Avatar the Last Airbender: Wherever You May Be

A/N: Hello all. So, the funny thing about computers is that when it's yours that fails it's a freaking pain in the ass! What was worse was that I needed it for school…not that it matters, but I want to rant one last time now that I have it back! Until my computer crashed at New Years I was actually going to post this and now it's almost two weeks later so you do have my apologies. Because of that I'll post the next chapter ASAP, promise.

Also, thanks to everyone who placed me on your Author Alerts page, very sweet of you. You continually made me very guilty as I took a slight hiatus from typing anything. I really plan on returning to the story to finish it as soon as I can. My writers block is gladly fading away! However, don't look for quick updates (it'll be a few weeks until the next posting and it won't be more than two a month).

Challenge for readers concerning 'Hundred': besides at the very end who was actually identified by name rather than nicknames or descriptions? Those who give the right answer will get a preview of the story two days before official posting if e-mail is provided.


Prelude

~ sSSs ~

Despite how wrong it was Zuko always took some perverse pleasure in watching his advisors and ministers go through the newest financial report. When he had taken the throne at the end of the war, none of them had expected a seventeen-year-old to have a rather well-developed understanding on trading policies and finance. Most if it had been taught and fine-tuned by Iroh during the years at sea so they were always surprised when he came up with some new trading agreement or project that he wanted the Fire Nation to back to keep them prosperous after the war stopped being the main source of income.

Over the six years he had been ruling the Fire Nation he had succeeded in most of his projects, though he knew he owed his friends for their various contributions in helping set up trading agreements with the other Nations when they would have originally balked. The year immediately following the war had been the hardest, when the Fire Nation was basically in isolation to restructure itself from a war power to a normally functioning land and he had been trying to find jobs for the men and women who were no longer soldiers.

Now, he thought as the ministers and advisors read over the documents in front of them and conversed quietly among each other, the Fire Nation was trading without restrictions to the Earth Nation and both Water Tribes and, even if physically weaker, was just as strong as it had always been. The people had reacted better to knowing they were wanted for their arts and culture, as well as their industrial production of steel and glass, even after a hundred years of war where they could have just as easily been destroyed.

The hardest thing had been the relocation of the colonists who had decided to return to the Fire Nation rather than cede over to the Earth Nation two years after the war. During that two year period the colonies had been treated as their own nation, their own local laws dictating their actions while Zuko and the Senate that now unified the Earth Nation tried to figure out what to do the with mismatched citizens. The islands that made up his country didn't offer much in terms of livible land and with the return of thousands of soldiers alone the cities had seen major growth and not enough places to support everyone while new homes were built.

The colonies had grown in the years since their initiation, many of the residents having never even been to the Fire Nation during their life despite their affiliation and loyalty. During his travels the three and a half years of his banishment, he had noticed that the colonists had picked up many of the Earth Nations habits and practices, though they themselves didn't always realize it. It was these people he knew who decided to keep living in the place that had been their home, even if they were changing their loyalties to another Nation. He didn't begrudge them at all for their choices and had even taken the precautions that they would be protected against any of the locals who weren't as welcoming. It would be a touchy area for a long time, he understood, but the Earth Nation had to deal with it.

It had been Aang who had given him a place for the colonists who wanted to remain with the Fire Nation to go. The land surrounding the Western Air Temple had long been deserted despite the ripe valleys that lay between the mountains, there for any who had wanted to claim them. Yet, even after the deaths of the Air Nomads the lands were still seen as to belonging to them and so had been left alone, even by the Fire Nation. Zuko figured it was because the Earth Nation had been richer, with lands and towns already set up to take over and use.

Whatever the reason, when Aang had offered to give him the southern most lands of the islands Zuko had been more than grateful for the offer. In return, the Western Air Temple was to remain untouched by the people to prevent raiding and mistreatment of the historic location. People already lived at the Temple, by those wishing to preserve the Air Nomad ways even if they themselves couldn't airbend. Aang had been touched by their actions and often communicated with the settlers, so he and Zuko would both know if their agreement was being broken. Yet, in the three years the people had been content with their settlement and were flourishing as their crops came in, seeming almost like they had lived there for decades rather than a scattering of years.

Pulling his thoughts away from the islands, still fresh in his mind so soon after his Minister of Lands had discussed their progress with the summer and fall crops, he returned his attention to the people gathered in front of him. Even the minister in charge of development had been stumped with this newest project: finding a way to send messages to the other nations using a faster method of communication. Right now it would take two weeks for a letter from the Fire Nation capital to reach Omashu, nearly four for Ba Sing Se if it went over land rather than sea, and Zuko wanted that time to be cut in half. Most importantly he wanted to be able to reach the two Water Nation tribes in weeks rather than months.

