“ Zuko calling… Zuko calling… Zuko calling…”
The mechanical voice coming from her phone didn’t seem to have any plans of stopping soon. She groaned. She knew her friend’s one-track mind and determination; there was no way he’d let her ignore his call just to get a couple more minutes of sleep.
Feeling around for her phone on the bedside table, she swiped the screen with practiced precision.
“You better have a damn good reason for waking me up, Sparky,” she growled, her voice muffled by her pillow.
“Toph!” The raspy voice on the other line blurted out hurriedly, “I need to know if you still have contacts with jewelers in Ba Sing Se or Gao Ling. It’s really important.”
Toph yawned hugely and rolled to her side before answering. “Finally. It’s about time you proposed to Sugar Queen.”
There was a very awkward pause on the other side. “...I never said anything about proposing to Katara.”
“Oh,” Toph grinned to herself. “Then I guess there’s no real reason for you to wake me up. Bye, Sparky!”
Toph smirked. “What was that?”
“I’m looking for jewelers because…” Toph rolled her eyes at the sound of him coming up with an excuse. “...because I’m working a case on… mining companies taking advantage of… of the growing jewelry industry?”
Toph guffawed. “Nice try, Mr. Suits.”
“Whatever!” Zuko shouted in frustration. Toph held the phone slightly away from her ear. Did he forget how sensitive her hearing was? “I just really need your help on this. I don’t want to mess anything up, it’s really important to her!”
“Who’s ‘her’, the mining companies or the growing jewelry industry?”
Zuko groaned on the other end of the line.
Toph snorted slightly. Forcing the truth out of someone was such a great way to start the day— even if the target was as easy to read as Zuko.
“ Fine, I concede, I’m looking for an engagement ring for Katara and I hate all the ones I saw here in the Capital. Will you please just help me?”
“You wore me down, Sparky.” She said sarcastically, stretching as she sat up on the bed. “Don’t get your hopes up, though. I may know a couple of jewelers here and there, but I require a finder’s fee. You probably can’t afford it.”
“Are you seriously extorting me when I have to save up for the wedding?” She could hear his awe underneath his exasperation.
“Slow down, Hotman.” Toph teased. “You don’t even know if she’ll say yes.”
She’d already hung up and gone back to sleep.
“You know, nine out of ten marriages end in divorce.”
Zuko tried to keep an indifferent mask as he sat across his sister in the cafe near her condo. She was examining her nails boredly, seemingly as indifferent as he was when he relayed his plans to propose to Katara.
“I don’t even know why you want to get married, anyway,” Azula continued, surveying him over her manicured fingers. “It’s not like we had such a great example, growing up with Mom and Dad.”
“I know,” Zuko said levelly, trying to keep his irritation in check. Why was it so hard for his sister to be supportive? “I still want to marry her, though.”
“You’re an idiot,” she declared by way of showing affection, rolling her eyes at him.
“I know,” he replied casually, taking a sip from his cup.
“Gods,” Azula muttered as she held a cigarette between her red-painted lips, “If I ever settle down, I’ll make sure I’ll be the one proposing, not him.”
“Why?” Zuko asked, although unsurprised.
Azula smirked as she blew smoke into his face. “That way, I win.”
“Who’s gonna be your best man?” Sokka squawked. “Don’t tell me it’s Aang. Do not say Aang.”
He’s perfectly okay with Zuko marrying his baby sister. He’s a decent guy, and Katara’s a grown woman with a good head on her shoulders, blah blah blah. He wasn’t that worried. He knew Katara could easily kill Zuko in his sleep if he ever hurt her.
(Not that Sokka would let her kill one of his best friends. And if she did, he’d still help her bury the body. Needless to say he was in a tough situation with those two.)
What Sokka wasn’t perfectly okay with was Zuko’s choice of best man. It had to be him. Please, please let it be him.
He gnawed anxiously on his fried chicken as Zuko huffed and pinched the bridge of his nose.
“Sokka, does it really matter?”
“ Does it really matter?” Sokka repeated incredulously. He pointed his drumstick at Zuko’s face. “Buddy, you’re my only chance to be a best man! Aang would never get married, he’s a monk; Toph would probably end up with a lot of kids from a lot of different guys; Haru will definitely pick Teo— I gotta be your best man, Zuko!”
