"Even for you Azula, this is torture," Aang complained.
The two of them stood across from each other, some ten feet between them, the early gray light of a dawn not yet risen the only light to see by. They were the in the courtyard of their estate on Ember Island. Well, really it was Azula's estate more than any of them but as she wasn't legally allowed to own property, the statement stood. Actually, come to think of it, Aang didn't know who actually owned this property. Perhaps that was something to look into.
Not to say any of that mattered at the moment, though. What mattered solely to Aang was that his ward/Firebending Master/occasional friend had drug him very cruelly out of bed so early that Aang had thought it was still late. Of course, by the time they'd gotten outside, the world had begun to lighten ever so slightly but it was still hellishly early.
"Your memory is clearly lacking," she sniped, her voice tilted sarcastically.
Aang groaned and drug a hand down his sagging face. "Humor, Azula," he told her. "Humor."
They'd been working on her social cues these last few years. She'd gotten much better, really, but one couldn't expect perfection.
Perfection was something Azula excelled at, however, and it was clearly evidenced as she stood across from him. Unlike Aang, she looked energetic and alive, lacking any sign of tiredness at all. Her feet were placed widely apart, and her stance was firm, her back upright. The shallow light combined with the blurriness of his sleep vision made it difficult for him to discern her facial features, but he knew she was smirking at him.
"Are you going to tell me what we're doing out here?" Aang demanded. "Even as a monk, I wasn't one for predawn meditation."
"Lucky for you then that we aren't meditating," Azula commented. "We're Firebending."
Aang groaned again, physically throwing his body about in a fit of frustration. Four years ago when Azula's banishment had begun, she, Aang and Ty Lee had made directly for Ember Island. In the beginning, it had only been to find their bearings and pick a direction. However, it was there that they unanimously came to the conclusion that the best thing Aang could do for the world was to stay put and further his Avatar training. They had already known through messages that Toph would be arriving soon to continue his Earthbending training and he would have been the first to admit that his Firebending was far from a mastery level.
As such, Azula had offered herself up as his new Firebending Master. Aang had been hesitant at first but, with no other options, he had taken her up on his offer. And what a Master she was. Leagues above Zuko in form, stance and raw talent, her technique was as cold as her flames were hot. She taught him maneuvers, skills, tricks and abilities that Zuko had never even dreamed of touching on. Under her tutelage, Aang had come to master the challenging element over the last four years.
Which was exactly why he didn't understand what he was doing here.
"Don't you ever take a day off!?" he complained. "Azula, my Firebending is fine. It's better than fine! Just let me go back to sleep."
Admittedly, that last part had petered off into a pathetic moan.
"You have become a skilled Firebender," she acknowledged, delivering to him one of her seldom heard compliments. "But there is still much to learn."
"I agree," Aang capitulated. "I do. I can always better myself. But in the daylight. After a good night's sleep."
The Courtyard had brightened over the course of their conversation, shifting from a dull and lifeless gray to a hopeful pink. He could see her more clearly now. Her hair was done up in its traditional bun, her face framed by two daggerlike locks and her eyes danced with amusement. He had been right about her smirk, but he had noticed more and more lately that it had changed. No longer did it mar her face with cynicism and negativity. These days, it displayed good humor and a happier outlook on the world around her.
Of course, she was still a raging cynic with a mean streak worse than a Platypus Bear but she was, overall, happier and he was glad to see it.
She rolled her eyes at him. "Ignoring the plethora of times I have told you this," she deadpanned, "I am sure Zuzu would have mentioned it to you as well."
She pointed sharply towards the East where the faint glow of the rising sun could just be seen. "Firebenders rise with the sun. There is never a time of day when your Firebending is more potent and powerful than the early morning when the rush of the sun's power has hit the Earth. And you are going to need all of the power you can muster." She looked at him sharply, the smirk falling away to be replaced with a genuine smile. "Today, I am going to teach you how to wield lightning."
