Spirit of Winter
posted February 12, 2010
This story was written for Floranna, who donated money to help survivors of the Haitian earthquake in January, 2010 as part of the help_haiti project on LiveJournal. Her request was for Katara/Zuko/Jet in Finland's 1939 to 1940 Winter War against the USSR.
9 April, 1939 – City of Helsinki, Capital, Republic of Finland
The weight of history lay heavily on the library, dampening noise with its smell of books and dust and failed revolution.
Zuko tried to keep his footsteps light as he hurried through the stacks, the tile floors at odds with the hushed atmosphere. He found the right aisle, tucked beside a vaulted reading room, and ran his fingers along the spines of the books there, searching the catalog numbers.
A girl sat on the floor in front of the shelf he wanted, a book draped over her lap. He cleared his throat and she pulled her legs back to allow him room to pass and continued reading. Zuko swallowed his irritation and checked the slip of paper in his hand, then checked the shelf. The volume he searched for was absent, a gap between Red Army at the Front: Memories of the Class War and Viipuri's White Guard in the Years 1917 – 1925.
"Looking for this?" Zuko turned to see the girl holding up her book. From the Roads of Suffering: Ten Year Memories, the cover read.
Zuko pinched the bridge of his nose, exasperated. "Yes. I have less than two months to prepare for my defense and…" He cut himself off, dropped his hand. "It's fine." He turned and started to walk back down the aisle when he heard the girl stand, her skirt rustling as she moved.
"Did you need it?"
Zuko looked back at her; her face was friendly, brows raised in question. "Don't you?" he replied.
She tipped her head at him and smiled. "I can share."
The café was crowded but quiet. Students hunched over textbooks and notebooks outnumbered the patrons who could take the time to enjoy their drinks, to chat and laugh regardless of deadlines and exams. Zuko drank his coffee slowly to curb his anxiety; he drank his black, while the girl had ordered some frothy concoction. He would frown, except that she bent over the table, dutifully copying the section on the outbreaks of Spanish Flu in the Helsinki and Tampere prison camps out of From the Roads of Suffering.
She finally stopped writing and Zuko sat up straighter, but her gaze stayed unfocused, distant. "Poor sanitation," she finally said.
Zuko frowned. "What?"
She looked at him fully, her eyes focusing and her forehead creasing. "Poor sanitation. And malnutrition. That's what killed so many of them."
"Who?" he asked, before he could stop himself.
"The Red Guard. After the Civil War." She rested her chin in her hands and stared into the distance again. "A lot of people say it was just the Spanish flu, but the flu wouldn't have killed so many prisoners if they weren't starving and living in their own filth. If the White Guard had managed the camps better, a lot fewer prisoners would have died."
Zuko frowned again. "The Red Guard were a threat. They wanted to make Finland like the Soviet Union."
She shrugged. "They were still Finns." Her expression changed, cheerful now and searching, and Zuko looked down at his mug. "What do you need From the Roads of Suffering for?" She still held it, her hand draped lightly on the cover, one finger inserted between the pages to mark her place. She had slender fingers, Zuko noticed; work-roughened but shapely. They looked strong.
"I'm preparing to defend my thesis," he said, exhaling as if to sigh. "My advisor told me I had to provide at least an overview of the events that followed the 1917 Independence."
She nodded. "History thesis?"
"Of what?" she prompted. Irritation rose in Zuko – he should be studying, should be planning his defense, reviewing his thesis and not sitting in this café with this… this… girl – but the interest in her eyes was genuine.
He sighed again and leaned back. "The political relationship between the Russian Empire and the Grand Dutchy of Finland from 1809 to 1917. Our country's fate has been tangled with Russia's for a long time."
She nodded, the interest intensifying, rather than slipping to a mask of boredom, and leaned forward. "Tell me about it."
Her name was Katara, he learned, and she was from a village nestled in the woods east of Oulu. She was in her fourth year of medical school and somehow she wrested a promise from him to meet her again the next week.
Thursday came quickly and Zuko arrived at the café, ordered the same drinks and sat by the window table, watching the rain splash onto cobbled streets. I should be studying, he thought, but found the memory of her smile occupying his mind more than Russification and the language strife.
The minutes ticked by the appointed hour and she didn't appear and Zuko tried to remind himself that he really shouldn't have taken the time to be here, anyway. He took a deep gulp of his coffee, intending to finish it quickly, when he saw her hurry across the street, sopping wet. He turned his head and didn't move as the door opened, staring at the now-empty street.
"Sorry!" Zuko looked up to see Katara slide into the chair opposite him, her face flushed and hair in disarray. "My seminar on modern infectious diseases ran late – we were talking about… Oh!" She broke off as her eyes found the drink steaming before her. "Thank you!" She picked the mug up, sipped at it, closed her eyes and smiled, and his irritation dissolved.
"I read a little more about the Civil War this week," she said after she sipped again. "What you said interested me – it sounds like both the Reds and the Whites just wanted what they thought was best for Finland. The Whites wanted stability for the country, and the Reds wanted more freedom for the lower classes."
Zuko frowned. "The Reds were dreamers. Radicals. They, who knew nothing about leadership, only about peasant farming and assembling machines, wanted to rule the land. It would have been a disaster – it was a disaster, in the areas they occupied. They were undisciplined and lazy, and would have given Finland to the Bolsheviks if they'd had their way." He caught himself before he continued and he stared out the window again, his face flushing.
Katara remained silent but Zuko felt her watching him, even as he couldn't meet her eyes. The pause stretched into awkwardness and he cursed himself, wished again that he could just learn to keep his mouth shut sometimes.
The silence was broken by a spoon scraping porcelain, and he glanced back to see Katara stirring her coffee.
"So… what made you decide to study political history?" Her tone was carefully neutral but still interested, and he relaxed minutely, took a deep breath and met her eyes. She wasn't smiling, but he saw that same interest in her eyes, and perhaps an apology. I'm the one who should apologize, he thought.
He took a sip of his coffee, growing cold on the table. "Well… my family has been in politics since the Swedish Era…"
They met every Thursday at the café for the rest of the term and Zuko found himself looking forward to those times, to those few hours of discussion and debate. Katara was sharp, witty, charming and warm and genuinely interested in his studies – and himself.
When Zuko emerged at last from his master's defense, from presenting his thesis to advisors and faculty, she was there. She smiled and cocked her head. "How'd you do?"
Zuko stared her for a moment, then let himself relax. "Good. Really good." He paused. "I think. They're deciding now."
She smiled and he leaned against the wall beside her and somehow the wait became bearable as inside they decided his future.
"I knew you'd do it!" Katara exclaimed, and clinked her mug against his. "And an offer for a diplomatic posting, as well!"
Zuko couldn't stop the grin that came to his face, and didn't bother. He raised his mug to his lips before he embarrassed himself, but inside he felt joy and relief ready to bubble over.
"So, what are you going to do now that the term's over – and your schooling with it?"
He set his mug down and leaned back in his chair. "I don't know." He smiled again, noted the way her own smile deepened in response. "I guess I'll find out next week."
Katara waited at the café until sundown the next Thursday, and the Thursday after that, and after that and finally as June rolled into July she admitted he wasn't coming back.
Katara watched gentle summer rain fall outside the café window, trying not to feel betrayed, but she couldn't stop the regret. She sighed; she had looked forward to the theater, the parks – the freedom of summer and perhaps someone to spend it with.
She sighed again, rested her chin on her fist. You're being foolish. He wasn't yours.
20 July, 1939 – Village of Perkjärvi, Karelian Isthmus, Region of South Karelia
The train ride east gave Katara too much time to think, about the north and her home, her brother and father and the sprawling forests. I miss you, she thought, and tried not to think of sharp eyes and rare smiles.
The train stopped in Rautu, the last Finnish rail station, and she rode the bus with a handful of other university students to the village of Perkjärvi. The others were talkative, excited to be joining the defense effort; Katara nodded with them, her mind elsewhere.
The volunteer camp lay beside Lake Muolaanjärvi, away from the defensive line, and Katara settled into a tent with other the new arrivals. "Aren't you excited to be here?" one girl asked, and Katara smiled.
"Of course I am. The Mannerheim Line will protect Finland if the Soviets do invade. I'm proud to help strengthen it."
A third girl flopped back onto her bed. "I'm just glad to be out of the city for a little while."
After the communal dinner, Katara walked from the camp, down to the lake. The other girls were pairing off, organizing themselves into social groups that normally Katara would easily fit into, but today she sought isolation instead. The rejected treaties and whispers of war that followed left her unsettled, uncertain, and for a moment she wished she'd never left Helsinki.
The lake finally stretched before her, calm and deep blue in the twilight, almost like the forest blues of home. She shook off her shoes and sat on its bank and dangled her feet in the water, almost relaxing.
That relaxation vanished at the sound of footsteps behind her; Katara had gained her feet and tensed before she realized it.
"Hey, hey – I didn't mean to startle you." The man held his hands up and behind them his smile was friendly. "Just admiring the view, like yourself." He extended his hand. "Name's Jet."
She took it cautiously. "I'm Katara."
He smiled in response. "Just came in?" he asked, nodding at the camp; he finally released her hand, fingers sliding across her palm.
Oh, you are dangerous, aren't you, she thought, but his smile was genuine and she found herself relaxing again. "Yeah – this afternoon." She thought about how to explain why she was sitting alone in the dark rather than in the boisterous main camp, but then he moved forward to sit by the lake, as well. She cautiously followed, slipping her feet back into the water as Jet spoke.
"I'm from Tampere. A bunch of us came down when we heard the Line needed reinforcements." He leaned back, resting his weight on his hands, the picture of carefree relaxation. "What about you?"
"I'm from up North – near Oulu – but I'm going to university. In Helsinki – the medical school." She blushed, glad of the darkness. Pull yourself together, Katara!
"Gonna be a doctor?"
His tone was teasing, not mocking, and she smiled. "Yeah. I want to help people – that's why I'm here this summer."
Jet shifted, raising one hand. "Well, if we end up needing this –" his gesture took in the entrenchments stretching away from the camp, the distant Union of Socialist Soviet Republics, "– you'll have helped a lot of people."
Katara smiled. "Yeah."
Jet strove to fill any pauses in the conversation with more words, but the evening passed comfortably as they talked about home and distant friends, fields and forests and factories. Katara felt a little less homesick as he finally walked her back to the tent.
"I heard that the Maginot Line has more than five hundred bunkers along its length," Jet remarked the next day as they worked, clearing brush away from the bunker. It was an older structure, built just after the War, but every position mattered. "We haven't built nearly that many here, but the Karelian border is much smaller than the French border."
Katara wiped sweat from her brow as she straightened. "We have the lakes, too," she said with a nod, and Jet grinned.
"Ain't that right," he responded, but a short figure shoved between them before she could reply.
"More weeding, less flirting," Smellerbee snapped, and Katara hid her smile. Smellerbee had given Jet a look when he introduced Katara; a long-suffering look that she just couldn't take personally.
"It's not weeding, it's fortifying," Jet called after her, but she didn't respond. "Anyway. The government finally started paying more attention to the Mannerheim Line here when the Soviets started wanting Karelia last year. My crew and I came down a few months ago when we heard they needed volunteers. War is coming, and we have to be ready."
Something in Jet's face changed, then; an old wound, brought to the surface. What have you seen? Katara wondered, but then he smiled again.
She ate with Jet and his friends that evening, aware of how close Jet stayed to her. Never too close, but close enough that she noticed – like she noticed how Smellerbee rolled her eyes whenever Jet grinned. Katara didn't mind; the attention was flattering and Jet a natural storyteller, and the evening passed pleasantly around the fire.
"Finland has been controlled by the outside for too long," Jet explained some days later as they worked to move fallen logs and string barbed-wire along the line. "First the Swedes, then the Russian monarchs, then the damn Whites and their German allies." He paused as he pushed another log into place. "We almost had our chance to be free after the War, but the Whites stole it away."
Katara listened, remembering her own readings, the long hours of discussion in spring.
"They were aristocrats, all of them. Land-owners and industrialists – academics." He spit into the brush, the gesture condescending. "None who could work the land, make an honest living, only prosper from taxing those of us who labored. They stole the country from us again, murdered thousands to keep it."
They worked in silence, Jet's face bitter, a sober remember of the war, of those affected by it. Twenty-thousand orphans, she remembered, neat columns of numbers written in the texts. Were you one of them?
The silence stretched until they paused for water, to rest for a moment in the bunker's shade as afternoon deepened. Their stretch of the defense had improved greatly, trees cleared and barbed wire strung between rocks and fences. The line cut like a scar across the land, but it would protect them from invasion. Katara flapped her shirt to create a breeze; even the lightest of her blouses felt stifling in the August heat and she wished for not the first time that she could simply discard her shirt like the male volunteers.
