"Today is the day!"
Katara woke up shivering in the darkness, the hazy confusion of post-sleep accompanied by the lovely sound of her brother's shout reverberating off the frozen walls of their hut.
She ignored him, like she was used to doing, and snuggled further under the plush fur covers surrounding her. Sleep would have pulled her under again in mere seconds… if Sokka hadn't gotten involved. The thick fur blankets were ripped from her clutches, introducing her bare legs to the frigid air.
"Sokka!" she gasped, goosebumps rising along the skin that her pyjamas didn't cover. She shot out of bed to confront the fiend.
The infuriating boy only laughed, dancing and twirling around the small space with the covers wrapped around his shoulders in a pale imitation of a cape. Using his height to his advantage, Sokka whipped the object back and forth through the sky, Katara uselessly jumping in a vain attempt to grab hold of her dignity. Sokka was strong, she'd give him that, but Katara was fast. As his arm began to lag in its perpetual swinging, she seized the opportunity to dig her fingers into the soft fabric.
A game of tug of war ensued, shrieks and smacks filling the air, which proceeded to wake the rest of the household and possibly the neighbouring igloos. After the stern warnings from their father to calm down, and a hearty chuckle from their grandmother, Sokka conceded to Katara, who huffed indignantly and snatched back her beloved blanket. Wrapping it around herself, she rubbed the sleep from her eyes to inspect her brother, who was jittering with excitement regardless of his previous defeat.
"Why are you so hyper?" she scowled, not sharing his sentiments even the slightest, being that it was so early in the morning. Daily chores hadn't even started yet.
The question took him aback, as if he were genuinely offended by her train of thought. Even her dad, who had wandered into the main foyer fully dressed for the day, gave her a look of bafflement.
"Don't tell me you're serious, Katara!" Sokka exclaimed in shock, throwing his hands up in the air as if she had committed a terrible sin.
At her blank look, he continued on enthusiastically.
"The Glacier Spirits Festival? The only thing I live for each year? Come on!"
Katara could feel the jolt of surprise displayed plainly across her face. Had it really been a year since the last one? It had slipped to the very recesses of her mind with all that had happened within the last several months. Zuko's arrival had thrown a wrench into her perception of time, as if the world had been put on hold for a year while they figured out their arrangement business. But the South stopped for no one, and they certainly would not forgive tradition and abandon the spirits just because some Fire Nation soldiers were lurking about.
She shook her head in disbelief. "I totally forgot."
Sokka laughed, though not unkindly. "Yeah," he agreed, "I can tell. Usually, you're so eager to help with the preparations weeks in advance but the committee didn't hear even a peep from you this year about the festival."
It had been something that her family had been helping with for so long, her father being Chief and all. And even if it weren't out of duty or obligation, Katara would have helped out anyway because she genuinely enjoyed the festival. It was something that brought happiness to the often-dim glacier wasteland, and she loved the smiles it would inevitably bring (as cheesy as that sounded). This year though, it hadn't even occurred to her that the winter solstice had been fast approaching.
"Well, Dad, are you going to help out with the festival?" The siblings turned towards their father, who was shoving his feet into bulky suede boots outfitted with snowshoes. "Maybe there's something left that I could do?"
"Katara," Sokka teased, shaking his head as if she were missing a joke on her behalf. "Everything was completed while you were off in your little Zuko-bubble."
"Zuko-bubble?" Katara raised an eyebrow unimpressed.
"Maybe if you hadn't hogged our new princely friend, you wouldn't be in this situation." Sokka clasped his hands together, his tone regrettable. "Alas, here we are."
"You spent time with him too!" Katara argued derisively, akin to kids debating the fair usage of a shiny new toy. "What about those sword lessons? And the snowball fights."
Katara felt her cheeks grow heated as she shouted a resounding:
Placing her hands on her hips in displeasure, she stopped short at stomping her foot on the ground. "I'm just stating facts. But that's not the point of our conversation."
Sokka snickered, laughter dancing behind his eyes as if he had caught her in the act of lying. "Deflection tactics, I see."
"Haha," Katara punctuated slowly in a voice indicating she didn't find her brother funny in the slightest. She smirked. "What, did you want to show your new best friend around the festival?"
