Fandom: Avatar: The Last Airbender
Summary: Zuko tells Aang more about what happened to the dragons.
Men honor what lies within the sphere of their knowledge, but do not realize how dependent they are on what lies beyond it.
“Hm?” The exiled Prince lifted his head slightly from where it rested in his palms. He was lying down comfortably, arms spread outward underneath his head, supporting himself with the trio of sleeping bags that rested at the back of Appa’s saddle.
“I’ve been thinking about the dragons.”
“What about them?”
Aang said nothing for a moment, keeping his grip on the rope that spanned Appa’s horns and staring straight ahead into the night. “You said your great grandfather Sozin was the one who started the tradition of hunting them down, right?”
He nodded. “Yeah.”
“I talked with Roku on the Summer Solstice,” Aang revealed, still not looking at him. “I learned how him and Sozin used to be best friends. Did you know about that?”
Zuko sat up. “My uncle left me a note about the same time that told me to read the secret history. So yeah, I knew that.” He laughed. “Actually, I found out a little more than that. You and I are actually related.”
Aang let go of the rope and turned around with a look of utter shock on his face. “Really?”
He nodded. “Roku was my mother’s grandfather.”
The Avatar processed that. “But that would mean….”
“Yeah. My uncle used it to explain how evil and good are always at war inside me. I don’t think it’s their blood, though. It probably has more to do with how my mom and dad raised me. They took completely opposite approaches.”
Aang looked away. “Oh.”
“So what were you saying about dragons?”
“Well, you know how Sozin went to help Roku stop that volcano from erupting?”
“I knew about that even before I read it in the secret history. Privileges of being part of the royal family.”
“He took his dragon with him. But why would he have a dragon if he’s the one who decided to hunt them all down?”
Zuko looked down and sighed. “I asked my uncle the same question a long time ago. He told me a story that I never really understood until after what happened today.”
“What story is that?”
There was a grave expression on Zuko’s face. “I don’t think you really want to know.”
“What? Come on, tell me!”
“You don’t understand. This story upset me when I heard it. A lot. My uncle gave me the same warning, but I didn’t listen. I don’t want you getting all depressed when you just learned how to firebend effectively.”
Aang raised an eyebrow. “Why would getting depressed affect my firebending?”
“You heard what the chief said. Firebending comes from your heart. It’s the most passionate of all the elements, even more than waterbending. If I tell you this story and you get all upset, you might not be able to firebend for a while.”
“How do you know that?”
Zuko looked him in the eye. “Because I couldn’t firebend for a month after I heard it.”
He blinked. “It really upset you that much?”
Aang smiled. “Well I don’t think you have anything to worry about.”
“Are you sure about that?”
He nodded. “My entire culture was murdered, remember? That doesn’t stop me from being optimistic.”
Zuko blinked. “I keep forgetting that. Don’t you miss them?”
“Yeah, I miss them a lot,” he answered, looking away. “I even went into the Avatar State when I learned what happened to them. But I can’t change the past. I can only focus on what I’m doing right now and where I’m going. If I can handle that, knowing what happened to the dragons can’t possibly be that bad.” He smiled hopefully.
“If you say so,” Zuko muttered. “But remember, I warned you.” He sighed and began his tale. “It all started after Sozin got back from betraying Roku at the volcano….”
There was a hardness in his expression that Sozin made no effort to mask as he stepped off his mount onto the balcony. It matched the feeling in his heart. Necessary sacrifice, he told himself. It had to be done in order to bring about the future he dreamed of. But that still didn’t make the loss of his former friend any easier to bear.
The look on Roku’s face was the most difficult to stomach, and it haunted him every time he closed his eyes. That look of pleading, which quickly turned to outrage at his betrayal. He suspected that the guilt of what he had done would not leave him any time soon. Still, it needed to be done.
Roku had not been his friend for quite some time, Sozin reminded himself. Over twenty five years had passed since they had even spoken to each other, and Roku’s parting words had promised his destruction if he ever dared to step out of line. With Roku gone, he could move forward with his dream at last. And yet he found it impossible to be happy at the prospect.
