What do you want?
A bored, raspy voice crackles out from the drive-thru speaker, obscured by static and the swampy fuzz coating Sokka’s thoughts in happy little layers. Words and images on the lit-up menu display he’s attempting to peruse keep blurring into each other in geometric blocks of overlapping color, like one of those plastic kaleidoscope toys Katara used to get way too excited about. He can see the appeal now; light is pretty when it contorts like that, sparking up bursts of dopamine in his currently miswired brain. Feels good. He’s far too shitfaced to realize this doesn’t bode well for his ability to operate a vehicle.
Sokka sticks his head out the window. “Uhm, aren’t you s’posed to say ‘may I take your order?’”
No. What do you want?
“Oh. Really?” His tongue feels floppy, elongating syllables at random intervals. “‘Cause every other place always says ‘may I take your order,’ like for being nice to the customers.”
A pause. The seconds tick off the kaleidoscope menu in spurts, a fireworks display. Sokka’s head lolls against the ridge of the open window, his stomach rumbling mutinously. He could eat a horse. Hell, he would probably even consider cannibalizing himself if 24 hour drive-thrus weren’t a convenient, blessed reality. Desperate times and all that.
Then go to one of those places.
“I drove here though. Was so hard. Please, please help me.”
Um, are you okay? A definite note of concern now, distinct under layers of exasperation and the sort of longsuffering, vaguely suicidal resignation spawned from dozens of customer interactions far too similar to this one. Sokka may be smashed into oblivion, but he’s not so far gone that he can’t recognize a strategic advantage when he sees one. Unfortunately for both of them, it’s his execution that suffers.
“No.” He pauses to build anticipation, then punctuates the silence with a few hacked out, dramatic coughs. “I’m so, so hungry. Like ‘starving to death’ hungry. I can feel it in my bones. They - they have rickets.”
The man on the other side of the speaker must’ve huffed an irritated sigh directly into his headset, because it comes out a cascade of distorted, windy static. Sokka’s temples throb.
Great. What the hell do you want to eat?
“Mash ‘tato,” he gasps.
You mean french fries.
“Nuh. Mashed potatoes with gravy an’ steak.”
This is McDonald’s.
A stream of unintelligible noises jumble themselves out in a garbled burst. Sokka can just about catch a few very colorful swear words despite the pounding in his head.
I can get you a hamburger and fries. Alright?
“Why not mashed - ”
This is McDonald’s, you - . We don’t have mashed potatoes.
“Can you make some?”
That’s not my fucking job!
“Jus’ put some potatoes in a pot ‘n mash ‘em.”
Leave. You’re holding up the line.
“There is no line. It’s two AM.”
This is un-fucking-believable.
It takes a few more jaw-grinding minutes for Zuko to convince the idiot on the other side of the speaker system that ordering something actually on the menu or fucking off to KFC are his only two options. No, he will not hand-mash potatoes, he doesn’t even have potatoes - the freezers are well-stocked with pre-cut food in bulk plastic bags and that’s it. This isn’t a gourmet restaurant where things are concocted. That’s why he works here, after all, much to his father’s shame and his own eternal frustration.
The customer concedes enough to settle on a large fry, though Zuko was rather hoping for the ‘fuck off’ option. It quickly becomes apparent, however, that he wouldn’t have been able to make it to KFC anyway.
He doesn’t see the crash. He just hears something that sounds like a large object ramming into the chain-link fence surrounding the perimeter of the parking lot. As it turns out, that’s exactly what it is.
Zuko is far too ornery and disgruntled to seem like someone inclined toward showy heroics, but he’s been prone to impulsive rescue missions since he was a child. He remembers leaping into the pond behind his house in an attempt to recover the baby ducks Azula liked to hurl rocks at. It’s one of his better memories. The caustic exterior, on the other hand, didn’t develop until later, and though it’s not a facade, it never really eclipsed that childhood humanitarianism that now feels uncomfortably close to weakness.
As it is, he opens the drive-thru window and pokes his head out. There, to the right, is one of those sinister white vans usually associated with murderers and pedophiles. Zuko’s eyebrow skyrockets, though he supposes he shouldn’t be that surprised. There’s a dent in the fence from where the vehicle slammed into it, but there’s no way to tell, from here, the degree of damage to the van itself.
He sighs, vaults out the window in one fluid motion. It’s a snug fit, and his apron snags briefly on a piece of metal jutting out. He smoothes it back down and approaches the vehicle at a jog. The guy was annoying, sure, but Zuko really hopes he’s not dead. This is so above his paygrade.
It isn’t long before he draws near enough to see the man through the still open window of his van. His dark hair is pulled back in a weird little ponytail and he’s definitely alive, which is a relief, but Zuko can’t help but wish that he’d been knocked unconscious. At least then he wouldn’t still be trying to drive. He looks up briefly when Zuko approaches, gives a lopsided sort of wave, an idiotic grin on his face, and then nudges the gas pedal. The car jolts forward slightly, rattling the fence. Mashed Potato has forgotten how to reverse.
“Stop,” Zuko says, and grasps the side of the van as if trying to hold it in place. “You’re going to kill yourself.”
“Doesn’t matter,” Sokka slurs, but his foot leaves the gas. “Aang’s gonna kill me an’way when he hears I crashed his baby.”
Zuko doesn’t know who in their right mind would consider this beat up piece of junk their baby, but he has more pressing concerns than someone’s attachment to an inanimate object. If Mashed Potato had any sense, he would too. “Then get out of the car before you crash it even more.”
