[ Avatar the Last Airbender © Nickelodeon ]


Chapter 1

Her grandmother said it was her gift, and her curse; the legacy of a once strong people that she must try to forget. To do otherwise, she'd been warned, would bring her to great harm. What she didn't say, what didn't need to be said, were the many sacrifices made to protect her, to protect the legacy of a broken people. She was a waterbender, and her children's children would be waterbenders, so long as she lived to pass on her gift. To live, to survive, she must forget who she was, what she was.

She shifted uncomfortably in her hammock, pulling the tiger-sealskin blanket higher as if it could somehow protect her from herself, as it once had monsters. Tonight was a full moon. She knew even without having seen it climb steadily across the sky. She didn't need to as the pull she felt in her body always worsened as the moon grew larger, becoming an unbearable itch beneath her skin. An itch that sometimes was just too tempting to not scratch. Tonight was one of those nights.

Quietly she slid from the warmth of her bed, shivering in the cold as she tugged her parka over her head. The kudlik's glow had dimmed; their precious oil was running low, another sacrifice of the war. Spotted walrus blubber provided excellent oil but it took many men to hunt spotted walrus and the men had gone to fight. In desperation, a group of women, wives of hunters, had tried their hand at it. They'd not returned. Luckily the carcass of a zebra-whale had washed up several weeks ago, providing the community with much needed resources. Still it'd only been one and would not last them the long winter.

Guiltily she glanced at her grandmother noting the frown she wore and the deep lines of worry etched into her face. Even in sleep, she found no peace. Her lips quivered for a moment, deep sadness filling her at the unfairness of it all. Taking a deep breath, she promised herself that one day it would be different, for all of them, and marched into the chilly air.

oOo

She shifted her legs; her arms and wrists twisting through the familiar dances. She smiled, wondering if any of them knew their sacred dances were actually waterbending forms. She hoped they did; she hoped her people hadn't lost that much of themselves. She was panting now; sweat trickling down her face and back. A quick glance at the horizon told her the sun would rise soon. She knew she should head back, climb into her hammock to get some rest before the others woke, but the itch was still there and she couldn't resist. Not tonight. She shifted back into the beginning stance and began again, her arms flowing gracefully through the air, the water dancing with her, mimicking her movements.

She was still swaying, a smile on her usually stoic face, when the first black snowflake landed on her nose. She stopped dead, the water crashing with her sinking heart. No! She spun, lost her footing and fell, her head striking the water turned ice. Her vision swam as she pushed herself up, warmth trickling down her head.

Black clouds hung heavily on the horizon, looming over the small village she now wished she hadn't strayed from. Shaking, from fear or pain she didn't know though she suspected it was both, she took a staggering step towards her home. The effort nearly brought her to her knees. The pain in her head was blinding and she realized the injury was worse than she'd thought.

Gritting her teeth, she weighed her options. I'll never make it back in time if I walk, if I make it back at all. She frowned at the sticky warmth tricking down her neck, her eyes searching desperately for a forgotten sled, kayak, anything that would allow her to quickly travel the distance home. She met only with the endless view of snow.

Growling she cursed herself for picking the secluded cove. The high walls offered protection from straying eyes, but made for poor hunting. No hunter would step foot here; there was nothing but her, the ocean, and an endless supply of snow. She cast a glance to the immaculate snow knowing it was a risk and knowing she was out of options. She took a deep breath, focusing her energy past the pain and pulled. The snow answered as a rolling wave carrying her towards her home.

Despite her panic and the blinding pain, she stopped short of the village. She clearly recalled her grandmother's warnings and no matter how badly she wanted to just be home, to know that everyone was safe, it wouldn't do to ride in on sea of snow. She was a waterbender; the Fire Nation must never know. With a measure of disdain she calculated the distance she'd have to walk. Five perhaps ten minutes at best.

Beginning her slow trek she glanced at the sky, disturbed to find the familiar blue smeared with black and froze as an unnamed fear swept through her. Her lips trembled at the ominous sign and she placed her fingers to her mother's necklace. The stone was cool beneath her fingers as she traced the familiar engravings and felt their calming magic take hold. Hers was not the typical charm granted by the angakok to ward off evils, but one far more meaningful. It had been her mother's betrothal necklace, carved by her father's hand. For her it carried far more protection than any charm the angakok had offered. It carried her blood.

She tore her eyes away from the eerily painted sky. Though subdued, the fear was still there, as was the nagging feeling that something was terribly wrong. Cautiously, she scanned the horizon, planting her feet as she prepared to summon the snow once again. She knew the risks, knew what it could mean. Still, the fear was growing within her with every passing moment. Something was about to happen, something big and something very, very bad. She needed to be home, now. Pushing past the pain once more she pulled, felt the snow respond, felt the tiniest shift beneath her feet…

"You there! Halt!"

She whirled, the stance broken and the snow moved imperceptibly back into place. Her heart was pounding against the confines of her chest as the armor-clad soldiers made the way towards her. The fear she'd thought subdued now boiled over. They'd seen her. They knew she was a waterbender and now they would take her away. She'd never see her family again. She'd spend the rest of her days rotting in a metal cage, or worse.

