Hello, hello, hello.
It's been a long time since I wrote anything this long, and when finished, it should be ten chapters. It's been a long time since I wrote –– and continued –– something multi-chaptered, and I figured I'd do it all at once, to save myself from losing drive to keep going. So I did.
Now... er... I got ideas, and I decided, quite frankly, that I was prepared to break fandom "taboos", such as turning strong characters against themselves. This is not an "emo" fic. This is a story about Suki, Sokka, Azula and Zuko, and the point is getting BETTER, not spiraling worse and worse.
There will be no cheap angst tricks, I promise. I've done my homework, and I hope it shows.
That said, if you are uncomfortable with fic involving torture, feel free to read only the first two chapters. The first, "Key", can stand by itself as a relatively light-hearted Sokka/Suki fic with some mild Sokka/Yue on the side, and the second chapter, "Classical", acts as a study of Azula's character. Both link to the plot, which will truly begin in the third chapter, "Domestic-Public", but if one does not want to indulge in the darker side of things, they can stop before they get there. I won't be offended.
Let it be known that this fic is AU to the third season, and that the entire premise of it was written in September, in the weeks before the premiere of the third season. In hindsight, I am rather giggly about some bits you'll see later in the fic. Coincidences!
Also, as an odd note:I just got a review giving advice on the first paragraph of this chapter, arguing that if the gang was traveling towards the east, it would be earlier. This is false. Just to use my own location as an example, if I'm in Ottawa/EST (Eastern Pacific Time), and were to travel EAST to Halifax/AST (Atlantic Standard Time), I would be moving from 6am to a later time.
If I were moving WEST to, say, Winnipeg/CST (Central Standard Time) I would be moving from 6am to an EARLIER time.
Therefore, Sokka's logic that moving from point A (the Southern Air Temple) to the EAST to point B (Kyoshi Island) would make the actual time later than he would normally guess is correct.
CHAPTER ONE: KEY
If Sokka looked up at the sun, he could figure it was almost six in the morning, but perhaps he was a bit off, seeing as they had been traveling east in the past few weeks. He struggled to make the connection between the sun and travel, and how it changed time. He settled on six-thirty.
Either way, he was incredibly proud of himself for managing to get himself up at such an early hour. Katara and Aang were still snuggled in their beds, warm and toasty, and he was tramping his way through the woods in the snow. It wasn't like he wasn't used to the bitter cold of winter –– it'd been his whole life, after all –– but he liked having sensation in his toes, as well.
But despite the definite chill outside, the dojo was warm.
"Morning," he called when he stepped in, and six heads lifted look look at him, all brown-haired, with six very similar faces all painted in white and red and charcoal. But he picked out Suki amongst them in a second, if only because she wore the leader's headband.
"Good morning," a few mumbled back, and Suki even smiled when she said it.
"Have you ever done a kata?" she asked, and Sokka shook his head.
"A kata?" he repeated. "If I have, I didn't know what they're called. What are they?" With a grin, he gave a bounce on his feet, and lifted his arms. Punching the air a few times, rather like an overly-enthusiastic child, he asked, "Punches? Kicks? General butt-kicking, huh?"
"Well then, Energy Boy, you're going to learn one today," Suki replied, and the smile that widened on her face was definitely threatening to his ego. "They're what you would call dance classes. But first, we'll get you dressed."
His smile faded, and hers remained. He avoided an immature freak-out scene by dry-swallowing and staring at her with some sort of unexpressed horror, and then, suitably whipped, he trotted off to the dressing rooms. It was with great humility that he pulled on the robes, but he was cool. He was a man. He could take it.
When he tried to skip out on the make-up, Suki stopped him at the door. She leant against the door-frame with that smile on her face, still, and she waved her fingers in some vague "turn right around" gesture, and he tramped right back over to the make-up dresser and down down on the floor in front of it. He cracked open the tin of white face paint and set to it, and Suki hovered over him like a bossy little rain-cloud.
"You're doing it wrong," she announced, suddenly, and right behind him. Sokka nearly stabbed himself in the eye with a charcoal pencil, and he gave an admittedly unmanly yelp. Suki leant down over his shoulder and took the pencil from his hand. "You're making the lines all shaky. Haven't you ever worn warpaint before?"
"Hey," Sokka protested, "I'm trying. And I have, I just never had to use eyeliner, thanks. I can do the rest of it okay."
"It's easy. Watch."
Amused, she took him by the shoulder and moved him to face her, and then she sat down in front of him. He leant back, just slightly, and she took the pencil from his hand. She brought the tip up to her eye, and drew a neat line without even having to look in the mirror. To Sokka, it didn't look any easier. He couldn't bring things that close to his eyes without having to blink like mad, and he didn't exactly dream of an eyeful of charcoal.
"If we're going to allow a boy in here, he has to at least be presentable. Here," Suki said, and she shifted to be on her knees, and she leant towards him. He put his hands behind him to brace himself, and she took him by the chin with one hand, briefly, and raised the pencil with the other. "Look up."
He did so, and she brought the pencil forward to his eye, one finger carefully placed under his eye. He tried to ignore the fact that she was holding him by the face as she moved the tip towards his lash-line. At the last second, he craned his neck to get away, and protested, "Careful!"
She sighed, and moved back a bit. "Just stay still, it's not going to hurt you."
"You almost stabbed me in the eye!" he argued, and she bore down on him bossily, hands drifting to her hips. He brought up a hand to cover his eye, though she hadn't actually done him any harm.
"I did not! I know what I'm doing!" she said, bossily. "Come here."
He reluctantly leant towards her again, and dropped his hand. She moved forward again, and this time managed to touch the tip down before he shot backwards again.
"Sokka!" she said sharply, "Stop moving, or I will accidently stab you in the eye. You can't look as sloppy as you did yesterday."
"You touched my eye that time," he protested, sounding rather disgusted. "I felt it."
"I can't make a mark if I don't touch you with it," was her reply, and she bore down on him for a third and final time. This time, he froze completely still, until he felt her dragging the pencil across his lower lid. It was an inappropriate time, with the point so close to his eyeball, to try and tilt his head forward a bit. Suki did, indeed, stab him in the eye. He let out a yelp and shoved himself away.
Clutching his face, he said, "You stabbed me! You touched my eye!"
"I really did that time," she said, "by accident. Because you won't stop moving."
His eye burned, and he blinked rapidly under his hand, each one driving the pain in his eye about like mad. Suki's face was drawn into a frustrated look, her smile gone, and her impatience shining through. Sokka felt stupid, but then again, he was already dressed like a girl and wrapped up in his dumb feelings. What could be worse, anyway?
"Okay, okay," he said, defensively, and he lowered his hand and looked at the mirror. His eye was vaguely pink-red, and it still stung. He blinked again a few times, and turned back to her, "Can I just skip the eyeliner?"
"At this rate, maybe you should, you're late enough as it is."
"Okay," he said, and she climbed to her feet. He followed suite, but stepped on the hem of his hakama, and though it didn't rip, it did give him an unpleasant jerk when he tried to step forward and ended up tripping. Suki caught him by the arm at the same time as he caught his balance against her side. She hoisted him upright. "Ack."
"Careful there, Sokka," she said, letting go. "Let's get you dancing, huh?"
"Yeah," he said, face red under all the white make-up.
Sokka just couldn't get into it.
