disclaimer: it's all bryke's, except what's not.
maelstrom :: (noun) :: turbulence; violent turmoil.
At first glance, the land at the South Pole appears to be less land and more ice. When Zuko makes this observation aloud, Katara pauses her waterbending and the boat drifts for a moment while she looks at the shore, then laughs.
"You're right," she says. "This time of year, it definitely does. But there's land under there. We see some of it in the warmer months." Her arms move again, as does the water beneath the dinghy, and they pull closer to the land mass.
The wind whips along with the waves at the shoreline, and, after some discussion, they decide to make their way through the shallows until they reach a docking point.
"It will be better if I can find something familiar, and we can look for the Tribe from there. We move around," Katara explains, "and pitch our tents in different places at different times of the year, sometimes different places from year to year." She shakes her head. "With all the snow, we don't have many chances for farming, and if we move, it makes it harder for enemy soldiers to find us. A little harder, at least. There's a boat, too—an old Fire Nation vessel that was left behind years ago, when my grandmother was young." She sighs, the laughter at seeing her homeland again gone now from her chapped lips.
Zuko reaches for her, rests a hand on her arm, and she gives him a small smile, grateful. She changes the subject. "And the men hunt. So they have small docking points at different places on the Pole. If we can find even one of them, I'll have a better idea of where we are."
After two more days of water travel and the coldest weather Zuko has ever known, they reach not just a mooring post but a dock, and Katara brings them close to it before Zuko ties the rope to moor it.
"Here," Katara says. "We're near the village now, or at least, where the settlement used to be. See this sign on the post?" She points to a carved squiggle near the top. "It stands for the arctic hippo because this is where the men leave for their summer hunts."
The remainder of their meager food supply they pack into their pockets, and they each wrap a blanket around their shoulders to fight the cold as best they can. The rest of the blankets and the oars stay in the boat.
Katara climbs ashore and reaches out to Zuko, clasping his mittened hand in her own. They clamber over the dock to a more secure place on the ice-slick rocks and, looking around him, Zuko feels another wave of lightheadedness hit him. He's made his decision and now he's about to see the beginning of its outcome.
Beside him, Katara closes her eyes and breathes deeply, in and out several times. When she opens her eyes again, Zuko asks, "Does the air here hurt your lungs, too?" It doesn't seem like the right thing to say, but maybe the tightness in his chest is just his own nerves. He doesn't know what he should say at this point.
"Yes," she answers. "It always does when it's this cold." She smiles kindly again and reaches out to take his hand. "Come on. I think I know where to find the Tribe."
Zuko isn't sure how much longer they walk before they see smoke in the distance. His sense of the sun and of time are distorted here at the bottom of the world, surrounded above and below by white-grey blustering clouds and spreading snow.
His face is sore where the air hits it, and he almost thinks he can feel the stretch of skin his scar covers again, a phantom of bodily warmth where the cold doesn't bite.
He sees the smoke just when Katara does, because she jumps in place and points with the mittened hand not holding his. "Look! To the right!"
"Your village?" he asks, although he doesn't want to think about what else it could be—an attack he didn't know about from his own people, if Iroh returned to the capital and Ozai sent a ship… But Zuko doesn't think he's that important, in the grand scheme of things, at least not from his father's perspective.
Katara stands on her tiptoes like that will help her and squints. "Yes, I think it is."
Even the wind can't muffle the excitement in her voice.
They walk more quickly, and the wisps of smoke widen to become large columns rising from holes in the roof of a long tent, itself surrounded by smaller tents and snow structures.
Life, here on the ice. The realization strikes Zuko of how small this settlement is, compared to what it could be, to what it used to be, if he remembers anything from his history tutelage.
As they get closer, Zuko can see buildings through the falling snow, but no people.
"Where is everybody?" he asks, a sense of dread settling more firmly in his stomach. He might not come out of today alive, and perhaps that's what will happen if there is any justice in the world.
"In the main lodge, probably," Katara answers. "It's almost time for dinner, and we spend most of our days there, anyway, in the cooler months. Everyone can work together around the fires."
"What sort of work?" Zuko asks. He has only ever viewed any type of work for subsistence from a distance.
"Mending." Katara laughs a little. "Spinning, weaving, carving, repairing weapons or anything else that needs it…" She shrugs. "Life things."
Zuko nods. "Life things," he repeats. "Okay."
They walk the rest of the way in the quiet companionship of, out of breath from fighting the snow around their ankles and from tingling flares of nerves.
The village that had seemed serene under the early spring snow's thrall from a distance is still largely quiet, but Zuko notices a young man running toward them, spear in hand.
Katara notices him, too, and stops walking for a moment, watching. Then the expression on her face transforms to something like joy and she starts running, too, shouting. "Sokka! Sokka! It's me!"
Her brother's name, Zuko remembers, and follows Katara's eager footfalls at a slower pace.
Sokka pauses for a moment just before he reaches her, looking at her as though he can't believe what he's seeing. Zuko is close enough to hear: "Katara?" Sokka's voice cracks a little as he forms his sister's name. "Katara, is that really you?"
"Yes, you idiot," Katara says, and hurls herself at Sokka.
By the time Zuko reaches them, Katara is wrapped tightly in her brother's arms and both siblings are crying.
They release each other from the embrace, but Sokka keeps a hand on his sister's shoulder, like he still can't believe she's here.
"We thought we'd never see you again," he says in a broken half-whisper. "We thought you were gone for good. People don't come back from…from there."
"But I'm back," Katara replies, squeezing his arm near her shoulder. "I'm here now, and I'm safe." She wipes her eyes with her free hand. "What about you? Is everyone okay? What's happened while I've been gone? Has the Fire Nation come again? Is everyone okay?"
