Disclaimer: I do not own Avatar the Last Airbender.
Katara's knife swished back and forth against the fish in her hand, scales flying everywhere. Once she had thoroughly removed each scale she drew a neat cut along its body and began to pull out and separate its guts from the more valuable parts. She was working at this task with most of the women from her village, as many hands made light work. Despite the many hands, there was much work, and Katara only paused from her task to notice some kind of bird flying towards them.
There was much fussing and shooing towards the large bird as it descended toward the group of Water Tribe women. Some tried to protect their store of fish as others threw snowballs and shouted at it, but the bird was persistent. It was an unfamiliar bird, but scavenging birds were very familiar to the women who had become protective of their food sources. They had been gutting the tribe's most recent load of fish when the hawk flew in. There were scales and guts everywhere, and the smell could likely be noticed from a great distance, so it was a logical conclusion that the hawk must have come to steal from them.
It was her GranGran Kanna who noticed the message tied to the hawk's foot, and calmed everyone down after pointing it out. None of them had ever received a message by way of hawk, but they were aware of this particular delivery system so the group settled down and allowed the hawk to land. The messenger hawk then presented the scroll tied to its foot to Katara, who picked it up curiously.
Everyone gathered around her as Katara began to read. She was pleasantly surprised to discover it was from Sokka. As there was very little privacy in the village, and no secrets, it was demanded that Katara read out loud.
"Dear Katara and GranGran, and also Bato and everyone else who I know will end up reading this,
I would like to introduce to you, my new messenger hawk. His name is Hawky and we are very good friends, so please treat him well. Now I can send letters more often, instead of waiting for ships to travel to the South Pole. Isn't that awesome?
Greetings from the Fire Nation. I hope everyone is doing well, I am doing well, and though I don't mean to brag, I am doing excellent in school. In fact, I will be graduating soon with the highest marks in my class, and the highest test scores."
Katara paused here and rolled her eyes a little. There was much discussion as to how Sokka's ego could have grown even bigger than it was before he left. GranGran smiled knowingly but hushed everyone to allow Katara to continue.
"Unfortunately, high marks and test scores are not enough to fund a higher education. I know I mentioned in my last letter that I would be attending Fire Nation University. It seems that is no longer likely as I will not be receiving a scholarship. Apparently scholarships are Fire Nation funds designated to further the education of Fire Nation citizens. This means I do not qualify, and unless I raise the tuition on my own, I will be coming home soon. This is not such a bad thing, because I miss you all very much, and I especially miss sea prune stew. Although, Fire Nation cuisine has many other tasty choices. . .
Here Sokka went on at length about the foods he had eaten recently, mostly meat. He ended by wishing everyone well, and left instructions on how to send a response via 'Hawky'.
When she had finished reading the women immediately began discussing Sokka's news, most coming to the conclusion that it was for the best that Sokka's mind no longer be clouded with 'strange Fire Nation ideas'. He ought be to back at the South Pole where he belonged, hunting tiger seals for the village and carving a nice betrothal necklace for one of their own young women.
Katara slowly began to let her own thoughts drown out their voices. None of them really understood what Sokka was losing. He had kept the tone of his letter casual, uncaring, positive even. But she could read between the lines, he was disappointed, and feeling rejected. She missed her brother terribly and wanted him to come home. But deep inside she knew there wasn't anything for him in the South Pole, not after seeing so much of the Fire Nation. There was a bigger world out there that he planned on experiencing. She could not have imagined the amount of money Sokka was talking about. Even the colonials in the South Pole still used bartering for most of their transactions. But she knew that there must be some way find the money, or perhaps find another scholarship. She was unwilling to let her brother give up so easily.
Zuko picked irritably at his reheated rice and dry seaweed. His day was steadily growing worse. Their housekeeper was continuously ill and Iroh did not have the heart to demand work from her but seemed too busy playing pai-sho to find a replacement. In the meantime Zuko was forced to work in a messy office on a half-empty stomach. To make matters worse, his whale-hunting investments had yet to produce any return, despite the weeks he had spent demanding results and intimidating his employees.
He turned back to the Fire Nation newspaper in front of him. It was several weeks old, as he had it imported from home and the actual news stories had been reported to him long ago. He found himself looking at the comedic drawings instead, a section that had never much interested him before. The last one took place in the South Pole, and featured a Fire Nation soldier and a Water Tribe woman. The woman was drawn with grossly exaggerated features and seemed to be amazed that the soldier had been able to light a fire for her.