"Well Fire Lord Zuko, it looks…plausible," the Minister of Technologies said as he stared at the report.

"You've heard of the new material coming out of the Earth Nation, correct?" Zuko asked, shifting in his seat. He wanted the morning meeting to end so he could eat and get to his afternoon practice with the guards to work off the energy from sitting around for hours at a time. "They have been experimenting with the heavy liquid and found that it burns hotter and slower than the coal we use now. If we are able to modify the engines in our ships and airships, it would cut down the time of travel between nations."

"It would give us another trading agreement with the Earth Nation, more negotiations with the Grand Secretariat," one of the lower vice-ministers stated wearily and Zuko nodded, not bothered by the complaint.

The precedent had been set by his forefathers that their word was law, even if what they decreed was illogical or wasteful, mostly to stop the ministers from bickering and fighting amongst themselves. Whatever knowledge Zuko had gained from his travels and from his uncle, he had still been young and had needed the wisdom they had to offer about the nation. Even after he had repeatedly asked them to offer opinions on his projects and ideas, many meetings had been silent and it hadn't been until Zuko purposely starting thinking up absurd ideas that would theoretically drive the nation into poverty in months that they dared protest. Once they realized he wouldn't retaliate against them speaking out, the meetings were productive and went smoothly.

"We can work something out," Zuko told him, finally giving in and shrugging off the ceremonial robe he was wearing. It was too hot, even in the middle of fall, to be sitting in the heavy robe. He had long since given up wearing the diadem unless in a formal ceremony; rather he wore a necklace with the Fire Nation symbol and his mother's family crest on it at all times instead. Many of those who worked with him and under him actually appreciated the human nature of the act of wanting to be comfortable, earning him that much more respect in their eyes.

"We'll find some way to let them know this would work to their advantage, get their own products to more places quicker."

"Good for produce," Haiku, the Minister of Trade, agreed, scribbling down numbers on the paper he carried with him. "More foods could be moved between the nations, help out those that have short growing seasons like the Water Tribes."

They continued to discuss the project for another half hour before Zuko finally dismissed them to attend other matters. He stayed and talked with some of the vice-ministers for a while longer about some of the other projects they had going before a hand clapped him on the shoulder. Turning, Zuko smiled to see Iroh standing behind him, smiling at him.

"Uncle, when did you get in?" Zuko asked as the meeting hall was finally emptied out. Even the guards had left the room though they wouldn't go far. The one thing he hadn't been able to get rid of was his personal guard, no matter how many times he had tried. "I thought you would be in Ba Sing Se for a while longer as it had been months since you had been there."

"All was well so I decided to return early," Iroh said before grinning. "Do not tell me that you wished me away longer. After all, I am your regent."

"Uncle!" Frowning at his uncle at the off-hand comment, Zuko shook his head before gathering up the scrolls he had brought with him. Glancing at the shadows outside, he quickly estimated the time as the two left the meeting room. "Have you eaten yet?"

"No, but lunch sounds wonderful," Iroh said as the two men wandered down the wide hallway. The guards fell into step several feet behind them to give them privacy as they wound their way through the palace so Zuko could drop off the scrolls before heading to the dining hall. "I picked up a new tea as well. Jasmine and chamomile with a dash of crushed pepper."

"Nice to know your taste in tea hasn't changed," Zuko commented dryly as they arrived. Mai was waiting for them outside the hall and Zuko gave her a quick kiss on the cheek before she greeted Iroh softly.

"Have you decided on a wedding date yet, my dear?" Iroh asked halfway through lunch and Zuko glanced over at Mai who lowered her chopsticks slowly.

"No, not yet," Mai said and Zuko took a sip of the tea silently.

"But why not? You have been engaged how long now? Three years?"

"Two," Zuko and Mai said at the same time and they shared a look before returning to lunch.

"We're still working out some of the details, Uncle," Zuko explained vaguely and Iroh gave him a look but didn't comment on it. The rest of lunch Zuko asked Iroh about Ba Sing Se and the developments over there as Iroh had been a guest there for the past month as a good will representative during one of the larger festivals of the Earth Nation. As the bell rang one hour past noon the three were stepping out of the dining hall when a messenger ran up, a scroll clutched in his hand.

"Fire Lord Zuko, an urgent message just arrived," he gasped as he handed Zuko the scroll, his voice broken as he panted from running. "It arrived on a ship from the Earth Nation. We brought it as quick as possible."

