If things continued this way, dinner would be ruined.
That was all Kanna let herself think of as she continued to prepare the tiger-seal meat that the hunters brought back. But try as she might, it was difficult to ignore the feeling of eyes watching her every move. She was uneasy enough without the intense gaze on her back.
Unable to handle it any longer, she glanced over her shoulder at the spectator. "If you have something to say, then say it," she said, her tone sharper than she intended.
Pakku sat taller as he stiffened, looking as though he had been caught doing something he shouldn't have. But his features quickly hardened as his manner turned defensive. "You were the one who asked me to join you for dinner," he reminded her, crossing his arms as he turned away. "If you didn't want me here, then tell me what you need from me so I can be on my way."
To that, Kanna said nothing and simply returned to her task of fixing their evening meal. It was true that she was the one who invited him when he had delivered the tiger-seal meat to her. But, as he correctly assumed, she had certain reasons for doing so to begin with.
She knew, of course, that this confrontation that followed would not go without difficulties. She and Pakku have treaded carefully around each other since his arrival with the others from the Northern Water Tribe a few short weeks ago. Initially she had been wary of their appearance; there were differences in certain customs and traditions between the Northern and the Southern tribes, and she had worried that the men's presence, especially Pakku's, would also bring their oppressive rules and intolerant attitudes.
However, Kanna knew she couldn't turn them away, not after they had traveled to the opposite ends of the world. It was the first time their sister tribe had ever reached out to them, and there was no denying that they needed their help. So, despite her reservations, she had welcomed them to what was left of the Southern Water Tribe.
And in all truth, they had been a lot of help. They had spent as much time as they could restoring the Southern tribe, which went further than just a tangible way; as they restored the wall that protected them and rebuilt houses, as they expanded the dwindled village, the small number who remained in the south felt protected, reassured by the group of waterbenders who worked to keep them safe. There was a sense of confidence that had been lost, but returned with the help of the tribe members from the North.
And she was glad to see that, while they did discuss customs and traditions from the North, they also were willing to listen and learn about the Southern culture, and many were fascinated by how the two tribes were similar and different. It made Kanna pleased to see the exchange of information, and a growth in learning between the North and South.
Even so, there were still some obstacles that lingered over the reconstruction, and she recognized that those problems were mostly concerning her and Pakku. There shared a reluctance to speak with each, other than what was necessary in order for the renovation to continue. They spoke civilly with each other around the rest of the tribe, but other than that avoided contact altogether. There was so much that they needed to talk about, though, and she was actually amazed that Pakku still hadn't approached her beforehand; she was sure that he had questions for her. Then again, she wasn't able to bring herself to confront him either.
But she knew that things couldn't continue this way. That was the reason she had invited him to stay for dinner, as a step to begin discussing what they needed to. If they, as the Tribe's elders, were to truly restore the village, then they would have to work out their differences. They had to try and resolve their problems, for the sake of their Tribe.
That didn't make the task any less difficult, however. Even now, a heavy silence hung over them, chipping away at her resolve and leaving only uncertainty. She wasn't surprised that this was so challenging, though; after so many years, she never expected to see him again, and so she never considered how she would explain her actions if they ever did meet. She wasn't quite sure if she was ready for this conversation yet. Perhaps it would be easier if they began talking over a lighter matter. And there was one other thing she wished to speak to Pakku about.
Once the food was ready, she placed it on the table. "Pakku…" she said slowly, working to keep the nervousness from her voice.
His gaze broke away from the cooking fire at the sound of his name, and as he turned to look at her, she was glad to see he seemed a little nervous too.
Sitting across from him, she prepared a plate to keep her hands busy. "How were my grandchildren doing before you left?"
His eyes softened a bit as he relaxed. "Ah yes," he said, feeling more comfortable about this topic, "I was wondering when you would ask about them. They were doing quite well, and when we parted company they were heading to Omashu so the Avatar can learn earthbending."
"I see." On instinct she placed the plate of food in front of him before starting her own. "What…did they think of the North Pole?"
He paused, considering his answer for a moment. "They might have been a bit…overwhelmed by the diversity between the Tribes. And they caused quite a stir up in the North."
"Did they?" She had been worried about them when they had left to join the Avatar on his journey. She didn't have the time to warn them about what the Northern Tribe would be like, and she was concerned about how they would handle those changes in culture.
"Yes…" A beat skipped by. "Still, we certainly needed their help. Without them, we would have been in a lot of trouble." He glanced at her, meeting her slightly stunned expression with a small smile. "You should be very proud of them."
Kanna couldn't help but smile. "I always am." Then she fell silent as she wondered how to bring up her other question. She had heard the stories being told throughout the village; some of the younger waterbenders – Pakku's students, no doubt – told the children stories about the Avatar and his two companions, and described how strong the girl waterbender was. It had made her curious, and she wanted Pakku to confirm it himself. "Did…did you really teach Katara waterbending?"
Pakku smiled, and she wasn't sure if he looked proud or embarrassed. "I did, actually."
"Hmm." Kanna managed to hide her surprise. She had been especially worried about Katara when her granddaughter learned of that particular Northern Water Tribe rule. "Did customs change at the North?"
"Not when they first arrived," Pakku replied, "though I'm certain things will change now that they've been there."
Kanna laughed softly; she wouldn't put it past her grandchildren to challenge and revise such restrictions. "Still, I'm surprised you were the one who trained her, Pakku."
"Well, I didn't really have much of a choice."
She froze, looking at him curiously. "What does that mean?"
