Chapter 11: Back on Solid Ground

Haru was anxiously waiting for them when the group finally returned to the Western Air Temple.

As soon as they landed, Toph slid off Appa, got down on all fours and hugged the ground. "Earth! Am I happy to see you again!"

Haru raced over to them, still supporting his injured arm. "Is everyone all right?"

"All in one piece and accounted for. We even managed to bring Zuko back," Sokka teased.

Sokka then grabbed the Airbender in a friendly headlock. "And you should have seen this guy, Haru. Nice bit of air surfing there dude!"

Aang laughed. "Well, ever since I saw Monk Gyatso do that in my vision I had with Avatar Roku, I've been dying to give it a try."

Zuko stepped over to Aang. "Not a bad display of firebending either, Avatar," he complemented.

A faint blush appeared on Aang's face as he smiled. "Thanks, but I had a good teacher."

Aang looked down at the Earthbender who sat on the ground. "You okay, Toph?"

"I am now. Thanks to Zuko and Katara."

Aang and the rest of the gang, with the exception of Katara, looked curiously over at Zuko as Toph explained how he and Katara had rescued her.

Katara was standing off to the side one arm hanging loosely at her side, the other across her waist and holding her left elbow. Her mouth was turned downward into a stubborn frown. The Avatar looked over at his best friend and sighed sadly.

Aang then turned to Zuko. He bowed, placing his fist to palm in the traditional Fire Nation manner of respect. "Thank you, Zuko, for helping us today." Aang said sincerely. "My friends mean everything to me."

Zuko nodded. "I was glad to help, Avatar."

Toph stood up and walked over to Zuko. "Yeah, you're okay in my book, Flame Boy. Thanks for saving my life." She gave him a friendly punch in the arm.

Zuko smiled at the return of the blind bender's gruff tone as he rubbed his sore arm. "No problem."

Sokka uncomfortably rubbed the back of his neck. "Yeah, well I guess you did okay today," he reluctantly agreed. "And since Aang does need a firebending teacher, I suppose you could actually be a decent addition to the team." The Water Tribe warrior reluctantly offered his arm and Zuko accepted it.

Toph walked over to Katara, and as she passed, gave Katara a nudge in the forearm. Her mouth pinched up in annoyance.

As the entire group watched, she slowly stepped forward. The deep blue eyes focused intensely on Zuko. "Just tell me one thing, Zuko. Why did you really help us today?" Katara asked, with the familiar hardness in her tone. "Why did risk your own neck to save one of us?"

"Katara…" Aang started to interrupt.

"It's okay, Avatar," Zuko replied. "I admire her loyalty for wanting to protect you. It's a rare thing to have such good friends."

"I know," Aang replied humbly.

"I understand your reservations towards me after all the things I've done in the past," Zuko said to Katara. "My only excuse is that for the last three and a half years, ever since my father gave me this," Zuko said, indicating the scar, "and banished me from the Fire Nation, I've been consumed with a lot of anger."

He looked to Aang. "Anger that, unfortunately, was directed at you, because of the ultimatum my father had given me that my honor could never be restored unless I hunted you down. It was a lot for a thirteen year old kid to have to face and it screwed me up for a long time. Catching you, destroying you, became my only destiny in life. And each time I failed it became a greater dishonor to bear."

"But my father was wrong. Wrong in so many ways he could never possibly understand. I learned my father's desire for power would always outweigh anything else that mattered, even the life of his only son."

"When I finally confronted him, spoke my mind, and then told him my intentions to join you, I knew there would be no turning back. For once in my life my destiny and my honor were now in my own hands and of my own making."

He turned and looked directly at Katara. "You asked me why I wanted to help you today…why I would risk my life to save one of yours. The truth of the matter is I've come to respect the Avatar and have even come to like him…as a friend. I admire him for what he's trying to accomplish despite all the odds against him, even it that meant taking a chance on me, after all I've done. I also admire the loyalty and friendships all of you share with Aang. It's something I've had little experience myself growing up with in the Royal Palace, but they are honorable qualities I wouldn't mind being a part of one day. But right now, I'll settle for doing all that I can to help the Avatar defeat my father and end this war. And hopefully in the end I can restore my own honor through my own actions, this time for the good."

Katara gazed directly into his eyes, and Zuko did his best not to look away. He wanted to hide nothing of his sincerity or intent. Finally she seemed to have come to a decision.

"All right, Zuko. I'm willing to give you an honest chance this time." Slowly, she extended her arm.

Zuko gratefully accepted it.

But as he went to release his grip, Katara's suddenly tightened and her eyes bored intensely into his. "But I warn you now. Do anything to cause me to mistrust you again, or anything to hurt Aang, and this will be the last time I will ever offer my arm to you in friendship, understand?"

Katara released him and stepped back.

The Prince of the Fire Nation dipped his head humbly then brought his hands up, with both palms together in the traditional manner of respect to the Water Tribe. "I give you my word. And one day I hope that will be enough for you to believe in me."

"It will do for now," Katara was willing to accept.

The Avatar walked over to his best friend and placed his hand on her arm and smiled as if a big weight had been lifted from his shoulders. "Thanks, Katara."

Katara looked down at Aang, and smiled warmly back. "Come on, then. Enough of this. Let's go see what I can do to fix Haru's arm up."

Zuko watched as she and Aang went over to examine the injured Earthbender. The arm was definitely broken below the elbow. The Duke brought Katara some water.

"Hey, is that going to take long?" Sokka suddenly interrupted.

Katara looked at her brother. "Why do you ask?"

"Because I'm starving," Sokka whined. "Do you think you can hurry up and fix that and then make us some dinner?"

Katara turned on her brother, her hands on her hips. "Can't you ever think of something else besides your stomach?"

Her brother shrugged. "Hey, I'm just a simple guy, with simple needs. And right now my need is food woman!" Katara's eye twitched. "But now that you mention it, I do have a big hole in my sock that needs mending," he said teasingly.

"I fixed that hole last week!" Katara snapped irritably. "And I told you then to learn to mend those smelling things yourself next time!"

"But it's on the other sock this time and my big toe is sticking out!"

Katara rolled her eyes. "Sokka, go away before I have to hurt you!"

(Chapter fades to white………)

(Author's notes: So what about the lotus tile and the problem about Aang's Avatar State? Well, like any good Avatar chapter, it leaves the reader with more questions than answers. This fic was mostly intended to focus on developing a friendship between Aang and Zuko as well as gaining acceptance from the Gaang. I do have a few ideas of how Aang my get his Avatar State back, but haven't quite figured it out yet. Maybe I should just wait until and see how the creators do it, lol. Anyway, thanks everyone for reading the fic and the tons of feedback I received. It really helped to keep me focused on finishing this.)