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The Short End

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If there was one thing Lord Zuko had learned in his eighty-eight years, it was that there was still so much of the world he hadn't yet seen. He'd heard rumors of a lush forest in the very middle of the poles; an island off the coast of the Fire Nation mainland where legend said the beaches ran black as coal. And apparently, there was a tiny rural Earth Kingdom town in which Zuko was still a wanted criminal. And that was one of the towns he'd never visited; never had the misfortune of burning half to the ground. Zuko made a habit of glancing at the passing landscapes as he rode Druk through the skies, examining the places he'd likely never visit through his worsening eyesight. There were truly so few places Zuko had been in the world.

How ironic that he kept returning to those meager few, even decades later.

The Misty Palms Oasis had progressed at a speed just beneath the rest of the Earth Kingdom; it had expanded and become incrementally more industrialized, but still contained its fair share of oddities. The rough-and-tumble hooligans. A few dirty-looking Sandbenders. And Zuko's dragon at the gates most likely didn't help the disjointed image, juxtaposed oddly in his spot beside the Avatar's Polar Bear Dog.

And normally Zuko would avoid these places like the plague, because being somewhere that reminded him of his uncle still made his chest hurt rather badly. But the Republic City Chief of Police had called him there. And when a Beifong summoned you, well. Zuko knew better than to question the order.

He wandered through the town beside Tonraq, feeling an odd tug on old, tangled memories. If they served, the seedy bar in which Lin waited was the same one he'd visited with Iroh, all those years ago. Zuko wondered if he'd ever told Lin the story. He likely had; in her youth, she'd loved to curl up beside him and listen to his adventures- his misadventures, really. When he wasn't feeling up for reminiscing, Zuko could usually deter the other kids with a wave of his hand, the suggestion of a game. But Lin was ruthlessly persistent.

No question where she got that from.

As she aged- as they both did- he and Lin still carved out time for stories, little stolen hours of joy in his political visits to Republic City. It was different, of course; her head on his thigh was replaced by a seat across the low table in her first apartment, her fingers, instead of being twined in his beard, took a firm hold around a glass of sake or fine wine. But the stories remained the same.

Not that they'd had time for stories at all recently, Zuko thought rather remorsefully as Tonraq pushed aside the doorway to the bar. Zuko stepped inside to the usual looks of immediate, somewhat horrified recognition. His visits to Republic City, to Lin, became less frequent with age. And after Aang died-

Zuko swallowed the dry, painful mass of emotions down his throat. After Aang died, he could only bear to remain in the city for a day or two at a time.

"Chief." Tonraq's voice jolted Zuko from his thoughts. He turned. The woman who approached them was stiff and formal and gleaming in the light of the bar's sunroof. She was older. She'd gone gray. But Zuko would recognize those sharp emerald eyes anywhere.

"Chief," Lin agreed, and something tightened in her expression. "Lord Zuko. I'm relieved both of you are here- thought I'd have to occupy myself by arresting some of the bar's other patrons just to kill time."

"They have Pai Sho, if memory serves," Zuko contributed.

Lin's eyes found his. "Sometimes you're remarkably like Great Uncle Iroh, you know that?"

"I can't imagine a better compliment." Zuko smiled. "Am I going to have to wait here all day, or will you give me my hug already?"

Lin rolled her eyes as she wrapped her arms around his waist. "Fine. Here's your damned greeting."

Zuko hugged her back- a tricky feat, with the plate armor, but he'd take what he could. A hug from Lin was a succinct, fleeting formality- one that Zuko knew she secretly enjoyed. Or that was usually the case. But Zuko couldn't help but notice how Lin's hands lingered at his sides that day.

"Are you alright?" He whispered into her ear.

She pulled away rather quickly after that. "Me?"

"Yes, you."

"Oh." She waved a hand dismissively. "I'm fine. Why don't you sit? I'll fetch us drinks." She eyed Tonraq. "Whiskey?"

"Always." Tonraq sounded exhausted.

They chose a vacant table in the corner of the room- not that it mattered, with the attention directed onto them- and Zuko collapsed into the worn wooden seat with a satisfied sigh. Riding Druk became harder with each passing year. Agni, but he was getting old.

Lin returned soon after; two neat whiskeys, a spiced ale for Zuko. He smiled at her as she sat; she seemed to force the corners of her mouth back up at him.

"News of Korra?" Tonraq asked.