Sokka really looks at him now, more than the brief grin he threw Zuko’s way while testing the merits of tapping the accelerator. His eyes are immediately drawn to the scar, like everyone’s always are, and Zuko can see the moment recognition hits him, like it always does. He glowers and breaks eye contact as Sokka’s mouth gapes open, and wonders, not for the first time, what the fuck he’s doing with his life.
Apparently the idiot is so surprised that his foot drops reflexively back down and the van jolts against the fence again, nearly crushing Zuko’s toes in the process. Zuko swears and jumps backwards before wrenching open the car door, wrapping his fingers around Sokka’s forearm like a metal claw, and pulling. Hard.
“Dude, what the fuck?” There’s a bit of panicked flailing as Sokka attempts to extricate himself from Zuko’s iron grip, but he keeps tugging until Sokka is tumbling onto the pavement in a floppy, undignified heap. He wasn’t wearing his seatbelt, which makes extracting him easier, though it definitely made the crash impact harder. Plus one for Angry Jerk, minus one for Mashed Potato. Zuko leans into the car, Sokka’s car, shifts the gear into park, and removes the keys from the ignition, pocketing them. Sokka’s mouth gapes open for the second time in just about as many minutes. The audacity. “What the fuck?” he repeats.
“You’re a fucking idiot. I’m not letting you drive.”
Sokka leans his head back against the pavement. It’s distinctly uncomfortable. He’s nauseous and his temples are pounding even worse now. It feels like his brain juice got all shook up when he hit the fence. He’d been trying to make a left turn toward the second window but forgot that required physically turning the wheel rather than just thinking about it. Shit happens, only Aang won’t see it that way, and honestly Sokka can’t blame him. He shouldn’t have been driving, he’s aware of that now, but that doesn’t give the jerk at the drive-thru who also happens to be the jerk son of Ozai - multi-millionaire Michelin Star Ozai with the TV show appearances - the right to take his goddamn keys.
“You’re carjacking me. ‘Is a felony.”
Zuko looks down at him incredulously. His eye twitches. “Right, because driving under the influence isn’t. And I’m not trying to steal your car.”
“It’s not,” Sokka slurs, petulant. “Jus’ a misdemeanour.”
“You seem to know a lot about that.”
“I know a lot ‘bout a lotta things. I’m well educated.”
Sokka blinks blearily up at the scarred face. It’s doing the kaleidoscope thing, going in and out of focus, red patch twirling through the haze of white like a pinwheel.
“You don’t look too well.” There’s a real note of concern in Zuko’s voice. If Sokka could focus better, he would’ve been able to read it on his features too. “What did you drink? Or take? Should I call an ambulance?”
“No!” The protest comes out louder than he intended, volume bolstered by his enthusiasm for not being arrested. He winces as the sound ricochets inside his skull. “I’m… I, uh...I don’t have health insurance.”
Zuko sighs, crouches down, presses the palm of his hand against Sokka’s forehead like Katara would. Sokka swats at it. “Can you walk?”
Sokka murmurs noncommittally. He’s distracted by the moon, which is almost full tonight, throwing its light down onto them like a glitter bomb. It’s made all the more brilliant by the hazy cradle of inebriation that’s buoying him. The sparkling reminds him of the way Suki’s eyes alight with mischief, the only warning he ever has that she’s planning on trying to dropkick him. Ah, girls.
“My girlfriend turned into the moon,” he observes, pleased by this. It makes sense to him.
It does not, however, make a lick of sense to Zuko, who grimaces and reaches into the pocket of his slacks for his cell phone. “I’m calling an ambulance.”
This takes Sokka’s attention off moon/Suki parallels faster than a cop could say ‘DUI.’ “No, wait,” he hedges. He fixes Zuko with his best puppy dog eyes. They are big and blue and expressive, he’s been told. No one can withstand them. Zuko spares him a glance, rolls his own, and unlocks his screen.
“I can, um… I can, er, pay you? Not to call an ambulance?” The suggestion doesn’t come out near as confident as he intended, in part because Zuko’s dad already has millions of dollars, thus making bribery an unlikely enticement, and in part because Sokka himself has no money to speak of. In his defense, he’s having a hard time thinking things through right now. Whatever comes out is whatever comes out.
That one unburnt eyebrow on Zuko’s face shoots up, calling to mind a fuzzy moth caterpillar who tragically lost its mate in a forest fire. “Are you trying to bribe me?”
“Umm,” he drawls. “If I say yes, will it work?”
“How much money do you even have?” Zuko tries to convince himself he’s only asking out of incredulity, not because part of him would be tempted to accept the offer. It’s clear Sokka recognizes him, knows who his family is. Most people assume he hasn’t been as thoroughly disowned as he has and therefore wouldn’t bother trying to dangle money over his head.
In reality, he’s been cut off from his father’s fortune entirely and cast out to a dingy, barely affordable flat on the bad side of town. He had quickly discovered that paying his way through college while scraping enough money together for electric bills, car insurance, and the amount of groceries required to keep his heart beating wasn’t feasible. He’d been forced to drop out of college and abandon his political science major, the one thing in life he’d shown a real affinity for.
It had been a significant point of contention for Ozai, that Zuko might want to pursue his own interests, exercise some degree of autonomy rather than try to be a carbon copy of his father. They’d argued about it endlessly, though Zuko couldn’t for the life of him understand why. He burned everything he touched, and was just as likely to slice his own fingers off as dice vegetables. Ozai was more than aware of this. He yelled about it all the time, bemoaning the fact that Zuko hadn’t been born with the ‘culinary spark,’ whatever the fuck that was.
