Welcome! This is a collection of Zutara short stories that interconnect, but do not follow a set plot. This chapter takes place five years after the war ended and is the earliest installment. I hope you enjoy it!
Disclaimer: This is a work of fan-fiction and therefore the author claims no rights to the original content.
It was the dead of winter when the steel ship pulled into the small bay. This time of year, the small port was smaller than any other time of the year, and it was no time at all before the ice began to freeze around the vessel, trapping it in its place. A storm was raging, cold and bitter, and the sky appeared stark white and blended with the expansive tundra all around. Were it not for the dark waters sloshing against the ice, it would seem that the ship arrived at a place that was nothing.
The entire village had stopped their work when the quick-footed sentry had announced the arrival of the Fire Nation ship. Since the end of the war, every ship had arrived with a proper period of advanced notice. They knew ahead of time when any supply shipment would be expected, and were prepared to receive the crews accordingly. And as often as they traded with the Fire Nation in the warm seasons, never had a ship ventured this far south in winter. It was too dangerous.
Ever since Sokka had left for Kyoshi Island to be with Suki, Katara had been made the diplomatic representative for the Southern Water Tribe. It was her duty to greet every visitor and cargo ship at the bay, and to see that their needs would be accommodated during their stay. She was the liaison and oversaw any legal disputes with the other colonies and nations, and ten months of the year, she found herself traveling about the world to make sure her people were established and gained respect.
But this was her vacation.
They were deep into the winter season and this was HER time. The time she devoted to her people, to caring for her home, for helping the village prosper.
It was her time to relax, damn it.
Harrah, the sentry, had found her in the medical hut. Her hands were holding a warm cloth to her Gran-Gran's wrinkled forehead, and it took all her restraint to keep the cloth in her hand (and not throw it at his face) when Harrah had shouted unnecessarily loudly at her the news about the ship that was coming on the horizon.
Katara stood wringing her hands as she squinted to see through the thick snowfall blowing around her. Her entire body was tense as soon as the ramp was lowered. A handful of men stomped down onto the ice, carrying an assortment of crates.
Katara's boots would have crunched loudly through the snow if it weren't for the howling wind that masked all else. She walked up to the group of men and when they noticed her there, the soldiers halted, fumbling as they set down their supplies to respectfully bow to her, as Fire Nation formalities demanded. She returned the gesture, dismissing them to go about their business. They weren't there to provide her with information, but she set about looking for someone who could.
He strolled down the ramp casually, rubbing his hands together as his breath blew onto the gloved digits. Katara sighed and walked forward to meet him, stopping several feet in front of him. His strides slowed.
Zuko gave a small, unsure smile as he looked down at her face, flushed by the wind chill. She quirked her lips the slightest degree in return, and when he bowed to her, she merely crossed her arms and willed herself to not look as aggravated as she knew her face was portraying.
"Katara," he said at last in greeting. His voice had deepened since she last saw him. If he was upset by her rather cold reaction to seeing him, he didn't show it.
Katara exhaled loudly, her chest deflating as though the breath had held a physical value that she'd been aching to expel. "It's not that I'm not happy to see you, but why are you here?"
This time his face did falter. His eyebrow quirked in an aristocratic show of disbelief and his lips were pulled into a slight frown. "We haven't seen each other in five years and that's the first thing you say to me?"
Her voice caught in her throat. "I—I don't...it's the middle of winter, Zuko. You know it's far too dangerous to sail here during the dark months. Your ship has already frozen solid in our harbour and not only that, but you didn't even warn us you were coming!"
The wind was loud in their ears and the fur on their hoods whipped wildly in their faces.
Zuko's good eye narrowed. "Warn you?"
As though it were an invasion.
In an afterthought, her choice of word had a negative connotation that she hadn't intended in the least. She shook her head almost imperceptibly. "We aren't prepared to take in a crew right now. A third of our village is ill and there's nowhere for your men to stay nor do we have enough food to go around."
The Fire Lord's face softened and he appeared slightly embarrassed. "I didn't take that into consideration. I'm very sorry for the inconvenience. I would say we'd take our leave, but as it is..." Zuko looked pointedly back at the cargo ship, trapped in its place by a rapidly thickening layer of ice.
The waterbender nodded, the same thoughts having crossed her mind since she spied the boat. "We'll come up with a solution. Your crew is small, so I'm sure we can provide temporary housing until we can come up with a better arrangement."
Zuko thanked Katara and she frowned when she noticed that the man was shivering. "For showing up unannounced, you could have at least dressed appropriately for the season. You're wearing summer attire."
He chuckled briskly and raised his hands to his mouth, blowing a stream of steam into his palms. "Here I thought I was going to appear overdressed." He looked over her thick coat and pants that completely enveloped her small frame, making her out to be more than twice as large as she was. "I'll be sure to dress accordingly next time. Maybe I'll wear all my coats at once."
She grinned. "I'm not sure that would be enough for you, firebender. Let's get you to the village before your limbs fall off."