"Well men," Jet started, "and ladies," he bowed gracefully to Smellerbee, who scowled and tried to take a swipe at him. "I think we're done here. Tomorrow, we'll move on to the next stretch, see what kind of damage we can do there. For now, though –" He looked around at each volunteer standing around him, pride and expectance on their faces. "For now, I'm going swimming." He took off running down the slope and his crew followed, yelling or not as was their nature, and Katara smiled as she set off at a more leisurely pace.
The splashing and fighting had died down by the time she reached the lake and waded in. She kicked off the bottom and swam out into deeper water, savoring the drop in temperature. Ashore, someone had rigged a rope swing from the trees and the splashes echoed along the water as she floated, content.
Jet soon found her, treading water to grin at her. "I'll race you back to shore," he said, and she tipped her head back to consider.
"I don't know," she said slowly, and he moved towards her in the water.
"Come on – I'll give you a head start."
Katara looked at him for a moment, lowering her lashes slightly; saw the distraction in his gaze and used it. She heard him splash behind her, paddling furiously to keep up, but she was a strong swimmer and easily made it to shore first. "Thanks for the head start," she said as he waded from the water sputtering, and he raised his hands with a grin.
"You beat me fair and square."
Later that night, they sat together around the fire long after the rest of the volunteers had gone to bed. Jet had moved closer throughout the night and now they sat barely a handspan apart. For once, Jet had stopped talking and the silence was warm, comfortable. At length he leaned into her and Katara didn't lean away, feeling tremors in her middle as he raised his hand to her face, stroked her hair back from her cheek.
"Jet!" someone called, shattering the silence and the mood. "We need you over here now!" Jet closed his eyes and grit his teeth, irritation contorting his features as he stood.
"Whatever it is, it can't take that long." His expression was beseeching now, his smile tender. "Wait for me?"
Katara shook her head. "I should get to sleep. I'll see you tomorrow, okay?" She smiled, but the disappointment on his face saddened her.
"Okay, then. Sleep well." He made as if to move forward again, but then turned and vanished into the darkness.
Part of her wanted to wait for him, sit beside the camp fire to see what would happen next, but Katara walked slowly back to her tent instead. She wondered if she would have been more patient, more bold, if it hadn't been for memories of a café on rainy spring days.
"On the first of September, 1939, the Germans crossed into our territory." The radio was tinny, the speaker almost unintelligible at times, but volunteers crowded around it. "German air force and regular army unexpectedly invaded Poland's territory without a declaration of hostility. With very little warning, German airmen attacked a number of towns all over Poland."
Jet stood by the back of the tent, arms crossed and expression stony as he listened. "Casualties have been reported among the civilian population. Germans have both machine-gunned and bombed an evacuation train…" The speaker went on to describe the attacks across the country, the civilian losses and Germany's declaration that it was an act of defense.
"It's starting," Jet said quietly, and Katara shivered at his tone.
Summer ended uneasily, volunteers working in grim silence more often than not as tension fell over the camp, over the Republic. The radio held reports of the Soviets pressuring the Estonians to accept treaties allowing Soviet army troops and bases into their land. The Estonians accepted, and then the Lithuanians and the Latvians, but Finland held her independence, the land they had fortified against attack.
"They'll invade soon, though," Jet said moodily one evening. "They don't take no for an answer." His face held grim determination as he turned to her. "I'm joining the army, Katara. I'm not going to sit on the sidelines and hope our work here holds them back." His face held a plea in the late summer's light.
Katara nodded and slipped her hand through his and they stood, looking out across the lake, as darkness fell around them.
The last night in camp, Katara stopped by the tent Jet shared with his crew. "Packing up?"
Jet nodded. "We're all going." He slung his bag onto the bunk. "Back to university for you?"
Katara laughed, but it sounded strained to her ears. "No. I'm joining the Lottas." *
Jet raised his brow. "I thought you wanted to be a doctor."
"I do. But I want to help people, and I don't think going to lecture is the best way to do that right now." She shrugged, then grinned sheepishly. "Besides, the Lottas run a lot of the field hospitals. That's a better practicum than I'd ever get in Helsinki."
Jet grinned in response. He tried to carry her bag her the next morning but she wouldn't let him, and instead they walked together to the bus that would take them to the train station.
They parted on the platform as Katara's train pulled into the station. Jet opened his arms and she stepped into them, savoring his warmth and his nearness this one time. He kissed her forehead softly as the whistle blew and she stepped away. "I'll see you again."
She smiled as she stepped aboard, and watched until the station vanished into the distance.
* The Lottas (formally the Lotta Svärd), are a Finnish voluntary auxiliary paramilitary organization for women, similar to the Women's Army Corps, Air Forces, and Naval Nurses of numerous other countries during and since World War I.
23 October, 1939 – Finnish Army Camp and Reserve Officer School, Town of Hamina, Region of Kymenlaakso
Autumn's bright leaves had fallen away into winter's grays and browns as Jet rode east with his squad, the train lurching beneath them. The basic training had been boring, child's play to him, who grew up having to fend for himself, and he hoped again for permanent assignment.
He drummed his fingers moodily on the windowsill, stared out at the passing landscape, and finally stood. Around him, the squad took no notice as he stepped out of their compartment, busy playing cards or writing in their diaries, the men he'd known since childhood familiar despite their uniforms. Even Smellerbee wore it like a second skin; he remembered her wicked grin when he'd asked how in the hell she managed to pass the medical exams.
"A lady never tells," she'd sniffed, tossing imaginary curls; then she'd scratched her newly-shorn scalp and smirked.
Jet grinned briefly as he wandered the train, looking at the people in each car before passing to the next. They all looked the same, young kids and a few older kids, eager and scared the way Finland herself was.
One man, though, sat by the window, standoffish and reading a book. He wore no uniform, but an Army drab bag lay on the seat beside him, fencing him off from others. The sight annoyed Jet so he wandered up to the seat, slung the bag into the overhead and flopped down beside the man.
The man looked up in annoyance. "Hey," Jet said calmly, and the man frowned and returned to his book.
Silence stretched between them, grating on Jet's ears, and he leaned back in his seat, folded his hands behind his head and deliberately ignored the hint. "New recruit? Or is this your 'extra rehearsal.'"
The man frowned deeper and sighed in annoyance. "I'm going in for refresher training, yes. Did you want something?"
"Yup. Don't we all." Jet didn't continue, though. High-class accent, he thought. Probably speaks Swedish at home. He grinned and deliberately let his own words fall into a countryside slur. "Me, I just want to keep the Soviets on their own side of the border."
That got a response. The man glared at him, angry and then dismissive. "The Soviets will have what they want of us no matter what we do to stall them."
Jet feels his own anger rise in response. "Then why don't you go back home and wait for them there?"
He made no answer and this time Jet let the silence lay over their compartment, but the man now stared at his book without turning the pages.
When the train pulled into Hamina Station and Jet mustered his squad in the broad square beyond, he watched the man shoulder his bag and stalk to the officers' quarters, up the hill from the main encampment. Figures, he thought, falling in with the rest of the platoon and marching in step to the grounds.
Jet didn't see the man again for several days, until one afternoon they were called for inspection and he was there, standing fresh and crisp with other officers at the edge of the parade ground. The man, by luck, ended up inspecting Jet's squad, and his eyes widened when he recognized Jet.
Jet quirked his brow, enjoying the way the other's jaw clenched and eyes narrowed as he struggled not to respond.
"Corporal Vapaus," he finally said through gritted teeth, his posture perfect, and Jet exaggerated his glance down to the nameplate on his chest.
"Lieutenant – Souzin." The rage flooded him so quickly he nearly choked on the word and he struggled to maintain his control even as the man – the monster – stared at him. Jet managed to salute, mindful of the officers surrounding them, and stepped back into line.
Later, in the relative privacy of their tent, he struggled to restrain his shouts. "Bastard," he snarled, and Smellerbee frowned at him.
"You don't even know the guy, Jet –" she started, but Jet cut her off.
"He's a Souzin," he hissed. "He's related to that bastard – he's responsible for what happened in Tampere, at the end of the War."
"You don't know that –" but he wouldn't let her finish.
"It doesn't matter – it's true. Souzin's not that common a name, and this guy's an officer – here's here because of his granddad, not because he wants to protect the republic." He slammed his fist into his bunk, wishing it were solid, wishing the impact damaged his hand to give him a distraction from the rage.
Jet saw him next in town as his squad spent their afternoon of liberty buying chocolate bars and magazines. Souzin was out of uniform, walking from the post office with the army's precision in his stride.
Jet put the magazine he'd been reading down, stepped out into the street and into his path. Souzin stopped a few paces away, anger on his face. "Step aside, Corporal."
"What if I don't? Souzin?"
He glared at Jet, but surprised him with his words. "Don't call me that."
"Souzin. It's Lieutenant Souzin. Or Zuko, if you must. But I'm not my great-grandfather."
"Yeah, I bet you aren't," Jet snarled. "And I bet your great-grandfather didn't murder ten thousand people, either."
Souzin's fists clenched as Smellerbee tried to intervene. "This is stupid, Jet – you're in uniform and he's an officer."
Jet grinned, feeling the skin stretch taught around his mouth. "I don't see any officer here, boys. Just some poor git who's run up against the wrong squad." He stepped towards Souzin, who watched him angrily but didn't back down.
Jet grinned again and feinted; he watched Souzin react, then lunged forward.
Academics, Jet had learned, were soft. Weak. More willing to read books and talk endlessly with each other than engage in labor or training. Useless. Jet expected Souzin – this Zuko – to be as weak as any other academic in their ivory tower, moving troops across the land like pieces on a game board.
He surprised Jet by dodging the strike easily, swinging his own fist and sending Jet staggering backward. The pain fed his rage and Jet surged in again, ducking Souzin's blow and landing one himself. They circled each other briefly, watching for an opening, then lashed out again. Then –
Strong arms pulled him backward, hands restraining his fists. "What were you thinking?" Smellerbee shrieked as he struggled against them, but Jet was too furious to fight effectively, to break their hold on him. He cursed as Longshot stood in front of Souzin, not touching him but separating him from the fight nonetheless.
Souzin wiped blood from his mouth with the back of his wrist, looked at Jet with rage simmering in his eyes. "Next time, I report you for insubordination."
Jet tongued his cut lip and spat. "Next time, I'll just kill you."
Why didn't he report it? Jet thought as the train pulled away. He could have had my ass back to Tampere faster than I could have packed my bags.
He stared moodily out the window, watching Hamina fall away; the train would finally carry them to a permanent posting, far in the north. The Soviets had massed an army just beyond the Karelian border, but the republic's army command didn't trust that would be the only place they struck. Jet had hoped to be assigned to Karelia, to the Mannerheim Line he had helped fortify; to be sent to the north was disappointing. He sighed again, watching light snow fall as the train sped through the barren landscape.
At least that's the last I see of him.
18 November, 1939 – 15th Detached Battalion Field Headquarters West of Lakes Niskanselkä and Haukiperä, Region of Kainuu
The field hospital took a long time to set up as it seemed every time they found enough people to brace the supports in place, half of them were called away. The short afternoon had nearly faded into twilight when the tent finally stood free and Katara moved to help load hospital beds and cabinets, crates and tables into the space. She sat outside atop an unpacked crate, briefly debated sleeping on a bare hospital bed rather than making her way back to her tent or finishing her work for the night, when a familiar figure strode by.
"Jet!" she called, fatigue forgotten or at least pushed aside for the moment; he turned and saw her and his eyes widened.
"Katara!" He dropped the bags he carried to sweep her up into his arms. His arms were strong and she suppressed her disappointment as he set her back on her feet to grin down at her, admire her uniform. "Well, look at you – Captain Harmaajärvi."
She grinned in response. "That's right – Sergeant."
Jet mock-saluted and she laughed and hugged him again. "I'm attached to the field hospital here – they needed medics and I'm from this area, so I volunteered." She smiled. "I knew I'd see you again, but I didn't think quite so soon."
Jet smirked. "Missed me?"
She pretended to think about it. "Maybe." She held the expression for a moment longer, then smiled again. "I have to finish setting up here, but I'll see you again soon, right?"
Jet grinned. "You bet."
Time passed too slowly as they settled into the hillside and the captains and lieutenants listened to ever-more-terse radio transmissions. Few among the ranks heard the broadcasts, but all knew what it meant: the Soviets were getting impatient, the negotiations breaking down. When they shelled the village of Mainila, claiming self-defense, Katara sat in the mess hall for a long time, staring at her mug while even Jet could think of nothing to say.
