Aang could overhear Zuko and Toph whispering in Appa's saddle and gripped the reigns a little tighter with a niggle of suspicion. What were they playing at? Surprise spontaneous holiday, my arse! He knew it wasn't a surprise spontaneous holiday because Zuko had to do all sorts of firenationy political things and make up lame excuses and have long chats with Iroh over tea before he could leave. That really took the spontaneity out of the holiday. A few nights ago Zuko had woken him up really late, crashing round in the archives at 4am. The next morning he and Toph went "shopping". Just the two of them. Aang knew they weren't really shopping because they both hated shopping. They must've been hatching this suspicious surprise holiday plot. He and Toph had been acting weird ever since their plot hatching. Not bad weird, but definitely weirder than usual. Zuko had gone to visit Azula twice in two days. Toph had taken to speaking well, nicely to him, and asking him strange questions like if he was okay with being the last airbender and did he think they'd ever find any more airbenders. It was highly unusual for Toph to bring this subject up because she knew how much it upset Aang to think about it too much. Aang started to avoid her, something he never thought he'd do to Toph.
He started trying to hang out with Mai, but he got the feeling she was avoiding him. So it was a cycle of avoidance. He'd follow her round the palace, but gosh, she was quick. He'd found her a couple of times, but she was always busy doing work for Zuko. Aang knew this was a lie, because Zuko was busy arranging the "surprise" holiday. Twice she'd relented and had tea with him. Saying both times with a sigh "this is the only way to get rid of you isn't it?"
The first time she asked him to stop stalking her or she'd pin him to the column behind them and just leave and then he'd be stuck with no one to bother.
"I'm not trying to bother you, I just want your advice about what I'm doing wrong with Katara." He said. Ever since their chat at Toph's birthday, he regarded Mai as the paragon of good advice.
" What you're doing wrong? You're doing it now. You're too keen." Mai replied with frustration. Aang gave her a confused look and she threw her head back as if in a silent prayer for patience.
"Look you really wanted my advice kid. Play it cool with her. Don't get all up in her face." She said in what was an emphatic tone for Mai.
"Don't give too much of your feelings away. I never give any thing away to Gojin." She added a little more gently.
"Who's Gojin?" Aang asked.
"My YuYuan archer love slave. Who I have to meet now. Bye kid." She said as she swished past him. She had a love slave? Aang couldn't tell if she was being sarcastic or not. He liked talking to Mai even if she didn't like talking to him. He couldn't tell Zuko or Toph about what happened because they'd feel like they had to take sides and he didn't want that. Mai was the only one who he could talk to about this and she actually helped Aang. The second time he caught her, she had been a bit disgruntled. Aang had found her a cupboard. Being in a cupboard made anyone disgruntled Aang reasoned. She sat him down and lectured him about the virtue of giving people "friggin space" and how the waterchick would probably appreciate it if Aang stopped pursuing her and just chilled out. There was a lot about respect. Respect for the waterchick, respect for himself, respect for everybody. When she reached the end of her little speech she said in her usual deadpan tone. "That is it. That is all the advice I have for you kid. Will you please stop stalking me now." Aang agreed, but maintained that he had been following, not stalking. Mai made a very un-Mai-like noise of frustration. At this point Zuko and Toph returned from one of their "shopping trips" and announced they'd be leaving for Kyoshi Island tomorrow.
They'd pack up and left just after breakfast so that they could make it to Kyoshi in time for a late lunch. Sokka's hawky had caught up with them an hour ago with a simple note.
How close are you?
Zuko had tried to reply but it was really hard to write on the back of Appa in high winds and in the end Toph smudged all the ink anyway and Aang suspected that an ink fight had broken out behind him because when he next turned around both his passengers had ink everywhere. Aang was feeling mature and responsible and well above ink fights. He would play it cool. They sent back a rather smudgy reply that said S0oN in rather misshapen letters.
