Standard disclaimer: None of the characters, places, etc. in this story are mine, but are instead the property of Michael Dante DiMartino and Brian Konietzko. No copyright infringement is intended by their use in this story.
Author's note: This was inspired by a point I saw raised once about why so many Zutara fanfics featured Katara marrying into Zuko's life and not the other way around. There's an argument to be made that realistically it might be easier for Zuko to fit into the Water Tribe than for Katara to fit in as Fire Lady in a tremendously complex and strongly hierarchical court encrusted with layers of ancient ritual. (Looking at some of the struggles even modern-day commoners have had marrying into various royal houses should be a good reality check.) However, "easier" does not mean "easy."
I'll have some more extended author's notes at the end of the fic, so I'll just finish by giving a big thanks to LadyKate, who went above and beyond the call of duty in betaing this monster of a fic in a fandom she doesn't even follow. There may be a sequel coming up eventually, dealing with what happens to Zuko and Katara when they return to the Fire Nation.
This fic is dedicated to Mako Iwamatsu. Good night, Uncle Iroh. You'll be missed.
"Lucky you were born that far away so
We could both make fun of distance
Lucky that I love a foreign land for
The lucky fact of your existence…."
—Shakira, "Whenever, Wherever"
"Don't worry, Zuko, I'm sure Dad will love you," Katara said unconvincingly.
The new, yet-to-be-confirmed Fire Lord said nothing, but Katara saw his eyes flicker sideways toward her, and she could tell he was nervous. They stood on the deck of one of the Fire Nation's iron boats, icebreaking their way through the cold gray seas around the South Pole; the chill wind whipped Katara's hair, cutting even through the thick furs she had wrapped around her. A glance at her betrothed, though, and Katara guessed she was suffering less than Zuko. She had been born and raised here; this cold was second nature to her, and felt like a balmy day. From the hand clasped in hers, Katara could tell that Zuko had been forced to raise his internal temperature to cope, and the energy drain looked like it was starting to tell. The fact that he was once again back in the iron Fire Nation armor—heavy and tiring to wear—probably didn't help.
"Would you like my cloak?" she offered, shaking the heavy striped tiger seal fur from her shoulders. Zuko shook his head. His full head of hair was back in the topknot, and the ends of his new ponytail swung.
"I'm Fire Nation," he said quietly, "not Water Tribe. Let your father see me for who I am." His hand tightened on hers.
"You know, he may not even be there," Katara tried to reassure him. "I heard they were going to start the seasonal whale hunts again now that the war is over, and by tradition they start on the first day of each season. The first hunt should have left by now. You might end up meeting Gran-Gran first—"
"Dad'll be there," Sokka said, from where he was leaning against the starboard rail. He gave Zuko a narrow look, which the Fire Lord in waiting did not return. It had taken a very ugly argument and Katara dunking Sokka in a well before her brother had become reconciled to the situation, and he still was not happy with it at all. He had been terse and withdrawn all the way down from the Fire Capital, spending most of his time sharpening his weapons and practicing alone. After Katara's and Zuko's Water wedding here, the two of them would be returning to the Fire Capital; they would be remarried there according to Fire Nation tradition, and then the two of them would be crowned as Fire Lord and Lady. Katara wasn't expecting that ceremony to be much fun; since the Fire Nation armies had been resoundingly defeated by the armies of the Earth Kingdom and Water Tribe, and the power of Aang the Avatar, the entire Fire Nation had been more or less under occupation by Earth and Water nationals. She wasn't sure what kind of reception a Water Tribe woman would find there, especially one who was wedding the Fire Lord. She wouldn't even have Sokka with her; Sokka would be dropped off on the Isle of Kyoshi, where he and Suki would be wed according to Kyoshi custom, and Aang and Toph were leaving on Appa right after the ceremony down here, to start looking for surviving Air Nomads. "Of course I'm going with you, Twinkle Toes," Toph had said cheerfully. "Someone's gotta keep those pretty feet of yours on the ground."
Now, Zuko shivered a bit, edging closer to her. He looked tense. "Is it always this cold down here?"
"It's worse in the winter," Katara told him. "For me, this is like, my favorite temperature, right here."
He glanced at her. "This isn't winter?"
