Fall of the White Lotus

Chapter 50: Family

Music: Painted World, Two Steps From Hell

After the crisp but sunny wedding day, the Fire Nation woke to a blood red sun appearing on the horizon, announcing the coming of rain in Royal Caldera City. And even before the palace began to stir to eventually discover that the Fire Lord and Fire Lady had escaped to Ember Island, another mythical flying creature lifted itself from the barren wasteland between the Fire Nation Royal Palace and the courtyard, off on a new journey of discovery for his two passengers.

It took Aang and Toph a few hours to reach the mountain range stretching across the northern mainland.

Sitting on Appa's head, Toph enjoyed the cold wind streaming past her face as she leaned against Aang's sinewy body. Although she had enjoyed living with Uncle for the past three years, a rush of excitement went through her at the thought that from now on, it would be her and Aang, and she didn't really care where they would eventually settle down - as long as she was with Aang and could do something to support the community. Stretching out her feet, she grinned in contentment, glad to be wearing her normal clothes again. Aang had been very much impressed with how she'd looked yesterday, and she was grateful to Katara and Suki for helping her find a dress, but the Blind Bandit could only endure so many choral dances. In her memory, however, lingered the feeling of Aang's body against hers during a particularly passionate Fire Nation dance, and she couldn't keep the grin off her face.

"We're almost there," Aang said softly above her head as Appa lowered altitude and Momo hopped from Aang to Toph's shoulders. His body had tensed and his heartbeat had sped up. He was bracing himself. But for what?

Half an hour later, they landed on a dusty square at the abandoned hill town. After a hundred years, it was a crumbled pile of stones and ruins of simple wooden houses overgrown with climbers and weeds. Once, the houses would have had thatched roofs, but after decades of decay only gaping holes were left where once the roofs had been.

Even after all this time, it was still clear the inhabitants had left in a hurry. Cooking pots were left on stoves, and bones of cattle in decayed corrals showed the inhabitants had had no choice but to leave their animals behind.

The Avatar and his girlfriend were the first to see it in more than a hundred years, as it could only be reached through the sky and none of the Fire Lords had cared to risk losing a precious war balloon to investigate the mysterious gale-force winds barricading the entrance to the insignificant little village. Until now, when the present Fire Lord had sent his friend the Avatar to take a look.

Silently, Aang and Toph picked their way through the abandoned village until they reached a gorge with numerous caverns, where they were welcomed by a whistling wind that had dislocated entire rock formations and barricaded the pathway down the mountain.

Toph stepped forward and removed a particularly large rock barring the entrance, when Aang unexpectedly held her back.

"Wait, Toph. Please. I just..."

The petite earthbender turned around, her feet now registering the surge of emotions that coursed through Aang as he took a step closer to the mountain pass. On his shoulder, Momo had grown quiet.

"Aang..." she began, softer than usual.

"It's an artificial air current, Toph," he then said in the strangest voice she'd ever heard him use. It sounded both choked and hopeful. "This wind is not created by the weather of the world." He swallowed and took her hand. "We...we have to be careful."

Together, they went into the gorge, stepping onto the rubble of the rock Toph had just crumbled. Through her "sight", she noticed how her boyfriend closed his eyes and took a stance and, in the next moment, cleared the entire pass from the gale-force winds flowing through it. A silence suddenly descended upon the pass and the village behind it - a silence it hadn't experienced for over a hundred years.

For what seemed like an eternity, they stood motionless, waiting for something to happen. Toph didn't dare to move, feeling Aang's anxiety as he let his eyes wander across the barricaded pass. Now that the wind had died down, she noticed something she had failed to see before. She frowned.

"Aang, this barricade is artificial, too. Much of it comes from the wind but the biggest boulders underneath are deliberately put there...and not by an earthbender."

Her voice faltered. All this time there had been only two heartbeats in this pass, but suddenly several more were added to theirs. She tightened her hold on Aang's hand.


Next to her Aang grew rigid. Four people landed lightly before them, and only the soft billowing of their dark red cloaks betrayed the air current that had brought them here.

"Aang... They are just as light on their feet as you are," Toph whispered.

The air current disappeared and one of the hooded figures spoke up. "For more than a hundred years the winds blowing through this pass have protected the survivors of the Air Nomad massacre living in the Fire Nation. Today, someone made the winds subside. This, only an airbender can do."

The four cloaked figures lowered their hoods and the light of the Fire Nation sun shone down on blue arrow tattoos. Momo let out a shrill squeak.

"Welcome, Avatar Aang. You've finally found us."

Aang's world collapsed.

It was both a horrible and a wonderful story the airbenders told Aang and Toph once they'd had something to eat.

During Fire Lord Sozin's attempted annihilation of the Air Nomads, a small group of women of the Western Air Temple managed to escape the attack on the all female temple and had gone into hiding in the last place the blood thirsty Fire Lord would ever suspect - the Fire Nation. Later, they were joined by a group of exhausted men from the Northern Air Temple who had been trekking through the Earth Kingdom ever since the destruction of their home. Somewhere near Taku, the spirits had shown them mercy and they had chanced upon some Fire Nation soldiers talking about the village's fate. From their descriptions of the landslide and the gale-force winds tormenting the region afterwards, they recognized an airbender's hand and they understood that perhaps some of the women of the Western Air Temple had escaped their nation's cruel fate, too. After a perilous journey, which took the men deep into enemy territory, the men and women had been reunited and began making a new home in the caverns of the Fire Nation northern mountain range; a home reminiscent of the Western Air Temple, hidden deeply in the nation that had caused the near extinction of their people. They had lost all contact with the Eastern and Southern Air Temples and could only assume that the same disaster had befallen them, too, which Aang - the sole survivor - confirmed.

