127 th day of our journey. Omashu has fallen! We arrived at the great chasm that separates the city from the surrounding mountains early in the morning only to find the Fire Nation insignia flying from banners all over the city, as well as the black smoke of their metal factories drifting slowly above its peak.
The Avatar is insisting we stay and find his old friend, King Bumi.
My fears of yesterday about Aang or myself being distracted over what happened between us are unfounded: the shock of seeing Omashu fall has seen to that. Aang is worried about King Bumi and we've spent the whole day planning how to get into the city. Aang says he knows of a secret passage, but we'll need Appa to fly us there as soon as it's dark.
It was terrible to see the beautiful white peaks of Omashu soiled and blackened by the soot from Fire Nation forges and the red-and-black flags everywhere, like a blight on the city! A metal bridge straddles the chasm where once a long winding rocky passage was.
We had set out on the last leg of our journey at the first signs of an approaching dawn, for Sokka was eager to get to Omashu and the promise of fine living in King Bumi's palace. It was hard going, for the landscape around Omashu is all high hills and mountains. Once again, we were not risking flying on Appa, so we had to climb up and down each hill on our approach to the city, and there wasn't much time for talking.
At one point, I had lagged a bit behind, just as we were going up the last steep hill. Seeing that, Aang hung back a bit too, letting Sokka move on ahead until he was out of hearing. He looked as though he might say something about what happened yesterday.
That scared me, for I still didn't know what to say.
I knew what I would like to say – that it was a wonderful, unforgettable thing that happened – but I wasn't sure I should say anything at all. There's so much at stake, and on so many levels... Aang's not just anybody – he's the Avatar! That's an inescapable truth for both of us. It would've been complicated enough even if it was just Aang, but with duties and responsibilities no other Avatar his age has ever had to shoulder, saying it's complicated is an understatement! I need more time to think.
Strange I find myself so reluctant to speak openly about something that yesterday I was displeased Aang was being too reticent about... The tables have turned, and I don't know exactly why.
'We should hurry up, we're lagging behind', I said, before Aang could even open his mouth, and I quickened my pace to catch up with Sokka, keeping my eyes firmly on the ground. I think Aang noticed my reluctance, but next minute we had reached the top of the hill and Sokka announced the city of Omashu.
Only it wasn't Omashu as we know it.
Everything else flew out of my mind as we stood in shock looking at the spoilt beauty of the city. The chasm around it that made it so easily defensible had been breached, for there was a metal bridge spanning that space. Metal can't be bent.
Aang was very upset, especially when Sokka, with his usual tactlessness, implied that King Bumi could have been killed or executed. Aang flatly refused to entertain that possibility, or to leave Omashu and find himself another Earth Bending teacher.
'This isn't about finding a teacher. This is about finding my friend,' he said.
Sokka and I looked at each other. There was no going against such determination. I had always known Bumi was someone very special for Aang, but I was only just realising just how deep his loyalty to Bumi ran.
'Don't worry, Aang,' I said 'We'll find Bumi.'
'Yesterday we spent hours down a labyrinth of dark tunnels to escape from the very same Fire Nation soldiers that are occupying this city,' Sokka said, acerbically 'and now you want us to just waltz into their midst...'
'Not just waltz in, Sokka,' Aang said, brightening considerably 'I think I have an idea how to get in unnoticed.'
'Why do I have a feeling I will regret this?' Sokka grumbled, resignedly 'Let's get away from here – we're right on the skyline.'
We headed downhill again in silence and a rather sombre mood. Omashu was the biggest city I had ever seen (with the possible exception of the Northern Water Tribe's ice city), and it had seemed completely unassailable surrounded as it was by that huge chasm and defended by skilled earthbenders. How could it have fallen?
'Metal,' Sokka said in a low growl, as though he were reading my thoughts. 'They used metal to span the chasm and burnt their way through Omashu. Now they're using metal to clad the city and make it unbendable.'
'It must have happened quite some time ago,' I said 'probably when we were still in General Fong's fortress.'
'If only we'd've come here sooner…' Aang threw a dark look in the direction of the city.
'I don't think we could've stopped Omashu from falling in Fire Nation hands, even with an escort from Fong,' Sokka looked back over his shoulders as we made our way down hill 'Anyway – no more crazy ideas like Fongs' – if we get into the city, it'll have to be by stealth!'
We made our way back down to the valley and now we're just waiting for night to fall. Aang thinks he knows another way, a secret passage into Omashu from somewhere inside the chasm that separates the city from the rest of the land. We'll need Appa to fly us across, so it'll have to be very dark before we venture down there.
Aang is pacing up and down restlessly near Appa. I know he's very worried about Bumi - Sokka's unspoken words have got to him. It's not the first time the occupying Fire Nation forces have executed the town leaders so as to avoid them becoming rallying points for resistance movements.
Sokka is preparing his weapons and I have already got our dark cloaks ready. The sun is a blazing fiery-red ball between the mountain peaks. Aang has paused in his restless pacing to look at the sinking sun, the contours of his determined face painted a vivid red by the sunset.
I feel very awake and the thrill of another adventure is coursing through my veins. I hope all goes well.
128 th day of our journey. Yesterday night we sneaked into the city via the sewer system. There we made contact with the Resistance movement within the city underground labyrinth of tunnels and sewer ducts.
The Resistance were far outnumbered and the Avatar convinced them all to leave to fight another day. My brother hit upon the brilliant idea of faking a plague to allow the city's citizens to leave Omashu's walls unharmed.
The plan worked, and now we are camping outside the city. Aang's quest for King Bumi has failed, though he did find Flopsy, the King's Gorilla-goat.
