42 Months

"Want me to come over there and warm you up with some firebending?" Zuko laughed quietly into the darkness, rolling over in his mat to face her, but her back was to him, the mist of his breath fanning out before him from the coldness as a beat skipped between them both, making the firebender frown, because he knows her, and if a snort or a dorky joke doesn't follow, then something must be up.

"No," Katara answered quietly, flatly, not moving even a muscle. "I've learnt how to regulate my body temperature with bloodbending."

Zuko sits up on his elbows to look at her through the darkness, his frown deepening at the tone of her voice. "Oh, yeah? How?"

Another beat passes, and Katara can practically hear him growling. "It's like when boiling water, except with blood, and milder. That and encouraging the circulation around my body so I feel less cold and keep messing with the foundation of my body cells at a minimum, which is essentially what heating blood is."

Katara didn't know what game Zuko was playing at by hanging around with her still, even though it had been two weeks since he had ushered Ursa back to the Fire Nation to be surrounded by loved ones and luxury once more; he had no reason to stay with her, no reason to tag along, because he had accomplished his goal, he had found his mother, and the longer he stayed with her unnecessarily like this, the more it would hurt when he left. It made her bitter and distant, unwanting to open up to him, because she doesn't know how long it's going to last - after all, he could break her heart and leave any day now.

Zuko swung his legs out of his mat, clicking his fingers and lighting the small candle on the small desk between them. This motel was definitely the worst they had ever stayed at; there was absolutely no heating whatsoever, which is what resulted in their warm breathes frosting through the air as they spoke. Their mats and bedding were tatty and moth bitten, the carpet thinner and dingier than ever, the smell of thick bleach stinging their nostrils every time they stepped foot in the pathetic excuse for a bathroom.

But none of that had mattered to Zuko before, because he was with Katara, and they could live in the bottom of a shower drain and he still knew he'd be fine, that it'd be tolerable, if he had her. But he starts to register it now as he stares at her with narrowed eyes, the small flame flickering throughout the room, her long, dark curls picking up it's light as they lay splayed out across the floor as she kept totally still, ignoring him, making Zuko even more irritated and concerned, because he is the one person she never, ever hides anything from.

"What's wrong?" Zuko tried in his flattest voice, but it still left his mouth all rounded and soft.

It takes Katara a good few seconds to soak in the question and gather herself up mentally, on the inside, but before she can even try to roll over and sit up, try to explain these confusing feelings within herself, she sniffs out loud and listens to the tiny, almost mute thump of her thick tears hitting the pillow under her temple, the itch of those droplets as they tickle their way vertically down the bridge of her nose, and only then does she register the thickness in her throat and the tightness in her chest, only then does Zuko crouch in front of her, pulling her forearms up gently until she's sitting up, golden eyes riddled with worry.

"What's wrong?" he repeats, but his voice is quieter as he watches Katara look up to the ceiling in a bid to keep her tears locked into her blue eyes, as he watched her press her trembling lips for a moment before finally allowing her vision to fall down to his.

"You...you're gonna leave," Katara blurts out through a whisper, eyes cast down to the dingy floor, and her eyes fill with tears again. "You found your mother, Zuko. You're done. But I still have a lot left to learn...and you don't have to stay anymore. You don't have a reason."

He looks down at her, down at her head of long, shiny and messy curls that lay askew over her shoulders, trailing over her breasts and down to her waist. Zuko looks at her rough and tattered skin, discoloured and puckered in many places from practicing bloodbending, at her long, dark lashes that flutter as she tries to blink away the tears that fill her azure eyes, at her full, mauve lips that are pressed together as they tremble, as her face contorts with the idea of being parted from him, at her petite body and limbs tangled up in the moth-eaten sheets and bedding, and he knows that this is the moment he has been waiting for.

He stands up silently, goes over to their pile of bags and clothes and pots and pans, sifts through them until he gets to his own small bag, shuffling through it and grabbing something before walking back over to her kneeling in front of her. Zuko looks at her, his strong jaw stubbled, pink lips parted slightly as he presses a palm to her temple, weaving his fingers through her hairline, shuffling closer, and she can smell his musky, burnt scent, can feel the warmth that radiates off of his large and muscled body, milky skin glistening under the flame's light.

He looks at her with golden eyes that melt her insides, looks through his shaggy, ebony hair, the dark pink hues of his scar reminding her that that this is Zuko, her Zuko, and she sighs, leaning into the warmth of his rough palm. With both their visions cast downwards, Zuko opens his fist and the blue pendant with the navy ribbon looks up at them, and he can practically hear the breath leave Katara's lungs.

"You left this at my Uncle's tea shop," Zuko recalls, even though he knows he doesn't need to as he studies the absolute shock that covers her face as she studies the necklace in his palm. "Knowing you, Katara...you thought you weren't worthy, right? You thought you didn't deserve to wear and possess such an heirloom, such an incredible gift, that you had to earn your honour back before you could call yourself Kya's daughter again, hmm?"

