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|The Little Traveler|
December 15, 2015
The romance in this story is pretty light, so if Zutara is not your thing, you can (hopefully!) still enjoy it. The story was inspired by a family tradition I saw one of my neighbors do. Each Christmas, they set up a nativity set under their tree, but they don't include the wise men. The wise men start on the opposite side of the house and every day, they move a little bit closer to the rest of the figures to symbolize the journey. I know the world of Avatar is obviously not our modern world, but I liked the idea very much, and drew my inspiration from there. Thanks for reading!
Katara stood on the front steps of the Fire Nation palace, watching the little clouds of mist tumble from her lips and nose. This time every year she would be at home, surrounded by family, the sound of laughter, and the smoky scent of a warm fire clinging to her hair.
Every year except this year.
Last year, she was nobody, just a simple girl from the Southern Water Tribe. Now she represented the tribe in front of the very people she'd grown up hating for tearing her family apart. And called their leader one of her closest friends. Amazing what a year could change.
She turned on hearing her name to see Zuko stepping outside the door, a light coat draped over his shoulders. "What are you doing out here?" he asked.
"Oh, nothing," she sighed, resisting the temptation to add, nothing you would understand. "It's just when the weather gets so nice like this, it reminds me of home."
"Nice?!" Zuko stared at her as if she'd become deranged. "Katara, it's freezing out here! In no possible way is it nice."
She had to laugh at that. "This is freezing? What do you do when it does something crazy, like say, snow?"
"Um, stay inside." He turned and grabbed the door handle. "Which is where I'm going now. You coming?"
She shrugged and followed. Reminiscing did get depressing after a while. Plus, she wasn't quite sure she'd finished with harassing Zuko yet, which always made for a good time.
Inside, the palace didn't look particularly different than it always did -- the high, silent walls remained bare as ever. There were fires, of course, but not the fires a family gathered around. These sat on pedestals where they looked grand and important, but provided little comfort to anyone.
"You know, the year's almost over, but you haven't decorated the palace at all," Katara observed.
Zuko removed his coat and handed it to a passing servant. "No. Am I supposed to?"
For a moment, Katara felt a bit guilty. Maybe she shouldn't have presumed. She didn't know much about Fire Nation culture. Things she took for granted at home could be completely foreign here. "You don't have to, but..." How did she get out of this without sounding pompous? "Well, what sorts of holiday traditions does your family have?"
Zuko rubbed the back of his head. "Erm, there's the new year festival that takes place in the capitol every year. My father would always give a speech at that. Which I guess means I have to do it this year..."
"Giving a speech to your nation isn't really the same thing as a family tradition," Katara pointed out. "I mean, what did you do together?"
At this, Zuko burst into laughter. "Katara, if my family did anything together other than try to kill each other, it was nothing short of a holiday miracle."
"What are you talking about? You told us how you went to Ember Island every year."
"Yeah, back when Azula was a toddler, my parents got along, and my dad hadn't burned half my face off yet."
Just then, the servant who'd walked away with Zuko's coat returned and whispered something in his ear. Zuko nodded formally. "Of course, I'll be right there." He shrugged his shoulders at Katara. "Duty calls. See you around later?"
Katara nodded and waved good-bye to him. A bit of relief washed over her, but also a bit of sadness as well. Zuko spent so much time with her and Aang and everyone else that it was easy to forget how alone he was. Katara crossed her arms.
Well, no point in standing here angsting about it. Maybe she couldn't be back home for her usual traditions this year. But that didn't mean she couldn't bring a couple Water Tribe traditions into the Fire Nation palace.
"Excuse me," she called to the servant. The young woman turned around looking confused. It made sense. Katara didn't typically go around barking orders at palace staff. "Erm, that is, I was just wondering..." Katara stuttered. "Do you possibly have a small piece of wood that would work well for carving?"
