It seemed that just as soon as Zuko had wormed his way into their group, he declaring that he’d lost his bending. It struck her as the most amusing sort of irony, and she scathingly told him as much.
And yet—she found herself wondering, if he did have some sort of ulterior motive to joining their group… why admit so readily that he’d lost his bending? Aang needed a firebending teacher, and they tolerated Zuko because he could fill that role. When he stopped being able to bend, why tell them at all? He could have easily staved off any of them knowing with some excuse. Late at night, alone and feeling the restlessness the moon awoke in her, Katara frowned. If she thought she could have understood him once, she had been proven sorely wrong. It was no different now. Breathing out curious thoughts of Zuko, Katara closed her eyes and tried to sleep. Who knows why he did what he did?
After he went off alone with Aang, they both came back having discovered—and rediscovered—firebending. Now he could finally get around to teaching it. Katara grudgingly had to admit that it was impressive to spectate them practicing. Being able to actually watch Zuko bend as he demonstrated katas, rather than in relation to how she could avoid and counterattack, gave her an odd new appreciation for how he moved. It made her uncomfortable when she catch herself enjoying watching. Whatever he told them all about being changed and on their side now, Katara couldn’t so easily dismiss all his past actions. She remembered Ba Sing Se with painful clarity, and promised herself she would not be so easily fooled by him again.
It wasn’t long after that when he disappeared again, this time with Sokka.
The flimsy excuse of going on a trip to bring back some meat didn’t fool her, but for the life of her, Katara couldn’t figure out what they—what Zuko was up to. That didn’t stop her from trying to make sense of the real reason behind their disappearance as she make breakfast in the large clay pot the morning after they vanished. She worried that he’d tricked them all and betrayed them all again, and abducted her brother, and was well on his way back to the Fire Nation with his prisoner by now.
But, of course, that didn’t make any sense. Why come all the way here, gain their trust, announce so openly that he’d lost his bending, start training Aang—only to then vanish with Sokka on some weak fabrication? If he was abducting her brother and going back to the Fire Nation, why didn’t Zuko just make off with Aang in the first place? As much as she loved her brother, Katara knew that Sokka was worthless to the Fire Nation; he was unknown, and a non-bender. What benefit could Zuko possibly have to kidnap her brother? Smoke filled her nose, and she scowled, angry that even when he wasn’t here she was still so aware of the scents that lingered around him from his bending and—
“Katara!” Haru’s exclamation snapped her out of her reverie. “The juk!”
“What?” Even as the words formed and tumbled from her mouth, she looked down to see dusky smoke rising from the pot, the breakfast forgotten under the tirade of her thoughts. “Oh no!”
She rotated her hands quickly in counter-circular directions—one to thoroughly stir the liquid of the juk itself, and one to coax some water from the nearby fountain onto the flames beneath the pot to settle the cooking fire into steam. Only the porridge at the very bottom had been truly burned enough to be inedible, but she was embarrassed at herself, nonetheless. To think that she’d gotten so consumed in thought over him that she completely lost track of herself—especially when he wasn’t even here. Katara told herself it was because she was worried about her brother, and where they could have gone.
Absently, she worried the pad of her thumb.
After nightfall four days later, Katara felt a slow drawing within her, the way it felt beneath her skin when the tide rolled in at its highest and tugging, tugging her to go along out to sea with it. Something was coming.
It was only a few moments later when the familiar, gut-twisting sound of whirring echoed against the cliff walls and through the sodden fog. Aang, Toph, and Haru all scrambled to their feet and joined Katara to stare out into the mist to see what came for them. Every one of them was tense; Katara could feel the erratic thudding of their heartbeats as they all anticipated the worst. They all knew the only thing that sounded like that: Fire Nation airship propellers.
Maybe she had been right, Katara thought hysterically. Maybe that traitor had absconded with her brother back to the Fire Nation and now he’d come back with an airship to take down the rest of them. Or, worse yet, he’d come with his sister.
She shifted her weight into a fighting stance and popped open the cork of her waterskin, hand hovering and wrist taut, ready to whip and lash and freeze.
The dark metal hull of a Fire Nation airship sank down from the opposite side of the gorge into their view. It was headed directly toward them.
