"Hold still and it won't hurt so much!" Katara snapped. Zuko did his best. He felt the water snaking into his wound, Katara's chi energy flowing, and then suddenly the arrow was being pulled free and the wound was closing. "All right, you big baby."
He got to his feet, not having time to acknowledge the sarcasm. Aang and Sokka ran out of the woods, covered in soot but looking unhurt. "They retreated into an old war balloon," Sokka gasped, out of breath.
"We have to go after them," Aang said, meeting Zuko's eyes. "Catch them before they have a chance to regroup and call for help from the next cell over."
Zuko nodded. "All right, let's go now." He turned and climbed into Appa's saddle. He saw Katara start to follow him, but Aang stopped her.
"You should stay here."
"What? Why?" she asked.
"Katara, you're not as effective over distance, and we might be fighting in the air without much of a water source. You're needed here, the village is still burning and there are a lot of wounded." She didn't look convinced. Aang took her by the shoulders. "I am not doing the boyfriend thing where I try to keep you safe. Wearing the Avatar hat right now, see?" he said, pointing to the top of his head. "If it would be the best for the mission I'd have you along in a heartbeat, but I need you where you'll help the most and that's here." Zuko wondered if Katara would believe him, but the fact was that Aang gladly welcomed Katara's presence on even the most dangerous missions. She was a powerful warrior, and while Zuko was sure that Aang worried for her safety, he respected her enough to let her take care of herself. Katara knew it, too.
She held his gaze for a moment, but seemed satisfied. "All right." Her indignant expression then transitioned into intense worry now that she'd accepted that she wasn't going. "Aang..."
"Zuko and Toph already got shot."
"I won't be there to heal you!"
"Then I won't get shot." She bit her lip and nodded. "Katara, I gotta go." Their eyes met for a moment, then they grabbed each other. Zuko blinked. This wasn't like the affectionate hugs he'd seen them share countless times before. This was a restless, panicky clutch. Katara's fingertips dug hard into Aang's bare shoulders while his hands clutched fistfuls of her clothes and hair. It was a last-chance grip between lovers, and Zuko knew he was getting a small glimpse of how different they were to each other when they were alone.
Aang drew back and kissed her hard, wrapping one hand around the back of her neck. She grabbed the front of his tunic and kissed back. It was a messy, demanding kiss that never stopped moving, nothing gentle or sweet about it. Zuko knew that feeling, of having to try and cram in everything you felt for someone into one moment, so you went for closer and harder and just more because there wasn't enough time. Aang broke off and looked toward where Appa waited; Katara pressed her face to his cheek, breathing hard. He nuzzled her face one last time and they locked eyes. Neither spoke, but there was a lot being said. She nodded, then he quickly pulled himself away from her and ran toward Appa, Katara's hand trailing down his arm as he left. He didn't look back, just leapt onto Appa's head and took the reins. Katara watched as they took off. Aang stared resolutely forward, his jaw set. Zuko looked back until they crested a hill and their view of the village was cut off. Only then did Aang risk a backwards glance.
He met Zuko's eyes briefly. "We're gonna be outnumbered."
"We're the Avatar and the Firelord. I think we can take them."
Aang snorted. "The last time you said that, 'them' turned out to be dragons."
"These guys aren't dragons."
"No, they're violent thugs who are using your father's name as an excuse to wreak havoc."
"If we can track them to their basecamp and destroy it, it'll be a bad blow for them."
"We need to make sure we take some into custody. If we can find out who this Son of the Comet is and find him, we could splinter the whole group."
Zuko shook his head. "Son of the Comet. Who came up with that one?"
"Yeah. Not very imaginative." He saw Aang look backwards again, a quick look of longing passing over his face.
"It was right for her to stay behind."
Aang looked at him. "I know that."
Zuko frowned. "You guys aren't having problems, are you?"
"All right! You just had a funny look for a second."
"That's how I always look."
"Whatever." He waited a few moments. "Cause you know you can talk about it if you..."
