Aang decided to get the worst over first. His last dream had seemed even more urgent, and even as he flew toward the capital he struggled with his Airbender instincts. Fly away, the wind seemed to say. Just drift with me…the horizon is yours. Be free in the way only the wind can be…
Aang sighed. His glider fell slightly as he passed over a cold section of ocean water, losing the thermal he'd been riding over shallower, sun warmed shore waters. He stretched an arm out in front of him and with a circling motion, bent a vortex to cannon himself into the upper sky.
Long ago, when he had been just an apprentice monk, he wouldn't have hesitated to follow the whisperings of the air. It seemed a genetic, chronic case of wanderlust. But now that he was older, and what Roku had called "a fully realized avatar", his flighty nature was tempered by the other three elements. Now when the wind stirred his nomadic blood, the earth called him back to the home he had made, the friends whose lives he would upset by running. The fire in his spirit spoke to him of his duty, his post-war work with Zuko, and the righteous passion he felt about helping others and ushering peace. And the water…
Thinking of water made images of pleasure bubble up in his mind. His blood stirred at the sweet memory of the press of her lips, the heat of her body against his.
Water may not have argued against the idea of absolute freedom, but it sure wouldn't let him go alone.
The Capital Island of the Fire Nation loomed ahead as Aang swooped low. It had almost become a tradition for him to buzz the guard towers of Azulon's Gate and again at the road leading to the inner city. The watchmen at the gate had grown so used to him they barely seemed to look up when he looped past them in the air. Aang felt just a bit peeved that they didn't even notice his arrival and faintly considered Waterbending a nice high wave at them, just to shake things up. He sighed and flew on, however. The moment had already passed and to circle around again just to pull a prank seemed too deliberate and almost mean.
"Geez," he thought, "I feel so old…not wanting to take the time to ruffle some feathers…"
At the Inner Tower he decided to shake things up a bit, even if what he did wouldn't have been as shocking as a wave to the face. He dove fast, looping first for more height. Aang shot through the open guard platform, closing his glider to make a straight arrow of his body. He torpedoed through startled guards and ambushed captains before cannoning out the other side. Just before he lost his momentum is the open air he snapped open his glider to swoop up the dead volcano-side. He smiled as the wind carried the sounds of residual shock and confusion from the watchmen behind him. Ahh; no matter how much the other elements affect me…I always have that Air sense of humor.
Aang had landed inside the west palace courtyard and was greeted by the spicy-tang fragrance of typical fire-nation flowers at the height of summer. Cicada Moths buzzed in the trees as heat rippled from the roof of the shaded walkways.
"Ahh, Aang! Am I glad to see you!" Zuko rushed out to Aang, uncharacteristically enthusiastic to see the Avatar. He was in full monarch regalia, his normally shaggy black hair straightened and pulled back within an inch of its life into the Royal Topknot. He had a broad smile on his face, and an unexpected lightness in his stride, like he'd shed fifty pounds overnight and wasn't adjusted to the gravity difference. He gave aang a breath-knocking clap on the back, a gesture so out of character for Zuko Aang couldn't help but stare at the young fire lord in puzzlement.
"Don't mind Zuko today, Mai said, steeping out of the shadows of the terrace overhang. "He's just happy because we just got rid of some annoying earth kingdom nobles this morning after having them as guests for 10 days."
Zuko starting leading Aang into the residential areas of the palace, passing a pair of seemingly unarmed guards who were clad in the burgundy and gold of the royal firebenders. "I'm not allowed to be excited when my friend comes to see me?" Zuko said, not quite mock-indignantly.
Mai smiled ever so slightly and answered sarcastically. "Of course not. You're only allowed to be relieved that The Avatar arriving means you have a good excuse to leave those earth kingdom nobles' daughters to their own bickering, and no longer have to listen to them hinting at what a great diplomatic match they'd make for you."
Zuko threw up his hands. "Can you blame me? Last week I would have welcomed Azula showing up at my door with ten airships if it would have meant I could peel Ju-lee, Mei Ling and Xio Pei from my shadow."
Mai and Zuko had led Aang to a small fenced-in veranda, hung with mosquito nets and delicately painted porcelain wind chimes. The stark red tassels of the chimes waved lazily in the occasional breeze, emitting a half-hearted clink every so often. Even the aromatic candles in the dark corners seemed to burn lazily in the near-tropical fire nation weather.