He had expected that, of course. War was not something one engaged in for the sake of enjoyment. There were sacrifices to be made in order to bring about his dream of a united world. Necessary sacrifices to be sure, but they still weighed heavily on his conscience. Somebody had to bear that terrible burden, however, and that somebody was him.
Sozin knew he was destined to be remembered by history. It was incredible fate that he had become Fire Lord, and in his own opinion he had been a very effective ruler. But he still wanted to achieve more. He didn’t want history to remember him as simply the son of Eiji and father of Azulon. He wanted to be its greatest hero ever.
He started walking inside. Before he reached the threshold, he heard a huff behind him, and turned around.
His dragon was glaring at him.
“What is it, Shunyuan?” he asked coldly, not really caring what it was. He doubted the dragon could have answered him anyway.
Shunyuan kept glaring. Sozin found his resolve weakened by the gaze, as though the dragon was peering straight into his soul. It was like no other look he had ever seen. He had always regarded dragons as passionless animals, obedient to their masters regardless of circumstance. Now he was beginning to feel like he had somehow earned its disapproval.
“If it’s about Roku I don’t want to hear it,” he snapped, giving a glare of his own. “It had to be done to bring about my vision. Now that he is dead, I’m free to pursue my conquest at last. I won’t have you ruining it for me.”
The dragon did not answer.
“Fine, stay that way. I’m going inside.”
But he didn’t. Sozin was transfixed by the dragon’s gaze, and again he felt subject to its judgment. It was the first time he had ever seen such a look from the dragon, and in his heart Sozin knew it would not be the last.
“So, wait; his dragon glared at him? How’s that upsetting?”
Zuko rolled his eyes. “You of all people should understand this. Shunyuan was Sozin’s spirit animal, just like Appa is to you. How would you feel if Appa started glaring at you?”
“Like he didn’t trust me,” he answered, looking down.
“Exactly. There’s more to it than that, though.”
“You remember what the chief told us about the dragons judging us to see if we were worthy?”
“That’s a special ability dragons have. They can read your spirit and see what kind of person you are. That’s what Sozin’s dragon was doing to him.”
Aang thought back to what he had felt on the altar, staring into the dragon’s eyes. He had felt naked like no other time in his life, as though his entire being was laid bare for everyone to see. The dragon’s gaze had pierced him easily, and in the end it found him worthy to receive its gift. Zuko must have felt something similar.
“Why would it be doing that to him?”
“Probably because Sozin just left his best friend to die in a volcano,” Zuko answered. “Dragons have a sense of morality and honor close to what we humans have. They’re the ultimate judges.”
“Well then why did he just let him betray Roku like that?”
He looked Aang in the eye. “Animals are willing to put up with a lot before they snap, especially if it’s from someone they know and trust. Shunyuan just wanted to see what kind of person Sozin was becoming.”
“What did he see?”
“What do you think he saw? He saw a bitter old man who was afraid of not being remembered. He’d already stood by while Sozin invaded the Earth Kingdom years before. I don’t think he expected what happened next.”
“What was that?”
Zuko looked at him seriously. “You know exactly what it was.”
“The Air Temples,” he realized, eyes going wide.
“Exactly. Sozin used the dragons to do it.”
Aang sat up in shock. “He did what?”
“Don’t look so surprised,” he replied calmly. “How do you think the Fire Nation got all the way up to the temples to attack your people? A sky bison isn’t the only animal that can fly.”
The sky burned a brilliant orange, like a beautiful sunset. The comet watched their battle from above, roaring its blessing to Sozin and his army and filling them with the passion of a hundred suns. His moment of triumph was finally here.
Below him, the Western Air Temple burned. It wasn’t beautiful like the sky. It was ugly, horrifying even, but it was a necessary purge. The Air Nomads had refused to give him the next Avatar. In doing so, they had forced his hand. They would be destroyed along with him.
