Red in the Snow
It had been a routine patrol. Members of the tribe had seen the pirate ships sailing near the coast adjacent to their territory and, as the leader of the Southern Water Tribe, Hakoda took his job and potential threats that could risk his peoplevery seriously. So, enduring the cold of winter that came early this year, Hakoda and ten of his best men were out on patrol, finding nothing more than a couple of arctic foxes whose white hair mingled with snow.
They were ready to return to the tribe, but had advanced only a few steps when Bato, his deputy and friend for so many years that the amount wasn't important, stopped him, grabbing his shoulder. With a simple nod, Bato pointed into the distance. Far away, one could see the Southern Ocean, the ice forming icebergs and a fox that was digging in the snow. Hakoda frowned and Bato pointed again, this time with one hand.
There, near the ocean where the fox was digging, the snow was stained red. Blood was the first thing that came to his mind. There wasn't a large area of snow that was stained, so he did not believe there had been a fatal attack; perhaps someone had been wounded. Besides, the fox was still digging, so Hakoda could relax a little. The animal wouldn't be so peaceful if there were pirates nearby, but it was better to be safe.
With just a half-formed sentence, more a grunt than words, Hakoda called his warriors and advanced cautiously, his eyes wide open, alert to any danger. The pirates were known not only for not belonging to a tribe, but most of the time a pirate group consisted of people from the four nations. Not only did they manage a diverse group of weapons, there were also different types of benders among them and that made them especially dangerous.
Hakoda stopped, and with him, his warriors, when the fox tugged at the stain and it moved. He forced his eyes to see what that thing really was. He resumed the march with great strides, thinking that this was not a prey that the fox could have hunted; it was a person, surely wounded. The fox ran away quickly as they came close and got lost in the snow.
Crouching, Hakoda brushed away the snow and touched the arm that the fox had been pulling on. The cloth was not stained with blood, but it was red. That did not look good; pirates faded from his mind to be replaced with members of the Fire Nation.
The Fire Nation was composed of warriors, both men and women, who lived for the next battle. Ridiculous! Allow women or children to fight –may think the most conservative. But Hakoda knows that this fact is the reason why the stories of the Hundred Year War still speak with great reverence and fear of the Fire Nation.
He brush away more snow. Bato joins him in the task and they find a slender body and a tangle of dark hair. A woman or a child. Alive, but barely breathing. He turns the body over and finds a boy. There is an outburst of whispers of surprise, indignation, horror and a variety of expressions that Hakoda does not bother to acknowledge, but still warns them:
"We are not child murderers", he says with his voice steady and secure and that is enough to placate. But he does not feel as confident as he seems.
Not a man yet and already wears armor. The child's skin is so pale that it hardly contrasts against the snow and has a worrying bluish color, but the wound is what really attracts attention. It is impossible to miss. Covering half the left side of the child's face (he has his Sokka's age) is a burn, recent and looks severe. Hakoda is no healer, but it is clear that the eye is damaged and the ear lobe will be deformed, if the boy doesn't lose it. There are other injuries, but they are smaller and overshadowed by the burn.
Hakoda knows what he has in his arms. Everyone has heard of the Child Warriors, after all. Bah! Legends and stories told by old wives –say the unbelievers and those who haven't fought anyone of the Fire Nation. He has just a moment of doubt. He takes off his fur coat and quickly wraps the child with it; Bato offers his and other warriors move unsure to repeat the gesture. The small body is not shivering and hypothermia is dangerously advanced. Warrior or not, foreign or not, he is still a child and Hakoda has already stated, members of the Southern Water Tribe are not child murderers, neither deliberately nor by negligence.
They return home in a hurry. Not everyone likes the idea. Women watch with curiosity and suspicion of what their husbands and brothers have brought, keeping younger children behind their skirts, while the older children watch with eyes wide open. Hakoda cries out for Hama, Master Waterbender and close friend of his mother.
Those of the Water Tribe are the best healers and Hama is regarded as the best here and in the Northern Tribe, but the burn is deep. She focuses on saving the eye. The scar will never be fade.
At first sight, the boy is just a child, one who seems lost and too small in the blue parka that has been given to him to protect him to be from the cold when he recovers enough to stay awake. He does not say much. In fact, he says nothing. He nods and denies and makes eye contact when you speak, but makes little to no sound, even when Hama has to scrape the wound to remove dead tissue.
That isn't normal.
Hakoda remains alert. He knows the boy is just a child and he can see deep in his eyes that he's scared. And what eyes he has! In all the years Hakoda has been crossed weapons with men and women of the Fire Nation, all too pale, with dark hair and brown eyes with streaks from copper to gold, he has never seen eyes of pure gold and honey.
"Dragon Eyes," says his elderly mother with certain reverence and then prompting Katara to hurry with the stitching. Kanna is old and wise, originally from the Northern Water Tribe, she has traveled more than anyone in the tribe (for a woman), she knows what she talking about.
So, like the other parents, he keeps his children away from the boy. Sokka is curious about the intruder (because to him, the pale skin and golden eyes do not fit the standard of the Water Tribe, anomalies have always intrigued Sokka and Hakoda doesn't blame him, he is still a child), but a suspicious and cautious distance is maintained. Katara is not unobtrusive, she is a demon with the skin of an angel.
She wants to know and is not afraid to ask. That's why, in a way, Hakoda is not so surprised when he hears the child talk for first time because of his daughter. Katara had to bother him with questions for the first hour, harass him with screaming in the second and convince him with whispers, comforting smiles and taking his hand in the third.
