Disclaimer: I do not own Avatar: the Last Airbender.
A/N: Yes. Even to my surprise, I am still alive. I apologize for my long absence. Hopefully, this latest chapter is just as well received as my previous installments.
As always, Artemis Rae has been a wonderful, and invaluable, help. My thanks also goes out to General-Rage, who has continued to support me and this story. You two are the best!
Darkest Before Dawn
Chapter Thirteen: Run
"I bet you are getting ink on your face."
"How would you know that?" he asked, tapping the pen against his cheek. He ignored the fact that she was right. "You're blind."
Toph sighed, and shoved him with a sharp, wiry elbow, right in the gut. "Because I know you too well, you idiot," she said. "You always get ink on yourself, usually on your face, when you think too hard."
"Never knew you'd accuse me of thinking too hard."
She shrugged. "Well, you do have your moments."
Sokka patted her awkwardly on the head, and playfully messed with the tousled bun on the back of her neck. "Thanks for the lovely, backhanded compliment, Toph."
"I do spoil you whenever possible," she said, offering him a grin.
"Yeah, I'd say. I have the bruises to prove it."
"It's not my fault if your delicate self can't handle a few love-pats."
"More like bone-shattering and crippled for the rest of my life love-pats. So if I never get a plan written today, it'll be your fault. You've broke my arm."
She laughed and did not look the least bit sorry for his troubles. Typical Toph. "How's it going so far, anyway?"
"Well, it's going."
"That bad?" she said.
"I haven't figured it out yet, really. I'm still working on it."
He glanced back at the sheet of parchment spread out across his lap, and most of the sheets and covers. Splotches and lines, crossed out markings and notes, and references to safe villages, landmarks, and hidden cabins dotted the length of the map.
"Now would you mind being quiet? I don't know, for once today? I'm trying to get something done."
"Sounds important," said Toph, yawning. She waved a finger in the air. "Very important, actually."
Sokka rubbed his temple with the heel of a hand. Bags pulled beneath his eyes. "It is very important. I'm trying to figure out our next course of action. A new plan, remember? We kind of need one."
"No kidding. Maybe we won't screw up this one, huh?"
"We'd better not. We're in enough trouble as it is. Now that the Agni Tachi, and probably our Royal Pain in the Ass, knows we're here, everyone and his mother will be on the lookout for us. I want to make sure we're not caught like we were back in Hi Do."
Toph picked at a toe. "Why not just get the hell out of dodge?"
"It's not that easy, and you know it. I want at least something resembling a plan. Plans mean security. Plans mean safety."
"Plans are boring."
A smile pulled at his lips. Sokka managed to push the impulse to laugh down into his gut, because he was determined to be the serious one of their dynamic duo. "If we rely on your "get the hell out of dodge" mentality, we won't be prepared for anything. I don't want to take any chances."
"So… You're coming up with an entirely new route for us to take? Not just a new plan, like you said a couple of days ago, but a whole new route?"
She did catch on quick sometimes.
"Yeah," he said. "I mean, it's unlikely the Swords even know about our first route. But-"
"You don't want to take any chances."
"Exactly, Toph. And planning a new, safe route… Well, that takes time."
Suitably satisfied that she had cleaned the toes of one foot, Toph moved on to the other. Sokka noticed that she was moving a lot better than she had in the past few days. This was the first time he had really had a chance to keep her company. The medicinal herbs Kaoru gave her made Toph very sleepy. She was only now getting less of a dosage, since she was healing.
"Wouldn't it be safer to just stay out in the countryside? Going into any town is going to be dangerous."
Sokka winced. This was the part of the new plan, or at least the beginning of one, that stuck in his craw. "I know. But the wilderness is tough to cross in this region. You and I could rough it, but Kaoru would have a difficult time."
"Yeah, she would. She's tough, but she's so tired, Sokka." Toph sighed. "She needs rest. I can risk a few things if it means helping her out."
