A/n: For notes, disclaimer, warnings, and acknowledgments, please see the first chapter.

Thanks for reading!


Part III: Brute Force

Back when the Southern Water Tribe had only just gotten involved in the war, Bato told Sokka that in order for things to get better, they first had to get worse. But surely Bato had never seen this coming.

And where is Bato now? the back of his mind bitterly said. Dead or rotting in a cell somewhere.

Either way, Bato and the rest of the Water Tribe—his own father—were better off than he. Better dead or in a cell than in this place.

After his re-capture in the hallway of the Hold, Sokka—exhausted from his efforts and a lack of both sleep and food—had been dragged by his arms to a new room. This one appeared almost exactly the same as his old room, save for the instruments inside it. (And oh, how it struck him as odd that he thought of the place he had been tortured as "his" room.) Much like the room in which Sokka had spent much of the last month, this space was empty except for a handful of innocent-looking devices whose intentions Sokka knew were all too awful.; two upright podiums that stood about six feet apart sat in the center of the room. On the other side, a tank stood with a cloth draped over it, as if to keep its contents a surprise.

Now he stood between those two podiums with his arms extended on either side of him, wrists shackled to chains that held him upright and in place. Legs that once assisted in fighting enemies and running miles at a time could hardly support the scarce weight upon them. His knees buckled with the slightest pressure and he would fall forward until only his chains held him, in which case Azula would grab him by his straggly hair and yank him back up.

Each hour crawled forward, each one longer than the next, Sokka growing ever more tired and Azula ever more annoyed, aggressive, though outwardly she held her same collected demeanor. Each flick of her wrist brought his breath to a halt, her knife glinting with the same subtlety as her yellow eyes.

"Are you telling me that you and your friend separated from your group with the White Lotus in your possession, and yet you know nothing about the Order and its members?"

Azula turned on her boot-clad heel so that her face was close to his, her hands clasped behind her back. They were opposites, true enough—Sokka was held up mostly by his arms and she held herself with the utmost dignity—but his fierce defiance mirrored her antagonism. Through his pained breaths, Sokka stared back at Azula with as much hate and defiance as she expressed apathy.

"I told you," he said, voice strong only because it had to be, "I have no idea what you're talking about. I've never heard of the Order of the White Lotus."

"Then what were you doing wandering around in the outskirts of town?"

"I was—" he faltered slightly, then continued, "I was trying to figure out what the tile means because I don't know."

A flash of triumph flickered across her face, so quickly that he almost thought he'd imagined it. "And from whom did you receive the tile?"

Sokka said nothing. The name "Piandao" had leapt to his tongue, but he forced it back down with a hard swallow. The thought had passed to give her the name, just so he might take leave of this misery. It couldn't possibly be worth it, despite Azula's acute interest in the tile. It was either something that could end the war or nothing at all. Sokka didn't care to think on it any more. His body had come to terms with its end and his mind was catching up. At this point, keeping his mouth shut meant never giving Azula what she wanted most, and that was all that mattered.

Azula stepped a half pace forward and pressed the flat edge of her knife against the area just below his ribcage. Sokka cringed as far back as he could while suspended between the podiums.

"Silence," she hissed, "is not an answer."

His eyes widened suddenly in semi-surprise, a choked gasp escaping as she tilted the blade sideways across his abdomen, just enough to draw blood. Sokka tensed up, and it was only when she pulled back did he breathe again. He didn't look—he didn't want to look, and looking might only cause him to collapse—but he nevertheless felt the cut sting as sweat rolled down his chest and mixed with blood. It was maddening, to know that Azula had marked his own body while he stood and watched. In the impossible chance that he left this place, the scars would follow him for the rest of his life. One more for every silent moment, every precious breath.

But more maddening still than the knife against his skin was the ringing that erupted in his head with every frantic beat of his heart:

I was so close to being free. So close.

The prospect of being denied his freedom was more powerful than his interrogator. And even more powerful than that was the knowledge that he was to die in mere hours if he didn't start talking.

And talking wasn't an option. Sokka knew that and so must Toph.

Toph.

How many times had he thought of her in the last hours? Her mischievous smile, her rocklike demeanor; it all meant so much more than when he walked freely. Every time Toph had been somehow dragged into the occasion, whether as a threat or as leverage or anything at all, every time he had fought back with renewed vigor. And for what?

"I ask again: What are the Avatar's plans? Where is he heading?" said Azula, rounding on him once more.

For nothing.

Sokka's eyes followed the princess as she walked, until she circled behind him and he could see her no longer. "I don't know. Aang wouldn't stay in the same place as he was a month ago… well, if you hadn't captured us then he might have, but since you had to go and—"

He gave a sort of yelp as she yanked his messy wolftail backwards and placed the tip of the knife at his throat.

"You can't afford to be snide with me," she muttered, low. "If you don't tell me exactly what I need to know in this meeting—these few hours, and no more—then you will die."

"Exactly," replied Sokka in what he deemed was a calm tone, though his heart was racing in his chest and he felt nothing but fear and anger. "If I die, you still won't know where Aang is or was, who gave me the tile, what our plans are."

Instead of asking him again, Azula took the knife away from his throat and placed it on his collarbone, whispering in his ear as she traced the edge along the sensitive skin, "I should cut your throat right now. Or take off your arm—" The knife moved to his left arm. Sokka's knuckles clenched as he fought his restraints, the shackles digging into his wrists and leaving them raw. "You won't need that without your boomerang, will you? Or, better yet, I could start on your friend—"

He could almost feel her wicked smirk, and it scared him almost to words. Azula was a master of persuasion. Sokka could only do so much against her powerful influence.

"She'd rather die," Sokka responded, choking slightly as Azula gave his wolf's tail another hard tug backwards. The knife dug almost delicately into his upper arm and he shook with the effort of restraining a yell. It was a cross between a sting and a searing ache, more than he could stand but still not enough.

"Are you sure? Because if your life were in danger, I think she would talk. After all, she seemed awfully upset at the news of your untimely death." Sokka said nothing. Azula pulled the knife away and wiped the blood on the side of his pants. "No? Well let's find out, shall we? Getsuei!"

From the shadow of the room's corner stepped Getsuei, whose permanently scowling face looked graver than ever. Her fingers wound like claws around the handle of the cart, upon which sat the covered tank.

"Roll it over here."

Nodding once, Getsuei strode over to the covered tank, pushed it across the room until it was in front of Sokka. She pulled away the black sheet to reveal nothing more than a large glass basin of… water, from what he could tell. Though he was immediately relieved that there was no sign of a piranhashark, he wouldn't be sure that the liquid wasn't corrosive. One of Sokka's eyebrows shot up at the liquid as it swished around the glass, foreboding in its innocence.

