No clouds marred the sky. The sun bore down on her relentlessly, and its light bounced back up from the crest of the waves surrounding them. Sweat beaded across her forehead and down the line of her spine. She grinned.
There was no way he was going to defeat her, even with the sun at its apex.
Across the deck from her, Zuko slid into an easy stance, hands raised toward her as if he could keep her at bay with that simple motion. They both knew better.
With the smallest curling of her fingers, Katara reached out and pulled at the ocean on either side of the ship, and drew up two slender streams of water, sending them directly for him the moment the streams breached the top of the hull. Zuko glanced at them, and dodged out of the way at the last minute, both of the streams narrowly missing him and crashing instead onto the deck itself. He came up in a fluid roll, fire following his momentum and curving toward her in a vertical arc from a sweep of his fist. She tugged up the water that remained on the deck and extinguished the arc into nothing more than steam. But, she knew better than to stay in one place, and using the sudden steam as a cover, she raced to one side, pulling up again at the ocean water, this time in small parcels that she brought to ring her in undulating globes. Zuko came at her through the steam, cutting through it with his body like a knife and jabbing several bouts of flame at her from his fists.
Katara was anticipating something like that, and with each fire burst he sent toward her, she wove out of its reach and sent one after another of her globes of water to engulf the flames. As she extinguished the last of his jabs, however, she almost didn't turn in time to avoid him leaping straight at her. She turned the moisture on the deck into ice and used the momentum of her dodge to slide out of his way, while also hoping the ice tripped him up and gave her more time to counterattack. It was his turn to anticipate her move, though, and he landed with flames beneath his feet, melting her ice almost instantly.
With a fierce grin, Zuko spun to face her as soon as his feet touched solid ground after his leap and he went on the attack again—only he was a hair too slow. Katara had already drawn up yet another arcing stream from the ocean and sent in spiraling his way, dousing the flames even as he summoned them to his knuckles.
"What's the matter, Zuko, can't keep up anymore?" she taunted, grinning so hard her face hurt.
In answer, he growled and fell into a quick series of katas, and she was suddenly meeting him blow for blow, turning each away with practiced sweeps of her hands and feet. She fell into the rhythm of fighting him so quickly, she didn't notice until he was almost upon her that he'd been creeping closer with every strike. He was so near to her that she could feel the heat emitting from his whole body, and he seemed to intentionally increase it to evaporate the remaining water at her immediate disposal.
Or so he thought.
His firebending heat evaporated her ocean water, but it made her sweat. Katara would never again be without a weapon at her fingertips. Before she could gather the sweat from her skin and the moisture in the air to her, Zuko rushed the last bit forward in a way she hadn't anticipated; she couldn't move away in time. He collided solidly with her and sent them both rolling over one another against the deck. They came to a stop with him on top, his knees on either side of her and pinning the cloth of her tunic down beneath them. He quickly took advantage of the situation and lifted his hand as if to strike. Zuko grinned down at her, triumphant and straddling her hips.
"I think I can keep up just fine," he said smugly.
Katara smirked at him, and when he looked down, he noticed that she'd gathered the sweat from her skin while they were rolling together and formed it into an ice dagger only about as long as her hand. It was pointed directly at his ribcage, pinned between them with only an inch to spare him from being punctured.
He relaxed his hand and conceded defeat, sitting back on his haunches a bit. "You're still really good."
She rolled her wrist and the ice dagger flowed into water that she then sent splashing against his face. "Did you expect me not to be?" she asked, incredulous. "I'm a master waterbender, and should never be underestimated."
Water soaked his head and shoulders and ran in rivulets down the open front of his tunic as he laughed above her. "I can't believe I didn't think of that. You would have really got me." The way he leaned back, settled against her hips, eyes flashing bright gold in the sunlight—it made her feel flush all of a sudden. More so than their little sparring session should have.
"You can let me up now," she said, a bit sharper than she intended.
Her tone sobered him instantly, and he immediately acquiesced, scrambling back to his feet and lowering a hand down to her. She took it and felt like she was accepting a peace offering, and that, in turn, made her feel guilty.
So, she flashed him a smile. "That was good. We should do it again."
