AN: A big thanks to AshBender, who betad this for me. You rock!
Zhao let out a furious yell and brought his hand down swiftly. A tongue of flame spit from his hand, arcing towards the pond that held the moon and ocean spirits. But before the flame could lick the surface, Iroh leapt forward and shot his own fire at Zhao just as Katara sent a great wave of water, their dual attack knocking him backward. Inches from the glassy water, Zhao's flame disintegrated.
It was amazing how close to destruction the Northern Water Tribe had come. However, armed with the power of the full moon and the Avatar, they managed to fight back against the Fire Nation and drive them out.
The tribe began to rebuild and repair the damages done by the Fire Nation, their forlorn spirits lifted by the announcement of Princess Yue's wedding. She was engaged to Hahn, a young man who was a member of one of the most well-respected and oldest families in the tribe. It promised to be a good match.
The Avatar and his waterbending friend were often seen around the village, aiding in the reconstruction. According to the whispers that circulated in the tribe, the Avatar and his friends would be departing soon after Yue's wedding. Though he had only been there for a few short weeks, the tribe would miss his him. They'd grown attached to his bright, energetic presence that could be felt wherever he went.
The boy from the Southern Water Tribe, on the other hand, was often seen walking alone down the streets, his head down, looking sorrowful. He had caught the attention of many local girls, but he didn't seem to notice.
Great festivities were held on the day of Princess Yue's wedding. The whole of the Northern Water Tribe seemed alight with joy and excitement. Although no one noticed, there were two people not enjoying the themselves: the southern boy and Princess Yue herself.
Princess Yue spent the day being prepared by the women of high stature in the tribe: her mother, Hahn's mother, Yugoda the healer, and various other elders, all aided by maids and servants. She wore and exquisite gown of white and icy blue that managed to cover and protect her from the cold while still displaying her figure. Her white hair was done up ornately on her head, held in place by a hairpiece bearing the symbol of the Northern Water Tribe.
Yue looked at herself in the mirror. Tears sprang to her eyes. All of the women fussed and squealed about how beautiful she looked, expressing their certainty of wonderful the match was and of Princess Yue's future with her husband-to-be. Not one of the women truly understood what her tears meant.
As the other women filtered out of the room, still talking about the wedding excitedly, Yue's mother stayed back. When they were alone, Yue's mother placed her hands on her daughter's cheeks.
"I am so proud of you," she said.
"Thank you," Yue said softly. "But, mother –"
"I know you're scared," Yue's mother continued. "As I was when I was your age. But remember that love can be learned," Yue bit her lip as a protest nearly escaped her. "And that this match is wonderful not only for the tribe, but for you." Yue's mother hugged her close. "I know that this is very rushed, but the haste is necessary. With the war touching us at last, we need to plan for the future now if we are to avoid disaster. You understand, don't you?"
Their eyes met, and Princess Yue nodded, gathering her composure. The tears that had welled faded away. Yue's mother hugged her daughter once more.
"Mother, could I have a few minutes alone, please?" Princess Yue asked softly. Her mother nodded and left.
Yue looked at herself in the mirror. Or rather, she looked at her betrothal necklace. As beautiful as it was, it looked ugly and cruel to Yue. Not only that, but fragile and worthless. Yue sat down before the vanity and continued to stare at it. She could almost feel it tighten around her neck like a noose. She took several deep breaths, trying to hold back her tears, but it was useless. She sobbed softly.
She was only sixteen! She wasn't ready to marry yet! Least of all to someone she barely liked, let alone loved. She longed to be like other girls; like ordinary girls. They had freedom that Yue would never know. They had time to enjoy frivolity and to fall in love before they married – or, at the very least, they might protest an arranged marriage. But Yue did not have such a luxury. It was the duty of the princess to marry the man of her father's choice before her seventeenth birthday.
