Meet the Teacher Night has always been one of Zuko’s least favorite things about each new school year. There’s always a fuss when people realize who he is and who he—and, by extension, Izumi—is related to. He likes to lurk near the door in the hopes of not being noticed while Izumi bounces around her new classroom, making friends and exploring. Not a year has gone by that he hasn’t failed to gain the unwanted, fawning attention of the teacher and some parents. The first three years of Izumi’s education had been a blur of themed and ornately decorated classrooms, parents eager to get on Zuko’s good side, and teachers who were either too hard on Izumi or too easy simply because of who she happened to be related to.
This year, Zuko and his daughter are directed to a class at the end of the third grade hall that doesn’t boast its roster of students in a butcher paper scene on the door. There is no obvious, in-your-face theme, a relief after Izumi’s past classrooms which had been a hodgepodge of pirate ships, barnyards, and superheroes.
“You’re a lucky girl,” says the woman who points them in the right direction. “Ms. Kanik is one of the best teachers at our school.”
Zuko and Izumi have been told this every year. He has yet to agree with this statement in regard to his daughter’s teachers.
The classroom is sleek, decorated in deep purples and blues. There are twinkle lights in the shape of stars draped over the whiteboard and each student has a cubby and hook, their names written on handmade labels bearing the phases of the moon. An entire wall is taken up by shelf upon shelf of books. As is tradition, Zuko hangs back by the door while Izumi heads out to get herself acquainted with her surroundings and new classmates. There are around a dozen other students in the room and twice as many parents.
Times like these make Zuko feel his status as a truly single parent quite keenly. Though Izumi never seems fazed by their two-person household, he can’t help but wonder if she notices that even the divorced parents somehow both manage to show up for their kids. Zuko and Izumi’s situation is unique and, though she has readily accepted all of his answers to her scant questions over the years and done well with the therapist Uncle suggested, moments like these make him realize everything she’s missing out on.
“Spirits,” says a voice somewhere near Zuko’s shoulder. “First pee break I get and half the parents show up!”
And then a small woman is gliding past him into the room, all long, dark curls and smelling of a summer storm. When she turns to address the room, blue eyes bright in the almond hue of her face, Zuko can’t help but think that none of his teachers ever looked like this woman. He always got stuck with the stuffy old men and women who smelled of mothballs and never smiled. This teacher is undeniably young, his age or perhaps a bit younger, and is dressed like some sort of ocean spirit in a flowing blue dress.
She is also ridiculously attractive.
Zuko edges a bit closer to the door.
“Hi, everyone! I’m Ms. Kanik.” Agni , her voice is like a siren’s call. “Welcome to classroom 3A. Parents, you can find supply lists and everything else you need on the table near the windows. Please feel free to take a contact magnet so that you can email me any questions you may have. While I’m looking forward to getting to know all of you, I’d like to spend some time helping my students get acclimated.”
There are several parents who look rather disgruntled by this announcement and attempt to corner the teacher anyway, but Zuko rather likes the policy. He likes knowing that the students are her focus.
When the crush of parents has pretty much deserted the table, Zuko ambles over to pick up a supply list and some fliers containing information about the class and the teacher herself. She has left out a selection of magnets containing her contact info and that of the school’s. There are several questionnaires as well and Zuko decides to fill them out at home. These sheets always take a long time to fill out and he wants to make sure that he and Izumi have time to feed the turtleducks at the park after dinner. It’s their Friday night tradition.
Glancing around for his daughter, Zuko finds that, rather than conversing with her new classmates, Izumi is curled up near one of the many bookcases, her nose buried in a book bigger than her head. As he crosses the room to her, carefully keeping the left half of his face angled away from the other parents, Zuko spies Izumi’s desk. Like the others, her name is written in beautiful white script on navy paper and there is a purple welcome bag sitting in the center of the desk. Most of the children have already dug into theirs and Zuko falters when he sees that they’re munching on cookies.
“They’re nut-free,” says that siren’s voice. Zuko looks up into blue, blue eyes. The teacher smiles kindly. “Izumi has a nut allergy, right?”
“Yes,” he says, startled.
“They give us a list of allergies,” she says. “I’m not magic or anything.”
“Right.” He sounds stupid. He thinks he might be staring.
She offers a hand. “I’m Katara.”
“Zuko,” he responds. Her face doesn’t even flicker with recognition the way past teachers’ have. When he wraps his hand around hers, he finds that her fingers are impossibly soft and cool and he’s ashamed of the way a few words with a pretty woman have made his own hands hot and sweaty. “I thought you weren’t chatting with parents.”
“I always circulate with parents after the kids.” Her smile is so easy, so free, a solitary dimple deep in her right cheek. “Starting with the kids usually takes some time and gets the more...eager parents off my back.”
Looking around, he does see that the classroom is emptier. A few new families have arrived, but most of everyone else who arrived earlier are now milling about on their own and waiting for their kids to become bored.
“I got the chance to talk to her for a while,” Katara says. “She’s very bright.”
“She’s the best thing I’ve ever done,” Zuko says and his face burns with embarrassment. He is not usually so honest with strangers.
“Well, I look forward to being her teacher this year.”
“Yes,” Zuko says, a bit bitter. “I hear that every year.”
“Oh?” Her head tips to the side, concern clear on her face.
“Teachers always say that. You’re obligated to, right? It’s a way to help parents feel better.”
Katara casts him a sort of self-deprecating smile. “It’s true that that helps some of the more...enthusiastic parents,” she says. “But I did mean it in regard to Izumi. She shows a particular inclination to learning that most students her age don’t. And she’s already asked me if she can bring books from the classroom library home.”
“I try to impress upon her the importance of reading,” Zuko says. “I’m glad it’s working.”
“I wish more parents did that. It’s a struggle to get a lot of kids interested in books.”
“She’s never had that problem.”
“That’s fantastic.” Katara’s eyes dart to a new parent who has come in with the late wave and is bearing down on her with ferocity. “I hope that you and Izumi’s mother will consider volunteering this year. The kids always love to have their parents involved and I definitely appreciate the extra sets of hands.”
Zuko opens his mouth to say that he’ll volunteer if he can find time, but the teacher is gone before he can speak, greeting the next parent with her dimpled smile and easy manner. And that’s all well and good because Zuko is not the type of parent to volunteer in the classroom. He doesn’t do field trips and arts and crafts have never been in his wheelhouse.
A week into the school year, Zuko is peacefully going about his workday when his phone rings. He is eyeballs deep in research for one of his client’s cases and is about to send the call to voicemail when the name on his caller ID gives him reason to pause. Frowning, he glances at the clock. It’s barely past noon.
“Mr. Sozin, hi,” says that siren call of a voice. “This is Katara Kanik, Izumi’s teacher at White Lotus Prep.”
“Yes, I know,” Zuko says, marking the page of his book with the thumb of his free hand. “Is everything okay?”
“Everything is fine now,” she says and what Zuko hears is, But it wasn’t a moment ago . “We were working on a small, autobiographical project during our writing and history blocks today, and Izumi got a little bit upset. I was wondering if you might have some time after school to meet with me and maybe offer some insights?”
