I loved this episode...but I felt kinda sorry for everyone for having to sit through that catastrophe masquerading as a play! Except for Toph and Suki. They seemed to get off okay...
But I also started wondering what it must feel like to see yourself die on stage. Especially when the fight hasn't even happened yet and is probably praying quite a bit on your mind. I wondered how Aang and Zuko would deal with seeing that.
So...this is the result.
They'd all agreed that the play had been a piece of garbage. It had had good effects, yes, but the storyline and acting had been pathetic. Sokka had said they could do a better job themselves. Katara had sarcastically commented that why yes, they could…because they were themselves.
Eventually, the sullen anger had been broken by a few of Sokka's jokes. Toph had countered with a few jokes of her own, quickly followed by Suki…and by the time they'd returned to the house the large majority of the group had been laughing about the experience. They'd teased and joked around enthusiastically, taking cracks at one another indiscriminately, and by the time they'd returned to the house everyone had agreed that it hadn't been too bad of an evening. They'd gotten ready for bed and bid one another good night, ready to resume their far more gruesome actual adventure come the morning.
Two members of the group had remained largely silent on the journey home. Neither of them knew it, but both of them were having very similar thoughts.
Aang waited until he heard Katara and Toph snoring gently through the walls of his room. Then he got up, crept silently towards the door, and eased it open.
"What are you doing?"
Aang yelped in fright and whirled to face the voice, his heart hammering. It turned out to be Zuko, carrying a small fireball in his hands to light the hallway.
"Zuko!" Aang gasped. "I…uh…" He rallied and pointed dramatically back at the other boy. "What are you doing?"
Zuko bit his lip and looked down at his feet. "I…couldn't sleep. I just thought I'd go outside for a while to clear my head."
Aang relaxed, and smiled. "Yeah. Same here."
They retired to the house's front steps and sat down near the top. Zuko let the fireball fade and they sat together in silence for several long minutes.
"So…some play, huh?"
Aang sighed. "Definitely one-of-a-kind."
Zuko shook his head. "Not for them. They're always that bad. If it weren't for the fact that there's almost nothing else to do late at night here, I doubt they'd ever get work."
"Well, maybe they should just try to be better actors!" said Aang angrily. "That play was horrible! Katara was wrong and Toph was wrong and Sokka…" Aang thought for a moment, then shrugged. "…okay, Sokka wasn't too bad. But Momo was a puppet! I was a girl!"
"It was strange," said Zuko softly. Ever since sitting down he'd been staring determinedly at the ground, apparently intent on a small stag beetle trundling across the step. Aang's outburst did nothing to change this. "Seeing my life…our lives, played out for entertainment." He shrugged, but Aang could see that the airiness of the gesture was forced. "And some details are always changed to make a story entertaining."
"Then that play should have been a lot funnier." Aang sulkily folded his arms.
"Toph seemed to like it."
Aang frowned, and cast a sideways glance at Zuko. Their newest ally clearly had his "thinking" face on. And when Zuko had his "thinking" face on, it was usually something big and important to him. Zuko did not waste his "thinking" face for minor matters.
"Zuko? Are you all right?"
Still, his gaze was not returned.
But Zuko did speak softly.
"Do you think we'll really die?"
Aang blinked. "Wha…?"
"Do you think we'll really die?!" Zuko demanded, louder this time as he finally faced Aang. "Like the play said we would? Do you think we'll die when we face them? Azula and my father?"
Aang blinked…then, he forced a smile. "Zuko, c'mon. It was just a play. You should worry about how stupid they made you look, not if this writer guy can tell the future."
"I thought you'd be worrying, too!" Zuko snapped. "After all, your death looked a lot more painful than mine!"
He had been worrying, but hadn't wanted to show it for the sake of putting Zuko a little more at ease. But seeing how truly worried his friend was about the events made Aang decide to lay out all his cards.
"Okay. I'm worried, too. But it was just a play, Zuko. A play put on by really bad actors."
Zuko nodded, but instead of relaxing he got to his feet. "Yeah. The one playing me was pretty horrible. I mean, if I were fighting Azula, I'd never let her get in that close. And I'd never let her distract me. If you have to fight Azula, you never take your eyes off of her."
