you are looking at an instant with me and i am looking at eternity without you.
The second question he's asked is a little worse, in that it steals whatever vague amusement he managed to squeeze out of the first one.
After a few minutes and several false starts, he finally says soberly, “No. I don't think – at least, not in the way that I do. I think that you live your life, and even if – if some part of you is /recycled/, it – it isn't /you/. There's something in me that still has /memories/, you know? Without those, you aren't anyone. You can't be.” He doesn't seem at all happy about this. There's a tension at his brow and around the corners of his mouth, and he continues uneasily, “I think that the idea of the Avatar is kind of like a – a constant, you know? A pillar. And everyone else lives with it, but only once.” He bites his lower lip now, and then runs his tongue over it, and then studies his hands because what he's saying is that people have souls, but they are just as disposable as the rest of the body – just as transmutable as blood, for example, when it becomes earth; when bodies decay and gardens breathe themselves to life with it.
The third question is the one that his face finally falls with, and his eyes dull; he's tired, and sad, and while his hands are still and he isn't burning with the loneliness of this last truth, it is still deeply seeded within his heart: this selfish knowledge that no one can ever follow him back unchanged.
“No,” he says sullenly, and this is when the conversation ends. We won't.”
Prince Zuko dipped his feet into the stream, squinting down at the fish through the clear current. They were near to the surface, snapping up tiny, early-morning bugs, and blended easily with the silver dapples of sunlight on the water.
He had known it would take time, but he figured that breakfast wouldn't be a terrible start – as long as they didn't think he was trying to poison them. He sighed, raking his hand back through his hair; really, he couldn't win anybody over who didn't want to be won, and it was frustrating. His eyes fell out of focus as he considered the best way to fry a fish out of the water, and for a moment he caught his wobbly reflection blinking owlishly back at him. He looked nothing like a prince now, of course – he knew that, but seeing it so blatantly curdled some old vestiges of pride that still lined his stomach, and he felt as though he was going to be sick.
Not that he had anything against peasants, but to think – he'd been a prince. Next in line for the throne of the Fire Nation. He would have been king.
His hands shot into the water and drew up two squirming bits of silver, glittering mercurial in the sunlight.
/Oh well/, he thought, and smiled a little easier as he dropped them in the old bucket he'd brought along. /There's always the next life/.
His head jerked up, heart in his throat, until he saw that Aang was coming toward him, alone and shirtless and very probably still asleep – as far as the rest of his mental faculties were concerned.
“Hello,” he answered, slightly awkward. He still had to quell the sudden urge to chase Aang down on sight – strange, how easy he was around his former pursuer, how relaxed in the presence of his would-be captor – and now he mostly just had to force his eyes to Aang's face; failing that, he pried them away altogether. He almost wanted to shout at the kid – reprimand him for his trusting nature, it would get him killed; it already could have.
“Fishing?” He took a seat beside Zuko, close, and slid his feet into the water as well. He sat looking sleepily at his toes, and those of his firebender's.
“Yeah,” was the soft reply. Two more hit the bucket with a wet /thwap/.
“That's nice of you,” he yawned, blinking lazily up at the sun. Their arms were touching.
“Yeah,” he said again, and slid his eyes surreptitiously over Aang's lax form. “What are you doing?”
“Checking up on you,” and he seemed a little less tired now, rolling his shoulders and cracking his neck twice before turning to look up at Zuko. “We woke up and you were gone and – well, me and Katara and Toph, Sokka's still sleeping, but anyway. You know.” He grimanced. “Mostly Katara, actually.”
Zuko believed it, too. Something not unlike anger coursed through him, and he almost flung the whole bucket of fish back into the water. He took a deep breath instead, though, and let it fall away like dead leaves. “I'm getting breakfast for us,” he tried, and looked at Aang again peripherally.
“Good,” he said. “Sokka likes to eat.”
