Author's Note: This takes place after episodes 310 and 311, "Day of Black Sun". Obviously AU, even though I started this wayyy back after the DoBS episodes had been aired, in 2007.
Apologies in advance for the slight Haru-bashing. o.o; I don't really have anything against the guy; I just thought his interactions with Sokka and Toph might make for some silliness.
On with the show!
"The spirit of the best of men is spotless—like the new lotus, in the muddy water which does not adhere to it."
—Lalitavistara Sutra, "The Birth of Buddha"
-a westerly wind-
High in the air upon Appa's back, the war-weary group made their journey through the sky. Aang held the reins, sitting apart from the group at Appa's head; the rest of the travelers rested in the wide saddle.
The Duke was fast asleep beside Teo, who was also dozing contentedly. Toph, Sokka and Haru were stretched out opposite the sleeping boys, discussing their situation. Katara vacillated between listening to their conversation, and glancing over at Aang at the reins.
"I can't believe they knew of our plan," Sokka groused. "Now we've lost our one-in-one-hundred-years chance to kill Ozai. We were that close…"
"It couldn't be helped, Sokka," Toph reminded him, her hands behind her head. "Azula knew exactly what she was doing by baiting us."
Haru spoke up. "But if we have the Avatar with us, isn't he powerful enough by himself to have taken down the Fire Lord? Why didn't he continue the attack on his own?" He looked over towards Aang at Appa's head as he spoke, his brow knitted with slight confusion. "Why did he—"
"And just leave Aang there to fend for himself? We'd never do that." Katara spoke up quickly on Aang's behalf, shooting a hard look at Haru. "He's our friend, and we'd never make him face that situation alone." She instantly regretted her harsh words, knowing that Haru's question had been an innocent one, and not accusatory—but her emotions were running high, after being forced to leave her father and the other members of the Southern Water Tribe and the Earth Kingdom in the hands of the Fire Nation troops. She was sure their domestic prisons were nothing to laugh at.
And Aang, she thought, looking over at him worriedly, can he still even go into the Avatar State? His injury back in Ba Sing Se was so severe, and I haven't seen him even attempt to try it since then…
"I'm sorry, Katara," Haru whispered, looking contrite. "I didn't mean to suggest we should just abandon Aang in the Fire Nation. I just…"
"It's all right. Don't worry about it. I'm sorry too, Haru," she said quietly, and half-stood to leave. Haru watched penitently as she slid herself over the saddle, and joined Aang at the front of the bison.
Haru turned back to face Toph and Sokka, who were looking at him dumbly until Toph spoke up. "I have a habit of nicknaming people around here," she said affably to the young earthbending man. "I think I'm going to call you 'Blockhead'."
Haru's face fell flat, and both his eyebrow and his newly-grown mustache twitched with repressed irritation.
Katara crawled up the flying bison's neck to Aang at the reins, folding her legs underneath her as she sat beside him. She watched him for a long, quiet moment; but he made no move to speak to her, instead staring straight ahead at the expanse of sky before them.
"Hi," she offered softly.
He half-turned, gray eyes lidded and face downcast. "Hi."
"Are you okay?" Katara asked. "Do you need anything? I think we saved some dried mango from our last food stock, and—"
"No thanks," Aang answered quietly, and resumed staring out into the clouds ahead of them. "I'm not really that hungry right now."
"Aang, I know you think that this is somehow your fault, that the attack on the Day of Black Sun didn't work," she started, her voice laced with hesitation. "But I want you to know that it's not, at all. We were all ready to carry out our plan. We just got caught in a trap. There was nothing you or anyone else could have done."
Aang sighed, and his entire slight body seemed to sag with the weight of his exhale.
"I appreciate that you're trying to make me feel better, Katara," he finally said, "but it doesn't change the fact that I missed the window of opportunity to take down Ozai. I'm the Avatar; it was my responsibility." He looked over at her. "And now I'm afraid that when Sozin's Comet comes, Ozai will be more powerful than ever."
"But you can still defeat him, Aang," Katara consoled him. "You've mastered all the elements, you—"
"I haven't even practiced my firebending," he retorted as he turned away once more, his eyes becoming stony and serious. "And I don't have a teacher. If I can't firebend, I won't be able to beat the Fire Lord, no matter how good I am with the other elements." His head hung even lower, and Katara's posture deflated. She reached a tentative hand out to touch his shoulder, uncertain.
Suddenly they were interrupted by Sokka, yelling and pointing enthusiastically at something in the distance. "Look! Look!" he was shrieking. "That must be it!"
Katara and Aang both looked ahead, as did the other members now awake on Appa's back. "The Western Air Temple," Aang whispered, and his eyes brightened slightly with the prospect of encountering the last of the four Temples of the Air Nomads. Like the other temples, he had not visited it in over a hundred years.