Perhaps it was the fact that he had a growing boy's body. He'd be sixteen next week, anyway. His coordination was shot, a little bit, and even when he was getting pretty used to his body, the fact that he was wearing a dress-thing wasn't too helpful. Perhaps it was the shoes –– Kyoshi warrior boots were thin-soled and way too tight on Sokka, who had huge feet. Perhaps it was his own nose, because whenever he looked down he saw a white thing on his face.
Or perhaps it was the fact that he was thrown amidst a dozen or so very capable, very highly-trained warrior girls with a style very unique to Sokka's variety of combat. These girls had art to their fighting and warfare, while Sokka was decidedly better rooted in hunting and close-quarters fighting with clubs. His boomerang was his best weapon, not his hands, and these girls were incredible with their hands.
"Keep your arm straighter, guy," the girl next to him said, as she swept through another motion, in perfect unison with the girls on all sides of her. Sokka tried to do so, and felt his feet move out-of-step with everyone else. In front of him, Suki brought her arm in a circular motion, and stepped forward.
As one, the entire flock of girls moved forward together, while Sokka was slow to react. He'd been shown the routine a dozen times, now, but he still had to think about each move before he did it, while the rest of them seemed to have it ingrained in their very being. It flowed out of them like water, perfectly, leaving him the awkward male amongst them.
Even if he still thought the kata were as feminine and dance-like as he initially had considered them, he had to admit that maybe there was some skill involved, after all. None of them broke a sweat, and he was sweating pretty badly, so that his make-up ran around his hairline. Suki caught a glance of him over her shoulder, face pristine and eyes drawn into an amused look. She smiled.
"Not so easy, is it?" she said, rubbing it in.
"It's hard," he replied, "though I don't get why you do it."
"Every piece of combat in made up of movements. While there's no specific order to it, in a real battle, sometimes we have to predict what the opponent will do. It's for self-defense... some other styles of combat will practice kata for other reason, but ours has everything to do with form, and being able to work as a unit."
"Yeah, but don't you have to fight on your own, sometimes?" Sokka asked, and Suki turned her head back forward. She brought her arms across her front in a protective stance, and so did the rest of them. Sokka followed belatedly, distracted.
"Of course," she said, "but if we don't have to, we don't. We never run away when someone's in need. But making up defense movements is a dangerous hobby, acting on wit and spontaneity... it may have worked for you so far, but even you should know that there are times where routine works best."
"I hate routine," Sokka announced.
"Then I suppose you'll either learn to love it, or die. I hated it once, too, but now it's become the perfect joy," she replied. There was a slight pause, and Sokka could feel every girl in the room listening to her with equal attention as they were giving their movements, but not a single girl faltered in her kata. Suki continued, "Not that I don't like something new every once in a while."
She looked over her shoulder at him again and smiled, and one girl giggled. Suki's eyes flicked to her, not angry or upset, but simply curious. The girl smiled back, though she stopped laughing.
Sokka felt as though he had missed something. Probably another secret of the Sisterhood of Dancing-Fighting Girls In Gold and Green, or something.
"You'll learn to love them in time," Suki said, and Sokka doubted he ever would. "I don't suppose you ever trained without any order at all, back home."
"Well, no," he admitted, "but I did just switch whatever I was doing when I got tired of one thing. If it gets boring, I don't do it, so..."
"And I suppose that's why your hand-to-hand combat skills are so lousy," Suki said, inserting her own end. Sokka felt himself bristle, slightly, but he went with it.
"There haven't been people for me to practice with," he said, as an excuse. She seemed to consider it valid, but she shrugged.
"Kata," she replied, simply.
Sokka felt a smile tug at his lips and he rolled his eyes ceiling-wards, and for the first time, he managed to move entirely in sync with them, when they all swept their feet forward and brought their fists out to punch in mid air.
When Suki stretched, she could extend her leg completely flat, grab her foot, and lean so far over her breast touched her thigh. She stayed like that for ten seconds, and then eased herself out of it, to do the same with the other leg.
Sokka wasn't so flexible, and it actually hurt to even go part-way down. It burned the back of his knee badly, and he gave up, so that Suki, lying out on her own leg, turned her head to the side and smiled.
All the other girls had gone home, gone to bed, and Suki was still doing her final stretches of the day, slower and slower, to ease her body out of of the day's work. Warm up, train, wind down. Sokka had never bothered doing this before.
"Don't beat me to death for asking," he said, "but why are you girls so against guys being fighters?"
Suki's smile faded around the edges a bit, and she seemed to think on it. She sat up straight and extended both legs at once, so that she could almost literally fold herself in half. When she sat back up, she said, "It's our culture. For the same reason your tribe doesn't have female warriors, we don't have male warriors."
"Yeah? Guys here are better at cooking, or something?" he replied, feeling a bit oblivious. Suki smiled funny.
"Everyone cooks here, Sokka. It's just always been the way of Kyoshi Island. It started with Avatar Kyoshi, and she raised her daughters to be warriors because her husband worked on the farms. If men here tilled the earth, and then had to go to war, what would the women do?"
"But no one's going to war," Sokka replied. "You said that yourself. Kyoshi Island refuses to get involved."
"It started that way, and we've continued on ever since," Suki said. "Ignore the details of war. Women protect Kyoshi, our home, like a turtleduck protects its babies. Men take care of growing food and hunting. We've been doing it for over six generations, we could never just change our ways."
Suki seemed a bit frustrated with him, but she always seemed to cover it up with that snide, sarcastic attitude, just like he did.
"Anyway," she continued, "we know perfectly well that few very places in the world believe a woman's place is wherever she wants to be. People seem to think this is an island where men are inferior, like how women are treated as inferior elsewhere, but it's not true. We all work in symbiosis."
"Hey, women aren't inferior in the Southern water tribe," Sokka replied, defensively. "I mean, cooking and taking care of kids, and sewing and all that junk, it's all just as important as food. Us men would fall apart without women there. They just don't hunt, they don't have the bodies for it. We're physically stronger."
Suki, mid-way through stretching out her legs in a particularly creative way, looked up at him like he was crazy.
"Pfft, only because women down South aren't brought up to be physically strong," she scoffed. "You've been brought up in a sexist community, and that's not your fault."
He was particularly annoyed by that, and wanted to snap at her, but didn't want to risk getting kicked out of the dojo for good. He tried to stretch again, ignoring the burning sensation, and managed to get himself down with his chest to his thigh, with a great lot of pain.
"And Kyoshi isn't sexist?" he replied. He wasn't exactly delicate. "You kind of treat men like we treat women, no offense or anything. It isn't like we mistreat women, we cherish them. They just... belong in the home. That's where they grow up."
Suki glared at him.
"Right," she said, loftily, "right."
"I'm serious," Sokka replied. "I know you're training me, and I'm really grateful, but isn't it just as bad to treat guys like they're inferior warriors just because they're men? Why look down on us, huh?"
"You're missing the point," Suki said, and instead of getting riled, her voice was just getting loftier, most holier-than-thou. "We do not treat men as inferior. It's just tradition that they don't become warriors, just how it's tradition in your tribes that women don't learn to fight. We don't look down on you, it's just not our way. It isn't like we don't know anything about the outside world."
She stopped stretching and sat up straight, with her legs folded. She put her hands in her lap, and continued, "Look, Sokka. People come to Kyoshi all the time, trying to escape the war, and they expect that because they're outsiders, they're an exception. That because in their culture, men can be warriors, and women care for the family, it should be the same here. And time and time again, boys come to me and demand and complain, and whine about not being let into the unit. Practically four or five every month, for every year I've been a warrior, all complaining and demanding and shouting, and I turn them all away. Some people settle into what Kyoshi Island has for them, but others leave because they don't like how we run things."
