Disclaimer: I do not own Avatar: the Last Airbender. The plot idea of 'five times Zuko is stupid and one time he isn't' is courtesy of Inu Star Angel.
Notes: I tried to make it as fluffy as I could stomach. Save for confessions of undying love and angels singing a hallelujah chorus, I think I suceeded. This is for Inu Star Angel, who is an angel, or a doll, or a peach, or whatever endearment she would prefer to be called that properly encompasses her awesomeness.
the time he doesn't kiss her in the sunset
Under the water, it is calm and relatively quiet. And salty. Zuko contemplates this slowly and methodically. He has nothing better to do. Until, of course, Katara's voice filters down through the water. "Give up?" she asks, the words garbled by the barrier between them.
He shrugs under her hands. It would be easy enough to fight his way up and out of the dunk she has him in. But that might prompt her to start bending, a fearsome prospect indeed.
Thankfully she seems to decide that he has suffered enough. She releases her tight grip on his shoulders and allows him to push his head up for glorious, glorious oxygen. "I can't believe you said that I love Aang," she says, smacking his head lightly. "I don't."
"You kissed him at Ba Sing Se." He wonders if she can hear the bitter edge to his words.
"I sort of had to," she says in a very matter-of-fact way. "He loved me. It was my duty."
"The prize he gets for saving the world?" Zuko guesses. He loves Aang like a brother, but he knows the younger boy better than a brother.
She shrugs noncommitally and walks out of the water to flop gracelessly on the beach. She is on her back, staring listlessly at the sky and contemplating something that clearly still disturbs her even two years later. Her dark skin shines with wetness and salt.
Zuko stands and follows her path slowly, muscles sore from a day of unusual exercise (he was not meant for this "yoga" that Katara adores so) and the recent enforced no-breathing. When he reaches her, he flops down too.
He lays on his stomach with his head turned toward her, cheek pillowed in the sand. The sand is rough underneath him, but it is fine enough that it's not painful. It shifts easily with his every breath. Feeling content, he drapes a lazy (and if anyone asks, completely platonic) arm over her waist.
Katara lets out a loud sigh. He waits. "I guess," she finally says to the sky.
"Did you ever want him?" he says. Sand gets in his mouth and he hurriedly spits it out.
"Want him? What do you mean?"
"I mean…was there ever a time when you looked at him and you really liked him as more than a son?"
She closes her eyes. He spends the next few minutes trying futilely to get the taste of salt and sand out of his mouth.
"Once," she tells him. "We were here, in the Fire Nation. He threw a dance party for some kids from this school. He asked me to dance. He looked so handsome, so grown up. For a minute I just…forgot. I forgot everything. He treated me like he wanted me to like him, like he didn't expect me to just be there. I thought that…maybe it wouldn't be so bad. Being with him."
"To that thought?" She laughs and surprisingly there is no bitterness in it. "It drifted away. I went back to being essentially invisible. Expected to be there, waiting for him when he found his destiny. I didn't mind. Couldn't, really."
He waits. She's not done yet. He can tell by the way her breath keeps hitching painfully, how the skin under his arm is quivering like her muscles are struggling to relax. Desperately he wants to her calm down, or talk, or simply do something other than act like she is going to cry. It takes so long for her to start again that he falls asleep to the roll of waves and the feel of her skin.
Zuko wakes up almost two hours later, groggy and bleary and vaugely aware that his arm is slung over sand rather than Katara. This fact, more than anything else, pisses him off. He gets up, shakes out the pins and needles, and starts following her footprints down the beach.
When he finds her, Katara is lolling about in the sand. It sticks golden and grainy to her skin. The light glimmers off her tangled hair. She looks like a child, really. The anger predictably eases, so he joins her and rolls around in the sand under her approving stare. But then he gets sand in uncomfortble places and decides it's high time to sit up and start getting all the grains off him. "Life," she says importantly, even though they both know that whatever is about to come out of her mouth is decidedly unimportant, "is not complete unless you have sand in places you didn't even know existed."
Zuko lets out a startled bark of laughter. He does that around her a lot, he's noticed. It's involuntary and sort of annoying. He tries to cover up his slight discomfort by brushing off the copious ammounts of sand that have stuck to his own skin.
She laughs at him and reaches out to brush some from his back. Shivers run down his spine at the feel of her lightly callused fingertips. The hand stills, then flattens against the small of his back. "Zuko?" she questions, voice high and inquisitive and fear-inducing because holy Agni it's her 'I just figured something out' tone.
"Yes?" he says back very carefully. Very, very carefully.
"We're on a beach."
He blinks and looks around. Lo and behold, yes, they are on a beach. A rather nice beach, with aforementioned golden sand and warm blue waters and waving palm trees and sea shells. An Ember Island beach, to be exact. Abandoned for a giant bonfire on the other side of the island that, technically, both of them are supposed to be at too. But they're here instead, rolling in the sand and soaking up the last rays of the sun. So what is he supposed to say to her?
"The sun is setting," she prompts. She gives him a significant look.
"Yeah?" he says. He gives her his own significant look, though this one is more of a 'and-your-point-is?' significant as opposed to a 'you-are-too-thick-to-live' significant.
"We're alone." Zuko raises his one eyebrow. "On a beach. With the sun setting." Katara is clearly getting very frustrated, but he's really not sure why.
"I get that," he says.
"Well then," she growls a little, "why aren't you doing anything?"
What exactly is he supposed to do? "Uh, Katara, are you okay? Did you drink too much salt water earlier?"
She lets out a howl and throws herself into a sitting position. "Zuko. You're so stupid." Then she's on her feet and stomping away. The stomping away doesn't mean her irritated ranting s over. Far from it. And Zuko is chasing her down the beach trying to apologize (it is futile and he knows it) which means he hears every confusing word. "―the beach for Tui's sake. The beach. And the sunset. You are such an ostrich horse!"