Not needing to be told twice, immediately Zuko barked orders at the men. Mere moments later, Katara was leading the small troupe through the sheeting snow, the promise of a warm fire at their destination keeping their legs moving.
Their welcome was quick and half-hearted as the men reached the quaint ice village. Normally, the tribe would have prepared a feast in honour of the arrival, but with no time to prepare and so many of the villagers indisposed by illness, only a dozen were there to greet the travelers. Katara's legs sighed in relief when they finally arrived, but she pushed forth and verbalized her request for any able family to provide shelter to a member of the Fire Lord's crew. Once the matter was settled, Katara set off without a word to her old friend, knowing he would follow behind her regardless.
Zuko ducked into the large round igloo that Katara had disappeared into, pushing away the heavy sealskin curtain that served as a door. Instantly, he was met with a comfortable warmth and he shed his heavy outer coat, rolling it into a bundle in his arms. He'd visited this village in the South Pole twice before (excusing the raid when he'd first discovered the Avatar's existence) but he'd only been inside this particular hut once. At the time, he was delirious and fever-ridden and he had no memories of that part of his visit, so he looked about with curiosity, wondering at the layout of the large room.
It was a sick bay and cots lined the walls in a semicircle, blankets and furs spread around the icy interior. There were fourteen cots total, and Zuko noted that only four of them were void of an occupant. The rest held natives, ranging from a child that looked no older than five, to a withered man who looked old enough that he may have been an adult when the hundred year war began (he knew that wasn't the case, but it was brutally obvious that the man was advanced in age and he hadn't aged gracefully).
Katara knelt beside a bed to the end of the row over an older woman that he immediately recognized to be her Grandmother. She had shed her heavy parka and was wearing simple leggings with a long-sleeved tunic, obviously more than accustomed to the temperature. Her hair was longer than he'd ever remembered it and it fell in a single messy braid past her hips. Her mother's necklace clung to her throat, a grave yet fond reminder of the past. He'd never seen her face more drawn, more concerned, than she looked then.
Katara's Gran-Gran did not look well.
Zuko strode over to her side and knelt down at her side, watching as the young woman bent the water from the cloth she held and drew clean water from a steaming cauldron in the center of the room.
Her distracted (and somewhat abrasive) behavior made sense to him now.
"What's wrong with her?" If it weren't Katara, he might worry that one would take his tone of voice to be offensive. But she knew him well and knew that he meant nothing and simply asked the purest way he knew.
"She's been ill for two weeks. Her fever spiked the night before last and hasn't come down since. I thought at first it was colonial fever like all the others." Katara moved her grandmother's hand, holding it for the fire lord's inspection. "Then I saw this and assumed it was frostbite." They were blue. She set the woman's hand back gently onto the blankets. "But when I was changing her blankets out, I saw a bite on her leg. An ice crab bit her and she..."
Katara went silent and Zuko watched as she swallowed hard, as though she was forcing back a lump of something vile.
Her hands shook.
"If she'd told me sooner, we could have made anti-venom. It's common enough in the winter that we have the ingredients on hand. But she was so stubborn. She wouldn't tell anyone, not even Pakku. She scolded me when I found out, and she wouldn't talk to me for days. She's only in here because Pakku carried her in after she nearly fell into the fire in a fainting spell."
Zuko felt his heart go out to the young woman and sat awkwardly at her side. "Is there any way I can help?"
Katara sniffed and flicked away a tear that dared to sneak onto her cheek. She shook her head. "If we'd been able to get her the anti-venom immediately, she'd be fine by now. But ice crab venom is fatal. It's only a matter of time now."
"Does Sokka know?"
Again Katara shook her head. "I don't know how to tell him. Suki just gave birth to their second son and I'm sure he's stressed out enough about that. I just couldn't bear adding to it."
"He would want to know."
Katara knew that fact as well as he did, if not better. "I don't know how, Zuko." And he didn't have the heart to challenge her.
The water wasn't bringing down the fever in the least. Katara threw the cloth on the ground and sunk into her hands, breathing deeply as Zuko's meditation lessons had taught her to do. It was pointless. As hard as she tried, it was useless. Her Gran's fate was sealed and she was simply torturing herself with false hope.
Katara's face remained buried in her hands. "Why are you here, Zuko?"
Zuko's face reddened and he reached down to pluck at the dark brown fur lining of his boot. "Can't one friend simply visit another?"
She peeked at him through her fingers and he was nearly taken aback. He hadn't remembered her eyes being this blue.
"It's been five years since we last saw each other. There's a reason you chose now."
He sighed. "I'm running away."
That sparked a reaction from her. She sat up straight and gave him the most perplexed look he'd ever seen grace her face. "You're the Fire Lord. You're twenty-three years old. Why in the name of La are you running away? What could you be running away from?"
The flush in his cheeks deepened. Katara thought that his face got any redder, he'd match his crimson tunic. "Katara. I'm twenty-three. I'm the Fire Lord. And I'm single. I have an entire council of advisors who are very persistently trying to remedy that fact."
