If it please the critics, I'd like to submit a little story o' mine for review. Let's get this party started, yes?
Summary: Katara realizes something very interesting about Zuko. And it's not just that he knows how to play the sungi horn. Set during the first season.
Um, I actually wrote this quite some time ago and posted it to FF.net. Is it only "fresh" fanfiction we can critique or can I dredge out some of the old stuff?
Anywho . . .
Whatever the reason - Sokka’s thunderous snores, the hard ground, or the nip of cold in the night air - Katara simply could not sleep. An hour trudged by, where she did nothing more than stare at the moonless sky, and wrestle between her desperate need to rest and her inability to do so. She lay still in the confines of her sleeping bag, breathing in the slightly acrid stench of flying bison breath, wondering when dawn would at last creep over the tree tops.
But patience had never been her strongest virtue. With a sigh of defeat, shaking a mental fist at the sandman, Katara extracted herself from her sleeping bag and padded gently out of camp. Silently, she crept, making sure she disturbed neither her drooling brother or Aang, as he curled up in the veritable forest of Appa’s fur. Even Momo slept on unawares of her movement, purring softly atop the Avatar’s head.
They had landed not far from the seashore to make camp. A bold choice, given that half the Fire Nation Navy was after them, but constant flying had worn poor Appa out. Katara found her direction and forged a path between the trees to the ocean, noting the placement of the camp for the journey back. Treading carefully, hands outstretched to part the branches and the darkness, she felt momentarily for the waterbending scrolls stored safely in her robes. Smiling, she thought she might as well practice since she could not sleep.
Reaching the beach, Katara paused a moment to inhale the sweet salty air. Apart from the absence of roasting blubber, the sea breeze always smelt delightfully like home. Nostalgia came in waves like the tide, but she grinned at the memories. Pulling the scrolls from their hiding place, her giddy heart skipped a few beats as she gazed upon the diagrams of real waterbending moves. In the cramped ice huts of the South Pole, Katara had only dreamt of holding such knowledge in her hands.
She laid the scrolls down on a large rock, handling them rather like porcelain. Her eyes scanned the first line and she assumed the position the first illustration demanded. Real waterbending moves! She moved from pose to pose, matching the pictures.
She would never sleep now. Summoning a ribbon of water from the ocean, it moved and wriggled under her power, but she still had trouble controlling it. It took nearly all her concentration - adrenaline surging to her arms and legs - to keep the water stable but still pliant to her commands. All the little molecules seemed to want to go in a thousand different directions at once. It occurred to her that air must be ten times more difficult, being absolutely formless.
However, as she slid into the next move, pulling that water into shape, a bright light caught her eyes. Letting the water fall to the sand, Katara turned to inspect.
A Fire Navy ship! Beached in the small cove not far away.
Frantic, she quickly gathered up her scroll and stored it away, before diving behind a large outcropping of rocks. How could she not have seen it? It was a warship for crying out loud! A huge, hulking warship complete with catapult and smokestack, and she had missed it! Had she been that enraptured in the ocean? Katara groaned, feeling her racing pulse, and scanned the vessel’s deck for lookouts.
What if she had been spotted? What if they had taken her prisoner? Aang had no clue where she was. But, with a sigh of relief, Katara saw no one with a telescope, and no activity aboard to suggest that they might have seen her. Instead, and this struck her as slightly strange, she could hear the distant strums of the four-stringed pipa, as it ran through its chords. Music? Something as deadly and fearsome as the Fire Nation did not seem like it should enjoy music.
The sensible thing to do, and Katara knew this full well, was to go back to camp and warn Aang. But curiously got the better of her and practically forced her to investigate - what’s a girl to do? To the protests of a thousand Sokkas and even a few Kataras, with a survey of the surroundings, checking if the coast was clear, she crept over the rocks and slunk toward the ship. The darkness of the new moon masked her, but lamps behind the ship’s portholes made tiny spotlights in the sand.
Katara stood in the shadow at the base of the ship and peered upward. Naturally, the music was louder now; she now recognized not only a pipa, but a flute playing the melody of the some Fire Nation ditty. A man shouted that the tea was ready. Still, the metallic hull of the ship presented a problem. Katara chewed her lip: she certainly couldn’t climb it.
Ah ha! The anchor! They had dropped it in the water as protection from they tide - and look at that lovely climbable chain! But no, she thought, taking a step back toward the camp, this was not at all wise. Risking her life just to catch a Fire Nation concert was not sensible, it was downright stupid. She took another step back, but went no further. Something occurred to her.
Maybe, if she spied on them, Katara could get some useful information, like - well, like if they had engaged any Water Tribe fleets from the South Pole.
Anxiety over her father gripped her, and pushed her into the cold ocean. Careful of the precious waterbending scrolls, she swam toward the chain. Reminding herself that silence and stealth were key, she gripped it and pulled herself up. But climbing a chain, as Katara discovered, could not be done silently. It clacked and jangled with every desperate movement she made. She gritted her teeth, but, luckily, someone above had found a drum and had commenced in playing a jaunty marching tune.
“We don’t want none of that war stuff!” a man yelled.
“Give us the beat to that Earth Kingdom waltz, Xun. Me and Huang want to dance,” another soldier called, followed by a masculine cry of protest.
“Get your hands of me!”
