After the war, the task of rebuilding began, and they realized what precious few fragments had made it through intact. There were fewer standing now than there had been a hundred years ago—far fewer, Katara thought, seeing Aang drift along the edges of the restoration, willing to help her rebuild her people, but with a certain heaviness at what could not be rebuilt. From what Gran-Gran and elders of the other villages told her, even if the Southern Water Tribe were restored to its former glory, there wouldn’t be enough bodies to fill all the houses. And as for the Air Temples…it would be years before they could spare the hands to bury the bones.
Ships full of people from the Northern Water Tribe came and stayed, for the first time in a hundred years, and it seemed in the crowds of people that now made up her tribe, Katara rarely saw a familiar face. They were welcome, loved, and Katara thanked them, but something in her shriveled as their eyes went to her mother’s necklace, and they congratulated her, the more savvy ones even saying it was sweet of the Avatar to adopt their ways. Somehow she knew a fight was coming, that girls would be born to waterbending, and one tradition would go against another. She was Pakku’s student, a warrior—an exception. The original villagers learned to cook dishes the Northern way, excited for the novelty, the fashions changed, the Northern way of doing things beginning to represent, for her tribe, the end of the war—victory, freedom. They let go of the ways they’d clenched in their fists for a hundred bitter years, now tinged with that suffering. Her people who had met the Fire Nation for a century with gritted teeth and hardened hearts now gave up their uniqueness to the welcome invaders, with only a gentle sigh.
She was celebrated as the last Southern Water Tribe waterbender, but she knew that wasn’t true. It was a secret she carried buried in her chest, that pricked at her. If she told Gran-Gran, would she be disappointed in her? Would others perhaps condemn Hama—Katara realized she didn’t want to hear that, either. After all, she was a bloodbender too, and she hadn’t just used it defensively. Any word against Hama was a word against her—yet any word in Hama’s defense was also a word against her, so Katara kept the secret close, burning next to her heart.
But the silence gave her no peace. The last survivor of the stolen generation was rotting in a Fire Nation cell, and she’d put her there. Katara, hero to her people, was denying them that last link to their true selves. If it were me, what would I have done? Could she really say she wouldn’t have cracked a little, under that kind of unbearable pain?
If she delayed much longer, it would surely be too late. That last precious life, that voice from her nearly-forgotten past, would be lost forever before long, and Katara would only be able to wonder what she could have taught her.
When she finally told Aang, he was dubious at first. “That crazy lady who bloodbent us?” he said. “Why would you want to learn anything from her?”
“If she were an airbender,” Katara said, “an airbender in a Fire Nation prison…no matter what desperation had made her into…what would you do?”
She saw Aang’s doubt fade to uncertainty, then finally, irrefutably, understanding. “But be careful…all right?” he said, and brushed her cheek gently. “You’re more important to the future of this tribe—to the whole world—than she is. Remember that.”
Katara nodded. It was true—she would be vital to the future of her tribe. But Hama was vital to the past, and to survive not just as individuals, but as a people with a true identity and sense of belonging, they needed both a future and a past.
Even deeper than that, Katara found that she herself craved answers. Not just about the past—though her heart ached around every precious reclaimed gem—but about what had gone through that old woman’s mind, and perhaps even some kind of confirmation of the wrongs she had done, an apology. Katara didn’t want to resent Hama for what she’d done. If Hama would only repent, she could forgive her, and through that be whole again. Aang would understand that. He must.
The island was a thousand miles from anywhere. A sun-beaten rock barely better than a prison, without even trees to build a raft, only a patch of rough sand with long, wild grass along the sheltered side. Even a master waterbender couldn’t survive the passage to the nearest continent, let alone one in her ninth decade of life. A raft of ice would melt under the hot tropical sun, and there was no fresh water. Weekly shipments would bring them food, water, and any other necessities. Katara had set up a hut on the island, decorated with Water Tribe furnishings. It was paradise as prisons went, and for the duration of this experiment, it would be Katara’s prison too.
She’d needed an order from Firelord Zuko to get Hama released into her custody. He’d been dubious about it—the criminal meant nothing to him personally, but his position was already tenuous, and releasing someone who had committed heinous crimes against Fire Nation civilians for no other reason than that they were Fire Nation into the hands of the Water Tribe seemed likely to stir up the very grudges he was trying to get his people to lay to rest, and make him look like his loyalties were divided.
But Katara had said, “Well, maybe your loyalties should be a little divided. The Fire Nation did some awful things. The same program that took Hama from her home for no other crime than being a bender was the one that had my mother executed. We gave you a second chance, and you expect the whole world to give the Fire Nation a second chance, so, where’s her second chance? Or do people from the Water Tribe just get one?”
