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Dancing with fire

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Although the Summer Solstice Festival had progressed into the early hours of the morning, the party had yet to die down. The moon, quickly approaching the horizon, was washed out and pink from the glowing beacon of red created by the festival lanterns strung about the village square. Music floated through the air which was saturated with the smell of fried street foods and the sweat of bodies that had been playing games or dancing since sunrise.

Aang could feel his eyes beginning to droop despite the buzzing stimulation around him. Fire Nation festivals were tiring enough as they were but were even more exhausting when you were the Avatar and had to make nice with everyone and participate in everything. Aang was now indulging in a much needed break, leaning against Katara’s shoulder while she shared a helping of fire flakes served in rolled parchment with Suki. The women were chatting casually while trying to throw flakes into each other’s mouths from where they sat. Every time Katara tossed a fireflake Suki’s way, her shoulder would shift and Aang would sway along with it. He had just started to slip into that place between sleep and wakefulness when the pipa picked up a new, plucky tune.

A tune that caused Aang’s eyes to fly open and wrenched him up from Katara’s shoulder, sending the fireflake she had just tossed off course far away from Suki’s open, waiting mouth. Katara gave a little "oop" of surprise, but otherwise did not notice the way Aang was suddenly sitting stiff as a wall, ear cocked toward the orchestra. She just selected a new fire flake and tried again. Aang, over his initial shock, closed his eyes to listen. It was a tune that he hadn’t heard in six years. 'Or one-hundred and six years, depending on who you ask,' he mused.

Eyes closed to the present, he remembered the first time he had ever heard the song.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

It was during one summer spent traveling in the Fire Nation, shortly before he had earned his mastery tattoos. After a winter spent cooped up at the Air Temple training airbending and a spring spent planting crops and weaving newly shed bison fur into rugs, their summer trading route offered freedom to Aang’s restless legs and spirit. It also meant he would finally get to see Kuzon. This year, Gyatso had planned their trading route so they could spend the Summer Solstice Festival in the small village of Soya where Kuzon lived.

The sun was just beginning to dip behind the horizon, setting the mountains aflame, fitting for a celebration of the day the sun burned brightest and longest. Gyatso was playing pai sho with some of the village elders, and across the square, Aang and Kuzon were throwing tiny, popping firecrackers into flocks of birds, sending them into disgruntled flurries around the square before they would settle back down and return to pecking at dropped crumbs of festival food, only to be disturbed by the boys once more.

Kuzon had the brilliant idea for Aang to make a funnel of air through which they could drop a handful of the firecrackers to send them spraying across the square and maximize the number of birds they could startle into flight. Aang watched Kuzon as he dug into the tiny leather satchel tied to his belt, trying to pick out as many firecrackers as he could from the lint, sweets, and collection of oddly shaped pebbles snatched from gutters and gardens. The tiny pink bud of his tongue tip was poked between his teeth, and looking at it made it feel like an elephant koi was sitting on Aang’s chest.

To be truthful, Aang had been feeling this way a lot lately whenever he looked at Kuzon...or thought about Kuzon at all. His twice yearly visits to Soya became the points of reference around which Aang’s own personal calendar revolved, dividing his life into two seasons: the days with Kuzon and the days without. Restraining himself from asking Gyatso daily when they would next visit Kuzon’s village had become an exercise in self-control far more formidable than the hours he spent stiff-kneed and fidgeting while meditating with the other novices.

The suffocating sensation Aang felt upon seeing Kuzon had become addictive during this summer’s stay, and Kuzon’s current distraction looking for firecrackers provided Aang with the perfect opportunity for a fix. He stared greedily at his friend and felt shivers run down his spine.

Kuzon was covered seemingly from the top of his head to his feet in millions of brown freckles from sunny days spent running errands for the local merchants in exchange for pocket change. To Aang, he looked like the night sky as viewed from the plains of the central Earth Kingdom — vast, profound, beautiful. Kuzon’s mother said he was sun-kissed. Aang thought how he would love to be the sun, if only to be able to cover him with millions of tiny kisses, painted on his skin so everyone would know the magnitude of his affection.