During the escape from the city, a small toddler by the name of Tom Tom somehow got caught up with the crowd and we have just found out he's the Governor's son.
The governor is willing to trade King Bumi in return for his son.
I would never in my life have thought the day would come when I'd be happily bending sewage!
Well, actually, 'happily' isn't what I felt, quite the contrary - but Aang said it was the only way into the city without being seen. The sewer outlets were set at the city's base and at the top of the high sheer walls that Omashu stood on. They were unreachable unless you had a flying bison – which we did.
Aang went in first and after a second's hesitation (the stench was incredible!) I gritted my teeth and followed. It wasn't as bad as I thought it would be, for I could bend most of the muck away so that I didn't get as much as a splash on my clothes. Poor Sokka, however, got the worst of it. When we finally emerged from a manhole onto a darkened street, I washed the muck off him and Aang airbended him dry, but we found he had been attacked by some purple sewer-dwelling creatures with suckers.
Sokka panicked of course. Aang had to tackle him and pin him to a wall before he would quit yelling. The creatures on my brother's face, Aang said, were just a harmless Pentapi, and could easily be tickled off. Their suckers left pock-marks on Sokka's face but otherwise he was okay and we were about to go off when we were accosted by some patrolling fire nation soldiers – apparently there's a curfew in the city now.
Aang was quick-witted enough to wrap his sash around his head to hide his tattoo and in the meantime, I convinced the soldiers that my brother had Pentapox: the name popped into my head just in time, and sounded suitably medical and gruesome. Sokka's spots and his acting sick soon had the soldiers running to burn their clothes. (my brother is very good at feigning aches and pains when it suits him – I should know, for I'm the one who usually falls for it!)
We walked for about half-an-hour in the dark deserted streets - Omashu was so different from how we had seen it – there were signs of construction work everywhere, the palace was no longer there and scaffolding covered most of the city's many-tiered levels.
But it was the eerie silence that was got to me.
'Let's find Bumi and get out of here,' I whispered.
Aang thought they'd be keeping Bumi somewhere made of metal where he couldn't earth-bend.
'They're turning this whole city into metal' Sokka said grimly 'They want to make sure any earthbenders left in the city won't have any advantage.'
Just then, we noticed some movement in the city level below ours. A small group of soldiers with lights were accompanying two women along the bare stretch of ground. At the same time, we heard the rumble of falling masonry. Some stones and rubble were falling down one of Omashu's mailchutes in the direction of the small party. Aang acted quickly and as the stones reached his level he sent an air blast that pulverised the stones into dusty debris. However, one of the women mistook Aang for the perpetrator of the rockfall, and soon we had her and the escorting soldiers after us.
Actually, up close, I realised that the woman was only a teenager: She was Fire Nation, and obviously of high rank, with long, dark, elaborately-styled hair and narrowed eyes that had a steely glint in them. She was worse than the soldiers. Like an arrow released from the bowstring, she moved in an impossibly fast way, and had an arsenal of weapons hidden up her wide sleeves – arrows and knives which she flung with deadly accuracy at us. We barely made it to get away – in fact, I think we might not have got away, hadn't the ground suddenly given away beneath us.
We landed with a jarring thud somewhere dark and it took me a while to realise someone had earthbended us back into the sewer tunnels again. Only here they were larger and lit with Omashu's ubiquitous green crystals. We sat up, disoriented, to find ourselves surrounded by earthbenders.
'I've seen you before,' a large, burly earthbender said as we slowly got to our feet. 'You came to the palace.'
'Yeah, we did end up as King Bumi's guests, eventually...' Sokka remarked, rubbing his head.
I thought the earthbender looked vaguely familiar. He turned out to be one of King Bumi's army commanders, Colonel Bao. We explained what happened.
'It is good to see you again Avatar,' the earthbender bowed respectfully, and the others followed suit.
Aang took off his improvised hat and we listened solemnly as Bao explained how they were trying to lead a resistance movement against the occupying Fire Nation army, but the really shocking part of his tale was when he explained how, when the Fire Nation first attacked Omashu, King Bumi decided not fight back.
Even I, who did not really know Bumi that well, found this hard to believe. Though an eccentric, I felt that the old man loved Omashu. I could see that Aang took this news badly too.
'We have enough earthbenders to cause some pretty serious damage in these tunnels,' one of the resistance fighters said, sombrely 'They've clad most of the city in metal, but we could cause these tunnels to collapse. That would, however destroy Omashu and what's left of its citizens.'
The morale of the resistance fighters was low, and I was quickly coming to see the hopelessness of the situation. Despite the resistance leader's brave words, I could see that living like elephant-rats, with no real opportunity to win the city back, was weighing hard on some of the resistance fighters, so when Aang, who was thinking along the same lines, suggested they leave the city to fight another day, most of the earthbenders agreed.
It was Sokka who came up with the idea of faking a plague to evacuate Omashu's citizens. If not all of them, at least those of them who wanted to come – like the resistance fighters and their families.
Using the temporary pockmarks left by the Pentapi, we soon had a very convincing plague running rampant among the oppressed people of Omashu, and Sokka organised a small group to inform the Fire Nation soldiers of the outbreak.
In the excitement of creating a false disease, however, I had forgotten about Bumi. Aang hadn't. I realised he hadn't any Pentapus marks and he'd tied his sash once more round his head.
'I'm not leaving until I find Bumi,' he told me as he took off on his glider.
The familiar prickle of unease swept through me as I saw his figure recede in the distance. I didn't want us to get separated – especially by leaving Aang behind in a Fire-Nation-occupied city. I knew he could take care of himself, and that on his glider he could reach us in minutes. But what if he was recognised? King Bumi was bound to be heavily guarded.
