A feeling of expectation and desire for a certain thing to happen.
Team: Water Tribe
Prompt: 1. (Speech) "That won't work at all."; 4. (Word) Imperial; 9. (Action) Humming; 8. (Action) Running
Word count: 3999
With Just Waves as Witness
Salt spray coated her face and threaded her hair, and nothing had ever felt or tasted so good. She wondered if this was what freedom tasted like, or if she was being dramatic about it.
Katara stood on the prow of the Fire Nation ship and stared out across the undulating blue horizon. They had left the Earth Kingdom just under a week prior, and it'd been four days since they last saw land of any sort. It would be at least another week or so until they saw the first of the Fire Nation islands, and even longer than that before they reached the capital. For now, blue stretched out all around—scattered across the sky were a few clouds, and the sea was deep and clear. In talking with the captain, she'd learned that there were several sea lanes that followed strong currents between the nations, and the Fire Nation had many of them mapped and regularly utilized them to a ship's advantage.
It felt like they were making good time, but from what Zuko told her, they were actually sailing leisurely. It was so different from a cutter ship, where they might make this kind of speed only for a short while if the winds were very kind. Her mouth pulled into a frown and she leaned on the rail. It felt like a long time since she'd traveled by sea, with as much time as she spent on Appa after the war was over; with as much time as she spent traveling with Aang.
A pang of guilt and disquiet twisted in her stomach. Was this the right choice, what she was doing? She knew she could help—she wanted to—but was going to the Fire Nation as ambassador from the Water Tribe enough to outweigh her accompanying Aang as he did his work? Her frown deepened. It felt a lot like running away.
"Good afternoon, Master Katara." A pleasant voice broke up her thoughts.
She smiled and glanced back over her shoulder as Zuko's uncle joined her at the prow. "Good Afternoon to you, too. Another nice day, isn't it?"
"Yes! The weather has been very kind to us this trip. I must admit," he continued, standing next to her and looking from her to the sea, "I am quite surprised that my nephew has decided to make our journey back with more leisure than is his custom." A smile spread across his face and the corners of his eyes crinkled. "But, I am not complaining—whatever the reason, I welcome it."
A soft noise cousin to a hum signaled her agreement. "Me, too. I love sailing, and it feels like it's been a long time since I was out on the open sea." Katara's shoulders relaxed as she followed Iroh's gaze. "And sometimes it's just nice to take your time."
"You are right, and very wise to understand such a thing at your age. It is a bit of wisdom that I often worry my nephew will never quite take to heart."
Katara laughed. "Oh, I don't know. Once Zuko's put his mind to something, he follows through to the bitter end. Maybe you just need to convince him slowing down is something he needs to learn to do."
"Ah, that is something that I have been trying for years now, I'm afraid." His eyes were merry, and focused on her in a way she might have thought calculating had it occurred to her. "Perhaps it is a thing better left in another's hands at this point."
Before she could think to say anything, he continued, "Would you join us for lunch, or shall I leave you to the sea for a while longer?"
Katara hesitated, but then pushed off the rail. "The sea will still be here, I'm pretty sure. Lunch sounds great."
Lunch turned out to be on the observation deck, where she could see the ocean anyway. Iroh brewed a ginger and orange blossom tea, which he declared would compliment their food marvelously. Katara was pouring it when Zuko joined them.
"Ah, Nephew. I am happy you could join us," Iroh exclaimed as Zuko took a seat at the end of the table, where he could see both of them.
"The food should be up soon," Zuko told them, taking a cup from her with a nod of thanks. He lifted it beneath his nose. "Is this a new blend, Uncle?"
The old man in question lost half his face to a grin. "You are developing quite a good nose; it is." He gesticulated gently as he spoke. "I wanted something simple, yet complementary to go with our lunch."
"We're just having leftover curry," Zuko said. "It's not anything to make a special blend for." Still, he took an appreciative sip of the tea.
Two crew members brought up their food and Iroh turned his attention to thanking them. Katara took advantage of his distraction and leaned close to Zuko. "I think your uncle just likes experimenting," she said in a quiet voice that did nothing to hide her amusement.
The way his mouth curved made part of her chest fill with warmth. "I know. It reminds me of the years we were on my ship. He was always having us make port for different kinds of teas… and anything else interesting that caught his eye."
The dip in his tone made Katara giggle. "I sense a lot of stories there."
Zuko rolled his eyes. "You have no idea."
Bowls were placed before them and a thick curry ladled into them, accompanied by smaller bowls of rice. The curry smelled like it was going to be spicy, and she found herself looking forward to the heat. Katara peered at it, wondering just when she had developed a liking for spicy foods.
