Chapter 1: Premonition
The day Katara's life changed, her dreams were filled with blood.
It had been a while since she'd dreamed of the raid that stole her mother from her, but she knew it would never truly exceed from her memory. It always appeared when she least expected it to, launching painful reminders from the past back into full force. The dream was always different every time, and it was hard for Katara to distinguish between fact and fiction. She found she could barely remember the original day as it was at all, without any wicked embellishments that her mind had conjured.
Tonight, her nightmare formed a trail of blood, bright red and fresh, melting into the pure white snow. The starkness of the scene never failed to startle her, whether in dream or out. A metallic perfume intermingled with the cold air, making Katara feel dizzy. She knew what she would find behind the closed igloo flap door- she knew she knew she knew- but her mind loved to taunt her. And she couldn't stop the final step she took forward.
The picture before her was devastating.
She rushed to kneel before her mother, who lay still and curled on her side, blood gushing from a prominent wound to her abdomen. Katara grabbed the leather skin bottle by her hip, uncapping it to use the water inside for its healing properties. Her hands couldn't stop shaking.
Her mother was already dead, but she couldn't seem to stop.
Tears blurred her vision, and her fingers were stained scarlet. The water glowed and swirled above her mother's wound, Katara trying desperately to heal what couldn't be. Even great healers couldn't bring the dead back to the land of the living. But she couldn't accept the fact that her mother was… no, no she wasn't. Katara just had to heal her. She willed the water to.
What use was her bending if she couldn't save her loved ones when they needed her the most?
The footsteps behind her, loud and encroaching, did nothing to quench her desire to save her mother and served only as a mere distraction. She neglected the way they pounded the snow with assured squelches, secure and looming.
It was almost done now, wasn't it? Her mother was almost better-
The hand on her shoulder was nothing like her father's, who's grip was firm yet held a gentleness to it, which this man would never obtain. It was vice-like and suffocating.
Katara gasped, spinning around quickly to come face-to-face with the intruder. In the process, the hand on her shoulder had wrenched off by default from her jerking actions. The healing water splashed to the ground, sinking into the snow, without the care of her concentration. Her mother's lifeline drained with it.
The broad man was dressed head-to-toe in red and black armour, a masked helmet covering all his features but for his eyes, which were cold and cruel and victorious. He peered down at her like she was nothing, an insignificant bug that he would have no difficultly squashing.
She had come to learn over the years that this was the way Fire Nation soldiers were. Bred for war and hatred, beasts in human form, no compassion in their loyalty to the Fire Lord. Nothing would come in their way. She could read that in his eyes easily enough.
So, Katara wasn't surprised when the man raised his weapon above his head and brought it down upon her.
She woke with a sharp gasp, drawing a lungful of bitterly cold air to quench her alarm.
That was not how the original day had gone, of course. Katara had been a lot younger than the eighteen years she was now, and it had been a lot more confusing at the time. A younger version of herself had run towards her mother at the first sign of ash-filled snow falling from the sky. She found her mother on the ground before an imposing soldier, and she had told Katara to run from the hut and find her father. One look at the raider was all it took for her to heed her mother's warning. It was the last time she'd seen her mother, for when she returned with her father and brother, Kya was gone.
Her hand clutched tightly against her throat where her mother's carved necklace lay secure. Katara had never taken it off, not since the day she found it crushed in the packed snow floor of their home. No doubt from under the boots of the raiders who had stolen her mother away. The piece of jewelry had become her most prized possession, a part of her, as much as her limbs or her waterbending was.
The remnants of her dreams were fading into the background, becoming nothing more than a dull, aching pain in the back of her mind, as reality surged forward. They joined the gallery of similar nightmares, though this was the first time it had ended with her death.
She could hear the bustle of communication and work from outside, her village already full of unapologetic life. They were a small town (much smaller than the Northern Tribe, a result from war) but their spirit never failed to amaze her. From a quick glance around the room, she found she was alone in their hut. Her family members had already shed the warm fur blankets in favour of the chilled outside and the chores that awaited them. When Katara looked out the window, she realized that it was already past noon. She had slept in for far longer than she normally did.
Rubbing the sleep from her eyes and the few dried tears that had escaped, she rose from the bed warily to start her day. Katara tried to busy her mind with doing her hair, counting out the monotonous brushing as she stroked through the unruly locks with a whale's bone comb. Her fingers worked quickly and efficiently in braiding her hair, knowing by heart the folding motions for she styled her hair in the same traditional and simple do every day. She clipped her front sectioned hairs back with blue pins to form loops. But even as she washed her face in a basin, the uneasiness of her dream had stuck with her all the while.
Katara disliked the feeling it had left with her, the sensation of ants crawling across her skin and the icky butterflies in her gut. Goosebumps seemed to be permanently risen on her skin, no matter how she tried to hush them with quick friction from her hands.
Something about the day felt… wrong, but she couldn't figure out why. She felt the uneasiness stirring within her. Fate was a funny and unpredictable thing, the spirits never hesitating to throw hints towards unsuspecting mortals.
So, when she stepped outside, she found her answer.
The ocean churned with temper, waves crashing so loudly unto the shores that she was surprised she hadn't heard it before. The sky was mottled with streaks of grey and navy, brooding storm clouds covering the sun from the earth. The spirits were angry today, and the sea promised war. Katara was wary of the premonition hanging in the air, promising worse things to come.
She continued with her chores for the day, apologizing to the patients she had promised to see about healing remedies for her tardiness. Later on, she got roped into helping her brother store the hunting brought in from the morning as best they could. Though, Katara found herself constantly glancing over her shoulder towards the coast, eyeing the shoreline and pounding waves with attentiveness. If the spirits were sending a sign, she wanted to be on high alert.
Animals were hunted by the tribe and used for multiple reasons, most unsuspecting unless you were a Southern native. The lack of natural resources led to creative uses, such as whale-walrus blubber made into oil to light their lamps, or cuttlefish turned into paint for ceremonies. Katara had never learned how to extract the useful properties from such animals, so she was tasked with simply cutting the correct proportions for cooking.
The hunters had brought back much from their excursion, and Katara kept busy alongside her brother, both sitting in a corner of the food shelter. Others sat around them in small assembly groups, murmuring conversation as they did their work.
She was too lost in her own thoughts to pay attention. It was easy for her mind to slip back into a replay of the nightmare and her worries when the movements of skinning an animal were so methodical.
She blinked hard, turning her head to her left towards her shouting brother, who was pulling the carcass from her lap. It was only when she looked down that she saw she'd been hacking away rather sharply at the meat, which now resembled a bloodied mash.
Katara grimaced at her work and the mutterings of her brother claiming they could possibly mix her portions into a stew. They were meant to be gentle and skilled with the knife, wielding the fur from the meat with precision in order to use both for other purposes. Well maintained fur would be washed and turned to coats and linings, meat would be either frozen to be cooked later or dehydrated into jerky.
Her neck grew hot under her brother's incredulous stare. "What's up with you today? You seem even more uncoordinated than usual," he grinned.
Katara gave Sokka and his self-satisfied smirk an unimpressed look. "Says the one who tripped over his own feet earlier today… yeah, I saw that."
It was Sokka's turn to turn pink. "I'm sure you unbalanced the ice with your snow-water-power magic hands," he stated with a pout, wiggling his fingers at the snowy ground for emphasis. But then his expression turned serious again. "But you seem kind of off today. Is there something wrong?"
"I don't know," Katara replied honestly, after some hesitation.
She didn't know if she could explain her feelings to Sokka, or to any non-bender really. Which was unlucky for her, being the only water bender in the Southern Tribe. It meant she had a deeper connection with the ocean than anyone else, and sometimes, she could feel things about the earth and the cycle of elements that the others would never pick up on. It was why she had felt so uncertain this morning, the storm triggering her anxieties even before she knew the waves were gray.
Sokka gave her a blank look. "You don't… know," he asked, clearly skeptical.
Katara heaved an almost comically big sigh in a last-ditch attempt to collect her emotions into expressible words. "I can't help but feel like something's coming. Something big. Didn't you notice the storm outside today, how big the waves were?" At her brother's nod, she continued to pitch her case, "why else would the sea be so restless if something bigger weren't in store for us?"
"Or maybe…" he drew out his words, twiddling his thumbs as if hesitant to give his input. "Maybe it's just a storm, Katara. Maybe the spirits stubbed their toe on a block of ice and are throwing a temper tantrum. You know, not everything has to have some deeper meaning."
The way he dismissed her worries with a joke set her on edge, but she had to respect his honesty, even if their views didn't align in the moment.
Katara swatted at his shoulder.
"I'm serious, Sokka. Something just... feels different about today," she shrugged to undermine her own words, knowing how he didn't take them as seriously as she would've liked. Katara sighed in frustration, not knowing how to express her feelings, "I don't know how else to explain it."
Sokka, sensing her irritation with herself, wrapped his arm around her head. Against Katara's objections, he brought her head down into his chest so he could easily ruffle his hands on the crown of her head, messing up her braid. He let her go with a barking laugh, poking her cheek teasingly and soon, she found herself giving in with a smile.
"Whatever it is, Katara. I'm sure you can take them on," he said with much confidence, which made her feel a lot better about the situation. Until he opened his mouth again, that is. "With my help, of course."
"Sokka!" she groaned, rolling her eyes with a laugh.
"What?" he asked innocently, then proceeded to wiggle his eyebrows, "I'm invaluable to you."
The two siblings went back to storing and packaging the food in comfortable silence afterwards, Katara's nerves eased slightly. When they had completed their portion of work, wrapping the meat tightly in a sealskin bag and packing snow over top, she was nervous to go outside again. She was unsure of the state of the water and was expecting the storm to have doubled tenfold. But by the time high afternoon hit, the waves had calmed substantially. Though a dark grey remained in the depths of the ocean, unsettling and ever-present.
Done with her daily duties, Katara waved goodbye to her brother, who ran away lovingly to fetch his boomerang. She found a secluded spot by the shore, away from the rest of the village, to make time for waterbending practice.
She readied herself in a simple stance, closing her eyes to attune herself with the environment and her surroundings. She could feel the energy coursing through her chi points; she could feel her boots planted evenly on the snow. She listened to the crashing motions of the waves. When she opened her eyes, she was one with the water.
Katara loved the movements of waterbending, finding the graceful agility and elegant strides almost like a dance. So different from the staccato rhythm of a firebender, the tough endurance of earthbending or even the swift freedom of the airbenders. While beautiful to watch, waterbending was all about control and patience. Turning your opponent's force back against them rather than striking first. Defence before offence.
And the art was so versatile. Water could be manipulated into any shape or phase, with purposes in its liquid, gas or solid state. Only a true master could easily flip through the states in a short time while keeping a level head during combat. Temper played a dangerous part in an inexperienced waterbender's performance and could lead to great destruction for all, even the waterbender themselves if they weren't careful.
Katara had to admit she still needed to work on containing that… After all, she had first discovered her abilities while cracking ice during a heated toddler temper tantrum.
It was easy to spend hours practicing different techniques and forms, using an old waterbending scroll from back when a master had still lived in their midst. The rest of the village was unsure of what happened to the girl, though different rumours surfaced occasionally. Tales of Fire Nation capture or a secret romance, but Katara wasn't inclined to believe the gossip.
She also considered her learnings from Master Pakku, an old flame of her grandmother's (she shuddered at the thought) who resided in the North Pole. While their ways were a lot more traditional and restricting on women, he had relented to mentor her and teach her various things. While their time together that been short, it had proved entirely useful in honing her skills. Katara still received the occasional tip or two mixed in with her grandmother's correspondence, which seemed to have been steadily picking up within the past year…
In her training, Katara liked to practice a mixture of offensive and defensive maneuvers, for though she'd never had to use them save for on a stray animal or two, it was always good to be prepared for an attack of any sort. She might be the only chance her village had against other benders. And ready she would be.
When the sky intermingled with clouds of pink and orange, Katara realized how late it had become. Her family was already preparing for supper, she was sure. She dropped the water she'd been wielding as a whip back into the ocean and wiped the sweat from her brow. Even in below temperatures, the workout was enough to warm her cheeks and cause her breath to come short.
She grinned to herself from ear-to-ear, noticing the improvements she'd made just in today's practice. Satisfied, Katara turned to go back over the hills of snow to her village walls.
And froze in her tracks.
In the distance, a ship was advancing, slicing through the water with smooth efficiency. It was too far away for her to make out, but enough for her to pause in consideration. Occasionally sailors made their way to the south to hunt animals on their own, but they never paid a visit to the city. This ship seemed to be coming towards her tribe though, but for what reason?
It was too early in the month for Earth Kingdom shipments; the food and materials from the peace treaty between the two lands were scheduled to arrive within the last week of every month. But the last one had been but a mere week or two previous. Unless her father had requested for more?
Katara knew their numbers were dwindling because of the war, soldiers travelling overseas and never returning, but she hadn't realized the cost was steep enough to lack enough food to feed the tribe.
Squinting her eyes in the direction of the arriving ship, she saw two others emerge from the mist, forming a v-formation behind the leading vessel. When they were a few hundred feet from the shore, she noticed the make of the ship, and the design of the red flag marking it painstakingly as Fire Nation.
The peace between them had been rocky because of her father's stubborn refusal to submit to become a Fire Nation conquered state. They had shared a relatively unstable and fragile era of calm. They didn't bother the Fire Nation; the Fire Nation didn't bother them.
It was all about to end now.
This is what the ocean was trying to warn her of. She was right to be worried all along; something was wrong.
The Fire Nation was attacking.
There was no time to run back and warn the others. By the time she gathered enough warriors to defend their village, the ships would already be at their shore. Exhausted from her hours of waterbending, she summoned the last of her energy to defend her home from the invaders.
Wasn't this what she had been preparing for? Why did she feel so scared then?
On her trip to the Northern Water Tribe with her father several years previous, she'd learned from Princess Yue's guards that when attacked by the Fire Nation, their waterbending warriors used primarily ice spikes as the first line of defence when they spotted enemy vessels.
Katara didn't have much practice with this particular skill but attempted to shoot ice spikes from the water by using an upwards thrust technique. She tried to replicate the Northern benders as best she could without the knowledge and skill they'd been trained with. It proved more difficult than it looked, without the proper technique. When this did nothing but jostle the ships slightly, she groaned, feeling her palms grow sweaty from a mix of dread and determination.
Instead, she raised a wall of water high into the air, the top of the wave almost touching the clouds (or so it seemed) and pushed it towards the awaiting boats. This would be almost impossible for her to accomplish on a regular day when the ocean was a bright blue and the waves were peaceful. But the imposing storm from the morning had created angry clouds and a charged atmosphere, aiding Katara with her bending. Because of the ships' accelerated speed, the wave pushed them rapidly back, threatening to overturn them.
Katara didn't want to kill the people aboard (even the Fire Nation soldiers had lives and loved ones), just dissuade them from coming closer and hopefully, warn them against returning.
Using the momentum of her mini tsunami, she crashed waves into the port and starboard sides, rocking them back and forth. She didn't know how much longer she could keep up the charade though. From her tired frustration, the waves seemed to grow increasingly violent, even when Katara tried to tame them. She didn't have enough control to keep them at bay in her exhaustion, and the ocean had a mind of its own.
Katara spun around at her father's command, hands still raised in the air towards their unwanted company. He'd rushed to where she stood with the other men on their council, trailing behind their Chief with looks that varied from impressed to horrified.
Her waterbending was acknowledged but not discussed in polite company very often. They had certainly never seen her wield such force in a violent nature.
She didn't understand her father's command; she was trying to get them to leave the tribe alone. The force was turbulent but not enough to kill. Katara still had it under control…
When she looked back out to the ocean, she saw the ships had hoisted flags. The contrast was stark against the darkening sky, waving madly in the wind. They were white. Of peace, Katara noted in a confused and dazed stupor.
"Father, what...?" she tried to ask but stopped when he jerked his hands to the thrashing sea.
Frantically, before she had time to think, she threw her hands down at the water. It would have been more time consuming to carefully unwind the vigorous waves, the ships threatening to capsize during the time it took to release the intense energy, so this was the next best solution.
Everyone watched in shock, including Katara herself, as the ocean turn to solid ice under her command. The hundreds of feet between her and the Fire Nation visitors were frozen, the boats at awkward angles for dismounting.
She longed to wipe the sweat beading down her temples, but she remained focused. Her hands were visibly shaking before her. Carefully, Katara slowly turned the ice of the ocean back into its original calm state, guiding the ships with a gentle hand so they'd be positioned upright. The ships, after a stunned silence, continued their voyage to the shore.
Once Katara realized they were safe, she gave into the power that drained her. She felt the previous actions- from her forceful counterattacks to the simple methods from a few hours earlier- deep in her bones, pulling her down with its heavy and lulling weight.
She looked dazedly towards the leading ship, its bow angling towards her spot in the snow, and noticed someone watching her through a telescope. Dark hair pulled away from the face, milk-white skin and a strong jaw. When the telescope was removed, her eyes locked with a boy similar to her age. He sported an unreadable expression and a red scar marring the skin of his left eye. It was so noticeable, even from a distance, that Katara almost flinched at the sight. It didn't look fresh, but it was still current. From the last few years, at least.
If a country burned its own like that, there was no hope for the rest of them. She may have been assuming things. It could've been a simple accident. But she didn't think so. She didn't have to be an expert healer to realize the burn formed the vague shape of a hand.
Who was he, and what was he doing here? She wondered in bewilderment.
It was only when they drew closer, within a few feet from the shore, that she noticed the royal crest of the Fire Nation on his cloak. Katara felt her knees start to tremble as she looked on almost as if in a dream. It seemed unreal, almost impossible. Her suspicions were confirmed when the royal headpiece, a golden two-pronged crown that encircled the dark topknot of any heir to the throne, shone brightly in the setting sun. It was the crown prince.
Katara collapsed to the snow.
Chapter 2: Surprise
This chapter will be from Zuko's perspective and will follow a similar setup to the first one just for introduction's sake. After this one, there won't be repeating chapters from different perspectives, unless it's special occasion. It'll be more chronological.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Ever since he was young, Zuko knew to do what was expected of him.
Being the Crown Prince of the most powerful nation in the world came with its own rulebook, one which he was never to stray from. It was difficult being raised as a kid in the palace, made even more so by the undermining eyes of expectation for the next Fire Lord. The kingdom had little faith upon his birth; they'd assumed he was a non-bender.
It was only when he showed his skill that his father relented, just barely, the fiery anger upon the shame of an ordinary firstborn. But the scrutiny had only succeeded to fuel his desire to prove his strength and worth. That's what he liked to tell himself, anyway.
So, it was no surprise upon disobedience to his father and subsequently, the throne, he was summoned into a private council with the Fire Lord.
He stood before the precipice of his future, one foot off the cliff of destiny (though he didn't know that yet). It presented itself in the form of golden gilded doors, carved with intricate, ancient designs depicting the history of their ancestors. It was a heavy weight to bear.
Zuko lightly touched his fingers to the red flesh that covered the expanse of his left eye, a nervous gesture he had developed in the year after the burning had occurred. It was fading to a gentler tone and was less sensitive than it used to be, compared to the blinding pain of the first few weeks afterward. It had felt like his skin was being constantly ripped apart, and every subtle touch was agony. He had only begun regaining his eyesight within the last few months and it was not as sharp as it used to be, though still there.
Since his "accident" exactly a year ago, the family had lived in an era of tense silence. They grew increasingly nervous with passing time when Ozai did nothing to scorn his son for speaking out of turn, other than a mark to remember him by, and banishment from further war council sessions.
At first, Zuko had been relieved, thinking that his father had spared him from a life outcast from the nation. Had maybe even forgiven him. Though, Zuko was quick to realize that his thoughts were foolish. His father was never the forgiving type. It was more likely he was planning something, biding his time well until the right opportunity struck.
And today was the day the axe fell.
Wiping any trace of emotion other than a cool collectiveness, he removed his hand from his face and entered the throne room, holding his head high as the guards and servants bowed in his wake.
Fire Lord Ozai sat upon the raised dais at the end of the long, red-carpeted room with the smooth confidence of a royal. Keeping the flaming torches surrounding him on high blast and shrouding the room with misting heat was his show of power. Zuko took care not to flinch as he drew closer to his father's flames.
He ducked his head in a bow and awaited his father's approval. After a beat longer than necessary, certainly longer than he would have given another, Ozai relented with a nod. It was only then that Zuko could lift his head from his bow to meet his father's eyes. They held a spark in them that Zuko didn't like one bit.
"I assume you know today's anniversary, my son."
Though Ozai was the ruler of the Fire Nation, his voice was cold as ice. He gave Zuko a self-satisfied grin, eyes flickering to the obvious marking on his son's face.
"Come now. Have a think." he chided unpleasantly. Taunting. Mocking. He delighted in his son's misery, and it showed.
Zuko tried to reign in his temper, tried to squash the spark of fury he felt racing through him like the lightning he could not wield, but knew he hadn't succeeded when his father's grin grew wider. He could practically feel the trails of smoke from anger singeing his clothes.
Through his teeth, he gritted, "the day of my cowardice and dishonour, father."
The anniversary of the day he had disrespected his father: by speaking out of turn against a general (and subsequently him) when he should've ought to keep his mouth shut and had refused to duel him in an Agni Kai. The act was seen as cowardice by the nation, who prided themselves on violence and strength.
The firstborn had a heart of water, they gossiped with malice afterwards. Too flowing, too introspective, too… tame. Not enough ferocity. No passion for the art of flames.
Weak, weak, weak.
Azula made sure to relay every single word.
Zuko had begged, pleaded with his father to not make him choose between his honour or his pride. He couldn't challenge his father. He couldn't live with himself if something were to happen. His father had no choice but to punish him for his insignificance.
You will learn respect, and suffering will be your teacher.
It was only later when he'd been treated by doctors, did his uncle tell him that his refusal had been an act of courage and empathy. Zuko still struggled to see it so.
Ozai's teeth were a sharp white when he smiled. "Precisely, my boy. You know…" he spoke as if wondering aloud, "it was my plan to banish you right after."
Zuko stiffened under his father's calculating gaze. The news stung.
"Is that so?" he asked, keeping his voice devoid of emotion much like his face. Like the face stealer Koh, his father would pounce at the slightest show of weakness.
The Fire Lord made his way slowly down the stairs, the powerful and jeering movements part of the buildup to his big, theatrical reveal.
"Yes, but you know what I realized?" he pondered, a rhetorical question for he answered himself right away, "I realized you were of much more value to me here."
Zuko's brows furrowed ever so slightly in confusion as he searched his father's face for sincerity. Even after all that had occurred a year ago, was what he said true?
He should've known that was not the case. Stupid hope: it had no place in the heart of the Fire Nation.
"I always knew, even before Azula, that you were never much of a fighter," his father began, realizing the knives he stuck into his son's chest, yet continuing regardless. "The passion for flames that she so naturally carries was never graced upon you."
Zuko now stood face to face with his father, looking at the man who mirrored him almost completely. Even after twenty years of living under his domineering presence, he always felt insignificant before him.
"It was something in your eyes," his father explained in a low tone, spitting the words out in disgust. "They didn't hold the spark of a fire bender: the noticeable spark that which every Fire Lord has obtained."
His father's hand came down upon his right shoulder in a harsh grip. "But seeing as you are my firstborn, I decided to spare you. And to think, if I had gotten rid of you as I'd wanted, things wouldn't be working out so wonderfully in my favour right now." He tilted his head in observation of the prince before him, a mocking smile gracing his face. "How generous am I?
He hated his father, he hated his father, he hated his father. Or at least, he wished he did.
His mother had once told him that repeating thoughts as if they were true would make it so. But Zuko had found little evidence of that over the years. Words couldn't make him a better firebender than Azula. Phrases couldn't bring him honour.
No matter how much he tried, how much his father deserved his hatred, he found himself still loving him. Still craving desperately to be accepted. And it made him feel all the more pathetic for caring in the first place.
"Very much so," he found himself dutifully agreeing, a good little prince, letting himself be steered by his father from the throne room. He realized they were heading towards the west wing, where the war room and many other tactical suites resided.
When they entered the large chamber, it was void of people. Scrolls were stacked neatly on the grand table and pawn pieces were placed strategically over a three-dimensional map, pinpointing the various locations of their strongholds in the Earth Kingdom. But his father directed his attention to the delicately hand-drawn map of their world, hung against the far wall by dusty mahogany bookshelves.
"This is our world," his father boomed, gesturing before him with pride and glory oozing from his being. "The four nations of the elements used to live in poverty, barely surviving on minimalist animal instincts. But our ancestor, Fire Lord Sozin, took it upon himself to see change. He brought prosperity and great power to a world condemned to damnation. What a great saviour he was."
His father turned his gaze from the map to his son with contempt. "While you cannot reach this great level of success," Ozai remarked snidely, "you were born to carry on the legacy of our forefathers. The Fire Nation will one day rule the four lands as one. But that cannot happen until the four nations cooperate."
"I understand this, father," Zuko told him.
And he did. This part of history had been ingrained into him year after year since he had been old enough to start with tutors. They were prideful of their nation and how, when the world was in an era of darkness, their brave Fire Lord rose to the occasion.
Zuko, as a young boy, had dreamed of bringing victory and honour to his country. He knew history was watching him, and he was intent on making future generations proud of his accomplishments. All he'd ever wanted was to make them proud, but all he'd ever accomplished was failing to do so. But now the opportunity had arisen, and he would be damned to let it pass him by.
"How can I help with your plan?"
This was why his father had wanted him to stay, hadn't banished him outright after refusing during the Agni Kai and speaking out of turn. His father had a special mission for his only son, the crown prince and soon-to-be Fire Lord. Maybe he would be sent deep undercover into enemy camps, or to negotiate treaties with an Earth Kingdom, or trusted to oversee developments of new Fire Nation colonies.
