Farewell to Follow

Disclaimer: I don't own Avatar: The Last Airbender. Sadly enough.

Warnings: Speculation, Spoilers up to Season Three

AN: For dark_puck as part of AtLA Land's Secret Santa Gift Exchange over on LJ. The prompt was "Change."

It's different out here. Quiet in a way that Ba Sing Se never was. This is only his second time outside of the city, but this trip – this exile – won't be over in a few short weeks. It will last the rest of his life.

There is a bitter taste in his mouth at that. In the knowledge that all he was and all he had is lost. That he's like so many others now. Without a home. A refugee. But not from the war. Rather from his own greed, his own blindness.

The bitterness only grows, but it fades with the knowledge that it could be worse. He could be spending the rest of his days rotting in some dark hole. He could've been executed.

Kuei was generous. Far more generous than he should've been given the circumstances. Far kinder than even Long Feng can believe as he's brought from his cell and before his king. Far more forgiving as he feels arms thrown around his middle and squeezing him desperately before he's escorted from the palace and to the outer wall.

Still, it's a hard truth to accept. It's hard to climb onto his gifted ostrich-horse and ride away with no destination in mind and Ba Sing Se at his back. Hard not to turn and stare as the city shrinks the further away he goes. Hard not to put his head in his hands after he makes camp that night and can only stare numbly at the fire.

It could always be worse, but he wishes that it'd been better. That it had gone right.

Long Feng wanders for weeks with no real goal in mind. He passes fields full of toilers and happy revelry, goes into the sleepier parts of the continent that don't yet know the war is won. He could stop at any point, could make any of these towns or villages his new home, but he doesn't and can't quite understand why. He has more than enough to start over. To even be wealthy if he's careful. Though when is he not?

"When making a grab for more power," a nasty little voice whispers in his head. "When claiming to protect your city and your king and nearly destroying both."

Long Feng promptly tells that voice to shut up. Now isn't the time to be distracted. Not when it's late, just after dusk, and he still hasn't made camp.

Of course, he could travel through the night if he really wanted. It doesn't make much difference either way. But he prefers to at least see how he'll end up even if he doesn't really care about where.

Long Feng has only just climbed down from his ostrich-horse – a placid creature that wouldn't even bat an eye if Koh himself came to call – and moved a little ways away towards a small stream. But he pauses at the sudden sound that echoes through the brush around him.

Laughter. Raucous, drunken, male laughter. In the middle of nowhere. In the near dark.

This can't be good. He can think of at least three different sets of people who'd be in such a situation, and two of them aren't pleasant at all.

Long Feng is just about to turn back to his ostrich-house when he hears a rustling in the bushes to his left. He tenses, but the earth tells him that the person is far too light to be a man. A boy perhaps. But most likely a woman or a girl.

Also in the middle of nowhere. In the dark. Possibly running from bandits or soldiers.

He's a master earthbender. It isn't easy to be head of the Dai Li after all; one has to be just as skilled as they. And it wouldn't be hard for him to leave without being detected. For him to be gone before they even noticed he was there. If he so chose, he could even fight them off easily enough.

But a girl is here, and he sincerely doubts that she's a bender or even a fighter if she's running away so quickly, and all it'll take is for one of them to notice her. Or even for a single stray rock to put an end to her flight and her life. She'll go down as easily as a koala-lamb led to the slaughter.

Long Feng thinks over his options for a second and sighs as he sees a back and legs appear from the bushes. She's turned away from him, hasn't even seen him. But from the lull in the laughter, it's clear that they – whoever this they is – have obviously heard her.

He doesn't know why, but Long Feng strides forward then to come up directly behind her. He grabs the girl with his left hand and covers her mouth with his right as he pulls her back into the deepest shadows. He can feel her tense, but she thankfully doesn't struggle as he moves them both further away and completely out of sight. Just in time to see a pair of men peering out from the direction the girl had so recently come. Neither of them dare move an inch as the men poke around for a minute or two and then leave without seeing Long Feng, the girl, or even his ostrich-horse a few yards further into the trees.

"Thank you," the girl breathes once he's set her back on her feet and stepped a few paces away.

Now that he can almost see her in the last stray rays of sunlight, Long Feng realizes that she's probably not even Kuei's age. An adult perhaps but not nearly the sort to be wandering around alone in the dark.

"I'm Song," she adds when he merely waves away her gratitude, but it's clear that she doesn't expect much of a response.

And she doesn't get more than a lifted brow anyway. But she only seems to take that as a challenge.

"Are you lost?" she asks quietly, tone soft and sweet.

Somehow, it strikes true though. Deep and straight to the heart of the matter.

Long Feng is brought up short.

"I am… merely misplaced," he admits.

It's the first he's spoken back, and that actually seems to surprise her if not his actual words. She studies him for a moment before nodding. Her eyes are wide but somehow inscrutable as he glances over. Her face is hard to make out in the dimness, but Long Feng thinks that she'd be lovely in the full daylight. Soft but with strength underneath. Not like the pampered would-be princesses of the inner ring. Something solid, something more real.

The edges of her mouth tug upwards as she looks at him. Bolstered now that she knows he's paying attention.

"My home isn't far from here. Maybe a day or two away. There was sickness, and I came to tend some of the ill. I'm a healer of sorts," she explains as if justifying herself and why she's out in an unfamiliar area after sunset. "But I got turned around on the way back. I really should've waited until the morning, but I was too eager to go home."

She pauses to give him time to respond, but he merely gazes back at her. He doesn't have anything particular to say, and really, he hasn't much spoken to anyone since his parting words with Kuei. Almost like he lost his voice along with everything else. Or maybe he's simply too tired to care anymore.

And somehow, it's like this girl – Song – understands that. She doesn't take offence at his silence; she almost seems sad for him. As if she can see the truth of his situation written on his face. Like she can look at Long Feng and see him for all that he once was but feels pity instead of hate. Sorrow instead of disdain.

"If you're so misplaced, maybe I can help you. Or at least, I can show you the way."

She takes a daring step closer. Long Feng can't help but lift a brow.

"I believe you mentioned being somewhat misplaced yourself," he comments almost idly. He isn't quite certain why he hasn't left yet. Whatever danger they were in has now gone, and she's no concern of his. They are little more than strangers passing by.

Nevertheless, he lingers. Nevertheless, she keeps moving closer.

"That was earlier, but I know exactly where I am now. It's just a matter of getting there," she counters and comes closer still. "Perhaps you could escort me back, and we could see about getting you on your way. And I'd pay you for your trouble. My mom… she always makes too much to eat. Roast duck especially."

The final part of her offer is nearly unvoiced. More implied than anything. But for a man who's been on the road for weeks with no destination and no real goal, a home-cooked meal sounds appealing. And it's not like he has anything else to do.

Long Feng lifts his head then to see her smile; she already knows that she's won. Song is silent, however, as he leads her back to his ostrich-horse, which hasn't moved at all, and helps her into the saddle. She's still quiet as he climbs up behind her, suddenly and strangely very aware that it's chilly out and her back is warm against his chest.

"Which way?" he finally asks. He isn't sure what to think as she settles against him; Long Feng can practically hear the smile in her voice.

"This way."

But instead of pointing, she takes him by the sleeve and gives a gentle tug in the right direction. Her hand is warm on his wrist, and her fingers stroke ever so lightly over his skin. She doesn't remove them afterward.

Long Feng doesn't know what to think or even what to say. He just remains quiet and follows along. But he doesn't shake her off either.

At the very least, he knows where he's going now.

Ever Hopeful,