"You are right, though." Sokka tapped the pen against his cheek again, and thoughtfully gazed over the maps. "The countryside is a lot safer than the cities in this part of the Fire Nation. That'll be truer now that we've got an even bigger price on our heads."
"Isn't it nice to be popular?" she said, with a smile that was equal parts endearing and scary. "I wonder if I have a nice wanted poster."
"You do. I saw one the other day, in the next town over. I put it with our supplies, so we can add it to your collection when we get back to the Temple."
Sokka cleared his throat, eager to get back on track. Toph had a bad habit of changing the subject just to annoy or tease him. Still, he was glad she did. Her good humor always restored his.
"Anyway, I'm not throwing out the country idea out completely. There's no way we can use the main road, and its surrounding cities, to the north anymore. It'll be watched by the Agni Tachi and all their little friends. So I'm working on a route that'll bypass all that, but keep us close to towns with safe-houses, where we can get supplies or aid during the trip, and won't be too hard on our lady friend."
Toph chuckled. "Sounds challenging," she said. "No wonder you're still working on this."
"You can say that again."
"Okay. Sounds challenging. No wonder you're still-"
Sokka dug a finger into her side, and grinned when he got her to roar with laughter. "You're an exasperating little brat, you know that?"
"But I'm your exasperating little brat! Agh, stop it Sokka!"
He tickled her until Toph threatened to kick him in the leg. Since she was getting stronger by the day, he heeded the warning and left off his torture. She had already hidden his jerky. How she had done that, confined to her room by Kaoru's orders, he still had no idea, but Sokka did not want to lose more of his precious possessions.
Toph stretched out her legs and scooted closer to him and his maps. Her fingers tapped the parchments, pressing down on the ink indentations of his scrawl. "Can I help?"
He pushed her hand away. "Stop that. You're messing it up. And sure you can help. Be quiet and don't bother me."
"That's not helping!" she said, wiping her ink-stained fingers on the hem of her shirt. Sokka figured she was not as ruffled by Kaoru's lectures as he was. "That's staying out of your way."
"And believe me, that is extremely helpful." Sighing, he unfolded another piece of paper. Lists and notes, all information on the immediate area, flashed before his eyes. "Look, Toph, this is sort of something you can't help me with."
Toph crossed her arms. "Reading, huh? But I'm learning to-"
"Yes. You are learning. Don't forget, I'm the one who taught you how to do that. But I can't make anything legible for later on if you smudge it up with running your fingers all over my maps!" He pushed a hand across her mouth. "Now, shush. Daddy is trying to work."
For a while, he thought he had convinced Toph to be quiet. He almost thanked her, aloud, and promised a cake to cheer her up, when he heard the humming. It was loud and very annoying, and worst of all off-key. Sokka found it hard to concentrate with the no-name song buzzing in his ears.
His constant companion was wearing a mischievous smirk.
"Toph, stop that!"
"But I'm bored, Sokka," she said.
"Then find a way to entertain yourself. And, no," he said, when he saw her about to say something, "annoying me does not count as entertainment."
"You'd think that, wouldn't you?"
"I can always leave, you know."
"You call that punishment? I'd think that'd be just as nice as you wanting me to be quiet."
Sokka felt a whine throb in the back of his throat. The girl seemed to sense his irritation, because she smiled and popped him on the shoulder with a tiny fist. It did not hurt nearly as much as it should have, and that was one thing about Toph's weaker state that he did not mind so much.
"Okay, okay, I'm sorry!" Toph laughed. "I'm just messing with you. C'mon, take a break. You've been at it for two days now. You'll wear yourself out if you're not careful, Sokka."
He worried the inside of his cheek, and determinedly glared at the map on his knees. The bright colors hurt his eyes. "This is important," he said, blinking to try and rid himself of that ache.
"I know. You told me. Just a few minutes ago, and I didn't forget. I'm smart like that. But you won't think of anything all that good if you're only half-way there up in that noggin of yours." She patted him on the arm. "Which you are now, by the way," she said. "I can tell. Take a little breather. It's not going to hurt anything."
