A/N: Hey, all! I know I have enough things to update, but this story has been swirling around in my mind for a while now. It's an AU, obviously, but not quite as AU-ish as my other chaptered fics ;D The basic premise is that Katara, determined to avenge her parents' deaths, passes herself off as the bastard child of a certain Fire Nation noble, so as to hunt down the man who killed her father and mother.
Yes, there will be Zutara, but I will say, without giving too much away, that Katara's going to develop feelings before Zuko does.
With that said, please leave me a review saying what you think! I worked very hard on this chapter, and I'm curious to hear your thoughts. Also, pointing out errors I misses is beyond appreciated. But enough from me; on with the show!
I'm waking up to ash and dust
I wipe my brow and I sweat my rust
I'm breathing in the chemicals
Every morning, Katara's brother sits her down before the fire pit and works a whale-bone comb through her tangled spray of hair.
"You aren't mom," she always says, even as she gives in to the gentle pressure of Sokka's hand on her shoulder.
"Neither are you," he always reminds her, unfurling her hair from its frizzy braid and setting to work. She needs that reminder, he thinks. Too often, his younger sister takes the burden of premature motherhood on her shoulders. She's fifteen; she has only bled for a year and a half now.
Sokka wishes he weren't privy to that particular detail, but closed-knit families of two can't quite avoid the more gruesome details of each other's lives.
Usually, they're quiet while Sokka attends to the tangles in her hair. If they do speak, they speak of trifles.
But not today.
"You don't look enough like them, Katara." Her brother's voice is a harsh and sudden in contrast to the gentle tug of the comb. "They won't believe that you carry their blood in your veins."
Katara moves her hands up to her face, cold-chapped fingers sliding over the bridge of her nose, her broad cheekbones. Clumpy lashes tickle her palms.
"My nose is almost narrow, like theirs," she says hopefully. "And I think my skin is a little lighter than yours." She does a better job of convincing herself than convincing her brother.
"You're fooling yourself, Kat." Sokka sets the comb aside and begins to twist Katara's hair into a practical plait.
"No!" She barks the word. She swivels around, hands clenched up on her thighs. "Put my hair up like theirs. I want to practice."
"Katara…" He says her name between his teeth, like he's holding back something caustic.
Oh, that isn't fair. It isn't fair of her to look at him with vulnerable eyes the color of the ocean under ice, and frown like he stepped on her toe or kicked her puppy.
It isn't fair, when she's all he has, and to deny her anything feels like the most selfish thing he could possibly do.
"Fine," he says, shoulders rounding, mouth drooping. He presses his hands onto her shoulders and turns her back around, picking through her hair. "Don't expect any miracles," he grumbles. He's studied the enemy, to the point where he can recite how many buckles they wear in their armor, how thickly plated their ships are. One thing he has not studied so closely is their hair fashions.
"Thank you," she says quietly, voice strained.
He grunts at her and continues to part her hair.
"You need to give up on this, Katara. Even if you could pass as half Fire Nation, there's no way in Yue's name that I would let you go on such a suicide mission."
"I never asked for your input," she clips. "Gran-Gran would have let me go, you know."
"That's a load of penguin shit and you know it." He grows less gentle as his ire and worry mount. "Gran-Gran would have tied you to the igloo if it kept you from doing something so stupid."
"Revenge isn't stupid." Her voice shakes.
Sokka glares at the back of her head and bunches a section of her hair into a topknot. "You think I don't want revenge, Katara?"
"If you do, you could have fooled me." Her tone is rebellious. Her spine is stiffer than a sheet of ice.
If she weren't a girl, and his sister on top of that, Sokka would bash her head against the igloo's wall until she came to what little was left of her senses.
"They were my parents, too." He's smoothing out the loose parts of her hair, neatening the topknot. "I loved them, too. Don't act as if you're the only one who suffers from it."
"I don't!" She smacks her palms against her legs and twists in place again. The tip of her nose is trembling. Her eyes are dull with an immortal grief. "I don't act like that! I'm doing this for you, too. For Gran-Gran, even though she's dead now. For our village."
"Killing that man won't change anything. It won't bring anyone back." He tries to reason with her. He knows he'll fail.
"One life for several." She's ignoring him, of course she is. "Sounds like a fair enough trade, I think."
"You don't have it in you to kill anyone." Except, maybe she does.
Her eyes snap. She looks strange, older, with her hair styled like that. It's a clumsy imitation of how a true Fire Nation citizen would wear their hair, but it makes enough of a difference to be eerie.
