Katara's side ached.
Wind whistled in her ears, her hair whipping against her face, completely undone in the battle and aftermath. One of her silver beads had slipped down a lock of her hair, and it stung her cheek every time it struck. Her hands were clenched tightly in her lap, trying to ignore the dull smack of the bead and the sharp, bright line of pain that ran along her side.
It was a good sign, she knew. The burn hadn't deadened her skin into numbness, and it hadn't pushed her into shock – although the tell tale stain that stiffened her robe, spread across Appa's saddle, and marked even her companions bespoke just how close she'd come due to the blood.
Katara shaded her eyes against the cresting, watery yellow light of the sun. As they'd traveled north, the angle of the sun had changed, until finally its descent toward the horizon turned into nothing more than a slight dip. A nod toward the idea of night. The sun had set as much as it would and now it was climbing once more to the highest point in the sky, its light refracting over the wide expanse of ocean, turning the water into a shimmering pathway beneath them.
Taken by fear as much as exhaustion, the group had slept only in fits and starts on their journey. Toph, curled up by Katara's side, had been the only one to sleep all the way through, with Zuko and Sokka taking their turns at silent vigil by her side and steering. Long Feng had spent much of the time in canny contemplation, lips pursed and fingers steepled. Katara was just glad he didn't bother talking to her.
Aang didn't wake up. He shivered as the air turned colder and winced away from the light when the sun was directly over head. Katara put her hand to his forehead time and again, begging for him to wake up.
Suddenly, Katara's stomach dropped. She clutched wildly at the edge of the saddle, and winced as Toph grabbed hold of her. Long Feng braced himself, and placed an arm over Aang's chest, for all the good it would do if they really did crash. Zuko grabbed the horn of the saddle, glaring fiercely at Sokka's back and shouting something at him that was stolen by the wind.
"What's happening?" Toph shouted, face full of fear.
Katara struggled to look past her, up to where Sokka sat on Appa's head. He was pulling up hard on the reins, trying to control their fall.
"Oh no," she groaned. "Appa must have fallen asleep!"
"Not quite," Sokka shot back to her, "But be ready for a rough landing!"
They splashed down into the water, Appa's large body slapping hard against the ocean as if it were a solid wall. He roared out in pain, and Katara winced for him. Water sloshed over the side of his saddle, drenching the group. Katara gasped as the cold, salty water washed over her.
"That's some belly flop, buddy," Sokka said sympathetically, and Appa groaned again.
"Ugh!" Toph said. She held out a dripping arm, and squeezed water from the silk of her sleeve. "How long is it going to take to get there? I don't exact want to freeze to death out here!"
"A little longer, Toph," Katara lied, trying to sound optimistic for the other girl. "Here, let me help you."
She reached out a hand toward Toph, bending the water from the other girl's clothes and then her own.
She nodded absently, eyes flicking over to Aang. He was breathing shallowly, skin ashen and clammy. He needed a healer desperately.
Katara held onto the water, trying to pull it together into a coherent ball, shivering at the effort. Katara bit her lip, sweat beading on her forehead as she concentrated. Abruptly, it tore out of her grasp, splashing down onto the saddle and spreading out to wet her knees. She collapsed forward, panting, fists balled on her legs in frustration.
"Why can't I do it?" she cried out.
"You're hurt," Zuko said quietly. His hair was plastered down against his neck, trickles of water dripping down the ripped collar of his tea serving uniform. He was looking out across the ocean, away from her, body taut with tension.
He'd been like that for a while – well, not the wet part. But tense and abrupt with her. Evasive.
"I know I'm hurt!" she snapped, glaring at his back. "Aang's hurt too, and I need to help him!"
Sokka paused in wringing his clothes out. He turned at met her gaze, expression stern and brotherly. He stood, leaving Appa's reins behind to climb into the saddle and settled right in front of her. She looked away from him, arms crossed before her chest – and only partially in defiance. One hand cradled her injury, trying to will away the throbbing pain.
"Katara, you're not gonna help him any if you make yourself sick. We'll be at the Northern City soon," Sokka assured her, adding fervently, "That has to be good enough."
It didn't have to be, but Katara appreciated that he was willing to be an optimist for her sake. It really did run against his nature.
"You should breathe," Zuko advised. He turned just a little, giving her sight of his sharp, lovely profile. He shivered against the chilly wind, and then closed his eyes in concentration, his breathing perfectly even. Steam began to rise from him, evaporating the sea water and leaving fine traceries of white salt on his clothes. His voice was flat and hoarse as he went on, "The fire will burn you up, inside and out, unless you feed it. Just breathe."
Katara did as he told, staring at him as she felt the pain ease. It didn't make sense. He dried himself with such practiced ease, he saved her lived with a brand. His firebending was as strong as any time she'd seen him fight. But she remembered the fight in the Earth King's throne room, the pathetic wisps of smoke he'd produced when it was his own life on the line. She remembered that vivid, terrifying blue lightning racing toward him, while he stood ready to die. She let her hands go limp, fingers curling into the ragged hem of her robes. In the caves, so much had changed. She'd thought she'd made a friend, healed more than his scar, and begun to understand Zuko.
It was clear now she didn't understand him at all.
