Disclaimer: Yes. Avatar is all mine! I control it! ...Just kidding. Really.
Author's Note: This will be the last chapter. The ending, I warn you, is not entirely satisfactory. But do not lose hope; there will be a sequel. Just... later. Enjoy.
Hours later, Appa descended to a hilltop and landed with a tired groan, which almost drowned out Iroh's snoring for a moment. Zuko silently shook his uncle awake and slid down to the ground. Eventually, everyone made their way down, finding the coziest spot of ground for the night – or what was left of it. Zuko, however, remained standing. "We should make a fire," he said with just a hint of uncertainty.
Sokka, who had wasted no time in making himself comfortable, rolled over. "Great idea. Let's just help the Dai Li find us. I mean, why not draw a giant arrow over our heads while we're at it?"
Katara glanced at Zuko's troubled expression and suddenly understood. "We're a long ways away, Sokka," she said, using her most persuasive tones. "I don't think a fire would hurt."
Sokka made a dramatic noise of disgust and rolled back over. "Fine. Make a fire. But when crazy earth benders start attacking, don't blame me!" he fumed, thereby washing his hands of the whole matter. "I'm going to sleep."
Iroh yawned. "Good idea!" Soon, both he and Sokka were sound asleep.
Listening to their combined snores, Katara made a face. "And Sokka talked about the fire attracting attention."
Firewood wasn't hard to find, so they soon had a substantial pile roughly in the center of the area. With an almost casual jab, Zuko set fire to it. A shriek of terror at the same moment caused everyone to turn to the source, adrenaline racing, ready to face the Dai Li. What they saw was the Earth King, peering out from behind Bosco and pointing a trembling finger at Zuko. "He's a fire bender," he squeaked, positively terrified. Zuko, now lost, looked helplessly at Katara. She had a hand in front of her mouth, stifling a giggle.
"It's okay," Toph said, as soothingly as she could (but consolation was not Toph's forte).
"He's with us," Katara added, though not without a hint of laughter at the Earth King's face.
"But… but… he's a fire bender! How is he with us?"
"My point exactly," said a groggy voice from across the camp.
"Shut up, Sokka."
Even without Sokka, it took a while to convince the Earth King that he didn't need to worry about any evil fire benders. Zuko didn't say anything; he just watched two people defend him at once. Eventually, they gave up and told him that Bosco would protect him. That seemed to relieve all his fears and he fell asleep immediately.
Katara realized that everyone except Zuko, Toph, and herself was already sleeping. This obviously dawned on the others, as well, because Toph yawned and said, a little too loudly, "I think I'll turn in now. Have fun… I mean, good night." With that, she was gone, dead to the world (or at least pretending to be; no one was sure and she refused to talk).
Zuko grunted noncommittally and sat next to the fire. After a moment's hesitation, Katara joined him, but was careful not to sit too close to him. They stared silently at the flames for a while, lost in thought. Tired of the awkwardness of the situation, Katara got up. "Good night," she said softly, and moved a few feet away to let sleep claim her.
Zuko watched the flames a bit longer. Then, finding the night to be a bit lonely, he went to sleep as well.
Zuko awoke as soon as the sun hit his face, as was his custom. This morning, however, he regretted his instinct. Moaning, he turned onto his stomach and tried to cover his head with his arms. Streams of light still penetrated his defenses, though, and he was forced to get up. He raised himself to a sitting position and stretched his stiff… everything. From now on, he vowed, he would sleep in a bed – or at least on something vaguely soft.
Just as he was starting to feel human again, he felt something smack into his shoulder. "Isn't it a lovely morning?" Toph walked into view from behind him, hand extended slightly. Apparently, this had been the blunt object used in the assault on his shoulder. "Wasn't the ground so cozy?" She spun around to face him and fell straight backwards; a split second before she landed, the rock turned into soft, beach-quality sand. Zuko groaned and stood up, though slowly.
"So," she said, grinning mischievously, "did you have fun last night?"
Zuko considered his choices carefully. "I'm going to find some breakfast," he said, because this girl was obviously insane and a little distance wouldn't hurt. He trudged out of camp, giving the vegetation a cursory glance as he went by. He wasn't that hungry, but few berries looked good enough to bother eating. It wasn't long until he heard the sounds of a brook, and he headed towards them. Washing his face caused him to start when he rubbed former scar tissue, but otherwise he felt refreshed and more awake. Zuko walked back to the others as slowly as he could, hoping that someone else was awake by now.
Apparently, someone was. Katara was gone and last night's ashes were soggy. Judging by the snoring, Uncle and Sokka were still asleep. Aang was sprawled out, head lolling to one side. As Zuko's eyes swept the camp, the Earth King caught his attention. The man was looking at him with an expression that was probably meant to be threatening; as it was, it looked like a nearsighted person eating something extremely sour. Zuko had to bite his lip and turn away to regain his composure.
Katara had eaten some breakfast and was in the process of bringing some back for everyone. There wasn't much, but it would do until lunch. She nudged her brother with her foot as she walked by him. "Wake up, Sokka." He murmured something unintelligible and covered his head. She sighed. "Look, Sokka! Food!" she said, her face totally devoid of the enthusiasm in her voice. Sokka was up and drooling over the bundle in Katara's arms before she could turn around with it. She placed it on the ground, cautious of Sokka's rabid reactions to food. "Save some," she instructed him firmly, and went to wake Aang up.
Zuko managed to get Iroh up, which was no small feat in the early mornings. Once everyone was fully conscious and had eaten at least some, the infamous "So, What Now?" discussion came up.
