai a frown.
“You couldn’t have chosen a better picture?” she grumbled. Ozai glanced down at the photo and Azula craned her neck to look at it.
“I was cuter,” she said, seemingly satisfied. Zuko glared at her harder as Kya and Hakoda snickered. “Who’s that lady holding him?”
Ozai raised a brow. “You don’t recognize her?”
Katara leaned to the side to also see the picture. “That’s your mom, Azula.”
“Mom!?” both Zuko and Azula chorused. Ursa caught herself from almost crying out ‘me!?’ at the same time.
“We couldn’t simply leave Zuko alone in a tub of water, Azula,” Ozai stated coolly. He shoved the picture back into his wallet and returned it to his back pocket.
“You make a good point,” Kya said, quickly intervening before more questions were asked and Ursa became even more uncomfortable. “So be honest. How are the noodles?”
“Great, mom!” Katara beamed.
“More!” Sokka called out.
“10/10, darling,” Hakoda chuckled as he put some more on Sokka’s plate. “Seasoned just right.”
“They’re delicious, Kya,” Ursa said with a hopeful smile.
“Yeah, Auntie, they’re good!” Zuko nodded.
“I want more pepper next time!” Azula said. Ursa sighed.
“Agreed,” Ozai concluded. “A little more on the spicy end next time, Kya.” He gave Azula small nod of his head, but carried a small, satisfied smirk on his lips, as if proud of something.
Ursa silently cursed the spirits that allowed Ozai, even in his 30’s, to remain attractive. Feigning being in love with him was one thing, but attraction to his face and body? Even when her heart belonged to Ikem, she acknowledged that Ozai was ‘nice to look at’.
She and Kya had spent many a night when they were younger discussing the physical attributes of Hakoda and Ozai. Many a night.
“Auntie Ursa, are you done?” Sokka asked. She blinked and snapped back into attention. The kids were helping clear the table and Ozai was back to speaking with Hakoda.
She nodded and pushed her seat back. “I can take it, Sokka. Thank you.” The boy nodded and headed into the kitchen where Azula and Katara were climbing on to the bar stools beside the kitchen island and reaching for the cookies.
“One each!” Kya said as she collected the dishes in the sink to be rinsed.
The girls each took one and as they sat there, with their legs swinging beneath them, Katara bit into her cookie. “I told you he was nice. He always brings us cookies when he comes back from the nomad territories.”
Azula nodded. “I liked it when he punched Ikem.”
Kya let out a laugh from the sink and tried to calm herself as she heard their conversation. Ursa frowned as she put the dishes in the sink and leaned back against the counter.
“It’s funny in retrospect,” Kya admitted. She looked at Ursa with a gentle smile. “Are you doing alright? It seemed to go well.”
“It was uneventful and that’s as well as it can get,” Ursa said.
Kya elbowed her lightly. “I bet you didn’t know he carries around pictures of you guys.”
Ursa felt her cheeks heat up as she watched Zuko and Sokka join their sisters eating cookies. “I didn’t expect him to be the type.”
“You were married to him for three years,” Kya said.
“Well, we weren’t exactly close,” Ursa grumbled. She looked towards the children and exhaled slowly. “I wasn’t sure how he’d take the kids,” she admitted.
“He’s alright with kids. He’s not the super fun uncle, but they like him.” Kya began putting the dishes in the dishwasher. Her voice softened. “You know…he did ask about them.”
Ursa knight her brows together. “When?”
Kya closed the dishwasher door with her hip and leaned back against it as it began. “When you first split up. He’d ask us if we had the chance to see the kids. It was subtle and he seemed to try not to make a habit of it. Eventually, we’d just bring them up so he wouldn’t have to struggle. Sokka and Katara talk about them often, too. You’d be surprised how Ozai listens when they talk about Azula and Zuko.”
Ursa looked away. “I feel like we’re talking about different men.”
Kya nodded slowly. “Maybe we are,” she said as she pushed herself off the dishwasher. “You’re talking about your ex-husband. I’m talking about my friend.” She stepped away from Ursa and towards the kids. “I said one each!”
As the children giggled, Ursa sighed and walked towards the coffee maker. “Coffee?”
“I’m good. Hakoda might want some, though,” Kya said as she took a cookie for herself.
“I’ll check,” the black-haired woman said as she placed a filter and some ground beans on the counter. She walked out towards the dining room. “Hakoda, did you want coff….”
She trailed off as Ozai rose from his seat at the dining table upon seeing her. He was alone; Hakoda’s seat was empty.
“He went to get some papers from his study,” Ozai said. “He’ll be back in a moment.”
Quietly, she drew her head back, but lingered awkwardly at the entrance. “Then…um…do you want some…er…coffee?”
She wasn’t sure if she wanted him to say yes or no.
“No, actually. I need to leave soon,” he told her. A rush of relief filled her, but with it a feeling of guilt at the relief. “I have a flight in the morning.” She nodded, more automatically than for acknowledgement. Ozai straightened up a bit. “How is Zuko’s eye?”
She dropped her gaze. Did he want to know now? “He’ll be able to see…he’ll be scarred, though.” She didn’t seem him clench his jaw.
“And did the doctors say how long Azula’s closed fracture will take to heal?” She looked up at him, clearly surprised he knew, and he let out a small cough. “Kya told me.”
Awkward silence filled the room and in her head, Ursa tried to figure out the best way to leave without making things any more awkward. Before she could settle on a solution, Ozai spoke up once more.
“I know the agreement was that you have complete custody of the children and I also know that you do not want and have rejected financial assistance from me in the past,” he told her carefully. “However, the offer still stands.”
Somehow, she always knew that. Ursa nodded solemnly. “I….we, appreciate the gesture. I’ll think about it.”
His eyes met hers once more. “That offer extends to you, too.” She blinked.
“If Ikem fights you about the divorce, let me know. I’ll have my lawyers take care of it.” She opened her mouth to protest, but he held up a hand to silence her. “My lawyers are the same as Hakoda and Kya’s. If it bothers you that much, pretend I have nothing to do with them. I don’t want Azula and Zuko to have to go through a messy divorce. I had tried to avoid that with ours.”
Ursa grit her teeth. He did. He signed without question, agreed that he was insufficient as a father, and gave in to her demands, no matter how much Hakoda and Kya had tried to talk her out of them. But because of that, their divorce had been quick and the children were spared a long legal battle.
Of course, that also meant Ozai left their lives willingly.
Her eyes hardened as she looked back at him. “I didn’t know you care so much about them.” She couldn’t help but sound bitter.
Ozai didn’t defend himself. He merely gave her another solemn nod. “I do take care of my own, Ursa.”
Before she could let that sink in, Hakoda appeared from the hall holding a folder. He stopped and glanced from Ozai to Ursa and back and slowly raised his hands. “Am I interrupting anything?”
“No,” Ozai said quickly. He looked at the folder in Ozai’s hands. “Is that it?”
“This is it,” Hakoda said and handed him the folder. “Did you want some coffee before you go?”
“No, I need to get some sleep for tomorrow’s flight, so I’ll be heading out now,” he replied as he flipped through the folder.
“Alright,” Hakoda nodded. He walked around him and headed to the kitchen. “Kya! Kids! Ozai is leaving!”
Ursa heard the sound of chair legs scratching against the stone tile and stepped to the side as Katara and Azula rushed in.
“Thanks for the cookies, Uncle Ozai!” Katara said as she skidded to a stop in front of him and bowed her head. Azula did the same.
“Yes, thank you!” Sokka and Zuko mirrored the respectful movement and Kya nodded.
“Have a safe flight, Ozai. When will you be coming back?” she asked as she and Hakoda began to walk him towards the foyer.
“A week. I’m meeting with our offices there,” he said.
“Are you going to come and have dinner with us when you return?” Azula asked. Zuko looked interested at the prospect and Ursa’s eyes crinkled up. Were they that interested in Ozai? They never asked about their father, at least not much.
Ozai didn’t answer immediately. He looked towards Ursa, as if seeking approval from her. She didn’t know what to say and tried to avoid his gaze.
“Of course he will.” Hakoda answered for them and both Ursa and Ozai shot him a surprised look. Hakoda didn’t seem to think that would be awkward at all. “We’ll have a nice BBQ when he returns, alright?”
Ozai looked only mildly irritated. “Just don’t skimp on the spices.” They reached the door and Hakoda unlocked it. “Thank you for having me over.”
“Yes, we should do this more often,” Kya grinned. He shot her a small glare.
“Bye, Uncle!” Katara waved once more. Ozai nodded and stepped outside.
“Bye, Mr. Souzin!” Azula added. Ursa’s eyes went wide and Hakoda and Kya looked taken aback. Ozai stopped on the pathway back to his car. He bit his lower lip and turned around, giving her a nod back before stiffly making his way back to the car.
The door closed and Azula looked at her brother. “He seems nice.”
“Mr. Souzin is as Katara said,” Zuko agreed. They turned around and froze in their spots as they saw their mother standing in the hall. Zuko’s face paled as Azula turned red. “Mom…”
“It’s getting late,” Ursai said. “Isn’t it time to get ready for bed?” As if knowing that it was time to make a hasty retreat, Katara grabbed on to Azula’s arm and proclaimed they had to get ready and watch her favorite movie before bed. Sokka was instantly distracted and began arguing as they raced up the stairs.
“I’ll make sure they’re behaving,” Hakoda excused himself and followed after the children, leaving Ursa with Kya once more.
Without a word, Kya put her arm around Ursa and led her to the den, further towards the back of the house. She turned on the light and helped Ursa sit on the couch before closing the door behind them and grabbing a box of tissue from shelf.
She placed it beside the divorcee and took a seat beside her. “Go ahead,” Kya said. “The kids can’t hear you.”
Ursa grabbed a handful of tissues and began sobbing.
“Are you okay?” the voice asked through the phone’s speaker. Ozai continued to rub a towel through his hair as he walked around his bedroom, near the desk where his phone was.
“Of course I am. Why wouldn’t I be?”
“You know why you wouldn’t be,” Hakoda said.
Ozai paused and turned towards the phone. “You didn’t tell me she was staying with you.”
“It didn’t seem like a topic of conversation at work. I didn’t know you were going to drop by, either,” Hakoda said.
“How long have they been there?”
“Two days. She left while Ikem was still in the Earth Kingdom. She didn’t want Azula and Zuko around him any more.”
Ozai nodded to himself. He sat on the foot of his bed and tossed his towel to the side. “Thank you for staying with them.”
“We love them like our own,” Hakoda assured him.
“Not just the kids,” Ozai said.
The man on the other side of the line paused. “Kya will make sure she’s alright. She’ll get through this, just like you did.”
Ozai glared at the phone. “Are you going to remind me of that whenever you have the chance?”
“I’m just saying that we’ll be there for her, like we were for you,” Hakoda said. “At any rate, I think your kids like you.”
“I’m sure they just think I’m a ‘nice man’ who is friends with their uncle and aunt,” Ozai scoffed. “Mr. Souzin, remember?” Certainly he didn’t expect a ‘dad’, ‘papa’, or even ‘father’ when they just met him, but hearing his own flesh and blood call him “Mr. Souzin” had stopped him in his tracks.
“Well, did you expect them to call you ‘dad’ so soon?” Hakoda snorted. “I think Ursa may be alright with you seeing the kids now. This may be your chance to not massively screw up.”
“Shut up, Hakoda. I’m not the same man as I was then. If I could do it all over, I….” He suddenly trailed off.
What would he have done all over? Would he have made more an effort? Would he have rushed back for the birth of his son and daughter? Would he have tried harder to enjoy the damn theater Ursa loved so much? Would he have fought to see his son and daughter?
“I know, Ozai,” Hakoda didn’t need any more information and silently, Ozai was thankful of that. “We’re not going to force you to be the perfect father. Frankly, that roll is taken.” Ozai scoffed once more. “But Ikem wouldn’t even let them call him ‘dad’ and he was their father figure for eight years. Aside from their amazing Uncle Hakoda, they didn’t know what a father could be. They may not understand what happened now, but one day they will. It wouldn’t hurt to reach out to them.”
“I get it,” Ozai frowned. “I’ll come to the BBQ in a week. I’ll see you then.” He stood up and walked to his desk, reaching for his phone to hang up.
“Ozai.” He heard Hakoda once more. “Ursa is our dear friend, just as you are…I trust that you won’t do anything…hasty?”
“Of course not,” he said as his hand over the phone. “Besides, she doesn’t need any more complications in her life. She doesn’t need to know.”
Hakoda exhaled deeply. “That may have been the problem to begin with: she never knew how much you loved her.” Ozai frowned. “See you next week.”
Hakoda hung up and Ozai glared at his phone. “I need to get new friends.”
Chapter 3: Three
“They never said anything about him to me,” Ursa looked offended as she looked up from her notebook.
Kya had just returned home and late in the evening and was eating leftovers. Hakoda was in his study, doing a web conference with their office abroad. The den, where Ursa had cried her eyes out two nights earlier, was currently the domain of four children marathoning a fantasy movie series.
It left the two women in the kitchen, by the island.
“Children are smarter than adults give them credit for,” Kya said as she slurped up some soup. “Even if they don’t know why, I’m sure they picked up that you didn’t want to discuss him and that Ikem clearly didn’t want to.”
“But you would think that they’d ask about their father every so often,” Ursa said.
“Perhaps they were afraid to,” Kya pointed out. “Especially when Ikem was there. Ikem who wouldn’t even let them call him ‘dad’.” Ursa’s shoulders slumped.
“So they took to asking your family….” Ursa whispered, feeling like a failure to her own children. Kya sighed.
“We have pictures of him on our wall; he is an important part of our lives both as a family friend and a business partner,” Kya reminded her. “I don’t know how it started or how they even found out that we knew Ozai - we never mentioned it. One day, Zuko asked if Sokka was telling the truth and the man in a photo was his father. I was hesitant, but I didn’t want to lie to him.”
Ursa looked down. “I didn’t have any photos of Ozai…I should’ve taken at least one, if only to show the children.” Her eyes crinkled up. “But you know Ikem.”
“Well, what did they ask about him?” Ursa prodded. Kya chewed her seafood bits in her soup and thought for a moment.
“What kind of man he was, what he did for a living, where he was,” Kya said. “I tried to be fair in my answers, but Hakoda overheard and of course told them that Ozai was a stubborn, arrogant, hot head who liked to yell.”
Ursa smiled slightly. “I remember that Ozai.”
Kya smiled back. “I told them he was a good, loyal man who worked too hard and spent more time at work than at home.”
Ursa’s smile slowly left, but she nodded in agreement. “I remember that Ozai even better,” she said. “Did they ever ask why we split up?”
“Azula did,” Kya said. “I was tucking her in at night during one of their sleep overs and she asked. Honestly, that girl…quite a way to end a night.”
“Yes, but what did you tell her?”
Kya’s amused smile faltered. She met Ursa’s eyes with sad ones. “That you two just couldn’t make it work, but….,” Kya finished her meal. “That he did care about them, but didn’t want to intrude on their lives. Azula was not pleased with this.”
“Considering she has been talking about him non-stop lately, I can see why,” Ursa admitted. “She and Katara got in an argument today because Azula said her father was more handsome than Hakoda and Katara vehemently disagreed.”
“Hah!” Kya tossed her head back with a laugh. “Are you kidding me? There is no question!”
Ursa chuckled. “I know.”
“The years have been good to Ozai.”
Silence filled the kitchen as the two women stopped and stared at each other. Ursa’s face heated up as Kya’s blue eyes bore into hers. “I will ignore that you think my charming, brilliant husband is less attractive - because you’re clearly wrong, but are you telling me that you think Ozai is handsome?”
Panic filled Ursa’s face and she tried to come up with a valid answer. “I only made the observation that in eight years, he hasn’t changed much!”
Kya continued to stare at her. “You still think he’s handsome.”
“Kya, please,” Ursa groaned. “Am I not allowed to?”
“I just…am surprised you’d admit it,” Kya said, still a bit dumbfounded. Ursa flushed.
“Please don’t tell them,” Ursa said, grasping Kya’s hand. “They can’t know!”
“You don’t want me to tell Hakoda either?”
“Alright, alright,” Kya said, waving her off. “But you’re not wrong.”
“Ozai…good-looking,” Kya shrugged as she took a sip of water from her cup. “Thirty-some years old, but as you’ve said…the years have been good to him.”
“I’m just here to relay the message,” Hakoda said as he held the phone away from his ear. “Kya said to remind you that it’s a pool party and to wear proper pool attire.”
“Hakoda, I am too old to attend a pool party! That’s for the children! What adult in the right mind would wear swim wear there?” Ozai continued to yell. He didn’t care if he was at the airport and that people were staring. He had thirty minutes until boarding and Hakoda decided to call to remind him to wear swim trunks to the BBQ the next day. Where was Ozai going to get swim trunks in such short notice!?
“I am…in case one something happens and I need to jump into the pool to save a life,” Hakoda told him, as if it were obvious. “Kya went with Ursa to get new swimsuits.”
“Tell him she got a two piece!” Ozai heard in the background.
“Is Kya there, too!?” Ozai barked through the phone. While he loved Hakoda like a brother and saw the two as his family, sometimes they drove him crazy.
Hakoda sighed. “She’s off today and she’s just teasing you. Listen, the kids are going to be running around with water guns and balloons. You are going to get wet unless you’ll be joining us via teleconference from your house all day. So, wear something you don’t mind getting wet.”
Logical as always, he had to give that to Hakoda. It wasn’t often that you’d meet a man so creative and a huge dreamer who was still firmly grounded. Ozai let out a heavy breath. “I understand.”
“Wonderful. Also, I got a call from Bato about…wait a second.” Ozai could hear several muffled voices. After a few moments, Hakoda sighed. “The girls want to ask you something.”
“The girls?” Ozai raised a brow. He could hear Hakoda handing the phone to someone and two giggling voices.
“Uncle Ozai, are you bringing cookies again?” Katara asked hopefully.
“They were very delicious,” Azula added. “We would like some more, please.”
He was glad that no one he knew was around to see him. His face lost its usual hardened look as he heard his daughter’s voice on the phone. This was the first time Azula had spoken to him like he had heard Katara speak to Hakoda when Hakoda was on a business trip. Ozau looked almost stunned and found he couldn’t even reply.
“Uncle Ozai?” Katara asked, when there was no answer. “Daddy, your phone!”
“Uncle Hakoda, is your phone broken?” Azula sounded displeased. “I can’t hear my dad.”
Shit. She called him her dad. Ozai felt an unforeseen rush of emotion at the title. He ran his free hand down his face. Azula had been just a few weeks old when he and Ursa separated and after eight years, he wondered if he’d ever hear her actually speak. Hearing her high, confident voice the other night had been almost surreal. The little infant he’d held, perhaps twice at best, was a proud little girl.
Now, she had called him her dad.
“It’s not broken,” he answered, his voice surprisingly firm, as usual. “I…I’m bringing you some cookies, girls. Just share with your brothers.”
“Awww….” They both sounded disappointed, and Ozai couldn’t fight the small smile on his face.
“Girls, I need to finish my phone call,” he heard Hakoda say. “Tell him to have a safe flight.”
“Okay. Have a safe flight, Uncle!” Katara said.
“Yes, have a safe flight, Mr. Sou-hey!”
“Say it!” Katara urged. “It’s okay!” There was some hesitation.
“It’s alright, Azula,” Hakoda said gently. “I’m sure he won’t mind.” There was some more silence.
“Have a safe flight, Da...Father.”
“Azula!” Katara yelled.
Hakoda received the phone. “Well, she ran off. At least that was close, albeit formal.”
“No, it’s fine,” Ozai said. “Better than Mr. Souzin.” Hakoda smiled for his friend. “What were you saying about Bato?”
“Oh, that the new data center in Gaoling is fully operational. No need to check it, he did it all himself,” Hakoda said.
“Good to hear that,” Ozai replied. “I need to get going.”
“No,” Ozai stood up and grabbed his carry-on. “The duty free shop is closing and I need to get the kids some cookies.”
As expected, Azula was sleeping peacefully in the room she was sharing with Katara. The drawings they had been working on before bed were still scattering on the low plastic table between the beds. She’d noticed a change in Azula’s usual depictions of warrior-princesses and their trusty steeds.
Lately, there was male figure drawn in with crayons holding the hand of a little girl wearing a tiara. Occasionally, there was a little boy behind them with a tear in his eye, seemingly feeling left out.
In all their time with Ikem, Azula never included him in her family drawings. Zuko had, but the detail wasn’t the same as with them or Kya and her family.
Ursa looked back at her daughter. Azula seemed to have laid out her little red swimsuit and two unopened bags of balloons at the foot of her bed. Ursa was sure that Azula wasn’t simply excited at the prospect of pelting her brother with them the next day. She had been talking about the cookies “dad” was bringing her.
Sighing deeply, Ursa slipped out of the room and turned to the room across from it. She opened it and heard Sokka’s light snoring from the top bunk. Beneath it, a flash light was being shined on to a book and she shook her head.
“Zuko…,” she whispered as the boy on the bed looked up, surprised as he was engrossed in his book.
“You were supposed to go to bed an hour ago,” she scolded lightly, careful not to wake Sokka. Zuko looked back at his book.
“I can’t sleep,” he admitted. She smiled softly.
“Excited about tomorrow?” she asked. He nodded. “Well, just to warn you, your sister has two packs of 40 water balloons.” Zuko visibly winced and she chuckled. “Get some rest, Zuko.”
“Wait, Mom?” Zuko said, as loudly as he could without waking Sokka. The woman turned around and gave him a questioning look.
“What is it?” Her son hesitated. Zuko lowered his book and turned off his little flashlight.
“Why didn’t Da…,” he caught himself. “Mr. Souzin ever contact us? He…he didn’t seem to hate us.”
Ursa’s eyes went wide and she lifted her hand to her chest. “Zuko…” she whispered. “No, he doesn’t hate us…you or your sister.” Is that what he thought? How long had Zuko thought that?
“Then why didn’t he ever call or come see us?” Zuko asked, confused. “Sokka and Katara saw him more than we did and he’s just their uncle.”
Her chest was aching and in the pit of her stomach, a dark, empty void seemed to twist. She glanced out the door and then back to Zuko. She lifted her hand and waved for him to follow.
“Let’s go downstairs so we don’t wake Sokka.”
Zuko quietly closed his book and scooted off the bottom bunk. He put on his slippers and followed his mother out the door.
In the kitchen, Ursa turned on the two lamps hanging above the island. It was just enough to illuminate the kitchen, but not so bright as to blind them at night. Zuko automatically climbed on to one of the island stools and Ursa went to the hot water boiler to make some tea.
“I know you were too young to understand why your father and I divorced all those years ago, but let me make it clear that it was not your fault,” Ursa said, as firmly as she could. She walked back to the island and stood across from Zuko. “You probably already know by now that your father, Ozai, and I were married through an arrangement between our fathers.”
Zuko nodded as he leaned over the island. “You didn’t want to marry him, right?”
Ursa tried to stop herself from wincing. “Ozai was a friend,” she clarified. “I liked him, don’t get me wrong. We spent a lot of time together because of your Uncle Hakoda and Auntie Kya. When I moved from Ember Island to go to school, I had left behind all the friends I had and my boyfriend, who I thought I would marry.”
Zuko lowered his eyes. “Ikem.”
As he said it, Ursa felt her stomach sink. “Yes, Ikem. We would talk often, but I was busy was school and Ikem was busy trying to get noticed. Maybe your grandfathers thought that we broke up, so they pushed for me to marry you father.”
“Did he not want to marry you, either?” Zuko asked.
Ursa paused. Her eyes widened slightly. Surely, that must’ve been the case. It couldn’t have just been her who didn’t want to get married. Ozai had never been vocal against the marriage, but he always generally did what his father wanted.
“I don’t know,” she answered truthfully. “We were friends and I know he cared about me as such, but I doubt he wanted to marry me. It was just that his father, Azulon, was very strict and if he told Ozai to do something, Ozai would do it without question.”
“What about you?” Zuko asked. “If you didn’t want to marry him, why did you?”
Ursa took a deep breath and slowly released it. “My father really wanted me to. They said that if I married Ozai, Azulon and the Souzin Corporation would help Ember Island and it needed help back then. I had to pick between the man I thought I was in love with and the rest of my friends and family on the island, so I picked the island.”
Zuko nodded. “Was Ikem angry?”
Ursa’s jaw tensed. “He was,” she said. “Very angry, he tried to stop us, but the island would fall apart without help.”
“Oh,” Zuko said, looking down. “Do you…regret marrying my father?”
Ursa closed her eyes and pursed her lips. “Marrying Ozai allowed me to have you and Azula,” she told him softly. “Even if we didn’t work out, we had two wonderful children and I don’t regret that.”
Zuko offered a hopeful smile, but a small voice piped from behind him. “If you didn’t regret it, why did you get divorced?”
Ursa lifted her head and looked towards the doorway. Azula was standing in her little red robe and slippers, her hair a tangled mess around her head, and a frown on her face.
“Honey, what are you doing up this late?”
“I heard you talking to Zuko and followed,” she told them, clearly displeased that she had not been invited. “Why didn’t you bring me?”
“You were asleep,” Ursa said. She heard a small click behind her and turned around. The hot water was ready. “Since you’re here now, do you want some tea?”
Azula looked hesitant for tea, but seemed to understand that having some would allow her to stay. She nodded and seemed to groggily walk across the kitchen, towards the stool. Zuko offered to help her, but she waved him away, climbing up on her own.
Ursa prepared some tea for the three of them in silence and brought it over. “Here. After the cup, you have to go back to sleep.”
The two nodded. “Why did you get divorced?” Azula proded. Ursa inwardly sighed. Kya was right about her daughter’s determination to get her questions answered.
“Your father worked too much,” Ursa replied. She knew the answer; she had gone over it a thousand times, wondering if it was enough to get her to leave. “After we were married, he spent so much time working at the office and traveling the globe. He was rarely home and even when he was, we didn’t really talk. It was an arranged marriage after all, so it was kind of awkward. l couldn’t see us raising you two as a family.”
“Was he mean to you?” Zuko asked hesitantly. Ozai seemed strict from what he had seen.
Ursa looked taken aback by the question. She quickly shook her head. “No,” she said. “Of course not. Ozai is stern and can be very sarcastic, but he was not mean.” She felt her chest swell for just a moment. On the contrary, Ozai was was always quite respectful and gentle with her. “But he was distant.”
“Distant?” Zuko looked confused.
“Because he was always away?” Azula added.
“Yes,” Ursa answered, though that wasn’t all. “We didn’t divorce because of you two. We divorced because we could not make it as a family. He was always out and wouldn’t be able to raise you two with me. He wasn’t there when either of you were born. I made the decision to leave.”
The two children were quiet. Zuko slowly sipped on his tea, mulling over his mother’s words. Azula stared down at her untouched tea. “He didn’t like us?”
“He was not involved, nor he was affectionate,” Ursa said. “But I know he loves you both.”
“Then why didn’t he want to see us? Why did he stay away?” Zuko asked, sounding hurt.
Ursa’s eyes moistened. “Because of me,” she said in a raspy voice. “I took you away and tried to give you another family, so Ozai didn’t contact us because he didn’t want to ruin that. He loved you two so much that rather than drag out a long and painful divorce, he made it as quick and painless as he could to spare you two being caught up in one.”
Zuko looked down and Ursa wiped at the corners of her eyes. Azula finally took a sip of her tea and narrowed her eyes.
“Dad is stubborn,” she said, irritated. “Isn’t he?” she asked. “Just like Uncle Hakoda said.”
Ursa smiled slightly and nodded. “I’m afraid we both are.”
“Mom,” Zuko began quietly. “He’s supposed to come tomorrow. Are you going to be okay?”
She looked surprised that he had asked and in the back of her mind, Ursa recalled Kya’s words on how perceptive children could be. She gave Zuko a small smile and nodded. “Yes, I’ll be fine. Ozai and I were friends once…I think that we can be friends again. And I know that he will be happy to see you two.”
Azula and Zuko both looked pleased with that. “He’s bringing us cookies,” Azula reported. “I asked him when he was on the phone with Uncle and he said he would.”
“Your father takes care of his own,” Ursa found herself saying as she reached across the island and stroked the sides of her children’s faces lovingly. “I am sure they will be yummy.”
He arrived earlier than they expected, but he probably wanted to avoid coming over when the sun was at its highest and the heat at its worst. A shiny, bright red sports car - something Ursa was fairly certain he didn’t have before - parked beside her white sedan.
Katara, who had been watching early morning cartoons with Azula had seen the car pull up and immediately shook Azula. “Your dad’s here!”
The two rushed to the large window and waved as the man raised the roof over his convertible.
From the hall, carrying down a basket of laundry, Ursa had tensed. Her eyes darted to the door as her heart shot to her throat. No, he couldn’t be arriving so soon. The BBQ wasn’t starting until noon and Kya was just getting the grill warmed up. Hakoda was still scooping out a melon with some new gadget he bought.
And she was still dressed in sweatpants, no make-up, and hadn’t bothered to put on a bra underneath her loose shirt.
Ursa quickened her step to try to get to the laundry room before he reached the door.
“Daddy!” Katara shouted as Ursa heard their footsteps racing towards the foyer. “Uncle Ozai is here!”
“I’ll get the door in a minute!” Hakoda shouted back from the kitchen. Ursa reached the front of the house and headed for the other side.
“We can get it!” Katara insisted.
Just as Ursa reached the foyer, the small enclave illuminated with sunlight as Katara and Azula unlocked and pulled the door open.
Ursa froze, still holding the laundry basket against her. Slowly, she turned her head towards the door and standing on the stop step was a dark-haired man who was filling out a pastel pink polo and a pair of knee-length beige khakis far too well. Even his boat shoes matched his clothes.
“Good morning,” Ozai replied. His eyes, however, had settled on Ursa and, as if noting her disheveled appearance, raised a brow in question.
Ursa felt her face heat up. Her ex-husband had made his appearance put together, as always, and she…was doing laundry in sweat pants.
“Uncle! Did you bring them?’ Katara asked hopefully. Azula was eyeing the paper bag Ozai was holding.
Calmly, the middle-aged man nodded and reached into the bag. He took out a large box bearing images of cookies. The two girls immediately reached for them, only to have him hold it up, above their grasping hands. “Share with your brothers.”
The two girls hesitated, but nodded. “Okay,” Azula agreed. Ozai handed her the box and she clutched it against her. She turned to Katara and gave her a nod. “But just one for each!”
Ursa perked up. “Girls!” she scolded, but they raced out of the foyer, giggling. She sighed tiredly and prepared to go after them.
The front door closed and the sound of it made her remember who had arrived. Ozai calmly locked the door behind him and placed his paper bag on the floor.
“I’ll take that,” he said. He moved closer and Ursa could smell the faint scent of his cologne. She instinctively stepped back, clutching the laundry basket against her.
“It’s fine, I’ve got it!” she insisted. Ozai gave her a questioning look, but stopped when she recoiled.
“I know where the laundry room is,” he said in a low voice. “Please allow me to bring it there.”
He sounded so formal in simply asking to carry the laundry basket, as if he was merely being polite. Ursa looked away. “It’s fine, Ozai. It’s not far.”
“Oh, for the love of…,” Hakoda sighed as he came out the kitchen. “Just give it to him. Kya needs your help with the grill.”
“I need to put the laundry in,” Ursa argued lamely.
“You can do laundry after the party,” Hakoda said. “That way, you can wash the kids’ bathing suits and towels, too.”
