UPDATE: 11 OCTOBER 2011:
A/n: I first wrote and posted this story in January 2008 (almost four years ago!), and it has since been the story that I come back to the most. It is undeniably my most controversial piece, and has received feedback all over the spectrum. The most common issues, however, are ones that I could identify with - mostly in the details, but also in the ending. After years of wanting to do something about this, I finally went back and fixed the whole thing as best as I could without re-writing it. I broke the sections into the chapters they (and your poor eyes) deserve. I edited the blatant errors and changed plot points. And though I will never be completely happy with this piece (or any of my pieces, to be honest), I can at least look at this and go, "Okay, I've done the best I can." And really, I'm ready to let it go.
So if you've read this before, welcome back! Feel free to ignore this or give it a second go. To the new readers, welcome! This fandom may be dead, but it is certainly not forgotten.
Something to consider: I originally wrote this in the SEVEN MONTH GAP between the invasion and "The Western Air Temple", so while the story no longer fits in with the series canon, it fit right in with what was canon at the time.
I could NOT have done this without massive amounts of help (that includes your commentary, reviewer!). Over the years I've been lucky to know so many amazing writers, some of which formed the squadron of betas who went over this story line by line, nitpicking and suggesting areas of improvement. To Rhed, Izzy, Chaka, and Lupe, you are the best help I could ask for. Thank you so much.
Disclaimer: I still own nothing!
WARNINGS: This story contains, on varying levels ranging from minor to explicit, torture, self-harm, isolation, imprisonment, and flat-out violence. If you have triggers for any of these things, best skip ahead to the next story.
Happy Reading, and as always... THANK YOU!
Brute Force: Desperation
Part I: Interrogation
Sokka's grip on her arm would later leave a hand-shaped bruise. Toph assumed that, like herself, he had rendered his face expressionless. Later on—if they were fortunate enough to have a 'later on'—she might allow herself to feel something like fear, but not here. Not in front of these Fire Nation soldiers, whose unrecognizable voices didn't sound evil save for their disgust. The smell of soot hung low in the warm indoor air, a product of the torches lined along the wall. If she could get a hold on even one of them, she could knock their captors into next week and walk away.
A wisp of air brushed her ear when Sokka whispered, "Don't tell them anything, Toph."
"I won't," she said, almost annoyed that he had reminded her. Even defenseless as she was, with her wrists bound behind her back and wooden sandals tied expertly to her feet, she didn't need prompting.
The man who appeared to be charge—a general with a harsh voice and, presumably, harsh features, but Toph couldn't be sure—gave a growling laugh and moved forward. Sokka's grip on her arm tightened, and briefly she wondered if he was trying to hurt her, but it loosened a moment later as the pair was forced roughly apart.
From what Toph could hear, Sokka made a mad lunge towards her, only to be stopped in mid-air and knocked backwards by the general's massive hands. His shout sounded more like a shriek as he slid across the floor on his backside. Toph couldn't help but wince.
The general grabbed Toph roughly by her upper arm and jerked her to one side like a rag doll. In the commotion that followed Sokka's outburst, she made a wild, sideways grab for her captor's armor with both hands. Toph's fingers brushed against a Fire Nation insignia, but not one that she could distort with a well-aimed punch. Her blind eyes widened with the realization that these soldiers wore armor carved not from metal, but from wood, smooth and clasped with fabric ties. They had effectively shut down the fight before it could begin.
Even the greatest Earthbender in the world, when handled properly, was just a little girl.
The amount of forethought to the attack scared her. How could they have known that Toph and Sokka would be wandering alone through the woods at the exact time that they were? This prison surely couldn't have been made just for them; the entrance to this place—though what "this place" meant, she didn't know—had been lined with planks of wood, but there must be metal somewhere close by.
"Still rebellious even without your weapons, I see," the general spat, off to her side. "We'll see how defiant you are after a day or two in our prison." He turned again and Toph was half-dragged across the floor, her arm twisted across her back. "Why are you still sitting there, boy? Get up!"