“Of course.” He’ll be up until three in the morning making up for lost time on this case, but he’s used to running on fumes by now. “Is she okay?”
“There were some tears—”
“She cried ?” Zuko asks, astounded. Izumi has never been prone to tears. She’s always been a strangely rational and mature child.
“Briefly.” The teacher sounds terrified, as if she thinks Zuko is about to show up at the school and start yelling at her. “She’s calm now. She ate all of her lunch and she’s playing with the other children at recess. I think we managed to get to the heart of the matter, but children only elaborate so much, you know? If you have the time, I’d really love to see you.” There is an awkward pause. “And chat! About what happened. I don’t have duty today, so I can be available at three-thirty.”
Her voice has taken on the slightly rambling quality that a lot of Zuko’s first-time witnesses do when they take the stand and he can’t help but smirk.
“I’ll be there.”
“Great! Have a wonderful rest of your day!”
“You as well.”
Zuko stares at the phone for a long while after he’s hung up, hundreds of thoughts and feelings running through his mind. Worry for Izumi is the most prominent of all, but underneath that, his curiosity about the teacher, piqued at Meet the Teacher Night, has been offered the enticing phrase I’d really love to see you .
While Zuko signs in at the front office and slaps his visitor’s sticker to the front of his dress shirt, the receptionist calls down to classroom 3A to inform Ms. Kanik that he’s arrived. It’s been something of a hectic day. On top of the cases he’s already taken on, he’d met with two additional potential clients, interviewed three people applying for internships, and worked straight through lunch, getting sweet and sour sauce on his best tie in the process. The tie is currently wadded up in the passenger’s seat of his car. He feels half-naked and a bit slovenly without it. But the rest of his suit is free of sauce stains, so at least there’s that.
Ms. Kanik breezes into the office a few minutes later, as disarmingly pretty as she was at Meet the Teacher night in a dress so vibrantly crimson that his mouth goes dry. She makes small talk as they walk to her classroom. Zuko is thankful for the simplicity of the conversation. It means he can answer her questions without sounding like an incompetent fool. They sit down at the table near the windows and she sits in the chair directly next to his, completely forgoing the teacher’s chair on the opposite side.
“I like to meet with each of my students’ parents at the beginning of the year,” she says without further preamble. “It helps me understand the kids better and makes them so much more successful in my class. So I would have asked you to come in for a meeting anyway, but after today I figured we should sit down sooner.”
She slides a packet of papers Zuko’s way. “Today we were talking about autobiographies and personal histories and I’m afraid that my own ignorance was what led to the issue.”
The first page, labeled Parent #1 is completely filled out in Izumi’s handwriting.
Name: Zuko Sozin
My favorite thing to do with him/her/them: Feed the turtleducks in the pond at Princess Ursa Park Fridays after school
His/her/their parents are: Prince Ozai and Princess Ursa
If they have siblings, their name(s) is/are: Azula Sozin
If I have aunts and uncles, their name(s) is/are: Fire Lord Iroh
Zuko looks up from the page of information about himself into the decidedly pink, embarrassed face of Izumi’s teacher.
“I don’t exactly follow the Fire Nation royal family,” she says, her cheeks turning redder. “And I just moved here three months ago, so I’m not what anyone would call in the know . My principal says they didn’t tell me because they didn’t want to create bias towards the student. I thought… I thought Izumi was making this up.”
Zuko tilts his head and tries not to be amused. It’s refreshing to know that he and Izumi had had some anonymity with this teacher for a time. “Do kids make things like this up?” he asks.
“Like you wouldn’t believe ,” Izumi’s teacher says.
He chuckles. “It’s not like Izumi to cry over something like this,” he says. “Maybe she was just surprised you didn’t know?”
“That wasn’t what upset her.”
The brunette reaches out to turn the page. Parent #2 is typed across the top. Izumi has left the page completely blank. Zuko’s heart plummets into his stomach.
“Oh,” he says. And suddenly the teacher’s not knowing becomes a lot more uncomfortable. He’s never had to explain this to anyone before. Part of being in the public eye means that people just know .
“I asked her if she’d run out of time and offered her the chance to work on it during our free block, but she told me she didn’t need it. She...said she doesn’t have a mother. That was what upset her.”
There is a lump the size of a small boulder in Zuko’s throat. He clears his throat, but it doesn’t budge. “Izumi has never known her mother,” he says and the words come out strangled. “We had her when we were really young. Parenthood had never been a wish of her mother’s. And she never really cared for my family’s background. She left when Izumi was hardly two months old.”
Silence ensues. He can’t bring himself to make eye contact with Izumi’s teacher and flips the packet closed so that he doesn’t have to look at the devastatingly blank Parent #2 page either. After a beat or two, small, slim fingers wrap around his forearm. He looks up into blue, blue eyes.
“I am so sorry that my ignorance hurt your child,” Ms. Kanik says. “And I’m sorry that it dredged up what must be some pretty upsetting memories for you.”
“Izumi has a therapist,” Zuko says. “And she doesn’t ask me a lot of questions about her mother. I didn’t think…”
“Growing up with a single parent is normal when it’s all you’ve known. Events like what happened today can be jarring.” When Zuko raises a questioning eyebrow, she gives him a sympathetic smile. “My mom passed away when I was a year old. I grew up with a single dad as well. For what it’s worth, I think you’re doing a great job.”
Zuko blinks. “Um… Thank you.”
“My dad tried really hard, but I definitely wasn’t showing up to school in coordinated outfits with my hair in a perfect braid and a well-rounded lunch in my backpack.”
“They offer classes for that kind of stuff now,” Zuko says. “I was the worst at braiding hair in my class when I first joined. And Garanimals helped me figure out the whole outfit situation.”
This elicits a laugh and Zuko can’t help the smile that flickers across his lips in return. She’s very pretty and sitting very close and it’s all very difficult to ignore. Zuko clears his throat and the teacher retracts her hand from his wrist as though she’s been burned, her cheeks dusky with a blush.
“Thank you,” Zuko says, catching her gaze, “for bringing this to my attention. I’ll make sure Izumi gets some extra time with her therapist this week.”
“Of course,” Ms. Kanik says brightly. “Again, I am so sorry that I was the cause of all this trouble. I feel terrible.”
“Don’t. Please. It’s nice to know that Izumi and I had a little bit of anonymity for a while. We don’t get that very often.”
“Then I will do my very best not to Google you or your family,” she says as they stand from the table.
Zuko freezes. He thinks she might be messing with him, but it’s nearly impossible to tell. “Were you… Were you going to?” he asks and her blue eyes fly wide.
“Oh, La, no!” she exclaims. “I was… I was joking , Mr. Sozin.” She’s turning red again, tucking strands of hair behind her ears. “I’m sorry. I’m really bad at making jokes. My brother tells me all the time that I should just stop trying.”
She looks at him in a somewhat helplessly embarrassed manner and he can’t help but smile at her.
“I think you should keep trying,” he says.
