After fleeing the Fire Nation, and Azula in particular, with their tails between their legs, nobody was in high spirits. This was definitely not helped by the fact that the only plan now was for Aang to learn firebending, something he had been actively avoiding since the disaster with Jeong Jeong. While the Earth Kingdom boys were able to distract themselves exploring the temple, the Gaang proper could only think of the impending doom looming over their heads. Not even Aang could fully avoid thinking about it, even if he managed to avoid discussing it until after they had set up camp.
“Look, the problem is simple. You need to learn firebending, so we need to find a firebender willing to teach you.”
“And how are we supposed to do that? The comet is only a few weeks away. We simply don’t have the time to go looking. Even if we had any idea where Jeong Jeong was, would he even teach me after what happened last time?...Would I want to learn?” he finished quietly, guilty about letting his own fire hurt Katara.
“Aang, I’m sure we can find someone more…personable than Jeong Jeong. After all, he didn’t really teach you anything, did he?” Katara tried to comfort him.
It didn’t work, though. He sighed as he fell back to lie on his bench. “Let’s just face it guys. There simply isn’t anyone willing to teach me. And even if there were, it’s not like they’d just appear out of thin air.”
“Is that a fact, Avatar?” All four of them went into full survival mode when they heard that particular voice. Toph only readied herself because, as far as she was aware, the only friends they had were messing around and she didn’t quite recognize the voice. Sokka drew his sword because, last time he had heard that voice, it was the voice of the enemy. Katara and Aang, on the other hand, were terrified to hear that voice. Last time they had heard that voice, it wasn’t just their most determined enemy, but one fully capable, willing, and almost successful in killing both of them. In fact, the wounds and scars he had given them positively ached at that moment.
“You seem rather pessimistic for the supposed ‘Beacon of Hope.”
“Where are you?! Show yourself!”
“I don’t think so. Not yet.”
“What are you doing here?!”
“Isn’t it obvious? I’m here to teach the Avatar how to firebend.”
“I refuse to learn anything from you, Zuko! Leave this place! Your kind has done enough damage here.”
“‘My kind’? Such an interesting sentiment.”
“Toph, where is he?” Sokka whispered while Zuko kept monologing.
“I don’t know. His voice keeps changing direction and I can’t find his heartbeat anywhere. Either it’s drowned out by ours or he’s not touching stone.”
“That’s right, Toph,” all four of them startled at hearing that, since Aang and Katara could barely hear her from right next to her. “I know what you are capable of and have taken measures to avoid your gaze.”
What none of them had noticed, not even Zuko, was the tall, hulking figure on another structure. With a deep breath, he unleashed a barrage of explosions, starting with the center of mass of the kids huddled together. The only thing that saved them was Aang noticing the glint of his metal arm out of the corner of his eye and raising a stone barrier to absorb the blast. He and Katara tried to do something, anything to stop him, but all they were able to do was distract him long enough for them all to hide from his sight. Sokka had an idea and was working out the angle to make it work, when they heard it again.
“Cease and desist.” When they peeked out to look at the enormous explosion bender, they saw Zuko, of all people, standing up to him. “Our business has concluded. If you continue, you will be held in contempt of Agni’s Law.”
Instead of answering or acknowledging the prince’s words in any way, the combustion bender turned and fired a shot, point-blank range, at Zuko. Instead of a crater or something more visceral appearing when the dust cleared, they all saw a wall of fire surrounding the prince. That shock took a back seat to when he spoke again, however.
“You dare?” he growled. Katara began trembling and clutching her forearms when she heard it, having been traumatized by the last time she had heard that rumble. “You dare to attack Agni’s son with his own element?”
Possibly goaded by fear himself, the taller man fired another blast. Everyone watched with bated breath as they saw its path towards Zuko’s chest, but they were once again shocked and horrified when he caught the blast seed. Holding it like a marble between claws that Aang and Sokka didn’t remember him having, the flames encircling the prince began funneling into it, making it more chaotic and colorful until it shone a steady white like he had plucked a star from the sky.