Zuko felt his anticipation grow steadily as his father drew out the silence with a slow grin.
A pleased, wicked laugh filled the chamber. Shadows closed in on the unsuspecting prince. "I was hoping you'd say that."
A beat more. Fraught anticipation. Then the reveal.
It almost brought Zuko to his knees, exhaustion heavy on his heart. It was all he trusted Zuko to handle. He would never surpass his sister in their eternal competition for dominance and respect.
"Think of it as securing an alliance. A union," his father persuaded, though his voice was filled with mirth. "If a year isn't enough for you, my soldiers will see to it. I would like to keep their cooperation as much as possible but… sometimes you can't negotiate with animals."
He had been reluctant at first, stopping short of an outright refusal. The ice between his father and himself was thin, one more wrong move and Ozai would not be so lenient. Zuko had no doubt he'd be eliminated. Mercy was not in his father's vocabulary.
But his father was adamant that this was the only way they would bring the Southern Water Tribe to their knees, subordinated like the other nations were. Compliance wasn't something they were willing to give, and it was Zuko's job to change their ideas. To soften them with visions of marriage and connections and materials and food and food and food. They seemed to be running in short supply, their hunters turned warriors far too soon. It was the only way Zuko could restore his dignity as crown prince, by bringing home an accomplishing triumph to show his father and his country.
"Restore your honour, bring victory to your nation. Don't you want to be of use to me?"
It was an offer Zuko couldn't refuse.
When he exited the room, leaving his father behind to examine scrolls from military officials, he was quickly trailed by Azula. She slunk out of a pillar's shadows like a cat, a pretentiously smug Cheshire grin plastered on her face. He wasn't surprised.
"Do update me on how domestic life goes, brother," she mocked, falling into step beside him. He increased his pace with quicker strides, and she bounced back with a faster stride of her own. Were all little sisters such pains?
"Don't you have somewhere to be, Azula?" he all but groaned, annoyed at the inferiority he always felt when she was around. She was better than him in every possible way it seemed, and she made damn well sure that he and everyone else knew it. "Torturing kids or laughing at injured people?"
"You wound me," she pouted innocently, trailing her pointer finger from her left eye down her cheek to mimic tears. Then her lips upturned once more.
"You know…" she drawled slowly, whipping around in front of him to block his path. He tried to sidestep around her, but she kept blocking him, forcing him to walk backwards with her forward steps. (unless he wanted to be stepped on by Azula's pointed shoes). "I had a hand in planning this joyous occasion."
It was obvious she wanted some kind of reaction from him. Bullies only ever taunted when it was fun, or beneficial to them in some way. Muted reactions would bore them, and they'd find someone else to pick on. Azula never got the memo, though. She was relentless, no matter how unfazed Zuko tried to seem.
"Is that right?" he asked nonchalantly (no more than a bug to him, she was). He pushed on Azula's shoulders in an attempt to move her backwards from her cornering position. She stayed planted, eyes narrowed and gleaming with victory.
"Quite so," she laughed in his face before circling around him slowly like a predator to prey, pulling at his hair and straightening his clothes condescendingly.
It wasn't like the way Ursa used to tidy him up, with gentle fingers and a loving roll of her eyes. Azula pinched and prodded in a wicked imitation of their mother.
"When you fail, I'll be the one leading the invasion," she informed him, as she circled back around to face him with both hands on her hips.
"Invasion?" he stilled, looking at her more seriously now.
The peace between the four elements had been thrown to the wind for the last century, never quite the same as before his great-grandfather, if the scrolls from then were to be believed. The others refused to see the Fire Nation's affluent way of life and had swung the world out of balance with their disputing war.
Though he knew the attacks within the past few years had become increasingly powerful under his father's rule, more aggressive and riskier in nature. Zuko knew an attack on the Southern Water Tribe would be the final, devastating blow on their village. While he could understand his father's intentions, he was never one to take human life without a strong purpose. With the warriors away at war, the villagers were defenceless citizens.
Azula scoffed at his frustrated expression: his frown, creased eyebrows, and eyes so lost. "Don't tell me you're that daft, Zuzu," she snickered. "This is war. What did you think Dad meant when he said he'd send soldiers after your failure? They weren't going to have a tea party," her voice dripped supremacy.
"You're so sure I will. Fail, that is," he observed, his nerves wearing thin.
His voice sounded a lot more confident than he truly was but, of course, he couldn't let his sister know that. Zuko had never had the best temper, and his sister always seemed to bring out the deepest level of rivalry in him.
"It's a given," she winked, turning on her heel to stomp away.
In a choreographed move to anger him further, she stopped at the end of the long, decorated hall and faced him once more. She was always good at reading people, and he wasn't fooling her with his chilled attitude and stony expression.
Azula placed a finger on her chin as if just remembering a fact when in reality, she had been waiting to tactfully drop a bomb on top of him.
"Some motivation for you: Father says if you don't come back with the Southern princess, you don't come back," she sang delightedly, "at all."
Azula always lies. Azula always lies. Azula always lies.
She left him in the hallway, stunned silent and questioning his every move and breath forward. The sound of her cackling threatening to drown out his thoughts.
That was how he found himself on a small Fire Nation vessel -dressed in heavy, fur-lined clothes he'd never before adorned in his life- barreling straight towards the Southern Water Tribe.
Married. His father wanted him to get married.
After two weeks give or take aboard a ship- minimal stops at ports along the way, many for stupid reasons like pai sho tiles or rare musical instruments- with no one but his uncle Iroh and his crew for company, he was glad their voyage was coming to a close. He just wasn't as enthused as to what lay ahead for him ashore either.
He knew little of Princess Katara, a girl he was expected to marry by year's end, except for the fact that she was technically the daughter of a chief. But he had learned that her people didn't see her as such, more like one of them instead of a person of title. He knew nothing else of the southern tribe, apart from the obvious facts.
There was not much information on her or the tribe in general. They were a mystery to the Fire Nation. Many citizens had voiced their displeasure upon hearing their next Fire Lady would most likely be a foreigner they knew nothing of. Though the disapproving gossip of commoners and nobles had no sway on the Fire Lord, dead set in his plans of matrimony and control.
Zuko had met Chief Hakoda only a handful of times, listening in on his father's meetings and conferring with leaders at tense State dinners, but he had never brought his children to Fire Nation soil. So, the girl would remain an enigma until docking.
He wasn't sure what to expect, and it made him feel on edge.
Zuko stood on the front deck as the icy tundra pulled into view. He was unaccustomed to the cold and frigid air. Even with his firebending keeping his internal body temperature warm, his breath managed to escape in visible puffs. Zuko was not thrilled that the next year of his life to be shrouded completely in winter.
"I sense a storm approaching," his uncle mused out of the blue, appearing beside him like magic (though it was really a combination of military training and soft slippers on feet.) He sniffed the air as he would with the cup of hot oolong tea in his hands, miffing the boy beside him.
"You're out of your mind, Uncle," he dismissed, waving the statement away offhandedly. "The sky's perfectly blue, not a cloud in sight."
The army veteran only shrugged. A wise smile on his face that suggested he knew otherwise. They lapsed into silence, which grew increasingly charged with nerves as Zuko fell deeper into puzzlement about his future.
"Chin up, Prince Zuko," his uncle advised with a gentle smile. "The adventure is just beginning."
Zuko scoffed, slightly envious at the way his uncle always appeared calm and serene, even when destiny was uncertain. He tried to hide his uncertainty with a scowl.
"There's not much of an adventure here," he observed, gesturing towards the small village, with small barriers of snow standing guard around the circumference. "The land the tribe occupies isn't even the size of the private family wings in our palace. I don't know why father even bothers them."
His uncle patted his shoulder in the knowing way he always did, sage and mysterious and never condescending. It made Zuko want to unravel all the wisdom his uncle knew for himself.
"A wildfire may start simply with a single match," his uncle reasoned, proverbs that only he could decipher filtering through the air. "Though they are small, they have resisted our forces for this long. It would be wise not to underestimate those who seem inferior in strength at first glance."
Before Zuko could respond, they lurched to the side.
He groaned at the impact of his skull banging against the metal floors. A few disorienting seconds passed before he lifted his head, though the lulling of the ship increased in violence. He jumped to his feet in a crouch, staying low to the deck to avoid the same fate that befell him earlier.
The waves were pushing and pulling them in its embrace, the ships beside them bumping into their sides and throwing his world off-kilter. The pattern was unnatural to any storm he'd seen before, and there'd been no sign of disturbance only moments before. In confusion, he looked towards the bridge of his ship to see Lieutenant Jee pointing vehemently towards land.
With a glance at his uncle, who was more distressed about his broken teacup than anything, Zuko sprung towards the telescope situated at the bow. The ocean was unrelenting in its attempts to throw him off course, but he persisted, grabbing onto the railing for support. In his frantic action to look through the telescope, he knocked his eye onto the opening. Wincing at the bruise he knew would be visible later, he angled the viewing object to the shore.
Zuko was rarely surprised but he had to admit, this discovery had caught him off guard.
It was a girl.
Bending the water.
His first reaction was one of impressed shock. It seemed like so much power simply for one girl to contain within herself. She made it seem effortless. The Northern Water Tribe had tens of men who could reach this potential only by working together.
Next, confusion washed over him. He had to squint again through the telescope, almost as if he were confirming the impossible. There were supposedly no more waterbenders at the Southern Water Tribe. Or at least, none that the Fire Nation was aware of. Either the Southern Water Tribe had kept this girl hidden from their country (very plausible) or she had chosen to keep her powers hidden until now. But judging by the way she moved through a vast array of different stances and exercises, he assumed that wasn't the case.
He'd been so entranced by the girl commanding the ocean that he hadn't heard his crew calling to him in a panic. He broke himself away from the telescope, finding his men attempting to self-right the boat to avoid capsizing. That was the girl's intention, he realized. She wanted to tip them into the sea. She thought they were enemy ships, readying for an attack.
"Raise a white flag!" he called out, running over to provide aid in pulling back the right line.
"Do we have one?" a crew member, Issey, shouted back in confusion.
Zuko resisted the urge to roll his eyes. Straining against the weight, he barked out cynically, "I don't know. Use a bedsheet for all I care but raise something. Quickly!"
He didn't know how much longer the ships could sustain the strain.
But as quickly as the attack had struck, it had ended. Zuko disengaged from the crew, making his way towards the bow once again on humiliatingly wobbly feet. His crew were a mixture of fear, shock and sick. His uncle rose from his spot sitting back against the wooden ship side and raced below deck with a hand over his mouth, presumably to the bathrooms.
Their ship began advancing forward again with a newly added white flag billowing in the wind. The others followed reluctantly in close pursuit.
He saw the girl had been joined by members of her village, Chief Hakoda standing beside her. In all his years, he'd met several waterbenders. They were powerful in their own right, he had to admit, though he still believed fire to be the strongest element. But he had never come across a bender who could will the waves to do their bidding in such a way. Zuko was unsure how to feel about this new predicament, and what it meant for them all.
As his ship pulled closer to the harbour, their eyes warily met for an instant. He didn't miss the way she flinched back, almost reflexively, from his marred side. The gaze was uncertain and filled with tension (no, anticipation) for what was to come. It wasn't lost on him that they were the perfect embodiment of the opposition the two elements held. A crash of fire and water; sun and moon.
Then she fainted.
Zuko frowned as a young man carried her away. The exertion must have drained her.
He knew waterbenders drew their strength largely from the moon, which had yet to rise. So why had so much power consumed this girl? Or was he that much of an unremarkable bender to not realize what capability was normal in comparison to him? The heir to the throne who had honed his skills for years on end with the best masters available… only to end up with a quarter of the skill she and his sister possessed so naturally.
He was still curious at the aspect of a secret waterbender hiding within the Southern Tribe, the thought niggling the back of his mind, and how it had remained that way for so long. The girl didn't look much younger than him.
As his ship pulled up, he nodded his head briefly in acknowledgement to the men ashore, who bowed to him more graciously in return; an open hand pressed tightly against the knuckles of a closed fist. He was a visiting royal, after all.
Once the boat was secure, the ladder descended. And for the first time in his life, Prince Zuko's boots touched Southern snow.
"Welcome," the chief of the Southern Tribe smiled (as warmly as could with enemies on your doorstep), extending his arms wide and palms to the sky in greeting. The rest of his council seemed less pleased, more hostility and distrust in their eyes.
"It is a pleasure to be here, Chief Hakoda," Zuko answered, taking in the sights around him. White snow and clear ice and blue waves. The opposite of everything he was accustomed to. He hoped no one else heard the shadow of insincerity in his voice.
He tried to believe his words. He wished himself content with leaving his home for a year to live in a foreign land, surrounded by people who wanted him gone. He wasn't, though. He knew if he had a choice (permitting his father would feel indifferent to both options), Zuko wouldn't have chosen to come.
But he knew that as the crown prince, the shamed crown prince, it was the only way to survive. Failure was not an option. He intended to make the best of his new future, laid out for him in the gentle moon and churning ocean of the South. And of a girl, whose face he couldn't put to picture quite yet.
"My uncle," he said in introduction, motioning beside him to the pot-bellied older man, who had recovered from their tumultuous voyage and looked as well kept as usual. "My crew is taking rest aboard the ships if that is all right with you? My personal staff will accompany us to town."
The phrase was posed as a question but was in fact, not. Though Prince Zuko was younger (and shorter) than most of the men before him, he commanded the space like only a privileged and self-assured royal could. Shoulders back, voice sure and strong, no room for question in his expression. He watched as the water tribe members straightened their backs, held their heads higher, in his presence.
"Of course," Hakoda responded, stepping to the side to reveal a small pathway shovelled free of snow, "we have much to discuss."
The succession of council members moved up the path, followed by the few advisors and representatives that had accompanied him across the globe. Only his uncle and a handful of guards, unnecessary yet ever-present, remained.
Zuko took the moment to catch his breath, only letting his princely façade fall for what felt like a fraction of a second. The ruse was hard to keep up: pretending everything was alright, that his entire life balanced on the year before him. Pretending he wasn't nervous as all agni to meet this princess.
He went to follow the others and frowned when he heard a soft crunch beneath his feet.
Zuko tilted his head to the side as he peered down at soft blue ribbon, poking out from its spot half covered in white flakes. When he bent to crouch before the fabric, he realized the source of the sound had been a blue-toned jewel attached to the ribbon, carved with the symbol of waterbending.
It was a necklace. It must have fallen from the neck of the girl from earlier.
Though he didn't know what possessed him to do so, he tugged at one end and pulled the necklace free from the earth. Zuko inspected the carving with his fingers, tracing and tracing the waves. It was unlike anything from his homeland, where jewelry was loud and bold and heavily ornamented.
He closed his fist around the beading, feeling the curves and indents in his palm, before placing the jewelry gently into his pocket. He decided he would return it later, though he wasn't sure what possessed him so strongly to do so. But it was the right thing to do, after all, and he had no use for a water tribe object. It would be dishonest to leave it on the ground.
Ignoring the curious looks from his uncle, he brushed the invisible dust from his shoulders and continued along the path into town.
Remember that since Zuko wasn't banished, he is still kinda oblivious to the struggles of the world outside the palace, pretty much, and how the war has affected the other nations which is why some statements were overlooked/weren't accurate. This will change throughout the story!
I'm in the process of writing chapter three, so expect it sometime next week I'm thinking. Review and let me know your thoughts :)
Chapter 3: A Monster Like You
I wasn't planning on updating today but there was no school today (storm, yay) and I couldn't resist completing this chapter.
Thank you so much for all the kind reviews and reads. They make me smile and cheesy as it sounds, they really warm my heart and keep me motivated! I'm glad people are enjoying my story :)
This chapter switches point of view a few times, but it will be made clear when this happens with line breaks. I wasn't planning to do that at first (it was supposed to be from Katara's POV only) but I couldn't resist writing about Zuko's first thoughts of Katara too. This chapter has some more comical elements (or my attempt at being funny) with awkward Zuko moments because I couldn't resist. Also, you will notice that Katara is very hardened towards the Fire Nation and is mean/cynical at first, but it will be temporary because I love nice Katara (I hope this isn't too OOC for you, I tried to make it reminiscent of season 3 when Zuko joined the gang).
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Katara awoke to the smell of burning.
Her reaction was visceral, instantaneous, her lungs squeezing tight in panic. The mild confusion upon awakening in a bed that she didn't remember climbing into, dissipated into fear. Her memories were flooding back in bits and pieces, jumbled but still powerful enough to paralyze her in bed.
The Fire Nation was coming. She tried to stop them. Her father had tried to stop her. A white flag of peace. A scarred prince. Darkness.
Her hands grew clammy at the realization, her eyes moistening. It was a trick on their part. A strategy to break down her tribe's defensive barriers. To initiate a battle in the war that everyone knew would end sooner or later with the Fire Nation dominating the global throne. There was simply no hope for anyone without the avatar's reappearance.
She couldn't believe this was happening. Her village was burning. Ash-like-snow would reign. This time, they wouldn't recover. And she had been helpless to stop it. Just like she'd been helpless in saving her mother.
Katara sprung from her laying position into a sitting one, her legs tangling further into the bedding with her frantic attempts to kick it away. A cold sweat formed on her spine and her forehead, goosebumps rising on her skin. She tossed and turned her head frantically, looking around her house for signs of destruction and flames. Her furniture overturned, her grandmother collapsed, her brother's throat slit.
There was nothing. The air was eerily silent too, she noticed. Nothing from outside. At all. Why was she still standing? Was she the last one alive?
Katara flinched at the hand that rested on her shoulder, fearful of who had been watching her sleep, waiting to attack at her disorientation.
But it was her gran-gran, who looked serene and calm and whose smile was as warm as fur blankets and summer sun. The scent of cool water and herbs intermingled with the smell of soot, lessening the burning on her nose. It did wonders for her nerves too. She started to relax under the gentle ministrations of the older woman's wrinkled hand, beginning to understand that nothing seemed to be wrong. No words had to be said for her to realize she had jumped to conclusions too soon.
Was it possible peace was their only intention? Katara always believed she saw the best in people and felt slightly ashamed that she had judged them too quickly. The town's prejudice and hatred for the Fire Nation ran deep, brewing to a boil for over a century, but it was rightly justified. She knew, for whatever reason they came for, the prince and his entourage would be met with hostility.
It was then Katara noticed the fire burning brightly in the centre of the igloo, steam rising in spirals through the chimney up above. She felt foolish, not recognizing the smell of the fireplace and the food cooking above it. She looked sheepishly at her grandmother, who only stroked soothing fingers through her scalp in acknowledgement.
The fire of life and fire of death was always different, with distinctive scents and feelings and auras. Sleep had muddled her brain, confusing the two. But now, she could clearly feel the intent of the fire was to warm, not scald, those who were around it.
"Come sit by the hearth, child," her grandmother suggested, patting her shoulder affectionately and leading her from the bed.
Still feeling drained from the waterbending earlier, she lumbered ungracefully after her. She could feel her feet dragging slowly, her movements sluggish, even though she tried her best not to. It was no use in the end, though. Katara's mind seemed to be lagging.
Her grandmother sat in the wooden chair, while Katara plopped unceremoniously onto the fur rug by the older woman's feet.
She still had so many questions, but her mouth had trouble keeping up. She tangled her words a few times, shaking her head in frustration before she was concise enough to be understood.
"How long have I been asleep?" she asked, accepting the cup of hot water placed into her palms. How long has the Fire Nation been on our snow? she wondered to herself.
"Around an hour. Your father is still in council with them," her grandmother responded, running her fingers through Katara's hair, which had come undone since the morning. She continued to speak as she gently separated the hair and began rebraiding into her signature look. "Sokka brought you back here before joining them."
She waited expectantly for more, but nothing new arrived. Katara's mind drew blank upon her own reflections. She couldn't guess as to what they were talking about, or why her father had possibly invited them to their shores.
Perhaps the war was finally ending (though unlikely)? No, otherwise they would have been invited to the Fire Nation, or the Fire Lord himself would have paid them a visit. The son had arrived instead… Perhaps he was sent by his father for a smaller task? Her father often sent Sokka to the neighbouring Earth Kingdoms in his stead. She didn't know much of politics or strategy, focusing more on her waterbending skills as her brother was honed to take over the tribe.
"Gran-Gran?" she waited until her grandmother hummed for her to carry on. "Do you know what they're talking about?"
"I do," her grandmother confessed, looping a hair elastic around the ends of Katara's braid and starting to work on the front loops. "But it's best if your father explains."
Katara sighed. She hated not knowing the answers to questions and disliked it furthermore when people were being purposefully deviant with their responses.
A sudden thought occurred to her, making her forget her momentary frustration.
"Is it… is it about me?" Katara's voice was as small as a kangaroo-mouse, barely audible over the crackling wood before them. Even so, she knew her grandmother had heard the wobble, no matter how hard she had tried to steady her chin.
Her grandmother hesitated to respond, mind calculating with what to share and what to keep secret. Kanna settled with a simple: "how do you mean?"
Katara took a deep breath in an attempt to dispel the rising alarm, though the lump remained lodged in her throat. She explained to her gran-gran what was troubling her: what had happened earlier that day.
"Today, I revealed something I shouldn't have," she began cryptically, not knowing how her grandmother would react. She had always been a tough nut to crack, that one, which was always an inspiration to Katara growing up. Now, she wished for mind-reading abilities.
"I know you warn me against using waterbending within the presence of non-tribe members, but I ruined it all!" her voice grew in speed, accelerating to a boiling point with words meshing together. "They're here for me, aren't they? They wanted to find the last waterbender and I led them straight to me."
Covering her face with her hands, Katara was surprised to hear the tinkling of the older woman's laugh. Horrified at the reaction, she raised her head to gape but saw soon enough that her grandmother meant no malice. Heat rose to her cheeks, staining them a permanent cherry red.
"Well," she mumbled indignantly, crossing her arms over her chest, "it was an honest guess."
Kanna took her granddaughter's hands into her own, squeezing them in reassurance and love. "I'm sorry, my dear. But did you think I would let them take you so willingly?" she joked, eyes crinkling with laughter and mischief. "This old woman can fight, you know."
Her lips upturned gratefully. "I don't doubt it for a second, Gran-Gran."
They shared a smile, one of best friends and gossiping confidants, before they grew serious again. "While revealing your gifts may not have been the most ideal action, I have no worries that it will be kept secret."
Katara narrowed her eyes in confusion, nose scrunching as she attempted to puzzle out the reason in her mind.
She didn't have long to wait, for Bato appeared in the doorway after a short knock.
"Oh good, you've awoken. Your father requests your presence before the prince."
She waited until her grandmother tied the two finishing loops onto the back of her head before responding, taking the time to collect her foggy thoughts and formulate an answer. So, her initial guess hadn't been as outlandish as her grandmother had led her to believe.
"It is about me, isn't it?" The silence between both parties was confirmation enough. "Dad never asks me to sit in on council meetings with foreign dignitaries," Katara commented to herself -just enough bite in her voice to convey her hurt- while she attempted to puzzle the pieces together aloud. She tapped her pointer finger to her temple in thought. "And if it's not because I'm a water bender, then it has something to do with me as an individual. The benefits I may have as a chief's daughter…"
She laughed suddenly, a loud burst that startled Kanna and Bato. A crazy thought had just entered her mind, entirely too bizarre and preposterous that she wondered why she even thought of it in the first place. "It almost sounds like," she wheezed between giggles, "like he's going to marry me off!"
Katara expected to be joined in her fit of enjoyment with hearty chuckles and guffaws. But after a noticeable time, she realized it was only her glee echoing painfully throughout the hut. Her smiling stopped at once. In dismay, she looked questioningly between her gran gran and Bato, who avoided their eyes in embarrassment and shame.
Her mouth dropped to the floor.
"He's marrying me off!" she screeched, a sound like never before escaping her lips. It was whining and high-pitched and terrified and confused and so, so hurt.
"Please, dear, your father should explain to you…" Katara cut off her grandmother, not wanting to hear another word.
She knew the water tribe didn't view women necessarily as equals yet. Though they were evolving, it was tradition. They had found it was hard to break from the tradition of treating women like lesser beings. She knew her father loved her with all his heart, but his actions were still led subconsciously by tribe customs. Though she knew it was nowhere near as bad as in the North, where women waterbenders were only allowed to use their abilities to heal, it was the small details in her life. Like only teaching politics to Sokka or gifting her a doll rather than a sword. Or marrying her off without her consent.
Running from the hut in a blur, she ignored the cries of protest from Bato. But contrary to what he thought she was doing (what she wished she were doing) Katara stomped towards the council building rather than away.
She longed to be by the tides, under the light of the silver moon. The water was her home, and the ocean would never let her down. But she also knew that running away from her problems would only make them ten times worse the next day.
Katara knew she was being dramatic but as she burst through the opening tarp of the hut, surprising the men sitting around a circular table, she found she didn't care about what they thought of her. Answers were on her mind, and she was determined to get some.
"You were planning to marry me off?!"
The disbelief was evident in her tone. She stood before the council members and new coming Fire Nation representatives with hands on her hips, an expecting scowl tossed towards her father.
Her father looked up from the pages of official-looking documents with the imperial fire insignia embossed at the top. He looked unimpressed with her attitude. "Katara, if you would please calm-"
"No, I can't calm down!" she shouted back, hands gripping painfully into fists.
She knew she was being childish. She knew she was making a scene. It was ever undignified, not the way a leader should behave. But she was also still a girl, barely eighteen, and she was not ready to have her life decided for her.
Katara was determined to have a say in her destiny. She had never been in love. And if she were signed off like a piece of property, she never would be.
It was her. It was the waterbender from the shores; he was sure of it.
She burst in like a hurricane, disrupting the passionate and ever boring speech another councilman was giving on the benefits of more sea prunes in Fire Nation diets and how their year here would 'improve their chi tremendously' before he was cut off. 'Thank the heavens' Zuko wanted to yell unroyal-like but was distracted instantly by the girl who was steaming before them all, a wild look to her eyes.