A shuffling ensued, during which Toph assumed Sokka scrambled clumsily to his feet. With almost no effort at all, the soldier released Toph's arm and shoved her across the room, where she collided with Sokka and almost sent them both toppling to the floor again.
"Let's just make this easy on everyone." The sound of weighty footsteps followed. Sokka found Toph's hand and gripped it as a new set of hands closed on her shoulders. Toph couldn't be sure as to whom Sokka was trying to comfort. "Who would like to speak first? Where is the Avatar?"
Truth be told, neither of them knew exactly where Aang was. The group had split into two just the previous day. Katara and Aang, along with Zuko, The Duke, Teo, and Haru, had dropped Toph and Sokka off in the town where Piandao resided so that Sokka could inquire as to the purpose of the White Lotus tile. Toph had elected to accompany him so that Aang could stay behind to continue his Firebending, and Katara, with her incredible distrust of Zuko, had refused to even discuss leaving Aang. Somebody must have seen the pair in town—probably while Sokka was taking his sweet time at the beef jerky stand. Toph refused to believe that they could have been so prepared for her without prior notice.
When neither Toph nor Sokka responded, the general addressed his men in that same stern tone: "Remember the special cell for the girl, and make sure his weapons are locked in the vaults." He jerked his thumb over his shoulder, a gesture she imagined rather than pictured as Sokka's grip on her hand tightened. "Get them out of here."
She heard the sound of more soldiers stepping forward. Abandoning all pretenses, Sokka grabbed Toph by the hem of her tunic and drew his face close to hers. His voice shook, even more so in his urgent whisper.
"I'll get us out of here soon," he assured her, though she could hear no certainty in his words. Subconsciously, she quivered in his grip—the first visible sign that she was just as afraid as he. "You just promise me that you won't stop believing it."
She shook her head. "Sokka, don't be—"
Two more pairs of hands grasped her upper arms in an attempt to pry her from Sokka's steadfast hold. Soundlessly, Toph panicked. Leaving his side meant that she, for the first time, might actually be the blind and helpless girl that she had spent her entire life forcing away. She yanked at her restraints, making to grab his shirt and grasping little more than air.
"Please, Toph…" Sokka sounded strangled, his vain attempts to cling to her shoulders failing as his escorts persisted. She could feel his fingers gripping the fabric of her tunic, feel the fabric straining under his hold.
Toph gave a small, sharp yelp when, with a lurch, the hands yanked her backward, lifted her clear off her feet, and began to carry her across the room. She yelled out in hope that Sokka could still hear her as he was pulled in the opposite direction.
"I promise!" And then, under her breath, "Goodbye, Sokka."
For reasons she could not identify, it never ceased to surprise Toph that her cell was stronger than she, made of thick wood that she could neither Bend nor break. And she'd tried, too, though in her heart she knew that her only real chance of survival was if Aang and Katara were to make some sort of miracle rescue, and the two of them wouldn't even learn of their absence for several days. That, and this prison hold was, as far as she'd deduced, far underground and virtually undetectable. Never had she been so immersed in her element, and yet so far from it. Feet away. Maybe inches, if she stuck her hands through the bars.
Toph put her hands over her face and struggled for a moment against her own voice, her own doubt. The urge to admit defeat welled up in her chest and throat, but she forced it down with a hard swallow.
"I know, I know," she whispered breathlessly, agitated. For the time being, she would have to wait for Sokka to come up with a plan, and in the meantime try to think of one herself. She'd been in trouble before, and had gotten out on sheer brilliance and her rapier wit. If she stayed as steadfastly confident as she had always been, there could be no doubting their escape.
Toph shuffled over to the door of the cell and sat very still, listening. Her senses were pulling double time, so sharp that she could hear her guard's soft, even breath on the other side.
"Hello?" she shouted. There had to be other prisoners in this place, Fire Nation or otherwise.
"Shut up," said the guard.
Maybe someone had heard her raucous arrival and would try to contact her if she couldn't get to them first. She waited, desperate for even the smallest sound. When that proved unhelpful, Toph spent a few minutes trying to untie the thick ropes that held the sandals to her feet. Failing that, she felt her way over to the far corner of the cell, flopped down on the floor, and tucked her legs against her chest.