“Dive!” he ordered, and the mounted soldiers around him obeyed, descending on the courtyard below. The Air Nomads had locked themselves inside a giant structure, having closed the massive steel blinds as soon as everyone was inside. There were, however, a few that were not so lucky to make it to the fortification, and had in fact put their own safety on the line in order to ensure that the others could make it. Though they were not soldiers, Sozin knew they were men of honor.
They were also his primary target.
Swooping down at terrifying speeds, the dragons turned up sharply to avoid smashing into the stone courtyard that was suspended over an endless gulch. As they did so, the riders on their backs unleashed a torrent of flame, drowning the monks in a burning ocean. The dragons offered no fire of their own.
Sozin looked back at the courtyard, seeing that there was no one left. A smirk crossed his features, and a dark satisfaction entered his heart. Now all he had to do was pick off the survivors.
He was about to give the order to make another pass, this time toward the giant chamber, but a loud noise interrupted him before he even had the chance to speak. Placing a hand above his eyes, Sozin peered over the horizon. Something was headed their way.
The herd of sky bison struck quickly and brutally. One soldier was thrown from his dragon, and the others scrambled to avoid the same fate. The bison fleet broke formation as well, and before long Sozin found himself on his own, with the rest of his soldiers engaged in personal combat.
He heard a thundering bellow to his right, and saw a large bison charging toward him with a rider on his back. Sozin narrowed his eyes. “Shunyuan, attack!”
The dragon did nothing.
“I said, attack! Do you want them to knock us both into oblivion?”
Shunyuan glared defiantly and did not move.
“Fine then!” Sozin shouted, summoning forth his power. “This comet has made me the most powerful firebender in history! I don’t need you to swat down a fly!” Turning his fists toward the attacker, he launched a pillar of flame three times the size of the temple’s largest structure. There was nowhere for the bison to dodge, and when the flames dissipated, it was gone.
Most people would be content with that, but his encounter with Roku decades earlier had taught Sozin never to relax until he saw his opponent fall. He looked around warily.
Sure enough, he spotted the bison coming from below them. Its fur was only slightly singed, and it was charging upward so rapidly that it threatened to gore them both. “Shunyuan, move!”
The dragon responded this time, jerking forward so rapidly that Sozin was barely able to hang on. The bison missed them by inches. Shunyuan curved around in a long arc, rocketing toward the attacker at full speed. Sozin set his features into a glare.
The bison had leveled off and was now on the defensive, running from them. Sozin grit his teeth and fired off a jet of flame, but somehow the airbender on its back summoned enough wind to deflect it. He growled and shot again, and it was repelled like before.
“Get alongside them!” he commanded, and Shunyuan sped up. The two animals flew parallel to each other, but did not engage. This fight was between their masters.
Sozin fired off several shots, and the few that did not miss entirely were deflected by the airbender’s considerable skill. This time the monk launched an attack at him, and Sozin barely managed to avoid being knocked off his mount. He glared at the insolent airbender, realizing that he was never going to win this way.
Growling, he leaped high into the air, not even feeling the strain on his old body thanks to the power afforded by the comet. Fire exploded from his feet and hands, and he descended on the bison’s rider like a meteor, landing hard in the saddle.
The two men engaged on the tiny arena, limiting themselves to hand strikes for fear of being knocked off. The movements were so blindingly fast that only two masters such as themselves could keep up. Sozin kept his eyes pealed for an opening, and found one after about thirty seconds. Landing a palm strike on the airbender’s chest, Sozin spun forward and lashed out with his left leg, knocking his enemy into oblivion.
The loss of its rider caused the bison to buck uncontrollably, and Sozin went flying. He summoned flames from his feet and immediately stopped falling, then flew around in a wide arc to intercept the beast. It was charging straight toward him now, and he only had seconds to react. Focusing all his power into a single flame, Sozin let loose an inferno almost as big as the temple itself. The bison kept charging through the flames, hitting him right before it died.
He felt his leg bones shatter.
Sozin plummeted through the air, trying in vain to fire jets from his feet, which were now broken from the bison’s charge. His hands were only powerful enough to slow him down, but did nothing to stop him from falling inexorably into the abyss. It would appear that he had failed.