"Everything's fine, Zuko!" Aang exclaimed. "And what about this situation makes you think it's a good time for a heart to heart chat?"
"Why not? We're gonna be up here for a little while. Appa will track their wake on his own. We can't catch them in that war balloon, we'll have to wait until they land somewhere."
Aang sighed, then climbed off Appa's head and joined Zuko in the saddle. "Everything's fine," he said, resolute.
"Okay," Zuko said with a shrug.
Aang rubbed the back of his head. "It's a little too fine."
"Too fine? What does that mean?"
Aang fidgeted, crossing and uncrossing his legs, looking everywhere but at Zuko. "Nothing."
"It isn't nothing. What? C'mon."
"I think I might..." Aang began, then harrumphed and looked away again.
"You might what?"
"There's something wrong with me," he suddenly blurted out. He groaned and let his head fall backwards.
"Wrong? Wrong how?"
"I'm a terrible person."
"What are you talking about?" Zuko was growing a little concerned. Aang really seemed tortured about whatever this was. "You're not a terrible person."
"You don't know. Nobody knows what goes on inside my head."
"Well, that's true of everybody."
"No, it's not! It's me! I'm a freak!"
"Will you for the love of Agni just tell me what the hell you're talking about?"
"I'm turning into some kind of sex maniac!" Aang exclaimed. Zuko just blinked at him for a moment. That was definitely not what he'd been expecting. Aang made a tortured choking sound and let his head drop into his hands.
"No, don't say anything. There's nothing to be said."
Zuko couldn't help but think back to all the time he'd spent in Aang and Katara's company. He tried to remember if anything had ever seemed amiss, and it hadn't. They were affectionate with each other in what he would have characterized as a normal and appropriate way. "Why would you think that?" he asked, cautiously.
"Because! It's just true! This can't be...normal!"
"What can't be normal?"
"How I...how I am!"
"How are you?" This conversation was becoming ridiculous.
Aang sighed heavily. "I really like it."
"What's not normal about that? You're supposed to like it."
"No, I mean...I really like it."
"So? I like it, too."
"But...I can't stop thinking about it. I think about it all the time. It's really distracting. I mean, Zuko...all she has to do is look at me and I'm off in my head, imagining...things. Sometimes I'll be in some important meeting and I'll realize that I've been off in some daydream, thinking about her. Or even when I'm with her! She'll be talking to me and I'm just nodding my head not hearing a word because I can't stop staring at her lips and thinking about how long until I can go to bed with her!" He looked at Zuko beseechingly. "What do I do?"
"I'm still waiting to hear the part where you're a sex maniac."
"Did you not hear anything I said? I shouldn't be thinking about her like that!"
"Because...because...well, I love her!" Aang spluttered. "You know, like the forever kind."
"I know. And?"
"So shouldn't I be thinking about our deep spiritual bond and stuff? Hearts and flowers and romantic ballads? All I'm thinking about is what she looks like naked and that sound she makes when..." He cut himself off, turning scarlet. "Don't you get it? I'm a pervert!"
Zuko couldn't take it anymore. He burst out laughing.
Aang's face darkened. "Well, I'm glad that my freakishness is so amusing to you, Zuko."
He made himself stop, pinching the bridge of his nose. "Oh, man. You had me worried there for a minute."
"Huh?" Aang said, frowning.
"Aang, you are not a sex maniac. There's nothing wrong with you."
"Everything you just said? It's normal. It's the same for me. And Sokka. And every other guy ever. You're not a pervert. You're fourteen and male."
"You mean...this is normal?" Aang said, looking doubtful.
"You're so wise about so many things, Aang. The rest of us forget that you never had a father or a brother to talk to about these things. You don't have an Uncle to set you straight."
"Normally I talk to Sokka about guy stuff. But this...yeah, I can't talk to him about this."
"I can understand that. Let me ask you this. You say you really like it. What about Katara? Does she?"
Aang colored. "She seems to. She says she does."
"And do you treat her with respect?"
