“You are not going to believe what just happened!”
A smile formed on Zuko's face as he turned around to see Katara come walking from the treeline. He had very quickly come to love the sound of her voice.
Since that first day, eleven days ago (yes, Zuko kept count), she hadn't bothered bringing more than a knife just out of habit. But today she wore an axe in her belt and she had a shield strapped to her back. Zuko raised an eyebrow at her.
“I'll get to that,” she said before greeting Swordtooth by scratching the side of his head, as Zuko had showed her a few days ago. Swordtooth was usually quite shy around practically anyone that wasn't Zuko or possibly his uncle, but he seemed to really like Katara.
“So, today we received some visitors from an island south of here that we've had contact with for decades,” she said, still focusing on Swordtooth, “and among them is this girl, Suki. I've met her a few times before when we have visited them and I quite like her. She's one of the strongest warriors on their island, only a fool would question that.” Now she turned to Zuko, a huge grin on her face. “I've told you about my brother, right? He has this habit of underestimating people who are smaller than him and today he decided not only to underestimate Suki but also tease her.” She had to pause to laugh. “It took her one blow – one blow, Zuko – to knock him to the ground. I've never seen him so humiliated in my entire life, it was hilarious!”
Since Zuko didn't know her brother, the story wasn't as funny to him as it was to her but when Katara laughed, it was impossible not to laugh with her. He then walked over to her and Swordtooth and smoothly slid her axe out of her belt, twisting it in his grip. “What does your axe have to do with it?”
Katara snatched the weapon back from him and poked him in the chest with the hilt. “Well, seeing Sokka's defeat reminded me of your not-so-smooth fighting skills.” She directed a mocking grin at him. “And I thought we might have a spar. Just in case, you know, you stumble into someone from my village. Even the children are trained in self-defence. You do have weapons, right?”
Zuko narrowed his eyes on her, though he couldn't completely conceal a tiny smile. “Firstly, that wasn't a fair fight – it wasn't a fight at all, I just wanted to protect Swordtooth. Secondly, I have weapons alright and you haven't even seen me use them so take it easy with your presumptions.”
Katara snorted. “We'll just have to see about that, won't we? But we can't spar here, someone might hear us. I was thinking that maybe we could fly east? There's a huge cliff with a flat top not too far away, I noticed it yesterday on our way back. Unless of course you're afraid...”
She was awfully good at pasting an innocent look on her face. Zuko crossed his arms and leaned in a little. “You're on.”
Some sort of excited little giggle escaped her mouth and she jumped around Swordtooth to climb onto his back. Zuko climbed on as well and seated himself in front of her. Before long, her arms encircled his upper body as usual and Zuko wondered faintly if he'd ever get used to this. Then they were off.
They had barely been in the air for two minutes before Katara's hands moved to his shoulders. “Can I try standing up?”
Zuko had only tried to fly standing a handful of times and neither of the attempts had ended well. But he had never tried with someone else there to help him keep balance. “Sure,” he said after some consideration, “but you have to be careful.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Zuko thought he heard her mumble before she moved her body backwards to make place for her feet. Then she moved her weight to her feet and slowly started to stand up. Her back was still bent when she lost her balance and had to grip Zuko's shoulders.
“Swordtooth, fly straight!” Zuko patted the dragon's neck. “Nice and easy.”
“Can you give me your hand to hold on to?” Katara asked behind him. He immediately obliged and she took his hand in a tight grip. With a deep breath, she straightened her back and stood up all the way. Zuko felt through her grasp how she struggled to keep her balance but eventually her hand grew still. And then her grip loosened until she pulled her hand away completely. He had to turn around and look at her.
The smile on her face was the brightest thing he'd ever seen. Her arms were stretched out like wings of her own. Zuko was once more amazed by this young woman, not only because of her ability to balance on a moving dragon all the while laughing but more because she was brave enough to do so. He had never met a braver person. He couldn't help but smile as he looked up at her.