He landed roughly on something, crying out in pain as his broken legs cracked even further. He heard a roar and looked up, seeing that his dragon had caught him. Sozin stared into his eyes, and recognized the expression in them. It was the same look Shunyuan had given him twelve years earlier, after he had left his only friend in the world to die.
Sozin broke down for the first time in his life. Tears fell from his eyes, and he hugged the dragon tightly as he whispered his thanks. Somehow, Sozin felt that he did not deserve this. It was not a feeling he was familiar with.
“Wait… he saved him? After what he did?”
“Like I said, animals can put up with a lot. Dragons are very loyal creatures by nature. I don’t think he was happy about it, though.”
Aang glared at the empty air around them. “I wouldn’t be either.”
“I can stop here if you want,” he offered, and Aang blinked.
“Because I haven’t gotten to the really upsetting part yet. You’re already getting kind of mad. I don’t want to tell you anything you’re not prepared to handle.”
“Why don’t you think I can handle it?” Aang snapped. “I handled that last part just fine! I’m not a child that you have to protect!”
“You’re twelve years old,” Zuko pointed out. “And you are getting upset. You’re yelling at me right now.”
“Because I don’t like being sheltered!” he shouted. “I’m the Avatar! I’m supposed to be able to handle stuff like this!”
Zuko shook his head. “You’re supposed to find out you’re the Avatar when you turn sixteen. There’s a reason they don’t normally tell you before that.”
“Well I didn’t exactly get that luxury. I’ve already put up with knowing I’m the last of my kind. I don’t think there’s anything else I could learn that’ll upset me that much.”
“Really? So you weren’t upset by that forest that burned down?”
Aang blinked. “Who told you that?”
“I was trying to pick up your trail on the Winter Solstice and I interrogated the people at that village you helped. Apparently you were pretty devastated by it.”
He looked away. “Yeah. I’d been frozen for a hundred years at that point. I didn’t know what the Fire Nation had been up to. Seeing what they were capable of really upset me.”
“That was one burnt forest. This is about how the dragons disappeared. I don’t want you getting hurt.”
Aang looked at him firmly. “I’ve grown up a lot since then. I’ve seen what else the Fire Nation can do and I haven’t gotten that upset about it. I can handle it.”
He sighed. “Alright. I’m sorry if it seems like I’m sheltering you. I just really don’t want to be the reason you get upset.”
Zuko gave a wry smirk. “Because Katara would kill me.”
The Avatar laughed. “She probably would.”
He looked at Aang seriously. “But also because I caused you enough pain when I was going after you. If I’d joined you at Ba Sing Se, you might have actually been able to pull off the invasion and the war would be over by now. I’m sorry I was so indecisive.”
“I forgive you,” he said easily. “You’ve already proven you’re serious about helping me overthrow your father. I trust you.”
“Thanks. But I’m still not sure I should be telling you this next part.”
“Come on! You’ve already told me this much. Just finish it.”
Zuko chuckled. “Okay.” He looked serious again. “Sozin didn’t go on the front lines again after that. He eventually recovered from his injury, but he didn’t want to risk it. He kept sending dragons out to be his cavalry.” He looked down. “Eventually, the dragons had enough of it. They started to rebel.”
Sozin glared at the world.
He was seated behind a wall of flames in his war room, which had been built after Roku destroyed a full third of the palace thirty seven years earlier. His generals sat around a large map of the world, where his gaze was currently directed. He was not happy with the news he was receiving.
“They are assaulting the capital, Fire Lord,” one general explained. “We believe that they have grown tired of serving us, and that this act is some sort of rebellion.”
“I already figured that out when I looked out my window and saw the Palace City was on fire,” Sozin snapped. “I asked you why they are rebelling.”
The general blinked. “I… suppose they are angry at being used. Dragons are sacred animals, the original firebenders. They were never meant to be used in war.”
“Are you suggesting that the dragons are somehow intelligent enough to disagree with my vision of a united world, and are now revolting because of it?” He already knew the answer to that, of course, and it terrified him. Sozin did his best to hide it with anger.
