One of those things about reunions, Katara had noticed, was that usually you were lucky to get most of the people you wanted to see together in one place at one time. After all, everyone had different schedules and busy times, and there were all those appointments and emergencies that kept cropping up here and there. It was pretty rare to get them all.
So, all in all, she thought it was pretty impressive that over three years after they'd all started going their separate ways, this time they were only out two people.
"So why was it that Suki and Ty Lee couldn't make it?" Mai slid down another one of her Pai-shou tiles in response to Katara's last move.
"According to Suki, the winter solstice is a pretty big deal on Kyoshi Island," Katara answered, studying the board carefully. She was still new to the game, and wasn't entirely sure if she'd been making good moves or bad ones so far. "She and the other Kyoshi Warriors have been practicing for a demonstration of some kind for a long time now."
"Is that why Sokka's acting like someone kicked his dog or something?" Toph commented, from where she sat in the chair near their table. She was leaning back precariously, one ankle resting on the other leg's thigh. "He wasn't this mopey last time I saw him - and it wasn't that long ago."
Katara wasn't sure 'mopey' was the word she would've used. She looked over at her brother, who was holding some kind of conversation with Zuko's uncle. The expression on his face was irritable, but it didn't seem like he was doing much of the talking. "He's been crabby ever since we picked him up," she agreed. "The trip here wasn't a lot of fun."
Mai glanced at her, almost questioningly. "Don't you guys all travel together? I just got that impression somehow..."
"Sort of." Katara finally made up her mind and placed the tile, looking up with a small smile. "Aang and I move around a lot. I guess you could say the South Pole is home, but we're only there about as often as we are anywhere else. Aang even has a house here in Ba Sing Se it was given to him the first time we came to the city."
"I don't know if I'd call it the same house," Toph corrected, dryly. "Considering how many times it's been blown up and rebuilt since we took it over."
Katara shrugged. "Close enough. Anyway, usually Sokka and Toph and sometimes Suki are with us, but Toph never comes to the South Pole - "
"Well, I can't exactly do anyone much good there." She knocked one foot against the leg of her chair, meaningfully. "It's not like I can see through snow and ice or anything."
" - and Sokka sometimes stays with Suki on Kyoshi Island while Aang, Toph, and I deal with 'emergencies'." Katara rolled her eyes upward. "Though I could say something about some people's definition of the word..."
"I said it then and I'll say it again: teaching the Earth King not to get bullied by his advisors doesn't count as an emergency." Toph made a face. "Not to mention the fact that it's totally boring."
Katara shrugged, with a bit of a smile. "She said it, not me."
"I could've told you that." Mai put down another tile, and then looked up again. "Even before I agreed to marry him, I'd still go to most of Zuko's conferences. When someone makes an actual point it's all right, but politicians really like to talk a lot about nothing."
"I wish they'd literally talk about nothing," Toph snorted, and blew out her bangs. "It'd make those stupid meetings a lot shorter - and quieter."
They'd had this conversation a few too many times. Katara picked up on another thread instead. "When did you and Zuko decide to have the wedding?"
"I don't think either of us is thinking that far ahead yet," Mai admitted wryly. "He only just asked me last week - and of course the whole Fire Nation knew about it the day after. Honestly, I'm pretty sure royal weddings are scheduled in by the people who run every other aspect of our lives: secretaries."
"Sounds boring," Toph commented blandly.
The corner of Mai's mouth quirked up in a smirk. "Oh, it has its perks."
"I really don't think I want to know what those are." Katara shook her head. "I already know way more than I want to about Sokka's love life - I can live without hearing the details of someone else's."
"You can say that again," Toph muttered. "Sokka talks too much."
Katara glanced over at her curiously, but the expression on the younger girl's face was inscrutable. "I still don't really know why Suki's put up with him for so long," she commented dryly, letting it pass. "Have you ever listened to his pick-up lines?" She made a gagging motion.
"I'm starting to think bad pick-up lines are something most men are born with," Mai remarked, smiling faintly. "You should hear some of the ones Zuko still uses on me. Talk about corny."