Sokka released a long, drawling breath, and leaned back against the headboard of the bed. Sunlight, poring in from the cracked window, made him grimace, and so he crooked his neck the other way to avoid the bright glare.
"I guess so."
"Nah, you know I'm right. It doesn't have to be a long break. Just some time to rest your eyes."
He chortled, and wrapped an arm around her thin shoulders. "Rest my eyes? That sounds weird, coming from you."
"Hey! I rest my feet, you rest your eyes. Same difference," she said, laying her head on his shoulder. The close contact, something Toph usually avoided like the mad-plague, did not seem to bother her. "And then, when we're all badass again, we'll do awesome things. I bet you've already come up with a plan. You're just too tired to realize it right now."
"Maybe," said Sokka. He fought back a yawn that threatened to consume him. Taking a nap would not be that bad of an idea. It sounded a lot better than staring at maps and notices and messages all day. "We'll see."
"Some of us will see."
"Figure of speech, dear. Don't be so literal."
He closed his eyes. The warrior swore he heard his tired vision sigh with relief. The reprieve was instant and welcome. "This is nice. Thanks, Toph."
Toph chuckled. "Told ya," she said. "And you're welcome."
She left at that, and silence fell over the tiny room. The only thing Sokka could hear was their collective breathing, hers soft and gentle against his side, and the distant thrum of life in the town outside the window. His mind went into over-drive, as it always did, and he ran over everything that had frustrated and worried him over the past few days.
Pei had proven to be a nice place to stay while Toph recovered. Located in a rural valley, it was out of the way, and far, far away from any Agni Tachi prison. Its neighbors were equally quiet and ordinary.
But Sokka did not know how long they could afford to linger in the village. It wouldn't be smart to stay too long. Even the smallest of hamlets would not be hidden once the Agni Tachi caught a scent of their prey. It didn't help that the Fire Lord wanted this quarry, personally, and would push his followers to the ends of the earth to bring her back to the capital-city.
That scared Sokka more than anything. Of their small group, all of them fugitives, Toph was in the most danger by staying in the Fire Nation. Nightmares could so easily become reality now. She could, and would, be taken up by a dragon if he was careless. Another mistake like last time, and…
But could he, the consummate failure, really protect her from the might and power of the most powerful sect in the world, and their sociopath of a leader?
The warrior was glad he did not share a room with Toph. He was having that horrible dream a lot more often now. He sometimes peeked into her room to make sure she was still there. It tore him up inside to think, even for a moment, that he would lose her forever.
Until Toph got better though, or at least recovered enough to handle a little walking, he was not going to risk her health or what little progress she had made in the past six, going on seven, days. It made Sokka extremely antsy, knowing he had to stay put when all his instincts screamed at him to run for the hills, but it was the best course of action to take.
And so Sokka spent most of his free time working on a new plan. The last one had gone horribly awry, and although he knew it was not his fault (both he and Toph shared some of the blame), he still felt responsible for what had happened. Even Toph, with her uncanny ability to know just what was on his heart and mind, could not heal everything. She would never be able to argue away this last piece of guilty conscience, no matter how hard she tried.
Sokka knew that.
He had made a mistake. There was no changing that fact. The only way he could make up for his failure was to put every inch of his heart and soul into getting their tiny group out of the Fire Nation, one way or the other. They were counting on him.
The more he thought about it, the more his confidence wavered. What if he let them down again? Toph said she believed in him. Sokka was not so sure he was worthy of that kind of faith.
But it was that same belief that pushed him and encouraged him, and made him want to succeed, just this once.
There had to be a way out of this gods-forsaken place. If only there was some road that they could take, some secret path that would lift them away from all their troubles. As a man of science, Sokka knew there was always, always a way to fix something, anything! You just had to find the chink in the armor.
An old tune played in his head. Something about a secret tunnel through the mountain, and two lovers…
"Secret tunnel… Secret path…" Sokka's eyes snapped open and he sat up straight. "That's it, Toph!"
