I do not own Avatar or any of its chracters.

New Beginnings

Iroh stared at his nephew and the water tribe girl. Zuko had appeared dead when he and the blind girl had come across him and Katara. Iroh had been devastated. He had thought losing Lu Ten was the worst thing to ever happen to him but seeing Zuko laying there, his chest burned beyond healing, his life slowly ebbing away, was just as unbearable. He couldn't lose Zuko. He loved the boy as if he were his own. And then the girl had used the water she had from the Spirit Oasis and he began to heal, inside and out. Iroh had seen many things in his life but never something as wondrous as that. But even more miraculous was what happened after Zuko regained consciousness.

His nephew had been such an angry young man and Iroh had wondered if he would ever experience the simple pleasures of life. He wanted Zuko to know love; not just the love of an old man for his nephew but the love of a girl that could appreciate him for the good man he was inside. Now it seemed as if that had happened. In the barely two weeks since they had been separated Zuko had seemed to capture the heart of the Avatar's water bending friend. And more incredible was that she had seemed to capture his heart as well. This made him smile. Zuko deserved to be loved. He had suffered so much in his young life; losing his mother, the rejection of his father, and then banishment as well. All of these things combined had hardened his heart and no amount of love and care seemed capable of penetrating its thick wall. But somehow Katara had done it. She had broken through his defenses and gained his trust. Iroh would never have believed it if he hadn't witnessed it with his own eyes.

He continued to gaze at Zuko, the tears still streaming down his face, when his nephew looked up and saw him. Iroh smiled and Zuko returned it with one of his own.

"Well, I haven't seen that in a long time Prince Zuko." He said jovially. Zuko tilted his head in a questioning manner so he elaborated. "A smile, my nephew; I can't remember the last time I saw you smile."

Zuko was quiet for a moment then he said with emotion in his voice, "I have missed you so much uncle."

"I have missed you too, Zuko." And with that he reached out and hugged the boy tight to his chest. To his great pleasure his nephew returned the hug with equal vigor.

"I am so sorry that I couldn't come for you sooner." Zuko whispered.

Iroh pulled back and looked the prince in the eyes. "You did what you had to do. You came when you could. Though it seems to me nephew, that your time away was well spent; you seemed to have conquered some of your inner demons. You have changed," and then in a softer voice he said, "Maybe made some important decisions."

"Things have changed." Zuko replied, "But we can discuss that all later. Right now we should probably get out of here before Azula gets back."

"Oh she won't be coming for us anytime soon." Toph broke in. "Still I'm with the prince. We should be going."

"But what happened to her?" Sokka questioned the earth bender.

"Oh we handled her, or should I say he handled her, but we can give you all the details once we're out of here."

Sokka nodded and then said, "Ok then let's pack up quickly and get moving. Katara why don't you see about Aang, and Toph and I will get the supplies loaded."

The youth went about their tasks and soon the bison was loaded. Katara was helping the Avatar with his injuries and she was just finishing healing his arm when the other two completed their tasks. It amazed Iroh how well they all worked together and it pleased him that his nephew had seemed to find a way to fit into this group during his absence. He smiled again as he prepared to get onto the bison. He had never ridden such an animal before and he was looking forward to the experience.

Zuko sat on the ground, still weak from his experience. Around him the others were breaking down camp and quickly loading Appa. He would be glad to put some distance between them and Azula, the sooner the better. He grinned as he looked to his uncle. The old man was walking towards the bison with a look of wonder on his face. He knew that this would be an experience that his uncle would surely enjoy. He himself had yet to get a stomach for flight, but it was getting more tolerable with time.

Figuring that he should get moving as well he started to get up only to find that he was still too weak to manage on his own. He stumbled a little as he stood and was about to fall when he felt an arm around him to give him support. He turned and was surprised to see Sokka.

"Let me help you." The warrior said.

Zuko looked at him and then simply said, "Thank you."

"Well just don't go thinking that because I'm helping you after you almost died that I like you or something. I'm just grateful for what you did for my sister." His voice cracked at the mention of Katara and Zuko realized how hard it must have been for him to see his sister in such danger earlier.

Zuko smiled and replied, "No, we wouldn't want that." And with that they walked over to Appa and climbed on board.

Soon they were in the air leaving the scene of their battle with Azula behind. It was at that point that Sokka spoke up.

"Ok, so now that were safe, I really want to know just what happened with Azula. How'd you defeat that crazy witch?"