He recognized her at once as the waterbender: the girl with the strength of ten men; the one who had flinched from his face; the one with the necklace currently residing in his front pants pocket. He barely had time to be confused when she addressed Chief Hakoda. It was so informal, followed by a dubious shout of refusal at the marriage.
Zuko realized she was the princess.
This was the girl he was expected to marry. By the way she tapped her feet impatiently on the ground, he knew she had only just found out.
Hakoda had definitely neglected to incorporate such information into their talk, even after an hour of discussions. The bending daughter, and her unawareness.
The motives behind this move, Zuko couldn't guess. Had it been simply because the Chief hadn't seen the necessity of it? No, that couldn't be it. His daughter had almost single-handedly drowned his ships, whether that had been her ultimate purpose or not. That amount of power would have raised questions sooner or later. He knew his staff was itching to ask about it.
It must have been an attempt to protect her. While the two nations were proposing an allyship, this meant by no means that they trusted one another blindly. But Zuko had seen the water tribe bender -Katara, the princess (it still astonished him)- quite clearly upon docking. Even if protection had been Hakoda's plan, the secret would have never stayed hidden for long.
The thought that she would even need protecting made him uneasy; he was by no means a villain. A bit temperamental at times, to be sure, but he believed his honour proceeded his actions. He would have to prove himself trustworthy, and if the year went off without a hitch, there would be no need to betray the water tribe's trust.
A waterbender to match the firebender, oh how his father was cackling from his throne. Except, the Fire Lord didn't know, did he? No one from the Fire Nation knew her powers existed. If he was going to be a good little double agent, he should report back the findings in his next letter home.
But the thought of revealing this information made him hesitate. If he told his father the truth about this girl, Katara, they would have no doubt in their minds that it was him who reported back. They had all seen the huge display hours earlier, but suspicions would fall on him after sending his weekly letter home. If the water tribe discontinued to see him as an ally and prospect for their kingdom, the marriage union doors would be slammed shut… along with his path home.
Surely his father would understand that keeping this information to himself would further their advances?
Also, there was a small tugging feeling of otherness. Something about selling her out seemed… wrong. Zuko wanted to go home, but he didn't wish for her death, even if he didn't know her.
To save the people he had just met, to save himself, he would have to make a good first impression.
His voice cracked.
Zuko winced at the noticeable chink in his princely armour. She turned her head towards him, only now seeming to notice that the prince had risen abruptly from his seat upon her entering. He blushed red as the intensity of her glare was directed towards him, stony and demanding of answers. Social interaction with those similar in age to him was not a forte; he had always felt much more comfortable around those double his age or more.
He cleared his throat, a knuckle pressed to his Adam's apple, before speaking again. "Princess Katara, my name is Zuko. Son of Ursa and Fire Lord Ozai. Prince of the Fire Nation, and heir to the throne. I am here to test out a possible marriage alliance with the Southern Tribe."
He motioned his finger back and forth between the two of them awkwardly, as if it weren't obvious already as to who the alliance pertained to. He forced himself to stop, tapping his foot restlessly against the ground in wait. He had never been the most patient person, and his unprecedented nervousness rattled him even more.
"Test… out? As in, not decided yet?"
Katara took a seat on her father's left, opposite of the man he'd come to know as Sokka (Katara's brother, he knew now) who sat on the Chief's right. Her shoulders seemed to deflate, slumping into the chair with a posture that would leave his etiquette tutors aghast. She was listening now, attentively though still wary.
"That's what we were trying to say but you wouldn't let us get a word in!" Sokka exclaimed, throwing his hands up in the air in exasperation.
"Sokka, not helping." The chief gave his son a cool look before responding.
Zuko retook his seat, aware that he was the only one in the room still standing.
"Yes," Hakoda continued in confirmation, "Prince Zuko will be our respected guest for a year, during which time the two of you will be able to learn more about one another and the alliance benefits. When the year is up, the marriage will either go through or be nullified."
It sounded so cold. Agreement, alliance, benefits. Were they planning a marriage or a political move? But he already knew it was the latter.
"I can… reject if I want to?"
Zuko opened his mouth to answer. He knew the situation was awkward, he understood her hesitations, but all he wanted was to go home. This was the only way, and he was determined to make the most of his situation here.
Before he could say anything, though, his uncle beat him to the chase.
"Yes, you can," he concurred, grinning cheekily from ear-to-ear as he looked from the princess to Zuko. "But my nephew is a good boy; I think you will find him quite agreeable!"
Zuko wished he could do many things at that moment. Shake his uncle by the shoulders. Slap his hand onto his forehead. Slip further down into his chair, and possibly under the table, away from the laughing eyes of his advisors. He did none of this.
Steam flowing from his ears, he settled for a basic maneuver: the fingers-pinching-the-bridge-of-nose trick.
"Uncle," he growled through his clenched teeth in warning. Distress, mortification, and irritation at his cooky uncle all balled into the single syllable. "Yes, declining is an option."
But that would result in the downfall of their village. Even back in the Fire Nation, the thought had troubled him. Being here, seeing the people who loved their nation just as much as he loved his own, made him more determined to succeed. He wouldn't let the invasion happen, but he wasn't quite sure at what cost.
"That doesn't make it okay to keep it a secret from me. I would have understood if you had just told me." Katara's voice turned almost pleading as if begging her father to understand her hurt. At the silence, she continued derisively, "Oh, and I don't know, maybe give me a two-day heads up next time so I don't blast ships out of the water."
"Katara!" the chief reprimanded, his patience seeming to ware thin.
It had been a long hour, negotiating the slightest details so that while the Water Tribe would prosper greatly, the Fire Nation would receive something from the equation as well. It was tedious because, as Zuko had found out, the Water Tribe did not have much to give in return. Patience seemed to be wearing thin for everyone.
"Perhaps you would be so kind as to accompany Prince Zuko into the town square for a discussion. I'm sure he can answer any questions you have, and it would be a nice opportunity to talk one-on-one."
Even from across the table, Zuko did not miss the way her chin trembled, and her lips turned downward. She huffed at the outright dismissal from her father and fled from the building, leaving a toppled chair and a stunned audience in her wake. With quick bows of acknowledgement to the council members and his advisors, he heaved a sigh and followed the girl out the door.
He would be anywhere else if he could (he did not know how to charm girls and even if he did, she certainly would not welcome any advances). He knew the road ahead to mutual acceptance was shaky at best, catastrophic at worst.
His breath came out in large puffs of white, frosty air. The fur-lined coat did nothing to quell the deep ache in his bones. He could feel the wetness of snow seeping through his boots.
But he found his feet still moving forward, following the deep footsteps in the snow towards the spiralling centre of town.
Katara felt lost.
She didn't know how to feel. There were a million questions and thoughts floating around inside her head, jumbled up and crashing like ships in a hurricane. A part of her, the infuriating reasonable part, told her that she was being selfish.
An alliance would greatly benefit her people. They would get a lot more in the bargain than the Fire Nation would. The water tribe would have resources to rebuild if they wished, back to their original glory before it was torn down years ago. Her people wouldn't go hungry; they would get mountains and mountains of food at their disposal. Katara knew the rations were weaning; she wasn't ignorant. When was the last time she had had fresh two-headed fish soup, not imported from miles away?
All her life, she had been anything but selfish. Ever since her mother had died, she had taken on her role. Katara took care of her grandmother, her brother, even her father at times. She took on more responsibility as the village healer, Akna's, apprentice, visiting more clients by herself and learning all the wisdom of Akna to pass on to future healers.
Katara loved helping others, she loved taking care of her family and her village. But now, it seemed that she was expected to only think of others. Was it so wrong to be able to think about what she wanted for a change?
She didn't know if she wanted to marry the prince of the Fire Nation, but it should be her choice. No one else could make that decision for her.
So, when the prince, awkward and brooding and mysterious to her, sat down on the bench, she was apprehensive. She was willing to hear what he had to say, but anger still clouded her judgement.
There was a long pause, both of them with heads tilted upwards to look at the constellations above. Despite the storm earlier, the night was clear and bright. Katara traced the star patterns of avatars past, wondering where this great saviour was now when they needed him the most.
"Hey, Prince Zuko here… er, but you already knew that…" he rambled, startling her from her observations.
His voice held a rasp that surprised her. She hadn't been paying close enough attention before, but it was clear now, in the still night.
He scratched the back of his head. "I know we didn't meet under the best circumstances," he began hesitantly. "But we can make the most out of our situation."
She turned to face him. He was still looking towards the sky, avoiding her curious gaze. He sat to her left, obscuring the scar that covered the expanse of his face, eyebrow to upper cheek, from view. Katara took the opportunity to study him while his attention was still focused away.
In the council room, he had been the image of every storybook prince. Though a little more socially awkward than she'd anticipated, he was collected, confident and undoubtedly royal.
Now, he seemed quieter. More contemplative and lost in his thoughts. She almost felt empathetic for him (he was thrust into this situation, same as she was, with little say in the matter) but it was a hopeless emotion.
The feeling of connection went away almost as quickly as it came, swimming away in a current of distrust. He was Fire Nation, and the prince no less. Her guard couldn't be let down so easily, simply by a sad-looking prince with hands red from the cold. Did she remember what had happened last time these firebenders had been here or had she forgotten?
Wherever they went, violence trailed behind them like monstrous shadows. It would do her well not to forget it.
Katara barked out a laugh. "You make it sound so desirable," she muttered.
"If only you'd cooperate, you'd see that…"
"Cooperate?" Katara shouted in outrage, jumping to her feet. She paced in a wide circle before the bench, punctuating her displeasure through every syllable. "So, your father can claim power over the water tribe? I'm not stupid; I know that's his plan. We're a threat to him, and he thinks marriage would make us compliant."
"My father is a complex man; I can't begin to wonder the motives behind his actions." The prince stood from the wooden bench, returning the glare she had levelled fervently at him. "But your nation is in need of resources, and my country has an abundance to give. Isn't security worth a little bit of collaboration?"
"Collaboration? Collaborating, conquering, same difference?" Katara was truly flabbergasted, even more so by the genuine frustration and confusion he seemed to exhibit at her reluctance to listen to him.
"I'm trying to help here!" Zuko shouted, then sighed at her lack of response.
A beat of hushed air, electric and anticipatory.
"You're very stubborn, has anyone ever told you that?"
That was not at all what she was expecting. She wanted to laugh in shock, while simultaneously ripping at her hair.
"I resent that statement!" Katara snorted indignantly. Crossing her arms and pursing her lips, she muttered, "I'm usually very nice."
Prince Zuko dared to laugh. A loud, staccato guffaw that rang throughout the square, startling the snow off the rooves.
"I am!" she argued, advancing towards him with a finger pointed at his chest. "It's just something about you that makes me..." she trailed off for lack of descriptor.
"Usually, I'm the angry one. It's nice to be the level-headed one for a change," he quipped, unimpressed with the finger digging into his ribs.
She snatched her hand away. He was several inches taller than her, and she had to tilt her head up to continue her impassionate speech and signature glower.
"You are so frustrating," she determined, placing her hands on her hips. "I refuse to become acquainted with you."
"Why are you so determined to dislike me?"
The honest question caught her off guard. They were on a roll, throwing insults at one another back and forth like a game of ice ball. But the atmosphere seemed to shift, making her give pause. The emotion was raw and puzzled and so human. He seemed to genuinely want an answer, and it was something Katara wasn't sure she could give. How could she put her hesitancy quite into words?
Her smugness faltered, along with some of her ire. She answered honesty with honesty. She sighed, her shoulders drooping. "I don't know."
"You don't know?"
She looked into his eyes, truly saw him for what felt like the first time. The Fire Nation armour falling away to reveal what was within. Katara took in his appearance, from his dark, top-knotted hair, to his sincere eyes and the red blemish that marred him. She had to admit, he was rather beautiful. He wasn't like what she had expected; he wasn't at all evil and seemed nice even, despite her untoward attitude. He seemed almost like her, in some ways.
The fight deflated out of her. "No," she admitted guiltily. "I don't usually judge people this harshly. I always give people a fair chance when I meet them."
She tilted her head, him doing the same, and she frowned. Hope was palpable, twittering around them in purple wisps. They were on the edge of something, and she knew her decision would be the deciding factor to their fate together.
"But with you, I just can't."
She shook her head of her conflicted thoughts, ignoring his dimming expression and the black ice surrounding her heart. She didn't feel like herself; she didn't know how to feel at all. She wanted to give him a chance, knew it was the right thing to do, but he was Fire Nation. Everything she had ever feared, the war she hated- and the boy before her was the flesh and blood of the man responsible for countless lives ruined.
"You are the crown prince; you basically represent everything I'm against. Whether you mean to or not. The Fire Nation breeds hatred like second nature, power and violence and suffering. I can't marry a monster."
He drew back in a flinch, his hand subconsciously going to the inflamed skin under his eye. His scar. In horror, she realized that he had misinterpreted her words. Katara reached out to him (to do what?) but her hand fell limply away in regret.
Katara breathed heavily, realizing suddenly that in speaking, she had moved her face closer and closer to his. They were face-to-face, their noses a breath width apart. Looking into his eyes, she saw the animosity from her heart had spread to his.
This was what happened when you spoke with hate, and not love. Enemies were formed, alliances were broken, trust was torn. She didn't want this to happen, but she couldn't make herself stop. She couldn't bring herself to trust him quite yet, scared of the consequences down the road.
She scrambled away from him, putting several feet of distance between them. The pair stood before one another, unpleasant words spouted and a year of caution ahead.
Katara saw him clench his jaw, his hands curling into fists. She widened her stance for a possible attack. If it came down to a battle between fire and water, who would win?
But he only nodded stiffly.
"So that's how it is?" he remarked bitterly. He smiled with mirth, shaking his head. As if he hadn't expected anything else. "Fine," he spat, "make me the villain in your story. It wouldn't be the first time."
As he stormed away into the darkness, back towards the enemy ships docked at the shore, she watched him go with mixed emotions.
Katara felt the sudden urge to cry or stomp a hole into the ice. She hadn't decided yet.
Lots of emotions; I'm sorry! I really wanted to show the conflicted feelings between the two and not jump straight into a zutara relationship (even though that's what we all want lol). I think it's a bit more realistic this way but I'm not sure if I like this chapter or not. Let me know your thoughts (did you love it? hate it?). I'm going to try to have another chapter ready for Sunday, but we'll see...
Chapter 4: Ties That Blind
The title of this chapter is sort of a play on the saying 'ties that bind'. I wanted to show that sometimes, the connections we have to something/an idea is so strong that it can blind us to reality or giving new things a chance. Anyways, that's enough of me trying to be deep... I hope you guys like this chapter! I didn't get to finish for Sunday because I love to procrastinate...
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Her necklace was missing.
Katara had been fuming for what felt like hours, but was most likely only a matter of minutes, after the prince's retreat. How dare he ask for peace knowing fully the suffering his nation has wrought to her village, to the whole world? He had seemed sincere, but Katara wasn't willing to take the chance and be proven wrong. Not when the fate of the south depended on it. They didn't need a flimsy deal with the Fire Nation. They could get by on their own. Her father could request more supplies from the Earth Kingdom shipments, and they would send out more hunting parties. But even mulling over the possibilities in her head, Katara knew that with their warriors gone, the rest of them were on the verge of starvation. The village consisted mainly of children, and mothers who had never been taught to hunt… and weren't keen on willing to try now.
She felt hopeless and at a loss for what to do. Katara felt torn between duty to her village and to herself. Like she always did in times of stress and contemplation, she reached towards her throat. But instead of her fingers meeting the cool blue stone she knew so well; she felt the touch graze her bare skin instead.
Eyes widening, she grasped her neck with both hands (searching, searching) for the tiny piece of her mother that was always with her. Maybe the fabric had dipped down to her collarbone (lower than usual) or came undone and was now resting safely tucked into her fur hood. But she knew she was lying to herself. A quick search confirmed the worst.
In distress, she realized that it just wasn't there anymore.
It. Wasn't. There.
Katara cried out in horror. She couldn't believe she had lost her mother's necklace, the one thing she told herself she would never part with. It had always felt like her mother's soul guiding her: the gentle brush of a hand in hair, a humming lullaby as she drifted off to sleep. The revelation of the missing necklace felt like a tear in the fabric of her life, ripping the spirit of her mother from her grasp and into oblivion.
She kicked at the snow around her in desperation, searching through the flakes for a hint of blue jewel. Katara got down on her hands and knees, ignoring the cold snow against her shaking hands and she looked and looked and looked.
There was nothing there.
She pummelled her fist into the ground in frustration, continuing even as her hands started to bruise. Nothing, not even pain, made her feel less guilty. Tears began to stream down her face, feeling like icicles falling from her eyes. Her head lifted to the stars in a silent prayer. The only sound in the night was her muffled sobs, shoulders wracking and heart aching. Breaking in two.
Then Katara remembered something.
Raising from her position in a daze, bending away the moisture from her clothes, she found herself running towards the ocean. It was calling to her like a beacon of hope. You know the answer, child, it seemed to say to her. And she did.
It must have fallen off earlier that day when the sun was still visible on the horizon and she could command the waves with a single breath. It was more than likely that it had come loose during her vigorous training, or the impromptu attack, or the exhausted faint.
The slight breeze of eternal winter kissed her face as she ran, rushing through her hair. The spirits were guiding her back to her mother, it seemed like it in that instant. Her mother was showing her the way back to herself.
Smiling, Katara found the approximate spot she had been in. She cringed at the dent in the snow, rubbing her head in remembrance of the not-so-gracious fall she had taken earlier.
This seemed like the perfect place for her necklace to be waiting.
She mirrored her actions from moments ago: getting to her hands and knees to begin a methodical search. With each brush of her hand, she grew more and more discouraged. Where was it?
She had been so sure that this was the location of her necklace. So sure, she would have counted her life on it. But it had vanished, like it had never truly existed in the first place. Shattered bonds were all that remained.
What would her family say when they found out? She had promised to take care of the memorabilia with her entire heart, vowing to treasure it for as long as she lived. She had refused to let it out of her tiny hands the day her mother had died, and she had found the jewelry crushed in the snow of their home. She had fought to keep it with her, only to disgrace her mother's memory by losing it now.
After all those years, she would have thought the ache of loss would lessen. That the wounds would close. Katara realized now that it was never truly gone, it had only been buried deep beneath the surface. But tonight, it bled freely again like fresh.
Her agonized scream pierced the night, no doubt startling the villagers in town. It sounded more wild animal than human, even to her own ears. The tides begged to be commanded, shaped into vicious creatures of storm and ice. She knew she seemed unreasonable on the outside; everyone in the south had suffered a deep loss, why did hers still trail behind her through everything she did?
Katara couldn't stop herself even if she tried. The mix of temper and bending was dangerous but intoxicating in her crazed state. She pushed her hands out towards the water, watching as the waves turned into tall ice spikes before her eyes. Raising her hand towards the formation -wanting to do something, anything, to relieve her pain- she was physically stopped by a hand holding her wrist back. It was firm but gentle, and Katara fell back into her brother's embrace.
"I lost it, Sokka," she cried incoherently, the soothing feel of her brother's arms making her cry harder. She felt so guilty. It had been a piece from her mother, their mother, that she had lost. "The necklace is gone."
There was a stunned silence before he whispered calmly into her ear, "it's okay, Katara. We'll find it."
They said nothing for a while, Katara watching the lights of the village flicker out in the late hour over her brother's shoulder. He hummed a song to her patiently, their lullaby from childhood, and the sobs gave way to memories from long ago. Myths told in song during the hush of bedtime, the warm embrace of her mother. It had always combated Katara's demons and fears. Ever since, she had to learn how to fend them on her own.
"I'm sorry," Sokka broke the silence, pulling away to wipe the tears from her cheeks. "I should have told you."
Katara gave him a watery frown. "You knew?"
Sokka waved his hands in defence as if to quell any conclusion-jumping. "Only for a few days, but that doesn't mean I shouldn't have told you as soon as I found out. Dad thought it would be best if you didn't know and I thought so too. Now, I realize how wrong I was…"
He rubbed the back of his neck, guilt and regret written across his features: from the droop of his shoulders to the sad penguin-seal eyes.
Katara shook her head. "It's okay," she said, trying to reassure him. She always hated seeing him upset. "I… I was overreacting."
"No, you weren't, though," he disagreed. His eyes were earnest and serious as if begging her not to degrade her problems for anyone's benefit again. "Even though you can be a tad dramatic sometimes," Sokka continued jokingly, attempting to lighten the mood.
Katara had the urge to throw a snowball at him. "It was rightly justified this time. You should have known before Prince Zuko arrived."
"By the way," her brother raised an eyebrow in question, his lips lifted slightly in a lopsided smile, "how did that conversation go?"
Katara scoffed, laughing as she replayed the events from earlier with frustration and annoyance. "Not well," she declared, brushing her clothes as she got to her feet. Sokka held out both his hands to her, and Katara pulled his lazy body up to standing. "He and I will definitely not be getting along this year."
"I'm sure it wasn't so bad. Your social skills are… decent."
Katara folded her arms heatedly as her brother cackled, before joining in too.
"No but really. I'm just as wary as you are about the Fire Nation. Don't fall too easily into his trap of good looks, or awkward demeanour, or tea-drinking teasing uncle, or-"
Katara hummed impatiently, rolling her hands in a 'hurry up' gesture.
"What I'm saying is," Sokka continued hastily, clearing his throat, "maybe you and he can rewind and start again. Tomorrow is the perfect chance, it being the banquet and everything."
Katara palmed her face. "The banquet!" she groaned into her hand, "I completely forgot that we do those kinds of things."
They hosted a banquet every time a foreign noble or government official visited the South Pole. There hadn't been one since their mother had still been alive, and the south pole along with her. The party wouldn't be a fraction of what they used to be, and for the prince of the Fire Nation, no less. It would definitely not be glamorous enough for the pampered prince and his royally snobby entourage.
"It'll be a good way to see if he's worth our time or not."
"Your time?" Katara asked in bewilderment, angling herself towards her brother. "Isn't he supposed to be marrying me?"
Sokka returned an exasperated look, patting her head as she attempted to swat him away. "Yes, but who do you think is going to be his potential best friend?" He angled his thumbs towards his chest. "Hopefully this Zuko guy doesn't disappoint, I'm in the market for a new one."
"A new one? When did you have another best friend?" Katara deadpanned.
He slammed his hands onto his heart. "Ouch… but touché."
Katara's smile fell as she replayed yet again the events from the night. The stars. A question. The insult that followed.
"Even if I wanted to start over, I don't think I could," she confessed in a small voice, ducking her head in shame. "I… I said something that he took the wrong way. I meant what I said, but not in that way."
Sokka leaned in conspiratorially. "What did you say?"
Katara snapped out of her reflection to give her brother a withering look. "I'm not telling you that," she told him firmly. "What I said was mean, but I don't know the prince. None of us do. How can I learn to like, or even love him, if I don't trust him?"
The conversation came to a close as they reached their front door. She hesitated briefly before entering, Sokka pausing in the opening to look at her in question. As she breathed deeply, steeling herself for what awaited her inside, he understood.
Their dad was undoubtedly waiting inside for the news. Perhaps he had already heard. She just needed a moment to calm down. It felt like there had been little moments of quiet during the day. Rolling her shoulders, she pushed past Sokka on her way through the door.
She almost drowned her maybe-fiancé. She had made a scene during a council meeting and then villainized said fiancé in the town square. She had lost her mother's necklace.
Katara had a lot of explaining to do…
Zuko stormed into his private quarters in a rage, startling the tiles on his uncle's pai sho board with the deafening bang that followed the slamming of the door.
He was angry at his father. He was angry at the world. Most of all, he was angry at himself. Furious for believing that his attempt at being nice would result in friendships, enraged that he believed people would feel differently about him. People were all the same, so quick to see the scar that marked him and not the person underneath. Not that the person underneath was any better.
Why was he so bad at being good? As if the very thought of being a good person went against the programming encoded into his DNA. He was destined to be hated by all; there was no such thing as a fresh start. Tonight had basically proved that fact.
"You seem troubled, Prince Zuko," said the old man, gesturing to the spot across from the low table from him. "I take it didn't go well?"
It was an invitation Zuko didn't hesitate to take. He plopped down onto the carpeted floors, subduing the urge to throw his uncle's board game against the wall in frustration. He crossed his arms, stubbornly refusing to look at his uncle's sage eyes.
For some reason, his uncle had the ability to pull Zuko's confessions from him, before even realizing what he was saying. He tried his best to avoid it now, but the silence made way to temptation.
"She hates me, Uncle!" Zuko consented, his voice reaching a whining quality he was unfamiliar with. "She was like… and then I said… and then she… Ugh!" he groaned, dragging his hands through his hair, pulling the crown loose from his bun.
He set the gold piece on the low game table with ferocity, the fire insignia staring back at him mockingly. There was no chance of going home now. He was never one to give up, but even from the slight interaction, he knew that neither was she. And he wasn't sure if his will was iron enough to withstand a stubbornness contest. It was more likely for the avatar to be found than it was for her to relent in her hatred for the Fire Nation.
The man before him chortled, one hand on his belly and another to wipe away a tear. As he calmed down, he moved another game piece on the table, satisfied in keeping his amusements to himself.
Zuko was not thrilled with that prospect. He fumed, wanting to know the reasoning behind his uncle's teasing. "Why are you laughing?" he demanded, frowning crossly. "I just told you she hates me."
His uncle shook his head, a faraway gaze in his eyes. "Oh, what it's like to be young and passionate," he mused, scratching his chin. "The love you possess will burn brightest of all, nephew."
Zuko stood immediately, not wanting to hear about his uncle's thoughts on his romance. "I don't need a mushy proverb; I need to find a way for her to trust me."