"Is that what you did?" she asked. "When …"
"My father burned me? No." He angled his head toward her, meeting her eyes for the first time since she had awoken in agony, smell of burning flesh assaulting her nose, his hand pressed to her side as he did the necessary work. "I screamed."
"I guess we have that in common," Katara said with false lightness, trying to ignore the intensity of his eyes.
Zuko turned away from her again, features tight with guilt. She caught her breath, wanting so much to reach out to him in that second, to thank him for saving her life, but somehow the words didn't form. Berating herself for her cowardice, she frowned, looking down at her hands as she focused on her breathing.
"As interesting as this is," Long Feng said. Katara stiffened instantly at the sound of his voice, shooting him a glower. Why had they even brought him? Sokka was going to have some explaining to do, that's all she knew. Long Feng arched an eyebrow at her, and directed her attention over Appa's side. "I believe we have arrived."
Katara followed the length of his finger with her eyes, expression lighting up at the sight of the long icy cliff that housed the Northern City. Water Tribe ships clustered in front of the city battlement, some no doubt ready to set out on fishing expeditions while others returned. And alongside them, waiting in a queue for the ice-lock to open, was a long, ironclad flying Fire Nation colors.
Her breathing stuttered and pain flared again in her side as she wheezed.
"And it seems we are not alone in that," Long Feng added gravely.
"What?" Sokka screeched. "They're here! No! No way!"
Katara shook her head slowly, trying to make sense of it.
"How could they have known?" she wondered. But really, where else did they have to go? It couldn't have been hard for Azula to figure out they would run back to their nearest allies, ones with healing power no less. The real mystery was how she could have gotten there faster than Appa.
Sokka was clearly following the same line of reasoning. He frowned, looking over the side to study the Fire Nation ship. It was awfully small for a royal vessel, and it had no honor guard. Even Zuko's ship had been more impressive.
"It's not her," he said decisively. "Maybe she sent a messenger hawk or something, but there is no way that is her."
"Okay, you have to stop right there," Toph interjected, standing unsteadily on the saddle. She crossed her arms, and turned slowly in a circle, glaring at anything and everything in front of her. "And you have to start making sense. Time to explain for the blind girl. Who isn't here?"
"Azula," Sokka replied shortly.
Toph twitched her head to the side, puzzled.
"Yippee? I mean, that's a good thing, right?"
"It is," Katara said. "It's definitely a good thing. It's just… someone Fire Nation is here."
"Bei Hu. His name is Bei Hu," Zuko pronounced. He slanted a look over at Sokka, nodding at him to join him at the side of the saddle. Sokka went curiously, listening as Zuko pointed out the markings on the ship. "That's a civilian ship. You see that symbol up near the prow – the seal-bear and star? – it's the family crest of the Bei family. They're sailing under colors of truce."
"Truce?" Sokka echoed, beginning to sputter. "But they're Fire Nation. They can't do that!"
"It just means they're traders, right?" Katara said. She looked over to Zuko, looking for confirmation. He gave a slight shrug and shook his head, still looking out to sea.
"I don't know. Bei Hu isn't a minister or ambassador – or he wasn't, three years ago, before I was banished. I remember him bringing a lot of lavish gifts to the palace when he came to court," Zuko said. His lips twisted ironically. "Father called him a crass little toady – and then accepted the gifts."
"Doesn't sound like much of a threat," Toph concluded. She flopped back down onto the saddle, staring blankly up at the sky. "I bet we could take him."
Katara arched at eyebrow, surveying her companions with a leaden heart. Aang was still out cold, and she didn't trust Long Feng as far as she could throw him. This really wasn't the time to be courting trouble.
"Well, we're not going to figure that out doggy paddling," Sokka decided. He stood, and hopped over the edge of the saddle, sliding back atop Appa's head. He leaned over, talking directly to Appa. "How about just one more short jump? Last one, I promise. Yip yip!"
Appa moaned loudly in protest, but his tail struck out hard on the water, and soon they were airborne once more.
They flew over the ocean and over the ice wall. Guards in the towers shouted as they flew over, and benders paddling their boats on the canals, turned to watch in surprise, almost running their boats into each other. The words didn't reach Katara's ears, but the tone did – friendly, joyful. It was almost enough to make her relax.
Sokka flew them directly to the square in front of Chief Arnook's palace, landing Appa with a thud that made the weak summer ice creak. There was a large gathering of people in the square, pulling water from the central pool and prominent waterfalls. One bender pushed his hands out, water flowing in straight lines out to the next benders who held it steady in a globe in front of him. He drew downward, gracefully moving his entire body as he shaped the water into an elaborate sculpture of pointed, icy tendrils. He and a dozen other benders worked, sculpting decorations to plant between the imposing totems pillars that dominated the square.
One decoration took the shape of a seal-bear; another, the shape of a flame.
"Hey, what's the big idea?" shouted a young man, standing off to the side of the proceedings. He marched up at Appa, who bellowed and clapped his tail against the ice. The young man wheeled backward, slipping and nearly. He shot looks in both directions to make sure no one had noticed before righting himself. He tossed his hair, huffing as he glared up at them. "You can't just park that thing in here!"
"Oh, and who are you to tell us that, Hahn?"
