Katara doesn't remember the ocean.
“I'm going to teach you the traditions of the Southern tribe,” Hama whispers in the night, in the morning, in all the dark and melting hours they sit side-by-side in the Fire Nation cell. “All the things my own mother taught me.” But Katara's mother is far away, and the moon is outside, and Hama turns up one palm, twitches her hand. The patrol of rats gathered by the cell bars start to march, two-legged, trembling frantically.
“We could escape,” says Katara. It is a protest already old. “We could escape right now.” She knows it to be true.
“But you have to help me,” Hama responds, implacable. “Because what if something goes wrong? What if we get separated? Imagine, dear, what these barbarians would do to a poor Water girl in the middle of enemy territory...”
Katara clutches her necklace. “I can't waterbend,” she protests, just like she has protested a hundred times. The moon is far away and the earth is cold; but Hama raises a hand, again, and Katara feels her blood freeze. Her hands lift too.
“You can,” Hama threatens, and one of the rats walks itself forward.
Katara used to love waterbending.
She was not good at it; she was a child, so no one was surprised. But she was, for all the short years of her life, the only waterbender in the South Pole. Her mother Kya would hold her close at night and say, Here, Katara, you have made the tribe hope again. We are going to live.
Sokka just laughed at her for playing with puddles, of course.
She doesn't remember her father very well. But she remembers his blue eyes and a strong voice, a voice telling her it is the duty of a waterbender to protect the village. She liked that. She spent the sunny arctic summers standing over the water and pulling up droplets, splaying out tiny icicles and imagining fierce daggers that could slice like Sokka's boomerang. One day she was going to be master waterbender.
But the Fire Nation came when she was eight years old.
They came for her and she protected no one. They came for her and she remembers one of the village elders dying, babies crying, igloos and walls melted to slush and rubble as the soldiers carried her away. The iron ship stank and they kept her locked in a deep hold, bound with iron chains, given water only once a day. A dehydrated water-bender, apparently, is no threat at all.
Then they put her with the rest of the tribe, but she did not know the lined, weary faces glimpsed in the sad prison-march. The soldiers stuck her in a cell with an old woman. “Watch the girl,” the soldiers told the stranger. And they had left, and now Katara has been in here for four years.
Hama sometimes likes to be called Gran-Gran.
“Good,” says Hama. “On the next full moon, I think.” Katara looks up. “But you will keep practicing.”
The last part is a grudging, almost angry concession. Katara is a better water-bender than Hama. They both know this. Katara has learned to pull the blood of animals outside the full moon, and Hama, with her smaller gift, is limited with Tui's cycle.
“And first,” Hama adds, “You will practice on me.”
“No,” says Katara immediately. “I won't.”
“You will.” Hama is unmoved. “You need to practice on a human, child.”
Hama looks at her. Katara hestitates.
“I don't want to kill you by accident,” Hama says. “- But if you destroy my old heart, I suppose the soldiers might not be surprised. My death could even be a good distraction.”
Katara bites her lip. “Why would you say that,” she protests.
“Because it's true. You have much to learn. Do you think you know anything of life, the dangers of life, simply because you are a prisoner? You have seen nothing. You are a child, and more naive than most, because you have been sheltered. Look!” Hama swept a hand grandly around the cell. “Nothing here can hurt you! Nothing except the rats. But when we step outside, the nice Fire Nation Guards won't hand you fire-flakes after dinner. They'll burn you, because you're an enemy.”
Katara thinks of Kya, Hakoda, Sokka. “I just want to go home,” she says.
“Then you will practice,” Hama commands.
Katara lowers her head. She wipes at her eyes and hesitates, fingers twisting over the empty air around her face. Some terrible muscle-memory makes her hands search for loops of hair, for beads that don't exist. Her hair lays matted against her head and neck.
“...Alright,” says Katara at last. She raises her hands.
Hama stiffens. Under Katara's hand she marches, jumps, and falls, and her blood feels just like the blood of vermin.
It is possible that the firebenders, rising with Agni everyday, see the world as a continuous cycle of day and night. It was waterbenders who first ordered the seasons into months, who calculated the curve of the moon and its effect on the ocean tides. Even here, underground, Katara feels the full moon welcoming her outside. The masked soldier who gives her and Hama their usual lunch – with an extra piece of fruit for Katara – doesn't seem to mark the day. They wait.
