Zuko blinked dumbly as he looked down at Katara. She shifted from one foot to the other, avoiding looking in his eyes as she found a pebble and gave it a light kick. Zuko tried to focus on that pebble as he collected his thoughts, kept his eyes on it as it bounced next to a group of identical pebbles. Try as he might, he couldn't force his mind to form coherent sentences. When he looked at her again, her head was still down, but he could see beautiful blue eyes looking at him through dark lashes, and already he could feel the heat in his cheeks. He rubbed the back of his head nervously.
It was, hands down, the dumbest thing he could have said. Of course it was for him, she'd said as much when she sought him out at the market. I saw this and immediately thought of you. Those had been her exact words. So, it stood to reason, that since she was standing in front of him, talking to him, that the gift was for him. And to make matters worse, his voice had done this weird uptick thing where it sounded like he was questioning her sincerity, and he was already over thinking everything. It was a gift.
"It's stupid, I'm stupid, just forget it."
Her face crinkled and she turned hurriedly, taking huge steps to get away from him, and Zuko panicked, yelling for her to wait as he reached out for her. He tugged at her arm a little too hard, and she crashed into him, startled, her eyes wide. Zuko put his hands out to steady her, and the heat was rapidly creeping from his shoulders to his neck, going all the way up to his cheeks. He'd probably be as red as his shirt in a few more seconds.
"It's not stupid," he whispered. "You're not stupid."
Zuko wondered if she could feel the heat from his hands on her waist. Why were his hands on her waist? When did they get there? If he wasn't controlling his own hands, then who was? He swallowed past the lump in his throat as Katara blushed, clutching the stuffed animal to her chest. It barely registered that there were other people around them in the busy market, craning their necks to see what their Fire Lord was doing, and when Katara placed one hand against his chest, just touching, not pushing him away, he asked any spirit that would listen to not let her know just how quickly his heart was beating.
"I know how much you love your turtleducks," she said softly. "I know Sokka says stuffed animals are for girls—"
"What does Sokka know?"
The words were out of his mouth before he could stop them, and when the smile spread over her face, Zuko realized he didn't want to stop them. He loved her smile. He loved that he could make her smile. He loved that her smile made him smile. He didn't love that he was probably smiling like an idiot, too wide, too open. What would his uncle say about that? But then, maybe his uncle wasn't always the best person to take relationship advice from. But he certainly had a lot of experience, right? In any event, Katara was giggling, and she stood back, holding out the stuffed animal to him with both hands. It was much softer and squishier than he'd expected. He ran his fingers over the stitching on the shell, his smile growing as he turned it upside down to look at its feet. What would the turtleducks think if they were suddenly confronted with a giant version of themselves? They would probably be very unhappy about it.
"What's so funny?"
Katara had her hands on her hips as she watched him, and for a moment, he found himself breathless as he looked at her. The wind ruffled her dress and sent her hair fluttering around her, and Zuko reached out impulsively, tucking the strands behind her ear. He grazed her cheek as he removed his hand, swearing to himself that she didn't lean into it, warning his heart that it better not start this fluttering business, that they were both too old for that.
"I was just thinking," Zuko said, "that I shouldn't use this to terrorize my turtleducks."
She stared at him blankly for a few seconds before rolling her eyes and crossing her arms. Katara shook her head and started to leave the marketplace.
"You're such a boy, sometimes," she said to him, obviously trying to fight against a smile as she beckoned to him. "Now come on, I'm sure you have important business back at the palace."
Zuko gladly followed her, the stuffed turtleduck under his arm, and a silly grin on his face. When she turned around and tugged at his sleeve so that he was walking next to her, he matched her stride. When she yawned and leaned her head against his shoulder, he wrapped his arm around hers, and they entered the palace like that. Him with his arm around her shoulder and a stuffed turtleduck under his arm, her with a deeply satisfied smile on her face.
Years later, when she turned down the covers before getting into bed, she would tease him for sleeping with that stuffed animal every night, and he would tease her for such a cheesy gift, but neither one of them even considered removing it. The turtleduck belonged right there in the bed with them.