Apparently the natives sat around in the cold and dark eating raw fish before the Fire Nation showed up. In the next picture she was shown begging the soldier to allow her to show her gratitude. This consisted of bending over while the soldier took her from behind. Zuko found himself a bit disgusted with the crass drawings and absurdness of the whole thing and put down the paper hastily.
However, as he attempted to return to reading various requests sent by colonials and natives alike, he couldn't help his mind from drifting to that final image. He hadn't spent time with a woman since leaving home and couldn't really help the ideas that came to mind after seeing the cartoon. Blue eyes and a face half hidden by a fur hood continued to resurface in his head, as the memories had for days now. He knew of course that the cartoon was ridiculous and that Katara would never behave in the way suggested by the paper. In fact, he had lit a stove for her, and she had only seemed mildly impressed. But that logic wouldn't stop from replaying the memory in his head and changing the ending to match that of the cartoon.
He hadn't seen or heard from Katara since the night he refused her arguments against his plans. He knew she still often came to the compound as her reputation as a healer had only grown since her visits to his own house. Perhaps he could offer her some type of official position.
His thoughts were interrupted by some commotion outside the window, followed by a messenger pleading for entrance into his office. Zuko granted him permission, glad for an interruption from the direction his thoughts were taking him. He quickly hid the paper in his desk, embarrassed to be looking at what was practically porn, and tried to calm the rest of his self before the messenger noticed.
"Prince Zuko, some of the whale hunting party have returned."
"What do you mean by some?"
"They finally managed to slaughter a great mammoth whale! But there was much difficulty. Many are injured, and more We need healers, and a rescue party and-" Zuko had already stood and was quickly dispatching various orders to the people around his house. He had the messenger lead him to the site, his adrenaline and military training already kicking in.
They arrived to find rowboats pouring in, several filled with freshly extracted whale blubber and meat. Others however carried only badly wounded soldiers. After some discussion with the sailors, he quickly understood that the stranded ship was not a result of the whale hunt. Rather, it had become damaged by an iceberg on their way back and trapped as more ice formed around it when the temperature dropped that night. The captain had rushed their return since several men had been hurt trying to harpoon an enormous angry whale, and they had all been eager to show off how much meat and fat they had collected. The result was even more injured men, and a stuck ship.
He looked through his telescope at the whaling vessel, stuck so close to home, and yet unable to return. He mentally cursed at the thought of losing that ship. It had been built specifically for this expedition, complete with the equipment necessary for processing its catch. It was the cry of a man with a crushed arm and a twisted leg being carried up the dock that brought him back to the immediate crisis. One look at the Fire Nation doctor's bewildered expression told him they would be needing more than one healer.
"You there!" A worn looking soldier trudging up the dock turned to face him and sloppily attempted bow when he recognized Zuko. "Run to the village and fetch Katara the healer. Take a rhino, and make no delays" The soldier was practically tripped over himself trying to take off running while still remembering to bow upon dismissal. Zuko rolled his eyes and returned to barking more orders and organizing to have the remaining sailors rescued.
He became continually distracted as the the barrels of whale blubber began to pile up and he wondered how much equipment could still be salvaged. He knew though, that recovering his sailors from the sinking ship would have to take priority.
It was late when Zuko finally wandered into the makeshift infirmary for an update on casualties. He had overseen the rescue mission himself, and was exhausted from fire bending his way through a rapidly forming glacier in order to navigate their smaller boats through the accident site. By the end of the night they had accounted for all of the men, though several were deceased by now, and many more injured.
For a moment he felt surprised to see Katara kneeling over a sickbed, before remembering that he had personally demanded her presence. The man was asleep and looked remarkably well considering Zuko was sure that he had been bleeding to death only a few hours ago. He shook his head quickly and reassured himself that it must have been a different man. No one could heal that quickly, no matter how skilled and knowledgeable the healer.
She looked up from the patient when Zuko's shadow fell over her. "I think he's going to be just fine in a few days" she said smiling. Zuko could hear the weariness in her voice despite her smile. He wondered if she had been working as incessantly as him. He wondered if he should try to make amends after their last conversation but decided against it. She didn't seem interested in arguing at the moment, and neither was he.