"Yeah, Aang has given me a few cheesy ones, too." Katara added another of her tiles, and then shrugged. "So maybe you're right."
"Twinkle-Toes uses pick-up lines? That's news to me." Toph quirked an eyebrow. "Did he pull the whole 'oh sorry, I only set up one tent' bit? Or does have more than half a brain?"
"Huh? Oh... no." Katara felt a bit of warmth rising to her cheeks at the implication. "No, Aang wouldn't do that." Not that she was totally against the idea of it... but it made her feel guilty whenever it crossed her mind - especially considering the situations that would cause the thought to come up. Aang was only sixteen, after all - he couldn't be anywhere near ready for that. So, she was going to wait - kisses only, and that was that. "I like to think he's more of a gentleman than that," she added, with a bit of a smile.
Toph looked around sceptically - from Sokka to Zuko, and then even to Iroh. "He's the only one in this room, if that's the case," she remarked, after a brief moment.
"Toph!" Katara glanced apologetically at Mai. She had never really gotten to know Zuko's fiance that well, and wasn't sure whether a statement like that might offend her. "Sorry."
Mai shrugged. "It's true," she said, almost offhand, and one side of her mouth twitched up just a bit as she pushed another tile onto the board.
Toph grinned triumphantly. "Told you."
"O-kay... that's about enough of this conversation." Katara grimaced. She really didn't want to find out where it might lead. "What do you say we move on to - I don't know - the weather? It's been pretty warm for this time of year. You think?" She glanced back and forth between her two friends, waiting for a response.
"Whatever." Toph blew her bangs off her face with a short puff of air.
Mai sighed, rolling her eyes upward. "Could you pick something more boring?" she muttered, crossing her arms.
Boy, what a great pair I got stuck with... Before she could think of some suitable response, though, Katara found herself presented with a teacup - seemingly from out of nowhere.
"You looked like you could use one," Aang said with a lopsided smile when she'd jerked her eyes up to meet his.
"Thanks, Aang." Katara felt the grateful smile spreading on her face as she reached to take the cup from him. The smell wafting up from it was soothing enough to wash away her irritation.
"No problem. So" - he pulled up a chair next to hers and eyed the game board - "who's winning?"
"I am," Mai answered without hesitation.
"I'll say." Zuko had come up behind his fiance; he raised his eyebrow at the placement of the tiles, and then glanced at Katara. "Even I could do better than that, and I hate this game."
She frowned at him. "Hey, I'm still learning to play, okay? Give me a break here."
"If you want to learn, I could teach you." Aang shrugged, and offered her a careless sort of grin. "Gyatso and I used to play all the time. I even beat him sometimes."
"Y'know, I never got why this game is so popular." Sokka slumped into a chair on Katara's other side, near Toph, and scowled at the board. "It doesn't make any logical sense, and if you ask me, sitting around staring at a bunch of painted tiles for hours on end does not sound like fun."
"It's not," Zuko told him flatly, and rolled his eyes upward. "Believe me, I have plenty of experience, and I wasn't even the one playing."
"I don't think you've ever played," Mai pointed out, raising a sceptical eyebrow at him. "Of course you're going to think it's boring if all you're doing is watching."
"Pai Shou is a game of patience and endurance - without those, you won't find satisfaction in the experience of playing." Iroh looked down at the board as he spoke, and then grimaced. "But... skill is nice to have, too."
"Right. I think I'm done here." Katara pushed her chair away from the table, managing a rueful smile as she raised her cup to her lips. "I can recognize a hint when I hear it."
"Great. So does that mean we're finally going to do something other than push painted rocks around a board?" Sokka crossed his arms, slouching even further in his seat.
"What have you got stuck up your butt?" Toph asked him bluntly, pushing her chair upright.
