Quick Pre-Note: Because this is being submitted for Zutara Week 2015 (hey, I didn't forget this year!), I feel the need to put in the warning that this fic will have some adult language (though my long-time readers will note that there's not as much as usual, mostly due to no Toph...sad, I know, but work with me). Everyone got that? Good!


Happenstance

"SOKKA!"

Fuck. Sokka, having never been prone to such pedestrian things as modesty or shame, liked to think of himself as having a mind that was of a higher caliber than most. Having the utmost faith in such exquisitely developed mental faculties, he was, in the time between when the doors to the meeting hall slammed open, thus allowing his sister to bellow his name in way that didn't quite say, YOU FUCKING ASSHOLE, but might as well have, and the moment when that very same sister came to a stop on the other side of his map table (which he made himself, thank you for asking, Inner Sokka), able to come up with any number of possible ways in which to handle the storm that was about to burst atop his head. For example, he seriously considered making a break for one of the weaker sections of the outer wall and hurling himself to freedom. Failing that, he also considered ducking under the table and pretending that he wasn't there. He even took a moment to wonder if, maybe, just maybe, his sister had, without warning, gone blind, deaf, and, who knows, Tui and La, you know you owe me a solid, mute as well.

Alas, none of these things happened. The gods didn't even see fit to retroactively make this moment a terrible dream, or, if it was a dream, at the very least wake him up. Instead, after a very hurried, very silent prayer to all the gods that ever were, both above and below, that he would be able to escape the coming tongue-lashing with at least a modicum of dignity intact, he looked up into his sister's furious eyes, put on his patented Sokka Smile, and said, "Oh, hey, Sis, what's shakin'?"

He couched his words in his most flippant tone (and that's saying something), in the vain hope that such a method would calm the raging beast that was his little sister's temper. Alas, it appeared that the gods were mute to his prayers (as usual), as she crossed her arms, angrily puffed a stray lock of hair off her nose, narrowed her eyes, and didn't quite set him on fire with a simple glance, but hey, it wasn't for lack of trying.

"Do you, pray tell," she said, her voice low, rumbling like the growl of a volcano on the cusp of erupting, "care to explain yourself?"

He took a deep breath, mostly to let a little mental pep talk sink its way into his heart (because, come on, Sokka, you're twenty, she's eighteen, surely you're not still terrified of your little sister...right…?), let that selfsame deep breath out, and turned the infamous Sokka Smile up another few notches. "Now, Katara, I can't begin to imagine what you mean."

If Katara was mollified by the words, she did not show it. In fact, it seemed to make her even angrier, a state of affairs that should have been impossible, but, somehow, was not. "Uh huh," she said, somehow making every syllable crack like a whip, "not a fucking clue, right?"

He dropped the Sokka Smile, drawing himself up to what he felt was his full, most impressive, height, pressing a hand to his chest as he said, in tones most aggrieved, "Come now, Katara, is there really any reason to use such language? I mean, come on, what would Gran-Gran say?"

Katara popped an eyebrow, while Sokka couldn't quite keep his eyes off where her fists were clenching and unclenching on her arms. "That I should've smacked you around with Mom's wooden spoon a bit more when we were growing up, so that you'd know some gods-damn manners?"

"Well," he observed, quite rightly, in his most humble opinion, "I doubt she'd use the blasphemy."

The next thing he knew, his heart had leaped up into his throat and he himself had jumped a good foot from the table, which was itself vibrating from the force with which Katara had slammed her fists down on top of it.

"That is not the fucking POINT, Sokka," she said, grinding each word out through gritted teeth as if it pained her. She held up a hand, balled it into a tight fist, and when she began ticking points off, unrolling a finger which each one, he almost wept in relief that she wasn't going to punch him.

