Authors note: I am totally blown away by the responses I got to the last chapter. You guys are all great. Seriously. I wasn't even planning on updating this soon, but I really got inspired by all of your comments. Thank you all!
Remember this Zuko. No matter how things may seem to change, never forget who you are.
- Ursa, Zuko Alone
The next morning, the Water Tribe warriors held their funeral for Nunka.
Healer Kuthruk had spent the entire night swathing the body in blue bandaging; covering him over and over until he looked more like an outline of a man rather than the actual person Zuko had known. Then another blue tarp was placed over that, this one with the Southern Water Tribe insignia.
The services were held out on the deck. The air was crisp, clear, and almost achingly cold. It was everything Zuko could do not to fidget in place and stamp his feet to keep his blood warm. As it was, Kuthruk had to quell him down with a couple of hard stares before he settled and resigned himself to just staying cold.
As Chief, Hakoda presided over the whole affair and spoke in deep, stirring tones about their fallen comrade. How even as a boy, Nunka had always been eager to become a warrior. How he'd insisted on taking his ice-dodging rites a year early. His acts of bravery: The time he had saved a drowning girl by jumping into a frozen lake after her. He'd nearly drowned himself, and then got pneumonia for his efforts. And how, last night, it had been he to ring the alarm bells. The Fire Nation soldiers had killed him for his effort, but in doing so, he had saved them all.
Some of the men were crying silently, fat tears running down their tanned faces and into their beards. Zuko sniffed, remembering how Nunka had taught him to knot nets. How was he ever able to look at another net without thinking of him?
When all was said, Hakoda nodded to two of the men on his right: Nunka's brother and brother-in-law, respectively. The Chief wished Nunka a safe passage into the Spirit World, and then they tipped Nunka's body over the railing. He was so well bound up that he slipped right under the waves without so much as a bubble.
Zuko cast a hesitant look over the railing, but the water was so dark and so blue that he couldn't see below the surface. It felt to him a strange way to bury a person. He himself would rather be burned to ashes. At least that way, he could stay warm forever, and his remains could be placed in the Halls of Ancestors.
If this was a strange thought to have, he didn't know it. And of course, he couldn't share it with anyone.
The food had been mostly charred, and the water tainted, but the Fire Nation soldiers hadn't broken into the casts of wine. These were brought up at Hakoda's order, and soon all of the men were drinking and trading more and more outrageous stories about Nunka. They were stories too impolite to mention at the man's funeral, but what were good fodder for erasing tears during the wake.
For his part, Zuko stayed just apart from it all. He didn't like the taste of wine, although he did sip it out of thirst. He spent his time at the railing, watching the water slip past the bow of the ship. Off in the distance, he could see what almost looked like small white rocks bobbing in time with the waves. These were the beginning of what would later become a field of never-ending icebergs.
Tomorrow, they would be at the pole.
As the wine flowed, the men's talk slowly went from Nunka to the Fire Nation in general. Even with his back turned, Zuko could feel the burn of eyes upon his narrow shoulders.
"Nunka was one of a kind. They just snuffed him out, like he was nothing."
"They're savages. Got no respect for the beautiful… or the pure."
"You know they did to the Hai Bei forest? They were in the middle of a drought and the Fire Nation burned it, and everyone in it, alive…"
"I say we turn around and go right for the capital city. Do them like they did those poor Air Nomads."
"An eye for an eye. That's how the Water Tribe does things."
At this point, Zuko edged away, ducking out of sight.
It was a short walk to what was left of his room. The door was completely shattered and still lying in pieces, and the room now smelled like the slightly arid scent of burned wood and sour blood. Zuko wrinkled his nose against it, and quickly dug around, giving a silent sigh of relief when he saw that the small mirror he had been allotted was unbroken. It had been hidden under his futon mattress, because he didn't like to use it often, for obvious reasons.
Now he brought it up and made himself look at his own reflection — at the whole side of his face.
Yellow-gold eyes like the sun. Pale skin. A sharp nose, and black hair.
