The first thing Zuko tells him during their first lesson after the whole Sun Warrior ruins ordeal, is “Fire comes from the breath.”
Aang sighs, deeply. “I’ve heard this before,” he says, “I know this.”
Zuko raises an eyebrow at him, “You do?”
“Yeah. Jeong-Jeong went on forever about it. I sat and breathed and felt the sun for hours.”
Zuko, unfortunately, still does not look impressed, “Explain it to me, then. Fire comes from the breath. Why?”
Aang falters for a moment. “It’s like—it’s like the fire we had to carry up the mountain, right? How it felt like a heartbeat. It was almost like I was keeping it alive.”
“You were,” Zuko says, “Your breath is your fire and your fire is your life. You have to control your breath if you want to control your fire.”
Aang feels his heart sink, “Am I gonna have to sit and breathe and feel the sun again?”
Zuko huffs what could have been a laugh if it came from someone else; it’s weird, hearing that sound, “Not exactly. You know how to meditate.”
It’s not a question, but Aang nods anyways. “I try to do it everyday.”
“That’s a good habit to have. For firebenders, it’s best to do it the morning, when the sun comes up.”
“Firebenders rise with the sun,” Aang remembers. Zuko is always up before everyone else. Kuzon used to wake up super early, too.
Zuko nods. “It’s good to stay in touch with the source of your element. We need to have contact with the sun like we need to breathe.”
“And you need to breathe a lot.”
“Everyone needs to breathe a lot.”
Aang opens his mouth to explain that it had mostly been a joke, but decides against it. He’s learned that Zuko just doesn’t get that kind of thing sometimes—a lot of the time—but that’s okay. Aang’s not gonna be mean about it.
“So, fire comes from the breath. Your breath is your fire and your fire is your life?”
“Yeah,” Zuko says, voice softer than it was before. “So don’t let it burn out. But don’t let it get out of control either.”
“And you do that by controlling your breath?”
“That, and like, emotion and your level of focus and stuff. But I think that goes for any element. Breath affects your fire the most, so that’s what you need to master first.”
Aang, loudly, thinks that if Jeong Jeong had maybe just explained these things to him, he would’ve been more understanding about the sitting on a rock for hours. Maybe.
“I have pretty good breath control. I’m an airbender.”
“Air and fire are two different things.”
“But they’re not opposites,” Aang points out.
“No,” Zuko says, looking thoughtful the way he does sometimes, “I guess they’re not.”
“I’m still gonna have to practice my breathing though, huh?”
It’s mostly meditation, what Zuko’s talking about. They wake up—well, Zuko wakes up, because weird internal fire bender clock, and pokes Aang in the back until he wakes up too—with the sun, and sit on the edge of one of the higher cliffs until the sunrise it over and the sun is up in the sky. And then they go eat breakfast, which is great, because basking in the sunlight is more tiring than it has any right to be.
Katara isn’t a major fan of the whole arrangement, but there’s nothing malicious about it, so she has no reason to stop it. Aang kind of likes it, anyways. It’s hard to meditate during the day when everyone’s awake. It’s hardly ever quiet. The sunrise is peaceful. And Zuko seems calmer than ever does around everyone else. There’s something very vulnerable about the way he tilts his head up like he’s trying to soak up every bit of sunlight he can reach, like he needs it more than anything.
“Fire isn’t like the other elements,” he tells him one day. They’re going through the motions of one of the easier katas, to get him used to the feel of it. “Waterbenders can’t bend without a water source. Same with earth. Firebenders can create their own fire. It’s why they could—“ he breaks off, “It’s why they were so effective as invaders. They didn’t have to bring anything else with them.”
Aang nods, digesting this. “I’ve seen you bend a fire that wasn’t yours before, though. And when you get mad the campfire gets bigger.”
Zuko looks a little embarrassed about that, but before Aang can backpedal, he says, “You can use an outside fire, too. You could even bend another bender’s fire if your will is strong enough. But first you have to be strong enough to keep your own under control.”
The way Zuko bends now is different from the way he bent before, back at the beginning. Back at the beginning, it seemed more chaotic than anything, and he was very angry all the time. Now, he moves with a grace Aang’s never seen from him before. He’s in control. He moves, and the fire moves with him. Aang watches, and learns from him, and notices things.