"Love and trust are different sides of the same coin. You gain one, you will most certainly gain the other."
Zuko paced around the room, feeling contained by the small room. He felt like an animal in a cage. "What if I don't want love? What if I just want to go home?"
His uncle stood, walking past him in slippered feet towards the kitchen area in the next room over, where he warmed a pot of tea with his firebending.
"I don't believe that, Prince Zuko," his uncle confessed. "I think love is what you wish for most of all." Though his back was turned to him, Zuko could hear the hope and candour in Iroh's voice. The man wanted Zuko to realize the importance of the statement.
His uncle honestly believed what he was saying, the fool. Zuko couldn't wish for love when he knew he wasn't deserving of it.
Tired and fed up with the day, he rapidly fled to the comfort of his room, wanting to forget the day had even happened. He slammed the door, something he hadn't done in years it seemed. Zuko began to ready himself for bed, angrily brushing through his hair and yanking his heavy royal garbs away.
When he looked into the mirror, he shrank away from his left side. Katara had been right in her assessment of him. In his current state, angry brows and narrow mouth and the hideous purple scar, he did look like a monster.
He placed his left hand over the left side of his face, covering the scar and skin so that only his right side was visible. He imagined the right side mirrored as it had been a year ago. He had been handsome, gossip said, maybe even beautiful. Now, no one dared to look at him directly in his eye anymore. It was as if the left side of his face didn't exist at all. He removed the hand from his face, feeling foolish. Wishful thinking wasn't going to change how he looked, or how others felt about him. He was going to look like this forever, might as well start getting used to the accusations of the devil and cursed spirit that were thrown his way.
Zuko sat on the edge of his bed, elbows resting on his knees, head in his hands. He was about to lay back down onto his bed, ready for another sleepless night of hellish thoughts and comparisons, when there was a knock at the door. He grunted in response, waiting to hear what his uncle had to say.
"Would you like some calming jasmine tea?"
Zuko groaned, fully preparing to ignore his uncle's request and suffer his demons alone in the dark of his small room. He didn't care much for tea, and the older man knew this very well. That never stopped his relentless mission to change his nephew's mind though, serving him every tea within his collection.
At the last second, Zuko changed his mind. There would be time for brooding after. He had to admit, he was curious to see what concoction of jasmine his uncle had brewed today.
"Yes please," he called out in a grumbled apology for his behaviour earlier, picturing the pleased smile that graced his uncle's face as his footsteps padded into the room.
The next morning, Zuko awoke with a permanent, sour scowl sewn to his lips. The bright sky felt mocking, the commotion of the villagers a pain to his ears. Even his jovial uncle, who was always one to make conversation over a breakfast of tea and rice seemed to shy away from his bad temper.
His brain was at war. Conflicts brewing like a perfect storm, clashing and battling in his head for dominance. He wanted this girl to like him. He wanted to go home. He didn't want the weight of hundreds of causeless innocent deaths on his shoulders if he failed, and Azula was to reign.
He wanted to be good, but he didn't know how. His only interactions for years been had prickly interactions between his family (his uncle the only exception), politicians and officials, and close friends. All of whom were not interested in him anymore, now that he had disgraced himself (not that they'd been much enthused before, anyways). It had meant a year of solitude, piled onto a childhood of neglect. It didn't bode well for communication skills.
Zuko downed his rice with spicy pickled vegetables in a hurry, wanting to escape from the prying eyes of his crew. He needed to be alone, which seemed entirely too difficult in a town with a population the size of a turtleduck pond. He could have journeyed further into the snowy terrain, but he wasn't about to freeze to death trying to find his way back to the encampment.
So, instead, he settled with inviting himself on a tour of the town. Though he still muttered to himself about the biting frost and the dilemma he faced, he found himself still quite interested in the south. Knowledge on the Southern Water Tribe was barely existent and perhaps on his walk around, he would collect some information worthy enough to send home in a letter.
He observed the scenery in daylight, appreciating how the sun lit up the surrounding ice, almost like dancing flames. He noted the architecture of the buildings and huts, sturdy and rounded; he watched hunters returning from an early morning excursion, relaying another team for the afternoon.
The way this nation functioned was entirely different from the Fire Nation but for some reason, Zuko couldn't help but be in awe of it. It seemed as though everyone knew one another, helping each other with simple tasks without an expectation for a favour in return. The villagers smiled and laughed and hummed as they went about their day. It was in contradiction to the idea of a nation he had grown up with: power controlled by the fear of others, stone glares and strategic moves behind every action. Everything had consequences (he knew this better than anyone). But here, it didn't seem like that at all. How ironic, the nation of flames was a lot colder than this land of ice.
He looped around, having traversed the outer circumference of the village, and made his way down the main path into the centre. If Zuko thought his presence wouldn't cause a commotion, he was wrong. Almost immediately, a hush fell amongst the crowd of people gathered in the centre square.
He didn't pay them mind at first, studying a sculpture construction carved from ice (how peculiar?) but couldn't ignore the lack of noise. He turned around to see villagers disperse, in shame and surprise at being caught gawking. Still, he could see the fingers pointing at him and caught the tail end of whispers about his business here.
He wasn't sure why he'd thought an excursion around the community would go unnoticed. While his clothes were modelled after water tribe garments, thick and heavy but entirely necessary in the new climate, they were still dyed the various reds, blacks, and golds of his country. His hairstyle was strange, the pallor of his skin foreign.
He noticed that people shrank as he walked by, hurrying their steps, and turning their faces away. In habit, he touched the skin under his left eye, knowing the burn stuck out like a dragon in a bird's nest.
Zuko rubbed between his eyebrows in an attempt to soften the furrow. In the ice, his face reflected back at him with a scowl. His face was perpetually angry, even when his grumpiness from the morning had faded a while ago. He tried to smile, upturning his lips as if the action were unnatural to him, but stopped at once. He felt idiotic.
With a heavy sigh, he hurried from the town square, retreating to the outskirts once more.
On instinct, Zuko dropped to the ground in a crouch, whipping his head in the direction of the alarmed call. A breeze whistled over his head, too swift to be a cause of nature. He saw a young man, similar in age to him, catch an angled weapon in his hands before hurrying over.
"Sorry!" he exclaimed, holding his hands up placatingly with a remorseful expression. The object in the man's hands was metal and sharply curved, with two holes punctured into the body of the… weapon? Toy? Ice pick?
Zuko rose from his crouched position, swiping his hands over the fabric of his coat to rid himself of snow with an impatient roll of his eyes. He was supposed to be impressing these people and instead, was ducking from projectile pieces of metal.
"What was that for?" he demanded to know, voice exploding in volume. He waited, hands on hips, for a suitable excuse.
"I usually watch where I throw this thing. I've only ever hit one person, and that was my sister, so it was fine…"
Face to face with the boy, Zuko squinted in vague recognition before his eyes widened. Though they had only met briefly, he concluded from the lopsided grin and goofy demeanour that this man must be Sokka, the chieftain's son. Katara's brother.
His hands fidgeted behind his back, nervous for the interaction that was to play out. If Katara hated him, surely her brother would too. The way he'd reacted heatedly would surely not help his case. He was notorious for acting rashly and not thinking things through. Word would get back to their father, and Zuko would be in for a tense year abroad (not that it wasn't already).
"Prince Sokka, my apologies," he greeted cordially, bowing his head slightly in anticipation. He resisted the urge to tap his foot impatiently since the boy certainly had no qualms about making him wait.
Instead of a deep bow in return like was customary, Sokka belly-laughed, grabbing his hand and shaking vigorously. "That's so formal, Zuko, can I call you that?"
Zuko, in his perplexed state, nodded dazedly at the question with an "uh, sure," muttered out. Sokka was being pleasant, even nice. This made him wary, questioning the motive behind the stunt. Had this been planned, or was the prince overthinking like he always did?
"What business do you have of throwing around…" Zuko searched for an appropriate word to describe the contraption, and failed miserably, "the pointy thing?"
The boy moaned in frustration as if the inquiry took several years off his life expectancy. He motioned with a sulk towards a sword lying on top of a fur mat, unlike anything Zuko had ever seen. The polished blade was darker than the average sword, almost black. Was this the kind of materials the water tribe had been hoarding all these years?
"I throw my boomerang when I'm annoyed," he explained, marching over to grab the hilt of a sword. "I've been trying to replicate a move from this swordmaster's scroll… let's just say it could be going better."
Zuko held out his hand for the parchment, raising his eyebrows expectantly when his new acquaintance was reluctant to hand it over. With a huff, it was passed to the prince.
Studying the characters and tutorial-like images, Zuko recognized the technique immediately. He handed the scroll back. "It's a teaching from swordmaster Piandao; I trained under him when learning to wield broadswords."
"You have?" Sokka dropped his mouth comically, eyes wide with excitement. "He is legendary! I've heard so much about him on my trips to the Earth Kingdom, but since he's Fire Nation, I…" the conversation petered out clumsily.
The message was received, loud and clear. Zuko didn't understand why the nation was so hated upon, though. While there had been violent attacks within the past few years under his father's rule (too many lives lost, he thought in solemnity), the 'war' before had been more so about sharing their greatness with the world. Sozin wanted all people to prosper under the Fire Lord's rule, but it was the people who revolted against the idea of change. Every history book and tutor had confirmed this fact.
He was about to say so, point blank, but in a surprising turn of events, he halted the words his lips formed. Zuko was so used to acting without thinking that the sudden bite of his tongue was startling. He barely even recognized himself.
He didn't want to antagonize a potential ally candidate. It would be nice to have someone friendly for the year, if only to battle loneliness in swordplay. Maybe they wouldn't be friends, Zuko could still sense untrust between them, but keep your enemies close, right? He was still unsure of the boy's goal behind the current conversation, and what ulterior motives were at play.
"I…" Zuko cleared his throat with a quick cough, adverting his eyes to a group of kids playing with snowballs just beyond Sokka's shoulder. "I could show you a few tricks if you want."
Sokka squinted at Zuko suspiciously, who returned his attention to the water tribe boy with a raised brow. "Are you trying to suck up to me to get onto my good side?"
The fire prince leaned in, whispering collusively with a slight smirk, "is it working?"
"We'll see…" Sokka drawled, elongating his words. He punctuated his statements with a careful finger running up and down the flat length of the blade. Looking up with a grin breaking across his face, he concluded, "depends on how fast I can get this skill down."
The next few hours were spent in total concentration of mastering and teaching. Zuko underwent a brutal interrogation: who else besides Piandao did Zuko study dual sword fighting with? How many forms of sword technique did a prince know? How did you do that cool spinning movement, and how long would it take to teach me to do the same?
Despite the annoying fact that he had done more talking within the past hours than he had in the last year, Zuko found himself enjoying the enthusiastic man's company. The presence of his swords- from which he retrieved from his wall in his ship quarters- seemed to be a mitigating factor.
Sokka was fascinated by the twin blades, from the moderately curved edges to the slight sharpened back edge, and even the intricate carvings on the wooden hilt.
Zuko found himself explaining in embarrassing openness about his passion for the swords, and what they represented. They were two halves of the same weapon, meant to be wielded in unison and specifically designed to slash opponents. He recounted anecdotes from his early lessons, which amused Sokka terribly, and found himself interested in the stories he heard in return.
They finished with sweat on their brow, and a promise to test their skills in combat once Sokka had time to perfect his new knowledge. The cool air around him felt wondrous against his flushed skin, a stark contrast to what he was used to in Caldera. Sweltering heat and sun and fire. For some reason, he was still surprised at the differences between the two nations, despite knowing they resided on opposite sides of the world.
"You know, I'm still hesitant to trust you," Sokka confessed, sliding down against the icy wall of their village to sit next to Zuko, who dutifully polished his swords. The prince stayed silent, knowing from the slight lilt of his voice that the son of ice had more to say. "The Fire Nation has done a lot to my people. It has hurt my sister in many ways."
Zuko almost flinched at the weight of Sokka's hand on his shoulder, defensive and preparing for animosity. Instead, the grip was reassuring and not-at-all menacing. He furrowed his brows slightly.
"My father seems to think you're okay, and I'm willing to give you a chance. Just don't make me regret it, okay?"
Zuko studied his newfound friend's features for any lingering signs of distrust and was bewildered to find none. He wondered why the chief's son was eager to befriend him, when his daughter was so opposed to the idea of anything but hostility.
The tone of his voice hadn't been threatening at all. It sounded as if Sokka really believed in Zuko's success, and genuinely wanted his assumptions of the Fire Nation to be proven wrong. Zuko was ready to meet the challenge.
"I give you my word," he rasped, serious and determined. "I know that may not seem like much, but honour means everything to me."
After they exchanged a nod of silence, Sokka broke the gravity by springing from his sitting position into the air. He landed on his feet dramatically.
"Great, now that's settled, we can discuss all the things we should try tonight at the banquet!"
Sokka reached his hand down towards Zuko, palm open to the sky in invitation. In a blind leap of faith, Zuko let himself be pulled up by someone who wasn't himself for a change.
It was… nice.
The sun began to set against the horizon, painting the white canvas of snow in beautiful rays of orange, crimson, and pink. They were colours unnatural to the south pole beyond the flesh of animals, and nowhere near as diluted. The colours permeating from the sky were vibrant and real and perfectly out of reach, but Katara loved to watch the sunset from her window. It filled her world with childlike wonder, even just for a while, when her life was otherwise dull and repetitive.
Oh, how she wished for the monotonous days back. She manifested the idea of no banquet in her mind, imagining a quiet supper of sea prune stew around the fire with her small family, recounting the same events that happened every day.
Katara had often prayed for change in the past, wanting more than what her village provided her (even though she loved it passionately), but in receiving her desire, she found that change was a lot scarier than she had anticipated. The butterflies in her stomach would not abate, continuing to beat frantically like the pounding of a seal skin drum.
The door opened with a bang and she sighed, opening her eyes slowly from the dancing colours of sunlight that played like continuous pictures on her eyelids.
"Hey, Katara. Getting ready for the banquet?"
Her brother sported a suspiciously smug smile, humming as he moved around their hut, picking up his formal clothes from a rack where she had set them out.
She knew her brother better than anyone. And he was basically begging her to ask him questions on his whereabouts. Katara believed herself to be a kind sister, so she gave in to his blatant appeals.
"Yes, which you should also be doing," she reprimanded, clipping a koi fish jewel into her hair. She had forgone the usual braid for hair down, untamed curls flowing down the spine of her silky dress. The hair loops were still ever-present, though she had replaced her daily blue clips with the formal koi fish ornaments instead. "You got back late; what have you been doing all day?"
Her brother ducked into the next room to change into his attire for the evening. "Oh, you know. Hunting, eating. Zuko was teaching me this sword trick-"
Katara resisted the urge to run into the next room and strangle her brother. She had no need to be traumatized for life. In lieu, she aimed a glare at her mirror as she ran her charcoal liner pencil harshly on her upper eye line.
"Did I hear you correctly?" she said incredulously. She couldn't believe the audacity of this boy. Finishing her makeup, she stalked her way towards the seat in a corner of the main room to wait for her brother. He was always the last one ready. "You hung out with Prince Zuko today?"
"He's not so bad when you spend some time with him," Sokka reasoned, emerging from the room over, pulling on his sleeve cuffs. Once he had adjusted his garments to his satisfaction, he twirled in a low circle, hands outstretched, for Katara to admire. She 'oohed' and 'aahed' when required, but with much more cynicism toned than per usual.
Hands on hips, she rose from her seat. "Are you forgetting he's Fire Nation?" she reminded forcefully, raising both eyebrows to emphasize the severity of the situation.
The siblings headed out the door in silence. They knew to meet their father and grandmother early for set up. Their inner thoughts halted the discussion.
The banquet party was to be held in the town hall, which was more of a communal building used for a variety of reasons. And now, the ball of the century. Katara couldn't wait…
Sokka stopped their progression into the hall with a gentle hand on her shoulder. In a bout of pettiness, she shrugged his hand away. Katara was still annoyed. She thought they had agreed: Zuko was not a subject of discussion for the year.
"You're always harping on me about giving people the benefit of the doubt. Why doesn't the same apply to you?"
Katara tried to come up with a good counterargument and failed. As much as she disliked to admit it, Sokka was right. For some reason, this time, she couldn't get rid of the smokescreen of prejudice covering her eyes. She felt so conflicted.
Katara never had opportunity to be selfish. Her whole life had been spent carrying for others after the final raid had left impacting devastation. She had taken care not only of her own family but the rest of the townspeople too. They were all her family. Which was why she hated the fact that she was being selfish now. This was the one time she couldn't be. The promised benefits of an arrangement like this would be extraordinary for her people. The weight of refusing such would be unbearable. Katara couldn't let her tribe starve, but in caring for others, she would be securing her own fate.
"It's complicated," she muttered, reaching towards her necklace on instinct. But at the last second, Katara flinched in remembrance, pulling her hand away. She cast her gaze down towards the snow.
Sokka, witnessing the action, smiled cheerfully and changed the subject."Promise me you'll have fun tonight! Think of all the great things there will be: dancing, festival food, music…"
Katara delighted, sighing at the thought of up-tempo drumbeats intermingled with the pounding of dancing feet, and the smell of fried dough with meat filling. "I do love parties," she acknowledged with a small smile.
"Keep an open mind," her brother continued, imparting words of wisdom left and right. He pushed on the entrance flap with both hands, marching confidently in. "You never know what could happen tonight."
Katara pushed away her sense of hopelessness. Where had her faith gone? She was unconvinced by her brother's words but vowed to herself to be happy. It seemed like a foreign emotion after the last day. Placing a smile on her face, she entered in after Sokka to help the volunteers with decorating.
As it turned out, Sokka had never before spoken truer words.
Let me know what you thought of this chapter (a budding zukka friendship, the impending ball, etc...) I predict the next chapter is only going to be the banquet, and definitely more zutara interaction... I'm not sure if I'll be updating this weekend, or a week from now. We'll see how busy I end up being! Thank you to everyone reading; the comments and views mean so much!
Chapter 5: Unexpectedly
It's a little later than I hoped, but here's chapter five and the banquet. I haven't watched LOK (gasp, I know. It's not on Canadian Netflix and my library doesn't have it) but I did some research and tried to replicate the food and games similar to a Southern Water Tribe festival from that show, but obviously catered to the time difference. Thank you all so much for your continued support, it makes me so happy and energetic when writing! Also, I've been making plans for another Zutara story that I might want to write after this one... would y'all be interested?
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Katara tried not to fidget with her dress. It itched all over.
She stood to the left of her father and her brother to his right, the three of them standing tall and ready in wait for the royal procession to walk through the entrance. They were late, not that Katara expected any differently. They were due to arrive half an hour ago and everyone was getting antsy. She could sense their nervousness vibrating through the atmosphere. Most of them didn't know what to expect.
The party couldn't officially commence until the visitors arrived, as per the ancient laws of Southern Party Etiquette according to Sokka. The entire village (though they were not many) were crammed into the small hall for the festivities, spread out on the dance floor and at tables. Everyone looked expectantly at the door. She could hear the occasional cough, the tapping of a foot, the rustling of her dress fabric as she swayed from foot to foot. If it had been their mission to make them as uncomfortable as possible, the Fire Nation had surely succeeded.
Her hands felt impossibly sweaty. She wasn't sure why she was even restless. Katara owed them nothing and that's what she expected in return. All she had to do was be cordial and nothing else. It wouldn't be so hard to simply stand the prince for a night. She could get over her anger for a few hours, for the sake of the festivities. Her tribe hadn't had a fun night off in so long and they deserved it. There was no use creating tension in place of enjoyment for tonight.
Katara stifled a yawn with the back of her hand, wondering how much longer they'd have to wait. What were they doing, coiffing their royally silky hair? It seemed strange that they weren't punctual, since she would have guessed everything in the imperial palace was time scheduled. Then again, Prince Zuko was most likely used to people waiting for him.
Just as she was about to throw her hands up in a dramatic display of annoyance, the group of delegates arrived.
It wasn't a big group, though they arrived on three ships. Most of the government officials seemed without purpose and merely decoration. She had yet to understand their importance in the South. The rest of the guests from the Fire Nation seemed to be crew members and sailors, wearing clothes noticeably less formal and expensive than the others. Katara was surprised to see them, yet not unwelcoming. She just hadn't known that the prince would deign to invite them. It made her brows furrow slightly at the wrinkle in her perception. But she smoothed it away easily.
Lastly, the royal men made their appearance. The charming older uncle, with stylish garbs and a neatly done hairdo… and the man she had affianced and insulted in a matter of minutes. His clothes seemed to be stitched in the style of water tribe, similar to what Sokka wore, but was dyed in the undeniable reds of flames. As if anyone would forget. As if he was willing her not to forget.
Her head was angled slightly to the side, her gaze up towards the ceiling. Deep breaths. Be kind for one night. But without her animosity, she was left with a whole lot of uncertainty. When she looked in Zuko's direction, they both shared similar faces of mutual distrust and wariness. He was the first to look away.
"We're delighted to welcome you all to the first Banquet Ball in over a decade," Hakoda announced to the enthusiastic cheers of the water tribe.
Katara had to agree, the aspect made her feel warm inside. It meant they were able to rebuild their lives and their tribe, even after the years of devastating raids and the ongoing war. They hadn't lost hope against all odds.
"Please enjoy the night of music, dancing, food and games, courtesy of the Southern Water Tribe."
"Thank you," the older man bowed low, dragging his nephew down by the sleeve as an indication to follow suit. It was something else that surprised Katara. The deeper bow was a show of respect. "We are grateful for such a warm welcome."
"I'm sure you are all hungry, why don't we forget the formalities and make our way to the tables?" Hakoda gestured proudly to the beautifully decorated room.
Long, rectangular carved ice tables were spread around the perimeter of the room with cushioned seating, allowing room for a dance floor and raised stage at the front, where a group of volunteer musicians were stationed with handcrafted horns and drums. The ceiling was adorned with crystal-like icicles, sparkling in the torch lights lit around the room.
Katara was about to sagely follow her father's advice, feeling the vibrations of her stomach at the thought of a feast, when a hand on her shoulder held her back from taking a step forward. Her father gave her a knowing look, one eyebrow raised as if she knew better. And slumping, she knew she did. Oh, how it sometimes pained her to be a rule-following daughter.
"Prince Zuko, would you be so kind as to escort my daughter to the seating. Your placements will be found across from one another."
Katara closed her eyes slowly, having felt foolish for not predicting it. She should have known she would have to sit beside him. He was supposed to be her betrothed after all. It was only understandable that her father was urging her to talk to him. She took a deep breath in (only peaceful thoughts here), squared her shoulders and turned towards Zuko expectantly, a plastered smile on her face. When slipping her arm around his, she was careful not to dig her fingers into the skin of his bicep.
It was a short walk, during which time she resolved herself to say nothing except the bare minimum to his attempt at conversation-starters. Even if she had wanted to break the vow of quiet, she wouldn't have known what else to say. The two nations, and people, were just too different. Katara was usually an optimist, but even she thought that one night of party wouldn't suddenly change them.
"The pavilion is beautifully decorated," he commented. His voice was earnest, and she could feel the heat of his gaze.
Katara nodded in agreement. She continued her eyes forward, searching for their table. Why did it seem so far away?
"Did you have a hand in creating the icicle chandeliers?"
Again, she nodded. The icicles hanging tastefully from the ceiling were in fact, her doing. But that wouldn't be so hard to guess, seeing as she was the only waterbender in the tribe. She still cursed herself at the unintentional reveal of her powers. To be nice, Katara even added a small "yes, I did."
But nothing seemed to placate the stubborn boy. Taking hints was not a strong suit of his.
"Look," he started, aggrieved at her noncommittal attitude, "I know we started off on the wrong foot-"
Before he could say anything else, they arrived at their destination and Katara hastily unwrapped her arm from his. She curtsied and seated herself before he had a chance to pull out her chair for her. She hated it when people did that (she wasn't that useless). In avoidance, she stared intently at the white tablecloth.
Her finger trailed along the delicate patterns, ignoring any eye contact from her companions surrounding her, as Zuko moved to his proper spot at the table. When she felt her brother kick her shins under the table, she ignored that too.
Sokka sat to her left, and a middle-aged woman with gorgeous black ringlets and a stern mouth sat to her right. Katara didn't know who she was save for a name, Yari, imprinted on the cardstock that marked her place at the table. It nonplussed Katara to see so many women who had come from the Fire Nation as ambassadors. They took up almost half of the members, whereas, looking around the table, there were no women politicians in water tribe blue.
Without further time to breathe, dishes upon dishes were brought out. Katara salivated at the sight. Roasted arctic hen, pickled fish, seaweed noodles and bowls and bowls of all different kinds of soup and stew. Five-flavour, two-headed fish, sea prune… It looked like her father had spared no expense. It worried her. How far into their reserves had they dipped for a single night, only to impress their guests with false grandeur? Katara felt guilty as she brought a spoonful of soup to her mouth, though the taste was exquisite.
There wasn't much discussion at their end of the table, she and her brother eagerly gulping down the delectable and rare dishes. Two-headed fish soup was rare to come by, and it was wonderful to taste the saltiness, quite unlike any other, again.
It wasn't until she was halfway done with her bowl that she realized the prince hadn't even made to pick up his utensils. He sat there, going back and forth between watching them and watching the food with a look of mild disgust.
Katara set down her spoon with a clank, shocking Sokka into a choking cough. "What?" she asked mockingly, crossing her arms with a downward tilt to her mouth. The question seemed to startle prince Zuko from his thoughts. "You don't like to eat?"
"Don't like to eat?" Sokka's mouth opened in a gape, "that can't be true." He looked pleadingly towards his new friend, crocodile tears forming dramatically in his eyes. "Tell me it isn't true!"
"That's not it!" the prince punctuated his statement with an impressive eye roll. He looked at the siblings for a moment, hesitating. A raised, expectant eyebrow from Katara prompted him to continue. "The food here is just… unfamiliar."