"One," she began, her voice gaining in fury as she barreled on, "it's been over a week since we got word from Kuujjuarapik," that being one of the more isolated villages in their tribe's territory, way down in the south, buried in the foothills of the Polar Mountains, "that they needed our help. Two, seeing as I'm not just the best waterbender in all of the Southern Water Tribes, but also the best healer, and that's including all healers who went away to war with Father, I was the obvious choice to go. Three, the only reason I didn't leave before that big fucking blizzard is because you, being the over-protective idiot that you are, insisted on giving me an escort, and then dragged your feet on getting it all together. Four, the only reason I'm not already halfway there is because you were all, But, Katara, how're we ever going to get the town dug out from under these piles of snow without the most powerful waterbender in the world? And finally, last but not least, five, the only reason I even agreed to that is because you, my gigantic moron of a brother, promised to have a buffalo-yak saddled up and ready to go at dawn today, so that all I had to do, and I quote, was, Roll out of bed, do your hair, help Estuuya deliver her baby, and off you go! No muss, no fuss!"

Sokka allowed himself a light chuckle. "Heh. No muss, no fuss. I still like that one. A real stroke of genius that."

"Sokka…"

He did a quick mental calculation of just how much danger he was in, remembered the cup of water that was sitting right by his elbow at that very moment, and immediately decided that discretion, as usual with his sister, was the better part of valor. "Alright, Katara," he began, raising his hands, palms out, waving them back-and-forth in what he hoped she would see as a suggestion to calm down, "let me explain…"

She stepped back from the table, re-crossing her arms, and when she spoke again, sure, she still sounded angry, but the previously mentioned water was no longer vibrating in its cup, which he considered a victory. "Well, I do believe that's what I asked you to do, what, a good five minutes ago?"

"Yeah, yeah," he replied, waving her reminder aside, "like I said, let me explain. Point is, we just got word from Kuujjuarapik, and it turns out they don't need help anymore. The blizzard hit down there before it hit us, and there were these herders from the Aleuts next door," a point he illustrated by crooking his thumb in what was, even by his admission, only vaguely any direction at all, "and one of these herders was a top class healer, and got everything sorted. And," he rushed to add, throwing his hands out once more, "before you get angry again, I sent someone to tell you as soon as I heard, but you were in the middle of delivering the aforementioned Estuuya's baby, so, you know, that. So, you see, nothing to get upset about."

To his happy surprise, his sister, while not exactly looking happy, was at least starting to calm down. "Okay, see? That makes sense. I mean, sure, except for the part where you were too lazy to come and tell me yourself, or that your little errand boy was too chicken to stick his head in the door and tell, I dunno, any of the upwards of two dozen women who were gathered in Estuuya's mom's hut, but, you know, I guess we'll leave that alone for now."

He shrugged, the tension going from his shoulders as he felt the possibility of being frozen to one of the walls (again) pass him by. "Good, because otherwise, we'd have to address the fact that I completely forgot to come and check if you'd finished delivering that baby yet, and who wants to do that, right?" He put on the Sokka Smile once more, with an added touch of innocent guile, and reached over to give his sister a light nudge in the arm. "I mean, that'd just ruin our newfound sense of peace and goodwill, and that wouldn't do anyone any good, right? I mean…heh…right, Sis?" He frowned. Normally, his sister was much more efficient about destroying his often inappropriate attempts at levity. "Um…Sis…?"

A finger shot up in the air, so quickly and so close to his nose that he almost went cross-eyed trying to get a handle on it. Before he could even get his bearings once more and open his mouth, Katara helpfully snapped, "Shush. You hear that?"

He gave her a very honest look of confusion. "Hear what?"

She jerked her head towards the doors. "That. There's something going on outside."

He shrugged as he very carefully reached out and moved his sister's finger away from his face. "Probably some of the kids kicking around a football. They like to do that because they know it irritates me that they're not training, like they're supposed to be doing, whether I'm there or not. In fact…" His voice trailed off, and he never did figure out what he meant to say. His sister was already striding away, flicking the cap from the waterskin she always kept hanging at her hip, his last sight of her face being of a grim, determined expression.

That's when it hit him. There was a commotion outside, and it was anything but the young boys and girls of the tribe goofing off in their perennial attempts to annoy him, regardless of his status as Chief in his father's absence. And he really should be back by now; the raiding season is over, and it's not our tribe's turn to guard Chameleon Bay. Damn these stupid, unseasonable storms. But that was neither here nor there, was it? Because the noise outside was getting louder, and as he began to follow in his sister's wake, picking his sword-belt up from where he had propped it against a handy chair and strapping it on, the hair on the back of his neck began to rise.

