DISCLAIMER: I do not own Avatar: The Last Airbender.
CHAPTER 27: Cake Tasting
Uncle Iroh always tells him that destiny is a funny thing.
Zuko supposes it's true— he'd grown up thinking he would be working for the family business; then, for a brief period, he thought he would be in charge of the business after all; then, by some twist of fate, he finds himself working in a tea shop, falling so low from what he expected his life to be; and now, well—
Now, he is being talked down to by some douchebag with shiny shoes and a pressed suit, actually demanding a sample of every single brew they have. Zuko wonders if he was this pretentious back in First Sozin, and if so, he wondered how many food industry workers resisted the urge to clock him in the face for being such an ass.
He vaguely remembers complaining about the rareness of his steak during his blind date with Katara and inwardly winces.
Fingers snap repeatedly in front of his nose and he resists the urge to glower at the aforementioned douchebag.
"Hey, hey, pay attention," he commands. Zuko clenches his notepad in an effort to stay calm. "I want lemongrass tea with just a hint of ginger and two tablespoons of honey. Make it warm, not scalding hot. Got that? Huh?"
Zuko nods, listing his instructions on his pad, putting all his efforts into not scowling. He debates whether he should get the order wrong, but no— he can't do that to Uncle.
He pins the order up by the serving window and Iroh peers at it curiously.
"Nephew, why is this labeled 'Douchebag Table?'" he asks amusedly. Zuko just glares at him and snaps up a rag to wipe up a recently vacated booth. He breathes a sigh of relief when he sees Iroh taking the order to Douchebag himself.
But then Douchebag makes a disgusted face and starts berating his uncle— and empties his tea cup on the table and onto Uncle's feet.
Zuko appears by his uncle's side in a flash and before he knows what he is doing, he grabs the man by his collar.
"Get. Out." He growls. "Now."
"Zuko!" Iroh's grip on his wrist makes him release the bastard before he could throw him out of the shop. His uncle fixes him a stern look before turning and apologizing profusely to the man and promising him an order on the house.
Douchebag stands up and leaves anyway.
Good riddance, Zuko thinks, but Uncle doesn't give him a chance to dwell on his anger; he's already whisking him to the back room, smiling sheepishly at the other patrons as he does so.
"That was very disappointing, Zuko," he tells him the minute they duck into the kitchen.
"He was an asshole! He disrespected you," Zuko spits out frustratedly, "And you apologized to him!"
"Ah. Yes," says Iroh calmly. "But one must know when to use the shield and when to wield the sword, my nephew."
"I'd like to run him with a sword," mutters Zuko darkly.
"Then this must be a humbling experience for you," his uncle says shrewdly. "After all, you had encountered the same pitfalls of character before."
"I— I was never as bad as that guy!" Zuko sputters. "The worst I did was return a meal!"
"True," concedes Iroh, "But do you think you would have changed your manners if you were thrown out of the restaurant?"
Zuko runs a hand down his face angrily. His uncle smiles faintly and pushes the mop into his hands.
"Go on," he urges with a smile. "We wouldn't want anyone tripping on that puddle!"
The douchebag returns the next day with a smug smirk on his face, demanding his free food from Zuko with an air of pompousness that rivaled the attitude of monarchs in the Earth Kingdom.
Uncle steps in and takes his order this time, prepares it with as much care as he does with his other patrons' orders, then serves it to him with enough charm to convince two warring nations to make peace.
Zuko decides to leave it all up to his uncle— he's definitely not complaining that he doesn't have to deal with that pile of dung— and he is in the process of clearing a table vacated by a family of four when he hears the door tinkle open and turns to see Katara and Ty Lee.
All the strength leaves his arms and he has to drop his loaded tray on the table to stop himself from breaking his uncle's precious tea sets. He studiously wipes the tabletop, pretending he hasn't seen them come in.
He jumps and bumps into the tray when someone pokes his side with a finger. He whirls around to see Katara stifling a giggle.
"I could have broken all of these plates, you know," he admonishes her sourly, but she just rolls her eyes.
"You knew we were coming here, Zuko," she tells him with a raised brow. "Are we going, or what?"
