The Northern Water Tribe was an overwhelming place; never in her life had Katara seen so many waterbenders in one place before, nor such a massive city to contain them all amongst the ice and snow. The city so easily dwarfed the little village back home in the South, and--though she hadn’t seen them herself--knew that none of the other settlements among the Water Tribe could really compare to this. With a booming population and towering structures of pristine white, the North stood as a near immovable stronghold against the Fire Nation.
Here was a font of knowledge and skill where a waterbender could really harness their abilities, and the hope for both her and Aang to improve.
Her brother was considerably less excited about the prospect, and got more and more evasive as she tried to talk to him about it. Sokka had shown some interest in the flood lock and canals (in a similar way that he’d obsessed over the Machinist’s inventions), gotten decidedly dazed halfway through their tour through the city, and then clammed up the moment Katara brought up training again. She knew this would happen before they even reached the North Pole, but it bothered her more than she was expecting it to.
Never mind that waterbending and training had been the whole reason why they’d been journeying to the Northern Water Tribe in the first place.
Or at least, for her and Aang. Sokka joined in on the promise of firebenders to fight rather than training. But Katara was hoping to convince him otherwise over time.
For all the good that had done.
For all that he called her stubborn; Sokka was frustratingly obstinate in his own way. He wouldn’t even read the scroll, after all the effort they went through to get it! So, she maybe was angry at him–not as much as she used to be though–but Katara felt she had the right to be when they were the only ones in the South to have this gift and for him to just give up was–!
She sighed, picking at the incredible feast Chief Arnook had prepared for them in spite of how delicious it was (and the homesickness it instilled), thinking about how to confront her brother after the meal. He was clumsily making nice with the Princess now, but she knew he’d slip away afterwards if she didn’t keep an eye on him. Sokka had been leery of his bending for a very long time, uneasy and preferring to fight with club and spear than water, claiming it was unreliable to resort to “magic water” he didn’t really understand.
But beyond that Katara knew a lot of it had to do with being a late bloomer, and abilities that manifested unpredictably or not at all. Because Katara was confirmed a waterbender at age three, and Sokka at almost seven, well passed when anyone would have expected any bending for him.
Despite how long ago it was, she could still remember that day clearly, perhaps because of how much it changed their family, and how closely a certain tragedy followed on its heels.
What should have been an ordinary dinner in the privacy of their home became something very different the day that Sokka first waterbent, and when it first happened, they hadn’t even known he was responsible right away. Fresh fish had eluded them that winter night, so Gran-Gran prepared a stew for the family dinner, and all of them gathered ‘round for the meal.
As they spooned out their servings into to individual bowls together, none of them expected that day to have any special significance. But only a few minutes into the meal, there was a sharp tap of one of their utensils clacking against something, followed by a startled noise. Katara remembered looking up to found her brother glaring at her fiercely. Confused by his aggressive attitude, she spoke up, “What’s wrong?”
“You know what’s wrong!” He snapped, holding his bowl close to his chest.
The commotion had quickly drawn the attention of their parents’ attention. Mom had reached out for her brother’s shoulder while her Dad spoke up, calmly but firmly, “Is there something I should be informed of, Sokka? Are the two of you fighting again?”
“I…” Sokka looked between the faces of everyone present, seeming embarrassed for speaking up, “She froze it! I just wanted to eat!”
Katara didn’t know what he was talking about.
She was even more confused when her brother deigned to tip his bowl forward, revealing that the fresh stew had frozen together into a half-sphere shaped mass. All eyes turned to Katara immediately, but she shook her head, utterly bewildered. Sure, they played pranks on each other from time to time, but even she wouldn’t touch Sokka’s food.
It felt like crossing a line.
Sokka had morosely tapped at his frozen meal with a spoon, stomach rumbling in discomfort.
