Full Summary: In order to end a long standing war between the Fire Nation and Water Tribe, Prince Zuko is sent to the frigid desert of the South Pole by his cousin Fire Lord Lu Ten, where he is greeted by subzero temperatures, polar nights, igloos, and lots and lots of sea prunes. Of course, it is also when he finds out he's to be wed to the hard-headed, spiritual leader Katara. And if that wasn't hard enough, he has to do it all with her overbearing brother leaning over his shoulder. Inspired by the question, "Why does Katara always have to go to Zuko in an arranged marriage fic?" AU. Zutara.

A/N: This is actually going to be one of my fun projects. I was planning on postponing this story, but I've got a good bit fleshed out and I couldn't wait. As much as I enjoy a good marriage fic with Katara and Zuko, it is pretty safe to say that there's a lot of them out there, and the overwhelming majority uproot Katara from what she knows to put her with Zuko as Fire Lady. Of course, traditionally this is correct (women are "given" to men), but I wanted to try something new and turn the tables, so to speak. Ages, as per usual, have been bumped up: Katara is 17, Zuko is 19, Sokka is 18, etc. Rated T for language, some minor sexuality, and implied themes. Now go on and read and review. :)

Disclaimer: I do not own Avatar: The Last Airbender or anything pertaining to it.

Polar Nights

Chapter 1: Seasick

Zuko never liked traveling by sea; it made him sick to his stomach. Usually, his uncle Iroh would make him some tea to settle his stomach. Unfortunately, Iroh wasn't on this trip, and Zuko tended to steep the tea for too long if he made it. The prince prayed someone in the Water Tribe knew how to make a decent pot of tea.

"Now, now," his uncle said. "It gets very cold in the poles, so remember to concentrate. Focus your firebending, it will keep you warm. And stay indoors after dark. And don't go out past the city walls. And always bow, especially to the elders. The elders are very important. The mother of the chief is revered more than the chief himself in the Water Tribe."

And Zuko had thought keeping up with all the politics and nitty gritty demands of the Fire Nation were demanding.

"When you arrive, send word, so we'll know you made it in once piece. And let us know how negotiations are going. And please don't lose your temper." Iroh continued.

His uncle acted like this was his first time at politics. Well, technically, it was. Solo, anyway. He had ridden co-pilot to his uncle, cousin, and father many times before. But he knew the routine; get as much as you can for as little. It seemed counterintuitive to compromise, but that was politics.

Many times, Zuko had wondered how anyone could possibly volunteer for a life of politics. Such is the life of a prince of the Fire Nation, he supposed.

The ship buckled and the prince leaned over the edge of the ship, expelling his stomach's contents into the ocean. He felt queasy as he thought about it.

"Ugh," he groaned a bit. "Someone make me some tea."

When they finally reached the South Pole, a series of waterbenders lowered the icy gates. It reminded him of the North Pole; apparently the South Pole has suffered much destruction, but some waterbenders from the north had moved to help restore it after the the Water Tribes and Fire Nation reached a "cease fire."

He stood tall, going to walk off the ship and admiring the sight. It was actually quite beautiful, in an icy, frozen, can't-feel-any-of-your-extremities kind of way.

At the entrance stood four people; a man, tall with animal furs draped around him. His eyes looked weary and tired, and Zuko immediately pegged him to be the chief. To his left, a man - nearly a spitting image of him - with similar animal furs and war paint on his face, the son. Next to be chief. To his right, a young woman, with blue tattoos doing down the left side of her face and neck. She had beads and feathers woven into her hair, and wore a silver parka. Standing beside her was an older woman, bearing similar tattoos on her aged, leathery skin.

His uncle's reminder to pay respects to the elders first nagged at him. He walked to the elder woman and knelt to the ground, placing his forehead in the ground. She smiled a bit and nodded at the chief, then stepped back.

"Prince Zuko," he said. "We are honored to receive you. I am Chief Hakoda, that is my mother Kanna. Now, I present to you my son, Sokka, soon to be chief," the young warrior stepped forward and bowed his head a bit curtly, then stepped back. "And my daughter, Katara, our spiritual leader."

Katara gave a simple nod of the head, lowering herself a bit with by bending her knees, then stood straight back up. Zuko made a mental note that the spiritual leader seemed to hold an even higher honor than tribal chief himself.

"Come inside, we have icelily tea, and it is auspicious to have it before talks of treaties," Hakoda offered, going to walk towards a large palace of ice in the background.

The prince struggled to keep up, making a note that the soles of his iron boots were not receiving much traction on the frozen ground. He made another mental note that he would have to invest in some more practical footwear, then added to his notes to get a journal for all the notes he was taking.

"I do trust you will find your accommodations here at the South Pole suitable," Hakoda said. "We have prepared a room for you in our home."

Zuko bowed his head a bit low. "No, no, that won't be necessary, Chief Hakoda. I can stay on my ship."

The chief grew silent, and he could hear Katara sucking in air through her teeth. Sokka clapped a hand on his shoulder and whispered near his ear, "It is rude to turn down a generous act of hospitality."

"Apologies," he said quickly. "I would be honored to stay with you, if it wouldn't be a terrible imposition."

