Author’s Note: In which decisions are made, shippings are shipped and the canon is laid to rest.
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Toph woke up first the next morning. For a few moments she remained lying motionless on the floor, taking in the vibrations around her. Sokka was sleeping outside of his sleeping bag, his arms and legs sprawled in every possible direction. Aang was curled into a small ball, with Momo sleeping next to him. Finally Katara… Toph paused disbelieving. She took her feet off the ground and then felt again the vibrations. It felt like the waterbender was asleep facing Zuko. The Fire prince was facing her too, their hands entwined. So they did make out last night! the little earthbender thought satisfied. Iroh was still asleep, judging from the rumble coming from his room, but Lia was already up and, if her nose was telling the truth, making breakfast.
The Spirit looked up from her work, when she sensed another presence near her. She smiled warmly at the petite girl entering.
“Good morning Toph. Did you sleep well?” she asked cheerfully. Toph looked at her suspicious.
“Why are you so friendly?” she asked.
“Why shouldn’t I be?” Lia shrugged. “I ceased judging people hastily a few thousand years ago. Besides,” she paused for a moment and lowered her voice to a whisper, “I kind of have a favour to ask you.”
“I knew it would be something like this!” the earthbender said angrily. “Every time someone acts nice to me it’s because they want a favour! Well bring it on! Should I also teach Sparky earthbending? He can’t be any harder than Twinkle-Toes!”
“I was actually going to ask you not to tell him or Sokka about Zuko and Katara. I don’t think they’d react well to the news.” Lia told her calmly, unfazed by the younger girl’s outburst.
“Oh.” Toph smiled sheepishly. “I acted like an idiot, didn’t I?” she asked.
“No, you acted like a twelve-year-old who is sick of being pushed around.” Lia ruffled Toph’s hair teasingly and ducked the answering punch with a chuckle. “By the way, how about a quick spar before breakfast?”
“You’re on!” Toph turned to exit the house but turned back immediately. “Oh, and about the lovebirds? I won’t tell, but if they want to keep it secret, they’d better wake up soon.”
Zuko woke up half-convinced that last night had been a wonderful dream. He had told Katara his feelings and that she had returned. He opened his eyes to see Katara’s peaceful face inches from his. The young man smiled spying their hands laced together. Nope! Not a dream after all! He leaned down and kissed the still sleeping girl lightly. Katara opened her eyes and smiled at him. It made Zuko’s heart flutter.
“Good morning,” she told him sleepily.
“Slept well?” Zuko asked her.
“Uh-huh.” Katara sat up and looked around. “Toph’s already up. That’s strange.”
“So is Lia,” Zuko added surveying the room. “They’ll probably be in the kitchen.”
The two teens went to the kitchen, to find it empty. They exchanged questioning glances. Where could the two girls be? As if to answer them a rumble was heard from outside. They rushed to the door to see Toph and Lia sparring furiously.
Toph noticed them first. “Well look who’s up!” she commented avoiding a few flames that nearly singed her tunic. “Had a good night Sugar Queen?” Katara blushed a little.
“Well, are you just going to stand there, or are you going to join us?” Lia asked, melting a rock Toph sent to her. “Toph and I against you two.” Zuko smiled at the challenge.
“You’re on.” The two pairs took stances and began. Zuko was immediately attacked by both Lia and Toph who seemed to have way to much fun ganging up on him. Katara came to his aid, driving the Fire Spirit away. The waterbender soon realized that her opponent was going easy on her, shooting comments to Zuko all the time.
“Use more heat and fewer flames,” Lia advised even as she ducked a waterwhip. Katara turned curiously and saw Zuko floating a little over the ground, a look of concentration on his face. Toph was looking around, obviously trying to understand where her opponent had disappeared. Zuko shot a blast near her, making the little earthbender jump. Lia smiled at her student, who was now approaching her with a challenging smirk. He sent a fire ball towards her. She caught it and sent it back to him in the form of a dagger. Zuko raised an arm to protect himself, but he had miscalculated the force and stumbled, landing on his ankle.
“Oh my goodness!” Lia rushed to his side worried. “I’m sorry Zuko. Did you get hurt?” Zuko was holding his ankle with a pained expression.
“I think I sprained it,” he muttered. Katara knelt next to him and moved his hands away softly. She took water out of her pouch and formed the healing glove. Zuko watched astonished as the pain steadily disappeared.
