When Sokka storms into Katara’s room, he’s already shouting. When he storms out again only a second later, he’s still shouting, but for a different reason entirely.
“You’re disgusting,” he calls irately from outside the door. “Both of you.”
“It’s my room,” Katara barks back at him. “I can kiss my boyfriend if I want to.”
“We’re not doing that anymore, though,” Aang’s far calmer voice chimes in, “so you can come back in, if you want.”
Sokka doesn’t really want to. He’d kind of like to rinse his eyes out with arctic otter squid venom, actually, but he needs someone to vent to, and Katara needs to know about this anyways, and Aang had said it was safe to enter. If Sokka can’t trust the avatar, who can he trust?
(Not the High Council, a vile little voice in the back of his head whispers. Not the Chief of the Northern Water Tribes, not Fire Nation royalty, and apparently not my own dad.)
He pushes the door back open, this time with a hand over his eyes, and peaks cautiously through his fingers at Aang and Katara, who are now sitting at least four inches apart (thank Tui) on Katara’s bed.
Aang looks as pleasant as ever, if a little embarrassed, but Katara is sitting with her arms crossed, obviously annoyed.
“What are you screaming about now?” she demands.
Sokka decides to forgive her petulance, just this once; she doesn’t know how serious this is, yet. “Yue is getting married,” he tells them. “To the prince of the Fire Nation.”
That does the trick. Katara’s mouth falls open in shock, and she forgoes her glare to spend a moment staring at him blankly. “Wh— Why would you think that?” she asks doubtfully, once she recovers herself.
“Because dad just told me,” Sokka says. He throws himself down into the stuffed chair by her desk and crosses his arms over his chest. “Apparently it’s all a part of some trade deal they’ve been working on since Yue came of age. I guess they couldn’t match Prince Jerkface up with you, because you’re very publically the avatar’s girlfriend, so Yue got stuck with him instead.”
“Oh,” Katara says, sitting up a little straighter, “so it would have been better if I had been forced to marry someone I’d never met?”
“Uh, yes! No offense, Aang.”
Aang grimaces, glancing between Sokka and Katara, whose eyes have narrowed dangerously. “Uh…I don’t think it’s me that you’re offending, Sokka.”
Sokka rolls his eyes. “Look, I just mean that you’d keep anyone on their toes. You can take care of yourself.”
“So can Yue,” Katara counters.
“She can,” Sokka agrees, leaning back further into the chair, "but she doesn’t. Not like you would. You know what I mean.” He knows she does. Katara challenged Master Pakku to a waterbending duel when she thirteen because he’d said he thought women made better healers than fighters. Even if she and Aang weren’t pretty much a sure thing, Sokka doubts she would have been considered for something like this, if only because anyone who knows her knows she’d never agree to being married off to someone she doesn’t love, let alone someone she doesn’t know. Yue, though…Yue has always cared more about rules and duty than nearly anything, up to and including her own happiness.
Katara’s face softens, the way he’d known it would. “What does Yue think about it?” she asks.
Sokka shrugs. “Ask her yourself. She’s apparently on her way to the South Pole as we speak.”
“Yue’s coming?” Katara asks, clearly surprised. “She’s coming here?”
“Yes,” Sokka answers, clenching his teeth involuntarily at the reminder. “She’ll be here within the week, according to dad. The prince is scheduled to arrive only a few days after that.”
Katara frowns. “Shouldn’t you be excited? I love Yue, but we both know you were always closer to her than I was.”
“I’m trying to be excited,” Sokka groans, “but it’s kind of difficult to be happy that she’s visiting when it means that her flame retardant fiancé is going be here, too.”
“I don’t actually think firebenders are flame retardant,” Aang says.
“Spirits,” Sokka grinds out, “it doesn’t matter! What matters is that Yue is being forced into a marriage with some bratty prince that she’s never even met! A bratty Fire Nation prince!”
Aang and Katara look at each other, and then back at him.
“I think that’s the point, Sokka,” Katara says. “The Tribes are trying foster peace with the Fire Nation –”
“So that means we should trust them?” Sokka demands, standing up again. “That means it’s okay for the Council to trade Yue over to them like she’s something that can be bought and sold?”
“No!” Katara snaps. “That’s not what I meant, and you know it. You’re just being a jerk because you’re bitter that –”
“That what?” snarls Sokka, almost daring her to say it.
Katara takes a deep breath before replying; Sokka can see the moment the aggression leaves her, and he spares a moment to think that maybe Aang has been a good influence, despite what Sokka’s eyes have recently been subjected to. “She’s always known that her marriage was probably going to be arranged,” Katara says delicately. “So have you. So have we all.”
