Hey everybody! This is Ran, once again. I have spent lots of time on this, putting in as much detail as I can think of. Quite strenuous with my busy schedule and all.
Summary: Takes place after the Firebending Masters.
Firebending is a pure form of energy. Fire is only one of the several forms it can take. Man cannot grasp the thought of there being any other energy but fire. Life itself is a pure expression of fire, just as blood is a pure expression of water, but no Firebender can imagine controlling life. By the way, this is not a sequel to any of my stories.
"Kick it harder!" Toph's demanding voice echoed down the long-empty halls of the crumbly temple.
Zuko huffed, expelling puffs of smoke, "Why don't you just Earthbend it out of the way?" His fists clenched at his sides and his eyes went wide with irritation.
"I would, but my feet are a little, you know, burnt?" Her tone was sardonic beyond reason. She placed her hands on her hips and wiggled her toes. She had used the excuse way too many times. Besides, Katara had said that they were fine; a little numb, but fine.
Without an argument, Zuko went back to work, bashing the heavy earthen door. The hinges were rusted and ready to fall into dust, but this whole place had been built as securely as the Royal Palace; the door refused to move.
He kicked harder, feeling the bruises already forming. Sokka's lazily superior voice came from behind them. He had finally pried himself from his sleeping bag it seemed. Zuko had never seen anyone sleep in for so long. It was bordering on ridiculous.
"Need some help, Jerkbender?" He cracked his knuckles, trying his best to hid the resulting cringe.
Zuko huffed, "I've almost got it." Zuko moved aside as Sokka waved him away, his face drawn in a lordly purse.
"Nonsense!" Swaggering up to the door, Sokka placed both hands firmly against the intricate carvings and heaved. With hardly any pressure, the door creaked, the hinges snapped and fell apart, and the heavy door fell forward. The door had been so thick, it created a vibration through the ground as it landed. A rumble echoed down the open-air halls and reverberated down the canyon that spanned below them.
Triumphantly, Sokka crossed his arms, pleased with his work, "See? It just needed a little manhandling, that's all."
Gnashing his teeth, Zuko turned to him, his fists once again clutched at his side, "I've been kicking for half an hour, of course it's going to-"
Toph interjected, causing Zuko to fume even more, "Man-up Sparky and take the defeat. You just don't know how to manhandle. Are your feet too soft?" She spoke with the tone of a child teasing their siblings. "Well, let's see what's inside." Toph and Sokka stepped forward into the dank room.
After thinking about letting Appa chew on their sleeping bags, Zuko reluctantly followed. He had only helped Toph out because he was convinced that he owed her for burning her feet. That, and he wanted to prove himself to the group. Aang seemed fine with him. Katara just wanted to freeze him and toss him into the canyon. Sokka was more intent on teasing Zuko to death before calling him a friend. But Toph had accepted him the most openly, and for that, Zuko owed her deeply.
Pulling himself away from his nagging thoughts Zuko took his first look around the room. Toph had 'seen' lots of boxes and crates filled with things she had never 'seen' before. She had known that Zuko felt indebted to her, and so she had tracked him down immediately and demanded that he break the door down with his bare feet.
Sokka was already prying open an ashen crate with his trusty boomerang. Toph leaned against the wall, waiting patiently, her pastel blue eyes not really looking at anything. Sometimes, Zuko had completely forgotten that she was blind.
After a forced heave from Sokka, the loud crack of nails being torn from the ancient wood filled the stale room. Sokka eyes probed in, trying to see through the darkness, but he couldn't quite make it out. Instead he picked it up, not really hesitating.
Uninterested, but wanting to know what the big deal was, Zuko peeked over his shoulder. He couldn't see it just as Sokka couldn't, but he made out the long, beady shape.
After a thorough examination, Sokka held it up. "I think it's jewelry. Some kind of really big necklace."