Because it sounded like the entire village was gathering out there, and, judging from the snatches of conversation that were filtering through the walls, the mood seemed to be turning downright ugly.

A whole host of images flashed through his mind, none of them good. The winter storms really had come early this year, seemingly heedless of the fact that it was still autumn, and there were reports of people from all four nations washing up far from where they were supposed to be. Why, just the past week, an Earth Kingdom warship had limped onto shore in the land of the Inupiat tribe up the coast, and then there were the others…

Because there's a whole other fleet of ships out there, getting caught in the storms, and gods, if that's what I've got on my hands…

The doors slammed open as his sister reached them, the sunlight blazing through, blinding him as he staggered up behind her, the only sounds being the roar of his people outside and his sister's voice slicing through the din.

"AND JUST WHAT THE HELL DO YOU THINK YOU'RE DOING?!"

Dammit…and she wasn't even supposed to be here today…


"Zu-Zu, forgive me if this seems like the wrong moment to ask such a question, but I just have to know: Have I finally lost my mind, or are you giggling?"

Zuko took a moment to ponder his sister's question, seeing as the circumstances warranted a careful examination of the facts. After all, there was little about their current situation that could be called anything even remotely resembling amusing. Just the previous night, the siblings had, after a month-long, storm-wracked voyage spent desperately trying not to vomit all over their cells in the bowels of a rickety, half-dead ship, been unceremoniously dumped on the shores of an alien land blanketed with snow. What had followed was a night spent huddling around a weak fire, the best they were able to put together in the circumstances, while they actually came to appreciate that their father's men had not given them proper winter clothing, since it made them too cold to think about how they hadn't been fed so much as a heel of bread in four days. Then, dawn had come, and with it a half-dozen dark-skinned warriors swathed in furs. With the tribesmen had come burlap sacks over their heads, rough ropes that kept their hands bound and behind their backs, all topped off with a good beating when Zuko, like an idiot, had tried to object to such treatment. Then, there came the long day of staggering through ankle-deep snow like drunken fools, with a spear-point pricking at his whiplashed back and blood trickling down from his ruined face.

And now, it seemed, they had reached something resembling civilization, judging from the growing sound of the increasingly agitated mob that seemed to be forming around them, the mob whose mood seemed to be quickly shifting from displeased to downright murderous. All while those same spears pricked at his and his sister's backs, to which abuse was now added taunting, catcalls, insults, and the occasional rock.

None of which changed the fact that Zuko was, indeed, giggling like a schoolboy who had just learned a new swear word.

"Heh…as a matter of fact, Zula, yes I am."

From where his sister staggered along beside him came a derisive snort of the kind only she was capable of, no matter the circumstances. "Well, don't hold out on me. I could use a good chuckle," she drawled, speaking in their native tongue of Nihongo because every time they tried to speak in Inuktitut, it seemed to drive the tribesmen into a near homicidal rage.

"Heh…well, as it happens, I was just thinking of the last thing Uncle said to us, right before Father's poison finished him off."

"What, you mean that whole speech about how we should never lose heart, no matter how bad things get, because, what was it he said? It could always be worse?"

He nodded, why, he didn't know, seeing as his sister's head was covered by the same kind of coarse, itchy, and maddeningly uncomfortable burlap sack as his was. Habit, I suppose. "That's the very thing."

"And that made you laugh? Gods, Zu-Zu, we cried for a week when Uncle died; I still get choked up when I think about it."

"Ah, but that's just the thing: The memory has forced me to conclude, rather reluctantly, that our Uncle, may the gods guide his eternal soul to ever-lasting peace, might just have been full of shit."

There was a long pause, during which the only sounds were the ever-mounting fury of the villagers and the crunch of their flimsy boots trudging through the snow.

After which pause, Azula let out a soft giggle.

"You know what, Zu-Zu? You might just be on to something there."