“Aang,” Katara said, the warning biting like ice in her voice. She didn’t have to look over her shoulder to hear the soft sound of his closed glider cutting through the air; in her peripheral, Toph and Haru sank back into their respective stances, firm as granite and waiting.
No attack came as the airship slowed. It turned and eventually banked against the edge of the Air Temple, scraping to a halt. To her right, Aang visibly winced at the noise, but Katara did not budge. It was difficult, through the adrenaline threaded through her veins and through the strangeness of the metal hull, to tell just how many people were there. All the steam pressure built up in the pipes confused her newly formed senses.
Fully docked as best it could against a foundation that never anticipated such a machine, the entry hatch opened and a ramp lowered down onto the stone. All at once she felt throbbing pulses in her ring finger and her thumb, so sudden and so forceful she took an involuntary step back, her defense dispersing like water droplets in the sun.
Before anyone could comment on her abrupt change in demeanor, Zuko walked down out of the ramp, followed closely by Sokka. Everyone else flanking her relaxed together, and she stepped forward, finding her balance again.
“What are you doing in this thing?” she demanded, confused and angry and relieved more than she would ever admit to anyone. “What happened to the war balloon?”
Zuko had the audacity to look a bit sheepish as he rolled a shoulder in a lazy shrug. “It kind of got destroyed.”
Aang leaned on his glider like a staff, instantly relaxed in the way only he could be now that he knew they weren’t being attacked. “Sounds like a crazy fishing trip.” He sounded jealous that he hadn’t been included in whatever adventure the two older boys had gotten themselves into.
“Did you at least get some good meat?” Toph stacked her hands akimbo on her hips expectantly.
“I did,” Sokka spoke up, his voice taking on a superlative hitch. “The best meat of all. The meat of friendship and fatherhood.”
The fact that he hadn’t been abducted by Zuko explained the ‘friendship’ part of that, but the fatherhood—
Before she could start questioning about this dubious statement he so carelessly flung out, three more figures peeled away from the darkness inside the airship. Breath snagged in her throat, the greater meaning behind Sokka’s ridiculous proclamation sinking in the same way that her feet sank into a sandy shore beneath a receding tide.
Suki, the Kyoshi warrior that both she and Sokka had an instant affinity toward made her way down the ramp. Two men followed her out—one she didn’t recognize who was saying something she didn’t hear at all, because the last figure to emerge from the shadows, dressed in dull prison reds, was her father.
All in an instant, Katara felt full to the brim—her breath welled up in her throat, tears stung at her eyes, and her face ached strangely for a moment before she realized she was grinning. A hoarse, “Dad?” croaked out of her throat before her feet surged into motion without conscious thought on her part, and she propelled herself into her father’s arms.
“Hi, Katara,” she heard him breathe somewhere above her head. She couldn’t tell exactly where because her face was burrowed into his chest. It felt so much like home that it opened up the hollow in her chest she’d so carefully closed off and made it ache.
It took a great amount of effort to force herself away from the strong, familiar beat of her father’s heart. She looked up into his face, cheeks wet and uncaring that they were so. “How are you here?” Through happiest tears she’d had in a long while, she looked over at Sokka and Zuko. “What is going on? Where did you go?”
“We kind of went to a Fire Nation prison.” Her brother cocked his head with an arch look on his face. Over his shoulder, Zuko had an uncharacteristic smile that widened to a grin when Hakoda reached for his son’s arm and drew him in with Katara against his chest again. It didn’t matter where they’d gone or what they did—her father was alive and safe again. That’s all Katara needed to know.
Her family. Here. Together. A hiccuping breath caught somewhere in the middle of her throat, and her heart fluttered like a catbird exulting in a newly built nest.
They stayed up far too late that night, listening to four different people regale the nigh-impossible escape from the Boiling Rock prison—Sokka’s excited storytelling, their father’s calm additions, Suki’s correcting interjections and acceptance of Sokka’s flattery when describing her capture of the prison’s own warden, and even the former prisoner they brought with them through happenstance, Chit Sang, had a few humorous addendums to the getaway.