Toph let out a snort and said, "Well like I said earlier, I really didn't get a chance to do too much. It was the Dragon of the West over here that really kicked her butt. I mean he was just fire blast after fire blast. And then in the end he did some funky thing with… was that lightning you shot at her?" She turned to Iroh with the question.

His uncle laughed and replied, "Yes it was. My niece may be able to attack with lightening but she doesn't know the secret to redirecting it when it is aimed at her."

"Redirect?" Katara asked. "Is that what you did Zuko, redirect lightening?" He nodded his head at her and she continued on. "So how do you know a move like that but your sister doesn't? I thought she was some sort of prodigy."

"My uncle invented it and taught it to me." He replied.

"Invented it?" she said and then paused to think. "You know it's weird but the move looked a little familiar to me."

"Well it should," Zuko started, "He actually learned it from watching water benders."

"Watching water benders huh?" Toph teased. "Must run in the family, wouldn't you say Katara? I mean we all know that Zuko here enjoys watching one water bender in particular."

His uncle started to laugh and Zuko could feel his face flush from embarrassment. It was one thing to have Toph ride him when he was alone, but with his uncle around it was discomforting.

Suddenly Sokka let out a laugh as well. "You know Toph that was pretty good. I mean Zuko just walked right into that one."

"Oh Sokka give it a rest. It wasn't that funny." Katara said tersely.

"Toph's remark may not have been that funny, but Zuko's reaction was hilarious. I mean look at him, he's redder than a beet."

Zuko felt himself flush even more. He hated being so embarrassed and he could feel himself becoming angry. He replied bitterly to Sokka, "Well I'm glad I could be a source of amusement for you."

"Anytime; your discomfort is always pleasure." Sokka replied jokingly.

Toph, Sokka, and his uncle continued to laugh and Zuko sat there feeling awkward. This little group was strange. He wondered if he would ever understand them. Of course his uncle fit right in. He had only been with them for just a few hours and yet he was right at home. Zuko had been with them for two weeks and he still felt like an outsider. Suddenly he felt his uncle's hand on his shoulder and he looked up into his face. The old man smiled at him and Zuko realized that he wasn't laughing at him. It was something more. He couldn't quite understand it but it comforted him to know that his uncle was happy. Slowly he felt a smile make its way onto his face.

It was then that Aang spoke up. Zuko had almost forgotten about the boy; he had been so quiet since Katara had healed his stiletto wounds that Mai had inflicted upon him earlier. "You know funny or not, what Zuko did was amazing. By grabbing that lightning like that he saved Katara's life." That comment ended the laughter and all eyes turned to the young air bender. Looking at Zuko Aang continued, "Maybe sometime down the road you could teach that move to me. It would be handy to know for the next time we run into your sister."

Zuko nodded silently to the boy. His words held a deeper meaning to Zuko. Even after all the harsh words yesterday, Aang still wanted them to travel together. It wasn't forgiveness for his nasty remarks but it was a start.

"Hey speaking of Azula, you two never finished your little story." Sokka interrupted. "What happened after you struck her with lightning?"

"Well, my niece tried to dodge it but she wasn't quick enough. The blast caught her in the shoulder and she flew a pretty good distance before hitting the ground. I think the fall knocked her out, but the strike will probably hinder her bending for awhile. I've taken blasts before myself before I learned to redirect it and it is not pleasant. She'll be sore for some time and not much use to her friends once they come for her."

Sokka laughed and said, "Well the acrobat won't be coming anytime soon. Toph buried her up to her waist in earth."

"Well I couldn't stand all that jumping about. It made it hard for me to 'see' her. Once she landed long enough for me to react, I pulled her down. After that she was pretty much defeated. She'll be waiting for her friends to dig her out. Of course she'll have to depend on the sour one to help since Azula is out of the picture for a while." Toph stated.

It was Katara's turn to laugh at that remark. Zuko looked at her and she smiled as she spoke, "Don't count on her either. I left her passed out cold, with a broken nose as well. She's gonna be dealing with her own troubles for awhile."

"You broke her nose!" Sokka exclaimed.

"Well she held me at knife point and then said some very hurtful things. What's a girl supposed to do?" She replied lightly.

"Unbelievable!" Toph remarked. "Our little sweet water bender broke someone's nose and is actually gloating about it."

"I'm not gloating." Katara replied. All eyes turned to her and she blushed. "Ok so I'm gloating a little bit, but she deserved it. She's a mean and spiteful person."

"Wow, I'd like to know what she said to rile you up so much." Sokka said. "I wouldn't want to end up suffering the same fate."