Zuko had relented, with a weary sigh. “I hope you know what you’re doing.”
She didn’t know what she was expecting, when she first met with Hama. Rage? Hate? Everything depended on it. If Hama wasn’t willing to work with her, there was no plan. What she needed from her, she couldn’t get by force.
Hama did look worse for wear—thinner, frailer, the lines in her face set more deeply. It hadn’t quite been a year, but it looked like it had cost her much more than that. She’d sent one of the Water Tribe’s stolen children back to a Fire Nation prison. “I’m sorry,” she said. She hadn’t meant to apologize. She’d hoped Hama would apologize to her instead.
Hama’s gray eyes lingered on her a moment, as if measuring something. “I forgive you. You did what you had to to survive. That’s the most important thing.”
Katara almost wanted to say, “I didn’t come here for your forgiveness,” except somehow she couldn’t. She told herself it was that she didn’t want to lose Hama’s cooperation. Still, it was important that she not give away how much she needed her. If she knew that, it would give her leverage. She’d come here in a show of great mercy. Why didn’t she feel merciful?
Hama agreed to go with her, which was hardly surprising, given the alternative. No fewer than six people told her to be careful, or expressed concern at her being alone on an island with the dangerous old waterbending master. But Katara only smiled slightly, saying, “I’m a master too. I’ve beaten her before.”
Except, she wasn’t entirely sure that she had.
Hama liked the island and the hut well enough, though, for one moment she did look at Katara and say, “I thought you were taking me home.” That wasn’t Katara’s fault—she’d told her about the plan, and the island prison. Maybe Hama had had faith in her loyalty, and expected her to lie—expected her to do anything to bring this old veteran home before she died.
Katara felt the burn of having disappointed her elder.
But they cooked together that night. Katara had made sure to have good Water Tribe ingredients sent whenever possible, and Hama gave an appreciative nod, and showed her new ways of preparing them…old ways, forgotten ways. Katara’s heart sang, and she knew she was failing at hiding it, clutching this little scrap of herself to her chest. It was like Gran-Gran’s food, but different too. It was home, but no home she’d ever visited; the home the Fire Nation had stolen from both of them.
Hama sighed. “You look so much like your grandmother…back when we were your age.”
“Were you close with her?”
“Close..she told you, right?”
Guilt weighed on Katara. “I…haven’t told her I met you.”
“Oho, keeping me all to yourself,” Hama said, and chuckled to herself. “That’s my girl, controlling every aspect of the situation, not letting unpredictable elements meet…a true puppetmaster.”
“I’m not…” Katara began.
“Don’t act like it’s a bad thing, sweetie. Look at you, you’ll be a great leader someday, songs will be sung about you. It’s a good thing you’re practicing now.”
Katara flushed. “You make it sound so insidious.”
“Do I? Katara…” she said, her brow furrowing. “We’ve given everything we had to survive—you and I, but also as a people. We’re the very last. The last waterbenders of the South Pole.”
“Well…not anymore,” Katara said.
“I don’t know how much they told you…but the war is over now. We ended it.”
Hama nodded, but said, “It didn’t seem like a lot changed from my perspective. So, there’s a new Firelord. That’s happened before.”
“Firelord Zuko is my friend. He helped us end the war.”
“The Firelord has been trying to exterminate us for a hundred years. Do you really think that will change?”
“Yeah, actually I do. The war is really ended now. How do you think I got you out of that cell?”
“So…if the war’s really over, and you can do what you want with me…can I go home?”
Katara sighed. “It’s not that easy.”
“I know, dear, I know. Look…you aren’t the first.”
“There were other waterbenders in that prison with me at first. By the time I learned how to escape, they’d all walked out. Agreed to the Fire Nation’s terms. I did look for them after I escaped…I did. I couldn’t blame them in the end. Because, you know…survival is the most important thing.”
“You…think that I’m a traitor?”
“That’s a strong word,” Hama said. “But you give the Fire Nation certain gifts, and they give you gifts in return. I do understand how that works, and the desperation behind it…but remember, the house always wins.”
“The war is really over,” Katara insisted. “I fought with the Avatar, we took down Firelord Ozai and his daughter.”
“Isn’t the new Firelord Ozai’s son?”
“Yes, but…he’s not like his father.”
“That’s quite the leap of faith.”
“It’s not faith,” Katara insisted. “Right now, the Water Tribes and Earth Kingdom are being rebuilt. Ships from the North came to the South Pole for the first time in a hundred years, to build us back to our former glory.” Katara’s voice trembled with pride, but she also saw that she’d said a little bit too much.
“So, the South is going to be the same as the North now?”
Katara bit her lip. “No. It won’t.”