It wasn’t until after they’d all exhausted their voices and were lying all in a circle with one another in the starlit dark that Katara realized Zuko hadn’t spoken up—he’d merely sat and listened with a ghost of a curve to his mouth. She didn’t know what that meant, but she was too tired to ruminate on it. Surrounded by the lullaby of so many heartbeats, Katara sank into dreamless sleep.
Everyone fell into a sort of strange normalcy for a while.
What surprised Katara most, of all the things that could have, was having Chit Sang help her with cooking duties. Both he and Zuko were the first up in the morning, rising with the sun every day, but while the younger man went to meditate, soaking in the new rays of daylight, Chit Sang would set up the big clay pot for juk. By the time Katara herself got up, he’d have wood stacked beneath the pot, waiting for her to come over before he lit it, and then helped serve and even clean up after everyone had eaten. It was nice, having help, even if her helper was a surprising one.
By the time they’d have everything cleaned and stacked, nearly everyone was scattered, tending to their own things. Sokka trained with their father and Suki both, building on the knowledge that Master Piandao had begun; Teo and the Duke continued their exploration of the ancient temple; Haru honed his earthbending with Toph somewhere deep in the temple, the stoneworks vibrating gently every so often from their efforts; and Aang was finally able to start making true progress in his firebending training with Zuko. Katara itched to be practicing herself, but the only person left was Chit Sang. As willing as he was to help with the group chores, she didn’t particularly relish the thought of sparring with him. He didn’t seem to be jumping to suggest they face one another, either.
Instead, she found herself seeking out Aang and Zuko to watch them train. Aang fluctuated between acting glad she was there and showing off—something that got him reprimanded by Zuko more than once—and abashed that there was someone watching him at all. He never acted that way while learning earthbending. She wondered if he still felt so much remorse about accidentally burning her all those months ago.
Even if he did, he didn’t say anything, and Zuko didn’t give him any chance to protest. The native firebender pushed Aang hard, Katara noted, while balancing it out with intermittent but welcomed encouragement. It was strange, noting how his training style differed. She knew she was a gentle teacher—especially when it came to Aang, her last hope, the world’s last hope—and that Toph was unrelenting as with all things, but Zuko fell somewhere between them. The majority of the time, he was firebending right alongside Aang, demonstrating a technique or mirroring so his student could follow along. After watching them a few times, Katara had to concede that Zuko’s method was… rather effective.
Absorbed in training, neither boy paid much mind to her. Cautiously, almost timidly, Katara closed her eyes and breathed in, singling her focus onto the pulses in her thumb and middle fingers. She exhaled, allowed her perception to flow out of her like a tide rolling toward some distant shore, out to the two benders those pulses belonged to.
She felt Aang’s instantly, that powerful roll in her longest finger, but there was a difference this time. It felt… warm. It felt just like Zuko’s had when he first came to them. Her brow furrowed a little, head tilting just so in concentration. Perhaps she was also sensing Zuko, and thus was confusing the two.
No, a few more moments of focusing on that simultaneously weighty and cavernous pulse convinced her that it was indeed only Aang she was focusing on. What was it, then? What was causing this difference she now felt with him?
“You’ve got to steady your breathing,” Zuko reprimanded him, his rough voice cutting through her thoughts. “Firebending comes from the breath. If you don’t learn to control it, you’re going to hyperventilate and pass out. Not to mention you might set everything around you on fire.”
Katara’s eyes snapped open. She smiled, a small curve of her mouth. That was it, she realized, the rest of whatever Zuko was explaining diminishing to background noise to her—the firebending was the difference. Aang had never truly done any firebending before, even was actively trying not to for a long time, and she’d heard that firebending comes from the movement of internal qi itself, rather than just the manipulation of an external element.
Light and movement at the edge of her line of sight caught her eye and she lifted her gaze to see Zuko in the midst of demonstrating. Katara found her gaze locked to him as he stood, eyes closed and feet at shoulder width, arms solid and hands held palm-up before his solar plexus. He very visibly drew breath in through his nose and exhaled through his mouth several times. Within his chest, she sensed his heartbeat slow, but strengthen, and she felt the drag from it within her chest, insistent and tugging at the spaces between her ribs, and she had to bite down on the inside of her cheek to keep herself from reaching for him.