Aang smiled encouragingly. "Right!"
Zuko got into a fighting stance and Aang could see that he was focusing on an invisible opponent.
"I wouldn't let her get so close to me," said Zuko, almost to himself. He descended a few of the steps. "I'd do something like this!"
He pivoted around, dropped nearly into a crouch, and shot a fire bolt directly in front of him and low to the ground. Keeping an eye on his invisible opponent as they apparent leapt into the air, Zuko continued to fire at them until they'd hit the ground. Once they had, he surged to his feet and delivered a roundhouse kick to the cheek and another fire bolt to the chest.
Once this was finished, Zuko relaxed almost immediately. He turned back to Aang, and Aang saw that he looked faintly satisfied. His quick mock-battle had been far more graceful than the one on stage, with the power and skill behind his attacks that Aang was used to seeing from the Firebender.
"That's how I'd beat Azula."
Aang laughed and allowed Zuko some applause. "That was great! You'll win for sure!" He bounced to his feet. "Lemme try!"
Zuko sat down and allowed Aang to take his place.
Aang concentrated, and tried to picture Fire Lord Ozai before him, menacing and powerful and ready to attack. He took a deep breath and got into a fighting stance.
Ozai attacked. Aang attacked right back.
He knew that his opponent was only in his mind, but Aang was quickly lost in the fight. He'd seen some of the monks do this, back at the Air Temple. They'd said that if you could hit a target that did not exist, it would make it easy to hit a target that did. He ducked and dodged invisible blows and fired attacks from every element at his invisible foe.
Aang smiled. He could feel that victory would soon be upon him.
"This is how I'd fight the Fire Lord!"
Suddenly, the rhythm was shattered as Zuko was in the way. He performed a gesture with his hands that Aang was not familiar with, but his hands were formed in what he remembered to be the position for shooting lightning.
"Zuko…what are you doing?"
Zuko blinked, seemed to realize what he'd done, and immediately drew back. "Oh! It's just…" He scratched the back of his head and looked at Aang sheepishly. "He was…he was about to shoot lightning at you. I tried to redirect it."
Aang stared at him. Zuko stared back.
Then, Aang burst out laughing.
"I…I don't see what's so funny about that!" Zuko yelled defensively. "You've got no idea how to deflect lightning, so if my father tried to…!"
Aang, wiping tears of laughter from his eyes, patted Zuko on the shoulder. "Yeah, yeah. Thanks for saving me, Zuko."
Zuko still looked embarrassed. "I guess I just made a total fool of myself, didn't I?"
"It's okay," said Aang, still grinning. "You meant well…and I think we're just both really tired. I think its time for bed."
"But do you feel any better? About…about the play?"
Their newest ally…smiled. "Yeah. I think I do. What about you?"
"I sure do!" Aang started to walk back towards the house, and Zuko trailed after him. "Who cares about some dumb play? When you face Azula, you're gonna win!"
Only silence met this cheerful declaration. Aang glanced back at Zuko as he reached the top of the stairs.
"Ah…Zuko? This is the part where you say that I'm definitely going to beat the Fire Lord?"
"Sorry. I'm still new at the optimism." Zuko reached the top of the stairs and looked at Aang. "But…you were doing really well."
"Do you…do you think I did well enough?"
Aang sounded nervous. Zuko…nodded.
"Yeah. I do."
The Avatar's face split into a relaxed smile. "Thanks, Zuko! Hearing that from my Firebending teacher makes me feel a lot better!"
With that, he set out across the yard towards their rooms. He heard Zuko trudge along behind him.
Aang paused, and turned to glance back at Zuko. "Yeah?"
"You are an incurable trickster."
The smile was a teasing one. Aang made a face and stuck his tongue out at Zuko. "Well, you're stiff and humorless."
Zuko shrugged. "I guess I am. But you know something?"
Zuko folded his arms. "I may be stiff and humorless…and you may be an incurable trickster…but we are going to win."
Aang nodded happily. "Right!" He yawned hugely. "But not right now! I say its bedtime. Good night, Zuko!"
So...what'd you think?