And then, the noise. Not the distant slap of swell against the ship; no, that was her lone comfort. It was the grinds and crunches. This first night was filled with short, jarring starts and stops never found in nature. The absence of arctic night silence.
She lay on the firm straw pallet, a blanket not made of fur pulled up to her chin. The waned moon weakly illuminated a patch of the Red Emblem hanging on the cabin wall. Oh, the noise. This smoking, hulking mass of artifice could not stop clunking and exploding and pounding and dry scratching, as though its very existence was hard, toilsome labour. She strained fiercely at the weave of the blanket with taut fists, wishing she could close her ears and nose and mind as easily as she could her eyes.
Hours eventually passed. Every scrape of the ship scraped at her nerves. How could she ever have thought she was going to be alright? How could Sokka have been so stupid? Her stomach would not unclench itself, endlessly winding tight, roiling knots. She turned and turned, willing the pallet to yield a section that felt just a little like the easy, soft embrace of a walrus-bear hide. Thick masses of hair had been swept tight around her head with the tossing, and she buried her nose as she turned face down. It still smelled a little of clean ice and dried meat. Her jaw clenched. No. She couldn't cry. Not when it had only been a few hours. How childish to already be crying. But hot, unwelcome tears were already squeezing past shut eyes, and she was helpless to prevent them.
Disgusted with herself, all of that morning's hardy resolve destroyed in the grinding metal guts of this foreign machine, she pushed roughly off the bed and stood up. Eyes bleary with fluid and grit, she sagged with tiredness. She found her tunic and wound it roughly over her nightclothes, forgetting her shoes. Where she could go to avoid noise aboard a ship, she didn't stop to consider, but homesickness and misery were united in encouraging escape.
A brief, brilliant thought seared her tired, dull mind. She could try to escape the ship altogether. She could go home and sleep.
The tiny metal halls of the ship's interior were black as poured pitch. The little she remembered about her route down into her room was lost in a thick shroud of fatigue and poor vision. She groped with sweaty hands along the walls of the labyrinth, looking for anything to lead her up and out. It was too hot down here; the blood-warm air she breathed felt empty, useless. The knots in her stomach bubbled with heat and nausea.
A foot swung out over vacant space. She stumbled, bashing a shoulder into a hard, riveted wall as she did so. A cramped stairwell. Righting herself, she dimly comprehended the thin sliver of moonlight at the base. Well, it wasn't up, but it was out.
Tentatively, fingers discovered hand holds, and she descended. Her shoulder throbbed. She ignored a wave of hot faintness.
Reaching the bottom, she sought out the heavy latch and heaved the sliding door aside. The lower deck appeared before her, dark but mercifully empty. A hint of icy chill touched her sweat-lined face, and she shuffled to the railing, eager for more. The ocean stretched before her. Water weakened the heat and smell of smoke here, but it now efficiently served to remind her of what was lost.
The last of the familiar icebergs had disappeared over the lip of the sea horizon. She was cut adrift. The thought occurred to her that she had once wished to see more of the world. Yearned for it, in fact.
She wondered how she could have ever been so stupid.
She turned and sat heavily on some strange, jutting equipment she presumed to be an anchoring post. Everything on the deck was exhausting straight lines, rigid and artificial. Holding her aching shoulder, she watched the sea.
She was too tired to jump. The officer approached her along the narrow galley when she didn't respond. It was the captain, she was fairly sure. His name had been mentioned, but it was long gone.
"Please, you should..." She struggled to speak consciously, illness and weariness thickening her speech. "I've got to go back. There's no need for me to stay here, really."
His brow furrowed, not unkindly. "I'm afraid you can't."
"Please..." She wiped with tired annoyance at her eyes. Her mind wouldn't connect properly to her tongue and lips. "There's no need."
He frowned, hands folding behind his back. "I was led to believe this was explained to you?"
She shook her head mutely, whether in response or to shake away the clinging fog in her head, she wasn't sure. "Why can't I just go home?" she asked dimly.