Azula, on the other hand, had. She was a little sous-chef in training, more than happy to accompany Ozai on his Food Network features, happy to be praised, happy to be perfect. It was clear she was the one who’d be gifted the dubious honor of following in Ozai’s footsteps, maintaining the integrity of his reputation once he retired, carrying on his business, living up to his standards. So why then did Zuko have to be forced to try? It didn’t make sense to work toward something he didn’t want, and which his father never even intended to give him in the first place.
At least I didn’t burn my own fucking son , Zuko had yelled once, after Ozai dragged him out of the restaurant kitchen to berate him for burning an entire tray of puff pastries during crunch time. That was the last argument they’d had, because Zuko was disinherited soon after.
Even now, he still burns french fries.
“Well, I - ” Sokka begins, hands twitching. Zuko tries not to think about how late his rent payment is. “I kinda don’t have any money on me righ’ now.” He grins sheepishly. Zuko has never seen anyone make a more stupidly infuriating expression.
“What? How were you expecting to pay for - ” he glances back at the van. Realization clicks together on his face, setting it into a suspicious, semi-uncertain scowl. “I knew normal people don’t drive that sort of thing.” He points at it accusingly, his other hand holding his phone in a vaguely threatening manner. “Do you have weapons in there or something?”
“Wha-? Why woul’ I rob McDonald’s for some mashed potatoes? You really think - ”
“You wouldn’t be the first. Minus the mashed potatoes part. I guess even armed robbers aren’t that stupid.”
“I really don’t wanna get arrested,” Sokka mutters.
“Wait, so you do have weapons in there?”
“What? No! Jesus. I jus’… I don’t wanna get arrested for drunk driving. You know? So I’d really prefer if you didn’t call an ambulance.” Sokka squints up at the moon like he’d have better luck asking it for leniency instead. “That okay?”
Zuko turns his gaze beseechingly toward the few stars still visible through all those city lights. He’s never been bright like that. He pockets his phone and reservations both, because fuck it, and offers Mashed Potato a hand he definitely doesn’t deserve. From one dull star to another.
“Can you walk?”
“Wouldn’t count on it,” Sokka says, and grabs on.
Zuko deposits Sokka’s stumbling form across a sticky red booth near the back of the restaurant. Customers tend to drive through at night, but on the off chance someone does wander in, it would be best for Sokka to be well out of the way of them, given he’s drunk, unsightly, and entirely unpredictable. Anything else is a lawsuit waiting to happen.
“Oh great, another charity case.” Mai is leaning against the counter at the front, regarding both of them in that impassive, monotone way of hers, curiosity disguised as sarcasm or reprimand. Zuko hears the statement for the question it is.
“He drove himself into the fence. He’s shitfaced and stupid. I couldn’t just leave him there.”
“Shitfaced yes, stupid no,” Sokka corrects, then raises his hand high above his head in an exaggerated wave. “Who’s the lady?”
“That’s my girlfriend.”
“What do you mean ‘what really?’”
Mai quirks an eyebrow in dismissal and disappears into the backroom. She isn’t interested in the intricacies of male bonding and nor does she have much room to talk when it comes to charity cases. Zuko is one too, after all, one she couldn’t turn away. She’s known him since childhood, since before the development of their respective facades, and though she would never say as much, she’s never lost sight of what’s underneath.
Nonetheless, love is a boring, tiresome thing. She has no reason to work here; she’s not disinherited, and nobody signs up for fast food night shifts because they look good on a resume. She is merely putting up with the tedium in order to keep an eye on him, keep him company in that paradoxical avoidant-dismissive way of hers, which includes copious resting bitch face and disappearing to the backroom so he can try to make friends.
“Seems gloomy,” Sokka says, once Mai has vanished from view.
Zuko fixes him with a serious look. It’s unsettling. “Yeah, she is.”
“Uh oh. Wha’ does that face mean? Did I insult your girlfriend?”
“It means stay there and don’t try to get up. I’m going to get something.”
“Go for it, dude,” Sokka yells at his retreating back. “Go get some from your gloomy girlfriend!”
Sokka stays put because he wants to, not because Zuko told him to. It’s cozy on the booth and he’s so tired, and even if he weren’t, it’s not like he has any way of leaving without his keys. He’s watching streaks of color undulate behind his closed eyelids when he hears the rhythmic thud of what can only be Zuko’s returning footsteps.
Sokka’s eyes, which are already closed, crinkle shut even more in defiance.
“I’m not ‘sleep,” he mumbles.
“I brought you something.”
Sokka doesn’t reach out to take it, so Zuko throws it directly into his chest. It’s heavy and solid, whatever it is, thunking against his ribcage in a way that will definitely leave a bruise, and Sokka yelps and jerks his eyes open. There, on his lap, is a bottle of water.
“Whatever.” Zuko deposits a large carton of fries on the table in front of him. Any righteous indignation about being stoned with bottled water vanishes instantly. Sokka might just be in love. Platonic love. With french fries.
“Dude. You’re the best.”
“Yeah, well…” Zuko rubs the back of his neck and avoids eye contact. There’s a light pink hue to his face, clashing terribly with the red blotch perma-etched around his eye. “It’s not mashed potatoes.”
Sokka raises the bottle of water and smashes the base of it down into the carton like a pestle. He repeats the motion, mashing furiously and with unprecedented gusto. Zuko gives him an unimpressed look but doesn’t say anything, just slides into the seat across from him.
“How’d you get this fucked up?”
“I was at a party. Didn’t mean to drink though. Was the designated driver.”
