All Standard Disclaimers Apply: I do not own Avatar: The Last Airbender or anything related to it.
The last time he had been to the Southern Water Tribe, the circumstances had been completely different. He had been younger, angrier, and in search of figure that had eluded men for a century.
As the chill winds of the southern pole whipped at his face, the Fire Lord closed his eyes. He was older, more open-minded, but he was still searching for something that had eluded him.
"What if he's not there?" Zuko could hear the head of his personal guards' voice behind him, sounding uncharacteristically unsure. "What if he changed his mind?"
"I'm sure he'll be there! He said he would and he's not a liar. Sarcastic, yes, but liar, no." Ty Lee sounded completely confident as she stood huddled behind Suki. Their traditional Kiyoshi Warrior uniforms had been replaced with thicker robes, though in the same green color. They would need it in the South Pole.
"But what if he changed his mind?" Suki sounded concerned. "He's been so busy working…did you know they want to make him a councilman there?" Even as she seemed worried, there was a hint of pride in her voice.
"That's probably why his letters to you haven't been as numerous as before," Ty Lee tried to cheer her up. "He gets busy with helping the Avatar and the new city and stuff!"
"But what if he found someone else?" There was a pain in Suki's voice. "He's sweet and funny, he's smart and he's loyal…a guy like Sokka doesn't stay single for long."
"He's not single," Zuko finally spoke out. He didn't have to look over his shoulder to see both Ty Lee and Suki looking at his back. "He has a girlfriend." He turned around and met Suki's eyes with convicted ones. "I know him and I know he knows what matters most."
The female warrior's eyes softened slightly. She gave him a thankful nod of her head. "And what about you, Fire Lord? You and Ty Lee didn't have to come with me to the South Pole. Ty Lee wanted to come because she's never been, but what about you? I know Sokka's your friend, but he asked me to come, not you."
The black-haired man took a deep breath. He turned back to the cold ocean before them. "It's been three years since Azula was banished here. A year and a half after my mother followed," he admitted. "I want to see my family again."
Behind him, Ty Lee's smile widened, pleased with what she heard. Suki furrowed her brows in concern. She could still remember the day when Azula, bound in chains, was carried on board a vessel bound for the Southern Water Tribe.
Several high-level waterbenders had been assigned to escort her, including Katara and her step-grandfather, Pakku. Zuko had been concerned that dissidents who didn't trust his rule would try to free his sister and stage a coup or that Azula would somehow find a way to escape and seek revenge.
No one in the Fire Nation, that he felt he could trust, seemed to be able to help a paranoid, hateful Azula. From what Suki could remember, it had been Katara's suggestion for Azula to be banished to the Southern Water Tribe.
The Kiyoshi Warriors, and Mai, for that matter, never did find out what exactly caused Katara's change of heart. After all, she had battled Azula first hand during Souzin's Comet. She had been the one to stop Azula. If the furious princess wanted revenge on someone other than Zuko, it would've been on Katara.
These points of concern had been brought up, but in the end, Zuko didn't seem to have any other choice and released his sister into his friend's care.
"Zuko," Suki began carefully. "I know that their letters have spoken of progress with Azula, but do you think it is a good idea for you come see her without much escort?"
They weren't traveling with a fleet, just a large navel vessel. They had no escort ships and, aside from her and Ty Lee, the rest of the Kiyoshi Warriors had remained in the Fire Nation or returned to the island for a well-deserved vacation. There were soldiers and guards on board, but it was a light guard.
Zuko's gloved hands squeezed the metal railing he stood behind as he kept his eyes out to sea. "This may be the best chance I'll have to see them in a while. I'll have to take it."
"Your Highness," a voice said from the door behind them. "We'll be arriving soon."
"Thank you, Captain," Zuko nodded solemnly. He remained standing where he was, watching the horizon for a sight he was sure had changed.
Dots began to appear; glistening icebergs jutted out from the icy water. One or two here and there began to multiply as they approached the pole. Behind him, he could hear the two young women gasping in awe at the towering ice masses and entered a harbor already bestrewn with other ships.
Zuko kept his eyes forward. What he really wanted to see was the village. Had it changed from the pathetic walled enclosure he had run aground before?
"Is that it?" Suki asked, surprised as she stood beside him with wide eyes.