Toph laughed even harder and said, "You know ever since Zuko joined our ranks Katara has really developed an aggressive air about her. I mean she pours that hot food in his lap a few days back, she decks him yesterday after his little spat with Sokka, and today she breaks some poor girl's nose…"

"She deserved it!" Katara interrupted.

"Whoa, back off killer. I didn't say that she was an innocent in all of this. Boy, you really don't like her." She then turned to Zuko and said, "Was she some girlfriend of yours or something?"

"Mai, no way! I made a habit of avoiding Azula and her friends whenever I could when we were growing up."

"Well you may not have shown interest in her but she sure was interested in you." Katara responded heatedly.

"Well the truth comes out." Sokka said. "Trying to eliminate the competition, huh little sister?"

Katara clenched her fists in anger. "It wasn't like that. She held a knife to my throat. She was going to kill me for all I know. I defended myself the best I could."

"Katara I'm only teasing. No one's questioning your motives, really. It's just kind of weird to see you all worked up like this."

"And besides you're almost as easy a mark as Zuko here." Toph said. "I mean between the two of you the fun never ends. Of course now that you guys are an item it almost makes my work too easy."

Zuko could feel himself turning red again at Toph's remarks. His uncle tried to restrain his laughter but it was no use. He let out a deep belly laugh and said, "I'm sorry Prince Zuko but I've never seen anyone handle you like Toph here. She knows just the right thing to say. In fact I've seen you blush more in the last few minutes than in the entire seventeen years of your life." He started laughing again until tears were streaming down his face. Zuko tried to stay mad but he couldn't deny his uncle this simple pleasure, even if it was at his expense.

When he was finally winding down he wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. It was then that Zuko noticed the deep burn marks on his wrists. "Uncle, what did Azula do to you?" He said as he reached out for his uncle's wrists. Taking them in his hands he started to inspect the burns.

"Azula didn't do this, I did." Zuko looked at him questioningly and he continued, "I tried to weaken the restraints slowly over the course of my captivity. I hoped that one day I would be able to break them. But it wasn't until Katara applied some ice to it that they finally broke."

"You mean to tell me that Azula kept you bound for almost two weeks?"

"Well not all the time. When we would rest she would let me out the bindings. Of course she had Ty Lee block the chi in my arms first. I'll tell you I don't know which was worse, the pain of the restraints or the odd sensation that the block created in my limbs."

Zuko could feel his anger rising. How could his sister treat their uncle with such disrespect? No matter how she felt about him she should have honored his position as her elder and treated him with common courtesy. "Azula has no honor." He said softly to himself.

His uncle heard him and replied, "Azula's sense of honor is very warped by her desire to please your father and her need to be perfect. She acts out of her belief that she is right and she does not let emotions or sentimentality get in her way. She saw me as a threat and rightfully so. So she did what she saw as necessary to protect herself and ensure her goals."

"Well I agree with Zuko," Katara said as she moved closer and gently took Iroh's hands from him. "And to think that your brother banished him because of disrespect and weakness on his part. He has more honor than Azula will ever have."

Zuko met his uncle's eyes and they exchanged a look. His uncle smiled and said, "Such a fierce protector you have here nephew."

"Well that's Katara," Sokka spoke up, "Always cheering for the underdog."

Katara ignored the remarks and proceeded to open the water jug that was near her. "Earlier you put me off but I can't see any reason to prevent me from healing you now." With that she wrapped the water around her hands and started the process of healing the burns. Zuko had seen her do this many times over his time with her but he was still amazed by it. His uncle stared in awe as well. When she was finished he inspected his hands and smiled in astonishment.

"What a gift you have Katara."

"Thank you." She replied and then tugging at his left boot she said, "Now let's get a look at that foot."

His uncle protested and said, "No, really my foot is ok. You don't have to do that."

"Yes I do." She responded just as adamantly. "I saw you limping earlier and Zuko said that you injured it during your struggle with the Earth Kingdom soldiers. I need to examine it." The boot wouldn't budge. She turned to Zuko and said, "Give me that knife of your's, we're going to have to cut it off."

"His foot?" Sokka asked.

"No idiot, the boot. His foot is too swollen to get it off without really hurting him." Katara replied.

Zuko took out the knife and started to gently cut the boot away from his uncle's foot. Once it came off he moved back in horror. The foot was purple and swollen. It seemed as if an infection may have been setting in. "How did you manage to walk on this?" he asked incredulously.