“Um,” and the Former Prince Zuko stood up, brushing off his pants and rolling the legs back down. “I know you don't eat fish, so. If there's anything you want...”
Aang followed on a soft breath of air, and that same gust wove itself around the wet hems of cloth at Zuko's ankles and dried them. “Thank you,” he said, and his smile was huge. “You don't have to worry about feeding me, but... I appreciate it.”
Zuko nodded, and he wondered what they were even talking about; his mind did not feel heavier, or even as though he had gained something; his heart, however, felt like two jewels clinking together, beautiful harmony.
“Do you ever wish it would just – stop? I mean, sometimes I feel like I'm old, and it isn't my body that's tired, it's some... /essence/, inside of me, that's just running dry. I can't imagine how it would feel, a thousand years running – and you have the added burden of four elemental energies in your soul. Doesn't it get worn down?”
They did not quite complain about the fish, and Sokka ate it readily enough; but all Zuko got for it was a chilly silence, instead of the usual open hostility.
He wasn't sure if it was an improvement or not, and spent the day wrestling verbally with people who would not speak to him over whose turn it was to train Aang. Katara was notorious for sneaking over to him during their breaks and “showing” him a particular waterbending nuance that ended up taking half an hour.
Even Sokka had taken to pulling the airbender aside and attempting to educate him with battle tactic theory, and it was all Zuko could to do keep from – literally – exploding into a raging inferno. Preferably in the immediate vicinity of the sources of his agitation.
He didn't have any kind of anger problem now, not really – but a man could only take so much provocation.
It was a small consolation, though, that Toph never made a nuisance of herself – and let it be known that she did not approve of anything compromising Aang's learning
“Sorry about that,” Aang said sheepishly as he resumed one of the more traditional fire stances. “I just – they really don't like you, you know?” He laughed it off, but Zuko didn't.
“I know,” he said, a littler sharper than he meant to. “Come on, show me the Phoenix Eye again.”
“Zuko – ”
Aang pursed his lips and dropped his stance. “Do you want to take a break?”
“You've just had a hour! Do you want to learn how to bend fire or not?”
“No, I mean. The two of us. I want to get you away from the others for a little while.”
“Oh,” and Zuko's hackles lowered marginally. “I'm sorry, Aang, I...”
“Hey,” Aang grinned, grabbing his arm like he did back in the old temple – like they had been friends for years instead of days - “That's the first time you've said my name without hesitating. Usually you're pretty weird about it, you know?”
Zuko's face went red, but Aang smiled like a jackal and pulled him outside. He didn't let go until they were halfway up the jagged rock wall.
Later that night, he heard Aang arguing with Katara. He knew Aang's feelings – or, at least had a vague idea about it – and he hated to think he was the reason they were fighting. Sure, there was a part of him that was a little vindictive, but overall he did desire some kind of harmony within the group.
“Katara, would you listen to yourself? Aang needs to learn firebending, and regardless of what's past between you guys, Zuko knows what he's doing! You're letting things that don't matter get in the way of what's important.” Toph's voice was clear and sharp, and she spared the lash not at all. “You're making things harder for everyone.”
“The fire nation /killed our mother/,” Katara bit out, and there was a heavy, undulating rage curling around every word. “He – ”
“Didn't,” and that time it was Aang's voice. “He didn't do anything, Katara. He was doing what he thought was right, and he's changed now. He isn't trying to capture me anymore; if he was, there were plenty of opportunities to do that and he's missed them. I mean, we went to those booby-trapped fire temples together, and – ”
“/Booby/-trapped? Aang, he could have - ”
“Katara, please.” Aang sounded tired. “I know what I'm doing.”
Sokka spoke up then, matter-of-fact, but there was an edge to his voice. “I know you believe in the 'innate goodness' of others, and redemption and all that jazz, but that jerk – ”
“Sokka, I'm the /Avatar/.” Aang was nearly shouting, and though Zuko couldn't see any of their faces, he could imagine what the airbender looked like. “I know you guys think I'm young, and inexperienced, and I know Katara likes to mother me like I'm a kid, and not the guy that kissed her three weeks ago, and I know you look at me like I'm your little brother who needs looking out for, but how many times have I saved the two of you? And the world, even if it wasn't in this lifetime?”