It was almost like being drunk, or like being caught in the heavy fog between sleep and wakefulness, like her limbs were leaden and she wouldn’t be able to move them if she tried, but she didn’t feel compelled to do so; the rhythm of his heartbeat and the rush of his blood filled her ears like some foreign siren song she knew would lead her against a cluster of rocks and drown her, but she very suddenly just couldn’t stop herself from sinking further into it anyway.
Then she felt a shift, a controlled change and channel within him, and was flung back to her full senses just in time to witness Zuko take a concise step back and exhale a bright tongue of flame.
It didn’t last very long, but the light and heat from it were intense, and when it dissipated into curling wisps of smoke, Aang’s wide-eyed admiration came into full view. His undivided attention was now firmly on Zuko, who shifted through a surprisingly fluid set of katas, controlled flames forming from along his knuckles with every strike, and from the soles of his feet with every kick. He moved deliberately slow to demonstrate to Aang; some of the moves Katara recognized were at fraction of the speed at which he had performed them at other times. And just before every release of his fire, she felt the same shift of current within him, through the trawling in her thumbs and clavicle and hips, through the insistent flow of his blood and qi that sang its strange and hypnotic deluge, its intoxicating promise of submersion.
And then he relaxed his stance, lowering his hands, palm-down now, and released his breath and all the tension he held through his body. His heart returned to normal, and the rush of headiness that had gripped her finally and fully relented its hold on her, though the echo and reverberations of his pulse lingered in the hollow of her throat and in the thickest tendons of her wrists.
“That was amazing!” Aang exclaimed, bright voice disrupting the lull within her. Katara refocused her gaze on the two benders she had intended to watch. “When can you teach me to do that, Sifu Hotman?”
Zuko scowled at him. “Maybe I’ll consider it once you stop calling me that.”
She rubbed her thumb and longest finger together, feeling the pulsing warmth in each of them, noting how much warmer the former was, how much more prominent the heartbeat in it was. Katara frowned.
This was a bad idea, she decided for the second time.
She didn’t want to get to know the ebb and flow of Zuko’s heartbeat better, didn’t want to know what would happen if she spent more time focusing on what she felt inside his veins; a growing, desperate pit in her stomach feared that she just might lose herself and not mind.
She had to stop.
All at once, Katara rose to her feet in a single, fluid movement. She was too warm, with heat spreading out from the bottom joint of her thumb and creeping down her wrist to the rest of her, felt too heady and drifting in her own head. In the space of a hitched breath, she walked away, leaving a perturbed Aang and firm-mouthed Zuko watching after and wondering at her sudden departure.
In the darkness of the deep of night, Katara lay awake, unable to sleep. Her heart ricocheted in her throat and even with the comfort of having both Sokka and her father nearby for the first time in years could not drown out the cadence persisting in the pad of her thumb, a thin but tense thread connecting to Zuko’s sleeping form across from her in the circle they all made. She felt like a fish caught by a line and hated herself for being ensnared so easily, again.
No. Not again.
She wouldn’t let herself get swept up by him again, not after the catacombs. Not after how quickly she’d allowed herself to fall so fully into the rush of his veins earlier.
Katara clenched her hands into fists until her nails dug into the skin of her palms to drown out the warm, steady pulse she felt in her thumbs until she finally found sleep.
“How long will it last?”
Her voice sounds too small to her ears, too frightened. She wants to be strong—don’t crumble, don’t cry, don’t curl in on yourself. So she sits up tall, legs tucked beneath her, and tries not to squirm.
“It’s different for everyone, kuluk,” her mother replies, hands sifting through an old woven basket. “But the first time shouldn’t be more than a few days.”
When she straightens, she has a braid of dark hair in her hands—and then it is in Katara’s, and her mother is behind her, brushing out her long hair, hair past her waist now, thick and curling and so very far from the downy baby curls she holds in between her fingers.
“We have to hang on to that,” her mother tells her, tugging new braids into her hair. Three now, tied each themselves then bound around one another, marking the third step of her life. She would once day add braids herself—one for each of her children, and the last for when she no longer would bear them. “You’ll need it later.”
