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such selfish prayers

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act one: this will be my last confession ('i love you' never felt like any blessing)

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Katara sits at the temple under the tree while Aang teaches his new people and tries her hardest to be content, but something inside boils and burns and seeps into her bones, and the thought falls into her head almost of its own accord.

What if she just… left? Surely he would notice, right?

So she leaves, without fuss or fanfare, and wanders around the temple for a while that turns into a long while that turns into a very long while that settles on her heavily.

After two hours, she begins packing.

After three, she goes back to the tree, to see the crowd a little more dispersed, apparently beginning meditation, and Aang there among them, helping adjust this acolyte’s back and that acolyte’s arms. And she has a vision of her future, which is this.

Just… this, all the time. Standing off to the side, unnoticed, apart. Of course, Katara can’t really contribute to the Air Acolyte’s lessons, so it’s not as though she could be doing anything else, except everything that isn’t right here. She could be doing something, helping people at least, and instead she’s sitting here – chained to Aang, useless.

It is, very suddenly, not enough to be with him. She isn’t sure it ever was, or if she was simply so desperate to be the person he saw when he looked at her – angelic, perfect, beautiful and shining and pure – that she stuffed all of the things that didn’t fit in with him and his schedule for their future down deep into her heart, and convinced herself that this was love.

But it’s so clear and so solid and so cold, that this is not where she should be. It’s taken nearly two years to come to this point, but it’s like she’s suddenly fallen off a cliff she’s refused to see coming: she does not belong here.

“Hey, Katara!” Aang says, coming over to her, bouncing and bright and for a moment her resolve falters because he is so unaware that she is going to shatter him and she doesn’t want to break him like this, but it’s just not working. She loves him, she wants the best for him, but she also wants the best for herself, and this is not it, even a little bit. But at the same time, he looks so innocent and happy, and as sure as she knows herself, she knows: she is going to smile and nod and go along with it and ignore this little epiphany – until: “Did you like the lesson today?”

He didn’t even notice that she was gone for three hours.

It’s not – it’s not like it’s evil, it’s not like it’s a terrible thing. He was simply so engrossed in teaching the Air Acolytes and bettering the world that he never thought to look up to see if she was there. It doesn’t make him a bad person, but it does make Katara certain that this is not how she wants to live.

“I wasn’t here, Aang,” she hears herself saying, a bit distant, almost like she’s watching the scene unfold as though they’re actors on a stage. She can hear the audience begging her not to do it, but her story ends here if she doesn’t. He looks confused, and she sighs. “I… I can’t do this, Aang. I’m sorry. I can’t just sit here and watch you all day, doing nothing.”

“You’re… welcome to join,” he starts hesitantly, so confused.

“I’m not an Air Acolyte, Aang, and I don’t want to be. I’m Water Tribe, and I’m going home.”

“Well,” he says, worrying his lip. “I’ll get my things – ”

“Don’t do that,” she cuts him off. “Don’t. You’re doing great things here, the Acolytes need you, and the world needs you and them.”

“And I need you,” he says earnestly, and it tugs at her and twists at her but she can’t do this anymore.

“No, you don’t,” she replies. “You didn’t even notice that I wasn’t here. I’m not criticizing you!” she cuts in suddenly, seeing him opening his mouth to retort. “It’s not your fault. You’re a teacher, and you were focused on your students. That’s a good thing. But you don’t need me.”

“You don’t want to be with me anymore?” he asks in such a small voice that it threatens to dwarf her. She hesitates, and closes her eyes, and her resolves stiffens from coal to diamond.

“I don’t want to spend the rest of my life sitting off to the side, watching you and doing nothing. I don’t belong here, Aang. I’m sorry.”

“We don’t have to stay here – ”

Aang!” she cries, because can’t he see that he’s making this worse? But then she thinks that no, no he probably can’t. Aang has never exactly been the best at seeing the world through other people’s eyes. “You belong here. This is where you are doing so much for the world. But I don’t. I’m not doing anything except following you around. This isn’t what I want, this isn’t the life that I want.”

The audience in her mind weeps, and curses her for her cruelty, but this is no one else’s story.

“You’ve done plenty!” he says, and she shakes her head.

“No, I’ve been your girlfriend, that’s all. I think… I think we shouldn’t have gotten together in the first place,” she sighs, and he looks so hurt that she can’t look at him anymore. “We weren’t ready. I wasn’t ready, but I felt like I was… supposed to. Like it was my destiny. Maybe in the future,” she concedes. “Maybe then we can… work together. But this isn’t a partnership, Aang. Neither of us know how to be.”

She’s lying, a bit – she thinks she could probably figure it out a lot better than he can – but it makes it seem less like it’s all his fault.

“I don’t understand,” he stammers, and she has reached the breaking point within the breaking point, and she cannot stand to do this anymore.

“I’m sorry,” she repeats, choking back tears, and leaves. He calls after her, but she ignores him.

.

She makes a stop in Kyoshi, but Suki is in the Fire Nation, being Zuko’s bodyguard, so the only person she really knows is Ty Lee. And it’s not like they’re friends, or like she wants to confide in the other girl at all, but when she steps off the boat, alone, Ty Lee locks eyes with her and seems to know.

“Tell me,” she gasps, leaning forward and taking her hand. “What happened?”

She spent most of the boat ride crying alone in her room and feeling like The World’s Worst Person – not helped by the glares she started receiving as soon as word got around who she was and what she did to the Avatar – so she’s all out of tears.

“I broke up with Aang,” she says, without inflection or emotion. “I told him that I didn’t want to be an Air Acolyte, and I left. Like a coward,” she adds to herself, miserably.

She’s been veering wildly between regret and relief, and she’s landed hard on the regret side this morning. But Ty Lee, for all of her bubbliness, seems to see things differently than other people.

“Your aura is all one color,” she replies slowly, apropos of nothing, and Katara furrows her brow, confused, so she goes on. “It’s blue, which means you’re sad, but it’s not conflicted. You were always conflicted before.”

“Why didn’t you say anything?” she asks quietly, face burning with shame from so many directions she isn’t even sure where to start untangling it. Ty Lee makes a face.

