The kid wasn't much to look at. He was scrawny, clumsy, silent, and intimidated by practically everything. And Zuko was taking him on his journey.

. . . .it's a long story.

_[(-)]_ .n.n'U'n.n. _[(-)]_ .n.n'U'n.n. _[(-)]_.n.n'U'n.n._[(-)]_.n.n'U'n.n._[(-)]_

Booner sang clearly, sitting on a street corner, battered hat held out for coins. Every now and then, he'd hear the faint clinks and jingles of another coin being added to the rest. He didn't know how much he had. That didn't matter. Not right now.

You're sick, he told himself, even as another coin was tossed into his hat. You're injuries are probably infected and you have a fever. You need to get out of the sun. That'll make it worse. You need to find a healer.

Then the teenager walked by. Well. . . rode by. It wasn't the sound of the ostrich-horse's feet in the dirt road. Nor was it the unusual sounds the creature made. It was the feel of heat and clarity that caught him so off guard.

Since he'd been blinded not even two weeks before, the young Earth Kingdom boy felt like he'd been drowning in a black, endless sea. Weighed down by guilt and confusion. Constantly smashing and stumbling and tripping into things and people. And more recently, feeling the chills of fever in the warm sunlight.

But this person was as like a beacon to him as a lost ship at sea. Passing by, the heat that surrounded the teenager reminded him of his sister. Protection, brotherhood, understanding. Family. Things he'd learned to expect and relish from only one other person. . . .but no. She couldn't be here.

Ri is dead. . .

His song faltered a moment. He coughed quickly, briefly, and kept singing. He wasn't sure what he'd felt. It could've been just a passing wave of heat from his sickness. It didn't matter, in the end. But he knew he couldn't just give up. He'd been taught a long time to hold his ground and hold steady, despite any and all odds.

Mountains never fall. He repeated his mantra, despite the twinge of pain within his heart, the phantom ache of bruised ribs. They're battered and beaten down at times, but they never move, never falter, never fall. . . .and never, EVER give up.

He sighed softly to himself, willing away tears of pain and heartache. He wouldn't cry. Not here. Not now.

The teenager who he thought held warmth and safety was already leaving. Already gone. The clarity and light in the sunless, moonless, stormy sea swallowed up. As if it'd never been there. Leaving fever chills and the sounds of feet and voices for him to try to reconstruct the world he once knew.

_[(-)]_ .n.n'U'n.n. _[(-)]_ .n.n'U'n.n. _[(-)]_.n.n'U'n.n._[(-)]_.n.n'U'n.n._[(-)]_

No where was safe. No where. Didn't matter which way he turned, the earth trembled beneath his feet and flung him to the ground, jarring his ribs and knocking the breath out of him.

. . .why can't . . . can't they . . . he flattened himself to the ground, thinking he heard a chunk of rock whistle behind him. Just leave me alo-?! The ground he was on trembled and he was thrown several feet, leaving him wheezing and barely conscious. He lay limp, trying to gather his wits and strength, but unable too.

He felt another tremble of earth, and tried to scramble to his feet before a wave of pain smacked into him, dragging him down again. But nothing came. Cautiously, he rolled onto his side after gathering his thoughts. He immediately regretted that action as his sides rippled with sharp pain, stealing his breath and chasing away his thoughts.

When the pain subsided, he could make out sounds of a fight. There was rock hitting rock, and rock hitting metal. Shouldn't be near . . . he thinks, struggling to rise. Gotta get . . .urk! a wave of heat and anger coupled with pain brought him back to the ground. Something in his belly flickered, responding to the sudden warmth, but he squashed it down and shoved it back.

The teenager was back again. Booner could sense him, vaguely. Sense which direction they were going, the comforting warmth that radiated from them. He had no idea what he was doing here. His thoughts were geared more towards trying to get up and run before the earthbenders had a go at him again. But he did recognize something.

He saved me. . . he had . . . no cause . . .SAVED me. . . from the monsters . . . .

_[(-)]_ .n.n'U'n.n. _[(-)]_ .n.n'U'n.n. _[(-)]_.n.n'U'n.n._[(-)]_.n.n'U'n.n._[(-)]_

It wasn't. . . . and yet WAS as hard as he'd thought it would be. Yet, here he was. Not-so-silently tracking down - stalking - the teenager.

He winced whenever he stepped on the numerous small, sharp rocks. Yelped quietly when he nearly lost his balance and fell when attempting to climb a bit of small - he thought it was, at least - cliff. He had nothing to go on but a faint trace of heat, somewhere out there. It was the teenager. He had no idea how near or far it was. Just that it was faint, and growing fainter the farther he seemed to go.