“You say that, but…” Hama shrugged. “I guess the home I remembered is gone anyway. It doesn’t matter.”
“No,” Katara said. “Because we survived. You and me.”
Hama smiled finally. “So that’s why you brought me here.”
“Yes.” Almost a whisper.
“Good,” Hama said.
The next day, they practiced waterbending by the sea. Hama corrected her stance in subtle ways. “Turn with your weight on the foot, don’t surrender ground when you redirect. Like this.” It was subtle, but it was a different way of thinking.
Katara might have had more raw power, but Hama had a deep understanding of the art and a grace of a kind she couldn’t compare to anyone but Pakku. She remembered the fierce, proud joy that had swelled in her when she studied under Pakku, a real waterbending master at last, and she felt it now again, a joy and relief at this art not being bottlenecked through a single master, a single tradition, at finding not just a waterbender, but one of her own home.
As they worked, the rising tide lapped up around their knees, and Hama did something amazing then, in one fluid, almost dancelike motion, she pulled the wave up like a blanket, and held it over their heads. The waves continued to ebb and flow, but they were now under them, the sun sparkling through the thin layer of water, a few droplets falling like liquid light. “Like this,” Hama said, showing Katara the motion with which she kept the sea vaulted over them. Katara copied it, and Hama let her arms drop to her sides, smiling in satisfaction as Katara held up an end of the ocean.
At this moment, tears welled in Katara’s eyes. She looked at Hama through the blur, and saw the kind, gentle mentor she had wanted to see from the start. Trembling, she lost control of the wave, and it crashed down over them, soaking them both thoroughly.
“Are you all right?” Hama asked, stepping closer. “What’s wrong?”
“You…” Katara said, not knowing if she was crying from sadness or anger. “Why couldn’t you just be this? From the start? Why did you have to twist me into something dark and unnatural? When I’d lost my mom, when I had no teacher, when I just needed you to be…this…..”
Hama put a hand on Katara’s shoulder, but Katara only beat her fist against her chest halfheartedly, mindful of Hama’s advanced age and frailty, but needing some outlet for her frustration.
“My sweet one,” Hama said. “I wish I could have explained it better then. There wasn’t time.”
“Explained what?” Katara demanded. “Why you went completely crazy and started kidnapping innocent people?”
“You might ask the Firelord that,” Hama replied. “Wasn’t I innocent when I was kidnapped?”
“That still doesn’t give you the right to do it to others. When you did it you became as bad as them….”
“Katara…listen to yourself. Even if I wanted to, even if I tried, could I have hurt the Fire Nation as badly as they hurt us?”
“That…doesn’t matter…it doesn’t make what you did right….”
“You think Fire Nation civilians deserved better than what they got? It was Fire Nation civilians that made up Sozin’s army, and Azulon’s, and Ozai’s. It was Fire Nation civilians who taught their children in schools to turn in anyone who acted strangely. We were both in disguise then. Were these the people you were protecting, that would have turned either of us in simply for being born as we are? Who were complicit in the war? When did any one of them say, ‘Save the waterbenders’? Can you really believe that they were worth saving and I was not?”
The sobs came so hard now it was hard to talk, and Katara hated her, hated her most of all because in her heart she agreed, even if her head was against it. “Just stop it,” she choked out. “The war’s over.”
“Does that bring back my youth? Does it bring back your mother?” Hama paused, gentling, and ran her withered hand over Katara’s hair. “Kanna’s daughter…I would have liked to have known her too. At the same time, it’s hard to accept she moved on. The Kanna in my memories looks very like you, you know. And there’s a part of me still frozen in that moment, before I lost everything, who never got to grow old as she should have.”
Katara allowed this gentle touch, not fully comprehending the implications of Hama’s words, in that moment only understanding the great affection Hama held for both her and her grandmother, and in spite of herself, needing that more than anything. She crumpled into Hama’s arms and let herself be held, the desperation for what Hama was to her greater than the anger and resentment, as it had been when she first arranged for the island, as it would always probably be.
It wasn’t until days later, as the full moon approached, that Hama brought up bloodbending for the first time.
Katara could feel the hairs standing up on the back of her neck. “No. I’m not a bloodbender anymore. The war is over.”
“I didn’t say we would have to do it. But don’t you want to know the history of it?”
Katara wavered, that hunger in her that could never quite be filled, to know her own history, to have a history, something that went further back than the wounds of the war, flickered in her for a moment, but she quelled it. “You told me already. You learned it to escape the Fire Nation prison.”
“That’s part of it, yes,” Hama said. “But there was a reason that technique exists, and a reason a Southern Water Tribe bender was the one to discover it.”
