Yue wasn't at all surprised to awaken alone.
She knew how worried Zuko was, how much he feared for her safety. He wanted to get her home to her tribe where he believed she would be protected. She wasn't entirely sure she agreed with him. The Northern Water Tribe had remained virtually untouched by the war, but had still seen its share of raids. She had heard her father discussing them at council. How they had been systematic; that the Fire Nation had never attacked in the same way twice; that he feared they were searching for weaknesses in their defences. It was the main reason behind the council's decision that led her to an arranged marriage with the Fire Lord's son.
She hadn't talked to him about it, of course. There had been precious little conversation last night. There had been a lot of kisses, countless caresses and innumerable smiles, but very little in the way of talking beyond a scattering of breathlessly whispered endearments.
She smiled again at the memories of it all, blushing slightly. It had been awkward at first. Awkward and clumsy, much like their marriage had been. But like their marriage, it had slowly turned into something beautiful as they got more comfortable with each other and learned more about what the other liked. And falling asleep, blissfully exhausted, in the warmth of his arms…that was something she could definitely get used to.
Her smile widened at that thought until she shifted under the furs and muscles she hadn't even known she possessed protested at the movement. He was definitely in far better shape than she was. She chewed on her bottom lip for a few moments as she considered her current options. She couldn't lounge around in bed all day, as tempting as the thought might be. Besides, there was another thought far more tempting.
She slipped out of bed, shivering slightly as she found her robes and quickly pulled them on. The air, even in the cabin, was noticeably cooler. She wondered just how far they'd travelled while he'd let her sleep. She pulled on her boots and padded up the spiralling stairs that led to the upper deck and the boat's small bridge.
It was open to the air and bordering on freezing cold. Zuko was, as she expected, at the helm, one hand on the wheel as the other ran over the charts at his side. His hair was unbound…Spirits, she loved it like that…spilling over his shoulders and shifting slightly in the gentle breeze.
She stepped up behind him and wrapped her arms tightly about his waist, revealing in his glorious warmth, and in the simple act of touching him. She was almost lifted from the deck as he took in a deep breath which he then let out in a deep sigh. His hand left the charts to cover hers where they rested against his belly.
"How are you feeling?" He asked softly, a hint of worry in his voice.
She was quiet for a moment, rubbing her cheek against the space between his shoulder blades. Her grip on his waist tightened a little as she was reminded of the initial…discomfort…both by his words and the dull ache that still plagued her muscles.
"I'm fine." She assured him. And she was, really. The good memories of their first night together far outweighed the bad. She felt so much closer to him now, in a way that she never would have thought possible. A spiritual bond had been created with the physical one; one that she felt could never be broken.
His hand left the wheel to pull a lever at its side. She heard a sound, something between a rattle and a rumble, then something heavy hitting the water. The anchor, she realised.
He twisted quickly in her arms so that her cheek now lay against his chest. His arms encircled her now as well. She lifted her head to look at him as his hands smoothed out her sleep-ruffled hair. He smiled at her, that sweet little lopsided twitch to his lips that made her stomach, and various other parts, tingle. She closed her eyes in anticipation of those deliciously warm, spicy lips meeting hers.
But all she got was a startled gasp.
She opened her eyes to find he wasn't even looking at her. She frowned, a little annoyed when one hand left her back. His smile, that wonderful smile that should have been for her, widened as he watched a tiny speck of white drift towards his now outstretched hand, disappearing before it could nestle in the warmth of his palm.
She followed his gaze as he looked upwards to the myriad of miniature flecks descended slowly on the breeze. It was snowing. She couldn't help but smile herself at his child-like awe at something that was to her so commonplace as she realised it was something he'd never seen before.
"It's beautiful." He whispered, as if fearful his voice would somehow scare it away. He let out a soft laugh as he managed to catch a flake, watching as it vanished in the palm of his hand.
"It's cold and wet." She told him. "Believe me, you'll tire of it soon enough."
But he didn't.
Days passed and he was still as enchanted as he had been the first time he'd seen it. Maybe it was just because the novelty was yet to wear off, or maybe it was because of the way the snow never seemed to touch him…she guessed that was a firebender thing. Either way, the cold and wet of it didn't seem to bother him in the slightest, barring the way it settled on and soaked his charts.
Of course it wasn't really snowing yet. But the wind was picking up and it was really starting to get cold.
She shivered slightly, pulling her robes more tightly about her.
"Are you cold?" He asked noticing the movement. "I'd have thought you were used to it."
"Just because I was born into this doesn't mean it doesn't affect me." She said haughtily, turning her nose up like a proper spoiled princess would. It only made him laugh.
"Well then…" A wicked smirk spreading across his handsome features. "I guess I'm just going to have to warm…you…up…!"
She let out a startled squeak as he pulled her into his arms before lifting her bodily from the deck to throw her over his shoulder as he stalked into the cabin without even breaking stride.
She found she was complaining about the cold a lot after that.
Zuko stifled a yawn as he stepped out onto the bridge, shivering slightly as the chilly air bit at his exposed skin. This caused him to frown. He hadn't really felt the cold before, and though the sun was barely up and they had travelled very far into northern waters, his internal fire had always kept him warm. He cupped his hands around his mouth and exhaled into them, noting that his breath of fire was not nearly as large as he'd intended, though it did help to defrost his frigid fingers.
He didn't think any more of it as he stepped up to the wheel and drew up the anchor. If he'd plotted their course correctly they should be arriving at the Northern Water Tribe some time in the afternoon. He sighed, wondering, not for the first time, how he was going to break the news of the invasion to Yue's father.