Zuko's face visibly brightened again; he wore all his emotions on his sleeve, and she found herself worrying for just how easily read he could unthinkingly be. Had he always been like this, before his heart had been covered with all the scars his father had given him? She'd learned during the time he was with the group in those last weeks of the war that the angry young man who'd chased them across the world wasn't really who Zuko was. He'd just been broken and cracked too many times, and it made all his edges ragged.
"It was." His agreement brought her out of her thoughts. "We've got plenty of time left before we reach the Fire Nation to do it again at least a few more times." The sly twist of his mouth and lifting of his eyebrow made her breath a little fluttery in her throat for some reason she couldn't pinpoint. "Maybe I'll beat you next time."
Folding her arms across her chest, she raised an eyebrow at him and smirked, amused. "Well, you can certainly keep trying, Zuko."
They ended up going their separate ways for lunch. Sometimes they ate with Iroh on the observation deck of the ship, sometimes they did so individually. Katara enjoyed having both options at her disposal—she was used to being in a group her entire life, but recently had been learning to appreciate the times she had to herself. It was nice, not having to worry so much about looking after everyone anymore—though as soon as she had that thought, she felt guilty. They were all on their own for so long, someone had to step up and handle the daily minutiae. Katara had simply been the best candidate, and the most qualified, having been doing her mother's work for years before she'd ever found Aang at the South Pole.
The thought of her village filled her mind—both of how it was when she'd left it, and how it was before, when her mother was still alive. Katara's life had changed so much, and she was still so young, even if she didn't always feel it.
Katara's appetite suddenly waned, and she lowered her chopsticks to the plate before her, staring at the half-eaten rice and fish but not really seeing it. The heat of the afternoon sun was more bearable with the breeze rising off the waves to where she sat, but with her thoughts all at once gone adrift, she didn't really feel the coolness of it.
She was so used to thinking about going back to her village and picking up her life there again. It'd be better, she'd always convinced herself—her father would be back, the war would be over, and they could start to rebuild. Sometimes, in her darkest moments, that was one of the few things that kept her going, kept her able to put one foot in front of the other and get up every morning.
But, now that everything was said and done, it felt… It didn't give her the swell of reassurance it once had. Now that she could actually go and do just that, she wasn't sure she wanted to. More guilt washed over her at the thought, and her stomach turned. Wasn't she supposed to want that, though? To go back home and help put her Tribe back together from the scattered, fragmented pieces it had become?
A frown pulled down the corners of her mouth.
If she didn't go back to do that, somehow along the way, it had become an unspoken thing that she would go with Aang and help him plant peace and give it lasting roots across the world. Though she'd been with him for several months, it turned into her not helping spread peace so much as taking care of him, and that quickly become lackluster. She didn't want to be taken for granted, and that's what traveling with Aang had become—he did his work as the Avatar, as much as he could as still a kid—and she… was there to clean up after him, or pester him into doing things he didn't want to do, but needed to. She was only fifteen; she didn't want to simply continue being someone's mother.
Who was she, though, if she didn't want to go back to pick up the remains of her life at the South Pole or give herself to the winds and Aang?
She was adrift now, with her decision to accompany Zuko back to the Fire Nation. She'd originally intended to talk it over with everyone after suggesting it—with her father, Sokka… and with Aang. But that's not the way it had worked out, and now here she was, already over halfway to Caldera City. She winced as she recalled the argument following her telling Aang she'd offered to be Zuko's Ambassador to the Water Tribes.
All at once, Katara needed to be in the water. She needed to feel the rush of the currents around her, reminding her that they, at least, knew where they were going. They knew what their purpose was, and nothing would change that.
She abandoned the remainder of her lunch and approached the gunwale, hesitating for less than a breath before vaulting herself over the rail and into the waiting ocean below.
It was an instant relief to be surrounded by the water. Forming just the smallest pocket devoid of water over her nose, Katara could pretend she was a fish, slicing through the waves with flashing scales, with her only thoughts bent toward food and survival. She closed her eyes and sped through the water, flowing with the same current that the ship followed, some distance behind her now. The whole ocean was at her disposal, and she could go wherever she wanted in it, just like a fish.