Last night, the Fire Nation soldier who attacked him had been scary — inhuman. He had reached out towards him, probably about to kill him for no other reason than just being there. And under all those layers of red metal and fire there was a person… a person who looked a lot like Zuko himself.
But they were cruel. He'd heard the men talk, not just tonight but on all the nights when there was too much wine to go around. The list of Fire Nation sins went on and on… they killed all the Air Nomads, they killed Nunka, and now Zuko's stomach growled from hunger because they had burned all the food.
I'm not like them, thought Zuko, and his reflection stared at him, set and determined. I'm not evil like them.
This wasn't an unusual thought for a child of his age to be having. Zuko still saw the world very much in terms of black and white; good and evil. What was unusual was the fact that always before, he had thought of the Fire Nation in ambiguous terms. He had heard of their horrible ways every day from the warriors, but had never personalized it. He never felt ashamed of being who he was… until now.
The sound of rough-voiced singing drifted down from the deck. Zuko gave a silent sigh, and tucked the mirror back into its hiding place. From the slightly off-key tones of their voices, the men were probably far into their wine by now. Normally, he counted on himself to be too small and out of the way to be much of a threat even when their ire at the Fire Nation peaked. No one had ever hit him, and the only times he'd been cuffed around the head or ears was when he was too slow to learn a task or when he got frustrated or tired and didn't want to do it.
But he knew with a solid certainty that going up on the deck when the men were drunk and grieving would be a very bad idea.
He couldn't stay here. There was only one other place on the ship he knew he would be safe.
It was all Chief Hakoda could do to stagger himself back up to his cabin at the end of that long, long night. Tomorrow, he knew, he would be cursing himself for letting his warriors drink themselves stupid. The mist collectors wouldn't be able to provide nearly enough water to cure an aching head, and there had been no food to sop up any of the alcohol.
He also knew, though, that a man sometimes just needed to grieve. His men were warriors, not women, and sometimes a man just needed a drink to come to terms with what was tearing him up inside.
Hakoda was thinking these things, and mentally excusing his own behavior now to get ready for the ache tomorrow, when he nearly tripped over a small bundle lying in the middle of his cabin. The Chief made an ungraceful leap to the side, and then blinked and grabbed the nearby oil lamp to get a closer look.
The boy, Zuko, was curled up on the floor-mat, asleep.
Hakoda realized, to his shame, that he had not given the boy one thought all night long. He should have kept his eye on him — or ordered Bato to do it. The child was under his protection, but men were angry and hurt at the Fire Nation, and full of wine…
But Zuko had found the one place on the ship where he would be safe.
Hakoda passed a hand over his face, feeling the bristle of a day's growth there. Spirits, he was tired. So, as quietly as a drunken man could, he walked over to his own cot and tugged off the top fur. This, he draped over the boy. Zuko stirred, but didn't wake up.
The young Chief paused only to tug off his own boots, and then lay down on his own cot; asleep instantly.
The next morning, Hakoda's orders were simple and direct: They would continue on their straight path down to the South Pole at top speed. The mist collectors had done their job, and they could ration some water, but the colder the air got, the dryer it became. Although the men set the lines out and trawled small nets behind the ship; fish were scarce in this part of the ocean.
The only extra parka in storage was about five times too big for Zuko's small frame. He felt bulky, and the cold wind got into the extra space between his skin and the blue jacket. Luckily, he was far too taken with the sights around him to care very much about being half frozen.
To Zuko's delight, the occasional peak of white in the waves soon became vast fields floating icebergs and ice-sheets. Their ship either broke through the ice if it was brittle and thin, or went around if it was too large. Some of the icebergs were larger than the ship itself, and Zuko watched them pass with wide eyes. They almost seemed close enough to touch, although when climbed the railing and leaned out to try, he was yelled at by Bato.
Thick snowflakes fell from the sky, either coming in freezing flurries or else ice shavings blown off the nearby giant icebergs. These were fun to catch on his tongue, even though they did little for his raw thirst.