Descendants of the genocide had continued to live in the mountains for more than a hundred years, protected by the winds made to look like a perpetual mountain storm. Neither the Fire Nation people nor their leaders ever suspected anything. About three years ago, the Air Nomads had begun to hear rumors about the return of the Avatar and the arrival of a new Fire Lord who was friends with the Avatar. But they had decided against revealing themselves to the world until the Avatar, their fellowman, would come to them.

Aang, usually so bubbly, was abnormally quiet as he tried to wrap his head around the fact that he was sitting among his kinsmen, whom he had thought to have disappeared from the face of the earth more than a hundred years ago. But today, he was surrounded by children playing with air currents, vegetarian foods, and a living, breathing Air Nomad culture, thriving in the heart of the Fire Nation. He firmly held Toph's hand as he listened to the Council of Elders - which appeared to consist of the four people who had first shown themselves to them - recounting the history of his people in the Fire Nation.

He was not the last airbender anymore.

They spent two days with the Air Nomads, two days in which Aang found that the culture he had rediscovered was both familiar and new to him. Before the Fire Nation attack on the Air Nomads, men and women had lived strictly separate lives in their respective Air Temples, and their children were raised by the monks and nuns in these temples. It was how Aang was raised before he fled the Southern Air Temple. Their descendants in the Fire Nation, however, had formed loose family structures with parents being involved in their own children's upbringing. It made Aang strangely happy.

They had maintained their high level of spirituality, though, and their good sense of humor. They found it quite amusing that Aang had found the love of his life in his elemental opposite. One hundred years ago, their relationship might have been frowned upon, but today the strict separation of men and women had dissolved, and the descendants of the survivors loved Toph's straightforward and committed nature. That she was an earthbender didn't matter to them either.

They were given a small room to sleep in that wasn't in use since its inhabitant had died of old age this autumn. The new futon was a bit small for the both of them, but they didn't mind, if only because it provided them with an opportunity to sleep in each other's arms.

Aang's fingers toyed with Toph's hair while she listened to his heartbeat.

"What's on your mind?" Toph finally broke the silence. She always knew when something was bothering him.

It took Aang a long moment to reply. "Katara."

Despite herself, Toph went rigid in his arms. "Katara?"

Immediately, Aang tightened his hold on her. "Not in that way, Toph. It's just... I'm still having trouble realizing that my people survived. I mean, for all I knew they were extinct - annihilated by Fire Lord Sozin. But here they are - descendants of my culture and they are...real. And it wasn't until just now that I truly began to see how much I've been looking to Katara to...to replace them. And how unfair this was to her. If you hadn't shown me what love is truly like, I fear I would have had her dedicate her whole life to re-establishing the nation of the Air Nomads."

He propped himself up on his elbow and looked down on Toph's shaded features with an unusual grave expression in his eyes. "Toph, I want you to know that, although I am eternally grateful that my people still exist and I will do whatever I can to help them rebuild our nation, I would never, ever do so at the expensive of our life together...of you."

Toph doubted that in the darkness of their surroundings he could see the corners of her mouth turning up in a smile when she lifted her hand and caressed the side of his smoothly shaven cheek. "I know," she said softly. "I will do what I can to help you in rebuilding your nation, though. So, don't feel guilty about that. And if we have a family of our own one day," for a split second her breath hitched as the familiar memory of her parents involuntarily jabbed her heart again, "they will be both Air Nomad and Earth Kingdom, no matter their bending discipline."

Aang's heart leapt up at Toph's words. She understood. And she trusted him, despite the errors of his youthful ways.

"I love you so much, Toph," he whispered.

As he leaned in, she smirked and said, "Besides, I would never have let you," before she lost herself in his loving kiss.

When Appa took off for the journey back to the Fire Nation Capital, he was carrying a glowing Aang, a beaming Toph and a softly chattering Momo.

From the ground, the Council of Elders watched them quickly becoming smaller in the sky. Last night, they had agreed to reveal their existence to Fire Lord Zuko on the express condition that the young monarch would come to meet them and bring Fire Lady Katara with him. The presence of the waterbender would assure them that he indeed was different from his predecessors and could be trusted. They had impressed on Avatar Aang that the Fire Lord and Fire Lady were the only ones to be told about their presence in the Fire Nation until they had met with them.

"You won't regret this," Aang had promised the other Air Nomads. "Zuko will do what he can to help you. Trust me."

The council members had nodded guardedly as the Avatar and his earthbending girlfriend climbed atop his sky bison. Around them stood a group of disappointed-looking children who had loved playing with Appa and Momo for the past couple of days. To this renegade bunch of survivors, sky bisons and winged lemurs had been the subject of legend until Aang had shown up. The sight of all those laughing children up in the air with Appa and Momo had actually moved Aang to tears.

"Zuko is in for the biggest surprise of his reign," Aang now chuckled, and Toph grinned.

"I can't wait to see his reaction when you tell him a community of Air Nomad survivors have been living in the Fire Nation all this time."

"He will be over the moon," Aang knew.

