A.N.: So I looked at this after months of not looking and... 500 follows? Wow. When did this happen? It gave me the motivation to pick up this story again... Dunno how many of you will still be following at this point though.
Also, this chapter is a bit meh, but the next one I think will be more different and interesting.
Chapter Nine: Past and Future
Katara let Sokka help her up. She dusted off her tunic while her brother hovered and asked again if she was okay.
She could still feel the water, as clearly as she had in that dream. She repeated the movement. Grab the river, lift it up, and send it crashing down - she aimed at a tree this time.
"Wow, Katara, that was amazing!" said Aang, eyes wide. "How did you do it?"
"I don't know," she said. "But that's not all I can do." She pulled more water from the river. It hung in the air as an amorphous blob, and then she started to shape it. A snake, a perfect orb, a flat disk. She shifted her footing and swung her arm, and it sliced through the air, cutting straight through a nearby rock as cleanly as a knife through butter. The top half of the rock slid down and fell on the ground.
It felt strange. Like her body knew what it was supposed to do before her conscious mind did. Like the part of her dream where she could waterbend had stayed with her when she'd woken up.
"Katara, why didn't you show us you could do this stuff earlier?" Aang asked, still in awe.
"Because I couldn't," she replied, letting her arms drop. When she looked at Aang, she could see things about him she hadn't noticed before - the ease with which he carried himself, the almost imperceptible sway in his stance.
Aang seemed confused. "You mean this is the first time you-"
"Yeah," Katara replied, glancing at Lee. There was something new about him as well, or rather, something that had always been there but she was only now starting to notice, how his weight was evenly distributed, how his arms and joints were relaxed and loose, ready to snap into motion. She could feel his blood too, flowing faster than it was in Aang. Aren't you a big girl now?
There were more things that she should know. Important things. She tried to dig in her brain, but the memories slid through the cracks between her fingers.
"You've been practicing a lot," Sokka observed. "Maybe that's just how the mystic mo-jo goes, it's crappy for a long time and then bam! Instant upgrade."
"That isn't really how it works," Aang replied. "How do you feel, Katara?"
"I'm okay..." she replied. "I'm more than okay." The whole world around her was lit up, like she'd opened the door to an extra sense she hadn't known she had. The grass under her feet glowed, the river ran clear like bells. Her friends' hearts beat a shining, vibrating rhythm. At the same time, she felt far from it all, floating, like she was watching a painting. She closed her eyes and cocked her head to listen.
She jolted out of that state, completely weirded out. What was wrong with her? "Sorry. I'm fine. It's just, the water's everywhere."
The boys looked at each other, worried. Sokka was the first to break the silence. "Well..." He yawned. "I dunno about you guys, but I don't have the brain power to figure this out right now. I say we go back to sleep. Maybe Katara will feel better in the morning."
He had a point - her head was a mess. She didn't understand anything, with the dreams and Zhao and Lee and now the waterbending - truly, she wasn't fully convinced she was awake, maybe she was still in the dream. Maybe she'd wake up tomorrow and everything would be back to normal, not that she wanted it to, waterbending was awesome, but she felt so strange and distant, not like herself at all. She nodded and followed her brother to camp, feeling Zuko's silent gaze on her back.
Zuko? No, Lee. Lee's silent gaze. She shook her head, giving up on making sense of anything, got into her sleeping bag and instantly fell into blissful sleep.
Katara woke up with a clear head. The eerie feeling of floatiness and distance that had clouded her thoughts like a fog was gone.
The waterbending, amazingly, was not.
There were droplets of dew on the grass, in the grass and even in the air, if she focused very hard on it. Like a fuzzy, almost transparent background presence that you didn't notice unless you were looking. It was nowhere near as intense as it had been last night, but she sensed she could reach for it, if she wanted to, the same way you'd be able to reach for a high shelf if you went on your tiptoes and stretched your body as far as it would go. She concentrated and carefully pulled a droplet of water from the air. She opened her eyes to see it floating above her palm, and exhaled a sigh of wonder.
Lee glanced up from where he was crouching, building a neat circular campfire. "Morning," he said.
"Good morning," Katara replied without looking up from the water.
He stood up and walked closer. "How are you feeling?"
"Back to normal, mostly. Except," she pointed her index finger up in the air, showing him the droplet floating above it. "Looks like I can waterbend now. Properly waterbend." A giddy feeling bubbled in her chest when she said it. She could waterbend!
She reached out with her senses, looking for more and more water. Suddenly, like a child with a new toy, it didn't matter where the weird abilities had come from - she just had to see what she could do. She jumped out of her sleeping bag. "Let's wake up Sokka and Aang! I want to try stuff."