"That's Prince Hahn," the other boy corrected. He put his hands on his hips, posing as he glared up at Sokka. "I'm totally the heir now."
"You're what? Oh, that is so not on!"
Sokka jumped over Appa's side, ready to poke his machete into the young man's chest. Katara stood to follow, but crumpled backward with a cry of pain. Zuko was quick to come to her aid.
"Hold on," he said, avoiding her gaze as he wrapped one arm around her shoulders. She held tight to his waist, screwed her eyes shut as he lifted her over the edge of the saddle. They slid down Appa's fur together, landing shakily on the ice. Katara gulped down her nausea, vision wavering as the impact jostled her injury.
Zuko released her as soon as he could, backing off quickly.
"Thanks," she said, and he nodded stiffly.
"Teenagers," Long Feng scoffed from beside her. He was still dripping wet, she noted with satisfaction.
"You know, the Earth Kingdom's that way," she snapped, turning around to point in a southerly direction. "Why don't you start swimming?"
"So, uh, guys?" Toph called, head poking over Appa's saddle. "Is anyone going to help me down? Or Twinkletoes?"
Long Feng rolled his eyes, but in the first burst of usefulness since Katara had met the man, he went to Toph's aid. While he was doing that, Chief Arnook waded into the brewing fight between Sokka and Hahn, warding hands splitting them apart. They fumed, glaring into each others' eyes, and Arnook gave them one distracted glance before approaching Katara directly. He paid no mind to either Zuko, or Long Feng.
"Katara of the Southern Tribe, it is a pleasure to see you again," he said, bowing to her.
She offered a feeble and jerky bow in return, smiling apologetically. Her hand was pressed to her side, and his eyes widened as he took in the sight. He turned, signaling quickly to the other men.
"Bring Yugoda!" Arnook said, before leveling another look at Katara. He smiled ruefully to her. "Then I suppose this is not a simple visit."
"I'm afraid not," Katara said. Long Feng walked up from behind her, carrying Aang in his arms. Arnook breathed in sharply, worry lining his face as he looked at the fallen Avatar. Katara swallowed deeply, adding, "He needs your help. We flew as fast as we could, but I don't know…"
"Of course," Arnook said. He turned and scanned the assembled crowd of benders, their jobs abandoned as they stared at their Chief and the surprise visitors. He quickly found the same man he'd told to bring the healer, and he amended his command, "Qiriq, we can't wait for Yugoda to get here. Take…" He trailed off, casting a look in Long Feng's direction.
"Long Feng," he supplied.
Arnook nodded, and continued, "Take him and the Avatar to the healing huts, fast as you can!"
Qiriq separated from the crowd, and Long Feng followed him down the stairs to the closest canal, carrying Aang. One piece of the walkway ice broke off, forming a makeshift boat beneath their feet, which Qiriq sped up the canal, fast enough to create a white wake that washed up against the nearby houses. Katara's heart clenched as she watched them go, wishing she was by Aang's side.
"So," Toph said into the silence. "Is anyone going to help me back onto Appa? It's cold down here."
"You should wear shoes," Zuko said, looking down at the top of her head. He knelt down, grasping her by the waist to boost her onto Appa's side. She struggled up the rest of the way herself, very nearly – and probably deliberately – kicking him in the face.
"No you," she replied, voice muffled as she pressed her face happily to the saddle's side.
"Chief Arnook," said Hahn. He bowed to the chief, and then gestured wildly toward Appa. "Shouldn't we make them move? Chen is going to be here soon!"
Arnook gave the boy a narrow look, before sighing. He rubbed a hand across his face.
"Hahn has a point. While you are always welcome here, your visit has not come at the best possible time for us. "
"The Fire Nation ship," Sokka said, voice low and tight.
"Just that. The Bei family has come to negotiate an armistice with the Northern Tribe. You all saw how my city suffered under the Fire Nation assault this past year. The Avatar's defense saved us all, but we are still recovering from the damage they wrought. And even though there have been no further attacks, our city is under blockade to the east, cutting off our trade route to the Earth Kingdom."
Katara shared a look with Sokka. That didn't really match up with what Zuko had said about Bei Hu. If he was just a merchant, it didn't make sense that he could offer any kind of peace with the Northern Tribe. But more importantly, why were they willing to take it?
The Southern Tribe had sent their men away – Katara's father – two years ago, to fight the war against the Fire Nation. Their village was tiny and shattered, all of the waterbenders captured or killed long ago, and here was the great city of the North, ready to fold after just one battle. Katara clenched her jaw, casting an angry look around the square. The great totems still stood strong, the palace was untouched, and even the battlements guarding the city had been repaired. That was the advantage of building from water, after all. It was so easy just wash away the damage.
Outrage choked off the words building in her chest. She settled for giving Arnook an angry, disappointed look. Beside her, Zuko shifted uneasily, and she wondered if he was going to speak up. But Arnook hadn't realized his identity yet, and it was probably best to keep it that way as long as possible.
"Sir, with all due respect," Sokka started in a tone more civil than Katara could have managed, but terse nonetheless. "I don't think a peace treaty is the right way to go. We have a plan, and I'd like to talk to you about it."
"I am quite willing to listen," Arnook replied. "Later. I will see you after you have rested, at our welcoming feast."