“You didn’t want to know,” she answers, and shrugs, pulling her along with her into a small, one-room house that must be hers. “I have a policy of not telling people things they don’t want to know, especially if it’s about themselves. Wait here,” she adds, plopping Katara down at a little table and going over to a big box with a door, opening it and pulling something out.

“What is that?” she asks, and Ty Lee glances back at her before shutting the door and beginning to rummage through a drawer.

“It’s an icebox. Your brother came up with it! It’s really smart, he had this idea about storing food on ice to make it last longer, and I got the first prototype. Well, actually,” she adds thoughtfully, looking up, “Suki got the first one but then she had to leave for the Fire Nation so she gave it to me. It’s great, and it means that I can have things like this!

She whirls around and brandishes a bucket of… something, with two spoons. Katara, who has never been fully at-ease around Ty Lee on the best of days, is on immediate alert, but she just sighs.

“It’s ice cream, Katara,” she sighs, shaking her head and walking over to the table and setting the bucket in the middle of it. “It’s made with vanilla and matcha and cream, it’s amazing.” She holds a spoon out to her. “Here.”

Katara hesitates, but then… word got around so quickly that she broke the Avatar’s heart, and she’s received a lot of ugly glares in the couple of short stops between the Air Temple and Kyoshi, and a lot of stony silence from the people on the boat.

Ty Lee is the first person who has been on her side.

She takes the spoon, and gingerly scoops up a little of the stuff and tastes it.

It is good.

Right?” Ty Lee gushes. “I’ve been experimenting with flavors, but this is my favorite so far. It’s the perfect cure for heartache. Well, except wine, but this is healthier.”

She’s not sure if it’s the ice cream or the friendship, but she does feel a lot better already.

“I just… wasn’t happy with him,” she sighs, as though Ty Lee asked. “I tried so hard to convince myself I was, but it never… worked.”

“I understand,” she replies, taking a big bite of the ice cream herself. “Sometimes you try your best not to hurt someone, but then it all comes out and you end up hurting them more than you would have if you’d just been honest from the start.” Ty Lee sighs. “I wish I had advice, but I don’t know how to fix it.”

“I don’t need advice,” she says honestly, clenching her jaw and blinking back tears. “I know I did the right thing, eventually. We shouldn’t have gotten together in the first place,” she mutters, and Ty Lee gives her a thoughtful look.

“No,” she muses. “You needed to learn what you wanted and didn’t want out of a relationship. I don’t believe that any love is wasted, even if it goes bad. You learned a lot about yourself, and you had fun, right? It’s worth it, then. Even if the end sucks.”

“No offense, but when did you become the Relationship Guru?”

Ty Lee laughs. “Since I had to coach Mai through her and Zuko’s last breakup, and then her whole fling with Kei Lo. And I’ve had a couple of relationships myself, nothing as serious as you and Aang, but I know how much breakups suck, even if you know you did the right thing.”

Katara pauses, taking a bite of the ice cream and savoring it for a long time. “You know,” she says finally, quietly, “you’re the first person who hasn’t hated me for breaking his heart.”

“Don’t worry about everyone else,” Ty Lee replies seriously. “You made the best choice for yourself. They’ll come around or they won’t, but you shouldn’t wait for them to get on with your life.”

“I just feel like…” she starts, still half-caught between that swing of regret and relief, “I feel like it was sudden, you know? Maybe we could have worked it out, but it was like… all of a sudden, I couldn’t stand it anymore.”

“The lies we tell ourselves are the ones that hurt us the most when they break down,” Ty Lee says, as though quoting someone. “Your aura was always so close to you, and muddled. It wasn’t a healthy aura.”

“Is it healthy now?”

Ty Lee tilts her head. “It’s healthier than it was before. I don’t think there’s anything wrong that time won’t fix,” she adds, as though she’s a healer diagnosing Katara’s death rattle as “a little cough, just rest up and you’ll be fine in a jiffy”.

“I don’t think Aang will ever forgive me.”

“Give him time,” Ty Lee says sympathetically. “You’ll see. It’ll all be okay.”

Katara, in spite of herself, smiles.

.

It’s surprisingly hard for her to leave Kyoshi the next morning, and she finds herself giving Ty Lee – Ty Lee! of the Fire Nation! that girl who stole her bending that one time! – a hug before she gets on the boat.

“Thank you,” she says, feeling a little ashamed and a lot weak. “I really needed to talk to someone about it.”

“You’re always welcome here!” Ty Lee chirps, hugging her back tightly. “I love having friends over, and you’ll have to help me make ice cream one of these days.”

Katara laughs a bit. “I will. Keep in touch.”

“You too!”

She gets on the boat feeling lighter than she has in, if she’s being honest with herself, nearly two years. Ty Lee’s words echo in her head – It’ll all be okay, and Don’t worry about everyone else.

She holds them close to her like a shield, and goes back home.

.

Sokka welcomes her into the city with worry all over his face.

“Katara, what happened?” he asks.

“Nothing,” she answers, and it’s truer than he knows. “Nothing happened, and I left.” She sighs, and it’s the opposite of yesterday with Ty Lee, when she couldn’t stop the words from pouring out of her mouth; she does not want to open up to Sokka right now. “What needs doing down here?”

He watches her for a moment before apparently deciding not to push, and scratches the back of his head. “Well, we just got a shipment of marble in from the Earth Kingdom, Toph came along to help us build the pavilion. You can definitely help us there.”

“What kind of pavilion?” she asks, already walking past him and dreading seeing Toph; if Ty Lee could tell she was lying to herself from her aura, who knows what secrets Toph knows.

“Well,” Sokka starts, “we were thinking about a meeting place, I can show you the blueprints. Someplace where everyone can congregate and discuss politics, you know?”

“Right, like a town hall.”

“Pretty much, but we also want it to be, like, a place where people can go and learn about the tribe and the world and stuff. Dad wants to hire a painter to paint a bunch of cool things from history and hang them on the walls, but wow they do not come cheap.”

“You don’t have to start off asking for all the paintings at once,” she chides, smiling a little.