“Then if they do not agree with us and have set themselves against us, the dragons are our enemy,” he declared, and the entire room stared silently. “Attack them back. Drive them from our home.”
“But…” the general began, looking horrified. “But why would we do that? Dragons are our most sacred animals! They were the original firebenders!”
“You already mentioned that,” Sozin replied coldly. “Regardless of our history with them, they have set themselves against us. The Earth Kingdom was once our ally, as were the Air Nomads. I did not hear you asking questions when we started attacking them.”
The general looked away. “That was… different, my Lord.”
“If we attack the dragons, the world will be thrown out of balance!” he shouted desperately. “Colonizing the Earth Kingdoms is one thing, but driving away the very beings that gave us our power is suicide!”
The flames in front of Sozin rose several inches. “And who will be around to stop me from destroying the balance? The Avatar is no more! Roku died years ago, and I wiped his replacement from the face of the earth! I’ll target the Water Tribe next if I have to! Balance is an outdated concept that has no place in the new world I envision! The only way to move forward is to do so under a single banner! Balance gets in the way of that, so don’t try to threaten me by saying it will be destroyed! That’s exactly what I’m trying to do!”
The entire room stared at him, terrified. The general opened his mouth to reply.
“Choose your next words carefully, General,” Sozin threatened. “They could be your last.”
He bowed. “We will follow the orders you have given us, Fire Lord.”
Sozin steepled his fingers, and the flames returned to normal levels. “Good. You are dismissed.”
The generals walked out to deliver their orders, but a loud noise stopped them. Frozen, they listened in terror as the sound got closer. After a few moments, the doors busted open, and the source of the terrible noise was revealed.
Shunyuan let loose a mighty roar, slithering into the giant room. The generals were too terrified to move, and simply stood there. The dragon beat his wings, knocking the generals off their feet and extinguishing the flames that Sozin had been hiding behind. He stood up.
“Get out of here!” he ordered. “I will deal with this traitor myself!”
The generals were only too eager to obey, running as fast as their legs would carry them. Sozin stood his ground.
“I should have expected you would be the one behind this,” he began, glaring at the dragon he had once called his most trusted companion. “You never did approve of my vision.”
Shunyuan glared back at him with an intensity that Sozin had never experienced before. He recognized the expression, but it was darker somehow. There was a fury behind those golden eyes that had never been there before. The dragon was no longer simply judging Sozin. It was damning him.
Rearing his head back, Shunyuan lunged forward like a snake, releasing a river of flames from his mouth. Sozin watched it approach for a moment, then spun and held his arms out to the side as he crouched, causing it to split down the middle. He stood up and glared at the dragon for a few seconds, then turned around and ran.
As he reached the wall behind his throne, Sozin pressed his hand against a small opening in the wall, bending fire into it. A secret door opened, and he slipped through it before his dragon could launch another attack.
Sozin did not pause to catch his breath. He ran as fast as his legs would carry him, which was not as fast as he would have liked. Old age combined with his recent injury had slowed him down considerably. But he had to get out of there.
He heard a roar behind him, and seconds later the wall at the back of his war room was demolished. Shunyuan began slithering toward him, the size of the tunnel slowing him only slightly. Sozin started running faster.
Shunyuan unleashed another stream of fire, and Sozin had to turn around in order to deflect it. The dragon was catching up to him. He had to get out of here.
The exit was just ahead. The passage led to an underground arena, which had been constructed for the purpose of holding Agni Kai. Sozin could think of no better place for their final duel. He heard the dragon preparing to hurl fire at him again, and sprinted toward the opening as fast as he could.
As soon as he reached it, he dashed to the side to avoid the wall of fire that was chasing him. He started running toward the steps that led up to the giant stone court, where they could hold their battle. Shunyuan came charging out of the tunnel, spreading his wings and flying to intercept him.
They both reached the top of the steps at the same time. Sozin paused to catch his breath, while Shunyuan stared solemnly and beat his wings.