The battle as good as lost, Katara sat down next to Hama. “Why?”
“A very long time ago, before people came from the North Pole to the South Pole, there were two benders, some of the first benders, twins named Desna and Eska, which are still now traditional names for twins, though many have forgotten why. Desna was a bloodthirsty warlord, and his sister Eska, furious with what the constant war and raiding did to the women of the community, swore off martial uses of bending in protest, and found strength in healing. So you see…the tradition wasn’t about exclusion in the early days. It was about power in women refusing to fight. But it wasn’t a law that they couldn’t, in fact both twins became the Avatar’s teachers, and the Avatar was a woman at that time, and no one questioned her right to learn both kinds of waterbending.”
“But if Eska didn’t want war, why didn’t she stand up to her brother?” Katara asked. “Maybe she could have stopped him.”
“By striking her brother? Injuring him, killing him? Maybe. But she loved her brother. And she wouldn’t admit that his way was a solution. But, it became clear that her way was not a solution either. He wounded; she healed. They chased each other like the moon and sun. How could she end this cycle?
“Finally, the answer came to her on the full moon, when her brother was set to wage another war at the height of his power. Through healing, she had come to understand the human body more thoroughly than he ever could, to reach inside it and manipulate it. She could have torn him apart drop by drop if she’d wanted to. But instead she held him in her power, and refused to let him fight. That whole night there was no violence, because she controlled his blood. It was an act of desperation, but also, an act of profound mercy.
“A generation later, some left the Northern Water Tribe to find a new home in the south. They brought with them the traditional, original ways that were being changed and twisted in the north. Although Eska and Desna drove each other to polar opposites, we remembered that fighting and healing are two sides of the same coin, and at some point there is no difference between the two, rather than being discrete ways of life that could be kept fully separate. Even treated so atrociously by the Fire Nation, even when with the hate they put in my heart I wanted to rip them apart, I didn’t do it. A talented waterbender like you or I could bloodbend at any time of month. The reason we do it at the full moon is because it gives us the control to not harm them. I want you to understand…you could not have become a bloodbender if you weren’t a healer first, if you didn’t have that will to fight combined with great mercy. But mercy needs great force to protect it sometimes too, or there would be no more merciful hearts in this world. There are much darker ways to use waterbending…I didn’t teach you those. I taught you the one you would use if the need was great…and it was, wasn’t it?”
“I used it on the wrong person,” Katara said. “Because I was angry.”
Hama nodded. “And no harm was done in the end. This is why bloodbending is merciful. I doubt whoever you used it on deserved so much of your mercy…but it was yours to give.”
Katara frowned. “It felt…wrong, though…invasive….”
“More invasive than hitting them with ice? That affects their body too.”
“It’s..I’m not explaining it well,” Katara said. “It was too much power. It wasn’t just winning a fair fight. I had no right to have that much power over another person.”
“Katara…you keep telling me you ended the war. You changed the world. You’re rebuilding the world. No one told you to do that, no one gave you permission. No one even could. You took it, because to do anything of worth in this world, you first need power. After taking power over the fate of the entire world, you don’t feel you have the right to the blood of a single person?”
“I think…that’s kind of why I need to have limits,” Katara said. “I understand what you did better now, I think. You were in a bad situation. But I’m not—at least, not anymore. I have too much power to have that too.”
And yet, in spite of those words, under the full moon Katara found herself on the sandy side of the spit, listening with rapt attention as Hama explained the flow of chi and blood to her, her wiry but surprisingly strong hands running along Katara’s body, guiding both her stance and her senses.
Maybe it was that hunger to learn, to connect.
Maybe some part of her was in agreement that there wasn’t such a thing as too much power so long as the right people held it.
Alone with her on this island, Katara had started to see a new version of herself reflected in Hama’s gaze. Young but strong, powerful, the hope of her people, a merciful but formidable goddess. What was lost, found. She liked this vision, she liked it a lot. The old way she saw bloodbending, shame and terror, was starting to fade.
“Bloodbending isn’t only violence,” Hama said. “It’s the ultimate control of another person’s body. It’s yours to heal or to harm, to break or to uplift. To escape my prison, I needed control so fine as to make a hand turn a tiny key in a lock. It can unlock other things, secrets of the body, pleasure instead of pain.”
Katara listened with intense interest. “I’d like to learn that.”