There is something here, lingering between them in the air, nebulous and tentative, a current of promising intrigue. Zuko doesn’t think he’s felt this way in years. If ever . And it’s absurd, he thinks, because he knows nothing about this woman. The dimples in her smile should not seem so all-encompassing and the timbre of her laugh should not pull him out of his shell the way it has so far. Zuko is not a flirt . He does not go out of his way to talk to pretty women who are very obviously out of his reach.
But here he is.
And there she is in her scarlet dress and her vibrant blue eyes, looking not at all displeased.
“Was there anything else, Ms. Kanik?”
“No,” she says. “But… Um… Please. Call me Katara.” Her smile turns self-deprecating. “People call me Ms. Kanik all day and it’s nice to hear my own first name when I’m talking to adults.”
“Duly noted,” Zuko says. And then he pushes outside of his box just a little more. “And you don’t have to call me Mr. Sozin. I’m Zuko. No last name.”
“No last name?”
“We don’t have them, technically. Izumi uses our dynastic name for school purposes.”
“So what do judges call you when they’re yelling at you in court?” Katara’s smile is wide as if she’s about to laugh.
Zuko says, “Oh, no. That is far too embarrassing,” and then she does laugh.
“Embarrassing how?” she asks through her giggles. The sound of it is so melodic and enrapturing. He wants to hear more of it.
“It involves titles,” he says and his words have the desired effect.
Katara laughs again and Zuko feels all of seventeen and flattered by the attention. His phone begins to buzz relentlessly in his pocket, though, the firm reminder of a client screaming for his attention. It jolts him out of the moment.
“I should go,” he says.
“Of course. I don’t want to keep you.”
And she is still smiling at him, so Zuko goes against every instinct he’s ever had because they’ve never served him well with women anyways. “If there’s anything else you want to know,” he says. “Feel free to ask. It’s always a better idea to go straight to the source rather than relying on rumor mills and search engines.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Katara says.
At something of a loss for what to say next, Zuko throws a somewhat awkward wave out into the ether and then hurries out of the room, cursing himself all the way to the front office where he requests that Izumi be retrieved from after school care.
Izumi is no more quiet than usual as they walk out of the school and prepare for the drive home. Her face is no more pensive than normal. Still, Zuko feels a sharp jab of pain in his heart as he glances at his daughter in the rearview mirror.
“I’m sorry you had a rough day, fire lily,” he says, his voice soft.
Little shoulders shrug before Izumi replies, “I’m okay, Daddy.”
“It’s okay to not be okay. There’s nothing wrong with that.”
“I know. But I am. Ms. Kanik cheered me up. We had lunch together and everything.”
“Yeah. And she says I can write my paper all about you and Grampa Iroh. Did you know she doesn’t have a mom either?”
“Is that so?” Zuko says. When he glances at Izumi again, there is a smile on her little face, bright and wide as she peers out the window.
“Yeah,” Izumi says. “I like that about her.”
After that blip, things seem to go much smoother for Izumi at school. If her firsthand recounts and Katara’s weekly communications are anything to go by, Izumi is, in fact, becoming something of a star student in her third grade class. Zuko quickly becomes used to his daughter’s daily starstruck blurbs about her teacher which she shares on the drive home.
“Today, Ms. Kanik taught us about global warming in science. She says Grampa Iroh has introduced lots of good policies that other leaders want to use. Maybe we should stop driving everywhere. We could take the bus or walk!”
“Dad, guess what? Today, Ms. Kanik’s brother came to school. They taught P.E. with Ms. Lin and we learned a really cool Water Tribe game!”
“This morning, Ms. Kanik had a play for us to read. It was all about different Fire Nation myths and she chose me to be the Painted Lady!”
“Our art teacher was sick today, Dad. Guess who our substitute was? Ms. Kanik’s grandmother! She showed us how to make Water Tribe jewelry. Look at the cool whalebone necklace I made you!”
One afternoon, Izumi says rather somberly, “Today, Ms. Kanik was real grumpy. I asked her why she was upset and she said she wasn’t. But I heard her tell Ms. Lin that she had a fight with her boyfriend.”
Though he hasn’t spoken a word to Katara outside of thanking her for her weekly emails about Izumi’s progress, Zuko finds that his chest is tight and a look in the rearview mirror reveals that he has gone inexplicably pale. It’s foolish, he thinks, that he should be so affected by the revelation that Katara isn’t single. Because of course she isn’t. Someone that lovely and kind has no doubt found herself someone with an equally wonderful spirit.
“Izumi,” he manages to say, “you shouldn’t pry into Ms. Kanik’s business like that. It isn’t proper.”
“But she helped me when I was sad,” Izumi protests.
“I know. But that’s her job , fire lily. She takes care of you when you’re at school. That means helping you learn new things and making sure you have a good day.”
“Then why can’t I help her have a good day?”
“You can ,” Zuko says, attempting to ignore the way her boyfriend echoes around his brain. “But that doesn’t mean that you should ask her about her personal life. If she wants her students to know things about herself, she’ll share them on her own.”
Izumi purses her lips and folds her arms over her chest, but she doesn’t press the matter any further. Zuko can almost hear the cogs turning in her head.
The following Wednesday, Izumi climbs into the backseat of Zuko’s car with a loud, gusty sigh. She sulks for a long chunk of time before finally announcing her problem.
“Ms. Kanik wasn’t at school today. We had a substitute and he was boring . We didn’t learn anything cool.”
Zuko receives the same report on Thursday and Friday. Izumi’s little, sharp-featured face is so sullen that he takes a detour for ice cream on their way to the park for their usual turtleduck feeding. The sweet treat cheers her up, though only marginally and she throws half-hearted handfuls of crumbs to the little animals between moody licks of her single scoop of vanilla topped with sparkpops.
“She’ll be back to school soon, fire lily.”
“You don’t know that,” Izumi says with pouting lips. Little pops from the candy dusting her ice cream crackle beneath her words.
“Sure I do.”
Settling onto their usual bench, Zuko gazes up into the canopy of the tree that arches over it. Though Princess Ursa Park is at its busiest on Fridays after school lets out, it’s been a long time since Zuko and Izumi’s presence here has caused too much of a scene with the press. Zuko is pretty certain that Uncle filed some sort of petition to keep the reporters at bay so that his family could have some semi-private time out in public.
The park, situated at the foot of a thundering waterfall and housing sprawling walking paths and scads of extensive lawns, had been his mother’s favorite before she passed. They’d had many a picnic here in his younger years. Memories of sweet summer fruits and cold cut sandwiches draw Zuko’s eyes back to his daughter. They’ve never picnicked in this park. Perhaps they should.
“Why has she been gone so long?” Izumi asks before beginning to nibble on the waffle cone in her hand.
“Sometimes grown ups have grown up problems that call them away for a while.”
Izumi lets out a guttering sigh that causes the stray strands of hair that have escaped her braid to flutter.
“Would you like to see Uncle and Lu Ten this weekend?” Zuko says.
Skeptical golden eyes flick to the speaker. Izumi assesses him with all the air of Azula when he’s trying to lie. He knows that Izumi knows he’s trying to cheer her up and weighing whether or not she’ll bite. She adores Iroh, though, and loves Lu Ten almost as much as she loves Zuko, so it’s only a matter of time before the temptation of spending time with her three favorite people outweighs her blues over her teacher’s absence.