And Zuko was. As was Katara. The Fire Lord wasn't known for his effervescent nature, but when Aang told him the news of his unexpected and world-changing find, he and Katara pulled Aang into a tight embrace, knocking over the tea table in the process. The newlyweds, just back from their two-day retreat on Ember Island, immediately agreed to travel to the northern mountains to meet the Air Nomads in secret and listen to their needs and wishes. Aang wished that the Council of Elders could have seen the Fire Lord's face shining with joy for the rest of the evening, so they would know everything would be alright. Toph would clear the barricaded pass, and Zuko would do all that was in his might to guide the Air Nomads' reintroduction into the world.

The day of their return to Capital City, Aang and Zuko broke the news to the Fire Nation government and letters were sent to the other nations. Grandmaster Iroh actually burst into tears when Aang and Toph told him of their find.

"Now it shows that harmony is truly resilient," he sniffed, and even Master Pakku seemed moved. "The Order of the White Lotus will do what it can to provide help and counsel to the descendants of these survivors so they can start rebuilding their nation and repopulate their territories. They will be seen again flying through the air like they once did."

Aang and Toph spent the night in the guest chamber at the Royal Palace they'd left after the wedding.

"So, where would you like to go?" Aang asked softly as Toph nestled in his arms. He felt strange. Who could have suspected that in two days time, the world would have changed so much? The descendants of the Air Nomads survivors - his people - had decided they'd wanted to go to the Western Air Temple first. He and Toph would help them, but there was something he felt Toph needed to do first.

For a moment, Toph was silent and Aang felt that she tensed up. Then she let out a small sigh, as if she'd come to a resolve. She didn't see the quiet smile of happiness forming on his face when he realized what it was.

"I know of a place."

A few weeks later, a sky bison landed at the courtyard of an aristocratic estate in the southern Earth Kingdom Gaoling area. The last rays of the sun cut out the silhouettes of two young people as they walked up the stairs to the magnificent mansion overlooking a large, ornamental garden in winter slumber.

Before the double doors, the bald young man with blue arrow tattoos turned towards the young woman with black bangs framing her delicate features. "Are you ready?"

She swallowed and tightened her hand around his.

"Don't worry. I'm right here, Toph. We'll do this together," he added softly and she nodded, squeezing his hand gratefully but not letting go.

"Alright, here we go." He lifted his other hand and gave an energetic rap on the elegantly decorated door.

It took only a moment until the door was opened by a stern, middle-aged butler who blinked against the sun blinding him and then gasped.

"The Lady Toph!"

His bewildered voice rang through the mansion and suddenly there was a thumping sound from where Aang knew the downstairs drawing room to be. Next to him, Toph tightened her hold on his hand and her breath hitched.

The next moment, a distinguished looking couple came rushing down the hallway. "Toph! Oh, Toph..."

An awkward, shaky smile formed on Toph's lips. "Hello, Mother, Father."

Before she could say anything else, her parents pulled her into a tight embrace, and Aang watched in silent gratitude as the three of them cried quiet tears of relief and regret.

Many minutes later, Toph was able to introduce a smiling Aang to her parents. Re-introduce as a matter of fact, since they'd already met with him when he was the twelve-year-old boy she'd run off with. Now, almost four years later, Lao and Poppy bowed respectfully to the full-grown Avatar and, with a warm and grateful smile, accepted him into the noble Beifong family.

Much too soon for his liking, Hakoda found himself standing at the quay in Harbor City, preparing to begin the long journey back to the South Pole. General Iroh had already returned to Ba Sing Se, and last week Aang and Toph had left for the Earth Kingdom as well, heading in a southeasterly direction. Never before had Hakoda felt such reluctance to go back home, and in his heart he knew it had nothing to do with leaving Katara behind where she had found her happiness with Zuko. He'd been able to stay two months longer than other wedding guests, but now winter was drawing to an end, and he knew the return voyage couldn't be postponed any longer. His crew deserved to return to their families after spending such a long time away from them. Suki would go with them and, in a few months' time, she and Sokka would have their big day.

It was a sunny, early spring day, and only a few small clouds dotted the blue sky as Hakoda let go of Katara and now came to stand before Ursa, whose lips curled in a small, regretful smile. The air was filled with the sweet scent of the first cherry blossom, mixing with salty sea air.

He vaguely registered that Master Pakku and his mother stepped into a small boat that would take them to the flagship, and that Sokka and Suki were waiting to step into the next one, but he was completely absorbed by the woman standing before him.

Months ago, he had set out to aid his daughter and son-in-law in their battle against the renegade nobles, but he had also found something he'd never expected to feel again - love. Love for the beautiful woman whom he'd never really forgotten after he'd been witness to Master Pakku's secret operation to smuggle her and other members of the Order of the White Lotus into his home. The woman whom he'd recognized as Zuko's mother long before her identity was revealed.

During the nerve-wracking wait for Zuko and Katara to return from the North Pole, he'd come to know the real person behind the mysterious woman Suki had called the Spirit Princess. He'd had no defence against her warmth, wisdom, and dry humor, and during their long evening strolls through the gardens he realized he'd lost his heart to her. And now they were torn apart as his duties required him to return to the Southern Water Tribe, while she would stay here to support both their children in their difficult task. His whole being was screaming at the injustice of it all.

"I guess this is goodbye then," she finally broke the silence. Her light-brown eyes reflected the sadness he felt.

"I'll see you again at the wedding," he said a bit hoarsely. "It's not too long of a wait."