Yue couldn't stand to think that she'd never have the chance to truly fall in love. She thought that she might be on the verge of it, too. She could only imagine herself in the arms of one person –
"Sokka," Yue said, startled. She'd looked into the mirror and seen the reflection of him standing in the doorway. Hurriedly she wiped the tears from her face and eyes before standing and turning to look at him. "What is it?" she asked politely.
"I – I came to talk to you," Sokka said, his eyes on the ground.
"I'm getting . . ." Yue inhaled deeply. She couldn't say it. "The ceremony starts soon."
"I know." Sokka looked at her. "That's why I came."
"What do you want?" Yue asked, gripping the back of the chair she was standing beside, trying to hide her emotions.
"Yue, I know we haven't really talked since the invasion –"
"I've been busy with preparations," Yue said, unable to look Sokka in the eyes.
"I know you have. And that's why I have to talk to you."
"Please make it quick. I still have to get ready," Yue said, struggling to keep her voice controlled. The only reason she wanted him gone was because every second he was there she had to fight the urge to throw herself into his arms and cry.
"Yue, I know you think it's your duty to your people –"
"That's because it is my duty," Yue said firmly. With all of the uncertainties in her life, this was one thing she was sure of.
"But you don't even like him!" Sokka said, looking at Yue in disbelief. "What if you just told your father that you didn't want to marry him –"
"I have. And it didn't change anything. I knew it wouldn't," Yue said hopelessly. "Don't you understand? My personal – I have to think of –" Yue turned her back to Sokka, both of her gloved hands on the back of her chair now, supporting her as silent tears coursed down her cheeks. "My life isn't my own, Sokka. I have to think of my people . . . it has to be someone of my father's approval . . . for the good of the tribe."
"But you don't love him."
"No, I don't." A small amount of the weight on Yue's shoulders seemed to be lifted as she admitted it.
"And he doesn't love you."
Sokka couldn't stand hearing Yue sound so broken.
"Then why are you –"
"You're still not listening!" Yue cried. "This isn't about me. This is about my tribe, my people. I have to get . . . to get married . . ." The last word came out as barely a whisper as Yue broke down completely. She felt Sokka's hand on her shoulder and she turned to look at him. His blue eyes gazed at her with the deepest and most heartfelt empathy. But there was something else there, too. Love?
She couldn't hold back anymore. One moment she was looking into his eyes and the next she found herself in his arms, and for the first time in a long time she felt her heart was safe.
"I'm not ready to get married!" Yue sobbed into Sokka's chest. She felt his protective arms wrap around her. ". . . but I have no choice."
"Yes you do," Sokka said. "You can come with us – me, Katara, and Aang – we're going to the Earth –"
"I can't abandon my people. My home."
"They'll be okay."
Yue shook her head. "They might, but I wouldn't. I can't imagine leaving them – and anyway, I'm not brave enough. Not like you and Katara and Aang. I can't fight. I have to stay here. And that means . . ."
There was a pause as Yue sobbed.
"Maybe . . . maybe you don't have to marry him," Sokka said quietly.
"Sokka, I –"
"Maybe . . . maybe you could marry me instead."
For a moment, the whole of Yue's heart was overwhelmed by a beautiful yes. She loved the feeling of being in Sokka's arms and longed to have this refuge forever. But she knew . . . deep down, she knew . . .
"Sokka, please," Yue said, pulling herself out of his embrace and hating herself for it. "Think about it. You know that it wouldn't work."
"It could," Sokka said, taking Yue's hands.
"No, it couldn't," Yue said, taking her hands out of Sokka's, wishing he would stop allowing her to hope when she knew she shouldn't.
"Aang and Katara need you with them. But if we . . . we'd have to stay here."
"That's okay," Sokka said, trying to get Yue to meet his eyes.
"Sokka, how would you feel with Aang and Katara out there on their own fighting this war?" Sokka got what he'd wanted, but now that he could see the truth in his own eyes reflected in Yue's, he felt less sure.