Sokka placed a finger to his lips, his expression pensive as he paused in thought. The change of emotion was so abrupt that Katara was about to ask what was wrong.
"Shouldn't you be the one to take your boyfriend around?" her idiot brother asked, still overly serious. His expression was sincerely confused, though his lips were tilted into a self-satisfied grin.
A scream of frustration let loose from her lips. Before Katara could run over to where he was standing and give him a definitive smack on the head, their father stepped between them, arms crossed over his chest.
"You'd think at eighteen and twenty the two of you would grow out of this," their father grumbled, attempting to hide the amusement in his eyes.
Sokka crossed a finger dutifully over his heart in the form of an x. "Never," he decreed.
The Chief sighed, pushing past both of them to get to the igloo's main door. "Let's not hear any more talking from you two until the sun comes up."
The siblings looked outside, where the dark of night still penetrated through their window.
"But there won't be sunlight for a few more hours," came Sokka's whining reply. Katara successfully avoided rolling her eyes.
"Exactly." With a bang, the front door closed, leaving a blanket-huddled Katara and a moping Sokka in the doorway.
A few hours later, Katara left the house to meet with Zuko in their usual spot, trying her best to ignore the schoolgirl gossiping of Sokka and Gran Gran on behalf of her "love life". It was embarrassing enough that her father would occasionally bring it up, wondering if they were making progress towards a union. He was already dreaming about the abundance of food and security it would bring, she could tell, even if he tried to hide his delight.
Now, her brother and grandmother seemed wholly invested in her marriage ordeal. Inviting Zuko and his uncle over for dinner that one time had been a mistake. Her family was more smitten with him than ever, dazzled by his awkwardly friendly persona and his quirky, tea-loving relative.
She huffed out a visible breath of air, watching the white tendrils float up and disappear before her eyes. Her face was reddening increasingly at the direction of her current thoughts. Not for the first time in her life, she was grateful for the frigid air surrounding her, using it as an excuse for her cherry-red nose and cheeks.
Katara waved as she passed villagers out and about, hanging lanterns up in the central courtyard or preparing prayer circles for spiritual appreciation. Everyone smiled, unaware for once of the southern chill and the war that was always on their doorstep. Feeling warm and cheerful too, she made her way outside the borders of her village to the edge of the waterfront. Their agreed-upon meeting place for days when they both had time to spare.
Zuko sat several feet from his ship, palms engulfed in flames to ward off the inevitable cold that came with being outside in below temperatures.
It had been a week since their impromptu trip down memory lane, both left with vivid emotions surrounding that day with the wreckage of a navy ship as their backdrop. Something had changed between them, like the subtle shifting of the tides, leaving her with inexplicable new emotions to decode. They were contradictory in nature, comically so.
A part of her felt as if their last encounter only cemented her previous thoughts from their first meeting all those months ago. Fire and water could never coexist, his ignorance at the suffering his country had caused only furthering this belief. People from two different worlds could never mould into one. It would never work.
Yet, a larger part of her, perhaps the most terrifying part, knew that those thoughts were wrong. In fact, that day had only seemed to bring them closer together, closer to discovering the truth of their relationship and how to coexist together. A great weight had been lifted from her shoulders. He was the only one now who truly understood the depth of her guilt. They now bore the weight of the sky together. And it made Katara want to know more about him. So much more. To understand him as he understood her.
So, as her boots made soft sounds against the ground and Zuko turned to give her a little wave, she found herself growing surprisingly flustered. She sat down beside him a little too clumsily, said hello a little too loudly. But he didn't seem to find anything strange at all. Perhaps it was all in her head, more conscious of her actions now that Katara was questioning the nature of their friendship.
After a few moments of silence, neither one seeming keen to break it, Katara took the initiative.
Her eyes twinkling, she asked, "you wanna do something fun?"
The prince grimaced as if the idea were a foreign concept to him. "Fun?" he countered skeptically.
As quickly as she had sat down, Katara bounded back to her feet. She held out a helping hand, laughing slightly as the boy before her still managed to slip on the icy ground even with support. Their hands were connected for a few moments longer than necessary before she reluctantly let go.
