The first day, only one stands out on the ice at sunrise, shifting from foot to foot, too anxious to stand still, but defiant, her hood thrown back. “I’ve come to learn,” she states, shoving her fists into the fur she wears.
Pakku stares at her. “Nukilik,” he rasps, shaking his head, “Go back to the Healing Hut.”
“You taught Katara,” she streams water above her head and then behind her and around her waist. “You said she was your best student.”
“What would your father say?” he asks, “you’d never find a husband.”
She freezes the water into a ball of ice and tosses it into the air, catching it over and over. “Are you afraid of him?”
He sighs. “He’s afraid for you.”
“If you teach me to fight, I can take care of myself,” she shivers, her shoulders shifting up to hide her neck. The ball of ice in her hands elongates into a clear, perfect blade, but she doesn’t notice. Pakku does, and his eyes widen in understanding. “Then he won’t have for be afraid for me.”
“Get into line, then,” he tells her, and thinks it’s wrong not to take away a little girl’s fear.
The next day, a woman stands in the training area, tall and uncertain amongst the boys, and Nukilik waves to her. “Master Pakku,” she murmurs, bowing her head, “I seek your permission to study under you.” The burn stretches over her cheek and down her neck, the skin eaten away on one side to show her teeth, and her words come out strained, the ice pack still tied to it.
“Why should I teach a woman who isn’t even intelligent to stay inside during a battle?” he snaps, pacing along the line of students and stopping in front of her.
“A healer doesn’t do any good if she isn’t tending the wounded,” she bows again, “Master Pakku.”
He nods. “Okay, you can stay.”
After he finishes class, he motions for her to stay behind. “I’m sorry about your husband,” he tells her, and she waves him off, ducking her head so that she can wipe away a tear without him seeing. “He was a good man.”
“If I had been the one to heal him, he’d still be alive.”
“If there’s anything I can do, Tuaq-”
“Just teach me,” she whispers, voice steady. “Please.”
“I already said I would.”
As the sun rises the next morning, it flashes off three betrothal necklaces, and Pakku almost walks back inside and leaves his students alone for the day. All three young women smile at him, and Tuaq the widow, and Nukilik smile at them. On Tuaq’s face, it’s a fearsome thing, but none of the girls flinch.
“What are your fiancés going to say?” he thunders.
“If he says one word against this, I’ll throw the necklace back in his face,” the girl with the roundest face assures him. He isn’t assured.
“None of them would even notice anyway,” the tallest girl tells him morosely.
“Why do you even want to learn?” he demands desperately.
The tall girl stands stiffly. “Why did you?”
“I want to fight at my husband’s side,” the round faced girl plants her feet into the snow.
“I want to learn how to make things,” the last girl says softly, “and if I have to learn how to fight before I learn how to do that, I will.”
He shakes his head. “Fine, stay.”
After class, he holds the tall girl back. “You never told me why you want to learn.”
She stares back at his set jaw and cold eyes and holds her head up. “Just in case.”
That night, Yugoda stops him on a bridge. “Master Pakku, it’s good to see you!”
He grunts and tries to pass her, but she subtly shifts to remain in his way. “What are you doing out here?”
“I always feel better when I take a walk in the moonlight,” she smiles. “Have an exciting week?”
He growls. “Moderately.”
“Did you know, today, I had a man come to the Healing Huts and ask me to teach him?”
“Of course Ipiktok has been in and out of the Healing Huts enough times with all kinds of wounds anyway,” she says wickedly, resting her hands in her sleeves.
His smirk slowly turns into a real smile. “I suppose for him learning to heal is self defense.”
She chuckles. “Maybe he’ll live longer.”
When he walks out on the ice the next morning to meet his students and a dozen new girls stood waiting for him in the line, he doesn’t bother fighting, or even saying anything. As each one bows and asked him to accept them, he nods stiffly and directs them back into line.
Once, Pakku was always either first or last out on the training area in the mornings, never anything in between, but now he is either last or second. The round faced girl is always a little bit earlier, and sometimes Pakku wonders if she slept out on the ice. “Kanosak,” he calls, walking up to her. She starts. “What would you have done if your fiancé hadn’t wanted you to learn to waterbend and your parents hadn’t let you break off your engagement?”
She grins lazily. “I would’ve run away to the south pole.”
“And if your fiancé had chased you all the way there?”
She shrugs and stands a little straighter. “I don’t know. Run away to the Earth Kingdom, probably. They have water there, right?”
He laughs, but it comes out sour and sad. “Of course. Water, and oceans, and rivers.”
“Then I’d be right at home there.” She stretches out her arms and laces her fingers behind her head. “Or I could just freeze him in a block of ice. I think he’d get the message then. But it doesn’t matter. He thinks it’s great that I’m learning to bend. He likes it when I’m happy. He’s great that way.”
Pakku shakes his head. “I’m glad for you.”
Pulling a thin ribbon of snow from around her feet, she lets her lips quirk up. “I’m glad for me too.” The snow thaws as it flows, and freezes into a thin airless strip of ice.
“I will be leaving for the south pole soon, and I would like to take some of my students with me, to help rebuild.”
Her smile blazes out over the snow. “I’ll ask Mauja, he’ll be... Oh Tui and La, he’ll be...”
Another student, a boy, crunches over to the line, and a few moments later, the line is full.