"Well," Aang began hesitantly, "I have to learn fire bending…"
There was a tactful silence as everyone tried to avoid the inevitable as well as eye contact with each other. "We could get Jeong Jeong," Sokka suggested meekly.
"He's probably somewhere else by now," Katara said, "not to mention even harder to find."
Aang wondered about the best way to approach this. Toph, however, wasn't worried about being discreet. "Hello! There are two fire benders right here! Let's move on!"
"Right." Aang, properly rebuked, turned to Iroh with a sheepish grin. "Sir, would you teach me fire bending?"
"I would be honored," Iroh replied, obviously amused by the situation instead of offended. "That is," he corrected himself, "if my nephew isn't opposed to traveling with you." Everyone looked expectantly at Zuko, who suddenly felt the need to be somewhere else. Uncle watched him patiently, head cocked slightly to one side. Toph wasn't watching him, per se, but he could feel her doing her equivalent of it. Aang's eyes were wide and innocent; Sokka's and the Earth King's were narrowed. Katara was looking at him with a hint of a hopeful smile. So it was up to him, was it?
Capturing the Avatar had been his only purpose for three years. Zuko couldn't just go from that to being his traveling companion. But he didn't have anywhere else to go, and these people seemed vaguely willing to accept him. All right, one seemed more than willing: Katara. Maybe, just maybe, he could have someone to talk to, who would understand him, outside of Uncle Iroh. Someone without a fascination for tea and proverbs.
And if he changed his mind, he would be close enough to the Avatar to do something about it.
Zuko shrugged and gave a half-nod of assent. "Thank you," Aang said. Katara broke out into a grin, as did Toph. Iroh clapped Zuko on the shoulder, smiling as usual.
"Welcome to the gang," Toph proclaimed.
Sokka brightened up. "The Aang Gang," he said, decidedly pleased with himself. Iroh chuckled.
"This is great," Aang said, "but we should get going now."
"Hold on a minute," Katara said firmly. "We need rest. All of us do."
"But the Dai Li could…" Katara held up a finger for silence and Sokka shut up, though reluctantly.
"We're a long way from the Dai Li. Besides, Appa is tired." Appa groaned and yawned, as if to illustrate her point.
"We need supplies, though," Toph said.
Katara looked around at the surrounding woods pointedly. "I'm sure we can find some food."
At this point, no one could figure out any more arguments against this. Sokka huffed. "Fine." He walked off. "I'm going hunting," he called over his shoulder, determined to have the last word.
"Have fun," Toph yelled after him, smirking. Aang yawned and ambled over to Appa, muttering something about needing a little rest. Shortly thereafter he was sleeping peacefully, leaned against Appa. When Katara looked back, Zuko had gone off somewhere. She frowned.
"I am going to find something that makes tea," Iroh said affably.
"Wait a minute," Katara instructed firmly, before he had taken more than two steps. "Is there something you should tell me?"
Iroh turned toward her, eyebrows raised in polite astonishment. "What?"
"Any injuries," she clarified impatiently. Toph faced Iroh with a worried expression. "I am a healer, and it's my job to make sure everyone's okay."
"Thank you for your concern, but I wasn't harmed at all."
"How?" Katara exclaimed, now a bit cross. "How could you end up perfectly fine after all that fighting?"
Iroh grinned wolfishly. "My dear, there is a reason that I am know as the Dragon of the West. Now, I am going to go make some tea." With that, he left, humming a song as he went.
Once he was out of earshot, Katara glanced at Toph. "Well?"
"He was telling the truth," she replied, sounding a bit relieved herself.
Katara nodded and gathered their canteens to fill with water. Well, she thought, at least Iroh didn't sit there glaring at her when she tried to heal him. She had no idea that fire benders could be so sensitive on the subject.
Everyone (even Aang, eventually) pitched in to gather food and supplies. By late afternoon, they were ready to fly – especially Appa. Sokka was pushing them to leave as soon as possible. So, as soon as they and their things were safely on top of Appa, they were in the air.
"Well, I'm glad we're on the move again," Sokka said, leaning back.
"Yeah," Aang agreed as he examined the surrounding landscape. He looked a lot better than he had earlier that day.
"But where are we going?" Toph was inclined to bring up the practical subjects.
"We should warn any free Earth Kingdom villages." Everyone stared, open-mouthed, at the Earth King. The fact that he had contributed an idea astonished them – even the two fire benders, who had only just met him.
"We should find Dad," Katara suggested after they had recovered from the shock. She was a bit jealous of Sokka, even though she had volunteered to be the one to stay behind while he saw their father.
"But where are they going?" Sokka asked darkly, indicating Zuko and Iroh.
Zuko looked down, but not quickly enough to miss Katara's scowl. He would rather stay out of a discussion like this.
"What do you mean, 'where are they going?'" she asked threateningly. "Did you forget that Aang needs a fire bending teacher? Did you forget that they're with us now?"
"'But' what?" Toph interrupted, curious.
Sokka turned away. "It'll take a while… to get used to."
"I know," Aang said quietly.
"We'll manage," Toph stated firmly.
Katara grinned. "We tend to do that." She caught Zuko's eye and her grin widened slightly. Zuko's lips curved upward a fraction in response. Then he turned to watch the landscape slip behind them. Maybe, he mused, traveling with the Avatar and his friends wouldn't be completely horrible.
As the group flew farther toward the setting sun and Zuko considered this, he smiled to himself.
Yay! Done! I will make a sequel later, after I work on a Pakku story.
WAIT!!! I want a poll. Please review. When you do, TELL ME whether, in the part in which the Earth King tries to make a threatening face at Zuko, you made a face at the computer, or in a mirror, or something. It's just one of those things I want to know.
Have a wonderful, fiction-filled day!