This chapter took awhile. Descriptions are so much harder than dialogue-- I go over and over them, always editing and revising phrases and changing my mind. As a result, this chapter is also physically a bit longer. Actually... a lot longer. :) Oh well, scenes will be as long or as short as they need to be.
I changed my summary recently. The other one was more actiony, but I think this one better captures the spirit of the fanfic.
Thanks go out to Vicki So and Red November for their help here. I was stuck over this one part that was driving me nuts, and both ladies provided useful insights. So as a favor to me, dear readers, go enjoy their fics and give them even more reviews!
He'd been standing on the bow deck, putting himself through the motions of a blade exercise. Warmth from the sun heated his skin from neck to hip bones, and the beginnings of sweat gathered between his shoulders. His hands loosely gripped two butter knives for daggers, swinging them in graceful arcs around his body then shooting them outward to open the belly of his enemy. Sometimes the enemy was Zhao, sometimes it was Zula, sometimes it was the Avatar. More than once in the past Zuko had imagined himself as the opponent, and he would rain down a fury of blows at the intangible vision, demanding his mirror image jump up, move, do anything but stand there.
That was a long time ago, he reminded himself, bringing the butter knife down in a sinuous strike. He hadn't been so masochistic in nearly a year since his injury, choosing instead to focus his anger on more substantial targets. His sister, the vile Commander-cum-Admiral. Eventually the child Avatar was added to the list, although Zuko usually saved that opponent for bending practice; knives and swords were better against Zhao.
For all that Zhao may have been dead, the memory of his grievances against the man could still drive Zuko to an enthusiastically violent work out.
Up, around, across the daggers went. Breathing in and out. A cough--not his. He looked up to see Katara watching him, a stream of water swirling absent-mindedly around one hand.
Pest, Zuko thought, determined to ignore her. He was barely even warmed up, much less finished. But once the first kata ended, he found himself turning around and meeting her gaze anyway.
"What do you want?" Besides to interrupt his training.
Katara lifted her chin and said firmly, "I want to spar with you."
Zuko laughed, but it was a mocking laugh. "Are you slow? We can't spar. We'd sink the damn boat." He amended, "Well, I'd sink the boat, anyway."
"I'm not talking about that kind of sparring," she replied, ignoring his jibe. "I was thinking...a smaller scale."
The firebender stood with his hands on his hips, looking unconvinced. Katara sat down about two feet from him, and crossed her legs. "Look," she said, and began to sculpt the water in her hands. After a few seconds the water became a ball of ice. No-- not a ball. A sphere. He didn't have to measure it to know it would be geometrically perfect.
"At what I can do."
Zuko may have been a proud boy, and he may have been a prejudiced boy, and he may even have been a rude boy-- but he was not a timid boy. He was the Prince of Fire, and he could do better than merely a sphere.
He dropped to a sitting position and folded his hands together, kitchenware weapons cast aside. Each finger interlocked until his palms were sealed shut, then he began to open them: thumbs first, the pointer fingers, the middle fingers, and so on. As Zuko's hands split a small flame swirled within the cup he formed, gradually taking the shape of petals. It grew and spiraled from a bud to a full bloomed rose, each petal a piece of dancing fire locked into an impossibly still shape.
The effect was so beautiful that for the first time in her life, Katara felt the sting of jealousy when looking at the work of a firebender. But the child of the water tribe was not known for her timidity either, and eagerly moved to counter his bit of nature with her own.
Her sphere of ice melted to water again, collecting in a puddle on the deck before her crossed knees. She brought one hand over the puddle and raised it; following the rise of her hand was a stream, and as it grew in height it separated into other strands. The strands solidified into the many branches of a tree, delicate and sharp. Katara's eyes narrowed. At first it seemed that was the end of her display, but then there was movement, and suddenly the tree lept from barren winter to lush spring. Leaves burst forth from the branches like an explosion of icy shards. Hundreds of leaves, tiny and sparkling, each in a different place and position. There was no pattern to it, no semblance of her control to make it look anything but natural. Katara smiled victoriously at her sculpture, then leveled her eyes at the prince in challenge.
Zuko's response was a raised eyebrow and a distant but calculating visual examination of the ice tree. Then without bothering to comment on it, he presented his hands in front of him, palms up and fingers extended. A blaze fanned upward from the flat of his palms, taking the shape of what looked at first like a many-tiered cake with odd protrusions. But as the seconds passed the design solidified, and Katara soon realized that what she was looking at was a palace.
It was an enormous spectacle of architecture shrunken to merely a foot across, with towers and turrets pointing toward the sky and walls and gates to keep invaders away. Most interestingly, the entire palace was burning: not only because it was an image made with fire, but the burning seemed to actually be part of the design. It took a trick of the eye to really see it, but once she did the detail was exemplary, if the image itself somewhat fearsome and tragic.