"You need a story, something to let her know the extent of your suffering. Frankly, I don't think that the sight of blood will do it justice."

Getsuei stepped forward, drawing her own knife from her belt—the same one that she had used on him only the day before, Sokka noted darkly. She shoved the blunt end under his throat, then turned the handle around so that the sharp blade rested against his Adam's apple. Two consecutive clicks followed. Sokka's arms fell from his bonds, only to have his wrists tied tightly behind his back again. He dropped forward slightly against the knife, managing to steady himself before the silver edge cut into him. Azula tightened the bonds in a series of sharp tugs that made his fingers clench with the pain of his bloodied wrists, and only when she nodded from behind him did Getsuei step back.

Sokka was by no means prepared when Azula grabbed him suddenly again by his warrior's wolf tail. She shoved him forward, down until his head was completely submerged in the tank.

The effect was instantaneous, a sort of insanity that he had never before experienced. It was as if his instincts overrode every once of logic in his mind; his body acted of its own accord, wrenching backwards until a pair of arms wrapped around his upper half to keep him steady. His lungs were empty of air, mind buzzing with panic. But when Sokka struggled yet again to pull his head up, the intense pain that erupted in the back of his neck told him either Getsuei or Azula had put a blade against his skin to assure that he could not get free. He would have to breathe in the next seconds, lest he pass out or inhale the water—

And then he was back in the air, gasping for breath and struggling to figure out what had just happened. Getsuei appeared in his line of sight with her typical scowl more profound than before, the light of the single torch dancing off of her reddened knife. Sokka blinked to clear the water from his eyes, but this time he had no shirt to wipe his face on. He had nothing here, nothing at all, and Azula fed off of that revelation.

"You know," she casually threw out as she stood half beside him with a firm grasp on his hair. "While we're here, you might as well give me some information. This can all be over."

Coughing, Sokka spat, "No."

Azula shrugged. "Suit yourself."

This time, while Sokka knew it was coming, he had only taken a half of a breath before Azula had shoved him back under, and in the process of breathing he inhaled a mouthful of water. It was a wonder that his lungs didn't explode. That dreadful feeling washed over him again, consuming his entire body until he was sure that he was going to die. Sokka's arms and legs began to slow in their protest as his brain seemed to shudder to a halt. The strong hand of looming death had begun to tighten around his throat, rendering him senseless and mindless. And it was strange, he thought, that his final flickering thoughts were of better times, of Toph and her defiant laugh, the petite girl that could take him in any contest of strength—

Sokka was only vaguely aware when he surfaced again. Azula pushed him backward, where he stumbled into one of the two pillars and collapsed to the ground, semi-conscious with his hands tied behind his back. His legs automatically tucked upwards into his chest as he coughed and spluttered, eyes shut against the pain in his torso and neck—both were dripping with a ghastly mix of water and blood. But no sooner had he stopped coughing and spitting up water did a sharp pain erupt in the small of his back. Sokka cried out in a rasping exclamation of agony. His entire body was on fire with the force of it, searing with ache and sweat and prolonged lack of air.

"Get up," Getsuei said bitterly, pulling him forcibly to his feet by his arm before Azula could kick him a second time. Steadying his shoulders with one hand, she cupped his cheek and wiped the wetness from his face. Azula, heading for the door, didn't witness the gesture. Sokka stared at Getsuei's dark, angular features through half-lidded eyes, mouth slightly ajar in his hazy confusion.

"What—?"

Before he had had time to register this somewhat strange signal, Azula summoned forth two guards with a wave of her hand. Getsuei, her eyebrows still furrowed with presumably dark thought, gave Sokka a gruff shove backwards that sent him straight into the expecting arms of the guards. He, too aberrantly frail to object, found that he could do nothing more than let the armed guards drag him backwards.

"Get him out of here," said Azula, folding her hands behind her back.

Even in a state of exhausted semi-consciousness, Sokka still managed to shoot Azula a narrow-eyed glare. She didn't bother responding.

xXx

Toph had been sleeping. She did that as often as she could, deeming that even her troubled, Sokka-ful dreams were better than the Sokka-less, incarcerated hours that she otherwise lived. Somewhere off in the distance, perhaps in a different dream, she heard him whisper her name as if in disbelief. She ignored it and rolled over on one side, tucking the rumpled red tunic beneath her chin. It was all just a terrible nightmare, a dream that, if she concentrated hard enough, would leave her to her hunger and her sorrow.

But the voice—his voice, tinged with a roughness that should not have been there but nevertheless sounded real—persisted still. "Toph!"

Toph's eyes snapped open as the realization hit her at full force. The voice hadn't been in her dream at all, but just outside her cell door!

"Wh-who's there?" Her voice sounded frightened in her own ears, unnatural to the brazen Earthbender. The prison had taken its toll. "Is that…?"

"It's me, Toph!" answered the voice, urgent but weak.

Toph's ears seemed to twitch at the hum of his voice, and then even more so as a click sounded and the cell door opened. A loud thump (accompanied by a grunt of pain) beside her told her that she was no longer alone in the cell.

"S-Sokka." It was the only thing that she could say, perhaps the only word that she would ever be able to speak again, so long as it was available. She grasped for another statement, something that could tell him what this moment meant to her. She faltered as her voice wavered. There were no words.

Unwilling to believe, she reached out in the darkness that surrounded her and sought him. Sokka put a great deal of effort into guiding her towards him, but she could tell from his harsh breathing that he was not well. Toph stretched her arms outward until they found him, grabbed his hand and pulled herself beside him. While one hand steadied her wasted frame—in her disbelief and lack of sustenance, she feared that she might topple over—the other found his heaving chest and rested, palm-down, over his heart. Sure enough, the steady pulse below her hand solidified his existence, his life. She nearly fainted.

"They told me you were dead," she said tearfully, failing to rid her voice of the pathetic waver. "And I believed them."

Sokka gave a feeble cough. "I'm not so sure that they were wrong."

This comment made all too apparent the fact that he was, as she could tell, dripping wet. The hand on his chest moved upwards, fingers running along abrasion after abrasion, Toph growing more and more horrified at the feeling of welts beneath her fingertips. "Please tell me this is water all over you," she gasped, aghast.

