Physician, Heal Thyself
watching from the shadows,
I'm clenching water in my fists.
the drops they slip right through my fingers,
water on my lips
Regina Spektor, 'Aquarius'
This is not what she wanted. Not the life she wanted? Not the love?
Or she never knew what she wanted when life threw her curveballs and she did her best to face those problems of the present without looking to the future. It leaves her here in the Earth Kingdom, landlocked and miles away from ice and ocean. Even the Fire Nation had beaches.
Katara is an ocean among creeks and streams here, but the land needs healing.
And Aang needs her.
This is her first healing. Her own skin is burning and her breath is coming fast and she is afraid, afraid of fire, afraid of the uncontrolled curve of flame and the body of a mother and Fire Nation smoke. Not afraid of Aang, she thinks. Never of Aang. But she runs anyway.
Aang's hands spread in an arc in her mind, and the disc of flame burns her again and again.
Her hands dip into the water and feel coolness, wetness, streaming past her skin and soothing what is burned with its familiar touch. What happens next is more like magic than anything she's done with bending before, anything she's seen, because what it is surfaces like a fountain from her very center and pours forth trickles of energy through her arms, into her veins, down her fingertips with the sensation that usually comes with her arm 'falling asleep' when she lies on it too long. And the water glows to the touch, envelops her in response to the call of something that is hers and yet uncontrolled and alien.
When it is done, the skin on her hands looks untouched.
And she thinks the first time she heals must be like the very first time she looked at her mother's face as a baby just out of the womb- the strangeness of something so familiar seen from the outside in, the newness of something she's known for years.
The body is made of muscle and sinew, and bone and organ, and each segment from head to torso to toes has a point of chakra.
She seeps water through the skin in thin, invisible tendrils- like sponges the skin soaks it up, and learns through clay models and sick patients of the old healing instructor how to use water to heal the flesh from the inside out, from the outside in, how to push it against pressure points and stimulate the body's own healing. This is easy enough to learn in practice, and much harder in theory. When she bends water into the healing dummy and sent it through the channels in the stone, it feels as natural as breathing.
She finds that she can not knit bones or cure diseases, but she can heal burns and cuts and balance a body in turmoil- the limits of healing by bending. It passes the time while she seethes over her treatment, because the North Pole is full of haughty old men and arrogant boys. At home, among her fellow women, she was given responsibilities of an adult and treated with respect. Here, she is a peasant daughter of a backwater tribe's chieftain, and her worth lies in her domestic abilities and talent in healing. If they are lucky, the girls here are to be wed to young men they can tolerate.
Katara wonders if this is how it would have been if all their men hadn't left for war. Wonders if they, if even her father, would have pushed her to the side and into the shadows as they took the glory and the control (because the ability to fight and protect is the ability to control what she lives), as they splayed her under their thumbs and all because she was a girl and would never grow be a man, a warrior. This is a side of Water Tribe she has never seen, and it's like a betrayal by blood.
Would this have been her life? Quiet isolation and the dismissal, the casual disregard, because a woman had a small place in their minds that she'd never be allowed to break free from. It's the disregard that sets her blood boiling, the eyes that look past her or inspect only on surface value. The thought of it turns her stomach.
"This is how you check the heart's beat," the old woman says, and Katara guides her water down the path and is rewarded by the steady drum's beat of a pulse.
This is not what she wants out of her bending, but she learns it anyway. As a result, she starts to see the body in its basic components, sometimes as a map of glowing blue dots, the chakra points and their interconnecting lines. Sometimes she sees the muscles move beneath the skin and envisions them, wrapped around bone, the flowing network of veins and arteries like rivers to the heart's ocean.
It's not that she doesn't pay attention to the healer woman. She learns the lessons put to her with dutiful attention. But then, that's all her attention is, and it's dulled with resentment. Later on, the waterbending master takes her on for combat training and the drills and techniques leave her without time to study more than the endless beauty of those forms, the fascinating twist of water in her hands, spiraling like a maelstrom, crashing like a tidal wave.
Months later, she is sobbing over the comatose body of a friend who may have been dead without a vial of spirit water, and thinks with each day he sleeps that he would have been healed faster if she had gone through the entirety of the healing training. She puts her trust too much in the kindness of strangers and the strength of her bending, and what does she have to show for it? The scar on Aang's back is like a condemnation.