"None yet," Lin conceded. "I've got a squadron of officers on their way. We're monitoring the radio; last we heard, she dismantled the Earth Queen's airship and landed in the desert just north of here. Any more news and we'll be the first to know. Korra left her dog here- I'm sure you got assaulted by it on the way in- which makes me think she'll be returning sometime soon." Lin drummed her fingertips on the table. "I scoured the town until I found something for the animals to eat and have been in here ever since. It's been a few hours, now."

"What am I going to do with that girl?" Tonraq moaned. "Chasing after someone as dangerous as Zaheer- and that's assuming she gets out of the desert alive-" his eyes fell on Lin. "Why didn't you stop her? Weren't you traveling together?"

Lin's eyes narrowed. "Trust me- I tried my best. Encountered a bit of resistance."

"Well you should have tried harder, Chief Beifong. This is on your head."

Lin frowned at her glass. Zuko touched Tonraq's arm. "Don't worry. Korra's the Avatar. If there's one thing I know, it's that nothing as trivial as a land mass can stop her."

Lin snorted. "That's for damned sure."

The table quieted, and Zuko took the chance to examine Lin more closely from the rim of his ale. She was showing her years; the slicing wrinkles between her brows and on either side of her mouth painfully familiar from the ones on his own face, on Izumi's. Power wrinkles, Katara had called them once. Because being in power means you do nothing but frown.

He leaned over the table; Tonraq seemed lost in his drink, anyway. "I've missed you."

"You, too." Lin swirled the liquor, scowl unchanged. "And how's my mother doing?"

Zuko grimaced. It was a question she always asked; Lin automatically assumed that Zuko had more contact with Toph than she did. Correctly so.

"Your mother is in Foggy Swamp. Something about getting the hell out of dodge. I knew better than to ask questions."

"Sounds like her." Lin threw back the entire drink without as much as a grimace. Zuko frowned.

"You've gotten good at that."

"Drinking?" She looked surprised. "Goes with the territory."

"What territory?"

"Everyone at the Force drinks after a rough day or two, Zuko. It's a learned trait." She crossed her arms. "At least this stuff is potent. Better than the swill they tried to serve at Zaofu."

Zuko blinked. "You were at-"

"Mm." Lin glared at her fingers. Zuko waited for her to speak, but she remained silent.

"How- did it go?"


"You saw your sister?"


Zuko frowned at her cold tone. Previously he and Lin had gotten along quite well. But they'd spent so much time apart as of late; something about the woman in front of him was different. Closed. There was a guarded look in her eyes that he didn't recognize. "I think I flew over it on my way here," he contributed poorly, ignoring the pang of disappointment in his chest.

"Druk's here?" She sounded more interested. Zuko should have known; Lin loved that dragon.

"He's just outside the town. Would you like to see him?"

Lin heaved herself to her feet, holding a hand to help Zuko. "Might as well; we've got nothing else to do. And someone should at least ensure he hasn't eaten that moronic little ferret thing. One of the Avatar's friends is unhealthily attached to it."

"You sound like your mother. She always hated Momo."

"Spirits forbid." Lin's gaze fell on Tonraq. "Will you be joining us, Chief?"

Tonraq waved a hand. "Go ahead." Zuko resisted a smirk; Tonraq was much less thrilled with Druk, had nearly vomited off the dragon's side as they'd escaped the Northern Water Tribe together.

Zuko and Lin walked slowly outside the town, to stares and the uncomfortable looks of remorse and hatred that he still received in little rural towns such as these. Some people never got over the war, even if they never lived in it. Its impact remained; a lasting scar on generations.

Well, he'd at least know something about that.

Lin sighed when they approached Druk; the dragon seemed to mimic her, bowing its gigantic head, ruby scales glinting in the desert sun as its deep amber eyes found her form. "Hey Druk," she greeted, stepping up to him. Then beneath her breath, "Hey, baby. It's me, it's me. Have you missed me? Do you remember who I am?"

"He recognizes you," Zuko commented happily, eyeing the Avatar's dog and the little red ferret sitting astride it with relief. Thank Agni; that would have been a tricky one to explain.

Lin stretched out an arm, touching the dragon's flank. Zuko watched her calloused hand as it gently caressed the scales. "I wasn't sure he would. It's been a very long time."

Zuko listened for a hint of remorse in her voice; an accusation, but there was none. Only the guarded nothingness Toph too had gotten quite good at in her own time as Chief of Police.

"Do you remember when everyone was traveling together, we'd take the dragon out with Izumi while the rest of them rode on Appa?" Zuko asked softly. He remembered well. They were some of his favorite days.

