Title: Burn Therapy
Pairings/Characters: Aang, Zuko, background Sokka/Suki
Word count: 2764
Disclaimer: Avatar: The Last Airbender belongs to the nice folks at Nickelodeon
Summary: Zuko and Aang bond on Ember Island. By burning things.
A/N: Thank you to jin_fenghuang for beta'ing and also for putting up with me talking endlessly about Fire Nation politics. Also, this fic is mostly just me testing the waters with character voice. So, be forewarned.
They arrived at Ember Island in the pre-dawn hours, following Zuko's advice against Katara's strongly worded admonitions. They always landed Appa at night, she'd argued. They needed the cover of darkness to hide his gigantic sky bison silhouette.
The Fire Nation is too well lit, even at night, Zuko had said, eyes peering over his arms where they rested on Appa's saddle to the rising sparks of fire set into the middle distance. Aang followed his gaze, remembering staying with Kuzon's family, chasing around their small wooden house as his friend's incautious fingers darted out, bending fire to light each of the lantern's in turn – confident he would not miss and set fire to the house, and equally confident that the soft glow of the lanterns would not disobediently escape during the night. In the morning, Kuzon had proudly displayed the ash filled lanterns, explaining that there had never been any reason to worry.
The memory had been bright in his mind as Aang watched Zuko silently, eyes picking out the dim outline of his scar under the tousled mess of his hair.
Zuko knows best, Aang had said, ignoring the offended huff Katara let out.
Her posture was still stiff, words prim and neatly cut as she directed the others in offloading their supplies from Appa's back into the courtyard of a large, well appointed house.
"What is this place?" Toph asked, stomping her feet onto the flagstone in curiosity as she tilted her head back and forth. "It feels… fancy."
"Sounds like my kind of place!" Sokka exclaimed, even as his eyes went round with excitement. He dragged Suki by the hand, darting in and out of the crannies of the courtyard, trying to see whatever it was Toph felt. It didn't take long for disappointment to settle onto his features with a pout. "Aww, it's just plants."
"Nice plants," Suki said, contradicting him. She bent down to look more closely at an overgrown bloom, lifting the flower up to Sokka, trying to tempt him into sniffing it. Sokka crossed him arms in refusal.
"They're firebirds of paradise. And they don't smell," Zuko said. All eyes fell on him, and he shifted uncomfortably under the attention. He looked away from the group, irritation on his features as he explained, "My mother planted them. Or, well, ordered servants to plant them."
Aang felt his brow knit. Zuko never talked about his mom. Ever. He bit his lip, asking quietly, "Your mother brought you here?"
Zuko rolled his eyes, shooting a glare Aang's way.
"Of course she did. This is a royal vacation house."
"Ohhh," Toph said into the sudden, surprised hush that fell over the group. "That explains the bathrooms."
"You brought us to theFire Lord's house?" Sokka asked, voice going high in horror. Turning on his heel, he added much more calmly, "But we should all keep the bathroom thing in mind for later."
"Yeah," Zuko said shortly. "I did."
"'Kay," Sokka said. Katara rolled her eyes at them from across the courtyard. She opened her mouth momentarily, but seemed to think better of it. She threw a look Aang's way that was, for once, not at all hard to decipher: Zuko still knows best, right? Aang gave her a sheepish smile, scratching at the back of his neck.
"Ouch," Aang mouthed, wincing as he looked away.
"Well," Sokka said loudly, ignoring the tension. He shrugged an arm around Suki, who turned to look at him, eyebrows going high. He guided her from the courtyard, toward the entrance of the main house, tossing over his shoulder, "I think it's about time we turned in for the night. Day. Thing."
"Excuse me?" Katara asked. "You're going to sleep? We haven't even finished unpacking. And where exactly do you think you're going to stay? You don't know where anything is."
"I think I can find my way around a house, Katara," he scoffed. He took two more paces before wheeling about, an unhappy Suki pinned to his side, to look over at Zuko. "Where do I go?"
"Servants' quarters," Zuko said, pointing to the right. He gestured more broadly to the left, beach front area of the estate, "My room, my parents', and Azula's."
"Dibs on Ozai's bed!" Toph called out. She paused in picking Appa fur from between her toes, hand pressing to the ground as she read their reactions. "What?"
"He's the Fire Lord," Katara said, enunciating ever syllable.
Toph still didn't seem to get it, but relented regardless.
"Fine, whatever. I won't get dirt all over his bed."
"Ugh," Aang said. He, like almost everyone else, looked more than vaguely sick at the thought of sleeping in any of those places. "Did your Uncle have a room?"
"Next to Lu Ten's," Zuko said. A rueful look passed over his face, and he added, "I think the memorial is still up."
Memorial? Aang wanted to ask, but didn't. Instead, he slumped to the ground, leaning back against his bedroll.