He gestured for two of the men to come forward. One he pointed to Appa, giving the command to take him to the stables. Toph yelped loudly from his back as he started forward, poking her head back over the edge of the saddle to remind them she was there. Once down again, Zuko very grudgingly bent down, pulling her onto his back. Despite her ire at Arnook, it was all Katara could do to suppress a smile. The other man nodded to Sokka and turned around, leading them into the palace.
The sun, hanging low behind the vast ice walls of the city, cast the palace and decorations in a warm orange light that suited the garden of ice sculptures that filled the great square. Sokka marked the time by the sun's height – it was late. Really late. And he didn't know if the delay for the ceremony was for the benefit of his own group, or so the Fire Nation guests could be welcomed in style. Probably the latter, he concluded glumly, much as it was nice to think that the group napping the afternoon away might have annoyed Bei Hu.
After being led to expansive palace suites, the group had nearly been inundated by attendants. A healer for Katara, easing her pain and bringing reassuring color back to her face. Clothes for everyone in the bedraggled and bloodied group, and a decent pair of mukluks for Toph in particular, who screwed her face up in complaint while they forced the boots on, but was happier for her feet all the same. And lastly, before Sokka could crawl wearily into bed – or who cared about a bed? He'd been just as ready to curl up on the ice – an etiquette advisor to make sure the group didn't step on any toes.
And despite the silvery beads woven into her braids, despite the tufted ibex-mane she wore over her shoulders, there was just a little of the Joo Dees about her. Enough, anyway, for Toph to slowly and carefully feel her way across the room, using the icy walls as a guide, just for the pleasure of slamming the door in the pompous woman's face.
Nonetheless, they'd gotten the point. Sokka and the others were friends given temporary safe harbor. The Bei family, however, were honored guests.
The contrast was all the more apparent when they were summoned to dinner. Settled at the far end of the high table, Sokka and the others were pushed to the very edge of the platform, seated quietly and first before Arnook and the Bei family entered with fanfare.
"Well," Sokka started. He leaned back, planting his hands into the tiger-seal fur obligingly provided for them to sit on. "This is awkward."
"Shush up, Sokka!" Katara hissed. She jerked her head toward the arrayed elders that sat next to her, all the way down the length of the table, and Sokka shrugged in response. Exactly. That was his point.
In front of them, a grand ceremonial performance of waterbending was unfolding – led by one of the lesser masters, Sokka noted happily. Not nearly as impressive as what Pakku had done for them.
The Bei family sat on the other end of the high table, Bei Hu himself at Arnook's side. His wife and daughters sat still and placid next to him. They looked like a line of perfect dolls, their inky black hair spilling down the backs of their vibrantly red quilted-silk robes. His wife seemed hesitant to eat, inspecting each morsel of food carefully before reaching out with delicate fingers to swiftly pick it up and pop in into her mouth, an occasional expression of disgust crossing her face. Whatever, some people just didn't know how to appreciate good whale blubber. Her daughters ate with far less restraint, though they maintained their impeccable manners.
Bei Hu was a different matter. He ate with gusto, rose from his seat from time to time to loudly applaud the benders, and lifted his glass frequently to toast his hosts. He leaned in to Arnook, sharing a joke, and both erupted in simultaneous laughter.
"Seriously, you don't have a problem with this?" Sokka asked, staring down the line at the shaking, amused backs of both men.
"You know I do! But this isn't the time!" Katara snapped. One of the elders turned, glowering through rheumy and yellow eyes at her. She winced and raised her hands in a sign of surrender. The man grunted with disapproval, shaking his jowly face as he looked away.
Sokka had the sinking feeling that she was wrong. He watched as Bei Hu talked with Arnook, very aware that this was politics, right now. It wasn't friendship – or he hoped it wasn't, because if it was, then the right time had passed a long time before. It was the first stage of negotiation. And much as he hated to think so, peace for the Northern Tribe was the last thing he wanted. Not now, not with the eclipse only a few months away, not with the Earth Kingdom fallen.
The Northern Tribe was their last chance to make the invasion plan work, and it killed Sokka to sit and watch Arnook unknowingly throw it all away.
Stomach churning, Sokka turned away from Arnook and Bei Hu, looking over Toph's head to Zuko. He was quietly conversing with Long Feng, uncomfortable expression on his face matched in intensity by the crafty one on Long Feng's face. Yeah, okay, that probably wasn't a good thing either.
The platters of food remained untouched in front of them both, and while he had expected Long Feng to turn up his nose at utensil-less eating – wasn't that on the Earth Kingdom list of "barbarian" customs? – he was less sanguine about the snubbing from Zuko. Since Ba Sing Se, he'd begun to think of Zuko as his kind of guy. He couldn't deny that saving Katara's life was worth a lot of points with him. Zuko was a little – no, a lot – on the broody side, but he seemed overall decent despite their bad beginning and he was apparently more used to roughing it than Sokka had expected of a prince.
So, yeah, he was going to have eat Water Tribe style, and he was going to like it.
"It's not going to bite you," Sokka said, pitching his voice to interrupt whatever nonsense Long Feng was spouting. Zuko turned in surprise.
Rather than protest that the food was gross, or somehow beneath him, Zuko just haplessly gestured with his hand, thumb and forefinger coming together as if wielding chopsticks.