“She hasn’t even said yes yet!” Zuko exclaimed. “I haven’t even gotten a ring—”
The two men froze as Katara strode into the apartment, taking out her earphones and toweling off from her run.
“We were just talking about—” Zuko started.
“Lord of the Rings!” Sokka supplied. “You know, with that little goblin creature who keeps saying ‘my precious’—”
Zuko swiftly kicked him under the dining table.
“Okay, dorks,” Katara observed the pair, bemused. They were clearly talking about something else before she came in. “Did you come over just to talk to Zuko about Lord of the Rings?” she asked as she made her way to the fridge and retrieved a bottle of water.
“I invited him over because your brother needs to learn that Smeagol wasn’t a ‘little goblin creature’,” Zuko answered, looking pointedly at Sokka, who just shrugged and went back to his chicken.
Katara rolled her eyes at the two. “I’ll never understand you guys. I’m gonna go take a shower.”
She kissed the top of Zuko’s head as she passed by him on the way to their bedroom. “Oh, and Zuko, please don’t let Sokka eat all our food.”
“Hey!” protested Sokka, his mouth filled with mashed potatoes. “I bought this bucket myself! Now I won’t share it with you!”
“You never share food, Sokka!” Katara called back before shutting the bedroom door.
Sokka and Zuko shared a look before sagging into their seats. They waited quietly as Katara emerged from the bedroom with her bath things, disappeared into the bathroom, and they heard the distinct sound of the shower knob turning.
“Is this why you don’t want me as your best man?” Sokka broke the silence. “Because I always come over and eat your food and don’t know who that little goblin creature is?”
“Sokka,” Zuko ran a hand down his face. “You and Aang will both be my best man.”
Sokka whooped. “I’ll take it! Here comes the best man! I’ll be planning your bachelor party every waking second!”
“She hasn’t even said yes yet!”
“Suki. I think he’s cheating on me.”
Katara stared at the unopened notification on Zuko’s phone. She drummed her fingers on the bed, willing herself not to open it. She trusts Zuko. She will not snoop around on his phone like a crazy jealous girlfriend.
“Katara, why do you think he’s cheating on you?” Suki prompted on the line.
“He keeps disappearing recently without telling me where he’s going! He never does that. And,” Katara took a deep breath. “He left his phone when he went to see Aang and I saw a message from some girl asking him when he wants to meet up.”
There was a pause from Suki’s end. Katara bristled and went on the defense. “I know I shouldn’t read his texts, Suki! But he left it on our bed and I swear, I didn’t open it, I just saw the first part of the message from some girl named June—”
“Katara, just because he received a text from some girl doesn’t mean he’s cheating on you. How do you know Zuko even gave her the time of day?”
“Because!” Katara whined. “The message said, ‘Great! How ‘bout we meet up at the Xirxu when I’m in town? I’ll let you take a look at…’ and that’s the furthest I can read on the notif! Take a look at what? Why are they meeting up? Xirxu is a really seedy bar, why would anyone want to meet up there—”
“Okay, okay! Calm down,” Suki’s voice cut through her harried rambling. “I’ll try to find out what I can from Sokka when he gets back. For now, just calm down, breathe, and do not snoop around on Zuko’s stuff. Got it?”
“Okay,” Katara took a steadying breath. “Okay.”
“For the record, I don’t think Zuko will ever hurt you that way after you’ve been together for seven years,” Suki said sincerely. “But, if he is cheating on you, I’ll break every bone in his body while you castrate him. Sound good?”
Katara let out a shaky laugh. “Thanks, Suki.”
“Thank you for meeting with me, sir. I know you’re only in town for a week for trade negotiations, but I’m glad I could speak with you in person.”
“Please, Zuko, I always make time for family.” Hakoda smiled warmly at him from across the mahogany table. “What can I do for you, son?”
Zuko’s throat tightened at his fatherly manner of speaking. He swallowed the bile creeping up from his stomach and gripped his hands together as they began to sweat. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly before speaking.
“Sir, I want to marry your daughter.”