"Summer, Zuko," she corrected him patiently. "It's summer here. The seasons are reversed below the equator, remember?" She glanced up at the cloudy, overcast sky. "If it were full winter, we wouldn't be getting any daylight at all. Very, very depressing. Of course, twenty-four-hour daylight can be wearing too—they don't call it Midnight Sun Madness for nothing—" She looked at his expression and trailed off. "Never mind."
Zuko said nothing, but turned his head away; the scarred side of his face was to her, and she could not read his expression. She had offered to heal him some time ago, but Zuko's reaction had been ambivalent. "I want you to," he had said, but his words had lacked conviction. By that time Katara had come to realize some of what his scar represented to him—leading her both to think that Zuko really needed to have it healed, and to realize that for him it was not a simple matter—and had offered to do it after their marriage as a wedding present to him. That, she had thought, would give him enough lead time to get used to the idea. Zuko had agreed, but had looked tense, and he had not brought the subject up since then.
"Don't worry, Prince Zuko," Iroh called, stepping out of the wheelhouse behind them. He also was dressed in full Fire Nation armor, with his hair back in the topknot as was his nephew's, but he looked as cheerful and relaxed as if he had just stepped out of the bathhouse. "I'm sure everything will be fine. Perhaps your father would like a sporting game of pai-sho?" he asked Katara, smiling. Katara couldn't repress a small giggle.
"Well, I don't think Dad plays pai-sho. But you can ask him."
"We're getting close—look, here come the coracles," Sokka called, pointing over the edge to the round hide boats making their way through the choppy gray sea. "Man, I hope they don't think we're coming to attack them…."
"I'm sure they know the war is over," Katara told him. "The warriors would have told them when they came back—I bet they're even expecting us."
Zuko shook his head. "I knew it was a mistake to come in the ship," he muttered. "We should have taken the cutter—"
"Zuko." Katara tugged on his hand, getting him to look at her. "Everything's going to be fine," she told him, holding his gaze. "Okay?" After a moment, he gave a slight nod. "It's going to—"
"Holy cow!" At Sokka's cry, both their heads immediately snapped up, going to the Water warrior. "Katara, look!"
Katara dropped Zuko's hand and went running to the railing. Her jaw dropped as she stared over the side, as the ship drew closer to the shore. She turned to look at her brother incredulously. "What did they do to our village? Where's our village?" was all she could think to say in the first moment of surprise. "That's not a village, that's a—"
"Remember what I told Yue about the South Pole not being a cultural hub?" Sokka began, awed. "Well, it is now!"
As the ship drew up to the docks, escorted by Water Tribe coracles and junks, Katara and Sokka were speechless, simply staring at the sights that met their confused eyes. The tiny settlement that they had known as children—the loosely-packed snow wall surrounding a handful of hide tents and one igloo—was nowhere in evidence. Instead, sprawling out over the snow plain, was a densely settled area of ice houses, blue and white, with a two-story ice building at the center. A hard ice wall, high as a man's head, partially surrounded the settlement, higher to seaward and to windward, with men and even women stationed on top of the broad walkway every few intervals, sitting cross-legged or leaning on spears. The whole thing glistened in the long slanting rays of the afternoon sun, looking like a city of crystal. It was by no stretch of the imagination as grand a city as the Northern Water Tribe, but impressive none the less, particularly compared to what it had been.
"It certainly does look different," Iroh murmured, coming to stand beside Katara. Zuko came to the edge of the rail too, looking over the side; he said nothing.
"Whoa, there are actual docks now!" Sokka cried, amazed. Fire Nation deckhands were tossing hawsers down to the men—and there were even some women—in the coracles alongside, as water swelled under the iron boat, bending it carefully toward the docks. "And look—my watchtower!" What had formerly been a misshapen mound of snow prone to falling over at the slightest gust of wind now stood solid and tall, an impressive edifice wrought of gleaming ice with windows spiraling up its sides and ornate detailing at its top. Silver and blue banners prominently hung from the windows displayed alternately the Water Emblem and the crescent moon and three waves that stood for the Water Tribe. "Ha!" Sokka crowed triumphantly. "Try and knock that over!"