“But not to someone from the Fire Nation! They almost completely wiped out the Southern Tribes during the war, and that’s not even mentioning what they did to the rest of the world. How can they think it’s okay to chain her to the family responsible for that?”
“I don’t think a chain is what they have in mind,” Aang says gently. “It sounds like they’re after something more like a union.”
“With the country that nearly destroyed the world. To the great-grandson of the man responsible for the slaughter.”
“The war has been over for thirty years, Sokka,” Katara says softly.
“Thirty years is not that long! We know people who fought them! We know people who are still mourning because of them. Dad was only a few years from being sent to the front lines when the war was called off.” He clenches his jaw and wills himself to relax. “Just because you and I didn’t grow up in the middle of the war doesn’t mean we should forget what they’ve done.”
“You’ve been spending too much time listening to old war stories,” Katara retorts. “The world has changed. Why is it so hard to believe that the Fire Nation has, too?”
“No one has forgotten what the Fire Nation did during the war,” Aang interjects calmly. “We’re not saying anyone should forget what we’ve lost to the Fire Nation, but we can’t withhold our forgiveness forever – especially not when they’re trying so hard to earn it.”
“They’ve held true to their side of treaties since the war ended,” Katara adds. “They’ve gotten rid of their weapons, and their armada. They’re still providing relief to the most war torn areas of the Earth Kingdom.”
Sokka knows all of that as well as Katara does – they learned about it together, after all.
“They spend the first day of spring, every year, mourning the airbenders,” Aang says quietly. It’s easy to forget, sometimes, who Aang is, and what he’s lost. The heaviness in his voice now is a reminder. “The day is marked in every calendar made in the Fire Nation.”
Aang has more of a right to be distrustful than anyone. Sokka knows his own grievances seem paltry in comparison, but he can’t stop himself from being upset about it. “That doesn’t fix what they’ve done,” Sokka says after a long pause.
“No,” says Aang, as frustratingly patient as always. “It doesn’t. But it shows that they’re trying to be better than they were. We can’t hold the sins of the father to the son. We can’t keep putting the blame for what happened during the war on the Fire Nation as it exists now. A lot of people don’t understand that, and it’s because they’ve been hurt, but that lack of understanding only leads to more pain. This is how we can end that cycle.”
Sokka huffs and crosses his arms, throwing himself back down into the stuffed chair. “You’re, like, twelve,” he says. “You shouldn’t make so much sense.”
Aang rolls his eyes, but he's smiling. It makes him look, once again, like the child he is. “I know you know I’m fifteen, Sokka,” he chuckles. “You were at my last birthday party. You made the cake.”
When Yue arrives in the Southern Water Tribe, Sokka makes sure he is the first to see her. He pushes past his father as she makes her way down the gangplank, and is rewarded by her bright smile. He only gets a glimpse of it before she’s throwing herself into his arms.
“Sokka!” she exclaims, laughing as he twirls her in the air. “It’s so good to see you!”
He sets her down, grinning as he does.
“Not as good as it is to see you,” he replies, winking exaggeratedly.
She giggles behind her hand and a familiar fondness swells in his chest at the sight.
Dad coughs from behind them, then, and Sokka gives an exaggerated sigh, rolling his eyes and releasing her so that she can greet his father. He knows that no one who sees him will think he means anything by the expression – he’s still smiling much too widely for any ire he may display to be taken seriously.
“Chief Hakoda,” Yue says, bowing before him. “Thank you for honoring the Northern Tribes by agreeing to host myself and my entourage during the ceremonies which will precede my engagement.”
Hakoda bows back, and his smile, though more restrained than Sokka’s had been, is just as sincere.
“We’re honored to have you here, Princess Yue – and happy to see you again. Katara can’t be with us this afternoon, as she’s filling in for a water bending instructor who has fallen ill, but she and Sokka have been especially excited to see you. As I’m sure you could tell.”
“And I, them,” she says warmly, her eyes flicking fondly towards Sokka.
She’s radiant, as he had known that she would be. Seeing her in person after so long is like stepping outside into the first light of the morning, when your eyes are still used to the dark and the sun glints most keenly off the snow: blinding, but worth it.
She deserves better, he thinks, not for the first time, and tries not to let his sudden sourness show on his face. His father doesn’t look too disapproving, so he must do an alright job.
“It’s been a while since you’ve been back,” Dad says. “Why doesn’t Sokka take you on a tour of the city? Show you what’s changed before the real work starts.”