And unlike the other temples, Katara silently prayed to herself that it was intact—and not abandoned, or remodeled, or destroyed as the other three had been. Please, Spirits, she thought. Give him this one shred of hope.
The Air Temple was a stone fortress on a windswept mountaintop. It looked vacant and undisturbed, with green foliage growing steadily around the building's structure. Katara bit her lip and willed it to be habited as Appa began his descent.
None of them noticed the red war balloon, with the flaming crest of the Fire Nation insignia on its side, following them in the distance. Undetected, it coasted downward into the valley just below the temple, and landed there under the cover of trees.
Appa touched down on a large stone balcony and lowered himself, folding his legs underneath him as the group slid off of his back. Aang patted his head affectionately. "Thanks, boy." The bison grunted in response.
Teo and the Duke, holding onto Teo's wheelchair for support, were transferred from Appa's back to the ground by a Toph-made elevator. The young earthbending girl touched her toe to another slab of stone ground, reaching, feeling.
"Toph, do you feel anyone else here?" Aang inquired, and he waited as she moved her feet in her attempt to detect vibrations. Katara's heart began to sink as she watched the hope on Aang's face.
Finally Toph spoke. "I don't feel anyone besides us," she answered. She could feel from the tremors of the ground underneath him that the Avatar was disappointed. "I'm really sorry, Aang."
He nodded tersely, looking at the ground. With one hand he flicked his staff to open his glider, and went to the edge of the balcony. "I'm going to look around, just in case."
"Aang, wait!" Katara moved toward him as though she wanted to go with him, but he was already in the air and soaring to the upper levels of the temple. She watched him take off into the wind and disappear around a corner of the stone wall.
She knew she couldn't airbend, but she was worried about him, and didn't want to let him out of her sight. If he came across something as he had at the Southern Air Temple, when he'd found Monk Gyatsu's body beside the Fire Nation helmets…
Katara shuddered. She wanted to protect him, at all costs. He was so important to everyone. He was so important to her…
…just how important is he to me, exactly? She recalled the kiss he'd surprised her with on the boat before the attack, and felt her cheeks grow hot as they had before. It's all so confusing.
Behind her, the group was adjusting to their new surroundings. "Come on kids, let's go set up camp," she heard Haru announce in a decidedly paternal tone; and while it was met with groans and complaints from the others, it was met with an indignant screech from Sokka.
"Wait a second," Sokka interjected, "I'm the one in charge here, I'm the one who makes the Dad-like authoritative commands! Furthermore, I'm not a kid!"
"Well, you are younger than I am, Sokka," Haru asserted haughtily, and the water tribe boy sputtered in disbelief.
"By like, three months! That's not it at all—we're essentially the same age, but you seem to think you should be the leader just because you have a MUSTACHE!" At that, Toph, Teo, and the Duke snickered to themselves.
Haru, with his superior height, bore down on him. "You have a problem with my facial hair?" he demanded sternly, but the effect was neutralized when Sokka began picking up clumps of the grass that grew sparsely on the temple's balcony and haphazardly attached them to his face.
"Look at me!" he crowed, as his voice dropped three octaves and he gestured wildly. "I'm Haru! I'm an authoritative figure because I have a BEARRRRD!" The others exploded into peals of laughter.
Haru scowled, and stomped his foot; a pillar of rock popped up from the ground underneath Sokka and tossed him, screaming, up into the air like a puppet. The laughter continued.
Katara ignored the group's antics, and continued to stare off into the distance, in Aang's departed direction.
Zuko deflated the balloon after his landing, hiding it to assure the Fire Nation insignia printed on it remained out of view. He looked up at the Air Temple, towering above the tree-laden valley that covered him from sight. The sun was on its way down to the edge of the horizon; it would only be a couple of hours until dusk.
Zuko, this is by far the stupidest thing you've ever done, he reminded himself. Another voice in his head, long repressed but finally beginning to be heard once again, said, and at the same time, it's also the wisest.
The familiar feelings of worry and doubt set in. He looked up again at the temple. Uncle, I wish you were here to tell me how to handle this.
Somehow he had to make it clear to the Avatar and his group that he was no longer a threat to them. The fact that he'd been following them around now for an entire year, fighting them and trying to capture Aang to bring home to his father, didn't make the prospect of doing so any easier.
He suspected the Avatar himself would be the most forgiving, in this case. Iroh had told him long ago that airbenders had been notoriously quick to forgive and forget trespasses, due to their changeable nature. He and Aang had saved one another's lives before—he had freed the Avatar from Zhao's clutches, albeit for his own purposes, and Aang had repaid him by not letting him freeze to death at the North Pole. Aang had even once expressed the desire to become friends with him. It was very possible that the young monk would believe him—and trust him—before the others did.