"They hint at it even though they know Mai is your girlfriend?" Aang innocently asked, then regretted it. Zuko suddenly colored and Mai deliberately looked away. Their footsteps up the veranda stairs seemed to fall like drumbeats in the awkward silence. "Well," Zuko started, but Mai interrupted him. "It's not the right time. The politics of the world today require that Zuko appear available and open to…treaty arrangements. He needs to look open to new…friendships with the earth kingdom." She suddenly put on a smile that didn't reach her eyes, and flashed it at Aang, diplomatically.
Zuko's expression had been sliding along his expression range from awkward eye shifting to scowl and finally settled in the 'pout' section. He interjected, a bit too suddenly, "but as soon as some of these trade agreements settle, that won't be needed anymore, I don't see why-" Mai interrupted Zuko again by forcefully flinging the delicately carved lattice doors to the veranda open. A table had been set up with cups and saucers.
"A runner came from the observatory to announce your arrival." Mai explained, perhaps just a bit louder than necessary "And we thought some tea would be nice. Are you hungry? We could get one of the servants-"
"No, I mean, thanks, I'm good though." Aang shifted. He felt guilty, not knowing what to say to Zuko's girlfriend. It was awkward, sitting across the table from someone who had thrown knives at your head, but mostly it was the way she seemed like the antithesis of what he was. He was a happy, sometimes carefree bender who liked to wear his heart on his sleeve and live life to the fullest. She always came off as dark and unemotional, pessimistic and restrained.
But Zuko liked her (maybe even loved her? Who knew…) so he'd have to learn to get past the awkwardness. Eventually. Maybe in another five years. He hid a sigh from his hosts. He really really wished he hadn't said anything earlier, but the couple had seemed to be past it.
"So, what brings you to the palace today? We didn't have anything scheduled, and you said something about wanting some weeks off for 'Avatar Business' at the last ambassador meeting."
Here it is. Maybe I'll just start with the easy request.
"I wanted to do some research on what happened to my people. I was wondering if the fire nation kept records of the orders and the fighting during the raids on the Air temples. First hand accounts for preference, if there are any left."
Zuko's look was hard, but tempered by pity, and a bit of shame. "Our history books haven't been entirely faithful in reporting the events. It's not a part of our history I'm exactly proud of." He stared at his hand, flexing it once then laying it back on the arm of the chair. He looked Aang in the eyes, his mouth turned down slightly at the corners.
"I don't think you're going to like what you find. I'm afraid it's just going to be a lot about military cruelty and ruin. Are you sure you want to dig up those kinds of ghosts? I mean, what exactly are you trying to find out?"
Aang's eyes narrowed and he leaned back slightly, shoulders squaring defensively. Zuko traced his face where healthy flesh met scar in a frustrated motion. "Look, I'm not trying to accuse you of anything, I tend to get a bit paranoid sometimes." He admitted. "I just wanted to warn you that if you really want to see those kinds of documents you should be prepared to face what's in them."
Aang nodded, but held firm. "I have a…project I want to do soon. Involving the fate of the Air Nomads. And I need whatever I can find on their history to do it. Can you help me?"
"I can write you up a royal pass to the National archives. With emphasis that you are to be allowed to see anything you ask for. Normally, I'd imagine anywhere the Avatar wanted to look these days people would let him," here Zuko rolled his eyes and cocked a half smile at Mai, "but the guys down at the national archives are all about needing the right piece of paper, right Mai?" Mai shot him a half-strength Look and suppressed a smile.
Aang cocked his head and raised an eyebrow. "I get the feeling I'm missing something"
"Never mind Aang, it's a sort of private joke, it's not important." Zuko reached for a glazed tea mug with ripples in the white clay. He blew on the tea gently. "Was that all you wanted to talk to me about?"
Aang opened his mouth and hesitated. The Earthbender in his brain was nagging at him that he should wait to bring up the journey with Zuko. You should go comb over the archives, it said, come up with a plan, a foundation. Get a base of information to build on before you involve more people. This way you can take your time and figure things out right? And extra days alone with Katara don't hurt either, eh?
The other elements in his mind all at least agreed that the last line in Earth's thinking was an excellent point.
"Yes." He lied. "When do you think would be a good time to check out those archives?"