DISCLAIMER: I do not own Avatar: The Last Airbender.
CHAPTER 26: Color Schemes
"Blue and green. For a beachside wedding." Katara deadpans, holding the chips of cardboard in her hand as though they would explode.
The couple in front of her nods enthusiastically.
"You really are perfect for each other," mutters Katara exasperatedly.
"What? At least it fits the theme!" cries Sokka defensively. Suki flips through the catalogue and shoves a page under Katara's nose.
"Yeah! I saw one earlier— here, look! Seafoam green is perfect! Can you imagine walking down the aisle in a dress in this color?" Suki tries to convince her, but Katara is having none of it.
"It's so redundant! Are you sure you don't want something neutral, like silver and ivory and beige?" Katara tugs the catalogue from Suki's hands and flips to a page she marked a few hours ago. She brandishes the book in their faces. "See! It's so elegant! Zuko, back me up here!"
Zuko sighs and tries to fit himself into the crowded kitchen table. His thigh slides against hers as he pulls his chair closer, and Katara tries not to let the heat emanating from him distract her from her mission.
"Well? Isn't this better than their idea?" she presses, pushing the catalogue into his hands. He frowns and flips back and forth between Suki's page and hers.
"Why don't you just combine them?" he asks in a tone that says he would rather be anywhere else. "It's better than the purple and orange one they kept suggesting before. At least the white looks good with the blue-green."
"First of all, it's ivory, not white, and second of all—" Katara pauses, then leans over to take a second look at Suki's page. Zuko's arm twitches under her hand before he practically shoves her the catalogue. Katara takes it gratefully and mentally shakes herself.
"Second of all," she continues, clearing her throat and comparing the contents of the pages, "While they do look good together, I think it's bordering on lazy to just add ivory to a color you like. It needs an accent."
"Like Iroh's Fire Nation drawl?" quips Sokka, earning him a tired sigh from Suki and a flat stare from Zuko.
Katara rolls her eyes at them and slides the book towards the couple.
"Here, check these out," she says, tapping several pages insistently, "Coral or baby blue could go well with seafoam green and ivory. Pick one. Just pick one. Please."
Suki and Sokka exchange looks.
"Well, you did say you wanted to wear that ridiculous light blue tux…" begins Suki, and Sokka jumps up from his chair and squishes her into a huge hug.
"Thank you, thank you, thank you!" he screams, and Katara thinks it's a credit to their relationship that Suki just laughs at Sokka's loudness. "You're the best girl in the entire freaking world!"
"Thanks for that," mutters Katara dryly, snapping the catalogue shut and making a note on her binder. Zuko moves to stand but Katara catches his elbow. "Where are you going? We're not done yet!"
"We spent two hours deciding on the goddamned color scheme!" bursts out Zuko, yanking his elbow from her grip as though electrocuted. "I'm going for a walk."
The door slams behind him and Katara stares at it bewilderedly, wondering if she should follow him— he has been acting weird (well, weirder) ever since they converged in Suki and Sokka's kitchen that afternoon to plan the wedding.
Behind her, Suki pins Sokka with a pointed look and a tilt of her head. Sokka mutters a soft, "Oh!" of understanding before burying it in a cough.
"Yeah, dude's got a point," he tells Katara. "Sis, uh— why don't cha buy some snacks for us or something? Or take a walk to clear your head, too?"
Katara narrows her eyes at her brother.
"Why are you trying to get me out of your apartment?" She asks, even though she does want to go out. What she doesn't want, though, is any involvement in whatever plan her brother is hatching— they'd probably go over her head and revert their color scheme decision to that god-awful purple and orange combo.
"Well, we have been working on the wedding for hours," he responds flippantly. "It's almost four p.m.— about time for a snack break, right?"
Suki nods enthusiastically at his side and moves forward to open the door for Katara.
"Yeah, and we're about to move into the catering side of planning— can't do that on an empty stomach!" she says, handing Katara her purse.
"I am a bit hungry…" Katara begins, but Suki is already saying goodbye and shutting the door on her.
"You really think they're gonna run into each other outside?" Sokka asks, popping open a can of beer from their fridge. Suki smirks at him and swipes it off his hands and takes a sip.
"You really think Zuko actually went for a walk?" she inquires in the same tone. "Haven't you seen how he's avoiding her like she's got the plague? He's probably hyperventilating in an alley somewhere, too overwhelmed by Katara's presence."
"My man needs to step up his game," sighs Sokka.
Zuko is not an avoider.
Or, at least, he tries not to be.
But being in such close quarters with Katara makes him want to kiss her senseless every time she laughs or touches him casually and that is not a thought that Zuko wants to confront.