"Going… where?" Zuko asks suspiciously, eyes flicking to his uncle, who is still chatting with the douchebag.
Ty Lee appears at Katara's side, hands clasped to her chest excitedly.
"Cake tasting!" She trills happily. "Suki said I should come to represent vegans."
"Oh," says Zuko, dumbfounded. "I didn't know that was today."
"I texted you about it," Katara replies in confusion. She whips out her phone and pulls up her messaging app. "See? You replied, 'That would be lovely, Katara!' A bit weird, to be honest, but I just thought you were drunk with Toph. Clearly not, though."
Zuko slaps a hand to his forehead.
"Uncle," Zuko mutters darkly, before explaining his situation. "He took my phone to get me to socialize better with the customers— and because I picked a fight with one of them."
"What are you, an angsty teenager?" teases Katara.
"He was being an ass!" Zuko exclaims defensively.
"Well, whatever. It seems like Iroh approves of you coming with us for cake tasting," says Katara, hand on her hip. "C'mon, we're gonna be late. Stop picking fights with customers and get out of that apron already."
Toph's voice in his head suggests a comeback about making her take his clothes off, and he coughs and shoves it to the back of his mind.
"Zuko? Are you okay?" Ty Lee asks. "Your aura's all red and tingly."
Zuko ignores her and hefts the tray to the back room. Then he takes out his uncle's step stool and rummages through the upper shelves for his phone.
"Zuko! What are you looking for, nephew?" Iroh stands in the doorway, a wry smile on his face. Zuko looks at him flatly as he steps down from the stool with his cobwebby phone.
"You read and replied to my messages, Uncle," he crosses his arms and frowns at him. Iroh's eyes widen in mock innocence.
"Oh, I did not know I did that! You know how I am with technology," he grins hugely and shrugs. "But if you have some important business to attend to—"
Zuko presses his hand to his face and shakes his head.
"I'm only going with this because I don't want to deal with the douchebag," he tells Iroh firmly as he ducked back into the tea shop.
"Of course, my boy!" Iroh hurries after him, calling out for the whole restaurant to hear, "Have fun planning the wedding with Miss Katara!"
He looks around, scandalized, only to find Katara looking as mortified as he does. He grimaces and stalks out of the shop without looking at her.
It's only when they're a safe distance away that Katara catches him by the elbow and tells him that they would have to take a cab.
He nods and she lets him go. He glances at Ty Lee before apologizing to Katara in a low voice.
"I'm sorry about— about Uncle," he says with a wince. "He likes to… meddle."
"Oh, it's okay. I think it's sweet he's concerned enough about you to play matchmaker." Katara clears her throat and fiddles with the handle of her bag, not meeting his eyes. "Too bad I'm the only single girl he knows, huh? Otherwise you might actually find someone to date."
Zuko's heart falls to his feet and splinters on the sidewalk.
"Oh," he finds himself saying mechanically, "Yeah."
Katara still refuses to look at him and he gratefully sits up front in the cab that Ty Lee hailed. He lets out the breath he didn't know he was holding and closes his eyes tightly.
He would call himself heartbroken, but right now, there's a hole where his heart should be.
She'd meant it as a joke.
And, if Katara were being completely honest, she also wanted to distance herself from Iroh's 'meddling.'
It was one thing if strangers mistook her and Zuko as a couple; it is another thing when your (recently dumped) friend's closest relative thinks you two should be together. It's just too much pressure, especially when she knows that there should be no romance between them.
But when they arrive in the bakery, Zuko is acting as brooding and closed-off as he was when he first met them, and Katara wonders if she somehow offended him— maybe he thought she implied that he couldn't get a girlfriend without Iroh's help? Maybe he was just mad at his uncle for invading his privacy? Maybe it was a whole other thing, Katara doesn't know, and she can't concentrate on it right now because there's an addition to their party that she didn't expect.
Her ex sets down the custard cake he is eating and waves them cheerily to the table.
"Katara! Hey!" He practically flies to his feet and engulfs her in a hug. She's barely recovered from the breezy greeting before Aang is merrily welcoming Ty Lee and Zuko.
