Character(s): Aang, Zuko.
Genre: Mild-angst, sketchy friendship, vague seeds of romance.
Warnings: No real spoilers, references to the storyline, but mostly speculation and my own imagination.
Feedback: Very welcome, please!
Word Count: 3 626.
Summary: A few months after the new Fire Lord raised to power, Aang wanders back into his lands. Under a smiling full moon, curious conversations take place.
Author's Notes: Second in the series. Direct sequel to 'Unbroken'. Inspired by a beautiful garden I visited in the summer and which caught my eye by its apparent wildness. Once more, thank you all those who commented in the previous one, I hope you enjoy this one too. Sadly, I couldn't wait for megamimaxwell to finish her beta, but I really wanted this one out of my plate as soon as posible. Once I get back and get her beta, I promise I'll fix any mistakes Clover missed.
In the heart of the Imperial Palace of the Fire Nation, amidst the intricate designs of stone and wood, among the pitch blacks, the glinting golds and the strained reds; there existed a garden. It wasn't a terribly old garden, though after its owner left for reasons never fully cleared, effectively abandoning the striving flower beds to their own devices, it had remained unattended for various years. Many times, the very cruel Fire lord had wanted to burn the wild vegetation to dust, hating the way their stubborn nature reminded him of the one creature he had never managed to completely subdue. But days, weeks, months and even years passed by, and the lord had never dared to complete his plan to erase the last remains of his wife's handiwork in the household. Some said nostalgia stopped his hand whenever he raised it against the feeble plants, but no soft sentiment could really grow in the sterile land that was this lord's heart. To tell the truth, the garden remained because though defying, something more important always came to take the lord's mind away from it.
Thus, years went on, the grass grew green and yellow; gone in winter, back in summer, always there. Vines and ivy blanketed the other time clear paths and a certain rebellious wildness nested deep within the Fire Nation, unknown and unconcerned, flourishing green when everything else burnt red.
Then came the time, however, when the cruel, evil Fire lord passed away, gone in a terrible battle of wills beneath an eclipsed sun. It was a time of confusion and mixed feelings, of threat and caution; yet still, the garden remained. The new lord was gentle, a soul in tune with things truly important, and under his command, the forgotten garden of a long gone Queen-to-be was taken care of. Restored, not to its former glory, but certainly into splendor, it retained a mysterious quality of untamed exuberance, and the lord found he could think better and more clearly when he sat to drink tea under the shade of blooming cherries and ivy-infested lemon trees.
But that lord eventually passed away, too, and it happened that a third Fire lord, child of the first by blood and son of the second at heart, took the crown of a nation torn and scattered to the winds.
This lord was far harsher than the second, but infinitely fairer than the first; always balancing precariously between the overbearing shadows of his predecessors, all said he would eventually show he was his father's son, though no one dared to specify which. But this lord had been born the same year the garden had been sown the first time, and his first smile bloomed along the first green leaf. His memory could trace each delicate arrangement that had been done as the garden had been shaped by his mother's strong-willed nature, a temperamental personality that loved as strongly and as passionately as the fire he had learnt to bend. His mother, like the flowers, hid a powerful strength of character behind the apparent fragility of a delicate face, and that was a lesson he had no hopes of ever forgetting.
So it happened, nearly three full moons after the young lord took the crown, that night came and found him sitting among the vivid petals that had somehow survived winter. Donned in fine clothes, the young man stared at the rising orb and tried to remember the names of the webs of stars that blinked into existence one by one. Crickets chirped, and the lord sighed, tired and pensive, wondering about the future, the past, the unknown and all that he couldn't change.
Many things he had taken for granted were gone, many others he had never taken into consideration were now vital, and in truth, his life was just too complicated and too strange to make any sense out of it. Nothing seemed to hold onto his attention for more than a few hours, his pragmatic views on life causing tension within the council. He was not as oppressive as his father, nor as complacent as his uncle, yet every time someone tried to talk to him, they invariably expected a reaction to fit either example. He was young, young enough to be considered inexperienced, and so terribly alone in a fortress made of luxury and ornate power.