The resistance leader had confirmed that, to his knowledge, King Bumi was still alive, but still felt too betrayed by Bumi's attitude to even want to speak about his former King. I guess I can't blame him – I probably would have felt the same way myself. Aang, however, wasn't abandoning Bumi, and I could do nothing about it, for a huge crowd of Pentapox-riddled citizens were gathering, and I had to think about their safety too.
The rendez-vous with the Fire Nation soldiers went exactly as Sokka planned: they ran off, white-faced, to tell the Governor that there was strange but deadly plague among Omashu's citizens. It wasn't long before the order came to rid the city of anyone showing symptoms of the disease. Anyone refusing would be locked up in a quarantine-come-charnel house near the city walls.
So, my face tingling slightly where the Pentapus suckers had inflamed it, I joined hundreds of people near the outer gate. I'm not that good at faking illness, but I gave it my best shot – I wanted these people out alive: if our trick were to be discovered I knew the Fire Nation retribution would be terrible. However, the soldiers didn't come close enough to observe well: they stayed as far away as their commanding officer would allow, and ushered us forward, threatening at spear-point anyone who came too close.
So we staggered towards the gate – many feigning a high fever and delirium; others carrying 'unconscious' companions on improvised stretchers to make it more realistic. Once out of the gate, I had to resist the urge to run off, because we had to play the part until we were completely out of sight. So we crawled and shuffled pitifully along the metal bridge. Finally, when we were sure no Fire Nation telescope would see us, we quickened our pace so that, a few hours later, just as the sun was setting, we found a sheltered place hidden by the high mountains and set up camp on the valley floor.
We were not able to get too many provisions with us, for once the Governor had given the order to evacuate, Firebenders had seen to it that we move quickly - on pain of instant plague-cleansing by incineration! However, we soon had some fires going, and the evacuees were sharing whatever food they had with a palpable air of relief and light-heartedness.
I was kept busy healing some resistance fighters who had been overenthusiastic with their Pentapi application, and ended up with many inflamed pockmarks that wouldn't go away naturally. My healing water helped, and by the time it got dark everyone was sitting happily around the campfires enthusiastically going over the lucky escape and already making plans to join other Earth Kingdom forces to fight the Fire Nation invasion.
I, however, could not settle down and kept glancing up at the sky, wondering if Aang was in trouble.
Although he had said nothing about it, I knew he couldn't understand why Bumi had ...well... to put it bluntly, betrayed his people like that. I don't know if I would have gone back to look for someone who had so callously abandoned his people like Bumi did. Or if I did, at least I would've wanted some answers!
I suppose this goes to show that Aang is the better person. I would not have forgiven something like that in a hurry.
In the end, when he came, it was not on his glider. I saw him approach from the dark valley, walking dejectedly towards us and leading a large creature whom I first mistook for Appa. But it was Flopsy, King Bumi's pet, who looked just as sad as Aang did.
Aang's face said it all. 'We looked everywhere. No Bumi,'
He looked so upset at that moment, that I forgot all my resolutions, and drew Aang into an embrace.
'He's the strongest centenarian I have ever met,' I whispered, 'I know he'll survive.'
But just then Colonel Bao came up to us saying we had someone extra in our group. I heard a little baby's giggles and the next minute Momo appeared with a toddler excitedly pulling at his neck.
Momo was freaking out, so I ran forward and detached the baby, (who appeared to be around one or two years old,) so the lemur could fly off.
'He must have followed us out of Omashu somehow,' Bao said 'No-one noticed him.'
'Does anyone know who he belongs to?' Aang said, watching the little boy toddle off determinedly in Momo's direction.
The Earthbender shook his head. 'He's dressed in Fire Nation fashion,' he pointed out, darkly.
I looked around. Most of the Omashu refugees were members of the resistance. Only a small proportions were women with kids. Whoever he belonged to was certainly not among the people here. The little boy's attention had been attracted by an unattended fire. I hurried to pick him up before he fell into it.
'We can't just let him run around,' I said, lifting him up and giving him a stick to play with, 'we've got to find his mother. She must be really worried!'
'Yeah, well – we can't risk any one of us going back to Omashu now,' Colonel Bao said 'We're plague-infested, remember? That means even this child.'
'I could take him back,' Aang volunteered 'I could go on my glider and no-one will notice.'
'That may be best, Avatar,' Bao agreed, 'But I would wait till the dust settles a bit. With the curfew and the news of the Pentapox, they'll have doubled their guard. If they see you – or suspect that this baby has been in contact with us - they might not want it back.'
'His mother will,' I said fiercely, but the little boy was wriggling like a snake-eel in my arm, so I had to put him down and follow him around.
He was a jolly little toddler, still very wobbly on his feet and definitely unused to the rough terrain of the valley floor – he tumbled over with every few steps, because he wouldn't let me hold his hand, yet he made no fuss about it, but picked himself up and continued.
Looking after toddlers was something that I did very often back at the South Pole, for with the men gone, and during the worst months, many women had been forced to leave their traditional jobs of cooking and cleaning to go fishing or gather edible seaweed (some months, Sokka couldn't provide for the whole village alone) so I was often called upon to take care of their babies until they returned. I had forgotten what hard work looking after toddlers was!
And how rewarding!
Every so often, the tiny boy would bend down and pick a stone or some leaves or a stick and examine them with the innocent, wide-eyed wonder so typical of toddlers. Then he would hold up his treasure for me to admire. He seemed to know a few words like 'stone' and 'flower', but for most of the other stuff he touched he had no words, meaning he couldn't have seen them very often. This made me think he might have led a sheltered life.