Sokka listened carefully, and intently, but something nagged at him. He asked, baffled, "Why did you let me in, then?"
Suki stood up and turned away, and pulled off her gloves. She gave him a dismissive wave and headed towards the dressing room, and Sokka watched her go, confused. Sometimes he just didn't understand girls, and why they had to be so complicated, especially if the question was so simple and so basic. She didn't look back, but she replied.
"Because... you asked nicely," she finished, with a funny smile, and there was an awkward pause with him staring up at her like she'd never even answered it at all, waiting for a real answer. She said, suddenly, "Now come change, and head home."
It didn't feel like an honest answer in its entirety, but Sokka climbed to his feet anyway and tramped off after her, kicking off his too-tight boots as he went. One shot off his foot when he tugged it and it whacked him in the chest, and Suki gave him a smile.
He was just relieved she hadn't kicked him right out of the group.
"Who are you and what's so special about you?"
The girl standing in front of him was short, with her bangs cut straight across her forehead, a couple of inches above her eyebrows, giving her a permanently surprised look. She couldn't have been a day over the age of eleven, Sokka decided. She peered up at him in a curious sort of way.
He grinned, and stood up taller, feeling proud of himself already. He was special. He was really special. He replied, without skipping a beat, "I'm Sokka, of course, and I'm a great warrior from the Southern Water tribe!"
"Wow!" she said, brightly, "No wonder you're friends with the Avatar!"
"Yeah, well," Sokka replied, "he does think I'm pretty epic, you know. That's why he trusts me. I'm legendary back in my tribe."
"Yeah! I bet!" Apparently, he'd failed to notice her at the lessons earlier, because she added, cheekily, "Except kata. You're not very good at kata, are you? It's very weird, who doesn't know kata?"
What had initially flattered him had struck a very sensitive nerve, suddenly. Sokka replied back, sharply, "Hey, I'm just learning now, we don't do kata down south! Besides, it's slow and boring. And I'm already wicked at self-defense, practically nothing gets by me."
He probably shouldn't have spoken up so soon. Suddenly, there was an arm slipped around his throat from behind, and his right arm was twisted behind his back. He knew it was her, of course, simply because the other girls generally avoided him and just gave him lofty looks from across the room, and last time Katara had tried something like that with him, he'd made her eat snow. That, and no other girl in Kyoshi was likely to kick the shit out of him.
"You were saying?" Suki said, with a playful snarky voice in his ear. Sokka gagged, trying to pry her arm off his throat with his left hand. She was bending him backwards to do it.
"Nngh–– Suki! Ngh! Let–– go––!!"
She did. He tried to stay upright, but instead she dropped him down, so that he hit the floor butt-first, and hard. He sat at her feet, shoulders against her knees, and rubbed his throat, breathing ridiculously hard, even when he hadn't even been held like that for ten seconds.
"You were saying something about wicked self-defense?" Suki prodded, leaning over to look at his face, hands on her hips. The girl Sokka had been talking to giggled, and Sokka climbed to his feet, bright red.
He straightened his shirt and brushed off some invisible dirt. Suki elbowed him in the ribs and asked him again what he was saying about his wicked self-defense, and he couldn't lie to her. He had to own up to it.
He was an honest sort of guy like that. He replied, sheepishly, "Er, I was just––"
"Showing off," Suki supplied, cutting him right off. "I saw. You want to run some of those boasts by me first, before you go mouthing off to my girls about how epic you are?"
Sokka stared at her for a moment and then demanded, bewildered, "Are you some sort of eavesdropping ninja spy?! I could have sworn you weren't around!"
"What can I say?" Suki replied. She smiled brightly, honestly, and she stepped back. She said, "Want to prove it?"
He hesitated, and then said, "Alright."
Sokka lifted his hands, and Suki tossed him a set of fans. One he caught perfectly, very used to his boomerang coming back to him, but he barely managed to keep his fingers on the second one at the same time. He fumbled it, and scooped it up off the floor as Suki flicked hers open.
The gold shone in the early morning sunlight, and she replied, "Put them high, Sokka. Girls, Sokka thinks he's good enough now."
The whole room stopped to pay attention, and the girls chattered amongst themselves for a few moments, before settling in the watch. Sokka was apprehensive immediately –– last time he had taken on Suki in front of an audience, he'd wound up hog-tied and face-down, and they'd left him to worm his own way out.
Suki just seemed to have that vibe that made him think she'd be quite happy to embarrass him to the point of choosing death over a rematch.
"Let's see what you've learned," Suki said, tilting her head slightly, so that the tassels on her headband fell over her face. Sokka flushed red when she smiled and added, "Show me what a man you are, huh?"
Sokka said, "Yeah, okay, Suki." He let out a long breath, and straightened his shoulders to go into the attack.
Regardless of what he tried, no matter what sort of moves he tried to pull, the inevitable happened: Sokka wound up on his hands and knees on the floor, with Suki standing over him with a hand on her hip. The girls all around them snickered or laughed, and Sokka hung his head with a sigh. The small of his back was sore, where Suki had so easily placed her foot and shoved.
"Still want to show off?" she asked, and Sokka shook his head. Or, at least, he tried, because her other hand was holding him by the wolftail quite firmly, so he stayed immobile.
"No," he admitted, and she let him go. He sat back on his heels and stood up, face-to-face with her, quite aware that not only had he been beaten twice by a girl, in front of an audience of girls, but he had also been beaten by a girl who was shorter than him, rather small in stature, and still stronger than him.
But he was okay with that, he reminded himself. Sokka was cool. Sokka was man enough to be beaten by a girl, and he just straightened up and said, kindly, "Thanks for the round, Suki."
He lifted his hands in the default pose and offered, "Can we go one more time before we start today's exercise?"
Suki's smile widened, and she spread her legs a bit, to give her better stability. She said, enthusiastically, "You're on."
Appa wasn't terribly comfortable to ride.
Sokka spent most of his time on Appa sleeping, or dozing, because while Katara was thrilled to watch the world fly by, he got bored. It didn't matter that he had never seen a tree before the past few days, or that he had never seen rocky mountains, or grass. After a few days, he'd seen it, and there wasn't much interesting about it, unless he had his face pressed into it. Then, he could be interested in watching all the insects and the tiny little plant worlds, but from Appa, all you could see was blobs of colour. Green for trees. Green for grass. Brown for rock and wood.
Katara was interested in watching that, but Sokka had a new green and a new brown to think about: Suki.
Their departure had been swift and rapid, unexpected, and his cheek still felt warm where she had kissed it, despite the fact that it had been many hours and they were still in a mildly cold region of the world. In his head, that place was warm, and it was to be cherished.
His first kiss was something to be respected, and contemplated on. Sokka would worship the crook of his jaw, the place near his ear, like a sacred ground. Suki'd claimed that spot.
He let out a content sigh and Katara glanced over her shoulder at him and asked, "Why're you so happy, Crossdresser?"
Sokka glanced down at his clothes, the too-tight bodice and the long green skirts, and the drape of heavy fabrics were suddenly noticeably present on his body. The flush rose on his face, hot and red.
"Shut up, Katara!"
When Yue had invited him out for a ride, Sokka had accepted. Not too eagerly, of course, as there were many people all around them, but Yue was difficult to speak to without wanting to show her some sort of excitement.