Her little pocket began to run out of fresh air, so she swam up to the surface. When she breached it, she took a moment to simply float and bob with the roll of the surface waves. She looked back at the ship and saw a handful of the crew leaning over the rail. One of them spotted her and pointed. A small flurry of activity followed until a figure she immediately recognized as Zuko came up to the group. She watched his crew point out at her, and he made a few vague motions with his hand that she could just barely make out. The crew dispersed slowly after that, but he lingered for a moment, looking out at her. Katara was too far away to see his expression, so she couldn't guess at what it could be, but it was clear that he had just stopped an impromptu rescue mission his crew had thought they needed to launch. She smiled, watching him leave the railing.
It was funny, she thought, diving beneath the waves again and feeling the desperation in her chest ease a little. Never in a hundred years would she have thought that a firebender—the frequently hot-headed leader of firebenders, at that—to be the one to understand what she needed the most. He was steady, she realized, even when they'd been enemies. He was so very focused and direct, always pursuing his goal despite all the challenges that got in his way. She let that thought roll around in her mind as she moved within the waves for a while longer.
When she finally made her way back to the ship, Katara lifted herself up on a swift crest of water to step easily back onto the deck. A quick twist and push of her wrists removed the water from her hair and clothes, and she sent it back into the ocean. Something she couldn't quite get rid of, however, was the salt. It curled her hair and stiffened her clothes a little, but she didn't really mind; it wasn't anything she couldn't wash out with some of the fresh water they kept in the cargo bay.
A good portion of the afternoon had passed while she was in the ocean, and that, coupled with the short sparring match she and Zuko had earlier, left her feeling a pleasant ache in her muscles. She hadn't really been able to do that all those months she traveled with Aang. He never seemed to want to even practice with her anymore, let alone spar in earnest. It made her sad—she enjoyed Aang's company, and cared for him a lot, but when it was just the two of them in Appa's saddle without the driving purpose of the war, it left her feeling she was missing something. She got a similar feeling now when she thought of going back to the small life she'd lived before him. In some ways, she felt ruined. Now that she'd seen the world, Katara didn't think she could truly be happy settling back in the South Pole for the rest of her life, but she'd traveled so much for so long that it exhausted her just to think about only doing that, day in and day out.
A fluttering, unsettled feeling pooled into and filled her belly. She retreated to her quarters instead of lingering out on deck longer.
Her room was sparse, containing a bed, a washbasin, and her bag of personal effects. Worrying her lower lip, Katara opened her bag and pulled out each item, laying them in a neat row across the length of her bed. She placed her folded clothes all in one pile—a spare deel tunic and leggings, two sets of underwraps, a silk dudou that was a keepsake from her last time in Ba Sing Se. Next to them she placed her whale tooth comb and a small, plain box that contained bone and coral beads for her hair. Her sewing kit came next, the folded penguin leather worn from years of unwrapping and wrapping, and beside that she laid a sealskin-wrapped knife she'd made years ago with her mother. And… that was it. She peered into the bag as if she might have forgotten something she packed only a few weeks ago. Nothing more remained inside it. Katara sat back on the floor, legs tucked neatly beneath her, and slowly lowered her hands to rest in her lap, despondent.
Was this really all she had of her life? If she died tonight and had to be put into a boat for her last journey out to the sea, hers would be virtually empty. It left her empty, just thinking about that.
Unbidden, tears tracked wet lines of salt down her cheeks, mingling with what was left from the ocean. She didn't want an empty inuazavi, she didn't want to not leave anything behind in the world of her own doing. If she went back to her village, she could help them restart again, set up a waterbending school, repair the long years of damage her people endured. But she knew she would feel restless there. She could go back to traveling with Aang, see the world again and satisfy the wanderlust being contained solely to the South Pole would awaken in her. But she wouldn't be able to do enough to satisfy her want to make in impact on the world that was all her own. It felt too much like she was expected to choose between two extremes, and Katara found herself desperately longing for some middle ground.
She wanted her own freedom, but she couldn't be completely without a moor. Katara was a waterbender; she had to have some sort of anchor to keep her from drifting. Something she could come back to, that she could look for if she ever needed a port in troubled times. She needed a place that felt like home to her.
Mulling these ideas over in her head, she got to her feet and went to her washbasin to clean off her face and skim water over her clothes to get the worst of the ocean salt off them. Leaving her things laid out on her bed, Katara wandered back out to the deck, discovering that more time than she thought had passed; it was already dusk. When had so much of afternoon gone by? She'd missed the dinner hour entirely, though she knew that getting food would be as easy as going to the galley and asking for some. She didn't, though. Instead, she went to the rail at the prow of the ship and looked out at the still-glowing line where the sea met the sky, trying to decide if she felt nervous or anxious.