Even though he loved his people and his concerned for them was genuine, even though he truly believed his destiny was within those walls, trying to turn the tide and guide the country towards prosperity left him in a perpetual state of unease and doubt. The war of fists and spilled blood was over, but a new one began. A war far more subtle, where the sharpened swords were turned into long contracts and the wounds became territory loss. Prices too expensive or too cheap, an army too numerous, when it was farmers that were needed. The previous lord had tried to set the land into a semblance of order, but a hundred years of war could not be wiped away so easily.
Restless, the lord sought out the peaceful corners of his childhood, but unlike his uncle, the faint echoes were not enough for him. Alone in a garden full of nothingness, feeling the tender grip of remembrance all around him, the Fire lord contemplated burning everything to the ground. It was a silly notion, of course, for even if he managed to destroy even the last vestige and leave nothing but crisp ashes behind, it would not be enough to erase the bitter taste under his tongue.
He would always know what was missing… and why.
Zuko allowed his mind to wander, stray thoughts joining one another as he contemplated the sky through the thick branches above his head. He had know the day would come, rather sooner than later, when the Air Nomads would request to return to their temple, to that haunted wasteland high into the sky, and make it their home once more. Years had passed since the exiled group had emerged from the mountains, and as they continued to slowly bring back their homes into their previous beauty, their numbers grew with surprising speed. They had come to him to request what was theirs, but with such humble bearings, with quiet tones and mirthful eyes, that it instigated a strange sense of shame. Three generations before, the man who had sat on his throne had ordered the methodical and thorough genocide of these quiet, peaceful people, yet they came to his land, right into the heart of the empire that had zealously hunted them for years, and bowed to him, showing no fear.
Why? Because the Avatar had said so. Because that wholly annoying brat had told them that he meant no harm to them, and had given them his word that no one would be attacked. And because he was the Avatar and he could do or say no wrong, they believed him. Zuko wanted to wrap his hands around the brat's neck and throttle him a little.
Sighing, the Fire lord opened his eyes…
And came face to face with Aang, who was busy pulling his eyelids and making faces at him.
"Gah!" The Airbender dodged the blast of fire to his head, laughing as Zuko quickly found his footing and took an offensive stand.
"Finally!" Grinning, Aang balanced himself on his heels, "I thought you were asleep!"
"I see common manners are beneath you," Zuko glared venomously as a few strands of his hair fell into his face, loose in the struggle to get upright, "Avatar."
"Do I have to beat it into you?" Aang wondered almost absentmindedly dodging another small blaze to his side, "The name is Aang, and I figured I'd come to say hello. Your security is pretty lax, by the way."
"My security is not designed against Avatars, though perhaps I should remedy that." Reluctantly dropping the offensive, the Fire lord folded his arms over his chest and stared irritably at the still-grinning goof, "You're late."
"Yeah," Aang sighed, rolling his shoulders and stretching soundly, all the while remaining unaffected by the stare he was being subjected to, "There was a storm, a little dispute, then a festival and by the time I was done fixing a road that had been torn away by a river, the sun was out of sight." He plopped to the ground, in a very undignified manner, and stared up at the scowling Zuko with a small apologic smile. "Sorry about that. Did you enjoy the show?"
Zuko took a moment to gather his temper, remind himself that yes, it would be diplomatic suicide to kill the blasted brat, no matter how satisfying it could be, and another moment to figure out what he was talking about. Then, sighing, he lowered himself to the grass with a whisper of silk, far more gracefully than his companion, and thought out his answer. The Air Nomads had entertained the court for the evening with tricks and acrobatics with their Airbending, managing to grab the attention of all the present into an enraptured silence as the dancers – mostly children, to tell the truth – laughed and scrambled around the room.
"It served to prove Air Nomads are indeed graceful, contrary to what knowing you had lead me to believe."
"…I missed you too, thank you." Aang replied dryly, snorting at the backhanded insult and knowing it lacked any real sting by the light smirk on the lord's face. "How are things faring?"
"With or without threats to my person?" Zuko raised an eyebrow, the smirk widening as the crickets began chirping again, the calm restored once more in the garden, "No more wars to prevent, if that's what you mean."
Aang frowned slightly, not really liking the idea, but nodded anyway. Zuko could take care of himself and he would certainly be annoyed if Aang tried to show any sort of concern. The boundaries of their truce, one which Aang had learned to see as friendship a long time ago, were still too delicate to be stretched more than necessary. Theirs was a strained civility that couldn't really remain unchanged, one that eventually would evolve into either friendship or rivalry, and the young Avatar would make anything to gain the lord's trust. Already, the first seeds had been planted, with their occasional meetings in the past, particularly the last one under a pouring sky and among the beginnings of a cold. But the clearest sign of Aang's good will had been the visit of his people and his plans to reopen the West Air Temple, something that touched Zuko far more acutely than he was willing to admit to himself, much less out loud.
