Summary: Fire Lord Zuko travels down to the Southern Water Tribe during the Winter Solstice Festival for 'diplomatic reasons'. Katara's there to offer some holiday cheer.
Notes: It's essentially Christmas, but since I don't think Jesus was born in the Avatar world, I don't think they'd have a holiday named Christmas. Also, I completely ignore the Kataang and Maiko end to the season. Also, I imagine hotcakes to be very similar to pancakes, but a little more cake-like. And it might be a little off, since I was kinda tired when I wrote it, but I really wanted this idea to get written out already. I'm planning on having another Zutara Christmas fic soon, within the next few days. It's gonna be an AU high school party fic with mistletoe and Santa hats.
The repairs to the world had been going well. It certainly wasn't something that anyone had expected to happen overnight, but they were able to trudge their way through the animosity and ideas set in through years and years of hardship. Zuko did his best as Fire Lord to ensure that his people would not go back to their old ways of thinking, and realize that what his father had done was wrong. Peace and love and harmony were preached, and they had done a pretty good job in keeping that feeling alive.
Time rolled by, and winter came ever closer. People began to get excited at the thought of celebrating a Winter Solstice Festival during a time of peace, and people all over the world were gathering decorations and making plans and generating a lot of good cheer.
Zuko started to get a little depressed.
It was the reason he found himself here, now, at the Southern Water Tribe. The public was spinning it as a perfect way to solidify good relations between the nations, though Zuko knew the truth behind his visit. He just had to get out of the palace, the place of so many bittersweet memories of the season, and visiting the Southern Water Tribe just seemed like the perfect escape. It was far away, cold, and nothing like his home. It would be perfect.
He shivered a little in his borrowed blue parka, small licks of flames billowing from his mouth in an effort to stay warm. The small tribe bustled around him, the snow banks covered in red and green and gold. Zuko wasn't sure where they had gotten the giant tree from, it had been standing there when he had arrived, but it was covered in shining decorations, and it looked as though Katara had given some places a thin coating of ice, just enough to make it sparkle in the sunlight.
"Zuko! There you are!" Katara's voice carried over the chatter, and Zuko turned his head at the sound, golden eyes quickly spotting the girl. She jogged closer to him, her face flush from chill and excitement, and Zuko offered her a slight smile as he walked closer.
"Hey," he said softly, rubbing his hands together to generate a little more warmth. "What have you been doing?" Katara's face brightened ever more and laughed softly.
"Sokka was trying to find some more fish for dinner tonight, even though we already have plenty. And we recently traded with some Fire Nation ships, so we have plenty of different things."
Zuko chuckled lightly, his heart only in it a little. "Really?"
"Yeah, but then he got a little overzealous and ended up falling overboard." She burst into a small fit of giggles at this point. "I managed to wring him dry, but he still wouldn't stop fishing, so I decided my efforts would be better used at decorating for the festival."
"Is that so?"
Katara paused, looking over to Zuko, who was glancing over at the giant tree. She sighed and placed her hand on his elbow, grabbing his attention. "What's the matter? You've been sorta gloomy since you got here. It's the Festival!"
Zuko sighed and scratched the back of his head, giving the tree one last look before diverting his attention to the snow covered ground. "It's nothing… I guess…"
Katara tipped her head at him, waiting for him to continue. He glanced at her face once and, realizing she wouldn't let him go until he told her, gave one final sigh.
"I guess what it boils down to is… I miss my mother…"
Instantly, Katara's already gentle gaze softened even further, and her hand on his elbow patted and stroked the fabric soothingly. A silent indication was made to walk out of the crowd, and the two of them made their way back to Katara's hut. "Is it the Festival season," she asked once they reached the doorway. "That just reminds you of those feelings?"
Zuko nodded emphatically, knowing Katara understood those feelings the best out of anyone he had met. "I remember," he began, his throat feeling a little thicker than usual. "Waking up early every morning before the Festival would begin, and my mother would always be up already, sitting by the table, waiting for me so we could decorate the palace together. And each day of the Festival, we'd go down to the kitchens and make batches of hotcakes, and I'd cook them with my firebending, and I'd even scorch little trees and stuff on the surface." He took a moment to wistfully chuckle at the memory. "It was all very childish."
Katara smiled softly. "But it was fun."
"Yeah." Zuko exhaled deeply, smoke puffing out of his nose in a burst, and he made his way to the nearest chair, Katara following after. There was a small silence as they got settled, but Zuko soon turned to her again and continued speaking. "I've had some time to get used to not having her around every year, but I still miss our little traditions. The only new tradition we got was that Azula would always burn the tree to the ground once the Festival was over. Now I don't even have that anymore. I mean, there's Uncle there, and he's always full of good cheer, but it's… it's just not…"
"It's not the same, I understand." Katara exhaled softly and patted his shoulder, smiling encouragingly. "I remember my mother would always put me on her shoulders and let me decorate the village tree. Well, the parts I could reach, anyway." They shared a slight chuckle. "But I still have dad and Sokka, so I'm grateful for that."
Zuko smiled softly. "I'm happy for you." Katara smiled.
"So," she began, hopping out of her seat and spinning around, brown waves of hair twirling through the air. "Since I have that much extra cheer, I am going to give it to you."
Zuko raised an eyebrow, an amused twitch playing with his lips. "Oh really?"
Katara grinned and grabbed his gloved hands. "Yep! So get up! Come on." She wheedled him a little before he sighed and stood up. She smiled and took the gloves off both of their hands. She shed her parka and rubbed her fingers together, looking around the room for something. Zuko raised his eyebrow even higher and shivered a little. He tucked his bare hands into the crooks of his elbows.