Toph sighed, "Not my cup of tea. Thanks anyway Sparky." Her footsteps kicked up dust in their mope out of the room. From outside, Zuko heard the friendly call of Appa greeting her.
Sokka held the ornament up higher into the sunlight that came through the open door.
"It looks like…those necklaces that the monks wear in the murals." His sentence grew in intensity, welling up with pride as he solved the mystery.
Zuko nodded, the excitement of the discovery already gone for him. "Yep, that's thrilling. Maybe we should go find food. Like we were supposed to do an hour ago," he gestured back to the door, and was dismayed when Sokka didn't even glance at him.
In fact, Sokka didn't appear to be interested in whatever it was Zuko was saying. He was now scooping the ornaments into his arms, gathering as many as he could possibly hold, and then more on top of that. "Maybe we can use these as kindling!" He spoke through the mound of jewelry covering his face.
Zuko scoffed at the blatantly absurd idea. "I really doubt Aang would like that. These are relics of his people."
"And now they're fire wood." Sokka tromped from the room, beads dropping off from his collected mass.
Zuko watched Sokka stagger away, loaded down by the weight of his cargo. Now that no one was watching, Zuko took a little time to look around nonchalantly.
This room hadn't been opened from almost a hundred years. It was covered in dust, and the air was almost too musty to breathe. Like second nature, Zuko held out his palm, creating a small flame and holding out from him. The flame revealed that the room held more than crates.
The wall was lined with shelves upon selves of books and scrolls. The spines of the tomes looked like they would fall apart if they were opened, and the scrolls looked no better. It reminded him of the Dragonbone Catacombs back in the Firenation. But Zuko suspected that these were filled with Air Nomad knowledge, not outlines of war.
Walking up, holding his aloof act although no one was there to see, Zuko picked up one of the better looking scrolls. Using one hand, for the other still held his light, he unfurled the length of paper, watching with now-interested eyes as the scroll rolled along the ground. It was longer than Zuko was tall, and it was still rolling along the ground.
Grimacing, Zuko just set the scroll on the ground and began searching for a shorter one.
"Hey Zuko!" Aang's cheerful voice cut short his exploration. "What chy'a lookin' at?" The bald boy in his ritzy orange and yellow robes strolled into the room. He didn't have his staff with him, which meant he probably just got done training with Katara.
Zuko's flame faltered at his surprise. "Just some old scrolls. Records I think."
Aang looked around, his eyes reminiscing, but still carefree somehow. "The Air Nomads sometimes made rooms like these. This is basically a library."
Zuko's interest peeked, "A library? Are you serious? It's just a tiny room with a few shelves. This is a library to you?"
Aang chuckled sheepishly, "If this impresses you, you should see the Spirit Library. That would blow your mind." He began to meander around the room, running his fingers aimlessly over the dust-lined shelves and crates.
Zuko was just about to ask about this Spirit Library, but he noticed that Aang had spotted the crate Sokka had pried open. "Oh, Sokka found a bunch of wooden necklaces and decided to use them as fire wood."
"What?! Those are relics of my people!"
"That's what I to-" a gale of wind whipped over Zuko as Aang, quite literally, blasted from the room. All the dust was in the air now. The ancientness of the room was now truly tangible in the air.
Eventually finding the door, Zuko stumbled out, gasping and coughing up dust clumps. Appa groaned loudly, thrilled to say hello to Zuko. When the Firebender got close enough, Appa ran his enormous tongue up the length of Zuko's back, causing him to cringe and jump away from the bison.
Dust and grit was still billowing from the room. In his haste, Zuko had only read one word of the scroll, '…energy…'
It wouldn't hurt to go back after the dust settled. Reading over the scrolls was something to do to pass the time between Firebending lessons and foraging for food.
Always driven my rage and hate, Zuko had never considered that energy was what had given him power all along. Ran and Shao had taught him and Aang the right, true way to use their Firebending. Just thinking of the dragons gave Zuko chills. He thought all his blood had evaporated when those two had glided from their tunnels. It really didn't help that they had blasted them with fire. They had meant no harm, that was very clear now. But at the time, Zuko was sure that he was going to die.
