Disclaimer: I do not own Avatar: The Last Airbender.
Author's Note: There's a lot of speculation flying around about what will happen in the next episode, so I'm compiling a few of my ideas. This begins virtually right after The Day of Black Sun.Zuko Arrives
It seemed that Appa had scarcely landed at the Western Air Temple before Sokka began spreading out his maps and regarding them intensely and frantically. Katara finished helping the others unpack and set up a sort of camp in the ruins of the temple. Once the immediate work seemed to be done, she went over to her brother curiously.
"We have to figure out where she is and rescue her," he muttered, half to himself. Katara knew what he was talking about, but she had to find a way to snap him out of it. They needed him to be clear-headed.
"Sokka…" she began tentatively, reaching out a hand to touch his shoulder. He swatted it away.
"Don't talk to me unless you have ideas!" he snapped. "She's been waiting for me for weeks, maybe months. I'm not just going to leave her there!" Aang and Toph approached, but the three new additions to their group kept their distance, appearing to understand that there was nothing they could do.
"And where is there, exactly?" Aang asked softly. Sokka jerked his head up and looked around desperately at Aang, Katara, and Toph. The pain and loss in his expression made Katara's throat constrict, but she forced words out through it anyway.
"I'm sorry, Sokka, but we don't have the time or the resources to go after Suki now," she said gently. "She'll just have to wait with the others."
"Katara's right," Toph added. "She could still be held somewhere in the Earth Kingdom for all we know. Our best chance of freeing her and the rest is to finish Aang's training so that he can stop the war."
Sokka stared at her for a few, long moments. Finally, tears in his eyes, he tossed the scrolls aside and stalked off.
"He knows we're right," Katara sighed. "He just needs a few minutes to himself." Aang nodded, walked a few steps, and then turned back toward her.
"I have to learn firebending now," he said. "But how am I supposed to do that?" Before Katara could answer him, Teo's voice interrupted them.
Katara and Aang both turned to look at him. Teo was pointing toward the sky. Following his finger, a red spot in the sky was just visible.
"Is that one of the Fire Nation balloons?" The Duke asked.
"It has to be," Haru decided.
"How could they have followed us? We were so far ahead!" Katara exclaimed in frustration. Couldn't they just be left alone for a little while?
"They might have just guessed," Toph pointed out. "I mean, we have the last airbender with us; it's not that hard to figure out we might head for the nearest temple."
"I'm sorry," Aang apologized. "I should have thought of that."
"Never mind," Katara cut him off. Sokka feeling desperate and hopeless was all she could handle right now, and she wasn't about to let Aang start in on his perceived failures. "You know this place, and Teo knows the balloons. I think you should both start working out a defense plan in case there are more behind this one."
"Should we get Sokka?" The Duke offered tentatively. "I mean, isn't he kind of the plan guy?" Katara looked in the direction her brother had gone, and then squinted back up at the sky.
"I think we can give him a little more time," she concluded. "I'd guess that balloon will take at least an hour to get here." She looked to Aang and Teo for confirmation and, after conferring for a moment, they agreed with her estimate. The pair then sat down and began making plans.
"What do you want me to do?" Haru asked her, accepting her as a leader, much as he'd done before.
"You and Toph rebuild some of these walls," Katara instructed. "We can take cover there. Leave some openings, though. We can lob rocks through them when the balloon gets in range." She set The Duke to searching the more intact portions of the temple to see if there was anything usable. She didn't expect there to be, but he needed a task. With everyone set to work, she did some experiments with how much water she could pull up and how fast, preparing herself for a fight.
Finally, it was time for the hardest thing of all – talking to Sokka. She decided he'd had enough time to sulk in his own thoughts, so she found him and explained the situation. As she'd hoped, he came to life again with the idea of a new challenge, and it wasn't long before he had a whole battle plan laid out.
Fairly soon, however, it began to look like a comprehensive strategy would not be necessary. No more balloons appeared to join the first one as it grew steadily larger.
"It looks like there's only one person on it," Haru remarked, shading his eyes as he looked at it. Katara squinted as hard as she could but couldn't make out more than a rough blur where the basket was. Haru must have extraordinarily sharp eyes.
"It's Zuko," Aang said suddenly.
"What? How could you possibly know that?" Sokka demanded.
"I don't know; I just do," Aang shrugged.