There was a hard silence and it stretched on; Toph snickered, and after that there footsteps storming out in – if he listened carefully – two different directions.
“I shouldn't have said that,” Aang lamented, but there was a good deal of frustration alongside the regret. “But she just – she never talks about it. It's what, the third time I've tried to tell her that I'm in love with her, and she just... writes it off, like this is some crush, and...”
There was a sigh from Toph and she drug her feet on her way out of the hall. “Sorry, Twinkletoes, but I'd say that's answer enough.” Her voice receded slightly, like she had been walking and stopped. “Not to be mean or anything, but you've gotta get over this. There are more important things, and Katara...” She stopped, and there was silence until Aang sighed and her footsteps carried her out of the room.
Zuko listened for a long time, wondering why Aang was sitting alone in the dark; but then he realized that he'd probably made his exit through more ethereal means, silent ascension, like a spirit too light to touch the cold stone floor.
The knock at his door, unheralded by any sound of earthly approach, allowed that his assumption was correct.
“Do you think the rest of us are reincarnated?”
“I don't even know anymore,” Aang said, throwing himself back on Zuko's bed and putting his hands behind his neck. “I did at one point – I know I did, there was this Guru and I couldn't even let go of her to go in the Avatar state – ”
“When your arrows and eyes glow?”
“Yeah,” he said. “I mean, I can now because when you – ” He did not say 'betrayed', because he hadn't been there in the underground prison, when it had been Katara looking for something in Zuko to heal. “ – and Azula were attacking us, and the Dai Lee – well, I had to. And then that whole almost-dying thing. She brought me back to life. But lately she's just been so... so /ugly/, and I hate it. She's really horrible to you, though.”
Zuko stood uncomfortably in the middle of his small room, and said after awhile, “I think you should forgive her.” There was a slick, black feeling uncurling in his gut, and when his eyes connected the idea of Aang with the idea of his bed, it grew teeth and he almost put his face in his hands and threw in the towel. Instead, he said, “You've been through a lot. She just doesn't like me, and she's entitled to that.”
Aang leaned up on his elbows, and for a wild moment Zuko saw his old obsession overlaid with his disinterest in women, and about the time he realized with distressing certainty his sexual preference, and that Aang needed to get out of his room immediately, the airbender was already asking to spend the night. With him.
“If I go back to my room, Katara'll just come in and have one of her 'talks' with me.” Aang wrinkled his nose. “She'll say something like, 'Aang, I know we were angry at each other, but I really do care about you and I only want you to be safe. I'm sorry I lost my head.' She won't even mention the kiss, or give a thought to how I felt about her. She just...” He trailed off, and shook his head. “Anyway, can I sleep here tonight? I'm sure she's prowling around my room, waiting for me to get back.”
“You shouldn't keep her waiting,” Zuko said with as much finality as he could, and ignoring the blatant use of past tense – /felt/, Aang had said. “So, you should leave. Now.”
There was a sudden hurt in the Avatar's eyes as he turned away, and it was so unbearable that Zuko's hand shot out – decidedly against his better judgment – and cupped Aang's shoulder.
“I'm sorry,” he said quietly. “I'm just dealing with something right now, and – ”
Aang whirled immediately. “You should talk to me about it. It's good for you, instead of bottling it up, and I think it'd be therapeutic for the both of us because I'd really like to not run into Katara and you – ” he was chattering so fast as he plopped back down on the bed that Zuko couldn't get a word in edgewise until he shouted.
“Please! It's not something I can talk to you about, but you need to leave, A-Aang,” He hoped this was sufficient, but Aang's eyes slowly narrowed on him. “As a responsible adult, you do things even if you don't like them. Like talking to Katara, or sleeping in your own bed – room.” /Room/, room!