"How do you…?"
"Like so," Sokka said, demonstrating grandly by picking up a seared arctic scallop and tossing it up into the air. He caught it with his mouth, and then bowed smugly to Zuko. "Using the chopsticks nature gave you!"
Steely glint in Zuko's eye, he squared his shoulders and selected what probably looked like the most inoffensive items on the platter – unfortunately, it was a stewed sea prune. It squished in Zuko's grasp, juice trickling down his hand. He clumsily flipped it up in the air, far too low. He ducked his head, trying to get under it.
The sea prune hit him square between the eyes, splattering salty brown juice across his entire face.
Sokka cracked up, arm coming around his stomach as he quaked with laughter. Katara stifled a giggle next to him, while further down the line, Long Feng rolled his eyes. Zuko glowered, which really just made it funnier.
"Come on, man. You have to admit, it's a little funny," Sokka urged. "Besides, if you haven't caught a sea prune in the face, then you aren't really a man."
"That is, sadly, true," Katara confirmed with a nod of false sagacity, eyes warm. And you know, that look plus the guy it was aimed at weren't really things that Sokka was going to think about right now. He had enough on his plate – metaphorically speaking, of course.
Zuko looked between them, suspicion melting just a little. He wiped off his face, offering Sokka back the smallest of smiles.
"So tell me why you eat this stuff?"
"Well, I try not to. Now this stuff over here," Sokka gestured at the untouched platter of cured tiger-seal meat, smoked fish, and half-shelled arctic oysters. "This is the food of kings."
Eyebrow arched, Zuko passed him the plate.
"Then I guess we should keep it away from Hahn."
Oh, ugh. Sokka had almost forgotten about him. He twisted around, searching down the line of the high table for that twit's glossy, stupidly pretty hair. Sokka found him, positioned at Arnook's left hand, raising his glass in a toast to something Bei Hu had just said.
"So, what's up with you guys anyway?" Toph said. She had been eating voraciously throughout their conversation, but finished now, slurping grease off of her fingers with a delighted smack. "How did he 'get to be' the heir?"
"Maybe he killed someone," Zuko muttered.
Sokka's jaw clenched as he cast a dark look over at him.
"I don't know why he's a prince now — I don't really get the North. That's not how we do things in the South, at all. We don't even do royalty. But Hahn was supposed to marry Princess Yue before… " The words stuck in his throat. He swallowed deeply, and shook his head, trying to ignore that hard knot of guilt and longing that always came along with her name. "I guess that means his dad was a bigwig, that he could marry the princess. Even without her, he's still really important to the tribe."
"Well, that's stupid," Toph pronounced. "He was important because he was marrying the princess, but now he's not marrying her… and he's still important? So, what, she didn't matter at all?"
"No! That's not what—"
Katara elbowed him, pointing two fingers at the elders and tracing their eye lines over to Sokka. She shook her head sternly, and then turned a kinder, completely unnecessary look toward Toph.
"Arnook wouldn't do that. He loved his daughter. Hahn just proved himself in the siege, I'm sure," she said.
"Whatever." Toph snorted and let the topic drop, having exhausted her interest in the politics of the North.
Sokka stomach churned, and the fine plate of fancy meats in front of him suddenly made him queasy. He pushed it away, and cast yet another unhappy look down the line of the high table. He just wished he had the chance to talk to Arnook.
There was commotion down at that end of the table, murmuring rising and then falling just as quickly as Arnook stood. He raised his arms wide above his head, voice pitched to fill the entire square, "Tonight we welcome Bei Hu and his family, the honorable ambassadors of the Northern Fire Nation territories. They bring not only many treasures to share with us, but an even greater gift that humbles me as much as it gives me hope: peace."
The assembled townspeople and Fire Nation delegation seated at the tables lining the squared cheered, some reaching out to clasp hands as if the deal were already done.
Bei Hu stood next to Arnook, smiling at the taller man as he placed a friendly hand on his shoulder. The cheer rose again, and Hu lifted a hand, waving them into silence.
"I am honored to be your guest once more Chief Arnook," he said, turning half way to offer the traditional Fire Nation bow. Sokka's jaw dropped at the declaration. Once more? "It has been too long, and are people have suffered too much in the mean time. I mean to make amends for that, with all the power vested in me by the Fire Lord."
Sokka darted a quick look over at Zuko.
"How much power is that?" he whispered.
Zuko rolled his eyes.
"Our gifts to the Water Tribe are eight in number – to bring prosperity to both of people. Two from my beloved wife, Xin," Hu was saying. He held out a hand, and his wife rose in one elegant motion. Her hair swayed as she stood, a mother of pearl hairpin glittering in the midnight sun.
Two men in Fire Nation clothes, seal-bear and star crest prominent on the front of their robes, entered the square, carrying oblong obsidian bowls. They were filled with – and here Sokka squinted, because that was a gift, seriously? – white rice.
"From the terraced hills and mountains of the Northern Territories, we give you jasmine rice and aromatic rice, so you may have warm food during your cold winters," she said. Despite her delicate appearance, her voice was strong and forceful, her gaze unyielding as she looked out over the gathering. She looked more like she was giving orders than giving gifts.