He was a pretty laid-back guy, when it came to talking to people, but Yue was just different somehow. He'd never been around Water tribe girls his age, not since he was a kid, and this was so different from any other girl.
Sokka hated to admit it, but he was acting a bit stupid. He'd catch himself thinking deliriously dreamy little thoughts, things like how the curve of her chin was so pretty, how her eyes were so blue. The type of things that he'd never admit, as a self-respecting male, and things he'd never dare breath to Katara, unless he wanted to be made into a fool.
But Yue was just so damned gorgeous, whether she was picking at her dinner or brushing her hair back behind her shoulders or even walking. Sokka wondered, vaguely, if that was what first love was supposed to feel like. His heart beat like a war-drum whenever she brushed close, or whenever she looked his way and put her lips just like that.
As crude as it was, Sokka had many a ridiculously happy night's sleep, buried in his sleeping bag, while Katara and Aang slept, long exhausted from their days training with Master Pakku. Sokka could care less about waterbending. There was a doe-eyed girl he could spend time with instead, and this beauty was interested in him.
It really bothered him to remember it wouldn't last forever, but Sokka was a here-and-now sort of guy, anyway. His stomach growled, he ate. Sleep called, he slept. Yue looked his way, and he was there for her, eager to please and utterly joyous to just be wherever they were at the time.
So when she suggested riding, how could he refuse?
Buffalo-yaks weren't a thing found in the Southern tribes, and Sokka had never had the pleasure of riding one. They were tall, their mighty shoulders level with his eyes, and they wore bit-less halters with short reins and odd saddles. Sokka's was more of a strap with stirrups and a horn in the middle, while Yue's actually had a weird seat built onto the girth strap. It had two pommels, one higher than the other, and when Sokka raised his eyebrows at it, Yue said, "It's so I can sit sideways without falling off."
"That's smart," Sokka said, and he held onto the halter. "Need a hand?"
She glanced up at the beast, seemingly sizing it up, and then nodded. He let go of the halter, carefully, hoping it wouldn't move around too much, and then offered his hands for her to step up into.
"Are you sure? I'm heavy," Yue said, flushing.
Sokka laughed it off and said, "I bet you aren't."
"I am," she said, still red, and he kept his hands out. When he didn't hesitate, she stepped up, holding onto what she could reach of the pommels. Sokka boosted her up quicker than he intended, finding her not heavy at all.
Well, maybe a bit heavy, but that was probably due to the extreme amount of clothing she wore. Either way, up Yue went, into her seat, and he held onto her foot while she found her seating, one leg hooked over the higher pommel.
"Heavy. Psh, right. Comfortable?" Sokka asked. Yue shifted in her saddle, apparently at least a bit uncomfortable. But she folded the reins in her hands and set her hands in her lap, and sat up tall. Sokka smiled, and let go of the animal's halter. It shook its head, and when Sokka was sure it wasn't going to bolt without him, he went to his own animal and untied the lead from the post.
It took three tries for him to get his foot into the first stirrup, which was obscenely high, and boost himself up and over. Yue giggled when he nearly pitched himself over the other side, and he flushed, but she made no comment.
"Alright," Sokka said, "I think I'm alright, too. Let's go!"
It felt ridiculous to sit in a saddle that wasn't big enough for him to stretch out in, like Appa's, simply because he was straddling something much wider than he expected. The animal's sides heaved under him, and he considered that riding the girl's way wasn't so bad after all. At least they probably didn't feel so uncomfortably stretched.
Yue nudged her ride in the side with her heels, and it sprang forward fast enough that she lurched backwards, but she held on. Sokka's ride shot after the other before he could even ask it to. He gave a startled yelp, and Yue giggled, though she was holding onto the saddle horn for dear life.
When the animals settled into a decent pace, heading clear out of the city, Sokka felt he could make conversation. He said, clinging to the saddle horn with both hands, "So you've only done this like once or twice… and I've never done this. Isn't this kind of dangerous? I'm happy, don't get me wrong, and it's fun, but wouldn't someone balk?"
Yue flushed and she glanced off into the horizon with a funny smile. She said, softly, "Well, um, they don't know you don't ride."
Sokka had a minor freak out that resulted in his ride shooting forward even faster, until he yanked back on the reins and slowed it down. When he recovered his concentration, he said, stressed, "They don't?!"
"No," Yue said, "I didn't tell them that bit."
Sokka wasn't about to talk about the possibility of the two of them getting pitched to the ground and abandoned in the frozen wastelands surrounding the village. Yue continued for him, "I know where we're going, don't worry. There's a really pretty cave up there… I went once as a child."
"Oh," Sokka said. He wasn't calmed much, rather concerned for her safety, but since Yue knew what they were doing, he supposed he could deal. He pulled his ride up to Yue's, determined to have them ride closer.
"It's not too far," she promised.
And it wasn't. After twenty minutes of riding, delicate conversation centering mostly around Sokka's travels across the world, they approached what seemed to be a large ice cave. Sokka smiled when he saw it, and Yue gave him a pretty smile as he slid from the saddle, waiting for him to help her down. There was nothing to tie their rides to, so he settled on tying one's lead to the other's, and hooking it over the base of a rather large crystal jutting up and far over his head, straight up from the ground.
And then, with a smile, he reached out his hands for hers and took them, to help her balance. She unhooked her leg from the pad on the saddle and he took her by under the arms, and she slid down. He caught her, easily, and her boots touched down on the ice an instant later.
So close, he could see the slight shine on her lips, and at the same time, he let go and she moved away, both red in the face. That was okay, Sokka figured, and he offered her an arm. She hesitated, and he said, "No one's going to see out here, Yue."
She glanced over her shoulder and smiled, and then took his arm with her arm, her forearm pressed against his. The thickness of their parkas the only thing separating them.
"Let's go, then," she said, brightly, and they set off into the cave.
Cave might not have been the right word – it was more of a hollow, a long snaking tunnel carved from the ice for some reason. There were bits in the ceiling that were open, or made of thin ice and snow, allowing light to seep in through it, translucent and dim. But the ground and walls had a crystalline quality to them, like glass.
"What is that rock?" Sokka asked.
"It's quartz," Yue explained, after reaching out to touch it. She then touched some of the shiny baubles on her hairpieces, and Sokka followed the movement. He nodded. She said, "Myth says that it's water frozen so cold it can never thaw again."
Sokka laughed, and said, "That's impossible."
"Really?" Yue smiled, obviously interested. The way she looked at him spoke volumes, the way her eyes widened, the way she seemed to lean forward, hung on his every word.
"Yeah," he said, "it's a kind of stone. If it really were ice, wouldn't waterbenders be able to alter its shape?"
Yue paused, and a look of realization dawned on her face. She touched the baubles again with her fingertips, and laughed, and she said, "You're right! You're so clever, Sokka."
"Yeah," he said, smiling back, and he said, "Thanks."
"It's really pretty though, isn't it?" Yue said, cheerily. "Once, some traders brought many different sorts of stones from the Earth kingdom. They were beautiful, really, all different colours and shiny, but none were as clear as these stones. They say that Earth kingdom caves are made of rubies and sapphires and emeralds, and all the precious stones in the world!"
Sokka laughed, and he replied, "Not any of the ones I've seen. They seem to mine for coal more than anything."