To that, he could only sigh. "Tell me about it…"

Suddenly, one of their recently acquired guards (whom Zuko couldn't quite bring himself to hate, seeing as, for all of their abuse, they were still a vast improvement over the guards they'd had before) bellowed a command. For all that Zuko and his sister had benefited from a comprehensive royal education, neither of them spoke a word of whatever dialect this particular tribe used, but it didn't take a genius to figure out that they had just been commanded to halt. For a moment, he considered ignoring the order. He was exhausted, filthy, hungry, thirsty, his bending had been suppressed by some sort of concoction forced down his throat the previous morning, and to top everything off, the sack on his head was making his nose itch. His wrists were starting to chafe and his back burned and his dead left eyeball seemed to be on fire. Needless to say, he was feeling a bit defiant.

Then, the left side of his face throbbed, as if to remind him of what heedless, unthinking defiance had so far gotten him, and he decided to obey.

For now.

What followed was a long lull, as if their captors couldn't quite decide what to do with them. For his part, Zuko would have much rather someone just killed him and got this whole farce over with, but since when did the world give a damn about what he wanted. The crowd continued to grow; he could practically feel the hatred and anger pulsing off of them. Their guards seemed to be having some sort of heated discussion, though Zuko's attempts to make sense of the conversation were ruined by the pebbles that kept smacking into his body.

Are you watching, Uncle? He looked up in the direction of the sky, until he could sense the warmth of the sun bleeding through the sack. It could always be worse? If you're watching, I'd appreciate an answer to this: How could it possibly get any worse?

And then, because the universe loved nothing more than fucking with him, he got an answer. There came a crunching of snow, until he felt the presence of one of the bigger of the tribesmen who had brought them in, the great hulking lout who had earlier socked Zuko in the gut so hard that Zuko would've thrown up, if he'd had anything in his stomach. He could all but feel the guy looming over him, could almost see the look of disdain and contempt.

The tribesman said something, something that Zuko did not at all understand. Doing his best to sound cooperative, he leaned over to nudge his sister. "Zula, you catch any of that?"

"Fuck no; it's all gibberish to me. Hey," she said, stepping forward as she switched into her pitch-perfect Inuktitut, "I get that we now exist to amuse you, but would it kill you to start abusing us in a language we can understand?"

First, came the silence, as if the crowd had been stunned into speechlessness by the gall of a Fire Nation dog daring to speak their people's trade language. Then, there came the snarl, as the hulking brute before them sputtered in rage.

And then, at last, came the crack, as Zuko listened in horror as the butt of a spear made contact with the side of his sister's head. The crowd cheered, roaring its approval, more than a few chanting something that Zuko would've sworn on his soul sounded a lot like, Go on, hit her again! The brute laughed, and then everyone else joined in, laughing and jeering as his sister went down into the snow like a sack of potatoes.

Everything was a blur after that. A voice that sounded a lot like his screamed, Leave my sister alone! He was lunging, at who or what he hadn't the faintest clue, but whoever it was, he made contact, hurling his shoulder into what felt like their chest and tumbling to the ground after them. The crowd roared again, roared and booed, and then someone was lifting him up out of the snow and he sensed something coming for his face and it hit the left side and it felt like his very skull was bursting at the seams and all he knew after that were the stars and the roaring in his ears as he plunged into a deep, cavernous darkness.

The last thing he heard was a young woman's voice, slicing through the din and bringing with it a silence that was almost profound.

The last thing he thought was that the voice sounded very, very beautiful.

The last thing he knew was nothing.


It all played out before her like something out of a cheap melodrama. There were two of them, hands bound behind their backs, heads covered in sacks. One seemed to be tall, at least as tall as her brother, for all that he was hunched over, lines of dried blood crisscrossing the back of his shirt. The other was shorter, but seemed bigger, standing tall and proud, unbent, unbowed, unbroken. They were both obviously Fire Nation, though their clothes were faded and threadbare, only a few small steps above rags. The shorter one was shouting at that big idiot Kunikpaa, shouting in very good Inuktitut, though the girl – for whatever reason – spoke with the nasal drawl of the North.

