No Other Future
By Kimberly T.
This vignette won't make any sense to readers who haven't first read AvocadoLove's excellent Avatar AU story, "Another Brother", which can be found here: http:// www. fanfiction .net/s/4414541/1/Another_Brother
Her story inspired me to write this vignette, which takes place during chapter 7 of her story, while Katara, Sokka and their adopted brother Zuko (yes, adopted brother. Long story. Go read it already, then come back here!) are out fishing, about to discover the Avatar. Approved by Avocadolove and posted with her permission!
Kana was grinding taro-tato roots into a coarse meal for adding to the evening stew, when thirteen-year-old Akia tapped on the door to her home. The girl came in and asked diffidently, "Honored elder, where has Zuko gone today?"
"Zuko, Sokka and Katara all went off fishing together," Kana said, before frowning. "And Sokka was supposed to stop in before leaving to tell me what area they'd be fishing in, but he forgot again. Not good behavior for a hunter…" She shook her head, then turned to Akia, eyeing her shrewdly. "What's that in your pocket?"
Akia at first tried to hide it, then reluctantly fished it out: a thin leather thong with four handmade blue beads strung on it, such as the men of the tribe often used to tie back their wolftails. Even more reluctantly, she admitted she'd been hoping to give it to Zuko.
"Oh, child…" Kana shook her head. "No, not just a child anymore; your mother told me you've started your woman's courses. And now that you've begun your journey to womanhood, you're thinking about suitable husbands, eh? Hoping to persuade Zuko to begin courting you?"
"…Yes, honored elder," Akia said meekly, blushing from her chin to her hairline. "I… I know I'm not old enough to marry yet, but I can already sew very well, Mother even leaves most of the clothes-making to me, and I've learned how to cook too. Zuko is handsome--on one side, I mean, and he can't help the other side--and he's a good warrior and hunter…"
"And he's been kind to you, whereas I know Sokka still teases you whenever he sees you with Katara," Kana finished knowingly. She snorted. "Sokka thinks he's a man now, but he's still too much of a boy sometimes… Well. Come sit down, Akia, and keep your elder company while I work."
Akia obediently sat down next to her, and Kana ground roots into meal for a few minutes, while composing her thoughts. Then she asked, "Akia, do you know the story of the lemming that married a snow-squirrel?"
"Does it end well, for both the lemming and the snow-squirrel?"
"…No. But Zuko isn't a lemming or a snow-squirrel; he's human! And maybe he was born in the Fire Nation, but he's Water Tribe now!"
"Yes, he is. He's proven himself many times to be part of the tribe, and I love him almost as much as I love Katara and Sokka; he is my grandson. And as his grandmother, I should be looking for someone he can make a good match with. But I'm not, and I'm telling you now, you should look elsewhere for a husband. Perhaps when he's a little older and gotten more sense about women knocked into him, Sokka will--"
"B-but I love Zuko!"
"Oh, dear… I truly hope that you don't; that this is just the first infatuation, so strong it makes you believe it's true love. Your first crush, that you haven't even told your own mother about, have you? Or she would have already done her best to dissuade you. Zuko is a good warrior and a good hunter, and when Sokka eventually leads the tribe he'll do very well with his brother's assistance. But Zuko will never make a good husband and father."
Kana pounded the root extra hard with her last sentence, till she almost cracked the grinding stone. She'd known it for a long time, but it still hurt to say the words out loud.
With a deep sigh, she continued, "During the spring, summer and fall, yes, he could be a good husband. He could provide for his family as well as any man of the tribe could ever do. But when winter comes, when the days of darkness are here… Zuko is of the Water Tribe now, but he is a firebender; the sun gives him energy to live. You know that just a few weeks after the days of darkness come, Zuko stops playing with the other children; he goes into our tent, and rarely comes out for the next two months."
"And he spends most of his time sleeping by the fire; I've seen him," Akia daringly interrupted. "That's why you talked about snow-squirrels, isn't it? Because they hibernate during the days of darkness?"
"Yes. He is asleep for far more hours than he is awake. After making the tea that helps him sleep in the summer, I tried a different tea to help him stay awake longer in the winter, but all that did was make him irritable for the short time he was awake. No, he must sleep, to save what little energy he has. And when the Winter Solstice comes… from the day before the Solstice to the day after, he can not wake up on his own; we have to shake him awake just to force him to drink some broth. We don't speak of it outside this tent, but if we did not wake him up to feed him broth, he would likely die and pass on to the spirits still sleeping." Kana's eyes were haunted with painful memory. "That first winter, we truly thought that would happen anyway…"
"Honored elder… I have thought about this," Akia said softly. "And decided that to have him as my strong and affectionate husband for ten months of the year, I would willingly watch over his sleeping for two months more. There is little hunting to be done in the winter, anyway." She gave a crooked smile. "I remember how, when the sun returned, Mother would nearly drive Father out of our home to go hunting, or fishing, or anything that would keep him away for at least part of the day!"
Kana chuckled and nodded; that had been true for nearly every home in the village, before all the men had left for war. As eager as those men would be to go out and be active, their women would be just as eager to have some time to themselves, without the men underfoot and getting in the way just as much as their children.
Akia continued with that same crooked smile, "If he spends most of the winter sleeping instead of whittling and talking about what he'd rather be doing outside, I do not think that when the sun comes back, I'll be as tired of him as most women are of their husbands."
"A good point," Kana said, smiling ruefully. "But think on this, Akia; what about children?"
"What about children?" Akia echoed, puzzled. "I… wait a minute, are you trying to say he can't… do you mean, the awful people that burned his face, they also--" as she gestured vaguely towards her own lower torso.
Kana winced at the mere thought, then snorted. "No, I can tell you that his male parts are intact, or at least they were when he first came to us!" It had been years since she'd seen him naked while fitting him for new clothes, but he'd looked like a normal boy back then. "No, what I was referring to, was the chance that any child he had would inherit his defect; would rise with the sun, and need its light for energy. I believe that at least half of them would, perhaps even all of them… if they did inherit it, they would not survive their first winter."
"'oh,' indeed. That first winter with us nearly killed him, Akia, and he was already at least eight years old when he came to us; strong and healthy, except for his scars. A newborn babe, already so fragile… to see it wasting away before your eyes, trying desperately to keep it warm and knowing that no fire could be warm enough… to know it would die before the sun came back… No woman of the tribe should have to go through that. Our children are already too few and too precious."
Akia sat in silence for a few moments, absorbing that. Then she excused herself and started to go outside.
"No, stay here, child. Let it out now; I understand, and I'll never tell," Kana said softly.
Akia sat back down. Then she buried her face in her hands, and began to cry.
Kana let her cry it out; company for the silent tears tracing down her own cheeks. Akia probably cried for her shattered adolescent dreams, but Kana wept for Zuko. With no wife of his own, he would probably move into Sokka's home when Sokka married and started a family. He would be a strong right hand for his brother for nine to ten months of the year, and a burden for the rest. A burden that she knew Sokka would carry willingly, but that made it no less humiliating for Zuko. And looking across the fire at his brother and Sokka's wife, whomever that might be… looking, and no doubt wishing for what he could never have… it would sometimes be hard for him, she knew.
But it was still a better life for him than he could have in the Earth Kingdom or the accursed Fire Nation, assuming they let him live at all. And when was life ever fair for the Water Folk? There were always hardships. But they adapted, and endured. And found reasons to smile, when bleak darkness was all around. It was the way of the Water Tribes, and Zuko was Water Tribe in spirit.
When Akia was done crying, Kana gently shooed her home to her mother, then got on with the chores of the day.