He felt ashamed at what his father was planning. They had a treaty with the Northern Water Tribe, to break it like this wasn't honourable. His hands fell lightly onto the wheel as he glanced out across the water. It was very still, larger and larger chucks of ice breaking up the endless blue. He knew about icebergs. It wasn't what you could see that you needed to worry about, it was what you couldn't see. He'd have to be careful. But the slow ebb of the water was strangely soothing…
He suddenly jerked awake, looking around with startled eyes. He didn't know how long he'd been dozing or even why he'd fallen asleep. The sun was up, its call had woken him as usual, he should be at his peak, but even now he could feel his eyelids drooping again.
And he was cold. He flexed his fingers which were aching with the chill in them. He lifted them from the wheel, his golden eyes wide as he noticed the fine layer of frost that covered them. Even as he watched it began to thicken and spread up his arms.
He tried to call on his breath of fire, to move through his basic forms, but his limbs wouldn't respond, they were too numb. And the ice was spreading faster, growing thicker, as if it had a mind of its own.
Then it struck him.
His teeth were chattering too much for him to even get the word out.
"It would seem Master Pakku was right." A voice sneered. "Cool a firebender down…nice and slow so he doesn't notice it…and he's useless."
Zuko's eyes tracked towards the man who had spoken, a somewhat grizzled looking individual of indeterminable age decked out in the customary shades of blue of the Water Tribes. Two younger, though no less grizzled looking youths flanked him.
"I'm not…I'm not…" He tried to assure them he was no threat to them or their people, but his tongue and his lips wouldn't cooperate.
"We don't want to hear your Fire Nation lies!" The waterbender growled. Zuko hissed as he felt sharp icicles bite into his skin, though he could barely feel the pain.
"Never had the pleasure of killing one of these pig-monkeys before." One of the youths grinned.
"Won't the Chief want to question him?" The third enquired quietly, obviously not as bloodthirsty as his brethren.
"What the Chief doesn't know..." His young friend replied as he fashioned a tendril of water into a rather wicked looking blade of ice.
The other turned worried eyes on their obvious superior. It was clear the boy did not want the blood of another, even if that other was the enemy, on his hands. But he found no solace in the older man.
"Arnook won't care, so long as this Fire Nation scum doesn't report back to his Fire Lord whatever intelligence he was sent up here to gather."
Zuko's eyes, the only part of him that he still had the ability to voluntarily move, widened. He had expected some distrust from Yue's people on his arrival in their midst, but he hadn't expected them to paralyse him and kill him on sight! And he couldn't plead his case, even if they had been willing to listen to him.
"What is going on here?"
The voice was cool, confident, commanding, and not one he'd ever have expected to escape from Yue's lips. She was standing in the doorway of the tiny boat's cabin looking every inch the princess she was as she glared at the trio of waterbenders imperiously.
"Princess Yue..." The trio bowed their heads respectfully, as stunned to find themselves in her presence as they were to find her in the company of the enemy.
"Release him at once!" She commanded.
"My Lady...he is a firebender." The older man stammered.
"He is my husband."
"He's..." The gentler youth began as he turned wide blue eyes on the shivering man...prince...encased in ice.
Zuko's body had become far too numb for him to feel the ice soften to water and flow away. The strength in his muscles flowed with it, but as he began to crumple to the deck, Yue was there to break his fall.
"Your Highness, allow me..." The man offered, only to back off at the steely look in his princess's eyes.
"You have done quite enough!" She snapped. "I will see to the wellbeing of my husband. You will guide this craft home to my father!"
With that, she draped Zuko's arm over her shoulder, and despite his larger size and weight, managed to manoeuvre him across the deck and into the cabin, shoving the door closed behind them with her foot.
Once alone, they all but fell into the furs strew across the bed as she was no longer able to bare his weight.
"I'm sorry..." He rasped in a hoarse whisper.
"Don't be." She silenced him with a finger against his lips, her face pinching as she felt their tremble, their coldness. "This is not your fault." She stroked his face reassuringly for a moment before reaching for the ties of his coat.
"What are you doing?" He managed to gasp through chattering teeth, attempting, and failing, to back away from her fingers.
"I have to warm you up." She explained.
"Would that not be better accomplished with my clothes on?" He said primly, the comment made all the more comical by his stammering voice.
"You weren't so shy before." She teased.
"We didn't have a potential audience before." He hissed.
"They won't come in here." She assured him. "Besides, that's not what I had in mind. Your clothes are wet. You're soaked to the skin. You probably already have the chills, if you don't get out of these wet things you'll likely end up with frostbite as well."
"It's when you get so cold parts of you actually die."
"I suppose it would be a good idea to avoid that." He admitted as her fingers began working on the ties of his coat.
It took her a few minutes to struggle him out of his clothes. The water made them heavy and they stuck to him as if glued. And he was too cold and numb to offer anything in the way of assistance. After she had dried him off as best she could...his hair, which she loved so much, proved to be a problem...she wrapped him in a heavy fur before pulling the remaining bedding onto the floor to make a nest of it by the fire. She spread his sodden clothes out on the floor to dry. She could have gotten one of the waterbenders to pull the water from them, but she was far too livid to ask them for their help.
Half helping, half dragging him across the cabin, she got him into the circle of warmth, wrapping herself around him and the furs around them both. She knew the best way to share her body heat with him was skin to skin, but he was skittish enough, and she still might have to deal with the waterbenders on deck.
But she had no time to think about them, only one thing, one person, filled her thoughts. She placed her cheek against his, freezing cold and even paler than usual. His lips were an alarming shade of blue. She pulled him closer, rubbing her hands over his chest and arms to stimulate blood flow. To keep him warm. To keep him alive.
"Don't worry." She whispered. "We'll be home soon. Yugoda will heal you."
She wasn't sure just who she was trying to reassure.
Avatar: The Last Airbender and all related characters are © of Bryan Konietzko, Michael DiMartino, Nickelodeon and Viacom International Inc