By the time he made it back from the town, Aang and Suki were already awake and tending to their campfire. Sokka's snores could still be heard, but Toph and Katara were nowhere to be seen. Zuko purposefully slowed his stride as he came into the camp.
"Zuko!" Aang greeted him with his characteristic enthusiasm. "Did you get what you were looking for?"
"I- what are you talking about?" he said, glowering. "I wasn't looking for anything."
"Oh okay, if you say so," Aang said, and Suki grinned to herself. Zuko stared at them with narrowed eyes, but then decided it wasn't worth arguing over.
"I'm boiling water for your tea, Zuko," Suki said.
"Oh - thank you," he said, before turning away. "I'm going to meditate," he muttered, and stalked off towards a cluster of flat boulders. Suki and Aang watched him go, their smiles widening.
"Where's Katara?" Aang asked as he opened the packet of dried berries from his pack.
"Sleeping in," Suki replied. "I think it took her a long time to fall asleep."
"Did you guys... talk to her?"
Suki glanced over her shoulder at Zuko, who had settled himself on a sunny rock a few hundred yards away. "Yeah," she said quietly. "She's going to do something special for him."
Aang pumped his fist in a triumphant gesture. "I knew it!"
Suki looked at the avatar curiously. "Was this your plan all along?"
Aang shrugged. "Not quite, but the thought did cross my mind around the same time I remembered what day it was." He smiled. "It's working out better than I thought."
Suki raised an eyebrow but continued to stir the congee, saying nothing. Her thoughts wandered over to Sokka, and to wondering what he might have gotten her for today.
Eventually everyone roused and sat down to breakfast, whereupon it was decided that they would spend the morning hiking to a nearby waterfall for a picnic lunch. Aang also suggested that they exchange gifts there, which everyone except Zuko and Katara enthusiastically agreed to. The pair were seated across the campfire from each other (as far away as they could get, Suki noticed) and noticeably avoiding each other's eyes.
It was still winter, but the sun was strong enough to keep the chill air at bay by the time they started hiking down the gorge. Much of the snow had already melted, but patches of white could be found in rocky hollows and in the shadows beneath the trees that grew more thickly the further they walked. Tufts of grass and crocuses had begun to bravely poke through the hard ground, lending a little more color to the browns and greys of the landscape. She was ready for spring, Katara decided, half-listening to Sokka as he chattered away about his latest ideas for inventions. She, Sokka, and Suki trailed behind Aang, Toph and Zuko, the latter-most of whom was choosing the path over boulders and between trees and bushes. They had unanimously agreed that Zuko had the best chances of finding their destination, given his much-demonstrated skills at tracking. (He had blushed again and glared at the less-than-subtle reminder.)
They stopped to rest and hydrate at a small creek, and Katara glanced up at the sky, sighing. "How much further do you think it is?" she asked Suki.
"Getting tired already, Princess?" Toph called from her perch on a rock. "Gotten out of shape since our traveling days?"
Katara flicked a few drops of water at the shorter girl, who yelped. "That's cold!"
"Not too much farther, I think," Aang said, looking over his shoulder down the hill. "What do you think, Sifu Hotman?"
Zuko blew his hair out of his eyes. "How should I know? I'm not an earthbender or a waterbender; we're trying to find a waterfall, not a volcano."
"But you're the best at finding things!" Aang protested. "Right, Katara?" He looked to her beseechingly, as if requesting backup.
"Uh, sure, yeah, you are," she said stumbling over the words a little. Golden eyes flicked over her face, then moved away.
"Yeah, well," he muttered, "It's not as if I'm tracking any Avatars these days."
"Good thing, too!" Toph said, slamming him on the back with an open palm. Zuko sagged slightly, wincing. "You need to focus on tracking down some competent servants! And a wife, of course."
"Toph!" Katara shrieked at the same time that Zuko yelped, "Are you kidding me?" They looked at each other, startled, and then immediately away, blushing furiously. Thankfully, no one else seemed to notice.
"Come on now, enough yapping," Sokka said, striding forward. "Are we going to find this waterfall or not?"