"Have you eaten?" He said it with the intention of offering her dinner before remembering that once again his only servant was ill and Katara would likely end up cooking for them again if he invited her over.
"Some women from the village came by with food, for all of us." She gestured to a few empty dishes surrounding the beds. Zuko vaguely remembered a few tribesmen involved in their rescue missions and remembered he may have to repay these people in some way. "What about you?"
For some reason Zuko considered lying to her despite his aching belly, perhaps because he was loathe to accept any more charity that day. Unfortunately, his stomach chose that moment to grumble rather rudely. Katara smiled again and handed him some leftovers from another patient. Zuko peered inside the bowl and could see why so much had been left. It was the odd looking stew from his first night in the South Pole. But now it had cooled off and congealed a bit.
"Sea Prunes are better hot" Katara said, noticing his hesitation. Zuko heated the stew with his hand and quickly gulped down the contents, too hungry and tired to complain.
"So" he started, suddenly feeling bit nervous to find her staring at him with an amused expression. "You must be tired, and it's pretty late. The governor's mansion has spare rooms if you want."
"Actually, I was thinking about spending the night here. In case I'm needed during the night. Not everyone here is stable, and many are still in pain." Zuko looked around and realized she was right. Although most people were sleeping there were still a few whimpers heard, tossing and turning, and one man who was unmoving but staring straight ahead with a vacant look in his eyes as though still in shock. Nevertheless, the room still seemed rather cozy, with piles over blankets and furs strewn about and a fire burning in the crowded room.
Zuko nodded in agreement. "This was a storage shed just a few hours ago you know." he replied thoughtfully. So much had happened so quickly.
"I think it still is" Katara gestured to where the barrels of blubber had been stacked along the wall. Zuko looked at them sadly.
"This is my fault" he said softly. "And it was all for nothing. We lost most of the equipment on the sinking ship. I don't know how to process the oil without it."
There was silence for a moment and then Katara turned back to him. "It wasn't all for nothing." Zuko stared at her uncertainly. "You don't need all that Fire Nation machinery. My people will extract the oil. We have the tools, and have done so for centuries."
"But" here Zuko hesitated, unwilling to hope too much for such a simple solution. "You were so against me producing oil for commercial purposes before."
"We take the resources we need to live, oil included. Your people, the Fire Nation, will take everything and more, which is why we don't want you hunting here. But today, what is done is done. And in the South Pole we do not waste anything. You will have your oil from the whale you slaughtered."
Zuko was speechless for a moment. He had expected more trouble from this girl, not aid. "You're sure?"
"No one in my village wants to witness a great whale hunted, men killed, and then perfectly useful supplies thrown back to the sea. We will do this for you. And in return," Zuko waited for her to make her demands, was prepared for whatever unreasonable request she would mention.
"In return, you will do something for me, for our whole village. More specifically, you will do something for my brother."
Zuko wondered what sort of favor she would ask for, but Katara seemed to think the discussion was over as she began to lay out her own sleeping bag on the floor. Zuko looked around the room to find and began to collect various blankets and pillows to make up a bed of his own. Wordlessly he began to set up his bed near her on the floor, deciding that it wouldn't be right to leave her alone by herself all night with so many strange men, even if they were gravely injured. Katara made no comment as she snuggled deeper into her sleeping bag, and a feeling of exhausted contentment overcame both of them.
First of all, I apologize to my readers for such a long time in writing this. I suppose creating an AU for my first story was a bit ambitious, but now I must continue.
Secondly, I really need a Beta reader. I went over some older chapters and realize I need an editor, and someone to bounce ideas off of. Any volunteers?
And now, responses to comments from Chapter 5:
Blue Lion: Very wise saying, where is it from?
Kimberly T: In the show Zuko became very stubbornly fixated on what he thought should be his life's mission. I plan on keeping the important character traits, so yes, he will be stuck on one goal throughout this story.
ArrayePL: I meant to update soon, really.
Chickenita: Please keeping reading, your reviews help me write.
Echochic: I don't think whales can really be farmed. Not that I've heard of anyways. Zutara lovin will be complex and frustrating. . . I hope this chapter gave you a good idea of where that stands at this point.
Thanks to everyone who reviewed!