Katara’s first tattoo is awful. It wasn’t painful , because waterbending tattoos are only painful for a few seconds before the water soothes it away, but it’s awful . It’s ugly .
It’s also hers , given to her in a scroll that was her mother’s and her grandmother’s and her great-grandmother’s, and sure, she isn’t really a waterbender yet because she doesn’t really know how to do anything, but -
But. She’s the only waterbender left in the entirety of the South Pole, and there’s no way to tell if there’s anyone left in the North Pole, so as far as she knows she’s the closest thing to a waterbender this world will ever see.
She doesn’t even do it in the right place . The tattoos are supposed to go on her face, but ice is too blurry and water is too unreliable to use as a mirror, so she painstakingly draws the pattern out just above both her knees. What are supposed to be three fine, delicate lines come out shaky and coarse, but that was the last of the ink, and there’s no way to fix it, so she makes up her mind, screws up her courage, and loves them anyways. Maybe she’s a waterbender, maybe she isn’t, but she’s going to try , and these tattoos are for her and her mom and her grandma and her great-grandma, so that she can look at the shaky blue lines and always remember that her family knew that waterbending is important, even if the rest of the world didn’t.
She is twelve when she tattoos herself that first time, scared and alone, clinging to the memories of a dead mother and an absent father. She is fourteen when they find the Avatar. She is still scared, still feels alone, but she is ready to leave and become something bigger. She will never forget where she came from, will never forget the traditions of her culture, because they are right there on her skin. But she also has a responsibility - what if the North Pole is still out there? What if they can teach her, fill in the gaps of her learning and make her into something better ?
The tattoos are a promise that someday she will be better than the twelve year old with no control, reaching for things she cannot have.
When she gets to the North Pole, after all that time spent travelling with Aang and Sokka and Appa and Momo, after all that time thinking that the South Pole was all that was left, she finds out that the North is flourishing in the face of adversity, and she is furious .
How could they live in splendour while their Southern brothers and sisters are dying ? How could they throw festivals, hold council, attend school , while their Southern counterparts are struggling to simply survive ? Katara runs a hand over the ugly tattoos above her knees, then grips them tight. She will drain this place of every last piece of knowledge they have so that she can take it back to her people, because if the North won’t help, she will sure as shit steal and lie and cheat her way to a better future for the South. Fuck anyone who stands in her way, and fuck the North Pole for not giving a shit about her people .
When Katara finally finishes her training - in both combat and healing arts, thank you very much - her rage has cooled, a little. She understands, kind of, why the North hasn’t reached out to the South. It is a reason , not an excuse . She can accept the facts and still be mad ( angryfuriousseething ) about them.
(Besides, Sokka’s girlfriend turned into the literal moon to save them all, so she can’t really be that mad.)
Before they leave, Katara earns three more tattoos.
The tattoos that mark her as a waterbender - the exact match to the large, clunky ones she had done herself, at twelve - are now set delicately across both cheekbones and the sides of her nose, up near her eyes. The three lines are so fine that they are barely thicker than the strands of her hair, in the same light blue that the Southern Water Tribe favours.
It surprises Master Pakku that she refuses, at least for her basic waterbending tattoos, the bold dots and triangles that the Northern style prefers, and it takes everything she has not to sneer in his face. Her bending came from the South, belongs to the South, and the South is who she will honor and represent first and foremost. So much of her identity is caught up in other cultures, now - in airbending and Northern styles and even in firebending (or, at least the avoidance of it) - that she finds she needs this. Maybe seeing these tattoos finally inked on her face as they were always meant to be (instead of the sad, hidden attempts of a little girl who knew nothing ) will help to counteract the debilitating homesickness she feels all the time.
The healing mastery tattoos are performed under the instruction of her healing master, in the hut where they practiced every day, in front of all the children who had been her classmates. They look on as she painstakingly draws line after line: three ringing the skin under each knuckle on all of her fingers, three ringing the skin below her wrist bone on each arm, and three bold dots extending from the outer corner of each eye. These lines are a dark blue, almost black, darker even than the brown of her skin, just the way the North prefers. The trick to these is to make sure the ink implants itself firmly into the thin skin of the hands and face, but does not go so deep as to poison the bloodstream. Only a skilled medic could do such a thing, which is, she supposes, the point.
(Because she has never learned healing from anyone but a Northern master, she chooses to ink their patterns on her body. Maybe no one outside the Water Tribes will know the difference in the two styles, but she will, and that’s a good enough reason. It’s important to give credit where credit is due, after all.)
The last tattoos are her combat mastery tattoos, and they are performed immediately after her last battle with Master Pakku. He had not landed a hit on her, not once , and when he had finally stepped out of his defensive stance and brought the ink out of his robes right then and there, Katara had almost cried . She had fought so hard for this, to be taught by this man, to be the only woman under his tutelage, to be able to defend herself and protect others, to be declared a master -
- she tattoos herself right there, kneeling in the snow at Master Pakku’s feet, in the middle of their combat field, her fellow apprentices looking on (including Aang, who she knew would be grinning and laughing and crying all at once, just as she is). Her vision is blurry, her sweaty skin is freezing in the cold air, and she is taking heaving, gulping breaths in a pathetic attempt not to cry, but her hands are steady - just like her healing classes had taught her ( steady like the flow of the tide, even in the face of a winter storm ) - and her mind is focused on Master Pakku’s clear, sharp words as he tells her what to do.