Deciding to wait until later to continue exploring, Zuko returned to the courtyard where the babbling fountain was. Zuko had never seen anything like it in the Firenation. It looked like it was upside down. In fact, that's exactly what it was. An upside down fountain. Zuko mulled over the analogies Uncle would form in his head.
The sight that greeted him filled him with belonging, but also reminded him of the jokes that were sure to be slung at him.
The first to notice him was Toph. Of course.
She was resting with her arms folded behind her head, lounging in a chair she had Earthbended herself.
"Hey there, Sparky. Did you find anything good? Maybe some-"
She was interrupted by Aang and Sokka's argument. "Sokka these are ancient treasures left by my people. You can't burn them!" Aang was more panicky than angry.
Sokka smiled surely, holding up the string of long wooden beads. He hadn't noticed in the dark, dingy room, but Zuko now recognized a large round charm that took its place in the middle of the string. The Air Nomad insignia was carved and painted into it with great, loving care.
"Sure we can! They wouldn't have made them out of wood if they didn't want them to be burned." Sokka noticed Zuko and strolled up to him casually. Zuko winced when he realized he was being pulled into the argument. Chummily, Sokka nudged the prince in the ribs, "Am I right?" He swung the necklace in front of Zuko as if suggesting that it was tantalizing.
Scratching the back of his head, Zuko shrugged. "I think Aang gets to make the call. It's not even cold, we don't need a fire."
Sokka frowned, "But how will we cook our meat?!" To him, the world must have been ending.
Not so subtly, Katara snickered from the fountain. "We would have meat to cook, but you and Zuko didn't even try going out to find anything."
Zuko felt like he had to defend himself somehow, "Wait, Toph asked me to do a favor. And Sokka wasn't even awake when you told him about finding food"
Toph shrugged, "It's true. I thought my task was more important."
Katara trembled. She resembled a volcano about to erupt. Learning quickly, Zuko took a cautious step back.
"More important than food?!" She shrieked, fed up with the group already.
Far off laughter broke the heavy atmosphere, followed by the sound of wheels and light footsteps. Teo, The Duke, and Haru had returned from their temple exploration, ready for dinner.
"You were going so fast down those stairs, I thought you were going to take off!" The Duke was waving his arms excitedly, his voice loud with youthful enthusiasm.
Haru, a bit more grown up, chuckled, "Yeah Teo, we need to get those brakes fixed. I don't think we'll be there to help you stop next time."
Teo tittered nervously, "Yeah, I did come really close to hitting that wall. But how was I supposed to know that the ramp ended so quickly?"
The trio laughed as they took their seat in the broken semi-circle that had formed.
Teo turned to Katara, "What's for dinner?"
She stood up and crossed her arms, facing Zuko and Sokka as she spoke, "Nothing. Sokka and Zuko didn't do their part."
Zuko slapped his forehead, "Look. I told you, Toph-"
"Don't try to pin this on me, Sparky. You had your chance to get away from me."
He slapped himself again, "I was trying to get Sokka up!" He tried to keep the irritation from his voice.
Before Toph, Katara, or Sokka could make a rebuttal, The Duke piped up, "We found some wild berry bushes growing in the arboretum. We could eat those."
This seemed to quell the tension. Katara sighed, relieved. "That's perfect. There isn't enough time to go hunting before sunset."
Sokka groaned, "No meat? We can't not have meat, Katara!" His eyes went wide, as if her were driven crazy by weeks of starvation. Katara kept an even, cool look, the previous anger faded by the arrival of the three boys.
"I think you can go one night without meat, Sokka." She motioned to Haru, The Duke, and Teo. "Can you guys help me bring them back here?"
They nodded eagerly, overjoyed at the thought of returning through the temple. They wanted to present their findings to Katara.