"I will look forward to it," she replied softly, and the wind blew a few strands of her long, black hair around her delicate features, taunting his scraped-up acceptance of the inevitable. A pained frown appeared on his features, and on impulse he reached out. Before the eyes of the entire harbor, he pulled her in for a deep kiss, filled with passion and longing. It was the first time he felt her lips on his, and his heart jolted in his chest when, after a moment, her slender hands came up to his face and she kissed him back, in complete disregard for their surroundings. They didn't even notice the whistling and clapping erupting from the small crowd assembled at the quay for what they had thought would be a formal event, but which now took an unexpected and moving turn.

The sound of a loud splash broke them apart, and they looked up to see Sokka being lifted from the water and put back on the quay by his sister, stupefaction along with salty water dripping from his features, as Zuko stared at them with open mouth.

"Mom?" Zuko choked out with difficulty.

"Dad?" Sokka added with a catch in his voice, his wide-open eyes and upturned palms illustrating his bewilderment.

The both of them failed to see that Suki and Katara traded a big, triumphant grin, as Hakoda and Ursa smiled shyly.

"How...? When?" Sokka stuttered.

His father clapped him on the shoulder. "I'll tell you aboard the ship, Sokka. You really should pay more attention, son. It seems Katara and Suki are much more observant than you and your brother-in-law."

He sent a perplexed Zuko an amused yet slightly apologetic look before returning his attention to Ursa. Cupping her cheek, he gave her one last tender peck on the lips.

"Until late spring then," he said quietly. Her smile stayed with him when he stepped into the lifeboat that would bring him to his ship.

Hakoda remained standing on deck for a long time after the ship had pulled out of the harbor, his thoughts not on his daughter, looking happier than ever before with her brand new husband, but on the wonderful woman with silky black hair and amber eyes who was her mother-in-law.

Ursa kept watching the Southern Water Tribe flagship until it had disappeared past the horizon. At forty-one, she should feel silly for the tears burning behind her eyes, but she didn't care. Hakoda's arrival in the Fire Nation had brought her something she'd thought she'd lost forever - the chance of love.

It had always lingered in the back of her mind - the image of him standing on the roof, his shirt billowing in the crisp nightly wind and the piercing look in his moonlit blue eyes. Powerful and strong, like he'd been when she saw him back in Zuko's throne room. She'd never been able to forget. Now she knew he wasn't only handsome, but also a warm and fun-loving person, and she'd fallen head over heels for the widower.

Maintaining a dignified pose, she graciously smiled at the cheering crowd and followed Zuko and Katara to the palanquin waiting to bring them back to the palace.

"How...? When?" Were the first two words her unobservant son uttered, echoing Sokka the moment the curtains of the palanquin closed and the coach set in motion.

She told him, briefly and to the point, about the strange way they'd met and how they'd bonded over their past and mutual concern for their children, while Katara was beaming at her. Knowing what had happened to Katara's mother, Ursa felt grateful to have his daughter's approval.

"I don't know what to say." Zuko helplessly scratched the back of his neck as he looked at Katara for support. Her smile broadened.

"Well, I think it's wonderful. Think about it, Zuko. Through us, your mom and my dad found happiness again with each other. We'll be one big family."

"I guess so." The Fire Lord smiled sheepishly, trying to process it all. Then he gave his mother a guarded look. "Are you going to follow Hakoda to the South Pole?"

Something in his gaze betrayed the idea didn't appeal to him, although he tried to hide it.

Ursa shook her head. "No, Zuko. As much as I love him, I know I'm needed here in the Fire Nation, to help you and Katara and to be with Azula. We'll see each as much as the spirits allow us to."

For a moment, he continued to look adorably confused, but then his features lit up in a warm smile. "It's strange how things work out sometimes, but I'm happy for you, Mom," he said genuinely, and Ursa felt her heart leap up. "Katara's father is a great man, and I can understand why you like him."

He gave Katara a sideways look and his lips curled in a playful smirk. "Do you remember when I said our parents should meet?"

She broke into a fit of giggles, and Ursa allowed herself an amused grin.

When she exited the palanquin, Ursa felt strangely light. Zuko had accepted her love for Hakoda and, although she felt sad the Chief had left for the South Pole, the fact that she would see him again in two months' time was a comforting thought.

Life had changed so much for the better since her return to the Fire Nation, she could barely believe it.

Her thoughts drifted to her nine helpers who had returned to their families after Zuko had made his mother's return from exile public. Most of them had trouble adjusting to their lives, nine years of traveling having instilled a restlessness in the young men their families failed to comprehend. She thought back to the one time a year the young men allowed themselves to step out of the mists of their mythical existence and have a dance with an Earth Kingdom girl at a harvest festival, and she knew they longed to be back on the road, to see the Earth Kingdom again and offer help when needed. They needed a new purpose in life.

Zuko had told Ursa about the plans he'd made with the Earth King and the Avatar to transform the Fire Nation colonies near Taku into an autonomous state for people of all four nations, with the oldest colony as its capital. It sounded like they needed every able hand they could get. It was still in one place, but it was in the Earth Kingdom and they had a harvest festival. She smiled as her feet carried her to a room close to her own chambers.

When she opened the gilded door, sunlight streamed into the corridor from the high windows opposite the door and a young woman with long black hair, dressed in a simple but elegant housedress, rose to her feet. A happy smile passed over her calm features.

