Fighting Long Feng proved difficult.
Not only was he a skilled earthbender, but the Dai Lee were more than willing to abandon their fight with the Avatar in order to protect their leader. Plus, Zuko's wounds and the lingering pain of Jet's burns made fighting even harder for the two teens.
Nonetheless, they persevered. A little pain had never held them back before.
Fire exploded from Zuko's fist, destroying the stone beneath Long Feng's feet. But the man had already jumped off his perch, landing on the floor in the middle of the fray. He thrust a fist upward, causing the earth under the prince's feet to buck at an odd angle, throwing him back against the wall. As he was recovering from the blow, Jet charged forward, poised to kill. The Dai Lee intercepted before he could reach his target, however, catching his swords with their stone fists and rendering them useless.
A burst of fire zipped passed the Freedom Fighter, skimming his opponent's side. The Dai Lee agent stumbled back with a shout, clutching his wound. Not wanting to waste time on the minion, Jet darted toward the leader instead, blasts of fire keeping the Dai Lee at bay as Zuko followed close behind.
Backed against a wall, his shield of Dai Lee slowly being picked off by his teenage enemies, Long Feng was trapped and hopeless.
"Just give up!" the firebender shouted, forcing one of the earthbenders out of the way with a wave of flames. "You can't win and you can't run!"
"On the contrary," the man said, smirking. Then he turned and smashed down the stone at his back, disappearing down the corridor beyond.
"Damn coward!" Jet growled, managing to slice open one of his opponents' sides. There was no way they could catch him, now – it would take too long to get through the army of devote Dai Lee agents.
And then the earth was rising under their feet as Toph carried everyone but Long Feng's earthbenders toward the ceiling. For a moment, Zuko thought he was going to be crushed – they were moving fast and the stone above was thick and merciless – but then a tunnel opened above each of their heads, and they were flying up through a seemingly endless expanse of earth. The growing pinprick of light was the only proof that they were heading for the surface and not deeper into the earth instead.
A moment later they were above ground, the sudden halt of their rapid ascent causing everyone but Toph to stumble, blinking in the bright sunlight.
"What are you doing?" Zuko demanded, turning on the blind girl. "Long Feng's-"
"Climbing the ladder to the exit as we speak," she finished for him, grinning smugly. "I figured this would be easier than fighting our way through the Dai Lee."
"But they'll follow us – they can earthbend their way to the surface just as easily as you."
"Yeah, but me and Twinkle Toes can keep them from making exit points. And even if they do manage to get through, only a few can come up at once – it'll be easier to pick them off one-by-one."
"Very clever," Iroh was the first to compliment, smiling with pride for the small girl.
"I do what I can," she said nonchalantly, shrugging one shoulder with a smirk.
"Do you feel anyone coming yet?" Zuko asked impatiently, staring down the beach at the hidden entrance. It would've been nothing for Long Feng to propel himself across that distance while underground. Whether or not he would think to use the same technique to reach the surface was another issue.
Toph only response was to slide into a firm earthbending stance and snap, "Help me out here, Twinkle Toes."
The Avatar obeyed his teacher without complaint, and the pair held the earth around them in place, fighting against an unseen force trying to force its way through. A few places trembled and cracked, but never fully opened – it gave Zuko new found respect for the young earthbenders and their strength.
"What are you waiting for, Sparky?" Toph said through gritted teeth as a few more spots began cracking. "Go meet Long Feng before he escapes for real!"
He didn't hesitate to follow her command, running the length of the beach at full tilt, thoughts focused only on the entrance of the underground base and the man who would no doubt crawl through it in moments. Stopping barely a foot away, he held his fist poised to strike, ready to exact his revenge. Slowly, the stone covering slid to the side, and Long Feng climbed out, oblivious and smirking.
Then he noticed Zuko attacking with a fistful of fire. He ducked back into the tunnel, intending on retreating, but the opening below him suddenly closed off (Toph's doing, no doubt), Looking back up at Zuko, he glared and grit his teeth, clinging to the ladder with a white-knuckled grip.
"I will not be defeated by children," he spat. As if on cue, the many holes Toph and Aang were struggling to hold shut burst opening, allowing the Dai Lee to spring out and attack mercilessly, forcing the small group to fight with all they had.