"Maybe Katara should try leading this time," Zuko muttered, staring at a bush by his feet. "She could sense the water before me, anyway."
"Excellent idea," Aang said, nodding. "Zuko, Katara, you lead the way!" When they didn't move, he pushed Zuko towards Katara. "Come on, we haven't got all day!"
My friends, Katara thought as she stalked forward, trying and failing to ignore Zuko's lengthier stride beside her.
They did find the waterfall, but only because Zuko almost stepped off the edge of the path and into thin air above the rushing water. Katara grabbed his tunic with one hand and used the other to bend water into a wave that shoved him towards her, back onto the path. They crashed to the ground, legs tangled, Zuko barely catching himself with his hands before his torso and head could smack into hers.
"Agh!" he gasped, and then the water she had used to push him broke over top of them.
"Gah," Katara sputtered, trying to shake the water out of her eyes. "Sorry about that!"
"That's okay," Zuko rasped, pushing dripping hair out of his face. "Are you all right?"
She nodded, very aware of how closely he loomed over her, their faces only inches apart. He seemed to realize this at the same time and pushed himself off of her too quickly, falling onto his back with a thud. At that point the rest of the group turned around the bend and nearly tripped over him.
"Careful!" Katara shouted. She gestured to the path's edge. "We found the waterfall."
Sokka stepped over Zuko and peered over the edge. "Excellent! Can we get to the bottom?"
"If we follow this path it should take us all the way down," Toph said, tapping the dirt with her foot.
Zuko sat up with a small groan. "If you could sense that the whole time why didn't you lead?"
Toph shrugged. "Just cause I can feel the ground doesn't mean I would have found the waterfall any quicker." She quirked an eyebrow. "Looks like you guys found it easily enough."
"Yes," Katara agreed quickly, bending the water out of her and Zuko's clothes before anyone could ask. "We did."
She didn't add that she had been too engrossed in their conversation to sense that they were approaching the waterfall, or that Zuko had been looking at her and not the ground when he had nearly fallen off the path edge. Thankfully, the rest of the brief walk passed without incident, and they were soon sitting on a cluster of boulders beside the waterfall pool, enjoying the picnic lunch that Aang and Suki had packed for everyone.
Zuko ate slowly, his heart hammering in his throat. The hike had passed so quickly, and it seemed like everyone was gobbling their food even faster than normal. Were they all so anxious to exchange gifts? Maybe we're all out of shape since our traveling days and so get hungrier faster. This is not making any sense, even in your own head, Zuko. Without looking at it he felt inside his pack for the items he had stowed inside. The small bag was at the very bottom. He fingered it, and his heart lurched. This is a mistake, this is a huge, humiliating mistake, and she is going to drown you -
Sokka belched loudly, cutting off all conversation. "What?" he asked the four pairs of disgusted eyes trained on him. "It was really good!"
"Well, as long as everyone's paying attention, why don't you start?" Aang said.
"Oh come on, Sokka, everyone wants to know what you got Suki!" Toph said loudly. "So just start already!"
"Oh." Sokka turned bright red. "Well, I wasn't exactly planning to do this in front of all you jerks, but..." He fiddled with his pack, then seemed to have an idea. "Oh, I know. Here, Toph!" He chucked something at the earthbender, who somehow caught it with unerring precision. Her face brightened.
"Thanks Sokka! How did you know these were my favorite?" She popped a cluster of berries into her mouth.
"Here Katara," Sokka said, also tossing something small in her direction. She caught it as well and turned it over in her hands. It was a gold and red hair pin, similar to what she had worn in the fire nation.
"Uh… thanks, Sokka?"
"You're welcome!" he said airily. "I know, I know, I'm such a generous brother, but you can hold in the tears of gratitude for now."
Katara raised an eyebrow. "I will do my best then. Catch!" She threw his gift, which he missed and so ended up smacking him in the face. "Oops. Sorry!"
"Sorry schmorry," he grumbled, then saw that it was seal jerky. "Ooh! Jerky! I love you, Katara! You're the best sister ever! Pretend I never said anything otherwise!"