The footwork is a lot like airbending, sometimes. Other times, it’s almost like waterbending. His arms do something he’s seen Katara do a million times, loose but focused, or he pushes out strong and rigid like Toph, his stance solid. None of the dozens of soldiers he’s blown away over the course of his adventures have bent like that. It’s Aang’s job to master the elements and learn from each one. He’s the Avatar. But Zuko is constantly evolving, too.
He watches Zuko warm up in the mornings or breathe in the cool dawn air, and Aang thinks that he still has much more to learn.
The thing about learning a new element is that it takes a lot of focus. In a lot of ways, it’s like learning a new worldview, and training yourself to understand and utilize it, even if it’s not second nature for you to think that way. Fire isn’t as difficult as Earth was for him, but that leftover fear from burning Katara, even though he’s mostly moved forwards from it, still makes it difficult sometimes.
Right now, though, it’s just tiring. They’ve been going at this for hours now, probably. It feels like it’s been a whole entire day.
“That was pretty good,” Zuko comments, “But you need to adjust your arms,” Aang lets Zuko nudge his arms up a little, pull his elbows out, “Do it again.”
“I’ve gone through it like twenty times,” he says— he doesn’t whine, and he only exaggerates a little bit. Toph had him earlier this morning, annoyed that he’d been slacking on his earthbending and out for vengeance; his body hurts.
“And you can go through it a twenty first.”
“Zuko,” he groans, and it still sounds so strange to say his name so casually, “I’m dying here. You’re killing me.”
Zuko, stone cold as he is, just scoffs. “This is nothing compared to some of the training I went through as a kid. I should make you do it again just for complaining.”
“Almighty Sifu, please, please do not.”
“Stop calling—“ he breaks off, pinching the bridge of his nose the way he does when he’s annoyed or pissed and trying to get it together, “spirits, whatever. Do it again.”
“But I’m tired, ”
“And you’ll be even more tired if I make you go through the entire set. Just.” He pauses, voice softening, “Run through it one more time, and then we can take a break. It’s almost lunchtime, anyways. Okay?”
Aang sighs, “Okay.”
He runs though it again, keeping his arms steady and his elbows out like Zuko showed him. It’s not much harder than the basics Zuko’s been leading him through, but the movements are more complicated. He finishes with a kick into the air and a pretty solid landing.
Zuko crosses his arms and says, “That was well done actually.”
“Yeah?” Aang perks up.
“Yeah,” and then, crushing his hopes and dreams, “This was one of the easier sets. We’ll focus on that for a few more days and then get you started on the harder stuff.”
Aang, vaguely, wants to cry. But Zuko would probably roll his eyes and say something about not being a baby, and might make him run through it again, so he doesn’t. But he thinks about it.
Sometimes, when they train without shirts during the day (because shirts catch on fire, and they don’t have very many of them), Aang sees things he probably shouldn’t. There’s a thick, wiry rope along Zuko’s left shoulder blade, and a thin slice of a scar along his hip. Nothing as bad as the one on his—well the one, but they still make Aang uneasy.
Zuko crouches down to pick up a cup of water during one of their tragically short five minute breaks, and Aang watches as the rope moves with him, uncoiling and stretching out. Aang thinks about what could’ve happened. None of the ideas he comes up with seem likely. He almost opens his mouth to say something about it, but Zuko’s life is kind of scary, so he doesn’t know if he actually wants to know. He asks anyways.
“How’d you get that?”
Zuko blinks at him over his shoulder, “From the fountain? Where everyone gets their water?”
“Not the water,” Aang says, “The thing .”
“The thing.” He repeats.
“The, the scar. On your back. How’d you get it?”
“Oh,” Zuko says in understanding, significantly less confused, “I fell off a roof”.
“A roof?” Aang repeats, incredulous.
“That’s what I just said, yeah.”
Aang would think he was making it up if he didn’t sound so serious about it, “How’d you fall off a roof?”
“I was on a roof,” Zuko says slowly, “And then I fell. Not everyone can fly.”
“What were you doing on a roof?”
“I dunno, I was like eight. What do you do on roofs?”
Aang thinks seriously about it for a moment, “I guess I’m just used to being up high. But I’ve never fallen,” he lies, just a bit.
