DISCLAIMER: I do not own Avatar: The Last Airbender.
CHAPTER 22: Closed Mind
The morning after is a frosty affair.
Everyone is in different stages of packing; they are due at the ferry later in the afternoon, but both Sokka and Toph are nursing hangovers and don't notice the tension between Zuko and Katara until they all converge in the living area to eat lunch.
Sokka, despite all his bellyaching, is actually more than willing to follow Katara's orders to buy food that she could add to their leftovers. Hey, he knows his sister well enough to sense that something is wrong, but he also isn't about to ask her about it or complain about her snappish behavior, especially not when he has this raging headache.
Toph isn't so subtle, though.
She saunters into the living room with a bag of barbecue chips— the salt would have to do until Sweetness cooks up her favorite hangover food— and flops down on the couch. Toph hears her puttering about in the adjoining kitchen, but then she suddenly stops when Sparky walks in.
The only sound in the room is Toph munching and the crinkling of the bag.
"Okay, this is weird," she finally says, when it appeared that no one would do anything remotely intriguing. "I'm not alone in the room, right? Hello? Can someone please explain to the blind girl what the fuck is up?"
"I'm not the one who has to explain themselves," Katara huffs pointedly before stalking away furiously. Zuko winces when he hears her bedroom door slam shut.
"Okay, I guess you're going to explain, then, Sparky," Toph declares, tucking her legs beneath her.
Zuko sighs and runs a hand through his hair. He flings himself down beside her despondently.
"Look, Toph, I don't even know where to start," he mutters, covering his eyes with his arm. "I thought we were— I thought we were becoming— I dunno, friends or something. Guess I was wrong."
"Uh huh," Toph munches on a couple more chips before continuing. "What did you do, anyway? I've never heard Sugar Queen give someone the cold shoulder in ages."
"That's just it!" Zuko yells in frustration, the sound muffled as he ran his hand down his face. "I don't know what I did! Well, technically, I didn't do anything, it was just some stupid stuff that my stupid family did—"
"Oh, shit, Zuko— did your fucked up dad kill her mom or something?" Toph exclaims, sitting up with a horrified look in her sightless eyes.
"What? No!" Zuko sits up and waves his hands frantically, forgetting that Toph couldn't see. "How could you say that?!"
"Jeez, pipe down, Hotpants," the blind girl says, digging into her ear with her pinky finger. "All I'm sayin' is, that's like, the worst possible scenario. If that ain't it, then she might still talk to you after a couple o' months."
"Months?" gasps Zuko, but Toph cackles and shoves more chips into her mouth.
"Okay, maybe not months," she agrees, licking her fingers with relish, "Maybe a year and a half, maybe less."
Zuko groans into his hands and slumps further into the couch just as Sokka stumbles into the living room with a paper bag full of groceries.
"Hey, guys," he greets them hoarsely, looking worse for wear with the shadows under his eyes. He heaves a huge, jaw-breaking yawn and points to the kitchen with his groceries. "Where's Katara?"
"She went to her bedroom," answers Zuko, motioning down the narrow hallway.
As Sokka trudges to the kitchen to dump his paper bag on the table, Zuko briefly wonders if he needs to tell him about the Northern Spirit Oasis project. He doesn't know how deep Sokka's connection to his culture was, but Zuko still feels like he owes an explanation to the Water Tribes.
He cautiously approaches him, meaning to help with unpacking the groceries, but the moment he does, Sokka drops into a chair with a beleaguered groan.
"Oh, thanks, dude, you're the best," he says, dramatically slumping backwards. "I swear, this headache is gonna kill me."
"You can rehydrate, you know," suggests Zuko, but Sokka just huffs and slinks down further into the chair.
"Too… tired…" he whines. "What's taking Katara so long? I need meat."
"Actually, uh, before she— before she gets back here," stammers Zuko, fumbling with a paper-wrapped hunk of meat, "Um, I have something, uh— I have to tell you something."
Sokka sits up slowly, his eyes narrowing with suspicion.
"Is this about Katara?" He asks sharply, pushing himself up and leaning close to Zuko. "Did you to something to her last night?"
"No— no!" Zuko drops the packaged meat on the table and raises his arms appeasingly. "It's not what you think! I mean, something did happen last night, but it wasn't good— I mean—"
Sokka folds his hands over his chest and raises an eyebrow at him. Zuko stumbles out his current situation.