"Is that an actual marketplace?" Katara wondered, shading her eyes with her hand and peering at the open square with many tent roofs in front of the two-story building. "Gran-Gran said we had one when I was young, but I don't remember ever seeing it…"
"Yeah, you probably wouldn't remember it," Sokka told her absently, watching the docks. "It closed when I was six and you were four. Dad took me down there once, but even then it was almost deserted. I was so mad because I wanted him to get me a shaved-ice cone—hey, look! Elk-yaks!" Sokka pointed as three riders mounted in formation on elk yaks came trotting down the docks.
"It's bigger than it was last time," Zuko murmured, so quietly Katara almost missed it. She turned to look up at him.
"It's the Northern Water Tribe," she told him. "They said they were going to send people down to help us rebuild. It looks like they did." She squeezed his hand again in a burst of affection. "I'm so happy," she said, unable to keep down a bright grin. "This is great. It looks just like Gran-Gran always used to tell us it was like when we were little. It's just like I saw it in my head."
Zuko glanced down at her and after a moment, gave a small smile. He started to say something, but his words were cut off by the hiss of steam and screech of metal as the ship's gangplank began to lower. Deckhands and dock workers were shouting to each other as the boat was busily secured to the docks, and the three riders down below drew up their mounts in formation just out of the reach of the descending iron walkway.
"Oh wow," Katara breathed, recognizing them.
"What is it?"
"It's Master Pakku, and Bato, and—" She turned to look up at Zuko, feeling her eyes suddenly water. "Dad," she whispered. "It's Dad."
Her words were immediately confirmed by Sokka's wild war whoop. "Dad! DAAAAD! Look! Look, I've still got it!" He snatched his precious boomerang from his back and hurled it; the air whistled, and one of the figures on the dock rose up out of his saddle and caught it with a solid smack. An answering war whoop rose up to the ears of those on the ship; that cry sent chills down Katara's spine.
"That's Dad," she whispered again. "That's Dad's war cry! He used to do that at night when the polar wolves were howling outside and we were afraid—he said it would scare the wolves away, that no wolf in its right mind would want to tangle with a Water Tribe warrior. It always made me feel safe to hear that….I never thought I was going to hear it again."
Zuko said nothing, but she thought she saw his golden eyes glimmer as he looked down at her, and he swallowed a bit. He put one arm around her waist, simply holding her. She squeezed him tightly, leaning her head on his shoulder and feeling a powerful wave of sorrow sweep her; the Fire Lord had fallen to Aang in the Avatar state, and whatever unfinished business Zuko had had with his father would remain so for the rest of his life. And while Katara had been there, and had been glad to do her part, she couldn't help but feel for the young man she loved.
The next moment there was a splash as Sokka, unwilling to wait for the gangplank to be made fast, dove over the side. In two powerful strokes he had made it to the docks and was pulling himself out, dripping; he bounded up the docks to their father's elk yak, to be caught in Hakoda's strong arms as the older man swung down. The two males pounded each other on the back; Sokka, Katara saw, was nearly as tall as their father now, though not quite so broad of shoulder. After a moment, Hakoda pushed Sokka back, taking him by his upper arms, and said something to him; whatever he said was obliterated by the crash of the falling gangplank, but it made Sokka grin.
"He looks like a nice man," Iroh observed, coming up behind them, "and just the sort to enjoy a cup of tea." He gave Zuko what looked like an absent squeeze on the shoulder, and leaned on the railing, looking down at Katara's father. Zuko's eyes flickered in Iroh's direction and his hand tightened on Katara's, but he said nothing.
"Come on, Zuko," Katara told him, suddenly feeling nervous herself, and gestured to the now fully-unfolded gangplank. "Time to go meet Dad."
Katara stepped off the gangplank and onto the dock first, with Zuko right behind her and Iroh following. It was Master Pakku who came to greet her first, offering her a bow; Dad and Bato were deep in conversation with Sokka. Katara was actually feeling nervous herself and turned to Pakku in hopes of delaying. "And how's my favorite waterbending student?" Pakku asked, smiling.
"It's good to see you again, Sifu Pakku." She smiled back at him, and bowed in return.
"Oh, Sifu, is it now? You've been spending time with earthbenders, haven't you?" He raised one eyebrow.
"Only one, sir. Aang's earthbending teacher."
