DISCLAIMER: I do not own Avatar: The Last Airbender.
CHAPTER 25: Save the Date
It's quiet and dark in his apartment when Zuko comes back from Katara's place.
They'd ended up talking until they finished an entire bowl of stew— at one point, Katara even got him to try one kumquat and he was surprised that it wasn't as sour as he remembered— and they wouldn't have stopped chatting if he hadn't reminded her that she had to take the ferry out to Ember Island the next day to get to her afternoon class.
I can't believe how late it's gotten.
"Well, well, well," Toph's voice breaks the stillness of the room and Zuko nearly jumps out of his skin. "If it isn't Spice King coming back so late."
"Toph! What are you doing?" He asks, turning on the lights. "Why are you sitting out here in the dark?"
"Right, 'cause I can tell when it's dark," Toph reminds him sarcastically. She follows him to his bedroom and leans against the door jamb. "So, how did it go with Sweetness?"
"It was fine," he answers curtly, trying not to give his nosy roommate anything to pounce on.
"Uh huh," Toph raises her eyebrows disbelievingly. "She didn't ask you to choke on your kumquats and die?"
"No," Zuko replies. Then narrows his eyes at Toph. "I never told you about the kumquats."
"I'm everywhere, Hotpants, and don't you forget that," cackles Toph, before joining him on the edge of the bed. "Seriously, dude, I'm glad you patched things up. Now you wouldn't be so mopey all the time."
"I wasn't mopey," protests Zuko.
"Sparky, you were the king of Mopetown," contests Toph. "Mayor of Broodsville. Most eligible bachelor on Dreary Lane—"
"Yeah, yeah, I get it," interrupts Zuko, shoving her out of his room.
"Sheesh, if you could just admit that you like her—"
"Of course I like her, Toph, she's my friend," he insists, still trying to get her out of his room, "Much like you are."
"You wouldn't wanna stick your tongue down my throat, though!" singsongs Toph, and Zuko closes the door on her face.
He stands for a moment in the middle of his room, reliving his visit with Katara. An involuntary smile creeps up on his lips and he scrubs a hand down his face to get rid of it.
I'm just happy we're friends again, he tells himself sternly. I've just earned her trust back; I'm not gonna ruin that.
"Sokka and I finally decided on a date and a venue!" Suki announces giddily on the phone before Katara could even say hello.
"Finally!" cries Katara over the din of the cafeteria at Roku's. "I can't believe you guys spent a year engaged without even so much as discussing a venue."
"Well, now we can get right on that, Miss Maid of Honor!" Suki giggles excitedly. "What are you doing three months from now?"
"I'll be working on my dissertation, but other than that, I'm free!" She grins wistfully at her leftovers, wishing Suki didn't do this over the phone. "Oh, wow, I can't believe you're actually getting the spring wedding you always wanted!"
"I know!" Suki agrees. "Hell, I hope we can convince Toph to wear a bridesmaid's dress…"
"Don't worry, I think Ty Lee could do that just fine," Katara assures her. "What else do we have to plan? Ooh! Have you picked out your wedding dress yet?"
"I'll be wearing my mom's, with a few alterations for the spring weather in Kyoshi Island," explains Suki. "But we still need a caterer and a baker who could pass Sokka's standards— oh, and we need to pick out the centerpieces, narrow down the guestlist, choose between a band or a DJ— there's so much to do!"
"Well, not to steal a line from my brother," starts Katara, gathering her books and her plate and cradling her phone on her shoulder, "But don't worry! I'm your plans girl!"
"Oh, I'm totally depending on your love for binders," chuckles Suki, before abruptly pausing. "I, uh, have to tell you, though— Sokka's gonna ask Aang to be his best man."
"I expected that," Katara replies, depositing her leftovers in the bin. "Suki, I'm totally okay with it! We broke up ages ago, and we were kinda back to being normal on your engagement party— well, after I decided to stop avoiding him."
"Well, if you're sure…" Suki hesitates. "It's just, you two might have to work closely together with all the wedding plans— if he ever flies back here, that is."
"Oh, I'm sure we'll manage just fine," Katara says, rushing through the quad to get to her next class. "Sokka might be disappointed with the lack of steak and whiskey at his bachelor's party, but let's leave that problem to the guys."