Which wasn't much. Everyone was beyond exhausted, having no energy for another long battle of impossibly unfair odds. This needed to be ended quickly.
Long Feng was trapped. The earth below him still held firmly despite Toph's obvious distraction, and the man couldn't go up thanks to Zuko looming above him. It would be easy, like shooting rat-fish in a barrel.
The prince squeezed his eyes shut and let loose a blast of fire, not wanting to watch the image of the man's death. His screaming was enough. The smell was overwhelming.
He didn't remember moving. One minute, he was torching Long Feng alive, the next he was facing his temporary allies, the image of them and the Dai Lee blurred and swimming through his vision. His feet were carrying him forward, but he didn't hear or feel or think.
Then, as the sand rushed forward to greet him, he stopped seeing.
"It's over," Zuko murmured, more to himself than anyone else. The fight against Long Feng and his twisted mind control had been short, but it felt as though he had been battling both his whole life. Maybe it was a side-effect of having his memories scrambled. Maybe it was waking up in the Avatar's house an hour later, his wounds fully healed, Katara the only other person in the room.
According to her, he had fainted after defeating Long Feng (he was grateful she hadn't used the word 'killed'). The group, rather than actually fightingthe Dai Lee, had called on Appa and flown to safety. Aang, Sokka, and Jet had gone off to discuss possibilities with the Earth King; Toph and Iroh were repairing the burnt out tea ship and 'catching up on old times'; and Katara was left to tend to the wounded, unconscious prince.
"Don't try anything," she had ordered the instant she realized he was awake. "I swear to Yue I'll give you worse brain damage than the Dai Lee could ever hope to."
Unfortunately, it wasn't a threat he could doubt.
Watching the waterbender pack her things in preparation for the group's inevitable departure, Zuko picked through his memories, trying to determine what was true and what was false. He knew in his head that they were enemies, but the things he remembered were still jumbled enough to make him uncertain – especially the vivid memory he had of kissing her.
Noticing his concentrating stare, Katara sent him an icy glare and snapped, "What?"
"Oh, uh, sorry," he said, rubbing the back of his neck sheepishly as he seemed to snap out of a daze. "I was just trying to remember something."
"Which would be...?"
"Did we ever, you know... Date?" he asked, an uncharacteristically shy and nervous blush spreading across his cheeks. "I'm still having trouble remembering things clearly."
Biting her lip, she hesitated before answering, thinking maybe it would be better if he didn't know. Things could go back to normal then – he would still be Zuko the evil, angry prince determined to destroy the world's hope for peace, not Zuko the normal teenager who had friends and feelings and fears, who actually wasn't so different from Jet.
But wouldn't that make her as bad as the Dai Lee? Wasn't erasing one memory just as bad as erasing them all?
'I'm gonna regret this,' she thought, taking a deep breath and trying to compose her thoughts. "We... didn't date, but you definitely tried to make things that way." When he continued to look uncertain, she asked, "That help any?"
"No," he sighed, running his fingers through his hair in frustration. "Maybe I just need something to jog my memory..."
"I-" he started, then abruptly stopped, apparently deciding against his suggestion. Instead, he shook his head mutely.
Putting her hands on her hips, she shifted her weight to one foot as she said, "If you've got an idea, you might as well just tell me."
"You wouldn't like it."
"I don't like you," she pointed out, narrowing her eyes, "but I'm still trying to help."
"IthinkIshouldkissyouagain," he finally blurted, face blending to the shade of his scar.
"I-I think, maybe, if I kiss you again, i-it might... help me remember the first time." Noting her still-slack-jawed expression, he turned away, saying, "I know, it's stupid. But it's the only idea that comes to mind, and you wanted to know, and-"
"Let's just get this over with before the others get back."
His head snapped back toward her, eyes wide. "Y-you... You're not... upset?"
She shrugged, silently cursing her inability to turn from anyone in need. Knowing Zuko was struggling with his memories and the damage done to his mind, she felt an almost instinctive desire to help him. Maybe it was part of being a healer. Maybe she was just crazy.
Rather than giving this explanation, she said, "If it'll help you remember what really happened, then I don't see a problem with it. Just make it quick and don't try any funny business." The last part she added a bit more angrily, jabbing a finger threateningly in his direction.