Best of all were the animals that lived in this strange, icy world. Zuko saw things he'd never even imagined before; Turtle-seals, cat-penguins, and giant blue orca. At each one of these sightings he would run over to one of the men, tug on his sleeve, and point, demanding to be told what it was. Most of them indulged his request, and offered some additional information as well. Zuko soon found out which animals were worth eating.
Then, on the morning of the third day, they finally made land.
Zuko knew it was coming. The warriors didn't tell him directly, but he could see the anticipation on their faces, and the way their steps became lighter. Finally, someone called out that he had spotted the village and at once Zuko rushed to the port-railing to take a look. The men had talked of their South Pole home every day, and he his imaginative mind had come up with a sprawling ice-palace guarded by ferocious polar-dogs. A place that would be hard, but enduring.
What he saw instead was nothing more was a small camp-like village. Zuko could only count a little more than the top of dozen bumpy snow structures. They were all clustered together behind a simple wall of ice and snow.
"It's not much, is it?"
He glanced over in surprise to see Bato by his side. The warrior had joined him without his noticing, and had correctly read the disappointment in his eyes.
"A hundred years ago, before the war, we had a vast city to rival our brothers in the North." Bato's grip tightened on the railing, "Now, our waterbenders are gone. Our people are scattered around the continent. This is all that's left." He looked down, meeting Zuko's wide golden eyes, and gave a smile that was both wistful and sad. "Go pack your things. We'll be pulling in, soon."
With a nod, Zuko drew back from the railing. Suddenly, he found himself feeling unsure. As far as he was concerned, his entire life had been on this ship. Now he was facing something wholly different on land… he wasn't sure what to do. Would the rest of the Water Tribe hate him? How could they not? His people destroyed their city.
Zuko's unease only grew once the ship floated to a stop. People were pouring from the village — women clutching babies, young toddlers clutching their mother's shins, and old people walking with slow jerky steps. He could see no kids around his age, and certainly no one that looked like him.
The bottom hatch of the ship opened, and at once the men swarmed out, and with glad cries the two groups met with each other. There was hugging, kissing… excited exclamations. Zuko stood to the side of it all, clutching a small sack with his two or three possessions, drowning in a parka much too large for him, feeling lost.
Suddenly, he heard his name being called. He looked over and saw Chief Hakoda wave him over. He was standing with two children — the only two children close to Zuko's age in the village — on either side of him. They looked like the picture of a perfect family, only instead of where a mother would be, an aged woman stood instead, just apart from the rest.
"Kids," said Hakoda, as Zuko walked up. "This is Zuko. We found him on a Fire Nation ship, and he's going to be staying in the village for a while."
The boy, just as tall as Zuko himself, with is father's deep blue eyes and his hair pulled back on top and shaved at the sides, stared at him. "What happened to your face?"
"Sokka!" admonished the old woman.
Zuko gave a half shrug, awkwardly reaching up to touch the tough skin on his left side, as if to brush it away. Of course, he never could.
Hakoda answered on behalf of him. "We're not sure, and he can't tell us. When we found him, his throat was cut, and he's now a mute." Then he addressed Zuko, "This is my son, Sokka, and this little lady is my daughter, Katara." At the mention of her name, Katara, who looked about a year younger than Sokka, ducked her head behind her father. She was frightened of the boy and all of his scars. "And this is Kana. She leads the women of our tribe."
The old woman pulled a tight, slightly skeletal smile across her features. Her eyes were watchful and suspicious behind their kindness. "You must be freezing in that coat. Come with me, child. We'll get you something that better fits you."
She shuffled back to the village, and Zuko followed her. He glanced over his shoulder once, at the Chief, and saw that he was on his knees and was addressing his children at their level. All three of them were smiling happy. A family reunited.
The next day broke late for the entire village. Zuko was the first one up, rising with the sun as was his habit. His stomach was still uncomfortably full — the entire Tribe had feasted last night at the return of their warriors, and Zuko had tried to catch up for two days of missed meals in one sitting.