The men bowed, offering the bowls up with two hands. Arnook bowed back to them, and gestured to two waterbenders. They bent a table up from the ice before the men, who set the gifts on it.
Bei Xin knelt down on the furs once more, flipping the hem of her robe up as she did before smoothing her hands down her knees.
"Two gifts from my elder daughter, Chen," Hu continued.
Chen? Sokka mouthed the name, wondering why it was familiar. A teenage girl only a bit older than Katara rose from where her mother sat. Her face was small and heart shaped. She wore make up, which Sokka had rarely seen outside of Ba Sing Se, although hers was of a different style. It was more natural, but for her vibrantly red lips.
Several of the men in the square murmured appreciatively, nudging each other; Bei Xin sent each a chilly death glare, while Hu grinned. One of the first men to wither under Xin's stare was Hahn, and Sokka gaped as he made the connection.
"Two, two, two," Toph said from next to him. She made a gagging sound and flopped forward onto the table, looking desperately bored. "This is worse than my cousin's wedding."
"I think you might be more right than you know," Sokka said back to her, voice tight with suspicion and anger.
Two more men entered, obsidian bowls this time filled with a weird curly kind of bark and tiny brown seed pods.
"From the hills and meadows of the Northern Territories, we give you cassia bark and hua jiao, to bring spice and flavor to your lives," Chen said. If there was a twist to her lips, an undertone to her voice that gave the words a double meaning, her expression gave no hint that it was intentional. Her father's, on the other hand, did.
Katara glared down the table at the other teen as she settled back on the furs.
"Two gifts from my younger daughter, Hana," Bei Hu said.
A little girl stood, hastily and with all the aplomb an eight year old could manage. So not much, actually. She smiled shyly at the crowd, before stiffening as if remembering herself. She held her hand up, and said the ceremonial words as the servants came in bearing samples of her gifts.
"From the orchards and woods of the Northern Territories, we bring you dragon fruit and durian, so our time together can be sweet!"
She bit her lip, raised hands curling into a little wave to the gathered people, and then to every person sitting at her own table. Heaving a great sigh, Chen pulled on Hana's robe, and the girl flushed. She ducked down quickly to sit at her sister's side.
"Okay," Sokka said, leaning onto the table to point at Bei Hana. "I don't have too much pride to admit it. She's adorable."
"That's just what they want you to think," Toph grumped back.
Which was fair. It probably was all a cunning gambit. Very cunning, since it seemed to be working.
With all of the gifts assembled, Arnook left his spot at the high table to go inspect it. He dipped his hand into the rice, scratched a thumb across the back of the cassia back, and lifted a spiky durian section up to smell. He recoiled immediately, but had just enough grace not to drop it. He bestowed a nod of acceptance on Bei Hu, all the while surreptitiously trying to wipe his hand on the back of his robe.
Taking that as a cue, Bei Hu continued, "And to you, Chief Arnook of the Northern Water Tribe, I give a promise of peace-bond while we negotiate and the promise of silence. No letters – not a single one – will leave my ship until our negotiations are completed."
"I too can offer you my promise," Arnook said. "No harm will come to any of your men, nor to any member of your family – under the harshest penalties of my people."
Which were probably putting people on an ice floe and pushing them out to sea, Sokka figured. The Northern Tribe seemed a little old fashioned, that way.
"That is no surprise to me, old friend," Bei Hu said with a smile. He turned and looked down the line of the table, directly at Zuko who froze under the sudden attention, "You have already been so gracious to my Prince."
The square erupted in noise, curious and confused murmuring quickly giving way to shouting. Huh, you know, Sokka hadn't really thought Zuko was all that recognizable anymore. And did they even get Fire Nation wanted posters all the way up here?
Zuko stood, arms crossed as he stared across at Bei Hu.
"You are looking well, Majesty," Hu said, there was a look on his face that Sokka did not like.
The wall was an icy line on Zuko's back. He breathed smoke from his nose, keeping himself warm, but relished that chill nonetheless. It was one small, bright reminder of the last time he'd been in this city, swimming through deadly cold water and fighting between snow and ice.
He stared across the great hall of the palace, where he had been brusquely ushered after the abrupt end of the welcome dinner, over to the assembled elders. Zuko had never been in this room before, since he had been very notably the opposite of an honored guest the last time he was here. The high ceiling rivaled the towering heights of any Air Temple he had searched, and there was a clear skylight of nearly transparent ice at the ceiling's very apex through which the faint midnight sun still shone. The room itself was dominated by four huge, winged totems of ice. At the back of the room there was a raised, decorative dais of ice where the elders had gathered together. Their furs rustled, heads dipped low as they conferred with each other. They would look up from time to time, the group shifting and changing as they argued. They looked like nothing so much as a pack of animals, strangely assembled from wolves, seal-bears, and ibexes though it was.
A hand clapped down on Zuko's shoulder, startling him. He looked up to see Long Feng offer a thin smile.
"You'll catch your death, doing that," he said, tone ironic as he inclined his head to indicate the smoke. "I don't think they need to see you firebending at a time like this."
"Maybe they do. A reminder of who they're dealing with," Zuko snapped back. He crossed his arms sullenly across his chest, and pressed his head back against the wall, slitting his eyes as he watched the elders argue.