"Look, she's not talking to me right now, okay? And it's because I had to tell her about this whole complicated thing with my family—" he stops himself, aware that he is quickly not making sense anymore. "A-anyway, it was about the Northern Spirit Oasis."
He pauses to see if the words have any effect on Sokka.
His face is stony, expression unusually cold, his scowl frozen into place. His posture is tense, his hands curling and uncurling into fists. Zuko swallows. Yes, it seems Katara's brother is as invested in the Oasis as she is.
"What about it?" Sokka finally asks, his words clipped. Zuko takes a deep breath.
"Well… I, uh, I used to work for the—" he winces at his own words, "Our family owns the company that tried to… um, tear it up and build over it."
"Oh," mutters Sokka, his hands dropping to his sides. "First Sozin Development."
Zuko rubs the back of his head. "Yeah, that's it."
"Did you…" He doesn't seem to know what to say. He sits back down at the kitchen table."Was the— was the project your idea?"
"No! Of course not," Zuko says, settling down across him and grasping at his hair. "It was my sister's, and I swear, I tried to stop it, but my father—"
"Okay, okay, chill, man," Sokka interrupts with a wave of his hands. "Look, I kinda get where Katara's coming from. That whole thing— well, it's a sore spot for both of us. My girlfriend back then, she was the chief's daughter, and she was sick and they needed money for—" he coughs awkwardly, his voice trembling, "Well, they needed money for treatment, since the 'spirit water' wasn't doing its job—"
They both turn around to see Katara fuming, her hands on her hips and her face mutinous. She spares one deathly glare at Zuko before forcing herself to smile— which appears more as a grimace— at her brother.
"Could you help me with lunch, big brother?" she asks, a touch too sweetly, and Sokka shrugs and raises his eyebrows at Zuko helplessly. Zuko just sighs and goes back into the living room with Toph.
As soon as he is out of earshot, Katara whirls on Sokka.
"What were you doing?" she hisses. Her brother merely rolls his eyes and clasps her shoulders firmly.
"Look, sis, I was just explaining to Zuko why that Northern Oasis thing was hard for both of us, okay?" He looks her straight in the eyes, his expression solemn. "I don't think it's fair you're freezing him out if he doesn't know what he did wrong."
"He knows exactly what he did!" Katara's voice rises.
"He just said he didn't have anything to do with the project!"
"Why are you defending him?" Katara stomps her foot in anger. "After all the trouble— after Yue—"
"Yue would have lived for three more months if Chief Arnook accepted First Sozin's offer, Katara!" Sokka presses his lips together and breathes out harshly before collapsing into a chair. Katara follows him silently, slightly mollified by her brother's reaction. Sokka rubs his forehead tiredly. "Look, all I'm saying is, people do stuff sometimes that don't make sense because of the pressure they're under, okay? It happened with Arnook; maybe that's what happened with Zuko. So just— just keep that in mind before you totally cut him off, alright?"
Katara mulls his words over for a moment. Sokka allows himself to slouch over the table, leaning his throbbing head on the wooden surface.
Sokka snaps back up and gapes at his sister.
"No," says Katara firmly, pulling out vegetables and other pieces of meat from the grocery bag with more force than necessary. "He was almost in charge of the company then, Sokka. He knew what should have been done before setting his sister on us. It wasn't some— some noble cause like choosing between saving a sacred place or trying to keep your daughter alive. He just didn't agree with the project because his company wouldn't profit from it." She slams the last hunk of meat on the table. "So, no."
Sokka groans into the table. There was no talking to Katara when she got like this.
"Okay, fine. Just grill me up some meat, will ya?"
Katara looks at him with wide, horrified eyes.
"We can't grill meat here, Sokka, there's no ventilation!"
He groans into the table again. Seems like the universe isn't letting him get his way today.
"I hate boats. I hate the sea. I hate everything," Toph moans as she drapes herself over the railings of the ferry. Much like their trip to Ember Island, she's been spending her time puking all over the side of the boat.
"You knew we were taking the ferry out today, but you still drank a lot last night. Whose fault is that?" Katara points out, patting the back of her friend's head gently as she guides the bottle of water into Toph's hands.
"Ugh, I know, you're right," agrees Toph, causing Katara to start and look at her in surprise. Toph shrugs and guzzles down her water. "I'm weak today, Sweetness. Don't tell anyone I agreed with you."
