"Dragons are air and fire." - George R. R. Martin, Game of Thrones
"So they [dragons] devour one another, or take their own lives, plunging into the sea - a loathy death for the fire serpent, the beast of wind and fire." - Ursula K. Le Guin, The Farthest Shore
So this is what a perfect moment feels like.
Zuko, in all of his nearly seventeen years of life, didn’t get to know many of those. If pressured, he can think of a few chosen images – Mai’s lips on his own and the grace of her white body moving in his arms, the smell of tea lingering in the air in the Upper Ring of Ba Sing Se, a few hazy recollections of warm hands holding him and a soft voice telling him bedtime stories of heroes, dragons and princes. They bring him comfort in the dark; they remind him that there can be something more, something good, even for him; they bring the soothing promise of a fearful, half-hatched hope, of light – but they also bring bitterness, or regret, or guilt, or a whole piercing blizzard of fury at the world and at himself, so they are not, cannot be perfect, because perfection cannot be tainted. Besides, if he did regard them as perfect before, he doesn’t now, because now, he truly knows.
The flames soar up in a dazzling whirl of blinding beauty all around him, a harmony he didn’t even imagine could exist, and they are warm, and loving, and he lets them embrace him and drown him in color. This is it. This is perfection. A moment which cannot be tainted by anything, a glimpse of peace he believed until then was unattainable, his heart at ease, his mind in awe, and not a thought that would spoil this. He cannot imagine anything tarnishing this harmony now, this purity, this thing of utter beauty spilling from the dragons’ mouths.
Not even the fact that he is sharing this moment with someone else.
He can feel Aang’s back against his own. He can feel his presence, solid and real, can hear the Avatar’s breath, as stilled and hitched as his own, and somehow this, too, is perfection – the moment made whole. Suddenly, Zuko knows that it has always meant to be this way: he and Aang, here, on this bridge between two mountains as though on the threshold of a new journey, enlightened by a pair of dragons, caught in the middle of wisdom embodied in color. It is as if their entire lives, the twisted, winding branches of their destinies, have led to this, this one blazing moment of fiery illumination.
“I understand,” he whispers into the flames, barely even conscious of having spoken anything. And for once, the words are true – he really does. Everything is so clear, so obvious. Not only the true meaning of Firebending – and how could anyone change that, how could anyone ever distort such a perfect, harmonious thing? Soon, his heart will rebel and rage against this sacrilege, against his own ancestors who have committed it and stole from their people a source of true, untainted power – but not now. Now, his heart can only marvel in wonderment, too flooded with awe of light to have room left for shadows. But through that, he understands something else as well: himself, and his decisions. Now more than ever he knows he has done the right thing.
Aang. He is here with Aang. And he understands that, too, like the fact that he cannot ever stand here with anyone else in the entire world. Through all the twists and turns on their way, through rage and suffering, through hostility and shaky alliances, through frustrating uncertainty and, finally, a newly hatched, fragile trust, they have arrived here, to be enveloped together in a ribbon of clarity. To be joint. The prince of Fire, the monk of Air, of cultures so different, so alien and conflicting, so incomprehensible to one another that one could bring the other to extermination; the child of aggressors and the child of victims; one flighty and looking inward, the other forward, always burning for strength. Impossible to bring together… and yet here they stood, back to back, breathing the same air, watching the same display of light, blessed with this very same insight. Children of two conflicting elements.
Conflicting, yes. But which have both given birth to dragons.
Because dragons are creatures not only of fire, now he can see that – they are also of air. Master Firebenders who soar through the skies, flying giants spitting flames. They are the true embodiment of unity, of a conciliation between that which seemingly cannot be reconciled – and the fact that they survived, and that he can be standing here with Aang receiving their blessing, gives Zuko more hope than anything else in his life.
Peace is possible. The wrongs of this world can still be set right. If dragons can still pierce the skies, if the Avatar can forgive him and share a perfect moment with him… They can do this.
And in this moment of perfection, of utter understanding, he feels the warm fingers of the Avatar brush his own and close his hand in a firm grasp. He squeezes back without even thinking about it and this only makes the perfection complete.
When Aang kisses him days afterward in the darkness of an Ember Island night, the stars glittering above their hands and the chilly sand under their fingers, it is really nothing more but another, inevitable step on their way, an extension of the moment caught in the dragons’ breath – and this, too, is perfection.
Dragons are creatures of air and fire blended into one. And for a few precious, stolen, perfect moments so, too, are they.