“Do you think she’ll like it?”
Zuko blinked, shaken out of his thoughts by Sokka suddenly waving something in front of his face. “What?”
“Do you think Suki will like it?”
Zuko took a closer look at the deformed thing Sokka was clutching. It was something with limbs molded crudely out of clay.
“Um. What is it supposed to be?”
“Suki!” Yeah, sure. If Suki had turned into a snowman who had partially melted.
If Sokka noticed Zuko’s confusion, he didn’t show it. He hummed happily as he put some finishing touches of paint on it. “I think it’s great. Her leg fell off when I fired it in the kiln, but I stuck it back on. I’m telling you, art is the path to a woman’s heart.” He glanced at Zuko. “Well, I guess you’d have to find a woman first.”
Zuko glared at him. Sokka flashed a shit-eating grin and ran off to add to Suki’s growing collection of mutant depictions of herself.
Zuko dropped his head back and groaned. Yeah, if only he had a woman. He tried not to start thinking about Katara again. He did that too much already, lying awake in bed and staring at the moon. Why was everything so complicated ? Something nervous and flighty had fluttered inside his chest when Katara had touched his scar, and when Katara had hugged him. And then he had unhesitatingly taken the full force of a lightning bolt for her, and she had healed him.
But now where were they? Since the war had ended, they had both been swept up in the politics of its aftermath. Now, there was little more than secret glances and heavy blushing if they accidentally met eyes. Everything felt too delicate, too careful. And Zuko was scared one wrong move would bring it all crashing down. He’d managed to chase everyone else away before, but he wanted at least to have Katara in his life for as long as he could.
Wait. Sokka might have a point about the art though.
“Zuko?” Katara knocked on his door. “The Southern Water Tribe fishermen are here for the meeting.”
“Um. Coming!” He sounded weirdly strangled. Katara heard scuffling and a crash.
“Are you okay?” She opened the door to find Zuko with strangely shiny liquid smeared over his hands and scattered over the floor.
Zuko blushed. “I, uh, accidentally knocked it off the table.”
“I can see. Is this paint?” Katara took his hands in hers, pretending not to notice the way he suddenly stiffened, and carefully bent the paint off of them. With a few more motions, the paint lifted off the floor as well.
“What were you doing, anyway?” Katara asked.
“Um, nothing!” Zuko yelped. But it was too late. She’d seen the pottery.
Katara’s jaw fell open. “Did...did you make these?”
He blushed furiously again. “Um. Yeah.”
“Spirits, they’re gorgeous. Why were you trying to hide them?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know. Nobody else has ever seen these. My father always thought art was a useless waste of time. Didn’t help the Fire Nation in the war, so there was no point. I knew he wouldn’t approve.”
His eyes shone with the familiar sadness again. Katara wished she could chase it away. Their eyes met again and she quickly turned away back towards the small bowl.
“It’s okay to touch it.”
She traced the delicately illustrated golden leaves snaking over the ceramic. “Where did you learn to paint like this?”
“With Master Piandao. He believed it was important for a swordsman to be well-rounded and know art too.” He smiled a little to himself. “I don’t think he expected ceramics from me, but turns out I was pretty good, so I kept doing it in secret.”
Katara nodded. The twisting branches almost breathed under her fingers. “Is this based on anything?”
“The big tree over the turtle duck pond. My mother and I used to sit under it a lot.”
Katara frowned. “I don’t think I’ve seen that.”
“It’s not there anymore. My father had it cut down to make space for an expansion of his throne room.” A note of bitterness crept into Zuko’s voice.
He shrugged. “It’s alright. I’m glad I remembered enough to paint this.” He glanced at her. “There are, um, other places I can show you. If you want.”
“I’d like that.” Katara was suddenly very aware of how close to each other they were. Her hands were clammy. Her heart pounded. She leaned closer, and…
Zuko abruptly pulled back. “What was that?”
Zuko raced through the halls of his palace, not even stopping to see if Katara was following. Distant shouts echoed from the front gates. He cursed when he saw what was happening.
Turns out, it wasn’t easy to make a nation unlearn a century of imperialism and propaganda. Ozai still had holdouts of supporters who occasionally caused trouble. Tonight was one of those nights, as masked intruders blasted fire at anyone who moved.
“Stop!” Zuko roared.
The apparent leader turned toward him. “The false Fire Lord finally shows his face,” the man growled.
“If you want a fight with me, come and get it.”
“Our pleasure,” the leader snarled.