Katara smacked her lips. She hadn't expected anything less. "So, you don't like our climate, our food," she observed, lifting her fingers in the air one by one to keep count. She could clearly see the tick of his jaw.
"That's not what the man said, Katara," Sokka scoffed. He pointed to the plate of herbed arctic hen with seaweed salad and nodded his head vigorously to the tentative prince. "Most foreigners like that one the best. Tastes just like possum chicken!"
By the sour look on Zuko's face, the endorsement didn't seem to help one bit. But even though he seemed green at the thought, he used a fork to shovel some seaweed into his mouth. It was obvious he didn't like it, but he had tried it to placate her growing anger.
Katara sighed. She realized that in her haste, she mistook mere hesitancy for insult. She was always quick to defend her people and their ways, the Earth Kingdom had given her lots of practice in that, but it hadn't been the fire prince's intention. The foods in the Water Tribe were unlike anything else found across the globe, from what she'd heard from her father's tales. Katara wasn't quite adaptive to change; it seemed the prince wasn't either.
"You might want to start with the steamed dumplings," Katara chimed in, stopping him from taking another mouthful. She kept her voice light and non-confrontational. Apologizing. "I assume those are more of a universal food?"
He slowly reached out to grab the plate of dumplings, as if her kindness were a trick to poison him. The siblings waited keenly, content with staring uncomfortably until he took his first bite. He gave a thumbs-up of approval, seemingly to genuinely enjoy the new food offered.
Katara looked towards the end of the table where her father sat, effectively ending the interaction. She pretended to strain her ears to listen to the conversation about… lychee orchards? She could hear Sokka yapping next to her, and a grumbled response from the other side of the table.
It wasn't until the two boys were deeply engaged in conversation did Katara let a small uptilt of her lips grace her face.
It was later in the evening, and her compliance from earlier had drained away with a joke at her expense, made by a politician quiet enough for her to hear, but not her father. Sokka had been enraged, and Zuko regretful, but Katara had begged them to stay quiet.
As a result, her bad mood had returned. She was remembering her earlier hostility, wondering why she had decided to let it drop in the first place.
Katara had efficiently avoided all necessary company by helping the little kids successfully throw balls of ice at each other. She was the ice ball maker and supplier. No one had bothered to pull her from the younger kids because the young princess seemed to be genuinely enjoying herself, and the kids would have thrown quite an upset. Katara loved the kids; they all thought of her as a bigger sister who they never got to spend enough time with.
It had been an effective, double-edged strategy. She got to spend more time with her little 'siblings' and she had an excuse not to talk to anyone from the Fire Nation. Was she being petty? Yes, yes, she was. Katara had promised Sokka that she would be good-humoured, and it would have been impossible without a little relief.
But now, the little tykes had been taken home to be tucked in by their parents. There had been a little bit of leeway as regards to bedtime because of the party, but it was hours past dark now. Which meant Katara was susceptible to an attack from any side.
So, she had expected the invitation. No doubt prompted by her father.
"Do you want to dance with me?"
Katara found a hand straightened towards her, palm up. Her eyes trailed up the arm to the face that accompanied it. Of course, she had recognized the voice right away as Zuko. The rasp was throaty and distinct. He cleared his throat at her lack of response.
She was tempted to swat his hand away, but she didn't. Instead, she straightened up against the column of ice she had been resting upon.
Her smile was as saccharine as her response. "Do I have a choice?"
Zuko placed his hands onto his hips in frustration. "Of course, you do. Look, I know our first meeting wasn't… pleasant. But I'll try to get past it and forgive you if we can at least have another chance."
"What if I don't forgive you?" It was a genuine question, though the bark to her words made it seem less so.
Katara pushed off the column with her shoulders and walked a few paces towards him. The tips of her shoes touched his. She angled her head back to look at him. He tilted his face down to look at her. Their faces were mere inches apart and in other circumstances, she would have been the colour of blossoms in spring. But she willed her face to remain calm. She wanted an answer.
With their faces so close together, Katara couldn't miss the way his nose scrunched in frustration. His eyes squinting in confusion as they met her own. The slight open and close of his mouth.
Finally, he spoke, steam appearing to rise from his nose. Katara had the urge to laugh at the unexpected sight. "I have done nothing for you to forgive me of. You don't even know me."
In a burst of bravery (or stupidity), Katara raised onto the tips of her toes and leaned into his ear. "Maybe I don't want to," she whispered.
Without giving him a chance to respond, she quickly added distance between them.
Turning on her heel, she stalked away.
Katara found her seat back at the table, now empty of partygoers who had spread out across the room for various purposes. She was alone with her plate and her thoughts. Flopping unladylike into her chair, she set down her plate of collected buffet treats before her and gently broke the frosted cookie into pieces with the pull of her fingers.
When she was about to start eating, she realized she had acquired a companion sitting to her left. As she turned her head towards the company, she was met with the smiling face of Iroh, the royal uncle. Even though she didn't know him well, she found herself being less wary of him than the others. Something about his demeanour, the smile always present on his face, and his undeniable warmth reminded her of her own tribe members, rather than someone befitting her idea of a Fire Nation royal.
She greeted him with a hesitant smile, all too aware that he had no doubt witnessed her reaction to his nephew moments before. "Hello, Prince Iroh," she said, questioning her use of the title almost instantly. Was he still considered a prince? Was general a better choice? "Is the banquet to your liking?"
"I haven't been to a gathering in years and the wait hasn't disappointed. The traditions are different, but the spirit is the same as always." He motioned to her plate in question, where her untouched cookie pieces sat. At her nod of approval, he popped a small piece into his mouth. His eyes seemed to light up at the taste of frosting, which she knew melted like snow on the tongue. He levelled his gaze on her. "And no need for such formalities! If fate turns out a certain way, we may be related by the end of the year."
Katara didn't think so. Her reluctance must have shown on her face.
"The face of a nation is different than it's heart," he told her. "I am not proud of what my country has done, but you shouldn't discredit someone for the actions of others."
They both turned their attention to the hall, where heartily conversation and music erupted. Katara saw that after a bit of coaxing, the two nations seemed to be getting along nicely without formalities. The sailors were showing the younger teens an upbeat jig, while other crewmembers were learning instruments from the musicians or eating traditional food or playing festival games. The politicians were engaged in dialogue, laughing, and joking around a table on the other side of the room. It seemed as if the war was almost non-existent. As if they'd lived their whole lives as friends, without feuding territories and battles.
In this setting, they didn't seem like a threat at all. This kind of thinking was dangerous, Katara knew in the back of her mind, seeing all of the terrible things their country had inflicted upon the world. It was terrifying to her, the thought of trust. But she knew that her fear of the unknown was manifesting into anger against the newcomers.
She resolved to take to heart the words Iroh had spoken to her. She genuinely believed them to be true. Katara had done exactly as he had warned against.
These people here, they weren't here to harm them. They were here on a semblance of peace. She was a part of the puzzle, and so was the prince. If the Fire Nation representatives were vowing reconciliation, then Katara would be a fool to neglect that. As hard as it was, she had to put her trust in them.
She knew that if the alliance worked out, her tribe would benefit and perhaps it would pacify the war as well, at least for a little while. As much as she wanted it to be solely her decision, it wasn't. And Katara would never turn her back on the people that needed her.
"You're right," she admitted aloud, for her benefit as well as his. The furrow in her brows increased as her thoughts jumbled. She tapped her fingers against her knee. "I have a right to be hesitant… but you all have a right to a chance."
"That's all I ask," he grinned. "My nephew used to be unsure of his role in life. He's finding his way, but I think you're the right person to help him see his worth."
Unsure of what to say, Katara only nodded. Only time would tell.
Zuko took out his anger on birds. They weren't real birds, only ducks carved of ice that were meant as targets during a bizarre carnival game. The objective was to use the ice balls provided to shoot down the ten ice ducks, lined in a neat row, from a distance away. He had perfect aim, so the game wasn't necessarily amusing. But it did wonders to take his mind off of unpleasant interaction number three.
Before he knew it, shouts rang, and he realized the game was over. The officiant, an older man with a long grey beard, added another kale cookie as a prize onto Zuko's accumulating pile.
He turned to Sokka, who had his arms crossed. "You won," the boy sulked, "again."
"What can I say?" Zuko shrugged, wiping fake dust from his shoulders jokingly. "I'm just that good. Rematch?"
Sokka shook his head laughing, before yanking Zuko by the arm away from the game and an abandoned pile of treats. "No, let's do something else."
Sokka let go of his sleeve and they walked for a few paces. Zuko waved to a few of his crewmates, Issey and Tomoki, who were learning how to play seal skin drums.
In the silence, he could see the sadness in his new friend's eyes and the way he wasn't as talkative as he had been yesterday.
"You don't have to tell me," he started, "but you seem kind of sad."
Sokka frowned in confusion as he looked to him as if no one else had noticed. "I usually keep my sad spells better hidden but… the girl I love is getting married next week."
"Oh," Zuko remarked, at a loss for words. He patted his friend's slumping shoulders with a quick one-two. "That's rough, buddy."
He was never one to comfort others.
Sokka didn't seem to mind. "Princess Yue is amazing. She's pretty, kind, smart. But her father wants her to marry a high-ranking soldier. Hahn."
This puzzled Zuko. And he said so. "Aren't you technically a prince? Why did priority go towards this Hahn guy instead?"
"The Southern Tribe is a lot less advanced than the Northern one," Sokka spread his arms wide to emphasize his point. They both looked around the pavilion, which had been built over fifty years prior. Even then, it still wasn't outdated. "My title," he said with air quotes, "doesn't amount for much."
Though Zuko had never been north, he couldn't help but agree. They were simplistic in their way of life. While it wasn't inherently a bad thing, he could understand why the northern chief had reservations. His own nation did in regard to his match.
They contemplated for a moment longer, before Sokka shook himself. Wiping any trace of gloom from his face, he settled Zuko with a smirk instead.
"So… what happened with my sister earlier?"
Zuko cringed, unaware that anyone had seen. But of course, someone had. "I asked her to dance, she said no," he muttered, almost incoherently. He was embarrassed to have thought it would have ended any differently. "She hates me."
Sokka burst out laughing, much to Zuko's chagrin. "She doesn't hate you. She's just scared of the Fire Nation, and of being hurt again. Katara will warm up to you eventually."
Zuko didn't miss the way he had said 'again'. What had happened before?
"It also probably doesn't help that she can't, in fact, dance."
"Everyone can dance," Zuko stated plainly.
Sokka blew a raspberry, "yeah, not my sister. But let's forget about that right now. She can cool down while we do something else."
"Anything specific in mind?"
Sokka's mouth quirked up. "I mean, it would be out-of-character for me to choose anything other than ice ball."
It didn't sound that invigorating, Zuko had to admit. Unenthusiastically, he prompted, "ice ball?"
"I see you giving me a look but trust me, it's great. Katara and I used to play it all the time. It's been a while though," Sokka explained, pointing to a vacant spot in the back corner of the hall where two measly snow-packed nets were set up. Zuko then sat through a brutal ten minutes, where Sokka attempted to explain the rules of the game without detours for stories or sarcastic comments. He eventually understood the basic idea.
"Just because you're new, doesn't mean I'm going to take it easy on you," Sokka said, passing a ball of pure ice between his feet in an attempt to intimidate the opponent with his skills. Luckily for Zuko, the game was similar to one he used to play with Azula and hot stones.
"I wouldn't dream of it."
He readied himself as the game started.
It took a while to find the two boys. Katara looked in the usual "Sokka" hotspots: the buffet line, the ladies table, the younger kids' art corner. Eventually, she found them playing a round of ice ball. It was a simplistic game that Katara and Sokka had played as kids. She hadn't seen him play it in years.
She cleared her throat, stopping the game's progress. Sokka noticed her over the prince's shoulder and halted the small ball with his foot, breaking the packed ice ball into the ground. She grabbed her left wrist in nervousness as Zuko turned around to face her.
"I…" Katara started, feeling guilty and at a loss for words. She glanced over her shoulder back to her table, where Iroh still sat munching the leftovers of her cookie. Sensing the attention on him, he gave an enthusiastic thumbs up. Whether the gesture was directed at his nephew or herself was unclear. "I wanted to say that I'm sorry. About earlier."
When he said nothing, she continued with a gulp. "I will take you up on the offer if it's still available?" she said firmly, looking him in the eyes in an attempt to show her sincerity. Katara wanted him to know that she meant it: that she was sorry. She was resolved to try, at least.
Her nerves grew with each passing second of blank expression. He was stoic, his face so difficult to decipher. Katara had always grown up with people who were open about their emotions, and she had no experience in the reading of expressions. She wanted desperately to know what he was thinking.
Finally, his uncertainty started to melt away. It made Katara feel nice. Light.
"Of course," he agreed with a hesitant smile. "I can help you with dance moves if you want."
Taken aback by the offer, she sputtered, "who told you that I can't…"
As if on cue, they both looked towards Sokka, who had been backing away from them quietly before being caught. He held up his hands sheepishly before rushing over to their father and a group of politicians, a small wave over his shoulder.
Katara rolled her eyes with a smile, before turning her attention back to the prince. To Zuko. When he offered her his hand, she took it with a smile.
Water was the element of change. Like the ocean, water benders were constantly adapting to flexibly fit their environments. Katara used to have no problem with that. Whether she was in the South or on the soil of an Earth Kingdom village, she was perfectly content as long as water ran its course close by. It was only now that she was having difficulty when the lifestyle of ever-growing change no longer suited her needs. But she knew now that she was wrong to think of change as something to be cautious of. It was only different from what she was used to, and different didn't always lead to destruction. As always, the water spirits were right.
During their dance, they didn't talk much. They didn't need to, the swell of the beautiful flutes and strings leading the way. Katara would have thought the silence would be awkward but instead, it was rather full of possibilities. There was still uncertainty, and a whole lot of misunderstanding, but where before there had been darkness, now bloomed a bit of hope. They didn't talk much, only a few pretty words here and there, but they would.
They didn't need to talk for Katara to come to a stark conclusion. Maybe the entire Fire Nation wasn't so bad after all.
As Katara left the hall that night, once the last of the villagers left and the sailors bid their adieu with a final shanty, she looked to the stars for guidance. She charted the constellations that mapped out for miles in her mind and basked in the glowing silver moon. It seemed to have become a daily ritual, but she didn't mind. It reminded her that the world was a lot wider beyond her small tribe, and wherever her mother had ended up in the afterlife, maybe she could see the same stars too.
A lot was on her mind tonight. Many things were unclear. Only Tui and La knew where they would end up a year from now. But Katara knew one thing for certain.
Everything had changed.
I know this might not have been the reconciliation you guys were looking for, but it's because the next chapter I planned is all talking and working out their problems with one another... maybe even a certain necklace exchange too... I'll try to have it up by next week! Also, unrelated but recommend some well-made cartoons to watch. I just finished She-Ra (2018) and I need another reason to live.
Chapter 6: Secrets in the Dark
It has been a lot longer than I intended since I last updated, so I'm sorry! I was kind of scared to write this chapter, because I wanted to do it justice. Hopefully I succeeded. Thank you all for being patient with me and for the kind reviews, I love to read them all!
*Perspective change is indicated by line breaks if that wasn't clear enough.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Death was the only thing Katara's dreams understood.
The loss of her mother cut anew, age-old wounds reopening in the dark of night to the sounds of her quiet whimpers. The death felt fresh every time, carving reminders into her soul. Making sure she never forgot.
Tonight was no different.
But this time, the same man who had haunted her for years did not appear, with grinning eyes of evil and a masked helm of war. Instead, a slender, shadowy figure stalked from the shadows of her house, carrying a broadsword which gleamed in the lantern light. When he stepped into the light, she saw a glint of gold eyes and smirking lips staring back at her. When Zuko brought his sword down upon her, she screamed.
Instead of sorrow being the first thing Katara felt upon reawakening, it was shame. She and Zuko had talked at the banquet, she was supposed to have rid herself from hesitations of his arrival. They were supposed to be friends. And yet, her mind still made objections where her heart did not. The heart was compassionate, but the mind was distrustful. She attempted to rid herself from the fabricated images, reminding herself that Zuko had never shown a hint of malice, despite his questionable upbringing. Katara now believed his intentions to be good.
Shaking her head rapidly, squeezing her eyes shut, she attempted to dispel the nightmare.
It wasn't real, it wasn't real, it wasn't real.
Her actions upon wakening in her darkened hut felt almost ritual: the wiping of tears, the sneaking from her house, the descent to the water's edge. She believed her element made her feel safe. Comforted. Like her mother's embrace once did.
Katara was forever grateful to her ancestors for her gifts (because they were gifts, though not everyone saw it that way. She knew there were people who called her 'witch' behind her back, though she pretended not to) but the art of bending was an unbearable burden too. The last one in the South, for now, possibly forever. She was surrounded by snow and churning oceans, but no one to share her joy with.
And despite being a talented healer, even water couldn't heal the maladies of her mind.
It was well known that waterbenders were subjects of the shadows, beams of moonlight their lifeforce. The moon made the tides stronger and commanded the water's energy. It made sense that it was when she felt most alive too -how she was able to sustain herself on the bare minimum of sleep every night, terrified of seeing the black ash of a raid again.
Katara winced at the flashes of black snow and blood clouding her eyes, hugging her coat tighter to her as she exited the village walls. As she approached the shoreline, she noticed a figure, sitting shoulders slumped in the snow.
In the dark, she could make out the scar that covered Zuko's left eye and cheek. But even without the significant indicator, Katara knew she would have recognized him regardless. She thought of turning back, of finding another spot, but something changed her mind.
She wasn't naïve in thinking that they had already formed a connection. Their alliance was tentative at best, full of plot holes and deeply lodged mistrust that they were only beginning to resolve. But it was something about the way he carried himself. Regal yet broken down by the world. It made Katara feel guilty for judging him so soon; it was obvious demons lurked in the crown prince's shadows. He was just a boy, and not a monster like in the cautionary tales mothers told little Water Tribe children of the volcanoes that reigned the world. She was determined to help ease his insecurities, even by a little.
Katara couldn't help but think that in some ways, they were impossibly similar.
The sun was witness to his punishment.
Zuko peeled off the robe from his shoulders, widening his feet into a readying warrior's stance. The duel was commencing right on schedule. And he was ready to prove his worth.
He stood at one end of the long, rectangular raised platform, the lanterns on either side of him feeding fiery strength into his bloodstream. Fire was life eternal, and his nation loved to remind everyone of their resilience. The sun glared above, causing a minor squint in his eyes. A tapestry with the Fire Nation emblem hung proudly on the wall across from him.
Chills ran down his limbs at the sight of it. He never considered himself to be the most patriotic of princes, but he couldn't deny his love for his country. He thought he'd been protecting it back in the war room. It was what he still thought, and Zuko would defend his decision to the end. For once in his life, he had made the right choice. Just like his mother wished he would. He would face the general with loyalty, bravery, and courage.
The crowd jeered and taunted in his name. They had no faith. He would prove to them all. He would show him.
But as his opponent took to the stage, something appeared wrong. Very wrong, indeed. For it was not the war general he had mouthed to in his father's council chamber.
No. It was the Fire Lord himself.
His father was stern-faced, with a look of murder in his eyes. Zuko could feel the heat of his disappointment from yards away.
This wasn't how the day was supposed to go. No one had warned him he would face his father. Surely someone had known, maybe everyone. They wanted him to look like a fool.
He could feel the tremble of his knees embarrassingly, horrified when his hands started to shake. Despite his earlier notions of bravery and fighting till the end, something pooled deep into his stomach: regret. Maybe he wasn't so right as he had once thought if his father was the one condemning him.
Zuko found himself crying out to his father, begging for forgiveness, begging to be spared. He would be good from now on, he promised. It was a misunderstanding. Zuko had never meant to disrespect anyone. And out of principle, he would never harm a member of his family.
His father had no such qualms.
You will learn respect, and suffering will be your teacher.
Zuko wished he could say he had fought back nobly. He wished he could tell tales to his grandchildren of how he defended the honour of his soldiers against his tyrannic father, pushing him out of power with a sudden surge of blue lightning, unleashed in a moment of true sacrifice. He wanted to be a hero. He wanted to be good. Wasn't that exactly what his mother had hoped for him? But alas, he was too cowardly to do anything in the end but plead. Plea for his father to love him enough to forgive his mistakes.
His father did not. His uncle looked away.
He felt the intense burn of red flames to his face, and the smell of charred flesh filled the air.
Zuko woke with sweat on his temples, and his hands clenched into the fabric of blankets. The nightmare flashed in his mind, replaying the scenes of his punishment over and over again unrepentantly across his eyelids. No matter where he went, the shadows followed. Even to the ends of their world, in the unforgiving cold of the South, there was no escape. None at all.
He wiped the sleep from his eyes, not wanting to admit to himself how shaken he felt. The dreams were a constant thing in his life, yet they still managed to make him feel impossibly weak every time. They reminded him of all the things he hated about himself. His fear in the face of redemption. The cowardice he portrayed during his test of worth. The dishonour he brought to his family and his country.
The nightmare- no, memory- only served to remind him that his father had cast him into the pits of the globe, keeping Azula at his right-hand side. The way it was prophesized to be.
Zuko needed air. The atmosphere of his room was suddenly too suffocating. Layers and layers of clothes were snatched from the closet. It was unfamiliar for him to need mountains of clothing every time he wanted to go outside. He was so accustomed to the sweltering heat of eternal summer; it was striking to feel just the opposite. Though perhaps once the year was over, he wouldn't remember anything different.
When he walked from his room and up the stairs to the main deck, he needn't be quiet. His uncle and the sailors slept deep, the thrashing of the bow in a storm not being nearly enough to wake them, let alone a peaceful night. Even from above, in the crisp air of a winter's night, Zuko could hear the snoring of slumbering below. He was envious of the easiness at which they rested.
Zuko found his way off the ship and onto the snowy shores, sitting down a few feet from the water's edge. He watched the moonlight ripple across the ocean, though his vision was lost in memory. The night was silent and invited his demons forth. The prince couldn't help but give in.
His fingers brushed against the leathery scar of his left face, marking him as a failure. The contact made him flinch, even a year later, like phantom flames taunting him. The puckering had only begun to heal a few months before, and on most days, he could handle the dull sting of the delicate scarred skin. Sometimes, it still surprised him to look in a mirror and find half of his face burned off.
Zuko knew his wallowing was pathetic. He was the crown prince of the most powerful nation in the world, fire and lightning were his blood right. It was unbecoming of the monarchy to whine about inconsequential things such as feelings and emotions. They had a country to think about- a war to win- and soon the power to do what was right would fall to him. But first, his task was here in the south. He couldn't waste time in his thoughts.
As if summoned, a hand laid tentatively upon his shoulder. He was startled but recovered quickly, his gaze meeting with the ice princess. Katara had come from his left side, where his hearing was still damaged, so he hadn't heard the subtle crunch of boots against snow. He was surprised to see her still awake. He'd thought he was alone, with the moon and his mind for company. Zuko was even more surprised when she lowered herself to sit beside him by the shoreline.
"You know," Katara started, her voice like spring in the biting cold. A silvery moonlit reflection danced in her eyes as she cast her gaze to the horizon far beyond the south. "I was always under the impression that firebenders were kin to daylight. The aspect of rising with the sun, and waterbenders the moon."
A piteous laugh bubbled up his throat before he had a chance to quell it. "I think that concept must've skipped over me."
The still of a quiet, calm night was unlike the Fire Nation, where crickets would chirp and often fireworks would be heard in the distance beyond the palace, even on days with no special occasion. Caldera bustled with energetic life, but Zuko supposed the stillness was just as invigorating, though in a drastically different way. The water, the moon, the quiet; it all sounded like the start of a beautiful fairytale.
If Zuko believed in such things, that is.
"Sorry about trying to wreck your ships," Katara broke the charged atmosphere with her clear voice, keeping her eyes to the sky in a bout of sudden nervousness. "It wasn't my intention to drown you."
She didn't understand where they would end up a year from now. Only the fates knew such things. She hoped, that with a little prompting, it could be beautiful. From the corner of her eyes, Katara saw him shrug, mimicking her with eyes to the stars above.
"No problem. No one got hurt, did they?" He angled his body towards hers and after a moment's pause, grinned. "Besides, it was impressive."
It wasn't until then that she looked to him, truly looked at him, for the first time that night. Fire and ice and the eternal war between the two. How was it possible that they were expected to fix a century of violence with a match of convenience?
Despite herself, her lips quirked into a faint smile. "Are you trying to flatter me?" she teased. Though she deftly waited for his response all the same.
"No, just being honest," he responded truthfully.
When Katara received compliments, especially during her latter years, it was almost always for something in return. Her village loved her, and she loved them, of course. But it didn't stop them from wanting things, wanting more than the life that was provided to them. The stories that her grandmother told about the former glories of the South weren't a helpful reminder either. So, when a boy told her she looked pretty or an elder congratulated her weaving skills, it was to gain favour with her father.
Even in the South, where borders were so small, she could walk freely across the town in forty strides, power was still important. The belief that power was strength still lived. But Katara knew that Zuko spoke the truth. Perhaps he had something to gain by befriending her, but it wasn't the reasoning behind his kindness now. She felt wholly appreciative of it.
Until he spoke again. "I didn't really expect you to be so powerful," he mused, as if to himself.
She took offence. How else was she supposed to take the belittling words? Her cheeks burned, and she could feel heat rise to her neck. Her nostrils flared like a Komodo dragon-mouse. As if sensing her growing agitation, he spoke again in a calm manner to quell it, which only unnerved her more.
"When I say that, I assure you, it was not a dig at you being a girl. I was unaware of the fact that a southern bender still lived, and able wield such power without the presence of a master." In afterthought, he continued to speak. To defend his homeland, of all things. "The Fire Nation believes in equality when it comes to women and men in positions of power, and worth is determined by capability, not gender. Unlike in the water tribes."