"Oh…," Ty Lee gasped. "It's nothing like you told us it looked like Zuko," she gushed quickly as her brows furrowed. "It's not just some huts and a pile of snow pretending to be a wall."
"Yeah…," Zuko said as the ship was signaled by some Water Tribesman in front of a dock to anchor away from the docks, in deeper water. Behind the dock was a small market and then a long, main road flanked with small buildings led deeper into the village.
They were hastily built structures; nowhere near the grandeur of the buildings he remembered of the Northern Tribe, but from the moving blue clad bodies he could see, it was a bustling village that would spread to become a city.
The road went uphill and at the top, a large building was still in the process of being built, however, just in front of he, could make out a massive wall and huge ice doors glistening in the sun. A lodge, he acknowledged.
What a different a few years and a reunited society had made.
"Your Highness," an officer said behind him. "We have anchored and a transfer vessel is ready to take you, Captain Suki, and Lady Ty Lee to shore."
"Thank you!" Suki and Ty Lee chorused as Zuko gave him a nod. He turned around, letting the two warriors rush from the upper level to the main deck before him.
He seemed to take his time following; his mind preoccupied with what he would say to his sister after so many years.
"Hi, Azula! Sorry for banishing you from the home land, but hey…at least I didn't scar you, right? Hahaha…." He cringed. She'd burn him for sure.
Then there was his mother. He missed Ursa. He had spent a considerable amount of time searching for her, but after he had found her, she had only spent a few months with him before deciding that, perhaps, the child who needed her most at that time was Azula.
As much as he wished that Ursa had stayed with him, to be his pillar and support him during his tentative early years on the throne, he acknowledged Azula's need. Azula needed to heal and hoped that when she found peace, his own heart would be calmer.
Since then, he had corresponded with them, but he had mostly written about how busy he was, his future plans, and things that happened within the court. Not much had been written about his personal thoughts, what he'd like to do on a personal level, or his relationships – not that time allowed him for many. Zuko suddenly regretted not being more open in his letters.
He took a deep breath as he stepped on to the main deck. That would change now, he hoped. His mother had wrote to him about the Southern Water Tribe's first festival in years and hoped he would come. It would be good for Fire Nation publicity, she had told him, as well as for them; she wanted to see her son. He hadn't told her, but was hoping to surprise her with a visit.
"Fire Lord," a proud voice greeted by the edge of the deck. Zuko could see Ty Lee hopping from the edge of the ship and on to the awaiting smaller transport vessel tied beside theirs. Standing beside the ladder was an elderly man in blue furs with a white beard. "Welcome to the Southern Water Tribe."
He was royalty, yet Zuko still automatically put his hands together and bowed. "Thank you, Master Pakku, for coming to meet us."
"My wife sent me," Pakku replied drolly. Zuko smiled weakly and followed the old man into the boat. As soon as they were seated, the small boat pushed off and they were paddled towards the shore.
"Master Pakku, has Sokka already arrived?" Suki asked hopefully.
"I am afraid not," the old man replied. "I was told that they have been delayed." He watched as Suki tried to hold back her disappointed expression. "But," he added quickly. "They are supposed to arrive soon."
"So, we're early?" Ty Lee asked. "Has the festival started yet?"
"It starts tonight," Pakku said. "We even have a few visitors from our sister tribe here."
He lifted his hands and the three younger people on the small boat looked around the harbor. Several larger ships that looked of Northern Water Tribe build were anchored near-by. One or two wooden ships looked like they were from the Earth Kingdom.
"I know that seal," Suki said as she squinted. "A flying boar? That's the Bei Fong seal on that ship."
"Yes, it seems that Toph wanted to help after all my grandchildren have done for her and was very vocal in shipping routes from the southern Earth Kingdom here. We invited the merchants on board to stay a few days longer to experience the festival as our guests," Pakku told them proudly.
"Is Toph here, then?"
"I'm afraid she's quite busy at that school of hers," Pakku told them. "She has high hopes for her protégés and as any master would, she has chosen to stay with them this time."
Zuko looked towards the dock that they were approaching and narrowed his eyes. There was a figure standing on the wooden dock, standing out from the half dozen men moving around, preparing to pull their small boat and tie it to the dock.
Gold eyes were locked on similar colored ones.
