Revival! I'm back for another installment of "So Close Yet So Far." I know, I know. It's been almost a year since the last time that I added a chapter (six months since I updated any story at all). I could give a lot of excuses – computer problems, school, writer's block, ect – but really, it comes down to the fact that I don't often feel like writing. Still, sometimes I do feel like writing, and so here is another chapter. This chapter is a little shorter than normal, but I never really cared for this episode. I hope you enjoy it.
Naruto sighed as he picked up another fallen tree limb. It had been a full day since the native members of Team Avatar had awoken to find a newly recruited Toph in their midst. The atmosphere since then had been… tense to say the least. It seemed that Katara, Sokka, and Aang were quite uncomfortable with someone joining their group while they slept – never mind that they had wanted to recruit her in the first place. It didn't help that they didn't know about the circumstances of her joining. That had been one of the few things that Toph had requested from Naruto in exchange for teaching Aang. While their late night conversation and experience fighting side by side had formed some measure of trust between Naruto and Toph, she did not share the same relationship with the other members of Team Avatar – certainly not enough to let them in on the inner workings of her family. Naruto, having more than his share of experience with personal secrets, readily agreed; and so, as far as the rest of the team was concerned, Naruto had merely met with Toph at some point during the night and, after explaining the full situation to her, convinced her to leave home for a time to train Aang in the ways of earthbending. Of course, this created its own problems. As it turned out, the others were not very fond of Naruto acting on his own without so much as a word to anyone else about his plans. He spent the first part of his day being lectured by Katara about the importance of trust and teamwork. Naruto didn't have the heart to tell her that teamwork went both ways and sometimes meant trusting the other person to do what's best – even if you don't know what that is.
Still, he knew that he had hurt the others' trust in him, if only slightly, but they would get over it soon. Katara would be fine once she calmed down a little and realized that nothing bad had actually come out of his actions, though her caring and somewhat pushy nature would probably push her to dig into the previous night's events eventually. Sokka was practical and Naruto doubted that he cared much about what happened since it got results. Really, Aang was the only real issue. Even after everything that had happened the boy was still maintaining that strange emotional distance and Naruto was sure that he would remember this as another reason to not trust him. Oh, he may not do so consciously – the kid didn't seem like the passive-aggressive sort – but he was sure that somewhere in the back of his mind, Aang was cataloging every little taboo and faux pas that he committed as evidence against him. He really needed to sit down sometime and figure out what had Aang so on edge. But it probably wouldn't be a good idea to cause such a fuss when they had just added a new member to their group, so he would let it go for now.
He pulled himself from his thoughts as he was approached by several more blondes, each one bearing an armful of lumber. "This is ridiculous, you know." One of the blondes said. "We're a highly advanced, jounin level technique and you're using us for chores!"
Naruto rolled his eyes at his clones' antics. If there was any part of the shadow clone jutsu that he didn't like, it was that the clones could talk back. Don't get him wrong, he loved that the clones could think for themselves. It had saved his life more than a few times when a plan had fallen to pieces only to be saved at the last moment by quick thinking – not by him – but by one of his clones. But it really sucked whenever he had to argue with them in order to get anything done. They really got on his nerves sometimes. Oh how his friends loved to tease him for that, since they technically had the same personality as him. Apparently he couldn't even stand himself – or so his friends would insist.
Silently, Naruto shifted his load to one arm and used his free hand to swat his clone's head – carefully so as to not dispel it and make more work for himself. "For the last time, I'm the original so I am the one who gets to decide how the technique is used. If I want to use it to overthrow an evil dictator then I will. And if I want to use it to get my chores done faster, then that is for me to decide and for you to suck it up and deal with it." Shifting his load back into a more comfortable position, he walked past his clones and back towards the direction of the team's camp. "Now come on, I'm hungry and the sooner we get this firewood back, the sooner Katara can cook dinner."
Unfortunately for Naruto, his dinner would have to wait because when he arrived, he did so to the sound of an argument. "I don't need any help. I can take care of myself." Toph's voice rang out. Naruto arrived to see a standoff between Toph and Katara. Both women were caught in a glaring contest and seemed to be trying to make the other woman back down through sheer force of will.
