Flying was amazing . Zuko thought he’d give up firebending a million times as long as he could rise high up in the air, leaving the world behind for a while. He knew some talented firebenders could lift up in the air with their power (Zuko had never been one of them) but this was something else—this was freedom, this was beauty, this was life .
He did a loop-de-loop in the air, just because he could, and he whooped as he came out of it. He noticed, with a start, that he’d lost sight of the Temple. Years of practice made him look for the sun automatically, and he noticed that it was lower in the sky than he’d thought.
“Whoops,” he said, remembering he’d promised to help Yangtso with dinner, before turning around and heading back in the direction of the Temple. It was easy to lose himself in flying, his thoughts focused only on the present. As he approached the temple, he aimed for the courtyard closest to the kitchens, but as he descended, he noticed too late that he was coming in too fast for the landing. Just in time, he put up a blast of air to cushion his fall, but he still rolled a bit before landing in an ungainly heap.
His landings needed a bit more work.
He got up, dusted himself off, and picked up the glider, setting it carefully beside the kitchen door as he entered.
“Sorry I’m late!” he called, and grimaced as he saw that dinner was practically ready.
Yangtso smiled indulgently. “Never mind, Zuko. You can do the cleanup. Will you set the table?”
As soon as he was back on land, his doubts started to crop back up. During dinner, Zuko stared at his bowl of squash soup and blurted out: “Am I the Avatar?”
Yangtso looked up but didn’t look particularly surprised. He clasped his fingers together, thinking.
“You said you’ve never had dreams or visions of any past lives,” he started. Zuko shook his head. “And you still cannot bend fire. Or earth, or water,” Yangtso continued.
Zuko tried to bend the soup from his bowl to no avail.
“No,” he said.
“I’ve spent all my life gathering information on the Air Nomads and airbending. I’m by no means an expert in bending, or spiritual matters, but I know that scholars have written about bending for centuries, trying to figure out its rules and limitations. I’m not sure there are any, though, not set in stone. For example: all the Air Nomads were airbenders. Compare this with the ratio of non-benders in the Earth Kingdom. What’s the difference?”
“I’ve never thought about it,” Zuko admitted.
“Perhaps my people were more spiritual in nature. Perhaps it was simply a necessity of living high up in the mountains. And why did so many of my people lose their bending, sometimes permanently, after the Comet? Was it a necessity of hiding, adaptation for survival? Or was it because many of us lost the spiritual connection we had while living as Nomads?”
Zuko listened as he ate his soup, frowning.
“Consider this, too: several of the former airbenders I came in contact with in my life married and had children, and some of them were earthbenders. Jin’s twins were earthbenders, and there wasn't a single known earthbender in their father’s family. We know having benders as parents makes children more likely to be benders as well. But not always. And what happens when, say, an earthbender and a firebender marry in the colonies? What will their children be? Firebenders, earthbenders, non-benders?”
“Oh! I’ve heard of cases like that. It can be any of those. It’s unpredictable. Which is why my father was opposed to us marrying anyone from the colonies,” Zuko said, remembering terrifying conversations from long ago.
“Exactly. Unpredictable. We know bending has a biological component, perhaps, but I think it is also spiritual in nature. It embodies the spirit of our respective cultures, and is thus passed down from adults to their children. But if you have undergone a deep spiritual transformation, who’s to say your bending can’t change as well?”
Zuko shrugged. “I’ve just never heard of anything like this,” he said.
“Frankly, neither have I. But you’re young: young people are always more malleable, better able to change deeply—not like us old folks. The former airbenders I met, later in life, had all been young when they escaped. The tattoos certainly made the older folk more recognizable, but also—I think they had a harder time adapting to the sudden change. Shenyen, she—she’d been known at the Eastern Air Temple for her daring feats of bending. She’d been strong and energetic. But after the Comet, she… she lost that energy. She became frail and sickly, and died a premature death...” Yangtso trailed off, lost in thought.
“So I changed? And my bending changed with me?” Zuko asked, still dubious.
“That’s my best guess,” Yangtso said.
“Then why didn’t you become an earthbender, after living all your life in the Earth Kingdom?” Zuko asked.