When Izumi has finished the last bite of her ice cream cone, she finally says, “Okay.” There is a slightly cheerier note to her voice that makes Zuko smirk.
They linger in the park for a while longer, people-watching and playing tic-tac-toe with sticks and flowers that Izumi scrounges up. Always highly thoughtful and imaginative, Izumi likes to guess as to the lives of the people who pass them by. Zuko is about ready to call it a day so that they can get home and eat dinner at a reasonable hour when Izumi lets out a delighted gasp and her entire face lights up.
“Ms. Kanik!” she shouts as she scrambles up from their grassy haven.
Zuko looks up entirely too fast, nearly straining his neck in the process. It takes him a moment to recognize Katara who appears to have been on a run through the park, her hair caught up in an intricate braid and her legs covered in bright blue leggings. She pulls to a stop a few feet away, a flicker of something flashing over her dimpled face when she looks first at Zuko where he is sprawled across the grass, bright purple asters in hand, and then to Izumi who is nearly vibrating with delight.
The little girl darts forward to envelop her teacher in a fierce hug and Zuko finds that his mouth has gone inexplicably dry and that the moment has tugged rather ferociously on his heartstrings. When Izumi pulls back to gaze up at her teacher with admiring eyes, she says, “I’ve missed you,” and Zuko wishes more than anything that he could wrap them both in his arms and not let go for a long, long time.
“I’ll be back to school on Monday,” Katara says with a gentle smile. “I promise.”
In that instant, the word promise pressing forth from her lips, Zuko is a goner, a man long-adrift at sea now washed up on her shores.
It dawns on him rather suddenly, that he should at least stand up and greet her, so he does and she smiles. Her eyes are red-rimmed, though, and her nose is pink and a little raw. Zuko knows that look well from seeing it on his own mother’s face over the duration of her marriage to his lothario of a father. Katara has had her heart broken and rather recently at that. And it pains him because she’s lovely and funny and cares so much for Izumi.
“Were you on vacation?”
“Izumi,” Zuko says warningly.
“It’s okay,” Katara tells him before her eyes shift back to Izumi. “I was moving.”
“But we had school!”
Katara pays Zuko’s protests no mind. She takes Izumi’s little hands in her own. “I’m very sorry I wasn’t there. I missed all of my students so much,” she says, earnest blue gaze locked on Izumi’s. “But I promise I’ll be back Monday morning, okay?”
“Please,” Izumi says. “ Please come back. Mr. Piandao wasn’t nearly as fun as you!”
The brunette laughs, tossing her head back. “Mr. Piandao is an excellent teacher,” she replies. “I bet you learned even more than you think you did. Now,” she smiles, wide and beautiful and brilliant, “I should be going so that you and your dad can continue...collecting flowers?”
“Oh, no! We’re playing tic-tac-toe, see?” Izumi points to the grid of sticks set up in the grass. “I’m the pink flowers and Dad is the purple!”
Zuko, his purple asters in hand, feels his face flush when Katara looks at him. He gestures vaguely with his handful of flowers and sends all his hopes to Agni that he doesn’t look too foolish.
“I see,” Katara says. “Well, you seem to have a wonderful dad, Miss Izumi. I hope the two of you have an excellent weekend.”
She begins backing towards the path, affixing an earbud as she goes. Zuko, thinking the ordeal over, breathes a sigh of relief and raises his hand to wave goodbye.
Izumi has other ideas.
“You should eat dinner with us!”
He’s burning alive. He has to be. It’s the only explanation for why he suddenly feels so hot around the collar. Agni, help him!
“Oh,” Katara says. Her eyes go round as dinner plates and she fumbles the earbud. It drops to the grass. “I um…”
She looks rather desperately at Zuko whose mouth is glued shut and who is frozen, mortified, in time . Izumi kneels down in the grass, oblivious, her fingers sifting through the emerald blades for the earbud.
He wants to evaporate on the spot.
“That’s very kind of you, Izumi, um…” Katara’s gaze turns searching.
“Um,” Zuko agrees intelligently, rather surprised he hasn’t crumbled to ash by now.
“Why?” Izumi asks. She pops up from the ground, the epitome of childhood innocence as she offers the dropped earbud to her teacher. “Who are you eating with?”
Tonight, Zuko and Izumi are going to have a very long conversation about the exact questions she should not ask Ms. Kanik.
“I- No one,” Katara says, taking the device from Izumi’s fingers.
“So… You don’t want to?”
Tonight, Zuko is going to have a very long conversation with himself about speaking the fuck up when his daughter pushes boundaries too far with her elders and not going mute when pretty girls look at him .
“Oh, it’s not that.”
She’s so kind . How is she so kind? How does she have endless patience for this? Zuko would go absolutely insane if he were a teacher. He can’t even handle it when one of the partners asks him a question!
“I’m not allowed to, Izumi,” Katara explains. “Not legally.”
“Oh.” Izumi’s eyes go big and soft, a little pout pops her lower lip out. She looks young and pathetic and it tugs at Zuko’s heartstrings.
Apparently he’s not the only one, though, because Katara takes one hesitant half-step closer. “But would you like to know a secret?” she asks and Izumi nods eagerly, braid bouncing around her shoulders. “We’re going to go on a field trip soon. Maybe you can convince your dad to sign up as a chaperone.”
One long-lashed eye bats open and closed in a quick wink. And Zuko knows he’s absolutely fucked .
“I am glad you decided to come by today, Nephew,” Iroh says.
“We’ve both been missing you and Lu Ten,” Zuko says with the soft smile he reserves only for his uncle.
They are seated in the little pavilion in the eastern gardens, one of the few places within the palace that Zuko actually likes. It’s calm here. Willows dip their fronds in the pond, turtleducks paddle about in search of food, and his mother’s flower garden flourishes, bright and beautiful in the morning sun. Izumi and Lu Ten are sprawled on their backs in the grass, laughing as they pick out shapes in the clouds overhead. The skies are blue blue blue and Zuko breathes the scene in deep.
“How is Izumi’s school year going?” Iroh asks.
Zuko straightens his shoulders and feels his smile broaden. “Great!” he says. “She has an incredible teacher…”
He prattles on about Katara for a good ten minutes before he catches on to Iroh’s raised eyebrow and all-too-amused smile.
“ No, Uncle .”
“I said nothing, Nephew.”
“Yeah, well, one of your looks says way more than words.”
“That is excellent to know,” Iroh says. “I have been practicing!” He chuckles and the crown in his topknot winks in the sunlight, as does the smooth dome of his head.
Zuko sighs. “The point is, this is the most excited Izumi has ever been about school. I think she finally has a teacher who understands her. She’s happy and that’s more than I could ask for given how her life started.”
“Your daughter is the best of all of us, Zuko. The three of us and our nation should count ourselves lucky that she is ours.”
“I do, Uncle. Every day.”