“For that, I sentence you to death,” and he flicked the miniature star back to its caster, vaporizing him and sending the structure plummeting to the valley depths.
After taking a few moments to gape down at the falling wreckage, the Gaang turned to look at the prince that was, quite frankly, way too close for how long their focus had been off of him.
“You know I’m your best option. You also know I’m your only option. That man was a mercenary, hired by someone of high standing in the Fire Nation to kill you, possibly even Ozai himself. While he sits on the throne, no one in the Fire Nation will be allowed to assist you in any way without risking a painful death for themselves and their family.” Fortunately, he sounded mostly human now, rather than having an animalistic growl beneath his words.
“We’ve been in the Fire Nation for months and plenty of people have helped us out,” Katara pointed out.
“Yes, because you were in disguise. They could avoid their obligation to turn you in while they could take advantage of plausible deniability. ‘How could we have known he was the Avatar? His head and limbs were covered, and besides, why would the Avatar help us? We’re Fire Nation.’ Now that everyone knows you’re alive and you look like yourself, what little support you could get has dried up.”
“If it’s so dangerous for the citizens, why would you help us? You’re the prince! You spent months chasing us from one end of the Earth to the other.”
“I was assigned by Ozai to hunt you down. I apologize for the hardship I caused, but not for my actions. They were necessary.”
“Wait. You showed up within a day of us finding Aang. How could you have been sent to find him before he was back in the world?”
“That’s the joke. I was banished three years ago and given an impossible task.”
“No. You would’ve been my age at that time.”
“Yes, I was. And now that I have finally come to realize what kind of monster sits on the throne and that I was wrong to be loyal to him, there’s something I must say to you.” He took a deep breath and put a formal stiffness in his spine. “Avatar Aang, I come before you with a petition and grievances against the sovereign of my nation.”
This triggered something deep within Aang, something ancient. “State your petition and voice your grievances,” he said with an echoing voice, straightening his own spine to match Zuko’s.
“My grievances are as follows: Fire Lord Ozai has proven himself to not have the best interests of his nation or its people at heart. He has allowed them to fall to ruin and has actively taken actions that have knowingly, directly led to their suffering and death. My petition is for you to dispose of the sitting Fire Lord so another may take his place.”
Katara couldn’t keep quiet at this. “‘Another’? You mean you.”
Zuko turned his baffled gaze towards her. “Uh, of course. It’s my destiny to rule, just as it’s his to take down the Fire Lord.”
Aang cut in, having a duty to perform. “Your grievances have been heard and your petition has been accepted.” He sagged, the Avatar Spirit returning to its normal resting place. “What was that about?”
“You are the Avatar. You are the only one with the authority to judge the rulers of the world. I don’t know exactly why, but if a citizen of a nation has witnessed and experienced wrongful leadership by their ruler, they can bring it to you like I just did.”
“What about Azula? What’s stopping us from bringing a ‘grievance’ to Aang like that?”
Looking over to Sokka, Zuko replied “I didn’t realize you considered yourself an Earth citizen. If there are any Earth citizens that do have any genuine complains about how my sister rules her kingdom, they can bring them forward, but it doesn’t count if the grievance is personal or they dislike exactly who the ruler is.”
“So, you’re gonna teach me firebending?” Aang cut in before they could lose themselves in a discussion he could tell wouldn’t go anywhere.
“Yes. We will begin at first light,” his new teacher replied, turning and walking deeper into the temple, ending any discussion before it could begin.
“Man, this is weird.”
As Zuko knelt before his array of candles in the room he had claimed before the others found the temple, he became aware of the gaze a certain waterbender. His patience was rewarded when she spoke up. “I don’t trust you.”
“Then you are not a fool,” he replied without turning.
“If I get one hint that you’re a danger to the Avatar, you won’t have to worry about your destiny, because I’ll end it right then and there. Permanently.”
“If you will not trust my motivations, then trust my cunning.” At this, he finally stood and faced her for the first time since Ba Sing Se. “I am a danger to him. But if I do plan on killing him, then it won’t be in any way that you can possibly prevent. After all, I’ve learned my lesson,” he smirked, summoned lightning to his fingers to punctuate his point.
