Chapter 1: Small River
I tiptoe from the camp to the stream nearby. The sun's just now hitting the leaves and hasn't even begun to sparkle on the water. I've been doing this for a couple of years. I wake up early to sneak down to the stream before Sokka or Zuko, so I have it all to myself. It's so much easier to wash alone—no covering anything up or trying to protect your own privacy or provide others' the same courtesy. I just have to listen for anyone rustling through the tall grass on their way over here.
I hang my clothes and towel on a tree branch, and take a step in. The water trips cold on the tops of my feet. I take a big breath and start warming up my body. The stream starts to grow a little warmer, too. I wade in deeper, pausing to adjust every few steps. I'm halfway in when I hear the sound I fear. I look over and see the shrubs shift.
Zuko emerges in just his loose maroon pants. He yawns as he pads over to the tree where my things are hung. "Morning, Aang," he sighs. Zuko's eyes are barely open, so I give a quick greeting. We can have a full conversation when we're more awake. Instead, I turn around and kick around some silt. Some fish flock away, and the water around me becomes murky. There's no reason to provide Zuko with more of a view than necessary.
I crouch down so only my head and shoulders are left above the water, and I hear Zuko taking a breath before he takes his first steps in the water. I remember learning this trick from him before bathing together seemed weird. I guess I just started to feel embarrassed about sharing this personal time with anyone. We've always found separate bathing areas for the boys and girls, but I don't see why having the same parts should make anyone more comfortable in exposing them. The water around me starts to steam as I take a big sigh.
A gentle splash and some ripples come from behind me. I turn my head around and see Zuko naked, ankle-deep in the water. Quickly, I face away. It's so strange to see him like that. I wish I felt that comfortable. I sometimes imagine coming to bathe and walking in without any shame. Perhaps it's because of my history with Zuko, but in my head he is always the one undressing and walking into the water with me. I would feel so happy to get rid of all the stress around this.
A big wave hits me and submerges my whole neck. "Have any interesting dreams last night, then?" Zuko asks as he crouches down within arm's reach.
I twist my toes in the dirt, attempt to casually place my hands over myself, and keep my head and eyes turned down and away, pretending to zone out while watching the ripples in the creek. "I don't remember. I don't think so." I wish I had. Without an interesting dream, I can't think of what to say next. I hate not having anything to offer Zuko. Maybe the conversation will end here, I think, discouraged.
"I had a weird one," Zuko adds after the pause. "You were in it." I turn around in anticipation of what he'll say next. Instead, he dunks his head under and comes back up with his bangs draped over his eyes. He flips them back nonchalantly. Droplets fall off of his nose and lips back into the water or on his chest.
"What was I doing?" I try and act only half-interested. The early morning and the seeming offhandedness of the conversation point toward keeping things casual.
"Well, we were training. I was trying to help you increase your range. We were in the South Pole, but it wasn't really the South Pole, you know?"
"Oh, so were Katara and Zuko there?"
"No, it was only you and me. It was like we were in a classroom, but no one else was there." Zuko's eyes shifted back and forth looking at the water, then he dipped under again. I covered myself automatically. He came back up and pushed his hair out of his face revealing a furrowed brow. "I guess that's it," he said.
"Wait I thought you said it was weird," I asked.
He smirked and shrugged, "I guess it wasn't that weird. It was just strange to be alone with you in the dream, I guess. It's been a while."
It had been a while. I had mastered firebending a few years ago. Now we only spent time together with the rest of the group. Often, one of us would have to leave the group, too, to help with some affair or another. Once Zuko was gone for a few months to deal with an uprising in the capital. The group was perceptibly different without him. It was missing his usual gravity and thoughtfulness. I missed hearing his attempts at jokes while he was away, too. He always ended up over-explaining the joke. Sokka would get mad, but Toph and I could never stop laughing. Zuko was right, though. It was strange to picture us alone together.
"Yeah, we haven't had a lot of one-on-one time lately," I said looking at him apologetically.
"Well, what about right now?" Zuko asked as he glided his hand along the surface of the water between us, sending a wave right against my chest.
I half-laughed and rubbed the stubble on the back of my head, "Yeah, that's true."
Zuko just looked at me with a calm smile on his face for what felt like a whole minute. Then, he added, "Maybe that's why I had that dream. It woke me up so I could come spend time with you this morning. We can make this a regular thing."
I nodded as my stomach seemed to shrivel up like a dried berry.
"Well, I'm starting to wrinkle like a dried berry," Zuko said as an obvious way to end our time. Still, I wondered if he had just read my mind. Then, he stood up. I was looking right at the scar on his chest, and I felt ashamed for staring as long as I did. I turned to look at anything else.
"I'll come out in a bit. Just going to try and really get between these twinkle toes today." I said, prepared to slap myself as soon as Zuko was out of sight for my attempt at humor. I faced away as Zuko walked out and dried off. I just wish I could've walked along beside him. I dipped my head underwater and smiled with the image of Zuko and I chatting and laughing as we got dressed. It brings me such peace when I close my eyes and see his hard-won grin. I just want that sense of complete ease. I resurfaced from the water back from my fantasy. I'm surprised to hear Zuko angrily muttering to himself as he walks back toward the camp. Just a few minutes ago he seemed like he was in such a positive mood.
I stand up from the water now that he's gone and briefly enjoy the little trails of water wiggling down my body. But I'm afraid Sokka will be coming soon. I cover myself and walk to the shore, quickly drying and dressing. Then, I make my way back to camp, excited and nervous about seeing Zuko after our morning conversation.
Chapter 2: Creek
I'm thankful there's no shrubs blocking the way to the stream today. Sneaking away from the camp is that much quieter. Maybe he won't wake up. I tread gently over the damp leaf litter on the forest floor, lifting myself on small pillows of air to avoid any rustling. The sun slips in through the trees to lay on the shallow running water. While the depth means the water will be warmer, it also gives a person less space to hide. I pray Zuko forgot his idea from yesterday, or maybe he'll just sleep through — at least just for this morning.