"Hi! You're Ty Lee, right?" He asks, dragging more chairs around the spindly metal table. "Oh! And you're Toph's roommate— Zuko, did I get that right? We all met at Sokka and Suki's engagement party!"
"Speaking of Sokka and Suki…" Katara interrupts, knowing Aang's tendency to get sidetracked. "They asked us to meet them here. Are they around?"
"Oh! Right!" Aang laughs bemusedly, scratching the back of his head. "They went to the back with the owner— Sokka wanted to see how she makes her fondant designs."
"Ooh, I love watching videos of those!" says Ty Lee while they all settle down around the small table. As Aang and Ty Lee prattle on about the various amateur baking shows they watch, Katara drags her chair closer to Zuko's.
"Hey, um—" she starts, but then she's met with his burning gaze and she stumbles on her words of apology and comfort. She averts her eyes and smooths her skirt out instead. "Are— are you okay?"
She sees his fists clench beneath the table before he replies.
"Of course," he says coolly. "Why wouldn't I be?"
She briefly wonders if this was how he felt when she was freezing him out.
"It's just— it's just that—" she takes a deep breath and tucks her hair behind her ear nervously. "Look, what I said before—"
"It's okay," he interrupts curtly. "I get it."
His short answers grate on her nerves and she bites the inside of her cheek.
"I'm not sure you do," she tries to say calmly, but her temper is starting to simmer and it makes looking him in the eyes so much easier. "I don't know what you thought I meant by what I said, but if you can't tell me what it is I did that bothered you, then we're not gonna fix this."
"What's there to fix?" He responds with as much heat, his eyebrow raised in challenge.
"This!" She exclaims, motioning between them. "You're acting all cold and closed-off again, you're angry and I don't know why, but if I caused it somehow then the least you could do is tell me what I did wrong!"
Silence descends between them for a few moments and Katara just became aware that Aang and Ty Lee are no longer talking, but she can't bring herself to care anymore because she just wants Zuko to stop avoiding her and acting like he doesn't want anything to do with her.
Zuko sighs and pinches the bridge of his nose.
"Look, Katara…" he starts, not looking at her, "You can't solve everyone's problems, okay?"
She clenches her jaw obstinately.
"You still didn't say if it was my fault or not," she mutters irritably. Zuko tenses beside her.
"It doesn't matter," he says in a low voice. "I just need some time to... to sort things out."
The way he says it sounds like he has a death sentence looming over him, and Katara couldn't help it— she reaches out under the table and places her hand on his clenched fist.
After a few heartbeats, his hand loosens along with his posture and when he flips over his palm and squeezes her hand, Katara breathes a sigh of relief.
Aang clears his throat across from them and Katara snatches her hand back and forces herself to make small talk with the rest of the group until Sokka and Suki arrive.
"I can't believe this is vegan!" exclaims Ty Lee happily, and the matronly owner of the shop, Aunt Wu, smiles at her warmly.
"The secret is adding a little lemon juice to the soy milk," she discloses with a wink. "It curdles it slightly and gives it a buttermilk texture."
A brief look of surprised disgust passes over Sokka's face before Suki kicks him under the table.
"It is wonderfully moist and fluffy," she says.
Sokka nods, licking at the corners of his mouth where crumbs of another vegan cake remain.
"Yeah, but I still can't decide between chocolate raspberry and red velvet and salted caramel and lemon and summer berry—"
"You liked everything Aunt Wu had us taste!" Suki exclaims exasperatedly. "I think we have to ban you from making decisions at this point."
Sokka starts to protest, but Aang swiftly cuts in before any conflict arises.
"Here's an idea," Aang says, "Why don't Katara, Ty Lee, Zuko, and I pick our favorite ones, then you and Suki pick from those?"
Suki and Sokka exchange looks— Suki raises her eyebrows expectantly and Sokka sighs and nods reluctantly.
"Alright," Aang grins at them all and points to the half-eaten slice of chocolate raspberry cake. "I like that one 'cause you get two flavors and it's vegan!"
"I like the salted caramel," Ty Lee says, daintily picking up crumbs off the table with her finger. "Sweet and salty is always a good combo."
"I like the lemon one," says Zuko, not offering an explanation.
"Me too," agrees Katara. Sokka stares at her with a look of betrayal.