A corner of Hama’s mouth upturned in something not quite a smile, she fell into a stance, and began a form Katara had not seen before. First a warmth came over her which wasn’t from the tropical night, a heady rush like being drunk. It began to settle, to pool in her groin, and this was a familiar feeling, one she’d only explored in private, and never felt so intensely in another person’s presence. It began to build, and Katara struggled to keep her composure, as if she thought she could keep how this affected her a secret—while not stopping it, not wanting it to stop—
Her own explorations had seemed to bring her only what she needed at the time, but Hama seemed to be opening floodgates in her. Quite literally, she hadn’t known it was possible to produce this much wetness, and all without a single touch. Her fingers twitched with the urge to finish this herself, she felt as though she could in a matter of seconds, but in front of Hama, it was too strange, too forbidden even on a night of forbidden things. Was it wrong that Hama was giving her these kinds of feelings? If so, surely it was more wrong that she loved it, that she welcomed it.
In that oddly tormented moment, Katara wished Hama would kiss her. Perhaps it was delirium from the pleasure, or confusion. In more rational moments, she never would have thought of Hama as what she desired in a lover. But, in some way she couldn’t explain, she wanted Hama, she wanted all of her. As mother, grandmother, as an extension of herself, joined with her own blood, as hers in a way that would bind them for eternity. These aching needs mingled in her teenage heart, in search of an outlet they could understand.
Hama didn’t kiss her. But with immaculate control, her weathered fingers tightened, pulled together, and as Katara’s knees gave way, a wave rose up with sudden force and washed over them, soaking most of Katara’s clothes but only lapping at Hama’s ankles.
Katara struggled to regain composure, still breathing hard, a sheen of sweat beaded with saltwater on her skin. “That…that was bloodbending….”
“Yes,” Hama said.
“Teach me that.”
Katara began to find meetings with the people manning the supply ships that brought them food and fresh water strange. It was if in some way, detached from the way she logically knew the world to be, she had forgotten there were people in the world besides herself and Hama; that there was a world outside this desolate island with water as far as the eye could see.
It was strange, too, that they worried about her being alone with Hama, but their reasons seemed so far-fetched. To them she was a hero and Hama was just a dangerous, insane criminal. They actually seemed to think Hama might use the ample water here to kill her and try to make her escape.
Kill her! As if Hama even could! Didn’t they know what she was to Hama?
Everything. She was everything to her. Hama had gone to a Fire Nation prison to teach her. Hama loved her more than anything. She understood that now. And it made her feel so important, so loved. Hama could no more kill her than she could kill the moon and the sea.
But maybe they were right to worry, for other reasons. Alone on this island, with no one to judge them, with no right or wrong but that which they decided on themselves…Katara did wonder if something strange was happening, something dangerous. Pieces of Hama were sliding into her, ideas and subtle mannerisms, and she wondered about those changes in those moments, as if suddenly catching sight of herself in a new mirror and not seeing what she’d expected.
The supply ships came, and went, and the silent world closed back around Katara like a shell, in her prison that was really a sanctuary, with her captive at whose feet she secretly knelt.
It was Katara’s turn to tell stories of home, to fill Hama in on sixty years of absence. Hama listened with keen interest, especially to stories of her grandmother. When Katara revealed Gran-Gran had renewed her engagement to Pakku, Hama slapped her knee in disbelief and said, “That old goat? I never thought I’d see the day.”
“Did you know him?” Katara asked.
“Only by reputation.” She sighed. “Your grandmother really never did tell you anything, did she?”
“She didn’t even tell me she was engaged, that she was from the Northern Water Tribe, or what this necklace meant,” Katara said. “It was all a secret.”
“I see,” Hama said. “Ashamed, in her old age.”
“Ashamed of what?”
“I’m not sure it’s my story to tell…” Hama said, then taking a second look at Katara, “though if anyone should know it, it would be you. Kanna, your grandmother, was told she had to marry Pakku…but she didn’t want to, because she was in love with someone else.”
“Oh…I never knew,” Katara said. “I wonder if he’s still alive too.”
“She,” Hama corrected. “And, I don’t know. But from what I heard, they planned to run away together—then her paramour changed her mind at the last minute. She’d rather give up the relationship than give up her home. Kanna was torn—either way she’d lose what she had with this girl, she could either stay and live the life that had been decided for her and pass her former lover on the street like strangers, or she could leave everything behind and find some way more true to herself. So she left without her. When she came to our village, she had a heavy heart. But in time she found love again. It seems to be her great strength, rebuilding from loss. She seems to have done it again after we were torn apart, too.”
“So you and Gran-Gran…you two were…” Katara said, reeling from this slightly, though she should have known, really, from the way Hama looked at her when she said she looked like her grandmother…in some way she must have known already.
Hama just nodded. “I’d had a bit of hope, admittedly, that we might find each other again…but time has carried us too far apart. She’s a grandmother, and someone else’s bride, while I….I suppose after a certain point, there is no home anymore. Everything is unfamiliar and new, and I’ve become a relic, holding onto memories of a past without a future.”