"Alright," replies Suki. "Come over as soon as you can, okay? I need your opinion on whether or not the color scheme Sokka and I picked matches our island wedding."
"Oh, believe me, I have so many ideas already," Katara says, struggling with the weight of her books as she climbs the knoll surrounding the quad. "Talk to you soon, okay? I gotta get to class."
"Okay, see ya!"
She barely pockets her phone when someone calls her name and hugs her from the side.
"I finally ran into you, I can't believe it!" says the brown-haired blur, and as Katara adjusts the books and binders in her arms she realizes it was Kiyi who tackled her.
"Kiyi! I didn't know you got accepted into Roku's! Congratulations!" she greets the girl with another embrace. Kiyi tilts her head at Katara.
"Aw, I thought Zuzu would've told you!" She exclaims, and Katara blushes in embarrassment.
"Well, uh, your brother and I hadn't had much time to catch up until— until recently," she tells Kiyi, praying that the girl would attribute the redness of her cheeks to the heat. "I've just been really busy."
"Oh, I bet!" nods Kiyi, falling in step with her. "I can't believe how hard college is! But it's so fun, too!"
"Enjoy it while you can," advises Katara with a laugh.
"I will!" trills Kiyi, bouncing on the balls of her feet. "Oh, by the way, since Zuzu might not have told you— I'll be staying with Uncle Iroh this weekend!"
"Really? You know Iroh, too?" Katara looks at her in confusion. "I thought Iroh was Zuko's father's brother."
"Oh, yeah, but he always visited with Zuzu, and he insisted I call him 'uncle' and he brought me a lot of Azula's old toys," Kiyi explains brightly as they round the corner to the Social Sciences building.
"That's a very Iroh thing to do," Katara smiles. "Zuko told me he wanted to throw me a congratulatory party just for getting into Roku's."
"That's actually why I'll be visiting him!" exclaims Kiyi, and Katara looks at her strangely. The other girl shakes her head sheepishly. "Oh, no, I meant Uncle Iroh's gonna throw me a 'congrats you got into Roku's' party, too!" She suddenly gasps and grabs Katara's shoulder, her eyes sparkling. "You should come!"
"Well, Professor Huu is on leave this week, so I won't have class…" starts Katara, thinking about her plans to stay at the library, but Toph and Suki's collective urgings for her to have some fun resound in her head. "Y'know what? Sure! I'll be there."
"Great!" Kiyi jumped up and hugged her again. "I gotta get to class. See you! I'm so excited!"
"See you, Kiyi!" calls Katara to her retreating back. She shakes her head thoughtfully as she enters her classroom— Professor Due hasn't arrived yet, and the rest of the class are either hurriedly finishing their papers or hanging out by the huge windows to catch a break from the oppressive Fire Nation heat. Katara finds her usual seat and absently pulls out her phone.
"I ran into your sister today at Roku's. Well, she ran into me, actually."
Her fingers stutter over the keyboard as she types the message. Is it too impertinent to text Zuko about Kiyi? She pauses. They'd only just made up— she'd been so unbelievably horrible to him, too— does he still need more time to recover from her harshness? She thinks back to the dinner they shared in her apartment; he seemed relieved enough to put all the awkwardness behind them, but what if that's just a one-time thing and he reverts back to his old, reserved self?
Professor Due enters the room just as Katara decides to hit send. She pockets her phone quickly— she's not the type to text during class; it's just disrespectful— but it vibrates with a reply almost instantly and Katara couldn't resist.
"I'm not surprised," Zuko texts, "She's been looking for you since the start of term."
Katara peeks at her professor and sneaks in a reply.
"She said she's staying with Iroh this weekend."
"Yeah. Uncle's throwing her a party. I tried to talk him out of it, but you know how he gets."
Katara fights a smile at the mental image of Zuko grumbling about parties to his uncle.
"I bet he's partly doing it to mess with you," she types.
"I know," he texts back. When he doesn't text anything else, Katara decides that must be the end of their chat. All the better— she really needs to concentrate on the lecture— but then her phone buzzes again.
"You should come."
Her heart skips a beat and she almost laughs at her reaction— of course he would invite her; it'd be rude not to, especially when it was the main topic of their conversation.
"I already told Kiyi I would," she replies.
It takes a few moments before he texts back.