Katara smirked. "I know. Now finish handing out your presents!"
"Oh, right." Sokka hesitated again, the color returning to his cheeks. "Well..." he coughed, then cleared his throat. Suki's eyes widened as he stood and strode over to her, then knelt on both knees beside her.
"Suki, I know I'm not the cleverest or bravest guy in the Water Tribes, and I know I can be pretty goofy at times, or say really dumb things. But I love you, and being with you has meant the world to me. I care about you so much. And I know you are a Kyoshi warrior, which means you have obligations, and I'm of the Water Tribe, but I hope… I hope that somehow, we might be able to work something out."
He held out a small blue pendant that flashed in the light, and nearly everyone held their breaths. Suki gasped, and tears began to run down her face.
"Suki," Sokka said, looking unusually serious, "will you... marry me?"
She buried her face in her hands, and for a tense moment everyone waited. Then she laughed through her sobs, nodding. "Yes. Yes!" She wrapped her arms around Sokka's neck and they kissed fiercely.
Toph's loud clapping broke the stunned silence that enveloped their friends, and Aang quickly joined her, whooping. Katara felt like she was moving through sludge as she moved to hug Suki and her brother, who had finally released each other, laughing a little.
"Congratulations!" she said to Suki, though her voice was a little hoarse with shock.
"Thanks," Suki said, returning her tight hug. "Are you… okay?"
"Okay? Suki, I could not have asked for a better sister!" Katara exclaimed, and then her limbs thawed out. She reached over and smacked Sokka across the back of the head. "Way to not tell me!" she yelled, then hugged him too.
"Sorry," he said, unabashed. "I wasn't sure whether I was really going to ask, and then..."
"It's okay," she said, and then Aang and Toph were there hugging them as well. The only person who still sat frozen on his rock was Zuko, his face blank.
Aang beckoned to him. "Stop being weird and unemotional and get over here with the hugging party, Zuko!"
At that he stood and came over to them, though his expression was still strange. Toph grabbed him by the shirt-front and pulled him into the group hug – he ended up next to Katara – and then it was a tangled mess of hugs and tears (Katara started crying too), laughter and warmth.
When they all finally broke apart, Sokka carefully clasped the pendant around Suki's neck (she promptly burst into tears again). Katara wiped her eyes and leaned back against Zuko, who was seated beside her.
"Are marriage proposals always so… wet?" he asked her, and she laughed.
"It depends," she said. "It's hard not to cry when you're that happy."
"Do all girls cry when they're happy?" He sounded utterly bewildered.
"No," she said. "But that's also a whole 'nother level of happiness."
He thought that over, and Katara closed her eyes for a moment, enjoying his bright heat against her back.
"Well, clearly no one else is going to match up to that level of gift-giving," Aang was saying, "but here you are, Toph, Suki."
Gift-giving still not over, Katara remembered, and reluctantly sat up. Zuko shifted, his golden eyes meeting hers, and for a moment she was confused by the emotions she could not name in them. Then he looked away, and the moment broke, and Katara fumbled in her bag for Aang's gift.
The exchange went on, until it became clear that the only gifts that had not been received were Zuko's from Katara and Katara's from Zuko. No one commented on this, but then Toph winked at Katara and drew the others away with a loud request to check out some "really neat rocks a bit further down the river!"
Zuko cleared his throat, and Katara glanced up at him. "Do you… want to come see something?" he asked. "I mean – can I show you something?"
"What is it, Zuko?"
He held out his hand and she took it. He led her around the bank of the small pool, towards the thundering waterfall. The spray was cold, but not unbearable. For a moment, Katara was confused – did he mean to lead them into the waterfall? - but then she realized that he was taking her behind it.
A small pool, fed by gentle streams of water trickling over the rocks, sat behind the foamy white falls in the hollowed out rock. The noise was nearly deafening, but the scene completely worth it. Katara squeezed Zuko's hand, grinning at the way the light filtered through the falls, at the contrast between the falls and the still pool.