“Yeah,” Sokka says, drawing out the word like he really doesn’t like the suggestion. “But how lame would it look, one really nice painting and then a bunch of blank wall space like, hey we know there’s nothing actually here right now, but just wait!”

“It’s a work in progress,” she laughs. “Isn’t that what we all really are?”

But he isn’t convinced, and anyway, she sees his point, and so she mulls it over for most of the walk to the skeletal frame of what will be the town hall, someday, until she sees a couple of children playing by a fire pit, and the idea strikes.

“What about a mural?” she asks, and Sokka looks at her quizzically, so she goes on. “The kids,” she prompts, gesturing to them. “Get the kids to paint the wall with pictures of things they know, or like. They don’t have to paint all of it – in fact, it’s better if they don’t, because then the next generation can add on to it. It’s still a work in progress,” she adds, the inspiration coming over her like a warm blanket, “but it’s supposed to be. It’s always looking toward the future.”

Sokka thinks about that for a moment, then nods slowly. “I think you’re on to something here,” he says, and opens the door, in spite of the unfinished walls. She thinks privately that that says a lot about the kind of person her brother is. “Because, like, we’re the ones building it, but it’s really for them, the next generation. So they get to paint it. I like it.”

A warm glow invades her chest, but before she can put her finger on why, they meet Toph and the glow abruptly shuts down in the wake of cold dread.

But Toph just tilts her head.

“Long time, no see, Katara!”

“You too,” she says warmly, and then groans. “Right, that was a joke.”

“And a greeting, don’t sell me short!” she cries, acting offended, but Katara doesn’t believe a word of it.

“It’s good to see you,” she drawls instead. “Have you been helping a lot with the city?”

“Not really,” Toph replies, shrugging. “But Sokka and Dadkoda wanted marble floors in their palace, I think they’re jealous of Zuko.”

It is not a palace,” Sokka growls, through clenched teeth, and Katara rolls her eyes. “It’s a meeting hall, for the – ”

“And so you got them the marble?” she cuts in, determinedly ignoring Sokka’s sputtering.

“Yep,” Toph says. “Even offered out of the kindness of my heart to come all the way down here – to the middle of icy nowhere – to install it for them, free of charge. Because I’m an angel.”

Katara blinks.

“Your parents must have been really overbearing,” she deadpans, and Toph makes a face.

“Ugh, you have no idea. I’m never going back.”

“Didn’t you say that the last time?” Sokka asks airily, but Toph shudders.

“Mom wanted to prep me for a real debut, with a party and dresses and shoes and manners. I don’t know how to break it to her that I’m never getting married.”

“I wouldn’t say never,” Katara says, and Toph raises an eyebrow.

“Yeah, no. I’m not ever getting married. You’re the one who convinced me of that, Sugar Queen.”

This brings her up cold, and even Sokka looks surprised.

“What do you mean?” she asks hesitantly, and Toph scoffs, crossing her arms.

“You stopped being Katara the second you hooked up with Aang,” she replies, and Katara feels her face heating up. “That’s why you dumped him, isn’t it?” she adds on the last with a bit of hesitancy, like she was all prepared for a good old-fashioned roast but realized belatedly that maybe no one else was with her.

“Dumped is… a strong word,” she stammers, even though it’s not.

“Well, he thinks he’s been dumped, so if you’re planning to get back together, you know, do… that.” Toph sounds a little let-down, and terribly awkward, and Katara looks away.

“I’m not getting back with him,” she mutters. “Because… yeah, you’re right.” There’s more, about how she felt like she was just being dragged along with destiny, and how she spent the last year and a half feeling like an accessory, but she doesn’t really want to open up to Toph right now, either.

“Good,” Toph says firmly. “You were disappearing.”

“Yeah,” she mumbles, and isn’t sure she believes it. “I was.”

.

“I mean,” Sokka says to her later that night, holding out a cup of tea and taking a seat with her by the fire, “Toph was right. You weren’t really yourself when you were with Aang.”

She takes the tea and allows him to sit by her. He’s been treating her like she’s about to shatter all day, ever since Toph made that comment about not getting married, and she doesn’t really know how to respond.

Katara has always been the rock. She doesn’t know how to be the person who needs support; it’s uncomfortable and awkward, and she wishes Sokka would just leave well enough alone.

But he won’t abandon his baby sister.

“Why didn’t anyone tell me?”

Sokka sighs, and shrugs expansively. “You seemed happy,” he says, but almost like it’s a question. “And anytime someone said or did anything to Aang you didn’t like, you just blew up at them, nobody wanted to make you angry.”

“I was angry,” she says, empty of emotion. “At myself, more than anything. I was angry because I wasn’t happy and I thought I was supposed to be. Everyone said I was supposed to be, but I wasn’t.”

“What happened?” Sokka asks quietly, and she heaves a sigh.

“I just…” she starts, unsure how to word it – when she’d been talking to Ty Lee, she’d barely had to say anything, and Ty Lee hadn’t pressed her for details. Because, she thinks traitorously, Ty Lee actually knew how to talk to someone who was going through a rough breakup, whereas Sokka is clueless on that front. “I had this moment where I realized I didn’t belong there. He was teaching all his new Acolytes and I was just sitting off to the side and I realized that if I didn’t leave now, this was where I’d be for the rest of my life. And I didn’t want that.”

“He’s really confused,” Sokka says, as though easing out onto a precarious branch. “He thought everything was going perfectly. He was, um,” he coughs and winces. “He had a pendant all carved for you. He doesn’t know why you left.”

“Of course he doesn’t,” another voice interjects, and Toph takes the other seat by Katara. “You spent all that time protecting him from the world, he has no idea how to take a hit. You always told him it was never his fault.”

Her own words, when she’d left him, rise up in her mind at that, how desperate she’d been to make him think he wasn’t to blame.

“It wasn’t his fault,” she says, a bit obstinately, because she’s bristling at Toph’s tone. “It was mine, I wasn’t – ”

“It was both of yours,” Toph cuts in. “You weren’t right for each other, you just enabled each other’s worst tendencies. Both of you were in the wrong.”