Katara frowned as she felt a little more of her patience slip away. "It's not about whether or not you can take care of yourself. We each do our fair share of the work. That's how a team works. Weren't you listening at all to what I was telling Naruto this morning?"
Toph just cocked an eyebrow. "Was anyone? I don't think you're anywhere near as interesting as you think you are, princess."
"Ha!" Sokka's voice rang out from where he was setting up the tents.
"Wha – why you – how dare you – ugh!" After a few moments of stuttering, Katara seemed to finally give up on forming a coherent sentence and settled for stomping off to busy herself at the other side of the camp.
Finally taking notice of Naruto, Toph waved him over. "Welcome back, sunshine. Enjoy your stroll through the woods?"
Naruto just gave a non-committal grunt as he set the firewood down by the fire pit that Sokka had made and instructed his clones to do the same. He had been on the receiving end of a woman's righteous fury often enough to know to stay out of the argument he had just walked in on. Toph and Katara would just have to settle whatever issues they had themselves.
That night the members of Team Avatar all slept in their respective places. Aang, Katara, and Sokka preferred the safety and comfort that their tents provided them. Toph, still determined to maintain her newly acquired independence, enjoyed a more solid tent formed from her own earthbending. Naruto chose to forgo any of those conveniences. Having spent his childhood surrounded by Konoha's great forests – and without anyone to tell him otherwise – he had often spent his nights in the wilderness. So he was more than happy to sleep under the stars… or at least he tried to sleep. Tonight sleep seemed to elude him as his mind wandered and worries invaded his mind.
Every time he closed his eyes, he was haunted by the vision he had seen in the haunted swamp (He didn't care what anyone else said. That swamp was haunted, dammit!). Despite Fukasaku's reassurances, he couldn't quite push aside the fear he felt for his precious people back home… or the anger he felt at himself. Konoha, the village that he had sworn to protect and the home that he loved so dearly had been attacked and he had not been there to defend it. Never mind that the enemy had retreated, or that his most precious people had survived the encounter; Konoha was in shambles, hundreds were injured or dead, the enemy was still out there just waiting to strike again, and he was stuck in another dimension unable to do anything but sit around and wait. It hadn't bothered him much lately because he had been too busy to really think about it. But now things had settled down some, which left him with time to just think and it was driving him crazy! He had always been a creature of action and being forced to wait while others worked to get him home was the worst kind of torture.
He sighed deeply as he looked up at the stars. The night air was crisp and carried the distinct scent of the wilderness. The grass was cool to his skin and the steady thrum of the nocturnal wildlife was a balm to his soul. Slowly his chaotic thoughts began to calm and his eyes began to droop. Giving one last thought to his friends and their safety before sleep finally claimed him… and Toph's tent erupted in a shower of earth and stone.
"We have trouble!" Toph's voice rang out from the dust cloud.
"Wha –" Sokka began before stopping to yawn. "What's up? Did we get captured again?" Blinking the sleep from his eyes, he looked around him at his friends who were all in various stages of waking. They were groggy but they were all there and not tied up in some enemy's camp. So, no – he decided – they hadn't been captured by any of the many people after their heads. Then why did Toph deign to wake them up in the middle of the night?
"Something is coming our way. I can feel it." The urgency in Toph's voice prodded the others into full consciousness.
"What do you mean?" asked Aang. "What do you feel?"
The question caused Toph to furrow her brow – as if she was trying to "see" something that wasn't there. "I don't know. I've never felt anything like it before." She hesitated a moment as she tried to pick out the words that would best describe the new sensation. "It sort of feels like an avalanche, but at the same time it doesn't."
"Well, that's helpful." Sokka said with no small amount of sarcasm only to be shushed by Katara.
Toph didn't pay much attention to Sokka. She was still focused on the oncoming phenomena. "Whatever it is, it's heading straight towards us - and fast. It will be here any minute."
Everyone took a moment to let that sink in. After a few seconds, Aang voiced the question that was on everyone's minds. "So what should we do?"