After a time, she felt a heat draw near, stopping a few steps away, and knew it was Zuko. She wasn't quite sure how one would be able to tell the heat of different bodies apart—especially if one was not a firebender—but she knew that she was learning his distinct signature of warmth.
"I've been thinking a lot," she said, not looking at him. When he said nothing and only joined her at what had become their usual spot at the rail, she continued. "I don't know that I could ever really do it."
She felt his gaze settle on her, but resolutely kept her own on the waves.
"We traveled so much during the war," Katara went on, knowing he would wait patiently for her to elaborate further. "I can't keep doing that forever. I need… I want a place I can come back to. I want a home." An aching sorrow caught in her throat and sent threadlike fractures through her words. Though she had thought that very same sentiment earlier in her quarters, saying out loud somehow solidified the fact that she didn't feel like any one particular place was truly home for her anymore. Keenly, she felt the loss her village had once claimed as home in her heart.
"We can go south," Zuko said suddenly, after several beats of silence. She wasn't sure she heard him properly. There was no way he could read her thoughts, and yet he had so succinctly parsed through her words and pinpointed the heart of what she was talking around.
"What?" She blinked at him, confused, but his face was turned from her toward the horizon.
"The South Pole," he clarified. "We can change course and take you home." A pause hung between them, and the breadth of it softened his voice. "I know what it's like to want to go home, but feel you can't."
All at once her heart ached for everything he'd never had in a home that she, at one point, did. More than that, she ached because he couldn't know what she'd been thinking all afternoon, about how she needed to find a new home, but here he was anyway, knowing once again exactly where her mind was. Before she knew it, her arms were around him, hugging him close.
"Oh, Zuko," she breathed against his chest. "I'm sorry."
She was able to bury herself in his warmth for only a moment before he put his hands on her waist and gently moved her away. The look he fixed on her was bemused, his dark eyebrow canted upward in question.
"Why are you sorry?" he asked, sounding genuinely confused.
Katara thought of all he'd ever told her about his mother, about all the things he didn't say about Ozai, about how inevitable the Agni Kai with his sister had always been to everyone. She thought of the pack her grandmother had made for and Sokka when they first left, how she'd always fought to keep bright the kernel of one day I'll return home in her heart, how she now knew she couldn't do that—not with the South Pole.
"I just am," she told him as opposed to any of that, taking his hand in hers. For a brief moment, she feared he would pull it away, and was surprised at how much her throat tightened at that thought.
He relaxed instead, threading his fingers through hers. Heat seeped into the space between them, and Katara felt the insistent desire to lean against him. It wasn't that she was cold, but the warmth he emanated felt comfortable; he felt safe and easy to her. He felt like an anchor.
They stood like that for a while, the wind tugging at them in the twilight. At length, Zuko spoke again.
"Do you want to go home?"
Katara resisted the impulse to tighten her grip on his hand and give away just how unsteady she felt at the thought, like she was without a moor line and was in danger of drifting away if she let go of his hand. She turned her face into the wind and out to sea.
"I'm not sure that's really home anymore," she said very quietly.
"Well," Zuko said, the rasp of his voice gentle, "there's the Fire Nation, now." His words dragged her attention back to his face. When their eyes met, his searched hers with a fluttering sort of desperation before darting away, off to one side. "I mean—you'd probably still have to travel as Ambassador, but if—if you like, you're always welcome to stay at the palace for however long."
A sense of elation blossomed inside her, with the slow unfurling of a smile across her face that she could not quite keep in check. Red dusted across Zuko's cheeks and nose, noticeable even on the dimly lit deck where they stood. Katara could not definitively tell if the warmth now bloomed between her lungs and across her own face was from the hope of finding somewhere that felt like home again, or that it was Zuko offering her his. Either way, it made her suddenly feel a little giddy, made her want to laugh a little breathlessly. Instead, now she did tighten her fingers with his, bringing his eyes back to hers. The warmth across her face crept down her neck.
The words she'd held on her tongue to say suddenly tangled in her mouth under the brightness of his gaze; by the way his eyes widened slightly, she knew her cheeks were stained a vivid maroon. Embarrassed, Katara ducked her head.
"I'd like that a lot."