And, when night falls, they strike.
Hama moves the first man. He walks to their cell on jerking legs, one step, another, and then pulls out his own keys with an expression of terror. The cell door is opened; with a merciful twist Katara raises her own hand and the man slumps forward, unconscious but unharmed.
Hama scowls. She raises her own hand toward the man, pauses, and then grabs the keys. “Let's go,” she snaps.
“But what about the others,” Katara asks. She knows there are other cells; she can hear the waterbenders sometimes, but on the full moons like this she can also feel them, like eddies in a current.
“We don't have time,” Hama says.
“We'll make time,” Katara snaps. “We can stop the Fire Nation! We can stop anyone! We'll stop whoever who gets in our way.”
Hama pauses. Looks at her narrowly. Finally she nods.
Katara grabs the keys and darts away.
The first cell she opens holds an old man; the second, a middle-aged woman, head hung and staring at the cell floor. Katara runs down the prison floor, opening doors with heedless delight, flinging them open one after another with loud clangs. The doors slam and quiver after they open, resonating in the air before echoing into silence. But for many moments nothing else happens, and Katara keeps opening the cells.
Near the end, when there are four doors left, a quivering voice calls: “What's happening?”
Katara whirls around. An old woman – older by far than Hama – stands outside one of the rooms. She clutches the door, staring at Katara with something like wonder. Katara smiles back.
“We're all free,” she says. “We need to get away. Quickly.”
The woman stands and trembles.
Katara opens another door. Clang!
It takes minutes more to rouse the other prisoners; Hama becomes impatient. “Someone will find our guard,” she says.
“Is that you, Hama?” asks one of the men. “You look so...”
Hama smacks him around the head with a disc of water; everyone looks shocked. “Reunions can wait,” Hama snaps. Twitching her fingers, she glances around. “We must leave now.”
“Where did that come from,” says one of the woman, ignoring her command. “The water – what did you bend - “
“There is water in the air!” Hama snaps. “Always! You've been trapped down here for twelve years, Umi - haven't you learned anything?”
“Behind you!” Katara cries.
Hama whirls around as a fire nation soldier turns turns into the narrow corridor, wreaths of flame already glowing around his hands. She makes one quick, brutal gesture, and the man stiffens. His flames sputter and die.
His neck twists with a sharp clack, and the soldier slumps to the ground.
When Hama turns back again the prisoners are silent. “Come or not,” she says. “I don't care – but don't get in my way.”
She leaves. And everyone, Katara included, follows behind.
Sokka doesn't blame his dad for leaving with the other warriors; he knows there isn't really a reason to stay. The Southern Water Tribe is finished.
It died the day his sister did.
Long ago, his mother likes to say, the South Pole was a vast white city of snow-walls and ice-caves, a city of arcing blue towers overlooking fleets of ships manned by waterbenders. The waterbenders were the key to everything; fishing, building, surviving. Then the fire-nation came again, and again, and again. They came for Agan and Sonni and Kyani. The names are whispered sometimes, one after another, breathed out against the frosted air and whipped away: Umi, Bo, Goti.
She was the last. The one born after all the rest had been taken away, the tribe's hope. Sometimes Hakoda would sit Sokka down and say, Protect her, Sokka, I know you don't understand, but protect your sister, because one day, one day -
Hakoda is gone now. When there were babies sometimes the women would say that maybe this one will be a bender, but Sokka knows: there is no avatar, and there are no airbenders, and there is no Katara. There will be no waterbenders for the South Pole, either. Not unless these immovable things change.
But there is still a village. It's small and it's poor but it's here, alive, and Sokka is the only man left. And, really, he knows he's more of a boy.
“Do you think,” says one of the warriors Sokka trains today, a four-year-old named Tikadi who has rubbed polar-bear-grease over his face in some poor facade of warpaint, “Do you think if the fire-nation comes you could kill them, Sokka?”
“Have you killed anyone before, Sokka?” asks another warrior-child.
Four pairs of eyes stare at him expectantly. Sokka pushes away the nausea in his throat and replaces it with anger.