“Right. You didn’t choose the alcohol, the alcohol chose you.”
“I mean, kinda.” The french fries are mostly pulp now. He has made quick work of it, crushing them into salty, indistinguishable blobs. They’re more crumbled than creamy, but beggars can’t be choosers. He swipes a finger through the mush and brings it to his mouth. Zuko’s lip curls in disgust. “There’s this guy my sister likes, Jet. He’s a cunt so I didn’t wanna let her go alone. Was his party.”
“And then you decided to get shitfaced?”
“No, Jet kept offering me stuff and I kept saying no, ‘til he was like, ‘here’s cactus juice, it’s non-alcoholic.’ So I thought, why not?”
“Dunno. Was thirsty.”
Zuko is looking at him with some mix of incredulity and distaste, like he can’t believe he’s sitting across from someone so stupid.
“You drank an unknown substance from the cunt your sister likes? I’m pretty sure she wasn’t the one who needed protecting.”
“Can you not say ‘cunt my sister likes?’ And he told me it would quench me.” The words come out garbled around a mouthful of DIY mashed potatoes. He’s just about inhaled the entire carton. It sits comfortably in him, a settling presence against the spinning in his stomach and head alike. He feels marginally more sober now.
“It would quench you,” Zuko repeats, leveling Sokka, once again, with a look of utter disdain.
“I was thirsty, okay?”
“Right. So was it just alcoholic or did he drug you?”
“I don’t know,” Sokka says.
Zuko sneers at him in response, which really isn’t fair. He’s aware that he was too trusting of the very person he was meant to be suspicious of in the first place, but there’s a difference between a jerk who’s inexplicably good with the ladies and a psychopath who roofies people. He’d been expecting the former, not the latter. “Why’re you acting like this is my fault? I’m not happy ‘bout it either.”
There is something real in the last admittance, now that Sokka has stopped hiding behind stupid grins and bluster. His elbows are on the table, palms pressed against his forehead and kneading frustrated little circles. He looks sad, overwhelmed maybe. Zuko tears his eyes away abruptly. It feels wrong to witness, like he’s intruding on a moment that should be private. Sokka may be obnoxious, but he did just get into a car accident after being unwittingly drugged by the person he was trying to protect his sister from. Ostensibly, since he was the designated driver and the vehicle’s not his, he took the only getaway car on his munchies-fueled quest for mashed potatoes. Which means his sister is now stuck at Jet’s house, on top of everything else. It’s not an enviable situation.
“How bad do you feel?” Zuko asks, having the grace to look contrite. “We don’t know what you ingested. It could be something serious. I can still call an ambulance.”
“I don’t want - ”
“ - to get arrested, yeah, I know,” Zuko finishes for him. “But drugging someone is a worse crime than driving under the influence, and there’s probably some legal clause for extenuating circumstances like these anyway, where you didn’t know you were intoxicated in the first place. And it’s not like you injured anyone when you crashed.”
Sokka shrugs noncommittally. “I feel a bit better now, actually. I think I’m starting to come out the other side. I’ve had bad trips before, lemme tell you, and this was a relatively good one.” A pause. “I’m just worried about my sister. I mean, Aang is with her, but still.”
“Have you tried calling her?”
“I lost my phone,” Sokka admits. “I don’t think Jet took it. It was gone before then.”
Zuko lends him his, but the call goes directly to voicemail. He can see the panic in Sokka's eyes, and thinks some degree of it is probably reflected in his own too.
No logical part of his brain is involved in prompting him to make the offer. Once he clocks out from his night shift, he will have precious little time available to him before his day job begins, and it should be spent sleeping, not rescuing a complete stranger’s sister. But Zuko has always been a sucker for injured ducklings.
“If you want, after my shift ends in about an hour, I can drive you to wherever your sister is, so you can check up on her.”
“What, really? You’re the best.”
“That’s the second time you’ve said that.”
“It’s the second time it’s been true.”
They fade into anxious silence. Sokka looks distracted, twirling Zuko’s phone in his hands in clumsy, mindless movements until Zuko grabs it back and pockets it.
“What’s your name?” It’s a stilted attempt at empathy. Zuko’s no good at reassurances, but this, at least, is a humanizing question. He can’t just keep referring to him as ‘Mashed Potato’ in his head.
“Sokka. And you’re Zuko, right? Ozai’s son.”
“What’s it to you?”
“You know, you’re really bad-tempered for someone so nice.”
“I’m not nice.”
“Well, thanks for being so not nice that you gave the armed robber free potatoes.” Sokka grins at him. The expression looks more playful than stupid now.
Zuko’s mouth quirks, finally returning some hint of geniality, and Sokka, ever clumsy, blunders headfirst into the best way to ruin the moment.
“So, how’d you get this fucked up?”
“What do you mean?”
“Shouldn’t you be off souffleing oysters and eating lots of fancy food that secretly tastes like shit?” It’s an impressive sentence for an inebriated person, lots of syllables, and it comes out sounding clearer than anything he’s said all night. His judgement, however, is still markedly impaired.
Zuko grimaces. “It’s no secret.” he says, and Sokka isn’t sure whether he’s referring to how disgusting gourmet food is or the reason for his McDonald’s demotion.
“So what happened?”
“I was disinherited and kicked out.” The words are spoken through gritted teeth. It’s an open wound and not one that Zuko likes to talk about. Most people have the consideration not to poke at it.
“Well, shit. What did you do?”