“Dad! Katara and Azula aren’t sharing!” Sokka’s frustrated voice sounded from the kitchen. Hakoda tilted his head back and let out a heavy breath.
“Katara! Azula! You can stand to lose more than one cookie!” He stormed back to the kitchen and Ursa felt a small tug from her laundry basket. She turned back and realized Ozai was trying to take it from her.
“I’ll bring it to the laundry room. Go ahead and go to Kya. You know how impatient she can get with food,” he said. She felt the laundry basket slip from her hands and without another word, Ozai headed in the direction of the laundry room.
Ursa was left standing alone in the foyer for a moment before turning around and heading towards the kitchen to get out to the backyard. Before she even made it into the kitchen, Kya intercepted her.
“I lied, I didn’t need you at the grill,” the woman said as she turned Ursa around and pushed her towards the stairs.
Ursa knit her brows together. “What did you need me for?”
“He arrived earlier than expected,” Kya frowned, sounding somewhat annoyed. “So much for your grand reveal.”
“What grand reveal?” Ursa choked out. She made her way up the stairs, pushed only by a determined looking Kya behind her. “What are you talking about?”
“I did not spend three hours with you, shopping for a two-piece, for nothing!” Kya huffed.
“Kya!” Ursa was nearly dragged into her room and the door closed shut behind her as Kya made a beeline for the shopping bag sitting on the trunk at the foot of the bed. She tossed two scraps of red on to the bed, followed by a thin, billowy white cover-up.
“You will find my taste as on point as usual,” Kya grinned triumphantly. Ursa poked at the red bathing suit pieces and carefully lifted the top by a strap.
“I think this is hardly appropriate for a mother of two to wear,” she said with a frown.
“Non-sense!” Kya dismissed. “A woman should be able to wear anything she wants! And you’ll look fabulous in this! Look, I know how you don’t like your belly button showing, so I got the high waisted bottom. The straps are thick, so you don’t have to worry about your breasts falling out.”
Ursa stared at Kya. The other woman was in a pair of women’s board shorts with flowery patterns, and a one piece swim suit.
“Why do you get to wear one piece?”
Kya proudly lifted her hand up to her chest. “I usually wear racing suits.” She turned around and lifted her hair up to show the cross strap in the back. “I have so many, I don’t need to buy any more!”
Ursa twitched. Kya had been saying that since they were in college and while a legitimate answer - Kya was a champion swimmer and had saved her, Hakoda, and Ozai from riptides a few times - it still bothered her that Kya was pushing the two piece on her while keeping the one piece on.
“I’m not wearing it unless you’re wearing one, too.” Ursa crossed her arms over her chest defiantly and Kya let out a small gasp.
“Then what are you going to wear? You know with the kids running around, you’ll get soaked,” she pointed out. Ursa held her ground.
“Then, I’ll get soaked.”
Kya smirked. “Well, I hope you wear a bra, because that shirt isn’t going to hold up against water.” Ursa gasped and covered her chest.
A knock sounded on the door. “Mom, I’m going to change into my swim suit! Uncle said we can get into the pool now.” Azula pushed the door open and looked in. She looked from her mother to her aunt and back. “What’s going on?”
“Your mom is looking for a swim suit to wear,” Kya beamed. “She picked out this nice red one.” Kya lifted up the two pieces of fabric as Ursa shot her a glare. “What do you think? Is it too much for your mom?”
“No, that’s fine,” Azula said. “I like the color. It could use some gold.” She turned to her mother. “Hurry up and change, Mom! You can watch me get Zuko!”
With a sinister look on her face, Azula let out a childish cackle before closing the door to go change in Katara’s room.
“Why did you tell her that!?” Ursa demanded.
“Desperate times, my friend,” Kya said as she held out the bathing suit. “Now, put it on because knowing Azula, she’ll tell her uncle and father what you’re wearing and if you’re not wearing it, Ozai will think it has something to do with him, and it’ll get weird.”
Ursa crinkled her eyes. She snatched the two piece from Kya’s hand and pointed to the door. “Fine! But I’m not going to like it!”
Kya beamed and gave her a thumbs up. “Show that man what he was stupid enough to let go!”
The door shut behind her and Ursa looked down at the red two piece. Her eyes crinkled up. Sure, she had agreed to buy it and liked how it looked on her at the store, but now… knowing that Ozai will see her now aged, squishier body….
She let out a defeated sigh and walked towards the window. She peaked through the blinds, towards the pool. Sokka and Zuko were already inside while standing by the gas powered grill, Ozai in his polo and khakis was talking to Hakoda, in a pair of boardshorts and a loose shirt.
She glanced down at the swim suit once more and felt a surge of determination. Kya was right; she still had a great body! Who cared what Ozai thought? She would wear this for her!
While that thought in her mind, she quickly changed. She quickly brushed her hair, allowing the long, thick locks to fall around her face before pinning the left side back behind her ear. She stepped back and admired herself in the mirror.
Sure, she was no longer as slim as she was when they first met in college, but she still looked good.
“Mom, I can’t put my hair up!” The door swung open and Azula walked in with her hair down and holding a hair tie. “Put it so I can see. I don’t want it getting in the way when I shoot Zuzu.”
Ursa turned around and held out her arms. “Sure, honey,” she said. “Ah…what do you think? Does the suit look good?” she asked, hopefully.
Azula gave her mother the once over. “The suit is fine,” she shrugged. Ursa deflated. She sighed heavily and took the hair tie from Azula. As the little girl turned around, ready to have her hair tied, she spoke up once more. “You’re always beautiful, so it doesn’t matter.”
Ursa slowed in the middle of tying Azula’s top knot. She smiled softly. “Thank you…”
“Well, this is a surprise,” Hakoda grinned as his wife walked out of the house and smirked. Gone was the navy and white striped one piece she had been wearing earlier. In its place was an electric blue halter and a bottom he could barely call shorts. “Where’s the racing uniform?”
“Excuse me,” Kya said as she reached him and grabbed the front of his shirt. She tugged him forward and as Hakoda chuckled. “Are you complaining?”
“Not one bit,” Hakoda kissed the tip of her nose. Kya giggled as she released him. Hakoda wrapped an arm around her shoulder and brought her closer, leaning over and kissing the tattoos that peaked over her shoulders. She had earned those particular ones after winning an international swimming tournament. “It’s just not often you wear a two piece.”
Kya looked proud of herself. “I’m wearing it in solidarity!”
“Of what?” Ozai asked as he raised a brow from behind Hakoda. “Is he wearing one, too?”
Hakoda gave him a side glance. “Funny.”
“Hurry, Mom!” Azula shouted from inside. “I need help with the water balloons!”
“Alright, alright,” Ursa’s exasperated voice said. “But don’t run around the pool. It’s slippery - what if you fall?”
“Mom, are you going to swim with us?” Zuko shouted from the pool, just half a second before Katara jumped on his back and dunked him back in. His arms thrashed in the air as broken gurgles came from beneath the beaming girl.
Ursa sighed and lifted a hand, running it through the right side of hair as she walked out on to the back yard in her rich, red swimsuit just peeking through beneath her white cover-up.
A crunch of plastic was hard and Hakoda and Kya looked back, over their shoulders. Water was pouring down Ozai’s hand as the crushed water bottle remained in his tight grip. Wide, gold eyes were staring at the newly arrived woman and his mouth opened just a bit.
Hakoda lifted the pair of tongs in one of his hands and put it under his friend’s chin, pushing the slacked jaw up. Blinking as he did so, Ozai batted the tongs away and shot a glare at Hakoda.
“What are you doing?” he snapped.
“What are you doing?” Hakoda countered as his wife slipped out of his arm to go help Ursa and Azula with the hose and a bucket of water balloons. “Excited much?”
“Shut up,” Ozai hissed in a low voice. “What is the meaning of this, Hakoda?”
The blue-eyed man shorted and turned back to the grill. He poked out some meat. “You think way too highly of yourself if you think Ursa dressed like that for you.” He didn’t need to turn around to know that it struck Ozai in the ego. “She’s free to dress however she wants.” Even if it was Kya who probably made her. “So don’t think that she’s trying to impress you.”
Ozai slammed his now crushed water bottle on to the stone topped bar beside the grill. “Just make sure my steak is medium rare. You know I hate it when it’s over cooked.”
“Sure thing, your highness,” Hakoda laughed. The other man stepped back and began to lift up the bottom of his shirt. “Oh, come on,” Hakoda rolled his eyes. “Are you that petty?”
“What are you talking about?” Ozai smirked as he looked back at his friend with a smug expression. He lifted his polo over his head, almost instantly feeling a pair of eyes on him. “If you think I’m doing this for her….”
He tossed the pink polo on to a lounge chair and tugged his pants off to reveal dark red and gold swim trunks. Hakoda shook his head and flipped over a piece of meat. “…Then I would be absolutely right.”
Chapter 4: Four
Don’t look. Don’t look. Her silent mantra was, she hoped, well hidden. If her back was turned to him, he couldn’t see her appreciative eyes. No. Ursa gave herself a little mental shake. She didn’t appreciate looking at him. He was far too pale - must’ve been because he spent so much time indoors at the office.
That was it. She was looking at him because he looked so ashen and sickly. Sure, it wasn’t as if his bones were visible. How could they be with that nice, defined layer of muscle - no. No.
“Mom?” Zuko popped up from the water beside where she was gripping the edge of the pool, glaring at blue tile border. “Are you okay? You keep muttering ‘no’.”
“Oh! I was thinking about the laundry!” She felt a bit bad for lying to her son, but he couldn’t know she was checking out his father. And also, she did have to check on the laundry now that she thought about it. “Shoot, I need to add fabric softener.” She kicked off from the side the pool to push herself up and on to the edge. “Kya, did you buy new fabric softener? We were out!”
Her voice was uncomfortably high and as she walked towards the door to the house, she found her hands trying to cover herself.
“Don’t worry!” Kya strided past her and smiled. She patted Ursa on the shoulder. “You enjoy yourself in the pool. I’ll take care of it.”
Ursa opened her mouth, but her only sound of protest was a feeble “wait”. Kya disappeared into the house and Ursa felt more exposed than ever.
“Auntie!” Katara stood in front of her and smiled, holding up a neon green and yellow squirt gun. Relief flooded Ursa. “It’s loaded! You can be on our team.”
Not knowing what else to do, Ursa took the plastic toy from the child and adjusted it in her hands. “All right,” she agreed with a warm smile as she pumped it ready. “Who are we up against?”
A cold stream of water hit her in the stomach and she let out a yelp as she jumped and whirled around, her glare looking for however shot her. Sokka and Zuko were staring wide eyed, their water guns frozen in their hands, but pointed at Azula across the pool.
Another stream of water hit her thigh and she yelled, turning to follow the water to her attacker. Ozai was kneeling with a hose in one hand and his neon blue and orange water gun in the other.
“Boys against girls,” he said in a serious voice that seemed out of place with where he was and how he was dressed. “I thought we started already.”
Ursa felt her face heat up. “We have!” She caught his eyes widen as he dropped the hose and shot up as she gripped her water gun and pulled the trigger. Ozai lifted his hand and gun to block the water from hitting his face as he scrambled around the pool.
“Get ‘em, Mom!” Azula cheered as threw a water balloon at her brother’s head.
Ozai darted between the pool and the BBQ area and Ursa kept pumping the water gun, keeping her aim squarely on her ex-husband.
“Hey!” Hakoda yelled over his shoulder as her stream of water hit him in the leg. “This boy isn’t playing!”
“Sorry!” Ursa cringed and lowered her water gun.
“An opening!” Ozai shouted. From the pool, Sokka and Zuko took the cue and turned their attention to Ursa.
“Fire at will!” Sokka yelled.
She screamed as three water guns shot at her at once. Hakoda stood by his grill, slowly shaking his head. Ursa lifted her gun and moved the pump back, but felt no resistance.
“No!” She was out of water.
Sokka and Zuko let out cheers, but were quickly silenced by water balloons to the head.
“Azula, Katara,” Kya’s voice filled the wide yard. “Sokka’s gun is nearly out. Aim at Zuko to keep him from firing!” Azula’s maniacal cackle of glee reached Ursa’s ears as the water hitting her died down. “Ursa, grab the gun on the lawn chair. I’ll cover you!”
From the patio area, Kya began pelting Ozai with red water balloons from a white bucket. The man’s hair was soaked as Kya’s spot on aim took effect. He tried to shoot at her, only to have a water balloon explode against his crotch.
“Kya!” he growled. “Hey!”
“Get him in the groin, honey!” Hakoda said as he flipped a burger.
“I thought you weren’t playing!” Ozai glared at Hakoda as he tried to shield his face from Kya’s watery onslaught.
“I’m not,” Hakoda said in a cool voice. “But I can cheer them on.”
Ursa rested the larger, she noted, water gun against her and smirked. “I’m reloaded!”
“So am I, Auntie!” Sokka said. He stood to the side, his water gun full. “Say hello to my little friend.”
Ursa knit her brows together. “Did you watch that movie?”
“No! No, he did not!” Hakoda interjected quickly, a slight look of panic on his face. “Kya explicitly said he was too young.”
The yard was silent. Kya lowered the water balloon in her hand and crossed the yard. Hakoda took a step back lifting his bare hands on either side of him.
“Okay, it was just once-” His wife’s hand slammed a water balloon in his face. A second later, he was in the pool, yelling about his burgers as Kya closed the lid on the grill and then dove into the water to drag him under.
Several minutes later, all the water balloons were used up, two water guns were broken, and four out of breath adults were either sprawled across the poolside chaises, laying on the brick surrounding the pool, or in Ozai’s case, half on the brick and half in the water.
“That escalated quickly,” Kya said as she draped an arm over her eyes from a chaise.
Beside her, Ursa tried to crane her neck up and squinted. “Wait…where are the children?”
At once, Kya and Hakoda were up. None of the four kids were in the yard. Their toys were abandoned, either floating in the pool or tossed aside. Only the smell of burnt meat accompanied them.
“The went inside once all the water guns were used up and the balloons gone. Katara said she thought she had some more and she and Azula went to look,” Ozai said, lingering in the pool. “Zuko said he was hungry and Sokka said they used up a lot of energy so they need to eat.”
“Eat…the food!” Hakoda nearly tripped trying to get to the grill. “My meat!”
“There’s plenty of meat, Hakoda,” Kya said she shook her head. “The hot dogs are still inside,” she added as she headed to the kitchen door.
Ursa remained on her chaise, keeping her thoughts to herself. Ozai not only knew where the children had gone, but it was clear he was paying attention to them. Kya and Hakoda didn’t seem to realize they were missing at first, but probably assumed they went inside. She had been too caught up in trying to keep her distance from Ozai by shooting water at him to hear the children leave.
“Oh, gods…look at this…” Hakoda lifted up a burnt black piece of meat from with some tongs. “Ruined. I had seasoned these, too!”
“Then Kya did us a favor….” Ursa overheard Ozai mutter under his breath as he pushed himself off the side of the pool and swim towards the center. She tried to hold back a smile.
“Not to worry,” Hakoda said as he tossed four burnt pieces into a compost bin. “I have more in the fridge!” He placed his tongs down and walked into the house.
“Lucky us,” Ozai said. He grabbed a floating pool toy and swam back across, placing the toy poolside. “Can you gather the water guns and put them in the the bin behind you?”
It was such a mundane question, but the sound of his voice addressing her made Ursa flush. She blinked and tried to look nonchalant. “Me?”
“Yes.” Ozai swam across the pool again, gathering more floating plastic toys as he went. “They’re bound to rush out here once they’re ready and might trip on the toys on the ground. They can get them from the bin when they want them.”
Ursa walked to the lawn to pick up the discarded toys. Ozai was picking up after children; she never thought she’d see the day. She tried to break the awkward silence between them with a joke as she walked to a plastic yard bin with an arm full of toys.
“Good thinking. Hakoda and Kya definitely won’t look where they’re going.” That was a lame joke and as she dumped the toys in the bin, she wanted to run into the house and hide with embarrassment. Was that the best she could come up with? No wonder everyone said Kya was the funny one.
A low chuckle came from behind her and she turned around. Ozai pulled himself out of the water, one arm holding the last of the toys as he carried them over.
“I was thinking the same thing.”
She stepped aside, looking away as Ozai tossed the objects into the bin. He was an arm’s length from her. Maybe less. She could smell the chlorine on his skin and see the small droplets course down the smooth contours of his bare arms and large hands.
What was she doing? Ogling her ex-husband? Her divorce wasn’t even final and…was she considering Ozai?
Ursa took a subconscious step back and heard a scrape as her butt brushed against a chair.
“Watch out.” He reached around her and she could feel the heat from his skin. He grabbed the chair to keep it from toppling over and moved it to the side.
“Sorry!” She winced as she drew her arms to her chest. Ozai looked up at her as he stepped back and stood up straight.
“You didn’t do anything.”
“Right. I meant…you know…for almost knocking it over.” Was her voice shaking? Ozai squinted.
He seemed to want to ask if she was all right, but refrained. He took a small step back and then another, as if to keep the distance he was putting between from being so obvious.
“My apologies if I caught you by surprise earlier. I could’ve sworn I heard Sokka declare ‘go’,” he said.
“Oh, no, it’s fine. All in good fun.”
“It was.” Ozai looked back over the pool. “I wasn’t expecting such intensity, but it wasn’t unwelcomed. Azula has quite an aim. Zuko’s reflexes are good as well.”
“With a sister like Azula, they have to be,” Ursa sighed. “She does enjoy tormenting her brother.”
“Do they not get along?” Ozai looked back at her, a slight frown on his face. “From what I’ve noticed, they seemed to have a normal sibling rivalry. Nothing too intense.”
“They do when it matters,” Ursa said, as if to assure him that she didn’t mess up raising their children. “Zuko is protective of Azula and she doesn’t allow anyone to pick on him except for her and Katara.”
Ozai tilted his head to the side. “Why Katara?”
“Kya thinks it’s because they gang up on Sokka, so they also gang up on Zuko.”
“Sokka has mentioned several times that the two of them are a dangerous pair.”
This time, Ursa gave him a questioning look. “Do you talk to Sokka and Katara about them often?”
She saw a brief look of surprise in Ozai’s stern face. “It seems to be our topic of conversation more often than not.”
It wasn’t an accident that it was so and Ursa knew it. Her fondness for Kya and Hakoda’s children grew even more than it already was.
“Azula has been drawing pictures of you, you know,” Ursa said, looking at her feet. “She’s quite taken.”
“I heard her call me ‘dad’ on the phone the other night, when Hakoda gave them the phone.” She looked up at him and he had a thoughtful look on his face. “I never thought I’d hear that. I’m quite taken with them as well.”
The words left her mouth before she could stop herself. “Then spend some more time with them.” Ozai’s stunned look seemed to mirror hers as she drew her lips in and bit them. “I mean…it would make them happy.”
His looked pensive. “Would you be all right with that?”
Ursa swallowed. She rubbed her arm, a distracted gesture, and diverted her eyes once more. “There’s no reason to keep them from you. I’m sure they’ve always been curious. Now that they know who you are and know you’re close…I’d be a monster to keep them from seeing you.”
“Ursa, you wouldn’t do anything for them that you didn’t believe, whole heartedly, was in their best interest,” Ozai said. “I’d be happy to spend some more time with our children.”
Our children. Not hers. Not his. Our.
Ursa felt the pressure of tears collecting and she drew her head back. “I’m going to go reapply sunblock,” she said, suddenly as she turned around. “All that water hitting me must’ve sprayed it off by now.”
Ozai said nothing else as she retreated. She told Zuko and Azula not to eat too many cookies before the burgers and hot dogs were ready as she passed the kitchen table and then raced up the hall and stairs as soon as she was around the corner.
Safe inside her room, she leaned back against the closed door and clutched her arms against her chest. She sniffled back a cry.
Where was that man downstairs years ago? When she was pregnant and taking care of their first born? Why was Ozai attentive now? Did he learn from his mistakes eight years ago? Did he want to make amends? Did he just want to see his children?
It wasn’t fair. Eight years had made her a woman fleeing a broken marriage that had hurt her children…and her, if she were being honest.
Eight years had done little to him except make him, in her eyes, better.
If she had stuck it out and stayed with Ozai, would he be the same man he was right now?
“Father, me, too!” She heard Azula’s voice outside and walked to the window. She peered down and saw her daughter in the middle of the deep end, chest deep in water with her arms up. Suddenly, she was pushed upwards, squealing with joy as Ozai threw her out of the water by the feet.
“Keep your legs straight when I push you up,” Ozai said, treading water. He looked to the side. “Zuko, you want to try?”
She watched her son’s face lit up before he jumped into the pool. “Yes!”
Ursa took a deep breath. There was nothing wrong with Ozai trying to be a good father. He should’ve done so earlier and late was better than never. Their relationship would never be the same, but at the very least he showed signs of wanting to be a father to Azula and Zuko. That was the best she could hope for.
She stepped away from the window and snatched a tube of sunblock off the bed. She had failed in giving her children a father with Ikem; she would put aside any personal discomfort she had with Ozai so they could have one.
“He’s not angry….” she said as she squeezed some sunblock in her hand. Perhaps they could get to where they were before they were married: adequate friends.
Yes. That was something to strive through. She would offer Ozai her friendship.
She was avoiding him. Ozai laid on a pool side chaise, deciding that his ex-wife was avoiding him on purpose and only spoke to him when she thought she had to. Did he say something wrong earlier that made her uncomfortable? He played their post-water gun fight conversation over in his head once more. The day was more tiring that he thought.
As expected, a day playing in the water, chasing each other, and screaming wore out the children.
Azula was the first to show signs of sleepiness and denied it. Katara and Sokka, a bit more used to pool play, outlasted her and she wanted to continue on with them. Zuko seemed fine as well, but when he noticed Azula struggling to sleep, he began to hint that it was time to go in.
It was, after all, just past sunset and he didn’t want to go to bed smelling like chlorine and wanted to shower. Katara was quick to make the connection and called for her mother and aunt, who were drinking wine on the patio.
The children picked up their things and were ushered inside with their mothers. Hakoda was asleep on his hammock and Kya told him to get up and clean the grill and bring everything else inside.
“Do you need help?” Ozai asked when his friend began. Hakoda dismissed the idea with a wave of his hand.
“Relax. You had a long day, too,” Hakoda said, grinning. “The kids were all over you asking to be thrown out of the water. You must be exhausted.”
Ozai let out a scoff and pushed himself up. “Don’t be….” He winced as he felt soreness in his muscles he didn’t expect.
“Yeah,” Hakoda said as he scraped the grill. “Listen, Kya turned on the hot tub hours ago. Get in and relax, old man.”
“Shut up.” Ozai forced himself to stand and ignore the pain. He didn’t expect to be sore so soon. He worked out; was it just a different set of muscles used with the kids? A slight panic raised in him. Was it old age? Hakoda never complained about muscle pain.
“Fine, don’t get in the tub. Just take a rest, Ozai. Enjoy the evening. Grab a beer.” Hakoda opened the cooler beside the grill. “Perfect. One left.” He lifted up a can and tossed it across to Ozai.
He snatched it from the air and opened it, returning to his seat. Just as he brought the can to to his lips, Azula’s voice rang out.
“Father!” He immediately tore the beer away and nearly slammed it on the small table beside him in an effort to hide it.
“What is it, Azula?” he asked, pretending he wasn’t just about to drink. He slid his legs off the side of the chaise and sat up.
His daughter was in a pink and yellow butterfly pajama sleep set, standing by the doorway.
“I’m going to sleep now,” Azula said. Zuko stood behind her in shorts and a white shirt.
“Thank you for coming to see us today, Father.”
“Yes, it was fun.” Azula looked at her brother and then back at Zuko. “Will you come visit again, Father?”
Ozai wondered why it bothered him that his children addressed him so formally. It made sense that they would considering he’d returned to their lives just days earlier, but ‘Father’ was so distant.
“‘Night, Dad!” Katara and Sokka called out to their father from the door, behind Zuko and Azula.
They sounded so casual and relaxed, almost as if it was just a notification of a break and that they’d continue tomorrow. Then again, Katara and Sokka knew their father would be there the next morning, still involved with their lives.
Ozai looked back at his own two children. Azula and Zuko knew he was leaving later and weren’t sure when they’d see him again.
“‘Night, kids,” Hakoda said as he gathered various implements in a plastic bowl. He sounded equally assured that they wouldn’t disappear from his life, either. Ozai felt the prangs of envy.
“Of course I’ll come visit again,” he said. “Your mother and I spoke a bit earlier today and I’d like to see if we can work out a time to show you my house.”
His heart almost ached as he saw the excitement fill Azula and Zuko’s face. “You’ll let us come over?” Zuko asked.
“It was your home before your mother and split,” Ozai said, encouraged by their reactions. He smiled just a bit. “I would like it if, regardless of the path your mother chooses, you would come to see it as another home for you.”
“You’re doing great, man….” Hakoda said as he walked past holding the bowl. “Don’t screw this up,” he added under his breath.
Ozai resisted the urge to shoot him a glare.
As Hakoda squeezed past the two children at the door, Azula took a step outside barefoot, closer to her father.
“Do I have my own room?” she asked, looking almost suspicious.
His daughter was adorable. Ozai felt his smile widening. “There are four spare bedrooms. You can pick whichever one of those you want.”
Azula’s eyes seemed to grow larger at the prospect. She took another step closer. “And…and I can decorate it?”
“We’ll paint it however you please and you can pick your furniture.”
“Can I get a bunk bed like Sokka?” Zuko was suddenly beside his sister, looking earnest.
If Zuko wanted, he could get two for all Ozai cared. He was on the verge of giving each child two bedrooms to themselves.
“It’s a little early to be talking about bunk beds, don’t you think?” Ozai’s smile faded as he looked up and saw Ursa standing by the doorway. She avoided his eyes as she rubbed one arm with her hand. “I mean, you haven’t seen how the rooms look like. What if you like what’s there already?”
“I doubt Father has a bunk bed already, Mom,” Zuko said.
“We’ll discuss it some other time,” Ozai said. “I’m sure your mother has come to make sure you go to bed. Azula, weren’t you sleepy.”
“Yes, but that was before you told me about my room,” she said.
“Azula….” Ursa used that low, warning voice Ozai wondered if all mothers had.
“Let me say good night to dad,” Azula said, pouting. His face softened at her words.
“Can you call me that?” he asked. They looked back at him; Azula and Zuko with confusion and Ursa with surprise. He repeated himself, slower. “Dad. ‘Father’ is very formal. I’m aware that it’s only recently come to light that I’m your father.” Gods, he sounded as if he were in a business meeting, but couldn’t stop. “But if possible, once you’re comfortable, I’d like for you to call me-”
“Goodnight, Dad.” He snapped his mouth closed as he looked at his son. Zuko carried the same kind, thoughtful look his mother often had. For a moment, he could see his baby son again. “See you tomorrow?”
He couldn’t breathe for a second. Ozai stood up and nodded. “I have some things to work on in the morning, but I should be able to drop by for dinner.”
“Great!” Azula clapped her hands together. Filled with confidence, she walked to him and held out her arms. “Then we’ll see you tomorrow!” Her thin arms wrapped around him and he tensed. It was a goodnight hug. He was receiving his first goodnight hug from his daughter and….
Hug her. He caught Kya looking at him behind the bay window next to the kitchen sink. She seemed to be mouthing something and making a hugging gesture. Hug her!
He awkwardly bent down and gave Azula a light hug. “Goodnight, princess.” She tilted her head up and grinned from ear to ear.
She released him and skipped back to where her mother and Zuko were waiting for her. Ursa gave him a brief nod before following the children into the house.
At once all the, Ozai let the breath he had been holding in rush out. His shoulders dumped down and tilted his head back.
“Good job, Ozai!” He looked back at the bay window and saw Hakoda giving him a thumbs up while wearing yellow dishwashing gloves. “That was some top notch parenting.”
“8/10, Ozai,” Kya added from beside her husband. “You have to work on your hugs, though.”
“He’s never been one for hugs, Kya. You know that.”
“But he has to learn. He can’t go around giving his kids handshakes, can he?”
“Azula’s pretty clever; she may need to learn how to give a solid handshake one day.”
“Will you two shut up?” Ozai grumbled. He reached over the chaise and grabbed his beer. “This is all new to me.”
“And you’re doing a good job,” Kya said. She was trying to encourage him, but coming from her, he couldn’t help but feel a bit patronized. He rolled his eyes and took another long drink of his beer.
“I’m going to use your hot tub.”
“Don’t stay in there too long. You’ll get dehydrated.”
He put his beer down and walked to the pool spa at the far end of the pool. He could feel the hot air around it and slowly sank in. He closed his eyes as he leaned back.
What a day it was and it wasn’t over yet. He still needed to tell Kya and Hakoda he would come for dinner the next day and work out the next visit afterwards with Ursa to bring the kids to his house.
He needed to prepare the house, as well. What if they stayed the night? He needed to stock his fridge and call the maid who came weekly to make sure the spare bedrooms were ready. What else would he need?
The kids liked video games. Katara and Zuko were talking about a particular game earlier. Perhaps he’d look into a gaming system? It had been a while since he himself played. Not since he and Hakoda were in college.
And Azula…what would she like? Ursa said she drew him. Art supplies, maybe?
“Oh!” A surprised voice drew him out of his thoughts and he opened his eyes. Ursa was pulling her white swimsuit cover back on, having noticed he was in the hot tub. “I’m sorry, I didn’t know you were using it.”
“You’re free to use it, too. There’s enough space for six people,” Ozai said, sitting up straight. He moved as far back as he could, to put as much space between them as he could.
Ursa still looked hesitant. She clutched her swimsuit cover closed and looked towards the house. “No, I don’t want to disturb you.”
“You’re not. I’ve been meaning to speak to you about the children.” Once more, he sounded like he was about to negotiate an agreement with another company, but his formal tone seemed to relax Ursa, as if that was how she expected him to sound. “If you don’t mind, I have a few questions.”
Ursa took a moment longer, but slowly nodded. She began to remove her cover and Ozai looked away, examining the water jets beside him. From the corner of his eye, he could still make out her long, smooth legs and the eye catching red of her two piece. She lifted her arms to pin her hair back and he found himself admiring her slender neck.
She was still beautiful, if not more so now. He noticed her trying to cover her stomach and chest whenever she got out of the pool that day, but he didn’t understand why. Her soft curves were inviting and he wished he remembered how they felt.
“What did you want to ask?” He looked up and met her eyes. She always had such expressive eyes.
“You must’ve overheard that I’d like the children to come see the house. I’m sorry if I said it would clearing it with you first, but I meant what I said.”
“I know you did.”
“Watching you today made it clear you have every intention of being a father to Azula and Zuko.”
He narrowed his eyes. “I had every intention of being so the day you told me you were pregnant,” he said.
Ursa turned red. “I know…I mean…now. I mean now. Because I left you and took the children with me, I was worried that you had given up. Maybe resent us.”
“How could I resent my own children? They’ve done nothing wrong. They’re back in my life again and I won’t let the opportunity pass,” he said in a cold voice. “Do you hate me, Ursa?”
“What?” She shook her head. “No, of course not-”
“Then do I just make you uncomfortable?”
“No - yes…Oh, gods.” Ursa ran a hand down her face and furrowed her brows. “Ozai, I do want you to be a father to them. They want it so badly and they adore you. I don’t want to take them from them, but I don’t know how to act around you.”
He drew his head back. “What? What do you mean?”
“Do you want me to stay away when you’re with the children? Would you be all right if I was involved? Can we even be friends again?”