If Hakoda was surprised, it didn’t cross his features. He just silently leaned his arms on the table and studied Zuko.
Zuko sat up straight and met Hakoda’s eyes with conviction, ignoring how his stomach twisted and turned with unease.
The silence stretched between them and Zuko tried not to squirm. Finally, Hakoda spoke.
“Do you know how to fish, Zuko?”
“Y-yes, sir,” he replied, wondering where the older man was going with this. “Sokka took me ice fishing a couple of times when I spent Thanksgiving with your family, sir.”
“Ah yes,” Hakoda said, perching his chin on his entwined hands, eyes never leaving Zuko’s. “Do you enjoy fishing?”
Zuko’s brows furrowed, still guessing the line of questioning. “Yes sir,” he answered honestly. “I find the silence quite peaceful.”
“Tell me,” Hakoda continued. “If you were the captain of your ship and you see a storm brewing in the distance, what would you first consider?”
What was it with his girlfriend’s father and all these nautical questions? Zuko knew next to zero about sailing, but he thanked his lucky stars when a memory flashed back to him.
“I actually have a somewhat first-hand experience of that, sir. My uncle and I were on the ferry on the way back from Ember Island. We weren’t far off when the crew announced the waves were getting too high and it would be dangerous to sail on. Uncle took charge, and we headed back to Ember Island to wait out the storm.” Zuko paused. “You have to respect the turn of the tides. The safety of every passenger is paramount, sir.”
Hakoda nodded solemnly and leaned back on his chair. Zuko braced himself for another sea-related question.
“What does my daughter think about marriage?” Hakoda asked, taking Zuko off guard.
“I- I haven’t actually asked her yet— I mean—” Zuko backpedalled when he saw Hakoda’s eyes narrow, “I haven’t actually proposed , sir, but we’ve talked about it before and she wants to get married and she thinks we’re ready.”
Hakoda nodded again. “And do you think you’re ready, son?”
Zuko smiled despite the tension he felt. “Yes, sir. I want nothing more than to spend the rest of my life with Katara.”
Hakoda finally broke his gaze on Zuko to open his desk drawer. He pulled out a bottle of scotch and two glasses, pouring a finger of liquid into each one. He slid a glass to Zuko.
Zuko took it apprehensively, waiting in bated breath for the verdict.
“I, too, enjoy the stillness of fishing,” Hakoda began. “Patience is a virtue in marriage as much as in life. There will be times of boredom, times of struggle… You must know how to be at ease in both times. You will be the captain of your family’s ship, so to speak, and, as you said, you must respect the turn of the tides.”
“I understand, sir,” Zuko said, still clutching his glass tightly, the scotch untouched.
Hakoda raised his glass, blue eyes crinkling. “Looks like Sokka has competition over being my favorite son.”
Zuko sighed in relief and clinked his glass with Hakoda’s.
“Do you think Katara will like it?”
Suki snapped her jaw shut as she looked back at Zuko with wide eyes. “Hell yeah, Zuko. My god, even I wanna marry you.”
“Hey!” Sokka protested. “You said you never want to get married!”
“Sure, but I wouldn’t mind having a sparkly big-ass diamond ‘round my finger,” Suki replied, taking the ring out of the box to examine it more closely. “Where did you get this, Zuko? Are those sapphires and rubies? ”
“Garnets, actually. I don’t have that kind of money,” Zuko said, plunking himself down beside Sokka on the couch. “And Toph and her friend already bled me dry.”
“ Toph helped you look for a ring?” Sokka said in disbelief.
“Yeah, she put me through one of her old friends in the industry. It was horrible. I had to meet up with her at this shady bar, Xirxu.” Zuko shuddered at the memory. June’s taste in jewelry design was impeccable, but her choice of neighborhood haunts was terrifying. Zuko had picked out a ring to the sound of fists hitting flesh and beer bottles cracking on tables.
“Why didn’t you ask your best friend slash best man to help you?” Sokka prodded him. Both Suki and Zuko sighed in resignation at the man’s insistence.
“Well, Aang was busy,” Zuko kidded. Sokka landed a punch on his shoulder, grumbling something about how monks could never plan a perfect steak and whiskey bachelor party.