We proceeded this way till we arrived at the last campfire, but the fearless little thing insisted on going beyond. It was very dark and I was about to pick him up and take him elsewhere when he picked up a large dead leaf and uncovered an Elephant rat. It screeched loudly at him, the sudden noise making him jump out of his skin. He ran back to me, arms outstretched and crying in fear.
'Hush, don't cry!' I whispered, rocking him gently in my arms, 'It's only a little Elephant Rat!'
I waited until his sobs quieted down. 'Look – I've got something for you!' I led him away from the dark, towards the flickering campfires and waterbended some water from my waterskin in glittering circles above his head. He was soon giggling and swiping at it. Then it was peek-a-boo, and then a tickling session. It was some time before I noticed I was quietly being observed.
Aang sat on a boulder near one of the campfires, with a small smile hovering around his lips, and a look of wonder in his eyes. He was looking at the little toddler as though he had never seen anything so unusual before.
'That looks like fun!' he said.
I grabbed the baby, who was cooing away in my ear and determinedly trying to climb on top of my head, and turned him upside down and in a cartwheel. He giggled hysterically until I stood him right way up in front of me.
''gain ! 'gain!' he cried.
'How about you have a turn at entertaining him, Aang? This is tiring!'
'Can I? That's great!' Aang airbended himself down eagerly.
'Uh...Nothing too dangerous, ok?'
Aang's idea of fun usually involves something dangerous. But I needn't have worried - the baby was soon giggling at a vortex of dry leaves Aang had airbended around him and soon the little boy was climbing enthusiastically all over Aang trying to reach the whirling things. A minute later, the toddler himself was up in the air, tumbling along with the leaves and screaming with laughter as Aang airbended him gently upwards in a slow spiral.
'Take care of him for a minute, will you Aang? I have to fetch some stuff.'
'Sure, Katara,' Aang replied, bringing the little boy down on a cushion of air.
I went quickly around the campfires asking people for some clean towelling, warm milk and soft food. It wasn't easy to gather all I needed, because most of the citizens had just brought the bare essentials with them from Omashu. But a quarter of an hour later, I was back to where I had left Aang and the baby.
And now it was my turn to observe quietly. Actually, Aang and the toddler were being anything but quiet: Aang had the baby on his back and was pretending to be a flying glider with whooshing sound effects, airbending-aided jumps from one boulder to another, accompanied by the baby's excited cries of ''gain! 'gain!'
He saw me then and they both came over to the fire.
'This kid's fun!' he panted 'but he doesn't say much.'
'They only know a few words at that age,' I said grinning 'but you're quite a natural with children, Aang'
'I don't know many babies,' he shrugged, lifting the toddler off his back and setting him down 'Air bender kids come to the temple at 5 or 6. But I met a few toddlers and babies on my travels, and when air nomad families came visiting. Hey – what's all that stuff for?'
'For him' I said handing the baby some soft fruit, 'If he has to spend the night here, I thought I'd better get some diapers ready and some baby food.'
'Tom-tom love peasch!' the toddler lisped, holding up some mashed peach in his pudgy hand.
'Is that your name?' I murmured. If we knew that at least, finding his parents would be easier. I let his attention turn back to what he was eating, then:
'Tom-Tom!' I called suddenly.
Tom-tom looked up with a smile and some more mashed peach on his turned-up little nose.
'So we have a name,' Aang said with a smile, handing me a napkin.
I wiped the little boy's face and hands and gave him a hug. He settled down happily to play with some sticks near our fire.
'I think when I take Tom-Tom back to Omashu, I'll have another look for Bumi,' Aang said, gazing into the fire 'Maybe there's someplace I overlooked.'
'With most of the earthbenders gone as well as the threat of the plague, perhaps the soldiers' guard will be down,' I said, encouragingly.
'Yeah, perhaps.' Aang's previous high spirits had dissipated and he sounded defeated, 'I looked in all the large prisons, Katara, and no-one has seen him. Omashu's so big... They could be hiding him anywhere.'
We lapsed into silence, broken only by little Tom-tom's contented gurgles as he mouthed the sticks. Much as I wanted Aang to find his old friend, I knew that time was pressing and Aang still had to learn earthbending – we couldn't afford to lose too much time looking for Bumi. We had to find another earthbending teacher.
And there was something else that made me resent wasting time at Omashu, but I didn't quite know how to tell Aang.
'Um...Aang, about Bumi-'
'I'm just having one last look, ok?!' he cut across me sharply.
'It's not only that, is it?'
He released his breath in a prolonged sigh and lowered his eyes to the ground. 'Look – I – I know what you think, Katara – I know that what Bumi did was ...' he glanced up at the many campfires dotted here and there in the valley, '...totally incomprehensible. But Bumi always did things differently, and usually in the end, the results are good. And even if not, I still want to find him.' He turned his gaze defiantly on the distant orange glow on the skyline that marked the city.
'You want answers too, though... I would.'
I tried to keep the harshness in my voice to a minimum, but it was hard to think that someone who had that much power at his disposal would not even lift a finger to save his own city.
Aang turned to me, a troubled look on his face.
'Yes, I want answers' he said slowly, 'but more than that, I want to save Bumi. Even if his decision was a mistake.'
'It's a pretty costly mistake.'
'But a mistake, nonetheless. I can't just abandon him because of one mistake! Everyone makes mistakes!'