That afternoon, Kanosak’s friend who wants to make things runs up to him along the canals and bows. “Master Pakku?” she begins tentatively, and he nods. “Kanosak told me you wanted to bring students with you to the south pole?”
He closes his eyes and holds in a groan. “I suppose you want to come.”
“I talked to my husband, and it’s a great way to get away from his father, and they need to build buildings, right? I’d be perfect to go, I-”
“Alright! You can come.”
“Thank you!” she shouts, flinging her arms wide to hug him, but then restrains herself and turns it into a bow. “Master Pakku.”
Pakku shields his eyes from the rising sun, and watches Tuaq and Nukilik. “You shift your weight like this, and then the water follows,” the widow shows her.
“Like this?” the girl copies. The water flows through the air, but then when her hands falter, the water splashes down to the ground and over her feet.
“Close,” Tuaq pushes her hands wider apart and guides them along the right path. “Very close, but keep your arms wide and then push the water with this hand and pull it along with this one,” she pulls Nukilik’s wrist and the water follows them both. “Feel it straining against you?” the girl nods, and Pakku watches the other younger girls watching them, and even the boys, glancing at them covertly around their bending.
At the end of the lesson when the students spar, Nukilik spars with one of the older boys. He is winning, but every time he hits her, she copies the movement and uses it against him a few minutes later. He uses advanced move after advanced move, only to have her send the water right back, until at last, he freezes her hands behind her back and her feet together. “Very good, Pakku sneers, “you almost lost to a first year student.”
“A very good first year student,” the boy mutters under his breath.
“Well,” Pakku smirks, “true.”
At the end of the class, he holds Tuaq back. “It’s time for you to leave the class.”
“I didn’t,” she whispers, “Whatever I did, I didn’t mean-”
“You’re a master now.”
“Oh.” Her eyes grow wide. “But I’m not done learning!”
“Of course you’re not,” he shoots back gruffly. “I want you to teach the class when I leave.”
“Well,” she says, her shoulders riding up to meet her cheeks, “I’ll try to make sure they learn something.”
The ships are loaded, and his students and their sweethearts and their wives and children file along the gangplanks, their belongings in their arms. When the last one had clamored aboard, Pakku lifts his hands and the water pushes the gangplanks up into the ships. The crews untie the moorings, and unfurl the sails.
“Wait!” The tall girl freezes the top of a wave lapping away from the dock and leaps onto it. Under her hands, massive waves lift her ice board up and after the ship, and she flings herself in the air and onto one of the ships.
“Ahnah!” the girl who wants to build shouts from the deck of another ship.
A half moon glints off the waves and Ahnah curls her knees against her chest on the deck. “What about your fiancé?” Pakku mutters behind her.
“Why do you have to do that?”
“It adds to my mystique,” he says truthfully. Then he realizes her neck is bare.
“He probably won’t even notice I’m gone,” she tells him. “The money he won’t be getting with me, yes, but not me. I wonder if he’ll even carve the next girl a new betrothal necklace or just give her the one I wore.”
“You might be heading to new lives,” he says harshly, the waves crashing against the ships in time to his words, “but you are still my students, and you will still learn. Now... LINE UP!”
Where there should be groans, there are grins, and Pakku finds himself staring at them bewildered.
The ships weave their way between icebergs and closer and closer to the south pole. His students and their families array themselves on the deck and move their arms to guide their ships safely through the ice, throwing their hoods back to meet their southern brethren. When the village comes into view, his round faced folds her arms over her pregnant belly and smiles at it with a fierce sort of warmth. His student who wants to build grins widely, and he can see her building walls and domes and roads in her mind. His tall student kept her thoughts hidden behind half closed eyes.
“I thought you would have taken the hint.” Kanna stands with her village, hands fisted into her sleeves. “I can’t get rid of you, can I?”
“Who says I’m here for you?” he shoots back, tucking the new betrothal necklace into his sleeve.
Behind him, one of his boys lobs a snowball at the girl who wants to build, and she melts it mid air and sends a wave of snow his way. Another boy holds a globe of water above Kanosak and her husband, and they glance up at it anxiously. “Who are they?” Kanna points.
“My students,” he folds his arms testily, “To help the Southern Water Tribe rebuild.”
Her gravelly laughter breaks out over the frozen fields. “So the Northern Water Tribe teaches girls now?” her wrinkled face cracks into a wicked grin. “You must be thrilled.”
“Oh no you don’t!” Ahnah freezes the water above her friend and throws it back at the boy who was holding it. It hits him in the stomach, and sends him sprawling. With a flying leap, she lands astride him and shoves a snowball in his face. As she springs away, he gazes at her adoringly.
“I agreed to teach them, didn’t I?” he grumbles.
“I hope you know I have grandchildren now,” she tells him, frowning.
“I know; I taught your granddaughter.” he smirks.
“Really now.” It is all he can do not to tell her that her grandson is an idiot.
“Just ask my students.”
The walls around the Southern Water Tribe rise high and strong, glistening in the summer sunlight. Their builder sits atop them, her hands moving carefully, melting and reforming the ice to form patterns on it. Smoke curls in the air above the domed roofs of houses, temples, and workshops. Spread below her is all her work and the work of her friends. Sometimes in her dreams, she finds herself at the north pole, trapped in the Healing Huts and her own home, but then when she wakes, she opens her eyes and starts to smile.