Yangtso shrugged. “Maybe some of my people did, and they’d never admit it, or no one would believe them. But I—I held on to my identity as a former Air Nomad with everything I had—afraid that if I let go, we would all fade into obscurity, like we’d never existed… Regardless of all that—maybe the most important question is: are you happy, being an airbender?”
Zuko didn’t have to think about it. He smiled. “Yeah,” he said. “I think I am. It’s a little different from firebending, but it feels good. It feels comfortable. It feels… right , for me.”
Yangtso smiled brightly. “Then that’s it, really.”
It was true. It felt good, and comfortable, and right. He’d been using circular movements for years with his dual swords, and he discovered that he could use many of the firebending movements with airbending. Yangtso was teaching him what he knew, which was limited by years of not practicing, and by the fact that he’d been less than halfway to Mastery by the time the Fire Nation destroyed the Air Temples.
It was still great to bend after years of not being able to do so, even if the element was different. And it was exhilarating to jump off a cliff and rise up into the air on the glider. Zuko was quickly becoming addicted. Any time he could spare, he borrowed Yangtso’s glider and ran off, leaving Yangtso muttering, half-amused and half-rueful, about “youthful energy.”
One chilly morning, as Zuko was circling the Temple and practicing his mid-air twirls to warm up, he caught sight of something on the horizon. He dismissed it as a lone cloud at first and kept on flying, but the next time he looked in that direction, he noticed with sudden alarm that it was much closer—and it was coming their way. He dove directly to the walled-in garden where Yangtso was meditating.
“Something’s coming here!” Zuko gasped out.
Yangtso opened his eyes. “What is it? Is it a Fire Nation ship?”
“No, it’s—something’s coming from the air ,” Zuko said.
Yangtso stood up, a look of wonder in his eyes. “Today is the day. Zuko, take us up! I want to see,” he said, and he gestured for Zuko to open the glider and got onto the back. Zuko had never flown with the weight of another person before, even if Yangtso was relatively light, and it took a few tries to get off the ground.
Once they were up in the air, they saw the approaching object clearly, much closer now: it was, impossibly, amazingly, a flying bison. Zuko directed the glider towards it, and they approached at a steady pace.
There were some people on the bison’s saddle. One of them, a bald boy with orange robes and blue tattoos, was waving wildly. Moments later, the boy took out his own glider and jumped off the bison’s saddle, flying with absolute ease and speed towards them.
“Yangtso, is that—? Is that really—?” Zuko bit out, but Yangtso could only grasp the glider tightly, speechless.
The boy reached them and spun around them dizzyingly, chattering all the while: “Hi! I don’t know you guys! But I knew there would be people here, I’m so glad to see you! How’s everything? Hey are there fruit pies in the kitchens? Sokka’s been complaining all morning because I used all his meat to light the campfire so fruit pies would be great! Why are you two on the same glider, isn’t it uncomfortable?”
Yangtso let out a gasp, and he blurted out: “Aang! Aang, is that really you? But you’re so young! How can this be?”
Zuko felt Yangtso’s nerveless fingers start to loosen their grip and he panicked.
“Yang, hold on! I need to land!” he yelled and grabbed for Yangtso, somehow closing the glider in the process and sending them both plummeting towards the ground. He was stopped by the boy’s—Aang’s—hand on his arm. Aang whistled and the flying bison sped towards them, angling his back so that Zuko and Yangtso fell right into the saddle.
Concerned with keeping Yangtso from falling first, Zuko shielded him with his body and landed heavily on another of the figures in the saddle, a boy in Water Tribe blues who cursed as they fell on him: “Augh, what the f—”
The bison roared as he lifted up again, Aang landing softly on his head.
“You okay back there?” he asked.
“Ow, that hurt! I’m starving and I’m hurt!” the Water Tribe boy cried in indignation.
Zuko rubbed his hurt elbow and shoulder and straightened up. “Sorry! Sorry about that,” he said. Yangtso had sat up in the saddle, looking around it, and at the flying bison, and at the tattooed boy, in awed silence.
The kids were looking at them in surprise.
“Uh, hi. Zuko here. This is—this is Yangtso. Sorry for the, um, crash. I’m still not the best at landings,” he said.
A girl in Water Tribe clothes made the introductions: “I’m Katara, and that’s my brother Sokka. Are you really airbenders? I didn’t think there would be any at the Temple.”