Toph, at the moment, was not the only blind one in the Hold. Wrists tied as before, Sokka was lead through a series of labyrinthine hallways by a pair of unspeaking soldiers. The twists and turns, locked doors, and abrupt changes in direction were enough, he thought, to render the cloth bag over his head superfluous. Occasionally voices, muffled by the bag and by their owners, would reach his ears as guards and (most likely) important figures passed one another. The moisture of his own breath was stifling, almost suffocating, and when the bag was finally removed from his head Sokka took a deep breath of clean air before the thought to look around even crossed his mind.
However, before he had a chance to get a proper look at the room he was in, his escort pulled his arms above his head—Sokka winced as his arm was twisted briefly the wrong way—pushed him forcibly into a cold metal chair from behind, then dropped his wrists behind the steel backing. The captured warrior's hand bumped against a tiny wedge of welding on the chair back, which likely had supported the chair's tall frame before being wrenched off. But Sokka was too concerned with his surroundings to pay it much heed. Footsteps bounced off of the thick metal walls, first only the original pairs and then four as two more people entered the room. Finally, after a brief silence during which Sokka assumed the people communicated with nods and gestures —though he craned his neck backwards, eyebrow cocked, he still could not see behind him—the first pair of footsteps faded down the hallway.
"Well, isn't this a pleasant surprise? I must admit that I never thought I would say it, but it's a pleasure to see you, Sokka."
He had almost expected her in the beginning. This huge place, the seamless fashion in which their capture had occurred, had reeked of her from the start. Sokka had hoped against hope that her absence had meant she wasn't behind this. Evidently he was wrong. Of all the things Sokka had dreaded, the voice that reached his ears next was the very worst; it sent a terrible chill down his spine, prickled his skin like needles and stifled the remainder of his precious, trace optimism.
One of the pairs of footsteps strode around the chair, and into his line of sight stepped an armor-clad Azula. Sokka poured every ounce of his willpower into making a mask of his face, desperate not to give her any satisfaction. He had no idea that Chief Hakoda's son, proud warrior of the Southern Water Tribe and comrade of the Avatar, could still feel a fear this intense. And although his face portrayed none of this terror, his eyes screamed it loudly enough for the entire Fire Nation to hear. A smirk flitted across the princess's lips, cruel and predatory.
Before she had a chance to say anything more, Sokka demanded, "What are you doing here?"
Azula enjoyed a chuckle at his expense.
"I don't think you're in the position to be asking questions," she said airily, with a nonchalant wave of her hand. "If I were you, I'd be asking what I have to do to leave this place. Well let me tell you…" She shifted on her slick armored heels to face him straight on. "If you answer my questions precisely and truthfully, you and your friend walk free."
This statement had to be a lie; Azula wasn't dumb enough to release him and Toph from so much as their ropes, much less hand them weapons and usher them to the front door. "And if I don't?"
"Trust me, you will."
She lowered her face close enough so that Sokka could see every little detail of her yellow eyes.
"You may think you're strong and brave and that you won't succumb to my request, but I know better. If there is any trouble whatsoever, any refusal to cooperate, the consequences will be unbearable—for you, at least." Azula paused, as if waiting for a response, and when she received none and leaned in closer still, her hands finding the arm rests on either side of the chair and gripping them in her talon-like fingers. At another time, when Sokka had his wits fully about him, he would happily show Azula his defiance and kiss her full on the mouth—no matter how disgusting it was, no matter how badly she hurt him afterward. It would be worth it to watch her splutter in outrage. But right now, the fear paralyzed him.
"Where is the headquarters of the Order of the White Lotus?" she asked.
In spite of his efforts to remain rocklike, Sokka's eyebrows shot upward. He had expected to hear questions of Aang and Katara, of her treacherous brother. But to his immense astonishment, he had no idea what his interrogator was talking about.
"I… I don't know," he replied in all honesty, attempts at neutrality failing under surprise's pressure.