He cleared his throat. "I think it's better to let them sleep. We took shifts last night, to watch over you."
That was surprisingly thoughtful of them. "Oh. Thanks."
Lee shrugged. "Sokka's idea." He was watching her carefully, like she might spontaneously explode at any time.
She should ask him about the Zhao thing. Was he, like, a secret Earth Kingdom assassin? What was he after? Though, if she was honest with herself, those weren't really the questions she wanted to ask. They were important, but they didn't bother her as much. What she really wanted to know was why she was having those dreams, and what it had to do with her waterbending, and what he had to do with it. Because somehow, he was involved. She was sure.
"Hey..." Her droplet pulled more moisture, becoming a band of water lazily circling her wrist, like a bracelet. "Do you know anything about this?"
"I-" He swallowed. "No, I don't know why you can suddenly bend like this now."
Katara shot him a glance through lidded eyes. A lie? Not a lie? It was so frustrating. She was also distracted because she really, really wanted to waterbend. The power was wound up within her, like a towel twisted too tight. She rocked back and forth on her feet, unable to keep still. An idea formed in her mind.
"That friend of yours, you ever sparred with her?"
By the wariness in his gaze, it was clear he knew exactly which friend she was referring to.
Katara stepped forwards."No? Never fought a waterbender?"
Lee stepped back, shaking his head. "No. Absolutely not. Bad idea, Katara."
"Oooh, you scared?" she goaded, grinning. "Afraid I'll win?"
They were like opposite mirrors of each other, Lee walking backwards at the same rate as she advanced. "Very bad idea. Trust me."
"I could totally take you, you know." She raised her hands, preparing to pull on the blanket of dew that covered the forest. His amber eyes flashed in warning, but Katara ignored it. "You don't have to worry about hurting me." As she said the words, she realized the truth in them. She was a warrior and she could fight - even if her brain hadn't quite caught up, her body somehow knew it.
"No. I'm not fighting you. I'm, uh..." He glanced quickly at the ground, and, spotting an escape, bent and scooped up the teapot from where he'd left it when she'd woken up. "I'm making tea," he declared triumphantly.
Katara stopped her advance, hesitated.
Lee smirked. "Go play in the river or something."
So last night he was fine getting behind her all close and personal, and now he chose to flee? Regardless, Katara wasn't the kind of warrior who attacked someone who clearly didn't want to fight. "Pig-chicken," she declared haughtily, turning on her heel and flipping her braid over her shoulder. She heard him snort behind her, and it was almost enough to change her mind again. A few yards away, behind the trees, the river called.
It wasn't over. She'd get her answers sooner or later - she wasn't going to let him continue to avoid it, whatever it was. But for the moment... For the moment, her aggravation was forgotten as she reached the river, was in the river, was one with the river.
The river welcomed her like an old friend who'd been waiting a long time for her to come back.
Appa rose above the layer of clouds, groaning in satisfaction as the sun caressed his fur. Katara let the umbrella of liquid water she'd been holding over the bison dissipate into thin droplets. The droplets drifted down back to the clouds in a curtain of diamond dust.
She'd been able to cover Appa entirely with the umbrella, huge as he was. It had strained her concentration, but it hadn't been hard. She knew exactly what to do, all the movements she needed to guide the water, and she could pull so much of it with so little effort. It was as if her mind was more attuned to the water, so the water was more responsive to her in return. Her morning bending session had been exhilarating, but now Katara was beginning to feel worried. Whatever had happened to her bending, it wasn't natural.
"Not that I don't appreciate being able to keep dry when we go through clouds," Sokka said, watching her sit back down after releasing the umbrella. "But... What's going on, Katara?"
Lee stopped squinting at the sun to look at them, and Aang twirled from Appa's head onto the saddle so he could participate in the conversation.
"That's what I'd like to know," Katara replied. "I can bend now, apparently."
"That's a good thing, right?" Aang asked, spreading his arms. He seemed to be happier and more excited for her than she was. He was probably glad the issue of her bending didn't create friction between them anymore. "That means you can teach me more stuff! How do I make an umbrella?"
Katara didn't answer, though she made a mental note to teach him later. "I'm not saying it's bad. But I'm concerned about how it happened, and why."
Sokka frowned, rubbing his chin. "Are you sure that it couldn't be normal progress?" At her disgruntled look, he lifted his hands in defense. "I'm just making sure."
She sighed. "Yeah. At the rate I was going, it would have taken me another fourteen years to be able to bend like this."
Lee muttered something that sounded like Doubt it.
"Maybe we can ask the Northern Water Tribe when we get there," Aang proposed.