“I still can’t believe you guys are gonna get married. And to think Katara thought you were cheating on her…” Suki mused, studying the engagement ring in her hands.
“Why would Katara think I’m cheating on her?!” Zuko asked, scandalized at the information Suki threw around so casually.
The auburn-haired girl shrugged, lips curling into a smirk. “She saw June’s text about meeting up at Xirxu.”
“I never told you guys her name,” Zuko said suspiciously, crossing his arms across his chest.
“Yeah, you didn’t,” Suki rolled her eyes and returned the ring into its box. “Honestly, Zuko, don’t leave your phone lying around when you’re keeping a huge secret. Especially with Katara. She called me as soon as she saw the notif.”
“Yeah, she’s a snoop and a big blabbermouth.” Sokka asserted bluntly.
“Oh, come on. I never want to keep anything from her, ever.” Zuko insisted.
“Aww. Spoken like a true married man.” Suki tossed the box to Zuko, who caught it easily. “Still a stupid way to get caught in your proposal plans, though. You’re lucky she assumed you’re cheating on her.”
Zuko ran a hand down his face. “Yeah, lucky…”
“Don’t worry, bro! I’ve got you,” Sokka slung an arm around his shoulders playfully. “I’m the ‘plans guy’ around here! As your best man, we’ll make sure you get hitched without a hitch!”
Zuko groaned at his friend’s enthusiasm. “Sokka. Do you honestly think Katara will agree to marry me when she thinks I’m cheating on her?”
“That’s why you use it to your advantage!” Sokka shook Zuko with vigor. “You pretend you’re cheating on her, she gets so mad at you and threatens to break up, then bam! You get down on one knee and shove that big-ass rock in her face!”
“No. No way,” Zuko said through gritted teeth. “I won’t put her through that kind of pain.”
“Oh, how ‘bout this — ” Suki piped up, sitting down on the coffee table in front of Sokka and Zuko. “You tell Katara that June’s your old friend. Tell her you’re reconnecting with people from your past because you’re dying — they found a black mass, you only have a month to live. Then as she starts to cry, boom! You bring out the box. That’s the black mass!”
“God, no!” Zuko broke free from Sokka’s grasp and stood up. “Why do all your suggestions involve hurting Katara?!”
“Because it’s gotta be a rollercoaster of emotions, Zuko!” Sokka said earnestly.
“Yeah!” Suki agreed. “That’s what makes it so exciting!”
“You guys are hopeless. Thank god you two never want to get married.” Zuko shoved the small square box into his pocket before stomping out of the couple’s apartment.
Iroh beamed at his nephew, who was struggling up the steps of The Jasmine Dragon, laden with bags. He had watched his nephew and Katara argue as they removed their luggage from the trunk of their rented car; Zuko insisted he carry them all, while Katara maintained that she was strong enough to carry her own baggage. In the end, both had compromised, each one taking what they could while helping each other up the steps.
Iroh smiled to himself. If their behavior didn’t summarize their entire relationship, he didn’t know what did.
He held his arms open as Zuko dropped his bags and rushed to him with quiet excitement, holding him tighter than he ever did back in his youth. Zuko was so different from the angry bundle of energy that appeared on his doorstep after running away from home at thirteen; Iroh felt his heart swell with pride. He rubbed Zuko’s back lightly before letting him go and welcoming Katara.
“You are looking as lovely as ever, my dear,” he said to the greatest contributor to his nephew’s transformation.
Katara blushed slightly and hugged him. “I’m so glad to see you’re well, Uncle. I’m afraid we gave Zuko quite a scare when he found out you’ve been consulting me about your health.”
“He kept saying it was nothing hot tea couldn’t fix!” Zuko explained, waving an exasperated hand at Iroh. “Then you tell me you think it’s best if he went to the hospital— what was I supposed to do then? Drink tea?”
“Precisely!” Iroh answered happily. “Come in, nephew, or you will catch a cold.”
“You’re one to talk, old man,” Zuko muttered under his breath, bending down to retrieve their luggage as Katara and Iroh led the way into the restaurant.