He let her look for a while – she didn't let go of his hand, and so he kept hold of it – and then led her out through a small craggy opening on the other side.
"That was beautiful," Katara said when they could speak without shouting to hear each other. "How did you know that was there?"
He shrugged. "I saw it on the way down, thought you might like it."
"I did," she said, smiling into his face. "Thank you."
He smiled back for a long moment. Then, "I… I uh, have something for you."
He let go of her hand and drew a small bag from his pocket. He handed it to her, unable to meet her eyes, and Katara gently opened it.
She stared at the dazzling piece in her palm, and for the second time that morning her brain seemed to work sluggishly, unable to entirely compute what she held or what it implied.
"It's not a betrothal necklace!" Zuko blurted, then looked horrified. "I mean, unless you want one – I mean, that's not what I meant! I didn't think you wanted a betrothal necklace, from me, anyway, but I thought you would like this one, I mean this necklace, cause it reminded me of you, and – agh!" he smacked a palm to his forehead. "This is coming out all wrong."
Katara licked her lips. Swallowed. "Zuko, I…"
She closed her fingers around the necklace, and reached out with her other hand to gently pull his hand away from his face. He stared at her confused.
"I didn't get you anything," Katara admitted. "But I hope you'll accept this instead."
She leaned forward, tilting her face up to his, and in the moment before her lips met his, Zuko suddenly realized what she was doing. His eyes closed.
The kiss was soft, gentle, questioning at first. Just the pressing of her lips to his for a moment, inhaling his scent, then retreating just slightly, eyes flickering open to meet his, to assess his reaction.
His eyes were molten gold, and the joy in his face made her breath catch. Zuko pulled her against his chest, arms wrapping tightly around her and bent his face to hers, kissing her with such passion that Katara thought she might spontaneously combust.
It was several minutes before either of them could breathe, let alone think, properly. And it was several more minutes before they could speak. When her lips were finally hers to speak with, Katara buried her face into his shoulder instead, holding him close.
"Katara," he breathed against her hair, and she shivered slightly. He tensed. "Are you cold?"
"No, silly," she mumbled into him. "It's impossible to be cold next to you."
She felt him smile into her hair. "I've waited so long to hold you," he admitted. "I didn't think… I almost can't believe..."
"Me either," she said softly. She could feel the thudding pace of his heartbeat against his ribcage; it echoed hers.
"Will you help me put my necklace on?" she asked some time later. He nodded, and reluctantly they allowed space to come between their bodies. Katara turned her back to him and pulled her hair to the side. Zuko reached around her to drape the necklace on her chest – it lay just beneath her mother's pendant – and clasped it, fingers lightly brushing against her neck. Katara shivered again.
"Are you sure you're not cold?" he asked.
Katara opened her mouth to respond when several twigs snapped at the same time that Toph's voice reached them. "Hey Sparky! Princess! Are you guys making out up there, or what? We've been waiting for you for hours!"
Zuko and Katara jumped as if scalded, and Aang's voice called, "We have not been waiting for hours. Don't listen to Toph, she's just impatient."
Katara blushed fiercely over the wafting sounds of bickering, and Zuko pinched the bridge of his nose, sighing. "Well… I guess we should go down?"
Zuko's hand enveloped hers and he pulled her in for a brief but intense kiss. "I suppose," he said. "We have the whole way back to… talk?"
"I'd like to," she said. "And if we don't have enough time to talk about everything, I was thinking that maybe when our 'vacation' is over I could come to the Fire Nation for an… extended visit?"
His hand squeezed hers. "I would love that."
"Zutara, can we go now? I want to get home so I can show off Suki to Dad and everybody!" Sokka yelled.
Katara growled. "That's it. He is not ruining our vacation just cause he proposed to Suki. Nuh-uh!"
Zuko frowned. "Did he just say…?"
"Come on, Zuko," Katara urged, pulling him forward. Zuko let her. Surely, he had just imagined it.
A/N: This turned out a bit longer than I expected, but I hope you enjoyed it! Please review.