Sokka has an impressive knack for hitting the nail on the head in the worst way possible, because that’s the question Zuko asks himself on a regular basis. The answer, of course, is just another question - what didn’t I do? - but Zuko hisses out a different one instead. “Want to rephrase that?”
“Uhh… why did that occur?” Sokka tries, a noble attempt to take the hint.
“I can’t cook.” His voice blanks on the admittance. “And I’ll never stop being a disappointment.” It’s the most honest he’s been in a long time to anyone other than Mai. He isn’t sure what’s motivating him to be so open, especially considering he doesn’t know Sokka, doesn’t particularly like him, and still thinks he’s a hapless idiot. Maybe that’s all the motivation he needs. It’s a scary thought.
“Damn,” Sokka says, pauses. “Your dad sounds like a piece of shit. I guess he’s different at home than he is on TV.”
“He only cares about his image.”
“Yeah, seems that way.” Sokka rubs the back of his neck. Zuko crosses his arms and studies the wall. They know too much about each other now without actually knowing anything at all. It’s weird and hard to navigate.
“So,” Sokka says, when the silence grows more awkward than he can bear. “How’s living like the rest of us?”
Zuko sputters, indignant. It’s very easy, Sokka thinks, to get a rise out of him. “Fuck off. Your living situation is better than mine if you have time to party with your sister’s boyfriend.”
“He’s not her boyfriend.”
“Oh sorry, your boyfriend.”
Sokka grimaces comically and flings his arms out in denial, the hypocrisy of his thought about Zuko being easily antagonized altogether lost on him.
“I have a girlfriend! Her name is Suki and she’s really pretty.” Prettier than Mai, he thinks but doesn’t say, because he’s not looking to get his ass kicked. Zuko seems like he’s all bark and no bite, but he had no qualms about wrestling Sokka out of the van, and it’s better to be safe than sorry.
“Sure you do. And she turned into the moon, right? Very believable.”
“They both sparkle. Look, I’m high on cactus. Cut me some slack.”
“Wouldn’t want to be mean to a disabled person,” Zuko mumbles.
“Pretty sure you’re more disabled than me.” Sokka is not the sort of person who lacks tact, generally speaking, and he wouldn’t normally go this route. But engaging in banter while intoxicated tends to make obvious danger signals look more like flimsy ‘keep off the lawn’ signs. Plus, Zuko just called the guy who drugged him his boyfriend, and Sokka is entitled to vengeance.
“If this is an IQ joke…” Zuko begins, but tapers off when he realizes Sokka is pointing directly at his left side.
“Weren't you so bad at cooking that you burned half your face off?”
Sokka isn’t sure what he expected. He would’ve had to think to expect, and his mouth has been doing its best to bypass his brain all night. Suffice to say, the reaction is far more exaggerated than he’s prepared for. Zuko flinches back like he’s been struck, his mouth dropping open in shock. He then stands, wrestles his face under control, stiffens his posture, and slams Sokka’s keys down onto the table with far more force than necessary, making Sokka, the carton, and the empty water bottle jump.
Sokka watches, shocked into silence, as Zuko marches back toward the counter, his back so straight he’d give Hakoda, a naval officer, a run for his money. He doesn’t spare a single glance behind him, just retreats into the backroom Mai disappeared to previously. It’s clear that Sokka’s been thoroughly dismissed by both of them.
He sinks down into the booth, guilt twisting his insides in a way that makes him miss the nausea. That had sounded way less offensive in his head, and he’d had no way of knowing Zuko would take it like this. Admittedly, the reaction isn’t that unwarranted. Zuko did go out of his way to help both him and his sister, and Sokka repaid him by mocking the very large, very grotesque scar covering half his face. It’s a low blow, literally adding insult to injury, and Sokka feels like an utter piece of shit.
The offer to drive him to Katara and help extricate her from Jet’s clutches, if indeed she’s fallen into them, has clearly been rescinded, but Sokka can’t leave without at least apologizing. He isn’t really sure how he’s going to leave, come to think of it - he has no money to pay for an Uber and no phone to make the call even if he did, and he doesn’t trust himself behind the wheel of Aang’s baby yet either. So maybe apologize and get back on Zuko’s good side is the plan, and if the former leads to the latter, well, all the better. Just because he has ulterior motives doesn’t mean he’s not sorry.
“Problems with the charity case?” Mai asks when Zuko comes stomping into the backroom, face closed but eyes stormy with barely latent inner turmoil. It rests so close to the surface to begin with that it doesn’t take much to make it bubble over. Because of this, Zuko has always been terrible at social interaction - it’s hard to make friends when you have so many landmines for them to stumble over.
His hand settles reflexively on his scar in answer, tracing the ridge of it. Mai doesn’t know what happened, but comments that result in that turbulent, far away look in his eyes are a common enough occurrence for her to be able to guess.
“Don’t take it personally,” she says, and pulls his hand away from his face. She’s the ice to his fire, tempering his emotions, his reactions. It works for them, more or less, as well as mutual dysfunction ever can. “Who cares what people think.” She has a talent for being impervious to judgement or she wouldn’t have been able to choose Zuko over her parents’ approval. It’s the natural result of pretending not to give a fuck - eventually, pretense turns into second nature, and second nature becomes reality. Zuko hasn’t mastered this, but then again, that’s what she likes about him. It feels warm.
She presses her lips briefly to his cheek. She can’t linger like that - platonic affection always feels too tender - but some degree of sentimentality is necessary for Zuko’s sake, and for her own too, if she’s being honest. Azula had once told Mai that Zuko has mommy issues, soon after Ursa left but long before things completely fell apart. Azula had thought she’d found some diabolical secret that could be used to control him. And it can, more or less, just not in the way Azula thought.