The trees are all too tall here to hang my things. Instead, I set my towel on a large rock beside the creek and place my stone shaving bowl and blade on top of it. I take off my shirt and lay it beside everything. Even standing in the forest without a shirt leaves me feeling exposed. I'd rather no one see me shaving. Despite shaving in front of everyone often when I was younger, it feels more personal now. I grab the bowl filled with a banana leaf and lavender salve. The tips of my fingers dip in the cool gel and lift it to spread around my head. Chills run all over me as I rub it in circles against the bristles on my scalp.
Then I trade the bowl for the blade, pull up the bottoms of my pants, and walk ankle-deep into the pitter-patter of the stream running over pebbles and stones. I can feel it push gently on my feet, and I stand in the morning for a moment enjoying the feeling. I'm pulled from this when I remember Zuko might come along at any moment. I put the sharp edge to my crown then pull back, hearing the little hairs break. I go again and again like this with extra precision around my ears. There are little cuts around the back of my head I can feel, but they'll heal quickly. Once I'm finished, I turn and reach to put the blade back down on the towel, but I overextend and fall, catching myself with my free hand in the stream.
"Smooth, Avatar," Zuko snickers, taking his towel from his shoulder. He's standing down the stream a few feet, and I wonder how long he's been there.
I laugh too hard to play it off. "Gravity's an airbender's best friend and worst enemy," I say self-evidently as I stand up dripping to put the blade back on the towel. I give an exaggerated wink to let him know I recognize how stupid I look and sound right now. He laughs more, which I'm not sure is the reaction I wanted. It makes me feel relieved, though.
But as soon as he starts to pull off his tunic that relief disappears and I turn my eyes toward the ground. "So—" I start just as Zuko begins to speak. We both abruptly go quiet and try again only to repeat the awkwardness.
After an unbearable pause and just as I'm about to start in again, Zuko beats me to it. "See, I kept my promise," he says as I hear the swish of another garment come off.
I feel warm with embarrassment and turn in the complete other direction to pick up my bowl. As I start to rub the gel across my jaw, I lie, "Yeah, I thought you might want to just sleep instead. I can never wake anyone up."
"Aang, this is going to be our time," he replies as I grit my teeth. "You need to wake me or we won't get to hang out." He says this with a surprising intensity, but then I hear a deep breath and the gurgling of the water running into his legs as he steps into the stream.
I take my blade back with me into the water and wet it, bringing it up to my jaw now.
"I forgot you shaved," Zuko says.
"Well, it's kind of a tradition for the airbending monks. We weren't supposed to worry about our appearances, and hair was just another—"
"No, that's not what I meant" Zuko interrupted. I glanced over where Zuko was crouched down in the stream naked with water cupped in his hands. I looked away again. I knew what he meant. "I forgot you shaved your face."
"Yeah," I shrugged. Why did it matter if I shaved my face?
"I've never really grown much hair there," Zuko admitted. I heard him splash the water on his face. "I only shave little spots once a week at most."
"There's nothing really special about it," I tried to say with a smile as I pulled the edge up my cheek. "It's not like I asked to grow a beard."
"Yeah, but I think it looks nice to have some stubble. I'm a little jealous." I could hear the smirk in Zuko's voice. Was he teasing me? I turned to squint meanly at him, but he was standing up. He was standing up looking straight at me with a ridiculous grin on his face. The blade cut across my cheek, and I called out briefly in pain.
Zuko took a few splashing steps through the stream and reached toward me. "Aang, are you okay?"
I backed away. "No, no. Yeah. I'm fine. Look." I turned my face and looked in the opposite direction so he could see the small abrasion. I expected that to allay him.
Instead he pressed his thumb right beside the cut. "You're sure?" he asked.
I shifted my gaze back to him and looked him in the eyes. The hazel was glowing in the drifting sun. His scar seemed pink and soft. "Yeah, I'm sure," I said as I pulled away. I didn't want to be a child he had to worry about. "Let me just finish." I put my back to him and started shaving again.
"Hey Zuko," I said as I finished my task trying to break the quiet tension that I felt I had created, "You sure you're not out here with me trying to capture the Avatar again." Zuko sniffed a half-laugh. "Because," I went on, "I've mastered all the elements so I'm pretty sure I can take you." Bending down slowly, I pretended to dip the sharp stone in the water. "You know I mastered airbending a hundred years ago, but it's been a while since you've seen me bend…" I paused. "Water!" With that I twisted and splashed water right into Zuko's surprised face.
He made at playful anger, "You have insulted my honor. You must pay the ultimate price. I challenge you to an agni kai!" He called out as he kicked water all over my legs.
For minutes that felt like days gone too quickly, we dashed around throwing water across the stream as our calls and laughs mixed with bird songs. "Okay, okay," Zuko huffed. He mocked a bow, "You are the true waterbending master. But you should give a fire nation kid some credit."
"Yeah, you fought well for a kid!" I teased. In that moment, I saw Zuko as someone less mature, someone more nervous and unsure, more like me. Then, I realized I was staring at him as he walked away to dry off and dress. I realized too that my pants were soaked and nearly see through, and I rushed off to cover up with my towel. I pretended to be busy drying off and organizing my things, but I was waiting for Zuko to leave so I could take my wet clothes off and actually dry myself. I kept catching him smile and peek over at me like he knew my secret and was about to reveal it.
"Monkey feathers! I missed a spot," I said stroking a spot on my jaw. "You can head back to camp, and I'll catch up."
"Okay, see you in a bit," Zuko responded as he pulled his tunic over his head. Then he meandered around the trees toward camp. I let out a huge sigh of relief and tucked my thumb in my waistband. But Zuko's head suddenly appeared from behind one of the trees and I ripped them out. "And I'll see you to clean up tomorrow!" I nodded trying to convey none of my actual thoughts.