"You don't force yourself on her, do you?"
Aang looked horrified at the very idea. "No! I would never do that!"
"Then you don't have a problem."
"But...I..." He rubbed the back of his head. "You're saying that it isn't just me? Other guys are this...preoccupied?"
"I'm saying that all guys are this preoccupied. It's just how we are. It's how our brains work. Even the Avatar's, apparently," he said, smirking. "And don't think girls don't get preoccupied, too. They just seem to be better at maintaining the ability to also think about other things."
"No. She can't be thinking about this like I am. She's...better."
"Thinking about sex doesn't make you a bad person, you know. And I bet she is. No, scratch that, I know she is. You know how many times I've seen her eyeballing your ass when you're not looking?"
Aang blinked. "Really?"
"Ever noticed the way she sometimes sits and stares into space with a little smile on her face?"
"Umm...yeah, I guess I have."
"Yeah, she's totally picturing you naked right then."
"How do you know?"
"I have a sexy, preoccupying girlfriend, too. One I actually talk to about this stuff."
Aang was now smiling hesitantly. "So I'm not a sex maniac?"
"No. You're a normal guy."
He blew out a huge breath and sagged against Appa's saddle. "Wow. That's a relief."
"You were really worried about that, weren't you?"
"Yeah. A lot."
"It'll get easier to deal with. You two have only been at that stage for a few months, right?"
"It's still new. I'm not saying it won't always be a distraction. But it'll be less intrusive after awhile."
"When?" Aang pleaded. "Sometimes I really do have to think about other things, you know! When will it get better?"
Zuko chuckled. "When I find out, I'll let you know."
They were quiet for a moment. "So," Aang finally said. "You think Katara is beautiful, huh?"
Zuko shifted. "Well...sure. She is. Empirically speaking, in a totally objective way that in no sense implies me being attracted to her."
"Don't give me that look! What, you've never thought Mai was beautiful?"
"Mai scares me too much for such thoughts to enter my head."
"Oh, I am so going to tell her that the Avatar is scared of her. She'll love that."
Aang laughed. "I bet." He looked off into the distance. "Anyway, Katara isn't just beautiful. She's the most beautiful girl who's ever lived."
"You are such a sap."
"Yeah," Aang said, grinning. He didn't sound too worried about it. "That's what Sokka says, too."
Appa lowed, a deep and rumbling sound that Aang seemed to understand. "They've stopped," he said, climbing back on to the bison's head. "I'm taking us down."
They descended to a clearing. Zuko could see the war balloon being lowered to a secluded grove about a half mile away. "They must be camping for the night. Let's go hit them hard before they even know we're here," he said.
Aang held him back. "No. Their blood's still up. Optimal time for a nighttime attack is halfway between midnight and dawn. It's when the chi flows the slowest and when the night watch guards are most likely to be drowsy and inattentive. They'll have started to relax, thinking they're in the clear. That's when we should attack."
Zuko nodded. "Makes sense. What do we do till then?"
Aang shrugged. "Make camp."
They started a small fire, making sure they were hidden from view. Zuko got some food out of the emergency rations on Appa's back. Aang sat cross-legged, fiddling with a malfunctioning spring on the side of his staff. For a good half hour, they sat in companionable silence as the night deepened around them.
"You ever wish you weren't the Avatar?" Zuko finally asked, idly curious.
Aang didn't look up from his work on his glider, which had devolved into a total disassembly. "Every day of my life," he said, quietly.
"Don't you ever wish you weren't Firelord?"
"Sometimes. When the bureaucrats are being aggravating and the pressure feels like it's about to pop my skull open."
"All I ever wanted was to live like Gyatso," Aang said, his eyes still on his work. "Be a master Airbender. Teach others. Live peacefully. Get really good at pai sho." Zuko smiled. "You're the Firelord. That's a big job. But at least you have help. You have ministers and generals and councillors and advisors. There is only one Avatar. No one can help me with that. Every day I fight the urge just to grab Katara and disappear into the woods somewhere. Build us a house and just live there quietly, hiding from the world."