She knew she should run, escape, but fear had robbed her of even that. Frozen in shock she remained still, as the Fire Nation soldiers descended upon her like a pack of arctic wolf-hares. They surrounded her, one stepping forward to grab her roughly by the arm.

"Why aren't you in the village?" he demanded, his voice as rough as his grip.

Her mind quickly spun a lie. "I was gathering food." Too bad it wasn't a good lie.

"Gathering food?" He jerked her roughly, throwing her to the ground. "You mean stealing! My men found the carcasses. These lands belong to the Fire Lord as does everything on it. He sneered looking down his pointed nose at her. "Even worthless savages like you."

She swallowed nervously, her eyes widening ever so slightly at his implications. The penalty for poaching on the Fire Lord's lands was death. "Not stealing, sir…gathering…for your…our sovereign," she hastily amended, dropping her head. "To make our contribution to our mighty nation."

"Then where is it?"

She gaped at him for a moment, struggling to find her voice. "Attacked…an arctic wolf-hare…attacked me. It stole the fish…" her voice drifted off as she realized he'd never buy the lie. She didn't even have a spear, or rope to tie the fish with, let alone that she supposedly survived a wolf-hare attack with little more than the gash across her temple.

"I'm not interested in fish little girl. Where are the furs?"

"Lieutenant!"

Following the gaze of the lieutenant she saw another soldier atop the snowdrift. He frowned, stiffening as he stepped forward to greet the new arrival signaling for the soldiers to follow. From his reaction she understood he was someone of higher authority. Immediately they hauled her to her feet, roughly pushing her forward. She trudged wearily with the group, wondering what would become of her now.

They halted a short distance from the new arrival while the lieutenant stepped forward to meet him. The wind carried a few of their words but most of their conversation was lost to her. She bit her lip willing herself to stop trembling. Gran-Gran had been right; it was her curse.

I should have listened to her. I never should have left. I never should have-

"Bring her here."

She bit her lip, hard, as a soldier roughly pushed her. She winced, tasting blood on her tongue. Her legs were trembling so badly she wondered how they held her up at all as she staggered forward, falling to her knees in front of the new soldier. A calloused hand cupped her chin, tilting her head to meet his gaze. She gaped at the strange sight before her. The officer was merely a boy, no older than her brother, but it was not the eyes of a boy that met her gaze. Bitter, much too old for his age, they burned into hers. Stranger still was the large scar that covered one side of his face, smearing his expression into a permanent glare.

"What's your name?" a raspy voice asked her.

"Katara."

"Katara." He moved his hand, brushing her hair away from her eyes. "What were you doing out there all alone?" As he tucked the hair behind her ear he stilled, his eyes narrowing. "You're bleeding."

"Wolf-hare," she whispered, finding it suddenly hard to breathe.

He met her gaze once again, searching for something. Satisfied he turned away, addressing the soldiers. She willed her heart to stop pounding so fiercely, her blood to stop roaring in her ears, so she could hear what they were saying. She tilted her head towards them trying to catch any tidbit of their conversation. When his eyes caught hers she felt her face flush and quickly looked down.

This is bad. What's wrong with me?! Stupid heart! Quit beating so loud; I can't hear! Why am I blushing?! So he touched my face. It doesn't mean anything. Sokka's done that before! Wait…why is he here? She stole a glance to the young officer. He looked angry now. Our tribute isn't due until the new moon. Watching the exchange, she felt her previous fear return. Her fingers unconsciously slid to the familiar stone at her throat. Spirits protect us.

The young officer glanced at her, golden eyes capturing hers for a brief moment and she realized she couldn't breathe. Something flickered in his gaze, then he turned away and her breath returned with a shudder. Rough hands pulled her to her feet, pushing her forward and she managed to get her legs beneath her before she tumbled into the snow. Her head throbbed painfully, cutting through the strange haze of the past few minutes, reminding her of more important matters than gold eyes and calloused skin on hers.

She gasped as she forced her chin up, her vision going black as searing pain exploded in her skull and her knees buckled. She expected the chill of the snow but it still came as a surprise when her face sunk into the black-speckled snow, small chucks of ice scraping her cheeks. Surprise painted her face as she lifted her head. They didn't catch me. None of them! They…they let me fall! Furious, she growled menacingly at the foot prodding her side. She heard the soldiers chuckling as she slowly pushed herself to her knees, chucks of snow and ice tangled in her hair. Her chin lifted, slowly this time, determined to show them some Water Tribe pride.

Her eyes widened as she took in the ship anchored in the northern wall; chucks of ice still tumbling down onto the hull and village below. That's a Fire Nation battleship…they're…they're not here for a tribute. Her fear finally bubbled over, her face twisting into horror. She took in the soldiers surrounding her as if seeing them for the first time and suddenly wished she had run into an arctic wolf-hare.

One gave her a cold smile as another yanked her to her feet. She tried to stand, but her legs refused to work. Her mind whirling in pain and fear, she collapsed once again. She heard the officer's raspy voice, and was suddenly draped over cool metal and stiff fabric. She could smell the sea and smoke. Her head whirled, the world seeming to spin violently as something heavy and warm caught her knees and a vibration rumbled through her stomach. She closed her eyes, willing the nausea to subside and felt the thing beneath her begin to move.