What came next happened in the blink of an eye. Kunikpaa crashed the butt of his spear into the side of the girl's head (because her voice was obviously that of a girl, and a young one at that), and the girl was going down, and the other prisoner was snarling and gnashing his teeth in rage, screaming in what sounded like Nihongo as he hurled himself into Kunikpaa. The two of them went down, and there was a scuffle, and then another of her fellow tribesmen, the normally calm and sedate Pamiuq, was crashing his fist into the left side of the prisoner's face, and the sunlight was flashing off of bared steel as people began to draw their daggers and it was all getting out of control and she still couldn't believe what was happening, it was horrible, is this what we've come to, and she saw red and opened her mouth and that's when Katara said what she had to say.

"AND JUST WHAT THE HELL DO YOU THINK YOU'RE DOING?!"

Silence fell like a shroud. It looked like the whole town was gathered in the square, women and children and old men and teenage boys too young for the War. She saw her moment and seized it, slapping aside the restraining hand Sokka was trying to put on her shoulder and storming up to Pamiuq, knocking the dagger from the young boy's fingers.

"I'm waiting," she snarled, somehow managing to glare down at Pamiuq, for all that Pamiuq had a good head on her in height. "Or has the moose-lion got your tongue, along with your dignity?"

Pamiuq gulped, but it was Kunikpaa who answered, the boy shrugging as he hauled himself up off the ground and brushed snow from his furs. "Well, Ms. Katara," he said, dipping his head in respect to the chief's daughter, the closest their people came to the complex bowing of Earth and Fire, "as you can see, they're prisoners, and they were getting lippy. Had to teach them some respect, right?" He punctuated this with a smile, as if to say, See, Miss? Nothing to get upset about! All's fair in love and war, right?

Needless to say, Katara was anything but amused. If anything, it only made her angrier, her rage bubbling and churning in the pit of her stomach until it felt like her very soul was on fire. "So," she ground out, a pain beginning to pulse in her temples, "this is what we've come to? Beating up on helpless prisoners? This is what the valiant warriors of the Southern Water Tribes do in their spare time?"

To their credit, the half-dozen overgrown boys in front of her did their best to hold their ground before her infamous fury. "Well," another boy, this one named Nasak, said, stepping forward and holding up a long, curved sword in his hand, "they weren't exactly helpless. I mean, they had this, right? And the girl, when we were putting the sacks over their heads, up and bit me."

"She tried to bend at us, too," Pamiuq chimed in. "Seemed really mad that she couldn't."

"Right, she did, didn't she?" Nasak said, settling his prize back on his shoulder. "So, like I said, far from helpless, and besides, they're only Fire Nation. It's not like they treat us well when they get their hands on us, do they?"

"Oh," Katara said, crossing her arms, spitting out each word as if it hurt her, "I see. Well then, I'll have to let my Father know when he gets home. He'll be very surprised to discover that we're now taking tips on honorable conduct from the motherfucking Fire Lord."

"That's news to me," added her brother as he slid up beside her. "I always assumed that we were a proud and honorable people who would never stoop to being little more than bullies, but, hey, I've never been wrong before, but there's a first time for everything, isn't there?"

That did it. In the blink of an eye, the ugly mood evaporated, replaced by a thick fog of regret as her people began to awkwardly shuffle their feet and hang their heads in shame. Quite a few began to wander away, hands shoved deep in their pockets, a process aided by Sokka as he began to stomp around, waving his arms, nothing to see here, people, show's over, go back to doing whatever it was that you were doing!

Katara didn't pay attention to a bit of it. She turned her back on her people, crouching down beside the girl, who was coming to, moaning. Without bothering to stop and think, Katara reached out, tore the burlap sack off the girl's head and tossed it aside.

What she saw made her stomach lurch. The girl couldn't have been a day over sixteen, with golden eyes that practically glowed in the weak sunlight and a massive bruise coloring and swelling on a face that seemed to have been hollowed out by stress and exhaustion. She looked like she hadn't slept or eaten for days, and her eyes seemed hazy, unfocused, rattling around in their sockets as the girl clawed her way back into the world. She was, in short, an absolute mess, unwashed hair hanging in thick, jet-black strands as she muttered to herself in a language Katara did not understand.