He was excited to see the others and nervous to see the others and it had mixed his guts up into excited nervous soup and his two passengers with their whispering and their glances were not helping the nervous soup situation. He was so nervous to see Katara. Oh god, maybe it would just be better to earthbend himself into the ground and wait. He'd have to face her eventually, but right now he found the prospect more frightening than facing firelord Ozai again. What if Katara hated him? Or if she never spoke to him again? Or a million other terrible possibilities ran through his head. He'd stick to his plan. What Mai said. Just take her aside and tell her he would back off and he respected her. Respect respect respect. Respect for everyone.
Kyoshi Island appeared in the distance, just as the east wind blew gently in his face. The wind always comforted Aang and he felt his heart leap suddenly. The east wind was for things beginning.
Appa landed to a huge cheering crowd. Foaming mouth guy was there. All his girly fans were there. See Katara, some people actually want to sleep with me. Oh no. that thought wasn't respectful at all. He pushed it way violently. Then he saw them standing a little way off. The three people who completed this little family. Sokka was waving energetically while Suki had one arm around Katara and was waving in more of a subdued fashion. Katara made a little guesture of welcome. Sokka had run up to help Toph down from Appa.
"How's my favourite metal bender!" He called out joyfully as he lifted her up into a hug and gave her a little shake. Toph seemed to have grown so much in two months. It was only when she was standing next to Sokka that Aang noticed it. Sokka was probably the tallest in their group but now Toph came up to his chest when he put her down.
"Great! How my favourite inventor!" she answered brightly.
"Just shiny!" Sokka answered. The last time they'd been at the northern Air temple, visiting the mechanist and Teo, Sokka had Toph metalbend prototypes of all his crazy ideas. Some of them had worked really well. Toph and Sokka and the Mechanist has spent ages just inventing things and had all these in-jokes that Aang didn't understand. Toph went off to be hugged and fussed over by Katara and Suki. He heard strains of conversation coming from the trio. "We missed you so much." "How was your birthday?" "Why do you have ink in your hair?"
Zuko jumped down gracefully and Sokka grabbed him in a hug and tried to pick him up too. Zuko, being too dignified to be picked up, retaliated and tried to pick up Sokka and it all descended into a competition of strength and the principle of it. Sokka was two inches taller and used it to his full advantage and succeeded in lifting Zuko's feet an inch off the ground. Zuko seemed to relent and let Sokka lift him up. Aang knew that Sokka just liked to tease Zuko to get a smile out of him.
"I've missed you, Your Dorkiness." Sokka said brightly.
"You too Sokka!" Zuko replied giving Sokka a sort of one armed pat on the back that seemed to convery get-a-hold-of-yourself-man and he went off to say hello to the others. Before Aang knew it, he too was swept up in a Sokka hug. Sokka hugs were some of the best hugs in Aang's honest opinion. Something about Sokka was just so solid and reassuring. He'd filled out in the past three years and he really resembled his father, with his broad shoulders and easy smile. "Aang, how ya been!" Sokka exclaimed. Aang's reply was a bit muffled because Sokka was smushing him into his chest. "Great to hear!" Sokka replied as he put him down.
Aang looked up to see Suki fussing over Toph and Katara hugging Zuko in welcome and exclaiming over how it had been so long, how tall he'd got in the last year, how scruffy his hair looked, and why did he have ink in his hair too, ooh and here he had a little smudge, how she was sorry for waking him up the other night all before Zuko could get a word in edgewise. She'd grabbed his face with one hand and licked her thumb with the other and started to rub at a particularly stubborn bit of ink.
Aang came up to the group. "Hi Katara." He said. Playing it cool. She looked up from trying to get the ink off Zuko's cheek. Zuko used her momentary distraction to step back a bit and Katara turned around fully and suddenly they stood across from each other.