She doesn’t have a good response to that, so for a while she says nothing. Finally, she sighs again and runs a hand through her hair. “It seems like everyone knew we weren’t right for each other, except us.”

“It’s not that,” Sokka says slowly. “I mean, when you first got together, I thought it’d be great, but you just… weren’t yourself. It was weird.”

“And you’re lying if you say that you didn’t know you and Aang were wrong for each other,” Toph adds, but softer. “You did know, but you didn’t want to hurt him, so you stuck with it until it drove you crazy.”

She laughs a bit, hollow. “I would have married him,” she says honestly, eyes burning with unshed tears. “If he’d proposed to me a week ago, I would have said yes.”

“I know,” Toph sighs. “I’m just glad you came to your senses before you got in so deep that there was no getting out.”

“I just had this vision of myself,” she goes on, as though Toph didn’t speak, “where I was fifty years old and bitter and lonely and still just – sitting there, watching him do everything and just – just having his babies and sitting there being pretty and doing nothing for anyone except him. And it was awful.”

Nobody says anything in response to that. Katara suspects there isn’t any kind of response that would suffice.

“You did the right thing,” Toph says finally, in a low voice, and Sokka makes a noise of agreement.

“I know I did,” she snaps, starting to crumble at the seams. “I just wish the "right thing” didn’t hurt him like that, or make me a horrible person for just dumping him out of nowhere.“

"At some point, you’ve got to be selfish, Katara,” Sokka says. “You weren’t happy. You didn’t want to spend the rest of your life with him. That’s a good enough reason to walk away.”

She takes a deep, shaky breath, and Sokka puts an arm around her shoulders.

“It takes a lot of strength to leave,” he goes on. “You both would have been miserable, you did him a favor in the long run.”

“No,” Toph starts, and Katara can feel the glare that Sokka shoots her over her shoulders, but if Toph notices, she doesn’t care. “He would never have known better, to be miserable with you. He would have thought that it was just how love is, you go home to your doormat wife and you never wonder if maybe you might have been happier with someone who actually challenged you. He would have thought he was perfectly happy, and he would have been living an empty life.”

Somehow, this does make her feel better – she actually did do him a favor, really, by leaving. She helped him to grow as a person, which, as Toph said (and was painfully right about), he wasn’t doing a whole lot of while she was there to shield him from anything that might hurt.

It doesn’t feel like much of a favor, though.

“I mean, don’t get me wrong,” Toph goes on, with some trepidation, like she’s been itching to say this for a long time but doesn’t know how Katara will react, “you definitely deserve better than to be his accessory wife, but he deserves better, too. Aang can be better than he is right now, but not while you’re there to coddle him. Aang deserves to be happy, really happy, not just going through the motions and thinking that’s how it’s supposed to be.”

She mulls over that for a moment.

“You’re right,” she says finally. “When did you get to be so wise?”

“I pay attention to people,” Toph replies seriously, as though the question was not intended as a joke to lighten the mood. “And I know a lot about being miserable in something that’s supposed to be perfect.”

Katara identifies with that on a deep and fundamental level, but it also breaks a dam within her and the tears she’s been fighting back come out with violent force. Sokka pulls her into a hug, and then, after a moment, Toph joins in and wraps her arms around her, too.

“You’re gonna be okay,” Sokka murmurs. “You’re both gonna be okay.”

.

Little by little, she moves on. At first she’s consumed by guilt, and starts several letters to Aang, explaining herself, but she always gets frustrated with them and tears them up or throws them away. A small part of her thinks that it’s probably not the kind of thing you explain in a letter, anyway.

She just has no idea when she will see him again, or how to be ready if she ever does.

To fill up the time, she sets her mind to do all the kinds of things she never would done with Aang, starting with regular trips to Kyoshi to visit Ty Lee and, when she’s there and not guarding Zuko, Suki. On those trips, Sokka comes along and they inevitably reconnect before having to separate again; no one, least of all them, really know where they stand – officially not together, because Suki’s work takes her so far away for such long stretches, but even when they’re separated it seems like they never take an interest in anyone else.

Suki never asks why she broke up with Aang. If that’s because Sokka told her, or because she somehow just knows without having to ask, Katara isn’t sure.

Somehow, Ty Lee becomes a real friend, by sheer force of personality and by simply being there for her when she’s overwhelmed. They sit in her little house and drink wine sometimes and make ice cream (some delightful batches, some less-than) and talk about a lot of things and a lot of nothing; she starts to view it as a safe haven, a place to go when the stress and the guilt get to her.

And there is stress – she throws herself into the Tribal council and sets herself to bettering the place, starting in little ways. Her first suggestion is the mural, which receives unanimous support, and her second is the establishment of a bending school.

“We’ll have both healing and fighting techniques,” she says, and gestures to Grand-Pakku, sitting across from her at the table in the still-drafty, unfinished pavilion. “Master Pakku has already agreed to work with me on blending Southern and Northern fighting styles, and he knows of a healer in the North who has expressed interest in coming here.”

“How many amateur waterbenders are there in the tribe?” her father, of all people, asks, but he sounds more curious than accusing. It’s Grand-Pakku who answers.

“Only a handful as of yet, but the number will only increase as time passes. And it’s better to start a school when you only have a handful of students you need to accommodate.”

“And we’ll be able to grow the school with the students,” Katara offers, and Hakoda shrugs.

“I’m all for it.”

“Question!” Sokka chimes in, holding a pencil and looking over a map of the city. “Where are we going to put it?”

“It needs to be somewhere pretty central,” she muses, walking over to look at it with him. “But it doesn’t have to be smack in the middle. Just easy for everyone to get to.”

“How about here?” Sokka offers, pointing a spot nearer the coast. “It’s not quite within the city limits, but it’s not like we’ve built walls yet, and it’s pretty much surrounded by water.”

“It’ll melt in summer,” Katara counters, and Sokka blinks, looking back at the map and making a face.

“Right, it’s on the ice shelf, dang.”

“I suggest the top of the glacier,” Grand-Pakku says, raising an eyebrow. “The entry requirement is being able to reach it.”

Katara furrows her brow. “No…” she starts, and looks up. “Because these are going to be little kids when they start. Two, three years old. We can’t make them hike up a glacier just to learn.”

