It is high in the middle of summer when you take Aang diving, because there is something to be said about coastal waters and swimming over five minutes without fearing your extremities will fall off.
Zuko follows like Zuko does, clinging to cliff sides and darkness. His eyes burn molten in the shade and his scar is softened to shadows. You're not sure why he comes but he'd answer if you asked, all stumbling words and awkward grace and completely missing the point.
You don't ask.
The first dive is the scariest, you tell Aang, though you've hardly ever done this yourself, and you jump before he can hear any hesitation in your voice. Knees tucked to your chest and arms wrapped tightly around them, the water meets you like an awkward embrace. The water is colder than you thought it'd be and that makes it hard to breathe.
A memory: when you were young and the moon was just the moon, you wandered out onto the ice floe. A polardog, you'd thought at first, but the sound of ice cracking had been louder than its roar and the feel of water crashing had been sharper than its jaws. Ice seeped into your blood and you remember thinking you didn't want to die, but mostly that you didn't want to die in water. You'd seen how Katara stared at campfires after Mother, and you didn't want her to do that with water after You. She loved her bending too much. Still does.
You resurface spluttering to Aang's laughter, something high and breathy that echoes along the cliffs. Zuko is quiet and frowning, eyes smoldering in the shadows. It's like everything they do, so wrapped up in their elements they breathe it, they burn it, living and existing a way you'll never learn to do.
You grumble without real heat as Aang flips in the air before letting gravity catch ahold of him, diving into the water with an ungraceful splash. In the moments before he resurfaces you spread your fingers to the waves, letting the current sweep you away.
The next day finds Aang blistered and raw, skin peeling over the bridge of his nose and the arch of his back. His shoulders have suffered the worst of the damage so he spends the day on his stomach, grinning and wincing as Katara spreads water-dewed hands over his back.
By some funny quirk or exception of waterbending healing, sun burns take longer to heal than scratches. It's freaky magic in any case and you've stopped trying to understand it; maybe if you don't go poking and prodding at it, it won't try to kill you (works with tiger-seals, why wouldn't it work for this?)
You managed to get away without so much as a sun blister, skin several degrees darker but fading with the days. Zuko's managed to escape sun burns as well, for all the paler his skin is compared to both of yours. Some unfair attribute of being a firebender, perhaps, or simply due to the fact that he never stepped out of the shade. Katara glares at him like he's the cause of everything wrong in the world, but more specifically the redness under her hands.
(Aang's skin had blistered red and raw around the lightning strike, and for weeks nothing she did would take the rawness away. You know better than to stop her from glaring.)
The sunburns aren't bad but no one orders Aang to move around. It's supposed to be calm week, a resting week, by some unspoken agreement.
You try to not think of it as giving up.
(Aang doesn't complain anymore. Aang doesn't do anything but smile, and it's like an apology every time.)
That doesn't mean Aang gets a break. For once Zuko doesn't wake him at dawn so Toph gets first dibs for the day. You pity Aang a bit for that.
Toph doesn't order Aang out of bed so much as shift the ground underneath his blankets roughly away, without taking him along for the ride. It strikes you that she doesn't do it as violently as she could have. But then again, Toph can do it very violently indeed.
Listen, Toph commands, foot on an unblistered portion of Aang's skin and pushing him to the ground. You thank the spirits that Katara has snuck off to the nearest town to procure more burn salves, having used up Zuko's stores. There'd be war, and it wouldn't be the first time you ended up as a noncombatant casualty.
Close your eyes and listen.
Aang does, spreading his bare arms out upon the earth, bare stomach against the dust. Like he's giving the world a hug.
Mmm, it's harder to hear things, he mumbles, sea sand and pebbles, like snowclouds. Toph grins and says, that makes it worth it. The harder things are the only things worth doing.
We should make a sandcastle, someday, Aang smiles. Toph asks why wait for someday, when you can do it today? and swaggers off to bend something colossal.
He's getting better, you think, cross-legged beside Aang and sharpening your knife, as he hums with the timbre of whet stone and steel. A Fire Nation knife and Fire Nation steel, and there is something vindicating and horrible about coating it with Fire Nation blood.
You never let yourself forget that it is horrible.
Aang will never let you forget.
He tilts his head upward suddenly as if catching a sound, eyes closed but a smile faint upon his face. You almost don't hear the faint scuffing of boots, but Aang burbles happily and murmurs, Zuko.
Zuko nods curtly in acknowledgment. It must be to you. Aang's eyes are still closed but his breathing is more even, in out through the corners of his upturned lips, matching breath for breath with Zuko.
There's something to be said about how unmindful Aang is in Zuko's presence.
When Zuko cups his hands and breathes a tiny flame to life, and your first instinct isn't to grip your knife tighter but rather to peer into the flame – well, there's something to be said about that as well.
It's a tiny thing, the blaze, no bigger than a marble, flaring like a heartbeat before Zuko steadies it in his palms.