I waited for a few minutes to see if I'd get another encore. With no signs of any firebenders in the area, I took off the wet linen, wrapped my towel around me, collected my things, and walked through the forest toward my tent.
Chapter 3: Spring
I thought to myself while hiking uphill through the bed of ferns, I could just say I tried to wake him up but he wouldn't budge. That was a stretch. We had to camp farther away from water than usual, but Zuko had assured us the hot spring would be worth the morning trek. Besides, we had gone three days now without any kind of bath. We had helped a small town terrorized during the war by fire nation soldiers. Together, we rebuilt their community center and, at least a little, restored their trust with the new Firelord. But a devastated town didn't have much to offer in terms of accommodations or free time. The layers of dirt on our skin had become noticeably thicker during our stay, and the symphony of stench in close quarters was now unbearable. We were all looking forward to the opportunity for cleanliness and relaxation. All except me.
I couldn't stop worrying about meeting Zuko alone again. I didn't want to see him smirking at me. I didn't want to chat with him. I didn't want to hide myself from him. And I especially didn't want to guard myself from looking at him as he washed. I just wanted to feel open again.
This was going to be my time, I assured myself. I looked down the side of the hill. Past the scattering of trees, I could make out our camp. I could make out the trail up here, too, a dark snaking divot through the fern sea. There wasn't the slightest movement beyond the gestures of leaves in the wind. I felt it curve past my face and tug at my clothes. I closed my eyes and enjoyed it. When I opened back up to the hillside, there was still no sign of activity below, even (or especially) in the tent I most feared to see activity from. This'll be a day for me.
I slipped through the grove of trees at the top of the hill and, as I approached the promise of the springs, started taking off my dirty linen shirt. The cloth was covering my face, but through it amidst the shadowy woods lay three white circles reflecting the bright gray of the overcast sky. Warm moist air began to coat my skin and caused my shirt to stick as I kept attempting to tug it over my head, but I quickened my pace when I heard the whispers of the running water.
"Hi, Aang." Not a whisper. Not water. Just Zuko. I finished pulling off my shirt to Zuko's welcoming smile, always shy of a toothy grin, but I knew he meant it just the same, which made me miss when he was only ever angry to entrap me. The steam partially shrouded him, but I could see his arms stretched across the rocky rim of the springs. Could anyone think of a more arrogant pose? He took up half a pool. And all I could look at were the wisps of black hair matted to his underarms. He knew I'd be surprised. This was a preemptive revenge for not waking him up.
"Zuko," I blurted out putting on my cheesiest smile to conceal my disappointed shock.
"The water is perfect, and I didn't even have to firebend. Come on in!" He patted the spot right beside him.
Was I supposed to sit there? That close to him? Then I realized something worse. I had to undress here, and there was nowhere to hide and no trick to pull. And I definitely couldn't leave back to camp. I hadn't washed for days.
Quick and casual, I decided, like I was unbothered by Zuko judging me from his hot spring throne. I moved over to where Zuko had hung his things, and threw my shirt, towel, and fresh clothes beside them. With my body angled so my back faced the conniving Firelord, I quickly peaked back to see if he might be distracted. He was not. We made direct eye contact. He flashed an obliging smile. Caught in the act, I did the same and turned away. I finished undressing and hanging my clothes with embarrassment burning my insides. Then, unconvincingly I'm sure, I tried to cover myself casually as I walked over to the stone tub where Zuko reclined with his eyes closed. I climbed in speedily, glad he stayed in his dream world. My muscles relaxed with the heat as I sank down in the milky water across from him. I felt a natural bench underwater along the outside rim and made myself as comfortable as I could be in the situation.
"I understand why you like to come out by yourself in the morning," he said without moving.
Because I want to be alone, I snapped back in my head.
"It's so peaceful," he continued. "The walk up here with all the plants in the wind and the view from the top of the hill. I've just been sitting here for a while listening to the water and the breeze and the birds."
"Yeah, it's really nice," I admitted and exhaled.
"It helps you, like, reflect and stuff," Zuko said. It was ineloquent but I knew exactly what he meant.
I started, "Yeah, It makes me—uh, I don't know" His foot moved beside mind, or did I press mine into his? Either way, I eagerly changed the subject with an awkward laugh and curled into myself. "So, uh, how did you find out about this spot anyway?"
Instead of answering, Zuko took a big breath and sank under the water while I waited awkwardly. He came back up and hung forward over the rim.
"Uncle took me here," he sighed.
"Oh, I'm sorry, Zuko." I felt dumb for bringing it up. I had no idea what to say next. Instead I slid beside him and rubbed my hand on his back to make up for it. "I didn't realize."
He sat up a little. "No, it's okay, Aang," he said as he pushed his dripping hair from his eyes. Bittersweetness played on his face. "I wanted to revisit this place and share it with others." I was silent. Maybe it read like quiet support (at least I hoped so), but I was just biding my time to figure out what to say next. This close to Zuko and his sadness, I noticed the sharp smell he had acquired without bathing for three days. It was brusque like chopped wood but not unpleasant. I leaned in subtly to smell it more deeply when I saw the little beads of sweat forming constellations on his shoulders. I wanted to wipe them off. It would be like wiping away a tear from his cheek. Instead I just tilted my head in sympathy with him. He turned to face me
I thought first about my own loss, and what it meant to lose your teachers and friends. Then I remembered what Guru Patthik said about love and loss — returning in new forms. "It was so kind to share this place. That's so special, Zuko," I affirmed. He looked up, and I swear I could feel his little smile's warmth across the inches separating our faces. I continued nearly whispering, "It really is beautiful up here. I just feel connected with everything." And despite my earlier worries about the distractions Zuko posed, it was just as easy to appreciate the place with him here. "I'm sure your uncle knew how a place like this could make someone feel." His eyes were following the words as they left my mouth. I went on, "You know as you've grown up, you resemble Iroh more and more."