"Great. I'd have someone other than Toph and Kiyi to talk to."
A slight pang of disappointment suddenly hits Katara.
"How characteristic of you to invite me just so you could have someone else to talk to," she types, then erases her message. Why is she disappointed, anyway? She already agreed to go to the party without his invitation. Why does it matter what reasons he had for asking her to come?
"Glad to be of assistance," she sends instead, hoping it wouldn't sound as terse in her head, then buries her phone at the bottom of her bag for the rest of the lecture so she doesn't think about what his reply would be.
Zuko stares at his phone dumbfoundedly.
"Did I say something wrong?" He begins to type, but dismisses it.
"I like talking with you more than I like talking with Toph and Kiyi," he writes, but quickly deletes it with a groan.
"I really wanted to invite you first, but Kiyi beat me to it," he tries, but that just seems even stupider than the last one that he almost chucks his phone at the wall in frustration.
"Misery loves company," is what he settles on. It's the safest reply— at least, he hopes it is.
"Table twelve, nephew," Iroh calls from the counter, and Zuko lets out a huff and places his phone screen-down on the kitchen table before agitatedly taking the tray from his uncle and serving tea absentmindedly.
He hurries back into the kitchen as fast as he could.
Zuko sighs and runs a hand down his face. He'd been ecstatic that she texted him first— how is it possible that he'd already ruined what tenuous friendship they had again?
His phone buzzes.
Zuko scrambles for it and it nearly slips from his shaking hands.
He nearly shouts at it when he sees it is Sokka calling him.
"What?" he barks, a little harsher than he intended, but Sokka just chuckles on the other line.
"Good day to you, too, buddy," he says merrily. "I have great news!"
Zuko fights the mounting headache he's getting. Sokka's calls somehow still remind him of the other guy's time-wasting nonsense when he was trying to win Katara's trust back.
"What is it?" he asks.
"You're my stand-in best man!" Sokka crows happily, but Zuko cannot comprehend what he just said.
"Your… what?" He asks in genuine confusion.
"My stand-in 'til Aang gets here!"
"I still don't follow."
There's a gust of Sokka's dramatic sigh on the other end of the call.
"Aang's my best man," he explains in theatrical slowness. "And, until he gets here from wherever charitable organization he's working for right now, I need you to do his best man duties."
"I— I didn't even know I was invited to your— to your wedding," Zuko stammers in surprise.
"Of course you are, dude!" exclaims Sokka in disbelief. "And not just because you won over Suki when you didn't let me buy that complete set of rare books on the conquest of Ba Sing Se."
"Don't you— don't you have other friends who can do this?" asks Zuko, an unexpected pit of nerves forming at the bottom of his stomach.
"Oh, I have plenty of guy friends who'd kill for this, buddy-man, but I want you to do it!"
"I've never been—" Zuko clears his throat uncomfortably. "I've never been a best man before. What am I supposed to do?"
"Convince Suki to let me get this really nice tux I've been eyeing," Sokka replies in all seriousness. "And you gotta go cake tasting with us. Oh! And plan the menu. And try to sneak in edible arrangements instead of centerpieces. And get steak and whiskey for my bachelor's party—"
"Is your wedding all about food for you?" asks Zuko exasperatedly.
"Hey, man, I'm just a simple guy with simple needs," Sokka declares casually. "So, are you in?"
"I'm only doing it until Aang gets here, right?"
"Right," Sokka pauses for dramatic effect. "Unless…?"
"Alright, bud, whatever makes ya happy."
"I'm never happy."
"Yeah, we'll see," Sokka says smugly before hanging up.
Zuko stares at his phone a bit longer than necessary— still no new messages— before pocketing it and ducking back into the tea shop.
He's serving an awkward teenage couple who appears to be on their first date when his phone pings.
He manages to walk back to the kitchen slower than he wants to, and when he finally reads her message he couldn't help but smile stupidly at the phone.
"Well, I hope Misery likes to be made fun of, because that's what kind of company I'll be with Kiyi and Toph around."
"So, this is the big, bad party you were afraid of," Katara comments dryly as soon as she spots him in the corner of the tea shop. He frowns deeply at her, although it comes off looking like a petulant pout.
"Didn't you know?" He asks her sardonically, "Uncle expanded the guest list."