“I’ve had to make a lot of sacrifices to bring about my dream,” he began. “My efforts at diplomacy were sadly rejected by the Earth Kingdom, so I had to invade them in order to get them to listen. Then I faced opposition from Roku. After he died, I reached out to the Air Nomads to ensure that no Avatar stood in my way again. They didn’t listen either.”
Shunyuan simply hovered there, glaring at him the whole time.
“But of everybody I’ve had to convince, you are the last one I would expect to turn against me. Dragons are supposed to be the most loyal of all the spirit animals. What could I possibly have done that would cause you to betray me?”
The dragon did not answer. He didn’t need to.
“I suppose I will have to deal with you like I deal with everybody who opposes me,” Sozin continued, assuming a fighting stance. “It’s time for you to die.”
A roar was Shunyuan’s only response. Sozin lit a fire in his hands.
There was something different about this battle, Sozin noted. It wasn’t for glory or sacrifice. He did not stand anything to gain by defeating his opponent. It was a fight for survival. He grit his teeth and plunged ahead anyway, unleashing a torrent of fire from both fists.
Shunyuan sent the flames away easily with a single flap of his wings. He responded with his own fire, which Sozin blocked as well. Both of them paused for a moment, glaring at each other and breathing.
Memories assaulted Sozin as they continued to battle. Though this was the first time he had actually fought his dragon, they had traded blows before, back when Sozin was still a Prince. He and Roku used to compete to see who could beat their dragon in a fight. Neither of them could, of course. Dragons were the original firebenders. They knew it instinctively, while humans had to learn. Still, Sozin had learned a lot during those days he spent sparring with the dragon who had been with him from birth. The same dragon who was now trying to send him to the grave.
Sozin jumped over the dragon’s tail, which he used as a whip. He shot a fireball at his belly in response, but Shunyuan absorbed it as though it were nothing. The tail impacted one of the pillars, shattering it and causing debris to fall from the ceiling.
Shunyuan lunged forward, trying to capture the Fire Lord in his mouth. Sozin leaped high again, landing on his head. He ignited his hands and prepared to drive them into the dragon’s skull, but was thrown to the ground.
‘Ha! You didn’t last five seconds against him!’ Roku’s voice mocked him. He had tried the same maneuver almost a hundred years earlier, and met with the same results. Sozin growled and rolled away from a fire blast that was now headed in his direction.
The fire scorched the stone, leaving a pitch black streak. Sozin drew his hands closer to himself, concentrating his fire into a tight sphere. He hurled it at his opponent, where it expanded into a much larger fireball. Shunyuan was knocked back.
“You remember that, beast?” he called. “That’s the trick I got you with once! Looks like you still haven’t learned your lesson!” Sozin laughed, though it was not as pure as the one he’d had the first time that attack landed.
Shunyuan opened his mouth, and flames poured out in several tiny streams which twisted and intersected before finally making their way towards Sozin. He jumped back to avoid them. “But it appears I have. You won’t get me with that one!”
The dragon roared, leaping into the air and beating his wings so strongly that it formed a gust. Sozin tried attacking with fire, but it was blown back at him. After a few moments, he found himself lifted off his feet by a strong whirlwind.
Rushing forward, Shunyuan grabbed the Fire Lord with his claws, trapping him. Sozin stared into his eyes, and suddenly he was wracked with guilt.
He thought he knew the dragon’s gaze. He thought he could stand against it. But that damning stare burned through his defenses as though they were made of bamboo. He had never felt so utterly helpless in his entire life.
What he experienced next would take Sozin the rest of his life to understand. He did not hear words, but he felt the dragon’s judgment upon him as clearly as if it had been spoken directly into his ear. That feeling, the inescapable notion that he was completely vulnerable, was too much for him to bear. In that moment, he understood why his dragon had turned against him. It was an understanding that left no room for words. He understood that this was Shunyuan’s last attempt to steer him from his course.
That thought angered him. He had sacrificed so much in his life to bring about his vision, and was opposed at every turn. Nobody understood what a marvelous world he promised, and he had to force them to listen. Now even his own dragon, the spirit animal that had been with him from the day he was born, was telling him to let it go. Sozin refused to consider that.