"Everyone's okay," Sokka says, pulling her in for another hug as he talks. "No Fire Nation, only snowstorms. But you, are you really okay?"
"Yeah," Katara says with a sniffle, squeezing him tight. "Yeah, I'm really okay. I mean, they put me in prison and I never want to go to prison ever again, but...yeah, I'm fine and I'm glad to be home again. I wouldn't be here without Zuko," she says, pulling back and angling herself to include Zuko in their conversation for the first time. "He helped me escape."
Sokka tilts his head toward Zuko, looking at him closely for the first time. It stretches long and Zuko can feel Sokka's emanating disapproval. "Zuko, huh?" Sokka says finally. "So, Katara, is it any coincidence that the man who brought you home has the same name as the prince of the Fire Nation?"
"Not a coincidence," Katara says, "because he is the prince of the Fire Nation." Before Sokka can respond, she rushes on. "Banished prince. The Fire Lord sent him on a mission to find the Avatar as punishment and he can't return home until he does, but…he really ruined it all by leaving his ship. He's here to fight against the Fire Lord. He wants to help us. He knows things that can help us, how the Fire Nation works."
"Right," Sokka says, his tone ringing false as he metes out his words with careful measure. "So we're just supposed to believe that the Fire Nation prince turned his back on his family and his homeland because...what? He had a sudden change of heart after being raised by bloodthirsty barbarians?"
The words sting Zuko more than they should; after all, it's what he was taught to think of the Water Tribes.
Katara shakes her head. "That's not it, Sokka. He's... It's his story to tell, but I trust him. He's not like his father. He wants to find the Avatar and help us win the war."
Sokka lets out a put-upon sigh, picks up the spear he dropped to hug Katara, and stalks toward Zuko. "You," Sokka says, pointing at the other boy with the spear, "come with me and you'd better have a good explanation as to why you're here. Because the last time the Fire Nation came, they took my sister away. You'd better have a very good reason why you're bringing her back and why you're here, too."
"I can give answers to any questions you want to ask me," Zuko says, surprised his voice sounds as sure as it does. "Take me to the chief; I know I'll have to answer to him and to the Tribe."
"Darn right," Sokka mutters, and turns on his heel and begins stalking through the snow toward the clutch of huts and igloos in the distance. Katara follows him closely.
"Where were you today, anyway?" she asks Sokka. "How did you see us?"
"I was in my lookout tower!" Sokka nods vaguely in the direction from which he had come running, and Zuko assumes he's talking about the tall snow structure set off to one side of the village. "I wasn't even supposed to be there today, but one of the boys broke a spear when we were practicing yesterday and so I fixed it today and I went there to put it back and I saw you and…and… I wasn't supposed to be there, but I was," he finishes, seemingly unable to find more words. It hangs in the air between them for an instant: you aren't supposed to be here, but you are.
"We've got to find Mom and Dad," Sokka says finally. "They'll be so happy to see you."
Zuko follows at a slight distance, but then Sokka stops and turns around. "Come on, Fire Boy, or your feet will freeze. Those shoes are terrible for the snow and Tui only knows how long you two have been walking already."
Zuko nods and follows the siblings into their village.
They reach the central structure of the village quickly and Zuko watches as Sokka pushes open the wood-framed door to the large tent and walks inside. Sokka's hand is still tight around Katara's, and the spear is slung through the leather loops of a small pack so that his other hand is free. He has it wrapped around Zuko's wrist, where it's been ever since they passed the first humble dwelling, but Zuko doesn't fight the indignity. He follows and is glad of the sudden rush of warmer air as they enter, the fires that burn, the lack of wind inside the tent.
In the din of crackling wood, clicking tools, and shouting children—it looks like everything Katara had described and still nothing like Zuko had pictured—no one looks up at their entrance, so Sokka shouts, "Hey, look who I found!" and keeps walking with Katara toward an older woman.
When she looks up, Zuko sees the family resemblance and his eyes catch on beads that match Katara's braided into her dark hair.
Sokka stops, releases his sister, and watches with Zuko as she runs to her mother.
The blur of recognition and hugs and tears passes in loud minutes, and Zuko stands beside Sokka, watching as Katara is welcomed back to her people.
Where she belongs.
Attention turns to him slowly, starting with Katara's mother after Katara points him out, but before he fully realizes what's happening, all eyes in the tent are on him.
He stands still and waits, the knot in his stomach growing tighter and his pulse beating faster, as a man approaches him.
"That's my dad," Sokka supplies, loudly and somewhat cheerfully, letting go of Zuko's wrist to push him forward. "He's the chief."
Zuko drops into a low bow.
"Prince Zuko of the Fire Nation," Hakoda says, and his voice holds the promise of all the sharpness of Sokka's spear.
Zuko breathes in the smell of dirt beneath his nose and tries to focus.
Zuko does, and a quick command from the chief has him surrounded by a handful of warriors with spears trained on him.
"Tell me why you're here."
"I'm here to find the Avatar." Zuko manages to keep his voice mostly steady, but he glances over at Katara after he speaks.
"Don't look at her. Look at me." Hakoda remains with his arms crossed, gaze steely. "I assume my daughter already knows why you're here. I don't. And it is something I am very, very interested in finding out."
"Dad, he's—" Katara starts, but Hakoda holds up a hand to stop her. She worries her lip and takes a step back, narrowing her eyes.
"I want him to tell me first, Katara," Hakoda says. "Enemy's defense first. Then I'll hear what you have to say and see if your stories match."
Silence stretches, so Zuko clears his throat and continues. "I'm here to find the Avatar and help him bring peace to the world."