Or maybe I'm just exhausted . . . I should've bought some stale bread or something, he thinks grimly to himself, shivering in the night wind as he paused, trying to get his bearings. He'd been walking for miles now, across grassland and dirt and rock. He wasn't sure how he was able to track anything like he was. He wasn't following a trail. He simply went in the direction the comforting warmth seemed strongest.

Hours later, he was footsore, completely exhausted, and about ready to collapse. Another blow to the mountain . . . I will not fall! I am STRONG, he chanted his mantra, steeled himself, and kept marching, moving by pure force of will. One tired step after another.

He heard the crackling of a fire a few minutes later. He slowed, carefully easing his way forward. That warm, safe presence was back, stronger than earlier. Somewhere around here . . . just around this bit of ravine, perhaps? Or . . . wherever he was? He reached out carefully with his feet. Hitting a large rock, he tried to feel up to a spot he could climb over. Instead, he worked his way around the boulder he'd bumped into.

"Hey! Who's there?" he heard a voice call, near the louder and ever-present crackle of flames.

Booner froze, then eased his stance into a more defensive position. Footsteps. Coming closer. Stopping a few paces from him, his left. Turning slowly, he looked in the persons general direction.

"Who are you?" the person - male, young, not sure how young - asked warily. Suspiciously.

He's afraid of something . . . but what? Booner shook himself mentally, said nothing, and shrugged.

"Who. Are. You?" the person asked more forcibly.

". . . .Booner . . . ." he said softly. Soft as the wind, and twice as broken.

"Speak up!" the person demanded impatiently. A crunch of gravel, coming towards him. But no more than one loud crunch.

He's advancing on me . . . what should I do? Booner thought frantically. Fleeing was hardly an option. With his luck, he'd trip and fall into a ditch or something equally painful. And he simply couldn't run away. I am like a mountain . . . strong . . . unwavering . . . he nearly started swaying from fatigue, but quickly covered with a slight change in stance.

" . . . kid's an earthbender . . ." he heard the person mutter to himself.

I'm a bender . . . just not the kind you're thinking of. . ., Booner tensed slightly, listening carefully. Whatever this guy did next, he wanted to dodge any attack and run. This was stupid . . . I should've waited and saved my coins for the healer. A chill wracked his frame once more, worse than previous ones, and he couldn't help but shiver.

"Where are your parents?" the person asked gruffly.

Booner paused, ready to bolt. No one else had asked him that . . . could he trust this guy? No, no . . . don't give anything away. Don't tell the truth . . ., Rather than speak, he just shrugged and hung his head, dropping his stance and trying to look absolutely miserable. It wasn't that hard. He'd been feeling miserable for days.

The person sighed but said nothing, walking back towards the fire. A long pause, in which Booner slowly straightened himself so he was standing upright again. He wrapped his arms around his torso carefully, trying to hold back his shivers.

"Well, are you coming or not?" the person demanded impatiently.

Booner flinched out of reflex, then nodded slowly, and edged closer to the fire and the stranger. He felt drawn to the flames. He wanted to reach out into its warmth, and draw it onto himself, warm his chilled form and - NO!, he nearly shouted aloud, stopping just short of the flames and backing away quickly. No, no, no NO. Not here. Not now. Not in front of another person . . .,

He took a deep breath and let it out, slowly sinking to the ground. He couldn't hide his wince when he finally settled himself. He breathed slowly, in and out, - Ride out the pain. Mountains can take this. I am a mountain, too, - in and out, settling himself carefully before turning his face towards the stranger. He kept his head tilted down just enough so that both bangs and his sedge hat hid his eyes. Hopefully, at least.

". . .my name is Lee. What is yours?" Lee asked. The politeness sounded a little too forced.

". . .Booner." he managed to speak up a little more, and make it sound less broken. A little lost and confused, but not quite broken. He hoped.

"Okay, Booner. Where are your parents?" Lee followed up quickly.

Booner turned his head to the side, pushing away memories of Before. ". . . .my family can't help me. Not now. . . ." he choked out, tears lacing his voice and tightening his throat. It didn't help much that earlier today he'd been singing Their song. The one They'd been working on together before . . . IT happened.

". . . tough luck, kid." the person finally replied. ". . .I'll get you to the road that leads back towards the village nearby tomorrow."

Booner nodded to show he'd heard, and scooted a little closer to the boulder - away from the fire - trying and failing to bite down a whimper as he jostled an injury. He shivered again, and let out a half-ragged breath as he curled up carefully on his side, back to the fire.