“Surviving on the ice would be a great final test, though,” Sokka says thoughtfully. “For both being a waterbender and just being a tribesman or -woman.”

“Besides, glaciers move,” she goes on, ignoring Sokka entirely. “We can’t build a foundation on a moving target.”

Sokka looks at her oddly when she says that, and it will be much later before she realizes how that sentence applies to her in more ways than where she wants to build a school.

“Why not attached to the pavilion?” Hokada suggests, and they both look up at him. “We designed this place to be for everyone, so it’s easy to get to. Everyone already knows where it is, so they won’t get lost trying to get to school. And adding an east wing will be easy since we don’t have the walls for that side yet.”

Katara mulls it over, before, “Okay. But we have to cut canals into the ice around it.”

“Won’t that be difficult,” Grand-Pakku says blandly, and she gives him a look.

“So, it’s settled,” she says, clapping her hands. “We’ll add the school on as a new Eastern Wing to the pavilion.”

And the Western Wing, she thinks but doesn’t say because she’s already winning and she knows to quit while she’s ahead (at least for now), we can turn into a healing hut.

.

The day of the painting, nearly six months since she left Aang, she’s unreasonably nervous – what if it doesn’t look right? what if the kids just sling paint all over each other until their parents take them back home? what if nobody knows where to start? – but it turns out to be unwarranted. Her father gives the kids a few ideas of things to paint, such as otter-penguins and their houses, but one particularly-artistic child takes it upon herself to paint the aurora.

Katara helps the little girl, first by holding onto the ladder so she doesn’t fall and then by holding her paints and suggesting little ways to make the colors blend better. It’s definitely the best part, although some of the otter-penguins look pretty realistic and the one little boy who drew Sokka managed to somehow capture her brother’s essence while absolutely failing to paint a recognizable portrait.

Some of the kids, less-confident in their art or just unsure what to paint, leave their handprints, which gives Katara the idea for everyone who’s there to do the same, and sign them – we were here.

In the end, when they’re all covered in paint and Gran-Gran and Grand-Pakku are bringing out food for everyone, it looks a little haphazard and amateurish, but it’s beautiful, maybe because of that.

Sokka claps her on the shoulder and grins.

“This was a really great idea,” he tells her seriously. “I’m glad you came home.”

“Yeah, me too,” she replies, and for the first time she thinks it’s unambiguously true; at this time, in this place, she has no regrets about leaving Aang and coming back here. She’s known it was the right choice for herself, but it wasn’t until right now that she genuinely believed that it was the right choice for other people, too.

She is going to be okay. It’s the first time that she really, honestly knows this to be true.

.

“So now you want to build a hospital onto the west wing of the pavilion?” Sokka asks incredulously, and she nods like it’s obvious.

“For all the same reasons that it was a good idea to build the school here,” she explains, as she and a Northern waterbender work on cutting the canals into the ground. “It’s easy to get to, everyone knows where it is, and it’s still not complete.”

“What’s next?” Sokka says airly. “A marketplace?”

“Don’t give me ideas.”

.

“So about that marketplace,” she starts a few weeks later, and Sokka waves a rolled-up blueprint at her.

Way ahead of you, sis.”

.

Soon, the Water Tribe isn’t big enough to contain her.

It starts, then, if there can be a definite place where it starts, at a Council of Four, based in the Fire Nation, marking three years of peace.

It’s the first one that she’ll be going to as an ambassador and politician, representing her people alongside Sokka – they’ve become something of a dream team, he argues from the practical perspective and she argues from the compassionate one, and where they meet, great things happen, and the Southern Water Tribe is (albeit slowly) gaining a reputation as an excellent place to live, if you can handle the cold – and she’s nervous, but not because of the meeting.

She’s nervous because this will be the first time she’s seen or spoken to Aang since she left him at the Air Temple that day – only a little more than a year, but what feels like a lifetime ago.

The one who surprises her when she arrives, though, is Zuko; he surprises her both with his presence and with his closed-off expression.

“Zuko!” she says, stepping off the boat and opening her arms for a hug. “It’s great to see you.”

“Good to see you, too, Katara,” he replies tightly, giving her a perfunctory, quick hug, and something is definitely off, but she can’t put her finger on what, and he doesn’t give her the time to. Before she can ask him anything, he’s moved on to greet Sokka with significantly more cheer than he greeted her with.

She feels betrayed for a moment, but then she thinks about it, about how badly she treated him while she was with Aang, how dismissive, how she didn’t even respond when he wanted to go find his mother, and she thinks that maybe she deserves his coldness.

But before she can come up with a way to apologize, or at least broach the topic of her needing to apologize, Aang is walking up and her breath catches in her throat.

She’s spent the whole journey trying to think up how to talk to him again, but nothing ever seemed adequate. There just isn’t anything to say, at the same time that there’s too much to say.

“Katara,” he says, with a smile that looks forced. “I hear you’ve been doing a lot in the Southern Water Tribe.”

“I have,” she replies, and the silence is so awkward she wants to sink through the docks and down into the swirling ocean, but before Aang can make things worse, Zuko either takes pity on her or decides that they have more important matters to discuss.

“We need to get to the meeting room, Toph and Suki are already there, along with the ambassadors from the Earth Kingdom. You were the last ones we were waiting on.”

“Yeah, sorry,” Sokka says, glancing openly between her and Aang like he’d rather be anywhere else. “We got delayed, Yakone kept fighting us about the Equal Opportunities Act Katara introduced, he kept saying it wasn’t necessary. You shoulda seen Katara go to town on him, though,” he adds, grinning. “All about how the Northern Tribe is still so sexist that a bunch of women have already moved to the Southern Tribe, and how women get pigeonholed into these roles and it’s ultimately a detriment to society because you’re blocking half the population from contributing. It was pretty great.”

“I had notes,” she chimes in, because, honestly, if she says so herself, it was pretty great. “I did a ton of research, the exact number of women immigrating to the Southern Tribe per year, testimonials from those women about why, and a great line about how "if a woman is good enough to be an Avatar, like Kyoshi, a woman is good enough to be a hunter.” I got applause.“

It’s Zuko who looks most interested in the conversation, actually laughing at her airy confidence and appearing appreciative. Aang has a strange look on his face, and she thinks maybe he’s realizing that she really has been better off without him.