"Could this place be any more depressing?" he asked. Again and again, the Fire Nation disappointed him. This just wasn't how he remembered it being with Kuzon.
"Sorry," Zuko mumbled.
"So, courtyard it is!" Sokka said, finally releasing Suki as he went to unfurl his bed roll. She did the same, inching it closer to his when she thought they weren't looking, and eventually the pair dropped to the ground, cuddled close as they looked up at the dawn pinked sky.
"At least we'll get a good view of the stars," Suki offered, before frowning. "When it's night again, anyway."
"Right," Katara said. She rolled the word around her mouth, smirking sarcastically. "Too bad about that."
"Yep, too bad," Toph agreed with a toothy grin. She was splayed out on her bedroll, no doubt luxuriating in the feel of solid earth under her and clearly only moments from dropping off.
"Cheater," Katara mumbled. She dropped the last of the supplies to the ground, dusting her hands off before giving both Aang and Zuko a level look. "I'm going to go practice."
Aang had the feeling that meant he was supposed to practice too. He scrunched his face at her back.
"So, Aang," Zuko started, his raspy voice low and quiet with uncertainty. And maybe just quiet. Aang took another look around the courtyard, not at all surprised to see Toph asleep, or Suki prying the dead weight of Sokka's arm off of her with an indulgent smile. "Is she mad at me, or something?"
Aang lifted a shoulder. He kind of had no idea.
"Eh. More at me, I guess."
Zuko blew out a relieved breath, brushing his hand through his hair.
"Good. Because she just now stopped hating me, and I'd really hate to mess that up. So, uh," Zuko stumbled on the words, and for a moment Aang felt just the tiniest bit guilty. Zuko was so bad at this. He was awkward and embarrassed and just really bad at being normal. It wasn't right to laugh at him.
Aang thought of the wisdom of Monk Gyatsu, to find joy in life, but not mockery. He thought of the guru and tried to rationalize not laughing as a means of keeping his chakras open. He thought of the fierce, unhappy, banished prince who had chased him from pole to pole and how dangerous he could be.
None of that quelled the laughter bubbling up in him. The sharp bite of Aang's teeth into his cheek, however, did have a slight effect.
"Do you want a tour?" Zuko finished lamely, unaware of Aang's inner struggle.
"Sure!" Aang chirped. Zuko made to walk into the main house, frowning when Aang hesitated. "Just… are you sure this is a safe place to hide?"
"It's fine. No one would think to look here."
"And it's not, uh, booby trapped?" Aang asked. He didn't really want a repeat of the spike pit or glue filled room they'd encountered at the Sun Warriors' temple.
"No booby traps," Zuko assured him. He paused, thinking, and then added, "But stay away from Azula's room just in case."
Aang nodded fervently, paces picking up behind Zuko as they entered the shadowed and still halls of the house. He squinted, peering into the semi-darkness. There were towering, narrow windows set into the wall every few paces and several wall sconces in between, but at this hour, there was still little in the way of light. As if hearing his thought, Zuko stopped walking, angling an encouraging look down at Aang. Or what passed for encouraging with Zuko, anyway.
"Yes, Sifu Hotman," Aang replied softly, licking his lips. He narrowed his eyes in concentration, feeling the slowly rising power of the sun in the back of his mind, grasping it with his will, before unleashing it in a flurry of jabbing hands and forceful kicks that swept fire into every sconce in the hall.
And maybe, just maybe, singed a couple of wall scrolls in the process.
Aang's eyes widened in horror.
"I'm so sorry!" he blurted out, switching forms easily to bend the air away from the burning scrolls, suffocating the flames.
Zuko walked away from him, fingers reaching out to touch a still glowing, gnarled length of rice paper. It was a portrait, Aang realized. He stepped back to take it into full view, and felt his stomach lurch at the sight. Sozin.
"I burned a few of these myself, last time I was here," Zuko started. "I think a couple more could go."
Rather than pull the heat away from the embers brightening and fading like a pulse at his fingertips, he pushed more heat into them, fire springing from the palm of his hand to race up the full length of the portrait. And, like always, Aang watched in muted wonder as he saw the fire stay obedient to a bender's will – it did not move to the wall, or the ceiling, or Zuko. That was the control he wanted. That was the control he needed.
They worked silently, Zuko's tour turning very quickly into a mission to find and eliminate offensive portraiture – which had a pretty broad definition for them both. Only Zuko's mother, Iroh, and Lu Ten were saved from the flames, although Aang admitted to deliberately passing over one of two of Zuko himself. Zuko took to the work with zeal, a grim smile occasionally cracking across his face. Aang burned the scrolls only hesitantly, after long consideration on just how long he could put up with looking at Ozai's humorless glower, and with a great deal of care so that the power did not run away from him.
As far as fire lighting ceremonies went, he decided, Kuzon still won.
