Katara had never been bison-sick, not once in all their journeying on Appa. She was born and bred on the rough seas of the south; she was not one for whom motion sickness posed a problem. However, Avatar Yangchen’s explanations about the workings of the Banyan Spirit of the Foggy Swamp were making her feel decidedly queasy seated, as she was, at the back of Appa’s saddle.
Around her, the others— well, most of them— were talking excitedly about their separate adventures. Aang was regaling Toph with everything he’d ever heard about the great walls of Ba Sing Se and how they might be able to find the time to explore them.
Sokka was, of course, gesturing to his map as it fluttered dangerously in the wind. She wished he’d put it away while they were flying; they’d already had to rescue it twice, as it was torn from the warrior’s hands and sent streaming out into the sky behind them.
Zuko, meanwhile, was sitting up on Appa’s head. Aang had insisted on showing him how to steer the sky-bison, then become distracted chattering to Toph. The Fire Prince had relaxed somewhat when he realised the bison wasn’t going to throw him to a painful death against the rocky landscape below.
Katara turned her attention back to the small volume in her hand…
The Banyan Spirit of the Foggy Swamp embodies all things equal and opposite. Its true nature is the essence of balance. Like most spirits, it understands the true illusory nature of time and distance; it can sense imbalance in the furthest city from its Southern Earth Kingdom home. It has even lured to it those it knows will bring about the balance it embodies. Often it communicates the information these individuals require in the form of visions, giving the Swamp its mystical legacy.
To truly understand the Banyan Spirit and any message it may seek to convey, one must first comprehend its philosophy: that of yin and yang. The principle that all things exist as inseparable and contradictory opposites. Female-male, dark-light, life-death. The Banyan Spirit is the force that attracts these two opposites, completing their complement of each other. Above all, the Spirit seeks to reach that core of each side, the core that contains elements of its opposite. Neither is superior to the other and an increase in one brings a corresponding decrease in the other. An equal and opposite reaction. A correct balance between the two must be reached in order to achieve harmony.
Yin is feminine, black, dark, north, water, passive, moon, earth, cold, old, even numbers, valleys, and soft. It provides spirit to all things. Yin reaches its height of influence with the winter solstice. Yang is masculine, white, light, south, fire, active, sun, air, warm, young, odd numbers, mountains, and hard. It provides form to all things. Yang reaches its height of influence with the summer solstice.
To understand the spirit of the banyan-grove tree, one must locate the yin and yang found in their visions.
She swallowed the increasing discord and closed the book, her hands clammy; her tongue felt too big for her mouth. There was a dull peal in her ears, the toll of some distant bell, that she refused to acknowledge.
But her thoughts were traitorous things. They reminded her of the vision— Zuko’s comparison of his dual dao swords… two halves of the same whole…
She shoved the book back into her bag, passing her hand over her eyes. She wished she’d never set foot in that awful, humid swamp.
‘There! Zuko, take him down to that clearing on the edge of town!’ Aang balanced precariously on the lip of the saddle, a grin stretching his lips. Katara wondered why the Banyan Spirit couldn’t have shown her visions of the monk instead…
‘I don’t speak hairy monster,’ Zuko snapped, turning to glare at Aang.
Aang laughed as Appa gave a low grunt. ‘Don’t worry, buddy! He’s just jealous of your luscious locks!’ Aang leapt lightly to the Fire Prince’s side. ‘Here, you have to kind of flap the reins like this.’
It occurred to Katara, as Appa slowly began to descend, that Aang and even Toph had wholeheartedly accepted the banished prince. She wasn’t sure how to feel about that.
Thanks to what Katara suspected was some light-handed dishonesty, Zuko announced they had enough money to purchase two rooms in the local inn for the night.
It was mid-afternoon when they walked into the little trade town on the north-western bank of Chameleon Bay. Katara took Toph aside for what she called “girl-time,” but what was really little more than an excuse to be away from the others. Aang accepted her desire for a solo afternoon with his earthbending teacher, cheerfully telling her they’d get Appa settled at the Water-Side Inn’s stables and meet her and Toph there before sunset for dinner.
So Katara dragged the blind girl to the market, praying to Yue she wouldn’t pick up on her anxious heartbeat.