"Most of it," replied Sokka breathlessly, outwardly unsurprised with her claim. It was then that he noticed—and, consequently, she noticed—that her pale face was stained with the remnants of two new tears. "Toph," he began, his voice breaking in her keen ears. "I—"

He was abruptly cut off when she threw herself at him and, not caring that he was dripping with sweat and water and blood, locked her arms around him in a tight embrace. Caught off guard somewhat by the force of her collision into him, Sokka was dazed for only a moment before returned the hug in full despite the acute pain. He wrapped his arms around her waist and held her as close as he could manage without fear of breaking her.

"I thought you'd died," she choked, face pressed against the side of his chest. "They threw your tunic at me and told me that you were dead and I didn't want to believe it, but… We've been here for so long that I just…I couldn't handle it."

"I tried to get us out," Sokka said. He closed his eyes and the wetness seeped from them. A teardrop dripped from his chin onto her dirty clothing. "I had a plan and it almost worked, but Azula caught me and—" he broke off at the thought of retelling his past day. He couldn't say it.

A weighty silence fell upon the pair. So much had happened in the last day, yet neither seemed to be able nor willing to discuss it. Every few seconds he would wince involuntarily, breath hitching in his throat, but the thought of pain or illness had no place beside Toph Bei Fong. Toph seemed to notice it, though, and—his heart gave an ache at the gesture—she pulled away from him.

"Here." Toph leaned backwards, seeking out something behind her with her hand until it closed upon the red cloth. She sat back up again and, in her pointedly Tophlike manner, handed it to its owner.

Sokka looked down at the almost unrecognizable tunic. "I can't wear it with the shoulders cut, but thanks I guess."

Whether it was because she had been holding it beforehand or just because it was an old friend in a cold place, the tattered clothing was as warm in his hands as if he had just removed it. Toph's fingers gripped the hem of his pants where they cut off at the knee. He wiped the majority of his upper body with the tunic.

"Hmm," he observed. There was almost a touch of his forgotten humor, "makes a good rag, though." Sokka ripped off a small piece of the hem and tied it around his upper arm, where Azula's knife wound had only just begun to clot. "And an excellent bandage."

Toph uttered a slight, surprised laugh—perhaps the most wonderful sound Sokka had heard in the last month, maybe even his whole life. If he hadn't been so exhausted, he might have smiled.

Instead, Sokka took one of Toph's hands in his and guided her down beside him until they both lay, adjacent, on the hard ground. With one hand he stuck the rolled-up tunic behind their heads as a sort of makeshift pillow while his free arm found a comfortable spot around her shoulders. The torch outside the cell door cast a flickering, orange light over the pair.

An artificial night settled upon the Hold. Sokka sighed, the loose strands of his hair falling over his face as he glanced down at the figure resting beside him.

"Are you sleeping, Toph?"

"No."

Again, he sighed and

Please, Yue, I don't—

ran a hand over his face. All that he had gone through today had served a purpose, one in which Toph was already involved, even if she didn't know it yet. He scanned her, took in both what had changed and what remained the same after the time they had been apart. Those dark circles under her eyes were not natural, he decided. Or perhaps too much so.

I don't want to die.

"You should know," he began resignedly, rubbing his temples in frustration, "Azula is going to use me to get to get information from you; that's why all of this happened today. It's probably going to happen tomorrow—well, it has to happen tomorrow, because—"

Don't say it.

Beside him, Toph's brows furrowed in confusion. "Because what?"

The execution. "Because they know I'm… getting sick. It's even on the outside—not just when I cough or anything like that, but this whole thing has just turned me… wrong." Sokka paused in his response to scoot closer. "I'm trying so hard not to lose myself, but I think it's happening. I mean, I saw my reflection a few weeks ago and I couldn't… I had to look away. It was like seeing a spirit. I didn't even recognize myself."

Toph brushed her hand against the inward curve of his stomach. "Well, you are really skinny, Sokka."

"Thanks, Toph," he deadpanned. "But seriously—" he turned sideways so that he could face her. She, sensing his movement, did the same toward him. "You can't tell them anything at all. I don't care what they do. Winning this war is more important."

Her pale lips turned downward in a frown. "Sokka, I—"

"Toph, this is important," said Sokka, whose frown matched the Blind Bandit's. "They'll say and do anything to get you to talk. They told me that the warriors were all killed. That crazy apprentice and Azula put cuts all over me and shoved my head in a fish tank! But you can't tell them anything."

"I can't even see in here… I can't do anything," said a very defensive Toph. "I've never felt like this, not in my entire life. If they… do something to make me think…" She shook her head. "Not everyone is as strong as you. I used to think I was, but—"

Her tone, the doubt blatant in her voice, struck him harder than Getsuei's lashes. Out of this fear, Sokka pulled Toph closer to him. He had to know that there was a heartbeat inside her, that she was still alive, still the same Toph that could pummel him into the dirt and laugh as she helped him back up.

"We can do this, Toph," he muttered—almost breathed, it was so quiet—in her ear. She tensed up beside him, shaking from whatever happened to be running through her mind. He supposed that she had a lot to think about.

Finally, with the faintest of desperate sighs, Toph wrapped one arm around his waist and placed the palm of her other hand, once again, flat against his chest. "I can't make any promises this time," she said, softly, reveling in the beating beneath her palm, "but I'll try."

"That's good enough for me."

Sokka closed his eyes, half voluntarily and half from an unbearable wave of fatigue. While he felt a terrible vulnerability in the Hold, here—Toph's arms wrapped around his waist, her face resting in the curve of his shoulder—somehow he still felt that as helpless as they were, they protected one another.

Toph's steady, slow breathes indicated to Sokka that she had begun to fall asleep. Sokka breathed a sigh and pressed his lips against her forehead in a chaste kiss, then rested his chin upon the crown of her head. It would be a night of troubled sleep, for both of them, but it would have to do.

xXx

"I hope you've slept well."

By no means was Azula's voice the one he would have chosen to wake up to. Fighting a groan, Sokka opened his eyes to find that he was still lying on the floor of the cell with one arm draped around Toph's shoulders. Beside him, Toph's eyes snapped open at Azula's arrival.

A click! sounded. The door swung open to reveal Azula, flanked on one side by Getsuei and on the other side by several armed guards. Each of them wore armor fitted from wood. Sokka's heart plummeted. This was it. He had had his test, and now it was Toph's turn. A fleeting voice in his head asked if Azula had been plotting this moment all along. He certainly didn't doubt that she was capable of setting up such a plan.

Sokka forced the thought away in order to concentrate on the situation, which took more effort than he expected. One of the guards strode toward him with a length of rope. Sokka ignored his advance, instead ducking to help a groggy Toph to her feet. Getsuei strode the length of the tiny cell and dropped to one knee in front of Toph.