"Why come here? You could have gone anywhere."
"I did. Well, not everywhere, but a lot of places. I searched parts of the Earth Kingdom and some of the old Air Temples and we were headed for this part of the world. And…" Zuko stumbles over his words, trying to find the right ones. Years of practicing oration with tutors have done nothing for his ease or skill here. "And I wanted to bring Katara home," he says finally, which is close enough to the truth. If she can't be with him, he wants to know she's with other people who love her.
"Is she still a prisoner of the Fire Nation?"
"No." Zuko shakes his head and tries to choose his next words carefully. "She was released into my custody by Fire Lord Ozai some months ago, when we left the Fire Nation, and…she was never my prisoner. I never would have stopped her if she wanted to leave. I helped her," he adds, hoping that fact helps him, "when the time was right."
"So it took her all this time to want to leave."
"No, sir. She always wanted to leave. But she never had feasible opportunity before she improved her bending and before my ship approached the South Pole."
When he mentions Katara's bending, hushed whispers run through the crowd, and Katara draws some of the attention away from him.
"I see," is all Hakoda says, and he stands pondering Zuko for a long moment more.
"Dad," Katara begins again, and Hakoda turns to her, nodding for her to speak. "He's telling the truth," she says. "He wants to help end the war."
"We'll talk in private," Hakoda says. "Bato!" he calls, and one of the warriors that surround Zuko steps forward. "Take Prince Zuko to your tent for the evening. Keep a close eye on him. We'll hold a trial tomorrow morning." He turns back to Zuko. "Your fate will be decided by what my daughter says tonight and by what you say tomorrow. Eat some stew now. I'm sure you're both hungry. Get some sleep tonight, if you can."
Zuko eats silently beside Bato in one corner of the tent, away from where the families eat their dinner. The stew tastes strange and bland, but he's too hungry to fully notice or care. After he eats, Bato nods and says, "Come with me."
Katara's worried expression follows Zuko as he follows Bato out into the new-fallen darkness. The snow has stopped, but the cold still cuts into his skin. When they reach Bato's own small tent, Zuko shuffles under the pile of furs Bato points out to him and tries to go to sleep. It doesn't work, with the feeling of tension that fills him. He knows he's being watched and he's afraid of making any wrong move.
And with the looks Bato shoots his way, Zuko is also a little worried he might be murdered in his sleep.
Not that he wouldn't deserve it, not with what his country's done, what his family's done.
But Bato doesn't move, either to to harm him or to sleep. He only whittles near the fire, and eventually the rhythmic scritch of knife against wood and overwhelming exhaustion combine and Zuko sleeps.
The next morning, Zuko awakens with confusion. It takes him a long moment before he realizes where he is, and when he does, all of his tension from the night before returns. He sits up and blinks at his surroundings. Eventually he sees Bato, who doesn't appear to have moved from his fireside position the night before, and says, "Good morning."
He can at least try to be polite.
Bato nods, then stands and says, "Follow me."
They walk back to the lodge together. The morning is still dark, but Zuko wants to think that he can feel the sun just beyond the edge of the horizon. His breath tastes stale as it puffs into the cold air around him.
He can hear the noise of the people this time as they approach the main tent. Maybe it's because he was there yesterday and knows what noises to listen for, what sounds the Water Tribe makes in community. Maybe it's because the wind is less strong than it was yesterday. He doesn't know for sure.
When he steps through the doorway, Katara is there, waiting for him. She squeezes his hand and ignores Bato's impatient look. "Good luck," she says. Then she lets go of his hand slowly and he watches as she walks back to her family.
He follows Bato over to the corner where they'd eaten the night before, and it is Katara who brings them food this time—bowls of warm soup, thinner than the stew the night before.
She eats with her family, her mother and father and brother, and although she occasionally shoots worried looks in Zuko's direction, he can't help but notice that she looks alive here in her home, more alive than he has seen her yet, even during their most intense bending training. Her face is alight with a joy he hasn't seen in her before, a sort of ease that must come with being home, and it strikes him again how guilty he feels in all of this. He doesn't have the right to covet any of her affections.
But then she looks at him and tries to cover the worry in her face with a warm smile. For her efforts, the clenched fist around Zuko's heart relaxes a little bit. He sips his soup and waits for his trial.
The trial before the Southern Water Tribe stretches on through the day and Zuko wonders if it's ever going to end. He goes with Chief Hakoda and the warriors to a smaller tent and spends hours answering questions.
Not that he doesn't deserve it. He's pretty sure he does. After all, he's Fire Nation. The prince of the Fire Nation, albeit a banished one. And he's on enemy ground, with people his nation has worked to eradicate.
Not only is he an enemy, but he's an enemy who has no real reason to be here. His search for the Avatar didn't need to take him to lodge here, but here he sits, among people whose wives and daughters and sisters were taken by the Fire Nation. The men here, they are the husbands and sons and brothers, and some of their ranks were taken as prisoners or lost in battles against his homeland, too.
Zuko's head hurts. And the men around him are watching him with such careful scrutiny that he's almost sure he'll be lucky to be imprisoned.
Sitting here now, under trial, Zuko knows more than ever that he doesn't deserve Katara, that he doesn't deserve to be allowed to like her as much as he does, to have thoughts of a future with her, even if it never comes to pass. And somehow, even though they've scarcely looked at each other since they landed on the Southern Water Tribe's shores, Zuko is sure that everyone must know, that Chief Hakoda and his wife Kya—Katara's dear, beloved mother, the one she holds in such high esteem—must know what he's done. He'd kissed a girl from the Southern Water Tribe, and he's Fire Nation.
That alone seems like reason enough for them to imprison him.