Before leaving with the trio, Katara turned to the remainder of the group. "Some one needs to brush Appa while we're gone." She left the matter of the task to the group.
When Katara was out of hearing range, Toph threw up her arms.
"I claim blindness. I don't even know what Appa looks like." Her dispute was voiced, and no one could argue it.
Aang, who had been collecting the wooden beads and returning them to the room, sighed. "I'll do it. But I would appreciate it someone could help?" He gave a small, hopeful smile to Sokka and Zuko.
Of course, Sokka already had a reply ready, "New member initiation! Zuko gets to clean Appa by himself." He jabbed a finger toward Zuko.
"What?!" Zuko threw his arms down, exasperatingly.
Toph nodded and Aang shrugged. "Sounds good."
"Hey, Appa flies us everywhere. The least you can do is brush him and clean the gunk out from his toes. Oh, and you can't forget to brush the yellow stuff off of his teeth." Sokka made a list of arduous chores, speaking matter-of-factly.
"I've never even ridden Appa!" Zuko was about to go on, but realized that cleaning a giant six ton bison was the very least he could do for them. He pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed sharply, "Fine, okay, I'll clean your bison."
Aang's face lit up into a sunny, upbeat smile. "Thanks Zuko. I'll go over there and do some more hot squats until you're finished." He pointed to a balcony over looking the cloud-filled canyon below.
Sokka took up his boomerang, whetting it for what must have been the third time today. Toph lounged, occasionally dipping her feet into the brisk water that flowed from the floor high above them. Aang did as he said, grunting with every squat, his face set in determination.
Zuko had to admit, the kid had spirit. Every time Zuko had fought Aang in the past, he had been defeated and tossed aside. And every time, Zuko knew that Aang had been holding back, showing him mercy. He had a huge debt to pay. Especially to Katara…
He had raided her already decimated home. Stolen her necklace and attempted to blackmail her with it. And he had slammed her into rocks, ice masses, and jagged crystals more times than he could count. He could not blame her for hating him so much. In fact, the only time they had ever had a real conversation was in the catacombs under Bah Sing Sei. He always felt a drag of disappointment on his heart every time he remembered that day. He betrayed everyone and doomed the Avatar to death by lightning.
Using a large branch of some kind of high elevation shrub, Zuko scraped the hardened sludge from Appa's toes. How did this even get in here if they were always flying?
Over the course of an hour, Zuko had dumped countless buckets of water over Appa, brushed nearly every inch of him, and scrubbed all six of his massive paws. Zuko decided it was best just to not brush Appa's teeth. For his own sake.
He was just about finished, when out of nowhere, tiny little paws scurried up his leg, across his shoulders, and wrapped around his head. The chirpy little squawk alerted Zuko to who it was. The furry little lemur never seemed to pay Zuko much attention, but now he seemed quite comfortable with him.
Apprehensively, Zuko dropped the mud-covered branch and stroked Momo between the eyes. The lemur purred, loving the attention.
"Hey there little guy."
Momo chirped in reply. His big green eyes fell half closed.
During his travels alone outside the temple, Zuko had foraged for himself. In fact, he still had a nut in his pocket from those foraging trips. Slowly, so as not to scare off Momo, Zuko reached into his pocket and took out the nut. He held it up to the lemur's nose.
"Here, you can have this." Zuko felt odd, talking to an animal. He was raised to believe that animals were nothing more than food, entertainment, and transportation.
Now he was talking to a lemur.
After sniffing it and giving a thorough examination, Momo swiped the nut from Zuko's open palm and glided away. He chirped a couple times, which Zuko took as a thank you.
Noticing the act of kindness, Aang laughed in mid-squat. "Momo likes hand-outs. I didn't think you were such a nice person Zuko."
With flared nostrils Zuko turned on Aang, "Why aren't you breathing?!"
"Don't talk! Squat and breathe!" Zuko had become a personal trainer, mind and attitude.