"Is that Azula?" Ty Lee asked. She scrambled across the boat and nearly shoved Zuko aside to lean forward and wave. "Azula!" she shouted earnestly as she lifted her arms and waved. "Azula! Is that you!" A small puff of air came from the figure's lips before a blue gloved hand hesitantly rose and gave a single wave back. Ty Lee shrieked. "It is you!"
"Ty Lee, sit down," Zuko frowned as the vessel swayed. "You're shaking the boat."
"Zuko, it's Azula!" Ty Lee exclaimed, nearly clapping her hands in excitement as Suki grabbed her by the waist and pulled her back into the seat beside her.
"Yeah," Zuko nodded as he narrowed his eyes. "I got that."
Her crisp black, red, and gold uniform was gone. It wouldn't do in the cold. She wore a thick, ocean blue parka with an off-white fur trim. Her pants were blue, her thick boots were brown animal hide, and the only skin that showed was her pale, reddened from the cold, face.
Ropes were tossed to the men on the dock and Azula stepped back to give them room as the small boat was pulled against the dock. Pakku lifted his hands, bending the water beneath them upwards to allow their guests to simply step out of the boat.
"Azula!" Ty Lee shouted as she rushed forward, her arms wide open. She rammed into the princess, nearly knocking Azula over. "You came!"
"I should be saying the same for you," a calm, even, yet somewhat amused voice replied. Arms draped heavily in furs went around Ty Lee and gave her a hug. "How was your trip?"
"It was amazing and it got cold really quick!" Ty Lee rambled as she was released from the embrace. "I saw koala otters and tiger seals and seal turtles-"
"All right, Ty Lee," Suki sighed as she let out a nervous laugh. "That's enough. She gets the idea." The gray-eyed brunette continued to smile brightly as Suki bowed. "Princess Azula."
"Save it," Azula replied quickly as she lifted her chin. "I am not a princess here, regardless of who my foster father may be."
"Foster father?" Zuko asked. Azula turned to him and smirked. A predatory glint shone in her eyes as she gave him a small bow of her head.
"Fire Lord Zuzu," she greeted smugly. "Welcome to my new domain." Zuko frowned. "I hope you like the color blue."
"Relax," his sister brushed him off as she turned around. "I'm not doing anything wrong or anything that will embarrass you, if that's what you're worried about. Although, I do find it a bit rude of you to come unannounced. I'm sure Mother would've loved to have come to meet you here with us."
"He wanted it to be a surprise!" Ty Lee beamed. Zuko resisted the urge to shoot her an annoyed glare.
"Truly," Azula drawled.
"Azula," Master Pakku said as he began to lead them towards the bustling fish market at the end of the docks. "Where is your grandmother?"
"Gran-Gran saw a sale on octopus," Azula told him dutifully. She glanced around the various vendors. "I believe she's at Sakari's stand."
Pakku squinted and nodded. "I see her. Why don't you take the others home. I'll wait for Kanna."
Azula bowed her head slightly. "Yes, Sir." She turned to the others and waved for them to follow her. "Come. It's a bit of a walk since the chief's house is close to the lodge."
"The chief's house?" Suki asked. "You live there?"
Azula nodded as she trudged up the main road, her footsteps crunching into the packed snow. Lanterns in preparation for the festival had been strung across the road and as they reached a main plaza, small booths were being set up in preparation for the weeklong night celebration.
"I suppose Mother hasn't informed you of the living situation," Azula told him. "Since Grandpakku, that is Master Pakku, was in charge of my well-being after Katara needed to return to the colonies…or United Republic, or whatever they've decided to call it now, I was to stay close to him. He is married to Kanna, Chief Hakoda's mother, and so he lives next door to the chief's house. I had been staying with Katara at her father's-"
"Who happens to be the Chief of the Southern Water Tribe," Suki deduced.
"Wait," Zuko frowned as he quickened his speed to catch up to his sister. "Where is Mother staying? I thought she was staying with you."
"She is staying with me, Zuzu," Azula rolled her eyes. "We live in the chief's house."
The Fire Lord didn't know how to take that. His mother and sister living in the home of another man. Sure, it was Katara and Sokka's father and he had met Chief Hakoda before, but still. Wasn't that odd?
In addition, he doubted the home would be very big. Possibly just one room with a few enclaves for sleeping. There would be a fire pit in the middle and furs on the walls. How could they possibly live in such close quarters-
"Here we are," Azula said as they passed the newly built main plaza and found themselves in front of a large stone and wood, one story building. "Grandpakku was having it built before the war ended for Gran-Gran and him, but Katara thinks he had it built to give to Chief Hakoda to try to win him over for marrying his mother."
