Dinner was over and everyone was relaxing around the fire; even Zuko, for a change. He'd had a good day, if bewildering, and kind of wanted to spend the time observing the little group some more, trying to figure out how they thought. They were bewildering and confusing, but as of his self-imposed exile, they were the only family he had. Even if they did give him headaches.
Come to think of it, that wasn't so bad, considering the kinds of pain Azula was capable of giving him, and had, often.
Aang and Katara were chatting over the wash basin as they cleaned up dinner. Teo was scribbling notes into a journal he kept – earlier in the day he'd explained that it was mostly observations of scientific phenomena, whatever that meant. The Duke was playing with his lopsided rubber ball while Haru laughed and Toph gritted her teeth and clutched at her hair in irritation.
And then there was Sokka.
Sokka was polishing a sword, and glowering at the fire. His mind was worrying at some problem or other; every now and again Zuko would see his lips twitch or his eyebrows lower into a scowl, or a minute shake of his head as if he were arguing with himself.
All this from the same person who squealed like a girl over his new tool set, ate like an ostrich horse while whining about the spices, snored like a swamp cat-gator and woke up from dreams shouting about how Momo was in league with the Fire Lord and out to rule the world by destroying their supply of lychee nuts.
On the other hand, this was also the lone non-bender in a group whose core consisted of the Avatar, by definition the most powerful bender in the world, and his teachers, whom Zuko knew from painful experience to be terrifyingly strong in their own right. And he not only held his own in their group, he was insane enough to take took them on in sparring practices and sometimes he even beat them. If the stories were to be believed, this lunatic was the mind behind the invasion of the Fire Nation capital – remarkable in itself not only for its audacity (the first major strike to reach Fire Nation shores in over twenty years will attract a certain notoriety), but for how incredibly close it came to succeeding.
If the rest of the group were strange, Sokka was incomprehensible.
…and now he was focusing his glowering insanity over here. Zuko raised his eyebrows, and when Sokka gave a little head twitch, c'mere, he went across and sat down next to the other boy.
Just like that, the brooding scowl vanished and Sokka smiled easily at him. "When you're done jerk-bending tomorrow, ya wanna spar?"
Okay, that was random.
Zuko looked at the sword Sokka was honing before replying. The blade was clearly something special, something the likes of which Zuko had never seen before.
"Uh, sure, I guess," he replied. "If you don't mind my asking… what kind of blade is that?"
"It's a sword, doofus," smirked Sokka. "I know you've seen them before."
Zuko rolled his eyes. "That's not what I meant," he said. "I meant, it mostly looks like a Piandao, but I don't understand why anyone would stain the blade black like that." Or why anyone would be dumb enough to carry around a sword that looked that similar to a real Piandao creation, but he bit his tongue on that question.
"Ohhhh," said Sokka. "Well, first of all, it doesn't look like a Piandao, it is a Piandao. Which I helped forge. Second, it isn't stained, the metal is black naturally. You remember that meteor shower a little while back, just before the eclipse?"
"I remember," Zuko began – "wait. Are you telling me you used a fallen meteor? To forge a sword? With Master Piandao?" Sokka just grinned and nodded. "The Master Piandao? Most famous swordsman and sword maker in Fire Nation history?"
When Zuko could breathe again, he said, "Yes, I'll spar with you." This should be… something… he thought.
"Cool," he replied. "Just meet me here after you're done with Aang, I found a spot a couple days ago that should be perfect for gettin' busy without cutting anyone else's head off."
"Uh, sure," said Zuko.
Once Sokka had taken himself off to bed, Toph came over and flopped herself down next to Zuko. "You're all bent out of shape about something," she said.
"Sokka," said Zuko. He thought for a moment, trying to come up with something else, but couldn't. "He – Sokka."
Toph grinned. "Yeah, I know," she said, scrunching the rock floor between her fingers. "Lot of people react that way to him until they get used to him. I think he – no, I know – he likes being underestimated. He's learned to use the way people think of him, and he always – always – comes out on top when he does. He's pretty amazing."
Something in Toph's tone caught Zuko's attention. He looked at her, and sure enough, she was hiding a blush under those unruly bangs. Zuko smiled, but decided it wasn't his place to say anything. Besides, if he did pick on her she'd just find another way to get even with him, and he wasn't really looking forward to more of her style of payback.
Instead he said, "I don't think it counts as underestimating him… I don't think I can. He's too hard to get a handle on. I can't read him well enough to be able to underestimate him. Every time I think I've figured him out…" He shrugged helplessly.
"Ah," she said, "that part's easy."
"Sure," said Toph. "You know that toy that The Duke likes so much? Thing drives me crazy. What's it called?"
"It's a rubber ball," said Zuko.
"Okay, that," said Toph. "Sokka's like that rubber ball."
Zuko blinked. "What, you mean lopsided and exotic?" He couldn't help himself.
Toph snickered. "Not quite what I had in mind," she said. "More like… the reason it drives me nuts when The Duke bounces it around is because the shape is so weird, I have no idea where it's going to end up. I mean, sometimes the thing will bounce backwards, have you seen it?"
"Yeah," said Zuko. He'd seen The Duke bounce it for Momo to chase while Aang laughed himself silly. He'd also seen Aang chasing after it himself, but never mind.
"Sokka's a lot like that," said Toph. "He bounces around a lot, and doesn't always make sense to people. He's unpredictable, even to us. But the thing is, if you pick that ball up and throw it at a target, the shape doesn't matter. If your aim is good, you can really paste somebody with it." She grinned, evilly.
"Okay," said Zuko, "how is Sokka like that?"
"Easy," she answered. "When Sokka doesn't have a single project to work on, he's like the bouncing rubber ball. When he has something to give him focus – like the invasion, just for one example – he's more like the thrown ball. Pow! Nobody sees him coming until he's already struck."
Zuko leaned back on his elbows. "Huh. That… makes a lot of sense."
"I heard you guys talk about sparring tomorrow," she nodded. "Afterwards, you should ask him how long he studied under Master Piandao."
"So he really did meet the master? He wasn't just messing with me?"
"He really did," said Toph. "You ask him, and then go see Katara to have her fix your jaw, after you pick it up off the ground."
"I don't get it," said Zuko.
"Thrown ball," said Toph. "He decided he needed a master. He found one. Pow." She grinned again. "I'm not sure even Piandao saw him coming until after he'd already gotten smacked in the forehead."
Zuko lay awake for awhile after everyone else was asleep, thinking about Toph's explanation.
He decided it fit them all. He decided he liked it.