"Thank you. Go get something to drink, cool down," Zuko ordered as he looked at the roll. He was aware of the messenger leaving them as he stared down at the two seals placed on the scroll, well familiarized with the seal that represented Kyoshi Island and the personal crest of a fan and sword crossed. "It's from Sokka and Suki."

"I wonder what caused them to send an urgent message to you," Iroh murmured as Zuko broke the seals and unrolled it. He heard both Mai and Iroh approach to read over his shoulder, but didn't acknowledge them, his gaze frozen on the first sentence of the missive.

"Katara's missing."

sSs

"You cannot be serious nephew," Iroh said as he watched Zuko from the doorway. His nephew was pulling clothes from around the room and throwing them on the bed where he had a satchel and his swords already set out. At the same time he was changing into a black outfit and Iroh had no doubt on what he planned on doing. "You cannot just abandon your nation, even for one of your friends."

"I have to Uncle," Zuko said as he secured the vest over his black shirt with a quick knot. Going to the bed he quickly packed up the clothes and other items he had set out, including more than enough money for the trip. Grabbing the broadswords he gave them an experienced twirl before sliding them into the sheath attached to his back.

"You have an entire nation full of resources to find Katara," Iroh tried to reason with him, but Zuko continued to ignore him. "Why not use them?"

"You read what Sokka wrote, Uncle," Zuko explained as he pulled his hair from the topknot, letting the still short locks hang down around his face. "They already talked with everyone that could have found the ship Katara was reported to take when she left the Northern Water Tribe. It never docked at its destination, meaning it got lost somewhere on the ocean."

"Then send the ships to search the area," Iroh recommended as Zuko went to leave the room. "As a man Zuko there is little you can do, but as the Fire Lord you have the entire nation!"

"I already sent orders out to the navy, Uncle," Zuko explained before sighing and pausing at the door. "They will search, but with Aang and Toph in the Earth Nation dealing with the rebellion rising there and Sokka and Suki tied up in trading negotiations with the other islands, none of them can go after her. I can, with you here as Regent."

"I still do not understand, Zuko. From what I heard you and Lady Katara have not spoken in over a year and a half, since she last visited you here," Iroh said, before frowning as he thought about what he just said. Glancing at Zuko he saw the younger man was staring at the door, his hands fisted angrily at his side. "What happened during that visit that you will go after her and leave everything behind?"

After a few seconds Zuko finally exhaled harshly before looking at Iroh, regret and sorrow in his nephew's usually calm eyes.

sSs

Before he left there was one person he knew he had to see, however much he wanted to avoid it.

It was easy to sneak out of his own palace, he realized as he quickly made his way through the palace. The hallways had been darkened for the night, giving him plenty of cover in the deep shadows as he made his way to the servant's quarters. He could simply walk around and no one would stop him, but he enjoyed the thrill of sneaking out and he didn't want to be seen dressed as he was. The news of Katara's kidnapping had already spread and the servants and guards would easily figure out what he was planning and would attempt to stop him.

Exiting the palace grounds he made his way to Mai's house and scaled the wall next to her balcony to avoid running into anyone else, especially her parents. Knocking softly on the wooden door, he paused for a few seconds before sliding it open to see Mai sitting on the bed staring at him calmly.

"I must say, I was almost expecting you to disappear without even a letter this time," she drawled out. "Lucky me."

For a second Zuko couldn't meet her gaze, knowing he had originally planned on leaving without seeing her. Mai sighed softly across from him, letting him know that she understood before there was creak on the bed as she stood up.

"I'm leaving the capital," she told him and he glanced around the room to finally notice she had a large chest next to her door, waiting for servants to come and pick it up. "It seems I have suddenly lost all the reasons to remain in this awful place."

It was a bad time for Mai to starting talking in implications, he thought sadly. She was always forthright with her opinions and thoughts, but even he could catch her underlying statement.

"Mai, I am sorry," he finally said, not quite knowing what he was apologizing for. The fact that he couldn't keep their relationship working or the fact that he was leaving her, even if it was to find one of his closest friends.

"Hey, I'm the one breaking up with you this time, so you don't have to apologize," Mai told him before going to the door to leave the bedroom. She paused before leaving, glancing back at him to offer a sad smile, the room too dark to see her eyes.

"…Good luck."

"Thank you Mai," he said before finding himself alone. Sighing softly, he ran a hand through his hair before stepping back outside, closing the door to both her room and their relationship.

sSSs


Ending A/N: Hope you enjoyed it. I am still looking for a beta reader, so even if you can just recommend someone I would really appreciate it. After reading a chapter several times you tend to skip read and start missing the errors.

Disclaimer: Avatar the Last Airbender belongs to Nickelodeon and its creators. I just play in their world.