Zuko's expression changed, eyebrows furled and lips pursed, but all still so close to me. "Wait. What?" he asked.
I repeated what I had just said in my head and fell backward in the spring water, flattened by the miscommunication. I tried to cover with humor, "Oh, you know Zuko! Your hair's started to gray, your voice is starting to sound like his. And I love how you're belly's grown!" I put my hands like wings across his stomach as part of the joke, but let go quickly. Too far, I thought while blushing.
Zuko stood stagnant, still confused I assumed.
I let my head sit like a bouey barely floating above the bright water as I explained to Zuko towering above me, "It's just, uh, the patience and love you try and show—like for everyone. It's like you try to understand someone now, and you figure out their problems, so." I titled up at him admiringly, then I watched him descend as he kneeled down to mirror me. His lips bobbed in and out of the ripples we were making, and his eyes sharpened to cut through me, trying to judge my sincerity. I just kept the mask of my naive smile on.
"Thanks, Aang, but I still feel like I have a lot more to do."
Above the water we faced each other like battleships waiting for a command to fire, but below our knees were bent between one another, puzzle pieces about to be matched in the small pool. I wanted to fit them together, give Zuko a hug and let him know he's living up to his uncle's legacy. I wanted to seal up the awkwardness I felt, have him tell me I might live up to the standards he set too, shed all this uneasiness I had been feeling between me and the world. None of that happened. I sat there like always, suspended in the water and too afraid to move forward. I sunk below, rose up, and announced I was ready to head back to camp.
"I think I'm ready to head back, too," responded Zuko.
I climbed out first, trying to ignore my hang ups. But I imagined Zuko watching me from behind, his gaze steady down the blue lines, landing on my scar, seeing all of me while his stomach twisted in regret the whole time. I knew, though, that this was just my own embarrassment playing out in fantasy. I walked over to my things with a heightened sense of urgency and loneliness.
I didn't look up until I knew Zuko's towel was around his waist beside me. I wish I had waited longer. Even just standing without a shirt next to him reignited all my mangled feelings. I couldn't decide if I wanted to be naked with him long enough to make everything feel normal or if I'd rather never see him like this again.
He interrupted my decision making, "Aang, you know Uncle's not the only person whose footsteps I want to follow in, right?" Could he stop looking at me like he's the hero in a Fire Island play? Take the confidence down a notch, Firelord.
"Well, sure. There's plenty of people to try and live like," I said.
"Yeah, like you," He responded while he pulled on his shirt.
I was so excited he was finally dressing that his statement flew by without landing. I went on blabbering about whatever proverbial nonsense I automatically add to these kinds of conversations before it hit me. "Wait. Me?"
He stumbled, "Is that a surprise? I mean...you are the avatar."
I forgot this about myself more often these days. The world didn't need saving like it used to and I had a lot less people trying to capture me. I was more like a regular air nomad than I had been since I was twelve. "But I don't know what I'm doing, Zuko. Just because I'm the avatar—why would you want to be like this?" I motioned to my towel wrapped form, regretting the attention immediately.
"Don't be so hard on yourself." He elbowed me, "Don't go getting a big head or anything, but from what I hear, you're the bridge between the spirit world or something. Plus, you defeated the firelord. But those are just rumors. I'd take them with a grain of salt." He was smirking the most Zuko smirk ever and handing me my clean pair of pants to put on.
"Yeah, I guess," I pitifully laughed.
While I dressed, he turned around and continued, "No, it's more like, I just want to be easy like you and just go on helping people and trying to think about things the way you do, if that makes sense." He turned around as he finished this thought and I finished dressing.
"Yeah," I agreed while beginning to head down the trail out away from the springs, "except you're failing miserably." I turned around to see Zuko frozen in place with a face more bitter than a rotten sea prune. I came back and draped myself over his side in a hug, "I'm just kidding, sifu hotman. You're all those things. I'm always trying to be more like you," I laughed. Even from behind I could see his cheek bunch up beneath his scar as he smiled. "We're just stuck in a spiral of do-gooderness, always trying to one-up each other."
"But maybe we can skip rebuilding this next town and take a vacation instead," Zuko said sardonically.
"That sounds like a great idea actually! We can start now." I jumped on his back feeling silly and overjoyed. He caught my legs and carried me down the hill while we joked about ways to shirk our responsibilities.
Chapter 4: River Deep
He is beside me this morning. We walk warmly together. Birds hum and whistle while they dance in the reeds, but the river is too wide to make a sound. On top, the surface reaches from shore to distant shore green and flat like the smooth jade floor in the Earth Kingdom Palace, but I know, were I to wade too far, the undercurrent would wrench me from my feet and out to sea.
As we approach, we exchange half-smiled pleasantries that bloom into conversation in the redolent river air. My skin bristles into turtle-duck bumps despite the heated humidity sighing on us. I think about the day, several days gone, when I forgot myself and jumped up on him. He didn't try and shake me off, he just carried me for a ways. I was making a fool of myself—giggling like a little kid—while he was probably wishing I would just get back on the ground. Every inch that touched him I could point to if someone asked because now they each feel like a patch of shame. Thinking about it my face feels like a little glowing sun, and I speed up my pace to walk in front of Zuko so the emerging blush stays hidden.
My feet tread lightly on the rocky shore. I don't know how anyone else stands to put their full weight on the ground in places like this. Then again, I seem pretty sensitive about a lot of unreasonable things, like undressing out in the open, a process Zuko has already begun. He pinches the leather ribbon in his hair and pulls, releasing the knot into a shaggy mess. Then, as if he sensed my gaze, he peeks through his bangs and smiles. More blushing. More hiding. I turn away to find somewhere (farther away) to lay my towel and clothes. A washed up log a short walk down the bank will do. I don't dare look back while I undress. Being seen by Zuko is the last thing I want. I sometimes feel mad at my reflection for showing me myself: taller with little zits and stubble that I can't keep from coming back. And here's the strange boy again staring up at me as I wade into the water. I kick a wave in the water to break up the person the river's showing me to be. The ripples tear me into little strips of light.