'Yes, but -'
'I made loads of mistakes – not only mistakes , really bad stuff - look what I did when I took that message Bato was waiting for! I almost broke us apart! Yet you stuck with me in the end!'
I bit my lip and looked down, shaking my head. 'We abandoned you...' I said in a low voice 'I left with Sokka -I thought he needed me more, but I regretted it as soon as we were out of sight of the Abby. So did Sokka.'
'I didn't know that.'
'We had already turned back when that Shirshu monster found us. Sokka just needed some time to cool off. You see, he had already told Bato we'd be going with you to the North Pole, so he couldn't understand why you hid the message.'
'He told Bato that?' Aang's face turned a shade paler even in the warm glow of the fire.
'You didn't hear him, did you?' I asked, voicing what I had suspected at the time 'You left the room.'
He nodded silently with a stricken look on his face.
'I was convinced you were going to leave me,' he said in a small voice, 'I – I guess I just panicked. I couldn't bear to think –' His eyes flickered up to mine, but he didn't continue, and instead started fiddling with the sticks Tom-tom had abandoned. 'I'm an idiot!' he muttered.
'Well, we were too. I should've spoken to Sokka immediately. I felt that his decision was wrong.' I leaned forward slightly, trying to catch his eyes 'I'm sorry, Aang. We should've been as faithful to you as you are to Bumi, and I really do hope you find him tomorrow.'
We had come so close to parting ways that day, that I still tremble to think about it. Especially now. Now that I'm thinking there's something more than friendship between us. Perhaps that's what Aang was thinking, because he looked just as pale as I felt. But before he could say anything, Sokka came up to our fire together with Colonel Bao and two other earthbenders. Momo, who had followed them, was immediately pounced upon by Tom-tom, who flung his arms round his neck with a happy cry.
'Pentapox symptoms all gone!' Sokka said proudly.
'Everyone's settled down,' Bao reported, 'and we've placed some lookouts on the hills up there, but there's no sign of any unusual Fire Nation activity in Omashu. I think we're safe.'
Appa and Flopsy had settled down like two huge fluffy white boulders just beyond our campfire and Momo finally extricated himself from Tom-toms grasp. Robbed of his favourite lemur, Tom-tom turned his attention to Sokka's club. He picked it up and started chewing on it, but Sokka snatched right out of his tiny hands, making him cry.
' No! Bad Fire Nation baby!'
I whacked my brother across the head angrily. Talk about being a big bully! He grudgingly handed over his club to Tom Tom who quietened down immediately. Colonel Bao, however, seemed to think that Tom Tom could be a killer just because he's a Fire Nation baby.
Men... They don't understand anything at all about babies!
Babies don't have a mean bone in their bodies! They are completely and utterly innocent and have no notion of hypocrisy or deviousness! You can see everything so transparently in their eyes, even though they cannot talk – their happiness, as well as their displeasure, is written all over their guileless faces, and Tom Tom is no different from any other Southern Water Tribe baby I've looked after. He may, indeed, join the Fire Nation army when he grows up, but I want to think that by that time, there may be more soldiers who follow Jeong Jeong's lead and desert Ozai's killer armies. (Or Ozai's successor –with the avatar's return, the Fire Lord's days must surely be numbered!)
And anyway, I just couldn't find it in my heart to look in suspicious dislike, as Bao and Sokka were doing, at an innocent child.
Even now that I know who he is:-
The infant son of the Governor – the man who brought about Omashu's downfall!
As we were talking by our campfire a messenger hawk landed on a rock near us, the fire Nation insignia emblazoned on the message tube harnessed to its back.
Aang read the message. It was from the Governor and addressed to the 'cowardly kidnapper'. It proposed an exchange to take place tomorrow at noon at the base of the city's summit rock statue: his son Tom Tom, for King Bumi! I saw Aang's face change from incredulous disbelief to sheer joy at our luck!
'Tom Tom, you're a darling!' I said, hugging the little boy tightly, 'I can't believe our luck!'
'The Governors' son?' Colonel Bao had heard the message 'How on earth did he end up here? I would have thought he'd be very well protected.'
'Well, he's here now,' Aang said 'We get Bumi, the Governor his son, and everyone will be happy.'
Bao looked sceptical. 'The Governor has a teenage daughter, and an infant son. I could recognise the daughter, but I never saw the little boy up close, so I cannot vouch if this is really him. The message looks authentic though...' He had taken the message from Aang's hand and was examining it closely.
'He said his name is Tom Tom. Babies don't lie. This is the Governor's son!' I said emphatically.
We discussed our plans for tomorrow late into the night. Aang had completely recovered his spirits and had absolutely no qualms about the whole exchange, but Sokka and Colonel Bao remained uncertain about it. Bao told us all he knew about the Governor and his family. He was a non-bender, but an ambitious man and a good strategist.
'Your dad's completely unlike you, Tom Tom,' I whispered in his ears as I stroked the soft, silky, baby-hair, 'But you'll see him again tomorrow. Now it's time you went to sleep, it's very late.'
Tom Tom yawned and squirmed restlessly. I looked up. Aang was some distance away talking to Colonel Bao. My brother was laying out his sleeping bag near the fire.
'Sokka, I need your help.'
'Talk to Tom Tom while I change his diaper – they're very wriggly at this age.'
There was a frozen look of shock on Sokka's face, but he grudgingly did as I told him, holding his club for the toddler to admire while I finished dressing him.
'Why don't you leave him till tomorrow, Katara? His Mom could do this.'
I glared at him. 'I'm not even going to answer you Sokka, -' I started but suddenly, Tom Tom's eyes filled with tears:
'M- m- Mama,' he cried, big fat tears trickling down his cheeks.