Zuko awoke the next morning, as usual, long before anyone else did and decided to spend the small amount of quiet time he had walking through the halls of the palace. The fires lighting the walls had dimmed to a low orange glow, a sharp contrast to the bits of deep blue light that were just starting to creep over the horizon. His eyes drifted lazily over the decorative mantels and ledges in the hall that, as Katara had been so quick to point out, no one had actually decorated.
Well, why would they? he thought. It's not like anyone cared to make this place look homey before.
Then he noticed it. At first, it was a stray shadow on the wall, and he actually got into a firebending stance to defend himself. Then Zuko realized there was no one there. The long shadow had been cast by a little wooden figure, sitting isolated on a small iron ledge in the corner. He lowered his fists, grateful that no one had been around to see his overreaction. Well, old habits died hard. And after so many assassination attempts during the first weeks of his rule, being defensive had become a well-ingrained habit.
Zuko took a step closer to get a better look at the figure. It was six inches tall, more or less, depicting a middle-aged man in a long robe. The lines were roughly-cut, but the fresh smell of wood still drifted from its surface, like it had only been shaped in the past few hours.
"Zuko?" a tired voice asked from behind. He turned to see another shadow approaching, but this time, the familiarity of the voice stopped him from getting ready to blast flames in its direction.
"I'm right here," he said as Katara rounded the corner. She rubbed her eyes and yawned, which made Zuko feel like he could fall back asleep himself.
"What are you doing up this early?" she asked.
"Erm, couldn't sleep. Not that that's news." He pointed to the little wooden figure that had mysteriously appeared. "Do you know anything about this?"
"The wall?" she started to ask, then followed his finger to where he was pointing. When her eyes landed on the ledge, she smiled. "Oh, that. Didn't think you'd find it so quick."
"You made that?" Zuko asked. He'd had no idea she knew how to carve. Then again, there was a lot about her he didn't know. "What is it?"
"Something from the water tribe. I wanted to do some sort of tradition this winter, since I won't be there and everything. And I thought... you might like it too." She leaned against the wall, and the low firelight played on her face. She seemed to fall back into a happier time. "See, there's an old legend that we tell every winter. A group of travelers are out looking for a baby who's just been born who will become a great leader."
"The Avatar, you mean?"
Katara thought for a moment. "Gran Gran never says, 'the Avatar' when she tells the story. She just says, 'great leader.'."
"Why doesn't she say 'the Avatar' or 'a great leader beyond the Avatar,' or whatever she means so it's less confusing?"
Katara snapped out of her peaceful stance. "She doesn't have to because no one in the water tribe as annoying and disruptive as you."
Zuko hung his head a bit at that, and Katara did the same, covering her lips. "Sorry. Anyway, the legend goes that the travelers don't have a map, but a bright star, brighter than any other star in the sky, shines over the place they have to go, so they follow it until they reach their destination."
"And what happens then?"
"Then they give the baby and the parents lots of gifts and they celebrate, and it's really happy and festive." She pointed to the figure. "So, over the next ten days, you have to move this closer and closer to the throne room."
Katara shrugged. "It's supposed to be the center of the home. Should I pick somewhere else?"
"No, no, throne room works, I guess."
"Right. So on the tenth night, you place it right in the center of the room and the next morning at dawn, we all exchange gifts with each other to celebrate."
Zuko raised his eyebrows at this. "Wait, I have to get you a gift now?"
"What? You can't afford it or something?"
He turned the scarred side of his face towards her, hoping it would hide his reddening cheeks a bit better. "No, no, I'm fine. Just wanted to make sure you were fine with it, is all."
"I am fine," she said it defiantly, like a child being left home alone for the first time. "And so are Toph and Aang and Sokka."
"You asked them?"
"When I do ask them, they'll say it's fine." She crossed her arms and stared him down, like she was just daring him to argue with that. He didn't. "All right, ten days then," she finally said, taking a deep breath and swinging her arms back and forth.
"Right, ten days," he repeated. "I'll let you, um, let you get back to whatever you were doing, then."