"Check the bonds around her feet, then tie her hands" said Azula. "Ensure that they don't come loose. I want you and him—" she pointed at the unarmed guard who had just finished tying Sokka's hands, "to carry the Metalbender. If you let her loose, your families will be the ones to pay for it."

The apprentice and the guard obeyed, and a moment later announced that they were almost prepared to leave. Sokka must have been in this situation fifty times in the past month, but the scenario never struck him so severely as it did while he watched Getsuei shove Toph roughly against the wall, pinning her arms behind her back before she tied them with a thick rope. Toph remained determinedly still, wincing only slightly as her body crashed into the wooden panel. He had always been the one in danger, at least visibly so. But Toph was now an active participant. He almost wished he'd told her about the execution.

Almost.

As the guards rounded on him next and made to shove him into the hallway, Sokka attempted to stifle a raspy cough. His insides objected, lungs and throat aching until he grimaced. Getsuei's expression soured into an even deeper scowl. Sokka wondered briefly if she had a fear of germs or whether she just thought he was, as a whole, generally revolting. While he struggled to recover from the coughing fit, Azula observed wordlessly. Her expression was unreadable, eyes calculating.

"Begin," the princess ordered, stepping aside to allow the guards to pass. "If one tries to escape, kill the other. I'm sick of wasting my time with this nonsense."

One guard scooped Toph up with one arm and tossed her effortlessly over his shoulder. The only indication that Toph had even noticed was the tiny grunt that escaped her. Getsuei trailed close behind the guard, as if she were waiting for Toph to fight back.

They didn't bother to put a sack over Sokka's head this time. He pressed his lips together and walked with his head bent low, if only to keep from looking back.

xXx

Azula paced across the length of the wood-paneled room in long, even strides, her hands clasped behind her back. For a second time Sokka found himself tied with rope between two tall podiums. Toph stood just off to the side. Much to his relief, Toph did not seem visibly affected. She looked frail, yes, and unsure, but her pose was a sturdy one nonetheless, her head tilted down ever so slightly with her hair falling over her eyes. She was listening hard, he noted, for while Toph could not see what was around her, she still retained instincts and a powerful sense of direction.

Upon entering this third interrogation room, Sokka wondered if the Hold was just an underground city where otherwise honest people came to gather information from detainees. He imagined without an ounce of humor a large, armored man sitting at a table with a stack of scrolls. He would take one, roll it out, read the description, and mark it with either a big red check or an X. Then he would set it aside and have a sip of fresh tea. Sokka wondered where his file might end up. Did they keep it in this fortress or send them off to the Fire Lord for a good laugh…?

Azula, having watched them for a short period of time, stopped and stared at the tired pair. Her gaze shifted over Sokka's shoulder to Getsuei—and oh, how he hated not being able to sense her next move—and then to the guards by the door. She looked peculiar without an ounce of metal in her outfit. No crown, no double-layered boots, a modest cloth belt. But Sokka didn't dare question her effectiveness. By all appearances, she was as dangerous as ever.

"We have been through this many times now," said Azula in her even tones, eyes flashing in a way that made him shift in his bindings. Her face bore no smile, brows arched in dissatisfaction. "However, in light of recent events, I realized that the strategy must be altered. Now you, my blind friend, will play the victim."

Not even Toph's fingers twitched. Pride swelled up in Sokka's chest.

"I have three questions: who delivered the Order of the White Lotus tile to your companion? Where is the Avatar and where is he heading? And, finally, what is your group's wartime strategy? After your failure on the Day of Black Sun, you must have reconsidered your options, few as they are…"

"That's four questions, Hot Lips."

Sokka was so startled by Toph's comment that he actually laughed—or, rather, his stomach spasmed in a mixture of horror and surprise, yielding something of a snort. He thought that such a quip might earn them a beating, but Azula simply ignored her. For some odd reason, Sokka was surprised when Toph remained unfazed at Azula's slight, steadfast. He supposed he shouldn't have been. Sokka was so focused on her that when Getsuei's whip fist came in contact with the vulnerable soft spot of his shoulder, he was not wholly prepared for it. Arching backwards, he gave a surprised gasp. Beside him, Toph jumped, dropping her pretense as face twisted with shock.

"What's going on?"

Sokka attempted to smile even though his eyes were streaming and she wouldn't be able to see it. The muscles in the stricken spot had tensed up and taken his breath away. It reminded him vaguely of nights where he would wake up with his leg in knots, in which case he would have to clamber out of bed and stretch until the pain wore off. As if to do just that, Sokka leaned backward and pulled his arms forward, only to feel the back of his knees explode into agony and give out beneath him. Getsuei was not picky about where she struck him, nor was she ignorant in the ways of pressure points. Again, she struck him hard—this time with her switch—in the back of his knees, and he collapsed against the ropes with a pitiful, inadvertent shout.

Azula continued to watch this scene unfold before her, keen eyes darting between Sokka and Toph, whose hands had clapped themselves over her mouth to keep back either a confession or a scream. Sokka imagined, in his teary-eyed state as he struggled to get to his feet again, that Azula would be happy with either of the two.

"You probably realize that if you don't speak, this will only continue," Azula addressed Toph with raised eyebrows. "Of course, either way he will have to die, but when and how is up to you."

Why, why hadn't he told her about the execution? Sokka scolded himself. However, one look at her expression—surprised, terrified, all the while with an attempt at bravery—told him the answer: he would never have been able to make her feel like this, even if he was only the messenger. Azula, on the other hand, had no such qualms. He knew that she would press forward at all costs until he was either broken or dead. It didn't matter.

Azula read her confusion at once and with ease. Her long fingers rapped on her waist for a moment as she contemplated the next motion. That chill ran through Sokka again, one that had nothing to do with his aching shoulder and stinging knees. The fleeting image of Azula—namely, Azula with her face close enough to his so that he could see the details of her yellow eyes—passed across his line of sight instead of stars when he was struck for the third time, around the waist.

He struggled to keep silent and failed. The strangled sound worked its way up from the very bottom of his stomach. "Aaugh!"

"Stop!" Toph cried, clapping her hands over her ears.

Panting, Sokka made a feeble attempt at stopping her, but it came out more like a groan. "Toph—"

"He never did anything!" she exclaimed, rounding on Azula. "We don't know what you want, so why are you doing this?"

Sokka ignored the sound Getsuei made in his ear (it was either a surly scoff or a weird sort of sneeze, but either way it was highly disconcerting) in order to pay better attention to the duo in front of him. The pair seemed frozen in place, Toph still with her hands over her ears and Azula with one eyebrow raised almost comically, until the latter reached behind her.

