AN: My first Avatar and my first Zutara week fanfic! I'm so excited. I hope you all like it. :)
Disclaimer: I do not own Avatar the Last Airbender. Nick does. But if I did, Zutara would have been cannon by the second season, and we would have gotten four of them, not just three.
It was funny how these things worked out.
When he had been banished from his home at just thirteen years old, he had left with many goals. Find the Avatar, regain his honor, and force his father to love him.
And now, four years later, he had actually done all of the things he had set out to do. He had found, and fought with, the Avatar many times, trailing him until the surprisingly young boy had finally been within his grasps. In many people's eyes, he had more then regained the honor he had had as a prince: he had made his own honor as a man, a leader, and a warrior, types of honor that most prized greatly over that of a royal. And for a little while, although it hadn't been the love he had so long craved, he had at least gained his father's approval. Three years ago, this would have been enough.
But now that he had completed his quest, he knew the goals that had driven him at thirteen were no where near as cherished as the things he had now.
During his time as an outcast, he had not only found everything he had been looking for, he had found half a dozen things more.
He had found a real father in his Uncle Iroh, truly the only man in his life that had ever cared for him as more then an heir or pawn. Although he knew he could never take the place of his long dead cousin, Zuko had none-the-less become the man's son, the child he had given unconditional love to for the past few years, love that had been either scorned or misinterpreted by his foolish teenage mind. But now that he knew the truth, it made every pain that his own father had given him seem like nothing, and every unintended agony inflicted by his Uncle driven by love.
He had found friends, a group of people that, amazingly, even after all he had done to them, would now do anything they could to help him. When he was hungry, they gave him food. When he was cold, they built up the fire and offered him a blanket. When he was thirsty, he found himself soaked from water bent from the river or lake they were near, a source of never ending amusement to the one who had splashed him. When he was sad, they forced him to smile, and when he was angry, they sparred with him until his anger had run dry and all he could do with sleep. They accepted every part of him, even the ones they themselves didn't like, and though it had taken a while to gain their trust, they now loved him the way only true companions could.
He had found a home. For years he had thought that the palace was his true home, the one place where his 'real' friends and family awaited for his return. On that constantly rocking ship, even Azula had been given a kinder light in his mind, all of the childhood pain she had inflicted upon him just her twisted way of saying that she loved him (a conviction that had quickly been revoked the moment he saw her.) He had once thought that a home was stone walls, guards at every corner, and servants to bring him his every desire. But now he knew that that was a prison, and home was really an abandoned air temple and a seat in the saddle of a flying bison.
He had found a purpose. If someone had told him years ago that he would one day become the firebending teacher to the very man he sought to kill, to the young Avatar, he would have either imprisoned them or have killed them himself, sparing the world from anymore of their insolent chatter. Now it seemed obvious, almost natural, that he should be the one to train Aang in the art of firebending, passing on all he had learned from his Uncle to the young boy. It made him feel useful, spending the mornings training and teaching, preparing for the battle that would end the hundred years of war. It was his fate, his destiny, to complete this task, and he was more then happy to do it.
He had found the wisdom, power, and the courage he needed to stand up to his father and break the chains that the man had held over him for so long. He had found the true source of firebending, had danced with dragons, and had become stronger then Azula or his father ever could have dreamt of being. He was no longer a quivering child that was trying not to got burned; he was now a man who could stand up for himself and protect the ones he cared for.
He had found growth, and that was amazing.
But most wonderful of all, out of all the things he had unexpectedly found on his journey, was her.
At first she had hated him, despised him for everything he stood for and symbolized. He was the enemy, a criminal, someone they should have rid the world of the first chance they had, no matter the moral consequences they might face later. It would have made their journey easier, to not have him following them every step of the way, endangering their lives with his foolish plans, but for many reasons they hadn't, choosing instead to let him live. He was an enemy, but at least he was known, and so he was better then all the others that could have been facing them.
But as time had dragged on and he had slowly earned, if not their forgiveness and trust, at least their acceptance, slowly, slowly, he had seen the gears turning behind her eyes, evaluating every single one of his moves, looking for hidden motives as to why he would offer to help cook, clean, or do any of the other menial chores that were often left to her alone. When she found no concealed evil, she had grudgingly allowed him to help, giving him job after job to complete, all of which he did without the slightest complaint. If he was ever to fully fit in, he needed her to approve of him, for it would be she, not the Avatar, that would decide his fate.
And, slowly but surely, he managed to win her over. When he offered help, there was no longer a minute or two of silent hesitation before accepting. Now there were only orders, tasks already set aside that she needed him to do if she was to get everything done that day and still have dinner be on time. When they practiced fighting together, she no longer held a deep hatred in her, something that had often made him fear for his life. Although she still pushed him to the brink of exhaustion, much as he did her, there was now a playful joy in her eyes, happy to just be able to pit herself against what she saw as a worthy opponent, someone who she didn't have to worry about damaging and who could keep up with her moves. When he offered to take a night guard shift, she no longer glared at him suspiciously, but instead just mumbled 'good night' and fell asleep like the others.
When he brought her flowers and other pretty things he had found while foraging in the forest, she no longer threw them over the side of the temple edge, but instead kept them, preserving and hiding them in her room from the prying eyes of her brother and friends.
When he asked her to join him in watching the sunset, she was no longer tense, weary that he was planning an attack for those last few moments of light, but instead eagerly followed him on the condition that he stayed to watch the moon rise with her.
When they talked, their words were no longer guarded pleasantries that were passed as if they were newly met strangers, but the speeches of friends and companions, telling stories and sharing secrets that had long since been held inside.
When he first worked up the nerve to kiss her, she didn't send him flying into the cavernous abyss below or freeze him to the wall. Instead, her eyes bright and laughing, asking him what had taken him so long, Katara had accepted him and eagerly responded.
Though they worked hard to keep their budding relationship a secret from the others, Toph, at least, knew, for her sly smiles and barely hidden hints had informed them of her knowledge long ago. Aang, perhaps, had also guessed at their feelings, for after a long and private talk with his waterbending master, all he had done was offer Zuko a veiled glare and warning to watch his steps, after which he had returned to his former, if a bit sadder, self. Whether or not Suki, Haru, and all the others knew was up in the air, for while they never seemed to suspect that something was going on, their fond smiles often found the two together, making them wonder and worry.
Sokka and Kota, at least, thankfully, were oblivious.
But in all honesty, even if her father and brother were to find out about them, Zuko wouldn't have cared. He had started his journey with three goals in mind, all revolving around finding one single person out of the whole world. And amazingly, he had managed to do it, had managed to find that one person he needed, the one person he had really been looking for.
He had found, by the greatest stroke of luck, not only the Avatar, but the woman he was to one day fall in love with, and that was the best thing Fate had ever done to him.