When I look up the river, only Zuko's head is bobbing on top. I rush to sink myself in before heading upstream. The chill, though shocking at first, is welcome. "Feels good, doesn't it?" Zuko asks. I grin in affirmation, but no conversation follows. The tension builds in the silent invisible push of the current.
I crack first and a thought leaks out, "I forget you're the leader of a nation sometimes."
The Firelord's face fell into a scoff and his mouth sinks under the water to blow some exasperated bubbles. He reemerges. "You and me both, Aang." He lowers back down so, like a catgator, his eyes glare at me pensively just above the surface. "Can I tell you a secret?" he asks as his mouth finds air again. But he is already is headed towards me without an answer, a disembodied head rolling down the river with a short trail of hair dragging behind it. There's something mystic about the image, and the sky agrees as the sunrise breaks over the eastern hills, filling the hazy air with gold. I tell myself it's the morning that's frozen me, but I know it's Zuko. I wait expressionless.
The floating head arrives beside me, and beneath the water, the glowing green currents shift as the secret attached body comes to rest near me, too. I want to be underwater. To hide from his lips by my ear. To open my eyes to the world underneath. But I stay still. Zuko puts his hand on my shoulder and whispers, "I sometimes wish I wasn't." I turn to look at him. At the simple thought he shared. He's there as simple as the thought. Averting his eyes. Smirking. I push his bangs to to the side across his scar. In the sun his hair is brown. Simple and familiar brown.
"I know," I say. I know how you feel, I know what you mean, I know how much more there is beneath that thought. Any of those would've worked. They all mixed brackish in my mind, and I pulled out what they held in common instead of anything actually helpful. Zuko met my eyes with an expression I didn't know but that I have felt before. I want the river to rip me away right now, but we are too shallow and I have to face this moment. I have no other half-formed thoughts to avoid it. The birds have hushed, the insects hover undetectably in one place, and not even a ripple folds the surface of the water.
Underneath, though, Zuko's hand grabs mine. I squeeze mine around his. There's no thought there. The invisible currents run differently around us. The sunlight cuts straight lines into the bright green murkiness. We stare expectantly at one another. Expecting what? The humidity is heavy waiting for a raincloud to come and relieve it.
"Hey, guys!" calls a crass voice from the shore. "I couldn't sleep at all in this stupid heat." Sokka already has his shirt off when we both look over. "What about you guys?" he asks.
"Yeah, it's pretty gross out," I call back. I sense the old current running through my fingers again. When I see him, Zuko is already half out of the water by Sokka, with small droplets finding the easiest ways down his skin. I paddle toward my own things farther down the riverbank, then give Zuko some time after he has started back to our camp before I begin.
"I see how it is!" I hear Sokka yell as I turn down the trail Zuko and I had walked together this morning. "Well, the water feels just as good without you!"
Chapter 5: Lake
"The reason for meditation," Gyatso said, "arises because thoughts are drops of water." That was so long ago. I tagged along half listening behind him while collecting rolly-pollies from beneath logs and letting them crawl onto my arms. "Okay," I remember replying without understanding in the least. "Walk with me along this stream. What do you hear now?" I giggled as one of the bugs crawled in my sleeve. Then I closed my eyes and tried to hear what I thought I was supposed to hear. "Uhmm...some birds and a lemur hopping in the leaves." Gyatso pushed me to focus more. Then I heard the sound running across all the others. "Oh! I hear the water, just a little trickle." I peaked open one eye. "From there." Pointed. "Where the stream's catching on that part of the bank." Gyatso pinched his face into a smile. "Yes, I hear that, too!" he said. We walked a little farther to where a second stream merged with our's. "And now?" he asked. Most of the rolly-pollies had escaped my arm, so I could focus more. "I can hear trickles like before, but I can hear little splashes, too, where the currents are hitting each other." A happy sound came from Gyatso's mustache, and we kept walking. We stopped again where the stream, now larger, narrowed and rushed steeply down in cascades. Monk Gyatso's lips moved up and down, but the words were drowned out by the falls. "What!?" His mustache came alive again but the words were still inaudible. This time I pointed to my ears and yelled. "I can't hear you!" We walked deeper into the mountain forest away from the stream. "Sifu, what did you tell me by the stream?" I asked as the rasp of water faded in the distance. "Exactly," he said with a belly laugh.
Waves of thoughts were breaking all over me now. I stood up from the resting mat in my tent to find that the soreness had finally caught up with the constant work we had been doing: a cricked neck, tender feet, and aches across all my muscles. On top of that, my stomach felt unsettled. But none of it could distract me from the thoughts as I walked to the lake.
That unbelievable moment. I could only recall it in ghostly pieces like remembering a dream or flying through a cloud. My stomach dropped another foot down each time the images resurfaced. Most of my thoughts, though, were questions and imagined scenarios. Why did Zuko hold my hand like that? Why did he leave so quickly? Was I more stressed by the first thing or the second? I could just ignore it, and things weould be easier in a way, except looking at him. Looking at him would be difficult. It already was difficult. Just having lunch yesterday had been excruciating. Not a word passed between us. The large group made the tension easy to hide, but not to ignore, at least for me. I didn't see even a moment of recognition on Zuko's face. Not a smile, not a regret underneath the soot and the streaks left behind where his sweat had dripped down. I must've been covered with something similar now, I imagined. I reached the lake without realizing it, and began setting my things down.
As I unloaded my fresh clothes, my towel, and my shaving supplies onto the small beach, a stroke of terror hit me making me queasy. He would be here soon, all confidence and smirk. "Hey," I imagined saying from deep in the cold water. I started to undress quickly so I wouldn't have to confront him completely bare, but eventually I'd have to come out to shave.