"What's what?" she mumbled sleepily. He had a feeling he had just woken her up from a dozing spell. "A who, what now?"
"The plan, silly, remember? The plan!" he said. "I think I might have just figured something out."
A snide smile flitted across her face. "Ha! What'd I tell you? You owe me a cake."
"I don't remember agreeing to get you a cake."
"You still could."
"You'll be the death of my wallet, you know. I've bought you more cakes than anyone in the history of… well, buying cakes."
Sokka dragged the maps back onto his lap, and began crossing out old ideas and routes, before hurriedly writing down the new plan. With each bold stroke, his confidence grew. "Now do you want to hear about this or not?"
"You know I do." She turned her face to focus on him. "So what're we going to do, oh master of the schedule and map?"
For once, he ignored the small ribbing. His entire being was too wrapped up in his discovery and the possibilities it had opened up for them. If this worked, they could be in the clear, and back, safe and sound, at the Western Air Temple.
They could do it!
"There is a road not too far from Pei," he said. "An old, little-used road, actually. It goes into the mountains for a while, but cuts back into the farmlands after a few miles. Actually, it leads straight to another road, and it winds along a part of this province that has some safe-houses along the way. Not many, mind you, but none of them are in a town or city. After a few days, it'll put us right back on our original route, but much further north."
"Okay… That sounds good. But why didn't we use this road in the first plan, if it's so wonderful?"
Sokka worked his tongue against the side of his mouth. "There is one big disadvantage with this route. It is a very roundabout way to get up north. As in, several miles longer than the main road we wanted to take. Ergo, it will be a much longer trip for us. If we decide to go this way, we'll be in the Fire Nation for a bit longer than we might like."
"Hm." Toph nodded, slowly, and toyed with a loose piece of bandage on her shoulder. "Hm…" She scratched the bandages.
Sokka immediately pulled her hand away, and made a grunt of disapproval in the back of his throat. "What are you thinking?" he asked. "I know it isn't that great of a plan, but it could work, and I really think we should consider it before throwing it out the win-"
"Sokka!" she said, interrupting him with a small shout. He clamped his mouth shut and looked at her. "I wasn't going to say we shouldn't do it."
"Then it's… a good idea?"
"I didn't say that either."
He glowered, and made every effort to enforce this little fact upon her. "Then what is it, pray tell?"
"It's crazy as shit, is what it is," she said. Then, with a blossoming grin that took hold of her entire face, Toph added, "But I like crazy as shit plans. Let's go for it, Sokka!"
Sokka smiled, crookedly, feeling oddly grateful for her offhand, rough around the edges, way of offering her support and believe in him and his idea. But was it all that shocking? Toph had always supported him, always.
"Okay, then. It's settled. I can't believe I didn't see this sooner…"
"What's it matter? You did, eventually. No use whining about it."
"You're right, you're right." With a dramatic flourish, he made the marks on the map. "Our path is set. All that's left to do now is go through with it."
"And when will we do that?"
He shrugged, and said, "I don't know. I still don't feel comfortable with moving you around just yet."
"I'm fine," said Toph, frowning defiantly.
"So says the girl who can barely sit up right now." He lifted up the pen made a tiny ink spot on her forehead. "We'll leave in a couple of days, when you're stronger. There's no sense in taking this long road if you won't be able to do it in the first place."
Toph rubbed irritably at the mark on her forehead. She only managed to make it worse, and Sokka barely controlled the urge not to snicker. "Okay, fine and dandy," she said. "But in two days, I will be ready to go again. Just wait and see!"
"I look forward to it. I really do miss you bullying me every single second of every single day," he said. Sokka folded up his maps, papers, and notes. He stood up from the bed and packed the important documents into his satchel. "Well, I guess I'll go make preparations for the trip. You should try and get some rest, Toph."
"Yeah, yeah…" She settled down into the pillows and closed her eyes. Sokka made his way for the door. But Toph surprised him again. "Wait… Sokka?"