"Mama! You're back. I made us tea. The one Zuko asked Uncle to bring from Ba Sing Se. Would you like a cup?"

~ Nine autumns later ~

With a contented sigh, Katara rolled over, faintly registered that it was still dark outside, and moved closer to her husband to bury herself in his toned chest for another hour or so, smiling when he subconsciously responded by wrapping his arms around her. She started to drift away again when her smile suddenly froze at the sound of the door opening slowly. Then whispered voices reached her ears.

"Are you sure they're not awake?"

"Yes, but you have to be quiet or they'll wake up for sure."

Katara's eyes fluttered open and looked right into Zuko's wide open eyes. He'd heard it, too.

The sound of a closing door and hesitant footsteps creeping nearer dispelled the peaceful silence in the bedroom, and Zuko's body grew rigid against Katara's. Motionlessly, they waited as the sounds crept up on them, their eyes exchanging a look of recognition. Simultaneously, they turned on their sides, facing away from each other while closing their eyes as if they were still fast asleep. The footsteps stopped at either side of the bed.

For a moment, there was no movement, then small hands pulled away the blankets.

The plan of the seven-year-old boy and the five-year-old girl had been to surprise their parents, but when they jumped onto the bed, the Fire Lord and Fire Lady surprised them by grabbing them mid-air. Instead of drowsy, stunned faces, they met with very awake, very mischievous looks in blue and amber eyes and before they knew it, there was no escaping their parents' tickling attack.

Hopeless squeals and high-pitched laughter filled the bedroom until finally, Zuko and Katara showed their children mercy and let them snuggle between them in the big canopied bed. Their little girl nestled against her father's chest and pulled his arm across her small body to interlace his fingers with her mother's across her and her older brother like she always did. Katara smiled when Zuko's fingers wrapped around hers, his thumb caressing the back of her hand as their daughter sighed in contentment. This was Katara's favorite moment of the day.

It was Zuko's, too.

The days their children were born were the happiest of his life. It had felt like his heart was close to exploding when he'd held first his son, and two years later his daughter, in his arms, before carefully placing them back with their mother. They had named their son and heir apparent to the Dragon Throne Lu Ten, after Zuko's cousin, and Uncle had been in tears when he'd told him. Their daughter, they had named Kya and, like Uncle, Hakoda had pulled Zuko into a tight embrace in response.

Over the years, the children had come to look exactly like Zuko remembered them from the glimpse of the future the White Lotus had given him and Katara. He loved them more than his own life. Fatherhood turned out to be something he was surprisingly good at, drawing inspiration from his uncle and his experience with taking care of Team Avatar with Katara. The moments he cherished the most were when the children were leaning against Katara at the turtle duck pond, or when they'd managed to sneak into their parents' bed, like now.

Lu Ten had inherited most of his parents' softness and Kya their feistiness, but both of them had inherited their parents' strong sense of justice. Great was their surprise when they discovered that the children not only held the talent to bend one of either elements, but their bending was enhanced with a new form of bending, which seemed to come from within.

Aang smiled a secretive smile when he was told. He and Toph had just welcomed their third child, a boy called Bumi, following their son Tenzin and daughter Lin - an airbender, and an earthbender respectively - who appeared to be gifted with the peculiar talent, too.

"Perhaps the times will once again return in which the Avatar won't be needed anymore," he had merely said in answer to Katara's questions about it.

This year, Kya had started school at the Royal Fire Academy for Girls, the first waterbender to attend the elite institute. Zuko and Katara had invited children of Earth Kingdom and Water Tribe citizens living in Capital City, as well as children of Fire Nation commoners to attend the school as well, just like with Lu Ten's school, which Zuko had attended before his banishment.

"One day we'll surprise you," their son stated regretfully. He eyed his younger sister, who'd been too excited to keep quiet when they'd sneaked inside the Fire Lord's bedchambers. Two pairs of amber gazes, one filled with amusement, the other with guilt, looked back at him. With a good-natured grin, he pulled the blanket up his little sister's body and tickled her on her back. She broke into tinkling giggles. It earned him a smile of approval from his father.

"I'm sure you will, Lu Ten," Katara smiled as her free hand played with his black, silky hair mixing with her own dark brown curls on her pillow.

A warm feeling spread through Zuko's chest at seeing her tender gaze. She'd only become more beautiful over the years. Motherhood had lent an alluring quality to her delicate features, deepening the warmth in her sparkling blue eyes.

"You just have to keep on trying," Zuko added, stifling a yawn. "Preferably when we've had enough sleep."

Kya focused her big, amber eyes on her mother. "Will you not be going away now, Mommy?"

The evening before, Katara had returned from a visit to the Northern Water Tribe. As Peace Ambassador, the Fire Lady tried to visit each of the other nations at least one time a year, and this time she'd also made time to visit a kindergarten waterbending class to take back home ideas to start educating her little girl. Previously, she'd visited a Southern Water Tribe one. Kya wasn't the Avatar whom she had to teach waterbending in less than a year, and with Kya she wanted to do things through child's play, like Zuko was doing with Lu Ten. She'd also met with the Chiefess' younger cousin, who had recently been appointed Chief Arnook's successor. He seemed to be an honest man with two sons of his own - Tonraq and Unalaq - and she was sure Zuko would work well with him in the future.