As questions come, he answers. Painstakingly, full of shame, Zuko tells them of his years growing up, how Azula was always favored. He tells them about the war room, and how he spoke when he shouldn't have, when it displeased his father to have him speak. He tells about the Agni Kai, and can only hope they believe he's telling the truth when he gives them the explanation of the still-too-fresh scar on his face. He tells of his banishment and of Iroh's revelation of his history. He tells how he feels like the timing is right, and how he thinks, if he finds the Avatar, he could help to bring peace in an official capacity. And if not, then at least he's seen the error of his country's ways and he wants to help the rebels fight against his father.
"It's not that I don't love the Fire Nation," he says with bitter resignation. "I do love the Fire Nation. But I don't love this war, and I think—I think my father is wrong to wage it against the world as he does. The Fire Nation isn't better than any other nation, and we shouldn't try to crush anyone under our power. I want to help," he says, and he hopes it's true. He hopes they believe it's true: although he knows they very well might not believe him, he really doesn't want to have traveled all this way to be sent away again. Rejected again.
When the questions have stopped, Chief Hakoda watches Zuko for another long moment, but some of the suspicion that had been in his expression before the trial is gone. His manner is still sober and serious, but his face is kind when he tells Zuko that he may stay in the Tribe. "On probation," he says, firmly. "You will be watched, and if we suspect your intentions, you will become our prisoner or we will send you out onto the ice."
Zuko hasn't been so sheltered that he doesn't know that's a death sentence.
After the trial, he feels a strange mixture of relief and continuing tension. He needs to prove himself to these people and he has no idea where to begin.
He is glad to find allies in Katara and Sokka, who are waiting outside the tent where Hakoda held the trial. They both run up to him as he walks out.
"I'm glad they've accepted you," Katara says sincerely, intently, making no attempt to hide the fact that she was eavesdropping, and Sokka watches from behind her with a little lingering suspicion.
"We've got our eyes on you, Fire Boy," he says firmly, but then his stance loosens a little and he says, with curiosity, "Katara tells me you know how to fight?"
"I firebend," Zuko says carefully, still heady with the fact that he walks free, but Sokka shakes his head in dismissal.
"Swords, dude. I'm a pretty good swordsman myself." He puffs his chest out in pride.
"Katara told me that," Zuko says. "She says you're quite skilled."
"You got it!" Sokka says, slipping an arm around his sister's shoulders. He continues speaking to Zuko. "So after the womenfolk get you rested and fed and all of that," he shakes his free hand dismissively, "I want to fight you. Always looking for a new challenge."
"Always looking for new bragging rights," Katara snorts, and smiles at Zuko, slipping out from under Sokka's arm to take Zuko's hand. "Come on, let's get you some food."
"Me, too!" Sokka says, tagging along with them as they walk over to the part of the central tent and its cook-fire. "I'm hungry."
"You're always hungry, Sokka," Katara says, but her voice is full of affection.
After they've gathered bowls of stew, Katara says, "You can sit with us this time. Finally." She smiles at Zuko and he lets himself smile back as they walk to join her family.
Her mother, whose name he learns is Kya, is the only one who presents him with a kind smile. Hakoda's gaze is even, not quite a glower, and Sokka just looks...friendly but suspicious. Zuko isn't sure how that's possible, but somehow the other boy manages it.
Zuko sits down and begins to eat when Katara does, enjoying real food that is so much warmer against the cold than old jerky.
"So, prince Zuko," Sokka begins, his mouth full, "Tell me about your sword-fighting."
There are worse topics to start on.
"I, um, I fight with swords?" Zuko begins, and it sounds too much like a question. "I mean, I use two at once—dao swords. I am a trained firebender—I've trained ever since I was little—but I have also trained in swordsmanship with Master Piandao of Shu Jing, a renowned swordmaster. I spent every autumn at his estate, training. That was my uncle's idea and my mother's arrangement—my father never wanted me to learn the art of the sword."
"Why not?" Sokka interrupts, his mouth still full of food and his expression full of interest. "Isn't it, like, your country's goal to take over the whole world?" He swallows and waves his not-quite-empty bowl, nearly spilling his stew. "Wouldn't knowing how to firebend and use swords be a big advantage?"
Zuko swallows hard. "It's not perceived that way," he says, trying to be objective in his presentation. "In the Fire Nation, all weapons are seen as lesser tools for lesser men—for those who can't firebend. A firebender is expected to rely on his firebending alone."
"That's really dumb," Sokka says.
"But your mother pressed for you to train in the sword, as well?" Hakoda breaks in. He looks at Zuko seriously. "Why would she do that if it's so unusual?"
"Um..." Zuko tries to think of an answer that doesn't shame him in the process. "My mother thought it would be good to get a break from the capital sometimes," he says finally. "And she thought it would be a good idea for me to have a skill that was my own in the family. My father and my sister are both excellent firebenders. I've never been quite as good as they are."
Katara reaches out from where she sits beside him and lays her hand across his for a long instant, squeezing his fingers in hers. Zuko sees Hakoda's eyes track the movement like a raven eagle.
"Zuko's mother, Fire Lady Ursa, disappeared while I was imprisoned there," Katara says, settling in with her stew again. "I don't know if you've heard the news."
"We hadn't," Kya says, glancing at Hakoda, at the same time that Sokka says, raising one eyebrow suspiciously, "What do you mean, disappeared?"
"We don't know," Katara says. "One day she just…wasn't in her room any more. She left a note, though, that Zuko and I found, so we think she might still be alive somewhere. But it was really strange."
"Yeah," Zuko agrees around the growing lump in his throat. "It was."