“I've killed lion-seals,” he says. They don't look impressed; everyone has killed lion-seals. “And tiger sharks, and an arctic hippo - “
“Yeah but what about a person,” says Tikadi. “Are you a warrior or not?”
Sokka thinks about his dad again, the way he looked standing on the edge of the canoes, waving without smiling, bundled in furs and weapons. The next part isn't so hard to say; it doesn't even feel like a lie, really, and he blusters less than usual. “You don't have to kill to be a warrior,” he says. “You shouldn't want to kill. But you have to be able to kill – if the fire-nation comes, you all have to be prepared.”
Tikadi stares at him. He chews on fingernail in contemplation. Nearby another boy yawns.
“Why is why you're getting taught by the best warrior in the water tribe!” Sokka finishes, scrambling.
“You're the only warrior,” Tikadi sighs.
(As though he could forget).
“How is she doing this,” says one of the woman – Umi? - with a dazed expression. The group of ramshackle prisoners stumble past dead soldiers, clinging to each other, while the light of the full moon peers down from high windows. Hama cackles as though overhearing them. Perhaps, though, she's just enjoying herself. Another soldier falls.
“We have to stop her,” someone whispers.
“We can't leave without her,” Dyani says. “Besides – what can we do?”
They make it to the front of the building. Stare at the towering doors until, finally, Hama moves and shoves them open.
The grounds outside are utterly deserted. Katara doesn't know why she feels so surprised – disappointed, even. Like she was expecting a war or a full-assault to stop them. But perhaps they weren't so important after all, and that's the real insult. No one cared enough to put a better watch over nearly two-dozen waterbenders.
Hama stops outside the doors.
“We need to decide something,” she declares. Stumbling briefly, she looks up at the bare moon and inhales deeply, as though she can breath in its power.
“We can get a ship,” says Umi quickly. She looks anxious. “It won't be too hard – we'll be stronger on the water, and the fire nation is full of islands - “
“No,” says Hama. “First, you need to make a promise.”
The waterbenders look at each other. Katara finds herself tugged behind an old man.
“We'll promise you nothing, witch,” he says.
Hama laughs. It's not a nice sound. “Then I'm afraid the water tribe ends here.”
She raises her hand.
But Katara grabs the old man's arm. His grip around her shoulders is the first touch she's felt in years – except for Hama, who has hurt her, and Hama, who would kill them all. The man reminds her suddenly and irrationally of Hakoda, and it is this association, more than anything, which makes Katara bring up her fingers in a quick, unseen gesture.
Hama stiffens. Perceiving her threat, a dozen whips of water lash out and strike her across the throat before she can make a sound. But Katara knows, without any place for doubt, that Hama was dead before a single drop could touch her.
“Do you think it will be enough?” Gran asks.
Sokka heaves a basket of seal-jerky and looks around resignedly. Every summer near the solstice, on high-tide, the tribe gathers to hunt seals and a mass of butchery occurs for the next several days. The beach stinks with slushed blood. Some of the younger woman are reeling in the fish that have been attracted to the water's edge by the slaughter while Sokka's warriors run around carrying carving-knives, skins, and small piles of bloody meat meant for the smoking area.
“It's not like there's a lot of us,” Sokka mutters, and regrets it when Gran looks pinched. More cheerfully, he adds, “We'll be eating jerky all winter, Gran – you won't be able to roll me out of the igloo by spring.”
“I'll have to roll you out next week if you don't quit stealing my seaweed-prune pies,” she pokes him sharply. Sokka dances away with a grin, the basket held above his head. Then Gran looks over the red-tinted water. “What is that?” she snaps.
Sokka looks too. He turns sharply and finds one of the village's young boys dozing on the water's edge. “Sentry! Tikadi!” He calls sharply.
The child jerks awake.
“Use your spyglass to look at that shape on the water.”
The boy glares at him resentfully and does. Gasping, he drops the glass.
“It's a ship!” Tikadi exclaims. “It's big and red and made of metal!”
Everyone falls silent.
Sokka hurries past a few frozen mothers and takes the glass from Tikadi. He fumbles it toward his own face and looks out over the water.