He stared at her. His hands clenched beneath the water. “Ursa, I am not Ikem,” he said in a low voice. “I won’t tell you what to do or how to act. Have you spent so much time with him that you forgot how to act on your own?”
Ursa looked down and wrapped her arms around her stomach. Her eyes began to water and he berated himself. “He was very controlling and critical of how I acted-”
“I was out of line-”
“But you are making me change my behavior now, not him.”
He didn’t expect that. “What?”
She glared at him. “I don’t want to make this uncomfortable for the children. I don’t want them think I hate you.”
“Do you?” He held his breath once more as he met her eyes.
“I would like to be friends again,” she said. “Like we were in college before….”
Before they were married. He understood what she was saying. That was a more pleasant time, without the strain of marriage and the expectations that came with it. They weren’t close, but close enough to be relaxed around one another.
Despite knowing what she asked, he was disappointed. He looked blankly ahead of him, silent.
“Do you not approve?” Ursa asked and he looked back up. She was frowning. “I think being friends would be the best for the children. Their parents would get along and we can be partners in raising them, like Kya and Hakoda.”
But Kya and Hakoda weren’t just friends, he wanted to say.
Ozai nodded. “I’d like that. It would be good for setting boundaries and reinforcing discipline, as well as give them a happy home life with both of us.”
A relieved look filled her face and he couldn’t help but feel a little hurt by it. “Thank you, Ozai.”
“As I said before, I take care of my own.”
Ursa smiled and nodded. She looked towards the house and shifted in her seat. “Bring your schedule tomorrow and we’ll work out a date when the kids can come over.”
“You’re welcome to come, too, you know,” he said. She looked back at him. “I’m not going to keep them from you and besides, I still work. If they want to stay over, but I’m on a business trip, you should have access to the house and a room.”
He watched her cheeks flood with color. “A room?”
“There are four to pick from, but you’ll have to battle it out with Azula and Zuko.”
“Right, right! The spare rooms….”
He raised a brow. Was she thinking about their old bedroom? He almost wanted to tease her about it. “Is that okay?”
“Yes! Yes, I’d appreciate it much, actually. We may stay over some time to relieve Kya and Hakoda of us,” she said. “I’m still looking for an apartment nearby. I haven’t found one I really like and, to be honest, Azula and Zuko don’t seem to want to move out of this house. The change to go to yours is the first time they’ve been excited about such a thing.”
“Then stay at the house.” He said it so easily, it shocked himself. “It’s just down the street.”
She looked unsure of what to say. “Ozai…that’s very kind of you, but…I mean, I have no problem with spending the night there with the kids while you’re out, but to move in…. My divorce with Ikem isn’t final yet and-”
“Temporarily, Ursa,” he said, leaning forward. “At least until you find something suitable near-by. Perhaps I can help. Lu Ten has a townhouse near-by, actually. Iroh says he’s practically moved into his girlfriend’s house. I’ll see if he’s willing to rent.”
“Oh, I couldn’t bother him….” She looked almost ashamed. “I divorced his uncle and after everything, I don’t know if he’d be fine with that.”
Ozai wanted to argue. When Lu Ten was little, he adored Ursa. And he had his father Iroh’s kind, almost saint like personality. If Ozai called him right now and brought it up, he was almost sure Lu Ten would be arranging movers the next morning to clear out the house for his ex-aunt and cousins.
“I’ll look into it,” he said. “Thank you for allowing the children to visit.”
She smiled. “Thank you, Ozai.” They stared at each other for a few seconds lorder before Ursa looked away, her cheek still tinted red. She reached for the metal railing to pull her up. “I should go get ready for bed, too-”
He saw her leg buckle as she slipped on the tub floor. Her hand slid past the railing, unable to grasp it as she fell back.
She should’ve paid more attention to where was was stepping. She shouldn’t have been in such a rush to leave. She was careless and now she was paying for it.
“Ursa, are you all right?”
No, she was not.
Ozai’s arm was around her stomach, bracing her against him as his other arm hooked around hers to keep her from tumbling back into the tub. She could feel his hot, wet skin against hers and for the life of her, she couldn’t remember when the last time she was so close to him was.
“I’m fine, I’m fine,” she said. She willed her foot to search for a place to step and regain her footing. “I just didn’t get my foot down right.”
He pushed her up to steady her. “Hold on to me.”
Don’t mind if I do. No…dammit, Ursa. She refused look at his face as he helped her regain her balance.
“What your footing as you go up,” he said. He sounded both worried and stern. “Grab on to the railing.”
“Ursa, are you okay?” Kya rushed over. “I saw you stand and fall.”
“Just a little slip. Ozai caught me.”
Hakoda reached Kya’s side and looked at the two of them in the tub. “I see he did.”
She was sure her whole body was as red as her swim suit. Ozai was right behind her and his hands were still on her arm and hips.
He seemed to rip them away as soon as Hakoda said something. “Walk and let me make sure nothing’s injured.” Kya placed her swim cover over her shoulders and took her hand, standing beside her.
“I don’t think anything is….” she said. “Anyway, I should take a shower and change.” Still walking beside Kya she looked over her shoulder and briefly met Ozai’s eyes. “Good night. Drive safely.”
“He lives like six houses away…he didn’t even have to drive here,” Hakoda said.
Ozai gave her a small nod and Ursa reached the house. Kya followed behind her going up the stairs.
“I’m glad you’re okay. When I saw you fall, I came running out,” the doctor said.
“Were you watching us?” Ursa asked as they reached the top of the stairs.
“From the kitchen window. We were eating the leftover popcorn,” Kya said without a bit of shame. “You did great. He kept staring.”
“I didn’t want him to stare,” she said in a low voice to avoid waking the children.
“Then why’d you wear that?”
“You made me wear it!”
“And it got the desired response.”
“What? For Ozai to stare at me like I’m a piece of meat?”
“No, for him to be irritated with himself for being such a crap husband eight years ago, and reassess his life without you,” Kya said. “And it looks like he did.”
“Wonderful.” Ursa sighed as she walked down the hall to her room. “I’m just here to make him rethink his life choices.”
“Did you rethink yours when you saw him with the kids?” She stopped before her door and looked down at the door knob. She did rethink hers.
Ursa turned around and met Kya’s gaze. “Is that the Ozai you know?” she asked. Kya nodded. “That’s not fair.”
“I’m tired, Kya. I’ll see you in the morning.” She opened the door and walked inside her dark room, closing the door behind her.
Chapter 5: Five
“What does my dad like to eat?” Zuko asked as he sat on a stool next to the counter, peeling some root vegetable with Katara for her dad.
“Ozai pretty much eats anything,” Hakoda said from the stove. “He like spicy things.”
“Like me!” Azula piped. She was seated at the kitchen table, drawing.
“I hope they pick up that sauce….” Hakoda stirred some meat around a large wok. “It’s so hard to find.”
“You just have to know where to find it.” Ursa walked in balancing a reusable shopping bag on her hip as she placed her keys on the counter. “Here’s your hot sauce, Hakoda.”
She dug into the bag and out a large red bottle with visible chilis inside. Azula gasped. “What is that?”
“Black lava pepper sauce,” Hakoda said. “Your father always had this at his place back in college. He’d put it on everything back then.”
“Is it hot?”
“Your father is the only one we know who could eat it,” Ursa said. She shook her head at the memory. “I don’t know how he could stomach it.”
“I want to try!” Azula said.
“Later, at dinner,” Hakoda said. “They should be getting here soon.” Just as he said it, the garage door sounded.
“Mom’s home!” Katara said. A minute later, the garage door was closing and Sokka burst in, still wearing his soccer gear.
“How’d the game go?” Zuko asked, turning around in his stool.
“2-1, ended in a shootout,” Sokka said as he trudged past. He grinned. “But we won!”
“Did you score any of the points?” Katara asked.
“I did an assist, but Suki scored all the points this time…again….” He headed to the stairs to get ready for dinner.
“Who’s Suki?” Zuko asked.
“The girl he has a crush on but won’t admit,” Katara said, proud that she had figured it out. “She goes to our school and is a year above him. She’s pretty and really nice, so she’s popular.”
“My boy has a good eye,” Hakoda puffed out his chest. “Just like me.”
“I wish I had a good eye,” Kya said as she walked in.
“Hey….” She laughed as Hakoda looked mocked insulted. He saw someone behind her. “There you are! I thought you’d be here by now. The meeting ended an hour ago.”
“One of the sales people caught me before I left the office. You know how they are,” Ozai said as he walked in.
“Hi, Uncle Ozai!”
“Hi, kids.” He placed his laptop bag by the coffee table and walked to the kitchen, shrugging off his suit jacket. “I was going to to home and change first, but Kya waved me down on the street.”
“I’m hungry and didn’t want to wait for you to drag your butt here,” Kya said as she stopped in the kitchen, behind her husband. She wrapped her arms around Hakoda’s waist and over his shoulder. “Ooh…looks good.”
“Thank you, it’s a new recipe.”
“Okay, kids, set the table,” Ursa said. “I’ll put my bag upstairs.”
“Same,” Kya said, tugging off her pony tail.
Hakoda began to place the food on dishes. “Want a beer?”
“No,” Ozai said, taking the stool Zuko vacated as he, Azula, and Katara went to set the table. “Is it spicy?”
“No, but I had Ursa pick this up while she was out apartment hunting.” Hakoda motioned to the bottle on the table and Ozai sat up straight.
“I’ve been looking all over for that. They don’t sell it at the supermarket.”
“She said it’s not hard to find if you know where to look.” Hakoda put the wok down. “You should ask her.”
Ozai picked up the bottle and studied it. “I just might….” He screwed off the top and removed the seal before taking a whiff. “It burns…just like I remember it.”
“There is something seriously wrong with you.” Hakoda shook his head. He turned around and saw Ozai squeezing the bottle. “You can’t wait?”
“Just a taste. It’s been so long.”
“Well, be careful or you’ll-” A squirting noise came from the bottle and the two men watched in silence as a dollop of dark, red sauce spurted from the nozzle and landed on Ozai’s shirt. “I knew it.”
Ozai swore. He put the bottle down. “I need to soak this. The sauce stains if it’s not soaked immediately.”
“Go to the laundry room. I have some clean shirts on the rack. Dunk that thing in the sink.”
“Thanks.” Ozai was already halfway done unbuttoning his shirt. Hakoda sighed and eyed the bottle.
“I should just put it in a bowl….”
She tossed her bag on to her bed and turned around, briefly catching her reflection in the full body mirror as she tugged off her beige blazer. She stopped as she caught the white streak against her black blouse.
“Oh no….” Ursa walked closer to the mirror and narrowed her eyes. She lifted her arm and tugged on the shirt. Deodorant on her blouse. She turned around and checked her other side. Another chalky white strip greeted her Wonderful.
She shook her head, relieved that she hadn’t taken her blazer off until she returned so no one saw the streak, but at the same time growing frustrated. She was in a rush when she left to go apartment hunting and her impatience got the best of her. She tugged at her collar, unbuttoning it as she opened her closet door.
Nothing was left on the hangers and she cursed her earlier lethargy. The clean laundry was still downstairs in the laundry room. She removed the pins from her hair and ran her hand through. She’d carry the laundry up later, but needed to change first.
Grumbling, she walked to the door and opened it just enough to peek outside. The hall was empty and from where she was standing, the stairs were clear as well. She kept her arms at her side, hoping they hid the white streaks as she tip toed across the hall, past the bathroom, and to the stairs.
She heard Hakoda telling the children to make some space for the food on the table and she quickened her pace to change before dinner or before anyone could see her.
As soon as she reached the foyer, she bolted to the laundry room around the corner, hoping that no one saw her.
She nearly threw open the laundry room door as she stormed in, walking straight to the back where her and her children’s laundry was folded in a plastic laundry basket near the ironing table. As the door creaked closed behind her, she tugged off her blouse, tossing it into a nearby empty basket and began to pick through her clothes for a replacement.
She jumped and let out a gasp before she whirled around and dropped whatever pair of clothing she had her hand. Across the room, a man in a white sleeveless undershirt had his hands in a sink. He looked equally surprised to see her.
“Ozai!?” Her hands flew to her chest. Thank the gods she hadn’t removed her bra yet. “What are you doing here?”
He turned his head away and shook his hands over the sink to get rid of water before facing the opposite wall in a clear action to give her privacy. The sink was behind the door and he had jumped when it flew open, but didn’t see who came in until it closed.
“I got some sauce on my shirt,” he said. “I needed to soak it before it stained and Hakoda said to just use a shirt from here.”
Her chest was rising and fall with heavy breaths as her heart beat almost painfully in her chest. He saw her. He saw her in her bra. Logically, she knew he’d already seen it all, but it had been near a decade and she wasn’t even wearing a nice bra.
“I didn’t see you.”
“Sorry, I didn’t know it was you, either,” he said. He hesitated, but remained looking at the wall, his back to her. “Are you changed?”
Right! She was there to change. Ursa turned back around. Her trembling hands went through the basket of clothes until she found a regular red t-shirt from a volunteer event she once did.
“Almost! Don’t turn around, yet,” she said as she pulled it over her head. She tugged it past her stomach and waist before turning around. “Done! All done!”
“Once again, I’m sorry. I had no idea you’d come down here,” Ozai said. He waited a second or two longer before carefully looking over his shoulder. Once he saw she was fully dressed, he turned around and went back to the sink.
“No, it was an accident. I didn’t know you’d be here either.” Did that sound like she was trying to avoid him?
He nodded, paying more attention to the splashing in the sink. “Can you go out and ask Hakoda if he has anything to pretreat it?”
It struck her then that he was doing his laundry. She remembered him usually taking care of his laundry, either at home or to the dry cleaner’s. When she was pregnant, she never did it. Ozai took care of it and when he was away, had a maid come.
Why was she remembering that now?
Ursa looked towards the shelf beside the washing machine. She walked over and grabbed a bottle. “Use this.”
He lifted his head and she stopped beside him, extending the bottle. He looked from her face and down to the bottle in her hand before slowly reaching up to take it.
“Thank you.” He tried to twist the top open and frowned. His hands were too wet.
“I’ve got it.” She moved closer, standing beside him as she took the bottle from his hand and opened it. She squeezed the middle and a clear liquid gathered at the top. She reached into the sink and began to smear the liquid across the a discolored stain she recognized. She sighed. “You got the hot sauce on you.”
“You couldn’t wait?”
“It’s been a while. It was just a taste.”
“If you’re going to lecture me, I can do it myself.”
“I’m almost done….there.” She looked pleased as she pushed the shirt back into the sink half filled with water. She lifted her hand and wiped her brow, looking satisfied. She turned around and realized just how small that corner of the laundry room was.
Ozai jerked his head back to make some distance as she practically pinned him to a table. The bottle dropped from her hand as she felt both mortified and hot. It was one thing to have him catch her yesterday and be touching him.
It was another to be touching him and looking him right in the eyes. It was her fault and they both knew it.
Ursa didn’t know what to do. Her mind went blank and all she could do was remain standing in front of him, his hips and stomach pressed against hers as she struggled to find an apology and strength to move away.
Nothing was coming and Ursa wasn’t sure if she should cry out in frustration or not.
Ozai didn’t say a word, but as moments passed and she remained as frozen as a horrifed mannequin in front of him, he spoke.
“Why do you look so scared?” She watched the lines across his face deepen as he frowned. His eyes searched hers and she felt her heart race when she couldn’t look away. “I’m not going to hurt you.”
She knew that. Ozai never intentionally hurt her. It was his own negligence, but it was never intentional. He was strict and firm. He was serious and restrained. But he wouldn’t go out of his way to hurt her. No biting criticism about how she raised her children or kept up her appearance. No insults made to impress his friends. No withholding attention when he was displeased for the slightest infraction.
She felt her eyes water and choked back a muffled, pained cry. At the very least, Ozai didn’t want her to suffer.
Ursa spoke before she could stop herself. “Why didn’t I fall in love with you ten years ago?”
His eyes widened as she whispered and Ozai’s expression saddened. A warm hand cupped her face and stroked her cheek. “Ursa….”
Her trembling hands clung on to his thin shirt and she tilted her head up to meet his.
HIs arms went around her and pulled her closer, tighter against him as she opened her mouth across his. She could smell his cologne and the faint shampoo in his hair as his hot breath whispered her name against her neck.
She tilted her head back as his mouth moved against her flushed skin and sucked at the base of her neck.
He remembered, a small voice in the back of her head said. She let out a gasp and squirmed against him as he nipped at her neck. Did he remember all her erogenous zones?
His hands pressed against her rib cage and she let out a pathetic whimper, nearly melting against him as he stroked skin beneath the shirt she had just put on. He did remember.
Her head felt light and she wasn’t sure if she was standing on her own power or being held up by Ozai. It didn’t matter as long as she was against him and could flood her senses with him.
As his lips caught hers once more, she felt his hands swept past the swell of her butt and down to her thighs. Strong hands gripped her and suddenly, she was pulled up, her legs on either side of him as she pressed against his hips.
His skin was so hot against her and she only wanted to get closer.
“Ozai,” Hakoda’s voice came from the hall. “Dinner’s almost ready!”
Panting, Ozai broke his connection to her and fixed his eyes on hers as he answered. “I’m almost done.” His voice was low and steady, not showing any sign of embarrassment or urgency. “Just soaking the shirt.”
Ursa felt her heart still pumping hard against her as she loosened her hold on his shirt and pulled away. Ozai’s carefully lowered her back and moved his arms away once she was standing on her own.
He looked away as she squeezed past, her own eyes diverted.
“I’ll…um….” She cringed at her shaken voice. She could feel her hands trembling at her sides as she tried to comprehend what had just happened - what she had initiated. “I’ll see you at dinner.”
“Ursa.” She stood up straight, but couldn’t bring herself to turn around.
She tried to use the normal voice she could muster. “Yes?”
“Perhaps I should go out first,” Ozai said. She heard cloth shifting behind her and glanced over her shoulder. He was tugging on a navy polo that seemed a size too big for him. “They can’t see you coming out from here from the dining room. Just give me a minute to get there first.”
She felt a small pain in her heart as he spoke. She wasn’t sure if she was sad and disappointed because he knew she her discomfort or because he, who had kissed her so fervently moments early, didn’t have much more of a reaction.
“Good idea,” she said, shoving down her disappointment. She stood across the room, arms crossed over her chest as she leaned back against the washing machine.
Ozai wiped his hands on a spare towel and spared her a small glance, pausing by the door.
He lowered his eyes. “I’m sorry about that. I was carried away. My apologies for making you uncomfortable.”
Her eyes crinkled up as he turned around and walked out. As the door closed part way behind him, Ursa lifted her hand to her mouth and felt as if she had done something terrible.
She kissed him. He kissed her back, didn’t he? Did he regret it? He must’ve. But what was worse…she all be declared that she wanted to love him. That she regretted her decision and wished she had stayed with him.
Her face felt hot. What was she thinking?
What was Ozai thinking?
Her eyes went back to the door, staring at it with disbelief as if Ozai would return and state his thoughts on her sudden and confusing confession. She almost willed him to return. She didn’t want his apology. If anyone crossed a line, it was her.
“Ursa!” she heard Kya’s voice call from the foyer. “C’mon! Dinner’s going to get devoured if you don’t get down here!”
Careful to stay out of view, Ursa looked out the gap between the door and frame just enough so she could see the top of Kya’s head bob out of sight as she returned to the dining room.
She took a deep breath. No need to cause a scene. Even less need to let everyone know she was making out with her ex-husband like a couple of teenagers. She just needed to act normal.
Ursa perked up. Why would this even be a struggle for her to hide? She studied theater for years and was surrounded by actors the last several year so of her life. Her last few years with Ikem had been a complete act she had simply fallen into.
She forced her discomfort down, determined to make it through dinner without uncomfortable shifting and wary glances at Ozai. She could speak to him later about what happened, if he brought it up again.
“Sorry about that,” she said as she walked into the dining room. Everyone had already taken their seats and she took hers next to Zuko and Kya.
“Okay,” Kya said. “Now you can start.”
Several hands began to go around the table, lifting dishes and scooping food into plates. Ozai was putting a small dollop of his sauce on to Azula’s plate.
“Try it with the potato first to see if it’s too much. We can always dilute it if it’s too strong,” he told her.
Azula had a look of determination on her small face. She eyed the small dollop of dark red sauce as if it were an obstacle to be conquered.
“Can I try some, too?” Zuko asked from across the table.
“Oh, but Zuko, it’s very spicy and you’re usually not too fond of spicy,” Ursa said. Her son’s face fell and Ozai reached across the table with a spoonful.
“He won’t know until he tries. Besides, it’s not exactly the same kind of spicy we’re used to,” Ozai said.
“Yeah, you’ve tasted it,” Hakoda said with a smirk. “There is spicy for normal people and then spicy for monsters.”
Ozai shot him a glare.
“Okay, here I go!” Azula announced with pride as she brought a small piece of potato half covered in sauce to her mouth. Everyone seemed to pause and watch, awaiting her reaction. Her face began to turn red and her eyes crinkled up, tears appearing in the corners of her eyes.
“Azula!” Ursa gasped.
“I’ll get her some milk,” Kya said, shooting of her chair.
“No….” Azula kept her mouth shut tight, refusing to spit out the burning vegetable, but at the same time, not chewing it. “I can….” She managed to say behind gritted teeth.
“Azula, it’s too hot for you. Spit it out,” Ursa said with a frown, about to stand and round the table to get to her daughter. She could see sweat collecting on Azula’s forehead. “Azula-”
“Azula,” Ozai sounded stern. “Spit it out. If you don’t chew it and swallow, it’ll start to burn your sinuses-”
“Your nose is running!” Katara gasped. She reached for a napkin and shoved it in her friend’s face. “Azula, spit it out!”
“There’s no shame in spitting it out. We can dilute the flavor and work you up to the concentrated one,” Ozai said.
Finally, Azula grabbed the napkin Katara held up to her and spit out the vegetable. She made a face, both disgusted and frustrated as she looked at the piece of potato coated in sauce and saliva.
“Here, drink this,” Kya said as she placed a small cup of milk by Azula. The child seemed to guzzle it down, her face returning to normal.
“I couldn’t do it,” she said, sounding angry. She glared at the remaining dollop of sauce. “Yet.”
“You’re crazy,” Sokka said from across the table.
“Sokka….” Hakoda gave him a look.
Sokka smiled sheepishly and shrugged his shoulders. He turned to Zuko. “So are you going to try - huh?”
The red dollop on Zuko’s plate was smeared off, the last remaining bit of it on a piece of potato he brought to his mouth and began chewing at once. He was a little flushed, but didn’t look as irritated by the heat as his sister.
The table seemed to stare at him, both in amazement that he tried and confusion, as normally he wouldn’t have after seeing what it did to his sister.
He swallowed and nodded with satisfaction. “If you chew it, the potato mixes with the hot sauce and it doesn’t spread and and linger on your tongue. As long as you don’t breath while it’s in your mouth, you don’t smell that burning spice. It’s pretty good; the aftertaste is nice.”
“Well…,” Hakoda said. “You’re braver than me, Zuko.”
“There was only one other person I knew who could take it undiluted,” Ozai said. “My late mother, Ilah.”
Zuko nodded. He seemed to understand that Azula was frustrated and seemed content with his father’s words without pressing for further compliments.
“Dad, I’ll be able to eat it, too,” Azula insisted.
“Of course you will,” Ozai said. “But little by little. Go about this strategically, Azula.”
She seemed to understand and nod. She looked at her mother. “Mom, do you like the sauce.”
“It’s a bit too spicy for me, sweetheart.”
“Oh…well, you should work at it, too.”
Ursa took a deep breath. Her daughter didn’t know half of what she had to work at in regards to Ozai.
The rest of the dinner seemed to pass without incident, save Sokka trying some sauce on a dare and ended up choking. Ursa kept a placid smile on her face, speaking only when spoken to or occasionally to her children and Kya. The children were ushered to the kitchen for dessert to leave Ursa and Ozai some time to find a suitable date for a visit.
It seemed very professional: Ozai had his tablet out and was skimming through his calendar, reading out prospective dates and across from him, Ursa was going through her phone.
There really wasn’t a need for her to. Aside from meetings with lawyers and realtors, she didn’t have much planned.
“Azula brought up visiting nearly half a dozen times,” Ozai noted as he kept his eyes on the screen. “Is it possible to simply bring them over tomorrow to look at the house?”
Tomorrow? That was a little soon wasn’t it? Her thoughts must’ve been written all over her face as Ozai glanced up and then back down.
“I can get dinner and finally pay back Hakoda and Kya for always having me over,” he said. “Azula and Zuko can pick a room. I’m sure Katara and Sokka might have opinions they want to voice. We can schedule another time to go look at furniture.”
“You don’t need to order new furniture for them,” Ursa said. “I’m sure whatever’s there is fine.”
He scrolled through his tablet. “There isn’t any furniture in the rooms.”
Ursa looked up from her phone. “I thought you kept the house.”
“What happened to the furniture?”
Ozai seemed to release a heavy breath and turned to look at her. “One room used to be a nursery, the other was just transitioning to a toddler’s room. There were cribs and diaper changing stations and mobiles, but not children. What use did I have for that furniture?”
She could hear some bitterness in his voice and tore her eyes away. “Well, what about the other rooms?”
“I gave the spare bedroom set to Lu Ten when he moved out of the dorms since it was new and never used,” Ozai said. “We never did much with the last room.”
He once asked her if she wanted a home office, but pregnancy side tracked her plans to put one together. Still, she had picked the room she thought would’ve been most convenient. Ursa could only imagine that the others were just as vacant as it had been when she left.
“It worked out then,” she said, almost forcing herself to speak. “Azula and Zuko can pick out what they like.”
“You might as well pick something you like for the third spare. If they’re staying over and I’m not there, they should have a guardian with them,” Ozai said. It was practical. They did need to get another bed for her for such a reason.
It wasn’t like she could stay in their old bedroom.
She fidgeted in her seat. Did he keep their master bedroom the same? That massive four poster bed with the matching bedside tables and dresser, and vanity table in her little well lit corner. Ursa couldn’t bring herself to ask about what happened to it.
“Good point. What about the kitchen? If we need to cook. I doubt it was efficient for you to cook with your schedule,” Ursa said.
“The cooking sets and what not are in storage. I’ll get them out,” Ozai said. “This coming weekend, I’m free to go look at furniture with the children. I should bring Hakoda…he’ll take measurements of everything.”
“That’s a good idea,” Ursa said. “It’ll be good to know how much space we’re working with.” And it was good that she wouldn’t be spending an entire day with him. They’d look too much like a family and she didn’t want to have to correct people’s assumptions.
How would that look? Ozai probably wouldn’t care and ignore it, but it would bother her. She also didn’t want the children to think there was something going on between them, which there wasn’t.
She felt her face warm up and she fought it. There wasn’t anything, regardless of what happened in the laundry room.
“Excellent. I’ll book that day,” Ozai said. “By the way, Hakoda said you went apartment hunting today. How did it go? Did you find anything?”
“I got to see some places, but nothing definite. I’d like their school to be close, so that they could walk home.”
Ozai cocked his head. “Are you taking them out of boarding school?”
Ursa shifted in her seat once more and diverted her eyes. “There’s no reason for them to continue there. I want them closer to home, where I can spend more time with them.”
Ozai took a deep breath and leaned back against his chair. “I’m glad to hear it. I was concerned that I’d only see them during school breaks and with my schedule, that could’ve caused issues.”
She looked surprised to hear that, but nodded. “Yes, well…Kya suggested enrolling them at Yang Chen Primary Academy, but…”
Ozai raised a brow. “Is it the cost?” He sat up straight and met her eyes. “Ursa, you know I will spare no expense for my children’s sake. Yang Chen is an excellent school and is a feeder into their preparatory secondary academy. The children can even secure their spots early. Both Sokka and Katara are on track to move on to secondary and have spots waiting for them. It’s a good school”
“I know,” Ursa said. “And it’s convenient. The kids can carpool and if they need to walk home, they can do so together, especially in an off sporting season.”
“Yes, I would feel more comfortable with that. Katara has to wait for Sokka in the hall and he has to wait for her in the spring, after their respective practices because Kya and Hakoda don’t want them walking home alone.” Ozai rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Have Azula and Zuko tested in?”
Ursa shook her head. “Kya helped me to arrange transfer papers and get acceptance spots based on their grades, behavior, and recommendations from their previous school. She said she wanted to keep the option open.”
“And what about the children? Would they consider it?”
“Zuko hinted at it and Azula doesn’t seem to care.” She smiled. “If it’s by your house, I’m sure she’ll be all for it.”
She saw the corners of his lips move up in a small smile. “Then it sounds like it’s the best course of action. You can use my address if you wish, in case you move apartments if you find one better.”
He dismissed the thought with a wave of his hand. “Now, regarding the apartment. I spoke to Lu Ten.”
“Ozai, no,” Ursa sat up straight and frowned. “I can’t trouble him.”
“Let me finish. He said he’s willing to rent it out on one condition,” Ozai said. Ursa narrowed her eyes. “He’d like to meet his cousins. He hasn’t seen them since they were babies and said he wanted to see them again.”
“Oh…well, of course he can see them,” Ursa said. “Even if he doesn’t want to rent. I’d like the children to meet other family….” She looked towards the kitchen. “Zuko! Azula! Can you come in for a moment.”
There was a small grumble about finishing their dessert, but the two walked in. Azula still held on to her bowl of half finished ice cream.
“Your father and I have made a schedule-”
“When are we going?” Azula’s face lit up.
“We’ll be having dinner tomorrow at my house,” Ozai said. “Hakoda, Kya!” he shouted over their heads. “Did you hear that?”
“Free dinner at Uncle Ozai’s, kids!” Hakoda said loudly. “Bring your appetites!”
They heard Katara and Sokka, as well as Kya, let out a gleeful ‘yay’. Ozai nodded in his head, satisfied.
“Tomorrow, while we’re waiting for dinner, you two can look at the rooms and pick the ones you want. We’ll go look for furniture this weekend,” Ozai said.
“Yes!” Azula beamed.
“I can’t wait to get my own bunk bed,” Zuko added.
“We also need to schedule one more date,” Ursa said in a calm voice. “We’d like to schedule some time to meet with Lu Ten. Do you know who that is?”
“Lu Ten!?” Katara came skidding out of the kitchen, a hopeful, eager look in her eyes. “Is he coming?”
“Who’s Lu Ten?” Zuko asked.
“He’s Uncle Ozai’s nephew,” Katara said, her chubby brown cheeks heating up. “He’s really nice and tall and can throw you in the air really high-”
“Wait, wait,” Zuko said. He looked back at his parents. “We have a cousin?”
“Yes,” Ozai said. “Lu Ten is my older brother’s son. He’s your cousin and would like to see you again.”
“We’ve met him before?” Azula asked, finishing off her ice cream. “I don’t remember him.”
“You were a baby when he last saw you,” Ursa said. “So, would that be okay? I think it would be nice for you to meet your cousin.”
Zuko agreed, but Azula hesitated. She looked at Katara, who urged her to agree, and finally nodded her head.
“Then I’ll ask him when he’s free,” Ozai said. He made a show of glancing at his watch. “It seems it’s getting late and I have an early video conference tomorrow. I should get going.”
“Already?” Azula pouted.
“I’m afraid so. We’ll see each other tomorrow,” he said. He pushed his chair back and stood up.
As he put his tablet into his bag, Kya came out of the kitchen with Hakoda. “You wantus to bring your shirt tomorrow?” she asked.