If that is what he’s thinking, though, he doesn’t say anything about it, and they go into the meeting room to discuss the fate of the world.

.

After the first day of the Council is adjourned, Aang seeks her out where she’s standing on a balcony looking out over the docks. She cringes to herself when she hears the door open.

"Are you planning to ignore me this whole time?” he asks, sounding hurt.

“Aang…” she sighs, running a hand over her face. “I just don’t know what to say.”

“I don’t even know what happened,” he says in a small voice, and she turns away from him, to look at the railing. “Everything was going fine, we were happy. And then you just… left.”

“It wasn’t fine, Aang,” she says quietly. “I wasn’t happy. I was trying so hard to be, but I wasn’t.”

“But why?” he asks, coming around to stand beside her and trying to make her look at him, but she can’t.

“I told you, Aang,” she replies. “I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life watching you do everything.”

“But why didn’t you say anything?!” he cries, and she flinches. “We could have fixed it, you didn’t have to leave!

She takes a deep breath.

“We might have been able to fix it,” she starts in a measured voice, stepping out onto thin ice even within herself, “if I had been able to bring it up when it first became a problem. But I didn’t want to hurt you, so I kept just bottling it up, and by the time it all came out I was so angry that I couldn’t stand to be around you anymore.”

“When did it first become a problem?”

She winces, and admits miserably, “Before we started dating.”

“I don’t understand,” he says, and tries to reach out to her, but she turns away.

“I could never be honest with you, Aang,” she sighs. “I always felt like I had to be someone I wasn’t, I had to be your perfect angel and protect you all the time. I wasn’t myself, everyone else could see it, but I was so determined to make myself be happy that I didn’t notice how badly I was treating all my friends. It wasn’t fair, to either of us.”

“Why didn’t you think you could be honest with me?”

Because you thought I was perfect!” she cries, finally turning to look at him. “You had it all planned out and I thought it was my destiny. But I didn’t have any room to breathe when I was with you. I couldn’t be myself, because I always had to make sure I was doing what you wanted, being who you wanted me to be.”

“I wanted you to be yourself!” he counters, taking a step toward her. “I love you, Katara. You, the good and the bad!”

The tears well up in her eyes and she shakes her head, stepping away from him and toward the door. “No, Aang,” she chokes. “You didn’t know how bad I could be. You didn’t see it. You didn’t understand. You never could.”

“So, you left me because you – you think you’re not good enough for me? Is that it?”

“I left you,” she starts thickly, voice rough with both tears and anger, “because you didn’t see me when you looked at me. Part of that’s my fault,” she adds, choking back a sob, “because I didn’t want you to. I didn’t want you to be disappointed. So I pretended to be someone I wasn’t, I pretended to be happy just sitting there watching you do everything. I should have been honest with you from the start, but I never could. I was selfish.”

She thinks of Toph telling her that this is part of her problem, that she’s always trying to make him think that it’s never his fault, that she’s preventing him from growing as a person.

But even here, even now, she doesn’t think she has it in her to be completely honest with him. He just looks so hurt and lost, she wants to bundle him up in her arms and tell him that everything is going to be all right.

“I’m sorry, Aang, I can’t do this,” she chokes, and leaves him, again, calling after her to explain herself.

.

She feels better the farther she is from him; it’s like he projects some sort of unconscious aura that makes her weak.

Instead of thinking about it, she throws herself into working out the details of the Water Tribe’s new trade proposals with Sokka, who either heard about it from someone else or knows her well enough to guess, and so doesn’t ask why it looks like she’s been crying.

“You think Zuko’s ministers will go along with it?” she asks, still breathing heavily as though she’s been running, and in some ways maybe she has.

“Oh, yeah,” Sokka replies. “It benefits all of us. They’ll get preferential deals from the South on our fishing and hunting goods, and we’ll get them on their technology. The Fire Nation gets new food imports, which they need since the Earth Kingdom wants to retake all the Fire Nation colonies and stop them from sending any food back here, and we finally get to enter this century. Win-win.”

Katara makes a face. “I’m just not sure how I feel about us selling meat to other nations. Hunts are sacred.”

“People are starving,” he says seriously. “When the Fire Nation’s farms get back in condition and their ships finish getting re-converted for fishing instead of killing people, we’ll be able to trade back and forth, and work together. But I put in a bit here about protected waters, so Fire Nation ships have to get permission to fish in Water Tribe territory. I mean, nobody’s gonna get, like, arrested, but we reserve the right to escort any trespassers out of our waters.”

“It just leaves a lot open to abuse,” she muses. “Overfishing, I mean.”

“But look at what we could get in return,” Sokka counters. “By opening our arms to them, to help them get back up on their feet, when it gets to be winter and we’re all on the verge of starving, they’ll have incentive to help us.”

It’s true that the Fire Nation has been in something of a food crisis, as the shift from a military industry to a production industry lags in the wake of civil wars and rebel factions trying to take down Zuko. Katara wishes she could collectively shake the entire country by the shoulders, and yell at them that it would be better for everyone if they would just work together – if you’d just stop fighting and plant a damn crop, you wouldn’t have to fight over food!

By opening up – conditionally – Water Tribe territory to peaceful Fire Nation fishers, and by selling their own surplus catches at a discounted rate to Fire Nation citizens, they can make a lot of headway into helping Zuko feed his volatile nation. She knows Zuko will be all over it, but his ministers are small-minded and conservative and she suspects that half of them have supported at least one or more attempts on his life; they may oppose it just to be obstinate, and claim the whole way that it’s about Fire Nation pride.

National pride be damned, she thinks bitterly, your people are starving.

“It is a good deal,” she says, “but I’m not sure all of those stuffy politicians will go for it.”

“They will,” Sokka says firmly. “If they care at all about their people, they will.”

.

The next day of the Council threatens to rekindle the war.

