My first Zutara week.
Zutara Week 2012, Day 1—
Serendipity: (noun) 1. An aptitude for making desirable discoveries by accident; 2. good luck; fortune; luck.
Setting out to harvest tea leaves was not a job Iroh took lightly. Walking through the dense forest, looking for the best leaves to make his nephew, the Avatar, and his friends the perfect tea that he'd become known for, was not an easy task for a "shapely," short old soul with a developing hunchback such as himself. But tea was tea and they were running out of leaves. No one, not even the intellectual and quick-witted waterbender, knew which leaves were poisonous and which were from Agni's very own garden. There were two options left to him: Harvest or be left without his morning cup of tea. Iroh, without his tea? That was like a platypus-bear without flippers.
So the retired royal general had no choice but to start gathering. Because of that, said ex-heir to the Fire Nation throne hobbled around the forest, staying close to his group's campground. He'd found several tea-leaf plants, but all of them inedible or poisonous. He'd found withering jasmine-dragon plants and poisonous oleander white tea. He'd been searching and gathering since the first bright rays of sunrise. It was sundown. Perhaps he should get someone to help next time, and sooner rather than later. The monk Avatar looked like he might know a thing or two about tea; maybe he could expand the young boy's knowledge.
Iroh sighed. The night was upon them now, in all the time he spent contemplating. Surely camp was packing up and settling down for the night. He should soon go back; Iroh was not at his prime during the night.
The old general upturned a pile of fallen leaves, searching one last time. There was nothing to be found. He again sighed, disappointment settling into the center of his chest. Ere long, he would be running out of tea. He didn't plan on going into a town nearby to get tea; he took great pride in planting and providing his own tea. Besides, they would come by the nearest club long after he'd run out of tea. Iroh started his way back to the campsite.
It was as he walked away that he heard something rather surprising to his ears.
It was the young waterbending girl, racing around the orange and red leaves. She was giggling and missing her heavy upper kimono, the thick blue one that she usually wore with a pair of heavy pants. Instead she was dressed rather revealingly in only her underclothes—or, as she, her brother, and his nephew vehemently called it, her "bending uniform." She was racing through the forest, looking over her shoulder and laughing. Her hair was out of its usual tight braid, looking as if she'd speedily let it out before doing whatever it is she was doing. She looked happy. Her dark cheeks were flushed. She shouted at someone behind her about catching her.
Iroh expected to see the Avatar chasing her; he expected it to be in innocent game between camp-mates. Oh, Iroh was well aware of the young monk's feelings for his waterbending teacher, but he'd never suspected the girl of returning those feelings. And even if she had, Iroh doubted the monk would be having anything but sinless fantasies. Iroh thought it was innocent playing in the unseasonably warm autumn day, regardless of the girl's state of dress.
But it wasn't been Avatar Aang he saw. Instead he saw his nephew. He himself was shirtless, running after the waterbender in his bending pants, racing after her. There was something Iroh saw in his eyes, something...happy, calm. His hair flew behind him, shaggy and lively. Iroh had never seen Prince Zuko so incredibly...elated.
The two raced farther into the forest, away from the campground. The curious gossip in him made Iroh hobble along through the undergrowth again, keeping an eye on his nephew. He was not a young man anymore, and maneuvering the forest in his age proved quite a handful. But the old general managed, his meddlesome curiosity anything but idle. Iroh heard someone slam into a tree; he was ready to give up his hiding spot behind a fearsome bush to try and help, but there came another thunk, and then there was giggling, from both Prince Zuko and sweet peasant Katara.
Iroh separated the protruding thorns of the bush to see. He blinked when they were closer than he expected, both to him and each other. Correct him if he was wrong, but hadn't the young waterbender hated, despised his nephew just days earlier? And yet here they were, slammed against a tree, smiling wildly. Her brown skin was flushed and her eyes were glowing blue like the majesty of the ocean. Whereas Prince Zuko's skin was radiating with a somewhat golden gleam. His eyes had the look of molten gold. Iroh suspected this look was not one he was meant to see.