"Oh, I know. I came with Suki and Sokka," she tells him, just as Sokka barges in with Suki in tow, eyes wide and jaw slack.
"Zuko, dude," he greets, his expression still a little dazed as he observes the quaint decorations that Iroh put up for the party. "Man, I want our wedding reception to look just like this."
"I kinda agree," says Suki, pulling her hand away from Sokka to grab a crab cake from a plate at the end of the long food table. "I'm starting to think we should add Iroh to the list of caterers for the wedding."
Katara nods her assent.
"We have to be careful, though," she jokes, "He might end up planning your entire wedding and I won't have anything to do."
"You're gonna be planning the wedding, too?" Zuko chokes out in surprise.
Katara raises an eyebrow at him.
"Yeah, I'm Suki's maid of honor," she replies archly— until what he said sinks in. She glances between her brother and Zuko."Wait, what do you mean, 'too?'"
"Surprise!" exclaims Sokka, gesturing at Zuko as though he is something being auctioned off. "Zuko's my stand-in best man!"
Katara turns to Suki in disbelief, but Suki just shrugs.
"I thought he told you," she says, a little too casually. Katara narrows her eyes suspiciously at her. Suki is often straightforward with her, so whatever their plan is this time, it must've been Sokka's idea.
She decides to ignore it for now and turns back to Zuko.
"I hope you have Iroh's taste when it comes to party-planning," she tells him, and his lips quirk up slightly.
"If I had my uncle's taste, Sokka and Suki would end up with a statue like that," he says, pointing at the jewel-eyed monkey on the counter.
"Huh," muses Katara, leaning beside him against the wall, "I've always wondered what that symbolized."
"It symbolizes Uncle's love for tacky things," says Zuko in a wry tone. "And his love for shopping at bargain sales."
"Oh no, we really can't have him plan the wedding, then," Katara says, side-eyeing Sokka, who is busy piling his plate with every dish on the table while Suki watches amusedly. "I have strict notes from Suki that I shouldn't let Sokka near any bargain sales while they're on wedding planning mode."
"Got the same note when Sokka and I went to that rare bookstore," Zuko discloses with a small smile. "I think that's the only reason Sokka asked me to be the proxy best man."
"Oh, you know that's not the only reason," Katara chides, placing a hand on his arm. "He really likes spending 'manly' time with you."
Zuko's lips twist as though he tasted something sour. Katara laughs and gives his arm a squeeze.
"Aren't you excited to spend more manly time with him picking out the flowers for the wedding?"
"He wants to have edible arrangements instead of flowers," Zuko recalls, and Katara claps her hands to her mouth to stifle her giggle.
"Oh no," she manages to say, "Oh, no way. Suki's gonna have a heart attack."
"About what?" asks Suki, suddenly materializing at Katara's shoulder with a half-full plate.
Zuko and Katara exchange glances and they both somehow come to an agreement.
"You'll just have to wait and see," Katara tells the bride-to-be, eyes sparkling with mischief. Suki studies both of them dubiously before relenting and changing the subject.
"I can't believe Sokka and I got an invite to this just because we know you and Zuko and Toph," she says, picking up a delicately-iced cookie from her plate.
Katara spots Kiyi bounding over to their corner and waves her over.
"Well, now you're about to know Kiyi, too," she tells Suki.
"Hey, guys!" Kiyi exclaims, "Uncle Iroh really knows how to plan a party, huh? This is way bigger than I expected! He even invited some of his old friends who now teach at Roku's."
"Glad to know you're having fun," Zuko grumbles, but it comes out lighter than expected. Kiyi simply sticks her tongue out at him.
"Kiyi, this is my brother's fiancée, Suki," Katara steps in with a laugh. Suki and Kiyi shake hands amicably.
"Are you enjoying yourself so far, Kiyi?" Suki asks.
Kiyi bobs her head up and down.
"Oh, super duper," she grins. "Uncle says he'll give me a tour of the city tomorrow, too! We might even go to the Ba Sing Se Zoo; I'm so thrilled!"
"That's great. Did you know it's a cruelty-free zoo where the animals are free to roam in simulations of their natural habitats? They even release them into the wild after they're grown," Katara says, then smiles at everyone's questioning looks. "Aang did some non-profit conservation work there."
"Figures," mutters Zuko, and Katara nudges him with her elbow.