"I didn't have much of a choice. The pain was tolerable most of the time." His uncle responded.

Katara set about the work of healing the injury. "It's not broken but even after healing it you should probably stay off of it for awhile. The swelling should go down and the infection should clear up on its own." Zuko watched as the purple bruising started to fade. The swelling did decrease but she was right his uncle would need to keep off of it for some time. He figured the first thing he would do when they landed would be to find his uncle a sturdy stick to use for support.

Katara finished and sat back to inspect her work. She wiped her own forehead and let out a slight yawn. Zuko had forgotten how tiring healing could be for her and she had not only healed himself, Aang, and his uncle but she had fought Mai single handedly. She had to be exhausted.

"You should get some rest." He said to her.

"I'll be fine. It's just been a long day already and the day has barely begun."

Sokka let out a yawn as well and said, "Yeah there's nothing like being awakened from sleep by three crazy girls trying to kill you and capture your friend." With that said he slumped down into the saddle and closed his eyes. "I'm all for a little nap."

"Glad to see you're taking it easy Sokka. We wouldn't want you to tax yourself too much." Toph remarked.

"Thanks for your concern Toph." And then opening his eyes he pointed at Zuko and said, "And don't get any ideas concerning my sister. I'll find out. I have my spies." He then closed his eyes and fell asleep.

"Your brother is just plain strange." He whispered to Katara.

"Tell me about it." She smiled and then yawned again.

He sat back against the back of Appa's saddle and then patted the spot next to him. "You really need to get some rest." He said. She scooted over and sat next to him. He put his arm around her and she snuggled in closer. Not too long after that he felt her head nod forward as she started to fall asleep. She startled slightly and then turned and placed her head on his chest. Within minutes he could hear her breathing become steady as she fell completely asleep.

He heard his uncle cough and he looked up,"I see you take her brother's warning seriously."

"Oh please," Toph said. "Like I'm going to say anything. And I would think that family loyalty would keep you from speaking up."

Iroh laughed at her remarks. Zuko sat quietly as the two started a conversation. Soon he felt his head begin to drop as well. Leaning his cheek on the top of Katara's head he started to drift off to sleep. In his mind he heard the words softly play over from this morning. I love you. Did she really say it or was it all part his dying mind's wishful thinking? He couldn't be sure but he wished it were true. Somehow in the course of his time with her he had lost his heart. He wasn't sure when it happened but he knew that it was true. He loved her. Whether he would ever be able to say those words to her he didn't know, but for now he was content to just enjoy his feelings. Tomorrow they would face whatever came their way and they would face it together.

Katara could feel herself coming out from a deep sleep. She lay still against Zuko's chest with her eyes closed. The rhythm of his steady breathing made her feel calm and safe. She didn't want to end this moment by facing the others so she lay there still, a little more awake than asleep, enjoying the closeness that they shared.

Yesterday had been horrible and just when she thought it couldn't get any worse Azula showed up. The battle that ensued was intense but nothing prepared her for what happened to Zuko. She still couldn't believe that he had taken that blast from his sister at close range. Just thinking about him lying there dying made her involuntarily clutch his chest tighter. She felt his arm instinctively tighten around her and she smiled. Even in sleep he was aware of her.

Faced with his death she had understood just how deep her feelings for him had become. She loved him. Two weeks ago she would have laughed if someone had told her that she would fall for Zuko but two weeks ago she hadn't really known him. Now after being around him day and night she had begun to see the real man that he was on the inside. She saw through the barriers that he had constructed to protect himself from all the pain he had experienced since the agni kai with his father and his banishment. He had let her see that man and she was grateful for his trust.

Trust; she knew that that would be tested soon. They were heading to Ba Sing Se. Zuko's reasons for going were far different than theirs. If he knew their secret would he still travel with them or would he fight them every step of the way? She began to wonder herself if maybe there was another way to bring down the Fire Lord without bringing down the Fire Nation. With Zuko on their side maybe they could figure it out. Whatever their decision it would happen soon. The friendship that they all shared was very tenuous at the moment and she wasn't sure if it would survive the argument that was sure to come when they faced their decision. Whatever did happen she knew that she would not give Zuko up. She had been devastated when she thought she had lost him earlier and she would not go through that again. She loved him and she thought that maybe he felt just as strongly about her. Together they would face this trial ahead. Somehow they would come out of Ba Sing Se stronger than when they went in.