"It's not too hot," Zuko said suddenly. She blinked up at him, and his cheeks tinged with color as he shifted his gaze away from hers. "I mean—I know you're not as used to spices as us—you know, hot spices."
Katara could not resist a little affectation. "By now I've gotten used to dealing with heat," she said, and he looked at her again, bemused. "Zuko, you remember I've been on the ship the whole time, right? And I was in the Fire Nation for several weeks, living off the spicy land."
Iroh chuckled across the table from her, and Zuko's face reddened more, but he didn't back down. "Should I see if the cook can whip up some east island dishes for you then? Those even make me sweat sometimes."
His challenge made something winch a little tighter in her belly. "You're on. I bet I can handle it just as well as you can."
The smirk that he sent her way stoked the competitive spark in her, and she suddenly wanted to drag him down to the deck and go toe to toe with him. She hadn't had much chance to stretch her bending since the war ended, and never with Zuko. She wondered if they sparred as well as they fought together.
"Zuko," she began, idly twisting her wrist to stir her curry, "what do you think about getting a good workout in while we're still on the ship?"
Almost as soon as she asked, he started coughing, slamming the porcelain spoon in his hand down on the table. Katara glanced worriedly at Iroh, who seemed unperturbed.
"Nephew, are you all right?"
Zuko waved them both off and reached for his teacup. After a few sips, he calmed down, though his face and neck were still flush.
"I didn't realize an offer to spar would be so surprising," Katara droned.
"Sparring!" Zuko echoed. "Yes. No, it wasn't—yes. I would very much like to spar."
Katara took a spoonful of curry to hide her smile. It was spicy, but not so much that it burned the subtleties of flavor away. While in disguise during the war, she had tasted a few foods from Fire Nation markets that she couldn't even tell what they were supposed to taste like, they were so spicy. This was good, though—a nice heat down the back of her throat while still allowing her to savor it.
"How about later today, then?" she offered.
"No, no, no. That won't work at all," Iroh interjected, quite adamantly. Both Zuko and Katara stared at him. "It's the end of the week," he said, as if that were a fitting explanation.
At a loss, Katara looked to Zuko for some sort of elaboration. Instead of giving her an answer, however, he closed his eyes and his shoulders slumped.
"I forgot," he groaned. "Can't we just… skip it this trip?"
Iroh gasped, utterly aghast. "Nephew, how could you even suggest such a thing! The crew has come to expect—no, anticipate it!"
Tired of not knowing what they were talking about, Katara pressed, "Anticipate what? What's going on?"
"Music night, of course!" Iroh beamed at her; Zuko looked as if he wanted to dunk his head in the curry. "Once a week, the crew all gathers with instruments for song and dance." He lifted his spoon in a vague salute. "It was our custom during the war."
"That actually sounds like a lot of fun," Katara said, rousing another beleaguered sigh from Zuko. Ignoring him, she looked, bright-eyed, at Iroh. "Can anyone join in?"
"Of course," Iroh told her, sounding delighted she had taken to the idea. "Do you play?"
"If there's a morin khuur, I just might."
Zuko perked up, just a little, with curiosity. "A what?"
"It's a string instrument of the Water Tribes," his uncle answered. "But, I'm afraid we do not have one—I have not seen, or heard, a proper morin khuur in many years."
"Oh." Katara tried not to allow disappointment seep into her voice, but she sounded crestfallen even to her own ears. She tried to pick up the pieces and brighten her tone. "That's okay, I can just listen."
Iroh stroked his beard, already lost in thought. "Even though we don't have a proper one, we do happen to have a kokyū on board. It is not the same, but quite similar. I am sure that its owner would be delighted to have you play."
An old aching hollow settled in her chest, but she smiled and nodded as if it hadn't. She had years of practice pushing back any of the sorrow she felt from the loss of her culture, so the suppression was second nature. Of course there weren't any morin khuur on board. Katara wondered if they would find her khoomei singing to be barbaric, or simply exotic and different.
Those were unfair thoughts to have, she realized, and did her best to quell them. So, she deftly changed the subject and they finished out lunch with pleasant conversation; Iroh seemed just as happy to talk about something else, and she guessed Zuko was probably glad for the change in topic.
Afterward, Katara excused herself to return to the rail again. Her thoughts wandered back to music night and she chastised herself for falling back into old, bad habits. Letting out a breath in a rush, she leaned out over the edge of the rail, her hair stirring in the wind.