“Yes, I’d appreciate it.” He slung his bag over his shoulder and headed to the door. The children bid him good-bye, with Azula reaching up for another hug.
“You still need to work on it,” Hakoda said as he held the door open. Ozai gave him another glare. He walked to his car parked in the driveway.
Azula and Zuko lingered by the door, waving, not willing to leave until his car backed out of the driveway. Hakoda then herded the children back to finish their desserts and put their dishes away.
Kya closed the door and looked towards Ursa. She stood alone in the living room, looking out the window.
“Are you okay?” Kya asked. Ursa turned her head towards the doorway and nodded.
“It was a very business like conversation. And you were right; he’s all for Yang Chen.”
“The kids will be excited to know Azula and Zuko will be going to the same school,” Kya said. She reached her friend’s side and hooked her arm around Ursa’s. “You did great, you know. It was a normal conversation.”
“You’re still a great actress.”
Ursa stiffened and turned sharply towards Kya. “What are you talking about?”
Her friend leaned forward and smirked. “You know how your hand lotion smells like citrus?” Ursa reddened. She knew where this was going. “Well right now, it smells like mens’ cologne.”
Giggling to herself, Kya slipped away. Ursa, flustered, reached out to her. “Kya, wait! It wasn’t anything serious!”
All her friend did was turn around and seemed to smile with sadistic pleasure. “Remember what I said all those years ago, back when we were in college and I had just introduced you to Ozai?”
How could Ursa forget? Kya’s quiet comment to her after she met Ozai for the first time made her hyper aware of him.
Back then, Kya gave her knowing smile and winked. “He’s single,” she whispered. “Get it.”
“Is this it?” Azula sounded confused. She stood in the half circle driveway of a large, brick house, and looked down the street. “I can see your house from here.”
The slate gray, white bordered house was clearly visible from the brick one. Katara nodded, holding a tray of brownies she and Zuko made that day. “Yeah…I don’t know why Uncle Ozai keeps driving.”
“Your Uncle Ozai’s weird, that’s why,” Hakoda said, passing the two girls to get to the front steps. They all just walked, figuring that the weather was good and that the walk back at night would be refreshing.
Ursa was bringing up the rear of the little group, with Kya at her side. Zuko and Sokka were examining the front of the house, trying to figure out which window had the better bedroom.
“Does my dad have a lot of cars?” Azula asked, noticing the black luxury sub SUV parked at the edge of the drive. “University of The Republic…” She read the license plate frame. “Law. A…lu…m-nee?”
“Alumni,” Kya said. “It means that the owner of the car graduated from that university’s law school.”
“Dad’s a lawyer?” Zuko asked, looking back at his mother.
“No,” Hakoda said as he waited for someone to respond to the doorbell. “But Lu-”
“Uncle Hakoda!” The door was thrown open and a handsome, tall young man in a stylish gray sweater and dark jeans appeared. “Good to see you again!”
“I thought that was your car,” Kya chuckled beside her husband.
“Auntie Kya and…Katara!”
A plate of brownies were shoved into Zuko’s hands as Katara darted forward and threw herself at him. He caught her easily and picked her up, tossing her into the air just outside the door.
“Hi, Lu Ten!”
“That’s your cousin,” Sokka said, stating the obvious to Zuko. “He’s great with video games, too. He’ll play if you ask.”
Katara was placed back on the ground as he gave Hakoda a hug and ushered them in. As each person passed the threshold, Lu Ten greeted them. Sokka got a fist bump, making him feel somehow cooler. Kya got a hug and a kiss on each cheek.
Behind her, Azula and Zuko stopped and looked up at their new cousin.
Lu Ten’s gold eyes softened. “Oh man…” he said as he looked at them. “Look have big you guys have gotten. Last time I saw you….” He trailed off and bit his lip. “Azi’s eyes were barely opening. And Zuzu….”
“He calls you that, too,” Azula whispered, smug.
“Whatever, AZI,” Zuko said with a snort.
Lu Ten chuckled. “Well, let me introduce myself,” he said as he stood to the side and waved them in. Ursa gave him a small nod as she walked through the door. “My name is Lu Ten, son of Iroh. He’s your dad’s older brother and current head of Souzin Enterprises. I work in the legal department at one of its subsidiaries here. I’m also your first cousin.”
“My name is Zuko-”
“He knows that already, dum-dum-”
“Azula…,” Ursa frowned.
“It’s nice to meet you,” Azula said, doing a little bow.
“Aw, a bow? That’s it?” Lu Ten laughed. “Can I get a hug?” He looked at Ursa, as if to ask if it was all right. Ursa nodded.
Zuko stepped up as Lu Ten knelt down. “Do you like brownies? I made some with Katara.”
“I love brownies, cousin,” he said with a grin. He leaned closer. “And Uncle Ozai likes them, too, but he pretends he doesn’t. He has a reputation to maintain.” He winked.
“My turn!” Azula said. She stepped back.
“Azula?” Ursa asked. Her daughter shot forward, raising her arms. “Azula!”
“I got her, Auntie!” Lu Ten assured her as he caught his cousin and threw her in the air, just as he did Katara. Azula yelled with delight.
“Thank gods the foyer has a vaulted ceiling,” Ursa muttered to herself. Azula seemed pleased with her cousin’s greeting and gave him a hug as he put her back down.
“Your dad’s in the kitchen. We were just working on an old family recipe he wanted to make for you guys,” Lu Ten said. “Go on and greet him.”
Azula and Zuko followed Katara and her family down the hall. Lu Ten watched as they disappeared into the kitchen, yelling at Ozai about something. He turned around and gave Ursa a wry smile.
“Aunt Ursa,” he said, giving her a small bow of his head. “It’s good to see you again.”
“You, too, Lu Ten,” Ursa said. “You were just starting college the last time I saw you.”
“Yeah,” Lu Ten said. He seemed cautious, as if unsure what to say. “Aunt Ursa…I’m glad that Azula and Zuko are able to see their father again. Thank you for that.”
“No.” Ursa shook her head. “It was a long time coming. I should’ve brought them to him sooner. He is their father and I made a mistake.”
Lu Ten didn’t voice his agreement, but she knew he did. “Aunt Ursa, it isn’t any of my business - what happened between you and Uncle Ozai, but I just want you to know that it really hurt him when you left. He had the house remodeled…he nearly sold it. I know you probably don’t believe it considering your grounds for divorce, but he was devastated.”
Ursa wasn’t sure how to take the news. “Lu Ten-”
He held up his hands. “All I’m asking is that you don’t hurt my uncle again,” he said in a serious voice. “Everyone knows how much he loved you.”
She drew her head back. Did Lu Ten even understand what he was saying?
“Lu Ten!” Ozai was calling for him. They heard his footsteps against the tile floor approaching. They looked towards the hall as Ozai, wearing casual clothing and a maroon apron. “Can you set up your video game system for Zuko and Sokka?”
“Sure, Uncle,” Lu Ten said. He had a smile on his face once more and walked past, patting his uncle on the shoulder as he did.
Ursa watched the young man leave, his words still resonating in her head.
Ozai loved her.
It just didn’t sound…plausible?
“Ursa.” She snapped back to attention as Ozai said her name. “Are you coming?” he asked, heading towards the back of the house.
She blinked and nodded slowly. “I’m coming.” She wanted to ask him and spoke before she could stop herself. “Ozai.”
“Can I talk to you later?”
“Alone.” He paused just before stepping out into the large, open kitchen. He looked over his shoulder, a frown on his face.
Ozai seemed to think it over for a moment longer before giving her a small nod. “All right.”
Chapter 6: Six
“I want to see them! Put them on the screen!” A throaty, rough voice filled the room as Lu Ten set up his phone beneath a large flat screen. He was fiddling with the touch screen, trying to get it connected.
“How’s that?” he asked. Behind him, Azula was sitting on the couch with Katara. On the floor before them were Zuko and Sokka. “Can you see them now?”
A laugh came from the speakers. “Not with you standing in front of the camera, my boy.”
“Sorry, Dad.” Lu Ten had a lopsided smile on his face as he stepped away. On the flat screen, they saw a man with hair more gray than black and a neat beard. He was seated in what looked like an office building, wearing a suit. A rotund old man, but he looked happy and kind, just like his son. “Can you see them now?”
“Ah! Yes, I can.” Iroh laughed once more. “Hello, everyone. I’m sorry I couldn’t join you tonight.”
“You’re in the Fire Nation, Uncle Iroh,” Sokka said. “It’s okay.”
Katara raised her arm, as if to answer a question in class. “Uncle Iroh, thank you for letting us stay at your family’s villa in Ember Island. This year, we’re going to bring Azula and Zuko. Is that okay?”
“Of course it is, Katara,” Iroh said. “I would be very happy to have my niece and nephew visit.”
“Un…Uncle Iroh,” Zuko said, blushing. “I sorry I don’t remember you much, but I hope we can meet you soon.”
“Yes, Uncle!” Azula said. “I left here when I was just a baby, so I don’t remember either.”
“I hope to meet you two in person soon, as well,” Iroh said, his voice softening. “But looking at you two…ah… Zuko, you look just like your father when he was your age and Azula…I can already tell you have that Souzin fire in you.”
Both children seemed to sit up straighter with pride.
Out of view from the camera, outside, on a wooden deck with the other parents, Ursa sighed at the scene. Part of her wanted to go in and greet Iroh, too, but a larger part of her was ashamed to show her face to him. Iroh was such a good man and treated her like his own sister. She didn’t want to face his disapproval for keeping her children away for so long.
In addition, she divorced his precious younger brother and, if Lu Ten’s words were true, broke Ozai’s heart - which she still doubted.
“And you’ll be joining us then, right?” Kya seemed to prod at Ozai from where she leaned against the wooden railing.
Ozai didn’t budge. “I can’t.”
“You always say that.” Hakoda sounded tired of excuses. “Come on, Ozai. This will be the first year Azula and Zuko will go since Zuko was born. You have to be there.”
“Besides, we always feel bad going. It’s your family’s place,” Kya said. Ozai gave her a dull look.
“My brother sent me photos of you all having a BBQ on the beach last year, having the time of your lives. How badly can you feel?”
“Okay, somewhat guilty,” Kya said.
“It just gets really good waves on your family’s beach…,” Hakoda added. “Anyway, that’s not the point. The point is that this year, you’ll all be joining us.”
“Wait, not me, right?” Ursa said, lowering the her glass of white wine and placing it on the patio table. She looked from her friends to her ex-husband with uncertainty.
“You’ll be there, too,” Kya said so confident that Ursa wondered if she already agreed to it and simply forgot.
She shook her head. “Kya, I can’t. I’m still looking for a place and then I have to move things in, not to mention start looking for a job. My prenup will provide just the basics and I won’t get it until after the divorce is settled.”
Kya wrinkled her nose and Hakoda rubbed his chin; a sign that they were both mulling over her valid point.
“Don’t you think you should go with the children. Won’t they feel uncomfortable with you present?” Ozai asked.
Ursa lowered her eyes. She doubted they would. “I’m afraid they may be used to it. I was away more often that I would’ve liked.”
“All the more reason for you to go, don’t you think?” Hakoda asked. “It’ll be good quality time with their mother.” He gave a pointed look at Ozai. “And father.”
“It’s just for a few days and it’s a few weeks away,” Kya said. “At least think it over. Seriously. Ozai.” She gave him a slight glare and he rolled his eyes. She turned to Ursa with a more pleasant expectant look.
“I’ll give it a look, but in the off chance that I get a job-”
“If,” Kya stressed. “Until then, we’ll count you as going.”
Ursa sighed and conceded. “So stubborn.”
“I’m a determined woman,” Kya said, agreeing as she walked towards the open doors. “Iroh! Good news!”
“Kya!” Ursa ran after her, leaving the two men alone on the deck overlooking a freshly cleaned and filled swimming pool illuminated in the dark.
Ozai scowled and turned his irritation to Hakoda seated on a hammock chair. “I told you when you met her that she was trouble.”
Hakoda grinned and lifted his half empty scotch glass. “And what an amazing ride it’s been, my friend. You should get back on.”
Ozai grumbled and snatched the glass from Hakoda’s hand as he stomped back into his house. He paid no mind to his brother’s enlarged head on his flat screen on his way to the kitchen, but couldn’t ignore the humbled joy of Iroh’s voice.
“But Ursa, you must come,” Iroh said with clear insistence. “It would be a good change of scenery for you. I’m sure you’ve been so busy with getting re-settled.”
“Iroh, I’m still so busy. I mean, there are a few drama department positions I’ve applied to for the fall and not to mention looking for a new apartment.”
“Wait, wait.” Lu Ten stood up straight from where he was leaning against the wall. “Didn’t Uncle tell you that you can stay at my townhouse a few blocks from here. It’s not too far from Yang Chen Academy and it’s mostly furnished.”
Ozai looked up from the kitchen island where he was rinsing dishes. Ursa looked cornered and he almost felt satisfied. It would be difficult to reject such an offer now that it was out in the open.
“We can stay with cousin Lu Ten?” Zuko looked excited at the prospect.
“Well, at my place, yeah. I’m usually at my girlfriend’s.”
“You have a girlfriend!?” Zuko looked so impressed, Ozai was almost envious of the attention his nephew was getting.
Lu Ten’s face reddened and his eyes darted away. “Yeah…she’s from the southern Earth Kingdom and is finishing up her studies to be a wildlife veterinarian.”
Sokka was looking up at him with awe. “Is she pretty?”
“Sokka….” Kya frowned.
“Sorry…I mean, does she have a good personality?”
Katara sighed and shook her head at her brother. “See, this is why Suki doesn’t like you.”
He gave her a glare as Lu Ten laughed. “Very pretty and with an even better personality. We get along great, so the town house is yours.”
“That’s very kind of you, Lu Ten, but we still haven’t even discussed the rent-”
“Rent?” A confused look filled his face. “Auntie, I can’t charge you rent.”
“You’ll have to pay for utilities on your own, but no rent is needed,” Ozai said as he wiped his hands on a dish towel. “Besides, the town house has been paid off for years. It’s just property tax that’s due.”
Ursa took a step back and shook her head. “No, I won’t accept any such charity-”
“No one is saying anything of charity,” Iroh said, drawing everyone’s attention back to him. “Zuko and Azula will live there. They are my precious nephew and niece and you are their mother.”
“Didn’t I make it clear?” Ozai asked. “I take care of my own.”
The cornered look on her face fell as she paled and tore her eyes away. She wrung her hands together as a feeling of guilt swept through her. After vanishing from this family’s life, they would still offer her a home? How could she accept it?
Ursa could see the awaiting looks on Azula and Zuko, the concerned expression Lu Ten’s face, and Ozai’s look of calm expectation all fixed on her.
Everyone wanted her to say yes to taking over Lu Ten’s town house. Even Kya and Hakoda, who joined his wife at the doorway behind her, seemed to be waiting for her agreement.
But she bring herself to couldn’t agree.
She felt her eyes dampen. She didn’t deserve their kindness.
“Give her time to think about it.” Kya broke the silence and Ursa snapped her head back to her friend. A serious look was in Kya’s blue eyes as she met Ursa’s. “It’s close to the school, but there is still a work commute to take into consideration. It may be better to wait until she finds a job before committing.”
It was an excuse.
Ursa never thought about her commute; only that her children remained close to their friends and now, Ozai. However, it was a valid concern and while it didn’t matter to her, she was grateful to Kya for saving her once again. Kya gave her a slight nod of her head, a subtle que to agree.
“I’d like to be able to spend as little time in traffic as possible,” Ursa said, turning back to Lu Ten. She offered him a weak smile. “Not to mention get home at a reasonable time.”
“Well, at least come take a look,” Lu Ten said. “Check out the area and see where it stands. When you get a position, you can decide if the location works for you.”
That was the best she was going to get. At the very least, it bought her some time.
“That is a good idea, my boy,” Iroh said. “But in the meantime, Ursa, where will you and the children stay?”
“They can stay with us as long as they need to, Iroh,” Hakoda said as he put an arm around Kya, who nodded in agreement.
“But they can’t stay with you forever,” Ozai said.
“I don’t mind if they stay forever,” Katara said. “I like having them around.” Azula looked pleased by this and Zuko nodded.
“Yes, Kat, but you can’t be greedy,” Ozai told her, his voice a bit softer as he addressed the little girl. “I’d like to spend time with them, too.”
“Then we should move in with Dad as soon as possible!” Azula announced, as if it were the answer to all their problems. Her eyes were lit up as she stood up on the couch.
Her words were a blow to Ursa. “Azula, we can’t-”
“It’s perfect.” Azula continued on, her brows furrowing as they did when she was planning something. “If we move here, we’ll see Dad without him having to come to your house. And since he works a lot, we won’t miss him when he comes home because we’ll be here.”
Ursa ran her hand down her face.
“And we’ll be close by!” Now Zuko was voicing his approval and Ursa felt another blow. “We can walk home from school.”
Her children finally had their father in reach. She knew why they wanted to stay at his house, but she couldn’t. She could barely get through an afternoon with Ozai, how could she live with him day after day?
“And we can move in soon. Uncle Iroh, did you know we’re going to go furniture shopping for our bedrooms this weekend?” Azula said, looking up at the screen. “Zu-zu and I already picked our rooms.”
“We helped!” Katara added.
“Well, that’s wonderful to hear!” Iroh laughed, smiling with eyes filled with mirth.
“When can we move in?” Azula looked over the couch, to her father still in the kitchen. She looked so excited.
Ursa looked to Ozai, unsure of what he would say. To her surprise, he looked just as unsure. He lifted his eyes and met hers, as if asking what he should say.
And of all the things he had said and done that evening, his uncertainty was what overwhelmed her. Even then, after leaving him for another man and taking their children away, he would not make a decision on them without her approval.
“Ursa!” She heard Kya’s voice behind her as she ran down the hall.
“I forgot something at the house!” she said, shouting as she ran to the front door. She fumbled with the locks, ignoring Kya yelling for her as she ran out of the house on unsteady feet.
“Ursa!” A chill shot through her as she looked over her shoulder from the driveway. That wasn’t Kya’s voice. “Ursa, hold on!”
Every fiber of her being told her to do the opposite. She looked straight ahead and continued her attempted run in wedges to Hakoda and Kya’s house as Ozai ran after her. She could hear him catching up. Longer legs and an athletic body closed the gap between them in a matter of moments.
“Ursa!” She was nowhere near the other house when his hand grabbed her wrist. “Wait a moment! What is wrong with you, suddenly running out of the house?”
She glared at his hand rather than meet his face, knowing it would show unfamiliar concern instead of a stoic expression she associated with him.
“Nothing, I just remembered I forgot something at the house,” she said as she pulled back, trying to free her wrist.
“And so you’re running there now?”
“It’s my phone!”
“What are you talking about? It’s in your back pocket-”
“You know what I’m talking about!” She lifted her head and watched him jerk his back. His hand released her wrist and she stumbled backwards. She rubbed her wrist as she looked away once more.
“I’m sorry to have pushed you.” Ursa looked up once more. “I know being around me bothers you; I was unaware of how much. The children are of course welcomed at the house any time, but if you feel that uncomfortable-”
“How could I not feel uncomfortable?” Her voice was low and filled with unexpected anger. “Hospitality from Kya and Hakoda is one thing, but from you…from you and your family? After what I’ve done?” She shook her head. “How can you be so welcoming to me after I left you?”
Ursa almost missed the look of pain on his face at the reminder. Ozai took a deep breath, as if to collect himself before he answered.
“I take care of my own, and Azula and Zuko are my own.”
She pursed her lips. “And since I’m there mother, I just happen to be extended that care?”
Ozai said nothing as he seemed to study her. His eyes narrowed into an irritated glare. “Do you have a problem with that?”
“I’m not your wife any more. There’s no reason for you to be so…so….” She grit her teeth and her hands clenched. “To be so kind! I hardly know you. Since we got here, you’ve been kind and attentive. You’ve done nothing but show that if you were in their lives, you would’ve been a great father.”
“We don’t know that,” Ozai said. “When they were in my life, I was hardly around. I was a terrible one.”
Her eyes began to water. “You would’ve been a better one than Ikem.”
The words slipped from her mouth before she could stop them and Ozai’s face became unreadable.
“This is my chance to be their father,” he said, his voice almost unheard. “Agni knows Kya and Hakoda are drilling that into my head. I want to be their father. I want my daughter to call me to ask for souvenirs when I’m on business. I want to have water gun fights with my son. But I’m not going to ask you to come back to me and pretend we’re one happy family when you don’t want to be with me. If you’re worried that I’m going to make you live a life you don’t want, let me put your mind at ease. I don’t want to. I’m not going to, and I won’t use ‘trying to be a good father’ to make you.”
For a moment, Ursa felt the pit of her stomach drop. Was she disappointed? Was she angry at him?
Ursa lifted her hand and wiped her eyes. “I just don’t understand how you and your brother and Lu Ten can be so welcoming to me. I left you. I took our children away from you. You should hate me. Iroh and Lu Ten should, too.”
Ozai took another deep breath and gave her a small shake of her head. “Have you ever stopped to consider that perhaps we are so welcoming because we don’t want you all to leave again?”
Ursa stiffened, her hand stopped wiping her eye. “What?”
“It might not have changed anything, but perhaps if I had been more attentive and not so focused on work and my father’s approval….” He trailed off and his lips tightened into a line. “Mistakes were made on both our parts and I’d like to get over them so I can be the father they deserve. Iroh and Lu Ten were saddened and disappointed when we divorced, but they harbor no ill will. You saw how happy they were to see the children.”
“I wouldn’t deprive Zuko and Azula of there father now, or their uncle and cousin, so you don’t have to worry about us disappearing again,” she told him. “You don’t need to give me a place to live and take me on vacation just so you won’t lose them.”
Ozai’s eyes narrowed. “Is that what you think? If you are adamant on refusing any assistance, fine, but don’t assume I’m only offering help because I’m afraid you’re going to leave with them again. They’re my children and it’s my duty to care for them.”
Ursa inhaled a sharp breath, her wide gold eyes staring stunned at Ozai. “Your duty?” She almost choked. “Is that all?”
“Of course not-”
“Why can’t you just say you love them?”
“Why can’t you just accept that I do.”
She drew her head back. A voice in her mind answered: because she wanted to hear him say it. She just wanted to hear it…that maybe hearing him say he loved someone would confirm that he wasn’t an emotionless, single-minded man who valued work over family.
“Fine,” she said. “I would like you to remain in their lives; they can’t go back to how it was before. But I want to be clear: I can take care of myself and our children without your help if I had to.”
The stern look on his face never faltered. “I never said you couldn’t.”
“Well…you’re making it appear like I can’t.” His lips were still tight, but she could see a small flicker of surprise in his eyes.
He swallowed. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t realize our pushing made you feel as if that were the case, especially in front of the children. That was not our intention.”
Ursa forced herself to keep her eyes on his and not to waiver. “I won’t stop you from being a father and supporting them, but you don’t need to provide for me, too. That’s all, Ozai.”
Ozai nodded. “I’ll speak to Lu Ten about the town house. However, the trip to the villa…please seriously consider it. I’m sure Azula and Zuko want you to go and besides, when was the last time you went home?”
Ember Island hadn’t been her home for years. Her eyes crinkled up. She couldn’t remember. Did she ever go back with Ikem? It was their home island and yet they never went back. Her father died shortly after she and Ozai were married and her mother moved to Republic City to be try to be closer to them before she died.
Ikem left the cremation early to shoot a film in the desert and her uncle flew her mother’s ashes back to the island. She hadn’t visited.
Ursa closed her eyes. “We didn’t go when I was with Ikem,” she said. Her voice was oddly flat and she was cold, as if she were empty.
Ozai cocked his head. “What about when Rina died?” He always referred to her parents by their first name, as they insisted. “Didn’t you take her back?”
“No, the cremation was in Republic City,” Ursa said. “Uncle Ran brought her ashes back.”
“I see.” His voice was strained. “I thought that since she was placed with your father, you had arranged it.”
“I did, but Uncle Ran brought her.” She paused for a moment and stared at him. “How did you know their ashes are together?”
“Someone mentioned it,” he said, nonchalant. Ozai looked over his shoulder, back towards his house. “What should I tell them?”
Ursa followed his gaze and saw the curtains in the front window move and the door close. “Azula will be crushed when I tell her we’re not moving in.”
“You’re not moving in,” Ozai said. “They will be, even if they’ll only stay here every so often.”
“Fair enough.” She took a deep breath and released it slowly. She reached into her back pocket and found her phone. She turned on the camera and used it to check her eyes. “My eyes are red.”
“Just a little.”
“Let me stay out here a bit longer…until it clears.”
Ozai nodded. He took a step to return to the house, only to stop and look back at her with a quizzical expression.
“By the way, what did you want to talk to me about?”
“Earlier, you said you wanted to talk to me. Was it about the town house?” he asked, once more sounding as if it were business.
Ursa furrowed her brows, trying to remember. At once, her face began to heat up. Lu Ten’s voice echoed on her ears: ‘he loved you’. She looked away, embarrassed, and shook her head.
“It was nothing. Don’t worry about it.”
He looked a bit sceptical, but nodded. “All right.” He began to walk back to his house. He made it three steps before she opened her mouth.
“Wait, Ozai.” He looked over his shoulder and she cursed her curiosity. “This is a ridiculous question, or rather thought, but earlier, when we arrived…Lu Ten mentioned that you were devastated when I left. I think he got the wrong idea. I know you were angry, but I don’t think you were devastated.”
Ozai looked as if he were ready to lecture his nephew. He turned to face her once more. “If you must know, Lu Ten doesn’t have the wrong idea. I was indeed devastated when you and the children left.”
Of course - because she took the children. Seeing how he was around them now, it made sense. Ursa nodded. “I see.”
Ozai gave her a nod and turned back to the house. “No man wants to see the three people he loved most leave.”
She stood outside for a few moments longer, trying to dissect his words, but not coming up with any satisfying answer. Ozai said the ‘L’ word. The last time she heard him say it, it was during their wedding vows and she was sure he only said it because he thought he was supposed to.
Days passed since she returned to Ozai’s house that night, assuring her children that she didn’t forget something as she thought. Kya and Hakoda didn’t pry, but sooner or later, Ursa knew she’d crack and tell Kya.
After all she told Kya everything. Everyone told Kya everything. She probably knew things that people didn’t know about themselves, so that afternoon, a day before they were supposed to leave for Ember Island, Ursa recounted Ozai’s words and received and an unimpressed:
“I told you.”
“That’s not what he meant.”
“How else could he mean it?”
“I don’t know, Kya, but I’m sure he didn’t mean it that way!” Ursa scowled as she folded laundry into three separate piles for her, Zuko, and Azula on her bed. Kya was pulling out the children’s suitcases from the top of the closet in the spare bedroom Ursa was in.
“Is it that hard to believe that he loves you?” Kya asked as she put Sokka’s blue spinner next to Katara’s, which bared some sea creature print.
“As a friend, no. I think after how long we have known each other, he had some affection for me, if only nostalgic.”
Kya snorted. “Some affection…please….”
“He probably cared for me, but it wasn’t like he was in love with me.”
“I can’t believe we’re middle aged women who are mothers and we’re actually discussing whether or not a guy likes you,” Kya said with a roll of her eyes.
“Fine, let’s change the subject. I’m more than happy to.”
“Okay, then. When do you start the drama department gig at the Ba Sing Se University Extension?”
“My first official day is in exactly a month and a half.”
“Then why aren’t you coming with us to Ember Island if you’ll be back a good three weeks before it starts?” Kya gave her an expectant look and Ursa sat up straight on the bed.
“I still have to go to some faculty meetings and talk to the other staff members. They’re in and out in the coming weeks, so I need to stay here to be able to catch all of them.”
Kya didn’t look convinced. “Uh-huh.”
“The department head wants me to be as caught up as possible.”
“I thought you’re working with first year students.”
“I am, but there is a rigorous curriculum they need to follow and I need to know the ins and outs of it before we start. I can’t go in there blind. I’ll look like an idiot and none of the kids will respect me. If they don’t, that’s it. Authority gone. No one will listen. They won’t get the education they deserve,” Ursa said.
“And you can’t do any of this at the villa?”
“I won’t get anything done. You know I’ll focused on the kids.”
“Hakoda, Iroh, Lu Ten, and I will all be there to watch them, so you’ll have time to go over coursework,” Kya said.
“With how awkward it will be staying at my ex-husband’s family’s beach villa? Every red column and tile will scream the Sozin name.”
“Is that so bad?”
“Yes, because I divorced from it.”
Kya sighed. “Your children are still legally Sozin.”
“I never got the chance to change it to Hiraa,” Ursa said,squirming in her seat on the bed. “Anyway, they won’t miss me. I’ll call in the evenings, Sokka and Katara are there for them to play with, and besides, Ozai will be there and I’m sure they’ll be clamouring for his attention.”
“Yes, but he’ll only be there the last week and a half.”
Ursa snapped her head up. “What? I thought he was going with you.”
Kya shook her head. “They just won a bid they put in with a Western Nomad Territory transportation firm and Ozai has to go over the final details with their executive committee. Their sales team just closed it last night.”
Ursa’s face fell. “Azula and Zuko will be so disappointed.”
Kya glanced out the window, where screaming could be heard from the pool as another water gun assault was in the midst of taking place. “Ozai is said he would break it to them himself when he comes for dinner this evening.”
“Yeah…I mean, Hakoda told him to, but he said he would.” Kya looked back at Ursa. “There is still a chance for you to come if you tag along with him.”
“Not going to happen,” Ursa said. “Besides, he’ll be in in the Nomad Territories.”
“No, he won’t. Their executive committee is coming here so they can tour the data center.”
For a moment, Ursa panicked at the thought that she’d be alone with Ozai, but logic quickly quelled it. “Still, it’s not like I’ll see him. We’ll both be working. I doubt he’ll drop by if you and the kids aren’t here.”
Kya sighed, resigned. “I suppose you’re right. Anyway, did you make an appointment with Lu Ten to see his town house yet?”
“No, I didn’t get his info. I was hoping you could call him?”
“So, you’re actually interested?”
“I just want to give it a chance. He already thinks badly of me, I don’t want to make it worse.”
“Ursa, he wouldn’t be offering his home if he thought badly of you.”
“I would think badly of me.”
“Okay, you have to stop. No one here hates you,” Kya said, about to drag the luggage out of the room to have the children pack them under her supervision. “Just accept some help from old friends.”
Ursa watched her friend walk out of the room, two bags in tow, and let out a heavy sigh as Kya closed the door behind her. “Easy for you to say…you didn’t take your kids away from their father.”
She fell back on the bed and released a heavy breath. She still had to pack Azula and Zuko’s things for their trip, though Azula already had a packing list ready. She had Ozai look over it for his approval and “in case she forgot anything”.
Ursa knew that they wouldn’t want for anything at the villa. Snorkel gear? Done. Life vests? Check. One word and Iroh would have a boat ready to set sail for his niece and nephew. Lu Ten would arrive later along with his girlfriend, but he’d probably spoil the children, too.
A small knock sounded at the door and she remained laying on the bed, staring at the ceiling.
“Ursa, I apologize for bothering you.” She shot up in bed at the sound of that deep, solemn voice that seemed to haunt her as of late. Her wide eyes stared at the door as it opened enough for a person to peek through. “May I have a moment of your time?”
Her first thought was there was no where for her to hide, but she quickly shook it out of her head. She was a grown woman, such a thought was unbefitting. Yet, her eyes still darted around the room or a place to dive into and avoid coming face to face with her ex-husband.