"Huh?" He stopped, hand still on the door, and glanced at her from over his shoulder. "What is it?"
"Can I ask you something?"
Sokka smiled, unable to help himself. "You just did, Toph."
"Ugh! You know what I mean!"
"Okay, okay… Yes, you can ask me something. You know you can always talk to me, Toph, about anything."
He noticed the nervous, almost fearful look flit across her pale face. She suddenly seemed incredibly vulnerable and small. It worried him. His best friend hardly ever acted this way, and when she did it was serious.
"Toph… What's wrong?" asked Sokka.
"I…" Toph grimaced, her face twisting with some unknown emotion, and gripped at the sheets around her. "You know… I can't remember much of what happened those three days I was out."
He shrugged, and walked back to join her by the bedside. He sat in the chair there. "That's no big surprise. You were poisoned, Toph. You were very sick."
And I was so scared, Toph, so scared I was going to lose you…
Toph nodded, furiously, and said, "I get that. But, Sokka, I… I think I remember something. Something pretty big… But, it's weird… The thing is, Sokka, I don't know if it actually happened or not."
"Ah…" Sokka leaned forward, elbows on his knees and one hand propping up his chin. "Well, like I said, you were poisoned. You spouted off a lot of crazy stuff while you were out of it."
"I… I did?" Her face colored.
"Yeah, you did. Kaoru said they were fever dreams, Toph. Normal sort of thing, when it comes to that fire root stuff." He reached out and ruffled her hair. "Don't worry. You didn't do anything all that wacky. Called me handsome, and the sexiest thing alive, I seem to remember, but nothing out of the ordinary."
She graced him with a lifted brow and a very bland face. The pink blush on her face intensified into a wild crimson hue. "Sokka…"
"Hey, hey, don't be so sensitive. I'm just kidding," he said. He patted her good-naturedly on her good shoulder. She only glowered at him. "Okay, I'm sorry. No more jokes. Go on, then. I'm listening, I promise."
That fearful, nervous look had returned to her face. What was causing it?
"When… When I was going through all those fever-dreams, and whatever," she said, speaking slowly, unsure of herself, "did… I mean, did we…" Toph took in a deep breath. "Sokka, did we tell each other that we loved each other?"
Sokka felt as if he had been flung into icy water. His heart slammed in his throat and his breath was stolen away, and he stiffed in his chair. It took him a prolonged, agonizing moment to find his voice, and even then it betrayed his emotions.
"W-What?" he said. He really hoped his reaction was taken as simple shock, and not the intense horror he was currently drowning in. He was in deep enough as it already was. "What do you mean…?"
"Sounds strange, I know. But I mean what I just said. I keep having a memory, Sokka." Toph reached out and, after groping in the air, touched his hand. He tried not to shake so much and betray himself. "And that memory… I know I told you I cared about you, and in that way… Sokka, did you tell me the same thing?"
He jerked his hand away from her. Sokka tried to pay no mind to the incredibly hurt look that passed over her face. Sitting back in the chair, he crossed his arms and released a slow breath. He had to calm down.
"I thought you said you couldn't remember much."
"I… I know that. I do! It's just…" Toph trailed off, and rubbed her cheek in an almost uncharacteristic show of meekness. "I'm so sure I'm remembering this. It felt so real. I was scared and worried, but when we told each other that… I remember being happy."
The truth dawned on him. He knew, this time for sure…
Toph loved him.
And she was confessing. Sure, it was in some roundabout way, but it was definitely what he thought it was. She was confessing. Confessing! To him!
"Sokka…" She was trying to look at him, and came very close. He could not quite keep her gaze. "Is it true? Did that really happen? Did we…?"
Sokka worried the inside of his cheek. He hated that he had to do this to her, and it made him sick to his stomach, but what other choice did he have? He had already made that decision, and days ago when he had hoped that moment had been forgotten and taken as a mere nothing.
