A/N: Avatar: The Last Airbender (The Legend of Aang) and all its characters don't belong to me. They are property of Nickelodeon and Viacom and were created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko. This story is purely fan-made and not for profit.
Hello and welcome! Here it is. The first installment of Journey! Woo! Hoo!
For those new to this story. I have a suggested reading list, that you can feel free to ignore. But please do take the warning to heart. That being said, I welcome all newcomers to this Zutara story! I enjoy all critiques and criticisms (and praises). Please be specific if there's something you dislike or you find wrong. I hope you enjoy!
Reading list in increasing order of laziness: (WARNING: increased laziness = decreased understanding!)
*Read my stories Friends Again and More Than Friends (ie Sounds great! I really care about these characters in your setting!)
*Or read my story Friends Again (ie I don't have as much time, but I'd like to know the back-story)
*Or read only the Prologue to my story Friends Again (ie I only want to read this Zutara story, but I do want to know the setting.)
*Or read only this sentence: This story is set in the Avatarverse, five years after the end of the show. (ie I really just want to read a Zutara story.)
You've been warned.
For those who read FriendsAgain, and possibly More Than Friends.Welcome back to my version of the Avatarverse! There will be the return of familiar characters, and we'll see a few that haven't made an appearance before (other than being mentioned). Hints and teases were rampant in the other stories, in this all shall be revealed. You may notice the style is a little different in this. I was going to write it in Zuko's pov like FA, but decided I wanted the female perspective too. Let me know if it works or not. I hope you enjoy!
"True change is never easy. It cannot be given or received freely. It must be earned. If you gain a thing simply and without consequence
it will mean nothing to you. Though it may be something you desire greatly."
Zuko paced back and forth on the airship dock. He waited none-to-patiently for his Uncle's ship to come into view. Iroh was always welcome, but he rarely came to the Fire Nation anymore. He preferred the quiet life of his teashop, The Jasmine Dragon.
Zuko never confronted him about it, but he also suspected the older gentleman stayed away to distance himself from Zuko's rule. The people already had enough against the young Fire Lord when he took over from his Father, they didn't need to add the label of 'puppet'.
He'd just received a message that his beloved Uncle had unexpectedly moved up the date of his visit. It also must've been delayed somewhere because he'd only received it yesterday. There hadn't been anything in the note to indicate a problem, but it didn't stop the Fire Lord from worrying.
Zuko was glad that his Uncle was coming sooner. He was anxious to talk to Iroh for personal reasons. There was something that was weighing heavy on him. Ever since Katara's last visit he'd been a mess. His mind drifted when he tried to concentrate, and it was almost impossible to meditate now. He didn't know what was wrong with him. He was confused, and the confusion was making him angry. He definitely needed some of his Uncle's wisdom, even if it always came accompanied by tea.
Again his thoughts wandered to Katara's last visit, it'd been only about a month and a half ago. Admittedly, he and Katara hadn't always had the smoothest of relationships, but while she'd been here they'd been able to work things out. His view of her had changed drastically, and he believed, for the better. He hoped to make up for his past behavior through their coming encounters.
After leaving the Fire Nation she'd gone to Kyoshi Island to help deliver Suki's baby, and they'd sent messages back and forth. He'd been delighted to receive her first message. He greatly desired to maintain the open communication they'd developed. But the last letter he'd received from Katara is what'd sent him into a quandary.
Even now he had the tiny scrap of paper folded in his pocket. He no longer needed to read it, he'd long since memorized it.
Dear Zuko ~
So much has happened since I wrote last. I hardly know where to start.
Suki gave birth to a beautiful baby girl! They're naming her Suluk.
The birth was difficult, but Suki and Suluk are doing well. Sokka is surviving.
I was invaluably aided by Anyu. He's the Waterbending Healer I mentioned.
He's been a great help to me. I'm not sure what I would've done without him.
In fact, you don't need to worry, he's taking good care of me as well.
We will be leaving here soon, so I'm sending La Va back to you.
He's a truly beautiful bird. I see why he's your favorite.
I still intend to thank you for your kindness. No matter what you say.
I'm glad you miss me. I miss you too.
~ Love, Katara
Zuko was, of course, happy to read the news about the baby and the closing remarks, but he was disturbed by the part about the waterbender. He didn't liked the way she described him, something about it bugged him. And what did she mean 'we will be leaving'?
He also knew Katara well enough to know she wasn't telling him everything.
A glint of light on metal caught his attention, bringing him back to the present. The great iron bird slowly made its approach from the east. Zuko tried to calm himself, but he was flooded with excitement and apprehension, touched with impatience. He almost willed the ship up to the dock. Finally it stilled, and crew started milling around. The engines died and a small bridge was extended.
A hatch opened and a gray haired old man walked out into the light. Zuko breathed a sigh of relief that his Uncle looked healthy. In fact, Iroh looked about as he did the last time he'd seen him. Perhaps a few more wrinkles and some tiredness around the eyes, but his step was lively and he laughed just the same.