Still wide-eyed and obviously a bit confused, he nodded. Rising from the bed (he had been put there while he was unconscious), he crossed the length of the room to stand in front of her, a chorus of 'I can do this, I can do this, I can do this,' running through his head. Taking a moment to steel his will, he leaned forward, half expecting to be met by a punch to the face as he let his eyes drift closed.
Then he was kissing her, and his mind was exploding with memories. He couldn't tell what parts he was remembering and what he was actually experiencing, but at the moment it didn't really matter. Everything was coming back to him so clearly – the trap, the kiss, the interruption, the escape....
Jerking away at the last memory, he blinked a few times and took a measure step back.
Well, he had gotten what he was looking for.
"Now do you remember?" Katara asked, expression remaining carefully neutral.
"Yeah," the firebender said, taking more steps back until he could sit on the edge of her bed. "I tricked you, and you were upset."
"That's putting it mildly."
"I-" he started, then cut off with a shake of his head "Sorry. It was a stupid thing to do."
The sound of the front door opening followed by Toph and Iroh's cheerful greetings prevented her from responding.
"Ah, I see you're awake," Iroh said when his nephew came out to see him. With a sly grin and nudge in the ribs, he added, "I trust you treated Miss Katara well."
"Uh, yeah. Of course," he stammered, unnerved by the fact that his uncle seemed to know what had happened a moment before. He had a sneaking suspicion Toph was involved. Glancing out the window at the setting sun, Zuko added, with a hint of relief, "It's getting late. We should probably head home."
"I suppose you're right," Iroh reluctantly agreed. Turning to the girls, he bowed slightly and said, "Thank-you for helping my nephew and I. It is greatly appreciated."
"Anytime, Gramps," Toph said, giving him an affectionate punch on the shoulder.
Katara and Zuko both remained silent, exchanging even stares. The line between friends and enemies had been drawn again, and neither of them was willing to cross it.
"I guess this is it," Aang said the next morning, looking down at the house they had stayed in from atop Appa's head. As glad as he was to have their plan falling into place, he would miss the city and the friends he had made there, and especially the warm bed he had slept in. "Did you guys say goodbye to everyone?"
"Yeah," Sokka sighed, slumped back in the bison's new saddle. "You won't believe how upset the Poetry Girls were, though."
"I'm sure they were heartbroken," Katara said, rolling her eyes as she climbed onto Appa's back, reaching down to help Jet up before settling in beside Toph. The blind girl was already clinging tightly to the edge of the saddle, clearly dreading the moment when they left the ground. Glancing around, the waterbender asked, "Does everyone have everything?"
"For the thousandth time, yes," Sokka said exasperatedly. "Stop being so paranoid!"
"Yeah, everything's gonna be fine," Aang assured her, looking over his shoulder with a smile.
She remained silent, leaning into Jet as the bison slowly lifted into the air and the entire city shrunk beneath them. If she squinted, she could see all the way to the teashop, and passed it to the square with the fountain.
"Something wrong?" Jet asked, draping his arm around her and squeezing her shoulder gently.
"No," she said, shaking her head. "Everything's fine."
She kept her eyes on the rising sun until the city had completely disappeared behind them.
Sitting by the window of the small apartment, Zuko watched a familiar white bison rise into the sky. The urge to follow tugged at him like an instinct, only this time he wasn't sure who he wanted to capture or why.
'Destiny is a funny thing,' he recalled his uncle telling him once. In that moment, as he watched the Avatar's bison disappear on the horizon, his thoughts torn between chasing blue arrows or blue eyes, he couldn't help but agree.
Author's Notes: It's over~! Sorry for taking so long to post this chapter, and for the fact that I probably won't get anything else updated this week. I had severe writer's block.
Anyway, I had a lot of fun with this story, and I'm really glad so many people seem to like it. Thanks for all the reviews, and I hope you enjoy this chapter as much as all the others. I'm thinking of maybe possibly writing a sequel, so that's why I left it very open ended. If I do end up writing a sequel, though, it won't get started for quite a while - I need a break from the craziness of keeping up with updates and holding together an actual plot. Hehe
Disclaimer: I do not own 'Avatar' or any of its characters.