It was a beautiful day in the canyon sheltering the Western Air Temple; the sun was bright but not too hot, and the air, for once, was absolutely free of haze and so clear that the cliff walls opposite the temple looked close enough to touch. Zuko sat in a bit of ruined balcony just outside the chamber the group had adopted as their main gathering spot, enjoying the magnificent view.

Firebending this morning had gone well, finally; lunch was over, and he was free to relax a little. Apart from the time he and Mai had spent together, leisure time was a pleasure he had seldom allowed himself to indulge in, these past few years. Now, though - well, he didn't have a crew to command, there was no longer a need to pursue the Avatar, and now that he'd left the palace for good, he didn't need to watch his behavior or his back. Not much, anyway.

Granted, he'd brought his meal with him to the balcony, choosing to eat apart from the group rather than endure yet another round of stilted conversation and uncertain, sidelong glances; the others probably thought he was brooding out here, or plotting, in Katara's case. He wasn't, but... sometimes it just got tiring, dealing with the excruciating awkwardness that came with his position as the Av - as Aang's - firebending master.

He might be in the group now, but that didn't mean he was of it. Not yet.

He took a deep breath, letting it out slowly. Zuko had spent enough days and nights fretting over the problem: How was he to find his way, to create a place for himself among people who had no reason to trust him, given everything he'd done up to this point?

It didn't help that the Avatar and his companions, every last one of them, frankly bewildered him more often than not.

There was a case in point right in front of him when he got up and brought his bowl back inside, watching the others as discretely as he could while he moved past them. The Avatar - Aang - he was just... he...

Back when he'd still been chasing the Avatar, Zuko had learned that Aang could fly. Even without his glider, he could blithely step off a cliff, drop thirty feet or more at a time and land as softly as a hummerbee; he could run faster than the wind, sweep foes from his path with a tightly focused tornado, and create gusts that could knock a man through a wall.

And at the moment he was zipping around, quite literally bouncing off the walls, using that technique he called an "air scooter" and whooping and hooting like a crazed owl-loon.

It was just a little difficult to reconcile those two images in his head, sometimes.

Never mind that he was power incarnate, carrying as he did the wisdom and experience of all the thousands of Avatars to come before him. Never mind that his duty was to single-handedly bridge the gap between the mortal world and the realm of spirits. Never mind that he was also, currently, the living embodiment of all the world's hopes for peace.

All of that was Aang-the-Avatar. Aang-the-kid, on the other hand, was bubbly enough to compete with Ty Lee for cheerfulness, had an unholy weakness for fruit custard, and at least half the time he practiced his bending with all the mental focus of his pet lemur-bat.

There were times when Zuko could almost console himself with the knowledge that he'd been defeated (repeatedly) by such a worthy opponent as Aang-the-Avatar. But when he found himself face to face with this -

Somehow, in all his years of study and months of pursuit, Zuko had missed discovering that one good sneeze could launch Aang-the-kid ten feet into the air. And he'd be disappointed if he didn't clear at least fifteen.

It became a little harder to hang onto his pride, knowing that he'd lost battles to - that.

Zuko shook his head and kept walking.


I had intended to make this a one-shot, but the words are fighting back and not letting me write them the way I want. So it looks like you'll get to read a series of vignettes, instead. Hopefully they will all fit together once I'm done.

Reviews are always welcome.