That's when it hit her: Her people, the people she had known all her life, had spent their morning pushing around a teenage girl who was both unarmed and already looked half-dead. Katara swallowed the bile that threatened to burn its way up her throat, muttering a quick prayer for strength as she checked the girl's pulse and made sure that she was, in fact, still alive. She performed a quick examination, feeling for broken or cracked bones, found none, for all that the girl's ribs seemed to be etched into her skin. By the time she was done, the girl was fully conscious, doing her best to sit up.

Katara stopped her, gently pushing the girl back down and leaning over her, putting on her best smile and couching her voice in its calmest tones. "I really wouldn't recommend that," she said in Inuktitut, trying to sound as friendly as possible. "I know it's cold in the snow, but I need you to stay down until I make sure you don't have a concussion." She held a finger up in front of the girl's face. "Follow my finger with your eyes, but without moving your head. You understand what I'm saying?"

There was a long pause, during which the girl looked like she was trying to decide between spitting in Katara's face or just outright trying to bite the finger off, but, in the end, the girl gave a weak nod. "I understand."

Katara smiled. "Good. Now, like I said, follow my finger. Excellent. Can you tell me your name?"

Another pause, another long moment during which fury and relief waged open war across the girl's face. "Azula…my name is Azula."

"Alright, Azula," Katara replied, trying not to frown at how her tongue mangled the foreign name, "can you tell me how old you are?"

"…sixteen."

"Only two years younger than me! And before you ask, I'll examine your brother in a minute. He's breathing, so I'm pretty sure he'll be just fine."

What little emotion had been slowly filtering into the girl named Azula's features vanished in an instant. In its place was left a look of such profound hatred and such abject despair that Katara felt her heart ache in her chest.

"Don't say that…"

Katara frowned, retracting her finger. "Say what?"

The girl's eyes locked on Katara's own, and what Katara saw there made her gulp. "Say that he'll be fine. Say that he'll be okay. He's not. I don't care what he says, or what lies he tries to feed you, but he'll never be fine, not today, not tomorrow, not ever."

Katara tried not to look away, she really did. "I'm…I'm sorry, Azula. I didn't mean to upset you."

The girl responded to that with a scoff of such exquisite quality that it was almost royal. "Don't worry about it; not your fault. Now, if you'll be so kind, leave me the fuck alone and help my brother."

Katara nodded, already turning to the boy. "I can do that. Can you tell me a little about him?"

"His name's Zuko," came the reply, as Sokka reappeared, setting the strange sword Nasak had been brandishing aside before pulling the girl into a sitting position so that he could loosen the ropes binding her wrists. "He's eighteen, and the world's biggest idiot. He's also the best big brother a girl could ever ask for, so if he dies, I'm going to rip out every throat in this village if I have to do it with my teeth."

Somehow, Katara couldn't quite bring herself to take offense. "Fair enough; in your shoes, I'd feel much the same way." As she took the boy called Zuko's pulse, she cast her eyes over his body, taking in the torn and tattered clothes, along with the crisscrossing pattern of lines of dried blood on his back. "Was your brother whipped?"

She glanced back at the girl, in time to watch her look away, her eyes filled with something that could only be called shame. "Yes," the girl said, as if the word was going to choke her. "He…a hundred lashes, dealt out in batches of twenty until it was done."

"The fuck?" Sokka said, his eyes bulging wide. "What in the name of La would warrant him a hundred lashes?"

"The penalty for disobedience to one's father in the Fire Nation is fifty lashes," the girl said, her voice empty, hollow, as cold as the wind that whistled through the town. "He got fifty for his own disrespect, and fifty for mine."

"Why'd he get your lashes?" Sokka asked, steadfastly ignoring Katara's attempts to silence him with a glare.

The girl deflated, right before their eyes. "Because I defied our father, but before I could be punished, Zuko, he…he said he'd take the punishment in my place."

Sokka let out a low whistle, snatching the sword out of the snow as he stood up and went over to where Katara was trying to get the sack off of the boy's head. "Fuck, that's harsh. Your father sounds like a real Grade-A bastard."