Sokka and Katara knelt uncertainly near them, while Toph was hunched by the opposite wall, miserable at the setting but unwilling to leave such an important meeting. In the beginning, they had been the ones bearing the brunt of the elders' anger. Arnook, losing that paternal friendliness Zuko had almost grown used to, yelled at them, asking why they would bring the Fire Prince into his city. Why they would lie about it.
"We didn't lie," Sokka had defended weakly. "You just didn't ask."
The conversation had turned to what the elders were going to do now that he was here, and now that he had been welcomed under the auspices of their hospitality. Not that it made much difference, in Zuko's opinion. The Northern Tribe had already been planning on throwing them out as soon as Aang was better.
"Enough!" Arnook shouted suddenly. He held a hand up, stopping one elder from pulling another's wolf skin headdress down over his face. "I think we have more than made ourselves clear to each other. It is time we asked the boy."
Zuko bristled instantly at the appellation. Boy? They were considering kicking him out – banishing him – because he was Fire Prince. They ought to at least have the decency to use his title.
He shrugged away from the wall, head held high and jaw set as he walked calmly to confront them. Sokka and Katara rose warily to stand next to him. The elders collected themselves, fanning out behind Arnook – but for one, who leaned on a bone cane as he glared at Zuko from Arnook's side.
"I heard you were scarred, boy," the elder said. "Don't look scarred to me."
"I healed him," Katara said. She stepped forward, a prideful jut to her chin at she met the old man's eyes. "With water from the Spirit Oasis."
The elder nodded, as if he had suspected as much. He turned from the group, grunting as he walked his way to the back of the hall to sit on the ice steps. Zuko watched him go warily, wondering if that would be his last word on the matter.
It was Arnook, however, who voiced the complaint clearly swelling amid the group.
"That water was a gift, Katara, to be used in a dire emergency. It was not meant to indulge mere vanity."
Zuko clenched a hand at his side. He could feel the fire licking at his palm, wanting to come out. He was shaken by the readiness, by the power suddenly at his beck and call. It had been there since that horrible night, his hand pressed to Katara's side, sometimes burning so hot he thought it might turn blue.
He knew why, and the thought made him feel sick at the same time that it made the fire burn all that much brighter. Anger. Self-loathing. It was all he could feel any time he looked at her, and she hadn't left his side since Ba Sing Se. Even without Katara, there was the change she had wrought. He was in a city made of ice, and there was no lack of reflections.
It was becoming harder and harder to bear looking at himself.
She'd saved him, freed him from his Nation and his father, and in return he had burned her. If she'd never healed him, she would have had the spirit water. If she'd never healed him, he couldn't honestly say he would be here today, standing by her side.
So what did that make him?
"It wasn't vanity!" Katara argued. She stepped forward, expression fierce and beautiful as she gestured broadly. "You weren't there, and you don't know. We were fighting for our lives in Ba Sing Se. Without Zuko, I would have died! You can ask your healers – they saw what he did for me."
"And, you know," Sokka put in, crossing his arms. "I don't exactly do bending. So, spirit water – nice in theory. Complete waste if you don't have anyone to use it."
"Young fool," Long Feng muttered from beside Zuko. He bent down, adding for Zuko's benefit alone, "That is not how you persuade an enemy."
Zuko gave him an annoyed look. He'd had more than enough etiquette lessons in his lifetime, and he very well knew the cost of disrespecting an elder. For Sokka and Katara to do that for him meant a lot to him.
Even if it was stupid.
There was obstinate muttering among the elders; Arnook tried to placate them despite his own obvious, growing frustration with Katara and Sokka. Keelut, an older, crotchety man Zuko had noticed fixing him with particularly suspicious looks earlier jabbed a thin finger in his direction.
"An ally who can be bought at such a cost is one hardly worth the price," he said, old voice wavering and cracking as he spoke.
From along the wall, Toph snorted.
"Okay, now that's what I call irony," she said loudly. She was swaddled in fur, nothing more than tufts of her hair visible between the layers of white seal-bear hair. And it was clear she was unwilling to move, expecting everyone to just come to her.
Which they did.
"What was that, young lady?" asked Arnook, as the entire crowd stepped closer to her.
"You guys, with your big welcome feast for your Fire Nation allies yelling at Katara and Sokka for having one too. It's ironic," Toph said, speaking slowly to make sure they kept up.
"He is the Fire Prince," said Keelut coldly. "The last time he was here, he defiled our sacred Spirit Oasis, tried to kill the Avatar, and devastated our city with his ships."
Zuko rolled his eyes. He didn't supposed telling them that it was all Zhao would be very effective.
"He's changed," Katara said. The line of her back was straight as she looked at old Keelut, her voice was clear and strong.
"You haven't spoken," Arnook said, looking directly at Zuko.
They hadn't actually asked him anything.
"What's there to say?" he replied, voice rough and quiet as he looked back, raising his chin to meet the Chief's eyes.
"Will you respect our city?" Arnook asked. His voice became loud, formal. "Will you respect our laws and customs? Will you keep the peace-bond that your kinsman promised?"
It was hard to resist snapping back that Bei Hu was not his kinsman – and then again, not that hard. Not in a city of ice, with guards and benders at his back as much as his own horrible memories of this place. He couldn't leave fast enough, and if all he had to do was play nice, then he would happily oblige.
