The crisp night air fell over Zuko as he finally emerged from below deck, sending a shiver through his body. His inner flame picked up, somewhat compensating for the chill. Katara was still beside him, and he heard her take a deep, bracing breath, letting it back out as a contented sigh that misted in the air. She smiled to herself, obviously enjoying the cold. Zuko grimaced.
Figures. If you've lived on a block of ice your whole life, this must seem like the middle of summer.
However, her smile evaporated faster than her sigh, her eyes hardening like ice. Zuko looked ahead of them, and saw the huddle of Water Tribe warriors sitting on a collection of empty crates, gathered around a portable furnace. Hakoda was in the very center of the huddle, Bato on his right, and Sokka on his left. Toph was to the left of Sokka, and all the men (and girl) were talking amiably, smiling and grinning and having a good time in general.
Zuko felt like he was on his way to the stake to be burned.
Questioning his sanity for what must have been the twentieth time in two days, Zuko's feet, nonetheless, continued to walk him towards his impending doom without his permission.
This is a really, really, bad idea.
Zuko just knew that whatever small amount of ground he felt he had gained with the Chief was about to be thrown overboard… possibly right after his gutted carcass.
"Hey, there you are. Glad you could make it." The Chief hailed them as they came into the ring of light cast by the fire. Katara stiffened, her spine going straight and her folded arms wrapping tighter around herself. She said nothing, only plodded over to the seat to the right of Bato and sat herself down stiffly, staring pointedly away from her father. Hakoda said nothing, but his eyes became tight.
Zuko followed her into the center of the ring closely, trying to be as unassuming as possible to slip by the dozens of distant blue stares he could already feel on him. However, being inconspicuous was a bit difficult when he was so much taller and paler than everyone else—he didn't really fit in with this crowd, in more ways than one.
Silently, Zuko settled onto the crate beside Katara, hunching in on himself both to keep out the cold, and to lessen the effect of his naturally regal-rigid posture. The banter around them slowly died, the carefree, easygoing mood that the men had been humming with going up in smoke. The four teens and two adults closest to the fire were now the center of everyone's attention.
There was a moment of tense silence, in which Zuko briefly calculated the chances of this ending well and came up with odds that were worse than that of his father patting him on the back and handing him the throne. Finally, Hakoda spoke.
"As we have seen for ourselves, men," the Chief began formally, addressing his fellow warriors, "this war has touched every inch of our world, its' creeping, greedy fingers clawing into everything good and precious, ripping our homes and families apart." Many in the crowd drew sullen at this, a distant, almost angry look coming into their eyes. Katara, too, he noticed, had a faraway look in her eyes, and her hand absently rubbed at her throat where the pendant of her blue stone necklace lay. For once, Sokka looked completely serious, no trace of his idiot demeanor present. Zuko, too, found himself contemplating all the losses this war had caused him, and the utter destruction he had seen the rest of the world suffer at the hands of his nation. Only Toph appeared to remain unaffected—her blank gaze directed at nothing, her face impassive.
The Chief continued. "Two years ago, we left our friends and family behind, setting out to defend our home with everything we could muster. It has not been easy, and many lives have been lost, but it is a necessary cost if we ever want our children and our grandchildren to live in peace." There was a collective affirmative murmur, the mood too somber for anything else in response to the Chief's inspirational speech.
"And there will be peace," he spoke with conviction, though it was also somehow softer, more personal, like a promise, "for the Avatar has returned to us." More murmurs erupted from the crowd, but they vibrated with a hope and energy that had not been present before. Zuko could hear questions bubbling up from the group of men, but Hakoda made a slow silencing gesture with his hand.
"I would answer your questions, men," he explained somewhat wryly, "but I can't say that I actually know that much about the circumstances of his return, either. Hopefully," he paused, looking pointedly at his son, "my son, Sokka," and in his voice there was pride, "and my daughter, Katara," and in his voice there was pain, "will be able to give you a fuller account, as they have accompanied the Avatar in his travels." No longer murmurs, the men voiced their opinions of disbelief and awe at the news, staring at the water siblings unabashedly. Sokka puffed up his chest, smirking under the limelight, while his sister kept her cold stare burning, mouth set into a thin line.
Like a balloon popping, Sokka exhaled all the air in his body in an excited rush, grasping his hold on the crowds' attention like a child with a new toy.