As it is, she touches his flesh and feels burnt, dead skin, ruined muscle, a body that has been almost lost to fire. He stirs under her fingers like a child waking to a mother's touch, and falls back to wherever it is his spirit goes.
She can't call him back into his body as fast as she'd like to. That counts as some kind of failure, doesn't it? She's kept him alive, stable, but not conscious aside from the few moments where his eyes open briefly and he looks surprised to be here, his expression baffled, like he's trying to recall what place this is. Katara wonders if sometimes he's gone back a century and his mind is with the monks of a long-dead race. He's spoken of the air temples and their beauty, and she's walked the stones stained with blood and history that passed before her birth. Aang doesn't seem old, never old, but sometimes he speaks words lost to time, talks about Water Tribe history she doesn't know, and his expression goes distant at the ruins of a place he ran through as a toddler, dust motes dancing in sunlight and flying bisons as plentiful as birds. It's strange.
She wakes in the night and has to run to him to see if this is real, he is alive, he has not passed on during the night. Aang looks more than young under candlelight, he looks soft, mortal, ephemeral. Such a fragile thing to rest so many hopes on. He stirs and speaks a name she doesn't recognize and she brushes his hand with hers, as if he is drowning and this is a lifeline for him to cling to.
"Aang," she says. Of course he doesn't answer.
This is what she takes to heart: Aang lying in a broken heap in her arms, Aang lying on blankets, barely breathing, water sinking into the skin of his back and lifting out a tangle of something that sparks and crackles through her water and brushes her fingers with jolts of pain. Her fault.
She says she'll never let him down again. Katara believes she hasn't.
The human body is, in a way, a body of water.
Under the women of the North, she learns to keep it safe, to gently steer it on the road to healing. She learns the body like the constellations, bright points and weak points, names and sensations. Under Hama, she learns that her element is everywhere and how to steal it back. She relearns healing, learns to take that intimate knowledge of the body and turn it into a weapon. (Is this what those Northern men are afraid of? Angry women with the will to destroy and the power to turn blood against body?)
At night she feels herself straining, responding to the waning and waxing of the moon. Too far away from the tides to feel them shift and flow, but she remembers when they were close enough to feel like an extension of her body. Sokka's Water Tribe but not water blooded, he has never felt the bender's call to their native element. Toph sleeps close to the earth, Aang spins on the air and walks like a puff of dandelion, barely touching the ground. Zuko wakes at the first rays of dawn and sometimes sits so close to the campfire she thinks it will leap from the logs and spring to his shoulders like a cape.
Shung Hei is dry and war torn at its best. Katara, far from ocean water, feels underground springs long to push free from earth and rock, just out of reach.
She dreams of the moon at its fullest and Yue in her robes, eyes the solid white of marble. "What have you lost?" Yue asks in the voice of salt water singing through icy canals, "What have you sacrificed? Child of water, you are a fish in the smallest of bowls." She dreams of koi fish swimming circles around her heart, tearing her in two, maelstroms swallowing her down in their depths. Katara dreams of a woman with no face and the clothes of a Water Tribe woman, leading her down the passageway of the cave of two lovers.
"Are you ready to give this?" the woman asks, and the crystals glow bright in the darkness.
Katara wakes up with her heart pounding and water trickling through the cracks of the walls, down the water jug, up from the floorboards. Called from wherever she could grasp it in her sleep.
"I worry about you sometimes," Aang confesses. He's not attentive, not as brightly cheerful as he once was. Something happened in the last battle- he did not kill Ozai, but the fight exhausted his spirit. Evil had flooded his soul and burned out his innocence hollow before he forced it from him, and what is left is someone a little world-weary. His work has done the rest of the premature aging process. Life directly after a war is, in a way, just as bad as life during. These are the quiet moments at the end of the day that are meant to make one feel content and at peace. As it is, she feels unfulfilled. There is something in her that hungers for turbulence.
She touches his hand, feeling the lines of his palm, the beat of his heart. It weighs her down. Anchors her.
"I'm fine," she says.
Katara doesn't walk away from someone that needs her.