He placed a fist against his palm, bowing to the Chief.
"I will respect your city, your laws, and your peace-bond, honored elders," he said.
Arnook held his gaze for a long moment, before nodding. Mollified, if not pleased.
"There is another matter I would like discuss," Long Feng started, speaking for the first time directly to the elders. He stepped forward, bowing deeply with hands tucked into the sleeves of his parka, as the elders shared skeptical looks. "If I may?"
"Oh, this'll be good," Katara muttered. She stepped back, standing along the wall near Toph, happy to be out of the fray despite her skepticism. Sokka watched Long Feng with a contemplative look, and even the pile of fur Toph was in seemed to perk up.
"You have met the Bei family in friendship to discuss a renewal of the Northern Armistice, am I correct?" Long Feng asked.
Dark looks crossed Katara and Sokka's faces, Zuko noted with surprise. There was a reason, after all, that the Northern Tribe hadn't fought the Fire Nation in eighty-five years. He remembered learning about that treaty at the Royal Fire Academy for Boys, reciting the long litany of signatories, dates for the handful of violations, and the eventual circumstances that led to his grandfather Azulon dissolving it entirely in his later years. Mostly that had been due to ambition. The histories glossed it over with accusations of territorial disputes, but the fact of the matter was that for much of Azulon's reign, he hadn't truly pursued the war. He had defended colonies and maintained the homeland, he had whittled away at the Southern Tribe and fought skirmishes in the Earth Kingdom, but it wasn't until he had a son of an age to prove himself in battle that he bothered prosecuting the war properly.
And then in a few short years, the war was nearly won. Ba Sing Se was ready for the taking at Uncle Iroh's feet. A siege of the South would have been laughably easy, and of the North hardly a measure more difficult.
Any sense of pride Zuko felt for his uncle's achievements was deadened by the weight of reality. Ba Sing Se had fallen – not to Uncle Iroh, but to Azula. Zuko's stomach tightened with guilt and fear at the thought of his uncle. He didn't even know what had happened to him, only that Uncle Iroh sacrificed himself for their escape, for the hope of the Avatar winning the war. And now the North was on the verge of throwing that away completely, surrendering under the selfish delusion that they were buying peace.
"I, along with these children, have traveled from Ba Sing Se," Long Feng continued, his voice silky and low, head still half bowed as if in obeisance. The elders stood with straight postures, eyes measuring and expressions flattered as they listened far more attentively than they had to Katara or Sokka. Zuko glowered at them. "My city is fallen, and we are seeking aid from the great Tribe of the North. I understand that the needs of your own people must be sought first, but I want you to consider an alternative to the Bei family's peace. You have here, standing before you, the rightful heir to the Fire Throne. Aid him, and us, to take it back, and you will never have to worry about your people's safety again."
Murmurs rippled through the room. Zuko shifted uncomfortably as all the eyes of the elders once more settled upon him, skepticism mixed with a venal kind of suspicion. Keelut raked a look over him, shaking his head distrustfully.
His eyes lingered on Zuko, but he spoke to Long Feng, pitching his scratchy voice louder, "Why should we trust him – or you?"
Long Feng rested a hand on Zuko's shoulder; despite himself, he didn't shrug it off. He did turn, however, giving the older man a dirty look. Uncle he was not.
"As you have said, honored elders, this boy is indebted to you." He cast a lingering look over toward Katara, and the elders followed suit. With a sly smile, Long Feng added, "Much more than you think."
Zuko's fist clenched at the pronouncement. He watched as Katara tucked her hair behind her ear nervously, unhappy at the attention. She looked up, catching his eye, and his anger fled him suddenly. He swallowed, and looking down to stare at his feet, his reflection in the shining ice floor.
"What are you proposing?" Arnook asked. "My people are hardly interesting in fomenting a civil war, and have little interest in the internal politics of the Fire Nation."
"Wow," Sokka said, under his breath, but still not quiet enough to escape Arnook's attention. Sokka continued blithely, leaning over to add for Katara, "He says it like that, and it actually sounds really bad."
"We're not trying to cause a civil war!" she protested.
Long Feng gave them both an irritated look, and the room settled once more into silence.
"If I may, Chief Arnook, that does not seem the wisest philosophy," Long Feng said, voicing Zuko's own thoughts. Well, in a less inflammatory way than Zuko would. Having no interest in the politics of the Fire Nation was both stupid and suicidal, in his opinion. "However, I am not asking for you to fight on Prince Zuko's behalf, merely your own.
"In two months, the Fire Nation will be at its weakest, during the Day of Black Sun. On that day, there will be a total solar eclipse which will nullify their firebending, leaving the capitol vulnerable. The Avatar and our allies in the Earth Kingdom," he said, lying smoothly enough that Zuko almost thought they had allies in the Earth Kingdom, "as well as our allies from your sister tribe in the South will band together to invade the Fire Nation, deposing the Fire Lord and placing Prince Zuko on the throne."
Wait. That was their plan? Zuko shot a horrified look over at Sokka, but the other boy seemed consumed with his own worries.
"Aw," Sokka groaned aloud. "I wanted to say it!"