Naruto didn't even hesitate. "I say we wait here to see what it is. It could be friendly for all we know. And I could even set some traps around the area just in case it's not."
Aang and Katara seemed to be considering the idea, and Toph was already looking forward to a good fight. Sokka however… "No, no, no. I can see where this is going. We stay and confront whatever this thing is and the next thing you know; we're in the middle of the spirit realm or some other crazy place fighting for our lives against crazy spirit monsters, or crazy Fire Nation princes… or princesses." He added as an afterthought.
"Come on, Sokka. That kind of stuff doesn't happen to us… that often." Katara tried. Sokka just stared her for a minute before she sighed and hung her head in defeat. "Ok, so maybe it does…"
Sokka nodded. "Right, and in case you people have forgotten, one of our members just so happens to be the Avatar and still needs to master all of the elements before Sozen's Comet arrives. We don't have time to waste, so I say we get on Appa and fly in any direction that isn't towards that 'avalanche'." Without waiting for the others to reply, he walked over to his tent and began packing the campsite.
The others all looked at each other for a moment before joining him… that is, except for Toph. Toph merely grabbed her bags and threw them onto Appa's back before hopping up herself.
Katara looked up from where she was tying up their sleeping bags. "What are you doing?"
"What? I'm already ready to go. See?" She asked while pointing to the pile of rubble that had been her earth tent.
"That's not –" Katara began, only to be cut off by her brother.
"Save it for later. Because right now, we need to go." He said, throwing the freshly packed tents into their place. Nodding stiffly, Katara went back to her work and in another couple of minutes, Appa was taking off from the ground and flying off into the night sky.
As the group cleared the trees and continued to ascend, their attention was caught by a pillar of smoke in the distance. Looking toward the source, they were both surprised and disturbed by what they saw. A large machine made entirely of iron was moving in their direction at high speed. Naruto thought that it looked rather like the train he had seen in Snow Country, except that it wasn't running on a rail. Instead, it was mounted on a series of treads to easily navigate the rough terrain.
Sokka recognized the machine as something else. It had all of the earmarks of a Fire Nation war machine. Turning away from the sight, he looked towards Naruto. "Definitely not friendly."
It took several hours of flying before everyone felt safe enough to set up camp again. By that time, daylight was fast approaching, and each member was feeling the weight of exhaustion on their minds and wanted nothing more than to simply lie down and sleep. As the others prepared their sleeping bags… and Toph and Katara got into another argument… Naruto took a moment to dispatch several clones and send them to set several traps around the area. It seemed unlikely that whatever was following them would have been able to track them so far, but he wasn't taking any chances.
He was pulled from his task by the distinct sound of skin hitting skin. It was only now; in the silence immediately following the sound did he realize that he could no longer hear Toph and Katara arguing. He turned just in time to see a furious Toph stomping away from a stunned-looking Katara. The distinct red mark on Katara's cheek told Naruto what the earlier sound had been and that the girls' argument had gotten out of hand. He took a look at Katara before walking over to where Toph was hastily packing her things. "Are you okay?" It was a stupid question – he knew, but he couldn't think of anything else to say.
"I'm leaving." Toph said without looking up from her bag.
Ok, so maybe things had gotten really out of hand. He looked over at Katara who still seemed stunned by Toph's violent reaction. He felt that he knew Toph well enough to say that she was fairly thick-skinned. At least, she tended to not care about what others thought of her. What could Katara have said to merit such a strong reaction? Before he could ask, however, Toph was already packed and walking away from the camp. He moved to stop her, but again she beat him to the punch.
"Well?" She asked, turning slightly.
Naruto just stared back dumbly. "Well, what?"
"Are you coming or not?"
Somehow, Naruto felt that he was missing something. How did she and Katara fighting mean that he had to leave? Where was she even planning on going? And why did she suddenly seem so fragile, like she was desperately hoping that he would go with her? He looked back to the others who seemed to be stunned by the idea that they might lose, not one, but two of their members in a single afternoon. He glanced back and forth a couple more times as he considered his options. He really didn't want to leave the others. He considered them friends – not to mention they were trying to save the world. But at the same time, Toph was his friend too and she was quickly working her way up his list of precious people. In the end, he decided that someone needed to calm Toph down.