Zuko ran forward and flung out his arm. A bright burst of flame roared from his fingertips, but the intruders nimbly leaped out of the way. They returned with their own fire, and Zuko could feel blistering heat rolling across his skin as he dodged it.
He might have been a bit rash. He was a good fighter for sure, but ten opponents at once was pushing it. As he swept fiery bolts back towards their senders, he just wished Katara was staying safe.
Slowly, he managed to whittle down his opponents. He sent some running with their pants on fire, and others knocked unconscious with careful strikes. But there were still three left, and only the fiercest. Zuko panted, sweat dripping off his brow, as he twisted and spun to fend off attacks from all sides.
One lunged, exhaling a cloud of flame. Zuko dissipated it, but it blinded him for a moment. And that was all they needed. His legs were suddenly knocked out from underneath him as two pinned him down. Zuko struggled with all of his strength, but he was winded and they were too heavy. He glanced up to see the leader charging towards him, flames coiling into a dagger. There was no escape now.
Suddenly, a whip fashioned out of water cracked through the air, sending the leader flying. “Sorry!” Katara yelled. “Had to make sure the other entrances were secure.”
She lifted her hands, and the ground rumbled as the pipes exploded, water erupting through the pavement into a tidal wave. With a gesture, the water curled around one of the intruders and lifted him off his feet, sweeping him down the street.
Growling, the last enemy let go of Zuko and ran towards Katara, taking advantage of her momentary distraction. He even managed to close his hands around her neck before Katara punched him in the stomach. A battering ram of water slammed him against a wall, then solidified into ice and pinned him there.
“Are you okay?” Katara asked.
“Yeah.” Zuko got to his feet. “Second time you’ve saved my life. What would I do without you?”
“Hopefully you won’t have to find out,” she smiled. She looked out over the chaotic mess the brief battle had made of the courtyard. Suddenly, her face fell.
Zuko saw it too. “Oh no.” He bent down and gathered the shards of Katara’s broken necklace. The last attacker must have torn it off.
She simply stared at the pieces, utterly silent. Tears glistened in her eyes.
“I’m so sorry,” Zuko said. “I’ll...I’ll find someone to fix it.”
Katara shook her head. When she finally spoke, her voice was choked. “Betrothal necklaces are carved from a unique crystal that only grows at the poles. It...it can’t be repaired. It won’t be the same.”
Zuko didn’t know what to say. “I’m sorry. I know it meant a lot to you.”
He held out the pieces towards her, but she didn’t take them. “It’s okay. No point crying over spilled hippo cow milk.” She clearly didn’t mean it. Dragging her sleeve across her eyes, she quickly turned and walked away into the night. Leaving Zuko alone, with just a broken necklace.
“Are you okay?”
Katara glanced up to see Zuko standing in the doorway. She let out a watery laugh. “Of course. Why wouldn’t I?”
He sat down on her bed next to her. “You don’t have to pretend to be fine. I’ve sat alone in my dark bedroom enough times to know that people don’t do that when they’re fine.”
Katara sighed. “It was just a stupid necklace. And it was a week ago. I don’t know why I’m still…”
“It’s alright. I understand.” Without thinking, Zuko put his arm around Katara. But she didn’t pull away like he feared she would.
“I, uh, have a gift for you,” he said. “It probably doesn’t make up for everything, but…” He pressed something into her palm.
Katara looked down at it. Her necklace, whole again, but different. Gold veining sealed the fractures, glimmering warmly against the cool blue stone.
“It’s...it’s kintsugi ,” Zuko stammered. “I read about the technique from Master Piandao’s library. The idea is to put something back together, but not hide the cracks. Because the damage is part of its story too. Something old, but new too.”
Katara didn’t say anything. She just stared at the necklace.
Zuko pulled his arm back. “Um. Sorry if I ruined it.”
Katara grabbed his face and kissed him.
When they finally broke apart, Zuko’s face was bright red. “I….does that mean you like it?”
“Yes,” Katara laughed. “I love it. Thank you, Zuko.”
He smiled, trying to pretend his heart wasn’t about to leap out of his chest. “I’m glad. That, um...that kiss was pretty nice too.”
Katara smiled and kissed him again. “You know,” she whispered, “typically when a boy gives a girl a betrothal necklace, it means he’s proposing.”
“Oh. Right. Um. You don’t have to...I mean if you don’t want to...not that I don’t want to...but…”
She rested her head on his shoulder. “We can figure that part out later.”
Zuko pulled her closer. “Works for me.”