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things we lost to the flame

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“Are you sure you want to do this?” Sokka said as they pulled into the port. “We can just turn around and head back if you don’t.”

“Sokka,” Katara said, “For the hundredth time. I’m sure.”

Sokka frowned. “I don’t want her to hurt you.”

Katara rolled her eyes. “I’ve beaten her before, Sokka, and that was when she hadn’t been in a Fire Nation prison for months.”

“There are other ways to hurt someone,” Sokka said quietly.

Katara sighed, softening.

“I know,” she said. “But I have to do this, Sokka.”

Sokka opened his mouth as if to argue.

“Not just for the Tribe,” Katara said, cutting off the argument she knew he was about to make. “Or even for her. I need this, Sokka. For me.”

Sokka wrapped his arms around her. “Okay. Just, be careful, alright? I can come too if you want. Me and Boomerang will give her a piece of our-”

“I’ll be fine,” Katara whined, halfheartedly trying to pull away. “You’re such a worrywart.”

Sokka squeezed her tighter, making her squeak. “Can’t a big brother worry about his little sister in peace?”

“Get off!” Katara said, shoving a laughing Sokka away.

Katara made sure her things were in place– multiple canteens, a knife Sokka had given her “just in case,” and a scroll in Fire Nation red– then gave Sokka what she hoped was a reassuring smile as she stepped off the boat.

“I’ll be back in just a few minutes.”

“This is a high security prison,” the guard said. “No visitors.”

“I’m here for a prisoner transfer,” Katara replied, handing him the scroll she carried.

The guard raised his eyebrows at the idea of a fifteen-year-old coming alone to retrieve prisoners, but dutifully took the document and scanned it.

“This prisoner is dangerous,” the guard said. “She’s not just here from the war– half the town disappeared for months because of her.”

“I know,” Katara said, “I’m the one who stopped her. If my documents are in order, I assume I can go in?”

The man, seeming encouraged by Katara’s brisk confidence, handed back the scroll and moved to unlock the door. Katara took a smaller key from him and gave him a quick Fire Nation-style bow, which he returned. Then she entered the prison building, part of her still marveling at how routine this political stuff was becoming. Had it really been less than two years ago that she’d been an awkward child who had never even left the South Pole?

The inside of the prison was dim enough that Katara’s eyes needed a moment to adjust. It was occupied by a few wooden cages raised off the ground, only one of which was filled. The cage’s occupant, an elderly woman in ragged clothing with Water Tribe dark skin and wild grey hair, grinned as she realized who had entered the room.

“I knew you’d come here eventually,” Hama rasped. “Tell me, girl, who did you use it on?”

Katara held back a flinch, not expecting that question so soon. “No one!”

“Don’t lie to me, child,” Hama said. “Bloodbending leaves its mark, and I can practically smell it on you.” She chuckled darkly. “It’s like looking into a mirror.”

Katara looked away, unable to meet the old woman’s piercing gaze.

“A soldier,” she said. “He- I thought he was the one who had killed my mother.”

Hama cackled with glee. “I knew you had it in you! Oh, yes, Katara, I chose well when I made you my successor.”

“I’m no successor of yours,” Katara said.

“I know you feel it,” Hama crooned. “The cold hatred that eats away at your heart. The thrill of having power over those that hurt you.”

She chuckled menacingly. “Oh, yes, you can play the righteous peacemaker all you want, Katara. I see through you. Deep down, we are the same.”

Katara took a trembling breath, resisting the urge to step back, to run away and tell Sokka they were leaving after all. Words of denial pushed at her lips, protestations that it wasn’t the same, that Katara had never hurt innocents-

But she had. The man she had bloodbent had done nothing to her.

He was a Fire Nation soldier, her mind argued back. Part of the force that had nearly destroyed her people. That alone made him guilty.

But could she make that judgement, when she had no way of knowing what he had actually done?

Was this where Hama had started? Righteous anger, twisted over years into a deep hatred that painted all Fire Nation citizens with the same, bloody brush?

Katara shuddered, becoming aware of Hama’s soft, grating laughter. Katara took a deep breath, calling on a simple meditation used to clear the mind for bending. When she opened her eyes again, her back was straight, her voice firm.

“You’re right,” Katara said. “We are the same.”

“Yes,” Hama said, leaning closer from behind the bars. “Yes, and I have so much more I could teach you, Katara. So many ways we could make them pay for what they did to us.”

“That’s not what I meant,” Katara said. “I know that the hatred you feel towards them is in me too. If I had been through what you have, I- I would have been overcome by it too. I would have been twisted the same way as you. But I was spared that.”

“You are young,” Hama purred. “You will see the truth in time.”

Katara met Hama’s eyes. “But if I could become like you, Hama, that means you were once like me. The raiders stole who you used to be, just like they stole so many of our people. Just like they took my mother from me. And that’s why I’m taking you home.”

Hama huffed. “Home? Is it to be house arrest, then? Do you really think that little shack will be able to hold me?”

“No, Hama,” Katara said gently. “I’m taking you home. To the Southern Water Tribe."

For the first time since they’d met, Katara watched as Hama’s twisted confidence fell away. The older woman’s eyes widened, her breath coming shallow and quick, and she seemed at a loss for words.

Katara held up the scroll. “By order of the Fire Lord, in accordance with the treaty provision on war prisoners, your custody has been officially transferred to the Southern Water Tribe, under my own wardenship.”

Hama finally found her voice. “Is this pity?” she hissed. “Will it soothe your conscience to bring me back there? Do you think it will heal me? Make it all better?”