As I took my first steps in the water, I tried, I really tried to hear the forest, or see the dull still lake, or anything. Anything. I wanted the world outside of me to slap me with details, how a friend might give you tough love. The flood of anxiety dulled everything, though, even the chill of the lake. My body reacted, but the frustration that would normally follow never became a true feeling. Only more worry seeped in. I ducked under, then opened my eyes. I emerged from the dark murky green expecting to find Zuko, all taught and sure, striding from the woods onto the beach. But, no. The pines shook a little in the wind, but no boy. I sank again and rubbed down my body. When my head reemerged, I had the same expectation. But, no. I treaded water for a while with my gaze trapped on the beach. Only the occasional bird flight and the slow gray sky offered any change.
Even though the lake had remained nearly silent, all my worries had begun to deafen me with their mute buzzing. I began to hum. Just a simple sad song - a little folk song from the West about how crickets tell the night and day about one another. The knot of worries did not begin to loosen in the slightest. Instead, the onslaught became more intense. They were swelling in my chest and in my head, pressing out and down into the rest of me. Suddenly, I couldn't hold the pressure inside and I began to swim, stroking into the flat glassy surface as hard as I could. My hum broke. And I cried. I cried and beat into the water. The sobs and splashes were loud and embarrassing and echoed against the trees. I thought of all the spirits listening to me: the old pines, the baby birds in the nests waiting for their parents to return with food, all my friends at the camp. It made me feel ridiculous, which made me cry harder. I stopped in the middle of the lake. All the hurt and disgrace, all the confusion and want, they all crashed in me without words. There was a catharsis in that.
As my strokes brought me back to the little beach, the world came within my reach again. The wet icy chill. Creaks of heavy branches. The pale yellow sand and mysterious green trees in conversation. The happy pains of work running their course in my muscles. And the rippling sounds as I moved through the water to the shore.
He still wasn't there as I stepped out naked to grab my bowl and blade. I squatted in the shallows and applied the banana leaf lotion to my face as I had many times before. Shaving it off as I had before. Rinsing it off as I had done before. A twinkling sadness permeated the whole ritual. And I felt glad to notice the feeling. I took some time after shaving, sat close to shore, and meditated. The lake wrapped around my body as I slowly breathed. Thoughts came, and I helped them pass. And Zuko's outstretched hand took hold again and again, and I wasn't surprised. It would soon be time to face my shame, I realized.
I have had so much fear, I realized. I was afraid of all the changes going on around me and going on within me. I didn't want to be this "man" that everyone expected boys to become. The air nomads didn't hold men or adults to the expectations that the world now held. And that expectation certainly didn't fit me. I've seen so few men who were silly and loving and gushing and kind. Least of all Zuko's father. How could I be a leader and stay connected to who I am.
Then there's Zuko, who was forced into adulthood so early, taking my hand once again. For so long he's been more formal, more serious, and now he's the Firelord. Despite the trappings, though, he's found the capacity within his maturity for all the flitting expressions that I've been afraid to give up. And, beyond that, I think he saw all that in me. He looks up to me, he said. No wonder his gesture won't leave my mind. Understanding my feelings brought me a sense of clarity. I felt the wind pick up and the lake water started to lap against me. I stood up and decided on asking Zuko about everything when I saw him.
Apparently, that opportunity was not today. Zuko still had not arrived to give me company. I walked through the sand, enjoying the grainy tickles on my feet. I toweled myself dry, dressed, and headed back to camp with regained appreciation for the forest path.
Chapter 6: Waves
"Okay, so you think Zuko's manly—or—wait—I'm confused." Sokka really was trying his best. I knew that. It meant a lot that he was listening at all, honestly. He tossed the volleyball back to me as an uncrested wave lifted both of us off the ground.
"Okay, so no. Zuko's like manly in a way that's not manly. And that's just like the monks, you know. And so he just reminds me of that." I threw the ball. Another warm wave glided by. The ball caught a quick sea breeze and rode it over his head, so he had to swim back to get it.
"Alright…" Sokka trailed off as he grabbed the ball, giving up on fully understanding. "Why do you need to talk to him about it, though. Won't that be kind of weird? Or, what will you even say?"
I hadn't figured that piece out. I had my revelation at the lake a few days ago. I was so excited to share my thoughts with Zuko on that cloudy morning. It felt like my thoughts were on my skin again instead of trapped inside me with my bones. I walked out of the pine trail to the clearing where we had camped out. Katara stood by Appa rolling up her sleeping bag, while Toph and Sokka had not yet emerged from their tents. But all of the Fire Nation gear was gone. Katara explained casually about the messenger hawk, urgent business, etc. Nothing too alarming, she said. Some woodpecker hammered away high up in the forest. Even with the change, I still felt more peaceful. I'd see him again. I'd tell him the next time.
A wave peaked farther out and slapped me under. I reemerged spitting out the salt water. "I threw the ball right before the wave went," called Sokka, "It's behind you." I bounced over to it, making my own little surface ripples among the sea's own. Then I plucked the floating ball from the water. "I don't have a plan or anything. I was just going to say it when I say it, and then we'd figure out the specifics by talking or something. That's like a normal conversation, right?" Sokka scratched his head and shrugged. Maybe there was an indecisive noise I couldn't hear over the beach sounds.
I tried to push the ball across the surface of the water between waves, but it stalled halfway between us. Both Sokka and I swam to it. He got there first, setting his hands on top of the floating ball. "I don't know Aang. Are you sure that's it?" My eyes darted around as I thought on it. I saw the shore where the sand castle we built earlier still held its ground against the incoming tide. Then, on top of the ocean's undulations, there were the little glistening waves the breeze made. And the sun was brighter than dragonfire. And Sokka was staring at me, waiting. I groaned and fell backward flat-backed into the sea with a big splash.