She didn't speak for a moment, but her expression grew more and more skeptical. "You're running away because they want you to get married."
"You're running away because your advisors are throwing attractive, single noblewomen at your feet and asking you to take your pick."
He grimaced. "Yes."
She balked at him, her eyes wide, her mouth twisted in bewilderment. "Zuko, are you mad? Have you gone insane? They're dangling desirable women in your face and you run away?"
His voice came out weak and mumbled. "No one ever said they were desirable."
He threw his hands up in a defensive gesture. "They're noblewomen, Katara! Do you know what they're like?"
"I have met Mai and Azula." Her eyebrows stitched together. "Though I suppose if they're any example then you're right to run away."
Zuko would have laughed if they weren't talking about his betrothal. "Those two are different. Fire Nation noblewomen are dull." (Like Mai, Katara thought but did not say). "They're prim and proper and you can't even have a real conversation with them. They fashion their entire personalities around pleasing you and making sure they say what will make you happy."
She rolled her eyes and stood, swiping her parka from the ground. "Oh you poor baby," she mocked. She stomped out of the igloo and Zuko followed behind her, his own coat in his arms.
The firebender caught up to her outside of the medical building. She walked fast through the snow with her head down and he stumbled a bit in his boots.
He put a hand on her shoulder, but she kept walking, him close on her heels. "I can't live with that, Katara. I can't wake up every day and share my life with a woman whose only concern is appeasing me. Whose only ambition is being the perfect wife and the perfect mother to my perfect children. I want a real relationship when I marry. I want to marry my wife because I love her. I don't want a marriage to a noblewoman who serves as a mindless trophy or some sort of prize pet."
"Isn't that how nobility works?"
He didn't understand why she was prodding him about the subject so. He shrugged. "Maybe so. But we're starting an era of change. Why can't I change this?"
Katara wanted to say so much to him, but instead she countered with, "So you ran away to the South Pole?"
Zuko shrugged again. "I wanted to visit you. Like you said, it's been five years."
Katara shook her head and shoved open the door to a large (in comparison to the tents and igloos scattered about the ice) wooden house, styled largely similar to those in the earth kingdom. He stepped in after her and looked around at the unique structure.
Katara didn't even turn to him as she explained, "This is the first home we've built here—Sokka designed it and built it almost entirely himself. There are plans to build more to accommodate the entire tribe, but he's been so busy the last couple of years that he hasn't had time to send the plans."
Zuko shut the door behind him and followed her into a room that held a large stone hearth and various animal skin rugs on the ground.
"It's a nice house," he commented quietly when Katara knelt down to stoke the fire. He would have lit it himself, but she took comfort in maintaining the flame to her comfort and he let it alone.
"You can stay in Sokka's room while you're here. Come on, I'll show you."
Gran-Gran passed away two days later.
Pakku held her in his arms as she lay in the medical hut. Her eyes were hooded but she tilted her head back, gazing up at him as she nuzzled into his neck. She spoke softly to her husband, her voice strong and sure despite the fact that she lay on her death bed and her body was frail.
Katara sat with her arms drawn tight around her knees as she watched from the other side of the room and she rocked in time with her heavy-beating heart. Her throat burned with the pressure it took to hold back her onslaught of tears and when Gran-Gran stopped breathing (her glazed blue eyes staring up into Pakku's) she still held back the tears. She couldn't look away and she didn't try. Moments later, tears tumbled down her step-grandfather's cheeks freely (and though he was prideful, he let them fall and did not wipe them away) and that was what broke her resolve.
Zuko came in and he held her in his arms as she rocked back and forth on the cold floor in the medical hut. She sobbed into his neck and by the time they separated, her fingers were painfully trained in the position of clinging to his tunic.
The blizzard waned in the dead of that night. Katara and Zuko were sitting outside her home staring at the stars when it ended.
Two days later, Zuko asked Katara to return to the Fire Nation with him as the official ambassador to the Southern Water Tribe.
Another two days passed and Zuko and his crew relentlessly fired flames at the ice encasing the ship. They departed solemnly that evening.
They stopped at Kyoshi Island on their way to the Capitol City.
The ship pulled into port and Katara glared daggers at Zuko. She swore she could strangle him.
She had explicitly told him she wasn't ready to see her brother and tell him about the death of their Grandmother. She promised him that she would write him as soon as they docked in the Fire Nation. And he had conceded, agreeing that it would be the most pleasant way to break the news.
But pleasant wasn't good enough for the young Fire Lord, it seemed.
That evening as they sat around a table enjoying mulled rice wine with her brother and sister-in-law, Zuko had leaned in and whispered in her ear.
"I did it for you."
She knew he meant reuniting her with her brother, despite her fear given their painful news. She knew that he felt it was what she needed (to be surrounded by familial love). He knew her well.
She was right, but Zuko knew in his heart he meant something else as well.
He fled from betrothal for her.