He went outside, and walked a little ways away from the tents and igloos. The morning air was cold — colder than he was sure he'd ever felt before, and he shivered under his thick parka. His breath streamed out of him, visible long after it left his lungs. But the sun was rising, and although the light it cast was pale and watery over the snow, stepping into the light somehow made him feel better.
Yesterday he had been too hungry, and then after he'd eaten, too tired to really take a look around the place. He did so now. The ship had come in from the north, and out there was only rolling sea-ice. The east and west both extended far outward as jagged coast. There wasn't any beach — the ever present ice and snow just simply stopped and the water began. Finally, Zuko looked south and saw the outline of a vast mountain range. Morning clouds were rolling in between at least five different peaks, plunging down in a living stream to the valley where they dissipated before reaching the coast. It was a beautiful land, and even though he had no memories from his life before, he knew it was unlike anything he had ever seen.
The sun was climbing higher now, and the snow reflected its brightness, making it almost painful to look too far out. He shielded his eyes, put his head down against the freezing morning breeze, and continued walking away from the main village; past the back opening where the ice walls left a ten foot gap on either side.
Once he judged himself far enough away, he folded his legs and sat down in the snow. The top layer was crunchy with ice, and Zuko started digging around, finding quickly that underneath was powdery and soft. He ate some to soothe his morning thirst, and started digging a hole in the deep snow. He had the idea yesterday to make a fort for himself; a place of his own.
Presently, his fingers became sore from cold, and he stopped and looked up just in time to see a long shadow behind him. Zuko would have yelped in surprise if he had the capability to do so. He spun about, but the low sun had thrown the shadow long, and it was not a giant Fire Nation soldier behind him, but the girl, Katara.
For her part, she was just as started, and fell backwards into the snow with a squeak of surprise.
For a moment the Fire Nation boy and the Water Tribe girl looked at each other, as if sizing the other up. She had the same coloring as all the others, but there was something about her that was… softer. Prettier. She also wore her long hair differently than anyone he'd ever seen before, with two beaded loops tucked behind each ear.
Then, Katara spoke. "Gran-Gran says that if you're digging around, you should have mittens." From her parka, she withdrew a set of three fingered seal-hide mittens and carefully handed them over, withdrawing her own hand the second Zuko made his grab, as if he'd burn her.
He hadn't noticed, but the rest of the Water Tribe were starting to rise for the day. Zuko could see vague shapes back at the village, working against the bright lit snow. He nodded, and pulled the mittens.
Katara too, looked back at the village and she hesitated as if she wanted to go back there, but something made her stay. Instead of going back, she inched closer.
"Do you miss your mom and dad?"
The question seemed to come out of nowhere. He had been asked it before by the men, but it had been worded differently and had been mostly without compassion. Unexpectedly, Zuko felt a lump grow in his throat — not for his parents, for in truth he didn't remember anything about them. It was just that he had come to see the warriors on the ship as sort of family. Yes, some were surly, but some were kinder and had taken time out of their own work to teach him. He had known that life. Literally, it was all he knew. Now, it felt like he was starting all over again on land with different people.
Last night, Kana had given him over to one of the other women, Auya, to house. Auya hadn't been happy about it; Zuko saw it in her eyes. She had set him up in their family tent, but had mostly ignored him cast suspicious glances at him all night long. She had also, he noticed, slept with a knife by her pillow. Plus she had a newborn baby that required her constant care. It had mewed all night long, and he hadn't gotten any sleep. At least on the ship, he had his own small room… well, at least until the Fire Nation soldier destroyed it.
So Zuko shook his head to her question, but wanted to elaborate. He drew out the characters in the snow. "I miss being on the ship."
"Oh." Katara ventured a look past him, and moved a bit closer. "Why are you digging a hole?"
He scowled. It wasn't a hole. It was a fort.
"That'll take forever if you do it that way." Katara's lips curved into a mischievous grin. Apparently forgetting her fear, she crawled over, sitting by Zuko at the edge of his creation. "Just do this." Then, raising both arms, she made a downward scooping motion.
The snow responded instantly, following her movements, a large portion dug itself out and piled neatly along the side.