The markets were doing a roaring trade. Many of the merchants sold fresh fruit, herbs, and vegetables grown in the fields surrounding the town. These were clearly poor farmers, come to town for the markets; from their easy smiles and relaxed selling, she surmised they’d already sold enough to feel good as the sunlight hours bled away.
Traders, too, were present. One man was clearly Water Tribe, from the north. He sold cured sea prunes, seal jerky, dried sheets of seaweed, wolf-bear pelts. Katara felt such an upswell of home sickness, she had to move away from the tribesman’s stall.
‘What’s with you?’ Toph asked in annoyance as Katara dragged the girl from the now-tainted market.
‘Nothing,’ she replied firmly, turning down a lane at random.
‘Oh right,’ the younger girls said flatly. ‘I guess I’m imagining your heart beating like a galloping rabaroo. Think you could loosen your stranglehold, crazy?’
Katara released Toph as though she’d burned her. ‘Sorry! I… I saw a Water Tribe trader at the market and it just got me thinking of home.’
‘Yeah, I just get all teary over the Earth Kingdom flag.’ Katara wondered how so young a person could be so sarcastic. ‘You’re not a very good liar, Sweetness.’
The waterbender didn’t bother glaring at the girl. ‘Come on,’ she ground out instead, starting down the lane way. ‘The others will be expecting us.’
The noodle bar next to the inn tasted like luxury after hog-monkey soup and roadside stew. The five of them ate quickly before retreating to the larger of the two rooms Sokka had requested for the night; they had plans to make.
Momo slept on his back by the windowsill, his belly bulging with everyone’s leftovers. Well, everyone’s leftovers except Sokka’s. Sokka never had leftovers.
Toph, Aang, and Sokka were sitting around the table pouring over maps. Aang wanted to know where he could meet up with them after he and Toph secured the Earth King’s support in Ba Sing Se and Sokka had a lot to say on the matter. Zuko, meanwhile, moved around the room with a tray laden with steaming cups of tea. He set it on the table and to Katara’s surprise, took one in each hand and came to sit between her and Momo by the window.
He held out one of the cups. ‘I made it like you showed me,’ he assured her, misreading her hesitation.
She accepted it silently, avoiding touching his fingers as she took it. She turned back to the conversation going around the table a few feet away, hoping to avoid having to talk.
‘We’ll start at Kyoshi Island,’ her brother was saying, pointing to the southern island. ‘Suki and the Kyoshi Warriors will want to be part of the invasion, for sure. Then we’ll take a boat to the mainland, to Gaoling.’ He glanced at Toph. ‘I bet your Earth Rumble friends would be more excited to see you than us.’ Katara was glad he had tact enough to refrain from mentioning the earthbender’s parents.
Toph, reclining in her chair with her feet on the table, picked at her nails. ‘Here’s to hoping The Boulder doesn’t squish you or Sugar Queen over there.’
Sokka eyed her suspiciously. ‘You don’t think he would, do you?’
Aang drew his attention back to the map. ‘You should go to the Swamp next. Though without Appa, you’ll have to skirt it to make sure you don’t get lost like last time.’
Zuko leaned forward in his chair. ‘Did you have a good time at the market?’ he asked in a strained tone. She glanced at him uncertainly; what was he doing? He didn’t do small talk.
‘It was okay, I guess,’ she replied evenly, refusing to meet the gaze she could feel against the side of her face. ‘Loud. Busy. Usual market stuff.’
His confused disappointment was clear. ‘What were you reading today?’ he asked after an uncomfortable silence, while Sokka tried to argue Aang out of inviting Haru to the invasion.
She turned to him sharply, her face heating. ‘What?’
‘Your book,’ he said slowly as though she were as slow-witted as Momo. ‘The one you were reading today on the bison? You seemed really engrossed… I thought it must be good.’
She couldn’t help but narrow her eyes in suspicion. ‘Just a waterbending book I found in the library,’ she lied stiffly, ignoring the bewildered way he was watching her. ‘You know, for err, bending water.’ She flushed again and dropped her gaze. Smoothly handled. She sipped her tea, nearly scalding her mouth in the process.
‘How’s your tea?’ He wasn’t still trying to talk to her, was he? Oh, spirits, couldn’t he leave her be?
‘Good, but did you leave the water to cool for a few minutes after it boiled?’