Despite his growing tea business, Iroh himself brewed their beverage, busying himself with pouring from the dainty teapot while Zuko and Katara settled down on the cushions surrounding the low table in a private corner of the restaurant.
Katara filled him in on her days at the hospital, and commended him for taking it easy and not risking a heart attack in his age. Iroh responded merrily, but he noticed his nephew withdrawing from the conversation until only the last dregs of tea remained in their porcelain cups.
“Is something the matter, nephew?” he inquired. It wasn’t unlike Zuko to ruminate quietly while cheerful conversations took place around him, but Iroh could sense anxiety seeping into his nephew’s features.
“Nothing, Uncle,” Zuko bowed his head, tracing a finger on the lip of his teacup. Katara placed a hand on his wrist, catching on.
“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you about Uncle’s health sooner, Zuko,” she murmured. “It really wasn’t a cause for concern. Although I still think it’s a good idea that we visited. That way, you can see for yourself.”
Zuko looked at Iroh, brows furrowed. He blinked back at Katara. “It’s not that… Katara, is it okay if I speak with Uncle alone for a bit?”
“You don’t have to ask me for permission to do anything, Zuko,” Katara smiled wryly. “But, yes, go ahead. I’ll take some of our stuff up to the apartment.” She kissed his cheek and gathered their belongings.
Iroh waited until Katara had disappeared into the stairwell before speaking. “Zuko, I am an old man, and old men are bound to fall sick once in a while. I am in good health despite my recent bout of flu. You needn’t worry yourself too much.”
“Uncle,” Zuko met his eyes with a mixture of guilt and worry, his hands balled up into fists in his lap. “I’m so sorry.”
“What is there to apologize for, nephew?”
“I… I thought I had time, time to plan everything out before telling you, but you could have been really ill by then or…”
“Tell me what, Zuko?” Iroh asked gently.
Zuko took a deep breath. “I’m going to ask Katara to marry me.”
Iroh sat there, stunned for a moment. Zuko plowed on. “I’m so, so sorry I didn’t tell you sooner, Uncle. I wanted to plan everything first, I wanted you to know that I am ready and that I thought things through like you always wanted me to, but what if you never recovered your health? I really want you around when I start a family, I don’t want to be like Dad, and I need you there, Uncle—”
“Oh, Zuko!” Iroh leaned across the table and engulfed Zuko in a fierce embrace, eyes glistening. “I am so proud of you, my son.”
Tears smarted at the corners of Zuko’s eyes. He tried to blink them away and swallow the lump in his throat as his uncle pulled away with a great sigh, wiping his own tears from his wrinkled cheeks.
“This is a special moment indeed.” Iroh clapped his hands excitedly. “The Jasmine Dragon will spare no expense in catering your wedding!”
“I didn’t come all the way to Ba Sing Se to ask you to cater anything, Uncle,” Zuko replied wearily, some of the worry in his chest dissipating into amused annoyance at the old man. “Besides, what wedding will you cater if she hasn’t even said yes yet?”
“Oh, nephew,” Iroh said in a patronizing tone Zuko hadn’t heard since he was a volatile teen, “What makes you think she wouldn’t?”
“I honestly don’t think you need an elaborate plan if you just spoke from the heart, Zuko.”
“Twinkletoes, I don’t know if you’re the best person to give advice on romantic stuff,” Toph tucked her arms behind her head and put her muddy shoes up on the coffee table. Zuko resisted the urge to slap her feet away and remind her that Katara would freak out at the sight of dirt in their apartment.
“But I know Katara, and I know Zuko.” Aang insisted. “She doesn’t need something overly romantic, just something honest. And Zuko’s been doing that their entire relationship.”
Toph rolled her milky green eyes. “Have you met Sugar Queen, dude? She wants dinner by candlelight, roses all over, champagne with strawberries in ‘em, y’know, the works.”
Zuko groaned. “This is not helping, guys.”
“What did you have planned, Zuko?” Aang inquired, his gray eyes wide.
“I…” Zuko tried not to let his half-baked plan sound so half-baked. “I got us reservations at her favorite restaurant on our anniversary tomorrow.”
“Lame!” Toph exclaimed. “You go out for dinner almost every week, what half-assed cliche plan is that?”