The small sounds of the calm ocean muffled the churning and whirring of machinery. She watched thick wads of smoke issue from the smokestack into the sky, superimposed on the stars, before turning into nothing.
The captain sighed quietly. It was deep, regretful.
"Think on the honour. The Fire Lord extends his hand to the North and South in generousity." He brought his hands slowly back to his front. "To study below masters in the Fire Nation for a year, to honour the legacy of the great Water Sifus and rekindle the lineage of the waterbenders. You will have the advantage of many collective years of scholarly knowledge in the great libraries, and the chance to return it to the rightful seat in the Tribes. Especially you," he leaned forward into his speech. "the first Jukwan born to the South Pole in forty years. It is an opportunity for greatness, is it not?" His eyes were wide.
She could tell he was convinced of his words. Truly, she could. But he was as willfully blind as the rest, it seemed. Why was the problem not obvious to anyone but her? Why was no one convinced it was a problem? "There are no Water masters left. They were all... they're all dead. There's no one left to teach us."
"No, but..." He frowned again. It looked wrong. As though he rarely practiced. "Our great stores of bending academia have not been ravaged by war. The masters who teach you will guide your rediscovery of waterbending."
She gazed at him dully. Not because she particularly wanted to, but she couldn't muster the effort to look away. His eager expression faltered, and he turned out to the sea.
It was paltry reasoning, she knew. She'd begun to formulate guesses on the truth, on her father's reluctance to look her in the eye. She sat there, iron digging into her flesh, bone-tired and fearful and sick. Knowing then she could not go home, that home was far behind them, deep over the horizon beyond these ice floes, and this new world of hardness and tiredness and heat was all she would know for the year to come. She hung her head.
"Could you.. not sleep?" His voice had deep gentleness to it, masked only vaguely by authority and command. She shook her head, hating the admittance but too addled to say otherwise. "It was the noise of the ship, I assume?" She nodded once. "It does take some getting used to. Would you prefer to sleep up here tonight? The sounds aren't as bad on deck." She looked up at him. She did, very much. The cold was starting to sink properly into her bones now, a soothing balm. Her nausea was already fading. And she could just distinguish the piquant taste of clean ocean salt from under the smoke up here. He seemed to take her silence and bleary stare as acceptance, and nodded. He held out a gloved hand, a halting gesture.
"Wait here." He turned on his heel and disappeared down a nearby hatch. So she waited. Leaning her shoulder on the cold metal railing beside her eased the throb a little.
The captain returned, pushing a thick sleeping mat and about a half dozen blankets before him. She gave a single, hazy laugh. He stood and smiled enthusiastically, gathering the kit up and returning to her. The grin looked vastly more comfortable on his face. "I know you're likely not too affected by the cold, but it is very cold."
She stood, limbs heavy and wobbling slightly. The captain beckoned her to an alcove in the port galley, a hard bench raised to seating level. She waited, half asleep, as he deftly rolled out the mat. Something chimed in her mind as she watched him work.
"You are Captain Lu Ten, right?" she asked, sleepiness blunting the question more than she'd intended. He turned, still smiling, and handed her the pile of blankets. "Please excuse me if that's not correct, I just wasn't sure."
He nodded in reassurance. "I am Captain Lu Ten, yes. I had not expected you to remember anyone's name for at least another week." That infectious smile again. She was slightly amazed to find herself returning it, though she was sure to less effect. He gestured to the newly-created bunk, and she crawled in with a deep gratitude. Never had a simple night of sleep seemed so desperately unattainable, nor so valuable.
She paused to throw a comfortable number of blankets over her legs. Lu Ten helped her straighten them, if a little unnecessarily. Still, he had enabled sleep. "Thank you, Captain. This was very nice of you."
He nodded. "I shall leave you to sleep, Jukwan Katara. We will speak again in the morning."
She took that as leave to lie down, the cold touching only her face, the rest of her comfortable inside the warm weight of blankets. Every muscle loosed, and she slid quickly, blissfully into nothingness.