"I don't have to do anything," said the princess. With a flourish, she pulled a wooden-carved knife from her belt. One of her clawlike hands closed around Toph's wrist from behind, the other pressing the knife's handle in the Earthbender's open hand and holding it there. "You can do it, if you like. End his misery now instead of prolonging it."

Both Toph and Sokka trembled visibly at her remark, Sokka's weight leaning against the ropes that bound him. His frown deepened. Toph would kill him much faster and more humanely than Azula, but he'd rather not find out. If the situation had not been so grave he might have even laughed, half at the idea of Toph killing him and half at how wide her eyes were. Perhaps being in the Hold had begun to take a toll on his sanity.

"Are you out of your mind?" said a decidedly appalled Toph, wrestling against the knife and Azula and losing quite badly.

She grunted as Azula twisted her other arm up behind her back, pulling the pale red tunic taut around her skinny shoulders. On one side the slightly-ripped fabric slid down, exposing her pale shoulder joint; Azula did not hesitate to force the knife upon the small patch of skin, hard enough to cause worry without actually cutting.

"Am I?" questioned Azula. "Because I believe it's your hand on the knife, even if I'm directing where it goes. And even though you would blame me for cutting your own throat—" the polished blade casually flicked once horizontally across Toph's shoulder, and the Blind Bandit gasped. "I have the distinct feeling that you would feel responsible if I forced you to cut his."

"Don't listen to her, Toph!" Sokka chimed in as he struggled to stand properly. "Don't—ah!"

This time it was Azula who lashed out at him, but with fire that Getsuei could not produce. And he, who could not raise his arms over his face in order to protect himself, turned his head and braced against the carelessly hurled plume of blue flame. Still, an unsuppressed cry escaped from him at the feel of his right arm and upper torso just about sizzling with the heat of her fire.

And the smell. Some of the stray strands of his hair on the side of his head had been singed, leaving behind a most terrible odor. Not strong, but violating. He was useless for his own protection.

Sokka was not completely aware that his breaths were coming in very sharp, very loud gasps between coughs, but Toph could hear him. Her eyes closed tight against the sound. Azula rounded on her again, one hand clenching the knife in Toph's hand.

"Just listen to him," she muttered in one of Toph's ears before stepping to the other side and adding, a smirk evident upon her young face, "Can you hear him dying in front of you? Can you feel his pain?"

Now she urged Toph forward with a shove from behind. The Blind Bandit tripped over her own feet, the blocks of wood tied to them clacking loudly on the floor. Azula freed the arm twisted behind Toph's back, grabbed it again, and thrust it towards the spent warrior.

Sokka felt Toph's cold palm on his chest, her splayed fingers curling ever so slightly inward against his skin. He saw faint lines of tears on her face, felt her trembling. The combined burden of Aang and Katara and Zuko and all the others weighed heavy on their shoulders, visibly in Toph's drooping posture. It wasn't fair. It wasn't right. But it was, and he could do nothing but hope that they kept their mouths shut long enough to be put to death.

His name fell dumbly from her lips, uttered in what he knew was terror and sorrow and all the things that he, too, felt. Her face was pale, the cut on her shoulder bleeding rivulets into her faded tunic.

"Do you feel his heartbeat?" Azula whispered almost sadly in Toph's ear, though her fiery eyes connected with Sokka's cold ones and a wicked grin spread across her face. "Can you feel the pain he's in? Here's a bargain for you: answer my questions and neither of you will have to face any sort of anguish again. You will be freed from this place… but first you need to talk to me."

"It's really not so bad, T-Toph," Sokka stammered in what was meant to be a comforting tone, all the while glaring right back at Azula. He didn't know exactly when it had begun, but as he stood there in that room with teardrops seeping from his eyes and running down his neck, resignation had settled in his chest. "Don't listen to her. I'm fine—she's just trying to trick you."

"Am I? Your face says otherwise."

Azula pulled Toph's hand upward until the latter's fingers brushed against Sokka's jaw line, tracing the places where his tears had trailed, then let it go. Toph took over and ran her hand along the side of his face with a terrified fascination. Sokka shivered at the kindness of her touch—such a stark contrast to anything he had felt in this room, but all the same he didn't want her to become emotional on his behalf. Thus far he had not doubted her silence, and he didn't the feel of bloody cuts to change her mind. He surveyed her, blinking furiously to clear his eyes, took a deep breath, and craned his neck away from her touch.

"Toph—" His voice cracked. Toph's mouth twitched. Her hand fell to her side. "None of this matters. I know all of this is hard for you—it's killing me, too. But you can't listen to anything she says."

"I'm trying," said Toph, this time with an edge that reminded him very much of his old life, of the pre-Hold Toph that would have punched him for doubting her willpower. His lip trembled, almost turning to a defeated smile.

We're still in there somewhere, aren't we?

Azula rolled her eyes toward the ceiling, presumably at Toph and Sokka's interaction, but Sokka had a nagging feeling that it was because they were acting as if she could not hear them.

"If neither of you are going to speak on your own, then you leave me no choice. It's a shame that you couldn't have spoken without force. I'm far too busy to be taking care of these things." The look of mild surprise on Toph's face relayed the message that Azula's grip tightened her hand and on the knife. "Oh well. His blood will be on your hands—"

"No!"

Several things happened at once, only one of which Sokka actually saw due to his eyes slamming shut of their own accord. Azula, her hand guiding Toph's with it, thrust the knife without warning towards his midsection. He had braced himself in that split second for what he knew was his last breath and an intense pain, but neither came.

A few seconds passed. The sweat beaded on the side of his face and slid down the side of his temple. Sokka felt no different. Maybe the shock of it overrode the pressure and sting…

It was Toph who had cried out against the movement, and her shout continued to echo in his racing mind. Finally, when he opened his eyes, he almost closed them again at the startling sight before him. Both Toph and Azula stood rigid, their faces twisted with effort and Azula's eyes focused on the blade in their hands. Sokka nearly fainted when he looked down—although he would have blamed it on the effects of starvation and torture, if asked—and saw the knife's polished tip, shaking from their equal efforts, a mere inch from his inwardly-curved stomach. Quickly, thanking Yue for Toph's remaining strength and impeccable reflexes, put as much distance between the knife and his body until his feet were stopped when Getsuei—and wow, he had forgotten that she was even there in the past minutes, the woman was so quiet—prodded him sharply in the back with the end of her whip. He winced and stopped, noting that there would probably be a circle-shaped bruise on his back later on.

Still, he pushed aside his thoughts and focused on what was going on in front of him. His eyes darted from one female face to the other as they continued to fight over the direction of the knife. Neither seemed able to obtain the upper hand on the other, and thus the knife jerked only an inch back and forth with Toph and Azula's small bouts of energy.