A small part of her, however, had been slightly unsettled by the rivalry she'd felt from Unalaq towards his older brother, which reminded her of Azula's attitude towards Zuko in the past. When they'd put Lu Ten and Kya to bed, she'd expressed her worries to Zuko during a stroll through his mother's garden. And there was something else, too.

"Unalaq is a very spiritual boy and, although he seems to be very supportive of the Order of the White Lotus having made its existence public, there is something about the way he disapproves of the Order's dedication to serving the Avatar and the nations that...unnerves me somehow. It's a feeling I can't put my finger on, but something is telling me not to ignore or underestimate it."

Hoping that Zuko would understand what she'd been trying to put into words, she'd looked at him listening to her quietly. Nine years into their marriage and he was only becoming more handsome. His smooth black hair now cascaded down his broad shoulders and interesting looking streaks of silver grey hair had appeared in the damaged hairline wreathing his scar, which added a certain gravitas to his still youthful appearance. More than once, his ministers had caught him leading cabinet meetings with the silver locks braided in. It was one of Princess Kya's favorite pastimes.

His chiseled features had turned thoughtful at the words of his most important advisor. Her concerns were something he never took lightly. They'd agreed to discuss the matter with his uncle and Master Pakku when they saw each other in Republic City, for which she was grateful.

Now, Katara reached out to stroke her daughter's brown curls. "I won't, Kya," she promised.

"Gran Ursa is going away, though," the little girl pouted, and Katara feigned surprise.

"Is she now? Where will she be going then?"

"Republic City," Kya stuck her chin out in disapproval. "She's going tomorrow and she says Gran Hakoda and Uncle Sokka and Aunt Suki will be there, too. I want to go, too, so I can play with Senna."

Sokka and Suki's waterbending daughter was born a year after Kya, after her parents had faced quite some difficulty conceiving. She had remained an only child and had the most beautiful violet eyes one had ever seen. Together with Aang and Toph's daughter Lin, Senna and Kya formed a fearsome trio.

"Oh, dear La," Katara gave Zuko a mischievous look. "Didn't your father tell you...we will all be going to Republic City tomorrow?"

Both children bolted upright as Zuko's eyes widened in alarm.

"No, he didn't!" Kya exclaimed, and Lu Ten questioningly turned his almond-shaped blue eyes upwards to his father, who was now wearing a particularly sheepish expression.

'Thanks, Katara,' he mouthed, and she shot him a sweet, 'You're welcome, dear.'

Then he smiled. "Yes, Mommy is right. We're all going to Republic City tomorrow because Uncle Sokka will become the Southern Water Tribe representative in the United Republic Council."

It was an inconspicuous looking family that stepped outside from Crown Prince Sokka and Crown Princess Suki's house in Republic City on a beautiful afternoon in spring.

Lu Ten took his father's hand as he looked around the large buildings towering over them with wide eyes, both intimidated and excited about the big city he finally got to see. Yesterday, they'd spent all day in the City Hall council room, sitting through an elaborate ceremony in which Uncle Sokka received a seat in the United Republic Council, in recognition of his efforts to promote Southern Water Tribe culture in the newly formed United Republic of Nations. Lu Ten had tried to stay awake during it all and at one point, his uncle had given him a fat wink, which had livened him up enough to keep it up until it was finally over and he and Tenzin were allowed to go play outside.

It was today he'd been looking forward to, when his parents would take him and Kya on a tour of the city. They'd been here before, of course, but the Fire Lord and Fire Lady had held off further acquaintance of the city until the children were old enough.

"One moment, Lee," his mother mumbled to his father, bending down to rearrange Kya's shawl. Lu Ten knew they would be calling each other by different names during this city walk, names he'd sometimes heard his parents use before whenever they didn't want people to know who they were. Like today.

Patiently, he waited as his father made sure no one would knock over his mother and sister on the busy sidewalk while she adjusted the shawl and straightened up.

Lu Ten didn't notice when Zuko gave his wife a meaningful look.

Her features softened. She knew what he was thinking.

It was difficult to grasp that it was only nine years ago Taiko had emerged from the woods surrounding the abandoned city of Taku and inspired Team Avatar and the Earth King to form a new sovereign state for immigrants from all four nations in the oldest Fire Nation colonies in the Earth Kingdom. Since Zuko had transferred power to the United Republic Council in the presence of Team Avatar and the Earth King, the United Republic and especially its capital Republic City had boomed. To date, new residents were still streaming into the ever-expanding city and in every street, high buildings were being raised that seemed to be reaching for the skies.

Katara and Zuko visited Republic City at least once a year, especially when Aang and Toph decided to settle there and Toph had become the city's very first Chief of Police. Under her direction, the already legendary Metalbending Police Force was formed, comprised of law enforcers who were trained in this unique form of earthbending. The Fire Lord and Fire Lady treasured the founding of the United Republic of Nations as the first tangible result of their effort to bring together all nations in harmony, and its capital Republic City held a special place in their hearts. Over the years, it had become a habit of theirs to inconspicuously wander through the city in simple Republic clothes, blending in as they watched the city blossom and grow.

Today was the first time they would take their children on a tour of the city, and as always, they were dressed to pass for a normal Republic family as they went about the city.

To the parents' silent gratitude, this went remarkably well. Deeply impressed by the mighty buildings surrounding them, the children stayed close and did their best to listen to the pseudonyms they'd been given. As the day progressed, their parents were prepared to breathe a bit more freely until they arrived on the busy square before Central City Station and little Kya saw the monumental statue adorning its front entrance.