Katara bristled. She was unused to hearing anything decent about the Fire Nation, and she wasn't about to let him win, as petty as it seemed. If he was patriotic, so was she. She loved her nation and would never hear of its faults from others.
"How do you know that it's not so similar here?" she lied through her teeth. Katara knew very well it wasn't the same, and she guessed that he knew it too. "Very little is known of the water tribes from the outside."
He tilted his head to the side, regarding her with a look of skepticism and a snort that let her know he didn't buy the propaganda she was spouting. "Your council is all men. You weren't consulted on the matter of our marriage agreement before I arrived, which shows a level of condescension, unconscious or not. It's not difficult to evaluate the outcome."
Katara occupied herself from her embarrassment by waterbending the snow's moisture out of her wooled pants. "That's true," she conceded, ignoring the smug grin he cast her way, "but you don't understand the traditions and customs the Water Tribe has had for centuries. Though they may not be right, it is difficult to break."
Life in the tribes wasn't as bad as he made it seem. Women were loved and cherished and treated well. But sometimes, she wished for more. And she knew the other young girls felt the same. The chance to travel the world after the war (if there was even an end), the chance at a "man's" job as hunters or in politics. The knowledge that they were capable of doing anything they wanted. Though her father had never explicitly said she couldn't reach for the stars, Katara knew that it wouldn't necessarily be encouraged either.
"Why were you so hesitant at my arrival?"
The question startled her from her thoughts, bringing her back to the corporeal land of ice. Her cheeks felt frozen.
"It couldn't have been because of me, because you were poised to distrust me before we had even spoken."
Katara sighed. If they were going to be friends, she had to be entirely honest. It started now. "The war has birthed hatred in us all. I was scared to trust someone from the opposite side. I believed that everyone in the Fire Nation was corrupt. Was a monster." She eyed him as she said the last few words, the look in his eyes indicating he remembered clearly the words she had spewed before. Katara looked into his eyes fiercely, so that he would feel the impact of her next words.
"I was wrong," she acknowledged. "I have a right to be hesitant, but you say you've come in peace, and I should have believed it. There is no hope of change if there is no one willing to do so."
"You speak like my uncle," Zuko confessed with a whisper of a smile. "Always speaking in riddles, in lyrics. But I think I understand, or I'm trying, at least. I suppose I would have acted similarly to you, had I been in your position."
Katara nodded solemnly, grateful he understood. In a moment of brashness, she reached for his hand and clasped it between both of hers, squeezing gently to emphasize her words. She wanted him to know that she was willing to trust him, to become friends.
"I want us to get along, to be friends," she confessed, a hint of plea and hope intermingling through her words. It was almost tangible, like magic swirling in the air around them. "Do you think that's possible? Could you forgive me for the other night?"
After a moment of consideration, he smiled, and she knew everything would be alright between them. Though his arrival may not have been her first choice for a future, the companionship between them was starting to seem rather promising. Katara never passed up the opportunity of a new friend.
"I would like that very much," he agreed, before setting her hands gently back into her lap. His hands moved into his pockets as if reaching for something, then decided against it, looking to the water. "If by the end of the year an alliance isn't formed, my father will banish me from the Fire Nation."
The sudden change took Katara off guard. She felt many emotions at once. Sadness for the prince before her, who seemed angry and confused and lost; fury at the Fire Lord, who fostered hatred into his nation rather than compassion; turmoil over what the news might mean.
"And you're telling me this… why?" she asked slowly, narrowing her eyes in calculation.
"I wanted you to know my motives," Zuko said cryptically, "I want to make a deal."
He ducked his head, before removing an object from his left pocket. It dangled from his fingers in the dark, swaying in the frigid breeze. It was only when a pale stone glinted in the light that she realized what it was.
It was her mother's necklace.
Katara's eyes grew wide upon meeting the blue material swinging in his grasp. "I've been looking for this everywhere!" she exclaimed, grabbing at the necklace, her eyes forever fixed on the fabric. Once she had reclaimed her possession, her shoulders seemed to deflate with an audible sigh of relief. With tears in her eyes, Katara looked to him with such warmth and gratitude, he felt his cheeks flush. "Where did you find it?"
"The day I arrived," he confessed, watching the ministrations of her fingers as she traced the blue carved stone again and again. "I found it covered in snow by the shore and assumed it had fallen from your neck."
Katara's eyes suddenly held a murderous gleam, which he had thought impossible. Even when angered, it had always been clear that her intentions were pure. It was rare to find a heart as compassionate as hers. But tonight, the darkness manifested in her expression a look of incredulity and despair.
"You've had it since then?" her lips curled in a snarl, almost ferocious in nature. Like a mother wolf, protecting its cub. "Why didn't you return it? It wasn't yours to keep! And now you try to bargain with me, threatening the return of my necklace for a deal?"
Zuko's eyes grew wide at the implication. He hadn't thought through his confession, not at all. He hadn't intended for it to sound so villainous, and yet, she thought he was threatening her. Despite his good intentions, he still appeared evil on the surface.
"No, no, no," he shook his head vehemently, trying to dispel her growing resentment. "There was never really a good moment to return it," he explained quickly, fumbling his words unprincely-like in his haste. "It's not as if we were exactly on speaking terms." When he laughed awkwardly, she didn't join.
Frowning, he held his arms out, palms facing skyward, in a gesture of peace. "It wasn't meant as a threat. I'm… sorry you saw it that way. What I meant by a deal was: your necklace in exchange for a chance." He swallowed hard. "I don't expect anything more. If by the end of the year, things haven't worked out… I will survive. I will find another way to restore my honour."
Katara blinked hard, before studying him. She must have accepted his answer for the truth because she shook her head with a nervous smile. "I'm sorry about your circumstances. And I shouldn't have been so quick to discredit your worth. Even after our reconciliation earlier, I still assumed the worst. I made a pact to myself to try and become friends, I'd like to keep it."
She gently laid the necklace on the snow-covered ground between them, straightening it horizontally so that he could see the carvings and woven string more clearly as if he hadn't studied it over and over the past few days.
"Thank you," she whispered, avoiding his eyes by peering down at the necklace with a mixture of love, hurt and relief. Tears filled her eyes, but Katara didn't let them fall.
"I know it seems silly for me to care so much; it's just a piece of jewelry," she laughed as if to ward off emotion, but her voice still held hoarseness to it. "This belonged to my mother. My family doesn't have much left from her, a lot of her possessions were recycled into town's use and given to those who were in need when she died, but I could never give this up. It makes me feel as though she's always near, even though it's not possible."
Zuko didn't quite know what to say, but he felt appreciative that she had shared the information with him. It seemed so personal and felt as though she was finally beginning to see him as someone other than the enemy. Someone she could trust with her pain. He felt as though he understood her better.
"The spirits are always with us, to guide us or watch over the people from their past lives," he told her, thinking not only of her mother but his as well. He'd never found out what had become of her: if she had joined the constellations above or if she was still out there somewhere, living and breathing and loving him.
Katara gave him a watery smile. "I'd like to think so."
They returned to their observations of nature surrounding them, noses and cheeks rosy, though not entirely from the cold. From the corner of his eye, he could see Katara's eyes drooping as the sky turned lighter, and a stifled yawn followed.
"It's getting late," she noted, "or, early, depending on how you look at it."
When Katara realized he made no move to rise, she did so alone. She stood off to his left side, the side of his hearing loss- the side of his scar- where she had been sitting all night. She hadn't flinched at the sight once. Not since the first day, from the distance between boat and shore.
He had to turn his head fully and tilt up to hear her speak now that she stood further away.
"I should be heading back," she gestured with a thumb behind her to the path that sloped upwards to the village quarters. Before she left, Katara placed a hand kindly on his shoulder. "I hope rest finds you well."
He nodded, lips upturned, though he doubted there would be respite tonight.
She directed a dazzling smile towards him, genuine and full of possibility, and the moon seemingly glowed a little brighter. "I'll see you tomorrow."
With that, she turned to walk towards the houses, a few with smoking chimneys and the rise of early morning hunters on their journeys. When she looked back, it was only then that Zuko returned her smile.
Yes, he decided. They would meet again tomorrow.
Read, review, tell me your thoughts. This chapter was a little slower, filled with more inner conflict and conversation, but the next chapter has a bit more action. I hope to update soon :)
Chapter 7: Lessons
It's been a while since I've last updated. I've been in a bit of a writing slump and I really want to produce good quality chapters for you guys, so I'm sorry. I hope the wait was worth it and know that I have definitely not abandoned this story. I really am loving how this is turning out, and I hope you share my sentiments!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Katara made true to her word.
The next morning, only a mere several hours after their encounter, the sun barely grazing the horizon, he found her waiting along the snowbanks by his docked ship. A blue, fur-lined hood was pulled over her dark tresses, giving the appearance of a blue shadow padding lightly in the snow.
At the sound of his footsteps making their way down the stairs to land, she turned to face him. The light of the early morning haloed her face in a warm glow. Dark circles framed her under eyes but besides that, she seemed more energized than she ought to be. Her lips were quirked into a genuine smile that nearly stopped Zuko in his tracks. Making his way towards her, he opened his mouth to speak…
The southern girl greeted him with a snowball to the face.
At first, Zuko was utterly flabbergasted. As the chilled flakes melted into his hair and skin, he felt the heat of his cheeks and neck help speed the process. His breath came out in short bursts, vapour rising from his nose at the humiliation… and paused. Katara let out a peal of laughter, bright and delighted and kind. He realized at once that it was a joke, not an attempt to embarrass him in front of his crewmates, though he did hear snickering from the men aboard. It was an act of camaraderie because that's what friends did, apparently. It felt odd to have friends who weren't intent on hurting him.
"If that's the welcome befitting a prince, I'm afraid to see what happens to those who don't have the noble title." Though his voice took on an air of superiority and pomp, his overly dramatic composure conveyed his joke.
"It's a common practice in the Southern Water Tribe; the pelting of one's friends with a perfectly formed ball of snow," she explained, though Zuko was unsure whether or not she spoke the truth.
With a flick of her hand, the moisture vanished from his clothes and face and reformed into a snowball in the air before him, as if the last moments had never happened. She cast a devious smirk directed in secret to Zuko before Katara let her hand shoot out towards her right, her snowballs finding their target on his crew members. Bursts of protest were shouted across the tundra from deck, and with Zuko's hand in Katara, she pulled him after her towards their escape.
They came upon a clearing, nearly two miles from the ships, yet still close to the water. The sharp frosted air pierced Katara's lungs as she took in oxygen in gulps, smiling from the rush of a morning run through the desert of snow. One of her favourite things about the south was that wherever she went, no matter how far she seemed to run, water would always surround her. The curve of the ocean was vast and welcoming, like a siren's song luring sailors to their doom. But she knew that it was dependable, and it would always be there for her.
Away from prying eyes, she smiled to Zuko with a hint of mischief. "You've seen my bending at action," she raised her hands up in demonstration as if he'd forgotten, pulling snowflakes from the ground to fall anew around them, as if it were truly snowing. The flakes settled in her hair and on his eyelashes. Katara quirked a self-satisfied brow, hiding the curiosity she felt deep inside her. "Let's see what you can do now."
Though Zuko had been grinning only moments before, no doubt experiencing the same thrill of their run, the light seemed to dim, and his face fell. His gaze wandered down to the tips of his boots. His hands before him shook, though he attempted to hide the fact by clasping them together, pretending to fend off the cold.
"I…" he hesitated, "I can't."
Katara tilted her head to the right, studying him in concern. She didn't understand (she hated it when she didn't understand something). But he appeared genuinely truthful, as if he indeed and simply put couldn't.
"I was under the impression you were a firebender," she hadn't meant for her questionings to come out as an insult, she attempted to keep her voice level, but Zuko appeared to take them as such. "Why not?"
"I am a firebender!" he shouted, startling them both. His voice echoed around the clearing, bouncing off the mountains far beyond them and doubling back. In his hands pointed downwards, red sparks of anger flamed, singeing his leathered boots, and melting the snow in a circle around him.
Katara stepped back involuntarily.
Noticing her movement away, he clasped his hands together once again, swallowing hard. In a strained calm voice, he said, "I'm sorry."
"It's okay," she nodded, holding her hands up as if to tame a wild beast. She met his eyes and held the gaze. "I just saw you firebend. What did you mean before?"
Zuko was the first one to break away. He lowered himself to the snow, no doubt dampening his clothes as he sat, and put his trembling hands into the snow to cool himself off. Katara followed his lead, sitting down across from him.
He sighed; a distinctive weight clearly settled upon his shoulders. She was under the impression that this wasn't something he would divulge willingly, though their isolated location made it pretty difficult for him to deflect.
"I can firebend but it's weak. The freezing climate isn't much help since the volcanoes and warm weather of the capital help to feed the fire." He chucked a ball of snow behind his shoulder, hearing the satisfying collision against the waves. The laugh emanating from him was bitter and hurt. The shivers down Katara's spine weren't caused by the chilled air. "Powerful firebenders should have no problem in the poles, but the only times I have been able to produce fire since I arrived is when anger fuels my emotions. I'm no comparison to my sister."
She scooched closer towards him, eliminating the distance before them so that their knees almost touched. "Sister?" she asked, befuddled. Had no one seen fit to mention this before? Had her father even known? "You have a sister?
Zuko nodded, long strands of his loose hair falling onto his forehead with the motion. "My younger sister, Azula. She's around your age," he confirmed. "She's been a prodigy since birth. And of course, my father favours her."
He looked up to meet her eyes, something he had been avoiding since their conversation began. It was as if he wanted her to see the conviction behind his words, almost daring her to deny it, as he said: "she's not a coward."
Katara frowned, her eyebrows furrowing, as she took his hands into her own, blue-gloved ones. "You aren't either, though," she told him firmly, with no room for examination, "there's no shame in needing a little extra practice."
"I thank you for the vote of confidence but with all due respect, you didn't know me before." He squeezed her hands back in gratitude, before pulling them back and into his lap. "I'm a coward," he admitted. "No better than a traitor to my people. That's why my father sent me here, to get rid of me."
She realized with a start that he was telling her his deepest inner beliefs. Katara had those of her own, and she knew how hard it was to admit them to herself, let alone to others. But she also knew that most of them weren't true and were exaggerations her mind had created to hurt herself. The mind is someone's worst enemy, after all.
"What did you do that was so awful as to brand you a traitor?" she asked softly, wanting to help in some way. She hated feeling useless.
After a bit of hesitation, to her surprise, he told her. "There was a time where I should have risen up to the occasion," he conceded vaguely. His mind had turned inward to his memories, leaving Katara to fill in the pieces with her own imagination. "A chance to prove myself. But I didn't. I lost the little respect my family had had for me that day."
The way he sounded was so broken and lost, not the voice of a future Fire Lord but of a human being, that Katara's heart went out for this new stranger, who was now her friend. Whom she'd spilled more secrets to in the last few days than she had to anyone in years. Her breath couldn't help but wobble slightly as it made its way in and out of her lungs.
Suddenly, she perked up. "What if I could help you?" she smiled, the beginnings of a plan forming.
Zuko's head tilted sideways in confusion and suspicion. Katara couldn't blame him, her ecstatic feelings were beginning to bleed through to show on her face in the form of twinkling eyes and a too-wide smile.
"I can help you with your bending," Katara said firmly. Confidently. She truly believed she could make a difference.
She jumped up with the momentum of her enthusiasm, pulling him up with both of his hands in hers, before dropping them once he stood.
"You said it yourself, I'm a powerful bender." She ignored his scoff at her newfound arrogance.
"We could practice sparring; I could teach you some techniques I know that are universal to all benders." Katara demonstrated a few, breaking her train of thought to go through the motions. The readying battle stance, the careful sequential movements of her hands.
In continuing with her pitch, she explained, "by practicing in sub-zero degrees temperatures, you'll become even stronger, and you'll be bending in warmer climates without even so much as a blink!"
Though he tried to hide his hopefulness, Katara could see the way Zuko perked up at the idea and began to sway his balance from foot to foot in thought. "You think that would work?" he wondered.
Katara laughed, elated, and shouted into the clearing, "I know it will!"
Once her echoes died down and she returned to a calmer state, she smiled softly, seeming to catch him off guard at the sudden change of emotion. Stepping closer to him, she whispered into the air like a promise. "I believe in you, Zuko," she breathed, cold white fumes fanning between them, misting his face. "You should too."
His breath hitched, and so did hers, it seemed. She waited for something, for what? The reverie was broken when he cleared his throat, stepping away from her and brought his hand to the back of his neck. "What do you want in return?" he inquired, boot scuffing against the hard snow on the ground. His voice turned cruel, all of a sudden, and Katara found she hated the sound. "I know from experience that such kindness is always done for ulterior motives in mind."
"It's satisfaction enough helping you." Katara bit her lip, seeing that he didn't fully believe her. It was the difference of culture, of upbringing. They were taught different values since birth. The villagers in her tribe would help one another without so much as a thought but it must've been the other way around in the Fire Nation. Katara hadn't given it much thought before: how hard it must be for Zuko to put his trust in others. She had been primed to dislike the Fire Nation since their arrival, but his restraints must've run deeper. And yet, he had been willing for some semblance of friendship ever since he'd arrived. The notion made her want to convince him even more. That she was a kind person. That he was worth being kind to.
"That's what friends do," she persevered. She wanted him to understand. "You shouldn't believe that every good deed is done for a price."
"Everything comes with a price," Zuko scoffed, darkness seeping into his face.
As if on habit, his fingers lightly grazed the puckered skin of his left eye. Shivers ran down her spine, crawling across her arms and legs with realization. She didn't know what had happened. She might never know. But his scar had been someone's twisted idea of repentance. Zuko had paid the price.
"Not friendship. Not kindness," she reasoned. To level out the sombre mood, she smirked in an indication that she was teasing. "But… if you ever did want to repay me in some way, not that you have to, you could always teach me swordplay alongside my brother." It hadn't even been apart of Katara's wish until she had said it out loud, but now that she had, she realized just how much she longed for it.
"You know about that?" he asked. Zuko's cheeks turned impossibly pink, though Katara could neither confirm nor deny the cause was from her words and not the sudden gust of morning wind that swept through them.
"He's been prattling non-stop about it," Katara laughed, remembering the way her brother had enthusiastically boasted to the dinner table about his scheduled lessons with a certain prince of swords, taught by Master Piandao, who Sokka had idolized ever since their father had brought back scrolls detailing his teachings.
She leaned in closer as if letting him in on a secret. "He's very excited, you know, but I want to learn too," she divulged, searching his face for any signs of a reaction.
Excitement, judgement, confusion. Anything would've been better than a blank slate. She was tempted to forget the whole idea but was encouraged when she noticed the nodding of his head, urging her to continue. He wanted to hear what she had to say. Since when had Katara cared about what he thought of her?
"I've never had the privilege of learning; my skills were always cultivated elsewhere. I want to be able to defend myself, not simply by bending."
Zuko's face gave way to a small grin. "That's very wise," he acknowledged, putting a closed fist to his open palm as he bowed. "You have a deal, Ms. Katara."
She curtsied back, though she had no idea if that was the proper etiquette or not. "I look forward to it, Prince Zuko."
For a week after their deal, they continued to meet unflinchingly every morning in the same location, under the vermillion sunrise. For several hours a day, time seemed to stand still as they sparred.
They would do other things during the day, of course. Zuko had meetings to attend and Katara resumed seeing patients. They would meet again when the sun was high in its peak during the afternoon for the promised sword lessons, accompanied by Sokka. The early morning dawn seemingly belonged to them.
Though he was surprised to find his sister would be joining, he hadn't argued. As Katara began to familiarize herself with the weight of a blade in her hand, the parrying and lunging and thrusting (which reminded her a lot of bending), she turned into a star pupil. But as she progressed in her lessons, Zuko lost persistently in his.
"I don't understand," he panted, hands to his knees, bent over in an attempt to regain his breath. "No matter what I do. You always seem to have the upper hand. How?"
They had shed their outercoats during the hours that the sun had made its ascension, Zuko now wearing nothing different than what he would have worn to train if he were still back in the Fire Nation. Katara had swapped out her usual woollen dress for sensible pants and a long-sleeved top. The light haloed around Zuko; glistened through Katara's hair. She smiled, and it softened her words when she spoke.
"You're thinking too hard," Katara said directly, leaving no room for falsities. "You're relying on the hope that complicated footwork will trip your opponent up instead of instinct." She twirled around, moving her feet and hands chaotic jitters, a stream of water following her through the air, as she demonstrated jokingly how he appeared.
"What made you an expert in bending?" Zuko huffed derisively. As minutes ticked by without a response, his features grew serious. "No, really. How do you know so much? I spent years with masters of the art and I'm average at best."
"I have no more potential than you do, but I'm using my skills to the best of my ability," Katara emphasized as she started to walk slowly around him in a circle. Using a water whip, she struck the ground before Zuko's feet, which he barely deflected with a puff of fire. "Whereas you are not."
"I'd say I'm working pretty hard," Zuko gritted his teeth, before letting out a long stream of air.
As the water bender persisted on her path, he swivelled around slowly to track Katara's movements. When he wiped his forehead with the back of his arm, Katara sent ice spikes whizzing past his ears. Her movements were deliberately meant to motivate him, and never near enough to physically hurt him. But it felt too similar to the taunting he would endure from Azula. The pacing in circles around him, the bending that he couldn't parallel.
He sent a ball of flames towards her, which he blocked with a raised wall of impenetrable ice from the terrain below. It was clear she was in her element, and she knew how to defeat him. He was glad she wasn't his enemy. Not anymore. Not ever. He had to remind himself of that.
"True, I can see your effort," Katara relented, stopping in front of him so that her back was directed towards the ocean when before, her eyes had never left the water beyond. He had begun to feel dizzy, and he welcomed the stillness. "You reveal every detail of your attack to your opponents. The key is to be a blank slate, not giving away anything with a twitch of the finger or a shift to the left. Didn't any of your masters teach you that, at least?"
Zuko's cheeks burned bright. "They did," he muttered, "I just wasn't aware that I was doing it."
He hesitated, wondering how much he should reveal. When it seemed as though she wasn't going to prompt him with any more sudden attacks, he continued, "my father was more concerned with the flashier movements, which appear intimidating to foe. He thought it was a waste of time to learn the basics."
Katara nodded alongside his speech as if she had gathered as much. "That's where your faults are," she confirmed, blushing sheepishly when narrowed eyes were directed towards her. In explanation, she reasoned, "if there's no foundation, what can you build upon?"
Zuko pursed his lips together. He understood, but it embarrassed him to think that all these years, he could have improved so much without the stressful teachings of his tutors and encouragement. He had been secure in his bending -not great, but decent- only to be shot down by this girl who seemed to rival men two times her age.
He was one of the best swordsmen in the country no doubt, he favoured it to his bending for obvious reasons, but maybe he had subconsciously played a role in his ineptitude. Once he realized he could never compete with Azula, not really, perhaps he had stopped trying to improve with his fire. He had turned to another form of protection instead.
Katara, unaware of his inner monologue, seemed to ponder on an explanation. "Look at it this way," she finally spoke, motioning with her hands for him to stand closer.
He hadn't realized the several feet of space between them until it had been pointed out. Tentatively, he inched forward.
"When we're fighting, you can't predict what I'm about to do, right?"
"No," he sighed, somewhat defeated and bewildered, "I can't."
"That's good. You want to remain in neutral stances when possible. Sometimes, it can't be helped, and you have to take the initiative and run the risk of betraying your actions. But the trick is to be impossible to decipher with your moves and learn how to read the mistakes your opponents give out."
Katara demonstrated the stance, moving her feet apart so that they were level with her hips and bending low into her knees. Her arms held her hands up before her in position, palms facing inward. "I don't know how this would apply to firebending," she confessed, straightening out, "but I think this can be universal, or at least, converted to your bending style."
Hands on hips, she looked expectantly at Zuko. Rolling his eyes at her suddenly bossy demeanour, he followed the general idea of her stance but changed the placement of his hands to better suit firebending.
Backing up a bit, Katara mirrored him. "We're going to go again," she instructed, bouncing on the balls of her feet in anticipation, "try to find the weaknesses in my attack… if you can, that is."
Zuko smirked, rising to the challenge. The Fire Nation was competitive by nature, and he knew from experience that winning could be one of the most satisfactory feelings in the world.
"Let's dance," he taunted, raising an eyebrow. Katara nodded, a small smile tilting her lips upward. This time, Zuko would take her advice. This time, he wouldn't lose.
It was the evening, and Zuko found Katara once more. They had gone their separate ways once the sun had come clear up, relieving Katara to help with chores and for Zuko to attend meetings with his staff, who went on more about the temperatures and their frosted noses than the uneasy state of the country and their alliances. Though it was ultimately Katara's decision to make, the advisors had suggested that he gain the trust of her father as well, by offering aid to sweeten his favour. The Fire Lord himself recommended as much. It was proof that his father wanted him to succeed, to come back… right?
Katara stood on a curved, snowy bluff overlooking the churning water below, bending ice picks and proceeding to lance them towards the horizon. Even after hours during the morning of bending, the girl was unrelenting in her dedication to the practice.
It was something Zuko admired.
He had come up behind her unnoticed. She was too concentrated to notice his eyes on the way she moved back and forth, the water twinkling in the sunlight before it congealed and evaporated to mist. Though he hated to admit it, water was the most versatile of the elements. It seemed like there were a million possibilities. And she made them look so easy, so entirely effortless.
He never would have guessed that he would appreciate waterbending, but he did. It was so different from fire, but maybe that's why he was drawn to it. The way she wielded it; it was unlike the forceful thrusts of firebending fists. It was an art form.
"Are you… are you the avatar?"
His voice came out raspy and soft, but it managed to startle her from her trance. Her hands dropped as she spun to face him, her bending along with it.