"Nephew!" Iroh bellowed, spreading his arms wide to envelope the younger man.
"Uncle, it's good to see you well." Zuko hugged him tightly then held him at arm's length to get a better look.
Iroh laughed. "Oh, how you love to worry about me." Cheerful glints lit up his aging eyes.
Zuko realized he wasn't get anything out of him with the subtle approach. "I was surprised to receive your letter. Is everything alright?" he couldn't hide the concern in his tone.
Iroh slapped him on the back affectionately. "Nothing's wrong. I had to come early so your surprise wouldn't spoil in the wait."
"You didn't bring me a new fruit, or a rare type of tea tree did you?" Zuko asked, exasperated.
Iroh exploded with hearty laughter. "That would've been a good idea, but no. I brought you something far better." The old man walked back up the gangplank to the open hatch.
Zuko watched as Iroh extended his hand to the darkness within. He saw him say something, but couldn't hear what it was. After about a minute a delicate hand emerged to take the calloused one. It was followed into the light by an arm and then a very familiar figure.
"Katara." Zuko breathed. It was a second before his mind caught up with his eyes. He rushed up the ramp and stopped a foot in front of her. "Katara, It's good to see you." He suddenly felt awkward, it wasn't helped by the fact that she looked just as nervous.
Iroh had watched this little play, and he was satisfied by what he'd seen. He chuckled, he should've known better than to bet against Toph. He'd have to send her her payment when he got home.
"How? When?" Zuko stammered.
"I went to see Iroh when I left Kyoshi. He was gracious enough to escort me here." Katara smiled weakly. "I'm back. As promised."
Zuko gave her a genuine smile. "I'm glad. It was a wonderful surprise." he looked at his Uncle.
Iroh knew that look. It said: 'I can't thank you enough, but you really should've warned me'. He knew he'd have to pay for that later too. "Well, let's not just stand here on the dock. I could do with some food." He purposely left the two young people as he walked down the ramp and into the Palace.
Zuko looked at Katara. "Shall we?" he extended his arm.
She blushed slightly as she looked at him. She placed her hand on his arm and they followed Iroh indoors.
Katara rubbed her palm on her dress as they sat at the table. 'I had no idea what I'd feel coming back here, but I didn't expect to be nervous. I hope he doesn't notice.'
She was truly glad she'd taken General Iroh up on his offer to be her traveling companion. She may not have ever gotten off the ship without him.
She looked at the Fire Lord across from her. Could Zuko return her feelings? Why even contemplate that, when she wasn't positive of what she felt for him. Being here may not have been the best idea, but she was committed to seeing this through.
She only knew she didn't want to say anything until she was was more certain of the situation. It didn't matter what the others thought, she wanted assurances. Right now she and Zuko were good friends. She was not going to wreck that.
She picked at her beautifully presented plate of food. It was a light salad of some kind, consisting of different fruits and leechee nuts. It looked delicious, but she really didn't feel like eating.
"Would you like something else?"
She looked up again to see Zuko watching her. "Um, no. I'm just not that hungry. Thank you though." she smiled.
He leaned a little closer. "Are you alright?" concern clouded his golden eyes as he searched her face.
She waved her hand in dismissal. "I'm fine. It must've been the airship ride."
He watched her for a moment to be sure, then went back to talking with Iroh.
She shook her head. That was one of Zuko's more endearing and aggravating qualities. Sometimes his worry over her wellbeing bordered on smothering.
She knew it also meant he'd always be there for her. Like Sokka once said, 'Zuko never gives up'. It was as true for their friendship, as it ever was when he hunted the Avatar.
Her attention drifted back to the conversation when she heard her name mentioned.
"Lady Katara told some of what happened on her last visit. Of course, I'm sure there were things she omitted." Iroh grinned and gave her a wink. Katara felt her face heat.
Zuko coughed into his drink, but said nothing.
"It all sounded very interesting. But I was wondering..."
"I'm sure Katara's account was accurate and thorough, Uncle. Whatever she may have left out were merely trivial details." Zuko looked at the older man evenly.
Iroh pursed his lips. "Of course Nephew, of course."
Katara would hate if they fought on her account. They'd always been close, it would break her heart. "Zuko, is there any word on how the villagers are fairing?" she asked as a tension breaker. He looked at her, for a moment not registering what she asked. But she watched the storm pass, and he smiled at her.
"The village is doing well. They replanted some, but there won't be any substantial crop until next year. Supplies are still being received and distributed to the people. Those who survived the effects of the poison are recovering. They still praise your name as a hero."
She smiled genuinely for the first time since her arrival. "I'm sure they praise both of us. I'll have to visit them while I'm here." She relaxed a bit into this 'safe' topic of conversation.
The three chatted pleasantly for the rest of the meal. At the end Zuko stood and bowed to the others. "I have work I have to return to but I'll be able to join you later."