The next days were tense, worse even than the weeks of waiting, and yet the declaration of war and the bombing of Helsinki seemed to smother the camp. Katara sat in shock as she listened to the reports, rumors of civilians struck down beside soldiers.
Jet took her hand, held it in both of his. "Hey." She looked up and he tried to smile. "It'll be okay. We're ready."
"The Line –" she started, but didn't know how to finish.
"It will hold. We did good work, there, this summer." But she saw her own worry reflected in his eyes.
Katara watched the handful of companies depart their field headquarters, marching or skiing into the woods, towards the town of Suomussalmi and the Soviet line. Jet found her eyes as his platoon passed and she wanted to wave, to run to him, anything but stay behind, waiting to pick up the pieces and stitch them back together.
7 December, 1939 – 15th Detached Battalion Field Headquarters
"Come on, people – move," Jet yelled, the squads flagging further behind on the snowy landscape. Smoldering fires lit the sky behind them, painting the low clouds orange and brown. He grit his teeth, turned, yelled again. "You don't want the Soviets to capture you as well as the village, you sorry excuses for soldiers."
Smellerbee's squad struggled past him; she eyed him as she passed, the exhaustion of plowing through deep snow etched on her face. Jet had watched Longshot silently break trail for her until she insisted on her turn, and he frowned at her now, about to open his mouth when she snarled at him. "We're going as fast as we can, Sergeant."
Jet forced himself to hold back his first response, to remember that they were probably more tired, more afraid than him. "Thank you, Corporal, for the reminder. Now get your ass out of here."
The rest of the squads finally passed and Jet followed them up the slope to where Lieutenant Aalto waited, surveying the hills around them. He lowered his binoculars as Jet came to stand beside him.
"Any sign, Sergeant?"
Jet shook his head. "None. I don't think they're following us. Sir."
Aalto nodded grimly. "That's a mercy, at least."
They staggered back into the field camp hours later, long after Jet's voice had turned hoarse with shouting. He dropped his pack and paced the rows of the platoon's camp, making sure everyone was settling in, until finally the last stragglers dragged their boots inside. Only then did he return to his own quarters, the tent he shared with Smellerbee and the other corporals. He didn't bother to remove his own boots, just dragged his bedroll around him and finally collapsed into sleep, his only consolation that their platoon had suffered no casualties.
"I understand your concerns, Sergeant Vapaus." Lieutenant Aalto's voice was cool, steady, but Jet saw the hint of compassion in his eyes, like the hint of dawn through thin clouds overhead. "Had there been any other way, I'm sure the Lieutenant Colonel would have chosen to leave the village intact." His eyes turned hard, then, and Jet looked away. "But there was no other way. Attempting to hold Suomussalmi would have been suicidal, and we couldn't afford to leave it for the Soviets. This way, they will have to depend on their own supplies for shelter and will have to expend their resources digging in, rather than fighting."
Jet didn't respond, watching the forest emerge around them, gray in morning's twilight. Aalto finally sighed, spoke quietly as if to himself. "Houses are easy to rebuild, if the land is still part of Finland." He said no more and soon Jet heard his footsteps crunch through the snow towards the command tents.
The Soviets ventured across the frozen lakes later that day, clusters of troops black against the ice and snow. "Why are they still wearing brown?" Smellerbee asked, handing Jet the binoculars. "This is going to be too easy."
Jet took them, peered at the men struggling through the snow as his platoon had struggled the day before. "Yeah, well – they're Russians."
She grinned, briefly, and they fell into silence again. Along the ridge they guarded, their platoon joined the rest of the company, spread out in posts and trenches concealed among the rocks and trees. Jet tucked his hands under his arms, trying to block the cold that seeped in even through his gloves, and thought of Katara, her smile and her warmth.
"They were wearing brown?" Katara paused in her meal that night, her fork suspended in the air.
Jet shrugged. "Standard Soviet uniforms, from what I could see."
Katara stared at him. "Are they trying to lose?"
"I hope we're that lucky." He grinned. "They tried to attack Puolanka, too, but the 16th Division held them off. Damned Soviets can't fight in the snow."
"Well, I hope our luck holds, then." Her eyes were wistful, weary, holding the tension of waiting, and Jet felt his own levity slip away at that expression.
"How's the field hospital?"
She shrugged. "Well enough. We've seen more frostbite than anything else." She lapsed into silence again and Jet let it blanket them, unwilling to draw attention to what she hadn't said.
The 27th Regiment's headquarters staff arrived last, the combat battalions preceding them as per Colonel Siilasvuo's orders – the better to surprise the Soviets and take back Suomussalmi, he'd said, before leaving his staff to tear down the command tents.
Zuko sighed to himself, balancing his skis over one shoulder as he walked through the camp. You wanted to learn strategy, Zuko. Uncle always said, be careful what you wish for.
Thoughts of Uncle made him think of Helsinki, of the life he'd left behind when the refresher training notice arrived, of those brief months when he sat at the negotiating tables. Those thoughts led to memories of rainy spring days and Zuko studied the camp around him to distract himself. The 15th Detached Battalion had dug themselves well into the terrain, had reportedly held off one attack already with no further casualties. The field hospital lay quiet among the ranks of soldiers' tents, a testament to that mercy, and –
He turned just in time to see Katara run towards him, astonishment slowing his actions so he barely steadied himself before she leapt at him, laughing in delight. He returned the embrace tentatively, then she pulled back to look at him and beam. "It's so good to see you!"
He almost smiled in return, then stepped back, the practiced explanations evaporating and leaving him stumbling over the words as he took in her smile. "Katara – I am so sorry – the embassy assigned me faster than I thought, and I didn't have a chance… and then I didn't have your address, so –"
She laughed again, cutting him off. "It's fine – I'm just glad you're okay – and you're here!" She glanced down, then back up at his face, mischief in her eyes. "Lieutenant Souzin."
"I'm here," he repeated stupidly, then frowned. "What are you doing here?"
She shrugged, still smiling. "I spent the summer in Perkjärvi, working on the line there – then when the war started, I joined the Lottas. I'm with the field hospital here." She nodded over her shoulder, then her smile turned inquisitive. "What about you? Where were you, until just now?"
"I uh… I spent the summer in Stockholm. Then I came back to Helsinki after the Germans invaded Poland… and they recalled me for refresher training. Then they assigned me to this regiment, as part of the staff, and... here I am," he finished lamely, but suddenly the assignment, the wilderness seemed a little less bleak.
"Here you are," she repeated, her expression and tone suddenly wistful, then she smiled again. "My shift is over in an hour and it looks like you still need to settle in." She tipped her head. "Meet me at the 15th Battalion's mess hall?"
He smiled, then. "Of course."
Jet dragged himself back into camp, too exhausted to even heckle the platoon into moving faster. They trudged behind him, the fresh troops from the new battalions passing them easily. Cover us my ass, Jet thought bitterly. The Soviets won't attack when they see our superior numbers. We just need companies of the 15th to guide us. He snorted to himself, trying to drown the pain in anger. If I ever meet this Colonel Siilasvuo, I'm going to tell him just what I think of his "strategy."
Captain Heikkilä's tent was warm compared to the air outside, but Jet didn't pause to savor it. He saluted, then spoke as soon as Heikkilä acknowledged him.
"Lieutenant Aalto is dead, sir. Killed by enemy fire as we retreated."
Heikkilä's expression didn't change but to Jet's eyes his shoulders slumped in weariness. "I'm saddened to hear that, Sergeant Vapaus. Aalto was a good man." He paused, stared into the brazier that warmed the tent. "Were you able to recover his body?"
Jet shook his head once, sharply, and Heikkilä nodded. "Well Sergeant. The platoon is yours for now, until we reassign someone to the command. I'll send for you when I have more orders." He nodded again in polite dismissal and Jet saluted before turning back into the cold.
He made his way slowly towards the mess hall, hoping to find Katara there as well as a hot meal – he needed her smile tonight.
"What was Stockholm like?" Katara asked as she settled her tray onto the table. Zuko sat opposite her, looking uncomfortable, more like the anxious student she remembered and less like the officer his hair and uniform described.
"It was –" he paused, his eyes unfocused as he searched for a description.
I missed you, she thought, and tried not to feel guilty for it.
Zuko finally shrugged. "I thought of you. A couple of times. They have excellent scientific institutes – world-class medical schools." He flushed slightly as he looked away. "Though the University of Helsinki is just as good."
Katara smiled, about to prompt him again, when Jet walked into the mess hall, his posture telegraphing exhaustion. He looked over the thinning crowd of soldiers and medics, finally met her eyes and grinned as he started towards her.
"Zuko, meet my good friend –" she started as Jet pulled back an empty bench, but then his expression twisted.
"You," he snarled in unison with Zuko and she stared at them in turn. They glared at each other, hate and surprise joining the exhaustion on Jet's face while Zuko narrowed his eyes and frowned, the effect more menacing than his usual thoughtful expression.
Jet spoke first, before Katara could think of anything to say. "I supposed they've really called up everyone if they bothered to send you to the line."
Zuko's fists clenched around the edges of his tray, the dishes clinking softly together, before he finally responded. "Is that all, Corporal Vapaus?" The loathing in his voice chilled Katara, as did Jet's anger.
"Hey, it's Sergeant Vapaus now – Lieutenant."
Zuko pressed his lips together. "Sergeant. You're dismissed."
Katara frowned, started to protest, but Smellerbee's voice cut through the clatter around them.
"Sergeant! Jet!" Jet looked away as she approached.
"What?" he snarled.
"We need you." She jerked her chin at the opposite side of the tent. "Now!"
Jet growled again, then turned, following Smellerbee through the crowd without a look backward.
Katara stared after him, then stared at Zuko, who sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose then dropped his hand and tried to smile at her.
"I take it the two of you have met," she said faintly.
Zuko sighed again, looked away. "I suppose you could say that."
11 December, 1939 – 27th Regiment Field Headquarters, Region of Kainuu
"Captain Heikkilä. Sir." Jet pushed aside the tent flap with a little too much force, trying to restrain his temper. I have had –
Jet stopped short as he saw Souzin standing in the tent as well, too-stiff posture matching the anger on his face. They glared at each other as Heikkilä spoke.
"Lieutenant Aalto was a good man, Sergeant Vapaus, and you complemented his leadership well. Your platoon has excelled in both combat and defense, and I hope that it continues to function as well under its new lieutenant."
Oh no, Jet thought. No.
Heikkilä either didn't notice or ignored the sudden tension in the tent and turned to Souzin. "Sergeant Vapaus, this is Lieutenant Souzin. He has been reassigned to lead your platoon, effective immediately."
"He's what?" Jet yelped, but fell silent under Heikkilä's look.
"Don't make me repeat myself." Jet straightened, tried to school his expression even as he seethed, tried not to look at Souzin where he stood, rigid against the wall. "Sergeant Vapaus, I expect you to work efficiently with Lieutenant Souzin and afford him the respect due him as your new platoon commander." Heikkilä's glare included them both. "Now go, both of you – you have men to lead."
They both saluted and left the tent, Jet shaking with rage as he stepped into the cold and strode towards K Platoon's section of camp; he heard Souzin's light footsteps soon follow but he didn't call out, didn't acknowledge Jet, and that only angered him more.
He finally stopped, in the middle of the path trampled through the snow; Souzin kept walking, his steps steady, and Jet reached out to grab his collar, haul him in and sneer in his face. "I don't like you," he hissed.
Souzin's eyes widened in surprise, then narrowed dangerously, but his hands stayed at his sides; he didn't reach for his throat, for Jet's wrists, just glared. "Release me."
"Or what?" Jet shook him, sneered. "You'll report me for insubordination?"
Souzin grit his teeth before speaking. "I'll flatten you."
"I'd like to see you try." Jet tightened his grip when Katara's voice cut through the air.
"What are you doing?" Her voice held anger and Jet realized that they had reached the field hospital; she stood before it, her expression appalled. "What is wrong with you? Both of you? We're fighting a war, and you two are bickering like spoilt children!" She paused, glaring at them both. "I don't know how you managed to get off to such a bad start, but you could at least try to work together – or at least not kill each other before the Soviets try to!"
Jet shoved Souzin away, turning towards the camp and stalking away into the dark. Behind him, he heard Katara's worried questions, Souzin's low excuses; it fed his anger but he buried it, for now. I can wait.
Colonel Siilasvuo's strategy as the commander of Finnish forces in the region of Kainuu called for cutting the Soviets off from their country, from their supplies and communications. New orders sent fresh troops to attack the Soviets as they pressed inland from Suomussalmi towards the village of Raate, soldiers and tanks and trucks a snake winding through the frozen landscape.