"Okay everybody, listen up! This is kind of a long story, I know, but trust me, it's a good one. I should know—I'm in it!" Sokka paused, looking at everyone expectantly.
Bato put his face into his hands.
And then there was silence.
Toph punched the non-bender in the arm, hard. "Just get on with it, Snoozles. Hurry up and get to the good part—you know, the part where I come in?" Somehow, it was so much funnier when she said it. Zuko actually felt himself smirk a little.
Or his sudden humor could have come from the muffled yelp of pain that Sokka let out when the twelve-year-old girl slugged him—it was probably a little bit of both.
"Ouch, geez! Alright, alright! I'll start the story," Sokka whined, rubbing his arm. Taking a few seconds to glower ineffectively at the pushy blind girl, Sokka then cleared his throat in a very overly-dramatic fashion, signaling he was about to begin.
Zuko found himself suddenly curious, despite the gnawing fear of the reactions to what his part in their story would bring. He knew nothing of how the Avatar—Aang—had managed to evade discovery for one hundred years, let alone how he could still be a twelve year old boy. Perhaps he had gotten trapped in the spirit world? He was connected to it, after all. But no, then he would still be either dead or extremely old—bodies didn't travel to the spirit world, as far as he was aware…
Then Sokka started talking, and the Prince figured it was a bit pointless trying to guess when he was about to hear the real story, anyway.
"It all started about five months ago, just at the end of summer," the boy intoned, eyes sweeping the gathered crowd. "Katara and I were out in a canoe, fishing—well, I was fishing, and Katara was playing with her water—"
"Hey!" Katara blurted, the vow of angry silence she had seemed to take discarded in favor of angry yelling, "I caught a fish before you did, but you made me drop it!" Sokka made an affronted noise.
"Only because you dumped a ball of water on my head!"
"I didn't drop it, you backed into it!" she defended.
"Who cares! I was still wet and cold!"
"Yeah, and too busy griping at me to notice that we were heading into the rapids! We were nearly crushed!"
"Well at least I didn't make an entire iceberg explode with my temper!"
"Because you were being your stupid, sexist, dunderheaded self!"
Zuko watched the heated exchange between siblings with morbid interest, head bobbling from side to side as he followed the volley of words from one bickering teen to the other, and he wondered if they were going to have to listen to the rest of the story in argument format.
Sokka eventually gave up, rolling his eyes skyward, and throwing his hands up into the air, grumbling. "Whatever. Anyway," he continued, giving his sister a look that clearly said 'don't even start', "where was I? Oh yeah, canoeing, splashing, rapids… boat crushed…then Katara got ticked off and CRACK! Poor, innocent iceberg destroyed."
"Sokka…" Katara growled warningly.
"I'm getting to it," he said huffily, rolling his eyes at her again. "Like I was saying, the iceberg shattered, and the waves nearly threw us off the ice floe we were holding onto. We were both on our stomachs, looking down into the water, when suddenly it starts glowing blue and boiling. I pushed us back from the edge, and just in time, too, 'cause then FWOOM! Another huge iceberg shoots up from out of nowhere, and it's glowing. Once my eyes adjusted to the light, I tried to get a better look at it, but all I saw were a bunch of blobs. But then Katara said that there was a person inside…"
The words spoken around him became meaningless for a moment as Zuko reeled, taking in this bit of information. The boy had been frozen in an iceberg? For one hundred years? How was he not dead? Why had he been frozen in the first place?
By the time Zuko tuned back in to the conversation, the story had progressed somewhat, and he struggled to keep up with what was happening.
"…she takes my club and whacks it a few times, until WHOOSH! This big jet of air comes rushing out of the hole, and the whole thing cracks into pieces. And as it falls apart, this HUGE beam of light shoots up into the sky—and I swear, this thing was like ten feet wide—and it was shining so bright that for a few seconds I couldn't even see…"
Zuko, too, remembered. In some ways, that brief sentinel of power, lighting up the horizon for an earth-shattering instant, then gone so fast he would have missed it if he hadn't been on deck… It was a defining moment for him, the explosive signal that marked the start of the treacherous, winding path that had landed him here, amongst his former enemies. It separated his aimless years, wandering the sea, from the time when he had true purpose, and drive, and sometimes, however fleeting, hope…
But, like the tower of light, his hopes and aspirations had vanished, and left his future a murky prospect. Suddenly, sitting in the dark on a hard wooden crate, with only the meager light of the fire to warm him, felt appropriate. Morosely, he tuned back into the story.