"Well I hope that you and that earthbender have been having better luck with him than I had," Pakku pronounced. "For all his power, I have never met such an incorrigible student. I was unaware that airbenders were also airheads."
"Oh, sir, I think Toph managed to smack some sense into him," Katara told him. "Have you been teaching classes down here?"
"Yes, I have—boys and girls," he added, with a slight smile. "At first I was somewhat unsure, even with your fine example, young Katara, but my wife insisted. She said it was a meaningless tradition, and this time I listened to her." He raised an eyebrow.
"You and Gran-Gran—" At his nod, Katara forced a smile, but inside felt a bit queasy. My waterbending master in the family? "Great!" she said a bit too loudly. "Did you know we also have kin in the Foggy Swamp?"
"Ohh yes. Some of them have come to visit us here." Pakku looked as faintly nauseous as Katara felt.
"They are highly skilled benders," Katara told him.
"Perhaps," was all Pakku said. His eyes moved past her then to take in her companions. "General Iroh," he said coldly.
"Water Master Pakku," Iroh responded, slightly less coolly but still with more chill than Katara had ever heard from the old firebender. Her eyes went to Zuko's, and found him as confused as she was.
"Do you two know each other?" Zuko and she asked simultaneously.
Neither Iroh nor Pakku paid them any attention. Slowly the two bending masters advanced on each other, holding each other's gazes grimly. Katara gripped Zuko's hand, squeezing so hard she could feel the pulse in his fingertips. They advanced to about a foot of each other….
….then Pakku reached out and grabbed Iroh by the arm, his face breaking into a grin. "You crafty old smokeblower, you! I haven't seen you in—how long was it?"
"At least twenty or twenty-five years," Iroh said, grinning himself as he grabbed the taller waterbender's arm in return. "Since the international pai-sho tournament at Omashu. You gave me a very good fight there, I must admit."
"Not good enough." Pakku turned to Katara. "I was tenth-seeded in the Tournament of Omashu back when it was still being held yearly, until this canny firebreather here knocked me out in the fifth round. I've never seen such inspired playing."
"I was lucky," Iroh said modestly. He took Zuko by the arm and yanked him forward. Zuko looked startled, but stepped up bravely. "Master Pakku, this is young Zuko. He is my nephew, and my student. Zuko, this is Master Pakku—one of the most devious pai-sho masters I've ever faced across the board." His tone was light, but his gaze carried a bit of a hard edge to it, and Katara noted that he had said nothing about Zuko's status as future Fire Lord.
Zuko glanced at Katara, then offered a respectful bow. "It is an honor to meet you, Master Pakku," he said seriously. "I've heard a great deal about you from my betrothed. She says that you are hard, but fair, and that you taught her everything she knows."
Pakku also glanced at Katara, then back at Iroh. His blue eyes narrowed a bit as he turned toward Zuko; Katara knew that he had to know who the young firebender was. Zuko waited, pale but quiet. Pakku hesitated for a moment, but at last returned Zuko's bow.
"If you are Iroh's student and Katara's betrothed," he said, "then you are a friend of mine, young Zuko." He reached out and clasped him by the arm. "Although your fiancée perhaps overspoke herself," he added with a slight smile. "Your uncle can tell you that I am not one to engage in false modesty, but Katara was quite a skilled bender already by the time she came to me."
"You taught me more," Katara said with feeling. Her eyes went past Pakku to the knot of Sokka, Bato and her father Hakoda; as she did that, her father looked up from conversation with Sokka and met her gaze. Katara's heart leapt into her throat and she swallowed. "Can you excuse me, Master Pakku?"
Her master said something, but Katara didn't hear what it was; she approached her father, her heart pounding in her chest. She was very conscious of Zuko at her back; she hadn't heard him move, but she could feel him there. He doesn't look any older, she thought. He looks the same as he did the day he went away, when he picked me up and tossed me on his shoulder, and I was crying so hard because he wouldn't take me with him…. Sokka had come and put his arms around her and told her not to worry, but she could tell that Sokka was scared too. And now he's back from the war and I'm engaged to the Fire Lord…to the enemy.
Her father had always been a quiet man, and he said nothing, just watching as she approached. She halted, and looked up at him. "Dad…?" she faltered.