Sokka's words had apparently reminded the little boy of his mother and soon he was crying heartily. I drew him to me, sitting him in my lap. He protested at first, for he was overtired and overexcited, but after a awhile he calmed down and, putting his thumb in his mouth, he gazed up at me with teary eyes, his little body shaking with hiccups brought on by the crying fit. I rocked him gently, and sang him an old Water Tribe lullaby.
I thought of reproducing it here, in tribute to my mother's original intention of writing down the Southern Water Tribe's culture and traditions in her scroll:
'Go to sleep my baby,
close thine moon-bright eyes,
let Her spirit guard you
from the skies above,
When the moon is shining,
And waves draw back and forth
'Tis the Ocean Spirit, my darling,
cradling thee to sleep.'
Tom Tom's large eyes finally closed and he is asleep on my lap now, which has made writing today's events rather difficult. But this squat little Earth-Book is very sturdy, and that helped – my writing is a bit crooked, but legible.
Someone else has been listening to the lullaby. My voice was low, for the lullaby's lilting melody is intended to quieten a child to sleep, so I hadn't thought anyone was listening, but when Tom Tom fell asleep, I saw Sokka propped up on one arm, looking at us with a strange expression, and his eyes gleaming strangely. He's still awake now, in a sleeping bag near mine, looking up at the sky with his hands behind his head.
I had better lay Tom Tom down by my side now and get some sleep myself. I have to be careful not to wake him up, for tomorrow's a big day for him. Sokka is still gazing up sleeplessly at the night sky.
He looks sad, for some reason. Perhaps because Yue's brightness is shrouded by some hazy high clouds.
Or perhaps because Sokka is old enough to remember my mother singing that lullaby to me.
I wish I could.
129 th day of our journey. The hostage trade, or rather, the exchange of King Bumi and the Governor's son did not go as planned. Mainly, it was due to the intervention of three girls with prodigious fighting skills, who called the deal off.
At noon we were waiting for the Governor or his representative at the foot of a large statue of Ozai under construction, but the governor didn't come - his daughter did. She was the one who attacked us the night we entered the city, and was accompanied by two other teenage girls. In a metal coffin-like container, was King Bumi. Then one of the girls pointed out that a two-year old and a King was not a balanced exchange. Tom Tom's sister called the deal off.
It was Tom Tom who woke me up in the morning. I felt him stir against me and next minute he was awake. I thought he'd be upset at not finding his mom by his side, but on the contrary, he was full of beans and fascinated by my sleeping bag. He crawled right in, exploring what was, for him, a novel way of sleeping.
I got out, rubbing the sleep out of my eyes and went to get our stuff to prepare breakfast. Sokka was still asleep but Aang, as usual, was already awake, feeding Appa some dry grass.
When I got back Tom Tom had moved over to Sokka and was determinedly pushing himself inside his sleeping bag. I grinned as Sokka woke up with a startled shout.
'Look after him for a while, will you?' I said to the two of them 'I'm off to get more firewood.'
When I came back, to my surprise, I found Sokka teaching Tom Tom how to hold a Boomerang properly, and Aang had built him a glider-replica from sticks.
It was like that all morning – Sokka trying to teach Tom Tom the basics of Water Tribe weaponry ( much like he had done with the children back at the South Pole), and, a couple of times, I caught him trying to teach the toddler to repeat rude stuff about the Fire Nation army. When he wasn't with Sokka, he was playing rambunctious games with Aang, which he really enjoyed. In fact, towards noon, as we headed off towards Omashu, he wanted Aang to carry him.
Aang was in good spirits, but Sokka and I were in some trepidation about the upcoming hostage exchange. However, Appa was saddled and ready, so Aang handed Tom-tom to me and took the reins.
It was nerve-wracking approaching Omashu in broad daylight on a flying bison – even though we were fairly sure we would not be attacked while Tom Tom was with us, still, if Appa was recognised, Aang's presence would be given away.
But Aang had come up with a plan together with Colonel Bao. They had sent the messenger hawk back with a proposed place for the hostage exchange at one of the highest points in the city: a statue of Ozai still under construction.
We flew at a very high altitude, obscured by some patchy white clouds and then dropped down like a stone once above Omashu. Appa dropped us off on a wooden platform on the scaffolding surrounding the statue.
I don't think any of the Fire Nation soldiers and guards posted round the city walls saw us drop in – their attention was fixed on the only way in or out of the city: the main gates that led to the newly-constructed metal bridge spanning the chasm. From our vantage point, we could see that the governor had posted a lot of soldiers there in expectance of our arrival.
However, it was not long before some of them began pointing at the statue- they had seen us.
I handed Tom Tom to Sokka and got ready.
I wasn't surprised to see his sister had been sent to handle the exchange – she was a formidable opponent. She was accompanied by two other girls and Bumi himself, grinning nonchalantly from a metal, coffin-like container. One of the girls had a haughty face, disdain etched into every feature. For some strange reason, she looked vaguely familiar somehow. Though she hardly looked any older than me, the cold, calculating look in her eyes, and self-assured, domineering stare marked her out as someone I should keep my eye on.
The third girl was an unknown. Unlike the other two she did not have a hard, belligerent expression; instead she looked naively sweet-natured. I wished she was Tom- Tom's sister – especially when his real sister callously turned her back on her own baby brother, because she did not think him fit to exchange with King Bumi!
'The deal's off!' his sister said, dispassionately, signalling for Bumi to be taken away again.
How could she do that?! How could she abandon her helpless baby brother like that!? Did this girl have a heart?