Tomorrow . . . .tomorrow, I'll be all alone again . . . .but that warmth earlier . . . .it's back, but I don't know what it means . . . ., It was a long time before he settled his jumbled thoughts enough to even think of rest, despite his exhaution. It was hard with the fire so near. He kept fighting the urge to sit up and reach out to it and let its warmth ease his fears and pains. To gaze at it until it was nothing but embers. . . .then build it back up again and repeat the process.

It was hard not too. He longed for the heat, the flames. The smell of smoke and hot glow of embers. But he couldn't have it. Never again.

Never again . . . . never again, forever again. . . .no fires to bake or cook. . . ., his thoughts drifted dazedly before he fell into an uneasy, fevered sleep.

_[(-)]_ .n.n'U'n.n. _[(-)]_ .n.n'U'n.n. _[(-)]_.n.n'U'n.n._[(-)]_.n.n'U'n.n._[(-)]_

Zuko didn't fall asleep right away. He laid down on his blanket roll and watched the unexpected visitor shiver and curl away from the fire. It was the beggar-boy he'd seen when he had passed through the nearby village just the other day.

It could hardly be a coincidence that the same boy had somehow found his campsite just after he'd shown the people of that town who he truly was. He'd left the road far behind himself once he'd put some distance between them and him, before risking a fire, let alone bedding down for the night.

And the kids stance . . . he had to be an Earthbender. He seemed grounded to the earth. . . .but he's just a kid, Zuko grimaces. The Avatar was 'just a kid', and his whole little band of friends were still, technically, 'kids'. Underestimating one's strength or skill based solely on age hadn't helped him before. It wouldn't help him now. But this boy. He raised himself off the ground slightly and looked back over at him.

Clothes nearly torn to rags, filthy, scrawny. Pale, timid, homeless, and orphaned. Whatever had happened, Zuko suspected it had happened more recently. Through many tears in the boys shirt, he could see fading bruises. And the way he moved cautiously as he laid down only further confirmed that he was injured. And by this point, he had every reason to believe that the boy was blind.

He looked my way, but didn't look at me. And not to long ago, when I gestured for him to follow me, he didn't notice it . . . and then he nearly walked right into the flames. Jumped back pretty quick, but still . . .

The kid, - Booner, he reminded himself - shifted slightly in his sleep, mumbling quietly. He waited, but the boy settled again, curled into a tighter ball. His movements knocked his hat askew. A shiver passed through him and he curled up tighter.

Zuko frowns, considering. It's not that cold . . . why didn't he move closer to the fire if he were cold before? Slowly, quietly, he stands and moves closer to the beggar boy. Crouching next to him, he slowly reached out and picked up the sedge hat. Cloth; once green, was now crusty with brown and red. It was wrapped all the way around his head and face, keeping the makeshift bandages tight over his eyes, only half-hidden by dark, filthy bangs.

Freezing, Zuko stared. This wasn't quite what he'd been expecting. Booner moaned and covered his head and face with one arm, curling in on himself again, shivering. Zuko shook himself of his shock. This is what war does, he tried to remind himself. War doesn't care if children get hurt in the process,

He glanced at his pack, then back to Booner. He sighed, set the hat aside, and lightly brushed the boys hair aside, feeling his forehead. "He has a fever. . . ." his eyes went back to the bandages. There was a lot of dried blood on the bandages over his eyes, and it looked old. He'd say about a week or two, at most. And if he hadn't gotten any medicine, or even changed the bandages and cleaned the wound, Booner ran a high risk of his injury getting infected.

He eyed his pack again. Can't just leave the kid out here. . . . but would he even survive the trip to another town? He looked back down at the boy. Face in the shadows and dim light cast by the fire, Booner looked small, weak. Vulnerable. . . .

Shaking his head, Zuko stood and went to his pack. Pulling out his waterpouch, he considered how little water he had for just himself. He shook his head and went back to Booner, crouching next to his head. He nudged at him, trying to get the kid awake. Booner just curled into a tighter ball, whimpering in his sleep. Sitting back on his haunches, Zuko struggled to keep his temper under control and think.

"He needs a healer . . . and I'm not Uncle. . ." he glanced at the ostrich-horse, grazing idly nearby. He sighed. It was a longshot indeed, but his only viable option at the moment. He'd have been headed for another village anyway, the kid or no.

Packing away his gear and loading it onto the ostrich-horse, he quickly scooped up the boy. Booner shifted slightly in his grasp, but didn't wake. All the better, for now, Zuko carefully set the kid on the ostrich-horses back, and wrapped his blanket around him, then put out the campfire before climbing up himself. I don't need him chucking rocks at me in a blind panic.

He set off for the road, and urged his mount as quickly as he dared in the dark. He pulled the kid closer when Booner started to slip off. The child's only reaction was to shiver and curl into the blanket slightly, moaning softly.

I hope I won't end up regretting this. . .