To The Thunder.
When Today Doesn't Really Know
In accordance with traditions older than anyone in his tribe could remember the provenance of, Hakoda, High Chief of the Southern Water Tribes, laid his spear at the door, cast back his cloak to reveal a hip devoid of armament, and strode alone into the hall of the Fire Lord Azulon.
His footfalls echoed in the room; the only sound rising to greet them was the dull crackle of the wall of flame that dominated the far end, shielding the throne of the Fire Lord from the presence of the (relatively) common folk, and providing the only source of light. As he strode past the long meeting table, seats bare, there was a sudden thud- the door slamming to behind him.
Then, and only then, did the Fire Lord move, a conservative wave of a hand that parted the wall of fire that separated him from the Chief, splitting it into two pillars of flame that hovered, banked, on either sides of the room. Otherwise, he made no movement at all, no motion to recognise the man now standing before him.
Hakoda resisted the urge to clear his throat. There were protocols to be observed, after all.
After just slightly too long, the seated figure began to speak, in a hacking rasp.
"You have been in my city a week."
It wasn't a question, so Hakoda saw no particular reason to answer.
"You have spoken to my courtiers, my servants. Men authorised to speak for me, in matters of trade, of borders."
This was true enough, but Hakoda began to wonder when this speech might become a dialogue.
"In this time, we have not spoken. I have men who speak for me. I have men who read my letters for me. I have a man who chews my food for me."
A tiny core of Hakoda fought not to make a face.
"You have spoken to the men who talk for me of trade, of meat and furs for wood, and steel. Your food has become... fashionable, they tell me. There is another matter. One of which I would speak to you myself." Amazingly, the Fire Lord seemed to stir, briefly attempting to rise, before giving up. "This year... you know what will happen."
"The eclipse." One of two possibilities, but Hakoda was not about to sing the praises of Sozin's Comet. There was such a thing as pride, after all.
"Yes," Azulon replied, with grim relish. "The eclipse. And after... it will be a... strained year. The Fire Nation finds itself in need of... stabilising elements. There are rumblings, and... it is well known that King Bumi holds... undue influence over the Avatar."
Hakoda found he could not argue that. "What do you propose?"
Azulon nodded. "A marriage. To show the close ties between our two nations. To dissuade aggression against our shores, and to persuade those at home that there is no call for... expansionism. A marriage, between one of my grandsons and one of your daughters."
Hakoda blinked, heavily, trying to work out if the Fire Lord was attempting to insult him. "...I only have one daughter."
Azulon's brow furrowed in sudden uncertainty, dispelling any thoughts that it might have been a deliberate slight, and then broke into a broad smile. "Then your choice is simple. Your daughter shall be wed to my grandson. Zuko, of course. Not Lu Ten."
Hakoda raised a hand, trying to turn back the flow of the conversation. "Fire Lord Azulon, you understand, I cannot force my daughter to marry anyone-"
"Oh? A shame. I can compel my grandsons to marry whomever I wish."
"-And even if I could I would not wish to." He sighed, already dreading the conversation he would have when he returned home. "However, I will suggest it to her. If she is amenable-"
"Capital!" Azulon cackled, rocking back in his chair. "I shall let Prince Zuko know at once. I look forward to the ceremony. There's far too much gloom these days, it will do people good to have something to celebrate. And," the Fire Lord's face morphed into something parodically sly "you will find there are benefits to joining our two families. You shall not want for steel, or anything else you should ask for."
Once the pleasantries had been duly observed, Hakoda turned on his heel, stalking back towards the door with a head full of worry and hands full of restlessness. He frantically tried to recall everything he could about the young Prince Zuko's only visit to the South Pole, and as such was so distracted that he entirely failed to notice the figure lurking in the shadows, behind a curtain.
Lu Ten breathed deep of the frigid air, blinking away the glare of the sun on the snow banks, and directed his gaze out into the bay.
"Nice day for it," he remarked, for the benefit of the bundle of coats to his left. He didn't get a response, but, in all honesty, he hadn't really expected one.
He was worried about his cousin. Father was, too.
They story was it had been an accident. Some kind of mishap on the training ground. The sort that could happen to anyone.
Lu Ten couldn't help but wonder if he was honestly expected to believe that. But he couldn't say anything, not without challenging Uncle. So all he'd managed was to drag his cousin down to the South Pole, on the simple basis that it was the first diplomatic function he'd been officially invited to, and it was a very long way away from the capital, and so, from Ozai.
Not for the first time, Lu Ten found himself wishing his aunt were still around. Uncle had almost been manageable then.
Shaking away his gloomy thoughts as best he could, he nudged Zuko, and prompted him to pay attention. In the middle distance, a figure in blue had appeared, striding down the jetty, both arms extended above its head, waving frantically at the gathered crowd. Sokka, son of Hakoda, the High Chief of the Southern Water Tribes, and today was his fourteenth birthday.
"So what's going on again?" Zuko asked, momentarily stunning his cousin.