He started to struggle. The moment of vulnerability had passed, and Sozin had rejected his dragon’s admonishment. His vision was the one thing keeping him alive. He would see it completed. But how could he escape? His entire body was restrained, and he could not bend without a free limb. He was still completely at the dragon’s mercy.
Sozin was suddenly struck with an idea. If dragons could breathe fire….
He took a deep breath, then exhaled. Fire erupted from his mouth, stunning his captor. Shunyuan dropped him to the floor.
Standing up, Sozin set his features into a glare. “Time to finish this,” he declared.
Sozin banished all his thoughts, all his memories, all his guilt. He emptied his mind of anything that might distract him. Slowly, he began to trace a circle with one arm, and sparks trailed from his fingertips. He focused only on the energy in his body, and how he could make it serve him. Moving the other arm around, he brought them together and released the lightning.
Time slowed to a halt. Sozin looked directly at his dragon, and their eyes made contact. In that moment, Sozin understood what he was sacrificing to further his goals. He understood why he would have no place in the world he had fought so hard to bring about. He knew he was damned.
The moment passed too quickly. The lightning struck Shunyuan, causing him to shudder and fall. He hit the ground dead.
Sozin stood there breathing heavily. The danger had passed. His life had been spared.
But now he was all alone.
“After that, Sozin issued a challenge to every firebender,” Zuko concluded. “He said that anybody who killed a dragon would receive the honorary title of ‘Dragon.’ He killed three more on his own before he died.”
The color had drained from Aang’s face, and he sat there with tears in his eyes.
“Are you okay?”
Aang sniffed and looked down. “Yeah. I’ll be alright.” He chuckled darkly. “Maybe you shouldn’t have told me that story.”
“I did warn you.” They shared a laugh.
“For not treating me like a little kid,” he answered. “Ever since I woke up from that iceberg, everybody’s been taking pity on me. Sokka and Katara tried to hide what happened at the Southern Air Temple from me. They thought I wouldn’t be able to handle it. But I have a job to do and I need to know everything I can. Thank you for realizing that.”
Zuko blinked. “You’re kidding, right? I told you a dozen times that you probably wouldn’t be able to handle that story. I’m kind of impressed that you did.”
He shook his head. “I meant earlier, when we were carrying the fire up to the altar. You’re different from all the other bending teachers I’ve had. Katara tried to ease me into things and Toph got really tough with me, but they both still treated me like I was a kid. You’re the first teacher I’ve had that’s treated me like an adult.”
“I know what it’s like to have to grow up before you’re ready to,” Zuko replied, smiling. “Believe me, you’re gonna do great.”
“Thanks.” His smile faded. “That’s still a really depressing story, though.”
“Most of the Fire Nation’s history in the last hundred years is,” Zuko said. “That’s what happens when you come from a family of monsters.”
“I don’t think Sozin was a monster,” said Aang. “He sounded more like someone who just didn’t know when to let go, even though it cost him everything.”
“That’s an optimistic way of putting it.”
He chuckled. “When I told my friends what happened between Roku and Sozin, I realized the moral of their story is that good and evil can come from anywhere. If we want to save the world, we have to save the Fire Nation too.”
Zuko just stared at him. “You’re really wise for someone who’s only twelve years old,” he remarked after a moment.
“Yeah, I get that a lot.”
They both laughed.
“Don’t tell Katara I told you that story,” Zuko said after a few moments.
“I wasn’t joking before when I said she’d kill me if I let you get hurt. She told me she would right after I joined the group.”
Aang blinked. “You’re serious?”
He nodded. “She really cares about you.”
“I really care about her,” he replied, looking away. “But you don’t have to worry about that. I’m doing just fine. It was just a sad story. It didn’t actually hurt me.”
“Because I know the dragons are still alive,” he answered, smiling. “And I know not all of Sozin’s descendants are as deluded as him. I’d say the future’s looking up.”
“Yeah.” Zuko smiled as well. “I’d say it is.”
They continued riding into the night.