A rush of conflicting emotions washed over Aang like a powerful wave. Initial excitement mixed with self-conscious nervousness gave way quickly to indecisive uncertainty and cold wariness. Aang had never liked Firebending. As much trouble as he had, had with Earth, it was Fire that was truly the element opposite to who he was. Aggressive, furious and passionate. Aang was none of these things. He was a pacifist, content to meditate in peace and let the worries and desires of the world pass him by. Firebending was an element that demanded he tap into a version of himself he wasn't overly fond of.
And lightning? Lightning represented the apex of Firebending. It was pure, unadulterated passion that Aang wasn't sure he could produce. On top of that, he had known only a handful of Firebenders capable of the feat. One of them stood across from him now and, though she was reformed, he remembered vividly what she had used the talent for. Her father had nearly killed him several times with the ability. Her Uncle Iroh was, in fact, the only wielder of lightning he had ever seen use it more constructively. It was very telling to Aang that among his entire family, Zuko – the man he considered most pure in his line – could not produce lightning.
Aang scratched at the back of his head hesitantly. "Listen, Azula," he stumbled over his words, "I appreciate the effort. Really. Going above and beyond your duties as my Firebending teacher. But I don't really see a need to learn how to use lightning. I've gotten on just fine without it this far. So, uh…I'm gonna go back to bed."
Aang turned on the spot, fully intent on trotting back into the house and into his bed, desperate to leave the courtyard before Azula could call him back.
The heat hit him first, warning him just in time that he ought to move. And good thing he did too as a searing blade of blue flame sheared through the space he had only just been occupying. Aang pulled a face. It wasn't the first time she'd attacked him and he was well used to it at this point – really, it was just one of her teaching methods – but that didn't make it less annoying.
"I have a name, you know," Aang sniped over shoulder, slowly turning back around. "You could use it."
"How many times have you told me to let go of my prejudices?" she asked in reply.
Taking it as a rhetorical question, Aang was content to sit by and allow her to continue on to whatever point she was trying to make. When, after a few moments, it became clear she wanted an answer, however, he groaned.
"Honestly, Azula, I've lost count," he told her.
"Let go of your prejudices," she commanded him softly, eliciting a look of surprise. "You think I don't know why you don't want to learn this? You've never liked Firebending, Avatar, but you've always been an eager student. I know what's floating through that air filled head of yours."
She took in a deep breath and slid into a very recognizable stance. She radiated power and confidence like he had never seen in anyone else. He could practically see the pent up energy of her inner fire clawing at her porcelain skin to get out. The bright glow of the rising sun reflected off of it like fire, creating a striking image.
She began to move through the motions, drawing on no power and simply demonstrating to him how it was done. He was surprised. Take away the crackle of power and the low light of the energy, and the motions were far more fluid than he had expected them to be. He supposed he had always thought the movements would be as breakneck and blistering as the power they summoned.
"Lightning is not a reflection of the one using it," she began to speak, her voice tilted in that especially serious way that let him know she was teaching and that he had better listen. "Like all Bending, it can be used for whatever purpose the wielder so wishes; good or ill. But the lightning itself is innocent."
"It's destruction," Aang argued. "Fire is different. It brings warmth and light. It's life. But lightning doesn't do anything constructive. It can only destroy."
Rising from her stance to stand firm again, she glared at him coolly. "Lightning is Firebending in its purest form, unburdened by the raw emotion that fuels the rest of the element. That's why dear Zuzu can't use this ability." Aang glanced at her curiously. "Even on his best day, Zuko is conflicted by nature. Always second guessing himself, always worried he's misstepped. To wield lightning requires self-assurance. It requires one to let go of emotion and desire so that they may release a pure, unfettered power. Not very much unlike the Air Nomads, I am given to understand."
Aang sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. Well they were in this now. He had far too many unpleasant memories of cutting a lesson short when Azula was in teacher mode. He wasn't going to do it now.
"So how do I do this?"
Azula smiled the self assured smile she saved for those special occasions when she had gotten someone to do something they didn't want to do. "Follow my movements exactly. Breathe deep and as you breathe out, let go. Focus solely on the power you feel within you. Feel it flow throughout your body with the movements. Draw it closer to the edge and when you feel its grip on the tip of your fingers, let it out!"