"Nothing!" Sokka sat up abruptly and threw his hands in the air with obvious frustration. "Would everyone stop with the stupid questions? All right, Suki ditched me for a festival - so what? What's with the third degree about it all the time, anyway? I'm perfectly okay with it! In fact, I'm glad she's not here! Maybe I need my space sometimes - ever think about that?" He looked from face to face, glaring.
There was a moment of uncomfortable silence following his tirade.
"All I asked was why you're being such a jerk," Toph remarked, voice dry, and then titled her head unerringly in his direction. "But, never mind - I think I can guess now."
"Whatever. Are we done with the questions?" Sokka slumped back again. "Because if not, I'm totally going to bed - d'aaah - I mean, going outside! Right." He sat up all at once, hastily rushing right along with that train of thought. "I am totally not going to bed, because I'm staying out all night. I mean, obviously. Right?"
Katara had turned sharply in the direction of her brother's gaze as his sentence derailed, and barely managed to catch Aang waving his hands furiously before he straightened abruptly and offered her an all-too-innocent smile. "Okaaaay," she said slowly, looking from one to the other warily.
Toph's fist connected solidly with Sokka's shoulder. "Good job." She stood. "Well, I'm going for more tea."
"I'll pour it for you," Iroh offered, following after her.
"Do you want some?" Zuko asked his fiance, moving around her chair.
"Yeah, why not?" Mai glanced down at the board, then pushed herself up. "I think this game is pretty much done, anyway."
"Well, I'm glad we all agree that I'm terrible at this," Katara muttered, frowning after the couple.
"You're still learning, that's all." Aang put a comforting hand on her shoulder, leaning down to kiss her cheek. "It just takes practice."
He was so tall now... It had been about two years since he'd passed her in height, and she still sometimes found herself surprised by it. Katara softened, turning to smile into his warm grey eyes. "Thanks, Aang."
Sokka cleared his throat meaningfully. "Hey, uh, guys? I'm still here. So, could you quit it with the whole lovey-dovey bit?"
Katara raised an eyebrow at him. "Says the guy who doesn't mind getting loudly intimate with his girlfriend when someone's trying to sleep just one tent over."
"Hey, at least I had the tent." He crossed his arms loftily. "What do you guys have?"
"Well, we could have my house." Aang shrugged, and smiled at Katara. "What do you think? Call it a night?"
"Well..." It was getting late. And they could always meet up with everyone again in the morning. Katara smiled back. "Sure, okay."
"Great!" He stood and turned in one smooth motion, holding out a hand to her. "Let's go, then."
"Tell everyone good night for me," Katara said to her brother, letting Aang help her up.
"Yeah." For some reason, his gaze was directed meaningfully at Aang. Katara glanced at her boyfriend, and found him returning the gaze just as seriously. When she looked back at Sokka, he abruptly sighed and leaned back in his chair. "See you in the morning. I guess."
Katara turned back to Aang as they walked out the door of the tea shop, puzzled. "What was that all about?"
He laughed a bit, almost nervously, and rubbed the back of his neck with his free hand. "I'll tell you later, okay?"
"Okay." Katara pushed the thought out of her mind - for the moment.
"So this is where you went? Outside?"
Sokka glanced away from the moon to look at Toph, standing near the top of the stairs that he was currently sitting on. "Maybe I needed some fresh air."
"Yeah, whatever." She moved down a few steps and then flopped beside him ungracefully. "You realize that by agreeing to stay out all night, you pretty much gave Aang the okay to nail your sister, right?"
That was really something he'd rather not think about. "Y'know, I didn't need that visual, thanks." He turned back towards the moon again, with an aggrieved sigh. "And, for the record, I didn't give anyone the okay. I'd just rather not be there if they really do decide to do... what I think they're going to do." He grimaced.
"You and me both." Toph tucked her hands behind her head, making a sour face. "You and Suki are bad enough."
"Again with the me and Suki stuff?" He frowned, not looking at her. The reminder still stung. It wasn't just the festival - that was part of it, yeah, but not all. They both had obligations - that was fine. They had lives outside of each other - also fine. It was just... well. It just was.