"Not just anyone—the one. The one who killed my parents in front of me." Her voice cracks like ice giving into a heavy weight.
"Katara…" His chest twinges. He wants to reach out to her, cradle her close like he did when they were little more than babies.
He knows, in the way only a sibling or close friend can, that she won't let him.
"You won't stop me. You can't watch me all the time." She pushes to her feet, stumbles over to a pitted chest stuffed with odds and ends. She sorts through scraps of fabric, bags of dried herbs, bottles of old, imported perfumes.
Her nostrils flare. Spirits, but this chest reeks. She curls her fingers around a scratched mirror that looks as if someone has dribbled dying embers across its surface.
Katara scrunches her nose, pulls her brows together. Her lips turn down in an attempt to look haughty and cruel.
The hairstyle helps. She doesn't see the clumsy execution of it. All she sees is a tumble of coarse hair, and a narrow topknot that declares Fire Nation.
She could say that she's mostly taken after her mother. And that is the truth.
She's grown up hearing people say, in voices that range from mournful to resentful to indifferent, that she has her mother's eyes.
I can do this, she tells her wavering reflection. I can.
And if she can't, well, there's no point in anything anymore, now is there?
Iced wind slinks in through the gaps in their igloo. Her eyes drift around, and she wonders how long she'll be away from this place. But she hasn't really thought past the actual act of stopping that man's heart in his chest.
Best not to, in any case.
"How will you even get away? We only have one proper boat, which can't be manned on its own, and I can't see you paddling to the Fire Nation on a raft." Sokka's voice is pragmatic, but his eyes are fearful.
"I'll find a way. I always find a way."
That much, Sokka reflects darkly, is true.
The dirt floor shudders beneath them. The igloo shakes so violently that, for a very brief, adrenaline-fueled moment, Sokka fears that some colossus has picked it up and shaken it in stony hands.
Katara scrambles forward on her knees and latches onto Sokka with desperate hands, not sure if she means to protect him, or if she is reaching out to be protected.
"What the seven hells—" Sokka bellows over the grating noise, pressing his sister's face into his shoulder.
Pressing her to the side, Sokka leaps up, grabs his boomerang, and pushes out of the igloo, leaving a sputtering Katara behind.
Now that the initial panic is over, he recognizes that sound. Just as he recognizes the gray blobs of ash that are sprinkling down along with the morning's snowfall.
His mouth is a grim slash, and his eyes have gone dull.
Not again. Don't these people ever get enough?
A huge hull has sliced through a significant portion of ice, sending up clouds of dull steam. Sokka braces his feet, fingers scraping the boomerang in his hand, and keeps a neutral expression. This isn't the first of the Fire Nation's little "expeditions". But he hasn't heard any rumors.
Katara scampers up beside him, her hair still caught up in that ridiculous topknot. She slips her fingers into his free hand and shoots him an odd look.
"Go back to the igloo, Katara," Sokka says from the corner of his mouth.
Other villagers have gathered round. Most of them are too young or too old. The strong ones are being employed in this lost cause of a war.
Sweat beads on Sokka's forehead in spite of the slamming cold.
"Not a chance," she whispers. "For all we know, he could be in that ship."
"As if you'd even recognize him."
"I'd know, Sokka, I would."
Any other protests fall silent on his numbed lips when the gangplank creaks open and lands on the cushion of snow, expelling even more steam as it does so. It's an ugly, dull black in contrast to this never-ending world of blue and white.
Katara scoots closer, pressing her nose into Sokka's shoulder, watching the proceedings with wary eyes.
Sokka's eyebrows do a slow climb when he sees who—or rather, what—strides down the gangplank. A—a teenager. His age, maybe a little older. A teenager decked in pointy, dull red Fire Nation armor, a helmet obscuring a decent portion of his face.
A teenager with squinting eyes and great, disfiguring scar.
Sokka's stomach does a slow roil and plummet.
Information travels even to isolated hunks of nothing like the South Pole. Burn scars must be a common enough occurrence in the Fire Nation—but only one scarred person is important enough to be talked about.
Crown Prince Zuko.
Sokka feels like he's going to vomit on the snow. Maybe he will. He braces his legs farther apart and does his best to obscure Katara with his body.
A double line of soldiers follow the scarred teenager, their steps so synchronized that they might as well be different pieces of one great hive mind. Their faces are completely obscured by their helmets, making the teenager stand out all the more.
Yes, yes, Sokka is going to be sick.
