It had been two years since their father had returned back to the Southern Tribe and told Sokka and Katara of his intention to marry someone from the Fire Nation. Sokka remembered that day like it was yesterday as he watched a Fire Nation vessel approach on the iceberg-ridden horizon.
Seeing the two Water Tribe ships sail closer and closer had been both a relief and a shock, knowing that they had numbered sixteen when they left. Katara had beat Sokka in the race to reach their father, and Sokka was able to catch the soft wails of the families of those who did not return. It only made him clutch the fabric of his father’s clothes tighter when Sokka did get his turn at embracing Hakoda. Bato passed the small family as he disembarked from the ship, giving their father a watchful look, and Hakoda’s face darkened. He patted Sokka on the shoulder, and cleared his throat, preparing to address the tribe.
He had said “I know many of you are scared about what I am going to say. As you know, many months ago, we left these waters and entered Fire Nation territory with the intention of attacking Fire Navy ships to weaken Fire Nation control of the Earth Kingdom. But now I bring news of the status of the war, and it is with a heavy heart I announce that the city of Ba Sing Se fell during a siege. Soldiers and colonists began travelling to and from the two mainlands, and now much of the Earth Kingdom is under the strict regime of Fire Lord Azulon. The war…has been lost.” Hakoda’s throat was tight, and cries of horror rose from the assembled tribe.
“We continued attacking Navy ships, in hopes that rebellions would be able to develop and liberate the Earth Kingdom, but a few weeks ago, the Navy ships were ordered to fight back. We took on a lot of damage, and many of our men were taken hostage, to be used as political prisoners. As far as I know, they are still alive. Since then, my counterpart in the Northern Tribe and I have negotiated a political arrangement of peace to get them back. In two years, providing that no outright conflict between the Water Tribes and the Fire Nation occurs, an arranged marriage will occur between myself and a member of the Fire Nation royal family. Whomever they send will arrive with the prisoners, and after the wedding, our brothers and sisters will be released back into our arms.”
“What?” Sokka had blurted out, trying to understand what his father had said, and Katara’s face mirrored his confusion, anger, and horror. Hakoda had shot Sokka a warning look, as if to say it was not up for discussion at the time, and Katara ran off, crying. Hakoda had watched his daughter go, regret and sadness filling his eyes, and Sokka felt a pang of guilt for his father.
Hakoda turned back to his people, as if to say something more, but he’d had no more words. Slowly the tribe disassembled, and people began to process the loss they had just experienced. Some looked at Hakoda with understanding, but grief-filled eyes as they left, and Hakoda tried his best not to let his emotions reveal themselves as his son stood there staring at him.
Finally, it was just Sokka and Hakoda standing there on the dock, and still Sokka said nothing. Silently, Hakoda prayed that his son would eventually speak, it seemed almost foreign to hear no words exit Sokka’s mouth. Moments passed, and Hakoda couldn’t take the silence anymore.
“It’s okay Dad.” The response was short, but soft and understanding, and Hakoda looked at his son in shock. Sokka stepped closer to his father until they were both in each other’s grasp. “You wouldn’t have agreed to it unless it was really important.”
Hakoda wrenched his son into his arms as if he were a lifeline, and buried his face into the crook of Sokka’s neck. “Thank you.” Hakoda whispered, and Sokka wrapped his arms around his father.
“I’m not calling her mom though.” Sokka stated adamantly, and Hakoda let out a wet chuckle.
“No. You don’t have to call her mom.”
Sokka pulled away from the hug, and frowned. “And since she’s Fire Nation, I don’t have to be nice to her. Bato said that the Fire Nation is our enemy, making her our enemy.”
Hakoda winced. “Sokka, I doubt she’ll like being here any more than we’ll like being here, so can you at least try to be nice to her?”
Sokka shrugged. “Katara’s the nice one, so you’ll have to talk to her.”
End of Flashback…
And talk to his sister, Hakoda tried to. Sokka watched as his father spent the next two months trying to get Katara to understand the situation, that he wasn’t trying to replace her mother, and that he was only doing it for the good of the prisoners. And while initially she didn’t want to listen, eventually she did come around. If she did so on the secret promise from Sokka though that they would make their new stepmother very uncomfortable when she got here, however, well, Hakoda didn’t need to know that.
Every day, when they went fishing, or sledding, or while they were just doing chores, they’d come up with simple plans of pranks they could play on their imagined stepmother. Some involved penguin seals, and others involved freezing various possessions that they figured she would bring, like clothes. It became a great bonding experience for the two siblings, and resulted in many inside jokes, even if Hakoda tried to discourage the pranks they came up with.
Bato, of course, was no help, and even gave them ideas, much to Hakoda and Gran-Gran’s chagrin. Slowly, the plans started involving more and more people, and it wasn’t long before the entire tribe was participating. Some came up with incredibly outlandish recipes for the bride to eat, while others made up ridiculous traditions that they would tell the bride to adhere to. Small children practiced making snowballs to throw at the Fire Nation woman, and the village elders created a historical document emphasizing the history of the tribe, with the intention of making the bride learn it, making sure to detail all of the horrors her people had inflicted on their community. Sokka set up traps on the Fire Navy ship, hoping that if he left her there, she’d get stuck in one, and Katara practiced her bending to the point that she was able to dump freezing water on people.
Sokka looked back on those two years fondly as the metal ship approached the tribe, and barely recognized the ash that began falling. Hakoda looked at his reflection in his room, trying to quell the nerves rising within himself, as he prepared himself for his wedding, and Katara breathed deeply, watching the reactions of the tribe’s adults as they watched the ship come in.