Yue glances back at Sokka. “I’d like that very much,” she says, and her eyes are large and her smile is eager and really, what other choice does he have?
He takes her to see all of the things he knows didn’t exist the last time she was here, and all of the things he remembers her loving. She holds on to his arm as they walk, just the way she used to, and it grounds something in him that he hadn’t even realized was up in the air.
“It must be easier for you to get around in the South,” she teases as they make their way down one of the busier streets, “without any canals to fall into.”
“That was one time,” Sokka protests.
“Three times, actually,” she corrects.
Sokka rolls his eyes, nudging her in the side with his elbow. “One time, three times, what’s the difference?”
She laughs again. He’s lost count of how many times he’s heard it, just in the last hour alone. She’s as giddy to be here as he is to have her here. He wonders if that delight will hold up once the prince arrives, and the impending engagement becomes impossible to ignore.
She turns pensive, suddenly, as if reading his mind. “I’m glad you’re able to show me around the city now,” she says. “We may not have so much time together once my…betrothed arrives.”
She says the word “betrothed” like she has to force it up her throat; like it carries with it a rotten taste she’s only starting to get used to.
He wants to be angry about the situation, but he wants to make her feel better more. Instead of ranting at her the way he had at Aang and Katara, he just nods.
“I’m sure he’ll be…lovely,” he forces out, and hopes it comes across as sincere. “The prince they’re sending you, I mean. I’m sure he’ll be…able to pass the trials, at least.”
She laughs, but it’s far quieter than it had been before. “Well, he’ll have to be, before he can propose,” she says, looking sidelong at him. “It may be difficult for someone not accustomed to our ways to manage, but I’m sure he’ll learn in due time. You’ll be the one training him, after all.”
Sokka skids to a stop so quickly he would have fallen face first into the snow, had Yue not caught his arm.
He stares at her, and it is not, for the first time since she had arrived, in admiration. “I’ll be the what?”
“Princess Yue was correct,” Dad tells him when Sokka corners him in his office at the Citadel that night after dropping Yue off in her chambers. “The Council has assigned you the duty of familiarizing Prince Zuko with our culture and helping him develop the skills he needs to complete the courtship rituals and prove himself worthy of the princess’s hand.”
Sokka shakes his head so adamantly he becomes dizzy from it, but the vertigo isn’t enough to disrupt his indignation. “This is – it’s stupid!” He exclaims, “And so unfair –”
“And I already thought that when this was just you forcing Yue into a marriage she had no say in –”
“But making me responsible– ”
“Sokka!” Dad barks, raising his voice in a rare display of genuine irritation. It’s so uncharacteristic that Sokka is, for once, shocked into silence. “I understand that you’re upset about this,” Dad continues after a moment, once he is sure that Sokka will let him, “but there’s nothing to be done. This isn’t something I can change. Once Princess Yue reached marrying age, the Fire Nation reached out regarding a potential match, and the tribes responded. This isn’t something anyone has taken lightly, son – it took us over a year to settle on an agreement that all parties were amenable to.”
“You’ve known this was going to happen for a year,” Sokka says incredulously, “and you didn’t tell me?”
Hakoda sighs. “It wasn’t a done deal until nearly a month ago. When I told you about it, I had only just received confirmation that the courtship would officially be taking place in the South Pole. It’s a great honor to be hosting the princess of our sister tribe and the prince of the Fire Nation.”
“An honor,” Sokka scoffs. “Yue—”
“The Southern Water Tribe was decided upon as the cite of the pre-engagement ceremonies because of its ability to act as a mostly neutral ground," Dad interrupts. “It’s not Yue’s homeland, but it is familiar to her, and it’s a place where Prince Zuko can learn what he needs to learn in order to be considered our culture’s approximation of a capable spouse. Our role as host also means that our tribe is symbolically included in the ratification of the treaty, even if neither party involved in the marriage is technically one of ours.”
“Oh,” Sokka says bitingly. “Well, as long as he’s a capable spouse.”
“I understand your concerns, son,” Dad says. Sokka would be angry at the placation if it were coming from anyone else, but he knows that his father means what he says. There aren’t many men as understanding as Hakoda, just as there aren’t many who are stronger or braver, more intelligent or more noble. It’s why he’s the High Chief. Sokka understands that, but that doesn’t mean he has to like what’s being said.
“This isn’t just about trade deals,” Hakoda continues. “It’s about fostering peace between nations.” He sounds disgustingly like Katara, and Sokka only barely manages to keep himself from rolling his eyes. “It’s about presenting a united front to the rest of the world. This will be the first union of its kind in recorded history. The impact will be felt for generations. I know you don’t like it, but I do hope that you’ll come to understand the importance of it.”
