"You know as well as I do that the light in Barcelona is quite different from the light in Tokyo. And the light in Tokyo is different from that in Prague. A truly great structure, one that is meant to stand the tests of time, never disregards its environment. A serious architect takes that into account. He knows that if he wants presence, he must consult with nature. He must be captivated by the light. Always the light. Always."
- The Lake House
Most people believe I am stupid, and perhaps they are not entirely remiss in this assumption. I am a simple creature with simple needs (blades of fresh green grass, the sky), ruled by instinct and memories. On the outside, I appear to be a dumb and witless animal, a shaggy-haired beast of burden. However, just as the clouds mask the dark, glittering regions of the universe from prying eyes (where air is dead and weight is weightless and there is beauty beyond heart's holding), there are hidden depths to me, a vast ocean's worth of senses and secrets.
I remember pain. I remember being forced to the ground with ropes by men that smelled like greed and sweat and desert sand. I remember cages, and cruel voices that taunted me, and fire that burned me. I remember metal chains and shadow-cloaked stone chambers and the loss of air and sky.
I remember kindness. I remember sun-dappled forest and ladies with painted faces and gentle, soothing hands stroking my nose and fur. I remember their offerings of fruit; a crisp, juicy apple, much like the one my gray-eyed boy gave me when we first met, back in the long-lost days when my kind soared through the heavens and the Air Temples sparkled with iridescent glory in dawn's mellow light.
And I remember that other boy, so different from my master, all hard edges and fierce golden glares and a soul that stank of anger and rot. I remember that he freed me from my restraints, and it was through his efforts that I was able to reunite with my friends.
So, when he appears in front of us again, amidst floating ruins of crumbled stone, humble and pleading and contrite, I do not hesitate to lick him.
"Zuko can't be trusted."
The Waterbender's voice cuts across the chill night wind, decisive and strong. She and her brother are curled up against my side for warmth while they hold a private conversation in low tones and intense looks, while, a few feet away, the others are gathered around the fire and eating dinner.
A frustrated sigh escapes Sokka's lips. "Katara, I know he used to be evil and all---"
"Used to be?" Sputtering, she clenches her fists, vibrating with indignation. "It doesn't work that way, Sokka. No one just stops being evil, especially anyone related by blood to the Fire Lord, and especially the guy who's chased us all over the world. This is another one of his tricks! He'll kill us all in our sleep, he'll capture Aang---"
"I doubt he could do that," her brother interrupts with a snort. "Toph's a pretty light sleeper. Remember that one time when---"
"Sokka! Focus!" she hisses. "The point is, I can't believe you're so willing to trust him already. Have you forgotten everything he's done, all the hardships and the danger he put us through?"
"No, I haven't forgotten," Sokka replies, uncharacteristically solemn for once. "I never will. But there's something different about him, and while I don't think we could ever be friends, I'm willing to put the past aside, at least for now. Anyway, Aang believes in him---"
"And you believe in Aang, don't you?"
He's got her there. She falls silent, and he stands up and stretches.
"Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going over there to grab some chow." A wide grin spreads across Sokka's face at the prospect of food. "I'm starving!" He rushes away, the seriousness of the moment already forgotten, leaving his sister behind to brood, lost in her own thoughts.
Gently, I move closer to her, offering solace and a quiet plea for patience and understanding. The boy is not as bad as you think, I want to say. Give him time. Give him a chance. He will prove himself true, Waterbender.
Her arms are crossed, face pulled into a scowl, and I can sense the bitterness emanating from within, tainting her spirit. We both look up at the sound of soft footsteps.
"Here." The boy thrusts out a bowl, filled with steaming, fragrant rice and meat. "I brought you dinner."
She glares at him, saying nothing.
Zuko frowns. "Take it. You must be hungry."
"I don't want anything from you," Katara spits out, and it is malevolent, it is ice fire and filled with hate, it is wrong coming from the girl with the kind smile and the healing hands. "After all the things you've done, you must be mad to think I'd accept anything you give me. Leave me alone." Her eyes narrow. "I've grown up since Ba Sing Se."
He hangs his head as guilt and regret radiate off him in waves. The air feels uncomfortable, charged, as if effused with a million pinpricks of crackling lightning, heavy with sin and betrayal, heartbreak and shattered innocence.
My passengers are quiet as we flee the Western Air Temple, once a place of refuge and now another site of violence and destruction that would haunt the children's dreams in years to come (that girl with the harsh eyes and knife-sharp laughter, leave it to her to destroy sanctuary).
The oppressive silence is broken when Zuko clears his throat. "Thank you for saving me," he says to Katara.
(I had soared underneath him as he fell through the air and she had grabbed his hand and hoisted him onto the saddle, the same quick, instinctive fluidity of motion with which he had tackled her out of the path of falling rocks.)
My gaze is focused on the horizon; rather than see the careless shrug of her shoulders, I hear it in her voice. "You're Aang's Firebending teacher," she says simply, as if that is explanation enough for her motives. But oftentimes human speech is marked by undercurrents, and this instance is no different.