"Really," Yue mused, "I wonder if I'll ever see the Earth kingdom someday?" She looked up at him, so bright and gorgeous, her dark skin glowing in the pale lights. Sokka wanted to haul her up against him and kiss her, but he resisted bravely, and she said, "If I ever go, will you come with us?"
He disliked the "us" there, as he wasn't a part of that exclusive group, but he replied, just as bright, "Of course! I'll show you all the cool places. We can do… activities."
She laughed, and started to walk again. He followed, his arm tightening on hers protectively, and they wandered a good ten minutes in. It was warmer in the cave, shielded from the wind and the snow, enough that Sokka felt warm in his coat. Yue seemed to, too, but she didn't take anything off, so he didn't, either.
"I want to see the whole world, someday," Yue said. "I'm sure it's so different."
"Oh yeah," Sokka said, "I mean, I had heard about trees, and I had seen wood and all that stuff, but no one can really explain to you what a tree is like that close. Plants, too. I mean, lichens and moss look kind of pathetic next to flowers and bushes and stuff."
"Traders brought leaves up here, once," Yue said, "but they were brittle and dead. Branches, too. My father has been to the Earth kingdom, and he says that all the trees suffocate the sky and block it out, so you can't see it. I can't imagine a world like that."
"I couldn't, either," Sokka replied. He shifted his arm, and continued, "But it's sort of weird to be able to go outside all day wearing only light clothes."
He thought about the Earth kingdom girls and their fitted clothes, about how Water tribe girls looked so shapeless but delicate in their thick clothing. Earth kingdom girls seemed hardier, not only by the way they looked, but the way they acted. Other than Katara, Sokka had never known a capable, physical girl in his life, never mind ones that dressed in clothes that showed the feminine forms of their bodies. Yue was the sort of girl one put on a pedestal, and she enjoyed it. She was a princess. She was gorgeous.
Sokka imagined what Yue would look like in the sleeveless tunics of the Earth kingdom, in the knee- or shin-length skirts, with bare arms. He smiled to himself, and Yue slipped her hand into his and asked, "Is it strange to come back here after being in a place so warm?"
"Well, it seems colder than usual, but you keep me warm," Sokka admitted, with a playful grin, and then, realizing his mistake, he rapidly corrected himself with, "I'm really warm. You're making me warm. Your arm is touching mine and I'm warm. This cave is nice. I'm… sorry."
Yue laughed, cheeks going pink again.
"Well, I wouldn't want you to freeze," she teased. She nudged him in the side with her elbow and he thought of someone else for a fraction of an instant, before she tugged him back to the present. She turned to face him and said, "Thank you for coming here with me."
"Yeah," he replied, flippantly, and was about to continue when she grabbed him by the front of his parka and hauled herself up against him, pressing her lips to his. He was stunned, for the first instant, and then he found where he was. He kissed back, one hand drifting to cup her cheek.
When she stepped back, he held onto her waist, and he finished, dreamily, "No problem, Princess Yue."
She smiled, sheepishly, her face still red, and she said, after a moment of silence, "Sorry."
"Don't be," Sokka replied.
There was an awkward pause where she drifted from his arms, and then she said, in a change of subject, "Maybe we should head back now? We should be back before dinner."
Sokka nodded, and offered his arm. She didn't take it, and his heart sunk, but they walked back close together none-the-less, his arm near to hers, his hand swinging within reach. Once or twice, she moved to take it, and didn't, but on the third time, she finally did, and he settled. Her fingers curled around his, slender and delicate, fingers that had never held a weapon or done considerable amounts of work.
Yue was a princess, free to sleep late and relax. Sokka had never had that life, and he admitted he never would.
He closed his fingers over hers, warm and calloused under his gloves. She was good to hold. He slipped into his daydreams about her hands and glanced at her. She was looking up at him with glassy blue eyes, and he gave her an acknowledging smile, almost bashful.
She was such a beautiful thing, and right then, when he made eye-contact, Sokka decided that maybe, just maybe, the embarrassing feelings in him were a funny thing called love.
When the girl had taken him quite forcibly by the collar and jerked him about, and planted a big kiss on his cheek, the first thing that had struck his mind was Suki's name, and with an instant taken to recognize her, he found all the familiar things he had forgotten. It was like getting his past memories being re-shuffled to the present, and his heart skipped a beat. Her hands were worn from wielding weapons, her face was young and pretty, and her bossiness was oddly welcome.
"Suki!" he enthused.
It was good to be back with her, back so close to her, but the place by his ear tingled warmly, reminding him that Suki had been the first, but she hadn't been the last person to kiss him there.
They started up the Serpent's Pass.
"Who's this?" Toph asked.
"Oh!" Sokka said, as an afterthought, and Suki smiled down at the stocky little girl. Sokka continued, "Toph, Suki, Suki, Toph. Suki, Toph is blind, Toph, Suki is a Kyoshi warrior."
Toph gave an irritated noise and folded her arms. She scoffed, "You remembered for once, and then that's how I get introduced?!"
"Well," Sokka said, defensively, "it's true."
Toph heaved an aggravated sigh.
"A female warrior, huh?" Toph said, and she lifted her head a bit more. She continued, "Not too often that girls learn to fight."
Sokka paused to reflect on this, and he said, curiously, "Aren't women in the Earth kingdom allowed to learn? I thought it was just the Water tribe."
"Do you actually pay attention to people in the kingdom, or do you just put your fingers in your ears and shut your eyes and scream like a little girl?" Toph scoffed. Suki smiled, slightly.
"No," Suki replied. "Women can learn earthbending for peace and meditation, and for farming, but not for fighting. Kyoshi is unique because girls are taught to fight, regardless of whether they're earthbenders or not. Do you fight, Toph?"
"I'm a master earthbender," Toph replied. "In other words, I do most of the butt-kicking in this team."
"Hey," Katara and Sokka replied, in unison, and Katara protested, "I do just as much work as you do, and Sokka, well… Sokka helps."
"I do more than help!" Sokka objected, "Or do you want to not eat for a day or two?"
"I'm sure Toph and I could hunt if you weren't around," Katara replied. "No so sure about Aang, though."
"Nah," Aang said, lifting his hands up in the air and smiling. "I can find us some vegetables, but killing an animal would be against my principles."
"Wussy," Toph replied, and Aang threw her a look.
Suki laughed, and said, "You guys get along fine, if you're still healthy. It doesn't matter who hunts, as long as you get fed, right?" She paused and glanced at Sokka with one of those big smiles, her eyebrows lifting. It was almost an admiring look. Suki said, fondly, "But I'm sure Sokka does a great job at it."
Sokka laughed, felt his face flush, and he replied, in a modesty that wasn't entirely sincere, "Yeah, well, I do what I can, right? Anything to support my family. Even if Toph eats a lot, I strive to fill everyone's bellies to the max. "
"Hey!" Toph protested. "I do not eat a lot. No one eats more than you!"
"Yeah, well, but I've got a manly stomach to fill," Sokka replied, "but what about you? You're like five-foot nothing. Where does it all go?"
Toph bristled and stomped one foot on the ground, letting out only an enraged huff. A column of rocks shot up under Sokka's feet, pitching him into the air suddenly. It hurt, to be jabbed so hard and then be flailing around in mid-air, momentarily weightless, but then he went pitching down to the ground shoulders-first.
Luckily, Suki half-caught him and half cushioned his impact. He landed right on top of her, and she let out a stunned "oof" as she hit the ground with him, albeit much softer. Sokka groaned and was on his feet in an instant, hoisting Suki to her feet and rounding on Toph.