"Wow…." Ty Lee gaped. "You live here?"
"It's not the royal palace back in the Fire Nation," Suki admitted as they were led up the stone steps to the main doors. The doors had been propped open and the scent of food was coming from within. "But it sure is impressive."
Azula smirked proudly. "I know." They stepped into the main room that had been adorned with traditional Water Tribe decorations from animal skins, shields, and a sunken living area lined with even more furs and pillows. A fire pit was in the middle and had large pot cooking over it.
On a small table by the fire was a tray with a Fire Nation tea pot and some cups. Zuko looked around. There were three other halls; two extending to the sides and one leading further back into the building.
"What's over there?" Ty Lee asked, pointing to the hall to their right.
"We have several bedrooms on that side and then a bathing area. On the other hall is the chief's living quarters, as well as an meeting room, and down that way is some storage, additional cooking and living quarters, and then it opens into a training area," Azula told them. "Katara, Grandpakku, and I use it to practice our bending."
"Azula!" a familiar voice called from the far hall. "Is that you? Are you back already?"
Zuko's eyes softened as he took a step forward. "Mom…."
"Yes, Mother, and I have a surprise for you," Azula called back.
They could see a figure scurrying down the corridor, holding a tray with some bowls on it. Black hair had been tied back into a neat bun as a few stray bangs fell over her hair. Her red robes had been replaced with a far more informal blue tunic for indoor wear and black house slippers.
"What is it – Zuko!" Ursa nearly dropped her tray as she saw her son standing across the room. Her face brightened immediately.
A wide smile filled Zuko's face as he began to round the sunken living area to meet her on the other side. "Mom," he breathed as he watched tears fill her eyes. She held her arms out to embrace him as he reached her. She let out a choked cry as her arms tightened around him. "Surprise."
"Quite a surprise indeed," Ursa mumbled as she wiped at her eyes. She hesitantly pulled back and looked at her son. She lifted a hand to brush back the hair that had come undone from his topknot. "I was hoping you'd come, but you didn't send word after my last letter!"
"It wouldn't have been a surprise if I had," he chuckled as he pulled back. He stepped around her and took the tray she had put down. "Let me get that for you. Are you bringing it down there?"
"Yes, yes," Ursa nodded as she followed him into the living area. Azula was already sitting and removing her thick gloves from her hands as Ty Lee and Suki looked around from their seats. "And Ty Lee, how was your first trip here?"
"Very exciting, Aunt Ursa," the acrobat turned warrior smiled. "It got kind of boring out on the open ocean, but we saw some amazing animals!"
Ursa nodded and looked at Suki. They'd only met once before, but Sokka did seem to speak a lot about her. She was the one they had been expecting. "And you, Suki, how was your trip?"
"Fine, just fine," Suki piped, somewhat nervously. She wasn't sure why she was. Perhaps it was just because she was in Sokka's home. Across from her, Ursa let out a little gasp. "Oh! That reminds me! I have a surprise for you all, too. It arrived just after you left, Azula," she beamed. She looked over her shoulder and called out sweetly. "She's here!"
Suki sat up in her seat and craned her neck towards the back hall, following Ursa's eyes. A pair of brown hands shoved forward a tall, nervous looking young man with his hair still in a wolf's tail.
"Don't push me!" he hissed over his shoulder.
"Well, you're taking too long!" a female voice hissed back.
The surprised voice reminded the male warrior where he was and he found himself standing to attention immediately. Blue eyes focused on the green clad young woman slowly rising to her feet. His hands tightened around the humble bouquet in his hands as he took a deep breath and quickly bowed his head.
"Suki…," he began stupidly. The two of them stared at each other. "Uh…hey."
The room was silent. "That's it?" a male voice asked from the hall. "I thought he planned it better. He was rehearsing all the way here."
"Yeah, well, looks like he isn't as good a speaker as he thinks," the female voice snorted.
"Will you two shut up! I said I've got this!" Sokka snapped over his shoulder. He let cleared his throat with a small cough and held out the flowers, clearly nervous. "Suki, I got you these panda lilies because-mph!"