Iroh hums and picks up his tea cup with wizened, knotty fingers. Zuko thinks he sees age spots dotting several of the digits and a wave of sadness crashes over him. He deflates, elbows on his knees and shoulders rounded. His uncle and Lu Ten were all the family he had from the age of thirteen to eighteen. To think that he may someday be without Iroh is unfathomable.
“Nephew,” Iroh ventures after a few long moments of silence. His thumb traces the rim of his tea cup and his eyes, deeply marked by laughter lines, are watching Izumi and Lu Ten where they lay like starfish in the grass. “I must speak with you.”
“Of course, Uncle.”
“Not here. Perhaps you would accompany me to my chambers.”
Zuko furrows his brow, a frown spilling over his mouth. “Certainly.”
Iroh sets his tea cup aside and rises to his feet on rickety knees that pop and snap. He threads his fingers together and rests them on his belly as he begins a slow stride away from the pavilion. Zuko follows after him dutifully, his frown deepening when Lu Ten props himself on his elbows and nods, straight-lipped and serious-eyed, to Iroh as they pass. When Zuko quirks his good eyebrow at his cousin, Lu Ten looks away and begins talking to Izumi once more.
A stone settles hard in Zuko’s stomach.
The journey to Iroh’s room is slow and silent. As the silence wears on, more and more rocks take up residence in Zuko’s belly. He’s fairly certain an ulcer might develop if the silence lingers too long. Soon enough, though, Iroh’s hands pull open the door to his receiving room and then the next door that leads to his bedroom. There, he settles himself on a plush crimson settee and gestures for Zuko to take the chair opposite.
Respectfully, Zuko does. And then he waits for his uncle to speak.
“Yesterday,” Iroh begins, suddenly looking decades older, “your cousin and I were the recipients of terrible news.”
Zuko’s throat closes up, fighting back the saliva he’s attempting to swallow. “Uncle,” he chokes out.
Iroh holds up a hand and bows his head. “It is not me, Nephew. It is your cousin.”
The world judders to a halt as though it were a tea set being carried upstairs by someone careless and clumsy who tripped over several steps and sent all of the delicate china crashing to the ground. Zuko is incapable of doing anything other than staring at his uncle, mouth agape and eyes wide.
“I don’t… Uncle, I…”
The Fire Lord sighs. “Lu Ten did not know how to tell you, Zuko. He has not yet made peace with what the doctors have told him.”
“What’s…” Zuko’s mouth is dry. So inexplicably dry . “How… I don’t…”
“If we are lucky,” Iroh says, “we have a few more months with Lu Ten. If we are not so lucky, we have…” He clears his throat and brushes a finger beneath his eye. The motion hits Zuko like a bolt of lightning to the chest. His own eyes well up. “If we are not so lucky, we will only have weeks. I must make an announcement soon, but I cannot do so without first consulting with you.”
And it hits Zuko like a Ba Sing Se mail truck.
The line of succession.
“I know it is not the future you imagine for yourself, Zuko. But the Fire Nation will be looking to you in this time of strife. If you are unwilling to take your rightful place—”
A strangled sound escapes Zuko’s mouth. He isn’t sure if it’s a cry of indignation or protestation or if it is, of all the most inappropriate things, a laugh .
“—then we must begin to prepare Izumi.”
Zuko slumps back into his chair.
For a long time—for a very long time—all he can do is stare at his uncle.
If Katara is flustered by the meeting, she doesn’t let on. In fact, she handles it better than Zuko or the principal, asking incisive questions about how Izumi’s new security detail will affect the day-to-day running of her classroom. She is concerned for all of the students and she is worried about how Zuko’s new title might impact the way Izumi’s peers treat her. She wants to know how she can best support Izumi during the transition.
Zuko, still floundering and lost, has no coherent answers for her. Luckily, Iroh is there to smooth things along. Not for the first time, Zuko feels as though he should have told his uncle no on behalf of himself and Izumi. That would have been selfish, though, and self-serving. There wasn’t anyone else other than some very distant cousins five or six times removed.
Katara doesn’t bat an eye at having the Fire Lord in this meeting. She keeps her gaze levelly on Iroh’s and doesn’t let the principal’s attempts to dismiss her concerns prevent her from making them heard.
How Iroh manages to find levity in this, the darkest of situations, Zuko isn’t certain. But he is decidedly appalled when, after the meeting, they are walking out of the school with Izumi and his uncle says in a maddeningly smug tone, “Oh, yes, Nephew. She will do nicely. What do we know about her?”
“We know ,” Zuko says through gritted teeth, “that she would get fired if anyone so much as overheard you. So stop. Now .”
“You should get to know her better.”
“That’s not possible.”
“Ah, but, Nephew. Where love reigns, the impossible may be attained.”
“I don’t love her,” Zuko mutters.
“What?” Izumi asks.
“Nothing, fire lily. Uncle Iroh is being absurd.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means he’s being silly and annoying.”
“Good advice is often annoying,” Iroh says. “Bad advice never is.”
Zuko, having resigned from the law firm just the night before, and still raw from his conversation with Iroh (and the subsequent conversation with Izumi), can’t help but scowl as he, his uncle, and his daughter are herded into the back seat of his uncle’s car. He’s hardly buckled his seatbelt when Izumi begins digging through her backpack. She produces her homework planner with a winning smile.
“Ms. Kanik is taking us on a field trip, Dad! Remember?”
“I remember,” Zuko says. It’s another thing to run past her security detail.
Izumi shoves her planner into his hands, chattering away. “Do you remember she said that maybe you can come with us? She sent home our permission slips today and it has a space where you can sign up!”
Zuko glances over his daughter’s head to his uncle, hoping to find disapproval on the older man’s face. Instead, he finds an amused smirk and he thinks Iroh’s shoulders might be shaking with silent laughter. His fingers open Izumi’s planner to the marked page of their own accord.
“Fire Lily,” he begins, “I’m not sure that I can.”
“Why?” Izumi says pragmatically. “You aren’t working anymore.”
“Yes, I am. I work with Uncle Iroh now. I have to learn how to do his job.”
He feels it’s a sound argument. Something that Izumi cannot refute. Instead, she turns wide, pleading eyes to Iroh who begins outright laughing. Zuko thinks he sees the driver smirking in the rearview mirror, too. In retaliation, he presses a button to raise the divider, effectively blocking the man out of the conversation.
“Uncle Iroh,” Izumi says, wrapping her hands around Iroh’s arm, “ please say that Daddy can come on the field trip with my class! I would have so much more fun with him!”
Zuko huffs a sigh. She plays dirty, his daughter.
There is a piece of folded paper stapled into the day’s page in Izumi’s planner. Zuko looks it over and feels his frown deepen. “Izumi,” he says as gently as he can, “this is a field trip to the zoo.”
“We’re learning about animal habitats!”
“Uncle,” Zuko says, “the security for Izumi alone—”
“Is hardly less than what would be needed should you go with her,” Iroh says.
“We can’t ask the tax payers—”
“I have no problems reaching into my personal coffers so that my favorite granddaughter might enjoy a day with her father.” Iroh turns smile-creased eyes to his nephew. “Izumi has told me that other parents volunteer to help out in the classroom. There is no reason you cannot as well. In times like these, we should make all the time for happiness we possibly can, my boy.”