"I'm sure they'd be okay," he said, although he knew the truth was that he didn't like the idea of his little sister being outside of his protective sphere.
"But would you?" Yue asked. "You can't leave them any more than I can leave my people."
"So, what, then?" Sokka asked, his defensiveness an effort to mask his pain. "Just because we want different things right now we can't –"
"I'm not saying anything like that," Yue said, begging Sokka to understand. "But you have to understand that it's now or never. I have to get married today –"
"I understand that," Sokka said, putting his hands on Yue's arms and bringing his face close to hers. "And I'm ready now."
"Sokka," Yue said, matching his gaze. "Are you really ready? Are you really ready to decide your entire future now?"
Sokka looked at her for a moment. He inhaled deeply and then said, "Yue, I just want –"
"Sokka, I know that you're no more ready for this than I am."
They looked into each other's eyes.
"There's no way out of this, then, is there?" Sokka asked, voicing what they were both thinking.
"No, there's not." Yue sounded quietly resigned.
A moment of silence slipped between them.
"I can't believe you're getting married," Sokka said.
"Well . . . I am." The resignation now sounded more like defeat.
"After the wedding, we're leaving right away to go to the Earth Kingdom," Sokka said. "To find Aang an Earthbending teacher."
"Then . . . I guess this is goodbye," Yue said softly.
"Yue . . . I think I love you," Sokka said.
Yue shook her head. "Don't say that," she said, turning her back to him. "Please, just go."
"Go! Please. Leave me alone. I have to finish getting ready." Princess Yue was standing in front of the mirror now, all traces of tears gone from her face. She could see Sokka's reflection. He was looking at her with a hurt expression. He inhaled slowly, bringing his shoulders back, standing straight, and emptying his face of emotion. When he spoke, it was with a distant politeness and formality, though to Yue the pain was evident behind every syllable.
"Very well, Princess. I'm sorry for disturbing you. Thank you for your time." He bowed and turned to walk away.
When he turned back, all he saw was Yue rushing towards him, and the next thing he knew her soft lips were on his and her gloved hands were resting gently on his face. He put his hands on her waist and kissed her back, trying to hold her for as long as he could before he had to give her up forever.
"I'm sorry," Yue whispered, moving her hands to Sokka's back. "This isn't what I thought it would be."
"What do you mean?" Sokka asked.
"I always knew that marrying like this would be hard," Yue said. "But I never counted on being in love when it happened. This just makes it all so much harder."
Sokka pulled slowly away from her. Yue looked at him, bewildered and hurt.
"I'm sorry," Sokka said. "I didn't mean to cause you more pain."
"Sokka," Yue said, stepping towards him. "I'm getting my heart broken today no matter what. Please don't take away the best thing in my life before you have to."
"Do you mean –?"
"It's wrong. But I don't care. Because nothing about this is right," Yue said.
Sokka moved forward and put his arms around Yue.
"I love you."
"And I love you," Yue said.
"Shouldn't that be enough?" Sokka asked.
"It should be. But it's not."
"I wish it was."
There was a moment of heavy silence before Sokka said, "You know what you said before . . . about not being brave?"
"Yes," Yue said. "What about it?"
"It's not true."
Yue nodded in thanks, not letting a single tear escape her. She held Sokka tighter.
They stood there for several minutes, their arms around each other. Then they heard music in the distance.
"You have to go now," Yue said sadly, pulling away slightly.
"Before I do . . ."
Sokka kissed her.
"I wish there was a way we could change things," Sokka said as he held Yue for the last time.
"There are a lot of things I wish I could change," Yue said. She looked into Sokka's eyes. "Loving you isn't one of them."
The whole tribe attended the ceremony, overjoyed at the marriage of their beautiful Princess Yue.
Shortly afterward, the Avatar and his friends left for the Earth Kingdom.
No one noticed the tears that slid down Princess Yue's face as she watched them fly away.