He fell back on to the floor with a thud and Ursa gasped. Ty Lee's eyes went wide as she covered her mouth. Azula raised an eyebrow as from behind Sokka, Katara and Aang rushed out.
Although, it wasn't as if they could help Sokka. Nor did Sokka want them, too.
Zuko watched as the head of his body guard unit kissed his friend on the floor…in front of his mother, sister, and the Avatar. Silently, he ran his hand down his face.
"Whoa…," the Water Tribe man mumbled as Suki finally lifted her head and smiled down at him. He looked up at her dumbly. "I missed you, too."
"Are you guys okay?" Aang asked before stepping into the seating area.
"I think I'm better than okay," Sokka smiled.
"Well, from the looks of it, I take it she said yes?" a voice asked from the front of the house. Several heads turned towards the doorway as a shadow fell over the living space. A man in blue stood at the threshold would a warm smile on his face as he held a leather sack in each hand.
Ursa shot up from where she sat, her face suddenly flushing as she gave him a bow. "Hakoda, welcome home!"
"Hi, Dad," Katara smiled. "And uh…shhh..." She made a silencing motion with her hand before looking over at Sokka and Suki.
"What do you…?" Blue eyes went wide and the middle-aged man looked sheepish. "Oh. Never mind."
"Yes?" Ty Lee asked as she looked back at the chief. "Why would Suki say yes?"
Everyone else in the room seemed to inwardly cringe. Sokka bit his lower lip as Suki rose to her feet. "Wait…what does your father mean by 'yes'…and hello, Chief Hakoda," she added as she turned and gave him a quick bow.
Hakoda nodded his head back as his elderly mother squeezed past him with Pakku in tow.
"Oh, nothing!" Sokka's eyes darted around nervously. "Dad didn't say anything."
"Yes, he did." Suki insisted.
"No, I didn't," Hakoda said, hoping to help his son as Azula and Katara helped take the bags from his arms.
"Yes, you did," Azula and Ty Lee acknowledged. The chief sighed tiredly.
"He meant yes to some tea," Ursa piped. "Hakoda, have some tea with us! You've had a long day!"
Zuko watched as she ushered the other man into the living space and helped him remove his thick coat before taking it and his gloves and putting them to the side. She began to pour some tea in several cups, but Suki would not be distracted.
"Sokka," she began firmly as her eyes narrowed. "What is he talking about?"
"Oh, she'll fit right in," Azula smirked beside Zuko as she sat down beside him. Katara patted him on the shoulder to greet him quietly before taking a seat beside his sister. "The women of this family are no pushovers."
"Azula, don't just sit there, pass the tea tray around," Ursa said from beside the fire pit.
The golden-eyed young woman let out a huff. "Yes, Mother."
Zuko couldn't remember when he had least seen Azula so obedient, but not because she wanted to simply please a person and gain favor. His sister took the tray of tea cups and went around the room, offering it to everyone before falling back into her seat.
Katara nudged her smugly. "You were saying about not being a push over?"
"Shut up." Azula's lips curled into a slight smile as Katara giggled beside her.
"Okay, okay!" Sokka finally caved in front of the group. "I was hoping for a more…romantic time to do this, but it seems that I have no choice now – thanks a lot, guys," he spat, eyeing everyone from his father to his sister. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a carefully wrapped piece of silk.
A few moments later, Zuko was deafened by the sound of one very excited Kiyoshi Warrior who had just become engaged.
Zuko didn't think anyone noticed. He was genuinely happy for his friends. He was sincere in his well wishes. He had been smiling at dinner and laughing with his friends, exchanging stories and joining in teasing Sokka's so called "brilliant" ideas.
He didn't think anyone saw him looking enviously at his sister as she went from booth to booth arm-in-arm with her new "sister". He didn't think anyone noticed how he looked on enviously as Azula had been scolded by Gran-Gran for forgetting her gloves at the house or how various tribesmen and women had warmly welcomed Azula as they went through the festival.
He was sure no one saw him looking at his mother, who had been clinging to Chief Hakoda's arm far too closely for his liking. He was positive that no one saw him frown when Ursa was dragged off by Sokka and Suki to watch Azula and Katara trying to catch fish from a barrel.
He was sure no one knew that he was feeling completely left out of a family he had no idea had been built in the last three years.
"Have some," a voice said beside him as the crunching snow beneath footsteps came to a stop. A blue-gloved hand gave him a heavy mug filled with steaming tea. "It'll warm you up."