"So, what's up with you and Sparky?" Toph asks blithely, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. Katara's lips press into a thin line at the mention of Zuko's nickname.
"I don't want to talk about it," she grinds out.
"Mm hm, okay," Toph slides down to the floor and crosses her legs. "Seems to me, though, that he's the victim in all this."
"Is that what he's been telling you?" Katara starts to pace, turning sharply back and forth, "Because he is not! He was not powerless in that situation— he could have done something, but instead he's blaming it all on his crazy sister! Like he had nothing to do with it! For all we know, he could have been the one to sign the papers greenlighting—"
"Okay, okay, I get it. Don't get your self-righteous sweat on me," Toph interrupts her. "Sokka already told me about the whole deal. But that was, like, ages ago, Katara. Zuko's been through a lot of shit back then. Even if he agreed on the project— which, by the way, he didn't— he's already changed a lot. You didn't even know him back then. Now you just know the dorky, awkward Sparky."
"I don't care how he is now; if he could stand idly by while people close to him did— did such monstrous things, then I can't be around him!"
Toph blinks at her for a few seconds before sighing.
"Oh, Katara, I hope you don't mean that," the blind girl murmurs softly. "Do you even know how he got his scar?"
Katara stops her pacing long enough to cross her arms tightly over her chest and exhale angrily.
"Yes, I do, actually," she replies, then forges on without waiting for Toph's input, "I bet he just told me that so I'd feel sorry for him. And I fell for it! As if he and his dad don't bond over colonialism and culture-ruining projects. He was probably laughing about kicking some— some peasants out of their homeland—"
"And people say I'm the stubborn one," Toph interjects. Katara gasps in indignation.
"I am not being stubborn!" She exclaims. "I am completely justified, he has no excuses—"
"Uh huh, come to me when you finally decide to live in the present, Fussy Britches," Toph waves her away and braces herself against the railings as another wave tosses their ship upwards.
"Hey, buddy!" Sokka greets Zuko brightly, joining him on the stern of the ship, where he's hidden himself from Katara's chilly silence and icy glares. Zuko just nods silently in acknowledgement before turning back to watch the churned-up water they leave in their wake.
"Look," Sokka says, clasping his shoulder, "I know you and Katara are still kinda…" he emits a strange, strangled, and squeaky sound while making a rocking gesture with his other hand, "But it'll get better, okay?"
"Will it?" counters Zuko sullenly. "What if it just gets worse and worse and she never speaks to me again?"
"She'll thaw out eventually, don't worry," Sokka's voice is far too casual and light to comfort Zuko.
The other boy must have sensed his disbelief because he fidgets and starts rambling.
"Look, Katara's my baby sister," Sokka begins. "Does she make stupid decisions sometimes? Yes. Do I get a say in her choices? Sure, I'm her big brother. I'm here to judge her. Or tease her about it. But do I make her decisions for her? Hell no. She's her own person, dude, and I can't really do much when she decides to do something."
Sokka blinks at his own words.
"Wow, that was not where I was expecting that to go," he says, scratching the back of his head sheepishly. "Sorry, dude, seems like I got nothin' for ya."
Zuko groans into his hand.
"It's not like we were close or anything," he mutters morosely. "It's not like we're friends, too, so I don't know why you're trying to cheer me up."
"What do you mean, we're not friends?" Sokka's voice squeaks and he throws his hands up, jaw dropping in indignation. "Of course we are, buddy! I hang out at your place, like, every other week!"
"You only hang out with Toph," Zuko points out, but Sokka wags a finger in his face.
"Nuh-uh, I enjoy our manly time together, too!"
Zuko cringes and runs a hand over his face.
"Ugh, can you not call it that?"
"Aw, why not? I can't exactly call my time with Toph or Aang manly," Sokka pouts at him, but relents after a moment. "Fine, but I'm only doing it because we're friends."
"And, because we're friends, buddy-man," Sokka continues, slinging an arm around his shoulders, unmindful of Zuko's squirming, "I'm gonna try to help you with my sister, okay? Even though it'll be a pretty steep task. 'Cause I want you to have even more friends."
Zuko sighs in resignation.
"Thanks, I guess."
A/N: This was supposed to go on for quite a bit more, but I've been writing quite a few hefty chapters recently, and I feel like if I dropped all the drama in one chapter (again) it would just be too much and too soon. But I don't know. Do you guys like long chapters like the one before this, or do I keep it relatively short like this one until we reach the end? Tell me what you think!