Zuko isn’t positive, but he thinks Katara gave him the most well-behaved students in the class to watch. Izumi and her trio of peers follow all of his directions without a fuss, listen attentively for Katara to call the groups on to the next exhibit, and fill out their worksheets with efficiency. In contrast, the teacher herself is wrangling a group of four challenging boys who attempt to dart off on her and make a scene when asked to write a sentence or two. Several of the other parents watch on in open-mouthed horror as one child attempts to scale a tree.
The brunette handles it all with steady amounts of patience and grace, not once raising her voice and holding out gentle hands to call the children back to her. It looks nothing short of exhausting and Zuko, already smitten, finds himself admiring her seemingly endless well of tender affection for even the most difficult of the bunch.
Lunch is up next, taking place in the open-air food court at the center of the zoo. It’s an expansive area, offering up plenty of opportunities for Katara’s unruly group to cause chaos or make an escape. When none of the other parents herd their students closer to the teacher’s picnic table, Zuko guides his group of sedate girls over. Izumi, deep in conversation with another of his girls about the very cool snake she saw, doesn’t notice and he’s thankful. He doesn’t know if he could stand her curious questions.
“Mind if we join?” he asks.
Katara looks away from her gaggle of boys, one of whom takes the opening to throw a hunk of banana at another. Something like relief flashes across her face. “Not at all,” she replies.
Zuko tells himself that he’s only sitting here because he doesn’t want to have to deal with the stares coming from the other parents. There have been plenty today. It isn’t often, he supposes, that they find themselves on a field trip to the zoo with the man who is soon to be second in line to the throne of the nation. Truthfully, though, he finds it difficult not to gravitate towards Katara. This is a different side to her, one he hasn’t seen. She’s so effortlessly pretty and relaxed in her sneakers and jeans, a thick headband keeping her long, wavy hair out of her eyes. She isn’t just calm and caring with Izumi. It’s a manner she retains for all of her students and it’s…
Agni, damn him, but it’s attractive .
“Mr. Sozin, can you help me with my juice box?” asks one of Zuko’s charges, shoving a box of grape juice in his face.
This unleashes a flurry of requests from the other girls and even a couple of Katara’s boys. Zuko finds himself opening packs of crackers and cookies, stabbing straws into juice boxes, and opening bottles of water. When the barrage finally ends, he looks up to find himself the target of Katara’s gaze, a curious smile spread across her face.
A cracker pelts her temple. For a moment, her bright eyes roll heavenward. But then, she gathers herself back together, picks up the cracker, and turns towards the offending student.
“Jiro,” she says sweetly, “what did we say about dropping food at the zoo?”
The boy drops his gray eyes to the tabletop and sulks, dark brown bangs sweeping in front of his face. “It’s bad for the animals,” he mutters.
“That’s right. So what are we going to do with this cracker you dropped?”
“Throw it away.”
“Thank you. I trust that your food will stay where it belongs in the future.”
“Yes, Ms. Kanik.”
Katara watches with sharp eyes as the boy takes the cracker and ambles with petulant feet over to a nearby trash can. She doesn’t look away until Jiro is back at the table and eating his food with a pout once more. Her eyes find Zuko’s and she smiles sheepishly. “Sorry about that,” she says.
Zuko considers her for a long moment before clearing his throat. “We can pair them off,” he offers.
He gestures vaguely to the students at their table. “Mine and yours. We can use the buddy system if you think it would help.”
The teacher tips her head to the side, evaluating the offer and the students. Zuko can almost see her mixing and matching pairs of students in her mind. A minute passes before she answers.
“Would that make you my buddy?” she asks.
Zuko turns scarlet and chokes on the air he breathes.
The buddy system works. There are more children to watch this way, but Zuko’s group of girls temper the exuberance of Katara’s boys. Fewer escape attempts are made and there is only one further explosion over having to fill out the field trip worksheet. Izumi is paired off with Jiro and has such little patience for his nonsense, that his lack of an engaged audience quickly encourages him to fall in line. He seems to realize that making friends with Izumi requires something other than foolish behavior.
Katara and Zuko work as a seamless team with their group of eight, breezing through bathroom breaks, scraped knees, and the gift shop with ease. The last legs of the field trip pass almost too quickly and they are soon back on the bus, returning to White Lotus Academy, a fleet of security vehicles close behind. Izumi, tired and yawning, curls into Zuko’s side, a stuffed South Pole penguin wrapped in her arms.
Someone taps Zuko’s shoulder and he looks over the seat to find Katara smiling at him.
“Thank you for your help today,” she says. “I’m pretty sure everyone else was just content to stay out of that mess. It was nice to have a partner.”
Zuko shrugs. “Thank you for what you do for our children,” he replies. “I’m not sure where you find the patience, but… Well…” The back of his neck heats up. “Izumi and I are both very thankful for you. I’m sure the other parents are, too. Even if they don’t show it.”
The grin that breaks across Katara’s face shadows his every move for days afterward.
As the school year wears on, so does Lu Ten’s illness. The lines in Uncle Iroh’s face grow deeper. Zuko finds himself thrust more and more into the spotlight, especially when he and Izumi give up their little house and move into the royal residence. Reporters dog his every movement outside of the palace, demanding to know his stance on certain policies and asking inappropriately personal questions. Izumi’s lack of a mother comes up far too often for his liking. Injunctions have to be filed so that Izumi can get to and from school without people shoving cameras in her and Zuko’s faces.
Despite everything, Iroh somehow finds a way to prod Zuko into participating in Izumi’s classroom activities. Katara sends out invitations to all of the parents frequently, but laughingly admits to Zuko one day that no one shows up as often as he does. Midway through the year, he has helped organize a class concert, helped with two science projects, and has even been goaded into helping with a celebration of Iroh’s birthday. The people in the front office are almost used to him wandering down to make copies of worksheets.
All of Izumi’s teachers prior to Katara have used the term “partners in learning.” But never before has it seemed true. And now, here Zuko is, eyeballs deep in markers and glitter glue, somehow the most involved parent in the classroom. One day he will be Fire Lord and here he is, helping to construct puppets for student-written plays about historical figures. The absurdity is not lost on him.
“You have yarn in your hair.”
There is a googly eye stuck to his index finger and he can’t seem to pry it off. Izumi is laughing at him across the cluster of desks. Zuko sticks his tongue out her and she responds in kind, crossing her eyes.
Slender fingers slide through the length of Zuko’s hair and he freezes, good eye flying open wide. Katara, sitting next to him and helping to command the flow of glue and staples, makes an odd little noise in the back of her throat that stirs up... something inside of him. On instinct, he pulls away from her and takes a steadying breath before he allows himself to look anywhere near her face.
She’s gone a fragile shade of pink and holds the offending piece of yarn up between them. “Sorry,” she whispers, voice rough. “I shouldn’t have… That was not professional.”
Zuko clears his throat. “I… Um… I wasn’t… It’s…” He makes the mistake of looking away from Katara. His eyes land on Izumi who grins in a devious way that reminds him too much of his sister and then begins, of all the Agni-damned things, making kissy faces at him. She’s grounded, he decides. So very, very grounded.