Katara breaks the increasing solemnity by adding, "And then Zuko did exactly what Sokka does when he's mad—he threw something and it got him in trouble. Except instead of throwing a boomerang, he threw fire at a wall and burnt himself and then I healed him!"
"You can heal?" Kya asks, looking at her daughter with interest. "I know that the older waterbenders were trained in the art, but I didn't know you could do it!"
"I didn't know I could, either," Katara admits, "but Zuko was hurt and I was just trying to put some water on the burn to soothe it and then the water started glowing and...healed. I've tried it more since then—on bending injuries—and I'm starting to be able to control it more, to feel what I'm supposed to be healing in someone's body, to feel what's broken and what it's like to fix it."
"That's wonderful, Katara," her mother says. "Your grandmother will be so pleased to hear it when you join her to help in the healing huts again."
"Katara is a very talented waterbender," Zuko says. Katara's family is so different from his own, and they soak up the praise for her with pride of their own. "She's learned her bending very quickly, even without a waterbending master. I'm sure that if she found one, she would quickly become a master in her own right under the proper tutelage."
"And what sort of 'tutelage' has she had so far?" Hakoda asks.
Zuko stammers. "I—I taught her at first," he says nervously. "When we lived in the capital. And then my uncle trained both her and me when we were onboard ship. Uncle is a true firebending master. He's an excellent teacher, but he's not a waterbender, so he couldn't teach her as fully as she would like to learn."
"Waterbending is dangerous in this world," Kya says sadly, leaning over to hug Katara, "but you are blessed in your skills, sweetie."
"Your uncle," Hakoda says thoughtfully, his attention still on Zuko. "You mentioned him this morning, as well. Who is this uncle, Prince Zuko?"
"Retired General Iroh, sir," Zuko replies respectfully.
And for the first time, Zuko sees Hakoda's calculated control fumble for an instant. "The Dragon of the West?" he asks incredulously. He turns to Katara. "Katara, you were trained in waterbending by the Dragon of the West?"
Katara nods. "Yeah, Dad," she says. "General Iroh is...well, he's not at all like I would expect a Fire Nation general to be. He's stern, but he's kind, too. He cares about people."
"Age must have tempered him," Hakoda says solemnly, "because all the reports I have heard about General Iroh in battle are not nearly that generous with their descriptions."
"My uncle changed after his son was killed in the battle of Ba Sing Se," Zuko supplies quietly. "He went to travel the world for a while, and he came back different. I didn't interact with him much when I was very young, when he was still an active general, but he was harsher then, more...more like my father, I guess. But after he came back from the war, he...was more interested in us. In our family, the only family that he had left. My father struck a deal with my grandfather to become Fire Lord and no one will tell me what it was, but Uncle Iroh abdicated his role willingly."
Hakoda's face is tense, as is his posture. He speaks to Zuko, but his eyes are on Katara. "It is no little thing, to lose a child. Or any member of your family."
"The Fire Nation does that," Zuko says, reading between the lines of what's not being said. "I'm sorry."
"Yes, they do," Hakoda says gruffly. "It's not your doing, boy," Hakoda says—if not gently, then with somewhat less harshness. "At least, not directly." He puts his hand on Zuko's shoulder and squeezes a little before retracting his hand. "And you helped Katara in her escape from imprisonment. That is no little thing for you."
"No," Zuko agrees, a near-giddy wave of simultaneous relief and panic flooding him. "It's not. I can't— No matter what happens, I can't go home again, ever."
"The world is changing," Hakoda says slowly. "We see signs of it from time to time, and one can hope that these changes will be for the better, and that they will stay. It is the reason we hope—the reason we fight." He looks at Zuko calculatingly. "And you are here to fight," he says, but it's not really a question.
"Yes, sir," Zuko says again. He'll says it as many times as it takes to convince them.
"We'll see," is all Hakoda says. "We'll see what that becomes."
Then the conversation turns abruptly to the upcoming fishing trip.
It's the next day, when Zuko has been assigned, along with Sokka and some of the younger boys, to sharpen the weapons and knives, that Sokka pulls him aside and confronts him about Katara.
They've been working for the past several hours, and Sokka acts like it's a huge burden that he needs to teach the little boys as well as this Fire Nationer how to make the weapons sharp and ready for use all by himself.
One of the annual fish migrations is coming up and they will need all of their weapons ready for the hunt.
After the basics have been taught and the rasp of blades against bone and stone fills the quiet around the fire, Sokka plops down next to Zuko and pulls out his own whetstone and sets to work.
"My sister likes you," Sokka says without preamble, running the blade against the stone.
Zuko's hands pause in their work. "Why do you say that?" he asks carefully.
He doesn't look at Sokka, but he hears a sigh and he's pretty sure the boy beside him just rolled his eyes. "Because I'm not an idiot. And she's a terrible liar." He pokes Zuko with the blunt end of the knife in his hand. "And so are you. You look at her with googly eyes whenever she's in the same general area as you. You like her, too."
"I...do," Zuko says. He doesn't know what point there is in denying it. He's thought about marrying Katara for some time now, and even though it seems impossible, he thinks about it a lot. And Sokka is the closest thing he's ever had to a friend and he doesn't want to ruin that.
"So what are you gonna do about it?" Sokka challenges, pitching his voice quieter so that the younger boys sitting nearby don't hear. "Fire Nation men taking Water Tribe women has a really harsh history here. Your countrymen have been taking my tribe's women to torture for decades. How do you think this is going to work out for you? Do you think the Tribe is going to accept you? Let you marry her and live with us and fight with us? What do you have to offer her?"
"Nothing," Zuko snaps, anxious and unnerved. "I have nothing to offer her, don't you think I know that?"