Sokka was more than impressed with Toph's performance in the match. Sure, she'd been practically starved in the last few days and her emotional state was less than stable, but by adrenaline or some other source of strength—of what, Sokka only had the vaguest of ideas, and he was not in the best situation to be pondering them—Toph was somehow managing to hold up against the Fire Nation princess's power. Then, in a move that surprised everyone in the room, Toph gave a grunt of effort and, bending her elbows in and then forcing her body sideways, knocked Azula completely off her feet. Sokka's jaw dropped. The knife flew from their hands and skittered across the floor, where it bumped into Azula's boot.

"Where did that come from?" Sokka said, gaping.

Toph seemed surprised with herself, but even more so with him. "What, did you think I'd just let her stab you?" she scoffed, eyebrows aloft.

"No, I meant the sudden burst of—Toph, look out!"

A flash of red caught the corner of Sokka's eye as Azula leapt to her feet, snatching up her the knife as she darted forward. Blindly, Toph threw her arms up as a shield, and the blow that had been aimed at her face hit her instead in the arm.

Sokka saw the ordeal as if it had happened in slow motion. The swing of the knife struck her forearm halfway down with a force that knocked her backwards with a cry of pain. Blood streamed in a downward arc, spattering across Toph as well as Azula, the princess's hand following through with her strike to end in perfect form. The Blind Bandit toppled backwards until she landed flat on her back with a resounding thud. Her face was flecked with red, her pale eyes wide as she struggled to maintain her fading composure. Sokka yelled aloud and struggled against his bonds, ignoring the rope's twisted burn on his raw wrists and the protests of his injuries.

Next into the scene stepped Getsuei, whose whip dangled lamely from one hand. She strode to Toph's side and grabbed the girl by the collar, then yanked her roughly to her feet. Already Azula had straightened up and brushed the dust from her tunic in a dignified manner. Sokka watched her, hated her and everything she represented. This one person had taken so much away from him—his hope, his sarcasm, even his life—and now she was going to make him watch Toph go through what he had endured. Part of him didn't think he could watch. Part of him wanted to close his eyes and block out all sound and just hang there by his arms, but ignorance was no longer an option.

Azula took her time in approaching a gasping Toph, whose neck had been freed only moments before when Getsuei released her collar to rebind her hands. Red splashed onto the apprentice's hands with every twitch of the rope she tied, but she either didn't notice or didn't care. A much more intriguing Azula jabbed Toph in the abdomen with the dull side of her blade, just to get her point across.

"Does it feel awful?" asked Azula, scornfully. "I'm curious to know the emotions of someone who cannot possibly get any lower. I wouldn't know—I've never been so defeated."

Toph gave a cross between a rasping cough and a mad laugh. "Yes you have. We've been here for a month, and you still don't know anything. You're just wasting your time—" She inhaled sharply as the tip of the knife poked through her clothes at the waistline. Azula's smile was long gone.

"How brave of you, to give your life for the war. Your friends would be proud, wouldn't they?"

Toph didn't respond. She didn't need to. Sokka could feel the energy radiating from every person. They all knew that Azula was right, even if her tone had been a mocking one. Perhaps it was for this reason that Azula drew the knife away from Toph's abdomen and instead rested it at the base of her throat. When she spoke, her voice was in a hiss so low that Sokka had to strain his ears to hear the words.

She teased the tip of the knife up along the side of Toph's neck just hard enough to draw blood. "Isn't it funny, how this works? One well-placed line and you would be gone."

"I might be more useful that way," Toph said.

Her eyebrows shooting up in surprise, Azula hesitated on the knife. The expression was a fleeting one, though—so much that Sokka almost didn't catch it—and a second later the princess had straightened up yet again. Her posture remained elegantly professional, her topknot hardly lopsided even after her fall. But instead of lashing out, Azula sidestepped the Blind Bandit and headed for the door.

"It seems that the only use I will get from you is amusement, at your execution first thing tomorrow morning. How silly of you, to think that you could defeat the Fire Nation." She didn't look back, only lifted one arm in a summoning gesture as she approached the exit and pulled open the door. "Say goodnight, Getsuei."

Sokka winced when Getsuei's whip made sharp contact with Toph's back, and again when the piercing, pained cry reached his ears. Getsuei struck one last time, and the force of it sent Toph to her knees. Toph teetered in place before flopping over. Footsteps clunked down upon the wood. The door slammed.

Then somehow, save for the gasping sounds emitting from the frail girl's mouth as she kneeled with her head on the floor, all was quiet. With the interrogator and her apprentice had vanished the light, but for once Sokka didn't mind the dimness. In the dark of this place, he and Toph were one and the same, both blind and battered and condemned.

He wanted to say it. His throat ached from keeping back—to ask Toph if it could possibly be, but he remained silent. In due time, he would no longer need to speak. This brute force all around them, this desperation that had welled up inside him, said enough on its own.

I am going to die.

xXx

The red glow of torchlight flickered over the adjacent, sleeping forms curled on the wooden floor of the interrogation room. The girl's arm had been bandaged with a strip of cloth, poorly and hastily so, but tight enough to stem the flow of blood. Her eyes were closed in deep slumber, her shabbily-clothed chest rising and falling against the boy's bare one. His face, however, did not hold the same expressionless as hers; his brows were furrowed, a slight frown tugging down his lips. A moment later, his eyes opened warily at the dim light that had spilled into the room mere seconds before. The softest of groans emitted from his mouth and he, turning his head in the direction of the light, eyed the helmeted guard with hazy suspicion.

"Already…?" The statement had been barely audible to Sokka, though it was he who had said it. "You think they'd give us one last nap."

Nevertheless, he directed his half-lidded gaze towards the top of Toph's head, which was all he could see of her at the moment. His hand moved from its place on the floor to give Toph's shoulder a slight shake. She whimpered.

"Already?" she muttered, and he could feel her voice reverberate against his chest. Sokka almost smiled.

"That's what I said. Come on—" he pulled away from her, took his time in standing, and then helped her to her feet as well. "Let's go."

They would be as dignified as possible, Sokka had explained to Toph after she had untied him from between the podiums. After a month of silence, what was another day?

Sokka watched the guard while Toph clambered to her feet. It had always been a curious thing, how the typical Fire Nation guard uniform turned all who wore it into the same person. This guard, though, wore an armored suit carved completely from wood, and held together with strips of sturdy cloth. He had seen uniforms like this in the first days, but none so elaborate as this. Even in the dim light, he could see that the chest plate had been emblazoned with the Fire Nation insignia, as if to make it more official for the forthcoming festivities. The thought made him just a little bit sicker. He and Toph had discussed a possible last-ditch escape attempt. By the looks of this armor, though, they were going to nowhere but the end.