A thin line, starting at her hairline above her eyes and coming to a point just between her eyebrows. Then again, exactly the same, but a fingers-width inside the first line. Next is on her chest - a thin line starting at each shoulder and coming to a point at the hollow of her chest between her breasts, and another, only a fingers-width inside the first. Master Pakku does the last two sets: first on the nape of her neck, starting at her hairline and coming to a point at the largest vertebrae at the top of her back, then on the back of each calf, starting on either side of the knee and coming to a point just below the bulge of muscle found there. He lingers for a moment - only a moment - before patting her gently on the shoulder and walking away. She stays there, kneeling in the practice field, crying, until Aang goes to fetch Sokka and together they talk her down.
(Later, daysmonthsyears later, before he had faced down the Fire Lord but after they had left the North Pole, Katara had helped Aang with his own combat mastery tattoos. They had had to skip the one on the forehead, for obvious reasons, but he wore the lines on his chest and at the nape of his neck and on the backs of his legs with pride, just like he wore his airbending arrow, and like he would wear the dragons Zuko gave him.
Katara was never sure, but she suspected the stains on his fingers - that always looked like he had been playing in fresh dirt - were from Toph.)
It makes Katara sad that it surprises her that her mastery tattoos honestly don’t change anything. She thought they might - she thought that they would help her become more sure of herself, that maybe the physical reminder of the responsibility she had to her people would make her less scared in the face of danger.
And sometimes, they do. She sees the lines on her hands, on her chest, and knows that she is capable of anything , that there are people out there who taught her all they knew and deemed her worthy of the highest honor her people could give to a bender.
Sometimes, though, she feels like an imposter. Like a child running around in an adult’s skin, playing at heroes and monsters, pretending to be the good one, the strong one, the one with all the answers. The tattoos on her skin are a brand, on those days, a too-tight shackle tying her to everything she has lost and has yet to lose. On the worst days, the days it is all too much, she finds the nearest body of water and screams at it until it retreats into the earth, and then cries until it flows warily back. Katara didn’t know water could feel wary until she drains an entire spring with her misplaced anger, and spends the better part of seven hours coaxing it back to the surface again.
She doesn’t truly feel like she is an outsider in her own culture until she learns how to bloodbend. The first time she does it, she doesn’t want to taint her body with a physical reminder of the destruction she can cause with her newfound skill; the feeling of blood bending to her wishes, vibrating in its willingness to obey, betraying the body it inhabits, still tickles at her fingers in a way that she spends weeks trying to physically scrub away.
(It feels good , is the problem, it feels powerful and seductive and easy - )
Her body, it is tainted, now, even without this particular mastery tattoo. Now that she has violated another person, taken their free will, taken control of something that was never meant to be hers, she is dirty , and she does not want to claim mastery of this disgusting, alluring power.
But then she does it again .
She does it again, and it hadn’t been anywhere near a full moon. That means mastery, then, she thinks, even as she swallows back bile at the thought. Katara is powerful enough to control the blood in someone’s body at any phase of the moon, when legends told her that only the most powerful could bend blood at the full moon.
So, she considers it. She spends a long time considering it, staring at the scrolls Master Pakku had given her, the ones that outline the different tattoos she could give to any student she may take. He never thought she would need to give herself another tattoo. He had laughed when she asked about this particular tattoo, because he never thought that anyone would need to give themselves this tattoo.
( Bloodbending is just a myth, he said)
( Only the most powerful benders, who could rival the Avatars, could bend blood , he said.)
( You will never be able to, so do not fret , he said.)
She does not want to taint herself, but she is already tainted. She already has the nightmares, and the residual trauma. Maybe this is no less than she deserves: to know, every time she looks in a mirror, that she has done something unforgivable.
And maybe, maybe , it could be a warning. To those with the knowledge of waterbending, this tattoo could be a chance to run in the other direction. To those who do not know - well. Maybe some of them will survive to tell others to watch out for those with this tattoo, to watch out for the waterbender who looks like she has split herself open with her hubris.
(Though, if Katara has her way, she will be the only one . Bloodbending will die with her, even if she has to kill it herself.)
So, she borrows red ink from Zuko, makes him hold the mirror, and uses her bending to push the ink deep and stark into her skin. Across her bottom lip, down her chin, and down the line of her throat until it meets the point of her combat mastery tattoo in the hollow of her chest between her breasts. One thick, straight line, the width of her first two fingers.
She does not take the pain away - as a medic, she knows how to leave pain in the body. She wants to feel this tattoo, the way it weighs her body down and makes her uncomfortable and irritated and weak.
Zuko does not ask what it means. He already knows.
(Katara never got any more tattoos, because there are no more for her to give herself. Her culture is not like Zuko’s, with its extravagant art and multi-step masteries. In Katara’s culture, either you are a master, or you are not. No one before her had ever had all four mastery tattoos, and no one after her will, either.)
(Korra, sometimes, when she’s small, asks what the “big red tattoo” means. Katara just smiles and says, “It means rage, my dear. Rage and grief and misery, all wrapped up in temptation. This is what you get when you give into the darker parts of yourself.”
Korra wouldn’t understand until she met Amon, until she met Noatak. Upon his death, she gives him the long red tattoo, across his bottom lip and down his chin and throat, ending at the hollow of his chest.)