"I don't know what you think, Fire Boy," Sokka answers evenly. "That's what I'm trying to find out."
"Look, I know I probably can't marry her. The world just doesn't work like that right now. But I'd like to, if I could. And if I can't…" He frowns and forces a shrug. "I'll let her go."
"And you don't, like, have to marry her?" Sokka's voice is sharp now and it takes Zuko a moment to grasp his insinuation before he splutters a response.
"No! No. I mean…no."
"So…no." Sokka's voice is back to teasing for a moment. "Okay, so I'll do my best to keep Mom and Dad off the scent, but if you do anything—and I mean anything—to hurt her, it's over. I'll personally tear you limb from limb." He pulls a small knife from his pocket and tosses it into one of the tent-poles, where it sticks its target and shivers in place.
Zuko nods. "Okay. Uh, cool. Thank you?"
"Don't mention it," Sokka says. "But go get me my knife back, please."
The morning after that, Sokka challenges Zuko to a swordfight, and Zuko ends up spending the better part of the day sparring with different warriors. It's the closest thing to fun he's had in a long time.
After Sokka loses to Zuko, Katara fights her brother with her waterbending. She wins, too, and Sokka sulks until he beats one of the other warriors in a spar soon after.
Hakoda praises Katara's skill and Zuko's, too. Blindsided and unsure what else to do, Zuko bows and thanks him.
Weeks pass in a series of uncertain days, and while Zuko is never completely at ease in his new surroundings—the sense that he must look over his shoulder constantly lingers, although which danger he searches for, he's unsure—each day lessens his trepidation to a small degree.
Katara sends him off with Sokka each morning after breakfast, because Sokka's chores are the ones he can help with most ably and appropriately, but she spends most of the morning meals talking to him in the lulls of her family's conversation, giving him whatever information she can about what he's going to be doing that day and answering any questions he has about life on the ice.
He misses tea and his homeland and his mother, but his time in the Southern Water Tribe starts to be comfortable, and Zuko knows that can't last.
Katara is almost as happy to be home as she thought she'd be.
The moment she'd been wrapped up in her mother's hug on that first day, Katara had felt something inside her heart soften again, a part of her that she'd hardened during her time of captivity. She has people here; she is known here and she knows others.
Being around her family again makes her happy, and even when Gran Gran reminds her to do her chores, she's glad to help, because it feels so right to have her world make sense again.
But things are different now, in smaller ways that she couldn't have predicted. Even when she's teasing Sokka or when one of the younger girls is showing her a sewing project she's completed, Katara can't quite shake the knowledge that the world is still at war. It's no longer theoretical, and she's sitting here at the bottom of the world with someone who wants to help. Her inaction rankles as much as it soothes.
The only thing she misses about her time on the dinghy with Zuko is solitude. She had it in plenty there, and here, her whirling thoughts are constantly interrupted by the very noise and bustle of community she missed so much while she was away.
It had been one thing when she was in the Fire Nation, thinking of returning home at some point, imagining where she might fit back into life there, if she might fit back into life there, and into the war effort, too.
And then, as months away passed, she began to consider the added nuance of whether Zuko might fit into her life at the South Pole somehow. Katara had never expected that hope to be anything more than a daydream, because even now that Zuko is here and taking part in the life of her Tribe, the joy that she has of seeing him every day is pierced with the knowledge that he can't stay. The two of them can't just settle here at the South Pole, even if her family granted them permission to marry.
The world is still at war and now she has had a taste of the fight. She's still herself in the ways that matter most to those around her: she's still her parents' daughter and her brother's sister and the girl who plays with water. She's still terrified of the future, too, but she's also someone else now. She's a warrior, with tools to back up the simmering rage that has boiled over into anger and a need for a sense of purpose.
She hopes her father and mother will see that, when the time comes for her to talk to them about whatever plans she hatches that will lead her away from her southern home.
Now, as in the Fire Nation, she waits, although this time she doesn't know what to expect when her waiting ends. The days carry on with no new word from the outside world, but she knows that her father talks with the warriors nearly daily about plans for another excursion to the warfront, probably sometime soon.
Her mother brushes her hair most mornings, working a bone comb through the tangles and talking to her in the quiet with only the fire-crackle for noise while the men tend the animals before breakfast. This is one of Katara's favorite parts of the day, an old habit that soothes her troubled mind.
After their talks have covered all manner of subjects and Katara has cried and laughed and told the angles of her story in more ways than she thought she ever could, that morning is the one when her mother brings up the elephant-koi in the igloo.
"Katara," Kya says thoughtfully as she works the comb over small, snagged knots in the remnants of yesterday's braid, "what are you planning to do about Zuko?"
"What do you mean?" Katara tries to keep her words calm despite the sudden murmurs of panic in her gut.
"Sweetie, I know you," Kya says, and even after all their time apart, Katara feels herself relax a little bit when she realizes that this is still true, even now. "You like him. You're sixteen, and every bit as young and as old as that age holds."
The comb keeps moving, steady and practiced, and Katara can feel her mother's eyes on her, even though she can't see the woman behind her.
Katara keeps her own eyes steady on the small fire.
"Does he talk of marrying you?"
Yes, around quiet kisses, under wide night skies that make possibilities seem endless, unlike the realities of the world.
"He can't." Katara evades, but Kya hums softly in response and Katara knows she hasn't fooled her mother. Kya keeps working the comb through her hair while Katara searches for words. "What life could we make together? He's a fugitive and I'm…" Lost, but she doesn't know how to tell her mother that.
"But you still speak of it together."
