A Toph and Aang Interlude
Just like the wind takes the leaf from the tree
You always know how to dismantle me
And your sweet persuasion is making me weak
And that's a comment not a compliment
Maybe it's because Toph hadn't been around when this Zuko guy was the Big Bad, but she really doesn't get why everyone is so upset by him. Aang is still here, isn't he? So Zuko couldn't have been too successful in his "capture the Avatar" business.
Toph doesn't see the point in dwelling on the past. It's right now that matters, so they should be judging Zuko on what he says right now. Plus, she can tell that he's being sincere with her own feet. She believes him. (Even if he did burn her feet.)
But what is really interesting is how Sparky's pretty little firebender heart reacts every time Katara's around. At first Toph had chalked it up to general anxiety about joining the group, but upon further inspection his heartbeat goes haywire whenever Katara does anything.
That is fishy. Like, deep fried Unagi on stick with salmon-flavored fireflakes fishy.
The morning after is quiet and deceptively calm. Aang awakens to the sweet sound of bird song outside of his window. He sits up, trying to catch a glimpse of the little musical creature. All he sees is a quick flutter of wings and then nothing but the endless blue sky. His enthusiasm to see her must have scared her off.
Sighing, he swings his legs over. His bare feet hit cool marble. Getting up, he makes his way to the kitchen where Katara is surely preparing breakfast.
He meets up with Zuko in the hall. He can't help but start a little when he catches sight of the former prince. No one can blame him, right? After all, Zuko had only joined their group last night. Aang doesn't quite trust him yet, but he's going to give Zuko a chance. But he's learned that old habits die hard, and something passes over Zuko's face. It's gone in an instant.
"Are you ready to begin your firebending training?" Zuko asks gruffly.
Oh. This early?
"Could we have breakfast first?"
For a moment Zuko appears to deny him this meal, and then presumably thinks better of it. He nods, restraint pursing his lips.
They continue to the kitchen. Katara is there, just as Aang thought. Her eyes are closed, and she's humming under her breath as she stirs something in the pot with her bending.
The Avatar and the firebender take a few more steps closer, and that's when the smell hits them. Anng scrunches up his nose; Zuko can't help but let a vaguely disgusted grunt.
They can see that contents of the pot are mushy brown and white mess, with a few unidentifiable globs.
"What is that?"
The humming ceases. Katara's head snaps up. "It's just grain, along with some of the leftover dried fruit we had. Listen, don't stick up your nose because it's all we have and if you hadn't noticed, we're not exactly living the royal life."
She shoots Zuko a very pointed look with the last of her words. Aang gasps.
"Couldn't you have picked some berries or something? They're all around these parts, and—"
"Well I'm not a firenation native; I don't know what's poisonous and what's not—"
"Don't get all defensive! I was trying to make a suggestion!"
"Unless you're willing to jump down and get the stupid berries yourself, don't make any more 'suggestions.' I have more mouths to feed than ever, and I really don't need your criticism."
Zuko has a retort ready on his lips, but slumps his shoulders instead, defeated. Katara looks down as well, going back to her stirring. Her brow is furrowed, and she bends with sharp movements. Aang has never seen her be so nasty to anyone. He looks uselessly from Zuko and Katara, suddenly aware of the tension between them he had been unaware of thus far.
Aang quietly suggests that maybe he and Zuko could get breakfast later, and start firebending training right now. He agrees, and they walk down to the stone courtyard. They don't speak the whole trip down.
It doesn't make sense in his head. Why would Katara be so hostile to Zuko? While it's not like Zuko has earned any of the group's full trust, they are still willing to give him a chance. At least, most of them.
Katara isn't even going to let him try. She just shuts him down with sour words that Aang hadn't known she was capable of. When he asks her about it, Katara just shakes her head.
"He's firenation, Aang. He's their prince. He hunted us down for months and months. I had to put salves on the burns he caused me before I learned of my healing abilities. He's just – he's no good."