"Yah, just give me one second to pack up." Thankfully, he had very few possessions on this particular adventure so he packed up and on his way out before the others could gather their wits enough to stop him. He walked up next to Toph and, with one last look at his friends, walked away.
Toph and Naruto didn't stop walking for some time, mostly at the earthbender's insistence. She was furious and she wouldn't be happy until they had put a significant distance between them and the source of her ire. Naruto wasn't going to complain. He was using their time walking to think of how to approach the subject of their sudden departure with his one remaining traveling companion. Ever the master of subtlety and tact, he decided to wing it. "So…" he began as casually as he could, "are you gonna tell me what that was all about?" He glanced over at the girl beside him. She just kept walking, and didn't show any signs that she was going to answer him, or that she had heard him at all. "Not that I particularly mind leaving our friends in the middle of the night and walking several miles over rough terrain when we could be getting some much needed rest. But it would kind of nice to know why we left."
"She called me a spoiled brat." Toph's response was short and she showed no physical reaction. Naruto would have doubted that she had said anything at all if she hadn't continued. "She said that I was a spoiled brat and that I must have had terrible parents to be so spoiled."
Naruto grimaced. Calling Toph a brat was one thing – she probably would have just shrugged it off – but bringing her parents into the argument was probably the worst thing that Katara could have done. Toph's anger made a lot more sense now. "Well, to be fair, she didn't know what your family life was like. You haven't exactly been forthcoming about your personal life."
Toph turned on him so quickly that he was surprised that she hadn't sprained her neck. The glare she gave him wasn't at all lessened by her blindness. In fact, it was even more intimidating – a pair of dead eyes locked directly at him despite their lack of sight. "Are you defending her?"
"No!" Naruto was quick to defend himself. "I know what Katara said was wrong and hurtful. She shouldn't have said that regardless of what your family is like. But I also know Katara. And I know that she would never intentionally say something so hurtful. We were all exhausted – we're still exhausted – and I'm sure you both said things that you didn't really mean. And I know, if she had known how you feel about your family, she would have never said those things no matter how tired she was."
Toph stood silent as she tried to think of some sort of response. Failing that, she simply said "I don't want to talk about it," and walked away again. Naruto had no choice but to sigh in defeat and follow after her.
"They left. I can't believe they actually left!" Katara said as she looked down the path that Toph and Naruto had walked down not an hour before. It was a motion that she had repeated several times since the duo left. And every time, there was some small part of her that expected to see them walking back down the path. But she never did.
"Yep, in one night you managed to chase off not one – but two of our friends." Sokka said with sarcastic applause. "Great job." Katara glared at him but he just shrugged. "What? You know it's true."
"You don't think that I know that – that I don't already feel guilty about it?" She sighed in defeat. "I'm such a terrible person."
"You're not a terrible person. You're just tired… and maybe a little bit of a nag –"
"The point is you're a good person and I'm sure deep down, Toph and Naruto know that too. Things just got a little out of hand."
"Either way there's not much that we can do about right now." Aang spoke up from where he was settling in. "Let's get some sleep. We can look for them in the morning. Hopefully they'll have calmed down by then." And with that he rolled over and went to sleep.
Seeing that his sister was still hesitant, Sokka put a hand on her shoulder and began to gently push her towards her sleeping bag. "Aang's right, Katara. Everything is going to be fine. But right now we need to get some sleep. We'll look for the others in the morning." That seemed to convince her as she began to reluctantly get under the covers. Sokka took one final look around the camp before slipping into his own sleeping bag. They only had a couple hours before the sun would be up and sleep would become much more difficult. And despite his reassuring words, he doubted it would be easy to find their wayward friends. They would need all the sleep that they could get.
"Did anyone else hear that?"
From up on their ledge, Naruto and Toph were presented with a clear view of the fireball that erupted from the forest below. "What was that?" asked Toph as the earth shook beneath her feet. For her to still feel the tremors, even at this distance – that must have been a big explosion. She felt Naruto move beside her, no doubt to take in the visual spectacle that would follow such an explosion.