"I don't understand," a very young lieutenant ventured after reading the latest tactical maps. "It's like they're trying to make themselves targets."
"Who knows how a Russian thinks," Captain Heikkilä remarked absently as he laid another plan across the tabletop.
Zuko listened absently; their company had been assigned to local defense while Siilasvuo divided the 27th Regiment into strike teams along the Soviet's route. The orders had infuriated Sergeant Vapaus, who had glared and muttered about officers and strategy.
I don't like you, Zuko thought. I don't like your attitude, and I don't like your temper. He remembered the menace to Vapaus's voice as he hissed Souzin.
I don't like your assumptions.
Captain Heikkilä soon dismissed them, sending his lieutenants back to their platoons and the endless rotations of guard duty. Zuko left the tent and turned towards the field hospital, towards Katara. I missed you, he thought, the memory of her hurt expression lingering. I just wish…
The field hospital was quiet, the casualties light since the initial battles, the serious cases evacuated and most soldiers treated and sent back to their units. Katara smiled to him as he stepped inside, gestured for him to wait as she finished talking with a patient, and Zuko was glad again that Jet had pulled guard duty for the night.
"How're you doing?" she finally asked, her voice sympathetic after pulling him to the quiet storage space at the back of the tent, and Zuko considered before replying.
He wanted to tell her how much he hated command, how he belonged at the strategy tables with the Colonel's staff, not minding soldiers and guarding the camp. He wanted to tell her how tired he was of waiting, of being shuffled between posts and assignments, of being pulled from his course and sent here.
He finally shrugged. "Well enough."
His expression must have betrayed him, though, as Katara studied his face before sighing heavily. "I'm tired of waiting, too." She paused, her expression distant. "It's so much like home, here. The trees, the hills, the lakes – I grew up just west of here, and it's so similar. It smells the same." She looked up at him and smiled sadly. "My brother joined the navy – the coastal patrol. I get letters from him sometimes, but…" She shrugged, tried to smile even as she looked away. "It's not like seeing him. It's not like knowing he's okay."
Zuko again considered what he should say – that he hated this wilderness except that it had returned her to him – but then stopped as he saw tears slip down her cheek. He stood frozen for a moment, then carefully stepped towards her, opened his arms and drew her in. Katara didn't protest, instead leaned into him; he rested his chin on her hair and let her cry into his chest and tried not to feel guilty for enjoying how she felt against him.
Her sobs soon stopped and her breathing evened out. She pulled back slightly and Zuko let her go, trying not to show his reluctance. She looked up at him, eyes red but a small smile on her lips before she dropped her head. "Thanks."
Zuko spoke before he realized he intended to. "I went to the café, you know." She looked up again, startled, but he continued. "When I got back from Stockholm. Every Thursday." Zuko glanced towards the main area, suddenly unable to face her. "I thought about you a lot. About how stupid I was not to get your address. My last day in Helsinki was a Thursday. I waited until evening – the owner threatened to throw me out, but I kept hoping."
He glanced back at her then, and her eyes were warm, searching. Inviting.
Zuko leaned towards her, slowly, dipped his head and she didn't pull away even as her eyes widened. Her lips were soft against his, warm and inviting as her eyes and her smile, and still she didn't pull away as he reached up to touch her cheek, draw her gently into the kiss.
She whimpered softly, tipped her head, and heat built in him, warm like her body pressed against him. He shivered as Katara slid her hands up his chest, his neck and he pulled her closer, molding her against him, and –
"Captain Harmaajärvi?" They startled apart at the medic's voice, breathing hard and Zuko felt his face flush. The medic called again and they stared at each other for a long moment.
"I have to go –" they said in unison, then Katara turned and hurried into the main room. Zuko stared at the ground to avoid watching her go, then slipped from the tent and escaped into the freezing darkness.
I'm not avoiding him, Katara thought to herself as she grabbed a hasty meal after her shift finally ended. I just… She sighed, chased her food across the plate with her fork, finally gave up and cleared her place and left the mess hall. You just what, Katara?
The tension of the Soviet advance faded in comparison to the confusion she felt when she saw Zuko and he avoided her eyes, to the guilt she felt at Jet's smiles. She found herself almost glad of another wave of "casualties" – the frostbite and minor wounds kept her mercifully occupied, and one evening she stood a long moment outside the hospital tent before remembering that she could return to her own small tent. The air felt almost warm after a week of brutal cold, and she stretched muscles sore from long hours of standing and suturing.
Footsteps crunched in the snow behind her and Katara turned to see Jet. "Hey," he started. "Are you okay?"
She sighed, unsure of what she could say, except the truth. "I've just been on my feet all day."
"Need a backrub?" His grin was warm, infectious, and she smiled back through the fatigue and uncertainty, allowed him to steer her towards a bench set outside the hospital tent. His hands were warm, too, strong and pleasant even through her jacket, and Katara leaned her head forward as he kneaded tense muscles, unwound the knots across her shoulders. She sighed again, this time in pleasure as she relaxed slowly.
The quality of his touch changed then, his hands now more caressing than kneading as Jet leaned into her, pressed against her back. She held herself still, feeling her heart start to race; felt him brush his lips against her neck, nudge her collar down as she shivered in both pleasure and panic. She didn't know what to do, what to think, except to lean into it, sigh with pleasure at the sensation as Jet's hands slipped down her shoulders to her upper arms, holding her against him.
She felt a whimper escape her throat, heard it die in the evening air as she looked up to see Zuko standing across the open area before the field hospital, barely in the circle of light cast by the tent. Shame flooded her then, matched by uncertainty, and she scrambled up, away from Jet, stung by the betrayal on Zuko's face. What am I doing? she thought desperately, then saw Jet's expression, smug and hostile as he stared at Zuko, arms folded and posture triumphant.
Rage replaced the shock and when Katara finally found her voice it came out shrill. "You were just using me?" she demanded. "Both of you – to get to each other?"
Zuko's angry expression crumpled into horror as Jet turned pleading eyes on her, his tone sincere. "No Katara, never – I would never use you, or hurt you – you're my friend."
She stared at them in turn, feeling tears slip down her cheeks. "You're both my friends."
Jet's expression darkened and the loathing now in his voice made her shiver. "Well, he's not my friend." His next words stopped her cold. "Which one of us, Katara?" He looked at her intently, desperately, his expression a match for Zuko's. "Which one of us is it going to be?"
The tears froze on her face; Jet's voice sounded broken in the stillness, Zuko's silence pained, the tension between them tearing her in two – and it made her angry.
"You think I'm just going to pick one of you?" Their expressions turned to surprise and Katara knew her tone held scathing accusation, but she didn't care. "That I'm the judge in this stupid pissing match of yours? Forget it! Leave me out of it!"
They both started forward but she turned away, fled into the darkness beyond the field hospital. Silence resonated behind her as she retreated, but luckily it was broken by a messenger's voice calling for Lieutenant Souzin. Her own tent lay blessedly silent when she finally reached it. She buried herself in her bedroll, trying to shut out the world, and muffled her sobs in her pillow.
Jet's anger grew every time Katara avoided his eyes, slipped away before he could talk to her; it grew every time Souzin addressed him, snapping out brusque orders and not waiting for a response before turning away. Several times, though, Jet caught Souzin glaring at him from across the tent or the defenses or the mess hall. His expression always closed, his eyes sliding away when Jet returned the glare, and one evening the anger finally boiled over.
Souzin walked away from the trenches, the fortifications cut into snow and brush, and Jet scrambled out of his post to follow. "Don't you ignore me, you bastard," he snarled, not caring if the men heard him, not caring if other officers saw – he itched to do something, to break something; anything to get out of this cycle of waiting. Souzin kept walking, though, his steps steady and Jet's rage spiked.
He launched himself at Souzin, swinging his fist, but Souzin dodged the blow, his own fist connecting as Jet stumbled off balance. Jet shook his head and straightened; they circled each other for a moment, then leapt back in to trade blows. Jet heard his own voice taunting Souzin, who stayed deathly silent even as he barred his teeth in a snarl; the words were meaningless, blurring together with his anger.
Jet finally leapt at Souzin again, hands extended; he caught Souzin's throat even as Souzin caught his wrists and held them in a vice grip, but Jet had momentum and forced him down, closing off his throat. Souzin released Jet's wrists to claw at him, kick him, thrash beneath him, but Jet held on, rage strengthening his grip.
"I told you next time I'd kill you," he snarled, and dug his fingers farther into Souzin's neck; he choked, flailed, tried to get purchase on the ground but Jet forced him down. "You can report me for insubordination when you're in Hell."
A brief tense of muscles warned him, then something slammed into his temple; a canteen, Jet thought, as light exploded behind his eyes and Souzin broke away, choking and gasping for breath. Jet shook his head to clear his vision, then lunged again before Souzin could roll to his feet. The force knocked them both off-balance and they tumbled down another slope, landing heavily at the bottom of a ravine.
Jet lay stunned for a moment, the silence shocking as he listened to his pulse hammer in his ears. He watched his breath billow into steam in the freezing air, his eyes slowly focusing– then realized that he listened to Souzin's heartbeat, too. Jet lay sprawled atop him, head against his chest and legs askew; he looked up to find Souzin staring back at him, eyes wide with what looked like fear – fear from the man whose face had held nothing but rage when Jet crushed his neck.
Somehow, though, Jet understood that fear, a terror he couldn't describe as he broke away, scrambled up and fell into retreat and plunged into the forest and away. Behind him, the woods lay silent, no sound of a man struggling from the snow. I hope he freezes to death, Jet thought, then tried not to think at all.
Word reached the field headquarters that two fresh regiments neared, tasked to join the assault Colonel Siilasvuo planned to retake Suomussalmi. "I heard the Colonel is planning to cut the Soviet forces off from their supply trains," one of the medics shared as she and Katara remade hospital beds. "The Red soldiers will be easy to defeat then – like cutting the head off a serpent."
Katara nodded, listening absently; the tension of waiting grew day by day until it now lay smothering over the camp. The small skirmishes the 27th Regiment fought, ambushes from the forest and around blind corners, did little to relieve that strain.
She saw it reflected in the soldiers, in the strained voices in the mess hall, the grim looks of men returning from guard duty. She saw it in the bruises on Zuko's neck and on Jet's wrists that they tried to hide, in the raw scrapes across their knuckles; in how Zuko left the mess hall as she entered and Jet seemed distracted, moody as she avoided him.
Katara sighed as she closed a supply cabinet, leaned against it for a moment and thought wistfully of rainy spring days and balmy summer evenings. Something has to break.
The call for special volunteers came as a relief.
Volunteers needed, the notice read, posted on a camp signboard. Soldiers familiar with terrain surrounding Suomussalmi, Raate, other localities of Kainuu Region are needed to guide combat teams in upcoming operation.
Katara stood for a long time in front of the notice, no longer reading and instead thinking. I am so tired of being left behind. Tired of feeling helpless, good only for stitching wounds and warming frostbitten fingers. Tired of waiting, watching, as around her men fought and defended, as those once friends stayed silent and tense. I want to help people.
Her feet moved before Katara realized she had decided.
"Captain Heikkilä?" she asked, drawing the tent flap aside after a nod from the soldier posted outside. The captain looked up as she entered, surprise on his face and she lifted her chin. "I'm here about the call for volunteers."
Katara reported back to the tent the next morning to face Heikkilä's thoughtful frown. He finally sighed, leaned back in his chair. "You're crazy."
Hope surged through her. "Does that mean I get to go?"
"Colonel Siilasvuo's orders are that recruiting sufficient guides for the forthcoming operation overrides any other consideration." He held her gaze for a long moment before continuing. "You are to act strictly as a guide. You will not be armed and you are not to engage in combat. You are to seek cover during any encounter with the enemy and allow the unit you are assigned to clear the surroundings before you emerge."
Something in his expression changed, a ghost of humor flickering across his face. "Under no circumstances are you to get yourself killed, else central command will have our heads. Do you understand, Captain Harmaajärvi?"
Katara barely contained her smile. "Yes. Sir."
The assignment relieved Katara from her duties at the field hospital, causing her supervisor to frown at the written orders for a long moment before sighing and dismissing her. She passed the hours until the afternoon's briefing in her tent, dividing her scant possessions into "take" and "leave" piles. She left the "take" items – long woolen underwear, a sweater and muffler knit by her grandmother – on her bedroll and bundled the rest back into her foot locker, then walked through a snow shower to the briefing.
The other volunteer guides eyed her curiously, boys who could have tended the fields adjoining her family's land, men with the hardened look of trappers and hunters, but all turned their attention to the Lieutenant Colonel who stepped in front of the assembly. The briefing passed quickly, strategy and details easily memorized, and soon she gathered with other guides around the assignment roster posted where the Lieutenant Colonel had stood.