He could not, and would not, ever return her heart.
One small rejection now would save her from a far more painful one in the future. He had to protect her from himself. He had promised himself, two years ago by a funeral pyre, he would never love, or allow himself to be loved, ever again.
So, as he had that morning a few days ago, when she had returned to him after being so far gone, he ran.
"It must have been a dream of yours, Toph," he said, easily enough. Thank the spirits for the wooden room. She would not be able to sense his lie. "I mean, I don't remember any of this."
Toph snapped her head towards him. Surprise trickled over her features. "Really?" she said. "You don't remember anything?"
"Nope, not a thing, I swear." I'm so sorry, Toph. "You were mumbling the night before you came to, but I couldn't make out much of anything. You were probably just having some weird, crazy dream. The fever would have brought that kind of thing on."
"Just a dream… That's all?"
"Just a dream," he said. "I think I would've remembered something like me and you confessing our love to each other. Don't you think?"
You're an asshole, Sokka.
Toph flushed and, angling her face downward, nodded rather jerkily. "Yeah, that has to be it. Nothing else makes sense, huh?"
"Not many dreams do."
She sighed, and a bitter smile came to her lips. "Then I've just made a really big idiot of myself, huh?"
He really hated himself right now.
Sokka touched her shoulder and gave it a gentle squeeze. "It's no big deal, Toph. We all have weird dreams. I know I sure have. Talking food that eats people… Momo saying very unkind things… Me starring in a play with no pants on…"
He was glad when she chuckled, however lightly. "You don't have to tell me that, you idiot," said Toph. "I was always the one you woke up late at night, just to tell about your latest misadventure in dreamland."
"Well, you are my best friend. Who else would I talk to? I wouldn't trust anyone else with that information," he said. "Everyone else would just laugh at me."
"I laughed at you."
"No, you always laughed with me," he corrected. "There's a difference."
"If you say so, Sokka," she said.
"I do say so! I'd never lie to my best buddy."
His heart slammed against his chest.
"No, you wouldn't." She laughed, again, but it was just as weak as her smile. "Me and you, loving each other… being together, like that… Really stupid and crazy, isn't it? Like that could ever happen…"
Sokka winced. Rubbing the nape of his neck, he looked away from her face. "I wouldn't say that, Toph." He wouldn't dare poke fun at this or her, not now. Hadn't he done enough harm? "It's just… Well, we're best friends, you know?"
"And that's all we'll ever be."
He did not know what to say for the longest time. It could only have been, in reality, a second or two, but it felt an eternity to the torn Sokka. He knew what he should say, but was that what he really wanted to say?
I love you, Sokka.
I love you, too.
He wet his lips and closed his eyes.
"Yeah… That's… That's all. Best friends for life."
Toph only nodded.
The silence between them was deafening. It was incredibly uncomfortable, and did not help Sokka feel any better about what he had had to do. Breaking a heart to protect someone he cared for? That would never be all the way okay in his book.
He honestly thought about up and leaving, then and there, and hoping for the best.
But Toph squared her shoulders and broke the spell. "Well, good," she said. Her voice held some of her old bravado. It was enough to make him look at her again. She was smiling, really smiling, again. "'Cause me and you together would be just plain weird."
"Huh?" It surprised him. He had thought… "What do you…?"
"I mean just what I said. Me and you getting together would definitely be a sign of the end-times, or something worse." Toph chortled. Now that sounded a lot like his Toph. "Pretty crazy, huh? I'm glad it was just a dream!"
Thank goodness… His shoulders slumped and, smiling, he shook his head.
She was joking about it. He didn't even question the shift in mood on her part, or doubt it all too much. He was grateful for the blessed change, and welcomed it with open arms. He grasped onto it, held it tight.
"Hey!" Sokka roughed her hair some. "I could very well take offense to that remark, my lady."
It had been rough for the both of them, but maybe he had just dodged a Yu Yan arrow. She was joking and teasing him. That meant everything was getting back to normal. She was okay about this. They were still the closest of friends. Now things could go back to the way they were supposed to be.