Closing her eyes, she breathed in deep the brine smell of the sea, and let the spray in the air settle into her skin. It helped her find her center again. She felt so off-kilter lately, from her decision to stop traveling around with Aang to the faded traditions of her Tribe still digging hollow within her. She wasn't entirely certain going to the Fire Nation to be a Water Tribe Ambassador was the right thing for her to do, but it was something that she chose to do. It was her suggestion, it was her choice to offer herself for that role, and that, at least, felt right.
She felt warmth, as if someone had brought a torch into her proximity, and didn't need to look to know who it was.
"I'm sorry," Zuko told her.
Now she did look at him, casting a glance back over her shoulder amid her curling hair. "For what?"
He leaned against the rail. "You don't have to come to music night if you don't want to, let alone participate."
He sounded so deflated that Katara had to laugh. When he shot her a confused look, she turned, putting her back against the rail. "Why don't you like your uncle's music night?"
"It's just…" He let out a breath. "So frivolous. I was so intent on finding the Avatar that any unrelated distractions just made me angry, I guess."
"So why are you still moaning about it?" She leaned over and nudged his shoulder with her own. "You might end up liking it now that you've got real free time."
Zuko snorted. "I'm not sure anyone in the Imperial Palace actually knows about this mythical 'free time'."
"You're not at the palace now," Katara pointed out. She craned her neck back almost enough to see the ocean stretching out behind her. "We're out in the middle of the water with a week or more left before we rejoin civilization. So why not live it up a little?" She lifted her head to look at him again, only to find his gaze already on her. It made her feel warmer.
The smile he offered her was soft at the edges, and while not wide, it reached his eyes in a way that made the heat in her spread.
"Maybe I will."
Later in the afternoon, one of the crew approached her with a worn case in hand. The helmsman turned out to be the owner of the kokyū Iroh mentioned, and he was more than happy to show her the fingerings along the neck and let her handle it to get a feel for it. It was all at once familiar and strange in her hands—the body was smaller, the neck shorter, and the timbre of the whole instrument was much higher than the fiddle her mother had taught her on, but the basic mechanics were the same. It took her a little to get used to the different spacings of the notes, but she could play it passably. Well enough for an informal music night on a ship in the middle of the ocean, anyway.
It wasn't until after the sun set that the crew gathered on the foredeck. Katara didn't notice at first, sitting perched upon a crate and plucking quietly at the kokyū strings. When it became nearly too dark to see, she joined the crew, surprised by how many had come. It seemed only a skeleton crew was left to run the ship.
Feeling a bit awkward carrying an instrument not actually hers—or even of her culture—Katara took an empty spot to settle in. Maybe this wasn't the best idea, she found herself thinking. She didn't know how one of these things actually went, and what if her music was too strange for all the Fire Nation sailors, or she didn't play this instrument as passably as she thought she did…
A swell in the conversation around her interrupted her worrying, and she refocused her attention. Several torches and a few grated canisters had been moved to form a circle of light in the center of the deck, illuminating the deck for everyone to see. A group of three men settled not far from her, each with a different sized drum nestled in their laps. One of them idly began a beat; she presumed this meant it was starting.
Iroh's laugh came from one side, and she craned her neck to find him. He was talking with a man carrying a gekkin, and they both made their way into the circle of light. Katara hadn't yet seen Zuko, and she wondered if he was going to sit out after all. Part of her was glad—he wouldn't have to see if she did fumble her song—but another part was disappointed; she was hoping she'd play well enough that he might enjoy hearing a song from her Tribe.
It seemed all the other crew members were far more relaxed than she felt, and she wondered if they were all part of Zuko and Iroh's old crew. She soon was drawn out of her thoughts when the gekkin player began. The other drummers joined in, handing out an upbeat tune to start off the night.
The gekkin wasn't alone—after the first song was over, another joined in with a liuqin to complement and pluck around the more melodic wanderings of the gekkin. By the time they went into their third song together, several of the crew were dancing to the cheers of others. Everyone that passed by Katara had rosy cheeks, and it dawned on her that they were drinking, as well. It reminded her a lot of Aang's dance party in the cave, only more raucous.
Listening from her seat, Katara plucked along with some of the melodies she knew or could pick up quickly, and only partially out of nerves. She hadn't played—or sang—in a really long time, and while she was honestly looking forward to it, she also worried about how she'd sound. She did not think of her mother or the nights in their home around the cooking fire she spent learning to play the morin khuur.
She was so determined not to be lost in thought about the past that she wasn't aware Iroh had come up to her until he put a gentle hand on her shoulder. Startling a little, she looked up at him.
He smiled, cheeks rosy and the wrinkles around his eyes deep. "Are you still willing to play for us?"