"Yes, fun," she concluded, turning her upper body back in the direction of the village, where folks young and old were setting up decorations along the outer wall. She motioned with an excited gesture of her hands, "it's the Glacier Spirits Festival today!"
Even in her enthusiasm, the prospect of each passing year and festival saddened her. The Glacier Spirits Festival was a lot different than how the old stories painted it to be, brushed lovingly in brilliant hues of faded time.
No one from before the war was still alive, but the memory of "what was" hung heavy in the air around them. It wasn't a distant dream, but something fresh and real. They were retold, over and over again, in such precise detail that you'd think they were something everyone had experienced firsthand. Even though Katara had never been to a true festival, she could recount to Zuko every little thing that was different from before.
She could tell him how her tribe used to import special giant sea crab from the Northern Water Tribe especially for a day like this, though now transport of goods was difficult.
She could mention how today of all days used to be a way to bring the two tribes together for the solstice, the two groups coming together as one in their shared love and appreciation for the nature that surrounded them.
She could mention how they used to have lights; a beautiful kaleidoscope of every colour imaginable. From grassy greens to vibrant pinks and everything in between, flowing gracefully in the sky as if it were a river of spirits.
She could tell him all of that and more, but Katara found herself really wanting him to explore the festival with her and find out along the way.
"Oh yeah," Zuko said as if suddenly recalling something. "So, this is what Sokka wouldn't shut up about these last few days."
Katara nodded. "He loves it. But with good reason! There's food and prayers and the community huddles together to tell stories. Sokka even engineered this machine to shoot makeshift fireworks into the sky. Albeit it's mostly compacted dye and by the end, everyone is covered in pigmented powder but…"
Their eyes locked as she reached for his sleeve, leaving him no room to protest. She tugged them back towards the village. Over her shoulder, she called to Uncle Iroh (who stood on the ship deck spying on them not so subtly) to bring himself and the crew into town for the festivities.
"Inviting them was a mistake," Zuko warned, though the corners of his lips displayed his amusement.
"No way!" Katara argued, playing along. "What's that saying… the more the merrier?"
"I've never heard that," Zuko said, shaking his head adamantly. "Give them a reason to party and they will. For hours."
"Oh, come on, lighten up." Their steps fell in sync with one another as they climbed the hill. Assuredly, she said, "you won't regret this, Zuko."
In that moment, the world around them seemed to fade into the background. As if a paintbrush had been swept across the horizon, blurring everything out of focus except for the two of them. Katara had never experienced this emotion before, the feeling of the universe narrowing in on her. It was entirely thrilling… and so frightening. In the back of her mind, she knew what this meant. She knew that their friendship was tipping to the point of no return. But it didn't mean she was ready to accept this.
Be simple for only a little while longer, she pleaded.
His lips parted as if he were about to say something, eyes roaming over her face searching for clues to… to what?
She didn't want to find out. But yearned to at the very same time.
Instead of confronting that perhaps her jittering new feelings were returned, she tapped his shoulders in what she thought was a light push, imagining the tension breaking with a few jokes and teasing remarks.
Taking one out of Sokka's book, she realized. It seemed to work well enough for him.
But instead of taking a few steps back, she watched wide-mouthed as he lost his balance. Zuko, crown heir of the Fire Nation, tumbled backwards down the hill's decline. The further he went, the quicker his velocity, seeming to gather snow around him as if she were witnessing the formation of a human snowball. She let out a loud yelp of surprise, followed by hands clapping towards her mouth in an attempt to stifle the bubble of laughter forming at the base of her throat.
Just go with it, just go with it. She totally meant to do that.
He watched on with a dazed look of astonishment as she hightailed it towards the village entrance, sprinting without sign of stopping. The only indication of acknowledgement she gave him was a cackling, "race you there!" from over her shoulder.
This high-natured spirit was only benefitting of the Glacier Spirits Festival, of course.
By the time Zuko made it up the slope, sopping wet and just about frozen, Katara met him at the walled entrance with a guilty look and a stick of carnival food in each hand. He pouted, avoiding her teasing smile as he bit into the warm fried dough-covered fish.