Regardless of the uniform, the guard was just another clone of the same characters that had guarded his cell—the same characters who had stood at the door of his interrogations and watched him face unspeakably horrible things.

It was only when Toph sighed beside him that Sokka looked to his friend, though his head remained poised in the direction of the guard. His eyebrows relaxed at the sight of her beside him, just as ready to die as he was—meaning not at all, but he tried not to think of that. She was just as starved, just as bloody and afraid as he.

"Where's Azula?" Sokka asked.

"Waiting," came the response in a particularly low, raspy tone.

The guard locked the door and then stepped forward to tie their hands. When Sokka began to struggle, thinking that he might be able to snatch the key and run for it, the guard cuffed him on the side of the head so hard that he stumbled and fell. Quickly the guard finished binding Sokka's wrists behind his back, then did the same to Toph. Once he (or she, Sokka supposed; it was hard to tell with the helmet) had double-knotted the wooden sandals on Toph's feet, the guard slipped a loop of rope around her neck and pulled it taut like a lasso. The guard then fixed the rope through a loop in the armor's shoulder, shortening the length so that Toph could not bend without choking herself.

Sokka was almost surprised when Toph made no comment. Her face remained stony, her lips pursing only when the guard choked up on the rope some more.

"Follow me," said the guard.

The pair moved forward as one, the guard's grip firm on both of them. Toph, now without Sokka as her guide, could only trip along beside the guard. Every step was like a year of his life, and with each a memory flickered across the forefront of his mind. Katara, then Aang, then his father—everyone was there with him, everyone was watching him with love even though they were so far away. By the time they reached the door, his entire life had passed over his eyes.

They walked. For the longest time, it seemed, they walked through those labyrinthine hallways that Sokka had for so long been a part of. They were vacant now. Perhaps the others were guarding new prisoners, or preparing for the ritual. He cast wary looks around him as they went, taking notice especially when they stepped through a door at the end of a main hallway and were no longer in the prison itself. These new halls were just as solid, just as dark as the others, but instead of cells lining the walls, Sokka saw giant door-like structures, each with a number.

Vaults.

Why were they at the vaults?

"Don't move," commanded the deep-voiced guard. It moved forward, leaving Sokka to silently observe, then opened a vault labeled as number three and disappeared inside it with Toph.

He could run, Sokka supposed. Maybe somehow wrestle Toph out of the guard's grip, lock the guard in the vault, and try to find an escape, but he didn't move. Neither he nor Toph had the ability to fight in this state, and now Sokka had no idea at all where they even were, much less how to find the exit. He was hoping for a swift execution with as little pain beforehand as possible, and running off would only give them incentive to hurt he and Toph even more. As it stood, they could barely move forward.

After a few painstaking moments, the guard and Toph reemerged with a large, full bag. Sokka continued to eye it as the guard ushered them forward again down the hallway. Tools for their date, he assumed. How wonderful.

Even in this situation, he could not help but speak, if only to break the silence.

"Is there food in that bag?" he asked pointedly. "I thought we were supposed to get a last meal or something before we're hanged."

Toph quickly added, though there was no humor in her voice, "Food would be nice. I'd love a sandwi—"

"Shut up," snapped the guard, yanking the rope to cut Toph's sentence short. "And for informational purposes, the preferred method of execution is beheading; less assembly is required."

Subconsciously, Sokka rubbed the front of his neck and grimaced.

Finally, the guard stopped outside another door—larger than the others, and thicker as well, by the looks of it—and cast a look around before unlocking it and pushing it open.

This is it, Sokka thought as he was shoved roughly through the doorway. He looked up, expecting to see Azula waiting patiently for them, surrounded by more wood-clad guards. This is—wait.

It wasn't large enough to be an execution room, he mused. Actually, it was hardly a room at all. The almost closet-sized space that they had stepped into was large enough to hold a very small number of people comfortably. Save for a ladder on the far wall and a few torches, the rectangular area was completely empty.

A click resounded from behind. Sokka spun around. The guard, whose back was to them, locked the door and dropped the rope. Instantly, Toph pulled the loop off, backed to where Sokka was standing, and slammed her tied hands against the wall. There was a metallic clang!, then a tearing sound as Toph yanked a fistful of metal from the wall and Bended it into a ball in front of her. Sokka could see the effort she took to keep the ball aloft. She looked about ready to crumple.

"Wait," said the guard, who seemed oddly calm despite facing the prospect of a mouthful of metal.

Toph widened her stance, poised to strike. She had always been daunting in all her prowess, but seeing her now, Sokka thought her nothing short of frightening. Her long hair hung, disheveled, down her back and around her face, her Earthbending pose strong but oddly staggered. Having her wrists tied only contributed to the image, like she was a cornered animal.

"Give me one good reason why I shouldn't, and we'll see how long I wait," she snarled.

"Fine." Dropping the sack of whatever was in the vault, the pair's escort raised its hands to its head and lifted the helmet away.

"You!" Sokka recoiled in horror, pulling a very perplexed Toph along with him. The chunk of metal fell to the ground as she stumbled backward.

Getsuei's cold eyes stared back at him, her face expressionless in the torchlight. Stooping down, she set her helmet down on the floor in order to take up the satchel. Toph seemed to consider striking her while she was not looking, but the next moment Getsuei had straightened up again.

"So you're executioner too now, huh?" Sokka snapped. One of his arms wound around Toph's shoulders, pulling her closer as if Getsuei were trying to separate them.

"Hardly," intoned the apprentice, frowning. "I know you have good reason not to believe me, but I'm trying to help."

Toph gave a hollow, disbelieving laugh.

"I did," Getsuei insisted, though her voice relayed little conviction. "I tried to leave you tools with which to escape. The rod in the bathroom, namely. I even made sure you heard the directions to your friend's cell.

"That's ridiculous. You helped to torture us!" Toph said.

"I don't deny it, and nor am I proud of what I've done," replied Getsuei, simply. "Azula is uncommonly perceptive. I couldn't help you directly, lest she find out."

"Wait, wait."

Sokka's mind was reeling with this new news. It just didn't make sense. It couldn't be true, not all this time…

"B-but you said…" he trailed off. "I thought your father was killed by the Water Tribe! You said you wanted revenge on—"

"On the nation responsible." Getsuei nodded. "True enough, your father did kill my father in battle, but I am from the Earth Kingdom. My father was captured along with several other men from our village. They dressed them in Fire Nation armor and sent out onto the front lines, completely unarmed." She paused in her tale, green eyes flickering. "I came here, determined to change the fates of those also affected by the Fire Lord's tyranny. How surprised I was when you, the son of the chief, were assigned as my tool for practice!"