Toph was his best friend, and nothing more. She would never be more than that, and that was all there was to it.
They could move on, and forget.
A larger, toothy grin peppered her expression. "Oh yeah? What are you gonna do about it?"
"Oh, I'll do something about it. I haven't decided just what I'll do, but I will do it. That something, that is, in the future. You know, when you're not, like, bed-ridden and stuff."
"And stuff?" Toph laughed. "That's eloquent, Snoozles."
"I am a natural-born speaker."
"I know! I still remember that wonderful speech you gave us on the Day of Black Sun." She graced him with a thumbs-up. "Great work there! Classic."
They laughed, together.
Sokka finally stood and stretched his lanky limbs. "As much fun as listening to you insult me is, Toph, I really have to get going. Our plan won't be much of a plan if I don't make the preparations for it."
"Right, right, I get it! Spare me the lecture, Sokka. Seriously, just go and get it done, and stop talking about doing it." Toph leaned back into the pillows. "I'll be right here when you get back."
"Promise?" he said. His tone was silly, but his intent was serious. He almost didn't know what was more dangerous for her: himself, and his inability to be the protector, or spectral dragons of his nightmares.
Toph sighed, dramatically, and waved her good arm. "Whatever. If it helps you sleep better at night." He flinched involuntarily. Toph, in the bed, completely missed it, and he was glad of it. "Sure, I promise. Just be sure to bring me cake."
"Okay, it's a deal." They shook on it, but only after he refused a spit-shake. Toph really could be a terror sometimes. He fluffed her pillow and helped her get comfortable after a cursory glance at the bandage. He would have to change it later. "I'm gone. Try and get some rest, Toph."
Sokka turned around, walking out the door with a relieved smile on his face. He believed, or at least desperately wanted to believe, that everything was going to be okay from here on in.
Had he turned around, one last time, he might have seen Toph's crumbling face as she fought back tears.
A loud banging noise awoke Sokka from yet another nightmare. He started awake, and found himself crying out Toph's name.
Only pale moonlight, streaming in through a cracked window, met his gaze. There was no hilltop. There was no dragon. And there was no bloodstained, dying Toph, pleading with him to save her.
Sokka released a short breath and fell back into the sweaty, tangled sheets of his bed. He lay there, staring up at the ceiling, unable to stop his shaking.
He almost got up to run to her room, and make sure she was still there, when he heard the banging again.
BANG! BANG! BANG!
Sitting up again, Sokka listened. He jolted when he realized that it was coming from downstairs. Someone was knocking rather furiously at their door.
Who the hell would be knocking this late at night?
His first thought was that it was Agni Tachi agents. They were coming, coming to arrest him and Kaoru, and drag Toph to the capital. Well, not on his watch. Sokka growled and, reaching to the side, grabbed his sword.
It was never far from his side.
He unsheathed the blade, dark as the room he now stood in, and stole down the stairwell. The knocking was growing louder, but strangely enough there were no demands for anyone to surrender, open up, or anything like that. There was only the desperate voice speaking his name, or at least his cover name, over and over.
"Li!" it said. "Li, please… Li, come on, Li!"
Sokka, sword still in hand, threw open the door. The soldier turned mole, pale and sweating, looked him in the face. Chen, his chest heaving, looked as if he had run miles. There was a wild gleam in his eyes that Sokka did not like.
"Chen," said Sokka, pulling his friend into the safe-house. He shut and locked the door behind him. "What are you doing here? You're supposed to be in Hi Do, and watching Zuko's move-"
"There is no time, Sokka," said Chen, interrupting him. "You must leave Pei, and now!"
Sokka was sure his brows lifted up into his hairline. "I don't understand. Why would we want to do that? I only sent out a hawk today!"
"Yes, yes, I know. I met it on the way here."
Sokka continued, unabated. "And, besides, Toph isn't ready to be moved. I can't do that, Chen."