“We’d better stop for now,” Katara said. “It’s time for breakfast anyway.”
“Does this happen every time you spar?” Toph asked curiously.
“No, usually he just lands rather roughly.” Lia answered with a strained laugh. Zuko heard the tension on her voice and turned to her.
“Lia I’m okay, really. You worry too much.” His sister smiled.
“I guess you’re right. I was overreacting.” She turned towards the house and if there was still tension in the way she held herself, none of the teens commented on it.
Once inside, Lia went immediately to the stove. She wiped the ashes and some coal away, to reveal a metal box. Calmly she took it on her hands and opened it.
“What are you doing? You’ll burn yourself!” Katara exclaimed worried.
“She doesn’t have a problem,” Zuko told her reassuringly. Indeed Lia took out the freshly baked bread so calmly, as if it wasn’t much warmer than a stone.
“I’ve touched warmer things.” She said lightly. “Besides, you kids forget that I am Fire. Heat, ash, flamed…They don’t bother me.”
“You know,” Toph said mischievously, “I never thought that a spirit like Agni would be so… unspiritlike.”
Lia’s eyes darkened. “Don’t call me that,” she warned dangerously.
“Why?” Toph asked confused. She had sensed the threatening undercurrent.
“She just hates the name,” Zuko explained hastily.
“What name?” Sokka yawned entering. His face brightened seeing breakfast already served.
“Good morning everyone!” Aang called behind him.
“Good morning boys,” Lia greeted them, all previous bad mood forgotten. Sokka’s face fell, noticing her and Zuko for the first time. Toph looked around.
“Iroh isn’t up yet,” she noted surprised. “I thought firebenders rose with the sun.”
“The exceptions are those that make the rule,” Lia said wisely.
“We’d better wake him anyway,” Katara said. “He needs to eat something.”
“Yeah, before Snoozles over there devours the universe,” Toph laughed. Zuko stood up.
“I’ll go get him,” he offered.
He returned minutes later with Iroh. The old man smiled sleepily to everyone before sitting between Toph and Lia. He seemed to liven up a little when Lia passed him his tea. Zuko took his seat next to Katara. There was an awkward silence hanging over the table.
“So…” Zuko began awkwardly, “where are you going to go next?” Aang opened his mouth to answer, but Sokka cut in.
“Don’t answer him! He’ll probably be there waiting for us.”
“No I won’t!” Zuko protested. He turned to Aang. “I won’t be hunting you anymore.”
“Still, it’s classified.” Sokka insisted smugly.
“Actually we don’t know where we’ll go yet.” Katara glared at her brother, even as she smiled encouragingly to the firebender on her side.
“What will you guys do?” Aang asked still surprised that Zuko wouldn’t be after him anymore.
“This is a great question. Where do you go when you are wanted for different reasons from two different countries?” Lia pondered aloud.
“You could come with us.” Toph offered (Sokka choked on his shock.) “It can’t be any more dangerous than it has already has been for you or us.” Calmly she slapped Sokka in the back, causing him to splutter and take a couple deep breaths.
“It’s very kind of you my dear,” Iroh said gratefully, “But we wouldn’t want to become a burden to your friends.”
“We’ll discuss this later,” Katara said decisively, still eyeing her red-faced brother as if she expected him to explode. “Now there are things to be done. Toph, will you train with Aang again today?”
“Sure, come on Twinkle-Toes.” Toph sprung to her feet and dragged Aang outside with her, ignoring his protests. Katara turned to the rest of them. Before she had a chance to say anything Lia jumped in.
“I could spar with Sokka!”
“I’m not a bender! How can we spar?” the boy asked alarmed.
“With swords! Who do you think taught the prince over there how to duel?” the Sprit said as if it was obvious.
“Okay,” The warrior said, the challenge already shining in his eyes. Iroh stood up as well.
“I’m going to take a walk. It is fascinating how much nature clears the head.”
Once everyone else was out Katara began cleaning. Zuko made a movement to help her, but she pushed him back down.
“You’d better rest,” she told him. “I have never healed something like this before.”
“It feels fine,” Zuko objected.
“Still! You might accidentally strain it again.” They battled stares for a few moments before Zuko smiled.
“Are those healer’s orders?” he asked cheekily.
“Yes!” she answered exasperated.