"Stop talking!" Toph joined in, shouting from her rocky lounge chair.
Without another word, Aang dipped back into squats, kicking up the pace.
Giving a small satisfactory grin, Zuko turned back to Appa-
-And came face to face with a very angry Waterbender.
She resembled his old Komodo Rhino; furious and just generally outraged. "You can't talk to Aang like that!"
"It's okay Katara-" Aang tried to calm her.
But Toph was strongly on Zuko's side, "Stop talking!"
Aang but his lip and once again dipped into the squats.
Leaping from her chair, Toph landed intimidating close to Katara. But the Waterbender didn't back down. Zuko was impressed.
"Look, Sugar Queen." Katara's eyebrow twitched at the nickname, "Airbending and Waterbending may require calm, gentle, baby training, but Earthbending and Firebending are a little different."
Katara opened her mouth to shoot back, but Toph was way ahead of her. Zuko wisely backed away, eventually bumping into Aang, who was still squatting. "Aang won't learn Firebending if Zuko doesn't teach him right. And the right way just happens to be the opposite of how you feel." She poked Katara roughly in the shoulder.
Realizing this, Katara relaxed a little bit, but wasn't finished being angry. Fire and Water were complete opposites, Zuko knew at least that much. But he didn't think the trait carried through personalities. He would have to watch himself around Katara. One wrong sentence, and he could very well be frozen and tossed into the canyon.
Teo, The Duke, and Haru came into the courtyard, a little nervous that they come right in the middle of an argument. They carried bowls fashioned from ice, overfilled with plump red berries. There must have been lots of bushes in the arboretum…
Toph crossed her arms, satisfied that she had won the dispute.
Zuko and Aang shared tiny smiles when they realized that Sokka had slept through all of this.
"How does he sleep like that?" Zuko whispered to Aang.
"I don't really know. It's just one of his many talents."
Katara scoffed, picking up on the conversation. " 'Many talents'? He can barely feed himself if I'm not around."
With the tension finally gone, the entire group shared a laugh. More like a titter, really, but it wasn't yelling.
It would be difficult living with these people. They were all so different. Zuko looked from each face.
Aang seemed just fine with him. After they had achieved their goal in the Sun Warrior temple, they had become quite the friends. Even when Zuko went his hardest during their training, Aang took it with a smile and worked beyond Zuko's expectations.
Toph and Sokka were content with Zuko enough to give him nicknames. Sparky, Jerkbender, and he couldn't imagine what they called him behind his back. In fact, Toph seemed to have a nickname for everyone.
Katara the Sugar Queen was the most difficult to get along with. Everything he did seemed to irk her. And usually for no reason at all. Somehow, someway, he would need to find a way to make her happy. She was part of this group more than he was.
They chatted casually over the dinner of berries and water. Zuko occasionally answered a question, but other than that, he just listened.
"So, I think I have hot-squats down. I want to try something bigger, something that will really get the fire flowing!"
Aang was inquiring about tougher Firebending routines and the use of more fire. He talked on for such a long time that Zuko eventually zoned out.
Disgruntled, Aang turned to Katara, "Hey Katara, are we going to practice again today?"
Katara was busy healing Toph's feet one last time before they scarred over. Her eyes didn't look up at him.
"That's great Aang." It was a repeat of Kyoshi Island all over again.
He frowned, "But, I asked you a question…"
"She's busy, Twinkle Toes." For once, Toph was mellow and relaxed, a rare mood for her from Zuko's experience.
"…Huh?" Katara looked up as if she just realized Aang was talking to her. "What do you need, Aang?" The water she was using to heal Toph's feet idled in the air, awaiting her command.
"Um…nothing." He turned back to his berries, with less enthusiasm, done with conversation for the night.
Unfazed, Katara went back to her work, putting the water back into motion.
Zuko noticed that Toph was thoroughly enjoying herself. She sighed occasionally, her eyes lazily shut. He began to suspect that she didn't need to be healed anymore. She just enjoyed the feeling.