Katara found her name half-way down the list, and her stomach twisted. Of course.
She reported to the outfitting tent to collect her issued equipment: heavy winter clothing the color of snow, a soldier's pack and rations, skis that rivaled the ones she had grown up with. She asked for and received a medical kit, inspected the contents before nodding, and hauled the lot back to her tent. The winter clothing, the smallest sizes manufactured, barely fit her and left ample room beneath for her own sweater; she fastened the jacket carefully over it and closed the pack over her other supplies.
Katara sat on her bed for a long time, then, thinking, steeling herself, until finally she could delay no longer. She shouldered her pack and her skis and trudged through the snow to face her assignment.
"I have orders," Katara said crisply, handing the folded paper to Zuko as he watched her with longing and despair on his face and Jet stood unmoving a few steps away. Zuko stood still for a long moment before taking the paper, unfolding it and reading. His eyes widened in surprise as he looked up at her and Jet stopped pretending to ignore them and snatched the paper from Zuko's still fingers. He skimmed the words written there, then looked up with the same expression Zuko wore.
"No," they said in unison, for once ignoring the other, but Katara lifted her chin and stared at them both.
"I have my orders and you have yours. Lieutenant. Sergeant." She kept her voice cool, nodded at each, dared them to challenge her.
She saw the anger in both of them, the way Zuko's face shuttered and Jet drew his brows together, but she held her ground. Jet finally turned away, cursing under his breath before barking orders at the rest of the platoon. Zuko watched her for a moment longer, his expression unreadable, then walked deliberately away.
Katara closed her eyes, breathed deeply and whispered a short prayer, then settled in with the rest of the platoon to wait.
26 December, 1939 – Forest near Town of Suomussalmi, Region of Kainuu
"That's the last of them, Harmaajärvi," Smellerbee called, and Katara scrambled back up the steep slope to where the platoon gathered along the ridge. "Mission accomplished."
Katara surveyed the sparse woods below them, the bodies littered along the road, the bloodstained snow, and could think of no response as they trudged to the command post. At least we took no casualties, she thought, but it was bitter consolation.
Jet and Zuko were silent when she reached their location, turned at opposing angles as they listened to the corporals and dispatched a messenger to the radio post respectively. She sighed as she stepped between them, wishing for anything but this strained silence. Longshot smiled faintly at her, then raised the binoculars to his eyes again, scanning the distant road.
When Zuko finally spoke, his voice was harsh, clipped. "We'll fall back now – rendezvous with the company as per Colonel Siilasvuo's orders."
"Fuck Colonel Siilasvuo's orders," Jet muttered, but Zuko either didn't hear or chose not to hear the comment.
"Sergeant, prepare the troops to move out."
"Yes sir," Jet drawled, his tone barely shy of insolence before he turned to bark orders, and Katara sighed again as she slipped her pack on. Around her, the platoon responded to Jet's commands; Smellerbee and the other corporals joined him as Zuko stood unmoving at his post, avoiding Katara's eyes as he had Jet's. Katara opened her mouth to speak, unsure of what she would say, when gunfire split the air.
The next moment, her face was crammed into the snow, Zuko's weight atop her, as more gunshots rang out, followed by shouts and the distant rumble she recognized as tanks. "Fall back – along the ridge!" Zuko shouted from just over her, and she heard Jet relay the orders down the line. "Stay down," he hissed to her, then moved away.
Katara obeyed, drawing her knees up and leaning against the wall of snow. "It's a different unit – the insignias are different!" she heard Longshot shout, then Jet's voice overpowered them all.
"You bastards – you want to take our homes? You think it's that easy?"
Katara leaned forward, peering around the rough fortification dug into the snow, dread in her heart at the fury in his voice. Don't get stupid, she thought, but his expression when she finally saw him killed that hope.
"Try and take it – just try!" He stood along the trench, rifle to his shoulder and firing down the slopes. He finally stopped to re-load, not bothering to duck as the enemy force returned fire.
"Jet!" she shrieked, terrified for him as bullets hit the snow, the trees around them – then recoiled in surprise as something lunged out of the snow, knocking him backwards to tumble down the slope behind them. Zuko! she realized, then scrambled after them, skidding down the slope, her pack bouncing behind her. She heard Smellerbee's voice in the background, screaming orders to scatter, take cover and retreat, while the gunshots and heavier boom of tanks continued beyond. The shouts soon faded as she plunged deeper into the ravine, the snow sliding around her; she finally saw where they had come to rest at the bottom.
She found Jet sitting up and cursing. "Crazy bastard!" Jet shouted, trying to scramble to his feet, but Zuko lay slumped over his legs, unmoving. "What the hell'd you do that for?" He tried to shove Zuko away but Katara lunged in, grabbed his arm.
"He saved your life!" she screamed, then reached for Zuko's pulse; his eyes were closed but she felt his heartbeat fast under her fingers. Behind her, Jet continued cursing as she ran her fingers over Zuko's scalp. Her stomach twisted as she felt the growing lump on the side of his head.
The gunfire grew suddenly louder and Katara grit her teeth and decided. "We have to get out of here," she said desperately. "You have to carry him – I can't, I –"
"Are you crazy? He attacked –"
"Shut up!" Silence followed her shout and for a moment Katara feared that the enemy itself had stopped to stare at her as Jet did, but then the echo died away, replaced by gunfire. She squeezed her eyes and clenched her teeth. "Jet. We have to get out of here. Now. I'm not leaving Zuko and I need your help if you want me to go with you."
Jet stared at her for a long moment, eyes narrowed and features betraying such rage it hurt her like a physical blow, but finally he stood. "Help me pull him up," he said tersely, and Katara moved forward to steady him as he slung Zuko over one shoulder and started moving through the snow, down the ravine and away. I hope your spine is intact, Katara thought as Zuko stayed limp, but it was too late to worry. She adjusted her pack, grabbed Jet's rifle abandoned on the ground, and followed them through the woods.
Trudging through snow with too-large boots and a full pack was hard work, harder than checking her father's trap lines, harder than moving from house to barn in a winter white-out. At first, Katara thought longingly of her skis, safe at the platoon's camp, but as the short afternoon dragged into evening, she thought of nothing at all.
Zuko, at least, remained stable, his breath even and his pulse steady but too fast when they paused to breathe. Exhaustion clouded Jet's face but he didn't complain, didn't speak except to say "Let's go" when they had rested long enough. The temperature dropped as the evening deepened, and Katara knew they had to find shelter else risk freezing in the woods. Her fingers went slowly numb and she held Jet's rifle in a rigid grip because it gave her purpose, because the effort gave her something to focus on besides Zuko's limp form.
They stumbled on the cabin purely by accident; Katara didn't even see it until they were nearly past, before she realized the moonlight glinted on dirty glass rather than snow. A hunter's cabin, she thought, so like her father's she nearly wept, but then she pushed inside, Jet following her silently. She couldn't feel her fingers but she felt new purpose as Jet deposited Zuko on the floor beside the woodstove.
Katara dropped her pack beside him, rummaged for matches, then her bedroll. She bundled Zuko into it as Jet built a fire; she silently thanked the unknown hunter for leaving dry wood stacked along one wall. She thanked him again as she pulled the thin mattress in one corner nearer to the fire, found worn blankets folded atop it. She rolled Zuko onto it, tucking the blankets around him; he groaned softly but otherwise didn't respond and she tried not to worry.
After what seemed an eternity but likely only spanned minutes, Jet sat back on his haunches and closed the woodstove's door. His frame slumped, then, and Katara handed him a ration bar. He broke it in two and handed one portion back to her. "We both need this."
Katara nodded, too weary to argue, too worried about Zuko to think of stretching their supplies. They sat before the fire and Katara started to feel minutely better, warmth seeping back into her fingers despite the cabin's chill. Her worry returned, though, when she checked again on Zuko.
"He's freezing," she said. Jet didn't reply and when Katara looked up he wore a frown. "Come on. You could probably use the warmth, too."
Katara held her breath for a moment, but Jet didn't argue or even respond; he just threw more wood into the stove and lay down on his side, facing away from Zuko on the thin mattress. Katara pulled the blankets and her bedroll over all three of them and wrapped her arms around Zuko from behind.
He started shivering soon, a good sign, and she held him tighter, the fire warm at her back. Finally, late into the night, he stopped shaking and his breathing deepened, and Katara fell into dreamless sleep.
Jet woke tense and groggy after a night spent holding himself rigid, aware of Souzin's presence at his back. He finally hauled himself off the thin mattress as dawn leaked in through the cabin's single window. Katara lay pressed up against Souzin's back; the bastard in turn was curled in on himself, a nasty bruise already discoloring the side of his head.
The sight made Jet uneasy; he didn't know quite what to think of it, so he didn't. Instead, he loaded more wood into the stove, blew on the embers; he found a battered kettle on the shelf behind the stove and let himself quietly out of the cabin. He relieved himself, then stood in the small clearing; the morning lay quiet, clear and piercingly cold as Jet stooped to pack the kettle with snow.
Katara didn't move when he stepped back inside, set the kettle on the stove, busied himself looking through the shelves and the lone cabinet. Someone had carefully stacked tinned foods there, canisters of what were probably flour or sugar. All were covered in a thick blanket of dust, as were the chipped dished and tarnished cutlery. What happened to the hunter? Jet wondered, but put the thought aside as he heard blankets rustle.
Katara was sitting when Jet turned, gently nudging Souzin's shoulder. "Zuko," she said firmly, and Jet scowled. "Zuko."
Souzin stirred, groaned, the sounds pained. Helpless. Jet felt that same uneasiness, but Katara smiled with relief. "Wake up, Zuko – you can go back to sleep in a moment."
Souzin groaned again, but this time forced his eyes open; Jet watched him blink, focus on Katara's face. The softness there, the affection, made him want to turn away, but he grit his teeth and watched. "Katara?" he asked, voice rough, and he coughed. "Water," he said, but Katara shook her head.
"Not yet," she said, running fingers through his hair over his scalp, over the bruising. "It's still swelling – you can drink as much as you want tomorrow."
Souzin closed his eyes, his expression pained as his groans had been. "What happened?"
Katara pressed her lips together, glanced at Jet, something in her expression that he couldn't read before she answered. "You were struck by a bullet. Your helmet took it, but the impact was enough to knock you out." She smiled weakly. "You've got a concussion, but I think you'll be fine."
Souzin lay still for a moment, seeming to consider her response, and finally spoke again. "How?"
"You don't remember? No, don't shake your head, it's fine." She sighed, looked at Jet again, then back to Souzin. "You saved Jet's life. If that bullet hadn't hit him, another would have, but you made him take cover." She smiled softly, but Jet froze, horror and disgust rising at her words, burning in the back of his throat.
That crazy son of a – Jet forced himself to breathe, to push it aside and consider it later. From the mattress, Katara looked up at him, concern on her face, and Jet made himself calm.
Souzin, at least, said no more and seemed to drift back into sleep, and eventually Katara nudged him back into the blankets, stood and stretched and stepped towards the wood stove. "How are you?" she asked gently, and Jet forced himself to shrug.
Her gaze was searching for a moment, but then she turned away to rummage through her pack. She withdrew packets of coffee, took two cups from the shelf and set them on the scarred table, then slipped her gloves on and picked up the kettle to pour. Only then did Jet realize it had boiled, been boiling for quite some time, unnoticed, but then the scent of coffee pervaded the cabin and he allowed himself to sigh.
They soon ate in silence, tinned meat and biscuits and more cups of too-hot, too-bitter army coffee, but Jet felt better after, warmer, satisfied despite Souzin's presence.
"Jet…" Katara started, and he looked up. She hesitated, then looked away. "Zuko… he won't be able to travel for at least a day or two. Maybe three – his concussion is pretty bad." She met Jet's eyes again and he saw the worry in her gaze. "Do you know where we are?"
Jet forced himself to shrug. "I'd say we covered two or three miles yesterday. Maybe more – the terrain was pretty rough. You're the guide, though." He hadn't meant the remark to sting, but she flinched. Jet reached forward to cover her hand with his and her expression smoothed. "I just meant that you'd probably know better than me."
She nodded and tried to return his smile. "Right. Well…" She glanced back at Souzin, motionless on the mattress, and her smile slipped away. "I'm going to take a look around, then." She looked back at Jet, her expression direct, eyes intense. "You'll have to watch him while I'm gone."
Jet sat back, released her hand, forced his tone to be light, uncaring. "Easy enough – he either dies or doesn't, right?"
Her expression hardened. "I mean it, Jet – watch him."
Jet looked away. "Don't worry." His voice sounded strained, even to his ears. "That bastard saved my life. I'm not going to let him die and be indebted to him forever."