"Yeah, you too." Katara turned and hurried back up the hallway towards her room. She really hadn't planned this out as well as she'd thought. It was all well and good that Zuko liked her idea and wanted to go along with it. But now she actually had to find a gift for him. A gift for a guy who ran a whole country. Maybe this wasn't one of her best plans after all.
The next seven days nearly drove Katara insane. Somehow the most peaceful and quiet time of the year back in the Southern Water Tribe was the busiest and most insane time of year for the Fire Nation. Even Aang was busy, as Zuko was almost constantly consulting him for advice on something or another. Okay, granted, it's the first year the four nations haven't been involved in a century-long war, she told herself.
Toph tried to hang out with Katara a couple times, but often got called away to assist her metalbending students.
"Hey, Toph, can I get your opinion?" Katara asked her on a rare day she wasn't running off somewhere.
"As long as it's not about your earthbending stance, be my guest." Toph flopped back on a soft cushion, feet still on the ground, but arms spread out like she hadn't relaxed in days. "I mean, I'm glad my school is doing so well, but seriously, people, there are such things as stupid questions."
Katara played with her fingers a bit. "So, let's say you planned to get someone a present."
"And this person already had a lot stuff. I mean, way more stuff than you've ever had in your lifetime."
"This is about that gift-giving thing we're all doing in a few days? Look, Katara, if you didn't know what to get me, I could've given you a list last week." Katara started to object, but Toph cut her off. "Kidding. Kidding. You're talking about Zuko, right?"
Katara felt her face flood with warmth.
Toph grinned. "Yup, definitely talking about Zuko." She jumped up from the cushion and walked over to sit beside Katara. "Only thing easier than sensing when a person is lying is sensing when they're blushing like crazy. Look, you're thinking about this the wrong way. Zuko has everything from the Fire Nation. You're from the Water Tribe. You have a whole bunch of traditions and ideas and culture that Zuko's totally unfamiliar with. So, use all that."
"I..." Katara was about to object that this was the most generic advice Toph could possibly give when suddenly it hit her. The perfect gift for Zuko had been staring her in the face right from the beginning.
"I have to run out now," Katara exclaimed and she started towards the door. "But thanks, Toph. That was perfect."
Toph shrugged. "Of course it was. The greatest earthbender of all time has many talents."
The one downside about Katara's gift was that it wasn't exactly something she could just get at any Fire Nation market. That was the beauty of it too, of course, but she sure wished she would've talked to Toph right when this whole thing started and not three days before all of them would exchange presents. Now she joined the ranks of people in the palace so busy they almost forgot to eat. But she didn't forget to keep moving the little wooden traveler she had carved closer and closer to the throne room.
Zuko watched her move it a couple times, but he never said anything about it. At most, he gave her an awkward sort of smile and nod like she'd think he was a jerk if he didn't acknowledge her.
Maybe he thinks this whole thing is stupid, she thought. Maybe I shouldn't have suggested it at all. This wasn't the first time the thought had occurred to her, and she was especially prone to it when she'd only slept three or four hours the night before. Even so, she kept reassuring herself. Who cared what Zuko thought, really? Sokka naturally thought the whole thing was brilliant. Aang had said he looked forward to celebrating a traditional Water Tribe holiday. Toph had just said that any excuse to give gifts was good enough for her. So really, Zuko had been outvoted already. It didn't matter what his opinion was.
Katara finished her gift on the very last night. Unfortunately, it was also the night that all her lack of sleep finally caught up with her. The second the gift was complete, Katara leaned over on her bed, her hard work still wrapped in her arms. She might've thought something silly right before dozing off like, "I'll just rest my eyes for a second." Then she was out.
When she woke up again, she jumped out of bed with a start. What time of night it was, she had no clue. She did remember one thing, though -- she'd forgotten to move the little wooden figure.
Mentally kicking herself for neglecting something so simple, Katara quickly gathered the gifts she'd prepared and hurried out into the grand hallways of the Fire Nation palace.