Sokka grits his teeth. “And you decided – without even bothering to tell me about it – that I had to be involved.”
Hakoda sighs, looking, for the first time, almost uneasy. “In the name of paying respect to our culture, a part of the official agreement is that the Fire Nation’s Prince will adhere to the formal Water Tribe engagement traditions in full. That’s why the Council has decided – and I agree – that you will be in charge of his training. In accordance with our traditions,” Hakoda says, raising his voice over Sokka’s attempts to protest, “the fiancé of the princess of the Northern Water Tribe must prove himself worthy to be named as such. As my son, and as a son of the Southern Water Tribe, you have been tasked with ensuring that he is able to do so.”
“But why me?”
“Who better?” Dad asks. “You’re a good man, and a more than capable teacher. It will do the South proud to know that one of our own was responsible for making a man out of the princess’s fiancé, and it will do me proud, as your father, to see your dedication not only to our traditions, but to aiding in the fulfillment of a union that will help facilitate peace across the world.”
Sokka glares, but doesn’t argue. “I hate it when you use the fatherly approval card on me. It’s super below the belt.”
Dad raises a playful eyebrow. “Is it working?”
Sokka heaves out a beleaguered sigh, but lets his arms drop from where he’d been keeping them folded tightly across his chest. “I wish you’d told me earlier.”
“Well,” Dad says, “If you hadn’t stormed off before I could finish, I would have.”
Prince Zuko arrives at the port on a ship that is so distinctly Fire Nation it makes Sokka want to retch.
The vessel itself is large and metal, dark and foreign and cold looking, somehow, even compared to the icy landscape around them. Soulless is the word, Sokka thinks, and hates the entire arrangement just a little bit more.
The prince steps off the boat to cheering and applause from the gathered crowd, and he is followed closely by a procession of servants. All of them are dressed in Fire Nation reds and golds, though their clothes, thick and lined with furs from animals Sokka is sure can’t be found on the equator, have obviously been made specially for this trip.
Aang was right, Sokka thinks dimly as the prince and his accompaniment march forwards. Fire benders really aren’t flame retardant, and here’s the proof: an enormous, angry looking scar mars half of the prince’s face. It stands out starkly against his fair (and otherwise smooth) skin, and it only becomes more pronounced as he and his entourage come ever closer.
Beside him, Yue is as still and silent as ever. Her demeanor betrays nothing, and Sokka is angry on her behalf.
The prince’s hair is gathered into a top knot that does nothing to hide his scar, and the golden hairpiece that marks him as a member of the royal family does nothing to distract from it. Sokka can see, even from a distance, the way the masses ogle at the deformity. The prince must know what’s catching their attention, but he keeps his head held high. Something like respect ignites in Sokka’s chest. It’s not enough to burn away the resentment.
Once the prince has reached the pavilion that the highest ranking members of the Tribe await him on, Sokka’s father begins his speech. This is for the people; a shorter version of the speech he will give at the private banquet tonight.
When it is over, the prince bows to Hakoda, and then to each of the members of the Council in turn. He bows to Katara, who reciprocates accordingly, and then to Sokka. Sokka bows back, just deeply enough that he can’t technically be scolded for it, and he knows he’s not imagining the well-hidden grimace on his father’s face, or his sister’s disapproving frown.
Finally, the prince bows to Yue. Yue bows back with all of the grace Sokka would expect from her, and when she holds out her hand to him, the prince bows even lower, pressing his lips chastely and politely to her knuckles before releasing her and standing once again. Every part of the motion is stiff and practiced; a gesture performed by someone who does so not because they mean it, but because it is expected of them. A formality, not a kindness.
Up close, the prince is even more striking than he had appeared from far off. His skin is as pale as any Sokka’s ever seen, and his hair darker than a winter’s night in the arctic. He is draped in vivid reds and golds the likes of which anyone who has never left the Water Tribes is unlikely to have ever seen, and he is as poised and refined as he is rigid and out of place.
Sokka watches as they finally head inside, and the Prince and his men are escorted to their rooms. He does not smile, and he does not laugh. He speaks only when spoken to, and he does not look at anyone who was not looking at him first. Sokka feels any hatred he may have harbored for the prince turn to rot. He is not worth hating. He is barely human, cold and dark and as soulless as the ship he arrived on.
This is what Yue is being given, Sokka thinks bitterly: an unfeeling, disfigured prince who will never belong here, and who will never be one of them.