“It's fire nation,” he whispers. But everyone hears him anyway. “It's fire nation,” he repeats. “ - Everyone! Get back to the village!”
They abandon the winter's worth of meat, their fires, the furs still thick with half-scraped fat and clinging bits of blood. Two of the children, Sokka's warriors-in-training, cry and call for their mothers. He brings out his boomerang and waves everyone ahead, pretending he doesn't see Gran-Gran delaying at the back of the group to wait for him.
The ship is approaching fast.
Their village is far from the hunting-site, but it's close to the water, too. Sokka knows this – they have a small barrier raised to prevent floods but it's still something they have to remember. Never has it seemed like such a grievous, stupid error, though. The oldest women hide in the igloos while more stand outside, watching, and Sokka stalks out to the outer wall. His warrior-children circle around uncertainly. The oldest is four and in a few more years Sokka will probably drag them out to help him, but. Four.
Sokka watches the ship's approach.
There is no steam.
“Gran-Gran,” he calls at last. A few women murmur, sounding scandalized, as he turns around and leans toward the tiny village from its raised wall. “Can you come up here for a moment?”
Gran-gran looks puzzled but obliging. A few younger women help her walk up, glaring at Sokka scornfully, and when she has ascended the short steps to the walls he hands her the spyglass. “You've seen a fire-nation ship before,” he says.
“I can't tell you how they fight,” she regrets.
“Yeah, that's okay,” he dismisses. He wouldn't expect a woman to know anyway. “But you know what water-bending looks like too, right?”
Now she looks confused. “Well, yes.”
He points at the spyglass impatiently. She raises it to her eyes and gasps.
“Oh,” Gran-Gran whispers, “Oh, I never thought to see that again - “
“So someone betrayed us,” Sokka says grimly. He clenches the boomerang in his fist.
“No,” says Gran-Gran. He has to take the spyglass quickly before she drops it, and then he takes her arm, too, because Gran-Gran is crying, weeping, despite the huge smile on her face. “The tribe has come home,” she says. “Sokka, they have all come home.”
The village is different.
Everyone greets the waterbenders in a clamor of noise, oh great moon and I never imagined and it's been so long, are you - ? and they're crying, laughing... the old benders look around in dazed confusion and ask after old relatives, old friends, but no, no, they died of fever two springs back, they died when the fire nation came, when the fire nation came, when the fire nation came.
She can't find Hakoda, and she knows, knows she will not find Kya.
A teenaged boy stumbles over her and clings to her with his gangling arms, face planted suddenly and abruptly against her hair. He sniffs like he's trying not to cry. “It's alright,” he says, a bit shakily. “You don't have to be afraid anymore, Katara, I - “ he sniffs again.
“Um,” says Katara, and then realizes that this tall mess of a human is, somehow, Sokka.
“It's alright,” he wails louder.
“Where's dad?” she asks.
Sokka stiffens and pounds her back harder.
“All the men are gone – except me,” he amends hastily. Katara rears back, and Sokka adds, “They took the canoes to go help the earth-kingdom.”
Katara slumps with relief. Then she pushes Sokka so hard he stumbles. “Get off me,” she snaps. He stares, hurt, as one of the older water-benders approaches.
“You're Chief Hakoda's son?” he asks Sokka. Barely glancing at Katara, he says. “My name is Tei Bo. I've spoken with the others. We need to discuss how to move forward from here. And how we'll integrate back into the village; winter is coming soon.”
“Oh! Oh. Yeah.” Sokka looks flat-footed to realize he's being addressed as a leader – someone with knowledge who's expected to help. He glances around quickly. “Um,” he says. “We should probably start by making more shelters for everyone – so we don't have to depend on the ship - “
“That won't be a problem,” Tei dismisses. He turns and waves his arms out, then brings them toward his torso. At once two separate mounds of snow rise and shift. A quick twist of his hands makes the colossal block shift into a neat, cleanly-delineated igloo.
“...Oh,” Sokka says faintly. “Yeah. Talk. We should. Talk.”
Around them the villagers laugh and grab at each other. Katara looks upward. Even in the dim morning a half-moon remains visible, and she finds herself thinking of Hama, who will never return home at all.