The bright, early dawn light of the morning darkened for a blistering instant as the wide arc of electricity leapt greedily from Azula's fingertips into the air. Then it was gone like it had never happened and Azula relaxed her stance to stare expectantly at him.
"Your turn," she smirked at him.
Aang followed her movements, sliding into the stance rather effortlessly. It was similar enough to other Firebending forms he had used and he had seen her adopt this stance enough. Moving slowly through the motions of the move, Aang easily cast aside his troubling emotions. The excitement, the nervousness and the doubt fell away from the practiced Avatar as he sank himself into the power he could feel radiating throughout his body.
It was one thing he did like about Firebending. The only one of the elements to be created by the Bender, the power of fire lied within one's self. He could feel it now, its calming warmth beneath his skin. It called to him, begging to be released.
In hindsight, Aang could not remember much of what he actually did. He recalled the feel of the power beneath his skin, and he recalled how it looked, arcing into the air as he released it. But the in-between where he actually released the power was a blank.
His Master's voice brought him back into focus.
Azula made a noise of soft annoyance. "As much of a prodigy as ever," she scoffed. "It took me weeks to produce what you produced in your first try. Before long, you'll surpass even me, Avatar."
Aang barked a laugh. "Your memory is clearly lacking."
She narrowed her eyes at him. "Cute," she spat good-naturedly.
Sobering, Aang straightened his postured, pressed his fist into his open palm and bowed respectfully to his master. She mimicked him, using the Fire Nation version she had been raised with.
"Thank you," he told her sincerely. "You never cease to amaze, Sifu Azula."
"So, you forgive me for waking you up so early?" she asked teasingly.
Aang hesitated and stared at her suspiciously. Something about her tone made him uneasy. "Yes," he agreed slowly. "It's a habit I should pick back up, anyway. The monks always got up early for meditation."
His poor attempt at deflection failed miserably. Azula dodged it as nimble as she would anything else he could throw at her. "Good," she said in a very happy voice. "Because I need something in return. As payment for my lesson."
Aang blinked. "I've never paid you," he said dumbly.
Azula shrugged. "Consider it backpay, then."
"Do you even know what backpay means, Princess?" Aang questioned and received only a withering look in reply. He groaned and ran a hand down his face. "What do you want?"
"I've taught you how to wield lightning," she grinned wickedly. "Now I want you to teach me how to redirect it."
He looked her up and down with suspicion. "Why?" he demanded.
He watched her deflate in front of him. Her shoulders slumped, and her face fell. "Do you know how rare it is at my level to learn something new?" she asked.
"Keeping it real humble, Azula," he chided softly, but she ignored him.
"Only three people in the world know this technique!" she exclaimed like he had never spoken. "The other two won't teach me, but you will!"
"You know what they say about assumptions, Azula," he warned her.
Her mouth tilted into a very cocky smirk and she leaned back on her hip, folding her arms as she stared him up and down. "It's not an assumption," she stated firmly.
Aang barked a laugh. "Are you ordering me to teach you an advanced Firebending technique!?"
"Would it work!?" she demanded.
"Probably!" he shouted his reply without thinking.
They stared at each other hard for a moment. She didn't laugh but amusement twitched on her lips and her eyes were alight with what he recognized as triumph. Aang resisted the urge to groan. It was getting harder and harder to remember a single argument he had won with her over the last few years.
Aang sighed. "Fine," he yielded.
Azula didn't visibly react – she was hardly one for over the top displays of excitement – but he could tell by the light in her eyes and the way she held herself that she was happy. Perhaps even surprised. Had she really not expected him to teach her? He had never denied her anything before.
"Alright," Aang sighed, shaking off the student role. The teaching cap was one he rarely, if ever, got to wear these days. "Do like me."
He dropped into the required stance, eliciting a doubtful look from his student. She looked him up and down, scrutinizing him. Aang shook off the feeling of discomfort she conjured in him. How did she manage to make him feel like he was doing it wrong when he was the one teaching her?
