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!" Aang said, eyes wide. "How did you do it?"
"I don't know. 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 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.
Maybe she was still dreaming?
There was so much water.
"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 saw 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 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?
He'd been a firebender, in the dream.
There were things that she should know. Important things. She tried to dig in her brain, but the memories stayed just out of reach. So much water. She'd opened the door to an extra sense she hadn't known she had, and the grass under her feet glowed, the river ran clear like bells. Her friends' hearts beat a shining, vibrating rhythm.
"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 air glimmered with currents of life and she was in the middle of it all. She could drift away at any second. She closed her eyes and cocked her head to listen.
The currents swept her up, joining the grass and the river and the clouds.
Katara jolted back to her body. What was wrong with her? "Sorry. 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."
Yes, he had a point, her head was a mess. She didn't understand anything. 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 woozy 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. How could she get his name wrong after travelling with him for months? 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 that had scattered her thoughts 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 campfire in the shape of a perfect circle. "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. It was so easy!
She reached out with her senses, looking for more water. Like a child with a new toy, it didn't matter where the weird abilities had come from - she just had to see how much 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? A firebender? A deserter? 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.
But what was she supposed to say? Do you know why I have weird dreams about you? It sounded like she had a crush or something.
This thing about Lee... It was hard to put into words. Two instincts warred within her and she didn't know which one to follow. He was obviously holding things back, but it wasn't malicious. He wanted to help. Despite the Blue Spirit stuff and the secrecy, and sometimes being a prick, and despite what the latest dreams were telling her, he wasn't an enemy.
But the opposing instinct wouldn't quite go away; the feeling that if she ever did learn the truth, it would change everything.
She wanted to know him, the real him. She wanted him to trust her enough to let her in on his secrets.
"Hey," her droplet pulled more moisture, becoming a band of water lazily circling her wrist like a bracelet. "Do you know anything about this?"
"No... I don't."
It sounded genuine, surprisingly.
In this precise moment, she also really, really wanted to waterbend. The power was wound up within her, bursting to be released. She rocked back and forth on her feet, unable to keep still. There was another way to bring out the Lee of steel and shadow, wasn't there?
"That friend of yours, you ever sparred with her?" By the wariness in his gaze, it was clear he understood which friend she was referring to. She stepped forwards."No? Never fought a waterbender?"
Lee stepped back. "Bad idea, Katara."
"Oooh, you scared?" she goaded. "Afraid I'll win?"
They were opposite mirrors of each other, Lee walking backwards at the same rate as she advanced. "Very bad idea. Trust me."
"I can totally take you." 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 go easy on 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 gut somehow knew it.
For a moment it seemed like he would bite, like he wanted to bite. He was wholly focused on her, tense, ready to leap. Katara's heart pumped with anticipation.
Then he blinked and shook his head. "No. I'm not fighting you. I'm, uh..." He glanced at the ground, and, spotting an escape, quickly bent and scooped up the teapot from where he'd left it when she'd woken up. "I'm making tea," he declared triumphantly.
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? "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.
It wasn't over. She'd get her answers sooner or later - he couldn't avoid it forever, whatever it was.
But for the moment, her aggravation was forgotten as she reached the river and finally bent.
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, which 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 the questions were piling up. 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. It's just weird."
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 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.
"Let's ask the Northern Water Tribe when we get there," Aang proposed.
Katara nodded. She'd been thinking about that, too.
Sokka 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?" 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. Aang could just learn from her, and maybe, while we're at it, we can start looking for an earthbending teacher." He shrugged. "We wouldn't be able to ask them about Katara's freaky powers, but it would save a lot of time."
Katara opened her mouth to argue out of habit before realizing her brother was 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. "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. I've always wanted to visit the North Pole," Aang moped.
"We still have to go," Lee stated. "There's something else, apart from the waterbending, that we need to do there."
"What do you mean?" Sokka asked.
"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 tens 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.
"And they were right," Lee continued. "That was actually Sozin's strategy. 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 all the pieces clicked. "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 his 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 factions have tried to convince them, multiple times, to commit to an attack. With their help, we could take back control of the seas and deprive the Fire Nation of their 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.