Hakoda held out his arms. "My little girl," he said simply.
Katara ran the last few steps and leapt into his arms. For that moment, she had forgotten Zuko, forgotten Iroh, forgotten Pakku and Bato; there was only herself and her father and Sokka. He caught her lightly and lifted her, just as he had when she was a child, swinging her high into the air; Katara laughed, knowing she was safe because she was in her father's arms. After a moment, however, he set her down again. "Whew! You're too heavy for that now, Katara—you've grown into quite the young lady while I was gone." He was smiling, and his eyes were too bright. Katara could feel she had a silly grin herself. "Come here, both of you."
Sokka came, and the two of them stood side by side as Hakoda put a hand on each of their shoulders. "Look at the pair of you," he said quietly. "Sokka, you have truly grown into a brave warrior while I was away, just as I always knew you would, and Katara, even if only half of what I have heard of you is true, you have become quite an impressive young lady." He paused. "You look just like your mother," he told Katara gently. "I know she would be proud of you both. I know that I am."
Sokka was grinning too, and he put an arm around Katara's shoulder. "I protected her, Dad," he was saying. "I looked out for her. Just like you asked me to."
"And I took care of Sokka too," Katara put in. "Just like you said—"
"Wait a minute!" Sokka began, comically outraged. "Dad asked you to look after me? No way!"
"That's exactly what he did, right Dad?" Katara began, turning to Hakoda. "The last thing you said to me was, 'Sokka has no common sense, and he needs his sister to look after him!'"
Hakoda was silent, smiling slightly. Katara turned toward him. "That's what you said, right, Dad?"
"You did—He did not!" Sokka insisted. "If anyone, you're the one who needed to be looked after—Well, go on, Dad, tell her she's wrong!" he said, turning to Hakoda for support.
"Back me up, Dad! That's what you said, right?" Katara also appealed. "Tell him!"
Hakoda's face was twitching, and after a moment, the older Water Tribe man burst into laughter so vigorous that Katara and Sokka, glancing at each other, couldn't help but laugh too—a wonderful, joyful laughter that felt as if it were cleansing away the strain and uncertainty of the days before. We all made it, Katara was thinking, as she laughed so hard tears came to her eyes. We all made it. Me and Sokka and Dad and Gran Gran. We're all still here. The three of them were embracing now, and Katara had missed how that had happened, but it felt like being home.
Hakoda calmed first, pushing them away slightly, though she could still see tears in his eyes. "Apparently some things never change," he told them. "Would you believe that while I was away, I even missed the sound of you two arguing?"
"Really?" Sokka asked.
"Really," Hakoda said, nodding. "And now here the two of you are, all grown up. I'm sorry I missed it," he said sadly. "Sokka, I'm sorry I wasn't able to take you ice-dodging your first time. I should have been with you for that."
"That's okay," Sokka told him. "Bato took us," he added with a gesture toward the other Water Tribe man, who was standing back and watching.
"Yeah—me and Sokka both, and Aang too," Katara put in.
"They acquitted themselves in fine fashion," Bato put in now, "and all three of them earned their marks. You would have been proud, Hakoda," he told their father.
"Yes, so you told me. I still wish that I could have been there to see it. Ah, well—what's done is done," he said with a sigh. At those words, somehow the tenor of the gathering seemed to change; she saw her father's jaw set and his shoulders tighten a bit; he looked at her, and a tinge of a strange emotion came into his eyes. She knew exactly what he was thinking of, and suddenly her heart was in her throat again.
"Dad," she began, a bit tremulously, then had to stop and draw a breath. "There's someone I want you to meet." She glanced over her shoulder to where Zuko and Iroh still waited at the end of the docks.
Sokka's eyes narrowed slightly, but her father simply nodded, sighing again. "I guess you're not my little girl anymore, are you?" he murmured. At Katara's stricken look, he shook his head, and reached out, pulling her into an embrace. "But you are still my daughter," he assured her firmly. "Nothing will ever change that. Do you understand?"
Katara nodded, feeling a trembling, relieved smile spread its way across her lips. "Yes, Daddy," she told him. He smiled back, but she could see distant regret in his eyes. After a moment, however, he shook it off, and took her by the hand.
"Well. Let's go meet your young man."
