disclaimer: disclaimed.
dedication: to the senshi. thank you, mates of my soul.
notes: i am fucking sobbing i have had some of these scenes written since the literal beginning jesus christ it is about fucking time we got to this place.

chapter title: fire and the ocean
summary: Zuko, Katara, and life after the war. — Zuko/Katara, others.

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"Sweetness, we're going out!" Toph announced imperiously from the doorway to Uncle's rooms.

Katara was in the middle of putting a piece of fruit tart in her mouth. She paused to consider Toph's words, and then she ignored them entirely. Aang made a dying sound, choking on a strawberry, and waved frantically at the girl standing in the doorway with her hands on her hips.

"Twinkles, what are you doing?" Toph demanded. "Up, get up, we're gonna go down to the market, there's supposed to be komodo rhino riding lessons!"

"I highly doubt that," Zuko said from behind her.

Toph didn't even deign to acknowledge this statement. Instead, she stalked over to a still-choking Aang to yank him up, her fingers curling into the dusty orange sleeve of his habit. "Gramps, you coming?"

Uncle Iroh, seated quite comfortably on one of the many pillows strewn about the floor, chortled in amusement. "There are many paths to the top of the mountain, my dear, but the view is always the same."

The tiny earthbender tipped her head back and forth for a minute, and then nodded seriously. "I guess you're right. If you light a candle, you'll use wax."

"Very good, Lady Toph," Uncle chuckled, and raised his cup in her direction. He did not spill a drop.

"What does that mean?!" Zuko got out, staring, flabbergasted, between them.

"Doesn't matter," Toph said, waved a hand. "C'mon, Hotman, get Sugar Queen up, we're gonna go. Twinkles, what are you—"

Aang proceeded to throw himself at her.

He'd finally managed to choke down the last bit of fruit tart he'd been gagging on, and now his arms went around her small frame, and he was talking a mile a minute.

"Sifu, Sifu, Katara and Mai were talking about Ty Lee and they think that maybe there are Airbenders or something so we gotta go on another adventure to find them! Because what if, Toph, what if there are and I just haven't looked hard enough—"

"Can it, Twinkles, we'll talk about it later," Toph said drily.

But Katara was watching her, and she could see the way Toph held onto him, like he might blow away if she didn't keep a tight enough grip on him.

Toph wasn't stupid—she'd heard every word Aang had to say, taken it into consideration, and done what she wanted to regardless. They would head down to the marketplace, spend some time with the people, and then they would go.

Frankly, Katara would be surprised if they were still in the Fire Palace by tomorrow's sundown.

Aang and Toph would keep an eye on each other, out there in the great big world, and so Katara could settle. It was going to be alright.

There was a hand in front of her face.

Katara blinked up at Zuko, nonplussed.

"I'm not going with them alone," he said, like it was obvious.

She had to laugh.

And so she hooked her hands through his, and let him help her up. The bones in her hair clicked merrily with the movement. She thought of dancing, of the first time she'd seen Zuko's white teeth shining in the light of thousand candles and the way she'd wanted to bloody his smile. She thought of the guards, cats' eyes in the walls, and the way the world had warped, slow but sure, into something she could handle.

Her time in the Fire Nation, then and now, had changed her.

War had changed her.

Zuko's hands were warm and she clung to him for a minute, fizzing inside. "Well?" she asked. "Are we going to go or not?"

Toph laughed harsh and fast. "Last one out of the palace has to eat Sokka's underwear!"

"Sokka's not even here!"

But Toph and Aang had already taken off at a gallop, out through the red-stained wood door and into the hall. They'd be tearing out of the palace at a dead run if someone didn't stop them.

Neither Katara nor Zuko tried.

Instead, she tucked her hand into the crook of his arm, and they ambled away from Uncle's room—Uncle, who'd waved them out with a knowing smile, and who, Katara suspected, was now plotting names for grandchildren.

(He was terrible like that.)

"What was Aang talking about?" Zuko said, as they walked out into the weak daylight. The palace guards saluted as they passed; he'd long ago instructed that when he went into the city, they were to follow at a much farther distance than ever previously.

The Fire Lords of old feared their people. Zuko would not be that kind of ruler.

"Hm?"

"Airbenders?" he raised an eyebrow.

Katara slouched a shoulder up and down, eyes on the road—there were two sets of fresh footprints leading away from the gate, too widely spaced to be anyone walking. Spirits, she hoped Aang and Toph hadn't crashed into anyone and broken something, there wasn't enough money as it was—and said "Mai and I were talking."

"I hate it when you do that," Zuko said.

"No, you don't," Katara smiled, tucking loose dark curls behind her ear. "You think it's funny."

"I do not!" he said, horrified. "You two scare me!"

She patted his arm sympathetically, absolutely unremorseful.