He sighs, his breath coming out as a puff of mist. It is starting to feel like winter— or as close to winter as the Earth Kingdom experiences— but the crisp, cold air does nothing to clear his head.
He doesn't know how his crush accelerated so quickly in a matter of days since his realization. It's as if he somehow managed to get a Katara-radar installed in his brain that reminds him to look actively for her everywhere he goes. It's stupid and it's annoying and he'd rather live without feeling this way at all— because, if Zuko were being honest, it is excruciatingly painful when he looks around and she's not there.
It's also incredibly gut-wrenching, too, whenever she comes near him, expecting him to act as though he doesn't have a vice-grip in his chest and butterflies in his stomach.
He winces at the sound of Katara approaching him from behind.
"Done with your walk already?" She comes to a stop beside him, and Zuko realizes he must've stopped walking in the middle of the sidewalk for who knows how long.
"I… just had to get out of there," he mumbles, sticking his hands in the pockets of his jacket. "I can't believe how long it took for them to decide on three colors."
Katara hums in agreement and loops her arm through his and tugs him forward. Zuko swallows uncomfortably when she pats his bicep in reassurance.
"Don't you worry. When I get married, I'm gonna get back at them by deciding twice as long," she jokes. Zuko's mind stutters at the mental image of her in a wedding dress, and he has to consciously remind himself to breathe.
"Right," he clears his throat and tries to match her wry tone. "As if you haven't picked out your color scheme yet. I bet you have your whole wedding planned to the seating chart."
"Oh, don't paint me like some sort of hopeless romantic," she says, tightening her grip on his arm threateningly. "Besides, the groom-to-be has to have a say in it, right?"
"Of course," responds Zuko absently, his heart squeezing at the thought of a faceless groom standing beside Katara.
Stop it. It's just a crush. Get over it.
"What?" Katara asks him innocently, and Zuko fights the urge to slap a hand to his forehead.
"Nothing," he says quickly. He looks around for anything— anything— that doesn't involve weddings. "Um. Where are we going?"
"Suki and Sokka practically shoved me out of the apartment to get snacks," Katara replies, tugging on a wayward lock of hair that snuck out of her loose braid. Zuko clenches his fist in his pocket so he doesn't reach out and tuck it behind her ear. She continues, "I don't know what they're up to, but I'm hungry, so I am not complaining. Aren't you hungry?"
"A bit," he agrees, before realizing that Katara is leading him to a cafe. "I— I thought we were just going to the convenience store."
"Well, I'm sick of convenience store food," retorts Katara. "It's your fault, you know— if you hadn't spoiled me with Gran-Gran's stew, I would still have a taste for microwaved pizza rolls."
Warmth blooms in his chest at her casual mention of his cooking. He shakes his head and tamps it down— it's only because no one could resist her grandmother's stew, he tells himself.
"Do you still have a taste for energy drinks and coffee combined?" He asks dryly instead, and Katara rolls her eyes in response.
"I'll have you know that I've switched to black tea," she tells him, and some of the worry unknots in Zuko's chest.
"How did that happen?" He asks her, secretly hoping against hope that it is because of him that she's finally stopped endangering her health.
"Iroh gave me boxes of the stuff during the party and warned Kiyi not to follow my bad habits," she scrunches her face in distaste and Zuko couldn't help but laugh a little at her expression.
"Drinking coffee is like committing sacrilege in Uncle's book," he tells her, opening the door of the cafe for them. Katara sighs longingly as the smell of roasting coffee beans hits them.
"You won't tell your uncle if I have one cup of cappuccino, will you? I want to stay in Iroh's good graces," she asks him in a pleading tone as she sits down and picks up a menu.
Zuko fights back the stupid smile forming in his lips.
"Only if you don't tell anyone that I don't take my coffee black," he replies, sitting across her in the tiny table.
"Huh, I always pegged you as the ultimate endorser of black coffee," she laughs and drags her chair forward; their knees bump beneath the table, but Zuko couldn't be convinced to move away. "How do you like your coffee, Zuko?"
This isn't at all the first time she said his name, but it sends shivers up his spine, anyway.
"I like lattes with those little drawings in them," he finds himself admitting.
Katara's eyes light up in amusement and she covers her mouth with her hand as she giggles and Zuko is seized by the mad urge to burst out laughing as well.
"Oh my god," she gasps, still laughing into her hands, "You're such a dork."
"I'm not sure I like the change from 'you're such a jerk' to 'you're such a dork,'" Zuko pretends to be affronted, though the Katara-riddled part of his brain is memorizing how her eyes sparkle in the dim lighting of the cafe.
"Oh gosh, does Toph know?" Katara asks mischievously.