"Who's Aang?" asks Kiyi curiously. "Is he that really cute guy in a manbun? He's so funny, which makes him even cuter!"
"Oh, no, that's my brother, Sokka." Katara laughs as Kiyi's eyes grow wide as saucers.
"Nooo," she groans, plastering her hands to her cheeks. She looks at Suki in horror. "I'm so sorry! This is so embarrassing!"
Zuko begins to chortle and it sets Katara and Suki off, too. Suki collects herself faster than the other two.
"It's really validating to know that other people find Sokka attractive," she teases Kiyi, who is still very much red in the face and hiding behind her hands. Suki smiles reassuringly at her. "Really, it's okay! I think we can all tell you it's something we can just laugh about."
"If you say so…" Kiyi peeks at her brother through her fingers. "Well, at least I made Zuzu laugh. He's been real mopey recently."
"I wasn't mopey! Why does everyone say that?" protests Zuko indignantly.
"Because you were," insists Kiyi, before turning to the girls and mimicking her brother. "He was all, 'It doesn't matter anyway,' and 'There isn't anything I can do,' whenever I asked him what was wrong."
"Oh no, was that about Jin?" Katara asks, completely missing the knowing smirk that Suki shoots Zuko. Zuko's eyes widen and he coughs uncomfortably.
"Uh, yes, yes it was. She dumped me out of the blue," he tries to lie, but the tilt of Katara's head tells him she's not believing a word he says.
So he's thankful when Kiyi asks who Jin is, and why she hasn't heard about her before.
"We weren't that serious," he tells her after she accuses him of hiding 'the love of his life' from her little sister.
"Oh, but if your breakup affected you that much, she must mean a great deal to you!" exclaims Kiyi. Zuko swallows as he sees Suki's smile grow wider over Katara's shoulder.
"Yeah, Zuko, if you can be that sad about someone cutting you out of their life, she must be pretty special," stresses Suki, and Zuko wonders when his life has gotten so complicated that someone he's not even close with knows about his crush.
That thought stops him in his tracks.
That's what it is, isn't it? He has a crush on her.
Why else would he try so hard to win her trust back? Why else would he fret so much about asking her to this party? Why else would he insist, to others and to himself, that they are 'just friends'?
Dammit, Toph was right.
"Did you say something?" asks Katara.
Did I just speak out loud?
"I, uh," he scrambles for words to say, heart pounding in his throat. The girls lean in, waiting for his explanation, and he blurts out, "Toph was right. About my— my romantic situation."
"Don't let her catch you saying that," Katara chuckles and pats his back pityingly. "You'll never live it down."
Zuko nods mutely, his throat as dry as sandpaper. Why did he have to realize this now?
Another thought materializes in his head, and he can't decide whether he is more horrified or pleased: They'd have to plan a wedding together.
He doesn't hear much of what Sokka says when he joins their little group. His mind is somehow both distantly detached yet acutely aware that Katara is standing next to him, close enough that their arms brush whenever she gestures at her brother, and every time it happens, a jolt of electricity passes through Zuko, making his skin tingle.
It is one thing when he could still convince himself that he did all those things for her because he needed to make things right; it's a whole other thing now that he knows he might have done all those things because he likes her and actually missed her like some lovestruck idiot.
"That Bumi guy's batshit crazy, and I fuckin' love it," announces Toph, suddenly appearing in their circle and breaking Zuko's musings. "Betcha he snorts a buttload of crack."
"Some of the seniors say he has medical marijuana for his arthritis," Kiyi chimes in. Toph's face splits into a huge smile and she turns her head in Kiyi's general direction.
"Hey, will ya look at that, Half-Pint's hanging with the big kids!" She offers her fist for Kiyi to bump, which she does enthusiastically. "Has anyone offered you your first taste of beer yet?"
"Toph," Zuko warns.
Toph just cackles and punches Zuko on the arm.
"Didn't know you were there, Sparky, you were silent for a long time," she comments.
Katara grins at her from Zuko's other side.
"Oh, he's probably just contemplating on whatever you told him that turned out to be right," she tells her impishly.
Toph gapes at Zuko, speechless for once, and Zuko blushes to the roots of his hair and wishes the ground would just swallow him up because, for all his damned luck, he just has to like a girl who couldn't resist putting him on the spot.