Zuko's light gold eyes widened. Katara was a waterbender!
She giggled at his reaction, a light blush highlighting her dark cheeks. He gestured excitedly for her to do it again, and she did. Shortly, Zuko had a deep circular hole for his fort, a little deeper than an arm length.
He set about packing the excess snow into high ridges around the depression. In his mind's eye this would be the start of what would be towering walls which, in its grand design, would keep everyone he didn't like, out. Katara watched him for a few moments, and once she got the idea she started working on the opposite end. Maybe it was her affinity with water, but her walls ended up being twice as high as his and neatly packed. Zuko's looked more like rounded lumps.
"You know, your house is going to need furs in it or else it'll get really cold at night."
Again, Zuko scowled. Not a house. he wrote in the snow, A fort.
"Well it's gonna need furs." She paused, smoothing out the rough edge of her wall. The snow under her hand turned to liquid and then froze again into ice as hard as rock. "I'll get some from Gran Gran." It wasn't a question, and after a moment's consideration, Zuko shrugged. A proper fort, he knew, allowed no girls. But he was cold now even with the sun shining on his back… he didn't want to think about how bitter it would be at night.
Fine, he wrote, Just don't girl it up.
Katara grinned and promised that she wouldn't.
Later that week, Kana sought out the advice of Hakoda. The young Chief was overseeing the sharpening of the harpoons and long-reach spears. It was mid-fall, and the Blue Orca migration would be at its peak soon. He estimated that they would need to take two animals to last out the winter… the year before, they had needed three. The Fire Nation raid in the spring had killed many people.
Seeing the old woman approach, Hakoda signaled for Bato to step into his place and walked over to meet her. "Is something wrong?"
Kana smiled up at him and shook her head. "No, but I need to have a talk with you. Hakoda, walk with me."
As his mother and also as the eldest woman, Kana had a special place in their Tribe. She was looked too as the repository of all of their wisdom, and in certain things she could overrule even Hakoda. It was very rare when she exercised this, or indeed used her rank at all. So when she asked for him to stop what he was doing and talk to her, he was intrigued, and instantly did as she said.
They walked side by side along the ice-coast. For some minutes, Kana didn't speak. She seemed to be gathering her thoughts, and would only share them when she was ready. Finally she said: "I quizzed the children on geography today."
Hakoda nodded. Normally, Kana and a woman helper taught all of the children several times a week in between chores.
"How are Sokka and Katara doing?" he asked.
"Fine… fine. Sokka is doing exceptionally well. He's a bright boy, Hakoda. All grandmothers should be as blessed."
He sensed there was something else behind her words. "But?"
"But then I quizzed Zuko." Kana stopped in her tracks, tilting her head up towards her son in law. The pale sun cast shadow's upon every line on her face, making her look very grave. "The boy can't speak, poor thing, but he was able to write in the snow. Hakoda, he knew every providence in the Earth Kingdom, as well as the major cities. He writes very well, in both the standard and the classical forms. I haven't yet tested in him mathematics, but I don't have a doubt he'll do fine there as well."
Hakoda was silent. He had the feeling he knew where this was going, and while he didn't like it, he respected Kana enough to state her piece.
"If this is how they are educating the children of the Fire Nation, we may have a real problem on our hands."
"They teach their children these things because they expect them to help invade the Earth Kingdom when they get older."
Kana nodded at this, agreeing. "And there's more. Katara… she needs a Waterbending Master."
They had this conversation before, and he was well versed on the subject. "But you've said yourself the Masters of the North will only teach her healing, not bending."
"This is true, but I wasn't suggesting going to the North." she paused, "Are you certain, completely certain, that there is no one to teach Katara?"
Hakoda did not answer her for a long time. He turned to the west, and in the distance he could see a lazy trail of smoke that stamped out what remained of their village. A pinched, haunted look came over his handsome features, and he ducked his head. "It wasn't an accident how the Fire Nation found our village. They knew I was looking for a Waterbending master. They knew we still had hope." Of course, no one could ever be sure that this was the reason they were attacked, but Hakoda felt this deep in his bones. This was his one shame… a shame he vowed he would never tell his children. His throat thickened, his next words choked with unshed tears. "They took my wife, because of me."