"Less crowd and conversation, much better views. I preferred him." Lin touched the dragon's neck, leaning her forehead against the scales. Contented steam billowed from Druk's nostrils.

Zuko approached her. "You were always his favorite, too. He loved- loves you, very much."

Lin's voice lilted once again, scratching the sweet spot beneath Druk's chin. "I love you too, baby. You too." The dragon's eyes closed. Lin's hand slowed, curling into a fist against Druk's flashing scales. "Shit. It's been a while since I've said that."

And just like that, she seemed to fold into herself in front of Zuko's eyes. Her shoulders fell, her brows drew together. An unhappy look that he, unfortunately, had no trouble recognizing on her. She sagged forward into the dragon who shifted a little to accommodate her weight, sliding down the creature's scales and settling in the sand below. Zuko grimaced, embarrassed; Lin had always been rather self-conscious in displaying any sort of sentiment. He stooped with unease, touching her shoulder.

"Lin, I-"

She pulled away from him, leaning her forehead against the flank. "Can I have some privacy, please?"

Zuko swallowed the fresh wave of bitterness that rose in his throat. In his experiences, she'd always suffered his touch with less complaint than usual. But it had been a while since he'd seen her. Zuko looked over his shoulder. The rest of the area just outside the oasis was empty.

"Are you sure?"

She nodded, voice muffled from where her thick, curling hair had swung forward to obscure the space between her mouth and Druk's scales. "I want to be alone."

Zuko wanted to tell her that she didn't have to be alone, not now, not when he was finally beside her again in Agni knew how long, but the words died on his tongue at the dismissive tone of her voice. Instead he reached upward into Druk's light saddle, extracting a dry waterskin and making his less than steady way back toward the oasis' front gates. Upon reaching the meager shade from the curved entryway, Zuko turned back; Lin hadn't moved in her spot against Druk, twin reflections of the sun glinting from her armor and the dragon's shimmering red scales.

The bar had only become more crowded as the sun had climbed to the highest point in the sky; a group of haggard-looking sandbenders sat at the table beside Tonraq, eyeing him warily. Other townspeople had ventured into the little hut too, a likely traditional upswing in patronage around this time of the day, the exhausted desert dwellers seeking shelter from the sun's heat. The smell of synthetic fruit syrups lingered in the air and the corner of Zuko's mouth tugged upward as he approached the bar, requesting a refill of his waterskin to a practiced, wounded look from the bartender. When he and Iroh had visited the bar all those years ago, the older man had loved the fake drinks. The smell alone had made Zuko sick. If he hadn't been able to stomach the stuff back then, there was no chance he'd be able to drink it now. Zuko leaned against the high bar top while the waterskin was filled, sweeping some stray sand from the stone.

Lin had moved in his time away, her back now propped against the dragon, face and torso cast in the meager shade provided by the hulking figure, her eyes closed. Zuko slid down Druk's flank to rest beside her.

She pulled her knees to her chest. "I thought I told you-"

"I know what you said," Zuko interrupted, passing over the waterskin, watching her dirty fingertips trace the woven Water Tribe pattern that encircled the container. He wondered if she, too, could recognize one of Sokka's many compulsive gifts. She likely could; the last time he'd visited her- years ago, although Zuko suspected Lin was not one to change up décor on a regular basis- her apartment displayed a tribal wolf fur headdress, a soft pelt throw across a simple wooden armchair, and even one of the man's own horrid paintings stashed in a dark corner. "But I've had a long life of getting to ignore people when I know I'm right about things, darling. You can't expect me to change now."

She just closed her eyes once again; Zuko examined the light layer of red dust that had settled on her cheeks, the clean tracks of porcelain that ran from her eyes to her jaw.

"You've been crying."

She scrubbed at her face, smudging the lines. "Believe it or not, it does happen. Even to someone like me."

"What do you mean?"

"I hear there's- debate. As to the existence of my emotions. It's not important." Lin waved a hand dismissively.

Zuko hummed his assent as Lin popped the seal to the waterskin and drank, long used to what he understood to be a classic way to avoid conversation. Yet another similarity to her mother, although Zuko wondered if Lin even knew it anymore. He wondered how long it had been since they'd seen one another. There was a twinge of pain, deep within his chest.

Then, Zuko thought of the years it had been since he too had visited Lin, had the pleasure to see the city's magnificent skyscrapers greeting him on the horizon, glinting almost eerily against the mountainous backdrop. His gut twisted.