"Hi Aang" she said and then paused awkwardly. After a long second, she leaned forward and kissed him on the cheek in hello and was rapidly followed by Suki, who followed suit. "Oh Aang ! it's great to see you again!" Suki said brightly and, in an uncharacteristic display of affection, she put her hand on Aang's back and started to lead him away to the house the three of them had been staying in. "You all must be so tired from your trip. Lets get some hot noodles into you." Aang let her lead the way, grateful that someone was offering some direction on what to do. The others followed. Well they'd said hello to each other now and neither of them had died of embarrassment. That was something.
As they were walking up the main road in Kyoshi they suddenly heard a squeal of delight and a lithe brunette flung herself at Zuko nearly knocking him off his feet.
"Zuko! You didn't tell me you were coming!" TyLee yelled excitedly.
"Hi TyLee. Sorry. It was a last minute planned thing." Zuko said.
"Oh that's okay. Tell me everything from home. How's Mai? How's Azula? Ooh did the fans work?" TyLee said all in one breathe as she fell in with their group and started walking with them.
"Mai's fine, Azula is…"Zuko paused as he looked into her cheerful and optimistic face. He sort of shrugged as if he was dismissing what he was about to say in advance. "Azula is fine too. Your fans were a nice idea." He said softly, not wanting to disappoint her.
"Oh great!" TyLee clapped enthusiastically. "I always knew she just had to let more of her feelings up. Bottling them is very bad for your aura and your energy you know. The fans just help blow all that negativity away, don't you find. You must have been using them too!"
"Why do you say that?" Zuko asked a little uneasily.
"Your Aura's never been clearer! And it's got a nice pinkish tinge to it today. A nice pink. Kind of salmon pink-y." TyLee said brightly as she beamed at him; clearly thinking she had paid him a great compliment. Zuko looked like he didn't know what to say to having a salmon pink tinged aura and there was a slight pause.
"…Thanks." Zuko said finally.
At this point Suki reminded Tylee that she was meant to be teaching some of the newer recruits how to do a sequence of backflips. Tylee gasped as she remembered. She waved at them all and blew Sokka a kiss and bounded off when her normal breathless energy. Suki took a deep breathe to calm herself and Aang was almost certain her heard her mutter to herself "I am a tolerant person. I am a tolerant person." She kept walking up to her old house, where she and Sokka and Katara had been living while they were on Kyoshi. The house showed all the signs of having been lived in, or at least having Sokka live in it. It felt cozy and safe. Aang felt a great feeling of home come over him. Everyone was together again.
Everyone sat around lazily, after unpacking and eating hearty noodle lunch. Toph and Katara were sharing the room that had the balcony overlooking the bay. Zuko and Aang were in the room on the second floor, next to Sokka and Suki's. Everyone was settling in and seemed so happy to be reunited as a group once more. The good atmosphere was infectious and Aang started feeling really cheerful.
Zuko went around the group and poured them all tea. Somewhere along the way Zuko had become their official tea maker, possibly because Iroh had drummed into him how to make the best jasmine tea ever. Everyone was catching up with each other. Toph had made everyone laugh with her stories of the antics of Captain Fluffymuffykins and the many, many Firenation jerks she had annoyed during her stay in the Firenation. Sokka kept talking about the boat that he invented only to be interrupted by Katara who said it was the worst invention ever. Suki started talking more about the Kyoshi Island warrior traditions and suggested that they go watch the training session this afternoon. Everyone but Katara agreed. She wanted to stay back and clear up the lunch dishes. Zuko volunteered to help her. Aang , Toph, Sokka and Suki filed down to the training arena and watched as Suki ran the girls through their exercises.
She was drilling them in the phoenix leap when Aang noticed it. The Airbending spirit always called to like minded souls and for a brief flash Aang felt it powerfully. As all the girls jumped high in the air he felt it, that familiar breeze, calling to his own bending. That gentle friendly tug at the corner of the senses. He couldn't tell which girl it had come from when they all moved as a group, but that didn't matter to him. There was another airbender out there. He wasn't all alone in the world anymore. He had thought he was the last one. He gasped in surprise and shock and joy and looked around to see Toph and Sokka smiling at him knowingly.