Katara insisted over and over again that she had nothing to do with what happened, and it wasn’t until Sokka’s food mysteriously and suddenly liquefied again under his movements that their parents started to catch on to what was going on. Katara was taken to bed early that night by their grandmother so Mom and Dad could talk to her brother alone. As she drifted off, the girl could smell the smoked seal jerky that Dad had been saving being given to Sokka as a replacement for his ruined food.
The next morning Katara was awoken by her parents shepherding along her brother, who was far more nervous and awkward than he was the previous night, and told her she wasn’t alone.
But that didn’t help them much in the end.
Sokka’s bending was uncooperative at the best of times, and had the tendency of backfiring on him–a detail that he found annoyance in from the first moment those abilities manifested.
And if that weren’t enough, after the horrible day they lost their mother, he stopped trying.
If bending was the reason why the Fire Nation attacked their home that day, it was all the more reason why they should be getting stronger, so they could fight back if it happened again. That wasn’t how Sokka saw it though. He seemed to think that if anyone saw waterbending they weren’t supposed to that it was his, because he couldn’t control it, and that was how the enemy found out. But Katara hated that line of thought.
The ones at fault were the Fire Nation, no other answer would be acceptable.
And now that she was on the verge of contacting a real master for the first time, she needed him on her side. That’s why Katara had dragged Sokka along with her and Aang after the meal, despite his constant complaining. After so long of trying to bring him around again, maybe the thing she needed was for her brother to see the work of a real master in action. So then they could both be the benders their tribe needed so desperately. Only, she wasn’t at all expecting for the glimmer and grandeur of the Northern Water Tribe to be hiding an unpleasant reality of waterbending, delivered by one sour old master. “In our tribe, it is forbidden for women to learn waterbending,” Master Pakku told her, in a voice that brooked no argument.
Not that Katara wasn’t going to try anyway.
It wasn’t a surprise to anyone when she lashed out, demanding to receive the same level of teachings as any other bender. If anything, the master’s next suggestion for her to learn the art of healing didn’t make Katara feel any calmer, “I don't want to heal, I want to fight!” The old man only rebuffed her in response, and unbenounced to her, Sokka was watching the exchange shrewdly through narrowed eyes.
“I can see that. But our tribe has customs, rules,” Pakku told her, in no uncertain terms. Katara couldn’t stand the idea of having come all this way for nothing. But somehow, through her heightened emotions, she’d forgotten the presence of another by her side.
She wasn’t expecting him to suddenly speak up.
“Well, that’s kind of a dumb excuse,” Sokka huffed, arms crossed. Everyone else’s gazes immediately whirled around to settle on him. The Master, like Katara, seemed to have forgotten that he was there as well. “I mean for starters, we’re not actually Northerners. You can’t think that your rules and traditions actually apply to us, right? We don’t have enough waterbenders to have the privilege or luxury to pick and choose which ones to train.” His sister blinked at him, her anger momentarily sidelined by the surprise of Sokka combating the older bender with logic. And he was serious as well; despite the casual stance, there was a hard look in her brother’s eyes. That wasn’t the end of Sokka’s point though, and his voice rose in volume to continue as the man opened his mouth to speak. “And don’t you think it comes off as a little selfish to deprive the last real waterbender from the South the chance to learn? I mean, if I didn’t know any better, I’d think that you wanted us to get destroyed by the Fire Nation!”
By the end of Sokka’s impromptu speech, Pakku was straight glaring at him, ice beneath their feet rumbling. For one, tense moment, Katara thought he was going to attack. But nothing happened, and the boy grinned when he realized he’d successfully cracked his veneer. “Leave. Now,” The old man told him, radiating frustration from his every pore.
“If that’s what you want!” Sokka announced, almost cheerily. He turned and grabbed Katara’s wrist and made to leave, while the girl herself still felt too shocked to question him.
The only thing that made him take pause was Aang, who had kept an eye on the wild back-and-forth, jogging up to their side. “Wait, I’m coming too!”
“No, you can’t!” Katara shook herself off, straightening up, remembering all too clearly the reason why they’d traveled all this way to begin with. Her own problem aside, Aang needed to learn waterbending far more than either her or Sokka. “You’re the Avatar. You can’t let our problems jeopardize your training.”