One fortifying breath was all she needed to give him a firm nod. She was ready. Sitting a little straighter, she nestled the kokyū between her knees and picked up the bow. The drums quieted, waiting for her to play. She started slow, languidly reminding her fingers of the different fret spacings this instrument had. Despite being an octave or so higher than it should be played, Katara found the winding melody she was searching for. The dancing crewman slowed to watch her, and she kept her eyes on her fingers, coming to a pause with the bow. She couldn't stop her grin as she leaned into the next part, lifting up the melody into an easy, faster rhythm; the drums picked up after only a few repeats. It was a simple tune, the melody played overtop the drone of the other strings—there was one more than she was used to—but it was driving and she could forget that she wasn't playing around a Water Tribe communal fire. Almost unbidden, her voice came bubbling up through her throat and she hummed the melody line before mustering the last bit of her courage to sing Tribe words to this crew of Fire Nation sailors.
She was rusty, she knew that, and it was by no means perfect—especially to her own ears. But she sang. In the ancient words of her Tribe, she sang the joy of her people finding land beneath the ice and building a home there, and the Fire Nation sailors thoroughly enjoyed themselves. How much of that enjoyment was augmented by alcohol, she couldn't say, but if it was, she was grateful for it. It was pleasant, having such an enthusiastic audience.
When she finished, she could feel the last notes reverberating in her bones. Finally looking up from her fingers, Katara was taken aback by the sudden burst of applause and foot stamping that commended her. Her face hurt and she realized that she was grinning; even if it wasn't the traditional instrument or people listening, it felt good. She felt good.
Bowing deeply to the helmsman, she handed back his kokyū with breathless thanks. He asked her to show him how to play like that, and laughing, she agreed. She searched for Zuko, then excused herself and looked for him. Maybe he would dance with her if she could find him, informally.
"I didn't know you spoke another language." Zuko said a little bit away from her, once more leaning on the rail and looking out at the salt-dark of the ocean.
Smiling halfway, Katara shook her head. "I can't. I only know a few songs in the Tribe tongue. We don't really speak it anymore."
No sharp sorrow tinged her voice; it was not something she personally forgot, but that had been lost before she was ever born. A slow erosion from her culture the way that water carved away ice over the course of years.
"What's left of ours is mostly in old poems," Zuko said, and she was as surprised by that as she was grateful it wasn't an apology.
"Really? Do you know any?" She joined him at the rail and absently wondered how many times during this trip they would find each other here.
He was silent for a long while. Then, so quietly she almost didn't hear him over the sound of the music and laughter and waves, he said, "I don't know if I can do this."
She lost no elation from the music; she felt herself soften. He didn't have to explain himself for her to know what he meant; she felt the same way.
"You can," she told him earnestly.
"How can you be so sure?"
"Zuko—" The way he looked at her when she said his name made her breath hitch for a moment in her throat. Her cheeks warmed and she angled her head to look out over the waves. "You know, I don't know if this is even something I should be doing," she said, subdued but not timid. "It makes me feel like I'm abandoning Aang, like I'm running away from my responsibility to him."
"You're not—" Zuko shook his head. "Sorry."
"No, it's okay. You're not wrong, but you're not entirely right, either. I'm his friend and teacher, and I'll always feel responsible for him. He's still a kid in a lot of ways."
Zuko snorted softly. "We're all still young. I'm not the youngest Fire Lord ever crowned, but I'm the youngest to rule without a regent before I officially come of age." He let out a heavy sigh and ran a hand through his hair. "Now that we've established we both don't know how to do something we're not even sure we should be doing in the first place…"
Katara laughed. "That doesn't mean we shouldn't do it. Look," she said to his incredulous glance, "we've overcome a lot of things I would have never thought possible, that I used to question a lot."
"Like stopping my family?"
She reached out and gave him a playful shove. "Like becoming really good friends. I didn't know if trusting you again was the right thing to do, or even something that I could do." Her hand came to rest on his arm when he cast his gaze down at his hands and she knew his memory was in the catacombs. "But we did anyway, and I'm really, really glad that we did."
He looked up at her then, hope and vulnerability and something a little too raw drawn clearly across his face. "You are?"
Swallowing the sudden thudding of her heart, Katara nodded. "I am. I'm also really nervous about being an Ambassador, but I'm going to do it anyway, too." She paused for a breathless moment. "And I think it's something I really want to do."
Zuko shifted until his hand found hers, and then her fingers were encased within his. He gave her hand a warm squeeze. "I'm really glad you're going to be there."
He smiled then, and it was soft and wound between her lungs. It made her wonder if she wasn't running away, but rather headlong into something.