"You know?" Aang grinned mischievously, staring at the sky almost lazily, "You still owe me a spar."
Zuko pursed his lips somewhere between a smirk and a snarl, golden eyes bright.
Shenren had served the royal family since birth. Proudly, the man would tell how he was the tenth generation at the service of the Fire Nation, and how his ancestor had sworn loyalty to the crown after the Fire lord himself had saved his life. The man was thin, with a strict face and narrow eyes, always prowling the corridors of the palace and ensuring the household ran as it should, so that his master would never need to inconvenience himself with such frivolities. As he walked down the Eastern corridor, he took account of all that would be need to be done the next day as the arrival of the Air Nomads had disrupted the quiet life in the palace, and he would loathe to irritate Lord Zuko in any way. With a jolt, he was surprised to realize that indeed, the young lord was the fourth he had served yet. The thought crept through his mind quietly, attacking him when he least expected it and causing him to stop for a moment to ponder the strange revelation.
Indeed, he had been formally accepted into his post during Lord Azulon's reign and he could still remember the curt voice that informed him he was now in charge of the house. He had never been acknowledged by his lord afterwards and he had taken it as proof of his own efficiency, since there had never been anything to cause his lord to look his way again. Then, of course that strange night had come, Lord Azulon had passed away, Princess Ursa had disappeared and a new lord had risen, Ozai. That lord had a quick temper and was intolerant to any sign of imperfection, whether it was on his troops, his servants or his sons. Twice he had called on Shenren, once to order him pack for the young prince, the other to inform him that at all costs, the Imperial Palace had to remain standing. Afterwards, when Lord Iroh had taken the crown, Shenren suddenly found himself entertaining his lord's company very often. At first, he had always expected a reprimand or a punishment, but his lord was peaceful, much more interested in Pai Sho and tea, than in whatever Shenren did with the house. If it's still standing, he had told him once, then it means your job is well done. But now, after the coldness, the cruelty and the gentleness, now he was facing a completely new challenge, one that went by the name of Zuko and made Shenren's life too complicated.
His new lord was impatient. He hated protocol as much as he hated being told what to do, and he often wandered away from the safety of the palace walls. A free spirit, Shenren admitted to his own private mind, one that made living in the palace an adventure each day. Some days, the young lord reminded him of his mother, in the way he tilted his head arrogantly and politely told off an advisor. Others, the flame of fury would ignite his eyes with the same vehemence that had made his father frightful, and he would curtly excuse himself from his audience room, only to stalk through the corridors until he eventually ended up in his mother's garden, cooling off slowly.
Strangely enough, Shenren found himself content in the service of this lord, the emblematic humanity that marred his face made him untouchable but close at the same time, and the old servant felt a deep loyalty to him, not in the name of his ancestors or his nation, but to the individual, the young man that had remembered his name even after all the years that had gone by.
Yes, the Fire Nation had gone through terrible times, disastrous changes that had destroyed their global power, but perhaps it had been for the best. Shenren thought of all the four men that had sat on the throne, the very different personalities and habits that had gone with them, and couldn't but feel honored to have served them all.
Sighing contently, the old man shook his head and decided it was time to retire for the night. The moon was high in the sky and the chilly breeze of winter blew quietly over the open windows. Shenren stopped abruptly, frowning. He thought he had – yes, he had! He heard laughter coming from ahead, and with a start he realized it was from the garden. Dread set into his bones, as he was sure no matter how it was presented, his lord would not appretiate the Airbender children playing in his mother's garden. He broke into a run, forgetting about manners as he tried to prevent a catastrophe, but he stopped at the doorway, blinking.
"You're so cheating," Aang sincerely told Zuko as the Fire lord stared down at him with a risen eyebrow, sitting comfortably atop the Airbender.
"Indeed?" He sounded bored, despite the fact his hair was a mess and he was sweating profusely, "How so? Because you're the Avatar and can't lose a fight?"
"Partly, yes." Grey eyes glinted with amusement as the young man chuckled, "Partly because you cheated. I was trying to help you back to your feet, you know? That was just plain mean."