"Can you take a joke?!" he snapped, and Toph frowned instinctively. He leered at her for a fraction of a second and then he turned to Suki, incredibly concerned. He had landed on her, he had nearly crushed her, and it was all Toph's fault! What if she was injured? What if she had sprained something? What if she had hit her head and lost all memory of him? "SUKI, are you okay?!"
"I'm fine," Suki said, brushing herself off, and daring to laugh a bit, "You flew!"
"Are you sure?" he asked, concerned, holding her at arm's length and inspecting her. There was a long streak of dirt up the back of her hakama, where she had touched the ground. "You're all dirty, are you sure you're okay?" He went around her quickly and brushed it off, and Suki looked mortified.
"Sokka!" she said, stepping away from him and grabbing him by the arm to pull him up straight. "I'm fine."
"Are you really sure?" he pressed.
"Entirely," Suki said, and she frowned, "I'm perfectly fine; are you okay?"
"Don't worry about me, I landed on you!" Sokka exclaimed, and he moved forward to inspect her again, but she neatly stepped out of his grip, raising her hands in protest.
"I'm fine," she stressed. Sokka let out a long breath.
"Are you su—"
"Positive," Suki interjected. She was looking at him as if he had grown a second head, and he was pretty sure that hadn't happened. He wasn't sure why she was being so defensive — he was just looking out for her, after all. All he wanted was for her to be safe from harm.
"Jeez," Toph said, rolling her eyes and letting out a huff. Sokka rounded on her.
"What was that for?" he demanded.
"What is with you?" Toph asked, "Jeez, you're acting weird. I've done that to you a million times before, why are you so freaked out THIS time?"
"BecauseSukiwasrightthereandyoualmostkilledherwithme," Sokka streamed.
"What?" Toph said.
"Because Suki. Was. Right. There. And you almost. Killed. Her. With. Me." Sokka said, saying each word like it was its own sentence, each louder than the next. Suki frowned, but he didn't notice, because he pressed on with a, "That's dangerous, Toph!"
"What, is she made of glass?" Toph replied, skeptically, "I'm pretty sure she's not dead."
"But she could be!" Sokka said, giving an exaggerated wave of his arms, "She could have been crushed under me! Or she could have hit her head on a rock! Or she could have fallen down and broken something! Or she could have fallen off the cliff and dashed her brains out on the rocks below! Or she could have had a spontaneous—"
"SOKKA," Suki interrupted again, reaching around him and clamping her hand over his mouth. He stopped being an idiot, for a moment, and wisely shut up. Suki said, "I'm fine, got it?"
Sokka let out a long breath, and relaxed, and Suki reluctantly pulled her hand off his mouth. When he opened his mouth again to add something, she re-clamped her hand down, and he shut up again.
"Relax," she said, calmly.
He settled in, reluctantly.
Toph remained agitated.
Apparently, it was complicated.
He started to walk off, and Suki hesitated. Regret filled her, suddenly, and for once, she wished she hadn't been so honest with him immediately after he had brought up having lost someone he cared about.
Around the campfire behind her, behind the crops of rocks, she could hear the sounds of the rest of their party at the campfire. She could hear Toph and Katara arguing with only a little bit of animosity, and the pregnant woman and her husband laughing over something. And Sokka was just walking away, deeper into the labyrinth of rocks and cliffs, the moon making everything glow blue and rich, with Sokka heading to a more personal place.
And then Suki knew she couldn't let him walk away to be so alone. She burst from her stand-still and rushed after him, and she took his arm. Sokka stopped quite suddenly, and she nearly smashed right into her, but her quick reflexes let her skid to a halt in front of him.
"Sokka," she said, and then she wasn't sure what to say.
He just stared at her, his mouth curved into a sad, sad face, and he let out a confused little, "Yeah...?"
She dropped his arm, almost awkwardly, and she said, "If you want to talk...?"
Sokka's shoulders sloped into that distinctly unconfident slant, and then he nodded his head towards the rocks, his hand drifting to her shoulder. He gently steered her back, and she sat down. He settled down next to her. Suki shifted on her rock so she could face him better, tucking her legs under her. Sokka avoided her eyes.
"I've... never talked about Yue with anyone, Suki," Sokka replied. "Well, I mean... I talked with her dad briefly, but we had to go soon after. I've sort of dodged Katara every time she's brought it up, and Aang, well, he asked once and didn't bring it up again, and Toph... I don't even know if Toph knows. She came along after."
"If you don't want to talk about it, you don't have to," Suki said, assuringly. Her curiosity burned, but she didn't dare be demanding. There was no point, there would be no good from actions like that. Sokka glanced at her, sidelong, and gave a weird smile, the corners of his mouth twisting up and his eyebrows lifting. "We could talk about other things!"
In a way, she regretted the idea of spending what time she had with him watching him mourn something she didn't understand.
"Nah," he said, and he turned. His face was growing a bit red, again, and he continued, bravely, "You should know."
Suki waited on him, and nodded slowly. Sokka turned to face her, and he started off.
"See, when we got to the Northern Water tribe, there was this girl."
Sokka stopped there and gave an odd grimace-smile, and though Suki felt a strange bit of jealousy at it, she wasn't sure what to make of it. His halt and expression made it unclear as to whether "this girl" was a good thing or a bad thing, and she waited patiently.
"She was Princess Yue, and she had just turned sixteen, and, er... we sort of fell for each other."
And he launched off into the story. Suki listened carefully, intently, initially steeling herself so she wouldn't interrupt or ask pointless questions. But as the story got deeper and more intense, he was leaving gaps for her to talk to him, and she did so. She prompted him to talk more about Hahn and Yue, and jealousy, and anger. Sokka slowly let more and more details slip, until Suki felt as if she had been watching the whole thing.
He wasn't exactly poetic about it, mind. He fumbled over his words like expected, awkwardly describing how Princess Yue looked, almost stumbling over his feelings for her. He danced around the word "love" like it was taboo, and gave her a funny look when he changed the topic at the subject of kissing.
Yet, somehow, he managed to be brutally honest with her, as he'd always been, in that brash way. He just skimped on the details that Suki knew how to fill in herself.
She had to admit, still, that there was a bit of a green-eyed monster lurking in the back of her mind, hearing Sokka talk about a girl like that. Not that Suki was particularly upset at not being that girl, as she accepted her crush on Sokka for what it was: simply crush on Sokka. But the idea of Sokka talking about her like that was more than a bit appealing.
He spoke about Princess Yue as if she was a goddess, which made sense now, more or less, but it was sweet, in a boyish, awkward way.
"A bit of an earful, huh?" he asked, and Suki laughed.
"Yes, but I'm always ready to listen to you," she replied. Sokka smiled, and she shoved him playfully, with a teasing little, "You're the one who talks too much."
"No, you," he shot back, just as teasing. He shoved her back, so she slid a few inches back on the rock, and she smiled. He looked relieved, somehow, like he had taken a huge weight from his shoulders. His smile was enthusiastic.
"Is that a challenge?" she asked.
His eyes met her dead on, and he replied, "If you want to make it one."
"Oh, I do," she said, quietly, in that mock-serious way. She gave a lunge forward to shove him, but he moved back first and then moved forward as she recoiled, and shoved her. She laughed, a bit too loudly.
"Do what?" Katara asked.