“Ursa?” He called out again and she tensed, still seated on the side of the bed. How long was she panicking?
“Sorry, yes, can I help you, Ozai?” Good. Her voice wasn’t shaking. She could do this.
The door creaked open a bit further and part of her died a little.
He was still dressed in his business suit. It was three pieces that time, most likely to deal with the the Western Nomad Territory transportation firm Kya mentioned. Of course he wouldn’t wear it to impress her.
“It doesn’t,” she muttered under her breath, despite knowing it was a weak lie. She always thought men looked good in suits and Ozai in black with a slight hint of blood red and gold in his tie and pocket square was no exception.
“Nothing. Did you need something?” She forced herself to look attentive and ignore the blush on her face.
“Yes, actually you can. Did Kya tell you that I won’t be able to go with them on Friday?” he asked. She nodded.
“Congrats on landing the transport firm, but it looks like you’ll be stuck here for a while.”
Ozai shifted uncomfortably as he gave a small nod. “It’s a win for the company, but inconvenient. I haven’t told the children I’ll be arriving later.”
“They’re going to be very disappointed.”
“I know,” he said, frowning at the reminder. He met her eyes with firm ones. “I was hoping you’d help lessen the blow.”
She cocked her head to the side. “How so?”
“I’d like you to go to Ember Island.”
Ursa was already shaking her head. She stood up and dusted off her pale gray cotton jogging pants. “I’m sorry, but I have meetings and trainings to go during that time.”
“Surely you must have some time to spare.”
“I don’t. And even if I did, I wouldn’t have time to get ready and arrange a flight.”
“Don’t worry about the flight.”
She almost wanted to scoff. She shook her head and crossed her arms over her chest. She was almost insulted. Didn’t they just discuss this? “You don’t have to pay for my flight, Ozai.”
He narrowed his eyes. “Pay? I offered no such thing.”
Ursa had to check herself to make sure she didn’t jerk back in surprise. Her proud stance faltered a bit. “Then what are you saying?”
Ozai remained standing tall at the doorway. “I’m saying you’ll fly there on the Sozin jet.”
“That’s even worse!” Ursa couldn’t hold it back, her face reddening with embarrassment. “I can’t accept the jet coming just to pick me up!”
“Who said it’s picking you up?” The corner of Ozai’s lip curled upwards and her irritation flared. Was he amused at her frustration? “Iroh is sending it to pick me up,” he said in a matter-of-fact voice. “You’ll just happen to be there with me when it does.”
Chapter 7: Seven
“Ozai, have you lost your mind?” Her face was red and she looked frustrated, but he didn’t budge. A small part of him was pleased she was expressing herself so easily in front of him. Ursa always seemed to have a wall between them, especially when they were alone.
With Kya and the others, she was relaxed and open, but the moment he came into the room, she’d seem stiff and avoidant. And that was before they divorced.
“No, I have not,” he said. “I’m letting down the children by having to stay behind for a few days. However, if you arrived with me after dealing with your own business, it would make it up to them.”
“I think you just going would be enough,” Ursa said. “As long as you go, they won’t be completely disappointed.”
Ozai mulled it over for a second before giving a nod. “So be it. But that option is still open. If you end up having some time, let us know.”
“There will be no need,” Ursa said, sounding confident.
“No need for what?” A child’s voice popped up behind Ozai and he looked back as he stepped to the side. Azula was draped in a red hooded towel with cat ears, still wet from the pool as she looked up at him with wondrous eyes. “Hi, Dad! Auntie said you were here.”
“I just got here, Azula. I needed to talk to your mother,” he said, reaching down and giving her an awkward pat on the head. He was slowly getting used to it and wasn’t sure if he was doing ‘right’, if there was such a thing, but Azula seemed to beam with joy when he did.
“Oh, just some scheduling-”
“Some bad news,” Ozai said, cutting off Ursa. He caught her slight glare from the corner of his eye. “Perhaps not all bad. I’m afraid some work constraints have come up.”
Azula tilted her head to the side. “Like what?”
“Your Uncle Hakoda isn’t here yet. Do you know why?”
“Sokka said something about work and a data thing.”
“Data center, yes. He’ll be there late working because the company we run has a new client that we have to prepare for. It’s an important client, so for the sake of the company and the people who depend on it, we are working more in the coming days.”
He could see the light in her eyes begin to dim. She knew what was coming.
“Are you going to be working, too?”
“As long as Uncle Hakoda?”
“How long?” This time, the question came from the hall. Zuko was coming out of Sokka’s room, a bit drier than his sister, but still with a towel around his neck.
Ozai took a deep breath and readied himself for the fall out. “I will need to work well into the next two weeks.”
“You’re not going with us!?” Azula nearly yelled, but quickly reigned herself in. She took a deep breath, too. “I mean…you’re not going?”
“I’m going. I’ll just be late.”
“A week and a half. So, we’ll have time for the bond fire, to go snorkeling, and to go to the boardwalk,” Ozai said. He was sure that Iroh would also take the children, but he wanted to assure them that he would, too. Azula seemed to be trying to hold back her disappointment.
“It’s okay, Dad.” Zuko appeared behind her and put a hand on her shoulder as he looked up at him. He sounded as disappointed as his sister looked. “We understand. You’ll just be a little late.”
“I hardly call missing half of it a little late….” He heard Azula mutter under her breath.
“Your father is still going to come, Azula,” Ursa said behind him.
“But you’re already not going, now Dad’s gonna be gone for half the time!” Their daughter scowled, but it was far less intimidating that she wished it. Ozai thought she looked adorable and reminded him of Ursa pouting. Not that she did in front of him, but he’d seen her.
“Azula, it can’t be helped,” Ursa sounded tired. “You know he has to work.”
“It’s always work!” Azula said. “Even when we were on breaks before, we couldn’t do anything because someone had to work.”
Ozai raised a brow. He looked at Ursa, who flushed at the reminder. “Azula-”
The little girl turned around and prepared to stomp off. Zuko looked torn between trying to calm his sister and reassure his parents. “She’ll be okay. She just needs some time to calm down.”
His son’s words were painful. How many times did Zuko need to watch over his younger sister? How many times did he have to support his beloved mother? In the short time Ozai was blessed to be with them again, he already knew that while Azula looked like her mother, she was definitely his daughter. She new what she wanted and aimed to get it.
Zuko, however, may have looked like him, but was his mother’s son. He had that need to appease everyone, to do what he thought was right. Still, to have to place the burden of peacemaker to his young son was disgraceful to him as a parent.
“I can’t make any guarantees, but that gives your mother a chance to come with me when I leave since I’ll be leaving later.” He didn’t have to turn around to know Ursa was boring her eyes into the back of his head. “She may be able to finish her meetings by the time I leave.”
That stopped Azula in her tracks. “Really?” Her small voice asked.
“Ozai….” Ursa hissed in a low voice.
“No promises. It’s unlikely, actually, but the option is there.” He and Zuko seemed to watch Azula. Behind him, he could feel anger almost rolling off his ex-wife.
Their daughter turned around suddenly, with a bit of a jump. The scowl on her face disappeared in favor of a bright smile. “Okay! That sounds good!”
“Azula, wait, your father said it’s unlikely-”
“Unlikely,” Azula said, almost smirking. “But not impossible. Come on, Zu-zu! Let’s call Uncle Iroh and tell him.”
She grabbed her brother’s wrist and dragged him to the stairs, all the while calling for Sokka to get the laptop running so she could contact her uncle via video chat.
As soon as they disappeared down the stairs, Ozai felt a sharp smack on his upper arm and turned around.
Ursa was redder than ever, her eyes narrowed and looking like she was going to snarl at him. “Why did you tell her that? Now you’ve got her hopes up even further! What will you do when you get there and she doesn’t see me with you?”
Her hair was askew, falling out if its loose top knot, and she looked as if she just went jogging in a storm rather than folding laundry, but he’d admit that she still looked as beautiful as the day they met. More so, if he were being honest. That fire he saw in her was still burning strong and it took some effort to keep from smiling.
“We haven’t landed yet. There’s still a chance.”
“You said it was unlikely,” she said with a glare.
He took a step forward, meeting her glare with a proud, defiant look of his own. He looked down at her as her eyes darted away, aware of how close he was, yet refusing to back down. She pulled her lips in and bit them…ah, he knew that look.
She was trying to deny herself something. She’d do it with junk food, sweet pastries, and, if he recalled those few, fleeting times, him.
“I said it was unlikely.” He heard her whimper. “But not impossible.”
They could’ve been a little sadder to part with her, but the prospect of three weeks of beach-side fun overwhelmed the loneliness of parting from their mother. Maybe it was because they were use to her traveling with Ikem or their going to boarding school, but whatever the reason, Ursa wished her children could’ve done more than give her a quick hug before bounding through airport security.
“Why are you crying?” A stiff voice said beside her. “This isn’t the first time you’ve parted with them.”
She looked up and shot Ozai a glare. “I’m not crying,” she said. Her tears hadn’t fallen yet; her eyes were merely damp.
“Looks like they’re heading towards the gate,” Lu Ten said.
“I hope they get used to snorkeling,” his pretty, black-haired, purple-lipstick wearing girlfriend said at his side. “They’ll really enjoy swimming with the reef sharks when we meet up with them.” While the two were clearly together; Lu Ten had his arm around her waist and June had her hand in the back pocket of his indigo jeans, they looked like they were from two different worlds.
Lu Ten was dressed in his usual stylish, casual wear with jeans and a fitted, white cotton shirt and hoodie and sneakers. June was wearing almost all black from her leather jacket to her leather boots.
But they fit together well and Ursa thought they were cute.
“Zuko didn’t look too excited,” Lu Ten grinned. June chuckled and patted his chest.
“You weren’t either the first time I took you,” she said. He smiled and gave her a quick kiss.
“Okay, we’re going in to the city for dinner,” Lu Ten said as he turned to Ursa and Ozai. “Are you sure you don’t want to join us?”
“No, it’ll be late by the time you two get back and we both have work tomorrow,” Ursa said.
“Uncle?” Lu Ten asked.
“I agree. We’d only hold you two back,” Ozai said.
“Got it,” Lu Ten nodded. “And Aunt Ursa, please think about the town house. The rent includes gas and water.”
“The internet service is great, too, Auntie,” June said. “If you need to telecommute, it’s perfect.”
Ursa gave them both a warm smile. “I’ll think about it.” They parted from the young couple as the two walked off, towards the parking structure. She checked her phone and took a step away from Ozai. “I should get going.”
“Right,” Ozai said. “I parked on the third floor of the north structure.”
“Okay. Have a safe drive.” She gave him a small wave and began to walk towards the signs pointing to the subway.
“Where are you going?”
“I’m taking the subway.”
“Ursa, you’re staying several houses down from me. I’ll drop you off.” They had come in separate cars to drop off Kya, Hakoda, and the kids and she had ridden in Lu Ten’s car with Kya and Katara, who was upset with Sokka and didn’t want to be in the same car as him. Everyone else rode with Ozai.
“It’s fine, Ozai-”
“Ursa, do you feel so uncomfortable with me that you’d take a two hour subway and bus ride instead of spend thirty minutes in a car with me?” Ozai sounded more frustrated and annoyed than hurt.
She struggled not to blush as he correctly assessed the situation. “I don’t want to trouble you…” she said in a weak voice.
“It’s several houses down. Let’s go.” She followed him, somewhat embarrassed that her attempt to escape his presence was not only stopped, but thwarted at once. They reached his car and she got in the passenger’s seat, all in silence.
He turned on the radio and synced his phone before heading out of the parking structure. Ursa gazed on the window as they emerged onto the street, counting street lamps as they passed. Perhaps to avoid the silence, she could ask him to turn on the radio. Her car radio was set to the local pop-rock station, as per Azula’s insistence.
If she had her choice, she’d listen to-
There was a beep. “Play Channel 172,” Ozai said, driving straight ahead. Ursa looked over at him and a moment later, heard the chorus of a musical she enjoyed.
She sat up straight in the plush leather car seat. “This channel exists?”
“Do you no longer like boardway musicals?” he asked. She stared at the radio screen for a bit longer.
“I still do,” she said. “Thanks.”
He nodded, but didn’t look back at her. “Azula asked if there was a channel that only played musicals. She said to tell you on the drive back.”
“I see.” She looked back at the window. “Thanks for the ride.”
“Don’t force yourself to make conversation, Ursa. We can drive in silence.”
She let out a low breath. “You don’t need to play musicals, Ozai.”
“You make it sound like I hate them.”
Ursa held back a snort. “When have you ever listened to musicals of your own will?”
“When have I asked you to turn it off or change the station?” He sounded almost cocky with his counter. Ursa opened her mouth, but couldn’t think of a time. “I’m sorry, I can’t hear you. When did you say?”
She narrowed her eyes as she saw the slight smirk on his lips. “It’s not as if I played musicals every day when we were married.”
“I did not!”
“It if wasn’t a musical, it was a video of some play,” Ozai said. “In fact, even before we were married, Kya said you listened to a lot of musicals.”
“She’s exaggerating,” Ursa dismissed easily. She looked to the side, a bit guilty. Kya had to institute a ban on musicals during midterms and finals so she could study while in college.
“I also recall, the first time I went with Hakoda to your apartment to pick you two up for a party and you were singing to some music about getting ready for a party,” Ozai said, squinting his eyes as if he couldn’t believe she had. “You also listened to them round the clock when you were pregnant with Zuko. Does he like musicals?”
“He gets bored,” Ursa huffed. “Azula seems to like them, but won’t admit it.”
He chuckled. “She really is mine.”
She looked back at him. “Since when did you like musicals?”
“I’m just aware of them.”
“Aware enough to appreciate them. My late sister-in-law was quite a patron back in the Fire Nation,” Ozai said. “She gave me a recording of The Summer of Dragons.”
She felt her heart quicken. “Why The Summer of Dragons?”
His eyes flickered to hers for just a bit before looking back at the road. “The song you picked for our wedding…. That’s the play it’s from, isn’t it?”
Why did he remember? She didn’t want him to remember. It was too much if he did. Her chest rose and fell with heavy breaths as she looked forward.
“You could’ve told me that when we were married,” she said in a quiet voice.
He was quiet for a moment longer before speaking. “I know,” he said. “I’m sorry I didn’t.”
They drove in silence the rest of the way. Her mind could barely keep up with the music playing despite knowing every play every song came from. Instead, all she could think about was Ozai remembering the wedding song, how she listened to music while pregnant with Zuko, how he and Hakoda caught her singing around her apartment as Kya told them she was ‘really into’ musicals all those years ago.
The more she thought about it, the more she realized she couldn’t remember as much about Ozai outside of brief moments in their courtship and the last few months of their failing marriage.
What music did he listen to? The business channel.
No. That didn’t make sense. Rock? Did he listen to what Hakoda listened to? Then again, Ozai was a child of privilege, so perhaps classical? He always let her listen to whatever she wanted when they were together.
“We’re here.” Her head snapped up and she focused out the window. They were on Kya and Hakoda’s driveway.
“Oh…thanks.” She drew herself out of her thoughts and reached for the door.
“Ursa,” Ozai said as she opened the door. She turned back to look at him. “If you need anything while you’re here, please let me know.”
She gave him a vague nod, though didn’t plan on doing so. “Sure. Good night, Ozai.”
“Goodnight, Ursa.” She closed the door and walked to the front door. Ozai remained on the driveway, watching to make sure she got in safely before pulling out of the driveway. She peeked through the windows to watch him go and let out a heavy sigh.
Somehow, she felt the weeks along would be longer.
She forgot how frustrating college campus parking was. There were set times you could park on the street surrounding the campus. You needed permits to park in particular lots and structures. Guest spaces were limited and always taken. There weren’t enough parking spaces to begin with. If you weren’t careful, your car would be ticketed or worse, towed.
During her morning meetings, it was easier to find a spot, but by 10AM, she was out of luck. She arrived thirty minutes early for her meeting with three faculty members she’d be working closely with and was still ten minutes late. Why did so many students decide to take summer classes?
She reached the humanities building where instructor offices were, frazzled. She was a bit out of breath from having to run from the parking lot. Ursa couldn’t miss this meeting. Two of the instructors had agreed to meet that day along with the department’s fight choreographer, meaning she might be able to finish up her meetings early and concentrate just on the curriculum.
If she was comfortable with it enough before the start of the next week, she could snag a last minute ticket to Ember Island and surprise the children.
This little goal of hers had nothing to do with Ozai, but rather Zuko’s curiosity on their last video chat regarding paying respects to his grandparents.
“Uncle Iroh says it would be good to light some incense and clean their graves while we’re here to show respect,” Zuko said. “If you come, can we go?”
She owed it to her son and her parents to do at least that. First, she had to finish up her meetings and with the final one after touring the theater with department head Macmu-Ling and Malu, she was done. All she had to do now was review her notes and get a lesson plan down based on the curriculum.
She was luckier than she thought.
“Parking lot 23B?” Malu, a fight choreographer for Republic City Stage Theater, was a few years younger than her and also hailed from the Fire Nation. He was on his third year working with the drama department at the extension and took an immediate liking to her after finding out she was also from Ember Island, as he grew up on a small island next to it. “No, no, that’s the worst place to park.”
“Why?” Ursa clutched a folio of papers to her chest as they walked out of the theater auditorium. Malu had a look of pity on his face.
“It’s an open lot, so your car will either be boiling or you’ll have trouble getting to it when it rains or snows. Second, it’s the closest lot to both the humanities wing and the sports complex, so both our departments and people going to the sports complex will be using it.”
Ursa inwardly groaned. “That explains why it was so full.”
“Not to mention the parking restrictions,” Malu continued on. “Since they don’t want people using the sports complex using it the whole day, there is a limit of four hours for the lot.”
She stopped in her tracks, her eyes wide. “I thought that was only during regular administration. The regular school year.”
Malu shook his head. “Every week day.” He looked at his phone. “What time did you get here?”
“I have to go!” She took off down a concrete path leading down to the parking lot hidden from view by the humanities department buildings.
“Better hurry up, Ursa!” She heard him shout behind him. The air quaked with a rumble in the distance. “There’s supposed to be a thunderstorm this afternoon!”
She knew that. She could feel the moisture in the warm summer air and the sky got progressively darker as the day went on. She thought she’d be home before then and miss the downpour, so she left her umbrella in the trunk of her car.
She rounded the corner and saw the parking lot ahead of her. Two rows down, past the second lamp post.
Ursa slowed her pace into a quick stride and dug into her purse for her phone. How long was she gone?
“No….” Her chest tightened. But six hours wasn’t too bad. Perhaps in the summer, no one really checked? She’d skirted tickets at university when she was a student because the parking was not enforced.
Two rows down. “Past the second lamp post….” she said to herself. Her eyes scanned the row of cars. She counted the lamp posts she passed. She was in the right spot…but couldn’t see her car.
Ursa reached into her purse and took out her car keys. She lifted it into the air and began to press the panic button, hoping to hear or see her car respond. Nothing. Her arm fell at her side as she looked around the lot, helpless.
Was her car towed?
Her phone began to vibrate in her hand and she lifted it up. She didn’t recognize the number on her screen, but slid her finger across to answer the call.
“Hello? Yes, this is she….” Ursa felt her legs nearly give way beneath her as the department secretary asked if she owned a car with a particular license plate. When she verified it, her fears were realized. “I see…yes, I’ll come and get the slip.”
She stood outside the humanities department, beneath a covered hallway between two buildings, with her phone clutched to her ear. She would’ve remained inside, but the secretary looked like she wanted to leave and Ursa didn’t want to keep her back.
It would cost three hundred-twenty to get her car out of the impound lot. Worse yet, they would close in forty-five minutes. She’d never get there in time to get her car that day. She tilted her head back and took a deep breath.
So much for being lucky.
The air rumbled once more and she looked out, up at the sky. She could almost feel the rain in the air. Tucking her papers into her tote, she hoped the zipper would keep the rain out. Ursa walked back to the parking lot, to the bus stop at the far end, near where the lot exited into a street.
Taxis weren’t common in that area of town, but the city bus system would take her close enough to Kya’s house and she could walk the rest of the way. Cars passed her, leaving the parking lot as she stood by a metal pole with the bus number that stopped there emblazoned upon it.
According to the bus schedule and map, she’d need to transfer two buses. She took a picture of the map and schedule just as she saw the bus coming. Thunder sounded again and she felt a heavy drop on her nose. She looked up at the sky and back towards the approaching bus.
“Not a moment too soon….” She fished out some money out of her purse just as the bus pulled up, leaving her only slightly damp.
Outside, the rain began to pour and she took a vacant seat by the window. It was darker than usual with the summer storm. She used her phone to keep track of where she was supposed to get off and on. It still took two hours to get to her final stop and by then, her phone was on its last leg.
She scurried off the bus as careful as she could in her leather heels. She didn’t care if they were ruined or not, she just wanted to get home.
With no umbrella, she used her tote to cover her head as she walked as quickly as she could down the block where Kya’s house was. If her papers were wet, she’d just get extra copies after getting her car the next day. She’d need to call for a taxi to pick her up first thing in the morning.
This was a small speed bump in her plans. She wouldn’t get much done that night, but she was at least on track with her job.
Through the haze of rain, she could make out the stately blue house ahead of her. A relieved smile filled Ursa’s face as she stumbled towards it, tired from her meetings, the bus, and the walk in the rain.
She climbed up the long driveway, deciding to check the mail in the morning, and let out a sigh of content as she reached the covered porch before the front door.
Home at last.
Ursa placed her tote against the door and began to dig through her purse for the spare key she used. It wasn’t in its usual pocket.
“No…no, you’re kidding me.” She fell to her knees and dumped out her purse on the porch. Wallet was there. Some cosmetics. Her car keys…her lip balm was missing and so was her mirror…and the house key.
Her heart was pounding hard in her chest, threatening to burst as she realized she couldn’t get inside. Her shaking hands put the items back, checking each piece and each pocket of her purse once more for the keys.
“Okay…okay…,” she tried to calm herself. She’d call Kya. She picked up her phone. Less than two percent left. She needed to connect immediately. With silent prayers, Ursa called Kya’s phone as she sat on the doormat. It rang twice.
“Hey, Ursa! How’s it-”
“Emergency! I lost the house key, do you have a spare hidden somewhere?” It wasn’t like her to cut her friend off, but she was desperate.
“Yes, it’s under…wait, no. We had one under the fountain at the end of the porch, but after Ikem showed up, we took it back incase he tried something,” Kya said. “Oh wait, Hakoda, does Ozai still have a spare?”
That was a good idea in case of such a situation. Ursa didn’t care that she had to go to Ozai for the key. She just wanted to get inside and rest after her terrible afternoon.
“I can walk there,” she said. She glanced at her phone screen. “When does he get back?”
“Wait, wait…Hakoda says Ozai doesn’t have the key….” Kya’s voice trailed off, almost pained. “He took the key back.”
“So you could use it….”
If she could throttle Hakoda, she would. “Are you kidding me? Kya, I can’t get inside the house. What do I do?” There was no answer. “Kya?” Ursa pulled the phone away from her face. The screen was dark. “No…no….” She clicked on the buttons and slid her finger across the screen. It was dead.
She stared at the phone in her wet, pruny hand.
A low grumble came from her stomach and she closed her eyes. She pulled her knees to her chest and buried her head her arms over them. And she was hungry.
She choked back a cry.
And she thought she was lucky….
The rain continued to pour and the dark overcast turned into night. She was cold and hungry, her mind worn and her focus gone. If she fell asleep on the porch, the bushes in front of them would cover her right?
Part of her new she should just brave the storm and get back on a bus and take it to the nearest hotel for the night. They’d probably have a spare charger for her phone and she could call Kya again, as well as arrange to pick up her car.
But for the life of her, she couldn’t get herself up. What was she doing?
She didn’t notice the passing car or the lights coming up the driveway. She didn’t notice the car door opening and the shadow of a dark umbrella coming towards her.
“Ursa?” She heard her voice. She lifted her groggy head and squinted. She could make the outline of a man and for a moment she tensed. She pulled her legs closer to her and clenched her jaw. Did Ikem find her? Did he come to drag her back?
A warm palm was placed against her forehead. She heard the man swear and a moment later, the umbrella was on the ground. A coat was draped over her shoulders, still warm from the body that wore it.
She closed her eyes as she smelled the subtle, musky cologne lingering on the lapels. She didn’t think she’d feel so relieved with that familiar scent wrapped around her.
He lifted her up, holding her against his chest as he darted out into the rain. How he got the passenger’s door open and her inside was a blur. After he closed the door, he returned a moment later with her things and put them on her lap.
“Have you lost your mind?” he said as he pulled out of the driveway. “How long were you there?”
“What are you doing here?”
“Kya left a message to check on you because you got locked out. She said she thought you’d just go to a hotel, but wanted me to check just in case,” Ozai said, sounding angry.
“Were you there that whole time?”
“It’s been a long day.”
“I told Hakoda to get just another key made, but no….” Ozai was grumbling as they drove the short distance to his house. The garage opened in front of them. “He’s usually much more prepared that this, that idiot.”
He drove them inside and once the car was turned off, he got out and rounded the car once more to get to her.
He opened the passenger’s door. “Sorry about this,” Ursa said, her voice hoarse. She looked up at him and wasn’t sure if he was angry or worried.
“Nevermind that. Can you stand?”
She nodded once and handed him her things. He placed them on the ground and reached in to help her up when her attempt to step out of the car failed. Muttering about her being irresponsible with her health, Ozai reached in and pulled her out, bracing her body against his before closing the door.
“I was in the rain longer than I thought.”
“Can you at least change yourself? You need to get into some dry clothes.”
“Can I borrow some?”
“Yes,” he said, as if it were obvious. She supposed it was. “What else are you going to wear? Towels? Honestly, what are you doing….” He carried her to the door, then into the house, and up the backstairs to the upper floor.
As she was laid on a bed, she looked around and frowned. “This isn’t the spare.”
“That bed hasn’t come in yet,” he said in a gruff voice. He walked across the room to the towel closet by the ensuite bathroom. “You can sleep here tonight. First, dry off.” He tossed a towel at her, not checking to see if she caught it and instead headed for his dresser.
He kept all of his non-work attire there, she remembered. He rummaged through and found an old Fire Nation University t-shirt. He tossed it on the foot of the bed.
“Can I wear this?” she asked, her hands squeezing the fluffy bath towel she was given as she looked at the shirt.
“Yes, it’s big even for me. Leave your wet clothes on the hamper; I’ll was them and throw them in a drier later,” he said as he walked towards the door. “Did you eat yet?”
She shook her head once. “It slipped my mind.” Or rather, her stomach remembered, but her head paid no attention.
He gave her a disapproving look. “Do you still like beef noodle soup?”
He remembered? Ursa’s fingers dug into the towel. “Yes.”
“I’ll order in. Dry off and change. Take a nap or something. I’ll come wake you when it arrives, all right?”
His body was tense, his voice was irritated, and he seemed to want to leave as soon as possible, but Ursa found herself smiling. Maybe she was lucky.
She didn’t mean to say it out loud, the thought that bubbled up in her tired mind. Perhaps it she was just in the moment…or her fever was getting the best of her.
As Ozai closed the door behind him, she spoke.
“I really do wish I had fallen in love you all those years ago.”
She was sure it was her fever. After all, she could’ve sworn she heard him reply.
“So do I.”
Chapter 8: Eight
Note: This chapter has some mature-ish scenes that may not be suitable for some audiences. Nothing too graphic, but graphic enough to warrant notice.
A wooden breakfast tray was placed over her lap. Memory foam pillows were piled up behind her, propping her up against the headboard. On the table beside her was a small bottle of water and a travel mug of tea.
“Eat as much as you can, but don’t force yourself.” Ozai had a set of chopsticks, condiments, and a soup spoon around the larger bowl of noodle soup he ordered for her.
“Thanks,” Ursa said. “I’ll pay you back.”
“Don’t worry about it,” he said as he headed to a small desk across the bedroom. Her vanity table used to be there. “I have an extra charging cable for your phone.”
“I need to call to Kya,” she said as she spread the noodles around the steaming bowl. “Do you think she can call a locksmith?”
“Even if she can, you’ll still need a key.” He knelt down by the night stand and plugged in a charger. “Phone?”
“In my purse.”
“I left it in the garage. I’ll be back. Can you manage?”
She frowned. “I’m not a child.”
“I just don’t want you to spill soup all over my bed.” She let out a small huff and began to pick up some noodles. Ozai disappeared out the door, leaving it partially open. She raised her eyes and looked around the pale gray room once more.
He must’ve had an interior designer come in, as the room looked different from the last time she saw it. It was very minimalist. She supposed that was his style. Everything always had a place with Ozai.
As she slurped up some soup, she wondered when he replaced their bed. She was sitting on what was his side when they were married. Then again, now, the entire bed was ‘his’ side. She always had the side closest to the windows.
“They’re still wet.” The door opened and he walked in, a disgusted look on his face as he held a plastic laundry basket holding both her purse and tote. “Where is it?”
“The small purse.” She watched while she ate as he dug through and found the little machine the died on her. He plugged it in and left the laundry basket with her belongings beside the night stand.
“What should I tell them?” he asked as he rose to his feet. He was still wearing his dress shirt and slacks, though his sleeves were rolled up and his tie gone. “Kya has been calling and I don’t know how to tell her that I found you curled up like a lost, wet dog on their door mat.”
She shot him a glare. “I’ve had a long day, okay?” she said, an anxious feeling rising as she recalled her day of frustrations, mistakes, and terrible luck. “I had trouble finding parking and was late-”
“Wait.” Ozai furrowed his brows. “Where is your car?”
She felt her eyes begin to water, but willed herself not to cry in front of him. “Impound lot.”
“I misread the parking guidelines at the school and didn’t move my car in time. I could only be parked in that spot for four hours and by the time I was done with my meetings, six hours had passed. I didn’t have my car, so I took the bus home, but it started raining and the closest bus stop is a block and a half away. I didn’t have an umbrella and when I got to Kya’s house, I couldn’t find the house key-”
“Okay, okay.” He held out his hands to try to stop her. “I understand.” He ran a hand through his dark hair and looked away. “I’ll let Kya know.”
“No!” Ursa felt a rush go humiliation through her and she swayed in her seat, her hand raising to her head. It was bad enough she lost her friend’s house key, but to have done so after stupidly parking her car in the wrong place and then walking home without an umbrella was too much.
“Ursa.” A hand steadied her arm and the other gently pried her chopsticks from her hand. “There’s no need to be embarrassed. Things happen.”
“I don’t want her to worry.” The house key was an accident, the car being towed was perhaps amusing, but those coupled with the rain and her pitiful trek home was just sad. Kya would likely fly back if she found out.
“I’m sure she’s already worrying about how to get you a house key from Ember Island,” Ozai said in a stern voice. His hand cupped the side of her face. “You’re still burning up. Do you think you can hold down your food?”
“I’m going to get some medicine.” Ozai rose to his feet once more and took the tray off her lap. He walked to his desk and placed it there before heading into the bathroom. Ursa laid back against the bed and closed her eyes.
“I can get a hotel once I get my car from the impound lot,” she said, talking more out loud than to him. At the very least, she could do that much to take care of herself.
“You can get your car when you get better. Take as much time as you can to rest,” she heard him say from the bathroom.
“No time for rest, Ozai. I have to review the curriculum and papers for class.”
“That can wait.”
“No, I need to be ready by Monday.”