“Grr, you’re a terrible person, you know that? Always following us, hunting the Avatar! Even here, you still hunted us down! But what do you care? You’re the Fire Lord’s son. Spreading violence and hatred is in your blood. You’re even using Aang to kill your own father!”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about.” This growl was a lighter one, formed in his throat rather than his stomach.
“I don’t? How dare you? You have no idea what this War has put me through! Me personally!”
She turned away, putting a hand on her necklace. “The Fire Nation took my mother away from me.”
At this, all the fight left both of them. Katara because a wound she hadn’t poked in a while was being laid bare before the one who had injured her the most, the last person on Earth that she should be trusting. And Zuko because: “I’m sorry. That’s something we have in common.” This was said in the most gentle, human voice he’d had in months.
Hearing that snapped Katara out of the tears that had sprung up and she turned to see him looking down and to the side. “You lost your mother, too?”
He nodded. “Until yesterday, I thought she was dead. Doesn’t make any difference, though. She’s just as lost to me as she has been for the past five years.”
“What happened to her?”
“She was banished, as payment for protecting me from the Fire Lord’s will.”
Katara’s voice went even quieter. “That’s another thing we have in common.” He looked up. “There was a raid. They were looking for a waterbender. I found my mother cornered in our hut by the leader. She said she was the waterbender they were looking for and told me to go find Dad. I still don’t know how they found out about me.”
“If they were looking for a new waterbender, wouldn’t they know to look for a child?”
“I don’t know. I’ve tried to focus more on the loss itself than the details.”
“Your mother was very brave.”
“So was yours…I’m sorry for yelling at you.”
“I’m sorry for deserving it. All I wanted was to go home. I just didn’t realize that going home would reveal to me what was so wrong with it.”
“You said you were banished. Why?”
“I spoke out of turn. Remember what I said about ‘directly leading to their suffering and death’? There was a plan set forth in a war meeting that would sacrifice a battalion of new recruits, barely older than we are, for a tiny hill near Omashu. I objected to the waste and was told to participate in an Agni Kai, an honor duel, for my disrespect. I thought I would face the old, feeble general, but it was the Fire Lord’s meeting I had interrupted.” Her eyes widened in horror. “You guessed it. When the signal rang out, I turned around to see Ozai on the other end. I couldn’t fight him of course. How could I? Even if I’d had the ability, he was my father. I begged for mercy, calling myself his loyal son. You know what he said?” He cradled her face in his hand. “‘You shall learn respect, and suffering shall be your teacher.’” She had to grab onto his arm to stay upright as her knees collapsed. “And so I was sent on a snipe hunt. ‘He said he might let you come back if you find the Avatar,’” Zuko said with Azula’s voice. “Three years I wasted trying to earn what I was entitled to, what he was obligated to give me freely. His love. His affection. His approval. Anything better than open, naked distain.” He sat on the bed. “I know better now. My eyes have been opened to the truth and the truth is, he only loves himself and his power. His only friend is his own ego, and if you think I’m self-absorbed, then you haven’t met the man I was trying, and failing, to emulate.”
After a moment, “You’ve…given me a lot to think about.”
He nodded. “Good night, Katara.”
“Good night, Zuko.”
As Katara woke up, she saw the bright, sunlit courtyard. I rise with the sun. As usual, she heard his voice in her head. The relative normalcy was enough to make the sight of Zuko meditating before their banked campfire all the more startling.
Fortunately, he was simply sitting there so she had time to calm down before she attacked him or screamed about him. As she approached, he gestured to a log sitting next to him. “Think you can turn this into firewood?”
“Can you extract the water from the wood, and do so delicately enough that the water cuts through it, turning it into easily-burnable material?”
“I…maybe. I can try.” And she does. It doesn’t exactly cut through the log, and it turns into kindling more than actual firewood, but for a first try she does rather well, and Zuko says as much.