"…So I mean, of course I'm a little suspicious at first—I mean, he was a strange glowing bald kid that flew 20 feet in the air when he sneezed—but, we were kind of stuck out there, so I decided to go ahead and take him up on the offer."
Katara scoffed. "Yeah, right. If I hadn't talked you out of it, you probably would have tried to swim home before you got on Appa. You were terrified of him!"
Sokka's jaw hung open and he spluttered, an angry—or embarrassed—flush appearing on his cheeks. "I wasn't scared of him!" Katara pointed an accusing finger at him.
"You thought he was going to eat you!" Sokka threw his hands up into the air.
"Well excuse me for not wanting to hop on the back of a ten-ton magical monster!"
Somewhere behind them, the monster in question lowed loudly, and Zuko nearly jumped out of his skin. Most of the group turned towards the direction of the rumbling, some tense, others startled, when Sokka let out a sigh.
"No offense buddy—I just didn't know you back then. But you do weigh ten tons, and can fly…" Zuko raised an eyebrow as he realized that the water teen was actually addressing the Sky Bison, as if it could hear him.
Appa grumbled and let out a snort, settling back down. Zuko blinked.
Well, maybe it could. It certainly hadn't seemed too happy to see him back at Lake Laogai… but it had carried him here without much of a fuss, right? And freeing him from his chains had to count for something, right, even after shooting fireballs at him?
Suddenly uncertain if animals could hold grudges, Zuko subtly shifted closer to the fire, and away from Appa.
Katara, meanwhile, was rolling her eyes at her brother. "Yeah, whatever. You were probably just angry that he got snot all over you." Sokka made a disgusted face, then shuddered.
"Do you have any idea how nasty that stuff is?"
"Says the guy who ate some random goop off of a cave wall," Toph muttered. Sokka turned to the smirking blind girl, mouth open to make a retort, when Katara's sharp voice cut in.
"Yes," she answered scathingly, "I was the one who had to wash your clothes when we got home, remember?" Sokka suddenly looked panicked, and waved his hands at his sister in surrender.
"Okay, I get it, point taken, sheesh…" Katara huffed and backed down, and Sokka muttered to himself, shaking his head and rolling his eyes. Zuko just looked between them, perplexed.
Okaaaaayy…Wonder what that was about…
Still, he made a mental note: don't talk about laundry. Apparently, it was a touchy subject for her, though why, he could never begin to imagine.
"Anyway," Sokka continued loudly, "As I was saying, Appa swam us back to the tribe—he was too tired to fly, apparently—and I guess Aang must have been pretty wiped out from being frozen for one hundred years, too, 'cause he fell asleep as soon as we got back and didn't wake up for twelve hours. Then, the next morning, we introduced him to the tribe, and of course he has to show off and starts flying all over the place—"
"Only because you didn't believe him," Katara muttered. Sokka huffed.
"Yeah, well, I think I had every right to be a little skeptical. I mean, his 'Flying Bison' couldn't fly, so…" He suddenly shook his head. "Anyway, yes. He proved he was an airbender, started wrecking the place—"
"What?" The Chief cut in sharply, eyes narrowing slightly. Katara huffed and rolled her eyes.
"He didn't wreck anything, Sokka," she said, though she seemed to be addressing her father, "he accidentally flew into your lookout tower, and that was it. He didn't do anything wrong." Sokka crossed his arms and, for a lack of a better term, pouted.
"He disrupted my class time," he grumbled weakly. Katara let out a sharp bark of laughter, a look of incredulity plastered on her face.
"I cannot believe you! They were a bunch of children! And Aang's only twelve! He was just letting them have a little harmless fun!"
Twelve? She said it as if it meant something. By the time Zuko was twelve, he had long grown past the point of having fun…
But even as the pessimistic side of him whispered that important people, people with power, didn't have time for childhoods, another part of him, one that had just recently begun to speak up, said that that line of thinking was horribly, viscerally, wrong.