Sokka takes this moment to pop his head around the corner. The fact he’s managed to amble over so quickly shows an impressive degree of dedication, though he’s not as wobbly as he was when Zuko was dragging him in from the parking lot. He has the puppy dog eyes out.
He glances from Zuko, who’s scowling, to Mai, who’s regarding the scene with a veneer of mild disinterest, and then back again, and gives a sort of nervous, rueful half smile. “I, uh… I shouldn’t have said that. I just, uh - ”
“Do you really believe,” Zuko grits out, voice dangerous, “that I burned my own face in a cooking accident?”
“Umm…” Sokka stands wide-eyed and frozen, unsure how to navigate a situation so fraught with danger and fully aware of his own capacity for misstepping. His head’s still too fuzzy for this and he’s missing virtually any context that might help him out. He knew Ozai’s son has a scar, was able to recognize him by it, but there had never been any sort of official press announcement regarding how he got it. And yeah, he just assumed Zuko was in some sort of self-inflicted grease fire accident. Most people do.
He looks to Mai on instinct. She shakes her head imperceptibly. “No? I mean, I wouldn’t have asked… if I believed it?”
Zuko’s scowl deepens, turning into something blistering. “Right, you asked because the possibility never crossed your mind.”
“You called me disabled! If you can’t take it, don’t dish it out.”
“I don’t give a fuck about being called disabled,” Zuko half-snarls, half-yells. “You accused me of burning my own fucking face!”
Sokka looks to Mai for help again but she’s busy looking at Zuko, who’s still glaring at him with the power of a thousand suns. It’s like one of those comedic triangles in the Shakespeare plays he read in high school. Though more a hate triangle than a love one at this point.
“No, I didn’t.” Sokka levels his voice, tries to sound calm. He dragged himself over here to apologize, not antagonize, and that’s what he’s going to do. Zuko may be overreacting, but that doesn’t mean both of them have to. “I asked. I just asked.”
“Well, the answer's no.” Some of the heat has dissipated from Zuko’s voice. He glances away. “I didn’t do that.” This part comes out soft, an afterthought, like he’s trying to remind himself.
“Alright,” Sokka says, still not comprehending what exactly he’s waded into. “So someone else did then?” It’s meant as a placation, to show that he’s listening, trying to understand the situation right, since Zuko clearly cares a great deal about how Sokka perceives this. Active listening, Katara had called it. It's so people know you're understanding them, she'd explained, ever passive-aggressive, after Sokka had zoned out during one of her endless monologues.
As it is, he only really registers the implications of what he's said after he says it. Is Zuko saying that someone else burned him? Accidentally or... ?
Zuko doesn’t reply but he doesn’t blow up again either, and that’s all the confirmation Sokka needs, really. Holy shit.
“It was Ozai.” It’s Mai who says this. She’s still looking at Zuko, like she thinks offering this piece of information will be helpful.
“Mai,” Zuko says at the same time Sokka says “wait, what?” If Zuko had known things would turn out like this, he would’ve left Sokka in the van and let him compare his bumper to the structural stability of chain-link fences until someone stumbled across him in the morning.
“Ozai burned him,” she says, matter of fact.
“Mai,” Zuko repeats. He has always been able to fit a lot of censure into one syllable. “Can you fucking not?”
“It seems like he wants to be friends, Zuko. It can’t hurt to tell him.” The subtext isn’t lost on him. You’re too defensive. Stop scaring people away.
“That’s rich, coming from you.”
Mai shrugs. “I have friends. And I’m not angry and full of secrets.”
“Wait,” Sokka interjects. “Can we just… rewind for a second? Did you say Ozai… I mean… What?”
Zuko ignores him in favor of his lover’s quarrel. “You have more secrets than I do. And you are angry. You just pretend otherwise.”
“I have friends,” Mai repeats, toneless. She gestures at Sokka, an understated flick of the wrist. “You could too.”
“Uh,” Sokka says. “Okay, but… did you say Ozai burned his face? On accident or…”
Mai shrugs. “Ask him. There’s a customer at the drive-thru.” And she walks out.
They are both sharp, in a sense, Zuko and Mai, and that’s about where the similarities end. Zuko’s sharpness is fiery - a heated chisel or an iron brand. Mai’s is evasive, like sheathed knives. He loves this about her, generally speaking, as an overarching personality trait, but not when she uses it to pull shit like this. There’s a certain entitlement inherent in creating messes just to walk away from them, and it never fails to piss Zuko off. She has a laissez-faire attitude about outcomes and no investment in following through, and it inevitably falls on him to attempt damage control. Attempt being the operative word here, because Zuko has always always been terrible at that. Mai, for all her indifference, because of her indifference, isn’t. It’s another example of that ever-growing intersection between caring and failure.
There isn’t anyone at the drive-thru, he doesn’t buy that for a second, but he’s too prideful to call after her. He just seethes instead.
“Um,” Sokka says, still very much out of his element, “you don’t have to tell me anything you don’t want to. I’ll admit, I’m very confused right now, but I only came over here to apologize for what I said earlier. I was just messed up and… I guess the cactus juice is affecting me more than I realized.”
Zuko sighs, rubs the bridge of his nose. He’s sleep-deprived and his head hurts. Not as bad as Sokka’s, probably, but it’s there. Sokka looks an uncomfortable mix of uncertain and vaguely horrified, and his gaze keeps slipping from Zuko’s eyes to his scar and back again.