When they were closing in on the cliff she had pointed out, they were hit by a powerful gust of wind and Katara was almost blown over. The stab of fear Zuko felt in that moment was indescribable. But Katara was quick-witted and gripped Zuko's shoulders and at the same time threw herself down to sit behind him again. Zuko felt her wince in pain at the impact but she was still with him and that was enough.
Sparring would not be difficult on the cliff, the top was wide and the ground was flat. It was all in stone, so a fall might hurt but Zuko figured that wouldn't be much of a problem since he intended to stay on his feet this time. Katara walked up to him with wide eyes as he pulled out his dual broadswords from the bag he kept strapped behind the saddle on Swordtooth's back. “What are those?”
Zuko raised an eyebrow at her. “Don't you have swords here?”
“Yes, of course we do but nothing like these. They are so light and thin. How could they possibly kill a--” She stopped short and turned to him with an apologetic look. “Sorry. We are taught since infancy to always assess things in terms of how they might help us against the dragons. It's not easy to break a habit like that...”
“I know, don't worry about it.” Zuko took a few steps backwards with his swords raised and started moving them in a flowing motion. “These are dual swords – twins, you might say. They are supposed to be two parts of the same weapon, if you use them correctly. Back at home, we generally don't use axes or heavy weapons like you do. We prefer speed to raw strength.” Then he smirked at her. “We'll see if you can keep up.”
Katara just scoffed and pulled her axe from her belt. Then she unstrapped the shield she had tied to Swordtooth's side during the flight and walked up to Zuko. If it hadn't been for the grin on her lips, she would have looked intimidating with her axe and shield raised in a fighting stance.
“Are you ready?” She was really excited about this, he could ear it in her voice. In all honesty, Zuko couldn't deny that he was as well – he hadn't sparred properly with someone for years, let alone someone as talented as her.
There was a glint in her eye right before she charged, swinging her axe in a wide motion to build up as much force in the blow as possible. Zuko wasn't surprised when he had to stagger backwards a few steps after throwing his swords up to block the axe. She was trained to kill large beasts with high endurance and that demanded a lot of strength. But strength generally meant slower movements, so Zuko decided to test her speed. He lashed out with one sword and then the other, over and over.
Her work with the shield was incredible. Most people would just keep the shield up to take all the hits. But Katara never stopped moving it, she watched his movement closely and then angled the shield in ways that not only deflected the force in his blows but also rebounded it up into his arm. Her attacks with the axe might be a bit slow but her defence certainly was not. She was tiring him out.
Instead of keeping hacking away at her shield, Zuko started attacking with wider blows from both sides. With Katara's defence and attacks here and there, it almost became a dance. A dance of push and pull, like the water by the beaches in his homeland. Despite their different fighting styles, their movements fitted strangely well together. They were equal.
Eventually, neither of them knew how long they had been at it and they both ended up lying on the ground close to the edge, trying to catch their breaths. Swordtooth watched them from where he had settled on the opposite side of the cliff to keep out of their fight. Zuko didn't speak until his heartbeat had gone back to normal.
“But if you have important guests, doesn't your father expect your presence? You did say he's the chief, didn't you?”
Katara didn't respond for a while. Then she sighed and sat up. “I suppose he does. But he can expect my presence all he wants. I won't let his expectations rule my life.”
Zuko furrowed his brow and sat up next to her. He wasn't used to that tone, there was almost bitterness in it. He frowned at her in question.
She sighed again before she spoke. “My father wants me to take over as chief. He keeps going on and on about how I have the right temper for it and how comforting it would be for the tribe since they all know me so well. What I want doesn't interest him.”
“What about Sokka?”
“Sokka has already sworn his life to boat building. 'Improving our ships is just as important as good leadership in the war against the dragons,' Dad says. He thinks we might be able to find their nest if our ships were able to sail farther. Whether I want to lead the war against the dragons isn't important, Sokka and I are supposed to carry the pride of the village after him.”