Before Zuko or Katara realized what happened the girl gasped and bolted down the square, arms waving at the platform, calling, "Daddy, Daddy!"

Several of these landmark statues of a determined young man, dressed in Fire Nation uniform and holding an actual flame in his raised right hand, could be found throughout the Fire Nation, and one had also been placed in Republic City in honor of their founder. This was the first time in her young life she saw one of them.

It was a busy spring day, and the large square was swarming with people. Now dozens of them stopped in their tracks and looked from the commanding bronze immortalization of the young Fire Nation monarch, the flame casting a glow on the unblemished side of his thoughtful, regular features, to the excited little girl at its foot. It was an odd but endearing sight.

"Your daddy is the Fire Lord?" a kind, older lady humored the child staring up at the statue. The little thing had big, amber eyes and a head full of dark brown curls. Obviously from a mixed background, she could easily pass for a Republic child.

But then all eyes came to rest on the young parents standing a few feet away, nailed to the ground. In their hands, they were holding the ice-creams they'd been buying when their little girl had stormed off on them. The Fire Lord and the Fire Lady.

Their cover was blown.

Lu Ten was the first to come up to his little sister, taking her hand and following her gaze. As Kya's older brother, he found it his responsibility to help out his parents, although he, too, was a little impressed by his father's statue. It seemed to him that this one was even bigger than the one he knew from Capital City. The one Kya had not yet seen.

"Yeah, that's Daddy," he told her. "But now everyone in the square knows, Kya."

He was old enough to understand that their parents had wanted to avoid recognition when showing them around in the city. That was why they were all wearing these funny clothes and had to listen to different names.

The boy turned his head when Kya's small hand suddenly lifted from her brother's hold. Their father had picked her up while looking down on his son with a knowing gaze in his eyes.

"Do you like the statue?" the Fire Lord quietly asked him. The flames his bronze counterpart held in his hand cast a golden light on his scar. Gran Iroh had said his father would tell him about the origins of the mutilation when he was old enough. He had not found it in his heart to directly ask his father, although he now began to suspect it had been caused by fire. When the boy nodded wordlessly, a small smile passed over his father's features.

Meanwhile, a small crowd gathered around them, watching as Kya wriggled in her father's hold and rested her head full of dark brown curls on his shoulder in a trusting gesture. She pointed at the statue when her mother approached with the ice-creams.

"That's Daddy," she told her with a clear voice.

Quite a few bystanders smiled at the little girl's antics, lovingly embarrassing her father before the entire square. They only knew the Fire Lord and Fire Lady from stately pictures depicting them in full regalia, but the adorable young family they'd unexpectedly encountered at the square presented a moving sight.

"Yes, sweetie, you're right. That's Daddy," Katara smiled at her daughter while giving Lu Ten his ice-cream. Kindly, she acknowledged the spectators staring at them, her smile not wavering as she put her arm around Lu Ten to shield him a bit from all these people staring at him.

The onlookers smiled back hesitantly, awed by her presence. Her simple Republic clothes couldn't conceal her dignified and regal bearing, a queen in the true sense of the word. This beautiful woman, the waterbending Fire Lady, had done so much to help develop the United Republic of Nations. She had established the world-renowned Republic City Hospital, led by waterbending healing masters in close collaboration with the Herbalist Institute in Taku and Ba Sing Se University. And operating under the Order flag, she had opened the Institute for International Relations, aiming to bring together young people of all four nations to learn from each other. It had earned the Fire Lady the eternal adoration of the Republic citizens, especially.

"And you thought they wouldn't recognize me," Zuko dryly said to Katara as he held Kya's ice-cream out to the content little girl in his arms. He would finish it when she'd had enough. It earned him soft looks from several bystanders.

Katara shrugged with a sheepish grin as Lu Ten studied his mother. "Do you have a statue, too?"

Upon their arrival in the city, his father had already pointed out to him the massive statue of Uncle Aang in Yue Bay, and they'd just seen Police Headquarters with on its facade a statue of Aunt Toph. They'd started their tour before the Southern Water Tribe Cultural Centre, where they'd seen the construction work done on a statue of Uncle Sokka ready to throw his famous boomerang. It promised to be a ferocious portrayal once it was done.

She nodded with a twinkle in her eyes. "Two actually, one in front of the hospital and one before the International Relations Centre. We'll go see them some other time."

To avoid repetition of Kya's enthusiastic response, Lu Ten silently understood as he took his mother's extended hand.

"You have a lovely family, Your Majesty," someone called, and Zuko gave a small smile in response.

"Thank you," he said quietly.

Upon leaving the square Lu Ten asked his father, "Are Mom's statues beautiful, too?"

"They are, but your mother is much more beautiful," Katara heard the Fire Lord answer, and she allowed herself a quiet smile.

~ Two more autumns later ~

With a peaceful sigh, Iroh sat down on the bench before his modest Upper Ring house in Ba Sing Se. Although, the Upper Ring - the affluent area surrounding the Earth Kingdom Royal Palace - was barely deserving of that name anymore after the young Lady Beifong and her team of earthbenders had completed the enormous task of taking down the walls dividing the Earth Kingdom capital's inhabitants. It had meant a fresh start for the impenetrable city, where the people finally were able to look beyond their boundaries. Iroh had welcomed quite a few new customers, too, as the fame of the Jasmine Dragon had traveled to the other districts. The retired general loved it.