"That was unnecessarily cruel," he commented after finishing his snack in three large bites. It was heavenly, he decided begrudgingly, but he wasn't going to let her know that.
Katara took the wooden rod back from him as he used his fire bending to dry himself up.
"Would you believe me if I told you that it's tradition to push others down the hill on festival day?"
"What kind of malevolent spirits do you guys worship?"
They both burst out laughing at the ridiculousness of the past few minutes. Katara more freely and Zuko with a few coughing sounds masquerading as laughter. The interaction was interrupted by Sokka, who tackled his friend from behind, seeing fit to rub his knuckles into the prince's perfectly coiffed ponytail.
"So, guys, what are we laughing about?" Sokka sang jovially, forgetting his pursuit on Zuko's hair.
"How mean you sister is," Zuko deadpanned, ignoring the mock cry of outrage from behind him.
Sokka nodded solemnly, drooping his head for dramatic effect. "Now you know what I've been dealing with for years."
Katara's head suddenly perked up, nose lifted to the sky, cutting off whatever defence she had ready in favour of herself. Sokka seemed to follow suit, the two siblings strangely sniffing the air as Zuko's brows furrowed in utter confusion.
"Is that what I think it is?" Sokka directed towards his younger sister. She only nodded.
Before Zuko knew what was happening, they rushed off, hooting, and yelling in excitement.
"Wait for me!" he called in protest, robes dishevelled and hair coming undone as he ran after them.
When he managed to catch up, he found the two of them, along with a handful of young kids, crowding around a small booth hastily compacted of ice bricks. It was a simple boxed area with a tiny space for entrance and exit, as well as a thin sheet of ice placed atop one wall as a counter. The main courtyard was filled with similarly designed booths, though the decorations at each station varied. Some advertised different snacks and delicacies only available for a limited time, others were showing off beautiful artworks for sale or simply admiration. The one he had come to a stop at was interesting, in that he didn't quite understand what it was.
On the counter, an elderly woman poured a golden-brown liquid, thick like honey but different in a way he couldn't identify. Though it steamed once it came into contact with the chilled surface, it quickly began to harden in the below temperatures outdoors.
"What is that?" Zuko murmured in awe, moving to stand directly behind Katara to whisper into her ear. He didn't want to disturb whatever magic was happening before him.
Katara turned her head slightly towards him at the sound, a pink blush forming on her cheeks at the realization that their noses were mere centimetres apart. They both ducked their heads away, though neither of them seemed to move away entirely from one another.
Instead, Katara did her best to explain what was happening in front of them while Zuko did his very best to try and listen.
"It's syrup taffy," she described, tapping her fingers against one another in excitement. "Mrs. Uki has occupied a booth at the festival for the past fifty years. Sokka and I used to gorge ourselves on these when we were younger."
"Used to?" the woman hooted, looking over at the three of them with warm eyes. "If I don't recall correctly, dear, that you and your brother hosted a contest last year to see who could eat the most without becoming sick?"
"Mrs. Uki!" Sokka gasped, "It was no contest because Katara never stood a chance!"
"Of course, my child," she said innocently, "how could I have forgotten?"
Zuko found himself smiling at the reaction, though on the inside, his chest panged. He had never had the best relationship with the citizens of his own city, even as the prince, and the thought of speaking naturally to anyone other than his uncle was somewhat frightening. Even when he spoke to his new friends, he often thought carefully of what came through his mouth. Constant filtering. He was impulsive in almost every aspect of his life but for his words. The incident with his father had taught him to always second guess.
The older woman completed the elaborate pouring of the syrup onto the ice, using a wooden spoon and snow to create moulds around the liquid in the form of elongated ovals.
Tapping the spoon against the wall, she announced, "okay kiddies, the show's over. They'll be ready in ten minutes."
A chorus of disappointed moans filled the air before the children surrounding his legs started to scatter, chasing one another to and from the booths in some sort of game. Sokka joined in, vanishing around a booth in pursuit of a scraggly boy with long hair tied into a common wolf-tail.
Katara looped her arm through his, guiding them down the street designated for vendors.