She looked out at the sea before them in silence after that. But Zuko sensed she was not done so he said nothing. Eventually, she moved her body closer to his so that she faced him. She looked into his eyes.
“Meeting you has made me realize that there is so much more in this world than I'd ever imagined. You've been all over and I'd like to hear you try saying there are not incredible things out there. I can't live my life chained to that rock, it's not who I am.” Her eyes shifted to his hair and a heartbeat later, she reached up and started braiding a lock of it. It was not the first time she did it but Zuko was taken aback every time. It amazed him how forward and physical she was but something told him it was just the way people were around here, as opposed to his own very reserved and impersonal people. He didn't mind though.
“I know you have the same gods as we do where you're from,” she started after a stretch of silence, still working with his hair, “but I'm not sure what you believe happens after we die. Here we believe there are two alternatives; either you simply cease to exist or you can be reborn in the next world and live among the gods for evermore. The latter is only for those who live boldly, who fight and die fighting one way or another.” She looked up and searched his face, awaiting his response.
“We don't believe precisely that, but something similar.”
Katara nodded and went back to her braiding. “I don't know if you've noticed, but I'm not exactly the one to ever back down from a challenge, even if it might be dangerous...”
Zuko almost laughed. “I've noticed.”
She ignored his amused tone. “I can't be one of those who cease to exist, I just can't. I mean, can you even imagine what the next world would be like? Walking among the gods and sharing their table! Just think about it; a new version of yourself – your soul reborn as an equal to the gods!” Her eyes shone as she spoke. But then her face darkened. “There's no way I'll be reborn if I spend my life here, taking care of my village. I don't mean to turn my back on them – I would never do that – but it's just not enough. I need more. And that's why I can't become chief. I don't want to disappoint my father but I simply can't be what he expects me to.”
Zuko turned his eyes away from her and looked at the setting sun. “I should know all about being a disappointment to one's father...” He still hadn't told her the whole story of how he had refused to hand Swordtooth over when his father had demanded it. He had known very well that his father would have turned the dragon into an obedient weapon, into a killer. For a long time he had thought of his affection for Swordtooth as a great weakness and he had seen his scar as his own fault. But now he didn't blame himself anymore. Flying across the world on Swordtooth's back had taught him quite a lot. Said dragon seemed to sense Zuko's unease as he thought of that day, because he walked over to them and lied down next to Zuko. He patted the dragon's head.
Zuko considered elaborating on his comment but decided not to. He didn't feel like reliving his memories even more by talking about them and they weren't even talking about him anyway.
“I don't know your father but based on what you've told me, he seems to be a good man. I think that if you just force him to listen to what you have to say, he will understand. It won't be easy for him but eventually he'll accept it and find someone else to take over for him.”
Katara looked at him for a moment and then snorted quietly as she looked away at the sunset. “We'll see. All I know is that one way or another, I am going to the next world. I won't accept anything else.” Suddenly she turned back to him. “Will you promise to meet me there? Promise that no matter how things turn out, we'll see each other there.”
Zuko could do nothing but stare. He had never really thought much about the afterlife, he didn't even know what he believed. But looking at her now, seeing her hopeful eyes, he realized he would believe in anything that would bring him closer to her. “I... I'd like that. I promise.”
When she gave him that wonderful smile, he found himself leaning in towards her. His eyes flickered between her lips and her eyes and slowly, he leaned closer. He stopped just before their lips met, not sure if this was the right thing to do.
Naturally, Swordtooth picked up the tension between them, being the perceptive creature that he was. Deciding to help his friend out, he gave Zuko a push in the back with his head and forced their lips together.
Zuko almost pulled back to either laugh or bark at Swordtooth but Katara had already wrapped her arms around his neck. So he decided to abandon his inhibitions and pulled her even closer, deepening the kiss.
She had made him promise to meet her in the next world after all, and being bold seemed to be the best way to get there.