"It looks like it came from where we left the others. I think it might have been one of the traps that I set. I think they're in trouble." He looked towards Toph, expecting to see a look of worry on her face. He was mildly disappointed to find that she appeared indifferent to the fate of their friends. Mildly because it was clear that the air of indifference was just a façade. Underneath that forced exterior, it was easy to see that she still considered them her friends and was concerned for their safety. She wanted to go help them. She just needed a little push. "You know, earlier I said that I knew Katara, but I know you too. And I know that you know what it's like to be alone and how precious friends are." Naruto watched as his words began to take effect. Toph shifted uneasily. First she shifted towards the path that led back towards the camp, then to the path that they had been walking, then back again – as if she was literally being pulled in two directions. "Right now, you have three friends who need your help. So what do you say?"
Aang felt himself break out in a sweat as he dodged yet another fire-enhanced punch. When their camp had been rocked by a significant explosion, their first assumption was that they'd been attacked yet again. When they had gone to investigate, they had half-expected to find that their mysterious pursuers had caught up to them, or even Prince Zuko. It had been the former. The strange machine that had been pursuing them throughout the night lay on its side – mangled and broken. Their relief was (short-lived), however, when the occupants of the vehicle revealed themselves to be Azula, Ty Lee, and Mai. The trio didn't waste any time before launching their attack.
They had been separated almost instantly. Sokka and Katara had been forced away by Ty Lee and Mai and were now caught in a deadly game of tag as they struggled to avoid a barrage of debilitating strikes and razor-sharp knives. Aang, meanwhile, was busy engaging the fire princess. This was his second time fighting Azula and he was fairing even worse than before. Her strikes were just as powerful – just as deadly as he remembered them. She still moved with that otherworldly grace that left no openings or weaknesses to exploit. And to top it all off, he hadn't slept in more than twenty-four hours. His reflexes were shot. His nerves were frayed. And he could barely think through his exhaustion. A part of him couldn't help but to wonder why Azula wasn't suffering similar effects despite having pursued them through the night. It took every ounce of his concentration to avoid being burned alive by a fire-enveloped fist of fury.
He spun his staff to deflect another wave of flames before using the momentum to launch a blade of concentrated air. Azula just stood and crossed her arms in an x in front of her. Instantly, both arms were wreathed in flames. As the wind blade reached her she threw her arms apart, breaking the attack. Grooves were carved into the ground on either side of her as what was left of the attack continued unobstructed. Instead of counterattacking, like Aang would have expected, Azula allowed her arms to drop slightly as she slipped into a more relaxed stance. "You know, I must admit that I'm a little disappointed. I was looking forward to a rematch with your blonde friend. Tell me, where is the little idiot? Did he finally wizen up and abandon your pathetic little group? That's a shame. He actually provided me with a challenge. There aren't many people out there that can do that, you know. Certainly not you." She added with a cruel smirk.
She was just trying to get under his skin and he knew it. But Aang still couldn't completely suppress the flush of shame that he felt at Azula's words – both at how right she was about what happened to Naruto and at having his own inadequacies rubbed in his face. Even if she was just trying to throw him off, the difference in skill between Naruto and himself was plain to see. Naruto had fought all three girls on his own and had come out with hardly a scratch. He could barely keep up when the numbers were even. He was the Avatar for crying out loud! He should be better than this. How was he supposed to save the entire world when he couldn't even beat a single spoiled princess and her friends? Spurred on by that thought and the shame that it brought, he charged the princess with reckless abandon.
"Oh, looks like I touched a nerve." Azula taunted as she danced around his sloppy attacks. Her taunts were working. He was losing his concentration. Mastery over emotion was one of the basic principles of combat. In a fight between two warriors, the one to lose control of their emotions first was almost always the one to lose. She smirked. She had long since mastered the art of manipulating emotions – both hers and her opponent's – it was necessary in order to learn the most advanced firebending techniques.