He waved off her words almost angrily, turning away. "Katara will have to teach herself."
Kana bowed her head, accepting her son's words for what they were: the decision of the Tribe's Leader. Hakoda couldn't afford to think like a father. His burden was to protect the entire tribe. "She has no choice."
Katara, Zuko found, was very bossy, and once she got something into her head she didn't let it go. But unlike her brother, she seemed to like being around him; insisting that he take most of his meals with her, and patiently explaining how to do some of the needed chores around the village.
They worked on the fort during their free time, with Katara using some of the few bending skills she knew to enlarge the hole and strengthen the walls with ice. To Zuko's chagrin, it became as much her fort his — although he absolutely drew the line at letting her keep her dolls inside.
Her brother, Sokka, was mostly an elusive figure. Zuko would often catch him glaring narrow-eyed at him during meals, and during Kana's lessons. His surly, unapproachable nature made Zuko assume at first that he was a grumpy loner; completely the opposite of his bright, kind sister. Only later would he realize that this was by far the exception to Sokka's moods, and not the rule.
Hakoda had said that Sokka would teach him how to use the boomerang, and Zuko was eager to learn. He tried approaching the other boy on several occasions, pointing first to his boomerang, and then to Sokka's, but Sokka would just scowl and then walk away.
One day, determined that that he would learn, Zuko decided to follow Sokka; haunt him until the other boy finally gave in and taught him.
He didn't expect for Sokka to be so quick on the uptake. As soon as he knew what was going on, and that Zuko wouldn't leave him alone, he went to the outer snow-drifts beyond the village. Although he couldn't bend his element, Sokka moved through the snowdrifts like they were nothing but a well-worn forest path. He was completely at ease out in the thick snow and sub-zero temperatures. Zuko bumbled along as best he could, trying to follow in his footsteps, but he sank to his hips with each step and soon Sokka was out of sight. When he could no longer feel his toes, Zuko had to admit defeat and return to the village or else risk getting lost and frozen.
Zuko had his own tricks up his sleeve. Although he didn't know it, he had dealt with a master manipulator all of his life. He didn't remember any of it, but some of the innate skills stayed with him. He knew Sokka was like the water, and it was his nature to find the path of least resistance and plan around things to come at them from another way. It was Zuko's nature to confront, strike first, and keep going until he won.
Unfortunately, he didn't expect the confrontation to happen when it did.
It was a day like any other. He and Katara were working on their fort. They were busy building up another wall outside the main perimeter. Zuko had written to her in snowy sentences how the great city of Ba Sing Se was surrounded by a double-set of walls. How they were so high that some birds couldn't fly to the top, and how they were so strong that they and they kept even the Fire Nation out.
She decided that this was a great idea, and they should copy it. He set about using a piece of rope anchored to the middle of the fort to trace out a rough circle all the way around. She was gathering snow into bunches using her limited bending to push the snow together and then piling it up by hand.
They looked up at the same time to see Sokka striding over.
"Are you finally done sulking?" Katara called, almost cheerfully continuing to pack snow.
Sokka came to a stop just a few feet from them, a dark look on his face "You shouldn't be playing with him so much." He said, addressing his sister, and ignoring Zuko completely as if he wasn't there.
"You can't tell me what to do." Brushing off her mittens onto her long parka, she stood up, hands on her hips. "You're not dad!"
"Katara," and the look Sokka shot Zuko could have burned him to ash. "He's Fire Nation!"
Something hot and angry settled in Zuko's heart, and he stood up, clenching his fists.
"He's not like them!" yelled Katara.
"How do you know?"
"I just…" she glanced over at Zuko in a particular friendly way, causing a warm blush to highlight the unscarred areas of his face and neck. "I just do."
"They killed mom!" yelled Sokka, his voice cracking, "and you're just playing with him like it's all okay! Well, it's not! It's not right!"