"Lin," Zuko initiated. "I'm sorry I haven't been to see you these last couple of-"

"How many times do I have to tell you?" She cut across his apology, wiping her mouth dry with the back of her hand. "I don't want you worrying about me."

Zuko reached out a hand, touching the plate that covered her shoulders. It had warmed beneath the sun's rays; she must have been sweltering. "Of course I'm going to worry about you, darling."

"Why, Zuko?" When she turned to him, her eyes were especially wet. "You've got your own family- your own entire nation to concern yourself with- other things can wait."

"You know that I've always considered you just as much of my family, Lin."

"I know," she replied. Zuko blinked against the mechanical quality to the response. He stood there awkwardly, not quite knowing how to continue the conversation.


She pulled away from him, scrubbing roughly at her face once again. "Sorry. Sorry. Damn, we're waiting to see if the Avatar's been captured, and I have the audacity to make this about myself-"

"There's only so long you can prioritize other things above your own, uh- your own turmoil."

She scoffed. "I don't have any turmoil, Zuko. Don't be ridiculous."

"Lin, please don't insult me by insinuating that I can't see through your lies. I've known you far too long for that."

She let out a long, tight breath of air. "Fine," she relented finally, relaxing, moving her legs to lay flat against the hot sand in front of her. Zuko uncrossed his own, settling them parallel to hers.

They remained there for a while in silence; Lin's fingers traced the curved edges of Druk's glittering scales, the dragon dozed contentedly in the afternoon heat. Zuko watched the especially battered-looking group of Sandbenders emerge from the oasis, pulling a sand-sailer into the desert, following their forms with his eyes until they'd sailed far away. He was shocked at how content he became, with age, to sit and watch the world move around him. It was something he hadn't been able to stand in his uncle, when Iroh was still alive. And now-

Well, any similarity to the man was always a compliment.

"Damn," Lin breathed, wiping at her face again. "I'm always such a wreck around you, I can't believe it."

"Honestly? I'm flattered by it."

"I promise I try," she said softly. "I mean, I really try. I tell myself that if I stay upbeat around the people who matter, they'll want to see me more- it's how to foster relationships with people you care about, right? But I can never seem to do it. Not just with you- with anyone. I'm either abrasive or I just lose my shit emotionally." Her laugh was scathing, condescending. "What a fucking wreck."

"The benefit of family, darling, is that we support one another no matter what mental state we may be in. Over and over, as many times as we're needed, with no qualms about payback or exchange."

"Not in my experience."

There it was- she'd brought the subject up twice. So Lin really did want to talk about it, after all.

"How was it in Zaofu?" Zuko asked, keeping his voice casual. Something like this had to be handled with precision. "And if you say 'fine' one more time, I swear to Agni I'll show up at your apartment in the city and make a scene until you're finally honest with me."

"Damn." She breathed. Zuko almost grinned at how naturally the curse fell from her tongue. "You really do know how to properly threaten people, don't you, former Firelord?"

"I spent my whole life in politics. Call it an acquired and well honed skill." He reached out to brush her knuckles with his own cracked fingertips still blackened from the recent firebending. They left a smudge on her light skin; still, she didn't pull away. "Were you- did Suyin receive you well?"

"Hard to tell."

"What do you mean?"

Lin flicked her other hand agitatedly. "You know how it is. Maybe there was something in her that was happy to see me, but it was- overshadowed. With Su, it was all don't you dare try to kidnap my daughter and you're such a bitter loner no wonder Tenzin dumped you and next time, can you please restrain yourself from attacking me in my sculpture garden, that's what we have sparring fields for-"

The corner of Zuko's mouth twitched and he hurriedly composed his face into a more neutral expression. "Sounds like a typical sibling reunion to me."

"You'd know." And she almost sounded amused. "But in the midst of it all- between the Red Lotus' attacks and our fights and wandering around Zaofu all night memorizing the city's layout when I couldn't sleep, something amazing happened."

"What was that?"

"Su actually backed me up in something." Her voice dropped to a whisper. "I was fighting with the Avatar- not like that's new-"

The corner of Zuko's mouth twitched again.

"-trying to get her back to the city. With the troops, with the Force, I'd be able to protect her there. Much more than I could out here with a handful of fledgling benders and a single airship. I wasn't making much progress, the girl's so damned hard to reason with, you have no idea-" She caught Zuko's eye. "-But then Su- she stepped in for me. She backed me up. I couldn't believe it. After so many years, after our estrangement, after the fights and the screaming and the insults and talking about me behind my back, she chose to take my side."

"That must have felt nice."

