Disclaimer: [Insert witty disclaimer here.]
Author's Note: This piece is dedicated to Pattie Mayonnaise, my first and best fanfiction friend, an awesome writer and editor and buddy. Happy Birthday, Christmas, Valentines, and all the other holidays I've missed, Pattie.
This is full of the awkward!teenage!love. In addition, I am not good at romance. I therefore apologize for any awfulness. I'll write you a better present next time, Pattie.
It was all too clear that the weather had no plans to cooperate today. The sky had been a bleak gray when it had dawned that morning, and the dark clouds had stubbornly stayed in place ever since. The smell of rain was in the air, but it refused to fall, even when thunder rumbled in the distance. Instead, heavy clouds just hung oppressively over the landscape.
Nevertheless, Zuko could not be deterred. He would have preferred sun or even rain to this dreary in-between weather, but he wasn't about to let it stop him.
Zuko knew, though it was painful to admit it, that he did not have the best or most timely judgment in the world. Most of this past year had been spent in the throes of indecision. It had always been a struggle to find the right path, even with the guidance of his uncle. Even now, when he had found the way and joined the Avatar, and his destiny seemed clear to him, he was not free of uncertainty. Some things still gnawed away at him at night, when he could no longer distract himself with company or practice. While snores echoed throughout the camp, some issues would leave him staring up at the sky, turning them over and over in his mind, wavering from one side to the other.
Now, though, Zuko was about to start sleeping a lot better. He had come to a decision. He had finally figured out what he was going to do. Zuko was nothing if not relentless. Now that he had made up his mind, he was going through with it no matter what obstacles stood in his way… and he had a feeling that resolve was going to be sorely tested before the day was out.
So, firmly determined, Zuko moved silently among the tall pines back toward the camp. He hadn't gone far – only far enough to scout the perimeter, mostly out of habit and the need to clear his head. Still, the walk back to the camp seemed unnaturally short, and Zuko hadn't managed to form a solid plan of action by the time the faint sounds of conversation and laughter became loud enough to be coherent. He couldn't hesitate now, though. Zuko took a deep breath, squared his shoulders, and walked resolutely into the camp.
As usual, they were keeping themselves entertained. Aang sat cross-legged on a rock, showing off some airbending parlor tricks to Kuei, the former Earth King, who applauded him like a child. Toph and Uncle were just talking, something that happened with suspicious frequency. Sokka was trying to sharpen his boomerang, but most of his attention was on the pot of stew simmering over the fire. All this, however, was peripheral; Zuko's one-track mind only registered one person: Katara.
Since they were miles away from the nearest Fire Nation town, she was back in her Water Tribe dress and traditional braid. Zuko secretly preferred her hair down – ever since he had first seen her without the braid, he hadn't been able to picture her any other way – but he really couldn't complain. At the moment, she was merely stirring the soup and rummaging through her pack for their bowls. It shouldn't have been a big deal, but even watching her do such mundane tasks nearly made Zuko lose his nerve. He had made up his mind, though, and he would go through with this – no matter what.
Katara was searching her things, half-listening to Aang as he explained his latest invented airbending move to Kuei, when she turned around to see the stew bubbling wildly. She flipped her braid over her shoulder irritably, then extended a hand and exhaled softly, cooling it down a bit. It had almost boiled over. This was not the first time she had nearly ruined something today, distracted as she was. Katara glared up at the overcast sky. It had to be the weather. It simply refused to rain. That was it.
"Lunch is ready," she called out. She began filling and distributing bowls. Sokka, unsurprisingly, was first in line, and everyone else filed in behind him to get their share.
"Oh, look; the angry jerk is here," Sokka said casually.
Katara spun around to see Zuko striding into camp. "You guys invite this barbarian to eat with you?" he asked haughtily as Katara offered him a bowl.
Sokka scoffed. "This 'barbarian' could kick you halfway to Ba Sing Se," he shot back.
"I'd like to see you try."
"The last thing you'd see would be the bottom of my shoe." Sokka pointed to his foot, then added for emphasis, "In your face."
As Katara sat down, it occurred to her, and not for the first time, that Zuko and her brother had developed a very odd relationship. When Zuko had first started traveling with them, he and Sokka had avoided each other, almost to the point at which it inconvenienced everyone else. After a couple of weeks, though, they began talking. This would have been a good thing if they had ever said anything to one another besides insults. Their exchanges sometimes gave the impression that they were still mortal enemies. At first it had alarmed Katara, but after a while it had become clear that they weren't actually planning to do anything about it. In fact, when she really listened, she couldn't hear any real heat behind the words. She couldn't figure it out, but at least they weren't trying to kill each other.
Zuko sat down next to Katara. He did it so deliberately that it completely interrupted her train of thought. Katara sipped at her soup and glanced over at him surreptitiously. He seemed innocently absorbed in his lunch, but he had chosen this spot with such certainly, and he was so close. Surely he had done that on purpose.
Katara spent most of lunch convincing herself that she was being stupid and over thinking things. She had nearly put the whole thing out of her mind when Zuko told her, "The soup was, uh, really good."
She eyed him suspiciously. "It was just vegetable stew."
"Yeah, Zuko," Aang piped up, puzzled. "It's the same thing we've had every day since we left that village."
Zuko reddened and scowled down at his empty bowl. "Seriously, can't we have a little variety?" Sokka complained.
"This is getting kind of old," Toph admitted.
A complex debate began over what meal would be best, considering their resources and the supplies they had left over from their latest trip to a market. Sokka's skills as a hunter were brought into question; the idea of using firebenders to reduce cooking time was suggested. Katara folded her arms and stayed out of it except for the occasional declaration that if they wanted something else to eat, then they could start cooking. Eventually, she washed her hands of the argument by turning away from the others – only to find herself face-to-face with Zuko. She froze, unable to look away, but uncertain of what to say.