He was proven correct when Zuko's fingers traced the girl's jawline and he slammed his kiss on her lips. Iroh's eyes widened. He was starting to pull away from the prickly bush, starting to leave his nephew to his own devices. There would be a long, interesting talk to have with the young firebender. One that would be awkward for both Iroh and Zuko, but a talk that needed to be had. But something stopped him; he felt like a lecherous old man, staring at his nephew about to...well, about to make a woman of the waterbender.
When he peeked again through the barbed bush, the waterbender and his nephew were no longer kissing. Instead, Prince Zuko had rested his forehead on Katara's. They were breathless, but they weren't racing on like Iroh remembered his first time to be. They were just gazing at each other. "Katara," he heard his nephew say, "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."
Iroh thought he'd been apologizing for being so forward. But Zuko hadn't moved away from her; Katara's hands reached up to stroke his face, tracing the outline of his comet-shaped scar. "It's okay," she said, with a tone that meant they weren't talking about Zuko's forwardness. "I know," she said. "It's okay," she repeated. The waterbender pressed a kiss to his forehead. "I forgive you. I forgive you."
Tears glistened in Zuko's eyes, a shocking thing if Iroh had ever seen one. "I love you," he said. It didn't sound like a throwaway term; it didn't sound like the version of the words that had become cliched. It sounded as if Zuko meant it. That brought a smile to Iroh's face. "You have no idea how much I love you."
"I do," she said. "I love you." She dug her fingers into the shagginess of Zuko's hair.
It made the exiled prince chuckle. "Long live my Fire Lady," he said.
Iroh took that as his cue to leave. He made his way through the bushes, using his wartime stealth to not crunch leaves. He smiled as he made his way back. There was something sweet about the way Zuko and Katara were together. Something Iroh hadn't seen when Zuko and Mai were together. Something right. It pleased Iroh that his nephew had found someone that he truly did love. It obviously brought some sort of pleasure to Zuko as well.
Yes, Iroh thought Zuko would be just fine. Once, of course, the war was won. But was there really any doubt that the Avatar would be victorious? Iroh made his way back to the campground. As suspected, everyone was either sleeping or falling asleep. The embers of the fire were already dying. Iroh lit them again, though the fire's warmth was really rather unneeded. He lit it for its light, because he truly didn't wish for the two benders to get lost.
"Hey, Iroh," the sleepy Avatar grumbled. "I didn't see you all day."
"Yes, I was hunting for tea leaves," Iroh said. He set out his own sleeping mat. "Please rest, Avatar."
Aang mumbled something about wanting to stay awake until Katara came back, but he soon fell asleep anyway.
It was a long time before Zuko came back. He arrived without Katara; Iroh quickly wondered what had happened and if things were okay between the two. He couldn't give voice to his worries, however. The firebending prince set himself on his own bedding, but sat up, staring at the fire. It wasn't long after Zuko's arrival that Katara came back. She was soaking wet. Iroh eyed her questioningly, but she didn't know because he was currently pretending to sleep.
"Ugh," she groaned at Zuko. "You're still up?"
"Yeah," Zuko said, with just as much venom. "I went for a walk."
The waterbender snorted at him. "Did I ask?"
Prince Zuko glared at her. "Peasants have the right to know where their prince is at all times," he snapped.
To the unknowing, they would've seemed just as angry and irritable at each other. But Iroh didn't miss the way Katara dragged her hands over Zuko's shoulders briefly as she bend down to put something near the fire.
Zuko nodded to the little bag Katara had placed near the fire. "What is that?"
"If you must know," Katara snarled, "they're tea leaves. Iroh was running short."
Iroh turned in his bedding, something not unusual for an uneasy sleeper such as he. He smiled. Long live the Fire Lady.