Her eyes snapped open as her mind finally caught up to her situation, her face heating as she realized she was being carried by one of the soldiers, flung over his shoulder like a sack. The vibrations she felt was his voice rumbling through his chest. He was complaining. She grimaced, grateful he was as unhappy with the arrangement as she was. Though she'd rather have walked, she resigned herself to the ride knowing she didn't have the strength to make it on her own watching with detached interest as drops of blood stained their footprints and wondered how bad the injury must be to not have yet stilled.

She tilted her head towards the sound of voices, immediately recognizing the loudest as her brother and smiled. Sokka. She blinked sleepily, her eyelids feeling much too heavy as the rhythmic swaying of the body beneath hers lulled her to sleep. So tired, that's what I get for sneaking out before sunrise. Her eyelids fluttered briefly, closing for a moment.

oOo

She snuggled deeper into the warmth of the tiger-sealskin blanket, its soft fur brushing over her face. She wondered the hour, knowing she must've overslept as her grandmother's soft snoring couldn't be heard. For that matter neither could her brother's loud snores. She frowned. It must be near midday already if Sokka's awake. Ooh, he'll never let me live this one down. Sleeping all day…I'll never get all my chores done!

Irritated for wasting her morning - although it'd been so nice to sleep in - she kicked the blankets off, pausing long enough to pull her parka over her head before stomping into the chilly air. She'd expected to find everyone hard at work already, but the village was eerily silent. She turned slowly, looking for anyone, and froze as her eyes took in the broken northern wall.

Her heart seized painfully in her chest. No! No, this can't be happening! Not again! Please, where are you?! Gran-Gran ?! Sokka?! She took a hesitant step forward, fear choking her movements as images flooded unbidden to her mind; images of another time, another battleship, and the choking silence that followed that invasion.

A hard hand closed around her shoulder and she jumped, spinning around to face its owner; tears sprang to her eyes as she recognized the face. "Sokka!" Smiling she threw her arms around him, thankful he was there; that he was alive. That the Fire Nation hadn't taken him away; not like their parents.

Her smile faded as he didn't return her embrace. She stepped back, her hands still resting on his shoulders, looking at him curiously. "Sokka?"

He glared at her, his mouth set in a firm line. His voice was raspy, choked with emotion as he spoke. "You just couldn't listen, could you? You just had to go and…and play with your weird magic didn't you?! Why Katara? WHY!"

She blinked in surprise, taking another step away. "I…" She watched him carefully, having never seen him this angry before. "Sokka, what happened?"

"We trusted you! We've sacrificed so much, for you!"

"Sokka-"

"They were looking for you Katara! The Fire Nation was here for you; the last waterbender. Someone saw you! Someone told them!"

Her heart clenched realizing the danger she'd put them all in. Her head dropped. "I'm sorry, Sokka."

"So am I," he bit out before she could continue. He turned away, his eyes focused on the northern wall. It'd been built by the waterbenders long ago; a testament to a once strong people. Perhaps now more than ever it represented them. "You were hurt," he continued in a quieter voice. Guiltily she stared at her shoes. "You were dying."

"What?!" Her head snapped up to look at him incredulously. "Sokka, it was just a cut. I fell on the ice and-"

"Did you know Gran-Gran was a waterbender?"

He was still staring at the broken wall, his voice oddly detached. Her breath caught as she recalled his earlier words. The Fire Nation had been here, for a waterbender. No…

"She healed you."

She was staring at him now, her eyes wide with fear, imploring him to tell her she was wrong. Just this once she wouldn't mind. Just please, please-.

"They arrested her."

She felt the familiar black close in on her. It'd been the same when her mother had died and later when her father had left. Only this time it was worse. This time it was her fault. She imagined once again the metal cage, the loneliness and fear; only this time it wasn't hers. This time it belonged to her aged grandmother; to a woman that deserved the warmth of a fire and the laughter of her children's children, not the emptiness of a prison cell. Tearfully she followed Sokka's gaze, her eyes resting on the sheets of crumbling ice.

Her grandmother had said it was her gift, and her curse; the legacy of a once strong people that she must try to forget. "To do otherwise," she'd warned, "will bring you to great harm. Remember, child, the sacrifices that have been made to protect you."

Unconsciously her flingers slid to the stone pendant at her throat. "I remember," she whispered into the wind. Her eyes dropped, watching the snowdrift lazily with the wind, building itself into tiny walls. She blinked, her eyes going wide. She was the last waterbender of the Southern Water Tribe, but not the last. If the rumors were true, their sister tribe had faired the war far better than they had. If the rumors were true, the Fire Nation had yet to conquer the Northern Water Tribe, or their waterbenders.

Hope suddenly sprang to life within her. She would go to their sister tribe and ask for assistance. They would find the Southern warriors, and her father; they would rescue the waterbenders, and Gran-Gran. They would fight back. They would make things better again.

"Sokka," she said calmly, "I need a kayak."


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