“Great,” Katara says and Zuko’s head jerks around to face her again. She is also staring at his daughter, face inscrutable.
He’s at a loss for words. The googly eye is still stuck to his finger. Izumi has hastily gone back to her project now that her teacher is also looking her way. Zuko doesn’t know if Katara’s comment is about Izumi’s implications or if she… Does she? He can’t help but wonder. A very selfish part of him wants to ask.
Mercifully, his phone begins to ring, buzzing loudly against the tabletop. Zuko scrambles for it and answers the call without checking to see who might be calling him.
The tone of Uncle’s voice sends a shiver ricocheting down Zuko’s spine and he feels himself pale alarmingly as his heart bottoms out in the pit of his stomach. Across the room, Izumi stands from her seat, eyes wide and shimmering, her puppet clutched to her chest. Her chair falls to the floor with a clatter.
“You should come home, Zuko. Please bring Izumi.”
“Yes,” Zuko says. His voice sounds odd and tinny, a distant echo in his ears. “Yes. I can do that.”
Katara is up and out of her seat in a flash, pulling Izumi’s backpack from its hook beneath her cubby. “Come on, darling,” she whispers, gesturing Izumi over.
Zuko watches, feeling strangely as though he might be floating away from them, as Katara helps Izumi into her coat and works on sliding the straps of her backpack over her shoulders. Somehow, he is on his feet and taking Izumi’s little hand in his. There is a vague prickling at the periphery of his vision that tells him the other students are staring. The room is hushed, only the sounds of the cheery music Katara had on in the background breaking over the twenty-odd faces that watch in curiosity and fear.
“I’m sorry,” Zuko tells Katara.
She shakes her head firmly. “No,” she says. “No. Don’t be sorry. I’ve got this handled.”
“Do you have work I can—”
“No,” Katara repeats. “No work. I’ll exempt her. It won’t impact her grades.” She nudges Zuko towards the door. “Spend time with them. As much as you can. It’s precious.”
Out in the hall, Zuko and Izumi are met by the members of their security details. All classes are in session and the clatter of footsteps is loud and hollow.
“We’ve got Phoenix and Fire Lily,” the female agent mutters into her communication device. “Heading out.”
But Izumi’s little feet come to a standstill. Zuko looks down at her and finds that she’s crying silently, big, fat tears rolling down her pallid cheeks. He pries her backpack from her shoulders and passes it off to her agent, the burly male, and then gathers her up into his arms before he begins trudging out of the school once more.
When they reach the car, his shirt is soaked with Izumi’s tears.
Zuko would like to say that life returns to normal in the days after Lu Ten’s passing, but that would be a lie. He spends a month acting as regent while his uncle grieves and takes time to come to terms with what has happened. It is a startling introduction into what he will one day be doing for real. It also means that there is a long month where he and Izumi cannot go to Princess Ursa Park on Friday afternoons in order to feed the turtleducks. Zuko books her extra time with her therapist as a replacement.
His daughter functions better than he expected her to in the aftermath. After a week at home, she is eager to get back to school. Katara is wonderful about emailing Zuko daily updates on Izumi’s progress and her transition back into the classroom. Though Izumi is sad and he sometimes catches her sitting forlornly in the grass of the eastern garden, looking about as though her cousin might pop out from behind a tree at any moment, Zuko is impressed with her fortitude and wishes more than anything that she hadn’t had to learn it so young.
It seems cruel, he thinks, that despite his efforts her childhood is turning out just as lonely as his. One parent to love, the other absent. Her family dwindling far too quickly. She needs someone else, he knows. And he would like someone, but he can only think of Katara—the gleam of her vibrant blue eyes, the surprising slide of her fingers through his hair, the way she makes Izumi’s days better and brighter. The concept of even attempting to ask her out seems so ridiculous, though, especially now. Anything he has to offer will have to carry the weighty implications of permanence. Any sensible woman, he thinks, like Katara herself, would never consider a date with him to be tempting in the slightest.
Besides. He doesn’t even know that she’s single. Not for sure. And even if she were, Zuko can hardly even pick Izumi up from school these days without dragging along a media circus. Spending enough time in the classroom to find out is out of the question.
When Iroh returns to work, Zuko and Izumi are able to return to their regularly scheduled turtleduck feedings. New injunctions have to be filed after their first attempt, though, because the press have become more and more rabid for Zuko and Izumi and they can’t even get into the parking lot without having their car bombarded.
Their first Friday back in the park, Izumi is a ways off with her security agent who is teaching her how to climb a tree. Zuko, his sunglasses hiding his drooping eyes, is growing lazy and sloth-like in the springtime sun. The bench he is sitting on, his and Izumi’s usual place, is warm, hinting at the oppressive heat that will begin invading the Fire Nation in a matter of weeks. It’s been a long week of meetings and photo opportunities and ceremonies, and Zuko is glad to have a moment of peace.
“Do you need a buddy?” asks a melodic voice.
Zuko lurches upright in his seat and turns to see Katara standing behind him. It’s so unfair of her to look the way she does, he thinks, all long legs and denim shorts, a white tee that is crisp against the dark shade of her skin.
“Hi.” She takes a few steps closer.
Agent Kyoshi dutifully turns her back on the pair and strolls a small distance away. Zuko wonders if something is painfully obvious or if the woman is just doing her job.
“Hi,” Zuko replies.
“Sorry if I startled you.”
“No, that’s okay. Would you, uh… Would you like to sit?” Zuko motions towards the empty half of the bench.
The brunette looks over her shoulder. Off in the distance, a man and a woman sit on a picnic blanket, deeply absorbed in each other’s faces. Katara grimaces and looks back at Zuko. “Maybe for a few minutes,” she says. “Seems like my brother and my best friend are hitting it off.”
She sits down, carrying with her the scent of daisies and rain. Her long ponytail brushes over Zuko’s arm as it slides over the back of the bench, and he knows he’ll be thinking about the sensation for a long succession of lonely days to come. He’s pathetic and should just ask for Uncle’s help in finding a noblewoman to settle down with. Someone who wants the power and the burden.
“I wanted to apologize,” Katara says.
“For what happened that day. With the yarn.”
“It was really the least professional thing I could’ve done and—”
“You don’t have to apologize for that,” Zuko cuts in. “I, um…” His hands begin to tremble and he crosses his arms over his chest in an effort to hide the involuntary motion. “I didn’t mind. At all.”
“It’s just that you haven’t volunteered since then, so I thought maybe…”
“I thought it might be easier if I didn’t bring chaos into your days by showing up with the entirety of the Fire Nation press.”
Katara tucks her hands beneath her thighs, her lower lip trapped between her teeth. She sits that way for a while, a curious look on her face, before leaping to her feet and beginning to pace in front of Zuko. Several times, she pauses to look at him, seeming to steel some nerve before losing it and resuming her back and forth.
Eventually, she says, “I’m Izumi’s teacher.”
Zuko blinks. He pushes his sunglasses up over his forehead to rest atop his head. “Yes?”