"What? You don't like the chocolate one?" Sokka asks skeptically. "You used to stuff your face with that!"
"Well, just because I liked it before doesn't mean I like it now!" exclaims Katara. She bites her lip, suddenly flustered at her turn of phrase. "It's just a little too sweet for me, okay? I think I want something more balanced now."
"Like the lemon cake," adds Zuko, nodding.
"Yeah," Katara says earnestly. "It's not as overpowering as chocolate raspberry, and— well, no offense, Ty Lee, but I just don't think salted caramel is very wedding cake-y."
"Why don't we just have, like, a three-tiered cake with different flavors in each level?" whines Sokka. Suki rolls her eyes.
"We are not doing that," she tells him firmly.
"Well, my dears, you might be happy to know that we also do vegan cupcake stands if you cannot decide on one flavor," Aunt Wu deftly swoops in. "You can have a variety of flavors while saving the most special one for your wedding cake."
"The problem is which flavor is the 'special' one," Suki sighs. "I kinda like the lemon one, too— it's refreshing, and it sorta reminds me of spring, y'know?" She casts Sokka a sidelong glance. "Plus, it would go great with that buttercream frosting you love."
Sokka pouts, staring longingly at the cakes scattered on the table, before sighing and rubbing his chin thoughtfully.
"Cupcakes are just tiny cakes," he mutters. "And that buttercream frosting is a little too delicate for the chocolate raspberry one, so…"
"Is that a yes?" asks Suki wryly.
"Yeah!" Sokka grins and plants a chocolatey kiss on the side of Suki's head. Suki laughs tiredly and shakes her head while skimming through Aunt Wu's book of cake designs.
"I think we'd have to decide on the design some other time, Aunt Wu," she says apologetically, packing up her stuff. "I have to get my wedding dress altered and the tailor's all the way across town, and I'm feeling way too bloated already."
"Oh, do you need help with your dress?" asks Katara.
"No, that's okay, my mom and aunt flew in yesterday just for the fitting," says Suki, waving her off with a smile. "Thanks for coming, though, you guys. We really appreciate it."
While she and Sokka finalize details of their next visit with Aunt Wu, Aang approaches Katara hesitantly.
"Hey, Katara," he starts with a smile, scratching the back of his head, "Wanna go get coffee sometime? I'm in town for a few days, it'll be nice to catch up."
"Oh," says Katara, pondering on his offer. When they first broke up, Aang had often asked her out to try and talk her out of her decision, leading up to the point where Katara's constant avoidance was the only way to make the breakup stick.
But that was ages ago. It might be nice to catch up as friends.
"Y'know what? Sure," says Katara, smiling back at him. "Just text me when, I haven't changed my number."
"Uh, well, if you're free, how 'bout now?" Aang sweeps his arms out at the bakery. "We're in a great pastry shop that has great custard cakes and even greater cappuccinos."
"I actually switched to black tea," Katara replies absently, glancing at Zuko and Ty Lee, who are waiting by the entrance. "Um, we should probably let them know, though."
"Oh, sure!" agrees Aang. "You go do that and I'll go grab us a table!"
Katara starts to argue that they should both tell the others that they're hanging back, but she just sighs in resignation as Aang collects her things and transfers them to a more private table near the bakery's huge glass windows.
She tells the others to go on without her— she doesn't miss Zuko's pinched features and wonders, yet again, what is bothering him— and comes back to a table filled with custard cakes and a steaming mug of black tea for each of them. She takes a deep breath before sitting down.
"So, Aang," she begins, "What's new with you?"
"I'm doing great!" he declares, mouth full of custard. "I just came back from the North Pole, did you know?"
"Oh, how's everyone?" asks Katara earnestly. "Did you meet with Chief Arnook?"
"Yep! They were having trouble with some Northern Water Tribe clan wars, so me and Kuruk stepped in. Oh, and I saw Pakku!" He tells her. "He told me he was coming here for winter break. Said the North's climate was bad for his back."
"I bet. Gran-Gran was complaining about the same thing when she told us they're coming," says Katara, sipping her tea. She frowns as she sets her mug down. "I won't be able to see them until the wedding, though. I have my finals right before the holidays."