When I reemerged, I sighed, "I don't know, Sokka. There's just this big excitement here." I slapped my hand on my chest. "And I just think I need to—" Sokka slyly smiled. "No, no, I don't think—or, at least—I just." I bent my knees and let a wave ride over top of me. When it passed, Sokka put his hand on my shoulder, "It's okay, buddy, you don't have to know everything right now. We've got time." We walked back inland. He was right. We had time. I wouldn't see Zuko for another two years.
Chapter 7: Stream
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.
Chapter 8: Bath
The lingering water dripped into the tub from the faucet and echoed louder in the high stone ceiling of the temple. Why had I chosen here to stop after saying goodbye? Ghosts walked through every arching doorway, here. They carried their bones around with them, while the cool air shifted with their breaths. I saw them even now, blending in with the warm mist of the room. They went about their business refusing to acknowledge me. I didn’t blame them.
The monks were thoughtful to build the temple over the hot springs, I thought to myself. I sank in a little deeper and sighed. Then I tried to steady my breathing. Focus on the small pit of my stomach moving in and out beneath the water. Watch the mist swirl with each exhale. Dust away the thoughts as they arose. Dust away the ghosts as they approached. I thought of the texture of their old orange robes. Dust away. I just wished I could look them in the eye and tell them I’m sorry. Dust away. Tell them I’m mad they had to leave. Dust away. Tell them even after everything I’ve dealt with, I don’t know how to do this alone. My breath started to hitch, but I splashed my face down in the water. The room amplified the sound as if the waves were slapping the ceiling instead of the walls of the bath.
And it hid the soft padding of bare feet into the room on the smoothed stone floor. I blinked my eyes a few times to refocus. It was another ghost, but this one looked at me. Then, he spoke to me. “Hey,” is all he said. Then he looked away and walked to the other end of the large communal tub, where he hung his robe, so that it looked like the two golden dragons on the back were slung over the hook. He climbed into the tub with the water lapping against the walls. The room stole the sound and made it into something larger again. The small ripples slowly bounced their way to my end of the bath.
Some part of me refused to turn his way, although the want was there, too. When he made a comment about the architecture, the same part of me refused to add to the conversation. He had missed it all, and now he didn’t get to have any of it. Ghosts don’t get to come back and enjoy life again. They don’t get the sweet taste of a moon peach again. They don’t get to keep any pets and run their hands through their fur. They’ve lost all of that. They left you here with all this life and no idea what to even do with it. I dunk under the water and squeeze my eyes tight together. When I came up, my whole face was wet and dripping. Water could hide things despite its transparency.
“What was that?” asked Zuko from across the tub, and his question bounced between the corners of the room. If I responded, words wouldn’t come out. I stayed looking down and silent instead. “I, uh, guess I deserve this,” he added with a sore laugh. He started to climb out of the tub, then. I didn’t see him, but I heard the water breaking upward and splashing on the stone as he pulled up onto the edge. He paused. I was surprised to hear him slide back in, adding again to the room’s cacophony of echoing waves. “I don’t think I handled that right.” I tilted my gaze up toward his direction. “I don’t, I don’t just mean this, like this right now.” I stretched and folded my mouth somewhere between a frown and a smile. There’s not a name for the expression, but the emotion it expressed exists somewhere between resignation and acceptance. Zuko looked ashamed when he saw it through the lilting gray steam. He ran a hand up the back of his head, catching some of the strands that had dipped in the water while he soaked. “It’s just, I’m not sure what to do. I don’t know how to fix things, you know?.” He turned away back toward the edge and mumbled. “Like anything-anything.” I watched him climb out. Just stared at him the way you look at a wild animal that’s stumbled across your path. He hung his head the whole time and didn’t once turn back to look at me. He slid his robe back on and was gone.
At first I sat there in the hollowness of the room feeling madder and madder. I split myself ten ways as I became angry with my own anger. The anger became consuming, and as I criticized myself, I felt simultaneously small and giant, completely out of control. Then, one ghost walked by the doorway. He was carrying fruit pies with a little giddy kid trailing behind him. Every tensed muscle in me went soft. Then, I’ll admit, a sob escaped, singular and sturdy, the mirror image of a laugh. The walls took it up, made it as massive as it felt, and let it run around with its echoes as I let myself cry quietly. I pulled myself up on the ledge, peacefully exhausted from the sadness. I dried and started off to see if the Firelord had left, as I expected. If he hadn’t, I had apologies to make.
Chapter 9: cascades
my favorite chapter so far
The playful mutterings of the nearby cascades were hardly noticeable. He’s still here. The thought didn’t exist in exact words. It was images stirred together and warmed. And I kept stirring them so none of them would sink to the bottom. I busied my mind with this work while my hands cut banana leaves and stripped off dried lavender buds into a linen bag, weighted already by my mortar, pestle, and two jars. One, a jar of coconut oil, the other empty.
I woke earlier than usual, as I often did when we stayed on Kyoshi Island, and hiked a trail into the hills to collect supplies. Kyoshi was dependable. I could come back here. Familiar people would greet me affectionately. The trees and shrubs would be around where I left them. I’d notice small things that changed. An old tree that had finally fallen. A family that moved off the island. A different family that had grown. But they were changes of degree, and even these changes followed a routine. The sun rose over the bay. My smile met it.
Below in the village, a body emerged from the house where our group had slept, marked by a giant white Appa outside it (though I could fit him in the cup of my hand from this distance). The light had not yet reached the houses, so the body was merely a darker shadow among the morning dimness. I didn’t need to see any feature to know, though. I bit my lip. The figure walked and seemed to pet Appa briefly, then turned toward the hills, struck gold by the dawn. My hand crept up automatically into a frozen gesture (if it had moved back and forth it might’ve been called a wave). My smile grew into something estranged from myself, like I was walking by a stranger in a small town. The shadow moved back inside, then came back out, bulkier in the shoulders and heading in the direction of the trail. Something sank into my stomach, and my smile dropped.