"Thanks," Zuko mumbled as he accepted the cup. He remained sitting on the steps of the unfinished lodge, where he had been for the last hour or so. The glowing village spread out before him and somewhere in the maze of lanterns and people and music coming from somewhere, his sister and mother were enjoying themselves.
"So what are you doing here?" Katara took a seat beside him, as if she wasn't intruding on his solitary angst time. He made no move to stop her, though. She brought her cup to her lips and took a sip.
He didn't reply immediately. Zuko remained leaning forward, his elbows on his bent knees as he watched the people below. "Just thinking."
The waterbender mirrored his pose. "You came all the way to the South Pole to think?" she asked, somewhat incredulously. "Don't get me wrong; it's better than following Aang, but you could've sat around alone, to think, at home."
Gold eyes closed. He wasn't sure if wanted to start this conversation and if he did, how to. The words that left his mouth were vague. "I didn't know you were close to my sister."
She raised one brow and threw him a sidelong glance. "Does that surprise you? I did spend months here with her, trying to rehabilitate her."
"And I thank you for that," Zuko said solemnly. His eyes opened. "But I think you may have done too good a job."
This time, Katara's brows knit together questioningly. "What are you talking about?"
"I let you bring Azula here because I didn't think anyone could handle her back home," he admitted. "I wasn't sure what I was expecting for you to accomplish, maybe just to stop her from trying to kill everyone who crossed her, but I didn't expect…this…."
He motioned one hand down towards the village below and Katara looked down towards it and then back at him.
"She treats your family like it's hers. She and our mother both do."
"Is that bad?"
"No," he answered quickly. He bit his lip. "Yes." He tilted is head back and groaned quietly. "I don't know," he conceded.
Katara looked down at her hands, weighing his words. "Suki told me you came here to see your family. That you wanted to take this chance to see them while you could since the Fire Nation is growing busier by the day." She moved her cup in her hands and looked at him. "Zuko…did you come to bring your mother and sister back to the Fire Nation?"
His jaw locked. Did he? Perhaps the thought lingered in his mind, like a dream he knew probably wouldn't happen, but still hoped for. He never once voiced it, but it didn't seem that he needed to for someone to understand.
A heavy breath escaped his lips and a small cloud of hot air collected before him.
"It's just odd seeing them like this. Like a happy family. Azula and you are always together, linked arms – I never even saw her do that with Ty Lee or Mai and they've known each other since they were children. She jokes with Sokka and she seems to really respect your grandparents." His eyes narrowed. "Mother is the same way. She cooks at your house. She cleans your house. She brings your dad meals when he's busy!" Zuko choked out as he threw his arms in the air, frustrated. "It's like…it's like they somehow built this family without me knowing!"
Now she got it. Katara clenched her cup. "And without you."
He lowered his arms and bent forward. "What's wrong with me, Katara?" he asked painfully. "I've tried so hard…so hard," he stressed. "To bring my mom home and try to find help for Azula and when those happen…."
"You're not the happy family you thought you'd be," the waterbender ended. Zuko nodded his head once.
"I want to be happy for them," he admitted. "Because they are happy and if they're happy, than so should I."
"But you're not being happy with them." She placed her cup on the ground beside his.
"How can I be?" he scoffed. "I came here hoping to be a family again and-"
"You still can be," Katara cut him off. "The choice is yours, Zuko, but you don't seem to get it."
A scowl crossed his face as he looked at her. He thought she had come to try to make him feel better. "What do you mean-"
"I asked to bring Azula here not because we needed her or because you needed to get rid of her. I didn't bring her here because I pitied her. I brought her here because she needed a family," Katara explained. "Your father was locked away in a tower across the palace. Your mother had been missing. You were in no position to try to help your sister considering the responsibilities of a Fire Lord that had been thrust upon you. At the time, the Fire Nation could not help Azula, but I thought that maybe we could.
"What you see down there is the result of three years, Zuko. Three years of chipping at Azula's pride and trying to get her to trust us. Three years of encouragement and a complete retooling of the kind of relationships she was used to. As a people, we are not just a tribe – we are a community. A family. I thought that is what Azula needed; we gave her a family to heal her." Katara concluded. She looked at Zuko and grasped one of his hands in hers, offering a hopefuls mile. "I didn't bring her here to steal her from you."