“And you’re… Well,” Katara barks a laugh. “You know who you are.”
He leans forward, resting his forearms on his thighs, watches her with interest. She’s twirling the end of her ponytail around her fingers and worrying her lip with her teeth. Suddenly, she squares herself, hands on her curving hips, chin held high.
“Look,” she says abruptly. “I don’t do this. Ever. You’re the parent of a student. I could lose my job .”
Hope, nebulous and fragile, needles Zuko's spirit. He tries valiantly to bash it down and comes out of the attempt unsuccessful. The feeling continues to swell and bloom, so he has to settle for maintaining what he hopes is a neutral expression.
“I just… It’s not just me, is it?”
For a long second, all Zuko can do is stare at her in wonder, his heart hammering a victorious tattoo against his ribs. If it’s not just her , that means it’s not just him , and…
Izumi, free from her arboreal exploration, is sprinting across the grassy expanse between her security agent and the tree that looms over Zuko’s bench. Her braid whips out behind her, her face is split by a large smile. There are scratches all up her shins and a leaf stuck to her shirt, but admiration shines bright in her eyes as she catches Katara up in a hug that is reciprocated with fierce, tanned arms.
“No,” Zuko tells Katara softly as she gazes at him over Izumi’s head. He can’t help the crooked smile that tugs at his mouth. “No, it’s not just you.”
They begin to meet every other Friday in Princess Ursa Park. They don’t exchange phone numbers and do their best to make the meetings look like accidental run-ins. Anything that will help Katara keep her job if they’re seen socializing by someone on staff at the academy. There is no touching, save for the accidental brush of their pinkies.
Zuko learns that Katara has an older brother, that her best friend is the P.E. teacher at work. She hates papayas and intends to spend her first full summer in the Fire Nation surfing off the shores Ember Island. Sometimes she snorts when she laughs too hard. There are eleven freckles across the bridge of her nose. Shocks of lighter blue grace her eyes near the center of her irises. To Izumi’s dismay, she’s never had sparkpops and, to Zuko’s delight, she loathes Love Amongst the Dragons.
And she loves Izumi. It’s so clear, so apparent. She takes so much care to include the little girl in conversations and to interact with her just as much as she does Zuko. They discuss books and science, and Izumi even asks Katara to weave Water Tribe style braids into her hair. Together, Zuko and Izumi teach Katara how to feed the turtleducks that swim through the pond at the bottom of the waterfall in the park. One week, one of the little creatures waddles straight out of the water and into the palm of her hand.
There are a million and a half times where Zuko longs to pull her close, to take her hand, to press a kiss to her cheek or her neck or the curve of her lips. He falls asleep at night dreaming of what all of that might be like and wakes in the mornings feeling as though he’s just missed her slipping out of his bed.
Iroh gives him hell for it, but he doesn’t even mind .
One night, after Izumi has long been asleep, Zuko and Iroh are up watching some inane nature program on the television when the Fire Lord rises out of his easy chair and crosses the room to rifle through a cabinet. Zuko watches, half out of interest and half out of boredom. When his uncle returns, he holds his hand out and says, “This is for you, Nephew.”
Zuko takes the proffered item, a box covered in soft maroon velvet. When he prises it open, he finds himself staring at a delicate gold band graced with a black opal, starry bursts of orange, purple, and red igniting beneath its surface. A blurry childhood memory brings to mind the ring decorating his aunt’s left hand.
“Uncle,” he protests, “I’m not even dating her.”
“All good things in time,” Iroh says.
Two weeks later, the onset of summer really begins to make itself known. The sun beats down on Princess Ursa Park. Blades of grass droop in the heat and sweat rolls down Zuko’s spine beneath his thin tee. Cool watermelon and the shade of the tree do little to fend off the temperature as Zuko, Izumi, and Katara loll on a picnic blanket.
Katara’s sandals lay forgotten in the grass. Her toenails are painted electric blue. The littlest finger of her left hand overlaps the smallest on Zuko’s right. She looks cool and serene, as though he could slide overtop of her and find relief from the heat.
“I have a question,” Izumi says, popping a piece of melon into her mouth. She’s verging on nine now and Zuko feels somewhat helpless to the manipulation of time as he looks at her. She’ll be nine in five short weeks and just before that he’ll be twenty-seven.
“What’s that?” Katara asks.
Izumi rolls over on the blanket and pins her teacher with a gaze like sunlight. “When are you going to date my dad?”
And Zuko could just die , he really could. How is it that his daughter has no chill?
But Katara just giggles and prods Izumi’s side with her toes, unperturbed by the question. “When will you stop being my student?” she counters.
Izumi takes a moment to count, her brow furrowed as she concentrates and ticks off fingers. “Three weeks!” she exclaims, popping to a seated position.
“Well, then,” Katara says as if that settles everything. “There’s your answer.”
For the briefest of moments, her fingers slide between Zuko’s and squeeze. Then she and Izumi are off like shots of lightning, sprinting and cartwheeling over the grass, full of laughter and shouts of joy. Zuko watches them go, his heart impossibly full.
Despite Katara’s certainty, though, Zuko doesn’t allow himself to get his hopes up when he and Izumi make their way to the park after her last day of school. She’s had a half day and he’s promised her ice cream and another picnic to celebrate the start of summer break. They make a pit stop at the ice cream shop where Izumi turns to him with large, hopeful eyes.
“Can we get a whole carton, Dad?” she wheedles. “And some sparkpops for the top?” When Zuko blinks at her in confusion, she heaves a sigh. “I want to share with Katara, Dad!”
Zuko’s heart does a funny flip. It’s the first she’s ever called Katara by her given name. But, “We don’t know that she’ll be there, fire lily. She was there last week, remember?”
Izumi rolls her eyes. “She’ll be there , Dad.”
So a whole carton of ice cream gets shoved into the cooler along with a container of sparkpops because Izumi is determined that Katara has to try them at least once. Izumi, clinging to Zuko’s hand, attempts to rush him through the park to get to their tree, but he refuses to walk any faster, laughing and nervous.
At the crest of the hill, he can see that there is no one waiting for him and Izumi on the bench beneath the tree. He tells himself that he isn’t disappointed. Izumi’s face falls for half a second before she shrugs it off and continues on ahead to spread out the blanket.
Quietly, Zuko begins to unpack the picnic while his daughter zooms off to collect sticks and flowers for a game of tic-tac-toe. She ambles, shoes off, through the shallows of the pond, young fire lilies clasped in one hand while she attempts to gather water lilies with the other. A pair of sandals land in the grass next to Zuko and the delicate, soothing scent of daisies and rain washes over him.
“I’m sorry I’m late,” Katara says, settling onto the blanket next to him. “They wouldn’t sign me out of my classroom. I think I looked too antsy to get out of there.”
Zuko looks over at her, drinking her in as she kneels there, vibrant and beautiful in a sundress the color of purple asters.
“Were you waiting long?”
“No,” he says, reaching a hand out to touch the curve of her cheek. “No. You showed up just in time.”
And when she leans in to kiss him, everything in his universe aligns.