"Were it to have been one, we wouldn't have offered, Prince Zuko," the blue eyed female said plainly before pulling thick animal skin curtain draped over the front aside.

Zuko learned that negotiations were rather drawn out in the South Pole and could last up to two or three weeks. It probably explained why Lu Ten was unable to attend, as he could not afford to be so indisposed and away from the Fire Nation for that long.

After the tea, the tribal princess excused herself for meditations and the young warrior was instructed to give Zuko a brief tour of the palace. Everything was made of ice, except for things made of animal furs and skins.

Sokka led the prince to a room and pulled aside another thick, heavy pelt. "This is your room," he explained. "We will understand if you care to have your own guards stand outside the doors for your safety."

There was a small pit in the floor where some tinder was. A small table of ice was near the door, where a pitcher filled with water was. The bed was off the floor and carved of ice, layered with many animal pelts. In the ceiling, a small hole was carved in addition to several slits along the icy walls.

"Polar nights are coming," the warrior explained. "Soon, we'll need to rely on lanterns. Let us know if you need more animal skins - it does get rather cold at night. Dinner will be soon as well, you should wash up before then. The baths are across the hall. Someone will be back before dinner to escort you to the feast."

Night came sooner than Zuko expected, and as he was pulling on his boots, someone pulled the animal skin back and coughed to make their presence known. He frowned; didn't these people know privacy?

"You will simply freeze in those clothes, put these on." Katara said plainly, placing them on the bed beside him.

"It isn't necessar-" he went to respond. The look in her eye discouraged his natural response. "Thank you for your kindness, Lady Katara." He bowed at his waist, and she bowed her head a bit, then turned her back to face him.

"We haven't all night, please change," she said.

He cleared his throat. "Certainly, if you'll just-"

"There's no need for me to go outside, my back is already turned. I have seen a male body before, Prince Zuko, you will not be revealing any parts of anatomy I haven't seen before."

Was everyone here so blunt and forthcoming? "I beg your pardon, Lady Katara?"

"I'm a healer," she sighed impatiently, turning to see he had still not begun changing. "Do you need me to dress you as well, or are you capable of that on your own?"

Feisty, this one. Borderline rude, too. Maybe it was the nature of the South Pole. But then again, Hakoda and Sokka hadn't been this rude yet. Perhaps she was just having a bad day. Or so he hoped; he had a feeling with the Water Tribe, a peace negotiation could go awry if the spiritual leader wasn't on board.

"I'm ready," he said after he pulled the parka on over his head. The clothing did fit him a bit snuggly, and he wondered if they made them specifically for him or commandeered the clothes of another person. Either way, he was thankful for the extra layers, as he had grown a bit tired of trying to keep his body heat up with firebending.

She led him outside the palace - where it was significantly colder - then towards what looked to be an amphitheater of some sort. At the bottom was a miniature waterfall, and platform of ice; the rest of it was made of stairs and seats with a raised area that looked to be tables. In the middle was a covered portion with the symbol of the Water Tribe.

She stepped aside, and pushed him down to sit at an empty spot. "Sit here."

He moved up, making a note that Sokka was sitting beside him. The warrior gave him a stiff nod, then began eating quietly after nodding again at his grandmother. Zuko noticed Katara had sat to the right of her father and was chatting away with another girl sitting to her right. The girl wore a green parka and had short brown hair and heavy makeup.

His hand reached up to pick at the meat in front of him when Sokka slapped his hand. "You must ask the elder for permission first." The warrior jerked his head in the direction of his grandmother. "Just look at her and nod, and if she gives you permission, she'll nod back."

These people and their customs, Zuko mused to himself. He looked at Kanna and nodded, she looked at him for a moment, seeming to evaluate him in the parka, then nodded back. Finally.

He began to chew slowly on the food, deciding against inquiring as to what kind of meat it was. It was a bit salty, but it was surprisingly lean. He had heard Water Tribe food tended to be a bit fatty.

After he was well into his meal, Hakoda and Sokka began asking him questions about the Fire Nation and what agreements Zuko would like to reach. So this was where the negotiations were held; over dinner. He scoffed, as it seemed very informal.

"Well, I personally, would like to establish better trade routes. Animal skins and leathers from the Tribes are highly coveted in the Fire Nation; in exchange, we could offer you many resources that could be hard to come by here. Furthermore, I think our politics need a lateral move that would no longer make our nations seem divided, but unified," he explained. It was a recycled line; insert valuable resource, insert nation it applies to, insert unifying politics. It was the best thing to say without saying anything at all.

Hakoda nodded sternly. "I completely agree, which is why I believe that the agreement Fire Lord Lu Ten and I reached will definitely satisfy the goals and desires of the Fire Nation and the Southern Water Tribe. After we have reached an agreement, it will be easy to appease the North Pole as well."

Zuko swallowed hard. "Agreement? I beg your pardon, I'm confused. You already reached an agreement with Fire Lord Lu Ten?"

"Yes," he said slowly. "We agreed upon a marriage contract between you and my daughter. Were you not informed?"

The queasiness he felt from the ship suddenly returned.

Posted: 06/13/2012