And he loved Suki so much - thought about her all the time, wanted to be around her whenever possible - that feeling like there was a rift between them really stunk.
"Just because I mention you and Suki doesn't mean I'm bringing up whatever fight you two had before coming here," Toph pointed out, in what Sokka felt was an unreasonably reasonable tone of voice. "You're the one who keeps on coming back to that, not me." She turned her sightless eyes unerringly in his direction; he could see it out of the corner of his eyes. "I could ask why you're letting everyone else think it's because she's not here that you're upset, but I'm pretty sure you were hoping I didn't pick up on that, weren't you?"
Oh, right, the whole ability to pick up on people's emotions. Sokka sometimes found that trait really annoying. "Yeah, well... It's complicated."
"If you say so."
They sat in companionable silence for a moment.
That one of was the great things about Toph, Sokka considered. She didn't pry into his personal business. And the weird thing about that was, it made him want to tell her things more. Funny how that worked.
"I proposed to Suki," he said, after a quick moment of deliberation. "Just before Aang and Katara got there."
Toph frowned. "And... what? She said no?"
He turned to raise an eyebrow at her. "Would I be this upset if she didn't?"
"Good point." She shrugged. "So, did she give you a reason, or did she just scream and run for the hills, like any sane woman would do?"
"Ha ha." He shot her a sour look. "As a matter of fact, she did give me a reason. She said it 'wasn't the right thing for us right now'." He made exaggerated quoting motions as he spoke. "She said we both have obligations and that kind of commitment just wouldn't work until we've worked out a more solid arrangement between us."
"Makes sense to me." Toph's tone was neutral. "So what's the problem?"
"What's the problem?" He sat up abruptly, turning to glare at her. "The problem is that the girl I happen to be in love with, who I want to marry, won't even talk about this stuff with me! I thought about solid arrangements! In fact, I thought a lot about them. For months." Not to mention tearing himself up with anxiety over just how he was going to word that stupid proposal. "And she won't even talk about it."
"So she actually said 'I won't even talk about it'?" Toph mimicked his quoting motions. "Or you got all huffy and she told you to cool down and talk to her again when you could be a rational human being?"
Sokka opened his mouth to speak, and realized that any answer he could truthfully make to that was not going to be a flattering one. He deflated. "Okay, something like that might have happened," he admitted, grudgingly, "but she still wouldn't talk about it afterwards!"
"Right." Toph rolled her eyes upward. "And I'll bet that's because you tried to start every discussion with something like 'so, gonna marry me yet?' until she got really ticked off and told you to take a hike. Isn't it?"
Why did she have to be so right all the time? Sokka scowled at her. That was one of those really annoying things about Toph. "You just don't get it! You weren't there, and you don't know what was going on."
"Hey, whatever makes you sleep better at night." She shrugged again. "I'm just saying, if I were Suki" - for some reason, her expression tightened a bit at that - "I'd have smacked some sense into you a long time ago."
Later, Sokka would reason that he probably shouldn't have said what he did in answer to that. He wouldn't know exactly why, but it was definitely the worst thing to respond with. The implication was starting to sink in, though - the idea that the distance between him and Suki, the fact that the girl he loved and wanted desperately to marry and be with forever currently didn't even want him around, was entirely his fault. He couldn't stand it. Why was it always him? Why did he always wreck anything good that ever happened to him? Why couldn't he hold on to the things that mattered?
"Well, then it's a good thing I'm with Suki, isn't it?" he shot back, turning his back deliberately on her. "And not with you."
He expected some kind of jibe about how pig-boars would fly before she'd ever let that happen, but all he got in return was a tense sort of silence.
"Uh." Why did things just turn awkward? Sokka half-turned. "... Toph?"
She stood, and he was a little surprised to see the hostile expression on her face. "Why don't you just stay out here with your hurt feelings, then," she suggested bluntly, and turned back up the stairs. "I'm going back in."
He stared at her retreating back. "Huh? But - what - ?"
The door closing sharply behind her was the only answer to his unspoken question.