Zuko looks like he doesn’t believe it either, but just shrugs his shoulder and says, “I was a clumsy kid.” Aang thinks about the abandoned village and how Zuko fell through the house with no second floor because he was moving too fast to stop himself and yeah, he can see that. “I’m pretty sure Azula pushed me that time, though.” He just adds all casually, like it’s no big deal.
Aang blinks, not shocked but also not ready for it. “Wouldn’t she have been like six?”
“Something like that,” he agrees, as if of course six year old Azula would push her brother off a building, what else would she do?
“Oh,” Aang says, because he doesn’t know what else to say, “Wow.”
“Yeah,” Zuko says. He sounds a little self conscious now, like maybe he’s realizing that little sisters don’t usually try to physically harm you on a regular basis. At least not seriously. Aang looks at the scar again, stretching along the sharp slope of Zuko’s shoulder blade. He can’t imagine Katara doing something like that to Sokka.
Aang remembers the slice on Zuko’s hip, glances down to see the light pink against his skin. Did his sister do that, too? he wonders. He hopes not. He feels like he needs to know, suddenly, even though it happened in the past and Zuko definitely doesn’t need Aang’s help to defend himself. He just. He needs to make sure.
“How’d you get that one?” He asks, trying not to point as much as calmly gesture.
Zuko follows his gaze down. “Oh,” he says, sounding like he’d forgotten it was even there, “I caught one of my swords backwards when I was practicing once. I was too embarrassed to get help, so it didn’t heal right.”
“That’s it?” Aang asks, relieved.
Zuko must pick up on it, because he looks at him, head tilted, somewhere between confused and amused, “Yeah. Sorry it’s not more interesting?”
“No, I’m glad it’s not interesting!” Aang insists, “Super glad.”
“Okay,” Zuko says, shaking his head a little, leaning towards more amused than confused now. He tosses the bottle to Aang, who takes a drink. His eyes dart to Zuko’s face. He takes a longer drink. He doesn’t know if he should ask. But he also doesn’t know when he’ll get another chance. It’s the logical direction of the conversation, right?
He twists the cap back on and, hesitantly, asks, “Was your—is that—is that what happened to your eye, too? An accident?”
The curve of Zuko’s barely-there smile drops, just like that. The air is suddenly colder. He regrets immediately.
“No,” Zuko says, voice flat, “It wasn’t— no.”
“Oh,” Aang says, “Um, I—“
“It’s not a very interesting story, either,” Zuko interrupts.
Aang knows a dismissal when he hears it. And Zuko’s life is kind of scary, anyways, so he nods and says, “Okay. You know what is an interesting story? That time me and Kuzon snuck into the kitchens and stole a dozen pies— a whole entire dozen—so we could play this prank on the elders.”
He talks until the line of Zuko’s shoulders isn’t so tight and they can almost forget he asked anything at all. Afterwards, Zuko makes him run through all his forms again, but Aang doesn’t mind so much.
The thing is, once he thinks about it, he can’t stop thinking about it.
The scar had never bothered him very much before. Back when Zuko was chasing them, it was just something that made him scarier, and by the time Ba Sing Se or the Northern Air Temple rolled around, it was just another thing that made Zuko, Zuko. It was just there, because it had always been there.
But now he realizes that it hasn’t. There had to be a time in his life when he didn’t have the scar. He had to actually get the scar at some point. Which seems obvious in hindsight, but Aang’s had a lot on his mind these past few months, and he never knew Zuko pre-scar. He hardly knows him now.
He does know it wasn’t an accident. Which means that someone—that someone did it. Someone did it on purpose. There are very few people who could do something like that to the crown prince of the Fire Nation and get away with it, and the options make Aang’s stomach hurt.
He doesn’t wanna make Zuko mad by asking again. And he doesn’t wanna go behind his back and find out a different way. He does, briefly, when Zuko and Sokka are out doing older kid bonding stuff like hunting or sword fighting or something, ask if Toph knows anything about it. Because Toph is technically nobility, so she’d probably know more than any of them would.
She just crosses her arms, “Did you ask him about it?”
“Well, kind of,”
“And lemme guess, he didn’t wanna talk about it.”
“So you came to me to ask about it even though he basically told you straight up that he isn’t ready for you to know.”