(He wants to mention that firenation people were just normal people, hurt by the war like everybody else. He wants to mention that Zuko's the banished prince, who then abandoned his throne and country. He wants to mention of all Zuko's sincerity, and the look on his face walking down to the courtyard, the resigned sadness that lingered.)
It makes Aang uncomfortable to see Katara being so unfair to Zuko; to hear the harsh edge to her voice and the anger bristling in her spine and shaking in her knuckles. It's like the puzzles the nomads gave him as a kid; the pieces slowing coming together to create waterfalls and gliders and treetops. And now it's like someone is shoving a piece in the wrong spot and Aang wants to seize her hand and force her to where she's supposed to be.
No, you're not supposed to be like this. Katara shouldn't act like this.
"Katara," Aang says at last, "everyone else is willing to look past all of that and give Zuko a chance. You should too. You're kinder than this. You should find it in your heart to forgive him."
Katara looks at him then, her brow furrowed, slight irritation flashing across her face. In that moment she looks old; like a grown up. Eventually she nods, but Aang is sure she just does it to please him.
Later that night, Toph enters the kitchen in order to corner Katara. Toph can detect the soft splashes of Katara doing the washing up.
"So what's up with you and Zuko?" Toph demands, apropos of nothing.
Katara grunts. "What's up? You mean, like what's up besides the fact that he's tried to kill all of us on a regular basis and we're just letting him stay with us and cooking his meals and cleaning his fucking laundry?"
"No," says Toph, testily, "what I mean is you're unnecessarily bitchy to him. And you only do that when it's something personal."
"Is attempted murder not personal enough for you?"
Katara's voice rises, getting a little shrill. Toph hopes this doesn't turn into another screaming match. Really now, she just asked Katara one simple question. There's no need for all of this.
"Toph, it really isn't any of your business!"
Ha. That's funny. Like Katara doesn't make everything her business.
"What happened when you were the crystal catacombs, then, huh?"
There's a clang. From the vibrations, Toph guesses it must have been a plate that Katara has dropped. The water bender sputters, "Why would you even think something happened there –and nothing did!"
"Cause it's the only time you guys were alone, unless you've been lying to us and had some secret love affair in Ba Sing Se."
"Oh, yeah, it's all coming back to me now. Yes, my treasured romantic rendezvouses with my most despised enemy."
"Well you wouldn't be reacting this way if there was nothing! Some did happen in the catacombs!" Toph accuses, just going for it. Just to get some reaction out of her.
"Oh spirits help me, Toph, no! There's nothing between Zuko and me! Sure, we talked in that cave. Sure, I thought he might have turned good. Well, I was wrong!"
Katara's voice is harsh and cutting. Anger. Toph widens her eyes. She hadn't expected that strong of an emotional reaction.
And with fierce determination Katara says, "I'm not making that mistake again."
Toph's ears perk up – there's a pressure just outside the door. There's feet outside the door, feet like Sokka's but with nimble footsteps like Aang's; a new pair of feet Toph is still getting used to recognizing.
"Heard all of that, Sparky?"
A sheepish firebender ducks through the door. "Not, uh, all of it." His heart rate spikes; Katara must have glared at him.
There's an awkward silence; Katara is saying nothing and Zuko seems reluctant to offer any explanation for his presence.
Finally, he says, "Um , well, I was just wondering if you needed help with the dishes. I can keep you warm."
Toph raises her eyebrows.
"No! I mean, I mean, I meant – keep your water warm. Not you."
The poor boy coughs.
"Uh, I'm good. I don't need anything from you," Katara says, her tone turning a bit sour at the end.
Zuko huffs, and says in a pretty convincing imitation of stroppy Katara: "You know, I'm just trying to reconcile—"
"You're wasting your time," Katara declares.
There's a moment of perhaps indecision on Zuko's part before he simply stalks over to the sink and plunges his hand into the dishwater, warming it whether Katara likes it or not.
"Eugh, gross! Now your firenation germs are in my dishwater!"
"It's dishwater! It's already dirty! And my hands are perfectly clean!"