Hold them steady, Zuko murmurs, sweeping his hand over Aang's back, depositing three small flames along Aang's shoulders and three along Aang's spine, no more than two finger widths above his blistered skin. A final flame on the crown of Aang's head and a murmured this one is yours, before Zuko pulls away.
You see a tiny lingering flare which Zuko cradles in his palms carefully, considering, before pressing his palms together and snuffing it out.
There's a chilling sense of finality in the gesture that you can't quite explain (the words the dragons are dead, as Zuko's only explanation for joining, and Toph telling you that Iroh was named the Dragon of the West), but Aang smiles like there's nothing not to smile at, and Zuko nods again before walking away.
You don't move, shifting to a new knife and watching Aang as he breathes, listening to the earth and holding the flames steady on his back, away from the sand but close enough to feel the sea spray vaporizing in the sky. He is a study in balance, and it difficult to look at him, difficult to look away.
Aang should be in the shade, but he smiles in the sunshine even though he's been burned.
It could be any other day, you think, looking at Aang sprawled as he is on a Fire Nation shore. It could be any other summer.
Aang, you think, is the type of boy to die with a smile on his face.
Aang, you think, is the type of boy to die.
Too naive and too kind and too good for the world. The way Zuko looked at him, you think that he agrees.
Toph likes making Zuko brew her tea, serving her with ceramic teacups she molded out of clay. Zuko had hardened them in his kiln-burning hands and somehow it was like a pact, and now every late morning they sit together and have tea in the sand mansion Toph bent in the cove.
It is, quite possibly, the most disturbing thing you have ever seen.
Zuko serves Toph like a waiter and sits beside her like a prince, and Toph…
Toph washes her feet and pins her hair up like she wore it before her parents, bends up chairs with a graceful flick of her wrist rather than a stomp of her foot. She sits on her earthen throne, legs crossed at her ankles and feet tucked to the side, her teacup held with the delicacy of a noblewoman.
And then she takes a sip.
Ugh! She manages to just miss Zuko by a hand width when she spits out the tea, but you think she was aiming for his feet. Uncle would never make tea this bad, she grimaces, gagging exaggeratedly. I knew you could burn leaves but I didn't know you could make the water taste burnt.
It's boiled leaf juice, Zuko grumbles, like that's a proper defense, but makes another pot anyway. This time Toph takes two sips before pushing the cup far, far away.
I'm going to be honest here Sparky. You're never going to make tea that's within striking distance of potable. But if you cultivate this whole tastebud failure thing, you might be able to make it bad enough to use as a weapon.
Zuko flushes but seems to consider it. Like maybe it's a possible way to end the war, if they ever get that desperate.
It is the strangest friendship you have ever seen.
They build it out of ridiculous notions and painful memories, and they remind you of sandcastles, being eroded by the sea.
Spar with me, you tell him, and Zuko looks at you with wary eyes, like someone who's waiting to be burned, and you pointedly don't look at the scar on his face.
He doesn't nod but he retrieves his swords, following you into the clearing with the soft steps of a cougar-panther watching for a trap.
It's only when you turn to face him, meteorite shimmering in your hands, that you notice he brought something else with him.
Soft black cloth, unwrapped to reveal a painted blue mask, bought at a Fire Nation festival on a scheme or a whim. He holds it in his hands and flips it over and over, considering. Not quite frowning but definitely not smiling, you don't think you've ever seen him smile.
Spar with me, you repeat, holding your sword to his throat, and you mean something else entirely.
Okay, he finally says, slipping the mask over his face, and suddenly he is grinning, grinning, grinning a ghost and a curse in the shadows. He draws his swords with efficiency sheathed in graced, and you grin back.
You're good but he's better, at least for the first match. The second match you manage to surprise him with an underhanded sweep, knocking him to the floor in the brief moment of hesitation between his swings. By the time the sun's low in the sky you've lost track of the score. That was never the point of this all in any case.
It ends suddenly, with voiceless agreement, when you drive your blade straight downward and flop onto the ground and he follows not long afterward.
You turn then, catching his face in profile, seeing the edge of his scar against the blue of his mask. You wonder about it, have always wondered about it, but you've never had the right to ask.
Trust, you know, is a big thing. Is an important thing. Hunters have died for less than a lack of it.
"I have a scar," you say, suddenly, and the way that his mask tilts you think that he's listening. "On my thigh from a fish hook. Two, actually, but the less said about it the better.
"I have a scar on my shoulder, from when I was thirteen. I was trying to hunt a polar leopard for the tribe, so that we would have the fur for the winter, but mostly so we would have reassurance for the spring. We didn't have any men in the village and the Fire Nation always raided once the ice melted.
"A have a scar on my chest, from you. I have a lot of scars, actually."
Zuko tilts up his mask and opens his mouth but you stop him before he can say anything, martyr for apologizing that he is.
"One I have from my mother's death," you say, loudly, staring pointedly at the sky, "but you can't see it. One I have from my father leaving. One I have from the moon."
You turn to him and stare and don't let him turn away.
"So tell me, who's hurt you?"
