He was not welcome in this land of ice, Zuko knew. The hatred these people bore for his family ran deep, despite the numerous treaties that he had forged with their leader and his part in the war. They resented his presence; could not believe that a son of Ozai could ever be truly good for long. Even six years after the war's end, they looked at him with suspicion in their eyes.
The Fire Lord straightened his shoulders and marched forwards, attempting to ignore how the dark skinned, blue clad people whispered hushed rumors amongst themselves. Were he his father, Zuko would have murdered them on the spot. But Zuko was no Ozai. A young woman with eyes like the ocean had seen to that.
Zuko grit his teeth at the thought of her and moved forwards, filling his mind instead with thoughts of a woman of fire and an unborn heir. There was no use dwelling on the past, or so a girl of water had once said. It was far better to think of the future. The Fire Lord continued to walk ahead, his stride powerful as his boots crunched through the snow.
The chief of the South Pole straightened his spine as Zuko drew abreast of him, and the man's eyes glowed a fierce blue. "Chief Sokka," Zuko greeted respectfully, remembering when they had been young and the water tribe boy had been like a brother to him.
Sokka raised his chin slightly, but managed a stiff bow. "Welcome, Fire Lord."
Zuko knew that the words were forced, that Sokka had wanted him to stay far, far away from his home. From his sister. Zuko swallowed hard, and gave Sokka a half smile. "I've always wanted to see this place for myself," he admitted, his voice bearing the ghost of the boy he had once been.
"She told me," Sokka replied, his voice pitched low enough so that only Zuko could hear his statement. 'She' didn't have to be explained. The love he had felt for the Chieftain's sister was well known by the rest of the world, even if he himself was careful never to use her name.
Zuko wanted to ask where she was, how their child was doing. He had never learned whether it was a boy or a girl, or even if it had lived past its first month. He wanted so badly to see them both, but he didn't ask. He couldn't. Instead, he nodded slightly to Sokka.
"You'll be staying with me," Sokka said as he turned around and walked quickly to an ice block structure. It wasn't quite the palace Zuko had anticipated, but it served its purpose well enough, Zuko supposed.
"I appreciate your hospitality." Their tones were formal once more as they disappeared into the house, the distrustful eyes of the villagers soon left behind an ice door.
The inside was warmer than Zuko had thought it could be, the ground littered with furs. Beautiful scenes had been carved into the walls, scenes of trees and flowers not to be found in the land of ice that he was staying on. The artist had traveled, Zuko was sure. Etchings of temples that stretched into the clouds were depicted, as well as a swirling pattern of the four elements conjoined into one.
Zuko glanced away from the walls and looked about the room. A wooden block that sat in the middle of the room was surrounded by cushions in a variety of fabrics. Red silk from the fire nation, green cloth of the Earth Kingdom, and warm furs of the Water Tribes were the staples of the home, and the overall effect was one of warmth.
But that wasn't what caught his attention. Standing off to the side was a woman, long brown hair hanging freely about her shoulders and a parka pulled over her form. Zuko paused and resisted the urge to whirl around and stare at the dark skinned beauty. "Your wife?" Zuko said, looking over to Sokka.
The man frowned and shook his head as the woman flinched as though she had been slapped. "My sister," he replied, the chieftain's voice unnaturally hoarse.
This time Zuko did whirl around to face the woman, and felt his breath hitch in his throat. Where had his little Katara gone? The woman standing before him was so foreign, her face finely chiseled and the baby fat gone from her cheeks. Her lips were fuller, pinker than they had once been. Her gaze slowly lifted from the floor to meet his own, and Zuko's heart stopped.
In the body of this strange woman lay the eyes of the girl he had loved. They were no longer childishly full of naivety and hope, but they were hers none the less. "Katara," he breathed, his voice hoarser than he had intended for it to be.
The woman dipped her head slightly in respect. "Fire Lord."
Zuko swallowed hard, and his gaze drifted over her. "You've grown," he managed after a moment, and Katara managed a ghost of the smile that he had once known so well.
"As have you."
It was then that Zuko realized what children they had truly been at the tender ages of sixteen and eighteen. They had been too young for the world that they had lived in, too young for the intrigue of his family and the utter passion of their love. Their hearts should have been incapable of beating in time with one another's in those tender years, yet they had. And it had cost them so dearly.
"Are you really the Fire Lord?" A small voice came from somewhere behind Katara and Zuko froze. A head peaked out from behind the woman's parka, and Zuko was aware of Katara's stiffened posture and thinned lips. The child moved out from behind her mother, but gripped Katara's parka nonetheless. "The tribe says you're mean, but Mama says you're nice," the little girl said simply, and Zuko felt his stomach do a flip flop inside of him.
The little girl's ink black hair was carefully braided down her shoulders in a thick rope. Her features spoke of her mixed heritage: her eyes slanted up at the sides although they were wider than a Fire Nation native's could ever be. Her mouth was reminiscent of Azula's, although she had her mother's nose. The sharp angles of his face had been tempered by the softness of her mother's, but they were there all the same.
However, it was her eyes that proclaimed the fact that she was both a daughter of water and of fire the most. There was a ring of gold around the pupil, bright and fierce in its intensity, but the yellow soon mellowed and melted into a disc of blue. It was as though an explosion of the two colors had taken place there, and the result was dizzying.
This was his daughter.
"What is your name?" Zuko asked once he had recovered from his shock, and the girl spared him a smile reminiscent of her mother's.
"Kaya," The little girl replied, her voice somewhat serious, as his own had been at her age. She gripped her mother's parka tighter, much as he had done to his own mother's robes.
Kaya. The name reverberated throughout his skull, and Zuko jerked his gaze up to Katara's. "Don't you wish that we could just be Lee and Kaya once more?" Katara's wistful words came back to him and Zuko swallowed hard. Katara nodded slightly, and Zuko could see the tears shimmering in her eyes.
"Kaya…" Zuko breathed, remembering when he had called her mother that, remembering their kiss before the firelight, their first time making love in the quiet solitude of the palace gardens while his wife slept soundly in her bed, the pain in Katara's eyes when she told him that she could no longer deceive Aang, the tears that streamed down her cheeks as she sailed away from the Fire Nation…sailed away from him, taking his unborn child with her.
Zuko took a deep breath and rested his hands on the little girl's shoulders. This was not the Kaya he had known, but she was equally important to him. She was a symbol of the life he could have led if fate had been kind; she was the fruit of a union that he still longed for but could never take part in.
There was so much he wished to say to this child before him. He wanted to crush her in his arms, to tell her that he was her father and let her know how much he loved her. But he couldn't. The words that longed to spring from his lips needed to be choked down, but when he spoke, his voice was weighted with love.
"Kaya… It's nice to meet you."