Carefully, he put down a steaming cup of tea and opened the new letter scroll lying on the garden table before him, picking up a brush.

Dear Madam Wu,

Eleven years have passed since I received your message to warn me about the fate of the Order of the White Lotus, should the Fire Lord and Water Princess continue to deny their love for each other. I find it a good opportunity to mark this important moment with a letter to you.

It's been a long time since prospects were so good for our world. Water Tribe ships are once again sailing the world, Fire Nation warmth and technology helps the Earth Kingdom to provide the world with food and medicinal cures, and Air Nomad trade caravans are inhabiting the skies once more. And thanks to my nephew, the Avatar's wisdom, and the Earth King's generosity, we have been able to welcome a fifth nation that embodies all that the Order stands for.

My nephew and his lovely wife are working tirelessly to contribute to the balance in the world, based on friendship and equality between the nations. As the Grandmaster of the Order of the White Lotus, I'm proud to see how their love for each other has eased acceptance of a peaceful Fire Nation by the other nations. It has stood at the basis of to the United Republic of Nations. It's not an exaggeration to say that their love has given this world her heart back.

But the most beautiful thing their love has given me are my grandchildren. They are my pride and joy, and the light of my life.

Lu Ten is the eldest and heir to the throne, and sometimes I think I do see something of my beloved son in him. He's such a charming child, and while he is somewhat on the serious side, he loves to build sandcastles with his grandfather when we are on Ember Island. Both gentle and strong, he already has the bearing of a future leader, just like my Lu Ten at that age. Not surprisingly, he has a sharp mind, and I've already begun teaching him the noble game of Pai Sho. I think he likes it. Or at least, he likes hanging out with his grandfather, which an old man can only be grateful for.

And Kya, precious Kya. She is as mischievous as she is sweet. It doesn't matter when something breaks on one of her adventures. That little darling can twist everyone around her little finger, but she's blissfully unaware of it. She likes to boss around her big brother, but he remarkably takes it in his stride and at the same time, she follows him in everything. She loves to help me make tea, and I think this little waterbender will develop quite a knack for it.

When they come visit me in Ba Sing Se, the house is suddenly filled with their young voices, and I cherish every minute of it. Since my dear pupil, the Lady Toph Beifong, and her husband, the Avatar, have taken up residence in Republic City, the house has become quiet. Fortunately, Toph and Aang allow me to be grandfather to their children, too, in addition to Sir Lao and Lady Poppy Beifong. Their son Tenzin and Lu Ten share a deep fascination for hot air balloons and will always be best friends. The same goes for Kya, Toph and Aang's daughter Lin, and Senna, the hereditary Princess of the Southern Water Tribe. The three of those girls like nothing more at the moment than to play with little Bumi, who is a living and breathing doll to them.

The babe in arms is named after his father's last living friend from his generation, the great King Bumi, who traded his life for another, more permanent one some time before his namesake was born. Following this event, Lady Toph has been the second member of Team Avatar to join me in the Black Lotus Council, after Avatar Aang. Her arrival is a reminder of the inevitable progress of time. I expect that soon we will be joined by Her Majesty the Fire Lady when her grandfather, Master Pakku, follows his beloved wife into the Spirit World.

The state of the world has never been better and although it's only fifteen years ago, it seems like a lifetime has passed since Prince Zuko and I scoured the seas in search of the Avatar, oblivious of the fact that this quest would lead the world to the peace it now enjoys.

In the end, the Order owes an important part of her salvation to Crown Prince Sokka and Crown Princess Suki of the Southern Water Tribe, for their love for one another has lit the way on the path of true love, on which not only Zuko and Katara and Aang and Toph have followed, but even Chief Hakoda and Fire Lady-Mother Ursa. It's wonderful to feel the fervour in rebuilding our world in accordance with the Order principle of harmony between the elements the nations represent.

Now, the only thing remaining for me to do is to extend my gratitude to you, Madam Wu of Makapu Village, for your timely warning, so that today we can look back on eleven years of love and peace in the reassuring knowledge there will be many more to come. Writing to you is a happy old man who is looking forward to seeing his family again soon on Avatar Day here in my beloved Ba Sing Se.

Thank you.

The White Lotus opens wide to those who knows her secrets,

The Grandmaster of the Order of the White Lotus

Iroh of the Fire Nation

A/N: It has been more than ten years since I published the first chapter of this story and I'm grateful to see that even after all these years the story is still loved so much. Over the past years I've done some major revisions to this story which I hope will contribute to its overall quality.

Since I finished this story several comics have continued with A:TLA while The Legend of Korra has also seen a wrap. I've purposely avoided reading and watching those continuations as I find it hurtful to see what they've done to the lives of especially Katara and Zuko after A:TLA. I only used certain elements from these continuations to better embed Fall of the White Lotus in the Avatarverse. And yes, I gave Katara not one but two statues in Republic City. She deserves each one of them.

This chapter provides us with a glimpse of a Zutara family life but there's broader context to this chapter with Aang discovering a branch of his people still living in hiding in the Fire Nation, which would have been Aaron Ehasz's major storyline for Aang in Book 4, had it been made, and Hakoda and Ursa finding a second chance of love with each other.

Of course, the story ends with the person who started it all; General Iroh. The story will conclude with a short epilogue.

As always I would like to thank my beta Crimson Eyed Sakura for her dedication.

Thank you for reading!