“Of course they’re airbenders, you saw them fly!” Aang replied, and then frowned in hesitation. “Although you don’t look like monks. Where are the others? This is normally full of bison and gliders flying around.”
“We’re the only ones,” Zuko replied, when it became clear that Yangtso was still too shocked to speak.
“Oh,” Aang replied, frowning harder.
He directed the bison to land in a wide courtyard at the bottom of the Temple, which Zuko knew used to be the stables for flying bison.
Zuko got down carefully, his knees wobbly with adrenaline. He looked at the giant flying bison in front of him. “Is this…?” he wondered out loud. He had the sudden urge to pet the soft-looking fur, but he hesitated.
“That’s Appa! I think he likes you!” Aang said cheerfully as the bison smelled Zuko and proceeded to lick him with a big, slimy tongue.
Yangtso was petting Appa unreservedly with a soft smile on his face.
Zuko turned to look at him. “Is he—,” he pointed at Aang, “is he the Avatar?”
“He is,” Yangtso answered confidently. And then his face fell into a deep sadness. “He’s just a child,” he muttered.
Aang—the Avatar —was whirling around the place with boundless energy, showing his friends around enthusiastically.
“Zuko! Yangtso!” he called out to them from a distance. “Come play airball with me!”
Yangtso huffed and shook his head ruefully. Then he pushed Zuko forward. “Go,” he said.
Zuko ran up to Aang, who was deftly maneuvering a hollow ball with his airbending. “Oh, so that’s what you do with it,” he muttered to himself. To Aang, he said: “I don’t know how to play.”
“Come up here, I’ll show you!” Aang replied, grinning.
The game was fast-paced and dizzying. Zuko almost fell from the poles a couple of times. In a few minutes, it became clear to him that Aang’s skill as an airbender was much higher than his, that of a real Master. At least he’d managed to score one goal to Aang’s thirteen by the end of the game.
“That was pretty good, for your first time playing!” Aang said as they jumped down from the poles.
“I’ve still got a lot to learn, though,” said Zuko with a sigh.
From the sides, where he’d been watching the game with the Water Tribe siblings, Yangtso piped up: “Aang was a prodigy from the time he started bending. He was the youngest airbending Master in Air Nomad history.”
Aang looked a bit uncomfortable at that, and Zuko muttered to himself, “...surrounded by prodigies.”
“You have quick reflexes and great balance. You’ll make a great airball player soon!” Aang said encouragingly. “You know, I remember there was a boy who’d always get thrown through the goal ring because he was constantly distracted.”
“Oh.” Yangtso stopped in his tracks as they were turning towards the path to the temple. “That was me.” He looked embarrassed.
Zuko laughed out loud, but tried to compose himself when Yangtso glared at him.
“Really?” Aang looked at him, searching his face. “Yangtso… Yangtso… oh, Little Yang! The shy kid who was always hiding behind Sangit and Tashi, right?” he said in recognition.
“Yes,” Yangtso coughed awkwardly. “That was me.”
Zuko grinned. “Sounds cute,” he said.
“Shush, you!” Yangtso said, but he was smiling.
Zuko cackled, and Aang looked between them, baffled.
“It’s still so hard to believe that a hundred years have passed,” Aang said. “So, Zuko. Are you his grandson? Isn’t Zuko a Fire Nation name?” he said, looking at him.
Still chuckling, Zuko shrugged. “He’s sort of an adoptive grandpa,” he said, and Yangtso pulled him into a quick side-hug. “But yeah, I’m er, originally from the Fire Nation.”
“He used to be a firebender,” Yangtso said, doting like a proud grandpa.
The three newcomers stopped and stared at him.
“It’s a long story,” Yangtso said. “As mine is, and as I’m sure yours is, Aang. Why don’t we go have some tea and talk about it?”
“Is there any meat? Please tell me you have meat,” asked Sokka with shining eyes.
“Sure. My uncle packed me some jerky somewhere,” Zuko said.
“You may be Fire Nation, but you are now my saviour,” Sokka exclaimed dramatically.
“Aren’t you vegetarians like Aang?” Katara asked.
Zuko turned to Yangtso, horrified. “Will I have to become a vegetarian now? Is that why we’re only eating squash soup? Will I lose my bending if I eat spicy komodo chicken?”