"Katara is just as stubborn as you," he replied with a smile (if she didn't know him better, she would have thought he was teasing). "Actually, she did remind me a lot of you at that age. And when I learned she was your granddaughter, of course I had to teach her then. I knew you would have liked to know that she mastered waterbending. She is remarkably talented…"
Though he continued to speak, Kanna was having difficulty listening as she fought to calm a surge of anger within her. "You must be very proud of yourself then," she said tightly, irritation belying her even tone. "Being the first master in the North Pole to have a female student…I'm sure there were many people who were impressed by your decision."
Pakku fell silent, bemused by the glare he was receiving. "Kanna…"
She stood up abruptly, rattling the table and its contents as she pushed herself away from it. "If you think that you can come here and try to win me over with stories of how you've changed and taught my granddaughter waterbending…!" Frustration threatening to take control, she turned and started to storm out.
She was stopped, however, as a firm hand grasped her shoulder and kept her in place. Turning around, she moved to push him away, but he took hold of her wrists, stilling her while forcing her to look at him.
"Kanna…" he said, and for a moment she thought she saw a pained expression in his eyes. "Is that what you think? That I taught Katara waterbending as a way to show off to you?"
She huffed. "And I suppose you'll try to convince me that it's not true?"
He sighed. "I will admit," he said slowly, "that the reason I taught Katara waterbending is because I saw a lot of you in her. She is so much like you, and when I discovered she was your granddaughter, it became difficult to say no."
Kanna huffed again.
He frowned, lowering her hands. "But, Kanna, I didn't teach Katara waterbending because I thought it would impress you. Honestly when I became Katara's teacher, I never imagined that I would see you afterwards, and my decision to come here was made only after I taught her."
Kanna paused, searching Pakku's eyes for anything that would show he was trying to deceive her. But she found nothing. "Really?"
He nodded. "Yes. I am here for a lot of reasons…but that wasn't one of them."
She suddenly realized that he was still holding her wrists, his grip gentle as he kept her close. And as she looked at him, she found herself marveling at how, despite all the years that passed, Pakku hadn't changed much. He had aged, certainly – they both have – but she could still see the man she once knew. He was still the same stern, intense, passionate…handsome man he was back then, in those days long ago.
Especially in his eyes. No matter how impassive his facial features appeared, his eyes always gave away what he was feeling. And looking into his eyes now, she could see how anxious he appeared, how uncertain and confused he seemed to be. She became acutely aware that their conversation wasn't finished yet.
As if on cue, Pakku cleared his throat to get her attention. "Kanna…?" he said softly, as if unsure where to begin.
She knew, just by his tone, where this exchange was leading. No matter how hard it would be, no matter how much neither of them wanted to have this discussion, there was no use trying to avoid it. It was time they both faced up to it, and she braced herself as she replied, "Yes?"
A thousand questions seemed to pass through his eyes as he tried to determine which one to ask. "If…if we had gotten married all those years ago," he began, slowly to keep his voice from wavering, "would you really have been so unhappy?"
She blinked in surprise. That wasn't quite the question she was expecting. Even if she had expected it, though, how was she to answer something like that? "I'm…not sure…" she replied reluctantly. It sounded unconvincing even to her own ears.
And Pakku didn't seem satisfied with her answer either. "I suppose I just don't understand. You must have cared about me, at least."
She frowned. "And how did you determine that?"
"You kept my betrothal necklace."
She opened her mouth to disagree, that keeping the necklace didn't mean anything, but was unable to do so. After all, she'd held on to the necklace even as she left behind the rest of her life in the North, and she had saved the necklace even when she had married another man. It was hard to deny what keeping the necklace suggested, so instead she remained silent.
Carefully he released her wrists, as though afraid she would run as soon as he did, before reaching for her hand and holding it in both of his. "Would our marriage really have been so terrible?" he tried again in a low whisper.
Closing her eyes, she sighed. "Perhaps…not entirely terrible," she responded truthfully.
"Oh, Pakku," she murmured, opening her eyes to look at him again. "It may be true that we cared for each other back then. But obviously, it wasn't enough."
"Wasn't enough?" Pakku repeated, and she heard anger beginning to rise in him. "I loved you, and you ran away!"
She met his gaze calmly. "I did," she agreed. "I ran away because I did not like the strict laws and the narrow boundaries of our tribe, which means that whatever feelings I had for you was not enough for me to stay and endure those customs. And your love for me was not enough for you to leave them behind."
Pakku's eyes widened, his hands slowly slipping from hers. "I…" he began, seeking a way to defend himself, "I had…responsibilities –"
"That were too important to give up," she finished, her understanding nod driving the point home.
A heavy silence fell between them as the realization settled. She could see the series of emotions struggling in his eyes – anger, sorrow, embarrassment, confusion, affection, understanding, and back again – and she said nothing as she let him work through it. She knew it was not easy to hear, but it was a truth that could not be ignored.
"If…" Pakku suddenly said, shattering the stillness, "if I had gone after you then…would you have reconsidered and married me?"
For a moment, she said nothing as she considered how to answer. Then she finally replied, "There's no use looking back on what could have been. We have both made our choices in life, we should be grateful that those choices have somehow brought us here. Now we must use this chance to resolve our past and see where the future will take us."
It was hard to accept, but after a thoughtful while Pakku seemed willing to try as he nodded. "Yes, you're right," he said. "We should concentrate on the future…"
There was something in his tone that puzzled her slightly, but Kanna let it go as they fell back into silence. The atmosphere felt much lighter than it had been previously, though, and she knew they had made some progress at least. There were still many issues that they had to work out, and it would take a lot of effort, but Kanna was more confident now that they could sort through them. They simply needed to take it one step at a time.