It was Aang who attacked first – I think the sight of Bumi in his metal coffin being lifted back up again was just too much. He rushed at the three girls, and the haughty one leapt into action. I had heard tell of firebending skills that could bend lightening but I had thought them just rumours.
They weren't. Crackling blue lightening shot out of her hands, barely missing Aang. I had never seen anything like it!
I readied myself for battle. The first real battle since I left the North Pole. I knew we were facing at least two - possibly three - highly skilled fighters, but this time, it was different – this time, I was a bending master and therefore someone to be reckoned with! Especially Tom Tom's sister – her brutal indifference to her own sibling was something that shocked me.
The firebender, who had recognised Aang as the Avatar, stuck to him with the single-minded doggedness of a Tiger seal after its Shrimp-fish.
I shouted to Sokka to get the baby out of there, for his sister had several deadly blades protruding from beneath her sleeve and she was ready to launch them in our direction. (Did she even care that she could easily kill her own brother that way?)
Unfortunately, it wasn't long before I discovered how looks could be deceiving – the girl with the sweet face turned out to have the most unexpected and scary weapon of all.
I kept the two girls at bay while Sokka used the bison whistle to call Appa. I had managed to immobilise the knife-throwing girl, when I realised the other one had disappeared. Suddenly, she came up behind me and jabbed me sharply with her fingers in several parts of my arms and shoulders.
It was the strangest sensation I had ever felt – not painful – more like an instantaneous weakness. It took me a few seconds to realise she had hit me exactly on the main pressure points of the Chi pathways, and this fact was driven home to me when I tried to bend and found that I couldn't!
Thankfully, Sokka appeared on Appa just at that moment and his boomerang deflected the knife-thrower's next batch of deadly blades. I climbed thankfully into the saddle, my arms still weak and a voice screaming in my head that I couldn't bend!
This was much worse than when I my hands were burnt – this time, I knew my bending was gone – not diminished or damaged, but gone entirely. The edge of panic tore at my thoughts but I pushed it away – Master Pakku had always taught us to act on the here and now, and push any distractions from our mind – whatever they were. Sometimes, survival was just as important as winning a fight. This time, I knew I had to survive to live another day, if not fight another day. There were others who needed me.
'Where's Tom Tom?' I asked, looking at the empty saddle.
'I put him somewhere safe for now,' Sokka replied.
Just then, I caught sight of Aang. He was riding Bumi's coffin-container down a chute, pursued by the Fire-bending girl. We tried to catch him as the coffin flew off the chute and sailed right above our heads, but we missed and Aang and Bumi landed once more on the mailchute system, breaking right through one and falling onto another – then sped out of sight.
It was some time before we found where they had ended up. Actually, we found Aang alone looking at an empty mailing chute beneath some scaffolding.
'Where's Bumi?' Sokka shouted.
Aang indicated somewhere half-way up the chute. Bumi's coffin was sliding upwards – he was earthbending himself upwards!
'He could earthbend all this time,' Aang said as he climbed on Appa. 'They didn't cover his face.'
'He – what?' I was astounded 'He can earth bend with his face?!'
That was something new. I can't imagine not using my arms and hands to earthbend! Or rather – I suppose I was just finding out how it feels not being able to bend at all. The demons I was trying to keep at bay threatened to overwhelm me. Had I become a non-bender? What had that girl done to me?! I suppressed a shudder – I couldn't go to pieces again like I had done when Aang had burnt my hands – and besides, if Bumi can earthbend with his face (earthbenders use their legs and feet a lot) then perhaps there was some hope for me.
'What' d'ya mean, 'he could earth bend all along'?!' Sokka was saying, 'Then why didn't he get away? Why didn't he do something?!'
'That's what I asked him, Sokka,' Aang replied. He looked subdued but not as upset as before, 'He said the time was not right.'
'Time not right, huh?' Sokka scowled 'With the second largest Earth Kingdom city in Fire Nation hands, I don't see what he's waiting for! I hope his crazy strategy works, whatever it is.'
'Well, anyhow, it means we have to look for another earth bending teacher,' Aang said resignedly, 'He's not leaving Omashu.'
'Hey, guys,' I interrupted 'perhaps we should go get Tom Tom now. Where is he, Sokka?'
Sokka pulled Appa's reins and took the bison down a labyrinthine structure made of broken scaffolding and what appeared to be abandoned building projects. There, in a steep-sided wagon, was Tom Tom. The wagon was full of hay and he had fallen asleep. Aang airbended himself off Appa, collected the sleeping boy, and then we flew straight up and out of Omashu.
I expected fireballs to arch across the afternoon sky and try to blow us out of the sky, but none came. Perhaps the Governor and his wife were more concerned for Tom-Tom's safety than their daughter was, and gave orders not to shoot.
Once outside Omashu, we kept to a high altitude and then flew to back to the Kolau Mountain range. We landed towards evening, in the first sheltered spot we could find. There were no signs of the refugees from Omashu – they're probably on their way to Ba Sing Se by now.
Sokka and Aang started to set up camp. Tom Tom had woken up and was running about the place. He pulled at my hand a couple of times but I didn't feel like playing. Worrying thoughts crowded my brain and though I felt fine, yet I didn't know how to tell the other two I couldn't bend any more.
Actually, Sokka had seen what happened . Even as that thought crossed my mind, I glanced up and saw my brother speaking in a low voice to Aang, and then they both looked in my direction.
I got up quickly, not wanting to see a look of pity in Aang's eyes, and went down to a small mountain stream just beyond the camp. If Bumi could still bend even when confined to a metal coffin, then I would find a way ... I had to find a way... I didn't want to be a liability for Aang, instead of a help. But a waterbender uses arm and hand movements a lot, and that is where that girl had hit me...