“It doesn’t matter. You just said what everyone thinks anyway. Mai’s right. I don’t know why I give a shit.”
“Well, I mean, I know I’d be pretty upset too if my dad burned me, on accident or on purpose, I dunno, either way, and everyone thought it was self-inflicted because I’m terrible at heating things appropriately.”
Zuko looks at him, taken aback. “You would?” He appears genuinely bewildered, which Sokka can’t help but find baffling.
“Well, yeah. I thought I was stating the obvious, but I guess not?”
“I am terrible at heating things appropriately,” Zuko admits, “and that’s the only thing obvious to anyone. I’m not so dumb that I would try to put out a fire with my face. I don’t understand how you people can believe that.”
Sokka feels distinctly uncomfortable, because yeah, it doesn’t make much sense now that he thinks about it. The burn is fairly large but localized to one location, and open flame doesn’t concentrate, it spreads. Not to mention, a person attempting to put out a kitchen fire would probably end up with burned hands more than anything, and if it did get them in the face, their hair would catch and they’d be lit up faster than a firecracker. In all likelihood, that would be the end, and if it weren’t, they’d need one of those full-body skin grafts. Zuko isn’t one of those people, though it's probably a small consolation to him, all things considered.
“I think people just sort of take it at face value and - ” Sokka cuts himself off, braces for a reaction, and wonders if saying ‘no pun intended’ would make things better or worse. Zuko doesn’t take offense though, just twitches his eyebrow up, so Sokka continues. “- and don’t give it much thought beyond that. I mean, no offense, but it’s celebrity gossip - that’s how it’s viewed - and no official explanation was ever given. Can’t blame people for filling in the blanks themselves, you know?”
“Yeah,” Zuko says. He’s calmer now, but it’s a glum calm rather than a peaceful one, and his body language is tense. “That’s the story my father told too. That I did it to myself, I mean.”
“He did?” Sokka isn’t one to pay much mind to the sordid details of other people’s lives, but given Ozai is their city’s local celebrity, if there had been any sort of official statement to combat the vague suppositions and gossip, he would’ve heard about it.
“No, I mean, ” he glances down, embarrassed to admit this or embarrassed it happened at all. “To the hospital.”
Zuko can recall only vague snippets of that part of his life, like someone reached a spoon into his brain, scraped some of the memories out, and jumbled the rest into emotionally-fraught incomprehensibility.
The nature of memory obscures linearity, and the emotions inherent in them obscure it even more. The only details that stick are far too stuck - sensory impressions, wisps of feeling: the clean, institutional scent of hospital soap, the sweet smell of burnt flesh beneath scratches of gauze, fingers prodding at his face as his mind surrenders to agony and fear like a wild thing, the slackness of his body limp from pain medication, the futility of moving mirroring the futility of telling the truth.
For a setting meant to be conducive to healing, there had been a disturbing undertone of hostility. It doesn’t make sense to fill a building with bright lights that refuse to illuminate anything. But then again, very little does make sense. At least life has one constant.
“And they believed it?” Sokka asks.
“I don’t know, probably not, at least not the people who treated me directly. There’s a difference between fire burns and burns from heated metal. And no one has the pain tolerance to hold a hot pan to their own face long enough to create this.” He jabs at his scar. “Even if they’re the dumbest kid on the planet.”
“Holy shit, Zuko,” Sokka says for at least the third time that night, dumbstruck with horror. It’s sobering information, and not in a good way.
Zuko turns away, unable to observe Sokka’s unfiltered reaction. There’s a tone of almost awed disbelief in his voice, not because he thinks Zuko is full of shit, but because he doesn’t. It’s… oddly validating, and in that way nice, but it’s uncomfortably raw too. It makes what happened feel too real. He’s having a difficult enough time talking about this as it is without seeing his own pain reflected on Sokka’s face. It’s the sort of expression that would’ve been stuck on his own since childhood if he hadn’t figured out how to compartmentalize somewhere along the way. Compartmentalization, to him, is the process of converting hurt to anger.
Rage has anesthetic properties, after all. He was too young to understand that in the hospital, clinging to his trust in authority figures and convinced he ought to be repentant for having done two wrong things in a row. The first resulted in the burn. The second was saying that it had.
“They had to’ve called CPS then, right? Please tell me Ozai has a secret criminal record.”
“Yeah right. He just has a lot of money and a lot of connections. People were willing to look the other way. Happy to, for a price, and some people didn’t even need that much. They just figured it would be a shame to ruin his reputation over a ‘regrettable incident’ that resulted from his negligence and my stupidity, because he was so sorry about it.” The words are saturated in bitterness.
This was the point in Zuko’s life where he’d finally been forced to come face to face with the nature of reality. He had managed to hold onto idealism long past the point it was reasonable to do so, considering Ursa’s abandonment, but there are some things that shatter delusions and worldviews both. Being burned in the face is one of them, and having it swept under the rug has made picking up the pieces impossible.
And so Zuko’s childhood had melted away like so much baby fat. The tenets behind this new world he’d been thrust into were the same as the one he’d been living in all along. It was only his awareness of them that had changed. He’d learned then, how truth is subject to the whim of authority, ambitious people are necessarily sycophants, and kindness overlaps almost entirely with ineptitude and powerlessness. And it’s fine, it’s all fine. Kindness is a ghost anyway. Believing in it doesn’t guarantee you’ll ever see it. It has to believe in you first.
“That’s fucked,” Sokka says. He’s looking at Zuko with pity in his eyes, which is bad enough, but his eyebrows are furrowed in a way that makes it seem like Zuko’s life story just took a shit all over his rose-colored glasses, which is worse.