"Oh, Zuko, you have no idea how happy that makes me," Toph says so triumphantly that Zuko isn't surprised when she slugs his arm hard enough to leave a bruise. He winces as he rubs the tender spot.
"You have no idea how much it sucks," he tells her lowly, but Toph just tilts her head up at him in confusion.
"Oh, really? How?"
Zuko chances a glance at the others; they are still enraptured by some story Kiyi is telling them about Bumi. He unceremoniously drags Toph away from the group.
"I like Katara," he hisses as soon as they are out of earshot. It comes out more like an accusation than a confession. Toph smiles placidly at him.
"I know," she says, annoyingly calm for Zuko's taste. He would've liked it if she gloats and gloats and lords the fact over him, but now she's choosing to hear him out?
"What the hell, Toph!" He almost screams in frustration. "I don't know what to do!"
"You could try sticking your tongue down her throat and fucking her in the back room," Toph suggests crassly, and Zuko slaps a hand to his forehead.
"Shut up! This is not helping," he groans, then a thought suddenly hits him, making his mind careen into a nervous spiral. His palms start to sweat. "Do you think she knows?"
"Sweetness?" Toph snorts. "Nope. Pretty sure she doesn't. She's dense about these things."
"Even if— even if Suki and Sokka kinda know?"
"Dude, the whole school knew about Aang's crush on her and she didn't realize it at all," Toph assures him, wandering towards an empty table and sitting down. Zuko follows suit and drops his head into his hands.
"This will go away, right?" He mumbles despondently. "It has to. Otherwise I'd be awkward around her forever."
"When are you ever not awkward around people, Hotpants?" laughs Toph, kicking back her chair. "Not my fault you finally took your head outta your ass and saw what was in front of ya."
Zuko glares at her uselessly before slumping down on the table again.
"Can't believe I just realized it now," he mutters. "This is the worst thing ever."
"What's the worst thing ever?" Katara says behind them, and Zuko nearly falls out of his chair. She chuckles at his reaction and sets down three flutes of sparkling cider on the table before pulling up a chair.
"Sparky here just realized he was capable of feeling emotion," Toph grins diabolically at Zuko, who snatches up one of the ciders and downs it like it would save him from this conversation. Katara frowns at him in concern.
"Okay…" she says uncertainly, glancing between him and Toph. "Well, whatever's going on between you two, for the record, I never thought you were incapable of feeling emotion, Zuko."
Zuko could feel the tips of his ears reddening.
"Thanks," he says, not quite meeting her eyes. Doesn't mean he couldn't feel her concerned look, though.
"Seriously, though, what's all this about?" She asks, suddenly appearing in his line of sight, trying to catch his eye. "Maybe I can help."
Toph snorts and coughs over her sparkling cider and Zuko gets ready to run out of the tea shop and into the woods where no one would ever find him.
"Oh, Sweetness," Toph chortles, patting down the splotches of cider on her shirt, "Why don't you let Sparky figure this one out for himself?"
"I'm just showing concern," pouts Katara, before turning back to Zuko. "I mean, it does look like you're getting all mopey again."
"I'm not," insists Zuko, averting his gaze. His heart thunders in his ears. "Thanks, but I can get through this on my own."
"You said friends don't let friends go through tough stuff alone," Katara tells him disapprovingly. Zuko swallows as he meets her eyes.
Big mistake. She could probably tell how he feels just by the way he looks at her. He returns to awkwardly studying his cider.
"Well, this isn't as tough as it sounds, really," he says. And, because he can't help but feel guilty for shutting her out, he adds, "I'll tell you when I need help."
He catches a bit of her smile in his peripheral vision, and even that sends his heart into a frenzy.
"I'll be counting on that," she tells him. She stands up and places a hand gently on top of his head, and it is all Zuko could do not to keel over and die from a heart attack. "Don't be too hard on yourself, okay?"
He nods silently and watches her walk away, wondering if he should just tell her so she could properly reject him and put an end to his misery. Toph's maniacal laughter pulls him out of his reverie.
"Oh, man," she reaches over and claps his shoulder. "Oh, Sparky, you are in so deep."
I really am, he thinks to himself.
A/N: And now we've come to my favorite part: torturing Zuko with pining! Let's reheat this slow burn!