"Oh no, I bet you have soot and crap all over your palms—"
"That's rich, coming from a waterbender. You're always tracking dirt and smelling like wet pigdogs—"
"Did you just call me a bitch?"
Eventually Toph has to leave the room, due its distinct lack of maturity. Which for Toph, is saying something.
Aangs watches Katara interact with Zuko over the next weeks, silently scrutinizing them and wishing hopefully for a reconcile. It never comes. Katara is brash and malignant and makes it her personal duty to make Zuko's life as hard as possible. Zuko's response to her hostility ranges from indignation to annoyance to regret.
And yet, they get along. They are periods of near friendship between the two of them. They do the dishes together; he's brings her a moon peach as a peace offering. He makes a terrible joke and she almost smiles.
In one almost tender moment, Zuko admits that he doesn't actually think she smells like a pigdog; a confession which confuses Aang greatly.
It's better than nothing, Aang thinks, and is glad.
And then the time comes where Zuko and Katara leave in the middle of the night, and Katara is angrier than ever. Aang still doesn't understand where this girl came from, how long she has existed inside of the girl he adored. More than anything, he wishes she would go back to who she was before.
The days without Katara or Zuko are leisurely. There is no one to lecture Aang from slacking or Toph from picking her toes. Suki, rather than scolding him, laughs at Sokka's antics. He beams at her happily in return.
When Zuko and Katara come back, everything changes. And Katara steps past Aang and forgives Zuko, finally, officially. He could have never expected what would come next.
Toph thought the antagonism was bad, but the mushy lovey-dovey friendship is so much worse. Now whenever they are near each other they are all aflutter and standing unnecessarily close to each other and hugging when they think no-one is looking. Seriously, they are fooling no one with this platonic shit.
Even Sokka can see it, which is saying something because he isn't necessarily perceptive when it came to these things. Some bitter string twangs inside her. (All those times she's hinted and hoped and ignored the welling disappointment.)
It doesn't matter. Suki is too fucking badass to be jealous of.
Aang can't help but think this whole forgiveness thing backfired on him a little bit. Of course he wants his friends to get along, but now Katara is laughing at Zuko's terrible jokes and smiling and touching him and it just isn't right. In the good old days Katara paid attention to him and laughed at his jokes and hugged him and he saw her first, Zuko has no claim to her at all.
What does she even see in him? He's all no fun and disciplinary and is always being a worry wart and going on about being inconspicuous and being dedicated and hard work.
Maybe she likes him because he is aloof. Aang has never gotten the hang of that.
But spirits – they had kissed! That must have meant something! It has to mean something.
It should, at least, he thinks, watching them from afar. (Her hand is on his arm; Zuko's trying not to react.)
"So, r'you gonna give her a little kiss before the big battle?" Toph says, nodding toward the general direction of Katara.
His heart jumps. "What?"
"Isn't that what big soppy romantic guys do when they leave the girl they like?"
"I – I am not soppy," his voice sputters endearingly.
"But you like her."
"No! I mean, yes—"
Toph raises her eyebrows. "Yes?"
"Yes, Katara's wonderful, but it's not like that."
"I bet you wish it was like that, though. What, did she shut you down and hurt your prettyboy feelings?"
He doesn't reply immediately.
It's okay. His silence tells enough. She's struck a nerve.
It's only in these moments she wishes she weren't blind. She wishes she could understand, wishes she could judge situations better before she goes and says the very worst thing possible.
She reaches for his hand, fumbling. He takes it.
"No, she didn't."
"We're not talking about this," he intones firmly.
For once, Toph backs down.
A/N: I am sorry this is so slow going real life is biting me in the butt. But here we flashback a bit and get Toph and Aang's thoughts as Katara's forgiveness of Zuko progresses.
Aang is having issues with Katara not complying with his idolized version of her. Toph is poking this situation with a stick just for shits and giggles.
Next time Katara's worst fears will be realized and Zuko will throw his Good Idea Bad Idea method out the window.