"So, what do we do?" Toph wondered, cutting right to the chase as usual and forestalling any argument.
"Well, he came alone," said Sokka thoughtfully. "That doesn't sound like he's planning to attack us. Maybe we should just let him land and see what he wants." Katara stared at him in disbelief.
"Who is he?" The Duke asked. He'd found a few intact gliders and was laying them on the ground.
"The Prince of the Fire Nation," Toph tossed off casually. This left the three newcomers gaping at her, but she probably couldn't see that.
"Leave him to me," Katara announced. "I don't think it's a good idea to let him land on his terms or to leave that balloon intact, no matter what his intentions are."
"You make some good points," Sokka conceded. "Are you sure?"
"I can handle it. Besides, if you're right, and he's not planning to attack, I shouldn't be in any danger, right?" Her eyes locked with his, and he gave in, as he always did when she dug in. A short time later, as she prepared to get onto Appa, Aang came up to her.
"Katara…" He didn't need to say any more. She knew what he was asking.
"I won't try to hurt him," she promised. He gave her a boost, and she climbed onto Appa's head. Once up there, she added under her breath, "…much." Appa's saddle had been taken off, but that was no problem for her. Katara picked up the reins.
"All right, Appa, get me up there. Yip yip." Once he was in flight, she pulled the water from both of the pouches she had and readied it. She waited until Zuko (she recognized him now) was over the patch of land she'd selected. While Appa made a pass by the balloon, she sliced the water right through it, using one of her techniques from the invasion. The basket began to plummet down. Katara circled Appa around again, but Zuko was already reacting. He'd climbed up onto the edge, and when he got to about ten feet from the ground, he jumped, rolling as he landed and springing back up to his feet again. His swords shifted during his movement, but they remained in their sheath across his back.
Katara didn't much like him being upright until she knew what he wanted. She grabbed as much water from the ocean as she could easily manage and drove it over him in a fierce wave, knocking him onto his back. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see the rest of the group closing into a loose circle around the intruder. To her surprise, Zuko merely lay there, gazing at the sky with an inscrutable expression.
"I deserved that," he remarked placidly. "Are we done here, or would you like to hit me again?"
Katara paused, confused. His offer was extraordinarily tempting, but Katara thought it might be even more satisfying to punch him directly with her fists. No sooner had she decided to do exactly that than she felt a hand on her arm. There was not enough force in it to really restrain her, just enough to get her attention, and she looked down at it, then its owner.
It was Aang, of course. He did not say anything; he didn't have to. He simply looked pleadingly at her with those big, gray eyes, and she knew that he wanted her to stand down. Katara sighed and let the water run down the hill toward the sea, wondering if Aang knew that she couldn't resist that look of his.
"It's no fun if you're not fighting back," Katara called out grouchily to Zuko, who cautiously began to get up. "But no sudden movements."
"Is somebody gonna introduce me?" demanded Toph, standing with her arms folded across her chest. Katara realized that Toph had not really met Zuko yet.
"Sure," Aang took the duty upon himself. "Toph, this is Prince Zuko, son of Fire Lord Ozai. Zuko, meet Toph, the greatest earthbender in the world."
"So, you're Iroh's nephew?" Toph asked, walking up to him belligerently.
"Yes," Zuko acknowledged.
"Well, he said there was good in you, and that's enough for me," Toph decided, punching Zuko in the arm hard enough to make him wince. Katara almost smiled at the thought that one hardly needed enemies with Toph for a friend.
"Look, I know I'm about the last person you want to see right now," Zuko addressed the group. "You might not believe me, but I want to join you."
Absolute silence reigned as everybody tried to process this. Sokka was the one to break it.
"You've finally lost it, haven't you?' he accused. "I knew it was only a matter of time."
Zuko actually smiled, and that unfamiliar expression on the prince's scarred face made Katara inclined to agree with her brother's assessment. It just didn't look right.
"I can think of many people who probably think that," he confessed. "The truth is, I've recently realized that the person I thought I was supposed to be isn't who I am."
"Sorry, could you repeat that?" asked Sokka, but Katara interrupted.
"Aang, you're the one he almost…" got killed was what she had intended to say, but she choked on the words. The Avatar's near-death experience was still not something she'd completely dealt with, though she knew she would have to do so eventually. "It's your decision."