Zuko wanted with all of his heart to yell at this boy, to tell him exactly what he thought: The Fire Nation attacked him once, too, and he didn't want to be anything like them.
Of course, he couldn't, and this wasn't the time or place to be scrawling his thoughts out in the snow. Zuko turned to Katara, wondering what she'd day, and found that her eyes were wet with unshed tears.
Another flash of anger, and something snapped in Zuko. He did the next logical thing, at least, in his eyes. He stomped over and shoved Sokka, hard.
The other boy stepped back, and an ugly look crossed his features before he returned the shove with another one of his own.
Zuko grabbed Sokka's wrist, and swung at him with his other hand. It hit Sokka wide, just across the shoulder. Sokka roared like an enraged lion-dillo, and took him down in a tackle. Then they were on the ground; fighting, punching, kicking.
It was a mostly equal match, with both boys being about the same weight and build. Sokka clocked Zuko hard across his good eye, and Zuko aimed a kick that landed just to the right of the other boy's groin. Neither one could easily get the upper hand over the other; although they tried. They rolled over and over, swinging at each other when they had enough space.
Katara was screaming at both of them to stop. Stop right now! She kicked snow at the thrashing boys, and as her anger and panic grew the snow and ice around them responded in kind: rolling, bucking, and waving in time with her cries.
"Stop it! I'm… I'm telling Gran Gran!" Katara screamed.
The snow under Sokka and Zuko melted and then reformed again instantly as ice, locking their bodies firmly in place mid-combat, with only their heads free. Sokka, on top, and about to lay into Zuko again, yelped in surprise. "Cut it out, Katara!"
But his sister had already run off, crying, and completely unaware of what she had just done.
"Ugh!" groaned Sokka, dropping his head in exasperation, "She has officially gone from weird to freakish."
Zuko glared up at him, but he was frozen in place, and couldn't speak his thoughts anyway.
After a long moment, the Water Tribe boy gave a long sigh, and did his best to shift, trying to break free of the ice encasing. "See if you can move to the right and I'll move to the left. Maybe we can sort of twist out," he directed. "No, my right! Your left."
Both boys strained and the brittle ice finally gave way with a sharp crack. They fell to the side, and rolled, each not wanting to be in contact with the other anymore. They were hardly free, for ragged chunks of ice still encased their feet and stuck to the fur of their parkas. It took the boys a few minutes of pounding the ice on a nearby rock (and low whispered cursing, in Sokka's case) to get free.
About that time, Kana showed up.
The old woman had expected something like this to happen for the last few days. She knew her grandson well, and had seen the anger in his young face whenever Katara and the Fire Nation boy played together. He had been unusually withdrawn, and even though she was sure he was trying not to show it — he grieved for his lost mother terribly.
Now she came upon the sight of the two boys sitting together, not talking, but diligently ridding themselves of ice side-by-side. Sokka's bottom lip was split, and Zuko's unscarred eye was puffy and looking like it would blacken tonight.
They glanced up at her arrival, and she caught a flash of twin looks of guilt.
"Sokka, can you tell me why your sister ran into the tent crying? Have you two been fighting?" she asked, although it was more than obvious that they had.
"No Gran Gran. We were…" he looked around for inspiration, "we were playing hide 'n freeze." He held up his sleeve, to which a bit of frozen snow was attached.
Kana raised one disbelieving eyebrow. "Is this true, Zuko?"
The other boy's unscarred eye widened, and he glanced at her, and then for a long moment at Sokka, before he nodded his head vigorously.
For his part, Sokka seemed surprised, but then nodded himself. "See? Katara just got all excited. We were just playing, Gran Gran."
Kana pursed her lips. Both of them were lying, and badly. But Kana had been long in the world, and she had seen generations of boys grow up. The fact of it was that they sometimes needed to settle their differences physically in a fight. Seeing Sokka and Zuko together now, she was strongly reminded of another scene just like it some thirty years ago… young Hakoda and Bato hadn't gotten along either when they were young, if she remembered correctly. Only when they had gotten half stuck in a frozen bog, and worked their way out of the mess together, had they become the best of friends. Perhaps the same would happen now. If she felt either Zuko or Sokka was needlessly picking on the other, things would be different. Hopefully, if she left them alone, they would work out what the needed to work out.
