The sun is slowly descending below the horizon. It's light bleeds across the ocean in streaks of orange and dashes of magenta. Around them, the air is still and warm, and the world at large is quiet.
Zuko watches the ripples Katara makes in the water below the dock with the tip of her toe. She's barefoot, something she rarely does around here - the ground is far too hot for her comfort, she constantly complains - and her skin seems to soak up the last bits of sunlight. It turns every bit exposed a soft shade of bronze, and it quietly steals his breath.
He wonders if she knows how beautiful she is.
He wonders if he should tell her again. It would be the fourth time today, and the first time without any mud, sweat, or food involved.
To him, she is beautiful in any environment. She is beautiful in all of the ways she exists; brash and loud and unapologetic, determined and sharp and steady, angry and hurting and bruised, soft and shy and awkward.
She is beautiful, and he wants to tell her every moment that he can, because he knows that there's always the possibility that he might not get to again. Living through a war was difficult; trying to win a war was harder.
But the stolen moments like these, where only the two of them existed against the setting sun, made it all worth it.
"You're so beautiful," he finally says. His voice is soft, eyes liquid gold, reflecting the setting sun.
When Katara looks at him, her smile sweet, and her eyes dance in the fading light. "You say that a lot," she teases him, but the pleased curve to her cheeks gives away her approval of the compliment.
"Because it's true," Zuko insists, his own smile forming. "Uncle always told me that honesty is the best policy, especially with women." His smile widens. "And that compliments were a good way to win them over."
Her laughter is sweet and rich, washing over him like the warmth of the sun itself. Katara reaches out to push his shoulder. He catches her hand, contemplates the contrast of the rough wrappings bound to her soft skin, and folds his fingers around hers.
Her laughter fades as she turns to look at him. There's something in those eyes he can't place, something swimming its way to the surface from the very depths of her being. His soul begins to tremble as he takes note of that. Several heartbeats pass before she speaks.
"I could love you, Zuko. I could love you so easily."
His heart thuds painfully against his ribs. They've had this conversation before; they've discussed what this war has done to them, how it's shaped them both. How they are both afraid of the ways it can still damage them.
How she is afraid to trust him, because he might turn around and break her heart again.
And it's fair, he thinks. He's rebuilt the foundation for her to stand on, given her the proof she needs that he's truly changed and means it this time. But he doesn't blame her for harboring that fear still.
Her trust won't keep death away should death decide it is his time to go. He knows this is her biggest fear. She saw it once already, that the depth of her love cannot save everyone, especially those closest to her, and he understands why the seed of that fear lingers within her mind.
So he simply lifts her hand to his mouth and kisses her fingers. He opens them and kisses her palm, kisses it through the wrappings, and kisses her inner wrist as well. Her eyes soften, glimmer at him with that emotion he can now identify.
But he won't put a name to it. Not yet. Instead, he simply holds her hand as they watch the sun set together.
The sun is slowly ascending over the horizon. It paints the waters before them with strokes of magenta, touches of peach, smatterings of gold. The air is quiet and cool, holding onto the chill left over from the moon. It's pleasant, compared to the sweltering heat that will soon break over the world.
Zuko watches the tiny waves Katara makes in the water beneath the dock with her foot. Her toes are submerged and she uses them to create the waves, wiggling the little extremities this way and that to make her own current.
The moment is terribly reminiscent of another memory, one he's kept locked away for the last three years. The difference is in the details; a sunset instead of a sunrise, ripples instead of waves, warm summer air instead of a chilly spring morning. They had been three years younger, and the war had still existed.
It's end had finally come about, thanks to his friends, and the repairs needed had been tremendous. The effort was needed everywhere, and still is today, but Zuko had been prepared for that. His travels had given him glimpses into the results of the war his family had started and continued, and he knew deep within his heart that it was his duty to cleanse the wounds left behind.
To this day, he counts himself lucky that he'd had his friends beside him.
Once again, her brown skin begins to soak up the light inching its way towards them. It curls along her bare foot, ankle, calf, makes its way up to her arms and the toned muscles there, caresses the sharp planes of her face. It is no longer the face of a traumatized young girl, but the face of a woman seasoned in the ways of the world and confident with herself.
And still the face that has haunted his dreams.
Zuko can't help it. He watches Katara, and he murmurs, "You're so beautiful."
She turns her head to look at him, and the warmth filling her smile touches his heart, trickles down to his soul. A familiar trembling begins there as he watches her. He can see that elusive something returning to the surface, but this time, he knows. And he has questions of his own, questions that have kept him awake for many, many nights.
"Katara, you said once that you could love me. You said it would be easy. Could you love me now?"
Katara watches him in silence. He is acutely aware of all that has changed around them, within them, and between them. And he is acutely aware of all that has remained the same.
Like his heart, where it has remained anchored within her hands for so long now that he wonders sometimes how he has functioned so far apart from her at times.
She reaches for him first, takes his hand and slides her fingers between his. The contrast still astounds him. Her skin is dark against his, cool against his heat, soft against his callouses. And the rightness of it shakes him to the core.
"I could," she murmurs. "I could love you, Zuko." A heartbeat passes, and then she whispers, "I think I already do."
His heart slams against his ribs, jumps into his throat, lodges itself right where it belongs - in her grasp. And now, now he can name that something he'd seen in her eyes so long ago, that something that was so soft and small and hesitant that is beginning to make itself known to him now.
Love. That something was - is - love.
Zuko watches their hands for a moment. "I don't know how long," he says, his voice so quiet it's almost impossible to hear, "But I have loved you for a very long time now. And I've been waiting to hear you say that for a long time, too, I think."
When he looks up, he finds a smile playing on her mouth, a sweet temptation that he hopes to learn the taste of one day.
"I suppose," Katara murmurs, glancing at their hands as well, "That now would be a good time to do something about it. You can keep complimenting me, that's a good way to go."
He laughs, low and rich, open and carefree. Happy. Something that he’s really only learned about thanks to her. The trembling in his soul increases, and he lets it overcome him, lets that unnamed something spill out and begin to flow through him.
Love. That something is love.