"Well, uh," Lu Ten laughed softly, scratching at his chin, "as best I can remember, he has to take that boat," he gestured to the small fishing boat tied to the jetty, "and sail it around those ice... crags." He waved vaguely at the middle distance, where the ice floes glowered. "And if he gets back in one piece, that means... he wins." Lu Ten was vaguely aware that this was not entirely passing muster. "I think it also means he's a true man. And the best at boats."
"Hn," Zuko mumbled, in disagreement. "Doesn't sound like such a great system if you ask me. What does being able to sail prove about anything?"
"You're asking me like I know, Zuko," Lu Ten replied, shortly, and then wished he hadn't.
"Hn," Zuko concluded, kicking up the snow with a defiant heel.
The minutes dragged on, and Lu Ten found himself fervently wishing that Sokka would stop standing around listening to speeches and just get on with it. Finally, the figure in blue stepped onto the gangplank, and started shouting commands, waving his hands in a pinwheel of authority.
The boat cast off, and Lu Ten breathed an internal sigh of relief when he noticed Zuko's eye turn to follow it.
And that was when things started going wrong. The wind, which had been steady and well-behaved until the moment Sokka took the helm, suddenly picked up, hurling the boat forward towards the ice floes, but at that moment Lu Ten had more serious problems on his mind, because it was at that moment it started snowing. Within seconds, the clear morning was obscured and muffled behind a thick curtain of flakes, and the only thing he could think to do was conjure a fire in his hand, and huddle around it.
He tried not to think about the way Zuko's eye widened the second the spark flared. More important to avoid freezing, just at that moment.
Eventually, as suddenly as it had begun, the snow ended, and Lu Ten looked up to see the boat gliding serenely back into the bay.
"Oh good," he managed. "I guess that means he won. ...I wonder if the octopus is symbolic or something."
Hakoda had expected this response, but that didn't mean he'd figured out how to deal with it.
"No! Absolutely not!" His daughter stared at him, eyes streaming, anger locking her jaw. "Why would I- how could you- no! No I am not going to marry anyone! Especially not some jumped-up Fire Nation prince! What made you think I would ever agree to this?"
"I didn't-" Hakoda tried, vainly, before being interrupted again, this time by the figure that had sloped into the room.
"Who's agreeing to what now?" Sokka asked, seemingly not noticing the tableau in front of him.
"I'm not. Dad is trying to get me to marry someone!"
"Oh, okay. Who?"
"Prince Zuko, of the Fire Nation," Hakoda muttered, shamefacedly, "and I'm not-"
"Zuko?" Sokka's eyebrows rose dramatically. "The one with the hair? Isn't he kind of ...old?"
Hakoda shook his head. "No, you're thinking of Lu Ten. Zuko's the one who's about your age-"
"Oh, Zuko," Sokka nodded, theatrically. "Isn't he the one with the face?"
"What? He's got a face! It's not like he doesn't have a face-"
Katara saw her chance, and stormed out of the room before Hakoda could reorganise his thoughts. He slumped back, falling into a chair, and his son shook his head, as if to clear it.
"Okay, what'd I miss? You know Katara's not going to just marry some guy out of nowhere."
"I know." Hakoda smiled, ruefully. "I just think it's not a good idea to go deliberately snubbing the Fire Lord's offer. If she meets the prince, and says no, then that might be enough. I never expected her to actually marry anyone." He massaged the bridge of his nose. "Maybe I should have started with that."
Sokka considered something for a moment, before nodding, and patting his father on the shoulder.
"Okay, I got this."
Katara was sitting on the sea-wall, morosely skimming disks of ice into the harbour, when her brother flopped down beside her. She inclined her head, slightly, acknowledging his arrival.
"Hey," he replied, kicking his feet. "You know-"
"If Dad sent you out here to convince me-"
"No! No. Never." His face broke into a grin. "I've got a plan."
"You haven't even heard it yet."
"Do I need to?" she replied, rolling her eyes.
"Yes," he sniffed, primly, and continued. "Dad says that all you've got to do is go meet this guy and say no. It was the Fire Lord's idea, and it's terrible, but he's crazy and might start invading places if anyone tells him to jump off a pier, so. We play along, you meet Zuko, you say sorry, I prefer guys that don't have faces-"
"-Or whatever, and we go home, and nobody can say we didn't try. International crisis averted."
Katara's face screwed up. "Go all the way into the heart of the Fire Nation? And since when were you a part of this expedition?"
Sokka shrugged. "So we meet him somewhere else. We've got a map around somewhere, there's probably some nice place we can meet. And I've been part of this expedition ever since it started looking like an excuse for a vacation."
"It's not- you were just on vacation!" Katara accused, shoving her brother's shoulder. He fell over, mock-pouting.
"That was work! Training on Kyoshi Island was definitely work!"
"Dad said I needed to have a well-rounded education to-"
Katara theatrically stuffed her fingers in her ears. "I am not hearing this, not listening, lalalalala-"
"Fine, be like that. You can just go get married to some prince with a weird face-"
"Sokka, you have to stop that. You're going to meet him."
Sokka shrugged. "Eh. He might be really handsome and charming now."
Katara frowned, trying to remember what she could of the prince from his fleeting visit, two years ago. "I don't think so. Although I wonder what he looks like without all those bandages."