Appa’s fur is soft under his cheek, tickling his skin like his mother’s eyelashes when she gave him eskimo kisses as a kid. He wonders, as he nestles down, if Katara’s mother did the same, if Katara remembers it with the same bittersweet longing that fills his chest.
He has half the mind to ask her— they haven’t spoken about their mothers since their ‘life-changing field trip,’ as Toph has coined it. It seems only kind to check on her, prod at how she’s feeling in the wake of everything.
But, Katara settles down across from him, on Appa’s last leg, and Zuko loses his nerve.
She’s too pretty, honestly. He admits it to himself. Finally.
It’s not the tension anymore; that’s gone. It’s not the animosity or the unaccepted apologies; they’ve waded through it all and come out stronger.
It’s her eyes, her smile, her rose-tinted cheeks. Katara steals his breath anytime she laughs, sends his head spiraling into oxygen deprived dizziness. And he spends too much time thinking about her, about her voice, about her hair, wishing he could brush and braid the chocolate locks while she talks to him. He always wonders at her lips, if they’re soft, if they taste like the ginger tea she always drinks.
Yeah… she’s pretty; too pretty for him. She’s turning him into mush right there, absorbing his thoughts.
Wearing the shyest smile, she rolls from her back to her side, facing him. Her eyes glitter in the moonlight. The subtle glow catches the color on her cheeks. For the life of him, Zuko can’t determine why Katara’s blushing—at him, no less—but she tucks her hands under her head and curls up, and he suddenly can’t even think.
“Hi,” she says, low enough to keep from disturbing the others, even Toph.
He blinks, restarting his heart. “H-hi. Katara.” The comet is so close, it’s a rare thing to have even these late, stolen moments where her worries seem at peace. Zuko takes advantage of it by checking on her.
“Are you okay?“
“For the fight? Or the aftermath?”
She studies him. Closely.
Zuko feels pinned. What does she see when she looks at him? The scarred, banished Prince? The future Fire Lord? His uncle thinks he’s worthy of it, but some part of him wants to know what Katara thinks… what she thinks of him.
Rolling onto his back, Zuko digs his fingers into Appa’s fur and stares up at the stars. “All of it. Facing my sister. Maybe losing. Maybe winning.” He inhales sharply. “More so winning. That scares me the most.”
“I don’t think you have much to worry about, Zuko.”
“No?” He tilts his head, finds her still looking at him.
“No. I think you’ll be a great leader. You’re hardworking and driven. You’re thoughtful, kind—”
“—I sent an assassin after the four of y—”
“So, you’re relentless.” A soft smile is present on her lips. And it’s the most soothing thing in the world, like sinking into a hot mountain spring. He eases up in the warmth of it. “You’re determined and… a little over zealous.”
Zuko chances a joke. “Over zealous is the term you’re using for attempted murder?”
“Zuko.” Katara gives him a hard look. “You’re forgiven for it, for all of it, by all of us. And these traits of yours? Put to the right use, they aren’t negative things.”
When he’s quiet long enough, she reaches out, covering his hand with hers.
“No one else can do this, Zuko. No one else has the combined qualities— the heart, the passion, the humility, and the honor— to lead the Fire Nation towards peace. Your uncle’s right.”
Katara intertwines their fingers and lays her head down on Appa’s thigh.
“I’m right. Trust me.”
He smiles at her, nods slowly. When he does, Katara hums happily, settles down, and closes her eyes to sleep. He doesn’t blame her. The comet is coming; they have a massive battle ahead. She needs rest.
But, Zuko stays awake.
And he stares at the clash of their skin tones ‘til long after she’s dreaming.