And Katara is sobbing as Zuko leans forward and ties the necklace back around her, his warm hands at the back of her neck as he fastens the clasp, as she cries into his shoulder horrendously because she never thought she'd ever see this necklace again, and as she looks up at Zuko when he holds her damp face in his large hands, she never thought she'd ever be blessed enough to feel this way about anyone, to be blessed enough to have someone like him in her life, but she does, and she is, and she can see tears glisten in his eyes too.

"But you are worth it, Katara," Zuko whispers into her face as he touches his forehead against his, still holding her cheeks as she cries and cries. "You are the most deserving person on this earth. Your mother would honoured to call you her daughter, just as I am honoured to have even known you at all," his voice cracks, but he continues. "So don't you dare go leaving this on another shop table again, you hear me? You are the one who got yourself here, and you are the one who kept yourself alive, who kept me alive, who brought me back. You are more worthy of love than anyone...how could I ever leave a person like that? How could you ever not be my greatest reason to stay?"

Katara coils her arms around Zuko's neck and pulls him as close to her as possible, their chests crushed in a fierce embrace as they cry quietly into one another, as they breathe each other in again and again and again until the other's scent is the only thing either of them can register. When they finally pull away, minutes later, Katara's fingers weaved into Zuko's thick black hair, and he takes a deep breath. She is so overwhelmed and thankful and warm and drugged up on Zuko, but despite the fog of his misty golden eyes she sees clarity, only slightly, and can now finally be honest with herself, finally face her fear.

"I love you," Katara blurts out, the words leaving her lips like a breeze, because nothing feels more right to say, nothing feels more honest and pure, even though what she's saying is scaring the hell out of her. "I'm in love with you, Zuko."

He stares down at her for a long time, long enough to see the blush develop in her cheeks as she lets her hands slide down to his neck, long enough to watch her azure eyes dart up to him timidly, like she was actually expecting him to reject her. But this feeling in the middle of his chest, in the heart of his inner fire; it's a feeling that cannot be described or painted or sung or mimed out. It's perpetual and timeless, and at almost twenty years old, Zuko finally understands what his Uncle was talking about. He finally understands those stupid old haikus and wise words of wisdom.

This feeling that overcomes him is pure and utter peace, completely re-calibrating his entire conception of the world around him, of the girl before him as he places his hands firmly either side of her waist, leaning down low to let his warm breath fan over her parted mauve lips before touching them with his own pink ones softly, sweetly, pressing into her hard enough to know that this is most definitely real, but soft enough to show her that really, on the inside, this is all he had ever wanted in his entire life, even if he didn't know it.

When he pulls away from a flustered Katara, he flicks his nose with hers, his smirk soft, golden eyes glimmering down at her azure ones.

"Believe me, Sweetness, I love you more."

All her life, Katara never believed in the word perfect.

She just believed in making the best out of an impossibly bad situation, and in a way, this still applied to many areas of her life; save for one. Although it's uncomfortable and stuffy and squished, waking up to her nose smashed into Zuko's neck is actually a very desirable way of getting up indeed. Their legs are tangled and his arms wind around herback, and when she groans through her smirk and tries to roll away to let some air touch her skin that is burned by the friction of his, he growls in a very purr-like way and drags her back, his lips on her chin and his fingers dancing patterns on the back of her waist.

"Get off, Zuko," Katara laughed lightly, feeling him grin against her jaw. "Don't make me bloodbend you away from me!"

He pauses, smirking. "Is that a threat or a promise?"

Katara rolls over him so that her hair curtains one side of him, her knees either side of his waist and her forearms resting on either side of his head as she smiles down at him, the light of dawn flooding in through the dirty window, and she leans down to press the tip of her nose to his before kissing the corner of his mouth lazily, hearing him hum in approval below her. "Definitely a threat, Sparky."

Compared to this, it feels like he had been living his entire life wrong up until now.

Meditating proves to be a pointless task these past few months, because he can't concentrate on anything other than her or the massive grin that spreads over his features simply because she's his now. Katara actually tries her hardest to concentrate, she really does, but sooner or later, Zuko comes scurrying over to her quietly just to knock her onto her back and kiss her silent, kiss her till she's dizzy, kiss her until he's the only thing she can taste for hours, until she is hopelessly addicted to his warm palms that scour her body and his soft hums that vibrate through her mouth and into her throat.

Katara gets her own back eventually, plopping herself into the empty space in his sitting position every time Zuko tries hard to meditate for once, threading her fingers through his hair and pressing her mouth into his until he has no choice but to succumb to her and let her have his full attention as she scrapes her nails between the ridges of his abs, as she pulls on his bottom lip softly, as she pulls away just when Zuko starts to relish in the attention that he didn't know he was deprived of all these years.