“You seem to have the concept down. Perhaps if you tried gathering the water together before it leaves the log, then sent it along the grain?”
“This much should last us a while, but I can try again next time we need more.”
Nodding, he went to wake Aang. Unfortunately for his attempts, and his patience, he’d have had more success with that log Katara just exploded.
After a moment of glaring at the sleeping Avatar, he grinned a sinister, evil grin. Grabbing Aang by the collar and extracting him from his sleeping roll, he started dragging him towards the edge.
“What are you doing?” asked Katara, rather alarmed.
“Drowning a fish,” he called over his shoulder. Comprehending the phrase enough to be baffled, as well as curious, she followed him as he tossed the Avatar off a cliff!
Suddenly he found himself looking into a pair of intense cerulean eyes. “Explain. Now.”
“He’s an airbender,” he said, unfazed. “The free-fall will wake him up, then he’ll make a ball of air and ride it back up here. I did say ‘first light’,” he said, slightly whiney.
Sure enough, shortly after Katara had gotten started preparing breakfast, Aang showed up, slightly winded. “Some birds do that to their young. Did you know that?” he asked, perky as can be, slightly shaking from the adrenalin. “So, how will we start? Can you teach me how to juggle? Maybe we can make cool shapes!” As Zuko sat there, with his candles lined up in front of him, he began silently despairing at how little respect the Avatar had for his element, clearly seeing it as either a toy to play with or a wild animal to avoid getting hurt by.
“Take a seat,” he finally said, gesturing to the other side of the line. “What do you know about firebending?”
“Well, Master Jeong Jeong had me stand in one spot with a burning leaf. Of course, he also kept talking about how destructive firebending is, how he regretted being born wi-”
“Enough!” Zuko snapped, the candles flaring. “I don’t want to hear about Jeong Jeong,” he said snidely. With a deep breath, he continued. “What about earthbending?”
“Oh, Toph taught me how to sense vibrations in the earth, and that I needed to be firm with the earth and stand my ground.”
After a moment, waiting for Aang to continue talking about the philosophy of earthbending, he continued the trend of his questioning. “And waterbending?”
“Oh, Katara’s shown me how to do a bunch of things, like waterwhips, octopuses-octopi? I can’t heal, or at least, I haven’t tried yet, but we train every day.”
That was even worse. Does he know anything about bending, or just the forms? Or does he even know them? “And what do you know about airbending?”
At this, Aang’s eyes seemed to mist over, calling back to the lessons the monks taught him. “Air is the element of freedom. It moves where it will, bringing gentle rain and thunderous storms. As airbenders, we’re taught not to take life too seriously, or at least Monk Gyatso made sure I could always have fun, especially when the old monks were being too serious. We’re taught to be able to evade anything, that there’s no situation we can’t escape from.”
“What do you notice about your descriptions of the three elements you know?”
“Uh, what do you mean?”
“When I asked about earthbending, you told me about your stance. When you talked about waterbending, you talked about what you can do with water. But when I asked about airbending, you only talked about the philosophy of air. Not about the tornados you can summon, not about how light on your toes you are, not about that ball of air you ride around on, but the nature of air and the mindset it takes to properly bend it.”
“Well, it’s not like anyone would teach Toph or me philosophy. I could barely get anyone to teach me at all. I learned more from the tides at the start and she learned from the Badger-Moles.”
After a moment of thought, Zuko stood, extinguishing four of the candles and bringing the fifth over to Katara. “Here. If we’re not back by the time breakfast is finished, could you extinguish it?”
“You mean like…”
“Yes, like that.” Going over to a pillar, he collected the two intact gliders he had found hidden away. Passing one to Aang, he opened the other, preparing to jump into the void.
“Wait, where did you find these?” Aang asked, breathless.
“They were hidden in one of the rooms. I found them a few years ago. Come on.” With that, he positioned his hands like he had seen the Avatar do countless times and began gliding down the canyon, shortly followed by his student.