"Is it weird?" he asked eventually, shy, curious voice cutting into the soft crackle of flames. His hand hovered over a full family portrait. Azulon stood behind both of his sons, who in turn sat with their wives, young children at their feet. The rice paper was yellowed with age, and worse – mildew. Aang felt a knot of regret form under his heart at the sight. This was a royal residence. Why hadn't it been better taken care of?
But Aang knew why.
There had been times – not a lot, because Katara and Sokka and Toph were used to flying and heights by this point – but there had been times, at the Western Air Temple, when he saw his friends struggle with the sudden realization that the city was upside down. Vertigo would wash over their faces, they'd gulp down a big breath of air, and squeeze their eyes shut until it passed. Now, of course Aang thought that life was just a bit duller without a healthy dose of vertigo now and again, but there were times when he absolutely knew how they felt.
Like now, looking at a portrait of his enemies, standing with his enemy's son, and mourning a country so furiously pursuing a war that they hadn't even noticed their own houses falling to ruin.
He remembered them being better than this.
"Is what weird?" Zuko grunted out between whirling, aggressive forms as he threw fire at a different picture. Azula.
"Uh." Aang wracked his brain. What had he been asking about? Oh right. "This. Being in your house again. Seeing your dad. Being his enemy."
Zuko pulled back from his bending, moving jerkily back to the root form before turning on his heel to frown at Aang.
"Fighting my father is what I'm meant to do," Zuko said stridently. He always took that tone, trying to prove how serious he was, how committed to their side. Aang smiled faintly at him, giving a quick nod. Reassurance that he'd never doubted. An uncertain look crossed Zuko's face, and he looked away, shrugging his shoulders a bit as he admitted, "Yeah. It's weird."
He turned away, ready to go back to his task of immolating bad art – although, really, Aang didn't think that volcanic landscape had done anything to deserve that – when Aang reached out, stilling his hands.
"The Fire Nation doesn't have to be like this," Aang said. "It used to be so much better than this. Happier. I remember all the fireworks and the dancing at the fire festival, all the families singing together. It can be like that again. We'll make it that way."
Zuko stared over Aang, acknowledging neither Aang's touch nor his words. Aang didn't have to turn to know where he was looking – the family portrait. Aang looked up at him, hoping inside he hadn't overstepped, hadn't twisted the knife. He knew Zuko's family wasn't, you know, happy. At all. And he wasn't trying to suggest he could fix that.
Just, you know. For the future. Maybe it was possible to make other people happy. Or even for Zuko to be happy.
To Aang's surprise, Zuko didn't mention the portrait at all. His gaze shifted down to Aang, a little softer for all that it was still distant. He fumbled in his pocket for something.
"I, uh, I've been meaning to give you something." He pulled a small headpiece from his pocket, pushing it hastily into Aang's hands. He turned it over, questioningly. It almost looked like… "It belonged to Avatar Roku."
"Really?" Aang asked excitedly. He peered closer at it, taking in the intricate design in the metal, the heft of it in his hand. "How did you find it?"
"Uh, well," Zuko scratched his neck. "That's the thing. You're my great grandfather. I mean, Roku was. So, you are. Which means we're family. And that's rightfully yours."
Aang squinted up at him.
"Don't get me wrong, it's nice and all… but what am I going to do with a headpiece? It goes around hair. Which I kind of don't have."
Zuko blushed in embarrassment.
Aang felt a little bad about that, but come on. His bald head had been staring right at Zuko. Another thought occurred to him, and he asked, "And I thought Sozin was your great grandpa?"
"You're… That is, Roku's my mother's grandfather. Sozin is on my father's side."
"Oh." That made sense. And maybe meant Aang could call Zuko a whippersnapper. He brightened instantly at the thought. "So, we're really family?"
"That's great! And I really think you should keep this," Aang said. He presented the headpiece back to Zuko on open, flat palms. "For your kid. The next Crown Prince."
Zuko gulped, meeting Aang's eyes, before taking the headpiece back reverently. It was a promise, Aang knew, and one that went both ways. They were going to win. They had to.
"Or Crown Princess," Zuko added, a touch of irony twisting his mouth.
"Oh, come on," Aang exclaimed. "It couldn't have been all bad, growing up with her! Didn't you ever play any games?"
"There was one I remember. We'd dress all in black and sneak around the palace, climbing onto the roof and sliding down the columns, trying to being as quiet as possible. And whoever could catch the other won."
"See! That sounds fun. I knew you had it in you." Aang smiled up at Zuko. "And if we're done with the fire patrol, how about we play that?"
"Sure!" Zuko slid a knife from his boot, brandishing it as he stood and smiling at Aang. He waited a beat, and then his smile fell. "Where's your knife?"
"I need a knife?"
"Well, how else am I supposed to surprise you?"
"Uh, okay. New plan. There's a game Kuzon and I used to play…"