Disclaimer: I do not own Avatar the Last Airbender.
Notes: The grand finale, over two years after it was started. It's a bit sad that it took this long, but I learned my lesson about multichaptered gift fics. (Which is: don't do them.) Also, Legend of Korra has officially made this into impossibility. So it's kind of a fuck you to the Kataang sentiments of the world.
the time he kisses her
Her hair sways as she walks, a brown waterfall of tumbling curls and waves that are unlike anything you would see in the Fire Nation, something strangely reminiscent of her element. It's longer than it was when he first saw her, and it was quite long then. Hip length, if he remembers right, which maybe he doesn't. Now it reaches to her mid thigh when unbound, and he is torn between wanting to tangle his fingers in it and begging her to cut some of it off because really that much hair must be some sort of liability in a fight. It's not so bad when it's all bound up in braids and loops and elaborate twists, kept up and away and neat. He doesn't notice so much then, it's easy to think about how she needs to cut it for the sake of practicality. But now it's dark in the Ember Island beach house, and she is wearing only her underthings, and that beautiful mass of hair is completely undone. And he thinks it is not so much a liability as a temptation, a disastrous, wonderful temptation.
"Zuko, are you coming?" A stage whisper, supposed to be quiet but loud so that it can be heard, ineffective and dumb but coming from her strangely endearing. His eyes flick up from her hair to her face, which is turned slightly to look at him as she keeps walking.
"Yes, Katara," he says, trying to sound defensive. It's strange that he should be trying to sound defensive, when for so long he worked at not caring enough to sound so. But now he needs to, he can't sound like he did just then: sleepy 'you just woke me up to go for a midnight swim' adoration. He should sound grumpy, defensive, tired, upset. Not like he's secretly sort of pleased that she came to him to take care of this sudden desire to play in her element.
However he may or may not sound, she doesn't do anything more than roll her eyes and walk a bit faster toward the double door entrance just down the hall from their current location. He lengthens his strides to catch up, an easy feat. He hit a growth spurt just before he turned eighteen, and he kind of likes how he towers over everyone now, even Aang who also had an immense growth spurt. She glances at him sideways when he pulls even with her, but doesn't say anything as she pushes the doors open.
Night air, tinged heavy with salt and recent rain and heat and flowering night booms, floods in towards them even as they rush out. She outright runs down the stairs, headed for the beach at a rate of speed he's never seen her take before. It's almost insane, break neck, and she's graceful but he sees how she has to quickly correct her balance a few times which means she may be insane and getting ready to break her neck. Maybe it's the full moon doing this to her, or the incoming tide, or the damn air.
Zuko sighs and shakes his head, closing the doors behind him quietly. The wood porch creaks underneath his feet. He remembers how last summer several of the courtiers tried to convince him to get it replaced with the marble that was becoming all the rage. How Katara had smiled at him and told him not to do it, that wood was classic, that he didn't need some cheap trend, that she'd seen how he'd lie out on the porch for hours watching the waves come in and tracing patterns on the wood. And honestly, he sat out there because he wanted to watch something that reminded him of her, and it wouldn't make a whit of difference if his seat was weathered planks or polished marble, but her pleading smile was all he needed. Stupid boy, to be so taken in with a pretty smile.
(But she's not just a pretty smile, she's a hand taking his when he's scared to face his sister, she's a voice whispering encouragement as he gets ready to go face the council, she's a laugh at the banquet when he is awkward, she's a fleeting kiss on the cheek before he has to go talk to the refugees, she is his sanity with a blue eyed quicksilver soul.)
He follows after her now, his feet hitting the sand in a steady rhythm that is not her pell-mell speed of earlier but gets him down to the shoreline quickly enough. A shell bites into the instep of his foot briefly and he lets out a quiet curse while side hopping before he keeps going. No blood mars the sand behind him and the sting fades so he's probably okay. But still, that was too much pain to justify the current situation.
"Katara," he says, and his voice is just a touch exasperated as he sees what she's doing. Which is sitting in the shallows of the water, a large pout on her lips that is visible even from his position. She said she wanted to swim, which would be acceptable enough, save for the fact that all she is doing now is sitting. That could have been accomplished just as well in a tub. A tub, which wouldn't have involved dragging him out of bed and out onto a beach where a seashell would hurt his foot. "What's wrong?"