“No,” Katara said, “I don’t. But the truth is that we need you, Hama. I’ve searched every Fire Nation prison, and there are no Southern waterbenders left. You were the only one to survive the war.”

Katara walked right up to the bars of the cage, wrapping her fingers around them.

“You are the only living waterbender who was trained in the Southern style. I was trained in the North, because by the time I was born no one was left to teach me. They took that away from us. They took our waterbenders, they took our towns, they took every piece of our culture they could get their filthy hands on.”

Katara’s eyes flashed with fury. “And they don’t get to keep it. I’m not going to let them. Because they couldn’t find me, and they couldn’t keep hold of you. You really want to get back at them? To make them pay for what they did? Then help me make their plan to destroy us a miserable failure.”

Hama raised an eyebrow. “You would really trust me to train your waterbenders? Not worried I’d corrupt them with my evil ways?”

“Don’t get me wrong,” Katara said. “You’re not going to be teaching so much as a push-and-pull without another master’s supervision. And I’m going to keep an eye on you, especially during full moons. If we even get an inkling that you’re showing others bloodbending, or anything similar, your teaching days– and any freedom that comes with it– will be over.”

“My, my,” Hama said, “Aren’t we confident.”

Her words were mocking, but there was a rising fear in her eyes. Not of Katara, surely- Hama had proven herself to be completely self-assured where the younger waterbender was concerned.

No, it was fear of leaving the Fire Nation, Katara realized. Fear of going home. What would it be like to return, old, bitter and broken, to a place you’d thought you had lost forever?

Katara reached out and unlocked the cage’s wooden door with the key the guard had given her. With a slashing motion she bent water from her canteen into a blade and freed Hama’s wrists from the chains that bound them. Then she took a step back.

“Well?” Katara said. “Are you coming? Or would you rather stay here?”

Hama’s gaze darted between Katara and the open door for a second. Then she stepped out, and together the last two waterbenders of the Southern Water Tribe left the Fire Nation prison behind them.

The tribesmen on the ship began hurried preparations as soon as they saw Katara and Hama, the sound of Sokka’s raised voice mingling with the noise of the port. Katara had made it clear on the way up that it was in all their best interests to get Hama out of the Fire Nation as quickly as possible, and thankfully it seemed they’d taken her at her word.

By the time they stepped up to the ship, it was ready to head out to sea. Katara gestured for Hama to go first, not wanting to take her eyes off the older waterbender, and Hama hesitated almost imperceptibly before squaring her shoulders and stepping onto the wooden deck.

“Elder,” a tribesman greeted, dipping his head in respect as he held out a water canteen. Hama would be severely dehydrated from her stay in prison, and it wasn’t like there wasn’t ample water around for her to bend anyways.

Hama took the canteen without so much as a word and moved further into the ship, eyeing the Water Tribe designs that decorated it. Katara stepped onto the deck herself, and then they were off.

Apart from Sokka casting suspicious glares at their new passenger and Hama giving menacing looks right back, the trip home was relatively peaceful. Katara had expected as much; she highly doubted that Hama would hurt anyone in the Southern Water Tribe, at least when she wasn’t actively trying to pressure Katara into bloodbending. Now corrupting others, they would have to watch out for. But physical violence, against her own people? That was becoming less likely with each hour they traveled. Hama was motivated by revenge, and the objects of her hatred were growing farther and farther away.

Finally, the Southern Water Tribe came into view on the horizon. Katara wondered what Hama would think, seeing it so many decades later. It was almost certainly smaller than she was expecting– Gran-Gran sometimes told stories of the ice-crafted buildings and networks of villages the South had once had– but it was still larger than it had been in years. Between the men coming home, prisoners of war returning and Northerners coming down to help rebuild, their little town seemed almost bustling these days.

Katara watched Hama carefully as they pulled into the Tribe’s newly rebuilt bay. The older woman’s face was impassive, but her shoulders were tense with clear discomfort. Katara was feeling rather anxious herself; it was one thing to believe on an intellectual level that Hama would not behave violently on Water Tribe land, another thing entirely to actually bring a kidnapper and torturer to Katara’s childhood home.

Their father was standing to greet the ship as it came in, and Sokka jumped off the boat almost before it had stopped moving to run up and hug him. A small crowd gathered behind Hakoda. They were supposed to keep this low-profile to avoid triggering any negative reactions from Hama, but Katara wasn’t surprised people had come to gawk anyways. Everyone knew about everything in the Southern Water Tribe, and this was the most exciting thing to happen in months.

“Come on,” Katara said softly as the ship settled into place. Hama gave her a look of barely-concealed panic before determinedly stepping off the ship and onto the South Pole ice.

“Master Hama,” Hakoda said formally. “While I wish it were under better circumstances, I am glad to be able to welcome one of our own back to the Southern Water Tribe.”

Someone else stepped up from behind Hakoda: a woman hunched with age, her hair pulled back into a white bun. She walked up to Hama, Hakoda having to hold Sokka back from leaping in between them, and held out one hand, palm-up.

“Hama,” Gran-Gran said, “It’s been so long. Do you remember me?”

Hama stared for a moment before recognition, and something else Katara couldn’t quite read, flickered across her face.

“Kanna?” she rasped.

Gran-Gran smiled and nodded. Hama reached out and tentatively grasped the hand being offered to her, and Gran-Gran pulled her into a gentle hug.

“I missed you,” Gran-Gran whispered, her voice choked with emotion. “Welcome home.”

And for the first time in what must have been decades, Hama broke down and cried.