It was Yangtso’s turn to cackle.
It was almost sundown when they had finished eating and telling their stories, and they had gone with Aang to the sanctuary to see if they could find the mysterious person who, according to Monk Gyatso, would teach him how to become the Avatar.
There was nothing but a long line of statues of previous Avatars. As the others wandered around the room, Aang paused in front of the most recent statue, and Zuko stopped behind him. He was a Fire Nation Avatar, he realized.
“That must be Avatar Roku,” Zuko commented. “They never really told us much about him in our lessons. They made him sound old and useless. I don’t know if that is true, though…”
But Aang didn’t reply. He was looking at the statue’s stone eyes, lost in a trance.
“Aang?” he asked, shaking the boy lightly.
Aang snapped out of it, blinking, and looked at Zuko. “Sorry, I was—I had the feeling Roku was trying to tell me something. Something important,” he frowned.
Before Zuko could make any other comment, they heard a high-pitched scream from the entrance. Sokka was waving his boomerang at a figure that had appeared at the entrance to the sanctuary. When they got closer to look, they found—
“Lemur!” Aang exclaimed happily, and forgetting the topic of Avatar Roku, jumped after the creature.
He ran unnaturally fast. Zuko tried to catch up with him but he wasn’t a match for the Master airbender. He noticed Aang was using airbending to propel himself forwards. But how? Aang jumped through a window, used airbending to follow the lemur down into a shady courtyard, and disappeared through one of the darkened hallways. Zuko didn’t hesitate to jump, only realizing while he was up in the air that he had no idea how Aang had made those twirling movements to lower himself down. He used the air cushion to break his fall and followed after Aang, grinning.
He found the boy perched on the rail of a crumbling balcony, feeding a peach to the lemur and petting it.
“Look, he loves peaches! I think I’ll name him Momo!” Aang said happily.
“I cannot believe we’ve been here a month and hadn’t seen a lemur until today,” Zuko commented, approaching carefully.
“Animals love me,” the boy replied. He continued petting the lemur in silence. Not knowing what to say, Zuko kept quiet, looking at the rosy orange glow of dusk.
“It still doesn’t feel real,” Aang said quietly. Zuko turned to look at his suddenly sad face. “Yangtso’s story… it’s a lot to take in. Even seeing the temple like this… it’s hard to believe the Fire Nation really did destroy my people.”
Zuko lowered his gaze in sudden shame and anger at his own family. He caught sight of the faded scars on his palms, where the Eternal Flame had burned him. It had burned him so badly because he had refused to let go, he remembered. He’d been so desperate... It had only been that terrible pain that let him realize he wasn’t getting his fire back, and set him on this path. Where would he be now without that painful realization?
Then he looked up. “Maybe there’s something you should see,” he said.
Aang, with Momo on his shoulder, followed Zuko in silence to the lone tent where the bodies still lay, untouched. It had a creepy air about it—Zuko avoided that part of the temple entirely. He hesitated at the entrance, suddenly having second thoughts. His painful realization had been, well, very painful .
“Maybe we shouldn’t. It’s—,” he started to say. But Aang was already stepping past him and into the tent. He heard him gasp and take another step inside. Zuko followed him.
“No,” Aang was saying. His voice was thick and choked. “Gyatso— NO —this was all my fault—I ran away —”
And before he could step closer, Aang's tattoos and eyes began to glow, and a whirlwind formed around him, lifting him up into the air. Momo flew out and hit Zuko in the chest, then hid in his shirt.
Zuko tried to approach Aang but the wind intensified, and he was thrown backwards as the ragged tent was whipped away. The boy, who moments before had been a normal twelve-year-old, was now an unearthly being, all-powerful and mad with grief. Zuko had no idea what to do.
Then Katara came running into the courtyard, followed by her brother, and Yangtso in his glider. Fighting against the gale winds, Katara tried to approach the Avatar.
“The statues all lit up! What happened?” she yelled as she came in line with Zuko, sprawled and holding on for dear life on the ground.
“I tried to show him—I’m so sorry—I had no idea it was Gyatso,” Zuko yelled back.
“You did what ?” she rounded on him, angry, but then she looked back at Aang with concern. “Never mind. We need to calm him down! Help me get close to him!”