Katara blinks, then realizes there's no point in lying. She's exhausted the possibilities in her own mind herself, lying alone on her pile of furs and smelling the night-fire, eyes straining toward the dark thatched ceiling above her. "Yes. We do."
"I married your father when I was sixteen," Kya says, and Katara can hear the smile in her voice. "He was…determined. He'd been courting me for three years, and he started by throwing snowballs at me and my friends in order to catch my attention." She laughs. "That didn't. It only made me mad. But later, he found ways to make me notice him. He's a good man, Katara, and I think Zuko is, too."
She sighs, and the comb pauses for a second. "We were at war then, too, but somehow the world always seems simpler when you're dealing with your own lives and not your children's."
Katara is ashamed of how small her voice sounds when she speaks. "Would you disown me? If I married him?"
"Never, sweetie." Her mother's voice is sure, and relief floods Katara, sharp and sweet.
"Do you think it's even possible that we could have a future together?"
Kya's voice is less sure after the long pause during which she lays aside the comb and sections Katara's hair for a braid. "That, sweetheart, I don't know."
Then Katara turns to look at her mother, who smiles sadly. "Keep still or I'll have to start over, sweetie."
It's the same thing she's heard every time her mother's done her hair since she was little. She hadn't realized how much she missed it, doing her hair on her own while she was gone. Katara fights the sudden tightness in her throat when she answers. "Yeah, Mom. I know."
Answers remain elusive for all of the questions that plague Katara's mind, so she clings to the one thing she can: the routine of the life of the Tribe. The fishing time comes and she hugs Zuko farewell, kissing his cheek and making him blush as he goes off to hunt with the men. The wives kiss their husbands goodbye, and Katara pretends not to notice the disapproval on some of their faces when they see her with Zuko.
Things are a little different after the men return, a week later. Zuko was a quick learner and has proven himself in the hunt. He contributed to the Tribe's welfare, and they don't hate him as much as they could, given his history.
"Do you think they'd let me stay here with the Tribe?" he asks Katara one night, the two of them crowded just outside the entrance to her family's hut, and the hesitation in his voice makes her heart ache.
If there weren't a war ongoing, she'd fight them all until they did.
"Maybe," she says, squeezing his hands where they're twined with hers and savoring the fact that it's warm enough that they don't have to wear mittens constantly any longer. "Give it a few more fishing trips and ask again."
Her small attempt at levity earns her a smile.
"Maybe next time I'll even find the Avatar," he says, and the fact that he can even joke about that makes something in Katara melt a little. Zuko is so strong, and he doesn't deserve the life he's been given.
But then, none of them does.
She leans up to kiss him, and stays close to him until Gran Gran's voice calls her in from the cold and Zuko heads back to Bato's tent. It's late and they have an outing planned with Sokka the next day, so they need their sleep.
"Today," Sokka says, his boomerang gripped tightly in his outstretched hand, "today, my friends, we go to harvest the firstfruits of spring, given to us by Tui and La and the turning of the seasons—"
Katara snorts and slings her basket onto her back. "Today, my brother, we go to the far point to gather some early berries because we're young, the climb is difficult, and everyone's tired of seal jerky but there aren't enough ripe berries yet to warrant a larger group going."
"Yeah, or that." Sokka shrugs, sheathing his boomerang and picking up his own basket. "The joys of being the only teenagers in the Tribe. You coming, Fire Boy?"
"Wouldn't miss it," Zuko says, walking close to Katara as they start away from the village.
"Wouldn't want to be stuck alone with my dad and be interrogated about your intentions regarding my sister, you mean," Sokka corrects.
"Yeah, or that."
Sokka whacks Zuko's shoulder. "You learn fast."
The berries that grow on the far point are few, just scattered clusters of purple on mostly-bare bushes, but the number of greening buds promises a better harvest later in the spring.
Katara, Zuko, and Sokka gather the available berries in the better part of an hour, then settle onto a blanket for an early lunch.
"Here, for both of you," Sokka says, tossing Katara a branch that had fallen from the berry bushes. He bows dramatically and she laughs.
"Anything for you, Sis," he says, but then he looks over the rocky ridge and out to the sea.
"Because the berries on this bush are the first to grow in the spring, the branches are used to symbolize fertility," Katara explains to Zuko. "They're given as gifts to new brides to ensure strong children. But they're also used as symbols of forgiveness, for a fresh start." She looks up from the branch and lets herself see the longing in Zuko's gaze when he looks at her. Then she smiles and whispers loudly, pointing the stick toward her brother, "I think it means Sokka approves of you."
"Yeah, yeah, whatever," Sokka says, turning back to them. "Oh, eww!" He tosses one arm over his eyes and kicks some of the snow that still covers much of the ground in their general direction. "Look, Katara—" he pulls his arm back to his side and glares at them "—these good vibes are great and all, but there's a rule: keep your googly eyes to yourself, please."
"That's not a rule," Katara retorts, and leans up to kiss Zuko quickly before she bends snow onto Sokka's wolf-tail.
Sokka lets out a yelp of protest.
"Just wait till you find a girl, Sokka," she retorts. "Then I'm sure you'll find a way to get your revenge."
"I'm never gonna find a girl here," Sokka mumbles begrudgingly in return. "Fate made sure you were the only girl even close to my age." He frowns, and Katara feels a little bad, because that is the truth.
So she says, "Awww, don't worry, Sokka, I'm sure you'll find a girl someday."
"Sure," Sokka says grumpily, standing up and shifting his basket onto his shoulder. "End the war, travel the world, find a girl. Easy plan, right?"
"The easiest," Katara chimes in with a falsely stretched smile, shouldering her own basket.