Sleep started again to overwhelm her and she gave in to it willingly. She snuggled up closer to Zuko and smiled. They had survived so much already, surely they would survive this as well. She had faith in their love. She had faith in Zuko as well.

Iroh sat quietly collecting his thoughts. Around him most of the youth had fallen asleep. The water tribe boy, Sokka, lay on his back snoring and the little blind earth bender, Toph, lay still with her head in her hands, not quite asleep, but resting. Most amazing was his nephew and the water tribe girl Katara. They had both been exhausted and had fallen asleep. Zuko sat with his back propped against the bison's saddle. She lay against his chest and was cradled gently in his right arm. How had this happened he wondered? It had been less then two weeks since they had been separated, but yet Zuko had changed more than in the three years they had traveled together.

He had been pleasantly surprised by the way Zuko had found a place in this small group of friends. He reflected back on the conversation that had followed their departure this morning on the Avatar's bison. The teens had talked about the fight but they had referred back to events that occurred over the course of Zuko's time with them. The playful banter between Toph and the others was fun to watch and he was astounded by Zuko's reaction to her good-humored taunts directed towards him and Katara. He couldn't believe it when his nephew blushed from embarrassment when she teased him about watching Katara closely. His nephew was obviously uncomfortable about the remark but he never made a nasty reply in response. Zuko had always had a hard time keeping his feelings to himself in the past and it had gotten him into trouble many times over the course of his life. He was very hot headed but in this group he seemed to know when to keep quiet. Though Zuko may have been sensitive to the teasing, Iroh could see it for what it really was - acceptance. The others felt comfortable enough with him to joke around and they didn't just single him out. Toph teased all of them and Sokka played right into it as well.

He smiled as he watched Zuko. He really had changed. Of course he still had much to learn but he had grown so much during his absence. Zuko had said that he had come to some important decisions and he looked forward to hearing about them later when they could have some privacy. He imagined that his quest to bring the Avatar home to his father had been altered. From the young air bender's remarks earlier it sounded as if he planned for Zuko to continue on with them on their journey. He knew that that would be a difficult task for his nephew. It was one thing to put aside his need to capture the boy, but could he really help to defeat his father? Had he changed that much that he was willing to cast aside his need for his father's approval and take up with the cause to end the war? There was so much to talk about.

He knew that they were heading to Ba Sing Se. That had been his and Zuko's plans all along. Of course they could never have foreseen traveling there with the Avatar and his friends. Maybe while safe within the city they could come up with a plan. Still he knew that they wouldn't be able to stay there for long. The Avatar still needed to learn fire bending and whether he would learn it from them or from someone else; he would not be able to do it in the Earth Kingdom capital.

Two weeks, he thought to himself. Two weeks had brought about so many changes in his life and that of his nephew. He wondered what the future would bring; for himself, for Zuko, and for the others. He knew that the boy cared for Katara very much and he also wondered if the times ahead would help their relationship to grow or crush it before it ever really got started. He hoped it would survive. He wanted so much to see Zuko happy and Katara seemed a good match for him. She was compassionate and understanding when she needed to be but she also had a fierceness to her that would keep her from being overwhelmed by his nephew's strong will and quick temper.

Whatever did lie in their future, he was glad for the changes that he saw now. He loved his nephew and he was glad to be back. He had missed him tremendously over the last two weeks. Still the pain and the loneliness had been worth it to see how much Zuko had matured while he was away. No matter what happened from this point on though he didn't plan to be separated from him again. They would face the future together, even if it meant taking a stand against his brother.

Across from him he noticed Zuko start to stir. His nephew looked up and smiled at him. He had not seen many smiles on Zuko's face over the past few years. He hoped that this change signaled a new beginning for the boy. It was time for joy to return to his life again. It was time for him to start living again. Maybe with this new group of friends all of that would be possible.

A.N. I had originally planned one more chapter but it didn't fit with the story. I preferred this ending with Iroh reflecting on the changes in Zuko since he last saw him.

This story has taken on many changes since I started. The biggest change is that I now plan to break it into three parts. This concludes part I. The second installment would cover the group's travels in Ba Sing Se and the third would take them to the final show down with Ozai. I need to think it through. My original idea for Ba Sing Se changed after seeing the more current episodes and I like the idea of the Dai Li and Long Feng controlling the city. I'm not sure though how that would fit into my original story line. We shall see.

Please let me know how you liked it and if a second story would keep your interest.

Thanks again for reading. This experience has been incredible.

Also - I have been trying since Saturday to upload this story. Yeah! That it finally worked (Three days later!).