"Harmless, huh?" Sokka continued, oblivious to Zuko's inner confusion, "You think he didn't do anything wrong? Well, then, Katara," he said, grinning triumphantly, "why don't you tell the next part of the story—you know, all the harmless fun you and Aang had on your penguin sledding expedition?"
In less than a second flat, Katara's face went from righteous indignation to washed-out panic. Hakoda looked to his daughter in askance, with a hint of suspicion.
"Katara?" She curled in on herself for a moment, grimacing at her father, then shooting her brother a dirty look. Sokka only crossed his arms and grinned wider. Katara's eyes narrowed.
A challenge, then. It didn't take much more than her brother's simple taunting to stir up another brew of that furious self-confidence Zuko had come to associate with the petite girl, and she immediately straightened herself and faced her father. She cleared her throat.
"Here's what happened, okay? Aang had asked me to go penguin sledding with him—several times. Actually, it was the very first thing he said when we woke him up from the iceberg…"
"That still kind of confuses me, actually, now that I think about it," Sokka muttered, rubbing his chin and squinting his eyes. Katara went on speaking as if her brother had said nothing.
"Anyway—and this was during summer, by the way, so I knew I didn't have to worry about getting lost in the dark…"
Zuko grimaced slightly. Oh, yes, he definitely knew all about polar 'summers'. One would think that, for a firebender, having the sun never set for months on end would be a dream come true. But getting next to no sleep for weeks on end tended to dampen one's enthusiasm for daylight—it had been like having a constant dose of his Uncle's special ginseng tea flowing through his veins.
"So, we found the flock of penguins, but Aang couldn't catch one—which is weird, really, because he knows how to catch and ride at least ten different animals, as far as I've seen…"
"You know, I'm still kind of surprised that he never tried to ride that serpent thingy…" Sokka scratched his head. "Of course, he was kind of depressed at the time…" Katara raised an eyebrow at her brother.
"But Sokka, Aang did ride the Unagi, remember? He used it to put out that fire that Z—" Katara bit her tongue before the rest of his name tumbled past her lips, and Zuko tensed.
"—was on Kyoshi," she finished haltingly. It was not a smooth transition, and the firebender's eyes darted from tribesman to tribesman, seeing if anyone had caught her slip-of-the-tongue. Other than a sudden shadow that passed over Sokka's face, no one appeared to have taken notice.
"Right," the water teen said slowly. Then he shook his head. "But I was actually talking about the Sea Serpent… you know, the one that attacked us while we were crossing the Serpent's pass?" Katara gave her brother a flat look.
"I fought it—of course I remember." Sokka just shrugged, hands in the air.
"Just checking," he said airily. Beside him, Toph snorted.
"How many giant sea monsters have you guys run into, anyway?" Sokka looked down at her.
"Just the two. Well…" he rubbed his chin and looked up, considering. "Three, maybe, if you count that giant koi-fish thing Aang turned into at the North Pole…" Toph's eyes widened, then her face went completely blank. She turned around slowly to (sort-of) stare at Sokka.
"He turned into a fish," she said flatly. Across the fireplace, Katara scoffed.
"It wasn't a fish, it was the Spirit of the Ocean." Several men in the crowd gasped, and murmurs started buzzing again.
Oblivious, Sokka shrugged. "And it looked like a fish." Katara scowled.
"You can't just call it a fish, though! It's one of the most important spirits to our people!" Sokka waved his hand dismissively.
"Fish, Spirit Fish… Sea Potato, Sea Potahto…" He trailed off, leaving Katara fuming.
Now, Zuko wasn't one to put a great deal of belief in the spirits, but, over time and exposure, a little bit of his Uncle's superstition had rubbed off on him. That, and his natural propensity for bad luck made him think that something, out there, must have it out for him.
And to Zuko, it seemed, Sokka was the type of person just begging to be struck down by lightning…
…or, washed overboard by a freak tidal wave, as it were.
Katara let out a rough sigh, crossing her arms and leaning back. "Whatever, Sokka," she grumbled, then muttered something to herself that sounded suspiciously like 'choke on a fish bone' and 'salty rash'. She shook her head slightly, then cleared her throat.
"We're getting way off track, here. Anyway, where was I? Aang… penguins… catching… oh, yeah! So, he offered to take me to the North Pole if I showed him how to catch one, and—"
"Wait." The words were spilling from the Prince's mouth before he even realized it. "The reason the Avatar traveled half-way around the world… was because you gave him a penguin." Zuko had three seconds of staring flatly at the waterbender before he realized the sudden hush that had fallen around him.