"No one knows," he confesses. "It's not like I can just whip up latte art. I can't even make a decent cup of coffee."
"Wow, thank you for entrusting me with such an important secret; I'm so honored," says Katara cheekily. "So, what do you want with your precious latte?"
"They have croissants," Zuko comments in surprise after a brief scan of the menu.
"Croissants," Katara repeats in an affected accent and rolls her eyes to the ceiling. "Ugh. You're so bougie."
"Well, what are you getting?" He asks her challengingly, raising one eyebrow. "They don't have sea prunes on the menu."
She gasps in mock indignation and slaps his arm with her menu. Zuko chuckles in spite of himself.
"Oh, don't worry, I have enough kumquats to last me through the long, harsh winter," she teases him with a smirk. "Too bad you didn't save some for yourself."
"I could just come over when I'm craving them," Zuko replies without thinking.
Katara's eyes widen in surprise and Zuko mentally kicks himself.
Was that too forward? What the hell's gotten into me?
He opens his mouth to retract his statement, but Katara's stunned look melts and she smiles softly at him, her eyes crinkling at the corners.
"You can come by whenever you want, you know," she informs him, lightly touching his hand for a moment. Zuko's breath catches in his throat. "The whole gang does it all the time. Besides, who knows how many times I've dropped by your place without permission."
Zuko clears his throat and nods, trying to tear his brain away from the lingering feeling of her touch.
"Good to know," he mutters lamely. Katara goes back to perusing her menu.
"I think I'll have the jelly doughnuts," she announces before standing up. "I'm gonna go place our order."
"I can do that—"
"Oh, no, you stay right here," she tells him sternly. "Save our seats."
She hovers for a second longer before taking a deep breath and mumbling something as she exhales.
Zuko immediately knows it is one of those times when she's thinking out loud, and he immediately wishes he didn't hear what she just said.
"Not a date."
He watches her get in line before burying his head in his hands as soon as she has her back turned.
Liking Katara is proving to be much more agonizing than he anticipated. It's not enough that he knows she wouldn't ever like him back, given how they started and how he keeps messing things up; he also has to listen to her remind herself that there's nothing remotely romantic about any of their interactions.
I think I used up all my luck trying to win her trust back.
It's not a date. It is not a date.
Just because they are eating at a cute little cafe together doesn't mean it's a date. They're just friends hanging out and taking a break from their other friends.
Or so Katara tells herself.
This is like Ember Island all over again.
She presses her palm to her face and groans, feeling the blush creep up her cheeks.
Her memories of Ember Island come in a variety of extreme emotions, but every other time she looks at Zuko after forgiving him, her mind feels the need to highlight the time they'd spent alone in the kitchen of their cottage. She could still remember the way his scarred cheek felt against her lips, could still recall the irresistible magnetic pull between them, the way his eyes darkened and the way he licked his lips.
The only difference between now and Ember Island is that he's single now, a sly voice in her mind whispers traitorously.
Katara clenches her jaw and straightens her shoulders.
No, she firmly tells herself, That's not appropriate. He just got dumped by Jin, and if what Kiyi and Toph said were true, he's still pretty broken-hearted about it. So, no.
And we're just friends, she adds, as if she knew her brain is about to overanalyze a memory to make her think that she and Zuko could be more than friends.
Yeah, keep telling yourself that while you play footsie under the table, says a voice in her head that sounds very much like Toph. Katara almost outwardly shushes the voice and its insinuations.
She thanks her lucky stars when she finally reaches the counter and places their order— waiting for her name to be called gives her something else to dwell on.
Her phone buzzes just as the barista calls her name. She balances the tray on one hand— it seems like her muscle memory from waitressing hasn't disappeared— and unlocks her phone with the other. She frowns at the message as she sets down the tray.
"What's wrong?" asks Zuko, unloading their plates and setting the now-empty tray in an unoccupied table nearby. Katara sighs and massages her forehead with her fingers.
"Seems like flu season is starting," she informs him with a beleaguered sigh. She takes a deep breath and types out a reply to Principal Yugoda before pocketing her phone. "I mean, it's not like I have my lesson plan set in stone, but it does suck to have half the class call in sick."
"It's a good thing you don't catch the flu, too," comments Zuko. Katara laughs and shakes her head.
"Oh, no, no, no. I always catch the flu. Doesn't matter that I get my flu shots yearly or that I build up my immune system— being around twenty kids during flu season just means I'm gonna get it, period."
"That's horrible," says Zuko, concern evident in his eyes before he breaks eye contact and looks down at his latte.
"Well, I just hope I catch it early enough so I can get to my finals," she tries to joke, but Zuko frowns at her disapprovingly.