Zuko’s face twists around a sudden surge of irritation. “That’s life. So get over it.”
“No, it's not. That’s like… beyond child abuse. It’s criminal. Have you tried going to the authorities again? You’re an adult now, you could probably - ”
“Why don’t you go report Jet to the police? I can still call you an ambulance.”
“That’s not the same thing.”
“Yeah, it’s not,” Zuko says, almost spits, “because they’d actually believe you. I’m not going to beg people to give a fuck. I don’t care.”
Sokka doesn’t call out the last sentence for the obvious lie that it is. He doesn’t need to. Zuko ‘didn’t care’ so much that the misinformed opinion of a stranger at a drive-thru nearly gave him a conniption. Even now, his emotionality is conspicuous. The anger’s receded a bit, but the hurt replacing it is no less fervent. His voice is hard and certain, without weakness even when mentioning uncomfortable things, but it’s a little too tight. That eternal storm still rages underneath.
He definitely hadn’t begged Sokka to give a fuck though, so that part at least is true. He’d just reacted to Sokka’s indiscretion by trying to wash his hands of him. Of course, Sokka had followed, and now here they are.
“Yeah, but it’s sort of bigger than what you care about.” he says, and Zuko’s mouth twists downward a bit too sharply, like he’s been betrayed by similar phrases often enough to suspect it’s happening again. “Sorry, that came out wrong,” he amends. He is invested, now, beyond just making sure Zuko tolerates him enough to be willing to drive him to his sister and help him beat the crap out of Jet. Zuko may claim he doesn’t care despite the fact that all his actions suggest otherwise, but Sokka, at least, is willing to admit that he does. It’s nothing personal, it’s just human decency.
“I just meant it’s not right. It’s objectively not right for someone to get away with something like that, regardless of personal feelings about it. People need to know the truth about Ozai. I mean, I know no one was willing to press charges when you were a kid, but you could try now, or you could send an exposé to the New York Post or something. They’re a tabloid, they post a lot of unsubstantiated stuff, and - “
“What good would that do?” Zuko interjects. “It’s unsubstantiated. Everyone loves him. It’ll just make me seem like the greedy, entitled son who’s angry about being disinherited and making shit up to get revenge. That’s how he’ll play it.” He means this as a conclusion, a definitive bookend to Sokka’s prodding, but says it with a note of weariness rather than finality. It leaves a door open, one that Sokka can’t help but push.
“You can’t know that,” he says, ever the optimist, “unless you try.”
“People don’t get what they deserve, Sokka.” Zuko doesn’t try to defend this statement. He is too burnt out to attempt to convince stubborn people of obvious truths. It would be like trying to prove the sky is blue. Color isn’t something that can be described, it just is, and either you see it or you don’t.
“I got mashed potatoes,” Sokka says, like it’s a counter.
“My point exactly.”
“You gave them to me,” he adds, and yes, Zuko is aware of this, but why Sokka feels the need to point it out escapes him. “Because you were being nice.”
“Um…” Zuko regards him blankly. “You’re welcome.”
“Just because your dad’s a piece of shit and the justice system failed you as a kid doesn’t mean most people aren’t nice. I believe you, your gloomy girlfriend seems to believe you, other people would too. Not everyone, but probably not as few as you think.”
“Okay, but - ” Zuko begins, but Sokka ignores him. Just plows on, that earnest expression never leaving his face.
“You can’t be mad at the world for not giving you mashed potatoes you haven’t asked for. And maybe circumstances will conspire to make them hard to get, you know? Maybe you’ll drive to a place that doesn’t have them, or someone will think you don’t deserve them, or you’ll crash your van into a fence along the way, but there’s always someone who’s willing to be like, ‘okay, here you go regardless.’ Because it’s the right thing to do.” He smiles, full of conviction, like he really believes what he’s saying, like anything could be that simple. Like Zuko is the one who can’t see the sky is blue.
“Good people exist, you know. You’re one of them. And so am I.” He flings a hand out, thwacks himself in the chest in a way that almost looks stupid enough to ruin the moment. Almost.
Zuko looks at him, really looks at this hapless, naive idiot in front of him, the one who came crashing, quite literally, through his drive-thru due to an insatiable need for starch, and who has been weirdly sociable since. Not in a respectable way - nothing about him is restrained. It’s probably in part due to intoxication, but Zuko suspects that’s only drawing out a pre-existent personality trait as opposed to pulling a new one out of thin air. There is just something open about him, reflected in the way his body language spills out, a brightness. He sucks at being considerate, technically, which is fair. Zuko sucks at it too, but where Zuko only grudgingly cares despite himself, Sokka is proud to care, and he’s proud, maybe, of Zuko for caring too.
Sokka’s grinning in that playful way Zuko found infuriating at first, and still kind of does, but he can sort of see it how it’s intended now, how Sokka intends it to come across to him. Less stupid, more charming. And friendly.
“You read way too much into a carton of french fries,” Zuko says finally, but Sokka just smiles harder. Whatever expression that inspirational speech put on Zuko’s face has apparently blown his cover. “Alright,” he says. “I get it. The glass is half full, people are inherently good, I’m glad we had this conversation.” He doesn’t not mean that last part.
Zuko fishes his phone out of his pocket, swipes his thumb across the screen. It’s 2:58 AM. His shift ends at 3. An impish half-smile tilts across his lips, softening and sharpening his features, a paradox, a synchronicity.
“Let’s go rescue your sister,” he says.