“You know, you’re really cute when you’re angry,” Zuko told her all of a sudden, blushing as soon as the words left his mouth. Katara blushed and smiled shyly. She finished her chores quickly and they went to sit outside.
Sokka and Lia were still practicing in the distance. Sokka was obviously having a hard time. Iroh was nowhere to be seen, and neither were Toph and Aang.
“Seriously now,” Katara said, “why don’t you come with us?”
“Neither your brother nor the Avatar would welcome us. It would just add tension.”
“I don’t think Aang would be much of a problem. He needs to learn firebending eventually.”
“It’s still not so simple,” Zuko tried to explain to her. “I don’t know if uncle Iroh or Lia would want to come too. I don’t want to force it on them.”
“I don’t know about Iroh, but I have no objections about tagging along. Sokka is fun to mess around with.” Lia materialised next to him.
“Where is he now?” Katara asked the Spirit curious. Lia shrugged.
“He went to find the others. I’m sure I heard Toph yelling at him as I came back.”
Zuko looked at her uncertainly. “Do you think we should travel together?”
Lia stretched on her back, gazing at the sky thoughtfully. “It’s not as if we have anywhere to go,” she said thoughtfully. “And I’m willing to bet that Iroh has a few plans of his own. Maybe it would be better if we kind of let him in peace to do whatever he wants. It would also be good for Aang to know he has a firebending teacher. And I’m sure neither of you would have much of an objection.” She lazily raised her head to see the two teens avoiding each other’s gaze blushing. “I thought as much,” she remarked laying back down. “You’d better go talk with Iroh, Zuko. If he doesn’t have any objections, it will be only Sokka disagreeing.” The two teens shot her a look. She looked at them surprised. “What? Toph had been pestering Aang to let us come with you ever since they left the house! He’ll come around, even if it’s just to get away from her.”
Zuko rolled his eyes. He had gotten used to Lia’s way of thinking (not that he always understood her) and he knew she had a way of reading other people’s thoughts. But now he saw her through Katara’s eyes, and it sounded like a lot of nonsense. He stood up carefully. “I guess you’ll make me go and talk to him,” he said at the Spirit.
“No need. You’ve already decided it,” she told him cheekily. Zuko sighed and waved goodbye to the two girls, before leaving to find his uncle.
Katara glanced at the Spirit nervously. She didn’t know what to say to her now that they were alone, but they couldn’t just sit there not saying anything.
“You know, you made Zuko really happy yesterday,” Lia suddenly told her.
“Really?” Katara looked at her surprised. The other girl was now sitting, facing her with a serious expression.
“He’ll kill me for telling you, but he has been falling for you for quite some time now,” she said. Katara blushed.
“How long?” she asked, trying to sound casual.
“Oh, he noticed you back at the South Pole alright, but it didn’t hit him before your little encounter with the pirates.” Lia laughed. “When I told him that that necklace of yours was a betrothal gift…” she was laughing so hard she could hardly breathe. Zuko’s horrified expression had been priceless.
“It’s been quite a shock for me too,” Katara said dryly. A thought occurred to her. ‘That’s why you said it was about time we talked?” Lia nodded. She had noticed how awkward the waterbender was acting around her.
“Katara, really, there’s nothing to be nervous about. Relax!”
“It’s just that…” the girl tried to explain.
“Would it be different if I hadn’t told you I’m a Spirit?”
“I guess.” Katara admitted. “I should be used on Spirits. La! I’m traveling with the Avatar. It’s just I have always imagined the Fire Spirit different.”
“If it makes you feel better I wasn’t always a Spirit,” Lia said. “Besides, the Spirit World is very much like the physical world. Anyway, would you ever imagine that Spirits as powerful as Tui and La would chose the forms of fish?”
“I guess not.” Katara said unsurely.
“How did you imagine me?” Lia asked curiously. Katara had started to relax, with the semi-normal conversation they were having.
“Full of flames,” She said jokingly. Lia winked. She stood up and moved away a little. She closed her eyes and suddenly she looked…different. Her eyes seemed older and her hair and dress danced in an invisible breeze, trailing sparks behind them and moving almost like actual flames.
“Like this?” she asked teasingly.
“Pretty much,” the waterbender said uneasily. Lia closed her eyes once more and the next moment she was back at her old self: still otherworldly but somehow more human.
“I rarely take this form,” she explained. “It’s not practical to go around in it. And to be honest with you, I don’t really like it.”