"I'm tired," she says tremulously, and he realizes that perhaps her pout is not so much of a pout as it is a trembling lower lip from trying to hold back tears. He can't really tell, the full moon's light is not that bright, but he walks closer and crouches down in the water beside her. The lapping waves are cold, not frigid, but definitely enough to finish waking him up. He touches her shoulder and is surprised at how icy it feels. She flinches away from him and something, probably heartbreak, stabs at him in the gut. He lets his hand drop to his side.
"Tired of what?" He tilts his head to the side and tries to think of what she could possibly mean, because if she is merely physically tired why did she run down here, why did she come outside in the first place, why is she not tucked safely into the plush bed in her suite?
"It's been nine years, Zuko. Nine. I'm twenty-four. I'm the world's greatest waterbender, the best healer in both Water Tribes, and a hero from the 100 Year's War. But I'm tired. I'm lonely." She looks at him, her eyes wide and brimming with unshed tears. He winces. He never was good at dealing with her tears. Mostly, it just makes him want to kill something.
"Katara," he begins. Her lower lip trembles harder. "Katara," he says more firmly, "you're strong and brave and wonderful and more beautiful than you realize. I know that I've been selfish, keeping you in the Fire Nation…" And he realizes abruptly that he doesn't know where to go from there, doesn't know what else to say to her. Apologize for his selfishness, for the fact that so long as she is willing he wants her as near to him as he can have? Beg her to stay forever, to keep being his best friend while he tries futilely to be her everything so she will always be smiling? Tell her he will let her go, so she can find someone who truly does make her happy and can give her everything she's ever wanted and needed?
She shakes her head, laughing a little. Her hands, lithe hands with long fingers, ball up into fists and she rubs her eyes with them. "Don't worry, I'm just being silly. The truth is that I'm happy where I am. I don't want to go anywhere else. I just wish…"
"What?" Her blue eyes are large in the night, light reflected from the moon and the waves giving them a sort of glow he's never really noticed before this moment. A sort of desperation sets into his stomach, or maybe his heart, or maybe his entire being. If she will stay with him, if she will be herself by his side, then he will give her anything.
"Anything you want, I'll try to give it to you."
"You're being ridiculous."
"Probably," he admits. Because probably he is. What could he have that she would want? She's not the sort to desire material wealth. Everything he has worth offering her, is already hers. Given thoughtlessly, adoringly, years and years ago.
"Anything?" Katara looks thoughtful now. Like she is actually considering this. It's enough to give him hope, and hope is all he really needs.
White teeth worry her lower lip, and finally she shakes her head very slowly, as if forcing herself to forget a thought that had been plaguing her mind. "There's nothing I'd ask you for, Zuko. You have others to think about, not just me."
He thinks he knows what she's thinking of, courtiers and diplomats and nobles and treaties, but he's not sure why she thinks they are important. Not when it comes to her. He wouldn't throw his kingdom for a woman, but he might make an exception for Katara. And she looks so heartbroken but resolute, because she knows that he loves the Fire Nation more than anything (except her but she doesn't know that) and even though he has no idea what was going through her head she's placing him and his country ahead of herself like she always, always does. He thinks of her smiling at the market outside the palace as he buys her leechi nuts and how she laughs brightly when she goes to the orphanages and the way that even though she is so Water Tribe that sometimes it hurts the people look at her with the same sort of unwavering devotion that they look at him. He thinks of all of that, and he sees the tears welling up in her eyes again, and he does the only thing he can possibly think to do.
There's warmth spreading through his veins, stronger and more potent than even seeing the secret of the dragons. There's a soft sigh because he realizes this is exactlywhat he was supposed to do six years ago on a beach, and all these times after between whenever. There's the way she pushes closer to him, gripping onto his shoulders with such force that he can imagine the bruises forming. There's how the water is getting higher around their sitting forms with the incoming tide and how his pants are soaked. There's an intense feeling of home.
He pulls away slowly and then breathes a quiet, "I love you." The smile she gives him is dazzling, delirious, and beautiful. So fucking beautiful. So he kisses her again, and the world is quiet, and he is home.