Aang sometimes thought firebenders must have special powers because almost as if he could feel the heat of Aang’s gaze on him, Kuzon looked up suddenly, a satisfactory cluster of firecrackers clutched in his hand. “You ready?” he cocked his eyebrows and held his fist up triumphantly.

Aang’s smile could have reached the corners of the known world. “You bet!”

Aang dragged his hands through the air in a swirling motion above his head, creating a tunnel of spinning air that he tucked under his arm as he turned toward the bird-speckled square. Their victims pecked enthusiastically at discarded festival foods, unaware of the impending assault. He twisted his hands to keep the tunnel spinning but gave a little nod to cue Kuzon.

It was better than they could have imagined. Aang watched as the firecrackers sailed across the square like herds of lazy sky bison before they landed with a symphony of crackles and the town exploded.

What seemed like hundreds of birds took to the sky, screeching their protest and the crowd of festival-goers stopped what they were doing to either watch the storm of wings and feathers in wonder or cover their hair and scan the square looking for the culprits.

Kuzon was cackling with laughter with a grin so wide Aang could see the gap in his front teeth. Since last summer, Kuzon’s voice had dropped, and Aang could now feel Kuzon's laughter resounding through his bones. It was electric.

As rapidly as the frightened birds had sent the town into chaos, they settled back down again and resumed their foraging. The people in much the same way returned to their festivities, and Aang and Kuzon made eye contact as their laughter dissolved into the air.

With the squawking of the birds gone Aang could begin to hear the music again, that plucky tune of the pipa.

Kuzon heard it too and excitedly grabbed Aang’s arm. “Wait! Do you hear that?”

Aang swallowed hard, employing the resolve gained from years of martial arts training to keep his eyes from locking in on Kuzon’s hand around his bicep. “What? The music?” he responded. His voice came out cracked, and he hoped Kuzon hadn’t noticed.

“Not just any music!” Kuzon was bouncing on the balls of his feet. “This is the dance of the tiger goose!”

“Tiger goose?” Aang snorted. Tiger geese were not exactly graceful animals. “Never heard of it.”

“Can I teach you?” Kuzon had stopped his bouncing and was looking earnestly into Aang’s eyes.

Aang was sure his whole head had turned as scarlet as the setting sun behind him. “Um...sure.” He rubbed the back of his neck.

Without another word, Kuzon trailed his hand down Aang’s arm and laced their fingers to pull him toward the dance floor.

“It starts with us across from each like this.” Kuzon placed his hands on Aang’s shoulders and guided him so they were standing face-to-face but arm’s length apart. “Now just do what I do!”

Aang hardly ever lost his footing, and it didn’t take him long to pick up on the steps. After a couple repetitions, he and Kuzon were grinning at each, sashaying and jumping and clapping to the music. It was pure joy like he had never felt before.

There was a swell in the music and suddenly Kuzon was coming toward Aang. Aang stepped back a bit to get out of his way, but Kuzon grabbed his bicep again — he kept doing that — and pulled Aang back into place. “This is the partner section,” he explained, mouth close to Aang’s ear, so he could hear him.

The partner section involved the hooking of elbows and swinging around in circles, then switching elbows and reversing direction. For an airbender the spiraling was nothing new, but Kuzon’s smile was dizzying. Aang’s heart was fluttering in his chest, as if trying to escape.

Kuzon dropped his hands to Aang’s hips. “Jump!” he shouted.

Aang leaped. He couldn’t help but give a little boost with airbending so that he floated up like a paper lantern, forcing Kuzon to raise his hands above his head to keep contact with Aang’s waist. When Aang landed their foreheads touched and gray eyes met amber for just a moment.

The crowd gave a little shout on beat and returned to the beginning of the dance.

Kuzon broke the contact. “Now we do it again!”

Aang grinned.