The Earth Kingdom dignitaries and the Fire Nation ministers argue over colonies until Katara is genuinely afraid that it’ll come to blows, and Aang – clearly still stinging over their conversation – isn’t exactly doing a great job of being the objective arbiter of peace that he’s supposed to be.

“Gentlemen, Ladies, please!” Zuko yells, composure slipping as he tries to be heard over the arguments. “Enough!”

Nobody except Katara, Sokka, and Suki seem to hear him; Toph is getting particularly heated with Aang, about how he’s not doing his job, and Aang is yelling back at her about how there’s not an easy solution here. They all look from Zuko to each other and then back, and something within Katara snaps.

Without stopping to think about it, she stands up and tries to call for order and then, when no one pays attention to her, she growls and brings all the water out of the humid tropical air and straight onto everyone’s heads. “We are not accomplishing anything like this!” she shouts, over the chorus of startled yells, and silence descends. “Clearly, we are at an impasse,” she articulates, and then gestures to Sokka. “How about a change of subject? The Water Tribe would like to propose a series of trade deals with both the Fire Nation and the Earth Kingdom.”

Sokka looks alarmed; there’s nothing in there about the Earth Kingdom, but if Katara proposes anything that even smells like preferential treatment to one of the nations right now, the Earth Kingdom dignitaries will eat her alive.

“Sokka will explain the aspects of the deal with the Fire Nation,” she says pointedly, and adds to herself and I will come up with something for the Earth Kingdom while he talks. Sokka nods, covers up his anxiety, and begins to talk to the seething, steaming silence about their idea for opening their waters to fishers – he adds in that Earth Kingdom fishers will, of course, be allowed as well, because he’s no fool – and about working out discounted rates in exchange for technology.

Zuko looks so relieved it almost makes her laugh.

(And also wet. Her dumping-water-over-everyone trick hadn’t spared him.)

By the time the Fire Nation ministers are finished hashing out their deals with Sokka, she’s come up with the sketches of a plan for the Earth Kingdom.

The thing is, the Earth Kingdom doesn’t need anything the Water Tribe can offer – they have plenty of farmland, plenty of waters with fish and ships to catch them. But there is one thing.

“Hospitals,” she offers. “There are no better healers in the world than waterbenders. I have a school for benders in the South, and Yugoda in the North has spent decades training healers. We agree to send some of our healers into the Earth Kingdom to build hospitals and help the places hardest-hit by famine and war. Plus, we can help with irrigation and rebuilding the farms that have been damaged by the skirmishes that are still breaking out.”

She bites her tongue and hopes they accept it. They seem uncertain, so she plows on.

“Like Sokka said, we will open our waters to Earth Kingdom ships as well, and we can build some hospitals in the Fire Nation – we don’t want to leave anyone out.”

“And what do you get in exchange?” a sharp-looking woman, representing Ba Sing Se, asks.

“Food,” she replies simply. “The summers at the poles are too short for farming, and if we’re opening our waters, we’re reducing our own supplies of food. We allow you to fish in our waters, and in exchange, you sell us food so we can make it through our winters. We can also trade in goods – whalebone weaponry, whale oil for lamps, furs and artifacts.”

“Hmm,” the Ba Sing Se lady says, watching her calculatingly, as though she can tell that Katara made this up on the fly. But it’s a solid offer.

“Water Tribe textiles are some of the best in the world,” Sokka chimes in. “When poorly-made clothing means you die of frostbite, you have to be really, really good at sewing. And summer berries make unique dyes, you can’t get anywhere else.”

She can see the cogs turning in the lady’s head, as she’s imagining how new clothing styles and rare dyes could make her a lot of money in the Upper Tier of the city, and Katara knows they’ve won.

“All right,” the lady says finally. “I, for one, can agree to those terms. We all benefit from a more cosmopolitan world, after all.”

“Sounds good to me,” Toph says, and then tacks on, “and, you know, Gaoling.”

“Works for Omashu,” another dignitary, sent by Bumi, says. “We do need a hospital, badly.”

“And Kyoshi is always open to trade with the Tribe,” Suki adds, smiling at Katara.

Zuko also smiles at her, and mouths thank you. Katara glows inside, and pretends not to feel Aang watching her.

.

They hold a little party – “More of a soiree,” Sokka, ever-pretending-to-be-a-cultural-authority, explains – on the last night of the Council, in spite of the fact that nothing has really been solved between the Earth Kingdom and the Fire Nation, and now would be the perfect time, she thinks, to maybe hash things out with Aang, but, dammit, she’s happy.

The wine is good and the food is rich and seemingly endless and she’s improved her country by leaps and bounds in the past year and now improved their trade relations with the other countries; she’s flying high, and she doesn’t want her tangled history with Aang to bring her down.

She’s explaining the Equal Opportunities Act to an extremely-interested Suki when Zuko joins the conversation and they both stare at him. He looks a bit harassed.

“Sorry,” he winces. “Mai just got here.”

Suki nods in understanding, and even though Katara doesn’t know all the details, she knows enough about awkward reunions with exes to show him the same courtesy he showed her when she arrived.

“We were just talking about the Equal Opportunities Act we just passed in the Tribe,” she tells him helpfully, and he actually – again, like when she arrived – looks interested.

“What are the details of that, by the way?” he asks, and it doesn’t sound like he’s just trying to come up with conversation to look too busy to talk to his ex.

“It’s pretty nebulous, honestly,” she admits, and he raises an eye at the word, but Katara refuses to notice. “But it basically states that, if you’re hiring someone to do a job, you can’t exclude women. The Water Tribe has a bad history of that, although the North has always been worse.”

“So, it’s been a segregated society?” Zuko asks, and she nods. “That seems weird to me, the Fire Nation has always been a lot more equal.”

It’s Suki who scoffs at this, and Zuko looks to her, surprised, so she explains. “Zuko, the Fire Nation is Equal In Name Only,” she says, with pointed emphasis. “Women still have to be twice as good as men to get half the respect, sex workers are treated with total disdain – prostitution is illegal, for example – and women are still expected to be no more than wives, supporting their husband’s careers.”

“To be fair,” Katara interjects, because Zuko looks like Suki has just kicked his puppy, “that is still a lot more equal than the Water Tribe has been. It’s not perfect, but what is?”