During her speech, Sokka had closed his eyes tightly shut, his hands over his eyes as if to keep his head from spinning. There was so much going on at that moment, so much that he had thought to be reality was suddenly wrong. The stories matched up, yes, but there were things that he couldn't accept. And yet…

"You helped me up," he stated in a flat tone, lowering his hands and fixing Getsuei with an astonished stare. "When Azula shoved me down after she stuck my head in that tank, you helped me up and wiped my face."

Getsuei nodded gravely. "I hurt you as little as possible, preferring non-contact interrogation methods over ones that would physically injure you."

"But you still injured us!" Toph said. "Look at Sokka! I don't need to be able to see to feel the marks all over him. You nearly killed him!"

"She has a point. There are a thousand other things you could have done, but you picked this job!" Sokka said. "That's just a little fishy."

Ignoring the last comments, Getsuei stepped forward with the bag extended out towards Sokka. "Take this." Sokka reached out to do so, but hesitated. She explained, "Inside are all the possessions you had when you were captured, as well as a week's worth of money and some food. Behind you is a ladder, and above it is the least-guarded exit to the Hold. You may escape that way and go deep enough into the woods so that you will not be pursued."

"How do we know that there isn't an ambush waiting to kill us at the top?" Sokka said. "This could all be a trick."

"Have you anything to lose?"

Sokka hesitated again, very aware that his heart was pounding in his chest so hard that Toph, even with those blocks of wood tied to her feet, must be able to feel it. From now on, he would have to ask himself that very question every time he had to press on in the war. Azula had orchestrated her plan almost flawlessly, and letting them go could just as easily fall into that plan. If he ever saw her again—and hopefully, if he was lucky, he would be strong and ready to face her—he would have to wonder if it was just another piece of her scheme. A roundabout move in their game of pai sho.

Slowly, Sokka extended his arm and took the heavy bag into his hands. At the gesture, Getsuei unsheathed a knife from her belt and—Sokka almost flinched—cut his wrist bindings, then Toph's.

Rubbing his raw wrists, Sokka ventured into another matter."Do you know if the men from the invasion—the ones what were captured… are they…?"

Getsuei shook her head. "I don't know. Contrary to what Azula told you, the Fire Nation does take war prisoners. And the last I heard they were alive, but I don't know the state of your warriors."

Another thoughtful silence, then, "I put you through all of this in hopes that you will be stronger now more than ever."

Staring, Sokka couldn't help but blurt out the first thing that came to his mind: "You're insane!"

The apprentice smiled at him. The effect of the light on her grim face was quite frightening. "A little, perhaps."

Before the conversation could get any more awkward, Sokka took the sack of belongings and turned to face the ladder, pulling Toph along with him. So many thoughts were passing through his mind that he could not even bring himself to thank the apprentice. Even if he had been able to think properly, he might not have. There was too much affliction in that part of his brain, of his heart. The best thing to do was get through that door in the ceiling before something changed.

Sokka went first, the bag swaying in one hand as he ascended the metal rungs, straining with the effort of hoisting himself up. Right behind him was Toph, her knuckles white from her grip. Once he reached the top and fumbled with the many locks on the door—his fingers were shaking so badly that he could hardly hold on to the ladder and manipulate the door at the same time—he pressed against the base of the metal and pushed it upward with a small grunt.

Light. True, real light and the air of the outside world almost blinded him at first. Now Sokka was sure that he would pass out once the adrenaline left his system, but that didn't matter as long as he and Toph could get out of here first. Shoving aside all thoughts of danger aside, he heaved himself up and out of the Fire Nation Hold for the first time.

He could barely speak. The reality was too much.

"Is there anyone up there?" Toph asked from where she still gripped the ladder.

Shaking his head even though she couldn't see it, Sokka dropped to his knees and helped Toph climb out of the door. The blocks on her feet clunked with every movement of her foot against the metal ladder. Then, once she was safely outside, he stuck his head back down into the room. Getsuei stared back at him, her eyes narrowed against the flood of daylight and her normal scowl back.

What could he say to her, after everything?

"Well…" he began slowly. "Goodbye, I guess."

"Good luck, Sokka."

Sokka, still unsure of what exactly he was feeling or of what was going on, closed the trap door. Once sealed, it blended in perfectly with the surrounding ground save for a small metal handle. It was almost funny. All that he had experienced was right below his hands, and yet it already seemed more like a distant nightmare.

Beside him, Toph gave a sort of tearless sob and stood up. Sokka followed suit, at the same time grabbing the handle of the satchel and dragging it up with him.

All around in every direction, trees circled them. The grass—greener, he was sure, than any green he had ever seen—was soft under his sore feet. He could hardly tear his eyes from the peaceful stillness all around him. How could this be real? Perhaps he was dreaming?

But no. Even in this strange state of being—this feeling that he, appearing as he did, did not belong in this scene—the feeling of Toph's arm brushing his was very, very real. He looked doubtfully down at their battered bodies, his burned arm adjacent to her bandaged one.

"Sokka…" she breathed. Apparently she felt the same as he: so lost and so surreal in what seemed to them to be a new world. "What… what do we do?"

He shook his head slightly, eyes still fixated on what was all around him. "I… Toph. Toph."

For what felt like the first time but what he knew would not be the last, Sokka took Toph's hand in his.

For the longest time, their time in the Hold would set them apart from their friends. Neither of them would be able to speak of the twisted events that had occurred within these walls to anyone, save for one another, for many months. While Katara and Aang would struggle to help and understand, they would not be able comfort Toph and Sokka when dreams were pierced by wooden blades and cold cells and bleeding guards. Even in just a day's time, when Sokka travelled into town for the first time since the ordeal, he would feel isolated from the people, would feel their stares on his emaciated frame even when a fresh tunic covered the welts on his torso.

"What is it, Sokka?"

But in the end, it would bring them closer together. Sokka was sure of it. As he stood there, the feeling of Toph's hand securely in his own and the world at his feet, he felt that he was changing at that very moment. Even the brute force of interrogation and near starvation could not take away which had been inside him all along. The desperation was already fading, fading away to be replaced by the smallest glimmer of hope.

It was a good start. Sokka glanced down at Toph once more and smiled softly, giving her hand a reassuring squeeze before he turned his face up to the sky.

"We're free."

xXx

Fin.