‘Of course.’ He glanced at her cup, frowning. ‘Is it too hot?’
Something about how concerned he was over something as simple as tea made her lips twitch, despite herself. ‘What’s “too hot” to a firebender?’ she countered, sticking out her tongue. ‘Can you see a scald? I thought I’d never be able to taste anything again.’
His frown deepened until he realised she was joking. His smile was worse somehow. ‘It looks fine to me.’
She quickly withdrew her tongue and stood. ‘Thanks for the tea,’ she muttered lamely and joined the others at the table.
‘Fine!’ Sokka was saying, his head in his arms. ‘Haru, his dad, and whatever earthbenders they can rally that want to come. But I draw the line at the nomads we met on our way to Omashu!’
‘They could be anywhere,’ Aang agreed, missing the point as he turned to study the map seriously. ‘What about Jet’s Freedom Fighters? I know Jet was crazy, but some of the others could be really useful. They know how to fight the Fire Nation.’
Sokka considered the map carefully, tapping his boomerang against his chin thoughtfully. ‘Jet’s forest is on the way up to the Northern Air Temple…’ He met their raised brows. ‘What? The Mechanist is a genius! As if you don’t want him on our side.’
Toph yawned loudly. ‘You wanna know what I’m hearing?’ she said, getting to her feet and stretching. ‘Blah blah, random people, blah blah. I’m going to bed.’
‘I’ll be in in a minute,’ Katara told her, glancing over at the quiet firebender unwillingly.
‘See you in the morning, Twinkle Toes.’
Aang grinned at Katara, a softness to his expression. ‘I’m sure going to miss you while I’m in Ba Sing Se,’ he said, moving onto Toph’s vacated chair beside her.
She cupped the tea in both hands and returned his smile. ‘Me too, Aang,’ she said, loath to be parted from him or Toph. ‘Make sure you practice your waterbending forms while you’re away.’
He bowed from his waist, as best he could while seated. ‘Yes, Sifu Katara.’
She grinned. ‘Hey, Aang… How much do you know about your past lives?’ She tried to sound as casual as she could, rotating the teacup between her hands.
‘Not much… I’ve only ever spoken to Roku. Why?’
‘So you’ve not heard of Avatar Yangchen?’ She tried to ignore the few octaves her voice rose by.
His eyes widened in joy. ‘The Air Nomad Avatar before me? Of course I know about her! She’s got statues in almost every temple! The monks say she saved the physical world from dozens of clashes with angry spirits.’
‘So, she was… experienced with spirits? She understood them?’
‘Better than most Avatars from what the monks said.’
Katara’s hope that the Avatar had been a fraud or maybe a little loony was dashed. She stood, setting down her empty teacup.
‘Well, I’ll let you guys get to bed,’ she said heading for the door to hers and Toph’s room. ‘Night.’
Aang beamed at her. ‘Night, Katara!’
Sokka just waved his hand distractedly, not looking up from his maps.
‘Goodnight, Katara.’ Her traitor eyes met Zuko’s as she fled to her room. She wondered what yang to her yin lied behind them.
That night Katara dreamed of a figure in the mist she’d tried hard to forget.
There’s something more than his light-heartedness that’s different from the boy she knows. It’s there in his easy movement, the lingering looks, the way he’s almost always closer to her than her brother and Aang ever are. It takes her a while to figure out he’s not trying to hide his scarred side from her.
She’s so confused at this point— so unable to hate this Zuko— that she discovers madness is not so far a fall as she once thought.
She is smiling at him.
‘When do you become Fire Lord?’ She is sitting above the water, on the buttressed root of a swamp fig. She cannot possibly walk anymore just now, not when the Swamp fights her on every step.
He is close. A hair’s breadth between his hip and hers, but no heat plumes from the firebender’s spectre the way she knows it would were he truly there. ‘I am Fire Lord,’ he seems puzzled by her question, but brushes it off in favour of a grin. ‘And you were wonderful today.’
Her smile slips somewhat as she becomes more forcibly aware of her madness. ‘I was?’
That look, the one that says I know you. ‘Never in all my studies, did I find a Fire Lady as loved by the people as you are,’ he says simply, a quiet joy settling behind the gold of his eyes. ‘Your work with the refugees, your amendment providing clean water for the people of Dockside, your campaign to normalise the dual nation children of the war…’ He shakes his head in disbelief. ‘You’re one person! I’m part of a delegation and I can’t get two ambassadors to agree on reparations.’