“If it's about stuff like sex or whatever, I'm not a – a little kid.” He was blushing, though, and Zuko was floored. “And anyway you can talk about that, too. Is it Katara?” There was something like rivalry, but mostly it was dejection. “I mean, I know she's pretty, but she's so mean to you...”
“What? No!” He dug his hands back through his hair. “Aang, I don't even like – her.” /Careful/, he thought, because he very nearly said 'girls'.
“Then what – ”
“Please, you really need to leave now.” He was facing away from him, for a reason that would be terribly obvious /terribly soon/, and the airbender was now quite comfortably arranged on his bed.
“Zuko, you really should talk about these things.” He moved a little closer, legs slung over the edge of the bed, hands on either side as he pushed forward expectantly. “It's stressful and unhealthy to – ”
After, it wasn't clear how long it took to cross the floor, or exactly how he ended up pushing the Avatar onto his back and straddling him, let alone how he was able to actually kiss the kid before eating his own breath – but he did, and he did, and he was.
It wasn't until Aang pushed his tongue into his mouth that Zuko realized there were strong hands digging into his shoulders, slim hips angling against his obvious erection, and that, overall, whatever this was, it was /mutual/. He shoved off and stumbled back from the bed.
“What – I – you – fuck.” He breathed, wiping his mouth.
“I was wondering how long it was going to take you,” Aang said irritably, and by way of explanation: “Because I've been thinking a lot, too.”
“That doesn't,” he tried, and then tried again. “This morning – ” He couldn't his words out passed his lips. “Why did you,” and when Aang shakes his head good-naturedly, he gives up with a wobbly, “Shirtless...” and sits down.
“Organize yourself.” He smiled easily. “Topic: reincarnation. You can ask me three questions. And then I'll answer yours, if you haven't figured it out by then.” His smile ran from his eyes a bit, but stayed fixed on his mouth. It lingered for only an instant, and fell from there as well.
“Okay,” Zuko said, and took a deep breath.
“When we die, you'll come back because you have to, but I won't – not /me/. So we won't be together next time around?”
It was dark, after midnight but before dawn and Zuko's heart thundered painfully in his throat. Thoughts slipped through his mind like water though rocks, and things like this was my only shot/, and /there is nothing after this and I don't have time because one life couldn't possibly be enough for redemption. Aang shifted in his arms, and Zuko didn't need the flutter of lashes against his shoulder to know he was awake.
“We're mourning something we aren't going to remember,” Zuko said finally against the blue line of arrow at the crown of Aang's skull. “And we're young. We have time,” but he could taste the lie because they were in the middle of a war, they were children, and they were playing at fighting and falling in love both.
“Everything I do, I do for my friends. I do for /people/. But I'm the only one who comes back. Everyone else, it's just fragments of them – if you die, Zuko, I really will never see you again. Katara, and Sokka, and Toph – and you.” Zuko couldn't see his face, but he could feel the hot wetness trickling along his clavicle. Aang's breath did not catch, though, nor did he sob. His voice was steady as a drum.
An impossible weight settled itself over Zuko's chest and he realized in a horrible moment of empathy how lonely all predestined heroes must be.
“Will you remember?”
“Some part of me will. When I'm guiding the next incarnation of myself along, I think – I'll remember you.”
His arms tightened around Aang's young, narrow shoulders, and he wondered at the act of gifting a single person with this terrible burden; at giving life over and over, to protect people who only live once.
It would be morning, and with it another set of problems would return to them from the spectres they had faded to in the night; so before dawn could bother to rouse herself, Zuko kissed Aang one more time, two, ten – slowly, and carefully, he made it absolutely clear that regardless of what would come – who would live, who would die, who would come back alone – he was here now, they both were, and even if they would not meet after this lifetime –
Well, there would time to deal with that later.