Days pass in an instant—surrounded by women, only women, only anntullik, the ones beside her. Her mother, her grandmothers, her aunt, women she knew from the village. They laugh and share stories and worries with her, share a bowl of specially made caribou-seal milk, fermented in a small clay pot for just this purpose. The first few sips make Katara gag, and the next she takes make her suddenly clench over and heave up the contents of her stomach. But the anntullik are ready for that, too. Someone rubs her back while she clutches the baby down to in her fingers. Words in the Tribe’s tongue drift like smoke around her and she feels her heartbeat between her hips.
A fire is before her as she kneels on the floor and her hands are shaking. What will it show? Her mother’s form presses gently into the curve of her back, her long hair falling over Katara’s shoulder just like her own would were it not braided back. She murmurs words into her ear, and Katara can’t understand them clearly, but she knows the meaning anyway. She reaches out, shoving her hand into the flames to release the baby down braid into it. The braid starts smoking immediately, thick and dark and rank, and the strands of hair curl twisting in on themselves several times over.
“There will be pain, your labor will be long,” a voice much like her mother’s says next to her ear. Katara frowns. She feels the pulse in her wrists press forward and back. Waves wound behind her bones.
Then she is lying on her back, her parka and layers of shirt hiked up to her ribs and her pants and smalls tugged down to bare her hips—there is no sensation of indecency, for they are all of a kind together in the hut, they’ve all bared their hips just like this when they were her age. Strong hands, calloused hands, warm hands hold her sides, her shoulders, they touch her face, soothe her hair back and along the pillow. A white-haired woman she doesn’t recognize from here is hunched over her hips with caribou-seal gut thread and a bone needle, sewing a pattern of thick dots into the ruddy brown of her skin.
She feels every pulse of her heart now, like she felt undercurrents beneath the ice, feels the heartbeats of all the women around her. She knows where they are, how they are standing, which ones were recently sick, which one will soon feel a quickening in her own womb. The place between Katara’s hips houses her heart instead of her chest now, and she feels blood run down the inside of her thigh, back toward the furs she lays upon.
Blood—like water, moving like waves, tides within each person. Reach out to them like you would a stream of water beneath the ground, pull it up up up until you command its form—yes, good, Katara. You certainly are worthy of learning the greatest lesson of the last Southern Waterbender.
Katara gasps audibly and tries to buck her hips, but the white-haired old woman’s hands are too strong as she holds them down, Katara’s own blood from the sewn tattoos beading around bony fingers, and Hama’s face looks up at her from above those hands, grinning. Now you are truly initiated, her voice crackles like wood or bone snapping in two. A living hum tingled along the bloodways of her entire body and made her bones shake and ache and she knew all she had to do to stop it was just reach out and seize control of Hama’s blood just like before and command its movement to her will—
The hut she was in suddenly shattered into consciousness from the deep dhoum of an explosion, and Katara rolled her feet on instinct, all while realizing the thrum she felt beneath her bones wasn’t the sense of blood, but the vibrations of a Fire Nation airship outside the temple. In an instant, she was on her feet and prepared to launch herself into a fight, already reaching out to the water in the fountain on the terrace. Another shudder ran through her—no, it ran through the entire building, upending any thoughts or worries she might have spared for the dream. Then everything happened at once.
Slabs of rock tumbling down toward her as the ceiling crumbled—saved from crushing by a tumble of body against her own across the stone floor—their group separated and tunneling escapes out of the temple and into the fray, grasping a pair of warm hands in her own and dragging the Exiled Prince into Appa’s saddle to save him from a sure death (repaying the debt just incurred for him saving her own), then a flight through the clouds faster than any airship—or war balloon—could hope to follow.
The dream already was fading from her mind, pushed out by more immediate worries, threats that were real. When her first blood had come upon her three years ago, Katara had been only with her grandmother, and they’d braided her hair together. Her baby down was long gone, lost in the Fire Nation raid that killed her mother, and she’d known next to nothing of waterbending—let alone bloodbending—then. It was just a dream, and it sank away from her waking mind as they flew through the cover of clouds.