“You’re the one who said she’d want dinner by candlelight! What would you suggest?” Zuko all but growled at the smirking girl, slightly humiliated at having his only plan shot down.
“Rock climbing!” Toph shrugged as though it was the most obvious thing in the world. “Get those endorphins going, Hotpants, and you might actually get laid.”
“Rock climbing is your answer to everything, Toph,” Aang admonished.
“And I don’t need that much endorphins to get laid, unlike you,” Zuko added.
“ Boring!” Toph waved a hand at both of them. “I’m starting to doubt who in this room actually has balls.”
“Speaking openly about your intentions does not require balls, Toph,” Aang said sagely. “It comes from here.” He pointed to his chest.
“Where, your unmanly nipples?” Toph quipped, correctly guessing where Aang was pointing at. Zuko chuckled quietly.
There was a clatter as the apartment door opened and Katara came in with an armful of groceries. Zuko immediately stood up to help her, simultaneously knocking Toph’s filthy boots off the coffee table.
It was only when he neared her that he noticed Katara rubbing her eyes tiredly.
“Hey, what’s wrong?” Zuko asked, taking her hand.
Katara huffed and looked at him with blue eyes filled with annoyance, exhaustion, and guilt. “I have to cancel on our dinner tomorrow. Pama decided to take a stupid vacation leave again so I have to work the double shift.”
“Couldn’t someone else do it?” Aang piped up from the living room. “You already work too hard as it is, Katara.”
“I know, I know, but someone has to do it, and I already said I would,” Katara squeezed Zuko’s hand. “I’m really sorry, Zuko. I know it’s our anniversary — ”
“Hey, it’s okay,” Zuko replied, trying not to let the disappointment creep into his voice. “You never turn your back on people who need you. I understand. We’ll celebrate some other time.”
“Thanks,” Katara stood on her tiptoes to kiss him lightly. She smiled slyly as she pulled away, tracing a finger down the front of his shirt. “I promise I’ll make it up to you the way you made it up to me when you forgot my birthday.”
Zuko smirked and pulled her closer by the waist. “Hmm, I like the sound of that. Maybe we should miss milestones more often.”
“Hey!” Toph protested. “I’ll be staying in your spare room for a week! I do not wanna hear your weird sex through the walls!”
“Maybe you should stay with Sokka and Suki, then!” Katara called over Zuko’s shoulder. He laughed lightly against her hair.
“Ew! Those guys are worse than you two,” Toph whined. Aang agreed and started recounting the time he and Zuko walked in on a naked Sokka in the apartment with nothing but a box of chocolates hiding his privates.
Katara joined in on the colorful retelling of Sokka and Suki’s horrifying sexcapades after she and Zuko put away the groceries. As he sat beside her, watching more than listening to the animated stories she shared to Toph and Aang, Zuko felt his desperation well up inside him.
How do you convince the most amazing girl in the world that she deserves to stay with someone like you forever?
Katara was in a sour mood.
She had been working for eleven hours now, and so far she’d been vomited on twice, shouted at while taking blood samples, threatened with a lawsuit by an irate mother in the emergency room, and hit on by creepy old men and construction workers when she bought lunch down the street.
Right now she was huddled in the nurse’s station with her brown bag and a paper cup of lukewarm vending machine coffee, trying to fight a pounding headache and wishing she could drink at work.
She swiped open her phone, and after regarding her wallpaper contemplatively (it was from the last real vacation she and Zuko had two years ago, when they visited her grandfather and saw the Northern Lights), she tapped on her speed dial.
“Hey,” Zuko answered after one ring.
“Hey,” Katara replied, already feeling a smile forming on her face.
“How are you? Is everything okay there?” Zuko asked quietly. In the background, Katara could hear Toph and Sokka arguing.
“I’m having a rough day, that’s all,” she said with a tired laugh. “I miss you. How are things going there?”
“The kids are fine,” Katara could almost hear him rolling his eyes. She bit down a giggle. “I miss you, too.”
“Maybe I could try to leave work early,” Katara ventured, taking a sip from her already-cold coffee.
“What? No!” Zuko practically yelled, making Katara jump and almost spill coffee on her scrubs. Whatever peace of mind she had while talking to him vanished and her frayed nerves took over.