Zuko woke again, head throbbing but feeling more coherent. He lay still for a long moment, then finally forced his eyes open.
Sergeant Vapaus, he thought. The man was the first thing Zuko saw and he almost wished he hadn't woken up. His eyes found Katara next, though, and his mood softened. He pulled himself into a sitting position and the movement drew her notice, her brilliant smile.
"Still with us?" she asked, and he nodded, but the pain didn't swamp him like in hazy memory. "Want some water?"
He nodded again, but she had already turned to a kettle at the back of the woodstove that took up the center of the… cabin?
"Where are we?" he asked, after Katara had handed him a chipped cup of warm water, after he had sipped it carefully, drained it and handed it back in a silent request as Sergeant Vapaus ignored them both, staring moodily out the window. She refilled it and returned it to him, and sighed.
"Jet and I think we're about five miles southwest of headquarters. We walked probably two miles two nights ago, and the platoon was three miles south of headquarters when we scattered. This –" she gestured around the cabin, "– was luck when we needed it most."
Zuko nodded again, a little too hard this time, and he winced. Katara's expression changed to one of concern. "How are you feeling?"
He thought about it for a moment. "Awful."
Katara smiled, though, and that made him feel better despite the headache. The stew of tinned meat and beans she ladled from a pot on the stove helped too, as did the too-bitter coffee Katara let Zuko have after he drank more water. Vapaus continued to ignore them, though his eyes followed Katara as she moved about the cabin.
"How long was I out?" he asked, sipping his second cup of coffee, and Katara shrugged.
"About thirty-six hours. You've been in and out of consciousness since we found this cabin, two nights ago."
Vapaus had claimed the only chair in the cabin, leaning back in it defiantly and Katara perched on a low wooden bench, leaving Zuko the thin mattress by the wood stove. That suited him fine – he didn't yet feel like moving. He leaned against the wall by its foot, pulling a blanket with him; the cabin was warmer than in his hazy memories, but he still felt cold.
"Think you're up to moving out tomorrow?" Katara asked after a time; Zuko considered, nodded carefully, and something in her face relaxed as she addressed them both.
"I'm going to have another look around, then." She pulled her jacket on; as she fastened it, her eyes fell on the rifle propped near the door – Vapaus's, Zuko supposed. "I'll see if I can bring back supper, too – there's no use wasting field rations, and I might as well do something useful while I try to get my bearings. No –" she said as Vapaus started to protest, "– I know these woods better than you, and I don't want to have to go find you if you get lost. Besides," and her smile held a brief hint of happiness, "this isn't that different from my dad's hunting rifle."
Zuko wondered if she realized she was babbling, but the pained expression on her face before she slipped out the door seemed to confirm it. He settled back against the wall, closing his eyes to discourage Vapaus, but the man remained stonily silent. Zuko debated briefly which was worse, his unending barbed words or this sullenness, but he couldn't decide and instead turned his thoughts to Katara. Her warm smiles, the way her lips had parted so briefly when he kissed her… the way her face remained warm and beautiful even when angry…
He sighed. I wish I knew what to do. What she wants. He risked a look at Vapaus then; his face mirrored the frustration Zuko felt as he stared out the window again.
At least that's something we seem to have in common.
Katara returned after an eternity, opening the door and smiling warmly before taking up a bowl and a pot and going outside again. Zuko waited anxiously, the tension twice as thick now, but she returned soon, the bowl full of dark red meat and the pot heaped with snow. She said little as she fried the meat, stewed the bones and other bits for a rich broth; she made simple bannock, too. The meal should have been pleasant, but Vapaus's moody presence weighed on him. I suppose I'm just as bad, Zuko forced himself to admit, but it didn't dampen his resentment.
After the dishes were wiped clean and the leftovers set to simmer overnight, Katara sat near the window and stared at the sky a long time, frowning. Zuko wanted to ask why, but Vapaus kept him silent again.
They unanimously left the mattress for Katara that night, each retreating to opposite sides of the woodstove with a thin blanket. Katara's long sigh before her breathing deepened into sleep haunted Zuko, and he stayed awake a long time, certain that Vapaus, too, kept silent watch over her.
Katara slept poorly, the tension laying heavy, stifling, within the cabin; she was cold, too, without the warmth of the two men near her, and she woke shivering several times as heat leaked out of the cabin. A storm raged outside by the time daylight filtered into the cabin, turning the window a solid, frosty white and confirming last night's fears. She sighed to herself before intervening in yet another argument.
"No," she told Jet, again. "We can't leave now. That storm will have us in minutes, and wandering lost in the woods is a nasty way to die. I've seen it." She held his eyes for a long time before he finally looked away, and she sighed. "I want to get back to camp, too."
Zuko, meanwhile, crossed his arms and avoided looking at either. Both men were sullen, frowning, with shadows under their eyes, and Katara felt tears bubbling up again. She was tired, physically tired and tired of this, this stupid fighting, the way neither said anything as they retreated to their opposite sides of the cabin, leaving her in the middle. Again. She finally put her head down on the table to wait, fighting the tears back down.
The tension only grew as morning stretched into afternoon, wind whistling in the stovepipe and rattling the lone window. The cabin grew cold again no matter how much wood they piled on the fire as warm air slowly escaped through cracks and chinks.
Katara didn't even see how the fight finally started or who started it; she simply returned from gathering more snow to melt to find Jet shouting about the damn Soviets, about officers and politicians who thought their pretty words alone could defend the borders. She thought wearily about intervening, trying to stop it again, but it had already gone too far and she gave up, turning away.
"At least I didn't invite the Soviets in," Zuko shouted back at Jet. "You would have handed the country to them twenty years ago if you had your way!"
Jet's voice was quiet, suddenly, dangerous as his shouting hadn't been. "Tell me you didn't just say that."
"You heard me. You damn Reds invited the Soviets in. No wonder they think they can take Finland!"
Jet sneered. "Just like a White to blame it on anyone but himself."
"At least my conscience is clear at night, not wondering if dreams of revolution have doomed this country."
"Clear conscience?" Jet shouted, and Katara wished she could close her ears to their voices. "Your great-grandfather killed my family!" He pushed on before Zuko could respond, shouting louder. "Two thousand killed outright in Tampere and thousands more dead in prison camps, on General Souzin's commands! My parents, my brother – they were all taken by the White Guard and left to die in the camps! You destroyed the city – I lived in the ruins for a month before the orphanage took me – and that was worse!"
Jet paused, voice breaking, and Zuko leapt to fill that silence. "You think you're the only one to have suffered? The Red Guard invaded my home." Zuko's voice held anguish as Katara had never heard. "Tampere was a Red Guard stronghold – Helsinki was the capitol. You attacked Finland, not just the Whites – held it hostage with fear. We never knew who would be next, who would vanish on their way home from the market." His voice shook, now, distorted by grief. "They took my mother – she… she never came back." He paused then, his breathing too sharp, too ragged, but Jet's voice held scorn.
"At least you didn't see her starve to death!" Something in Katara broke at his words – something that had held back the tears and the anger both.
"Stop it! Stop it, both of you!" she shouted, turning on them. Jet's face held surprise as he started to speak.
"You don't understand – these bastards –"
"That stupid war killed my mother, too." Jet stopped at her words, the silence broken only by her sobs and the wind outside. He stepped forward, reached out to her, but she shrugged him off violently and he staggered back, his expression wounded.
"You think I don't understand?" she demanded. "You don't understand. While you were fighting your battles, we were just trying to stay alive." Her eyes and throat stung, tears ran down her face, but she couldn't stop. "We were starving – we weren't White or Red – but that didn't stop the terror. There was no food – they dragged my mother away – my father hid us, I shouldn't remember, we were only children – but I heard the shots. I heard the screams."
Her hands shook as the sobs continued, making her feel fragile and empty. "That war destroyed us all." The words come out a broken whisper and she tried to choke back her sobs as she turned away from them, curled over on herself, tried to lock the memories away again.
Behind her, Jet and Zuko stayed silent as she sobbed, the sounds echoing in the cabin. They pointedly didn't look at each other for a long moment, then Jet sighed and Zuko echoed it, shoulders slumping as Jet ran his hands through his hair. Katara's sobs quieted slowly, her breathing harsh in their wake, and the two men finally looked at each other and made a silent truce.
They approached her together, sitting on either side of her; Jet pulled her into him and Katara tried to shake his arm away, but Zuko lay his hand on her back and she went rigid; waiting. He leaned into her gently and wrapped her arms around her waist as Jet pulled her closer and bracketed her between them. She stayed silent and shaking for a heartbreaking moment before clutching Jet's shirt with one hand and covering Zuko's hand with her other; she gripped them both as her breathing evened and the tension drained away.
Jet whispered apologies and reassurances into her hair while Zuko said nothing but she felt the tremor in his hands, the way he laid his cheek against her neck in apology. Katara sniffled again, tears still welling in her eyes, but she felt better, wrung-out and relaxed. She slowly let go of Jet's shirt and Zuko's fingers to take both Jet's hands in hers as she leaned back against Zuko, who shifted with her. He sighed into her hair and Jet stroked the backs of her hands with his thumbs and they sat like that for a long time, silent and warm and right.
That calmness following their storm made her bold and after a time she pulled her hands slowly from Jet's, threaded the fingers of one into Zuko's hair, drew Jet slowly to her with the other. His eyes widened but he followed her touch as she brought his mouth to hers, kissed him gently while she stroked Zuko's cheek and jaw. Neither recoiled or moved away, only inhaled in surprise.
She encouraged them both, softly, that knot of tension unraveling and coiling into another kind of tension as she coaxed Jet's tongue into her mouth and tilted her head for Zuko to trail kisses down her neck, gently scrape his teeth along her skin. She broke the kiss to tip her head back and they both followed the movement, Zuko pushing her collar aside to reach more of her shoulder and Jet running his hands up her waist, under her shirt as he kissed her jawline, nipped at her ear.
Katara closed her eyes and shivered, began to feel for the first time in – weeks, months – that maybe everything would be right, somehow. She sighed as they continued to touch her, caress her and encourage her to move with them, Zuko solid behind her and Jet leaning forward against her; she noticed before she lost herself in the moment that they only touched her, not each other, careful to avoid fingers and lips as they gently explored her body.
It's a start, she thought with satisfaction, and surrendered.
Jet woke to warmth, but felt something… off, somehow. He had dreamed many times of waking up beside Katara, her hair draped over his arm and her breath soft against his neck and her curves naked against his skin, but the reality felt somehow empty. Not as it should be, with the impression of another body still in the mattress beyond her, empty now save for the rumpled blankets where Souzin had lain.
Jet closed his eyes, tried to go back to sleep, tried to ignore that sensation that this wasn't right, that it lacked something. He held Katara tighter against him, kissed her neck as she murmured in her sleep, but the feeling lingered. He finally levered himself up, trying to not let cold air seep beneath the blankets.
Souzin sat on the bench, staring out the tiny window; he was fully dressed, watching the storm still raging outside. Jet considered for him for a few moments – how he hardly moved except to blink – then finally slid away from Katara, tucking the blankets around her closely. He pulled on his jacket, wrapped a spare blanket around his waist, then crossed the few steps to the lone chair in the room, the one he'd claimed as his. Souzin sat motionless still, giving no indication he'd noticed Jet move, and Jet studied him, the furrow in his brow, the tension in his jaw. He feels it too, he realized.
"Why?" Jet asked suddenly, and Souzin startled, looked at him briefly, puzzlement on his face before glancing away.
"Why'd you do it?"
Souzin – Zuko – flushed, then looked uncertain, and that expression made Jet's uneasiness double. "Um…"
Jet cut him off. "You could have let me take that bullet, let me get my stupid ass killed, and you'd be a lot better off. Why? Why'd you do it?"
Zuko paused, grit his teeth and sighed. Jet noticed that he forced himself to relax before answering, and when he did the words surprised him. "… Because that's what my great-grandfather would have done."
Jet snorted. "Your great-grandfather would have shot me himself."
Zuko bristled, fists clenching again, and Jet held up his hands in apology. "Sorry. I shouldn't have said that."
Zuko glared at Jet for a moment but said nothing and they again sat in silence. Zuko stared at the floor this time, instead of the window, and looked up when Jet spoke.
"Thanks," he said quietly. "For that. For not shooting me in the back, and for saving me. Zuko." He hoped his voice sounded sincere – he felt sincere, but…
Zuko's face betrayed surprise, that same uneasiness Jet felt, before he finally nodded.
Jet let out a breath he didn't realized he'd held. "And you're not," he continued. "Your great-grandfather – you aren't like him."