I know for certain what I did next. I walked with my bag back to the path, then down the hill a bit where it led to a lower shelf of the river bank. A log lay alongside, and as I had done many times before, I sat there taking out the collection from my bag. I plucked a few bamboo leaves growing right behind the log and set them in the mortar. I tore strips of banana leaf off, then tore them into smaller pieces and added them in as well. And finally, a pinch of lavender. Then I crushed them together. My legs squeezed the empty jar between them. A fold of my tunic lay over the mouth of the jar and I poured the mixture into the fabric. Then I scooped a claw of coconut oil from the jar and placed it on top. I wrapped them together and squeezed my other hand around the bundle to warm the oil and let it slowly drip into the jar. I know for a fact I did all of this because it was done when I came to. But while I went about it, my thoughts were spiraling in other directions, so that the next thing I remember after I saw the shadow from my spot on the hill was seeing Zuko, his towel strung over his shoulders, approaching through the trees, eyeing me curiously between the trunks as he passed them.
He had come up here into the dappled morning light of the forest and found me. “Hey,” he said, like always, like he was introducing himself to me again. Another beginning. This one had a question mark as he looked at the dripping concoction I held in my hands. How nice to laugh this time. “It’s—uh—I’m making my—” I mimed shaving with my free hand, my mind apparently too busy stirring to spare me the capacity for speech. His eyebrows raised and his mouth parted slightly in recognition. He had the shape of an “oh” all over his face, even though he didn’t say it out loud. Then he retreated back into his smirk and sat down beside me.
He stared down in concentration as he took off his sandals. I looked at his profile as the sun shimmered in the water behind him. His bowed head held the light from getting in my eyes. “Listen,” I started as I looked back at my lap, “I just want to say I’m sorry again.”
“Aang,” he insisted kindly. I could feel him look at me, too, sense the turn of his head in my periphery, felt more of the shimmering light reach me. It felt like he had bent it at me just from saying my name. “It’s okay.” Was it? “I told you, you don’t have to.” Then why do I feel like I do? “I expected worse, honestly.” Huh? That was an addition to this repeated conversation since we had talked yesterday.
Now I looked up, and he held my gaze for the briefest moment. “What do you mean worse?” I asked. He turned back down toward his second sandal in thought and I almost regretted asking. Silence might’ve left things at an easier stasis.
“Well.” A pause. “Wasn’t it bad? Weren’t you mad?” The leaves shuttered in a short breeze. “I didn’t know what I was doing. And I wanted to do everything I was supposed to do. Right?” He had succeeded in taking both sandals off. His focus shifted everywhere else now, except toward me as he unwrapped and unpinned his hair, which fell down the sides of his head in dark streaks and knots. “I don’t feel like I know how to, though. Or I know how, and then I don’t do it. So I’m here now. But I haven’t earned it yet.”
Earned what? What did you want to do? Mad at what? At which thing? I wanted to know the exact words—answers and specifics—but his thoughts were spinning. It would only serve my desires without soothing his panic. Trying to get to the specifics now would erode the edges, deepen the bed, widen the banks. “Zuko,” I tried to use it the way he used my name, “I know.” We met eyes again. “It happens. You’re not supposed to be perfect.” His gaze shifted down, but he stayed facing me. The worn pink scar caught my attention. How could one person be dealt such a bad hand? Then I thought about the scar on his chest. Then the scar on my back. What a lousy pair of burn victims we made. I took a breath. “You’re here. I’m here. Let’s work from there.” Then. that smirk.
I leaned over to hug him, but forgot what I had been doing. The jar dropped on the ground and split, spilling the salve and ceramic shards across my feet. After reactively tensing up, I made a self-deprecating face at Zuko. He didn’t linger on it, though. “I got it,” he said as he took off his own tunic and kneeled in front of me, wiping my feet and collecting the pieces of the vessel. He took them to the cascades, set the broken pieces free in the current, and let the water run over the linen. I watched him standing ankle deep in sunlight. Noticed how his back muscles indicated every movement his arms made as he worked. When he turned around, I didn’t even try to hide my gaze. Both our grins were ridiculous, but neither of us let them go.
He came back to the log with his tunic balled up. “We’ll have to stay here another day so you can remake your lotion.” He kneeled down again and squeezed out the water from the cloth before rubbing it over my feet more intently, first tracing along my tattoos. “Yeah,” I responded, “I guess we will.” “I kind of need the extra day, too.” He kept busy wiping off each small petal of lavender. “What, why?” “Well,” he started (I could hear that smirk in his voice even though I could only see the top of his head), “My last visit on Kyoshi did not leave the best impression.”
“Oh no!” I answered in what came perhaps too close to the tone I used to talk to Momo and Appa. I reached out and tousled his hair. I thought I might’ve embarrassed him, but he turned up toward me, an earnest expression on his face, entreating silently. “You won me over,” I offered. He kept his head tilted up to me while my hand still rested on the back of his head.
“You know,” he finally said, “I kind of like the stubble.” He reached up and ran a hand swiftly across the roughness on my jaw. Then, he stood up and began to take off the rest of his clothes to bathe. I stood up and faced away before doing the same.
We stood submerged up to our waists in a deeper spot among the rapids. We chatted happily about nothing, the same way the water did. At one point I tiptoed the tender topic. “You don’t need to right now, but I hope you’ll tell me what happened on your couple of years abroad.” “You mean my years at home?” He laughed. “I did feel pretty unsettled, though, I guess,” he added. “I promise I’ll tell you soon. I just want to explain it right.” My face must’ve given me away because he went on, “Not because I need to be perfect, or anything. You just deserve it right.”
We finished later than usual—about midmorning—and headed down the path together with the sun holding the whole valley beneath its light.