Zuko had risen with the sun despite the measly amount of sleep he had gotten the night before and the strange dreams that constantly plagued him, and he had made it to the designated training area before Aang. With the sun rising above the horizon and Agni singing through his veins, the firebender stripped to the waist, stretched and warmed his joints in the cool morning air, and began moving through a series of complex forms.
Since his meeting with the firebending masters, Zuko had found his movements smoother, quicker, more powerful and forms he used to struggle with now came as second nature. Frustration and anger were no longer part of his normal routine, just breathing and concentration. Though the physical exertion was still present, his fatigued body evidence, he no longer felt the emotional drain, the pressure to get it right, the fear of failing. It had all dissipated, burned off like fog in the sunlight, and his way was clear and peaceful.
Without stopping he moved into a master level series and closing his eyes, focusing on his movements and his breath, he powered through each form. Muscles rippling beneath his pale skin, sweat sliding down his spine, he twisted, kicked, flipped and punched while flames danced around him, heating the air, displaying the inner fire of their handler in radiant oranges and reds.
With one last strike, a yell, and a flourish, he stopped, a triumphant smirk touching his lips. Taking a deep breath, he opened his eyes on the exhale, and choked on air. He didn't realize he had an audience.
Aang and Katara were standing, watching him. Aang wore an open expression of admiration and Katara had abandoned her scowl usually reserved just for him, and was now looking at him with wide eyed appreciation.
Zuko scratched the back of his neck, reddening under the scrutiny. "What?" he finally asked.
Aang started clapping, his face split in a wide grin. "That was amazing, Sifu Hotman."
Zuko allowed his gaze to settle briefly on Katara and when gold met blue, she stiffened her face setting back into its customary frown.
"It was good if you like that sort of flashy, no substance bending." She turned on her heel and marched back to the courtyard. "Show off," she added under her breath.
Aang either ignored the comment or missed it altogether. He eagerly bounded up to his teacher and swatted the older teen on the shoulder. "So, Sifu Hotman, what am I learning today?"
"Well, Aang," Zuko began, wiping the sweat from his brow, "I've been thinking. If you're going to defeat the Fire Lord before the comet comes, we really need to up your training."
Aang's jaw dropped and he visibly slumped forward. "Up my training?" he squeaked. "I already train from sunrise," he said, sweeping one arm toward the sun still hanging low in the sky, "to sunset. How can I do anymore?"
"There's always more you can do. Like studying."
"Studying?" Aang asked, scratching his arrow.
"I can write the forms down for you and at night you can look over them, memorize them, and practice them during the day."
The Avatar's posture wilted even further. "You mean like homework," he said scrunching his features in disgust.
"We're wasting valuable daylight," Zuko stated cutting off the forthcoming argument. "We can discuss this later."
Aang sighed. "Yes, Sifu Hotman."
"And quit calling me that!"
After hours of practicing, Aang was relieved when Zuko called for a meditation break. The sun was high, past midday, when the airbender plopped to the ground, stomach growling, kicking up a cloud of dust. He maneuvered his weary limbs into a meditative pose and let out a loud sigh before closing his eyes.
Zuko had been relentless in his training, pushing Aang into advanced series, modeling movements before having Aang repeat it several times until it was embedded in his muscle memory. While Aang practiced, Zuko hastily scribbled down the poses on parchment until he had collected several pages for the Avatar to study.
Aang didn't know why Zuko had suddenly become fervent in his teachings. He could only guess at the cause. Maybe it was because they had missed yesterday, or because of Katara's acidic comments about 'dragon dances' and 'vacation time.' Whatever it was, Aang was not looking forward to an evening of tender joints and studying by the fire. He took little solace in the fact that he knew Zuko would be just as sore as he was come the next day.
He grimaced as he stomach gurgled again, begging for food, but remained sitting, determined to concentrate. He heard the sound again and quickly realized it wasn't just his stomach making noise. Opening one eye, he cast a sideways glance at the firebender and stifled a laugh.
Zuko had fallen asleep, warm in the sun, hunched over, black hair falling into his face and snoring.
Aang opened his other eye, looked around the area for witnesses then taking the opportunity for what it was, tentatively stood. Hands clasped behind his back, softly whistling and casting furtive glances, he backed up slowly, cautiously. Once he was far enough away, he turned on his heel and ran back to the courtyard, intent on lunch.
Sokka stretched and yawned in the sunlight, squinting his eyes in the sudden brightness as he emerged from the corridor of the air temple. Sweeping the courtyard with a glance, he found no one, though off in the distance he could feel the occasional rumble of earth that indicated Toph was sparring with someone, probably Katara or Haru. Shrugging, slightly grateful that no one was around, he rummaged through the supplies, found some dried fish, and began munching while occasionally washing the salty meat down with a mouthful of water.
Once finished, he wiped his hands on his shirt, and stood intent on finding Zuko, and continuing their conversation from the day before.
He took a step toward the area where he knew Aang and Zuko usually practiced before noticing an orange streak headed his way.
"Hi Sokka," the blur called cheerfully, immediately alerting Sokka to its identity.
"Hey Aang," he replied. "Where is everybody?"
"I'm not sure," the airbender stated before ravenously digging into a bag and grabbing a papaya, "but I think Katara went to go find some food with the Duke and Teo and Zuko is back that way sleep…er meditating." Aang said, jerking his thumb over his shoulder before biting into the juicy fruit.