"Stealth is the word you're looking for, I believe," Zuko smiled maliciously, "But I know the concept is completely foreign to you."
"Oh come off it now, I can be… stealthish, I just don't want to," Aang sniffed disdainfully, a pout threatening to blossom on his face.
"…stealthish?" The Fire lord wondered as he stared down at him for a moment, "Never mind it. You lost, though. That's what matters."
"Alright, alright," Aang sighed theatrically, "But do get off me, you're heavy."
Rolling his eyes, the Firebender started to do just that, when he felt a hand threading his hair. Breathing sharply, his eyes flickered to the man below him, narrowing in warning as the long fingers remained wound into the black strands. The Avatar shrugged when the stare didn't leave him, and offered his companion a small smile in apology.
"Sorry, you looked funny with these in there," the hand finally fell off, carrying a large yellow leaf in it, "I figured you'd roast my face if I laughed. Plus, the Fire lord simply cannot go around with vegetation in his hair. There'd be talk about it."
"There will be talk about your tragic death if you don't stop it."
Huffing, Zuko realized that his hair was indeed infested with twigs and whatnot from their fight, and with an irritated sigh, he undid the knot holding it high atop his head. It never ceased to amuse him how after he had lived without it, the topknot lost all importance to him. It had taken much, yet Iroh had finally taught him that it didn't matter if he wore it or not, as long as he made himself worthy of it. He had never been seen without it, if course, though he had no real attachments to it anymore. It was a sign, but to him it didn't matter anymore if others saw, he could see it, he knew, and that was enough. Honor was something he gained every day, not a band on his hair or a title to his name. He had the scars that proved he had learnt it.
Aang watched with utter fascination as his former mortal enemy ran his fingers through the long hair, getting the random debris out of it before he deftly knotted it back in place. His eyes followed along the long strands of black, watching as they caught the pale moonlight, and saw how they were ruthlessly tamed back into perfection; the elegant tilt of Zuko's neck when he shook his head after he was done. Aang wondered why his throat was dry.
"See?" Aang laughed as he knocked lightly on his head, "Easier."
Zuko noted the smile, the bright eyes, the blasted tattoos that made him wonder about things that were certainly not sane, and saw the same brat he had met years before. The same blasted sense of humor, the frustrating inability to take him seriously, the honest attempts at gaining his favor and the sincerity in every gesture. He saw the same brat, older, but not wiser. Or maybe just as wise as he had always been. A shard of suspended time where his innocence persisted through adversity. The Avatar was a curious creature, too old, too powerful, too important… and yet sadly enough, just another human being with likes and dislikes as the rest of the world. Perhaps that was what made him always come back to him, Zuko mused quietly, the fact the young lord had never seen him as anything but another person. Useful and a mean to an end, but still just human.
Zuko decided that the lack of sleep and the moon were getting into him, when he admitted quietly that he wouldn't mind receiving that smile more often.
"It's late, and you're leaving tomorrow."
Aang smiled again, knowing a dismissing gesture when he saw one, and nodded, standing up with ease. He wouldn't let it show, but he was rather worse for wear after their little roll in the grass and his left ankle was making a bother of itself as it throbbed insistently. But he couldn't let Zuko know, of course, because that would ruin their game, and Aang had found he enjoyed this game as much as he had enjoyed others when he was younger.
"Shenren?" The old man jumped startled as his lord addressed him directly, but bowed lowly and entered the garden with as much dignity as he could muster, "Be kind enough to lead our guest to his room."
The man nodded and bowed to him, motioning with his hand to the corridor and not daring to speak.
"Good night Zuko," Aang stopped by him, placing a casual hand on the lord's shoulder, "It was a good fight."
And before the Firebender could reply, the Avatar and his most trusted servant had already disappeared through the doorway, leaving him alone in his mother's garden, nursing a bruised rib and wondering why he felt the need to smile. The Fire lord wondered if the garden would seem even more empty now, once the Airbender left. In the end, giving the moon a long stare and feeling his skin tingle for the light touch, Zuko prayed the Avatar would remain the same, with his friendly advances, his silly smile and his bright eyes. Not because he liked them or him or what they made him feel, of course not, but Aang had to remained untouched like his mother's garden…Because Zuko's life would turn so very boring otherwise.