Making a bubble of calm through gale winds was the hardest bending he’d done so far. Aang had the power of the Avatar, and it was like blowing air through his mouth against a storm. In the end, he settled for using his weight to push Katara forward through the wind.
She shouted over the wind as they got closer. Of her mother and her grief, of his grief, and of the new family he had.
“Sokka and I are your family now!” she called out. And turning to glance back at Zuko, she added: “And your people are not completely gone! You still have Yangtso, and Zuko!”
Aang seemed to be calming down, the gale force winds dissipating, his tattoos losing the unearthly glow. Katara embraced him as he fell, and he cried in her arms freely. Zuko looked away, awkward.
“I’m sorry,” Aang whispered to Katara.
“Don’t be,” she replied, holding him tighter.
“It was still my fault for running away,” he said.
Zuko stepped up to him and awkwardly patted Aang’s shoulder. “I ran away too,” he started. “And even though he’s forgiven me, I know it really hurt my uncle. But if I hadn’t—I wouldn’t be here at all. Running away brought me here. It gave me my bending back. Maybe running away saved your life. And now you have a chance to stop this war.”
Momo chose that moment to peek out from Zuko’s shirt and perch again on Aang’s shoulder.
Slowly, Sokka and Yangtso stepped up to them. Sokka hugged his sister and Aang. As they pulled apart, Yangtso stepped up to Aang, eyes somber.
“You were a child. You are still a child. That is too young to shoulder the responsibility of saving the world. I do not blame you for running away. In fact, it probably saved not only your life, but mine and Tashi’s, and Jampa’s, and Sonam’s, and… and all of those who were sent out to look for you.”
“I—thanks, Yangtso,” Aang said, rubbing his eyes. Then he looked at the horizon with determination. “I won’t run away this time, I promise.”
“And I won’t allow you to fight this war on your own,” Yangtso promised.
They bowed to each other.
Aang looked at Zuko. “You guys should come with us! Now that we’re the only airbenders left, we should stick together. I can also teach you all I know!”
Yangtso smiled ruefully. “I am too old to be traveling around with the Avatar, evading the Fire Nation.”
Zuko looked at Aang, then at Yangtso. “I want to help, and I want to learn, but… I came here to help Yangtso. I’m not leaving him alone.”
Yangtso came up to Zuko. “There’s no need to worry about me. My work here is done—I considered my destiny fulfilled when you gained your airbending, Zuko. As Tashi used to say, ‘Home is where the heart is.’ I don’t need to stay here. It is time for me to go back to the White Lotus and help them work with the Avatar to end this war.”
Zuko smiled widely. “Thanks, old man.”
They said goodbye at Madam Xu’s estate. She had been understandably shocked at seeing the flying bison landing on her manicured gardens. As Katara, Aang and Sokka tried to calm her down, Yangtso pulled Zuko away from the others.
“This is where our roads diverge, finally,” he said.
“I—I don’t know what to say. Um. Please take care? Oh, and give my letter to Uncle if you see him. I already sent the hawk but you might get to see him first.”
“It will be done,” Yangtso reassured him, patting the letter in his pocket.
“Thank you. For everything. You helped a lot, even when—when I wasn’t sure if I deserved it,” Zuko said haltingly.
“You helped me too, Zuko. I appreciate it more than you know. I hope I will see you, one day, get your own tattoos,” Yangtso said.
Zuko snorted. “Not soon, I think. As always, I have a lot to learn.”
“And as always, you only need to have patience and practice. I know you’ll do it,” Yangtso said with a wink. And then he held out his glider to Zuko. “Take this, please. I suspect it will serve you more than me.”
Zuko stared at him. “What? Really? No, I can’t—I can’t take this. It was Tashi’s, right? You said it was his most prized possession. You should keep it, as a—as a reminder.”
“People are not their possessions. Tashi kept this, repaired this, so that it could fly, not be a fancy walking stick. I am sure it will fly a lot, and well, with you,” Yangtso said, and he pressed the glider into Zuko’s hands.
“I don’t know what to say,” Zuko said, taking the glider reverently.
“There was an old airbender farewell. If I remember correctly, it goes: May the wind be your home and keep you aloft. May the zephyr comfort you. May the wild winds bring us back together one day.”
Zuko smiled, and said goodbye.