Zuko nodded again, no expression on his face but relief in his posture, and silence fell over them again. Jet moved to put more wood into the fireplace, settled back into the chair and listened to it crackle and catch.
"Look," he finally said, at the same time Zuko inhaled to speak.
They both stopped and looked away. Jet finally sighed and ran his hand through his hair and started again, the uneasiness mixed with hope this time. "Look, if you're okay with this," and his gesture took in Katara, Zuko, himself, "… I am, too."
Zuko watched him again, the quality of his expression intense before he dropped his gaze to Katara and then the woodstove behind her. His eyes lacked focus and his brow creased and Jet held his breath, not knowing what he wanted the answer to be – if he wanted to continue the fight, or…
Zuko finally nodded. "Okay." He looked up at Jet hesitantly, almost shyly, and Jet felt his own innards twist in response before he looked back to the fire. He said no more and Jet wondered what that meant, what they'd decided, but then Katara stirred, murmuring. She stretched luxuriously, turning onto her stomach and arching her back, then opened her eyes and looked up at both of them with a warm, knowing smile.
"Happy New Year," she said softly, seductive and coy at once. Jet smiled and arched his brows, Zuko ducked his head and flushed red again, Katara laughed, and suddenly the cabin seemed warm.
They celebrated the New Year with a toast, more bitter coffee, but this time they clinked their cups softly together and drank in almost-comfortable silence. Katara ventured out again and Jet and Zuko tested their new understanding to unroll one of the bandages in her med kit, sketch diagrams across it with the grease pencil Zuko had somehow retained through their battle and flight.
When Katara returned with more meat, she checked their rough map and suggested changes, pointed out details they'd missed. They ate quietly, still talking over the map; then there was nothing to do but face the awkwardness.
Katara drew them both to the mattress, holding their hands and sitting between them, her legs over Jet's and her thighs pressed against Zuko's. They both touched her, gently and eagerly, but this time she took their hands, guided them to each other, as well. Jet felt the uncertainty in Zuko's hands, the faint tremble that Katara soothed away.
He reached in turn to touch the fading bruises on Zuko's neck carefully, a clumsy apology in his fingers and Zuko closed his eyes and turned his head just a little and Jet slid his hand along the skin there, lightly stroked the marks he'd made in anger. He traced the contrast between smooth skin and unshaven stubble, listened to Zuko's deep inhale, exhale, then rested their foreheads together to feel something relax, wash away.
Then Katara leaned into them, kissing them both, her lips and tongue teasing, coaxing, encouraging as she pressed up between them, soft curves against their planes and angles. When their hands hesitated she guided them, slowly and gently, learning each other together.
Zuko roused first, but this time he stayed, watching. Katara lay cradled between them, pressed close against Zuko's chest and stomach and her head resting on Jet's shoulder, but this time their arms were closed over her, Zuko's hand brushing Jet's ribs and Jet's arm slung lazily over them both.
He lay his head back down on their pillow, contentment warming him as he nosed Katara's hair, traced the contours of Jet's stomach with light fingers. It had been awkward, being with both a man and a woman, but felt somehow right in ways he couldn't describe, couldn't examine yet, just accept. The broad hand draped over his shoulder felt the same, warm and rough and right even as part of him wanted to shrug it off and pull away.
Katara stirred next, humming deep in her throat and arching back against him. Zuko kissed her shoulder softly, felt her smile. "Hey," she whispered. "Good morning."
"Good morning," he responded, unsure of what else he could say, but her smile deepened and she sighed happily, then leaned forward to nudge Jet awake.
He sort of whined, turning onto his stomach and trying to pull the blankets over his head, but Katara squirmed on top of him, kissing his neck and his cheek and stroking his hair. Zuko tentatively reached out to trail his fingers along Jet's shoulder, watching how the muscles bunched and flexed just under the skin, entirely different from the way Katara's sleek curves hid her strength. He curled his hand to scrape his fingernails lightly along Jet's arm, feeling the shiver that ran through them both.
Jet purred, almost, at their attentions, stretching out and tipping his head to grin. "No rest for the weary, huh?"
They spent the day together, the storm still raging outside as they explored each other slowly, pausing to eat and drink at times before tumbling back into bed together.
They curled before the fire late in the afternoon, simply talking. Zuko and Jet sat beside each other, Katara draped over their laps, blankets spread around them all. Jet illustrated his stories by drawing patterns on her bare back with his fingers while Zuko stroked her hair and listened. Katara smiled to herself at the way their shoulders brushed, the way the awkwardness slowly dissolved, the way they were learning they could touch without anger, without striking.
The storm finally died at dusk, the sky clearing and a full moon turning the landscape silver as they sank into warm, satisfied sleep.
3 January, 1940 – 27th Regiment Field Headquarters and Surrounds, Region of Kainuu
They reached the field camp late the next afternoon, making good time despite the snow. Zuko carried Katara's pack while the others broke a trail. "You carried me here," he insisted when Jet offered to take it for a spell.
Smellerbee recognized them first, astonishment on her face as she scrambled out of her tent. "I thought sure you were dead!" she said accusingly, then made as if to hug Jet before catching herself. She peered for anxiously at Zuko, seeming to expect an argument, but relaxed when Zuko nodded.
They reported to Captain Heikkilä together; he looked up with faint annoyance when they entered, then his face relaxed in a genuine smile. "Captain Harmaajärvi," he started. "I'm glad to see you remembered your orders."
Katara grinned and nodded before he turned to the men. "Lieutenant Souzin. Sergeant Vapaus. You should know that your platoon helped successfully re-take Suomussalmi and we've been chasing the Red Army farther into the woods since then. I'll brief you formally tomorrow on our company's current exercises." He leaned back in his chair. "I must say I'm glad you made it back – Corporal Smellerbee is not quite ready for promotion and I've no lieutenants to spare."
Jet grinned at him and saluted as Heikkilä nodded at Zuko. "A word with you, Souzin."
Katara and Jet exited the tent together and stood for a moment, unsure, then Jet smiled. "I'll see you later," he said softly, and Katara smiled.
She did seem them later at the mess hall, Jet leaving as she arrived with other medics. He nodded in passing but she saw the smirk in his eyes; it warmed her as much as the thick soup and biscuits.
"You really spent a week in a cabin with Lieutenant Souzin?" one of the medics asked as they settled around the table.
"And Sergeant Vapaus," she answered absently. Zuko sat at the opposite end of the mess hall with a handful of other officers, talking and gesturing at something laid out on the table before them.
"Lucky," a second medic responded, and Katara forced her shrug to be casual.
"It wasn't a big deal." She remembered Zuko's smiles, Jet's sighs, their warm hands, and felt pleasant heat build in her stomach.
They both snuck into Zuko's tent that night, Jet arriving as Katara argued with Zuko. "What if you're missed?" he asked, a hint of panic in his voice, but Katara grinned as she stepped up against him.
"A quarter of the surgical staff hasn't slept in their own tents since a week after we were assigned here. The commander looks the other way as long as everyone shows up for their shift on time and no one gets caught leaving a tent that isn't theirs."
Zuko looked beseechingly at Jet, but Jet just grinned, shrugging his jacket off. "Who's going to care if I'm not back – Lieutenant?" Zuko flushed, but stopped protesting and let Jet push his own jacket off as Katara unbuttoned his shirt.
They tried to keep quiet, tried to hush each other's laughs and later moans as they moved together, enjoying the moment, for as long as they could make it last.
The Soviet forces indeed proved easy targets and the 64th and 65th Regiments joined the 27th in hunting down the remaining troops. Zuko's platoon became an especially effective unit as Zuko planned the strikes with Captain Heikkilä and other officers, then worked with Jet to execute the maneuvers.
"I feel like you're what's been missing," he said one night.
"What do you mean?" Jet asked. They lay on their sides as usual, Katara cradled between them, her head against Jet's chest. Zuko curled around her back, his arm draped over her waist and forehead almost touching Jet's, and Jet reached up to lay a hand along his jaw.
"I've never been good with people," Zuko finally admitted. "I know what I need them to do, but I don't know how to ask – in a way that they'll listen to. It's why I hated being assigned here – I'm good at strategy, not command."
"Funny," Jet remarked. "I just thought you hated me."
Zuko bit his hand, hard enough to hurt, then kissed it before continuing. "I spent eight years learning how to be a leader. My time in the Reserve was just part of that process – I wanted to know what it was like to take orders before I gave them." He shrugged. "I just figured that I'd be giving orders by helping to plan strategy or pass laws, not by commanding a fighting unit."
They lay silent for a few moments. Jet could tell now that Zuko was gathering his thoughts, trying to figure out how to say what he wanted to express; he kissed Katara gently and she murmured in response, almost asleep before Zuko responded.
"You aren't like that."
"Like what?" Jet asked softly.
"You know how to give orders – how to tell people to do what you need, because they know it's right. Half the time, I don't even know if you know what you're doing, but they'll follow you into death and beyond if you tell them to."
Jet nodded, trying to take Zuko's statement for the analysis it was. "I'd say we make a good team, then," he said carefully.
Zuko didn't reply and Jet wondered after a while if he'd fallen asleep, but he finally nodded, laying his hand on Jet's. "Yeah…"
The field hospital kept Katara busy during her days, a steady stream of walking wounded filtering through tent along with more serious casualties. She treated prisoners of war, too, sullen young men to be sent west to the camps who always showed surprise at her kindness.
She rarely saw Jet and Zuko – her boys, as she came to think of them – except at night, so when she heard they had returned early from a strike, she went to see them as soon as her shift ended.
They were arguing when Katara found them behind the mess hall, not yelling but their low voices furious, angry as it hadn't been since that night; she sighed and waded in, thankful at least that they were out of sight of camp. "I thought we were past this," she said with annoyance, putting the emphasis on we and matching Jet's glare, then turning it on Zuko as she stepped between them. "What are you even arguing about, anyway?"
Their expressions changed then and she saw the trap as it closed around her, Jet grinning and Zuko smirking, that sly almost-smile she'd come to love. Then his mouth his was on her shoulder, his hands pushing her collar aside while Jet's lips were by her ear, his whispers leaving her as breathless as his hands.
"We were just discussing strategy."
Katara closed her eyes and leaned back as they pushed her against each other. "What kind of strategy?" she managed to reply, arching into them.
Zuko kissed up her neck, nipping gently at the skin, then his voice rasped in her ear. "You'll find out."
The last of the Soviets were soon captured and the battle of Suomussalmi declared a victory for Finland by Colonel Siilasvuo. The war still raged hard in the south, across the Karelian Isthmus, but even that news didn't detract from the 15th Battalion's celebration when two companies returned with barrels of alcohol liberated from the Soviet's supply trucks.
"Now remember, ladies," the Lotta commander advised the female medics. "You are not to fraternize with the enlisted boys – it is strictly forbidden. You may dance with an officer if they invite you to, but you will be on your best behavior." She glared at them each and Katara schooled her expression into meek respect, even as she inwardly laughed.
Despite the efforts of the commander and others like her, Katara enjoyed the celebration. There were no dress uniforms on this frontier, but the men cleaned up and the women brushed their hair and they all set aside the war for the evening. Off-duty soldiers had transformed the mess hall, moving tables to the edges, and several produced instruments to form an impromptu band.
Katara danced with many of the officers, careful to not look at Jet where he sat and laughed with the platoon. Zuko, meanwhile, proved one of the most popular partners among her fellow medics as they didn't bother to wait for invitation. His movements were smooth, elegant, even if his expression held an air of suffering to Katara's eye, and she hid her smile.
She danced with Captain Heikkilä twice; he was a good dancer, confident as he led her through the steps and staying exactly the proper distance from her. "You three are being very discrete," he murmured during their second set. Katara froze, but he continued, pulled her along through the motions. "Make sure to keep it that way, and command will never need to know." She nodded carefully and his smile was affectionate when their dance ended.
Zuko finally managed to dance with each of the medics, settling the last at her table before seeking Katara out. Fair is fair, he thought, and her eyes glinted with humor as she accepted his formal request. Her cheeks were flushed from dancing and from the cup she left on the table and she clung to him as they moved. The dance felt wrong, though; the music was slow, romantic, and they rocked to it with the other couples as Zuko felt Katara sigh. They moved in a slow circle and soon he saw what she had: that Jet's seat lay empty. Zuko squeezed her shoulders in return, understanding, and after the set ended they quietly slipped out opposite sides of the mess hall.
Jet accosted them as they walked back to the company's camp, draping an arm across them both and singing cheerfully. "Oh, you can give us herring, and you can give us sill…"
Katara laughed but Zuko muttered under his breath, fending Jet off, hoping that it appeared as if they were just helping a drunken soldier back to camp. He had to yelp, though, when Jet groped him. "Knock it off!" he snapped, but Jet just laughed and Katara giggled. They finally made it to Zuko's tent; he had barely secured the tent flap when Jet grabbed them both, spinning Katara around and slinging his arm around Zuko's waist and pulling them into a dance. Katara smiled and moved with Jet, letting him lead her through a few steps while he and Zuko stood hip to hip; he finally brought her back into their embrace.