Sokka still seemed deep in thought, his blue eyes clouded. He glanced at Katara, then, so quickly she almost missed it, at Lee. "Do we even need to go? Is there any point?" he slowly questioned. At their surprised expressions, he elaborated. "Think about it. We'll have to cross miles of Fire Nation infested territory, and if we get to Water Tribe waters we'll spend days and possibly weeks looking for a city that we have no idea where to find. It might have been worth it before, but Katara doesn't need a teacher now. It would save us a lot of time if Aang just learned from her, and maybe, while we're at it, we can start looking for an earthbending teacher."
Katara opened her mouth to argue out of habit. Then she closed it, realizing her brother was actually making a lot of sense. There was no point to their journey anymore; they'd set off to the North Pole so she and Aang could learn waterbending, but she knew waterbending now. It was just that it had been their goal for so long, it felt weird to just discard it like that. Sokka's insight surprised her. He was already thinking two steps ahead, weighting pros and cons and implications, while she'd barely gone past I can waterbend, wheeeee! "Yeah... I guess that makes sense." Though some part of her was disappointed. She'd been so exited to see master waterbenders in action and experience life in her sister tribe.
She wasn't the only one, apparently. "Oh, snoozles. I've always wanted to visit the North Pole," Aang moped.
"Sokka's right, but we still have to go," Lee stated.
Katara frowned. What interest did Lee have in going to the Pole?
"Since the start of the war, the Northern Water Tribe has only fought defensively," he explained. "They guard their waters and a couple northern Earth Kingdom villages from Fire Nation incursions, but that's it. When the Fire Nation realized the Northeners weren't going to move from their ice fortresses, they decided to leave them alone and focus their efforts on the Southern Water Tribe, who controlled most of the sea and were doing the most damage, and then on the Earth Kingdom."
Sokka frowned. "You're saying the Northern Water Tribe didn't help?"
"Why?" Katara asked, feeling betrayed. The South had suffered and lost so much in the war. Their current numbers were in the double digits while before the war they'd been a nation of hundreds of thousands. And as the South's population was decimated, the North had just stood there and watched?
"It's not as simple as it looks," Lee said. "When the Air Nomads were extinguished, for a while, everyone thought the Avatar had died with them."
"So?" Katara asked.
"The next Avatar in the cycle had to be born in the Water Tribes," Sokka said slowly.
Lee nodded. "Exactly. The Water Tribes disagreed on their strategy. The South thought that they had to try and stop the Fire Nation immediately by going on the offensive. The North thought the new Avatar should be protected at all costs, even if that meant they could only provide token aid to the other nations. Because if the Fire Nation managed to kill the water Avatar quickly, as a child, like the air Avatar... And if they then did the same to the earth Avatar..."
"A fire Avatar would be born," Sokka continued, easily following the line of reasoning. "With him on their side, the Fire Nation would be unbeatable."
Lee nodded grimly. "And when he died, since there were no Air Nomads, the cycle would be broken."
Katara absorbed the information. It made sense, but at the same time, it seemed so... cowardly and heartless.
"That was Sozin's strategy," Lee continued. "He wanted the Fire Empire to be eternal, and that meant he had to get rid of the Avatar. He targeted the Air Nomads first because he knew the Avatar was among them. Once he'd successfully "killed" the Air Avatar, he knew he had a few years before the new Avatar would be a threat, so he focused all his attention on his war with the Southern Water Tribe, sending assassins to kill children of the right age. Later, he started targeting all waterbenders, just in case. He tried to do the same with the North, but they were too well-prepared by then."
Suddenly everything clicked in her mind, like the pieces of a puzzle. "That's the reason for the raids," Katara breathed. It hadn't just been senseless, gratuitous cruelty towards waterbenders. They wanted to make sure none of the benders were the Avatar reborn. That was why her mother-
Had her mother believed that perhaps Katara was the new Avatar? Had her sacrifice been more meaningful than- not that it made a difference, now.
Sokka put her hand on her shoulder, and she realized she was clutching her pendant. She hurriedly wiped a stray tear out of her eye. "But what does any of this have to do with the Northern Tribe now?"
"The Northern Tribe has stayed isolated from the war ever since," Lee said. "Hoping that one day, the Water Avatar would be born, and they'd be strong enough to protect him." He stared at Aang, his eyes unwavering and intense. "I've - many leaders have tried to convince them, multiple times, to go on the offensive. With their help, we could take back dominion over the sea, the Fire Nation's biggest advantage. But they've refused every time. The only one who has a chance of changing their minds is you, Aang.
You're not the Avatar they've been waiting for. But you're the proof that they don't have to wait."
A.N.: I've lost track of how many times I've written the word Avatar in this chapter. As always, all feedback is welcome.