Katara held her hand, squeezing it firmly. Hama’s eyes glistened with tears, and Katara pulled her close into an embrace, so she wouldn’t see them fall.
“I hope…” Hama said, “that someday you will find it in yourself to forgive this weak old woman.”
“I’m not mad at you anymore,” Katara said. She could feel Hama’s heart thudding against her chest, faster than hers, the fragile humanity of the old woman’s form, imperfect and somehow timeless.
“I know,” Hama replied, “But…when you see these days from more experienced eyes, I may need your forgiveness again.”
Katara, the goddess of mercy, sitting at the crossroads of the four seas, oceans spread out before her and moving at her will. No secrets hid from her now, and in the height of her power, she felt invulnerable.
No one took advantage of her, or harmed her—these things seemed impossible to her. And Hama was her prisoner, after all. If anything, it was she who should feel ashamed.
She wasn’t sure what leaving this island would be like, though. Some things would come with her. But some must stay here, locked in this isolated sanctuary.
She couldn’t expect anyone to understand. No one else saw the truth—the truth that only existed between the two of them, here, in this place, the fevered obsession. And they never would. Katara hungrily ate Hama’s secrets as they spilled from her, almost feeling that she was draining the last of her life, something Hama had reserved all these years to give to her, a flower that had waited eighty years to bloom just before its death.
On full moons, she reached inside Hama’s blood, and every other day seemed somehow muted, as if she held her breath waiting for the next full moon to shine.
She had come to Hama for her past, because without the past there was no future. But it ran the other way too—she was the future to Hama, but, with her face that resembled another from sixty years ago, she knew she was the past, too. Without the past there was no future, and without the future, no past. That was where the Southern Water tribe had been perched, a people without a history, without an identity, who, unable to see their tracks in the snow, had no way forward. Only by understanding where they came from could they know where to go.
The past and the future seemed to swirl around each other, to blend into a unbroken circle and each become the other.
Katara felt the rhythm of the moon and sea, the inexorable pull of cosmic forces. Perhaps they had joined in the wrong way, but here, as elements of nature, there was no one to judge them and no one to know.
New facets of her were formed, bright and sharp in her heart, some to bear as gifts for everyone, and some to take as secrets to her grave.
She knew when it was time to leave as a storm knows when to form, as a raindrop knows when to fall, as a baby knows when to be born. “You can go home if you want,” she told Hama. “I know things aren’t the way they were, but…it would be worth seeing again, I think, and maybe getting some say in the rebuilding.”
Hama nodded. “I don’t know if I will do much rebuilding, but it would be nice to end my life where it began.”
“You won’t kidnap people,” Katara said, half-joking.
Hama laughed. “No…no, I feel at peace now, somehow. Thank you for that.”
When they parted, Katara bowed to her, making the sign of respect. “Thank you, sifu.”
It was strange to see Aang again, strange to be thrust again into the fast-moving world of politics, of many people speaking at once, and chaos all around them. Even though it had only been a few months, she felt like she’d spent a lifetime on that island, in a world with its own rules. She couldn’t quite meet Aang’s eyes.
Aang told her of the problems that had been brewing in her absence. The Agni Kais, a radical nationalist Fire Nation fringe group, had taken violent hold of the newly-founded Republic City, and were proving difficult to control with normal police. Many of them were lightningbenders, which they might have learned from Ozai loyalists defecting under Zuko’s rule, and were only more militant with such an elite form of bending associated with Fire Nation royalty, saying that every firebender was royalty compared to other people. Though Aang had taught as many people as he could lightning redirection techniques, this had already made encounters with them especially lethal.
“So, we need a way to control them,” Katara said. “Something even a lightningbender can’t stand up against.”
“Well yeah, that’d be useful,” Aang said. “If we had something like that.”
“If it’s elite firebending we’re going up against…why not use elite waterbending?”
“You mean like…” Aang said, thinking on this, then, “You don’t mean….”
“Bloodbending,” Katara said.
“Katara,” Aang said, surprised and even seeming to be hurt by this. “You said you never wanted to do that again.”
“I know I did,” Katara said. “But I was just afraid of what I didn’t understand. Doesn’t it seem strange to you? That the best techniques of firebending and even earthbending are honored, while advanced waterbending is seen as shameful and forbidden? Especially considering that for a hundred years, waterbending at all was punished with imprisonment or death. Bloodbending isn’t cruel, it doesn’t do harm. If you think about it, bloodbenders would make the ideal police force. They could restrain a suspect without violence, they could keep peace.”
She could see Aang struggling with this, as she had. “It…does seem more non-violent than the alternatives…but are you really all right with it? I’ll trust you if you’re sure it’s okay.”