“Can you tell me about the Spirit World?” Katara asked curiously. “It sounds like an unbelievable place to me.”
“It is unbelievable at the beginning,” Lia said, sitting down. She hadn’t told stories to anyone for a long time.
Zuko walked towards the canyon. Sure enough his uncle was there. He sat comfortably on a flat rock chatting with Toph while Aang was practicing nearby. Sokka was nowhere to be found. Once he was near Toph called.
“Well, if it isn’t Sparky!” Zuko winced at the new nickname. At least it was better than “Zuzu”.
“Can I talk with you uncle?” he asked formally, ignoring the smirking earthbender.
“Of course,” his uncle stood puzzled and followed him back to the forest. They walked in silence for a few minutes. Iroh looked at his nephew surprised. It wasn’t like him to hesitate opening a conversation. Meanwhile Zuko was trying to think how to begin.
“Uncle, what are we going to do from here?” he finally asked. So that was it! Iroh knew that Zuko wanted to go with Katara. It surprised him that he hesitated.
“What do you want to do prince Zuko?” he asked the teen.
“I want to travel with Katara and the others, but…” Zuko looked at his uncle uncertainly. “I don’t want to force you or Lia to follow me.” Iroh smiled proudly. His nephew had come a long way over the last few months. It was time to let him go.
“I believe it is time to continue on separate paths,” he said.
“What do you mean?” Zuko looked at him alarmed.
“You and Lia will travel with the Avatar. It has been your destiny all along my nephew.”
“But what about you uncle?”
The old General smiled. “I will head to Ba Sing Se. I have some business to take care of.”
“What business?” Zuko insisted. What could his uncle mean by that?
“Oh, just old people’s stuff,” Iroh said indifferently. His nephew didn’t seem convinced. “I will explain everything to you in due time. But for now, do you agree with this arrangement?” Zuko looked at him for a long time before nodding. “Marvelous!” Iroh said satisfied. “Now, I think we should get back. A cup of tea before packing is necessary!”
Zuko followed his uncle exasperated. Even if the end of the world came, Iroh would invite it for a cup of tea before getting down to business. As they neared the house they heard laughter. Lia and Katara were still sitting outside the house talking. Or more accurately laughing. When they saw the two men approaching, they tried to stifle their giggles, to no avail.
“What’s so funny?” Sokka called, appearing at the clearing almost simultaneously with the two Fire Nation men. At his sight the two girls began laughing again.
“Zuko you have to see this one!” Lia called him, when she managed to catch her breath. She created a rather large circle of flames. Sokka’s face appeared in it.
“His name is Zhao,” the Sokka on the image said. “Middle-aged, big sideburns, bigger temper.” The image disappeared. Everyone but Sokka was laughing.
“This is the most accurate description of Zhao I have ever heard,” Lia declared. At this Sokka’s face turned from annoyed to smug.
Once they had caught their breaths Katara turned to Zuko. “So, what did you decide?” Zuko looked around uneasily.
“I would like to travel with you if you want me in your group.”
“I’m tagging along!” Lia rushed to add. Katara turned to Iroh.
“What about you General Iroh?” she asked. He shook his head.
“My place is not amongst all you young people,” he said. “I will continue on my own. But,” he winked at Katara, “I trust you to take care of my nephew.” The girl blushed.
“Absolutely…” Sokka began crossly.
“Yes!” his sister finished. Sokka looked ready to have a seizure.
“What?” he yelled at Katara. She merely pushed him away, unfazed.
“Aang needs a firebending teacher,” she simply said.
“She’s right Sokka,” Aang’s voice was heard. He and Toph had returned. The airbender turned to the firebender and the Fire Spirit. “You are welcome to come with us,” he said with a hesitant smile.
“Okay! Now this is settled let’s start packing,” Lia said, rubbing her hands eagerly.
“Oh, right! My opinion doesn’t matter at all,” Sokka grumbled, stomping back to the house.
Aang thought it would take them more than usual to pack with two extra people. But to his amazement it took less. Zuko and Lia made a good team and they seemed to collaborate perfectly with everyone else. Sokka seemed to be the only one having serious trouble. He would glare at the prince with every chance he had. But even he couldn’t remain angry, seeing the amounts of food they packed. Finally the time came for farewells. The teens wished goodbye to Iroh and took off. The old General stood looking at the bison until he disappeared at the horizon. Then he left with a secret smile. He had some old friends to meet.