They climb down the ridge in near silence, Sokka still moping and the others busy with their own thoughts, walk back to their canoe, and then all three of them climb in. Sokka positions himself in the back and motions for Katara to take the middle as she had on the trip to the point.
"Let me use my bending, Sokka," she says, depositing her basket in the canoe. "Put the paddles down. I want to practice."
Sokka shakes his head, his expression still gloomy. "And let you maneuver us right into an iceberg? No, thanks."
"She can do a lot," Zuko protests from the front of the canoe. "She helped us navigate on the way here. She did most of the work."
Katara shoots him a disapproving look and opens her mouth to disagree, but the expression on Sokka's face softens. "Okay, fine," he concedes. "Show me your magic water."
"That 'magic water' kicked your butt in several spars," Katara reminds him, her voice tight. "And it's waterbending."
Sokka waves his hand. "Same difference."
"It's not," Katara insists, and she searches the horizon for the biggest iceberg she can see, then finds her grounding and pulls from two directions. Their canoe hurtles suddenly toward it with surprising speed at the same time that the iceberg starts glowing and cracks in two.
"Back us up! Back us up!" Sokka shouts, reaching hurriedly for a paddle as Katara reverses the flow of her bending.
They reach a safe distance from the iceberg and watch as it splits and the pieces shift away. Once the surface appears to have calmed, Sokka hesitantly moves them closer, the paddle breaking the surface in succinct, silent strokes.
Katara leans out of the middle of the canoe, and they all startle when a large iceberg chunk surfaces near them, glowing.
She's the one who sees him first. "There's a boy in there!"
Inside the iceberg, the boy's eyes open and start to glow.
"He's alive!" Katara exclaims, pulling on the water and moving them closer. "We have to help!"
"Katara, stop that," Sokka says, but she's already feeling through the ice with her bending, slowly peeling open the layers that surround the boy.
When the iceberg chunk splits, it does so with a rush of air and light. A beam of light shoots straight upward and the celestial lights start to glow.
Katara vaguely hears Zuko say, "You've got to be kidding me. Finally," from somewhere near her side, his voice nearly hidden in the hissing air that surrounds them. She looks at him sharply. It can't be… Can it?
When the air clears enough that they can see, the boy has climbed to the top of the icy crater and teeters there, eyes closed. Katara pulls water to form a platform underneath him and catches him when he falls. She maneuvers him near to the canoe, and Zuko's the one who pulls him in, his yellow and orange robes wet but otherwise unharmed.
Katara dries the boy's robes and dumps the water into the sea that surrounds them. She moves the boy so he's lying on his back between her and where Zuko kneels, staring at the child, dumbstruck.
Sokka leans forward over her shoulder and reaches to poke the boy's head with the butt end of his spear.
"Stop it!" Katara hisses at her brother. "He's just a boy!"
"Yeah. A boy who glows. Not normal. I'll poke him if I want to."
"Don't," Zuko says, finding his voice and for the first time in a long time sounding like a prince issuing a command.
Katara swallows hard and, for a moment, remembers the angry boy who shouted at her from a healing bed, remembers the smirks of his father and sister that had seemed so prevalent in him, too, at the time. But she also remembers Zuko, the one who is with her now, who looks astounded but not confused. They've found the Avatar, Zuko is going to help her fight for her people, and, if it ever comes to it, he's going to be a great leader for the Fire Nation.
The boy in yellow shifts and moans and, behind her, Sokka lowers his spear. "Spoilsports," he mutters.
The boy blinks at them then, opening his wide grey eyes slowly and taking in his surroundings in surprise. "Hi," he says weakly, but after a few more slow blinks, his eyes regain some focus and then there's a smile stretching across his young face, looking wide and pale against the still-bright rendition of the celestial lights that painted the sky at this appearance. When he speaks again, his voice is stronger. "Which Water Tribe is this? It's really snowy and cold here. Will you three go penguin sledding with me?"
"Uh…sure, I guess," Katara answers, glancing up at Zuko curiously over the boy's head.
Zuko watches the boy warily, and it's Sokka who finds his voice next.
"Hey, why aren't you frozen?"
a/n: all quotes/recognizable scenes from "the boy in the iceberg".
thank you to all readers/commenters/followers! i really appreciate every little bit of feedback. this was meant to be a quick exercise in finishing things for zutara week 2015, an expansion of a drabble i wrote that i wanted to make better, and it wasn't mean to take longer than the actual week. now, a year and a half later, it's finally finished! it has been really fun to see what this story became versus my original notes. thank you for your patience!
tbqh, if this were a movie i was watching, that final scene is where i'd turn to my husband, roll my eyes, and complain, "they are so setting that up for a sequel." while there could conceivably be one to this story, since it turned into a prequel to a reimagined, zutara-centric atla universe, i don't have any plans to write one. i have a few scenes rattling around in my head that relate to this 'verse, but nothing story-shaped.
(and along those lines: if you happened to read the earliest version of this chapter that got posted, know that one of the lines has been changed to better reassure everyone that this is HAPPY ENDING territory. it was a little too ambiguous and i want there to be no doubts that zuko's a good guy and it's zutara all the way in in this 'verse. so yeah. this is version 2.0.)
i really debated about whether or not to keep kya alive and you can thank my husband, who lobbied on her behalf while we were discussing that particular plot point, for her current status. while it can be argued that righteous anger on others' behalf may be stronger than righteous anger on one's own behalf (and i can totally see that being the case with katara), i decided to let her keep her mother.
also, let it be noted that sokka is my favorite. he is a blast to write and i really tried to strike a balance between him being a little more mature than in the show but still having a lot to learn (a.k.a. suki will still have her work cut out for her). hopefully it worked!
anyway, thanks to everyone who read! i hope you enjoyed it!