A life for a life, is the unspoken continuation that hangs in the air. My debt is repaid.
I am surprised when they saddle me up for a trip, just the two of them, bridling with restless urgency and quiet, deadly purpose. They don't speak much as we glide over the shimmering blue ocean; what is there to say, after all? They exchange data pertinent to the mission in clipped bursts of syllables that sink into awkward silence. It is a far cry from the usual warm camaraderie and friendly, teasing conversations I am used to hearing.
Night bleeds into the rose-tinted hues of dawn. He entreats her yet again to rest.
"I told you, I'm fine," she says woodenly, but even I can sense the exhaustion in her voice that is being kept at bay by sheer determination alone.
I feel the tread of lithe footsteps. He is making his way to the reins, where she is seated. There is a sudden shift in weight, as if he has knelt behind her, and it occurs to me that this is a rather precarious position, given the current set of circumstances.
"Please rest." His voice is a raspy plea, the sizzle of dying flame. "Let me take over. It's daybreak now. My time, not yours."
When she doesn't reply, his tone lowers, becomes even huskier, more intimate, like a hand on the small of someone's back. "You rise with the moon. I rise with the sun. Remember?"
And then the silence is no longer awkward; it softens, like morning mist, becomes fraught with deeper, darker meaning.
"Fine," she snaps at last. "But only because you asked nicely."
I know nothing of the great mysteries. I do not understand the patterns in complicated mechanisms that can steer hulking heaps of metal above the waves or through the skies. But as an animal, born of wind and light, my senses, more so than that of humans, are finely attuned to the caprices of nature. I know when storms are approaching from beyond the horizon. I know the stillness and the silence before the ground rumbles beneath our feet.
I know when things change.
It's in the atmosphere, that warm little world of softness and tension that envelops them and blocks out all others. It's in their voices, the current that runs underneath (vibrant as lightning, deep as oceans) when they whisper, when they argue, when they fall into that peculiar dance of mindless pleasantries known as small talk that is aimed to disguise so much more.
It's in their eyes, the stolen glances and the sudden stares. It's in the touches, the accidental brush of elbows side by side, the comforting hands on shoulders, the way her fingers trace the bone and veins under his skin when she heals his battle wounds.
It's in the moonlight that shifts over the veil of treetops to illuminate his face. It's in the campfire that roars and sparks to cast her skin in an amber glow.
Can't you feel it?
We camp for the night outside the high walls of stone that the Shirshu led us to. I am secure in the knowledge resting inside my heart that Aang is safe, yet also despondent in the face of his absence, so I welcome with eagerness the children that huddle against my fur, seeking and giving warmth and comfort.
Sokka falls asleep first, wreathing the air with gentle snores, followed by Toph, who retreats into the safety of her own walls of earth, but Zuko and Katara continue talking well into the night. The world is quiet and starlit, caressed by evening breeze. It is a time for revelation, for reflection; their voices lilt and dip as they travel down the winding paths of memory.
"The day we met," she says, "you looked so scary, coming down your ship. All that armor."
"I know now how it must have seemed to you. How you must have felt, seeing a Fire Nation warship again." The words are rushed, tripping back onto themselves in apologetic haste. "I'm sorry. But I would never have done what Yon Rha did. I was a fool, not merciless."
"Not merciless? You?" she teases. "Could have fooled me."
"Hey," he snaps, playfully stung, "I saved you from the pirates!"
"By tying me to a tree."
"It was either me or them," he sniffs. "Besides, I used my best rope, you know. So it wouldn't chafe your wrists."
"Oh, I'm so glad you had my comfort in mind while you were holding me hostage," she replies drolly.
He laughs, a low cascade of sound that could only emerge from those who have just recently rediscovered laughter. "We should stop now, before we end up fighting again."
"Well, you did trap me in an iceberg."
"And don't you forget it!" The smug curve of lips.
"Believe me, I won't." The palms thrown up in surrender. "I've learned not to underestimate you."
"Good." She stifles a yawn. "It feels like a really long time ago, doesn't it? So much has changed since then."
"Yes," he agrees.
They slip into their usual brand of silence, the silence of withheld breaths, the spaces between heartbeats. All around us the world held still, suspended in time, waiting for what would be uttered next.
"I saw you first," Zuko murmurs at last, in a tone which is both thick and fragile, like the silver fog that conceals mountain peaks. "At the South Pole. Your eyes... At the time, I couldn't think about anything except capturing the Avatar and regaining my honor. But I saw you first." Heat rises in the air; he coughs, to cover his awkwardness. "Whatever happens, I just want you to know that."
Katara doesn't say anything. She shifts to her side, and I realize with a sinking heart that she has turned away. After a while, muscles tensed, Zuko does the same. It is all I can do to not rise and paw the ground in indignation.
But then I hear it, a small whisper, caught on the tip of the wind. "Good night, Zuko."
The answer glides along and curves, before it is blown away. "Good night, Katara."
And as they fall into the mist-lands of sleep, I feel their smiles, small and secret, grow against my fur.