"Why don't you—" he begins, then clears his throat. "Never mind."
"Why don't I what?" she presses, taking a bite out of her doughnut.
Some of the jelly gets on her fingers and she automatically sucks on them, only to stop at the look on Zuko's face.
That look should be illegal.
Liquid heat pools at the bottom of Katara's stomach, making her toes curl and her breath catch and her pulse race.
It doesn't help that she only now realized that one of Zuko's knees is wedged between hers.
She immediately slides her chair backwards, just enough to create some room for her to move away and clamp her thighs together; she fumbles with the napkin and wipes her fingers self-consciously.
Zuko coughs and she looks up to find him still looking at her the same way, although the look is somewhat tempered by something akin to embarrassment.
"You still have—" he starts, pointing at his own cheek. "You have powdered sugar on your— on your lips."
Katara mirrors his movements, dabbing her napkin at the corner of her mouth.
"Did I get it?"
He reaches out, almost in a trance-like state, and Katara's breathing stills in anticipation.
His thumb caresses the corner of her lips— once, twice— then he lingers there for a heartbeat, his fingers settling comfortably against the apple of her cheek and the line of her jaw.
Katara watches as his gaze shifts from her lips to her eyes, his fingers curling ever so slightly as she leans slightly into his palm. His hand shakes as he moves to tuck a loose curl behind her ear.
Then he slowly slides his knuckles down the slope of her neck. Katara jumps at the electric sensation— whatever heat his gaze had started inside her is now a blazing wildfire throughout her entire body.
She almost screams when he pulls his hand away.
"Sorry," he mumbles, and Katara feels like tearing her hair out because what in the world is he sorry for and why couldn't he just continue what he was doing?
She tries to keep her heartbeat under control.
"It's alright," she manages to reply breathily, a little crestfallen that he is, once again, looking at anything else but her. She coughs to clear her throat, but her next words still come out a little squeaky. "Is it hot in here or is it just me?"
"It's you," Zuko replies almost instantly that Katara takes a moment to process his words.
"What?!" He asks, as though he just now realized what he said. His eyes widen comically and nearly sends his croissant to the floor with his panicked gesturing. "I-I meant it's not hot in here! I'm not hot, you're the only one who's hot!"
Katara couldn't help it— she bursts out laughing a bit hysterically.
"Oh, wow, we really can't eat together at some place without it turning awkward, huh?" she teases him, glad for the disgruntled frown on his face, because she needs every incentive not to grab him and— and— and do things to him that are most definitely not in the friendship category.
He mumbles something under his breath— Katara could only make out, "Always awkward anyway," and it makes her grin because this must be how he feels whenever he hears her talking to herself.
"You know I can hear you, right?" she asks playfully, but Zuko's face pales and he freezes in his seat. It takes him a moment to open his mouth— Katara could see his jaw working, his adam's apple bobbing as he swallows.
"J-just now, or all the other times, too?" He asks, picking apart his croissant without even eating it. Katara tilts her head in confusion.
"What do you mean, all the other times?"
His relief is so palpable that Katara's jaw drops in realization.
"Zuko, have you been thinking out loud recently?" She giggles, unable to fight the glee bubbling up inside her. She blames it on the coffee that she's barely taken a sip of. "Finally, the tables have turned!"
Zuko blushes furiously.
"No, they haven't!" He insists in an almost-whine, making Katara laugh harder. He crosses his arms and narrows her eyes at her. "Whatever. I'm still better at knowing when you think out loud."
"Oh yeah? Bring it on, big guy," Katara responds impishly, emboldened by the challenge in his eyes.
He starts to answer, but then he pulls out his phone at the same time Katara feels hers vibrate in her pocket. She fishes it out and sees a group text from her brother.
"I guess we can go home now, then," Zuko says, frowning at his phone.
Katara taps open the message— apparently Sokka and Suki have postponed finalizing the catering list until tomorrow afternoon. She sighs.
"Ugh, I knew they were planning something," she mutters.
She doesn't miss the way Zuko's lips quirk up.
"Are you talking to yourself?" He asks with a smirk. Katara sticks her tongue out at him and takes a sip of her coffee.
"No," she replies firmly. "Don't get cocky, Sparky."
"Well, seeing as I have more practice than you…" he shrugs, almost carelessly, but Katara could see the twist in his lips that means he's fighting off a smile.
"Oh, I'm a fast learner, Zuko," she tells him. "Just wait and see."
He smiles at her fully this time, and it sends shivers down her spine.
"Looking forward to it."
A/N: Mutual pining is in the air! Gosh, this story just can't stop writing itself. I'm giving it way too much attention, but I don't care! See you in the next chapter, cheers!