Instead of replying, Azula reached up with one hand and placed her fingers on the side of his neck. They should have been the cold hands of a villain, Sokka thought, but they weren't. Her fingers felt smooth and warm. Her nails dug lightly into his skin.
She seemed to observe him for a moment. Sokka didn't dare tear his eyes from her, lest he miss something.
"Your pulse says otherwise," Azula finally declared, and then Sokka jumped as if an electric shock had coursed through him. She stepped backwards and motioned with a nod of her head to someone over his shoulder. "Getsuei, if you would."
Sokka jumped for a second time, this time out of his own nerves. His hand bumped against the thin, loose strip of metal again, leaving a small scratch in its wake. The intensity and relative pain of his situation had caused him to forget the second pair of footsteps from before.
"Getsuei is my personal apprentice to the art of interrogation," stated Azula. She clasped her hands behind her back in a professional matter, only her head inclining to the second woman as she made her way around Sokka's chair. "If you refuse to give us the necessary answers, she will use you as practice for her work. And though we have yet to venture into the more… hands-on… methods until now, I must say that she shows great potential."
Sokka's narrowed eyes darted towards Getsuei, whose dark hair and stout appearance would have made her look distinctly Earth Kingdom were it not for her Fire Nation armor. Judging by their metal plate, he deduced that they had not yet been to see Toph. In one steady hand she carried a whip-like device, and in the other was the cloth bag that he had been wearing on his head. Her harsh, tired features held no emotion as she looked him up and down without tilting her head.
Azula continued, unperturbed by her apprentice's silence. "As for our little meeting today, Getsuei received your possessions, and in them she found this—"
Azula reached into her pocket and drew forth a little black bag, which contained the White Lotus Tile about which Sokka and Toph had been traveling to investigate when they had been captured. Sokka felt himself shift in involuntary astonishment. As adamantly as he steeled himself against surprise, it seemed that every moment brought him through a new turn, each one leaving him more vulnerable. The accompanying gestures were just an inevitable side effect.
"I see…" The princess trailed off deliberately, as if to leave Sokka more time to contemplate his options. "Of course, it's possible that you merely favor the White Lotus for pai sho, and that you know nothing of the Order. In that case, we'll have to pry the information out of your friend—"
The singular word had escaped from his mouth before he had a chance to consider it. Hating himself for having shown his fear, he nevertheless continued, "Look, I don't know what this Order thing is—I've never even heard of it!"
"From whom did you receive the tile?"
Sokka opened his mouth to respond, hesitated, closed it again. His silence was a ringing one, echoing through his own ears—and, he was sure, the ears of his interrogators—like the loudest siren. "I found it."
When Getsuei stepped forward towards Sokka, Azula flung out her arm to stop her. The apprentice walked into her arm and stopped abruptly, never speaking.
"I don't think you realize what you're getting yourself into," said Azula.
"No, actually, I understand it just fine," Sokka derided, and boy did it feel good to say something in his usual tone, as opposed to this frightened voice he kept hearing himself use. "I know exactly what you're trying to do, and it's not going to work, so why don't you just untie me so we can—"
The next thing he knew, a strangled yell had erupted from his throat, his arms automatically struggling (and failing) to free themselves from the bonds that held him down. That scrap of metal dug into his hand yet again, sending a warm trickle down his palm. A pain like none he had ever experienced erupted in his torso, a sensation that mimicked the claws of nine polar leopards digging into his chest. Sokka's brain was momentarily overcome with the intensity of it before he finally, gasping, opened his streaming eyes and faced his captors. Breaths came unevenly, his chest heaving.
Neither Azula nor Getsuei was perturbed by his brief reaction to Getsuei's whip—quite the contrary, it seemed; Azula's eyebrows rose only the tiniest bit, and she scoffed at the Water Tribe warrior's attempts to wipe his wet face on his shoulder.
"That was only a taste of what can be delivered to you, should you remain silent. You know," the prodigy noted with a fleeting smirk, casting her eyes skyward as if reflecting on a pleasant conversation, "after your failure of an invasion, a large group of men surrendered—Water Tribe, mostly."