“It’s a work in progress,” Suki agrees, shrugging. “Don’t think it’s all taken care of, is my point. There’s still a long way to go before you’ve got an equal society, and it’s not gonna happen in our lifetimes. But,” she goes on brightly, “the first step to solving a problem is acknowledging that there is one.”

“I had never… actually thought about that,” Zuko says hesitantly. “I don’t understand, why is it bad that prostitution is illegal?”

Katara – who was discussing this with Suki before they got into talking about the Act – mulls over how to explain it, helped along by the wine which loosens her tongue and makes her less concerned about how awkward the conversation would be otherwise. “It’s like… you criminalize the person selling her body, but not the person buying it. So you lock up the woman who asks for money in exchange for… sex – ” she still says the word quieter, because she is not as open and forward as Suki “ – but not the man who pays.”

“And more than that,” Suki cuts in, “you can buy an hour of a person’s time to do anything except have sex. You can pay them to paint your roof or build you a shed or even just sit and talk to you, but not to have sex with them. It’s a double standard.”

“And you can give it away freely,” Katara adds, motioning with her glass. “Legally, at least. But you can’t sell it.”

“And – ” Suki goes on, seemingly uncaring that they’re probably totally overwhelming Zuko, “ – it makes it so much less safe. You can’t make prostitution go away by banning it, but when you do make it illegal, they don’t have anywhere to go if they get sick, or if someone hurts them, because they’ll get arrested for prostitution.”

“Why haven’t you ever told me this before?” he asks, and Suki makes a face.

“I’m your bodyguard, not your adviser,” she replies, drunken interest already drifting over to Sokka. “And you have a lot on your plate already.”

“But I care about all of my people,” he insists, “not just the men or the rich ones.”

“Yeah, but try passing the "Make Prostitution Legal Act” and see how far you get in the Council,“ Suki drawls, but it’s Katara who takes offense at that defeatist attitude.

"So don’t start there,” she suggests. “Start smaller, by decriminalization – like, it’s not condoned, but you’re not going to get arrested if you go to a hospital because the guy beat you up. Argue from the perspective of the woman who’s lost everything and has to resort to prostitution, how awful it is for her to be abused and then, when she asks someone for help, she just gets arrested and abused even more. We could sell that to your Council.”

You could sell that to the Council,” Suki corrects her.

“You could definitely sell that to the Council,” Zuko chimes in, and it’s so tempting, but her people need her.

“Maybe in a year,” she laughs. “When I’m sick of the South Pole.”

.

Zuko tells her, when she leaves with Sokka to go back home, that she’s welcome to return at her leisure, and to keep in touch, and she promises to take him up on the offer, sending the first hawk – “Just checking to make sure it knows where to go. If you’ve received this message in error, please send me a better hawk.” – the hour she arrives.

But the seed is planted, now, and she can’t stop thinking about all that she could do from the Fire Nation – not just for the isolated tribe on the end of the Earth, but for the world as a whole. Katara’s ambition, so long set aside for the good of others, is breaking free and setting fire to her soul.

Sokka, of course, is the first to notice it, even before she does.

“You’re ready to move on,” he tells her, one sharp spring day, in the weak sunlight of the beginning of the season.

“What do you mean?” she asks dumbly. “I’m already home.”

“Yeah, but the Water Tribe has never been big enough for you,” he explains.  "You’re pushing for bigger and bigger ideas, things that integrate us more into the world, but the Tribe doesn’t need to be that integrated. Isolation has always been our policy, and you’ve done a lot for trade, but we still don’t get involved if we can help it. But you get involved. You can’t not.“

She doesn’t know what to say, and after a moment, he continues.

"How much do you write to Zuko?” he asks, and she blinks.

“I don’t know, whenever I receive a letter, I write back.”

“And he asks you for advice?”

“Sometimes, yeah…” she starts, unsure where this conversation is going.

“You drop almost everything to answer those letters,” he says. “I mean, you don’t leave Council meetings or family dinner, but just about anything else, you drop and you reply to him. And you spend a long time replying.”

“Are you suggesting I go to the Fire Nation and offer myself as adviser to Zuko?”

Sokka looks at her in a weird way, but whatever he’s thinking, he doesn’t let on. “I’m just saying, I bet he’d like to see you in person. He could use the help, now that Suki’s back at Kyoshi. He’s all alone there.”

She thinks about it for a moment. “I can’t just leave the Water Tribe,” she starts in a small voice, and Sokka sighs.

“Yes, you can,” he says. “You’re itching to. How many projects do you have left to finish?”

“Not many,” she answers slowly, and the more she thinks about it, the more she realizes that she has been unconsciously drawing things here to a close. “Just this semester at the school, and finish building the ice gardens.”

Ice gardens,” he repeats, exasperated like he has always been every time she brings it up. “You’re so desperate to get out of here you’re trying to build gardens on a glacier.”

There are plenty of – I’m not having this argument again.” She takes a deep breath, the cold air searing her lungs. “I could stand a holiday,” she finally concedes.

“Right,” Sokka says, and she looks at him oddly.

“Why are you so eager to get me out of here?” she asks, a bit accusing, but he looks almost affronted, and it takes him a moment to respond.

“I don’t want you out of here,” he replies quietly. “I want you happy, and doing what you love. And you’re not happy here anymore.”

The question “Will I ever be happy anywhere?” falls out of her mouth before she can stop it, her mind locked on her inability to be happy with Aang, and her brother’s eyes soften.

“I don’t think anyone except you can answer that,” he says. “I think you just keep trying things on until you find what fits.”

“You would use a shopping metaphor,” she deadpans, and he glares.

“I was trying to have a brotherly moment with my baby sister, but I guess not.”

She laughs and punches him lightly in the arm.

.

But he’s right.

Once the school is closed for the semester, and – in spite of Sokka’s protests about how useless they are – the ice gardens finished, she sends Zuko a letter asking if she can take him up on his offer of hospitality, and, when he replies that she’s welcome to come right away, makes for the Fire Nation.

It seems like she’s been coming this way for a long time.