She likes to think that after the war she would have the political sway to achieve the kinds of things he spoke about. A Fire Lady would certainly have sway. She’d have the kind of sway an ocean could command.
‘I wish I could travel with you.’ He is wistful now and his fingers brush against her thigh, so near his own. ‘Like we did after the library. Just the two of us.’ His nostalgia quickly darkens to something that burns in his gaze like hot embers. ‘The beach…’
She is supposed to know what he’s talking about, she can tell from his tone. This is a familiar topic between them, except she isn’t yet cracked enough to share these memories of his. Memories or delusions? Is this something she will one day recall with the same heat he does?
The words come to her, but they are not her own. ‘We keep the balance. You, here in Capitol City; me, in the villages and islands.’
The episode so disturbs her, these words so alien and yet familiar, that she leaps from the buttressed root and calls hoarsely for her brother, her friend.
She pretends she cannot feel the ghost of his fingers trailing against her thigh.
Katara couldn’t help the gleam of tears in her eyes when they parted ways the next morning.
She, Sokka, and Zuko had streamlined their supplies into three bags; light enough to carry, but heavy enough to promise them aching shoulders and sore feet in the near future. Toph confided in Katara her wish that it was they who would travel on Appa so she and Aang could walk to Ba Sing Se. The earthbender hated travelling when she couldn’t see where she was going. But Ba Sing Se was too far to walk. Besides, Appa was all Aang had left of his people; where Aang went, Appa went too.
‘Take care of each other,’ Katara told her, breaking Toph’s no hugging rule. ‘Go easy on Aang.’
‘Yeah yeah,’ the blind girl pulled back, embarrassed. ‘Sure thing, mum.’
Katara laughed and turned to the airbender, her smile falling. ‘I’ll see you soon,’ she said in a falsely bright voice; his forlorn look pulled at her. ‘It’s only a couple of months. Think about how good your earthbending will be when we see you again. You might even be able to start your firebending properly.’
He tried for a smile. ‘Thanks, Katara.’ He stepped forward to embrace her, and she bent to grip him back tightly. ‘Take care of yourself.’
‘You too,’ she said, wiping at her eyes over his shoulder. ‘Both of you.’
Sokka clapped the airbender on the shoulder. ‘Good luck, buddy,’ he said warmly, grinning at the boy. ‘Go get that Earth Kingdom army!’
Aang returned the smile, nodding, before turning to the fifth member of their group. He stood apart from their circle, arms crossed over his chest, glaring down the road they would soon take. ‘Bye, Zuko!’
The banished prince glanced over, his expression unchanged. ‘Bye.’
‘See ya, Sparky! C’mon, Twinkle Toes, let’s get this show on the road before Katara cries all over us.’
Katara glowered at the earthbender. ‘I’m not crying!’
The two of them atop Appa were a mere smudge on the horizon when she and Sokka finally turned and picked up their bags. She shouldered hers without complaint but Sokka sighed. ‘This is going to be like when we had to walk through Jet’s forest,’ he lamented, kicking a stone by the roadside. Katara refrained from reminding him just whose idea that had been. ‘Knowing our luck, some nut job with a revenge dream will try to capture us again.’ He shot Zuko a suspicious look. ‘You’re not feeling nostalgic for the good old days, are you?’
The Fire Prince glowered at the Water Tribe boy. ‘If you’re done sobbing over your friends, can we get going? In case you’ve forgotten, we still need to get to the wharf and find a boat heading southwest.’
The road was warming, now, in the early morning rays gleaming over the horizon. It was hard underfoot, unyielding. Silent. No birds sung to the sunrise. Katara should have known.
The universe loved proving Sokka wrong.
The attack came from all sides. It was precise and deadly, just like her. Katara didn’t have time to draw water from her pouch before her hands had been pulled up behind her and bound tightly as she was forced to her knees. Beside her, Sokka and Zuko were equally as incapacitated.
Azula stepped forward and eyed them like the cat that got the cream. ‘Well well well,’ she said in a silky tone, her calculating eyes dancing. ‘Water Tribe peasants and my brother. So good to see you again, Zuzu.’