“Monday?” Ozai came out of the bathroom, a small foil wrapped set of pills in his hand. “You don’t start for several weeks.”
“I needed to buy a plane ticket.”
He stopped beside her and paused as he popped out two pills. “To Ember Island?” he asked, without looking at her.
She nodded, unsure why it was all coming out now. “Zuko…Zuko wanted to pay his respects to his grandparents…my parents. I wanted to go with him. I owe them that, don’t I? I haven’t visited since my father passed away. I’m their only child…there is no one to light incense for them or cleans their grave.”
“I’m sure they understand,” Ozai said, rather uncertain. He took her hand and placed the pills in it. She brought it her mouth and put them in before taking the open water bottle Ozai handed her.
“Get some rest,” he said, walking towards his dresser. “I’ll be downstairs if you need me.”
“Tell Kya I’ll be okay and not to worry.”
“I will,” he said, gathering some clothes to change into. “Ursa, you’re free to stay here as long as you need to, all right? Don’t think I’m going to force you out.”
“No…” It was a half-hearted protest at best. At that moment, she didn’t want to leave the warm bed with the fluffy pillows and the familiar scent in the sheets. “I can’t…”
“Get some sleep.” He hung his spare clothes over his shoulder before picking up the soup tray and heading to the door.
“I need to call the kids.” She sank into the bed, her head already heavy with sleep.
“I’ll call them and let them know you’re sleeping.”
“Hakoda’s right. You are annoying.” He paused by the door for moment and she heard a small chuckle.
“You’re welcome, Ursa.”
She closed her eyes, vaguely aware of the small smile on her lips as she drifted off to sleep feeling warm and safe.
When she woke to go to the bathroom, the room was dark. One of the bathroom lights was left on, in case she needed it. She shuffled over, her head still a bit dizzy from both sleep and stress.
The clock by the bed said it was just past one in the morning. She let out a small groan and ran her hand through her hair. It felt damp and she wasn’t sure if it was from the rain or her fever sweat.
She reached for her water bottle and found she’d already finished it off. Ursa glanced to the door. Ozai was probably sleeping already, so she couldn’t call on him for water.
She was steady enough to go get her own and from the dampness on her back, her fever had broken already.
Ursa made her way down the back stairs and to the kitchen. The light from the television was on and she could hear a faint buzz from what looked like a series on travel. As she tip-toed into the kitchen, she saw the large couch where the kids were playing when they first came over was pulled out into a bed.
Laying in the center with a thin blanket pooled around his feet was a sleeping Ozai. The remote was by his head, next to his hand, and he looked like he was wearing a white undershirt and flannel pajama pants.
A small smile reached her face. He looked relaxed, no longer wearing his usual scowl or look of confident, casual indifference. He was less intimidating exposed in sleepwear. She passed the kitchen and moved into the den where he slept. The air condition of the house kept the lower floor cooler than upstairs; she didn’t want him to get sick, too.
Ursa bent down and pulled the blanket up, causing Ozai to shift.
“It’s fine,” he grumbled He cracked an eye open and squinted. “What are you doing here?”
“I came to get water.”
“I’m not water.”
“Your blanket was at your feet,” Ursa said, leaving it up to his waist. She got up and headed back to the kitchen.
“Did you take the next dose?”
“Not yet,” she said. “Did you call the children?”
“I had Kya give them the phone when I told her you were staying here tonight,” Ozai pushed himself into a seated position as the light from the fridge filled the room. “I told them you could stay as long as you needed.”
“I won’t trouble you,” she said, taking out a water bottle. “I’m feeling a lot better.”
He didn’t look convinced. Ozai tossed off his blanket and got off the sofa-bed. With calm, even strides, he walked towards her and grasped her chin with one hand as the other pressed against her head. “A bit cooler, but still hot. We’ll see how you are in the morning.”
Ursa pulled away, her face becoming warmer with his hand against her. “I’m fine. I’m sure I’ll be okay in the morning.”
“Hmmm….” Ozai looked her up and down. “Your shirt is wet. Just take the next dose and get some more sleep. If you’re feeling better, we’ll go get your car from the impound tomorrow.”
“You don’t need to come with me.”
“Someone has to drive you there.”
“I can take a taxi.”
“Fine, as long as you’re better.” She was almost surprised he didn’t put up more of a fight. Ozai yawned and took another bottle of water from the fridge. He ushered her back towards the stairs before closing the fridge door behind him. “The back of the shirt is wet.”
“I was sweating. My fever broke.”
“Good.” He marched up the stairs behind her and Ursa couldn’t help but be amused. She was reminded of a sheep being herded by a dog. “I’ll get you another shirt you can change into.” She opened her mouth to dismiss the offer, but he shook his head. “You can’t sleep in a sweat soaked shirt, Ursa.”
She made an annoyed face. Hakoda always said Ozai was annoying and she assumed it was because of his stoic, ‘no time for your foolishness, Hakoda’ demeanour, but this must’ve been what Hakoda was talking about. She tried not to smile. But it wasn’t a bad annoying; Ozai was just worried and she’d be lying if she said she didn’t enjoy it.
They entered the bedroom and he crossed the room to his dresser once more. She lingered by the side of the bed and picked up the packet of pills, popping out another two. As she took it with some water, Ozai pulled out a large, dark blue shirt with white letters. As he unfolded it with a flick of his wrists, she bit her lips to keep from laughing.
“Ride the big wave down south, huh?”
A confused look filled his face before he looked at the t-shirt and scowled. “I must’ve borrowed this from Hakoda,” he grumbled as he handed her the shirt. It was believable; the symbol of the Southern Water Tribe, which both Hakoda and Kya were members of, was on the shirt. “He has the worst tastes in shirts.”
Ursa chuckled and gathered the shirt in her hands. “A clean shirt is a clean shirt..”
He walked around her and placed the extra bottle of water on the night stand, while she began to change with her back to him. “When you’re done with the shirt, just throw it on the foot of the bed. I’ll collect it in the morning and add it to the laundry.”
She tugged the clean shirt down, over her chest and stomach before letting it drop and fall to her thighs.
“Ozai,” she said as she turned around. She placed the sweaty shirt on the edge of the bed as she looked across the room, at his fleeting back. He was almost to the door and stopped. “Thank you again, for everything.”
His shoulders rose and fell with a heavy breath, but he didn’t turn around. “Think nothing of it. Just get better soon.”
She wanted him to turn around and meet her gaze. She wanted to thank him more, not just for giving her a place to sleep for the night and a clean shirt.
Her chest tightened. She wanted to thank him for being so good to their children. For welcoming them into his home without hesitation and offering his time, as well as his money. For playing with them in the pool and visiting them at Kya’s even when he was tired from work . For catching her in the hot tub. For punching Ikem.
Ursa didn’t realize she was walking across the room until she was a step behind him, her arms extending to touch his back.
She felt him tense under her finger tips and she pulled arm back, jerking to a stop as he turned around. Ozai’s stern face looked almost confused.
“I….” Her voice faltered. What else could she say? She took a deep breath, avoiding his eyes as she gathered herself. Perhaps she wasn’t as well as she claimed. “What can I do to repay you?”
She dared meet his gaze and found him frowning. He turned to look at her, his lips tight. “Ursa, there is no need to repay me. Did you expect me to leave you outside in the rain?”
“No, no…it’s just…” She ran a hand through her hair. Of course Ozai wouldn’t just abandon a friend in need.
“You don’t owe me anything, Ursa. Don’t bother yourself with such a thought.”
Part of her knew that. In such serious cases, Ozai wouldn’t hang his good will over the friends of his head. He’d perhaps do so with Hakoda, but even then, he wasn’t serious and it was more for amusement.
As the realization sunk it, Ursa realized it wasn’t that she owed Ozai. It was that she wanted to show him gratitude. She wanted him to know she was appreciative. She raised her head and studied his face.
The crease between his brows, the downturned lips, and his sharp eyes seemed wary of her as she took a step closer.
“You really are a good man.”
He took in a sharp breath as her hands pressed against his chest and she leaned upwards. Her eyes closed as she moved her lips against his, feeling the rush of air against them as he gasped.
Was he surprised? She almost wanted to laugh.
“Ursa….” He sounded as if he was trying to chastise her. “You need to rest.”
She dared to take a step closer, closing the space between them as she pressed her body against his. “I am resting.”
She kissed him again, with more certainty than the last, and this time, she felt him push back. He responded in kind, lowering his head to meet hers as his hands slid down the sides of her body, separated from her flushed skin by the shirt.
Her arms snaked around his neck, keeping him pulled down as she relished the heat from his body and the enveloping feeling of his arms around her. They were strong and held her comfortably as his mouth moved against her, sliding once more down her jaw and to the sensitive area of her neck.
She let out a whimper as she shuddered. Her fingers clawed into him, enjoying the heat of his body and the scent of his hair as she stepped back. Was she leading him to the bed or was he leading her? She wasn’t sure. She felt a hand slip beneath the hem of her shirt and felt a rush. She wasn’t sure and she didn’t care.
The edge of the bed hit the back of her knees and she gasped as she fell back. She bounced atop of the pile of sheets and blankets, looking up as he stood above her, standing between her legs and taking in the sight of her.
The shirt did nothing to make her feel covered, but none-the-less, she almost enjoyed the feeling of exposure to him. She wanted him to look at her, to desire her as much as she did him, and to respond to her with equal fervor.
Ursa raised her arms once more, beckoning him down to join her so she could enjoy the weight of body pressing down against hers. The bed dipped as he moved, his knees on the edge of the bed as he crouched over her, kissing her forehead, her nose, and her lips in succession.
HIs hands reached under her arms and she was pulled upwards with one quick tug. One leg was between hers and she felt his thigh brush against her as she tilted her head back. Her breathing was shallow and every sense was aware of the man on top of her, running his finger tips against her skin and lifting her shirt higher and higher in the process.
She couldn’t thinking of anything else that she wanted more at that moment than to be part of him and enjoy the sweet afterglow once more.
Her fingers raked his back and ran through his hair, silently encouraging him to continue as he moved her shirt over her breasts and moved his attention to them; tugging and teasing them before dragging a hot, wet tongue down her stomach.
Further, her mind demanded of him. Go down lower. Like you used to. Her legs began to bend, willing him to please her.
“Don’t stop.” Her voice was tight. She grasped one his hands in hers and cupped it against her. She pressed his hand down. “Please.”
He looked uncertain, as if torn between gladly proceeding and his own reservations. His hand pressed down against her and a finger slipped between the wet folds. She suppressed another shudder as she bit a corner of her lip and finally released him.
He moved his body over hers, slowly and steadily moving his hand against her and his fingers slipped in and out. She felt him against her and her heart sped up at the acknowledgement that he wanted her just as much as she wanted him.
She moaned, arching her hips as she pulled her head back, panting. Sweat gathered at her temples once more and her skin was hot to the touch. Her arms wrapped around his body and in the back of her mind, through the heady daze, she felt him pull away.
“You’re heating up.”
“It’s fine.” She didn’t care.
“I don’t think you’re thinking straight.” He slipped from her arms and she looked up, her face still flushed.
He still looked hesitant, but she could feel him against her; his body wasn’t.
“Ursa, we can’t do this when you’re like this.” Ozai hung his head, his hair brushing against the side of his face as he held himself above her. “Maybe when you’re better and thinking clearly.”
“I am thinking clearly.” Her voice shook, but it wasn’t because she had doubts. Rather, she wanted him to believe her. “You’re a good man. Kya and Hakoda always said that and they always spoke to you like that, but never saw it. Now that I finally do it feels like it’s too late and I don’t want it to be.” Her pale hands cupped either side of his face. “Please don’t say it’s too late.”
“Ursa….” His was was strained, almost as if in pain. His hand stroked her hair back as his eyes looked down at her with a melancholy glint. “It’s not that it’s too late.” He pushed himself off of her. “Can’t we talk about this some other time? When you’re not delirious with fever.”
“I’m not delirious!”
He sat on the edge of the bed and gave her a look of disbelief. “You want me to sleep with you.”
“You were kissing me earlier, what more is sleeping with me?”
“A lot more!” Ozai shot up from the bed. “When you wake up in the morning, without a fever and fully conscious, do you really think you won’t regret it?”
Ozai’s eyes softened and she could almost see how much he wanted to believe her, but wouldn’t allow himself to. His knelt down in front of her and raised a warm, gentle hand to stroke the side of her face. His voice was tight and she wondered how long he’d held such a belief. “That’s unlikely, Ursa.”
She watched his lips move as he spoke and moved closer. “Unlikely,” she said as she raised her eyes and searched his. “But not impossible.”
Once more, her heated lips sealed over his, almost hoping her affection for him was conveyed through the action. Maybe this was her - their - chance to make good on a marriage they both once thought unwanted by the other.
Perhaps it did all those years ago, but now they were older. Different. She was just late with falling in love with him.
“Ursa, please.” His breath was hot against her flushed skin as he pulled his head back. “If this is going to happen, I don’t want any regrets or second guesses. I won’t risk it while you’re still recovering.”
Her fingers curled into his shirt, refusing to release him as pleading gold eyes bore into his. “Then can you at least stay with me? Nothing more, just stay.” Her voice weakened. “I spent years with Ikem and I truly believed I was safest and loved most in his arms, but even when I believed that, it didn’t feel like it. But with you, it’s the opposite. Kya says you love me. Lu Ten says you love me…After everything I’ve done and has gone on between us, I can’t believe it, but it feels like it. Why does it feel like it?”
There was a sad pain in is eyes as he looked at her. He was leaning forward, his arms raising just slightly, as if to hold her, but stopping before they could wrap around her.
Ozai didn’t answer.
Ursa waited. Her eyes searched his, hoping to procure an answer. With each passing second, her chest tightened with dread.
The ‘love’ she found herself hoping for…was it all in her head?
“It feels like it,” Ozai said in a helpless voice she almost couldn’t place. “Because it is.” She couldn’t breath. “Hakoda and Kya told me about you, but that night we came to pick you up…you were dancing in and out of the shared bathroom, singing in tune with the show music, so expressive and bright. I know the exact moment it happened…” The corners of his lips began to curl up in a slight, nostalgic smile. “You turned around, your hair down and flying over your shoulders as you sang into a hair brush. You looked so happy…even in that poor bathroom lighting, you took my breath away.”
She couldn’t speak. That long ago? The moment they met. Ursa began to tremble as she struggled to wrap her mind around it. “You never told me.”
He looked at her with a confused expression. “How could I? You had a boyfriend. You didn’t even like me.”
“What about when we were married?”
He shook his head. “I know the marriage trapped you,” he said, his voice holding a hint of bitterness. “I know you only married me for the sake of the island. Emotions would’ve only complicated it –”
“Complicated it?” She pulled away, upset by his assumption. “I thought you didn’t love me. I thought you weren’t capable of loving me, let alone Zuko and Azula! I thought you only married me because your father told you to!”
Ozai looked away and move back. He rose to his feet, putting distance between them once more. “It was my fault for putting you in a position where you couldn’t refuse the marriage. I told my father about you and he was always a shrewd man. He saw opportunity in the marriage: he’d get invest in Ember Island and his last son would get married to a respectable woman. I didn’t want him to pursue the marriage proposal, Ursa. I knew it would trap you, but the more I protested, the more pressure he put on you and your family.
“When I realized he wouldn’t stop until he got what he wanted, I gave up and accepted it. Part of me both hoped and feared that you’d refuse, but it was too much. I took you from the man you loved, from your home and your family. What did I give you in return? Awkward negligence. Little contact. Even less affection. I didn’t know how to treat a wife who was forced to marry me.”
“But you loved me,” Ursa said, sitting on the edge of the bed. “Didn’t you?”
He furrowed his brows, looking as if he were trying to find the right words. “I loved you then and I love you now,” he said, facing her with a much conviction as he could show. “But I want you to be happy and our marriage didn’t do that. I couldn’t do that. How could I continue to hold you back if you wanted out? I wasn’t going to subject you to such a life when you meant the world to me. Yet, I couldn’t bring myself to break it off. When you said you wanted a divorce, the only solace I had was knowing you’d be happy.”
Hot tears were streaming down her face. “I thought I’d be happy. I thought the children would be happy, but….” She shook her head as she lowered it, wiping at her eyes. “I wanted my family to be happy and safe.”
“And you’ve done what you could to do so, Ursa.”
“How can you say that?” She choked back a cry. “The whole reason we’re staying at Kya’s is because of the fire and the accident and my own negligence. Our children are hurt and I could do nothing for them.”
He was kneeling in front of her again, reaching for some tissues on the nightstand to try to give them to her.
“We all make mistakes, Ursa. I’m as guilty of them as you are.”
“We’re terrible parents.”
She almost didn’t catch the small smirk on his face. “We simply have room for improvement and now we have that chance to,” he said as she took a tissue from his hand. “Dry your eyes for now and get some rest. We can discuss this tomorrow, after you get your car back.”
Ursa nodded, still crying. “Can I stay here?”
“As long as you want to.” He stood up and eased her back against the pillows. He reached for the blanket at her side and pulled over her chest.
She felt the tissue box taken from her hand and placed back on the nightstand before he soothed her hair back. His hand slipped away and she looked out at him as he crossed the room to turn off the light. She began to feel anxious at the sight of him leaving.
“Ozai….” She didn’t want him to go.
Without a word, he closed the door. She felt her heart quicken as he remained inside and watched him round the bed. The mattress sunk as he sat down on what was once “her” side of the bed, then slid his legs beneath the blanket.
He paused, hesitating as he remained sitting up beside her. “Do you still want me to stay?”
For a moment, it felt as if a weight was lifted off her shoulders. Closed her eyes, her lips in a small smile of their own as her body relaxed into the bed. There was uncertainty in his voice, but she could’ve sworn she heard a bit of hope.
The bed sank further as he moved closer and lay beside her. She felt her body heat up once more as an arm crossed her stomach and she was pulled closer, against a comforting, firm body. She buried her face against his chest and grasped on to his shirt.
For everything that had happened, part of her couldn’t help but repeat that she was lucky.
“Really?” Zuko looked absolutely excited on the screen of her phone as Azula jumped up behind him. “You’re really coming?”
“Yes, and we’ll go to visit your grandparents grave the next day. Have the others given you a tour of the island?” Ursa asked. She sat on the long couch in the den beside the kitchen, her voice louder than usual to talk over the sound of the overhead stove fan as Ozai cooked some stir fried dish behind her.
“Just the boardwalk and the beach,” Zuko said. “And we’ve been spending a lot of time in the water.”
“He’s not very good at snorkeling, Auntie Ursa!” Katara’s voice shouted form somewhere in the background. Zuko’s slightly tanned face turned red.
“I’m still learning!”
“Gimme the phone!” Azula rushed forward and plucked the phone from her brother’s hand. “Mom, is Dad really coming?”
“Yes, he is.” She couldn’t really hide the fondness in her voice. Now, fully recovered from her fever and with her car parked securely in the driveway of her ex-husband’s house, she was able to focus on her work and it was an enjoyable challenge. She was brimming with accomplishment. Ursa moved her phone to the side so that it could capture Ozai cooking. He wore a dark colored apron to protect his polo shirt and khaki pants and appeared skillful in the kitchen. “Do you see him?”
“Hi, Dad!” Azula screamed, as if calling out to him.
“Hello, Azula,” Ozai said, turning slightly to give the phone a nod. “Are you behaving for your uncles and auntie?”
“Yes, of course!”
“She tried to drown me!” Zuko protested.
“I didn’t! He’s just really bad at snorkeling!”
“Okay, okay, that’s enough,” Ursa sighed. “We’ll be arriving tomorrow night, so we’ll see you then, all right?”
The two siblings agreed, looking so excited for their arrival that Ursa almost felt guilty for having to set her high energy children on her best friends. She told them to be good and held the phone up so Ozai could repeat her words and bid them a good night before she ended the call.
“They won’t get any sleep tonight.”
“I know.” Ursa chuckled as she put the phone down and slid her legs off the sofa to stand. Not only was Ozai coming, but she was going to make it as well. She was sure the children weren’t ignorant of the fact that they were arriving together and it could spark some interest in whatever was going on between the two of them.
In all honesty, she wasn’t sure herself. The tension that was between them since he arrived at Kya’s house was far less and the more…intimate tension she had when she was around him was reduced. That may have been because whatever thirst she had was quenched the last two nights, yesterday afternoon, that morning…and when she got home from the store an hour ago.
Ursa felt light on her feet, almost serene as she walked to the kitchen, wearing a comfy set of shorts and a shirt she picked up on the way home. With her clothes still at Kya’s house, she spent much of the last few days after she arrived at Ozai’s house going through her class work, and buying more clothes and toiletries for the trip.
Ozai was left at the house to finish up any additional work. He was surprisingly good at reading the hints to be left alone so she could work and even better at the hints that she wanted his attention. She almost felt arrogant admitting it, but she had not been denied since and was almost spoiled in his awkward affection. He wasn’t very verbal; professing undying love or flattering her. That wasn’t Ozai at all, but a small kiss on the head, a hand on her hip, and a stroke through her hair were more than she got from him before and they filled her with joy. She almost couldn’t believe he was the same man.
She couldn’t believe the attractive, kind, and attentive man was all hers - “as long as she wanted”, she recalled him saying. She wanted him as long as she could have him, as far as she was concerned. She felt content around him and was at ease. Just hearing him from the other room while he spoke on the phone made her tingle and smile.
She always did like his voice.
“Was the luggage big enough for your things?” Ozai reached across the stove to turn it off before taking the wok off the burner. He continued to move around the noodles and vegetables and meat as he turned to the counter and the awaiting serving dish.
Ursa watched him expertly move their dinner on to the dish before putting the wok on na unused burner. She sat on a stool in front of the island.
“All right,” Ozai placed a plate in front of her and a set of chopsticks. He lifted his apron off and hung it over the side of the island. “Let’s eat.”
“Looks good,” she said.
He nodded. “It’s a simple dish to make.” He stood across from her and bent down, chopsticks in hand to eat.
“Can I at least wash the dishes since you cooked?” Ursa asked, picking up some noodles.
“If really must.” Ozai shrugged. “Did you finish packing? Our flight leaves early tomorrow.”
She wasn’t looking forward for such an early flight, but they needed to get to the Fire Nation, then switch planes for the islands, then take a the ferry to Ember Island from one of the larger ones that had an airport. It was a day long trek.
“For the most part, yes.” She began to eat and went through a mental list of thing she’d back. “Are you finished packing?”
“I finished while you were out today,” he said. “Do you want these mushrooms? You like them, don’t you?”
He didn’t wait for her to answer and picked off the larger pieces and placed them on her plate. She raised her chopsticks and put them over his to stop them.
“Here.” She opened her mouth expectantly. Ozai raised a brow, but plucked a mushroom from his plate and placed it on her waiting tongue. She smiled wide as she ate it.
“Let me have some of your peppers, then.”
“This was a trade, was it?”
“It’s only fair.”
Ursa let out a little snort and picked up a piece of red. She lifted it up, about to put it on his plate when he leaned forward and opened his own mouth. He was smirking as she felt her face heat up.
“Fair is fair, I suppose.” She was careful in placing it in his mouth. She watched with secret pleasure as he closed his mouth and chewed. She licked her own lips and looked down at her food, hoping to focus.
“Ursa,” he said, after a few moments of silence. “What will we tell the children?” She lifted her head, her eyes wide.
“What do you mean?”
“We both agreed that we want to continue…this,” he said. “But surely the children, and Hakoda and Kya, will notice if we spend the night together or if I hold you, perhaps even stand beside you.” He looked almost hesitant to ask. “Do you wish to…keep it a secret?”
“No.” Her answer was immediate and she sat up straight on the stool. “No, for the first time in a long time, everything feels right. I don’t want to hide that.”
She could see relief flash through his face. “Then what should we tell them? We don’t know where this will lead. I don’t want the children to expect too much.”
“Like what?” Ursa asked, she furrowed her brows as she ate some more stir fry.
She looked back up at him. Her chest tightened at the thought marrying Ozai, but it was not a negative reaction. Rather, for a moment, butterflies filled her stomach and she imagined herself exchanging vows in the sunset on a beach with him across from her. Heat rose to her face as a distant expression filled her.
“Ursa?” Ozai frowned, unsure how to take her reaction. “Ursa?”
“Remarriage.” She snapped out of her daze; the word sounded odd to her. “You thought about it?”
He paused, measuring his words as he often did. “It crossed my mind.”
She held her breath. “Are you against it?”
His shoulders shrugged. “I think it’s too early to tell. We’re just catching up after all these years. My feelings haven’t changed, but I don’t want to rush into things nor do I wish to force you into another marriage. If Zuko and Azula ask, we can say we’re trying to work things out to establish a stronger relationship between ourselves.”
It was a valid answer, but it wasn’t the one she was looking for. She suddenly needed to know: if it came to it, would he be willing to marry her again? She felt at ease with him now; wanted and cherished in his company. She just got it and she didn’t want to lose it.
As if noticing the panic rising in her, Ozai softened his gaze and reached across the counter. He took her free hand and gave it a squeeze.
“Ursa,” he said in a low, calm voice. “If you really must know: no. I’m not against remarrying you.”
Chapter 9: Nine
Thank you for the support! I hope to finish this fic in another chapter or two. Thank you for reading!
“How are you feeling?” Katara slapped Zuko on the back as he swallowed some water from a bottle.
“I think I drank too much sea water.”
“It’s because you keep tensing up,” she said as she sat on the edge of the wooden boardwalk with him. Out on the beach, Lu Ten and his girlfriend were having longboard lessons with Hakoda while Azula was learning the basics of body surfing from Kya. Sokka was doing some surfing of his own, though Kya was keeping an eye on him.
Zuko frowned. “I’m tensing up because I’m sinking.”
“Because you’re panicking.”
“Who wouldn’t panic when a giant wave of water is about to fall on you?” He bristled and Katara patted him on the shoulder.
“Why don’t you sit here and take a rest?” she said, hoping to appease him. “When you’re ready, we’ll go back to the water.”
He gave her a small glare. “Fine.” Katara fled back to the water, grabbing a body board before leaping into the waves like a happy little dolphin in tune with her element. Zuko groaned. He didn’t understand. He was fine in a pool. He could swim laps and dive and pick up rings from the bottom of Ikem’s pool’s deep end.
What made the ocean so different?
“Ahhh!” Lu Ten’s cry of surprise reached his ears and Zuko watched his cousin’s board flip over and send him into the water.
Right. Waves and the unrelenting power of the ocean.
A simple pool the sea was not. He let out a heavy breath and brought is water bottle back to his mouth. Empty.
Frowning, Zuko pushed himself up. There was a water fountain not far away. The entire island relied on several underground water sources and they were safe to drink from. His mother used to always say Ember Island water tasted the best. Personally, he thought it tasted like regular water.
“Auntie Kya, I’m going to get some water!” He shouted over his shoulder and heard his aunt shout back not to go too far.
Zuko crossed the boardwalk, weaving through the holiday goers wandering the carnival game booths or in line for something to eat. Further up the boardwalk, he could hear the roar of the “classic wooden” roller coaster Katara convinced him to go on. They were tall enough, she insisted. Why not?
He got nauseous, threw up some chili flakes, and Lu Ten sat with him the rest of that evening, telling him he also used to get sick after riding it, which was why he was more than happy to let June ride it without him. However, unlike Lu Ten, Zuko found he enjoyed the log ride and in an attempt to retaliate against Katara, made her ride it with him.
She enjoyed it even more than he did. The only upside was that Azula did not like being drenched with chlorinated ride water.
Zuko decided that he would get her on the ride again by insisting they go on as a family once his parents arrived.
He reached the fountain and put the mouth of his water bottle beneath the spout and twisted the tap. He waited until it overflowed just a bit before turning off the water and twisting the cap on. He turned around and made his way back to the beach.
As he emerged on to the boardwalk once more, the clanking of the roller coaster was almost drowned out by the exciting squealing of bystanders. Ember Island was a resort spot and it wasn’t out of the ordinary that Fire Nation celebrities and socialites graced its shores.
Despite having been around celebrities for much of his life, Zuko still turned to see who caught everyone’s attention this time.
“Hey, Zuko, you dropped your bottle-”
He threw an arm around Sokka and dragged him back into the alley. “Shh! He’ll see you?”
“Who?” Sokka’s muffled voice asked beneath his arm.
“Ikem!” His friend’s fingers pulled at his arm to wedge himself out of the death grip.
“What?” Sokka peeked around the corner, holding Zuko at bay with one arm as he squinted. “So what? He can’t do anything to you.”
“Yeah, but I didn’t know he’d be here!” Zuko said, red-faced. “What if my mom sees him? What if he tries something?”
“He’s not going to try anything.” Sokka sighed and crossed his chest. “Besides your uncle has, like, a dozen undercover bodyguards around us at all times.” He pointed to a random large, burly guy in a floral shirt and sunglasses. “Hey, Chit Sang! Thanks for your hard work! Congrats on your engagement!”
Zuko’s mouth nearly dropped as the the burly guy gave them a nod and a thumbs up.
“What?” Zuko looked confused. Since when were there bodyguards? He furrowed his brows. And why were there bodyguards?
“There you guys are!” Katara’s voice reached them and he perked up. He saw her jogging over, holding up his discarded bottle. “Did you drop your water bottle - oh, hey, Chit Sang! Congratulations on your engagement!”
Zuko looked at Sokka, who gave him a deadpan look. “Uncle Iroh is rich. I’m not talking comfortable, like my family. Dad calls it ‘old money’ wealth and because of that, sometimes people want to kidnap those close to him.”
“ What .”
“Yeah, and Lu Ten is the heir to a massive conglomerate and so are you and Azula. Thus, you’re kidnapee material.”
“Does he...does he always have bodyguards?” Zuko asked, unable to hide his awe.
Sokka nodded. “Yeah, he’s important.”
“What’s taking you guys so long?” Katara said, reaching them and pouting. “We’re waiting for you.”
“Zuko’s freaking out because he saw Ikem,” Sokka said in such a nonchalant voice, Zuko wanted to scream in frustration.
Not Katara, too! He turned to her with a panicked expression. “You remember what he did at your house!”
“Yeah, but it’s not like he can do any of that here. There are bodyguards.”
“Everyone knows,” Katara said. “And if you’re worried about how your mom will handle it, don’t worry. I think she’s good.”
She pointed back towards the beach and Zuko craned his neck to see what she was pointing at. His eyes widened as he saw Azula leap up into their father’s arms as their mother stood beside him, talking to his aunt. His mother was in a billowy, loose long dress and his father was still wearing slacks from travel, looking to have just arrived.
“They’re here!” His face lit up and he swept past Katara and Sokka.
“There he is,” Sokka said with a grin. “Do you think Uncle Ozai will fight Ikem again?”
“No,” Katara said with a roll of her eyes. She paused. “But a week of lunch money says he’d win.”
Zuko drowned out his friends voices as he raced across the board walk. “Mom! Dad!” he shouted into the air, the words coming out of him so naturally that both parents turned towards him.
“Zuko, there you are - did you not wear enough sunblock?”
He slammed into his mother as she lifted her hands to soothe back his hair. “Azula said she sprayed my back.”
“I did, you just didn’t re-apply!” his sister said from where she was released from her father’s arms.
“It’s fine. We have a doctor in our midst. I’m sure she’s taken care of it,” Ozai said as he knelt down to examine Zuko’s red streaks. “I’m afraid you’ve taken after me and burn easier than most, Zuko.”