Laughter erupted on the deck, as Katara scurried up the chain and scrambled on deck right behind four large barrels of fresh water. They had been shoved in the corner by the captain’s cabin. Through the gap between two of the barrels, she could see a small group of soldiers gather around with all sorts of instruments, laughing, talking, and occasionally playing. They sat in a ring of chairs, with a small table to the right with a steaming kettle of tea upon it. Two chairs were empty: one completely, the other had only a sungi horn on it.
Just then, someone knocked on the door of the captain’s cabin and an aggravated grunt emitted from the tiny window above Katara’s head.
“We’re all ready.”
“I don’t want to play the stupid sungi horn,” came the answer of the petulant captain.
Katara’s heart stopped dead. Her entire body stopped dead. Katara wanted to die.
Yup, Katara, Sokka’s voice scoffed in her ear, I hope you’re happy. Not only did you manage to find a Fire Navy ship, but you found the only one in the world with Zuko on it. That takes talent. Congratulations.
Shut up, Sokka. She made a dodge for the edge of the ship, but remembered the noisy chain. The music had all stopped in anticipation of General Iroh and Zuko.
Of course it was Zuko’s ship! She suppressed a groan. Stupid, stupid, stupid.
“But, Prince Zuko,” said the man she knew to be General Iroh, “We must have a sungi horn. It’s an integral part of any musical piece. It’s like playing Pai Sho without the lotus tile.”
“I’m busy! Thanks to that accursed storm, we lost track - but I know the Avatar is close.”
Katara appreciated the irony.
“Oh, Prince Zuko,” Iroh replied in a sing-song voice, “I believe you promised.”
“What? No, I didn’t!”
“You forget last music night. Did not you promise to play the sungi horn if I left you in peace?”
“No, I - Oh . . . Uncle, I’m very busy. The Avatar -”
“Zuko! What about your honor!”
Zuko roared with frustration and a column of fire shot out of the window inches above Katara’s head. Anger issues much? But the door of the cabin swung open and Zuko’s heavy boots stomped across the deck.
Good, Katara thought, looking again between the two barrels. Once they start playing it will be diversion enough to sneak down the noisy chain.
The crew gave happy cries of salutation as Zuko took his seat and placed the sungi horn on his lap.
“My nephew has decided to join us this evening.” Iroh strolled to the music circle with a triumphant tilt to his head.
“Good to have you, Captain,” said the man with the pipa. His voice sounded like the man’s who had called for a waltz. Zuko’s reply was a grunt; he wiped the mouthpiece of the sungi horn instead. The pipa player did not seem fazed.
Clapping his hands and rubbing them together, Iroh smiled in a way that said, “Let’s get this party started!” Everyone (except Zuko) smiled back and made their instruments ready.
“Well, gentlemen, what should we play tonight?”
“The Fire Nation National Anthem!” said the man with the drums.
With a groan, the pipa player waved his hand. “Like we didn’t hear that enough during training.”
“I like our national anthem!” protested the drum player.
“But we hear it all the time!”
“Why, you -” He beat the drum by way of argument.
“Please,” Iroh cut in, bringing the conflict to a close, “I believe we played our national anthem last time.”
The pipa player stuck out his tongue.
Suddenly, the flute player shot up his hand. He looked to be a timid creature, pale and white. Taciturn, also, for Iroh seemed surprised that he chose to speak.
Shaking a little, his voice squeaked, “Why don’t we let Prince Zuko choose?”
Iroh grinned. Katara looked at Zuko, but his face was set in apathy.
“Excellent idea! Prince Zuko, what would you like to play?”
Katara surprised herself by being interested in what Zuko would choose. In truth, she could only imagine him choosing the Fire Nation Anthem, but since Iroh had clearly taken that option off the table. . . . Shifting into a more comfortable position, she stared at the young prince’s face: glum, pensive. His scar offset his otherwise handsome features. More so than the scar, the ugly crease of his frown shaped his unattractiveness. However, the largest contributor - the thing that truly made him ugly - was his ruthless, selfish, vicious treatment of others. Memories ran shivers down her spine.
A shame, for physically he had a certain comeliness.
But, tonight, Katara saw something in him she had never seen before. She just could not say what.
The circle of musicians looked on expectantly. At last, Zuko said, with a barely audible (Katara strained her ears) whisper:
“Little Soldier Boy.”
Oddly, Iroh turned a little pale at his nephew’s choice, but a soft smile came over his lips and he nodded.
Pressing his lips to the sungi horn’s mouth piece, Zuko blew. And Katara made a discovery - he could play! He could play well! It was just him at first, only the gently melody, its melancholy echoing through Katara’s ears. Zuko looked so at peace just then, even his scar seemed less livid. She knew this was her opportunity to escape but the music, and he, held her rooted to the spot.
She saw something in him - something in the yellow eyes - that she had never, ever seen before. What?
The flute joined in. Then the pipa player. Solemnly, the music took its course. Iroh began to sing; Katara swore she saw tears in his eyes.
“Leaves from the vine
Falling so slow . . .”
Katara couldn’t stand it anymore. She slid down the anchor chain and into the ocean. All the while, the music and Zuko’s expression haunting her, she did not stop until she made it back to camp.
Collapsing on her sleeping bag, she laid a hand on her forehead, feeling the buzz of thoughts as they raced through her mind.
What had she seen? Why had he seemed so different?
And then she knew.
For that moment, on the ship, Katara had seen Zuko as human.