"Maybe I should go check on him," Sokka offered.
Aang gave a flippant wave of his hand. "Yeah, you should do that," he replied around a mouthful of fruity pulp, not looking up from his meal, juice dribbling down his chin. He dove back into the papaya and didn't notice Sokka heading off in the direction of the training ground.
When Sokka arrived, it was easy for him to tell that Zuko was not meditating. The firebender laid on his side, pale skin turning pink in the sun, eyelashes fluttering with each deep and even breath. Zuko let out a light snore and Sokka could not stop the loud snicker that escaped at the sight of his usually tense and edgy former adversary fast asleep, curled in the dirt.
At the sound, Zuko groggily opened his eyes, ran the back of his hand across them to wipe away the clinging sleep, and sat up.
Sokka reached into his shirt and pulled out the scrap of paper, brandishing it in the tired firebender's face.
"Got your note," he said simply.
Zuko brushed his hair out of his eyes and looked around, bewildered. Had he really fallen asleep while training? He gazed back at Sokka and the parchment taking up most of his field of vision.
The warrior pushed the note further toward Zuko's face. "The note," he stated.
Zuko looked around again. "Where's Aang?" he asked, still slightly dazed, voice muffled by the paper in his face.
"Eating. Ok, now focus on the note."
"The note," he echoed.
"Yes. This note," Sokka said, waving it furiously. "You said you had more to tell me. That you had an idea."
"Oh! The note!"
"Glad you finally caught up," the swordsman said tucking the paper away and crossing his arms. "So, what's this idea?"
"I don't know where your friend is being held."
"We've established that," Sokka muttered.
"But I do know," Zuko continued, ignoring the snide comment, "where she could be."
"Don't worry, Pebbles," Toph said, slapping Haru hard on the back, causing a cloud of dust to drift in the air, as they walked back to the gang's camp, "you did pretty good. And remember not even all the contestants from Earth Rumble Six working together could knock me down."
Haru winced as he rubbed a tender spot on his back, taking little comfort in Toph's encouragement, after being beaten, literally, by a twelve year old blind girl. "Yeah, I know. Sokka tells that story all the time."
The master earthbender's cheeks pinked. "He does?"
"Yeah, I've heard it three or…" he stopped off, sniffing the air as they entered the courtyard. "What smells so good?"
Katara looked up from the cooking fire and gave him a grin. "The Duke caught several fish for lunch. Want some?"
"Sure!" he answered, his stomach growling loudly.
Katara bit her lip as she portioned the meat out onto a plate. "Someone should go find Sokka and Zuko and tell them lunch is ready."
"They won't be hard to find. Sokka went to go talk to Zuko after he fell asleep meditating," Aang piped from where he lay in Appa's fur.
That caught Toph's attention. What would those two still have to talk about? Zuko had said that he didn't know where Suki was. She thought the issue resolved. Unless, something had changed.
"I'll go," she offered and without waiting for a reply, she strode out of camp.
"So where is this prison?" Sokka asked, now sitting in the dirt across from Zuko, his expression eager.
"Near the fire nation colonies in the Earth Kingdom. It shouldn't take us too long to get there and back."
"Great! We'll take Appa and-"
"No!" Zuko interjected. Then in a calmer, quieter voice added, "The others need an escape method, just in case." He swallowed. "Azula."
Sokka nodded. "You're right."
"We'll use the war balloon. I'll get it ready. You gather the supplies. We'll leave before dawn."
Zuko stood, brushing the dirt from his pants, glad that they now had a plan in place and that he had an opportunity to prove his loyalty.
"Wait," Sokka said, stopping Zuko's departure, in a moment of stark clarity, "as badly as I want to go, I don't know if I can justify to myself risking Aang's firebending. He'll need it to defeat the Fire Lord. If I got Suki back, just to lose the war in the end…" he trailed off.
"I've already thought about Aang's training," Zuko replied with a small smirk. "I came up with this." He handed one of his earlier sketches to the water tribesman.
Sokka took the paper, scratched his head, turned the paper over and looked back to the smug firebender.
"Aang's going to learn firebending from a possum-chicken?" he asked looking at the drawing, turning it in different directions, head tilted to the side.
"It's not a possum-chicken!" Zuko snapped snatching the parchment away. "It's a firebending form."
"Oh," Sokka said tapping his chin. "Is that the Chicken Dance?"
Zuko gave Sokka a dark look but before he could bite off a scathing remark he was interrupted.
"Hey guys! Lunch!" Toph yelled, waving from a few feet away.
"Be right there!" Sokka answered. He looked back over to his companion. "Hey, uh, let's just keep this between ourselves. I don't want the others to know. They have enough to worry about."
Zuko nodded. "I understand."
Unbeknownst to them both, Toph was already worrying because she had heard every word.
A/N: Things that have happened to tomato since this was last updated
had her program at her job be shut down and be forced to take another position
found out she was pregnant
had two computers absolutely die and lost much info
watched the avatar finale and actually teared up a little
Currently, tomato is working 40 hours week, being a mother of a two year old, five months pregnant and freelance writing on the side. So, that means, that this fic will be updated when time permits. But thanks to everyone who has stuck with me thus far. I promise to try hard to update as much as possible.
So please review. I'll go fast if you do.