She had joined them, suddenly, appearing around the corner from the rocks, and both Suki and Sokka realized that the camp had gone mostly silent. When Katara approached, the two respectfully shifted away from each other, as subtly as possible. If she noticed, she didn't show it.
"We're all going to bed," Katara said, "you two going to stay up talking more, or are you coming?"
Sokka glanced at Suki, and she shrugged back at him. He turned to Katara and replied, "I guess we're going to talk more. We've got our bedrolls set up over here, anyway. Night, Katara."
"Alright," Katara replied. A funny smile settled on her face, and she said, "Goodnight Sokka, Suki."
She turned and left watching them over her shoulder, and they waited until she was clear out of view before moving. Sokka stood up first, slipping down off the rock and stretching, and Suki followed suite.
"Might as well get ready for bed, I guess, even if we don't sleep?" he said, and she nodded. She picked her way through the outcroppings of rock to pick up her pack. Sokka glanced around, blank-faced, and then said, "I think I left mine over at the camp… I'll be right back."
He started to walk off, but he froze at the corner of the rocks dividing them from the rest of the camp. Sokka turned, concerned, and he said, "Be careful where you walk, you never know when there's something pointy you could step on."
Suki bit back a sigh and said, "You too."
He paused still, and then smiled. "Gotcha." Off he went.
Suki went back to rummaging through her pack, pushing aside all her food supplies to dig out her sleeping yukata. Pulling it out and shaking it out in case some other loose articles in her bag had gotten caught in it, she draped it over the bag and stood up, unlacing her soft leather armour and putting it down over a rock. She was just pulling off her hakama-skirt when Sokka reappeared around the corner.
She looked up at him, holding her kimono closed over her legs, and he gave a goofy grin. With an exaggerated show of covering his eyes, his elbows sticking way out on either side of his head, he turned around to face the cliff and said, "Ohhh, it's nothing I haven't seen before, don't worry!"
"That's somehow not comforting. Who were you peeping on?" Suki teased, and when she was sure he was still turned right around (and not peeping through his fingers) she laughed and dropped her kimono off her shoulders, and picked up her yukata, slipping into it quickly and tying it shut with the sash.
"Alright," she said, settling down to shove her stuff back in her bag. She was careful to tie it shut very meticulously, as always, in case some creepy-crawly or fuzzy creature decided to dip its way into her things for warmth.
Sokka had fewer qualms with changing in front of her than she did in front of him. She supposed that had something to do with the fact that she had no issue with showing him how to dress like a Kyoshi warrior. He'd had an idea about how to put it on, but she had had to stand over him and fix up all the skewed folds, the dumb little errors, and the unlatched hooks on the top of the armour. Suki had practically stripped him and redressed him, after she had seen what a sloppy horror he'd done at putting on her beloved uniform.
Currently, he was pulling off his shirt and unwrapping the braces on his arms, and was walking about quite shirtless. Suki glanced over her shoulder at him and he caught her look, and he flexed his arms and made a strongman face.
She laughed, and then stifled it with her hand, because Katara and the others were trying to sleep. Sokka grinned at her and then sat down on a rock to pull off his boots.
"But you know," Suki said, "You aren't as scrawny as you used to be."
Sokka kept on smiling and he replied, "Hey, I was never scrawny."
"Alright," Suki corrected, "you used to be a shrimp."
"Aha… well, you're actually filling out a bit now. Developing muscle. See what good vegetables and noodles can do for you?" she said, just to be a bit mean, and Sokka threw a boot at her, intentionally letting it sail far over her head, but she ducked out of instinct anyway. It landed in the rubble and she laughed. She asked, teasing still, "Is that the amazing aim you keep talking about?"
"I'll hit you next time," Sokka warned, lifting the other boot, and Suki kept her eyes trained on him, unblinking. She smiled.
"No you won't," she said.
He stared at her with his mouth open a bit for a second, with a dreamily calm look on his face, and he jerked into motion with a laugh right back. "You're right," he said, tossing the boot towards the other. It landed on top of it with a thunk. "I'd never throw something at you."
"I'm flattered," she replied.
"You should be," he said seriously, and then he said, "Veggies still don't do nothin' for me, though… but I guess I will miss the noodles. There's not half bad, for something made from plants."
"They're made from flour and eggs," Suki corrected.
"Fine. There's not half bad for something made from flour and eggs," he corrected himself. "And that makes it sound even more disgusting, thanks a lot."
"No problem," she said, brightly watching as he pulled off his socks and tramped around in nothing but his short pants. She had been honest when she had said it: she did think he looked remarkably good. In a matter of six months, he had turned from being a rather scrawny kid into a much stronger guy, and with all the training, traveling and good eating he'd been doing, he certainly seemed better, physically, in almost every way.
Or maybe it had been six long months of thinking of him, and seeing him in the flesh was a lot more reassuring than dreaming.
Sokka knew where her eyes were. He said, just as bright as he had been before, "Gee, Suki, if I didn't know better, I'd think you were checking me out!"
She pretended to reach for the boots and he lifted his arms in front of his face immediately, but she didn't touch them, only grinning at him. He dropped his arms and she said, "Maybe."
Suki could be honest. Sokka looked flattered and grinned.
She opened up the side pouch of her bag and pulled out the make-up remover, and set on taking all off all the timeworn red, black and white. Between the light of the moon and years of experience removing the paint, she could see what she was doing perfectly fine. Sokka watched her, the grin stuck on his face permanently.
"You're pretty stunning, Suki," Sokka piped up, bluntly, and Suki glanced back at him, mid-way through sweeping all the paint off one side her face. Sokka grinned at her, settling down on his sleeping bag and flopping onto his back.
"Just pretty stunning?" she replied, playfully, finishing up and stashing her things away. She dropped down onto her own sleeping stuff, and gave him a nudge in the ribs with her elbow.
"No," he said, "Extremely stunning. Like… the type of stunning that stops all sorts of people in their tracks. Super stunning. Stunner extraordinaire."
She just laughed, and he did too, and together they talked and laughed each other to sleep.
"So girls are married off at age sixteen?" Suki asked, raising an eyebrow.
"Well, yeah," Sokka replied, "I mean, after sixteen, it's kind of late, you know? Well, most girls are married off by time they're sixteen, in theory, but the Southern Water tribe is sort of bare right now. Some of the other small villages, around ours, have more girls and guys my age, but we can't do much, with all the men away at war. After the Fire nation invaded a bunch of years ago, our tribe has sort of... split up, and we stay on the move, mingling when we can. We just don't have the means of building a citadel like they do up North, 'cause we lost everything before. Living in these small little bunches are the only way we can survive, really, there isn't enough hunting in any area, anymore, to support everyone at once, so we rotate..."
Suki sort of frowned, and she said, "Sorry, I don't quite understand... what happened?"
"The Fire nation came when I was just a kid. See, right now, the Northern Water tribe, up at the North pole, they live in a big city. It's all made from snow and ice, and it's been around for centuries. There are tons of really neat bridges and waterways, it's like... well, it's like Ba Sing Se, only way smaller and made of ice. My home was like that, though a lot smaller, when I was real little. But Fire nation ruined everything," he said, a twinge of bitterness slipping in towards the end. He added, with a slight grimace, "My mom died the day."
"I'm sorry," Suki said, softly, and Sokka shook his head. Katara looked over from where she was walking with Aang, calmly, and Sokka saw her mouth tense. When she caught his look back, she turned away, as if determined not to eavesdrop.