She took another look at her opponent. His breathing was labored and his face was red – she couldn't tell if it was from exertion, anger, or shame… probably all three. Despite his status as the Avatar and his monk upbringing, he was still a child and children had notoriously poor control of their emotions. All it took was a couple of choice taunts and he was already losing his control. One more push and she could have the Avatar in chains in time for lunch. "Is this really the best you can do? I really expected better from the Avatar." She gave an exaggerated sigh and made a show of changing her stance. She straightened her back, brought her hands to her sides, and moved her feet closer together. It was a defensive stance meant to allow the fighter to quickly pivot and turn away from any strike. To anyone other than an expert firebender, however, it would look like she had simply stopped fighting. It was a technique created to lure your opponent in close –either to detain you or finish you off. The fighter could then end the fight with a quick and precise counterstrike. As angry as he was now, Azula knew that the Avatar would not be able to see through her ruse. But just to be sure… "I suppose I should thank you. I'll need to be in top form when I go after your blonde friend and this little spar has made for a terrific warmup." She prepared herself as she saw Aang clench his teeth. Any moment now, the Avatar would charge, and she would end this battle in a single move. Before her prediction could come to fruition, Azula was forced to roll to the side, a kunai impacting where she had just been standing. She looked into the trees to see the source of the blade.
"How many times do I have to tell you people? My name is Naruto Uzumaki, and don't you forget it!" Naruto smiled from where he stood in the trees. Even after everything he had learned about tactics, and all of the stealth training he had been through during his training trip, he still felt the need to show off from time to time. His friends thought he was stupid for it, but he didn't see what the problem was. Jariya had possessed a similar love of flashy entrances and he was one of the best shinobi in Konoha's history. And besides – standing there above the battlefield with his arms crossed, summoning scroll on his back, and sage cloak blowing in the wind – he thought that he looked pretty cool. He took a look around the battlefield and had to wince at the number of sizable smoking craters and destroyed trees. "Ok, so maybe I went a little overboard with exploding tags." He said with an embarrassed grin. All humor left his face when his eyes turned to the fire princess. "I don't like it when people threaten my friends, Princess. Now are you going to leave peacefully, or am I going to have to kick your butt first?"
Azula glared at the ninja, but made sure to keep an eye on Aang as well. She wanted so desperately to charge him – to put him in his place and redeem herself from her previous defeat. Everyone around her, from her friends to her teachers, had tried to convince her that she had won in their previous encounter. After all, they would argue, he had been the one to run from the battle – not her. But she knew better. She had been fighting to capture him while he had only been stalling for enough time to allow his friends to escape. The fact that he had succeeded and – more importantly – that she had failed was something that was completely unacceptable in her eyes and more than enough reason for the blonde to be placed squarely at the top of her "fools who need to be taught their place" list. Still, even she, the future ruler of the Fire Nation and the greatest firebending prodigy to have been produced in decades, was reluctant to fight the so-called "Sun Spirit" and the Avatar at the same time. However, if Mai and Ty Lee could finish their fights then they could lend her a hand and maybe – just maybe they could have this goose-chase wrapped up in time for them to participate in her father's… more ambitious plans.
Almost as if he was reading her mind, Naruto chose that moment to speak up again. "If you're waiting on your friends to back you up, I think that you'll be waiting for a while." He said as he tilted his head in the direction that the others had been fighting in.
Azula risked a glance in the same direction and was a little less surprised than she probably should have been to notice that a fifth body had entered the fray. A young teenage girl with short, dark brown hair could now be seen assisting the two Water Tribe peasants. Her eyes narrowed when she saw the girl sailing towards her two friends. So the girl was an earthbender… that would be a problem. Normally she had the utmost confidence in her friends' abilities. They, like her, were geniuses on the battlefield and were nearly unmatched in their respective arts. But the waterbending girl had been growing increasingly dangerous lately and it was immediately apparent that the new girl, who she could now see was an eaerthbender, was no novice either. She could no longer count on her friends to win their fight – certainly not soon enough to be of any use to her. As much as she hated it – and she absolutely loathed it – it was time to consider a tactical retreat.
"Mai! Ty Lee!" She called. Hearing the command in her voice, both girls immediately disengaged from their opponents and moved to her side. Just as quickly, they found themselves surrounded by the members of Team Avatar, each one in a battle stance and just waiting for someone to make the first move. "We're leaving."