"I'll listen to him," Aang decided, upon reflection. Katara didn't understand his willingness to forgive, but she'd already agreed to abide by his decision. She nodded grudgingly, and they all sat down together. The sun was setting, so The Duke and Haru collected firewood, and Zuko lit it.
"First of all, Aang, I wanted to say I'm sorry," Zuko said, and Katara started. She'd never heard Zuko address Aang by name before. "I know I've been a…terrible person." He glanced sideways at Katara when he said the last part, and she recognized her own words coming back at her.
"Is that why you're here?" Katara broke in, unable to help herself. "To apologize? I think it's going to take a little more than that, don't you?"
"Maybe we should let him finish," Toph suggested. Katara bit her lip, seething inwardly but conceding to let the prince say his piece.
"No, you're right," Zuko answered Katara, mollifying her a little. "I know saying 'I'm sorry' isn't close to enough to make up for what I've done, but it's a start. I've also come to offer to teach Aang firebending. If you want me to." This last sentence was said as he turned back to Aang.
"Really? You'd teach me?" Aang seemed interested, almost excited.
"Yes. You asked me once if we might have been friends if things had been different. I didn't answer you very politely at the time, but I'd like to give that a try now."
Katara frowned. When had this conversation taken place, and why didn't she know about it? She still didn't trust him.
"I still don't understand why you're doing this now," she said bluntly, figuring that Zuko had said what he was going to. "Didn't you have everything you wanted in the palace?" The firebender turned his baleful, golden gaze onto her and gave her a half smile.
"That's just it," he replied. "I did what I did in Ba Sing Se to get everything I thought I wanted, and I did: my old title, a welcome back home, servants waiting on me, a place at my father's side, and even a girlfriend. But it turned out that I didn't really want those things after all. It all felt empty and hollow.
"I still enjoyed it, for a while. It wasn't me, though, and I gradually began to realize that. I also learned something I didn't know before. Avatar Roku was my mother's grandfather."
A stunned silence greeted this pronouncement, and Katara felt her jaw drop. Zuko and Aang were connected in this way. Was that why Zuko always seemed to be able to find them when no one else could, and why Aang had sensed who was coming? Finally, Toph began to laugh.
"So, you're saying that Twinkle-toes is your great-grandfather?" she managed to squeak out, between giggles. Katara didn't find it all that funny. In fact, thinking of it that way felt downright weird.
"In a way, I guess," Zuko admitted, grinning back at her. Aang raised his eyebrows, also looking briefly amused, but he sobered quickly.
"Do you know of the history of Roku and Sozin?" he asked seriously. Zuko nodded.
"Yes, I do," he added verbally. "So you see, I'm the product of both the Fire Lord and the Avatar, stuck in between two worlds. That's why I had so much trouble figuring out where I fit in. Uncle says I'm the only person with the potential to…redeem our family. I'm just looking for that chance."
"Let me get this straight," Haru put in. "You're willing to help Aang bring down your father?" Zuko nodded solemnly.
"Well, I stood against my father when he was wrong," Teo added tentatively.
"I'm guessing this is a little different," said Sokka, gazing speculatively at Zuko, who looked sad for a moment, making Katara wonder exactly what had passed between father and son to lead him to this decision.
"Probably," replied Zuko shortly, clearly unwilling to talk about it. "Uncle was more of a father to me than my own ever was. I should have figured that out sooner."
"Where is Iroh?" Toph asked him.
"I don't know. He escaped on his own during the eclipse."
"Well, I hope he's okay. I liked him."
"Me, too," Aang added. "He gives really good advice." For some reason, he glanced at Katara when he said this. She furrowed her brow with confusion. Apparently, Aang and Iroh had had some time to talk while they were looking for her in the caverns under Ba Sing Se.
After a little more discussion, Sokka suggested they take a vote. Although some had reservations, all agreed to allow Zuko to join their group.
"One condition, though," Sokka insisted of Zuko. "Stop smiling. It's creepy." The firebender struggled to maintain a straight face while everybody else laughed, even Katara.
Member of the Boomeraang Squad: charleegirl, Jesus.Lives, Liselle129, Strix Moonwing, Avatarwolf, MormonMaiden, libowiekitty, Snows of Yester-Year, La Vixen de Amor, chocolatecoveredbananacheese, Aangy, and honorary member SnakeEyes16
Author's Note: At the moment, I have ideas that will cover about two more chapters. That's not to say I might not go beyond that, but that's what I have planned at the moment.