The patrol of lost Firenation soldiers had practically handed over their ships to Hakoda's forces. Even with their drastically reduced numbers, the patchwork recruitment of Waterbenders, warriors, Earcthbenders, and even rebel Firebenders had easily apprehended and commandeered the small ships. It was good fortune to find such a distracted, unprepared and ill weathered crew aboard the lost ships.
Over the course of a week, a new vigor had set in among the soldiers. They ate and drank merrily, happy to still have their lives and their purpose. This war party had served their purpose in ridding the southern portion of the Earth Nation of all stationed Fire Nation forces, thus banishing the close threat to the Southern Water Tribe. They had also saved hundreds of small villages from being razed.
But they also mourned the dead, giving proper burials to both friend and foe. The remaining warriors took pride in the fact that their companions did not fall in vain.
Through the happier moments, Zuko and Katara spent every waking second together.
Katara was noticeably having difficulty recovering from their last bout. She sparred with Zuko, and when that had proved to be too rough on her, she had taken to meditation and practicing her healing on her own body.
But to no effect.
Whenever Zuko had raised his concern with her, she hushed him. Not only was she not healing, but she appeared to be withering.
The night before they would depart for the Southern Water Tribe, Zuko sat next to Katara at her tent's campfire. She had skewered a fish on a stick and was roasting it over the fire.
"Want some?" She chimed and waved the fish toward him.
"No, thank you. I'm not hungry." His tone foreshadowed something serious. "I want to talk about you."
"I told you, I'm fine. I just need time to get strong again." The flames danced in her ocean blue eyes, and her soft brown skin reflected the warm glow of the campfire.
"It's like... You're sick." The twinge in Katara's expression told Zuko he was close to his answer.
"Can we not worry about it?" The defiant tone that Zuko loved fended off any further discussion about her condition. She punctuated her request by firmly planting her skewer into the ground, just out of the flame's reach.
For the first time, Zuko was witnessing her in her own element. She wore the deep blue robes of a Waterbender tailor-made for her body. Her usually wild hair was tamed into one long, wide plaint that extended down her back. And she sat comfortably, among her own customs, sleeping in a tent of her own choosing, coming and going as she pleased.
"Zuko?" Her voice faded into Zuko's wandering mind.
"Hm?" His topaz eyes refocused on her face.
"I said we should get some rest. We're leaving early in the morning, and there's a lot to do aboard the ships. Especially for you." She was of course mentioning the fact that only Zuko and the handful of other Firebenders were the only ones who could operate the ships.
"Yeah..." He looked toward the beach where the looming black shapes of the ships were awaiting them. He once again lost himself in thought.
This time, it was not her voice that brought him back. He felt her warm hands cradle his face, touching his grisly scar without a second thought. Katara had leaned into him, pressing their lips together softly. It took him a moment, but Zuko returned the kiss eagerly, pulling her in closer by her shoulders.
Under the stars, all their problems seemed to evaporate.
In the morning, the encampment was loaded aboard the ships, and without a look back, they set sail.
Look for the sequel, "Tides of War" I'll be good about keeping up on the updates, but expect longer intervals between them.