Katara shivered as the arctic wind blew against her face, stinging her eyes and numbing her nose. She remembered a time when she had been so accustomed to this cold that the chill of the Earth Kingdom fall had felt warm to her, when Spring in an Air Nation temple had been absolutely stifling, when the Fire Nation summers had been unbearable. Now she was used to the heat of the sun on her skin, and the polar weather sent a chill deep into her bones.
Warmth at her side alerted her to someone's presence, and she didn't even have to look to know who it was. "Ryu," she whispered softly, and she felt his shoulder press up against hers in response. It was hotter than it was usually, which meant that he must have been using his firebending in order to warm her. A slight smile lighted upon Katara's lips at the realization.
"It's a strange feeling, isn't it? Going home after being gone for so long." He murmured softly, and Katara nodded slowly, wrapping her arms tighter about her body and leaning into Ryu's tall, hard body. He had been through this once before, she realized. Like her, he had been at War for years only to return home a different man.
"I'm trying to imagine how it is going to look. Sokka wrote me about it… he is so proud. The last time I was there, there was nothing but a bunch of tents, a few women, and some children. It's a real city now, like the North Pole. I…I just can't picture it. It's too different." She replied, and then tucked a strand of wild hair behind her ear. "But all's well, I suppose. I'm different now too," she murmured quietly, her fingertips absently caressing the gentle swell of her stomach.
She had left this place when she had been but a naïve and wide eyed child, eager to see and save the world. She was returning a water bending master; divorced, disgraced, with a child growing in her womb. She returned not as an innocent child, but as a damaged and jaded woman.
She felt Ryu increase the temperature of his hand to further warm her, and the action reminded her so much of Zuko that her heart broke anew. For a brief moment, she allowed herself to remember his tender caresses, the look in his golden eyes that was reserved for her and her alone. Then she steeled herself against the pain and banished the memories, turning to offer Ryu a slight smile in gratitude.
They watched the never-ending landscape of ice roll past, spending their last few moments together in silence. She'd leaned on him through the darkest time in her life, and he had shared the darkest secrets of his past with her. He knew her well enough to know that she didn't want to be alone with her thoughts, but that she wanted enough silence in which to think them. So he said nothing as the steel ship cut through the water and brought them ever closer to their destination.
"I'll miss you," Katara murmured softly after a long time, once the ship had begun to travel along the icy shoreline and she watched the never-changing landscape of the South Pole roll past.
"I'll write to you," Ryu promised softly, and Katara tossed him a tired smile before letting out a sigh. She could feel the ship grumble and moan beneath her feet as it began to slow, and she took in a deep breath, the cold air burning the back of her throat as she did so. She gripped the ship's rail tighter, so that her knuckles were bone white beneath the heavy gloves she wore. Ryu squeezed her shoulder in comfort, and the pair fell into silence once again.
Slowly, the landscape began to shift and change, beginning to resemble in places the areas that Katara had steered her canoe past when she had been a child. There was the spot that Sokka had caught and poked his finger on a puffer fish before promptly screaming bloody murder. As the boat continued to plow forward, memory after memory assailed her, and by the time they reached the place where she had accidentally woken Aang, tears were running down her face in a rapidly freezing stream. Then came the ice formation that she had used to go penguin sliding for as long as she could remember… Penguin sliding is something the children do, Aang… But don't you know, Katara? You are a kid!
Next ahead was the Fire Nation wreck that had loomed in the distance all her childhood, a monument to the terror that had overtaken the tribe after the raids that had decimated its numbers. The same ship who's flare had alerted Zuko to her existence, oddly enough. What would life have been like if Aang had never entered that Spirits-forsaken place?
Katara's heart was pounding in her chest at the knowledge that just around the corner laid her childhood home, the land she'd dreamed of returning to for the better part of two years. Suddenly, it was all too much. She closed her eyes as the ship made the turn, suddenly unable to breathe, unable to look at what laid before her. She felt Ryu's hand wrap around hers and she gripped it as though it were a lifeline.
And then, finally, she opened her eyes. The sight made her gasp and grip onto Ryu's hand all the more. Thick walls of ice rose high into the sky, so high that Katara had to crane her neck to see the top of them. The sun's weak rays made the smooth sheets of ice glisten and shine like a pearl set in the midst of dark blue velvet, making Katara stare in awe. She heard the faint sounds of horns blowing and looked up to the top of the walls again, where she saw men so high above her they looked miniature running to spread the news of the arrival of the Fire Nation ship.
And then there were water-benders, so many water benders, and the icy gate to the city of the Southern Water Tribe was being opened for her. Katara barely noticed how slowly the Fire Nation ship was now gliding through the water, and she was only dimly aware of how all of the other Fire Nation passengers stared at the walls of the city in awe. She was too buy absorbing everything, from the walls that must have been at least twenty feet thick to the massive harbor that lay just within the gates.
The city was thriving; dark skinned, blue eyed people she had never seen before bustled about the harbor, selling and buying fish and nets and lures, entering and exiting what appeared to be a tavern… What was this place, a place so much more like the North than the South of her memory? Where had the sealskin huts and warm hearths she remembered disappeared to?
But then she caught sight of a familiar form standing at the docks, and she let out a soft cry. Suddenly, the ship was going entirely too slow for her tastes. She let go of Ryu's hand, lifted and froze a thick stream of water from the ocean and leapt off the ship, gliding along on her makeshift slide until she was at the docks and wrapped in her brother's warm, warm embrace.
She heard her grandmother's raspy laugh and felt the woman's arms close around she and her brother both, and suddenly Katara was sobbing into the parkas of her brother and her Gran-Gran, and they were both crying too as they held her. And in the arms of the only family she had left after the cruel, cruel war, she knew... despite how different her surroundings were, despite the fact that she didn't recognize half of the members of her tribe, despite the fact that the arctic air now felt foreign against her skin…
She was home.