The cold was bright. You felt it like morning sunlight coming through your eyelids before you even opened them. Even in the summer here, the streams running through the meadow grasses and wildflowers still held onto the melting snow’s cold. I made my hands into a bowl, dipped them in the shallow stream, pulled them out filled with the clear water, and splashed it on my face with a small shock. Without thinking, my hands pressed and traced a mask around my temples. My eyes opened and I looked out to the wall of bright blue sky above me, brighter still against the summer green that the grass was flaunting.
It was nice to be some place I knew. A nomad gets weary of travel, too. It wasn’t hard to imagine Katara ending her nomadic life here. Everyone travels to feel settled. For some, the movement offered that needed steadiness. For others, like Katara, they travel so they can return. They see the tallest mountains tearing up clouds, the busiest streets brimming with people (some excited to be there, some less so). By visiting all these places, you discover joy and disappointment hide side-by-side everywhere like insects beneath stones: all of it renews the soul so you can finally go back and reinvest in the one place you call home.
No one was surprised by Katara’s request late one night while eating at a busy restaurant in Ba Sing Se. Sokka, Suki, Toph, Katara, and I sat in a rounded booth. Being the Avatar has its perks, so the drinks were on me, although I abstained—monkish as I am. We cheered our glasses together to celebrate the end of this leg of our harmonization project. Sokka had his arm greedily around Suki who was attracting her fair share of interested looks from patrons. Suki, for her part, seemed more focused on Toph’s stories (about her childhood domination in earthbending tournaments) than any leering eyes. I was laughing along with her.
Katara coughed and the voices within our booth trailed off. Then our eyes went to her. “So...I’ve decided—”she undid one of her beaded hair loops and twisted it as if it needed fixing. “I’ve decided it’s time for me to go back to the South Pole.” We all smiled and affirmed her decision with nods, exclamations, and hugs. Sokka shot up (banging his head against the overhanging light) and ordered another round of drinks to celebrate.
As everyone refocused themselves to plan the next stages of our journey, I turned to my closest friend, and grabbed her hand. Through misting eyes, I tried to say something sweet and meaningful, but all the words just collapsed, and I sobbed into her shoulder. Then, I felt her sob into mine. When I finally could, I lifted up and grabbed her face between my hands, sliding my thumbs across the stream of tears. Somewhere between the tearful frown and a reassuring smile, I said, “This is so right, I think. I’m just gonna miss you everyday.” And she wrapped me in an even tighter hug and we sobbed some more.
Now here I was standing in the summer wind gusting across the briefly thawed out meadows of the South Pole as I prepared to leave on a separate journey, the first one I will take without her in this century. I squinted up toward the sun, which had been up the entire time I’d been here. An arctic lemming-tern flew across my view. Too many feelings were happening for words, and I simply felt them, letting go of any attempt to shape them into language.
It was not the sudden hand on my shoulder that shocked me. It was turning to the familiar face. I was wrapped around him before his name even came to mind. Crying again! So many tears in such a short amount of time (Good thing I was with the Water tribe, Sokka would’ve remarked). “Hey, Aang,” he said with a slight laugh and a hug less eager than mine.
I stepped back, clearing my tears with my palms. “What are you—Sorry—But why—I’m not just crying because—It’s just the last few days—I’m so happy to see you, though—You’re here because—” He raised his eyebrows, then pulled me into a second hug, more full, more calm, and more comforting than the first one. I stayed there for a time. I was too overwhelmed to decide if it was too long or short.
Suddenly, I remembered, and shoved him away. “Why didn’t you write me back!” He fumbled on his words and gave no satisfying explanation for his behavior over the last two years. “I don’t have time for this right now!” I grunted, “This is my last day with Katara.” I started back toward the village. “But I’m coming with you, Aang,” he called after me. I turned back. “To the village?” “No, for the rest of the project!” I threw my hands into the air in an exaggerated shrug. The gesture was meant to be sarcastic, but, as I did it, I knew it had more sincere confusion to it than I intended. With his royal cape trailing through the grass, Zuko kept pace behind me back to town.