Just a rando lil' blurb, set between The Firebending Masters and The Boiling Rock.
It broke Aang's heart a little to see how much the Fire Nation had changed.
There was the war, of course. The havoc and destruction that the leaders of the Fire Nation had wreaked on the elements, the nations of the world, and on their own people in the pursuit of world domination was beyond horrific.
But they had given up more than just thousands of lives in the last hundred years. The very culture had changed so drastically Aang had barely recognized it as the place where he and Kuzon had played together. It was so…rigid. Militaristic in every aspect of life. Disciplined not through the restraint of love, but in fear of punishment. The people had become emotionally reserved in a way the air nomad would have expected to be more typical of the peoples of the Earth Kingdom, but it sat on them heavily, like iron plate armor on an acrobat. It was disturbing to see the passion and energy he remembered caged and repressed that way.
He saw it in the students at the school. He saw it in the villagers wherever they went. He even saw it in Zuko now that the older boy had joined their group—especially in Zuko.
It didn't seem strange to Sokka and Katara and Toph, to whom the Fire Nation had always been defined almost purely by its military. But if Aang had been asked upon waking from the iceberg to say one thing to summarize the entirety of his knowledge of the Fire Nation and its people, he wouldn't have thought of burning cities or smoke-belching machines or ruthless feet clanking in strictly-regimented steps.
He would have said they knew better than anyone in the world how to throw a great party.
Festivals in the Fire Nation would be held for even the most incidental occasions (sometimes no occasion at all) and could go on for days and days and days. Parades, acrobatic and firebending and wirewalk and juggling performances, masks and sequined costumes, dazzling fireworks, singers and drummers on every street corner, food so sweet and spicy your tongue would be raw for a week afterward, and the theatre—the emotional Fire folk had just adored their drama, be it tragic or romantic. Aang clearly remembered sitting somewhat uncomfortably through more than one play that he'd found a little over the top, but which had Kuzon beside him (and half the rest of the crowd) in tears of vicarious desolation or joy.
But most of all, they had loved to dance. Though most of the people of the Fire Nation preferred to literally rise and set with the sun, for the sake of dancing they would stay up far into the night, whirling in golds and scarlets under the light of hundreds of paper dragon lanterns.
Nobody danced anymore in the Fire Nation.
"It's not a dance," Zuko snarled for what had to be the hundredth time that evening, still stung by Sokka's continued teasing about the firebending form he and Aang had learned from the dragons.
"Riiight," Sokka said. He picked at his teeth with a shard of bone from his dinner (the airbender winced) for a moment more before tossing it into the fire. "You know it only gets funnier every time you deny it?"
The exiled prince was about to lapse into offended, brooding silence again, Aang could see it, so he piped in cheerfully, "It really isn't a dance, Sokka. Most Fire Nation dancing is a lot different from firebending forms."
"If you say so," Sokka said, clearly unconvinced, but Zuko snapped his head over to glare at him.
"We don't dance," the teen gritted. Turning back to gaze into the fire, he muttered, "it's frivolous."
Aang had a feeling Zuko probably wouldn't much like the plays Kuzon had loved so much, either. Or at the very least, he'd claim not to.
"Yeah, some kids at a Fire Nation school told me that too when I threw them a secret dance party—" Aang started, but Zuko interrupted.
"Wait, you infiltrated a—hang on." He shook his shaggy head, disbelieving. "Secret dance party?"
"That's right!" Aang confirmed cheerfully.
"It was pretty fun, too," Katara chipped in, smiling at him. Aang glowed a little.
Caught in an awkward place between incredulous and scandalized, gold eyes stared.
"We didn't get a chance to talk much about it though," the airbender went on blithely. Nothing like a bit of friendly cultural inquiry to fill in the silence. "So what are Fire Nation parties like in the capital, if your people don't dance anymore? I mean, the Firemoth Festival was all about dancing! I remember when I went with Kuzon and the bonfire ceremonies were—"
"I've never heard of the Firemoth Festival," Zuko admitted.
"Some prince. Doesn't know his own nation's holidays," Sokka muttered to himself. "Of course, that would come under the heading of 'fun', which you don't seem to know much about."
"I know about fun!" Zuko flared, looking anything but. "And I know the national holidays. We have the Fire Festival every year. There's a parade, and fire candy. And…" he cast about for other memories. "People wear masks. And the firebenders perform."
"Oh, we went to the Fire Festival too," Aang said dreamily. "It was just three days after Zhou-Han's Day, and my feet were still sore and I didn't think I could survive a whole week of more dancing but Kuzon said—"
"It's only a day long now," the firebender said curtly. "And we don't celebrate Zhou-Han's Day anymore."
"No Zhou-Han's?" Aang gaped at him. "But—that was one of the best ones!" He turned to Sokka, splaying his hands eagerly. "You would have loved it too, Sokka. There was this huge feast, with contests to see who could build the tallest fruit cakes that wouldn't fall, and Air candy! See, they would take melted sugar and blow it like glass into these little hollow balls that were supposed to—"
"Represent airbending," Zuko finished for him, sounding rather hollow himself. "That's why my grandfather declared it would no longer be celebrated, because Zhou-Han had been a friend of the air nomads. I guess a lot of the old holidays are gone for reasons like that. There's the Fire Festival, and the Solstice parades. And…" his face darkens slightly. "There are celebrations for the royal family sometimes. Coronations and…coming of age ceremonies. That's it, really."
"Yeah. Sounds like fun," Toph said flatly.
"…We don't really do stuff just for fun in the Fire Nation," Zuko conceded, crossing his arms in a move Aang was coming to recognize as more defensive than angry.
"Maybe that's because you're so busy out ruining everyone else's fun," Katara said, either not noticing or not caring how it made the older boy flinch.
He had that defeated look (the look of a dancer burdened by armor, the Avatar thought) and was clearly opening his mouth to sullenly agree. Aang beat him to the gap in the conversation.
"You know, Zuko, a hundred years ago the Fire Nation used to throw the best parties of anyone. After the war is over, maybe we can bring all the old festivals and dances back!"
Though his response was unenthusiastic, there was this weird look on Zuko's face, like he was struggling to picture something he'd never actually seen before. Like the school kids at the secret party, when Aang had tried to explain to them the point of dancing.