"What are you looking for?" he asked as Katara waltzed into a corner of the house, rummaging through a few bags and boxes.
"What are the ingredients you need for hotcakes?" she asked.
"What? No, you don't need to do that…" His face burned a little hotter and he blew out a small burst of fire.
"Hush. Maybe I want to try this little treat. It's the first day of the Winter Solstice Festival, and I think it would be a perfect way to start it off. You might want to take off your parka, too, it'll probably get in the way."
"I don't want to freeze. I'm not as used to this climate as you are. And if I raise my body temperature too much, I could just bake the hotcakes while I'm stirring them."
It was Katara's turn to raise an eyebrow, and she gave Zuko a smug smirk. "Oh, so now you've agreed to bake with me?" Zuko just rolled his eyes and settled down next to her, selecting the ingredients needed for a batch of old-fashioned Fire Nation hotcakes, and the two got to work.
Sokka ended up walking in at the moment Katara decided to throw flour in Zuko's face, and decided he would really rather not know. He tossed his fish in the corner and backed away while Zuko was blinded by flour, and Katara distracted by her own teary laughter.
"Is this the right consistency?" Katara asked, a bowl of mixture nestled in one arm, a spoon with batter draping off of it in her other hand. Zuko paused in his own stirring, watching the batter drizzle down and he nodded. Katara grinned and put the bowl down, fishing out a few plates. Zuko finished stirring his mixture and handed it over to Katara.
She spooned out portions of the mixture onto one of the plates, and Zuko waited until it had spread out into a good-sized circle. He then put his hand over the plate and raised the temperature until the surface of the hotcake turned a very light golden brown. Katara stuck the spoon underneath it and flipped it over, and he did the same to the other side. Done, he took his hand away and used another spoon to move it to the larger plate.
Katara raised an eyebrow and smiled at him. "What, no little trees?"
Zuko snorted, but leaned over and traced a small tree on the hotcake, the outline appearing darker as his finger left the space. "Happy?" he said, and Katara grinned at him and spooned some more batter onto the plate.
Not long after, they were done, and had two large plates overflowing with steaming hotcakes. The sun was beginning to dip below the horizon, and the people of the village were beginning, or continuing, to cook their contributions for the village's feast. Hakoda had tried to sneak in and not be a bother as he gathered up Sokka's fish and some other foods, though Katara still had to suppress a giggle at his failed efforts.
"Hey, Katara…" Zuko said, standing in the doorway and looking out at the village, now devoid of people who were holed up in their homes or friend's homes to cook, and at the large tree glistening in the last rays of sunlight. Katara made a small humming noise in response. "Do you have any candles?"
"Yeah, we have a bunch. Why?"
Zuko turned to look at her and flashed her a smile. "It'll look great once it's dark out." It took a second, but Katara understood, and a grin broke out on her lips. She grabbed all the candles they had and gave them to Zuko, then rushed door to door, asking for any spare candles anyone could give her.
Once the candles were all gathered, the two of them hurried over to the tree and began nestling them into the branches, making sure they were placed in a way that the tree wouldn't be set aflame. As each candle was placed, Zuko lit them, until a soft glow was surrounding the bottom six feet of the tree.
Katara looked up at the light-less top half of the tree while Zuko took the time to kneel beside her, one elbow on his knee and looking up at her expectantly. Finally her gaze switched over to Zuko and another smile graced her features.
"Really?" she asked, almost disbelievingly.
"You played my mother for me today, any reason why I can't play yours?" Katara snorted and handed her bag over to him as she walked closer.
"I can't believe I'm getting the Fire Lord to be my mother." She laughed as she settled on his shoulders, gripping his head and hand as he rose to his feet. Zuko chuckled alongside her and lit a candle, raising it up to her. "You're really warm, by the way." She said as she nestled the candle into another branch.
"And you're not." Katara snorted again and put another candle in the tree.
It wasn't long until the sun slipped completely beneath the horizon and Zuko lit the last candle. He knelt back down in the snow and Katara slipped off his back, landing gently on the ground as people began filing out of their homes. Katara had made a long table out of ice earlier, and various dishes were being placed in the grooves inside the ice, piping hot dishes that wouldn't be there for very long if anybody had anything to say about it.
They all took some time to gaze at the tree and marvel at the new effect given to it by the candles. Zuko and Katara took a moment to smile at the other before looking at their masterpiece. The tree glowed with the many flickering lights that illuminated the branches and decorations and flecks of ice that sparkled and reflected the tiny fires.
They broke away from their enchantment long enough to head back into the hut and grab the hotcakes. Zuko warmed them up a little and placed the plates on the ice table, then joined the others as they grabbed plates and filled them up with various foods that had been cooked by their neighbours. Everybody then took a seat around the tree, clustering together with their closest friends and chatting while entranced by the flickering lights.
Katara and Zuko sat together, a bit further back than most of the others, plates in their laps and munching away on roasted duck, blubbered seal jerky, and stewed sea prunes. The hotcakes were last, and the both of them sighed contently as the warm dessert heated their bellies and mouths.
Zuko took both their plates and loaded them up with a second round of food, then settled back into the snow next to Katara, a small amount of steam issuing from the snow beneath him. Katara grinned and shuffled closer, pressing her left side into his right. Zuko blinked down at her, but she just smiled up at him.
"You're really warm." She said, then took a bite of her dumpling. Zuko smiled and tilted his head so that his temple was nestled into the fur lining of her hood.