Aang perks up at that, “Does that mean you do know?”
Toph shrugs, “I know some stuff. He told me a little bit.”
“What? When?” He asks, maybe a little offended.
“Back when all of you were busy being all scared and suspicious of him. And he told me and just me, so I’m not gonna go behind his back ,” she stresses, “and tell you. You’re all about trust and shit, right? So wait for him to tell you himself.”
Aang frowns, but relents. He can’t really argue with that.
After a moment’s thought he asks, “You were never suspicious of him at all? Not even after he burned you?”
Toph laughs, because of course she does, “Hell no. He’s about as scary as a baby moose-lion when it’s mad. Which isn’t very scary.”
Aang, strangely, believes her.
A few days after Sokka and Zuko go on their mysterious hunting trip and come back with Sokka’s dad and some other fire nation prisoner, and Zuko is still being quieter than usual. Which is a feat, because while he still yells a lot during training and gets mad at the drop of a pin, he doesn’t ever say much around the fire, and he hardly ever talks about himself. Being quieter than usual equals hardly yelling during training and barely making a sound during meals. He didn’t say anything about the lack of spice in the meat the other night. Sokka pulled the jerkbending card yesterday and he barely flipped him off.
Aang is worried.
Eventually, because he’s bad at keeping things bottled up and he hates seeing people sad, he brings it up, subtly.
“Hey,” he says, sliding down to throw his legs over the edge of the cliff Zuko’s sitting on. Zuko doesn’t startle, but he definitely doesn’t relax. “What’s up?”
“Nothing,” he says.
Not to be deterred, Aang nods. “Same here, same here. So, uh, what happened?”
Zuko just looks at him.
“At the Boiling Rock,” Aang specifies.
“Lots of things. We found Sokka’s dad.”
“I know that, I talked to him.”
“Then why are you asking me?”
Aang huffs. This is turning out harder than he thought it would be. Getting the others to vent a little never takes this long. “I mean, what happened to you?”
“Nothing happened to me.”
“You just seem—I dunno, you just seem kinda sad.”
“I’m not sad,” he snaps, and there’s more of the Zuko he knows!
“Okay,” he says placatingly, and puts his hands in his lap to wait. He can feel Zuko’s suspicious eyes on him for a while, but he eventually sighs loudly and rubs at the bridge of his nose.
“At the Boiling Rock,” he starts, “I ran into my sister.”
Oh, Aang thinks, yeah, that’s definitely enough to put a damper on things.
“Did she try to push you off a roof again?” Aang asks without thinking.
Zuko, surprisingly, just snorts. “No. It was a gondola over a sea of lava this time. She didn’t succeed, obviously.”
“Obviously,” Aang agrees, trying to push the image of Zuko burning up and drowning from his head. “Is that why you’ve been so weird?”
“I haven’t been weird.”
“You’ve just seemed off.”
“Sorry,” he says, and he really does sound sorry, “I didn’t mean to disrupt our lessons or anything.”
“You didn’t,” Aang insists, “I was just wondering what was wrong.”
“Uh, because we’re friends now?” he says, not even tripping over the word this time.
Zuko tilts his head a little, “Since when?”
“Since you started teaching me? I mean, we kind of danced together.”
“Old firebending move,” he insists, like he always does, “Not dancing.”
“Okay, sure. But we saw dragons together. That’s a friend-thing to do.”
“Huh,” Zuko says, like it never occurred to him that being a part of the group really meant being a part of the group. “Okay. Sure.”
He tells him, eventually, after Azula showed up again and they decided to hide out on Ember Island, about how he got his scar
Aang thinks he probably doesn’t mean to, or even really want to, but there had been a snatch of dialogue from someone else’s conversation that brought it back up. Something like, I was disappointed they didn’t show the scar scene this time, that made Zuko pale and look very sick and very afraid. Aang had never seen Zuko look afraid before. Luckily, he was the only one around to hear it.
This time, they had said. Which meant they had shown it another time. Zuko waits for the rest of them to gather out in front of the theater, and doesn’t go back inside.
Later, when everyone else has gone to bed for the night, he and Zuko are the only two left awake, both of them thrumming with energy and anxiety for different reasons, and maybe some of the same.
“You probably wanna know, right?” Zuko says eventually, making Aang jump where his legs are tucked under his knees around the dying fire.