The girl just scoffed, though less royal than before, or so Katara thought. "Trust me, you have no idea."

"I would imagine so," Sokka said, crouching down beside the boy and going to work on his bindings. "Though, while we're on the subject, do me a favor and don't make me regret loosening your bindings, okay?"

The girl gave an almost imperceptible nod. "Tell you what: Help my brother, and I'll make whatever promise you want."

"Word." Sokka looked up at Katara. "How is he?"

Katara could only shake her head. "If I can get this sack off his head, I'll know more. For now, all I can say is that he's alive, and that they've both been through hell. Hey, Azula?"

"Hmm?"

"Is that all your father did, the whipping?"

This time, the pause was distinctly ominous. "Why don't you get that stupid sack off his head and see for yourself?"

Katara nodded, snatched the dagger from her brother's hand, and simply cut the sack off. What came next, she could barely put into words. Her heart fell right through the pit of her stomach and came to rest somewhere in her boots. Her hand flew to her mouth, and the blood drained from her face. There was a roaring in her ears, and somewhere, her brother muttered an oath that even a sailor would have considered blasphemous.

In that moment, in the seconds after she discovered what these two lost souls' father had down to the face of the boy named Zuko, she found herself thanking the gods for happenstance.

Then, she gave herself a shake, set her face in stone, began rattling off orders, and got to work.


Hey, guys! I'm baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaack! And not only am I back, it's time for Zutara Week 2015! I love Zutara Week, not least because I love all the lovely new fanart that pops up on DeviantArt. *wink wink nudge nudge* Last year, I completely spaced Zutara Week, for a variety of reasons, mostly a combination of laziness and the fact that I was in the middle of getting married (not the best excuse, mind you; the big wedding's not until next summer, so last summer was all about getting the paperwork filed to go down to the courthouse). But, as usual, I digress...

So, first thing's first: What have I been up to? Not all that terribly much, to be honest. Romance of the Four Nations ended, I got cracking on an original project (which is still plugging along; this is just something I've wanted to do for ages), there was a lot of family-related drama (long story, trust me), my mom through this big kind of wedding shower for the wife and I, oh, and, what else...hmm...

OH YEAH THE WIFE AND I GOT A DOG YAY PRACTICE KID!

Her name is Shae, she's about two years old, she's a rescue, she's a Lab/Border Collie mix, and she's a getting a bit prissy, what with the constant attention and all, but at heart, she's pretty sweet. It hasn't been easy, but then again, what worthwhile is?

What else, what else...hmmm...oh! Wife and I are coming up on our one-year anniversary, which is pretty awesome! She's gearing up for the upcoming school year, we play with the dog, watch random movies on Netflix...not a bad summer, all told. That's about it on the personal front. Oh, and wife says hi!

As for the story...so, what the hell's going on here? Quite a bit, most of which will be explained over the course of the next week. For now, I'll tell you a bit about the genesis of my responses to this year's prompts. In essence, I've had this plot bunny ever since I got cracking on Ro4N: What if Ursa had died giving birth to Azula? Even for the rich and powerful back in the day, it was a big problem (shit, it's a big problem NOW), so, what if Ursa had died? In this universe, Ozai gets remarried right away, to someone more like him (which is a frightening idea, I know), and pops out another boy and a girl, heirs also more to his liking. This leaves Azula not getting the Psycho Ozai Daddy Treatment, and take away her mental illness, well...her and Zuko and pretty close. Also, due to his new wife, Ozai's a lot more ruthless than in Canon, which is why Iroh won't be around, because man, do I like killing Iroh. Flash forward to when the siblings are 18 and 16, and they find themselves banished and dumped someplace where they're not likely to survive for wrong.

Too bad for Ozai that his lackeys dumped them within walking distance of Ms. I Never Turn My Back on Those Who Need Me Katara, eh?

Which, man is a long road to travel, just to explain that I liked writing Non-Crazy Azula in Ro4N so much that I wanted to see what else I could do with the character...

Like I said, just about everything is explained in-story, so if anything's confusing now, feel to either ask, or just wait for the next day's prompt. Speaking of which...

In the next chapter, a Vigil! Stay tuned!