"Hmmm," Katara said, and scanned her mind for an appropriate illusion to surpass Zuko's. When she found it she smiled, and once more caressed her ice into liquid form. She stretched the water between her hands like a bar, then began to pull edges in various directions. The shape that formed between her hands was that of a boat-- long and narrow, with the shallow draft that identified all water tribe skiffs. Like his palace Katara impressed in her creation every detail she could picture. But this sculpture she did not freeze-- she held it before her as still as ice but as liquid as the sea around them. The waterbender smirked at the prince, knowing he'd realize that the skill was not in her rendition of the ship, but her ability to create and maintain so complex a form in the constantly malleable medium of water.
Zuko, for once, ignored her smirk. This sparring lesson was proving more challenging than he'd expected, and he had already decided that she would not be allowed to win it. Focusing all his efforts of concentration, he pressed his hands together, one upward and one downward, then pulled them apart slowly, one to heaven and one to earth. Flame spiraled from each hand to meet in the center, and became a staircase both curved and delicate. Zuko took a breath, and added the final touch: tiny figures of flame in human form sprouted from each step, one facing up and one facing down. Then the figures began to walk, until he held a staircase of living flame figures, marching in opposite lines up and down the spiraling steps.
Katara answered this with a horizontal presentation: nine little splashes of water lined themselves up on the deck in front of her, each no taller than her pinky finger. Then as one they began to move in synchronization. She had a miniature line of warriors, each watery figurine moving harmoniously in step with the others in a tiny demonstration of martial art.
Impressed, though unwilling to let her see it, Zuko wracked his brain for what he could possibly show to trump all the others. It had to be inventive, elaborate, and beautiful. He closed his eyes briefly, then opened them and said, "Last one."
"Agreed," replied Katara, who was beginning to feel the stress of the competition herself. All the muscles in her back and arms felt tight, and she suspected that going on too much longer would give her a headache from the concentration this sort of bending demanded. She watched as Zuko began to create his final display.
The firebender snapped his hands simultaneously, and two medium-sized flames lept into existence in the air between himself and the waterbender. As Zuko focused, the flames flickered into bodies. On his right, a woman. On his left, a man. The man wore part of his hair in a top-knot, and the woman's hair flared outward in long tresses. Suspended behind and below the two figures, Zuko's hands trembled a little. The two fiery bodies bowed in unison, and then they began to dance.
The dance itself was nothing Katara recognized, but she found herself engrossed. The man and the woman met and separated, swirled and lept. The two figures reeled around one another as if all the joy of existence could be expressed in motion and light. The intricacy of their individual appearances was only heightened with the frenzied twists and whirls. When the parade finally concluded and the fiery dancers ended in a lover's embrace, Katara felt as if she might have seen something no person outside the Fire Nation had ever been privileged to see.
As the flames died Zuko became aware of the world around him again. Sweat was rolling down his back, and he was slightly quick of breath. But despite all this he was inordinately pleased with himself; he met Katara's gaze with something close to a smile.
"Beat that, little girl."
Katara, not so hindered in smiling as he, showed him all her teeth.
"Oh I can," she retorted, as usual her awe giving way quickly to her rivalry.
Taking her cue from the competition, Katara divided her remaining water into two forms. She wiped her mind of everything except the water before her, and they twisted into human shapes, dressed in the garb of the water tribes. The larger was male, the smaller female. Katara felt her smile grow even wider as she imagined them into form. The man she gave long hair, the girl a braid. Then with a deep breath, she bid them to action.
The taller water figure drew up a stream of water and lashed it at the female figure, then brought it in a circle around her. The girl cut through the water, then jumped over and above the man, taking the water and sending it back toward him in a tidal wave. He sent it back to her in a two-pronged assault.
The battle played out between the two waterbenders in rapid attacks and fierce counter-strikes. Ice became water only to be frozen again seconds later. The girl was caught off guard one moment then threw herself into an onslaught the next. It was a duel of waterbenders, and though Prince Zuko did not know it, it was the first duel Katara had ever fought. Pulled from her memory, the liquid warriors bombarded each other until at last the girl was immobilized in a prison of lances. Then the male warrior bowed, and both melted into seawater, finally returning to Katara's tired, gentle sphere.
"Well?" she taunted, eyebrows raised expectantly. Hanging on the word was a larger question, not just of her display but of the entire session, the combination of her efforts and his.
"It was an...interesting exercise," Zuko admitted.
He stood, picking up his knives and gazing at them. He glanced down at her thoughtfully, and something twisted in his expression. His eyes turned into cutting gold stones, and his lips affected a sneer.
"But if you ever interrupt my training again for bending as pathetic as what you just showed me, Waterbending Master, you'll discover how 'bad' a companion I can really become."
With a determined turn of his heel, the prince left Katara sitting on the bow, staring at her lap in silence.