“It’s okay. Auntie Kya is making me put the aloe on and I’m more diligent with the sunblock,” Zuko said. He straightened up and tried to suppress how excited he was to see both parents. “Are you two going to join us at the beach?”
“Not quite yet, sweetie,” Ursa said with a weak smile. “It was a long flight and I didn’t sleep much.”
“And I was doing some calls on the flight. Hakoda texted that you were here so we came by on the way to the beach house,” Ozai said.
“Did you guys eat yet?” Kya asked.
“Just some airport food.” Ursa made a face and Kya shook her head.
“That’s not real food,” she said. She turned towards the water. “Hakoda! Let’s get the BBQ started!”
“You have BBQ at the house?” Ursa asked.
“It’s been marinating and waiting for you guys to arrive,” Kya said as her own children arrived. “In celebration of you two coming.”
“I told you I’d get her to come,” Ozai said with a slight smirk.
“And not only that, it seems.” Hakoda’s voice drew their attention as he arrived. He grinned as he eyed Ozai’s arm around Ursa’s waist.
Zuko held his breath. This was a good sign, wasn’t it? His mother seemed comfortable and relaxed. That tension that was between his parents was lifted. He bit his lower lip. He did overhear his uncles and aunt saying something about his parents appearing ‘closer’.
“Ah,” Ozai said, his face not faltering even as Ursa blushed just a bit. “Don’t overthink it.”
“For you to say that, I can’t help but do so,” Hakoda said. He looked over his shoulders. “Kids, get your things! Let’s head back.”
Zuko rushed to grab his board resting by the boardwalk. He heard the laughter and chattering squeals once more and glanced up. He could still make out Ikem surrounded by a mixture of his irritating entourage, beautiful women, and fans.
His pale hands tightened around his board as he frowned. Didn’t they know what that monster was really like? He wasn’t the charming, amiable movie star everyone seemed to make him out to be. He was controlling and neglectful. And clearly not as attached to his mother as he claimed with those random women clinging on to him. If he tried anything....
“Don’t worry about him, Zuko.” He lifted his head at the sound of his father’s voice and looked up. Ozai knelt down beside him and helped gathered his things. “I won’t let him do anything to you, Azula, or your mother ever again. I promise you that.”
A weight seemed to lifted off his shoulders and Zuko felt a pressure above his nose. He didn’t know how much he wanted to hear that until that moment. “Thanks, Dad.”
He felt an arm go around him and gently steer him away. “Let’s get to that BBQ and rest. Tomorrow’s a big day. You’re going to visit your grandparents.”
“He’s here?” Ursa’s voice was a low breath. Behind her, Ozai placed his hands on her shoulders.
“My brother’s intelligence says he’s filming a movie. They’re keeping track of him and I doubt we’ll actually cross paths.” He gave her a reassuring kiss on the cheek before rounding her to get to the kitchen.
“Auntie, don’t worry,” Lu Ten said from where he was pouring mixed drinks from a blender. “The bodyguards are always with us and they’ll be with you when you go out with Zuko and Azula tomorrow.”
“He’s not stupid enough to really try anything, is he?” June asked. She sat on a stool by the counter, drinking Lu Ten’s first concoction.
“He tried to barge into our house a few months ago to try to drag your aunt back,” Kya replied in a smooth voice from where she was bringing in a large tray of meat. “He hasn’t come around since, but the island is only so big. We can’t expect Ozai to break his nose every time.”
Lu Ten’s eyes went wide and he looked excited. “Uncle Ozai broke his nose!?”
“Babe, the drinks.” June sighed as she reached for a dish towel to wipe the liquid that spilled at Lu Ten’s response.
“I didn’t break his nose,” Ozai said.
June and Lu Ten looked to Kya. She smirked. “We didn’t confirm it, but there was an audible crack.”
“Good job, Uncle.”
Ozai rolled his eyes and wandered out to the deck that overlooked private beach. It was in a far corner of the island and protected from the waves by jetties on either side. The four children were making sand castles and from what he could see, Zuko’s was surprisingly good.
“Have a seat, my brother,” he heard Iroh’s scratchy voice say from his right. He turned his head and saw his floral shirt and shorts clad older brother laying on one of the lounge chairs, a chilled glass of coconut water in his hand. “You’ve had a long flight.”
Ozai let out a low breath and nodded. “Thanks for sending the jet.”
“Oh, it was nothing. I was hoping you’d talk Ursa into coming.”
“She wanted to come,” Ozai said as he took a seat. He could feel his tired body settle into the lounge chair and he suppressed a grimace. He may still work out, but he wasn’t as young as he used to be. “She wanted to take the kids to her parents’ grave site.”
“Does she know you pay a trust to have it maintained?” Iroh asked.
Ozai shook his head. “She doesn’t need to know.”
“I think you should tell her,” Iroh said. “Remind her that they were never forgotten. It will comfort her.”
“I just felt I owed it to them. Nothing more.”
“Ozai, there is no shame in your honorable actions,” Iroh said, calm and steady. “She may not have seen it years ago, but I have no doubt she sees it now.”
Ozai said nothing, but kept his eyes on the woman seated back in the kitchen, critiquing his nephew’s mixology. Ursa threw her head back and laughed, the corners of her eyes creasing as she did. A small, wry smile reached Ozai’s lips despite his efforts to remain stoic.
How he hoped his brother was right.
“Dad!” Azula swept in like a storm. “Dad, come look at my sand castle!”
“You aren’t going to get your mother?” Ozai said, sitting up.
“Mom’s seen me make castles before. This will be your first time!” He struck him then that near anything he would do with his children would be a first. Sand castles, snorkeling, taking them out on a boat...it would all be a first for them.
And unlike when they were babies, they would remember.
“I trust yours is structurally sound?” Ozai said as he slid his legs over the edge of the chair and stood up. Azula nodded. “Good,” he said as he took out his phone. “I’ll take pictures.”
Her small hand grabbed his and began to lead him to the beach. Ozai felt both joy and an aching feeling, knowing how many times he could’ve held his little princess, but didn’t. He held her once before the divorce. Once. Maybe twice.
“Dad!” Azula let out a pleased yell as he picked her off the ground and spun her around. “What are you doing!”
“Want me to stop?”
He tossed her into the air, making sure to keep her at a safe height. He was immediately noticed by the other children.
It felt like an eternity until Hakoda called them in for dinner. Breathless and feeling his age more than earlier, Ozai lagged behind the children as they raced into the house.
“Don’t over do it,” Hakoda said. “They far outlast you in energy. You just can’t keep up.”
“How do you do it?” Ozai asked his best friend. “You always seem to keep up with the kids.”
“Careful planning and experience,” Hakoda said, tapping his head. “Work smarter, not harder.”
Ozai snorted. “Were they always this energetic?”
“No,” Hakoda said, grinning. “It was worse when they were toddlers.”
Dinner went well with everyone praising Hakoda’s grilling. Lu Ten made his cousins and Katara and Sokka ice fruit smoothies for dessert. Ozai couldn’t help but be amused as he watched all for them seated on steps of the deck, watching the last rays of light disappear over the horizon as they discussed, with their most serious voices, who would win - Ikem’s bodyguards or theirs.
Personally, he was sure their family’s bodyguards would win. They were highly trained, many ex-military and in some cases, reformed criminals trained by ex-military, and devoted to the family. His mother always made sure their bodyguards and their families were taken care of and now his brother continued to do so.
He was sure all of them would take a bullet for Iroh and wouldn’t hesitate to bury Ikem’s bodyguards if needed.
Lu Ten and June joined the children’s discussion and provided information they dug up on Ikem’s bodyguards. How they knew that information was beyond Ozai, but he acknowledged that Lu Ten, aside from his cheerful, warm persona, was definitely Iroh’s son.
“I once saw Chit Sang punch his fist through a concrete wall,” Lu Ten said in a low, awestruck voice. “It was awesome.”
“Okay, okay, enough of this meeting,” Ursa said, yawning. “Azula, Zuko, I want you to to get ready for bed.”
“Already?” Zuko looked disappointed.
“The sun just set, Mom! It hasn’t been dark for fifteen minutes!” Azula added.
“It’s been an hour and we have to get up early tomorrow,” Ursa said. “Go get ready for bed. You can stay up and watch one movie or read until the movie is over, but I want you to get ready now.”
Grumbling, the children obeyed their mother. Sokka and Katara said they’d get ready after them and would prepare the den area, where the four of them slept on the sofas and sleeping bags, surrounded by various stuffed animals won at the the boardwalk and a stocked minifridge of snacks and water.
It also boasted several video game consoles, a massive flat screen, and was connected to Lu Ten’s streaming services.
“How are they going to fall asleep when they have so much they could do?” Ozai asked as he checked out the den and walked back into the dining area where Hakoda, Kya, and Iroh were having tea.
“With how much they played today, they’ll be knocked out before the movie is a quarter of the way done,” Kya said. “It’s good that Ursa made them get ready now. Zuko fell asleep in his swim trunks last night.”
“I’ll watch them until they go to sleep,” Ursa said as she passed with towels in her arms.
“No, you get to your room and get some rest,” Kya urged. “You had a long flight. We’ll make sure the kids get to sleep.”
“Are you sure?”
“Just get some rest, Ursa,” Hakoda said with a small laugh. “You were trying to cram all your work in before you got here. You deserve it.”
“Okay...well...I’ll just make sure the kids are dressed and then go to bed. Thanks, you two. Goodnight, Iroh.”
“Goodnight, Ursa,” Iroh said with a warm smile.
Ozai watched her disappear down the hall before turning back to the three drinking tea.
“We’ve already troubled you enough with having to watch them the last few days,” Ozai said, yawning a bit. “I’ll make sure they get to sleep.”
“Ozai, you may not have noticed this,” Iroh said. “But that’s the third time you’ve yawned. You also had a long flight. Go and rest. The children will be fine.”
“It’s no trouble.” Ozai stood up straight. “Kya said they’ll fall asleep soon.”
“Ozai, make use of your time here and relax.” Iroh chuckled. “Your usual room is prepared. Go and sleep. You’ve been working while traveling.”
Ozai gave him a small bow of his head. “I’ll retire then. Kya, Hakoda, I’ll leave the kids to you.”
Hakoda and Kya gave him a nod as he turned around. He didn’t hear his friends continue talking to his brother.
“Did you tell him you had his room prepared for him and Ursa?” Hakoda asked.
Iroh smiled as he took a sip of his tea. “He should figure it out. After all, there are only so many rooms here.”
Ozai peeked in on the den once more. Azula was talking out loud about which movie they should watch while Zuko said he didn’t care; he wanted to finish reading some comic book on a tablet. His interest must’ve come from Kya and Sokka, both were avid comic book fans and recently, she started taking Sokka with her to watch midnight releases of superhero movies.
Hakoda was a ‘casual’ at best and said he was more than happy to have Sokka take his place. He and Katara apparently were teaching themselves how to bake pastries while Kya and Sokka were out after watching “The Great Republic Baking Show”.
A thought crossed Ozai’s mind as he watched Azula debate with herself whether to watch a mermaid movie or the one with pirates and a mermaid. What could he do with Azula when they spent time together like Hakoda and Katara did? Azula seemed to like art and coloring; was it too soon to take her to art museums? Or introduce her to the masters?
“Sokka’s here, so watch the one with the pirates and the mermaid,” Zuko said, settled on the couch with a tablet in front of him.
And what about Zuko? What was Zuko interested in other that comics and video games?
“Uncle Ozai, did you come to say goodnight?” He snapped up and looked over his shoulder. Sokka was walking past, fresh from the shower. He climbed over the back of the couch. “Hey, your dad’s here to say goodnight.”
Azula whirled around, her gold eyes lighting up as she pushed herself to her feet. “Dad, goodnight!” She rushed around the couch, her arms up.
Ozai willed himself not to be too moved by her affection as he reached down to embrace her. “Goodnight, Princess. Remember, don’t stay up too late.”
“I know, I know.” Azula said it, but didn’t seem to believe it and he raised a brow. Zuko lifted his hand from the couch.
“‘Night, Dad. Get some rest,” Zuko said. Ozai gave him a nod. He watched Azula return to her spot on the floor, her bright red and flowery sleeping bag next to a blue ocean-themed one that was Katara’s.
He headed down the hall to his room, receiving a quick “‘night, Uncle Ozai!” from Katara as she zoomed through, still holding her brush in one hand.
He chuckled to himself, pleased that not only did he have such good friends, but that his children did as well. They would be lucky to remain friends into adulthood.
He reached his room and opened the door, finding it already lit and the sound of rushing water coming from the bathroom. He closed his eyes and let out a heavy breath.
“Ursa, do you know they gave us the same room?” he said as he closed the door. No one answered and he made his way deeper into the bedroom. His room was in the eastern corner of the house, with two sides extending out to a wrap around patio that overlooked the ocean.
The glass doors were open and the night breeze went in through the screen, lifting up the thin curtains as he passed the large bed. His aluminum luggage was placed by the wardrobe.
“Ursa!” he said once more, making a point not to get too close to the bathroom.
“What is it?” he heard her shout. “Do the kids need something?”
“No, I was asking if you knew my brother put us in the same room.”
“Of course I did. Your bag was right next to mine!”
Ozai paused, his hand over his luggage handle. He looked over his shoulder towards the open, slotted wooden door that led to the bathroom. “You’re all right with this?”
“Why wouldn’t I be?”
He licked his lips. He thought they’d take it slow and he’d give her some space. It was one thing to cohabitate in the privacy of his home, but at the family villa? With their friends and family not a few paces down the hall?
“Don’t overthink it,” he told himself as he lifted his luggage and placed it on the bench at the foot of the bed. He opened it up and began to pick out his toiletries and his sleep clothes. He took out a garment bag with some sport coats. Iroh and Hakoda would probably laugh at him bringing it, but more than once he’d been called away on business.
He hoped it wouldn’t happen, but just in case.
He hung it up in the wardrobe and returned to sorting his things. Swim trunks, check. Underwear, check. Tomorrow would be a good day to wear those linen pants, as they were going to the temple and men and women weren’t allowed to show their knees. He narrowed his eyes. He should prepare money for alms.
“You look so serious. Do you want your own room that badly?” He tensed as he heard Ursa behind him, though his eyes immediately went down to the pale, slender arms wrapping around his waist from behind.
They were bare and he frowned.
“Tell me you’re wearing something and not getting my clothes wet,” he said in an unimpressed voice.
He heard her take in a sharp breath and stiffen. She pulled her arms back. “I’m in a towel,” she said in a sharp voice. “And really ?”
He set aside his clothes for the next day and closed his luggage. “Weren’t you the one who told the children that we have a long day tomorrow and need to wake early?” He turned around, lifting his bag off the bed to bring it back to the side of the room.
Ursa was indeed in a towel that, painfully for him, ended at mid thigh. Her hair was in a towel turban. Her cheeks puffed out as her face reddened. “We do, but I thought....” She trailed off, the color reaching her neck and elegant décolletage.
Ozai wasn’t an idiot. He knew what she wanted.
That didn’t mean he was going to succumb so easily.
“Did you have something else in mind? Is that why you sent the children to bed?” He raised a brow, crossing his arms over his chest as Ursa shrank back, her face red.
“No! Of course not. It was getting late-”
“So it is. I’m sure you’re tired after the long trip,” he said. He turned his back to her and opened up the wardrobe to get the awaiting robe hanging within. “After all, we had an early morning today, then there was the flight and the boat ride. Playing with the children certainly tired me out.”
He hung his robe against the door as he began to unbutton his shirt. “That’s true....” He heard her disappointed voice and he held back a smirk.
“Get some rest, Ursa. I’ll try not to wake you while I’m working.” He shrugged his shirt off and tossed it into the laundry hamper.
“ Working ?” There was clear irritation in her voice. “You’re going to work?”
“I’m sure some emails have piled up. I should take care of them.” He pulled his undershirt over his head and it joined his dress shirt. Ozai could feel her eyes on him and he slowed his movements. He undid his belt and pants, but kept them on as he put on his robe. He gave her a small nod as he passed the bed enroute to the bathroom. “Try to stay on one side of the bed, Ursa. You tend to sprawl out.”
He heard her indignant gasp as he turned around. A moment later, a pillow hit the back of his head.
He stopped and looked over his shoulder. Ursa was reaching for her sleepwear, grumbling something about being ignored. As she undid the towel around her head, he walked silently behind her.
His hands grasped her waist and lifted her off the ground.
“Ozai!” She nearly screamed as he lifted her over one shoulder and grasped her legs in front of him. As she hung over his back, she squirmed. “What are you doing?”
“Going to take a shower.”
“Let me go!”
“So you don’t want to join me?” Her squirming stopped and he smirked, triumphant. “I thought as much.”
Her parents’ remains were kept in Ember Island’s western most temple grounds. For over a millennia, cremation was the only option for the island’s inhabitants as space was scarce. Family plots were usually just for old, wealthy families of the island. Hers had immigrated from the mainland islands a few generations before her and didn’t have such land.
As a result, most of her family remains was kept in the Ningjing Temple. It was on the other side of the island from the Souzin villa.
Azula yawned from her seat wedged between her and Ozai in the middle row of a large, black SUV. Zuko had fallen asleep in the back seat, next to one of the bodyguards.
Most visitors of the island were still asleep and Ursa hoped to get to her parents’ plot before curious tourists began to arrive. Ningjing Temple was were remains of various famous Fire Nation poets and statesmen were.
“Mom, I’m hungry,” Azula said.
“We’re meeting everyone for breakfast after we pay our respects,” Ursa said. A woven straw bag carrying incense, a bottle of water, and some napkins were at her feet. She hoped the little shrine wasn’t too dusty.
“Do we need to chant prayers?”
“Just a few,” Ursa said, stroking Azula’s hair back. “It’s your first visit. We need to properly pray.”
The towering spirals of the temple peeked above the trees as they drove up a road leading to the front gates.
“Zuko,” Ozai said. “We’re here.”
Behind them, the bodyguard gently moved his arm, stirring the boy who was using it as a pillow. Zuko lifted his head and blinked, looking out the tinted windows to look at the red painted walls carved with reliefs.
The bodyguard seated next to the driver got out and opened the door for them. Ursa stepped out, holding the bag, and the bodyguard lifted the seat to let Zuko out. On the other side, Ozai carried out a tired Azula.
“Ningjing Temple is famous, isn’t it?” Zuko said, standing beside her. Ursa nodded as she looked up, taking in the sight.
“It’s a Fire Nation Heritage Site,” Ozai said, placing Azula on the ground. “Follow your mother.”
“Are you coming?” Azula asked, looking back at him as she joined her mother and Zuko.
“In a bit.”
Ursa didn’t say anything as Ozai headed towards the main body of the temple rather than the outdoor area where familial shrines were kept. She supposed it would’ve been too much to insist that he go with them. Ozai always did seem uncomfortable with her parents and Kya said it was because of the arranged marriage.
Ozai never mentioned going to pay his respects to his own parents, buried in the Caldera City - the capital of the Fire Nation. The Souzins were descended from Fire Lords of old and still exercised significant influence in the country. The bodyguards that followed them from the second SUV were a sign of that.
She led her children into a sprawling outdoor area lined with stone monuments baring family names. Small, brass pots were in front of many stones, some still smoking with incense while others contained nothing but cold ash.
As she walked through the area, she furrowed her brows, slowing her steps.
Her parents remains were outdoors, but she couldn’t remember where. She shoved back the feeling of guilt, determined to find them and show respect after so long.
“I should’ve double checked with the temple,” she said, turning around.
“Mom, where are they?” Azula said, looking down the path beside her. Zuko was a few steps behind, seemingly reading the names on the monuments as he passed.
“It’s been some time,” she said, trying to remain calm. “It’s out here, but I’m not sure where.”
“What names are we looking for?” Zuko asked.
“Hiraa is carved on the monument,” she said. “I know they’re in this section, but it’s been some time.”
“Madam, the main temple can be of assistance,” the bodyguard escorting them said. “They have a record of location of family plots.”
“We can go ask!” Zuko said, already turning around and heading back down the path.
“I’ll come, too!” Azula went after Zuko before Ursa could protest.
“Qin Lee,” Ursa said. “Please follow the children and make sure the don’t end up lost. I’ll continue looking. I’m sure it’s here.”
The bodyguard furrowed his brows. “Madam, I’ve been instructed-”
“You can send someone when you get back to the courtyard, but the children....” Ursa looked down towards the path, where Azula was over taking Zuko and announcing that she’d be the one to ask.
Qin Lee bowed his head “Yes, Madam.” He quickly ran after the children and Ursa began to retrace her footsteps. The rows were so even with only minor differences in monument stone sizes and shapes. When she was a child, she’d come once a year to clean her grandfather Roku’s grave with her parents, but that was so long ago.
She pursed her lips and heard footsteps coming up behind her. Assuming it was one of the bodyguards, she turned around to assure them she would be fine only to freeze in her spot. Her eyes went wide as she saw Ikem approaching.
“Ursa,” he said with narrowed eyes as he stopped a row away. “What a surprise. I should’ve known you’d be here. I heard the ‘Souzin Lords’ were on the island.”
Ozai’s family’s local nickname. She thought it was ridiculous, but Ember Island did see the powerful family in a good light. Still, it was clear Ikem was saying it sarcastically. She ground her teeth together and held her spot. “It’s a surprise to see you here. I didn’t think they’d be filming at a temple.”
“They’re not. In case you’re forgetting, my parents are buried here, too,” he said. She looked down and noticed the plastic bag in his hand with a box of red incense sticks.
Ursa took a deep breath and exhaled. “Of course. Don’t let me hold you back.”
“Are you here to visit your parents?”
“And clean the family plot, yes,” she said, lifting up the bag she held.
Ikem glanced to the side. “That won’t be necessary. The plot is clean.” Ursa narrowed her eyes.
“How would you know that?”
“Because I had a trust set up for them after your mom died. Poor Auntie,” Ikem said. “No one to clean her memorial.”
Ursa’s lips tightened into a line. “You never let me come back to do so!”
“That’s not true. I offered multiple times.”
“Multiple times? When? When the children were back from school? When was there time? You’d try to drag me onsite to filming locations and when you weren’t, it was one press event or party after another!”
Ikem raised a hand to appease her. “It was a busy time, Ursa. I didn’t have a choice. So the least I could do was have a trust set up to clean their plots, as mine do.”
Ursa bristled. “I don’t believe you.”
He seemed to look sincerely confused and she reminded herself that he was an actor. “That I wouldn’t have it cleaned or that we were busy?”
Ursa turned her back to him and began marching down a row. “Both,” she said under her breath. She continued down the row, recognizing a familiar tree. For a moment, she forgot Ikem. She was close.
She looked around the area and caught sight of the characters in her surname engraved into a hip height stone monument. She let out a relieved breath, lifting a hand to her chest as she approached it. As she stepped around it, she noticed thing trails of smoke coming from the front of the monument.
Ursa stopped before the mini-shrine created at the foot of the memorial and saw the brass pot with several burning sticks of incense already there. The area around the foot of the monument was swept and clean.
“He was telling the truth....”
“I didn’t lie to you.” Ikem’s voice reached her ears and she whirled around. “The temple has trusts that will clean and light incense for the memorials.”
“You paid for this?” Ursa still couldn’t believe him, but she found that a part of her hoped. At the very least, it was some measurement of decency he had not only to a family who he was once close to, but to her.
Ikem nodded. “I know I acted rash several months ago when I went after you, but you have to understand I was desperate. Ursa, you’re the only woman I’ve ever loved and when you left....” He looked pained and Ursa felt her stomach twist.
“I’m sorry to have hurt you,” she said, lifting her chin. “However, I can’t forgive you for how you treated my children and at times, even me.”
“Ursa.” Ikem moved closer. “I didn’t mean to hurt you. The children...I wasn’t sure how to treat them. They were another man’s children-”
“You told me that you would take care of them when I went back to you and the moment you could, you sent them away,” Ursa said, pain returning at the memory.
“Raising children is difficult and we were busy. It was necessary to have a nanny and then to send them to school,” Ikem said. He sighed. “Do you think they wouldn’t be sent away if they lived with Souzin? I sent them to a boarding school a few hours away, not in a different country.”
“What are you talking about?”
“C’mon, Ursa, they’re children of of the Souzin family,” Ikem said, shaking his head. “Do you think they’d just go to some school across the street? They would’ve been sent to the Fire Nation.”
“If I didn’t want to send them, Ozai wouldn’t push me to,” Ursa said, narrowing her eyes.
“How can you be sure?” Ikem said, meeting her gaze with a challenging one. “You hardly knew Ozai and didn’t want to marry him.”
“That was before-”
“Before?” Ikem’s voice was sharp. “What do you mean?”
Ursa snapped her mouth closed. “My relationship with Ozai is none of your business, Ikem. I appreciate what you’ve done for my parents-”
“Relationship with Ozai?” He took another step closer and Ursa took a step back to keep the distance. “What are you talking about? Aren’t you here with those two Water Tribe fools-”
“Kya and Hakoda are not fools!” Ursa felt a flash of anger as she clenched her hands. “How dare you insult them! They’re far more intelligent and kind than you ever were!”
“Kind? They sit aside and let you marry that monster. I saved you from your sham of a marriage!”
“You took advantage of me!”
“You’re the one who came to me!”
“Because I trusted you!” Ursa cried out, tears brimming in her eyes. “I trusted you and manipulated and took advantage of me!”
“Mom!” She felt Zuko grab on to her and hug her before she heard his voice. She looked down and saw the top of her son’s head as he moved in front of her.
“Get away from her!” Azula’s voice was cold and Ursa looked over her shoulder to see her being held back by one of the body guards. Her adorable face was twisted into red-faced fury...that an eight year old could possibly get. “Madam, is there a problem here?”
Ursa took a deep breath to try to calm herself as she raised a hand and placed it atop Zuko’s head. “No, Qin Lee, everything is fine.”
Qin Lee turned his eyes to Ikem and narrowed them. His voice dropped. “Shall I get rid of him, Madam?”
“Yes!” Azula answered at once.
“ No. It’s fine, Qin Lee,” Ursa said with an assuring nod. “He has as much right to be here as I do. It would be disrespectful to get in the way of letting him light incense for his parents.”
“I recall that his parents are located on the other side of the temple,” a low voice said her other side. She turned and saw Ozai approaching. “Good morning, Ikem.”
Ursa could see Ikem turn red at the sight of the other man, but said nothing. He took a few steps back and tried to stand up straight. “Souzin,” he said, disgust in his voice.
Ozai stopped beside Ursa and Zuko. “I thought I made it clear that you are not allowed anywhere near her or my children.”
“Ursa doesn’t belong to you, Souzin,” Ikem said.
“She is and always has been her own woman, but if you follow and harass her, we will take legal action,” Ozai said.
Ursa lifted her hand from Zuko’s head and touched Ozai’s arm. “Ozai, it’s fine. He’ll leave.” She looked to Ikem and sent him a glare.
Ozai nodded, but lifted up his phone. “If you leave to your own business now, I can forgive this trespass, as you’ve clearly upset her and my son and daughter.”
Ikem scoffed. “And if I don’t? Your bodyguard will ‘get rid of me’?”
“Yes!” Azula shouted once more.
“Azula!” Ursa frowned.
“I won’t have my brother’s men waste their time,” Ozai said in a cold, even voice. “One call and the press will know you’re stalking and harassing your ex-wife. You’re just wrapping up a several million gold movie, aren’t you? With a press junket in a few months? Tell me, do you think the public will forget by then?”
Ikem was shaking. “You don’t scare me, Souzin. All your money and your family’s power aren’t going to silence me!”
“Who said anything about me or the Souzins?” Ozai asked. He handed the phone to Zuko. “Call your Aunt Kya.”
To her surprise, she watched Ikem pale. He stumbled back. “I get it! I just wanted to talk.”
“There is nothing to talk about,” Ursa said, her hand tightening around Ozai’s arm.
Ikem let out a huff and turned around. “I’m done with you,” he spat out. “You’re making a mistake and when you realize it, I won’t take you back!” He was halfway down the path before he turned around. “You hear me? I won’t take you back!”
Qin Lee made a movement to step forward and Ikem quickly turned back down the path and rushed away.
She felt Ozai’s hand on her shoulder and looked up towards him. “Are you all right?”
“Just a little shaken. I didn’t expect to see him here.”
“I got a message on the drive that he left his hotel without an entourage this morning,” Ozai said with a frown. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you. I didn’t want to alarm you.”
Ursa shook her head. “No, no...I’ve been planning to come today and I was going to. And as I said, he also has a right to be here.”
Ozai gave her an understanding nod. “I’ll have some bodyguards come up. Qin Lee, please stay with them.”
Ozai stepped back and prepared to head back to the temple. “Dad’s not going to pray with us?” Zuko said as she watched Ozai go.
“He’s not really the type,” Ursa said, lowering her eyes. “He feels uncomfortable, so let’s let him be.” She knelt down in front of the monument and Azula sat down beside her.
“He didn’t seem like it. The monks really liked him,” she said as she adjusted her little sun hat.
Ursa smiled just a bit. “Did they? What did they say?”
“They were thanking him for his donation,” Zuko said as he helped unwrap the incense.
“So that’s why he went to the temple....”
“What else was he doing? He was checking something with the head monk,” Azula said. She looked over her shoulder. “Qin Lee, what did the head monk said?”
“Oh, that the repairs to the monument after the last typhoon were taken care of well.”
Ursa paused, in the midst of lighting a stick of incense. “Repairs?” She looked at the monument. Nothing looked amiss.
“Yes, madam. According to Mr. Souzin, that is the boss, Iroh, Mr. Ozai pays a trust for the maintenance of your family’s family memorial.”
“We’ve talked it over...for some time now,” he said as he held her pale hand. He glanced at her, trying to contain his smile. “And we think it’s time. I asked her to marry me last night.”
The table turned to the woman, collectively holding their breaths as she grinned. “Of course I said yes.”
The table exploded with celebration as Iroh called for sparkling wine, tears in his eyes as he reached to embrace his son and soon-to-be daughter.
Ursa clapped her hands together, her heart swelling at the thought of the couple tying the knot. She had her suspicions they would announce it soon, of course. Kya had whispered when they arrived at the fancy pier restaurant that the two had gone on a walk the night before, when they were putting the children to bed.
“They came back late and June was wearing a new ring.”
“You mean....?” Ursa was shaking with excitement, wanting to congratulate the couple but holding back until they told them. Giddy, she congratulated them and said that she knew it the moment she saw them together.
Ever calm June had a slight blush across her face and every so often, even as she received congratulatory hugs, would look across at her fiance with loving eyes.
Despite herself, Ursa was envious. Together forever with the man you loved, who clearly loved you back, was a stroke of luck not everyone got.
“When are you getting married?” Katara asked. “Can we come?”
“Will there be cake?” Azula asked, her eyes large. “And a chocolate fountain?”
“Ohhh...a chocolate fountain....” Katara looked just as excited.
Lu Ten laughed, gathering the two little girls in a warm hug. “If you two want a chocolate fountain, then there will be a chocolate fountain.”
“There are some that have two flavors; chocolate and caramel or chocolate and white chocolate....” June said. She paused and looked at Lu Ten. “We should have both.”
Katara and Azula wiggled out of Lu Ten’s arms and went on either side of June to lock her into an embrace between them. “I love you, June,” Katara said.
“Don’t ever let her go!” Azula instead demanded of her cousin. Lu Ten laughed and looked over and Sokka and Zuko.
“What about you two? Any dessert requests for the wedding?” he asked.