Their eyes met, gold in blue, and at that moment, the atmosphere seemed to change between them. It became charged, otherworldly. Had Zuko accidentally stumbled upon the tribe's greatest kept secret of the generation? News like this would be too big to keep to himself, no matter the newly formed alliances with the tribe. It was his ticket home, to redemption.
After the beat of silence, Katara doubled over, tears of laughter streaming from her eyes in rampant streams. It seemed as though she had lost her ability to speak, only left with the basic function of laughing so hard, it appeared to be silent.
"Well, it was a valid question," Zuko grumbled, embarrassed by the conclusions he had so quickly jumped. The pouting statement only seemed to spur her on further. He felt the need to explain himself, to lessen the heat burning through his neck. Embarrassment seemed to happen a lot nowadays, now that his adolescent anger wasn't as present. "You're the only waterbender in the tribe, a powerful one at that, and the next element in the cycle is water so…"
Katara held a hand up gently to stop his ramblings. With a theatrical wiping of her tears, she calmed enough to speak. "No, I'm not," she answered definitively, ending all suspicion. Her tone was final and without hesitation, eliminating any possible concealment of a secret so large. Well, the guffawing had been quite an indicator as well.
"My parents did wonder for a while," she relented, pushing, and pulling her hands to create waves in the sea, "but I think I'd know by now if I were."
"So, where is the avatar then? Have you ever wondered what happened to him?"
He had heard many stories growing up about the avatar and the cycle, a legendary master of not one, but the four earthly elements, with the power to commune with the spirit world. There hadn't been any sign of one during the hundred years since his great-grandfather had commenced the war, and the Fire Nation had quelled any whispers of hope of his return amongst the people. Maybe an avatar within the Water Tribes had lived out the entirety of his or her life in secret, and the cycle had commenced anew in the Earth Kingdom.
"Of course I've wondered," Katara commented, dropping carefully onto the bluff's edge so she could dangle her legs over, and motioned for him to join her. He did, though he would never admit that he feared the perilous drop. The conversations weren't so jovial anymore.
"I don't think there's anyone in the world who hasn't. There's been a number of theories whispered among the adults here: the Avatar Aang still lives as an old man, having evaded the air genocide with his life, an Earth Kingdom child showing incredible aptitude and promise for being the saviour we deserve. There's even talk of the cycle ending…" she shuddered long and hard as if the possibility were all too frightening to comprehend. Katara rubbed her arms up and down her legs to simulate warmth.
"All I know is, he, she, they, are out there. I refuse to believe we'll never find the answer to what happened, and I choose to hope that one day, the avatar will return to save us all," she said, the conviction and strength of her words filling the air between them.
She sounded so sure, and Zuko didn't want to be the pessimist that took it away from her. But the thing was, he didn't know if her point of view was realistic.
He had learned about the air nomad genocide. Even as someone who had loved his country, he had always felt an unsettling feeling in his gut at the mention of it. It seemed like such a horrible thing for his ancestors to do, kill an entire race, but no one else seemed to think so. At least, not where he came from. So eventually, he had learned to quench his misgivings. There had to have been a purpose to it. The deaths of innocents couldn't have meant nothing…
The likely hood of the avatar surviving that… was slim. Even if he had escaped, it would have been difficult to hide their abilities from the other nations. That much power was hard to conceal. He had come to accept long ago that the mystery of the avatar would remain that: a mystery. To him, at least. There hadn't been a clue in a century.
But of course, he kept all of this to himself. Instead, he nodded along encouragingly, letting words fall to silence. They watched the evening colours bleed together in a kaleidoscope of vibrant hues, found rarely someplace else other than the sky. It reflected in their eyes, creating an illusion of hope.
Nose red and smile wide, Katara turned to face him. "We should be getting back, but…" She tilted her head to the side in question, earnestness seeping into her tone. "Would you like to have dinner with us?"
"You mean, your family?"
He felt a sudden pool of warmth in his stomach, and he knew it wasn't solely from the fading rays of sunshine. Being here, being with her, was changing him. He could feel the edges of his roughness fading away into something soft and whole. And that was only a week in her presence. He could only imagine who he'd become after a year. It was wonderful to have a friend; he knew that now.
"Yes! Bring your uncle too," Katara laughed, dragging him by his hand away from the edge of the bluff so that they could safely stand, before pulling him along in the direction of the village borders. "My family would love to have you. We're having sea prune stew tonight; my favourite."
He was slightly suspicious of this 'sea prune stew' that she had mentioned, but he was willing to adjust to the foreign food. For her company. For her family's company.
"That sounds lovely," he decided.
That night tucked safely into a corner of his quarters where the writing nook stood, Zuko struggled with what to write about. His father had expected reports of discovered 'Southern Tribe' secrets, but he hadn't found anything of worth. And furthermore, he wasn't sure if he even wanted to release anything anymore.
Zuko wasn't naïve, he knew his father was ruthless. In all his years at the palace, the prince had believed his father had been doing what was right for the country, for the world. That his ancestors were correct in commencing the war. The Fire Nation was convinced that the other citizens of the world were nothing more than conniving, ruthless savages, who would rather kill than give up the old ways. But Zuko knew now that it wasn't true. Or that, the war wasn't black and white. The grey area was as vast as the ocean he could see from his windows.
But if he didn't heed this father's request, was he betraying his country all over again. Was he becoming a traitor more and more every day, with the distance between him and his homeland spurring him on? Was he putting his feelings above the needs of his people? He wasn't a spy, but his father expected him to be.
The only thing he knew of note was the secret, Katara's secret. That there was a waterbender that still lived among the people of the South. His entire crew had seen it, so it wasn't as if he could deny it, but he didn't think he could inform the Fire Lord of this fact, whatever punishment might be thrown his way. It wasn't his secret to tell, and he wasn't sure of the dangers Katara would face if he were to spill it. They had just gained a semblance of trust; he wasn't about to break it.
In the morning, he would ask his sailors to keep the secret as well, though he was unsure of whether or not their loyalties to his father would win out in the end.
For now, the parchment of his scroll would remain blank, the black ink in the jar forgotten.
Comment and tell me your thoughts. Thank you all for reading! These last few chapters have ended up being very conversation/development based, which I hadn't really intended. For those of you who love more action scenes, I have a few planned for the next chapter, and further on in the story, of course.
Chapter 8: Tested
It's been so long since I've last updated! Within the next few weeks, I hope to update some more because of Christmas Break, and my school also transitioned into online learning for the next two weeks before the break because of COVID. Stay safe everyone and happy holidays if I don't get a chance to update until the new year!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
For the first time, Katara attacked first.
It wasn't something she was used to; the ebb and flow of water between her fingers always worked as a soothing mechanism, preventing an offensive approach during a fight, as was expected with waterbenders. They were never the ones to make the first move. But today, she sent her water out in a quick strike, barely shaking the composure of her opponent. She was testing him, testing his skill. Katara wanted to see him work for it.
Water to fire. Fire to water. In a direct attack, who would win? Who would persevere until the final blow? Water doused fire, fire evaporated water. They had finally met their match in each other. It would boil down ultimately to the pure strength of the opponent. This time, it would be Katara. She could feel it in the way her water seemed to flow and combine into the flames, dwindling the heat little by little despite Zuko's efforts. But soon enough, she knew he would overtake her in combat one day. At the thought, her lips quirked into a self-satisfied smile. He was fast improving; the raw power had always been inside him, nestled deep under layers of self-hate and lack of self-worth. Things were quickly changing now. She had taught him well.
Shooting her right hand out in a fluid strike, rotating the left back for momentum, the water followed her command. She had the advantage, and they both knew it. The south was her domain and her element surrounded them. Katara could feel it pulsating in the air, curling into the crevices of her whale skin boots, and encompassing her with strength. The ice she wielded whipped towards him at the speed of light.
He dodged, just barely, the powerful shards grazing his right cheek. She froze slightly at the sight of blood trickling down her cheek, ready to apologize, but wasn't given the chance to. He retaliated with punches of fire, embers shooting from his fists, illuminating the dawn with bursts of orange and red-hued light.
Katara reared back from the heat, backing up in quick strides. She raised walls of water before her like a shield, blocking Zuko's attempts to break through the barrier. Despite this, he was steadily advancing. Determination etched his brow, and his lips were slowly beginning to quirk in a confident grin. He was so sure he was winning, wasn't he? She would turn the tides on him. Literally.
Zuko's eyes widened in anticipation for her next move. It seemed as though it were happening in slow motion. The readying of her stance, the way her palms pushed forward, in his direction. Their eyes met for a split second, blue melding with gold before a wave threw him back.
He yelped embarrassingly, flinging back from the force, his fire dousing. He jumped quickly into a crouched position, shaking off the pain in his shoulders, water flying from his hair in the process. "I was expecting that," he relented, nodding his head begrudgingly. "But you haven't won yet."
Powerful flames erupted from his closed fists, growing wilder and more ferocious in his resolve to best her. He had to keep reminding himself that they weren't enemies, that it was training practice. The tension of the spar felt electric, almost real. It was invigorating.
Before the fire reached her, Katara pushed back with another wave. Though this time, it was different. The water wrapped around him in a loving, suffocating embrace. Katara swayed her arms back and forth in rapid tempo, thickening the water into a ball of ice that encircled him like an igloo-shaped cage.
She was confident she had won. Their previous matches had ended similarly before. But just as she was letting her guard down, about to walk forward and unmelt the ice, he surprised her. Her heart raced as the ice started to glow white, before transforming into burning orange. In amazement, she watched an explosion of gleaming flames erupt, sending ice flying in all directions. From it, Zuko walked forward as fire reigned down around him.
Taking advantage of her gaping wonder, he shot bursts from his hands and feet, swinging from all directions rather than a direct-forward hit like he previously had. It swirled around her, close enough to singe her hair if he wanted to. He didn't. But he also knew she would berate him for going easy. It wasn't like she was doing the same. Besides, she could take care of herself.
Though her strength was waning physically, her mind was racing with energy. The past few weeks had been the most exciting and fun she'd had in a long time. No longer was her life so monotonous. Her days had purpose.
And it was to hand this preppy prince's ass to him on a plate.
As much as she wanted to let Zuko win, she knew it wouldn't be a true victory. She couldn't bear to see his shoulders slump in the realization that she had pulled back, hadn't given her all. So, she did.
In the final attack, she pulled water from the ground and the atmosphere, channelling it towards him. He flew backwards, the water wrapping around his legs and torso before it pinned him to the base of the cliffs behind him. It was easily ten feet back from where he had stood.
From her distance away, she could see Zuko sigh in defeat, raising his hands in surrender.
Panting, Katara broke into a wild grin, walking towards him while trying to fight off the dizziness she felt. "You're improving, you know. Don't let the fact that I keep beating you throw you off, okay?"
She had bet him again like she expected she would, but it was like he was unaware of the incredible power he truly possessed. Katara suspected that the only reason her scoreboard was increasing was due to the fact that they stood on her turf. In any other setting, the Earth Kingdom or god forbid, the Fire Nation, she knew the playing field would be equal. The scales would tip. There, he would have won the spar. Almost definitely.
She stood before him now, hands on her hips, and leaned in so their faces were a hair width apart. "Besides, you didn't think it would be that easy to beat me, did you?" she joked playfully. She went to unfreeze the ice holding him in place but before she could, he beat her to it.
Surprising her for the second time that day, he reversed the roles. Without her notice, he had steamed himself free from the hold. In a flash, Katara found herself pressed against the cold cliff walls, where Zuko had been mere seconds before, her wrists pinned under his firm grip.
She squeaked in protest, cheeks inflamed from the injustice of it all (and the heat of his hands on hers, but nevermind that…). "That's not fair; I obviously won. You forfeited," she furrowed her brows in mock anger, looking up at him with narrowed eyes and a downturned mouth.
He tilted his head, studying her. He had the nerve to smile, laugh even. "When did I ever say I would fight fair?" he breathed.
Katara gulped, unsure of where he was headed. It seemed as though her wrists were his captives, and he wasn't about to let them go anytime soon. Instead, they continued to look at each other. His gaze pierced her, bold and ablaze, though slightly puzzled. As if he were attempting to figure something out. What, she didn't know.
When footsteps sounded behind them, they sprang apart.
Sokka cleared his throat in a theatrical manner, stomping his boots loudly as if to signify his approaching presence. Iroh trailed behind the young man with a white porcelain pot filled with hot tea, looking as content as ever. Katara focused on her brother with a raised brow, a silent question as to why he was here. Not that she was ungrateful of his interruption; the air… the atmosphere had suddenly changed, and she needed time to dissect it in detail that night. For now, she was clear to keep her eyes on the upcoming visitors.
"Good day, fair sister!" he yelled across the clearing, startling the penguins on a nearby ridge. They squawked and teetered away at his arrival, which resembled a pomp king serenading his peasants. Katara gritted her teeth in annoyance, which Sokka took obvious pleasure in. "I was interested in what you two have been up to these past few weeks. Such secrecy. Iroh here and I decided to watch what all the fuss was about."
Iroh grinned, his eyes closing in delight, as he held the teapot high in the air. "I brought refreshments," he declared.
Instead of acknowledging her brother with a response, she gladly took the pot from Iroh, letting the heat warm her frigid hands. "Thank you," she said sincerely, nodding her head in a brief bow, "I'm parched." With his help, she managed to pour tea into two cups: one for her, and one for Zuko, which she handed to him briskly, jolting when their hands made contact for the briefest of moments. What was wrong with her?
"You know," Iroh began, kneeling down onto the cold earth as if it were a fur rug. The rest of the young adults followed suit. "I studied water bending techniques for a period of time."
Katara was surprised by this, eyebrows raising. Her curiosity was expressed without words.
"The elements are greatly connected," Iroh explained, pulling a chopstick from his robe to draw in the snow. Swirls, straight angles, spiralling circles, until an image of the four elements were visible before the four of them. Water, earth, fire, air. The foundation of their whole society. Of peace. Of beauty.
"Though the avatar is the only individual powerful enough to channel the four spirits of the elements, like a conduit, it does not mean we are simply separate from one another." He drew a circle around the four symbols, placing them together on the inside. "We are cut from different sides of the same cloth. Techniques from one bending can be applied to another with the right alterations."
Katara gaped in awe. In all her years of studying bending, of trying to succeed, she had never seen it in quite a way. "Of course!" she expressed, staring intently from Iroh to Sokka to Zuko, then back at the image displayed before her. "All bending originates from the world, from us. It's similar but different. To learn one opens the possibility to learn from them all!"
"Great," Zuko muttered, his eyebrows furrowed in confusion, "now you're speaking in riddles too."
Katara observed that her brother was just as lost. She shook her head to try to rid her excitement. Only Iroh had a twinkle in his eye. She understood him completely. It was as if she had unlocked a secret of the universe, and she would attempt to use this to her advantage in the future. There was so much to learn from airbending, earthbending… even firebending.
"I admit, I didn't make my way down here just because I was curious." Iroh set his empty cup onto the ground and stood, making his way into the clearing as the others watched. He spread his arms wide when he reached his destination ten feet away. "I came to spar."
From beside her, Zuko inhaled and exhaled a deep, shaky breath, before standing to face his uncle. He bowed to his elder. "I accept," he said, his voice strong. Though it was clear he was nervous, he didn't waver once.
Though Iroh smiled, he shook his head. "You misunderstood me, nephew." He gestured towards Katara, who still sat with her tea by Zuko's feet.
"I came to battle her," he clarified.
Zuko wasn't a dishonest person. So when his uncle rejected him to spar with Katara instead, he had to admit that it stung. He had been working for the past several weeks in the chance to improve. He thought that today had been the day he would finally impress Uncle with his newfound skill. It would have to wait a little longer, he supposed.
He slumped back down into his previous seating position, trying to hide his mixed emotions as Katara gave him an apologetic look. She made her way towards his uncle.
It was incredible to watch. Zuko knew that Katara was an amazing bender, no doubt about it, but it wasn't until he saw her fight against a master like herself that he started to see the full extent of her capability. It was astonishing to him. A girl who grew up with little resource or professional training, able to compete toe-to-toe with masters like his uncle, who served years in the army and had every firebending secret at his disposal. He felt inspired. To try harder. So that one day, he could stand side by side with them both. By her side. As equals.
"I always knew that Katara was strong," Sokka divulged, watching every movement of the fight before them as if it were a dance. He dodged and ducked along with his sister, echoing her motions with his own, silently cheering her on. Usually, during their sword fighting lessons, he was always yelling and screaming his support. But today, the water tribe man watched in concentration. "She took care of me and our family after our mother passed. But I had no idea she was this amazing. I… I guess I shouldn't have underestimated her, huh?"
They watched as she parried a strike, counterattacking with the redistribution of fire. A whip of icy air pushed the flames away from her. Towards Iroh.
Too slow to respond, the flames and shards of ice engulfed him. With a startled yelp, he fell onto his behind, his arms reflexively blocking his face. The ice was sharp enough to cut ribbons into his skin.
In a flash, Zuko had sped to his uncle's side in a panic, frantically checking the wounds in his arms and assessing the damage. He shouldn't have let this happen. Looking down at the burns and cuts covering his uncle's face and arms, he felt so incredibly guilty. It was as though he was the one experiencing the pain. As if he had been the one to inflict it.
Stupid old man, Zuko scolded in his head, Uncle wasn't as spry as he remembered himself to be.
"I'm so sorry!" Katara cried out in alarm.
Though his back was turned away from her, he could hear the remorse in her voice. The way the ends of her sentences quivered. He knew it had been an accident. But as she drew closer, his features grew colder and colder.
"Let me help," she pleaded, "please, I can heal him…"
Zuko turned to face her rapidly. "Don't touch him!" he shouted, shooting his hand towards the ground in a sweeping motion. Fire spewed from his fingertips, melting the snow in a wide diameter around him and his uncle. Katara quickly halted in her strides and instead, backstepped to escape the flames. The last tinges of the embers kissed the sky above before vanishing. The heat scorched the ice below, revealing wisps of straw-coloured hair grass below, black from burn.
Time halted. Shock and betrayal and pain, so much pain, created a chasm between them. They were frozen in their positions, not daring to move. Katara stood, mouth agape, with hurt and fear in her eyes. No one had ever looked at him in that way before. Not before he had come to the south and met her. He never wanted to see that same look directed at him again.
"Look who doesn't trust who now," she commented, her voice void of emotion. Monotoned.
Zuko's heart sped up rapidly. The truth was revealed about him. He was impulsive, hotheaded. He was stubborn. Which was why he couldn't back down. So, his eyes stayed narrowed upon hers, too prideful to apologize. His uncle was still hurt before him. It hadn't been because of him. It had been because of her.
His message was perfectly clear. Katara clenched her jaw.
"Whoa," Sokka warned, stepping between the two with arms outstretched in each direction. He frowned as he looked down at Zuko, who was helping his uncle regain his balance as he was pulled from laying to sitting, then standing. "Why don't you go back to your ship? Let Iroh get some rest."
"Yeah, we will," Zuko muttered, keeping an arm firmly around the older man's shoulders. Iroh was quiet. He was never usually quiet. Something was wrong.
Katara tried to meet his eyes. He could see that from the corner of his vision. But selfishly, childishly, he didn't return them. He didn't know if he could emotionally bear it, even if he physically did. It didn't mean that his heart didn't ache as he saw her eyes well up.
He turned away from the siblings, back in the direction of his ship. His physician would know what to do. He heard the heavy pounding of angry footsteps behind him as they stormed off in the opposite direction: a waterbender with fire boiling in her blood.
Katara's boots squelched into slushing ice and snow as she moved farther away from the scene, her brother's footsteps running hurriedly behind her in a chance to catch up. Her breath came from her nostrils in angry, white puffs. The tears in her eyes froze over.
"I'm so… angry, right now, Sokka!" she exclaimed, throwing her hands in the air in frustration. "Did you see what just happened?"
"At who, though?"
"Zuko," she responded immediately, but she hesitated afterward, knowing it wasn't entirely true. "Myself? I don't know!"
She stomped a foot on the ground like a petulant child, breaking free chunks of ice satisfying under her heel. Arms crossed, she looked at her brother expectantly for input. She was surprised he hadn't said anything witty yet.
"What Zuko did wasn't cool, but don't you think you're both overreacting?"
Katara glared at her brother. "How am I overreacting? I hurt that sweet old man and when I offered to heal him, His Royal Highness kept me contained with his fire," she sneered.
"Okay…" Sokka consented, elongating the word as if mulling over what she had said. "But why do you think he acted that way?"
She huffed in annoyance. Did her brother want her to relieve the betrayal? "Because he obviously doesn't trust me, even after I put my trust blindly in him."
Sokka came towards her before she could stop him, placing both hands on her upper arms to shake her. She struggled to free herself, but he held her firmly. He was staring at her intently as if she was meant to understand something simply from the vigorous shake he had bestowed upon her. When it was clear she was lost, he said, "no, but that's not it, Katara. You didn't see him react, but I did. He was scared."
"Scared?" Katara said incredulously, finally shaking her brother's grip off. She felt an ache deep in her chest at the words. "Of me?"
Sokka's shoulders slumped as he ran a hand over his face as if frustrated by her stupidity. Katara was too confused to take offence. "He was scared that his uncle was hurt, Katara. It's clear that they love each other very much. Iroh might be the only relative who truly cares for him since it doesn't seem like the others do."
Finally, understanding dawned on her. She inhaled deeply, her breath coming in uneven and wheezing. "He was scared that his uncle was hurt," she repeated in a whisper. "Of course. I'm such an idiot."
"Yes," Sokka said simply, to which she returned a glare at him with hands on her hips.
"Everything happened so fast," she muttered, "I missed that completely."
Sokka patted her on the back, a quick one-two. "Yeah, me too."
She linked her arm into his and began to drag themselves towards the village entrance, which was only several paces away. Their father most likely had tasks for them to complete. Meaningless motion might be good to clear her head, and maybe let the air cool between her and the prince.
"When did you become so insightful?" Katara wondered in bewilderment, looking at her older brother with new eyes. He was still a goofy kid to her, but he had grown into himself. She had always known he would become the future Chief, after her father, but now, she could distinctly picture it.
He grinned in self-satisfaction. "Maturity must come with age," he speculated smugly. "I have been on this earth for two decades, you know."
"No, that's not it…" Katara grimaced jokingly. "I think that you're actually smart sometimes when you want to be."
Sokka raised an eyebrow. "I can't tell if this was meant to be a compliment or an insult… but I'll take it."
Zuko sat at the edge of his uncle's mattress, his head held firmly between his two palms, as the older man slept soundly.
When they had first arrived back at the ship, he'd risen a panic out of everyone, shouting and worrying and calling for the doctor to meet him. The staff thought Iroh had been gravely injured. It wasn't until they saw the man wave off his nephew's stubborn grip that they knew the prince was overreacting on his part, though he begged to differ.
The doctor blended an herbal medicinal tea for Iroh, who delightedly drank it, and applied salves to the burns to improve healing and stave off infection. The potent smell of the salve brought flashbacks to when Zuko had first been scarred (had it only been a year ago?), the heavy, chilled mixture coating his face in thick layers, soothing the constant heat of the marred skin. He had turned his head away as the doctor used it.
Now, his uncle was asleep, not before laughing at his frowning expression with an amused look. The silence from earlier had worn off quickly after the shock had ebbed. He could tell his uncle was just fine if he still found the chance to tease him…
"I love you, my nephew, and I appreciate your protectiveness. But it was not intentional, was it?" he had reasoned, laying a hand on the young man's shoulder. The doctor bowed to them both, giving some last words of advice, before making his exit.
When they were alone again, Zuko begrudgingly responded, "no, I know that…"
"And I am fine. See?" the former general gestured to himself and his bandaged forearms with a cheeky grin. "This old man cannot be taken down so easily."
"I know that well enough, Uncle." Zuko rolled his eyes dramatically, trying to contain a grin of his own that was creeping up. Though he would never admit it to anyone -anyone- his kind-hearted relative's happiness was contagious. He really did seem fine; nothing more than minor scrapes at best. Zuko suddenly felt his reactions towards Katara earlier had been quite foolish, even if his uncle had been hurt.
"Then you shouldn't be so angry, Prince Zuko." The older man's face changed into a solemnly serious expression. "Let accidents be forgiven, yes?"
"I was harsh earlier," Zuko confided, cringing at the unpleasant memory from earlier. "I don't know if she'd be willing to talk to me so soon again."
Iroh sighed, lifting his cup to take another sip of medicinal tea… and realizing there was none left. Disgruntled, he huffed his disapproval and set it back onto the table beside the bed. "My Zuko, from what I've observed since we've arrived, Katara is stubborn, much like you."
Zuko's eyes narrowed at the quip. But he knew it was true.
"I also know that it's in Katara's nature to forgive. After she has calmed down, she will understand your reasoning. Being fiercely protective of family is something she understands."
The young prince of fire left his uncle to rest in the bed chambers, slowly making his way above deck to the fresh, icy air above. He was startled to find the water tribe girl waiting for him. She stood against the rails, twiddling her thumbs together nervously, as she stared off towards the water. The rest of the crew were eyeing her with curiosity. Though they had seen her around plenty of times throughout the past couple of months, today was the first day she had ever ventured aboard. She seemed entirely unaware of the ship's interest in her. Even his at this very moment.
He cleared his throat, signalling his presence to her. Her mind had seemed to be elsewhere.
She spun towards him, clearly caught off guard. Katara's lips began to tilt up into a smile, but it slowly fell in remembrance. She eyed him warily, eyes glossy and expression faltering. "Is he… is Iroh alright? Is he hurt?"
Slowly, Zuko came to stand by the railing as well, though there were several feet of distance between them. He nodded, "yes, he's fine. A few cuts, nothing that won't heal within a week or so."