Lin's expression softened, the taut creases relaxed into thin lines. "It did." She exhaled, slowly. "That night, I felt so warm; knowing that for once, my family had my back. That there was hope- that we could maybe, finally prioritize, understand one another. And I actually slept." She laughed a little, under her breath. "I was such a fucking idiot."

"What happened?"

Lin's fingers clenched on her armor. "I woke up the following morning to find Su had lied; she'd only wished to briefly placate me while she let the Avatar escape in the dead of night."

"Where did they go?"

"Su sent them away to chase after that man, Aiwei. The truthseer, the plant who was working with the Red Lotus all along." Her eyes were on him again, something odd swam in their depths. "Did you know what she called him?" Lin choked. "Su- she said he was her family. She lied to me, she fucked with my feelings, she endangered the Avatar's life. For this man who betrayed her. For this man who desired to harm her, who conspired to kidnap and do spirits know what with the Avatar. Her family." She scrubbed at her face once more; Zuko averted his eyes, politely. "And now- well, I know where I stand with her, at the very least. I've been prioritized just below a manipulative anarchist who wants to murder Aang's reincarnation." She took a trembling breath. "I wasn't expecting much, I mean, we haven't even talked for three decades, but damn- even that stings a little."

"You were expecting something different."

"I don't know what I was expecting." Lin brushed some sand from the metal bracer covering her arm until it shone again beneath the desert sun. "When we landed, I tried to stay in the ship. I didn't want to see Suyin. But beyond that, I- I didn't want her to see me."

Zuko's eyes traced the deep welts across Lin's cheek. They'd become taut with age, accentuating the harsh ridge of her cheekbone. He stayed silent, hoping she'd continue.

"I didn't want her to see my face, and to know that what she'd done had been so permanent. It's the reason why I stayed away, all these years. Well, one of many. I imagined that she'd feel bad. I imagined that it'd haunt her. That maybe she was able to console herself by thinking they'd healed-"

"After everything, you were still trying to protect her."

Her voice was still soft. "Yes, that sounds right. But it didn't even matter. She didn't apologize. Didn't comment on it. I don't even know why I'm surprised; a member of my family ignores a topic that makes them uncomfortable? Stop the fucking presses."

Zuko frowned at a little desert flower peeking from a crack in the dusty ground, unsure of what to say, watching its minute shadow lengthen as the sun dipped incrementally lower in the sky. It wasn't the first time he'd felt torn between members of Lin's family; previously he'd tried more proactive methods of intervention to find that it only heightened the tensions, the rivalry. Sometime long ago, Toph had accused him for being too quick to take Lin's side. So he'd settled into a quieter role; one he recognized quite well as something Iroh too had done for him when he was younger, wandering the world helplessly on a tiny Fire Nation battleship. He squinted towards the town again, now bathed in a layer of dry, reddened dust. What would his uncle say now? Would the man have said anything at all?

"I'm getting so old, Zuko." Her words interrupted his thoughts, answering his question. "I don't know how much longer I can put up with shit like this. Each time something happens I think, this is it for me. This is what breaks me." She held her hands in front of her, disentangling the right one from Zuko's, staring at them. "And then it- doesn't. And I keep on going. I don't know how I do it but I just- do. I go on, and wait for the next thing that will inevitably happen to me-"

"That's called inner strength, darling."

"Or perhaps it's called being a fucking idiot."

Zuko chuckled a little beneath his breath, stretching an arm to drape over her shoulders. It was a little cooler now; Druk's shadow had almost completely covered them. She moved closer into his side.

"You know how much I love you, right?"

She laughed. "I'm not sure I'm worthy of that honor."

"I'm serious, Lin. Can I tell you a secret?"

She pulled away from him a little, eyeing him warily. "That's a frighteningly disconcerting question, you know. Even coming from you."

"Bear with me, darling."

She swept a strand of hair out of her face. "If you'll stop calling me that- okay."

Zuko grinned. He'd always called her darling- a title his mind reserved exclusively for her, another expression of affection that he suspected she actually enjoyed, loathe as she may be to admit it. "When you were young-" he began. "Since you were born, really, I loved you so much. When I'd visit, you'd grab my hand and pull me away into the depths of the Air Temple, or across the grounds of your mother's house when it was warmer. We'd go explore for hours together. Sometimes we'd even bring Izumi. Your aunt Katara criticized me for playing favorites. Your mother just commended me for my excellent taste."

Lin blinked. "I don't remember that."

"You were too young. And I think you were wrestling with Bumi at the exact moment, anyway. Taking on someone significantly larger than you- well, that's become something of a habit, hasn't it?"