"That's…not a Firebending stance," she said slowly, as if speaking to a dim child.
Relishing in the rare opportunity of knowing something she didn't, Aang smiled. "That's because your Uncle developed it by studying Waterbending."
She raised a surprised eyebrow. "That's possible."
"Clearly," Aang deadpanned. "Now stop acting superior and do as I do."
He dropped back into the stance, and though she looked amused at his word choice, she did as he asked. He took a moment to examine her and make sure she was properly situated. There was no point moving into the explanation if her footwork wasn't correct.
When he was confident she was correctly aligned – which, of course, she was – he began to teach. "Zuko explained it to me like this," he told her, calmly demonstrating the motions of the technique. "Energy doesn't just disappear. It has to go somewhere. That's what this move is. The transferring of energy safely through your body and out the other side. Down the arm, through the stomach and out. Understand?"
"I think so," she said slowly, her eyes locked onto the movements of his arm. She began to try her own hand at it. "Like this?"
Aang watched her closely as she imitated his movements as best she could – which was quite well all things considered. Frowning, he prompted her to run through it a few more times. He wanted to be positive she was doing it wrong before he corrected her.
As she began her fourth attempt, Aang shook his head and told her to stop. Stepping forward, he slipped around her to stand very close behind her. He took a firm hold of her hands and began to direct them through the movements. Her hands remained locked in the proper positions but loose enough that he could lead them.
He paused at the junction between her arm and chest. "This is where you're messing up, and it's the most important part. If the energy touches your heart, it will kill you instantly. You have to make sure you direct it around the heart and safely down through the stomach." He used her hands to demonstrate. "Try it again."
He stepped back to watch her attempt the technique again. He preformed it three more times, and he allowed her to do so without commenting. The surety of her movements improved with each attempt until she had practically perfected it. On her fifth try, he had her slow her motions so that he could carefully keep track of every motion. Content that she had perfected it, he smiled at her.
"Well done," he told her. "You have officially mastered the rarest Firebending technique on the planet."
Her smile was small, self-contented and somewhat arrogant. But it was very genuine. With that selfsame smile, she bowed to him respectfully. "The student is only as good as the master."
Aang pulled anxiously at his collar. "Then you must not be very good," he laughed. "I've got the scar to prove my experience with lightning is…lacking."
A brief flicker of annoyance passed over her face and a similar feeling of guilt bubbled up in Aang's stomach. They had known each other for five years now, and only one of those had been spent as enemies. These last four years on Ember Island had been some of the best that Aang could remember. Here, he had delved deeper into his Avatar training than he had ever had the time to do on the run and much of that was due to Azula's help. He had truly mastered Firebending here, secure and safe under Azula's tutelage.
She had never apologized for what she had done to him, but then again she actually had. To say she was imprisoned with him was an understatement. Till the day she died, she would be at his side. She had no obligation to him beyond not running away. Yet, she had offered up her skills to him as a teacher, to help him further his abilities as the Avatar. Was that not itself an apology?
Aang scratched at the back of his neck sheepishly. "I'm sorry," he told her sincerely. "We've outgrown that. You don't deserve to have that brought up again."
Azula rolled her eyes. "Get over yourself, Avatar," she snapped. "It takes more than that to break my skin."
Aang backed down, happy not to delve farther into this argument. It would be a fruitless one. As the monks were fond of saying, it was action that proved the sincerity of words – not the words themselves.
"Anyway," she brushed the conversation off, "I'm ready."
Aang furrowed his brow in confusion. "Ready for what?"
"To practice the technique," she said in a voice like he was stupid.
"Oh!" Aang realized. "Sorry, right. What time is it now? I better go drag Toph out of bed before she misses breakfast. I'm sure it'll be ready by the time you're done."
She caught a firm hold of his hand as he turned to wander off into the house. "I meant with you, idiot," she snapped.
He turned back, confused. "What?"
"What are you dense!?" she cried. "Hit me!"
Aang blinked. "What?" he said again.
Azula opened her mouth, her eyes alight with fury. Then she calmed considerably, counted to ten and took a deep breath.