He almost asks know about what? but he knows exactly what, and thinks Zuko deserves more than that, so instead he just says, “Uh, yeah. If that’s okay.”
Zuko just shrugs. He looks tired. “If we had come to an earlier show, you would’ve found out anyways.”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
Zuko sighs. He’s quiet for a few long moments. “I was thirteen.” he says, “It was my father.”
And that’s all that he says. Aang feels his stomach drop all the way down and sink into the earth, and has that strong urge to cry again.
“That’s it?” he asks, voice shaky, even though he can’t imagine it getting worse. He hopes it doesn’t get worse. Spirits, he hopes it doesn’t get worse.
“That’s it. He exiled me right after, and said I could only come home if I captured the—if I captured you.”
“Oh,” he says weakly, and many many things click into place.
“What did you—what did you do ?” he asks, even though he doesn’t want to know any more about this. He’s always known that Zuko’s life is kind of scary. He didn’t expect this. But he still—he still feels like he owes it to him to know, even if it makes him feel young and scared and sick to his very being.
Zuko just shrugs, and he looks so so tired. “I disrespected him. In front of some important people.”
“That’s it? ” he says again, feels salt finally prick the corners of his eyes.
“That’s not—that’s not right.” Aang says helplessly, “That’s not right.”
“I know,” Zuko says, gazing into fire like he’s seeing something else. “It took me a long time to realize that, but. I know.”
That’s good, Aang thinks faintly. That’s good.
“That’s good,” he says, and it feels so pathetic in the face of something like this.
There’s more silence. Zuko is tense beside him, but loose somewhere around the middle. The shadows play over his face, and Aang’s never noticed how much the scar resembles a hand. Four fingers curled around his head and a thumb at his temple. Thirteen. His father. Aang has to look away.
“I’m glad you told me,” he offers.
“My dad’s a psychopath who sets kids on fire,” Zuko says, voice unreadable, “I doubt anyone’s glad to hear about that.”
“I am,” Aang insists, and Zuko shoots him an incredulous look, “I mean, I’m not glad . But I’m glad you trust me enough to tell me.”
Something in Zuko seems to crack, and then soften.
“Sure,” he says again, but he seems like he means something more, this time.
The fire fizzles out in front of them. The air cools around them, not freezing but not burning, either. The moon pushes the tides in and pulls them back. Aang lets this new knowledge sink in and settle uncomfortably under his ribcage. It’s not right. This isn’t how things should be at all. Zuko’s father—the Firelord, he realizes now more than ever—should never have done this.
“In hindsight,” Zuko says, “Exiling me is the best thing he’s ever done for me.”
“What?” Aang asks, horrified.
“It got me out, didn’t it?” He points out, and Aang, hesitantly, has to agree. He’s seen Azula. He can’t imagine what Zuko would be like now if he hadn’t gone through what he did. “Besides, it would’ve happened eventually. If I was older, it could’ve been a lot worse.”
Aang bites his tongue, because he’s probably right. Aang doesn’t want to think about it, but Zuko’s life has always been kind of scary. He knows now more than ever.
“I’m glad you got out,” Aang says, small in the face of everything, but it makes Zuko smile a bit. A tiny quirk of his mouth.
“Me too.” He says.
After the fire is out for good, Zuko stands up and stretches and says it’s late and he’s tired and he’s going to bed. He throws a goodnight over his shoulder. He’s still standing. He isn’t thirteen anymore. They’re facing his father soon, and his father will probably die. Aang's never has more respect for him, and it shakes him to his core.
“Zuko,” he calls, and then he’s up and running before his feet can ask permission. Zuko tenses up like wood when Aang hugs him, but he eventually pats his head.
“Yeah?” He asks, sounding bemused.
Aang squeezes his eyes shut tight so his tears don’t get Zuko’s shirt all dirty. “I’m really happy you’re my firebending teacher,” he says, and he means it.
“Thanks,” Zuko says, and he really does sound like it, “I’m… happy I’m here, too.”
Zuko is all twisted up and his life is kind of scary but at this point, so is Aang’s. They’re both alive. Both of them have scars in places they shouldn’t, but they’re here. They can mediate every morning and sit and breath and feel the sun.
Right now, that’s good enough for him.