"I really should have realized I loved you sooner," Zuko mused as he slid his hands up from her hips to her ribs, his lips pressing firmly into the crook of her neck, listening to Katara sigh in encouragement.

Around a year ago, they learned that perfection was a fragile thing, remember?

Just because they have each other now doesn't mean that this statement fades or slackens, it doesn't mean that they are an exception and they are untouchable to all things bad or wrong. There are still nights when Katara unravels, because there's a reason why bloodbending is a rare and unknown art form. It takes a toll not only on the body (creating scars on the waterbender that make everyone other than Zuko tense and whisper and wince), but on the mind - especially on the mind. It explains a lot, actually, considering how Hama turned out, after all.

But Katara still keeps her mouth shut and pretends she's sobbing her eyes out because she's afraid of what she is or what she's done or who she'll never be again, and she doesn't consider this a lie, because in some deep, dark part of her, she's sure some of those tears are spilled for those reasons too. But the main issue, the truly terrifying prospect she cannot yet allow herself to voice - that's the thing that gets her trembling with terror and anxiety, because it isn't something that can be controlled or beaten or overlooked, bloodbending master or not.

It's a two way thing, really, because Zuko has plenty of things to wake up in the middle of the night gasping and sweating in fear about as well. Despite being so universally different, they are one in the same - where Katara finds it harder to forgive herself on some days than others, Zuko does too. Because even though he's good now, he did bad things, said bad things, made bad decisions that he finds difficult to recall, even to this day. He knows that men are supposed to be thick and strong and tough as nails, but he unwinds, just like Katara, when he thinks of his tormented, hazy past that spit out the words traitor and weakling and failure and lucky to be born.

But you don't have to be together together in order to be there for one another, because holding each other's hands and wiping each other's tears is a perpetual thing that needs no label or mark or words to justify it.

They should tell their friends, their families, that they have found love, with each other no less-

But then they are laughing through dinner and their spars at sunrise turn into a spar of a totally different sort, and at night they push their sleeping mats together just so they can hold each other whilst they sleep because, now, they can, and even though a part of them is so terrified of this is all going to get messed up somehow, they can't ignore that this is the most content they have ever been and want to fight to keep it that way, want to listen to that part of their brains and hearts and souls that are telling them, 'Say you love him/her, say it now to make up for all the times you didn't-'

"I love you," Zuko murmurs into her hair, obeying his selfish side, golden eyes twinkling as he feels her trails the tips of her fingers around the edges of the explosion of a scar on his chest, and he knows she is afraid of their dream-like reality shattering, too. "I wonder how long I've loved you for."

Katara shrugged, flipping some hair over her shoulder as she felt his hands moved up the rough skin of her arms. "I suppose true love is tying your soul mate to a tree."

Zuko frowns, Katara laughs. "Or rescuing them from pirates-"

He kisses her to shut her up, but she's still giggling into his mouth.

The future is a foreign, unknown, uncared for thing, and they try their best to keep it that way.

They don't want to think about if Katara can ever return or what happens when the Fire Nation whistles and Zuko has to go back running; so they do what they do best and move to the next town, the next motel, at each other's throats one minute and kissing that very place the next. They are too young yet too old, too naive yet too wise, too weak yet too strong to be apologetic for being happy, because happiness is too unpredictable to gamble on.

"You used up my soap!" Katara barked, throwing the empty container at him, but Zuko caught it easily without even sitting up. "Since when did you start using my fucking soap?! You're a guy-"

"Mine ran out!" Zuko snapped back in irritation, glaring through his ebony hair as he sat up from his mat to look at her with her hands on her hips as she stood outside the bathroom in only her wrappings. "What's the big deal? It's just soap! You sleep in my shirts all the time and I never complain-"

"That's because I can just give your shirt back, but you can't just conjure up my expensive, panda and fire lilly infused soap out of thin air and return it to me!" Katara growled, folding her arms over her chest, and by this action alone, Zuko is already so obviously distracted, making Katara growl even louder. "And if you don't look at my eyes whilst I nag at you, I swear to Agni I will pull yours out of your fucking head-"

Zuko shrugged, closing his eyes as he laid down again with his palms at the back of his head. "Like you said, I'm a guy, sue me-"

And this time, when Katara picks up the soap container and aims for his head, she doesn't miss.

So ack, Zutara finally happened, huh? I can't believe I'm at this part in the story already...it's really crazy how time flies. FYI, Touched upon some things about bloodbending here that are worth remembering for later chapters.

I just want to take a moment to say thank you to each and every person who has read this story, favourited it, reviewed it, asked about it to me on tumblr or anything of the sort - like I seriously just was not expecting this much feedback, so thank you so much. I'm sorry for the late update, but things are getting busier now and I hope you all understand.