“Why the hell not?”
“B-because I—” There was a scuffle on the other end of the line and muffled shouting, and suddenly it was Toph talking to her.
“Sparky’s got a prior engagement to deal with, Sweetness, so butt out. Catch ya later!”
Katara stared at her phone in disbelief. What in the world was Zuko hiding from her? She believed Suki when she assured her that Zuko wasn’t cheating, but he and the gang were obviously planning something behind her back. Fuming, she grabbed a stack of release forms and counted the hours until she could find out what her boyfriend was up to.
“How ‘bout skywriting?” Aang suggested as the gang converged in Katara and Zuko’s apartment for a last-minute proposal brainstorm.
“I don’t have that kind of money since someone— ” Zuko flashed a pointed look at Toph, who clearly didn’t see it, “— decided to extort me for a piece of jewelry.”
“Payback for waking me up early, Sparky,” Toph grinned mischievously, twirling the ring around her fingers. Zuko quickly snatched it and placed it back in its box.
Aang stood by the stove and kept an eye on the bubbling seafood stew that Zuko had prepared based on Katara’s grandmother’s recipe. It didn’t look or smell like Gran-Gran’s soup, but Aang didn’t have the heart to tell him that, considering Zuko was at his wit’s end already.
“Maybe you could put the ring in her food,” the monk finally said.
“Don’t desecrate food that way!” Sokka exclaimed, turning away from Mario Kart and crashing spectacularly.
“Yeah, and what if she chokes on it?” Zuko added, adjusting the ties of the apron he was wearing.
“Does she choke on a lot of stuff, Sparky?” Toph asked, a little too innocently.
“No,” Zuko sputtered and busied himself with placing a vase full of lilies in the center of the table.
“Maybe you could put it in her champagne,” Suki suggested, throwing her video game controller onto the couch.
“Don’t desecrate alcohol that way!” Toph mimicked Sokka’s indignant tone with a smirk.
“I still think you should just speak honestly and openly, Zuko,” Aang said. “You can never go wrong when your words come from the heart.”
“Are you new here?” Sokka snorted, leaping over the couch to make his way to the dining area. “Zuko can’t even string two words together when he’s nervous!”
“I’m right here, you know,” grumbled Zuko, crossing his arms over his chest and trying to look as dignified as he could in a flowery pink apron.
Sokka raised his hands defensively. “Buddy, you might be a beast in the courtroom, but we both know you’re not the most eloquent guy when it comes to big, romantic speeches.”
“I’m not suggesting a big, romantic speech, Sokka,” Aang interrupted. “Just propose when you feel the timing is right.”
“That’s what Uncle said,” Zuko muttered. Iroh’s proverbs, for once, had been crystal clear to Zuko when they discussed the proposal at length.
“Then you should listen to Uncle Iroh,” Aang concluded, taking the stew off the heat.
“But how do I know it’s the right time?” Zuko asked, placing the ring in his apron pocket.
“Hey, Sugar Queen! Let’s go grab a drink!”
Toph was waiting for her outside the apartment when she arrived home from the hospital a little after midnight. Katara rubbed her forehead tiredly. She didn’t have time for this. She just wanted to know what they were planning so her mind could put it to rest.
“Toph, I don’t have the energy for a drink. I just want to go inside and sleep.”
“Sleep’s for the weak!” Toph stomped defiantly, crossing her arms. “Come on! I feel like you need a pint.”
Katara tried to push past her but Toph blocked the door with her tiny frame. Katara bit back a frustrated snarl. “Toph, I swear to god! What the hell is going on? Why won’t you let me in?”
The blind girl uncrossed her arms with a sigh. “ Fine. I was supposed to distract you for a half hour, but let’s get this over with before Sparky chickens out.”
“Chickens out?” Katara repeated. “What would he be chickening out for?”
Toph waved a disinterested hand and made her way to the elevator. “Whatever. Just get in. I’m going down to the bar with Snoozles.”
“Sokka’s still here?” Katara called after Toph’s retreating back with mounting confusion and impatience. “What are you guys up to?”
“That’s for me to know and for you to find out, Sweetness!” she called back before disappearing.