"Another genetic trait, I think."

"You'd be right. Anyway, where I was going with this is that there's much more to family than something as trivial as shared blood. You've always had more family than you've thought. And it's never too late to reconcile with the ones you may have thought were lost forever."

"You're telling me to make up with Su."

"Of course not, Lin. That's not my place to say, nor my right. All I'm telling you is that it's not too late to give up on yourself. Or on others."

Lin sat in silence for a minute, fingers clenching and unclenching around Zuko's. Her eyes had moistened again.

"Lin," Zuko sighed, pulling her against him. "Tell me what you're thinking about."

"It's selfish." Her throat sounded tight again.

"Tell me anyway."

She drew a steadying breath, pressing a little further into Zuko's shoulder.

"What you said before, about showing up at my apartment," she breathed. "I'd have done almost anything, recently, to have you waiting at my doorstep."

Zuko turned towards her again, the now familiar twisting guilt gnawing at his stomach again, in time to watch another tear make its way from her eye, falling into the jagged scars below it, fighting the tide of emotions swelling in his chest. "Why don't you call?" He asked. "Why don't you at least write? You know I'd be there in an instant, Lin. Well-" he patted Druk's flank, who made a contented rumbling sound deep in his throat- "maybe just a little less quickly than that."

She grimaced, shaking her head. Behind him, Druk twitched, adjusting his great weight. "Like I said, Zuko, I don't want you worrying about me. I shouldn't have said anything."

"I'm glad you did." It was the understatement of the year. He'd missed their meetings so much it had hurt, the sorrow of his dwindling relationship with the woman so poignant he'd spoken to his own daughter about it, interrupted her from her harrowing duties as Firelord to get the advice of someone else who Lin had known rather well, how to maintain a connection with someone who valued their job far above their own life and happiness. And yet, they'd been busy, too. And there never seemed to be enough time in a lifetime for everything he wanted to do with everybody he loved.

Zuko thought of Iroh again, and pushed the memories from his mind. He reached out to brush her knuckles with his own fire-blackened fingertips. They left a smudge on her light skin. "Can you forgive me?"

"There's nothing to forgive, Zuko. It's just been- hard. And I'm projecting." Lin's brows drew together; Zuko's eyes wandered the deep crease between them. "After what I experienced at Zaofu, after wondering how much of it is my fault- perhaps I just needed something else to feel guilty about. To forget."

"Perhaps. But what you're feeling? It's still valid, Lin."

The tensing of her shoulders, even through the armor, alerted him that her tears had intensified. Zuko satisfied himself to hold her there, tracing the way the supple plate curved around the padded shoulders of her uniform, touching her chin and dabbing at some of the wet with his fingers until her shaking subsided.

After a few more minutes, Lin stirred beside him, standing and stretching out her back, lowering a hand and hauling Zuko to his feet once again. Druk shifted, seemingly relieved at the loss of weight, and rolled onto his side. Zuko touched the dragon's stomach. It too had widened with age. He stopped when he caught Lin's sharp emerald eyes on him. "What now?" She asked.

And the fact that she was asking him- that the great Lin Beifong gave enough of a shit to care what Zuko thought, was likely the greatest compliment he'd received in a while.

He took her hand. "The Avatar will return," he reassured. "We'll wait here until she does. If not for any of us, for her dog. Trust me when I say there's very little that can stand in the way of an Avatar and their animal."

"I find myself oddly reassured by that."

"I don't think I've ever seen a closer bond." Zuko grinned. "Even your aunt Katara used to complain."

"I can imagine." Lin began a slow pace back to the oasis. Zuko's knees trembled, grateful after the uncomfortable posture. "And after that?"

"I return to the Fire Nation. If the Red Lotus is back once again- well, I have to take care of Izumi."

"Of course you do." Zuko listened once again for the resentment on Lin's tone, but again heard none. "And after that- after the Avatar has taken care of the Red Lotus, I will arrange a visit to Republic City."

She stopped, not quite meeting his eyes. "You don't have to do that, Zuko."

"I insist. If nothing else, to keep your mother from kicking my ass the next time she sees me. And because I- I've missed this, Lin."

Her cheeks pinked. "I have too." She tugged on his arm. "Now can we get going already? Before you turn me into even more of a blubbering mess."

Zuko resumed his footsteps. "You know, my uncle always said-"

She groaned, pulling him to walk a little faster. "Not one of those damned sayings again!"

Zuko could swear he heard a smile lingering on her voice.