"You two looked nice up there," Jet said softly, music from the mess hall still audible to lead them by. "The officer and the lady doctor, everyone smiling at the picture they made." He tightened his arms around them, pulling them closer. "I kept thinking something was missing, though."
The humor had leached from his voice and Zuko stroked circles on his back as Katara whispered, "We did, too."
They all moved closer, swaying to the music still playing from the mess hall, warm and close and right, eyes closed and foreheads together.
Soon Jet seemed to turn boneless, slipping to the ground and dragging them with him as Katara giggled again, perhaps less sober than Zuko had thought. He sighed, pulled the bedding down from his cot and settled it around them. Jet fell asleep instantly as far as he could tell, snoring loudly, and Katara soon followed, draped over him and murmuring. Zuko watched them both as they slept, smiling to himself, and finally settled down to join them.
Katara woke first as the tent brightened with daylight; Zuko had ended up in the middle sometime during the night, and both he and Jet lay on their sides, barely touching save for Zuko's forehead against Jet's neck. The sight warmed her and she watched them. Zuko's more tired than he's letting on, she thought.
Reveille cut through the air then and Jet and Zuko startled identically, sitting bolt upright and making her smile. They were still mostly-clothed – Jet still wore his boots – but both started frantically scrambling back into uniform. "We overslept," Zuko said blearily, then Jet opened the tent flap to peer outside.
Smellerbee stood there, tapping her foot. "God, you guys," She rolled her eyes. "Have you ever heard of being discrete?"
Zuko scowled but Jet just grinned. "I thought you knew me better than that."
They spent the rest of January and the beginning of February rounding up Soviet survivors for the prison camps and burying their unlucky comrades in mass graves, unmarked saved for wooden crosses. Jet described it as grim work, the maps they kept of the grave sites growing dense with their locations. "Thousands dead, Katara," he whispered as he and Zuko held her close, and she nodded, exhausted. Half the Lotta medics had been reassigned south to the vicious fighting along the Karelian Isthmus, where the reports each week became more and more grim; Katara and the remaining medics struggled to staff the field hospital.
They took shelter in each others' arms at night as the days grew more anxious. "I'm tired of doing this," Jet gestured at the hole taking shape below them, "when there are still battles to be fought." Zuko only nodded, the gesture showing the strain from meetings with captains and colonels and lieutenant colonels and all those officers who seemed to talk more than do… He forced himself to calm, to not take it out on Zuko, whose eyes mirrored Jet's frustration.
The day finally came when they heard the news they had all dreaded. "They're reassigning me, too," Katara said, her voice trembling. "There are so many casualties in the south – they need us there." Then she started sobbing and Jet and Zuko closed around her, holding her and rocking her gently until she fell asleep.
Her unit moved out the following week after days of frantic packing, transferring the still-wounded to regular army hospitals. Their last night together they barely slept, just held each other until dawn lit the tent around them and Katara pulled herself out of bed to dress slowly as they sat beside her on Zuko's cot. She finally stood and they stood with her and she pulled them both close, her arms strong around them even as they trembled. She finally looked up, wiped the tears on her sleeve and tried to smile. "Stay alive for me," she said, kissing them each and slipping from the tent.
They sat beside each other on the cot after she left, not touching and afraid to speak until reveille sounded and they both dressed hastily and Jet slipped out of the tent without looking back. Neither saw her unit leave.
Jet snuck into Zuko's tent that first night and they clung to each other for a time before falling asleep, the contact close but cold without the warmth of a third soft body. They woke up on their sides, foreheads touching and curled around empty space between them. Jet found Zuko watching him, sadness in his expression that he tried to hide.
Jet saw it, though, understood it, and reached up to slide his hand into Zuko's hair, rest his fingers on Zuko's temple. Zuko closed his eyes and covered Jet's hand with his own and sighed.
"Yeah," Jet whispered, closing his own eyes, and they lay that way until reveille sounded again.
"That's not peace, that's surrender," Jet raged – quietly, for once, and Zuko sighed.
"It's over," he said softly, but Jet kept going and Zuko was glad they'd left the briefing behind, that no one was there to witness Jet's outburst but him.
"Fuck 'it's over' – we lost."
Zuko didn't respond this time, the weight of knowledge too heavy to share. They took everything we denied them at the negotiating tables a year ago, he thought bitterly. What will they take next?
10 July, 1941 – Lake Ladoga, Karelian Isthmus, Region of South Karelia
"Finally." Jet stood at the pavilion's entrance, gazing at Lake Ladoga stretching into the distance. The canvas sides were rolled up, allowing air into the command tent and reminding him of a summer long passed. The peaceful lakeshore had been ravaged by the war, stagnated by the interim of uneasy peace, but the defenses held strong as the Republic gathered its army again. "Time to take back what we've lost."
Zuko looked up from where he bent over the table, sketching out tactical maps and plans; he had dismissed the rest of the battalion's staff to start preparing the operation. "Don't let your confidence overtake your good sense."
Jet grinned and mock-saluted. "Yes sir, Lieutenant Colonel sir."
Zuko rolled his eyes and turned back to the papers laid out in front of him and Jet grinned wider. He slapped Zuko affectionately on the shoulder and left the pavilion, stepping out into the battalion's camp. Now we take back what's ours. He thought of soft curves and a warm smile, drew her face and her hands in his memory, and his grin broadened. You better be waiting for us like we're waiting for you.
28 June, 1944 – North-Western Helsinki, Capital, Republic of Finland
"Soviet forces have broken through the Finnish lines on the Karelian Isthmus and have taken the city of Petrozavodsk," the voice announced, tone neutral but conveying the country's collective dread.
Katara listened to the radio broadcast, a sick feeling in her gut as it continued, describing how parliament had again contacted Germany for aid against the Soviet army. She finally stopped listening, switching the radio off as she continued her rounds. All our territory regained, she thought – now lost again, their few victories made trivial in comparison to the reports of fresh Finnish casualties.
Her shift ended too soon and she walked home, a medical resident and working in a hospital to free more men for the front, spending her days treating children and grandfathers and waiting for word that never came.
Please, she prayed as she neared her tiny apartment. Please keep them safe.
October 14, 1944 – Town of Tornio, Region of Lapland, Republic of Finland
Jet woke slowly to distant whispers and electric fans, soft sounds in contrast to gunfire and screaming. Am I dead? he wondered. He discarded the thought immediately – if he were dead he shouldn't hurt this much – and forced himself to open his eyes.
Hospital, he confirmed after a moment. He blinked, turned his head to see Zuko asleep in a chair beside him, in need of a shave and a fresh uniform. His face held worried lines even in sleep, creases running the length of his forehead and disappearing into pinkish scar.
Jet understood that worry; he'd worn that expression himself during those awful weeks in South Karelia that followed Tali-Ihantala, when they'd won the battle but lost the war against the Soviets. Armistice my ass, Jet snorted, trying to focus on his anger instead of on that anxious time wondering if Zuko would ever wake up, if he would want to wake up. The memory of his face raw and burned under the dressings haunted Jet even now, and he cursed the Soviets – this Molotov and his cocktail – all over again.
"Hey," he finally said to distract himself from the memories, from the throbbing pain in his leg that he couldn't face quite yet. Zuko stirred slightly, his frown deepening before his eyes opened. His mismatched face still made Jet flinch sometimes, but not now.
"Hey," Zuko finally replied.
"The hostages?" Jet asked.
"Released," Zuko confirmed, then rubbed his eyes. "Three days ago. The Germans are retreating to Norway, burning everything in their path, but going."
They sat in silence before Jet started chuckling, unable to help himself. "The Soviets, the Germans – who's next?"
At that, Zuko laughed once, dry and harsh, and Jet reached over to capture his hand. Zuko squeezed Jet's fingers in return and Jet stroked his palm and they lapsed into silence.
7 July, 1945 – Village of Kiviniemi, near Oulu, Northern Ostrobothnia Region, Republic of Finland
Katara walked home from the clinic, making her way through the market as much to see the bounty of food available as much to shop for her evening meal. Each haunch of beef, each simple pastry seemed a rare delicacy after rationing sugar and flour and meat, even if times were still lean.
The village spread before Katara as she walked home, the sea strong and pleasant like her new sister-in-law. Suki was heavily pregnant already but her smile stayed fiercely welcoming, encouraging Katara to follow them to this little coastal fishing town.
She stopped for a time at a break in the docks and sheds, looking out at the sea. Katara never grew tired of the sight, its varying grays and distant shore; it let her remember a summer-lit lake and a rainy café, and she wasn't ready to go back quite yet, to her too-big cottage with its too-big bed. She was a doctor now, her girlish dreams realized but her life empty. It seemed to her, as it did often, that she still waited for the war to end.
Katara stayed, watching the sun sink over the water until the breeze turned cool and the afternoon train rumbled past, then turned back to the street. Sokka and Suki had asked her to dinner again, but she'd declined; she knew she disappointed them by so rarely accepting their invitations, but this night she felt like being alone with her memories again.
The narrow street cleared as evening fell, a few women hurrying home from market and two men leaving the train platform. One leaned heavily on a cane, the other had weariness written in his posture; such men were still a common sight as soldiers returned home in waves.
Katara glanced at them again as she neared, still hoping even if it never turned out to be them – but then she stopped dead, heart racing as they looked up at her, expressions mirroring her shock. Zuko's face bore the mark of fire, of the Soviets' insidious burning weapons, and Jet's held bitter lines – then she heard her groceries fall to the ground as she ran towards them, her eyes stinging with tears. They stared at her and opened their arms and then they surrounded her, crushing her between them, holding her so tight she could hardly breathe but they were alive and they were hers and nothing else mattered.
She finally pulled herself free and stepped back; Jet's cane had fallen and Zuko stooped to retrieve it, longish hair falling in his eyes. Katara reached out to push it back from his face; he closed his eyes at the touch, put his fingers over hers and held her hand against his temple and sighed.
In contrast, Jet grinned like a fool, his smile unchanged despite the lines around his eyes; he still wore his army jacket and Katara reached out with her free hand to trace the insignia sewn on it. She raised her brow. "Command Sergeant Major," she teased, at a loss for what else to say, how to express everything she felt, but then realized it didn't matter.
Jet grinned and mock-saluted, then trapped her hand against his chest as Zuko still clutched the other. "Yeah, well – take a look at the Brigadier General here – so Swedish."
Zuko flushed and smiled and didn't bother to open his eyes, and then they stepped into each other again, cheeks pressed together so that the tears could be anyone's, and finally the war was truly over.
Author's Note: I really have nothing to say about this story except that it was supposed to be a one-thousand to two-thousand word one-shot.
Okay, that's a filthy, filthy lie – I have a lot to say about this story, here and elsewhere, about the real history behind it and the sources and inspirations, liberties taken and avenues not explored. Ironically, I'll start by concluding.
It's so easy with fanfiction to never let the story stop, to keep writing little drabbles and such that fold out over the character's lives and pasts, but sometimes I manage to remember that these stories, too, should end, to preserve the satisfaction of a resolution, of the plot coming to its end.
Yes, that's a way of saying that there will be no sequel and no follow-up. However, because I write my stories as much to read them as author them, here's what I like to think happened, in that way that you can't ever really stop thinking about your favorite movie or story: I'd like to think that they lived happily together for the rest of their lives, in that small town where nobody bothered to think about or judge three war veterans living together, laws be damned (homosexual acts were criminalized until 1971 in Finland and I'm sure Katara would be found guilty of "aiding and abetting"). I'd like to think that Jet becomes the house husband, tending the kitchen garden and the chickens and mustering the town's children in ridiculous exercises to keep them out of trouble and organizing their parents for social activism, while Katara continues to work as a doctor and perhaps a mother as well, and Zuko maybe is on the town council for a few years before finally opening a café of his own with some help from a scheming uncle and a rabble-rousing sergeant.
But really, I don't know what happens, except that I think they'll make it work, one way or another, as Finland made it work following the Winter War that drew the country back together.
Vastly more detailed author's notes are posted in my LiveJournal (username "sharkflip") under the tag "spirit of winter," or in the master index at the top of the page. It's a story in and of itself about the real-life events behind this piece, my thoughts on the topics explored here, some technical explanations, the sources used and a brief (hah) guide on how to and how not to use Wikipedia. It's… rather long – but there's a surprise bonus for anyone who dares make it through.
Thanks for reading!