Zuko grumbled the rest of the way. At least, he grumbled until Aang came zooming up, grabbed Katara by the arm, shouted something vaguely like TOPH IS FIGHTING AN OSTRICH HORSE and dragged her away faster than Zuko could keep up.

The Fire Lord stood in the middle of Palace Road, looking down at the glinting lights of his city, and didn't know what to do.

Agni, his family.

He looked up, praying to the Spirits for guidance.

But they gave him nothing.

All he could see was the whirlwind of dust kicked up by Aang and Katara's retreat, a cloud of pale golden-brown rising against the darkly clouded sky. It looked like rain again, but then, it always looked like rain.

Zuko sighed, and headed into the city.

The market was a hawking mess of people.

He wove in and out, searching. Not the jeweler's (although he knew that soon he would have to find a craftsman for a very special request) and not the cabbage stall (how was that poor man still in business)—

Ah.

In the crowded street, Katara stood underneath a green-striped awning, laughing with the fruit-vendor. Aang and Toph had disappeared yet again, lost in the seething throng of people getting their daily shopping done. The sky hung low and grey; the air crackled with the kind of static energy that hummed through a person's bones just before rain.

Zuko watched her with a fierce sort of hunger that she would never see—she knew how he felt, but sometimes he thought his hunger was an ugly thing: it was ferocious in its honestly. He wouldn't let her see it, if only to spare her that.

Not if he could help it, anyway.

There was a rumble. Far away thunder, he knew that sound. It would rain far out on the ocean just as it always did, and the city would be left aching, dry as bleached bone and praying, praying to every named spirit in the world for cleansing showers.

At this rate, they were going to need to do something drastic.

(—a flash of natural lightning, a needle in a haystack, a pebble in a river to divert the course so the water flowed this way instead of that one; and that was all it took, really, just a little thing to carve out a different path; a beat, a breath, a hairpin turn—)

Another rumble, a shaking in the ground, a slight raising of the hair on his skin. Zuko tipped his head up to look at the sky. He knew Katara did, too; she could smell it, feel the change, the odd sudden dampness.

The clouds cracked open, and it finally, finally began to pour.

Zuko closed his eyes for a second longer than a standard blink, and then he looked to find the only woman he'd ever really loved.

She was staring at the sky, just as he thought she would be. She stared upwards for a long time, a long, long time where she didn't move, soaking in the rain like a woman dying of thirst. The sound of rain against hard-packed dirt was the only sound.

And then she was laughing and laughing and laughing, dancing through the streets with her arms out, spinning in circles around and around and around.

The people danced with her.

Zuko stared as a little girl in a white dress caught Katara's hand, and they danced merrily to the sound of rain against stone. The shopkeepers had all come out from within their respective shops, and looked up—all their wondering and praying had finally been answered. The stood with their hands out, or they joined Katara and the girl in their dance shouting in joy, or they hugged and cried and thanked the heavens.

Rain or tears: no one would know the difference, now.

The Spirits hadn't damned them, yet. The Fire Nation would begin again, and it would grow, and the rain would clean the world of its garbage, even if it was only for a little while. Everyone was always beginning again. Katara was laughing, and breathing, and living. The rain bent around her, hovered in a shining blue bubble that hung suspended in the air before it popped! and soaked all the people around her.

Their laughter rose up, bounced resonant and long through the streets and up into the sky. It sounded like promise. It sounded like freedom.

Zuko listened to them, and then closed his eyes.

Agni bless them.

Agni bless.

There were raindrops clinging to her eyelashes.

There were raindrops clinging to her eyelashes and her eyes were the bluest thing he'd ever seen in his life. Katara looked up at him with her lips half-parted, soaked to dripping, bedraggled and ridiculous.

And she was so beautiful, she dazzled him entirely.

"Hi," he said, smiling.

"I love you," she said, the words burst out of her, geyser-strength and chafed raw with the truth of it.

It was all he could do to bend down and kiss her. She was warm and small in his arms, and Zuko kissed her with a fierce kind of desperation like she'd disappear if he let her out of his grip for even a second.

"About time, Fire Lord," she laughed gently when he finally pulled away.

"Katara, if anything it's about time you—"

"Shh, you," she said, finger pressed against his lips. Her hair stuck wetly to her face, constellations of starlight-water on those lashes, her eyes wide-sky blue and luminous. "It's raining."

"Finally," Zuko sighed. He touched her face, her brown skin warm beneath his fingers. He was so close that he could count the dark blue flecks in her irises. She was beautiful, like this, here in his kingdom, in his arms, in his life. They were fire and the ocean, the sea and the stars, dust beneath her fingernails and grit between his teeth washed away with the deluge.

"Finally," Katara echoed the word, and then dragged him back down to kiss her properly.

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tbc.

notes2: it's been a wild fuckin' ride, nerds. just an epilogue to go, after this, but really we're done. thank you all for sticking with me for so long. i appreciate the fuck out of it.
notes3: i'm writing a toph/aang sequel HELL YEAH HELL YEAH