Over the next few hours, the pair sampled a little bit of everything in order to give Zuko the "southern experience", as Katara had put it. He found himself with blue dyed thumbs as they tried to paint ceramic bowls, stomach stuffed as he ate more fried dough-covered food on sticks and the syrup taffy they went back for. (The sweet had been incredibly delicious at first, but he had to decline a fourth in order to prevent sickness from the intense sugary taste). They played their hand at a variety of carnival-type games where Katara had even won him a stuffed sack animal with a little help from her water bending skills.
Though throughout the whole day, Zuko noticed that they were never approached by anyone else -disregarding Sokka, who came and went whenever he pleased- unless Katara initiated it first. Every time he glanced in the direction of the villagers, most of whom he recognized but had barely spoken to, they seemed to look the other way or hesitantly wave.
Unsurprisingly, Katara had seemed to read his mind, taking notice of the way his shoulders dropped with each passing person.
"You're a little intimidating."
Zuko's head whipped towards Katara at the statement. In her face, he didn't find any malice or cruel intentions (he didn't think he would). Instead, it was point-blank honesty. It was refreshing, even if it wasn't something he necessarily wanted to hear. Too many people had avoided the issue of his scarring, never telling him what they thought to his face and instead, gossiping behind open floral silk fans and scandalized kohl-lined eyes.
"Yeah, I know," he responded dryly, gesturing with a flourish of his hand to the discoloured skin that spanned half of his face. His hand then rested on the skin, bumpy and rough where it had once been smooth.
Katara tutted, shaking her head as if he were a silly child.
"That's not what I mean," she explained, smiling serenely as she gently pulled his hand from his face. "What I mean is, I think it would benefit you a lot if you smiled more."
Zuko frowned, the idea foreign to him. "Smile more?"
"Yes, the exact opposite of what you're currently doing." She laughed at his scowl, the reverse of her advice. "People don't come up to you because you're always frowning every time, you're in town. They think you don't like them."
Her face pulled down dramatically, with eyebrows furrowed, nose scrunched furiously, lips pouted, in a mock imitation of how he looked, apparently. Her face cleared with another laugh at his expense. But he knew that when she laughed, it wasn't at him. It was with him.
"Smiling changes your whole face!"
Zuko doubted that was the reason. Life was never so simple. But he was struck with the sudden urge to make her… happy? Would that happen if he tried to smile?
Sighing internally, he decided to forgo whatever dignity he had left. He had smiled before. He had even smiled with Katara before. It wasn't as dramatic as he was making it out to be. Normal people did it all the time. His uncle couldn't seem to get enough of it.
Slowly, he lifted his lips up and up, way further than they would have been in a simple smirk. They rose up and up to the point where he knew he looked ridiculous, the corners of his mouth stretching broadly while smiling his absolute hardest. Even his teeth were on display, which Zuko thought was a nice touch.
The girl before him patted his shoulder comfortingly. "Perhaps you shouldn't force it. It'll happen when it happens naturally, yes?"
Zuko snorted, though he was feeling better already.
"I'll put in a good word for you at the prayer circle," Katara assured him.
He looked towards the sky, watching how the sun drooped towards the Earth and allowed darkness to encompass the surrounding area. Earlier, he remembered hearing that the prayer circle was one of the last festivities. He hadn't realized it was so late.
"I had a really fun day," he admitted quietly. Katara had to lean closer to him in order to hear.
He didn't know why the confession scared him so much when it was genuine. From the games to the food to the run-in with his uncle and crew, who were participating alongside the villagers, the day had been unlike anything Zuko had ever experienced.
It was, perhaps, that he knew his world was slipping. The further he was from the Fire Nation, the more he could distance himself from that life. The court politics, the manipulation that had covered his entire life in thinly veiled threats, seemed to dissipate. He often forgot his father and sister for days at a time, and instead investing in the life he was currently living. The girl who currently made up a large part of his days and his thoughts at night. Zuko didn't know what to believe anymore.
"I'm glad," Katara answered him with the same softness, matching their tone of voice. "The shortest day of the year should be spent to the fullest."
"The shortest day?"
She hummed. "The festival always takes place on the winter solstice, which is the shortest day of the year. It's the one day the avatar can open the portals. There's one at the South Pole, one at the North, and they connect the physical world to the spiritual world."