Aang barely caught the blast of lightning she fired at him, so quick were her movements. Crying out in shock more so than pain, the force of the blast sent his feet skidding back several feet across the pavement. Desperately, he expelled the blast out into the air, breathing hard.
Whatever he had managed to do today and whatever she had said regarding his abilities, he was very far from surpassing her. That blast was on par with anything her father had ever sent at him. His reflexes – honed by years under Toph's tutelage – were the only thing that had saved him.
"Azula what the hell!?"
"That!" Azula cried. "That is mastery. That is what I need!"
"You'll get there!" he exclaimed. "What does that have to do with you throwing lightning at me!"
"How can I be expected to master the technique without practical application?" she demanded.
"Azula," Aang said as calmingly as he could manage – like was talking a jumper off the ledge. "I'm not going to shoot lightning at you."
"There's no other way," she told him.
"Azula, I didn't master this technique with 'practical application'," he told her. "Zuko couldn't shoot lightning. Your father's lightning was my first time using this technique in practice and that was during Sozin's Comet! I promise, you'll be fine."
"Not good enough," she snapped.
Moving with the speed of a whip, she snapped into the position and fired another massive bolt of lightning at him. He caught it, the energy dancing on his fingertips, and expelled it into the fountain behind her, shattering the stone construction.
"Azula!" he cried.
"Fine isn't good enough!" she exclaimed and fired another blast at him.
He groaned against the onset of power, the arcing energy dancing along his skin and leaving light burns where it had touched. He redirected it into the ground in front of him, cratering the cobblestones where it had connected with a tremendous noise.
"Hit me!" she cried, the lightning crackling loudly on her fingers.
This one, he redirected into the far wall.
Aang caught this blast again and he felt his back hit the wall as the force of it pushed him back as far as it was possible to go. A cold sweat trickled down his spine. It wasn't long ago that this girl's father had, had him backed up against the wall. He still had nightmares about the trauma of what he'd undergone during Sozin's Comet. The forced opening of his seventh chakra continued to haunt him.
With a cry of outrage and with little thought, Aang threw the arcing energy back directly towards its source, regretting the action the moment the energy had left his body.
She caught the blast full force and gasped, sliding back along the cobblestones of the courtyard. To summon such power and expel it had always been a rush to her. But to hold it in her hands as she did now? It was something else entirely. She could feel its power buzzing in her arms, desperately clawing at her skin in a bid to get out and release its energy. Breathing hard, the cool, logical side of her brain told her she had to expel this energy soon or it would burn her from the inside out.
Was this what he had felt? Was this what she had been doing to him with these blasts? How had he done this so consecutively? How could he handle such power? Or was this his power she was feeling? Was this the strength of the pacifist child she had been teaching out of little more than boredom all this time.
It was intoxicating.
Crying out in pain, Azula drew the energy down, commanding it to travel through her arm. The buzzing of its power was more powerful now. She could almost imagine it was shaking her very bones. It passed around her heart without issue, warming her stomach in a way it had never been warm as it travelled through and passed explosively out of her fingertips on the follow through. She watched that energy that she had held within herself obliterate a pillar some thirty feet away and had never been more tired in her life.
She slumped in on herself, her knees shaking, but refused to fall. Vaguely, she recognized the soft touch of the Avatar's hands on her, supporting her. She would have laughed if she could. Did he think her so weak?
"Azula!" he was shouting, his voice so filled with worry that it actually made her smile. "Azula, I'm so sorry. I don't know what I was thinking, are you okay!? Azula!"
Shakily, she grabbed a firm hold on the front of his robes, the orange fabric balling up tightly in her fist and silenced him with the firm press of her lips into his own. He froze, stiller than the dead, unsure of what to do or how to react, and she did not give him the time to formulate the response.
Separating, she pulled his head even farther down and whispered into his ear, "Thank you, Aang,"
Then she released him and left him frozen where he stood with a dumbfounded look on his face. It would be several very long moments before he moved again and when he did, it was to softly touch the tips of his fingers to his lips.
She tasted like ozone.