"You must, and you will." The older man grabbed Sokka, firmly, by the shoulders, and glared at him. "You have no choice, boy! Don't you understand? It's no longer safe for you to stay here."
"The Fire Lord has summoned the Dragoness."
Sokka's blood ran cold. No… This couldn't be… It couldn't be true. And yet, if he could read anything from his friend's demeanor and facial expressions, Chen was speaking the truth. The Dragoness was now on their trail.
"Sweet spirits…" he said. "I didn't even think about that happening." Sokka clenched his fists. "Dammit!"
"She arrived in Hi Do some days ago," said Chen. "Perhaps as many as five; it was done in the utmost secret. I only found out a day or two ago, and came straight to warn you. There is a chance the Dragoness may not come this way, since Pei is such a remote town, but…"
"We can't afford to take that chance." Sokka nodded. "We'll leave now, then."
"Leave now?" Both men turned and saw Kaoru standing at the bottom of the staircase. The wrinkled old woman looked them in the eye, her hands clasped before her. "Something terrible has happened."
Sokka came towards her, and nodded. "I'm afraid so. We have more than just regular Agni Tachi after us now, Lady Kaoru." He would not lie to her. Kaoru had proven to be a sturdy, brave woman, and she deserved the truth. "Zuko has sent the Dragoness after us."
"The nameless leader of the Agni Tachi Dragons?" said Kaoru. "Truly?"
"Yes. We need to move and quickly, Lady Kaoru." He offered her the warmest smile he could manage. "I'm sorry you didn't get to rest as much as you might have liked."
Kaoru shrugged, and patted his cheek. He was both surprised, and not, to see that she was returning his smile. "No matter, Sokka dear. This was to be expected, sooner or later. I will go and pack my things." She walked back up the stairs.
"I must return to Hi Do, before my presence is missed," said Chen.
Sokka shook his head, and whirled around to face his comrade once more. "No! Chen, it's too dangerous. You should come with us."
"You know that will not do, Sokka. It would hurt you and the ladies, and possibly even put them on your trail. No… Follow through with that plan of yours as best you can. I will try and cover your tracks as best I can, and join you when it is safe."
Chen was firm and would not be moved from his decision. Sokka was forced to accept it, and they clasped hands before Chen left.
"Take care of yourself. And…" He smiled, and bowed towards the man. "Thank-you, Chen," said Sokka. "For everything… You probably just saved our hides. So thanks, so very much."
The soldier smiled, for the first time since he had arrived on his urgent mission. "Do not mention it, Sokka. What else are allies, and good friends, for? You've saved my life before, remember?" He returned the bow. "You take care of yourself as well. I know you will make it. I do."
And, with those words, he vanished into the night.
Sokka practically flew up the stairs to Toph's room. Every second that passed by was time lost. He found her, sleeping deeply, on her good side. Gently, he touched her and shook her awake. "Toph… Come on, Toph, it's time to get up."
"Uh…" Her eyes fluttered open, and those glassy orbs shone in the moonlight. "Wha… Sokka? What's goin' on?"
"We've got to go, Toph." He helped her sit up, before throwing some clothes into a bag nearby. Once that was done, he picked her up. She was a light as a feather. "We're leaving Pei."
Toph winced as his quick movements jarred her shoulder. "But why?" she said, in a demanding if sleepy tone of voice. "I thought you said we had to wait another two days. Something about me needing more rest. You said that."
"I know what I said, but plans change." He walked down the stairs with her in his arms, and the pack thrown over his shoulder. He tried to be careful, but his hurry made him impatient and clumsy. "Chen was just here."
"Yeah, and with bad news. The Dragoness is coming after us."
She blinked, an odd show coming from her, and her mouth hung agape. "No way… Really?" she said.
"Unfortunately, it's true," he said. "And now we've got to run before she finds us."
Only minutes later, a wagon, pulled by an old nag of a moose-horse and carrying three people, pulled away from the village of Pei. It made its way for the mountains.