Katara's face filled with relief. She inhaled and exhaled deeply as if beginning to breathe again after so long without. "I felt so guilty," she stammered, clasping her hands together so tight it looked painful. "I really didn't mean to. I forgot that he hadn't been training with us every day since he was so skilled. I should have gone easier on him."
"No," Zuko shook his head. "My uncle would have hated that. I should be the one to apologize. I shouldn't have had an outburst like that, I overreacted."
"No!" Katara hushed him adamantly. "You were only protecting your family; I shouldn't have gotten upset over that."
"I shot fire at you to keep you back. It wasn't in control. It could have burned you," he said ashamedly, looking down at his hands, which were gloved in red fabric. "Fire is the element of destruction. Nothing good comes from such violence."
Katara now stood before him and took his gloved hands into hers. This caused him to look up from his hands and into her eyes, which were earnest and full of understanding. He was so unused to this that it made his breath stop in his throat.
"I thought about fire in that perspective for a long time. So much pain and suffering from war, leaving nothing but ash in its wake. But I realized that all the elements are connected and necessary for life," she said, squeezing his hands as she became more enthused. "Couldn't you argue that this applies to fire too? Without it, there is no warmth, no sun, no determination, or passion." She cleared her throat, dropping her gaze to their interconnected hands. "There's good in everything, there has to be," she whispered.
She dropped their joined hands awkwardly, looking behind his shoulder towards the descending staircase. "Is Iroh awake?" Katara asked, the subject changing abruptly. "I'd like to apologize to him as well, see how he's doing."
"He's not," Zuko told her, "but you're welcome to wait for him here."
A frosty stream of air blew tendrils of hair from his face, causing him to shiver involuntarily. He pulled his red cloak tighter around him, though it still seemed as if to have no effect. It felt so thin in comparison to the water tribe ones, lined with fur and equipped for endless winter and night. The Fire Nation really didn't understand how the poles lived at all.
"You know," he began hesitantly, unsure of how she'd respond. "I think there is so much miscommunication between us because there are things about one another that we don't know. We may understand each other, but not necessarily how we grew up and the experiences that came with them, our culture, our countries, the shared history between them. I know nothing of the Southern Water Tribe, and you the Fire Nation. But these are key parts of ourselves, don't you think?"
Katara nodded in agreement, listening to him attentively. "It's true," she confirmed. "A lot of my misgivings about the Fire Nation stem from my lack of understanding about how the country works. It seems like nothing more than a myth to me." She tilted her head in thought. "How do you propose we change that?"
Zuko allowed himself to smile. "I think I have an idea," he said.
Writing this hurt me a little bit because I love Iroh! I wanted to replicate the scene from avatar into my story because I feel as though it was a pivotal moment in zutara's relationship throughout the show. The next chapter will have some revelations...
Chapter 9: Frozen in Time
It has been so long since I last updated, and I deeply apologize. I hope everyone's new year has been going well. This chapter is heavy and centers on the death of a parent, loss and the accompanying feelings. I completely understand if you feel as though you may need to skip over, I just wanted to put out some trigger warnings. Thank you so much for being patient :)
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Katara was having a bad hair day.
She groaned in annoyance at her pearl hairpiece, spewing malcontented words at the mirror as she attempted to secure her hair with the sharp points of the pin. How was she supposed to impress anyone with lopsided locks? It was tempting to give up, sitting on the floor surrounded by loose strands of hair and broken combs. She'd been gifted with an unruly thick mane, something she could normally tuck back into a braid. But today, she couldn't. It was necessary to look presentable before a member of the royal staff.
The lessons were set up by Zuko, shortly after their discussion on the ship deck. They would take turns learning about one another's country and culture in an attempt to lessen miscommunication.
It was a step in the right direction, though Katara was hesitant. What would she be learning today, from a Fire Nation teacher at that? The question plagued her thoughts for the rest of her morning routine.
At noon, she dejectedly gave up on her complicated hairstyle (not even the gentle hands of her grandmother could save it) and made her way hesitantly to the town hall to meet with Teacher Akira in her best parka, made with a rich dyed blue fabric and the sleekest fur lining, her boots crafted from smooth leather. The woman who greeted her was every bit as calculating and strict as she had expected.
"The Water Tribe Princess," Teacher Akira spoke, her voice brisk and rattling within her throat like an oncoming sickness. The words fell from her lips in scrutiny, in scorn, unlike how the prince said it at all: with curiosity, with innate wonder (though she tried to shake this away). Katara bowed to her graciously, feeling heat rise into her cheeks as she heard a heaving sigh and clucks of disapproval.
The woman's expression had turned sour, causing her face to wrinkle like rice paper. The scowl made her yellow eyes even more unnerving and cat-like. She walked around Katara's bowing form in a slow circle, swiftly using her closed, embroidered silk fan to correct posture. A quick jab in the stomach, a resounding pat on the shoulder blade, then chest. The minutes passed as she continued to hold the position, the older woman content in making her hold her bow. Katara bit her tongue.
"Release, girl, and come sit before the parchment."
The smell of fresh ink, the sound of rusting 100-year-old paper, the delicate brushstrokes of the characters before her: so foreign yet nostalgic to her in a way she couldn't describe. It was the taste of longing fulfilled. Impossible fantasies turned reality. How she craved to see the world beyond the ice walls of her home, with a world at peace instead of war. Would she ever see such a thing?
The stinging blow of a closed fan against her knuckles brought her back to the present, where Teacher Akira glared with the stern ferocity of a tiger. The fan just as quickly drew her attention again, pointing to the sprawling text before her, elaborate in its script. It was almost impossible for her to read, fancy as it was. Luckily for her, the woman started to lecture.
"One hundred years ago," she began, a high and mighty air to her enactment. "Our great Fire Lord Sozin took it upon himself to create glorious change, seeking prosperity and power for the humble Fire Nation citizens. The other nations were base and animal; Sozin took pity and sought to aid them as well, for the gods would reward such kindness."
Teacher Akira painstakingly ignored the questioning glances Katara shot her way, eyebrows furrowed with growing horror and anger at what she was hearing.
"When the Day of Black Sun arose, the comet flying high, Sozin channelled such power for the benefit of the world. In using the eternal sky fire, he vanquished the avatar's opposing forces and began the long and brutal trek to a better future. The other nations resisted such gracious thoughtfulness, preferring instead to start a war, which has therefore lasted a hundred years."
The blood in Katara's veins started to boil, hot and firey and not like a water bender at all. It was a personality of fire, as ironic as it was, passionate and impulsive and seething. Her nostrils flared; her jaw clenched. Her feet began incessant tapping, wearing away at the ice beneath her. If she didn't reign her temper soon, the building would bend to her will and collapse into shards of ice around them. She tried to block it out, but the words kept on coming. Coming and coming and coming.
"Our honourable Lords after Sozin: his son, Azulon, and his son thereafter, Ozai, have fought valiantly, dedicating themselves to the war efforts and attempting to create a peaceful and beneficial society for all. Though the other nations are hesitant at the prospect of adopting our ways of life, I have the utmost confidence that soon-to-be Fire Lord Zuko…"
That was the last straw. Katara snapped.
Katara was raised on stories. On the rasping whisper of the elders above the crackling hearth in the centre square, huddled next to her brother in furs as they painted pictures in the night sky with their words. They fabricated brimstone from snow and hatred from sneers. She'd formed her opinions based on the knowledge of others and today, she had prepared herself to learn the truth, whatever it may be. She wanted to learn. She yearned for it.
But something about this felt inherently wrong. Though Katara knew little of the outside world from lack of experience, the words Teacher Akira shaped left a raging monster in her throat, angry and hot and burning with unspoken fury. A part of herself hardened, the innocent part at the core of her heart who wanted to believe the best in people. That people could be remorseful for their sins. That nations would choose peace and forgiveness. But even after one hundred years of destruction and death, the Fire Nation wished to pursue their path of war. They still believed they were right.
She couldn't take it anymore.
Katara shot from her chair, her hands finding the table before her with a loud, echoing slap, palms pressed firmly against the bone-carved surface. She didn't want to be angry, didn't want to stoop to their level, but she felt the emotion bubbling up nonetheless. She didn't think her father would take kindly to her disrupting the teachings of a master, especially one tasked by Prince Zuko himself, but he would surely understand once she explained her reasoning. She knew her mother would have.
"That's wrong!" she cried, pointing to the scrolls of gibberish before her. Lies yellowed with age did not make them any more true. "The Fire Nation isn't saving us. They're killing us!"
Fire danced in the older woman's eyes, her mouth pulled back in a defensive sneer as if she couldn't believe the vermin before her in the form of a water tribe peasant.
"Watch your mouth, girl," she warned, speaking carefully as if to a petulant child. "Do not speak of things you do not understand."
Katara scoffed, emboldened by the fact that she had gotten under the woman's hard, scaled skin. "I could say the same for you! Do not make out your Lord to be a saviour when he was the cause of destruction to begin with."
Teacher Akira marched around to the other side of the table and leaned in so close to Katara's face that she could spell the mint tea peppering her breath. Katara would not bow down in fear, no matter how much this woman wished it. She stood for what she believed in, and she always would.
"The prince will hear of this," the older fire woman smirked, raising her eyebrow in victory. As if it would have any effect on Katara (it didn't… not really). The words would be twisted and untruthful. Zuko would see right through them… would he?
Teacher Akira stepped back, satisfied with the anxiety and doubt plaguing the girl before her. No matter how much Katara tried to hide it, she was worried. Would he think her unreasonable? Why did she even care what he thought anyway?
To escape the looks of success the middle-aged Fire Nation woman threw her way like daggers, Katara turned abruptly, clattering her chair to the floor. In haste, she stormed out into the windy morning as if the devil himself were on her heels. Perhaps he was, in the form of history.
When he was released from his morning meeting, Zuko found her by the water, like he always did. It was as if she were born from legends of water spirits and goddesses, who danced in the tides and commanded the waves with a single finger. Her element seemed to be a part of her, more than his ever was, as if she couldn't bear to be parted from the ocean. He wished he could feel it too.
She didn't notice his arrival until he was a few paces away, when she turned with muted eyes as grey as the churning sea. Something felt… off. It was the way her jaw was set, the look on her face. As if all familiarity was gone, replaced with the cold reluctance of their first meeting. The weeks of friendship erased in a single morning.
Without saying a word, she raised her eyebrows expectantly, the water under her control splashing back onto the ground with lack of care.
When he made no move to say anything, confused by the sudden distance in her eyes, Katara looked at him tiredly before coming to a decision.
"Let me show you something," she said.
They walked past the borders of the village into the vast Antarctic desert, their clothes no coverage against the brutal winds that pounded from all directions. Throughout his time in the south, he had seen his fair share of differences in weather, though today it felt especially temperamental. The cold bit through his boots to reach his toes; the frost stung his face, making his scar dry and irritated. Every time he breathed in, his body felt heavy and slow, begging him to run home to the comfort of warmth. But Katara didn't seem to notice at all, determined to reach a specific destination in a wasteland of ice. Just as Zuko was beginning to suspect ulterior motives at play, they reached the peak of the slope and a hundred paces before them stood…
What was that?
It jutted from its throne of ice, raised high into the air with hardened spikes that impaled its structured body. It stood looming before them, even though they stood a distance away, like an encroaching dark presence on the land. Grey and metallic and harshly unnatural in a landscape of blue tones. He could see all the compartments of the object clearly, but it wasn't until he saw the flag that he came to the realization. Emblazed black fire on red fabric. It was a Fire Navy vessel shipwreck. Brows frowning in confusion and curiosity, he began to decline the slope to get a closer look before fingers enclosed sharply around his left arm, stopping him in his downward tracks.
Though Katara wasn't looking at him, he could see the fear and deep sadness in her eyes, directed at the ghost ship before them. Her hand continued to grip his arm as if terrified he would move any closer. He wished to inspect it up close, to run his finger along the ridges and cracks in an attempt to learn its history. He sat down in the snow instead. Katara followed with a grateful sigh, though she made no move to explain her reasoning. She didn't need to.
The sun broke from the clouds, pale white shining towards them. The shadow of the vessel reached its clawed hands towards them, gnarled black and impending as death. He shuddered involuntarily as the tip kissed the edge of the slope they rested upon.
He broke the silence with his questions, unable to keep it contained any longer (he hated the feeling of not knowing), though his voice seemed loud and harsh against the quiet. "What is that?" he wondered plainly.
But they both knew what it was. A reminder of history better left forgotten, yet never could be. A ship that didn't belong and yet, here it stood before them. In retrospect, the vessel was standard and quite small compared to the newer models he had seen in the military camps' docks, but the sight of one here felt… wrong somehow. He knew they were meant for war, cutting through the seas below with the swift efficiency of blades against flesh, but the real world was new to him. The art of war had never captured him the way it had Azula. His eyes had never flickered with longing for pillaging and destruction and power, never wished for the feeling of cloying blood in his hands. The world beyond the imperial walls was a stark contrast to what he had imagined. What had he been thinking; that war was all turtle ducks and tea parties and that there were no casualties? Reading about the 100-Year War in a rusted scroll was a lot different than hearing experiences from the other side.
Katara knew that he understood the obvious. A Fire Nation shipwreck. It was as clear as the blue clips in her hair, or the scar on his face. But she wasn't surprised that the Fire Nation kept it hidden, kept the bloodshed of her people a secret from everyone but the people who ordered it. The Fire Lords of the past and present wanted the citizens to believe the rest of the world were willing participants in the war, that their great nation was conquering slowly yet surely. Katara was only happy to prove them wrong.
"It's from one of the first raids. The invasions started when my grandmother was a young woman," she explained, pulling her legs into her chest in a hug, resting her chin on her knees as she continued to stare at the ship.
It had been there all her life, for as long as most of the village had lived. They had never been able to escape the haunted-like quality of the ship's graveyard. It crept into the crevices of their igloo walls, as thin as mist and thick as smog, choking the citizens with twisted reminders that any day, it could happen again. They all remembered the last time, didn't they? The older kids had used to tell her ghost stories in attempts to scare her, of bloodied women wandering around the decks and of mysterious, eery singing at night. She was warned to never go near the wreck because of the potential for traps and flares.
She had stuck to this promise. Even after her mother's death, when Katara had begged the spirits nightly for answers to her questions, screaming into the night until her throat was raw from tears, she had never wandered beyond the edge of this very slope. Clues to where the waterbenders were taken could have been hidden inside those very walls, what happened to them, yet she never dared. Katara knew she never would. Deep down, she was scared. Despite her tough façade, the prospect of her enemies still terrified her.
"Raids," Zuko said, not a question but a statement. His eyebrows lifted in slight recognition. "I vaguely remember hearing about those. For resources, right?"
It took everything in Katara not to scoff, to laugh out loud at the question. She held it back, not wanting the bitterness of her feelings to cloud her friendship with this son of flames. He was the enemy, one of them, but he was different in so many ways.
She sighed heavily, determined to present her point of view. Determined to make him see. "Is that what you were taught?" she muses, adding levity to the crisp air with a laugh. It sounded too sharp, even to her. "What resources do we have that are valuable to you, the nation with everything? Furred animals and blubber? Ice that melts the moment it reaches your borders?"
Her voice isn't accusatory, but it doesn't stop the blush filling the tips of Zuko's ears. "Oh," he stammered, "well… I guess you have a point."
The sight of her friend beet red and caught off guard would have restored her smile any other day (awkward Zuko was the best Zuko, though he rarely agreed) but her expression sobered. Subsequently, so did his, as if in anticipation of a reveal.
"They weren't hunting whale seals," she told him, looking down at the palms of her hands, riddled with veins and lifelines. Hands that used to be unblemished with blisters and rough edges. That used to be pure and free from blood. "They were hunting waterbenders."
The notion sprung tears into the corners of her eyes. Her throat felt scratchy and dry. Every time she found herself trying to talk about it, that moment, even just in passing, she felt as though her lungs would give out. She wanted to believe that she had moved on, but it was impossible when the war was still raging, when people were still dying, and when the shadow of her ancestors' deaths loomed before her now.
"I'm sorry, Katara. I didn't know."
"No, I didn't think you would."
Katara didn't want to break down now, not when she was trying to finally talk to someone new, someone who wasn't there. Someone who was willing to listen.
"I…" Katara started before her voice went hoarse.
She hadn't expected this: the shivering of her shoulders, the shaking of her hands. The way she couldn't meet Zuko's eyes, who were confused and worried and shocked. Keeping her eyes trained on the shipwreck in the distance, she hardened her jaw. The only way she would be able to be strong was through hatred and anger. But every time she slipped into those emotions, she was scared that her past self would never resurface. That the feelings of loss and revenge would overtake her.
Zuko was silent next to her, understanding the gravity of the situation without her even having to utter a syllable. They understood each other through pain, through loss, though it appeared to be different on the surface. Without a word, she took his hand into hers, feeling the rough calluses on his palm. To try and ground herself. Though her eyes still found trouble meeting his.
"I'm the last waterbender of the Southern Water Tribe. This is by no accident." Deep breath. "The raids started a long time ago, unpredictable and ferocious. Fire Lord Sozin feared a rebellion and we were easier to infiltrate than the North. They would round up all the waterbenders to cart away as prisoners. The last raid was ten years ago."
There they sat. Head-to-head, shoulder to shoulder, hand in hand. She never would have guessed that a boy she hated merely a few months ago would be the one to hold her together in her darkest moments. Life was strange that way.
"That was the first time I felt real fear. The kind that leaves you paralyzed to the bone." A chill kissed the length of her spine, wrapping its touch around her neck and back, making escape impossible. "I still dream about it, even now. Is that bad?"
She looked to him for reassurance; she genuinely wanted to know. Was there something wrong with her? Why couldn't she have "gotten over" it now as everyone expected? Why did it still plague her every step?
"No, it's not." He shook his head softly. "If it is, then I guess we both have problems." As if on instinct, his hand came up to his burn scar, running along the rough ridges in remembrance.
Katara didn't know the story behind it. She was sure that he never willingly talked about it, he didn't seem like the type of person to open up easily. Was it a birthmark or an accident… or something else entirely? Though she was curious to know, she wouldn't pry. Today wasn't the day to open those wounds.
"Sokka and I were throwing snowballs around outside, a perfectly normal day. But suddenly, flakes started to fall from the sky. They weren't soft and white and cold to the touch. They were black. They burned. It was ash."
She lifted her hand to the sky as if mimicking her actions ten years ago, catching a snowflake in her soft palm. Her hand clenched into a fist around the memory.
"I ran to find my mother and found her on the ground before him. I was so scared, but my mother told me to leave and find my dad, that everything was going to be okay, that she was going to handle it." Her eyes clenched shut in a last attempt to ward off tears. She took a deep breath to steady herself. "I believed her. What child wouldn't believe that their mother was capable of anything?" The silence surrounded them, the lack of noise always more present than the noise itself. What a relief it was, to have an outside perspective who listened. Who cared.
"I never saw her again."
"Easy to remember, harder to move on." His eyes met hers with… understanding? "Am I right?"
"Yes," she breathed, choking back her tears. Respite at being understood flooded deep inside her. He knew what it was like. She had never talked with anyone so openly about her emotions of that day. Not even her family. Her brother had lost a mother too, she knew that. They both loved her so much that it hurt to breathe when she was away. A part of them had forever died, whisked away with the wind. But her brother didn't carry the guilt she did. The guilt eating her away piece by piece, year by year, until it threatened to tear her from the inside out. The guilt that she... she was the reason for…
She sobbed into his chest, finally letting her feelings out. She didn't want to monopolize the pain, everyone had experienced tragedy in their lives, she knew. Even the crown prince of the Fire Nation. But the fears she had, they were as real as the water flowing through her. She was scared they were true.
"I'm the reason my mother's dead," she gasped, her voice barely audible over the wheezing emitting from her chest and the howl of the wind. Zuko leaned his head in closer, closer, until his ear rested close to her mouth. Her words came spilling out, rushed and frantic, as if she had to get them out quickly before her mouth closed again. "My mother died trying to protect me. They were looking for a water bender; they were looking for me. My mother told them that she was the last one."
Katara gripped Zuko's shoulders tightly, peering up at him with tear-filled eyes willing him to agree with her, to ease the pain. "I should be dead. She didn't deserve it. I did."
Later, she might feel embarrassed about her display. If she were around anyone else, maybe she would have. But the look in his eyes right then, warm and concerned and so very real assured her that she wasn't overreacting. What she felt was valid. It was okay to be hurting inside.
"No," he told her firmly, pulling her close. There was nothing romantic about the gesture, but it made her feel so safe in that instant. If he weren't there, she felt as though she may wither to dust without the glue of his embrace. "No one deserved it. It's not enough, but I'm sorry. I'm so sorry, Katara."
She nodded her head, trying to soak in the words he spoke. It would take time but one day, she hoped she would believe him. So that the burden of her past would release its pressure on her shoulders. But for now, it was enough to hear it.
"I have so much rage. At myself. At the red helmeted man who took her life without so much as a wince. At the world, for the mess we're in. Even at my mother, for leaving me. It's so hard not to let that rage take over, to control your actions and words and life. It would be so much easier if I could."
"I know what that's like," he confessed. It was Katara's turn to listen. "I spent so much of my life angry. There are still many days when it defines me. Without it, I'm left with a sense of confusion and loss, as if it were all I ever was." He tucked a strand of her hair behind her ear, which had fallen into her eyes. "That's something I admire about you, even more so now that I've heard your story. You find the beauty and wonder in life, despite all of the awful things around you. You're so strong that all of the anger you feel could never define you, not like it does me."
He smiled softly. "It's… honourable."
Katara wiped her running nose discreetly with her sleeve, hiding the freckled blush that dotted her already splotched face as she averted her eyes. She never did know how to take compliments.
"You spoke as if you understood earlier," she prompted, feeling suddenly so vulnerable after dispensing so many secrets. She didn't feel as if she deserved any in return, but opening up to someone had helped her heal, and perhaps he would feel the same with whatever he carried in his metaphorical suitcase.
The young man's eyes glazed over in memory. He spoke distantly; a million worlds away. "The Fire Nation took my mother away from me too, though in a different way. There's more than one way to lose a person, I suppose."
"I'm sorry," she said, though apologies never seemed to be enough. She meant it though. No one deserved the pain of losing a parental figure they loved and who loved them in return. "I didn't want to make it seem as though I was the only one who experienced the loss of a parent…"
"No," he said, interrupting her quickly. She had gotten the wrong idea. "I believe pain is something shared. There's no limited reserve when it comes to grief." He spoke softly to her now, as if begging her to understand. "I never felt as though you were making it a competition."
His lips had turned into a frown, his forehead creased in thought. Katara was generally good at reading people but when it came to him, his stubborn persona had always masked the speech swirling inside his head. She could never properly read his expressions. So, though she wasn't used to being so direct, she asked, "what are you thinking about?"
Surprisingly, he told her.
Zuko had been in a state of in-between for months. Dangling on a precipice separating what he had always known from the truth beyond. He had been slowly assembling the larger picture. Little things he had heard Katara say or that he had observed at the many meetings he had attended. How there was always a lack of supplies, how the war sounded more violent than he remembered from his textbook.
Today, with Katara, he felt as if he had crossed into unknown territory, and he was never allowed to venture back to safer grounds again. The knowledge she had given him today terrified him. The last of the puzzle pieces had clicked into place.
"As a child, I was taught that the Fire Nation was the greatest nation to ever exist." Though he wore a smile on his face, it was not one of joy, but self-mockery and betrayal hidden behind prettily-decorated curtains. "Even though our soldiers brought home tales of victory and casualties piled to the sky, I had justified it. In the end, I would tell myself, it would be worth it. We would ascend to a lifestyle worthy of gods and every nation would benefit, not just us. It was the right thing. Everyone seemed to believe it, so why shouldn't I too?"
"Why did I believe it, Katara?" his voice was harsh and angry, his eyes glossed over. He was used to this: the rage everyone was trying so hard to escape. He could never seem to let it go. "Why did I think that a war of all things was what was best, what everyone wanted?"
She sighed heavily beside him, the echo passing between them. "You didn't know," she said earnestly.
He wanted to shout, scream until his throat was raw at the injustice of it all. He refrained, though his voice came out sharp and brittle. "That doesn't make it right," he bit out. Not a question but a statement.
Katara nodded her head in agreement. "No, it doesn't."
"Though it's easier to digest, I don't want to fall into this web of lies again."
He was determined, not only to show her but to show himself. He had always struggled with doing the right thing. What even was the right thing, in a situation like this? Defying his country or defying the world, what was the right choice? But his gut was telling him that something was wrong- severely- if the war was oppressing rather than helping as he'd imagined before. Though his moral compass had never found a target before, it found a new one before him now. And it seemed to be directing him to this village.
"The world needs to change," he declared forcefully, "for the better this time."
Katara beamed, genuinely and openly, her tears creating a glossy sheen on her face that lit up in sunlight. And her smile... it was the warmest thing he had felt in weeks. The sun had nothing on her.
Something in him shifted. Though he didn't know what, not yet. (No, that realization would come later).
He would convince his father that they were wrong, that they had been wrong this whole time. He would do the right thing, for once in his life. Zuko just needed to figure out how.
We're getting close to the ending of part one (there are two parts to this story)... The next chapter will be a lot fluffier with some cute Zutara moments, hopefully! Once again, thank you all for reading and hopefully the next chapter won't take as long as this one did :)
Chapter 10: Glacier Spirits
Here is chapter ten! I hope you guys enjoy the Glacier Spirits Festival chapter. I know that it's only talked about in LOK but for this fic, I had already planned to include some kind of festival so I just decided to use this one.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
"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?"
I planned to include Sokka in this chapter a lot more than I actually did, oh well. Story layout: part one is from chapters 1-12, part two is from 13-20. There will be a short interlude chapter in the middle to serve kind of as a bridge between the two. Just so you guys have an idea of where we're heading :) Thanks for reading and let me know your thoughts!