After finishing with their share of the plump red berries, Teo, The Duke, and Haru ran back through the ancient halls of the temple, eager to explore any crevices they missed.
Feeling rejuvenated, Toph stood up and loomed over Sokka, who was stilled curled up in his sleeping bag. Stomping her heel into the ground, she sent Sokka flying, screaming and thrashing across the courtyard. His arms flailed from the corners of his makeshift bed and his startled yells echoed down the canyon that the temple hung over.
After collecting himself and suffering the laughter of the entire group, he wrapped his sleeping bag around him and yelled, as if insulted, "What is wrong with you?"
"I think you've had enough beauty sleep, Mr. Man." She taunted him. And to the personal enjoyment of Katara and Aang, she insulted his manhood, which he prized dearly. Zuko grinned from behind his bowl.
He looked as though he would begin to cry, "First, no meat! And now this?!" He turned to Katara, "You see what happens when you break open giant glowing icebergs?! Do you see?!"
She waved him down, "Calm down, Sokka. I'm sure she was just waking you up for dinner."
"It's not dinner if there's no meat." He said in an accusing voice. Despite his words, he scooped up a handful of berries and dumped them into his mouth. Glaring, he hopped away, out of sight and hopefully out of Earthbending range.
"All fear the crazy blind Earthbender!" Toph stood with her hands on her hips and a wide grin across her face. Subtly, she turned to Aang, who failed to notice the attention, "Hey Twinkle Toes?…"
All eyes turned expectantly to Toph. Even Zuko's.
"ROCK-LIKE!!" At her words, she ripped out a chunk of the tiled floor and threw it at the Avatar. To Zuko's surprise, more like alarm, Aang leaped forward moving like rain rebounding off of a puddle, and put his arms out of if he were starting to swim. In midair, he separated the hunk of earth and covered the audience in a thick layer of dirt.
Toph nodded, pleased at her work, "Very nice, Pupil Aang."
"Thank you Sifu Toph." He clapped his hands in front of him and bowed. He seemed to be cheered up now. There had been a method behind Toph's madness.
As for the others, they weren't too cheered up. Katara hadn't bothered moving out of the way. It happened often apparently. Katara and Zuko simultaneously wiped the grit from their eyes and glared at the smiley pair.
"Can't you two find a pace further away to do your Earthbending?" Katara didn't even try to hide the irritation in her voice.
"I just thought Sparky needed more of an initiation." When no one picked up on her joke, she pointed over her shoulder, back at Appa, who rumbled when he noticed everyone was looking at him.
Zuko groaned, his shoulders sinking, as everyone else burst into laughter. Appa's clean white fur had been covered in pebbles and dirt. And he knew that Katara had finally noticed that his teeth weren't brushed.
"Get to work, Sparky." She threw Appa's brush to Zuko, who skillfully caught it. Though he was extremely reluctant, he went to work once again.
Half way through the job, as everyone else slept, he had unexpected held. More water than his bucket could possibly carry cascaded down Appa's back, doing ten minutes worth of work in a second.
Zuko turned to find Katara, bending up another globe of water and dumping in over Appa again.
There was a clash between hesitancy and curiosity inside of him. Curiosity won.
"Thanks, but why are you helping me with my 'initiation'?" His voice dropped into sarcasm at the last word.
She shrugged, not looking at him, "I just thought you would need sleep so you can keep training Aang."
So that was it? She just wanted him to be well enough to train Aang?
"Well, thanks anyway." His voice was low and conflicted. He threw the brush in the bucket with perfect aim and walked past Katara, attempting a smile.
As he passed her, her honey brown hand clasped around his shoulder, halting him instantly. "You're not done."
Appa opened his mouth, showing off his yellow teeth. Zuko groaned again.
I love this! I can't wait to get on the next chapter. I think this will be lots of fun to write. Review please and tell me what you guys think so far. More reviews means more happiness, which means a better story!