Everyone was staring again. With chagrin, he realized that they had been close to ignoring his presence and leaving him in peace, right up until he had to go and open his disobedient mouth. He could almost feel the prickling of their eyes sweeping over him, assessing him. He took a deep breath and sat a little straighter, never moving his eyes from Katara.
The waterbender, by this time, seemed to have gotten over her momentary shock at hearing him speak, and raised an eyebrow at him, pursing her lips.
"It's a lot more involved than that… but yes, I guess the idea of heading north kind of started then." Zuko stared for several more seconds, then gave a tiny nod and a 'hm', accepting her answer.
Katara stared at him oddly for a few more seconds, then shrugged, turning her attention elsewhere once more. And with her gaze now off of him, most members of the audience followed suit.
"So we rode our penguins down the west slope of the Ice Vole hills." She stopped suddenly, looking anxious, and Zuko realized that the Chief's face had drawn tight and almost angry. She grimaced, then looked down at her nails, continuing in a nonchalant voice. "Aang saw the ship there, and was curious. He convinced me to explore it with him. He accidentally set off a booby trap, so then we took off." She gave a tiny shrug, then slowly, cautiously, raised her eyes to her father. His face looked etched in ice.
"Katara." His voice and face screamed of anger and disappointment, his posture rigid. "Earlier today, you accused me of not trusting your judgment. So tell me, what on earth possessed you to make you think it would be alright to go fooling around on that metal deathtrap, when you have known since you were a child that it was absolutely not safe to do so?"
She cringed slightly, and Zuko cringed with her.
Wonderful. Katara's word was about the only thing that Zuko had in defense against the Chief, and it looked like it was about to be reneged. And when that was gone, and after the Chief heard the rest of his children's story…
No doubt about it, then. Something out there was definitely out to get him.
She chewed on her lower lip anxiously, narrowing her eyes. "It wasn't a good idea, I know it wasn't, okay? I knew it then, too. It was one bad judgment call. I am human; I'm allowed to make a mistake every now and again aren't I? I—"
Everyone jumped slightly when Sokka let out a sudden, half-strangled squeak.
"No way!" His eyes were practically shimmering with excitement and awe as he leaned forward, staring at his sister. There was confused silence for a long moment. Sokka's eyes flashed around the crowd, growing disbelieving as he realized that no one else seemed to be as happy as he was about… whatever it was that he was so happy about. He shook his head slightly.
"Doesn't anybody realize what just happened?" When nobody answered, he shook his head again, staring at them with wide eyes. "Guys, this is like a once in a lifetime event!" Again, only silence.
Eventually, Toph sighed. "Just spit it out already, Meathead." He huffed, looking offended, but complied nonetheless.
"Katara…" he paused for effect, pointing at his sister, who looked somewhat ticked off, "…just admitted she was wrong. That never happens." Suddenly, his face grew pale. "Oh, no… I guess that means the world really is about to end…"
If looks could kill, Sokka would have been dead three times over. As it was, Katara's furious red face and clawed, white-knuckled fingers gave the impression that she was heavily considering other ways to maim her brother. Meanwhile, Hakoda just stared flatly at his eldest child, unimpressed.
"I'll tell you what's about to end, Sokka," Katara growled. "Your life with an unfrozen tongue." Slightly, her fingers twitched, eager to bend.
"Yeah, do us all a favor," Toph cheered.
Zuko blinked. He really couldn't tell if they were kidding or not…
They must have been convincing enough, though, because Sokka immediately snapped his mouth shut with a tiny, high-pitched whimper. Hakoda sighed.
"Alright, kids, I think that's enough with the threats of bodily harm." He kneaded his forehead with his palm, eyes shut firmly. "Let's just get to the rest of the story," he pleaded. But before Katara could start up again, he snapped his gaze to her. "But don't think this means I'll forget about you deliberately going on that ship—I'm still upset about that," Hakoda informed her sternly. Katara grimaced.
Now slightly cowed, Katara lowered her hands and folded them tightly around her middle, as if pinning them down to prevent them from misbehaving. Her face had become less harsh, her tone milder.