He shrugged. "I have a lot of reasons to stay, too. I'm grateful to be able to help people. But there's just so much, you know?" Zuko nodded. He did know. "I'm only one person. You get it, I know. The kinds of decisions we have to make no one should have to make."
"Like what to do about my father and my crazy sister," Zuko said, crossing his arms.
"You know how many people want me to kill both of them?" Aang said.
"I know. Sometimes I'm one of those people."
"You know better."
"I know you won't kill."
"Not if I can help it." He was quiet for a moment. "Do you know why?"
"Because the Air Nomads believe in the sanctity of life," Zuko recited, having heard it enough times before.
"Yes, but do you know why they do? Why they place so much emphasis on respecting life?"
"Well...isn't that self-evident?"
"Is it?" Aang asked. "Plenty of other societies seem to have avoided it throughout history."
"Okay, why then?"
"Because Airbending is the deadliest of all the bending arts. It's doubly important that those of us who have the ability learn to respect life."
Zuko frowned. "How do you figure it's the deadliest?"
"All the bending arts can kill, of course. A Waterbender can drown you, an Earthbender can crush you, a Firebender can burn you. But all those things have counterattacks. You can defend yourself, block them or avoid them. Against an Airbender, though...there is no defense." He paused, and when he spoke again, Aang's voice was low and flat. "I could kill you right now and there's not a thing you could do to stop me."
Zuko felt a chill go up his back. The firelight flickered across Aang's face, throwing his eyes and cheekbones into shadows. "How?" he said.
"I could draw all the air from your lungs and prevent you from breathing. You'd suffocate right here in front of me and no one would be able to tell what had happened. It would leave no trace, and there's nothing you could do about it." He looked up at Zuko from beneath lowered lids, his hands still working on the glider, and for just a second, Zuko was afraid of him. Don't be stupid. It's Aang.
"I'd appreciate it if you didn't do that," he said, going for levity.
Aang smirked. "Just stay on my good side, and you have nothing to worry about." He met Zuko's eyes but wasn't able to keep up the act. They both collapsed into giggles.
"You make a pretty good badass," Zuko said.
"Yeah? I've been practicing in the mirror. I figure the nice-guy goofy thing isn't going to play very well if I want to intimidate people with my big impressive Avatar powers." He shrugged. "I'm just not naturally scary."
"No, you're really not."
"How is it that you somehow make that sound like an insult?"
"Hey, not being scary is a good thing in my book. I grew up surrounded by people who took the practice of being scary to an art form."
"Point." He snapped his glider back together and tested the mechanism. It worked normally. He set it aside and stretched his legs out in front of him. "I've thought of using that technique in a fight. Not to kill, but it would be incapacitating. It would take all the fight out of an enemy immediately."
"Why haven't you?" Aang shifted uncomfortably. "You're not sure you'd be able to stop, are you?"
"Well, I've never done it before, not on a person. It would require a lot of very fine control and timing, and I wouldn't want to make a mistake. And I'd never be sure how a person's body would react. It's too dangerous."
"There are a lot of people who think you're weak for not killing my father."
"What they think isn't my problem."
"But it isn't everybody." Zuko reached into his pack and rummaged around until he found the leather band he'd brought to give to Aang. "I picked this up from a street vendor a few weeks ago. I brought it because I thought you'd get a kick out of it."
Aang took it and examined the letters etched into the leather. "WWAD. What does that mean?"
Zuko smiled. "It stands for 'What would Aang do?'"
His eyes widened. "Someone was selling this?"
"Yeah. It's become a little bit of a catchphrase around the Fire Nation. Not everyone thinks you're weak. There's something of a groundswell movement going on. It's all about nonviolence and peace and respect for life. That's their motto."
Aang stared at the leather strap. He looked flummoxed. "I don't know if I can be responsible for a whole movement."