A small laugh escaped him and he shook his head. "I didn't mean to imply that. It's just…," he took a deep breath. "She has you all now. She has a grandfather who didn't order her brother killed. She has a grandmother who scolds her lovingly. She has brother who can't bend, but can make her laugh without being the victim to one of her horrible jokes. And she even has you; someone she can fight with on equal bending terms."
This time Katara laughed. She moved closer to him and leaned to the side, giving him a slight bump with her shoulder. "You seem to be forgetting something, Fire Lord," she told him. He looked at her questioningly. "You have us, too."
"I don't live here," he reminded her curtly. She snorted and rolled her eyes.
"You don't have to. Friends and family stretch far beyond the borders of a nation, across seas and continents," Katara said as she stretched her arms over her head and leaned back against them. She looked at him and smiled. "We all care about you, too. Mai and Suki and Ty Lee, they're helping you, even though Mai dumped you."
Zuko rolled his eyes. "I don't recall telling you that."
"Word spreads fast amongst friends," Katara smirked. "But Mai still cares. She's still working hard to help you keep your sanity, even if you're not her boyfriend."
"Thank you for reminding me."
"And the General still writes about you and wishes you'd come visit him in Ba Sing Se," she told him. "Your Mom wishes you'd visit more often, too."
"You know I can't."
"But you can still write," Katara reminded him. "You're never alone, Zuko. No matter how far we are away from each other, you'll always have us," she said as she sat up and lazily rested her head against his shoulder. "I promise."
He let out another tired breath and tilted his head, resting it against the top of hers gratefully. "Thanks, Katara."
They sat there quietly, listening to the faint music in the cold night and watching the specks of blue crisscrossing the main, lantern-illuminated road.
When the lanterns finally began to be blown out for the night and the villagers began returning to their homes, Zuko shifted in his seat. He felt the heavy weight beside him continue lean against him and looked down at Katara.
Her eyes were closed and her mouth was partially open. He shook her gently. "Katara," he whispered quietly. "Come on. We have to get back."
"Uh-huh…," she mumbled groggily as she pulled herself into a sitting position. "What time is it?"
"I don't know, but I bet the sun will rise soon," he told her as he collected their frozen cups and placed them in one of his coat's pockets. "Come on, get up," he urged.
She nodded her head as he stood up. Zuko stopped in front of her as she held her hands up, as if beckoning him to pull her up. Rolling his eyes at her apparently lethargy, he grasped on her gloved hands and lifted her to her feet.
"Thanks," she yawned. "Are you staying at our place?"
"No, I have to get back to the ship," he told her as they began slowly making their way down.
Katara furrowed her brows, displeased with his answer. "Why not? Didn't we just establish that you're family? You should stay with us."
He smiled slightly as he walked down the steps ahead of her. "All my things are still back at the ship. Besides, with everyone else staying at the house, I'd have to share a room and I don't want to walk in on Sokka waiting for Suki again…especially now."
Katara laughed as she hopped down the steps behind him. "With Gran-Gran there, I doubt he'd even try."
She passed him easily, being quicker on the snow than he was. As he watched her trudge through, heading towards the chief's house, Zuko called out.
"Hey, wait…I have the cups!" She paused and turned back. "Can you bring them back?"
"Sure, thanks," she nodded. She stopped in front of him and held out her hands for the cups as he dug through his pockets. He pulled them out and placed them on her outstretched palms, pausing before he placed them there.
"Katara," he began as his face softened. He smiled gently. "Thanks again." He placed the cups in her hands. "And for what it's worth," he added as he felt her hands close over the cups. "As long as Im here, you'll never be alone, either." I promise.
Dawn broke in the horizon. The dark sky began to bleed with hues of orange piercing the dark blue.
Across from him, his hands still in hers, she smiled. "I know."
A.N. – Thank you very much for reading! This is the first of seven chapters of one story that will encompass Zutara Week 2012. It kind of takes off from the ideas in a story I wrote a few years ago (Neither Victory Nor Defeat), but that fic doesn't need to be read for this. It is my first year participating in Zutara Week, so I hope you enjoy.
For those following my collab with Ebotien fic, "The Brothers of Ban Sing Se", we do plan on continuing, we're just really busy right now.
Thank you again for dropping by and taking time to read!
Today's Song: "Winter Song" – Sara Bareilles & Ingrid Michaelson