Aang looked uncomfortable, “I don’t know…”
Sokka gave him an encouraging look, “Don’t worry Aang, I already have a plan for us. You just go ahead and focus on your training. I’ve got this.” Between the two of the siblings ganging up on him, Aang didn’t have an argument to raise against them. He nodded hesitantly and stepped back. “We’ll be back, just focus on waterbending in the meantime.”
As him and Katara descended the steps, Sokka’s lightened mood had yet to darken. He seemed not to notice the stare his sister was giving him in that moment and spoke up, rubbing at his chin in that thoughtful way that Katara recognized, “Now, if I can get the chance to talk to the Chief… I don’t think turning us away was a very hospitable welcome after all.”
“Sokka…” Katara said, interrupting his train of thought, “What was all that back there?”
He suddenly looked awkward, his steps moving slightly faster, “What? He was wrong, that’s it!”
“No, it’s just that I didn’t expect you to say something like that,” She admitted. He immediately tried to protest that (‘you know I’m not like that anymore!’), but Katara hurried to rush a clarification. “I mean, you were never that interested in waterbending to begin with, even when I wasn’t y’know...encouraging you. But you still should look into it.”
Emerging back into the city proper, Sokka lowered his voice as the occasional person started to pass by, either on foot or via the canal. “Well, I know if that guy knew better, he’d get that my sister doesn’t take a ‘No’ from anyone, even when there’s the possibility that she probably should,” He jumped when the girl smacked his shoulder with the flat of her palm. They both laughed for a moment before his mood sobered. “I guess I’m just having to deal with the fact that they don’t get it at all, what we had to deal with.”
That knowledge had been sitting just under the surface of the young girl’s thoughts for a while before he addressed it. But now it gnawed at her. There were a few moments of silence, their footsteps the only noise to be noticed. How much of the North knew about the South’s plight?
How could a teacher just refuse to help them so easily?
It was a pause that was broken by Sokka’s sigh as he halted in his tracks.
“Ok, look,” He started, holding up a hand with the air of someone who was on the verge of regretting what they were aiming for next. “I’ve been thinking it over for a few minutes and I’ve decided to propose a compromise on the bending issue,” Sokka announced. He avoided Katara’s wide-eyed look and continued with a casual gesture, “Even if the old master did cave, I’m not taking orders from a teacher like that. Buuuut...if you want to go by that healing hut, I’ll sit in with you and try to figure out how it works.”
Wait, the healers...he was talking about that? “Really, you would try to learn to heal?”
Better than nothing, right?” He defended, “Besides, that seems more useful than splashing a big wave around. Dousing firebenders is your job; I’ll try working on something else.”
Katara thought about it.
Really thought about it.
Sokka’s idea was in keeping with what she’d been encouraging him–not to give up on his bending entirely. For someone as practicality-obsessed as Sokka, maybe this was more fitting than what he called ‘splashing in puddles’ as much as she hated to acknowledge that. She wanted to learn how to fight, first and foremost, but maybe...there wasn’t any harm in taking a look at the healing hut before trying to get actual waterbending lessons again.
The question was though, would he be allowed to learn anyway? If women here were only allowed to use healing bending, could a boy even learn from them, or would they be running right into the same problem as before? “Are even sure that they’ll let you train?”
Sokka just laughed, “What are they going to do, throw me out? That’s Mr. Sourpuss’s job I believe. If no one’s hurling waves, then I don’t think that’s gonna happen. Besides, I’m just a concerned brother sitting in on his sister’s first lesson; why would they kick me out?”
Despite her doubts, Sokka’s plan was just as infectious as he intended it to be.
Katara threw caution to the wind, “I guess we’ll see how long that ruse of yours lasts.”
As it turned out, not very long at all. But while muttering about artery lines and nerves, Sokka managed to direct a line of glowing light through the channels of the healer’s training dummy. So Katara counted that as a win in the end.