“I like fruit tarts,” Zuko said. He seemed more reluctant to demand anything of his cousin, even if Lu Ten was obliging.
“As long as there is meat, I’m good,” Sokka said. Everyone seemed to laugh as Lu Ten ruffled the boy’s hair.
“Well, then,” Iroh’s said, urging everyone back to their seats. “Let us eat with celebration in mind at my son’s engagement!”
Brunch by the sea, with the warm tropical breeze and a luxurious spread of food, provided just the right amount of relaxing atmosphere to temper the excitement of the engagement. Venue suggestions were thrown around and catering for the various parties leading up to the event were discussed as various dishes were passed around for their brunch.
Ursa looked across the table. Once the food had run out, the children were at one end, looking absolutely stuffed as they leaned back against their chairs. They talked about what to do after the meal, but the consensus was to be lazy.
Across from her, Lu Ten and June were listening to Iroh about who they had to invite as a social courtesy. She recognized some big names that had been at her wedding with Ozai all those years ago. Names she didn’t think she’d hear of again: business dynasties, political families, military officials. The Fire Nation’s elite would be there...and they all knew of her divorce and put her outside their world.
For a moment, her stomach twisted.
Would she be going to the wedding? Surely, the children were going. June, an only child with very little family, asked if all four of them would like to be part of the wedding party as attendants. Three - Sokka was the exception because he knew he’d have to dress up - eagerly accepted. Katara sent him a glare until he caved.
However, Ursa knew she was in an odd position as the ex-wife of the Souzin heir’s uncle. Where did that place her on the guest list? If she came, what would those other guests say? She had been the one to leave Ozai. Would they think she crashed the party? Or had to be invited because her children were there?
Would it take attention away Lu Ten and June or worse, reflect badly on them?
Her chest ached and disappointment filled her, but she didn’t want people to needlessly talk. It was probably best that she wasn’t invited.
“Auntie, is that okay?” She blinked and turned her head towards the said couple. They were looking at her.
“I’m sorry, I spaced out,” she said with a weak chuckle. “What was the question?”
“Would you be all right wearing traditional Fire Nation clothing for the ceremony?” Lu Ten said. “June always liked the style and thought having traditional clothing for the ceremony would be nice.”
“You can always change into something more comfortable for the reception afterwards, but I hoped family would be dressed in that style,” June said. She could see the hopeful glint in June’s eyes.
Before she could stop herself, Ursa blurted out something that silenced the table. “I’m invited?”
Lu Ten and June both looked taken aback at the question. Lu Ten quickly snapped out of it and leaned forward. “Of course you are, Auntie,” he said in a firm voice. “Why wouldn’t you be?”
“Lu Ten and I already went over this and you’ll be seated on his family’s side,” June said. She tilted her head to the side and frowned a bit. “Did you think we wouldn’t invite you?”
Ursa looked away, guiltily. “Well...things have happened and...I....” She glanced up and saw the hurt look on Lu Ten’s face. She remembered the little boy she met years ago; always energetic and kind, calling her Auntie before she even married Ozai. Her lower lip trembled. “Sorry, I’m thinking of unnecessary things. Of course, I’ll be there. And I’ll wear the traditional dress for the ceremony.”
It seemed like the air over the table relaxed once more and Lu Ten looked relieved. June squeezed his hand and reached her other across the table for Ursa’s. “Who else am I going to go to for advice on marrying into such a troublesome family?”
Ursa let out a choked laugh, her eyes damp as she took June’s outstretched hand. “You’re marrying Lu Ten, I assure you whatever trouble will be worth it.”
“Aww...Auntie....” Lu Ten blushed and looked at June with a bit of smugness. “I was always her favorite.”
“You’re her only nephew until Sokka was born.” Ozai reminded him with a smirk. “Of course you were.”
The table laughed and he put his arm around the back of Ursa’s chair. Ursa leaned back and smiled, feeling comfortable and relaxed. What did it matter what the fancy guests would say? It wasn’t like she had to deal with them every day. And after being married to Ikem, her skin was thicker than it ever was.
She felt Ozai’s arm rest against her shoulders and she leaned closer to him.
Ozai was there now. And Ozai took care of his own.
She wanted to ask him about the trust for her family memorial, but the last two days, there really wasn’t an ideal time. In between taking the children sightseeing and joining the others at the beach or sailing, Ursa couldn’t find a private time to talk to Ozai, not even when they’d return to the quiet of their bedroom.
Running around under the hot sun all day exhausted her and the last two nights, she’d fallen asleep in the den along with the children. She was moved sometime in the night, as she’d wake up in the bedroom with Ozai reading his tablet beside her, seemingly checking up on the news and messaging Hakoda.
“Can you stop messaging him so early in the morning?” Kya complained the day before, looking tired. “It’s six am and his tablet is going nuts.”
“Business never sleeps, Kya,” Ozai said in a cool voice.
“Business doesn’t, but I do,” Kya replied in an equally calm voice. She took a long sip of her coffee. “And I’m not as forgiving .”
Ozai froze and pursed his lips over his mug. “Fine. Hakoda, silence your tablet.”
“ Or , and this is just a thought,” Hakoda said from the stove. “You can just not message me at six am.”
Iroh barely muffled his chuckle before telling Ozai that he needed to relax on the island and sleep in. Ozai gruffly replied that he was a morning person. Still, he did what his brother said and tried to sleep in that morning. He failed, twisting and turning in their bed until she told him to ‘just get up’.
She could’ve asked about it then, but sleep was more important. Now, after another day in paradise, she had her chance.
As Ursa walked out of the bathroom, her hair dried, but still wearing her robe, she found her ex-husband and current...partner, she supposed the term would be, on the hammock on the deck beyond their glass doors. He was squinting down at his tablet again as the breeze rocked him back and forth.
He looked far too comfortable, barefooted and lounging in just a pair of flannel sleep pants.
“Ursa, Hakoda and I are going to an electronics gaming expo in two months at the request of a customer,” Ozai said, not taking his eyes off his tablet. “We have guest passes. There’s a lot of video games there; do you think Zuko would like to go?”
Her heart swelled. Ozai? Willing to take their son with him on a business trip? For a moment, she couldn’t believe it. “Who are you...?”
He knit his brows and looked at her with confusion and annoyance. “What are you talking about?” He lowered his tablet on to his lap. “Hakoda says that if Zuko goes, he’ll bring Sokka.”
She let out a low breath. “As long as it doesn’t clash with school, that’s fine, but who’d be watching them if you two are with customers?”
“Lu Ten,” Ozai said. “We won’t be with the customers most of the time and as it’s industry only, non-industry attendees are restricted. Hakoda mentioned it to Lu Ten and it turns out he’s been dying to go to the expo for years, so he offered his services.” She heard a ping come from the tablet and Ozai looked back at it. “Lu Ten also says that June would love to start looking at venues and dresses with you, Kya, and the girls that weekend, if you’re up to it.”
“She’s such a sweet young woman.” Ursa smiled, thoughtful as she wandered out and stood by the hammock.
Ozai nodded and scooted to the side, silently offering her a place beside him. As she took hold of the hammock to get on, Ozai hung his leg out to steady it. “Of course June is a good woman. Souzin men have always had excellent taste in women.”
She felt his arm around her and pulled her back. Her legs slipped out from beneath her as she fell back against Ozai and the hammock, laughing as she held onto his arm.
“Do you now?” She tilted her head back to look up at him, only half surprised to find a soft look on his face. Her heart quickened. “Ozai....”
“I don’t want you to ever feel like you don’t belong in my family,” he said as his eyes crinkled. “If you have any doubts about your standing, let me assure you that none of us: my brother, my nephew, my future niece, or myself see you as an outsider.”
She tried to hold back her smile as she rolled on her side and draped an arm over him. “I always did love Iroh and Lu Ten. Their kindness is just too good for me.”
“Non-sense. They are happy to welcome you back.”
Ursa let out a heavy sigh. “They may be, but I’m sure there will be some talk at Lu Ten and June’s wedding when people recognize me as your ex-wife.”
“That’s their issue to deal with. What matters is that you recognize where you stand in our lives. They can talk all they want. There’s nothing to be ashamed of.” She buried her face against his chest, feeling elated at his words.
“Everything you say makes me happy.” Ursa relaxed against him and closed her eyes. “This entire trip has been a dream, Ozai. I almost don’t want to leave.”
“We’ll come back next year.”
“Of course.” Ozai narrowed his eyes and looked at his tablet. “Hakoda and Kya won’t pass up a chance to exploit our friendship for a free lodging at an island villa.”
She let out a laugh, noticing him smirk at his own joke. “You wouldn’t have them stay anywhere else.”
“I told you, I take are of my own.”
“Yes...you do.” She nestled against him once more. As she looked across him, towards the dark ocean in the distance, she decided to ask. “Ozai....”
“Why didn’t you tell me you set up a trust for my family memorial?” She felt him tense against her and, suddenly afraid that he was going to try to flee to avoid the conversation, her arm around him tightened. He took a deep breath, but remained on the hammock.
“Who told you?”
“The kids were talking about it,” she said. “When did you have it set up?”
“After Rina died,” Ozai said. “Kya went to pay her respects that year and told me it looked as if no one had taken care of the site at all. She sent money to have cleaned up and arranged for prayers during the death anniversaries of your parents.”
Ursa drew her head back. “She never told me.”
“She said you already felt guilty for not being back to come here, so she didn’t want to trouble you.” Ozai’s arm rested over her shoulder and gave her a firm squeeze. “We are lucky to have such good friends.”
Ursa nodded her head in silence. “And the trust?”
“I established it shortly after. If there was any damage, it was to be repaired immediately. Daily prayers were scheduled, as well. It’s the same as we have for the family shrine at the Caldera.”
She looked up and Ozai looked confused. “What do you mean ‘why’?”
“We were divorced then,” Ursa said. “You didn’t need to do anything for me.”
Ozai inhaled a deep breath. “Perhaps it wasn’t for you,” he said. “Your parents...despite the pressure my father put on them to have you marry me, were always kind to me. I put them through so much, put their only child through so much...this was the least I could do.”
Ursa closed her eyes and pressed her head against him. “Before she died, I had to fly off to be with Ikem at a location. I asked to stay because Mom was so sick, but he insisted I come. As she was wasting away, she used to whisper ‘it would’ve been better with Ozai’.” Her arms tightened around him and she felt him return the embrace. “Like she knew you would’ve taken care of her. Of all of us.”
He began to stroke her hair as her eyes dampened. “It’s all right, Ursa.” She heard his voice above her. “We both know that nothing was certain all those years ago. We both made mistakes then. What matters now is that we’re all together, all right?”
She wanted to cry even more.
Ozai didn’t seem to press her for more. He remained quiet and stroking her arm as she laid against him.
A small ding came from his tablet. Instead of removing his arm from around her and answering, he placed it against his side and put his other arm around her, enclosing him in his embrace.
Ursa felt warm and safe. She never wanted to leave his arms ever again. And if they could remain as they were, she would only be blessed.
The warm breeze swayed them under the dim light of the deck and the safety and warmth relaxed her. She began to feel the heaviness of sleep take over. An island paradise, indeed....
“Mom! Dad!” There was pounding on the door and Ursa shot up. Ozai craned his neck to look through their bedroom and to the door across from them. Azula’s voice didn’t fade. “Zuko broke a vase!”
“It was an accident!” Zuko was yelling behind her and Ursa lifted her hand to her forehead. So much for enjoying her island paradise.
“The door is open,” Ozai said, keeping his arms around her. She glanced up at him and realized he had no plans release her any time soon. Their door opened and Azua burst through with Zuko trying to hold her back.
“He broke it!” Azula announced, loud. “I told him to turn on the light, but he didn’t listen and now it’s broken!”
“I said it was an accident!” Zuko looked red and on the verge of crying.
Ursa closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “Calm down, you two. What exactly happened?” They opened their mouths at the same time and Ursa cut them off. “One at a time. Zuko first.”
Azula pouted, but Zuko moved closer. “I had to go to the bathroom and I tripped on the side of the couch. I tried to steady myself, but hit the table with this vase on it-”
“Knocking it over and shattering it into a billion pieces!” Azula said, throwing her arms to the side. “Uncle Iroh’s never going to let you come back.”
“Azula.” Ursa frowned.
“That’s enough.” She felt the hammock move as Ozai moved his legs off the side and pulled himself to his feet. “Zuko, did you fall or anything?”
“No.” Their son lowered his head. “I just didn’t see the table.”
“As long as you’re not hurt,” Ozai said, rounding the hammock. “Let’s check out the damage.”
“It was probably an expensive vase, huh?” Azula followed behind Ozai as they headed to the door. “Will Zuko have to pay it back?” She looked at her brother. “I don’t think you can afford it, Zuzu.”
Ursa ran a hand down her face and stood up. She followed them outside and could see the light on by the den, where several adults were already inspecting.
Hakoda was sweeping up the vase fragments and Lu Ten was returning with a hand vacuum to get the smaller bits. Katara was still half asleep in her sleeping bag, confused as she looked around.
Iroh was rubbing his chin as he looked at the fallen shards on the floor.
“Is anything else broken?” Ozai asked.
“Just the vase. It’s lucky Zuko didn’t fall and hurt himself,” Iroh said. “Katara, stay where you are. There are sharp pieces here.” She nodded, still sleepy.
“Where’s Sokka?” Zuko asked as he looked around.
“He went to get a snack,” Hakoda said. “Are you all right, Zuko?”
“I’m fine, Uncle.” He looked shy as he looked towards Iroh. “Uncle Iroh, I’m sorry about the vase. I’ll pay for it.”
“Pay for it?” Iroh looked surprised. A warm smile filled his face as he reached down and patted Zuko’s shoulder. “It was an accident, my nephew. These things happen and what is important is that no one was hurt.”
“But I still broke your vase,” Zuko said, looking at the spot where Lu Ten was now vacuuming. “Can I replace it?”
“I’m afraid it was irreplaceable.” At his words, Zuko visibly paled. He looked guilt stricken and Ursa wanted to comfort him. “There was only one of those ever made.”
“Uncle, I’m so sorry.”
“I guess I will just need to make another one at my next pottery class.”
Ursa heard Lu Ten and Hakoda snort back a laugh as Iroh beamed. Zuko looked up, confused. “You made it?”
“Yes, I’ve been taking this pottery class back at the Caldera. I find it very soothing. If you visit, I can take you. So far, I’ve just been making vases and bowls, but I’m working towards tea pots and cups,” Iroh said, looking rather proud.
Lu Ten swept past his cousin. “They’re not very good, though.”
Zuko cracked a small smile and Iroh squeezed his shoulder. “Don’t worry about it, Zuko.”
“Does this mean he’s not banned?” Azula asked, wrinkling her nose. Zuko shot her a glare.
“No, but Azula, you should be more careful. What if you had gotten hurt running past the broken pieces,” Iroh said. “Be cautious with your actions, Azula. It is difficult to move forward if you injure yourself in the process.”
She seemed to take this into consideration as Kya walked in with Sokka, eating a leftover meatbun. “Everything is good?”
“Everything’s good,” Hakoda said. “Okay, show’s over. Everyone go back to bed.”
Ursa ushered her children back to their spots, with Ozai watching in silence behind her. He placed his arm around her waist as they returned to their room.
“This is what you have to look forward to,” she said as he closed the door behind them. “I hope you’re prepared.”
Ozai fell back on the bed and held his arms out to her. He still looked serious. “I’ve been prepared for years.”
She slid into the bed beside him and took his arms, wrapping them around her body. “Have you really?”
“No,” Ozai said as he kissed the side of her head. “But I’m trying.”
“May I have this dance?” He asked with expected flair; bending at the waist and extending his hand as Kya chuckled with amusement across from her. He looked dashing in the dark colored suit he’d changed into after the wedding ceremony. She wouldn’t expect otherwise.
“Of course you can.” Ursa placed her hand on her nephew’s as Lu Ten led her to the dance floor. June was now dancing with Iroh, who throughout the whole day, appeared as if he were about to cry tears of joy. Aside from the children, he was the only one who remained in the Fire Nation traditional clothes. The bride and groom and Ursa and Ozai had changed into modern suits and dress after formal photographs were taken.
Lu Ten looked over his shoulder as he escorted Ursa to the dance floor, waving past the children who were chasing each other for one reason or another.
“Auntie Kya, you’re next,” he said with a cheeky grin.
“I will patiently await my turn,” Kya said with a laugh. Hakoda chuckled as he poured some more champagne into her glass. “You’d think with how early they had to get up to get ready, the kids would be tired by now.”
Sokka was trying to dance in the corner, where some children of the guests had congregated. Azula was chatting up two girls she met from the Fire Nation, regally telling them she hoped they enjoyed her cousin’s wedding. Katara was with Zuko, wandering around the elegant venue while eating skewered fruit covered with chocolate.
“Must be all the sugar,” Hakoda said. He looked across the room, at the massive table lined with desserts, including the promised chocolate fountains. Azula and Katara had been elated and asked if they could bring their chairs to that table.
Kya said no, but that didn’t stop them from going back and forth to cover various fruit with ‘the good stuff’.
“They’re going to crash tonight,” Kya said. “Oh well, once in a while isn’t too bad.”
“Speaking of crash, where is our favorite stoic idiot?” Hakoda asked, glancing around. He had his arm around Kya’s chair as she took a sip of her drink.
“He’s probably talking to the Fire Nation guests. He’s lived in the Republic for years, so they rarely see him. I’m sure they want to take this chance to grill him.”
As she said that, the chair across from her scraped as it was dragged out from under the table and a stern faced man took his seat.
“Do we have anything harder?” Ozai said as he grabbed the neck of a champagne bottle and filled his glass.
Hakoda smirked. “Is something troubling you?” he asked in a smooth voice. Ozai shot him a dirty look as a passing server swept by and bent down to listen to Hakoda’s order. “Whiskey. Just one.”
“Yes, sir.” The server rushed off to get the order.
“Something. Some one is more like it. Multiples of them,” Ozai said before taking as dignified a sip from his drink as he was able considering how irate he was. “It seems Ursa was right to be worried. Many people are asking about her. I’m surprised no one has cornered her yet.” He paused and eyed Kya. “I supposed I have you to thank for that.”
Kya gave him a flippant shrug. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Ursa and I were busy.”
The corner of Ozai’s lip curled upwards. “I’m sure.”
“They’re probably just curious, Ozai,” Hakoda said. “Better they bother you than Ursa.”
“I know, but that doesn’t lessen the annoyance. You’d think they’d have enough tact to just leave it as is.”
“If I didn’t know what was going on, I’d be curious as to why your ex-wife was suddenly in the lives of one of the most influential families in the Fire Nation again,” Kya said.
“That’s because you’re nosy.”
“I prefer ‘have a thirst for knowledge’.”
“You’re not exactly forthcoming about aspects of your life, Ozai,” Hakoda said in a placating voice. The server returned with a small glass of whiskey and placed it in front of Hakoda. “Though Ursa’s divorce to Ikem was all over the tabloids once it got out. I’m surprised these elites wouldn’t figure out the genealities.”
“You’ve got more brains between the two of you and the entire room of elites,” Ozai said. “Someone even asked I planned to adopt her children. What are they talking about adopt? They’re my children!”
“Daddy....” Azula’s sing song voice approached them, a sure sign that there was something she wanted. She appeared next to Ozai with a bright smile, stopping him from reaching for the drink Hakoda ordered him. In the last few months Azula had taken to being her father’s little princess and oh, how she knew how to milk it. Ursa had to talk Ozai out of getting her a pony...twice. “Can you dance with me? It’s a parent child dance, right?”
Despite his outward demeanour remaining the same, Hakoda and Kya knew Ozai was beat.
“Of course, Azula. I’d be happy to-”
“Dad!” Katara zoomed in and grabbed Hakoda’s arm in her small hands. She began tugging him up. “Daddy-daughter dance! Let’s go!”
“I’m up, Kat!” Hakoda laughed as he allowed his daughter to lead him to the dance floor. Azula wrinkled her nose, as if having been beaten.
Still, Ozai led his daughter to the dance floor, passing their mother and Lu Ten as he headed to switch out with Kya.
Ursa took a seat at their empty table and watched with mirth in her eyes as her husband stumbled around trying to stay in sync with their daughter. In contrast, Katara and Hakoda were doing some strange dance that made others steer clear of them. Their arms were flailing all over the place.
“Quite a sight, isn’t it?” A gravelly voice spoke from behind her and Ursa looked up just as Iroh took Kya’s vacated seat beside her.
“You’re done already?” Ursa chuckled.
“I’m not as young as I used to be. I can only dance for so long,” Iroh said, chuckling as he patted his belly. “How are you fairing, Ursa? I know it’s been a long day.”
“To be honest, I’m probably going to crash as soon as I get back to the hotel,” Ursa said with a hint of resignation in her voice. “I just know that we’re going to have to carry the kids out of here.”
“Oh yes, I’m sure the chocolate will only carry them so far tonight,” Iroh said. “I know we’ve all been busy, but have you had a chance to walk around and mingle?”
A wry smile appeared on Ursa’s face. “No. To be honest, I don’t think I feel comfortable doing so. I know Ozai has been making his rounds and I can only imagine what they’ve asked him.”
“They have been curious,” Iroh said. “I received a few inquiries myself. I’ve deflected them to Ozai, but pointed out Zuko and Azula. I believe it’s important for them to be recognized as heirs to the Souzin family.”
Ursa nodded. “The kids are faring better than me. Azula seems to have made new friends and Zuko....” She trailed off and looked around the room. The reception was held at the highly exclusive top floor restaurant of the Central Souzin Building. There were three Souzen Buildings in the Caldera City and the Central one was the oldest and shortest, but it had the best views of the city. She spotted her son being dragged on to the dance floor by a determined Katara while Hakoda and Kya danced, having switched partners.
Zuko looked hesitant, but still followed, red-faced.
Iroh chuckled. “He’s far more popular than Ozai was.”
Ursa couldn’t help but snort. “I don’t recall Ozai being popular.”
“Well, what can I say? I seemed to have inherited all the charm.” Iroh laughed as she giggled.
“Thank you for your confidence, brother, but popularity is overrated.” Ozai’s low voice with irritation laced through hovered behind her. Ursa looked over her shoulder and smirked.
“That’s what unpopular people say,” she said. He raised a brow. Iroh pushed himself up.
“For a popular man, you’d think you wouldn’t just stand there,” Iroh said.
Ozai wrinkled his brow. “What are you talking about?”
Iroh gave him a tired look. He motioned to Ursa with a subtle nod of his head. Ozai continued to stare at him, unsure what he was talking about. Iroh tried to motion to her once more and Ozai gave him a quizzical look.
Finally, Iroh let out a heavy breath and ran a hand down his face. “Ask. Her. To. Dance.”
Ursa bit her lip to keep from laughing as Ozai’s stern face filled with a blush. She stood up. “I suppose I’ll have to take it from here,” she said with a disappointed voice. She reached across the table and took the whiskey.
“Hakoda ordered that for me-”
“Well, you’re too slow.” She took a good sip of the drink and smirked as she put the cup down. “Come on, Ozai.” She grabbed his wrist and pulled him forward. Was she emboldened by the liquor or just the atmosphere of the night? She wasn’t sure. “Don’t tell me you’re too tired to dance.”
“Azula is has more energy than me,” Ozai said. “And where did she learn to dance?”
“She took lessons for a little bit before we moved in with Kya and Hakoda,” Ursa said. She maneuvered them towards the center of the dance floor.
“Oooh...finally got enough courage to ask her to dance did you?” Hakoda’s amusement could be heard in his voice as he and Kya swayed beside them.
“Hmm...I’d wager money that Iroh told him to,” Kya said. Ozai’s face heated up further.
“Hey, stop picking him.” Ursa gave them a small pout as she rested her head against his shoulder. “You know he’s not a good dancer.” Ozai let out a low growl and gave her look.
“Yeah, he’s not.” Both Hakoda and Kya echoed her words and Ozai sent them both glares.
“Okay, we’re dancing over there.” Ozai held Ursa’s hands firmly in his as he led her across the dance floor, ignoring Hakoda and Kya’s snickering.
“Uncle! You finally got Auntie to dance!” Ozai sent his nephew a look of betrayal.
“Good job, Uncle,” June said, pasted to her new husband as they swayed beneath the lights.
“I’ve been busy!” Ozai said as he led a giggling Ursa further away. “They make it sound as if I’ve been avoiding you this entire time.”
“Well, you have been busy chatting it up with the other guests,” Ursa said. She pulled her hand from his and instead rested her arms around his neck. Ozai’s hands fell to her slim waist, pulling her closer until the space between them was gone.
“Were you lonely?” he asked as she rested her head against his shoulder once more.
He drew his lips into a tight line. They danced for a bit longer with Ursa relaxed against him. His tense, jerking movements eventually smoothed out. She giggled and looked up at him. “I know they’ve been asking you about me. I’m sure they didn’t expect to see your ex-wife here.”
“Ex-wife...” Ozai let out a little snort of disgust at the title. “You’re far from a mere ex-wife.”
“Mother of your children?”
“More than that.”
“The one true love of your life?” Her eyes sparkled with with excitement and amusement. He gave her a deadpan look and she waited for him to give her a snarky reply.
“I was going to say future wife.” Her eyes went wide. “But yours is close enough.”
She stiffened in his arms as her face heated up. She could feel the flush fill her body. “Ozai....”
“Oh, finally at a loss for words?” Ozai said, sounding almost cocky.
Ursa could feel eyes on her. While she was sure it was because she was dancing with Ozai and no one else heard his statement, part of her still felt like everyone was listening in. She looked away. “I don’t think this is the place to talk about it.”
“I agree.” She lifted her head, surprised that he did. He stepped back, allowing her arms to slip from his around his neck before grasping one of them. “Let’s go.”
She could turn any redder, she probably would’ve. What did he mean by that? They couldn’t just leave the reception! Besides, the children were still wandering around.
“Go where?” Her voice was tight and she pulled back, refusing to leave.
Ozai looked over his shoulder and gave her a curious look. “To talk on the upper balcony.” His cool eyes moved up and down. “Ursa....” She shuddered at the way he said her name in a low, smooth voice. He leaned closer to her, bringing his lips near her ear. “What were you thinking?”
She wrinkled her nose, ignoring how flushed was, and stomped past him, pulling on his hand to follow. “Let’s just go!”
He chuckled to himself as they headed up the stairs to the upper level. The upper level had a fob access door which kept everyone save a few members of the wedding party and family out. Ursa waited for Ozai to reach into his pocket and use a small fob to unlock the tinted doors and let them in.
They climbed the stairs and Ozai headed to the balcony opposite the one below them. He used the fob to let them out and a cool breeze swept over them upon exiting. The warm air of the Caldera City settled over them as the door closed behind them.
Her breath seemed stolen in a brief instance as Ozai’s pulled her close and placed his lips atop hers. She pulled back and gasped for air. Ozai drew his head back and frowned.
“I’m sorry, I went too fa-”
She cut him off, pulling him back down towards her lips. Him kissing her was unexpected, but not unwanted. She tightened her hold around him and slipped her tongue between his lips.
Yes, definitely not unwanted.
“Ursa!” His voice was breathless and she drew her lips into a cheeky smile as he drew his head back and looked away. How rare to see Ozai Souzin blushing.
“Hmm...now who’s at a loss for words?”
He let out a low grumble as she giggled. “Don’t tell Kya. She’ll tell Hakoda and I won’t hear the end of it.”
Ursa grinned. “Well, you started it. What’s with calling me your future wife upstairs?”
“Is something wrong with that? I told you months ago that I wasn’t against re-marrying you.”
She fought back the flush at the memory of those few days alone at his house, after he plucked her from the rain and nursed her back to health.
“I know, but....” Part of her didn’t want to think he was serious. At least, not so soon.
“But what?” Ozai asked. “Ursa, I meant what I said downstairs.” His brows furrowed. “Is it not an option for you?”
“It is!” She almost jumped up and looked up at him with earnest eyes. “The last few months living together with you and the kids has been like a dream. I never would’ve dreamt that it was possible.”
“Then, what is the problem?”
She drew her lips inward and thought for a moment . What was the problem? Didn’t she want to continue living with her family? Didn’t she want to continue eating dinner with her kids every night? Didn’t she want to continue waking up on top of Ozai and trying to hold him back when he got up at dawn to go jogging?
She wanted to continue all of that; so much that she didn’t want anything to change for fear that it would all fall apart.
“I just thought it was enough as we are now,” she said in a quiet voice.
He seemed to try to read her expression. “If you’re fine with that, nothing has to change.”
Her eyes crinkled up and she shook her head. “Everything is going so well. I didn’t think that you’d still want to get married.”
“It has practical purposes, too,” Ozai said. “If something happens to me, being married will cover legal issues.” He lifted his hand and stroked the side of her face. “You won’t have to worry about anything, Ursa.”
Her lower lip trembled and she felt her eyes begin to blur. “Don’t say that. Nothing will happen to you.”
“I don’t plan for anything to happen to me,” he said with a head of amusement in his voice. “I just want to make sure you’re taken care of.” He held his breath for just a moment. “And I may be a bit greedy for wanting to marry you. Again.”
She gave him a small smile. “I would love to marry you, Ozai. Again.”
The corners of his lips seemed to be trying to fight down a smile. “Then, I suppose the next wedding we attend will be our own.”
Ursa choked back a cry and lifted her hands to wipe at her eyes. “Okay, but don’t tell the others yet. I don’t want this to take away from Lu Ten and June.”
Ozai let out a low, heavy breath. “That will be a bit difficult, I think.”
She tilted her head to the side as he stepped back. “Why?”
He shrugged and reached into the back pocket of his suit. He pulled out a box about the size of his palm as he began to bend down. Her eyes went wide and she could feel her heart slamming against her chest.
“I’m sure they’ll ask questions when they see you wearing this.” He opened the flat black box and she set her gaze upon a sparkling gemstones set on a slender gold ring.
“I was going to wait until tonight, when we get back to the hotel, but Hakoda said that wasn’t very romantic and to ‘try harder’,” Ozai said, with a hint of annoyance. “I suppose asking out here-”
He blinked and looked up. “What?”
“Put the ring on my finger and kiss me,” Ursa said, holding out her hand. Ozai looked a bit surprised, but took the ring and slid it on her finger. She brought her hand up as he stood, and wore a stupid, gleeful smile as she looked at it.
She couldn’t help but compare it to the first time they were engaged. It didn’t feel so much as a proposal as a business meeting. They were seated around a table with their parents as his father went through terms of a contract. She couldn’t meet Ozai’s eyes back then and the air was tense and awkward.
To think she’d see the day were Ozai Souzin went down on one knee to propose to her - kind of - on a romantic balcony overlooking the city. They were alone with the faint sound of music below them. This moment was just between him and her; no parents, no contracts.
No tension or awkwardness.
“Ahem,” Ozai said, drawing her out of her daze. She blinked and looked up at him. He met her eyes with a bored expression. “I don’t recall getting an affirmative answer.”
A wide smoke broke out on her face as she threw her arms around his neck and pulled him down, attacking him with kisses in hopes that it would convey her ‘affirmative answer’.
“How’s that for a yes?” she asked as she leaned back and met his eyes.
“I’m afraid I didn’t hear you. Can you repeat it?”
She grinned and tilted her head upwards once more. “As many times as you want.” She kissed him once more as she cupped his face. “I’m not going anywhere.”
Thank you for reading! I hope you all enjoyed this little story. It was fun to write and explore a little refound love story between Ozai and Ursa. Let me know what you think and thanks again for dropping by!