The babbling of the little mountain brook taunted me... it should be so easy to reach out and just bend that water... I sat down by the water's edge and reached out with my hand, fingers splayed, but then something held me back….
What if nothing happened? I clenched my fingers into a fist and let my hand fall limply by my side.
The sound of gurgling laughter behind me made me turn round. Aang had Tom-Tom riding on his shoulders, and the little boy was pointing at me eagerly.
'He wanted you,' Aang explained, lifting him off his shoulders and setting him down.
I pulled Tom Tom onto my lap, smoothing his hair. Bits of straw were still stuck in it.
'Actually, I wanted to see you, too,' Aang said 'Sokka told me what happened.'
'I'm fine, Aang. I'm not hurt or anything –' But my voice quivered.
'You know what I mean, Katara. Bad enough you've been through this once before. Have you – have you tried to bend again?'
'I'm afraid to,' I whispered.
He said nothing for a minute but when he spoke again there was anger in his voice: 'We'll get your bending back, Katara, even if I have to kidnap that girl and make her put it right!'
'You'll do no such thing! We can't go back to Omashu now. We have to find you an earthbending teacher – we've lost enough time as it is. I'll – I'll figure a way. Perhaps whatever she did to me can be healed...'
'Yeah, that's right – you're a healer! You learned loads of stuff from Yagoda!'
I smiled wanly. 'So it's healer, heal thyself, right?'
'Only one way to find out.'
Aang gave me an encouraging smile and waterbended a sphere of water out of the stream. Tom Tom gurgled excitedly on my lap and held out pudgy hands to catch the glistening ball. Aang whirled the water in a graceful arch once around himself and then, as he had done countless times before during our practise sessions, he sent it in my direction.
I moved in the instinctive way born out of many hundreds of hours of practice, and caught the water deftly, and waterbended it back again into a sphere. Tom Tom screamed in delight and swatted the water, sending glistening droplets everywhere.
A huge wave of relief flooded through me, and I laughed with Tom Tom, water bending what was left of the water into spiral stream for his amusement. My waterbending was back and it felt as good as ever!
'I didn't even try to heal myself,' I said, looking up excitedly at Aang 'It just came back!'
'Perhaps whatever that girl did is just temporary,' Aang looked as relieved as I felt.
'She aimed at the Chi pathways - that must've had something to do with it. I'm so relieved!'
Tom Tom tumbled off my lap and made his way towards the stream.
'Uh...about Tom Tom,' Aang said 'Sokka and I think we should take him back tonight.'
'Oh, right...I'm going to miss the little guy!'
'Yeah, me too.'
'How're we going to take him back?'
'Under cover of darkness. Appa can fly us half-way there and I'll go the rest of the way on my glider. I know where the Governor's house is.'
'Great idea. I'll make a baby harness so he'll be safe while you're airborne –'
There was a sudden splash and Tom Tom tumbled right into the little brook. He looked momentarily surprised as he sat in the shallow water, but then philosophically started fishing out small pebbles from the bottom, completely unperturbed by what happened.
We fished him out, laughing, but little Tom Tom wanted to go right back in.
'Well – he's filthy,' I said fishing some more straws out of his hair 'I might as well give him a good wash. I don't want his parents worrying he's been uncared for while he was with us.'
So we bathed the little baby and washed his clothes, and Aang airbended them dry. Later, I fashioned a harness from some towelling for Aang to carry Tom Tom with.
As I worked, I couldn't stop grinning: mainly because of the overwhelming relief of knowing my bending has returned. Letting Tom Tom go was bittersweet and I gave him a big hug before I helped Aang strap the baby to him.
I hope he will remember us – for a little while, at least.
I'm writing this while waiting for Aang to come back – it makes me feel really good to know that one distraught father and mother will sleep happily with their son tonight. I know that we still have a lot of hurdles to tackle: the fact that we're back to the beginning with Aang's earthbending is one big setback, but the euphoric feeling from knowing my bending is back makes me feel like I can handle anything.
Well, almost anything.
I still haven't forgotten what happened in the lovers' cave, and that's one thing I'm struggling to handle.
It's a secret still burning inside me, but a secret it will have to remain. In a way, I'm glad we got caught up in Omashu's troubles because it gave Aang and I something more important to focus on, and it also proved that we can all still work together really well, without awkwardness.
I think we might have come close to losing that, or worse, had Aang said anything. As it is, we can always pretend that what happened in the cave was just the effect of being carried away by the story of the two lovers...
Given the huge setback with finding an earthbending teacher, we cannot afford any more distractions now. Aang has a lot on his plate and needs to concentrate on training. He tends to let his friendships interfere too much with his duties: he refused to firebend because he hurt me; at the North Pole he refused to learn waterbending well so as not to risk hurting my pride…
Oh, my. Come to think of it, I seem to have always been at the root of his past problems with bending…
This can't be good.
I mean it is, in a way, for it makes me feel selfishly warm inside to think that he cares so much…but it's not good for an Avatar to have these kind of distractions …
And I'm not immune to distractions myself.
I remember when we were on board the Northern Water Tribe ship, and that storm blew up, a moments distraction on my part ( and I had been looking at Aang – even Master Pakku noticed!) almost cost the life of one of us. Onartak had been swept overboard because I hadn't paid attention to doing my duty!
That scares me.
I have to listen to my head this time, not my heart, and I'm convinced now that we must put what happened in the cave behind us and concentrate on what's important. For both our sakes, but especially the Avatar's.
One day perhaps...when all this is behind us...