"Right. So…yeah. Aang and I fled the ship and ran straight back to the village. Everyone was already gathered at the gate—the trap we tripped set off a flare into the sky… I guess Gran-gran knew where it had come from…" She shook her head slightly. "Sokka, along with most everyone else, thought that Aang had purposely signaled the Fire Navy." She took a big breath, then huffed. "So they told him he had to leave," she finished flatly.
Surprised grunts and gasps escaped from the crowd. Hakoda rocked back slightly, eyes wide, then narrowed them at his son.
"You refused hospitality to the Avatar?" Sokka grimaced and held his palms up, placating.
"Well," he half-squeaked, "we didn't actually know he was the Avatar, at the time, so…" Hakoda merely raised an eyebrow and nodded, though he still looked unhappy.
Zuko, meanwhile, was busy reevaluating his opinion of the Water Tribes. Well, not so much reevaluating, as reverting.
They didn't KNOW he was the Avatar? A 112 year old airbender that caused a giant beam of light to shoot up into the sky? How dense are these people?
Very. You'll fit right in, 'Azula' cackled.
Outside of Zuko's mind, Toph snorted. "What? The flying around and the giant bison not a big enough clue?"
Sokka raised his hands to the sky. "He said he didn't even know the Avatar, so how was I supposed to know that he was?" Toph cocked an eyebrow.
"So, you assumed he was lying about everything else—flying, working for the Fire Nation—but you believed that?" Sokka's face screwed up in an odd expression, and he shrugged.
"Didn't seem like the kind of thing that someone would lie about…"
"Unless they were the Avatar, apparently…" Toph finished, blowing on her bangs.
"Well…" Katara started slowly, hesitantly. Everyone turned towards her. "It's not as if there weren't any clues that he was… the Avatar."
What do you mean? Zuko wanted to ask, but this time managed to reign in his tongue before he could draw attention to himself again. Katara took the following silence as her signal to continue.
"Obviously, there was that giant beam of light that he let off when we first found him," she frowned, staring into the fire pensively. "But there were other things, too. Like how he seemed to think that no one had seen an airbender in 100 years because they were just good at hiding. Or, like, how he didn't even know about the war… at all." She shrugged. "But I guess… even after we figured out that he had been frozen in that iceberg for 100 years, I never even imagined… I mean, when you think of the Avatar… Aang isn't exactly the kind of person who normally comes to mind, you know? And since he had said that he didn't even know the guy…" She shrugged again, then looked away from the fire and at her brother. The water teen sat up a little straighter for his turn to speak. He cleared his throat.
"So you can't really blame me for banishing the Avatar—" Out of reflexive habit, Zuko flinched at hearing the words 'banished' and 'Avatar' in the same sentence, "—from our village when I didn't know he was the Avatar." Hakoda sighed, crossing his arms tiredly.
"I suppose you do have a point there, Sokka." Then he suddenly frowned. "But if the Avatar was cast out of the village, how did you end up traveling with him?"
"He came back, right after his highness here parked his ship in the middle of the village," he said casually, waving his hand at ex-royal with an easiness that belied the fact that the water teen might as well have signed Zuko's death warrant.
In the deathly silence that followed, the only sound that reached Zuko's ears was the crackle of the fire and the quickening pace of his heart. Slowly, fifty pairs of blue eyes fixed their gaze of the prince in the middle of the ring, and in the center of them all was the face of the Water Chieftain. It was he who broke the silence.
A/N - *winces* I had absolutely no intentions of taking this long to finish this chapter, but, as it often does, real life and lack of inspiration got in the way. But I swear to you, my faithful readers, that so long as I continue to get feedback from my writing, I will continue until the bitter end and finish this thing.
Okay, there's the dramatic speech portion of my note—now for a question: I realize my writing thus far has been very detailed and descriptive, and while some of you have noted this as a plus, others have groused—correctly—that it's slowing down the pace of the story. Personally, I think glossing over important moments of bonding by saying 'and they ended up talking all night about their mothers and by the morning they were bestest buddies' (which I have seen several zutara stories do) is an extremely lazy and unsatisfactory way to write zutara…. Or anything else, really.
So, should I start doing more timeskips—I've done a few, but not many—or keep at my current pace?
Please mail all of you answers to this address: (can be viewed by clicking the 'review this chapter' button below)
(Next chapter is Kum-bay-yah Part II, in Katara's POV)