Katara rolled her eyes and pushed open the door. Her jaw dropped at the sight before her.
Candles lit the dark apartment, and the heady fragrance of roses and lilies reached her as soft music filled her ears. In the gloom, she saw Zuko pour champagne into flutes and set them down on the table covered with the linen they reserved for special occasions. Her heart thudded in her chest as she approached him quietly.
“What’s all this?”
Zuko jumped, nearly knocking a champagne flute off the table. “Katara! You weren’t supposed to be here yet!”
Katara snorted despite the scene tugging at her heartstrings. “Why go through all the trouble for a surprise dinner, Zuko? You could’ve said you had a surprise for our anniversary instead of subjecting me to Toph’s rudeness.”
“That’s, uh…” Zuko ran a hand through his hair, flushing. “I’m sorry.”
Katara beamed at him and threw her arms around his neck. “I forgive you. The sight of you in an apron is penance enough.”
Zuko grinned and held her close, dropping his voice as he nuzzled her ear. “Should I do more menial labor to please you, princess?”
“Stop that, or we both don’t get dinner,” Katara giggled and pulled away slightly. “I’m starving. Take that apron off so we can eat already.”
Zuko’s eyes widened. He never took the ring out of his apron pocket. “Uh… no.”
Her arms tightened around his neck. “What do you mean, no?”
“Um…” How the hell was he getting out of this one?
Katara let her arms drop to her sides. “Zuko, you’ve been acting really weird lately. I thought it was just the surprise dinner, but… I don’t know what to think anymore. What are you hiding from me?”
Zuko gulped and forced a sardonic tone through his teeth. “Sure, I’m acting weird because I’m hiding something from you. Why don’t you look for solid evidence first before accusing me of something, huh?”
“You were supposed to tell me everything, not keep secrets from me! How the hell am I supposed to know if you’re hiding something or not?” Katara argued, planting her hands on her hips.
Zuko raised his arms. “You could start by frisking me, officer,” he goaded, “since you’re so convinced I’m hiding something from you.”
“You’re such a jerk! ” Katara whirled on him, searching his pockets. “Why don’t you just admit—”
Her hand landed on the outline of the small box in his apron pocket. She fished it out and Zuko just watched warily, hands still up by his shoulders, heart jumping in his throat.
Katara slowly clicked open the box. She stared at Zuko, lips slightly parted. “Zuko, oh my god…”
Zuko swallowed and slowly knelt on one knee, gaze never leaving hers.
“Katara. Will you—”
“ YES!” Katara launched herself at him, a flurry of brown hair and tears and laughter, and they both tumbled on the floor. “Yes! Of course! Yes, a million times!”
Zuko laughed like he’d never laughed before.
“I didn’t think you’d say yes.”
Katata took his face in her hands, grinning. “Well, you’re a bumbling idiot for thinking that.” She kissed him deeply, feeling his smile on her lips. “But you’re my bumbling idiot.”
“So, how did he finally propose?” Suki yelled over the din of the bar.
“Yeah, we got bets all over the place, Sweetness,” Toph sniped. “On top of the bets on whether or not you’ll say yes. Odds on you’ll say no because he put the ring in his horrible stew and it melted.”
Katara giggled into her champagne, leaning against Zuko in their booth. “Actually, he let me feel him up until I found the ring.”
Zuko’s palm connected with his forehead. “That’s not exactly—”
“Called it!” Sokka announced.
“You did not, Sokka.” Aang protested. “You said they’ll end up fighting and he’ll throw it in her face.”
“How else does Zuko get my sister riled up enough to feel him up, hmm?” Sokka asked inquisitively.
“That’s… actually the gist of what happened.” Zuko acquiesced.
“Ha! See!” Sokka stood up and waved a hand triumphantly. Suki rolled her eyes and tugged him back down.
“Huh, really fits the inscription you had June engrave on the ring, Hotman,” Toph said, smirking.
“What inscription?” Katara asked. She removed the ring from her finger and studied it in the dim light. “‘Made in Earth Kingdom’?”
Zuko groaned. “It’s on the other side.”
Katara peered at the inside of the band and smiled knowingly.
Never give up without a fight.