The trust Katara gives Zuko is a grudging thing, measured out in increments the way Katara portioned out water in the desert. Not so much trust as allowance, the ability to do things without being treated as a criminal.
She is trying, you think, in the only way she knows how, because her world is simple and beautiful in its absolutes and if she trusts him now it will mean having to rebuild a part of it, again.
It is a good thing, you think, because Katara always trusted too easily, too openly, and you don't want her to get hurt. It is a good thing, even if it is the wrong thing.
And she is your sister, even if you don't always see eye to eye, and sometimes Katara only sees things she wants to see. She wants to see a beautiful world, a crystalline black and white world, and you… you want to believe in a beautiful world. In a world where there is good and evil and everything can work out alright as long as you know which line everyone falls under, as long as you never cross the line.
But it's not and in a world where everything could work out Zuko would not look at Aang with those eyes.
Like hope and he never quite knew it need because he's never not known it and despair because good things never come to pass. You wonder since when you've come to know these things about him, since when you've started watching Zuko closely enough to notice them.
Not out of mistrust, because you would sooner give Zuko the knife in your hand than hold it to his throat. Because you do trust him, really, with that look in his eyes. You trust him, always, to do the right thing, even if it is not a good thing.
Come diving with me, you tell him, deep into the end of summer. The sun is dying and Yue is rising and Zuko follows you without question.
Aang you invited because you wanted him to have a bit of fun. Because he smiles and laughs and flies on the wind, and twelve years is too young to die.
Zuko you invite for another reason entirely.
Zuko must be getting used to your slightly inane order-requests, shedding off his clothing as silently as he walks. You manage to shimmy down to your undershorts before him and jump in before you can turn to see if he'll follow. You resurface in time to see him breaking through the surface, pale and sleek and graceful as a dolphin-swan.
You know how to dive? you ask, almost surprised, but don't ask why he didn't join you and Aang earlier. Zuko just nods, absently treading water faster than you could keep up with, so you don't try.
My father taught me, he says, with a careful lack of inflection, the careful way he chooses when to say father and Firelord. Like there's a difference, like through the distinction he'll only be murdering one of them.
Oh, you breathe, and turn to stare at the moon. She is beautiful, tonight, and you let the tides tug you away.
At some point you realize that Zuko has come to float beside you, both on your back and staring at the sky.
In, out, you can see him breathing, slower and deeper than normal. In, out, breath for breath.
You hold your breath, and so does he.
You realize: it was never Aang matching his breath to Zuko's, it was always the other way around. Your breath is your fire and your fire is your life, and all the other half-murmured philosophies you never expected Zuko follow.
A part of you wonders what it means, Zuko breathing in time with Aang.
A part of you knows exactly what it means.
You let the current draw you closer, until your arms are almost touching. Water slips through your fingers when you reach out to entwine your hands.
Your breath is my breath and your life is my life, no less faithful than any marriage vow you have ever heard spoken and no less tangible than a necklace carved in bone.
Zuko has been breathing Aang's breath since he's joined.
Tonight he breathes long and deep, in time with the tides and with you.
Aang is practicing breath control again, little balls of fire lined over his shoulders and arms. He holds his hands outstretched to either side as he keeps track of the pull of the tides.
There isn't much time now, with summer dying, it'll be the only thing that's dying, you tell yourself firmly. But there's no time and Aang practices his elements two or three at a time, a study in contrast and balance.
Seven balls of fire, you count Aang and Katara and Toph and yourself, Haru and Teo and the Duke and -
"Light another one," you tell him, half-startling Aang out of his trance, though he should have read your movement on the silt. He is not ready for this, none of you are, but you repeat, steadily, "Light another one."
Aang hums and complies but he doesn't really understand, and you wonder how this boy is expected to save the world. He is just a little boy, and if your father and his men couldn't save it…
"Don't let them go out," and it is a reminder and a promise, the way Zuko's breathing is a promise, the way Zuko doesn't ask either of you to follow his breath.
The first time he kisses you, he does it with a grimace. He's the one who asked you to go diving, and you're surprised he does it at all.
Zuko loves the same way he breathes, the same way he bleeds. And he'll bleed for you and die for you but he cannot seem to live for you. Cannot seem to smile for you, or laugh for you, or cry for you.
I don't have anything to offer you, he says. No title and no lands, no family and no children.
I cannot give you happiness, neither yours nor mine.
But I love you, he says, and he says it like defiance, you can't take this away from me, you can't even try. Like everything in his life has been a losing war, even this.
And you don't know what to say to that, to the utter conviction of that.
Zuko, you think, is not the type of boy to die with a smile on his face.
Zuko, you think, is not the type of boy to die.
Too stubborn and too broken and too much of a failure if he tried. But he'd try, you think, if he thought it'd help you live.
Burned and beaten and crushed into cinders (and you tried that enough, two seasons ago, two lifetimes ago), he is the type of boy to rise from ashes.
Phoenix King, you murmur, hands on either side of his face, and he bends to accept his crown.