The sharp front of the Navy vessel broke through the ice like a knife, and the screech of the metal as it grazed the glaciers pierced the air. Hakoda walked out of his home, and moved to stand some feet in front of the massive boat, waiting patiently for the moment in which he was to meet his future spouse. The village rallied around their chief, and Sokka and Katara stood next to their father, willing to support him, no matter what happened. As the hull opened up, and Fire Nation soldiers disembarked, everyone did their best not to flinch, the black metal armor bringing up painful memories. A single man, whom Hakoda recognized as General Iroh approached, and Hakoda walked forward to greet the man.
“General Iroh. Welcome to the South Pole.”
The older man smiled tightly, and nodded respectfully. “Chief Hakoda, it is good to see you again. You’ll forgive me for wishing it were under different circumstances.”
“I doubt we would find any other circumstance in which we would meet.” Hakoda declared, his tone clipped, and General Iroh cast a critical glance at the assembled village. Hakoda raised an eyebrow, and followed up his snipe.
“How are my men doing?”
Iroh forcefully relaxed his face, and nodded. “They are doing well. Many of them seemed to recognize where they were headed a few days ago, and are hopeful to be released. We have not told them the condition of their release though.”
“So they’re still alive then.” Hakoda said, trying not to make the phrase sound like a question.
Iroh pressed his lips together. “Yes. All seventy-three of your tribesmen are still alive, and healthy. We didn’t mistreat them as a means of torturing your people further.”
“So you’ll admit holding them captive for two years was an intentional act of misintent against my people?” Hakoda was deliberately challenging the man now, and struggling to keep the anger out of his voice.
“No more than the act of attacking cargo ships during peacetime was a slight against the Fire Nation.” Iroh responded, not able to put any heat into the words.
Hakoda scoffed internally, and stood firm, staring at General Iroh for a long moment. “Well? I suppose we should get the ceremony over with?”
Iroh was caught off guard for a moment, but recomposed himself. “Yes, of course. So, where is the groom-to-be?”
Hakoda frowned in confusion. “I don’t understand. I was under the impression that it had been agreed that I would be the one involved in the match.”
A look of shock passed over General Iroh’s face. “I…excuse me?”
A feeling of anger swelled within Hakoda. “I don’t know what kind of person you think I am General Iroh, but I do not believe in forcing others into political marriages. I wasn’t going to do that to either of my children, neither of whom are of marriageable age yet, in case you weren’t aware, leaving the only candidate, and my only choice, to be myself.”
Iroh gaped at Hakoda for a moment, before correcting his statement. “Of course. I apologize Chief Hakoda. I’m afraid I was not informed of your tribe’s choice, and it is not you whom I reject. It’s just…well, I’m not sure how to put this. Our reason for the two year deadline was not just prepare our candidate for this marriage, but also to allow them to reach the marriageable age themselves.”
A cold feeling of horror washed over Hakoda. “My bride-to-be is sixteen?”
Iroh winced. “Well, you see, my own son is the heir to the Fire Nation throne. He will have to stay in the Fire Nation capitol, and will be required to marry a Fire Nation citizen. This left the only other candidates in our immediate family to be that of my brother’s children, of whom he has two. A girl, aged thirteen, and a son, sixteen.”
There was silence between the two men, and Hakoda couldn’t find it within himself to say anything. A son. He was supposed to marry a child, barely older than his own son.
“I would offer to cancel the marriage contract, but you understand that I cannot release your people. Is this going to be a problem for you, Chief Hakoda, to marry my nephew?”
Hakoda started. “No, I…ah…I thought it was taboo in the Fire Nation, for people of the same gender to marry?”Hakoda tried desperately to cover his distaste for the scenario in which he had found himself. Marrying a child? He at least would have thought the person he would marry would be closer to his age. It had never occurred to Hakoda that that wasn’t a given, much less the expectation of a person who would identify as female.
Iroh nodded. “Yes, a custom that developed under the reign of my grandfather, Firelord Sozin. It was the result of a law that encouraged Fire Nation families to produce children capable of serving the Fire Nation, as is the responsibility of every citizen. But as we do not require a child to result in this particular arrangement, there was no issue on our side of the gender of the spouse chosen.”
Hakoda swallowed, and breathed deeply. A look of indecision crossed General Iroh’s face. “I know this cannot be easy to accept. Had I known you would be the person to whom my nephew would marry, I never would have let this happen. We would have found a different option, and you would still have gotten your people back.”
The reassurance did little to calm Hakoda, but he nodded in acknowledgement all the same. “Of course. I suppose the marriage can still go through, though, even if I am slightly uncomfortable with the concept of marrying someone so young.”
Iroh’s eyes softened in relief. Internally he reassessed his impression of Chief Hakoda, grateful that the other man’s reticence was due towards his nephew’s age. “Of course. In that case, you might as well meet him.”
Hakoda nodded, and Iroh turned, gesturing to the assembled soldiers standing in formation by the ship’s gangway. The soldiers parted, forming an aisle and revealing a lone individual, clothed in traditional black, red, and gold armor. The individual approached, and slowly walked to stand next to his uncle. Behind Hakoda, Sokka and Katara frowned at each other, trying to hear what was going on.
Iroh glanced reassuringly at his nephew, before saying “Chief Hakoda of the Southern Water Tribe, may I present my nephew, Prince Zuko of the Fire Nation to be your intended spouse in this arrangement to negotiate peace between our two peoples.”
As Iroh said his name, Zuko removed the helmet covering his head, revealing his face to Chief Hakoda. Unfortunately he was not able to hide his expression of fear as he met eyes with the older man upon learning that this was whom he was about to marry.