But there was no excuse for the lying. Sokka, at least, knew better.
"I see," she said at last, pinning them both down with a hard look. "Next time you decide to scare your sister in this way, you should remember what a frightened bender can do. For upsetting her, you two will not have dinner tonight."
Sokka gave a groan. "Gran—"
"No arguing, young man. You're still not too old for me to switch your bottom."
Her grandson's jaw closed with a snap, and his cheeks colored in embarrassment. Kana made sure to meet eyes with Zuko, silently letting him know that that threat went for him too, before turning around and shuffling back to the tent. Hopefully, Katara would have calmed down from her hysterics enough to be able to help with dinner.
Once Kana was safely out of sight, Sokka gingerly put a hand to his aching jaw. "You hit pretty good." He said, begrudgingly.
Zuko's own eye was hurting fiercely, and he knew that he was going to look ridiculous for the next few days with one eye blackened and the other one scarred in a permanent glare.
Perhaps it was the adrenalin from the fight, but for the first time he felt hot under his parka. With a tired nod, he laid flat on his back against the cold snow. He and Sokka had rolled around while fighting, and hand taken out a good portion of the outer wall of the fort. All of his day's work had been ruined.
"I can't believe that I don't get to eat tonight. I've never not eaten." Sokka cast a disparaging glare in Zuko's direction, and muttered under his breath. "Stupid Fire Nation."
Zuko sat up, and considered, just for a moment, punching Sokka again. But he believed Kana's threat, and he didn't want to be switched. He clenched his fists, instead, wanting to yell at the other boy. He couldn't. So he did the next best thing, and wrote angrily in the snow.
I hate the Fire Nation. He put particular emphasis on the word.
Sokka leaned over to read, and then cast him a dubious look. "No you don't. How can you hate what you are?"
I don't remember being Fire Nation. I just remember waking up on the ship.
The other boy seemed to consider this for a moment before he nodded, wisely. "That's probably why you haven't tried to kill us, yet, because you don't remember being like them." Then he fixed him with a hard look. "Is that how you got that scar? Did they do that to you?"
I don't know. Probably.
Sokka's mouth pressed into a thin, angry line before he winced again, touching his split lip. "They're monsters." He muttered, and Zuko got the feeling that he wasn't really talking to him. "They… they killed two of my cousins last spring… and my mom. It's what they do. They just hate and kill."
The only thing Zuko could do was nod, because it was true… because he had seen it for himself. The Fire Nation soldier on the ship had wanted to kill him for nothing more than existing. He was just a kid, and if Hakoda hadn't been there… he'd be dead.
The two boys were silent; alone in their own thoughts. Sokka's were sad, remembering a mother murdered by a nation he had sworn to hate. Zuko's were equally sad, in their own way, hating the way he looked, and wondering deep down inside if he was just as bad as the people who birthed him.
Finally the Water Tribe boy sighed, picking up some snow and tossing it uselessly in a random direction. "I'm already hungry." he announced.
A thought crossed Zuko's mind, and he grinned. Standing up, he tugged on Sokka's sleeve and gestured for him to follow. He had decided the other day to dig out little cubby-holes in the deep walls of the fort. He went in now, and found (to his disgust) that Katara had snuck in some of her dolls anyway. Shoving those away, and ignoring Sokka's snicker, he found a package wrapped in seaweed in the back of the deepest cubby: Seal Jerky.
Sokka's blue eyes widened, and for the first time a grin came over his face. "Maybe you aren't so bad after all." allowed Sokka, after taking a proffered piece.
The two boys sat and ate, and Zuko quickly found that the best way to earn Sokka's friendship was through his stomach.
Let me know what you think! Good stuff, bad stuff... I have thick skin. :)
Next up: Penguin sledding, plots, being kids, and possibly some firebending.