Her tone left no room for argument, but Ty Lee could still not keep herself from asking, "What? Are you sure?" In all of the years that they had known each other, neither Ty Lee nor Mai had ever seen the fire princess back down from a fight. Even when she was facing multiple opponents several years her senior (as was prone to happen to a child prodigy of the Fire Nation), she always stared them down with a self-assured confidence before beating them so badly that only the most stubborn and foolhardy of opponents ever dared to challenge her again. For her to even suggest retreating was so against her very nature that it warranted a certain level of skepticism. The look Azula gave her in response spoke volumes about how serious she was about the order and how angry she was that she had to give it. She gulped slightly at having that anger directed at her – even for just a moment – and wisely decided to remain silent as they prepared to make their escape.
"You're not going anywhere!" shouted Aang. As Aang finished his proclamation, Team Avatar charged in, intent on capturing the trio before they could escape. But as they closed in, Azula began to spin on her heel, arms extended and a spout of flame lashing out from each hand. The trio was almost instantaneously encased in a dome of fire. The members of Team Avatar were forced to back away lest they be burned. When the flames died away, they revealed an empty patch of earth where the enemy had once been.
The teens searched the surrounding area for any signs of Azula or her friends, to no avail. The three had obviously been taught how to cover their retreats well. Even Toph, who should have been able to sense their escape through their footsteps, had been unable to tell which way they had gone. This was both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, it meant that they would be unable to push the advantage that they had possessed and procure a much needed victory against one of the Fire Nation's most powerful warriors – perhaps even end the war if they had been able to actually capture her. But on the other hand, they were now safe from the threat that had been pursing them so relentlessly for the entire night and most of the morning. They could finally take some time to rest. With an unspoken agreement, the group began unpacking and setting up camp completely unconcerned that their campground had been a battlefield minutes before – that the smoldering embers were still burning themselves out. All that mattered now was catching up on some much-needed rest.
As Katara moved to start unpacking the group's sleeping bags, she carefully watched Toph out of the corner of her eye. It appeared the other girl still only planned to take care of herself but at least it looked like she and Naruto were not planning to leave again. Nothing had been said about the argument that had occurred the night before and it seemed that neither side was particularly eager to bring it up. Katara sighed. It looked like she would have to be the one to start up the conversation. She had to at least apologize for her harsh words, she owed Toph that much.
"Listen, Toph," she did not want to see whatever disapproving look that she was sure would pass over the other girl's face, so she kept her eyes on her work as she talked, " I… owe you an apology. I said some pretty bad things last night. I was just so tired and stressed… but that's no excuse. No matter what the reason, you still left your home to help Aang and I should have been more appreciative, and…" She trailed off as she realized that she was rambling. She waited to hear what response Toph would give, but none came. She sighed again. She wasn't sure what she had been expecting, maybe a reciprocated apology – or even just an acceptance of the one she had offered. But it seemed Toph wasn't ready to forgive and forget quite yet. She was caught off guard when the sleeping bag she had been unpacking was suddenly yanked from her hands.
Toph refused to look up as she unrolled the sleeping bag next to the others, either to hide her own embarrassment or simply because she would not see anything if she did. "I wasn't exactly friendly either, and I guess I could have been a bit more… open about myself…" she trailed off slightly as she thought of Naruto's earlier words. "So, why don't you agree that you were a jerk and that you should never say anything like that about me or my parents ever again, and I'll agree to be a bit more cooperative and to help out around the camp. And… once everything is unpacked, maybe we can sit down while I tell you a little about my home."
Katara smiled, tired but true. "I would like that a lot…" she trailed off as she yawned. "But maybe it can wait until tomorrow."
Well, there you have it. I'm not completely happy with this chapter, but then I never am. Hopefully you got at least some enjoyment out of it. At the moment, I'm not sure which story will be the next to update. We'll just have to see how it plays out. As always, reviews are welcome.
Next time on "So Close Yet So Far": action, drama, intrigue. You should look forward to it.