"You're the Avatar. Who else are people going to follow? Where else can they find inspiration? In the Firelord? I'm still a symbol of the government, a cog in a machine. They've been taught to reject their gods and the spirits. They need someone to look to as an example. Who better than you?"
"Who better? Anybody! I don't want this kind of responsibility, Zuko! I can't live my life knowing that the whole world is looking to me as some kind of...example! I can't exist on top of a pedestal like that, there's nowhere to go but down. I'm just a guy with a job to do, that is when I can even manage to concentrate on it while my girlfriend is, you know, existing and being all gorgeous and stuff. What Would Aang Do? Aang would rather not get the credit or the blame for what other people do, think, say, feel or believe, thanks." He looked up and saw the look on Zuko's face. "I'm sorry. I'm kind of unloading some stuff on you."
"It's okay. People who occupy our positions are kind of a small club. We have to stick together."
"I don't normally talk about this with anybody but Katara."
"I'm glad you can at least talk to her."
"I can tell her anything." He smiled fondly. "She gets it. And I don't have to keep up any kind of image with her. She knows me." He met Zuko's eyes. "Do you have that? With Mai?"
Zuko nodded. "Mai's always known me. Since we were kids."
"That must be amazing. To have people in your life who've known you that long." A shadow crossed Aang's face.
"Yeah. Although now, it's pretty much just her. Everybody else who's known me as long as she has is crazy or dead or might as well be." Or missing, Zuko thought but did not say.
Aang picked up on it, though. "Are you having any luck?" he asked, quietly.
"Luck with what?"
"Finding your mother." Zuko said nothing. "Don't look so surprised. I know you're looking."
"I've been trying to keep it quiet, in case someone wants to try and find her first and use her against me."
"I can keep a secret." Aang cleared his throat. "You know we're all ready to help you, right?"
Zuko sat up straighter. He hadn't wanted to involve any of his friends in what might be a wild goose chase. "Yeah?"
"I've pretty much just been waiting for you to ask."
Zuko felt an absurd lump in his throat. He and Aang had been friends for a year now. Even with as much of that time as they'd been in separate nations, his sense of kinship to the Avatar had only increased. But it took more than a year to unlearn a lifetime's worth of lessons, and to be the beneficiary of friendly generosity was sometimes a shock to him. "I've never wanted to ask you for anything, Aang," he said.
"Well...because of...you know."
"Because of all that trying to capture me that you did? Ancient history."
"No. It isn't. It isn't history and I haven't forgotten. I sent a mercenary to kill you. What if he'd succeeded? Where would the world be now, where would I be?"
"You'd probably be dead. Katara takes it personally when I get killed."
Zuko was startled into laughter by that. "Yeah. I have personal experience with that." He sniffed. "I'm just not past the making-it-up-to-you stage enough yet to ask you for favors."
"It wouldn't be a favor. If your mother is out there, she might need help. Would it help if you thought of it as us doing it for her, not for you?"
Zuko pondered this. "Maybe. Yeah."
Aang nodded. "Okay. When this is all over we'll sit down and you can tell us what you know, and we'll make a plan."
"A plan, huh? Sounds so...efficient."
"Efficiency and results. That's what we're all about in Team Avatar," Aang teased. "Of which you are a member. Don't forget that." He fixed Zuko with a look, so he'd know the sentiment was sincerely meant.
"I won't." Zuko looked up at the sky. "Few hours until we move in. Wanna trade off taking naps?"
"Sure. You go first, you've already been shot once tonight."
"Not necessary. I feel totally fine. Katara has some magical hands."
"Man, you have no idea."
"Let's not get back onto that subject, okay?"
Aang chuckled. "Fair enough." He stretched out on the grass. "Wake me in an hour."
"Will do." Zuko watched as the most powerful being on the planet immediately dropped off to sleep with his hands folded under his cheek like a little boy. A surge of protectiveness rose in him.
I'm on Team Avatar. And we don't talk about it, but our unspoken oath is that we protect you. I've got some ground to make up there. I guess I can start by getting us both through tonight. Then we'll see.