Again, Azula saw in his eyes what his expression would not show. It pleased her.
"It's a shame, really, that all that strength had to go to waste; the Fire Nation doesn't take prisoners."
A strangled, pained yell escaped from Sokka's throat as he failed to leap to his feet and break through his restraints. "That's a lie! You—you're a liar!"
Yellow eyes flashed dangerously. "Maybe. And maybe not. You'll never know unless you talk."
Sokka's eyes narrowed in defiance. "I don't know what you're talking about. And if I did, I would never tell you."
Azula shrugged and responded with a simple, "Your loss." She nodded once to Getsuei.
Getsuei stepped forward. Sokka held his breath.
The sole torch outside his cell provided Sokka with just enough light to inspect his new injuries. One of the armed guards had escorted him—and by escorted he meant half-dragged a Sokka who had barely enough strength to even stand—to this cell and thrown him carelessly in before slamming the metal door shut. Sokka, even in his semi-conscious state, had looked eagerly around for a sign of a wooden cell or an exit. As far as he could tell, there was no escaping from this place without a key and a map, and he had neither of the two.
It was horrible to imagine that places like this might exist all over the world, just below their treading feet. It was not hewn roughly into the earth but constructed with measurable precision. The four walls of his cell were of the exact same dimensions as the ceiling and floor, each line meeting another in a perfect and sharp angle. Being hurdled through the door was a bit like being thrown into an oversized box—a box whose walls gleamed from the hallway torchlight. Sokka was momentarily dizzied by the sight of it, and slumped into the corner where two walls met only after thoroughly inspecting the cell for sharp items. He wouldn't want to brush up against anything that could scratch him in his sleep, though it might be useful to have something like that for an escape…
He grazed his fingertips along one of the swollen welts that had risen up on his chest. Some were bloodied from the whip, all were inflamed. A sharp hiss passed through his clenched teeth and he drew back his hand almost instantly, wiping the traces of blood onto the side of his pants.
This was insane. Undoubtedly the nastiest thing that had ever happened to him. Yes, it could have been worse, but he couldn't fathom how he could experience a more intense pain than what he had felt less than an hour before. Now that he was here, in this cell containing nothing but a gleaming metal toilet, Sokka took a moment to open his mind and contemplate the circumstances. He had met people in the past who would have given up in his situation, but he wasn't ready to abandon hope. Not yet. Being a man of science, Sokka reasoned that there had to be a way out, a way in which he could manipulate his captors to escape the cell, find Toph, and somehow miraculously get the two of them out of there without being discovered.
Sokka opened his mouth to mutter to himself some sort of sarcastic comment, but instead he found that, for once, he had nothing to say. Tons of thoughts bombarded his brain, yes—he had actually developed a headache, though whether it was from his recent torture, his lack of food, or from the thoughts, he didn't know—but all the sarcasm seemed to have been drained out of him with his energy.
"That's a first," he breathed, closing his eyes and leaning back against the cold stone of the cell.
The immediacy of his situation had forced the reason for his imprisonment out of his head, but it returned now in the quiet dark. No doubt Piandao had meant something by giving him the tile, but Sokka hadn't the slightest idea what, much less its connection to the Order of the White Lotus, whatever that was. Surely Azula knew more than him about it. It must be important—he felt a momentary lift of pride at having been included in this secret, however slightly, but it faded with the realization that this secret could very well kill him.
An uncomfortable chill crept up his back as Azula's last words before her departure echoed through his racing mind. She, untroubled by his half-consciousness, had watched as he was tossed into the cell, and had then turned to the guard with one comment:
"If he falls ill, it's your job to clean up the mess."
Sokka gave a surly grunt and reached out with one hand toward where his rumpled and sweaty tunic lay on the ground in a heap. The cloth in his fingertips reminded him vaguely of Toph, his attempts to cling to her in their last moments together. Then he thought of his sister, and all the times she'd sewed this very tunic. He never missed her as much as in these first moments of silent solitude, where he would give anything for her mediocre cooking and healing hands. Pushing down the sigh that welled up in his chest, Sokka wiped his face with the tunic and then draped it over his bare torso. That little bubble of despair in his heart would have to be kept under control if he planned on making it out of here alive. Anything less might result in desperation, and he had learned that desperate people often did stupid things.