"Finals?" Aang tilts his head in question, eyes wide. "You give your kids final exams?"
Katara laughs at that.
"No, no!" She shakes her head bemusedly. "I'm in grad school now— Early Childhood Education."
"Oh, wow!" Aang's eyes crinkle as he beams at her. He takes her hands in his and grasps them excitedly. "I'm so proud of you, Katara! That's so awesome! You must be having so much fun, being back in school!"
"It's a lot of work, too, Aang," she smiles ruefully.
"But if there's anyone who can do it, it's you!" Aang says eagerly, shaking their clasped hands. "You can do anything you set your mind to— you're Katara!"
Katara's smile freezes a little in her face and she slowly pulls out her hands from Aang's.
Now I remember why we broke up.
"Thanks for the support, Aang," she says with little heart in it.
He grins happily at her and clinks his mug with hers, and Katara couldn't help but think that he still doesn't understand why she broke up with him in the first place.
It wasn't just that he couldn't stomach her culture's hunting rituals or that he often took trips that kept him away from her for months at a time or even the fact that his dream of the future was completely incompatible with hers; it was this— his constant belief that no matter what happens, no matter what she does, she would always be "perfect Katara," with no room for errors or mistakes or failures, no room to get tired of things, no room to get discouraged and no room to question herself.
But that also meant there was no room to grow.
"What brings you to town so suddenly, anyway?" She asks, pushing her melancholy thoughts away. She would deal with those later, preferably with alcohol and with Toph. "We weren't expecting you until Sokka's vegetarian bachelor party."
"Oh!" Aang's eyes sparkle with mischief. "It's a secret."
"Look at you, getting all mysterious," teases Katara. "Is it a good secret, or a bad one?"
"It's definitely, definitely good!" exclaims Aang, before deflating a bit and tracing the lip of his mug with one finger. "Well, it's mostly good. I'm nervous about the other stuff, but I'm sure it would work out!"
"Well, it's nice that you're so optimistic about it," says Katara, coaxing a smile out of him. "Does that mean we'll see you more often now?"
"I hope so," he says, smiling thinly. "Yangchen says I would have to be around while it's being set up, so even if I'm here, I might not be able to hang out as much."
"That's okay, Aang," Katara says reassuringly. "But you better tell all of us next time! I was so surprised to see you here earlier."
Aang laughs sheepishly.
"Yeah, Sokka said it would be fun to see how you'd react. Too bad he was in the back when you came in."
"Sokka needs a hobby." Katara purses her lips and rolls her eyes at her brother's plans. "You'd think with all the wedding plans, he'd run out of time to mess with me, but nooo."
"Oh, what did he do?" asks Aang, intrigued.
Katara pauses. Ever since they picked out their color scheme, she'd noticed that Sokka and Suki often left her and Zuko alone— they'd ended up picking out the save the date cards together, setting up the registry together, talking to prospective bands together. Katara had chalked it up to their conflicting schedules— Sokka and Suki are often called into work during weekends— but the more the couple pushed, the more Katara suspects them of an ulterior motive.
And it's not as if Zuko is bad company. He certainly has better taste than Sokka, and she found that, despite constantly bickering about their choices, she actually has fun doing menial things with him.
She doesn't know how to broach the topic with Aang, though— not that she's hiding anything, no, but… well, she just doesn't want to make a big deal out of it.
"He and Suki just keep having me do all their wedding planning for them, that's all," she lies, knowing that Aang wouldn't be able to call her out on it. "Sokka's only free for the parts where we have to eat."
"He'll be free for the tux fitting, though, I can tell you that," Aang says, laughing. "Oh! And he's probably real excited about the party favors— remember how he used to have those at every birthday he had back in high school?"
"He does love to shop," giggles Katara, letting herself relax as their conversation turns to reminiscing the past.
A/N: This was supposed to be a way, waaaay longer chapter (nearing 8k, mind you), but the drama just kept unfolding and before I knew it the characters have gone off-script and messed up the timeline, so I had to cut this one short. Do other fic writers' characters surprise them like this or am I just crazy? Lol. Let's hope I work out the kinks soon, because the next chapter is loaded af. Cheers!