Katara lifted his hand in hers towards the sky, using their intertwined fingers to trace imaginary patterns that looped between gently glowing stars.
"The festival used to celebrate lights, beautiful explosions that expanded across the sky in a sea of colour, but during the war, the South was thrown out of balance and they disappeared."
Their hands lowered slowly, sadly, as they both took in the implication.
Katara shrugged. "We keep doing the festival in hopes they'll return, though it's been a century. I've never seen them before."
"Someday," Zuko said, surprising them both when they understood his words for what it was. A promise.
During their conversation, they had walked further and further towards the outskirts of the assigned fairgrounds. They stopped when they came across a gathering of people, so large it seemed as if the whole village was there. They probably were, Zuko assumed, once he noticed that there were no other people roaming around.
Shouts of welcomes and greetings were heard as Katara led the two of them towards her family, who sat near the front of the group beside the tribe elders. Zuko in return found himself giving a tentative wave to those he came into eye contact with, even trying to smile slightly, though nothing as flashy as his earlier attempt.
Once the two had sat down, the elders regaled the audience with myths and legends surrounding the spirits of their world, and how the Southern Tribe became what it was today. Zuko recognized a few larger spirits that were common to most nations, yet most of the history was unfamiliar to him. He listened to stories about Tui and La, coinciding spirits representing the moon and the ocean and how the koi fish circled one another for eternity to keep balance. He learned how the first waterbenders observed the push and pull of the tides in moonlight, swaying among the waves in tandem to master the element.
It was obvious that it was the type of thing repeated each and every year, a few of the older citizens mouthing the words by heart as they were spoken by an elder, but everyone was completely enamoured. Zuko found himself feeling the same type of way.
The fire started to die down before the stories did, the fire inside people's hearts stronger than the weathering outdoors. The prince shot a few sparks discreetly into the stone pit in an attempt to rejuvenate the flames, dubious of displaying his bending in public. Katara leaned against his shoulder for a brief moment in thanks, no doubt aware of what he had done.
They ended off the storytelling with meditation, each person's heads filled with vivid images of spirits and benevolence and wishes for the future. Zuko found himself praying that one day he might experience something like today again. That this wasn't his last time here, among these people. That they would all make it through the dark tunnel the world had been thrown into over the past century.
The villagers began to disperse, heading back to their respective homes after grabbing a few last snacks at stands or speaking to Chief Hakoda and the elders. The fireworks would be held even later at night, so most people went home to rest for a while beforehand. Zuko hung back, not wanting to intrude, as his mind began to whirl with the events of the day. Suddenly, he found himself wishing it weren't coming to an end so soon.
When Katara eventually found him to say goodbye, Zuko found himself trying to stall for time. He couldn't quite figure out why though, except for the fact that he really found himself loving his friend's company today. After almost six months down south, he was beginning to worry at the thought of returning to his old life.
"I… I have an idea," he told her impulsively, meeting Sokka's suggestively wiggling eyebrows from over her shoulder. Zuko attempted to wave him off discreetly, failing miserably when Katara gave them both a weird look.
"What kind of idea?" she asked, obviously waiting for him to elaborate.
"Well…" A foot tap. Two. "My ship has a music and game night every week. There wasn't one scheduled for tonight, but I'm sure they'd be more than happy to have one if you wanted to come?"
The encroaching silence continued as the Water Tribe girl took her time contemplating his offer. With each second passing, Zuko felt himself wither with embarrassment. What was he thinking? Of course, she didn't want to hang out with him anymore, on a ship with his stinky crewmembers no less.
"Ugh, stupid," he groaned. "Never mind, forget I said anything-"
His gaze returned to hers, a little too much hope filling his lungs. "You… you will?"
"Yes, you didn't let me finish before," she laughed softly. His heart started to beat strangely at the sound.
"Well, great," he said, clearing his throat in the absence of words. "My uncle will be incredibly pleased to hear. Since, you know, he wanted me to invite you."
Katara smiled sweetly in a way that indicated she knew he was lying but was too polite to comment on it. "I'll be sure to thank him once we see him."
"Yes." Zuko nodded. He gestured with a hand towards the ocean, navy with glittering pieces of reflective silver in the distance. "Shall we?"