"I'm okay," he said, lowering his voice a bit, "I'm still angry, and I want revenge, but... it's been a long time. It's sunk in, it's not an open wound anymore. I toughened up. After Dad went off, I toughened up even more. But Katara, she still cries over it. Which is normal I guess, but..."
Sokka trailed off, as if he didn't know what to say, or if he had an excuse for it. But what? In his mind, it was "but nothing", but there was something about it he couldn't put his finger on.
"Before the Fire Nation attacked the Northern tribe... I guess I figured other people were fighting the war for us, but after that it really felt like the war was our responsibility, you know? All the men left to help the effort, and we had to stay to take care of the village, but now that the Avatar's returned... it feels like our responsibility too."
Suki smiled, almost sadly. "I understand," she said. "I've seen the difference, too, in you and myself, and everyone else. When you three showed up on Kyoshi Island, we were just training the days away, as if one day we'd be involved in the war, but we never left it until now, did we? Kyoshi was always supposed to be about escaping the war outside, about selfishly hiding ourselves away in the peninsula. In the end, I think it's been good for us to go, but it feels like we should have been out here all along."
"Don't say that," Sokka said, adopting a bit of an arrogant edge on his voice, "I mean, if you weren't at Kyoshi Island and were off fighting in the war, you'd never have met me! And that would be a real tragedy, no?"
Suki raised an eyebrow and laughed, tilting her head back to face the sky and laughing away, until she had to stop to breathe. She put an arm around him, for a moment, and gave him a playful squeeze that brought the flush back to his face.
"It would be," she said, brightly. There was a moment of silence between them, with nothing but the chatter of the rest of the crew up ahead, and the crash of waves against the pass, far below. There was no wind, and no haunt of cicadas he had grown used to in the Earth kingdom. The world itself had certainly grown silent, on the rocky pass.
His eyes drifted to the ocean and he felt the need to spark up the conversation again, but she did it for him.
"So when do boys become men, in the Water tribe?"
"Guys can take a wife when they turn sixteen. I could marry, now," Sokka said, "And if the war hadn't happened maybe I would be, but all the men've been off in the war, and there's a ritual we have to go through to become men. But we met Bato, and he let me take them, though I don't know if my Dad would count that, it was rocks instead of ice. You have to pilot a boat between them. Dad's the leader of our community... technically he should be the one to do it. Anyway, I don't think Katara will ever find a husband in the Water tribe, though," he laughed, "She's far too... revolutionary, for them."
Suki smiled and leaned towards him, one eyebrow raised. She asked, "Too... revolutionary?"
"You know," he said, playfully, "girls, fighting? Even in the South, girls don't typically learn to waterbend for fighting, though they can if they want, but up North, they're not allowed to fight. They do, well... practical stuff, you know? Sewing, cooking, healing. Guys down here might not worry as much about Katara being weird, anyway, but up North, I bet they'd all be too intimidated by her. Waterbending, especially for battle, is an all-boys sport, no girls allowed, though I guess she would beat them into making her an exception. HUH, Katara?!"
Katara looked at him over her shoulder, confused and obviously having been too lost in her conversation with the pregnant woman to listen to her brother, and she said, "Huh?"
"Nevermind," Sokka said, with a smile, and she raised an eyebrow and ignored him.
"Oh," Suki said, drawing it out with a wicked smile. Her shoulder nearly brushed Sokka's, and she said, teasingly, "No girls allowed in battle? Am I too revolutionary for you?"
"Hey, maybe I like a bit of revolution now and then, huh? You're not too anything for me, except maybe too beautiful," Sokka replied, defensively, though he smiled, and she cracked up.
"Oh Sokka," she laughed. "Sokka, Sokka. Don't ever change."
His cheeks were flushed red, and he laughed it off with her, with her hand on his.
"You and Suki, huh?" Katara smiled, "I saw that."
Sokka wheeled around to look at her, and he let out a strangled sort of whine, the sound of his dignity stabbing itself in the gut. She was looking at him like she knew something she could hold against him. Katara had seen him kiss her? It seemed unfair to him that she would mock him for never having kissed, and then give him looks that mocked him about kissing Suki. It was just a bit unfair, to be losing to his little sister.
"Hey, she liked it," Sokka replied, sharply. Katara giggled.
"What was it you always said about finding a nice, devoted Water tribe girl and settling down?" she said, wryly, "You know, that speech you gave when we were little? You want to marry Mom?"
"You don't remember that!" Sokka said, skeptically. "You were only four or five or something!"
"I do!" Katara replied, "We were in Gran Gran's tent, and Mom was telling us all about how she and Dad courted each other, and how they came to get married, and you said, YOU SAID, that you wanted to marry Mom, because she's pretty and perfect!"
"Hey," Sokka said, sharply, though his face was flushing bright red, "Suki's pretty, and Suki's perfect."
"You cried when Mom said you couldn't marry her!" Katara laughed.
"I was six!" he protested, and she went on laughing, so he grabbed her around the neck with his arm, held her against his side, and he mussed up her hair so badly it stuck up weirdly for hours and hours.
To be fair, she did beat him into letting go with her water bending, but when he and Aang spent the rest of the day trying to keep from laughing every time they looked at her hair, he considered it a victory on his part.
Sokka was slung on his back in the saddle, filled with more excitement than he could even being to explain. Aang, ahead of him and seated on Appa's head, was smiling, too. Both had many reasons to be joyous.
"I'm going to master the Avatar state and the war will be over by the end of summer!" Aang enthused, and Sokka nodded.
"I'm finally gonna see Dad, and then we're going back to Ba Sing Se, and I'm going to see Suki again," Sokka replied, just as enthusiastically, and when Aang glanced at him, he added flippantly, "And you're going to master the Avatar state and the war will be over! Yay!"
The "yay" sounded a bit forced, but neither paid much heed to that. Sokka was too brain-deep in his own imagination. He said, "When I see Suki again? Man. We'll be able to relax together for once. I'll sweep her up in my arms and everything will be perfect."
Aang laughed and said, "I would have thought Suki would sweep YOU up in HER arms, not the other way around."
Sokka took a second to realize the kid was teasing, and was half-way through the motion of getting up to knock the kid right off Appa. Though he supposed, well, why not, he figured there had to be limits on some things. He wasn't going to be swept up in any girl's arms unless he was missing his legs.
And even then, that was a bit embarrassing.
"Hey," Sokka trailed, slouching over the back of the saddle and folding his hands behind his head. "I can't wait to see her again."
Yeah. He'd sweep her up in his arms, and they would roughhouse, and they'd be in a big, big place with many, many rooms. There would be a lot of other Kyoshi warriors, but surely they'd be busy with their own stuff, and he could steal Suki away for some quality time.
As much as he liked the idea of sparring with her and proving to her just how far he'd come in the past months, Sokka had a few ideas he figured she wouldn't be all too opposed to. They could do... activities.
Activities like walks, dates, and exploring Ba Sing Se. She could even see all the things the Kyoshi warrior culture had come from, everything! It'd be perfect.
Sokka settled into these ideas with growing admiration, with growing excitement. He was a simple guy, and now that these world issues were winding down, he could maybe have a small measure of peace.
"Yep, it's something to look forward to, for sure," he said again, and then glanced Aang. "Someday, you'll find a gorgeous girl who'll adore you, and then you'll know just how great it is to be a man instead of a kid."
Aang was flushing bright red, and Sokka smiled to himself smugly.
Real men had real women, and he was well on his way.