 

After the dance was over, the boys wandered off into the town recounting all the trouble they had caused that day. They were laughing so hard they could barely stand up straight, and both boys kept stumbling sideways into the other.

Eventually Aang found what he considered a satisfactory rooftop for viewing the evening fireworks.

As they usually did when trying to get somewhere high up, Kuzon backed into Aang’s chest, and Aang wrapped his arms around Kuzon’s waist automatically, as he had done hundreds of times before. This time, though, the feel of Kuzon’s stomach muscles clenching with laughter beneath his fingers sent a tugging sensation through his gut.

Ignoring it, Aang airbent them onto the roof, where they settled on the edge, feet hanging over the edge and faces turned expectantly to the fields beyond the village limit. Kuzon was lazily trailing a stream of fire between his fingers, illuminating his face. Aang surveyed Kuzon’s freckled cheeks, and thought about sun kisses.

Hardly one to hide his feelings or to avoid a little risk taking, Aang leaned over and placed a kiss on Kuzon’s jaw, just over one of the tiny, brown specks. His personal sun kiss now.

Aang could feel the hitch in Kuzon’s breath and the trail of fire on his hand dissolved into wisps in the air. “What was that for?”

Aang leaned back to look into Kuzon’s eyes. There was no shock in them, only affection. “Just wanted to,” he said.

Kuzon raised his eyebrows briefly before he leaned over and kissed Aang on the forehead. Fire surged down his body, and he felt that tug in his gut again.

“What was that for?”

“Just wanted to.”

Aang couldn’t stop himself from reaching up to touch the spot where Kuzon’s lips had set his skin on fire.

Kuzon watched him with interest. “Next time I see you, there will be the point of an arrow right there,” he mused.

Aang couldn’t stop the grin from spreading across his face at the thought of the tattooing ceremony waiting for him upon his return to the Southern Air Temple.
“It’s wild right?”

“Nah,” Kuzon wrinkled his nose, “You’re the best airbender I’ve ever seen! A true master!”

It was a simple compliment and an unfounded one (Monk Gyatso was right there after all), but Aang flushed nonetheless.

“I could kiss you again.” Kuzon said suddenly, and Aang’s eyes locked on his. “When you have your arrows. I can do it right there. Right on the arrow tip….Or all of them.” Kuzon’s face was scarlet now, but he placed his hand on Aang’s, right where one of the arrows would terminate.

“Even the ones on my feet?” Aang teased, stretching his legs out, so both boys could glance at his feet.

Kuzon sighed dramatically, rolling his eyes, “Only if you wash them first.”

“Deal.” Aang started to chuckle.

“Can’t wait.” Kuzon winked and laced his fingers in Aang’s. The fireworks had started and the previously blank night sky was now full of noise and light and color.

Aang squeezed Kuzon’s hand. “Me neither.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Aang smiled fondly, and a little sadly, remembering the feel of Kuzon’s freckled hand in his, the warmth that saturated his bones at the sight of Kuzon’s gap-toothed smile, and the energy, the life, swirling around the two of them as they had danced.

Through the corner of his eye, he saw Katara catch a fireflake in her mouth then beam at Suki, and he thought back to a more recent day, spent in the company of a guru, when he had learned about love and grief and energy, how they are carried across lifetimes and are reborn into each other. He thought of the love he had felt for Kuzon that night, that still throbbed in his chest and on his forehead at the spot Kuzon had first sealed his affection, the spot that was now where Katara placed hers before they went to sleep at night. Tears welled up in the corners of his eyes, and he blinked slowly to send them racing down his cheeks to the corners of his upturned mouth. The song was only just beginning to pick up and soon would lead into the partner section of the dance.

Shaking Katara’s hand to gently draw her attention from Suki, Aang said, “Katara?”

Katara’s mouth formed a little “o” in surprise at seeing his tear-tracked face in the midst of what had been, up to this point, a jovial celebration. “Yeah, Aang?”

“Can I teach you something?”