Zuko waited at the end of the docks, feeling out of place and awkward. His uncle had fallen into a deep conversation with Master Pakku, so no one was paying him any attention; there was that at least. The sight of Katara's reunion with her father caused him to turn away, biting his lip. She's come home. I never had one to begin with. Perhaps it was not until seeing her, now, here, that he realized that. He wondered how she would feel about the Fire Capital after they had finished here—even he wasn't looking forward to it, and he had been born there. What if she doesn't want to stay there? It was the first time the thought had come to him, and it gave him a chill. What would he do if Katara decided she wanted to live with her people? Give up being the Fire Lord? Can I do that? Would it be allowed? Who else is there to be Fire Lord? Azula was dead—no great loss there—and Uncle Iroh wasn't in the line of succession anymore; even if he had been, he was too old to be a viable alternative. His guts were churning. Great. One more thing to worry about on top of everything else….
She was coming toward him now, holding her father's hand; her eyes were shining and she was smiling hopefully. Zuko tried to smile back to reassure her, but his gaze went to her father. He seemed as tall and imposing as Zuko's own father had been, and the coolly distant look in his eyes, to Zuko's nervous mind, seemed very similar as well. Katara's mother died in a Fire Nation raid, Zuko remembered. The Fire Nation killed his wife. What if he's angry at me?
She halted a few feet away. "Dad," she said, looking up at her father, "this is Zuko, my betrothed. Zuko, this is my father Hakoda of the Water Tribe."
Zuko swallowed and bowed quickly, very deep. "It is a very great honor to meet you, sir, and I'm—" How do I finish it? "Thanks for letting me marry your daughter?" "Sorry the Fire Nation killed her mother?" "It wasn't my fault, it was my father's?" He drew a breath, struggling to get a grip on himself. "I hope I will make your daughter very happy," he said at last, relaxing a bit. It was the simple truth, after all.
Hakoda simply nodded, the distant look not abating. After a moment, Katara's father drew a breath. "I must say, I never expected in a hundred years that my future son in law would be the Fire Lord," he said with a sigh.
A heavy silence fell at those words. He hates me, Zuko thought dully. Right. Of course. He glanced at Katara, but found no solace there; she was still looking at them both hopefully. He groped for something to say but his mind was completely blank; he came up with nothing.
It was Iroh who stepped in to save them, turning away from Master Pakku and earning Zuko's undying gratitude. "Life is full of the unexpected, isn't it?" he said cheerfully, coming up beside Zuko and putting an arm around his nephew's shoulder; somehow it made him feel a little better. "I certainly never expected to be here at the South Pole at my age—I had hoped I would be at home by my own fire warming my feet and boring my comrades with stories about my youthful adventures by now. All we can do is cope. I generally find that a glass of calming tea helps me." He came forward now, extending a hand to take Hakoda by the forearm, as he had done with Pakku. "I assume that you are the father of the lovely Katara?" he asked, indicating Katara, then continued, "You have done an excellent job. From what I have seen of her, she is a fine young lady, and a credit to her family and her people. You have every right to be proud of her."
Hakoda gave a slight nod, saying only, "Thank you;" but it did seem the distance in his eyes faded a little. Zuko gave heartfelt thanks.
"I am General Iroh," he continued. "Young Zuko here is my nephew. He has spoken correctly when he said it is an honor to meet you—it is an honor to me as well. I also never expected that he would choose a lady of the Water Tribe to be his wife, but when I saw the girl he chose, I was very proud of him. I knew he had chosen well. He gets that judgement from my side of the family," Iroh added in a stage whisper, smiling. The distance in Hakoda's eyes faded a bit more, Zuko saw. "It is cold out here for those of us not accustomed to this climate. Perhaps we could all take a cup of tea together—the happy couple, you and your friend Bato, Katara's brother, Master Pakku, and I."
Hakoda sighed again. "Perhaps we could," he said at last. "Come, we'll go to the Great Hall."
As the waterbenders led the way, with Zuko and Iroh bringing up the rear, Zuko whispered to his uncle, "Thank you."
"For what, nephew? I think that went very well."
"Oh yes. Any occasion that ends with the drinking of tea is a good occasion." Iroh smiled. Somehow, Zuko felt a little better.