When they got to the shoreline, Zuko tried to come in for a landing, but he overshot it, heading out above the water for a second pass. Too bad the updraft from being above the sand didn’t exist above the water. Aang, the experienced flier who knew to account for air currents, was doubled over laughing as the prince returned to shore, steaming in more ways than one.
Once Aang calmed down and Zuko was dry, he had Aang sit on the beach as if he was meditating. “Now, close your eyes and listen to the waves as they crash on the sand. When you hear the wave come in, breathe in. When it leaves, release.” He allowed his student to continue like that for a little while, until “Next time you breathe in, make it deep and hold it. Alright, now open your eyes.” When Aang did so, he fell back with a yelp. The wave was over their heads!
“What was that?” he asked as they dried themselves.
“When you align yourself to your element, your element will align itself to you. This is the first lesson any bender should learn. It’s not just about being able to sneeze up a storm, or make a tentacle out of water, or make a crevice a mile wide, or make pretty formations in the fire. You have to feel your element. Become one with it. It should be just as much a part of you as your hand. Unless I’m much mistaken, that’s how air is for you.” As he was lecturing, Zuko moved through a basic firebending kata, showing how his flames danced along his form and flowed from him with nary a thought.
“Yeah. Whenever I stand up, it’s always with a gust of wind. Same when I’m flying.” He looked out at the ocean. “So, when I bend water or earth, I reach out to it, but you pretty much want it to already be in my hand?”
“Yes. You shouldn’t have to think when you bend. In my experience, when I have to think about what I’m doing, then I’m doing it wrong.”
“That explains a lot,” Aang grinned at him. “How heavily-fortified was Pohuai Stronghold, again?”
“Shut up,” Zuko shot back with a matching grin. “Come on, Katara’s summoning us.” With that, he opened his glider, ran, and jumped, exhaling hot air beneath himself for lift. It wasn’t the most efficient way to fly, but it worked well enough.
“You look like a bird just coming into its wings,” Katara told Zuko as she handed him his plate.
“I’d like to see you try flying as a non-airbender.”
“I have,” she replied, drawing herself up with a highly satisfied smirk. At his disbelieving glare, she pointed at Teo. “He taught me.”
Flinching slightly at the Fire Prince’s burning gaze, Teo confirmed it. “My Dad actually invented a bunch of stuff, like non-bending gliders, the submarines we used during the invasion, a whole bunch of stuff. Of course, the Fire Nation forced him to develop a bunch of stuff, too. The balloons were his and Sokka’s idea.”
Suddenly, he had Zuko’s full attention. “Do you know exactly who it was that he reported to?”
“I think Dad said his name was Qin?”
“That makes far too much sense,” Zuko snarled. “Of course that idiot would outsource to someone else rather than come up with anything on his own merit. How about the Drill?”
“Um, I think I saw blueprints for a massive drill on his desk.”
As Zuko shook his head in disgust, those who saw the real thing were shocked.
Since she didn’t meet the Mechanist personally, Toph was the first to recover and decided to change the subject. “So, how’d the lesson go? Twinkle-Toes here seemed like he was dazed by something.”
“I’m just thinking about how Zuko looked when he crashed into the water,” Aang snarked, allowing the distraction and triggering an excited gasp from Sokka.
“Ooh, did he forget that water doesn’t have an updraft?”
“Well, how was I supposed to know that air does weird things?” Zuko shouted, indignant.
At this, Aang went into a “Wise old monk” pose. “Shorelines are a boundary between two worlds: land and sea. If you do not respect the transition, you will find yourself blown off-course.” Lacking any proper response, Zuko just grumbled into his food while everyone else chuckled around theirs.
Taking a glance around, Zuko felt himself relax. This was a safe space. Even if he would never think of the Avatar and his group that way a mere two months ago, or even a day ago, he couldn’t hear any cruelty or derision in their laughter, simply playful joy. This is what he missed from his days as Lee, the pure comraderie. But this was even better because he didn’t have to wear any masks here. He could be as open as he wanted, something he could otherwise only be with Azula. He went back to his food, not noticing Toph’s tilted head, a signal that she was taking note of something and considering it thoughtfully.