"Get back to your business," the scarred boy barks, his voice a harsh scrape on the still air. "This is nothing more than a routine inspection. The better you cooperate, the sooner I can leave." The last sentence is spoken in a resentful mutter.
"Or you could just leave now," a brave voice pipes up from the knot of villagers.
The scarred boy—please, please, please, for the love of all that is good, don't let it be Prince Zuko—snaps his head in the direction of the voice, upper lip curling on a snarl. The feral expression only serves to make him look all the more ugly.
"Care to repeat that, colonial? Or better yet, step away from your peers and face up to your insolence like a man?"
"We aren't your colonials!" Sokka throws out, in spite of his reluctance to draw the scarred boy's attention to himself (and therefore his sister).
"Certainly, you're rebellious, troublesome colonials, but colonials all the same." The intruder's voice goes as smooth and cold as the ice at their feet. He presses one foot in front of the other in a slow step forward. His hands are fisted behind his back. "The sooner you realize this, the sooner you can stop wasting your men's lives in a pointless cause."
The skin around Sokka's eyes twitch. "The sooner your people realize what you're doing is wrong, the sooner we can get back to our lives."
"Thrilling lives they must be, too." Scarred Boy casts a dismissive glance around the landscape (or lack, thereof), nose crinkling when he spots the clutch of igloos and huts. "You're living in the lap of luxury, I see."
"Fuck off," Sokka bites out.
Scarred Boy snorts, even as a muscle in his forehead ticks. "And so witty. Your parents must be proud."
From beyond Sokka's shoulder, Katara hisses.
No, no no no, don't get his attention, no—
"What do we have here?" the scarred, pale boy drawls, pacing around Sokka and eyeing Katara up and down. "Is this your girlfriend?"
"She's my sister, asshole!" He immediately wants to grab the words from thin air and stuff them back down his throat. Letting the enemy know who's important to him. Not a good move.
"Hmm. I see. There's certainly a family resemblance, though I must say that all Water peasants look much the same to me."
"And all Fire Nation bastards look the same to me." It's a weak retort. Doesn't matter. All that matters is diverting the guy's attention away from Katara.
"Interesting hairstyle choice." His men are swarming around the village, ducking into huts, patting down dazed looking residents. But he's utterly focused on the teenagers before him. "I didn't know styles from my homeland were in fashion in this…isolated corner of the planet."
Katara and Sokka are both mute.
"What my sister does with her hair is none of your damned business." Sokka presses Katara tighter to his side.
"Simple observation, peasant. No need to work yourself up over it."
"Nephew. This is a routine check. Just what do you think you are doing, breaking protocol and harassing the locals?"
"This entire thing is a form of harassment," Sokka mutters.
A short, stumpy man is shuffling into view, his grizzled topknot bristling, his wide face crumpled with dismay. As if he somehow expected better from the scarred boy.
"Zuko, did you hear me? Leave the young man and woman alone."
Ah, so he is Prince Zuko. Sokka figured as much.
"I've done nothing wrong." Is that…a pout of all things in Prince Zuko's voice? Sokka openly rolls his eyes.
"I am so sorry for my nephew's behavior." The old man clamps his hand around the back of Zuko's helmet and forces the boy's head into a shallow bow. "He is grumpy after being away from home for so many weeks."
"Grumpy, huh?" This guy is…almost normal, and damn near affable, for a Fire Nation citizen. "I would have bet my money on 'constipated'."
The old man places square hands on his substantial stomach and rumbles out a laugh. "That is also a distinct possibility, young man."
"Uncle Iroh, please," Prince Zuko grits, pulling a face. He tosses his head to the side and shouts at his men, "That's enough for today. Move out."
"Iroh…?" Katara perks up, taking a trembling step forward. "Your name is Iroh?"
"General Iroh to you, little girl," Prince Zuko bites out, leveling a glare at Katara. "Have more respect for your betters."
"Have some respect for ladies," Iroh chides, casting Katara a smile that's almost kind. "Yes, dear, that is my name. And you are?" The question is innocuous, polite, nothing more.
Katara trembles all over, clasping her hands at her throat. She swallows tightly, steps forward again. Sokka wants to tug her back. But his limbs feel as if they've been filled with the steel that coats the invading ship.
"I…doubt you'll remember me. It's been—well, I don't think you ever met me at all, actually." Katara fumbles forward, reaches out to squeeze the old man's hands in hers. Her next words tumble from her mouth like stones into a still body of water. "I'm Katara, sir. I'm your daughter."