Aang nodded. “Katara…I do trust you. And we can try this. I’m all out of ideas, anyway, and it’s good to have you back. But…what happened on that island?”
Katara smiled, a smile too old for her years, a mask which hid many secrets, and said nothing.
With an army of hand-picked waterbenders she’d trained in bloodbending herself, and the backing of the Avatar, Katara had full run of Republic City. The scared little girl who had found her mother lying dead in their home after the Fire Nation raid was no more. If the Agni Kais feared her vengeance, they were right to, and she was right to exact it.
Between herself and the most talented of the new bloodbending force, a promising young man named Yakone, they had another secret. Gradually they refined the art so that they could not only practice at night, but in the day. But it wasn’t until after he was police chief and running most of the city himself that she learned that he had surpassed her, and could bloodbend with only his mind.
She should have stopped him then. But instead she demanded that he teach her this skill.
It had other uses too, with a full understanding of healing, perhaps the most subtle ones of all. She could influence a person’s mood, control their spiritual energy, and when this was combined with the right words, get what she wanted without the person knowing she’d done anything at all.
She did visit Hama again, several times, though with other people’s eyes on them, very little could be said or done. The last time was when she was pregnant with her second child. Hama was troubled, incoherent, in the last tight spirals of death, and Katara shifted her energy, to give her a sense of calm and peace.
Hama’s eyes opened wide one last time before the life left them, and Katara thought she understood what she’d done.
Her child was a waterbender, she could sense it. The first true waterbender of the Southern Water Tribe born after the war. She would teach her everything, this child would inherit a world perched in the palm of her hand, a world of endless water.
“Have you seen these reports from Republic City? It’s a mess again.”
They’d both been so busy with their separate paths, she hardly saw her husband anymore. “Yakone can handle it,” Katara said.
“Yakone is the problem. There have been reports of police brutality, misuse of power, bloodbending used without provocation or crime, or for nonviolent offenders…even bloodbending in the daytime?”
“I haven’t heard anything like that. It must just be rumors. You can’t bloodbend in the day.”
Aang shook his head. “No, there’s been a cover-up, but White Lotus agents uncovered it. Toph herself took testimonies, so she knows these people weren’t lying. Yakone’s gone power-mad, it looks like he’s been working both with and outside the law, and might be planning a coup.”
Katara hesitated. She hadn’t known this, and it was troubling, but somehow she didn’t want Yakone’s secrets—her secrets—to be uncovered. “I’m sure it’s nothing,” she said, and silently, without outward indication, shifted the energy inside of Aang, as she had done so many times before, as was becoming her reflex when a person became inconvenient. It really was non-violent, it ended conflicts before they began. “Just rumors.”
But Aang stepped back from her sharply. “Katara! What…did you….”
“Sorry. I didn’t mean to, it was just…that one time,” Katara blurted out suddenly. But even as she said that, she couldn’t help but try to induce an even more subtle shift, one he surely wouldn’t notice, just to tilt the odds slightly better in her favor, almost without even realizing she was doing it….
You got used to winning everything without a fight fast. The world had become easier, a game where she could rewrite the rules, other people barely seeming more than imaginary, existing for her enjoyment. The question of if this was a power she should have wasn’t one she’d asked for a long time.
Aang looked at her as if he didn’t know her, and Katara realized how long it had been since she looked at herself, really looked. She knew she’d started out on the right path, she knew it, and she couldn’t find the place where she’d gone wrong, yet she knew now that she had.
“I’ll stop Yakone,” she said.
“No,” Aang said, “I don’t think that’s a good idea. Maybe you should come with me…we could get some help….”
He raised a hand towards her but it just stopped, like the raindrops had stopped when she’d confronted Yon Rha, like time had stopped on the island. “I said I’ll stop Yakone. This is my mess to clean up.”
She walked past him, out of their house, and stormclouds roiled in the sky like waves though it had been clear only minutes before.
It wasn’t hard to find Yakone, when everyone she talked to felt compelled to answer her truthfully. He greeted her as though he’d been expecting her arrival. “Sifu Katara,” he said, almost mockingly.
“This has to end now,” Katara said. “You are stepping down as of today.”
“No. I think I’m stepping up,” Yakone said. “You were right. It’s the beginning of a new era. The Fire Nation had their turn.”
“And it’s our turn to, what, be the Fire Nation? We won, and I’m proud of that, but we didn’t win so you could play these petty games and rule Republic City like your own little kingdom and kick civilians around.”
“Because Sifu Katara never uses her powers for petty things…come off it, I’ve seen you.”
“I can do something right in stopping you, at least. This will be the last time I bloodbend.”