Zuko filled the silence for her – and there was silence, she suddenly realized; all conversation had come to an abrupt halt. "Do you, uh… do you want to go for a walk?" he asked, voice strained. He was slowly turning red, but he didn't avert his eyes, and neither could Katara.
"Sure," she managed eventually.
They stood there for another moment before Zuko stiffly turned around and began walking away from the camp. Katara was rather offended until she understood that he meant for her to follow. She shot a glance at her friends, who were all staring unabashedly, and jogged after Zuko. She caught up to him and slowed to a walk, glancing up at him curiously. He didn't say anything; the only audible sounds were Aang and Sokka's continued conversation and the pine needles crunching under her feet. The forest seemed darker than usual in this overcast weather, but still the rain would not fall. "What did you bring me out here for?" she asked at last. Zuko ran a hand through his hair, but didn't answer. Katara huffed. "Well, if you're just going to ignore me, I'm –"
"I wanted to show you something," Zuko interrupted abruptly, sounding almost panicked. "It's, uh…" He glanced around and decided on a direction. "It's this way." He started off to their left, and all Katara could do was follow. Why was Zuko acting this way? He had been the odd one out ever since he and his uncle had joined them. Iroh had easily made the transition into one of the gang. He and Toph had become fast friends, and he shared some of Sokka's sense of humor. Everyone enjoyed his company, and he was glad to provide it. Zuko, however, was another story.
At first, Katara had been his only advocate. She had been the first to forgive him the history between them. She'd been the one to defend him from the others' suspicions. She had talked to him, been his confidante. Gradually, though, he had found his place in the group. He was still standoffish, at least compared to his uncle, and Katara doubted he would ever be as comfortable and easygoing as the others. But everyone had accepted him. He didn't need Katara anymore.
She didn't know what to do.
Her train of thought was interrupted when she tumbled off the edge of a ditch. Warm arms awkwardly stopped her fall, and she looked up at Zuko's sheepish face. "Sorry," he muttered, and set her down.
Katara kept a grasp on his forearm until she was certain she had sure footing, and then looked around. They were standing in the bottom of a miniature ravine. "Is this what you wanted to show me?" she asked dryly.
"Show you…?" Zuko seemed to suddenly remember what he had said. "Uh, no. Sorry." He leapt up onto the other side of the ravine and offered her a hand. "This way."
Katara was duly suspicious now, but she took his hand anyway. He pulled her up and made sure she was steady. He hesitated, hand still on her arm, and then abruptly strode away. Katara huffed again and followed. What in the world was he up to? Katara didn't honestly believe that he wanted to show her anything at this point, but she couldn't think of a reason for him to drag her off like this. She couldn't even think of the last time he had talked to her alone. She sighed, suddenly disheartened by the thought.
Katara trailed behind Zuko, watching him bemusedly and a bit despondently. The rain still wouldn't fall.
Zuko walked through the pine forest, desperately torn. He needed to talk to Katara, he knew, but he had been an idiot and said he had something to show her. Idiot. This was the most boring forest he had ever stayed in. There was nothing here he could possibly pass off as interesting enough to show her. He should just stop and tell her what he had to say, but he couldn't make himself do it; whenever he thought about it, his feet just kept moving and his jaw clenched shut. Zuko resisted smacking himself in the forehead. What had happened to his resolve? He could do this. He would do this because he had to.
Thunder rumbled, closer than this morning, and Zuko realized that he had better get this done with before it started storming. He spotted a clearing almost straight ahead and went for it. He stopped at the edge of it, unsure what to do next.
"Zuko?" Katara asked from beside him.
Zuko swallowed and faced her. Her gaze made him nervous, but then he found that true about her in general. "Um… sorry. I don't really have anything to show you. I just wanted… to, uh, talk to you." Zuko's mouth was dry, and it was hard to get words out through his constricted throat. Only his infamous sheer determination allowed him to speak at all – not that he was doing such a great job of it. "I… Katara… I mean…" Eventually, with a deep breath, he lined his words up and fired them all at once. "I really like you." She got a strange look on her face, and he backpedaled like a coward. "Uh, no, that is, you're… you know…" He put his face in his hands. "I have no idea how to do this," he mumbled into his palms.
"What?" Katara squeaked. She sounded like she was having as much difficulty talking as he was, which didn't seem possible. Suddenly there were gentle fingers at his wrists, pulling his hands away from his face. He met her gaze with difficulty. Was it natural for his heart to pound so fast? Katara was staring at him, lips parted slightly. "What did you say?"
Zuko wondered if he was imagining the almost hopeful expression on her face. There was no way he could repeat himself, no way he could say anything at all anymore, especially not now that she was looking at him like that. Zuko swallowed again, iron will faltering, but he wasn't going to give up now. He had always been more of a man of action, anyway.
Zuko stared down at Katara, eyes darting hesitantly to her lips. Slowly, agonizingly slowly, he lowered his face toward hers. Katara drew in a breath in sudden realization. They had almost touched when she leaned forward to meet him, flinging her arms around his neck. Her enthusiasm should have made the impact painful, but neither of them seemed to notice. Arms wrapped around one another and eyes closed, neither of them noticed much of anything besides each other.
And with that, it began to rain. The cloud cover over them finally broke, and water droplets poured down on them. Zuko brushed aside his suddenly drenched hair and grinned.
He offered Katara his arm, like the gentleman of the court he had been raised to be. Katara, like the beautiful, compassionate girl she was, took his hand instead, and they walked back through the forest together, content to revel in their new understanding and get soaked in the falling rain.