The boy gives a well concealed flinch in surprise when he is touched. Nobody had been close enough to touch him besides the healer. Hakoda is sure that no one has touched the child with the care that Katara is showing him in a while, and he understands now that something is broken in the child for him to look that way with his pale hand wrapped by the tanned hand of his daughter. And he feels pity because a child should not have that look in his eyes.
Katara ask more questions and Hakoda is about to turn back, but stops and listens. The child's voice is barely a whisper, but the answer makes Katara smile.
"Zuko," she says softly, but audibly and firm. The voice of someone who might be able to move the masses. She says the name as if she tasted it and looks around, thinking. "It's a good name," she says finally, and Hakoda notices how the child, Zuko, relaxes a fraction. He had not noticed before how stiff the child's posture was, his back straight and shoulders back slightly. And he remembers again, that in the Fire Nation, they are all warriors.
The child could be lost and a little broken, but pride seemed to keep the pieces together.
Hakoda does not trust the child as much as he wants to help him (he thinks of him as "the Child" because "Zuko" seems too strong and does not believe that seeing a man instead of a child is appropriate for the moment), so Sokka becomes his lookout.
Where Katara resembles her mother, Sokka is more like his father. Hakoda is proud of the two, but is happy that at least one of them has sufficient distrust to suspect the Child and keep their eyes open. Expect the unexpected, was a common drill of the Air Nomads.
Time goes by and the newness is over. By the time the bandage is removed from the Child's eye, adults no longer look over the shoulder and the children of the tribe are among the tents again. Zuko follows Katara like a shadow, silent, almost sneaky (if not for the crunch of snow, Hakoda long ago would have put a bell on his feet). Now Katara's hand holding the Child is more a formality than a guide, something his daughter seems to enjoy and the Child tolerate.
It is time for the last hunt; the harsh part of winter is almost upon them and they have to restock. Sokka wants to go, but is still not old enough ("Only three years, Sokka" reminds Bato and pats him on the head and that's not very well received). Hakoda is reluctant to leave.
The Child has not shown any sign of hostility toward anyone beyond a cold stare and a scowl, but Hakoda is not the tribe leader just for formality. Even so, he departs and leaves to Sokka the task of protecting the village and his sister. Not that something could really happen while the hunters are not there (he has the fierce hope), but the goal will keep Sokka focused on more than his tantrum.
They return with their prey and Hakoda feels his heart falls to his feet. They arrive in time to prevent more deaths and scare away the bandits. Damn pirates! Tui and La curse them with turbulent waters and moonless nights.
He sheathes his sword and is about to organize a reconnaissance on the perimeter when he hears Katara's shriek. He had not heard his daughter screaming like that since the death of Kya (La harbors her in his cloak and Tui light the way to her eternal rest). He doesn't think, he is barely breathing, he runs and growls, furious, just at the thought of one of that scum touching a hair of the head of Katara.
As others around, the tent is on fire, but Hakoda hardly notices it. The cold has left him red faced and sweating cold; there are other warriors around him, with expressions that reflect the same surprise as him, but he does not notice it. He just can notice the stained crimson snow and Katara's sobs.
But there is nothing to do.
Three pirates lay on the ground and blood dyes the snow... and pale hands are wielding a rudimentary knife made of whalebone. The Child ... no, Zuko is standing there, still as an ice figure, his blue parka is dotted in red and more that he does not want to acknowledge, he knows that the blood is not Zuko's and feels colder than he remembers feeling ever.
Katara is safe, Sokka (with blood on his face and a couple of bruises on his body) holds her against his chest, trying to cover the violent scene, but Katara, in her usual stubbornness and in between the blur of tears, looks over her brother's shoulder and watch.
Hakoda takes a step. The snow crunches. Nothing changes. He wonders if Zuko is in shock, but the black hair, cut unevenly and messy like a bear which has just been shaking off the water, prevents Hakoda from seeing his face. He goes one step further and the bloody hand tightens his hold on the knife. Hakoda pauses, unsure of how to approach the Child.
Katara has no doubts or misgivings. Leaving the shelter in her brother's arms and omitting the Sokka's cry, she runs to Zuko. Hakoda want to stop it. He is dangerous! He can kill her!
"Zuzu!" whimpers the girl "Zuzu!"
The Child turns, a movement so fast that Hakoda involuntary feels dizzy, the knife is still in his hand and is dripping blood. Hakoda shouts a warning that falls on deaf ears.
It's too late.
Katara hugs Zuko hard; as if she fears he would disappear from her arms and buries her face in his neck. The knife is lying on the snow, the bloody hand is languid and the stiffness of his shoulders is gone, he's hunched over and looking so tired that anyone would doubt that the Child who is embraced by Katara and the one holding the knife was the same.
"Don't call me that" Zuko whispered. His voice wants to be a growl, but sounds more like a whimper. Katara moves away to arm's length with wide eyes full of tears. Zuko's hands, soiled with blood, are holding Katara's arms and Hakoda strides forward. He will not tempt fate again.
Hakoda grinds to a halt when it is Zuko who now embraces Katara, clinging to her like a castaway to a raft. There was a moment of doubt, but she returns the embrace. She is not crying anymore, but still trembles. Or is Zuko who trembles?
Hakoda wonders, not for the first time, who, in the name of Tui and La, is this child?
This is my first work in English. I'm not very good at it right now, so please, review and tell me where and how I messed up; a constructive criticism is always welcome.
This is the first fic I wrote in a long time and I'm very pleased with it. The title is lame, but titles and I don't get along. Maybe I write some more of this; this can be a group of one shots that will tell the story.
This work is now edited, thanks to those who leave comments, specially to the great soul who offered to beta this, this is now a better work thanks to you.