It was dark, but not the pitch blackness that came with the middle of the night. It was the deep royal blue that came with a sky just about to be awakened by dawn. Katara's shoulders fell with disappointment. She had missed it. The figure was supposed to be moved the night before, not the morning of. Even so, better late than never. No one else was awake yet, anyway. She walked down the hall to the last place she'd set the figure down. Only it wasn't there.
The sight of the empty shelf hit her much harder than the sight of the deep blue sky had. Where could the figure have gone? Had someone on the palace staff cleaned it off the shelf without realizing what it was? Maybe if she'd just remembered to move it last night, this wouldn't have happened. She searched all around the floor to see if it had fallen down, but nothing. Her heart sunk, but then, there was nothing more she could do but carry her presents to the throne room. At least, they could still enjoy that part of the tradition.
What she didn't expect when she pushed open the huge door was to find Zuko already sitting on the floor inside, with the little wooden figure perched on the throne's armrest.
Zuko turned to look at her with a tired smile. Katara's mouth nearly dropped open. "Zuko, you're here already!"
"Well, I woke up early and it looked close to dawn, so I figured..." his sentence trailed off into a shrug. Katara didn't press him to finish. Instead, she pointed to the figure on the throne.
"Did you...?" she began. "Just now...?"
"Huh? Oh, no, I moved that last night." Zuko rubbed the back of his head. "It was supposed to be last night, right? I didn't mess that up?"
"N-no. I mean, yes. I mean, you didn't mess up. It was supposed to be last night. I just... forgot about it."
"Yeah, well, happens to everyone sometimes, right?" Zuko shifted around a bit and looked around at the empty corners of the room. "Thought you said Aang, Toph, and Sokka would be here too."
"They will be, I'm sure," Katara said, her cheeks turning a bit red. "It's not quite dawn yet." She took a look back at the window as she set her gifts down on the floor and took a seat at Zuko's side. "Actually, Sokka said if I tried to wake him up before dawn, me and 'boomerang are gonna have a long talk.'" She made imaginary quotes with her fingers as she did an impressively accurate impression of her brother. Zuko suppressed a laugh.
"Well, we get the presents first then, I guess." He handed her a small, decorative box. It was deep red with gold trim, a picture of a dragon sketched on the top.
Katara ran her fingers over the intricate drawing. "Oh, Zuko, it's lovely," she said.
"No, no, I just swiped that from some storage room," he said. "The present's inside."
"Oh." Katara felt like an idiot, but tried not to show it as she lifted the box's small lip. Inside, on a strip of satin, lay a six-inch metal figure of a man in a long robe. Katara lifted it gently and held it up to the light.
"Erm, I hope there's nothing special about using wood," Zuko said. "I, um, do better with materials that don't burn so easy."
Her eyes widened. "You made this?"
"Well, yeah, I can make stuff," he said. "Just... choose not to most of the time, that's all."
"Right. Understood." Katara smiled and placed the figure back in its container. Then she reached for the cloth-wrapped package behind her. The one she'd fallen asleep with. "Mine doesn't come in a fancy box," she said. "But I hope it's useful."
Zuko pulled back the fabric to reveal a heavy fur coat. Katara's fingers ached as she looked it over, remembering the hours of stitching that she'd put into it. The seams showed here and there, but overall, she was proud. She'd tried hard to make it just like Sokka's, thick and heavy and ready to stand up to anything. But instead of the usual deep blue of the water trip, she'd found some fantastic crimson-colored fabric in the market to use instead.
"Wow..." Zuko sounded breathless. "It's... amazing, Katara. Thank you."
"Oh, um, no big deal," she quickly replied. "I just thought you could use something to keep you warm. Y'know, since it's so freezing out there."
Zuko didn't make any snarky comeback to her tease. Instead, he smiled and pulled the coat over his shoulders. "Actually," he said. "It's never felt warmer."
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