Yakone laughed. “That much may be true.” His eyes widened in concentration, and he seized hold of her blood. Katara fought back, reclaiming her own body and forcing her will onto his. For a few moments, both barely moved, except for their fingers twitching in silent struggle.
She felt Yakone’s power increase suddenly, and realized that what he was doing was no longer the finely-controlled, merciful bloodbending, but something else. The world faded and pulsed, she felt dizzy, and she remembered a field of lilies long ago in the Fire Nation. They’re only flowers.
It took almost everything she had to hold herself together against this brutal force, but deep within her, she felt another well of power, the one she had almost touched the day she faced Yon Rha, but had been too afraid to let loose in her heart. She could end this now, with Yakone. He didn’t know what he was dealing with. She could leave him as nothing more than a splatter on the wall, walk out of here, and….
She wondered who she would be, after that. She wasn’t a helpless victim anymore. She had the power to decide who to become.
Leaving that power unused, Katara fell to the ground, and Yakone stepped past her. “Must be hard for the teacher to see the student surpass her,” he said. “But that’s how it is. Stand aside, the future’s gonna be a whole new world.”
Aang found her still on the ground. “I’m all right,” she said. “He didn’t hurt me. I…could have stopped him…I saw how, but…I didn’t want to become what I would have needed to be to do it.”
He held her. “It’s all right. Toph has a plan, we can handle this without you. You’ve done enough, you don’t have to do this.”
“I’ve done enough, huh,” Katara repeated. “You were always uneasy about the bloodbending. I guess this is all my fault.”
“Wouldn’t be the first time one of us has screwed up trying to make this a better world,” Aang said. “As weird as this sounds, sometimes I miss the days when we were kids, and all we knew was that we had to somehow stop Ozai and save the world. It’s easy to know what the world shouldn’t be, but so very hard to know how to make a perfect world when all you’ve ever known is an imperfect one.”
“Yeah…do you think it’s even possible? To have this kind of power over how the world will be, and use it right?”
“Well, that’s sort of my job,” Aang said. “But you know…I have wondered if even one of my lifetimes ever really got it right. I guess I keep on being reborn because it’s still worth trying.”
Katara shut herself away, away from the temptation of people she could bend like supple blades of grass, away from the world that could open to her as though welcoming a god, away from the voices of her family.
In the dark and the silence, she found that primal force still waiting, that could part the people of the world like mist, that called to her. The first time she’d found it, she’d flatly rejected it, the second time it had been difficult. She didn’t know if she could withstand a third, when it inevitably came.
Aang returned. “It’s done. I took away his bending.”
Katara nodded. “You should take away mine too.”
“What? No,” Aang said, alarmed.
“I don’t know if I can resist it,” she said.
“Well, I guess I know you better than you know yourself, then,” Aang said. “You’re a good person, you’re someone who cares about others. You aren’t a danger, even if you’ve made mistakes, and…I won’t hurt you in that way. I know what your bending means to you, how important it is to you, and to your people too.”
“There’s a lot you don’t know about me,” Katara said, and she could feel the secrets crawling under her skin like ants. In that moment, she had to get it all out, even if he hated her. It would almost be a relief. “On the island, with Hama…I shared something I’ve only ever shared with one other person, we were…intimate….”
Somehow she’d expected anger from Aang, jealousy, something…but for some reason, none of it was directed at her. “Katara…you could have told me…I would have done something, put her back in prison….”
“What?” Katara said. “No, you don’t understand…she didn’t hurt me…I wanted it…I let it happen….”
“That summer on the island…you were fifteen,” Aang said. “Whatever it felt like back then…you were fifteen. I don’t blame you for that. And you shouldn’t blame yourself.”
With the truth finally spoken, Katara saw the past again with new eyes. The strange obsession they’d had with each other, but herself still on the cusp of childhood, and the full extent of the power of bloodbending, which she didn’t know if Hama had discovered….
I hope, that someday, you will forgive this weak old woman.
Now, as before, she needed to understand the past in order to take back the future.
She walked the length of the island again, visited the small shack furnished in the Water Tribe way, now mostly reclaimed by sand.
She still loved Hama, and missed her. Some part of her heart was still that fifteen-year-old, fiercely obsessed.
But she saw the island in its place now, only a small length of rock and sand in the vast world, a few months in her memory, a time in her life. Her past was hers, to reorder as she pleased, to find what meaning she could in it.
Katara knew that with what she had learned of bloodbending, she could be an unparalleled healer. And that was who she’d always tried to be, really—there were two sides of her, in struggle, but the side that won was the side that tried to heal the world, and herself, and once had offered what comfort her young heart could to an old woman whose wounds were too deep for healing.
That was how she would remember it.