They stood with him and smiled. Iroh moved around to stand next to Katara as they watched the Fire Lord walk away. "My Nephew had many doubts when he took the throne, but he's done an amazing job." he commented. "I couldn't be prouder."
Katara looked at the older man and and saw tears forming in his eyes. The sight of them brought tears to her own. She put an arm around his shoulders, "There couldn't have been a better choice of ruler."
"I fear his loneliness." he said it so quietly she wasn't sure she was supposed to hear. She removed her arm and sighed. Iroh turned to look at her more fully. "Let's take a walk, shall we?" He took her arm and looped it under his own, and they started out towards the gardens.
When they were out in the sunshine Katara brightened as well. The summer was in full swing in the Fire Nation, but on some days like this a cooling breeze blew in off the ocean. The salt and brine smell was a balm to her.
The two walked in silence, neither finding the need for speech. Katara liked that about Iroh. He believed the silences were as important as the spoken words. She knew Zuko had gotten that from him.
Katara leaned down to smell a flower that was hanging on as the last of the spring blooms. She smiled and stood to ask Iroh its name. When she looked at him, and finding him watching her pensively, her smile faded.
"I won't ask you your feelings, Lady Katara. We have spoken of them enough. I just want to know how to help you. What can I do to ease this burden you've put upon yourself?"
She threw her arms around him and held him as he welcome the embrace. "You have helped me so much already, General. Thank you for your wisdom, but this is something we must work out on our own." They released each other and she shrugged. "Only time will tell where this may lead. Your Nephew's heart is a locked box, buried deep."
Iroh put a hand on her shoulder. "The best treasure is often found in a locked box," He took her chin in his fingers. "And opens easiest for those who hold the key."
She nodded, not sure she was the one who 'held the key', but was appreciative that he'd think so. His smile was full of understanding, and she was content to know someone else sympathized with her struggle. She smiled in return. "I'll be alright."
He took her hand and searched her face.
"I should go see about my things. Some of the medicines I brought are delicate." Iroh nodded and released her hand. "I'll see you tonight at dinner, General." She gave him another quick hug.
He smiled, "Lady Katara, how many times must I tell you? Please call me Iroh, I've long since retired."
That struck her as very funny. "I'll stop calling you General when you stop calling me Lady."
He joined in her good natured laughter.
"What's the joke?" Zuko smiled as he strode up. He was pleased to note that Katara kept her jovial demeanor as he approached. He didn't like making her nervous.
"Nephew! Lady Katara," he winked at her, "was just commenting on how sometimes the Palace can be like a maze. She was headed to her rooms. Why don't you escort her?"
Before the Fire Lord could answer Katara stepped in. "It's all right Zuko. I think I've been here enough lately to find my way around. Unless of course you have badger-moles rearranging the corridors." They laughed and she gave Iroh a quick peck on the cheek. "I'll see you boys at dinner."
She waved, and was up the path moments later. The two men watched her go. "It's nice having her here." Iroh said looking at his nephew who was watching the waterbender's retreating form.
"Yes." Zuko said without really thinking about it. He glanced at his uncle. "It's good having you here too. I'm sorry if I sounded too harsh earlier, I was..."
Iroh silenced him with a wave of his hand. "No apology necessary. I know were protecting the lady's honor. What is secret between you should stay that, I should not have pressed. I fully understand."
"Thank you, Uncle." The two continued the stroll through the garden.
"Tell me Zuko. How do you view Master Katara?" He didn't look at the younger man for fear he wouldn't answer.
"What do you mean?"
"If you were to describe her to someone how would you do it?"
"Why do you want to know?"
"Humor an old man."
Zuko thought for a moment. "I don't know. I guess I'd say she has long, sort-of wavy brown hair, bright blue eyes..."
Iroh shook his head. "No, I mean what's she like as a person?"
"Oh." Zuko's eyes drifted to the sky. "She's kind, smart, giving. She is somewhat opinionated and has to be right most of the time. But that stubbornness is also what makes her such a great friend. She's strength mixed with forgiveness. The perfect combination of grit and grace." Zuko stopped and blushed lightly. "She's also beautiful."
Iroh tried to hide a pleased smile. "Huh." he put his arms around to his back. "That's what I thought too."
A/N: Iroh, that sly dog. If you were wondering, more will be said later of Katara's visit with Iroh in the Earth Kingdom. Oh, and that is the letter that Katara wrote that we didn't get to see at the end of MTF.
On a personal note; I've never rewritten a chapter so much in my life. o_O
I know there will be the inevitable questions pertaining to 'the bet', so I'll head them off at the pass.
I. DON'T. KNOW.
It might be shocking, but I don't have everything planed out ahead of time. I thought that would be funny in the story, so put it in. Feel free to write your own rendition of what went on if you like. I'd love to read all comers if you do!
Chapter Song: Listen To Your Heart by Roxette