The others, the water tribe siblings and the earthbending girl, were likely to prove to be much more difficult. Particularly Katara, the waterbender.
She had let down her guard before him in the crystal caverns underneath Ba Sing Se, and shared with him the pain of losing her mother to a Fire Nation raid. He had confessed to the same loss, under different circumstances; and from then it had seemed as though they had momentarily bonded with one another. She had even offered to help heal the scar he'd suffered from Ozai, despite it being three years old, with water she claimed was from the Spirit Oasis in the North Pole.
And then, he'd gone and botched it up. As usual, Zuzu, Azula's voice helpfully supplied in his head. He shook it to clear it.
He had told her he'd changed, but he had betrayed the fragile trust he'd built with her. How could he expect to regain it?
His pack of supplies slung over his shoulder and his twin broadswords sheathed at his back, Zuko hoped he would figure out the answer to the last question before he reached the top of the mountain.
Soaring on his glider, Aang cruised the wind, looking for signs of life down below. "Hello? Anybody here?" he called. He touched down on another balcony, one much higher than the one the group had settled on, and folded his glider back into a staff, looking around curiously. There was nothing but stone and dust, and vines of plants growing steadily around the structure.
He followed the balcony as it wound inwards toward the center of the building, and eventually came upon a large, sturdy door. Three connecting pipes adorned the front of it, in the shapes of airbending spirals.
"The sanctuary," Aang whispered to himself, and realized that again, like the other temple sanctuaries, this door had most likely not been opened in over one hundred years. The last person to have done so would have had to have been an airbender.
He set his staff down on the ground beside him. With his hands he formed a vortex of air between his palms, and he lunged forward and bent the wind into the ends of the pipes.
The air traveled upwards, and one by one the pneumatic pipes sounded out like horns, low and haunting, turning as the air churned inside of them. Slowly the locks were undone, and the double doors swung wide open, the hinges creaking and groaning with disuse. The interior of the sanctuary was dark and dim.
Aang picked up his staff once more and, taking a deep breath, stepped cautiously inside.
Dusk had fallen. The sun had just sank beyond the horizon, and the sky was growing dark. The members of the group were curled around a fire, nibbling on their rations of food and talking quietly with one another. Toph was continuing to perfect the group's newest pastime; the subtle art of harassing Haru. Though they had slept on Appa's back during their journey, the Duke and Teo seemed ready for sleep once again.
Katara rubbed her arms as she looked out at the encroaching darkness from the edge of the balcony, her eyes worried. Sokka came to stand beside her.
"Any sign of him yet?" he asked, and he too appeared concerned when his sister shook her head.
"I should go look for him," she suggested, but he wasn't wild about the idea.
"Give him a little longer. Aang might have just needed to have some time alone, you know? Maybe he's got a lot on his mind to think about right now, especially after what happened on the Day of Black Sun," Sokka pointed out.
Katara nodded distractedly, and thought, he's not the only one.
"Hey, Haru, ol' buddy," Sokka crowed loudly, as he returned to the base campsite. "'Betcha never cleaned up after a flying bison before, have you? Well, let me tell you what you need to do…"
With a sigh and one last look at the horizon, Katara turned to go back to camp. It was almost night.
Hours later she awoke with a start, as if by some inner alarm. Katara turned over in her sleeping bag, and gazed over in the direction of where Aang's blankets lay. Empty.
She sat up abruptly. He's still not back, yet? Despite Sokka's earlier words, it didn't sit well with her. It's not like him.
She slipped out of her sleeping bag, as carefully as she could so not to disturb the others—especially Toph, with her keen sense of hearing. There was no need just yet to wake the other members of the group. Katara knew they were all exhausted, and if Aang was simply poking around the temple somewhere still, there was no sense in depriving all of them of their sleep.
The only way to travel further up the temple was to follow a winding path at the far side of the balcony, and Katara found it with relative ease. To get to the next level, she had to climb down a small stairway first, and then climb back up across the opposite side. The darkness made it hard for her to see, even with the waxing moon in the sky; but she was determined to at least try, if she could.
As she maneuvered her way carefully in the dark, she heard a soft rustling sound nearby. She stopped, her heart pounding, biting her lip.
"Aang?" she asked the darkness, quietly. "Aang? Is that you?"
She moved cautiously in the direction she'd heard the sound, but suddenly heard it again—this time, behind her.
Before she could turn around, she felt an arm encircle her from behind—one hand grabbing her wrists and securing them together, and the other hand clapping over her mouth. A very familiar and somewhat raspy voice sounded in her ear.
"Shhhhh. Don't scream."
The combination of the hand holding her wrists and his low, whispered voice triggered a memory she would have rather soon forgotten. Fire Nation armor. Ponytail. Scar. I'll save you from the pirates.
From underneath his hand, she gasped. Zuko!