Besides, he thought with the faintest trace of a smirk, who would he be if he hadn't already begun mapping out a plan? He would have to work out some kinks along the way, of course, but it was a start, and that start was what was keeping him from losing it altogether.
Sokka's stomach growled obstinately, surprising him out of his thought. When had he last eaten? The day before, or…?
'Never mind that,' he chastised himself. He began to busy himself by removing the protective cloth strips from around his wrists and placing them on the ground beside him. Frowning, he noted that one of them had been torn and stained from that little scrap of metal on his chair. 'You've gone without food before. They need to feed you eventually, if they want to keep you alive long enough to get information.'
For some reason, the prospect of living only as a tool for information did not appeal much to the warrior. Nevertheless, he tore his eyes away from the tiny window of his cell door—it was the third time he had caught himself watching that window, as if someone would actually bring him food or offer conversation. What a laugh. Sokka and lowered himself into a laying position, frontside up as to keep the floor from touching his wounds.
"I hope you're doing better than I am, Toph, wherever you are," he muttered, and closed his heavy eyes.
Days began to pass, each one becoming longer until they finally blurred together into one nightmare. There was no way to differentiate between day and night in the hold, no way for Toph to keep track of time save for her instincts. She never could see the sun, but there had never been a time where she missed its warmth more so than the time she spent locked in her cell with nothing better to do than sleep, pick her toes, and harass her guard.
Toph didn't bother raising her head from where it lay in her crossed arms. Her body was held in a somewhat odd position on the ground, with her legs propped up against the wall and the rest of her body sprawled across the wooden floor. Several sounds reached her ears, familiar sounds that she had heard more times than she cared to count. Mealtime had a familiar process, a set of steps that her gruff guard took painstakingly the same each day: a straw mat containing some cruddy food and a wooden cup of water slid through the flap of the door, and after she finished eating—sometimes it took minutes, if she was in the mood, and other times it took hours—the mat and bowl were taken away again.
Today, though, Toph's stomach gave a forlorn growl and she reached blindly outwards to where she knew the mat was, her fingers falling just short of the proper distance to reach the food. She frowned and, with a slight grunt of effort, pulled herself away from the wall with her arms and dragged herself across the cell. Splinters from the wood were nothing, now. In fact, and she looked upon the idea with a sort of dark amusement, pulling splinters from her hands and feet—or, at least, the part of her feet that wasn't covered with those slabs of wood—was a good way to pass the time, though when she couldn't get them out they throbbed for hours on end until she finally managed to extract them.
The bread in her mouth was dry and bland, one of the only things she'd eaten since being locked away. But it wasn't the food or even her cold isolation that bothered her the most. What pushed her to her limits—it had begun to haunt her in her troubled sleep, even—was the fact that she had not heard a single word about Sokka since they'd arrived. More than once, she'd pestered her guard about him, asking about his location and well being in the most roundabout and clever ways, until the guard had threatened to beat her into submission. Then she stopped for the day, until the need to know overcame her once again. The concern was always there; it never faded, but rather seemed to grow sharper in her stomach and chest until she physically cried out with the pain of it.
And still, Toph had not cried a single time. She couldn't, because crying would mean that she had given up the last of her hope, because crying was surrendering, and Toph wouldn't allow herself to surrender.
Ravenous, she took a bite from the bread and followed it with a tiny sip of water. What was Sokka doing now? Working on some sort of elaborate escape plan, for certain. She wished she could help him more, but pounding her fists on the wall had proved unhelpful; there was not an inch of earth to be had within her reach. But no matter what, she could always count on Sokka to at least try to fix things. A brief image passed through her mind of Sokka bursting through his cell door in some sort of great escape, wielding machete and space sword.
Chuckling, Toph rolled over onto her back, unseeing eyes cast skyward and mind drifting in aimless boredom, and took another bite of her meal. With thoughts of freedom on the mind, even stale bread tasted wonderful.